Wednesday, February 28, 2007

'Skilled immigration' into the US

Some interesting info in an article urging the US to liberalize its H1 visa regime:

Our economy depends heavily on skilled immigration. Half of research and development workers, one-quarter of doctors and nurses, and a quarter of all doctoral degree holders were born in other countries. Government and trade groups estimate that we need some 20,000 more doctors and 300,000 more nurses. Yet because only 140,000 employment-based visas are available each year, skilled workers can wait five years or more for a green card. Annual per-country visa caps make the wait even longer for high-migration countries like India and China, which send us many engineers and scientists, or the Philippines, which sends many nurses.

Ethics in science: two cases

The first one is from India. Here's T.V. Padma in SciDev.Net:

... [O]n 23 February, the Journal of Biological Chemistry withdrew a paper by Gopal Kundu and colleagues at the National Centre for Cell Sciences (NCCS) amid allegations of data manipulation.

Kundu says the decision was "drastic" because the confusion is confined to only two sets of data out of 80.

An institutional enquiry committee at NCCS advised Kundu to withdraw the report, but a second independent committee headed by noted biologist and former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Govindrajan Padmanabhan, later found the allegations to be baseless.

"Both the NCCS and Padmanabhan committee cannot be right," points out an SSV [Society for Scientific Values] member.

The second one is from the US, and the research in question is also a high profile one due to its scientific and medical significance. Here's Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes:

An inquiry panel has found what it called “significantly flawed” data in a major stem cell paper published in Nature in 2002.

The article, which claimed stem cells isolated from an adult could change into all the major tissue types of the body, was seized on by opponents of abortion as showing that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary since adult stem cells could provide all the predicted benefits.

The lead author of the article, Catherine Verfaillie, said yesterday that she had sent a letter to Nature stating that the flawed data should not be relied on but that they did not affect the article’s conclusions. She said the journal was resubmitting the article to the original referees for them to make their own assessment.

* * *

Two more related links:

ToI digs up some more dirt on Mashelkar

Manoj Mitta of ToI has unearthed some seriously damaging stuff: plagiarism in a book co-authored by Mashelkar. The book -- Intellectual Property and Competitive Strategies in the 21st Century -- was published in 2004.

... [The book] bore striking similarities with a 1996 paper (see table) brought out by a British IP expert, Graham Dutfield, who took objection to it as he was given no credit.

What's more, those similarities are in a chapter dealing with traditional knowledge, an aspect of intellectual property that Mashelkar himself is said to have worked on extensively to protect India's heritage during his 11-year tenure as head of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Mitta interviewed Graham Dutfield; in his version of this story, he was told (not by Mashelkar, but by his coauthor Shahid Alikhan) that "the actual plagiarism was done not by Mashelkar but by one of his researchers." In other words, some parts of the book were ghost-written.

Mitta's story ends with these quotes from Dutfield:

Dutfield on his part is disappointed that Mashelkar himself never bothered to call and acknowledge the violation of his copyright. "I guess, I was not important enough to Mashelkar, or this issue was not deemed important enough for him to apologise to me directly".

Given his own experience, how does he see the controversy surrounding the withdrawal of the latest Mashelkar committee report?

Dutfield said: "I don't want to brand Mashelkar as a plagiarist, at least until there is more evidence than we have. But what I would say is that he is sloppy and irresponsible in the sense of using ghost writers to do his work for him, not checking what is published in his name, and of then blaming these people when it goes wrong".

Graham Dutfield's web page is here. And I also found a blog post about a recent debate on pharmaceutical IPRs; the debate covers, among other things, Novartis' on-going lawsuit against certain provisions in India's patent laws as well as the controversial report of the Mashelkar panel. Interestingly, Dutfield was one of the participants in the debate, and here is a curious little piece of trivia:

Noehrenberg cited a new report from India referred to as the Mashelkar report (named for a controversial Indian scientist who headed it) that purported to lend support to the importance of the patent system for developing countries. That report was withdrawn last week by the author for technical errors and plagiarism. Dutfield said the researcher who identified the plagiarism was one of his students. [bold emphasis added]

It's a small world, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" turns fifty

And here's a "tribute" from Leslie Clark:

... Rand called her books "novels of ideas", by which she meant that her characters, straw figures all, pelt one another with philosophic bromides, either expressing wrong-headed collectivist notions on the one hand - "Man can be permitted to exist only to serve others" - or noble individualistic notions on the other: "I live by the judgment of my own mind and for my own sake."

Rand's readers will invariably admit that they first responded to her writing during adolescence. That makes sense. A simplified world of brilliant and unappreciated beings fighting for the recognition they deserve is understandably appealing to teenagers.

These are romance novels with a patina of pseudo-philosophy which is well-suited to those desperate for adulthood. Indeed, Rand is probably best read by those still young enough to miss the implication of her beliefs: neither charity nor compassion nor common cause have any value when compared with the transcendence of the individual mind.

Robert Solow's review of Duncan Foley's Adam's Fallacy: A guide to economic theology is a great essay (in two   parts) full of interesting insights into the limits of economics. Here's a quick excerpt on how a model-based view gets morphed into a monstrosity:

The representative-agent device has been adopted by a significant, perhaps dominant, school of thought known as real business cycle theory, and it is applied to a problem of everyday life where it can do a lot of damage: the theory of those irregularly alternating states of affairs we call prosperity and recessions. The representative-agent device, by simply assuming away the more or less obvious differences in desires, expectations, and beliefs among groups of consumers, investors, workers and business firms, manages to convert the business cycle from a (large or small) pathology of the economic system into a sort of optimal adaptation to unforeseeable disturbances. Thus, a recession is seen as the 'rational', even inevitable, market response to an unforeseen event, not a possibly preventable reaction to excessive capital investment or financial speculation.

Value of college education

From Christopher Caldwell's column:

... You can go to college to get civilized (in the sense that your thoughts about your triumphs and losses at the age of 55 will be colored and deepened by an encounter with Horace or Yeats at the age of 19). Or you can go there to get qualified (in the sense that Salomon Brothers will snap you up, once it sees your B.A. in economics from M.I.T.). Most often, parents must think they are paying for the latter product. Great though Yeats may be, 40-some-odd thousand seems a steep price to pay for his acquaintance. The timeless questions that college provokes — like “What the hell are you going to do with a degree in English?” — must get shouted across dinner tables with increasing vehemence as college costs rise inexorably.

But the education kids are rewarded for may not be the same education their parents think they are paying for. Economists would say that a college degree is partly a “signaling” device — it shows not that its holder has learned something but rather that he is the kind of person who could learn something. Colleges sort as much as they teach. Even when they don’t increase a worker’s productivity, they help employers find the most productive workers, and a generic kind of productivity can be demonstrated as effectively in medieval-history as in accounting classes.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Shamnad Basheer defends himself ...

In all the heat and dust generated by the controversial report of the Mashelkar Committee, not much attention has been paid to the damage done to Shamnad Basheer -- the author of the report whose conclusions found their way -- almost verbatim -- into the Committee's report. The damaging allegation is that since his research is somehow tainted because it was funded by the association of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Through an e-mail alert from Vinod, I have links to two pieces in which Basheer defends himself against the allegation of bias: an interview in the Business Line and an op-ed in the Daily News and Analysis. [Update: Basheer also has a blog post elaborating on his DNA piece].

Here's an extract from the DNA op-ed [with bold emphasis added by me]:

The Committees mandate was to address the following issues:

  • Whether it would be TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) compatible to limit the grant of patent for pharmaceutical substance to new chemical entity [NCE] or to new medical entity involving one or more inventive steps; and
  • Whether it would be TRIPS compatible to exclude micro-organisms from patenting.

