Friday, May 25, 2012


  1. Mohit Chandra, a partner at KPMG, pens an open letter to India's graduating classes. He talks about "five key attributes employers typically seek," adding immediately that "... these are often lacking in you and your colleagues." Topping his list of key attributes is this: "1.You speak and write English fluently."

  2. Mitch Smith on Intellectual Ventures: Patent Protector or Pest? The question is relevant to India since quite a few top Indian academic institutions (including IIT-B, whose former director left that position to join IV) have a tie-up with the company which many see as a patent troll [see this NPR report, for example].

  3. Nick Hanauer: Who are the job creators? This was a talk he presented at a TED event; but it "was deemed 'too politically controversial to post on their web site'."

IIT-K goes to America ...

... to set up a recruitment office (or something like that).

At IIT Kanpur, ... where about 350 professors are employed, about one-third of faculty positions are vacant.

Now, officials at IIT Kanpur are planning to open an office in either Washington or New York City by the end of the year to try to recruit new faculty members from the United States. Their target: the droves of IITians and students from other top engineering schools in India who end up pursuing Ph.D.s or postdocs at American universities. “This office will help us coordinate our faculty hiring much better,” [Manindra] Agrawal [Dean of Resource Planning and Generation] said. More than half of IIT Kanpur’s faculty members already have graduate or doctoral degrees from U.S. institutions, he said. In the past, the process has worked more informally -- department heads would seek out promising postdoctoral candidates. [From Call for Indian Expats by Kaustuv Basu in Inside Higher Ed].

Though this may appear to be a major initiative, it is not:

The proposed American office will employ two or three people. “We will see how it goes -- we are going into uncharted territory here. And then maybe we will increase the size of the office,” Agrawal said.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rosling on Religions and Babies

"Religion has very little to do with the number of babies per woman," says Hans Rosling in this fabulous TED talk: Religions and Babies. [via Swarup and Gwen Sharp].

Now, watch the awesome Hans in action:

Monday, May 21, 2012


  1. Charles Simic in NYRB: Why I Still Write Poetry. Simic had me hooked right in the first paragraph:

    When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.

  2. Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic: How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit. Worth reading to get some insights into the online culture at two sites that depend totally on contributions from their users.

  3. The Oatmeal (comics): Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived. Warning: Don't click if you are a fan of Edison. [Update: This post attempts a fact-check (Via this comment; thanks, Anirban!) Update 2: A rebuttal from The Oatmeal (thanks, Priyank!)]

European Universities and the Two Body Problem

Just a quick note to link to the Crooked Timber post and comments thread on how European universities handle the issue of academic spousal accommodation (one version of which is the Two Body Problem that was the topic of a couple of posts in recent months).

Lots of interesting views in the comments thread there. Go take a look!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Explaining Privilege

John Scalzi says:

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. [...]

The result? A multiplayer video game called "The Real World". Here's the intro:

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mitt Romney, the Time Traveler

From the ever reliable Onion News Network: Romney To Travel Back In Time To Kill Liberal Versions Of Himself. [Make sure you watch the twist at the end!]

* * *

An earlier post on Mitt Romney: Quantum Politics.

Weird Web Fun

Teddy Wayne in New Yorker: I’m an Article About the Internet That You Repost on the Internet:

What will Mark Zuckerberg do next? Who cares! You do, in an involuntary, Pavlovian way, which is why you’re reading me when you should be outdoors, talking with a loved one, listening to live music, knitting, doing nearly anything else! Make a limp statement about your technocratic dictator that masquerades as wit, you enslaved peon, and pass me on!

Atul Gawande: 200 Years of Surgery

In the New England Journal of Medicine: Two Hundred Years of Surgery. A breezy -- but pain-filled! -- survey of the developments in surgical methods.

Before anesthesia, the sounds of patients thrashing and screaming filled operating rooms. So, from the first use of surgical anesthesia, observers were struck by the stillness and silence. In London, Liston called ether anesthesia a “Yankee dodge” — having seen fads such as hypnotism come and go — but he tried it nonetheless, performing the first amputation with the use of anesthesia, in a 36-year-old butler with a septic knee, 2 months after the publication of Bigelow's report.10 As the historian Richard Hollingham recounts, from the case records, a rubber tube was connected to a flask of ether gas, and the patient was told to breathe through it for 2 or 3 minutes.12 He became motionless and quiet. Throughout the procedure, he did not make a sound or even grimace. “When are you going to begin?” asked the patient a few moments later. He had felt nothing. “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow,” Liston exclaimed.

