Monday, October 31, 2005

Steve Jobs

If you, like me, are generally interested in Steve Jobs, his achievements, and perhaps also his quirks, then you would be interested in this profile by Charles Arthur in the Independent Online. [link via Slashdot]

Pranab Bardhan on India and China

Well, Pranab Bardhan, a professor of economics at Berkeley has a nice article in Yale Global [Hat tip: Brad DeLong]. It is refreshingly different in that it points out all the difficulties the two countries have to overcome before they get to play the owners of the 21st century. Also, the article doesn't have too many India-China comparisons. Here is some of what Bardhan has on India:

What about the hordes of Indian software engineers, call-center operators, and back-room programmers supposedly hollowing out white-collar jobs in rich countries? The total number of workers in all possible forms of IT-related jobs in India comes to less than a million workers – one-quarter of one percent of the Indian labor force. For all its Nobel Prizes and brilliant scholars and professionals, India is the largest single-country contributor to the pool of illiterate people in the world. Lifting them out of poverty and dead-end menial jobs will remain a Herculean task for decades to come.

He has similar stuff -- stuff that goes largely unreported -- on China too. Here is how Bardhan's article ends:

We should not lose our sense of proportion in thinking about the rise of China and India. While adjusting its economies to the new reality and utilizing the new opportunities, the West should not overlook the enormity of the economic gap that exists between it and those two countries (particularly India). There are many severe pitfalls and roadblocks which they have to overcome in the near future, before they can become significant players in the international economic scene on a sustained basis.

Scott Adams on the IITs, again

We all know that the Dilbert cartoon strip, created by Scott Adams (thanks to Kaps' comment for the pointer), has an Indian character called Asok, who is supposed to be from an IIT. Adams has made very good use of Asok to mock the stereotypes of IITans -- that they are all some form of superhumans -- created by the American media.

Sepia Mutiny has a different take on the latest from Scott Adams. [link via DesiPundit]

Reuben has the latest from Adams in his blog, the Zoo Station. And, it's absolutely hilarious.

Adams also did a series a couple of years ago -- that lasted a week or so -- with Asok as the centrepiece. That series was also pretty hilarious. I don't have the link to all the strips in that series, but I found -- through Mridula's blog -- this BBC story on it.

Scott Adams rocks!

All that glitters ...

... is bad! For Mother Earth.

See this long NYTimes report by Jane Perlez and Kirk Johnson for some seriously bad news about how gold is made.

One doesn't need to be a Nobel winner to assert that much of the Indian demand for gold is through Indians' ever growing appetite for jewellery. And, as we can all see from the ads for the Chennai-based jewellery shops, we (and particularly, we, the south Indians) seem to like heavy ornaments, and we want them in the 22 carat grade. [BTW, do the people in other parts of the country prefer other kinds of jewellery?] In the West, however, the 18 carat variety is quite common, and their jewellery tends to be light, and IMO, more elegant than the horrible stuff we see on our ads and during our weddings.

Much of the problem arises due to two facts: There is a huge demand for gold in Asia -- particularly from India and China. Did you know that for India, gold is the only metal that is consumed in proportion to its population? NYTimes report says that the demand in India grew by a whopping 47 % last year!

The second factor, of course, is that many investors think of gold as a hedge against inflation.

Gold in India used to be extracted from the mines in Kolar, some 70 km from Bangalore. As the ore got leaner, it became progressively uneconomical, and production stopped sometime ago. To my knowledge, the gold mines at Hutti, also in Karnataka, are the only ones from which gold is produced in India.

A team of scientists used the deep recesses in some of the defunct mines at Kolar for their research on cosmic ray muons way back in the seventies. They are probably used for such purposes even now.

On the supply side, things could be helped if the gold hoarded in the reserves of the US and many European countries is unloaded in the markets (perhaps, over a period of time). I remember the Swiss government did it a few years ago.

Where is the environmental disaster in all this? It arrives in the form of quirks of nature. Gold as such is quite rare. It does occur in its pristine, metallic form; but the early prospectors have already found and exploited the rich sources containing chunks of gold. The gold ores that are being used now are so lean in gold content that

[A]t sites like Yanacocha, one ounce of gold [about 30 grams] is sprinkled in 30 tons of ore. But to get at that ore, many more tons of earth have to be moved, then left as waste. At some mines in Nevada, 100 tons or more of earth have to be excavated for a single ounce of gold ...

Okay, what do you do with so much of stupid rocks and stuff, so that you can find that 'single ounce of gold'? You use a process called heap leaching on mountains of excavated earth:

These new man-made mountains are lined with irrigation hoses that silently trickle millions of gallons of cyanide solution over the rock for years. The cyanide dissolves the gold so it can be separated and smelted.

The cyanide, as we all know, leads to some serious problems. There are some indirect problems, too, that we don't often think about:

But much of those masses of disturbed rock, exposed to the rain and air for the first time, are also the source of mining's multibillion-dollar environmental time bomb. Sulfides in that rock will react with oxygen, making sulfuric acid.

That acid pollutes and it also frees heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury, which are harmful to people and fish even at low concentrations. The chain reaction can go on for centuries.

The reporters do give the other side of the story from the miners' point of view but the emphasis, clearly, is on convincing you that heap leaching is bad news.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

2001: experience the future, again.

Here is another link from our good friend Slashdot. The link is to this Independent online story that starts with the following:

It is the missing part of a cinematic classic. Almost four decades ago, Stanley Kubrick gathered the world's scientific minds and asked them to predict the future. Their thoughts would then form the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, his epic about a mission to Jupiter which becomes a life or death battle between the space crew and their on-board computer HAL 9000.

But the interviews were never screened and the collective thoughts of 21 eminent men and women of science appeared to have been lost for ever.

Now the musings are to be made public for the first time when they are published next month, giving Kubrick enthusiasts an insight into his ultimate vision for the classic film.

The names in the list of interviewees read like the who's who of the world circa 1965: Isaac Asimov, Margaret Mead, Freeman Dyson, ...

I loved this stuff from mathematician Jack Good:

Some of the interviewees have looked back at their original comments. Professor Good stood by his, including his suggestion that computers might have personality traits: "My Windows 98 computer tells lies and often forces me to shut down improperly. Such behaviour in a human would be called neurotic."

Top 10 worst jobs in science

Via Slashdot, we learn of this Popular Science story on the results of this year's survey on the worst jobs in science. It features such hard working scientists as Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Harvard and an orangutan pee-collector in Indonesia. Also featured in this story are brave volunteers who are willing to "have the root killer and World War I nerve agent chloropicrin shot into their eyes and noses".

It is a mix of strange things scientists do (and volunteers undergo) along with a brief (very brief, indeed) discussion of the science behind their job and their implications for the rest of us. Truly fascinating.

Terror in New Delhi

I happened to watch some of the early eye witness accounts yesterday on TV. Shocking and absolutely horrible. It is clear that we are dealing with some truly sick terrorists.

DesiPundit is the place for links to info and insights.

Update (9:30 p.m.): Bloggers have started reporting from Delhi. Shivam Vij has a post up, and Dilip, who is travelling through Delhi has a post that points us to his report in Rediff. I am sure there will be more from both.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Three scientific mini-revolutions in the eighties

This post is dedicated to Prof. Richard E. Smalley, a Nobel winner for the discovery of fullerenes, that marked the beginning of the most exciting of the three mini-revolutions in the 80s. He passed away yesterday.

In the eighties, three mini revolutions happened in the fields of physics and chemistry of materials, that expanded scientists' minds without the help of hallucinogens.

The first one happened in 1984 when a team of scientists led by Prof. Dan Schechtman reported a crystalline substance -- an alloy of aluminum and manganese -- that exhibited five-fold symmetry, which is impermissible in conventional crystallography, the science of ordered arrangement of atoms and molecules in a crystal. Such materials with five-fold symmetry are now called 'quasicrystals'.

A few quick examples of rotational symmetry are the four-fold (or, 360/4 = 90 degree) symmetry of a square, and the six-fold or 60-degree symmetry of a perfect hexagon. In contrast, a rectangle has only a two-fold symmetry. These symmetries are consistent with 'normal' crystals that have an ordered and repetitive (or, periodic) arrangement of atoms and molecules. Five-fold or 72-degree symmetry was thought to be impossible in materials, until the discovery of the quasicrystals.

