Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Video of The Führer as a Young Student

At TIFR, getting angry at its hostel situation. Along the way, we get stuff like, "Why the hell are all the girls in Biology?"

Watch (it's likely to be taken down soon; get there quick!):

Hat tip to Bela Desai via Buzz.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Links ...

  1. The Vipul Bhrigu case: Brendan Maher at Nature Blogs has an update: Lab sabotage deemed research misconduct (with exclusive surveillance video). The video is quite creepy. See also: the ORI Blog.

  2. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution: Best Rejection Letter Ever.

  3. Curtis Brainard at The Observatory has a post on National Geographic Taking the Wheel at It also has a summary of the early history of, recounted in tweets by Christopher Mims.

  4. Finally, Tupper's Self-Referential Formula. Pretty cool! [Thanks to Dilip D'Souza for the e-mail alert].

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Great Scientist

Sometime ago, a scientist -- let's call him Prof. X -- was chosen for the directorship of a premier institution. Since he was rather unknown at that time, this announcement generated quite a stir -- especially among those outside his field.

People were itching to know more about Prof. X, his scientific credentials, his claim to fame. They approached a colleague who works in the same field as Prof. X.

"What is Prof. X like?", they asked their colleague. "Tell us, is he a good scientist?"

"I don't know if he is a good scientist," said the colleague. After a short pause, he added, "But he's now a great scientist!"

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Links ...

  1. Juliana Chan of Asian Scientist interviews Prominent Indian Blogger, IIT Professor Arunn Narasimhan. Arunn offers his opinion on a bunch of things, including healthcare in India and, of course, the IITs.

  2. German political elite behaving badly? "The Whiff of Plagiarism Again Hits German Elite," reports the New York Times.

  3. The State universities in the US are facing serious cuts in funding. How serious? Check out this report. [I thank Vikram for the e-mail pointer.]

  4. Natalia Cecire in Arcade: How Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging.

New York Magazine Profiles Krugman

Awesome profile by Benjamin Wallace-Wells: What's Left of the Left: Paul Krugman’s lonely crusade. Here's an excerpt:

Paul Krugman is a lonely man. That he is comfortable in his solitude, that he emphasizes its virtues, that his intelligence gives it a poetic gloss, none of this diminishes the poignancy of his isolation. Krugman grew up an only child and is deeply self-conscious. He will list his shortcomings as though he’d been preparing for the chance: “Loner. Ordinarily shy. Shy with individuals.” He is married but has no children nor—rare for a Nobelist—many protégés. When I asked him if there were any friends of his I could talk to in order to understand him better, he hesitated, then said, “That’s going to be hard.” One colleague at Princeton, where Krugman has taught since 2000, says the economist will avert his eyes when circumstance places the two of them alone in an elevator, his nose stuck in the corner, so as to avoid conversation. Krugman’s wife, Robin Wells, an academic economist herself, was recently reading the Ian McEwan novel Solar, whose protagonist is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who has been married five times, and she found the scenario implausible. “You could never win the Nobel Prize with that kind of personal life,” she says. “It’s too distracting.”

For another profile (equally awesome) with a different emphasis, try this one at the New Yorker from a year ago.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review of "Good Faith Collaboration -- The Culture of Wikipedia"

Current Science carries my review of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia by Joseph Reagle, Jr.

... disputes are typically aired in the ‘Talk’ pages of each article, discussion areas where views are expressed vigorously, and countered equally vigorously. Consider, for example, the article on Indian National Congress. Its Talk page throbs with dissent and debate over many contentious issues, including one about whether today’s Congress party is even the same as the one that existed before Independence! From Babri mosque to the Tata group’s car factory in Singur, West Bengal, Talk pages are full of disagreement over whether the articles conform to NPOV [Neutral Point Of View]. While they may resemble a battleground, Talk pages are surprisingly free of landmines; name-calling is rare, for example. This is because the participants are encouraged to keep their focus firmly on enhancing the quality of the articles they are working on, with the result that discussions rarely become dysfunctional. Much of this happy outcome is attributable to a second set of norms which asks Wikipedians to ‘be polite, assume good faith, avoid personal attacks, and be welcoming’.

