Monday, October 10, 2011

Stop this madness: Open source CSSPS

It is that time of the year again when parents and their wards are left sitting on tenterhooks awaiting omniscient oracles to tell them where some sequence of bits thinks the wards should go to school. That would not be such a bad deal if we could trust that stream of bits to do the right thing. The quest for disinterested, unemotional, and incorruptible bits to tell us our future has resulted in this system we call the Computerised School Selection and Placement System (CSSPS). Has this system also been corrupted? There are allegations that some of the bits have been tweaked by highly skilled monkeys who have been offered a few fingers of banana by anxious parents.

The only defence offered so far is that the monkeys are too honorable to do such a thing. Or even worse, it is impossible for there to be errors in the system. Nonsense! Programming is a very precise craft--it is logic in a language that computers can understand. What this means is that one can test for the expected behaviour without having to rely on faith in the programmer. The programmer can make a mistake so he has to check all cases to ensure the programme does what he wants. Often this is not possible but that is not an excuse when the client is willing to go through the trouble. Every client (parent, candidate) who has a grievance can easily verify that the programme works by testing it with the data he has. Why the data and the programme have not been made publicly available for such testing is mind-boggling. That such opaqueness has been allowed to plague a system whose main purpose was to offer transparency is a disgrace.

What would it take to write a programme that solves this basic problem? Very little, actually. A programmer with the skill of a BECE candidate can produce code that solves this problem in one day. To understand the problem let us break it down: Students are ranked based on their raw scores. They are then assigned to their preferred schools in order until the school is filled to capacity. Suppose we have the students and the preferences as listed below:

Adongo   {Abusco,  Aquinas,    Odorgonno, Prempeh,   Presec}
Brenya   {Prempeh, Mfantsipim, Adisco,    Opass,     Kass}
Chiana   {Holyco,  Achimota,   GeyHey,    Opass,     Abusco}
Danso    {Opass,   Abuso,      Abugiss,   GeyHey,    Roses}
Effah    {Roses,   Abugiss,    Opass,     Odorgonno, GeyHey}
Frempong {Aquinas, Prempeh,    Presec,    Opass,     Achimota}
Gamey    {Abusco,  Aquinas,    Opass,     Prempeh,   Presec}   
Humado   {Holyco,  Roses,      Achimota,  Abusco,    Opass}
Issah    {Roses,   Holyco,     GeyHey,    Opass,     Abusco}
Jabah    {Prempeh, Aquinas,    Achimota,  Kass,      Odorgonno}
Komey    {GeyHey,  Achimota,   Roses,     Abusco,    Opass}
Larbi    {Abusco,  Prempeh,    Achimota,  Presec,    Kass}

Every student lists their preferences in order from the more preferred to the less preferred. There is no reason to stop at five since it is easy to make the list as long as the number of secondary schools in Ghana. There is also talk that students provide preference lists with the courses they want to pursue (eg. General Science, Business, Visual Arts, etc). All of this can easily be factored in. But this level of detail will do for our example. Suppose also that the students obtain the following raw scores from six subjects (based on some rules about which subjects have priority etc.):

Candidate   Raw Score
Danso       576
Chiana      529
Adongo      484
Frempong    441
Effah       400
Brenya      361
Jabah       324
Gamey       289
Larbi       256
Humado      225
Issah       196
Komey       169

With this information, and the fictitious capacities for the schools listed below, the candidates will be placed as follows:

School              Capacity      Admitted Candidates
Abusco              2             Adongo, Gamey 
Achimota            4             Larbi
Aquinas             3             Frempong
Holyco              3             Chiana, Humado
Kass                2
Mfantsipim          4
Odorgonno           3
Opass               2             Danso 
Prempeh             2             Brenya, Jabah
Presec              2
Roses               4             Effah, Issah
GeyHey              4             Komey

It is as simple as that. So why is there so much mystery and controversy surrounding this issue? Is it because like all other statistics in Ghana the few who curate it have decided to hide it so they can use it for their own purposes? My suggestion for removing this cloak of secrecy is to make the code that does the placement open source. The Ghana Education Service is probably paying a lot of money to some company to devise the software. Open sourcing the project will give more confidence that it does what it claims to do. There will be more people looking at it and, hence, less probability for error. It will be much cheaper if not completely free. All the data can be made public with candidate names replaced by other identifying information that is only known to the candidates. This way, anybody can check the results to their satisfaction.