Immediately after this epochal event, many groups swung into action and reported many other materials that had such unconventional symmetry. Several groups from India too participated in and contributed to this excitement; notable among them are a group in IISc led by my departmental colleagues Prof. S. Ranganathan (whose book on the legendary Wootz steel we had a chance to review a while ago) and Prof. Kamanio Chattopadhyay, and another group in IT-BHU led by Professors Ramachandra Rao, S. Lele and G.V.S.S. Sastry.

The second mini-revolution was unleashed in 1986 when some exotic ceramic materials (oxides of yttrium-barium-copper oxide) were shown to behave in a superconducting fashion below reasonably high temperatures of around 90 Kelvin (almost 180 degrees Celsius below the freezing temperature of water!). The existing superconducting materials showed this behaviour at unbelievably low, and very-difficult-to-achieve temperatures of around 5 Kelvin; I believe one of them could behave so at about 25 Kelvin. The newly discovered materials, christened high temperature superconductors, made superconductivity possible at temperatures above the key barrier of 77 Kelvin (-196 degrees Celsius), the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, which is eminently achievable on a routine basis.

Several groups in India were also early contributors to the fields of high temperature superconductors, buckyballs and carbon nanotubes). I would like to mention the group led by Prof. C.N.R. Rao, who won the first India National Science Prize just this year.

The third and the biggest of the three (at least in my opinion) is the discovery of a new form of carbon, in which each molecule has 60 carbon atoms arranged in the shape of a football. Since it resembled the famous geodesics designed by the architect Buckminster Fuller, these molecules of carbon were promptly named buckminsterfullerene; since that name was quite a mouthful, its popular name now is either fullerene, or a catchier 'buckyballs'.

By themselves, the buckyballs might not have had a transformational effect; their discovery was followed by the 1991 discovery of carbon nanotubes -- sheets of carbon (actually graphite, a form of carbon) neatly rolled to form a pipe or a tube, whose girth is a mere nanometer or so. The discovery of nanotubes (the first key papers came from a group led by Dr. Sumio Ijima at NEC labs in Japan; one of their authors is Prof. P.M. Ajayan, the topper of my class in IT-BHU!) opened up a new chapter in the emerging field of nanotechnology.

The scientists involved in the discovery of buckyballs have won a Nobel Prize; and so have the scientists who were involved in the discovery of materials that were the precursors of the high-Tc-superconductors. The Nobels for the discovery of quasicrystals and carbon nanotubes are yet to happen, but many -- including me! -- believe it is only a matter of time.

Scientific fraud

Remember the 80's American TV show that had this famous line: "Just the facts, Ma'am"?

In science, as in so many other fields [including detective work], data are absolutely paramount. Theory and unifying principles do have a high position in science. If experimental data don't agree with the theory, it is the latter that heads for the dustbin. Data from well-designed experiments are truly priceless.

Three years ago, another similar high-profile case became public, when Hendrik Schoen, a researcher at Bell Labs, was found to have 'committed scientific misconduct'. Some links: press release from Bell Labs, Physics Today report and David Goodstein's thoughtful essay on the scandal.

This is why tinkering with data in any form (fabrication, falsification) is the most serious of crimes in science (somewhat lower down the order would be the other serious crimes: plagiarism, and stealing and claiming credit for others' ideas). Every time such a fraud is uncovered, scientists take it seriously, dissect and discuss it almost endlessly; it leads to much hand-wringing about what measures can help safeguard the scientific enterprise from such frauds in the future. Some measures do get instituted, until a similar crime comes along shaking our faith a few years later.

We seem to have one such moment right now. This NYTimes story reports that Luk Van Parijs, an MIT researcher, has been fired for scientific fraud.


The China story: "Whatever it takes"

Here is one more story (this one from NYTimes, under the headline "China Luring Scholars to Make Universities Great") for those who like to read about China's radical measures for making its sciencific manpower and infrastructure modern and world class. Clearly, China's policy seems to be "whatever it takes", and it appears to be succeeding.

In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4 percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's.

But only Beijing University and a few other institutions have been internationally recognized as superior. Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then China's leader, officially began the effort to transform Chinese universities, state financing for higher education has more than doubled, reaching $10.4 billion in 2003, the last year for which an official figure is available.

I really liked this quote:

"Maybe in 20 years M.I.T. will be studying Qinghua's example," says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of Biophysics at Qinghua University, an institution renowned for its sciences and regarded by many as China's finest university. "How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we are already better than the Harvards today."

The golden age of industrial R&D in India?

In the last 10 days or so, Rediff re-published two Business Standard op-eds on industrial R&D in India.

The first one, by Subir Roy, gives a broad overview of how far India has come, and concludes that 'India has never had it so good in R&D'. This is what he had to say towards the end:

The government still has an exclusive role, which is now limited to promoting R&D in the pre-competitive stage. One such area is nanotechnology, for which government funding is running at Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion). ...

Industry's new energy and the government's new thinking have most recently been supplemented by MNCs finding India an attractive platform for locating R&D (the previous column dealt with this).

To realise the full promise of all this, industry and the government need to do only one thing more -- keep improving the quality of education.

The second, by T. Thomas, a former Chairman of HLL, is on how to nurture R&D personnel so that they perform at a high level, keep churning out innovations, remain loyal, etc.. I found the article itself to be quite pedestrian. Why I am linking to it here is the following two paragraphs:

The other reason for [moving R&D scientists to general management jobs] is that like in all creative occupations, after a certain age, the innovative skills tend to decline. It is better for both the company and the individual to move scientists (barring some exceptional people) out of the purely creative function before this phase sets in.

Of course every scientist may not be able to make a success of such a transition. In such cases, it may be advisable to depute them to the academia with support from the company. [emphasis, of course, is mine!]


Friday, October 28, 2005

Breaking news: the IIPM faculty pages have not been changed, yet.

In a surprising development -- NOT! -- the faculty pages of IIPM are yet to be changed from where they were when we took a look at them nearly two weeks ago.

That's all. In other news, ...

Parthasarathi on our universities and R&D labs

In his Hindu op-ed, A. Parthasarathi, a former Secretary to the Government of India in "various science ministries", refers to Narlikar's description of a 'two-box disease' which afflicts India's universities and R&D centres. In other words, they work pretty much in isolation. Parthasarathi calls for some form of fusion, and presents some ideas on how this fusion may come about.

The origin of the two-box problem is quite well-known, and dates back to the fifties. The then government, in its wisdom, decided that a faster development of scientific and industrial enterprise required an entirely new structure: National Labs! [This decision was probably based on the perceived success of the US National Labs; however, I haven't seen any documentary evidence.] This fateful decision created a new set of labs under CSIR (some forty of them, for industrial research), ICAR (for agricultural research) and so on. The creation of these labs, by itself, is not a bad thing. Their creation in times of tight money meant that universities were starved of funds. The culture of academic research just tanked -- to use a stock market term that is in vogue now -- in universities.

The decision to create these labs also rested on a critique of our universities: that they were too conservative to "enable creative work at "the cutting edge" of internationally competitive research". However, instead of doing something to set things right for the universities, Parthasarathi says:

You can still see a version of this mindset everytime a small, elite, postgraduate research institute is created; the main argument is that universities are incapable of doing academic research at such high levels.

The same warped thinking is also responsible for another recent event. The CSIR labs became 'deemed universities', and can now offer doctoral programs. This is an utterly dissastrous move. Our universities will be reduced to machines that print and issue undergraduate and an assorted set of postgraduate degrees.

It is one of the great tragedies of our science and technology system that universities were not given more autonomy in policy-making and operations, nor freed from a hierarchical work culture. Instead, the leaders of our scientific community reached the erroneous conclusion that the universities were irredeemable. And that, if we were to achieve world-class levels of research and knowledge generation, we would need to set up new greenfield research institutes outside the university system with better levels of funding and operational autonomy.

Nobody would dispute the fact that our universities have serious problems. They have serious administrative problems that hold them and their researchers back. They outsource undergraduate programs -- their very raison d'etre -- to their affiliated colleges. Their recruitment policies hamper them badly, leading, in many cases, to inbreeding. Their ability to identify and nurture talent is pathetic at best and non-existent at worst. They rely too much -- purely for financial reasons -- on shady diploma and certificate programs and distance education programs.

In these and other areas they need to reform, so that they can get back to their original missions of providing quality undergraduate education and solid academic research. They must be encouraged to do it with the right incentives -- financial, social, professional. These are problems for UGC to solve. And, ironically, UGC is a term that does not apear even once in Parthasarathi's op-ed.

