21 September, 2019

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The Story Of Two Graphs Drawn By A Tamil Man

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

At the famous Bridgetown pub yesterday afternoon, a Tamil man showed me two graphs he had drawn on beer mats. He is none other than Sivapuranam Thevaram, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow who is my regular drinking partner. Statisticians among you might recognize the graphs as representing some kind of probability densities. Let me tell you the story behind these graphs.

Thevaram’s first graph was a simple one, widely known by the familiar phrase the “Bell Curve.” It represents how some stuff — like the price of onions in the Jaffna market — is distributed. Around where the graph peaks, you will find the price most of the time. Occasionally, say as a result of heavy rains leading to a bad crop, the price will be at the higher end of the graph. And at times, for instance, when Lalith Athulathmudali — the former trade minister in President Pinocchio’s evil government — decided to import onions in large quantities from India to “teach the Jaffna man a lesson,” you might have found the price at the lower end of the scale.

Now, the bell curve has famously been used to show how intelligence is distributed among a population. Some have used this to argue that there is such a natural distribution of the stuff and that if you were born at the lower end of it, there is nothing much you can do to redeem yourself. “It is all in the genes,” goes that particular theory, from which its proponents jump to the conclusion that certain ethnic groups are so well represented at the lower end of the spectrum that there is no point in investing any resources in their communities. These theorists are oblivious to the fact that the instruments to measure this inherited substance are designed in such a way as to put the instrument-maker at the advantageous end of the scale.

OnionIQDistributionsBut to me, the bell curve is a useful tool in irritating my friend, Thevaram, particularly after his occasional visits to Sri Lankan universities. I would show him such a graph and use it to ridicule the level of scholarships in those institutions. “Not particularly developed are they – judging by the research they do and the average number of papers they publish – when compared to Oxford and Cambridge?” is my usual line of attack.

This annoys Thevaram immensely. Angrily, with beer froth dribbling on his unshaven chin, he would retort as follows:

“You have to know the context, machan (buddy).

“Just compare the student-staff ratios and contact hours for a simple explanation. Here at my university in Thatcherland, I teach six hours a week during term time. Someone with three times those contact hours, throughout the year, cannot keep publishing papers, can they? They will just be inundated with marking exam scripts throughout the year,” he would say.

“If scholarship in Sri Lankan universities is at the low end of the bell curve, machan, how come on every visit there, I happen to enjoy meeting rather clever people? I have conversations with them — over vadai and plain tea – which can be of the same intellectual calibre as the conversations I can have with Bridgetown folks — over scones and clotted-cream. You see?”

“Have you not come across sampling bias?” I would challenge his statistical methodology, triggering even more dribble of Peroni froth on his unshaven chin.

The above conversation on how the bell curve might map onto the intelligence in Sri Lanka, and its campuses, is something we have recycled over ten times in the last five years, and I am sure we are likely to repeat it in the coming years, too.

Today, however, we have something new. It is a curve my friend had drawn with two bells! Statisticians among you might recall the phrase “bi-modal” at the sight of this particular graph. Those versed in Tamil literature might even stretch their imagination and associate its use by poet “Ouvaiyaar” who wrote “iddaar periyOr idaathaar izi kulaththOr. [Those who give are great and those who don’t are no good] ”

Let me explain.

Unlike in the bell curve, which has only one “bump,” this one has two, an upper bump and a lower bump, with not much in the middle. If we take an average of the stuff of which we have drawn this graph, we will find there is nothing to represent that average in the middle. As such, unlike the average price of Jaffna onions, average intelligence may be a meaningless thing to talk about.

Get it?

If not, let me tell you a story.

Two economists from the World Bank went to offer advice to an African government. You know the drill: Sell off the railways, close down a few hospitals, privatize, privatize and privatize. The visit to the country is not necessary because it is the same advice on offer to everyone, but it comes as perks of the job. The duo went hunting one Saturday and came across a lion. The first one drew his gun, fired and missed, the bullet going a foot to the left of the lion. His friend, now in panic, pulled his gun and fired, also missing, with his bullet going a foot to the right of the beast. We can imagine what happened next, can’t we? The lion enjoyed a delicious lunch. Moments later, when they were queuing at the Pearly Gates, one said to the other: “On average, we got him!”

Get it now?

If not let me give you some news.

