Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Archaeo Graffiti!

Via Kerim of the anthropology blog Savage Minds, we get two links to interesting graffiti from the ancient world. Here is one:

Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex

which apparently means "Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!"

Kerim's post has links to other interesting things on graffiti. Do read it!

The other two R's of higher ed


Yogesh K Upadhyaya and Arvind Gupta have an article up on Rediff on a new ranking -- this one is by Dataquest -- of engineering colleges. They also discuss the utility of such rankings. Interestingly, IIT-Delhi opted out of this exercise.


If you want to dig a little deeper into this ranking thingy, do take a look at Rashmi Bansal's recent post on India Today's ranking of colleges in Mumbai. There are also interesting links there in the comments. From one of them I found out why BITS-Pilani opted out of this year's India Today poll.

Higher ed: Rating (aka accreditation)

Today's Econmic Times reports that, as a part of the Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement, India and Singapore "have agreed to ease visa restrictions for professionals in a wide range of areas". This paragraph is interesting (with emphasis added by me):

Under the pact on the unrestricted visa regime , which is to be signed tomorrow, both Singapore and India would recognise the degrees issued by specified universities and technical education boards of each other for the purpose of issuing multi-entry/job or stay visas.

Clearly, either the Singapore government or an organization authorized by it will have to get into the business of rating (let me emphasize rating, not ranking) our institutions. I would say it is a good thing!

In this excellent post, Satya has argued for delinking of the regulatory, funding and accreditation (rating) functions of agencies such as UGC, AICTE, ICMR, etc. In particular, he has argued that the rating function should be 'outsourced' to a few independent agencies such as CRISIL, ICRA, etc. Satya even points to how this 'rating agency' model is already being practiced by the maaritime training institutions in India. Let me just say that I support these reforms.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Justice, at last!

Update (29 June 2005, evening): Looks like the last word is yet to be spoken; Badri reports that the Tamil Nadu government has decided to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. I hope the appeal fails.


29 June 2005 : Hindu has an editorial strongly supporting the Chennai High Court verdict, and calling for a countrywide skills and aptitude test. The latter is something that the Hindu's editor N. Ram had talked about earlier.

Our earlier posts on this issue: 1, 2, 3.

For a more general discussion of national level entrance exams, see this post by Badri, and this one by me.

Today's Hindu reported:

The Madras High Court on Monday struck down the Government Order abolishing the common entrance examination for professional course admissions in the State, holding that this was not the correct or valid method to give redress to rural students.

The First Bench, comprising Chief Justice Markandey Katju and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla, however, declined to interfere with the improvement examination scheme and said it was only a concession extended by the Government for students to improve their marks.

For the current academic year, the Government shall take into account the aggregate of marks obtained in the CET and the improvement examination as these examinations had already been held. "It would not be proper to cancel the improvement examination this year. But, for the academic year 2006-07 and onwards the improvement test need not be held by the authorities, unless they choose to restore it."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Just how good is it?

The question refers to engineering education. The Hindu has the answer. Among other things, it cites these numbers, which are truly mind-boggling.

The increase in intake capacity in engineering degree of some of the States from 1990-91 to 2003-04: Andhra Pradesh 8,070 to 66,205; Karnataka 19,452 to 40,920; Kerala 4,512 to 19,868; Madhya Pradesh 2,265 to 15,920; Maharashtra 20,425 to 47,450; Tamil Nadu 12,855 to 79,302; Uttar Pradesh 3,029 to 24,773; West Bengal 2,022 to 13,269; Delhi 1,290 to 3,800; Gujarat 2,780 to 10,325; Haryana 1,085 to 10,105; Jammu and Kashmir 480 to 970; Orissa 1,325 to 10,695; Punjab 1,508 to 10,701; and Rajasthan 1,629 to 10,785.

The total intake in all the States put together went up from 87,221 to 3,83,912

The article goes on to identify several problems that arise due to such a large number of institutions. Finding good teachers, for example. The situation is so dire that there are institutions where graduating students are recruited to teach their juniors! Many colleges' websites do not even bother to list their faculty members' names or qualifications and other credentials (for example, this deemed university; I checked three departments at random, and none of them had a faculty listing).

AICTE, which was "established for proper planning & co-ordinated development of technical education system throughout the country", has National Board of Accreditation meant for certifying that insitutions meet certain minimum standards. If we go by the Hindu article, we are better off with regulations suggested by Satya. These regulations would mandate that institutes (a) disclose to the public all relevant information, and (b) get themselves rated by independent bodies such as CRISIL. We have noted earlier that Pankaj Jalote, professor of computer science at IIT-Kanpur, has also written about the need for such reforms.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Some more ideas on RUs

In an earlier post, we looked at the feasibility of a real university (RU -- a research university that offers undergraduate programs in multiple disciplines, including natural and social sciences and liberal arts) funded by the UG students through their fees.

See also this recent post by Satya on private universities.

In particular, we saw that the basic functions -- undergraduate education and certain minimum level of research activity -- can indeed be funded with a 'reasonable' UG fees of about Rs. 100,000 (1 lakh) per year per student, provided we accept a student/faculty ratio of 40.

Differential fees

Now, equal-fee-for-equal-education is a worthy goal to pursue, and perhaps it may be achieved in the long run. In the meantime, I believe there are at least three considerations that lead us to think of differential fees for UG education in a RU; these are in addition to the current reality that students studying in different institutions pay different fees (sometimes, unofficially or, as they say, 'under the table') even if they are pursuing the same degree program.

First, education in science and engineering relies heavily on hands-on experimentation using expensive equipment in laboratory courses; research in these subjects also require similarly expensive equipment. On the other hand, departments in social sciences and liberal arts are not so burdened. Under this scenario, a differential fee structure makes sense; for example, science and engineering students may be charged a 'laboratory fee' that the others need not worry about.

Second, UG courses in professional subjects (engineering, medicine, law, and perhaps, management) enjoy a huge demand in our society, while the other subjects face a smaller demand. If we use a kind of 'let's-soak-the-suckers' argument (aka the law of demand and supply), differential 'pricing' of UG education follows as a simple, logical conclusion.

Finally, it makes sense to 'offer' a certain fraction of UG 'seats' to the government, and allow the students who come in through this government quota to pay a smaller fee. This can be done, for example, in return for certain support from the government (land grants, some regular financial support, etc).

I call this the 'modified Karnataka model', since it was applied successfully in this state a long time ago for setting up self-financing colleges. It was so successful, in fact, that it has effectively been replicated in several other states, including Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. In the original Karnataka model, the government retains its right to fix fees (making a mockery of the concept of self-financing colleges), and so has enormous capacity to meddle with the financial health of institutions. In the modified model, the government does not have that weapon.

One may ask, legitimately, why the government (and students who enter through that quota) should be given this special treatment. There are at least two reasons, and both give a private sector RU a certain legitimacy and acceptability. First, since the government represents the society at large, the institution gains an important ally. Second, the government may use specific mechanisms, such as affirmative action, to advance certain social goals, the RU gets to share in this larger social purpose, by allying itself with the government.

How exactly a RU may divide its student population into different categories that pay different fees will depend on all three factors (and any others that I have not considered here). It is a practical matter that will have to be resolved when a RU is set up.

Scholarships, loans

Irrespective of how this division is done, I have no doubt that the best way to reduce the financial burden on students (remember, the student still has to take care of 'living' expenses which could add upto 50,000 more per year) is through (partial) scholarships and student loans at interest rates similar to those of housing loans. Otherwise, quality education in a private RU would become unaffordable to poor -- but meritorious -- students.

For scholarships, we can think of the government, industry associations such as CII and FICCI, charitable trusts, and individual philanthropists.

