Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cruelty in academia?

[Jigar] Patel claims in his application that he was asked by [V.K.] Jain to do odd jobs like repairing his scooter’s flat tyre and depositing cheques. Patel has submitted a copy of the log book. An entry in Patel's log sheet on October 16, 2005, which carries Jain's signature, states, "Went to BSNL office, creation for printer work, post-office, watch shop for repairing, complex preparation of dyes and computer work."

Another entry dated September 19, 2005 reads, "Printer repair, mouse change and searched for 'Jhaadu' (broom)." Similar entries appear practically every day till September this year on Patel's log sheet.

Intrigued? According to this ToI report, V.K. Jain is faculty member in the chemistry department of Gujarat University, and Jigar Patel is his Ph.D. student.

Some years ago, Kumudam, a Tamil weekly magazine, did an exposé on the way professors treated their students in Tamil Nadu universities: students were made to do all kinds of non-academic (domestic?) odd jobs such as grocery shopping, baby-sitting or driving around professors' children, etc. In one case, women students were made to do an elaborate rangoli at the wedding of a professor's daughter!

When you read the ToI story, you'll see a bemused tone in describing all those grossly unprofessional actions by the research guide. In fact, the story starts with an ancient comedy show with eerily similar incidents. Since this report treats its subject largely as a joke, I would have to assume that this sort of unprofessional conduct by professors is rare.

Am I right in this assumption?

* * *

One more observation before I close. The students have an extensive information network (hostels and messes, coffee shops, cultural activities centre, etc. in the physical world, and e-mail, orkut, bulletin-boards, chat rooms in the virtual world) through which they get to know about the good, the bad and the ugly among their professors. With so much of information floating around, and since choosing one's advisor is the most important decision in a graduate student's life, why do some students seek out and choose such 'bad' professors? Shouldn't they be exercising better judgement?

* * *

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.

Friday, December 29, 2006


After the previous post on bribes masquerading as gifts, here comes a post on what the social scientists have been saying about gifts -- genuine ones -- this holiday season. Start with the New Yorker article by James Surowiecki on the deadweight loss of Christmas:

... A deadweight loss is created when you spend eighty dollars to give me a sweater that I would spend only sixty-five dollars to buy myself. [Joel] Waldfogel [of the University of Pennsylvania] estimates that somewhere between ten and eighteen per cent of seasonal spending becomes deadweight loss, which means that billions of dollars a year is now going to waste.

Why aren’t we better at gift giving? A lot of the time, we don’t know the people we’re shopping for all that well. Much of the deadweight loss that Waldfogel found was caused by older people, who may not be attuned to what their young relatives really want, and are therefore more likely to give gifts that recipients value less. More surprisingly, though, we’re also bad at buying for the people we’re closest to. A recent study by the marketing professors Davy Lerouge and Luk Warlop finds that familiarity can actually lead us astray. They ran a series of experiments with long-standing couples in which the partners tried to predict each other’s taste in furniture—a sort of academic version of “The Newlywed Game”—and found that, in general, people did a poor job of it. In making predictions, people tend to rely on what Lerouge and Warlop call “pre-stored beliefs and expectations,” rather than paying close attention to what their partner really liked. People did a good job of predicting their partner’s preferences, in fact, only when they shared those preferences. My idea of what you want, it turns out, has a lot to do with what I want.

Over at Aplia Econ Blog, Chris Makler elaborates on the economics of gift giving -- with links and review questions! Aplia is a company that offers "interactive course tools to help better prepare economics and finance students."

The NYTimes carried an article about the gift vouchers. You know, the kind that's not used!

Shoppers across America have millions of gift cards tucked away in envelopes, drawers and wallets. And some of the nation's largest retailers are profiting as a result.

"It can be fun to get them, but then I forget about them," said Deborah Cabaret, 46, who has hundreds of dollars worth of unused cards. "Or I walk into the store, I look around, I don't know what I want, and I leave."

Seth Roberts speculates on the evolutionary significance of the culture of gift giving:

Humans are the only animals with occupational specialization — we specialize, and trade. It started with hobbies. Hobbies became part-time jobs. Part-time jobs became full-time jobs. To support full-time jobs — to generate enough demand — there has to be enough expertise, which builds up slowly. To build up expertise, our brains changed so as to cause creation of special events like Christmas, Japanese New Year, Spring Festival (in China), and a thousand other examples around the world. Such events increase the demand for high-end craftsmanship, thus helping the most skilled craftsmen — the ones most likely to advance the state of their art — make a living. Christmas increases the demand for Christmas cards (fine printing) and Christmas-tree ornaments, for example. Traditional gift-giving has the same effect: It increases demand for “the better things in life.” Most gifts, if you follow the usual norms, are (a) not something you would buy for yourself and (b) not something the recipient would buy. ... They are harder to make — and thus reward skilled craftsmen more — than the stuff we buy for ourselves, just as Christmas ornaments are harder to make than common household objects and Christmas-card printing is more difficult than most printing. Weddings, with the gifts, finery, invitations, etc., are another example.

Next up, we have Alex Tabarrok, who says gifts are really about appealing to the recipient's wild side:

Gift giving, therefore, is about reaching out and giving to the wild self in someone else. Why would we want to do this? Because we want the wild self in someone else to be wild about us.

The bottom line? If you want to please the economist in me, send me cash. If you want to please my wild self (you know who you are!) use your imagination.

Fabio Rojas, on the other hand, says gifts are about memories:

Here’s my sociological defense of presents: Let’s say that the present’s value = (immediate use value to recipient) + (value of the memory of the present). That is, the present’s value for the recipient is not just the cash value, it’s also how often it helps you remember your relationship to the giver. Teppo might think it is very funny that I gave him a velvet Elvis that cost me $100, which he values at $80. A life time of laughing at my poor taste is probably worth a lot more than $20.

He has another hypothesis:

Presents are not valuable to the recipient - they are valuable to the giver! Why? Gifts create a sense of obligation and good will toward the giver. The value comes from the fact that the recipient owes you something in the future. You can even deduce novel predictions from this theory. For example, the best presents go to the most trust worthy friends and relatives because the gift is a downpayment for a future favor. It also explains the gifts given from bosses to employees, instead of bosses just increasing the yearly salary.

And finally, Mark Thoma directs us to an interesting fisking -- in ten parts! -- of a physical product which is also a favourite gift for many people: very expensive chocolate! He indicates that this belongs to the "market failure in everything" category!

Gifts or bribes?

Here's one more reason why Joel Spolsky has the kind of credibility -- and fan following -- that others can only dream of:

These gifts reduce the public trust in blogs. Recently I wrote a nice article, for example, about Sonos. I bought the system with my own money, liked it, thought it had some great UI that programmers should pay attention to. Most people understood the article to be what it was: a positive review about a good product, influenced only by the fact that the product was good. But some people thought it was just a paid advertisement.

This is the most frustrating thing about the practice of giving bloggers free stuff: it pisses in the well, reducing the credibility of all blogs. I'm upset that people trust me less because of the behavior of other bloggers. ...

Joel then goes on to announce his new policy on product reviews:

I've decided that from this point forward I'm not accepting anything, full stop. Even if my moral logic is faulty, and there's nothing wrong with accepting gifts, I personally feel that it's not worth the reduced credibility. Who are the most trusted reviewers out there? Consumer Reports, probably. They don't take anything from vendors. They even buy everything they review at retail, which is what I'm going to do.

While I understand fully his reasoning, I still feel that this is a harsh, unrealistic standard. I would set myself a somewhat lower -- and I believe, adequate -- standard, which would demand the following:

  • the company doesn't demand that the blogger review the product, and
  • the blogger discloses conflicts of interest -- including potential ones ("Company X sent it to me -- free!", or "my wife works in Company X")

I believe the world of book reviews in newspapers uses this standard; the culture of "review copy" is so common in this world that most book reviews don't even mention the fact that the reviewer/newspaper didn't pay for the books.

As I look back, I find that I have done two book reviews so far: I bought this book, while the other was published to be distributed free of cost. From this point on, I think it's a good idea for me to mention if I paid for the book/product/service under review.

As for Joel's new policy, all I can say is "Good for him!". And admire him -- and Consumer Reports, too! -- from afar.

