Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Blogs and journalism

There is an interesting discussion on over at Crooked Timber and at Brad DeLong's blog on this topic. There's just too much there for me to summarize here: lots of wonderful ideas about the prevailing culture in journalism and blogging, the underlying assumptions, and of course, the future of each. Worth checking out.

While at it, I should also point to this article on a long bet on the authority of weblogs and that of NYTimes in Google.

Rules, discipline, decorum

Over at Alaphia's post, one of the commenters mentioned Jeppiaar. That comment triggered this post.

Every Sunday morning, Sun TV broadcasts Sapta Swarangal, a program that showcases musical talents in amateurs -- college students (and groups) in particular. In a recent episode, one of the participating groups was from Velammal Engineering College, located near Chennai. During the pre-competition chat, the show's MC asks the group "So, what's special about your college?" The group's leader answers immediately "Rules!". The MC is taken aback, but recovers quickly to ask, "Rules, ... and discipline?".

"Yes", says the group's leader with a mischievous grin, "discipline and decorum".


"Rules, discipline, decorum." Using these three simple words, engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu (and recently, the Anna University has joined them) have unleashed a reign of terror among their students. This post is about how this evil might have taken root.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Tamil Nadu saw a great expansion in engineering education, a growth that led to the current number of over 250 colleges offering degree programs. [To put that number in perspective, there were just seven such institutions when I entered college in 1981.] During the early days of this furious expansion, most of the colleges didn't have a track record that could help the public (parents, really) judge how great they really were. Since 'academic greatness' was hard to judge, the parents settled for a convenient proxy in 'rules, discipline and decorum'.

At this game of 'greatness through decorum', nobody was better than the Sathyabama Engineering College (now Sathyabama Deemed University), founded by Thiru. Jeppiaar (who is now its Chancellor), whom the University's website describes as "a man of success and a wide-angled ideology".

Now, Sathyabama had a strong set of rules prescribing dress codes for students and faculty, and penalties for 'crimes' such as not attending classes. It also banned the use of lecture notes by its faculty during their lectures (!). It went so far as to even 'outlaw' all interactions -- including conversations -- among boys and girls (men and women?). Result? Parents loved it. It must be a great place, the reasoning went, if one can trust it with one's daughter.

Reacting to the rule 'outlawing' conversation between the sexes, a colleague of mine observed that perhaps it all makes sense. "It does liberate one's mind", he said, "if the mind is not allowed to think about sex!"

I am not sure if Sathyabama was the first one to institutionalize this fetish with rules, but it certainly was the best. Now, this fetish is the norm among pretty much all the colleges.

I remember an incident from several years ago, when a male student was allegedly slapped at one of the colleges that dot the Old Mahabalipuram Road. His crime? Chatting with a girl in the college bus; the bus driver ratted on him. In a subsequent meeting, several parents protested against this barbarity. However, their protests were greeted with a stony silence from the other parents. A participant told me later that girls' parents were (secretly) happy that the principal took strict action.

When parents condoned -- and, in fact, encouraged -- high handed and dictatorial behaviour by college administrators on non-academic matters, it was only a matter of time before the disease spread to places like Anna University. That seems to have happened now, with Professor D. Viswanathan, its current Vice Chancellor, issuing fatwas defining acceptable behaviour.

Sathyabama's website has absolutely no information about its faculty. If you doubt me, go ahead and check out their Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Unless people stop confusing 'academic greatness' with non-academic issues such as rules, discipline and decorum, this reign of terror is not going to go away. Our cussed regulators are not at all helpful when they don't mandate our universities and colleges to disclose, unconditionally, all academically relevant information. In the absence of this information, an urban legend based on 'rules, discipline and decorum' is what determines 'greatness' of an institution. The stricter the rules, the greater the institution.

Has anyone told you that Anna University has just become great?

Religion as a 'mental child abuse'

But what can it mean to speak of a child's "own" religion? Imagine a world in which it was normal to speak of a Keynesian child, a Hayekian child, or a Marxist child. Or imagine a proposal to pour government money into separate primary schools for Republican children and Democrat children. Everyone agrees that small children are too young to know whether they are Keynesian or monetarist, Democrat or Republican, too young to bear the burden of heavy parental labels. Why, then, is almost our entire society happy to privilege religion, and slap a label like Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, on a tiny child? Isn't that a form of mental child abuse?

From this stinging attack on religion (which appeared as an op-ed in Philadelphia Inquirer) by Richard Dawkins. "If you sincerely believe your religion is the absolute truth", he says a bit later, "let me ... be ambitious ..., and try to shake your belief". Among his arguments, you'll find this hard hitting comment about intelligent design:

By far the favorite reason for believing in God is the Argument from Improbability. Eyes and skeletons, hearts and nerve cells are too improbable to have come about by chance. Manmade machines are improbable too, and designed by engineers for a purpose. Surely any fool can see that eyes and kidneys, wings and blood corpuscles must also be designed for a purpose, by a master engineer. Well, maybe any fool can see it, but let's stop playing the fool, and grow up. ...

P.Z. Myers informs us that this op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer covers the same ground as his two part documentary titled "The Root of All Evil?" that he hopes will find a sponsor for the US broadcast.

Myers also points to another Dawkins piece in which he recounts some of his experiences while making this documentary. He has some more stuff to say about religion:

... The point is that faith, even moderate faith, is pernicious because it teaches that believing something without evidence is a virtue. Moderates, as Sam Harris shows in his devastating book, The End of Faith, "provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed". Or, in Voltaire's words, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

Male beauty that could cause havoc ...

He played the violin with passion and often performed at musical evenings. He enchanted audiences, particularly women, one of whom gushed that "he had the kind of male beauty that could cause havoc."

From this article about how one genius found inspiration from the music of another. Just in case you are wondering, the 'he' in the above quote is Albert Einstein.

The article, which appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times, is by Arthur Miller, professor of the history and philosophy of science at University College London.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Funding university education and research

Inside Higher Ed has a series of three   articles on how the US is reacting to the perceived loss of its edge in science and technology. The reaction is to the large numbers of science and engineering graduates coming out of Indian and Chinese universities. I am not sure if these graduates will like being equated to the Sputnik, though!

Some bills are winding their way through the US Congress; when they are passed, they will create a mechanism to provide enhanced grants to students opting to study science, engineering, and for those who opt for teaching certification programs.

These moves come in the wake of several reports by various high level committees and task forces:

I really have to wonder why the tone of these reports sound like war cries. Is that the best way to grab attention?


All that was about science and engineering. How about the funding -- in the US -- of university education in general? In a scathing article, Wick Sloane, a former CFO at a public university, asks: "why aren’t we discussing the fact that scrambled state and federal priorities are shutting down public higher education and strangling access? And preventing creation of a decent work force?".


Back to science; this time, it is research funding. In a post titled Libertopia approaches?, Chad Orzel argues:

Modern science, particularly physics, has advanced to the point where progress can no longer be made on the Victorian model of the landed gentry tinkering around in their spare time in their home laboratories. ...