It would take a little while for surgeons to discover that the use of anesthesia allowed them time to be meticulous. Despite the advantages of anesthesia, Liston, like many other surgeons, proceeded in his usual lightning-quick and bloody way. Spectators in the operating-theater gallery would still get out their pocket watches to time him. The butler's operation, for instance, took an astonishing 25 seconds from incision to wound closure. (Liston operated so fast that he once accidentally amputated an assistant's fingers along with a patient's leg, according to Hollingham. The patient and the assistant both died of sepsis, and a spectator reportedly died of shock, resulting in the only known procedure with a 300% mortality.)

Sounds familiar?

[Update: Edited out the old title and a sentence in the post.]

* * *

In a post about her Stanford education, Lakshmi Saligram has a short segment on her (engineering) undergrad experience that should sound familiar to many of us:

I did my bachelors degree in Electronics & Communications Engineering (ECE), because anyone who “did well” in class 12 usually opted for this track in India. Since I didn’t know what to do with my life at that time, I did what everyone else did. Very quickly I realized that I hated it, but in the messed-up Indian university system that I studied in, once you selected your field of study, there wasn’t any turning back. So what if you made a mistake? So what if you started liking something else? We don’t care. Just sit, and study. And study I did. I hated it, but my grades never showed it. [...] But there was no love, and now in hindsight I realize, if you don’t love it, you will never learn it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

DU's plans for a meta-university: A counterview

A quick follow-up to this post on Delhi University's plans for offering a variety of new programs, including one -- the meta-university -- which will allow its students to earn a degree with course credits from several Delhi-based universities and colleges. In that post, I wondered how these plans are perceived by folks at DU itself.

In the comments section, Vishu points us to this opinion piece by Shobhit Mahajan, a professor of physics and astrophysics at DU.

I am intrigued by Prof. Mahajan's rhetorical choice: he leads off with complaints about implementation details, burying a far more important issue in the article's second half:

It is a truism that in most social systems, whether in business or politics, a buy-in of all stakeholders is an essential prerequisite for any fundamental and lasting change. And the buy-in occurs through a consultative, inclusive process whereby the stakeholders are consulted and persuaded. Unfortunately, none of this has been visible in DU in recent years.

The utter disdain with which the DU administration treats the views of the students and the faculty, and the manner in which it rides over statutory provisions is shocking.

The pattern is by now familiar: the VC announces to the media a new initiative. A coterie of teachers and administrators hurriedly fleshes out the proposals. These proposals are then rammed through the statutory bodies if needed, or implemented using the infamous emergency powers of the VC. The course on 'innovation engineering' is a good example. In its rush to prepare the blueprint, the VC's coterie plagiarised the course and other details from a foreign university website. So much for intellectual honesty and creativity!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sexists at St. Stephens: The 1980s Edition

Drop everything and read this fabulous personal-political narrative by Saba Dewan at Kafila about women's fight for equality at St. Stephen's in the 1980s. Lots and lots of cringe-worthy stuff -- not only about the brutish behavior of (a section of) male students who formed an overwhelming majority at that time, but also about the feigned helplessness by the principal and other senior faculty.

Dewan's article is fantastic for bringing that era alive with some luminous writing. The #Epic Win at the end is a sweet bonus. Yet another bonus is that it appears at a time when the fraction of women among St.Stephen's students has gone up to such a level that the admin there contemplated a 40 % male quota, a proposal that, I understand, has been defeated.

[Don't forget to check the comments where several others join in to share their experiences]

... One winter’s morning as we entered the college gates we were greeted by spray painted graffiti on the drive way and walls ordering us to –“Fuck off!” Inside, the women’s locker room had been raided, lockers had been broken open. Women students’ clothes and undergarments had been pulled out and strewn all over the locker room that had violent threats spray painted on its walls.

