Saturday, September 30, 2006

First they came ...

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

I found the Wikipedia   link to this powerful poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller over at reddit. I was wondering why this link had acquired over 390 votes (and counting) in less than a day. I mean, why now?

Could it be because of this?

And this? And this? And, perhaps, this too?

* * *

And, a similar situation from ancient history is explored here [thanks to Swarup for the pointer in the comments].

Montessori way of teaching

Our 5-year old son attends the Montessori section in a school that also offers a regular pre-KG-LKG-UKG program. We chose the Montessori simply because we heard -- and we really didn't know much at that time -- that kids learn stuff by doing stuff, learn from their peers as well as from their teachers, etc. We also heard that Montessori kids get to do a lot of things that regular schools (probably) don't pay attention to; for example, they do specific activities that help develop hand-eye coordination: practice with different kinds of buttons, pouring things -- rice and pulses at first, and water and oil later on -- from one container to another, safe use of scissors, and even cutting vegetables!

When we heard further that (a) our child did not have to carry books, and (b) there would be no homework, we were completely sold on Montessori. Our son's school -- Hymamshu, in Malleswaram -- has lived upto everything that was promised, and his teachers have been absolutely wonderful. We have been very happy -- and sometimes, amazed -- with his progress; needless to say, we whole-heartedly recommend the Montessori program (at least at Hymamshu) to anyone who asks us.

But, still, parents are parents; which is to say, as parents, we are, and will always be, paranoid. We worry if what we chose is the right thing. We worry if Montessori has some (hidden) deficiencies. We worry if Montessori will prepare our child adequately for the next step, which is going to be in a regular school. We worry, ... Well, you get the point.

This morning, I found this Scientific American report about a study done in the US, comparing Montessori kids with those from regular schools. Its contents are quite reassuring; which is to say, it will allow us to worry just a little less!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Joseph Stiglitz on making globalization work

From his Economic Times op-ed:

... I have complained so loudly and vociferously about the problems of globalisation that many have wrongly concluded that I belong to the anti-globalisation movement. But I believe that globalisation has enormous potential - as long as it is properly managed.

Some 70 years ago, during the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes formulated his theory of unemployment, which described how government action could help restore full employment. While conservatives vilified him, Keynes actually did more to save the capitalist system than all the pro-market financiers put together. Had the conservatives been followed, the Great Depression would have been even worse and the demand for an alternative to capitalism would have grown stronger.

By the same token, unless we recognise and address the problems of globalisation, it will be difficult to sustain. Globalisation is not inevitable: there have been setbacks before, and there can be setbacks again.

From this interview in the Hindu [via Guru who also seems to be reading tea leaves bags these days]:

The prescription for making globalisation work is what is generally called "the Scandinavian model." That means high levels of investment in education, research, and technology plus a strong safety net. That of course also entails, as in the Scandinavian countries, a highly progressive income tax.

Far from making these countries less competitive, it has made them more so. Though it may seem a contradiction to conservative ideologues who think cutting taxes is the answer to everything, the fact is that people are more willing to take entrepreneurial risks if they can count on a safety net and if they have the training to be innovative.

In Sweden, the social democrats who fashioned this policy have just been turned out of office. But we should not read that as some kind of a rupture in the social consensus. The new, more conservative government will only be about fine-tuning the model.

Since Stiglitz mentions Sweden and the Scandinavian model, here's an interesting analysis of the recent Swedish elections. Among other things, the article shows how the neo-liberal parties in Sweden and Denmark came to love the Welfare State. [Link via Mark Thoma].

In the same interview, this is what Stiglitz says about what the east Asian economies did to benefit from a more globalized world:

The East Asians — first Japan and later countries like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea and now China — understood that their gap with the advanced world was in knowledge and technology. So they encouraged direct foreign investment, insisting that technology transfer come along with it, and invested massively in education and infrastructure, largely through their own national savings, which are the highest in the world.

China, especially, has embraced globalisation on its own terms. It was slow to open up its markets for imports and even today does not allow the entry of speculative, short-term capital flows that so easily lead to boom and bust cycles in emerging economies.

But on top of this, China, like the others, has not relied on trickle-down wealth to lift up those at the bottom, but has sought to raising the poorest through government intervention. In the past decade and a half, hundreds of millions have been lifted out of absolute poverty there.

Now that a wealth gap is emerging because of sustained, rapid growth, the Communist Party has put the new policy of "harmony" at the top of its agenda, aiming to stop the gap from growing too large.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

IIESTs: Good news or bad news?

Many of you may be aware that seven engineering colleges, including my alma mater, the Institute of Technology at the Banaras Hindu University, have been in the running for getting the IIT status. Yogesh Upadhyaya, who has been following their progress through various committees, reports today in Rediff that five of them will probably be converted into, not IITs, but IIESTs: Indian Institutes of Engineering Science and Technology (Subrahmanya too has commented on this development).

Two institutions -- the engineering colleges of Aligarh Muslim University and Jadavpur University -- have been dropped from this conversion, primarily because the respective state governments were unwilling to give up control over them.

The IIESTs will also get the status of Institutions of National Importance, which implies that they will have autonomous governance structures similar to those of IITs and be funded directly by the Central Government. This is the good news.

Is there some bad news? I believe so. First, their name is a silly mess: what the hell is an engineering science? But, more seriously, the IIESTs face a grim future right from their inception because of an onerous condition imposed by the government: they are being forced to offer only 5-year integrated masters program in engineering. Not only that, they are also being forced to scrap their existing 4-year bachelors programs. I am surprised by this condition because the IIT experience tells us that the 5-year integrated program is vastly less popular among the students.

Don't get me wrong. These five new IIESTs will, for the next decade or so, attract a good set of students into their 5-year masters programs because of their long track record of quality UG education. In the long run, however, the IIESTs will certainly have to compete with many more institutions offering high quality UG programs (indeed, Upadhyaya reports that three new IITs are likely to be set up in the next few years). By being tied to an utterly idiotic, poorly conceived, and ever un-popular 5-year masters program, the IIESTs risk being shunned by top UG students. This can mean only one thing: a steady decline and oblivion in the long run.

I hope the new IIESTs will fight hard to retain the flexibility to -- whenever it becomes necessary -- scrap the 5-year masters and go back to offering the tried-and-tested 4-year UG programs.


I knew that Shashi Tharoor is one of the candidtates for the UN's top post, but I didn't know that there are seven of them. This is what I learnt about the process from the NYTimes:

The United Nations selects its next secretary general this fall through a series of straw polls. The third of these — the most decisive to date — will be held today. In the vote, the 15 members of the Security Council “encourage,” “discourage” or venture “no opinion” on each of the candidates. To win, a candidate must have at least nine encouraging votes and no discouragement from any of the five permanent members of the Security Council. The winner is then presented to the General Assembly for ratification.

That link will also take you to articles by five of the candidates (including Tharoor), responding to (at least) two specific questions:

First, we asked them to discuss an avoidable mistake the United Nations had made within the last five years. Second, we asked them what major reform they would undertake as secretary general.

Nobel season is here

With the first of the 2006 Nobel announcements just four days away, the NYTimes leads off with a rambling story about, um, a lot of things: Nobel's career, his (almost) botched will, the setting up of the Prizes (after a bitter fight over his will), the impeccable -- and year-long -- process of choosing a winner, some of the controversial Prizes in medicine, etc. Do check it out:

Large philanthropic gifts to science were rare in Nobel’s day. Moreover, establishing annual international prizes in any field was novel. And controversial. News of Nobel’s plan sent shockwaves through Sweden with the intensity of a dynamite blast.

