Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Funding individuals vs. funding institutions

In the early nineties, a huge debate raged in the US for several years about the desirability of funding mega-science projects such as the superconducting supercollider (SSC). The alternative vision proposed by the opponents of SSC (whose cost was originally pegged at $4 billion, but ballooned later to an estimated $12 billion) was "small science" -- a lot of projects, each costing small amounts of money. The debate went on until the government pulled the plug on the SSC -- the quintessential "big science" project.

Here's a similar question: should funding for academic research be made to individuals (or small groups of individuals), or should a block grant be made to departments (or, gulp, to institutions)? Many of us seem to -- rather intuitively -- vote for funding individuals. But why? What arguments would you give?

On the other hand, you might recall a certain institution -- whose name shall not be mentioned here! -- was lavished with a huge grant two budgets ago. What would be the arguments for such institutional grants? In other words, what are the factors that might tip the balance in their favour?

Evidently, these are the extremes along a continuum of options. I'm just trying to get a sense of the factors that should be considered before making a choice.

[A quick aside: There is some support for funding individuals in this Inside HigherEd story on funding made by US based organizations such as the Ford Foundation to researchers in post-Soviet Union Russia. Be careful though; because US funds seem to have aimed not just at academic research, but also at "large scale societal changes"].

Innovation through prizes

In an interesting coincidence, the Wall Street Journal and NYTimes covered this idea. Here's David Wessell in WSJ:

InnoCentive, a company spun off six years ago by drug maker Eli Lilly, charges clients ("seekers") to broadcast scientific problems on a Web site where scientists ("solvers") are offered cash -- usually less than $100,000 -- for solutions; more than 50 challenges are now pending (see the site). Netflix, the mail-order movie company, is offering $1 million for an algorithm that does 10% better than its current system for predicting whether a customer will enjoy a movie, based on how much he or she liked or disliked other movies. ...

In the NYTimes David Leonhardt covers the Netflix contest in greater detail:

Within days, many of the top people in a field known as machine learning were downloading the 100 million movie ratings Netflix had made public. The experts have since been locked in a Darwinian competition to build a better Cinematch, with the latest results posted on a leader board at Netflix’s Web site.

Last week, I called Geoffrey Hinton, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto whose team had been in first place when I last checked. But by the time I reached him, his team had been bumped down to second by a Hungarian team.

Along the way, Leonhardt quotes Robin Hanson on the difference between prizes and just plain old grants:

Eventually, though, prizes began to be replaced by grants that awarded money upfront. Some of this was for good reason. As science became more advanced, scientists often needed to buy expensive equipment and hire a staff before having any chance of making a discovery.

But grants also became popular for a less worthy reason: they made life easier for the government bureaucrats who oversaw them and for the scientists who received them. Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University who has studied the history of prizes, points out that they create a lot of uncertainty — about who will receive money and when a government will have to pay it. Grants, on the other hand, allow a patron (and the scientists advising that patron) to choose who gets the money. “Bureaucracies like a steady flow of money, not uncertainty,” said Mr. Hanson, who worked as a physicist at NASA before becoming an economist. “But prizes are often more effective if what you want is scientific progress.”


Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.
-- Rex Stout.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Book review: The IITs -- Slumping or Soaring?

The IIT system is under massive strain: its autonomy is being eroded; its physical infrastructure is wearing thin; laboratories are getting outdated; faculty is depleting (sic); and the competition for admission is pushing aspirants into an unhealthy grind. IITs fortunately have a major strength in their alumni -- they want to see their alma mater excel.

That's from the back cover of The IITs: Slumping or Soaring?   by Prof. Shashi K. Gulhati who served on the faculty of IIT-Delhi for forty years. [Thanks to Narasimhan for alerting me about this book]

The premise for Gulhati's book is familiar. Having succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in their core endeavour -- teaching top Indian students -- the IITs are being asked by a demanding nation and an even more demanding family of alumni to elevate themselves to a higher realm: excellence in research. But there are several obstacles. According to Gulhati, the obstacles are (p. 97): 'not-very-bright' graduate students, a dwindling faculty, inadequate infrastructure and erosion of autonomy.

Earlier, he had identified the government -- represented by the Joint Secretary in the HRD Ministry in charge of the IITs! -- as the chief villain responsible for the present (and allegedly sorry) state of the IITs [Gulhati hates the government so much that he does not credit it with creating the IITs; in the very first chapter (p. 6), he says, "the IITs were established with aid from abroad"!]. So, the solution he suggests involves making the government a minority share-holder (yes, you read it right: share-holder), with the IITs tapping "other sources" for funds. Though he doesn't specify who these other sources might be, it doesn't take much to guess that they are probably people like Kanwal Rekhi, a man who "once offered to buy out the IITs from the government" (p. 81).

His preferred solution fits in well with his diagnosis. But is his diagnosis correct? In other words, is the government really -- and solely -- responsible for the ills of the IITs? While criticizing and ridiculing the government's real and imagined follies, Gulhati doesn't seem to have given much thought to what the IITs themselves could have done -- but failed to do -- to improve their lot.

For example, if research was identified as a major new thrust area for the institution, what prevented the IITs from going out and getting research grants? Similarly, when faculty recruitment became a key issue, who prevented the IITs from raising resources for providing new recruits with generous start-up grants, travel grants, better administrative support, larger and better lab space, and lower course load? Is it fair to blame the Joint Secretary in MHRD for the IITs' inaction on these issues?

In Gulhati's story, there once was a golden era, and it was in their first two decades of the IITs' existence. There they were: brand new institutions, a governance structure that gave them unprecedented autonomy, young and idealistic faculty, and very bright students. The rest of the story is one of steady deterioration -- a process in which the government played a huge role, and the IITs played a supporting role as passive, helpless victims. While it makes for gripping narrative, this story has very little basis. For example, in terms of research, the IITs are in a far better position now than they were in the 'golden age' when most of what they did was UG teaching [You don't have to take my word for it; Gulhati himself quotes some prominent alumni on this point].

Sadly, Gulhati's book fails in its chief task, which is an honest, realistic and coherent appraisal of the present state of India's flagship institutions. It makes no effort to imagine multiple alternatives for the future of the IITs. It also makes no effort to convince us that its proposal will work well; we are just asked to accept that this is the best solution. Coming from an engineer -- who also headed the public sector Educational Consultants India Limited -- this book is deeply disappointing.

BBC on the boom in Bengalooru

Not just the boom, but also the kinds of blues (problems) it creates. It seems to be a part of an ongoing series; the next installment is supposed to arrive tomorrow. Take a look.

Kaushik Basu on higher ed in India

In this ToI op-ed:

There are many things that will need to be done, but here are a few pointed suggestions. First, we have to facilitate the setting up of private universities and collaborative efforts between Indian and foreign universities.

Of course, these universities even the top ones will come mainly to use their franchise and make money. But that is fine. Life is not a zero-sum game; there can be benefits for both sides.

Second, we have to permit top researchers to hold joint appointments, like doing one semester in India and one abroad. Israel has built up a world-class university system despite paying low salaries since many of its professors earn their 'annual income' during the one semester they teach in the US.

Third, we have to reconcile that the system of 'star salaries' whereby a few star professors in every field are allowed to command salaries which are several folds above the average is inevitable. I do not recommend this with glee.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Google, book search, copyright laws

Jeffrey Toobin has a very good article in the New Yorker about Google's Book Search project. One part of the project is about digitizing books in the university libraries of Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford and others. It has a similar program for new books which are already in digital form. Interestingly, publishers who are collaborating with Google on new books are suing the company over its library project! The US copyright law, which will have to be used for settling this dispute, is an ambiguous mess. Toobin sorts out the issues for us, and indicates that an out-of-court settlement is very likely. Here's the bottomline for the consumers:

But a settlement that serves the parties’ interests does not necessarily benefit the public. “It’s clearly in both sides’ interest to settle,” Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, said. “Businesses in Internet time can’t wait around for years for lawsuits to be resolved. Google wants to be able to get this done, and get permission to resume scanning copyrighted material at all the libraries. For the publishers, if Google gives them anything at all, it creates a practical precedent, if not a legal precedent, that no one has the right to scan this material without their consent. That’s a win for them. The problem is that even though a settlement would be good for Google and good for the publishers, it would be bad for everyone else.” [...]