Like I said, a 15 year old BECE candidate can write the code that does this and there are many capable programmers in Ghana so there is no reason to leave such a mission-critical assignment in the hands of a few who can tweak it to their delight. It is only in Ghana that a problem that can be solved by a simple sorting algorithm can dominate the airwaves for a week year after year. What a shame.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why have a congress?

The NDC will hold its delegates' congress this weekend in Sunyani. Congresses like this one are typically a mere formality--they give a few speeches, the incumbent wins, the party presents a good front to the media, and everybody goes home happy. However, this congress will buck the usual trend. Chances are that the incumbent will win, but it is not clear everybody will go home happy.

I have previously commented on Mrs. Rawlings's prospects in the election as well as its significance for our politics in general. Now, I would like to elaborate on a part of the story that I did not cover: the prospect that Mrs. Rawlings and her followers will split from the NDC if she does not win, or, similarly, the prospect that Mr. Atta-Mills and his followers will split. The former is more probable.

The power struggle in the NDC speaks to a deeply-rooted issue that the NDC was bound to confront sooner or later. Worse, it is a signal of a more momentous shift that will occur in Ghanaian politics.

"What are Ghanaians elections about?" This question is often asked by foreigners who want a better appreciation of our politics. The answer is "nothing of substance." Our elections are not about the economy; neither are they about education; nor about health. How do people win elections then? By making baseless allegations about one's opponents. The one who is able to push the most lies wins. For this reason, all the seemingly legitimate arguments for letting Atta-Mills go for a second term are inconsequential and dishonest. It really does not make a difference who from the NDC is in power as far as the issues that affect the economy, education, health, or other such weighty matters are concerned. Hence, in that regard, it appears Ghanaians may be better off without anybody at the helm as the leaders are more likely to retard progress than they are to facilitate it.

This congress is not about the future of Ghana, to the extent that the outcome will significantly affect our future well-being one way or the other. This congress is about the NDC and nothing more. It is about definition and identity. I will have more to say about this later.

Because of the small size of the delegate pool (about 2000), the influence of bribe money and other fringe benefits incumbents enjoy is overwhelming. It would be a trivial matter to dole out 1000 cedis to each delegate that wants it in return for votes. This is not a mere accusation. There have been many allegations of that happening, not to talk of the threats to delegates who are office-holders appointed by Atta-Mills and are beholden to him.

So why have a congress? Is it not a waste of (taxpayer?) money. Political parties do not render accounts of where their money comes from so the incumbent party is free to appropriate national resources with impunity. Why won't they have a caucus at Kuku Hill or Rawlings Junction to decide on the spoils? That is bound to happen eventually, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book review: Letters to a young lawyer by Alan Dershowitz

Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz has acquired a reputation as a vigorous defence attorney so it is apt that he shares some reflections with aspiring lawyers. With his vast experience with high-profile cases, some of them involving the defence of unpopular criminals, he carefully dissects the learned profession from the perspective of a pragmatic advocate.

He took a good precaution at the beginning of the book by explicitly noting that his letters would be biased, reflecting his tendentious evaluation of the profession as well as proffering advice to the end that the advisee would become more like him. I appreciate his frankness in this regard because I disagree with some of his observations, especially the ones about the political calculations that some legal actors may have made in the past. I may say more about this in the future.

One often gets the advice to be skeptical of authority or established norms that don't prove their utility over time. For example, one sometimes gets the advice to pursue what interests them as opposed to what others might think they should pursue--one should live their own dreams and not that of others. Dershowitz has walked his talk, pursuing goals that he finds stimulating as opposed to ones that may endear him to others or make his life comfortable and "dignified."

Dershowitz also addresses ethical issues in a manner that betrays his obsession with them. In particular, in the conclusion of the book he addresses the question of morality and why one should be a good person. This discussion is laden with a personal reading of the book of Ecclesiastes as well as a peculiar understanding of his at-least-cultural Jewish faith--an interpretation with which I disagree. The book is enlightening, self-deprecating at times and suffused with pertinent personal anecdotes that aspiring lawyers should find germane to their goals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ory Okolloh earns my respect

I was impressed by the video above not because the ideas expressed therein are new but because they are audacious and not exactly what I would have expected from a Google executive.

