Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Probably the world's worst kept secret

It's fairly straight forward: if you put some info about yourself online, potential employers -- or admission officers at universities, and even your current employers -- will probably look it up; and you really have no control over what they do with what they find.

Now there's some confirmation. :

... a significant number of colleges are reviewing some applicants’ social network pages, but that institutions do not appear to have adopted a routine of checking online personalities in this way.

... a significant number of colleges are reviewing some applicants’ social network pages, but that institutions do not appear to have adopted a routine of checking online personalities in this way.

colleges are using these Web sources of information “to verify information,” particularly on “candidates for scholarships or entry into high demand programs with limited spaces.” The common view, according to the report, is this: “No school wants to announce the winner of a prestigious scholarship only to have compromising pictures turn up on the Internet the next day.”

Some admissions officials think like organizers of Ms. Universe pageants.

Just sayin' ...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Every talented player understands the importance of a strong referee"

That's the subtitle of George Akerlof and Robert Shiller's WSJ column, Good Government and Animal Spirits:

... [Government's] role is not to harness animal spirits but really to set them free, to allow them to be maximally creative. A brilliant player wants a referee, for only when the game has appropriate rules can he really show his talents. While the sports of baseball and football haven't changed much in the last century, the economy has -- and American financial regulation hasn't had an overhaul in 70 years. The challenge for the Obama administration, along with the U.S. Congress and our SROs, is to invent a new and better American version of the capitalist game.

Porn and computer science research

It's not likely to be on his business card, but David A. Forsyth is an expert in web pornography, having served on the NRC committee for this topic. It is evident from his web page that he has a sense of humour, which explains the superbly descriptive title for his 1996 paper, Finding Naked People. Forsyth was one of the first researchers to study the problem of identifying objectionable content.

From Steve Honov's post: Keeping Abreast of Pornographic Research in Computer Science.

On the other hand, Carnegie Mellon's CS professor Luis von Ahn suggests a website called Porn or Not dot com:

Here’s an idea I’ve had for many years but have not been brave enough to launch. (a) Computers cannot perfectly tell whether an image is pornographic or not; (b) sites such as image search engines need to block pornography; (c) many people like looking at porn. Everything aligns perfectly: Why not let people who like looking at porn tell us which images are pornographic? As a reward, the more accurate they are, the better pornography they see.

Obama goes to the National Academy of Sciences

... gives a rousing speech, presents a grand vision for American science and technology, and announces bold new programs -- including ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.

You can find summaries in Inside HigherEd and NYTimes. Here's an excerpt from the speech itself:

I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It's our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I'm here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science. (Applause.)

This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.

Just think what this will allow us to accomplish: solar cells as cheap as paint; green buildings that produce all the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again; an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us. We can do this.

The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years. That's how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation's work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Aakar Patel on L.K. Advani and Manmohan Singh

Here's his one sentence summary of Advani, his career, his politics, his outlook:

He offers nothing creative, even to Hindus, only resentment.

As for Singh, he introduces him as a "brutally tough man in politics"; the rest of his article is so glowingly positive that it'll make even this tough man blush!

Cow, Coconut Tree, and Ram Guha

Here's the story about the cow and the coconut tree (I have heard it in several other variations as well, but this will do for the moment):

... in a lower primary school students were asked to prepare essays on subjects like "coconut tree" and "the cow." They were lazy students and they wanted to know which among the two may appear for the examination. They influenced the attender of the school, and he leaked out the question which he thought to be the correct one and said that it is about the coconut tree that you will be asked to write ten sentences. All of them learnt thoroughly ten sentences to be written about the coconut tree. But as they sat for the examination to their great dismay the only question appeared was to write 10 sentences about a cow. Some of the students found it difficult even to start and they left the examination hall. Some other smart students wrote "in Kerala cows are usually tethered on coconut tree and then wrote 10 sentences on "coconut tree" and completed the subject.

Now, go read Ram Guha's latest fluff on IISc.

* * *

Guha's thesis -- that IISc should "establish and make active a proper centre of humanistic studies" -- is eminently worth supporting; and it certainly has my support.

Here's my problem with Guha's piece. Among the many arguments to support his thesis, he has chosen one that betrays a certain disrespect to the existing scholarship. From B.V. Subbarayappa's history of IISc, one can learn quite a bit about the real efforts (summarized here) to get humanities included in the Institute's mandate. Many of these efforts were led by Burjorji Padshah -- the one person who put his very soul into seeing the IISc project through.

Does Guha acknowledge any these efforts? No.

What he does instead is to go on and on about virtual efforts by Patrick Geddes, who wrote five letters to Sister Nivedita about the kinds of things that IISc should do. In doing so, he connects these two figures -- Geddes and the good Sister -- to IISc in a way that is not quite justifiable. They were, at best, peripheral players in IISc's prehistory. As Guha himself admits, "One does not know whether Geddes’s [letters to Sister Nivedita] reached" Jamsetji Tata, so he's not even sure if Geddes's ideas had legs.

If Guha wants to bring them centrestage, that's fine; but he needs a lot more than "hey, look what I found in the National Library of Scotland."

* * *

Just because someone finds a bunch of letters between, say, a professor of Jyotir Vigyan and Sushma Swaraj about an auspicious launch time, does it mean that the two deserve a chapter in the history of the Chandrayaan mission?

* * *

Also check out this comment by my colleague Prof. S. Ranganathan about Guha's previous article about the IISc that waxes eloquent about Vivekananda's role in IISc's prehistory:

History is too important to be left to historians and industrious scholars! It is no doubt romantic to think that Swami Vivekanda inspired J N Tata to start an Indian Institute. This received further authority from Dr A P J Kalam's view of the beginnings of IISc. But there is little evidence for this viewpoint, as a noted historian B V Subbaryappa has pointed out in his reservations about the inclusion of Swami Vivekananda in the IISc Centenary commemorative stamp.Long before Tata met Swamiji the vision of a higher educational institution had taken shape in Tata's writings. No doubt the meeting on the voyage from Japan to the USA had some influence on Tata. That was in 1893. After five years he wrote a letter requesting his help in a missionary mode. To construe it as an offer of the directorship of IISc is stretched. [...] Readers may want to see my presentation on The Foundation of IISc, A Presentation by Professor S. Ranganathan, Department of Materials Engineering, IISc. [edited to embed the link]

Shubashree's review of Lilavati's Daughters

Read it at The New Indian Express or at her blog. Some excerpts:

All the chapters in Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India are available from the Indian Academy of Sciences website.

