Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Psychological hot-wiring, subliminal seduction

Or, just priming. Whatever you call it, you will find quite a few examples (some of them spooky) of interesting behaviours that are evoked using cues that do not register consciously at all. Here's a famous one that got quite a bit of play last year:

... In one 2006 study, for instance, researchers had Northwestern University undergraduates recall an unethical deed from their past, like betraying a friend, or a virtuous one, like returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically “cleanse” their consciences.

Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.


NYTimes' Alex Williams uses the widespread use -- some would say indiscriminate and inappropriate use ;-) -- of emoticons to dig a little into their origins:

Though we think of emoticons, or “smileys,” as an Internet-era phenomenon, their earliest ancestors were created on typewriters. In 1912, the writer Ambrose Bierce proposed a new punctuation device called a “snigger point,” a smiling face represented by \__/!, to connote jocularity.

The first commonly acknowledged use of the contemporary emoticon was in 1982. Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was linked to an electronic university bulletin board where computer enthusiasts posted opinions on matters as divisive as abortion and mundane as campus parking.

In one thread, a wisecrack about campus elevators was misinterpreted by some as a safety warning, so Dr. Fahlman suggested using :-) as a way to indicate jokes and :-( for remarks to be taken seriously (the latter quickly morphed into a signifier of displeasure).

Here are a few 'extended' emoticons that I learned for the first time. They look okay only with serif fonts, so let me see if I can wing it:

  • This is for Homer Simpson:~(_8^(I)
  • And this one is for Ronald Reagan: 7:^]

Indian users of MIT's Open CourseWare (OCW)

Vijaysree Venkatraman has an op-ed in the Hindu about some of the beneficiaries in India of MIT's Open CourseWare, which "provides those with Internet connectivity free access to some 1600 courses taught at the 142-year-old campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts." Here's an appreciative comment, attributed to a high school student:

“The day I become a big man I will give MIT a million dollars for this.”

Monday, July 30, 2007

Debunking Kiran Bedi

Kiran Bedi has been in the news ever since she became India's first woman IPS officer (in the seventies?), and she has enjoyed a largely positive coverage. In the past week or so, she has chosen to put up a high-profile fight against not getting Delhi Police's top job (worse, a junior got the job!), and media have been quite supportive in this fight too. Given this background, this column by Pankaj Vohra comes as a surprise:

The myth about her ‘excellent track record’ can be shattered if one follows her performance as a police officer. Bedi must be one of the very few IPS officers in the country who has not been awarded the two medals — the Police Medal of Meritorious Service (after 15 years service) and the Police Medal for Distinguished Service (after 21 years), which everyone gets as a matter of routine. She has had difficulty in completing her tenures anywhere. She has always left her postings under circumstances which would have attracted extreme disciplinary action had Bedi not been a woman and media darling.

For instance, she was in Goa during the CHOGM in the early 1980s and left her post after a disagreement with the Secretary, R&AW and DIB without informing her immediate superior. She was in Mizoram where an agitation erupted because of her and she left for Delhi quietly without informing her boss who discovered to his horror that the operational officer was missing from her post only when he inquired about her the following day. In Delhi, she had a controversial tenure in the West District. As Traffic DCP, she is remembered as “Crane” Bedi, but she had to vacate the position on account of her mishandling of the traffic problem.

Vohra goes on to list a whole lot more of Bedi's mistakes and official 'indiscretions' (as he keeps referring to them) to back up two related claims. The first is that "a male police officer may not even have been part of the IPS with so many indiscretions in his record," and the second is that "gender has always worked in her favour, never against her." Needless to say, these are sharp words indeed.

In private industry, if you are passed over for a promotion, you face essentially two choices: accept the verdict and work with the new boss, or leave the company. You will be laughed at if you go public with grievances such as a junior getting the job you coveted.