Bitter members of Nobel’s largely disinherited family fought the will in court. Scorn was heaped on Nobel’s gift, the equivalent of $9.5 million and one of the largest fortunes of his time, by the king of Sweden, Oscar II; newspapers; political leaders; and other Swedes.

Nobel’s earnings came from his 355 patents and factories in many countries. Swedish leaders vehemently opposed dispersing a Swedish fortune to the rest of the world. Among their reasons: it was immoral, particularly at a time when many Swedes were impoverished.

King Oscar II changed his mind after the Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, in part because he thought publicity about the prizes might benefit Sweden. ...

The NYTimes story by Lawrence Altman also has a section about information from the Nobel Prize archives (released fifty years after the event, and with access restricted to 'qualified' individuals ;-):

Michael Bliss, emeritus professor of history at the University of Toronto, was one of the first people to examine the archives, in 1981, for his book “The Discovery of Insulin.”

The records, mainly in Swedish, were “very thorough,” he said in an interview, and “for comic relief, for each year there was a thick box labeled self-nominations,” which are ineligible.

Politics can play a role in selecting prize winners. Professor Bliss said that in his review of the Nobel documents, “you could see how people would carry on campaigns on behalf of certain people, getting others to write supporting letters and so on.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Best sentence of the week, so far

Reservation becomes a national issue only when it upsets upper castes.

This sentence appears in Yogendra Yadav's ToI op-ed on the need for sub-dividing the SC quota, so that the benefits are not 'cornered' only by the better off (and better-prepared?) communities among the Dalits.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Department of 'Huh?'

Two days ago, Mr. Kapil Sibal, Minister of Science and Technology, inaugurated the Nanotech lab at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. This is from the Hindu's report:

Mr. Sibal said though India was a late starter in the field of nanotechnology, it had made a beginning to tap the huge potential of nanotechnology, and the products developed under this science should be applied to remove the woes of over 547 million people living below the poverty line. [Bold emphasis added]

Affirmative action for the rich: Part 2

The Economist reviews Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates [link via]:

The American establishment is extraordinarily good at getting its children into the best colleges. In the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families. Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances. Universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year's deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.

University behaviour is at its worst when it comes to grovelling to celebrities. Duke University's admissions director visited Steven Spielberg's house to interview his stepdaughter. Princeton found a place for Lauren Bush—the president's niece and a top fashion model—despite the fact that she missed the application deadline by a month. Brown University was so keen to admit Michael Ovitz's son that it gave him a place as a “special student”. (He dropped out after a year.)

Most people think of black football and basketball stars when they hear about “sports scholarships”. But there are also sports scholarships for rich white students who play preppie sports such as fencing, squash, sailing, riding, golf and, of course, lacrosse. The University of Virginia even has scholarships for polo-players, relatively few of whom come from the inner cities.

* * *

My previous post on this book is here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Marie Curie's first Nobel

Some more excerpts from Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. We learn, on page 107, that the first physics Nobel went to Röntgen in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, and the second to Hendrik Antoon Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman for their research into "the influence of magnetism upon radiation phenomenon." We also learn that for both those Nobels, Charles Bouchard, "a doctor with lifetime nominating rights", nominated Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. I'm excerpting a key section of the narrative:

... The following year, in a stunning example of what it was to be a woman in science, a vicious sexism ripped away all pretense that Marie Curie might be accepted as an equal.

Four influential scientists collaborated on an official letter nominating Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Madame Curie was not mentioned. The letter contained a distorted account of the discovery of polonium and radium. It asserted that these two men, competing against foreign rivals, had "worked together and separately to procure, with great difficulty, some decigrams of this precious material." This in spite of the fact that Marie Curie's amazing discoveries were known throughout the scientific community and that three of the four men who signed the letter had been involved in her work and knew full well to whom the credit belonged. The most shocking of the four was Gabriel Lippmann, whom Marie had deemed a close friend and advisor. Lippman, however, had regarded Marie as an impoverished young student, not as a potential competitor.

There was speculation that Becquerel had influenced the letter in order to cast more credit on himself. One member of the Nobel science committee, Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a famous mathematician and chief editor of Acta Mathematica, believed that women in science were unappreciated and deplored Madame Curie's omission from the nominating letter. To test the waters, he wrote privately to Pierre apprising him of the situation. Pierre responded that if this nomination was serious, he could not accept the prize unless the Nobel committee included Madame Curie. Armed with Pierre's reply, Mittag-Leffler exerted his considerable influence to urge that Marie Curie's name be added to the letter of nomination. Certain adversarial committee members claimed this was impossible since the nomination letter had already been filed. It was then that Charles Bouchard reminded the committee that this was not strictly true since he had included Marie in his nomination for the Nobel Prize both in 1901 and 1902. By now the politics of the committee had grown so fraught that at last they added Madame Curie's name to the award. By this technical fluke, she was credited with "opening up a new area of physics research" and for her part in the most magnificent methodical and persistent investigations." ...

One half of the 1903 physics Nobel went to Becquerel and the other half was shared by Marie and Pierre Curie. The Curies, however, could not make the trip to Sweden for the award ceremony due to Marie's poor health. They did make the trip eventually (in April of 1905) to accept the award, and make the Award Presentation. Here too, there was a twist: "Pierre alone was asked to speak. He was seated on the dais, she was in the audience." Barbara Goldsmith adds:

This insult turned out to Marie's advantage since her husband, from the podium, could then give her full credit for her discoveries. In his speech "Radioactive Substances, Especially Radium", he mentioned Madame Curie's accomplishments again and again. ... Pierre pointed out that Marie alone had discovered radioactivity of these elements ...


From Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie:

Minute dilutions of radium were added to tea, health tonics, ice creams, lipsticks, bath salts, costumes that glowed in the dark, and so forth. La Crème Activa, purported to contain radium was guaranteed to keep skin looking young. Curie Hair Tonic guaranteed no loss of hair. A bag containing radium worn near the scrotum was said to restore virility; a Cosmos Bag was strapped to the waist for arthritis. Radium toothpaste was said to preserve and whiten teeth, a radium inhaler to increase the vigor and enrich the blood. A doctor calling himself "Alfred Curie" marketed Crème Tho-Radia. His advertisement showed a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin bathed in blue light. [...]

One could buy a Revigorator -- a flask lined with radium to be filled with water each night to drink the following morning. Radithor, a drink containing one part radium salts to 60,000 parts zinc sulfide, was said to cure stomach cancer, mental illness, and restore sexual vigor and vitality. An American industrialist, Eben Byers, drank a bottle each day for four years, at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated. The famous American Follies Bergère dancer Loie Fuller became infatuated with Marie and her discovery and wrote requesting some radium to create a costume. When Marie refused, Loie came to the Curies' house and performed a dance, her body lit by electric lights colored by blue cellophane filters -- the nearest she could come to a radium effect. Soon, in Paris, New York and San Francisco, theater and nightclub reviews featured women invisible but for the glowing radium paint on their costumes.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Money quotes on science

Albert Einstein:

Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it.

Ernest Rutherford:

We don't have the money, so we have to think.

I found both these quotes in Barbara Goldsmith's excellent biography of Marie Curie: Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. [You can read the reviews of this book in the Guardian, and the American Scientist.] I plan post some excerpts from this book in the next day or two.

Faculty salaries ...

When it comes to the perception that faculty salaries are too low, China seems to be no different.

Link via Mark Thoma, a reputed pre-processor for economic news.

Google's quote of the day

Mark Twain:

Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sweden: Commentary on election results

The New Economist has a round-up of MSM commentary on the meaning of the Social Democrats's loss to the New Moderates in the recent Swedish elections. While the closeness of the NM victory (48.1 % of the popular vote against 46.2 % for SD) lends itself to a variety of interpretations, it also rules out a sharp rightward turn in Sweden's economic policies. I don't think the Welfare State in Sweden is in any danger of being dismantled.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why did Gwen Stacy die?

