Saturday, April 30, 2005

Ten laws of the modern world

Via Patrix : has a nice list of Ten laws of the modern world. Among other things, it includes a truly delicious entry called Andy and Bill's law, says the Laffer curve is why "India is rocking now", and presents Ogilvy's Law:

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.

Apparently, David Ogilvy said this in the 1950s.

EGA, once again.

Via Mall Road's Shivam Vij : Amy Waldman has a report in the New York Times on the much diluted (some would say 'sabotaged') Employment Guarantee Act, about which I have written before.

Read Waldman's report before it goes behind the NYTimes firewall in a week. It quotes both proponents and opponents of EGA; first off the block are the opinions against EGA:
'Where energy and policy should go is how to accelerate the growth, and not be distracted by these old slogans that really made sense 40 years ago,' said Surjit S. Bhalla, an economist who opposes the employment law.

"The finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, made a similar argument in an interview, saying that while an employment guarantee could 'keep the pot boiling once a day,' it would not end poverty. That could be done, he said, only through 7 to 8 percent annual growth and 'real jobs.'"

Then come arguments for EGA:

Mr. Dreze says that even if the poverty-reduction figures are valid, which many economists dispute, the economy would have to grow at a much faster rate than even the most optimistic estimates if it were to truly improve the lot of the poor.

"The way we're going now it is going to take forever to get people to an acceptable living standard," he said.

Even 1 percent of gross domestic product - the expected price tag for the employment law - was a small price to pay for easing hunger, stemming seasonal migration and reducing child labor, he argued.

Thankfully, in spite of the "he said, she said" tone of this first part, Waldman's report does a credible job of describing how things are on the ground. Nothing new to anyone who has been following this issue, though.

Interestingly, Waldman's report discusses both EGA and the mid-day meal scheme (MMS), which has been mandated by the Supreme Court to cover the entire country. She has checked out how the latter works, and needless to say, she has good things and bad things to say about it ("he said, she said" all over again!). What are the good things? "A study by the Center for Social Equity in New Delhi said the program had especially helped retain girls, who are often the first denied schooling in poor families; improved child nutrition; and encouraged mixing among castes".

I too drew a parallel between EGA and MMS in my earlier post in January. The point I made then remains valid today: "I have not seen good arguments against the scheme, only some rants about how it will not work, how our politicians cannot be trusted with it, how we cannot afford it, etc."


Friday, April 29, 2005

Buffett on interesting investments

Via the always excellent Rajesh Jain (who got it from one Yuvaraj): a paraphrase of remarks by the legendary Warren Buffett, aka the Oracle of Omaha, made to the students of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business:

If there's one thing that you leave here with today, it should be this: And I'll start with a question to get to my point. If you could pick 10% of one person in this room to own or 'go long' for the next 30 years, who would it be? It wouldn't be the person with the highest IQ; it wouldn't be the star athlete; you would look for certain other qualities ... And if you had to pick one person to 'short' for the next 30 years, who would it be? Now ask yourself why you have made those selections. If you've considered these questions properly, the person you've gone long is probably someone who is honest, courageous, and dependable; the person you've shorted is probably someone who is egotistical and likes to take the credit. The point is that success is mostly dependent upon elective qualities, not anything with which you are born. You can choose to be dependable or not. And it's not easy to change, so choose correctly now. Bertrand Russell once said, "The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they're too heavy to be broken." So ask yourself, "Who do I want to be?" At the end of this process you should determine that the person you want to buy is yourself. You all are holding winning tickets.

Is the future already here ?

In comments on a post at Satya's excellent blog on Education in India, Naveen said, "[we] also tend to forget that the traditional notion of education may be radically discarded and new forms of cheaper and effective education might emerge". I had no idea at that time that the future would arrive so soon:

Looks like our days of non-redundancy are numbered ...

It keeps going, and going, ...

... and going! Remember the commercial in which a toy bunny powered by Energizer batteries keeps going and going -- sometimes into commercials for other products ?

The fight between the rich kids is still going strong. The analogy with the Energizer bunny goes deeper than this observation, though. Their fight has such staying power that it is going into many other things, and who knows, it may actually appear in a commercial! See footnote [1].

Anil's resignation from the IPCL board, his letter to the Reliance Industries board, his claim that "it is Reliance XI vs. me", edgy markets getting spooked by Anil'sletter to SEBI, ... Well, it keeps going, and going!

I love this fight, simply because it shines light on the rich and infamous, and on pious notions that capitalism is all about perfect markets. It gives us all a clue to what makes these men -- and the markets -- tick.

[1] It may already have happened; remember the two brothers separated by an unbreakable wall in the ad for Ambuja Cements ?

Annals of academic angst - 2

We have already seen some examples of angst that is rather unique to academics. Here is one which is somewhat more general: "[a] little morality tale, in which our hero resists the lure of easy money and emerges with his self-respect somewhat intact". Read this excellent piece by Sean Carroll, a cosmologist and an atheist.

Also read this other post by Sean, and you will learn, inter alia, about dark religious forces (can religious forces be anything else? ;-) that are all around us.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

IITs' get recognized by ...

... the US House of Representatives! (via Economic Times)

The Congressmen passed a rare resolution commending "their significant contributions to society in every profession and discipline".

Take a look at the resolution:

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) recognises the valuable and significant contributions of Indian-Americans to American society;

(2) honors the economic innovation attributable to graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology; and

(3) urges all Americans to recognize the contributions of Indian-Americans and have a greater appreciation of the role Indian-Americans have played in helping to advance and enrich American society.

Congratulations, IITs !

Kathy Sierra on teaching

You really ought to check out Kathy Sierra's blog, "Creating Passionate Users". It is full of interesting nuggets about how to transfer stuff -- concepts, ideas, info, etc. -- from one brain to another brain, through books, courses, seminars, conferernces, whatever. Kathy is one of the authors of the "Head First ..." series of books (published by O'Reilly) that teach concepts in programming and software development using highly informal -- but tremendously attractive -- techniques. Her posts on teaching are informed by her experience with the "Head First" series of books.