These are critical issues for the Indian pharmaceutical industry. The mandate was only to examine whether certain prospective provisions that are sought to be introduced into Indian patent law would be compatible with the WTO Agreement on TRIPS. The Committee was not mandated to examine provisions that already existed in the patent regime.

The key conclusions of the Mashelkar Committee were that these two prospective provisions, if introduced into Indian patent legislation would contravene TRIPS. These conclusions were borrowed from conclusions that I had arrived at whilst doing a report on the same theme titled Limiting the Patentability of Pharmaceutical Inventions and Micro-organisms: A TRIPS Compatibility Review. This report was commissioned by the Intellectual Property Institute (IPI), UK.

This report, funded by Interpat (an association of multinational pharmaceutical companies) has caused some critics to allege that the Committee report merely reflected an industry agenda. This allegation rests of certain incorrect assumptions: that anything funded by industry has to necessarily represent an industry view, despite the fact that the person commissioned holds himself out as an objective and independent academic. They claim the Mashelkar Committee blindly relied on the conclusions of my paper, without exercising any independent judgment of its own. Though, its members are distinguished academics and known for their integrity. Most importantly, these kind of ad hominem or personal attacks do not answer the question: is there something wrong with the analysis of TRIPS undertaken by me and relied on by the Committee?

I don't know how well Basheer's response will help in redeeming his reputation as an "objective and independent academic". But after reading both the interview and his opinion piece, I can't help feeling that his response is enormously damaging to the Mashelkar Committee.

Some more on the Mashelkar Panel

An editorial in the Business Standard tells the government:

It would be best if the committee is now asked to forget the whole issue, because anything that it now says will face a credibility gap, and to appoint a new committee that will go into the issue, de novo.

The latest Outlook has a story that goes into the controversy at some length [there is also a short 'box' story]. Let me highlight two things from this story. The first is Shamnad Basheer (whose report's conclusions made their way -- almost verbatim -- into the Mashelkar Panel's report) defending his research against accusations that it's biased (because it was funded by an industry-friendly body):

In a telephonic talk, Basheer contends that "just because a research project has been sponsored by a pharma association, it doesn't mean the analysis is biased." In his paper, he wrote that "this legal opinion is prepared in my private capacity, but is endorsed by the IPI." Other acdemicians say that one ought to independently assess the merits of an academic report to see if its conclusions are well-reasoned and based on rigorous analysis, before dismissing it as being biased.

The second is Mashelkar's emotion-laden defence of his record:

In an exclusive interview with Outlook, Mashelkar maintains that neither he nor his report are anti-national. "At the end of giving one's best to the country for 64 years, I and my family feel deeply pained and grieved. There are several misperceptions about Mashelkar," he says. ...


As he ends his interview with Outlook, he makes a last ditch attempt to re-defend himself: "Throughout my life, I have followed my mother's preachings. The first was that one should never do anything in self-interest and, second, that one should never harm anyone."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Did you know that ...

An international group, which drafted a manifesto for the future of education in Seoul in early 2000, was unanimous on one point: physical infrastructure-based universities have outlived their utility.

You didn't know this, did you? The last I heard, universities are known not for their terminal illness, but for making education more expensive at a rate faster than inflation!

Anyways, the quote is from this ToI column by Kirti Trivedi of IIT-B's Industrial Design Centre. The column is great fun -- in a surreal sense -- because it's just a series of complaints about our present education system (and the column seems to be shifting back and forth between schools and colleges, so it's not clear which one is being blamed for what). It's one long and incessant rant! Look at this, for example:

Teaching and learning are two different phenomena, and should not be confused with each other. Though projected as centres for learning, most schools and colleges are actually institutions for teaching.

Nearly all of the current educational system has been designed according to the convenience of teaching, and not of learning.

The syllabi are prescribed, textbooks written, courses taught so that one can give tests and assignments and conduct exami-nations, to allow the teachers to grade easily.

Learning is straitjacketed into programmed teaching, with the expectation that knowledge would flow from blackboards into the blank minds of pupils.

For an article that's so critical of the present state of affairs, there is very little by way of practical alternatives that would work for large numbers of people in a reasonably inexpensive way. Coming from a professor of design, this is very disappointing.

"Large numbers" and "reasonably inexpensive" are the key phrases. One can always design an individually paced curriculum that can be pursued in a wonderful learning environment -- Gurukul! Home Education! Private Tutors! But such fancy and expensive options are not -- and cannot be -- for everyone.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not arguing here for status quo. Our education system can certainly do with some fresh ideas for making learning more fun, and for allowing each student to feel a sense of freedom, flexibility and control. It is certainly possible to strive for, and achieve, these worthy goals within our present-day colleges and universities (particularly when you throw in the possibility of distance education).

However, when I saw Trivedi going all teary-eyed on stuff like "interdisciplinary teams working together on common problems, with team members not necessarily required to be in the same physical location", my BS antenna just went crazy with overload. I am yet to hear of someone who learnt calculus in internet chat rooms.

Economics? A soulful science?

As soon as I read the title "Economics, the soulful science", I thought "Yeah, right!", but couldn't resist reading the column. After reading it, I'm still trying to figure out what is so 'soulful' about it. Looks like a short column isn't enough to convince us of the subject's soulfulness, which apparently demands a book-length treatment. By the column's author herself!

I get it now: the entire column is a plug for the book! Oh, wait a minute: there's also a plug for a consultancy firm with a soulfully cheesy name headed by her! When I found out from that site about the author's previous book, it struck me that Alex Tabarrok had something sarcastic to say about her brand of snark.

It has been a very soulful morning so far ...

Mashelkar does the right thing

He has withdrawn the Mashelkar Committee report that has been at the centre of controversy.

In their report in the HIndu, Ravi Sharma and Sara Hiddleston state that "the committee has requested three months to re-examine and resubmit the report." Their report also addresses the plagiarism angle:

According to Dr. Mashelkar, it was only after the committee had submitted its report that it came to their notice through newspaper articles that some plagiarism had occurred: "We have identified eight to ten lines that have been extracted verbatim from Basheer's paper. As a scientist I see this as not a good practice. In keeping with the highest and best ethical practices we want to withdraw the report."

However, a 'subgroup' is being blamed for it:

Dr. Mashelkar termed it "very unfortunate" and expressed the opinion that the "technical inaccuracy" could have happened when the report was being "drafted by a sub group."

Here's the ToI report by Manoj Mitta:

But he blamed "a drafting sub-group" for the lapses. "These were unfortunately not detected in time and, therefore, not corrected," Mashelkar claimed, in his letter written after consulting the other technical experts in the committee.

And finally, Pallava Bagla reports in the Indian Express:

“I am broken-hearted at being let down so badly,” an emotional Mashelkar told The Indian Express. “This is the first time such a thing has happened.” He said that a new report will be submitted in three months that will follow the “best ethical practices.”

“Being a scientist, I am so fussy about attributions but in the rush of the last working day, a slip did happen and I deeply regret it,” he said. He said he offered his “unconditional apologies for the inconvenience that has been caused to the Government” and that he took “full responsibility for this unfortunate development.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Obedience effect

Over at the new and fabulous Situationist blog, Philip Zimbardo takes us through the classic experiments by Stanley Milgram that led to the discovery of the 'obedience effect'. His title for the post? Situational sources of evil.

Milgram’s interest in the problem of obedience came from deep personal concerns about how readily the Nazis had obediently killed Jews during the Holocaust. His laboratory paradigm, he wrote years later, “gave scientific expression to a more general concern about authority, a concern forced upon members of my generation, in particular upon Jews such as myself, by the atrocities of World War II.”

As Milgram described it, he hit upon the concept for his experiment while musing about a study in which one of his professors, Solomon Asch, had tested how far subjects would conform to the judgment of a group. Asch had put each subject in a group of coached confederates and asked every member, one by one, to compare a set of lines in order of length. When the confederates all started giving the same obviously false answers, 70 percent of the subjects agreed with them at least some of the time.

