Friday, March 31, 2006

Exam fraud goes high tech

...[The] accused doctors had scanned the entire question paper with the help of DocuPens.

Though the device is small enough to be easily smuggled in, it is also powerful enough to scan a full page in just four seconds, making it ideal for the task.

The accused then transferred the scanned data to their mobile phones using Bluetooth technology, and sent out the paper to their ‘contacts’ through multimedia messaging.

The contacts, sitting in Pondicherry and Madurai, immediately solved the questions and sent the answers to candidates taking the exam at the Chennai and Delhi centres through SMS.

This happened in the entrance test for admission to post-graduate programs in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India's No.1 institution for medicine.

The report is here. Though the above operation sounds high tech, there is a pretty low tech explanation for how and why it (almost) worked:

Mobile phones were not allowed in the exam hall, but the accused managed to bring them in. Interestingly, the phones also remained unnoticed throughout the examination.

"How to become a GOOD theoretical physicist?"

It should be possible, these days, to collect all knowledge you need from the internet. Problem then is, there is so much junk on the internet. Is it possible to weed out those very rare pages that may really be of use? I know exactly what should be taught to the beginning student. The names and topics of the absolutely necessary lecture courses are easy to list, and this is what I have done below. It is my intention to search on the web where the really useful papers and books are, preferably downloadable as well. This way, the costs of becoming a theoretical physicist should not exceed much the price of a computer with internet connection, a printer, and lots of paper and pens. ...

That's from Gerard't Hooft. Here.

His list of ideas and concepts that one needs to master starts with "Language". This is what he says under this topic:

English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand Englaish, but you don't have to be perfect here. The lousy English used in this text is mine. That's enough. All publications are in English. Note the importance of being able to write in English. Sooner or later you will wish to publish your results. People must be able to read and understand your stuff.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Zillionics and Wiki-science


The average number of authors per paper continues to rise. With massive collaborations, the numbers will boom. Experiments involving thousands of investigators collaborating on a "paper" will commonplace. The paper is ongoing, and never finished. It becomes a trail of edits and experiments posted in real time — an ever evolving "document." Contributions are not assigned. Tools for tracking credit and contributions will be vital. Responsibilities for errors will be hard to pin down. Wiki-science will often be the first word on a new area. Some researchers will specialize in refining ideas first proposed by wiki-science.


Ubiquitous always-on sensors in bodies and environment will transform medical, environmental, and space sciences. Unrelenting rivers of sensory data will flow day and night from zillions of sources. The exploding number of new, cheap, wireless, and novel sensing tools will require new types of programs to distill, index and archive this ocean of data, as well as to find meaningful signals in it. The field of "zillionics" — - dealing with zillions of data flows — - will be essential in health, natural sciences, and astronomy. This trend will require further innovations in statistics, math, visualizations, and computer science. More is different. Zillionics requires a new scientific perspective in terms of permissible errors, numbers of unknowns, probable causes, repeatability, and significant signals.

Just two of the several interesting (profound? outlandish?) ideas in Kevin Kelly's speech on "Speculations on the future of science" (Kelly restricts 'future' to be the next 50 years). See also Kelly's blog at the Technium.

Amartya Sen's critique of 'Clash of Civilizations'

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorization of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.

You can read more in this essay, adapted from Sen's new book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

Kaushik Basu on the need for labour reforms

One pervasive myth is that making labour laws flexible will hurt organised sector labour.

What this overlooks is that India has a shockingly small organised private sector less than 10 million workers because of our restrictive labour laws.

Once these are changed, the demand for labour in the organised sector will increase and this is bound to raise wages and mop up part of the unemployment. To make this change politically feasible government needs to spell out the argument in public.

Once ordinary workers realise that the laws need to be changed not to elicit sacrifices from them but in their interest, there will be more support for the change.

From this ToI column by Kaushik Basu, an economics professor at Cornell.

CBSE and the single girl child

Last year, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) imposed a serious burden on all its schools (even private ones which receive no aid from the government) by asking them to provide free education to the single girl children (girls with no siblings). Not surprisingly, this order was challenged in court.

Satya has all the details on the CBSE's order as well as the lawsuit. Essentially, CBSE has changed its stance. While the government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya schools will provide free education to single girl children from their class VI onwards, the private schools have the option of doing so in classes IX to XII.

More importantly,

It [CBSE] has also introduced a new scholarship scheme for single girl children who secure 60% or more marks in their class X Examination for the year 2006 onwards. These children would be given scholarship of Rs. 500/- p.m. for studying in classes XI and XII in schools who charged tuition fee of not more than Rs. 1,000/- p.m. during the academic year 2005-06.

I agree that this order is far better than the one issued earlier. However, it still leaves me with these questions: Why only single girl children? Why not all girls? Why discriminate against girls who have siblings? After all, it's not their fault that they have siblings ...

A new twist on 'Indian made foreign books'

A while ago, I wrote this post about Indian (actually, South Asian) reprints of textbooks originally published in rich countries; the Indian editions are available at prices as low as 5% of that of the originals. Though there is a steep drop in production quality (poor quality paper, black-and-white printing, and so on), what is really important in the Indian context is the low price, which makes these books affordable to our students.

It's not just the students studying in India who benefit from these low-priced editions. Indian students in the US stock up on them on their visits home; and I am sure the ones who will be leaving our shores in the next few months are also thinking hard about which books they will need, and if their Indian editions are available.

Clearly, this huge price differential is a potential business opportunity; however, one cannot pursue it because buying Indian editions and selling them in the US is illegal (it's a copyright violation). But some 'entrepreneurs' are undeterred by such constraints! Do read this New York Times story.

Interestingly, import of such inexpensive books for one's own use is legal in the US. What is illegal is re-selling them to others. In other words, one cannot get into the book-selling business using the strategy of exploiting this price arbitrage. For example, this is what some enterprising student did in Purdue university:

Tom Frey, the owner of the University Bookstore at Purdue, said he was taken aback when he was approached for advice by a student collecting orders for a shipment of books from India — enough to fill a shipping container.

The student had, in effect, set himself up as a low-cost alternative to Mr. Frey's store.

"He was doing it out of his dorm room," Mr. Frey said.

The underlying cause for this 'business opportunity', of course, is the very high prices of textbooks in the US. The NYTimes story mentions an exorbitant figures of $ 250 each for some engineering texts!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Janmejaya Sinha on higher ed in India

There is a surging demand for the skills an IIT imparts and no supply side response. It cannot be an issue of funding, because if the government is strapped for funds, these institutions could raise funding directly—their alumni alone would be able to provide billions of dollars. India needs 50 IITs, 100 regional engineering colleges (RECs) and many great colleges to support the needs of the growing economy. [...]

Thus, instead of IIMs setting up campuses abroad, we need on a war-footing to increase the number of top quality institutions in India so that we have children from other countries coming to India to study and the education business works to India’s advantage in an increasingly knowledge-based society of the future. The current apathy needs to end.

That's from Janmejaya Sinha, Managing Director of the Boston Consulting Group, in an op-ed in the Financial Express.

This news about IISc certainly made me go "huh?"

A group of scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) here has reportedly opposed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the IISc and University of Mysore ... [...]

A spokesman for the dissenting group of Scientists of IISc is reported to have asked if they must waste their precious time and scarce resources when similar tie-up with IIT-Mumbai only remained on paper with nothing happening after the MoU was signed years ago.

Having been created as an institution to focus on research of high quality, should IISc be asked to divert its researchers' energies to pursue other activities such as teaching in a University? the Scientists are reported to have questioned.