Here are the links to Kathy's posts that are relevant to teaching:

I am sure you too would agree that she has lots of interesting things to say!

Note: This was originally posted on the blog of small things on 8 April 2005

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Blogspotting at BusinessWeek

BusinessWeek did a story last week titled Blogs will change your business. Nice, long, well researched article about blogging and its impact on businesses. Somewhere near the end, you get this gem:

Hate to get wiggy here. But if the blogs eventually swallow up ad revenue, what's going to happen to us?

Yes, we, too, are under the gun. MSM, the bloggers call us. Mainstream media. And many of them delight in uncovering our errors, knocking us off that big pedestal we've occupied since the the first broadsheets started circulating.

We have to master the world of blogs, too.

So, .... ladies and gentlemen, ... heeeere's Blogspotting !

Update: In the interest of fairness, I have to direct you to these two critiques by Henry Copeland (the first one is a serious swipe at BusinessWeek's ability to spot emerging trends ;-), and Stephen Baker's response at Blogspotting.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Demographic sweet spot

Times of India carried a couple of stories about demographic shifts in the world.

The first report is about how a special demographic status awaits India due to its younger population and higher fertility than pretty much the rest of the world, including our big brother to the north, China. One of the consequences is that, by 2020, countries such as Japan and the US will collectively "need" more than 40 million people of working age, while India will have a surplus of 47 million people in this age group.

In what sense does a country "need" people? One version of the answer that I have heard is that the West, due to its social security obligations -- with defined benefits independent of the workers' contributions -- need a certain number, say n, of working persons for each retiree. Older population, lower fertility and an ever increasing life expectancy contribute, over time, to a larger number retirees being supported by an ever-shrinking size of working age population; in other words, a demographic disaster! Thus, these countries "need" young workers to keep their economy going (and growing), so that the taxes they pay can be used for paying for the retirees's social security benefits. In a recent post, Brad DeLong mentioned that "raising immigration by 0.3% of the workforce every year wipes out nearly half of the 75-year Social Security deficit".

While this figure appears modest, it still represents some 800,000 to 900,000 immigrants every year. Where will they come from? The Times article appears to imply that India could be the source.

Some questions that I would like to see answered:

  • Is any of this really believable? Can we actually count on the developed countries to open their arms to welcome so many immigrants every year?
  • Is this a good thing for India? What leverage does this give a country like ours with "surplus workers"?
  • Are there other important ways in which the developed nations "need" people of working age?

Any inputs would be greatly appreciated.

The power of love

Via kitabkhana:

Salman Rushdie has a nice article in today's Guardian on "how literature can transform information into gold". Here is an extract that should interest the metallurgists or chemists among you ;-)

... From China, from Japan, from Cuba, from Iran, literature brings information, the base metal of information, transmuted into the gold of art, and our knowledge of the world is forever altered by such transformational alchemy.

The last two paragraphs are absolutely great:

The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still an idea worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it's a truth that's in hock to nobody, it's a single artist's unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it's incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book's truth is slightly different in each reader's different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader's imagination, and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can't. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance.

Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.


Monday, April 25, 2005

Why do academics blog ?

While trying to look up Tyler Cowen's post on Bangalore for an earlier post, I came across a nice thread that started with a question by the Crooked Timber's Eszter Hargittai: what are the academic contributions of blogging?

In a thoughtful post, triggered in part by Eszter's question, Tyler Cowen presents several possible models.

While these models are fine, Cowen's last point gives the game away: "blogging is a fundamentally new medium". Thus, its academic use -- or, for that matter, any other use -- is yet to acquire a clear shape (or a few well defined shapes). Different academics have taken to blogging for different reasons. For an academic in a highly specific scientific discipline, use of a blog as a vehicle for my academic pursuits is certainly limited; that is why I use a different blog for my academic concerns, and I fully expect it to have a rather limited audience.

However, an academic in the sciences does have other concerns, too, and some of them could be of general interest; he/she needs some way to express these concerns, and to have them discussed and debated. For example, one of the recurrent themes in this blog is the state of higher education in India. Blogging fits these requirements perfectly. As Henry Farrell put it in a recent post: "blogging offers academics a means of connecting with [the] wider public without having to leave the academy. ... [It] does give license to write in a freewheeling way, to speculate, to polemicize and to give a bit of free rein to your hobby-horses".

All this, and then the fact that no academic has been fired (um, ... yet) because of blogging!

I trade, therefore I am ...

Check out this Economist story about how the early humans may have had an (evolutionary) advantage over the Neanderthals. It discusses the work of Jason Shogren and his colleagues at the University of Wyoming; this work suggests that "trade and specialisation are the reasons Homo sapiens displaced previous members of the genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man), and emerged triumphant as the only species of humanity".

While we are talking about the Economist, I just want to say that it has some of the best science writing that you can find at the popular level. Take a look, for example, at this story about beauty in mathematical proofs and this one about how fasting may help you live longer.

Is Bangalore doomed ?

Via Ravikiran Rao comes this story about Bangalore's crumbling infrastructure, and how it could seriously affect the (further) development of IT and ITES industry. The story requires subscription to the Economist, but Rajesh Jain has some extracts. The following is a slightly expanded version of the comment I posted on Ravikiran Rao's post.

This “Bangalore-is-doomed” meme dates back, to me at least, to this post by Tyler Cowen. Since then, I have seen stories in several Indian magazines (India Today, The Week, Outlook …) on the infrastructure bottlenecks in Bangalore. The Bangalore edition of the Hindu ran a story a couple of days ago about how air travel time (including waiting time at the airport) may actually be shorter than the time one spends getting to the airport!

As a citizen of Bangalore, what do I think? All of it is true! Traffic snarls are common, so are electricity cuts. Fortunately, we don’t have a port that could add to our woes…

However, the real question is whether all this will “doom” Bangalore, and my guess is that it will probably not. Bangalore has many assets, its benign weather being the most prominent. Firms are coming here in droves. Microsoft, Google, Bell Labs, Yahoo are all here, and so are Oracle and SAP, and they have all announced plans to expand their Bangalore operations. A major biotechnology convention just happened, and reports indicate that all the biggies were here.