Industries always complain about how our current system does not 'impart' to the students the kind of skills needed in the industry; they further claim that they spend considerable sums of money in training their fresh recruits. Presumably, education in the RUs would be of such high quality that CII, for example, finds it worthwhile to fund scholarships (perhaps with a condition that the students should work for a couple of years in one of the CII members -- something similar to what the Singapore government does).

Government as a source of scholarships at the UG level poses interesting challenges. It requires a change of focus from funding UG education through public sector universities (in which case this largesse is shared by everyone studying there; this is the current system), to one in which the government targets its funding by giving scholarships to students who get to choose where to spend that money. The former is centred around universities and their faculty, while the latter is centred around students. This is similar to a change of focus from running ration shops to giving food coupons (this analogy, however, is not perfect); the former is centred around shops and employees, while the latter is centred around consumers from economically weaker sections.

Rashmi Bansal

Rashmi Bansal has a great post about AICTE's efforts at regulating B-schools.

In an earlier post, she points to a report in JAM, the youth magazine she edits, about the claims made by IIPM in full page advertisements in newspapers about how great their B-school is. If you know someone who is considering that school, send him/her this link.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Voices ...

First things first: At Indian Writing, Uma talks about a happy piece of news (she has included this in a post that has some happy news in her personal life as well; bon courage, Uma!):

... a quick link to this happy news: a great piece of legislation to protect women at home. The headline says "wives, sisters and mothers", but fortunately the bill itself covers "women in marriages, in live-in relationships and those living in a shared household related by “consanguinity (blood ties) or adoption": which means that women who are sisters, widows, mothers, single women or living with the abuser, and any other category are all entitled to legal protection under the proposed legislation.

Semi-happy news about a temporary reprieve: Governor Krishna sends the ordinance to ban dance bars back to the Maharashtra government. Kalpana Sharma has commented on it in the Hindu.

Some bad news: If Brinda Karat says bad things about a welfare scheme aimed at the poor, you know it must be really, really, bad. This one is about the food for work programs:

... the shame of it is that the producti-vity levels expected on a food-for-work site are virtually impossible to achieve. To be paid a minimum wage a worker is expected to dig 100 cubic feet that works out to about 4,000 kilograms of mud, often hard rocky soil which requires much more effort and energy.

What is the result?

Invisibilise the second worker, the shadow who lifts the earth carrying 30 to 35 kilos of mud on her head, 150 times a day, sometimes climbing mounds of mud 30 feet high, to dump the load. To reach the productivity standards for a single wage set in different states, actually two workers are required. In many cases a couple works together and it is the woman who does the earth-lifting. Without her work less than half the amount specified would be dug. Yet in all the sites visited, with the exception of Manidhara village, Sadar block, West Midnapore in West Bengal, the woman worker was not paid at all.

Poornima Advani, a former chairperson of National Commission for Women has written to the Vice Chancellor of Bombay University, dispelling some misconceptions, and telling him that these misconceptions only help in shifting the blame from the criminals to the victims.

Some more bad news embedded in this Indian Express headline: Bombay Univ says mini skirt ban helps stop rape. Harini, Charu and Rashmi have blogged on this one. Rashmi gives further details about what is allowed, and what is not, and she has used a great title for her post: Da VC Code!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Academic audit

The Hindu reported today that the University of Mysore went in for a sort of academic audit, an evaluation of the University by a panel of external experts, constituted by the Vice Chancellor, J. Shashidhar Prasad. The panel members were K. Muniyappa, K.J. Rao, G.K. Karanth and C. Thangamuthu, and it was chaired by M. Anandakrishnan, former Vice Chancellor of Anna University.

Excerpts from the report:

...about 30 per cent of the 39 departments have shown performance levels comparable to 30 top-rated departments in their spheres in the country. However, an equal number suffer weakness, including poor faculty strength and competence, unclear goals, incoherent academic focus, internal contradictions and unviable student enrolment.

The committee of experts noted [questioned?] [the] enthusiasm in the university to start short-term certificate and diploma courses. This, it said, will dissipate manpower, time and energy, and questioned the need for it as university departments should be catering only to PG courses and spending resources on quality research

...30 per cent of the funds are generated internally, and the university is comfortably placed financially. But this is not sufficient if the university is to emerge as an institution of national importance.

In a ToI op-ed from a while ago (November 2003!), Jayant Narlikar urged flexibility in managing the internal affairs of what he called ARI's (Autonomous Research Institutions). He added:

The purpose of providing flexibility and autonomy is to enhance the creativity of the scientists working there. This has also objectively to be gauged. How many ARIs today have external scientific monitoring? One of the few exceptions, is the Inter- University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, which has an external scientific advisory committee visiting every 18 months. Such monitoring should help weed out deadwood and move from unproductive to productive lines.

I am not sure how one "weeds out deadwood" in our system, which has a public sector culture of never firing anyone for non-performance. However, an external audit would certainly help in exerting certain peer pressure. In any case, even if the 'deadwood' cannot be 'weeded out', such an audit provides a method of identifying and rewarding high fliers.

Such an audit can also take an unbiased -- and critical -- look at programs, like the Mysore University's audit committee seems to have done with the diploma programs.

Poverty in India

Update (actually, not really!) to this post on poverty in India. Today's ToI had an editorial that started with:

The debate on the extent of poverty in India has become too serious to be left to economists alone. There is a 40% divergence between the poverty estimates of the National Accounts Statistics (NAS) and those of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).

And, guess what? The data that this editorial is talking about were from 1999-2000! Haven't some new data (even those based on surveys and studies that are perhaps not as extensive as the massive NSSO ones) been collected? Is there anything at all that can tell us about the incidence/prevalence of poverty now?

Why don't we have timely data on such an important question/problem? Can someone who is in the know of things (like how these things are done, how often, etc) enlighten the rest of us?

Looks like justice will prevail...

Update to these two posts: Today's Hindu reported:

The Madras High Court has reserved orders on a batch of writ petitions challenging the Tamil Nadu Government's new admission policy for professional courses, but not without reiterating more than once that it would strike down the Government Order.

"This GO is clearly illegal, that is the end of the matter."

Sharing the State's concern over the hardships faced by students from rural areas, as enumerated in the June 9 GO, the First Bench, comprising Chief Justice Markandey Katju and Justice F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla, said: "We will strike down the order and say that the Government could get in touch with the Centre to amend the statutory provisions mandating common entrance test in States having more than one examining boards."

Krishna says 'No'

Update: Kalpana Sharma has commented in the Hindu.

Update to this post: Governor S. M. Krishna has dissed the Maharashtra government by sending back the ordinance banning ladies dance bars. He has, quite sensibly, suggested that the government get legislative sanction for its move to ban such bars -- particularly since the Legislature Assembly is to meet again in under three weeks.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Funnily Sandeep

After making these posts, I waited, and waited, and waited; and, Girish Karnad kept him occupied and uptight for weeks. The wait is over, at last! Sandeep is now able to have some real fun. Thanks to him, we get this link, which is a part of an absolutely wonderful collection of old internet -- probably newsgroup -- humour.

In the same collection, I found this one called Real Science, which is a collection of things that school and college students apparently wrote in term papers. Here is a sample:

"The body consists of three parts- the brainium, the borax and the abominable cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowls, of which there are five - a, e, i, o, and u."

If you like somewhat raunchier stuff, there is plenty of it in that collection, including this.

While we are talking about humour and jokes, I might as well point you to the first one in this samurai sword humour collection.

Someone comes to town, someone leaves town

If you are into science fiction, this should interest you.

[Via Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber] : Cory Doctorow, 'coeditor' of the extremely popular weblog Boing Boing, has put up his recent sci-fi book 'Someone comes to town, someone leaves town' on its website for free download, licensed under terms set out by Creative Commons.

Have fun!

When should kids start learning English?

The Hindu reported two days ago:

English must be taught from first standard, and parents of children going to government schools in the urban areas do not agree with the Kannada Sahitya Parishat's view that it should be taught only from third standard, the Federation of Educationists and Social Organisations has said.