Some poisonous prejudices against women are that they are not as productive as men; they show stereotypical behaviour; they are unwilling to relocate and face challenges, and so on. All these myths are shattered by reading even within the first nine stories in this anthology: Janaki Ammal, from Kerala, was the first woman Oriental Barbour Scholar and D.Sc (1934), a botanist and a pioneer! Then is the story of B Vijayalakshmi’s heroic struggle against cancer of her stomach and abdomen, to carry out research in high-energy physics. Another pioneer is Asima Chatterjee, the first woman to receive a D.Sc. from any Indian University (Calcutta). Her work on ayurvedic drugs is the story of untiring and path-breaking research which led to the development of the anti-epilepsy drug, Ayush-56, which is patented and sold even today. Anandibai Joshi’s, Mumbai of 1865, is a story of struggle against the confusing marital complex- being educated and discouraged by the same person, her reformist-husband. Who can say that women fear controversy, if only you read the story of Iravati Karve, who was the pioneer in advocating statistical studies based on caste divisions – a theory that is controversial even now. Bearing testimony to the stolid undeterred labour of women, Anna Mani is a beacon of a physicist from CV Raman’s lab. Her thesis did not get her a degree in physics for some bureaucratic reason, causing her to shift her field to meteorology subsequently becoming Deputy Director General of the Indian Meteorological Department.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anonymous donations to US universities

The contributions -- nearly 70 million dollars! -- have several things in common: (a) the beneficiary universities are headed by women, (b) the bulk of the contributions is meant for scholarships for women and minorities, and (c) all except one are public universities.


The call typically comes from a banker, bringing word of a fairy godmother. This is followed quickly by a check arriving in the mail — or two checks, the larger earmarked for scholarships for women and minority students, the smaller to be spent at the recipient’s discretion.

The only catch, for at least a dozen colleges and universities that have benefited from the surprise largess over the past two months, is that the donor must remain anonymous. ...

Gains from higher education: Private and Public, Market and Non-Market

There are personal benefits to those who have the good fortune to get some college education. For example, those with college education earn more than those without any college education: in the US, this benefit has been estimated to be $9,967 in annual earnings for each year of college!

But are there other -- non-market -- benefits that college graduates enjoy, but do not translate directly into dollars and cents? In addition, are there benefits to the society at large? If there are, how big are they? Can these benefits all be quantified?

Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has a really fascinating interview of Walter W. McMahon, author of Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education . There are many interesting things in that interview, so you really ought to read all of it.

Here's excerpt on the societal benefits, that would make a strong case for (at least partial) public funding of college education:

Most social benefits beyond earnings occur as human capital formed during college is used by the graduate in the community throughout his or her life cycle in ways that improve the community. These include larger contributions than high school graduates at each income level of their time and money to sustaining democratic and human rights institutions such as civic and charitable agencies. More college graduates also contributes to political stability, reduced crime, lower public welfare costs, greater social capital, an increased flow of new ideas, and an improved quality of the environment for all. These are benefits to "others" that go beyond the private satisfactions received by the graduate because firms can be more productive when there is a good environment and because ‘others’ include future generations.

There is research that measures each of these benefits. But it requires a thoughtful and balanced look. Some of the earnings that graduates enjoy, for example, are partly the result of the education of prior generations. So graduates receive spill over benefits from the education of ‘others’ in prior generations, but they also give some of each benefit listed above to ‘others’ in future generations.

Ram Puniyani: RSS-BJP -- Father, Son, and Unholy Mission

See also his article from 2005: Is RSS a terrorist organization?

His website has more. Lots more.

From his Tehelka column:

Mr. Advani has been calling Manmohan Singh as the weakest Prime Minister for quite some time. Recently Manmohan Singh, decided to hit back and he reminded the nation about the role of Advani in Kandhar episode, Babri demolition and Gujarat violence. Sonia Gandhi’s response to Advani’s barbs was at deeper level as she called Advani and most of BJP leadership as ‘slave of RSS’ (Bidar, Karnataka 15th April) This jolted the BJP leadership which gave some weakly mumbled response. BJP-RSS relationship was once again brought to the public attention. It became clear that it is really the RSS which through various mechanisms, ideological and organizational, controls the second largest party in the country.


... [A]t Sindi (Wardha, Maharahtra) in 1954 from March 9 to March 16 a political training camp was organized for 300 pracharaks. The camp was aimed to train national RSS leadership for running the affairs of the country through Jana Sangh. RSS sarsangh chalak (supreme dictator) M.S. Golwalkar in his speech (March 16) elaborated his vision for Jana Sangh, "If we say that we are part of the organization and accept its discipline then selectiveness has no place in life. Do what is told. If told to play kabaddi, play kabaddi; told to hold meeting then meeting…For instance some of our friends were told to go and work for politics that does not mean that they have great interest or inspiration for it… If they are told to withdraw from politics then also there is no objection. Their discretion is just not required."


One will beg to differ with Sonia Gandhi on one count; slaves normally are just obeying the orders of the masters. Here the BJP, its leadership not only obeys the RSS orders, it has internalized the RSS agenda and its job is to devise different strategies and moves to ensure that RSS agenda of Hindu nation becomes strong. When in power BJP makes ground for infiltration of its siblings (other RSS progeny) to infiltrate in the state apparatus, social work, education and other possible conduits for transforming the state and society in the image of RSS.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Links ...

  1. Mukul Kesavan takes on the silly notion that "the current Lok Sabha elections are best seen as the aggregate of two dozen and more provincial elections." A parochial election?:

    If the turnout of voters doesn’t drop in Maoist areas, that can be counted as a victory for electoral democracy. If state-sponsored vigilantism in the shape of the Salwa Judum, invented by the Congress and embraced by the BJP, finds endorsement in these elections and encourages these parties to fight insurgencies elsewhere with paid vigilantes, the idea of the rule of law will have suffered a massive defeat. If Telangana votes for politicians committed to the separation of that region from Andhra Pradesh, we might learn something about the validity of language as the basis of political identity.

    To imagine that these are local or provincial issues is silly. ...

  2. Prithviraj Datta, a doctoral candidate in political theory at Harvard, argues against allowing expat Indians to vote in Indian elections.

    ... the political needs of the resident are very distinct from those of the expat. Residents, quite obviously, are subject entirely to the demands and the authority of the Indian State. Their political grievances can only be redressed by the Indian State, through its various forms and agencies. To them, therefore, the vote is an essential means of ensuring that their views are heard, their interests represented.

    This is not true of expats, however. Their daily lives are not mediated to the same degree by the Indian State. The sources of their most immediate political grievances are likely not to lie within the Indian State, but rather in the countries in which they reside as foreign nationals. To allow expats to vote as members of the constituencies to which they belonged while they were in India thus does violence to the notion of local representation.

  3. 3 Quarks Daily features a Meena Kandasamy poem, "Reverence: Nuisance"

  4. George Scialabba: Justice: A Syllabus.

  5. Now that we live in the age of Google Profile Results, how can you manage your reputation online? I like one of the suggested methods: "Ms. Allison also changed her last name, which is another way to clean your Web footprint as is using a middle initial." [Link via Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam]

  6. Miracle at Louisville: PhD degree in one semester.

IPL and its effect on families

A US study has found that "cities with Major League baseball teams have a lower divorce rate." I don't know about divorce rates, but in a similar study in India, cities with IPL teams will probably score high on father-son bonding -- and also in couch-potato-hood and grogginess during the IPL season.

In these tough times ...

Accepting rejection: "High-flying Harvard students get tips on how to rebound from the inevitable 'thanks but no thanks'." (There's also an accompanying piece with "tips for successful failing.") Here's an excerpt from the main article:

The dirty secret is out. Harvard students fail sometimes. They are denied jobs, fellowships, A's they think they deserve. They are passed over for publication, graduate school, and research grants. And when that finally happens, it hurts. Big time.