The Student Union of the Arts Faculty in the University of Jaffna, acting in the interest of preserving “our” culture, renewing an idea that initially came from their administration and later withdrawn, has decided to impose upon its members a dress code for attending lectures: Men shall not wear denim trousers or T-shirts, and shall have their shirts tucked in. Women shall wear saree on Fridays. Men shall not attend lectures sporting beards. The report claims the dress code will come into effect from 11 March 2016.

There is a law of nature our enthusiastic student unionists might discover, should they venture across the campus courtyard and explore the building marked “Library.”

A necessary condition for living in the comfort of the lower mode of Thevaram’s distribution — sketched on the Bridgetown pub beer mat — is the protection provided by elements of our culture, which no doubt we ought to preserve, and send our youth in their thousands to die for.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Prof. Niranjan
    I think that if the marking is honest and not conditioned by normal distribution prejudices, all universities here should get the double bump distributions in subjects in which some independent thinking is required.

    The bumps may differ in their proportions but are certainly there. One representing those conditioned by tutory education and the other those who learned something despite their formal education.
    Whose bump is on which side may depend on how well or not a subject is taught.

    The grading system has had the effect of smudging the bumps, but if you examine with eyes as sharp as yours, you are sure to detect them.

    • 7
      2

      Prof.Niranjan’s second curve may be interpreted as follows:

      There are two extremes- the very intelligent and the very stupid , with those of average intelligence fewer. May be true true for all universities. The selection process should be designed to eliminate those in the lower extreme from entering universities. They may be more fit to become fashion designers, who can make our old dress modes popular or ‘Culture’ (as they conceive it) enforcers!

      The second curve is a double skewed bell curve( normal distribution).

      A thought provoking concept that has been presented well. Only a pub can provide the setting for such profound thinking!

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 4
    0

    Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

    RE: The Story Of Two Graphs Drawn By A Tamil Man

    1. “Now, the bell curve has famously been used to show how intelligence is distributed among a population. Some have used this to argue that there is such a natural distribution of the stuff and that if you were born at the lower end of it, there is nothing much you can do to redeem yourself. “It is all in the genes,” goes that particular theory, from which its proponents jump to the conclusion that certain ethnic groups are so well represented at the lower end of the spectrum that there is no point in investing any resources in their communities. These theorists are oblivious to the fact that the instruments to measure this inherited substance are designed in such a way as to put the instrument-maker at the advantageous end of the scale”

    2. “The above conversation on how the bell curve might map onto the intelligence in Sri Lanka, and its campuses, is something we have recycled over ten times in the last five years, and I am sure we are likely to repeat it in the coming years, too.”

    3. “Today, however, we have something new. It is a curve my friend had drawn with two bells! Statisticians among you might recall the phrase “bi-modal” at the sight of this particular graph. Those versed in Tamil literature might even stretch their imagination and associate its use by poet “Ouvaiyaar” who wrote “iddaar periyOr idaathaar izi kulaththOr. [Those who give are great and those who don’t are no good] ””

    Sometimes, it is bi-modal, sometimes, tri-modal an sometimes multi-modal.

    The IQs of the Various ethnicities in the US show multi-modal distribution. So, within the Tamils, there is bi-modal distribution? Generally 75% to 80% of IQ is Genetic.

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi7_5e-tqzLAhXE6iYKHayfDVUQjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Ftheunsilencedscience.blogspot.com%2F2012%2F04%2Fsat-bell-curve.html&psig=AFQjCNEloeQkwEcpdyAXfK9aEdBoPYtefQ&ust=1457366249016231

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=0ahUKEwjc4Yn8tazLAhXHKiYKHaoXDz0QjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fgulfcoastcommentary.blogspot.com%2F2013%2F03%2Fblacks-score-much-lower-on-all-academic.html&psig=AFQjCNFep892HqmKFEaWcsheaSi1RMVJsA&ust=1457366092146836

  • 4
    1

    The human mind is complex; there are theories such as multiple intelligences, emotional IQ, etc., but no firm agreement. It doesn’t make sense to just speak of IQ. Then there is the issue of belief systems.

    I have always held that true scientists cannot be believers, but should make “the scientific method” their way of life. It is not the number of papers, or the false prestige that comes from a case of the blind leading the blind, but the ultimate truth and the “right” way of life that matters.

    Is belief hardwired in some brains, an evolutionary holdover from the time man faced grave danger as a hunter-gatherer and needed to believe in a higher power in the face of such danger?