Science is an expensive business these days, and there's just no way you're going to be able to fund it all out of private donations. Relying on philanthropy is not a sound basis for a national science policy.

Finally, via Marginal Revolution, we have links to two academic papers. The first one finds empirical evidence suggesting that "private funders are more successful than the government at identifying important research." The second report, which used a model for academic and private-sector research, suggests, not surprisingly, early and late stage research are better done in academia and private labs.

Anna University

"We [the] students, who have the right to decide whom to elect and the ability to design micro satellites, surely should be given the right to decide what we wear ..."

"Students have been frisked for carrying cell phones humiliatingly - an ignominy normally reserved for terrorists,"

Excerpts (in this NDTV report by Alaphia Zoyab) from a letter from students of Anna University to the President of India. The students are using a democratic -- if un-dramatic -- way to protest, and I think they have been wise in choose this method.

While we are on the topic of protests by university students, I think this one is great.

In a follow-up post Alaphia says:

The letter written to the President is being circulated to gather signatures. It is written straight from the heart and shows the vice-chancellor in very poor light. The VC therefore is desperate to get hold of the letter. His office called and asked me for a copy and they were told kindly to go to hell. So now students’ bags are being checked for it!

This post and the comments thereon are filled with terror-laden words: Taliban, Nazi, death squad. Amazing, isn't it? The great VC, 'Professor' Viswanathan, must be really proud of his record.

Update: I have some more thoughts here.

Google and China

Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely. Whether our critics agree with our decision or not, due to the severe quality problems faced by users trying to access Google.com from within China, this is precisely the choice we believe we faced. By launching Google.cn and making a major ongoing investment in people and infrastructure within China, we intend to change that.

No, we're not going to offer some Google products, such as Gmail or Blogger, on Google.cn until we're comfortable that we can do so in a manner that respects our users' interests in the privacy of their personal communications. And yes, Chinese regulations will require us to remove some sensitive information from our search results. When we do so, we'll disclose this to users, just as we already do in those rare instances where we alter results in order to comply with local laws in France, Germany and the U.S.

From the official Google blog.

Update: There is more info over at Brad DeLong's blog: here and here. In particular, don't miss this comment by the Shanghaiist.

Geeky jokes

Chad Orzel had an interesting post about how physicists' way of doing mathematics can be a pain to mathematicians. And what does he get in the comments section? Tons of jokes at the expense of mathematicians. Here's a meta-joke posted by Aaron Bergman (who points to this compendium of science jokes as its source):

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard. After some observations and rough calculations the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing. A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to himself happily as he now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.

This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humor from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny.

Later, Chad wonders about jokes about physicists, and he gets some of those as well from his readers. Here is a geeky one (but not (quite) about physicists) from someone who signed in as ThePolynomial:

Two fermions walk into a bar.

The bartender asks, "So, what'll it be."

The first one says, "I'll have a gin and tonic."

The second one replies, "Dammit, that's what I wanted!"

If this sort of stuff appeals to you, go read the two   posts.

One of my all time favourites is the one about psychologists.

"How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?"
"Just one, but the lightbulb must want to change."

Friday, January 27, 2006


A typo on materials sent by Seton Hall University to tens of thousands of foreign applicants gave — as a phone number to call for matters related to high school transcripts — the number of a phone sex line promising “hot, horny girls,” The Star-Ledger reported. Officials of the Roman Catholic institution in New Jersey said that it appears that the error was in place for more than one year.

From today's Inside Higher Ed.

"I only want bad reviews sent to me"

... I have appreciated any journalist who has spoken his mind. You only learn from criticism. I once told the record companies that I only want bad reviews sent to me even though it may be painful, hurting and embarrassing. I want it that way because I might very easily believe what the press is writing and become an insufferable bore. Young artistes heed my advice and read only bad reviews.

Great words from Ian Anderson, in an interview with Anand Sankar for the Hindu's Bengaluru edition. Don't forget to read, down at the end, the dumb FAQs that are never to be asked in an interview with the great man.

Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull (Anderson says "... it is true that a lot of people think I am Jethro Tull") will be performing for IIM-B on 3 February 2003; the concert was originally planned to be held in their Singapore campus, but since MHRD didn't play ball, the concert will be in their Bengaluru campus. The Hindu has more info on how to get tickets.

Conversations in blogs

We know blogs are like conversations, right? Right.

We also know that they are global conversations, right? Absolutely.

Now, go look up a couple of other-worldly conversations: here and here.

The fabulous fab facility

It's now official. The Economic Times reported today that IISc's plans to set up a minifab facility (critical for our Institute's research program in micro-electro-mechanical systems) has finally got some big funding from the Government -- to be precise, from the Union Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. We knew this has been in the works for quite a while, but the official announcement of the 50-crore (500 million) rupee grant is sweet. A similar grant is going to IIT-B as well.

The report has extensive quotes from Prof. S. Mohan, the CEO of the Society for Innovation and Development, set up by IISc for promoting large-scale interactions between IISc and industry. From the SID site:

... SID strives to bring the leading intellectuals of IISc and the fruits of their research and development efforts closer to industries and business establishments in a cordial way with prosperity of the Nation as the ultimate goal.

The MEMS project is going to be a megaproject with the involvement of some 40 scientists from different disciplines. Some of the key scientists are: Prof. Rudra Pratap of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Prof. Navakant Bhat of the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering, and one of the recepients of this year's Swarnajayanti Fellowships.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A academic journal on plagiarism

This is great! The journal is called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. Right now, it has just a couple of articles (free pdf files). Worth checking out.

I found the link in a great article by Scott McLemee on plagiarism. A quick quote:

The term “plagiarism” in its current sense is about two thousand years old. It was coined by the Roman poet Martial, who complained that a rival was biting his dope rhymes. (I translate freely.) Until he applied the word in that context, plagiarius had meant someone who kidnapped slaves. Clearly some notion of literary property was already implicit in Martial’s figure of speech, which dates to the first century A.D.

At around the same time, Jewish scholars were putting together the text of that gigantic colloquium known as the Talmud, which contains a passage exhorting readers to be scrupulous about attributing their sources. (And in keeping with that principle, let me acknowledge pilfering from the erudition of Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, whose fascinating paper “Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights” appeared in the Hastings Law Review in 2002.)

In other words, notions of plagiarism and of authorial integrity are very much older than, say, the Romantic cult of the absolute originality of the creative genius.

A terrible editorial in Current Science

This piece of creative writing [caution: pdf] recounts the tale of Vikram Dixit, a scientist in a "well-funded national institute". It's a sad tale of a man who seems unsure of himself, makes bad choices repeatedly, and ends up feeling depressed. It should have been published as a short story with a title like "Vikram Dixit ko depression kyun aatha hai?" [rough translation: "Why is Vikram Dixit depressed?"], but it has, unfortunately, appeared as an editorial in Current Science, India's leading science journal.

It is really unfortunate, because the editorial's exalted position in this leading journal invests this piece of creative writing with a high status as the journal's (realistic ?) take on the state of scientific enterprise in India and elsewhere. Make no mistake; through this story of one lone individual, the editorial does make some sweeping generalizations. At one point, for example, it has this: "this is the story of Vikram Dixit so far. Although a reader will know that the same clone exists all around." (the story has several other such generalizations as well).

