Thursday, April 27, 2006

How a (potential) bestseller gets handled, gets packaged, and comes alive

The publisher pulls the plug on Kaavya Viswanathan's book, NYTimes reports. The purpose of the recall is not stated; will a cleaned up version of the book be reissued?

Just two words: Alloy Entertainment.

It gets curiouser:

The relationships between Alloy and the publishers are so intertwined that the same editor, Claudia Gabel, is thanked on the acknowledgments pages of both Ms. McCafferty's books and Ms. Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." Ms. Gabel had been an editorial assistant at Crown Publishing Group, then moved to Alloy, where she helped develop the idea for Ms. Viswanathan's book.

* * *

Update (3 May 2006): There is more from Washington Post, Boston Globe, Harvard Crimson, and Crimson (again). The last one is about the book being yanked for good. The others dig up more dirt on the plagiarism front (she has plagiarized at least two others: Sophie Kinsella and Salman Rushdie), and on the 'packaging' front.

The Da Vinci judgement


Seemingly random italicised letters were included in the 71-page judgement given by Mr Justice Peter Smith, which apparently spell out a message.

Mr Justice Smith said he would confirm the code if someone broke it.


Justice Peter Smith's 71-page ruling in the recent "Da Vinci Code" copyright case here is notable for many things: the judge's occasional forays into literary criticism, his snippy remarks about witnesses on both sides, and his fluent knowledge not only of copyright law but also of more esoteric topics like the history of the Knights Templar.

But there is more to it than that. Embedded in the first 13½ pages of the ruling is Justice Smith's very own secret code, one that when partly solved reveals its name: the Smithy Code.

Motivation: trial by fire

Actually, it's more like trial by fire-walking.

On Sunday, Delhi-based Quest Tutorials gave a motivational seminar for 50 ... students [...]. Its climax, a mandatory walk over a six-feet wide firebed of coal heated to 1,100 degrees fahrenheit, ostensibly to remove their inhibitions and fears about writing the exam.

"The students were motivated for four hours in advance and they managed wonderfully. The aim was to make them believe they can walk even on burning coal and need not fear it; similarly, they can crack the IIT-JEE," said Praveen Tyagi, Director, Quest Tutorials.

Steroids ... in academics?

... Parents seek to have their children classified as learning disabled so they can receive unlimited time on the SAT. Children invent clubs so they can list themselves as president of something on college applications. Scott White, a guidance counselor at Montclair High School in that New Jersey suburb, recalls the envy of one student for a classmate with cancer because "he'll have a great college essay now."

From this NYT story about the kinds of things students think they should do/have to get into elite universities in the US. I particularly wanted to highlight the story's negative framing of students who spend a lot of money to get themselves a 'great portfolio':

Such is also the story of admission to the elite colleges and universities in this country. Under the pretense of fair competition, tens of thousands of high school students and their families employ the scholastic equivalent of steroids — test-prep courses, private consultants, Internet mills for massaging if not entirely creating their essays, exaggerated or cynical accounts of their community service.

Strong words, those.

Just a few days ago, I saw a similar analogy in the context of ... reservation! Someone called 'nevermind' (who left a comment on this post) said:

... [When] one is competing with Ben Johnson on steroids (read money, privilege and a culture of intellectual achievement), however world-class your physiology, you would need some steroids yourself if you want to compete on equal terms.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An academic studyof IIT-M lingo

[The] research conducted by me -- a phirang or alien, nonmale, graduate student, who was a teacher for most of the students she knows in insti and who does not speak Indian English, let alone the lingo - is certainly limited. Junta will not speak in the lingo to me as neutral English is more prestigious outside the in-group. Furthermore, hardly anybody will disclose knowledge on taboo topics, such as pondy or ganja, to me. [...]

... There are borrowings from different Indian languages and American or British slang, derivations from, shortenings and semantic changes of English words, and grammatical peculiarities. Here are a few examples:

Borrowings: He chumma pains people.
Derivations: Food in 'mega mess' is cuppax.
Shortenings: [...] today there is this big hit movie in OAT
Semantic changes: The prof just raped us.
Grammatical peculiarities: I had to put fight.

The thesis in linguistics was done by Evelyn Richter for her masters. A short summary of the work, by the thesis author herself, is here. And, of course, the full thesis -- all of 102 pages and in English -- can be downloaded from here (pdf).

Thanks to IIT-M alumnus and my colleague in Computer Science, Jayant Haritsa , for the pointer.

* * *

Here's an interesting piece of trivia (in bold emphasis) from Richter's article: "Approximately 90% thereof are male students, 45% are undergraduates aged between 17 and 22, and circa 60% come from Andhra Pradesh".

Doubt: To live and not know!

Just a few quotes that I came across in the last couple of days.

[In contemplation,] if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
-- Francis Bacon, in The Advancement of Learning.

Amartya Sen paraphrases yet another (complex) passage by Francis Bacon:

"The registering and proposing of doubts has a double use," Bacon said. One use is straightforward: it guards us "against errors". The second use, Bacon argued, involved the role of doubts in initiating and furthering a process of inquiry, which has the effect of enriching our investigations. Issues that "would have been passed by lightly without intervention." Bacon noted, end up being "attentively and carefully observed" precisely because of the intervention of doubts.

This quote is from Nietzche (taken from this article by Scott McLemee):

Objection, evasion, joyous distrust, and love of irony are signs of health. Everything absolute belongs to pathology.

Reading them reminded me of what Richard Feynman said in a lecture "The Uncertainty of Science" long time ago (it's the first essay in The Meaning of It All):

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So, what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. [...]

Chief ministerial candidate vs. an IIT graduate

The name is Maran, ..., Ilanthirumaran.

The Lok Paritran has hit its campaign trail on a rather ambitious note. 38-year-old Ilanthirumaran, an IIT alumna (sic), is the party's candidate for the Chepauk constituency.

And guess who the former US-based software professional will take head on? None other than DMK chief ministerial candidate M Karunanidhi!


Kaavya Viswanathan's apology yesterday is not going to be the end of it. The Harvard Crimson reports on a statement from Random House, the publisher of Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Here is a key quote:

... We have documented more than forty passages from Kaavya Viswanathan's [novel] ... that contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure from Megan McCafferty's first two books. ... This extensive taking from Ms. McCafferty's books is nothing less than an act of literary identity theft.

A kind of meta-analysis in the Harvard Independent seeks to answer these questions:

Viswanathan’s explanation certainly sounds reasonable — what young writer hasn’t been inspired, perhaps to the point of slavish imitation, by the work of a particularly affecting role model? But was McCafferty truly such a figure for Viswanathan?

It goes on to raise serious doubts about Kaavya's story, by looking for -- and not finding -- the two words that should have appeared in her recent utterings about her literary influences: Megan McCafferty.