To help students cope, Harvard's Office of Career Services hosted a new seminar last week on handling rejection, a fear job-seekers are feeling acutely in the plummeting economy. The advice from panelists could have come from a caring, patient parent. No rejection is the end of the world, they said, even though it might feel that way at the time.


Hard as it is for some to believe, there are candidates more worthy than Harvard students, Professor Meng quipped, in language befitting his field. "Statistically you are rejected, and probablistically it is fair."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Candidates with criminal records and how to combat them

Here's Abhijit Banerjee et al describing the results of a study:

During last year’s Delhi elections, SNS, an NGO, filed a series of Right to Information cases in order to extract information about the performance of the sitting MLAs. This included how they had spent their annual Rs 2 crore development funds, as well as how often they had participated in the committees where they are supposed to represent their constituents. Hindustan combined this information with data from the mandatory disclosures by all candidates regarding criminal history, education, and personal assets, and printed the same in a concise format for a set of ten constituencies, in the week before the election.

A group of eight NGOs then distributed free copies of these newspapers in 200 polling stations, chosen by lottery to ensure that they were comparable to all the others where the newspapers were not distributed. While candidates with serious criminal records got about 9 per cent more votes in general, the newspaper distribution appears to have effectively cut the electorate’s preference for criminals in half. However, one could make the case that this effect is the result of priming: it is conceivable that the newspaper campaign simply made people more sensitive to this issue.

The piece also discuss some other findings about the role of caste in UP politics -- especially in the perceived rise of criminalization since the 1980s. Here's the abstract of the academic study behind these findings:

This paper examines how increased voter ethnicization, defined as a greater preference for the party representing one's ethnic group, affects politician quality. If politics is characterized by incomplete policy commitment, then ethnicization reduces average winner quality for the pro-majority party with the opposite true for the minority party. The effect increases with greater numerical dominance of the majority (and so social homogeneity). Empirical evidence from a survey on politician corruption that we conducted in North India is remarkably consistent with our theoretical predictions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Word of the Day: Hindutwit

That would be Hindutva + twit, going by the way Ashok V. Desai uses it repeatedly in his article:

Only the trade mispricing method shows an illicit capital outflow — of $22 billion a year in 2002-2006. That is 3.5 per cent of India’s gross domestic product at current prices, 14.5 per cent of international trade in goods, and 9.3 per cent of international trade in goods and services. These are significant figures, but nowhere close to the billions and trillions that Hindutwits dream of.

That is why the Hindutwit believers have studiously ignored the GFIP estimates.

I don't foresee great popularity for this word, though: it's too close to (Hindu + twit), and in no time at all, it'll become unacceptable in public discourse. So, enjoy it while it lasts.

For context and more links, check out this post at the Outlook blog. You could also go back to Ashok Desai's original article that elicited nasty responses from Hindutwits.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cosmetic neurology

New psychiatric drugs have a way of creating markets for themselves. Disorders often become widely diagnosed after drugs come along that can alter a set of suboptimal behaviors. In this way, Ritalin and Adderall helped make A.D.H.D. a household name, and advertisements for antidepressants have helped define shyness as a malady. If there’s a pill that can clear up the wavering focus of sleep-deprived youth, or mitigate the tip-of-the-tongue experience of middle age, then those rather ordinary states may come to be seen as syndromes. As Casey put it, “The drugs get better, and the markets become bigger.”

“Yes,” Zack said. “We call it the lifestyle-improvement market.”

From Margaret Talbot's story in New Yorker.

Links ...

  1. Louis Uchitelle reviews Animal Spirits by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller. The latter is interviewed at McKinsey Quarterly (free registration required).

  2. George Scialabba: Justice: A Syllabus.

  3. The Hindu interviews Prof. Yash Pal.

  4. Brian Stelter on what journalism schools are doing in this era of decline and fall of newspapers.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

O Mama!

Outlook's Sandeep Adhwaryu wins 2008 Maya Kamath Memorial Award for Excellence in Cartooning. This is the award-winning entry:

Link via -- where else? -- the Outlook blog.

Fungible ideologies, ATM ministries, permanent ministers

Shekhar Gupta says there are some certainties that will be re-affirmed by Elections '09, even if the overall outcome -- which coalition will come to power? -- is uncertain.

One of these certainties is about politicians with total political mobility. He's not afraid to name them:

... [W]hichever coalition comes to power, Ramadoss, Paswan, Kumaraswamy (junior Gowda) and Ajit Singh will be in its cabinet. These fortunate men represent the phenomenon of total ideological fungibility, as they will share power with any of the three possible combinations. They will also pretty much have their pick of what can only be described as ATM ministries. Each of these will have just a few seats, but total political mobility.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A woman achiever in a male-dominated world of politics

If someone were to say that Mayavati would be a dreadful prime minister because she’s tyrannical in a paranoid, thin-skinned, temperamental way, I would assume (I think reasonably) that the comment was gendered. Think of contemporaries of Mayavati like Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa or Uma Bharti — every woman in Indian politics who chooses to lead a political party without being beholden to a male patron is typecast as difficult, irrational and unpredictable.

That's Mukul Kesavan writing in the Telegraph. He goes on to add:

... [B]y rights, she ought to be Indian democracy’s poster-girl. She helped Kanshi Ram found the BSP on April 14, 1984. That a young girl born to an ‘untouchable’ Chamar family should have co-founded a party that managed to win an absolute majority in India’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened to hold the balance of power at the national level on the eve of a general election, within 25 years of its founding, is, or ought to be, a matter for celebration. That she should have achieved this without the dynastic leg-up or the majoritarian short cut that has defined Indian political leadership in recent times, is even more remarkable.

One reason why this isn’t celebrated is easily summarized: Mayavati’s relationship with Kanshi Ram is sexualized in gossip and sleazy reportage. The same middle-class people who celebrate the process of ‘mentoring’ in corporate contexts, find it hard to see Kanshi Ram as Mayavati’s political mentor: he has to be cast either as an older man preying on a young woman, or as her visionary political patron, so that she can be cast as an upstart client given her start in life by an all-seeing man.

Gendered language: How do you describe a key?

Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.

Difficult to believe? Consider this example:

When asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — German speakers were more likely to use words such as "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated" and "useful." Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny" and "tiny."

Read this NPR story on this fascinating phenomenon.

Interventions that combat stereotype threat

The researchers, led by Geoffrey L. Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado, had seventh graders in suburban Connecticut schools do the assignment three to five times through that school year. It asked them to choose from a list values that were most important to them — including athletic ability, sense of humor, creativity and being smart — and to write why those values were so important. The students were randomly assigned, within classes, to do the exercise or a control assignment that was not focused on their values.

In previous studies, researchers had found that such exercises reduced stress and the fear of failure in some students. By the end of eighth grade, among black students who were struggling, those who had expressed in writing their most important values had an average G.P.A. that was 0.4 points higher than those who had not.

“The idea is that a bad experience early in school can have lasting effects, and that if we can do something in that crucial window, it could alter the student’s trajectory slightly and change the arc of their experience over time,” Dr. Cohen said.

More in this NYTimes story by Benedict Carey.