NYU at Abu Dhabi

NYTimes has a story on the UAE operations of the New York University at Abu Dhabi. The academic program has started, and it has 150 students and 45 faculty. Operations will move to a new campus in three years, and student strength will grow to about 2200 in ten years. What caught my attention, however, is the financing of NYU's "outpost" in the Middle East -- and this is worth keeping in mind when the business papers peddle stories about how top universities are keen to start a branch campus in India.

The financing of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi is noteworthy. The college is being entirely paid for by Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the United Arab Emirates, which has so far provided generously, including financial aid for many students and a promise to build a sprawling campus on nearby Saadiyat Island, where branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are under construction. [...]

“There is a lot of money sloshing around, and that has helped recruit faculty support,” he says. A faculty member could expect to earn a large bonus — in some cases the equivalent of two-thirds of a year’s salary, Mr. Ross says — and “on top of that there are first-class tickets to go over there, your family can go with you, your children can go to private schools for free.”

Officials won’t say what kind of deal they have with the royal family, which gave N.Y.U. $50 million before the project ever got off the ground. Beyond that, Mr. Sexton will say only that a yearly budget is discussed (he says he has never been “disappointed”) and a 10-year plan exists. The new campus is supposed to open in 2014.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

PhD Perspectives

  1. Saee Keskar: Milestones:

    As a PhD student, you are used to your (evasive) milestones. However, there are a number of philosophical milestones that you need to cross in order to truly deserve your PhD. I am going to list some of those here ...

    Her list of milestones ends with this most appropriate quote from Saint Calvin:

    That's one of the remarkable things about life. It is never so bad that it cannot get worse.

  2. Sunshine: Interest and Attitude:

    ... That innovative spark of an idea I got 4 months ago was a brief moment of eureka. But in order to materialize that innovative idea into a tangible research product or publication, I have to go through all these mundane things I just discussed. I need the tools to help me think in the right way, for which I take classes and often piggyback on my advisor’s knowledge base. Sustaining this and still remaining focused has nothing to do with interest. It is all about the attitude to work hard. Ph.D. needs interest as a trigger, as a starting point, as much as that match that lights the fire. But attitude is that oxygen that sustains the fire through years.

  3. John Regehr at Embedded in Academia: How Much and What to Read:

    Grad students often aren’t quite sure how much of their work time should be spent reading, and may also have trouble figuring out what to read during that time. (In principle this problem also applies to professors, but it’s not much of an issue in practice since we have almost no time for discretionary reading.) I usually tell people to err on the side of doing too much, as opposed to reading too much. Averaging one day a week on reading is probably about right, but it may be a lot higher or lower than this during certain periods of grad school.

  4. DrugMonkey on A Personal View on Qualification for the PhD:

    I have two things I'd like to see a person accomplish in a doctoral program:

    1. Reading so deeply and critically into the literature of sub-sub-topic X that they are not only the world's expert in that topic at this point in time but that they realize that they are the world's expert.

    2. Being able to approach any and all new papers in the literature with the ability to simultaneously maintain the thoughts that "this is all total bullshit" and "this is the awesomez!" with mental citation ticking to justify each position.

    Once you are there, you deserve the PhD.

  5. Finally, Bashir has a quick metaphor regarding the dissertation defence: Parole hearing! (You have to go there to read the rest! :-)

Internet Meme of the Day: Algorithmic Pricing

An amusing episode from Michael Eisen: Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 book about flies [via James Fallows, Chris Blattman, and many others):

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly ... The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

More precisely, the two new books were on offer for $1,730,045.91 and $2,198,177.95. When he checked the next day, Eisen found that the prices had increased further. Intrigued, he kept checking everyday, and found that the two sellers kept hiking the price on a daily basis, until it went all the way up to over 23 million dollars!

As I amusedly watched the price rise every day, I learned that Amazon retailers are increasingly using algorithmic pricing (something Amazon itself does on a large scale), with a number of companies offering pricing algorithms/services to retailers. Both profnath and bordeebook were clearly using automatic pricing – employing algorithms that didn’t have a built-in sanity check on the prices they produced. But the two retailers were clearly employing different strategies.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Links ...

  1. Paul Krugman: Patients Are Not Consumers. How and why health care economics goes beyond demand and supply. On his blog, he says he's channeling Kenneth Arrow's classic work. See also: this precursor blog post which has this memorable line:

    There’s a reason we have TV series about heroic doctors, while we don’t have TV series about heroic middle managers or heroic economists.