Dr. Hala made guttural, incoherent sounds when we barged into his office. Mr. Dwivedi the college dean wondered why we were so agitated. It was just a stupid prank. Other senior faculty members were upset by the ‘prank’ but added philosophically that ‘boys will be boys’. It was obvious that apart from offering the usual lip service the authorities yet again were in no mood to initiate some action. In the midst of all these developments somehow some journalists got wind of the locker room break in and began contacting for comments those amongst us identified as being more vocal on the chick chart issue. Next morning the break in had made headline news of some English newspapers; not surprising really given Stephen’s hallowed reputation and status.

College authorities that had so far refused to take either our complaints on the chick chart seriously or had found the vandalism of college property by their students a matter of any serious concern, were now jolted into prompt action by the newspaper reports. Except that in line with the sexist philosophy permeating the institution the action was directed against the women students; especially those amongst us who had been consistently speaking out on the issue. Dr. Hala and Mr. Dwivedi had been unanimous in directing their ire at us for daring to speak to ‘outsiders’ about college issues that they described as ‘family matters’. Patriarchy was in full damage control. Section 144 was imposed within the campus forbidding any meetings or even groups of students to assemble. We were ordered to keep our mouths shut to ‘outsiders’. And our fellow male students, in two and threes took it upon themselves to shadow the more ‘troublesome’ elements amongst the women including me to insure that we behaved ourselves, did not speak or meet or conspire to further bring down the ‘reputation’ of ‘their’ esteemed college. And just to make sure that we were truly terrorized into submissive silence they would keep muttering as they followed us around, the words that had been emblazoned upon the driveway of the college they professed to love so much –“Fuck off!”

Our complaints once again to authorities fell on deaf ears. We had provoked the boys by our irresponsible actions, made them justifiably angry. It was as usual our fault. And so began our discovery of our strength as women. Realizing that our own college had now been turned into a repressive, hard space some of us began contacting students of other colleges, especially women’s colleges like Miranda House. I.P and Daulat Ram College. The solidarity we received was overwhelming. Students across north campus began joining in to protest gender discrimination and harassment of women students within St. Stephen’s College. Those were enriching, wonderful times. Some of our teachers within college like Dr. Tanika Sarkar, Dr. Sunil Kumar and Nandita Narain extended much needed support. Several alumni like Dilip Simeon, Mukul Manglik and Saleem Kidwai too joined in. And a huge demonstration, one of the biggest ever in Delhi University till then, comprising of students and teachers from various colleges and departments protested outside St. Stephen’s College.

Monday, May 07, 2012

NIPER's War on Whistleblowers

The institution's leadership went after Dr. Animesh Roy in 2009 for blowing the whistle on scientific misconduct. You have to read The Telegraph report by G. Mudur -- Science's Ugly Underbelly to get a sense of how ugly it really was.

Nearly three years later, its leadership has dismissed Dr. Nilanjan Roy allegedly for blowing the whistle on misconduct in financial matters. Rahul has a post (with links) summarizing this case.

The first case came to an end after Dr. Animesh Roy was reinstated in 2011. It is horrible to even imagine the kind of ordeal he went through during those 2+ years -- just because some higher-ups at NIPER felt that their egos were hurt by his allegations.

From news reports, the second case is also likely to go in favor of the whistleblower. It'll leave a deep, shameful scar on the institution if this eventuality arrives after inflicting personal and professional damage to Dr. Nilanjan Roy.

Those at the helm at NIPER, especially its Board members and their chairman, Dr. V.M. Katoch, have to do the right thing. NIPER's institutional reputation is at stake.

Aamir Khan's "Satyameva Jayate"

The first episode of the show was devoted to selective abortion of female foetuses. Two bloggers I respect recommend it highly. Here is Indian Home Maker:

Amir explains that the father’s Y chromosome decided the gender of the baby. He also simplifies why ignoring the issue is not really an option, because nobody is going to remain unaffected by it. He explained what baby girl killing actually means for the society, how it means more trafficking of women to be sold as ‘wives’, less respect for wives and women since they can be bought and sold and then resold. (Remember, Baby Falak’s mother had been sold to a man in Rajasthan as his ‘wife’). How 914 women for a 1000 men translates to millions of missing women and millions of men who are not able to find partners. He recommended solutions – what works he said would be action against the perpetrators. (The same thing works for all crimes, including for sexual crimes against women)

It was good to see single mothers – women who had walked out of their marriages to save and to raise their daughters, being applauded. Don’t you think this would encourage other women in similar situation to take bolder stands too?