Starting English from the first standard is a very sensible thing to do. The report cites some research findings:

Quoting Noam Chomsky, Nataraj Huliyar of Gramarajya Vedike said children at the age of five are capable of learning three to four languages. Studies by Romain, Dryden and Genet Vos have recently proved that children exposed to more languages show better ability in learning various subjects. "With this advantage, students in private schools who start learning English at three are proficient by the time they reach fourth standard. Whereas government school children learn English only when they are in fifth standard, and they lose out on seven years, Mr. Nataraj said.

I too have read about these findings in one of those 'how to raise children' type books we received as a gift when our son was born. It clearly said children can learn several languages without any problem, as long as the persons speaking to the child consistently stick to their respective languages.

Some recent language-related posts

Neelakantan asks if the world will start speaking just one single language.

Ramanand talks about the kind of reactions he gets when he expresses a desire to learn Sanskrit and Urdu.

Finally, Sunil has a sensitive post about the plight of students who enter engineering colleges (where the medium of instruction is English) after having studied in their own languages -- in this case, Tamil -- until their higher secondary stage.

Finally, here is another post by Neelakantan.

We have seen it with our child, as well as with the children in our neighbourhood (we live inside the IISc campus, and our environment is quite cosmopolitan): the language spoken at home, the common language among the children (English) and the language of the baby sitter (usually, Kannada, but sometimes, Hindi or Tamil) are often not the same, and by the age of three or four, children pick up these three languages effortlessly. [It still leaves the rather open question of whether they are able to build on their facility with languages to read and write and become proficient in them. This question is usually resolved by the parents in favour of just those languages that their children 'need'].

Moreover, children who are transplanted in another society (like when a faculty member and his/her family spend a sabbatical year in, say, Germany) at a young age -- say, between three and seven -- have no difficulty at all in picking up that new language. Again, I have seen it with our colleagues' children who have gone through this experience.

So, all this presupposes that the language teacher is good. This is where I believe there is serious difficulty, particularly when it comes to government schools. Teaching English through the local language (like my own teachers did in my Tamil medium schools in Chennai) just will not do. Therefore, IMHO, the people who made these sensible demands to the Karnataka government should also demand that good language teachers are recruited.

When politicians oppose early exposure to other languages -- and English, in particular -- we attribute it to chauvinism, and say 'well, you can't expect them to know/say/do any better'. Now, what is it about the intellectual/artist types in our Sahitya Akademies and Parishats (not just in Karnataka, but elsewhere, too) that makes them do the same thing, which then allows the politicians to claim a certain intellectual legitimacy to their chauvinistic stand?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Professional mix-ups

One of the interesting mix-ups involving us metallurgy types appeared in the magazine New Scientist over 10 years ago. When someone is introduced as a metallurgist, the other person responds with, "so, what is the weather going to be like tomorrow?" Of course, such a conversation (and the resulting mix up) is impossible now, because all of us metallurgist types have switched to calling ourselves materials scientists ...

On a related note, do take a look at the experience of Alex Tabarrok, whose provocative post on creationism we discussed recently (link via Reuben of ZooStation)

Apparently, anthropologists get a richer variety of responses. When they tell someone they study, um, anthropology, they receive such gems as:

"I have a friend/relative who studies insects."

"Like Indiana Jones? Do you have one of those hats?"

"I think shamanism is so fascinating, don't you?"

"ah... dinosaur bones. Fascinating."

Do the members of ACS know?

Folks at Slashdot have been discussing this:

... the American Chemical Society has launched a new effort against perceived competitors. They are attempting to limit the government's ability to freely publish the results of scientific work paid for by tax dollars. The British journal Nature and the Univeristy of California reports on efforts by the ACS in attempting to shutdown a free database, PubChem, of molecular structures because it competes head to head with the fee-for-service Chemical Abstract Service. Their rationale is that the government should not spend taxpayer dollars on something private business is already doing. Luckily the government has not backed down.

The discussion is an incendiary mix (you wouldn't expect anything else when the topic is chemistry, would you?) of science, government, politics, non-profit vs. for-profit, libertarianism, ..., the works!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mela of Melas

Harini is hosting this week's Bharateeya Blog Mela. Next week's mela will be hosted by Shanti. Send your nominations there!

Suresh Venkatasubramanian of Geomblog hosts the latest -- 30th -- edition of Tangled Bank, a mela of science related posts. Interestingly, Suresh has decided to include a few more posts on physical and mathematical sciences than usual. And, guess what? Dilip D'Souza's recent post on Goedel's theorom has made it to the list. Among the usual fare that one normally expects in Tangled Bank, this one makes its case (about how insidious this intelligent design business can be) quite persuasively. The World of BotanicalGirl has advice on how to survive graduate school. Well, for the other goodies, go over there, and get them yourself.

Finally, in the mela called the Carnival of the Capitalists, Neelakantan's post on "whether the world will end up speaking a single language" has been featured.

The Art of Science

The Dynamist, aka Virginia Postrel, says:

... Princeton recently held a contest called The Art of Science, inviting students, faculty, and staff "to submit imagery produced in the course of research or incorporating tools and concepts from science." The 55 entries selected for the exibition are now online, and they're impressively diverse and beautiful.

god and Evolution

A few days ago, Yazad had a post about preposterous arguments such as "It's God that does the curing, doctors are just His tools"; and, there were interesting comments trying to grapple with definitions of god, atheism, agnosticism, etc.

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has started an even more interesting debate about the currently raging (in the US, not here!) conflict between evolution and creationism (as I said earlier, this is something that we have not had to worry about in India). His main point is that for someone who starts with the existence of god as a premise, creationism is a perfectly rational conclusion. He makes another point, that follows from the previous one: theism and creationism coexist happily, just as atheism and evolution do; it is only the muddled middle -- modern theists who also believe in science, evolution, etc. who have trouble reconciling their conflicting beliefs.

Tabarrok has started a lively thread, and he is getting a lot of very interesting feedback through comments (this is one of those rare posts at MR that has comments switched on; Tabarrok has explicitly asked his commenters to be civil!). Several bloggers have also commented on his post; I will cite -- again, approvingly! -- the post by my favourite debunker of creationism cranks, P.Z. Myers. A point he makes is about the difference in the quality of two types 'knowing' (which is central to Tabarrok's argument): 'knowing' god through a subjective revelation, and the 'knowing' that is embedded in the theory of evolution, which is built upon objective evidence after objective evidence, and which now forms a part of our knowledge system (aka science). Along the way, he points out that atheism and evolution, while happy to coexist, have really nothing to do with each other.

Several commenters at MR have pointed out that a scientific explanation makes so much more sense (and is worth striving for) than the kind of explanations based on 'god must have willed it so' or 'it's all a mystery that man is not meant to understand'.

Go to Tabarrok's post. It's great fun.

Is the bunny going to stop now?

The Ambani brothers have called a halt to the bunny show, leading to musings by bloggers on relationship between siblings. And, newspaper editorials have welcomed the truce. Everybody wants us to forget the last seven months of acrimony as if it was just a bad dream.

Anil Ambani has written this 'Speaking Tree' column in yesterday's ToI. Read it; for a column on 'spiritual' matters, it is so filled with such thinly veiled jibes and assaults on you know who, it is quite hilarious.

So, things seem to be winding down; except, of course, for people like Thakurta; I am completely with them on this issue: the government and its arms (such as SEBI) must continue to investigate all -- really, all -- specific allegations of wrongdoing in Reliance and its associate companies; after all, these allegations have come from such an extremely credible source, that there must be some truth to at least some of them.

