Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jayant Haritsa on enhancing research capabilities in our premier institutions


The Research track at the PanIIT Global Conference featured a session on IIT Research: Inputs and Outputs. My colleague and friend Prof. Jayant Haritsa was one of the panelists in this session; the slides for his talk are here.

One of his points, which should be familiar to readers of this blog, is about how our top institutions need to do more -- much, much more -- to set people up for success. Since there's a lot in his talk that I agree with, I'm producing his extended abstract below. Treat this as a guest post by Jayant.

* * *

Rethinking the Research Crisis @IITs

Jayant Haritsa
Indian Institute of Science

The following opinions are based on my experience of 8 years as a graduate student and researcher in the US, followed by over 15 years as a computer-science faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Sidebar

Here's a quote from one of the slides:

Cassius to Brutus: “the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”

Similarly ... “the fault lies not in our inputs/outputs, but in how our institutions support and utilize these inputs/outputs”

* * *

The issue raised by the panel is how to improve the quality of the faculty and students that enter premier scientific institutions in India and how to improve the productivity and impact of their research. Certainly there are a variety of national stumbling blocks that do negatively impact the attractiveness of the IITs as scientific destinations, and these factors have been enumerated by the moderators. However, I would like to make the case that this is really the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the more germane and urgent question to be asking is "How do the talented students and faculty that do join the IITs fare?". My point is - had most of these folks turned out to be success stories, then we would have seen a "domino effect" that would have automatically generated a rich stream of similar applicants - in fact, we wouldn't be having this panel discussion in the first place! In a nutshell, "institutional mechanisms must be consciously set up to mentor star faculty and students for visible success".

Unfortunately, the typical experience is otherwise. Specifically, we have had several cases of faculty with top-notch academic pedigrees who after returning to India have largely disappeared from the international research arena. For example, it would not be stretching the realms of credulity for a faculty to have produced more PhDs and publications in a few years as a junior faculty in a top US school as compared to a couple of decades spent at our institutions!

Similarly, we have also had several instances of our own best master's students who have subsequently gone on to join our Phd programs failing to either produce a thesis commensurate with their talents, or sometimes even to complete the program. In a recent instance, a star in-house student "timed-out" after spending no less than ten years in the PhD program!

The above anecdotal information serves only to highlight my point that stemming the perceived rot first requires introspection about the internal mechanisms of our institutions, before we start agonizing over the external interfaces. Specifically, what causes even highly talented individuals to unceremoniously fade away without giving full expression to their abilities?

My analysis is that the following reasons are primarily to blame for this unhappy state of affairs:

Firstly, the poor level of academic professionalism and administration. A typical situation faced by applicants is the wall of indifference with no response, either positive or otherwise, forthcoming to their applications for extended periods of time. Subsequently, their offices and accomodation are rarely set up adequately by the time they enter the academic portals. Then, during the initial years, they rarely get to meet with top administration officials and are often left to fend for themselves in figuring out the system. Overall, an atmosphere of benign indifference, often bordering on neglect, characterizes our treatment of new recruits.

Secondly, a particularly thorny issue that often plagues new researchers, while they still retain their idealism, is the institutional pressure to carry out "locally relevant" research, which is also highlighted in the panel agenda. While on the surface this would seem an unarguable objective, yet in practice it usually turns out to be the case that it merely provides a "holier-than-thou" fig leaf to justify poor quality research and third-rate publications. I would suggest that it would instead be far better for us to first attempt to keep our heads above water in international research, and if it coincidentally happens that the work is also of local relevance, so much the better. That is, the local relevance should be the icing on the cake, and not a moralistic justification for a moldy cake. Our first duty is to put India on a high pedestal in world research.

Further, the lip-service paid to locally relevant research is evident from the fact that most institutions talk only about the research objectives without using the same yardstick for the students or faculty performing the research. If one wants to be truly relevant to local society, there is a much simpler and immediate option - welcome the reserved category students and faculty with open arms, instead of the arms-length approach currently in vogue! That is, start with "locally relevant researchers" before we wax eloquent on the merits of locally relevant research.