Harini Calamur:

Today’s episodes was on the desire for a male child and the accepted, though illegal, practise of female foeticide. It is one thing knowing the data. It is quite another hearing a woman talk about her in-laws who forced her to abort 6 foetuses because they were female. It is one thing to know about a woman being hit, it is quite another to see the scarred face in extreme close up as well as pictures that showed the face when it was all stitched up. The woman’s crime – giving birth to a girl. The show also took head on the myth that female foeticide is rife in villages. It is not. It is practised just as much amongst my neighbours as yours. Statistics show that the richer localities have fewer daughters than the poorer ones. A clip during the show revealed the prevalence of an organised cartel in Rajasthan that provided end to end service in female foeticide. But it was not just about the doom and gloom – it talked about how one DC of Navashehar in Punjab reversed the trend. Solutions are important. Problems are known but is it all beyond hope? no. and that is what is refreshing about this show.

My broken Hindi doesn't allow me to appreciate the show fully; I'm hoping an English-subtitled version will appear soon [Update (9 May 2012): It's here]. This show has done a couple of smart things to expand its reach to all of India by (a) dubbing it into other Indian languages, and (b) getting it broadcast on DD.

You can watch it on YouTube as well; here's the direct link, just in case the embed doesn't work:

Sunday, May 06, 2012


  1. Natasha Mhatre at Talking Pictures: Tree crickets break the rules, sort of. On her recent work at the intersection of biology, evolution, physics, and geometry.

  2. H.S. Ganesh at Colours has two posts on his engineering college days: Part 1: Those Exams ... starts with this: "Engineering eduction was painful, when we were actually there, however in retrospect it was a joke. At least I see it as a joke that makes me laugh..." And Part 2. The Fire! ends with this: "Though I hated the education system, I could never deny that it was the same system that gave me the chance to do some thing worth while, something meaningful - an experience that I would remember forever."

  3. Desi Babu at The Peanut Express: Chappal Kumar and Shoe Sahib.

  4. Digbijoy Nath at Playing with Electrons: What India misses, technologically.

Samanth Subramanian's Profile of Subramanian Swamy

Smart. Opportunistic. Unpredictable. Known for his tenacity as a troublemaker. A a serial failure in politics who dreams of transforming India's economy as its finance minister, and takes an ugly right turn in politics at the age of 72 probably in the hope of realizing his dream.

Swamy's life is also full of zany episodes [his escape from and re-entry into India during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Emergency years is just one example], and Samanth does a fantastic job of bringing them all alive.

Two excerpts from what is sure to become a classic. Here's the first, only because it tickled my inner metallurgist:

... At the ISI in Calcutta, studying for a master’s degree in statistics, Swamy was convinced that Mahalanobis was targeting him for being his father’s son. “Mahalanobis and my father were dead opposed to each other … There was bitterness between them,” he said. Some of his Tamil professors would tell him that they were “under pressure” to grade him poorly. “Everybody was telling me: ‘Your career is over. You better go become an apprentice at the Bhilai Steel Plant.’ Those days, that was the great thing: Bhilai Steel Plant.” [Bold emphasis added] [see also footnote 1]

And the second is about Swamy's troubled and short-lived academic career in India. From his obituary of Paul Samuelson, I knew his version of the story about his non-career at the Delhi School of Economics (Samanth adds some perspectives from Prof. Amartya Sen representing the other side). But this excerpt s about his stint at IIT-Delhi:

... [Swamy] joined the IIT economics department in December 1969. “Swamy came to IIT as a breath of fresh air,” Panini said. “He was saying things that shook me up and made me see my teachers in a different light altogether.”