Bottomline: The current momentum could carry the city for another 2-3 years; now, if the politicians so desire, that is ample time to repair the damage, and put things back into shape.

In spite of the pious stuff mouthed by the State Government (at the inauguration of the biotech conference, the Chief Minister said something to the effect that his government is fully siezed of the importance of infrastructure, and they are making every effort -- every effort! -- possible to improve it), companies do keep coming here to set up shop, or to expand their existing shops. It is probably worth pointing out that it is the confidence and cockiness derived from this inflow that probably led the Government to not pay much attention to veiled threats from people like Azim Premji (Chairman, Wipro) that they may take their business elsewhere.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Naughty academics!

Have you heard of a new software called SCIGen, that generates academic, conference-worthy papers, packed with features including figures and citations? Its capabilities are so wonderful that a conference even accepted a paper generated by this software.

We now take you over to LanguageLog (Mark Liberman), and to Ernie's 3D Pancakes (Jeff Erickson). Also at LanguageLog, Arnold Zwicky does a wonderful job of deconstructing for you the credentials of the organizer of the 'spamference' (don't you love this word?) that accepted the paper.

Mark Liberman's post also has some juicy stuff about a couple of other scams that academics have managed to pull off!

Friday, April 22, 2005

Biography of John Kenneth Galbraith

A quick link to a wonderful review of Richard Parker's biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics by Brad DeLong.

Brad does a very good job of summarizing Galbraith's key contributions to economic thought and US policies. He also admits that his influence in economics -- at least as practised in the US -- is almost zero:

Galbraith sees the United States as a would-be social democracy that has lost its way, assuming that if only the self-serving declarations of the right could be wiped away, the benefits of a bigger, more activist government would become obvious to everyone. The right-wing claim that the most efficient economy is one in which the gales of perfect competition scour the land is, in Galbraith's view, nonsense. Modern industrial and post-industrial production is a large-scale process, large-scale processes require planning, and planning requires stability -- which means that the gales of the market must be calmed.

This political vision, however, has been in retreat since the early 1980s. Nobody wants to hear about the importance of Big Government, Big Bureaucracy, or Big Labor (which hardly even exists). Galbraith's economic views have undergone an even more distressing eclipse. Among economists (excluding economic historians), the 70-year-olds have read Galbraith and think he is very important; the 50-year-olds have read Galbraith and know that the 70-year-olds think he is important but are not sure why; and the 30-year-olds have not even read him.

A few paragraphs later, Brad says:

Parker also has an explanation -- also a relatively convincing one -- for the eclipse of Galbraith's economic thought. The story here is of the blindness of an academic establishment steeped in Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis. Economists, Parker believes, have sold their birthright for a tasteless pottage of mathematical models. As a result, they can say much about theory but little about reality. And they ignore Galbraith because he is a guilt-inducing reminder of how much broader and more relevant economics can be.


[...] Nearly all economists today are Paul Samuelson's children. Many are Keynes' children. Friedman, Robert Lucas, Robert Solow, and James Tobin all have plenty of descendants. But there are few Galbraithians on the ground. [...]

Also, do take a look at Paul Krugman's review of Galbraith's The Good Society: The Humane Agenda, to see how a modern -- and highly regarded -- economist views Galbraithian ideas and ideals.

How to get a job at IITs ?

While commenting on an earlier post about recruitment troubles at IITs, Sudeep asked how the "whole process of becoming a professor at IISc/IIT" works. Since the topic is of more general interest -- it applies to academic institutions in general -- I just decided to do a regular post on it.

The short answer to Sudeep's query is that it works the same way it works with any other university anywhere in the world; we are truly globalized! For the long answer, read on ...

Typically, sometime during your post-doctoral stint, you write -- by e-mail or snail mail -- to the Chairman of the Department you wish to join: send your CV and a covering letter. You may also send a statement of research and teaching interests. Timing your application is not critical; you can send it in at any time of the year. Our Institute, for example, keeps an open advertisement on its website all through the year. It mentions typical requirements for an Assistant Professorship: Ph.D followed by three years of post-doctoral experience (relaxable in exceptional cases), and preferably less than 35 years of age. See this advertisement from IIT-M, which just states they want someone with an "established record of independent, high quality research and commitment to teaching and research". Don't even ask me what constitutes an exceptional case or high quality research. While we emphasize the value of precision in our students' term papers, we academics prefer to be coy in our recruitment ads ;-)

It would help a great deal if you also visit the Department to (a) give a seminar, (b) get to know people, and allow them to get to know you, and (c) personally experience what the Department, its people, students, policies and culture are really like. A visit is almost always mandatory if you are currently working in India.

A committee will consider (about once a year or so) all the applications, and will select the candidate(s) for appointment. If you are lucky to have applied just before the meeting of this "selection committee", you will know the decision soon; otherwise, the delay could be as much as a year. During this period, the Department Chairman may keep you informed about the status of your application. In the absence of such feedback, all you can do is just wait!

This general procedure is probably valid for all academic institutions which, like the IITs, have -- and exercise -- a nebulous quality called autonomy. On the other hand, many Indian universities consider only those applications that are filed in response to their recruitment ads. One also sees IITs' ads in the newspapers; I don't know if their timing signifies anything. Perhaps someone from the IITs could comment.

There you have it! I can't believe it took five paragraphs ...

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Academic putdowns

Drop everything, go over to Crooked Timber to read this absolutely wonderful academic putdown discovered by Kieran Healy. Go there, now!

Hmmm..., now that you are back, perhaps you have time for a few more? Check out my earlier post for several more of dim observations about academics.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

This and that ...

Just a quick collection of links that I found interesting. In a way, this is my own little blog mela, except that some of the links are not to blog posts.

