Thursday, December 30, 2010

Golden Oldies

From Onion:

  1. From September 2007: Scientists Ask Congress To Fund $50 Billion Science Thing.

  2. From October 2004: American Robot's Job Outsourced To Overseas Robot.

  3. From March 2010: Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology. Example: "Whether you're Michael Paulson who lives at 3425 Longview Terrace and makes $86,400 a year, or Jessica Goldblatt from Lynnwood, WA, who already has well-established trust issues, we at Google would just like to say how very, truly sorry we are."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Economist on Doctoral Degrees: "... Often a Waste of Time"

A must-read reality check for aspiring grad students.

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

[...] There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

There's definitely more than a hint of Ponzi-ness in academia. A PhD is meant primarily for academic jobs in fields such as humanities (and theoretical physics too) where the situation is absolutely grim. What makes this grim reality somewhat tolerable in some fields (such as economics, engineering, chemistry and biomedical sciences) is the availability of career options in industry.

The message is clear: do it primarily for the love of it. And definitely not for a career boost for which (as the Economist article points out) a masters is a more "efficient" choice.

A second message to those of us who've been there, done that, and also managed to find fulfilling academic careers: "You've been enormously lucky!"

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gender gap in academic promotion: Evidence from Spain

Manuel F. Bagues and Natalia Zinovyeva at VoxEU: Does gender matter for academic promotion? Evidence from a randomised natural experiment. Here's the abstract:

Several countries have recently introduced gender quotas in hiring and promotion committees at universities. Evidence from promotions in the Spanish university system suggests that quotas are only effective at increasing the number of successful female applicants in promotions to top positions. This column argues that, given that sitting on committees reduces the available time for research, gender quotas should be implemented only for more senior academic positions.

Visiting IIT-Kanpur

I'll be at IIT-Kanpur again this week after 17+ years. This time, it's for this event (my talk is in Tuesday's program) organized by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering as part of IIT-K's Golden Jubilee.

I'll be traveling again after I return from Kanpur on Wednesday, so blogging is going to be iffy for the rest of the month.

But right now, I'm excited about the IIT-K visit ...

A job application to NDTV

Here's how the application to the CEO of NDTV begins [via Churumuri who has also posted the entire letter]:

Respected Dr. Roy,

I am writing to apply for the post of Group Editor, English News, NDTV.

I am a journalist with 26 years experience. Throughout my career I have made innocent mistakes. I have been silly, I have been gullible and I have been prone to making errors of judgement. Frequently, when I am “desperate for khabar” I also fib to sources. I string them along so much that I have often tied myself up in knots.

In short, I’m just the right guy to lead the nation’s most reputed English news channel.

The candidate offers several episodes from his career to support his application. Here's one:

1.When I was just a few months into the profession, Akali Dal leader Sant Longowal was assassinated. His assassination followed Indira Gandhi’s who was killed just a few months earlier. I had just subbed the copy when my chief sub asked me “what’s the headline?” “Longowal calls on Indira Gandhi,” I read out loud and proud. [...]

Friday, December 17, 2010


  1. Razib Khan at Gene Expression: Verbal and Mathematical Aptitudes in Academics. A set of neat figures that show the average Quant and Verbal GRE scores of students (who intend to do grad studies) in different disciplines. Biggest surprise: Zero correlation between Quant and Verbal scores! [Link via Fabio Rojas at].

  2. Patrick McGeehan in NYTimes on New York city's plans to invite "universities around the world to create an engineering campus on city-owned land."

  3. Sokal hoax experiment repeated successfully. This time around, the victim is a field called "integrative medicine." Here's a taste of what the victims fell for:

    Intensive study of the development of early human embryos indicates that there is a reflexology style homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. This homunculus corresponds to areas of clonal expansion ... in which compartments of the body have clear ontological relationships with corresponding areas of the posterior flanks. [...] As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping. [...]

  4. A video demo of an interesting way -- attributed to the Japanese -- to multiply two numbers.

  5. Onion educates the American public about the first Sikh prime minister of India ...

  6. Did you hear about the latest leak at Wikileaks?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gender imbalance in "strategic" research

This story is from Sweden:

Sweden's investment in research deemed to be of strategic 'excellence' has favoured male researchers over female researchers by a ratio of nearly 9:1 over the past decade, according to a government report released on Tuesday. The authors say a "catastrophic bias" has kept women out of research and has contributed to an attitude that "only men are capable of delivering top-class research results". [...]

Women normally receive between 25% to 30% of mainstream allocations by the research councils, but the 'excellence' allocations reflect a gender balance of more than 20 years ago ...

Affirmative Action at Oxbridge

Three things that I came across on my Google Reader stream in the last week or so:

  1. Let me start with this NYTimes story:

    David Lammy, a former higher education minister and Labour member of Parliament, has used figures obtained under Britain’s Freedom of Information Law to reveal a dearth of black and other minority students at either of the country’s two oldest universities.

    According to Mr. Lammy, last year the whole of Oxford University admitted just one black student, and Cambridge University does not have a single black faculty member.

  2. The Guardian carried a debate on its pages: Should Oxbridge discriminate to boost the numbers of black students? You'll find an echo of the debate that raged in India in 2006 when the Union government chose to implement a 27 % quota for OBC rstudents in federally funded institutions (including the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS).

  3. Richard Kahlenberg at Innovations: Oxford’s Research-Based Affirmative Action

    A large-scale British study, released last week, gives new empirical support for the drive to provide affirmative action to “strivers,” less advantaged students who, despite obstacles, perform fairly well academically. The research finds that students who attended regular “comprehensive” (public) secondary schools did better in college than those who scored at the same level on standardized admissions exams and attended “independent” (private) or “grammar” (selective public) schools.

    Pointing to the study last week, Oxford University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Mike Nicholson, created waves when he declared that students who do well at poor performing secondary schools “may have more potential” than those from more-advantaged schools, and that universities should consider the context in which students compile an academic record. [...]

* * *

Addendum: See also:

Patrick Gaulé: Do highly skilled migrants return permanently to their home countries?

Gaulé has a neat article in VoxEU summarizing his recent research on the migration patterns -- actually, non-migration patterns! -- of foreign faculty members in chemistry departments in US universities between 1993 and 2010:

The incidence of return migration in my sample is low. Among foreign faculty who had their first US faculty appointment after 1993, 4.5% have returned to their home country by 2010. Using out-of-sample predictions, I estimate that a further 4.3% will return to their home country before the age of 65, assuming no change in trend in future years.

Distinguishing by source country, the incidence of return migration is relatively high for Australia, Canada, and European countries but very low for China and India. In fact, I observe only one return to India and three to China, despite the fact the Chinese and Indians are the largest groups in my sample. [Bold emphasis added]

And then, there's this:

... I find that that the most productive scientists are less likely to return.

Lady Liberty -- a supermodel?

Looks like that's how the folks at New Republic imagined her (or, wished her to be) when they decided to run her through the US airport scanners for their cover story. [Hat tip to Jason Kottke].

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Awesome things about l'affaire Radia

  • The first, of course, is Niira Radia's clout. The woman is amazing: she has mastered the entire desi system, pretty much all the institutions in it, to swing the game in favour of her clients. And imagine: she did not even grow up in India -- she moved to India only in 1995!

    [But how did she manage to get into the cross wires of Income Tax sleuths?]