Atanu Dey on PanIIT

Atanu Dey pans the PanIIT meet:

They took the stage for the next hour or so (but seemed interminable) congratulating each other on the “great success the PanIIT 2006” was. Each tried to outdo the other in heaping praise on all and sundry for the great job they have done. It was an orgy of premature congratulations. Their praise for each was only interrupted by references to how great a “brand” IIT was and how they, as the “product” of IITs, were going to “Inspire, Involve, and Transform” the nation, and who knows, perhaps the world, if not the entire universe. They were clearly impressed by their own cleverness in expanding IIT to mean spell the theme of the event.

It was a bit too thick, and I was beginning to feel a little sick. A bunch of self-absorbed inflated egos strutting about the stage sprouting meaningless drivel about how great they and the IITs were soon gets nauseating.

There's a lot more where it came from, and it ain't pretty.

My previous posts on the PanIIT meet are here and here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ethics of billionaire philanthropy

Sidebar: My previous posts linking to Peter Singer's writings are here and here.

* * *

Peter Singer on the ethics of billionaire philanthropy [he answers readers' questions here]:

Last June the investor Warren Buffett took a significant step toward reducing those deaths when he pledged $31 billion to the Gates Foundation, and another $6 billion to other charitable foundations. Buffett’s pledge, set alongside the nearly $30 billion given by Bill and Melinda Gates to their foundation, has made it clear that the first decade of the 21st century is a new “golden age of philanthropy.” On an inflation-adjusted basis, Buffett has pledged to give more than double the lifetime total given away by two of the philanthropic giants of the past, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, put together. Bill and Melinda Gates’s gifts are not far behind. [...]

Philanthropy on this scale raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Let’s start with the question of motives. The rich must — or so some of us with less money like to assume — suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants or whatever else they have to do to acquire their wealth. When wealthy people give away money, we can always say that they are doing it to ease their consciences or generate favorable publicity. It has been suggested — by, for example, David Kirkpatrick, a senior editor at Fortune magazine — that Bill Gates’s turn to philanthropy was linked to the antitrust problems Microsoft had in the U.S. and the European Union. Was Gates, consciously or subconsciously, trying to improve his own image and that of his company?

This kind of sniping tells us more about the attackers than the attacked. Giving away large sums, rather than spending the money on corporate advertising or developing new products, is not a sensible strategy for increasing personal wealth. When we read that someone has given away a lot of their money, or time, to help others, it challenges us to think about our own behavior. Should we be following their example, in our own modest way? But if the rich just give their money away to improve their image, or to make up for past misdeeds — misdeeds quite unlike any we have committed, of course — then, conveniently, what they are doing has no relevance to what we ought to do.

50 marathons in 50 days!

The man who achieved this feat is Dean Karnazes who, in 1995, took part in a 199 mile relay race -- by himself! Wired has 12 secrets of his success; here's one of them:

Karnazes has a wife and two kids, and he worked a 9-to-5 job for the first eight years of his quest to transcend his own limits. Finding four hours for a 30-mile run during the day was next to impossible. The solution: sleep less. "Forgoing sleep is the only way I've figured out how to fit it all in," he says, noting that running in the dark can be soothing. Plus, there's less traffic to contend with. He now gets about four hours of shut-eye a night. Before he started running, however, he was just a regular guy who got a regular eight. As he started to run more, he found that he could sleep less. The National Sleep Foundation reports that exercise does lead to more restful sleep, and Karnazes takes this idea to the extreme. "The human body," he says, "is capable of extraordinary feats."

In the next quote, he says, "show your body who's the boss"!

"The human body has limitations," Karnazes says. "The human spirit is boundless." Your mind, in other words, is your most important muscle. As a running buddy told him: "Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention to arrive safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming: Wow!! What a ride!"

Thanks to PTDR for the pointer.

Will the West Bengal government let BESU become an IIEST?

BESU is the Bengal Engineering and Science University, in whose earlier avatar it was called the Bengal Engineering College (Shibpur). Sometime ago, our Ministry of Human Resource Development identified it as one of the several colleges to be upgraded to an Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST). This move is generally seen as a positive thing because, the upgradation also comes with several carrots: designation as an Institution of National Importance (!), one time funding to improve the infrastructure and an enhanced level of funding forever.

What's the catch? INIs have a governance structure that gives the institutions a lot more autonomy. Second, because they are INIs, their outlook must be truly national; this implies that the state they are located in loses out in terms of the number of its students who can study there. State governments -- such as those of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh -- were quite unhappy with these provisions.

Well, do read Anasuya Basu's opinion piece in the Telegraph for the details of how the West Bengal government is coming in the way of BESU's blossoming into an Institution of National Importance.

Does Joe Stiglitz own an auto company in India?

A front-page top-half story in today's Hindu is on Ratan Tata's comments on the Singur controversy:

Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata on Wednesday blamed competitors for ``fuelling'' the controversy over the proposed Rs. 1 lakh car project at Singur in West Bengal ...

The Hindu story doesn't mention who the 'competitors' are. With a lot of hard work -- not! -- and hours of intense internet search -- not! -- nanopolitan has learnt the identity of at least one of Tata's competitors. It's none other than Professor Joseph Stiglitz, one of the 2001 Nobel winners in economics! You want evidence? Here it is, from the same newspaper:

One of the paradoxes of market `reform' in India is that if you are a big company and are planning to set up a factory, you want a free market to buy equipment and hire workers but expect government intervention to acquire land. Can this be justified on the basis of first principles?

There is a general view that where there are large externalities — urban renewal programmes, for instance — there may be grounds for government to try and buy land and help renew a city or part of a city. But the dangers of doing this when there is a single firm without externalities are enormous. This is because the government often uses the right of eminent domain with compensation below market price.

So future rents are shared between the firm for whom land is acquired and the original land owners in a very unequal way...

That's right, exactly, and that's why these firms turn to the government. In general, there is a price at which people would sell their land. The reason these firms ask the government to do it is because they don't want to pay that market price. So once you get into that mindset, it becomes a very dangerous precedent.

The argument made in India is that land holdings are fragmented, that there is no land market.

You have a problem when land is fragmented, or there are land market inefficiencies, and difficulties in getting clear title. Markets might be so poorly developed that businesses can't acquire land and that becomes an impediment to development. Of course, the right answer is to solve the problem of the land market and not to solve it for this particular person by taking over that particular piece of property!

Terrorist attack in IISc: One year later

It has been a year since this attack happened on our campus [some follow up posts here, here and here].

One year on, the big news, really, is no news.

Efforts made by the Bangalore police to trace the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives who are believed to have been behind the terrorist attack on the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) campus a year ago have not yielded any results. It was on the night of December 28, 2005, that armed intruders opened fire at people walking out of an international conference at the J.N. Tata Auditorium, killing a scientist and injuring four others.

One year after the incident, the city police are still struggling to ascertain the identity of the gunmen who opened fire. Commissioner of Police Neelam Achuta Rao told The Hindu on Wednesday that the investigation has "reached a dead end".

Though the police have been gathering information about the activities of LeT, they have no clues on those who were involved in the IISc. attack, he said.

The police arrested seven people with alleged terrorist links after the attack and even filed charge sheets against them in the court.

However, it transpired that none of them was connected with the IISc. attack, the commissioner said.

* * *

It makes me sad that, after one full year, we are still in the dark about that dark deed in those barely dark hours.

That's all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

'Even' the East Asians are doing better than us!

Let me give two recent examples, all of which are about the shoddy state of affairs in our higher education system. First up, we have Seyed E. Hasnain, Vice Chancellor, University of Hyderabad, lamenting in an otherwise must-read Current Science editorial about the crisis in our universities:

... China which was far behind in India in terms of scientific contributions is today much ahead of us by at least a factor of 40. [...] Even South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are fast catching up or have already exceeded India's scientific research productivity in terms of scientific publication, impact factor, citation or even sheer number of Ph.D.s. [Bold emphasis added]

Next up, we have Ram Kelkar, in this op-ed:

... [B]y almost any traditional metric used for measuring the worth of a university, the IITs are nowhere compared to leading universities of the US and Europe. Even the Chinese and Koreans are pouring their financial might and national will into building truly world-class universities. [Bold emphasis added]

Am I the only one seeing here an implicit message of desi superiority over the East Asians?