In the public sector, however, you can appeal to Administrative Tribunals when you feel you have been treated unfairly, and 'seniority' seems to hold some sanctity. It's possible that Bedi has already taken her case to such a body. If so, I don't quite see the point of her case being discussed in public, since we -- as outsiders -- have very little knowledge not only of how our administrative set up functions, but also of how one specific person's record stacks up against another's.

Bedi herself seems to have set in motion this round of 'trial by media,' and I am sure she's busy preparing a rebuttal to Vohra's column. We'll wait and see how she responds.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Breaking the glass ceiling from above

In Norway, since 1988, there must be a minimum of 40% of each gender in publicly appointed committees, boards, and councils, and from January 2008 females will have to make up at least 40% of all shareholder-owned companies' boards of directors. The French Parliament passed legislation in 2001 mandating gender parity in party lists for a variety of elections. In Spain, in 2004, 50% of the newly elected Prime Minister Zapatero's cabinet appointments were women. Furthermore, in March 2007, the Equality Law was passed, imposing gender parity (at least 40% of members of each gender) in all selection committees in the state administration, party lists, public organisations and related firms. Private corporations also received governmental guidelines towards greater participation of women on boards.

This is from this post at VoxEU, that goes on to explain the rationale behind such quotas and looks at the available evidence for their efficacy.

* * *

An earlier post at the same blog explored the role of technological progress (medical advances, in particular) on enhanced participation of women in the labor market. This study leads to some interesting conclusions indeed:

One important lesson from this analysis is that gender equality in the labour market is intimately linked to equality in the household division of labour. Policies aimed at reducing gender disparities in earning opportunities are likely to fail if they do not include provisions to reduce women's contribution to home production relative to men.

Many countries are discussing the introduction of more generous maternal leave policies to help women reconcile their maternal and professional roles and reduce their disadvantage with respect to men. Our analysis suggests that such policies may well be counter productive. Generous maternal leave policies reinforce the division of labour that underlies the mechanism by which women are offered lower wages. This is likely to further depress women's professional advancement. Sweden seems to have moved in the right direction with the introduction of a father's month requirement that compels fathers to take at least 30 days of parental leave. By directly reducing the gender asymmetries in the allocation of parental responsibilities, this policy decreases the potential for statistical discrimination that leads to gender inequalities in wages.

Thanks to Mark Thoma (here and here) for the pointers.

Wall art of the wild sort

Check out these beauties. The pics are by Natasha Mhatre, IISc's ace wildlife photographer. There's a a lot more of her work at other sites.

Have I mentioned that she's working on a coffee table book on biodiversity at IISc?

Anatomy of expectations ...

Kuffir cuts open these curious things called 'expectations':

you think so little of me- that is the problem. you think so little of me that you feel i don't even deserve political freedom (because 'poor, illiterate people cannot meaningfully use their political freedom'- don't you mean 'sufficiently poor' people like me?). political freedom that would help me influence the way people like you look at people like me, no matter how you think of me. am i wrong if i say you make me think of other, more famous, worthies who had very similar ideas about who deserved political freedom and who did not?

i repeat, the problem is not that you expect less of me but that you think less of me. and as long as you carry this contempt, much like you carry your cherished surname, across centuries and continents and careers, you'd always have low expectations of me.

IIM-B's "trade secret" is out

Sharath Rao points us to yet another RTI success story. Following an order from the Central Information Commission, IIM-B has now coughed up the ingredients of its secret formula for selecting students for its MBA program:

... [It's] your Class X and Class XII results that account for more — 25% of the final score; your Bachelor’s degree 15%. The factor with the maximum weightage is your performance in group discussion (GD), GD summary and personal interview — 35%. The balance 5% depends on work experience and whether you have taken a “professional course”.

And if you thought a B.Tech from IIT gives you an extra advantage, sorry. Only a Chartered Accountancy course qualifies as a “professional course.”

When it comes to work experience, three years will get you the maximum score depending on the quality and relevance of your job, anything more than three years means a lower score: you get zero points if you have slogged for 12 years.