  • The clarity of the telephone calls. Listen to this one with N.K. Singh -- and watch for the traffic noise. I mean, the sound quality beats A.R. Rahman's background score in Enthiran!

    [On the other hand, the line does get cut -- just like it does for the rest of us. Two cheers for 2G equality!]

  • But the most awesomest of them all is the Indian government's crisp efficiency -- in getting the required permissions to tap Radia's phone. In implementing the tap. And, most importantly, in keeping the damned tapes from prying eyes of the press for so many months! Who could have thunk that our government could pull it off?

    [It appears to have dropped the ball in the timing of the release, though.]

Some links on the Wikileaks saga

  1. Tom Slee at Whimsley: WikiLeaks Shines a Light on the Limits of Techno-Politics.

  2. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber: State Power and the Response to Wikileaks.

  3. Clay Shirky: Wikileaks and the Long Haul.

  4. Julian Sanchez at Cato: Wikileaks and “Economies of Repression.”

  5. Editorial in The Guardian: WikiLeaks: The man who kicked the hornet's nest.

You know which is the most awesome commentary so far? It is Pravda carrying an opinion piece with stuff like this: [Thanks to Prof. S. Arunachalam for the e-mail alert].

And damn the right-wing outrage over the Wikileaks revelations. It is the American people who should be outraged that its government has transformed a nation with a reputation for freedom, justice, tolerance and respect for human rights into a backwater that revels in its criminality, cover-ups, injustices and hypocrisies.

So savor the Wikileaks documents while you can, because soon they'll be gone. And for the government criminals of the world, and for those who protect them, it will again be business as usual.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

India -- A 21st Century Economic Superpower?

Lalithamma from Thamballapalle Mandal in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh gave a vivid picture of the absence of toilets and the impact on girls. Her organisation conducted a survey of 80 schools in the mandal. They found that 52 schools had no drinking water facilities and 57 schools had no toilets. Five schools had toilets but without doors or water. Girls were forced to use the open space behind the school. But as boys also accessed the same area, the girls could not go.

Lalithamma said girls sipped water through the day to avoid going to the toilet. Her data from just five schools makes horrific reading:

  • Thamballapalle High School: 172 girls, two toilets, no water.

  • Kannemadugu High School: 58 girls, two toilets, no water.

  • Renumakulapalle High School: 40 girls, one toilet, no water.

  • Gopidinne High School: 60 girls, two toilets, both not working.

  • Kosuvaripalle High School: 53 girls, one toilet, no water.

More such grim stuff in Kalpana Sharma's column in The Hindu.

The smoking gun on Vir Sanghvi

Listen. You can almost hear the gunshot going off at the end.

It's out today as a part of 800 new tapes to be outed by Outlook.

Ed Yong on Journalistic Ethics

This is one of the posts I linked to in my previous post on the arsenicated bacteria fiasco. It deserves another link for what Ed Yong says at the end:

For my part, I wanted to think about my own handling of the story, especially because I’ve been criticised on Twitter for dropping the ball on it. I don’t actually disagree. [...]

... I tried to quell the hype around the study as best I could. I had the paper and I think that what I wrote was a fair representation of it. But, of course, that’s not necessarily enough. I’ve argued before that journalists should not be merely messengers – we should make the best possible efforts to cut through what’s being said in an attempt to uncover what’s actually true. Arguably, that didn’t happen although to clarify, I am not saying that the paper is rubbish or untrue. [...]

... On Twitter, my response was that we should expect people to make reasonable efforts to uncover truth and be skeptical, while appreciating that people can and will make mistakes.

So for me, it comes down to this: did I do enough? I was certainly cautious. I said that “there is room for doubt” and I brought up the fact that the arsenic-loving bacteria still contain measurable levels of phosphorus. But I didn’t run the paper past other sources for comment, which I typically do ... for stories that contain extraordinary claims. There was certainly plenty of time to do so here and while there were various reasons that I didn’t, the bottom line is that I could have done more. That doesn’t always help, of course, but it was an important missed step. A lesson for next time.

... I do believe that it you’re going to try to hold your profession to a higher standard, you have to be honest and open when you’ve made mistakes yourself. I also think that if you cover a story that turns out to be a bit dodgy, you have a certain responsibility in covering the follow-up. Hence, this post. [All the links, except one, have been stripped in the excerpt].

Anatomy of a Science PR Fiasco

The fiasco is what happened after NASA tried to hype a recent paper on bacteria that thrive on arsenic. The anatomy is the result of two excellent dissections. The first one is by Martin Robbins in The Guardian:

... [T]he science itself is the least interesting part of the affair. What's much more interesting is that the drama has given us an opportunity to see how a collection of related problems in different areas of science outreach can combine to seriously damage the credibility of a highly-respected scientific institution, and by extension science itself.

The affair .. is [essentially] ... a story of everything that's wrong about the relationship between science, peer review, the world of publishing, and the mainstream and independent branches of the media in 2010.

The second one is from Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

It was the big news that wasn’t. Hyperbolic claims about the possible discovery of alien life, or a second branch of life on Earth, turned out to be nothing more than bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, using it in place of phosphorus in their DNA and other molecules. But after the initial layers of hype were peeled away, even this extraordinary claim started falling under suspicious glances.

... This is a chronological roundup of the criticism against the science in the paper itself, ending with some personal reflections on my own handling of the story.

A Guide to Drinking

This one is meant for dummies professors. Here's Jacques Berlinerblau on drinking with your departmental colleagues:

Don’t underestimate how unpleasant drinking with your departmental colleagues can be: Decades back a colleague became frightfully wasted at a loud, raucous affair held at the chair’s demesne and passed out in the bathtub. Our fallen comrade was a bit of an oddball—a journeyman Chaucerist who many suspected had been involved with paramilitary organizations in South America.* Two immediate problems presented themselves. The first was that none of us left standing liked the fellow enough to want to take him home. The second was that the chair didn’t like him much either. What emerged as people were reacquainting themselves with their coats and heading out the door was something we all knew well: the tensile, subtextually ridden play of power that embodied every sober moment in our dysfunctional department. After all, wasn’t the task best suited for the associate professor with the student evaluations hovering in the negatives? Or maybe, the new guy we just hired? In other words, our “party” mode began to replicate our non-party mode. Drinking with colleagues at your own institution, I wish to say, is fraught with peril.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Dutt's Defence Derailed

In her botched debate with a panel of editors [Harini has the video], it was interesting to watch Barkha Dutt deploy lying ("fibbing" and "stringing Radia along" are the phrases of choice) as a legitimate defence of her role in the Radia-media controversy. It should make us wonder if she wasn't trying to string us along ...

* * *

A few links on Radia-tainted media:

  • Paul Beckett at India Real Time: Oh, Vir, What Can The Matter Be?. A good primer on what Vir Sanghvi said, and (at least) two ways of interpreting what he said. Tripti Lahiri follows up with a similar effort on Barkha Dutt's conversation with Radia.

  • Hartosh Singh Bal in Open has a great article that distills those bits in the Radia tapes that are particularly damaging to Dutt and Sanghvi: "... [T]here is reason to go beyond the voice of public opinion and reflect on what the Radia transcripts, which neither Barkha Dutt nor Vir Sanghvi has denied, actually say about the journalism they practise."

