Sunday, July 31, 2005

Myths about rural India

Towards the end of his essay in Nature supplement on the state of biosciences in India, Inder Verma says, "More than 700 million people, nearly 70% of the population, live in rural areas but contribute only 20% of the GDP".

This seems to be a common myth. Sure, agriculture contributes about 20% to India's economy. However, rural India has much more than just agriculture, doesn't it? Yes, probably, but how much more? And, what are the components of 'much more than just agriculture'?

In a recent Rediff piece titled India is not just about agriculture, Omkar Goswami and Rama Bijapurkar present some solid evidence to answer these and other questions about rural (and urban) India. A key excerpt from their piece:

Since April last year, we have constructed what is probably the most comprehensive picture of India's rural economy -- a digitised database of economic, demographic, consumption data that has been extracted and harmonised across various sources, goes back over two decades, down to 530 districts.

All the evidence that we have collected, processed and analysed tells us that rural is much more than agriculture.

This is true not just for the present, but has been so for quite some time. In 1993-94, the Central Statistical Organisation conducted its last rural-urban classification of India's net domestic product (NDP, which is GDP minus depreciation).

It showed that rural India accounted for 54 per cent of the country's NDP, while agriculture contributed to 31 per cent of India's GDP. So, even if one were to account for depreciation, the rural economy of 1993-94 was quite a bit more than just agriculture, forestry and fishing.

The share of rural economy is more or less the same seven years later. Our analysis shows that in 2000-01, out of India's NDP of Rs 1,062,400 crore (Rs 10,624 billion) at constant 1993-94 prices, the share of rural India was 52 per cent.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Thomson and Parkinson

In the op-ed that we saw in the previous post, Jayant Narlikar recounts this interesting incident:

... In the middle of the 19th century, two clever students, Parkinson and Thomson, were competing for the Cambridge Tripos examination. When the results were out, Parkinson stood first and Thomson second. Both stood way above the rest of the pack. They were the only two to have solved a very difficult question. The examiner of the paper, however, was intrigued to find that both had solved the question in the same way. Did one copy the other?

He called Parkinson to find out how he arrived at the solution. Parkinson explained that he made it a practice to go beyond the syllabi and texts to read research journals and he had encountered the question in a research paper whose author was anonymous. The examiner, who had taken the question from the very same source, complimented Parkinson on his preparation and interviewed Thomson. Thomson said: "I wrote that paper". Thomson later went on to be a famous physicist and is better known as Lord Kelvin.

Update: Interestingly, I found this Brad DeLong post from two days ago that has a nice excerpt from some old stuff on Wired in which Thomson is featured prominently. This time, the story is about the deep sea cables. If you are short of time, read the excerpted part in DeLong's post!

Teaching and research

Jayant Narlikar starts his ToI op-ed with this paragraph:

A few months ago the finance minister announced a grant of Rs 100 crore to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to help it raise its standards to the levels of Oxford and Cambridge. Will a fistful of crores help set up Oxbridge-level institutions of higher learning in our country? How about offering a large sum to the Board of Control for Cricket in India to generate a cricket team comparable to Bradman's 1948 Australian team? Or to Sahitya Akademi to produce another Indian Nobel laureate in literature?

He goes on to describe what an institution must do to become a great university: insist on both teaching and research. Alas, this is something that we in India 'forgot' to do! Remember, the teaching he describes is at the undergraduate level. Almost all our UG students are taught in colleges with virtually no research, while good, high quality research is being pursued in elite institutions with no UG students.

Update: In the previous post, I linked to the Nature supplement that had many articles about the state of R&D in life sciences and biotechnology; the articles talked about high quality research being carried out in quite a few places. None -- I repeat, NONE -- of these institutions -- NCBS-Bangalore, CCMB-Hyderabad, TCGA-New Delhi (?), NII-New Delhi, NCCS-Pune, and yes, IISc-Bangalore -- has an undergraduate program. Some of them are 'educational institutions', only in the sense that they offer degree programs at the masters and doctoral levels.

All bloggers hope to be Shilpa Shetty one day

So says Megha [Update: The original link has been flagged as malware-infested].

Link via J Alfred Prufrock, who points us to a couple of other 'interesting' blogs as well.

Life sciences in India

A recent issue of Nature had a supplement called Outlook: India, devoted largely to the state of life sciences and biotechnology in India. In this supplement, three articles by academics stand out:

Inder Verma, a professor at the Salk Institute, La Jolla, San Diego, writes in his article titled Then and Now about how various facets of R&D have changed over the years.

Mriganka Sur, head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, urges strongly that our university system must be rejuvenated if India is to capitalize on the biotechnology revolution.

Finally, Satyajit Mayor, a faculty member at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, recounts his experiences when he made the transition from a 11 year-long career in the US to his current job at NCBS. He recounts both the positives and the negatives, but the accent is clearly on the former.

There is quite a bit of data in these articles. Take a look at this figure, and these two interesting tables.

The Nature supplement also has a few articles by journalists K.S. Jayaraman (Nature's India correspondent) and Apoorva Mandavilli (Senior News Editor, Nature Medicine). While their articles and reports are well written, I was appalled by the opening of the editorial and this report. When will these guys get over the urge to peddle the tired old cliches about cows, beggars and bullock carts in their effort to make their India-oriented articles 'appeal' to the audience in the West? It is bad enough when Western news agencies (and their non-Indian correspondents) do it ...

Friday, July 29, 2005


At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed – you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

So opines John Updike, about neutrinos. See Sean Carroll's post for the full poem.

A news story in yesterday's NYTimes says, "Using a telescope made of 1,000 tons of baby oil and benzene in a stainless steel tank, scientists have measured the total radioactivity of Earth for the first time". How did they measure it? By recording "flashes caused by ghostly particles called neutrinos".