IIM-B has the details of its selection process in this document (pdf). It would be interesting to see if the other IIMs respond by revealing their formulas too.

* * *

In its coverage of the same story, ToI reports that IIM-B had earlier stated that "its admission process was a 'trade secret'."

* * *

While we are on the topic of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, does anyone have an update on the Central Information Commission's order to IIT-KGP to reveal the details of its admission process?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Evolutionary significance of grandmothers

From this Scientific American article:

The evolutionary biologist [Virpi Lummaa of the University of Sheffield] has also used this historical data set to ponder the conundrum of grandmothers. That is, why human women often live long after they are able to reproduce (on average around the age of 50), unlike almost all other animals. "If your ultimate purpose in life was to create as many offspring as possible or pass off as many genes," Lummaa says, "it's kind of strange that human women stop halfway."

One possible explanation is that having a grandmother around somehow improves the reproductive potential of her grandchildren. In fact, that is exactly what the researchers found when they reviewed stats on 537 Finnish women who had a combined total of 6,002 grandchildren. Adding in data from more than 3,000 French Canadians (who had a modest 100,074 grandchildren) confirmed that having grandma around to help enabled younger women to have more children sooner and with improved chances of surviving into adulthood. "That suggests that perhaps one reason why women do carry on living is because they are able to help," Lummaa says.

How about grandfathers?

If grandmothers improve survival odds, what do elderly males contribute? "If anything there's a negative effect," she says. This could be because of the cultural tradition of catering to men, particularly old men. "Maybe if you had an old grandpa, he was eating your food," she speculates. Or it could be that because men can continue to reproduce, they are less vested in anyone other than their own children. Another possible reason is that women can be sure that a grandchild is their genetic descendant, but it is more difficult for grandfathers. This may also have spurred them to seek second and even third wives rather than focusing on their children. "We are comparing men who married once in their lifetime[s] with men who are married several times," Lummaa says.

WTF: Canadian immigration edition

CBC News has obtained a copy of a letter sent from the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi to Singh's family stating that "the names Kaur and Singh do not qualify for the purpose of immigration to Canada."

From this story.

I found the link to this story in a very interesting discussion at Crooked Timber on Japan's strict rules about people's names. Specifically, husband and wife cannot keep their separate surnames; this rule forces Japanese couples to invent bizarre ways of getting around it -- including "registering their divorce".

I received some flak for the previous post ...

A quick note about the previous post. I'm getting flak from a couple of people for taking that quote out of context (more on this later). Nitin went on to ask me if I had any substantive criticism.

No, I offered no substantive criticism, because I didn't think the rest of Atanu's post deserved any. That expectations matter is a no-brainer, but a long-winded post (with the usual gratuitous lectures about George Akerlof's Nobel-winning research and Game Theory) that tries to imply that expectations are Very Very Important (if not All-Important) is to overstate the case. I mean, what about incentives that economists seem to love so much? Aren't they important, too? What about intrinsic motivation? What about institutions that could counteract the corrosive effects of low expectations? What, indeed, about ways in which people have overcome great adversities in spite of low expectations imposed on them?

Blaming expectations for the poor status of a group (particularly if the expectations come from within) is a profoundly -- and conveniently -- conservative idea; it affords us the luxury of not having to think about interventions that could help overcome the nasty effects of low expectations.

Heck, if Atanu wants to overstate his case, well, I have very little to say about it (except what I said above -- under duress!). But I can certainly highlight the quality of supporting evidence he has chosen to use. For example, if one wanted to cite some evidence for how expectations affect outcomes, one could have chosen examples of great teachers who transformed their students through a clear articulation of high expectations [Herbert Kohl is an example cited by many]. One could also cite other kinds of interventions that teach kids to change their perceptions about their own 'improvability' and lead them to perform at a higher level [see for example, the work by Carol Dweck].