  2. Dan Ariely in Scientific American: How Self Control Works. "It's a skill, we are learning, that profoundly shapes lives. How does it work? Where does it come from?"

  3. Terry Eagleton in CHE: In Praise of Marx. "The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition."

  4. Benedict Carey in NYTimes: The Psychology of Cheating:

    “Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”

Nature on the Future of the PhD


The Special Section's launch page has links to all the articles -- most are free, but a couple of them are paywalled.

* * *

The Nature editorial is blunt: Fix the PhD. After pointing out that the perceived problems with the PhD programs are different in different countries and disciplines, it takes the example of biomedical sciences (presumably in countries like the US and Japan):

... Exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging through five or ten years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position. That is because increased government research funding from the US National Institutes of Health and Japan's science and education ministry has driven expansion of doctoral and postdoctoral education — without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge. The system is driven by the supply of research funding, not the demand of the job market.

A little later, it gets to the core of the problem: oversupply caused by the wrong kind of incentives at the university level:

Something needs to change — but what? Ideally, the system would produce high-quality PhD holders well matched to the attractive careers on offer. Yet many academics are reluctant to rock the boat as long as they are rewarded with grants (which pay for cheap PhD students) and publications (produced by their cheap PhD students). So are universities, which often receive government subsidies to fill their PhD spots.

The lead article has a section on Japan, where the situation is so absurd that the government offers subsidies to companies that hire (unemployed) PhDs!

Academia doesn't want [the PhD holders]: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don't need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor's graduates who can be trained on the job. The science and education ministry couldn't even sell them off when, in 2009, it started offering companies around ¥4 million (US$47,000) each to take on some of the country's 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students (one of several initiatives that have been introduced to improve the situation).

This article also has a section on India:

India: PhDs wanted

In 2004, India produced around 5,900 science, technology and engineering PhDs, a figure that has now grown to some 8,900 a year. This is still a fraction of the number from China and the United States, and the country wants many more, to match the explosive growth of its economy and population. The government is making major investments in research and higher education — including a one-third increase in the higher-education budget in 2011–12 — and is trying to attract investment from foreign universities. The hope is that up to 20,000 PhDs will graduate each year by 2020, says Thirumalachari Ramasami, the Indian government's head of science and technology.

Those targets ought to be easy to reach: India's population is young, and undergraduate education is booming (see Nature 472, 24–26; 2011). But there is little incentive to continue into a lengthy PhD programme, and only around 1% of undergraduates currently do so. Most are intent on securing jobs in industry, which require only an undergraduate degree and are much more lucrative than the public-sector academic and research jobs that need postgraduate education. Students "don't think of PhDs now, not even master's — a bachelor's is good enough to get a job", says Amit Patra, an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.

Even after a PhD, there are few academic opportunities in India, and better-paid industry jobs are the major draw. "There is a shortage of PhDs and we have to compete with industry for that resource — the universities have very little chance of winning that game," says Patra. For many young people intent on postgraduate education, the goal is frequently to go to the United States or Europe. That was the course chosen by Manu Prakash, who went to MIT for his PhD and now runs his own experimental biophysics lab at Stanford University in California. "When I went through the system in India, the platform for doing long-term research I didn't feel was well-supported," he says.

* * *

Thanks for the pointer go to Ravi Prasad Aduri (e-mail) and Ankur Kulkarni (Buzz).

Katie Makkai on "Pretty"

Hat tip: Lisa Wade at Sociological Images.

* * *

If the embed didn't work, here's the YouTube Link.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Journal Editors Behaving Badly

They get guest editors for a special issue. All the papers have been posted on the journal's website. At this stage, can the editors ask (some of) the authors to revise their papers -- without consulting the guest editors? Can they then insert in the print edition a note that undermines the credibility of the papers, their authors, and the guest editors?

All these curious events have led some philosophers to urge their colleagues to boycott Synthese, the journal in question.

Here are some links:

  1. Inside Higher Ed has an extended account of this sorry episode.

  2. John Wilkins. Update 1. Update 2. Links to other commentary.

  3. Brian Leiter. Update.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unsuck It

Just go check out Unsuck It, a website that "unsucks" corporate jargon -- i.e., translates it into plain English. Examples: boilerplate, At [company X], we take [Y] seriously, or Skull session.