The most interesting thing about this piece (again, in its role as an editorial) is that it manages to insult pretty much everyone! The victims include scientists in India, Western scientists, editors of Indian journals (!), students in Indian universities. Let me comment on a couple of them.

First, the editorial paints a caricature of Vikram's post-doc advisor in a 'well-known university in the West'. This (straw)man comes across as a callous, results-hungry individual who doesn't even give his post-doc some time for discussing his work. He even has a strange reason to be glad when his post-doc chooses to return to his home-country: he doesn't have to deal with immigration-related hassles! Further, during their farewell dinner (an expensive one!), he

did not forget to mention which were the areas on which Vikram should concentrate as he was not interested in them any more.

Later in the story, Vikram even tells his student (after their paper has been rejected by an 'international' journal) that perhaps his post-doc advisor was the one who, due to a conflict of interest, made strongly negative comments about the paper!

Do you too feel that this editorial tries to -- in a hidden way -- discourage people from choosing to go abroad for higher studies or post-doctoral work?

Second -- and this is a meta-irony -- the editorial, published in Current Science, mocks 'Indian' journals without betraying any sense of irony. The following extended quotes reveal what the editorial thinks of 'Indian' journals:

One of the papers [by Vikram, the graduate student] in an Indian journal was actually meant for a journal published from a European society. It received very probing comments from two reviewers and several suggestions to improve upon. Vikram was ready with his thesis, going abroad and getting married, all within three months time and was just not ready to spend more time on experiments. His guide refused to pass on the work to another student and, instead submitted it to an Indian journal where it was accepted with minor revisions. Vikram did not like it ...

Few months back, a piece of work which his graduate student carried out appeared very attractive to Vikram [who is now a faculty member]. In fact for the first time in his career as a scientist he felt proud of his work and decided to communicate it to an international journal although he knew he was in a hurry and a few of the experiments lacked proper control. Yet he wrote it up and communicated. Today, first thing in the morning he received a rejection letter with reviewer’s comments so negative that he lost all his enthusiasm to redo some of the experiments and send it somewhere else. Vikram spent a whole day on it, discussed with his student and decided upon sending it to an Indian journal! This is, however, with no assurance that here it would be accepted, but there was a possibility. His student was upset like he was several years back but Vikram pacified this young man by telling him that a competitor, perhaps his former supervisor, had reviewed this paper and negated it due to conflict of interest. He claimed that by publishing in a home journal he would establish his priority, although all along he knew how hollow the claim was! All of a sudden Vikram felt how poor the work was which he thought was good before.

As I said, if it were a short story in a magazine, this sort of trashing of people and institutions may be justified as mere fiction. As an editorial in Current Science, however, it's absolutely, totally, utterly inappropriate. If the collective wisdom of Current Science editors doesn't protect it from this sort of editorials, I fear that the journal risks becoming just another 'Indian' journal to be mocked -- something it stoops to doing so shamelessly in its own editorial.


Thanks to reader V. Narayanan for the pointer.

Swarnajayanti Fellowships

In the Golden Jubilee Year (1997) of India's independence, the P. Chidambaram (who was the Finance Minister in the then United Front government) announced the launch of a new Swarnajayanti Fellowship scheme.

Under this scheme a selected number of young scientists, with proven track record, are provided special assistance and support to enable them to pursue basic research in frontier areas of science and technology. The fellowships are scientist specific and not institution specific, very selective and have close academic monitoring.

The winners of these Fellowships for the year 2004-05 were announced a while ago (the entire list of winners from 1997-98 onwards appears at the end of the page).

Let me use this opportunity to extend my special congratulations to our good friends, neighbours and colleagues, Navakant Bhat (Engineering Sciences) and Vasant Natarajan (Physical Sciences), who have won this Fellowship this year.

The Swarnajayanti Fellowships are as prestigeous as the S.S. Bhatnagar Awards (which I described as the Oscars of Indian science), since the winners are chosen by a panel of peers. However, the two schemes differ in nature: the Bhatnagars are one-shot awards, while the Swarnajayantis go to to promising young scientists (age limit: 40 years) to support their 5-year long research program.

National Awards

Happy Republic Day, everyone!

The National Awards (Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri) for 2006 were announced yesterday, just in time for the Republic Day celebrations today. Let me just highlight the ones that went to Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Padma Vibhushan

  • Charles Correa, S&E, Maharashtra
  • Norman E. Borlaug, S&E, Mexico
  • Obaid Siddiqui, S&E, Karnataka
  • Prakash Narain Tandon, Medicine, Delhi

Padma Bhushan

  • Jaiveer Agarwal, Medicine, Tamil Nadu
  • Kewal Kishan Talwar, Medicine, Chandigarh
  • K.P.P. Nambiar, S&E, Karnataka
  • Prof. Madhav Gadgil, S&E, Maharashtra
  • Nandan M. Nilekani, S&E, Karnataka
  • V. Shanta, Medicine, Tamil Nadu

Padma Shri

  • Bhuvaraghan Palaniappan, Medicine, Tamil Nadu
  • Bonbehari Vishnu Nimbkar, S&E, Maharashtra
  • Devappagowda Chinnaiah, Medicine, Karnataka
  • Ghanashyam Mishra, Medicine, Orissa
  • Hakim Syed Zillur Rehman, Medicine, Uttar Pradesh
  • Harbhajan Singh Rissam, Medicine, Delhi
  • Harsh Kumar Gupta, S&E, Andhra Pradesh
  • Kamal Kumar Sethi, Medicine, Delhi
  • Mohan Kameswaran, Medicine, Tamil Nadu
  • Narendra Kumar, S&E, Karnataka
  • R. Balasubramanian, S&E, Tamil Nadu
  • Sanjeev Bagai, Medicine, Delhi
  • Seyed Ehtesham Hasnain, S&E, Andhra Pradesh
  • Swaminathan Sivaram, S&E, Maharashtra
  • Tehemton Erach Udwadia, Medicine, Maharashtra
  • Tsering Landol, Medicine, Jammu and Kashmir
  • Upendra Kaul, Medicine, Delhi

This list, with 4 Padma Vibhushans, 6 Padma Bhushans and 17 Padma Shris, is quite impressive. I have a feeling that these large numbers (I am not talking about percentages here) are probably unprecedented. I am glad to see this sort of recognition for so many people in science, engineering and medicine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Big question in evolution

And, our very own Gawker, who lives in the same state as that to-be-punished-badly-by-God town of Dover, shows enormous courage in asking it: Just where the heck did all the hair go? Along the way, his thought experiments lead him to other interesting discoveries, too.

... evolution divested Bappi Lahiri of the heavy-ass jewellery around his neck that had made it difficult for him to survive attacks from people he had plagiarized tunes from, and turned him into a bling-less comical-cap-wearing Anu Malik.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

IIMs make their moves

Read about them here. I found this bit at the end quite interesting.