* * *

Via Albert Krishna Ali, we have a link to a plagiarism scandal in the Indian subcontinent of the blogosphere. Shilpa Bhatnagar, the victim who uncovered this scam, links to another post by Anuradha Ganapathy, who used the same online tool to discover that one of her posts has been plagiarized.

* * *

The Harvard Independent has another story with speculation about how much of the plagiarism might be due to Kaavya Viswanathan's 'handlers' and 'packagers'.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Entrance exams and time constraints

A big thank you to all those who contributed to the interesting comments thread in my previous post on entrance exams. Picking up on it, Gaurav discusses the issue of tough -- but prestigeous -- exams (such as the IITs' JEE) making students concentrate more on acquiring exam-cracking skills at the expense of acquiring other skills (such as communication skills) which are important in the real world.

Which brings up yet another point that was brought up by Viswanath Talasila in an e-mail. Essentially, he wonders why our entrance exams are all time-bound.

I cannot understand in what way does society need a merit that is almost exclusively based on students being able to answer (easy or difficult) questions in a very short time. It is the time factor that is THE defining feature of most entrance tests. It is obvious that for many students, if they are given a reasonable amount of time to think about the (even very difficult) questions, they would come up with the right answers. OK, if it is not obvious, then at least a formal study should be conducted to check this. [...]

This is a talent - no doubt about it. [...] What I fail to understand is why would society, as a whole, need such a talent?

He then goes on to give examples of situations that need problem solving skills: academic research, industrial research, day-to-day engineering design and analysis, or even in businees. While there are situations where one does have to make snap decisions, they deal with questions that are fundamentally different from those in entrance exams. Which is to say, such snap decisions are about problems in which not everything is known: decision making in the presence of uncertainty.

So, what are we measuring in entrance exams with time constraints? And, as Viswanath asks, "if the real world works differently - why do we insist on setting up our exams this way?"

The South African model

Media outlets have been on an overdrive in trying to figure out a kinder, gentler version of affirmative action that would be acceptable to private industry. The current favourite seems to be the South African model. These two reports provide a summary. In particular, the Indian Express story has this (I don't know whether this has been operationalized):

The second leg of reforms to achieve "Black Economic Empowerment" (BEE) began in 2002 with the Government coming up with a "Strategy Document". The document noted that "progress has been recorded in undoing the legacy of the past, however, the extent to which this economic success has been shared by all of our people is still inadequate for the requirements of a stable and prosperous society."

The strategy envisions a "scorecard" approach by which the Government would measure progress achieved by various enterprises in fulfilling BEE objectives. "Using the scorecard as a guide, government will rank and categorise enterprises for the purposes of preferential procurement, restructuring of state-owned enterprises, financing and other kinds of support."

Feel like procrastinating?

You might want to consider reading a wikibook on overcoming procrastination.

Hey, did you know ...?

Over at the anthropology group blog Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman blogged a while ago about gossip in academia:

... the gossip I’ve personally encountered in academia seems to often serve a different function. Namely, gossip is what allows the very different worlds of professors and graduate students to interact. [...] It is, for instance, quite difficult to put together a good thesis committee if you don’t know the intricate history of departmental politics from before you arrived in a program. It might be very relevant, for instance, that one faculty member crossed a picket line fifteen years back, while another was leading organizer of the faculty union. Similarly, the faculty are curious about the lives and interests of the students they will be working with. ... Graduate students can also become important allies in departmental battles.

As a result, a knowledge economy develops in which professors and graduate students trade gossip. It also serves as a way to bridge the gap created by unequal power relations. Giving graduate students the inside scoop on other professors at least creates the illusion of treating them as equals.

I was reminded of Kerim's observations when I was reading this article about how gossip serves as a great glue for social bonding. The following excerpts give you a feel for just a few of the uses (or, purposes) of gossip:

Our interest in celebrity gossip—as well as dirt on our family, friends and acquaintances—may be a byproduct of our evolutionary past, [Frank] McAndrew says. Natural selection, he theorizes, pressured people to learn as much as possible about the people in their social network -— be they an authority figure, potential romantic partner, teacher, political ally or enemy. Knowing about other group members helped people eschew risky alliances, by informing them, for instance, which group member might double-cross them. [...]

By nature, humans are chatterers, says psychologist Robin Dunbar, PhD, a University of Liverpool psychology professor and author of the book, "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" (Harvard University Press, 1998). He suggests that gossip is the human version of social grooming ... Like social grooming, ...gossip helps humans develop trusting relationships and foster social bonds. ... Without that instinct to share the latest on a friend, peer or family member, there would be no sophisticated society, Dunbar claims, suggesting that societies depend on the individual's ability to rely on others and understand something of the workings of another's mind. [...]

[Sarah] Wert notes that comparing oneself to less-skilled or lower-status people can help bolster self-esteem. Meanwhile, gossiping about higher-status people—whether that person is a boss or celebrity—can help us obtain information that will help us compete with those of higher status while also denigrating them. For instance, co-workers who view each other as rivals may use gossip to obtain information about the other's quality of work while also derogating the other in hopes of enhancing their own status.

The latest issue of Monitor on Psychology, the American Psychology Association's magazine, has a cover story on gossip, with four articles, all of which can be accessed from this launchpad. The quotes are from one of the four articles.

Desi Stare

During my graduate student days, Desis in the US -- and Desi students in particular -- were known for their Apologetic Walk (the copyright for this observation belongs to Ramesh Mahadevan).

Evidently, things have changed a lot since then [link via DesiPundit]:

Why is it that when Indian families walk by each other in a non-desi setting, it's like watching two rival gangs meet. It's not a hey-fellow-desi-it's-so-glad-to see-you stare, but rather a mean stare. It's almost like they're scanning your retinas to detect your caste and saying "Hey, what makes you think you're so good?" It's not a normal stare, it's The Desi Stare. While walking by other families the responsibility of each family member is to check out their counterpart in the rival Klan. It's like watching the Pandavas and Kauravas gathering in front of a Gap and Aunt Annie's Pretzels. Don't get me wrong, I like Indian people a lot. I like them so much that I am one. But frankly sometimes they weird the tatti out of me.

* * *

Update: After the Desi Stare, how about the Desi Elevator Talk (Not!), and the Desi Nod?

Monday, April 24, 2006


If any CT readers want to apply for a grant from the Ayn Rand Institute the form is here. Although I suppose this may be a trick; if you apply for a grant you thereby prove yourself to be unworthy of one.

From this Crooked Timber post by Daniel Davies.

Kaavya Viswanathan in trouble?

Kaps says:

Desi chick-lit [author] Kaavya Viswanathan has got herself into trouble.

Uh-oh. The Harvard Crimson has all the details.

