Monday, March 21, 2005

Chidambaram, Budget-05, IISc, 100 Crores

In this year's budget speech presented to the Parliament on 28 February 2005, our Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram devoted an entire paragraph to IISc! Here it is, in the the subsection titled "Institutions of Excellence":

92. On January 6, 2005, the Prime Minister spoke about his intention to set up a Knowledge Commission to look into the issue of building quality human capital. Government believes that investments in institutions of higher education and Research and Development organizations are as important as investments in physical capital and physical infrastructure. What we need are world class universities, and we must make a beginning with one institution. We must have a university that will be ranked alongside Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Stanford. I am happy to inform the House that we have selected the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, which enjoys a high reputation as a centre of excellence in research and development. We shall work to make IISc, in a few years, a world class university. I propose to provide an additional sum of Rs.100 crore as a grant for this purpose.

Here are my views as an IISc insider (I do plan to post my views as a citizen a little later). Needless to say, I am thrilled that IISc has been given extra money, because I do feel that there are important things that need to be done in our Institute that cost money -- for example, infrastructure: quality of electric power, internet connectivity and bandwidth, and housing for faculty and students. A second and rather indirect benefit is that this recognition of our academic excellence by our pay-masters will also help us in attracting good students and good faculty. This will start a virtuous cycle that could take the Institute higher and higher still.

After listing some of the benefits for our Institute from this 100 Crore grant, I must point out here that I resent the comparisons to Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against these great universities. IMHO, every institution -- ours is no exception -- should constantly strive for greater levels of excellence, without worrying too much about where it is in some pecking order. To evaluate academic performance based on a silly worldwide comparison is just that - silly. Similarly, I think the sentence about making IISc "a world class university" is also silly. To me, what really matters is, not whether we are world class, but whether we make concerted efforts to become better than what we are today (See [1] below).

Finally, let us turn to this question of how the media and the common folks have responded to this special treatment of the IISc? I have not done any exhaustive search, but the print media have been either gushing or gently positive about our Institute. This Outlook story really gushes. This story at ZDNet India (originally from Business Standard) says some good things, and draws important connections between attracting good students, and the emergence of MNC research centres in India (GE, GM, Daimler Chrysler, etc). Times of India, on the other hand, has carried a series of generally positive short reports about various facets of our Institute (Sorry, I have only two links! Their website is so poorly organized, I have not been able to get the links to the others). However, these Times reports contain egregious factual errors! For example, one of them said we don't have an electron microscope and the 100 Crore grant will help us get one! Another gave generously inflated numbers for (a) our annual expenditures and (b) our research publications! See footnote [2] below.

What about the others, including the common man and woman? I suggest that you check out this blog post by Amit Chakrabarty (and the readers' comments) over at the Zoo Station and the comments at the end of the Outlook story. There are quite a few negative remarks there. For example, Amit ends the post with this:

A more meaningful criticism of the IISc is what I alluded to earlier: it's been far less successful at building its brand name than the much younger IITs. As a very young prof working far away from India I can hardly lay claim to knowing the solution but it's clear to me that the 100 crore gift can only help. For starters, perhaps the IISc would consider hiring someone to create a professional website for the institute that actually announces this generous gift? Come on, IIsc! It doesn't take Nobel prize winners to get your website up to Oxbridge standards.

For some (justifiable) envy and disdain among our brethren in our country's grossly underfunded universities, take a look at this Indian Express story (which probably appeared in its Pune edition). Here is a rather understated quote from this story:

While most agree that it is but befitting that IISc get the first crack at upgradation, the reluctance in putting a finger on university-strengthening measures hasn't gone unnoticed.

Let us be clear: all our actions, not to mention our academic performance, will be keenly watched. Any misstep on our part will be used as a stick to beat us (and the parties of the present Government) with.

Finally, I hope our Government will get its act together and start making serious efforts to improve our education system at all levels: primary, secondary, higher secondary, college and research. Particularly in the last two categories with which I am most familiar, our Government should really ensure that institutions, and undergraduate institutions and universities in particular, get adequate funding to make education at these levels modern and truly "world class". Now, that is a goal that our Government should really like!

[1] This editorial Economic Times (7 March 2005; unfortunately, you have to keep clicking next page, until you get to page 3 that has the third editorial titled "Style over substance". See footnote [3] below.) is another example of such silliness. According to it, the recent achievements of Sania Mirza and Narain Karthikeyan are all really not worth celebrating. These editorialist worthies do not seem to realize that these people have achieved what no other Indian has achieved so far, and that, by itself, is a great cause for celebration. I would really pity the sons and daughters of these editors: if they adopt the same standards in their personal lives, their children are probably getting pained by them for not doing anything "world class".