Via P.Z. Myers, we get links to some snippets of lectures by Prof. James Kakalios, author of Physics of Superheroes, on what physics has to say about some of the significant events in superheroes' lives.

Watch this video where Kakalios explains the death of Gwen Stacy, SpiderMan's girlfriend, who has "the unique distinction [in comic book history] of remaining dead" [since her death in 1973]. Do watch it all the way to its end, where he announces proudly, "If I can teach a homocidal maniac like the Green Goblin about conservation of momentum, then I'm makin' a difference!"

Myers has links to some more videos snippets.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Class participation!

Well, after posting something about how a professor engaged his students (with amazing results), I just have to point to Manu's analysis of the kinds of CP.

CP, for those who are not with the MBA lingo (ISB lingo?), stands for 'class participation'.

A teacher's influence

Every committed teacher would die to have the kind of influence that this teacher has:

Once, they were fresh-faced students bewitched by courses in political science they were taking with a young professor, Stanley Feingold. He provoked them with uncomfortable questions, made them see other sides to smugly held beliefs.

Now in their 60’s and 70’s, these two dozen alumni of Bronx and Brooklyn walk-ups and the City College of New York are high-powered lawyers and other professionals. They range from pro-Bush Republicans to A.C.L.U. Democrats. Most have had more real-world experience in government and politics than their mentor.

Yet they continue to meet with their old professor over lunch as they have for the past 20 years, to hear his unsettling questions once more. At 80 years old, he flies in especially from Seattle five times a year, and they find the chance for a spirited exchange of ideas under his adventurous steering, a priceless grace in their lives.

The NYTimes story goes on to say that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for a teacher to have this kind of influence. Reason? The ever increasing importance of research over teaching.

There probably aren’t that many similar gatherings around the country where adults recapture the zestful engagement of a seminar with the same professor who taught it ages ago. Some experts contend that the odds against such mentor relationships are mounting because stimulating teaching is not as valued as publication and research.

Donald Kagan, dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992, , points out how little professors actually teach — two courses, or one, in many elite colleges, half the load of his student days 50 years ago. Basic classes often are taught by graduate students. Faculty senates strive to let professors teach what they wish, resulting in fewer core courses that students have in common.

Word of mouth - 101: How do you get bloggers to write about your product?

You probably have seen it on, like, only 48 blogs, but still, I link to this! [Did somebody say, 'bandwagon effect'?] Joel Spolsky gets a free mobile phone (and free downloads!) from a phone company that hoped he would write something about it. Write, he certainly did! Check it out.

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins has used a far more effective way of eliciting a positive go-out-and-buy-it call from a certain blogger: use extracts from the said blogger's posts in his recent book!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Another set of links ...

First off, Guru has links to some advice (pdf) from the American Mathematical Society about how to land postdoctoral and academic jobs.

Janet Stemwedel, on the other hand, asks her readers to suggest non-academic job options after getting a Ph.D., and gets quite a few responses. Her post reminded me about my graduate student days during the late eighties; there were wild rumours about physics and computer scientists being hired by Wall Street firms as financial analysts at exorbitant salaries. Don't know if this market is still open ...

If the Math Society has some stuff, the Physical Society can't be far behind, right? Here's APS's Professional Development Resource Guide (pdf), with lots and lots of info, advice and useful pointers to resources (online or otherwise). Link via Jen Fallis who also has a short analysis of the Guide's contents.

If everything goes well, and if you choose to work in the US, who knows ..., you may well find yourself in a list like this one. Good luck!

Sweden - 4: Regime change

BBC   reports [thanks to Pradeepkumar for the alert]:

Sweden's centre-right opposition bloc has defeated the ruling Social Democrat party in the country's closest-fought general election for decades.

Moderate party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt declared victory as near-complete results gave him a 1% lead.

And, here's the NYTimes   report.


Lalu Prasad Yadav at IIM-A: Economic Times (and another report).

A Hindu editorial on Making science attractive.

D. Balasubramanian's Speaking of Science column (four weeks ago) on the need for more science and more scientists in India [via Guru].

A NYTimes editorial on the need for greater funding for higher ed in the US.

A NYTimes report on how bias and 'outmoded institutional structures' hinder women's progress in science and engineering.

Monday, September 18, 2006

First women scientists at IISc

At the lunch table today, we ended up talking about Sudha Murthy's struggle against male bias at TELCO (Tata Motors' old name). And then, the conversation turned to the first woman to study in our Institute: Prof. Kamala Sohonie, whose struggle to enter IISc is recounted in this report of a speech she made back in 1997 at a meeting of the Indian Women Scientists' Association [Thanks to Ram for the link]:

When Sohonie applied for postgraduate degree, after completing her graduation from Bombay University in 1933, Raman summarily dismissed her application despite her having topped the university merit list that year. And the reason: Sohonie happened to be a woman!

"I am not going to take any girls in my institute," Raman had told the girl. But Sohonie went all the way to Bangalore to confront the Nobel laureate and demand the reason for being refused admission despite her outstanding academic record.

"Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman," she told the audience. But, she challenged Raman that she would complete the course with distinction. After much hesitation she got admission, the first women to be admitted by Raman.

"Even then, Raman didn't admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel laureate behaves in such a way?" she asked.

I also heard a few other interesting details about her verbal duel with Raman before he agreed to admit her into the Institute; I'm sure it's all documented somewhere. Since I'm not able to find it online, those details will just have to wait until I find some definitive source. If you have any pointers (preferably online), do please let me know.

* * *

While searching the web for more information on Prof. Kamala Sohonie, I came across this interesting essay [pdf: 3.2 Mb file] with the title: Dispersed Radiance: Women Scientists in Raman's Laboratory at the South Asian Women's Network. The essay, by Abha Sur, is about three scientists: Anna Mani, Sunanda Bai, and Lalita Chandrasekhar who joined Prof. Raman's lab. Of the three, Lalita Chandrasekhar "gave up her own aspirations for a research career to devote herself to her husband" (Prof. S. Chandrasekhar, who went on to win a Physics Nobel in 1982), Sunanda Bai completed her Ph.D. thesis, but committed suicide "just before her intended departure to Sweden for postdoctoral work", and Anna Mani went on to a successful career in the Indian Meteorological Department, retiring as its Deputy Director General in 1976.

Here's a poignant section in the essay:

... the scientific institutions perpetuated their own gender biases. Neither Anna Mani nor Sunanda Bai was ever granted a doctoral degree. Their completed Ph.D. dissertations remain in the library of Raman Research Institute, indistinguishable from other bound dissertations with not a trace to suggest that these were eventually denied degrees. Madras University, which at that time formally granted degrees for work done at the Indian Institute of Science, claimed that Mani did not have an M.Sc. degree, and therefore they could not possibly grant her a Ph.D. They chose to overlook the facts that Mani had graduated with honors in physics and chemistry, had won a scholarship for graduate studies at the Indian Institute of Science, and had published five single-authored papers ...


According to Anna Mani, [Sunanda] Bai's last wish has been to be granted the Ph.D. degree that she so rightfully deserved, posthumously. Officials at Madras did not fulfill her wish, ostensibly for bureaucratic reasons. Mani who had accepted graciously the reasons Madras University had given for denying her a Ph.D. degree, nonetheless felt tormented by the injustice of their decision vis-à-vis Sunanda Bai.

Ph.D. in management

Just a couple of days ago, Gaurav wrote about pursuing a Ph.D. in marketing. Just this morning, I learnt about an online chat titled Thinking about pursuing a career in Business Academia?   organized by a bunch of B-Schools in the US. The chat is scheduled for tomorrow (19 September 2006) at 8:00 a.m. (Pacific time) which should be either 8:30 or 9:30 p.m. Indian time; the site promises that you don't need a user ID or password to enter the chat area.