Higher ed revolution in China

Two links about how China is sprucing up its higher education sector. First, check out this story in the Christian Science Monitor [link via Mark Trodden over at Cosmic Variance, an excellent group blog of a bunch of physicists]. The second link is to this NBER report titled Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership? [link via Slashdot].

Well, the China story is absolutely fascinating; it is so fascinating, in fact, that it does not need any spicy comparisons with the US story or the India story. However, you find most of the news items in the media flogging this us-vs-them theme when it comes to reporting about Chinese progress in any field. So, the CSM story on Chinese revolution in higher education represents a refreshing break from the norm!


Today happens to be the 101st birth anniversary of Bharat Ratna J.R.D. Tata (JRD). The Hindu has a nice piece by R.M. Lala (who has penned JRD's biography) on the business ethics of JRD.

In a ToI editorial recounting some of the key achievements of the Tata industrial empire under JRD's leadership, I found this bit rather curious:

... JRD started India's aviation industry. Though Air-India and Indian Airlines were later nationalised and run to the ground by successive governments, JRD would probably have been proud to see how India's aviation industry has shaped up today: New private airlines jostling for space on the tarmac, soon-to-come private investment in airport infrastructure and plummeting fares that have driven the cost of air travel down to railway-ticket levels.

I don't know if JRD really would have felt proud about the current state of the aviation industry; but one can be reasonably sure that he would feel sad about the fact that the Tatas have been -- utterly unfairly -- kept out of aviation in the country. When private airlines were allowed to operate in the country, the House of Tatas -- in technical and financial collaboration with Singapore Airlines -- proposed setting up a domestic airline company. Our atrocious policy prevented then, and continues to prevent now, any foreign airline from taking a (minority, but substantial) stake in an Indian aviation company. Expertise in aviation, according to this bizarre policy, is actually a deterrent to investing in the same industry in India. Go figure!

In an Economic Times op-ed, we have none other than N.R. Narayana Murthy (Chairman, Infosys) reminiscing about JRD. Right in the beginning of his piece, Murthy says, "most conversations with my then-friend and now wife, Sudha, were spent in her extolling the virtues of “Apro JRD”, as she always called him". Sudha Murthy herself has written an extremely interesting article about why JRD is her hero:

It was a long time ago. I was young and bright, bold and idealistic. I was in the final year of my master's course in computer science at the Indian Institute of Science [IISc] in Bangalore, then known as the Tata Institute. Life was full of fun and joy. I did not know what helplessness or injustice meant.

It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore was getting warm and red gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the only girl in my postgraduate department and was staying at the ladies' hostel. Other girls were pursuing research in different departments of science. I was looking forward to going abroad to complete a doctorate in computer science. I had been offered scholarships from universities in the US. I had not thought of taking up a job in India.

One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I saw an advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard job-requirement notice from the famous automobile company Telco [now Tata Motors]. It stated that the company required young, bright engineers, hardworking and with an excellent academic background, etc.

At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply." I read it and was very upset. For the first time in my life I was up against gender discrimination.

Read her article for the rest of the story!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Marvellous Mumbai

The Hindu had this story about how even the worst hardships bring out the best in the citizens of India's greatest city.

Way to go, Mumbai!

Foreign universities

Urmi Goswami repors in the Economic Times that the C.N.R. Rao Committee has finalized its recommendations regarding the entry of foreign universities. However, her news report has only sketchy details about the recommendations themselves. Will have to keep looking for details. Any pointers?

Vivek Paul on India's IT industry

Do read this interview of Vivek Paul in Tuesday's Economic Times. Though he decided to quit the job of Wipro's CEO a while ago to take up a position in a private equity firm, Paul has some rosy things to say about the future of India's IT industry.

The 2001 tech wreck showed the resilience of the Indian IT industry. The entire technology market was crashing and people were going from incredible growth prospects to nothing, and here was the Indian software industry saying “we have dropped the growth rate from 70 to 30%.” Wow. Most would give an arm and leg to get 30% in that kind of downturn. What it also did for the Indian software firms was that it gave them a pause to build sustainable institutions. If we had continued to grow at 70% we would have just kept on adding people without focusing on building an institution.

The inflection point after that was the backlash against outsourcing. It threw up a different kind of challenge. How do we navigate through deep shoals? I think that the Indian software industry did a fantastic job of getting through that without having any damage done to their business. After the backlash, I see a straight highway, clear roads, no clouds in the skies.

Over at the Coffee House, Ramnath recounts his impressions, after attending Paul's recent talk at IIT-Madras.

Rating agencies and engineering colleges

Rashmi Bansal has a post about AICTE's recent decision to outsource the process of accreditation of engineering colleges to independent (and well known) credit rating agencies such as CRISIL, ICRA and CARE.

This is a welcome move, and should gladden the heart of Satya, who mooted this idea a while ago. Together with strict norms on timely disclosure of all relevant information, this idea will go a long way towards improving the quality of engineering education in our country.

In her post, Rashmi points to a Sunday ToI news story (sorry, no link). She expands on this theme to outline some of the things that will make this process work better. In particular, she suggests roping in the key stake holders -- the studnets -- for keeping the managements on their toes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Grade inflation?

This is being treated as a big issue over there in the US for a while now. It is, shall we say, purely of academic interest to most of us here in India.

In any case, here are the links: Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber, and Janice McCabe and Brian Powell in Inside Higher Ed.

In particular, the McCabe and Powell article says a lot about professors as individuals, and about how they are not really immune from some of the 'self-enhancing' tendencies -- as the authors call them -- that they would be the first to blame others of.

Provocative bloggers

If you read things like the following in a blog, how would you react?

Should we hire more mercenaries today?... Why not bypass residency entirely and go straight to Mexico, India and elsewhere to hire soldiers? ...

... if Indians can be trained to do US tax returns they can be trained to fight US wars.

When the blog is Marginal Revolution and the blogger is an academic called Alex Tabarrok, you get calm, measured responses that contribute to a meaningful debate.