... [A] settlement could insulate Google from competitors, which would be especially troubling, because the company has already proved that when it comes to searches it is not infallible. “Google didn’t get video search right—YouTube did,” Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, said. (Google solved that problem by buying YouTube last year for $1.6 billion.) “Google didn’t get blog search right— did,” Wu went on. “So maybe Google won’t get book search right. But if they settle the case with the publishers and create huge barriers to newcomers in the market there won’t be any competition. That’s the greatest danger here.”

Great to Not-Even-Good!

Or, "Top 10 delusions of authors who dish out management fiction wisdom".

Check this out:

Of 35 "Excellent" companies studied in In Search of Excellence, 30 declined in profitability over the 5 years after the authors' study ended in 1979, Rosenzweig found. Similarly, of 17 of the 18 "Visionary" companies studied in Built to Last, only 8 outperformed the S&P 500 market average for the 5 years after the authors' study ended in 1990.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

What leads to high business performance? Consultants and journalists have advanced many answers to this question, both in print and from the lectern. But most of those answers are little more than educated guesses. In fact, most of them are probably bunk.

That, in a nutshell, is the message of a provocative new book, The Halo Effect (Free Press, February 2007). Written by Phil Rosenzweig, the book debunks that staple of the best-seller list, the corporate success story. According to Rosenzweig, popular and even academic studies of successful companies are commonly shaped by one or more of nine "delusions," which trump the basics of research and logic

'IIT' Saraswati temple

After the temple for 'Visa' Venkateswara, can one for 'IIT' Saraswati be far behind? Not surprisingly, this one is at Kota, Rajasthan, home to coaching centres that train nearly 50,000 students to crack the IITs' Joint Entrance Exam.

He whittled down his own empire!

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh praises his Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram at the launch of the latter's book A View From the Outside: Why Good Economics Works for Everyone:

Even the most ardent of reformers find it difficult to obliterate their own empires of power and patronage. But that is what Chidambaram did as Commerce Minister. I think he was one of the few ministers who presided over the shrinking of his own ministry, disproving the usual notions of political economy that all politicians and bureaucrats aim to expand their personal empires! He closed down sections of the ministry that had been rendered redundant by the trade and industrial policy changes we had initiated.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

In which I talk about my blog ...

The January issue of The Chronicle, the monthly newsletter of IT-BHU alumni network, carries an interview with yours truly. It's largely about my blog avatar, and I indulge in a bit of BHU nostalgia near the end. The interview was conducted through e-mail by Yogesh, a fellow alumnus of IT-BHU, a very active member of community, and a frequent commenter here.

Thanks, Yogesh!

Death of vultures

Do read this Smithsonian story by Susan McGrath on the sudden and rapid decline in the vulture population in South Asia [link via Guru].

A part of it is a gripping detective story of how scientists identified the deadly killer that decimated almost 90 percent of vultures within a short span of a couple of decades. The killer turns out to be Diclofenac -- a drug used widely for treating livestock. Last year, India, Pakistan and Nepal imposed a ban on this drug.

Another part of the Smithsonian story is about the dedication of scientists and conservation activists, who are trying to breed these vultures in captivity. A third part of it is about the horrors that could be unleashed by the demise of vultures:

Diclofenac doesn't hurt the dogs. (No one knows yet why the drug kills birds but not mammals.) At the dump, 50 or 60 yellow-brown dogs tear at carcasses. Under every mesquite bush, sated dogs lie curled, asleep. "Yes, the dogs are many now that the long-necked vultures are gone," a skinner says. India doesn't cull dogs because of Hindu and Buddhist prohibitions on taking life. In the past, starvation and disease kept dogs in check. With vultures so vastly reduced in number, dogs have more than enough to eat; their population increased from 22 million in 1992 to 29 million in 2003, the last year for which figures are available. India's official human death toll from rabies is the world's highest—30,000 deaths annually, two-thirds of them caused by dog bites. In recent years, the government has made rabies vaccines more widely available in rural areas, but rabies deaths aren't decreasing at the rate they should be because the unvaccinated dog population is growing, according to rabies experts.

Public health officials say it's likely that India's rat population is growing too, sharing the bounty of abandoned carcasses with feral dogs, and raising the probability of outbreaks of bubonic plague and other rodent-transmitted human diseases. Livestock diseases may increase too. Vultures are resistant to anthrax, brucellosis and other livestock diseases, and helped control them by consuming contaminated flesh, thus removing reservoirs of infectious organisms. Some municipalities are now resorting to burying or burning carcasses, expending precious land, firewood and fossil fuels to replace what Rahmani calls "the beautiful system nature gave us."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Three facets of Milton Friedman

NYTimes columnist and Princeton Economist Paul Krugman paints a rather unflattering portrait of Milton Friedman who passed away recently:

Milton Friedman played three roles in the intellectual life of the twentieth century. There was Friedman the economist's economist, who wrote technical, more or less apolitical analyses of consumer behavior and inflation. There was Friedman the policy entrepreneur, who spent decades campaigning on behalf of the policy known as monetarism—finally seeing the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England adopt his doctrine at the end of the 1970s, only to abandon it as unworkable a few years later. Finally, there was Friedman the ideologue, the great popularizer of free-market doctrine.

Did the same man play all these roles? Yes and no. All three roles were informed by Friedman's faith in the classical verities of free-market economics. Moreover, Friedman's effectiveness as a popularizer and propagandist rested in part on his well-deserved reputation as a profound economic theorist. But there's an important difference between the rigor of his work as a professional economist and the looser, sometimes questionable logic of his pronouncements as a public intellectual. While Friedman's theoretical work is universally admired by professional economists, there's much more ambivalence about his policy pronouncements and especially his popularizing. And it must be said that there were some serious questions about his intellectual honesty when he was speaking to the mass public.

This passage, however, is puzzling:

... A decade ago it was common to cite the success of the Chilean economy, where Augusto Pinochet's Chicago-educated advisers turned to free-market policies after Pinochet seized power in 1973, as proof that Friedman-inspired policies showed the path to successful economic development. But although other Latin nations, from Mexico to Argentina, have followed Chile's lead in freeing up trade, privatizing industries, and deregulating, Chile's success story has not been replicated.

Huh? Chile under Pinochet? A success story? That cannot be quite correct, can it?

No more googlebombs?

Until recently, searching for miserable failure on Google took you to the biography of George W. Bush. Google has announced that this is no longer the case; it has tweaked the algorithm.

If you try that search query now, it takes you only to stories and articles that connect 'miserable failure' and the presidential bio!

Some progress ...

A tale of two professional societies

The Nature story on science journal publishers' recent dance with an aggressive PR 'pit bull' is picked up by the Scientific American, which has a detailed report on open access publishing. I found it interesting that there is such a huge contrast between the views of the American Chemical Society (publisher of over 30 journals) and those of the American Physiological Society (publisher of 14 journals).

First, the American Chemical Society:

These efforts [that would require any published paper derived from U.S.-government-backed research to be published online within six months] have been dubbed "socialized science," by Rudy Baum, editor in chief of the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Chemical and Engineering News. "Open access, in fact, equates with socialized science," he wrote in a 2004 editorial. "I find it incredible that a Republican Administration would institute a policy that will have the long-term effect of shifting responsibility for communicating scientific research and maintaining the archive of science, technology, and medical (STM) literature from the private sector to the federal government."

In fact, the ACS paid lobbying firm Hicks Partners LLC at least $100,000 in 2005 to try to persuade congressional members, NIH, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that a "PubChem Project" would be a bad idea, according to public lobbying disclosures, and paid an additional $180,000 to the Wexler & Walker Public Policy Association to promote the "use of commercial database." It also spent a chunk of its 2005 $280,000 internal lobbying budget as well as part of its $270,000 lobbying budget last year to push the issue, according to disclosure documents.