In addition, [a six-month old proposal from IIM-A] wants the board to have the final say on matters relating to appointment of the director, salary scales of faculty and staff, expansion activities and investment policies of the institute.

Update: IIM-A says it's not interested in satellite centres abroad. IIM-C does not want to amend its Memorandum of Agreement with the government. IIM-B says its plans to move to Singapore are still on. It's director, Prof. Prakash Apte, was interviewed by Economic Time's B.M. Thanuja.

V. Raghunathan says some ungrateful things ...

V. Raghunathan, a former professor at IIM-A, has written an op-ed piece in ToI about why IIMs should go global. There are several different strands in his op-ed, and it takes a while to untangle them so I won't bother with that. There is, however, at least one strand that just freaked me out:

No denying either that the government — not in recent years, but that of the Nehruvian era when free market was a bad word — did a great job of investing heavily in these institutions and others like IITs.

These institutions would not have been what they are but for that investment. But the government also invested heavily in hundreds of other public sector institutions and organisations most of whom have gone to seed.

So is the success of IIMs due to the money the government pumped in or should we give some credit to the early founding fathers of the IIMs and their faculty?

I couldn't believe he was saying such an ungrateful thing! Sure, the founding fathers of IIMs were great, but this argument belittles and insults the huge funding and the extraordinarily supportive environment that successive governments have given to not just the IIMs, but also to other such 'institutions of national importance'.

Raghunathan keeps referring to the government funding in a dismissive tone. We must wonder if he realizes how seriously well off the IIMs are compared to even the second-rung institutions (for example, a management school belonging to a government-run university).

Raghunathan sneers at all those other organizations (started by the government) that have 'gone to seed'. Does he realize that it is the money and resources taken away from these organizations that went to some crown jewels like IIMs, so that they could grow in stature and become world class? All said and done, the pie for higher education was small and fixed, and it was this policy of nurturing one set of high profile organizations at the expense of thousands of others that brought IIMs to where thery are now. Given this scenario, he seems to gloat at the decline and demise ('going to seed') of these other organizations.

I don't know about you, I just found this argument sick.


I have no axe to grind in the matter of the Singapore centre of IIM-B. As I said here, I don't see any merit (nor public interest) in such a move by a publicly funded institution; it's like the University of California having a campus in Michigan, because there are lots of students who are willing to pay good money there. Having said this, if they can convince Arjun Singh and get their way, it's not the end of the world. I can live with that. I was just bothered by a spurious argument (which was also profoundly insulting) being put forward to support an initiative on which public opinion could be divided.


I want to direct your attention to one other argument used by Raghunathan; this one is interesting, because he seems to be undermining his own case here.

... IIMs are to replenish their depleting faculty they need newer challenges. Moreover, it is easier for IIMs to go abroad than to attract international students, executive or otherwise, to their campuses located in decrepit and crumbling cities.

This quote from his last paragraph is invested with rich irony, indeed; somehow 'new challenges' don't go well -- do they? -- when followed by 'it's easier to ...'. Anyways, let's follow his argument. IIMs need to go abroad. For what -- newer challenges? No! Raghunathan says they must go abroad for "international students, executive or otherwise". Leaving aside the question of what is so great about teaching 'international students', just what kind of students does he have in mind? Somewhere in the middle of his piece, he says:

Thus [the IIM faculty] can provide much greater value in executive education to economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Dubai or even Eastern Europe, who otherwise look westwards. [Emphasis added]

Now, wipe that smirk off your face, will you?

Seriously, is it so difficult to accept the premiss that when the government created and pampered (not in real terms, but relative to how the other universities were treated) these institutions on our soil, it probably expected (and would certainly like) them to

  • become world class right here?
  • prove that great challenges exist here, that are worth pursuing?
  • (eventually) attract international students to their campuses in spite of their being "located in decrepit and crumbling cities"?

If these institutions turn around and say they need to go abroad in search of new challenges, isn't it like admitting defeat in the face of the real challenge of fulfilling their original mission?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Homework? Bangalored!

When outsourcing is so hot in so many other fields, can this be far behind?

Link via slashdot.

Gadgets for children: Part 2

When I wrote this post, I knew there was something more that I wanted to add, but couldn't locate it in time. Well, I found it today, and here it is:

[Research] published in the journal Education 3 to 13 has found that pupils who use interactive programs cannot remember stories they have just read because they are distracted by cartoons and sound effects.

Describing some software as "more entertainment than education", the researchers have warned teachers and parents not to abandon simple storytelling and reading books to young children.

Michelle Bachelet

"I am a woman, a socialist, separated and agnostic — all the sins together," said Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet with a laugh. Then, asked about her favourite food, she beamed with her trademark smile: "Ahhh! That is my problem, I like everything, seafood, pastas, beans..."

From this profile by Jonathan Franklin.

Ms. Bachelet is the new President of Chile. In an editorial, the New York Times describes her victory as a part of a 'three-continent long jump for women in politics'.

The election on Sunday of Michelle Bachelet as Chile's president completes a three-continent long jump for women in politics. Ms. Bachelet is the first woman elected president in Latin America who is not the widow of a political strongman. On Monday, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as president of Liberia, she became Africa's first woman to be elected president. And with Angela Merkel's election as chancellor of Germany, a woman now leads Western Europe's most populous nation.

Women and men

From today's New York Times:

[When] male subjects witnessed people they perceived as bad guys being zapped by a mild electrical shock, their M.R.I. scans lit up in primitive brain areas associated with reward. Their brains' empathy centers remained dull.

Women watching the punishment, in contrast, showed no response in centers associated with pleasure. Even though they also said they did not like the bad guys, their empathy centers still quietly glowed.

From this paper (caution: pdf) by Shane Frederick of MIT's Sloan School of Management [link via Marginal Revolution]:

Expressed loosely, being smart makes women patient, and makes men more risk seeking. This result was unanticipated and suggests no obvious explanation.

From a wonderful post by 'One African Woman' [via the 7th Carnival of the Feminists]:

Oftentimes, [women] find that they are no longer individuals, succeeding or failing in their own capacity, in their own right. Rather, they have become representative of all women, carrying the fate of every woman in their hands. The reputation of women everywhere has become their personal responsibility.

For the most part, when a man fails, he fails as an individual. But when a woman fails, she is letting down all women, she is bringing shame on all women. The stakes are so much higher for her and therefore the pressure to succeed, to not fail, so much greater.

'Homely' meal in Bangaluru?

I have been catching up on over 10 days of DesiPundit, and came across Sumne's post about Sri Krishna Kafe's Tamilian meal deal. Sadly, Koramangala is several light years from where we live, so I went for lunch to something closer home: the legendary Iyer Mess, a great institution -- Janata Cafe is another -- in this wonderful centre of civilization called Malleswaram.