Many people who would otherwise go ballistic, do not react with outrage at MR! I really have no idea why this is so. My first guess is that the blogger is an academic with a long track record of fairness and objectivity, and his political leanings are well established; this combination of qualities probably ensures that provocative ideas are taken by the readers in the right spirit. Since readers accept that these ideas/questions are meant for furthering inquiry, their participation in the debate is also in the same spirit; bingo, there is very little abuse/nastiness in the comments section.

Of course, it is entirely possible that MR bloggers, who disable comments on most of their posts, scrupulously delete nasty comments before they make it to the blog; however, I don't think they get many abusive comments to delete.

You might also want to try another provocative post; this one, from Crooked Timber, poses a question that has rather grave implications for civil liberties. However, the blogger -- Chris Bertram -- clarifies his intent, and the readers respond accordingly.

Women in academia

Just a few quick links:

P.Z. Myers wrote this post a while ago: The cost of being a woman in science.

Inside Higher Ed has a news story about a recent NSF study titled 'Broadening Participation in America’s Science and Engineering Workforce'.

Inside Higher Ed also has another interesting report:

The University of Washington is about to gain the distinction of having the only Ph.D.-awarding program in women’s studies to be led by a man.

CET: Common Employability Test?

Commenting on a proposal by NASSCOM a few days ago to collaborate with AICTE in curriculum development, I suggested that NASSCOM should also examine the possibility of organizing a common, nation-wide test -- in aptitude, mental ability, proficiency, etc -- that all undergraduates can take; such a test will obviate the need for screening tests by individual companies everytime they want to recruit.

Dinesh Varma reported Monday in the Hindu (Chennai edition) that a company called MeritTrac offers such an exam; the company's analysis of the results of some 25,000 students who took the test from all over India has led to some striking conclusions:

... [Candidates] with a good academic background did not necessarily do well in the test ... The low correlation between academic track record and skill sets that determine employability indicates that the academic system is not well aligned with the industry expectations.

... [With] some training/orientation (from the industry), the percentage of candidates qualifying for employment would jump by at least 30 per cent without compromise on the standards adopted by recruiters.

While the industry focus is more on technical and communication skills as compared to analytical and reasoning abilities, the actual technical skill levels of students is higher than industry expectations.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Annals of very interesting science

From this post by P.Z. Myers about a recent paper:

[...]This paper tries something different: the investigators had people have sex in an MRI tube, and snapped a few pictures while they were at it.

This wasn't easy. If any of you have seen an MRI tube, they tend to be small and cramped, difficult for claustrophobics to handle, and a tight enough squeeze for one person, let alone two. The methods section is the most interesting I've ever read.

Just head over there and read the rest of it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Firefox: The alternative history

Less than a week ago, I linked to an oral history of the birth of the Web. It was largely about Netscape's meteoric rise from a non-entity to the company that launched the dot-com boom of the late 90's. However, the company couldn't take the heat from its bigger competitor (which started giving away its product for free by bundling it with its operating system), and almost folded. But, it did something that was to become truly historic: it opened up its source code. Eric Raymond, the open source evangelist, gives this event the pride of place in his history of the open source movement.

Now, what happened to the product that Netscape open-sourced? We know the answer: it became the Firefox browser, that is becoming the default browser of an ever growing tribe of netizens. We now have this story on ZDNet (UK) that recounts the history of Firefox from the time Netscape open-sourced its code. [Link via Slashdot]


This report is interesting: NASSCOM is working with AICTE in developing UG curriculum in the areas of interest to the former (computer science, electronics and electrical engineering, information technology). This may force CII to get into the act for other areas, such as mechanical, civil and chemical engineering.

I have nothing against such a collaboration; in fact, if it is anything like what Kiran Karnik (the president of NASSCOM) himself has articulated in a recent Hindu op-ed, it may actually be a good thing. But, it is also clear that Karnik is aware of the problems with this approach:

However, it is important not to convert professional education into polytechnic training: the former must focus on building a strong conceptual foundation, so that in a world of rapidly changing technology, the graduate can master new developments. The ability of learning how to learn is an essential part of good education. [emphasis added by me]

The fear, therefore, is that this sort of collaboration between NASSCOM and AICTE may lead to diluting the curriculum to the level of that of polytechnics. Industry, with its short term focus, may end up asking for short term fixes, which may not be good in the long term. Karnik may believe in lofty ideals, but others may not.

Update (27.8.2005): This report in the Economic Times dated 25 August 2005 indicates that such a test is being planned, not for IT companies, but for BPO companies.

IMO, a much better option for NASSCOM is to conduct a common examination for all graduates, several times a year, if necessary; the results of such an examination can be used by NASSCOM members for recruitment. There is an important benefit to the organization's members: they don't have to conduct tests, which are just a first-level filtering mechanism. The job applicants benefit, too: they can just take one set of exams -- different aptitutde tests, tests of proficiency in their chosen fields, and any other tests that the NASSCOM members might want. They may also be allowed to take this test multiple number of times, if they want -- a la GRE.

Where is the connection with AICTE's efforts at curriculum development? The common examination conducted by NASSCOM serves as a a timely indicator of what the industry really wants from its fresh recruits. This can then be used by AICTE for modifying that part of the curriculum that is tailored to industry's needs.

This clean separation has other benefits, as well. It will ensure that NASSCOM will not be blamed if, several years later, the curriculum is found to be deficient in some way. AICTE will also not be blamed for being under the influence of an industry lobby. These are real concerns in our country, where regulatory bodies have a poor record of fairness and independence.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

In praise of ...

... free and compulsory education to all children. An editorial in ToI praises the latest effort by the government; right now, it is only a draft Bill, though.

From the editorial:

Low levels of enrolment as well as slipping standards in schools are due to the absence of organic links between the institution and its intended beneficiaries. This could be addressed best by decentralising their functioning and changing their social character. Make Panchayati Raj institutions, with financial help from the Centre, responsible for running schools.