Thirdly, the unwillingness to call a spade a spade when it comes to professional judgements of one's colleagues or their students. For fear of vitiating the collegial department atmosphere, we make the grave mistake of providing sugar-coated assessments and, in the long run, encourage researchers to fall prey to a false sense of accomplishment. Instead, we should clearly enunciate the performance metrics at the time of joining and, most importantly, stick with these metrics in the judgement process. At IISc now, quite a few departments, especially in the Electrical Sciences division, have authored documents outlining their expectations and modes of evaluation for both faculty and students. As a simple case in point, a recently implemented policy in the Computer Science department is that ME students can be considered for an S (outstanding) grade in their project work only if they have submitted a paper to a journal or conference that is internationally recognized to be of A+ or A calibre. While earlier about 60% of the students used to routinely obtain an S grade in the project, beginning last year, we have not only had the percentage come down steeply to around 20%, but more importantly, the departmental publications have shot up significantly. Further, grades are not only used as carrots but also as sticks. Last year, for the first time, a non-neglible number of students were forced to stay behind without graduating until they satisfied a baseline quality requirement. The basic point here is that once we enforce accountability criteria for both faculty and students, the genius of the Indian mind is such that it will automatically deliver!

In closing, I would like to reiterate my main point - echoing Cassius' injunction to Brutus, "the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves", I would say "the fault lies not in our inputs but in how our systems utilize these inputs".

TheJoyOfSex 2.0


... The book is still emphatically straight, but Quilliam has given it a gay-positive tone, in sharp contrast to Comfort’s advice that if you might be that way inclined it was better not to experiment too much with a partner of the same sex, lest you let the gay genie out of the bottle. The original drawings have been replaced, with a mixture of modest photographs and impressionistic sketches. The hairiness has been eliminated, and the attractiveness gap between the man and the woman has been bridged. But the people in these pictures do not look as if they were in any kind of sexual ecstasy. Rather, they have the smug smiles of a couple whose 401(k)s have just appreciated. They look as if they were in a Viagra commercial, which is to say that they look like two people who have never, ever had sex.

Once you remove those memorable drawings and Comfort’s batty, phallocentric prose, what you are left with is something that bears little resemblance to the subversive, explosive original. “The Joy of Sex” redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies. What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now, and to present the material otherwise feels silly and square. ...

From Ariel Levy's great review of the latest edition of Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex [the NYTimes review is too pale in comparison]. Levy's essay has all kinds of interesting material:

... [Alex Comfort] offered readers a creation myth for “The Joy of Sex” on the first page, claiming that the book was based on a manuscript that an anonymous and particularly sexually advanced couple had presented to him in his capacity as a biologist. “I have done little to the original draft apart from expansion to cover more topics,” Comfort wrote. “The authors’ choice of emphases and their light-hearted style have been left alone.” In fact, both the choice of emphases and the lighthearted style were Comfort’s; he wrote every word of “The Joy of Sex,” though his credit on the book says “edited by.” Comfort later claimed that he had made up this randy authorial couple because in England at the time it was frowned upon for physicians to write mass-market books, “an implementation of the principle that doctors don’t advertise—of which I thoroughly approve, by the way,” he remarked to a journalist in 1974. But it was also probably a subterfuge, to protect the feelings of his wife of thirty years, Ruth Harris. For more than a decade, Comfort had been sleeping with Ruth’s best friend, Jane Henderson. (Comfort met both women at Cambridge.) Comfort and Henderson took dozens of Polaroids of their erotic experiments, which they gave to the publisher Mitchell Beazley along with Comfort’s manuscript—originally titled “Doing Sex Properly.” The artists Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss were charged with transforming those photographs into pencil drawings, although the couple they depicted looked nothing like Comfort and Henderson.

And Levy ends his review with this:

“He was good about talking about sex in the abstract, but when he had to tell me about the facts of life he was embarrassed,” Nicholas Comfort [Alex Comfort's son] told a reporter on the occasion of the book’s thirtieth anniversary. “He got it all over with quite quickly and hoped I wouldn’t ask any questions.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

P. Balaram on Burjorji Padshah's Role in Creating and Shaping IISc


IISc-Stamps In his latest Current Science editorial, Prof. Balaram pays rich tributes to Burjorji J. Padshah, one of the men who find a place in one of the two commemorative stamps (top row, second from right) issued by the Department of Posts and Telegraph to mark the Centenary of the Indian Institute of Science.

Burjorji Padshah played a central role in the creation of IISc. He's the man who was given the task of realizing Jamsetji N. Tata's dream, and he pursued it with extraordinary commitment and vigour. Even after Jamsetji's death in 1904.

