Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Budget speech

I don't know about you, but I found the Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's budget speech to be utterly -- yawn! -- boring. This is not surprising because the underlying budget, with a strong slant towards the status quo, doesn't have any large, overarching theme. So, you won't find radical announcements or major new initiatives in the speech. What you will find instead are the mind-numbing details such as which items are going to attract a custom duty of 7.65 percent, and which ones, at 7.56 percent. I am sure it is important for people working in those respective industries, but utterly useless in lightening up the speech.

Having said that, I have to admit that the speech had its moments. Not surprisingly, you find them mostly in the preamble, and in the conclusion.

Right at the beginning, Chidambaram starts by reminding the MPs:

Twenty months ago, when I presented the first Budget of the UPA Government, I asked Honourable Members – and the people of this country – to walk with us on the path of honour and courage. The final report card on the first year of the UPA Government is out, and there are reasons to celebrate.

Then, he gives us a bit of Shakespeare Charles Dickens:

This year can be characterized as the best of times and the worst of times. Nature has not been kind to us. Natural calamities took a heavy toll on human lives besides causing extensive damage to crops, roads, houses, and the infrastructure. ... It was also the best of times. Government has been able to fulfil the first NCMP obligation of ensuring a high growth rate.

He even launches into an 'assault on poverty':

The assault on poverty and unemployment continues. I believe that growth is the best antidote to poverty. The GDP growth target for the Tenth Plan was set at 8 per cent. ... the Government is determined to take the country to that high growth path. Growth will be our mount; equity will be our companion; and social justice will be our destination.

Here's a 'huh?' moment in the budget speech:

"Work is on at full steam on the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) and the North-South, East-West Corridors. As against 1.86 kms per day completed prior to May, 2004, the schemes are progressing at the rate of 4.48 kms per day. 96 per cent of the GQ will be completed by June, 2006 and the Corridors will be completed by end 2008. There is also substantial and visible progress in improving our ports, airports and rural roads."

He moves on to finish the preamble with yet another rhetorical reference to something that his party used with tremendous impact:

As the year draws to a close, I look back with satisfaction that the promises we made to the common citizen – the aam admi – have been substantially redeemed.

Saint Thiruvalluvar, the ancient Tamil poet whom Chidambaram has quoted in every budget speech, makes an appearance in this speech too, but with a difference. He has been taken off from his usual special position at the end of the speech; he appears somewhere in the middle, when Chidambaram introduces a program to help the farming community. The Thiruvalluvar quote chosen for this speech -- "The world is his who does his job with compassion" -- is about as colourless as the speech itself.

Who, then, gets the honour of rounding out the speech? Henry David Thoreau and Swami Vivekananda!

Henry David Thoreau:

The young people of India are building castles, it may appear that those castles are in the air, but as Henry David Thoreau said: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." It is our duty to put the foundations on which the young can build their castles.

And, finally, Swami Vivekananda:

Over a hundred years ago, a restless young man in his quest for the core of all spirituality admonished his fellow men in the following words: "We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. The wind is blowing; those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is that the fault of the wind?....... We make our own destiny." Those are the immortal words of Swami Vivekananda. Let us believe in our destiny, let us make our future.

Education in Budget-2006

The Budget-2006 speech is here. Let me just highlight education-related announcements in it. Let me start, of course, with IISc!

Institutions of Excellence

96. Last year, I made a beginning with an unprecedented grant of Rs.100 crore to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore to help develop it into a world-class institution. I am happy to report that the IISc has obtained approval for an ambitious programme of modernization, and is implementing the same. This year, I must recognize another historical event. Three great Universities have entered their 150th year. These are the University of Calcutta, the University of Mumbai and the University of Madras. I propose to mark the beginning of the 150th year celebrations with a grant of Rs.50 crore to each University for a specified research department or a research programme in that University. On the conclusion of the year, I intend to make another grant of Rs.50 crore to each of them.

97. I propose to make the special grant of Rs.100 crore for an institution of excellence to a distinguished institution, the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, in acknowledgement of its pioneering contribution to the green revolution.

98. If agriculture is an ancient Indian skill, biotechnology is the new frontier that India will conquer. In order to foster research and development in biotechnology, the Ministry of Science and Technology has decided to accord the status of an autonomous National Institute to the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Tiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Universal Primary Education Initiative):

18. Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) has recorded remarkable progress in 2005-06 in terms of new schools, additional class rooms and additional teachers. Two independent surveys show that 93 per cent of the children in the age group 6-14 years are in school, and the number of children not in school has come down to about one crore. Recognizing good performance, I propose to increase the outlay for SSA from Rs.7,156 crore to Rs.10,041 crore in 2006-07. 500,000 additional class rooms will be constructed and 150,000 more teachers will be appointed.

19. In 2006-07, we shall transfer Rs.8,746 crore to the Prarambhik Siksha Kosh from the revenues raised through the education cess.

Mid-day meal scheme

20. 12 crore children are now covered under the Mid-day Meal Scheme, which is the largest school lunch programme in the world. I propose to enhance the allocation from Rs.3,010 crore to Rs.4,813 crore in 2006-07.

National Maritime Academy:

86. [...] The existing National Institute of Port Management, Chennai, has been renamed as the National Maritime Academy, and it is proposed to upgrade it into a Central University under an Act of Parliament. The University will have regional campuses at Mumbai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam.

If you are curious, the budget speech mentions 'education' seven times. Only one of them appear in the above quotes; the others are used in situations such as "paper finds widespread use in education" ...

Update: I should have added this yesterday; the post by Dhi Only One reminded me about this interesting initiative to encourage girls to stay in school:

38. ... I propose to provide a further incentive to the girl child who passes the VIII Standard Examination and enrols in a secondary school. A sum of Rs.3,000 will be deposited in her name, and she would be entitled to withdraw it on reaching 18 years of age.

The first part of the above paragraph also has this initiative for girls:

The initial results of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Scheme launched in 2004 are encouraging. 1,000 new residential schools for girls from SC, ST, OBC and minority communities will be opened in 2006-07. I have provided Rs.128 crore, and I have agreed to provide an additional sum of Rs.172 crore during the year.

In addition, there is an initiative to help minority students:

37. Merit-cum-means based scholarships encourage students to pursue higher studies. Government will finance 20,000 such scholarships to students belonging to the minority communities. Once the scheme is finalized in 2006-07, I intend to allocate the necessary funds.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The case of Larry Summers

With the world's best-known B-school located in Harvard, is it any wonder that this case has now been converted into a Case for managers to study? The case of Summers seems to be entagled in the case of Andrei Shleifer, pursued by David McClintick (profiled here), who did an investigative piece in January under the title of "How Harvard lost Russia". McClintick's piece ought to be read for its own sake; that it undermined Larry Summers' career is beside the point (though it was an important side-effect).

Finally, Matthew Pearl uses this case to highlight a key event (nearly 140 years ago!) in Harvard's history that helped shape it into what it is today.

15 nanoseconds of fame: 3. About my blog

Here are the links to all of "15 nanoseconds of fame":


Metaphors for blogs

The state of Indian blogdom

About my blog

My blog, 'Nanopolitan', has a mix of long opinion pieces and short posts containing one or two links accompanied by brief comments. While it covers many different topics, it has a recurring theme: India's higher education system. Just how popular is my blog? Well, it attracts about 100-300 visitors every day (while the top Indian blogs get daily visitors in the range of 1000 to 10,000). Not a bad record for a blog which has very little to offer in politics, movies or sports.