Instead of references to such people or their work (there's tons of this stuff for anyone who cares to look), what we get is some boilerplate about how Jewish Americans and African Americans are predisposed to different life outcomes because they face different expectations. This 'evidence' comes to us with no ifs, buts or other qualifiers. This 'evidence' is presented to us as if the different expectations are the most important -- if not the only -- difference between these two groups.

A final comment about the accusation that I used the quote without providing any context. The context is what the link takes you to, and let me just point out that that adding that context makes Atanu's position more problematic. If African Americans are under negative expectations, and if expectations are Very Very Important (as Atanu's post claims), it leads to conclusions that are decidedly ugly -- particularly when they are not accompanied by qualifiers and disclaimers. I will just leave it at that.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

WTF: Atanu Dey edition

In the US, I noticed that Americans of African descent do much worse than Americans of Jewish descent in most spheres. Jews are expected to be good at whatever they do, whether scholarship or the arts, while blacks are expected to generally drop out of school, engage in crime and end up in jail. ...

These WTF-inducing words are from this blog ostensibly devoted to Indian economy.

* * *

If you feel like going WTF all over again, check out Vivek's catch.

Gender discrimination in academia

...[A series of studies] provided respondents with a portfolio, a job application, an individual essay, or other information that was attributed to a male or a female. Whether the task is to admit someone to a graduate program, to select someone for tenure, or to assign a grade to an essay, the studies demonstrate that documents associated with a male name consistently get a higher rating than the same documents associated with a female name. For example, Elizabeth Spelke and Ariel Grace report on a study of a tenure decision for a candidate with an average record. When the dossier was associated with a male name, 70% of the reviewers recommended tenure; when it was attributed to a female name, only 45% recommended tenure.

From this review by Marcia C. Linn Why Aren't More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence .

Thanks to Peggy (at the excellent Women in Science blog) for the pointer. Peggy also offers longer excerpts with a commentary.

Over 90,000 schools in India don't have blackboards!

The news report is here. Some highlights:

Nearly 90,000 elementary schools [about 8 percent] across the country do not have a blackboard, says a new government survey.


Of the schools without blackboards, 21,699 also did not have teachers, the study revealed. [...]

Besides blackboards, thousands of the schools also did not have buildings, drinking water facilities, toilets, boundary walls and playgrounds. [...]

BarCamp4 at IIM-B this weekend ...

In a post on the most recent get-together of Bangalore-based bloggers [link via DesiPundit], RC also mentions BarCamp4 to be held at IIM-B this weekend.

I won't be attending this edition of the Bangalore BarCamp, but if you are in Bangalore, this may be worth your while. The program looks interesting, and there's even a "bloggers' collective" that's putting together a session on blogging.

Tags: , .

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In search of Jim Gray

Over at Wired, Steve Silberman tells the gripping story of the high-tech hunt that was unleashed six months ago to find Microsoft researcher Jim Gray who, along with his boat, disappeared without a trace somewhere in the Pacific. A huge number of people -- with many different kinds of expertise -- contributed selflessly to the search. And fierce competitors -- Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Oracle -- cooperated not only through monetary contributions, but also through sharing data.

Silberman keeps coming back to a core theme: many of the technologies used in the hi-tech search were pioneered by Gray himself. It reminded me of this story from last year about the inventor of a complex heart surgery going through the same procedure -- at 97!

The difference, unfortunately, is that the search for Jim Gray hasn't been successful -- so far.

A book lover's dilemma

Scott McLemee on a friend's "urge to purge":

“I am on the verge of making a radical decision,” a professor told me in an e-mail note a couple of weeks ago. The plan taking shape was “to get rid of almost all the books I have in my office,” he said, “based on their almost total superfluity.”

He found that he regularly consulted around two dozen volumes – “references, timeless classics, a couple of recent and invaluable syntheses.” But they were always the same titles. The rest were starting to look like “ugly wallpaper.” The sight was getting oppressive and he started to imagine what it might be like to have a change of scenery.