Somebody at the Star of Mysore seems to have the inside track on dissent in IISc!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Amartya Sen: Democracy isn't 'Western'

When it is asked whether Western countries can "impose" democracy on the non-Western world, even the language reflects a confusion centering on the idea of "imposition," since it implies a proprietary belief that democracy "belongs" to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially "Western" idea which has originated and flourished exclusively in the West. This is a thoroughly misleading way of understanding the history and the contemporary prospects of democracy.

Amartya Sen's opinion piece. Here.

Porn in the classroom

It's called the porn curriculum, and it's quietly taking root in the ivory tower. A small but growing number of scholars are probing the aesthetic, societal and philosophical properties of smut in academic departments ranging from literature to film, law to technology, anthropology to women's studies. Those specialists argue that graphic sexual imagery has become ubiquitous in society, so it's almost irresponsible not to teach young people how to deal with it.

From this story in Time. I really liked this question in the story's subtitle:

Colleges are getting serious about porn studies, but should professors show or just tell?

FICCI summit on higher ed in the private sector

Over at Education in India, Satya has a report on the recent 'Summit' organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on private sector participation in higher education. In addition to the views of FICCI bigwigs, he presents a nice summary of the speeches made by Larry Summers (President of Harvard), N. R. Madhava Menon (Director, National Judicial Academy, Bhopal) and S. Venkateswaran (Vice-Chancellor, BITS, Pilani).

The post is long, but has lots of interesting ideas on a variety of topics: institution building, role of regulations, a history of poor regulations (and worse, meddling), governance structures, students as clients (customers? consumers?), competitive culture in American institutions, funding patterns, philanthropy, and so on. An absolute must-read for anyone interested in the state of higher ed in India.

Computing and science in 2020

This is a follow-up to my post four days ago.

In the summer of 2005, an international expert group was brought together for a workshop to define and produce a new vision and roadmap of the evolution, challenges and potential of computer science and computing in scientific research in the next fifteen years.

The resulting document, Towards 2020 Science, sets out the challenges and opportunities arising from the increasing synthesis of computing and the sciences. [...]

From this page over at Microsoft Research, that hosts the report of this expert group. Nature has a set of articles devoted to 2020 -- Future of Computing, with quite a few articles; all of them are free.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Education in India: Fact of the day

India has thirteen "Institutions of National Importance". Among them, you will find places like the seven IITs (Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Mumbai, Chennai, Guwahati and Roorkee).

Also among them is Dakshina Bharti Hindi Prachar Sabha, Chennai.


Europe's parenting problem

The problem, of course, is that more and more people choose to not become parents; i.e., birthrate has been in a serious decline. What can governments do to stem the decline? BBC has a series of articles, exploring this topic from women's point of view. I wonder why; I mean, isn't it also important to find out what European men have to say about this problem?

Anyways, start with this story, all the other stories are linked within it. There are two country-specific stories: Norway and Italy. Another story explores how more and more women choose child-free lifestyles.

One of the concerns about the decline in birth rates is about how an aging population can be supported by a dwindling population. Immigration is a potential solution, but looks like Europe is not too keen on it. The BBC story just offers these two lame arguments against it:

Increasing levels of immigration is, in theory, one option for Europe, but most agree it is politically unfeasible in the current climate.

Others stress that it would not in any event solve the problem in the longer term - the migrants would themselves grow old and their own fertility patterns would start to match those of the country which received them.

One can bet that when things become really desperate, immigration will be back on the table as a possible solution to Europe's problem of 'inverse population' bomb.

Do you feel lucky?

If so, you probably are feeling quite satisfied with many aspects of your life, too. So says Michael Shermer in this Scientific American article, recounting the work of the experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman.

Lucky people score significantly higher than unlucky people on extroversion. "There are three ways in which lucky people's extroversion significantly increases the likelihood of their having a lucky chance encounter," Wiseman explains: "meeting a large number of people, being a 'social magnet' and keeping in contact with people." Lucky people, for example, smile twice as often and engage in more eye contact than unlucky people do, which leads to more social encounters, which generates more opportunities.

"Lucky people" in the above quote, actually, are people who consider themselves lucky. Shermer goes on to describe how well 'feeling lucky' is correlated with "agreeableness," "conscientiousness," "extroversion," "neuroticism" and "openness."

Do read the whole thing.

Pranab Bardhan on globalization

Is globalization good or bad? Pranab Bardhan, an economics professor at Berkeley, examines different aspects of globalization in this article in Scientific American. At the end of it all, he does come down on the side of globalization, but he presents all the arguments and counterarguments. If you are looking for a succinct summary of the issues, this article is probably what you need. Some exerpts:

The Local Roots of Poverty: Integration into the international economy brings not only opportunities but also problems. Even when new jobs are better than the old ones, the transition can be wrenching. Most poor countries provide very little effective social protection to help people who have lost their jobs and not yet found new ones. Moreover, vast numbers of the poor work on their own small farms or for household enterprises. The major constraints they usually face are domestic, such as lack of access to credit, poor infrastructure, venal government officials and insecure land rights. Weak states, unaccountable regimes, lopsided wealth distribution, and inept or corrupt politicians and bureaucrats often combine to block out the opportunities for the poor. Opening markets without relieving these domestic constraints forces people to compete with one hand tied behind their back. The result can be deepened poverty. [...]

Social programs: Many economists argue that for trade to make a country better off, the government of that country may have to redistribute wealth and income to some extent, so that the winners from the policy of opening the economy share their gains with the losers. Of course, the phrase "to some extent" still leaves room for plenty of disagreement. Nevertheless, certain programs stir fairly little controversy, such as assistance programs to help workers cope with job losses and get retrained and redeployed. Scholarships allowing poor parents to send their children to school have proved to be more effective at reducing child labor than banning imports of products.

Immigration reform in rich countries A program to permit larger numbers of unskilled workers into rich countries as "guest workers" would do more to reduce world poverty than other forms of international integration, such as trade liberalization, can. The current climate, however, is not very hospitable to this idea.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Stock market for ideas

... [The] architecture of participation is both businesslike and playful. Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company's internal market, which is called Mutual Fun. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an expect-us, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in "opinion money" to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock becomes a product or delivers savings.

Mr. Marino, 57, president of Rite-Solutions, says the market, which began in January 2005, has already paid big dividends. One of the earliest stocks (ticker symbol: VIEW) was a proposal to apply three-dimensional visualization technology, akin to video games, to help sailors and domestic-security personnel practice making decisions in emergency situations. Initially, Mr. Marino was unenthusiastic about the idea — "I'm not a joystick jockey" — but support among employees was overwhelming. Today, that product line, called Rite-View, accounts for 30 percent of total sales.

"Would this have happened if it were just up to the guys at the top?" Mr. Marino asked. "Absolutely not. But we could not ignore the fact that so many people were rallying around the idea. This system removes the terrible burden of us always having to be right."

The NYTimes story, William C. Taylor, is here.

Attracting undergrad students to your department

In the US, the competition to attract students to your department could be pretty rough. During my graduate student days [late eighties], electrical engineering didn't even have to try, while our department [materials science and engineering] went all out to woo engineering undergrads. I still remember our department's poster that occupied every square inch of available space in the campus. It featured pictures of all kinds of hi-fi stuff (space shuttles and circuit boards (!)), and had this slogan:

Materials Science: We make high tech happen.

This slogan is lame compared to the one used by a philosophy department in another university this year.

'The art of caring less'

Or, many different ways of saying shit happens. A few examples:

PSYCHOANALYSIS: Shit happens because of your toilet training.

EXISTENTIALISM: Shit doesn't happen; shit is.

STOICISM: This shit is good for me.

OBJECTIVISM: Our shit is good for you.

Is god a creation of human evolution?

Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn't say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views.

This is a milder version in this wide-ranging interview of E.O. Wilson in (free, but requires viewing an ad).

[Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund's study's] findings are now being cited by other scientists working in an obscure but growing field that seeks to prove a radical notion: that God himself is a product of evolution.

This is a hard-edged version, in this article, almost all of which is devoted to this ambitious thesis. The article, by Julia Reischel, describes an interesting experiment by Bering and Bjorklund, and their results are used to support the audacious claim that god is a product of evolution. As a non-expert outsider, I find the results interesting, but not convincing. However, I like the boldness with which Jesse Bering talks about his research:

... Bering, now a professor in his own right at the University of Arkansas, sounds ready to burn down a cathedral. ... [His] goal is nothing less than to prove to the world, once and for all, that God is a "cognitive illusion" — a figment of our imaginations.

"My meaning in life is to illustrate that there really is no meaning," he says matter-of-factly from his cabin in the Ozark mountains. "I feel that, for the first time in the history of science, we've been able to answer these questions.

"We've got God by the throat, and I'm not going to stop until one of us is dead."

If you feel like exploring more, try this, which is short, and this, which is not.

Update: The great folks at Cognitive Daily have a nice post about Bering and Bjorklund's research. There's more interesting stuff -- and links! -- in the comments, too!

"The good wife's guide"

Oops. This seems to be an urban legend with very little basis. In other words, a HOAX!

Just fifty years ago, married women got advice such as the following:

Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first -- remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

You can get more of this in "The Good Wife's Guide" over at The last item in this 'guide' is: 'A good wife always knows her place'.

The past certainly is a different country universe ...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Just drop everything and ...

... go read this post titled 'Winning'. It's by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

Huh, really?

China has pledged to issue a blacklist of dishonest academics to stem the tide of false research results and plagiarism among academics and scientists. [...]

A recent survey of 180 PhD holders found that 60 percent had paid to have their papers published and a similar percentage had copied others' work.

From this UPI story [via Tyler Cowen].

The battle between Britannica and Nature

Let me begin with one important point. This battle is not about Wikipedia. It's largely about the claims to authority and fairness of two (commercial) entities: Nature and Britannica. If their mud-slinging battle continues, it's their reputation -- and not Wikipedia's -- that will (continue to) suffer. [Given the publicly available information, Britannica appears to stand to lose more. More on this below.]

Let me get back to Wikipedia for a few more moments. For all its flaws -- there are many, and they are well documented -- it has one great virtue: its open culture. As David Weinberger notes:

Wikipedia has been a continuous state of self-criticism that newspapers would do well to emulate. It has discussion pages for every article. It has handled inaccuracies not defensively but with the humble understanding that of course Wikipedia articles will have mistakes, so let's get on with the unending task of improving them. Wikipedia's ambitions are immodest, but Wikipedia is not.

Indeed. I love that last sentence, so let me repeat it, with emphasis: Wikipedia's ambitions are immodest, but Wikipedia is not.

Ah, that made me feel better! With that out of the way, we can now turn to take a clear view of the battle between Britannica and Nature. From all the 'he said, she said', this is how I see the battle:

Here is the chronology:

First, Nature's report was published on 4 December 2005. It also released some additional information (doc) regarding its study on 22 December 2005.

Britannica issued its response (pdf) on 22 March 2006. And, Nature issued its 'rebuttal' (pdf) the following day.

In studies such as the one by Nature, there is a lot of methodological leeway: how the articles are chosen, how much of each article is chosen, who the experts are, how to tally their reports of 'inaccuracies' (defined by Nature as 'factual errors, omissions and misleading statements'). In other words, a lot of judgement is involved in pretty much every step. Nature has made a particular set of choices, and Britannica doesn't like it. Thus, its complaint is about (a) the methodology, (b) the headline used by Nature ('...Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries ... '), and finally, (c) the list of 'inaccuracies' compiled by Nature.

Let me take the last one first: Out of some 123 inaccuracies compiled by Nature, Britannica has disputed nearly sixty (less than 50 percent). They are in 29 entries (out of 42). What's the point behind this exercise? Look at the best case scenario (for Britannica): it just shows that the experts hired by Nature weren't infallible. I would just shrug my shoulders, and say 'so what?'.

But, look at the worst case scenario: in complaining so loudly, Britannica has implicitly admitted that the remaining 60 were real errors: pure, simple, indisputable, and gold-standard (!). True, this brings its error rate from three down to 1.5 per entry. Does it entitle Britannica to claim victory? "Hey, I have only 1.5 wrinkles on my face. Not 3!" If this makes the folks at Britannica comfortable, well, ...

For its complaints about the study's methodology to hurt Nature, Britannica has to prove a bias. I find (at least, as of now) its case less than convincing: as Nature has responded, flaws -- if any -- in its methodology applied to both Wikipedia and Britannica. In other words, there is no bias. With whatever information we have right now, I would go with Nature on this one.

Britannica's other major complaint is misrepresentation of the study's results; its grouse is that even though an average Wikipedia entry, with four errors, had a third more inaccuracies than a Britannica entry (which has three), Nature chose to say in its headline: "Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries".

Now, this whine can fill a lot of barrels! Let me just say that I fell off the chair while reading it. To Britannica, this was so important that its list of complaints leads off with this one!

It's one thing for Wikipedia enthusiasts -- like me! -- to celebrate its being compared to the old, venerable and mighty Britannica (even if the comparison is slightly adverse); it's an entirely different thing altogether, when Britannica chooses to shout from its own rooftop 'Hey, listen up. With 1.5 wrinkles on my face, I am actually more beautiful than that wiki lady. She has four.'

Britannica has done itself and its reputation a serious disservice by its 'response'. It should have left the Nature study alone.

Friday, March 24, 2006

New way of doing science?

Stephen Muggleton, the head of computational bio-informatics at Imperial College, London, has, meanwhile, taken the involvement of computers with data handling one step further [beyond data collection and analysis]. He argues they will soon play a role in formulating scientific hypotheses and designing and running experiments to test them. The data deluge is such that human beings can no longer be expected to spot patterns in the data. Nor can they grasp the size and complexity of one database and see how it relates to another. Computers—he dubs them “robot scientists”—can help by learning how to do the job. A couple of years ago, for example, a team led by Ross King of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, demonstrated that a learning machine performed better than humans at selecting experiments that would discriminate between hypotheses about the genetics of yeast.

From this fascinating article in the Economist about how computers and computer science may be at a tipping point in their march towards altering the very way in which science is done.


How about a web-based MS Word?

It's here. It's called ajaxWrite. And yes, it's free.

I tried opening and editing several MS Word documents, with tables and stuff. It worked as advertised. Michael Robertson, the CEO of the company behind this initiative, has announced that his firm will be launching more such web-based applications ('sophisticated programs') every week.

ajaxWrite is a powerful word processor that can read and write Microsoft Word formatted documents. Anytime you need a word processor, need to open a .doc file or edit a .doc file, simply point your Firefox browser at and in seconds a full-featured program will be loaded. For 90 percent of the people in the world, the need to buy Microsoft Word just vanished. This won't make Microsoft happy, but software users should be very excited that software just got cheaper, immediate and modern.

But ajaxWrite is just the start. We have a library of applications we have been working on to replace most of the standard PC software titles. Every week we will launch a new sophisticated program on Wednesday at 12:00 PST on These programs will push the boundaries of what people believe is possible today with web-delivered software. These programs look and operate much like their traditional software cousins, but are cross-platform, loaded dynamically, and are available to users at no charge. I'm convinced if you try a few of these products you will understand how the software business will fundamentally change.

Give it a spin, and see how well it works. If you want features, or if you find bugs, do give your feedback. As I said, with whatever I threw at it (admittedly, small documents with small-to-medium level of complexity), it worked beautifully.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Battle of the 'pedias: Did Nature bungle its study?