What have I gained from my blogging experience? First and foremost, several tens of regular readers. All said and done, a blog is a medium of communication, and this medium is worthless if there were no readers. My blog's regular readers (together with their thoughtful comments on my posts) are the biggest return on my time investment. Thanks to blogging, I have also come to know -- and regard as friends -- quite a few people that I have yet to meet. Remember the articles you used to read in newspapers about pen friends? Well, I never had pen friends, but I now have quite a few 'blog friends'. And, of course, I get a minor thrill every time I see my blog featured in the top two or three pages on web searches (you might want to try googling 'cost of IIT education' or '100 dollar laptop').

15 nanoseconds of fame: 2. State of Indian blogdom

Here are the links to all of "15 nanoseconds of fame":


Metaphors for blogs

The state of Indian blogdom

About my blog

The Indian community of bloggers is large and growing. It has created several mechanisms through which new and noteworthy blogs can be discovered. The first is the Bharateeya Blog Mela in which, every week, a volunteer aggregates interesting posts of the week with commentary and links. The second is DesiPundit, a group blog devoted to performing the same role as Bharateeya Blog Mela, but on a 24/7 basis. Yet another initiative is the annual Indibloggies awards, given to most popular sites in various categories.

While the Indian blog community is large, many large holes remain in its coverage. For example, it lacks professional economists with experience in government and policy-making. In fact, it lacks professionals in many fields such as sociology, psychology, political science, and philosophy. Even in fields that have some representation (information technology, management, advertising, journalism, literary criticism), there is space for a lot more than we currently have.

So, here's the take-home message: If you have something interesting to say, don't just say it to your family and friends. Blog it. There's a whole world out there that could benefit from your incisive and insightful perspectives and expressive power.

15 nanoseconds of fame: 1. Metaphors for blogs

Here are the links to all of "15 nanoseconds of fame":


Metaphors for blogs

The state of Indian blogdom

About my blog

Prof. Sadagopan, the Director of IIIT-Bangalore, has one. Prof. Swami Manohar, one of the creators of Simputer, started one recently. And, guess what? I have one, too! I mean, a blog. That's the reason why I, a materials scientist, am here addressing you in an article on blogs.

To me, a blog is a personalized medium of communication, carrying your voice to the rest of the world through the Web. It allows you to take part in conversations on topics that interest you. It's easy to set up, and all blogging platforms support unicode, so you can write in any of the Indian languages. Blogs, together with associated technologies -- blog search, trackbacks and RSS feeds -- form a friendly ecosystem that sustains and supports bloggers, allowing them to find out, quickly and effortlessly, who is saying what, particularly about themselves!

As a CSI member, you probably know a lot more about these technologies than I could ever learn; explaining them to you, therefore, is a lot like describing to Rahul Dravid about a nifty defensive stroke I learned. So, let me focus instead on the multi-dimensional splendour of blogs using a set of metaphors, and conclude with a few observations about my blogging journey so far, and about the state of Indian blogdom.

Blogs as op-ed opinion pieces

Due to the very nature of newspapers' editorial pages, the opportunity to be featured in them is restricted to a few experts; there are only so many opinion columns in a year, but there are a billion of us! Blogs have had a great democratizing effect in making this opportunity available to everyone. They liberate 'the rest of us' from the 'tyranny of the few'! In addition, the blog format does offer some great advantages. First, there are no deadlines; you write whenever you find time and inspiration. Second, there is no editor to prune your insightful, 2000-word opus into the standard 800 word format. Third, you are also liberated from the tyranny of fixed size; your posts may range from a couple of paragraphs to long articles that have several argument threads.

Blogs as back-up brains

When we come across an interesting article on the web, many of us simply bookmark them (either on our browser or on social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us. Blogs can be used to park such links, together with some of your immediate thoughts, opinions and questions. This private use can also serve a public purpose: your readers benefit from your good judgement: they get to read interesting articles you choose to link!

Blogs as newsletters

As members of CSI, a professional society, you receive a copy of this magazine. Imagine receiving the magazine, not as a hard copy or through an e-mail, but as a blog; not as a set of articles packaged in monthly issues, but as a series of blog posts, written as and when a good article comes along. With comments enabled, such a blog can work wonders in building a community. Well, CSI may not be doing it, but several others are. Slashdot is one such community-led discussion forum for techies, and its Indian equivalent, SlashIndia, has been up and running for a month or so.

This newsletter approach also works well for those who are interested in specific causes. Thus, we have blogs focusing on combating social ills such as eve teasing and ragging. NGO's such as Project Why, use blogs to disseminate important information to its members as well as to the public. In the area of e-governance, Mr. B. Dayananda, the Superintendent of Poice of the Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka uses a blog to disseminate press-releases issued by his office.

Blogs as teaching tools

Many instructors use their blogs as a bulletin board for their courses. These blogs host reading materials, home assignments and exams, and forums where students can post questions and discuss them. In some courses (particularly in social sciences), students are required to write their own (group) blogs. Again, advantages are many: blogs are easy to set up, discussions are publicly available to everyone in the course, student interactions need not be confined to class hours. It's a win-win for everyone!

Blogs as coordination centers

The enormity of the disaster unleashed by the tsunami of 26 December 2004 demanded relief efforts at many levels. While the government and the mainstream media played their role in the relief efforts, a group of volunteer-bloggers also contributed to them through a collective blog: the South East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami blog (with an apt acronym 'SEA-EAT'), which acted as a coordination center for "news and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts". This model, which combines voluntarism and citizen journalism, has been replicated during several other subsequent natural disasters including the extraordinary downpour in Mumbai in July 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Such a model can easily be adapted to coordinating large projects involving many people, with blogs serving as public bulletin boards and discussion forums.

Blogs as news organizations

In principle, a blogger can be a journalist, gathering (and sometimes, investigating) and disseminating news through his/her blog. In this enterprise, he/she may also take help from the readers, who can be asked to pursue specific leads while investigating a larger story. Several such blogs have already sprung up in the US (such as Talking Points Memo), and it's only a matter of time before we see them in India.

When blogs perform so many different functions, it always amazes and irritates me when an ill-informed journalist describes blogs as just 'personal diaries'!

15 nanoseconds of fame

Here are the links to all of "15 nanoseconds of fame":


Metaphors for blogs

The state of Indian blogdom

About my blog

Blogging is the cover feature in the latest issue of CSI Communications, the monthly newsletter of the Computer Society of India, which claims that it is "the largest and most professionally managed association of and for IT professionals in India". I contributed a piece to this cover feature, which was published in the section on "sample opinions of bloggers", together wtih those by Kartik Kannan and Kishore.

Since CSI Communications is not available online [strange, isn't it?], I will reproduce my piece in three parts which are thematically different. The first part explores some metalphors for blogs: blogs as opinion pieces, blogs as backup brains, etc. In the second part, I hold forth on the state of Indian blogosphere, and in the third, I ruminate a bit about my own blogging journey.

The cover feature itslef has several fine articles:

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More on visa denials

An update (24 February 2006) appears at the end.

Nature, arguably the world's most prestigious science journal, features in its latest issue the recent denial of US visas to some Indian scientists. Here's how its story opens:

Scientific cooperation between India and the United States has been dented ahead of US President George Bush's official visit to New Delhi next month. Bush will find India's scientific community in a bitter mood following the United States' failure to give a visa to a leading Indian organic chemist on the suspicion that his work could be related to chemical warfare.

Newsweek too has picked up the story, and its coverage is the best that I have seen so far:

Visa rejections or delays for foreign academics after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have led to widespread complaints by U.S universities and scientific organizations, but the new incident comes when things are improving, said Wendy White, director of the Board of International Scientific Organizations. The board was set up by the National Academy of Sciences and has helped about 3,000 scientists affected by the new policies.