Update: From the Crimson again:

Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 admitted yesterday to borrowing language from two books by Megan F. McCafferty, though the student novelist said that "any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dakshina Kannada Police blog and rights of the 'accused'

Check out the Los Angeles Fire Department's blog [Via Chugs]. In addition to posts on recent accidents (such as this one, with video footage and some technical details about how they handled them), there are posts on the city's budget (with some emphasis on what's in it for the Fire Department), some facts about bubonic plague (following reports that an LA woman contracted it), and a celebrity event "in support of our quest to complete a permanent memorial to our fallen colleagues."

After seeing it, I decided to check back on the blog of our very own Dakshina Kannada Police (DKPD). This blog now features a link to the 2006 report on crime in that district (a short summary is available in this post). It has a post (in Kannada) on the Flag Day celebrations, and quite a few posts on crimes solved by the DK police force.

The DKPD blog also has a post seeking inputs from people on a proposal to regulate live bands (actually, dance bars). The deadline is over, but take a look at the proposal to get a feel for how our bureaucracy works.

So, there are quite a few similarities. The quality of writing is the main difference: the DK police blog has the feel of a press release, while LAFD blog strives to maintain a professional-yet-conversational tone. Another difference is that comments are enabled in the latter, but disabled in the DK police blog. Also, LAFD blog's posts are available in multiple languages, while DKPD blog's are in either English or Kannada. Finally, LAFD blog appears to be a collective effort, while the DKPD seems to be the personal effort of Mr. Dayananda, the Superintendent of Police of the DK district.

On the DK police blog, it was jarring to see pictures of people who have been arrested for various crimes (and no, I won't provide links). Now, don't get me wrong. It's one thing to post pictures of convicted criminals (like here), but it's an entirely different thing to post pictures of people against whom the police has only allegations or a suspicion. Don't you think the latter is a terrible thing to do? What if the police have got the wrong man (and almost all the pictures are of men)? Don't the 'accused' have any rights?

Ramnath goes places ...

... and what we get are brilliant pictures.



Goa,   Goa, and more Goa

This quote (from this post) is like a preface to his recent posts:

"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

The world's mood swings, through blogs

Moodviews reveals patterns that follow on weekly, monthly and even yearly cycles. For example, the label "drunk" becomes increasingly popular each weekend. The label "stressed" appears less during summer months and more towards the end of each year, perhaps because of end-of-year work deadlines or the stress of visiting in-laws.

The full report is here. On a related note, the world seems to be in a mood to blog. This is what David Sifry, Technorati's CEO, has to say:

Technorati currently tracks 35.3 Million weblogs, and the blogosphere we track continues to double about every 6 months. [...]

The blogosphere is over 60 times bigger than it was only 3 years ago.

New blog creation continues to grow. Technorati currently tracks over 75,000 new weblogs created every day, which means that on average, a new weblog is created every second of every day - and 19.4 million bloggers (55%) are still posting 3 months after their blogs are created. That's an increase both absolute and relative terms over just 3 months ago, when only 50.5% or 13.7 million blogs were active. In other words, even though there's a reasonable amount of tire-kicking going on, blogging continues to grow as a habitual activity.

Thanks to Chugs for both the links.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sixty years of TIFR

The latest issue of Current Science has an article by Prof. B.V. Sreekantan about the history of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (pdf). It's a long article, with lots of mind-numbing details about all kinds of research that has been done there during the sixty years of the Institute's existence. It's definitely not for the outsider!

It's also disappointing in another sense: there is just physics, physics, and more physics, with very little about the other fields.

Must read for physicists interested in TIFR!

'How the Other Half Lives'

It is a great privilege to be invited to join the wonderful group of bloggers over at How the Other Half Lives. So, posts on topics that are more relevant to that blog will go there (perhaps with a link posted here).

I have made three posts over there so far; all of them are on the issue of reservation:

Do please take a look. Comments, if any, will be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

In which Anjana Ahuja says 'NO' to the Templeton Foundation

My vague misgivings have now been articulated by John Horgan, a science writer and agnostic who became a 2005 Templeton fellow. “I rationalised that taking the foundation’s money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views,” he wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the US equivalent of The Times Higher (click here to read his essay).

So, what happened when Horgan told a foundation official that he had no wish for religion and science to be reconciled? “She told us that . . . she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship.”

What's the Templeton Foundation upto, anyway? And, why did Anjana Ahuja say 'no'?


The economists are using a new technology that allows them to trace the activity of neurons inside the brain and thereby study how emotions influence our choices, including economic choices like gambles and investments.

For instance, when humans are in a "positive arousal state," they think about prospective benefits and enjoy the feeling of risk. All of us are familiar with the giddy excitement that accompanies a triumph. ...

But when people think about costs, they use different brain modules and become more anxious. They play it too safe, at least in the laboratory. Furthermore, people are especially afraid of ambiguous risks with unknown odds. ...

If one truth shines through, it is that people are not consistent or fully rational decision makers.

From the inaugural Economic Scene column by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Barbie facts of the day

The average 3- to 10-year-old girl in the U.S. owns eight Barbies. Only one percent of this group owns no Barbies.

Interesting facts from this post over at Cognitive Daily, about a recent study on the effect of Barbie on little girls' body image.

All you ever wanted to know about X ...

... but were afraid to ask.

First, take the case where X = science blogs. Just what the hell are they? What is so ... 'sciency' about them?

Second, take the case where X = porn. Specifically, what is the effect of porn on male fertility?

Finally, we have X = spatial reasoning. Specifically, why should engineers care about spatial reasoning and direct contact learning?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ethics and biotech

Should drugs and other treatments used for curing disease also be used to extend our physical capabilities, to, say, enhance athletic performance?

If it becomes possible to select the sex and other characteristics of children, would it be morally objectionable to do so? What, if anything, is wrong with the creation of human-animal hybrids?

These are some of the questions explored in a Harvard course (a short report is here) on "Ethics, Biotechnology and the Future of Human Nature", taught by Douglas Melton, a professor of molecular and cellular biology.

Ethics: The tricks our brains play on us

In shourt, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it.

When doctors refuse to accept gifts from those who supply drugs to their patients, when justices refuse to hear cases involving those with whom they share familial ties and when chief executives refuse to let their compensation be determined by those beholden to them, then everyone sleeps well.

From this excellent NYTimes column on the kind of tricks our brains are capable of playing on us. They deceive us into thinking that we are more fair and balanced than the average and that the others are less so than the average!

Here's a key sentence:

The human brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors.

The column, by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of 'hedonistic psychology' at Harvard, also tells us that while people's behaviours exhibit quite a bit of 'self-interest', there are other (redeeming?) things as well:

Studies such as these suggest that people act in their own interests, but that their interests include ideals of fairness, prudence and generosity.

The role of these other "counter-intuitive" traits in human actions (in particular, economic actions) is a hot field of research, apparently. For example, we saw (here and here) two other articles about this hot field in behavioral sciences.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Affirmative Action?