Before you run off to check out the online chat, don't forget to check out this post [from where I got the link to the online chat].

Prison poems

Kuffir has translated a few Telugu poems about prisons.

walls from the nizam's time, barbed wire, electrified to kill
the sentry ramparts, walls within walls, gates within gates
locks locked unlocked, between the guards
the captured greenery
the pigeons that can't fly
the sky imprisoned in the yard
the faint call to namaaz in the absent noon
the moist-eyed ground giving the wind a chill
it's here the seasons had been held since long

That's from Vara Vara Rao, whose poem titled Déjà vu   was posted or excerpted on many, many blogs (including mine) during the recent debate on quotas.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Macbeth effect

From the NYTimes story on a recent study that found this interesting effect:

... People who washed their hands after contemplating an unethical act were less troubled by their thoughts than those who didn’t, the study found.

“The association between moral and physical purity has been taken for granted for so long that it was startling that no one had ever shown empirical evidence of it,” said Chen-Bo Zhong, an author of the new research and a behavioral researcher at the University of Toronto. The study, which he wrote with Katie Liljenquist, a graduate student at Northwestern University, appeared in the journal Science.

The researchers call this urge to clean up the “Macbeth effect,” after the scene in Shakespeare’s tragedy in which Lady Macbeth moans, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” after bloodying her hands when her husband, at her urging, murders King Duncan.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


The council—the nodal body to approve all institutions offering management courses and responsible for monitoring their quality—has no teeth to regulate the mushrooming of unsavoury management institutes. Some of the better institutes consider it an obstacle rather than one creating a healthy environment for B-schools. Finally, rampant corruption and lack of expertise render the AICTE incapable of monitoring.

From this Outlook story. Consider:

... Despite having the second largest number of schools in the world after the US, majority of Indian B-schools lack quality curriculum, faculty and facilities. Many act as mere placement agencies.

All one needs to start a school is less than 1.5 acre land, 20,000 sq ft of built-up area, 20 computers, seven faculty members, 2,000 books and subscription to 30 journals. There are many licensed institutes whose infrastructure and faculty exist only on paper. Although approved, these institutes don’t even try for an AICTE accreditation. Anyway, an AICTE accreditation is voluntary.

* * *

The latest issue of Outlook also carries this year's ranking of India's B-schools. In its dead-tree version, on the scond page of this cover story, Outlook carried an 'article' about Amity's B-school claiming that it's ranked No. 1 among 'private' B-schools. It turns out that the 'article' was actually an ad placed by Amity, and shamelessly accepted by Outlook, which has now been forced to issue this clarification.

The Age on the Blanknoise Project

... Ms [Jasmeen] Patheja rebelled against altering her clothes just because of men.

In 2003, she started a one-woman crusade — called Blank Noise — against the crass and vulgar public behaviour of men.

It began with a blog, where she posted pictures of lechers who had hassled her.

The response from other women was terrific. Ms Patheja had struck a chord. Blank Noise now has groups throughout the country. It also has some male members.

That's from the profile (under the title "The Stare Wars") of the Blanknoise Project by the Australian newspaper, The Age. Hat tip: Swarup.


John Cassidy has a wonderful New Yorker essay on what neuroeconomists do, new insights the subject might offer us about our economic behaviour and decisions, how it might make mainstream economics revisit some of its rather restrictive assumptions, and what the detractors of neuroeconomics have to say about its techniques.

Here's a two paragraph summary of the need for behavioural economics:

In 1979, two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, published a paper in the economics journal Econometrica, describing the concept of loss aversion. At the time, few economists and psychologists talked to one another. In the nineteenth century, their fields had been considered closely related branches of the “moral sciences.” But psychology evolved into an empirical discipline, grounded in close observation of human behavior, while economics became increasingly theoretical—in some ways it resembled a branch of mathematics. Many economists regarded psychology with suspicion, but their preference for abstract models of human behavior came at a cost.

In order to depict economic decisions mathematically, economists needed to assume that human behavior is both rational and predictable. They imagined a representative human, Homo economicus, endowed with consistent preferences, stable moods, and an enviable ability to make only rational decisions. This sleight of hand yielded some theories that had genuine predictive value, but economists were obliged to exclude from their analyses many phenomena that didn’t fit the rational-actor framework, such as stock-market bubbles, drug addiction, and compulsive shopping. Economists continue to study Homo economicus, but many recognize his limitations. Over the past twenty-five years, using methods and insights borrowed from psychology, they have devised a new approach to studying decision-making: behavioral economics.

Here's a framing of the 'new new thing' in economics by one of its practitioners. I like to call it 'glory by association':

“Natural science has moved ahead by studying progressively smaller units,” [Harvard's David Laibson said]. “Physicists started out studying the stars, then they looked at objects, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on. My sense is that economics is going to follow the same path. Forty years ago, it was mainly about large-scale phenomena, like inflation and unemployment. More recently, there has been a lot of focus on individual decision-making. I think the time has now come to go beyond the individual and look at the inputs to individual decision-making. That is what we do in neuroeconomics.”

* * *

See also this recent post titled Is economics the new physics?.

* * *

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sweden - 3: The 'free-lunch' puzzle

In a 2001 paper titled Why the welfare state looks like a free lunch, Peter Lindert (UC-Davis) offers a few possible explanations for the following puzzle:

The econometric consensus on the effects of social spending confirms a puzzle we confront in the raw data: There is no clear net GDP cost of high tax-based social spending on GDP, despite a tradition of assuming that such costs are large. [Bold emphasis added]

He went on to write Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth Since the Eighteenth Century, a two-volume book that I haven't read. I mention the book here because it -- and, in particular, its use of Sweden as an exemplar of the 'free-lunch puzzle' -- has been the focus of an interesting debate in the online (and free!) journal Economic Journal Watch. The debate has been between Andreas Bergh (The Ratio Institute, Stockholm) and Peter Lindert. Here are the links to Bergh's first salvo, Lindert's response, Bergh's second piece and Lindert's second response.

It's worth reproducing the concluding paragraph from Lindert's second reply:

The welfare state remains a “free lunch” in the same sense that I used this phrase in my 2003 NBER paper, my 2004 book, and my first reply to Bergh earlier this year: The higher social transfers of the welfare state have brought less poverty, less inequality, and longer life expectancy with no statistically significant cost in terms of GDP. [Bold emphasis added]

Sweden - 2

In his comment on this post on the Swedish economic model, Pradeepkumar points to a George Monbiot article (from January 2005) in which he compares UK and Sweden:

Let's take two countries which have gone all the way through the development process and arrived in the promised land of prosperity. Let's compare the United Kingdom - a pioneer of neoliberalism - and Sweden: one of the last outposts of distributionism. And let's make use of a set of statistics the Economist is unlikely to dispute: those contained within its own publication, the 2005 World in Figures.(6)

The first surprise, for anyone who has swallowed the stories about our unrivalled economic dynamism, is that, in terms of gross domestic product, Sweden has done as well as we have. In 2002 its GDP per capita was $27,310, and the UK's was $26,240. This is no blip. In only seven years between 1960 and 2001 did Sweden's per capita GDP fall behind the United Kingdom's.(7)

More surprisingly still, Sweden has a current account surplus of $10bn and the UK a deficit of $26bn. Even by the neoliberals' favourite measures, Sweden wins: it has a lower inflation rate than ours, higher "global competitiveness" and a higher ranking for "business creativity and research".