"This leaves a terrible impression of the United States," said White, who has seen a copy of the consulate's form letter to Mehta. In an interview yesterday, she added that top scientists had worked with senior State Department officials to reverse the decision before Bush's visit next week. "We want people to know the U.S. is an open and welcoming country."

In response to my earlier post on this topic, a commenter suggests that we should not blow this issue out of proportion, implying that we are protesting too much. I disagree. In fact, I would even say our protests so far are not strong enough!

First, science is an international affair that has always placed a high value on collaborations and participation in conferences. Thus, anything that comes in the way of a scientist's freedom to pursue these two activities must be condemned in strongest possible terms.

Second, these two reasons for visiting a country -- conferences and collaboration -- have nothing at all to do with the country in question. You go to a conference because of its prestige, not because it's held in the US. Similarly, you collaborate with Prof. X because he/she is Prof. X, not because he/she lives in the US. Denying people a visa for these purposes is wrong.

The charade of 'oh, we haven't denied them a visa, it's only delayed' has happened yet again.

When a denial-of-visa attack appears to target a significant section of the scientific commnuity (not just the top scientists, but also others -- including students) in a country, shouldn't we be protesting loudly? Aren't such protests better than demands that our country wage a war of reciprocal visa denials with the US?

Finally, what is wrong in pointing out shameful practices (I am told that in international relations, there is no such thing as shame, but still ...), and demanding that our fellow scientists be treated fairly?


Update (24 February 2006): This issue has been picked up by both NYTimes and Washington Post. Both report that Prof. Mehta's visa has been granted, though he has been quoted as saying that he has already canceled his visit. Dr. Rodriguez's visa has also been granted, after he submitted by e-mail a questionnaire he was asked to fill.

Here's a key paragraph, buried in the middle of the NYTimes report:

The embassy said Dr. Mehta's application would be considered as quickly as he submitted the additional information, which would then be sent to Washington for final approval. Such scrutiny applies to "one-half of 1 percent" of applicants, the embassy noted, adding that it had granted 313,815 visas in 2005. The embassy declined to say how many applications it had rejected.

Don't get carried away by the huge number (300K +) of visas being issued (it includes H1-B, business, student and tourist visas). The number of scientists who wish to visit the US for conferences and collaboration is a far smaller; they probably form the bulk of the "one-half of one percent" of applicants. The recent spate of visa denials is clearly a targeted activity. No wonder the US Embassy here is being slammed by the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU), "an umbrella group of 133 national academies of science and international science unions". It's representative gets it exactly right when he says:

"Professor Mehta is a very well known scientist, but there are many lesser known scientists to whom this is happening," [Carthage Smith, Deputy Executive Director of ICSU] said. "The bigger issue is important."

The bigger issue is important, and that's why it's absolutely vital that we voice our protest loudly and strongly. We need to do it, not (just) for high-ranking scientists like Professors Mehta, Rodriguez and Kesavan, but for a lot of other scientists whose cases don't make it to newspapers.

Take the case of one of our students I mentioned in my earlier post. He is unable to schedule another visa interview before the conference begins; the appointments are full up all the way out to the end of April, while the conference is just a couple of weeks away. The proximity of the date of visit, apparently, is not a valid reason for seeking an emergency visa interview (even if it means paying a higher fee). Geeeez!


Two pieces of news about IIMs:

In this Rediff column, Rajat Kathuria, a professor of economics at IMI, notes that no Indian B-school has made it to the Financial Times' list of top 100 B-schools. Of course, much of his column is devoted to IIMs.

The Economic Times reported recently about how difficult it is for IIMs to recruit new faculty.

About three weeks ago, Rashmi Bansal wrote two   posts on the state of IIMs. She seems to have seen the future!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

GRE and GATE, again

A quick follow-up to this post from four months ago. Today's New York Times reports that the roll out of the new, improved GRE general test is delayed; it is expected to be operational only from Fall of 2007. I found the following bit -- which appears towards the end of the report -- interesting:

The revamping of the G.R.E. was prompted in large part by security concerns, stemming from the fact that questions were reused.

In 2002, an undetermined number of students in China, Taiwan and Korea raised their verbal scores by logging on to Web sites in those countries and memorizing questions and answers posted by previous test takers. Later that year, two Columbia University undergraduates were arrested for using high-tech transmitters to send out test questions.

After the overhaul, every student taking the test on a particular day will get the same questions, and those questions will not be reused.

The revamped exam will also change the verbal reasoning section so that it will consist of two 40-minute sections rather than one 30-minute section, and will place less emphasis on vocabulary and more on higher cognitive skills. The quantitative reasoning section will grow from one 45-minute section to two 40-minute sections, with fewer geometry questions and more on interpreting tables and graphs. And the analytical writing measure, which had a 45-minute essay and a 30-minute essay, will now have two 30-minute essays.

Now, let's turn to GATE -- the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering, used by almost all institutions in India for admitting students into their graduate programs, in engineering in particular. This year, GATE has done away with reporting your percentile scores. So, from this year on, if you pass GATE, the scorecard will mention your score and your rank. The GATE score is some statistical monstrosity measure, which is probably a standard way of presenting information about the relative aptitude of a candidate; let me just state that I don't completely understand it. If you are interested to dig deeper into its mysteries, go to this page.

Larry Summers is out

He steps down from the Presidency of Harvard at the end of the semester, reports the New York Times:

Hailed in his first days as a once-in-a-century leader, in the mold of perhaps Harvard's greatest president, Charles W. Eliot, Dr. Summers, 51, came into office with plans to expand the campus, put new focus on undergraduate education and integrate the university's schools. But he eventually alienated professors with a personal style that many saw as bullying and arrogant.

His well-known desire to change Harvard's culture, which he saw as complacent, was accompanied by slights to some faculty members and missteps like his statement last year that women might lack an intrinsic aptitude for math and science.

And some of his major decisions — including overhauling the undergraduate curriculum, appointing deans and mapping out a new campus — were hugely divisive at the 370-year-old university.

"I looked at the extent of the rancor that had emerged in parts of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences," Dr. Summers told reporters yesterday, "and the extent to which for many I personally had become a large issue, and concluded very reluctantly that the agenda for the university that I cared about — as well as my own satisfaction — would be best served by stepping down."

Here's his letter to the Harvard community. There is some discussion over at Brad DeLong's blog. Matthews Yglesias, a Harvard alumnus, offers his views here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Economics, online

In this post at Marginal Revolution, commenters have already provided a bunch of pointers to some nice online resources for learning economics at the undergraduate and post graduate levels. One of them appears particularly exhaustive, with tons of links to lecture notes and texts online.

User friendly information on colleges and universities

Doug Lederman writes in Inside Higher Ed about a study that compared the ranking of universities in several countries. This passage about the method adopted in Germany caught my attention:

Because of the problems they perceive with the subjectivity of the rankings, the authors suggest that there may be a better way for consumers and others to measure institutional quality — and they find it in Germany. There, a think tank called the Centre for Higher Education Development, working with a publisher, Die Zeit, publish a ranking (German language only) of individual academic departments based on extensive surveys of students and professors and data gathered independently of the departments themselves (the latter a crucial factor, says Usher, because it “takes the massaging of the data” that some colleges engage in out of the process).

The German ranking does not weight or aggregate the scores on individual indicators into a common “grade,” nor does it in any way assign the institutions in a numerical order. It classifies the departments into thirds (top, bottom, middle) on each individual indicator, and it allows individual users to sort the weightings and rankings in its database to compare institutions and departments in the way they choose.