    I think scientists should also study the impact of inbreeding among South Asians (marrying cross cousins, or even uncles as in India) on the population, in terms of how it affects their brains and general health. Conditions like ADHD and fatigue inducing syndromes might have an inbreeding cause, and can mask a high degree of intelligence otherwise.

  • 8
    0

    Brilliant, Niranjan!

    I hope that I finally meet you in Bandarawela some time, and confirm how valid your observations are – of everything relating to education, through out this country, starting in the schools and extending through the universities. Do try to visit the old school, like your brother.

    How can it be otherwise, given the oafs we have as Ministers of Education? Your accounts of beer swilling in London pubs certainly gives us some wry amusement; something that helps us come to terms with how we are letting slip the wonderful opportunities that seemed opening up for us fifteen months ago.

  • 6
    3

    Prof:

    The next time you meet up with your pal-Thevaram at Bridgetown Pub,could you pl.address your mind towards Poverty and other Humanitarian issues faced by those Tamils in the North-East of Srilanka?

    Plato too engaged in these semantics often in his salad days in Pubs,across the UK.
    In retrospect,I see this as false and a sort of one upmanship.
    Tamil Diaspora has no future! They are lost in the West.The next generation will not have anyone even singing the Thevaram at Temples let alone at Pubs!

  • 12
    1

    Dear Prof. Niranjan
    The next time you visit the North of this country, will it be possible to organize a crash course on “Sense of Humor for Tamil Intellecuals”.
    You may fail miserably.
    But it is worth a try.

  • 6
    5

    Where is that global pariah KA Sumanasekera? Anywhere he sees the word Tamil, he will write his garbage.

  • 4
    1

    A bumpy rant….

    Agree, Fundamentalists need historical, cultural vestiges to hang on to power and as you said send our youth in their thousands to die for.

    In the Land of Harvard and Yale, where scholastic endeavours are admirable, it didn’t protect D(T)rumpistas in their attempts to reverse the clock and civilization, did it?

    Being bimodal and multi-modal are not exclusive to folks behind cadjan curtain….it is universal….

  • 1
    2

    But your cherished Chief Minister of the Northern province will not like this two -bump stuff.

    He can accept the one bump thing because that is in keeping with the worship of the lingam, especially if the bump is made a bit more steep by playing with the exponent (ahem, that is, praying to the right Gods).

    You see, our ancient Rishis know all about the Bell curve and statistics. The two bump is mis-understood by both Mahesan and Thevaram because they know little of the great traditions that our chief minster is trying to install, by ensuring that Tamils marry only Tamils (and, hush, from the correct caste – the Varna is important). To do that people have to understand the one bump and the two bumps pictures in their orthodox sense.
    The two bump thing, with the hollow in the middle is a two-dimensional representation of the Shakthi Yoni. After all, in addition to the (male) phallic symbol, Hinduism also allows for a place for the woman and that was done long before statisticians came up with the bimodal figure.

    Next time, buy a few beers to the English boys in your pub, and ask them what sexual symbol the two figures represent, and they will give you the right Hindu-Orthodox answer, but only if they are properly inspired by Bacchus.

    Both Mahesan and Thevarm have failed miserably. Wrong genes, or not enough beer? May be you need some of the Dankotuwa Kassippu if you are in Colombo, or you can get some
    less potent but more traditional Taatti Kalluu in Jaffna itself, and that may help you understand these unimodal and bi-modal distributions properly.

  • 0
    9

    Not sure about the IQ, but their taste and sophistication seem to be in the below average part of the Bell Curve.

    Scones with clotted cream with Peroni. And Masala Vaddai with Plain Tea.

    At least they should pretend that they drink Hand Crafted Micro Brewery Golden Ale and have Scones with Strawberry Jam and fully Organic fresh cream.

    And drop that masala vaddai altogether and talk over Cucumber Sandwiches and Hyson’s Single Origin strong brew ..

    Soecially after spending so much dough to recruit even their arch enemy, the current Field Marshall, who boasted killing 1000 Tigers a month after routing them in Wahabi Land.

    • 0
      0

      Sumaney, read my comment above yours.

  • 0
    1

    Those who follow the dress code madness in Jaffna Uni may want to read a beautifully written letter to their administration by one of their more articulate young lecturers, archived in his blog here:

    [Edited out] Please write instead of posting links – CT

  • 1
    1

    Dear Prof.

    This Double Bell Curve theory will not go well with the bell boys because ring tones will not be the same when mapped on a temporal scale.

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