Do you remember the study by Nature that compared the science-oriented entries in Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica? The results of that study made a splash because one of its conclusions was that the number of errors in Wikipedia was small, and just a little over the number in the Britannica. Now this study has come under a cloud; in a 'devastating response' (here - pdf), Britannica has raised serious objections about the study:

Nature magazine has some tough questions to answer after it let its Wikipedia fetish get the better of its responsibilities to reporting science. The Encyclopedia Britannica has published a devastating response to Nature's December comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica, and accuses the journal of misrepresenting its own evidence.

Where the evidence didn't fit, says Britannica, Nature's news team just made it up. Britannica has called on the journal to repudiate the report, which was put together by its news team.

I will be keenly watching for the rebuttal from Nature.

Update (24 March 2006): Nature has posted its rebuttal (pdf):

We reject those accusations, and are confident our comparison was fair.

More on this when I find time to go through the documents. I thank Jim Giles of Nature for the e-mail alert about the journal's rebuttal.

Have you ever wondered ...

... what the world would be like if Google owned everything?

Azim Premji on the state of primary education in India

Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro, a leading IT firm in India, has an op-ed in the Times of India, arguing vigorously for improving our system of primary education. It's widely recognized that while our government may not have its ears glued to the ground, it is certainly clued in on what the industrialists want. So, Premji's op-ed is certainly a welcome event.

Premji starts, rightly, with some grim statistics:

It is disconcerting to know that there are still around 12 million children in the age group of 6-14 who are out of school; or that only one out of three children ends up completing 10 years of education.

Next, he identifies key problems:

The elementary education system suffers from two problems: One, availability of quality school infrastructure i.e. classrooms, toilets, teachers, teaching-learning material and a learning environment that is conducive to learn; and two, most children are not learning at a deeper level and schools are not able to help every child to discover and realize her potential.

The latter is true not just for rural government-run schools but also for urban schools, which are better resourced. The huge dropout rate is symptomatic of these problems.

He then goes on to address what needs to be done. However, I found this part of his essay quite disappointing. Now, The Azim Premji Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Azim Premji, has been doing some work in the area of primary education; so, I expected some hard-nosed solutions with some specific examples, probably informed by the Foundation's experience. Instead, what I find is a laundry-list of broad, general and bland suggestions. That's too bad.

A second nagging thing in Premji's op-ed is his faith in the benefits of IT in primary education. Just look at what he says here:

Lastly, information technology can be very motivating for parents to send their children to school and for children to engage in the learning process.

IT can help in taking quality teaching-learning material to large numbers without any dilution; it can reach out to physically and mentally challenged and it can help do things that are not possible through pen, paper and blackboard.

Innovative deployment of IT can also significantly contribute to mass scale capacity building efforts.

Huh? Let me rewind the tape here. Look at what he has said earlier about what ails our primary education system: "availability of quality school infrastructure i.e. classrooms, toilets, teachers, teaching-learning material and a learning environment that is conducive to learn". When faced with such serious problems, is he right to bring in IT as a potential solution to our schools' problems? Is he doing the right thing by talking about IT as a part of the solution without saying anything about the resources -- resources that are already in short supply -- and training that would be needed to make it work? Where is the evidence that deploying IT (foregoing other investments) gets you more educational bang for the buck -- particularly in the present state of our education system?

IISc news: Campus in Mysore

This one is really, really, big:

The nation’s premier research institution, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), will open a new campus – its first outside Bangalore – in Mysore. [...]

With this, University of Mysore will become the first in the entire country to house an IISc campus. This will not only give a boost to the University’s image but help it in teaching and research activities.

As per the draft agreement, IISc and the University are planning to have a wide-range of co-operation in the field of teaching and research programmes, with a special thrust to chemical biology.

The programmes envisaged include short-term teaching programmes, setting up of joint infrastructure (depending on the common interest), joint degree and research programmes, exchange of students and others, Prof Prasad disclosed. [...]

This is certainly, ... um, ... interesting. It's not clear how much of the new arrangement is already agreed upon, and how much of it is still up for grabs. Right now, it's only the Deccan Herald that has this story, so we will wait for more details to emerge.

Oh, by the way, Prof. J. Shashidar Prasad, Vice Chancellor of Mysore University, is credited with this quote (a little later in the report):

We have qualified English faculty. IISc would like to have University English lecturers to teach the language to experts in IISc, Bangalore.

Ouch!  I say "Bring'em on!"

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What makes people nice?

No one may ever know unless social psychologists shake off their fascination with jerks.

From this fascinating profile of Joachim Krueger of Brown University and his research. The article, by Ethan Watters, gives extensive examples of research on jerks, misfits and other pathological cases:

Krueger remembers a popular debate among social psychologists over which metaphor best drives home the depth of the mind's failings: Should researchers view the mind as a "cognitive miser," emphasizing our limited resources and reliance on irrelevant clues, or is the mind more accurately depicted as a "totalitarian ego," pursuing self-esteem at the cost of self-deception? Is your mind a Scrooge or a Stalin?

Towards the end, the article does get to a critique of psychologists's focus on bad stuff, and offers some interesting insights about normal, nice people -- you know, people like you and me!

Many researchers have assumed that the logical choice [in a game of Prisoner's Dilemma] is betrayal, since your potential outcomes, depending on what the other prisoner does, are zero or three years—less time on average than the consequences of staying silent (one or five years). Yet when faced with this problem, most laypeople make the illogical choice to remain silent. Why?

The answer, Krueger believes, is that they are employing social projection: They assume that the second prisoner will act the same way they will, and then they incorporate that assumption into the decision-making process.

In other words, if you were to guess how another person would behave in a given situation, your first guess is to say, 'why, he/she would do exactly what I would'! There's nothing pathological about this first guess, and it's certainly nice to know that 'niceness' can emerge out of such thinking.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A mutt-head's warped vision for women

A woman will prove to be a great asset to the nation by being a successful mother at home. Playing the role of a good host is important to women. I believe women can contribute more to the development of the nation by remaining at home than by becoming a Minister, bureaucrat, or manager.

These immortal words were uttered in a speech by Shivakumara Swamiji, the 99-year old seer of the Sri Siddaganga Math.

Scientific fraud ...

An anxious, ambitious, down-on-his-luck postdoctoral researcher suddenly obtains results that look too good to be true — the virus he's injected into cancer-riddled mice appears to be melting away their tumors — and his girlfriend, another postdoc in the same lab, comes to suspect he's fudged his results. But she doesn't know for sure: there's no hard evidence, just some sloppy, discarded lab notes that seem to suggest it.

From this NYTimes review by Sue Halpern of Allegra Goodman's Intuition, a novel set in a scientific lab. Apparently, the lab setting, the characters and their behaviour are all amazingly realistic, if you go by this profile of the author:

Scientists who have read the book say that somehow, Ms. Goodman has managed to write a tale about life in a science lab that rings so true and includes details so accurate and vivid that they say they are left reeling. [...]

When she finished a second draft, Ms. Goodman showed the manuscript to Tom Schwarz, a researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston. Friends with Dr. Schwarz's wife, Ms. Goodman wanted his opinion: was the science right?

Dr. Schwarz said he began to read the book and could not believe it. Ms. Goodman had not interviewed him, and she had not been to his lab. But, Dr. Schwarz said, "I saw myself and I saw things I knew, everything from the greasy falafels from the truck parked outside to the characters."


Uma reports that someone visited her blog using a strange search query. After reading her post, I went and checked my sitemeter log; sure enough, I too had a visitor through this search:

How much money did Barry J. Marshall earn via a Nobel for what he did to himself and his family?

How much did you score in your high school exam?

How absurd would it be to pose this question to our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh? Or, for that matter, to Amitabh Bachchan?