Milgram wondered whether there was a way to craft a conformity experiment that would be “more humanly significant” than judgments about line length. He wrote later: “I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent; perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him. But to study the group effect . . . you’d have to know how the subject performed without any group pressure. At that instant, my thought shifted, zeroing in on this experimental control. Just how far would a person go under the experimenter’s orders?”

Philip Zimbardo himself is known for the Stanford Prison Experiments which have become a classic in social psychology [Google Video has a bunch of videos on this topic; start here]. Presumably, in his future posts at the Situationist blog, he will cover the findings and implications of these experiments too.

A must read for parents: Praise your kids' effort, not their 'smartness'

Po Bronson has an excellent article titled How not to talk to your kids: The inverse power of praise in the New York magazine. It's a must read for all parents. In fact, its 'lessons' could be used in all kinds of human interactions, including teaching. Here's a key take-home message:

... “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Carol Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

'Not all immigrants are to be feared'

Joseph Berger of NYTimes reports on an interesting 50-th anniversary reunion of Hungarians who fled to the US in 1956-57:

... [F]or eight weeks in the winter of 1956-57, roughly 300 Hungarians fleeing the Soviet tanks that crushed their startling revolt found a life raft in a small college 90 miles north of New York City.


Those eight weeks at Bard College so many years ago generated dividends that the United States is still collecting. Out of that passel of adrift newcomers emerged doctors, engineers, and scientists, including two leaders in the treatment of eye disease, Laszlo Bito and Frank Holly; a third, Sandor Holly, who developed an early laser; and a fourth, Charles Legendy, whose theories contributed to plasma generation used in making computer chips.


At a time when too many immigrant scholars are greeted with suspicion and often discouraged, the former refugees found it worth remembering that opening America’s unmatched university classrooms harnesses the zeal and quicksilver intelligence of the world’s best minds, and that a proper balance with security must be struck. “One reason we organized this is to show that not all immigrants are a burden to the United States and not all immigrants are to be feared,” said Mr. Bito.

Online disinhibition effect

Here's Daniel Goleman in NYTimes on flaming, a uniquely online phenomenon, and its causes:

Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stereotype effect

Over at Scientific American, this week's Mind Matters column is by Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. In it, she discusses some very interesting research on how a single, 15-minute social-psychological intervention closed almost half of the racial achievement gap. Towards the end, she also addresses the implications of these findings on the gender gap in math achievement.

Theories of stereotype threat suggest that awareness of a negative stereotype about a social group in a particular domain can degrade task performance exhibited by group members. Other studies have shown that when the relevant negative group stereotypes are activated in performance situations, African Americans perform poorly on cognitive tasks reputed to assess intelligence, and women perform at a less-than-optimal level on math problems for which they have been told gender differences exist.

It seems a small stretch, then, that minority students who are aware of negative stereotypes impugning the intelligence of their group might constantly walk around in school settings with the weight of such knowledge on their shoulders. And, if such knowledge prevents these students from devoting attention and effort to their school subjects, performance may suffer.

Cohen's work suggests that one way to reverse this type of threat is to allow students to reaffirm their self-integrity. Having African American students write about qualities that are important to them, which presumably enhances their sense of self-worth and value, appears to buffer minority students against threat and its consequences.

Gender socialization: Fathers are the culprits!

Part of the reason boys tear around recklessly having more accidents while girls are more cautious is no doubt due to their biological differences. But it could also have to do with parents treating young boys and girls differently. Now Lisa Hagan and Janet Kuebli have found tentative evidence that it is principally fathers, as opposed to mothers, who are responsible for treating girls and boys differently.

More here. Unlike me (see the title), the researchers make it clear that the evidence, being from a very narrow domain, is just tentative.

* * *

Here's one father on how he raises his daughters in a way that minimizes the effects of societally imposed gender stereotypes [via DesiPundit].

The best comment on the Mashelkar panel's report

It comes from Cosmic Voices (in his comment on this post):

There seems to be no innovation in the report. Just evergreening.

Comments ...

Just wanted to alert you about a couple of thoughtful comments on this post linking to Gautam Desiraju's article about China's great strides in science education.

Here's Rahul on the need for a standardized exam:

... I was shocked to discover a year ago that, at least in physics, the syllabus is basically high-school syllabus -- not even undergraduate. This is why all the elite research institutes have their own entrance exams.

It's the same thing at the high-school level -- CBSE exams are a lottery, state board even more so, so you have a whole host of institutional entrance exams to deal with. We badly need standardised tests; I'd argue that just introducing something like SAT or GRE in individual subjects, well-administered and mandatory for admission to any reputable place, would do wonders in keeping our school and college teachers (and curriculums) honest. [Bold emphasis added]

Pratik, on the other hand, has some harsh things to say about the level and rigour of undergraduate education:

The undergrad courses themselves, in my humble opinion, is mired in the dark ages. Often, the challenge in undergrad courses is much lesser than what we had during high school. This rather takes away from the fun of doing things. Its a pity that elite institutes like IITs, BHU and NITs take students through a gruelling entrance and then subject them to a plethora of sub standard courses which require much less application and evoke lesser interest than the basic science courses at school. No wonder that after such a largely disguisting college life (academically) by and large students prefer to stay away from academics for the sake of academics.

Well, these are just short excerpts from the comments. There's more here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ram Guha on India's universities


As I see it, there are four principal ailments from which our universities (and colleges) suffer. These illnesses carry the names parochialism, dogmatism, populism and giganticism respectively. I think that many readers will recognise - and may even have experienced - the symptoms of each in Calcutta University. Is this the same university whose vice-chancellor once invited two young, talented, but then mostly unknown south Indians - one a physicist, the other a philosopher - and gave them both a professorial chair? Is this the same place where many of the best, and best-loved, teachers in undergraduate colleges were from places as far distant as Punjab and Kerala?

The parochialism that Calcutta University is subject to is not merely linguistic or regional; it is also ideological. Thirty years of Left Front rule have destroyed the pluralism of ideas in the university. One cannot say how many of the so-called Marxist professors really know their Marx or Engels. For their patrons, it is enough that they show their loyalty to the party. Certainly, those who question the tenets of Marxism on intellectual grounds or the policies of the Left Front on empirical grounds cannot hope to enjoy positions of authority and respect in Calcutta University.

The ailment of populism, meanwhile, manifests itself in the desire to treat all constituent units as equal, by bringing them all equally under the dead hand of centralized control. Rather than maintain some departments and colleges of excellence, and hold them up as models worthy of emulation, the attempt has been to drag down the high achievers to the level of the mass. Once, Presidency College and the university department of history were acknowledged showpieces; now they are indistinguishable from the herd.

Finally, there is the problem of giganticism. How can a university maintain standards - even minimal standards - when it has hundreds of affiliated units and hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in it?

Thanks to Rahul for the pointer.


Akira Kurosawa's classic film is now available online. On Google Video.


Hat tip: Cliopatra.

Open access gains momentum

Jessica Shepherd reports in the Guardian:

Pity for the journals and their publishers has been thin on the ground. The European Research Council has argued that the high price of scientific journals was "impeding scientific progress".

And last year the European commission published an independent report showing the price of scientific journals had risen 200%-300% beyond inflation between 1975 and 1995. The market, the study said, was worth up to $11bn (£5.6bn) a year.

Some major commercial publishers are softening to the idea of open access. Reed Elsevier, the world's largest scientific publisher, has agreed to allow contributors to post articles on their own websites.

What was the editor of Business Standard thinking?

Imagine a column that starts with noting that Harvard has just chosen its first woman president, and points to Indra Nooyi and Meg Whitman as examples of women achievers in business.

