Monday, May 30, 2005

Pankaj Jalote on the future of IITs

Pankaj Jalote, a prefessor of computer science at IIT-Kanpur, has a nice article in the 'learning curve' section of today's Economic Times on What does the future hold for the IITs?. We have had an occasion to refer to another very good article by Jalote.

He considers several possibilities for the evolution of IITs (a) more of the same, (b) Caltech model (focused, small, research university), (c) Georgia Tech or MIT model (large -- 10,000 to 20,000 students! -- tech-oriented university, with a strong and large research base) and (d) large, general purpose -- may we say, real? -- university, a la Berkeley, Purdue, UIUC. He gives nice arguments for and against each option, but it is clear that he likes options (c) and (d), in that order. There is still the question of how these two options may be funded (he gives a figure of 1000 crore -- 10 billion -- rupees, and more). Jalote also presents a tantalizing possibility that each IIT may be allowed to choose its own course of action.

All in all, a satisfying article. Let me end with a quote from the final paragraph:

IITs are at a threshold today, they have had an excellent first innings, but there is no clarity on the purpose of the second. A clear future vision needs to be defined for these institutes of national importance, such that they, along with the government, can work in a defined direction for their next innings.

Deepak Nayyar on universities

[ Via Uma at Indian Writing ] : Deepak Nayyar, who stepped down recently from the Vice Chancellorship of Delhi University, has an Indian Express op-ed titled "Universities in the sick bay". This article is good in parts, and is certainly better than what we got from the Hindu's interview and the Business Standard's interview; see also my earlier post, and the comments therein. Let us look at some of the points in Nayyar's op-ed:

In the next 25 years [1975 - 2000], two things went wrong. The first was the mistaken belief that research should be moved out of universities, as we attempted to create stand-alone research institutions pampered with resources. In the process, we forgot an essential principle -- that there can be no good research without teaching and no good teaching without research. For there are synergies between teaching and research which enrich each other. And it is universities that are the natural home of research.

In other words, money was siphoned off from the university system (interestingly, Nayyar rejects the notion of a fixed education pie when he talks about primary vs. higher education, while he seems to embrace it when it comes to money meant for supporting research). Where did the money go? In science and engineering, it went primarily to the extensive system of research labs run by different government departments such as defence, atomic energy and space. However, the primary target of the critics of Indian higher ed policy is the civilian Department of Scientific and Industrial Research that runs the CSIR labs (the others cannot be targeted, because of their association with specific national missions and mandates). If I read Nayyar correctly, the social sciences also seem to have their own versions of 'pampered' research institutions. What are these institutions? I don't know. Perhaps some of you may give pointers in the comments.

The second thing that went wrong was that, essentially, what happened to the Republic of India happened to our universities. This was inevitable. Universities are not stand-alone islands. Nor are they immune from the law of averages. They simply mirror society. Our universities witnessed the same erosion of work ethic, the same dilution of values and morality, the same chipping away at norms, that was experienced by polity and society.

This is just plain red herring; I mean, aren't there many other public institutions and organizations (well-run public sector companies, for example) that break free from the 'law of averages' and that don't 'simply mirror society'? In any case, we are talking about a higher education system which, by definition, is unrepresentative. So, what 'law of averages' or 'society-mirroring' is Nayyar talking about? Is this some kind of a code phrase for something he cannot afford to utter openly? If you are in the know, do please enlighten the rest of us!

There is serious cause for concern as the gap between our universities and the best in the world outside has widened. Some symptoms are striking. First, curricula, which have remained almost unchanged for decades, have not kept pace with the times, let alone extend the frontiers of knowledge. Second, the milieu is not conducive to learning or creativity, for it is caught in a 9.30-1.30 syndrome. Third, the boundaries between disciplines have become dividing walls that constitute barriers to entry, as also exit, while knowledge is developing at the intersection of disciplines. Fourth, the academic calendar is no longer sacrosanct, for classes or for examinations, and there are slippages in schedules; so much so that, at places, results are declared with a time-lag of 12 months. Fifth, the infrastructure is not simply inadequate, it is on verge of collapse. Sixth, as in most public institutions, there is almost no accountability, because there are no rewards for performance and no penalties for non-performance.

This paragraph and the next (where he talks about the poor finances of universities) are the best in the entire article. They lay the problems out in plain language. Though the diagnosis seems like we have seen it before, coming from a 'real doctor', it has an added credibility. Alas, this is also where the good stuff stops. Take a look at the last few sentences:

... We must, therefore, do everything we can to combat the inertia and cynicism that characterises our public institutions. ... What it needed is good leadership and cohesive teamwork, combined with a determination on the part of university communities to work together for a common cause. There is, after all, something to the old adage that even God helps those who help themselves.

These words are indeed strange, almost surreal. Sure, good leadership and cohesive teamwork and all that jazz will help. How will all that come about? It would have been wonderful if Nayyar, who occupied arguably the hottest seat in India's higher ed system for nearly five years, had provided some concrete, actionable policies and plans. Is there any way in which he can be persuaded to do that?

Fairness in debate

Ravikiran Rao has commented on my post on the rhetoric of some right wing bloggers. He cites one of my old posts, in which I approvingly quoted some impolite stuff; in sum, his question to me is "if you want politeness in debate, why don't you practice what you preach?". Here is my response.

First things first: while I am all for politeness (why, some of my best friends are extremely polite ;-), my post was primarily on something else: fairness in debate. Impolite words such as 'idiot' cannot be, and should not be, put in the same moral bin as 'subversive' and 'antinationalist' (which, by the way, do not even sound impolite! they actually make the speaker sound erudite...), which are far more hurtful to the concept and content of the debate. Now, there is a huge difference between advocating politeness and advocating fairness, and I take full responsibility for not making this difference clear and explicit in my post.

Let me describe an incident from real life. A well known academic (let us call him Prof. X), then working in a US university, proposed about a dozen years ago a controversial plan for introducing an innovation in higher education in India. It was widely discussed and debated in the Indian press. I think it is fair to say that the opponents of his plan outnumbered its supporters.

Well, Prof. X visited several institutions in India to address the academic community about his proposal. At one such gathering, after he made his speech and asked for questions and comments from the audience, an impeccably dressed, suave-looking gentleman went upto the stage, and said something like this [I am paraphrasing here]: "Yeah, we bloody well know the kind of problems we have with our system, and we don't need any NRI bast...s to come and tell us what we should do". The audience let out a collective gasp, the discussion that followed after this outburst became desultory, the opponents of Prof. X's plan felt compelled to tone down their rhetoric even on points that they felt passionate about. All in all, the 'debate' was a disaster, and everyone was on the losing side that day.

It is this chilling effect of certain words that I was talking about in my post. I will request you to think carefully, not just about the incident recounted above, but also about which of the two words had the chilling effect on the debate there: the normal, every-day term "NRI" or the impolite word "bast...s".

In the political/ideological realm, there are many words available to the left to muzzle their opponents: US stooge, Bush's lackey, on the CIA payroll, etc. In my opinion, the words 'subversive', 'antinationalist' and 'denigrator of Indian culture' used by some Indian right wing bloggers belong to the same category, and they are just barely below the ultimate weapon: 'unpatriotic'.

Irrespective of who uses them, all these words have the same effect in the debate, and that is to unfairly handicap the opponent by indicating (sometimes using code words) to the audience that the opponent's loyalty lies elsewhere, to unfairly deny the opponent the legitimacy to present his/her argument, and to unfairly imply that his/her argument should not be given the same weight and consideration as yours. In short, these words un-level the playing field, and that is unfair.

I know now from Ravi's post that I was unsuccessful in conveying this idea. As I said, the blame for this lies entirely with me, and I should thank him for providing me an opportunity to clarify my position.