It makes one wonder why the Finance Minister has said "after this settlement, I don't think there is any need for an inquiry". Yesterday, the left parties demanded that the government should continue its investigation. They have also pointed out that the person who made these allegations have not retracted them (Sigh! I am unable to get the link from the Economic Times website).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Gurcharan Das is in a sad mood

This is quite rare: Gurcharan Das says "It is with anguish that I sit down to write this column". Reason? The state of higher education in our country, and how it is (mis)managed by UGC and AICTE. I don't need to comment on it, because I actually agree with almost everything he says.

Update (21 June 2005): Via Shivam Vij, who has also commented on Das's column in ToI, we get this fabulous quote from an Indian Express story (with emphasis added by me):

[Minister of State for Overseas Indian Affairs Jagdish Tytler] said the government was contemplating setting up universities exclusively for PIO, keeping in mind their need for quality higher education.

This gives 'surreal' a bad name, doesn't it?

Entrance exams

Badri has also commented on Vasan's op-ed.

S.S. Vasan, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, has a nice op-ed in today's Hindu, on the Joint Entrance Examination conducted by the IITs, and some ways of 'reforming' it. He makes an important point: there are about 15,000 students selected by JEE's screening test, the first of JEE's two hurdles; but, only about 4,000 or so emerge with a rank after crossing the second hurdle. What happens to the remaining 11,000 students?

Unfortunately, the plight of many thousands of these students year after year does not receive much attention from the Indian media, which is overly interested in reporting the success stories.

These students, who get through the first -- but not the second -- hurdle, are at the mercy of AIEEE, or one or more of the state level CETs. Instead of treating these meritorious students shabbily by making them start afresh in these other exams, why not treat them well?

Vasan examines two possibilities: some sort of convergence over several years (with an eventual merger) of AIEEE and the JEE screening test. The second possibility is to keep them separate, but provide a rank to all who pass the JEE screening test so that it can be utilized for admission into the NITs.

My own preference would be to go for a radical solution, wherein there is one national level exam, whose sole purpose is standardization across the many higher secondary boards that our country has. In such an exam, everyone who writes it would get an all-India rank (or a percentile score) and/or an absolute score. However, I also see that this radical solution is impractical. There is a certain aura and momentum that the JEE has, and it would be hard to make the IITs give up their hold on it, or reform it into a national level exam of the kind I visualize. Vasan makes an essentially similar point -- that JEE will probably stay -- using different arguments.

While we are talking about JEE, this year's results were announced late last week. Take a look at this post by GreatBong about what a police officer and a teacher have been able to achieve in Patna. ToI also has a story.

See this post for an interesting twist (link via Amit).

Since I have to concede that the national level exam (in engineering, we do have one: AIEEE) has to co-exist with JEE, I find both options given by Vasan quite sensible. I am glad to see that we now have one more voice contributing to the pool of ideas on how our country's higher education system is taken forward.

Also in to-day's Hindu, there is a report on a speech by N. Ram, its editor-in-chief. In his speech, he has

suggested a ``reliable and fair'' countrywide common aptitude and proficiency test for admissions to the professional courses and termed it an ``educational and social priority.''

In other words, he seems to be asking for tests of aptitude similar to SAT (for UG admissions) and GRE (for PG admissions), together with 'proficiency' tests (probably in individual subjects). Hopefully, UGC, AICTE, Medical Council and other bodies entrusted with running our higher education system are listening.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

India's Legendary Wootz Steel

You can download the pre-publication version of the book from Prof. Ranganathan's website. The only catch is that the text and figures are in separate files; thus, their combination does not have the same look and feel of the book itself, which is beautifully produced, with text and figures intermingled. I have asked him to see if the final version itself can be made available online; as and when it happens, I will post an update, with links.

Let us start with a quote:

The school or college going student today may not be aware that India's contributions and prowess in the making of iron and steel were amongst the most remarkable in the ancient world. Of course, many of them may have had the occasion on school tours to visit the imposing Qutb Minar Complex in New Delhi and to admire the splendid Gupta era Iron Pillar (ca 400 - 420 AD). ...

There is another truly remarkable story that is not so well known. This is the chronicle of the legendary wootz steel from India, which has long been a subject of much fascination around the globe, with many legends and accounts surrounding it...

Thus begins the first chapter of the popular science book India's Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World by Dr. Sharada Srinivasan and Prof. Srinivasa Ranganathan. The former is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, which is inside the IISc campus, and Prof. Ranganathan is my senior colleague and a good friend. This book is a result of their collaborative work for well over a decade in the interdisciplinary area of archaeometallurgy. The story of wootz steel that their work has uncovered is truly fascinating.

First, a few words about wootz: it is the anglicization of 'ukku', the Kannada word for steel. Artisans and craftsmen from parts of south India had the technology to make wootz steel, a 'high-grade' steel that "was highly prized and much sought after across several regions of the world over nearly two millennia". India, apparently, was a leading exporter of this steel for ages. This steel is "synonymous with Damascus steel since it was used to make the fabled Damascus swords", so it also played a technological role in re-drawing the maps of nations and empires over many centuries. We only have incomplete knowledge of how Indian artisans came to develop and perfect the technology of making this high-quality steel.

A story about such a legendary steel and the lethal weapons made from it is always interesting; and, Dr. Srinivasan and Prof. Ranganathan have chosen to tell this story at a popular level "oriented towards a wider readership inclusive of school and college students".

"There is a plethora of historical accounts from around the world, which conjure up picturesque and fanciful images of the fame that Indian iron and steel seems to have enjoyed. When many consider that a scientific temper has not yet been deeply inculcated in modern India, where many people's lives are still guided by superstition, it comes as a pleasant surprise to note the high esteem in which some of the skills of Indian metallurgists and metal workers were held. It bears testimony of the existence of technological acumen and a sense of experimentation in Indian antiquity."

What you get from this book is not a straight and simple narrative about wootz; instead, you get a large and complex picture painted on a broad canvas. It has many sub-pictures, if you will, covering individual aspects of wootz -- its origins in south India, myths, legends, historical and literary accounts about this steel, and how the Damascus sword -- a great killing machine in its era -- was made from steel 'outsourced' from India. The book also covers developments in making and use of iron and steel in other parts of the world, placing Indian artisans' technological expertise in this field in a wider perspective.

The book doesn't stop with recounting stories from antiquity about wootz. Its later chapters deal with scientific studies done on this steel from the 16th century onwards. For example, did you know that Michael Faraday "... enthusiastically studied wootz between 1819 and 1822" before his interest "moved on to the problem of electromagnetism"? Wootz continues to fascinate modern metallurgists and materials scientists, who have been using the some of the most sophisticated techniques and equipment, such as electron microscopes, to figure out what made this material tick. In these chapters, you will find a brief account of such 20th century materials science concepts as superplasticity, dendritic solidification, laminated composites, nanotechnology, and more!

Along the way, you will find many interesting characters who took interest in this material: early (9th to 15th century) scholars and visitors from the Middle East, 18th and 19th century scientists such as Michael Faraday, mid-20th century scientists such as Cyril Stanley Smith, and finally, late 20th and early 21st century scientists such as John Verhoeven. You will also encounter great historical figures, including Alexander and Porus, Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, and Tipu Sultan.

The blurb says, "it appears fair to claim that wootz steel as an advanced materials dominated several landscapes: the geographic landscape spanning the continents of Asia and Europe; the historic landscape stretching over two millennia as maps of nations were redrawn; the literary landscape as celebrated in myths and legends, poetry and drama, movies and plays; and, not least of all, knitting together the religious landscape through trade and other interactions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity". The book backs up this claim with lots and lots of evidence.