In the ongoing debate and discussion about reservation (aka quota system), some   bloggers have suggested that they might prefer of affirmative action over reservation. To me, they are both means to the same end; in particular, an affirmative action program can be designed so exquisitely to mimic a program of quotas that the outcomes are identical.

Even if their outcomes are not identical, the goal is still the same: making opportunities available to groups that were denied them for ages under some pretext or the other.

Thus, affirmative action is just reservation by another name, and sounds as sweet.

* * *

I found this excellent essay on Affirmative Action over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It summarizes all the philosophical, moral, ethical and legal issues thrown up by AA. It's a little long, but you will greatly benefit from the discussion in Sections 5-9 which deal with AA in academia.

Indian doctors working abroad

India devotes 5.1 percent of its GDP to health, ahead of Pakistan (4.0 percent) and Sri Lanka (3.7 percent) but behind China (5.4 percent), Brazil (7.6 percent), and the United States (15.6 percent). The striking fact about Indian health expenditures is that they are heavily in the private sector. Only 0.9 percent of the country’s GDP is spent on public-sector health programs, whereas 4.2 percent is private. India ranks 171st out of 175 countries in percentage of GDP spent in the public sector on health and 17th in private-sector spending.

Current data indicate that 59,095 Indian-educated physicians are working in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. They constitute 4.9 percent of the U.S. physician workforce and 10.9 percent of the U.K. physician workforce. Analysis of U.S. residency data indicates that there are about 5,000 graduates of Indian medical schools in U.S. training programs today, meaning that approximately 1,200 enter into the U.S. residency system each year.

From this very interesting take on Indian doctors studying and working abroad, and the impact of this phenomenon on India.

"It's the supply, stupid!"

If there were enough high quality insitutions (schools, colleges, IITs, IIMs, and institutions of all other kinds), no one would need to clamour for reservations or endlessly debate the percentages. But as long as the supply is restricted, there is no alternative to reservations - indeed they are necessary.

This scarcity of educational opportunities is of our own doing. Our successes in the food and telecom sectors in addressing scarcities are pointers to what could have been in the education sector. There's no reason why we can't replicate the success in the education sector too.

From this excellent post by Satya in his blog, Education in India. It is a summary of his great ideas, developed and honed over the years, on higher education in India.

Let me just say that I am just glad to be on the same side as Satya on how enhancing supply (of educational opportunity) can let us all move beyond reservations.

How good are entrance exams in 'discovering' merit

When asked to define intelligence, some people simply throw up their hands, and define it as 'what intelligence tests measure'! It's not too far off the mark to say that merit is 'what merit tests measure'. Perhaps this is a good time to look at how it is measured in India, and examine the kinds of anomalies they produce (with a particular emphasis on JEE, the Joint Entrance Exam, conducted by the IITs).

Entrance exams produce raw scores and/or ranks (or, percentiles); the implication, of course, is that someone with a higher score (or, better rank) is more more 'meritorious'. Thus, rank-ordering is a key element of these exams.

Consistency across exams: The first problem, of course, is that different entrance exams, with different designs, could lead to completely different rank ordering of the same set of students.

Consistency within the same exam: Our exams produce noisy, unreliable results. And, not much effort has gone into making them less noisy.

The use of a small number of problems (several hundreds, at the maximum) to rank-order hundreds of thousands of students. In such exams, we all know that even a single mistake can set your rank back; how badly you are affected by a single mistake depends on which part of the distribution you are at. On a Bell curve, if your score is high, a single mistake may not affect your rank much [because you occupy those rarefied heights where only a few humans survive]. It could affect you seriously if you are around the average, where tons of people are bunched up.

This problem is much worse in JEE, because even the ones who get through (i.e., get a JEE rank, called the All India Rank - AIR) are people who are able to attempt only a small fraction of the questions. In the year I took it, I attempted barely 25% of the questions in chemistry, as well as in math (physics was slightly better, at about 50%!). The JEE questions continue to be brutal.

What about standardized tests? GRE uses questions that have been tested for difficulty on a sample population, and are weighted accordingly. Also, GRE can be taken multiple times, so it gives you a chance to find ('discover') your correct ('optimum'? 'best'?) level in a second or third chance, in case you feel that you messed up your first chance. In our country, BITSAT (conducted by BITS, Pilani) appears to be a standardized test. Thus, 'your station in life', as measured by these tests, is far more reliable and reproducible.

How about JEE? AIEEE? State-level CETs? Since they are offered only once a year, they fail the test of being 'available through the year'. Is any difficulty-weighting done? Not in AIEEE and CETs; as for JEE, I don't know. [Someone who knows about this may perhaps clarify this point.]

Ability to predict academic performance: Just how seriously should we take this 'ranking through a single exam'? One good way to answer it would be to check how well a student's rank predicts his/her academic performance in college. To my knowledge, there is no large scale study, tracking students' progress through their degree courses [worth a minor rant]. The only study that I know of appears to be a small one; I am sure the devil is in the details [which we don't have access to], but its broad conclusions are quite instructive:

‘There is a strong correlation between the marks of Classes X, XII and the CGPA during B Tech. The correlation factor is close to 1.’’ This means, the chances of a good student in school doing well in B Tech is almost 100 per cent.

‘There is little correlation between AIR and CGPA.’’ This means, toppers in the JEE are not at the top during their B Tech programme.

Built-in bias: If you want to do even half-way well in JEE, you need pretty intensive coaching, which is (a) quite expensive, and (b) available in large cities (or, places -- such as Kota, Rajasthan -- that are dedicated to this enterprise). Thus, it has a built-in bias against (a) poor students who cannot afford coaching, and (b) against students in rural and semi-urban areas.

Again, it's important to have data, which is locked up with IITs. How many of IITs' students come from an urban (middle and upper-middle class) background? How many of them go through coaching classes? For how many years? Only IITs can answer these questions.

Record of merit discovery across the entire population: State level CETs and AIEEE have the mandate of testing students on what is covered in their regular curriculum (AIEEE has the reputation of being 'tougher' than CETs). JEE, on the other hand, has been "getting increasingly closer to the syllabus of science graduate programmes, making aspirants more and more dependent on coaching classes" [quote from the same IE report].

The mandate of CETs and AIEEE gives them a much better chance of 'discovering' merit among groups that find themselves underrepresented in JEE: girls, OBCs, SC/ST and so on. More and more of them make it through open competition (general category) in the professional courses in state universities, while the percentage of women in IITs, for example, is still stuck in single digits.

* * *

IMO, JEE is not a good way of measuring merit because (a) its results are noisy and unreliable, (b) it requires the kind of acquaintance with advanced problems that can be acquired only through intensive coaching, and (c) it does a poor job of 'discovering' merit among huge fraction of our population.

Having said that, the alternatives are also not all that great. State-level CETs, for example, go to the other extreme by being not intellectually challenging. At the moment, AIEEE seems to occupy the middle ground; but it, too, shares with JEE the problem 'merit discovery through a single exam'. A different 'middle ground' is the norm in some states (such as Tamil Nadu) that use both CET and board exam scores are used for assessing merit.