The sentiment Okolloh expresses is as annoying as it is true. Whenever Africa comes up for discussion, there seems to the suspension of reason under the excuse that there is something fundamentally different about the people that makes it impossible to consider the fact that they desire the same progress, freedom, and respect that other peoples enjoy without bargain.

I have wondered why Bill Gates chose to do the charity work he is doing in many parts of Africa rather than help entrepreneurs start innovative companies like he did in the US. That would definitely do more good than anything the Gates Foundation can (attempt to) do to eradicate malaria.

It is not clear to me if the opinions expressed are Okolloh's own or they are shared by Google, but if they are that would be a refreshingly sharp departure from the abiding orthodoxy that Africa is a peculiarly wretched disaster that needs special remedies outside of common sense.

Ghana: A serious education deficit

It is customary for Ghanaians to complain about falling educational standards in our schools. My father complained about my generation's falling standards. I am complaining about this generation's standards. I think this generation will complain about the next generation's standards.

Apart from the rubbish that is not even taught well, there seems to be a deliberate effort to not educate independent-minded citizens who can hold the government to account. I have talked about this extensively in a series of 5 articles entitled Why they don't teach history. The problem goes beyond that: How many Ghanaians have read the constitution? How many know their rights? Our ignorance is exposed whenever there is a serious national issue that has to be settled. There is no shortage of silly and illogical arguments based on nothing more than the arguer's whim. There also seems to be no tolerance for principled dissent even if it is reasonable given the (hopefully) unshakeable foundation of the constitution. It is because of this that Ghanaians are mum even when they disapprove of silly programmes by the government. Why are we so timid?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson spar over China exploiting Africa

The rise of economic powers other than the already established ones--USA, UK, EU, the so-called West--is bound to make the established ones feel threatened. Hence, it is not uncommon to hear them complain of China exploiting Africa even as China makes inroads into the continent.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the details of some of the contracts that China has made in some African countries, but not any that go beyond the typical issues associated with other contracts signed with the countries of the West. So why the panic?

For a long time, some critical observers and ordinary Africans have asked, even begged, the West to adopt a different aid model than the one that is currently in place. They have asked for an aid model that is not based on pity but one that is based on mutual self-interest--some have called this trade in the famous aid vs. trade debates, but the calls have not been heeded.

There seems to be an abiding notion among the countries of the West that African countries are not capable of pulling themselves by the bootstraps, as it were, and so they deserve charity. This nonsense has been refuted by the African people who have demonstrated their desire to be treated with respect. This is why despite the seeming inequity in the slew of contracts that some African countries have signed with China, the Africans seem to be content and willing to continue dealing with the Chinese. I think in so far as the African countries are not coerced into these agreements (they are not) they should be left alone to do what they want.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fulani: Ghana's immigration problem

Human beings have always migrated; they are usually compelled by economic factors to do so. Until political boundaries became so rigid, migration was not as serious a problem as it is today. All over the world, human beings in search of prosperity and freedom take monumental risks to satisfy their needs, but this has not convinced us to relax the rules on immigration. Further, it is unclear whether it ever will.

Last week a Fulani herdsman was beheaded in Agogo in the Ashanti Region. This was probably an attack by some disgruntled indigenes who were angry at the herdsman for using their land. The details of this attack are not central to my argument. The point is there are cattle rearers in Ghana whose cattle graze just like the cattle of the Fulani, but nobody hears of Ghanaian herdsmen being beheaded because their cattle grazed in the wrong place. So, fundamentally, this is appears to be an us versus them battle in which the Fulani are seen as a threatening economic force in the area.

Because the Fulani are primarily a nomadic people it is hard to tell what their nationality is. Most of them are West African though. That is, they are citizens of an ECOWAS country so they cannot be classified as illegal immigrants because by ECOWAS convention, they should be able to move freely across borders (i.e. without extensive documentation eg. visas, permits, etc). This reduces the Fulani problem to one of contracts.

