Thursday, May 31, 2007

Women in the IITs: MSM catches on

... Back in 1972, of the 342 seats for the BTech course, IIT-Bombay had merely six girl students. In the intervening decades, the proportion remained more or less the same. In fact, even 30 years later, it had not more than 13 girls studying on its Powai campus. The change has come about in the last five years.

That's from Hemali Chhapia's report in the ToI [Hat tip: Confused]. She tries to put a very positive spin on this year's results for women. Where she errs, I think, is in conflating numbers and percentages. There have been years in which women's presence in certain IITs went upto as high as 8 percent [but this percentage never went into double digits], but their absolute numbers were small because their intake itself was small.

Chhapia also informs us that there are two women in the top 100 ranks this year. She has some more info on the topper among women: Ankita Sharma from Anushakti Nagar (BARC's residential complex):

... The 18-year-old had appeared for the JEE last year too, but was placed way down in all-India rankings at 2,366.

A student of BARC Junior College, Ankita then packed her bags and joined a residential coaching class for a year. "My focus and concentration has paid off now," Ankita said.

This is what she told the Indian Express:

“I stayed in Kota (Rajasthan) for eight months with my mother to study at a coaching school. I returned just a month before JEE,” she said.

... and CNN-IBN:

I think more girls should take this exam. In my class, there were 80 boys and five girls who were preparing for it. There are very few girls who took the exam. Otherwise the ranks for girls would have been better.

CNN-IBN's Shreya Dhoundial also remarks on the disconnect between IIT results and the results of board exams (such as the CBSE):

It’s a trend that is completely opposite to the CBSE board results where girls have been out performing the boys for the last 10 years.

But she also makes the mistake of sticking the mike in front of a moron, and compounds it by polluting the airwaves with his views:

“There maybe some part of the brain is not working for the female as it is working for the male. But I am sure the main reason is that they are not doing the application base studies,” says Consultant, Narayana Institute, Kamleshwar Dwivedi.

* * *

On a slightly different note, ToI reports that almost 18 percent of the JEE takers were from the Other Backward Castes. It didn't, however, give the number of OBC candidates who got through JEE.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

T.T. Ram Mohan on governance at IITs and IIMs

From his vantage point at IIM-A, Ram Mohan comments on the debate in the ET's "Perspectives" section which we too looked at yesterday. His post deserves to be read in its entirety, but here's a quick snippet:

Mohandas Pai gives us the usual rubbish about government dominance of education affecting quality. He thinks all problems will be solved if government should get off the backs of IITs and IIMs and education in general. Readers of this blog at least should not buy this. I have repeatedly posed this question: out of the hundreds of engineering, medical and management institutions in the private sector, how come none measures up to the IITs, AIIMS and IIMs? Who has stopped private institutions from beating the hell out of the top government ones? The constraint, I daresay, is motivation: where the motive is to maximise profit, you are not going to get great quality of education.


In an uncomfortably hot Moscow, Vivek gets a quick lesson about the Russian spring:

Me: So, this is the hottest Summer in Moscow?

Russian Guy: Ye .. er.. no, it is not the hottest Summer. It is the hottest Spring. Summer is yet to start.

2007 IIT-JEE results are out ...

A preliminary report is here (and here, too). Here are the salient details:

Over 240,000 candidates took the exam, and "7,209 (almost 3 percent) are eligible to seek admission to 5,537 seats" in the seven IITs, IT-BHU and ISMU-Dhanbad.

Among the candidates, some 54,000 (about 22 percent) were women. The topper among women is ranked at 55. In all, there are 587 women in the much coveted JEE list this year, 193 more than in 2006. Their fraction in the 2007 cohort works out to 8.1 percent.

[In comparison, the fraction of women was 6.3 percent (321 / 5092) in 2005, and 6.2 percent (394 / 6343) in 2006. So, women have done better this year by a considerable margin.]

The IITs also have some statistics about Dalit (SC) and Tribal (ST) students. Of 20,892 Dalit students wrote the exam, and nearly 594 (2.8 percent) of them qualified. These numbers for tribal students are, respectively, 5,909 and 109 (2 percent).

If you look at these numbers, pass-through rate is roughly the same for Dalit (2.8 percent) and open category students (3 percent). For the tribals (2 percent), it's about a third less. However, the real hit for SC and ST students is on the input side: Dalits form only 8.5 percent of the exam takers, while 15 percent of the seats are reserved for them. Similarly, only 2.5 percent of the exam takers belong to STs, against the 7.5 percent quota meant for them.

[Update: I wanted to add this, but missed doing it. Women get hit on both the input side and the pass-through side. With 22 percent of the exam-takers, women are poorly represented at this stage itself. They then suffer a second level disadvantage, with just about 1.1 percent of them getting into the JEE list. In other words, men are over three times more likely than women to get through JEE. ]

There is no separate quota for OBCs this year. However, the IITs have not revealed how many of the JEE-qualified candidates belong to the OBCs. They certainly collected the data this year, so I'm sure they know what that number is. I'm surprised this information has not been revealed at the news conference in Mumbai. I would think this is a fit case for invoking the Right to Information Act.

* * *

More when additional details emerge. In the meantime, you might want to look at an analysis of the 2006 JEE results, or our recent discussion of JEE's (plausible) bias against women, recapped here.

CBSE (Class X) results

Restults are summarized here. Some key points:

Over 700,000 students took the exam, and 84.4 percent of them passed. Girls had only a small edge over boys in pass rate (84.7 vs. 84.2).

There are more girls (55 percent) than boys among the 2923 students with 95+ percent.

Boys (50.4 percent) outnumber girls by a small margin among the 28187 students with 90+ percent.

There are 5251 candidates with 100 percent in mathematics; boys have a much larger edge over girls in this category. [link]

Kendriya Vidyalayas (95.6 percent) and Jawahar Navodayas (96.4 percent) are ahead of private schools (91.8 percent) and other government schools (70.3 percent). [link]

The biggest story, apparently, is the huge improvement in the performance of students from non-KV government schools (most of which appear to belong to the Delhi government). The pass rate for the Delhi schools went up some 59 percent last year to 77 percent this year! The Indian Express has a story about this phenomenon. Do take a list of things -- at the end of the story -- the Delhi government did to improve things in its schools.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How should IITs and IIMs be governed?

That's the title of the Perspectives section of today's Economic Times, with contributions from V. Ranganathan (IIM-B), T.V. Mohandas Pai (Infosys) and Pankaj Jalote (IIT-D).

Of the three perspectives, Jalote's is by far the only balanced take on the issue; after discussing a particular model of autonomy that's worth working towards, he concludes on a realistic note:

It is, however, not clear whether the government is willing to give this form of autonomy and, perhaps more importantly, whether these institutes are willing to accept the responsibility that must go with autonomy.

The perspectives from the other two gentlemen, on the other hand, are absolute trash. Take, Ranganathan's for example. After offering a whole bunch of excuses for why the IIMs have not had a stellar research record, he has the audacity to propose the following as a 'solution':

The government can solve this problem by pouring money on the IIMs but keeping their hands off after that! Reputation building takes statesmanship, long-term vision and a Warren Buffetian aloofness.

Perhaps someone should remind him that this is pretty much what the government has done so far.

For his part, Mohandas Pai inserts this boilerplate:

...[P]rivate educational institutions are discouraged from being established because of our perverse belief that education belongs in the public sector.

This is inane, unthinking bullshit. When you look around, you find tons of private colleges, deemed universities, and management institutions. [Even at primary and secondary levels, there are tons of private schools, and their number and the number of children studying in them are increasing.] We are at a stage where most of our engineers and MBAs are from private institutions. Our problem is the poor quality of education in these institutions (and in some of our public ones too). Our problem is our regulatory authorities' poor record of regulating them. Our problem is the shady ethics and corruption in the private colleges -- taking bribes from students, paying a pittance to their teachers, and doing nothing about the poor infrastructure. And our problem is also an inability to dissuade ex-politicians, their ex-thugs and other such shady elements from starting educational institutions.

But our problem is certainly not "our perverse belief that education belongs in the public sector."

As can be expected, the rest of Pai's 'perspective' is filled with more such inanities about financial autonomy in IITs, faculty salaries, etc.