What, then, are Parthasarathi's suggestions? Essentially three. First, the top scientists in the labs should be encouraged to moonlight every once in a while to teach in a nearby university or college. Second, university and college teachers should get some sort of a sabbatical to spend a year or so in the labs. And, third, the wise men and women of the great labs should modernize the curriculum in the universities, by designing courses, and perhaps even teaching some of them. Parthasarathi calls this a program of 'adoption' or of 'twinning'.

IMHO, this is a clear case of good intentions gone awry. Just look at where universities and labs stand in the three equations he proposes. Are they being treated as equals? Won't they -- his suggestions -- perpetuate the very crime that was perpetrated on our universities fifty years ago?

The 'fusion' between universities and labs recommended by Parthasarathi just means one thing. Our universities will continue to get screwed -- and they will be asked to smile.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Cost of IIT/Engineering education, simplified!

Kaps, on DesiPundit, said I presented a 'simple' calculation of the cost of education in an IIT/EC (with EC standing for an engineering college). The quotes around the word 'simple' (in Kaps' post) spurred me to write this, with no links and no explanations, no justifications. Let me see how well this works.

The cost of education (CE) per student per year is given by this formula:

CE = P (A + B + C + ...) / N.

There. Simple. Mathematical!

Let me quickly make it un-simple by adding what these other symbols mean, and tell you what I assumed for them in the form of this ordered set (IIT, EC).

A = annual Grants from government (1000 million, 150 million)
B = 10-year amortized cost of infrastructure (500 million, 100 million)
C = total tuition fees (100 million, 40 million) from current students
(A + B + C) = total revenues (broadly defined) (1600 million, 290 million)
P = fraction of total revenues used up for teaching (0.2 or 0.4, 0.5)
N = Number of undergraduate students (3000, 2000)

There you have it. Very simple, no?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cost of education at an IIT or an engineering college

A quick update: A shorter, snappier version is presented in the next post.

There are many different estimates being thrown about. What follows is my own -- admittedly crude -- attempt to arrive at a figure that I can work with. Please feel free to criticize the major aspects of what follows; in doing it, please avoid minor quibbles. I admit my crime upfront: the estimate is crude.

Let's take some examples, and see what would be this cost under different scenarios. I have chosen these specific examples only because I found some numbers for them recently (and rather easily, through just one article!). The data are all from this interesting Rediff article by Yogesh Upadhyaya.

Let us start with -- what else -- IITs! Yogesh reported that the annual budgets of these institutions ranged from 0.9 to 1.3 billion (90 to 130 crore) rupees a year. Let us take an indicative figure of 1 billion (100 crore) rupees, and assume the number of UG students to be 3000 (all the four years put together).

PG and doctoral students don't count, since their numbers are far smaller and they also pay a far smaller fee. Raising their fee is a non-starter, because it is one sure way of killing the research programs.

This one billion rupee estimate is only the budget allocation for the current year, and doesn't include the cost of the infrastructure that is already there. If you put a value to all that, perhaps you get a figure of 4 billion rupees which, amortized over ten years, is perhaps around 500 million rupees. Add to it the amount the students already pay -- 30,000 rupees per year per student [source: this page on the IIT-M website]. For 3000 students, you get a figure of 90 million ruppees; round it off to 100 million.

Add it all up, and you get a grand total of 1.6 billion (160 crore) rupees as an IIT's annual budget.

The ever reliable Satya, the Oracle of Chennai, has a post about the revenue patterns of four US research universities: Harvard, Cornell, Michigan and UCLA. If you look at the data, some 20 to 25 percent of the revenue of these colleges is derived from UG students -- I am assuming the support from the state government -- for Michigan and UCLA -- to be towards subsidizing in-state students. This gives me a uniform range of 20 - 25 percent of revenues from UG tuition.

Evidently, not all of it is used for UG population. Only a fraction of the budget is 'devoted' to teaching, with the rest of it going into other functions including research.

I am not even going to pretend I know how much of an IIT's budget goes for teaching. What I will do is to use a certain number (which is evidently an underestimate) and use it to arrive at a figure.

In another nice post, Satya has an extract from an old Business Standard editorial in which Prof. Indiresan, an ex-Director of IIT-M, has been quoted as saying that IIT education costs about 200,000 a year.

I am taking it to be 20% (which I think, is a reasonable estimate -- perhaps on the lower side of reality). This yields 320 million as the teaching budget of an IIT. Make it 330 million, and divide it by 3000 students, and you get 110,000 rupees per student per year.

Do a similar exercise for another type of college: an engineering college. The same article by Yogesh Upadhyaya gives a figure of 100 to 200 million (10 to 20 crore) rupees as the annual budget of an institution. I am taking 150 million. Again, I am assuming the infrastructure to be worth some 800 million which, when amortized over some 10 years, results in about 100 million per year. Assume 2000 students paying some 20,000 rupees each, we get 40 million rupees per year from tuition fee. The grand total then is 290 million, rounded off to 300 million.

If you assume that 50 % of these institutions is devoted to teaching undergraduate students, then you get 150 million rupees; when this is divided among 2000 students, you get 75,000 rupees.

Bottomline: If you are in an IIT, the 'real cost of your education' is in the range is 100,000 to 200,000 (1 to 2 lakh) rupees per student per year (depending on whether you want the lower figure of 20 % or a higher figure of 40 % as the proportion of your institute's budget used for UG education.

If you are in an engineering college, it is in the range of 75,000 to 150,000 rupees per student per year.

Well, you may quibble with my numbers and methods. If you are an accountant, you can include the exact impact of interest rate on the amortized value of infrastructure. You may also quible about whether hostels, faculty housing, messes, shopping complexes, gymkhana, etc, should be included. And so on. I am sure you all have your own pet number for the percent of an institution's time and money that go into undergraduate education. Your perceptions are also likely to depend on whether you are a student or a teacher!


Boston Globe recently had a story on the RFID technology, that has companies like Walmart salivating. Sure, it has a great potential for being very useful. But the potential for invasion of privacy is pretty great too.

Just one look at all the things enabled by this technology was enough to spook the reporter out completely. The title of the story says it all: "you need not be paranoid to fear RFID".

Blog quake day

Today is Blog Quake Day. Please do donate in any way possible. If you need suggestions for where to donate, the post on DesiPundit has lots of them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Via both Clifford Johnson (Cosmic Variance) and P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula): I just found out that Rosa Parks, one of the sparks to light up the modern American Civil Rights Movement, passed away. Clifford points to this Wikipedia entry on her.

She will live in our memory, and in history books for a very long time.

What is good for GDP must be good for ...

..., I don't know. But, Dilip has a curious post about GDP, presenting some evidence to -- um, ... let me think a bit here and choose an appropriate word -- indicate what is wrong with a focus on GDP as an important indicator of a nation's well being.

Dilip's argument goes like this: Inefficiencies such as voltage fluctuations in electric power supply cannot be bad; in fact, they are good for GDP, because they create and sustain an industry (such as the one that makes voltage stabilizers) that mitigates the effect of inefficiency. He ends it with this threat:

Postscript: Meant to say, I will follow this up with some more exploration of the GDP and possible alternatives.

Perhaps he will start the next post with a few more examples like the voltage stabilizer industry. Will he, won't he? It doesn't matter; in any case, we are here to lend a helping hand. So, let me start off with a small list of things he can use in his next post.

  • Disease cannot be bad. After all, it created, and now sustains pharmaceutical companies that produce drugs (which have side effects, for which there is some more medicine...). Thus, it contributes to GDP.
  • Death is an even more interesting example. Yeah, it does end fun, but it is also the lifeblood(!) of businesses involved in cremating and burying the dead. In fact, death is good twice over. It contributes to GDP, and also to GDP per capita.

Let me stop here before I turn into a morbid mush.

Enough of this bullshit. Do read this Foreign Affairs review of The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth by Benjamin Friedman of Harvard. The review is by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel winner in economics.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Rice University scientists have constructed the world's smallest car -- a single molecule "nanocar" that contains a chassis, axles and four buckyball wheels.


The nanocar consists of a chassis and axles made of well-defined organic groups with pivoting suspension and freely rotating axles. The wheels are buckyballs, spheres of pure carbon containing 60 atoms apiece. The entire car measures just 3-4 nanometers across, making it slightly wider than a strand of DNA.

Go read the entire press release issued by Rice University. It even shows what the car looks like! Bethany Halford has a write-up about the nanocar. The website of the researcher driving the nanocar, Prof. James Tour is here.