Here's an excerpt from Balaram's editorial:

Padshah emerges as an extraordinary figure who corresponded with Viceroys from Curzon to Willingdon, Gokhale, Gandhi (with whom he disagreed on satyagraha), Ratan and Dorab Tata. Descriptions of Padshah by those who knew him, highlight his encyclopaedic knowledge and his courteousness even in disagreement. For a man trained in philosophy, his abilities to manipulate and remember numbers, as recorded by his contemporaries, seem remarkable. At IISc in its early years Padshah seemed intent on nudging the institution to embark on studies in the social sciences and medicine. The 1898 document for the proposed University or Institute of Research included a ‘Medical Department’ and a ‘Philosophical and Educational Department’. The latter was envisaged to engage in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from Indian History and Archaeology to Statistics and Economics. Padshah met resolute opposition to his ideas from the first Director of IISc, Morris Travers. Between 1907 and 1913 there was little agreement but Travers had launched the institution towards its eventual focus of science and engineering. Both men severed their association with IISc in 1914, in none too happy circumstances ...

* * *

An earlier post summarizes Padshah's intense -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- efforts to mould IISc's mandate to include teaching and research in humanities and social sciences.

* * *

I thank my colleague and friend Prof. S. Ranganathan for his e-mail alert about Prof. Balaram's editorial.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sampoorna Transformation at PanIIT: The Real Story


First, some background (if you already know about it, go to the end for the latest info).

The Pan-IIT folks created a 'spouses' program built around the theme of 'sampoorna' (complete) woman (the original web-page has disappeared, but I have a back-up copy here). When Ludwig outed this disgrace, there was quite a bit of blogospheric outrage (see, for example, here, here, here). A couple of leading women graduates (Prof. Priti Shankar and Prof. Rama Govindarajan, both from IIT-D) wrote to the organizers protesting against the insult implied in the program. Chandra Ranganathan did a story, in which the conference's chief organizer wondered what all the fuss was about, indicating that he wasn't going to ask for a change in the program.

And he didn't. Initially.

But he did, eventually! A couple of weeks ago, Ludwig told us that the 'spouses' program had transformed into a program 'for the family.' He also hinted at the real reason behind the sampoorna transformation:

This caused a certain very very very important sponsor to apparently gently hint that changes in the programme would be "appreciated", and hey presto. Paisa bolta hai.

Ludwig is right. Here's what Pradnya wrote about it over a month ago:

Additionally, in this case, I was lucky to have a supportive colleague who realized the ridiculousness of the whole thing and who had the tenacity to follow up the matter with the concerned folks. He pointed out that as a sponsor company, we should engage in a dialogue with the organizers, and highlight the wrong attitude of the track in question. After some back and forth between the organizers, and our HR folks (who were very persistent themselves), the outcome was quite positive, as seen in the final changed version.

So, there you have it: it's Pradnya and her colleagues (and folks like them at other firms) that pushed for this progressive change, and got it implemented through their persistent efforts.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Regulation is Good!


Who saved India from the financial crisis? Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Y.V. Reddy, according to Joe Nocera in the NYTimes:

But there was also another factor, perhaps the most important of all. India had a bank regulator who was the anti-Greenspan. His name was Dr. V. Y. Reddy, and he was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Seventy percent of the banking system in India is nationalized, so a strong regulator is critical, since any banking scandal amounts to a national political scandal as well. And in the irascible Mr. Reddy, who took office in 2003 and stepped down this past September, it had exactly the right man in the right job at the right time.

But Dr. Reddy's actions were quite unpopular among the bankers at that time:

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth! Mr. Parekh told me that while he had been saying for some time that Indian real estate was in bubble territory, he was still unhappy with the rules imposed by Mr. Reddy. “We were critical of the central bank,” he said. “We thought these were harsh measures.”

Amartya Sen at the PanIIT Global Conference


Prof. Amartya Sen delivered the concluding remarks at the Pan-IIT Global Conference.

Counselling critics of reservation in Indian institutions like the IITs to take a long-term view of the delicate social issue, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Sunday said the justice component in quotas could not be wished away, as many sections of Indian society had been denied access to education for centuries.

"There are concerns that those who benefit are from the upper layers of the reserved categories," Sen said, replying to a question from the audience after he delivered the valedictory address at the Pan-IIT global meet here. However, he added that issues like merit and efficiency should be seen from the point of view of creating a just and equitable society.

"You have to see what best you can do to meet the demands for justice and efficiency in the delivery of public services," he said, adding that affirmative action was prevalent in many societies. Harvard had a policy of giving extra credits to those from a disadvantaged school, other criteria being equal. Merit should not be discerned from the performance in an institution, but from a person's efficiency over a period of time.