Aditya Gupta, who just finished his higher secondary school exams last year, has written a great ToI op-ed, in which he puts all these 'board exams' in perspective. Don't forget to read the last couple of paragraphs.

As far as your immediate future is concerned, the board exams are important. What students and even parents don't realise is that they're not the only thing.

Many parents transform into grade-hungry chasers who don't realise that what their child needs at this juncture is assurance, not criticism.

It doesn't make sense to lose sleep over a result, which in any case, is going to be rendered inconsequential in a few years. ...

Science education and research in India

The latest issue of the journal Chemical and Engineering News has a cover feature on "Indian Science Rising" written by Amanda Yarnell. The issue features quite a few stories that examine different aspects of doing (and teaching) science and engineering in India. Yarnell has done a great job of teasing out the key isses in each story, and I found the stories fair, balanced and well reported.

Let me just provide the links here (for future reference); the 'blurb' for each story is not my commentary, but taken from the journal's website:

There is also a photo gallery, that features several young scientists:

  • Srinivas Hotha (National Chemical Laboratory, Pune)
  • Yamuna Krishnan-Ghosh (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore)
  • Aditya Mittal (IIT, Delhi)
  • Mrinalini Puranik (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore)
  • Govindaraju Thimmaiah (a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin at Madison).

Monday, March 20, 2006

IIMs and M.M. Joshi

What then explains [IIMs'] failure to break into the Top 100 ranking ...? One answer is the fact that the IIMs fail when it comes to research -- which is an important way to assess the faculty's credentials.

There may be other reasons (quality of library, IT infrastructure. . .), but research is the most important. Why should that matter for the student, since he or she is there for what is taught in class, not what research the professor does outside? That is a question asked on US campuses too, and the answer is that research reflects faculty quality.

T.N. Ninan, here. He has more to say, this time, about the saga of "IIMs vs. M.M. Joshi (the previous HRD minister)":

It is interesting, though, that even as the IIMs celebrate their success, it is their old nemesis Murli Manohar Joshi (the human resource development minister in the last government) who has scored a point or two. For, without anyone noticing, the IIMs have quietly fallen in line with much of what the hard-charging Dr Joshi had wanted them to do!

He wanted them to increase their intake of students -- precisely the issue that was raised recently when IIM-Bangalore said it wanted to set up shop in Singapore. So the greater intake is happening.

Dr Joshi wanted them to use their accumulated corpus for infrastructure development; the IIMs are doing that. He wanted them subjected to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General; that too has happened. And, of course, there are now more scholarships and concessions on offer for poor students -- which was the big issue.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Of gender gaps and glass ceilings

"Firms want women to stay. Men at the firms want women to stay, and women want to stay. So why aren't they?" asks Karen M. Lockwood, a partner at Howrey in Washington. "Law firms are way beyond discrimination — this is about advancement and retention. Problems with advancement and retention are grounded in biases, not discrimination."

One of the views expressed in this NYTimes story by Timothy O'Brien on women's progress in law:

Although the nation's law schools for years have been graduating classes that are almost evenly split between men and women, and although firms are absorbing new associates in numbers that largely reflect that balance, something unusual happens to most women after they begin to climb into the upper tiers of law firms. They disappear.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, a trade group that provides career counseling to lawyers and law students, only about 17 percent of the partners at major law firms nationwide were women in 2005, a figure that has risen only slightly since 1995, when about 13 percent of partners were women.

Since law is one of the coveted professions that shower both money and respect on the professional. The story quotes a lawyer who did manage to rise to the top:

"You have a given population of people who were significantly motivated to go through law school with a certain career goal in mind. ... What de-motivates them to want to continue working in the law?"

The answer to this question could be relevant to many other lines of work as well.

A convenient way of looking at the issues presented in the article is to look at the level at which they need to be addressed: individual, institutional and societal. Are there others?

At the individual level, women are simply asked to to 'adapt' to the work style that already exists in an institution. For example, they should be more agressive in seeking plum assignments. The criticism, of course, is that this approach puts the blame on the women, in that they are asked to behave more like men!

At the institutional level, work styles and practices that are clearly not conducive for women's participation must be identified and banned. For examples, informal meetings over after-hours drinks; if it is established that they serve to exclude women, they must be banned. Bankers, apparently, have an extreme version in which they go out with colleagues and clients to strip clubs! (A collection of reports documenting gender issues in banking can be found here).

At the level of the society at large, the value system must change (somehow!) -- for example, the notion that women must bear the bulk of the burden of household work.

Clearly, a combination of many different strategies is what is required to address the core issue: women face many more obstacles than men do in their path to higher levels in an organization. To the extent that lots of women want to pursue a career in science (Philip Greenspun [via] strongly disputes this claim), but find it more difficult (than men do) to rise to the top, there are lessons for science in how law firms and other businesses deal with this issue.

Patenting absurdities

Update (22 March 2006): NYTimes has an editorial on the need to fix the US patent system.

I wanted to end this essay by telling a story about how current rulings hurt us, but the patent for "ending an essay with an anecdote" is owned. So I thought to end with a quotation from a famous person, but that strategy is patented, too. I then decided to end abruptly, but "abrupt ending for dramatic effect" is also patented. Finally, I decided to pay the "end with summary" patent fee, since it was the least expensive. [...]

Oh, and by the way: I own the patent for "essay or letter criticizing a previous publication." So anyone who criticizes what I have said here had better pay a royalty first, or I'll see you in court.

That's Michael Crichton, arguing strongly for dismantling the current US system that allows patenting of broad strategies.

Womanizing professors, and deans who get murdered

Oooh! Now we are talkin' excitement! Academia has found its own NEW, new thing, and it is movies that are scripted and made by geeks!

I think what is described in this Wired story is a follow-up to something that I linked to last August.

Faced with a shortage of scientists and engineers, the US government hopes to attract newbies using the silver screen. In 2004, the Air Force Office of Science Research decided to get real-life researchers to develop film scripts ...

Here's one of them:

A headstrong Harvard-trained scientist and her rival, a womanizing professor from Norway, are forced to pool their resources to determine the nature of an extraterrestrial object discovered off the North Atlantic coast - a probe that may be killing the world's marine life.


On the other hand, our very own uber-geeks at IIT-Delhi have been making a film called "Formula 69", whose storyline goes like this:

The story revolves around three students who join IIT. On their first day in college, their dean is murdered and they are blamed for the murder. ... Now, they have to clear their names, solve the mystery and clear their final exams - all in seven days ...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Economist on open source projects

To get a sense of just how powerful the open-source method can be, consider the Firefox web browser. Over the last three years it has crept up on mighty Microsoft to claim a market share of around 14% in America and 20% in parts of Europe. Firefox is really a phoenix: its code was created from the ashes of Netscape, which was acquired by AOL in 1998 when it was clear that it had lost the “browser war” to Microsoft. Today, the Mozilla Foundation manages the code and employs a dozen full-time developers.

From that core group, the open-source method lets a series of concentric circles form. First, there are around 400 contributors trusted to offer code into the source tree, usually after a two-stage review. Farther out, thousands of people submit software patches to be sized up (a useful way to establish yourself as new programming talent). An even larger ring includes the tens of thousands of people who download the full source code each week to scrutinise bits of it. Finally, more than 500,000 people use test versions of forthcoming releases (one-fifth of them take the time to report problems in bug reports).

From this story in the Economist; this part of the story is about how an organizational structure has emerged in open source software development process. It made you go 'huh?', didn't it? I mean, is it so surprising that there must be an organization for a project -- even if it is open source -- to be effective? If you read a bit further, you know why it's surprising: the Economist started with some strange preconceptions about open source projects:

One reason why open source is proving so successful is because its processes are not as quirky as they may first seem.

A little later, a Harvard professor is quoted:

“These are not anarchistic things when you look at successful open-source projects -— there is real structure, real checks and balances, and real leadership taking place”.