Hat tip to Christopher Shea and Eileen Reynolds.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Certified Genius" Scott Adams's Secret Online Avatar

Adrian Chen reports [via Scott Lemieux]:

Scott Adams, creator of the great comic strip Dilbert, is sort of a prick. He is a horrible boss, and recently penned a charming misogynist rant comparing women to children begging for candy. Now we learn he likes to bash critics on message boards under a pseudonym.

He now joins Sockpuppetry's Notable public examples.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Links ...

  1. Paul Krugman: Civility is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels.

  2. Noahpinion: Idea of the Day: National Universities.

  3. Dani Rodrik: Saif Qadafi and Me:

    The conundrum that advisers to authoritarian regimes face is akin to a long-standing problem in moral philosophy known as the dilemma of “dirty hands.” A terrorist is holding several people hostage, and he asks you to deliver water and food to them. You may choose the moral high ground and say, “I will never deal with a terrorist.” But you will have passed up an opportunity to assist the hostages. Most moral philosophers would say that helping the hostages is the right thing to do in this instance, even if doing so also helps the terrorist.

    See also: this comment from Mark Thoma.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi on the IIT-K Plagiarism Case

Some of you may remember this case from October 2010, when two papers from an IIT-K group were retracted for plagiarism -- even Wikipedia provided the raw material for one of the papers!

At that time, I wrote:

This is the first time I have come across IIT researchers being implicated in a plagiarism case. Let's see how the institutional mechanisms at IIT-K deal with this case.

As it turns out, not so well. Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi, who has been keeping a watchful eye on this case, notes that IIT-K has promised, repeatedly, that it would bring a closure to the case "soon" -- which is yet to arrive, some six months after the story broke.

An exasperated Sanghi closes his post with these observations and speculations:

Why is it that IIT Kanpur is delaying the matter. One can only guess, but my feeling is that it is waiting for the faculty member to resign. No one wants to take any decision in such a case. So they will just let the faculty member remain in the state of stress for a long enough time that either the press and public forgets about it, or the faculty member for his own sanity resigns and moves on. And once the faculty member resigns, no decision needs to be taken.

I can guess that if the offense was found to be minor, a decision would have been taken by now. And if the offense is serious, then the administration is not comfortable taking a decision, since it opens up all the past cases where no decision has been taken for years.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Entrance Exam Links

  1. Pdf image of the Harvard Entrance Exam - 1899 1869 (thanks, iitmsriram, for the correction). [Via Terry Tao who comments, "The mathematics portion has aged reasonably well; the classics and geography sections, less so."]

  2. Dheeraj Sanghi: IIT Joint Entrance Examination Completes Half Century of Secrecy

  3. Charu Sudan Kasturi in HT: IIT Professor Admits Errors in JEE Math Paper: "Prof. K.D. Joshi of IIT Bombay told HT he has found over 10 marks-worth of errors in this year’s math papers in the IIT Joint Entrance Examination."

  4. Suzan Fraser in AP: Prosecutors probe allegations of cheating, favouritism at Turkey's university entrance exam.


That's the title of the play to be staged tomorrow (16 April 2011; 5:30 p.m.) in the Satish Dhawan Auditorium at IISc. It promises to be a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to it. Here's the poster (click to embiggen):

Written and directed by Vyasa Shastry, a grad student in our Department, the play will showcase the highly talented folks at the Header & Footer Club, a student group at IISc [Disclosure: I'm their faculty adviser]. This is how Vyasa described the play to me in an e-mail:

It is a lighthearted, satirical look at life in the eyes of the youth, at a time when uncertainty is rife, the future in unknown and everything is possible, ... a time when the ties of friendship can rival that of a family.

Okay, I guess Vyasa wanted to be coy about the play's storyline or its major theme. But he was totally un-coy about the play being open not just to IISc folks, but to everyone. While there is no entry fee, the Header and Footer Club would appreciate contributions to their charity drive on behalf of the Sri Shankara Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Bangalore.