At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”

It sound like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Profile of undergraduate students at the University of California

  • 23 percent of UC undergraduates were born outside the United States, and another 37 percent born in the U.S. have at least one parent who was born outside the U.S.
  • 35 percent are not native speakers of English.

These numbers are pretty astonishing for a public university system, and they are from this report [via Inside HigherEd] on a survey of UC undergrad students. The survey page is here.

IISc wants a bigger campus

IISc Director Prof P Balaram said the institute of higher learning is in discussion with the government and has requested to allot it land somewhere closeby that can be utilised for the expansion activities.

"I would like to think that if one is going to take a very long term view, one would actually look for a campus of at least twice the size of this one," Balaram told PTI in Bangalore.

The news report is here.

Postcards from the Desi Blogdom

Bite-sized posts are great fun.

Annals of Disclaimers

My past views do not represent that of my future employer. Nor ofcourse will my future views represent that of my then past and now present employer.

That's from Sharath Rao in a post announcing the identity of his future employer.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Postcards from the Desi Blogdom

  • Congratulations to Guru on completing two great years of blogging. I have had many opportunities to link to his blog, and I have stolen from him links to a lot of great articles online. If you are deep into structured procrastination (and also into reading some great stuff along the way), his blog should be on your blog reader.
  • Neelakantan on restaurants where waiters ask you, "Sir, ordinary or mineral water?"
  • Witnwisdumb finds a great site with science humour, and extracts a few jems -- limericks! Enjoy!
  • What do you think you can expect at 2:00 a.m. in a subway train in New York City?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

HigherEd Links

  • An interview with Harvard's Eric Mazur on teaching physics:

    Q. How do you teach undergraduate physics today?

    A. I have the students read the text before the lecture. This is standard practice in the humanities, but a heresy in science. I don’t know why. I think perhaps science professors like to “present” material.

    In my class, we talk about the applications of physics in everyday life. The lectures are broken up with these “concept tests,” where the students move into groups to work on a physics problem together. They talk, argue — they teach each other. After some discussion, they enter their answers into a computer that tabulates their collective response. From that, I can see if they’ve understood the topic before we move on.

    We don’t grade on a curve. Modern science is a cooperative endeavor.

  • Robert Frank's take on teaching economics: through stories.

    ... [T]here is no better way to master an idea than to write about it. Although the human brain is remarkably flexible, learning theorists now recognize that it is far better able to absorb information in some forms than others. Thus, according to the psychologist Jerome Bruner, children "turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection." He went on, "If they don't catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn't get remembered very well, and it doesn't seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over." Even well into adulthood, we find it easier to process information in narrative form than in more abstract forms like equations and graphs. Most effective of all are narratives that we construct ourselves.

  • Inside HigherEd: A provocative theory of merit:

    The research argues that colleges with competitive admissions, motivated by the desire to improve their rankings, have put steadily increasing emphasis on SAT scores in admissions decisions. While this shift in emphasis was taking place, the colleges were also increasing their reliance on affirmative action in admissions, especially with regard to black students who, on average, do not do as well as other groups on the SAT. Further, the research argues, if elite colleges abandoned the SAT, they could achieve levels of diversity similar to what they have now — without using affirmative action in admissions decisions. Not only that, the research goes on to say, but doing so would not result in a diminution of student quality.

  • NYTimes's Alan Finder reports on an interesting effort by American universities and colleges:

    Associations representing private colleges and universities, state universities and large research universities have been working to develop formats and common sets of statistics that would enable easy comparison on everything from class size to what students do after graduation.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

"Yagnas and stuff", and other links

Timothy Garton Ash reviews Günter Grass autobiography

Just the other day, I linked to John Irving's loyal defence of his friend and mentor in the NYTimes review of Grass's Peeling the Onion.