Ah! I found -- not just one or two -- but three links!

First, here is a news story (in Physics and Astronomy online) that starts with this creepy stuff:

Working with platinum nanowires 100 times thinner than a human hair--and using blood vessels as conduits to guide the wires--a team of U.S. and Japanese researchers has demonstrated a technique that may one day allow doctors to monitor individual brain cells ...

which, thankfully, is followed immediately by "... [it may] perhaps provide new treatments for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's".

Next, we have (via Slashdot) a link to the course website on Nanotechnology and Society. This site has tons of information, and some nice links. It even has a nanojokes page, but there is no dirty joke there (yet) ...

Finally, in his excellent blog, Indic View, Kiran has a nice post on a nanotech-based photovoltaic future.

Anand Parthasarathy

Recently, Anand pointed us to the blog by Siddharth Varadarajan, a regular columnist and deputy editor at the Hindu; well, it is not really a blog, it is more like an archive of his essays, reports and columns, similar to Swaminathan Aiyar's website. Npw, I really hope someone can convince Anand Parthasarathy, the tech correspondent at the Hindu, to start a blog.

Take a look at this report by Anand Parthasarathy on the developments in getting a really low-priced mobile phones to the market. He calls, rightly, the 1,000 rupee (about 20 Dollars) barrier the 'Lakshman Rekha' -- a major psychological barrier -- of mobiles.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Perils of blogging

We have discussed, briefly, why academics blog. Now, along comes Chronicle of Higher Education, with a piece by a pseudonymous professor of liberal arts warning young academics (in particular, those looking for academic jobs) not to blog.

It would never occur to the committee to ask what a candidate thinks about certain people's choice of fashion or body adornment, which countries we should invade, what should be done to drivers who refuse to get out of the passing lane, what constitutes a real man, or how the recovery process from one's childhood traumas is going. But since the applicant elaborated on many topics like those, we were all ears. And we were a little concerned. It's not our place to make the recommendation, but we agreed a little therapy (of the offline variety) might be in order.


You may think your blog is a harmless outlet. You may use the faulty logic of the blogger, "Oh, no one will see it anyway." Don't count on it. Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.

The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.

Many academics have responded. Start with Amardeep Singh, and check out the others listed in his post. In particular, I recommend the excellent posts by Tim Burke and Dan Drezner, who first tear apart the arguments presented in the Chronicle article, and then discuss the pros and cons of blogging by junior academics leading to some good advice. Also, don't forget to check out the comments on these three posts.

Attention, sci-fi fans

We noted earlier that Cory Doctorow's new book was available for free download under a Creative Commons license. Via Slashdot, we now have a link to another science fiction book, Accelerando, by Charles Stross.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The birth of the Web: An oral history

Picture a world without Google, without eBay or Amazon or broadband, where few people have even heard of IPOs. That was reality just a decade ago. The company that changed it—bringing us into the Internet age—was a brilliant flash in the pan called Netscape. For the tenth anniversary of its IPO, FORTUNE recruited dozens of players to tell the story of the startup in their own words...

Thus begins this wonderful (but loooong) report in Fortune by Adam Lashinsky. [Link via Slashdot].

Monsoon, markets and bans

The story we noted earlier has made it to Nature. This time, the reporter is K.S. Jayaraman.

Last month, the DST issued a directive prohibiting the publication of any results that differ from its official forecast unless they have been peer-reviewed and cleared by the head of the researchers' agency. The DST will in future collect and disseminate monsoon data produced by research institutes to avoid confusion, DST secretary Valangiman Ramamurthi told Nature. "Monsoon forecasting is sensitive for the Indian economy," he says. "It's not a free-for-all."

Prashant Goswami, who heads the monsoon research group at the C-MMACS, says he and his colleagues are upset at the directive. "Posting unpublished results on the web is the accepted norm in science everywhere," he points out. "What upsets us is that we have a monsoon model that seems to work, but we can't make the results public." He is also concerned over the implications for other research fields. "I hope this will be debated by the scientific community," he says.

Honorary doctorate for Ratan Tata

It is from the University of Warwick. Here is the ToI story. A recent issue of Newsweek-Asia had a glowing cover story about the Tata group (link via Kaps at Sambhar Mafia).

Some of you may be aware of the close ties between IISc and the House of Tatas. Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata dreamt of setting up an educational institution devoted to science and technology. He put together all the necessary ingredients for it, but didn't live to see IISc's 'official' birth in 1909, and real birth in 1911 when students were admitted into programs in Electrotechnology, and General and Applied Chemistry. The Court and Council of IISc have always had representatives of the House of Tatas in them; J.R.D. Tata was the President of the Court for a very long time. Ratan Tata is the current President of the IISc Court.

Even now, Bangaloreans are fond of calling it the 'Tata Institute'; most of them (particularly, auto and taxi wallahs, who really matter to out-of-towners) are blissfully ignorant of the existence of a mere IISc; if you make the mistake of asking an auto wallah to take you to IISc, you might land up at the IIM. So, beware!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The third headline

One of the jokes doing the rounds in the pre-web era of b-boards and newsgroups was about the three headlines that told the story of Ben Johnson's fall from grace:

  • First headline: "Canadian sprinter wins the Olympic Gold Medal".
  • Second headline: "Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter fails the dope test".
  • Third headline: "Jamaican-born sprinter stripped of his Olympic Gold Medal".

Are we seeing the third headline in this news story?

Just in case ...

... you decide to have an affair -- or, if you are already in one -- you might be interested in this Secret Lover line of cards, designed "exclusively for people having affairs" (link via : Alex Tabarrok). From the website:

This collection is dedicated to those who wish to express themselves with a greeting card that addresses the complex lifestyle issues encountered in an secret love relationship and echoes the inherent conflict, passion, desire and deep emotion.