* * *

This is the second play by the Club --their first play was Safar, the "Smash Hit Comedy" which they staged first at IISc before taking it to a larger audience at a professional venue in the city.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Top Indian Physicists' Secret Plan

Onion reveals it all: India's Top Physicists Develop Plan to Get the Hell out of India [audio; ~50 seconds]: "The top secret plan has been dubbed the Manhattan, or maybe, the London Project."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Links ...

  1. Jeffrey Young in CHE: Supercomputers Let Up on Speed -- With big money and competitiveness at stake, smarter—not faster—designs may be winners.

  2. Derek Thompson interviews Daniel Gilbert: What Is the Secret to Happiness and Money? Follow these principles: 1) Buy more experiences and fewer objects. 2) Don't worry about insurance. 3) The frequency of happy events matters more than their intensity.

  3. Jonah Lehrer in True Grit. An extended essay on K. Anders Ericsson's work on expertise, and Angela Duckworth's grit.

    [Lehrer's article frames the research by talking about some of the famous quarterbacks in American football. If he were to use bowlers for this purpose, he would pick those -- like Ian Botham, Glenn McGrath, Anil Kumble, and Muthaiah Muralitharan -- known for their consistent and accurate bowling (for an example from the other end of the spectrum, he might pick Shaun Tait). From the current crop of bowlers, I think his choice would be Lasith 'Slinga' Malinga who, apparently, practices his yorkers by hitting a pair of shoes placed at the crease where batsmen stand. In today's Mumbai-Delhi match three of Malinga's five wickets fell to his toe-crushers. Awesome.]

  4. Gretchen Cuda-Kroen in NPR: Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power.

    See also: Being Bilingual: Beneficial Workout for the Brain by David L. Wheeler in CHE.

  5. Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics: How can you have a university without a philosophy department?

Big Picture on World Cup-2011

Lots of nice pics; but the really wonderful ones feature the fans -- fans in slums, fans in shopping malls, fans on tractor trailers, fans with national-color tattoos, and fans who mix politics with sports. Surprising omission: fans who are management types.

Here's a pic (and another) on fans' utter disregard for the doctrine of church-sports separation:

Update: For more such pics, go to the real Big Picture blog at Boston Globe. [Thanks, Arun, for the comment-alert!]

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Mental health break

At YouTube: Bulbous Bouffant.

Link via Joel Shaver's comment on Mark Liberman's post on "words that are fun to say out loud, and when you say them over and over, they get to sound even funnier." Liberman also asked his audience for a possible "word or phrase for this kind of irrational pleasure associated with repeated performance of a particular word," and his commenters respond with some fabulous words: euphornia, lexury and glossalalia.


Friday, April 08, 2011

Ready to Return?

In his editorial [pdf] in the latest Current Science, Prof. P. Balaram bestows on this Rutgers study an academic respectability it just doesn't deserve (for my comment on that study, see this post).

In addition to demolishing that study's methodology and findings, Balaram makes several other points [with bold emphasis added by me]:

  1. Where did faculty come from when India embarked on the first phase of expansion of scientific and technical institutions in the 1950s and 1960s? A very large number of new recruits in those days were educated in the West, although ironically some of the very best were homegrown. ... Unfortunately, not every institution that sparkled with promise in the first two decades after independence has been able to sustain the enthusiasm and optimism of that era. How will we address the problem of faculty shortages today? The consensus, one that leaves me mildly uneasy, is that we must make vigorous attempts to entice Indian students and academics who are currently overseas, primarily in the United States, to return and build teaching and research careers in India.

  2. There has been an organized hunt [by China] for high profile researchers ... [by offering them] benefits and inducements that might even attract the attention of the best of Western scientists. ... The price tag for winners of ‘prestigious international prizes – including the Nobel prize’ is stated to be ‘150 million yuan ($23 million). ... An earlier program (Qianren Jihua) for ‘recruitment ... of global experts’ launched in 2008 had a goal of hiring ‘up to 2000 experts from abroad over 5 to 10 years’. The program has already notched up 1143 recruitments but the scheme seems to be foundering’. ... In describing Chinese initiatives as ‘a massive waste of resources’ one observer notes ‘that it is better to invest in a whole new generation of talent than to buy reputation’. Mu-Ming Poo, a prominent neuroscientist in Shanghai, is reported to have characterized the Qianren Jihua program as ‘a huge disaster’, arguing that China’s current policy tells ‘the best and brightest to spend most of their productive years abroad’. ... The Chinese experience may be worth studying and there may be much to learn, even as Indian agencies formulate new schemes ...