The Iyer Mess is run by a family in a decades-old small house, a corner of which houses the dining area with about 10 tables. The house itself has nothing to distinguish it from its neighbours; it is easy to miss if you walk a little fast (impossible to do on the 7th Cross!). Till about 5 years ago, it didn't even have a sign proclaiming the 'messy' status of the house (it sports a modest one now). Yet, between 7:00 and 8:30 in the evening, the place would be teeming with a lot of young people, and almost all of them single men. Occasionally, one could see an odd woman and an even odder child there. And, you could hear pretty much every dialect of Tamil and Malayalam in the mess and in the verandah.

The meal itself is simple: Rice, two side dishes, sambhar, rasam, curds, pickles and papad, all served on a fresh, crisp plantain leaf. This basic meal, however, never had the monotonous, synthetic taste that could come, for example, from ground coconut, sugar/jaggery or too much oil. Despite being made of the least expensive seasonal vegetables, the meal is good (almost always), great (occasionally), or soulful and sublime (surprisingly often). I also remember the times when I landed up there slightly late and they had run out of one or two dishes; I was made to wait while the lady of the house made a 'quickie' sambhar or rasam in the kitchen on the other side of the verandah.

It is this 'homely' nature of the place that attracts -- and holds -- its steady and loyal customers. The owners never wanted to exploit their brand image to expand into other areas; they continue to stay small, serving less than 100 meals for lunch and perhaps 150 for dinner. After all these years, the house has not seen any renovation, nor has there been any change in the sartorial preferences of the owners.

I have a vivid memory of one particular dinner, in which the sambhar was too salty. I was in the first batch for dinner; one by one, people started complaining to the old gentleman (Maama!) who was serving the meal. To the first complaint, he gave a patient reply: "Yeah, let me ask Maami if she can do anything about it." To the second, he had a curt reply: "Yes, it's salty". I still pity the poor bloke who made came in third with the same complaint; even before he could finish his sentence, the old man just hit the roof, yelling at him "Aren't you guys regulars here? Is it so difficult to take 'this' sambhar just for this one day?"; we were all grateful he stopped short of calling us ingrates. 'Homely', indeed!

I am glad I went there for lunch today (after a long time!). I was surprised to find the meal priced at 18 rupees, barely one or two rupees more than what I remember paying five years ago. If I were to write a slogan for this wonderful place that fed me for several years, this is how it would go:

Iyer Mess: Value for money, and 'homely' in more ways than one!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


As businesses expand their global reach, and as the economic demands on the environment intensify, the level of societal suspicion about big business is likely to increase. The tenets of current global business ideology—for example, shareholder value, free trade, intellectual-property rights, and profit repatriation—are not understood, let alone accepted, in many parts of the world. Scandals and environmental mishaps seem as inevitable as the likelihood that these incidents will be subsequently blown out of proportion, thereby fueling resentment and creating a political and regulatory backlash. This trend is not just of the past 5 years but of the past 250 years. The increasing pace and extent of global business, and the emergence of truly giant global corporations, will exacerbate the pressures over the next 10 years.

Business, particularly big business, will never be loved. It can, however, be more appreciated. Business leaders need to argue and demonstrate more forcefully the intellectual, social, and economic case for business in society and the massive contributions business makes to social welfare.

From this McKinsey Quarterly article on 'ten trends to watch in 2006' [caution: requires (free) registration]. Emphasis, of course, was added by me.

Pan-Indian CET?

V. Jayanth has an op-ed in the Hindu two days ago about why we need to go for a 'national aptitude test' that can be taken by all the students graduating from our higher secondary schools. It is an initiative that I have always supported. The only modifications I would make are: (a) this test should be available on demand (just like GRE, or like BITS-Pilani's entrance exam), (b) it should have tests in as many subjects as our universities and colleges demand [in other words, tests should not be confined to the sciences].

'Break the shackles'

ToI has an editorial about India's higher education system, demanding that it be unshackled. While I am in agreement with most of the things it says (allowing many different kinds of universities -- public, private and foreign, letting them function in an autonomous fashion), I found it irritating that it chose to highlight the government's recent decision shooting down IIM-B's wish for a satellite centre in Singapore. I will try to argue against IIM-B's original choice without extending any support to the government's meddling in the affairs of a supposedly autonomous institution.

Well, in the last sentence, 'supposedly' is the keyword. The experience of IIMs over the last five years or so has clearly shown that their autonomy is a mirage, an illusion. This will always be so, for the simple reason that the government 'owns' them! Not just the IIMs: the government owns pretty much every university in the country. There is a strong government representation on their governing councils, and the government cannot sit idly by when they do something that is perceived to be inimical to the public interest. [It's an entirely different matter that what was 'inimical' to M.M. Joshi is not so to Arjun Singh!]

When you (or, an institution) are 'owned' by an individual, you do his or her bidding -- or, you walk. But you do have some (but only some!) leverage when you are owned by the government, as the IIMs are. You can get the public opinion (at least, that of prominent people such as Narayana Murthy) behind you, and you can use other tricks in the book of persuasion. If things work your way, you will have raised a stink powerful enough to make the government back off. But you also realize that all your efforts will be of no use when your owner is represented by a cussed fellow with Joshi as his last name and two M's as his initials.

Under these circumstances, all public institutions that have a sheet of paper with 'autonomy' written on it keep testing the limits of this autonomy. In fact, they have an obligation to test the limits. While doing it, however, their case must be seen as being aligned with a larger public interest (which the government of the day may not agree with, nor, even see). It is this compelling public interest that I fail to see in IIM-Bangalore's proposal for a satellite in Singapore.

By any yardstick, it is impossible to make an argument that our country is so full of high quality management institutions that the only way a place like IIM-B can grow is by going abroad. In fact, the reverse argument is far easier to make: since we still have such a huge task of training so many people in management and allied areas, public institutions such as IIMs could expand their operations in India, and they will still be doing great business 25 years from now!

While at it, I might as well propose something as impractical as demanding 'complete autonomy' for institutions like the IITs and IIMs: let the government allow IIMs (and other such institutions that are confident of surviving by themselves) to go completely private. They have the brand equity and clout to pull it off. [During the dotcom boom, there was indeed a proposal from some IIT alumni to take the IITs private]. They will then be truly unshackled!

The benefit for IIMs (and other such institutions) is that they can then pursue their interests without having to worry about those of the others (and those of the government in particular). In other words, they can become free to do what S.P.Jain's of the world can -- set up a satellite centre not just in Singapore, but also in Dubai; and perhaps in Durban and Dublin as well!

The benefit for the government is that with the money thus saved (about 100 to 250 million rupees per IIM per year), it can set up more IIMs. In other words, the government can recapture its 'rightful role' (!) as a venture capitalist in the area of starting great institutions of higher learning!

Stereotypes, caricatures and putdowns

Why do you physicists need so much money for all that equipment? Why can’t you be like the mathematicians who only need money for pens, paper, and a waste paper basket? The philosophers are even better – they only need the pens and paper.

From this comment by 'a physicist' (that's how the commenter identified himself/herself) on this post by Kieran Healy about the correlation between "the size of a University’s endowment and the reputation of its philosophy department". The correlation is surprisingly good, but only for private universities.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gadgets for children: how good are they?