Now, the American Physiological Society:

... Martin Frank, executive director of the Amercian Physiological Society (APS), which publishes 14 journals, including the American Journal of Physiology since 1898, [says] "We consider ourselves a delayed open access journal."

The APS makes all of its content free after 12 months or asks authors to pay for immediate free publication online, an opportunity 18 percent of authors have taken, Frank says. Frank also leads the Washington D.C. Principles for Free Access to Science group, a coalition of not-for-profit publishers advocating such a middle way. "The author pays business model has yet to be demonstrated to be viable," he notes. "Something can only be eclipsed if something else has been demonstrated that is better than it."

"I agree with public access, but it doesn't have to be immediate," he adds. "If it's immediate, it has to be paid for."


The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.
-- George Bernard Shaw

America's most expensive colleges

Forbes has the story:

Nationwide, the median tuition at a four-year school was $7,490 for the 2006-07 academic year, a 2.3 percent increase over a year ago, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But that includes many state-run universities, where in-state residents are charged a pittance. The median tuition at private schools was more than twice that amount, weighing in at $15,900, up 3.4 percent over a year ago. And that figure doesn't come close to the nation's most expensive colleges — 121 of them charged more than $30,000 this past year. Add room and board and other assorted fees, and the bill climbs beyond $40,000.

The Forbes story poses the issue by treating "college education" as a product which, unlike the industrially manufactured products, keeps going up in price:

At the same time tuition has been soaring, technology-driven product improvements have made things not only better, but cheaper. Take Apple's iPod, which lets today's teenagers download any song for 99 cents — one-quarter of the price (in constant dollars) that kids in 1975 paid for a 45 rpm vinyl record. And that's without factoring in the huge quality improvements that have removed the snap, crackle and pop noise featured as regular background fare on vinyl records.

But in the academic world, rules of efficiency don't generally apply. ...

This efficiency argument is certainly valid from the point of view of students who see themselves as consumers of college education. But it misses what I think is a key feature, which becomes clearer when you look at higher ed from the producers' side: the set of universities is more like a sports league. I would guess the revenues of the National Football League (for example) have been growing far faster than inflation; and so have the revenues of the university system.

There are other parallels, too. The number of universities is limited. New entrants have a reputational entry barrier. Competition for stars is intense; and so is the rush for gleaming buildings, swanky student amenities, huge stadiums and swimming pools, .... However, unlike sports leagues (which have been using every new mass communication technology to reach more people in more ways), universities just can't increase the number of eye-balls per player professor; nor do they have advertisers' support! From this angle, the faster-than-inflation rise in college expenses doesn't look all that surprising to me.

However, the really important question is: does this way of explaining the problem of fast-rising tuition costs lead to some way solving it? I don't know.

Friday, January 26, 2007

National Awards -- 2007

Happy Republic Day!

The National Awards were announced earlier today. Those for science, engineering and medicine are arguably the least politicized. Let's take a look:

Padma Vibhushan:
Balu Sankaran (Medicine)
E.C.G. Sudarshan (S&E) (USA)

Padma Bhushan:
Gurcharan Singh Kalkat (Science)
Manju Sharma (S&E)
Prithipal Singh Maini (Medicine)
Saroj Ghose (S&E)
Shiv Kumar Sarin (Medicine)
Vaidya Shriram Sharma (Medicine)
Hakim Syed Mohammad Sharfuddin Quadri (Medicine)
Vilayanur Ramachandaran (S&E) (USA)

Padma Shri:
Ananda M Chakrabarty (S&E)
Anoop Misra (Medicine)
Ashok Kumar Hemal (Medicine)
Atul Kumar (Medicine)
B Paul Thaliath (Medicine)
Balbir Singh (Medicine)
Baldev Raj (S&E)
Dilip K Biswas (S&E)
Harpinder Singh Chawla (Medicine)
K R Palaniswamy (Medicine)
Kharak Singh Valdiya (Engineering)
Kiran Karnik (S&E)
Mahipal S Sachdev (Medicine)
Manjunath Cholenahally Nanjappa (Medicine)
Mayilvahanan Natarajan (Medicine)
Mohsin Wali (Medicine)
Narmada Prasad Gupta (Medicine)
Perumalsamy Namperumalsamy (Medicine)
Ravi Narayan Bastia (S&E)
Sheo Bhagwan Tibrewal (Medicine)
Sudhir Kumar Sopory (S&E)
Thanu Padmanabhan (S&E)
T Kochandy Alex (S&E)

Well, there you have it: 2 Padma Vibhushans, 8 Padma Bhushans and 23 Padma Shris. Last year, these numbers were 4, 6 and 17, respectively.

Among the others, I could recognize a few academics: Jeffrey Sachs, T. N. Srinivasan, Mushirul Hassan, Bakul Dholakia. I found the award to Tarla Dalal (for cookery) a little odd.

* * *

There are several things that point to a continuing decline in the prestige associated with these awards [a welcome trend, if you ask me!]. First, under normal circumstances, the award announcement should have been out last night, well in time for the morning newspapers on the Republic Day. Something silly seems to have happened yesterday, so our newspapers had only sketchy information this morning. Evidently, getting all the approvals done on time was not a priority.

Second, the government of a nation of over a billion people could not find anyone who is worthy of its highest civilian honour: the Bharat Ratna. Can you believe that this is the third non-Bharat-Ratna year in a row? I wonder what the government's trying to signal here [incompetence? indifference? stupidity?].

And, finally, within a day after the announcement, at least one recepient has already turned down his Padma Shri award, calling it "unconstitutional". Again, someone has failed to do his/her home work.

Oh, well. Awards aren't complete without such interesting twists, are they?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tricks our minds play ...

The doctors' edition. A fabulously written essay about the kinds of mistakes doctors make. We should be glad that doctors are analyzing these errors systematically. The article itself is by a doctor: Jerome Groopman, who also uses one of his own errors as an example.

While on the subject of doctors, here's a question: "How much is prevention really worth?"

This week in Nature

Two interesting pieces (and both are for free access). The first is a new feature called "Connections", an essay series for exploring connections -- hidden and not so hidden -- among disciplines. The first essay in the series, by Nigel Goldenfeld and Carl Woese, is about biology:

This is an extraordinary time for biology, because the perspective we have indicated places biology within a context that must necessarily engage other disciplines more strongly aware of the importance of collective phenomena. Questions suggested by the generic energy, information and gene flows to which we have alluded will probably require resolution in the spirit of statistical mechanics and dynamical systems theory. In time, the current approach of post-hoc modelling will be replaced by interplay between quantitative prediction and experimental test, nowadays more characteristic of the physical sciences.

The second is an exposé by Jim Giles on what a worried bunch of science journal publishers would stoop to. What are they worried about? Open access publishing. What did they do? Consult a public relations 'pit bull' whose earlier clients included Jeffrey Skilling of Enron (who is serving a 24-year jail term now) and ExxonMobil:

The consultant [Eric Dezenhall] advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles".

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000–500,000.

Two interesting things from the article. First, among the publishers that Eric Dezenhall advised is the American Chemical Society, which has been anti-open access right from the beginning. And second, here's a 'definition' of censorship according to its vice-president:

... On the censorship message, he [Brian Crawford, a senior vice-president at the American Chemical Society] adds: "When any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity's interests."

Over at the excellent Open Access News blog, Peter Suber comments on this story, and covers some of the bloggers' reactions to this story.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Psychology of penalty kicks

An academic paper looks at the statistics of penalty shoot-outs, and concludes that the psychological pressure plays a pretty prominent role. Before you go "D'oh!", read this summary which discusses some of the implications of this finding:

For the first kick, when the pressure is relatively low, an average of 87% of kicks were successful. But the rates of success then start to drop, down to 73% for a fourth shot, when the pressure is often higher. The success rates could be partly influenced by coaches picking their best players to shoot at certain times. But that can't account for all the difference, Jordet says.

The results are even more dramatic for the highest-pressure situations. When missing a kick means defeat for the entire team, the success rate plummets to 52%. But when a successful kick guarantees a win, 93% of attempts go in.