Sometime ago, I talked about a speech given by the Chairman of AICTE in which he said colleges will hereafter be required to disclose information about their infrastructure and other details. I also noted there that students and their parents would benefit if the colleges disclose a lot of other details as well. Instead of depending on the colleges to do the right thing, the German model seems to mandate that this information be provided to some organization which is vested with the responsibility of putting it together in a user-friendly way.

I also remember this post by Rashmi Bansal, who talks about the relative merits of 'ranking' of universities and 'rating' them. She describes how JAM, the Mumbai-based youth magazine she edits, rates colleges in Mumbai. The German model also prefers rating of universities, leaving fine-scale decisions (about which attribute should get greater weightage, for example) to students.

When it comes to colleges and universities, just what kind of accountability measures should a society insist on? What kinds of information should it demand from them? In this article, the Chairman of "The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education" [that was quite a mouthful, wasn't it?] provides a framework for thinking about these question.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reality check for bloggers

Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet.

Trevor Butterworth in an article on blogging in the Financial Times. [Emphasis added by me].

Link via Kaps.

President Kalam on undergraduate education in IISc

For future generations of research students and scientists, Dr. Kalam urged the IISc. to consider starting undergraduate study programmes in core areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and bioinformatics. The institute must also take the lead in creating a "virtual education hub," an "Open Courseware" that could be deployed on the web and be accessible to anyone who wanted to be part of the knowledge society.

When his suggestion on undergraduate studies was greeted with silence, Dr. Kalam joked, "I knew this would be your response, but I am taking the liberty of suggesting it, since I consider myself a part of the institute."

Here's the link to the story in the Hindu. My take on undergraduate education in elite research institutions such as IISc and TIFR is here.

Update: Venkat, an alumnus of IISc, offers his views on this issue here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Of skills ladder and outsourcing

A new study [to be] presented to the National Academies, the nation's leading advisory groups on science and technology, suggests that more and more research work at corporations will be sent to fast-growing economies with strong education systems, like China and India.


The study contended that lower labor costs in emerging markets are not the major reason for hiring researchers overseas, though they are a consideration. Tax incentives do not matter much, it said.

Instead, the report found that multinational corporations were global shoppers for talent. The companies want to nurture close links with leading universities in emerging markets to work with professors and to hire promising graduates.

From this report by Steve Lohr in the NYTimes.

Women (and men) in science

... I will argue, as others have many times before, that men and women are born different. Yet even we scientists deny this, allowing us to identify the “best” candidates for jobs and promotions by subjecting men and women to the same tests. But since these tests favour predominantly male characteristics, such as self-confidence and aggression, we choose more men and we discourage women. Science would be better served if we gave more opportunity and power to the gentle, the reflective, and the creative individuals of both sexes. And if we did, more women would be selected, more would choose to stay in science, and more would get to the top.

Some interesting quotes from the paper about sex differences:

"...[Newborn] infants (less than 24 hours old) have been shown a real human face and a mobile of the same size and similar colour. On average, boys looked longer at the mobile and girls looked longer at the face. "

"The chance that a woman will mug you tonight on the way home is somewhere around nil. That is a quirk specific to my gender." —Michael Moore

From the abstract of this paper by Peter A. Lawrence. Here's another quote:

At present, in the competition for academic posts, we expect our candidates to go through a gruelling process of interview that demands self-confidence. We are impressed by bombast and self-advertising, especially if we don't know the field, and we may not notice annexation of credit from others, all of which on average are the preferred province of men. But we should also seek out able scientists who would care well for their groups, those who would mentor a distressed student and help her or him back into productive research. And if we did, we would choose more feminine women as well as more feminine men.

A while ago, Nature published a piece by Ad Lagendijk on Pushing for Power, devoted largely to behaviour of physicists:

When I participate in a scientific conference I see a gathering of aggressive men (and yes, I mean men) fighting for their scientific claims to, at best, minuscule advancements. ... Successful scientists incessantly travel around the world performing their routines like circus clowns — forcefully backing up assertions over what are their contributions to the latest scientific priorities. ... It is not just at conferences that predatory scientists participate in the power game. Other forums include harsh reports written by anonymous referees reviewing papers for high-impact journals; damning assessments of a lecturer's teaching skills; or dismissive reviews of applications to granting organizations. ... In the battle for tax-payers' money, criticizing other branches of natural science, or indeed neighbouring disciplines in physics, is already a popular activity. "My discipline is more fundamental than yours," is a frequently heard claim. Note that it is not size that matters, but fundamentality.

For a (far less brazen) version of the principle of 'the primacy of fundamentality', see this piece by Steven Strogatz (to be fair, it doesn't have anything to do with gender issues in science) that appeared as his contribution to Edge's question to various scientists: What's your dangerous idea:

In ... complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Labour shortages in BPO industry

In a country of 1.1 billion people, raw talent is plentiful, [B. Ramalinga Raju, CEO Satyam Computers] said, but not all of it is market-ready.

Saritha Rai in a NYTimes story on labour shortages being foreseen in India's outsourcing industry (software and IT-enabled services).

A random variable with 'Satyabhama' as its value

Ramki has a great post about a random variable called 'engineering_college_in_Chennai'. When it gets the value 'Satyabhama' (note: it's not Sathyabama), its properties could be weird, indeed.

Write some crap

Go on, write those shitty posts. Execute some occasional plunges into the well of mediocrity. Seek repose in the brain-soothing filth at the bottom of the cellars of uninspiredness.

So says Gawker. Do heed his advice; if you don't, the consequences can be pretty bad: "... you're just a couple of blogposts away from full-fledged dementia."

Denial of US visa: an update

Just a quick update to yesterday's post on the denial of the US visa to Indian scientists.

After quite a few Indian news outlets picked up this story about the stupid behaviour at the US Consulate (to my knowledge, all of it seems to be concentrated in its Chennai oiffice), the US Embassy authorities have responded.


On Friday, an embarrassed US Embassy rushed to clear the air on accusations of rude behaviour shown to the scientists.

"We express deep regret for the inconvenience caused. It was routine requirement for information and the processing of their passports in now on," said David Kennedy, spokesperson, US Embassy.

The Indian Express:

Mark Frie, Chief of the Consular Section at the US Consulate in Chennai, called Mehta urging him to apply again. Mehta said he had turned down the offer and told the US official: “One humiliation is enough.”

Expressing regret over the distress caused to Mehta, the Embassy statement said: “We are committed to treating each applicant with dignity and respect.”

The Telegraph:

An embassy official said the US has respect for the scientists of India and other countries and no one was trying to discourage visits by members of the Indian academic and scientific community.

Mehta, however, is not impressed. “I was clearly told that visa has not been granted,” he said from Bangalore, where the IISc is located.

The scientist was furious at the behaviour of consulate officials. He felt humiliated when the interviewer asked him to convince him that his work was not related to chemical warfare.

“I could not answer the absurd question. Then I was told that I have not been honest. How can anyone say this to a scientist? It was not a personal humiliation,” he said.

Mehta has decided not to reapply even as an official from the US consulate today requested him to do so.

There is more at Outlook, and SiliconIndia.com.

Friday, February 17, 2006

25 billion dollars!

Last year, Stanford, the topper, received 603 million dollars from private donors. The figures for the next four are: University of Wisconsin at Madison (595 m), Harvard (589 m), UPenn (394 m) and Cornell (353 m). Overall, private donors contributed a staggering 25.6 billion dollars to American colleges and universities in 2005.

These figures are from an article in Inside Higher Ed   by Doug Lederman.

What is the story in India? You might be interested in this post I wrote in November.