As parents, we tend to obsess about giving our children the very best in everything. There are products out there that entice you with claims about how they will help turn your child into an intellectual superkid! How good are these gadgets and DVDs? Can they do some harm? This report in the Time magazine explores these questions and has some answers.

... Most experts agree that what matters most is not what toy the baby plays with but the ways in which you interact with your child. "There's no question that the experiences a child has in its first year are crucial for cognitive, emotional and physical development," says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Chicago Medical School ... "But the good news is none of this costs any money. Babies prefer humans over anything inanimate."

One key difference between human interaction and even the most sophisticated educational toy is that interpersonal exchanges engage all the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste and, very important, touch. "People tend to forget that children are very tactile and their most sensitive part is their mouth," says David Perlmutter, a neurologist ... "Babies need to mouth things and to smell, to have rich sensory experiences."

This report refers to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation titled A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers [Caution: PDF]. The study covers a lot of stuff: TV, DVDs, video games and computer programs. One of the conclusions of this study is that there is, sadly, very little that's known about the effect of all these toys, gadgets and DVDs on how the child develops:

...To date there is remarkably little data regarding how learning-oriented electronic media products are used in the daily lives of young children, let alone whether they have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on their young users. In particular, child development experts argue that we need a much better understanding of media’s impact on brain development, future media use, and displacement of other activities. And educators want to see scientific outcomes research that uses comparison groups so they can make accurate assessments of whether media teaches children more or less effectively than other alternatives.

Mind expanding tool

"LSD wanted to tell me something," [Albert] Hofmann told the gathering Friday. "It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation."

From this Wired report.

Albert Hoffmann, who discovered in 1938 lysergic acid diethylamide (aka LSD), turned 100 recently. In a conference held in his honour, this is what one of the participants had to say:

"When I'm on LSD and hearing something that's pure rhythm [such as the drum solos by the Grateful Dead], it takes me to another world and into anther brain state where I've stopped thinking and started knowing,"

Later, the report quotes Steve Jobs as describing his LSD experience as "one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life." There is also a link to a website that hosts a library of "modern-day spiritual LSD experiences", providing "access to reliable, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants and chemicals and related issues".

Just in case you are wondering, the report also has a short summary of recent research into the therapeutic use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Do people actually get paid to do this kind of research?

Millions of women may be jogging their way to sagging breasts as they set off on New Year fitness regimes without suitable bras, research suggests.


Dr Joanne Scurr who carried out the research said women needed to be aware of the effects of exercising without properly supporting their breasts.

"People rightly spend time and effort to get the right footwear for exercise and it is equally important to wear the correct sports bra.

From this BBC report. Link via P.Z. Myers who laments that he's "in the wrong research field".


Art is science made clear.
-- Jean Cocteau.

Found today in Google's 'quote of the day' feature.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Biologists have a definition of a teacher in the world of animals: any individual who sacrifices some potential gain in order to educate a naive counterpart.

From a recent Scientific American article about how "teacher ants show [student ants] the way to food".


S. Viswanathan of Frontline reviews Ramaiahvin kudisai (Ramaiah's hut), a documentary by Bharathi Krishnakumar about the massacre in this little village in Tamil Nadu on 25 December 1968. [link via Uma]. Madhumita covered (warning: it's in Tamil) the function in which this documentary was released. Chenthil wrote a follow-up post in English.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Tyranny of electromechanical gadgets

No tyranny is so irksome as petty tyranny: the officious demands of policemen, government clerks, and electromechanical gadgets.
- Edward Abbey.

The Masters of the Universe -- err, Google -- are indeed omniscient. I saw the above quote today on the personalized Google page; our PC died today.

The McKinsey report

There have been quite a few opinions about the recent McKinsey report (mine is here) that identified the obstacles to be overcome by the IT and BPO companies in their march towards a 60 billion dollar revenue by 2010. One of the obstacles is the poor quality of education; the report opined that only 25 percent of our engineering graduates (and 10-15 percent of our other graduates) are employable.

Over at Simpact, Manohar has a sharp take on the demands of the IT outsourcing industry, with a particular focus on the demand that our education system be spruced up to help the industry.

[...] to plan for improvement in infrastructure so as to faciliatate a market share in outsourced services is dangerous. Abdicating control to outsourced services industry as the determiner of state policy, ranging from infrastructure, education, real estate, retail market and so on, does not augur well for the country. [...]

The really interesting part is in the beginning of the post where Thomas B. Macauley (together with his Minute on Indian Education) makes a curious entry. Sorry, no quotes here; you have to go and read the whole thing.

Let it also be known that this is the first time I am linking to the blog of Prof. Swami Manohar, a great friend, a colleague for many years, and now the CEO of PicoPeta, the company that markets Amida brand of simputers.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Software engineering

Via slashdot comes an interesting article in IEEE Spectrum (warning: it's long!) on computer software that just "can't afford to have bugs". Evidently, we are not talking about Window$ here, but it's not that difficult to imagine situations where bugs are just not allowed; think moon mission and air traffic control.

The article is about Praxis High Integrity Systems, a company that specializes in delivering such mission-critical software systems. It was "founded in 1983 by a group of software experts who firmly believed they could put together a sound methodology to ruthlessly exterminate bugs during all stages of a software project." From the article:

At the time, the software world was in a malaise that it hasn't fully shaken even today. [...] Software projects were getting larger and more complex, and as many as 70 percent of them, by some estimates, were running into trouble: going over budget, missing deadlines, or collapsing completely. Even projects considered successful were sometimes delivering software without all the features that had been promised or with too many errors—errors that, as in the missile-firing system, were sometimes extremely serious. The personal computer era, then just starting, only reinforced a development routine of "compile first, debug later."

It goes on to state how this small company has mastered the art of bug-free software. What is 'bug-free' in this context?

With an average of less than one error in every 10,000 lines of delivered code, however, Praxis claims a bug rate that is at least 50—and possibly as much as 1000—times better than the industry standard.

In order to achieve such a low level of bugs in its software, the company makes extensive use of mathematical logic (in the form of 'formal methods') and -- this one is for Dilip -- the "latest software engineering techniques".

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Stem cell research and spinal cord injuries

After Hwang Woo Suk's 'research' was outed as an outright fraud, there were quite a few who thought it was a big setback for research on stem cells. It was also seen as a setback to those hoping for new treatments to emerge from stem cell research. As Steven Edwards writes in Wired:

The hopes of many quadriplegics (like me) and otherwise injured individuals have been dashed since Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk, who claimed to be on track for curing spinal cord injuries among other ailments, turned out to be an apparent fraud.

But, he adds, "I never hung all of my hopes on Hwang or stem-cell research." He then goes on to argue that "it won't be stem cells or any other single therapy that will cure paralysis." In other words, a combination therapy that brings together several different approaches is what is likely to work best. He outlines some of these approaches.

[Wise Young's] approach is a five-part combination strategy involving a bridging substrate, growth inhibitor blockers, remyelinating substances, molecules that guide axons to reconnect to their proper targets and something that would entice the axons to grow out of and beyond the bridging substrate.