Political heirs

According to data provided by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based independent research agency, around one in 15 MPs in the Lok Sabha are first timers from political families whose close family members are, or have been, politicians. No MP on the list comes up to the national average on all four metrics—participation in parliamentary debates, number of private member Bills introduced, questions asked and attendance. Only Naveen Jindal, son of former state lawmaker and businessman O.P. Jindal, managed to match—and even better—the national average on three of the four indicators—he participated in 35 debates, asked 376 questions and had 71%, attendance compared with a national average of 30, 169 and 69%, respectively. None of these parliamentarians managed to introduce any private member Bill and touch the national average of 0.6%.

That's from this interesting story by Ruhi Tewari in Miint; other stories in this series are about women and newbie legislators in the Lok Sabha.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If you are a voter in Bangalore ...

... you should check out Smart Vote, where you'll find a lot of information about the candidates contesting in the three Bangalore constituencies (North, Central, South). The page for Bangalore-North, for example, summarizes each candidate's affidavits, and has links to more detailed biographical information, and to video interviews (in which each candidate answers a set of questions).

I haven't checked the availability of these resources for everyone, but they are definitely available for the four major party candidates: C.K. Jaffer Sharief (Congress), Chandre Gowda (BJP), Padmaa K. Bhat (BSP) and Surendra Babu (JD-Secular).

Another useful part of this site is the Links page, which has a lot of useful links to many institutions of governance in India.

First phase of Elections-09

Here's the picture -- along with the caption -- accompanying the lead story in The Hindu today.

RISKY VENTURE: Officials taking electronic voting machines to Killomkota, an interior area about 150 km from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, on Wednesday. The area is a Maoist stronghold and to cover a distance of 10 km from Kodimamidi to Killomkota, it takes an hour and half due to the rough terrain and crossing of two streams. Maoists have called for poll boycott.

How good are our Board exams? How good is JEE?

Having posted something on SAT, here's a story that appeared in the Education section of the Hindu today; the report is by Priscilla Jebaraj and Meera Srinivasan.

The first part is about our board exams; we are told that the Tamil Nadu Board exams have a 40:30:20:10 percent weight for, respectively, knowledge, understanding, application and skill development. [Yes, those faux-precise figures come from an authority figure!] The report goes on to add that the four themes receive equal weights in CBSE and ISC exams; no one is cited for this factoid, however.

In the second part, the story turns to JEE, for which the reporters managed to get some quotable quotes from Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT-M, and Prof. V.G. Idichandy, also from IIT-M.

Here's the section with Prof. M.S. Ananth's comments:

“I shouldn’t have to examine more than 10 times the number of students who will ultimately get admission,” said IIT-Madras director M.S. Ananth. He feels that the JEE should be used as a selection examination, not merely an elimination examination as it is today.

His suggestion is that the school board examinations be treated as a screening test, with only the top one per cent of students being allowed to attempt JEE. However, Prof. Ananth is quite happy about the efficacy of the JEE paper itself to test students. “I myself have tried the JEE paper. It is beautifully done, no one can set a better one,” he said, rejecting criticism that the paper was not designed to test the aptitude of students. “No one can really test aptitude, although the Americans pretend to do it,” he said.

Then what is to be done about students who ace JEE, but arrive in IIT with little aptitude for engineering studies? Prof. Ananth shares the story of a student who did not know integration. His excuse? “He told us that there are only three marks allotted to integration in JEE.” The IIT-M director feels the fault lies not with the examination itself, but with the coaching system. “With a Rs. 2000-crore coaching industry, there will always be students who can crack a paper without understanding it,” he said.

Prof. V.G. Idichandy, who is also the chairman of a committee set up to "explore JEE reforms," is a lot more blunt:

[Prof. Idichandy] promises recommendations for “drastic reform.” In fact, his personal opinion would be to abolish the JEE and all such entrance examinations. “So long as students are focussed on coaching for entrance exams, school education will not be taken seriously,” he said. Right now, “JEE is not testing aptitude at all. It’s not even a test of knowledge. It just tests the capability of pattern recognition.”

How good is SAT?

The admission process in US universities uses multiple criteria; SAT forms just one part of it. And SAT is not required at a growing number of institutions -- especially liberal arts colleges.

In spite of the small (and diminishing) role of SAT and other such exams in the admissions process, they have received -- and continue to receive -- an amazing amount of critical scrutiny by experts. Inside Higher Ed has a story on the latest such scrutiny, led by Richard Atkinson, ex-Chancellor ex-President of the University of California system; it was during his tenure earlier this decade that the UC system threatened to stop requiring SAT. Here's an extract from the story:

In his talk, one of Atkinson's themes was that the underlying flaw of the SAT is that it was designed to measure student aptitude, and remains so, long after the College Board removed "aptitude" from its name. Atkinson said that there is a much higher validity to tests based on actual knowledge learned in courses, and that -- grade inflation being what it is in high schools -- admissions officers genuinely benefit from a national tool to compare students boasting A's in calculus, chemistry or French at high schools where an A may mean different things. (Despite those concerns, Atkinson stressed his view that grades in college preparatory courses are the single best way to predict college success.)

How the iron man melted ...

Two links:

  1. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express: The politics of hurt:

    If you were looking for unexpected insight into the troubles of the BJP, you need look no further than L.K. Advani’s response to the spirited, and on-the-mark, attack on him by Manmohan Singh. His response was a mendacious distinction to the effect that while his attacks on Singh were not personal, Singh’s attacks on him were. But more significant was his claim that he was “hurt”. In using this one little word, Advani unconsciously revealed more about himself and his party: both thrive on a constant play on the theme of victimhood. The minute the Congress ratcheted up the heat on Advani’s record, he retreated into playing victim. Try as much as it can, the BJP struggles to rise above a discourse of victimhood, one that has increasingly less resonance.

  2. R. Jagannathan in DNA: The Mouse that Roared:

    Never underestimate the wrath of the timid man. The NDA's prime ministerial hopeful, Lal Krishna Advani, has been stung by the surprisingly bitter counter-attacks of Manmohan Singh, who has managed to wound the former by his sharp diatribes on the Kandahar, Babri Masjid, and Gujarat episodes. [...]

    Singh skillfully used Advani's own words against him. "When held to the fire (on Kandahar)", the PM intoned the other day, the "iron man" melted; Advani, he added, was found "weeping in a corner" while hoodlums tore down the Babri Masjid. The punchline came on Monday in Mumbai, scene of 26/11: "Advani has the unique ability to combine strength in speech with weakness in action." Touche!


Some interesting psychology links:

  1. Do Parents Matter? Jonah Lehrer interviews Judith Harris for the Scientific American [Previous posts on Harris's work].

    LEHRER: You emphasize the importance of teachers in shaping a child's development. How can we apply this new theory of child development to public policy? HARRIS: I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!), and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home. So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance, by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids. The teacher’s biggest challenge is to keep this group of kids from splitting up into two opposing factions: one pro-school and pro-learning, the other anti-school and anti-learning. When that happens, the differences between the groups widen: the pro-school group does well, but the anti-school group falls further and further behind. A classroom with 40 kids is more likely to split up into opposing groups than one with 20, which may explain why students tend to do better in smaller classes. But regardless of class size, some teachers have a knack for keeping their classrooms united. Teachers in Asian countries seem to be better at this than Americans, and I suspect this is one of the reasons why Asian kids learn more in school. No doubt there’s a difference in cultures, but maybe we could study how they do it and apply their methods here.