Could you imagine this column taking you -- inexorably! -- to the conclusion that with more women rising to the top, we can expect them to make "mistakes in more bizarrely entertaining fashion"? To top it, could you further imagine the column concluding with two such 'bizarrely entertaining' examples: a US Air Force sergeant getting sacked after posing for Playboy and a NASA astronaut being charged with kidnapping and attempted murder?

Unbelievable, no? Don't take my word for it. Read it all here. In Business Standard.

* * *

1. Recent research by Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago on ideological leanings of American newspapers found that

... even the most ideological newspaper owners face market discipline. The political bias of a particular paper is much more likely to match the voting preferences of its local audience than the beliefs of its owner.

If this finding is generalizable to the Indian setting, and if the newspaper -- Business Standard -- has a sizable business audience, it is going to be one hell of a long struggle for women in Indian businesses.

2. As for the obstacles to women's progress in academia and business, the article does not have anything useful to say. Who needs such things when the article itself represents one of the obstacles -- a very shitty kind of male mindset that cannot help thinking about bras, panties, playboy bunnies, and murderous love-crazies even when the topic of discussion is women's progress in business?

* * *

Oh, the man behind that column is Devangshu Datta. And we know what he was thinking. But what was the editor -- T.N. Ninan -- thinking when he okayed this column?

Jagdish Bhagwati on China

In his review of Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton (a former economics editor at the Guardian) Bhagwati agrees with the book's author that "China faces a number of critical economic difficulties that are directly traceable to its lack of democracy. ":

Indeed, it’s true, as Hutton shows in great detail, that China faces a number of critical economic difficulties that are directly traceable to its lack of democracy. He mentions the Sinologist Elizabeth Economy, for example, who has documented how indiscriminate environmental destruction is turning the Chinese landscape into a wasteland. Should this damage be factored into the statistics on the Chinese economy, the result could well be to reduce China’s estimated growth rate below its current levels. More important, the Chinese experience shows dramatically, as the Russian experience did, that environmental damage is likely to become ever more crippling in the future because there are no democratic institutions like public opposition and a free press to countervail and contain it.

Similarly, because China has an authoritarian regime, it cannot fully profit from the information revolution, thus inhibiting the technology that is at the heart of growth today. The PC (personal computer) is incompatible with the C.P. (Communist Party). So India, with its robust and chaotic democracy — what V. S. Naipaul has called a “million mutinies” — has moved dramatically ahead of China in computer technology. Hutton points out that from 1981 to 1995 China had 537 scientists and engineers doing research and development per one million people while India had only 151, and that China had three times as many personal computers as India and a 4-to-1 lead in Internet usage. Yet by 2001, India was producing one-fourth more software, and exporting most of it. “So despite massive investment,” Hutton writes, China “trailed far behind India.” He points out, too, that China damages itself by seeking to control and stifle what its citizens can learn and disseminate. “Yahoo, Microsoft and Google are part of the cultural yeast of globalization,” he says, “yet each has been at the receiving end of China’s Internet firewall of censorship.”

First official response to Mashelkar Panel's report

The Mashelkar Panel's report (which we saw in this post) has drawn the first official response. It is from the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, and it ain't pretty:

ministry strongly feels that the report should not be accepted as ‘there is a lot of criticism’ about it. It thinks that the panel, which was given a mandate to examine whether it would be Trips-compatible to limit the grant of patent for pharmaceutical substance to a new chemical entity or to a new medical entity involving one or more inventive steps, did not ‘go into the depth of anything’, in this regard.

“The (Mashelkar) panel has failed to differentiate between incremental inventions and evergreening tactics,” said a ministry official. [bold emphasis added]


Gautam Desiraju: China shows the way in science education

Prof. Gautam Desiraju, a chemist at the University of Hyderabad, has an op-ed in today's Hindu on how China has raced past a lot of countries to become a big player in international science. Here's a key part of the argument about where our weaknesses are [with bold emphasis added]:

A word about student numbers and quality is necessary. The second-tier Chinese universities have around 100 PhD students each in the chemistry departments. The CAS chemistry institutes have nearly 1,000 PhD students. A single institution, the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (a unit of CAS), has 400 PhD students, mostly trained for future industrial positions within China. Such a thing is unheard of in India, where the student output is rushing headlong to the U.S. where it settles for positions with little or no responsibility, and often lack of tenure and security.

However, the number of PhD students per institution is roughly the same in China and India with each IIT, IISc, Hyderabad University or CSIR lab having around 100 chemistry PhD students. So in terms of efficiency, each of our students is far less efficient than his or her Chinese counterpart. It means our students are not well trained at the M.Sc. level and this, in turn, goes back to the B.Sc. (where much of the trouble begins).

Our most important screen for PhD admission, namely the CSIR/UGC NET exam, is just not discriminating enough and it is letting a lot of sub-standard students pass after attending coaching classes. This is not so in China where they are spending real money at the undergraduate level.

Without sounding unduly harsh, let me say that we lack the will, determination, and capacity for hard work to develop 100 excellent universities like the Chinese. Perhaps developing 20 good universities with funding at the Chinese levels is not beyond us given the present scenario and current realities in India. This would call for an outlay of Rs.2,000 crore a year. In about 10 years (and Rs.20,000 crore later), the benefits would become apparent.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Intellectual property discourages cooperation

Indonesia decided to act [i.e., "refuse to supply any more samples of the avian flu virus" to the World Health Organization] after a foreign company announced work on a vaccine that would be based on its samples. Indonesia stopped cooperating with the W.H.O. and started negotiations to send future samples to another vaccine maker in return for technology that would allow Indonesia to make its own vaccine.

More in this NYTimes editorial.

While on intellectual property, Wired reports that the US is likely to 'reform' its patent laws.


No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other.
-- Jascha Heifetz

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Two body problem

This famous problem -- in all its glory -- is the focus of this Nature article (probably gated) by Jennifer Ouellette. The web page of an ongoing academic study of this problem at Stanford is here.

Inside Higher Ed announces Dual Career Search to help couples solve this problem [via Rex].

* * *

If things don't quite work out, one can always contemplate breaking up [Wake up! Valentine's Day is over!]. And technology can come to one's help here too. According to the Wall Street Journal, "one in ten 18-to-34 year olds has dumped a romantic partner via text message." [the quote is from Peter Klein; the WSJ story is gated].

This is insane - Version 2.0

You might recall all the loud and indignant protests last year when the US Consulate in Chennai denied a visa to some of our scientists. While this news hit the headlines in major newspapers across the globe, we must recall that it did so because of the high profile of the people involved; it largely ignored academics who are in their early or mid-careers and who routinely get treated roughly by the US Consulates in India, and particularly in Chennai.

Something else also went unnoticed at that time: India's own attitude towards academics and independent scholars who wish to visit India. From some of the visitors who come to attend our conferences, we routinely hear horror stories about the way their visa applications are handled. Some repeat visitors -- who are savvy about how the Indian embassies operate -- have even gone to the extent of simply applying for tourist visas (which are far easier to get) even when their visit is for a conference!

* * *

Links: Here are the editorials on this topic:

Economic Times:   IB Raj in Academic Research

Business Standard: An Illiberal Mindset.

* * *

In a   series   of   news   stories (and more), the Indian Express has brought to our attention the plight of American scholars, including those who have won the prestigious Fulbright Fellowships. Some of their visa applications have been pending for as long as 21 months -- yes, you read it right. It is twenty one months!

Ashis Nandy's ToI op-ed (from two years ago) describes the oppressive environment imposed on academic institutions (and visiting scholars) by during Indira Gandhi's regime:

The new dispensation, among other things, ensured the dominance of a small clique of historians in Indian academe. In science, an even smaller clique already ruled the roost. A coterie of power-hungry, strategically placed educational administrators, who knew nothing about education but everything about academic politics — the names of G Parthasarathy, Raja Ramanna and M G K Menon immediately come to one’s mind — completed the picture. New rules and a stricter visa regime were introduced to control scholars and monitor them. Non-Indian scholars of India were discouraged unless they belonged to ‘friendly countries’ as defined by the foreign service bureaucracy — East Europe and the Soviet Union.