Effect of spam on stock prices ...

Via Slashdot: An academic paper (titled Spam Works: Evidence from Stock Touts and Corresponding Market Activity)  looks at the effect of spam mails touting certain stocks on the said stocks' prices. Here's a key quote from the the abstract:

... [W]e find that stocks experience a significantly positive return on days prior to heavy touting via spam. Volume of trading responds positively and significantly to heavy touting. For a stock that is touted at some point during our sample period, the probability of it being the most actively traded stock in our sample jumps from 4% on a day when there is no touting activity to 70% on a day when there is touting activity. Returns in the days following touting are significantly negative.

An alternative title for this post could have been "Market Failure in Everything" (stolen from Mark Thoma, who has a label/category called Market Failure).

The Botswana model

Here's an interesting piece about the Botswana success story and its replicability [link via Brad DeLong]. It summarizes a speech given by Festus Mogae, President of Botswana, at the Center for Global Development:

1. How did Botswana avoid 'resource curse' and use its diamond revenue to spark sustained growth?

The president noted that his predecessor, Seretse Khama, transferred rights to subsoil diamonds away from Khama’s own tribe -- the Bangwato -- to the state. Crucially, Khama did this before the diamond revenues began to flood in; it is much easier to redistribute hypothetical income than actual income. President Mogae also mentioned the skill of the team that negotiated with De Beers, plus their prescient decision to reinvest some of their royalty revenue back into De Beers -- thus turning Botswana's diamonds into a triple payday of royalties (50%), corporate taxes, and dividends. Economists have noted the importance of centuries-old political institutions in shaping the transparent governance that ensures those revenues really do end up in the Treasury. Both this and the president's above point about timing, unfortunately, call into question the simple replicability of a "Botswana model" elsewhere. The president said little to allay such doubts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A less expensive Mohandas?

Guru points us to Mukund Padmanabhan's review of Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of his grandfather, Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi. The book seems very interesting, and I guess I will eventually get to it. However, this post is not about the book. It's about the price.

* * *

Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian -- which sold for about Rs. 600 in hardback -- became a minor bestseller after its paperback version was issued at under Rs. 300. It was a lesson well learnt: his following book -- Identity and Violence in its hard cover edition -- had a sub-300 rupee price tag! And of course, Rupa showed the true power of the bottom of the pyramid when it priced Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone under Rs. 100. This novel went on to become a mega best-seller (by Indian standards).

Some pioneers have gone farther, and their tales are worth repeating. Cory Doctorow has made all his sci-fi novels freely downloadable, though the dead-tree versions are also available for anyone to buy. Even in the highly lucrative textbook segment (undergraduate econ books sell for more than 100 dollars each!), Bruce Eckel has made available all his books on programming online; he too has dead-tree versions (and they sell very well too!).

James Boyle has a nice article (it appears to be the first in a series) exploring the new internet-driven culture that encourages copying:

Yochai Benkler is a prominent academic. His widely praised book about the network economy, The Wealth of Networks, was published by Yale Press – a publisher not known for its radicalism. Yet with his publisher’s approval Benkler’s book is available for free online under a Creative Commons license. Instead of paying $40 one can simply download the book. Its sales are reportedly in the top rank of academic books. Benkler is delighted with the additional 20,000 readers who have downloaded it.

Benkler is following in the footsteps of Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and author of Free Culture. Lessig’s work has been central to the practice of making books available for free online under licenses that make it legal for readers to copy, print and share them with others. He stopped counting downloads of his own work once the count hit 500,000. Yet his mass-market books continue to sell well.

Doctorow has a great quote in this article:

My biggest fear as an author isn’t illicit copying, it is obscurity.

* * *

I just wish Rajmohan Gandhi knew of these possibilities. At Rs. 650, his Mohandas is unlikely to reach a wider audience beyond the history/literature circles. And that would be such a pity! The message of the Mahatma deserves better.

While I would go so far as to suggest that Mohandas be freely downloadable, I realize that it is too late. Let's hope that the paperback will be priced at below the psychological barrier of Rs. 200.

Delaying gratification vs. succumbing to it

Proponents of Emotional Intelligence -- and in particular, deferred or delayed gratification, one of its key components -- love to cite this study:

The marshmallow experiment is a famous test of this concept conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University and discussed by Daniel Goleman in his popular work. In the 1960s a group of four-year olds were tested by being given a marshmallow and promised another, if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. [Wikipedia entry]

If you don't care much for improved SAT scores, and are just interested in improved prosperity (aka more money), you should read this post by Falstaff who cites an Atlantic Monthly article suggesting a much simpler alternative:

Drinking may impair your motor skills and romantic judgment, but—if you’re a man, at least—it can fatten your wallet, two new studies suggest. In the first, a pair of health economists found that American males who drank heavily when they were tenth-graders in 1990 earned more money in 2000, on average, than their peers who were teetotalers as teens. (The researchers found no such link for women.) Meanwhile, a study from the libertarian Reason Foundation reports that self-described drinkers (male and female) earn 10 percent to 14 percent more than nondrinkers. Drinking, the authors argue, may help build the kinds of social networks that lead to workplace success. The Reason study also finds that men who frequent bars at least once a month earn a further 7 percent wage boost. For women, however, regular barhopping has no discernible effect—on earnings, anyway.

Of course, it's too late for me -- and, going by the demographics of this blog's commenters, you! -- to act on these findings!

Monday, January 22, 2007

UK-India Education and Research Initiative

During Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to India sometime ago (2005?), he announced a new program to promote India-UK collaboration. This program now goes under the name of UK-India Education and Research Initiative. A research project aimed at "developing alloys for use in greener aircraft engines" won one of UKIERI' Major Awards. Prof. U. Ramamurty (Ram), a colleague and friend of mine, is one of the lead researchers in this project,. Here he is, with Chancellor Gordon Brown! (Congrats, Ram!)

The Imperial College, where Ram's collaborator Dr. David Dye is working, has a press release with the above picture.

Big day for ISRO

Sidebar: This story has now been slashdotted. Someone pointed to this Wikipedia entry on atmospheric reentry; it is very good.

Around 9:30 this morning, the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE) satellite made a safe 'splashing' somewhere in the Bay of Bengal [Update: ISRO's press release is here]. And with that, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has taken yet another big step towards an important capability: sending a module up, getting a bunch of things done inside this module up in space, and guiding it to a safe-splashing site for recovery. All of these tricky steps required development of critical technologies, and it's a big day for ISRO.

It's also a big day for Prof. Kamanio Chattopadhyay, Chairman of the Department of Materials Engineering at IISc. Yes, he coordinated a couple of scientific experiments that went on under microgravity conditions -- while the SRE capsule was in a free fall over the last ten days or so. [In today's Hindu, Gopal Raj has an article on these experiments.]

Kamanio told me about the long and tortuous journey that culminated in this morning's successful recovery of the SRE capsule from the Bay of Bengal. His own involvement started in the late seventies, when he accompanied his Ph.D. thesis advisor Prof. Ramachandra Rao (who was then at IT-BHU) to a meeting organized by Prof. S. Ramaseshan to brainstorm microgravity research. This round of efforts led to solidification experiments designed by Prof. Rao and conducted by Rakesh Sharma -- the first Indian in space -- aboard the Salyut 7 space station in 1984. I still remember -- as an undergrad at BHU -- all the excitement caused by the 'Rakesh Sharma experiments', because the brain behind them -- Prof. Rao -- was 'one of us' in the Department of Metallurgical Engineering.

[A quick aside, with this quote from Wikipedia: "In a famous incident, he was asked by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi how India looked from the space and he replied, Saare Jahan Se Achcha, (translates to better than all the world) which was from the first line of a famous poem by Muhammad Iqbal."]

A few years later, another team was put together to plan microgravity research -- this time on ISRO's own vehicles. After an initial flurry of activity, these plans didn't go anywhere because of the financial crunch of the early nineties. The ideas were revived in late nineties, some of them were firmed up in 2005, and implemented last fortnight. A bigger, better and fancier mission is planned for 2008.