More on the PanIIT meet

After President Kalam's verbal whacking, there's more coming PanIIT's way. First, Mumbai's Daily News and Analysis (DNA) chose to write an editorial underlining the President's points. And the students and faculty of IITs have flayed the PanIIT organizers for not doing a good job of projecting the IITs' contribution to nation building. They did get some comic relief when Sam Pitroda, the Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, suggested that IIT-B should introduce a masters course in film technology because of "the growing convergence of various media."

The IIT directors have used the occasion to put forward their views on the problems faced by the IITs.

One of the things that comes out from their sob stories is the faculty crunch. DNA's editorial says that the IITs need to recruit 1200 to 1500 new faculty members over the next three years. The Business Standard, on the other hand, quotes a McKinsey study "initiated in 2001" as emphasizing that "the IITs and regional engineering colleges (RECs) would require another 5,000 faculty over the next five years." It goes on to quote the IIT-D director who said, "We need to recruit at least 70 faculty members every year but we are not able to do so due to the shortage of quality faculty.” To put these numbers in perspective, India produces about 700 PhD's in engineering every year; its science PhD output is about 5000 per year.

Another interesting thing in that report is the research funding of about 10 million rupees (about $200,000) per faculty member per year at places like MIT and Stanford (these figures are probably from 2001); the corresponding figure for the IITs is Rs. 1.5 million (about $30,000).

During the PanIIT Meet, the women graduates of IITs had a chance to meet up; they "vowed to address gender inequity at the IITs. As a first step, they are starting a mentoring programme for female students and alumni." The Hindustan Times reports that they plan to "mentor girls on issues they could face in the professional sphere, how to proceed with research, how to strike the right balance between work and family life." It goes on to add:

“The fact that there are not enough women in the IITs even today is a reflection of the inequality in society,” said Susheela Venkatraman, a business partner at IBM, Bangalore. She was one of just 11 girls in a batch of 250 when she graduated from IIT Delhi in 1981. A recent study in IIT, Bombay showed the number of women obtaining Bachelor of Technology degrees each year has ranged between 1.8 to 7.9 per cent.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tsunami: Two years later

Today marks the second anniversary of the huge South Asian Tsunami that consumed 230,000 lives and devastated the lives of millions more [see the pictures posted here to get an idea about the power of this particular tsunami]. In the Hindu, Gopal Raj updates us on the tsunami early warning system that will be in place by September 2007. Ramya Kannan has a story on the new inequalities created by the huge inflow of aid into the tsunami-hit areas of Tamil Nadu: those poor who were not affected by the tsunami are the have nots.

... A woman whose husband died at sea before the tsunami struck is only partly joking when she says: "Had he died during the tsunami, our family would have at least got the benefits!"

Kiruba offers an anecdote from Vani. [Via Bruno].

By a freaky coincidence, there was an earthquake off southwestern Taiwan; there were fears of a tsunami that could hit countries like the Philippines. Apparently, there's no danger.

Update: Shunya has a picture of the tsunami memorial at Kanyakumari where, he notes, over a thousand people died.

The great Indian hotel room shortage

Infosys, an Indian software giant with 66,000 employees worldwide, has built its own 500-room hotel next to its headquarters in Bangalore. By June, it expects to have 15,000 company-owned rooms across India — nearly an eighth as many rooms as the entire country has, and more than any Indian hotel chain.

Putting an employee up for a night at its Bangalore campus hotel costs Infosys $15, and the guest gets three-star treatment that would normally cost $150, by the company’s estimate.

“It’s much more efficient in India to do it yourself,” said T. V. Mohandas Pai, director of human resources at Infosys.

That's Anand Giridharadas reporting in the NYTimes. He offers several interesting comparisons and perspectives:

India offers only 110,000 hotel rooms. China has 10 times as many, and the United States 40 times as many. The New York metropolitan region alone has about as many rooms as all of India.

In Bangalore, rooms are so costly that traveling salespeople and other professionals often commute by air from as far as Mumbai, 620 miles away.

The high prices are all the more striking in a low-wage country like India. At a $500 rack rate for the five-star rooms favored by business travelers, a hotel employee earning minimum wage here would have to work about a year to pay for one night’s stay, versus about two and a half weeks’ work for an American earning minimum wage.

Protecting Whisleblowers

Six weeks ago, Vivek alerted us that the draft Public Services Bill was online, and available for comments from the public. In particular, he noted that it contained certain provisions meant to protect whistleblowers in government. Two weeks later, he bemoaned the apathy when his readers (including me) didn't seem to take his request seriously:

One of the ways in which the country can have more people like Manjunath Shanmugam and Satyendra Dubey (and keep them alive), is to have Whistleblower Protection in place.

What is the most important feature of the draft Public Services Bill?

Chapter VII - Protection to Whistleblowers.

While we are full of talking about Manjunath and Satyendra, we are not really doing anything about it. There is the “kathni”, and then there is the “karni”. And there is a big gap between the two.

That is why I am bothered.

I have to admit that I am among those who did nothing -- aside from linking to his post over at DesiPundit. The reason is simple: the Bill, as it stands now, is a series of statements of intent. For example, take a look at the section on protecting the whistleblowers. It has just three provisions:

  1. It shall be the duty of the government to put in place, within a period of 6 months from the commencement of this Act, mechanisms to protect public servants who report suspected improper governance actions in their workplace.
  2. No person shall be victimized or discriminated against for reporting improper practices or acts or breaches of the provisions of this Act.
  3. Any person bringing to light wrongdoings in the workplace, which are in contravention of the provisions of this Act, shall be given protection under this Act.

As statements of intent, there's nothing exceptionable about any of these, is there? What more can someone with no 'domain knowledge' say? I don't know. This appears to be something lawyers, officers' associations and employees' unions would want to weigh in on. Maybe they are doing it through their preferred forums; but, I haven't seen much commentary, except for the two pieces that Vivek himself had linked to. Today, I found this op-ed in the Economic Times by Raghu Dayal, who gives a brief history of the US law on whistleblowers, along with some of its provisions :

Whistleblowing is a distinct form of dissent. Citizens in the US blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse more than anywhere else in the world. Whistleblowing is not for the faint of heart. The burden of proof to show reasonable cause devolves overwhelmingly on the whistleblower. In the US, whistleblowing is also encouraged by statute as an ethical duty.

In 1980, a code of ethics for government service (PL 96-303) was unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. On October 8, 1994, Congress acted to strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Act. The amendments they passed plugged holes, improved procedures, and provided additional safeguards for whistleblowers.

After the spectacular collapse of Enron and WorldCom, US Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, granting sweeping legal protection to whistleblowers in publicly-traded companies. Anyone retaliating against a corporate whistleblower can now be imprisoned for up to 10 years.

The Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on whistleblowers. Here's a US government site with some information (but I'm not able to wade through all that legalese). As and when the government acts on its "duty ... to put in place ... mechanisms to protect public servants...", we will have some way of comparing the provisions of Indian laws with those of the US.

Does anyone have any ideas about what kind of protection is extended to whistleblowers in other countries -- UK, Canada, Australia? Do you know of articles that explain -- in simple language -- how these provisions stack up?

Monday, December 25, 2006

For your amusement

AICTE's norms for infrastructure in engineering colleges offering a degree program. Here's a sample:

12.3.1 Number of Rooms for Theory Classes

The number of rooms required for the theory class can be determined by applying the following relationship.



NL = Number of rooms required for the lecture classes

TL = Total number of students in the College belonging to all classes of all disciplines attending theory classes of the given strength SL. This number depends on the admissions to different disciplines

Class strength i.e. the number of students in the class.

A = A factor obtained on the basis of

lecture hours per week per class, say 15

Average teaching hours per week say 30

utilisation factor of lecture rooms, say 0.66

A = (15)/(30*0.66)=0.75

12.3.2 Number of Rooms for Tutorial work


The following quote is from AICTE's staffing norms for engineering colleges:

8.3 Cadre distribution-flexibility

The desirable ratio for Professor, Assistant Professor, lecture could be 1:2:4 for each engineering department. However, for Undergraduate courses, a minimum of 1 Professor and 2 Asst. Professor/Readers at the senior level of the faculty for each course being offered may be ensured. This is to provide for situations where the institution may not be able to identify Programmes to ensure appropriate senior faculty at the U.G. level also.