What about impolite terms such as 'idiot' (congenital, resident or otherwise)? Frankly, I don't care. I mean, I wouldn't care if someone calls me that (heck, some of you are probably doing it right now! ;-). We have too many articles (even in mainstream media) where we see things like "it is foolish (naive, idiotic, lunatic) to assume that ...", "only a fool (idiot, lunatic ..) would say that ...", etc; these words have become just too commonplace. And, I have, in my own blog, accused others of stupid tricks, and crappy interviews. To me, they convey the writer's strong disagreement, disapproval, and yes, disgust. Nothing more.

If I didn't think 'idiot' is inappropriate in debate, why did I include it in my post? Please read my post again; it has a progression (a regression, actually) of words, starting with a mild word (moron, which is struck out), going through 'resident idiot', culminating in 'antinationalist' and 'subversive', and finally hinting at the ultimate weapon: patriotism. (the progression, however, is not linear, since I put in an aside about Indian Express, etc.) I now realize that it is the inclusion of 'resident idiot' in this progression that has led to the impression that I was arguing for politeness, rather than fairness, in my post.

Update : Got carried away with bold fonts at some places in the original version; just changed some of them back to normal fonts.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Friday fashion blogging

Well, it is Saturday already, but what the hell... Moreover, I am not the one who is blogging about it. Others were, yesterday.

Dilip D'Souza has a priceless post on Gwen Stefani's new fashion line that "is not like the rest" because it includes "cameras, underwear, stationery and baby clothes".

The-Girl-With-Big-Eyes presents six reasons why she "make[s] sure that I wear [my IIM Kozhikode T-shirt] on all Fridays (when casuals are allowed) and whenever else I get a chance".

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Sanjay Dani has a guest column at Rediff making a strong case for why IT-BHU (from where I got my Bachelors degree) should become an IIT.

Yesterday, Yogesh Upadhyaya wrote another guest column at Rediff on the new, new set of colleges, some of which could be made IITs.

There is one word that really sticks out in your mind after reading both the columns: politics. But I guess on high profile, high stakes matters like these, it is inevitable.

Having said that, I have got to say that Upadhyaya's column is a veritable goldmine: it gives lots of figures, relative rankings -- along different dimensions, funding, faculty strength, faculty qualification, faculty/student ratio, and so on. Take a look at funding, for example: IITs get about 900 million to 1.3 billion rupees each per year, while lesser engineering colleges get about 100 million to 200 million each; IT-BHU, being a Central University gets about 400 million (Alas, we don't get a picture of how this figure breaks up into routine and capital expenditures).

Having learnt my lesson from an earlier episode (see my comment -- at No. 5 -- in the post on the Deepak Nayyar interview), I will wait for the Oracle of Chennai (a.k.a. Satya whose blog Education in India has pretty much the final word) to present his analysis. Over to you, Satya!

CSIR University

A while ago, I said I was unable to verify if CSIR, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, has been granted the status of a 'deemed university' that can award advanced degrees such as M.Phil. and Ph.D.. A recent Economic Times story says it will happen soon. ET also wrote an editorial on this issue today:

... [It] would do little to remove the bane of Indian science: the disconnect between teaching and research.

The little cutting-edge research that happens is mostly conducted in institutions that are insulated from the 'dirty' world of universities. ...

We all know there are excellent National Labs (Los Alamos being a well known example) in the US, but we also know they don't get into the business of higher learning and Ph.D. degrees. Does anyone know of countries where this model of a primarily research-oriented lab awarding advanced degrees (and completely bypassing the university system in the process)?

Wanna become a physicist?

[ Via SciAn again ] : The quantum diaries site is running a career week blog, where physicists answer questions about careers in physics. Check out this answer to a question that asked about the 'intellectual requirements' to become a physicist (emphasis in the original):

No, you don't have to be bright to be a physicist. Indeed, quite a few of my colleagues are nowhere near that ;) You just need to WANT to be one.


C.N.R. Rao awarded the Dan David Prize

While this year's Dan David Prize winners -- C.N.R. Rao, Robert Langer and George Whitesides -- were announced a while ago, the award function happened a couple of days ago. SciAn has a report with links.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

An offline conversation

Note: Please read this comment-- No 16 -- by "Anonymous", before you proceed.

[ Whack ! ]

"Ouch! ... Hey, that really hurt! Why did you kick me?"

"I just did my job."

"Who are you?"

"Read my name tag here"

"Is it okay to get closer? You won't kick me again?"

"No, I won't kick you now."

"Hmm ... it says here 'Law of Unintended Consequences'."

"People who know me call me Luc.

Yeah, ... Luc! I remember now. I saw you kicking this other guy, who I thought really deserved it. So I thought you were on *my* side!""

"My job is to go around kicking people when they least expect it. If their opponents think I am helping them, they are deluded."

"At least you could have warned me before, er, ... whacking me!"

"Read my name tag again. Moreover, my job manual has no entry on 'warning'."

"You know, it really hurts!"

"Again, I am just following the orders from my job manual - the kick should be unexpected and painful. It's nothing personal, I do this to everyone."

"Okay, what do I do, now?"

"Learn your lesson, count your blessings and move on."

"I certainly intend to move on, and I think I have learnt my lesson. What blessings are you talking about?"

"There are at least two."

"And, they would be ...?"

"One: this has happened fairly early in your blogging gig. Just imagine: this could have happened after doing many, many posts with links to obnoxious right wing writing on the web. So much so, that your blog may even become a hot zone for those who like that kind of stuff. Heck, it may even be the main page on their browsers!"

"Ugh! I see your point."

"And, your commenters could be exchanging notes about BS and RS and ..."

"Ouch! Enough, please! Say no more!"


"Phew! That was close, wasn't it! Thanks, Luc! Now, what is the second, um, 'blessing'?"

"The damage so far has been quite limited ..."

"I don't understand..."

"You really need that to be spelt out, don't you? Okay, here it is in plain language: your blog's readership is small!"

"Um, er, ... I guess it is a blessing, under ... the ... circumstances. Sigh! ... Thanks again for your help, Luc."

"Take care!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

His experiments with ...

... Economic Times ! Yes, today's edition of this pink paper is edited by none other than our Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram. Take a look at this story and this slide show about him. Finally, here is an editorial penned by him. He also listed his ten commandments, one of which read "trust the people, they are at least 10 years ahead" (or something like that). Sorry, I could not locate the URL for this piece, since the Indiatimes website is such a badly designed maze.

Update : the Indiatimes website does it again! Take a closer look at the story about Chidambaram's one day tenure as the editor of ET. After a few paragraphs about the subject, the story shifts (literally!) gears to give us this:

Ford is set to vow the Indian motown later this year with a global car, completely designed and developed in Australia, that will be first launched in India before any other market.

From this point on, you get at least two screenfuls about Ford's new car, and poor Chidambaram doesn't make it back into the story!

Update(26 May 2005) : Indiatimes has corrected the 'Ford mixup' mentioned above. I found another story about Chidambaram's editorship style.

Two links

Amardeep Singh has a thoughtful post on the Delhi movie-hall bombings.

Sepia Mutiny has a good post (with lots of links) tearing apart an argument that glorifies the British Raj, a.k.a. colonialism.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Web advises graduate students

With success in graduate studies being a prerequisite for a career in research, it is not at all surprising that this topic has attracted some serious research. However, what I find really perplexing is why computer science types have come to dominate this field so comprehensively …

This article by Marie desJardins is certainly among the best. It cites another very good article by David Chapman. In addition, there is a fairly large number of compilations of web articles dishing out advice; see, for example, this one maintained by Dan Horn at the University of Michigan. One of the best lists is the one maintained by Scott Keogh, a zoologist at the Australian National University. In particular, check out the cynical and modest advice from a couple of zoologists from the University of California, Berkeley.

Via Tall, Dark and Mysterious, I found one more, and via the latter, I found this nice article by Ron Azuma, who says:

Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you're Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you're Happy.

What about the Indian scene? Anindya Chatterjee, a colleague in the Mechanical Engineering Department has a thoughtful and balanced article that weighs the pros and cons of pursuing graduate studies at IISc. If you know of any other such articles from Indian academics, do please leave the URL in the comments.