Simultaneously, old rules and regulations were rediscovered to keep dissenting scholars under control. Professor Arun Bose, no longer an ardent Leninist but still a creative Marxist thinker, was picked up for questioning while teaching a class at Delhi because he had published a book through Penguin, London. All commercial contracts with foreigners required previous clearance; books were no exception. Technically, no university could invite a foreign scholar to give a lecture even while he was visiting India as a tourist. It too required prior clearance, and of course, as everybody knows, foreign participants of all seminars had to be cleared. I had to once cancel a biannual conference of the World Future Studies Federation because there was tremendous pressure from the government to pack it with sycophantic scientists and academics.

You don't need a Ph.D. in international relations to realize that a country (and especially a poor one like ours) needs all the good will -- and the soft power that comes with it -- it can generate. In fact, we must be extra nice to academics and other thought leaders. Our own national self-interest demands good behaviour on this external front because, in this age of high career mobility, many of the academics we ill-treat today may become high government officials tomorrow. Institutional memories may be short; individuals' memories need not be.

Our government's visa shenanigans can only ruin whatever little good will we have managed to acquire. They must stop. If it means changing the rules and our law books, we must demand that change too.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Indibloggies ...

I am surprised -- and glad -- to find my blog in the list of nominees for the best topical blog in the Indibloggies, the Indian Weblog Awards. Polling is open until the 20th of February.

I just want to thank those who nominated and/or voted for this blog. Even if you didn't do either of those, I still want to thank you for reading my blog!


Free markets ...

How do you feel about free markets? How would you like to test your views on some aspects of it? Check out Charles Wheelan, the Naked Economist:

The reality is that most people -- from one end of the political spectrum to the other -- find some market outcomes objectionable.

Markets don't elicit any kind of consensus. The most interesting public policy questions often involve market outcomes that people decide they don't like -- whether it's sweatshops, prostitution, cheap imports from China, or something else.

So how do you feel about markets? Take this quick quiz.

* * *

And here's Mark Thoma on why markets are not magic.

On this Valentine's Day ...

... it is nice to note that one socio-political outfit in India has come out in the open to celebrate it: the Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (DK) founded by E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. Here's the logic:

"Periyar EV Ramaswami wanted to see the creation of a casteless society, and the PDK feels that love marriage is the route to reaching such a goal. Love marriage is the only way to a casteless egalitarian society," PDK general secretary K Ramakrishnan told this ... newspaper.

Here's some more from the story:

The outfits opposing Valentine's Day, Ramakrishnan said, had a jaundiced view of 'love' and its celebration.

Of course, he quickly added that what the PDK supported is true love and not momentary infatuations that are quite prevalent. The youth should adopt a mature approach to love and for this sex education is necessary at school level.

Who owns the domain *

Why does this domain allow fake blogs to be set up? Why does it allow them to copy -- in full! -- my posts?

More importantly, why does Google's BlogSearch index these fake blogs? Why does it send unsuspecting readers to them?

Is it because Google's BlogSearch is a stupid program or because these fake sites -- spam sites, actually -- carry ads dished out by Google's AdSense?

* * *

Note: I have complained to the BlogSearch team earlier about another spam domain, and that domain stopped appearing in my subsequent searches. Now I find * as well as *.* And their entire content is made up of posts from others' blogs! [The only redeeming feature is that they acknowledge the source ...] Other blog search programs (such as Technorati, IceRocket, BlogPulse, BlogLines) seem to do a good job of ignoring these fake blogs.

I am sick of Google's BlogSearch.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

CSIR under R.A. Mashelkar

From Ashok Desai's column in the Telegraph:

... The number of papers published by CSIR scientists was 1,625 in 1996, and 3,018 in 2005; more important, their impact factor had risen from 0.85 to 2.04. The number of patents taken out by CSIR was 14 in 1996, and 272 in 2004. In 1996, multinationals with R&D centres in India were perhaps half a dozen. In 2005 there were 150; 14 of them had formed partnerships with CSIR laboratories. At the other end, reverse osmosis plants to produce pure water were being run with bullocks and camels, and collagen membrane scaffolds were restoring the skin of burnt children. ...

Patenting gone berserk ...

Wonder why I started seeing stuff on patenting all over the place today! I wasn't particularly looking for them, but they just kept leaping out at me!

Oh, by the way, the update on my previous post has some new links. In particular, you will find a link to Alternative Law Forum that has lots of info on the Mashelkar committee report and on the controversy surrounding it.

Michael Crichton's article in the NYTimes is among the better ones that I saw today:

... Canavan disease is an inherited disorder that affects children starting at 3 months; they cannot crawl or walk, they suffer seizures and eventually become paralyzed and die by adolescence. Formerly there was no test to tell parents if they were at risk. Families enduring the heartbreak of caring for these children engaged a researcher to identify the gene and produce a test. Canavan families around the world donated tissue and money to help this cause.

When the gene was identified in 1993, the families got the commitment of a New York hospital to offer a free test to anyone who wanted it. But the researcher’s employer, Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute, patented the gene and refused to allow any health care provider to offer the test without paying a royalty. The parents did not believe genes should be patented and so did not put their names on the patent. Consequently, they had no control over the outcome.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Plagiarism by the Mashelkar committee?

* * *

Update: From the comment on this DesiPundit post, we have this link to the Alternative Law Forum's web page devoted to the controversy surrounding the Mashelkar committee report. In particular, you will find the 'original' Shamnad Basheer report. To make life easier for you, there is a short table which compares the key conclusions of the Mashelkar committee report and those of the original. Quite revealing.

* * *

Chan Park and Achal Prabhala have two op-eds today: the Hindu and the Times of India. In both, they have levelled charges of plagiarism on the committee headed by Dr. R. A. Mashelkar (ex-CEO of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) that looked into some technical questions about our patent laws as they relate to pharmaceutical companies. Guru has a nice summary.

Park and Prabhala don't stop with charges of plagiarism; they also attack the substance of the Mashelkar committee's conclusions. While the issues are technical (about whether TRIPS, the intellectual property-related agreement that India is a signatory to, allows its member countries some flexibility in deciding what is patentable), they are also political: your position on these issues would depend on your view of pharmaceutical companies, how much of innovation is actually attributable to them, and how fair they are in dealing with poor people. There is a lot of room in the political spectrum for people to choose a spot to sit on.

My own views are informed by the article titled The Truth about Drug Companies by Marcia Angell, ex-Editor in Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, Angell also builds a compelling case that a big part of the real innovation actually happens in universities (and small start-ups spawned by them) with public funding. She also mounts a scathing attack on the Big Pharma companies, which appear to spend a lot more money on how to rig the system in their favour than on innovation through drug discovery.

And here's something from today's NYTimes on the nexus between pharma companies and doctors:

The pharmaceutical industry spends $12 billion a year marketing to doctors, and much of that money is in the form of free samples delivered to doctors’ offices, often accompanied by lunch for the entire staff. When the University of Michigan health systems banned such lunches in 2005, they calculated that the lunches had been worth $2.5 million a year.

The free drugs are samples of the newest and most expensive branded products. The drug industry hopes that by starting patients with free samples, they will remain on the more expensive medication rather than using a cheaper generic. And there is evidence that doctors who have relationships with the pharmaceutical industry prescribe more of the expensive drugs.

Harvard's new president: Drew Gilpin Faust

Sara Rimer of the NYTimes reports:

... Her mother, Catharine, she [Dr. Faust] has said, told her repeatedly, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.”