Sigh. Yet another wasted opportunity.

Ranking US universities ...

The Chronicle has a bunch of articles on the annual US News ranking of US universities. I don't know how long they will be available before going behind a paywall, so get them fast.

The US News happens to be the biggest such ranking exercise, even though it has come in for some serious criticism (and ideas for improving this exercise are available). If you look at the criteria used by the magazine, you realize that they are heavily skewed against the public universities. Result? The top public university (UC-Berkeley) in their list is at Rank 21!

I know of at least a couple of other ranking exercises: One of them is from Washington Monthly. Here's a quick excerpt from this page:

We asked ourselves: What are reasonable indicators of how much a school is benefiting the country? We came up with three: how well it performs as an engine of social mobility (ideally helping the poor to get rich rather than the very rich to get very, very rich), how well it does in fostering scientific and humanistic research, and how well it promotes an ethic of service to country. We then devised a way to measure and quantify these criteria (See "A Note on Methodology"). Finally, we placed the schools into rankings. Rankings, we admit, are never perfect, but they're also indispensable.

The other one is in this very interesting site which allows you to get your own personalized ranking of graduate schools in your field based on criteria you choose. We looked at this site a while ago (here).

Evidently, these other methods have not entered the public consciousness in the US the same way the US News's has.

Before I finish, I just want to point to Brayden King's discussion of how universities (organizations, in general) deal with rankings in which they don't fare well.

Taking care of the tiniest of babies ...

NYTimes's Christine Hauser has a very interesting article about the latest developments in neonatal care for babies born well before they are ready to face the world. [The article also taught me a new phrase and a beautiful concept: "kangaroo care".]

This is how it used to be (and how it is, probably, in India):

In the six months that Mrs. Johnson sat by Ellie’s isolette, she began to understand firsthand the jarring discrepancy between the aquatic nest that her daughter had left too early and the new environment into which she had been thrust and was now expected to grow.

Parents of other babies stopped and gawked. Alarms went off at adjacent isolettes. Monitors beeped, instruments clattered and lights glared. Sometimes, a wail of grief from parents learning of the death of their fragile baby added to the cacophony.

And this is the direction in which it's going:

... [P]rivate rooms in neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs, ... strive to replicate the qualities of the womb: its darkness, relative quiet and full entanglement with the mother’s biological rhythms.

The spaces, called “womb rooms” by some researchers, are predicated on the obvious notion that the best place for a premature baby would be the exquisitely complex environment where, in the last three months of gestation, the neural connections in the baby’s brain grow exponentially as it curls up in amniotic fluid, listening to the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, intestinal gurgling and pitch of her voice.

In premature births, however, the second-best place is one where the infant develops in a cocoonlike environment that mimics as many of the womb’s qualities as possible, with uninterrupted sleep, indirect light, skin-to-skin contact and the assuring sound of parents’ voices.

“We are trying to approximate to decrease the discrepancy of the natural womb environment in the intensive care unit,” said Dr. Heidelise Als, the director of neurobehavioral infant and child studies at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Hospitals are overhauling their neonatal intensive care units to transform open wards into private spaces that, in essence, restore the intimate relationship between the mother and child and allow the fragile infants to develop.

Thumbs up to RTI: The AP Chief Minister knew what he was doing

Here's one more example of the effectiveness of RTI (in its un-diluted version that demands that 'file notings' are also an integral part of the 'file' and all the 'information' therein):

File notings obtained through a Right to Information application have revealed that Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy and Chief Secretary J. Harinarayana have indeed approved and signed the draft GO 938 of February 20, the controversial media-related order that kicked up a row three months ago.

It marked a drive to launch defamation cases against newspapers and their editors, but was immediately withdrawn by the Government.

Contrary to the impression created at that time that the Chief Minister and the top officers were unaware of the contents of the GO, the file notings clearly show the final GO was issued after the normal circulation of the file for four months from October 19, after it was thoroughly vetted and endorsed by all of them.

Monday, May 28, 2007

S.R. Valluri's letter to the editor of Outlook

Remember the Outlook story (linked to here) about various cases of scientific misconduct that were being investigated by the Society for Scientific Values? The magazine has published a couple of letters in response to that story. Here's a blunt one from Dr. S.R. Valluri (it's short, so I'm reproducing it here):

Developed countries tend to act decisively against practices of research misconduct (Wise Words, But Another’s, May 14). For example, when Bill Clinton was president, he had issued this finding, "Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research results." His Office of Science and Technology had been authorised to establish facts in instances of research misconduct, and ordered that when such misconduct is established by a preponderance of evidence, the scientist concerned and his institution be denied federal funding. The contrast in our country is striking. Mashelkar wasn’t the only one; many scientists in senior positions of responsibility too have been known to recklessly indulge in research misconduct. Asking them to protect the cause of science is like asking a goat to guard a cabbage. The Society for Scientific Values must be given statutory authority, with the principal scientific advisor to the government of India as the appellate authority in such matters. It is also time that ethics in the practice and management of science is taught at the pre-university level itself.

Some inside dope on Bhargava's ouster from NKC

Outlook's gossip page says this:

In the end, it was a letter that did him in. That's the inside story on why P.M. Bhargava, now ex-deputy chairman of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), was shown the door. Sources say a particularly critical missive he shot off to a senior PMO official is what finally sealed his case. In it, Bhargava took exception to the presence of Americans (read friends of chairman Sam Pitroda) at meetings of the Commission relating to education and health. The note was seen as the proverbial last straw. Ever since the PM set up the Commission two years ago, it has had a dissension-ridden run. Bhargava himself has been in the news—if it wasn't his anti-US posturing, then it was his open criticism of the NKC's functioning. For the record, the PMO says its hands are clean. After all, it was a Planning Commission note which said the NKC was being reconstituted. How could it be blamed if Bhargava's name didn't figure in the new members' list? Friends of Bhargava though insist the PMO cleared the whistle-blower's exit.

CSIR: headless for five months!

A while ago, Nature did a story on how CSIR -- India's largest science and technology research organization with some 40 odd labs and nearly 19000 scientists -- has not had a Director General since Dr. R.A. Mashelkar retired at the end of December 2006. Unfortunately, that story was behind a paywall, so I didn't bother to link to it. The Daily News and Analysis (DNA) did a story yesterday, covering many of the angles in the Nature story (and interviewing some of the same people).

While you will have to read the story to get the details, I want to point to a couple of things in it. The first is this sentiment:

The other reason is that truly competent scientists now have opportunities outside the government system without having to worry about the administration.

This is patently absurd. First: as one moves up in an organization -- public or private -- there is certainly more and more of administration. The rare scientist who stays clear of administrative responsibilities does so with the full knowledge about the price of his/her choice: foregoing the chance to shape the course of science in the country, and the accompanying lack of influence among his/her peers. Second, top administrative positions are so rare (by definition!), and there are always a number of capable people willing to take them up.

Sure, leadership at CSIR comes with some difficulties (covered in the DNA story), but it also comes with a great opportunity to show off one's capabilities in the administrative realm. It also comes with enormous influence. It's difficult to imagine that there are very few capable people queuing up for this position. That people are even mouthing inanities -- such as DG-CSIR is unattractive compared to private sector jobs -- is quite amazing.

The other thing I want to point to is this statement attributed to S.K. Joshi, Mashelkar's immediate predecessor the Director General of CSIR:

Real talent from within the CSIR system is scarce because, "except one or two, most of the CSIR labs failed to create a second line of scientists who will take care of CSIR once the older scientists retire".

Coming from an ex-DG of CSIR, this is a bit rich, isn't it? During whose tenure as DG did CSIR fail "to create a second line of scientists" for leadership positions? As a smug, self-congratulatory ex-bureaucrat making self-serving statements, S.K. Joshi is, alas, following certain very illustrious people. As Yogi Berra put it, it's déjà vu all over again!

Butterfly effect of outsourcing?

I spent the whole day inside our big, beautiful tree-ful campus, so I haven't had a chance to venture out into the big, bad, traffic-jammed city of Bengalooru today. But if you did, and if you felt that the traffic was a bit light today, you may be wondering why.

Neelakantan thinks it might be due to the "Butterfly effect of outsourcing".