Blog power

When a company is dealing directly with a labour union or an environmental outfit, its top brass often take the easy route, by co-opting the leaders or paying some sort of Danegeld. Until a couple of decades ago, that meant doling out generous union contracts and sticking shareholders, taxpayers or consumers with the bill. More recently, the fashion has been for “corporate social responsibility”. This might involve spending money on a pressure group's pet project; or recruiting prominent activists to a joint committee, dedicated to doing good works.

In the blogosphere, however, a corporation's next big critic could be anyone. He might be an angry customer or a disgruntled employee—though that sort of tie to the company is not essential; nor does he need lots of industry experience or lengthy credentials to be a threat. All a blogger really needs to devastate a company is a bit of information and plausibility, a complaint that catches the imagination and a knack for making others care about his gripe.

From this Economist article.

Top ten reasons ...

... why nobody reads your blog.

Link via Chugs.

TV and kids

They looked for evidence that greater exposure to television lowered test scores. They found none. After controlling for socioeconomic status, there were no significant test-score differences between kids who lived in cities that got TV earlier as opposed to later, or between kids of pre- and post-TV-age cohorts. Nor did the kids differ significantly in the amount of homework they did, dropout rates, or the wages they eventually made.

From this article by Austan Goolsbee in the Slate. Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.

The 'they' in the quote are Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, economists in the University of Chicago, which is also the home of one of the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt.

I would still restrict the daily TV dosage for our four-year old. The reason is simple (and has nothing to do with studies or future test scores): many shows on the Cartoon Network and Pogo are so violent (particularly the evening shows) that we can see their effect on him. What is worse, even if we restrict his TV watching to only the shows on Tiny TV (with things like Noddy, Pingu, Oswald, Bob-the builder, etc), these channels pump him with ads for the more violent shows (and Power Rangers is horribly, sickeningly violent) to be shown later. And these ads themselves are quite scary.

Light up for science

... India stands virtually at the bottom of the world table when it comes to high-speed networking and digital connectivity dedicated to research and education. This is the conclusion of an international committee of scientists dedicated to the task of monitoring and promoting networking and connectivity initiatives for research communities across the world.

Using data from the worldwide passive monitoring of networks, the committee found that India lags at least ten years behind the world leaders, the United States and Western Europe. It is at least three to four years behind countries such as Brazil and China, and only two to three years ahead of the Central Asian Republics and Africa.

From this opinion piece by T. Jayaraman of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Thanks to reader Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.

This is insane

Just yesterday, I wrote a comment on Rohin's post (over at the Daily Rhino) about how the US has eased its visa process in order to attract more students from Asia (and India, in particular). Later in the day, however, I found out that one of our students got a raw deal on his visa application to go to the US for a conference; also, he was going to this conference to receive an award!

Update: Looks like there is even more: Dr. Placid Rodriguez, former Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, has also been denied a visa to go to the US for a conference.

And, there's more. I just learnt that even an ex-Director of IISc (Prof. Goverdhan Mehta, who stepped down last July) is not immune from this sort of a rough deal. Oh, by the way, Mehta is also a member of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council.

While I applaud the US consulates in India for being quite democratic in dishing out this treatment, I have to say this is a an utterly stupid way of spreading their democratic ideals.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Why graduate students succeed or fail"

Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, called the book “the first effort to describe and interpret the empirical realities of the doctoral education process from the perspective of different socioeconomic groups, in different broad fields, and across a variety of universities.” Stewart said she hoped the data could lead to real reflection in graduate programs. “This is the kind of work that encourages me to believe we are actually learning something upon which we can make policy decisions in graduate education.”

From this article in Inside Higher Ed about a new book, Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D., which is the result of "a decade-long project in which more than 9,000 graduate students, enrolled at 21 top research universities, provided detailed information about their experiences."

Size does matter ...

First off, what do you measure—from where to where? ... What about room temperature? ... Furthermore, who should do the measuring? Self-reported measurements are more, um, forgiving than size determined by a disinterested medical professional, by half an inch or more.

Now that I have your complete attention, read this Slate piece by Kent Sepkowitz.


Darrin McMahon's book, Happiness: A History receives a positive review by Jim Holt in the New York Times. McMahon had a key message about happiness in a NYTimes op-ed in December (I linked to it here):

"Those only are happy," [John Stuart Mill] came to believe, "who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." For our own culture, steeped as it is in the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure and endless cheer, that message is worth heeding.

Staying on the trail of happiness, Forbes has articles by Tim Harford and Daniel Gilbert on the connections between happiness and other things, including money (hey, we are talking about Forbes here!) and . The relationship is, shall we say, not uncomplicated.

Both Oswald and Richard Layard argue that relationships are more important than money--and that includes professional relationships. "I've come to believe in the old-fashioned view that one should be tender in one's dealings with colleagues," Lord Layard told me in an interview. And what else? "Think about what you have rather than what you don't have, both materially and in your relationships and your personal strengths. To use the language of economics, don't try to rectify things that aren't your comparative advantage."

Daniel Gilbert:

For example, would you be happier working for Firm A, which will pay you $94,000 per year and pay others who do the same work $100,000, or for Firm B, which will pay you $89,000 and pay others $83,000?

The obvious answer is Firm A. After all, your bank account contains dollars that you can spend on groceries and vacations, and those dollars don't care what the guy in the next cubicle earns.

Alas, taking the job with the better salary may maximize your wealth, but it will in all likelihood minimize your happiness. Why? Because right now you are comparing one job with the other, and the job with the larger salary is appealing by comparison.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Deborah Tannen on conversations

"Right" and "wrong" aren't words a linguist uses. My job is to analyze conversations and discover why communications fail. The biggest complaint I hear from daughters is: "My mother's always criticizing me." And the mother counters, "I can't open my mouth; my daughter takes everything as criticism."

But sometimes caring and criticism are found in the same words. When mothers talk about their daughters' appearance, they are often doing it because they feel obligated to tell their daughter something that no one else will.

The mother feels she's caring. The daughter feels criticized. They are both right.

What I try to do is point out each side to each other. So, the mother needs to acknowledge the criticism part, and the daughter needs to acknowledge the caring part. It's tough because each sees only one.

From this NYTimes interview of Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, and best selling author of several books, including the fantastic You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. She is out with a new book You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, which apparently has already hit the bestseller lists.

Let me give you a link to an article adapted from You just don't understand, with some excerpts:

In my own research, complaints from women about their husbands most often focused not on tangible inequities such as having given up the chance for a career to accompany a husband to his, or doing far more than their share of daily life-support work like cleaning, cooking, social arrangements and errands. Instead, they focused on communication: "He doesn't listen to me," "He doesn't talk to me." I found, as Hacker observed years before, that most wives want their husbands to be, first and foremost, conversational partners, but few husbands share this expectation of their wives.

This is so like ... me and my wife! I better stop and go home, now. Enough blogging for the day ...

Pick-up lines

It's just a day late, but what can I do? I just saw it on Marginal Revolution. The 'it' in the previous sentence, of course, would be an academic paper that reports on which pick-up lines work well (and speculates on why they work). 'It' also forms a part of my general grouse about how social scientists get to have all the fun [and worse, they get paid, too!].

Openings involving jokes, empty compliments and sexual references received poor ratings. Those revealing, e.g., helpfulness, generosity, athleticism, ‘culture’ and wealth, were highly rated.

Intrigued by the scare quotes around 'culture'? Heck, I certainly was. Here's an example of a pick-up line (actually, a conversation) that exudes 'culture' (more available in the paper):

q32 (Culture) There is an elegant society dinner in a large country house. A man and woman, who have just met for the first time, are standing having drinks before the meal. The man turns to the woman and points out the large grand piano occupying a corner of the room.

M: It’s a fine instrument wouldn’t you say? A Steinway concert grand if I’m not mistaken.