Just a few words about some of the challenges posed by the design of the SRE capsule. On the inside, the experimental payload needed to be small -- some forty kilograms for all the experiments put together (including a tiny furnace)! The choice of material was constrained by the maximum temperature that Kamanio's team could work with -- about 500 degrees Celsius. As for the capsule's outside, an important achievement from a materials viewpoint is the development of heat shield tiles which protect the SRE capsule from the intense heat generated by friction between the capsule the earth's atmosphere.

All in all, the SRE capability is yet another milestone for ISRO, and I'm sure everyone there is proud of pulling it off.

Congratulations, ISRO!

* * *

Kamanio also told me about the experiment he directed with immense help from S.C. Sharma, an engineer at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre at Thiruvananthapuram. It is on the growth of quasicrystals in an alloy containing gallium, zinc and magnesium. In the same chamber, he also had another experiment on the solidification of an alloy of bismuth and tellurium.

Think of a solution of salt in water. At room temperature, there is a certain limit -- called the solubility limit -- to how much of salt you can dissolve in water. This solubility limit is higher at higher temperatures. Imagine now a salt solution prepared at, say, 70 degrees Celsius, right upto the solubility limit. If this solution is cooled to room temperature, you would expect the excess salt to come out of the solution, and you would be right. If you wait a while, you will find tiny salt particles at the bottom of the vessel.

There are two things to notice: first, the solid that comes out is almost 100 percent salt, whereas the solution it came from has a far smaller salt content. Second, earth's gravitational pull makes the salt particles (which come out the solution through a process called "precipitation") sink to the bottom because they are heavier than the surrounding solution.

In a solidification experiment, you keep cooling the solution down until the whole thing -- including water -- becomes a solid. Such a solid would have mostly salt at the bottom and mostly ice at the top. In other words, it is segregated. It is this segregation -- and associated complexities -- that one hopes to avoid (or, slow down tremendously) by going to space where the gravitational pull is far smaller (Microgravity!) than on earth.

The second experiment, designed by scientists at the National Metallurgical Laboratory at Jamshedpur, was on the growth of a kind of calcium phosphate (found in bone) called hydroxyapatite. I don't know much about this experiment, though.

The Hindu speaks ...

If the Big People at the Hindu don't want their employees to blog, they could have sent a private mail to them, no? Wouldn't it have been far better than pouring scorn and humiliation on them through an editorial cartoon?

Why do the Hindu's Big People hate their Deputy Editor, reporters (1 and 2), and contributors (1) who also blog?

* * *

The original cartoon appears here.

Letters to the editor ...

Jamid Laiq's original two-sentence letter:

If there was true justice in this world, Bush and Saddam should have been hanged together. Both of them ordered the deaths of lakhs of innocents.

This short letter was "polished up" by the Hindu's editorial staff, and it was published in this form:

If the ends of justice are to be really met, how can Mr. Bush go unpunished? He too ordered actions that led to the killing of innocent people.

The Readers' Editor uses his column to discuss the limits on the editors' right to mangle non-ghost-written pieces (including letters to the editor).

When he asked the Hindu's editor-in-chief about this particular letter, he confessed, "... I think we should have dumped that letter instead of trying to sanitise it and save it for publication!

Questioning the "Contempt of Court" laws

This is a good thing. A very good thing, indeed.

Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju asks some right questions:

THE BASIC principle in a democracy is that the people are supreme. It follows that all authorities — whether judges, legislators, Ministers, bureaucrats — are servants of the people. Once this concept of popular sovereignty is kept firmly in mind, it becomes obvious that the people of India are the masters and all authorities (including the courts) are their servants. Surely, the master has the right to criticise the servant if the servant does not act or behave properly. It would logically follow that in a democracy the people have the right to criticise judges. Why then should there be a Contempt of Courts Act, which to some extent prevents people from criticising judges or doing other things that are regarded as contempt of court?

Justice Katju has been pushing this "judges are people's servants" line for qutie sometime now. Here's an example from his days as a the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court:

Since the people are our masters and we their servants, surely the masters have a right to criticise us and take us to task if we do not function properly. So, we should not take offence when the people criticise us. Our authority rests on public confidence, and not on the power of contempt, as the celebrated American Judge, Justice Frankfurter, pointed out. People in India have great respect for the judiciary, but this creates an obligation on us to come up to the expectations of the people.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ethics in science

Just a few links:

Via Dr. Free-Ride: A recent analysis by Dr. David Ludwig of Children's Hospital in Boston found that industry-funded studies were eight times more likely to report" ... "scientific results that were favorable to the funder's financial interests."

Elizabeth Wager on Authors, Ghosts, Damned Lies, and Statisticians. Her article is a commentary on this damning study that "found evidence of ghost authorship for 33 trials (75%; 95% confidence interval 60%–87%). The prevalence of ghost authorship was increased to 91% (40 of 44 articles; 95% confidence interval 78%–98%) when we included cases where a person qualifying for authorship was acknowledged rather than appearing as an author."

BTW, did you know that ethics books are more likely to be stolen from libraries? [two   follow-ups].

What can $1.2 trillion buy?

Here are a couple more links stolen from Economist's view:

David Leonhardt: What else [i.e., aside from the war on Iraq] can you buy with $1.2 trillion? [via]: The human mind isn’t very well equipped to make sense of a figure like $1.2 trillion. We don’t deal with a trillion of anything in our daily lives, and so when we come across such a big number, it is hard to distinguish it from any other big number. Millions, billions, a trillion — they all start to sound the same.

The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.

* * *

Bruce Schneier: Information security and externalities [via]: Fundamentally, the issue is insecure software. It is a result of bad design, poorly implemented features, inadequate testing and security vulnerabilities from software bugs. The money we spend on security is to deal with the myriad effects of insecure software. Unfortunately, the money spent does not improve the security of that software. We are paying to mitigate the risk rather than fix the problem.

The only way to fix the problem is for vendors to improve their software. ... But they will not do this until it is in their financial best interests to do so. And so far, it is not. The reason is easy to explain. ... Vendors try to balance the costs of more secure software -- extra developers, fewer features, longer time to market -- against the costs of insecure software: expense to patch, occasional bad press, potential loss of sales.

So far, so good. But what the vendors do not look at is the total costs of insecure software; they only look at what insecure software costs them. And because of that, they miss a lot of the costs: all the money we, the software product buyers, are spending on security. In economics, this is known as an externality: the cost of a decision that is borne by people other than those taking the decision.

Mark Thoma's blog: Economist's view

Is Mark Thoma's Economist's view on your daily reading list? If not, it should be. It points to some of the best economics writing. Let me steal a couple of links from Mark:

Hal Varian (2003): Who benefits from increased productivity? [via]: Gains from trade or technology initially tend to accrue to owners of capital. When a company fires a computer programmer and shifts the job to India, the company captures the difference in wages. [...]

... [T]he controversy over trade and technology is not about whether or not they are good things -- of course they are -- but about who will capture their benefits and who will bear their costs.

The second one is about helping displaced workers, and do read Mark's commentary that comes at the end:

The Economist: In the shadow of prosperity: f labour markets are efficient in the rich country the displaced workers should find new jobs, but their wages will probably fall. Although the country overall gains handsomely, these people are often worse off. Hence the case for redistributing some of trade's gains and compensating the low-skilled losers. ...

One study suggests that, during the 1980s-90s, 65% of manufacturing workers in America who lost their jobs to freer trade were employed two years later, but most took a pay cut. A quarter suffered pay losses of more than 30%. ...

How much to spend? Nonetheless, help for displaced workers has always been modest compared with the gains from trade. ... The United States spends around $1 billion a year on helping trade-displaced workers. But the economy overall, by one estimate, gains $1 trillion a year from freer trade. ...

In that Economist article, the an alluring Danish model makes an appearance:

As a result, it may be better to focus on policies which improve job prospects for all workers. In Europe, Denmark has led the way. The Danish system of “flexicurity” appears to offer the best of both worlds: dynamic labour markets and low unemployment coupled with generous support for those who lose their jobs. ...