As far as the Science and Humanities departments are concerned, there is need for a senior faculty member at Professor level provided it is ensured that such a senior faculty member is involved in inter-disciplinary activities in Applied Science and Mathematics. Therefore, while the need for a Professor will depend upon the level of academic activities, the recruitment of an Assistant Professor in each of the these departments even at the stage of establishment of the institution is required.

However, in either case efforts should be made to reach the desirable ratio.

8.4 Student Teacher ratio

The student staff ratio in a class will depend upon:

i.teacher's time required for formal instruction and contact hours

i. student time devoted to formal learning requiring teacher's contact and

iii. class size and type of instructions

The desirable student to teacher ratio for engineering degree program for the model curriculum will be 10:1. However, it should not be allowed to rise beyond 15:1.

Further, there should be continuous evaluation in tutorials, practical work, laboratory and project assignments.

Student-teacher ratio
Theory lecture class
Lab. Practical/Workshop/drawing
Project work

If you are in a particularly wicked mood (towards yourself!), you can read the entire set of regulations, starting from this page.

PanIIM, meet Mr. Santosh Desai!

Santosh Desai does to the PanIIM folks what President Kalam did to those of PanIIT: prick their balloons. Except that Desai didn't do it live! His analysis is less blunt, but it also extends to a broader set of concerns (read: two Indias).

The interesting thing about the IIM discussion was that the enthusiasm of the alumni for the subject was not shared by the directors and senior professors of the IIMs. Their consensus was that the IIMs had a very long way to go before being considered world-class. They pointed out the abysmal salaries that faculty draws in India, spoke frankly about the absence of any research emanating out of these elite institutions and the inability to attract meaningful number of foreign students, given the absence of infrastructure. Add to this the distortions caused by constant governmental interference and the picture looked anything but promising.

Thanks to Madhukar Shukla for the pointer.


It looks like the plans for an International University at Nalanda are gaining momentum. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and he agreed to explore this idea. Some 700 acres are being acquired by the Bihar government.

* * *

Sidebar links:

Wikipedia entry on Nalanda.

Shunya's blog post about his recent visit to Nalanda. He also has some amazing pictures.

* * *

Shashi Tharoor writes in the Hindu:

... Rebuilding Nalanda must be more than an exercise in constructive nostalgia. It must involve a new level of ambition, or it will be a futile exercise. ...

... If we are to rebuild it 800 years later, we will need not just money but the will to excellence, not just a physical plant but a determined spirit. A great university is the finest advertisement for the society that sustains it. If we recreate Nalanda, it must be as a university worthy of the name — and we must be a society worthy of a 21st-century Nalanda.

At 97, the inventor of a complex heart surgery undergoes the same surgery

A heart-warming tale (with lots of complications to keep you hooked all the way to its end!) for these Festivus holidays:

But when his heart kept beating, Dr. [Michael] DeBakey suspected that he was not having a heart attack. As he sat alone, he decided that a ballooning had probably weakened the aorta, the main artery leading from the heart, and that the inner lining of the artery had torn, known as a dissecting aortic aneurysm.

No one in the world was more qualified to make that diagnosis than Dr. DeBakey because, as a younger man, he devised the operation to repair such torn aortas, a condition virtually always fatal. The operation has been performed at least 10,000 times around the world and is among the most demanding for surgeons and patients.

Over the past 60 years, Dr. DeBakey has changed the way heart surgery is performed. He was one of the first to perform coronary bypass operations. He trained generations of surgeons at the Baylor College of Medicine; operated on more than 60,000 patients; and in 1996 was summoned to Moscow by Boris Yeltsin, then the president of Russia, to aid in his quintuple heart bypass operation.

Now Dr. DeBakey is making history in a different way — as a patient. He was released from Methodist Hospital in Houston in September and is back at work. At 98, he is the oldest survivor of his own operation, proving that a healthy man of his age could endure it.

“He’s probably right out there at the cutting edge of a whole generation of people in their 90s who are going to survive” after such medical ordeals, one of his doctors, Dr. James L. Pool, said.

But beyond the medical advances, Dr. DeBakey’s story is emblematic of the difficulties that often accompany care at the end of life. It is a story of debates over how far to go in treating someone so old, late-night disputes among specialists about what the patient would want, and risky decisions that, while still being argued over, clearly saved Dr. DeBakey’s life.

* * *

The last paragraph in the above quote is a pretty serious issue. How far one must go in treating elderly patients with invasive procedures is something the medical profession is still grappling with. At its simplest, it's about cold economic calculations: as one gets older, the procedures get fancier and more expensive (for example, Dr. DeBakey's treatment cost more than a million dollars), so affordability is an issue. And then there's the expected pay-off (e.g., the number of years of survival) which keeps getting smaller with one's age. At another level, there's the problem of the patients' decreasing ability to take these procedures in stride; complications may reduce the quality of life during the remaining years.

Do read the rest of the NYTimes story for a great discussion of the ethical issues that doctors weighed before before choosing to go with that complex surgery.

* * *

But there's also a different problem. In many cases, similar symptoms in elderly people need treatments that could be quite different from those for younger people. Experts in Geriatrics who would know these key differences are in short supply -- even in rich countries. [Geriatrics, as a field, is both young and and unpopular!]. This NYTimes story from two months ago looked at this problem:

Even as the population ages and more people like Mrs. Foley need them, geriatricians are in short supply. It is a specialty of little interest to medical students because geriatricians are paid relatively poorly and are not considered superstars in an era of high-tech medicine. In fact, the credo of geriatric medicine is “less is more.” [...]

Caring for frail older people is about managing, not curing, a collection of overlapping chronic conditions, like osteoporosis, diabetes and dementia. It is about balancing the risks and benefits of multiple medications, which often cause more problems than they solve. And it is about trying nonmedical solutions, like timed trips to the bathroom to improve bladder control.

But these are common-sense remedies in a health care system that rewards the heroics of specialists, in both compensation and prestige.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

'A Tenured Professor'

Montgomery Marvin wants to do good: he is a liberal. But, there's a catch. He's also a young assistant professor of economics at Harvard, and he has been advised that activism could derail his career in academia. So he waits. While working towards getting tenure, he uses his knowledge of human irrationality to play the financial markets and becomes rich. When he gets tenure, he is ready. With a secure academic reputation and considerable wealth, he is now able to bankroll some gloriously liberal activism. That, in a nutshell, is the story of A Tenured Professor -- the third novel by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

* * *

Sidebar: A Tenured Professor is the third novel by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith. I recall reading it -- and enjoying it tremendously -- when it was published in 1990; thanks to the Strand Book Stall's recent sale, I got a chance to read it again. It was great fun -- all over again!

Should I be feeling odd writing about a novel from 16 years ago?

Anyway, here are some more links:

NYTimes review.

An academic paper on the novel.

Galbraith quotes.

* * *

In the first (and to me, the most engaging) part of this slim novel, Galbraith describes Marvin's intellectual and moral development through a series of episodes in which academics play a starring role. For example, when he tells Prof. Grierson, his undergraduate tutor at Harvard, that perhaps a career in economics might enable him to "do some good in the world", the tutor responds, "Excellent, but watch that business about doing good. It's fine in principle, but a smart economist sticks to his knitting. So stick to it." Then there is the loathsome Prof. McCrimmon, a professor of 'psychometrics', who teaches him to bet against "sobriety, rationality and good sense as social assumptions". It's "better to assume individual and collective aberration."

Marvin goes through some life-shaping events in the year between his degree and doctoral studies at Berkeley. During that summer, in Vienna, he meets Marjie, a strong willed liberal Canadian who will become his wife and lead partner in his liberal activist crimes. Then, during his year-long study at the Cambridge University, there's a serendipitous foray into the history of financial scams (the tulip mania of the seventeenth century all the way down to the Great Depression of 1929). While the history books focus on the misery of the millions who lost their shirts in those scams, the take away for Marvin is the enormous amount of money made by those few who sold their stakes at the peak! Then there's this revealing conversation between Marvin and Prof. McCrimmon when the latter visits Cambridge:

Marvin: I'm going to be an economist, but I want to make my small contribution to the liberal agenda. Peace, a better break for the poor and the inner cities, greater equality in income distribution, government assuming its proper responsibilities. I haven't got it fully worked out yet.