Panini describes the IIT of the early 1970s as an authoritarian place, which immediately seems to disqualify it as an environment suitable for Swamy. He lasted three years. To the consternation of his peers, Swamy preferred to hang out with junior professors or with his students. Along with Panini and Amit Mitra, now West Bengal’s finance minister, Swamy helped set up IIT Delhi employee organisations, which can only be called right-wing unions, agitating on behalf of their members but not bound to the left, the traditional tent-pole of unionism. He called so stridently for economic liberalisation—blasphemy in socialist India—that even his prime minister was forced to take note; in Parliament, during the debate on the budget in 1970, Indira Gandhi famously dismissed him as a “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas”. He spoke his mind frequently, and caustically, at IIT faculty meetings. Since he didn’t believe in taking attendance in his classes, he didn’t; he simply signed every one of his students in as “Present” and handed in his registers.

This banal matter of the attendance register, in the end, proved to be ostensibly one of the proximate causes for his dismissal from IIT Delhi. One of the students whom Swamy had been marking ‘Present’ for an entire term had, in fact, dropped the class after registering for it, which brought Swamy’s practice to the attention of the IIT’s director. Swamy told me that his dismissal came as a complete shock; he was sitting in his campus office one day in December 1972, he said, and “they sent me this letter, [saying] as of 5 pm you’re out”. But Panini told me that Swamy must have known he was in trouble. “They didn’t ask him to defend himself in an inquiry, so maybe that was why he was surprised. But he knew they were after his blood.” In the first major lawsuit of his life, Swamy sued IIT Delhi for wrongful dismissal; he won, but he is still petitioning to receive the salary owed to him, with 18 percent interest, from 1973 to 1991.

* * *

[1] Several years ago, at the 50th anniversary reunion of our department's alumni, we asked them about how they chose to study metallurgy (which is what our department was until it changed to 'materials engineering' in 2006). They said there was a lot of hype excitement in the media and among the educated circles about India's huge investments in the steel sector, and about how the country will need lots and lots of engineers with training in metallurgy. [Obligatory link to this scene in The Graduate?] (Back to the post.]

* * *

Thanks to my colleague and friend Ram for the pointer.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Sorry State of State Universities

Two opinion pieces. Two State universities. Plenty of problems.

Exhibit A: Mumbai University (from an EPW editorial):

The appointment of the present vice chancellor (VC) in 2010 was widely criticised as an act of political favouritism overlooking his inadequate academic qualifications. However, the education lobby in the state, dominated by powerful politicians (shikshan samrats or education emperors as they are known), has for long manipulated to place amenable appointees in this post. A VC who is dependent on political-bureaucratic patronage is likely to find that he/she has to contend with “recommendations” in filling significant posts. From here it is a short journey towards the erosion of governance structures. But the patronage of politicians does not move on to planning for more funds for the institution, leading to the obvious neglect of higher education in the state. The university’s record in teaching and research in the humanities has been abysmal as is evident in the steady decline of students awarded PhD degrees. Its deteriorating image has had the twin effect of keeping away talented faculty and students not only from the state but also from other parts of the country.

Exhibit B: An unnamed university in Gujarat (from an op-ed by Ananya Vajpeyi):

... The ambience is absolutely stifling. Over and above the routine inefficiencies and mild forms of corruption that plague Indian academia, in Gujarat there is a type of state interference that actually leaves thousands of individuals who are just trying to do their job beleaguered and demoralized.

You cannot trust colleagues or students, who may turn out to be ‘informants’; you cannot speak except in very small circles of extremely close friends and people whom you have discovered to be genuinely like-minded through long association. Needless to say, the chances are abysmal that anyone is going to write great books, deliver memorable lectures or produce beautiful art in this setting, when the thought-police are everywhere. Even the possibility of having a regular, more-or-less uneventful academic career, where one can work with a degree of competence and retire with a degree of dignity, is thwarted.

Still We Are Saints

Of interest mainly to those in Bangalore, this post is an unpaid ad for a play -- Still We Are Saints -- to be staged this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Seva Sadan, Malleswaram. It's the third play by the Header and Footer Club, a student group at IISc, after Safar and 52. [Disclosure: I'm the group's faculty advisor].

I'm reproducing the mail I received from Vyasa Sastry, the writer-director of We Are Still Friends.

The Header and Footer Club have an annual fundraiser where we hold an event for charity. Last year, we collected over 1 lakh INR in just under a week for the Shri Shankara cancer foundation. This year, we plan to do the same for the cause of Seva Sadan Malleshwaram on May 5th, where we will be premiering our new English comedy play at Seva Sadan "Still we are saints". The trailers have generated quite a buzz (we've accumulated more than 1000 views for our 2 videos in less than a week!): Trailer, and Leaked footage.