Employers hire and dismiss people at will. Around a quarter of the workforce is unemployed at some point in any year. But the jobless enjoy generous welfare benefits while they look for work, around 80% of their previous wage on average. To ensure this does not deter people from finding new jobs, the Danes oblige the unemployed to be trained and to look diligently for work. ...

But Denmark's approach has evolved over decades and cannot easily be copied. Besides, it is extremely expensive. ... Denmark ... spends more than 5% of GDP on the unemployed, including almost 2% of GDP on its “active” training and job-search programmes. ...

A massive compilation of free online educational resources

Just last week I wrote about free, online courseware. Here's a massive compilation of educational resources by Jimmy Ruska, who has a multipage article on Free Education.

Things you can do with your mobile phone

The Business Standard has a three-part series by Surajeet Das Gupta on the kinds of new things you will be able to do with your mobile phones. Think shopping. Think money transfer.Think credit.

The mobile phone pheonomenon in India has been nothing short of revolutionary. Two articles that appeared this weekend give you interesting perspectives on this transformational technology. While Shashi Tharoor looks at the past to give us a sense of how far we have come, T.N. Ninan looks to the future.

Flamenco in Madrid

JAP has a great post on a flamenco performance that his Goo-roo took him to in Madrid. He's maha impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he declares:

Flamenco is to salsa as orgasm is to foreplay.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some primary schools in a Delhi slum

Check out Naveen Mandava's photographs and essay. Link via an e-mail alert from Dr. Bruno who asks, "How about giving laptops [to] all the students in these schools?"

How do you "learn from mistakes without making them"?

In a fascinating article in Time, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) and his colleague Randy Buckner say you can "learn from mistakes without making them". And it is made possible by what they call the "dark network" in your brain -- that part of the brain that lights up when you "do nothing" and switches off when you "do something". Here's the key quote:

Animals learn by trial and error, and the smarter they are, the fewer trials they need. Traveling backward buys us many trials for the price of one, but traveling forward allows us to dispense with trials entirely. Just as pilots practice flying in flight simulators, the rest of us practice living in life simulators, and our ability to simulate future courses of action and preview their consequences enables us to learn from mistakes without making them. We don't need to bake a liver cupcake to find out that it is a stunningly bad idea; simply imagining it is punishment enough. The same is true for insulting the boss and misplacing the children. We may not heed the warnings that prospection provides, but at least we aren't surprised when we wake up with a hangover or when our waists and our inseams swap sizes. The dark network allows us to visit the future, but not just any future. When we contemplate futures that don't include us--Will the NASDAQ be up next week? Will Hillary run in 2008?--the dark network is quiet. Only when we move ourselves through time does it come alive.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The popularity (and importance, too?) of inter/intra/cross-disciplinary studies

Q: As you look at all of the changes in academic careers since the first edition, which ones have been the most significant?

A: I suppose that 10 academics would give 10 different answers to that question, but, to me, two changes — possibly connected — stand out: first, the explosion of inter/intra/cross-disciplinary studies and the commensurate rise of inter/cross-departmental programs, centers and institutes; second, the relative ease with which individual faculty members can move across traditional academic boundaries, e.g., between faculty and administration, between departments and programs.

From this interview with A. Leigh Deneef, one of the editors of the second edition of The Academic's Handbook.

* * *

This brings up yet another chance for me to rant about India's lack of Real Universities, where undergraduate students are exposed to ideas from many different disciplines, and are taught by practising researchers. In those places -- such as Central Universities -- where programs in multiple disciplines are on offer, there is hardly any undergraduate education. In other places where UG students are taught by practising researchers -- such as IITs and the newly minted IISERs -- the institutions are too specialized (engineering and sciences, in the two examples). Finally, in places where a vast majority of our undergraduate students study -- namely, colleges affiliated with universities -- they are taught by (almost full-time) teachers with little research credentials.

India has all kinds of specialized institutions: medicine (AIIMS, JIPMER, CMC, PGI), engineering (IIT, IIIT, NIT, and state-level tech universities), sciences (IISER), law (NLSUI), etc.. (Just this morning, I came to know about the existence of Karnataka Veterinary, Animal and Fisheries Sciences University in Bidar!) The higher prestige associated with these institutions leads people to clamour for more and more of these. What we need, instead, are Real Universities.

Remember, this demand for multi-disciplinary university is not about just about faculty members being able to move from one field to another. Savvy researchers who want to cross disciplinary barriers will always be able to do so -- even if they are in specialized institutions, and even if they need a collaborator from somewhere else. For example, a computer scientist working in an IIIT would be able to cross-over to sociology to study social networks (for example) even if her institution doesn't have any expertise in sociology.

It's the undergraduate students who suffer because of a narrow education in specialized fields. In this age of nanotechnology, econophysics and social networks, I don't think I need to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary fields. Our UG students deserve an environment that will prepare them to benefit from -- and contribute to -- these and other emerging -- and fantastically interesting -- areas. For this, they need an exposure to interesting things happening in all kinds of fields: arts and humanities, natural and social sciences.

In the National Knowledge Commission' Report to the Nation - 2006 (24 MB, pdf), there are interesting proposals regarding higher education and research (you can get just the recommendations here; it's just about one MB). I want to highlight two sensible recommendations: creation of 50 National Unviersities, and of the National Science and Social Science Foundation (NS3F). As someone who has been arguing for Real Universities in this blog, I'm absolutely delighted. Now, if only the government can start acting on these proposals ...

The name is Dal -- 2

From this ToI story, we learn that the new political party floated by IIT graduates has a few people who are willing to admit that they are under the influence of Bollywood. One of them tells us that Mani Ratnam's Yuva "forced him to think about the 'deteriorating' state of politics in the country." Another mouths this gem:

Democracy can only become democratic in two ways - active and passive participation of people.

* * *

Krish has a fantastic rant (which he says he wrote with a heavy heart ;-):

... I would put my bet on IIT brand name to solve a major technological problem in my company. I would put my bet on IIT brand name to solve the most difficult problem in the book, Classical Electrodynamics by Jackson. But I will never put my bet on IIT brand name to solve people’s problems. I know how a big chunk of them cannot even solve their own personal problems. I am not a fool to bet the society’s problem on them. ...

Tamil Nadu bans corporal punishment

This is very good news:

After Goa and New Delhi, now Tamil Nadu has banned corporal punishment for school students.

Link via Shivam and Krish; both have links to earlier news that would explain their support for this ban. I'm glad this evil is gone from one more state.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When physics met Web 2.0 ...

"I ignore blogs completely," says theoretical particle physicist Frank Close from Oxford University. "I wouldn't read what someone posts on a notice board outside my local newsagent and putting it on the Web doesn't make it any more official."

From this PhysicsWeb article about how physics measures up in the Web 2.0 world.

Here's a reality check:

But how many physicists actually read or contribute to blogs? While 16 of the 60 respondents to our survey said they do read physics blogs, all but three of these are the very same people who also write blogs of their own. The Mixed States site lists about 100 physics blogs, which is a drop in the ocean of a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of physicists. Indeed, most of our survey respondents were either unaware of the existence of physics blogs or said that they do not trust the content of them.

Letters, archives, reconstructing the past ...

In the latest issue of Current Science, P. Balaram makes a comeback of sorts with an editorial titled "Researching the Past". His piece is about his two recent 'projects', and why they have proved to be difficult:

... The first is the job of writing about the early years of [Current Science], which is now in its 75th year of publication. The second is the formidable job of building a permanent archive at the Indian Institute of Science, which is rapidly approaching its Centenary Year. In both tasks I have been astounded by the absence of catalogued records in the organizations themselves; a clear sign that an historical record is not a matter of grave importance.

The careful maintenance of a written record and the building up of archives and repositories of documents is, undoubtedly, a Western practice. Oral history is more popular in India, with every story embellished in the retelling. Organizations which retain every file in dusty and disorganized disarray, usually discard them by the truckload in periodic cleaning operations. There is no resident archivist, who sifts through the piles of paper looking for the bits that may help a future chronicler to piece together an authentic and interesting story. I felt the absence of a written record, files of correspondence and photographs, most acutely when confronted with the self-imposed task of writing on the early years of Current Science. ...