McCrimmon: Most unwise, most unwise. And certainly impractical.

Marvin: Why, sir?

McCrimmon: You simply won't get tenure. Tenure was originally invented to protect radical professors, who challenged the accepted order. But we don't have such people anymore at the universities, and the reason _is_ tenure. When the time comes to grant it nowadays, the radicals get screened out. That's its principal function. It's a very good system, really -- keeps academic life at a decent level of tranquility."

Marvin: Suppose one waits until one has tenure to show one's liberal tendencies?

McCrimmon: The only sensible course. But by then conformity will be a habit. You'll no longer be a threat to the peace and comfort of our ivied walls. The system really works.

And, finally, Marvin receives some wise advice from an elderly couple, both professors of economics at Cambridge, who invite Margie and him over for dinner.

Economist: You are one of those liberals, I'm sure. And when you go home, you'll be like all the rest. You'll complain constantly about the power of money and do nothing about it. Complaining but compliant. That's all.

Marvin: What should I do?

Economist: It's obvious. Get money yourself and then exercise power yourself. Don't waste your time asking others to be nice; do right.

Marvin: That might not be so easy.

Economist: Just look at the people who get rich. No particular intelligence. Americans especially. Anyhow, if you don't know how to get money, you have no business calling yourself an economist. If untrained, stupid people can get rich, why can't you? Be like Maynard [Keynes]; he died a wealthy man by the standards of the time. And he didn't work at it more than an hour a day. Why try to persuade politicians when you can buy them?

Marvin: I don't think we can all be quite up to Keynes in this matter.

Economist: At least be rich enough so that you can do all the socially inconvenient things without personal risk. That's the true formula for happiness.

The psychometrics course under McCrimmon and a study of the history of scams lead Marvin to formulate an index of Irrational Expectations (IRAT); you can almost sense Galbraith's glee as he created this phrase to contrast with the rationality assumption so common in economics. With the help of IRAT, Marvin becomes enormously wealthy by, for example, betting against the irrationality of investors as they pour their money into oil companies in Texas. This wealth accumulation happens in the privacy of Marvin's home, while he continues to progress towards tenure through his academically brilliant research on refrigerator prices.

When he does get tenure, Marvin follows the advice of the Cambridge economist couple by using his now considerable wealth to support liberal causes. Like, forcing companies to disclose the number of their female executives. Or establishing endowed chairs in the defence service academies in the areas of Peace Studies. Or funding Political Rectitude and Integrity Committees (PRICs) that would combat the corrupting and corrosive influence of the political action committees in American politics.

This activism brings Marvin fame and loathing in equal measure. Unable to handle the heat from PRICs, the establishment fights back. During a Congressional hearing, a legislator asks him, "... don't your operations imply a serious absence of faith in the American free enterprise system? You apparently sit around trying to find out what's going wrong. Un-American, I suppose some would say." The last part of the story is about how Marvin faces this backlash. And no, I'm not giving the plot away.

Galbraith is at his best in those parts that deal with early influences in Marvin's life and his post-tenure activist ride to liberal prominence. While the narrative sort of winds down to a rather unconvincing end, the point of the story, really, is Marvin's rise, and Galbraith evidently had a great deal of fun in writing it, interlacing it with incisive comments on academia, on economics and economists, and on American society and politics. While these larger 'public' themes give the story a certain seriousness of purpose, Galbraith's (often sharp) humour and light touch ensure that it doesn't weigh the novel down.

A Tenured Professor is a celebration of nerdiness, liberalism (of the American variety), and activism. It will certainly appeal to the progressive nerd in you!

* * *

Before I end this post, let me leave you with a short extract where Galbraith offers a short commentary on the Laffer Curve (there is quite a few of these interludes in the novel):

Even some of the more theoretically committed members of the faculty found themselves asked about the budget priorities of David Stockman [President Reagan's Budget Director], the monitarist magic of Professor Milton Friedman, the now compelling doctrine that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much. And about the Laffer Curve. Especially about the Laffer Curve.

The economic formulation of high personal importance to the Marvins held that when no taxes are levied, no revenues accrue to the government. An undoubted truth. And if taxes are so high that they absorb all income, nothing can be collected from the distraught, starving and otherwise nonfunctional citizenry. Also almost certainly true. Between those two points a freehand curve, engagingly unsupported by evidence, showed the point where higher taxes would mean less revenue. According to the accepted legend, the original curve had been drawn on a paper napkin, possibly toilet paper, and some critics of deficient imagination held that the paper could have been better put to its intended use. ...

PanIIT meets the President

The Pan-IIT (an organization that we encountered here) is organizing a grand meeting in Mumbai. It started yesterday, with an inaugural address by our President, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

Before he started, the President asked the audience if they were willing to hear positive, negative or mixed things about them. The answer was a resounding: 'mixed'!

The President exploited that opening to give them more than an earful! His long list of complaints even included the one about how the IIT-ans have contributed very little to our armed forces. At the end of it, the audience that came in totally pumped up must have been wondering why they even got mixed up with the President at all!

The meeting's organization seems to have been below par; so much so that it has put off even the reporter from Rediff which has given this event a very positive coverage for over a month.

If this doesn't worry you, I don't know what will ...

In an otherwise poorly drafted (poorly edited?) article, K.H. Prabhu gives us an insider's account of what happens in our run of the mill (engineering) colleges when it's time for getting accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.

As soon as colleges received intimation about the visit of the NAAC there was an atmosphere of Gogol's The Inspector General in a college where I worked. For the first time there was indexing of books in the library. Students were permitted to enter the prohibited area, the college library. Teachers and principals began to maintain records. Buildings were repaired and whitewashed. Signboards indicating many academic activities, though fake, appeared at various places in the college. Everything was stage-managed.

The members of the council arrived and they were kept in some kind of unlawful confinement. Their rooms were guarded and they were not allowed to move alone or meet anyone. The meeting with the parents was superficial. Ex-students were invited on a selective basis. Only such men were invited as would not divulge the truth about the college. ...

Friday, December 22, 2006

Tyranny of large numbers

It bites us in (interestingly) contradictory ways.

Why is TV so bad? [via]:

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.
-- David Foster Wallace

* * *

Why do popular software programs become bloated?

A lot of software developers are seduced by the old ‘80/20’ rule. It seems to make a lot of sense: 80% of the people use 20% of the features. So you convince yourself that you only need to implement 20% of the features, and you can still sell 80% as many copies.

Unfortunately, it's never the same 20%. Everybody uses a different set of features. In the last 10 years I have probably heard of dozens of companies who, determined not to learn from each other, tried to release ‘lite’ word processors that only implement 20% of the features. This story is as old as the PC. Most of the time, what happens is that they give their program to a journalist to review, and the journalist reviews it by writing their review using the new word processor, and then the journalist tries to find the ‘word count’ feature which they need because most journalists have precise word count requirements, and it's not there, because it’s in the ‘80% that nobody uses,’ and the journalist ends up writing a story that attempts to claim simultaneously that lite programs are good, bloat is bad, and I can’t use this damn thing ‘cause it won't count my words.

Elegant software and the selfish gene

People, for the most part, are not playing with their software because they want to. They’re using the software as a tool to accomplish something else that they would like to do. Maybe they are using a chat program to try and seem witty, in hopes that the person they are chatting with will want to spend time with them, so that, ultimately, they have a better chance of getting laid, so that, ultimately, their selfish DNA will get to replicate itself. Maybe they are using a spreadsheet to try and figure out if they can afford a bigger apartment, so that, ultimately, dates will be more impressed when they come over, increasing their chance of getting laid, again, benefitting the DNA. Maybe they’re working on a PowerPoint for the boss so that they will get a promotion so that they’ll have more money which they can use to rent a larger apartment that would attract mates, thus increasing their chance of getting laid, (getting the idea yet?) so the selfish DNA can replicate. [...]

Unless they’re software reviewers for a living, they don’t really care about the software itself, and the more they notice it, the more annoyed they’re going to be.