Physics of Superheroes

Remember this post, where we read about a wonderful popular physics book that uses superheroes to introduce physics concepts? Well, it will be a while before we in India will get to see the book, Physics of Superheroes. What we can do in the meantime is to enjoy a few nuggets of the book available through articles and blog posts.

Boston Globe carried a lovely little interview of James Kakalios, the author of this book. You get short discussions of two ideas in comics books that are consistent with physics, and one that isn't. Quite enjoyable.

Google Blog features creator of GMail

[Even if you are a GMail user, do read his post at least for the interesting bit of trivia at the beginning; and, no, I am not giving it here!]

I am sure many of you use GMail, and have been impressed by it. Paul Buchheit, the Google engineer behind this great product, has a nice post up on Google Blog. He recounts some of his ideas with which he started working on GMail. And, he promises more useful features.

This is how Buchheit describes the email experience in the pre-GMail era:

I rely on email, a lot, but it just wasn't working for me. My email was a mess. Important messages were hopelessly buried, and conversations were a jumble; sometimes four different people would all reply to the same message with the same answer because they didn't notice the earlier replies. I couldn't always get to my email because it was stuck on one computer, and web interfaces were unbearably clunky. And I had spam. A lot of it. With Gmail I got the opportunity to change email – to build something that would work for me, not against me.

Those of us who got our accounts on GMail have slowly stopped using the other email addresses (or give them to websites, such as the Business Standard's, so as to be able to avail their services). If you are not with us in being able to admire this wonderful product, don't be a 'have-not' any more, just join the 'haves'!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Stunning science pictures

Via Slashdot: This year's winners of Visions of Science Photographic Awards have been announced. The winners, runners-up and highly recommended photographs in 10 different categories are all available on the official website of this contest. Larger, better quality pictures of the prize-winning entries are posted also at the BBC and National Geographic websites.

A great debate on intelligent design theory

Do read it. It is short, and very persuasive.

Caution: It has some violent content (but no picutures), so make sure children are not around. ;-)

The saga of IIPM vs. Bloggers: Mainstream media get into the act

Slowly, but surely, the mainstream media and non-blogger journalists are getting into the act of investigating IIPM. Because of their established position in the media scene -- not just in India, but everywhere else, too -- they get access to the innards of IIPM. This allows them to offer some new perspectives. I give here just a quick list of such pieces. DesiPundit is aggregating links to MSM pieces on this issue.

What I will do instead, is to point to one of them, which is very good. The Business World's Aditya Khanna and Aarti Kothari have done a reasonably thorough story [requires a free registration]. They actually probe further into the veracity of the claims made by IIPM in their ads (many of the others, sadly, stopped at just reporting it at the level of "IIPM vs. bloggers"). Interetingly, the BW reporters were 'promised' complete access to IIPM. This is what the BW story states about the access they actually got:

Meanwhile, "Professor" Chaudhuri decided to pay a visit to the editors of various media houses to present his side of the case. He visited Businessworld and invited it to conduct its own examination of the IIPM facilities and his credentials. He promised to provide all documentary evidence to prove the veracity of his claims. However, he also pointed out that his advertisements were models of careful wording. [the quotes around the word 'Professor' are in the original.]

Businessworld's investigation: At the outset we must confess that despite his claims of providing us with all help, neither Chaudhuri nor his head of corporate communications, Amit Saxena, provided us with the details we had asked for. Among the things BW had asked for were specific details on companies that come for campus recruitments at IIPM, salary details of the people placed, details about its faculty and facilities, as well as details of its study tours and other advertising claims. What we got from them by way of reply was a one-page letter full of generalities about liars (Bansal and Sabnis presumably) and the "inferiority complex of the pampered students of the IIMs".

The rest of the story is about the information they have gathered, presented in a dry journalistic style, without trying to sound judgemental. They really had to try very hard, as can be seen from this passage.

The IIPM faculty: Well, the bulk of the IIPM faculty is made up of former IIPM students. You pass out and promptly start teaching. Average age of permanent faculty: 27. Research conducted by faculty: no verifiable data that we could get our hands on. IIPM refused to cooperate. Chaudhuri has this to say: "Other institutes use people who have studied psychology and economics to take their classes. We are the only ones who have MBAs. And we extensively use Planman Consulting staff who have vast consulting experience." It is a nice example of vertical integration. You join IIPM. Pass out and join IIPM as faculty or Planman Consulting as a consultant. If you are a consultant, you also teach at IIPM. The loop is complete.

Of course, this excellent article would have been even better if it had used some of the interesting information (I am trying to be non-judgemental here!) unearthed by a whole lot of bloggers. In particular, the following are absolute gems in terms of grassroots journalism: Arzan, Gawker, Transmogrifier, Thalassa_Mikra, and Thalassa_Mikra again. The last two, in particular, are the very best of what Michael calles Google journalism.

Thanks to Kaps for the e-mail alert.

A quick update: T.R. Vivek (of Outlook) has a nice news story on this issue. It is short on its own investigation of IIPM's advertised claims. But it mentions -- and discusses -- bloggers' discoveries about IIPM. It even has screenshots of some of the blogs -- most notably, Rashmi's, and Gawker's.

Do read the BW story. It is (still) the best out there so far. Do read both the stories. Together, they are the best out there so far.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Breaking news: IIPM faculty pages have not been changed!

Five working days after I posted some comments on the faculty pages of IIPM, nothing has changed.

That's all.

PS: On some reflection in a sober state, I realized that I really got carried away in an earlier version of this post!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The rapidly falling quality of Current Science editorials

Current Science is India's premier science journal. It is rather like Nature and Science in scope, but focused a lot more on the scene in its native country than the other two.

Current Science is also the only general purpose science journal that carries discussions about government policies regarding science education and research. It has some of the top scientists in India on its editorial board, and it is published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore. Because of these reasons, people sit up and take notice when its editorial takes up an important issue involving science and technology in India.

Since 1998, Prof. Balaram wrote (pretty much) all the editorials. In July, he became the Director of IISc, and his farewell editorial [pdf] in June marked the end of an era.

Since then, Current Science has been publishing guest editorials by various people; I read a couple of them earlier, and since they were of indifferent quality, I stopped. So, I was surprised when a colleague asked me to read the editorial [pdf] in the latest issue. He did warn me about its contents, I too warn you: it's utterly bad. Its badness starts right from the title: "Where have all the young ones gone? The coolieization of India". It's written by Gangan Prathap, the Scientist-in-Charge at the CSIR Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulations (C-MMACS), Bangalore.

Why would I want you to read this rant of an editorial? Because it shows that we have in India high-ranking people who decry the country's recent progress in the services sector, and IT sector in particular. They see it as a very bad thing. They see it as recruiting bright people and making them do some mundane work, and bingo! they are coolies. They also see it as stealing bright people away from 'more fruitful' activities like working for 'real' engineering companies like L&T, developing indigenous technologies, teaching and doing science (!), and yes, working for CSIR labs.

The editorial quotes extensively from a recent interview by A.K. Naik, the CEO on L&T. Now, this guy -- I mean, Naik -- seems to think that India owes his company a steady supply of bright engineers at 'reasonable' salaries. It doesn't occur to Naik that if he is really interested in bright engineers, why can't he pay them better salaries and provide them with better working environments? I am not talking about air-conditioned rooms here, I am talking about empowering employees, and about giving them challenging work.

I can go on and on; but let me just make two more points about Prathap's editorial. One is that it is downright insulting to refer to Indian's work in any industry -- be it IT or BPO or Auto or Accounting or Janitorial or Urban Sanitation -- as coolie's work. It betrays a mindset that disrespects 'dignity of labour'. Second, this article has serious inconsistencies. For example, early in the article, Prathap says all IT employees are doing low-level jobs. Later, he says, "The capital stock internationally (read the West) is getting increasingly more sophisticated and the West is not producing enough highly skilled workers to keep it functioning." What the hell does it mean? Surely, our engineers cannot be doing low-level work if they are keeping the sophisticated 'capital stock' of the West functioning.

Finally, why is Current Science peddling such nonsense as its editorial?

Consistent performance ...

[Link to the IE story via Animesh]

... as opposed to one-off performance. Indian Express reported recently on an internal study conducted by the IITs.

Apparently, this study found that good academic performance in IITs correlated better with the students' academic performance in school than with the JEE rank.