  • Outlook editor Vinod Mehta: "...I have been mocking the pomposity and pretensions of editors who not only think they are infallible but believe they set the national agenda. It is a pathetic fantasy. All we journalists have are the best seats in the tournament: we are privileged spectators, not players."

* * *

Dutt didn't have a convincing answer to Open editor Manu Joseph's pointed question about why she did not find Radia's overtures worth reporting. Here's Joseph:

It is not surprising that both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi have responded to the Open story by claiming that their conversations were part of a ‘journalistic process’. But then journalistic process must result in journalism —- if not immediately, at some point. Dutt is speaking to a corporate PR person who very obviously wants A Raja as Telecom Minister. And in their conversations, Dutt is clearly promising to use her access to pass on information to the Congress and give them greater clarity on what was happening inside the DMK. Why this is not journalistic process is clearly explained in our Political Editor Hartosh Singh Bal’s piece, ‘This is not journalism as we know it’. As he points out, we have a situation where a corporate PR person, representing two companies with interests in telecom, is mediating between the Congress and its ally when a battle is on for the telecom portfolio. This is the kind of story any journalist would love to report. How could Dutt miss that? Dutt’s situation reminds me of a magic realism novel that a friend had written, in which a lowly journalist is in search of a great story. Every day, when he comes home defeated, he speaks to his talking lizard. I find this novel absurd because any journalist would know that a talking lizard is the greatest story ever in the history of journalism. [Bold emphasis added]

And she went reckless on the offence with Joseph -- given how explosive the contents of the Radia tapes have proved to be, it was silly to question Joseph's judgment in outing the tapes [Joseph's answer is here.] Moreover, wasn't this show about defending her journalistic record in the light of Radia-active disclosures? Wasn't it about redeeming her reputation? What was she trying to accomplish by accusing others, questioning their motives, and seeking to 'broaden the debate'?

Worse, Dutt tried to enlist the help of the other panelists in condemning Joseph's actions (in the name of 'broadening' the debate) -- which led an exasperated Sanjaya Baru to remind her that he was invited by NDTV to specifically discuss Dutt's journalism, and that broadening the debate was for some other time. I'm very impressed by his patience -- he stopped short of saying, "Cut the crap, will you?"

All in all, Dutt ended up with even less credibility than she started with.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Manu Joseph defends the outing of the "Radia-active" tapes


... [I have been asked] whether it was good journalistic practice to carry ‘raw material’ like telephone transcripts. The answer is yes.

... I believe that there are times when journalism need not be a process of telling the whole truth; instead it can become a way of finding extraordinary devices to tell a fragment of the truth. It is indisputable that the people of India came to know of some startling facts because of the publication of the transcripts. It was a story that people like Dutt did not tell their viewers and readers, and would have never told. But as they are forced to clarify themselves to clear their own names, information gathers more mass, more truths emerge. Yes, it is good journalism.

The inspiration for this post's title is from this delicious ad for Amul: "Radia-active Disclosures -- Amul in leak-proof packs" [via Nikhil's Buzz].

Azim Premji Foundation Receives a Huge Gift ...

... from Azim Premji, the chairman of IT outsourcing giant Wipro. The gift is in the form of a transfer of 8.7% stake in Wipro, currently worth over Rs. 8,800 crores.

That's nearly two billion US dollars!

The most visible activity of the Foundation so far has been the setting up of Azim Premji University:

Two key focus areas of the University are to:

  • Prepare a large number of committed education and development professionals who can significantly contribute to meeting the needs of the country.

  • Build new knowledge in the areas of education and development through establishing strong links between theory and practice.

All in all, this is a big day in Indian philanthropy.


  1. Featured Link: Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science -- 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics. An excellent discussion of a recent study on a surprisingly simple way to neutralize stereotype threat in college.

    Science popularization at its best!

  2. EurekAlert!: Are good-looking people more employable?: "Findings vary depending on whether it's a male or female applicant and who's doing the screening."

  3. Emily Badger in Miller-McCune: Hey TSA, Racial Profiling Doesn’t Work: "Looking at the math behind profiling meant to nab terrorists, computer scientist William Press realized it may be less effective than purely random sampling."

Bonus link from Faking News: Number portability in education mooted; retain your marks, change institute

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Annals of Extreme Parenting

Sports Training for Babies:

Ms. Bolhuis turned her exercises into a company, Gymtrix, that offers a library of videos starting with training for babies as young as 6 months. There is no lying in the crib playing with toes.

Infant athletes, accompanied by doting parents on the videos, do a lot of jumping, kicking and, in one exercise, something that looks like baseball batting practice.

I wonder if this fad will face the same fate as that of Baby Einstein ...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This just in: "Narcissism No Longer a Psychiatric Disorder"

Here's Tara Parker-Pope in NYTimes:

Narcissistic personality disorder, characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and the need for constant attention, has been eliminated from the upcoming manual of mental disorders, which psychiatrists use to diagnose mental illness.

As Charles Zanor reports in today’s Science Times, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — due out in 2013 and known as D.S.M.-5 — has eliminated five of the 10 personality disorders that are listed in the current edition. The best known of these is narcissistic personality disorder. [Link added by me]

Charles Zanor's story, which Parker-Pope refers to, has a great headline: A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored. This story will resonate with you even more if you think about your least favorite narcissist in your circle; here's an excerpt:

The second requirement for N.P.D. [narcissistic personality disorder]: since the narcissist is so convinced of his high station (most are men), he automatically expects that others will recognize his superior qualities and will tell him so. This is often referred to as “mirroring.” It’s not enough that he knows he’s great. Others must confirm it as well, and they must do so in the spirit of “vote early, and vote often.”

Finally, the narcissist, who longs for the approval and admiration of others, is often clueless about how things look from someone else’s perspective. Narcissists are very sensitive to being overlooked or slighted in the smallest fashion, but they often fail to recognize when they are doing it to others.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Awesome Lightness in Links

  1. Science is Bueauty features a picture on The Course of Science. Note especially a lone infinite loop on the left called "Management Directives"!

  2. Via Science is Beauty [have I mentioned it's absolutely awesome?]: An excellent set of pictures of Magnet Designs.

  3. Making Light features an awesome Amazon review of ridiculously expensive speaker wires -- yes, Speaker Wires!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Links ...

  1. Gretchen Vogel in Science Insider: Germany's High Court Preserves Restrictions on GM crops.

  2. David Sosa in Opinionator: The Spoils of Happiness: "Happiness isn’t just up to you. It also requires the cooperation of the world beyond you. "

  3. Thomas Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education: On Gratitude in Academe

  4. Richard Larivier in WSJ: Saving Public Universities, Starting With My Own .

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This sounds so familiar ...

America's Great Scientists Rapidly Decreasing. Sounds familiar? This was the headline of a NYTimes Magazine story from 1910!

[By the way, check out the Sunday Magazine blog featuring "the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine from 100 years ago."]

Bonus Link: Maïa de La Baume in NYTimes: French Professors Find Life in U.S. Hard to Resist.

"The acceleration of French scientific emigration to the United States is recent and worrisome,” said the report, called “Gone for good? The expatriates of French higher education in the United States.”

Of the 2,745 French citizens who obtained a doctorate in the United States from 1985 to 2008, 70 percent settled there, the study found.