Yes, (and Bravo, too) Prime Minister!

[Via Annie] : This Sunday Express story about how our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has spent his MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds (20 million rupees a year) in the state of Assam, from which he has been elected to the Upper House. Among many nice things in the report, here is the one that I wish to highlight: out of 18 projects funded by Dr. Singh's MPLADS last year, fourteen "involve educational institutions, including primary and middle schools, colleges, two computer labs, and a chemistry lab in Guwahati University".

[ Let me parenthetically mention that Arun Shourie too spent his MPLADS funds on education. In fact, all of it which, over six years of his Rajya Sabha tenure, is a quite sizable 120 million rupees. And, interestingly, he spent it all on one project: developing the new Department of Biological Sciences and Bioengineering at IIT-Kanpur. Here is a Rediff story on the project. While we are on Arun Shourie -- and I am not a great fan of his politics -- let me mention another good deed he did when he headed the Ministries of Information Technology Telecommunications. ]

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Academics have the best blog names

The previous post referred to the blog of Prof. B, an anonymous academic, who has a rather in-your-face kind of name for her blog: Bitch, Ph.D.. When I thought about it, I realized that academics do indeed have some of the most interesting blog names -- in a geeky/nerdy/academic sort of way -- that really make you sit up and take notice. Sean Carrol, a cosmologist, has Preposterous Universe (we have linked to him here and here), while Chad Orzel has a blog called Uncertain Principles (we have linked to him, too).

The most imaginative name that I have encountered so far is also that of another anonymous female academic: Moebius Stripper ! We have encountered her here.

Do you know of any others that are as interesting as these?

Isaac Asimov on ... many things!

[Via Prof. B's guest blogger Por J]: Do read this sparkling lecture by Isaac Asimov, made to the students of Newark Engineering College in 1974. There are many strands in this lecture, and I will highlight just two:

The first one, of course, is chosen because of our recent interest in logic ;-). Asimov describes how he (sort of) got the idea for space travel, that an early story of his was based on. As a sociology apprentice at Columbia, he read a lot of stuff about technology, and learnt that every time a new technology came along (stage coach, railroad ...), people always resisted it; this happened so consistently, in fact, that he could make this syllogism:

[The syllogism] goes this way: Major premise: All technological changes meet resistance. Minor Premise: Space travel represents a technological change. Conclusion:

[group laughs]

This is the tricky one!

[group laughs]

There will be resistance to space travel.

And I said "Gee!". And I wrote the story and sold it. My first story, it's Astounding, and they printed it. And here I am, a genius at having foreseen this.

The second example is where he skewers academics about how they write 'learned books':

...Because you must understand how learned books are written in case you ever want to write a learned book. First thing you do is get a thousand references, chosen at random...

[group laughs]

You then put them into the book, in the order you reach them...

[group laughs mildly]

And stick two or three lines of your own between each of them to act as mortar...

[group laughs mildly]

And you're all set.

He made in 1974 rather interesting predictions about what should be happening about 30 years later -- that would be now! There are also many witty and wise things in the lecture about a lot of things, including evolution, human diversity and its importance, medical advances, space travel and colonizing space. Do read the whole lecture.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Do we have any?

If America has them, so should we, right? Sure enough, we do have them, and guess what, ours still have some way to go before they can match America's.

Take a look at this serious blogger (BS, for short) with a legendary reputation for being really serious. You don't even have to dig deep into the past; here are a few from the last month or so, that exemplify the clinical precision with which BS is able to slot his victims: Kuldip Nayar (moron, nincompoop), Praful Bidwai (Resident Idiot, which makes you wonder who the non-resident idiot might be ;-) and Girish Karnad (denigrator of Indian culture -- in three parts!). Apparently, the worst insult BS can muster is 'Congress mouthpiece', reserved for the newspaper Indian Express. Compared to these, Dilip D'Souza gets off easy: he is a mere bleeding heart liberal. In case you are wondering, it is the same Dilip who was featured in a recent online conversation...

Now, take a look at this awsome twosome called the Secular Right (RS, for short). They are secular, and they are absolutely convinced about the rightness of, well, their 'right'ness. Can their language be any any less right? Don't even ask; judge for yourself. Recently RS hurled terms like 'anti-nationalist attitudes' and 'subversive acts' at the usual suspects: liberals.

[BTW, When you visit those pages, make sure you read the comments by Dilip D'Souza, and see the contrast for yourself. You can also read Dilip's post on Shy Softness to decide for yourself how insidiously subversive he really is... ;-) ]

I am absolutely sure that it is only a matter of time before the BS-RS section of the right decides to use the nuclear option (a.k.a. the last refuge of a scoundrel): patriotism (perhaps it has already happened, and if you know it has, do please leave the URL in the comments; but, for the moment, let us assume that it has not). Here, then, are some interesting questions:

  • Who will use it first: BS, RS or someone else?
  • Who will be the first victim?
  • How long will it be before this option is used?

The race is on. Any bets?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Nooyi's finger

I have no idea why Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's President and CFO, thought of saying this to the graduating class of Columbia University's business school:

What is most crucial to my analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents, is that each of us in the U.S. --­ the long middle finger -- ­ must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand ... not the finger. Sometimes this is very difficult. Because the U.S. --­ the middle finger --­ sticks out so much, we can send the wrong message unintentionally.

Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand --­ giving strength and purpose to the rest of the finger -- but, instead, scratching our nose and sending a far different signal.
We can do better. We should do better. With your help, with your empathy, with your positive intent as representatives of the U.S. in global business, we will do better. Now, as never before, it's important that we give the world a hand ... not the finger.

Well, guess what she got from the rabid right wing bloggers? The middle finger, of course! Check out this silly thing which was voted the most powerful blog in the US.

Now, Nooyi has issued a statement. Economic Times did a story today. Rashmi Bansal thinks that Nooyi just made a bad judgement.

BTW, read this (via Crooked Timber) about the same silly thing (referred to above) expressing its agreement with the statement "had Britain had the courage to face down Gandhi and his rabble a few years longer, the tragedy that was the partititon of India might have been avoided". We really ought to be worried when this silliest thing is considered to be the most powerful blog in the longest and most central finger in the world.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Model for a real university

If you are going to hit the 'next' button on your feed reader, or on your browser, please -- please, please -- don't! I have a simple survey question at the end of this post; could you please answer it for me in the comments. You don't even have to read the rest of this post!

Let us also get one more thing out of the way: if you want to know why we need some real universities, I suggest that you read this Pharyngula Advisory for the new students entering his university.

First, let me define a real university (RU): it is an institution where faculty carry out cutting edge research in a variety of fields and teach undergraduate students (UGs). The key terms are UG teaching, research, and a variety of fields.

This definition of a RU rules out IITs, since they offer UG programs only in a few disciplines -- engineering and natural sciences. There is also another reason why the IIT-model is being thrown out from our consideration here: This model -- though, not the IITs themselves -- has serious inherent disadvantages. Essentially, the cost of running an IIT is just too much, and almost all of it comes from the government; since the government's education-related pie is small, the expensive business of replicating the IITs -- creating new ones -- is rather unviable. Add to it the opposition from the IITs' vocal -- very, very vocal -- supporters and constituents (alumni, current faculty and students), who claim that creating new IITs 'dilutes' their brand equity, I think it is going to be impossible. Bottomline: the IIT-model has bad genes.

The most common current model in Indian higher ed, which I like to refer to as the hub-and-spoke (HS) model, should also be ruled out from our consideration. Why ? In this model, UG teaching is farmed out (outsourced?) to the spokes, the affiliated colleges. If you want to know what the problems with this model are, do take a look at to-day's Hindu op-ed by V.C. Kulandaiswamy. He has been Vice Chancellor at three universities (Madurai Kamaraj, Anna and IGNOU), and you better listen up when he says that the system of affiliated colleges -- in other words, the hub-and-spoke model -- must be eliminated from this blessed land of ours!

