Thursday, September 29, 2005

Unmemorizable Unique IDs

Have you ever ordered some service, or lodged some complaint, with a utility company over the phone and received an "order number" or a "ticket number" in return? Have you ever been tricked into reaching around hurriedly for pencil and a scrap of paper in order to write it down for future enquires? Have you ever wondered why you would need to provide the order number for an enquiry instead of just your name and address, or any of the million other pieces of personal information that they will ask you for anyway?

I have. And it struck me today, while I was wading through a call with SBC, that I cannot come up with a single sensible explanation for this behavior, beyond the possibility that they have no understanding of database normalization and keys.

An expert on global warming

Hmm. If the Senate wanted to learn more about global warming, if they had the time to read exactly one book on the subject, what would they do? The answer is as predictable as it is ludicrous, given that committee chairman is an Oklahoma Republican. Welcome aboard, Michael Crichton.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

How to make Baseball a saner sport

Baseball, like most American sports, struggles with a surfeit of silly rules drawn up by people who probably never knew the meaning of the word "consistent". Here are four proposed rule changes that would make it a saner sport, without the need for weird special-case rules. From the least important to the most:
  1. Stealing First Base: For some strange reason, the hitter is not allowed to run to first base on a wild pitch. Never mind that any other runner on base has every right to run. And never mind that if the hitter strikes out on a wild pitch, he can then try to get to first base. What kind of crazy rule is that? Why not let the hitter run to first base no matter what, if he so desires?
  2. The Foul-tip out: Why is it that a foul ball that pops up and is caught by the catcher results in an out, but not a foul ball that "deflects" off the hitter's bat into the catcher's glove? And, of course, just to throw an additional twist, the latter results in an out in the special case that it happens on a two-strike count. Why on earth would it not be out every single time?
  3. Eliminating the Force-Play: Anyone know the infield-fly rule? The idea is that a ball that pops up could be deliberately dropped by the in-fielder in order to help him get a double-play when there is (typically) a runner on first base. How does baseball try to stop this? Create an "infield-fly" rule by which the umpire declares the hitter out even before the ball descends, arbitrarily deciding that the ball is catchable! My solution would be to get rid of the force play -- the idea that a runner on first is forced to advance to second on a ground-ball (and similarly when there is a runner on second with first base occupied, etc.). Instead, why not let a runner always have the option of staying at the base he is on? In case, multiple runners end up at the same base, the trailing runner would be counted out. Some tricky details are involved here that I won't elaborate on, but the basic idea is that all baserunners need to be tagged in order to be out.
  4. The Mega-Walk: The greatest abomination in baseball is the intentional walk. How crazy is it to let a team walk its opponent's best hitter without giving him a chance to swing the bat? And all they can do is complain about how it's such dishonorable behavior! If you had the misfortune of watching the Giants in 2004, you probably also saw how much the intentional walk can hurt the hitting team -- just recall the 232 or so times A.J. Pierzynski grounded into a DP after a Bonds walk. Instead, let's institute the Mega-Walk. The hitter no longer needs to walk to first base after 4 balls. He also has the option of receiving more pitches! If he gets up to 8 balls, he gets 2 bases; 12 balls will give him 3 bases, and 16 balls would be the equivalent of a home run. Of course, if he strikes out, he strikes out. The hitter also has the option of cutting and walking whenever he wants to. For example, when the count gets to 10-2, he might decide to just take his 2 bases instead of risking a strike-out. Now, let's see people trying the intentional walk!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Movie Review: Nine Queens

One of the movies that has long been on my yet-to-see list is "Nine Queens", an Argentinian crime caper dating back to 2001. I finally watched it this weekend and it was well worth the wait. Nine Queens is very much in the tradition of David Mamet's flicks, with a story revolving around a pair of con men trying to pull a fast one selling fake stamps to a billionaire philatelist. Of course, the story gets more complicated in a hurry with cons within cons within cons as a diverse cast of colorful characters try to outwit one another. All very Mamet-esque, except that the setting is the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, the people are more interesting, the plot is cleverer, and the dialogue, while not as sharp, still crackles with energy.

As with most post-1995 movies, Nine Queens also has a case of the Keyser Soze syndrome, feeling the need to conclude with a twist that sheds new light on the proceedings of the entire movie. As is usually the case with such movies, the twist also does not make sense and opens up huge holes in the storyline. However, such overzealousness is more easily forgiven in this film that hardly puts a foot wrong in its clever plotting right till the very end.

At the end of it all, what we are left with is a highly enjoyable film that is guaranteed to both entertain and exercise the mind. On the other hand, the movie is highly plot-centric, limiting its rewatchability quotient and placing it a clear notch lower than more well-rounded films such as The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Seven.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Was/Were the Ashes settled by the toss?