Fact-checking Michael Moore

According to NYTimes' Anthony DePalma, Michael Moore's latest offering, "Sicko", makes some audacious claims:

“Sicko,” the talk of the Cannes Film Festival last week, savages the American health care system — and along the way extols Cuba’s system as the neatest thing since the white linen guayabera.

Is there any truth -- I mean, really, ANY truth at all -- to this claim? No spoilers here, find out for yourself!

Supreme Court's war on street food

Vir Sanghvi is angry. In his latest column, he argues strongly against the Supreme Court's recent ban on the "cooking of food items on Delhi pavements." Here's his sixth line of attack on the ban:

Six: And finally for the so-called hygiene argument. I am angry enough now to be blunt.

Of all the arguments advanced to justify the ban, this is easily the stupidest.

Only a fool believes that it is hygienic to ban the means by which street food is heated in front of you to temperatures at which no bacteria can survive. Anybody who eats on the streets knows the basic rule: be careful of food that has not been freshly cooked; try and ensure that the vendor heats it before your eyes.

The stupidity of this ban lies in the failure of those who propound it to grasp this basic fact. Years ago, when I was editor of Bombay magazine, we conducted a survey of street food and hygiene. Our lab told us that the chutney used for bhel puri was often too full of bacteria for human consumption (though this is an arbitrary distinction because most Indians have acquired the ability to survive high levels of bacteria), but the report made it clear that anything that was heated to high temperatures was much safer because most of the bacteria had been destroyed in the cooking process.

And yet, the Delhi ban turns this basic truth on its head. A roadside vendor can still sell you a samosa or a kachori. You have no way of knowing where the kachori was made or what went into the samosa. For all you know, the samosa could have been made near a dung heap four days ago — long enough for it to be contaminated by bacteria. Because the vendor will no longer be allowed to reheat it or crush it on his hot tawa, the bacteria will flourish and multiply.

And the Municipal Corporation will encourage this bacterial multiplication — all in the name of hygiene.

Baby pictures ...

The first picture of their Little Person over at Uma's blog.

A series of pictures (and several more) of Anant Srinivasan at Narasimhan's blog.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

A 'no-holds-barred' look at our higher judiciary

Just yesterday, I bought The Other Side of Justice (Hay House India, 2007) by Justice S.S. Sodhi, a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court. The Tribune had a report on the book launch:

... [D]uring his comment [noted jurist Fali Nariman] cited various reasons for Justice Sodhi not being elevated as a Judge to the Supreme Court. He was critical of the present selection system for the judges of the apex court and referred to bias entering judges’ mind while selecting new incumbents.

He pointed out that the former Chief Justice of India and a former Judge of the Allahabad High Court and then a Judge of the Supreme Court, whom Justice Sodhi had not given favours, pitched in against him to ensure that he was not elevated to the apex court.

Almost all the stories in Justice Sodhi's book (and I'm about a third into its 300 pages), will make you go 'huh?'. Some of them will also make you wince, and a few will push you into serious outrage. All of them will make you wonder whether it's prudent to assign much sanctity to our 'temples of justice'. The blurb calls it a 'no-holds-barred' narrative, and it lives up to it: Justice Sodhi doesn't pull his punches, and isn't afraid to name names.

Here's a bizarre -- but real! -- story from the book's Chapter 11 titled Writ Run Wild:

Legend attributes to the Allahabad High Court the unique distinction of being the only court in the world from which an order could be obtained for restraining the movement of an aircraft in flight! Such an order has, of course, never actually been passed. But broach the subject of extraordinary orders given by the court and judges, serving and retired, and senior members of the bar will rattle off quite a few. Some peculiar orders came to my notice too: for instance, the matter of a government servant, who on attaining the age of 58, sought to challenge his retirement on the plea that, as per the rules governing his service, his age of superannuation was 60. At the preliminary hearing, an ex parte interim order was passed directing the government to ensure that he continued in service during the pendency of the writ petition. When the petition came up eventually for final hearing, it was found that his age of superannuation was indeed 58 and his petition was consequently dismissed. Ironically enough, he had by then enjoyed the benefit of continuance in service far beyond what he had or could have claimed: he had remained in service till the age of 67!

Unfortunately, the other stories are not funny at all. For example, the book deals at length with the case of one Mr. V.C. Misra who was at that time the chairman of the Bar Council of India. Justice Sodhi gives us many details about this man's high handed behaviour with a history of throwing his weight around. Misra clearly overstepped when he chose to yell -- in open court -- at Justice S.K. Keshote of the Allahabad High Court. He threatened that "he will get me transferred or see that impeachment motion is brought against me in Parliament." He followed it up with more abuse. Clearly, Misra was a man who thought he was invincible, and apparently, until then, he was. He certainly didn't count on Justice Keshote pursuing this case. The latter's formal complaint was referred to the Supreme Court, which found Misra guilty of 'criminal contempt of court', and "suspended [him] from practising as an advocate for a period of three years".

I believe the later chapters will get to unscrupulous and blatantly unethical behaviour by some members of the higher judiciary; even in the first part of the book there are some tantalizing pointers. Needless to say, I'm hooked!

[I hope he will write a book on his tenure as the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; see below.]

Justice Sodhi's book shines a spotlight on some of the shady corners in our judiciary -- particularly the higher judiciary. Coming from a member of this elite cohort, its message is both authentic and authoritative. I don't know what kind of influence it will have on our judiciary, but I sure hope his book will become a bestseller [believe me, its slightly legalese-laden prose is only a minor flaw].

So, here's my recommendation: Go ahead and buy it: it costs only 395 rupees. Make it a bestseller!

* * *

Have you ever noticed that when you become aware of something interesting, you start seeing similar things all around you? I bought this book yesterday, and what do I come across? This. And this. While this doesn't belong in the same category, it does go into how a 'judicial principle' has been created out of a procedurally suspect process.

* * *

Justice Sodhi also served as the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in the late nineties. During his tenure, TRAI's efforts towards open and transparent policy-making and implementation were thwarted by the biggest bully of that time: the Department of Telecommunication (DoT). Eventually, the NDA government amended the TRAI Act and got him off DoT's back. You can read about this ancient stuff here, here, here, here. The Tribune's report about amending the TRAI act is here. A recent column in the Telegraph discusses the kinds of bureaucratic meddling and hostility that constrain the functioning of our regulatory bodies.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Annals of game theory: Traveller's dilemma and libertarian presumptions

Lucy and Pete, returning from a remote Pacific island, find that the airline has damaged the identical antiques that each had purchased. An airline manager says that he is happy to compensate them but is handicapped by being clueless about the value of these strange objects. Simply asking the travelers for the price is hopeless, he figures, for they will inflate it.

Instead he devises a more complicated scheme. He asks each of them to write down the price of the antique as any dollar integer between 2 and 100 without conferring together. If both write the same number, he will take that to be the true price, and he will pay each of them that amount. But if they write different numbers, he will assume that the lower one is the actual price and that the person writing the higher number is cheating. In that case, he will pay both of them the lower number along with a bonus and a penalty--the person who wrote the lower number will get $2 more as a reward for honesty and the one who wrote the higher number will get $2 less as a punishment. For instance, if Lucy writes 46 and Pete writes 100, Lucy will get $48 and Pete will get $44.

What numbers will Lucy and Pete write? What number would you write?

Cornell economist Kaushik Basu has a fascinating piece in the Scientific American on the game of traveller's dilemma. Not surprisingly, the way people answer the above question goes very strongly against the 'rational' solution. As Basu says:

[Traveller's dilemma] undermines both the libertarian idea that unrestrained selfishness is good for the economy and the game-theoretic tenet that people will be selfish and rational.

While on game theory, here's an earlier SciAm article -- The Economics of Fair Play (pdf) -- on Ultimatum and Public Goods games which show a strong evidence for people's sense of fair play, generosity and altruism. Charmingly irrational! The authors -- Karl Sigmund, Ernst Fehr and Martin Nowak -- combine these results with evolutionary psychology to conclude that "in social interactions, our preferences often turn out to be far from selfish.

On being a Dalit student at AIIMS

I had been to school at the Navodaya Vidyalaya for seven years, and I knew about casteism from my experience there, but it was nothing compared to AIIMS. In school, I used to think I wouldn’t have to go through the same humiliations if I were at a big institution. I came to the biggest of them all, but in vain. At least we would eat together at Navodaya.