The line even has a card for that ultimate special moment when you have to say 'good bye'! From the card: "Sharing you with someone else and not being able to call you my own ... I guess our timing just wasn’t right".

Very thoughtful ;-)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Suketu Mehta in NYTimes

A quick update: Reuben and Charu have clarified their stand in the comments area. Though I understood the context of their posts, I was sloppy in implying, inintentionally, that they said something positively positive about Mehta's op-ed. My apologies.

It is interesting that Reuben and Charu managed to find something, er ..., interesting in the NYTimes op-ed by Suketu Mehta. I just found it appalling, and a couple of commenters on Reuben's post seem to have come to a similar conclusion. Let me give a couple of extracts [with emphasis added by me]:

  • [The country of my ancestors] couldn't change its technology and its philosophy and its notions of social mobility fast enough to fight off the European colonists, who won not so much with the might of advanced weaponry as with the clear logical philosophy of the Enlightenment. Their systems of thinking conquered our own.
  • There are many more Indians in the United States than there are Americans in India. Indian-Americans will help America understand India, trade with it to our mutual benefit. Just as Arab-Americans can help us fight Al Qaeda, Indian-Americans can help us deal with the emerging economic superpower that is India.

Note that the 'us' (and the 'our', etc) are different in the two extracts. In any case, what is the idea behind these nuggets of wisdom from Mehta? The peg for the op-ed is the concern that the Americans have about outsourcing; so, if the idea is to convince the Americans that losing a measly 3 million jobs (out of its current level of 130+ million jobs) over a fifteen year period is not all that bad for them, I would just say that there are umpteen good and powerful ways of doing it, and Mehta's is *not* one of them. Or, who knows -- may be there is something deep in his op-ed ... ;-)

Update: Here is Uma's take on educating our children. Both Sepia Mutiny and (via Ashish) Dan Drezner's blog have interesting discussions about outsourcing, triggered by Suketu Mehta's op-ed.

Today's news on education

Economic Times has a report about the ongoing tussle in the Central Government about what to do -- and how to do it -- with the education cess, which has collected about Rs. 5,000 crores (Rs. 50 billion). The players are Arjun Singh (HRD Ministry), Chidambaram (Finance Ministry) and Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Planning Commission).

ToI presents a view and a counterview on the issue of making students pay an exit fee on graduation. You might also want to check out the posts on this topic by Satya and Reuben

In the meantime, CABE has articulated a strange view that not more than 20 % of the resources of a college/university should be recovered from the students through fees.

ET has another article about the collaborative arrangements between Indian institutions and foreign ones; it points out that the regulations on this issue are still being prepared.

If this post looks and feels like a link dump, it is! Since I think there is some important information in these reports, I have collected them here simply for quick and easy access. As I have stated so many times before, the Indiatimes website is an absolutely horrible, messy maze; it is difficult to find things there. For example, there was a report about a company called 3D Solid Compression in the ET two days ago; I could not find an online link to it!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Alex knows 'zero'!

Folks at SlashDot are discussing this great parrot (called Alex) that has mastered the concept of 'zero'. Head over there!

After Kota, Rajasthan ...

After Kota, Rajasthan, the ToI group profiles yet another 'city of dreams': it is Varanasi, UP.

New tools to detect plagiarism

The premier science journal Nature has a special report by Jim Giles on an interesting set of software tools that are likely to be deployed soon to detect plagiarism in academic publications.

The fight against plagiarism is about to take a decisive turn. Academic publishers have told Nature they hope that software designed to catch cheating students could soon be used to unmask academics who plagiarize other researchers' — or their own — work.

Big publishers such as Elsevier and Blackwell, which between them publish more than 2,500 journals, have been prompted to act by reports that plagiarism is becoming more common. [...]

Hat tip: Prof. Ranganathan, who sent me an e-mail alert.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Indian women in science

Anita Rao Kashi reports in ToI:

"Becoming a scientist has not been encouraged as a career for girls. Even after they do their masters in science subjects, they gravitate towards a teaching career rather than taking up research," IISc professor and physicist Rohini Godbole said.

The solution: a two-pronged role model programme ...

Salman Rushdie on 'Code of Dishonor'

Rushdie's article has also been published by the Times; since the NYTimes link is likely to go behind a paywall, I am giving this link as well.

In his New York Times op-ed titled India and Pakistan's Code of Dishonor, Salman Rushdie says :

Why does a mere seminary have the power to issue such judgments? The answer lies in the strange anomaly that is the Muslim personal law system - a parallel legal system for Indian Muslims, which leaves women like Imrana at the mercy of the mullahs. Such is the historical confusion on this vexed subject that anyone who suggests that a democratic country should have a single, unified legal system is accused of being anti-Muslim and in favor of the hardline Hindu nationalists.


As for India, at the risk of being called a communalist, I must agree that any country that claims to be a modern, secular democracy must secularize and unify its legal system, and take power over women's lives away, once and for all, from medievalist institutions like Darul-Uloom.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Michael Higgins is upset ...

Via: Desi Pundit : Michael Higgins is upset with Technorati. Very, very, upset!

Stephen Baker of Blogspotting (BusinessWeek's blog) spoke to Adam Hertz, Technorati's vice president and chief engineer, and got some details. Interestingly, the first commenter on this post is Bob Wyman, CTO of PubSub!

Interesting sociology research

Vani Doraisamy reports in the Hindu:

The judicial wrangling over the Common Entrance Test may not have resolved the issue of whether scrapping the CET would benefit rural students, but an analysis of probable medical cut-off marks with respect to the higher secondary board examination shows that the dice is clearly loaded in favour of students from private schools.

The division is not between rural and urban schools, but between exclusive schools, which thrive on heavy and intensive coaching and the rest.