Currently, we seem fated to live with these defective and sub-optimal choices.

* * *

I don't know about China, but Japan and South Korea (and perhaps other Asian countries, too?) seem to have the entrance-exam culture that makes their students learn complex, advanced topics before they enter college. Among the European countries, I know France uses entrance exams for its elite 'Grands Ecoles'. In the US, SAT is the exam taken by all the students, and to my knowledge, it's a standardizing exam in the mould of GRE. Moreover, SAT scores are only one of many factors considered by the US universities in their admissions process.

Which method of merit discovery should we be using (and make an effort to move towards)? Why?

Friday, April 14, 2006


We never had to learn to process body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. We evolved this's innate. But we had to spend years learning to read and write with any level of sophistication. The brain needs and expects these other--more significant--channels of information, and when they don't come... the brain suffers (and so does the communication). And the problem goes way beyond just an increased chance for misinterpretation.

From this wonderful post by Kathy Sierra on the huge advantage enjoyed by face-to-face communication over the other modes, such as e-mail, wikis, blogs and instant messaging. Much of the post is based on a talk by the neurobiologist Thomas B. Lewis.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Philosophy of sex

... [Alan Soble] turned to philosophy of love and sex partly because he loves sex but also because philosophers have neglected sex for 2,000 years. The philosophy of the field hit a peak with Plato, Soble says, with his division of love into eros, philia and the selfless agape. [...]

... [The] book he recommended for me was called Sexual Investigations. ... [It] devotes a long chapter to the ethics of sex.

"It's a very intractable problem," says Soble.

More here.

Higher ed in India: Fact of the Day

The number of Indians receiving PhD degrees in engineering from Indian Universities during 2000 - 2003 (4 years): 3014.

The number of Indians receiving the same degree from US universities in the same period:   1297.

The source for these figures is the US National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators - 2006. More specifically, here and here.

When democracy met the Web

When we consider Kos's own Web site and its numerous links to other blogs, we see something like an expanding hive of communication, a collective intelligence. And the results can be impressive. A writer with the pen name (mouse name) Jerome à Paris, for instance, organized dozens of other Kossacks [Daily Kos members] interested in energy policy to write an energy plan that I find far more comprehensive and thoughtful than anything the think tanks have produced. It's been read and reshaped by thousands of readers ... [A] kind of proto-journalism is emerging, and becoming steadily more sophisticated.

From this NYRB review of Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics   by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. The second author's "mouse name" is Kos.

Thank you for calling McDonald's ...

Yes, a long-distance call center for [McDonald's] drive-through window is something to marvel at. The real wonder is that the call center isn't in Bangalore.

From this NYTimes editorial. The full story is titled The long-distance journey of a fast-food order.

DNA, stem cells and ...

... Google!

Google is actually the first company with a brand that is built entirely of stem cells: able to grow and develop into whatever form it sees fit. In the future, many a company will learn the hard way that Google's mission statement, "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," is the anthem behind Google becoming a jack-of-all-trades... and master of all.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Some more on reservation

A bunch of links.

First up is someone whom I respect a lot: Pratap Bhanu Mehta. In his column in the Indian Express, he makes the point that while reservation for SC/ST folks is okay, that for OBC folks is not.

Next, Chandra Bhan Prasad has a column in today's ToI, which describes him as "an ideologue on Dalit issues"! He argues strongly for reservation not to OBCs but to MBCs. (See a short summary of his views here).

What these viewpoints tell me is that 'getting reservation right' is a tough task, requiring a lot of hard work. This is an area where public policy has to be informed by solid, unimpeachable social science research. Shivam's post (here) and an earlier post by Dilip (here) indicate that the Mandal Commission had done such research before it made those famous reservations recommendations.

But, I am not aware of any research into how well reservation itself has worked in practice. Take the example of Tamil Nadu, where 69% reservation (for SC/ST, BC and MBC) has been the norm for over two decades. Who have been the beneficiaries? Are they predominantly those from the so-called 'creamy layer', as is alleged often? How well has the system worked there [see below for an ex-high ranking official's opinion on this question]? How well have the beneficiaries performed vis a vis the students in the general category? These are questions that are worth having an answer to; perhaps someone has already researched these issues. If it has not been done, can one invoke RTI to get this information from the government?

Tamil Nadu is interesting in another way: the opportunity to get professional education [in engineering (thanks Aswin!)] has expanded so vastly that reservation is effectively a non-issue there. Sure, the quality of education is an issue, and competition for top colleges is intense. But, there is enough (in fact, much more than enough!) to go around for everyone.

Am I right in suggesting that getting rid of scarcity of educational opportunities is one way of rendering the reservation question moot?

Back to the links thread. S. Narayanan, former finance secretary and former economic advisor to the PM, says something interesting:

In my state of Tamil Nadu, communal rotation for state government jobs was introduced by a government order in 1932, several years before independence. Only every twelfth to fifteenth job could be given to a forward community candidate. The ‘forward communities’ had much stricter admission criteria at every level in education, and reservations have been at over 69% for several decades now.

These reservations have done more good than harm. The competition for the top 10% of marks in any public examination clearly demonstrates the advantages of affirmative action. There is no evidence that reservations have resulted in a decline in standards of skills or technology in the state.
Yet, he deplores the current proposal to extend reservation to central universities. Reason?
[Reservation] is an attempt to exercise political control over the body of the private owners of the institutions—to make sure they acknowledge and respect the mandates of the state, and are therefore unable to exercise any societal or political independence. It is an exercise to curb commercial activity and, indeed, an act of jealousy that a group can prosper without the umbrella of the state.

At the next level, having failed in enunciating a policy for improving the job markets for higher education graduates, it is an attempt to share out the small pie of the IIT and IIM admissions to their political clientele as a measure of vote catching. The efforts may yield some more OBC and SC/ST graduates from these institutions, but not provide any improved opportunities for the millions in other higher education institutions.

Finally, quietly, it is an empowerment of the bureaucracy, of the babus and the regulators, who can now visit, examine, ask questions and be feted by a much larger number of institutions than they would otherwise have been able to.

What is not clear to me is why only 'reservation for OBCs' will bring all these ills to life now, when 'reservation for for SC/ST folks' has been working fine for over many decades.

Last, but certainly not the least, Falstaff has this post with a comprehensive set of arguments about why reservation or quota system is a bad idea. [Hat tip: Veena]

Reservation, merit, politics

One of the most infuriating things in the arguments that use 'merit' as the centerpiece is that many of them assume or imply that people who get in through the reserved quota are all complete duds when compared to the luminously brilliant dudes and dudettes in the general category. For an example of this type of argument, see Jeet's comment on my earlier post.