That's from Ajay Kumar Singh's deeply moving piece in the latest issue of Tehelka. [Hat tip: Shivam Vij].

CBSE (Class XII) results: Kendriya Vidyalayas lead the show

First, some interesting statistics:

  • Total number of students taking the exam is 4,95,016, with 2,07,019 (42 percent) girls and 2,77,289 (58 percent) boys.
  • As already noted here, 514 students had an aggregate score of 95 percent and above. This 'super-elite' group has 282 girls (55 percent) and 232 boys (45 percent).
  • The 'elite' group -- those with 90+ percent aggregate -- has 8120 students, with girls enjoying a 52 to 48 percent advantage over boys.
  • In the Delhi region, 160,484 students took the Class XII exam this year, and 131,484 (81.93 per cent) of them passed it. Accounting for 32.5 percent of the candidates taking the exam, this region seems to be the largest of CBSE's six regions -- the others being Chennai, Ajmer, Guwahati, Panchkula and Allahabad.
  • Some 8.7 percent of the exam takers are from the Chennai region (which has Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Pondichery, Andaman and Nicobar Islands). Of the 42,823 students from this region, 91.4 percent passed, placing it at the top. With just 62 percent of its students passing the exam, Guwahati region is at the bottom.
  • More interestingly, the Chennai region accounts for a whopping 57 percent (289 out of 514) of the super-elite group!
  • Among different types of schools, the Kendriya Vidyalayas have the best record: 93 percent of their students passed the exam. They are followed by Jawahar Navodaya (90 percent) Central Tibetan Schools (86 percent), independent private schools (82 percent) and other government schools (79 percent).

Information culled from the following links: The Hindu (and more), The Indian Express, Delhi Newsline, Newspost India (and more), and Hindustan Times.

* * *

The news about Kendriya Vidyalayas topping the charts is very interesting. They are fully funded by the Central Government, whose employees get preferential allotment for their children in these schools. This mechanism ensures that their children's education can go on un-interrupted even when they get transferred in the middle of the academic year. In a way, this may be seen as the bureaucrats' desire (and ability!) to take good care of themselves.

Unlike the other government-run schools which are plagued by teacher absenteeism and lack of facilities -- we are talking about basic infrastructure such as classrooms and blackboards! -- Kendriya Vidyalayas have good facilities, well-paid teachers and a good management that has a lot of respect for its stake-holders: the bureaucrats. KVs show us what is possible when the government shows a lot of interest in running them well, and in funding them adequately.

A lot of people have been clamoring for getting the government out of school education. Their primary argument is that the government is just incapable of doing a good job of it. Kendriya Vidyalayas offer us a great way to counter these critics. Unlike private schools, KVs have an admission policy that's not skewed in favour of the rich -- children of government employees get preference, irrespective of the income level of their parents. Having said that, they have not been created for the poor either! At present, they graduate less than 100,000 students; their website claims that they have nearly a million students on roll, and nearly 40,000 teachers.

I don't know the per-student cost of KVs; but I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't two or three times the cost at other government schools. So, universalizing the KV model would require a far greater financial commitment from our government -- a commitment that it has been unwilling to make so far.

But the key message is this: KVs show us that excellence in education and government ownership can co-exist.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Good news from bloggers ...

Congratulations to:

Uma who brings home the Little Person today.

Bora who lands a job that's just right for him.

Smart babies

Without hearing a word, a new study asserts, a four-month-old child can tell when speakers switch to another language, simply by observing changes in facial contortions, such as shapes made by the mouth as well as mannerisms, like the head-bobbing rhythm that varies between different tongues.

From this story. Interestingly, they lose this ability within the next few months.

This reminded me of something I saw in a TV program about kids a while ago: while older kids (and adults) can't tell one monkey (or cat or tiger) from another, little kids (typically, less than a year old) apparently can.

Necropolises rebrand themselves

The dinner was first-class, with butlers serving hors d’oeuvres and the strains of “Blue Danube” tastefully muffling the festive din. This nine-course re-creation of the last supper aboard an ill-fated ocean liner was the culmination of Titanic Day at Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of a growing number of historic cemeteries to rebrand themselves as destination necropolises for weekend tourists.

Historic cemeteries, desperate for money to pay for badly needed restorations, are reaching out to the public in ever more unusual ways, with dog parades, bird-watching lectures, Sunday jazz concerts, brunches with star chefs, Halloween parties in the crematory and even a nudie calendar.

More details in this story.

Examination hell and the economics of 'Japanese JEE'

In Japan, the high value placed on college prestige leads to intense competition among high-school students to enter top colleges. These students undergo a phase termed examination hell in which they cram to prepare for the annual college entrance examinations. An extreme manifestation of examination hell is the ronin phenomenon. When students are not accepted into the college of choice, they may repeat the process under ronin status. Ronin students spend an additional year, or as many years as it may take to enter the college of their choice, and often attend specialized college entrance preparatory schools. The proportion of students entering college with ronin experience averages about 30%, and may even exceed 60% among the top colleges.

Reminds you of our own entrance exams, doesn't it? This is from the intro section of an academic paper by Hiroshi Ono titled "Does Examination Hell Pay Off? A Cost-Benefit Analysis of "Ronin" and College Education in Japan." The published [but gated] version is here. [Thanks for the e-mail alert go to Kollegala Sharma, whose Kannada blog Alemari is devoted to science].

Here are the conclusions:

Examination hell refers to the competitive environment under which students cram and compete to gain entry into the preferred colleges in Japan. Examination hell is motivated by the hierarchical ranking of Japanese colleges, and the generous benefits associated with graduation from the elite institutions. If students are not accepted on their first attempt, they may repeat the process under ronin status, and spend an additional year, or as many years as it may take to enter the college of their choice. The enormous investment undertaken in examination hell warrants a cost–benefit analysis that quantifies the costs and benefits in a unifying framework.

My research clearly shows that graduates from higher quality colleges achieve higher earnings. I find that the IRR to college education in Japan varies considerably as a function of college quality, ranging from 0.1% to 14% (with mean of 6.4%).

On average, examination hell does pay off, when evaluated by the returns to ronin investments. My OLS results show that the direct effect of ronin on earnings is weak. When ronin is modeled using instrumental variables regression, I find that ronin increases earnings indirectly through its improvement in college quality. This makes sense because individuals invest in ronin for the sake of improving the quality of the college that they attend, which subsequently leads to higher earnings. The IRR with respect to ronin peaks somewhere between 1 and 2 years of ronin. Hence, ronin is generally a good investment, but subject to the risk of overinvestment.

Although ronin may bestow benefits for individuals, the social implications are not so optimistic. Considering that one-third of the college-bound population undergoes a moratorium of at least 1 year, the social cost resulting from the lost output is substantial. It is therefore not surprising that the Education Ministry views ronin as a social problem. An extension to the current research would be to investigate the existence and magnitude of the negative externalities associated with the ronin phenomenon.

CBSE results ...

You guessed it: girls have done better.   Again.

In terms of pass percentage, girls outperformed boys by 85% to 77%. More importantly, girls outnumber boys in the elite (scoring 90+ marks) and super-elite (95+ marks) categories, too.

As many as 514 students -- 282 girls and 232 boys -- have secured more than 95 per cent marks.

A total of 8,120 students -- 4,203 girls and 3,917 boys -- have secured more than 90 per cent marks.

Love socialism!

Shivam finds an interesting recruitment ad for the Chinese internet police. The list of basic requirements features this:

Support CPC leaders; love socialism.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Bloggin' about kids - 2

Following up on a few blog snippets (linked here), Dilip offers a couple of cute stories; one of them is about a very young Albert Einstein.

Resources on vegan diets

In an earlier post linking to an article on veganism's alleged dangers to pregnant women and infants, I said, "I presume vegans will come forward to justify their choice not just for themselves, but also for their children." In response, commenter Jeff points us to two   articles about the adequacy of vegan diets for everyone including pregnant women and infants.