We're grateful to our sponsors- Navrathan Jewelers & Corporation Bank and our partners- Shoppers Stop, Radio One, Indianstage and bookmyshow for their support.

For tickets, they could call +91 96119 48969 / +91 93428 35852.


Politics is probably the most politically correct substitute word for a lot of negative human qualities. In India, exploiting every loophole is seen as a way of life- converting to another religion to legitimize a marriage, running out a fellow batsman who is playing slowly or maybe even remembering to give a dose of amnesia to a lead character in a soap opera to revive rating points. In short, no duty is dubbed too holy and no law is unbreakable in a case where private wisdom causes public tomfoolery. An alternate way to look at the politics is to call it the triumph of instinct of survival amidst challenging conditions and limited resources at disposal. When conflicting individuals fuelled by ambitions and ideas cross paths, it makes for entertaining viewing, to say the least. In a setup like a university which is a cradle for tomorrow’s leaders and a hotbed for avenues to be noticed early, one can only expect to see the desire to win at any cost, as history, is partial to winners.

The play

SWAS is story of two antipodal characters who are in pursuit of a common goal- a happy ending and a gateway to a great future. The comedy play is set in a backdrop of an engineering college campus (that the today’s adolescents throng for employable courses). The environment, full of students with kindling ambition, serves as a precursor to the way the bad world functions, although in a pre pubescent, Walt Disney way. The lead characters learn the ways of politics, rhetoric and one-upmanship en route to the top of the college food chain. Like any self respecting car manufacturer (looking for a way to the heart of the Indian consumer), they are overly concerned with mileage and image building with the perfect riposte.

The story unfolds in intriguing fashion through the eyes of a starry- eyed junior who describes the chain of events as he gets initiated to college life. The narrative is laced with satires on college going fundas, frequent monologues, pop culture parodies, ad jingles, impersonations, farcical, surreal vignettes and dialogue laden with repartee juxtaposed with everyday conversation. Five actors play the role of over a hundred characters with aplomb in the space of eighty minutes to bring the reminiscences of college in front of the audience. The number of characters was deliberately limited to less than 140 for the keeping in mind the attention spans of the twitter generation!

Running time: 80 minutes (no interval)

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Associate Degrees, Degrees, Honours Degrees at Delhi University

This report in The Hindu by S.N. Vijetha talks about the "grand plans" that Delhi University will implement soon. This one in particular appears important:

Another ambitious plan is to convert the existing three-year undergraduate courses in the university into four-year courses in 2013 with some special features. “The entire university's undergraduate courses will be for four-year, with exit options after the second, third and fourth year. A student exiting after two years can earn himself an associate degree, after three a Bachelor's degree depending on the courses and the fourth year will be an honours programme, which will be more research oriented.”

The stuff about the associate degree seems to me to be the first such program in India -- it will be like the credential one earns from a community college in the US. Combined with the flexible program of courses, including the option to study different courses in different partner institutions, sounds like a pretty radical innovation.

A lot would depend on the details of how these programs are implemented, so we will have to wait for sometime before we get a chance to assess how well they are working.

In the meantime, how do faculty or students at DU (and its affiliate colleges) see these initiatives? Any pointers?

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Case Study in Sociology of Science

In yesterday's post, I linked to a 1992 article in Nature on the months-long ordeal of two chemists who tried to get the Journal of the American Chemical Society to publish their critical commentary on two sloppy papers from Ron Breslow's group.

That article is behind a paywall, unfortunately.

Now, you can still get a sense of that horror story; over at The Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh Jogalekar has an excellent post on the 1992 Nature paper: The anatomy of peer review: Why airing dirty laundry in public is important.

Ashuosh does a great job of drawing out the key lessons from this grim episode: the role of power in the peer review process, and how internet has made a difference in helping scientists to correct the record quickly through blog commentaries. Go read all of it!