Instead, Dr. Faust left home at an early age, to be educated at Concord Academy, then a girls’ prep school in Massachusetts, and at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college known for creating future leaders, and to become a leading Civil War scholar. And Sunday, through the convergence of grand changes in higher education, her own achievements and the resignation of Harvard’s previous president under pressure, she became the first woman appointed to lead the Ivy League university founded in 1636.

“One of the things that I think characterizes my generation — that characterizes me, anyway, and others of my generation — is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out,” Dr. Faust said in an interview Sunday at Loeb House just after the university announced that she would become its 28th president, effective July 1. “I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor — I never would have imagined that. Writing books — I never would have imagined that. Getting a Ph.D. — I’m not sure I would even have imagined that. I’ve lived my life a step at a time. Things sort of happened.”

Here's Scott Jaschik on what Harvard's choice means:

“Harvard is incredibly significant symbolically,” said Carol S. Hollenshead, director of the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan. “This is a very important step.”

Hollenshead said that her only worry was one of perception. “People may see this as evidence that there is no longer a gap in gender equity in higher education,” she said. However much Faust’s appointment is “worth celebrating,” she said, “it is still true that at every level of the academy, the higher you get, the fewer women there are.”

Here's Jaschik's summary of the chronology of women's progress in reaching the very top of America's research universities:

Several women at the meeting — while delighting in Harvard’s choice — said it bothered them that Harvard was getting attention for doing something other institutions did years ago (decades ago actually). In 1978, Hanna Holborn Gray became president of the University of Chicago, the first woman to be permanent president of a top research university. Prior to being named, she was acting president of Yale University, where she was also provost. It was 10 years before another woman became head of a major research university: Donna E. Shalala at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (currently the president of the University of Miami). In the Ivy League, Judith Rodin was the first woman to be named president when she was selected at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. Rodin is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation and when she left Penn, she was succeeded by Amy Gutmann.

Six of the Big 10 universities either have or have had female presidents; women have led huge state university systems (Molly Broad at the University of North Carolina; W. Ann Reynolds at California State University and the City University of New York). Susan Hockfield was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. And abroad, Alison Richard is vice chancellor (the top position) at the University of Cambridge. (Richard, Hockfield, Rodin and Gray all served as provost at Yale before getting the top job elsewhere.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Links ...

How come school teachers have so much political clout? Swaminathan Aiyar has the scoop:

...[G]overnment teachers preside over polling booths at election time. So we must cosset them, not antagonise them. Otherwise teachers will help rival parties to rig elections, and we cannot afford that at any cost.

A recent book by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammed Muzammil The Political Economy of Education in India throws new light on teacher power in UP. Teachers are politically strong because they themselves have become politicians in astonishingly large numbers.

Masterji has become netaji. [...]

When it comes to dominance and continuous innovation in an industry, geography is destiny.

What is congestion pricing? Is it time to introduce it in Bengalooru and our other continuously traffic-jammed cities?

In the life of a start-up, the very early stages are probably the most productive.

Does the Nation of Scientists respect its citizens' right to free speech? From the comments section, I found this great quote attributed to George E.P. Box:

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Wisdom is what's left after we've run out of personal opinions.
-- Cullen Hightower

Higher Ed Links ...

Kirit Parikh, Member of India's Planning Commission, offers yet another nuanced alternative to reservation. It is based on rescaling one's entrance test scores based on individual as well as group disadvantages.

Take the school-leaving exam as the starting point. Then take the average of each subgroup of students. One can differentiate many such groups.

Then take the difference between the highest average scoring subgroup and the average of a particular subgroup and add that difference as a nurture handicap to the marks of all those who belong to that particular subgroup. After this the admission is strictly on merit.

Parikh's proposed scheme depends heavily on entrance exams, without questioning their design nor their fairness. We know all (well, sort of!) about the limitations of the current set of exams, don't we?

* * *

In other news:

Urmi Goswami reports that accreditation of colleges and universities is to become mandatory.

Harvard is on the verge of making history:

[The selection of Drew Gilpin Faust] by a search committee, if ratified as expected by the Board of Overseers on Sunday, would make Harvard the fourth Ivy League university to name a woman. It comes two years after Lawrence H. Summers, then president of the university, set off a storm by suggesting that a lack of intrinsic aptitude could help explain why fewer women than men reach the top ranks of science and math in universities.

A controversial Princeton lab, on the other hand, becomes history.

Pushpa Bhargava may have been a great scientist ...

... but right now, he seems to be intent only on being a big-time troublemaker at the National Knowledge Commission.

* * *

Sidebar: Previous posts on Bhargava's "contributions" to NKC are here, here and here.

* * *

According to this DNA story, when NKC Chairman Sam Pitroda asked for his resignation sometime ago, Bhargava (who is the Vice Chairman of NKC) wrote this in his e-mail:

“This refers to your call to me yesterday when I was in Delhi, asking me to resign from the NKC. As I had mentioned to you then, would you kindly send me a (signed) letter by fax asking me to do so, so that I may go to the Prime Minister with it for his advice…Till the time he desires me to leave the NKC, I will of course continue to work…”

The (signed) letter from Pitroda never materialized. Perhaps emboldened by Pitroda's backtracking, Bhargava has got at least one political party to muddy the waters further:

“Pitroda does not understand the Indian ground realities. We are concerned about the functioning of the NKC and the CPI (M) is with us. We will convey our displeasure to the PM,” said CPI national secretary D Raja, who expects the support of the CPI (M) on the matter.

Bhargava too has been keen on painting himself as the champion of the underprivileged. He has been quoted as saying "... Others [in the Commission] have an elitist view which only reflects 20 per cent of the population but I stand for the under privileged people."

Interestingly, he doesn't find any support for his position from JNU professor and NKC member Prof. Jayati Ghosh who, to my knowledge, has never been accused of holding elitist views nor of being a right wing stooge. While Bhargava has charged that "there is no consultation", Ghosh's response is quite blunt: "there is no lack of consultation and there is no ideological battle ... It is all a clash of egos. "

In a clear case of "backlash through embarrassing leaks", the NDTV story goes on to insinuate that Bhargava's outbursts may be "linked to the review of the contract of advisor Chandana Chakrabarti, whom Bhargava appointed, on a salary of a Rs one lakh a month." Bhargava, of course, has denied any wrongdoing.

Given that the Left parties are sympathetic to Bhargava (or, more likely, their deep antipathy towards Pitroda), I am willing to concede that some of NKC's recommendations may need some re-jigging to get the Left on board. However, I am yet to see any credible criticism -- either from Bhargava or from the Left parties -- that explains to the public which aspects of the NKC's recommendations they oppose and why. In particular, all that Bhargava has been doing is to carp on Pitroda's "style of functioning." Is this a case of the political being (primarily) personal?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What do undergraduates gain by studying in a Real University?

Let me start with this report in Inside Higher Ed on Harvard's new undergraduate core curriculum:

Now the plan calls for students to take one course in each of the following eight categories:

  • Aesthetic and interpretive understanding.
  • Culture and belief.
  • Empirical reasoning.
  • Ethical reasoning.
  • Science of living systems.
  • Science of the physical universe.
  • Societies of the world.
  • The United States and the world.

* * *

In response to my post on Real Universities, several people have told me that engineering students in Indian universities (including IITs) do take courses in humanities and social sciences (H&SS). For example, Apurva points out that at IIT-K, the number of H&SS courses that are required is four; he notes further that Caltech students take 12 courses in H&SS.

Sidebar: Some IITs have recently started an integrated MA program in H&SS; some have always had an integrated M.Sc. programs in the physical sciences. Thanks to Arun Shourie's donation, IIT-K now has a full fledged department in biotechnology. By all indications, these programs are still too small to make a dent in the IITs' reputation as primarily technical (engineering) institutions. Yet, to the extent that these programs represent IITs' migration towards a Real Universityhood, I welcome them. [To this trend, I must add the MBA programs, and Kharagpur's law program.]