I personally would have preferred a more pointed rebuttal of Nina Planck's artcle (she has some additional info on her website). A little bit of search on Tailrank sent me off to several blog posts: Fat-free vegan kitchen (see the update at the end), iPalimpsest, Isachandra. Dr. John McDougall has a (almost point-by-point) response to Planck's column.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

This one just cracked me up!

After writing several posts on a plausible gender bias in JEE (and perhaps other entrance exams too), reading some 100+ comments, and responding to quite a few of them, I get this comment. Some three to five weeks after it all started.

Life is full of surprises ...

College, cemetery, prison

Two stories from the US:

Story 1:

For a few thousand dollars, the University of Richmond and a half-dozen other universities are giving alumni and faculty the opportunity to have their ashes maintained on campus in perpetuity.

This news perturbed the NYTimes editors so much that they wrote an editorial deploring the crassness of this practice:

... [S]everal universities, including Notre Dame, the University of Virginia and Hendrix College, have been hard at work building memorial walls. The technical name is a columbarium, where the ashes of alumni and professors can spend eternity on the collegiate grounds where they once found happiness. [...] If, as we suspect, the collegiate columbarium is just another fund-raising pitch, its crassness makes us shudder.

* * *

Story 2:

As the costs for fixing the state's troubled corrections system rocket higher, California is headed for a dubious milestone -- for the first time the state will spend more on incarcerating inmates than on educating students in its public universities.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: "Liberals' litmus test"

The entire article is a must read. Let me just say that I agree wholeheartedly with everything he says.

We also need to get over this claptrap about respecting people’s beliefs. This is an impossible demand, for belief is not a matter of will. The only proper respect you can show people is by respecting their rights, not by engaging in the chicanery that you really respect their beliefs. The illusion we nurtured that somehow all religions need to be respected, that no one should find religion silly enough to want to recast it or lampoon it is all coming home to roost. Who all will we protect from being offended? It is fatuous to think that we can create laws that will protect all from offence. The only thing that does is create competitive offence mongering.

* * *

Thanks to Arun Thiruvengadam (of the excellent Law and Other Things blog) for the pointer.

American pigs eat french fries!

No, seriously.

Veganism: Bad for toddlers?

As someone who's not particularly sympathetic to the vegan cause, I tend to agree with the things Nina Planck says in her NYTimes column today. But I am not very well informed about the scientific details here, so I presume vegans will come forward to justify their choice not just for themselves, but also for their children. If you know of any rebuttals, please let me know, so that I can link to them too. Here are two key paragraphs from Planck's column:

I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.

Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.

Quote of the Day

The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Hits and duds: Two opposite views

Are there experts who are really good at telling if a given novel, album or movie is likely to be a hit, and distinguish it from a dud? Industry insiders hope that they are good at this job [and some people are trying to write a program for doing this job; see below]. But an important random element may spoil their predictions, as Duncan Watts (Columbia sociologist and author of Six Degrees of Separation) explains using a very interesting study. Here's the bottomline of that study:

...[S]ocial influence [plays] as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality. It’s a simple result to state, but it has a surprisingly deep consequence. Because the long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictability is inherent to the nature of the market. It cannot be eliminated either by accumulating more information — about people or songs — or by developing fancier prediction algorithms, any more than you can repeatedly roll sixes no matter how carefully you try to throw the die.

Now, let's go to the other extreme. A while ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about people who are trying to work out a success formula for determining if a movie will become a hit. Gladwell introduces the concept using a 'computer program' for predicting the success of popular music:

[A company called Platinum Blue] has a proprietary computer program that uses "spectral deconvolution software" to measure the mathematical relationships among all of a song's structural components: melody, harmony, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, pitch, chord progression, cadence, sonic brilliance, frequency, and so on. On the basis of that analysis, the firm believes it can predict whether a song is likely to become a hit with eighty-per-cent accuracy.

* * *

Thanks to Tom Slee's wonderful blog for the pointer to Duncan Watts' column.

ISC results

ICSE and ISC exams (for Classes X and XII, respectively) are considered to be the toughest in India. Schools offering these programs are also in high demand; almost all of them are private schools (are there any public schools offering ICSE programs?). They are better funded, and have excellent facilities.

This year's results were announced yesterday. The overall pass percentage is very high: nearly 98% and 97% in the two exams. Once again, girls have done better; however, given the excellent pass percentage, the differential between boys and girls -- at between 1 and 3 percent -- is not much. Here's a bit about the high scorers:

In ISC exams, 111 candidates have secured grade one [90 percent and above] in each of the six subjects and 1,329 have achieved this grade in each of the seven subjects in ICSE.

The ToI story had some interesting info on the caste-wise break up of the exam takers (the figures appear to be muddled, but this is all we have):

Over 2,132 SC candidates took the Class X exams with a pass percentage of 96.29%, which is 3.9% higher compared to last year. The highest aggregate marks is 97.4 per cent. The performance of ST candidates has gone down with a pass percentage of 96.84%, which is 4.07% lower compared to last year. Around 2,786 ST candidates appeared for the Class X exams this year.

However, 733 SC candidates appeared for Class XII with the highest score of 96.5% obtained by a girl and the pass percentage is 95.5%. While 1,059 candidates appeared for Class X exams, the highest was scored by a girl who obtained 95%. The pass percentage remained at 94.62%. Around 6,737 and 1,951 candidates from the OBC category appeared for Class X and XII exams

Spiderman and Sandman need to take Alternate Dispute Resolution classes!

Megan has a quirky review of Spiderman 3. One of the best I have read.

... [I]f the Sandman and Spiderman could have just gotten away from their positional stances (“I need to take money” and “I need to catch crooks” respectively), to their underlying interests (“I need to help my little girl” and “Dude, I’m all about helping the people”), they could have found some common ground. There was opportunity there, and it could have saved a lot of expensive plate glass and I-beams and cars being thrown about.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Bloggin' about kids

Short snippets from various bloggers (but watch how they interpret the events):

An economist.

A philosopher.

A sociologist.

The curious case of Rusi Taleyarkhan

Rusi Taleyarkhan made a splash several years ago when he published a paper -- in Science! -- on the discovery of 'sonofusion'. His results have been disputed, because those who tried to reproduce them have not been able to. The implication is that there's something fraudulent about the original results.

In his defence, Taleyarkhan pointed to an 'independent confirmation' of his original results. But, these results came from his own lab! The two authors of the paper reporting these confirmatory results were his post-doc and grad student; and they used Taleyarkhan's apparatus. Clearly, things are quite murky. When Taleyarkhan's institution -- Purdue University -- instituted an inquiry, even murkier details emerged:

... [I]n response to a fact-finding committee convened by the nuclear engineering school, Mr. Butt [the grad student] signed a statement that he did not participate in any of the experiments or the analysis of the data and that he had been added as an author to one of the papers a week before submission and was not aware that he was on the second paper until a week before it was presented at a conference. Dr. Xu [the post-doc] declined to answer questions about the papers, but the committee noted similarities between them and several of Dr. Taleyarkhan’s.

Janet Stemwedel has an excellent commentary on this rather sordid affair (which Purdue has been forced to re-investigate; an earlier inquiry cleared Taleyarkhan of misconduct three months ago). She has some additional details as well.

What kind of gender research do media choose to highlight?

J. Goodrich in The American Prospect [free registration may be required]:

Studies that appear to support traditional roles for women get picked up and popularized, while more nuanced research just can't seem to generate buzz.

Caryl Rivers, author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women,, at AlterNet:

Media perpetuate women's fears of being a bad mother.

Thanks to PTDR for the pointers.

The night fission was discovered

The New Yorker has a fabulous short piece titled "Fateful Night" by Eugene Kinkead about the night of January 25, 1939 "when Dr. John R. Dunning, the physicist, split the uranium atom at Columbia University and realized that it was possible to release atomic energy."

In this recreation of the events of that evening and night, the main characters come alive; I guess this is the most important advantage with this literary genre. After confirming the key observations of their experiment and ruling out some of the competing explanations, Dunning and his colleagues knew they had a major discovery on their hands. What happened next?

The three men pledged themselves to secrecy off the campus until other members of the faculty had had an opportunity to corroborate what they had seen.