As most of you cricket fans out there know by now, England finally regained the Ashes after a gap of 18 years, beating Australia 2-1 in the five-test series. There is no doubt that the English team is far better than it has been in ages, just as there is no doubt that the Aussies are finally on the decline. Their ineptitude in the absence of McGrath was exposed as early as a couple of years ago by the touring Indians who nearly pulled off an upset win before settling for a drawn series.

But for all that, I can't shake the feeling that this Ashes series was eventually decided by the toss. Of the five tests, the team winning the toss either won or held the upper hand in every test but one. The lone exception was the Edgbaston test where Ricky Ponting went temporarily insane and put England into bat. As Geoff Boycott put it, "He's a lovely guy, that Ricky Ponting. He likes the English so much he changed the series for them with the most stupid decision he'll ever make in his life."

This series is hardly the exception when it comes to the toss playing a significant role in the outcome in matches between evenly matched teams. We need only to look back to the Australia and Pakistan tours of India in the 2004-05 season to find that all five decisive tests were won by the team winning the toss.

Tom Coburn on the Daily Show

Yesterday's show was truly hilarious. See the video here. And wait till you get to Tom Coburn's emotional outpouring towards the end. This one has to be seen to be believed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

IIT JEE reforms

So, it looks like the admission process for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) has been revised yet again. And I must say I am very unimpressed with the consequences. The reforms have the ostensible goal of reducing stress levels for students. I completely fail to see how this goal is being satisfied by the proposed reforms. But I want to ask a more fundamental question: Is the reduction of student stress levels an achievable goal at all, and should we be targeting achieving it?

Frst, some background. At its heart, the IIT Joint Entrance Examination is a means to select 4000-odd top engineering aspirants in the country. About 200,000 candidates appear for the exam annually, resulting in a highly competitive selection process with a 2% acceptance rate. (Note that the candidate pool is actually even higher, with many students self-selecting by not bothering to appear for the exam at all.) Furthermore, the exam is also required to rank these 4000-odd students, with higher-ranked students getting first tilt at selecting their major and the location where they want to study. (There are now 7 IITs across the country.) Both these are fairly crucial variables for a student setting out on his/her undergraduate career, so that people aspire not only to qualify but to do so with as high a rank as possible.

Now, creating a ranked list of 4000 students from a ridiculously large candidate pool is a complex task requiring a highly objective test methodology; mere subjective evaluation of resumes simply will not cut it, providing scope for serious abuse of process and corruption and also leading to great resentment among the rejected. Just using high-school performance results does not cut it either thanks to (a) the bugbear of grade inflation due to which zillions of people are separated by statistically insignificant margins on the tests; and (b) the diversity in school boards, each with its own grading system and policies that make it hard to compare across them.

The only solution is to conduct a common, independent test that truly separates the top 4000 candidates from the rest, while also doing a reasonable job of ranking those 4000 candidates. Now, almost by definition, this means that the test ought to be made hard enough that the majority of candidates score close to zero on it, because any exam has a limited resolving power and this one needs to be calibrated to resolve well among the top 2% of the examinees. The age-old IIT JEE system has gotten this right so far!

Of course, a consequence of having such a difficult exam is that students force themselves to train harder in order to have a better shot at doing well. While this may admittedly lead to higher "stress levels", it is a natural consequence of market forces at work. When you have a limited supply of seats, and a large demand for it, the people who work hardest at getting the seats are the ones who will get them.

Now we have new-fangled ideas doing the rounds about "reducing stress levels" by instituting reforms to the exam process. But how exactly does it help if it does not change the fundamental balance of supply and demand? Sure, we could institute a lottery system to replace the exam thus reducing the "stress levels" of students, but why is that the right thing to do? Wouldn't we rather have people working harder to succeed in a fairer process? All of the recent attempts to make the IIT-JEE "easier" suffers from this kind of myopic thinking.

If we really wanted to reduce stress levels, a good place to start might be to reduce the need to rank people based on the test and focus instead only on selection. Students could be allowed to join without having to choose a major ahead of time, and be provided reasonable freedom to study the major of their choice. This would certainly help reduce the pressure on students by enabling them to put in just enough effort to cross the threshold rather than to go all out to rank highest. (And given the law of diminishing returns, it should be less work to make the top 4000 than to make the top 100.)

It is another matter entirely that the proposed reforms do little to even advance the goal of reducing stress levels. There are now rules in place restricting the number of times a person may appear for the JEE, when he/she may take the exam and so on which would appear to violate the cardinal rule for rulemaking: "Don't make up a rule unless you have to."