That's Joel Spolsky on elegance in software design.

Bangalore on Google Maps

Just learned that Bangalore is on Google Maps. Many areas -- such as the IISc campus -- lack details, and it didn't work when I asked for directions from Malleswaram to Ulsoor; worse, it didn't even recognize Ulsoor and Malleswaram as legitimate queries. Bad Google!

Thanks to Kiran for the pointer.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


In an ideologically loaded article, the Economist looks at the near-universal institution of bribery, with some interesting cross-cultural comparisons. About halfway into the article, while discussing journalists being at the receiving end of bribes, you get this touching bit of candour:

The Economist lays down clear rules for its journalists. An envelope stuffed with cash, much less a $240,000 contract, would be inappropriate. Any gift, says the policy, must be consumable in a single day. So a bottle of wine is acceptable, a case of wine is not.

Three new IITs: A follow-up

They are going to be located in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Going by Yogesh's comment on my earlier post, one of these IITs was supposed to come to Karnataka, which now seems to have lost out to Rajasthan.

Gender gap in kidney transplants

The capital's medical practitioners say that 80 per cent of kidney transplant recipients are men — and 80 per cent of donors are women.

That's not all. When it comes to spousal transplants, in 90 per cent of the cases it's the wife who donates her organ.

That's from this ToI editorial page (unsigned?) article. It goes on to make another point about how education and literacy don't help in combating another menace in our country: female foeticide.

A study conducted by a Swiss group in rural India, post-2001 Census reveals that among people living in areas with relatively greater prosperity and higher education, there is greater incidence of female foeticide than among those living in poorer areas.

NASA's space pens and the Soviets' space pencils

I'm sure you have heard versions of this tale:

During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.

Have you ever wondered if there was any truth to it? Scientific American has the answer.

Amartya Sen's guest editorship at the Economic Times

Today's edition of Economic Times was guest edited by Prof. Amartya Sen. As a result, the paper devoted nearly three full pages to many different aspects of human development (health, education, ...), with a particular emphasis on regional disparities. As usual, the ET website is so awful that not even a super-intelligent extraterrestrial being can figure out how to get the links to these articles.

What I have managed to get are a few links, including one to Sen's excellent editorial which was carried on the first page! The editorial is all about regional disparities, and about how the laggard ("learner") states have failed to learn the right lessons from the leader ("teacher") states. Do read all of it. Especially the last paragraph!

A regional disparity is a variation from which something can be learnt by the backward regions about what to do and what to avoid. But there is manifest evidence of a disinclination or inability to learn from the high performers. There is, for example, much to learn from the priorities given to school education and health care in Kerala, from which others have typically been less than willing to learn. There are lessons in agriculture from Punjab, industrialisation, commerce and finance from Maharashtra, land reform from West Bengal, use of information technology from Karnataka and the Integrated Child Development Services from Tamil Nadu. India as a whole could have been doing much better if those left behind were willing to learn more - and faster - from those who went straight ahead. [...]

Sidebar links: The ET Team has put together three fluff pieces about Amartya Sen's day at their New Delhi office. For what it's worth, here are the links:

I hate the Nobel laureate tag: Sen.

Writing time's no problem, it's the thinking time!

His pupil gives him wider vision.

* * *

The “teachers” and potential “learners”, of course, differ from field to field. For example, Kerala may still have something to learn from elsewhere on how to make better use of the market economy - defective as the process would be if that were the only thing to use (happily it is not, but the market too is certainly one thing to use). To take another example, we have good reason to worry about the terrible state of health and nutrition of the average Indian child, and yet making use of lessons from Punjab, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh or Tamil Nadu could have helped the worse-performing states do a great deal more for their own children.

In many ways, this is one of the basic challenges that India faces today. India has reason to seek what we can call “foreign education” to perform better (for example, there is still a lot to learn from China). And yet, learning - like charity - can also begin, inter alia, at home. That recognition may look like patriotism. But it is - more sensibly - seen as wisdom.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

12 Days of Christmas: Desi remix


Thanks to Samudrika for the pointer.

Women in Science: Identifying the obstacles

... [I]n government agencies, at scientific organizations and on university campuses, female scientists are asking why, and wondering what they can do about [the fact that more women than men leave science and engineering]. The Association for Women in Science, the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council are among the groups tackling these issues. In just the past two months, conferences have been held at Columbia University and the City University of New York graduate center. Harvard has a yearlong lecture series on “Women, Science and Society.”

This fall, female scientists at Rice University here gathered promising women who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to help them learn skills that they will need to deal with the perils of job hunting, promotion and tenure in high-stakes academic science.

“The reality is there are barriers that women face,” said Kathleen S. Matthews, the dean of natural sciences at Rice, who spoke at the meeting’s opening dinner. “There are circles and communities of engagement where women are by and large not included.”

From this NYTimes story by Cornelia Dean. There are lots of subtle sources of discrimination, and it's important to identify them. This article points to some of them. In combating "unspoken, even unconscious sexism", the article brings up mentoring again and again as particularly important for women.

Sidebar: In a must-read post, Zuska offers a great lesson on stereotypes and subtexts.

* * *

... In her keynote speech at the Rice conference, Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Davis, mentioned several occasions when timely intervention from a thesis adviser, department chairman or other mentor turned things around for her.

Joan Steitz, a professor of molecular biophysics at Yale and a member of the academy’s expert panel, said the same thing in one of the Harvard lectures this month. It is crucial to have “someone up your sleeve who will save you,” Dr. Steitz said.

But there is evidence that women do not receive this support to the degree men do.

Dr. Steitz cited a study of letters of recommendation written for men and women seeking academic appointments. Though all the applicants were successful, she said, and though the letters were written by men and women, the study found that the applicant’s personal life was mentioned six times more often if the letter was about a woman.

Also, Dr. Steitz said, “For women, the things that were talked about more frequently were how well they were trained, what good teachers they were and how well their applications were put together.” When the subject of the letter was male, she said, the big topics were research skills and success in the lab.

“Ever since I read this paper and I sit down to write a letter of recommendation,” Dr. Steitz said, “I think, ‘Oh, have I fallen into this trap?’ ”

If mentors don’t present themselves, women may have to create them, Dr. Steitz said.

She cited “Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists” (Yale University Press, 2006), a book by Ellen Daniell, a former assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In the book Dr. Daniell describes a group of female scientists who have been meeting regularly for more than 20 years to talk about their professional triumphs and travails, turning themselves into mentors and role models for one other.

As Dr. Niemeier told the women at Rice, “If your adviser is not going to help you with a strong network, form a network of your own. Pick out some women you would like to get to know, who have scholarly reputations, and get to know them.”

Sunita Narain on total cost of vehicles

In a Business Standard column, Sunita Narain talks about the hidden costs (much of it provided by the 'public' at large) of vehicle ownership. Here's one of them:

Cars do not only cost on the road. They also cost when they are parked. The fact is that personal vehicles are parked for roughly 90 per cent of the time and the land they occupy is costly. Cars occupy more space for parking than what we need to work in our office: 23 sq metres to park a car, against 15 sq meters to park a desk. My colleagues have estimated that the one million-odd cars in Delhi would take up roughly 11 per cent of the city's urban area. Green spaces in the city take up roughly the same.

This is the first time I'm linking to a column by Narain, so it's a good idea to note right here that she can also do some serious polemic:

We need to ask why economists, who normally rant about markets, the need for full cost pricing and removal of subsidies, never account for these costs in their calculations of growth. After all, the cold logic of the market, repeatedly cited when it comes to the meagre support given to farmers, should apply here as well. Could it be that our economists are so vertically integrated -- with mind and matter -- to the market that these distortions fail to catch their attention?

Being Indian: An update

Remember this post in which I urged you to vote for 'Being Indian' as the Documentary of the Year over at BBC? Thanks in part to our votes, it won the poll, and will be broadcast several times on the last two days of this month.

The program schedule for this documentary is here.

Department of 'Huh?'

... Chief Minister [H.D. Kumaraswamy] told presspersons that the number of applicants for BPL cards had touched 93 lakh [9.3 million] while the total number of families in Karnataka was 1.02 crore [10.2 million].

I don't think I need to note that "BPL" expands to "Below Poverty Line".