  2. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science: Bilingual infants have better mental control:

    By testing 38 infants, each just seven months old, Agnes Melinda Kovacs and Jacques Mehler have found that those who are raised in bilingual households have better "executive functions". This loose term includes a number of higher mental abilities that allow us to control more basic ones, like attention and motor skills, in order to achieve a goal. They help us to plan for the future, focus our attention, and block out instinctive behaviours that would get in the way. Think of them as a form of mental control.

    The role of these abilities in learning multiple languages is obvious - they allow us to focus on one language, while preventing the other from interfering. Indeed, children and adults who learn to use two languages tend to develop better executive functions. Now, Kovacs and Mehler have found that even from a very young age, before they can actually speak, children develop stronger executive functions if they grow up to the sound of two mother tongues. They show a degree of mental control that most people their age would struggle to match.

  3. New Scientist has a five part series on Our Changing Brain:

    Throughout life our brains undergo more changes than any other part of the body. These can be broadly divided into five stages, each profoundly affecting our abilities and behaviour. But we are not just passengers in this process, so how can we get the best out of our brains at every stage and pass the best possible organ on to the next?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wisdom on wisdom peddled by management wisdom books

Drake Bennett's Luck, Inc. : The 7 secrets of really, really lucky companies":

... [A] few consultants and business school professors have begun to argue that much of this [business-success] literature is, in fact, useless. Far from a science, they argue, the success literature is made up of little more than just-so stories in which authors use dramatic anecdotes - often drawn from previously published magazine profiles or interviews with the very executives whose performance is being examined - as evidence for "secrets" that amount to little more than warmed-over homilies. The critics accuse the success gurus of cherry-picking their evidence, of doing little to double-check their results, of circular reasoning, and of making elementary statistical errors.

"These books try to impress you with the massive amounts of data that they gather, but much of the data are not valid," says Phil Rosenzweig, a professor at Switzerland's International Institute for Management Development and author of "The Halo Effect," a 2007 book that set out to debunk much of the business-success literature. "These sorts of data are seen through the lens of the company's success. They don't explain the company's success, they are explained by it." Along with Rosenzweig's, the past few years have seen books by Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford arguing for a more truly evidence-based business-success literature.

2009 Lok Sabha Elections: Know your candidates

The website of the Chief Electoral Officer -- CEO! -- of Karnataka has all kinds of information for the state's voters. For example, I just searched the electoral rolls to make sure that I am indeed registered to vote.

The site also has information about the candidates contesting in the state's 28 constituencies. This information is furnished by the candidates themselves, and the CEO's role is primarily one of putting it in the public domain.

For Bangalore-North, our constituency, you can examine the documents filed by the candidates -- 28 of them!

There are two kinds of documents: a statement regarding criminal convictions (or, ongoing court cases that could lead to imprisonment for more than two years), and a statement of assets belonging to the candidate, his/her spouse and their dependents.

Let me park here the links to the affidavits (pdf) filed by the major party candidates contesting for our votes in Bangalore North:

  1. C.K. Jaffar Sharief (Congress): assets, criminal record

  2. D.B. Chandre Gowda (Bharatiya Janata Party): assets, criminal record

  3. Padmaa K. Bhat (Bahujan Samaj Party): assets, criminal record

  4. R. Surendra Babu (Janata Dal - Secular): assets, criminal record

End of the system of affiliated colleges?

A few days ago, Hemali Chhapia reported in the Times of India that our hub-and-spoke system of universities with affiliated colleges may be nearing its end.

Here's the catch: under the proposed plan -- originally mooted by the National Knowledge Commission -- the colleges will not become independent; they will become affiliated to a 'Board of Undergraduate Education'. Did I just hear you go, "yuck!"? That was my first reaction too! [See below]

[See Damini Purkayastha's story in the Hindustan Times about Delhi University's plans to de-affiliate its colleges. The DU Teachers' Association has opposed this plan. Apparently, quite a few states -- in addition to Delhi, the ToI story mentions Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and the Union Territory of Puducherry -- have fallen for this 'reform'.

I think the current system is awful; but, I also think that the proposed system is far more awful. I have given my initial reactions in a guest post at Blog Bharti. Your comments are welcome; please head over there.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Links ...

  1. In its centenary year, IISc gets an appreciative piece from Ram Guha. IISc fans will like the piece. A lot.

    Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Tata would have been proud of what [IISc] has done since it was established in 1909. So should we.

  2. In its 50th anniversary year, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style gets a harsh review from Geoffrey Pullum, who feels that its advice on style is probably harmless, while its advice on grammar is seriously flawed.

    English grammar] is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.

  3. Finally, a special mystery link for this JEE day.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Prof. K.D. Joshi's analysis of JEE math papers

The analysis by Prof. K.D.Joshi (professor of mathematics at IIT-B) of the mathematics portion of JEE-2008 formed the basis of Manoj Mitta's story on the IITs' policy regarding disclosing the answers to the JEE questions this year. In response to my post linking to that story, Sridhar and Niket point out that Prof. Joshi's analysis is available online -- not just for JEE-2008, but JEE's going back to 2003!

I glanced through his analysis of JEE-2008 (pdf). It's an amazing document: his analysis is methodical, meticulous and clear. His love for the subject is evident in every page of that 85+ page document. Where he has problems with the choice of the paper setters, he expresses his anguish that such a choice brings harm to the subject of mathematics itself.

Here is an example from near the end of the document where he takes up "a very unpleasant task ... of analysing the mistakes" in JEE-2008:

... As remarked in the comments to that question [Q. 21(A) of Paper 2], the mistake arises because the word ‘minimum’ is used instead of the phrase ‘local minimum’. Since most good books emphasise the difference between these two concepts, a good candidate relying on such books will be confused on seeing that none of the answers is correct. So, he may simply leave a blank in the answer. There may be some unscrupulous books or teachers who do not distinguish between a ‘minimum’ and a ‘local minimum’. If the idea was that candidates in remote areas who have to depend exclusively on such shoddy sources should not be penalised, then perhaps the answer given in the model answers can be justified as a charity on social but non-mathematical grounds. But why should such charity be at the cost of a good candidate? ...

The real harm caused by the failure of the model answers to do so is not confined only to the good candidates who answered Q.21(A) correctly. A far greater casualty is mathematics itself, because the model answers amount to giving a sancion to wrong mathematics. Next year the IITs will have no moral right to penalise a candidate who confuses ‘minimum’ with ‘local minimum’.

Yogendra Yadav on Six Myths about Indian Elections

Over at BBC. Here's an extract from the section on the alleged apathy towards politics:

In advanced democracies, as you come down the various tiers - from national to local elections - the turnout of voters goes down.

In India, it is exactly the opposite: the turnout in federal elections tends to be around 60%, in the state elections it is around 70% and when it comes to village council elections it is anything upwards of 80%.

Most important, our democracy defies what was once considered a law of political participation in the world: the higher up you are in the socio-economic hierarchy, the more you participate in politics and voting.