The book has been commissioned and produced by Tata Steel to commemorate the twin centenaries of J.N. Tata and J.R.D. Tata in 2004 (the birth of the latter, and the death of the former). It is published by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

For a richly illustrated -- with 65 figures -- book of less than 150 pages, such a vast scope is both its strength and weakness. It is a weakness because the vast amount of information makes one feel a little overwhelmed, and sometimes, the narrative tends to jump from one topic to another. On the other hand, it is a strength because, after a first reading, you can go back (alas, the book lacks an index) to the interesting parts to just 'snack' on them. And, there certainly is plenty to snack on: myths, legends, literature, history geography, early and modern science, and literary and scientific personalities. Oh, yes, the book also has interesting nuggets on empires, kings, and great wars!

All in all, a lively and interesting book -- and an important contribution -- on a fascinating material. Do check it out!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

When Kari met PC - Part 3

The concluding part of the saga of how an entrepreneur succumbs to political correctness -- and yet, loses.

Here are the first and second parts.

Things moved along nicely, and Kari managed to get Rambha and Premananda on board the IndiJoIndi blogging team. The latter came with a bonus: a long beard.

Kari thought he had nailed the problem of political correctness; his satisfaction, however, was to last less than 24 hours. On their first day at work, Rambha wore a Kiran Bedi look, while Premananda looked like Kevin Kostner in The Untouchables. It turns out that both of them blew up half their signing bonus to get a fancy hair cut. Kari's heart sank. Time was running out on him, and fast.

He called his assistant to identify a few more potential IndiJoIndi bloggers to interview.


The first interview was with a blogger called CM, who had a loyal readership in the thousands, and whose hair would make for a very happy Peppy. More importantly, his youth was on his side -- Mallika Sherawat had not stolen it, yet; so, his hair can grow!

"So, CM, let us just step back a bit, and check where we are. Here is my summary: Your background is great, your strengths complement ours, and you will get a great launching pad from IndiJoIndi. I think the fit is just perfect. What do you say?"

"What can I say, Kari? I am, like, totally in awe, here," CM punched the air, "Wow!"

"There is just one more thing before we sign the contract."

"What is it, Kari?"

"Oh, it is just a little statement that you sign here. It says you will not cut your hair while you are with us."

"You must be kidding."

"No, I am not. I hate doing this as much as you do. Trust me, I am doing this against my own instincts."

"Which are ...?"

"That people with long hair are inferior".

"Are you nuts? Has anyone called you a hairist, Kari?"

"Don't go all Peppy on me, CM. I am already being harassed by him and his cronies. It is nothing against you. It is just that we at the SuperSleuth Club have this hypothesis".

"Any evidence for this, er, hypothesis of yours, Kari?"

"Why, we have Rambha and Premananda, don't we? Why else would they go and have a haircut? That too, at my expense?"

"This is ridiculous. Do you know the kind of discrimination we face and endure because of hairist bigotry? Here we are, doing our own thing.... And, things get ruined because of idiots like you ... "

"Hey, don't insult me. Just for your information, CM, this discrimination or societal influence or nurture -- none of these has nothing to do with who you are. It is all in the genes, you know."

"What? Say that again."

"I mean, this nurture thingy is overblown. Many people thought it was responsible for why some people turned into psychopaths and serial killers. You know what? Genes are responsible. Genes, CM, GENES! The same genes that also create other inferior people. With long-hair!"

"You know what, Kari? I always thought of you as some dim-witted, overambitious anchovy; now I know that you are all that, and a hairist hignoramus."

"Hey, you are insulting me, again."

"You call that an insult? Here is a real one: 'you, denigrator of hairy - I mean, hoary -- traditions!' Can you take that, Kari? You want one more? How about: you ....""

At which point, their alpha male verbal duel gave way to one with their arms and fists. A few 'biff's and a few 'bang's later, the security people arrived.


Kari was taken to a hospital with black eyes and a broken nose. The doctors announced, grimly, that he would require plastic surgery to fix his nose.


CM's blog had a lone entry the next day. It read:

There are two kinds of entrepreneurs in blogging: those who have a nose for it, and those who lose their nose for it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

In praise of dropping out of school

Here is the text of Steve Jobs' commencement speech to Stanford's class of 2005.

Here is a link to Stanford University's news story.

[Via SlashDot]: Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Computers, gave a commencement address to Stanford graduates. And, what did he say? Wired reports:

Steve Jobs told Stanford University graduates Sunday that dropping out of college was one of the best decisions he ever made because it forced him to be innovative -- even when it came to finding enough money for dinner.

n an unusually candid commencement speech, Apple Computer's CEO also told the almost 5,000 graduates that his bout with a rare form of pancreatic cancer reemphasized the need to live each day to the fullest.

"Your time is limited so don't let it be wasted living someone else's life," Jobs said...

More victims

Following up on the previous post: there is a second group of students who are affected in a cruel way by another move by the Tamil Nadu government: scrapping the concept of 'improvement exams'.

In previous years, many students, who were not satisfied with the seats (college-branch combination) they got in their admissions cycle, decided to wait for a year, take the higher secondary exam and the entrance exam again a year later, and get back into the admissions process. No figures are available for the number of such students; but my guess is that it would run into several thousands. Clearly, it is a risk these students were taking; but it is also a calculated risk -- based on the students' faith in their own ability to get better marks the next time around.

One can quibble with the fairness of it all; I am also sure that sensible arguments can be made both for, and against, this system.

But what cannot be denied is that the system, as it existed before June 7 of this year (and barely a month before the counselling sessions were to start) allowed the students to take the improvement exam, and many made use of it. Now, these students end up on the losing side twice over, because of a thoughtless -- and ultimately, cruel -- move by their own government: their improvement exam results don't count, and they have lost a year.

The right thing for the government to do is to allow these students into the admissions process this year, and scrap the improvement exams from next year.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Entrance exams in Tamil Nadu

After conducting the common entrance tests (CET) in April, and announcing their results in May, comes this announcement last week that this year's admissions to professional colleges in Tamil Nadu will not consider the CET marks at all. Admissions will now be based only on the marks in the higher secondary exams. The ostensible reason is that the CET favoured rich kids from urban areas who had access to coaching classes. The real reasons, mentioned explicitly by several Tamil magazines, is that this move has been demanded by the opposition parties; since the elections are less than a year away, the CM didn't want to give them yet another stick to beat her with. If you go by the sentiments expressed in Tamil magazines, scrapping of CET seems to be a very popular move indeed. Except, of course, for a tiny minorty -- whose numbers, however, are probably in tens of thousands -- that stands to lose (who might they be? see below); they have, predictably, gone to court.

The Hindu ran several articles in the last one week, and all of them were critical of this move to scrap the CET. The Times of India ran a debate between Balaguruswamy, the Vice Chancellor of Anna University (vested with the responsibility of allotting the college-branch combinations to students), and Lalita Panicker.

I am not sure if this move actually helps those rural and poor students; after all, if coaching centres cannot offer their services for the CET, they will start offering them for the regular higher secondary exams; and presumably, those urban, rich students who can afford to be coached will continue to enjoy the same advantage that they currently enjoy.

But, I have no doubt at all about whom it really hurts: students studying in CBSE and ISC streams, where it is more difficult to score high marks. The CET (which had roughly half the weight in the old scheme of things, with higher secondary marks having the remaining half) gave them some chance. Now, that has been taken away.

Given that we have in our country so many different education boards, there has always been a strong need for a common exam (of the standardizing sort). In engineering, the Joint Entrance Exam, conducted by the IITs, performed this role for a long time at the national level; however, the IITs never bothered to make it like SAT wherein everyone gets a score. Now, AIEEE -- the All India Engineering Entrance Exam -- is performing this role at the national level, and it seems to be doing its job well. The CET essentially performed this standardizing role at the state level; now, it has been scrapped in one state, due to political compulsions.

In any event, the Tamil Nadu government must be held to account for the way it has gone about scrapping the CET. It is absolutely wrong to change the rules of the game during the last two minutes of extra time! At this juncture, however, it is not clear what the courts can do -- given that the move to scrap the CET probably has legislative approval.