Here we go:

  • Barry Schwartz, the author of The paradox of choice: Why more is less, gives excellent advice to the 2004 graduates of Swarthmore College in a commencement address: use your judgement about when to really go for the best, and when to settle for 'the good enough'. The advice is reality- and science-based. Just a word of caution, though: reading it might change your life!
  • Via Yazad: An interesting piece on flat taxes in the Economist.
  • Crooked Timber's Daniel Davies, a.k.a. dsquared, warns you: Don't look up. It's about the Welsh struggle for nationhood.
  • Over at the ZooStation, Vinay Nair, who is an assistant professor of finance at Wharton is moved to post something about -- you can start moaning now! -- pornography! In the comments, Prashant Kothari asks him about the evolutionary significance of visual stimuli represented by porn. Vinay's co-blogger Anand provides an answer that fits their blog's title rather well... I have to admit that it is all nice and academic.
  • Finally, an old newsgroup post by my good friend Ramesh Mahadevan titled This and That -- now you all know where I got the title of this post from. Ramesh's site is a great resource that has pretty much everything written by him, including those riotously funny stories whose hero is an IIT-M graduate called Ajay Palvayanteeswaran. Yours truly managed to find a mention in one of Ramesh's posts, and that makes yours truly mighty proud! So proud, in fact, that it is a permanent part of the blogger profile that you find on the sidebar.

That's all folks!

On the other hand ...

Just yesterday, I blogged about women's solidarity with bar girls. Today, do take a look at another view, this time from the testosterone-filled editorial rooms of the Economic times (Bangalore edition, 18 April 2005).

The editorial worthies express sympathy for, and solidarity with, -- just hold your breath -- the men! Why? Because the poor souls will miss all the action at the dance bars! Just a couple of short extracts:

[Snip...] To understand a dance bar, it’s very important to understand men. At any time, any place, a man has the selfless urge to gape at a woman in unconcealed appreciation but the class distinctions that women so cruelly follow makes ogling flattering when a silky-haired good-looking man in Allen Solly does it, but offensively leery when performed by a taxi driver.

[...] It is the benevolent nature of the dance bar, to let men be men, without a single blouse being displaced.

Sadly, honest manhood in Mumbai will lose its last oasis of legitimacy. The world is increasingly becoming a difficult place for men. [...]

Please wipe those tears off your cheek, will you?

It is indeed nice to know that the 'internets' offer such a great variety of whines ...

Monday, April 18, 2005

Education Raj

Just a quick note to tell you about an article in today's Economic Times by Pankaj Jalote, a professor in Computer Science at IIT-Kanpur.

Pankaj proposes a new way of regulating higher education that would allow students to make an informed choice when they consider different institutions to pursue their college/university education in. In his model, which is based on how the corporations are regulated, only minimal criteria are imposed on those who wish to start colleges (or, even universities), such as minimum initial capital, college size, college type, etc. But the regulations would impose strict (though simple) conditions regarding disclosure: tuition fee, living expenses, infrastructure fee (if any), faculty strength, faculty qualifications, curriculum, track record on campus recruitment, and so on. Such a full monty would give prospective students and their parents a good idea about what they are getting into.

I just want to say I am in total agreement with Pankaj. I too was thinking about posting my views, but Pankaj has beaten me to it.

Update (19 April 2005): Education in India, a blog that is full of news, views and insights about its subject, was there with this idea (together with a "rating agency" model) even before Pankaj; Satyanarayan, the author of this truly wonderful blog, is not only thoughtful, but also graceful in expressing his agreement with Pankaj's views in ET.

Recruitment troubles at IITs ?

Kesavan Mukundan, in a report in yesterday's Times of India, nails down some aspects of the question: "Why do IITs (and other such elite educational institutions) find it difficult to hire -- and retain -- good faculty?". The article talks about IITs, IIMs and Delhi School of Economics. However, I restrict my comments to IITs, since I lack any direct experience with the other institutions.

Naturally, poor salary tops the list of problems. Consider this: A fresh Assistant Professor, who has a doctorate and one-to-three years of post-doctoral experience, starts at a typical gross salary of less than Rs. 20 K per month. Granted, the other perks (mainly on-campus housing) would add anywhere between 5 K to 15 K per month, depending on whether the place is Kharagpur or Mumbai.

In an age when industry offers huge salaries to the graduates of IITs (typically 25 K to 40 K per month; remember, these are B.Tech -- and not Ph.D. -- degree holders!), there just aren't enough people who wish to go for higher studies that would lead to a doctorate degree. Of course, we all know that about 30-40 percent of IIT graduates do go for higher studies, but they go abroad, and only a small fraction of them return to India. Kesavan seems to want to make you feel alarmed about how IITs are going feel a serious pinch because of this shortage; I am not so sure; all said and done, IITs do have a certain aura, which will help them attract not just good students, but also good faculty.

Kesavan also cites lack of research funds as another negative factor. Again, I am not sure; my experience is everyone with a good idea for a research project gets funded. One may quibble about the rather onerous conditions that these funds come with; since most funding agencies belong to the Government, one has to just live with them. However, the basic point remains valid: there is ample research money to go around for everyone (at least for the present).

To be fair, Kesavan's article does mention some of the charms of working in such elite institutions. What are they?

The most important is academic freedom. This reminds me of a conversation I had with Jayant Haritsa who is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Automation in our Institute. Our conversation was about the salary differential between industry and academia (which is very large for his field, and is getting larger). He said, "See, the salary difference is the value of our academic freedom. Doesn't it gladden your heart to know that this value keeps growing ever larger, ever faster?"

The second is the joy of teaching some of the brightest students. I would really like to know how the students feel about the teaching in these institutions.

If money is really important to you, these institutions do offer you an opportunity to earn more through industrial consultancy; I am told that there is no limit to the amount you can earn this way, but I may be wrong. However, you have to be working in (and interested in) industrially relevant applied research. There is also another problem with this route: the consultancy work counts for very little at the time of performace appraisal (read promotion) unless you are able to convert some of this work into a research publication.

After taking into account all these observations, I would say there is some agreement: I think that the future of recruitment at elite institutions is not all that promising, while Kesavan seems to imply that it is actually bleak.