  3. A growing number of women with Ph D degrees are sometimes unable to spend extended postdoctoral periods overseas. Should there not be a mechanism which allows us to tap this resource and support their research efforts? Strangely, while schemes for attracting overseas talent are enthusiastically administered in the funding agencies, initiatives that promote local talent are invariably run with limited interest and efficiency. Looking outward may be attractive and fashionable. Looking inward may be desirable and essential.

Prof. Balaram's editorial is all suitably academic and understated (e.g., "may be desirable and essential"), but the strength of the underlying sentiments comes through loud and clear.

It's good to see him take a stand.

Gautam Desiraju shows us where scientometrics is really useful

The latest issue of Current Science carries two responses [pdf] to the letter by my colleagues Prof. Diptiman Sen and Prof. S. Ramasesha on the inappropriate use of scientometric data to evaluate the contributions of individual scientists. Interestingly, both the responses are from IISc colleagues: Prof. Gautam Desireaju and Prof. M. Giridhar; they are worth reading in full , not least because they are friendly to people with a short attention span -- together, they occupy just one printed page.

This bit from Prof. Desiraju's letter is priceless:

At the lowest levels, h-indices are useful as criteria of eligibility and basic competence. They should be used as criteria of elimination and not as criteria of selection. They will always serve a purpose in Indian science, because it was possible, in the days before we had scientometric indicators, for committees of wise men to simply declare an incompetent as an outstanding scientist. This is no longer possible. [Bold emphasis added]

What else can Dhoni do?

Here are some possibilities brought to us from the corporate and B-school jungles by a gutsy team of ET reporters. [Thanks for the comment-alert, Dilip!]


  1. Dhoni should become a guest lecturer at the IIMs (this idea is from Bringi Dev, an adjunct professor at IIM-B).

  2. I would bat for Dhoni as the CFO of a company (from LK Gupta, LG Electronics).

  3. I would make Dhoni an executive director in our company (from Venugopal Dhoot, Videocon)

  4. [Dhoni] would be a perfect fit for the job of Congress president Sonia Gandhi (from Savita Prasad, Sabre Travel Tech).

At this rate, Dhoni's appearance in a Bo Knows type ad is imminent -- maybe with a slogan like "Dhoni Does!"

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Corruption in India's Higher Ed System

The latest issue of Nature has a feature on Educating India [thankfully, not paywalled!]. Written by Anjali Nayar, it covers the major points (including the employability issue that Geeta Anand focused on), weaving in sound-bites from Kapil Sibal, C.N.R. Rao, T. Ramasami, and others.

A fairly big part of the article is devoted to discussing the level of corruption in many colleges:

Rahul's parents paid hundreds of thousands of rupees up front to get him into the institute after he scored poorly on entrance exams. He says that about 30% of his peers entered in the same way, and at other colleges the informal 'management quota' can be as high as 40–50%.

This year, tuition at the institute cost 85,000 rupees (US$1,900): more than three times that charged by the IIT system. And the payments at many private colleges don't stop there, says Rahul. "A few days before [exams] you can pay 1,000 rupees for a copy of the paper, and you can pay another couple of thousand rupees if you didn't get the right marks," he says. "Then, if you don't attend classes or labs, you can pay 5,000 rupees to fulfil your attendance quota. Education here is based entirely on money. And to think, my institute is one of the best in the area." [...][Bold emphasis added]

[... snip ...]

Geeta Kingdon ... points to allegations of widespread corruption in how Indian institutes and universities are accredited. "Even those who have got the relevant accreditation only got it because they paid the relevant bribe," she says. Many don't bother. A government crackdown on unaccredited institutions in 2010 left more than 40 universities and thousands of colleges in court.

I'm surprised Nayar didn't get to the scandals at AICTE and MCI. But she does cover the shameful episode at IIT-Kharagpur:

Corruption has even reached the august halls of IIT Kharagpur. Last October, a handful of the institute's top engineering professors were accused of running a fake college called the Institution of Electrical Engineers (India) from the campus. The scheme allegedly involved the use of forged documents bearing the IIT logo to lure in students, who were charged 27,000 rupees for admission, roughly what the IITs charge per year. The IIT Kharagpur has launched an inquiry into the incident.