Can the courts intervene in a meaningful way? By this, I mean going beyond roasting the government lawyer alive by asking him/her uncomfortable questions, and actually restoring the CET's legality. On the other hand, can the Centre intervene, by mandating a standardizing exam (preferably at the national level) in each subject at the higher secondary level? I am legally challenged (evidently!); any inputs from the readers would be welcome!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Business of education

Today's Economic Times has a whole bunch of articles and reports about education. Here are a few worth checking out:

R. Satyanarayanan presents Six reasons why India will be an education super power.

The school of moneymaking is everyone’s favourite. This article is really about the business of education in medicine and engineering; it actually talks about demand and supply, cost of setting up a college, and the expected rate of return! I am sure it will be of some use to us in our ongoing discussion about real universities. Here are three related stories.

Arnav Pandya has an article about educational loans.

Urmi Goswami talks about out-dated syllabi used in many of our universities, and about how the government comes in the way of institutions' efforts to raise financial resources from their alumni and other donors.

There are also articles about university towns and gender issues.

Finally, check out this profile of Ramesh Venkateswaran, and IIT-IIM product who chose to become a school teacher.

Update (13 June 2005) : Vishnu has already commented about too many links; however, there were a few more that I missed.

Clearly, there is a wealth of information in these articles and reports, and I do realize all this is a bit of an overload. The reason I have put these links together in this post is to have quick access to them later. Indiatimes website sucks!

So, here are the ones that I missed yesterday:

Pothik Ghosh covers many things, including CSIR University, state of research and funding of research in this article.

Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty, Chairman of Narayana Hrudayalaya in Bangalore, has an article about the resurgence of specialty medicine and surgery in India. He recounts some of the unique capabilities that are being built, which will make India a strong force in this area.

Ishani Duttagupta has a report about how IITs are sprucing up their R&D efforts. Arun Iyer has a report about IISc's various initiatives to stay ahead, including its efforts in the area of industry-academia initiatives.

Finally, we have Arun Nigavekar, Chairman of UGC, giving his views on the state of Indian higher ed.

Ah, I found one...

After making this post, I was wondering if I will ever get a chance to link -- approvingly, I might add -- to a post by Secular Right (not that they cared!). I found this post. Though it is triggered by the acquittal of all the eight accused in the Ghatkopar bus blasts case, the post also discusses several other instances of police brutality and intimidation. Here is a quote:

[...] investigation is not the same thing as intimidation. To charge a man with very serious crimes, allow him to be roughed up by pathetic criminals in prison, then let him go because the evidence is flimsy at best, is more intimidation than valid fact finding. Why is our police wasting time intimidating people instead of building solid cases that will hold up in court?

Blogger taxonomy

Thennavan has an interesting classification of bloggers. There are so many categories that I seem to belong to: bloglog, blogclog, and surprisingly, blogfog -- even at a meager rate of less than two not-so-substantial posts a day. Oh, well ...

When Kari met PC - Part 2

A tale Follow the saga of one entrepreneur's tryst with personal battle against political correctness.

The first part is here, and the third and concluding part is here.

The link to the post on therapeutic touch was through the 10th Skeptics' Circle, a mela-type post over at Skeptico.

The [PC]2 (Politically Correct, Pretty Cool) Funds are run by a team whose members first met in the early 1990s at a Woodstock Festival of Plays for the Children of Flower Children, that their war-hating, love-loving parents took them to. They finished their schooling during the early Clinton years under a John Dewey inspired curriculum, met up again at Harvard, dropped out, grew pony tails, and formed an internet company that sold 'love potions'. The buyers of their potions were told to enjoy them while watching a Keanu - Angelina video called Passion Preloaded. Their venture was an instant hit, a rarity in the dot com era, and it was successfully acquired for a billion Dollars. With so much money in their pockets, they set up the [PC]2 Funds, with Carl "Peppy" Smith, the one with the longest pony tail, as their chief.

Many observers feel that [PC]2 Funds's street cred is fully deserved; Peppy and his partners have nurtured so many companies into Wall Street's darlings. Consider s2 Personal Care that sold, among other things, bath soaps renowned for their shy softness (or, was it soft shyness?); or, t2 Services, a provider of training in Therapeutic Touch techniques to practicing nurses; or, i2 Books that filled a great void in the market for beginners' guides for the intellectually inclined.

When the venture market in the US became too crowded and brutal, it was inevitable that [PC]2 Funds would turn to emerging markets. They did, and their first non-US client was Kari Kalan, who was trying to raise money for his group blog venture.


The meeting took place in an ashram in Pune. Kari found the ashram and its environment, with all those devotees with long, flowing hair, creepy. He felt almost like Advani did when he (er, Advani) entered the VHP headquarters after his recent Karachi visit. Kari's discussions, however, went reasonably well, until Peppy dropped a bombshell, saying "everything sounds good, but don't you think you have got to bring some balance into your blogs?".

Kari was perplexed. "What do you mean?"

"Look! All said and done, about half the people in this world have longer hair than the rest. Your bloggers' median hair length is less than 25 percent of the median for the entire population. We suggest that you hire a few from the other side of the spectrum. Remember, we take the first 'PC' in our name quite seriously."

Kari's management training had prepared him for handling situations like this one. He said, "You know, we are already working on this problem. We have got a few interviews lined up later this week with some really hot bloggers with cool names: Rambha, Tilottama, Hariharan, Premananda ... But, I don't know how to put it ... As I see it, our success will most likely ride on the people we have already hired".

Peppy was rolling a flock of hair in his fingers when he asked, "Do you think your new recruits may not be cut out for greatness?"

"Do I think that? Absolutely! Considering their innate differences with, er, normal people, and considering the time they spend on grooming their hair, I don't see how they are going to take us forward!"

"You don't mean long-haired people are not as smart as the others, do you?"

"Hey, don't get all sensitive here, Peppy. It is just a hypothesis."

At this point the talks broke down. Kari was told in no uncertain terms that either his team got more, um, politically correct, or else. Kari was very upset; he tapped into the very core of his self, and it responded with 'Remember the first lesson, Kari: listen to the guy with the money'. So he did.

They set up another meeting the following week to assess IndiJoIndi's progress.

(to be continued ...)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

When Kari met PC - Part 1

A tale of one entrepreneur's tryst with political correctness.

Here are the second and third parts.

Many days later, facing a plastic surgeon by his hospital bed, Kari Kalan was to remember the evening when it all started.


He had just finished playing with Andy, his four-year old son; he even let Andy's GI Joe skate down his short and silky soft hair, that stuck out straight like the grass in his freshly mowed lawn. He then told him a couple of stories from Tales from Social Darwinism, a favorite from Kari's own childhood days. After Andy went to sleep, he returned to the living room to cuddle up with yet another childhood favorite, the SuperSleuth comics. In the background, CNBC News was on, where a guest was talking about this new, new thing called blogging...

Kari's brilliance in engineering and MBA courses marked him out early as a star. His firm faith in Red Lysenko's theories of pest control put him on a fast track to the very top of the HR heap in a frontline infotech company. His ambitious nature, however, made him hunger for more, as he felt an indescribable void that only winners, apparently, can feel; a void that a steady diet of SuperSleuth comics -- and gin and tonic -- could not fill. It was during this perceived crisis that the CNBC guest's talk about the business potential of blogging caught Kari's eyes, and it fired up his imagination. He could feel that all-too-familiar itch in his pants, and a dream was born.

As with any entrepreneurial venture, this one, too, was a roller-coaster ride. First Kari discovered that ad revenues in blogs could be truly astronomical. But, some of the rules of blogging -- such as taking others' opinion seriously and speaking straight from the heart -- seemed forbidding. Then someone suggested a group blog, which sounded promising, until he discovered that many of them -- such as Crooked Timber and ZooStation -- were run by academics, a community he hated. The final piece of the puzzle that put him firmly on the entrepreneurial journey fell into place when he discovered TPM Cafe and Huffington Post. The idea appealed to him, and he decided to start a group blog with popular bloggers and MSM columnists. Thus was born IndiJoIndi Blog, the Indiana Jones of Indian blogs.