The Chief Minister further warned that "stringent action" will be taken "against those responsible for what has been described as a 'BPL card scandal'."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Anand Giridharadas

May be you knew it already, but I just discovered the blog of Anand Giridharadas, the South Asia Correspondent of the International Herald Tribune. He is using his blog in a way quite similar to that of a senior Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan: as a space to park his journalistic writings, with an open comments policy.

Oh, Giridharadas also invites you to send him suggestions and story ideas:

... If you have a neglected story I should tell, or just an opinion about past or future coverage, please send me an e-mail. Your anonymity will be protected.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

P.M. Ajayan on nanoscience and technology

Rediff is running this wonderful interview of my undergraduate classmate and hotshot nanoscience and nanotechnology researcher P.M. Ajayan. The interviewer, Yogesh Upadhyaya, is a good friend too (I have linked to quite a few of his Rediff articles, and he is also a frequent commenter here).

Here's a nifty quote from early in the interview:

I tend to call nanotechnology 'god's own technology,' reminiscing my own origins from the state of Kerala, which is often called 'god's own country.'

There is also another aspect that makes nano fundamentally exciting and that has to do with change of physical properties in many systems as the size becomes smaller. It does not happen at all sizes, but at some point as we go down in size, there is a transformation of quantity into quality; in other words material behaviour changes from its bulk character to something different.

Typically, ... this size -- where the transition occurs -- fall in the nano scale.

Towards the end, the interview turns to Ajayan's impressions on the nanoscience and nanotech research in India. It's worth quoting his answer in full:

Some of the premier institutions in India (IISC, IITs, National Chemical Laboratory, National Physical Laboratory, etc., to name a few) are already working in this area but the resources available to make the real impact is lacking, in my opinion. We are far behind most countries with serious research endeavours, in nanotech funding.

The infrastructure is important if we want to succeed in this effort and the lack of availability of research infrastructure to the research community at large has hampered the enthusiasm. Moreover a good planning document and long term sustained plans to create the nanotechnology infrastructure in India is missing.

There are quite a few conferences today in India focusing on nanotechnology, but the tangible results from these have been dismal. We need to have concerted efforts from the funding institutions, universities, national labs and industry to identify areas where we can make real impact and utilize resources carefully in those areas. As far as I can see India should exploit nanotech opportunities in the alternate energy and health care sectors.

Education and training of students is equally important. This is easy to do since there exist a remarkable pool of talent in India but there has to be progressive thinking in universities with regard to modernizing curriculum and the educational system. This is not just for nanotech but for science and technology in general.

* * *

It's vacation time for the nanopolitan family, and blogging is unlikely for the next few days. See you all after this short break.

Alien life forms?

No, it's just a mixture of cornstarch, water, and some nifty science. [Make sure you watch it till the end].

Thanks to Zak Stone at i-Mechanica for the pointer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pinochet - 2

When you read the Pinochet obituaries, one thing that strikes you again and again is that he is the man who made 'disappear' a transitive verb.

Via Brad DeLong, we get this first hand account from someone who experienced the repressive regime in Chile in the 1970s. Let me just quote the last paragraph:

I hope dying hurt a whole lot, you rat-faced son of a bitch. I hope you suffered the tortures of the damned. I hope no one wiped your brow or comforted you while you suffered and died. I hope you died alone.

Via DeLong (and through Felix Salmon), we get a link to the London Economist's views on the dead dictator:

...[Pinochet] saw the “Chicago Boys”, a group of free-market economists, as a means to consolidate his personal dictatorship. The radical shrinking of Allende's bloated state was a way to avoid sharing patronage, and thus power, with the armed forces.

With Chileans cowed, the Chicago Boys could work as if in a laboratory, with no regard for social costs. They made mistakes: a fixed exchange rate and unregulated bank privatisations triggered a massive recession and financial collapse in 1982-83. More pragmatic policies and a renewal of growth followed. But it took the return of democracy in 1990, with its ability to bestow legitimacy, to create an investment-led boom and a large fall in poverty.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The underground sociologist

Sudhir Venkatesh is the underground sociologist hero in the Freakonomics chapter titled "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?". His latest book, Off the books: the underground economy of the urban poor, is just out. In a review of his Patrick Radden Keefe recounts this little story from the book:

Licit and illicit economies tend to be entwined, and in a closely knit urban neighborhood, this mutual dependence means that public-minded civilians and hardened criminals are regularly forced to negotiate. In the spring of 2000, an entrepreneurial gang leader, Big Cat, was elevating the criminal activity in a local park. Marlene and a preacher, Pastor Wilkins, arranged a tense summit with the kingpin in a church basement. Venkatesh talked his way into the room and watched as Big Cat agreed to stop peddling drugs in the park during after-school hours. For this concession, Pastor Wilkins promised to persuade a nearby store owner to allow Big Cat's gang to deal in his parking lot, and Marlene agreed to ask the cops to leave the dealers unmolested in their new location.

"I can't figure out who's crazier," Big Cat chuckles, once the deal is struck. "Me, or you niggers."

R.K. Narayan, James Clerk Maxwell, Smita Patil

The birth centenary of R.K. Narayan, the man who "put modern Indian writing on the map", is the occasion for a nice profile Jhumpa Lahiri in Boston Review, and a second, absolutely terrific one by Wyatt Mason in the New Yorker.

The 175th birth anniversary of James Clerk, the physicist whose shoulders Einstein chose to stand on, is the reason for a Physics Web profile by Francis Everitt.

Twenty years ago today, Smita Patil, a princess of art movies in the 1970s before she made it big in commercial and art cinema in the 80s, passed away at a horribly young age of 31. Rediff has a profile by Dinesh Raheja, and this short bio.

* * *

Thanks to Guru (here and here) for a couple of links.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

ToI on reforming India's R&D

The Times of India's editorial today rehashes almost all the usual remedies (faculty salaries, for example) to help revitalize India's R&D enterprise. Towards the end of it, however, we find this:

The present tendency to promote national laboratories at the expense of universities will not help the cause of research. Both have distinct roles which need to be synergised. [bold emphasis added]

Many people don't realize the importance of that statement I emphasized. Let's start with the big picture. The ToI editorial gives a figure of US $6 billion for India's R&D budget; it doesn't cite a source for this figure. In his Science article, R.A. Mashelkar too mentions a figure of $6 billion.

Six billion dollars is both small and big! Let's take small first. It's small in comparison with, for example, the R&D budget of General Motors: $10 billion! University research gets only a small slice of this already small pie. As we saw in this post, most of the pie goes to mission-mode organizations such as Defence, Atomic Energy and Space, and what remains is 'shared' by universities, CSIR labs and agricultural research labs. This lopsided arrangement dates back to the early fifties when CSIR was established; not surprisingly, many people trace the decline of university research to that era.

Let's face it: Six billion dollars is also a large sum for India. It's almost one percent of our GDP! Our demands for increase in research funding must be tempered by this fact. However, I think it's fair to ask the government to make higher education largely self-financing (perhaps using this model), and redirect that money to spruce up research capabilities in our universities.

Computer labs in developing countries

In the earlier post on laptops in schools, I should have linked to Charles Kenny's post from almost four months ago. In one section of his linky post, we find this:

Take education programs. Computer labs in developing countries carry annual costs of around $78-$104 per student at the level of one computer per twenty students. Compare that to annual discretionary budgets (what is left over after paying for salaries, needed to cover items such as chalk, books and buildings) of $5 per student per year for primary schools in low income countries. Beyond expense, returns don't appear to be dramatic enough to justify diverting resources from alternate, more suitable interventions.

Do read Kenny's post. Among the many things he covers, you will find something interesting about the now famous 'hole in the wall' experiment.

NYTimes: The year in ideas

Here. This link is likely to change, so start with this page and keep working your way through the ideas -- all 74 of them!

Or, just check out the ones that I found interesting:

Cohabitation is bad for women
The diplomat parking-violation corruption index
The eyes of honesty
Homophily: Check out the neat twist at the end!
Lady Macbeth effect
Negativity friendships
Psychological neoteny
Publication probity (Journal of negative results!)

And, here's an idea that features an Indian scientist.

Augusto Pinochet

Sidebar: Bhupinder has an interesting post on Augusto Pinochet and India.