In terms of human welfare, there is no competition. According to the quality of life measure published by the Economist (the "human development index") Sweden ranks third in the world, the UK 11th. Sweden has the world's third highest life expectancy, the UK the 29th. In Sweden, there are 74 telephone lines and 62 computers per hundred people; in the UK just 59 and 41.

The contrast between the averaged figures is stark enough, but it's far greater for the people at the bottom of the social heap. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Economist does not publish this data, but the United Nations does. Its Human Development Report for 2004 shows that in Sweden 6.3% of the population lives below the absolute poverty line for developed nations ($11 a day).(8) In the United Kingdom the figure is 15.7%. Seven and a half per cent of Swedish adults are functionally illiterate - just over one third of the UK's figure of 21.8%. In the United Kingdom, according to a separate study, you are over three times as likely to stay in the economic class into which you were born than you are in Sweden.(9) So much for the deregulated market creating opportunity.

In what way does modernity hurt children's mental health?

A group of professionals, academics and public intellectuals have written a (short) letter urging "parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being." Their letter is poorly worded with some generalities (see the quote below). Though their points make you nod approvingly. it's not quite clear what they would like to change (except perhaps the thing about early and test-driven primary education), and how the society has to be organized to accommodate that change. In any case, I just wanted to point to Chris Bertram's post that has an interesting comments thread.

They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Professors and blogging

The best sentence I have read so far today:

... professors are the true masters of the "long tail" of knowledge.

It appears in Dan Cohen's post urging professors to start blogging. Here's the full quote that has the above sentence in it:

professors are hired and promoted because they are specialists who discover and explain things that few others understand. For these theorists and researchers, blogging can be a powerful way to provide "notes from the field" and glosses on topics that perhaps a handful of others worldwide know a lot about. While I tend to avoid the hot term of the moment, professors are the true masters of the "long tail" of knowledge.

When I was in graduate school, the Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person. In short, to become so knowledgeable and energetic about your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert.

As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Now, there's good and bad obsession. What the critics of blogs are worried about is the bad kind—the obsession that drives people to write about their breakfast in excruciating detail.

Yet, as Bushkovitch's comment entailed, obsession—properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject—has its power. It forges experts. It stimulates a lifelong interest in learning (think, for a moment, about the countless examples of "retired" professors still writing influential books). The most stimulating, influential professors, even those with more traditional outlets for their work (like books and journals) overflow with views and thoughts. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas.

* * *

While on professorial blogging, I must link to this excellent piece by Jack Balkin:

Blogging, in fact, is sui generis. It blurs the traditional boundaries between scholarship, teaching, and service because it transcends the normal audiences and expectations of legal scholarship. Over the years, legal scholarship has become an increasingly self-contained community where scholars write only for each other. Bloggers have burst out of that model: they talk to many different audiences, they teach the world about law, and they perform a public service by drawing attention to the legal and policy issues of the day.

Blogging may give scholars publicity that gets their work a look. But it will not by itself generate a scholarly reputation or make a scholarly career—at least, that is, until social and technological change thoroughly reconstitute our standards of merit. In the short run, blogging won’t get you a job in the legal academy by itself any more than teaching or public service ever did. That is because the current generation of law professors made their reputations by traditional means, not by blogging. At most, blogging may give you public prominence, but in the world of the legal academy, being well-known often leads people to conclude that you are not entirely serious.

* * *

Update (13 September 2006): Arunn offers his views on professorial blogging here.

* * *

Thanks to Subrahmanya for the link to Dan Cohen's post. [In the comments section, he points to Arunn's post, which I have included in the updated post]


The MIT Technology Review has published this year's list of 35 top innovators under 35. It has's Joshua Schachter and Google Map's Paul Rademacher.

You will have to go check out the others, but I must mention this guy, simply because of the brevity of the citation. If you are intrigued, you can check out his website, and perhaps this talk [pdf] that discusses, among other things, his work on 'bacterial photography'!


Here's the Economist's summary of the Swedish economic model:

In recent years defenders of the European social model—capitalism tempered by a generous and interventionist welfare state—have taken to praising Scandinavia to the skies. The Nordic region, to go a bit wider, has the world's highest taxes and most generous welfare benefits. And yet Sweden, Finland and Denmark (Norway's oil sets it apart) have delivered strong growth and low unemployment, and rank among the world's most competitive economies. Nordic companies are strong in technology and research and development. Their health-care and educational systems are much admired. And, unlike other European countries, most Nordic states run healthy budget and current-account surpluses.

Sweden, whose 9m people make it by some way the biggest Nordic country, is a particular favourite. A year ago the Guardian, a British newspaper, said it was the most successful society the world had ever known. As if to bear this out, the Swedish economy grew at a sizzling annual rate of 5.6% in the second quarter of 2006, enough to trigger a spate of interest-rate rises by the central bank. Sweden's big companies, such as Ericsson, SKF, Telia and Volvo, are breaking export records.

Of course, its ideology makes the Economist try very hard indeed to trash this model. However, if you read between the lines (and you don't really have to try that hard!), it's quite clear that the choices facing the Swedish people are between different versions of the Welfare State; the Swedish model is in no danger of being dismantled.

Make the right move

For a senior graduate student or a post-doc who is planning a career in academics and/or research, I usually recommend Kathy Barker's book At the helm: A laboratory navigator, which has tons of practical advice on everything you will need for running a lab. [Update: In the comments area, Tabula Rasa recommends The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career.] Now, thanks to an e-mail alert from Pradeepkumar, I find that this book has some serious competition:

Based on presentations and discussions from a course developed by HHMI and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, this book is a collection of practical advice, experiences, and opinions from seasoned biomedical investigators and other professionals. Also contains an overview of the course and lessons learned.

The reference to "this book" in the quote is to this wonderful resource: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, which is available for free download. Meant for those entering a career in academics and/or research, it has great advice on all kinds of things: getting and negotiating a faculty position, mentoring, writing grants, managing your team of post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students, and even time management!

Here's an excellent quote from Enriqueta Bond (Burroughs Wellcome Fund):

"Why do we need something like a lab management course? Biomedical research today is a complex enterprise that spans multiple biological levels, requires a variety of equipment and staff, and demands success with limited funds. Each one of you is really an entrepreneur running your own small business."

[Bold emphasis added]. If you really think about it, this description applies to research in pretty much all scientific disciplines!

The list of contributors has some of the best in the business, including a few Nobel laureates, who offered their expertise in a course on "Scientific Management for the Beginning Academic Investigator" held at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for those who got research grants from HHMI and Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Considering its origins, it's not at all surprising that Making the right moves has a soft focus on the biomedical research and the US academic system. However, the topics and concerns it addresses are certainly of interest and relevance to a broader academic audience in other fields and other countries.

While at the book's website, don't forget to check out the 27-minute video of a talk by Thomas Cech, a 1989 Nobel winner in chemistry. Pradeepkumar recommended it highly, and I agree heartily with him.

Monday, September 11, 2006

History of India's strategic programs

The story of India’s strategic programmes is not well documented. Part of the reason is that protagonists do not talk. Even if they want to, they are handicapped by the Official Secrets Act that follows signatories to the grave. Given these limitations, a few defence analysts and retired officials like me have tried to describe the projects as best as we could without compromising on national security. At the best of times, it is not an easy job. At worse, it can turn into imaginings.

From this version of the history of India's strategic initiatives by B.G. Deshmukh, a former Cabinet Secretary during Rajiv Gandhi's prime ministership, and author of A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back.

Friday, September 08, 2006

How toxic are the nano-cosmetics?

Following up on my previous post on archaeo-nano-cosmetology, here's a Chemical and Engineering News report [link via Prof. Ranganathan) about the presence of nanomaterials (including fullerenes) in modern cosmetics. Just look at the marketing spiel:

These fullerene-based products are marketed as cutting-edge science, touting the antioxidant and radical-scavenging properties of C60. Zelens, for example, calls C60 its "Nobel Prize-winning ingredient."