It doesn't surprise me at all; more importantly, if this finding is confirmed by studies on larger samples (for example, a state-wide study in Karnataka, or an expanded study in IITs including the data from several decades), it would undermine our system of selecting students based on some one-off exams (offered just once a year!).

I am glad this study has been done. I would like more such studies on the IITs and IITans. There is a great gold mine of information sitting in the vaults of IITs -- if tapped by a skilled sociologist, we will know a great deal more than what we know about the 'creamiest of the cream' of science-and-tech-oriented students in India.

Wouldn't you like to know -- I mean, really know -- about other correlations among things like their school records, JEE ranks, their background, their parents' income and education levels, parents's occupation, urban-rural divide, whether they went through coaching classes, proportion of women and dalits (among JEE takers and in the incoming class), where the students go, and on and on. As I said, all this information is just waiting for a major sociological study. Since such studies have not come to light, it means either the IITs are not interested in parting with the information, or the sociologists are not interested in studies of this kind.

I don't believe the problem lies with sociologists' lack of interest. The argument is quite simple. The Indian society (and, more recently, the entire world) has shown an enormous interest in knowing more about these great institutions and the geeky subculture that thrives there. Anything that you say or write about IITs will sell, and sell enormously. Just ask Sandipan Deb and Chetan Bhagat.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Jakob Nielsen on weblog design 'mistakes'

Jakob Nielsen is a web 'usability' expert; but sometimes he comes across as a web usability fundamentalist. His latest, on The Top Ten Design Mistakes [of weblogs], is a good example of what I mean.

P.Z. Myers has done a reasonably thorough fisking of this piece; Bill Tozier, on the other hand, gives his take on one of the 'mistakes' pointed out by Nielsen.

Marriage is like a ...

... a [besieged] castle - those on the outside want to get in, and those on the inside want to get out. [source]

Actually, I got the quote from a friend at our lunch table. The link to the online source is (a) to indicate where the quote comes from [it's a popular Chines exhortation], and (b) to point to the fact that people in social sciences and humanities can put in interesting quotes in their scholarly articles. I can only envy them.

Brutality at Bangalore: A strange twist

The horrible incident at the Bangalore Railway Station involving an alumnus of IT-BHU and IIM-L refuses to go away quietly. The latest is a very strange twist on which Animesh has a post. Nimish, the victim of the brutality at the railway station, has a blog post on this twist.

Animesh urges us all to express our outrage through an e-mail campaign. Please do visit his post.

[Thanks to Animesh for the e-mail alert]

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Here is the GRE home page. The proposed changes are presented here. Some free General Test preparation materials are available here. All these are from the official GRE site.

GRE General Test, the exam (some would say The Exam) that you need to take if you wish to get into Masters and Doctoral programs in US universities, is changing. The main change is that it will become (starting about one year from now) some 60 % longer than it is now, but the overall pattern remains roughly the same. The remaining changes are mostly administrative. I really wouldn't call it 'revamping', but NYTimes would.

The official website of GATE at IISc is here. A similar site is maintained by each of the IITs vested with responsibility for organizing this exam.

GATE, on the other hand, is The Exam to take if you wish to pursue a Masters program in engineering in any of the leading universities or institutes; in the sciences, it is one of a set of exams that a student can take. Unlike the GRE General Test that tests you on general skills (verbal, quantitative and analytical reasoning), GATE is subject specific. Another difference is that GATE is offered only once a year. The 2006 edition of GATE will be held on 12 February 2006, and the issue of application forms has already begun.

Until 2004 (or, was it 2003?) GATE had two sections, one with multiple choice questions, and another with questions that require longish answers. Many people -- including me -- felt that the entire exam should be converted into one with just multiple-choice questions. We used to cite GRE General Test as a good model of such an exam. Finally, GATE administrators announced the conversion to the all multiple-choice pattern. Ironically, this decision was made at a time when the GRE administrators announced that they were going the other way! As many of you probably know, the present-day GRE requires the candidates to write a short essay.

Frankly, I prefer the all multiple-choice version.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Now, it's time for some serious stuff ...

The IIPM-induced intensity in blogospheric activity has produced a few absolutely wonderful gems of the serious kind. Let me just point to a couple.

Satya, over at Education in India, examines the way forward from here. He points out, rightly, that UGC's laudable regulations regarding advertisements for higher ed institutions cannot be extended to places like IIPM since they do not have UGC recognition, and nor are they seeking one. He suggests that advertising industry, which follows a model of self-regulation, could ensure certain norms to be followed by ads for educational institutions.

Codelust has some very good advice for bloggers. Here is the key stuff.

[...] [O]ne thing that I have seen time and again is that people always confuse freedom of expression with the freedom from responsibilities.There is this feeling that having the browser between you and the reader somehow empowers you to say anything and then not have any responsibility towards what you just said.


Freedom of expression is not being able to say whatever you want to say. Freedom of expression is being able to say what you want to say, knowing fully well the consequences of your actions. Freedom of expression does not mean that people won't react to what you just said. In a free country, people have an equally valid right to react as it is valid for you to express yourself. Freedom of expression does not guarantee that blogging being the next earth shattering revolution will protect you from hooliganisitc behaviour by the bad boys when you rub them the wrong way. Freedom of expression does not mean that blogging is exempt from the normal rules. Wake up, it is about time you smelled the coffee.

In addition to these two blog posts, Sajan Venniyoor of the Hoot, a media watchdog, has a fair and balanced take on the fight between IIPM and the bloggers. Here is a key quote from this story, titled "David and Goliath -- a virtual parable".

If blogs are to be taken seriously, they should live up to the standards of accountability and reliability of the mainstream media that they so deplore.

Hey, guess what ?

IIPM has magically produced a page listing (only partially) its faculty members. Here is the main page. Here is the page for permanent faculty. As of now, only the Economics and Information Systems faculty are listed.

I am sure faculty lists for the other departments will eventually appear. This will enable us to really test how many of their claims about their faculty are true.

Some quick impressions, though.

  • IIPM doesn't believe in either providing their faculty members with e-mail facility, or giving their e-mail address on its website.
  • The 'professors' in the Delhi unit of IIPM do not prefer to give their qualifications.
  • There is one Prof. Andy V. listed for Information Systems in Delhi. Hmmm. This name does sound familiar, doesn't it?
  • Only the Delhi centre believes in having different faculty teaching different subjects. The centres at Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad appear to believe in multitasking; each of these centres has just one faculty teaching both Economics and Information Systems. One Prof. Melissa Pinto, for example, is listed for both subjects at the Mumbai centre. Neat, no?
  • No one in these lists (for whom their degrees are mentioned) has a Ph.D. or its management equivalent, the Fellowship.

  • Most of the 'professors' have only an MBA; and, many of these degrees are from IIPM. One has a PGDPE (whatever that is) from IIPM. Clearly, this institution believes it can prosper by coexisting with this strange animal called inbreeding. This animal is known to destroy whatever excellence the institutions (that choose to live with it) ever had. Given the current excellence and reputation levels of IIPM, I really shudder to think what inbreeding is going to do to them. On the other hand, this inbreeding is what has brought them to their current level of excellence ;-)
  • At least one of them has only a BBA. At least in this respect, IIPM has not bothered to differentiate itself from a host of tinpot colleges that have mushroomed all over the country.
  • Finally, the overwhelming impression one gets from IIPM's advertisements is that their faculty are hotshots who are always jet-setting around the world, hobnobbing with topnotch Ivy League professors and industry leaders (or, should we call them 'Business Barons'?). Having advertised heavily to create such an impression, shouldn't it have a website which has a little bit more information recounting what these people have been upto?
  • Oops, I almost forgot. The link to their 'visiting faculty' page is broken.

All this shows that IIPM has not bothered to put together all this information in a coherent well-thought out fashion. They are only reacting to all the blogospheric criticisms, and they are reacting badly.

At best, this page is incorrect, and incomplete, and we can only hope that it will be made better. On the other hand, it may be a true reflection of reality!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sex and everything

Via P.Z. Myers' Pharyngula, we learn that last October 9th was the National Porn Sunday in the US. Do head out there, because he gives you links to many of his earlier posts that extol the virtue of wild sex.

A little off-topic, but still: Onion has this great news story about how a string theorist tells his wife that he can explain everything to his wife (and fails).

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Now, it's time for some fun

In all the heat and dust raised by a certain institution's lawsuit threats, it is easy to get too mired in what a friend of mine would refer to as 'heaviosity'. I think it is time to free up one's mind, and what better way to do it than read some fun stuff, and parodies in particular. Of course, it is difficult to out-parody the very parody that is at the root of the recent spike in blogging.