Quirky? Anarchistic? If you set up an open source project with these adjectives, then pretty much everything you are going to say later is going to look amazing. And, guess what? The rest of the story does indeed tell you that it's all quite amazing.

Since it's all quite amazing, the Economist has to de-mystify the process for its core readers. Thus, it makes the curious claim that the organizational structures in open source projects are not all that different from those in traditional businesses.

In order to succeed, open-source projects have adopted management practices similar to those of the companies they vie to outdo.

This claim is quite a stretch; I mean, which company has to worry about managing hundreds of thousands of workers volunteers who give their time and effort for free?

Because it starts with a 'quirky' premise, the Economist ends up saying stuff that just doesn't make sense. Such as this one:

The contributors are typically motivated less by altruism than by self-interest.

Given its ideological lenses, the Economist cannot pretend to understand something as strange as 'altruism'. While it is true that people at the top levels of the open-source pyramid do get paid for their work, there are scores that don't. Also, by the very nature of their participation, only a small fraction of volunteers can expect to get showered with peer recognition, the other currency that's quite famous in open source literature. Yet, projects such as FireFox do attract so many volunteers. So, statements such as "contributors are ... motivated less by altruism than by self-interest" show up, more than anything else, the cluelessness of the folks who wrote this Economist story. Indeed, the rest of the story has very little to back up this strange and sneaky claim.

In spite of these problems, the Economist story has some interesting stuff about how open source projects are similar to 'traditional businesses' when it comes to making money. There are quite a few companies that have sprung up around open source software, and they do earn real money. MySQL, for example. Did you know that this database software is used by Yahoo! and Google? The story also talks about some interesting companies that are exploring the use of the open source concept to realms other than software.

'To the Netherlands'

The Netherlands now has some of the strictest immigration policies in Europe ... Dutch officials deny that the film "To the Netherlands" — or the new law for that matter — is intended to discourage further Muslim immigration. But they insist that they want all applicants to consider whether or not they would fit into one of the world's most permissive societies.

Just what does the film contain?

"People do not make a fuss about nudity," the narrator explains.

That lesson, about the Netherlands' nude beaches, is followed by another: homosexuals have the same rights here as heterosexuals do, including the chance to marry.

Just to make sure everyone gets the message, two men are shown kissing in a meadow.

Here's the full NYTimes story by Gregory Crouch.

Gender gap in engineering and business

Lack of female mentors. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up only 5.2% of tenured engineering faculty. Students felt that they had no one to turn to for help and guidance. One student said she felt disadvantaged "when it comes to being an engineer without being like a man." Another commented, "Engineering professors make terrible mentors; they can't mentor unless it's about discussing an equation."

From this story by Vivek Wadhwa in Business Week [via Uma]. The story leads with "Women should be mentored not only to be engineers, but to become entrepreneurs in the field. And such encouragement has to start early."

A recent study found that "women more than men need role models who are the same gender as they are". Here's a post (on the excellent "Research Digest Blog" of the British Psychological Society) that reports on the study.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Broken: Curious Gawker's heart, by insensitive spammers

I [want] ... things to be the way they were when spammers had a heart, they had feelings and they could empathize with men who they were trying to convince that what they lacked in intellect could be made up in size.

Curious Gawker.

Broken: Bangalore University

Prof. M.S. Thimmappa retired two days ago from the Vice-Chancellorship of Bangalore University; the Hindu has a report on his four-year tenure. There is a search on for his successor, and a decision is likely to be made in a month's time. A couple of days ago, I saw this report in the Hindu's Bangalore pages, and I was stunned and outraged to read this:

The list [of potential candidates to succeed Prof. Thimmappa] is obviously long. But caste equations, political factors and academic credentials in that order narrow down the competition to a few players. The names of Ranganath from Mysore University, Shakuntala Katre from Bangalore University Department of Zoology, Govindaraju, UVCE Principal, Jogan Shankar, Ambedkar Study Centre visiting professor, and Prakash, Director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), are all doing the rounds.

The political stakes are high. Equally strong are the caste factors, hinging mainly on the representation of Vokkaligas and Lingayats.

The bold emphasis was added by me, of course. The reporter, Rasheed Kappan, goes on to give a list of potential candidates, and the arguments for -- and against -- each; most of the arguments presented in this story revolve around caste equations.

Soon after stepping down from the vice-chancellorship of the Delhi University, Prof. Deepak Nayyar told the Hindu's Siddharth Varadarajan "There are many distinguished academics who would be excellent vice-chancellors. But they do not wish to become VCs or the system will not appoint them." He didn't elaborate on why VC-ship has acquired this sad reputation. I think we now know at least one of the reasons.

Given a bunch of equally capable candidates (based on some measure of 'merit') on the short list, it is always clear that those who get to make the final decision will base their choice not only on the candidates' CVs, but also on a whole bunch of intangibles. I can also understand if caste is one of these intangibles which gives a slight edge to one candidate over the others. After all, someone has the power to decide, he/she must be given the freedom to exercise that freedom. I personally dislike caste being used as a criterion, but if someone does use it (because of his/her compulsions, sense of comfort, etc), I can understand it as long as caste comes into the picture at the end of this process.

As the Deccan Herald reported last week, the search committee itself was not fully constituted as of 8 March 2006! Thus, what we are witnessing here is the overt role caste appears to play even in the initial stages of the search process.

With all due apologies to the Bard, something is rotten in the state of Karnataka.

Broken: Academic advisorship

It's hard to understand just how powerless you can feel as a graduate student unless you've been a graduate student. Standards for admission to the club can seem pretty arbitrary, so much depends on the good will of your advisor and others in the club already. While many of those "grown up" scientists are serious about helping graduate students learn the skills they need -- to do science and to navigate the waters of institutional politics -- others take obvious pleasure in playing the "gatekeeper" role, and in being jerks about it. Power over others is a reality for academic scientists; not only to they control the fate of their grad students, but those working for tenure know that their own fate is in the hands of the tenured faculty. ...

From this sensitive post by Janet D. Stemwedel (aka is Dr. Free-Ride), who explores some of the sad consequences when the advisors take their graduate students for granted, and behave in inconsiderate ways. She certainly seems to have touched a raw nerve in her readers, who pour their hearts out in the comments.

Broken: Science publishing

Everyone, it seems, has a problem with peer review at top-tier journals. The recent discrediting of stem cell work by Woo-Suk Hwang at Seoul National University sparked media debates about the system's failure to detect fraud. Authors, meanwhile, are lodging a range of complaints: Reviewers sabotage papers that compete with their own, strong papers are sent to sister journals to boost their profiles, and editors at commercial journals are too young and invariably make mistakes about which papers to reject or accept (see Truth or Myth?). Still, even senior scientists are reluctant to give specific examples of being shortchanged by peer review, worrying that the move could jeopardize their future publications.

So, do those complaints stem from valid concerns, or from the minds of disgruntled scientists who know they need to publish in Science or Nature to advance in their careers? "The rising [rejections] means an increase in angry authors," says Drummond Rennie, deputy editor at Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The timing is right to take a good hard look at peer review, which, says Rennie, is "expensive, difficult, and blamed for everything."

What's wrong with the current system? What could make it better? Does it even work at all?

From this article by Allison McCook in The Scientist.

Over at the Seed Magazine, Dave Munger explores another facet of science publishing through this question: " What happens when research bypasses the validation process and goes straight to the public?"

Publishing a study is often a downright lethargic process: Researchers with a hot new result submit an article to a journal, wait a minimum of three months for experts in the field to review the findings and then spend another few months revising to the reviewers' recommendations. When a paper is finally accepted, it is edited again and checked by the authors, only to linger—often for several more months—for its turn at the printer.