In India, evidence shows that the poor "untouchables" vote more than upper castes. The poor vote as much, if not more, than the urban middle classes. Rural areas vote more than urban areas. Women vote almost as much as men do.

In other words there is no connection between social hierarchy and participation in politics.

Rather than voter apathy and indifference, there has been a participatory upsurge for democracy in India.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Go read this stuff. Some of the comments are funny too.

How fraud-proof is JEE?

This allegation comes from Prof. Rajeev Kumar of IIT-KGP, whose RTI application brought to light the horrendous problems in the 2006 JEE -- both Charu Sudan Kasturi and Manoj Mitta have covered these problems extensively in the Telegraph and The Times of India. Rajeev Kumar has collected enormous amount of information both about the 2006 JEE, and its 2007 and 2008 editions. Check out this blog which is devoted to a discussion of his findings.

Thanks to Rajeev Kumar's RTI activism, JEE-2007 and JEE-2008 have been far more transparent, and this trend is likely to intensify with time.

But the problems in JEE-2006 uncovered by Rajeev Kumar remain unresolved. The Calcutta High Court ruled against the view that IITs should make amends by correcting the JEE rank list -- removing some people and adding others. I would guess (but I'm not sure) that this ruling is being appealed in the Supreme Court.

One of Kumar's allegations is that JEE-2006 was rigged to favour children of (some? certain? influential?) IIT professors -- more specifically, he suspects that the Chemistry answer scripts were tampered with.

Take a look at this post (it's a long post, but you will have to scroll down to Section 3 -- "Eliminate possibilities of tampering ... ) which presents a lot of circumstantial evidence to bolster his case.

The most damning is the one about IIT-KGP's "revelation" that it shredded the JEE-2006 answer scripts in late 2006 -- against its own explicitly stated policy of preserving all exam-related documents for a year. More importantly, this "shredding of evidence" happened while the institution's actions on many aspects of JEE-2006 were being questioned through a legal case.

You should not be surprised that the destruction of JEE-2006 answer scripts was revealed only with the help of the Right To Information Act.

Do read that post and decide for yourself how strong the case really is. I would take his evidence quite seriously because (a) he has been pursuing this case against his own institution -- openly, and through our courts and information commissions -- possibly in the face of opposition from his colleagues, (b) he has been proved correct many times, and (c) IIT-KGP hasn't covered itself with glory through its post-JEE-2006 actions (the shredding of answer scripts is quite revealing).

And I would add that, to my knowledge, he has not been sued by the IITs for disseminating false / defamatory information about them.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

In praise of simple competence

Bob Sutton on the importance of simple competence:

The Peter Principle made us laugh, but it also made us aware of the importance of simple competence —- and of how elusive it could be. When people do their jobs well, Dr. Peter argued, society can't leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals—promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail-— start using a bag of tricks to mask their incompetence. They distract us from their crummy work with giant desks, replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, cheat to create the illusion of progress.

If Dr. Peter were alive today, he'd find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats, or consider yourself a loser.

We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking. [...]

Mistakes in JEE question papers

With this year's JEE just five days away, Manoj Mitta reminds us about the mistakes that crept into the math paper last year. While I did link to the story when it broke, I didn't realize the true magnitude of the errors: five questions worth 18 marks in all.

Given that each mark is worth some 70 ranks (for ranks in the range of 500 - 7500), these errors are horribly costly and unfair.

The high cost of the mistakes were compounded last year by the IITs' policy to not make the answers public immediately after the exam. As a consequence of this policy, they did not eliminate the effects of these mistakes during grading. Clearly, then, the 2008 rank list released by the IITs must have had huge flaws / holes.

Mitta's article alerts us that the IITs have not indicated when they'll make the answers public this year:

Though the Joint Admission Board of JEE 2009 discussed Joshi’s correspondence, as disclosed to TOI by its chairman Gautam Baruah, its information brochure gives no indication whether the model-answer sheet would be made public at least this time, immediately after the exam, so that any mistakes there could be corrected before the damage is done with the announcement of results.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Perspectives on academic science in India

Several different comparisons (unfortunately, all of them are with US universities, for which data are easily available). They all paint the same picture.

  1. Let's start with Giridhar's post:

    ... IISc and IITs are often compared with the top universities of USA. As a country, India published 43 articles in Science for the ten year period of 2000-2009 (this includes several articles which had a foreign collaborator). A single university, MIT, published 291 articles in the same period. The numbers are almost exactly the same for publications in Nature (45 and 295).

  2. Next, from Prof. P. Balaram's editorial in a recent issue of Current Science [BTW, this editorial is almost entirely about the contents "The biological sciences in India: Aiming high for the future" by Ronald Vale and Karen Dell in the Journal of Cell Biology]:

    ... Vale and Dell point to some of these. They note that the total number of faculty in the biological sciences in 20 of India’s key institutions is ‘less than the number of faculty holding NIH grants at the University of California, San Francisco’. The number of postdoctoral fellows in Indian laboratories is very small and they note that the ‘University of California, San Francisco alone has ~1100 postdoctoral fellows’, a number considerably larger than the total number in all the modern biology laboratories in India.

  3. In an analysis of Budget-2007, I estimated that extramural support from the government for scientific research in Indian universities is less than about 450 million US dollars. I compared this figure with some NSF data on US universities: there were 20 US universities that had an R&D spending of 450 million dollars each in 2004-05.

    [Two things to keep in mind:

    (a) The US figures would include salaries for students, post-docs and even faculty. The Indian figure would not.

    (b) The figures for India would have changed quite substantially in the last couple of years; similarly, those for the US would also have changed somewhat since 2005. But the broad picture would still be the same: there are probably a dozen US universities each of whose R&D budget exceeds the academic R&D budget for all of India.]

You know times are *really* tough ...

... when UC-SF medical faculty members are told that

they cannot spend more than $75 in university money on a bottle of wine at a recruitment dinner or other official event.

Like every dark cloud, this one too has a silver lining: "there is no explicit limit placed on how many bottles of wine may be purchased for such occasions."

IIT-Bombay plans legal action against a coaching centre

The Times of India reported sometime ago about a coaching centre ad that displayed an 'appreciative letter' from a dean at IIT-B whose son studied there. The report also added that over 30 IIT-B professors sent their sons and daughters there.

Clearly, the commercial value of this information is immense, and the coaching centre -- Pace, in this case -- chose to exploit it.

Today, ToI reports that IIT-B "would initiate legal proceedings against ... Pace." Here are some excerpts:

"IIT-Bombay wrote a letter to Pace, asking for all mention of IIT-Bombay to be removed from the class's publicity material,'' IIT-B PRO Jaya Joshi said.

However, on Friday, the coaching class once again published a newspaper ad stating that the IIT director, dean as well as 30 IIT professors sent their children to the centre, following which IIT announced legal proceedings against Pace.

Pace MD Praveen Tyagi, however, felt that if the IIT-B dean, director and professors sent their children to Pace, it was something parents ought to know while selecting a coaching class.

IIT-B director Devang Khakhar said, "What is published in the ad is true. But where we send our children for coaching is a personal matter and the IIT is no way connected. We do not endorse any coaching class.''