Monday, September 05, 2005

NBA Salary Cap Issues

It has been an interesting off-season in the NBA and the player movement I've seen so far confirms some of the problems I've noticed with the salary cap system over the years. Loosely speaking, the NBA salary cap works as follows:
  • All teams have a "soft" salary cap that is set annually based on league revenue.
  • A team exceeding the cap basically cannot sign free agents to contracts, with some exceptions.
  • Each team has a mid-level exception worth about $5 million (the avg. annual player salary) that it can use to sign one or more players even when it is above the cap.
  • With some caveats, a team can always re-sign its own players at any salary, even when it is above the cap. (This is called the Larry Bird rule.)
  • A team exceeding the cap significantly beyond a "luxury-tax" threshold, has to pay a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax on the amount by which it exceeds the threshold.
  • The luxury tax collected is redistributed across all teams using an elaborate formula that favors teams under the cap.
The ostensible goal of this elaborate system is to ensure parity among all teams, denying the advantages that big-money teams in large markets would otherwise have in hoarding talent. There is no denying that the rules have helped smaller teams be competitive -- one need look no further than the last few years where San Antonio and Detroit dominated while the big-spending Knicks and Lakers were crippled -- but there have been a number of negative effects as well. I list some of them below:
  • The Sterling strategy: While most teams are in the business of trying to assemble the best team they can given the limitations of the cap, some owners such as the L.A. Clippers' Donald Sterling have figured out an alternative path to profitability that has little to do with winning: put together a mediocre team at a low price and wait for luxury tax payments from the other teams to boost revenue. Notable examples: L.A. Clippers, New Orleans Hornets.
  • Cap-less hell: One of the consequences of a soft cap is that most of the teams are over the cap, and need to be so in order to stay competitive. The consequence, of course, is that these teams have to go through hell in order to improve via free agency. Often, the only way to improve is to rely on trades that bring in highly overpriced talent that some other team is willing to get rid of to obtain cap relief. Of course, if the talent doesn't work out, the team is stuck in hell even longer. Notable example: New York Knicks.
  • Rich-get-richer syndrome: One of the consequences of Cap-less hell is that very few good teams are capable of handing out big contracts to free agents. The consequence is that the non-superstar free agents, perhaps starting on the downhill side of their careers, are starved of any meaningful contract offers. And given a choice between going to a bad team for no money and going to a good team for no money, they choose the latter. The consequence: the really good teams keep getting better via these underpriced free agents, while the bad teams just stay bad. Notable examples: L.A. Lakers (Karl Malone and Gary Payton, 2003), Detroit Pistons (Rasheed Wallace, etc., 2004), San Antonio Spurs (Michael Finley, Nick van Exel, 2005)
  • Inequitable salary distribution: Related to the rich-get-richer syndrome is the fact that players do not get paid in accordance with their abilities. Since there is a loose "limit" on the total amount of money that goes to players, the fact that one player is being overpaid today means that another player is going to be underpaid tomorrow for no fault of his.
The ideal solution would be to release the limit on player salaries but to transfer the loss burden to exactly those teams that ended up overpaying their players. I am not sure how this would be done but perhaps the elimination of the salary cap combined with a much steeper luxury tax might be a start.

Speaking of spartan...

...my posting on this blog could also begin to be described by the same adjective. Now that I have a real job, most of my writing will occur on weekends with only sporadic activity during the week.

Movie Review: Spartan

Last weekend, I finally got around to watching David Mamet's Spartan (2004), a stylish thriller that opened to good reviews but sank without a trace before you could blink. First, some rather copious background.

My experience with Mamet films has always been something of a mystery to me. On the face of it, Mamet's artifice-filled dialogue and convoluted plotting ought to have dovetailed perfectly with my love for narrative complexity and preference for form over content. In practice, however, most of Mamet's films -- including House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, not to mention the considerably inferior Heist -- have left me vaguely disappointed. The problem, I've concluded, is that I am simply unable to suspend disbelief enough to revel in Mamet's narrative twists. Much as I like manipulative plots like that of The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, the fun is in the storytelling process rather than in the surprises themselves. Movies like Heist leave me cold because the twists exist in and of themselves; not only are they too arbitrary to be enjoyable as sleights of hand, but they are also far too inconsequential to provoke thought or shed any new light on the proceedings.

Back to Spartan. The first hour or so of Spartan was a superbly paced, brilliantly shot B-movie, full of delicious dialogue and with an offbeat narrative structure where the audience hurtles through an episodic sequence of events with little by way of exposition to provide context for the events occurring on screen. With strong performances from Val Kilmer and the supporting cast, each scene crackles with intensity as the audience is slowly allowed insight into the logic that glues the episodes together.

Alas! Things begin to unravel somewhat in the last half hour as Mamet starts to fall in love with his elaborate conspiracy theories, and the story peters out into a conventional resolution, redeemed occasionally by some interesting moments of improvisational ingenuity. Despite its failings, Spartan remains a movie worth watching for fans of gritty filmmaking and chewy dialogue.