Do read the editorial, and also the accompanying piece by Riki Krishnan and Balaram on the early history of Current Science.

* * *

Can technology help this process of archiving information? Sure, but there's a different problem now. Much of the information is lost because nobody writes letters -- of the paper-and-pen variety -- any more! We communicate via e-mail. We store data on our computers. And we give talks using computers. And electrons -- being so informal and all -- just vanish into outer space! This worries Robert Crease:

Now that e-mail has replaced letter writing as the principal means of informal communication, one has to feel sorry for future science historians, who will be unable to use letters and telegrams to establish facts and gauge reactions to events. In addition to the Copenhagen episode, another example of the role of letters is Stillman Drake's startling conclusion, based on a careful reading of Galileo's correspondence, that the Leaning Tower event actually happened. And of all the reactions to the discovery of parity violation in 1957, the simplest and most direct expression of shock came from Robert Oppenheimer. After receiving a telegram from Chen Ning Yang with the news, Oppenheimer cabled back: "Walked through door."


E-mail is , of course, cheaper and encourages quicker thought, and it introduces a peculiar blend of the personal and professional. The AIP historians have also detected a decline in the use of lab notebooks, finding that data are often stored directly into computer files. Finally, they have noted the influence of PowerPoint, which can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.

* * *

Thanks to Guru for the pointer to Balaram's editorial and to the article by Riki Krishnan and Balaram.

Yet another political party floated by IIT graduates

The name is Dal. Bharat Punarnirman Dal.

The party is floated by Ravi Kishore and Ajit Shukla, Aerospace Engineering graduates from IIT-B.

These young men don't have a fixed ideology, money or cadre to call their own.

They say all they have is integrity and big plans for the country - plans to hire people who will be solution providers, make sure the administration is clean and most importantly, retire politicians at the age of 60.

All their talk about integrity, change, courage and conviction is charmingly nebulous. I would want these change agents -- who plan to unleash "solution providers" on us -- to say a little bit more about what they see as the big challenges, and about their Big Plans for tackling them. It all reminds me of a similar outfit that made waves last year (and we know what happened afterwards, don't we?). Count me among the skeptics.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Honorary degrees

The present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and two of his predecessors have honorary degrees from universities under their control. Apparently, this is not a problem peculiar to Tamil Nadu or India. The Scotsman reports on some radical changes that are being considered in the UK:

ONE of Scotland's most prestigious universities is cracking down on the abuse of honorary degrees amid growing concern over awards held by celebrities, serving politicians, "serial" degree collectors, and unsavoury characters.

Edinburgh University is even planning to introduce unprecedented powers to strip honorary degree holders of their titles, with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe believed to be top of the target list

Professors' bill of rights

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Michael Bugeja and Lee Wilkins argue strongly for a set of principles for professional development of the faculty members. Here are the first five, and read the article for the rest:

  1. Pre-tenured professors should enjoy reduced teaching and/or service responsibilities.
  2. Pre-tenured professors should receive additional, tangible incentives — fewer advisees or summer research stipends.
  3. All ranks of professors should have access to research assistants if your program has graduate students.
  4. All ranks should have a teaching schedule that allows at least one free day per week so that you can do research.
  5. You should have a somewhat flexible professional development fund, not only enabling you to travel to a conference but also to pay membership dues in at least one flagship association related to your discipline.

India's market for primary education

Kuffir has a must-read post about the complex issues surrounding primary education, poverty, and parents' inability -- or unwillingness -- to send their children to school. He asks, rightly, how many of our poor will be able to 'buy education' for their kids in the 'market' if the government chooses to exit the 'business' of running schools.

... [the proponents of 'liberation/liberalization' of education] know the bottomline: the education market in india can neither survive nor expand without the support of the government. isn't that the reason why the idea of vouchers, essentially government handouts, is being promoted? in my view, the campaign for parental choice, being spearheaded by ccs india, is a tacit admission that education is a 'public good' in india because it seeks continuation of state support, albeit in a different form.

I just want to add something to what Kuffir has written. Parents' desire for English medium education is one of the more important reasons behind their sending their kids to private schools. Not only do public schools don't offer English medium education, in many states, English is not even taught until kids enter the third or the fifth standard (at age 8 or 10). In Karnataka, for example, there has been a strong demand that English be taught right from the beginning (i.e., the first standard) in all the public schools. While the newspapers report -- actually, make a big deal of -- the opposition from Kannada intellectuals, I became aware of a second angle: the private schools have been lobbying against the teaching of English from Class I.

* * *

Update: The National Knowledge Commission has recommended that English be taught right from Class I, "regardless of mother tongue". Here's the Financial Express editorial on this recommendation.

What kind of liberalisation do we need?

Dani Rodrik argues that unfettered capital flows are a bad idea for developing countries:

... Whereas the standard story — the one that motivated the drive to liberalise capital flows — is that developing countries are saving-constrained, the fact that capital is moving outward rather than inward in the most successful developing countries suggests that the constraint lies elsewhere. Most likely, the real constraint lies on the investment side.

The main problem seems to be the paucity of entrepreneurship and low propensity to invest in plant and equipment — what Keynes called “low animal spirits” — especially to raise output of products that can be traded on world markets. Behind this shortcoming lay various institutional and market distortions associated with industrial and other modern-sector activities in low-income environments.


The lesson for countries that have not yet made the leap to financial globalisation is clear: beware. Nothing can kill growth more effectively than an uncompetitive currency, and there is no faster route to currency appreciation than a surge in capital inflows.

Via Mark Thoma: David Wessel asks "Why Economists Are Still Grasping For Cure to Global Poverty":

The U.S. and Europe pulled ahead of the rest of the world in the 19th century, the result of the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of financial markets and the discovery of new drugs and chemicals. With a few remarkable exceptions -- South Korea, for one -- the gap between rich and poor nations persists. ... Says Anne Krueger..: "It was natural that a major objective of...the 'modernizing elite' was to achieve economies and living standards similar to those in the 'developed,' as they were then called, economies." Poor countries had rice patties or coffee plantations; rich ones had factories. The trick, it was believed, was to hasten the industrialization of poor countries, and government had to lead the way.

The prescriptions didn't work out as well as optimistic postwar poverty fighters hoped. ... Why is that? Why aren't more poor countries catching up faster?

Higher education news

Pankaj Jalote offers some ideas for implementing performance-based salaries for enhancing R&D output from the IITs:

Regular performance appraisals and reward based on the appraisal is the way the world academic and R&D management is moving. In many countries that have active R&D programmes, such systems are becoming the norm. In the US, appraisal-based salary raises have been there for decades.

They also now exist in countries like the UK, China, Singapore and Korea, which have started these mechanisms in the last decade or so. And, many countries in Europe, like Germany and Italy, are now moving towards this.

In an earlier article, Jalote recounts some of the revolutionary changes in the Chinese higher education system in just over a decade. Clearly, he is impressed.

Finally, we have this from the Department of "Message: We Care":

... [S]ome of the professors at the IIT-K observed that the reason of falling number of girl students was due to high fee structure. They realized that many parents avoided spending huge amount on the education of their daughters and they preferred to admit them to the less expensive colleges even after their selection to IIT.

They suggested that a slight reduction in the fee structure for girl students would help raise their number at the institute. [link]

Monday, January 15, 2007

Gandhi ...

If it pains you to see Gandhi mocked in a silly video, you don't really have to watch it. If you choose to watch it, well, shut up; we don't want to hear your rant!

Red defends the Mahatma against this attempt to paint him as someone "articulating the belief that a woman’s sexual chastity is what solely defines her identity":

It's anachronistic and silly to attribute Betty Friedan’s ideas to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi held women in higher esteem than men. He argued that they were better human beings and better suited to non violence. However, he venerated them for their “difference to men". I think he would be quite horrified if someone suggested that there were no differences between men and women. This is like suggesting Ashoka suppressed private enterprenurship by running a Ancient Indian welfare state or accussing the Holy Roman Emperor of not being secular. People are judged by their times and for his times, Gandhi was pretty progressive when it came to women.