Hema Malini among the Crème de la crème


Apparently, the location of her program at the PanIIT Global Conference and confusion over what she was going to do (eventually, she just did a Q&A) caused a mini-riot. Here's an excerpt from a report about the Q&A with Hema Malini:

When asked how she managed to look so stunning and fit, she said, “Dance, yoga and a vegetarian diet. I also fast two days a week.” And after a brief pause added with a grin, “But of course I use some cream. Cream ke bina kaise hoga? (How is it possible without cream?)”

Here's another quote from this 'sampoorna' woman:

On her relationship with her actor-husband and how she managed home and work, she said, “Women are good managers. I never interfered in Dharamji’s family affairs. I believe in giving dignity and space to others.”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Facebook-style story ever


I know it was written over a year ago, but it's never too late to link to Krish Ashok's Facebook Mahabharatha.

Reminded of Ashok's Mahabharatha when I saw God's Facebook Profile on the LOL God blog. [Bonus link from there: Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the most peaceful religion of them all?]

Oh, btw, I should also link to this piece of Facebook history from 1945.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pan IIT Global Conference


Some links:

  1. The text of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special address is here:

    There is enough evidence from the IIT Joint Entrance Examinations that for every student who got an opportunity to study in IITs, there are at least 3 to 4 who are as bright, but are denied the opportunity because of the intake capacity constraints. This is highly regrettable because it denies opportunity to thousands of deserving young men and women. If India is to become a global leader in science and technology as well as an economic super power, such talent must not go unutilized. Many more such institutes are needed. Realizing this, our government decided to increase the capacity by creating eight new IITs in the 11th Five Year Plan. I am proud of the fact that during the current academic year 2008-09, we could start 6 IITs though through temporary campuses or through the campus of an existing IIT. I am grateful to the existing IITs for mentoring and helping in the establishment of the new IITs.

  2. Yogesh Upadhyaya's interview of Prof. M.S. Anant, Director, IIT-M.

  3. Mallik Putcha has an interesting article on the IITs' pre-history.

  4. Ludwig informs us that the Pan-IIT spouses program has undergone a sampoorna transformation to become a Family Track -- For the Whole Family. He also tells us that this change was probably not a result of blogospheric outrage (there's more here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Chanda Kochhar


ICICI Bank has been the home of quite a few hi-fi(nance) women for quite sometime, so the choice of Ms. Chanda Kochhar as the next CEO of the ICICI Bank is not surprising at all. Yet, her elevation to the top job in India's largest private bank is certainly worth celebrating as a major milestone for women in business. Here's the Mint story:

Confirming a succession that had been widely anticipated, ICICI Bank Ltd is set to formally anoint Chanda Kochhar as chief executive-designate, putting a driven but low-key woman banker at the helm of India’s largest private bank.

When finally named CEO in May, Kochhar, 47, will be the youngest in the bank’s 54-year history. She will take over from the well-regarded K.V. Kamath who ... will become the non-executive chairman of the bank ...

Women in Indian banking industry still have a long way to go. Here's another excerpt from the same Mint report:

Only two women have risen to the top position in Indian banking, both at state-run banks following their nationalization. Ranjana Kumar took over the reins at the Chennai-based Indian Bank in May 2000.

The second woman chairperson, H.A. Daruwalla, reached the top in 2005 at the Mumbai-based Central Bank of India. Kochhar will become CEO after Daruwalla retires and will then be the lone woman bank CEO in India, at least as of now.

Two of the four deputy governors at the RBI are women—Usha Thorat and Shyamla Gopinath. RBI had to wait 68 years to get its first woman deputy governor in K.J. Udeshi, who was elevated to the post in 2003.

Out of 2.18 lakh bank officers in India, only 5.6% are women. But women’s representation goes up to 21% when it comes to the clerical cadre. Overall, women account for 14% of 7.71 lakh state-run bank employees.

In this background, the record of ICICI Bank is truly outstanding:

ICICI Bank, however, has about 33% women and at the senior level, this rises to 40%. The bank’s board has two women directors: Kochhar and an executive director Madhabi Puri Buch. Also on staff are Shikha Sharma, who heads the group’s life insurance business, and Renuka Ramnath, who heads the venture capital wing.

The Satyam Swindle


The Satyam-Maytas swindle deal has been dropped by the promoters, after the stock price crashed following the original announcement of the deal that would have enriched the Raju family members tremendously -- the deal was valued at $1.6 billion!

