On cultural events and simulated annealling

As part of my “Artificial Intelligence” course three years ago, I had learnt about this search technique called “simulated annealling”. I learnt this again as part of an advanced course in Operations Research. It is used to solve problems where solving rigorously is not feasible as it would take too much time.

Let us assume that the objective is to find the highest point in Bangalore. It is not feasible to list out all points and then make a comparision. So I start from home. If i find a point around me higher than where I am right now, I go there. I continue this process until I come to a point where I cannot see any higher points around. This simple technique is called “hill-climbing” and can be used to give an approximate solution. Problem with this is that we can get stuck in “local maxima” and completely miss out on going near the highest point.

As an improvement to this method came the method of simulated annealling. In the earlier stages of the search (when the search is still “hot”) we are allowed to climb down in the hope that another path may give us a better solution. As the search goes on (search cools down) the probability of being allowed to climb down drops. We proceed this way until we reach a point where we are not allowed at all to climb down in which case we settle upon the local maxima.

Now, let us apply this technique to inter-college festivals. According to this, in the initial years, when the search is still “hot”, it is necessary to make allowances to “climb down” and seek changes so that we are not caught up in a local maxima. However as the festival matures, we can allow ourselves to just making incremental improvements to last year’s performance in order to reach the pinnacle.

Let us look at this from the point of views of a few fests I’ve been part of. Saarang (nee Mardi Gras) is around 35 years old. During its initial years, there was a great deal fo churning. Events were chopped and changed every other year, entire format of the festival underwent a revamp, the name itself was changed, etc. All I want to present here is that the organizers of the event were willing to experiment. They were not afraid to climb down, knowing that they could miss out on the opportunity of reaching THE top. Even thirty five years after it was started, there is some innovation or the other at the fest every year and its position as the best inter-collegiate festival in South India is well earned.

Next, we consider Shaastra. Started in the mid-nineties as a half-day festival Pragma, it underwent a major revamp once in 2000 under a certain “Randi”. The festival became four days long and the number of events increased exponentially. However, in two years’ time it was clear that there was something wrong. Response was poor, crowds were thin, the place wore a deserted look and the quality of participation was also not much to write home about. Then came the second revamp in 2002. The event was moved from February to October. It was shortened to three days. Publicity was ramped up. Sponsorship poured in. The event seems to have settled nicely now but i’m sure that if there’s some hitch again, the organizers won’t hesitate to undertake drastic steps.

Coming from the college which hosts the above two festivals, I found Unmaad to be a bit of a surprise. It is a pretty young festival. Earlier known as X3, it underwent a revamp after 2003. There have been, no doubt, leaps and bounds in the organization since the X3 days (I had the misfortune of attending X3 in 2003). Infrastructure, sponsorship, publicity, etc. all seem to be picture perfect. Events needs some bit of improvement which I think will happen in the next couple of years. Though the operations seem to be on the path to perfectness, there seem to be some fundamentals which are not quite right. And given the way the teams happen, I don’t see too much scope for any improvement in this regard in the next few years.

The senior cultural committee selects the junior cultural committee. They organize Unmaad together. Following Unmaad is elections for Cultural Secretary. The senior committee selects its “blue eyed boy” from the junior team and props him up. Any competition is ruthlessly quelled. If the senior team feels “it’s boy” will lose, pressure is brought upon the competition to withdraw (this is supposed to have happened last year). After elections the cultural secretary selects his senior team with liberal help from the senior committee, which then retires.

The junior team is selected on basis of “culture fit”. The one year in the team makes their mindset more or less similar to that of the senior team. And the “senior team’s blue eyed boy” is naturally the person who resembles them most in terms of mindset. Inertia sets in. There will be no motivation to “climb down” (remember it’s still early days for Unmaad). Operations will improve. Everything will become perfect. Except for the fundamentals. Unmaad will end up as “the perfectly organized cultural festival which nobody knows about”.

Well, I guess I’ve been a little hard-hitting at Unmaad. But then…. well…. whatever…. never mind… Simulated Annealling rocks!

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