I want to end this post with the following rather sobering (if not scary) observation. If highly reputed institutions such as the IITs have difficulty attracting talented young researchers and teachers, just imagine what lesser institutions (NITs, University Engineering Colleges and other -- affiliated -- Engineering Colleges) must be going through. If they don't attract good, solid academics, how are they going to be able to churn out well trained students, required for country's growing economy?

Update: I have changed the URL of the article to the one in the Economic Times site, where it appeared today (21 April 2005). This one is better, since it includes sidebars and graphics that accompanied the original article in the Times.

Women's solidarity with bar girls

Going by the reports, posts and opinions in the English media and blogs, the verdict seems to be that the government has no business messing about with dance bars and the bar girls. I have nothing new to add to this issue, except to just say that I am in agreement with this verdict. I hope the Government will junk its current policy of moral policing. If at all it should get involved in this issue, it should spend its regulatory energy to ensure better working conditions for the bar girls.

What I have here in this post is just an observation about the fairly large number of women and women's groups that have lent their strong support for the bar girls (if not directly for the bars themselves) in their struggle against the Maharashtra Government's ill-conceived, misguided move to "protect decency". Here is a sampler:

  • Rashmi Bansal, the editor and publisher of a popular youth magazine called JAM - Just Another Magazine, has a blog post:
    "The argument that dance bars corrupt the youth is not valid. The youth have multiple avenues for corruption. Let the youth make their own choice."

    That's the opinion of writer Suketu Mehta, in an interview to Sunday Mid day. The issue in question is the closure of dance bars in Mumbai - and across Maharashtra. And I certainly agree with his assessment.
  • Writing in the Financial Express, Sucheta Dalal, first reveals that she is "no advocate of dance bars", and adds:
    "But the sudden closure of legitimately licensed businesses, without responsibility for loss of state revenue, needs a discussion. And, a blanket ban only covers the failure of police and enforcement machinery and the corruption involved in granting bar licences. It also sets the stage for bigger payoffs to reverse the ban, or to turn a blind eye when the business goes underground".
  • Tavleen Singh in the Deccan Herald:
    "When political leaders run out of ideas, when they no longer know how to meet the people's real demands they resort to cabarets and sideshows to distract the populace. [...] How else to explain why the government should be concerning itself with banning dance bars when there is so much real work to be done".
  • Jyoti Punwani in the Indian Express:
    With the grossest "item numbers" being staple fare on TV, cyber cafes in Mumbai charging as little as Rs 20 an hour to surf the Net, blue-film parlours sprouting in every small town, every second movie being almost soft porn, and X-rated magazines displayed all over the city after 7 pm, it's difficult to judge exactly what role dance bars, where customers must spend far more money than on any of the above, play in corrupting Maharashtra's teenaged boys and male breadwinners. Is it okay to be titillated by crude and graphic images of writhing half-clad women wherever you go, but not okay to actually see them in the flesh?
  • Here is Neha Viswanathan:
    Let's face it. The dance bars' girls are probably doing the same job as actors in cinema. Except there is no camera rolling, and no Simi Garewal to interview them to know about their innermost feelings while they were sipping Coconut water after the shoot.
  • Reshma Patil has a very good front page report in the Indian Express, titled "Mumbai police flaunt the law, ignore fine print".
  • This report in the Hindu (written by a "special correspondent") is a clincher: "Women's groups express support for dance girls", and they cite solid reasons for doing so. On a related note, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sought the comments and response from the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra on this issue in four weeks.
  • The Writer-in-exile, who appears to be a woman, asks, "should dance bars be closed", answers "NO", and gives a bunch of reasons. Take a look.
  • Finally, here is Kama, whose self description at blogger reads, "I am an Indian Devadasi. I therefore believe that sex with men is divine and draws me closer to the presence of my Gods":
    This is so stupid as to be beyond belief ! Anyone who considers making 100 000 dancing women unemployed is going to "prevent" prostitution has got to be a total idiot. However this is typical of the Indian middle class when they seek to protect working class women.

Update (19 April 2005): Do take a look at some men's point of view here

Friday, April 15, 2005

When the taxman comes calling ...

Arnav Pandya offers some advice.

Is HCL the new HLL?

Ten years ago, many people held the view that Hindustan Lever (HLL) was the fount of managerial talent, and many CEOs (of other companies) had HLL on their resumes. Today's Economic Times claims that HCL (Shiv Nadar's conglomerate that has within its fold HCL Infosystems, HCL Technologies, NIIT and many others), goes beyond even HLL. Apparently, not only do managers flow out of HCL like Ganges out of Gangothri (or innovations out of Google), but entrepreneurs do as well!

In a growing economy, when many new firms come into existence, isn't it evident that many CEO's would be needed? Wouldn't they come from existing companies? All else being equal, wouldn't more of them come from big companies than from small companies? Wouldn't there be a good number of CEOs who had worked earlier at Reliance, HLL, ITC, Infosys, Wipro, et al?

Has HCL been truly unique in developing managerial and entrepreneurial talent? The article, written by Vinod Mahanta, tries hard, but I am not convinced.

It is truly shocking!

Is it really possible? Can people really do all this with a cellphone?

Navel-gazing at The Hindu

Can you imagine a newspaper that actually issues a guide that tells the readers how to navigate through it? The Hindu, the great 115-year old newspaper from the South, recently went through a re-design. I have to say the newspaper is much nicer now, but does it need a guide? Come on ...

I thought only the Times of India is into serious self-promotion, with articles about itself (and its affiliates, surrogates) that look like news. Yesterday, The Hindu had two articles (one of them by N. Ram, its Editor-in-Chief), and interview with Mario Garcia, the designer, and a report about a function organized to celebrate this redesign. Today, it has one full page of readers' response to its new look, which Ram says, "offers a more contemporary, elegant, and functional newspaper".

Serious case of navel-gazing, this.