Rahul has a fine rant about a crazy right winger's column on the 'economic miracle' in Chile under Pinochet.

* * *

In a NYTimes column, Ariel Dorfman writes:

And yet, in spite of all these signs of General Pinochet’s continuing dominance from beyond death, I feel that something has in fact changed quite categorically with his demise. What convinced me were the thousands upon thousands of Chileans who spontaneously poured into the streets here to celebrate the news of his extinction. I tend to be wary of any attempt to turn the death of anyone, no matter how despicable, into an occasion for joy, but I realized that in this case it was not one man’s death that was being welcomed but rather the birth of a new nation.

Dancing under the mountains of Santiago there was one word they repeated over and over and it was the word shadow. “La sombra de Pinochet se fue,” one woman said, his shadow is gone, we have come out from under the general’s shadow. As if the demons of a thousand plagues had been washed from this land, as if we were never again to be afraid, never again the helicopter in the night, never again the air polluted by sorrow and violence.

And, this is from the Hindu editorial:

... By succumbing finally to sickness and old age on Sunday, Pinochet managed to escape the judgment of the courts. Rather than closing the file, however, the Chilean authorities must press ahead with the demand for truth and justice. The hangman is no more but those who supplied him the rope and gallows need to be exposed and held accountable to humanity.

The Hindu has more on the Chilean economic 'miracle' under Pinochet (a topic that led Rahul to write this short rant):

After ravaging the political opposition, Pinochet soon turned his sights on the economy. Here too his regime brought disaster. He set about dismantling the public health and education systems and introduced other `reforms' that hit his people's livelihood savagely. During the period of his dictatorship, the percentage of Chileans below the poverty line grew from 20 to 40. While the economy saw bouts of growth, Chile's per capita output in 1989, the year Pinochet was replaced by a civilian president, was barely at the 1970 level. ...

Two music videos

Fabulous stuff:

Tamil hip-hop.

Malayalam rock.

Would you recommend any others? I'm keen on those from South India.

The creamy layer verdict

Two op-eds raise interesting points about the Supreme Court verdict that suggested excluding the 'creamy layer' from SC/ST quotas.

A former Secretary to the Government of India (whose name doesn't appear in the online version), in ToI, looks at the legal/constitutional issues:

It is necessary to protect SCs and STs from future onslaughts by those who have not cared to understand the social and historical background of the caste system with specific reference to SCs and STs.

Rekha Pappu, M. Madhava Prasad, K. Satyanarayana & Susie Tharu, writing in the Hindu, examine the sociological aspects (their article reads like an academic paper!):

... The elaboration provided by the Constitution Bench on questions of discrimination, backwardness, affirmative action, and "creamy layer" is of critical importance. Among the many reasons why this is so, three are worth mentioning here. One, the ruling explicitly recognises and addresses itself to the polarisation of caste interests within our society rather than reiterating the worn-out slogan of a homogenous society. Two, it draws upon a terminology that currently dominates discussions not only in the courts but also among policy-makers, academics, and mediapersons. Three, it more clearly than ever before legitimises the grievances of the "upper castes" even as it seeks to checkmate the pro-backward caste moves of Parliament.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Australian model as a fair mechanism for funding our universities

In his Hindu column yesterday about Indian doctors staying on in the US, Shashi Tharoor says:

[But the case of doctors is different]. Mainly for two reasons: they possess knowledge and training that is still in short supply in our country; and the Government of India, through its generous subsidies for higher education, has spent a large sum of money helping them to acquire the skills they are taking abroad.

He concludes by asking "But must the Indian taxpayer subsidise [Indian doctors] for seven years to [work in the US than in India]?"

While Tharoor poses this question only in the context of Indian medicos, it's valid for everyone -- non-medicos or medicos, irrespective of whether they work in India or elsewhere. Let me start with two statements:

  • College education allows one to earn a far higher future income.
  • College education is enjoyed, not by the whole population, but only by a section of it,

If you, like me, believe that these statements are largely true, then you would probably conclude that it is unfair to subsidize it. But subsidy is the name of the game in higher education in India. Tuition at government colleges is a pittance [I recall paying about Rs.200/- per semester during 1981-85; even our monthly living expenses -- about Rs. 250 -- were higher! ]. What is worse, tuition at private, unaided institutions is also controlled tightly by our government [That they circumvent it through fees for libraries, computers, etc. is another matter]. Such low fees do not allow our colleges and universities to upgrade their infrastructure and hire high quality faculty. Clearly, this situation is untenable.

On the other hand, making every college student pay -- up front -- the true cost of higher education may render it inaccessible to the deserving among the poor.

There are several ways of addressing this issue with a view to finding a middle ground. Let me say right away that merit-based and need-based scholarships cannot be this middle ground. Why? If the beneficiary chooses to emigrate, it's a money sink twice over! [India has programs such as the National Talent Search, KVPY, etc. They are meant for rewarding excellence, and their number is small: 1000 per year under NTS and about 250 per year under KVPY.]

Another alternative is educational loans; in rare cases, however, the student may not be able to repay it because he/she doesn't finish college, or his/her future earnings turn out to be too low. Thus, educational loans are a good idea, they are hard on those who don't make it in life.

To me at least, it seems clear that the middle path we seek would not only work like a loan, but it would also have a certain built-in safety net to protect those who fall on hard times. Such a middle path does exist -- in Australia!

Essentially, in the Australian model, every student who is eligible for college gets to go to college with the help of a loan from the government. The repayment of this loan is through an interesting tax mechanism: when the student enters the workforce, he/she pays taxes at a higher tax rate (say, 32 percent instead of 30 percent) until the loan is repaid. Prepayment is possible at a premium. More importantly, this additional tax kicks in only when the income exceeds a certain minimum which, I believe, is the median income in that country.

This model has a lot going for it. First of all, it's fair for everyone; nobody is ripping anyone else off! It ensures that the government's higher education kitty keeps getting replenished by the ex-students and present-day employees. It protects those individuals who fall on hard times from loan repayment, because the 'repayment tax' kicks in only beyond a minimum income.

There are other advantages as well. If, for example, the society (er, the government) wishes to favour certain professions -- because of their 'innate goodness' or, more likely, important national needs -- it can do so by converting the loans into scholarships for those studying those courses. For example, in 2005, Australia designated education and nursing as 'National Priorities'; tuition is free for students in these courses. Similarly, this program has the flexibility to allow colleges to charge differential tuition in different fields.

In this model, the students retain their freedom too! They can go to public or private colleges. Since tuition costs at public institutions is typically lower (because it gets additional funding from the government) than at private colleges, and since the government-financed loans are capped, students in private colleges would have to dip into their personal finances (or, assume additional commercial loans).

I see quite a few other collateral benefits flowing from this middle path. It would promote healthy competition among institutions to attract bright students. All colleges would use their endowments to fund a vigorous scholarship program to attract bright students, thus bringing philanthropy money into the higher ed system. [Right now, lack of transparency in our private colleges leads me to suspect that much of what is sloshing around there is not-so-clean money.]

Sidebar: Our cash-starved universities are always on the look-out for new revenue streams. One such cash cow is distance education in popular subjects. A technical university in the South just admitted over 5000 students to its first MBA distance education program! Another cash cow is short term 'certificate' courses that are academically 'soft' and undemanding. To the extent that faculty time is spent in organizing and teaching these programs, this can only erode the importance of their core activities -- rigorous teaching and research.

This system would also force our universities to strive for efficiency, because their income stream would depend on the number of students they teach. In the present system in India, for example, the share of tuition in the total revenues of our public universities is minuscule. Not surprisingly, universities do not have an incentive to increase their intake. For example, M.A. Pai chides the IITs for their student : teacher ratio of about 10:1, while it's as high as 20:1 in many US public universities. This sort of a jump in student numbers will also require other efficiency-enhancing measures -- use of online resources, reliance on teaching assistants, and so on.

Finally, our large mainstream universities, which have been perfectly content to 'outsource' undergraduate (UG) teaching to their affiliated colleges, may be forced to do a re-think, if their income is tied, explicitly, to the number of students they teach. To me, this is also desirable, since it would bring researchers and UG students together -- perhaps for the first time in more than a century!