Yesterday, I linked to Geeta Anand's WSJ story which also had a section on corruption:

Others said cheating, often in collaboration with test graders, is rampant. Deepak Sharma, 26, failed several exams when he was enrolled at a top engineering college outside of Delhi, until he finally figured out the trick: Writing his mobile number on the exam paper.

That's what he did for a theory-of-computation exam, and shortly after, he says the examiner called him and offered to pass him and his friends if they paid 10,000 rupees each, about $250. He and four friends pulled together the money, and they all passed the test.

"I feel almost 99% certain that if I didn't pay the money, I would have failed the exam again," says Mr. Sharma.

BC Nakra, Pro Vice Chancellor of ITM University, where Mr. Sharma studied, said in an interview that there is no cheating at his school, and that if anyone were spotted cheating in this way, he would be "behind bars." He said he had read about a case or two in the newspaper, and in the "rarest of the rare cases, it might happen somewhere, and if you blow [it] out of all proportions, it effects the entire community." The examiner couldn't be located for comment. [Bold emphasis added]

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Geeta Anand on the state of higher ed in India

The second link takes a look at Wipro's initiative to train the teachers. But there's nothing new in the first link if you have been following the (lack of progress in) India's higher ed sector -- what is different this time is that the employability issue is being raised not by the IT industry, but by call centers -- yes, call centers. Now, that is a low blow!

  1. India Graduates Millions, but Too Few Are Fit to Hire

  2. Wipro Program Takes on Education Woes

Thanks to my colleague Prof. Dipankar Banerjee for the e-mail alert.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Ram Mohan's fears come true!

In to-day's post, he says:

I wrote yesterday that I lived in fear of management experts wanting to derive mileage from Dhoni's success. Alas, my fears have come true. TOI today carries a story on Management lessons from Dhoni. All of it is just hindsight. Here is a selection:

Adi Godrej: "He sets stretch goals and works determinedly to achieve them by getting the best out of his team." By "stretch goals", Godrej presumably means winning the World Cup. Is he implying that other captains did not have such "stretch goals", that they took part in the World Cup in order to lose?

This and other such gems (and he probably has not even seen this) drive Ram Mohan [who, remember, is a professor at IIM-A] to despair:

What is it about management theory that it reduces so quickly to the level of drivel?

I know his question is purely rhetorical, but I think Management Myth by Matthew Stewart is worth another link! [Bonus link: Johann Hari on a related topic: The management consultancy scam].

* * *

[Thanks to Raj for the Rediff link via this comment].

The Guardian profiles A.C. Grayling

The awesome profile, by Decca Aitkenhead, follows the publication of The Good Book: A Secular Bible which, according to Grayling, is "ambitious and hubristic – a distillation of the best that has been thought and said by people who've really experienced life, and thought about it". Halfway through the profile, Grayling gets a chance to respond to the charge that "the atheist movement has been ... by adopting a tone so militant as to alienate potential supporters, and fortify the religious lobby.":

"Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we're doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don't like it," he laughs. "So we speak frankly and bluntly, and the respect agenda is now gone, they can no longer float behind the diaphanous veil – 'Ooh, I have faith so you mustn't offend me'. So they don't like the blunt talking. But we're not burning them at the stake. They've got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter.

"And besides, really," he adds with a withering little laugh, "how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong."

Monday, April 04, 2011

T.T. Ram Mohan is afraid

Very afraid:

The thing I now dread is the management experts jumping in with 'Lessons in leadership from Dhoni'.

Knowledge, Networks, and Nations: A Report from The Royal Society

Here's the launch page. Here's the report itself [pdf]. I have only skimmed the report, and I'm parking it here for future reference -- it has tons of data, and more importantly, it has citations to other studies and primary sources of data. It has fancy pictures -- especially in Chapter 2 (but none of those pics comes close to this beauty).

I was surprised to learn this:

Over a third of all articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative, up from a quarter 15 years ago.

The Royal Society has this interactive infographic on the level of collaboration by scientists in many countries. Watching the points on the scatter plot move with time is pretty mesmerizing!