The most remarkable fact about this account is that Nature published it, and in writing it Menger performed a unique and valuable public service. Personally I have never seen such a detailed dissection of peer review described in a major journal. Some people would deplore this public airing of dirty laundry. They would say that none of this can undo what happened, and the only effect of such articles is bad blood and destroyed reputations. I happen to disagree. I think journals should occasionally publish such analyses, because it alerts us to the very human aspect of science. It demonstrates to the public what science is truly like, how scientists can make mistakes, and how they can react when they are corrected or challenged. It sheds important light on the limitations of the peer review process, but also reaffirms faith in its ultimately self-correcting nature. Some people might think that this is a great example of how peer review should not be, but I would like to think that this is in fact exactly how the process works in the vast majority of cases; imperfect, ambiguous, influenced by human factors like reputations, biases and beliefs. If we want to understand science, we need to acknowledge its true workings instead of trying to fit it into our idealized worldview of perfect peer review.

In this day and age, blogs are performing the exact same function as Nature did in 1992, and this is clearly apparent from the latest Breslow brouhaha. Menger and Haim in 2012 would not have to test their patience by trying to publish in JACS for 11 months; instead they could upload their correction on a website and let the wonder of instant online dissemination work its magic. Blogs may not yet be as respectable as JACS, but the recent incident shows that they can be perfectly respectable outlets of criticism as long as the criticism is fair and rigorous. The growing ascendancy of blogs and their capacity to inflict instant harm on sloppy or unscrupulous science should hopefully result in much better self-policing, leading authors to be more careful about what they publish in "more respectable" venues. Thus, quite paradoxically, blogs could lead to the publication of better science in the very official sources which have largely neglected them until now. This would be a delightful irony.


  1. Vinod Joseph at Winnowed: How I Ran The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon With My (Almost) Flat Feet And A Bad Back.

  2. Pamposh Raina and Heather Timmons at India Ink have a gripping story on how the Aakash tablet computer project became derailed. Full of intrigue. Part I. The Tangled Tale of Aakash, the World’s Cheapest Laptop and Part II. The Aakash Project’s Bitter Finish.

  3. Marc Parry in The Chronicle of Higher Education: 'Supersizing' the College Classroom: How One Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students. A nice profile of Prof. John Boyer of Virginia Tech.


IT-BHU, my alma mater, has become an IIT. The day this decision gets the Presidential assent, it will start its new life under the name of IIT-BHU [*].

I presume the celebrations started at IIT-BHU yesterday, immediately after the Rajya Sabha passed the relevant Bill. I don't know how the students there celebrate these days; if it's anything like my days there (early 1980s), it would have involved bhang, and lots of it; in which case, the students are unlikely to be sober for several days to come ...

* * *

It's a big day for the IT-BHU Global, the online community of alumni, which had invested a lot of time and effort into keeping track of the progress of this all-important Bill.

* * *

This move will help IIT-BHU attract higher ranked JEE candidates. The IIT tag will also help attract graduate students in greater numbers.

In the long run, though, the biggest impact will be on the faculty. The funding levels should see a significant jump: new equipment, better campus infrastructure, bigger funds for maintenance and upkeep. Faculty have a lot of wonderful stuff to look forward to.

All in all, a tremendously positive change for everyone at IIT-BHU.

* * *

For BHU, however, this change is a net loss [this concern was also the source of some last minute resistance that HRD Minister Kapil Sibal needed to overcome]. An important chunk of this great university -- one of India's very few "Real Universities" -- will get separated physically, and perhaps even intellectually, from its parent. If the IIT campus is going to be distinct from the rest of the university (but within the current BHU campus) with a wall in between, it will also mean a disfiguring of its beautiful, semi-circular campus. If its school of medicine -- IMS, which is at the other end of the campus -- also gets its wish to be elevated to an AIIMS, BHU will end up watching yet another high profile unit fly away from its control.

It'll be interesting to watch how BHU responds to this move.

* * *

The state of Uttar Pradesh is now home to two IITs. Watch out for states like Kerala and Karnataka to renew their demand for an IIT with greater insistence.

* * *

[*] The legislation meant for the conversion of IT-BHU into IIT-BHU was also one meant for ratifying the eight new IITs that started their operations (and academic sessions) in 2008 and 2009. The Bill needed several years to wind its way through the government ministries and was passed last year in the Lok Sabha. But it faced some last minute efforts (by politicians as well as some sections within BHU) to block it. It finally got the 'yes' vote in the Rajya Sabha yesterday.