[2] For the record, according to our own internal documents, our budget for the financial year 2004-05 was about 82 Crores of non-plan and 27 Crores of plan expenditures, and about 40 Crores of externally funded research projects. Similarly, our publications number about 1200 per year, and is about 10 % of the national figure for all of India in the fields of science and engineering.

[3] Can you imagine a newspaper website that cannot even separate individual articles in a day's editorial? Indiatimes does it: it puts all the editorial articles in one single page; and asks you to keep clicking "next page". These guys don't know a professional website from a horse's behind; I promise you that I will not buy their shares when they do their IPO!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Something is really strange here ...

I have been wondering about the tactics that Chidambaram, our Finance Minister, employed in his budget. (A) He gives all kinds of tax breaks to both individuals and corporates. (B) He adds two provisions that introduce new taxes: the fringe benefit taxes on companies, and a tax of Rs. 10 for every 10K withdrawal from banks in cash.

Assuming that this year's economy stays the same as last year's, let us consider the following:

  • under the tax breaks in (A), he loses X rupees, and
  • under the new tax measures in (B), he gains a certain fraction f of X rupees (i.e., fX rupees).

Now, our society, like every other society on earth, loves its tax breaks. However, it does not much care for the exact magnitude of the tax breaks. In other words, if each corporate stands to gain Rs. 2 crore under plan (A), the corporates would be equally happy with 1 crore! This is because they would not even know what it is really like to have a tax break worth 2 crores or 1.5 crores or 4 crores or even 0.2 crores. The same argument applies to individuals as well. A tax break of 5K would make me about as happy as a tax break of 10K. You may say, "Come on, you dumbo, certainly 5K should make you less happy (even sadder, perhaps) than 10K!". You would be right, only when I am given a choice (post facto) between 10K and 5K; but before the budget speech, I have no idea about how much I am going to gain, so any tax break that he announces would first lead to a sigh of relief, and then to some happiness.

So, here is the bottomline: the very reality of a tax break seems to heighten the ecstacy levels of corporates as well as individuals. If you accept this reasoning, don't you think Chidambaram would have been better off to (C) give us a break worth only (1-f) X rupees, rather than giving us X under (A) and taking fX under (B)?

Now what has his choice of (A) + (B) given him? Does anyone praise him for (A) and then complain a little about (B)? Hell, no! He gets castigated for doing (B) everywhere, and very little praise for (A)!

If he had done (C) instead, do you think there would be any of this great noise about imposition of an unfair tax on 'legitimate business expenses'?

P.S.: (1) However, there is a distinct possibility that he probably knows much more than any of us (including me!) about his tax measures. My guess is that he is hoping to mop up much more than X through his measures under (B)!

(2) Another possibility is that he did not intend to incorporate (B) at all, except to deflect fire from the Left parties! This sounds more plausible if you look at the current fervour among the corporate types in giving Chidambaram a hard time; as a result, the Left cannot really complain that the budget is too business-friendly. Also, it is quite likely that the businesspeople have already been clued in on this, and they are playing their assigned role of complaining incessantly about the inherent unfairness in the budget!

(3) Perhaps, I have been reading too much of American press and blogs that make me see deep conspiracies everywhere I turn ... ;-)

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More on Summers

This is just a set of pointers to a whole bunch of posts that were made by bloggers after the release of the full text of the speech by Larry Summers that caused such an uproar when the story broke first.

Prof. B**** : More on Summers
Elizabeth Anderson : What is troubling Harvard?
Matthew Yglesias : Summers Redux and Why so mad?
Brad DeLong : Academic filters and The Eighty-hour week
Kieran Healy : Mending the kids, again and Summers lovin'
Mark Kleiman : Larry Summers redux
P. Z. Myers (Pharyngula) : It's more than just math
and finally,
Matthey Yglesias, again : The Case for Shrill

Happy Women's Day!

Atanu and Islam

I read this post by Atanu Dey the other day [if that link doesn't work, this one might]. It is all an entirely reasonable post on the topic of "hunger banquet", and actually, quite interesting. What really got to me in this post is the following:

"Sympathy is all you need my friend, and sympathy is all you need
And sympathy is all you need my friend
For there is not enough love to go around."

Thus sang Cat Stevens. (That is before he converted to Islam and became known as Yusuf Islam, and in keeping with his adopted creed, decided that murdering people was the best way to effect change in the world.)

As soon as I saw this, I said to myself: "Whoa!". At the end of this post, there were a few commenters pointing out that this smart-alecky aside on Islam is (a) unnecessary, and hence, gratuitous, and (b) totally out of character. However, his replies to his comments appear to betray, shall we say, certain pre-dispositions. Well, read the whole post, the comments thread and Atanu's response to some of the comments; then make up your own mind!