Without much ado, let me just direct you to two dazzling gems written by Gawker. By the way, can anyone confirm the rumour that Gawker's day job is with the Onion?

Update: Here is one more by Gawker. This makes it three in a row. Another piece by another great writer, the GreatBong.

Update 2 (16 October 2005): Kitabkhana juoins the fun with a great post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Truth in advertising

All the blog discussions (and other developments) about IIPM are being tracked by the excellent Desi Pundit team. This is the place to go to if you want the latest.

In this post, let me start with some questions.

First, there are umpteen shady 'educational' institutions in India. Bloggers don't go after them all. Why?

The JAM article observed, "From what we gather, ... the students seem satisfied with the college's permanent teaching staff".

IIPM may actually be a decent institution (not great, not good, but passable). Again, there are 1029 MBA programs in the country, and by definition, all of them cannot be in the top 20, or 50, 200. Bloggers do not target all of them. Why?

The original JAM article was not about how lousy the institution was, or how bad the faculty were, or how bad the infrastructure was, or any of these things. Its main theme was just one thing. What is it?

The answer, clearly, is Truth in Advertising. Since some people think that this is an oxymoron, let me rephrase it. Lies in Advertising.

When people see flashy (full page!) ads for an institution that make wild claims about how great it is, they feel intuitively that there probably is something deeply wrong with it. Instead of leaving things to such gut feelings, JAM just went ahead and tried to find evidence for or against the claims made in IIPM's ads. IMHO, it did the job it is meant to do: top class journalism. But, my central point is this: the JAM article was more about truth in advertising, than about IIPM. I am absolutely sure they would have done the same with any other institution that advertised in a similarly flashy way.

I think we have to keep the focus on this theme. But how?

There are many things individuals in right positions (I didn't say high positions -- though that would help!) can do to unearth some more evidence. Sure, it will require some work -- but not necessarily too much.

Why is it important to do this fact checking?

First, these things can be aggregated -- a la Desi Pundit -- so that there is a public record that is available for potential students and their parents. Second, it may dissuade IIPM from going ahead with its legal notices against Gaurav and Rashmi. Third, this exercise may help some legally oriented folks to throw the law book at IIPM! And finally, IIPM may actually decide to live up to all the greatness it claims in its ads, in which case, it is a win-win for everyone!

Frankly, I don't believe the last two may ever come to pass. But still, the first two alone are worth trying. Bloggers are certainly in a unique position to do it.

Let me point to at least two possibilities from the ad for IIPM carried by yesterday's ET. Here are some of the claims in the ad.

First, it lists the companies that took part in their 2005 placement season. The long list has many companies. I am listing them at the end of the post. People working in these companies can find out through their internal channels if this claim is true. BTW, the JAM piece has actually done this fact-checking with some companies; it's an eye-opener. But, it has not done an exhaustive checking (nor does it really have to). Interestingly, McKinsey which figured in earlier ads (and JAM wrote about) does not figure in this ad!

In addition to what JAM did, individuals can certainly alert their HR about IIPM's falling reputation, and about the need to get their companies' names off from IIPM's ads. If they are upto it, they may even take it up with the Press Council or any other organization that deals with complaints about truth in advertising.

Second, the ad claims that IIPM students are so great that 'no wonder they have won the maximum awards amongst all B-schools in India including 1st Prize in Debates at ...' There are so many institutions in this list (which appears at the end of this post) that you would think that IIPM students did nothing else! This again can be checked by people studying in these institutions. [I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not here to denigrate or attack IIPM's students. I just think that this statement in the IIPM ad may not check out with facts.]

Well, I did some fact checking with whatever resources I have (dial-up connection!). Here is the gist of what I did. Any academic institution aspiring to greatness would want to advertise how absolutely fantastic its faculty are. Does the IIPM ad do that? Certainly! It says:

Note the mix of singulars and plurals in this description. The sentences with 'singular' are probably true!

IIPM's permanent faculty (250 plus) goes regularly to teach in leading B-schools across the globe. They are the best in the country in terms of Industry Interfaces, Consulting & Communication skills. IIPM faculty undertakes the maximum amount of EDPs for corporates in India. [emphasis in the original]

Doesn't it make you go "Wow! These guys must be GOOD!". If they are so good, one ought to get a lot of information about them (their names, their qualifications, where they got their degrees from, where they worked prior to joining IIPM, and a list of their publications -- with soft copies of some of them, if possible) from the IIPM website, right? That way, One is able to judge for oneself how much of their claim is 'subjectively true'. Well, check out their faculty page. It's empty! [Well, I realize that this situation may change quickly, so go there immediately!] I think this negative result says a lot! If the situation changes, and this page actually gets some content, one can do further fact-checking.

In sum, I suggest that we keep the eye on the ball: Truth in Advertising.

Companies that participated in the 2005 placement at IIPM, according to the ET ad, are: ABN Amro, HSBC, Standard Chartered, ICICI Bank, Citibank, HDFC Bank, ING Vysya, Max New York, Kotak Mahindra, India Bulls, ICICI Prudential, Met Life, TATA AIG, American Express, Citifinancials, GE Money, Asian Paints, Coca Cola, Berger Paints, Oracle, HP, Hutch, GE Consumer Finance, Yahoo, Essar Group, Crisil, Times Money, Bharat Shell, Skoda, Group M, HCL Infinet, Schneider Electric,, I gate, Reuters, Shoppers Stop, Bata, Fortis, Hindustan Levers, Deloitte Consulting, Primus Telecom, Oswal Group, NEC, ...

The institutions where IIPM students won 1st prize in debates are: IIT-Delhi, IIT-Kanpur, IIM-Bangalore, BITS-Pilani, IIT-Roorkee, ICFAI-Pune, NMIMS, and JIMS. They also got the best debate team at Symbiosis, ...

Brutality at Bangalore: An update

[ A quick update to this post ] Through an internal grapevine, I got a link to this New Indian Express story.

[Unfortunately, I am unable to read it, because of a malfunction in the newspaper's registration site; so I am just reporting what the grapevine has reported.]

Apparently, two ticket collectors, one RPF Assistant Sub-Inspector and three RPF constables have been suspended, and a detailed inquiry has been ordered.

If any of you could post the news story's gist in the comments, it would be helpful for everyone. I will greatly appreciate it.

Economics Nobel

Here is the first paragraph from this NYTimes story:

Robert J. Aumann and Thomas C. Schelling won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science yesterday for their work in game theory, which explains the choices that competitors make in situations that require strategic thinking.

The Prize in economics has already seen quite a bit of action in blogs. Tyler Cowen has a series of posts; the main one with a lot of personal anecdotes about Schelling is here. The others are here, here, and here. To me, these posts represent the best in blogging: combining news with both general and personal commentary.

Kieran Healy, a sociologist, presents an outsider's perspective.

I am sure there are (and will be) others. If you find anything interesting that you would like to share, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Ranking technical universities

Today's Economic Times carried a small piece on yet another ranking exercise; only this time, it is for technical universities, published by the Times Higher Education Supplement.

IITs apparently are ranked third in this list, up one slot from the fourth position last year. I presume this is the reason it made it to the ET.

Here is the catch. The THES website has nothing on it, as of now. All it offers is 2004 World University Rankings published in November 2004. The 2005 rankings, the website says, will be available soon. May be they have some disaggregated lists showing IITs in the third place under the category of technological universities. Perhaps the print edition is already out, and ET ran with it. The blogosphere doesn't have any discussion of this new rankings list, yet.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

IIPM -- let's play tag!

If you are interested in the IIPM tag, do read on. If you already know what the issues are (and you probably do), go to the last two paragraphs.

Good academic institutions, like hospitals, never advertise, except when they need to announce some significant event (usually, the start of the admissions season, or faculty recruitment). A corollary is that, anytime you see a flashy ad for a hospital or an academic institution making tall claims, you better watch out. As a great sage once observed, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.

So, a Mumbai based youth magazine went out to find out if there is any truth in what IIPM claimed in its huge, flashy ads, and -- surpise, surprise! -- found that there were quite a few, um, embellishments of truth in those ads. Rashmi Bansal blogged about it a while ago. Many bloggers, including me, have linked to Rashmi's post. We all had a good laugh.

Well, what would a real educational institution do, when it sees a PR disaster on its hands? It would first clarify its side of the story in a letter to the concerned magazine. This clarification would include how its ads are a true reflection of reality, and how the magazine's article has misrepresented a lot of things.