This just in: Harvard loses a tenured professor to Google

Actually, the news is over a week old. I don't really have a broader point to make about the two links below -- I mean, it's not all that difficult to imagine someone leaving a good, happy situation to a better and happier, situation. Still, the following two posts are worth reading for the way two smart people have articulated their thoughts about the kinds of things that contribute to their big decisions about changing (or, not changing) their career paths.

First, Matt Welsh on why he's leaving his tenured professorship at Harvard to join Google:

... The question for me is simply which side of the innovation pipeline I want to work on. Academics have a lot of freedom, but this comes at the cost of high overhead and a longer path from idea to application. I really admire the academics who have had major impact outside of the ivory tower, like David Patterson at Berkeley. I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting, writing books, giving talks, mentoring students, sitting on government advisory boards, all that. I never found most of those things very satisfying, and all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing.

Welsh has posted a response from Michael Mitzenmacher, Area Dean for Computer Science at Harvard, on "Why I'm Staying at Harvard":

I suppose the question that's left is why I'm staying at Harvard -- that is, why I still like being a professor. (And thank you to those of you who think the obvious answer is, "Who else would hire you?") I enjoy the freedom of working on whatever I find interesting; being unrestricted in who I choose to talk to about research problems and ideas; having the opportunity to work with a whole variety of interesting and smart people, from undergraduates to graduate students to CS colleagues all over the globe to math and biology professors a few buildings down; the ample opportunity to do consulting work that both pays well and challenges me in different ways; the schedule that lets me walk my kids to school most every day and be home for dinner most every night; and the security that, as long as I keep enjoying it, I can keep doing this job for the next 30+ years.

Mitzenmacher balances the good bits with the not-so-good bits (which those wishing to become faculty members ought to keep in mind):

Of course I don't like everything about the job. Getting funding is a painful exercise, having papers rejected is frustrating and unpleasant, and not every student is a wondrous joy to work with. I sometimes struggle to put work away and enjoy the rest of my life -- not because of external pressure (especially post-tenure), but because lots of my work is engaging and fun. Of course that's the point -- there's good and bad in all of it, and people's preferences are, naturally, vastly different. I don't think anyone should read too much into Matt's going to Google about the global state of Computer Science, or Professordom, or Harvard, or Google. One guy found a job he likes better than the one he had. It happens all the time, even in academia. It's happened before and will happen again.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Links ...

  1. Female Science Professor answers a reader's question about on how to deal with "professors emeriti who are well-meaning but who have not found productive ways to spend their days without distracting the more-busy and without wreaking minor havoc on various parts of the department infrastructure."

  2. Celia Dugger in NYTimes: Campus That Apartheid Ruled Faces a Policy Rift -- the rift refers to the raging debate on the legitimacy of the use of affirmative action at the University of Cape Town.

    Affirmative action’s champion on campus is Max Price, the vice chancellor, who was himself detained as an anti-apartheid student activist in the mid-1970s. Dr. Price, who grew up as a child of white privilege, contends that preferences based on apartheid’s racial classifications provide a means to help those harmed by that system to gain critical educational opportunities.

    The university has an openly stated policy of admitting blacks who have substantially lower test scores than whites, but whites still outnumber blacks almost two to one — 45 percent versus 25 percent — among the 20,500 South African students at the university. In South Africa, 79 percent of the population is black and only 9 percent is white.

WTF of the Day: DST Seeks Your Ideas for Better Skin Whitener!

In partnership with Procter and Gamble, the Department of Science and Technology launched a brand new crowdsourcing initiative: DST - P&G Challenge of the Month -- a contest in which people suggest solutions to a specific technical challenge, with cash awards going to the "most suited solution."

This initiative was launched just this month. Here's the first "Challenge of the Month":

Innovative Whitening Technologies superior to Hydroquinone

Current best topical chemical active technology for skin whitening is hydroquinone. However, it induces skin irritation and sometimes hypo-pigmentation, thus not practical for cosmetics/quasi-drug usage. It is also banned (or may be banned) to use for cosmetics in several countries.

Challenge yourself to look for Innovative whitening technology or approach that could reduce facial hyperpigmented spot and lighten skin tone equivalent or better than hydroquinone.

The symbolism and the irony are just killing me ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

SRM University and Its Curious Relationship with the UPA Government

An update appears at the end of this post.

* * *

On the one hand, the UPA government's HRD Ministry is fighting hard in the Supreme Court to establish the legitimacy and authority of its 2009 review of deemed universities [1]. Among other things, this review placed the SRM (Deemed) University in the "deficient" category -- a category that includes institutions,

... which on an aggregate we find to be deficient in some aspects which need to be rectified over a three year period for them to ... [continue] as "deemed universities" [Source (18MB, PDF), Pages 21-26]

On the other hand, the government's own law minister graces the occasion, and delivers an address at SRM University's convocation this year.

And the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister receives an honorary doctorate from that "deficient" university at the same ceremony.


What are we going to get next -- the commerce minister at the IIPM convocation giving away MBA degrees [issued by IMI, Europe]?

* * *

Update: Wow! Note the contrast [Hat tip to Dr. Katte]:

The varsity [Bharati Vidyapeeth, a deemed university in Pune, Maharashtra] was found deficient in standards by a human resource development ministry panel last year. “Bharati Vidyapeeth has been found lacking in standards by the P.N. Tandon committee. I want to keep a distance from such a controversial conference,” a vice-chancellor of a central university said.

The conference he/she is referring to is actually a conference of vice-chancellors of Indian universities, supported by very generous funding from the UGC itself.

* * *

[1]: See, for example, this, this, and this.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Grad School Advice: The Beginning and The End

  1. Female Science Professor on what is appropriate in a prospective grad student's first letter asking "if I will be taking on new students in the next academic year." Her article is filled with very good advice; I want to excerpt here a particularly perceptive part:

    Of course, the questions that students really want answered aren't appropriate to ask, at least not to me directly: Am I a mean adviser or a nice adviser? Do I expect my students to work nights and weekends? Am I a control freak, or do I have a sink-or-swim advising philosophy? Will I scream at them if they don't run a spell checker before handing me a document, or will I merely sigh?

    To find out that kind of information, you will have to write to my current and recent graduate students—something I encourage potential applicants to do.

  2. McSweeny's has a fantastic FAQ on The "Snake Fight" Portion Of Your Thesis Defense. [Warning: It's from McSweeny's!]

    Q: Why do I have to do this?
    A: Snake fighting is one of the great traditions of higher education. It may seem somewhat antiquated and silly, like the robes we wear at graduation, but fighting a snake is an important part of the history and culture of every reputable university. Almost everyone with an advanced degree has gone through this process. Notable figures such as John Foster Dulles, Philip Roth, and Doris Kearns Goodwin (to name but a few) have all had to defeat at least one snake in single combat.

    Q: This whole snake thing is just a metaphor, right?
    A: I assure you, the snakes are very real.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Orchestral Version of 4' 33'' by John Cage

Watch [Hat tip: Jason Kottke]:

BTW, that YouTube page has quite a few links to "performances" of 4' 33".

Here's a previous post on Cage ;-)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why are Private Universities Seeking So Much of Public Land -- And Getting It?

Let me lead off with an excerpt from Amy Kazmin's report in FT on the latest legal trouble that could be fatal for Vedanta University:

Anil Agarwal, the Indian billionaire who controls Vedanta, the UK-listed mining group, has suffered a setback to his philanthropic ambitions, hard on the heels of legal problems this year involving some of the group’s Indian operations.