W: Oh really... do you play then?

M: Just a little, for myself. I’m not really good enough to perform... unless, that is, you would like me to...

W: Well, I wouldn’t want to force you into it... but I’ve always loved Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata...

M: Ah... yes, the Moonlight Sonata or to give it it’s true name Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia. A fittingly beautiful piece for a beautiful lady. I will try, but I can only hope that my attempt will do justice to you.

On the other hand, look at what Anita Jain (in an old -- but hilarious -- piece in New York magazine) has said to an Indian man on their first date:

When I go out on a first date with an Indian man, I find myself saying things I would never utter to an American. Like, “I would expect my husband to fully share domestic chores.”

State of the blogosphere

Via Uma, I found this New York article by Clive Thompson about how blogging is getting corporatized, and lots of money is being made.

... he blogosphere is slowly developing solid business models, which take roughly three forms.

The first—and most common so far—is the accidental tourist: A lone writer who starts a blog as a mere hobby but then wakes up one day to realize his audience is now as big as a small city newspaper. [...]

The second basic blogging business model is the record-label approach: Crank out dozens and dozens of sites and hope that one or two will become hits. The pioneer here is the new-media entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who founded Weblogs, Inc., in September 2003 and began rapidly shotgunning new blogs into obscure niches: Tablet PCs, Microsoft Office, “telemedicine,” and the like. ... Calacanis scored an enormous hit with Engadget, the second most-linked-to site on Technorati. “AOL basically paid $25 million for Engadget,” more than one envious blogger carped to me.

The third and final model? The boutique approach: a publisher who crafts individual blogs the way Condé Nast crafts magazines—each one carefully aimed at some ineffable, deluxe readership. This is Nick Denton’s modus operandi. Though he set up shop three and a half years ago, making his the oldest blog empire around, he has launched a mere fourteen blogs. They are all, however, in niches that target high-spending, well-educated readers—such as gossip, sex, and politics. The aim is to hit the sweet spot: big readerships, but not hoi polloi.

It covers a lot of ground, and the general message -- for those individual bloggers who are into blogging for the money -- is quite bleak. It gives you the feeling that the big boys and girls hog all the revenue, with nothing but crumbs for the rest. However, that's not true, thanks to the Long Tail phenomenon. It's all of only academic interest to people like me (I don't intend carrying ads here), but you might be itnerested in this short piece that accompanies the main article.

Over at Technorati blog, David Sifry (CEO of Technorati) has the first two parts of his four-monthly exercise in giving us all the low down on the state of the blogosphere from his unique vantage point. At last count, he says, some 75,000 new blogs are being created, 12 million posts are being written every day. Out of some 27 million blogs that are tracked, almost 14 million blogs are still in business 3 months after their birth. Blogosphere is doubling every 5.5 months.

It's primary, stupid ...

... India cannot be the knowledge superpower it aspires to be as long as our fundamentals are unsound.

For that we need schools with teachers, blackboards and toilets. Let the education cess be spent on providing the basics.

From a recent ToI editorial that argues strongly for spending all the money collected under the 'education cess' (about 5000 crore or 50 billion rupees a year) for primary education. The immediate provocation is the appalling suggestion from the Planning Commission that some of this money be used for secondary education.

The ToI editorial also alludes to our rather un-stellar record in 'universalizing' primary education: about 8 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls are out of the education net.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Daniel Dennett's interview

Salon.com has an interview of Daniel Dennett who describes himself as a "bright", a person with "a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view." In his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett argues for an examination of "religion as a product of evolution rather than a transcendental force."

If society doesn't get its moral foundation from religion, where will that foundation come from? What will keep us being good to each other, if not rules laid down by God?

Rules that we lay down ourselves. We've been doing this for centuries. There've been revisions about what counts as a sin in God's eyes. It has changed quite a bit since the days of the Old Testament. It has changed because people thought about it hard and could no longer stomach some of the old rules and practices and changed their minds. It became politically obvious that something had to give, and so it has, and will continue to do so. Now we can continue to expand the circle and get more people involved, and do it in a less disingenuous way by excising the myth about how this is God's law. It is our law.

Caution: The interview can be read for free after getting a "site pass", but you have to agree to view an ad. But, do get the site pass; the interview is worth the trouble.

"The profoundly bizarre activity of kissing"

On this Valentine's Day, you must read Joshua Foer's interesting and informative article on kissing:

Other species engage in behavior that looks an awful lot like the smooch (though without its erotic overtones), which implies that kissing might be just as animalistic an impulse as it sometimes feels. Snails caress each other with their antennae, birds touch beaks, and many mammals lick each other's snouts. Chimpanzees even give platonic pecks on the lips. But only humans and our lascivious primate cousins the bonobos engage in full-fledged tongue-on-tongue tonsil-hockey. [...]

If kissing is not universal, then someone must have invented it. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist at Texas A&M, has traced the first recorded kiss back to India, somewhere around 1500 B.C., when early Vedic scriptures start to mention people "sniffing" with their mouths, and later texts describe lovers "setting mouth to mouth." From there, he hypothesizes, the kiss spread westward when Alexander the Great conquered the Punjab in 326 B.C.

Happy Valentine's Day! Celebrate safely; stay away from Shiv Sainiks!

"Research misbehaviour"

Here are the other reports/analyses by Nicholas Wade:

Researcher Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report (January 10, 2006).

One Last Question: Who Did the Work? (January 17, 2006)

Lowering Expectations at Science's Frontier (January 15, 2006)

It May Look Authentic; Here's How to Tell It Isn't (January 24, 2006)

Nicholas Wade has been doing quite a bit of follow-up reporting on the Hwang Woo Suk scandal (aka human cloning scandal) and its aftermath. One part of the puzzle that hasn't got too much of attention is the role of Gerald Schatten, the University of Pittsburgh researcher, and the lead author of one of the discredited papers on cloned human cells in the journal Science. The latest report from Wade has more dirt on Schatten's role. It's really dirty.

By convention, a senior co-author receives major credit for the research and carries major responsibility for the accuracy of the data. Dr. Schatten accepted Dr. Hwang's offer, even though he had done none of the research and was not in a position to verify its accuracy. [...]

At the same time Dr. Schatten accepted $40,000 in honorariums from Dr. Hwang and asked for a $200,000 research grant, which he hoped would be renewed every year.

While we are on the subject of cloning, let me link to Doug Natelson's post from a while ago comparing this scandal with another big-bang scandal that shook the world of condensed matter physics: the Henrik Schoen scandal. Let me quote just two similarities:

* Huge impact articles in major journals, with talk of Nobel prizes.

* Multiple big-name coauthors who did not spot anything wrong.


Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Srirangam - 3

During my trip to Srirangam, I noticed this curious phenomenon of posters celebrating weddings. I wonder what's in it for the friends and families to spend money on informing all and sundry about the wedding of their dear ones. We are not talking about some stray posters here; they were competing quite seriously (and successfully) with those for movies and for personal loans from ICICI bank! I saw tons of them on Amma Mandapam Road.

Just take a look at some of them:

Another standard trick seems to be to include the SuperStar of Tamil filmdom. He is there in two of them, offering his blessings with a benevolent smile. In particular, the last one features only him, but not the couple!

Srirangam - 2

About a kilometer long, Amma Mandapam Road is technically outside the Temple complex, but it has many temples -- of all sizes, and for all deities. They range from those little structures in the middle of the road, to larger, well funded ones in complexes of their own. At one end of this road is 'Amma Mandapam' (which looks from the outside like a community hall), accounting for the road's name.