There has been tons of commentary. In particular, the shameful behaviour of Satyam's independent directors was flagged two days ago by T.T. Ram Mohan in a hard-hitting post (see also his follow-up posts.

Poor judgement on Mr Raju's part and also on the part of the board of Satyam which approved the deal. How could the board have even imagined that the company would get away with a deal of this kind? The board's independent directors comprise: M Rammohan Rao (director, Indian School of Business), Vinod Dham(the Silicon valley entrepreneur), T R Prasad (former cabinet secretary) Dr(Mrs)Mangalam Srinivasan ( a retired academic and bureaucrat), and Prof V S Raju (former director, IIT Delhi). It also has HBS prof Krishna Palepu as non-executive director.

The independent directors were paid between Rs 12.1 to Rs 13.2 lakh last year as sitting fee and got between 5000-10,000 stock options. Did the chairman get the board's consent for calling off the deal? Or will the board simply ratify the chairman's decision?

This meme has been picked up by Mint whose editorial has a blunt message: replace the independent directors and the management.

family that controls India’s fourth largest software services company thought it could use a slim 8.6% stake, worth $275 million on Wednesday morning, to spend $1.8 billion of reserves and fresh borrowings to bail out two sister companies in the realty and infrastructure businesses. It is time to ask Satyam chairman B. Ramalinga Raju to step down voluntarily (as we did in our front-page Quick Edit on Thursday) and sack the independent directors on the company board, who have been appointed to protect other shareholders against precisely such raids on their company.

Spicy IP's Sumathi Chandrashekaran makes an interesting connection between the now-dropped proposal to siphon away over 1.6 billion dollars of cash from Satyam and the company's legal troubles arising from a lawsuit filed by an American company called Upaid.

In a Business Standard column, Shobhana Subramanian gives us other examples of similarly shady shenanigans by the promoters:

In the past institutional investors in this country haven’t really spoken up against corporate misbehaviour. Even Sterlite’s attempt, in September this year, to transfer the high-quality aluminum business and merchant power to Malco, in return for the low-quality, high cost, copper Konkola mines, again without so much as a by-your-leave, didn’t anger shareholders. In that instance too, the promoters were enriching themselves, at the cost of minority shareholders, but no mutual fund really said so. There have been numerous other instances, admittedly of smaller consequence, that should have provoked mutual funds to ask questions.

The Sterlite example is important for those interested in India's higher education, because its promoters are behind India's most audacious university project: the Vedanta University, for which the Orissa govenment has allotted several thousand acres of land.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The IISc Centenary Conference: Inauguration


Just a couple of links about the inaugural day of the Conference.

First, the PTI report on Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's address, in which he outlines his vision for the IISc:

Sidebar

Update: Here are a couple of other reports: The Hindu and The Times of India.

Former President A P J Abdul Kalam on Saturday envisioned a greater role for the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in its second century by emerging as one of the top 10 institutions for science in the world.

... [H]e said that his vision for IISc 2030 included creating 10 Nobel laureates in different disciplines.

Over at Lab Rats, Seema Singh offers a somewhat more personal take on what was said at the inauguration:

While President Kalam, in his characteristic style, gave a PowerPoint presentation listing a bunch of things he wants to see IISc achieve by 2030, he made it look lofty as well as simplistic (which, for some reason, all his solutions appear). But I was amused at his credulity - he expects 10 Nobel laureates from IISc by then. Was he kidding himself or others?

The only one Nobel connected with IISc is of Sir CV Raman, and he won it in 1930, became IISc director in 1933. Thereafter, we've not even had a nomination, through rumour is rife that CNR Rao was in the reckoning once.

This (Rao) grand old man of Indian science and two-time director of IISc, loved and somewhat criticized (for acting like a banyan tree and hindering young talent) in great measure, was candid enough: If IISc strives to be the best in India, it's not hard; if it wants to be the best in the world, it's not easy.

Faculty perceptions of university education in India


Sidebar

The IISc Centenary Conference kicks off this afternoon with speeches by Prof. C.N.R. Rao and former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

* * *

Professor [A.H.], head of electro-technical department found, “the main weakness of the university science graduate is his entire ignorance of mechanical engineering and lack of workshop experience. As regards the work done by students during the session, it was found that not one of them was sufficiently well-trained, either as regards to actual knowledge of the theory of the subject or practical acquaintance with the method of measurement.” Echoing his observations, Professor [N.R.], who had four students in his applied chemistry department, makes a stinging remark on Indian education system [...].