Dunning gets back to his office to do some calculations to estimate the amount of energy that's given off during the splitting of uranium, and Kinkead's story ends there. But the line quoted above made a strong impression in my mind. I wonder why ...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Good news on the ragging front

The Supreme Court has come out with a very good judgement on the issue of ragging -- a practice that allows senior students to harass and intimidate (and sometimes torture) fresh students in our colleges. [J. Venkatesan in the Hindu, Dhananjay Mahapatra in ToI, Tannu Sharma in the Indian Express].

For the first time, the Court has made it mandatory for college administrations to get a First Information Report filed in a police station, irrespective of whether the victim files a complaint or not. It has ruled that failure to do this would be treated as 'culpable negligence'.

These are welcome steps. They are based on the report of a panel set up by the Supreme Court and headed by Dr. R.K. Raghavan (ex-Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation). V. Jayanth has an op-ed on this report.

Class XII results from Karnataka

Here in Karnataka, it's called the second year Pre-University (PU) exam. This board seems to be a lot less liberal than the Tamil Nadu board, with barely over half the students passing the exam (in TN, it was about 81 percent).

Once again, we find that girls have done better -- in fact, far better -- than boys have. Even though some 43,000 more boys (nearly 250,000) took the exam than girls (207,000), there are more girls among those who passed the exam: 120,000 to 112,000. This gives a whopping difference in pass percentage: 58 percent for girls and 45 percent for boys!

The Karnataka PU Board does not seem to believe in providing more detailed information about the toppers except to say that some 8000 of them have passed with distinction (an aggregate of 85 percent and above).

But this board has given some information about the three different streams: Arts, Commerce and Science. In each of them, girls have done better; their lead over the boys is the least for in the Science stream. Looking specifically at this stream, we find that even though boys had a big lead (75K to 59K) over girls among the exam takers, they have only a far slimmer lead (33K to 31K) among the graduates. Once again, in terms of pass percentage, girls outshine boys 52 to 44 percent.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Where were all these chauvinists before the twentieth century?

Three great examples of what is possible when art could flourish without being threatened by VHP-type crazies:

Example 1.

Example 2.

Example 3.

Can we now expect all political parties to dump OBC quotas?

Remember all the clamor in April-May of last year? About how Mr. Arjun Singh (our much maligned Minister of Human Resource Development) was 'pandering' to the OBC voters? About how he was 'cynically exploiting' them with quotas in higher education? Never mind that OBC reservation had the support of all the political parties (why should the OBC votes go exclusively to Congress, Mr. Singh's party)? Never mind that the government of V.P. Singh, the original Mandal 'messiah', could not capitalize on his 'vote bank politics' (in fact, he never recovered from the debacle of the first post-Mandal elections in 1991). Never mind that there is something called the law of unintended consequences (voters tend to be not only wonderfully fickle, but also profoundly ungrateful).

The pundits said last year that Arjun Singh played vote bank politics, divided our harmonious society along caste lines, conspired to pit OBC brother against forward caste sister, and hoped not only for political benefit for his party, but also for himself. It was all cynical. No doubt at all. Utterly, horribly cynical!

Now they are saying, "Gotcha! It's all so, ..., last year!"

See, they seem to be saying, we now have new, improved Wisdom. Ms. Mayawati's victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections is due to the 'fact' that Dalits and Brahmins came together to vote those evil OBC politicians out. Why? The Brahmins were pissed off at the OBCs because of Mandal II, and the Dalits were against them because the OBCs were their 'new oppressors' in rural India. That this thesis has gained ground is clear from an increasing number of columns devoted to this line of thinking. Reality Check informs us that Chandra Bhan Prasad was prescient enough to see it even before the UP elections. Today, both Dipankar Gupta and Vinod Sharma echo this thesis in their respective columns.

Of these commentators, Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at JNU, is quite blunt: he even titled his column "Calling the OBC bluff". But, wait a minute! Didn't the same man say (in a column in another newspaper) that "[the rural voter] considers other variables before approaching the ballot box." He further elaborated:

As the UP election has shown, jati loyalty is not the key. The emergence of a degree of caste correlation with electoral outcome is because economic, social and structural considerations bring otherwise hostile jatis together in caste blocks or clusters.

But that's not what he says -- just four days later -- in today's ToI column:

Rural social mobility and the marginal-isation of agriculture have together made earlier agrarian relations unworkable. The old landlords are gone and the new ones, in the shape of OBCs, can plunder SCs but cannot give them jobs in their farms as their holdings are generally quite small. But because these OBCs are politically connected and better educated they can still terrorise rural SCs in a hundred petty ways. This forced Dalits to look beyond their squalid mud huts and that is when Mayawati stepped in. Like Ambedkar, Mayawati too does not glorify the village because she knows rural reality up close. But she sought an enduring ally in the 'forwards' and brought them under her tutelage. These 'upper castes' were more than happy to play second fiddle and oblige Mayawati's Ambedkarism. They had little to do with rural Dalits, and had been emasculated anyway first by land reforms (whose memory is distant) and more recently by Mandal.

Et Voilà! It took just four days for the voter to change his mind! Electoral destiny is written in caste ink! This is the new, new thing in Indian politics. In Black and White.

The message is clear. This spells death for Mandal II. It's time to roll back Mandal I, too! I don't know why the government is even interested in arguing -- in the Supreme Court, no less! -- for speedy implementation of is flawed policy of OBC reservation in higher education. Doesn't anyone in the UPA government see the futility of this foolish move? It's the anti-vote-bank politics, stupid!

* * *

Yogendra Yadav, whose outfit CSDS claims its exit poll was the best, gave the caste-wise break up of votes in their exit poll. He has an analysis of the difference between their exit poll predictions and the actual results (Part I, Part II).

As I recall, less than half the eligible electorate voted in the UP elections. The vote share of Ms. Mayawati's party is less than a third.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Artists and the internet

Clive Thompson on the fascinating effects of the internet on performing artists:

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply. This is not merely an illusion of intimacy. Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.

So musicians dive into the fray — posting confessional notes on their blogs, reading their fans’ comments and carefully replying. They check their personal pages on MySpace, that virtual metropolis where unknown bands and comedians and writers can achieve global renown in a matter of days, if not hours, carried along by rolling cascades of popularity. Band members often post a daily MySpace “bulletin” — a memo to their audience explaining what they’re doing right at that moment — and then spend hours more approving “friend requests” from teenagers who want to be put on the artist’s sprawling list of online colleagues. (Indeed, the arms race for “friends” is so intense that some artists illicitly employ software robots that generate hundreds of fake online comrades, artificially boosting their numbers.) The pop group Barenaked Ladies held a video contest, asking fans to play air guitar along to the song “Wind It Up”; the best ones were spliced together as the song’s official music video. Even artists who haven’t got a clue about the Internet are swept along: Arctic Monkeys, a British band, didn’t know what MySpace was, but when fans created a page for them in 2005 — which currently boasts over 65,000 “friends” — it propelled their first single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” to No. 1 on the British charts.

This trend isn’t limited to musicians; virtually every genre of artistic endeavor is slowly becoming affected, too. [...]

Link via Seth Robert's very interesting post on the artistic and literary analogues of blogs.

Explaining modern capitalism ...

Michael Kinsley on the history of Avis rent-a-car:

Since 1946, Avis has been sold or reorganized 17 or 18 times, depending on how you count. Each time Avis changed hands or structure, there have been fees for bankers and fees for lawyers, bonuses for the top executives and theories about why this was exactly what the company needed.


Modern capitalism has two parts: there’s business, and there’s finance. Business is renting you a car at the airport. Finance is something else. More and more of the news labeled “business” these days is actually about finance, and much of it is mystifying. Even if you can understand — just barely — how it works, you still wonder what the point is and why people who do it need to get paid so much. And you strongly suspect that the swirl of financial activity around Avis for the past six decades has had little or nothing to do with the business of renting cars.

More on the outrage at MS University

In a must-read post, J Alfred Prufrock deals with this outrage with just the right touch and at just the right level. Brilliant stuff!

Rahul draws a few parallels with other similar incidents, and finds another crass attempt by the RSS to harass Kalakshetra.

One more case of moral policing

This time, it is the Desi Christian edition (via Krish):

... [A] group of students in a church-run college in Kerala have landed in trouble for making a short film on homosexuality.