The author, Bethany Halford, goes on to add:

Chemical common sense tells us that a Nobel Prize-winning discovery doesn't necessarily translate to a fantastic consumer product. After all, Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of radium and polonium, but we wouldn't put those in a skin cream. You can see how this might confuse the average consumer.

Do read the whole article, which does a good job of presenting what is known about the toxicology of some of the nano-entities in modern cosmetics. And what is known right now appears to tell us to avoid them until they are proven to be absolutely safe.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

When parents get pushy

Alissa Quart learned to read at three. By the time she was five, her father counted on her to offer presentations on modernist art. In elementary school, she taught her own friends to read. By seven, she had written her first novel; at 10, she was lecturing her companions on everything from film stock to astrology. She routinely read a book a day. When she was a 13-year-old high school freshman, she edited her father's writing. By 17, she had won a dozen creative-writing competitions.

A dream childhood that would handily prepare a bright youngster for the intellectual rigors of life, right? Not really, writes Quart, now 34, in her new book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child (Penguin Press). "Having been built in the fashion I was as a child — created and then deflated — has left me with a distinct feeling of failure." Quart is unflinchingly honest about her unusual childhood experience. "My father would have bristled at the notion that he was an overbearing puppet master. If I sat absolutely quietly and wrote lyrical verse about tree-tops, I was peachy. My father was hell-bent on bettering my lot — and by extension our family's lot." But, continues Quart in Hothouse Kids, "I was far too young for the Czech films and the difficult novels I was coerced to digest. My father's plan succeeded on one level, of course. I became a hothouse kid."

From this Time article. While pondering the damage pushy parents could do to their children -- even to children who are 'gifted' -- you may go through some 'pushy parents' cartoons. Or, read this poem by Philip Larkin about parents in general.

"When things get small"

This award winning program teaches viewers about nanoscience - technology at one-millionth of a millimeter through an entertaining mix of science and humor. Produced for University of California Television (UCTV) by Not Too Serious Labs, it departs from the typical science-for-television fare by using illustrative concepts that include a stadium-sized bowl of peanuts, a magic tennis ball and shrinking elephants to describe the quest to create the world's smallest magnet.

This is how the National Science Foundation describes the this 30-minute film, whose production was funded by it. The film's website is here, and that of Ivan Schuller (University of California, San Diego) is here.

Archaeo-nano-cosmetology: Quantum-dot hair dyes and nanotube eye liners

Via Prof. Ranganathan, who co-wrote a book on archaeo-metallurgy and co-organized a mega-conference on nanomaterials, we get a link to this PTI report:

Indian women for ages have been using kaajal as eye liner without knowing that it is a product of high technology. Now scientists are talking about commercialising the process.

Scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur have shown that kaajal actually contains carbon nanotubes (CNTs).

And today, via slashdot, we get a link to this story about (among other things) "an ancient dyeing process for blacking hair is a remarkable illustration of synthetic nanoscale biomineralization".

A group of researchers in France showed that lead-based chemistry, which was initiated in Egypt more than 4000 years ago, could result in the synthesis of lead sulfide (PbS, galena) nanocrystals. With a diameter of about 5 nm, the appearance of these crystals is quite similar to PbS quantum dots synthesized by modern materials science techniques.

* * *

Update (30 September 2006): Scientific American has a story with some more details (and a couple of pictures) on the ancient hair-dye:

... [T]he strands [which were soaked in the Greco-Roman formula] were shot through with lead-sulfide crystals averaging 4.8 nanometers in size--about the same as the so-called quantum dots studied by researchers today. The crystals formed strings down the length of the hair fiber. Judging from the spacing of these strings and chemical changes to the hair, the crystals apparently grow among the sulfur-rich amino acids that surround the hair's keratin microfibers ...

Trial balloon on foreign universities

In politics -- as in much else in life, I suppose -- it's important to be able to say, "I really didn't mean it that way", without losing face. One of the tested-and-proven methods is to let an officer under a minister's command talk to a bunch of reporters about the possibility of an important policy initiative. And the minister just has to watch how the message is received by the public, other politicians and, more importantly, the allies and Cabinet colleagues! This appears to me to be one of those trial balloons:

In a move that’s sure to raise alarms at the HRD ministry, the Union commerce ministry is planning to spark a fresh debate on whether education could be treated as an industry, taking into account the commercial nature of the service.

The idea, according to GK Pillai, special secretary, department of commerce, is to evolve enough consensus on opening higher education to foreign investment, even 100% FDI. Speaking on the sidelines of a CII seminar on Wednesday, Mr Pillai said that the commerce department will soon circulate a discussion paper on liberalising higher education and changing domestic regulations to attract investment in the sector.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Joel Spolsky on hiring great people

Interesting advice here (and promises more during the rest of the week):

Instead of thinking as recruiting as a “gather resumes, filter resumes” procedure, you’re going to have to think of it as a “track down the winners and make them talk to you” procedure.

I have three basic methods for how to go about this:

  1. Go to the mountain
  2. Internships
  3. Build your own community*

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Programming quotes

There are two ways to write error-free programs; only the third works.
-- Alan J. Perlis

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.
-- Pablo Picasso

There are more -- many, many more -- here. However, that compilation doesn't have my most favourite quote about programming [if you click through, you get a physics quote as a bonus!].

When a hot male turns into a hot meal, is he being a willing victim?

Carl Zimmer explores this question in this NYTimes piece. There's also an accompanying picture set with some seriously pornographic and violent content! And, check out this profile of Catherine Chalmers, the artist whose photographs are in that picture set.

The opening paragraphs set up the question that's explored in the rest of the article.

Across the eastern United States, a gruesome ritual is in full swing. The praying mantis and its relative, the Chinese mantis, are in their courtship season. A male mantis approaches a female, flapping his wings and swaying his abdomen. Leaping on her back, he begins to mate. And quite often, she tears off his head.

The female mantis devours the head of the still-mating male and then moves on to the rest of his body. “If you put a pair together and come back later, you’ll just find the wings of the male and no other evidence he was ever there,” said William Brown, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York in Fredonia.

Sexual cannibalism has fascinated biologists ever since Darwin. It is not limited to mantises, but is also found in other invertebrates, including spiders, midges and perhaps horned nudibranchs.

Biologists have debated how this behavior has evolved in these species.

Zimmer has a background story on the politics behind the evolutionary explanations. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould figure quite prominently in that fascinating story.

* * *

If you liked this stuff, then you will also like Olivia Judson's book Ask Dr. Tatiana [I have some more links here]. Here's a little nugget from the Economist review of the book:

I-Like-’Em-Headless-in-Lisbon is a praying mantis who asks Dr Tatiana if she also enjoys the thrilling mid-sex spasms of a partner who has just been decapitated; and we are introduced to a female midge who plunges her proboscis into her mates’ heads and turns their innards to a soup “which she slurps up, drinking until she’s sucked him dry…only his manhood, which breaks off inside her, betrays the fact that this was no ordinary meal.” There are several kinds of spiders, we learn further, “where there can be no doubting the females’ intention to take head, not give it.”

Affirmative action for the rich

In an interview, Golden said that he became interested in the issue of preferences for the wealthy while he was covering the judicial battles over affirmative action at the University of Michigan. “Everyone was writing about the boosts [in the admissions process] for minority applicants,” he said, but he started to realize that there were also explicit boosts for the extremely wealthy and alumni children. He was struck, Golden said, by how little attention such preferences received.