A few days later I found a post by Brad Delong with these opening words: "The highly-thoughtful Atanu Dey's Deeshaa wins the Best Indiblog Award". Now, I really couldn't take it. I posted a comment on Brad's post, to which I found a reply by Atanu, to which I replied. Since it has been nearly 40 days since the original post by Brad, I said finally that I am moving all further discussion to my blog.

I expect to post further thoughts on this episode later. So, let me gather everything in one place here .... The comments that we made on Brad's website are:

Me :

Yeah, Deesha is certainly an interesting blog. It was on my regular reading list, until I found this:

"... Thus sang Cat Stevens. (That is before he converted to Islam and became known as Yusuf Islam, and in keeping with his adopted creed, decided that murdering people was the best way to effect change in the world)."

I don't know about Cat Stevens deciding on anything, but I am sure you would agree that this is an insult to an entire "creed". It appears in a post on "hunger banquet", so this insult is truly gratuitous!

How can a thoughtful person -- who wishes to help his country by spreading some economic wisdom -- spew out such hateful words about an entire people, 120 million of whom are also his fellow-citizens?

It is such a shame ...

Atanu :

Did Cat Stevens convert to Islam? Yes. Did he call for the murder of Salman Rushdie for his book after his conversion? Yes. Does Islam require the murder of apostates and those who oppose Islam? Yes.

[You would get some argument about that...]

Is his action consistent with the tenets of his adopted faith? Yes.

Which part of what I wrote is not true?

If what I wrote is misconstrued as "spewing hateful words about an entire people", I suggest a course in remedial reading and critical thinking.

Me again :


I haven't had any course in remedial reading yet! However, I believe one needs only a small dose of critical thinking to realize the following:

(a) Ancient scriptures of any religion would show, upon closer inspection, certain things that its own adherents would find either embarrassing or abhorrent. In other words, there may be some crazy stuff in the scriptures, but the followers, quite sensibly, don't take them seriously.

Today, more than a billion Muslims reject the idea of death sentence for blasphemy. They would recoil in horror at the murder of someone because of a blasphemy alleged in a fatwa issued by a head of state. These modern Muslims, who form an overwhelming majority, deserve our support in their struggle against fundamentalist forces. What they don't deserve are cheap shots that try to tar their religion as 'bad', based on one man's bad thoughts and behaviour.

(b) Horrible atrocities and vicious crimes have been committed in the name of religion almost throughout history, and every religion has also been (at some point or the other) at the receiving end. If patriotism is the last resort of every scoundrel, religion would seem to be the first! Given the universality of this phenomenon across all major religions, why single out Islam for harsh treatment?

Well, while dealing with one's own private prejudices is bad enough, thinking about other people's publicly expressed prejudice and bigotry is truly depressing...

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Toolbar tricks in Google

Google has released the beta version of its Toolbar 3.0. Many people have used its earlier versions (I have one embedded in my firefox browser, I do find it useful for search). So, the newer, better version of the toolbar should be great, right? Well, yes and no.

See, the problem with Toolbar 3 (which the earlier versions did not have) is the autolink feature. What it could do is this: say you are reading a page that talks about a book, and in order to help you find it, the author of this page very helpfully provides its ISBN in the page itself. Now, while you are viewing this page, if you click the autolink button, it would highlight the ISBN with a link, and if you click on the link, it could take you to some online bookstore of Google's choice (which happens to be Similarly, if the toolbar program recognizes an address in the page that you are viewing, clicking on it will take you to -- guess what -- Google maps!

I can still hear you saying what is the problem with the toolbar? It all sounds so useful, and helpful. Well, read the posts by Robert Scobler, the Geek Blogger from Microsoft, here, and here. See also Steve Rubel and Dave Winer.

The basic point that they all make is that everything in a webpage (including links, or lack of them) belongs to its author. Some stupid browser tool cannot be allowed to mess with the content without the author's permission. If, for example (Google's toolbar doesn't do this; however, it may be implemented by some other company, which does not believe in Google's philosophy that says "don't do evil"), the webpage author links to some other online bookstore, but Google overrides this link, and provides an autolink to; I am sure you would agree that it is unethical. Even more bizarre would be when the toolbar overrides (at the browser) all the links in, say, the Barnes and Noble website to provide autolinks to Amazon! Well, I could give you many more examples, but I think you get the point.

Well, there are people on the other side, too! See Fred von Lohmann and Cory Doctorow. They make some interesting points, to which Scoble provides good answers here. In this last post, he seems to concede defeat, but goes on to suggest some ways in which both the user and the content provider can exercise some control over the webpage, so that Google's control over these links can be overridden in a more transparent way.

Clearly, the last word is yet to be spoken.