On a slightly different note, why is it that our newspapers do not provide any information about the authors of their op-ed articles? I think it is absolutely essential, even when the author is on the newspaper's staff.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

One more on higher ed

This seems to be the week for articles on higher education. First, there was Abdul Kalam, and now it is the turn of Prof. Philip Altbach of Boston College to give his views in an op-ed in today's Hindu. I hope to have more on this later.

Bachelors program at IISc and TIFR?

Update (almost 10 months later): Venkat, over at Domesticated Onion, offers his opinion on this matter here.

Before I begin, I request you to read this disclaimer: I am writing all this stuff as a private individual; my employer is not responsible for any of the views and opinions in this post -- or, for that matter, in any of the other posts in this blog! .... Hmmm.... I feel much better now!

Let us now start with a scene in the movie, Desperately seeking Susan, in which the character played by the pop diva Madonna is at a party, and her friend introduces one "Dr. Smith" (see [1] in the footnotes) to her. After a bit of stilted conversation, the man leaves the two friends alone, and Madonna asks her friend in a voice full of thinly suppressed disdain, "Is he a real doctor, or is he one of those Ph.D.'s?".

This post is about the question of whether our elite research institutions (ERIs), represented by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), should offer undergraduate (UG) programs. This question is only going to become more and more insistent with time. The reason is simple: the ERIs, whose research capabilities are unrivalled at any other Indian university, do not have an UG program. Sure they offer PhDs by the hundreds every year; but shouldn't they also award Bachelors degrees if they want to be seen as a real university [2]? After all, there aren't many universities without a strong UG program (in fact, I cannot think of any, right at the moment).

There is a widespread perception that undergraduate education -- particularly in the sciences -- is not in a great shape in our universities. Given such perceptions, there will certainly be a move to make the ERIs start UG programs. Let us take a look at two important drivers behind the move, which I think will succeed sooner or later:

1. Remember the recent budget speech by our Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram? He announced that he "propose[s] to provide [to IISc] an additional sum of Rs.100 crore as a grant for this purpose". What is "this purpose" that Chidambaram is talking about? To make IISc a world class university! While the media went berserk with the "world class" meme, I am sure quite soon the attention will turn to the "university" meme. If the premise that real universities -- particularly the ones mentioned by Chidambaram himself: Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford -- are deeply into UG education, don't you think someone in the Parliament is going to ask, "how far has this 100 Crore largesse helped in achieving its stated goal?".

2. Research degrees alone don't a university make. Thus, if you disregard any of the masters programs (e.g. IISc's engineering departments offer M.E., M.Tech and M.Des. programs), what the ERI's do is quite simple, conceptually: almost complete focus on research, coupled with meagre teaching. In other words, this mode of functioning is so similar to that of research labs -- including those run by the Departments of Space (DoS), Atomic Energy (DAE), Defence (DoD), and a giant organization called the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Here is an interesting twist: CSIR has already caught onto this fact, and has already applied to the University Grants Commission (UGC) for a "deemed university" status for some of its labs, so that they can offer Ph.D. degree programs without having to depend on the benevolence of nearby universities. Some people have told me that UGC has granted some of its labs this status, but I have not been able to verify it.

A related point is that starting such institutions that concentrate only on the research programs leading to a Ph.D. degree is not all that difficult. All it requires is a sufficiently motivated scientist who has a powerful politician as a friend. There are quite a few examples of such institutions in India.

Given these facts, I think it is only a matter of time before ERIs decide that they are better off joining the ranks of "real universities" than being a part of this motley crowd of labs and small, specialized research institutions.

I think these two important drivers will do much to push the ERIs in the direction of starting UG programs. I also think that the journey of ERIs towards the goal of UG education and real university-hood is much less difficult than the reverse journey of the universities to improve their research performance (which, I hasten to add, is also essential). Further, given the intellectual firepower available in ERIs, they can easily set an example (for other universities to follow) in terms of innovation in designing and delivering UG programs [3].

Finally, there is an argument that, with the proliferation of engineering colleges all across the country, there will be no takers for UG programs in science. My answer is that science will always attract students if good institutions offer programs in science. In this respect, ERIs are better placed than anyone else.

It is time to end this post with a question similar to Madonna's: "Are you ERIs ever going to become real universities, or are you going to be content with being "deemed universities"?


[1]: I haven't seen the movie, so I am not sure about this name (Dr. Smith).

[2]: A university can be defined as the place where knowledge is created, preserved, and disseminated. ERI's are certainly good at the first two, but contribute very little to dissemination of knowledge to the younger generation on a large scale. Our universities, on the other hand, seem to concentrate on educating students, than on knowledge creation and preservation.

[3]: An educational innovation that comes to mind immediately is to move away from the archaic 3-year B.Sc. program to a more standard 4 year BS program in sciences, that will put it on the same footing with the 4-year BE programs in engineering. Some of you may recall that the earlier, 5-year BE programs underwent some "reforms" to become the current, rather successful 4-year program.

A rather sad reputation ...

There are many people who hold a dim view of teaching and teachers. I have pointed out in the past interesting expressions of such views by Nietsche, and by some of our own.

I found this morning, through a post by Kieran Healy, some juicy quotes which just prove the point that maligning academics is a business that is alive and well.

Just a couple of them here:

Kieran quotes from Patrick O'Brian in The Ionian Mission:

"...teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain."

Harry Hutton, in his comments on Kieran's post, offers this one by H.L. Mencken:

The truth is that the average schoolmaster, on all the lower levels, is and always must be essentially and next door to an idiot, for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so puerile an avocation?

I suggest you read Kieran's post and the comments. I found a few more such quotes by doing a bit of googling. Here is another one from the legendary H.L. Mencken, whose writing is a veritable source of juicy quotes on all kinds of things:

Of all the human qualities, the one I admire the most is competence. A tailor who is really able to cut and fit a coat seems to me an admirable man, and by the same token a university professor who knows little or nothing of the thing he presumes to teach seems to me to be a fraud and a rascal.

and, finally, this one from the great Mark Twain:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

If you know any more of these quotes, as someone put it so memorably less than two years ago, "Bring'em on!".