Take the example of Tamil Nadu, where 69% reservation has been a fact of life for at least two full decades. For admission to top colleges, the cut-off marks (I am not talking about percentiles or ranks here; these are raw, unadjusted marks scored in exams of various kinds) for the general and reserved categories differ by just one or two percent [I am sure there is some online link out there that I could provide here, but I have not been able to get one. Could someone please help?]. If, for example, the last student to be selected in the general category (let's call him/her Person A) had 98 percent, the last student in the reserved category (Person B) probably had 96 percent.

There are at least two ways to look at this difference. The first -- and this is the Britannica way -- is to say that Person B lost twice as many marks as Person A did. The other -- the Nature way -- is to say Person B's score is just two percent below that of Person A.

Well, which one would you use in arguments involving 'merit'?

* * *

A second argument that's trotted out is that this current proposal to extend reservation to IITs, IIMs and other central universities is a ploy by Mr. Arjun Singh (Chief Political Officer at the Ministry of HRD) to gain some political mileage for his party. I may even concede this point. However, by crying "POLITICS", these critics seem to imply that there is something inherently malafide about the proposal.

In contentious issues such as reservation (or, tax rates), any choice made by the government is a political one. When I say 'any choice', I am including the choice to 'not do anything at all'. In fact, it's precisely this political choice that was made by all the governments since Narasimha Rao's.

Further, it's instructive to examine how 'political' this choice was. So, let's roll the tape back to the days when the 104th Amendment Bill (the one that enabled the current proposal by Mr. Arjun Singh) was debated and voted on. This is what Satya says in his post:

[The] 104th Constitution Amendment Bill ... was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 21st with 379 votes in favour and one vote against and one abstaining. The Rajya Sabha also passed it on December 22nd with 172 votes in favour and only two against.

Will of the people, anyone?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

More on reservation

Just a bunch of links here. With the government committed to examining the current proposal (to allow 27 % reservation in central universities, IITs and IIMs) only after the elections to the state legislatures are over in May, the reservation issue is on the back burner.

Let me start with Dilip D'Souza, who has two posts: the first one makes a case for reservation, by asking you to consider it as something that "give[s] more people greater access to opportunity than they have had." And, the second post takes up the arguments -- most of which are bogus -- that are used in mainstream media against reservations.

Over at Education in India, Satya retraces the recent history of legislation under which the current proposal has been made. The main event, of course, is the passage of the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill.

All political parties without exception were unhappy with the Supreme Court's recent judgement in the P.A. Inamdar case and there was a consensus among all political parties for amending the Constitution to impose the State's reservation policies on the private unaided colleges too.

The Government reacted very quickly. The Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, drafted and piloted the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill which was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 21st with 379 votes in favour and one vote against and one abstaining. The Rajya Sabha also passed it on December 22nd with 172 votes in favour and only two against.

Fron Satya's second post, we get a link to this column by Sudhir Krishnaswamy, exploring the question of whether this Amendment will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny.

The Hindu, in its editorial today, argues against reservation in IITs and IIMs. The key argument is the following:

Affirmative action and reservations do involve a lowering of the bar in the admissions process, and there are certain areas such as the defence services and higher specialities in medicine and engineering where it has always been recognised that academic merit alone should count to the exclusion of all other criteria. The IITs and the IIMs certainly belong to this critically important category ...

The Economic Times, too, argues against the quota system in an editorial titled "No More Quotas". It talks about how positive actions (interventions) by the government are needed to redress discrimination and inequality, it feels that the current proposal is not good. Without giving any evidence, it makes the following assertions:

These quotas will do less than justice to both the class of intended beneficiaries and the class of employers who hire those coming out of our educational system, besides harming the interests of those like Muslims, who are outside the ambit both of traditional preference in hiring and of state-sponsored quotas.

Science porn

Sex. In the MRI tube.


A blog post without clothes

Over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet Stemwedel points to a prototype blog post which has "all the form, and none of the content".

I just call it a naked post. Take a look. Here.

Don't forget to read the prototype comments, too!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Reservations and limited opportunities

No, I am not persuaded by arguments against reservation that use 'merit' as their main plank. By definition, reservation provides an advantage to a favoured group only at the entry point. There's no further advantage as that groups makes its way through the academic system. Thus, I wouldn't worry at all about whether our bridges are designed by engineers who got in through reservation. If at all I worry about such things when I drive, it would be about bridges that are (a) designed by those receiving poor training in our lesser institutions, or (b) constructed by corrupt people that collude with other corrupt people in our public works departments.

I see reservation as our society's (admittedly clumsy) attempt to ensure that some of its disadvantaged members get at least some of the available opportunities. Much of the heat and fury over reservation arises essentially because these (education and employment) opportunities are scarce -- notwithstanding the 'India Shining' and 'Rising India' slogans. As opportunities expand, arguments against reservation would also lose their sting.

So, if you don't like reservation, direct your ire in a way that would create lots of new opportunities. Ask for more IITs, for example. Better yet, ask for real universities (not the hub-and-spoke variety that's all pervasive in our country), where you can get a well-rounded *and* high quality education.

* * *

It is also instructive to see how IITs have coped with the the existing policy of reservation for SC/ST students:

The web site of one of the IITs points out that 'as the seats for the SC/ST students are often unfilled because adequate number of students do not qualify JEE with relaxed norms, a further relaxation of JEE norm is made to select students for a one year Preparatory Course.' [Source: Ram Kelkar's column]

While we are on the topic of the 'Preparatory Course', take a look at this article (from 2000).

IIPM students' union?

In response to this post, I got a comment, through which I came to know about a website, ostensibly run by a set of less-than-gruntled students of IIPM. It's called, and it archives some serious content about IIPM's shenanigans, and its run-ins with all kinds of entities: regulators, magazines, ranking agencies, bloggers, ... Do check it out!

Friday, April 07, 2006

AICTE stabbed in the back

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post about the on-going legal battle between AICTE and the (private) deemed universities (DUs).

In a strange and absolutely atrocious move, AICTE's bosses in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) have issued a notification, which takes away much of AICTE's power to regulate DUs. Here's the key paragraph, taken from V. Jayanth's report in the Hindu:

It is not a pre-requisite for an institution notified as a `Deemed-to-be-University' to obtain the approval of the AICTE to start any programme in technical or management education leading to an award, including degrees in disciplines covered under the AICTE Act 1987. However, institutions notified as `Deemed-to-be-University' are required to ensure the maintenance of the minimum standards prescribed by the AICTE for various courses that come under the jurisdiction of the said Council. It is expected that the institutions notified as `Deemed-to-be-University' maintain their standards of education higher than the minimum prescribed by the AICTE.

What the AICTE can do is to send an expert committee to check if all its norms are followed by the DU in question, and send its report to the University Grants Commission (UGC). It's upto UGC to punish the institution!