Educational pyramid

Let me point to a couple of things before I get to the pyramid: Urmi Goswami has a couple of reports in the Economic Times about the recent recommendations of the Central Advisory Board of Education. CABE has recommended universalization of not just primary education, but also secondary education (probably all the way to Plus Two). It has estimated how much is needed to achieve these goals: at 54,000 to 73,000 crores (this is the additional expenditure over the current expenditure of Rs. 47,000 crore), it is quite a bit!

The Hindu has reported on another set of CABE recommendations about higher and technical education. These recommendations also include some about how to raise the money: soak the rich! Read this paragraph, and try not to laugh out loud:

While the committee preferred a "sound differential fee system" in higher education based on the principle of `ability to pay,' the practical difficulties in implementing such a regime have made it suggest a progressive taxation system with the proviso of looking at more than just the income tax.

It is not clear what these 'practical difficulties' are. Evidently, the CABE types haven't heard of the number of people who are willing to pay 100 k (one lakh) rupees a year for engineering education. It is more than 20,000 people in Karnataka alone! And, this 100 k is just the 'official' component; the unofficial component runs into several times more at the time of admission.

Now, the pyramid: Urmi Goswami's report covers some guidelines about the student/teacher ratios at various stages of education; I was surprised to see a 'recommended' ratio of 30 students per teacher at the primary stage! AICTE, on the other hand, mandates 10 to 15 students per faculty in engineering colleges!

In other words, kids don't get the kind of personal attention they need, while college-going teens, who certainly don't need it -- and they resent it, too! -- get subjected to 'hand holding'. Don't you think we have a bad kind of pyramid here?

Our woman in London

Neha is in London, and she has been blogging about the terrorist strikes and their aftermath. Do check out her posts (and she promises more).

By the way, Newsweek gets the metaphor just right: it calls blogs history's first drafts. (Hat tip : Secular-Right.)


Many people have already written about how the British in general, and Londoners in particular, have responded to the recent terrorist attacks with "resilience and a display of 'plain, common guts'".

In their hour of crisis, the British people received help from another vital source: their opposition party -- not necessarily through anything it did (though I am sure it did plenty of good, positive things), but through the things it, thankfully, did not do. For example:

  • It did not call for a "befitting reply", ..., and "[disrupt] commercial, educational, and business activities in parts of the country".
  • It did not blame the "lax policies of the government" for the terrorist attacks. Further, it did not say that the attack on the London metro is an attack on the "our cultural ethos and national pride" (as if an attack on other places would somehow be sort of okay).
  • It did not say that the government "cannot absolve itself of responsibility" for the terrorist attacks. (See this post by Ashish.)
  • It did not force the police and other security forces to battle its cadres (who only wanted to "vent their anger"), thereby taking up their time which, by the way, could have been spent in going after the real terrorists and their accomplices.
  • In sum, it did not play "cheap politics".

In addition to commiserating with them, I salute the British people for their wisdom in choosing their politicians -- especially those in the opposition -- who are actually fit to rule their country.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Director Balaram

Today's Hindu has a profile/interview (presented in the format of a report by Divya Ramamurthi) of Prof. Balaram, who took over as the Director of our Institute on 1 July 2005.

Surprisingly, this report appears in the 'Karnataka' section of the print (Bangalore) edition of the Hindu; I don't know if it was even published in other cities. Since it is about the new leadership at an 'Indian' institute -- and one that was lavished with a 'windfall' (as Divya Ramamurthi called it) of Rs. 100 crores in this year's Central budget -- I would have expected this profile/interview to be important enough to be given a place in the 'Nation' section of the newspaper. Well, perhaps the good folks at the Hindu have other ideas ...

If you wish to know more about Prof. Balaram, and his views on the state of higher education and research in India in the fields of science and engineering, the best place to go to is the journal Current Science, which has been carrying his signed editorials for, um..., so many years.

I had a post in April on some reports (which were unofficial then) that Prof. Balaram was going to be our Institute's new Director.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Annals of academic put downs

Here is a nice one I found in a balanced review of Freakonomics (hat tip: Tyler Cowen) by James Q. Wilson:

Social scientists should never try to predict the future; they have trouble enough predicting the past.

Wilson heard it from his Ph.D. advisor, "no doubt quoting someone whose name I have forgotten".

BTW, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, also have a blog.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Marginal recommendations

Fabio Rojas, guest-blogging at Marginal Revolution, asks, "why aren't conservative media critics rushing en masse to sing the praises of Bollywood films?" He goes on to list some of the Bollywood conventions; let me just give a couple:

  • No sex. If you're lucky, you might see some wet sari.
  • Lots of trips to Egypt and Switzerland. I have yet to understand this convention.

He even recommends a couple of Bollywood movies. Want to know what they are? Read his post, now!

Update on 'Justice at last!'

Just a quick update on the post about the ongoing saga of court battles about the validity entrance examinations in Tamil Nadu. The latest is that the Supreme Court has decided not to stay the Chennai High Court order that went against the Tamil Nadu government. Badri has the details, and links to the relevant news stories.

The bottomline is that this year's admissions process will proceed according to the original scheme: entrance exam results will count, and so will the results of improvement exams. The procedure for next year's admissions cycle will depend on the Supreme Court verdict.

It will be really nice if the Supreme Court makes use of this case to probe further into the broader question of entrance exams; it will be nice if it orders all the regulatory authorities (AICTE, the Medical Council of India, and UGC) to come up with some way of reducing the number of entrance exams to just one for each subject.

Let me just say what I would like in this National level test -- let us just call it N-CET -- for all the higher secondary students (clearly, the state level CETs will have to go) :

  • N-CET has a separate test for each discipline; the list of disciplines could include (aside from the present set: mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) history, economics, accountancy, languages, etc, which are taught at the higher secondary level; thus, admission into the arts and commerce courses can also be made based on the N-CET results.
  • N-CET exam can be offered on demand, and a student may be permitted to take it several times if he / she so desires; thus, the pattern of administration of the exams can be like that of GRE.