Mr Agarwal’s plans to build a $3.3bn (£2.1bn) university in a coastal area of impoverished Orissa, starting with a $1bn endowment from his personal fortune, have fallen foul of the law – and a powerful Hindu deity, Lord Jagannath.

The Orissa High Court has ruled that the Orissa government’s acquisition of about 6,500 acres of land – including 500 acres from Puri’s famous Jagannath temple – and the land’s subsequent transfer to Mr Agarwal’s eponymous foundation to build Vedanta University was illegal.

The court has ordered that the land be returned to its original owners. The judgment – in response to a clutch of public interest lawsuits challenging the land acquisition – will bring a formal end to the long-stalled plans for the university, which Vedanta had already concluded was unlikely to ever get off the ground in Orissa.

Thanks for the tip-off to T.T. Ram Mohan, who also points to a Business Standard column by Kalpana Pathak -- Land largesse for corporate universities -- that raises serious questions about private universities / institutions seeking vast quantities of public land -- and getting it. Here's Ram Mohan:

The ruling has brought to the fore the question of land being acquired for setting up of private universities and colleges. BS has an interesting feature on the subject today. The article notes that the Anil Ambani group has recently been alloted 110 acres by the MP government for its foray into education while ISB got 70 acres of land in Mohali. The land allotment is disproportionate to the requirement in many cases. Where it is made over to private parties, the suspicion of a land group is bound to be there.

BS notes that a good engineering institute can be set up on 10 acres and a management institute on 5. So why are private institutions asking and getting so much land? It also notes that Infosys' Mysore training facility is on a 337 acre campus. This is not even a degree-granting facility, it is strictly for a private company. Interestingly, Shiv Nadar and Aziz Premji are acquiring and pay for the land they need for their educational ventures instead of seeking concessional land from the government.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kumari L. Meera Memorial Lecture

This is for the Bangaloreans (and those who plan to be in Bangalore on 23 November 2010): The nineteenth lecture in this series is entitled "The Graver Side of Light," and will be delivered by Prof. Rajaram Nityananda of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Pune.

Anant has the full announcement, with all the details.

Do You Know PowerPoint?

Executive devil interviewing another: "I need someone well versed in the art of torture -- do you know PowerPoint?"

From this cartoon in the New Yorker.

G.V. Ramanathan: How much math do we really need?

Ramanathan, an emeritus professor of math, statistics and computer science at U-Illinois at Chicago, asks this question in a Washington Post column.

How much math do you really need in everyday life? Ask yourself that -- and also the next 10 people you meet, say, your plumber, your lawyer, your grocer, your mechanic, your physician or even a math teacher.

Unlike literature, history, politics and music, math has little relevance to everyday life. That courses such as "Quantitative Reasoning" improve critical thinking is an unsubstantiated myth. All the mathematics one needs in real life can be learned in early years without much fuss. Most adults have no contact with math at work, nor do they curl up with an algebra book for relaxation.

Those who do love math and science have been doing very well. [...] As for the rest, there is no obligation to love math any more than grammar, composition, curfew or washing up after dinner. Why create a need to make it palatable to all and spend taxpayers' money on pointless endeavors without demonstrable results or accountability?

Link via Edward Tenner's post -- Is Math Overrated? -- at The Atlantic.

Cindy Royal's Open Letter to Wired: "I'm breaking up with you"

... You’re better than this. You don’t need to treat women in this light to sell magazines. You have the power to influence the ways that women envision their roles with technology. Instead, you’re not helping. Like Jon Stewart said (stealing his quote criticizing the now defunct TV show Crossfire), “You’re hurting America.”

So, I’m breaking up with you ...

Read the whole letter.

But-heads ...

... "are phrases that announce ‘I’m lying‘." So says Erin McKean in a Boston Globe piece -- I hate to tell you -- and, "They've also been dubbed 'false fronts,' 'wishwashers,' and, less cutely, 'lying qualifiers'."

... When someone says “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but...” they are maneuvering to keep you from saying “I don’t believe you — you’re just trying to hurt my feelings.”

... When someone says “It’s not about the money, but...”, it’s almost always about the money. If you hear “It really doesn’t matter to me, but...”, odds are it does matter, and quite a bit. Someone who begins a sentence with “Confidentially” is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out “Frankly,” or “Honestly,” “To be (completely) honest with you,” or “Let me give it to you straight” brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

“No offense, but...” and “Don’t take this the wrong way, but...” are both warning flags ...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Did this guy write the Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops?

... In the past year, I've written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won't find my name on a single paper.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

Read more about this Shadow Scholar at The Chronicle of Higher Education [Thanks to Animesh for the e-mail alert].

Coming back to the question posed in the title, I think the answer is, "Unlikely."

Not because the Shadow Scholar is incapable of producing a report on GM crops, but because he doesn't plagiarize.

What Rahul Said: Part 2. The Science Academy Smack-Down

Go read Rahul's post on an undated INSA document which seeks to explain how that academy sees the now-discredited report on GM crops and its own role in its preparation.

Let me just say that the document betrays an arrogance that is so breathtaking (we're not even talking about the mis-spelling of the name of the minister who asked for the report on GM crops!) that it fully deserves ridicule and scorn.

And ridicule and scorn are what it gets from Rahul.

Don't miss it: go read The Science Academy Smack-Down!

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Rahul Said

Rahul Siddharthan has a must-read post on the latest twist to l'affaire Kundu. As I said in my previous post, Rahul's work played a key (and to me, definitive) part in the unraveling of Kundu's version (along with that of the committee headed by Prof. G. Padmanaban) of this story, and he makes the following point about the broader lesson in the Kundu affair:

To me, this case is not really about Kundu. It is about our complete lack of appreciation of scientific ethics, and our tendency to “close ranks” when trouble arrives. To succumb to this tendency even after an international journal has conducted its own investigation and made its own decision, and to justify it with a paltry two-page report, merely makes us a laughing-stock.

Rahul is also right to urge the Indian Academy of Sciences to look into the discredited report -- "superficial, authorless, reference-free, and partially plagiarised" -- on GM crops produced recently by it along with five other science academies of this country.

A New Twist to the Kundu Story: Did a Government Panel Shield the Accused?

Drop everything and read The Telegraph story by T.V. Jayan.

In case you didn't know about l'affaire Kundu, here's the back story from early 2007 when the Journal of Biological Chemistry retracted a paper by a team led by Gopal Kundu of NCCS, Pune, because several experimental figures were used more than once (in two different papers) with different labels. A committee headed by Prof. G. Padmanaban (former Director, IISc) gave Kundu and his team a clean chit -- a verdict that was contested vigorously by quite a few (see this post and the links in there; the key, at least for me, was the set of animated GIF images put together by Rahul Siddharthan).

The controversy generated by this debate was reported to have led to several more "official" investigations, and it was rumoured that Kundu was exonerated by some high-level committee (whose report was never made public -- which is really, really strange), bringing a closure to this case.

Except that the Indian Academy of Sciences at Bangalore decided to re-open this case, and have it investigated by its own panel on scientific values. This new investigation found Kundu guilty.

And the guilt is serious enough that the Acadcmy has imposed some sanctions on him. [Whether the sanctions really match the seriousness of the crime is a different issue! I just want to keep this post restricted to the guilty verdict itself.]