Before going further, let us step back a bit, and examine what we look for in a RU. First, it must offer UG, PG and research programs in many disciplines, including natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and liberal arts. Faculty's teaching commitments must not be so large that their research suffers. The student community must be representative of all of India.

If such a university were to be set up, the question is: can it be set up and run without any assistance from the government (except the initial help in the form of a land grant)? If so, what kind of fees would an UG student have to pay ? I am assuming that PG and research students will have to be supported, because they will have to do a bit of teaching and tutoring; thus, they will not contribute any revenue to our RU.

Warning: If you don't enjoy math and symbols and equations, it is okay to skip the next few paragraphs, and go to the last few. I have put in a flag that says "Notice: you can take a deep breath now; the bad part is over!", from where you can pick up the discussion ;-)

Let us look at the financial requirement of our RU. If sustaining each faculty requires F rupees, and if there are N students per faculty, then this component of the cost per student would be F/N. Add to it the cost S that arises simply because of the presence of the student. This leads to a simple formula for the cost C per student:

C = S + F / N.

What are my estimates for S and F? I estimate them to be S = 20 K per student per year, and F = 2 M (that is 2 million or 20 lakhs) per faculty. The number N of students per faculty is the final variable that we need to arrive at. For N = 20, we get a cost of C = 120 K per student per year. On the other hand, if N = 40, we get a cost of C = 70 K per student per year.

Now, add a nice, large premium of about 40 to 50 % to account for my ignorance of finance, economics, and many, many other things. Some of you may want to use an even higher premium; please do so, and arrive at your own figures! With a 40 to 50 percent premium, I get a figure of 180 K for N = 20 and 100 K for N = 40.

I think, the latter scenario, with 40 students per faculty is a good compromise, since it amounts to about 10 students per year per faculty (for a 4 year undergraduate programme). It also gives you a lower cost per student. Of course, you can reduce the cost C further by increasing N, but the cost does not go down quite proportionally. For example, increasing N to 80 gives you about 70 K per student, and not 50 K per student. This is because there is a certain cost S ( = 20 K to 30 K ) associated with each student, independent of other things.

Notice: you can take a deep breath now; the bad part -- with strange financial and mathematical arcana -- is over!

Finally, here are two requests: First, think of this post as the first step of an online collaborative project. Feel free to criticize it. In particular, do please go through the finance and economics and math arguments, and check if what I say makes sense, and if I have underestimated or overestimated financial requirements. Second, I request you to please -- please, please -- answer my question below; leave your answer in the comments.

Here is the BIG question: Would you pay 100 K (1 lakh) rupees per year for UG education in such a RU ? In other words, what is the 'price' you are willing to pay for a UG program in each of the following disciplines: (a) engineering, (b) natural sciences, (c) social sciences, and (d) languages, philosophy and classics.

Update: I originally had some associated material here at the end. However, I have moved them over to the first comment.

Social scientists have all the fun!

In his text Organizational Behaviour, Stephen Robbins says, "God gave all the easy problems to the physicists". I don't know if the non-existent god gave the social scientists all the hard problems, but they have certainly got some absolutely great, fun problems! We have already seen some of them; let us look at some more.

Have you heard of Chet, a sub-species of Homo sapiens:

Chet is a hail-fellow-well-met sort, cracking jokes all the time (some of most of which may be 'politically incorrect', because he doesn't care about things like that). Chet is tall, probably tan, and has big white teeth like a mouthful of chiclets.... Chet is a member of country clubs, and has a thin wife, and two adorable kids, etc. etc.

The query posed to Brad DeLong is this: why do so many, if not all, investment bankers have this character type called 'Chet'?

This gives a chance to some of the more interesting bloggers, including Brad DeLong, Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias, to give their view of Chets. I mean, how often do you get a chance to say bad (and perhaps some good) things, without worrying about political correctness, about a stereotyped strawman called Chet? Can you imagine doing such a thing to a strawman called, um, Indian? Check out, in particular, Tyler Cowen; he does say something about Indian Chets.

In another post, Brad DeLong poses an interesting question about nanotechnology: what are going to be its ocial, economic, and ethical implications? And, he gets answers from his commenters! Isn't that lovely? You can also read Brad's early speculations on the economic impact of nanotechnology.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, has a nice op-ed in today's NYTimes on the nature vs. nurture issue, in the context of homosexuality. Among other things, he makes this valid point: "what is evolutionarily adaptive and what is morally justifiable have little to do with each other". The illustrations Pinker gives are very interesting, and have an in-your-face quality to them:

Many laudable activities - being faithful to one's spouse, turning the other cheek, treating every child as precious, loving thy neighbor as thyself - are "biological errors" and are rare or unknown in the natural world.

Pinker also participated in a recent debate with a fellow Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke about "the science of gender and science". This debate was held in the aftermath of Harvard President Larry Summers' ill-conceived remarks about lack of women scientists in top positions in elite universities. As Sean Carrol notes, both Pinker and Spelke make good points that are based on science, and defend their views admirably.

Finally, have you ever wondered what the evolutionary purpose of female orgasm might be? Dinitia Smith has a nice article in the science section of NYTimes about it; it is a conundrum because, "women can have sexual intercourse and even become pregnant - doing their part for the perpetuation of the species - without experiencing orgasm". Apparently, there are more than twenty theories for it. Given the number of people who are interested in this subject, I am surprised that there are only twenty theories, but I am digressing. A recent book by Elisabeth Lloyd, a philosopher of science and professor of biology at Indiana University, checks the theories against the available evidence, and finds them all wanting. Prof. Lloyd has her own explanation for the female orgasm: it has no evolutionary function at all! "The female orgasm, she said, 'is for fun'."

We all sort of suspected it, didn't we? ;-)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Keynes' General Theory online

Via Brad DeLong: John Maynard Keynes's classic The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London: Macmillan, 1936) is available online. Conservatives and libertarians are not going to like the URL:! That's okay, though; they never liked Keynes, anyway.

Online conversations

Charukesi and Dina have two nice posts about blogs being a form of online conversation.

I just want to point out that an overt conversation -- irrespective of whether it is face-to-face or online -- could also have, underneath it, one or more hidden conversations; perhaps one could call them subtexts. Let me use an example to illustrate what I mean.

In a recent post, I said I was unconvinced by Ravikiran Rao's criticism of Dilip D'Souza's logic (in this Rediff article). Yesterday, Ravikiran wrote this:

Then Abinandanan responds to my post, saying… I am not sure exactly what. The points he raises would have been answered if he had actually completed reading my post. But let me try again.

Now, it is clear that we are talking past each other. It is time, therefore, to take a closer look at a possible hidden conversation that could have taken place, but didn't (thankfully ;-). If it did, it probably went like this:

"Yo, look at this. I have shown here that Dilip is a bad boy, because his logic is sloppy."

"Let me see your argument. Hmmm... I am sorry, I don't think the allegation sticks."

"Which part? That Dilip is a bad boy, or that his logic is sloppy."

"Your argument about his logic."

"How so?"

"Let us step back a bit, shall we? Does this look like a Logic 101 kind of book to you?"

"I don't know about Logic 101, but this book's cover says Introduction to Logic."

"Okay, let us open the first chapter."

"Ah, the first chapter. I love first chapters. They are truly wonderful. You know what, I write them too, except that I call them Beginners' guides."

"How about the other chapters? Do you love them too?"

"Are you kidding? I have no use for them. You see, I don't do nuance. I am the sort of guy who believes in being direct. You know what, I don't even call a spade a spade. I simply say, 'A spade is a spade'. Sometimes, for variety, I say, 'a hammer and a sickle are not spades'."


"On other things too, I believe in being direct. For example, Wodehouse is unfunny. And, Dilip is a bad boy ..."

"Okay, okay, you believe in being direct. Let us get back to where we were. So, where were we?"

"Dilip is a bad boy."

"No, not that. In the book."