As pointed out by Sriram (Anonymous-2) in the comments section of this post, BITS-Pilani offers a computerized test on demand; however, BITS doesn't allow a student to take the exam multiple times in a year.

We should move towards N-CET, and I would really like to see the Supreme Court use this opportunity to start a debate, and push our regulators to come up with a viable scheme.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

New IITs, IIMs?

If we believe this ET story, there seems to be some momentum for upgrading seven engineering colleges to the IIT status.

An anonymous commenter points to yet another well-argued article by S.S. Vasan in the Hindu that makes a strong case for IT-BHU's efforts to become IIT-Varanasi.

Vasan, whose article on the entrance exams we had an occasion to link to earlier, is an alumnus of our Institute, and we have even chatted a few times during his masters days. It is nice to see him take an active interest in education in India.

I presume this news will put these IT-BHU folks in a happy frame of mind. On the other hand, may be not. By now, they have probably seen many highs, and as many lows, in IT-BHU's quest for IIT-hood.

[ Full disclosure: I got my undergraduate degree from IT-BHU. I believe that IT deserves to be made an IIT simply because of its long association with the JEE (see these two recent Rediff articles that make the case quite convincingly, using many other arguments). In my view, it is rather unfortunate that the fate of IT is being tied to that of the other colleges. ]

As for the merits of upgrading a few engineering colleges to the IIT status, people have mixed feelings; and, I expect the powerful IIT lobby to oppose this move. I would say creating more IITs is a good thing (but not enough) simply because India needs many more high quality colleges to educate its hundreds of thousands of high quality students coming out of its high schools.

It would make me even more happy if the government takes its blinkers off, and looks at other disciplines, too. Not only does India need good, well trained engineers, doctors and managers, it also needs good, well trained scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, linguists, historians and philosophers. Our largely hub-and-spoke type university system does a poor job of providing good, solid education to large numbers of students in these other disciplines. The key phrase here is "large numbers"; so, those of you who think they got good education in some islands of excellence in the present system may please hold off on your flames.

Bottomline: creating more IITs is fine, but we need more 'real universities', too!


The identity of Desi Pundit has been revealed: it is Patrix! Yeah, the same he of the Nerve Endings Firing Away blog. Patrix and and his co-bloggers -- Kaps, Vulturo, Vikram and Ash -- travel through the Desi subcontinent of the blogosphere, and tell us about the interesting things they find.

Shivam called Desi Pundit 'a constantly running Blog Mela', and I agree with him: it is certainly a nice and easy way to find out about who is saying what. More importantly (to me, at least), it is a great way to discover new voices with fresh ideas.

To the folks running Desi Pundit: Great show, guys! And, thank you for all your hard work.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Science, science and design

First, via Chugs: The magazine Science, which is celebrating 125 years of its existence, is offering something exciting:

In a special collection of articles published beginning 1 July 2005, Science Magazine and its online companion sites celebrate the journal's 125th anniversary with a look forward -- at the most compelling puzzles and questions facing scientists today. A special, free news feature in Science explores 125 big questions that face scientific inquiry over the next quarter-century; accompanying the feature are several online extras including a reader's forum on the big questions.

Next, over at Scian blog, Selva points us to "a fine exhibit" at the American Institute of Physics. The exhibit celebrates the World Year of Physics that marks the centenary of Einstein's revolutionary papers.

Finally, via SlashDot: "Business Week is running a 158-page slideshow that features 2005 IDEA recipients."

Update: Kaps informs us that one of the Bronze medal winners is an Indian: Satish Gokhale of Design Directions.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Mela of melas

Amit Varma has put together an excellent write up on this week's Bharateeya Blog Mela. The next mela will be hosted by Nilu.

If I were to pick just one post from this week's mela, it would be Hemangini's very powerful post; in fact, Amit's write up, rightly, starts with this post. If you haven't read her post, do it now! And, all power to Hemanginis of this world.

The next edition of Tangled Bank is also up, hosted by David Winter of Science & Sensibility. I recommend the post by Suresh (who hosted the previous edition of TB) on how PPT doesn't bore people, [but] people bore people, and another by Jeff on the Purpose of Science.

Rushdie on atheism

Via Amit, we get this brilliant Telegraph op-ed by Salman Rushdie on followers of what he calls "Atheism Lite" (he cites Dylan Evans as one of them, because of this Guardian op-ed by Evans), who seek to "negotiate a truce between religious and irreligious world views".

Rushdie goes on to show why he supports those -- like Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Miller and Edward O. Wilson (and I would add the blogger P.Z. Myers to this list) -- who take a hard line against creationist and ID anti-scientists:

Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal -- if the world's religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life's multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called 'revealed' texts. No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached.


If religion were a private matter, one could more easily respect its believers' right to seek its comforts and nourishments. But religion today is big public business, using efficient political organization and cutting-edge information technology to advance its ends. Religions play bare-knuckle rough all the time, while demanding kid-glove treatment in return.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

New horizons

Satya, who writes the excellent Education in India blog, has written, in his personal blog Prayatna, a very nice post about how folks belonging to India's emerging middle class (that is getting ever bigger) are thirsting for knowledge -- not necessarily in English, but in their own language, and about how Badri and he started in early 2004 a new publishing venture New Horizon Media in this sunrise sector. They have already published over 70 titles in Tamil!

When Satya and I met in Bangalore some three weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing from him this truly fascinating story about their venture; I am glad to see this story recounted in his blog.

Satya mentions some of their bestsellers in Tamil; they include a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, a political history of the US, and an intro to the stock markets. He adds:

While we started out with the idea that there was a need for increasing awareness and overall knowledge levels for the betterment of society and that the best way to get started was by publishing knowledge-oriented books, we had little idea of how the readers would respond. We have been pleasantly surprised to find that these books are selling well across the entire state of Tamil Nadu. We priced [our book on the] political history of America, an 850 page hardbound book at Rs. 350 which is at the highest end of pricing in the Tamil market and yet the book has sold over 1000 copies in less than a year's time. We have learnt from booksellers that the buyers of the book on the political history of America and the one on the 9/11 attack ranged from politicans to policemen! What better indicator of the hunger for knowledge.