It is this second act that's the focus of T.V. Jayan's story in The Telegraph. Jayan gets it just right when he says that the Academy's "unprecedented" action "appears to vindicate claims by some scientists that the government-appointed panel had tried to shield the accused." And, Nandula Raghuram, a member of the Society for Scientific Values, is quoted by Jayan:

This episode shows that the government mechanisms to deal with this case had been compromised.

There are several other things in the new revelations (in Jayan's report) that are worth commenting on -- I just don't have the time right for a longer post now; do read the story!

Friday, November 12, 2010

How does India's Regulatory Regime Manage to Keep Philanthropy out of Higher Ed?

Here's an excerpt from an interview of Richard Levin (an alternate link), President of Yale University, by Prashant K. Nanda of MInt:

... There is a lot of philanthropic interest in higher education of India. I hope Parliament will open the market up to those philanthropists to build universities. They can give some money to Yale, but that will not have the impact.

India is very brand conscious and it seems it wants foreign universities to set up shop here. That will help, but that is not the answer. The answer is great Indian universities and Indian brands. You have done it with companies—you got Tata, Reliance (Reliance Industries Ltd and Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group), Infosys (Technologies Ltd), you got Wipro (Ltd). These are great global brands now. You can do the same with Indian universities rather than co-branding like Yale-India Campus or Harvard-India Campus.

The headline -- Allow Private Sector to Have a Big Role in Higher Education -- gives us the impression that Levin doesn't realize the extent of private sector participation in Indian higher ed. Here's a quick reality check from a paper by Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta -- Mortgaging the Future? Indian Higher Education (Brookings-NCAER India Policy Forum 2007-08, Volume 4, 2008, p. 101-157; pdf):

In the case of engineering colleges, the private sector, which accounted for just 15 percent of the seats in 1960, accounted for 86.4 percent of seats and 84 percent of all engineering colleges by 2003. In the case of medical colleges, the private sector dominance is less stark, but the trend is unambiguous: the proportion of private seats has risen from 6.8 percent in 1960 to 40.9 percent in 2003. While we do not have precise data, the situation in more than 1000 business schools suggests that 90 percent are private. Even in general education, there is now a mushrooming of private, self-financing colleges. In Kanpur University (in UP), the number of such colleges outnumber state assisted colleges 3 to 1, while in Tamil Nadu, self financing colleges comprise 56 percent of general colleges and 96 percent of engineering colleges (Srivastava, 2007). ... Even as political parties rail against de jure privatization, de facto privatization continues unabated. [page 23]

The problem, therefore, is not about the level of private sector participation. It's about the kind of private sector participation: real philanthropy as opposed to fake "trusts" set up by businesspeople, politicians, crooks, thugs and muttheads.

Seen this way, the question about private sector in India's higher ed (which Levin also alludes to) is this: what is it in our legal-regulatory regime that allows all these bad elements in, but keeps real philanthropists out?

I'm yet to figure out an answer to this question.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.
-- George Bernard Shaw

I found the quote at Science is Beauty, a curator of awesome stuff on science from all over the web.

For a quick taste of what this blog offers, check out this dance of a milk drop on coffee.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Science in India: "Quantity need not mean a loss in quality"

The Nature India portal features an interesting column -- The Quality - Quantity Conundrum -- by two colleagues of mine, Prof. Gautam Desiraju and Prof. M. Giridhar. [Note: the site requires (free) registration.] Here's a quick excerpt:

An earlier analysis on the contributions of the best 10 research institutions in these countries to their overall publication records showed that the premier Indian institutes contributed nearly 30% over the span of 25 years. This is in keeping with the sluggish Indian curve in figure 1. However, in China, the contribution of the top institutes has decreased from 53% to 39% during the period of 2002 to 2008, which coincides with the exponential overall growth in that country. Clearly this means that the second and third rung research institutes have begun to participate actively in research. This can only be possible if trained manpower who studied in the top institutes went on to teach and do research in these institutes.

* * *

While much of their analysis is admirably data-driven, I wish they didn't take a loose, evidence-free swipe at the reservation policy:

There is also a real need now to assess the consequences of the caste based reservation system. Where has 50 years of reservation taken us, in a world where no quotas are applied in competitive activity?

The issue may appear in the form of a hard-nosed question about the consequences of reservation, but this sort of rhetoric is intellectually lazy -- as lazy, in fact, as that flowing in the opposite direction: where has 60+ years of upper caste domination of higher education and scientific research taken us?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Links ...

  1. Great Migrations at The Big Picture blog. Awesome pics.

  2. I don't know if this is a good use of neutron scattering, but this video of brewing coffee (in this kind of espresso maker) is pretty cool.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Links ...

  1. Prithwiraj at Oracle but not Clairvoyant: The Chanakya Formula (the story line of the next blockbuster from Dan Brown!)

  2. John Rennie at The Gleaming Retort (a member of PLoS Blogs): Height, Health Care and IQ

  3. Kenneth Chang on what the mid-term elections mean for science funding in the US: Money for Scientific Research May Be Scarce With a Republican-Led House. Really scary:

    An analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science looked at what would happen if all of the agencies were cut to the 2008 amounts. The National Institutes of Health would lose $2.9 billion, or 9 percent, of its research money. The National Science Foundation would lose more than $1 billion, or almost 19 percent, of its budget, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would lose $324 million, or 34 percent.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Links ...

  1. A short one from Onion: Americans Bravely Go To Polls Despite Threat Of Electing Congress.

  2. James Kwak at Baseline Scenario: Beyond Crazy -- A nice rant on the new "accountability measure" at Texas A&M which has compiled "a report showing a profit-and-loss summary for each professor..."

  3. Colin Macilwain in Nature: Scientists vs engineers: this time it's financial: "As public funds dwindle [in the UK], long-standing divisions between engineers and scientists over their status in society will be laid bare."

Friday, October 29, 2010

N.R. Narayana Murthy on how to attract young people to science

After the recent announcement of the Infosys Prizes, N.R.Narayana Murthy (Chairman and Chief Mentor, Infosys) was interviewed by Gopal Raj of The Hindu.


BTW, the Infosys Science Foundation's website has finally been updated with a page filled with a citation, bio-sketch and "scope and impact of work" for each Prize winner. I have also updated this post.

* * *

Here's Mr. Murthy's prescription for making a research career "attractive to young people."

The best students will always go to where they get the best jobs and pay, and that is to be found in industry these days. A research career on the other hand, means protracted training and less remuneration. So how does one make such a career attractive to young people?

I have suggested several times to various institutions that for every paper that is produced in a world-class refereed journal, they could give Rs. four lakh. So that if you produce four papers in a year, then you have got Rs. 16 lakh. Add to that a salary of Rs. six or eight lakh a year, then you have got a decent sum.