This is strange, because the Chennai High Court is in the middle of a court case that is meant to define the regulatory terrain of AICTE vis a vis the UGC.

What is the necessity for MHRD to issue this notification, which strengthens DUs (and inter alia, the UGC as well) at the expense of AICTE?

I wonder if the High Court can look into the legal validity of this notification as well. I hope they can, and I hope they quash it.

* * *

Update (Monday, 10 April 2006): The Chennai High Court has made some stinging observations about the new order. See this report in the Hindu.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Are there any (non-stupid) questions?

As faculty members, we certainly do not want to constrain students' curiosity; we want to create environments where they can experiment with new perspectives, where they feel free to ask broad, even playful, questions. However, to stop there is to fall short of our responsibility as educators. If we say that all questions are created equal and that there is no such thing as a stupid question, we are not teaching students to think critically.

From this article by Maureen Donohue-Smith in the Chronicle.

Yet another column ...

... on how India can become an international education hub. This column is by Rajat Kathuria, a professor at IMI, the International Management Institute - India.

This is an idea that I have blogged about sometime ago. Clearly, India has the potential to offer high quality education at a fairly reasonable price of about Rs. 200,000 per year. Granted, this price will be high compared to what an IIT student pays, but it is still quite attractive for the large army of students from rich families in India, as well as students from abroad. This education can be delivered only by the private sector, because government institutions will always be under pressure to keep their tuition too low.

Truth in advertising: SRM

In an important post, Badri recounts the tale of how some private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu became deemed universities, and how they are now fighting a serious battle -- in the Chennai High Court -- with AICTE on the latter's right to regulate them.

I have written in the past about some of these deemed universities: in particular, Sathyabama here and here.

At some level, I pity the private engineering colleges, because they are hobbled by tons of rules imposed on them by AICTE, their parent university, the state government. I pity them because these rules try to achieve the impossible, by prescribing -- nay, mandating -- both the quality and the cost of education. They have been doing their best (at least some of them, anyway) under these terrible conditions. Overall, the best they can achieve is, to put it mildly, quite pathetic: poor quality education, delivered by faculty with poor qualifications (some of the faculty just have bachelors degrees).

I am not a great fan of AICTE's regulations; there are all kinds of problems with them, and I will come back to one of them a little later. Having said that, AICTE is all we have got. Thus, the deemed universities that claim immunity from AICTE oversight are indeed on a very weak wicket. I hope the courts will rule in favour of AICTE. I also hope that the regulator will spruce up and modernize its regulations and enforce them strictly and professionally.

SRM Institute of Science and Technology is one of the deemed universities that's doing legal battle with AICTE. Ever since the story of its spat with the regulator broke, its students (and Sathyabama's students) erupted in protest, which also ended in violence and property damage. All of this has been reported in the media in Tamil Nadu.

Last week, SRM issued an ad inviting applications for its bachelors and masters programs. I looked and looked, but couldn't find any information about the institution's problems with AICTE. Nothing. Zippo. The institution's website also has nothing.

It's clear that SRM is looking for people who are ignorant or couldn't care less about its regulatory problems.

* * *

It's instructive to examine SRM's credentials. In the ICT-related areas, it offers bachelors programs in the following (here, take a look at the ad):

Computer Science and Engineering
Information Technology
Electrical and Electronics Engineering
Electronics and Instrumentation Engineering
Electronics and Communication Engineering
Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering

The last two are separate entries. Seriously.

Now, take a look at the website of one of the departments. Say, the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering. You get a lot of information about its course structure, and stuff. But, you would guess that a prospective student would be interested in its faculty, right? Yes, but that student won't get much from its website, except that the Department is headed by Dr. S. Jayasri, that it has a faculty strength of 54, that it has a research coordination committee with five members, and that it has six doctoral students working with two approved guides. That's pretty much it. Names of the 54 faculty members are not mentioned, nor their qualifications, experience, background.

Shouldn't we have regulations that mandate disclosure of this kind of information on the websites of colleges and universities?

Kavya Viswanathan

She was soon taking part in the full panoply of enrichment programs and extracurricular activities that have become the birthright of the Ivy bound — summers at the Center for Talented Youth, a Johns Hopkins University program for gifted children; editor in chief of her school newspaper; advanced placement courses at her magnet high school in Hackensack, N.J. That, she said, is where she got the material for her book: "I was surrounded by the stereotype of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into Ivy League schools."

From this profile of Kavya Viswanathan, a student at Harvard and author of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life", to be published in a few days.

* * *

Updates: Kaavya Viswanathan has been accused of plagiarism: here and here.

Truth in advertising: IIPM

Dilip has caught something very interesting in the latest ad for IIPM. Now, this institution showcases its courses as 'unique superior to' (sic) MBA and BBA. But what courses does it offer? In Planning and Entrepreneurship.

This is a rare admission indeed. Just six months ago, IIPM was advertising its courses as leading to MBA and BBA degrees, with the accompanying text in smaller print clarifying that the 'degrees' are from the International Management Institute (IMI), Europe.

What happened in the meantime? First, of course, is the investigative work (aka Google journalism) by several bloggers, notable among them being Arzan, Gawker, Transmogrifier, Thalassa_Mikra, and Thalassa_Mikra (again). One of their main contributions was to shine some bright and harsh light on IMI.

The second thing that happened -- and this was more important in its impact -- was the involvement of AICTE. One of its rules (which apparently got tightened last May, after its new Chairman, Prof. Damodar Acharya, took over) is that degrees offered by institutions abroad must take prior approval of AICTE.

Sometime last November or December, AICTE wrote to IIPM -- and other institutions such as Rai 'University' -- asking for details about the 'foreign degrees' (see here and here). IIPM replied that its courses do not come under the purview of AICTE (or, for that matter, UGC). AICTE insisted that an MBA degree can be awarded only with its permission and approval (a process that would involve going into the academic credentials of IMI, which were already in tatters thanks to the set of blogger-journalists mentioned above). So, IIPM was forced to sacrifice its claim to offering 'degree' programs.

The bottomline now is that IIPM is unable to say what its programs really are; it can define them only by what they're not. Let's just go through them:

They are NOT MBA programs.

They are NOT BBA programs.

They are NOT professional courses.

They are NOT technical courses.

They are NOT recognized by AICTE or UGC.

So, you see, the only 'real information' in IIPM's ads (which! are full! of exclamation! marks!!) is that the institution offers some un-recognized, non-degree, non-technical and unprofessional non-professional programs in planning and entrepreneurship.

Calling its course a 'program' is all fine; what does it lead to: A degree? A Diploma? A certificate? What use is it, if it is not recognized by AICTE or UGC? For example, is it of any use at all if the students wish to pursue higher studies?

I don't expect IIPM's will try to clarify these issues in its ads.

* * *

Oh, by the way, IIPM has spruced up its faculty pages on its website. However, the old pages (about which I commented sometime ago) are still available!