Kari's facility with 180 degree feedback and his bloggers' flexibility allowed them to target relentlessly that one sweet spot craved by their readers. His bloggers wrote about infotech, but not coir mats (except as accessories to making love). Free markets were in, free electricity for farmers was out. Gurcharan Das was in, P. Sainath was out. Laptops for kids were in, girl's toilets in public schools were out. Bipasha Basu was in, Nandita Das was out (except when she went to Cannes as a jury member). Bunty was in, Babli was out (or was it the other way round?). As Kari put it, "there are two kinds of bloggers; those who make money, and those who just blog. Why would we want to be the latter?".

The advertisers loved Kari's rhetoric, and money started flowing in. The early recruits, particularly those who wrote for MSM, were very excited, and were willing to settle for a share of the advertising revenue. Those from the blogging world, who knew better, played hardball; they wanted a contract with a regular revenue stream -- aka a monthly salary. This forced Kari to go for venture funding. It was a fateful decision that would inevitably put him on a collision course with [PC]2 Funds, the biggest -- and the baddest -- of them all.

(to be continued ...)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Tyler Cowen on economic education

Tyler Cowen has some interesting ideas (including some for students from third world countries) on reforming graduate economic education. Read them!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Avenue Road of academia

I have always wondered about how Bangalore got a street named 'Avenue Road'. A similar thing in academia would be an 'Institute University'. Bhopal apparently has National Law Institute University, which is ranked at No. 4 in India Today's rankings of law colleges. Bangalore has another one which comes close: National Law School of India University. Don't these names sound odd?

Tom Friedman on Bangalore

Update: Sorry, there is nothing here in this box! I am just testing if I can get a sidebar within a post!.

From Tom Friedman's NYTimes column, Bangalore: Bot and Hotter (catch it before it goes behind the paywall):

... The infrastructure here is still a total mess. But looks can be deceiving. Beneath the mess, Bangalore is entering a mature new phase as a technology center by starting to produce its own high-tech products, research, venture capital firms and start-ups.


Even more interesting is how Indian firms are taking the skills they learned from outsourcing and using them to develop low-cost products for the low-wage Indian market: a medical insurance plan for the poor for as little as $10 a year, a $2,000 car, a $200 laptop, supercheap cellphones, a low-fare airline ($75 one-way for the three-hour Bangalore-Delhi flight) that sells tickets from Internet kiosks in gas stations. Indian companies know that if they can make money producing low-cost technology for poor Indians, it gives them an incredible platform to then take these products global. (Imagine the profit potential if they work in the West?) China is doing the exact same thing.

Ghosh, Singh, D'Souza and Visweswaran

Radio Open Source interviewed Amitav Ghosh, with Amardeep Singh, Dilip D'Souza and Kamala Visweswaran as guests. Amardeep and Dilip have fascinating -- and thankfully, extended -- blog entries on what they said, and on what they wished they had said.


In response to the question "What is the message from India," I said that there is no one message. India is way too complicated for that to even be a very productive question. It depends where you look, how you look, and who you talk to. I wish I would have had time to say a bit more...
... I think it's a mistake to only dwell on the negative. (The tenor of last night's conversation drifted in that direction.) I tried to offer some slightly more upbeat comments... here's what I should have said:

There is a new confidence, a new passion for entrepreneurialism in many different fields. Obviously the best known of these is the high tech industry -– computers, software, the internet. But you also see it happening in fields such as medicine, biotechnology, even space exploration. And of course you see it in literature, with a new crop of writers that is doing pretty amazing work writing in India itself.


Ghosh made one point that I felt I had to respond to. In speaking of rural India, he said he was sorry that there was really only one Indian journalist who writes about that India: P Sainath. Yes, there is Sainath. But there are others as well, some of us inspired by Sainath which is itself a tribute to him. I should have mentioned, but I foolishly did not, such intrepid journalists as Dionne Bunsha, Annie Zaidi, Lyla Bavadam, Meena Menon, Rupa Chinai ... hmm, isn't it odd that these first five names off the top of my head are all women, and they are all with the Hindu family of publications?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On the education front ...

India Today, in its latest issue, published the results of its annual survey of 'best colleges' for undergraduate educaction in arts, science, commerce, engineering, medicine, law and management (sorry, no links, because of IT's paywall). For each subject, they have the all-India top 10 list, and a city-wise top 5 list for Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. Management, of course, gets a special treatment, with a much longer list.

I have always wondered about how reliable these rankings are. Now I know. Rashmi Bansal thinks that India Today's rankings for Mumbai are just plain junk.

Patrix has a post on plagiarism in thesis writing, and talks about how our University Grants Commission plans to curb this pernicious practice.

Manual scavenging

Read this moving and powerful post by Sunil, who was prompted to post it by this Frontline report on "the Supreme Court's intervention ... [on] ... enforcement of the Act designed to eradicate manual scavenging and rehabilitation of people doing the work".

Rajesh Jain on IndiaWorld days

Update : Here are the links to the series:
1. IndiaWorld's early days,
2. Memories and experiences,
3. India and China,
4. The future.

Rajesh Jain reminisces about his IndiaWorld days. Today's post is only the first instalment of a series of posts.

IndiaWorld started after multiple business failures. At that time, I was hoping to build a business which worked and made some profits – I was tired of two years of losing money every month. I had no idea whether it would work – just a belief that the Internet was going to be big, and building an India-centric portal seemed like a good way to leverage my own knowledge of what Indians abroad wanted and get us started into the Net game.

Ashok Banker

Via Suhail : Ashok Banker has a weblog called Indian English Spoken Here. His 'about me' section reads: "author of the Ramayana series, a contemporary English-language retelling based on the ancient Indian Sanskrit poem, the 'quintessential Bombay novel' Vertigo, and several other books".

Check out his latest post, in which he pans reviews Daniel Lak's Mantras of Change: Reporting India in a Time of Flux.

In an earlier post (which apparently appeared as a column in Rediff even earlier), he lavishes praise on some Indian women writers -- in particular, Shashi Deshpande, Anjana Appachana, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, Sunetra Gupta -- who do not get much recognition from the media. Along the way, he ends up trashing a few writers -- men and women -- he doesn't like. No, I am not going to name them here!

BTW, to those of you who live in Mumbai: Ashok invites you all to the book launch, organized by Penguin Books, to launch Armies of Hanuman: Book 4 of The Ramayana on June 16, 2005, at Crossword, Kemp's Corner, Mumbai. Perhaps some of you will blog about it!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Women's voices

Different voices, one struggle.

Laxmi Murthy in the Times of India; Manufacturing Consent: Rape verdicts reflect social prejudice:

"What is it about rape that the judiciary cannot restrict itself to delivering verdicts about the guilt of the accused, but makes observations on the complainant's behaviour, her moral character and her marriage prospects? Three recent judgments are indicative of this disturbing trend; they reflect and legitimise a social prejudice against rape survivors".

Niranjana Harikumar in the Hindu; Yet another impotent rant:

"How innocuous sounding a word rape is when compared to its damning connotations! Beyond all the brutality and the physical violation of rape, it is the attitude toward the victim that confounds me".

C.S. Lakshmi in the Hindu; Planning public spaces:

"...This myth of the domestic space being safe for a woman has been broken so many times when cases of domestic violence and dowry deaths have been brought to public notice. And yet, cities and public spaces are planned in a way that does not take into account women occupying these public spaces as a matter of their right as citizens. When PUKAR, an organisation in Mumbai, began doing research on women and public space in a city, its researchers often walked into different police stations asking questions. One invariable reaction that they got from most of the police stations was why women should be out in the public space when they had no work there. And it is this attitude that is behind the way the rape of a minor girl in a police chowky in Marine Drive has been perceived. What was she doing there sitting in Marine Drive with two boys? This 'she asked for it' kind of attitude is one of the ways of pushing women out of the public spaces where they rightfully belong like anyone else and pushing them into private spaces where many think they ought to belong".