Amma Mandapam Road has nearly twenty wedding halls, and several shops that rent out shamianas and vessels for large functions. Clearly, weddings are a big business in this temple town. This road also has religious organizations such as ISKCON and the Sringery Mutt.

There is intense competition for space on walls along this road. In addition to the usual posters for movies, the walls feature political announcements. During my recent visit, the main opposition party, the DMK, was preparing for a massive rally in the nearby Trichy next month. Huge, hand painted notices were blaring out at party faithfuls to show up for the rally.

In a place that's teeming with wedding halls, can astrologers be far behind? Here's a 'numerologist', urging you to call a number to get the prognosis for your own self, for your child and for your business.

A surprising entrant into this battle for wall space is ICICI bank. Its posters, which are smaller in size but larger in number, hawk home and personal loans, and credit cards. If this bank is as aggressive in other small towns as it is in Srirangam, I need to consider buying some more shares!

We are near the other end of the road. At the junction of Amma Mandapam and Gandhi roads, Murali serves you a devine potion that lets you to experience bliss -- not in your next birth, but here and now! People throng his little shop every day for a religious experience. His shop doesn't have a name, but his potion does: coffee.

At the end of the road, of course, is the Rajagopuram (the Main Entrance Tower).


Srirangam is the home of the Sleeping Deity, Lord Ranganatha [see also A brief History of the Srirangam Temple]. The sheer scale of the Temple, a collection of huge structures in stone, is just awsome. However, the paintings on some walls, and the silver and bronze (and gold, too?) plates on some doors and doorways are of atrocious quality and shoddy workmanship.

A free 'darshan' of the Sleeping Deity may require a waiting period of a few hours on Fridays. At 20 rupees per person, it is about an hour, and at 50 rupees, a few minutes. Elites, such as cops and politicians, get immediate darshans.

Just outside the sanctum sanctorum, there is a notice announcing that lungis are prohibited. Presumably, shorts are okay.


All the priests wear a 'veshti' or dhoti (sometimes accompanied by an 'anga vastram') wrapped around the waist. Even with such meagre clothing, they are able to signal their status: a dull dhoti and a sad walk go together, as do a shiny (silk?) one and a swagger. Occasionally, a high ranking priest can be seen wearing a garland-length gold chain, with a huge pendant (called 'doallar' in Tamil) caressing his navel.


The Srirangam natives tend to assume that you are in their town for the sole purpose of visiting temples, and proceed to give you advice about the ones that you must visit. The choice is wide: Shiva temples, Vishnu temples, Mariamma temples, and temples, apparently, for the individual (minor) deities that form the Navagrahas.


Overheard during our 30 seconds of darshan after an hour long wait:

A devotee who just had a priest perform a special puja asks "Swami, kalyanam-nu sonneengala?" ["Did you mention that the prayer is specifically for a wedding?"]

"Sollama enna? Perumal kannai moodindu-than irukkar; aanaa, namma sonnathai kaettundu-than irukkar." ["Sure, I did. Perumal [the Sleeping Deity] may appear to be sleeping, but He is always listening."]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Intellectual crush, academic turn-on, and toe-sucking

Never knew a coffee-with-colleague situation would have so many rich subtexts, pregnant with juicy possibilities. Appropriately, the link takes you to Cosmic Bliss Variance.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ph.D. in India

Solzaire has a post about doing a Ph.D. in India in the fields of computer science, information technology and related areas. He doesn't want to say much on "the binary decision about whether or not to do a PhD". So, most of the information is about the mechanics of the process.

It's all in the eye of the sufferer-to-be


If you came here looking for some deep literary stuff, sorry! This one is about literal truth (aka science).

Eyes, apparently, hold some dark secrets which may, some day soon, reveal themselves routinely to a skilled laser gazer. And, these secrets may be about some of the terrible things that could hit you well in the future: diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, stroke. Piqued? Read this story.

And, another story claims that the eyes may also hold other gloomy secrets about a lurking Alzheimer's, long before it does permanent damage to the brain.

On doing a DesiPundit to the DesiPundits

Well, I am not really into this sort of stuff, and I fully realize that the power and reach of this blog are pathetic compared to those of the mighty DesiPundits. I am doing this only because my inner voice (;-) tells me that they are a just a little too timid when it comes to linking to their own posts.

So, here I go, with the links:

First, to Neha's post on NRI's arguments being rejected out of hand (undervalued, scorned, treated unfairly, disrespected, and worse) simply because they come from NRIs.

Second, to Patrix's post with a first hand account of the devastation in Louisiana ["Nature truly brings out the meaning of ‘shock and awe’"] after Katrina.

Damodar Acharya on the state of technical education

Damodar Acharya, Chairman (since May 2005), All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), talks touch in his convocation address (another version) at the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi.

Substandard engineering colleges “cheating” students with poor infrastructure will be closed down soon ...

“Quality, not quantity, is the need…. We, at the All India Council of Technical Education, will replace regular (routine) inspection of institutes with surprise ones, so that colleges sleeping over students’ careers and cheating them are shut down. [...]

He made another stunning claim — that of the country’s 3 lakh technical degree holders, only 30 per cent were good enough to be given jobs. ...

The institutes must, from now on, disclose their infrastructure, faculty composition and laboratory facilities so that students can make an “informed” choice.

About time, wouldn't you say?

Why stop with just "infrastructure, faculty composition and laboratory facilities", Prof. Acharya? Don't you think students would like to know detailed statistics about how well the institution's students did in their university exams? How about placement record? How about faculty qualifications? How about the detailed break-up of fees (including the cost of transportation, library, and lunch)? How about information about where to complain if there are violations -- such as when the principal asks for bribes or (... gulp ...) capitation fees?

How about listing the kinds of penalties that would befall an institution that fails to live up to the 'high' standards demanded by AICTE? How about imposing these regulations on all colleges, irrespective of who owns them? How about empowering students and their parents by demanding that all this information should be available unconditionally, on the institution's website?

What other information would a student be interested in knowing about an institute before making an "informed" choice?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Economic arguments for public funding of higher education

Over at Brad DeLong's blog, there is an interesting and informative argument going on about whether public funding of higher education is a good thing.

DeLong starts off with the view that public funding is not desirable:

A policy of no debt--a policy of publicly-funded college education for all--thus looks to us economists like a policy of taking from the relatively poor (the working classes who don't go to college do pay taxes) and giving to the relatively rich (the middle classes who do go to college) who earn much higher relative wages now than they did a generation ago.

This has been my view too. Look at it this way: if the above argument is valid in a rich country with more than 30 % of its high school graduates going on to college, just imagine how much stronger this argument is for a country like India, where only 6 % of the relevant age group attends college (I don't have statistics about high school graduation rates in India).

His commenters present a whole host of arguments for why public funding is a good idea. Let me just point to a couple of them. The first one is that college educated people are better off (by upto 80% in the US), and so end up paying more taxes over their working life. So, they do repay their debt. The second one is about the government taking a bet -- more like group insurance, actually -- on the ability of educated people to do great things not only for themselves, but also for the country; if you don't like the word 'bet', call it an 'investment' in human capital! Along the way, you find information about the Australian system which, according to the commenter, is "enormously popular". In addition to economic arguments, the comments there offer other kinds of arguments, too -- legal, moral, political, etc. -- both for and against public funding.

You really ought to read the the whold thing, including comments.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan passed away on her 85th birthday.

Veena and R~ (on Anand's blog) have written about how Betty Friedan has influenced their thinking.

Not every feminist owes her/his awakening to Friedan; some would prefer to give this status to Simone de Beauvoir. And, the idea of feminism is older than The Feminine Mystique; Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. But, in terms of influence -- both immediate and lasting -- she certainly is the mother of all feminists.