Four students, including the producer and director of the five-minute film as well those who acted in it, were suspended by the authorities of St Joseph's College of Communication at Changanassery in Kottayam district recently.

In other news, the world got rid of a huge source of toxicity when, on the other side of the globe, Jerry Falwell died. Yeah, it's the same guy who put the blame for 9/11 on gays and feminists and other groups. Brad DeLong and Kieran Healy find the right things to say about this man.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Class XII results from Tamil Nadu

Girls have done better than boys. I'm not surprised. Here's the Hindu's main report:

Led by Chennai students, [girls] had an 84.6 overall pass percentage, compared to 77.4 by boys. The girls' performance this year was better than last year (75.4 per cent), while boys did better by 7.2 percentage points.

The overall pass percentage in the State this year is 81, compared to last year's 72.9 ...

... [A] total of 5,55,965 students (2,66,850 boys and 2,89,115 girls) ... took the March examinations, 3,29,091 scored an aggregate of 60 per cent and above ...

I get the impression that girls have not only done better than boys, they also seem to have taken a large number of top positions (see a few other reports here, here, and here). These reports don't have details such as the boys/girls ratio among the top 100, 500, 1000, 5000, 10,000 and 50,000. It would be wonderful if these details are publicized.

* * *

The scene in Tamil Nadu is worth watching because this year, the state has chosen to get rid of the state-level Common Entrance Test (CET). Thus, the admissions are going to be based purely on Class XII marks. The government has announced that it will normalize the marks of students belonging to different boards. [However, I have no idea about how this normalization is going to be done.]

Going by these reports, it looks like girls are going to storm into the state's top engineering and medical colleges. In huge, unprecedented numbers! Dr. Bruno has been telling me repeatedly that the removal of the entrance exams in Tamil Nadu is going to favour women so much that he wouldn't be surprised if women form 60 or 70 percent of the students in top colleges. He also expects this situation to be 'corrected' soon -- probably through a re-introduction of the entrance exam!

Outrage at MS University: Some links

Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to MG Road to be a part of the protest yesterday. Here's the Hindu's report. Here are a few blog posts about the protest in other cities:

Kochi: Renu Ramanath (pictures and a report).

Mumbai: Amit Varma (picture and a report).

New Delhi: Communalism Watch (a picture).

MSU Diary has been collecting opinion pieces from old media. Jagat from Montreal has published a letter from a friend urging people to register their protest with the Indian embassies.

This opinion piece in the Indian Express by Peter Ronald DeSouza (of CSDS) lays out the issues, and concludes with the following:

The governor, as visitor of the university, must, in the strongest possible terms, reprimand and censure the vice chancellor and pro-vice chancellor. The governor must summon the director general of police and seek from him an explanation for the police action. The Supreme Court must do what it did in the case of the non-implementation of the ICDS scheme, and summon suo moto all the directors general of police, of all the states, and instruct them to curb such vandalism that is growing across the country. It is from the new frontiers which the artist scales that new ideas come. The artist must be protected. The artist must be honoured. We must do it for our own sake.

Rekha Rodwittiya, an alumna of the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU, has another opinion piece in the Indian Express. Here's the concluding paragraph which echoes this famous poem:

Be forewarned, when civil liberties are so blatantly trampled upon and the ranting of fundamentalists becomes the rule of law, then none of us are safe any more. Freedom is not a seven-letter word in a game of scrabble. It is a constitutional right that is and must be held sacred within a democratic nation and be upheld as the birthright of every citizen. We are fast heading towards a system where all the voices of dissent will be stifled. It is happening to someone else today. It may be your turn tomorrow.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bleg: What are the ingredients of good video lectures?

I'm interested specifically in lectures in a classroom setting, and even more specifically in lectures that cover an entire course.

I can easily imagine the goodness of seminar talks carrying over to the video medium. I'm not able to put my finger on the exact reason for it, but I think the density of information may have something to do with it. Many TED talks are very good on video, probably because they are short, snappy and highly focused.

But, how about lectures in a classroom setting? Clearly, they cannot be delivered at the same pace and with the same information density as seminar talks. Would these lectures -- irrespective of how great the lecturer is -- retain their freshness and intimacy in the video format? Would it be better if the video is recorded in a studio in which the lecturer 'talks to' the cameras rather than students?

The reason I'm asking is because of a proposal to create video lectures of undergraduate level courses, with IITs, IISc and several other institutions getting the mandate. I am peripherally involved in this project, and I'm trying to learn as much as possible about the video medium for pedagogical purposes. [And, no, I'm not contemplating signing up for acting lessons!]

Any pointers -- intro stuff, HOW-TOs, FAQs, scholarly articles -- will be greatly appreciated.

Even better, if you know of examples of excellent classroom lectures on video (covering science or engineering subjects) please let me know. I should be able to use them to get an idea about what makes for a good lecture-on-video.

Many thanks in advance.

Phrase of the day: Affective Forecasting

Wikipedia defines it as "the forecasting of one's affect (emotional state) in the future." It turns out that, because our thinking has all kinds of blind spots, we humans are pretty poor at it. In other words, it's "The Big Wombassa", in the memorable words of a hotshot Hollywood actor, as quoted by John Brockman in the Edge article on Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (whose Stumbling on Happiness is something I hope to be able to get soon -- it's just out in paperback).

The Smithsonian Magazine has a short interview with Gilbert, in which he explains the concept:

Human resilience is really quite astonishing. People are not the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be. People who suffer real tragedy and trauma typically recover more quickly than they expect to and often return to their original level of happiness, or something close to it. That's the good news—we are a hardy species, even though we don't know this about ourselves. The bad news is that the good things that happen to us don't feel as good or last as long as we think they will. So all that wonderful stuff we're aiming for—winning the lottery, getting promoted, whatever we think will change our lives—probably won't do it after all. We're resilient in both directions. We rebound from distress but we also rebound from joy.

Golf quote

Following up on this post, here is another from the Quote of the Day feature of iGoogle:

Golf and sex are about the only things you can enjoy without being good at.
- - Jimmy Demaret

A previous post has a couple of quotes drawing a parallel between sex and other things.

Protest against the outrage at M.S. University, Baroda

I'm sure you have heard about the outrage perpetrated by the chauvinistic goons in the Fine Arts Faculty at M.S. University, Baroda. This outrage has been compounded by an even bigger one in which art student Chandra Mohan has been arrested (and has been held without bail for over four days now), and Dean Shivaji Panikker of Fine Arts Faculty, who spoke up against the arrest and the censorship it represents, has been placed under suspension. The Fine Arts Faculty Blog has updates on these horrible events.

Peter Griffin has post about the "simultaneous all-India protest against the arrest of an art student and suspension of the dean of M S University." It is scheduled for today (14.5.2007) at 6:00 p.m.

In Bangalore, the protest is going to be on M.G. Road, opposite the Gandhi Statue. Go to Peter's post for the details about your city/town.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The ugly face of AIIMS: An update

In my previous post, I pointed to this Telegraph story about the Thorat Committee Report "confirming" its own findings. I was not able to locate that earlier report when I wrote that post.

Now, thanks to Pratik Ray and Madhukar Shukla (see their comments), we have a link to that report from July 5, 2006. In addition, Pratik points us to this Telegraph story from March 9, 2007, and Madhukar points us to this column by Manoj Mitta in today's ToI (which also refers to an earlier report from September 12, 2006). If you have time to read just one report, I would recommend Mitta's hard-hitting article.

[The Telegraph story from 9.3.2007 refers to yet another report from 'last June', which we have not found.]

The picture presented by this diversity of evidence from old media tells us that there is something truly rotten in the land of AIIMS. Now, given this evidence, what has the government done with it? Manoj Mitta doesn't hide his anger:

when the much-awaited findings came, Ramadoss, unfortunately, seemed more interested in settling his personal scores with Venugopal. After tabling the report in a meeting of the governing body of AIIMS, all that the government could think of announcing was its decision to serve a show-cause notice on faculty members for condemning the Thorat findings.

Instead of pinning them down on specific instances of caste discrimination, Ramadoss did Venugopal's camp a favour with his clumsy attempt to muzzle their voices. Sure enough, they accused him of being autocratic and the committee of doing his bidding. By allowing them to reclaim the moral high ground on the autonomy of AIIMS, Ramadoss has helped the faculty and administration escape the odium of accounting for their errors of omission and commission.