Monday, April 11, 2005

Economics in one lesson

Via Brad DeLong:

Tyler Cowen tells us that Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson is now online.

Brad goes on to offer a critique of Henry Hazlitt's work; his critique starts with "It's an excellent book to read if one already knows a significant amount of economics"; he then recounts all the conditions that must be satisfied for classical economics to work that are ignored by this book, and offers a tentative conclusion: "his book [is] very dangerous indeed to a beginner in economics". So, beware!

This seems to be Brad's season for recommending online books; in two earlier posts, he recommended Doug Henwood's Wall Street, and Milton Friedman's Roofs or Ceilings? The Current Housing Problem.

Gripe water

The mighty Economic Times talks about a lowly product, gripe water, a category dominated by TTK Healthcare's Woodwards brand that sees minimal advertising of a boring, repetitive kind. Almost all pediatricians are against its use, and some actively attack it. In spite of these problems, the product is a best seller. So, what gives? Vikram Doctor has the answer!

An interesting quote from a doctor who thinks this product is useless: "Gripe water is really only good at soothing the parents"! The company, of course, says these attacks by pediatricians are misguided, since their main complaint -- that the product used to have small amounts of alcohol -- is no longer valid; their product has been alcohol-free since the 80's.

The article also talks about colicky babies who are fed this concoction; I am not so sure. When I grew up, babies were given gripe water routinely -- colic or no colic. I am quite sure this sort of indiscriminate use is still common.

We really have no experience with this product whatsoever, since our son grew up without too much of a fuss. I guess we just got lucky. Thanks Aadhu!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Doug Henwood's Wall Street

Doug Henwood's 1997 book, Wall Street, is now available online. Hat-tip: Brad DeLong, who says "It's a very good book", and recommends it highly. Daniel Davies offers a solid endorsement for the book: he says it could equally well be a textbook for MBA courses.

Abdul Kalam on science in India

The President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's inaugural speech at a recent Indian Physics Association seminar at Kharagpur appears in today's Hindu as an op-ed. It is about attracting bright and enthusiastic youth to science as the major challenge that we face. Here are some of his suggestions:

An assured career in science is essential for a certain number of high quality committed scientists with aptitude towards research. There should be a minimum annual intake of about 300 M.Sc and 100 Ph.D scientists with proper emoluments and assured career growth in organisations such as ISRO, DRDO, Atomic Energy, CSIR, DST, and universities. Private and government funded universities must be encouraged to appoint M.Sc and Ph.D scientists selected through a nationally coordinated competitive selection process. This will be a great motivator for science students and their parents. It will be an assurance to youth and their parents that the future is secure once they take up a career in science.

Experienced scientists and policy makers must recognise the talent available in their organisations irrespective of their position. They must empower young scientists to create state-of-the art laboratories once they have concrete thoughts and vision. Vikram Sarabhai in the initial stages of ISRO brought in a culture of management, which encouraged and satisfied the vision of young scientists that collectively succeeded in making the mission of the organisation a reality.

Universities and Research & Development institutions must encourage and facilitate young scientists to write quality research papers in frontier areas and in prestigious journals. They should also facilitate youth to present papers in national and international seminars and symposia, which will enable them to assess their standard against international benchmarks. Encouraging youth to be lead authors while publishing joint research would be a very good gesture, which youngsters will cherish for many years.

Based on my experience of interacting with 600,000 students, I feel they are looking for role models to follow after their 10+2 career. Approximately seven million students appear for the plus two examinations every year; and three million of them are from the science stream. To attract them to a career in science, we need many novel ideas.

Youth must be made to understand the beauty of doing science, the pleasure of doing science, and the ultimate bliss when results of science make you understand nature, master it, control it, and finally make things that improve the quality of life of humankind. Every scientist must pledge that he or she will spend at least some time visiting schools to ignite young minds by recounting his or her experiences.

Laptops for poor kids?

Uh oh, Nicholas Negroponte (of MIT's Media Lab, whose audacious plan to use Indian Government funds to run its own version in India was scuttled by Arun Shourie about 12 - 24 months ago) is deeply into development through ICT, again! The Hindu had this AP report about his efforts to get low-priced laptops into the hands of children in the developing countries. Apparently, Dr. Negroponte has made a pitch for this plan in January at the World Economic Forum, and has a few corporate backers: Advanced Micro Devices, Google and News Corp.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such pious initiatives. The only problem is from a simple fact: what the children in developing countries really need is proper education -- good public (or inexpensive private) schools, teachers, blackboard, and .... hold your nose ... toilets! I certainly wouldn't like our governments to get into such fancy projects because of all the good media they get, and divert scarce resources to them instead of things that would make a real difference -- like schools.

Read the report anyway, and there is some interesting information regarding technology bottlenecks (mostly in the form of display monitor) that need to be tackled in creating a 100 Dollar laptop. There is also a reference to the Simputer, "a $220 hand-held device developed by Indian scientists in 2001 that only last year became available and is not selling well". Four of our colleagues from the Institute were involved in developing the simputer, and their version is being marketed in India under the brand Amida Simputer. While it has some really cool features, I guess in this age of 4000 rupee mobile phones, it would really be difficult to sell a 11000 rupee hand-held device.

Update: looks like the "simputer is a failure" meme has been slash-dotted. This time, the discussion is about this AP story.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Director Balaram

Deccan Herald, Bangalore's very own newspaper, has reported that Prof. Balaram is the choice of the search committee appointed to select the next Director of the Indian Institute of Science, where I work. The reporter has of course hedged things by saying that his selection needs to be approved by several layers of bureaucracy, including the President of the country.

This is absolutely fantastic news for us in the Institute. I am sure many people have known the public face of Prof. Balaram as the editor of Current Science, India's leading journal for science and science news; in his editorials, Prof. Balaram has tackled some of the pressing issues that this country faces in the realms of science education and research. In the discussions on the practice of science in India, his has always been a voice of reason, sanity and understated passion.