But IIPM seems to have got it all wrong. It is almost as if they just woke up, checked IIPM on technorati, realized that they had a headache, and decided to throw their weight around.

At a good institution, the way IIPM is handling things would earn them a D-. Their first crime is a lack of sensitivity to the market. I wonder if they do Tylenol as one of their case studies.

IIPM managers have finally -- a full three months after Rashmi's post! -- picked up the signals in the blogosphere. Now that they know we know, what do they do?

First, their 'students' visit Rashmi's blog and leave filthy and vile comments there, without a care about what their comments say about them and their alma mater. This fact alone alerts us that they are not real students, but hired thugs. Of course, if they are real students, not even the non-existent god can save them! And, second, their legal cell wrote a letter to Gaurav Sabnis (details here) threatening legal action. I hope he stands firm.

Well, this is indeed serious. We should stand by Gaurav and Rashmi. If you write for a newspaper, do please get your newspaper to investigate. As another sage said once, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Finally, if you blog, I urge you to raise this issue in your blog; this sort of a 'tag' is far better than the 23-5 tag that is floating around. If we succeed, this will achieve something of social value.

Let me quickly add that I am not the first one to have begun this 'tag'. Many have already written on it, and DesiPundit and Charu provide a fairly exhaustive list.

A new blogging concept

[Via Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance]: The faculty of the Department of Law in the University of Chicago now have a blog. Yes, the entire faculty, all of them! This must be the first such group blog.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Columbia's econ story

Take a look at Columbia University's economics faculty list. It has Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Jagdish Bhagwati, and many other big guns. Would you have guessed that this Department has a serious 'faculty crisis'? They went out and hired, not 3 or 4, but -- take a deep breath! -- ten new faculty!

Here is the New York Magazine's report on this amazing story. [Link from Tyler Cowen]

Saturday night Nalli blogging

No, I am not into cross dressing (unfortunately ;-). I am here at this ungodly hour to point you to a recent Economic Times profile of the famous store in Chennai, almost synonymous with silk sarees: Nalli. The story covers, very briefly, the founding family and its managing style. Along the way you get some factoids. For example, would you have guessed Nalli's New Delhi store does more business than its Mumbai store? Did you know that there are Nalli stores in Singapore, San Jose, London and Toronto?

Here are links to the Nalli business group, and the Nalli Silks online shop.

Here is an interesting blogpost by Ramnath on their recent advertising slogan "no discounts since 1928".

The IgNobels! The IgNobels!

Oops, I didn't know it would be so soon. These guys are clever; they do it during the Nobel season!

Here is the Guardian story. Check it out, it's hilarious!

I really liked the Literature Prize for "the internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for using email to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters ...", and the Physics Prize for "an experiment that began in the year 1927, in which a glob of congealed black tar has been slowly dripping through a funnel at a rate of around one drop every nine years". The others are good too.

Here is the IgNobel site.

Hat tip to Ramnath for the alert. He finds the economics prize to Gauri Nanda (for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides) noteworthy.

Nobel Peace Prize ...

... goes to the UN's nuclear watchdog IAEA and its 'CEO' Mohamed ElBaradei. Guardian has a report and an editorial.

Congratulations to IAEA and ElBaradei.

Something tells me that the right wingers are going to insinuate that politics had a hand in the final decision.

Happy Bhutan

Michael Higgins recently asked "What can Finland teach us?" -- the 'us' in his question refers to ethnically diverse countries. One can ask a similar question about many other small countries as well, and Bhutan would certainly qualify to be in that group. This pesky little Himalayan kingdom in our neighbourhood has instituted an interesting set of policies meant for growing its people's Gross National Happiness (GNH). These policies have made the mighty NYtimes sit up and take notice, leading to a long news story (that ties many strands into a nice happy knot), and an editorial a few days later.

We blogged about positive psychology (happiness science! ;-) just a few days ago. This is certainly a pleasant (happy?) follow up. From the NYTimes story:

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.

Now, from the editorial:

An economic cynic may argue that a country with a gross national product as small as Bhutan's can well afford to worry about its gross national happiness, and that the best way to increase G.N.H. is by increasing G.N.P. But that is essentially an untested assertion, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it isn't necessarily true. Our sense of happiness is created by many things that are not easily measured in purely economic terms, including a sense of community and purpose, the amount and content of our leisure and even our sense of the environmental and ecological stability of the world around us.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Indian-made foreign books

Two new undergrad texts in economics (Econ-101) are to be published soon: one by Paul Krugman (with Robin Wells) and the other by Glenn Hubbard (with Anthony O'Brien). Their prices? Just check them at Amazon later, but you can bet that they will be priced near $100. At those prices, I think students in India will wait for their Indian editions.

These two texts will be going up against an established one, written by another heavyweight: Greg Mankiw. Price? A very cool $138.95! Before you come back to the earth, let me push you into the stratosphere again by another factlet: Mankiw reportedly got a 1.4 million dollar advance in 1997 when its first edition was published.

Clearly, textbook prices are going up, and going up fast. In his NYTimes op-ed, Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, discusses why they are outpacing the inflation rate, and what can be done about it. Another issue he discusses is about authors prescribing their own books as texts for their courses; this, clearly, creates a conflict of interest. He discusses a mechanism for dealing with this conflict too.

The first year of our UG program was an interesting exception. For all our basic courses (in mathematics, chemistry, applied mechanics, etc., except physics) the prescribed texts were invariably books by Indian authors (and published by Indian companies). This suited us fine, because we would not have afforded the foreign ones. My point is different, so let me elaborate a bit.

The 'bible' that our mathematics professors at BHU preached from were written by Prannath and Agarwal. Some of my friends from Chennai used to be proud that they used Manickavachagam Pillai (spelling?). The problem was that they were mostly bad! Their only virtue was that they were affordable. They were poorly designed, and wore a rather sickly look, and insisted on just presenting information in a really dry format.

Having said that, I have to admit that they were absolutely great for preparing for exams. They were systematic, had tons of example problems and even more practice problems. If you did them all, even if you didn't learn anything from their 'theory' part, you would still emerge with a fairly decent understanding of the theory; and of course, you would ace the exams.

Evidently, the availability of good -- and reasonably inexpensive -- books is important. In India, this was a problem until a few years ago. During our undergraduate days in the early eighties, access to good text books (there were hardly any texts in metallurgy or materials science by Indian authors those days; the situation is not much different even now) was only through the (well stocked) library in our Department in IT-BHU. Remember, there were no xerox machines those days!

The only foreign book we could afford was the great Resnick and Halliday for physics. Even here, there is a twist; the edition that we used was at least one (probably two) edition behind the latest in use elsewhere! Reason: only this older edition (that was re-printed in India) was affordable; the latest edition could be found only in our library.

That was then, and this is now. When I walk into our Institute's bookstore, what hits me is the sheer variety of books on programming. Java, C++, C, C#, Unix, Linux, Python, Perl, Tcl/Tk, EJB, AJAX, ... You name it, they have a book on it. I think I even saw books on B+, B, B-, C+ ... ;-)

There is a wide choice of texts available in other subjects too, but the choice is the largest for programming.

One of the interesting consequences of this new publishing phenomenon is exemplified by a pretty high level (graduate) text on condensed matter physics by Lubensky and Chaikin. It is a bestseller, in spite of its being addressed to a rather small audience! The last I checked, it was already into its sixth reprint. I bought it several years ago at Rs.275, and it is now at about Rs. 325 or so. I am sure the low price contributed a lot to its bestseller-hood; lots of students who didn't need it still bought it as a reference text, or perhaps to impress their friends. [This reminds me of what a reporter for Science said about Stephen Hawking's A brief history of time: "it's a nice coffee table book." ;-)]

The availability of lots of good textbooks at reasonable prices has been one of the major revolutions in India in the last dozen years or so. Invariably, they are all 'Indian editions' of texts used elsewhere. I like to call them 'Indian-made foreign books! But unlike in the past, they are all quite 'current'; many are published within six months of their appearance in the Western countries.

Many of them are written by American authors, with a clear, easy-to-follow presentation. They are well designed, with lots of white space for esthetics and for writing your notes; they have nice pictures and drawings that our older books lacked (we don't see much colour yet, though the original American versions have colour pages and pictures). All these wonders are available for reasonable prices in the range of Rs. 200 to 500.