Your name on Google

With a rather rare name with an even rarer spelling (thanks to Tamilization, what would have been Abhinandan became something with a missing 'h' and an added 'an' at the end!), I'm pretty sure googling me yields results most of which are really about me. Even then, I remember googling to ensure that this blog's name was unique too.

On the other hand, if you have a common name -- say, Ajay Gupta or Ramakrishna -- Google may dump you into its 184-th page! Unless, of course, you happen to be the most noteworthy Ajay Gupta or Ramakrishna in the eyes of Google.

In this online world, you are what Google says you are, and if you are not easily findable on Google, ..., well, it could pose some problems. What kind of problems? Check out this WSJ story:

... About 7% of all searches are for a person's name, estimates search engine More than 80% of executive recruiters said they routinely use search engines to learn more about candidates, according to a recent survey by executive networking firm ExecuNet. Nearly 40% of individuals have used search engines to look up friends or acquaintances with whom they'd lost touch ...

The article also talks about someone choosing her child's name carefully enough to ensure his name appears on the first page on Google. By an interesting coincidence, I just learnt that Amit Agarwal -- India's first and most prominent pro blogger -- has chosen a curiously common name for his child: Google!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chief Minister Mayawati

The Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections have produced a clear and unambiguous verdict for the first time in many, many years. As a result, Bahujan Samaj Party is in an enviable position of not having to seek others' support, and Ms. Mayawati, its leader, now has a chance to run that state for a full five-year term. The Hindu gets it right when it says:

The feisty BSP supremo achieved for her party what Bhim Rao Ambedkar could only dream of and what her mentor Kanshi Ram envisioned but could not realise in his own life time.

Mayawati's amazing achievement became possible because she pushed her party -- remember, it's a party that started its life as a vehicle to promote the interests of Dalits -- to convert itself into an umbrella that can accommodate many other groups and interests. [This is a task that the bigger and more 'national' Congress has failed to achieve in UP or, for that matter, in many other parts of India.] Here's the Hindu:

... the BSP scored in an attempt to bridge the social divide: the party's emphasis through its campaign was on sarvajan samaj. Established citadels crumbled as Mayawati's elephant marched across the State, penetrating social blocks previously outside its reach.


Ms. Mayawati's party worked silently and assiduously on the ground, wooing previously adversarial social groups through a series of bhaichara (caste amity) campaigns. The breakthrough came with the success of its Brahmin jodo abhiyan (`take the Brahmins along' project). To get a sense of this socio-political achievement, consider the traditional hostility between Brahmins and the BSP. If Brahmins held the BSP in contempt, the latter ceaselessly targeted `manuwadis,' reserving its choicest epithets for them. ... That sections of the same forward castes have now shown a willingness to cohabit with the BSP is an irony too large to miss. However, it was not only Brahmins that the BSP co-opted as it went about enlarging its base. The Bahujan party reached out to all sections through a network of committed zonal commanders, each on a mission to integrate one social group or another. Preliminary findings suggest that Ms. Mayawati's party secured a large share of OBC votes besides the votes of Muslims.

The broad support for Mayawati-- cutting across caste and religious lines, which our media keep telling us are unbreachable -- is possibly the single most heartening message in these elections. There will be many occasions to examine whether Mayawati deserves this kind of broad support, or if this coming together of many disparate groups and interests can be sustained across space and time. But, for the moment, her victory calls for a huge celebration.

There are other things to celebrate too, and the Hindu's editorial does a good job of highlighting them:

[The Bharatiya Janata Party's strategists] attempted to raise the communal temperature through recourse to inflammatory campaign material, including the poisonous compact disc currently under the scanner of the Election Commission of India. The BJP leaders made sectarian speeches, focussing on issues — terrorism, Mohammad Afzal's hanging, the Sachar committee report, and so forth — that they thought would polarise votes on communal lines. The strategy backfired. Hindus and Muslims alike refused to swallow the bait.

... A final word on the Election Commission of India's sterling contribution to the democratic process. Its strategic planning, hard work, impartiality, far-sightedness, and no-nonsense supervision ensured that not one life was lost to violence and not one polling booth was seized by toughs. For the people of Uttar Pradesh, the ECI is as much a hero as their Chief Minister-in-waiting.

Friday, May 11, 2007

More on the origin of 'technical inaccuracies' in the Mashelkar Panel report

Another instance of someone taking the trouble to file a request under the Right to Information Act. Great stuff. There is a lot else there, but here's the relevant part:

According to reports, Mashelkar has expressed the opinion that the ‘technical inaccuracy’ could have happened when the report was being ‘drafted by a sub-group’. However, in a reply to a RTI filed, the Ministry said, "There was no drafting sub-committee, which drafted the report." "Mashelkar claims that a sub-group drafted the report. Where is this mysterious sub-group and why have the names of the members of this sub-group not yet been revealed?" questions Kajal Bhardwaj, Head-Technical and Policy Unit, Lawyers Collective.

Yet another inexplicable point is regarding the record of meetings of the TEG. "A basic tenet of the functioning of any groups or commissions is that minutes are maintained of these meetings. For this group, no such records were kept by the Chairman and informal records are available only for the second, third and fourth meetings of the group," explains Bhardwaj. In a reply to a RTI filed, the Ministry states, "As regards copies of the minutes of all the meetings, it is informed that no formal record of discussion duly approved by Chairman and members of the group was kept by this department."

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I finally got a chance to read Noam Scheiber's sharp tear-down of Freaknomics-style research -- tackling all kinds of fun problems that don't have much to do with deep questions in in economics. Steven Levitt and Scheiber have had at least one round of back and forth.

While I have to ask you to read those pieces, I will point to a couple of juicy quotes Scheiber managed to get from some of the other hotshots in economics:

Raj Chetty (Berkeley): "People think about the question less than the method. ... They're not thinking: What important question should I answer?' So you get weird papers, like sanitation facilities in Native American reservations."

David Card (Berkeley): "It is exactly like postmodernism in the humanities. [...] What is there to say about Beethoven anymore? ... Every moron can't understand technical orchestration, doesn't know the history of music. So you write about him having a gay affair with his nephew."

Finally, it's worth highlighting an Asian angle in this cute-o-nomics story: Amartya Sen's thesis about 100 million "missing women", mostly in Asia. Here's Scheiber:

Perhaps the most infamous example is a paper written by a recent Harvard Ph.D. named Emily Oster. While still an undergraduate, Oster had become fascinated by the so-called "missing women" problem--the hypothesis, attributed to Amartya Sen, that gender discrimination in Asia has created a vast shortage of women. In some cases parents abort daughters, in some cases they commit infanticide, in some cases they simply don't care for their daughters as diligently as they should. Whatever the cause, Sen has suggested there could be as many as 100 million "missing women" in countries like China, India, and Pakistan.

Years later, while wrapping up her Ph.D., Oster stumbled onto a seemingly unrelated fact: a small medical literature suggesting that women with hepatitis B were far more likely to give birth to boys. What followed was a series of sophisticated natural experiments, the upshot of which was to demonstrate that 100 million women hadn't gone missing after all. Instead, unusually high rates of hepatitis B had arranged it so that Asian mothers were producing far more boys than nature's track record would suggest.

It was a fabulously compelling result, one that partially absolved whole societies of lurid crimes against their children. [...]

I recall linking to a news story about Oster's paper two years ago (I'm not able to locate that post) when it made a splash. It turns out that a later piece of research has essentially negated Oster's findings. Here's Scheiber again:

... Levitt complains ... that I got "all the facts wrong" in my discussion of Emily Oster's paper on "missing women"--that is, the gap between the number of women we should observe in countries like China, India, and Pakistan and the number of women we actually observe. Unfortunately for Oster (and for Levitt, who published the paper as co-editor of the Journal of Political Economy), subsequent work by a Berkeley graduate student and two Taiwanese researchers has more or less overturned her result. If Levitt knows of a way to reconcile Oster's findings with these two seemingly devastating papers, I'd be curious to hear it. (In fact, I sent him an e-mail to this effect before publishing my piece. He never responded.) But simply asserting that Oster is right and her critics are wrong leaves much to be desired as a style of argumentation.