Limitless Ladder: Part 5. Review by a Chemist

That chemist is Ashutosh Jogalekar (aka Wavefunction). An excerpt from his review:

So how does one do high-quality research in a resources and cash-strapped developing country? Rao’s approach is worth noting. He knew that the accuracy of measurements he could do with the relatively primitive equipment in India could never compete with sophisticated measurements in Europe or the US. So instead of aiming for accuracy, Rao aimed at interesting problems. He would pick a novel problem or system where even crude measurements would reveal something new. Others may then perform more accurate measurements on the system, but his work would stand as the pioneering work in the area. This approach is worth emulating and should be especially emphasized by young scientists starting out in their careers: be problem-oriented rather than technique-oriented. Another key lesson from Rao's life is to not work in crowded fields; Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists. This also keeps one from getting bored. Embodying this philosophy allowed Rao to work in a vast number of areas. He started with spectroscopic investigations of liquids, moved to inorganic materials and further worked extensively on organic materials. Among other things, he has made significant contributions to unraveling the structures and properties of transition metal oxides, ceramic superconductors and materials displaying giant magneto-resistance. All these had special physical and chemical properties which were directly a result of their unique structures. Rao co-authored an internationally recognized book- “New Directions in Solid-State and Structural Chemistry”- which encapsulates the entire field.

However, sometimes not having the right technique can prove significantly debilitating. In the 80s, the world of science was shaken by the discovery of ‘high-temperature’ superconductivity in a ceramic material. In fact Rao had synthesized the exact same material - an oxide of copper, lanthanum and barium - more than fifteen years ago. However, the compound became superconducting at 30 degrees Kelvin and could be studied only in liquid helium. Unfortunately Rao was unable to do measurements at this temperature because the only relevant material available in his laboratory was liquid nitrogen, which boils at 77 K. If liquid helium had been available, Rao might well have been the first person to observe superconductivity in this material. In 1987, two scientists at IBM who discovered the phenomenon were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Selva tweets:

Sampling of home library - Book 1: "One hundred years of solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel has one of the best opening lines.

Reminds me of Woody Allen's comment:

I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.

Links ...

  1. Voices, the IISc Newsletter: Snake Catchers of IISc.

  2. Aditya Sinha, Editor-in-Chief, The New Indian Express: Plagiarise and Be Damned: An excellent op-ed on the plagiarism by Aroon Purie, "one of [India's] most powerful media moguls."

    Hat tip to Space Bar who notes, "'s good to see a mainstream newspaper take on the issue and contextualise it."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dear Infosys Science Foundation ...

Update 2 (29 October 2010): Just noticed this afternoon that the website now has a new page featuring a citation, biographical sketch and "scope and impact of work" for each Prize winner.

Update (27 October 2010; 7:30 p.m.): The presentation (pdf) at the Prize announcement is available; it has a brief citation from the jury for each Prize. This page (contrast it with this page from 2009) is yet to be updated with links to further info for each Prize winner -- citation, bio, etc. (like in this page from 2009).

* * *

Dear Infosys Science Foundation,

It's great to see that "Science" is your middle name. Please do it justice by doing the right things for your Prize.

You see, the Prize announcement was not accompanied by a well-written citation describing the scientific accomplishments of each of the Prize winners -- Laureates, as you prefer to call them. It has been almost 24 hours since you made the announcement, and the citations are still missing on your website.

Perhaps I need to spell out the implications of the missing citation.

When the citation is missing, the "young Indians" that you wish to "inspire" through your Prizes get to see only the money, but not the science.

When the citation is missing, the scientific accomplishments of your Laureates take a back seat to the fact that they just became richer by 50 lakhs. What did they do -- win a lottery?

When the citation is missing, you are not "[endeavouring] to elevate the prestige of scientific research in India", you are just using the Prize to flaunt the wealth of your founders.

Finally, when the citation is missing, your Prize is not an Indian version of the Nobel, it's just a private sector version of those CSIR awards[*].

Bottomline: If you want your Prize to have the right sort of reputation and impact, you have to not just do it, but do it right.

* * *

[*]: See my rant -- at the end of that post from 2006 -- about the S.S.Bhatnagar Prizes being announced without the Prize citations.

* * *

Thanks to Pratik Ray who also noticed the lack of citations in the announcement.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Infosys Prizes for 2010

The Prizes have been announced.

First of all, congratulations to the winners!

Three things that are noteworthy about this year's Prizes:

  1. All the Prize winners -- except one -- are working in India. The lone exception is UCLA's Prof. Chandrashekhar Khare, who gets the Mathematics Prize. [Last year, Prof. Abhijit Banerjee of MIT won one of the Social Sciences Prizes; IIRc, his India-centric work was cited as the reason for considering him for what is essentially an "Indian" Prize. Perhaps Prof. Khare has some strong Indian connections].

  2. The Social Sciences Prize is shared by two women: Prof. Nandini Sundar and Amita Baviskar. They are the only women among the six Laureates this year.

  3. Prof. Ashutosh Sharma of IIT-K gets the Engineering Prize. [And the Jury for this Prize redeems itself after its null result of last year; see my rant about that fiasco]

Ram Guha on Politicians and Public Projects

Ram Guha's latest HT column -- That Family Feeling -- is about the wide gulf between Nehru's views and those of the ruling Gandhi family on naming public projects after their family members. The contrast is between

[Jawaharlal Nehru] had taken a vow that in the case of any school, project, or programme started in memory of his father (Motilal Nehru) or his wife, he would not participate in its inauguration.


At last count, some 400 government initiatives, institutions, projects and programmes were named after either Nehru, Indira or Rajiv.

In editorializing on this contrast, Guha takes an oblique swipe:

Jawaharlal Nehru would surely have been appalled by this use (or misuse) of public money for furthering ancestor worship. His rectitude and propriety stands in striking contrast to the behaviour of later members of his family. But it stands in contrast to the attitude of most other Indians too. For instance, one of India’s best-known scientists actually attended the inauguration of a circle named after himself in Bangalore.

The later Nehru-Gandhis may think that the ubiquitous naming of programmes and places after members of their family is not much more than their due. But that distinguished men of science fall prey to such vanity is a sign of how far we have moved from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. [Bold emphasis added].

Some of you may know that the traffic round-about in front of the main gates of IISc is called "Professor C.N.R. Rao Circle". I don't know what it was called earlier, but it took its new name in the late 1990s.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Links ...

  1. Mark Liberman at Language Log: Merle Haggard's ex-wives. Has some great examples of hilarity produced by the absence of the final serial comma -- like in, "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God". Though these examples are not original to LL, you get them all here in one place.

  2. Bad news for British universities: "the amount of money going to higher education will decline by 40 percent over the next four years, from 7.1 billion pounds (about $11-billion) to 4.2 billion pounds (about $6.6-billion)."

  3. How do you "measure academic value in dollars and cents"? Texas A&M University shows the way: Putting a Price on Professors. [See also: A Tale of 40 Professors at Texas A&M by Richard Vedder.]

  4. Yet another story on Kota (Rajasthan), the cram school capital of India. This one is by Tim Sullivan of AP.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Flash Opera!

While we are at it, here's "Do Re Mi" at a train station in Belgium (YouTube seems to have tons of these improvs from all over the place):

In case the embeds didn't work, here are the links.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

May be we should dedicate this link to Aroon Purie

Five Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism over at

The article uses incendiary language that goes way over the top at times (seems like it's the preferred style at, but it builds its case against the five men with ample references.

Perhaps we should dedicate this link to Mr. Purie, whose special skills include plagiarizing under jet-lag and "[writing] an apology that is defiantly nonapologetic." Check out Rahul's post and Grady Hendrix's note.

Thanks to Nikhil Narayanan for the Buzz.

When an academic study is about a sponsor's business interests, ...