"Yeah, the book. The first chapter."

"Of course. It says here on page 3, 'reasoning is a special kind of thought ... in which conclusions are drawn from premisses'. Do you agree?"

"Oh, absolutely. I love premisses. I have actually used three of them in my argument. And, I have three conclusions, too!"

"Oh, good! Would you agree with me that different premisses may lead to different conclusions?"

"Yeah, it sounds logical."

"If Dilip started with a premiss that is different from yours, is it possible for him to arrive at a conclusion that is also different from yours?"

"Yeah, it is possible."

"Go back and read what Dilip wrote."

"I have done it several times. There is no premiss there. And the conclusion is all wrong!"

"[The premiss is there.] Okay, see this sentence. Does this look like a premiss?"


"Does his conclusion follow from his premiss".

"Yeah, but .... , like, okay, ..., whatever! But, you had not 'completed reading my post. But, let me try again'. Dilip is a bad boy ..."

Yeah. Like, ..., whatever.

PS: This is the book that I am referring to: Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen (Introduction to Logic, Ninth edition, Prentice Hall India, 1995); I am told by reliable sources that Logic has not seen much new development in the ten years since its publication.

Update: I just added links to show more clearly the hidden conversation's connections with the (real) online one.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Interview of Deepak Nayyar

Do read this interview of Deepak Nayyar in the Hindu. Nayyar just stepped down from the Vice Chancellorship of Delhi University, India's premier public university. First, some excerpts from the interview:

  • When I took charge, I found that of every 100 rupees spent, 73 was on salaries and superannuation benefits. Of the remaining 27, 15-17 was used for electricity, medical reimbursement, etc. So you had 10 rupees of every 100 to meet all needs of maintenance. It is no wonder that physical assets languished. ... Capital expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure in universities is at best 3 per cent. Think of a firm, an economy which invests only 3 per cent and you'll see the problem.
  • We have too many structural rigidities in our system. The University of Delhi provides a telling example but most universities in India are caught in that warp. They are divided into departments and the walls between them are so high that the possibilities of interaction, intersection are few and far between. So a person with an MA is sociology would find it difficult to go on and study law or history, the kind of flexibility you have everywhere.

Nayyar gets away with presenting a long list of bad things at DU together with a bit of diagnostics, without getting pinned down on any of the specifics. For example, what does he mean when he says, "the education sector looks like the health sector did 20 years ago"? It is clear that he finds a lot to dislike about the health sector in its present state, and worries that it could happen to education also. But, what is it? Similarly, what does he mean when he follows it up with this dire warning: "those of us who work in public institutions, the sooner we realise this, the better". What should we do? At another place, he says, "I think we need to break our mindset". What is his contribution to this noble endeavour? It is not clear at all.

Now you understand why I found this interview deeply disappointing. Sure, there is some interesting information about the economics of running a large public university. But, there is very little sense of DU's history and of Nayyar's accomplishments as DU's chief. There is virtually nothing about what made Nayyar tick as an economist, what made him accept DU's Vice Chancellorship, what kind of vision he had for DU, what he has learnt during his tenure, what kind of reforms he would recommend (including how to get them done), what challenges he leaves behind for the next VC, grand themes and big questions in higher ed in India, role of private universities, etc, etc, etc. May be, all this is too much to expect from a responsible newpaper when it presents an interview of an important public servant and intellectual.

Towards the end of the interview, he says

There are many distinguished academics who would be excellent vice-chancellors. But they do not wish to become VCs or the system will not appoint them. And there are many who are simply not good enough and yet are appointed.
Did Nayyar do anything to change how the VC's position is viewed by the capable people? Does this interview make you feel that becoming a Vice Chancellor could be a great career move?

Siddharth, this is a crappy interview you have given us here. Perhaps you will do a story on DU and its decline with the same passion with which you did your recent op-ed about the decline of Modern Food Industries.

Update: (20 May 2005) I now believe I have given a wrong impression about Deepak Nayyar's tenure at DU. See my comment (No. 5) below. I realize now that I should not have taken my eye off the ball (Nayyar). While my rant about Siddharth Varadarajan is still valid, and is actually strengthened by what I know now, I realize that I should have avoided giving a false impression about Nayyar. My apologies.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

What are free markets not good for?

In a comment to this post by Yazad, I said something to the effect that free markets probably do not have much of a role in areas such as national defence, internal security (aka police), education, social security, healthcare, etc. [I don't have access to the full post, so I am paraphrasing what I wrote]. Gaurav asked me in a follow-up comment what criteria one may use for deciding where free markets do not work well.

Now, I am not an economist to worry about such deep questions, nor am I a philosopher to ponder them for a living. This is my excuse for not being able to give a coherent answer to Gaurav's question. So, what can I do? Outsource the answer, that's what!

For a serious analysis, I will just refer you to two recent columns by Paul Krugman on healthcare, where he compares the largely private insurance based system in the US with the universal, publicly funded -- and less expensive and more effective -- systems in some West European countries. Universal access may be the reason why education and social security could fall in the same category as healthcare, so Krugman's arguments probably apply to them too.

As for internal security, I remember this debate in Reason in which the participants agonized over its place in an ideal libertarian society. You've got to read it to believe the kind of hand wringing that is required for reconciling libertarianism with the need for an internal security force (State Coercion!). In fact, it is so surreal and other-worldly, that it almost begged to be whacked. And, whacked, it certainly was, in this Belle Waring post, declared by Brad DeLong as "the best weblog post ever". Let us look at the key portions of this post (with emphasis added by me):

Reason recently published a debate held at its 35th anniversary banquet. The flavor of this discussion is indescribable. In its total estrangement from our political and social life today, its wilfull disregard of all known facts about human nature, it resembles nothing so much as a debate over some fine procedural point of end-stage communism, after the state has withered away.
Allow me to summarize.

Richard A. Epstein: even in the libertarian utopia, some forms of state coercion will be required. If we must assemble 100 plots of land to build a railway which will benefit all, and only 99 owners will sell, then we may need to force a lone holdout to accept a fair price for his land. Similarly, the public enforcement of private rights and the creation of infrastructure will require money, so there will have to be some taxes. [Note to self: no shit, Sherlock.]

Randy Barnett: Not so fast! Let's cross that bridge when we come to it rather than restricting liberty in advance. We'll know a lot more about human liberty in the libertarian utopia, and private entrepreneurs will solve these problems somehow without our needing to grant to governments the dangerous ability to confiscate our property in the name of some nebulous "public good." And as for rights enforcement -- look it's Halley's Comet!

David Friedman: Epstein places too much confidence in his proposed restrictions on government power. Rights could be enforced privately, and imperfect but workable solutions to the holdouts in the railway case could also be found. "To justify taxation we need the additional assumption that rights enforcement cannot be done by the state at a profit, despite historical examples of societies where the right to enforce the law and collect the resulting fines was a marketable asset."

Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia. (In general, if thoughts of the Eastern Congo intrude, I suggest waving them away with the invisible hand and repeating "that's anarcho-capitalism" several times.) Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?

Now try it the wishful thinking way. Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies. (I mean, the general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? ...

I am sure there are other online sources that present cogent arguments against free markets in some segments of the economy. As and when I find them, I will update this post. In the meantime, if you know of any, please feel free to add them in the comments. Thanks.

Lessons in blogging

George Greenberg, who describes himself as a liberal historian, recounts in this NYTimes piece his travails as a guest blogger for Dan Drezner, "a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who runs a popular libertarian-conservative blog".

Greenberg says this guest blogging experience has taught him some hard lessons. Blogging is not for "amateurs or the faint of heart". Serious bloggers have to -- and do -- put in a lot of work, "updating their sites several times a day", and they get abused in the comments area (he gives an example, wherein a commenter called him a 'moral cretin').

The experience also taught Greenberg a lesson about the audience of popular blogs. On Drezner's blog, for example, the audience "expected their usual diet of conservative commentary", and revolted when he presented liberal viewpoints; similarly, when Drezner himself guest blogged over at the liberal Washington Monthly, "one reader wished bodily harm on his family members".