Sonia Gandhi

Links to interesting commentary on Sonia Gandhi, whose second act of 'renunciation' has been causing some news ripples for quite a while now. And, oh, it has also brought a lot of misery to her opponents.

Red has a great post (as usual) analyzing what what this episode of 'renunciation' tells us about Sonia.

Over at "Arthasastra", Vikas details the reasons why he has changed his opinion on Sonia.

In the first and second weeks of April last year, the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi march was being celebrated by organizing a 26-day march on the same route. Sonia Gandhi participated in the last leg of that march, and this is what Dilip D'Souza said in his blog:

... [There's] more to this woman than her critics allow. And the more they underestimate her, the more they undermine themselves.

Sonia Gandhi has been in active politics for less than a decade and a half. In this time, she has probably forgotten more politics than some of her (older and more experienced) opponents ever learnt. [One of her opponents seems to have learnt only one thing in his many years in politics, and he is riding on it once again: a chameleonic chariot]. In the highly competitive field of politics, Sonia Gandhi has proven -- particularly in the last several years -- that she is better at it than her opponents -- again (doing an about-turn on Congress' earlier policy to go it alone in government), and again (giving India its first technocrat prime minister), and again (her recent resignation of NAC chairpersonship), and again (going back to Rae Bareilly to seek a re-eletion), and ...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Problems in our primary education

Teacher absence was found to be less where a system of "daily incentives" to attend work existed. Teachers were less likely to be absent from schools that had been inspected recently; those that had better infrastructure and were close to a paved road.

From this op-ed by V. Jayanth in the Hindu today.

Here's something else that's interesting (and this quote is directly from the study [pdf, abstract] by the World Bank and Harvard):

We did not directly collect data on individual teacher salaries, but in every Indian State, salaries increase with education, experience and rank. Teachers with a college degree are 2 to 2.5 percentage points more likely to be absent.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bengaluru, Bengaluru, Bengaluru

Bangalore now has its own MetroBlog. Here's the opening post by Anita Bora on the iconic status of Vidhana Soudha (the Secretariat of the government of the state of Karnataka) among the city's monuments (see also this post by Ravi Kumar). The Bengaluru Bangalore MetroBlog is less than a week old, but there is already quite a bit of activity. Among the noteworthy posts (so far): Sujatha Bagal's interesting take on life in Bangalore, and Rubic Cube's wonderful photo tour of Bangalore of yesteryears. I am sure we are going to be in for a treat.

Bengaluru also has its own food-lovers' guide in "The Kingfisher CityInfo Great Food Guide" (some rudimentary info at the book's website). It costs just 150 rupees. I checked quickly to see if it features Malleswaram's Janata Cafe. It does, thereby establishing the Guide's credibility beyond doubt.

Finally, Sugan, who visited Bengaluru recently (ostensibly to laze around), is mighty impressed by the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum.

"Seven warning signs of bogus science"

In an interesting article in the Chronicle, Robert L. Park (a physics professor at the University of Maryland) identifies 'seven warning signs' that should alert you to a possibility that the underying science might not hold up. The 'signs' include such jems as "The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work." Here's the concluding paragraph:

I began this list of warning signs to help federal judges detect scientific nonsense. But as I finished the list, I realized that in our increasingly technological society, spotting voodoo science is a skill that every citizen should develop.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Advice for potential graduate students

Are you thinking about going to grad school? The web is a great resource for alerting you about the kinds of things you will need to consider on your journey to grad school and beyond (I have a bunch of links). Recently, several bloggers have added their perspectives to this pool of information. Let me just point to a noteworthy few:

A while ago, Sean Carroll offered some unsolicited advice on what kinds of things you should think about when it's time for applying to grad schools. In the second installment, he offers some more advice on issues ranging from which offer to accept, to subsequent choices you will have to make once you are in grad school. Chad Orzel offers his perspectives here.

Among the differnt things that would bother a potential grad student with multiple offers, the one thing that both Sean and Chad agree is the most important is choosing your advisor. They are absolutely right to emphasize this point.

Here's Sean:

The single most important influence on your graduate career will be who your advisor is. [...] Of course, picking an advisor means picking a specialty. Some people know exactly what they want to do before they arrive; that’s not necessary, but it helps. The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well? Your Ph.D. advisor will very possibly be writing letters about you for decades to come — choose someone with whom you will be proud to be associated with, and who will take some interest in your well-being.

Here's Chad:

I will list the three most important decisions you will make in choosing a graduate school:
  1. Choosing a research advisor.
  2. Choosing a research advisor.
  3. Choosing a research advisor.
It might be a slight overstatement to say that the choice of advisor is the single most important factor in your grad school experience, but only a slight overstatement. The right choice of advisor can make your life much more pleasant, and set you up well for your future career, while the wrong choice can lead to extreme amounts of pain and misery.

What's the "right" choice? It will vary from one student to another, and one institution to another, but basically, you're looking for someone who has funding, who graduates students in a reasonable amount of time, and whose students get jobs after graduation. And more important than any of those, you need to pick an advisor that you can get along with-- grad school is stressful enough when all goes well, but it can be unremittingly miserable if you have a major conflict of personality with your advisor.

There is a lot more where these quotes came from. I suggest that you go and read the original posts.

All of this is a little too science-oriented (physics-oriented, in fact). For those of you interested in a Ph.D. in humanities, Tom Coates has a post on "What you should know before starting a doctorate..." In the humanities, it seems to me that the overwhelming problem is the job market. Indeed, Coates says "If you don't want to be a History lecturer and do academic research for the rest of your life, then don't do a doctorate." (See also this article by Tim Burke). In sciences, on the other hand, academic jobs are not the only thing; there are many research positions in government labs as well as industrial labs. There is a caveat, though: the (non-academic) R&D opportunities are far greater for experimental scientists than for theoretically oriented people.

A tale of two doors

Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has a tale of two doors, one of them flimsy and easy to open, and the other, sturdy and tough. The first one is guarded by Guardian A, and the second by Guardian B. This is how each describes what's behind his door:

Guardian A: "Joy and delight, an eternal life of perfect happiness, an end to doors and constant travelingÂ…and all you have to do is turn that little knob, and believe."

Guardian B: "Knowledge. Hard work. Interesting ideas. And doors -— many more doors, each one harder than the next, and no end to them in sight. Clever people, all working together to open more doors. It's a whole world, a good but complicated place."

Fascinating stuff. Read the whole thing here.

Some (and only some) good news on India's HIV problem

... [The] study has two key implications, the researchers said.

One is that strategies that emphasize education about how H.I.V. can be transmitted and the use of condoms offer the best hope for reducing the spread of the virus in India.

A second is that routine monitoring of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases are powerful and cost-effective ways to control AIDS in India. But experts urged constant vigilance for signs of a reversal of the favorable trend.

The NYTimes report, by Lawrence Altman, is here.