“When people have talked about preferences that aren’t based on merit, you have this lineup where the colleges and liberal groups are defending affirmative action and conservatives are attacking it and they are overlooking the elephant in the room,” he said. “Both sides have a vested interest in overlooking preferences for the wealthy,” he said, because colleges “need the money” they get from favoring the wealthy and conservatives “want their kids to get in.”

From this Inside HigherEd story by Scott Jaschik about Daniel Golden's new book The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.

The Economic Times website sucks

While writing the previous post, I had all kinds of trouble with the ET website. Specifically,

  • It is difficult to find articles on the website. For example, the Bangalore edition carried today two short, crisp, and very good columns by Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze; it also carried a few reports about educating street children, the efficacy of the mid-day meal scheme, and alternative schools (such as Bangalore's Centre for Learning). Finding these reports and columns on ET's website has been impossible. The search function on the site is atrociously dysfunctional.
  • ET doesn't seem to like Google News; I hardly find ET featured in the latter when I search for stuff -- even stuff that I'm sure was carried by the paper. Today, for example, I searched specifically for John Dreze; ET was not among the links.
  • Finally, the articles that I linked to (in my previous post) were all written by specific people. On the website, however, you will find only a few of them with the names of the authors. Even here, there's no uniformity. Kiran Karnik and Rahul Dravid get their names upfront and just below the title, while Ananthamurthy's name appears at the bottom, at the end of the article. The worst, of course, is when the author's name is completely left out! Pratap Bhanu Mehta and C.N.R. Rao belong to this elite category. Also in this category is today's Guest Editor himself: the ET website doesn't even mention Premji's name in the web page with his editorial (which, in the print edition, appeared with his signature!).

The ET website sucks. Big Time.

Azim Premji's guest editorship

Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro, guest edited today's Economic Times. While he ended up writing an insipid editorial, he has done a commendable job in another sphere: getting quite a few of our intellectuals to contribute their thoughts on education in India. Before I list here some of the noteworthy pieces, I must link first to the report card on India's education system.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Educate them to be accountable:

There are two major revolutions underway in education. First, the demand for education is not simply a policy objective; it is precipitously asserting itself at all levels of society.

C.N.R. Rao: Education: There's a need to raise the bar:

Universities should only cater to higher education, in particular, post-graduate programmes and research, and should not have innumerable affiliated colleges.

U.R. Ananthamurthy: India of the rich & Bharat of the poor:

Common schools for the rich & poor will ensure a sense of equality.

Krishna Kumar (Director, NCERT): The twain shall meet:

People who say that government schools don’t function are perhaps aware that they are making a sweeping judgement on a vast and varied system.

Shyam Benegal: Let's not forget the oral test.

Non-literate forms of learning get badly neglected as literacy begins.

Rahul Dravid: Provide avenues for different opportunities.

I was lucky to go study in institutions that gave equal emphasis to studies, co-curricular activities and sports. I think good schools and colleges must focus on the all round development of an individual.

Today we have a very competitive environment and hence what really matters is the marks one scores. It puts lot of pressure on students to score a high percentage and makes them give up every other activity they would otherwise like to pursue. This leads to one-dimensional growth which is not an ideal situation. Schools must provide avenues for students to explore different opportunities.

In addition, there's a Perspectives section on the topic of Do we need neighbourhood schools, with contributions from Sam Pitroda (Chairman, National Knowledge Commission), Anil Sadgopal (Former Dean, Delhi University) and Kanti Bajpai (Principal, The Doon School).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Frontline on Perelman

Frontline has articles on Perelman, the Poincaré conjecture, and the Fields Medal. R. Ramachandran is the author of all of them, with the one on the Poincaré conjecture being co-authored by T. Jayaraman of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Bangalore, India's research hub

Via Pradeepkumar: Frontline has a rather dry report by Parvati Menon and Ravi Sharma on the academic and research institutions in Bangalore, with additional details -- history, activities, achievements -- about a few of them.

IISc just gets a mention in the history section of the article; since it gets mega-coverage in Indian media, the reporters probably chose to focus on some of the other institutions. A more egregious omission, however, is that of a rising international star: the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Menon and Sharma don't even mention it in their report!

BTW, in what way can the National Assessment and Accreditation Centre (NAAC) be deemed to be a research institution? Its core area of activity (which it's not doing a great job of) is to visit colleges and universities, assess their capabilities and infrastructure, and give them some sort of a grade. What research does this institution do?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Increased intake at IIMs: Voices from within

In a paper [pdf] from July 2006, Prof. Ramesh Gupta (professor of finance at IIM-A) takes a critical look at the explansion plans. Insisting that the paper is not about the reservation issue, he still raises some uncomfortable questions about IIM-A's priorities. In particular, he shines a sharp spotlight on its Post-Graduate Program for Executives (PGPx):

PGPx is a new program having 61 participants. These are mostly Indians who have worked abroad as software engineers for about 4-5 years and want to do MBA to enhance their market opportunities. In a bid to internationalize the programs, IIMA decided to offer PGPx (one year executive MBA program). For this program, GMAT score (considered easier than CAT) is used for admission. Competition to get in is much less as there are about 1200 applicants for 60 seats in PGPx compared to 1.5 lakh [150,000] applicants for 250 seats in PGP. IIMA offers the cheapest program in the world with top class facilities and fully paid five week international sojourn.

IIMA charges an all inclusive fee of [Rs 800,000, about $18,000] for the program. This includes tuition fee, five weeks of fully paid immersion program, lodging and boarding, computer and library usage fee, teaching materials, placement fee, etc. A rough estimate suggests that this is a highly subsidized program costing the Institute about [Rs. 20 million] (roughly [Rs. 250,000 to 300,000] per participant) just to cover the direct costs.

There is more:

Of 80 planned apartments by June 2007, 27 have been occupied by PGPx married participants. Fully air-conditioned apartments are so big that some participants even house their maid servants to take care of their children while living on campus. A rare treat for PGPx participants only IIMA can provide.

Do read his paper. It is a real eye-opener, with all kinds of interesting information about faculty salaries, their income through consulting, and even interdisciplinary politics!

* * *

Yesterday's Hindu carried a story about the views expressed by Prof. N.S. Ramaswamy (founder Director of IIM-B):

... Prof. Ramaswamy contended that the faculty in all the IIMs were putting in just about half the number of hours of work they were supposed to put in as per a decision taken by the faculty four decades ago.

He said each IIM on an average had a 100-member strong faculty.

And, as per a decision taken by the faculty 40 years ago, they have to give 100 hours annually to the two-year post-graduate programme and other long duration programmes. In faculty hours, this adds up to 10,000 hours annually and his contention is that only half is used up.

Did someone say, "Books are dead"?

The Hindu celebrates their surprisingly healthy state with a set of short articles by book lovers. Here's a snippet from Nilanjana Roy (of Kitabkhana fame), who talks about the role of lit-blogs:

...[W]hy were people still reading — and reading about reading, at that? We had no idea. But over time, Bookslut, Galleycat, MobyLives, the Complete Review, Arts & Letters Daily, Elegant Variation, Moorish Girl — to name just a handful of urls — became powerhouses.

These litblogs did everything; some filtered the best of mainstream media writing on books, some did snarky one-paragraph posts that spared no author, publisher or critic, some did long interviews, some specialized in publishing industry news. The medium was infinitely flexible. Book discussions on punctuation or post-modernism, reviewing or Rumi, could run for months in the comments section; an accomplished blogger could link to an author's entire publication history and writings in the course of a six-line post. The readers came in droves. They wanted poetry and translations and out-of-print authors. They wanted big fat histories and slender short stories. Readers asked for sharper reviews, more intense interviews, more books, more and more and more books.

A juicy literary hoax

To be duped into printing a made-up love letter in your latest biography is bad enough. But to discover that the ersatz document is actually a very rude insult aimed specifically at you: that is a rare kind of humiliation.