All of last week I was wondering about the kind of rough treatment that Dilip D'Souza received in the comments section of this post by Yazad; the only difference is that Dilip was not guest-blogging, but made a guest appearance in the comments. After reading Greenberg's analysis, it makes perfect sense. Regular, loyal readers of Yazad's blog are probably largely libertarian; when they saw a someone with a different viewpoint expressing his views openly in their home ground, ... well, what shall we say ... they just decided to have a go at him.

To get back to Greenberg's piece, here are a couple of his insights:

The best bloggers develop hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases that they put into wider circulation. Creating your own idiosyncratic set of villains to skewer and theories to promote - while keeping readers interested - requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece.


To succeed in blogging you need to understand it's a craft, with its own tricks of the trade. You need a thick skin. And you must put your life on hold to feed an electronic black hole.

Of course, Greenberg is talking here about A-list bloggers such as Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias, who routinely get hundreds of thousands of hits a day. I have always wondered about the popularity of Indian blogs. Last Friday's CNBC program, Trend Mill (Amit has blogged about it here), reported that Emergic, Rajesh Jain's excellent blog, which I am sure is in India's A-list, gets about 3000 hits (unique visitors) a day.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Vinay Deshpande, who, together with four of my colleagues at IISc developed the Simputer (there are two competing versions: Encore and Amida), and his colleagues at Encore Software have unveiled a sub-10k rupee "mobile desktop", Mobilis. The Hindu had a front page report, accompanied by a picture of a beaming Dr. Mashelkar, the CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which funded the development of Mobilis. Here is Charukesi blogging about it. Mobilis has also been slashdotted! Bravo!

Without taking anything away from this great achievement, I think it is okay to point to a piece of rather wicked humour that is buried in the slashdot discussion (here is the link ;-).

Freedom from the tyranny of publishers

Via Slashdot: "The Register reports how the Dutch open up their research to the rest of the world". Apparently, publishers such as Elsevier are not amused. Slashdot discusses the question "Will other countries and universities follow, or will they stick to the idea that knowledge is a commodity?".

Two op-ed pieces

To-day's Economic Times featured in its op-ed section Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winner, and author of books such as Globalization and its discontents (here is the NYRB review), and Arun Maira.

First, an extract from Joseph Stiglitz's piece on how Wolfensohn realigned the World Bank's view of development during his ten years at its helm:

At one time, it was thought that merely supplying more capital would solve their [developing countries'] problems. In the 1980s, there was a switch from projects to policies — structural adjustments, involving trade liberalisation, privatisation, and macroeconomic stabilisation (typically focusing on prices rather than employment or output.)

But these policies proved neither necessary nor sufficient for growth; the countries of East Asia, which followed different policies, achieved faster growth and were far more successful in poverty reduction.

Under Wolfensohn’s leadership, the Bank began to look for multifaceted strategies, framed by what he called a comprehensive development framework. Many of the links were obvious, but had been given insufficient attention.

Improved rural productivity or better market access would do little good if roads and harbours were lacking. In a malaria-infested country, mosquito eradication programmes can boost production and even increase effective land usage, as acres that were almost uninhabitable become livable.

The returns from education, too, can be increased, if more individuals live longer because of better health care.

Arun Maira talks about the virtue of developing trust in business dealings. He uses two illustrations, both involving J.R.D. Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar, who was instrumental in nurturing TELCO (the present day Tata Motors) into an auto giant. Here is his concluding paragraph:

Therefore, the more we honour those who do the right thing even if it is not the law, and the less we admire the rich and successful who promote their own selfish interests, often living dangerously at the edge of law, the stronger will be the culture of trust in our business and society. Unfortunately we seem to be veering too far, even in India, towards a culture of self-interest and greed. Therefore, while we may complain about their costs and complexity, our corporate managers may have to be restrained by more onerous corporate laws. The alternative is to ‘take the law into our own hands and hearts’ and do the right thing always.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Poverty in India ...

Yazad Jal's post on poverty in India has over 90 comments, already! And, you know what, I am going to add one more (in addition to what I said here earlier ;-), and it will be to link back to this post...

One of the things that many people have asked for is some hard statistical information about poverty in India. I have collected some here, just for my own future reference. The ones at the top are by academics, and deal with some seriously arcane data; so, be warned! The last two are more accessible, because they appeared in the popular press; they don't contain much data, but present two different views of how to go about tackling this great issue of our times.

  • An early World Bank report, India Poverty Project: Poverty and Growth in India, 1951-94, is a good starting point.
  • Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze: Poverty and Inequality in India: A Reexamination: (EPW, September 2002).

    Now, no one has accused (so far!) Dreze of being a libertarian stooge. So, what do his co-author and he have to say about poverty during the first 10 years of liberalization (1991 - 2000)? They conclude that poverty reduction is "real", and this is so even after adjusting for ambiguities that have crept into the data (due to a change in the methodology used for collecting and reporting them). However, they also point out several disturbing trends: regional imbalance (the south and west doing better than the north and east), wages of agricultural labourers increasing at lower rate than the GDP growth rate (which accentuates economic inequality), etc. The last paragraph is interesting:
  • Finally, we have argued against reading these trends simply as evidence of the impact (positive or negative) of 'liberalization'. For one thing, the impact of liberalization is a 'counterfactual' question, and much depends on how the alternatives are specified. For another, much else has happened in the nineties, other than liberalization. ...
  • Aasha Kapur Mehta and Amita Patel : Chronic Poverty in India: An Overview Study (CPRC Working paper, circa 2002).
  • Angus Deaton and Valerie Kozel Data and Dogma: The Great Indian Poverty Debate (PovertyNet Library, September 2004).
  • Raghbendra Jha: Rural Poverty in India: Structure, Determinants and Suggestions for Policy Reform (ASARC Policy Paper, 2002).
  • Ramesh Ramanathan (yes, he of the Janaagraha and Swades fame): Secong Generation Reforms: Delivery (India Together, July 2004)
  • Jaiprakash Narayan of Loksatta' Financial Express article (August 2004)

Update (12 May 2005) : Neha Viswanathan has a nice post about a development effort that really worked. Needless to say, in addition to anecdotes and statistical information about the incidence of poverty, we also need personal accounts from those on the frontlines of economic development. In other words, we need more such accounts of poverty alleviation efforts that work. Neha promises to write more. Any pointers to others who may also have written about their experiences?

Naugthy academics, again

Via Kieran Healy: Shameful saga of an academic who writes "reviews" of his own books on, and gets caught ! More interestingly, this was not the first time!

George Monbiot has an op-ed in today's Hindu: Junk science sources (you can also find a better version, with references, in his blog). He recounts another sordid saga of a powerful scientist, who quotes junk science and gets caught.

Oh, god

God has an official God FAQ page. It has P.Z. Myers' approval. Now it has mine too ...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Marcia Angell on Big Pharma

Three links:
  • Today's Hindu reviews the book The truth about the drug companies: How they deceive us and what to do about it by Marcia Angell.
  • Paul Krugman's column A serious drug problem, in which he cites Angell's book.
  • Finally, here is Marcia Angell herself, in an article she penned for the New York Review of Books.

So, what is Angell's thesis? Here is Krugman's summary:

Marcia Angell, the former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, shows convincingly that drug companies spend far more on marketing than they do on research — and that much of the marketing is designed to sell "me, too" drugs, which are no better than the cheaper drugs they replace.

Angell's book is probably too pricey, but thankfully, her NYRB article is free! It dispels any lofty ideas you may have about how innovative the big pharma companies are.

Sociology of love and economics of sex

Okay, okay! By popular demand, we will take up the second one first!

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen tries his hand at answering a question posed by one of his loyal readers : if sex is so much fun, why is there so little of it? Tyler offers many gems, and here is one:

Sex stops being fun when you do it to close a gap between your marginal utilities. It requires spontaneity or some other quality inconsistent with the classical model of the consumer and the equation of marginal rates of substitution.