The process can take so long that some scientists have decided to avoid it altogether.

Coming to Indian journals, this report has some gory details which are shocking, to say the least. India, as a country, seems to be home to a lot of publications -- that call themselves science journals -- which don't believe in the process of peer review (however flawed it may be, it's still the only one we've got!).

Among the analysed 1835 journals, 145 (7.9%) have listed their editorial board; however, we realize that many journals never use their expertise for review or content optimization. ... [Just] 154 journals (8.39%) come under the category ‘peer reviewed’. About 331 journals are available online.

The authors of this study, P. Pichappan and G. Buchandiran (Department of Library and Information Science, Annamalai University, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu), conclude their short article with these observations:

We are concerned with poor peer-reviewing practice of Indian journals. Indian libraries should subscribe to the reviewed journals only, so that the other journals realize the potential and value of the review system. Unless the institutions insist that their scientists and faculty members opt for publications in peer-reviewed journals and consider the publications in peer-reviewed journals only, Indian journals will continue to live in a constricted circle.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

IITs: Rama Rao Committee Report

In 2004, a committee set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) under the chairmanship of Prof. P. Rama Rao (former Secretary, Department of Science and Technology - DST) to review the functioning of the Indian Institutes of Technology. I believe the committee submitted its report sometime in 2005, though I have not been able to locate it online. A recent issue of Current Science had a commentary by Prof. Vijay Arakeri (professor of mechanical engineering in IISc) on the committee's report.

The Current Science commentary summarizes some of the key findings and recommendations of the review committee on academic issues. Some of the statistics startled me: did you know, for example, the IITs award more masters degrees (3675 in 2002-03) than bachelors degrees (2275 in the same year)? Here's another:

...the method of calculation of credits is not the same for all the IITs. Similarly, ... the grading patterns are not alike across the IITs.

As they say, do read the whole thing [pdf].

Sporting pranks

Sometime ago, I linked to this wonderful Economist essay about pranks. One of the examples in the essay is the following:

The best colleges strive to out-prank one another. Students at Yale scored a big victory during last year's football match against Harvard when they passed out pieces of paper to thousands of fans on the Harvard side of the stadium. The fans were told that, when held up, the bits would spell “Go Harvard”. In fact they spelled something else (see photo that opened this article).

I am not sure if this prank is in the same league as the one pulled off by Yale, but Bruce Schneier calls it "the cleverest social engineering attack I've read about in a long time."

Post-modern polygraphs

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and electroencephalography, or EEG, are the most promising modern techniques vying to replace the polygraph. One reason researchers think these methods might be superior is that instead of using sweat and heartbeat to tell us what's going on in the mind, these technologies map the brain itself. Another reason is that both methods are better suited than the polygraph to identifying whether the subject has guilty knowledge, and this is more useful in security screening than the highly targeted interrogation required by the control-question test.

From this story in Wired by Jennifer Granick. Her verdict?

At some point soon, these high-tech lie detectors will be cheap, accurate, portable and unobtrusive enough to replace the polygraph in incident investigations. But we are a long way from reading minds. [...]

With even the best technology, science says lie detection is still only a little better than a shot in the dark.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blunt talk from Barkha Dutt

... If the Varanasi blasts were a consequence of the UPA’s ‘minority appeasement’, then how does one explain the shadow of terror that tailed India during the NDA regime — from Kandahar to the Parliament attack? If the blasts were a result of this government being ‘soft on terror’, then how does one explain that there is no empirical difference in the level of violence today as compared to last year? And has a shrill BJP forgotten that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s lasting legacy is the creation of a peace process with Pakistan and a peace initiative with Kashmiri separatists?

From this op-ed in the Hindustan Times [via Uma].


“Researchers have long been interested in making composites of nanotubes and polymers, but it can be difficult to engineer the interfaces between the two materials,” says Pulickel Ajayan, the Henry Burlage Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “We have found a way to get arrays of nanotubes into a soft polymer matrix without disturbing the shape, size, or alignment of the nanotubes.”

Nanotube arrays typically don’t maintain their shape when transferred because they are held together by weak forces. But the team has developed a new procedure that allows them to grow an array of nanotubes on a separate platform and then fill the array with a soft polymer. When the polymer hardens, it is essentially peeled back from the platform, leaving a flexible skin with organized arrays of nanotubes embedded throughout.

The skins can be bent, flexed, and rolled up like a scroll, all while maintaining their ability to conduct electricity, which makes them ideal materials for electronic paper and other flexible electronics, according to Ajayan.

From this press release from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

P.M. Ajayan is the leader of the group that reported this exciting development, which has the potential to lead to technological innovations based on the 'nanoskin', a thin, flexible and conducting sheet of polymer with carbon nanotubes embedded in it. He has been at the forefront of major developments in carbon nanotubes research right from their dicovery in Japan's NEC (where he was a post-doctoral researcher) in 1991-92.

A partial list of Ajayan's publications can be found here; there is an earlier report on the development of a nano-brush, with some cute applications, such as cleaning microscopic grooves! You may also be interested in this 2002 interview [pdf] with him .

Ajayan was the topper of his B.Tech. class in metallurgical engineering at the Institute of Technology in Banaras Hindu University. I too was in that class.

[I thanks to another classmate of mine, H. Kumar, for the e-mail alert].

Monday, March 13, 2006


We have already seen, in an earlier post on the chapter on parenting in Freakonomics, how parenting has been shown to have a small effect on the development of a child -- in particular, intellectual development, as measured by the child's academic performance in school. Personally, I find this position quite liberating: it's good to know that my screw-ups as a parent has only a small effect on our child ;-)

The origin of this liberating insight can be traced to the book The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris (do check out this site; it has tons of information that you will find useful). Apparently (and I haven't read her book, so I may be a little imprecise here), in her recounting of research, parents' influence is about 50%, and it is largely through their genes; and, the remaining 50% is influenced by the child's peers far more strongly than by the parents.

Judith Harris has just published a book that appears to be even more ambitious in scope. The book, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, is a "[synthesis of] her work into a theory of personality", according to the NYTimes review by William Saletan.

Two caveats. First, intellectual development is just one aspect of a child's personality, so it is possible that other aspects (moral? religious?) where parenting styles and tactics might play a role. Second, while parents' influence is smaller than that of peers, the former still get to decide who the child's peers are (through their choice of where they live, which school the child attends, etc).

Laura, over at 11D and Harry Brighouse, at Crooked Timber, are discussing what appears to be a fascinating book: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life by Annette Lareau (you can read the first chapter on the book's website). I won't summarize the discussion here, except to say that it will give you some new ways of thinking about parenting.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Netroots and mangoes

Two op-eds in NYTimes today:

First, what do you get when you combine grassroots mobilization and and the democratizing power potential of blogs? Netroots.

The netroots' power comes from the same network effect that made eBay a retailing phenomenon. Far-flung political activists now join together on sites like, and inject themselves into matters that used to be settled behind closed doors. ...

Next, Madhur Jaffrey educates the Americans about the charms of the King of Fruit.

The one attempt I made [to smuggle mangoes into the US] was quite unsuccessful. A customs inspector, possibly noting my shifty eyes, asked me quite directly, "Are you carrying any mangoes?" Unable to lie, I had to reply in the affirmative. The mangoes were confiscated.

This would have been bearable had I not been able to peep through a slight crack in the customs office door, a few moments later. The officers were cutting up the mangoes and eating them. That hurt.

Winning Western hearts with a little help from intellectuals of Indian origin

Sevanti Ninan, the media columnist at the Hindu, has an interesting column today. The main thesis is:

IN the aftermath of the Bush visit, with a congressional battle ahead, and sections of a U.S. media which believe that the India deal sends a wrong message to Korea and Iran, there is an NRI media factor which gives India an advantage that Pakistan, Iran and the others do not have in quite the same measure. That is the Indian voices in the American media debate.