... shouldn't that fact be disclosed -- especially if the study goes on to claim that "the [Pohang Iron and Steel Company] project would directly and indirectly generate 8.7 lakh jobs, and would contribute 11.5 per cent to Orissa's economy by 2017"?

The culprit here is NCAER -- National Council of Applied Economic Research. And the report is here.

Here's Priscilla Jebaraj in The Hindu:

... it has not been publicised that Posco is a sponsor of NCAER. While the Korean steel giant is mentioned on the list of sponsors and partners on the NCAER website, there is no disclosure of this conflict of interest in the published study.

Instead, in the preface to the report, NCAER Director-General Suman Bery merely states that the organisation was “approached” to carry out a cost benefit analysis of the project, and adds that: “It is NCAER's hope, the policy planners would find the report relevant and useful.”

“We do have processes in place for vetting the professional quality of our work. Our normal procedure is to indicate who the sponsor was in the foreward,” Mr. Bery told The Hindu on Wednesday, admitting that Posco had paid for the study.

“We do keep our ethics policy under review. If we were to release the report today, I think there would be a somewhat tighter formulation.” [I have added the bold emphasis and the link to NCAER Sponsors page]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On more on the Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops

This one is from Latha Jishnu in Down To Earth. Money quote:

It transpires that the academies held just one meeting, on June 1, before the report was compiled. In their own words it was “a brain storming meeting which was attended by a cross section of Fellows and nominees of the Academies”. The report does not list who was present but says the document is based on “a few introductory presentations”, the written comments by Fellows “and the documents brought to the attention of the meeting by different Fellows.” According to one insider, it was a meeting “where the decision had already been taken to push the case of Bt brinjal”. It is not as if there was no dissent. [Bold emphasis added] Some half a dozen scientists did raise concerns about safety and environment impact of GM crops but they were outnumbered by the pro-GM lobby of around 50 scientists.

Since the faculty salary is so low, ...

... a senior professor at IIT-KGP appears to have chosen some shady ways to augment his income:

[Amit Kumar Ghos], a senior professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, is under police investigation for allegedly using the IIT campus and brand to run an institute whose courses and diplomas have no legitimacy whatsoever. [It is ] perhaps the biggest scam to hit India's top engineering school ...

[It has been] alleged that Ghosh ran an institute called the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE) out of the Kharagpur campus, calling himself its President.

He even conducted their admission tests in his IIT office. Each student was allegedly charged a fee of Rs 27,000 for the course.

And here's the clincher:

Ghosh ... was ironically also the chief vigilance officer (CVO) of the IIT till recently.

Aroon Purie's Novel Excuse for Plagiarism

Jet lag.

See the posts by Rahul, Niranjana, Wanderlust.

Niranjana, who has earlier been a victim of plagiarism by Ms. Damayanti Datta, a deputy editor at India Today, is right to be indignant:

Your unmitigated gall in posting an explanation for your plagiarism of the Slate story ON MY BLOG while ignoring your plagiarism from this VERY SAME BLOG leaves me amazed. So Grady Hendrix deserves an apology because he’s from Slate, and I don’t because I’m an independent blogger? You couldn’t have demonstrated your stunning lack of principles better than with this incident. I never received a reply, let alone an apology to my complaint made eighteen months ago, though you were quick to disable comments on the article on your site. And yet, you’ve reacted remarkably fast to the outcry about the Slate article.

And Grady Hendrix, whose words found their way into the editorial by the India Today's jet-lagged Editor in Chief, offers a fitting response (see his comment on this post -- there's no direct link, so you'll have to scroll down a bit):

India Today has refused to respond to emails from myself and Slate, but I'm glad they're going to apologize. It must be very difficult for the staff of India Today that when Mr. Purie gets "jet-lagged" he steals things. I would imagine that whenever they see their boss yawning, or looking sleepy, all of his employees must frantically lock up their laptops and hide their wallets lest he lifts them. I've read about this kind of narco-klepto condition before (also known as "sleep-stealing") and it is truly a burden. My sympathy and prayers are with Mr. Purie in this difficult time as he searches for a cure to his condition.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Truthiness: Ben Zimmer on Five Years of Truthiness:

For many ... observers, ... there is something undeniably appealing about how truthiness signifies ersatz truth, so much so that the neologism has spawned numerous imitators ending in -iness — what the Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called “the Colbert suffix.” In 2007, Meghan Daum of The Los Angeles Times used “fame-iness” to refer to Paris Hilton-style celebrity, while Ben Goldacre of The Guardian mocked an author’s superficial footnotes as providing “an air of ‘referenciness.’ ” The latest in the “X-iness” parade is the title of Charles Seife’s new book, “Proofiness,” defined by Seife as “the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.” Seife, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, told me that the title is very much a homage to Colbert. He credits his wife with recognizing during the writing of the book that his topic was “the mathematical analogue of truthiness.”

Stretching it a bit, here's Scienciness: This is a news website article about a scientific paper:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever. [And other such paragraphs that reveal the anatomy of "news website articles about a scientific paper"]

I know I'm in dangerous territory; but, having come this far, I might as well link (once again) to the classics in Newsiness, (incendiary) Blogginess, essentialist or pure Blogginess, and Storiness.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Conference Devoted to Studies of Rich People

Paul Sullivan's has a story in NYTimes -- Scrutinizing the Elite, Whether They Like It or Not -- on a recent conference on elites:

Many of the younger scholars said their goal was to do more than just look at tax returns and see who sat on boards. Instead, they said, they want to start looking at the relationships between the elite and the non-elite.

“If you look at the poor as a problem, you’ll be angry at elites or you’ll expect them to come up with a solution,” said Mr. Venkatesh, who took the most pragmatic line. “You have to come in accepting that there will always be poor people in society and there will always be wealthy people in society, and neither of the two reached that status by their own efforts.”

That’s not the usual description of this issue. But otherwise, you risk viewing the rich as rapacious thieves or seeing the poor as lazy freeloaders.

"Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science"

That's the title of The Atlantic profile of Dr. John Ioannidis who "has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science."

His 2005 paper in PLoS Medicine was on why most published research findings are false.

Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. [here's the link.]

The second half of the story -- by David Freedman -- has quite a bit on the sociology of research in medical science. Here are a few quotes:

  • Even when the evidence shows that a particular research idea is wrong, if you have thousands of scientists who have invested their careers in it, they’ll continue to publish papers on it,” he says. “It’s like an epidemic, in the sense that they’re infected with these wrong ideas, and they’re spreading it to other researchers through journals.”

  • the peer-review process often pressures researchers to shy away from striking out in genuinely new directions, and instead to build on the findings of their colleagues (that is, their potential reviewers) in ways that only seem like breakthroughs—as with the exciting-sounding gene linkages (autism genes identified!) and nutritional findings (olive oil lowers blood pressure!) that are really just dubious and conflicting variations on a theme.

  • The ultimate protection against research error and bias is supposed to come from the way scientists constantly retest each other’s results—except they don’t. Only the most prominent findings are likely to be put to the test, because there’s likely to be publication payoff in firming up the proof, or contradicting it.

  • Doctors may notice that their patients don’t seem to fare as well with certain treatments as the literature would lead them to expect, but the field is appropriately conditioned to subjugate such anecdotal evidence to study findings.

  • ... [B]eing wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.