Finally, Guru has links to online stuff on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great American pioneer of non-violent protest. One of the links takes you to a video of the great "I have a dream" speech. Tomorrow -- the 16th of January -- is  Dr. King's birthday -- today -- is celebrated in the US with as a National Holiday [Thanks to Guru for correcting me here].

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Marquise du Châtelet

A few years ago I was researching a book about Einstein when I stumbled on a footnote about an obscure Frenchwoman of the early 18th century. Her name was Emilie du Châtelet; according to the note, she had played some role in developing the modern concept of energy, and had aquired a certain notoriety in her day.

It left me intrigued, and hungry to know more. And what I discovered, as I tracked down her letters and books over the next few months, astounded me. Because that footnote had understated her significance entirely. Emilie du Châtelet had played a crucial role in the development of science. What's more, she had had a wild life.

Thus starts this Guardian article by David Bodanis, who based it on his own Passionate Minds: The Great Enlightenment Love Affair, a biography of the Marquise du Châtelet with a focus on her relationship with Voltaire; (Guardian review is here).

I read this article when it appeared last May, but somehow failed to link to it at that time. This morning, I happened to see the Scientific American review of another biography of Marquise du Châtelet: La Dame D'Esprit: A Biography of The Marquise Du Châtelet by Judith P. Zinsser. [NYTimes review here].

By far the best short account of Marquise du Châtelet is this PhysicsWeb article by Patricia Fara who, rightly and thankfully emphasizes her formidable contributions to science and the kind of discrimination she faced in the 18th century French society.

According to Francois-Marie Voltaire - Enlightenment France's great writer and philosopher - Emilie du Châtelet "was a great man whose only fault was being a woman". Du Châtelet has paid the penalty for being a woman twice over. In her own lifetime she fought for the education and the publishing opportunities that she craved. Since her death, she has been cast in the shadow of two men - Voltaire, with whom she lived and studied, and Isaac Newton, whose work she criticized and interpreted. Her translation from Latin of Newton's Principia, his great work on gravity, remains the only complete version in French.

One thing in Fara's article strike you immediately: the first major book the marquise collaborated on -- Elements of Newton's Philosophy -- was published under the sole authorship of Voltaire. Her second book -- Foundations of Physics -- was published anonymously. She finished her third book -- the French translation of Newton's Principia -- just before her death six days after she gave birth to her second daughter; this book was published ten years later. As all the articles make clear, this is still the most definitive French translation of Principia.

* * *

Here's something that Voltaire wrote to Du Châtelet shortly after he met her:

You are beautiful
spaceso half the human race will be your enemy
You are brilliant
spaceand you will be feared
You are trusting
spaceand you will be betrayed ...

Free and online courseware

A few days ago, Slashdot featured (for the n-th time, it turns out!) MIT's Open Courseware (OCW) project; look at the rather impressive list of available courses! The Slashdot discussion that followed is a veritable goldmine (sure, there's also the usual junk, but if you use Slashdot's ranking system, you can easily cut through the clutter). Several commenters gave links to other free online resources; here are the more interesting ones:

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While I admire MIT's commitment -- at the institutional level -- to OCW, I am with the slashdot commenters on the quality of the OCW content: it's patchy. In most courses, instructors have just put up their syllabus, home assignments and practice exams. Lecture notes tend to be no better than barely spruced up (and less pretty) lecture slides. Some commenters have said good things about a few courses that have better -- and better organized -- content, including videos. On the other hand, the Berkeley site offers only videos (correct me if I am wrong here); there are no course notes/home assignments/practice exams.

Other commenters have pointed to the need for textbooks; almost all courses use texts that don't come cheap. I think it is unreasonable to demand that the MIT professors use free and open textbooks (though it would be nice if they used them); but I also think it is reasonable to request -- not demand! -- that OCW provide links to online articles and texts. One can easily see the synergy between OCW and an initiative like WikiBooks

Finally, one perceptive Slashdot commenter makes an excellent point:

Fortunately OCW is not simply free, but (at least partly) licensed under a Creative Commons license allowing non commercial sharing and remixing (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5). While you may not be able to replicate the experience of studying at MIT, someone may take the content and add e.g. a technical communications layer.

You are into advanced web 3.0 elearning platform development, but have no way to create the content? Take OCW, reuse what they have and give the world a new learning experience? You always wanted to write a shoot-'em up game based on and explaining the principles on quantum physics? You solve the DirectX/OpenGL/game engine magic and compensate your lack of talent as a physics tutor by using parts of 8.04 Quantum Physics I, Spring 2006.

These are primitive ideas, but I think about OCW more as a basis on which people can experiment than a library. Libraries have been around for a long time, unfortunately the majority of people don't use them. To reach the masses, you have to somehow turn the content of OCW into something compatible to a game console. Give it a shot!

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Also check out Connexions from Rice University [I wrote about it here], which is more inclusive than OCW: it hosts course content from non-Rice contributors too! Like OCW, Connexions too uses Creative Commons license.

Arun pointed sometime ago to an initiative by IITs and IISc to make available course material online; It's free, but requires you to register. This is unnecessary. Also unnecessary -- undesirable, even -- is the copyright protection. It goes against the spirit of the enterprise. More importantly, this copyright message actually sounds atrociously ludicrous when it appears on a website dishing out free content on the web, :

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including downloading, recording, photocopying or by using any information storage and retrieval system without prior permission in writing from the copyright owner.

E-mail forwards are evil!

I don't know about Indian laws, but when John Lott sued Steve Levitt (the Freakonomics guy) for defamation, a forwarded e-mail from Levitt to a colleague was one of the issues:

Levitt complained in an e-mail to a colleague that "for $15,000 he was able to buy an issue and put in only work that supported him." (Lott's lawsuit also targets that e-mail as false and defamatory — yes, you can be sued for a statement made in an e-mail to a single person.) [Link]

Surprisingly, the judge hearing this case has dismissed all the charges against Levitt except one. Yes, the forwarded e-mail is still alive! As Tim Lambert notes:

Lott takes some solace in the fact that his claim that Levitt defamed in an email wasn't thrown out, but it's hard to see what damage Lott can demonstrate from an email to one person who doesn't seem to have believed it (since he forwarded it to Lott).

Can something that's said in a private conversation be used against you? Are e-mail messages a private conversation? Even if they don't have the 'privacy and confidentiality' notices that we find in e-mails from corporations?

My second example is slightly different. Juan Cole (an expert on the Middle-East at the University of Michigan, and author of an influential blog Informed Comment) was a part of a policy-oriented mailing list that had an explicit "no forward" rule. Yet, one of his e-mails to this group was leaked, and used later in a vicious attack against him. At that time, Cole had this to say:

Christopher Hitchens owes me a big apology.

I belong to a private email discussion group called Gulf2000. It has academics, journalists and policy makers on it. It has a strict rule that messages appearing there will not be forwarded off the list. It is run, edited and moderated by former National Security Council staffer for Carter and Reagan, Gary Sick, now a political scientist at Columbia University. The "no-forwarding" rule is his, and is intended to allow the participants to converse about controversial matters without worrying about being in trouble. Also, in an informal email discussion, ideas evolve, you make mistakes and they get corrected, etc. It is a rough, rough draft.

* * *

Both these examples are from professional settings, where "Don't Forward" is a good policy to follow.

But, even among friends, e-mails are not like conversations in one important way: they possess the permanence of the written word, and it can really hurt you. I have been hurt by indiscriminate forwarding of my e-mail; while the damage wasn't as bad as getting sued, it was still very real. Result: I learned my lesson, and I make sure that my e-mails to these persons are bland, business-like and utterly boring!

If you don't want your friends and associates to treat you this way, use "Don't Forward" as the default rule, and choose wisely when you violate it. Look at it this way: if they wanted their messages to become public, they would have written it on their blogs!