“These students possess to a more or less greater extent, one peculiarity, which I attribute to the system under which they have studied, in which the passing of examination appears to have been the main object of University life. I refer to the fact that the students have rather an experience of learning than real knowledge itself...”

It's interesting how (some) faculty perceptions have remained stubbornly static for nearly 100 years!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The IISc Centenary Conference: The IISc Press


In a way, the Centenary Conference will double up as a launch party for the IISc Press. I can't think of a more big-bang launch than the release of these wonderfully produced beauties by two of IISc's people about IISc's non-people:

Secret lives

BotanistsDelight

The Inaugural of the IISc Centenary Conference will see the release of Secret Lives by IISc graduate (and blogger) Dr. Natasha Mhatre, and Indian Institute of Science Campus: A Botanist’s Delight by Prof. Sankara Rao.

Together, the two books cover the vast variety of plants and animals that reside in the IISc campus. Published by the newly created The IISc Press [they are not its first publications, however], they will go on sale after their formal release tomorrow; if you buy them at the conference, you'll get a 20 % discount!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Breaking news ...


Area Man Travels Back In Time To Kuriya, USSR, On An Important Mission

Farokh Arumugam, a Mumbai area man, has defied all odds to become the first Indian to travel back in time. His flight took off yesterday from an undisclosed location near Mumbai. If his first mission succeeds, he may just be able to rid this world of certain kinds of terrorism forever.

Mr. Arumugam has gone back to the post-Revolution years of 1917-18 to Kuriya, in the former USSR. In a press conference before his historic flight, he said his plans include a lawsuit in the Revolutionary Court of Altai Krai. His lawsuit seeks to force a local area couple to use contraceptive technologies he has brought from the future.

The couple in question are the parents of one Mr. Kalashnikov.

Mr. Arumugam said if his legal maneuvers in Kuriya didn't succeed, he would resort to his Plan B, which he declined to elaborate.

Mr. Arumugam claimed he was inspired by another Mumbai area man, Amit Karkhanis, who has reportedly filed a lawsuit that shares the spirit -- if not the audacity -- of Arumugam's quest to save humanity from itself.

If I had time, I could have developed this story further. For the moment, this will have to do.

The idea about time travel and the teaching of contraception comes from an ancient -- and very, very funny -- Dilbert cartoon, which I'm not able to locate right at this moment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: Just three more days to go ...


... things are getting more exciting.

Last Sunday, the IISc Alumni Association organized a "Science And Technology Run" that attracted over 1500 participants. Rupesh and Gururaja have blogged about it, with pics. Check them out.

An interesting new intiative is the Centenary Gallery, which has been created to enable folks here (and elsewhere) to share their pictures and videos of the Institute, its people, and its science. For something that was created just days ago, there's already quite a bit of activity. Check out, for example, Prof. A.G. Samuelson's IPC Archives should be of interest to graduates of the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Links ...


I want to start with the mystery link.

* * *

Michael Nielsen: The Future of Science: Building a Better Collective Memory. Money quote: "Unfortunately, science currently lacks the trust infrastructure and incentives necessary for such free, unrestricted trade of questions and ideas."

Phillip Davis: An Authorship Accelerator: Value of authorship in the age of 3000-author papers.

Female Science Professor: Which is better: thesis after papers, or papers after thesis? [Link via Guru]

Doug Natelson: Words of Advice about Giving Talks.]

Sunday, December 07, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: Six days to go ...


A couple of days ago, Divya Gandhi wrote a short piece about a book on plant biodiversity in the IISc campus: Indian Institute of Science Campus: A Botanist’s Delight by Prof. Sankara Rao. The book is expected to be released during the Centenary Conference.

One hundred years ago, when the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) acquired its campus in the city, it was not quite the green oasis it is today. In 1909, the campus was essentially a vast tract of thorny shrubs and rocky outcrops characteristic of the stark landscape of the Deccan Plateau.

Interestingly, the exotic flowering trees, orchids and sedges that set apart the IISc. from the concrete jungle (and keep it several degrees cooler), were brought from all over the world as part of a greening project that began in the 1930s.[...]

The large woody creeper that twines around the CES building was brought from the Western Ghats; the vermillion-flowered Sterculia colorata outside the metallurgy department comes from south-east Asia and the tall coniferous trees that flank the main administrative building are from Australia, he explained. Among those to whom IISc. owes its greening is Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel, one of the chief architects of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens who introduced several exotic plants in Bangalore. “However there are still precious pockets of original vegetation left. There are several old trees, including the banyan that pre-date the campus,” he added.