The New York Times' obituary also includes a special Betty Friedan retrospective, which includes some of her own columns, reviews of her books, articles about her and more.

Let me end this post with a quote from the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique:

In 1960, the problem that has no name burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife. In the television commercials the pretty housewives still beamed over their foaming dishpans and Time's cover story on "The Suburban Wife, an American Phenomenon" protested: "Having too good a time . . . to believe that they should be unhappy." But the actual unhappiness of the American housewife was suddenly being reported--from the New York Times and Newsweek to Good Housekeeping and CBS Television ("The Trapped Housewife"), although almost everybody who talked about it found some superficial reason to dismiss it. It was attributed to incompetent appliance repairmen (New York Times), or the distances children must be chauffeured in the suburbs (Time), or too much PTA (Redbook). Some said it was the old problem--education: more and more women had education, which naturally made them unhappy in their role as housewives. [...]

Saturday, February 04, 2006

News about home

Current home: Singapore college at IISc.

“The NUS [National University of Singapore] College in Bangalore opens up new opportunities for NUS students to work in Bangalore, the IT capital of India, while taking classes at the prestigious IISc for up to a year. This will be the first NUS overseas college for NUS graduate students,” said a spokesman of the NUS here. The NUS-IISc agreement was formalised here on Wednesday [1 February 2006] by President A P J Abdul Kalam on the NUS campus here [Singapore].

Here's some news from my home for almost six years (1985-91) as a graduate student: Pittsburgh Steelers are playing in the Super Bowl tomorrow. In a guest column Holly Brubach writes:

My own appreciation for Pittsburgh is relatively recent. Like a lot of natives, I grew up feeling apologetic that the city, with its smokestacks, factories and railroad trestles, wasn't picturesque (this was back in the days before "industrial" was an aesthetic); that, being closer to Ohio than to the Eastern seaboard, it wasn't more cosmopolitan; that it was a blunt, hard-charging, working-class town in an increasingly nuanced, executive world. When, beginning in 1975, the Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years, they earned us a respect we'd never had, not even for ourselves.

During those days, Pittsburghers used to take pride in the fact that it held the title of 'the most livable city in the US' for several years. Tomorrow's Super Bowl match sees the Steelers face a team from another city that held that title in the eighties: Seattle.

Yeah, I know, this is not an interesting piece of trivia about this Super Bowl ...

Some more on primary education

The previous post had Amartya Sen's views as I found them in Chapter 10 of his book Argumentative Indian. This chapter is based on a lecture he gave in November 2001, and in the section on primary education, Sen draws on the (preliminary?) findings of a study by Pratichi Trust.

Sometime in 2002, the report on the first part of the study was published: The delivery of public education: a study in West Bengal (Pratichi Trust, New Delhi, 2002). I don't have access to this report, nor to an earlier study called the PROBE report: Public Report on Basic Education in India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999).

Sometime after this report was published, a vigorous debate ensued in the pages of the Times of India. I am just giving links to them in the order in which they appeared. I admit that these were lifted shamelessly from this page that I found through Google.

First one to fire was Swaminathan Aiyar in a hard-hitting column (on 3 November 2002).

Sen's response, and Aiyar's rebuttal followed. The debate has been summarized with some personal commentary by Gurcharan Das in a column.

Much of the debate revolves around the Pratichi report's recommendation that private tuitions be banned; Aiyar opposed it saying it tramples on the "fundamental right" of people "to improve their learning". In the event, the State of West Bengal did eventually ban school teachers from offering private tuitions to their own students -- a practice that Sen calls 'double dipping'.

Reading the debate in quick succession does give you a feeling that you are reading blog entries. They were all opinion columns, of course. If they were blog posts, they probably would have followed in quick succession. Instead, the debate did progress at a rather languorous pace, and unfolded over three to four weeks!

Amartya Sen on 'friendly fire' in primary education

Some excerpts from Chapter 10 titled 'Class in India' in the book Argumentative Indian by Amartya. This essay is based on the Nehru Lecture he gave in New Delhi on 13 November 2001. I am unable to get a link to this lecture itself.

I wrote the post about the Annual Survey of Education Report yesterday, and these excerpts provide some perspectives on other issues (not covered by ASER) related to primary education: teachers, their unions, their power, and how this power is misdirected.

While he discusses several different things related to class (and how it interacts with inequality due to gender, caste, region, community and so on), he uses the concept of 'friendly fire' to tie the different threads. First, let's look at his definition of friendly fire:

Many of the distributional institutions that exist in India and elsewhere are designed to defend the interests of groups with some deprivation (or some vulnerability) but who are not by any means the absolute underdogs of society. There is an understandable rationale for seeing them as 'friendly' institutions in the battle against class divisions. Yet if they also have the effect of worsening the deal that the real underdogs get, at the bottom layers of society, the overall impact may be to strengthen class divisions rather than weaken them. This is the sense in which their effects can be seen as 'friendly fire'.

He gives two examples of how friendly fire has had counterintuitive and counterproductive effects. The first one is in the realm of 'hunger in India', and I excerpted this part earlier; this part of the essay has also appeared in an online essay.

Let's now turn to what he has to say about primary education. Amartya Sen created the Pratichi Trust with the Nobel Prize money (one each in India and Bangladesh). This trust did a fairly detailed study of primary education. Here's how he summarizes the study and its findings:

We investigated the working of a number of elementary schools from three districts in West Bengal initially (but later the study was extended to six districts in West Bengal and one from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand). The overall picture that emerges from these investigations is very depressing. A significant proportion of teachers were absent from school on the days we visited them unannounced. Teacher absenteeism was very much greater in schools where the bulk of the pupils come from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe families; indeed, 75 percent of those schools in our list had serious problems of teacher absenteeism -- much higher than in schools in which the pupils come from less disadvantaged families. A very large proportion of the children rely on private tuition as a supplement to what they get from their schools, and those who do not are evidently prevented from doing so because of penury, rather than because of being satisfied with the teaching the children get in the school. Indeed, of the pupils in class 3 and 4 we could test, the vast majority of those who did not get private tuition could not even sign their names.

What follows is his diagnosis of the problem.

Effective elementary education has in practice ceased to be free in substantial parts of the country, which of course is a violation of a basic right. All this seems to be reinforced by a sharp class division between teachers and poor families. Yet the teachers' unions -- related to the respective parties -- sometimes vie with each other in championing the immunity of teachers from discipline. The parents from disadvantaged families have little voice in the running of schools, and the official inspectors seem too scared to discipline the delinquent teachers, especially when the parents come from the bottom layer of society.

Where, then, is the 'friendly fire'?

The teachers' unions have, of course, had quite a positive role in the past defending the interests of teachers when they used to be paid very little and were thoroughly exploited. The teachers' unions then served as an important part of the institutional support in favour of more justice. Now, however, these institutions of justice seem to work largely against justice through their inaction -- or worse -- when faced with teacher absenteeism and other irresponsibilities. [...]


The salary of teachers in regular schools has gone up dramatically over recent years, even in real terms, that is, after correcting for price changes. This an obvious cause for celebration at one level (indeed, I remember being personally involved, as a student at Presidency College fifty years ago, in agitations to raise the desperately low prevailing salaries of school teachers). But the situation is now very different. The big salary increases in recent years have not only made school education vastly more expensive (making it much harder to offer school education to those who are still excluded from it), but have also tended to draw the school teachers as a group away from the families of children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is considerable evidence that the class barrier that deeply impairs the delivery of school education to the worse-off members of society is now further reinforced by the increase in economic and social distance between the teachers and the poor (and less privileged) children.