The IMFBs have made access to pedagogically oriented texts far more accessible. Another good thing is that they have set the benchmark for Indian authors of textbooks. Students may still buy the far cheaper, poorly written books by their own university professors for other -- er, well known -- reasons, but real learning -- available in IMFB's -- is now accessible.

More importantly, for the publishers, this phenomenon has reduced the need for xeroxing; so, they get at least some money that they would otherwise not have gotten at all.

Bottomline: there indeed is money at the bottom of the pyramid. It may not be much (now), but it will only grow.

If you were to interview a female string theorist ...

... would you pose this question to her?

How do you make string theory as popular as string bikinis…?

Some crazy dude did, on National Public Radio, one of the most respected radio channels. Clifford Johnson of Cosmic Variance is, naturally, annoyed.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Brutality at Bangalore

Update (6.10.2005): Thanks to an e-mail from a friend, I just learnt that other newspapers have also picked it up: Economic Times and Deccan Herald

A nasty and brutal treatment was meted out to Nimish Adani (an alumnus of IT-BHU and IIM-Lucknow) in Bangalore Railway Station by none other than the Railway Police themselves; he recounted it all in his letter that has been posted on quite a few blogs (e.g., Animesh Pathak, SciAn).

Today, Mr. Yogesh Upadhyaya informs me that it has been reported in the Bangalore edition of ToI. Here is the link.

I sincerely hope Nimish will get justice.

Mr. Upadhaya is trying to take it up with officials at many levels, and alert a few NGOs, including human rights watchdog groups. If any of you can provide pointers, please send a mail to me.

Nobels in Physics and Chemistry

The contests for this year's Nobel for medicine, physics and chemistry are over. New York Times reports on the physics Prize:

A scientist who worked out a theory describing the behavior of light using quantum mechanics and two scientists who used that knowledge to develop a powerful laser technique for identifying atoms and molecules were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced.

Half of the prize, and half of the $1.3 million in prize money, go to Roy J. Glauber, 80, a professor of physics at Harvard, for calculations that laid the foundation for quantum optics.

John L. Hall, 71, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder and at the University of Colorado, and Theodor W. Hänsch, 63, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and a physics professor at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, share the other half of the prize, for later work that uses ultrashort laser pulses to make precise measurements.

Inside Higher Ed, in a "breaking news" story states, "the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday morning to Yves Chauvin of the Institut Français du Pétrole, Robert H. Grubbs of the California Institute of Technology, and Richard R. Schrock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The scholars were honored for their work on the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis."

I will post a link to a detailed story from NYTimes after it appears. As of now, it hasn't appeared. The piece by Kenneth Chang starts with a wonderful paragraph that I am sure everyone (including scientists working in that area) would love:

Three scientists share this year's Nobel Prize Chemistry for developing a chemical reaction that swaps out pieces of molecules in a swing-your-partner-around square dance manner, it was announced today.

The chemical reaction, developed over the last 35 years, enables a more efficient and more environmentally friendly way to manufacture of plastics, drugs and other materials.

The winners are Yves Chauvin, 74, who retired a decade ago from the French Petroleum Institute in Rueil-Malmaison, France; Robert H. Grubbs, 63, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology; and Richard R. Schrock, 60, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each will share one-third of the $1.3 million prize money that accompanies the award bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Congratulations to the winners!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


See this update about a NYTimes story on happiness research.

Economics is called the 'dismal science'. But, for a long time, psychology too would have qualified: it dealt largely with what is wrong and dismal with the human (mental) condition, and tried to find a cure for it. Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at UPenn, who actually did pretty well in that dismal culture -- he discovered 'learned helplessness' as a mechanism for depression -- turned around and decided that it was time that psychology turned its attention from 'helping people to go from minus five to zero' to 'helping them to go from zero or one to five'. In other words, positive psychology, which has now turned into a pretty formidable science with many researchers, academic courses and conferences and even a World Database of Happiness.

In the last couple of years, I read two key popular books backed by solid psychological research and written by professors of psychology : Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

I wanted to make this post for a while. What forced the issue was this wonderful (and long) piece by Doroty Wade in the Sunday Times. It recounts the history of psychology, and how a bunch of people decided to re-orient it in a positive direction. It has interviews of some of the key people. It summarises their ideas neatly. All of it is done in a nice, conversational tone. In sum, it's great!

I am sure you are all interested in happiness -- yours and that of those around you. Read Dorothy Wade's article now. [link via slashdot]

And, don't forget the words from a great song from the eighties: "Don't worry, be happy"! :-)

Nobel in medicine

This year, 1000 Women have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Uma informs us that 92 of them are from India.

Here is an Outlook story from July 2003 that asked leading lights of Indian science about which Indians (broadly interpreted to include researchers of Indian origin) are in the reckoning for a Nobel. The story is old, but still interesting. Do read it (free registration is required).

The Outlook story is only about the science Nobels; not surprisingly, it misses Jagdish Bhagwati for the economics Prize.

The Nobel season has begun. This year's Prize for medicine is shared by "Dr. Barry J. Marshall, 54, a gastroenterologist from the University of Western Australia in Nedlands, and Dr. J. Robin Warren, 68, a retired pathologist from the Royal Perth Hospital.", according to this NYTimes report.

The Times story says:

Two Australian scientists who upset medical dogma by discovering a bacterium that causes stomach inflammation, ulcers and cancer won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine yesterday.
The findings by the Australians in the early 1980's went so against medical thinking, which held that psychological stress caused stomach and duodenal ulcers, that it took many more years for an entrenched medical profession to accept it.

In its citation, the Nobel committee from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm said that Dr. Marshall and Dr. Warren "made an irrefutable case that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori" causes ulcers and other diseases.

Congratulations! Since the prize-winners are from Australia, I guess the celebrations would already have begun there.

Monday, October 03, 2005

An elitist dream?

A recent issue of The Week had a cover story on the red carpets rolled out by foreign universities to woo Indian students to their campuses. Since foreign students pay a full fee while the natives pay only a partial fee, the former are, naturally, very attractive. On the supply side, more Indian students can afford expensive education today than ever before.

The numbers reported by the Week are truly staggering. There are at least 120,000 students studying abroad, most of them in English-speaking countries. Expenses? Including tuition, they come to anywhere between a low of Rs. 0.5 million and a high of Rs. 1.2 million per year.

Even if you assume (liberally) that some 75% of them have access to financial assistance -- I am sure it is a gross overestimate -- it still leaves some 30,000 students who pay their way through (with money raised by their parents or through bank loans). This is still a very large number and it represents an opportunity that India itself should be tapping.

Sure, some of the students wish to study abroad for the experience, and there is a lot to be said about it. But I am also sure there is a large number of students who go abroad because they don't find many good colleges and universities offering high quality education right here in India. Here is a quote from one of the people interviewed for the Week's story:

"I'll be taking the CAT exam in November. If I get through, I'll remain in India. But the competition is very tough. So, I've also applied for an MBA course at the University of Technology, Sydney, which I am likely to get."

We all know why Narayanamurthy sent his son to Corness, don't we? Here is what CBS said: "Murthy's own son, who wanted to do computer science at IIT, couldn't get in. He went to Cornell, instead. Imagine a kid from India using an Ivy League university as a safety school."

There is clearly a demand for high quality education in a good university even if it is very expensive by Indian standards.

Bottomline: a university that is similar in spirit to the Indian School of Business (ISB) could be a phenomenal success.

In an earlier post, I estimated what a fully student-funded research university would cost. That estimate was for a bare-bones university, made with the intention of finding out what the lowest cost would be. It turned out to be about Rs.100,000 per student per year. It supports 1 faculty and 2 or 3 graduate students (who all share in the teaching) for 40 students.

Just imagine what wonders one can do with Rs.200,000 or 300,000 per student! The educational experience would not be just bare-bones, it could have all bells and whistles. The students could be taught by some of the most brilliant minds money can buy (!) and could have world-class infrastructure.

When such a university is set up, who knows, it may even attract lots of foreign students (and some foreign faculty too!), offering everyone an international flavour and experience right here in India.

I am sure I am not the only one to think along these lines. After all, ISB and GLIM have been established on a similar principle. However, this hasn't happened, not just for a 'real' university with multiple disciplines, but even for stand-alone institutions in such 'lucrative' subjects such as engineering, medicine and law. To me, this fact implies either regulatory obstacles or market failure. What could it be?

Or, I am perhaps in some seriously elitist dream. Somebody please pinch me!