Ninan is right to celebrate these Indian voices because, as she says, "complexities of India's position perhaps stand a better chance of being conveyed when Indians do the writing."

Quite. Since the Hindu doesn't believe in providing external links, here are the examples cited by Ninan:

She mentions Fareed Zakaria, who penned the cover story on 'India Rising' in a recent issue of Newsweek. In addition, she mentions Seema Gahlaut's article in Foreign Policy on 'Misfiring at the India Nuclear Deal', Somini Sengupta's reporting for the New York Times, and Ranadeep Ramesh's opinion piece in the Guardian.

What does the IT industry want?

In a report commissioned by NASSCOM, the lobbying arm of India's software and BPO industries, McKinsey's consultants concluded that nearly 75 percent of our graduates are not employable. It has led many people -- college students in particular -- to ponder this exasperating question: "What do IT firms want?"

N. Gokulmuthu, who has been "in the IT industry for the past 10 years" and has conducted "hundreds of tests and interviews" offers his views in a short article in the Hindu today:

From candidates fresh out of college, we expect good analytical skills. For example, the question may be "If six typists can type 40 pages in two days, how long will it take for 5 typists to type 100 pages." We also expect good mathematics. For example, the candidate should be able to plot "y equals x square minus seven x plus 12," or the candidate should be able to explain the concept of a prime number. Our reasoning goes like this:

1. A candidate, who has learnt well whatever was taught in school and college, is trainable to do our job.

2. A candidate, who can logically analyse and deduce solutions from a given set of facts, can work on the technical problems that we face everyday.

What he says a little later makes me really sad:

Sadly, the candidates who come out of the colleges fare very badly in our tests. Usually our questions are limited to high school mathematics. No calculus. No complex analysis. Plain algebra and trigonometry is what we test candidates on.

Friday, March 10, 2006

M. A. Pai on technical education in India

M. A. Pai, an emeritus professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaigne, has an article in Rediff on the state of technical education in India. He presents quite a few ideas for improving the quality of education, so that we are able to graduate a lot more students who have had high quality training. He also presents some ideas on increasing the number of Ph.D.s in engineering disciplines.

Here's another page that recounts Prof. Pai's career. He also served IIT-K during the 1960's and the 70's.

He also has an earlier Rediff article -- published in September 2004 -- titled "Why IITs must be restructured".

Well, there's a lot of stuff in the article that I would like to comment upon. However, that will have to wait. Let me, for the moment, content myself with excerpting from the article:

Currently, the student-to-faculty ratio at many IITs is more like 10:1, which is a luxury, compared to the 20:1 in most US public universities. In China, Tshinghua University alone turns out more than 2,000 undergraduates in engineering according to their Web site. [...]

The IITs have vast spaces and they must be utilised optimally. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore can also join the four-year undergraduate programme with perhaps a greater share for science graduates. This is one way of exciting young minds about science since they will be in the same campus as top-notch scientists.

The experience at IIT Kanpur in the '60s of having an integrated 5-year science degree programme, where excellent research was also done in the sciences, should be a convincing factor. There are very few world-class institutions excelling in research without a good undergraduate programme and the IISc must be persuaded to fall in line.

Of opposition parties and their leaders

In a hard-hitting op-ed yesterday in the Hindu, Harish Khare starts with this:

LAST JULY, bombs ripped through the London Metro. That evening the British Parliament met, dignified speeches were made, the Government and the Opposition soberly joined hands to send out a message of a united nation against vendors of terrorism. By contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal Opposition, chose on Wednesday to disrupt the two Houses in the wake of the blasts in Varanasi. A strange way, if any, to send out any message to the "enemy."

Do read the great posts by Sonia Faleiro and Peter Griffin.

I too had something similar to say about the behaviour of the main opposition parties in India and the UK; my comments were made sometime after the blasts in the London Metro last July.

Quantum chakras ...

The Hindu, two days ago:

The next stage will be in activating the "charkas" or energy centres of the body which leads to increased awareness. By activating "charkas" or energy centres and channelising thoughts, healing becomes faster, [Thomas Louies] says.

"There is a scientific basis to all this and what I teach at my workshops is allied to the principles of quantum physics that we are all energy bodies and there is a oneness in all matter," he says. [bold emphasis added by me]

I am not sure if the 'chakras' allow you to 'get in touch' with your own self from one of your past lives.

1 billion rupees for IISc, and incompetent reporting at the Indian Express

Okay, I will get to the bit about incompetent reporting at the end. Let me start with the real deal, from none other than the source itself -- the Press Information Bureau, the official mouthpiece of the mighty Government of India:

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs(CCEA) today gave its approval for incurring an expenditure of Rs.100 crores for upgrading the overall infrastructure of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISc) by 2006-07. This will include Rs. 62 crores during 2005-06 and Rs.38 crores during 2006-07.

The benefits as a result include:
  1. Development of laboratory infrastructure at an estimated cost of Rs.55 crores: Nano and Micro Electronic system laboratory blocks and the modern Biological Science Blocks will be constructed. The modern Biological Science Laboratory blocks will have a total built up area of 90000 sq.ft., with bio-safety infrastructure.
  2. Instrumentation for cutting edge research including computers and communication for which investment of about Rs.20 crores is required. The equipments to be procured would include robot assisted protein purification and crystallization, wireless sensor network laboratory, automated peptide and DAN synthesizer, mobile weather and climate monitoring set up etc.
  3. Schemes and Programmes for attracting and retaining high quality faculty and students. Of the 20 major Departments in IISc, at least two young faculty member will be groomed from each Department. Each faculty member will be given Rs.25 lakh for creation of his/her dedicated laboratory infrastructure.
  4. To provide better infrastructural facilities to facilitate programmes for enhancing international collaboration. An amount of Rs.10 crores for construction of international visitors’ hostel and visiting faculty houses.
Background: The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in India. It has been the flagship University of the country and has been described at various times as the Jewel in the Crown of Indian science. IISc produces nearly 8 to 10% of nation’s publications in scholarly journals of international repute. It is the home to a set of vibrant and internationally acclaimed faculty. It produces nearly 25% of nation’s PhDs in science and engineering. It has been a mother of many institutions, a partner to the nation in almost all its developmental and strategic initiatives and a trustworthy think tank for the industry. IISc has been in existence for almost 100 years and will be celebrating its centenary of sustained excellence in the year 2009.

I love that reference to IISc having been a "mother of many institutions"!

Now, several news sources, including the Deccan Herald have picked up this news -- today. But the Indian Express ran this story yesterday (I linked to it here), and gave it the pride of place -- Page One Anchor! While its reporter, Amitav Ranjan, got most of the details right, he got one crucial piece of it completely wrong.

Under item 3, the PIB bulletin says 2 young faculty members from each department will be lavished with Rs. 25 lakhs. But, this is how Ranjan reported it yesterday:

... the Government has suggested that two students be identified from each of the 20-plus departments at IISc who would get Rs 25 lakh each to pursue their research. [with bold emphasis added by me]

I understand the reporter's urge to run with the scoop, but it works only if the reporting is impeccable. In this particular a scoop [not any old scoop, it's the Page One Anchor!], mistaking students for faculty members is a huge goof. If the 25-lakh 'largesse' is for faculty members, it's about as newsworthy as Abhishek Bachchan's ongoing search for a bride (or, Kamal Haasan's ongoing obsession with quest for an Oscar ;-). If, on the other hand, the largesse is meant for the students the news is revolutionary indeed, and Ranjan knew it. That's why he chose to start his Page One Anchor with headlines screaming about it!

It's a pity that he got it totally wrong ...   :-(