Here is some visual evidence for the statement that a hundred years ago, "the [IISc] campus was essentially a vast tract of thorny shrubs and rocky outcrops characteristic of the stark landscape"!

And here are two   pictures that give you a glimpse of the very twisted (and weirdly alluring!) plant -- "the large woody creeper" -- in front of the Centre for Ecological Sciences.

Links


1. Anjali Deshpande and S.K. Pande: Three days of Mumbai terror reporting:

We support the call for restraint reporting, for terrorism has international and national linkages and is often used to destabilise countries. The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.

If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.

2. While we're on the disgraceful coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (particularly by our TV news channels), I should link to the critiques from Sevanti Ninan (in The Hindu) and Harini Calamur (who has a lot more on this issue on her blog).

3. Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar: Dangers of Bushspeak:

Many Indians, while sympathising with the US after 9/11, pointed out that 6,000 feared dead in the World Trade Centre wasn't a big number compared with 50,000 killed over a decade in Kashmir. The US was getting a small dose of the Islamic terrorism that had long devastated Kashmir, and was over-reacting. The US never equated Kashmiri terrorism with war, and always told India to be calm and not bomb terrorist training camps in Pakistan. But when the US itself got a taste of this at home, it went ballistic, declared it was at war with terrorism, and vowed to bomb and kill all those bad guys.

Cooler heads pointed out that "war on terror" was a meaningless phrase. Terror is simply a tactic used by certain groups, and you cannot wage war against a tactic. You can declare war on an enemy country, but not on an NGO (terrorists are exactly that - non-government organizations). When terrorism arises from an ideology or set of grievances, imaginary or otherwise, killing one bunch of ideologues may simply deepen the grievances and create thousands of fresh terrorists.

4. Shashi Tharoor: Time to improve relations between police & minorities:

We in India also need to recognize that if we want under-represented Muslims to compete effectively for police jobs, they need to feel the police is part of them, rather than an external entity. It's clear we need to: actively solicit applications from minorities for the police at all levels (including the Provincial Armed Constabulary and the Central Reserve Police); offer special catch-up courses open only to members of the minority communities that will prepare them for the entrance examinations; at the moment few feel qualified to take the exams, and fewer still pass; and require police officers to work with community organizations, mosques and madrasas to encourage minorities to apply.

In other words, instead of more "reservations", with the resentment that breeds, let us make it easier for minorities to join the police. But let's not stop with recruitment: we also need to focus on the retention and progression of minority officers. ...

5. The tension between India and Pakistan is so intense that the latter gets spooked by a hoax call:

Pakistani officials said Saturday that a bellicose phone call to President Asif Ali Zardari from India, purportedly placed by the Indian foreign minister, prompted Islamabad to put its air force on high alert before concluding the call was a hoax. [...]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Prof. C.N.R. Rao: 75 years and over 1500 papers


Yesterday, Prof. C.N.R. Rao's 75th birthday was celebrated in a grand fashion by his students and admirers. While I missed the event, I was happy to see two news reports on it. Some excerpts from one of them:

"The Indian Institute of Science is celebrating its centenary year and this year is also my golden jubilee as a scientist. The only weapon I have is publishing papers, and I want to do research till my last day,” said Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, CNR Rao, here on Friday.

“The only Indian scientist that I know who did research till his last day was Sir C V Raman. Most scientists publish one or two papers and forget about it. I feel miserable if I do not publish 20-30 papers a year. The only way to stay alive in science is to publish papers,” Rao said in his address during a felicitation ceremony organised to honour him on his 75th birthday. The Linus Pauling Research Professor, who published his first paper at the age of 19, has about 1,500 papers to his credit.

“As I am getting old there is one doubt that bothers me: What happens after I am gone? Will all things I did disappear? To this I would say that publishing paper is the only course to reach immortality.

There are many people in this country who look down upon people who publish papers or comment on their work. In fact, I am sorry to say, some of the Academies have encouraged the art of non-publishing,”

IISc blogging


Rupesh has compiled a great list of IISc faculty, students and alumni who blog. Go check it out.

If you know of blogs that should be on that list, please leave a comment on that page.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Lecture


Here's an opportunity for those of you in Bangalore to listen to a very impressive speaker: Prof. P. Balaram (Director of IISc, and Chief Editor of Current Science), who will deliver the the 17th Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Lecture.