Piqued? Read all about it here.

Swaminathan Aiyar: "How not to displace people"

In his column in today's ToI:

... We need a new displacement strategy for justice and equity. What are the key issues?

First, government acquisition is at the supposed market price as reflected in recorded sales. But recorded sales often understate the real price to evade stamp duty, so the market price can be a great underestimate.

Besides, if a private developer tried to acquire lots of land, he would have to pay several times the recorded price of recent transactions. Forced acquisition at the historical price is partial confiscation.

Second, land records are woefully inadequate, and fail to list people who have cultivated land for decades. So, many villagers get no compensation at all. Third, callous and corrupt officials refuse to disburse compensation without bribes.

Payments can be incomplete and highly delayed. Fourth, when entire villages are displaced, villagers lose access to local forests, streams and grazing land. They get no compensation for this.

The makeshift settlements into which they are herded often lack basic amenities, or job opportunities within walking distance. Fifth, even when compensation is paid, the sum is often frittered away by families that have never handled large sums.

They have no steady income stream, and lose their livelihood and dignity. They are transformed from owners to refugees. Sixth, the land acquired cheaply by the government is often resold at stratospheric prices to industrialists.

At Kalinganagar, land was acquired from tribals at around Rs 30,000/acre, but sold to Tata Steel at Rs 3.35 lakh/acre. Outrageous! ...

Why are we so afraid of snakes?

Lynne A. Isbell, an anthropologist at UC-Davis, offers an evolutionary explanation, according to which "snakes, as predators, may have figured prominently in the evolution of primate vision — the ability, shared by humans, apes and monkeys, to see the world in crisp, three-dimensional living color." Here's a part of the evidence:

... [T]he monkeys with the sharpest eyesight tend to be those who live in greatest proximity to venomous snakes. About 60 million years ago, primates had branched into two groups: the Old World monkeys and apes (including us) and the lemurs of Madagascar. Around the same time, venomous — as opposed to constricting — snakes appeared in Africa and Asia. (Of all the predators of modern primates, snakes were the first to appear, about 100 million years ago.)

The Old World monkeys then branched again about 35 million years ago, when some went to South America and became the New World monkeys. The Old World monkeys and apes were the ones most exposed to venomous snakes, and of the three major primate groups, the Old World monkeys and apes have the best vision.

You might chalk this up to coincidence, but what if you learned that the Malagasy lemurs have the least complex visual systems of the primates, and that venomous snakes have never lived in Madagascar? ...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

To find out who you are ...

... you ask what [you are] not. Then you are left with what you are.

That, according to Fernando Esponda, a computer scientist at Yale, is a part of Hindu philosophy. The Economist has a story (with the curious title "The non-denial of the non-self") that describes how this bit of Hindu philosophy may be used for developing reliable and well-protected databases with sensitive data:

The concept of a negative database took shape a couple of years ago, while Dr Esponda was working at the University of New Mexico with Paul Helman, another computer scientist, and Stephanie Forrest, an expert on modelling the human immune system. The important qualification concerns that word “everything”. In practice, that means everything in a particular set of things.

What interested Dr Esponda was how the immune system represents information. Here, “everything” is the set of possible biological molecules, notably proteins. The immune system is interesting, because it protects its owner from pathogens without needing to know what a pathogen will look like. Instead, it relies on a negative database to tell it what to destroy. It learns early on which biological molecules are “self”, in the sense that they are routine parts of the body it is protecting. Whenever it meets one that is “not self” and thus likely to be part of a pathogen, it destroys it. In Hempel's terms, this can be expressed as “all non-good agents [pathogens] are non-self”.

Blogger upgrade ...

Though I upgraded to the new, improved Blogger a while ago, I didn't change the blog layout (aka template), simply because I needed more information about how to change things in the new template/layout. After all, I didn't want to mess up the nifty little 'sidebar thingy' that I had in so many old posts!

Sidebar Thingy!

Just this morning, thanks to Slashdot, I found, over at Banana Stew, all the information I needed. It's nice to know that, after choosing your new layout (which is highly customizable), Blogger allows you access to the innards (aka the HTML code) of your template for you to mess around with modify.

So, I now have an all new, totally radical, really cool, absolutely spiffy Blogger layout! I can add labels, too ...

Come on in, and check it out!

Season of birth, soccer, childhood intelligence

First, from the Freakonomics guys:

If you were to examine the birth certificates of every soccer player in next month's World Cup tournament, you would most likely find a noteworthy quirk: elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months. If you then examined the European national youth teams that feed the World Cup and professional ranks, you would find this quirk to be even more pronounced. On recent English teams, for instance, half of the elite teenage soccer players were born in January, February or March, with the other half spread out over the remaining 9 months. In Germany, 52 elite youth players were born in the first three months of the year, with just 4 players born in the last three.

Next, we have the BPS Digest folks, with another interesting correlation:

Countless studies have found that children’s intelligence appears to be related to the time of year they were born in. ... Reading ability at age 9 and arithmetic ability at age 11 were both related to season of birth (children born in late Winter or Spring performed better) ...

The explanation for the phenomenon is quite interesting. Let's listen to the Freakonomics duo:

Since youth sports are organized by age bracket, teams inevitably have a cutoff birth date. In the European youth soccer leagues, the cutoff date is Dec. 31. So when a coach is assessing two players in the same age bracket, one who happened to have been born in January and the other in December, the player born in January is likely to be bigger, stronger, more mature. Guess which player the coach is more likely to pick? He may be mistaking maturity for ability, but he is making his selection nonetheless. And once chosen, those January-born players are the ones who, year after year, receive the training, the deliberate practice and the feedback — to say nothing of the accompanying self-esteem — that will turn them into elites.

In his excellent Scientific American article on The Expert Mind, Philip Ross concurs:

... [S]uccess builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.

Okay, that's about expertise in soccer. How about childhood intelligence? Why did Aberdeen children born in winter and spring months do better in reading and arithmetic tests? Here's the BPS Digest again:

... [S]eason of birth was only related to later intelligence because it affected the age children started school, with those who started school younger or older than the average tending to score less well on later intelligence tests.

Hmmm, being older gives you an edge in soccer (and we seem to have an explanation for it). But it seems to be of no help in intelligence tests; what might be the explanation for this?

Dean Dad on strategic planning

Among other things, he says:

In academia, of course, tenure (and chronic cash-poverty) makes setting incentives uniquely difficult. But that's no reason not to try. Even in a tenured and unionized setting, I've found that some people will respond to simple and clear messages, especially when the few goodies that are available are lined up accordingly. (Most won't, of course, and some take a perverse pleasure in using their bulletproof status to claim the moral high ground against any change whatsoever. I can understand loafing, but claiming the moral high ground while loafing still pisses me off. Sigh.) ... [Bold emphasis added]

It reminded me of Richard Feynman's caustic remark -- in his book Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman -- about some of the people he encountered in an 'interdisciplinary' conference:

There were a lot of fools at that conference -- pompous fools -- and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools--guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus--THAT I CANNOUT STAND!

Friday, September 01, 2006

NYTimes on India's manufacturing boom

For decades, India had followed a route to economic development strikingly different from that of countries like Japan, South Korea or China. While its Asian rivals placed their bets on manufacturing and exports, India focused on its domestic economy and grew more slowly with an emphasis on services.

But all that is starting to change.

India's annual growth in manufacturing output, at 9 percent and accelerating, is close to catching growth in services, at 10 percent. Exports of manufactured goods to the United States are now rising faster in percentage terms than China's, although from a much smaller base. More than two-thirds of foreign investment in the last year has gone into manufacturing in India, not services.

The story, by Keith Bradsher, is here.