While we are at it (or, even if we are not at it ;-), here is an old, but very, very, nice piece: Me, Myself and I by Stephen Greenblatt, Professor of Humanities at Harvard; it is a review of a book Thomas W. Laqueur, a cultural historian at Berkeley. Greenblatt describes an incident when he invited Laqueur to "a regular [Harvard] forum in which we scheduled lectures by distinguished visiting scholars whose work boldly crossed disciplinary boundaries". What happened next was a total surprise:

... there was a tremendous outbreak of the jitters. Panic set in not among the students -— a large number of whom must have come of age watching There's Something About Mary -— but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials.

Now that your curiosity is suitably piqued, read the whole thing.

The last one is an old post by Kieran Healy, who poses this question:

Quick, in high school were you ever told not to date your old girlfriend’s current boyfriend’s old girlfriend? Or your old boyfriend’s current girlfriend’s old boyfriend? Probably not. But I bet you never did, either.

Kieran then goes on to give you a nice, quick summary of social network theory, and its application to an interesting problem.

Of course, all this is nice and academic. And, fun too!

Monday, May 09, 2005

There are IITs, and then there are ...

Have you ever wondered about the widespread perception that there is a precipitous decline in the quality of engineering colleges, the moment you step outside of the IITs? There probably are many reasons, which may also be interlinked. However, let's focus on just one of them here: faculty strength. Let's also see how and why it is an important differentiator.

Take a quick look at the faculty listing in the Departments of Mechanical Engineering at IIT-M, and two NITs -- Rourkela and Trichy. Do it again with the Computer Science departments: IIT-M, NIT-R and NIT-T.

The in-your-face conclusion is this: in each subject, IIT-M has more faculty than the other two institutions combined! In Mechanical Engineering, IIT-M has more than 50 faculty members, against 19 and 12 at NIT-R and T, respectively. In Computer Science, the numbers are: 19 against 8 and 9 [1]. While my research is not exhaustive, I am reasonably certain that this huge disparity in faculty strength between the IITs and the non-IITs is also shared by other disciplines.

Well, why should this disparity matter?

Consider an academic department offering an undergraduate (UG) program. An UG student typically takes 60 courses or so -- 40 lecture courses and 20 lab courses; let us not quibble about the differences here. However, not all the courses need to be offered by this department itself; for example, engineering students do quite a few common courses: mathematics, phsyics, chemistry, etc. In addition, the students may also be asked to do one or two minors by doing enough courses in other disciplines. With these adjustments, the number of UG courses to be offered by the parent department is probably about half (i.e., 30 courses). To this, add another 20 or so courses that the department would need to offer either as electives or for its PG students.

So, the total number of courses that need to be offered is 50 in a year, or 25 in a semester. If you want the faculty to be active in research, then you can expect him/her to teach at the most one course a semester. This gives a good estimate for the number of faculty that each academic department that offers a UG degree program and one or two PG degree programs : 25 per department [2].

First consequence of the disparity in faculty strength should now be apparent: the teaching load per faculty is much higher at NITs, and inevitably, their research output is correspondingly smaller. Over the years, the smaller research output leads to an ever smaller amount of money that flows in to build research infrastructure. The vicious cycle is now complete.

A second (unrelated) problem is the pay structure, through which the governement has made these institutions second-rung (and some would say, second class) to the IITs; their faculty members earn a lower pay than their IIT counterparts with similar qualifications and achievements. Their career progression is also slower. [3].

Both these problems (larger teaching load and lower pay) make the NITs far less attractive for academics with serious interest in research. For example, one could safely assume that all the IITs receive applications from 500 to 1000 distinct (and distinguished!) individuals, who are, by definition, academically oriented. Let us say the IITs can recruit, collectively, 100 to 200 in a year. Where do the others go? Ideally, they should gravitate to NITs which are just "one step" below the IITs. On average, they don't [4]. Most of the remaining people either continue doing what they are doing (usually another post-doc), or take up R & D positions in government or industrial labs in India or elsewhere.

This lack of fresh blood into NITs leads to two related problems: NITs are forced to hire faculty with lower academic and research qualifications -- Masters degree holders. Given a pay structure that rewards higher educational qualifications, these faculty end up doing their doctoral studies at the same place where they teach. I am sure this system produced some excellent professors and researchers; but I think it is safe to say that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a culture of high quality over a long period of, say, 20 to 30 years in this system [5].

In my opinion, the government did a good thing in converting the RECs (which had all these problems) into NITs with somewhat more modern governance structures modeled after that of the IITs. However, I believe this change-over will be purely cosmetic, if NITs do not resolve the following interlinked issues:

  • adequate faculty strength
  • decent faculty compensation (ideally, NITs should be on par with the IITs)
  • rejuvenating their research infrastructure

While the whole country is extremely proud of what the IITs have been able to achieve, it is a sad state of affairs indeed if the next level of institutions are seen to be far lower in stature. At the same time, there is no doubt at all in my mind that NITs -- and many other institutions like them -- have extremely dedicated, hard working faculty, and attract some of the most brilliant students. They all deserve better.

Where do we go from here? What are the possible solutions to the problems (one of which is discussed in this post) faced by the NITs -- and other institutions, too. Any ideas?

[1] I have heard that the NITs also hire temporary staff as and when they need them.

[2] Computer science departments can leverage the expertise in related departments in electrical and electronic engineering, and mathematics. So, they can make do with less faculty.

[3] There are many ways in which the government goes out of its way to insult non-IIT institutions! For example, the Universities Grants Commission's website lists IITs as Institutions of National Importance, as if the others are somehow not worthy of a similar description. My rant about this issue will have to wait for another day ...

[4] "On average" is the key phrase here; don't point out logical flaws by citing exceptions. What I have offered is a statistical observation, not a "rule".

[5] The usual disclaimers apply: I have nothing against those who study for higher degrees at the same place where they work. All I am pointing out is that this is forced on them by the peculiar circumstances that they, and the NITs, face. The long-term sustainability of such a system is, as I said, quite bleak.

East-West Chronicles

Over at SciAn, Kiran has a nice post highlighting the many significances of ISRO's recent launch of the PSLV last week.

Nitin Pai, on the other hand, is all indignant about Reuters' headline: Indian scientists pray ahead of satellite launch. While I don't share his pain (I mean, did the West ever promise to be nice to the others in a non-condescending way? ;-), I would just point you all to another similar instance. Recently, Science carried an article by Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, India's R&D: Reaching for the Top, that celebrates India's new vitality in science and technology. Guess what pictures Science chose to accompany this article: a picture of the Tatas' Indica car, and another ... (gulp) ... of "miraculous fish treatment for asthma"!


... to Dilip D'Souza, aka dcubed, for winning this year's Outlook/Picador nonfiction competition. Bowing to popular demand, he has posted the award-winning essay.

... to Rajesh Jain, the author of the always excellent blog Emergic, for completing three years of blogging. Needless to say, we look forward to many more years of it!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Yahoo reviews OpenOffice

Via SlashDot: Yahoo News has a review of OpenOffice 2 (beta) by Peter Svensson of Associated Press. He gives it a qualified thumbs up. Here is the opening paragraph:

It's weird how things can come back to bite you. Microsoft Corp. killed off the competition for office software suites and became a de facto monopoly in the area, with what result? The competition is back and, this time, it's free!

Regime change at Los Alamos

Remember this post from five days ago? Today's NYTimes reports that Dr. Peter Nanos has announced that he is stepping down. Visit the blog that did a lot towards getting him out.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Hi-fi(nance) women

The much reviled Economic Times did a story today on women who have made it big in the field of finance. If the number of such high-flying women is small, they are role models and change catalysts; if their number is large, such concepts as role models are not needed. I hope the women covered in this story represent a situation in the latter category. I know for a fact that Indian academia still has a long way to go to make role models irrelevant -- particularly in the sciences (except perhaps biology and medicine).