One reason why the Fulani are despised is because they make their cattle graze on other people's farms. That is what makes them a nuisance. I don't know what the penalties for destroying somebody's farm are but some of these Fulani herdsmen are contracted by Ghanaian cattle owners to cater for their cattle as well so the indigenes themselves may not be free from complicity. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that murder is not the best solution to the problem as there is bound to be retaliation from the aggrieved parties.

A good number of Ghanaians are always looking for a way to escape Ghana for greener pastures in Europe, America, and even Libya. Why won't they let the Fulani herdsman graze on the greener pastures they have found here?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Who says homosexuals will be lynched?

Every once in a long while the issue of homosexuality comes up in Ghana. Many people find it abominable so they think it should be illegal. Since when did an act being abominable also qualify it to be illegal?

Many of those who say homosexuality is abominable also say gambling is abominable. They also say drunkenness is abominable. They say gluttony is abominable. They also say fornication is abominable. They also say divorce is abominable. Yet, none of these acts is illegal. The lack of philosophical and intellectual clarity is irritating.

David Assuming (MP, Shai Osudoku, NDC) says that since the "mob" finds homosexuality abominable, it may have no choice but to resort to vigilantism if the stipulated authorities don't take action. Even though he wishes for such a severe reaction from idle youth, he does not offer any sound basis for such action except the tired "it is unghanaian." He sounded like a fool as he could not put a cogent argument together. This is grave cause for concern as he is one of the few people who can actually repeal the law that makes "unnatural carnal knowledge" illegal.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sanitary pads for school girls?

This cause sounds laudable but it is not.

Mrs. Elizabeth Agyeman (MP, Oforikrom, NPP) is arguing for the supply of sanitary pads to school girls so they don't have to miss several days of school every month during their menses. It is unfortunate that some school girls have to miss several days of school every month for such a reason, hence, this should be a cause for concern because of the potential effects on the future of these pupils. This, however, should not lead us to permit government to encroach on domains that have always been and should remain private.

As the MP graphically describes, it is not uncommon to spot girls with soiled school uniforms walking in the street, but that should raise different questions than the ones that seem obvious. The issues that immediately come to mind are the following:

1. Why do we have so many school buildings that do not have sanitary facilities?
2. Girls have always menstruated. Why is this becoming an issue now?
3. Should it be the job of government to intervene in such a manner in the lives of the young girls?

Many classroom blocks or school buildings in Ghana do not come with the necessary accompanying sanitary facilities. This leaves one to wonder what school teachers and their pupils do when nature calls. Whatever the girls use to take care of themselves during their menses, they may have to attend to it during the course of the day. Why isn't anybody asking about the availability of sanitary facilities in the schools? Even if girls had the sanitary pads for which the MP is advocating, they may have to change them during the course of the day. Where in the school building would this take place?

91% of homes in the capital city do not have sanitary facilities. The statistics for other cities are worse. The prevailing culture of negligence encourages contractors who construct school buildings to leave out essential sanitary facilities. Given that most of these schools are public, it is not clear if the government could possibly be serious about tackling such a problem, having perpetrated its root cause for years. The absence of such basic facilities in the vast majority of public schools should suggest to us that the lack of sanitary pads may not be the problem after all.

Also, given that girls have always menstruated it is not clear why this is suddenly becoming an issue. I don't think the MP wants to argue that the sanitary pads she was referring to (ie the ones you can buy in a pharmacy) are the only products one can use to keep themselves hygienic during their periods. Before sanitary pads became commonplace, women and girls were taking care of themselves by other means without any problems. Most of them still take care of themselves without special sanitary pads. The aggregate cost of supplying the special sanitary pads to the girls will far exceed the price of getting responsible inspectors to do their job, ensuring that the contractors who build the schools build the sanitary facilities as well. Maintaining the status quo will lead to a mess in these schools where girls will not be able to find places to properly dispose of their pads, worsening the already appalling sanitary conditions that persists in the schools.

Further, it is not clear that the people the MP wants to help actually want her help. Suppose a sanitary pad costs 1 cedi (~66 cents) and a girl needs three of these per month (= 3 cedis or 2 dollars) then we have to figure out at what income a girl will be willing to buy sanitary pads at such a high cost. About 80% of Ghanaians live on less than 2 dollars a day. If I were a girl who was given 2 dollars a month to use for whatever I would, I definitely wouldn't be spending it on sanitary pads when I have other competing uses for the money: most importantly, food. I would rather stick to a more economical way of taking care of myself and use the money for something else. Since when did it become the job of government to give people products they don't even want?

