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 ...