Wise Young is a spinal cord injury researcher at Rutgers University, and runs CareCure, an online community devoted to “the art and science of managing therapies, routines, medication, supplies, equipment and everything else needed to maintain the spinal injured person in top health..”

Steven Edwards titled his article "Hwang Woo-Suk no great loss". That, I think, is the key message. Hwang's fraud is a great loss only if you had hyped up expectations; it is certainly not a set back for science and progress. Indeed, within weeks after l'affaire Hwang, other scientists have reported a 'critical gain' in stem cell research.

Women in Science: India

Through Arun's comment on comments thread following this post by Sean Carroll, I found a recent Frontline article that says "there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that a strong gender bias pervades institutions of science in India." It has some (only some) statistics, and quite a few quotes from Indian scientists. Here is one from Prof. Rohini Godbole, a colleague in our Institute's Centre for High Energy Physics:

I don't think there is a societal perception in India of women being incapable of intellectual attainment in science. Many of these university students do brilliantly and are gold medallists. Many of them also enter Ph.D programmes, but their numbers drop in faculty positions, and drop even more in higher faculty positions, in selection committees, and so on. In the IISc, for example, only 6 per cent of full professors are women.

Here's another quote from Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Chairman of the Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Council:

Women have for various reasons been under-represented in science, in India and all over the world. [...] They have the responsibilities of family and children and don't get facilities such as creches on campus, or the advantages of flexible working schedules to be able to return to work after breaks. In addition to adverse working conditions, there is the direct or indirect gender bias against women, the notion that `everything else being equal I would rather employ a man'. I believe we have to create better working conditions for women as a first step to fight this bias.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Happiness in hard work

The BBC reported recently about a Gothenburg University (Sweden) study of "published data on what makes people happy." The secret lies in "hard work towards a target".

Lead researcher Dr Bengt Bruelde, from the university's philosophy department, said: "The important thing is to remain active.

"From our research the people who were most active got the most joy. It may sound tempting to relax on a beach, but if you do it for too long it stops being satisfying."

The report goes on to quote Averil Leimon of the British Psychological Society: "the [hard] work has to use a person's strengths otherwise it can be demoralising."

Martin Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the book "Authentic Happiness", and founded the Positive Psychology movement (I had a chance to mention him here). In a website devoted to the topic of his book, he has quite a few questionnaires that will help you figure out (if you need them figured out ;-) many positive things about yourself. One of them, for example, aims to identify your core 'virtues' (Selgman calls them signature strengths, and there are 24 of them!), such as wisdom, compassion and perseverence. If you are lucky enough to have an organizational role that plays to your strengths, it's all the better.

There is a lot of emphasis on work-related happiness, not only because organizations are interested, but also because (and let's face it) many of us spend about half our waking hours at work! Therefore, it is important to find -- to the extent you have that luxury -- the kind of work that matches your strengths. In the absence of such a strength-role match, just switch to Plan B: spend as much of the remaining time as possible on things that match your strengths.

And of course, going by the advice given by Darrin McMahon (whose article I linked to here), you shouldn't think too much about whether the stuff you are doing is producing happiness. The key quote is from John Stuart Mill: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." In other words, Nike got it right when it chose its motto: "Just do it!"

A not-so-subliminal message from Google

This 'quote of the day' appears in Google's personalized home page today:

The least of learning is done in the classrooms.

-- Thomas Merton

This is not encouraging at all. I start teaching today.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Engineering Nobel

I must confess that I didn't know of the existence of a high-prestige award -- sort of a Nobel-equivalent -- for engineers until a few moments ago.

Today's NYTimes reports:

Two former Bell Laboratories researchers who invented a microchip that became the building block for devices ranging from digital cameras to powerful telescopes were named winners yesterday of the 2006 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the engineering equivalent of a Nobel award.

Willard S. Boyle, 81, and George E. Smith, 75, invented the imaging microchip, known as a charge-coupled device, in 1969. The chip converts light particles, or photons, into packets of electrical charges that are nearly instantaneously shifted in rows to the edge of the chip for scanning.

"People don't know the nuances of C.C.D.'s but they know they have a camcorder and satellite images of the weather," said William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, the nonprofit society that oversees the $500,000 award, which the two men will split. Mr. Wulf noted that the imaging chip also paved the way for live television broadcasts from portable cameras.

Wikipedia and the mainstream media

A discussion thread in slashdot points to this article on how the mainstream media (MSM) handled the questions raised by John Seigenthaler on reliability and accountability in the Wikipedia system. The article starts with how the MSM "were implicitly contrasting Wikipedia's credibility to their own", and shows how some of them "got the story fundamentally wrong, in tone and sometimes in substance." Here's the key paragraph:

Wikipedia has been a continuous state of self-criticism that newspapers would do well to emulate. It has discussion pages for every article. It has handled inaccuracies not defensively but with the humble understanding that of course Wikipedia articles will have mistakes, so let's get on with the unending task of improving them. Wikipedia's ambitions are immodest, but Wikipedia is not.

First anniversary ...

... of the infamous Larry Summers episode is just a few days away, and it is time for both his supporters and opponents to get ready for another round of arguments. It is interesting that though Summers himself has moved on, and instituted some key changes that would make Harvard far more women-friendly, some people would still defend his original thesis.

Steven Pinker seems to be the first one to start this round, with his contribution to the question posed by Edge this year: "What's your dangerous idea?". Sean Carroll catches him in the act of willfully misrepresenting the 'dangerous idea' in the Summers episode.

I am sure we can expect more views, arguments and analyses during the rest of the month. I don't know about you, I would actually thank Summers for shining an ultra-luminous spotlight on the topic of women in academia.


Cross-posted from nanopolitan 2.0.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Education is in the air ...

Quite a few education related columns have appeared in recent times. I don't have the time to offer any detailed comments, but let me just put them all together here. Perhaps I will revisit them later.

Swaminathan Aiyar has a set of back-to-back columns in the Sunday Times about functional literacy and why we should worry about it.

Sebastian Mallaby has a Washington Post column extolling the virtue of private colleges in tech education in the country. He visited the Vellore Institute of Technology (a deemed university) and is very impressed. [via]

Bloomberg's Andy Mukherjee has a column about the recent McKinsey-Nasscom report which projects a year-on-year growth rate of over 28% in our IT and BPO industries for the next five years, but also warns that it may come unstuck because only 25% of our engineering graduates (and 10-15% of our other graduates) are employable.

Subhash Kak sounds very depressed in this gloom-and-doom column about the 104th amendment that allows states to mandate caste-based reservations even in private, un-aided colleges.

Irrigation canals in ancient Peru?

The initial discovery was made in 1989, but it took years of further excavations, radiocarbon dating and other analysis before Dr. Dillehay felt ready to announce the find.

"We wanted to make sure that the dates were correct and to find more early canals," Dr. Dillehay said. "There are now four sites with canals and probably more."

From this interesting article about a recent paper on the discovery of irrigation canals that existed some 4000 to 6400 years ago in what is now Peru.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Quote of the day

Norman Douglas:

Education is a state-controlled manufactory of echoes.

Quote found in Google's 'personalized homepage'.