Gita Hariharan in the Telegraph (link via Uma); Victims’ Responsibility -- Patterns of violence against women in India:

"Making the victim responsible has served as an effective way to keep women out of large chunks of the world’s places and experiences. It has, over generations, instilled an amorphous fear in women, fear of what their bodies can cause. Male-dictated tradition has it, whether in history, literature or popular folklore, that women cause men to stray from the straight path. So ingrained is all this received wisdom in our society that it survives the onslaught of time, new ideas, even new ways of looking at women’s rights.

Despite appearances, there is, as always, hope, even in these dark times for Indian women. There is a little glimmer of hope to be found in the immediate and angry reaction of the nurse whose rapist proposed to her through a court of law. The nurse’s reaction pulls us back from dangerous nonsense about repentance and forgiveness culminating in marriage. “It’s like being raped for the second time,” she says. Her words bring us back to what has actually happened to a woman; to what can happen again. The bar girls have come together as the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union to fight for their right to a livelihood.

Women’s groups are, as always, working hard, not only to fight physical violence against women, but violence of a more insidious variety, the kind that delivers blows through ideas, beliefs, prejudice. But the uphill climb is futile if only women undertake it. It has to be a far more public hike, judges, policemen and scripture-men included".

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Four degrees of separation

This is a good time to thank all the great people whom I tagged; all their book-tag posts are up on their websites: Jaya, Kiran, Neelakantan, Ramnath, Suhail and Surya.

From Yazad, that is! So, I get book-tagged once via the Uma-Sunil-Charu route, and a second time, via the Amit-Quizman-Patrix route. These are the shortest routes; there is also this Amit-Michael-Sunil-Charu route. In any event, Yazad has certainly unleashed a serious virus. Well, here goes.

Total books I own: I would put the number at around 200.

Last book I bought: Three popular science books from our Campus Bookstore: Robert Ehrlich's Preposterous Propositions, Alexei Sossinsky's Knots: Mathematics with a Twist, and Roger Newton's Galileo's Pendulum: From the Rhythm of Time to the Making of Matter. Why did I buy them? Purely on impulse! I had no idea about these books, nor about the authors, at the time of buying them.

Last book I read: How Things Are: A Science Toolkit for the Mind, a collection of short essays by a whole bunch of great people (Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, et al) who can explain great questions of science to non-experts. The two books that I read prior to this one were Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. As you can see, I am not quite current -- and with it! -- when it comes to books.

Books that mean a lot to me: This is a tough one.

  • Fiction: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, my all time favourite. Recently, I read Mark Haddon's The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, a story told through the innocent voice of a 15-year old autistic boy, that brought back fond memories of Mockingbird, so I went back and read it again!
  • Biography/Memoirs: James Gleick's Genius (biography of Richard Feynman), and Kameshwar Wali's Chandra (bio of S. Chandrasekhar). Of course, I immensely enjoyed Richard Feynman's playful writing in Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman! and his more mature writing (about the Challenger disaster, his first wife's death) in What do you care what other people think?
  • Pop science: Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene
  • Pop psychology / Self-help: Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Both are by academic psychologists, backed by solid research. A perennial favourite of mine -- for gifting, too -- is Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a great book that describes a certain personal ethic that is worth working toward.
  • Tamil stories: The books that I have the best memories of are the Tamil stories that I read in my teens. Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan (Sunil blogged about Kalki recently) and Thi. Janakiraman's Amma Vandaal are still strongly etched in my memory. I used to be a great fan of 'Sujata', a very versatile and very prolific writer of short stories, novels, essays, plays. I still remember one of his novels (whose name eludes me right now) in which he is able to bring out the essential character of a cynic -- who thinks life has dealt him a bad deal indeed -- using this self-talk: 'Boy, why else would this guy [in front of me at the urinal] be peeing so many bucketfuls?'. Then, there is this very sensitive short story by Aadhavan (that I read while I was a graduate student, from a book a friend of mine borrowed from the UIUC library!), where a guy keeps thinking about his wife who was murdered by a servant, and ultimately realizes that she died a thousand deaths as his wife, starting from their very first night together ...

    You see, there are these wonderful stories in Tamil, that I read a long time ago, that remain so fresh in my memory, as if I just read them yesterday. But, but, ... I am not able to recall their names! It is this 'three degrees of separation' from them that gives me a haunting feeling ...

Oh, well. Now, on to the last part.

Tag some bloggers, to spread this virus: In alphabetical order by first name, here we go: Jaya, Kiran, Neelakantan, Ramnath, Suhail, Surya

Update: Amit has put together a list of bloggers who have made book tag posts.

About 1029 !

From the much maligned ToI: " There are about 1,029 AICTE-approved management institutions in India, but only the top 50 score in terms of brand value and job placements." Emphasis, of course, is mine.

Social Insurance

Ted Barlow of Crooked Timber hosts a personal mela, that he calls Speakers' Corner. The latest edition can be found here. I greatly recommend this "terrific basic-principles primer" on the need for social insurance by Mark Thoma, who has a blog called Economist's view.

While we are on the topic of social insurance, do take a look at Cosma Shalizi's views on what he calls the Great American Risk Shift, here and here.

The New York Times did a potentially Pulitzer winning series on 'Class in America' (sorry, no links! they are now behind NYTimes' paywall). There has been much blog commentary on this series; you might want to start with this post by Brad DeLong, and work your way up and down.

While all these posts are US-centric, many things said in them are fairly universal, and so, they should be relevant to issues such as class, inequality -- and yes, poverty -- in India.

Mela of melas

Saket 'Vulturo' Vaidya is hosting this week's Bharateeya Blog Mela (BBM). Charu will host the next one; so, leave your nominations there. Shivam Vij, who hosted it last week, tells us that there is now a BBM website.

Mela-type things are going on all over the place. I will just mention a couple of them from the science crowd here:

There is an interesting mela called Skeptics' Circle. The eighth mela was hosted by P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula. From this mela, I greatly recommend this speech posted on the Bad Astrononmy blog.

The latest edition of Tangled Bank, another science mela, covers some nice posts organized using the metaphor of a Natural History museum. Among the links here, there are two that I recommend: Andrew Jaffe's musings triggered by the latest book by Richard Feynman (isn't it amazing that his books keep appearing well after his death some 16 years ago?), and Bad Astronomy's (there he is, again!) use of 'framing' to suggest a suitable name for "someone who is not a scientist and does not practice the scientific method, but who does make extraordinary claims on little or no evidence, and discusses these claims using a veneer of scientific-sounding language".

One of the things that you will notice in both these melas is the number of posts that deal with pseudoscience (and in Bad Astronomer's words, antiscience). This is because of this uniquely American problem, created by a uniquely American brand of right wing: the Religious Right, that has been waging a relentless war to include 'creationism' (and, these days, its non-exclusive version called ID or 'intelligent design') in school science curricula. You might recall that Darwin's Origin of Species finds an honorable mention in the list of most harmful books selected by American conservatives. Therefore, scientists in the US -- and biologists, in particular -- are often in battle mode, tearing apart each new crank who comes along claiming some virtue or the other in favour of creationism or ID.

Thankfully, we don't have many such creationism-type or ID-type antiscientists here. We do have, on the other hand, our own antiscience types; and they have managed at least one notable 'achievement': they have got the teaching of astrology into the universities under the guise of 'jyotir vigyan' (astrological 'science').

Update: See this Jayant Narlikar op-ed in today's ToI, where he rails against astrology and vaastu.