Here's an extract from yesterday's NYTimes story about Dr. Susan Hockfield, the MIT President-elect:

One of her first major public acts as president was to respond to a suggestion, by Harvard's president, Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, that one reason for the relative dearth of women at the upper ranks of science might be an innate lesser ability.

"Marie Curie exploded that myth," Dr. Hockfield and two other university presidents, Dr. Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton and Dr. John L. Hennessy of Stanford, wrote in an essay that appeared on the op-ed page of The Boston Globe. But women need "teachers who believe in them," they went on, and low expectations of women "can be as destructive as overt discrimination."

One thing that came through loud and clear from the ET story is the great stature enjoyed by ICICI Bank for its ability to nurture women executives. This company has Lalita Gupte, Kalpana Morparia, Chanda Kochhar and Renuka Ramnath occupying key -- and high -- positions.

All I can say is, "Way to go!"

Update: The ET story presents other information that are also a cause for celebration: diversity. In the educational backgrounds of these five high-achieving women, you find a very interesting diversity beyond the usual (and boring!) IITs or IIM-A,B and C:

  • Nithya Easwaran: VJTI (Electronics) and IIM-Lucknow.
  • Sutapa Banerjee: Econ from Presidency (Kolkata?) and XLRI.
  • Manisha Girtra: St. Stephen's and Delhi School of Economics
  • Ashu Suyash: Commerce degree from Bombay Univ. and CA
  • and, finally, Natasha Patel, who has a Ph.D. in French literature from none other than the Sorbonne!

Interlinking of rivers

Here are two informative pieces from India Together about the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project. The second piece, which contains the text of a recent speech by Jairam Ramesh in the Rajya Sabha, sums up the issue nicely:

... I do believe that in today's day and age, with today's media, with today's civil society, it is not possible for us to overlook the ecological and human population resettlement consequences of such a massive scheme. Yesterday, you would have seen in the newspapers, Sir, that there is a new study that has come out, that has called into question the utility of Bhakhra Nangal Dam. Sir, even today's day and age, I do not think that we can rush into this project oblivious of the consequences of resettlement of millions of people, and let us also face it, Sir, India's track record in resettlement and rehabilitation has been pathetic, has been poor. This is a blot on our collective conscience.

The ILR proposal is not a new one; however, nobody paid any attention to it until recently for a good reason: its huge cost -- financial, environmental and human. There is now a heightened interest in ILR because of certain pronouncements by the Supreme Court and the zeal with which our President, Dr. Abdul Kalam, has been pushing the idea. See a paraphrase of Dr. Kalam's 9th question in this article, and the reply provided by some concerned citizens; see also this excellent op-ed by one of these concerned citizens, Ramaswamy Iyer, in the Hindu dated 14 December 2003.

Bottomline: while some parts of the proposal might make sense, the project as a whole is not at all a good idea. Sorry, Sunil, it will not "in one single master-stroke solve all of India's water problems".

Update: India Together has an article about recent research on the Bhakra dam that Jairam Ramesh talked about in his speech.

Sweet irony

In this interesting post, Ravikiran Rao takes Dilip D'Souza to task for being sloppy with logic in his Rediff piece. I am not sure that the allegation sticks. Here's why.

The usual goal of a country's economic management advocated by almost everyone (including libertarians) is growth in GDP; in other words, a bigger pie. Usually, one ignores how the pie is divided. Suppose, for a moment, you start with a different primary goal for economic policies: to reduce poverty (with enhanced GDP as a secondary goal), and if what you see indicates that poverty doesn't seem to have decreased (or, it seems to have increased; "seems" is the key word here ;-) after traveling 15 years down the garden path, then you are apt to question the wisdom of the reforms as they are being pursued. I believe this is what Dilip has done:

There's no doubt in my mind: reforms must happen. But 15 years after the process began, I can't help feeling that something is wrong about the way we are pursuing them. For I am yet to see the one effect they must have, first and above all: a visible lessening in the level of Indian poverty. Fewer poor Indians around us. I can't see that.

So, in spite of Dilip's support for reforms (after all, he is not questioning them; he is only wondering about better ways of doing them), Ravikiran gives him a gratuitous remedial lesson in how to talk about "reforms and the poor"!

In any case, one could argue that Dilip has achieved something fundamentally very significant with far-reaching consequences: He has made card-carrying libertarians acknowledge -- and talk about -- certain economic policies and defend them on their impact on the poor.

Congratulations, Dilip!

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Sex and its analogues

Here are two interesting analogies, both involving sex :

  • Documentation [in computer programs] is a lot like sex. When it is good, it is really good; when it is bad, it is better than nothing.
    (paraphrase of a fortune cookie from my linux machine ...)
  • Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.
    (Richard P. Feynman)

VQube, the VoIP product from IISc!

Three of my colleagues at IISc, Professors K.V.S. Hari, T.V. Sreenivas and H. S. Jamadagni run their first -- and our Institute's third -- entrepreneurial venture: Esqube Communication Solutions. Their first software product, named VQube, after being beta-tested in the US and Japan, is now ready and available for download (free, trial version). Hari and I were talking about Esqube this afternoon, and here is what he told me about their new baby:

VQube allows you to use your Windows-based PC -- which should have a microphone, speakers, sound card and an internet connection -- to make telephone calls through the internet. The only restriction is that the other person should also have a PC with all these features, including VQube. It is optimized for use even on a dial-up connection; with a higher-bandwidth (broadband, for example) internet link, it is even better. It does everything that its its more established competitor (that shall not be named here!) does, and then some more!

VQube's USPs are: (a) it works even with the lowly dial-up connection, and (b) it, unlike its competitor, is a strictly peer-to-peer product.

In sum -- and in semi-geek language -- it is a peer-to-peer and low-bandwidth-friendly internet telephony product!

I would really like to give a glowing account of how VQube has really changed (transformed!) my telephony experience. The reason I cannot is that I am a linux-only person, and VQube is a Windows-only software! Needless to say, I am looking forward to VQube-LX ...

See the VQube website for more details on its capabilities that include, for example, conference calls. If you want more info, you might want to look at this Businessworld story. There are at least two bloggers who have written about VQube.

I urge you to check out VQube, and to spread the word. More importantly, if you have any suggestions for the product, do please get in touch with VQube's developers. These academics, strangely enough, are hungry for feedback!

Meanwhile, on the education front ...

Via Kama: This BBC report in pictures about Barefoot College in rural Rajastan is truly inspiring.

This one, on the other hand, is not: UNESCO's Global Education Digest has some sobering information on the current state of education and schooling in India:

The gross enrolment ratio, which measures the number of students at a given level as a percentage of the total population in the relevant age group, stands at 71% at the lower secondary level and 39% at the higher secondary level in India.

Assuming a figure of about 20 million as the population of children at any age, this statistic tells us that only 8 million of them are enrolled in school at the higher secondary level. In an op-ed in the Hindu published a while ago, Prof. Philip Altbach of Boston College said, "India educates approximately 10 per cent of its young people in higher education".

Charukesi has a post on NGOs that are into improving literacy, such as the India Literacy Project and Asha.

Cornelia Dean has a report on Dr. Susan Hockfield, a biologist about to take over as the President of MIT, "one of the world's leading citadels of physics, electrical engineering and other hard sciences", and the most macho of institutions of higher education. (Do catch the report in the next few days before NYTimes hides it behind its pay-wall). Prof. Hockfield, together with the Presidents of Princeton and Stanford, wrote a Boston Globe op-ed titled "Women and science: the real issue" in response to certain remarks on this issue by Larry Summers, the President of Harvard. We have already noted the blogosphere's reactions here and here.

Finally, let me move from education to academia-at-large with some really good news. The NYTimes reports that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has elected 19 women, the highest number ever, among its 72 new members. You can get the list here. The Academy also elected 18 foreign associates from 14 countries "in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research", and India's very own Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, "CEO" of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is among them.