On the face of it, IIT-B's case appears weak. I haven't seen the ad, so I'm not able to say how exactly IIT-B figures in the ad. If it appears in a headline ["Over 30 IIT-B professors send their kids to our centre," implying some sort of an institutional endorsement], there might be a case [Update: From this DNA report, Pace has done precisely that: "the director of IIT Bombay, deans of IIT and 30 professors of IIT Bombay have entrusted us with the responsibility of coaching their children for IIT-JEE."]. If, on the other hand, it appears only as the place of work of some of the parents, I don't know how the Institute can complain about this factual information.

This is not the first time that we are discussing the ethics of coaching centre ads. The previous episode was about JEE rank holders agreeing to appear in coaching centre ads in return for cash, even though they didn't study in those centres. While it appeared to me that this crossed the ethical line, Vivek asked why this should bother us when our celebrities routinely peddle lots of stuff that they may or may not use [for example, does Hrithik Roshan really ride a Hero Honda bike to work?]

There's a difference between these two episodes, though. This time, Pace has 'facts' on its side.

Does anyone know what the law says? Does IIT-B have a good case?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Two body problem and Indian institutions

In her review of Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, Vijaysree Venkatraman highlights something that doesn't get much attention in discussions of faculty recruitment practices in our institutions.

More than one person from the post-independence era mentions years of separation from their spouses because of an inability to find appropriate work in the same city. This seems particularly true of couples in science. Unfortunately, the unwritten rule, which states that spouses should not be appointed in the same division, is faithfully followed in research institutes in our country, says Dr. D. Balasubramanian, President, Indian Academy of Sciences. The essay on the gifted chemist Darshan Ranganathan who was not offered a faculty position at IIT, Kanpur because her husband was a professor there, makes us livid at a callous system.

In his essay on the late Prof. Darshan Ranganathan (which appeared in Lilavati's Daughters), Prof. S. Ranganathan, her husband, first recounts her immense scientific achievements. Then he adds:

All these achievements assume special significance, particularly for young women aspiring scientists in India, when viewed from the fact that at every turn in her life she felt the impact of male chauvinism that so controls the scientific world. She fended them all with the invincible armour of obsession for scientific research. When she came to Kanpur, where I was a member of the faculty, the unwritten rules that exist even today, did not permit her to be offered a position. Therefore, throughout her long stay in Kanpur, she had to hop from fellowship to fellowship and for some periods none at all! We count on small mercies and both of us were truly grateful to IITK and the chemistry department for permitting her to do research.

I knew from the beginning that she was better than me and was proud to share my funds and students with her so that she could work on her own problems and publish on her own. That was all she wanted, brushed away all other irritations and slowly blossomed into an organic chemist who won international peer recognition, even before she accepted an independent position at RRL, Trivandrum in 1993 and subsequently moved to IICT, Hyderabad in 1998.

Prof. Darshan Ranganathan passed away on her sixtieth birthday in 2001. In his tributes that appeared in Current Science, Prof. D. Balasubramanian (President, the Indian Academy of Sciences) also dwells on this abomination in our system:

I will always harbour the sore point in me that Darshan was not given the credit and the position that she truly deserved early enough. Despite her track record of achievements and ongoing activities, she was never considered for a faculty position, while lesser colleagues rose to become Professors and Vice-Chancellors. There is no written rule that one should not appoint spouses in the same department or division; yet this is implicitly followed in several academic and research institutions in our country. The apprehensions cited are possible conflict of interest, interpersonal transactional difficulties and suchlike. When such practice gives no room for considering the merits of individual cases, it becomes counterproductive. (Of course, those who impose this practice can do nothing when two unmarried colleagues in the same department decide to tie the knot.) I am left with the wistful feeling that Darshan would have flowered more, much earlier, had she been offered a faculty position at IITK.

As is often the case, change is forced by a tough environment. In the recent PanIIT conference, a session was devoted to research in the IITs; in their opening remarks, Prof. Gautam Barua (Director, IIT-Guwahati) and Prof. Sanjay Dhande (Dirctor, IIT-K) acknowledge the kind of advantage enjoyed by the so called "Metro" IITs (you'll have to click on the button named 'abstract' next to Prof. Barua's name):

"Metro" IITs are able to attract more aspirants due to advantages of location, particularly due to greater opportunities for employment of spouses.

But it is still the case that this change is too slow, and the burden of the 'unwritten' rules falls almost exclusively on women scientists.

Coal, iron ore and education

They are, in that order, Australia's top three export earners. You can find more details at the Global Higher Ed blog. I want to highlight here two things. The first is this estimate of the economic benefits of hosting foreign students:

Each international student (including their friend and family visitors) contributes an average of $28,921 in value added to the Australian economy and generates 0.29 in full-time equivalent (FTE) workers. Overall, this sees international students, and the associated visitation from friends and family contribute $12.6 billion in value-added.

The second is this table, with data for 2006 on the number of foreign students studying in different (groups of) countries:

The remarkable feature in this table is this: adjusted for population, Australia (21.7 million) hosts five times as many students as the USA (306.2 million).

This may be the B.E.S.T job

... but it sounds like it's awfully uncomfortable ... [Link via Chugs].

Phrase of the day: tuan yuan

... which, apparently, means "to reunite" in Mandarin. Its usage appears in possibly the most hilarious April Fool story this year:

“Let’s just say Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan would tuan yuan at every chance,” said Liu, referring to the combination of the panda’s names, which means “to reunite” in Mandarin.

There are also a couple of follow-ups. All links via James Fallows.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Links ...

Academic Misconduct / Fraud:

  1. A 2004 article on chronic, serial plagiarizers and how "the system" treated them after their plagiarism was outed [via Crooked Timber]
  2. Inside HigherEd has a report on a JAMA paper that suggests "medical associations completely ban funding from industry, except for income from journal advertising and exhibit hall fees at conferences."
  3. Cheating goes global, as essay mills multiply [via Richard Holmes].

Psychology, Economics, Business:

  1. Jim Holt: Get Smart: a review of Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count.
  2. Steve Ayan in Scientific American: How humor makes you friendlier, sexier.
  3. Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang on The Wild Side: Computers vs. Brains. Also their earlier guest post: Mugged by our genes?
  4. Eide Neurolearning Blog: Brain of a blogger.
  5. Jonah Lehrer interviews Peter A. Ubel, professor of medicine and psychology at the University of Michigan, and author of Free Market Madness: Explaining the fiscal foolishness: Psychology and the Economy.
  6. Yochai Benkler at Edge: End of Universal Rationality.
  7. Paul Krugman: The Market Mystique.
  8. Kelley Holland in NYTimes: Is it time to retrain business schools?
  9. Joel Podolny at Harvard Business Review: How to fix business schools: Are business schools to blame? See also Bob Sutton's commentary on this post.

What good is such a list if there's no mystery link?

Oh, what the hell, here's another!

Memories of another pay commission

Alternate title: The citation super-classic you never heard about

It was 10 years ago that the Fifth Pay Commission's recommendations hit us, the faculty members at IISc and the IITs. Just like the Goverdhan Mehta Committee this time, it was the U.R. Rao Committee that went into the details of how the FPC recommendations would be implemented at these institutions. And just like the Mehta Committee recommendations this time, the Rao Committee recommendations too caused some serious tremors.