I just want to recount an episode from 2002. In its issue dated 25th October, the magazine Science reported that Shobo Bhattacharya (then a scientist at NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey) was chosen to head the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, where he still is the director. In the article, the reporter quoted several senior and "very senior" scientists from India complaining that there were very few bright scientists left in the country to take up such leadership positions, and that there is a " missing generation"; let me recount some of their quotes:

  • C.N.R. Rao: "There is a lack of leaders in the age group of 45 to 55 years..."
  • M.G.K. Menon: "Without question there is a certain crisis"
  • Goverdhan Mehta: "With our scientific output on the decline, this [leadership crisis] was inevitable ..., and the problem is going to become even more acute"

The rest of the report is peppered with "missing generation", "slim pickings", "matter of serious concern", and other such nonsense. Reading this report was so painful for me and many others -- don't get me wrong here: our pain was not because of the selection of Shobo Bhattacharya; after all, if he was the best among the contenders, he should be chosen. Period. Our anguish and pain were due to the derogatory remarks (that were plainly contrary to any objectively observable facts) about a whole generation of younger scientists; my first reaction on reading these remarks was, "Uh oh, these guys are so clueless they don't even know what to say when a reporter's mike is in front of them". After a bit more of thought, I concluded that these guys are truly -- and shamelessly -- self-serving; after all, the beneficiaries of the meme that there is a missing generation in science leadership are just the guys spreading this meme actively; using this meme as a pretext, they get to continue to lead science in the country -- possibly for life!

Well, you would not be surprised to know that many of us felt very strongly at that time that these senior scientists did a great disservice to the cause of science in this country through their irresponsible statements. Therefore, you can imagine our immense relief when Prof. Balaram echoed our views (and then some) in this Current Science editorial two months later. Read his editorial, and you will see why I am happy that he is going to be the leader of our Institute.

Joel on FogBugz

Here is a very interesting series of five articles by that great writer on software development, Joel Spolsky, whom I have mentioned before. In this series titled "The Road to FogBugz 4.0", Joel recounts the history of development of the new version of his company's flagship software. I really don't have any idea about FogBugz, but I can appreciate much of what he says about software development; and, he says a lot also about much else about running a business, the role of interns, strategy, pricing, and so on. Read the articles; they are educational, informative, entertaining and great!

Along the way -- in the fourth article, I think -- I learned of a couple of really nice sites. One of them is the CSS Zen Garden which is devoted to website designs using nothing but web standards established by W3C and other organizations. In particular, it uses just XHTML and CSS to produce beautiful designs for web pages (it contains an archive of designs contributed by others). All this may sound rather drab, but take a look at their astonishingly fresh designs, and prepare yourself to be amazed!

The other link I found is to Mike Gunderlo's site The Daily Grind. Mike's advice for writers, while seemingly written to an audience of writers about computers and software, should be useful for others as well.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Economic lessons

Prof. Bradford DeLong seems to be in a mood for entertaining questions and to answer them in a nice teaching mode. He answers two different correspondents (undergraduate students from different places) who ask him the following questions in economics:

  • The first correspondent asks "whether or not Keynes was correct about deficit spending during depressions. By that, I mean whether deficits will provide at least a temporary boost in output and employment". Brad provides " a nice answer; it begins with "It all depends", and goes on to give the criteria that one can use to judge the probability of success of any Keynesian intervention.
  • The second correspondent asks, "However, reading Das Kapital and other things, I am seeing a different interpretation of how an item is valued, and the value of labor verses what I have been taught in traditional classes and I need more understanding. What is the “value” of a product, or of labor? Brad provides the answer using an extended example with which he concludes that the labor theory of value is "simply not a useful tool for either moral philosophy or political action".

Both the posts are crisp and clear, and written in a simple enough language that even a non-economist like me can get something out of them. In particular, the second one on Marx's theory contains some absolutely delicious piece of writing.

Why do academics blog?

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell talks about blogging in academia, and more specifically about why he is into blogging and what new things blogging allows him to do. He predicts that while full-time blogging is not going to take any academics away from their profession, part time blogging will continue to attract more and more academics its way.

Let me just say that I agree entirely ...

PS: It has been a rather dry fortnight; things got a bit too wild at home -- almost all of us were ill, a couple of them really badly. Now that things are back to normal, I am happy to be back.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Annals of academic angst

Well, it has been a while since I posted here. Things were very hectic at home, with everyone deciding to fall sick, almost as if on cue, at the same time. However, everyone is back to their normal business, and it feels good to be back.

Today, I provide links to just a couple of posts; while the posts are by academics in liberal arts / humanities, everyone should be able to identify with the deeply felt views expressed by them.

The first one is from Adam Kotsko (probably a budding academic), who is grappling with what he needs to do to pass academic muster in his chosen field of philosophy. Though he likes conversing with great minds (by reading their texts), he seems exasperated by the "need to make these texts into something, turn them toward the goal of producing my own piece of writing so that I will continue to meet the requirements of scholarly productivity which graduate study is socializing into me". He finds himself trying to "figure out some way to squeeze out a paper on Zizek's use of Kierkegaard, so that I can send it off and people will publish it, so that I can write down on a piece of paper that it has been published".

Look at how an experienced academic -- Prof. Bradford DeLong, a Berkeley economist -- poses the same problem. Academia should really be about conversing with great minds and finding a compelling voice for yourself -- all the while having a great deal of fun. Academic pursuit's resemblance to a game whose goal is to build a CV of professional achievements, if it is taken seriously, will only lead to cynicism that makes you feel let down.

Best thing about both these posts is how beautifully they are able to express -- through just, plain words -- the deepest feelings of their authors. I wish I could do that ...

Note: This was originally posted over at the blog of small things on 5 April 2005.

Update: Over at Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel displays a different type of angst. This time, his musings are about "really important work" vs. "good enough" work, with the former being defined as that worthy of Physical Review Letters (we know what the latter is, don't we? ;-). Thankfully, his inner voice has put him back on track:

[...] every little bit helps. Small papers count almost as much as important ones, when it comes to demonstrating a research track record for a tenure review. By continuing to think big, I'm shooting myself in the foot ...