Alas, all of these considerations will be lost on the policy makers because it is always convenient to be sloppy when spending other people's money. You will hear the mantra: Kenya is doing it so we must too. The government seems to have an infinite reservoir of resources when it comes to implementing policies that sound good on paper, so the usual pleas for compassion will trump any sound analysis of the gross implications.

ARLAP: The Akan R-L Allophony Problem

Dear Leader, I am suplised you don't know of this famous plobrem. The previous sentence was meant to read: Dear Reader, I am surprised you don't know of this famous problem. Why the insidious transpositions?

Listeners to Akan English speakers may have heard of an apparent slip of tongue which occurs when the speaker tries to pronounce words with the letters r or l in them. Contrary to popular belief, I contend that this is not a slip of tongue but in fact, a normal extension of Akan phonetics--a mere consequence of fluid bilingualism.

Akan refers to a collection of people who are mostly found in the Southern part of modern day Ghana. They form about 50% of the population. Thare are also some Akans in Cote d'Ivoire but they are a significantly smaller population. The Akans speak a collection of languages (some may argue, dialects) from the Kwa language family that are mostly mutually intelligible: Asante, Akuapem, Fante, Bono, to list a few. The speakers of Asante appear to be the ones who suffer the most from this "error," but it may not be an error due to ignorance of the correct pronunciation, but, rather, one resulting from an invalid extension of their Kwan articulatory instincts.

The framework that dictates the transcription of Twi was created by Johann Gottlieb Christaller, a German Basel missionary who started his missionary as well as philological work among the Akuapems at Akropong. His primary preoccupation was with formalising the language in order to translate the Bible into Twi. Christaller's legacy extends beyond his immense contributions to Twi transcription; his work sparked a chain of literary works, including several dictionaries, a book of Twi proverbs, and a magazine promoting the use of Ghanaian languages. It is noteworthy that even though all of these works are more than a century old, they are yet to be matched in scope and influence.

The Twi alphabet has 22 characters or letters and it inherits all of the English alphabet except the letters c, j, q, v, x and z. It then adds another two letters: ɛ and ɔ. Here, it is in order to acknowledge one difference between the dialects. In Fante, z is used in names like Dadzie or dzi (English: eat, deal, mind). The other differences result from the combination of letters to produce sounds as well as the differences in accenting patterns on syllables.

How does allophony interplay with all of these? Allophony is not peculiar to Twi. It occurs in a language when different pronunciations of a phoneme do not result in a distinction in meaning. For instance, those familiar with the differences between British and American English know that for a certain ubiquitous fluid that is essential to life, one group prefers to call it water (with an emphasis on the /t/) while the other group prefers to say wader or warer. In this case /t/, /d/ and /r/ are allophones in the English language. Similarly, in Twi, sometimes /r/ and /l/ are allophones. Bɔɔdedwo (English: roasted plantain) is sometimes pronounced bɔɔledwo or bɔɔredwo. Here, the allophony is with /r/, /l/ and /d/. The /r/ and /d/ allophony is just like the one in English. Linguists have a special name for that: consonant lenition. The /d/ stop is harder to pronounce than the rhodic /r/ which is in turn harder to pronounce than /l/. The lenition is revealed in a phrase like m'ani abede (English: I am serious, where the /d/ in abede is used for emphasis) instead of m'ani abere.

The above explanation would be perfect in English. That is, Twi speakers, especially those who know the language very well through experience, often fall into the ARLAP trap, forgetting the R-L allophony rule does not apply in English. However, historically, the letter /l/ was never used in Twi. Evidence of this is borne out by the fact that all words with /l/ are borrowed from a different language eg. lɔɔre (English: car. From lorry.) and bɔɔla (English: refuse dump. From English boiler.). So, transformation of /r/ to /l/ may have been the result of a natural tendency to ease speaking, but this is a hypothesis. It would imply that words with /r/ would be more susceptible to the ARLAP than, say, words with /l/. I don't not have the statistics on this, but that may be a litmus test for this theory.