* * *

While I am all for undergraduate students getting a well-rounded education with a good mix of courses, my argument for a Real University has very little to do with a few H&SS options in what are essentially institutions in niche technical areas [see footnote]. In my post, I tried to argue for a Real University that would not only produce well-rounded engineers, but will also graduate also well-rounded economists, artists, scientists, doctors, lawyers, sociologists and historians.

If you are an undergrad student, you would be right to wonder about the advantages of studying in a Real University (as opposed to, say, an engineering college). Just what might these benefits be?

First and foremost, you will have friends from diverse academic disciplines. Your network of friends will be diverse. To me, this alone is a sufficient reason for choosing a RU over a mere technical college. But there is more: you will become familiar with -- at the least, you will hear about -- big ideas in many fields. Your mess hall conversations will be a lot more diverse and interesting. On issues that are not quite in your field, you will have someone on hand to provide a more informed perspective.

Your university library will have books, journals, tapes and videos covering a wide range of fields. Your university's student community will be a lot more vibrant -- particularly if the university also has a fine arts department!

If some of the ideas in other disciplines appeal to you, you will get a chance to minor in them. You will get scholars in all kinds of areas coming to your campus to give seminars. You will gain a better appreciation of inter/cross-disciplinary thinking. [Take a look at some of the things mentioned by Sunil Laxman in his list of top ten things you can do in grad school. In principle, they are available to undergrad students as well.]

More importantly, you will realize that every field has incredibly smart people grappling with extremely interesting and complex problems. You will realize that engineering (or medicine, or law, or science, or information technology, or hotel management) is not the only worthwhile endeavour in life.

And, you won't feel tired playing the 'crème-de-la-crème' game all the time! Liberating, isn't it?

As you can see, most of these benefits emerge from interactions among students themselves. Sure, formal arrangements -- opportunity to pursue a minor, or to attend seminars by Big People -- are important; but they are of use only to those who have the necessary preparation and the inclination to exploit them (admittedly, a small minority!). But the gains from interactions among students are available for everyone. In other words, these benefits really are in the air!

* * *

Footnote: To be fair, Apurva is not arguing that a few H&SS courses (or an enhanced number) are enough to make our colleges and their curriculum great. I'm sorry that I gave the impression -- due to some seriously sloppy writing -- that he is making precisely such an argument. He wrote in to tell me that he is with me on the need for -- and the benefits of -- RUs.

Links ...

  1. Kieran Healy's mental model of bloggers.
  2. Death of sociology? "Sociology is academia’s Desdemona. You keep suffocating her, but she won’t give up the ghost."
  3. Andrew Leonard on how the neuroeconomists tackle the irrational.
  4. Did you know that Yale didn't have a well-defined tenure track for its junior faculty? Not any more, if these reforms are implemented.
  5. Nikhil Swaminathan on androstadienone, that special ingredient in male sweat which increases "positive mood, total physiological arousal and sexual arousal" in women.
  6. Is India's economy overheated? The Economist investigates.
  7. Just how much water is there in a TMCFT?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Links ...

1. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, "constraints on India's development are largely on the domestic front." [free registration required]

2. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's take on India's biggest challenges.

3. Shivam Vij on Indian style racism.

4. Tata Steel's recent acquisition of the Anglo-Dutch steel giant Corus is pumping Indians up. Many see it as an indication that "we have arrived." The ToI group has been a boisterous cheerleader, with some tacky antics. Are they deluded? Anand Giridharadas [who blogs here] covers this story for the NYTimes. Amelia Gentleman covers it for The Observer. And, here's Gautam Adhikari in DNA.

5. Apurva thinks that IITs are overrated.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Retrograde ads (and their underlying assumptions)

Charu describes an atrocious ad for Camlin permanent markers.

Brad DeLong discusses the contents of two ads, and the kind of hidden messages they carry. They are not quite in the same league as the SBI debit card ads, though.

Web archives

Here's the problem posed by John Holbo: If I link to a web URL today, and it dies tomorrow, is there any way by which I (and my readers) can still get the contents of that URL? In other words, are there sites which archive web pages with their date stamps?

Crooked Timber readers have provided several pointers (there is a side discussion about tiny-url which can be skipped). WebCite seems to be particularly interesting. Wayback machine is another. On the other hand, Google cache is totally useless for this purpose. One of the perceptive commenters even offers a free business idea for a web service called Content Cryogenics!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Who invented Gobi Manchurian?

Whenever our gang in Pittsburgh went out to Chinese restaurants, the one dish that would always be ordered was General Tso's chicken (with variations on the spelling of "Tso"). Today's NYTimes magazine has a story by Fuchsia Dunlop tracing the origin of this dish. Why?

General Tso’s (or Zuo’s) chicken is the most famous Hunanese dish in the world. A delectable concoction of lightly battered chicken in a chili-laced sweet-sour sauce, it appears on restaurant menus across the globe, but especially in the Eastern United States, where it seems to have become the epitome of Hunanese cuisine. Despite its international reputation, however, the dish is virtually unknown in the Chinese province of Hunan itself. ...

* * *

This prompted me to look for info on the origin of 'Gobi Manchurian' (Gobi = Cauliflower), the dish that has invaded every restaurant menu in Bengalooru (and probably elsewhere in India as well). It is probably an Indian invention. A Business India story (cited here) seems to agree. Heck, it even figures in this site for 'traditional Tamil recipes'!

This American says it could well have been General Tso's cauliflower. In the comments section of this post, Lulu says Vir Sanghvi has written a hilarious account of the origin of this dish. Some more time on Google landed me on Rashmi Bansal's post on Gobi Manchurian served in Udipi restaurants.

Oh well ... For what it's worth, the best Gobi Manchurian in Bengalooru is served at Ginza, the Chinese place on Church Street right next to K.C. Das which at the corner of Church Street and St. Marks Road. [Ginza, I believe, is a part of the Chung Wah group of Chinese restaurants, but I'm not sure how great it is at the other places.]

Chandler is the new Denver airport!

Over the last decade or so, everyone who loved to trash software engineering has been citing the case of Denver's 'new' Airport (I have some links here and here).

Now, there's a new, new thing for them to pile on: Chandler -- the personal information manager that was to be the last word on PIMs -- not! Scott Rosenberg has written a book on this project that went nowhere: Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software. The book has received at least one great review from Joel Spolsky (and probably from many others as well). Salon has an interview with Rosenberg, who also has a great WaPo op-ed on Micro$oft's travails with its latest mon$ter called Vi$ta.

For the sake of completeness, let me link to the Chandler team's post about the project's progress "since Scott’s narrative leaves off, around the end of 2005."

Saturday, February 03, 2007


iMechanica, the online community of mechanicians (yes, that's how solid and computational mechanics people prefer to call themselves), crosses a pretty impressive milestone: 1000 users. It's an active community of nice, pleasant people, and it offers many different ways of interacting with other users: sharing course notes and preprints of academic papers, blog posts, journal clubs, book reviews, announcements about jobs, conferences, new books, new courses, ... Do read this post by Prof. Zhigang Suo (User #2!) about what this multi-faceted online community has achieved and where it is headed.

And, isn't this a really, really cool way of signing off (on the post announcing the 1000-user milestone):

And so, my fellow mechanicians: ask not what you can do for iMechanica - ask what iMechanica can do for you.

Real Universities, Please?

An edited version of the following (with the disclaimer that "views expressed are personal") appeared as an op-ed -- my first! -- in this week's Tehelka, whose editors exercised their right to publish it under a different title. The e-paper version with some fancy graphic art is here.

The purpose behind posting the article here is mainly to provide the links, without which some sentences sound weird. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.

* * *

Real Universities, Please?