The Argumentative Indian


Hurree of Kitabkhana has more: some exceprts from the book and links to a couple of reviews.

Yet another link (via Sonia Faleiro) to a review by William Dalrymple in the Times.

Here are the links to the bloggers who have been talking about The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen's latest book of essays: Selva, Chandrahas, Reuben and Anup.

In particular, Anup and Chandrahas have links to some of the book's essays that are available online. And, Reuben has excerpts from a review in The Economist (sorry, subscribers only!).

While on the subject of The Economist, via Ramnath's coffee house we get a link to an excellent article in the magazine about this great institution called, um, coffee house (you don't need a subscription to read this one). The article traces the history of this institution, and presents some interesting parallels between the coffee houses of the eighteenth century and the internets of the twenty-first. Good read!

Loot for work programs?

After Brinda Karat, it is now the turn of Jean Dreze to rant about how poorly our state governments are running the Food for Work programs, which are an important part of India's War on Poverty. If Karat fumes about how the program treats women, Dreze fumes about the rampant corruption in its implementation.

While we are on corruption, it was interesting that Transparency International actually put a number on the level of corruption: about 20,000 crore (200 billion) rupees, or a little less than 1 percent of our GDP.

Isn't this figure too low by a factor of at least five? Or, ten?

Washington Accord

Yesterday's Economic Times reported that India is negotiating to become a member of the Washington Accord, a multilateral agreement of sorts that makes all the member countries recognize each other's engineering degrees (why engineering alone? I have no idea). I am sorry I cannot find the link in the Indiatimes maze. All I could find there was a link to an earlier story.

Apparently, India's application to join the Washington Accord will take a while to be accepted (three to four years), so what India is likely to get is only a provisional membership. However, full membership will follow only after the quality of our academic programs is evaluated. I am not too hot on foreign agencies evaluating our institutions; however, since we are not doing it ourselves, I guess this is another piece of good news. A couple of days ago, I pointed out that Singapore will also have to rate our institutions under the newly signed Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. Now, the good folks at the Washington Accord will also be doing it.

I have no idea if membership in this body is a big deal. Perhaps some of the readers who know about the Washington Accord can enlighten the rest of us?

While we are on higher ed in India, the Economic Times also reported that some Indian universities have been identified for pumping in money through a new initiative. Under this initiative, they will be given the status of "universities with potential excellence".

Trust our government to offer praise in insulting ways.

Terrorists and milk supply, Markets and monsoon forecasts

Two examples of government meddling in dissemination of research findings.

Update (4 July 2005)

Henry's post takes you to an article that has gone behind the paywall. Here is a New Scientist article which, hopefully, you can access for free.

In the first, it is the US government citing concerns that terrorists may use this information. Via Henry at Crooked Timber, we hear that

The National Academy of Sciences has decided to publish a paper describing the vulnerability of the nation’s milk supply to terrorist attack (yes, it’s a serious paper), despite a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services saying that publication would provide”a road map for terrorists” and not be “in the interests of the United States.”

In the second, it is the Indian government, concerned by monsoon forecasts, saying that (a) they compete with 'official' forecasts, and (b) they might 'confuse' the markets that depend on the forecasts and research data. In his Hindu op-ed, Ramachandran points out that the competing forecasts are based on different modelling techniques (so, they are important and useful for tweaking all the monsoon models). He goes on to say that this sort of reporting is done routinely by foreign agencies and researchers; since they cannot be controlled by the government, all that we have achieved is in tying down our own researchers with such silly constraints.

Some links from the comments:

Though the FT story has gone behind the paywall, here is a Yahoo! report on the NCAER study and its implications. An earlier Herald Tribune report presents a more realistic view of the role of monsoons in Indian economy.

Abheek Barua has written recently in the Business Standard about why there is a growing disconnect between the monsoons and the industrial economy.

By the way, here is an interesting report in the Financial Times about how the Indian economy is slowly becoming decoupled from the monsoons (Read it in the next couple of days before it goes behind the paywall):

The figures released Thursday provide the latest evidence of the weakening link between rural incomes and industrial activity thanks to the rise of a mass affluent middle class, a booming export sector and the growing availability of rural credit.

The farming sector, which accounts for one-fifth of GDP and supports more than 600m Indians, has historically had a domino effect throughout the economy because of its influence on demand for manufactured goods such as motorbikes and tractors.


Economists at the National Council for Applied Economic Reasearch say the correlation between monsoon rainfall, a proxy for farm production, and the following year's industrial output, has fallen to 0.13 for 1999-2003 from 0.90 for 1994-98.

Modern India's city of dreams

Mumbai? Guess again!

The answer is: Kota, Rajasthan! This small city was the highlight of an India Today story on the same topic a few years ago. You want to know what this topic is? Think of an industry that generates 200 to 300 crore (2 to 3 billion) rupees in Kota alone.

If you still have no idea, read this ToI story. An earlier Economic Times story estimaged that, for all of India, this industry is to be worth 3000 crore (30 billion) rupees.

Here is an interesting quote from the ToI story (with emphasis added by me):

And many parents, hoping to get their kids to catch the knowledge bus early, are starting to bring them for admission to schools in Kota so that they can simultaneously attend coaching classes while preparing for their boards.

Getting into a coaching centre isn't a cakewalk.

"The choice of a centre is not always yours since admissions are based on tests and interviews and standard institutes take only the best students having high percentage of marks in qualifying examinations," said Anjani Prasad Shrivastava who had accompanied his son from the steel city of Bokaro to modern India's city of dreams.

In other words, the best institutes in Kota run mini-IITs!