Science of cuteness

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

From Natalie Angier's piece in the New York Times.

Among the several examples of cuteness-filled 2005, I found this:

Women's fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous, with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to present a customer's midriff as an adorable preschool bulge.

Do you find this cute? What would be cute in male fashion?


Cross posted from nanopolitan 2.0.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Funding higher education - Part 2: A working model from Australia

In the previous post, I argued for moving towards a system in which a student pays 100 % of the cost of college education. If he/she pays a smaller fee, the shortfall must be made up from clearly identified sources: government, philanthropy, alumni or other sources.

I realize that the cost, at about Rs. 100,000 per year, may appear prohibitive to a large number of people. There ought to be a viable mechanism by which this burden is lessened. Educational loans are a possible answer. But, they are not automatic, since the loan-granting prerogative rests with banks, which cannot commit themselves to the cause of higher education. Banks would always ask "what if the loans become risky?".

Recently, the World Bank suggested a model by which the students pay a smaller fee upfront and pay the rest on graduation. Several commenters panned this model (see, for example, this post by Reuben), because it was seen as an unfair emigration tax targeting those people who leave the country on graduation. Satya, on the other hand, argued that this may re-framed to make it more attractive. The Hindu carried an opinion piece sometime ago supporting the idea of a deferred fee.

Some online resources:

Higher Education Funding Policy (a long paper).

Higher education in Australia: Structure, policy and debate (slides which provide a quick summary).

The changing Australian higher education system (a paper that analyzes the trends)

Recently, I learned about the Australian system of funding higher education, which is a working model of the 'deferred fee' idea. Those who want to learn about it directly from the Australians may wish to go to the articles listed in the sidebar. Read on if you would rather have my short, simplified introduction (which gets only the essence right, but not the details).

In this post, let us forget about the money that colleges and universities may get from any source other than the students. In fact, some of the government grants are proportional to the number of students in the institution; I have no idea about the per-student value of these grants. In the rest of the post, let us concentrate on the cost to the student, which is taken as 'X' per student per year. The student has two options.

  1. He/She pays this money upfront, or
  2. He/She chooses to pay a slightly larger amount (say, 25% larger) after the course is over. The government pays his/her fee ('X') to the university.

Clearly, there is nothing for me to add in the first case! The second case is more interesting. From the student's point of view, the fee amount is essentially a 'loan'. Except that (a) this loan is from the government, (b) it is for a larger amount than X, (c) it is interest-free, and (d) it is automatic (nobody is denied a loan, because he/she is not loan-worthy).

The part about loan repayment is quite interesting. When the ex-student who is now an employee earns a salary that exceeds a certain amount, a slightly higher tax (say, 2 % higher) is levied. The critical amount of salary when this additional tax kicks in is pegged to the median salary. Thus, the loan is thus paid off over several (or many) years, depending on one's salary profile.

Prior to 1997, all college graduates paid the same fee; since that year, however, there is a differential fee structure, with liberal arts at low fees, and professional courses at higher fees. Colleges are given some freedom to choose their fee structure within a narrow band. From 2005 onwards, students in two programs don't have to pay anything at all; the government pays their fees.

The two programs with zero fees are in education and nursing, which have been classifed as National Priorities. These Aussies are amazing!

This is the essence of the Australian system. It is flexible enough to take care of most people's individual situations and wishes. For example, while the loan is interest-free, it is inflation indexed. If your salary is far higher, a 3 or 4 % higher tax is levied (instead of the standard 2 %). An employee may also choose to repay more than what is paid through tax-deductions; such additional payments of, say 500 Australian dollars, can be used to wipe out a debt of (say) 550 dollars, thus encouraging people to repay the loan earlier.

What if the student's salary over his/her lifetime is not enough to repay the loan? The government takes the hit, very slowly, over 30 to 35 years!.

This system seems fair, clean and easy to implement. It doesn't require the creation of additional layers of bureaucracy. If the system malfunctions, the bad effects also fall on both students and the government. Thus, it aligns the goals of the students with that of the government: keeping the education system in top gear.

While the person who introduced the Aussie system to me seemed comfortable with it, I have to confess my ignorance on whether the broader population is happy with this arrangement, which was introduced in 1989, and has been through only minor tweakings over time. If any of you know of significant critiques of this system, please leave a comment.

Funding higher education (Part 1)

The cost of higher education and how to pay for it are two issues that I have tried to address through this blog. In science and engineering, the approximate cost works out to about Rs. 100,000.

In most institutions, students pay less than a third of this amount, on average. In places like the IITs, where the government takes the slack through supplemental funding, there are no problems. However, places (most of which are private undergraduate colleges) where such additional funding is missing, it has been a disaster. Sad facilities and lack of qualified faculty are the immediate result. Poor quality of education, and students who lack marketable skills are the long term result. Highlighting this concern, the 2005 McKinsey-Nasscom report says only 25 % of our engineering graduates are employable, and I have called it the 25 percent curse.

It is not too difficult to agree with the general rule that in ecucation, one cannot have both good outcomes and and unbelievably low cost. IITs are a deceptive exception to this rule because, as we have seen, they get supplemental funding from the government. I would certainly not wish to argue that high fees will magically result in high quality outcomes. However, there is no doubt at all that an insistence on low cost will continue to deny us good outcomes forever. Shitty education at a low cost is still shitty.


What might one expect if the cost of education is liberalized, so that colleges and universities are given the freedom to fix their fees? A diversity of colleges will emerge:

  1. inexpensive and good colleges which attract supplemental funds either from government, philanthropists or alumni.
  2. expensive and good colleges, where all the cost is borne by students
  3. inexpensive and bad colleges.

There won't be colleges that are both expensive and bad; but we should never underestimate our system to produce this possibility. In management education, we do know of quite a few of these institutions, don't we?

Since expensive colleges would be scared to get a reputation for poor outcomes, they will find ways to attract good students, probably through scholarships. Thus, this system will also reward merit.


For all its faults, our system of secondary and higher secondary schools still manages to graduate a large number of good students, due to a combination of two things:

(a) law of numbers. At each age level, we have about 20 million people. And about 50 % of them graduate from schools.

(b) the growing awareness about links between higher education and economic prospects.

It is a shame that we are unable to provide this vast pool of talent many high quality colleges to get into. In engineering, there is a vast gap between the IITs and the next level of colleges.


Currently, even though the government mandates low fees, it is an open secret that almost all of them make the students pay a lot more in the form of 'lunch' fees, 'transportation' fees, and so on. Some corrupt managements simply demand bribes in the garb of 'voluntary' donations to their corpus (without providing receipts, of course). Thus, with our current rules, we also end up institutionalizing lack of transparency, and in egregious cases, corruption.

In most colleges, such ill-gotten money goes to line the pockets of college managements. In some (and I would guess this number is quite small) colleges, some of this money is ploughed back to improve the infrastructure. These are the colleges that have swanky computer labs and fancy buildings.


It is better for us to dump this atrocious system and go for a fair, transparent one that will produce, over time, a large number of good colleges (of both expensive and inexpensive varieties).