In 2005, the UPA government announced the formation of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) at Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh; the first two started their operations last July. In September 2006, it announced that five engineering colleges would be 'upgraded' to Indian Institutes of Engineering Science and Technology. Just last month, it also 'awarded' new Indian Institutes of Technology to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.

All this news should make us happy and proud that our government is finally getting its act together on our higher education, right? Wrong! Absolutely, horribly wrong!

Creation of these new institutions is premised on an over-reliance on Indian Institutes -- a phenomenon which is best abbreviated to IIO. As a strategy for positive change IIO is flawed, inefficient, and expensive. From the point of view of nation building, IIO represents an utter bankruptcy of imagination.

The flaws in IIO stem from its smug assumption that, somehow, small institutions training a few thousand students in niche areas are enough to feed the country's immense appetite for skilled manpower. This smugness also makes it callously indifferent to the hunger for knowledge and skills among our millions of students who languish in our universities and colleges.

From an operational viewpoint, IIO has historically been an inefficient strategy. In any academic institution, certain facilities are common: library, lecture halls, laboratories, sports facilities, amphitheatres, and computing and internet infrastructure. The bigger the institution -- the larger the student and faculty population that uses this common infrastructure -- the lower the effective cost per user. With its emphasis on small institutions, IIO has bred inefficiency. A similar argument applies to the student-to-teacher ratio. Currently, IITs operate at about seven students per teacher (going by the 2003 figures from the Rama Rao Committee report). As M.A. Pai points out, this ratio is three times as high in "most US public universities." Clearly, a poor country like ours has every right to expect -- in fact, demand -- that our institutions perform at the highest levels of efficiency. Engineers and managers from our IITs and IIMs would demand no less in the products and services they design, develop or manage!

More important than its inefficiency and narrow vision is the enormous cost of IIO. Just ask yourself this question: if our government is so proud of its IIO strategy, why doesn't it convert all our universities and colleges into Indian Institutes of This and That? Let us do some quick math.

The three new IITs, for example, are estimated to cost Rs. 1400 crores per year for the next five years! When fully operational, they will have a student strength of about 14,000 (8000 bachelors, 2000 masters and 4000 doctoral students -- all of which are generous estimates), giving us a price of Rs. 50 lakhs per student. Amortizing this sum over a 20-year period gives us Rs. 2.5 lakhs per student per year. That is just fixed costs alone! Add to it about Rs. 1.5 lakhs per student as annual running expenses, taking the total to over Rs. 4 lakhs per student per year!

To put this number in perspective, if our government were to lavish even a quarter of this amount on every student, it would end up spending Rs. 100,000 crores -- roughly 3 percent of GDP. Put another way, this is eight times India's current expenditure on higher education (0.37 percent of GDP)! Is it any wonder, then, that "IITs for all" is not the favourite slogan for our higher education planners?

Ultimately, IIO blinkers us into an utterly unimaginative -- and some would say, delusional -- worldview which devalues academic disciplines that are not worthy of an Indian Institute. Isn't it absurd to even assume that anything other than technology, science, and management (and, if I may add, Hotel Management!) is unimportant for our country? Don't we need great economists to steer us through turbulence of globalization? Psychologists to help us deal with stresses from a fast-paced life? Artists to make our lives richer and more enjoyable? And philosophers to make sense of our uniquely human condition and our (almost) impending immortality?

We must demand that our next generation be exposed to the big, bold and beautiful ideas from all disciplines. This demand is not just pseudo-idealistic rhetoric; it is firmly rooted in reality. Consider: while mature fields have a clearly articulated set of unsolved problems (though the solution paths are yet to be discovered!), it's the disciplinary interstices that often offer scope for asking probing questions and for making exciting discoveries. Take, for example, nanotechnology -- arguably the most happening field in the sciences. It straddles physics, chemistry, biology, and electronics. I can cite neurophysics and biochemistry as other examples of such mixed fields in natural sciences. In the social sciences too, scorching hot fields such as behavioural economics and psycholinquistics straddle multiple disciplines. Do we have examples of hot fields that span natural and social sciences? We sure do: econophysics, sociobiology and social networks.

All these inter/cross-disciplinary fields hold great promise -- both in the short term and in the long term. We must empower our youth to benefit from -- contribute to -- the fantastic new developments in these areas. We must dump IIO, and actively seek better alternatives.

One alternative is readily suggested by IIO's flaws we have discussed so far. This alternative is an institution whose academic footprint spans humanities and arts, natural and social sciences, and professions such as law, management, medicine and engineering. In other words, a Real University!

I can hear you groan, "you mean, like, a Delhi University?". Don't panic, I'm not recommending that we let a 100 DUs bloom. Serious problems plague our universities, and many of them can be traced back to the hub-and-spoke structure with a a centralized university and its affiliated colleges. This structure has effectively isolated practicing researchers from teaching bachelors students. Granted, we inherited this structure from the British; but our former colonial masters dumped it a long time ago in favour of Real Universities!

A Real University combines the great features of IITs (functional autonomy, generous funding, co-habitation of research and undergraduate teaching) and our universities (multiple disciplines), and improves upon the result. It will solve the problems of intellectual, disciplinary and physical fragmentation: active researchers will teach bachelors, masters and doctoral students, programmes in a variety of disciplines will be on offer, and economies of scale will operate in every way possible -- large campuses with tens of thousands of students.

So, how do we create Real Universities? One option is to build them from the ground up. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended precisely such a course of action: creating what it calls National Universities -- some fifty of them over the next several years. This recommendation deserves our whole-hearted support.

But we do not have to stop with creating RUs from scratch. We can also encourage other institutions -- by providing the right incentives -- to convert themselves into RUs. For example, our universities can offer bachelors programmes. Similarly, IITs can expand into social sciences and humanities. The elite research institutions (IISc, TIFR,...) can expand into bachelors programmes as well as into social sciences and humanities. And finally, some of our more accomplished colleges can become RUs by adding research to their portfolio of activities.

Do all our institutions have to be RUs? Of course not. Just as the developed countries have their community and vocational colleges, liberal arts colleges, and research universities, we must also aim for a diversity of institutions, each with its own unique set of advantages. For example, our colleges have done a good job of keeping the costs down largely by having full time teachers. Not only can they be a low cost alternative to RUs, they can also force the latter to keep their costs in check.

With greenfield and brownfield initiatives, we can easily bring -- within the next five years or so -- at least one million students (10 percent) under a modern system of Real Universities. If our state governments also allow the universities under their control to be converted into Real Universities, this number can easily be three or four times larger. Now, that is an achievement that we can all be proud of.

Indians and teamwork

Why have we succeeded in software and pharma research, [Murugappa group's ex-Chairman MV Subbiah] asks, and gives the answer: Because in both areas, people can work on their own, figuring out algorithms or molecular structures. The negative conclusion: Indians don't work well in teams.

That's from T.N. Ninan, editor of Business Standard.

There's a lot of management 'wisdom' from Subbiah in Ninan's article, but this one about Indians' general inability to work well in teams hit me immediately. Like most other management 'wisdom', this one is also an over-generalization, but I get the feeling that it has some (and only some!) truth in it. This is because, just the other day, an entrepreneur friend complained to me quite bitterly about the lack of team spirit among the young, smart engineers in his very young start-up. "While everyone agrees to the team's plan in meetings," he said, "each person then goes out and starts doodling on other, fancier things that will show off his/her superior technical prowess." In the process, some of the really important work -- such as the inevitable last minute polishing up that needs to be done before the product is shipped -- suffers, and the team ends up facing missed deadlines and sorry consequences.

While my friend sympathizes with the engineers' inner need to show off their talents, he is certainly miffed at their lack of commitment to the team and its decisions. This kind of unprofessional conduct hurts the team's goals, and he cited it as the most important challenge for him in his entrepreneurial career. And remember, my friend's company develops software -- a field in which, Subbiah says, "people can work on their own, figuring out algorithms"!