The main difference between the Mehta and Rao Committees appears to be in who gets affected by the tremors: in 2009, it's the senior faculty, while in 1999, it was the assistant professors.

My memories of the exact nature of those problems are quite hazy, but I remember vividly the kind of heartburn it caused among us -- the assistant professors at that time. These problems were a hot topic of discussion online forums.

The junior faculty who populated such a forum at IISc called themselves -- er, ourselves -- Birbals. I reproduce below (after a few editorial touches) the contents of a "news report" that I sent to this forum at that time.

[If you are wondering why it deserves to be on this blog, I can only point to what Joel Achenbach said not too long ago: "[My] blog originated ... as a catch basin for mental detritus, for the kind of stuff not good enough for print, but too good to waste on casual conversation or, worse, mere thinking."]

You have been warned. Proceed at your own risk.

Here, then, is the mail I sent to the Birbals on 13 March 1999:

* * *

Date: Sat, 13 Mar 1999 13:41:12 ...
From: T.A. Abinandanan [...]
To: Birbal [...]
Subject: Some useless stuff; press that "D" button now!

Warning :

The following is a long and pointless article which offers absolutely NOTHING (not even mulligatawny soup) to the wounded souls of Assistant Professors. This is the time to press the "D" button!


Usual disclaimers (not intending to offend anyone, etc) apply. ...


reprinted without permission from

Thiruvidaimarudhoor Aaravamudhan Ananthapadmanabhan

Bangalore, March 13, 1999: U.R. Rao, an Indian author, has the rare distinction of having authored the world's only "citation super classic" (i.e., an article/report with more than a million citations).

This conclusion emerged from a recent study conducted by Prof. Robert (Bob) Woodward, Professor of Unconventional Citology at the University of Maryland, alleged to be the best university in Milky Way1. His study is an in-depth analysis of citations in both conventional spaces (journal articles), and unconventional, modern and post-modern spaces (newspapers, television and the internet). The results of this study were announced here yesterday.

Ken Starr2, long considered as the only potential contender for scaling this "Citation Everest", has managed only 300,000 citations so far. In this intensely competitive scenario, U.R. Rao has proved to be the dark horse. While he managed less than 40,000 references till a week ago, he surged past Starr and others in just one week to reach this pinnacle.

Observers opine that an underground group in IISc has been responsible for this sudden surge in the number of references to U.R. Rao.

Prof. Woodward's study analyzed the Internet traffic over the last two years, and he says he has never seen anything like what he saw in the last week. "Till about a week ago, U.R. Rao was not even on our radar screen", he said, adding that his surge past Starr was truly phenomenal. "Keeping in mind that no one seems to have seen the Rao Report, this intense citation activity in the last week is all the more impressive", he said. As far as he can recall, this is the only unpublished work to ever become a citation classic. "That it became a super-classic is absolutely mind-boggling", he observed.

Prof. Woodward's study also shows that while there were many un-encrypted messages with references to U.R.Rao two years ago, most of the recent citations are in encrypted messages. When asked if this trend reversal could possibly be because recent messages about the Rao Report may be using unsavoury/harsh/pained language, Prof. Woodward said, "No comments". [...]

J.J. Moshi, the Minister for Human Resource Destruction, congratulated U.R. Rao on this rare achievement. When the role of an IISc mailing list was pointed out to him, he thanked its members for their wonderful service to the cause of Indian Science. He also offered an advice to its moderator to re-name it to Chanakya or Tenali Ram.

From our special correspondents from Chennai and Guwahati :

T. Ram, an expert in Citology in Frontline University, has alleged that U.R. Rao never wrote this report. In a press conference at Chennai, he said, "In fact, the Rao Report was never written. While a large number of people believe that the Starr Report, its only competitor, contains a lot of fiction, the Rao Report's existence itself is a fiction". The Rao Report has been cited by many, but sighted by none, he quipped.

In a press meet at Varanasi, Arputharaj Yamaguchi, Professor of Eastern Religions at Guwahati University, had this to say : "U.R. Rao is the author of the world's only super-classic report which was never written. This is a matter of deep appreciation for practitioners of Zen".

* * *

Okay, there were certain time-specific references in there. Here's a quick explanation of a couple of them.

  1. Around 1998-99, there was a "study" that purported to rank the world's universities based on certain "objective" criteria. It was given wide publicity in Indian media because it had IISc at No. 17. It also ranked the University of Maryland at No. 1.
  2. You do remember the Starr report, don't you? If not, this might help.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Joel Spolsky: "Why I never let employees negotiate a raise"

Since we have been talking about salaries (Mehta Committee report, post-doc salaries, etc), perhaps I should link to Joel Spolsky's column in which he describes a fairly objective way of deciding the 'level' of an employee in his organization; everyone at the same level earns the same salary.

Seems pretty radical for a private sector company. But Joel says it's working great.

IITs ask for a hike in salaries ...

... of post-docs! Let's take a look at the news story before I get to say why I'm disappointed:

The IIT post-doctoral research fellowships at present offer a monthly stipend of Rs 15,000 — this amount was fixed in 2006.

IIT Delhi has proposed raising the fellowship amount to Rs 35,000 per month in the first year of research, and an annual increase capped at Rs 40,000 — irrespective of the length of the research.

Apart from the monthly stipend, fellows can avail of house rent allowance of Rs 10,000 per month at present.

The hike proposal suggests that the HRA start in the first year at Rs 10,000, but be increased up to Rs 15,000 subsequently.

I have nothing against post-docs getting a better salary. But, if this is all there's to it, I'm disappointed.

Let's face it: are the post-docs the most important "limiting factor" in the IITs' quest for research visibility? Particularly when post-doc offers -- going strictly by this report -- are so small in number? At 25 every year in each IIT (and assuming a three-year tenure for each post-doc), aren't we talking about one post-doc for, like, 5 faculty members?

Instead, IITs -- and other institutions -- should really concentrate on the quality and number of their grad students ; they are the real 'limiting factor' that slows down their march towards enhanced research footprint. Shouldn't they be doing something to attract brighter grad students in greater numbers?

A Pink Chaddi-like campaign to hit Vatican

From Samhita's post at Feministing:

... folks in Italy are not taking well to the Pope's allegation that condoms have led to an increase of AIDS in Africa. In response they have organized to send the Pope condoms [...].

Barack, the Barbarian?

The story of Obama, the superhero, takes many forms. Including satire.

In the distant future the story of Barack Obama has become a little... distorted. According to THE MADDOWIAN CHRONICLES he was the one destined to save the great republic of America and dethrone the overpaid despots of the time. Join Barack, Sorceress Hilaria, her demi-god trickster husband Biil, Overlord Boosh and Chainknee of the Elephant Kingdom. Who can the lone barbarian trust, if anyone?

One of the best comments on the Varun Gandhi outburst

If Varun Gandhi had said that he would slaughter a chicken instead of Muslims, his mother would have put him behind bars herself, pronto!

Interesting sense of priority we have in this country...

Found at Calcutta Chromosomes.