Do play with the graphic -- it gives you many ways of seeing the data. [While it's not quite in the class of Hans Rosling, but it's almost there!] Take a look at the line plot (click on it to see a bigger version):

In the figure, the US is right at the top, followed by the UK, Germany and France. While the long-term trend is positive for all the countries, we can also see a steady dip over a 3-year period (1999-2001) followed by a huge, ~50% increase in just one year (2002-03).

Are these short term swings real, or are they a result of some quirk in the Scopus data? If they are real, what might have happened during 1999-2003 that could explain them?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

"What I Learned at School"

Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes about her teachers who saw her aptitude for literature and nurtured it. Her broader point is political (which is specific to the US), but the way she connects it with the personal is wonderful. An excerpt:

Thirty years ago, in Hibbing, a town in northern Minnesota that is home to the world’s largest open-pit iron mine, I entered high school as a bookish introvert made all the more shy because I was the school’s only nonwhite student. I always felt in danger of being swept away by a sea of statuesque blond athletes. By 10th grade, I’d developed a Quasimodo-like posture and crabwise walk, hoping to escape being teased as a “brain” or a “chink,” and then finding being ignored almost equally painful. I spent a lot of time alone, reading and scribbling stories.

Ms. Leibfried taught American literature and composition grammar, which involved the usual — memorizing vocabulary and diagramming sentences — but also, thrillingly, reading novels.

Thrilling to me, that is. Many of my classmates expressed disdain for novels because they were “not real.” For once, I didn’t care what they thought. Ms. Leibfried seemed to notice my interest in both reading and writing, and she took the time to draw me out; she even offered reading suggestions, like one of her favorite novels, “The Bell Jar.”

Prof. P. Balaram's "calm confidence"

"What product has come out of IISc?" This is the only question that ToI reporter G.N. Prashant keeps asking in so many different ways.

Looks like Prof. Balaram didn't blow up on the monomaniacal reporter, who compliments him by saying, "[He] fields questions with calm confidence."

Friday, April 01, 2011

Namit Arora: What do we deserve?

Over at 3 Quarks Daily, he has a great article on several key theories of distributive justice. Here's how he sets up the what he discusses in the rest of his essay:

I often think of the good life I have. By most common measures—say, type of work, income, health, leisure, and social status—I’m doing well. Despite the adage, ‘call no man happy until he is dead’, I wonder no less often: How much of my good life do I really deserve? Why me and not so many others?

The dominant narrative has it that I was a bright student, worked harder than most, and competed fairly to gain admission to the IIT, where my promise was recognized with financial aid from a U.S. university. When I took a chance after graduate school and came to Silicon Valley, I was justly rewarded for my knowledge and labor with a measure of financial security and social status. While many happily accept this narrative, my problem is that I don’t buy it. I believe that much of my socioeconomic station in life was not realized by my own doing, but was accidental or due to my being at the right place at the right time.

More stats on India's scientific enterprise

After reading the previous post, my colleague Prof. U. Ramamurty sent me the link to this Science Watch listing of field-wise comparison of India's performance against the world average. It has quite a few surprises.

First, the unsurprising bit: India's average for citations per paper is smaller than the world average in all the fields.

The surprise is in the fields that come closest to the world average: Engineering (a deficit of 16 percent), Computer Science (20%) Materials Science (22%), Physics (22%) and Psychiatry / Psychology (33%) are at the top. We see a lot of biology-related fields (agriculture, medicine, biochemistry, microbiology) among those where India's average is less than half the world average.

Once again, this table represents a snapshot; it has no timelines and trends. The accompanying report has some (but only some) info that points to a positive trend in India's share in publications and citations:

... [S]ince 2000 [India's] output has increased from some 16,000 papers to 40,000, world share has risen from 2.2% to 3.4%, and citation impact has improved from 40% to nearly 60% of the world average. While that means that Indian research still underperforms in per-paper influence compared with other nations, the gains represented by these statistics are noteworthy.

For the 11-year period from 2000 to 2010, India accounted for 2.8% of all the scientific publications. What are the fields in which India "held the highest world share"?

... agricultural sciences (5.8%), chemistry (5.4%), materials science (4.8%), pharmacology (4.4%), plant and animal sciences (3.7%), physics (3.6%), engineering (3.3%), and geosciences (3.2%) – all higher than India’s overall 2.8% share.