The lecture is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on 12 December 2008 (Friday) in the Indian Institute of World Culture, B.P. Wadia Road, Basavangudi, Bangalore.

Prof. Balaram will be speaking on Chemical Analysis in the Age of Biology. Here's the abstract:

Analytical chemistry has been transformed over the past two decades from an old, classical discipline to a vibrant area of research focused principally on biological problems. Mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy and a variety of imaging methods based on optical and vibrational spectroscopy have begun to provide a level of sensitivity and resolution which have led to a renaissance in chemical analysis.

This lecture focuses on the applications of mass spectrometry in biology. A brief historical account of the field, whose origins may be traced to the work of J.J. Thomson will be followed by a consideration of the soft ionization procedures which have made biological analysis possible. Specific applications to the identification of disease causing mutations in proteins and the analysis of complex peptide libraries in natural venoms will be illustrated.

The lecture is organized by Kumari L.A. Meera Trust. My friend and colleague Anant is on its board of trustees.

Some of you may remember the previous edition of this annual event featuring Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director of IIT-M.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: 9 days to go ...


... and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in our Institute to "inaugurate" its centenary celebrations. He covered quite a few different things in his speech. Here's something about what his government has done for science and technology:

The Government has done a lot in the past four years to improve opportunities in education in the sciences. We have created a number of scholarships and fellowships. The Ramanujan fellowships have been instituted to attract young talented scientists to work in India and the J. C. Bose fellowships have been created to reward outstanding senior scientists. We have improved the emoluments of research students taking up Ph. D. studies.

One of the most significant initiatives of our Government in this area is the special scholarship scheme titled “Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research” [INSPIRE]. This programme seeks to attract youth to the study of science and targets learners in the age group 10-15 years. One million young students are proposed to be covered under this scheme. Scholarships will also be provided to senior students for continuing science education. Assured Opportunities for Research Careers is another initiative under this scheme that will support a thousand young researchers with contract positions backed with research grants of Rs. 10 lakhs per year for five years.

At another function in Bangalore, Dr. Singh also "dedicated the International Centre for Material Science to the Nation and opened the C.N.R. Rao Hall of Science." His speech at that event is here.

Terrorism and politics


After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, it has become fashionable to suggest that we should banish -- or, at least, rise above -- politics and seek ways of preventing terrorist attacks, and of minimizing the damage and loss of life if a terrorist attack does get underway.

But it seems to me that any suggestion about what needs to be done is inherently political. Consider the following suggestions/demands/ideas:

  1. the ritual resignation of some minister or the other.

  2. different kinds of internal security measures -- POTA, for example -- which imply different levels of loss of personal freedom

  3. going to war with a nuclear armed neighbour -- "There is only one way to deal with [international terrorism] - the Dubya way!"

  4. getting Ratan Tata to be our Prime Minister with NSG commandos running the state's affairs.

Which of these ideas is not political? Even if one couches them in non-partisan rhetoric -- "I don't care who's in power, NDA or UPA.I want action!" -- each of the ideas depends on a certain view of the state, who should run it, what it should do, and at what cost. When each of them comes into conflict with others -- your POTA is my draconian law, after all -- what you have is politics. Gnani puts it even more strongly:

... [T]errorism is not above politics. It is politics by other means.

To come to grips with it and to eventually eliminate it, the practice of politics by proper means needs constant fine tuning and improvement. Decrying all politics and politicians, only helps terrorists and dictators who are the two sides of the same coin. [...]

Let me leave you with some links. And, yes, they are all intensely political:

  1. Gnani Sankaran's class-based take on how our media -- especially the TV channels -- are spinning the terrorist attacks. [Update: See also Mukul Kesavan's column.]

  2. Biju Mathew asks us to be skeptical about what the media tells us about the attacks. A lot of their stories are based on selective leaks from the police, intelligence agencies and the armed forces; when the leaks are selective, they are likely to be self-serving and/or ass-covering. [See this, this and this]

  3. Why did we end up losing top police officials and NSG commandos? Mad Momma wants to know, because "because tomorrow my son might want to join these forces."

* * *

Let me end this post on a not-so-political note with the following links:

  1. WSJ has a detailed -- and chilling -- account of how the terrorists did what they did. Here's an equally chilling account from an NSG commando of the fight to liberate the Taj.

  2. A daughter recounts the hours and days when her father -- a police official -- was inside one of the hotels fighting the terrorists.