Now, the book gets the benefit of a fair and balanced treatment in the New York Review of Books from a detached observer. While the book is praised (quite lavishly, in fact), Grass's belated confession about his time with Waffen-SS gets a sharp and realistic assessment. Here's the big-bang opening paragraph:

Granted: he was a member of the Waffen-SS. But suppose that revelation had not overshadowed last year's publication of Günter Grass's memoir, like a mushroom cloud. What should we have made of Peeling the Onion? We should, I believe, have said that this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great "Danzig trilogy" of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. That is what we should still say, first and last.

Do read the fabulous review. Before I close, I just want to highlight something else that I learnt through Ash's review:

... A small token of his exemplary attitude is that he refers in his memoir to present-day Gdańsk, formerly Danzig, by its Polish name—something unusual among German writers. Poles were, of course, as shocked as anyone by the initial revelation, and Lech Wałęsa spontaneously said that Grass should be stripped of his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk.

But then Grass wrote a pained, dignified, apologetic letter to the mayor of Gdańsk. For me, the most moving text in the entire documentary record is the mayor's account of how he and his colleagues waited nervously for the novelist's letter (would he say what was needed? would he find the right tone?); received and read it with relief and appreciation; hurried to have it translated into Polish; then asked an actor to read it out loud to a large gathering in the City Hall. There was a moment's silence when the actor finished. Then the audience broke into a storm of applause. The mayor concludes his account, in the German version printed here, Danzig versteht seinen Sohn. Or, as he must have written in the original Polish, Gdańsk understands its son.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In which I push my blog towards an 'R' rating ...

Some links:

Sex and the smell:

But there is overwhelming evidence that some smells affect our behavior profoundly. The most famous example is probably the research of Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago. In her 1971 paper in the journal Nature, she argued that women’s menstrual cycles become synchronized when they live in proximity, and that this is due to unconscious odor cues, or pheromones.

Several other studies also suggest that pheromones are at work on a daily basis in people. For example women tend to prefer the smell of sweat-drenched T-shirts from men who differ from them in an important set of immunity genes. The theory is that such opposites-attract pairs would have kids with particularly diverse, and hence well-armed, immune systems.

An interview with Lisa Jean Moore, author of Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man's Most Precious Fluid:

In the book, you tie sperm technologies, like sperm banking and artificial insemination, to a crisis of masculinity. How have these technological changes affected the way that men see themselves?

I want to be careful. I don't want to make it sound like average men are aware of all the technical things that are happening to their physical capabilities. I think it's more of a long-term process that I'm proposing as a theory.

Technology has made sperm so pliable, so knowable, something that can be so sterilized, and so flexibly used, that women can now begin to use it. It can be extracted from male bodies and men can be bypassed in the process of reproduction. [Having] semen available in a marketplace radically changes the definitions of paternity, paternalism and fatherhood, and the fatherhood rights movement is reacting to that. It's finding that incredibly threatening to their ability to maintain notions about the heterosexual-male-dominated family.

Can robots walk on water?

Carnegie Mellon researchers have created small robots that walk on water, says this Scientific American story:

... What started as a class project three years ago ended up as insectlike mechanical robots with four to sixteen legs. The "bugs," two to six inches long and weighing a few grams, can scoot over water [...] [T]he robots use water's surface tension to amble on their spindly legs exactly like water striders, the insects that motivated the challenge.

Selecting IIM Directors

The IIMs at Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta (IIM-A,B, and C) are looking for new CEOs, and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has placed advertisements seeking applications from prospective candidates [via this post by T.T. Ram Mohan, a professor at IIM-A].

Traditionally, a search committee would seek inputs (and nominations) from various bigwigs about suitable candidates, and select one of the nominees. Thus, an open ad seeking applications is seen as a break with tradition. The Hindustan Times does not like this procedural change at all; in fact, it goes completely ballistic :

The government, through its favourite henchmen in the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, is once again doing what it does best: attempting to stifle the independence of institutions by seeking to control them. And the most unfortunate business of this Orwellian bid to play puppetmaster is that it has now chosen some of India’s finest institutions, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The HRD Ministry has called for applications for the posts of directors of three IIMs, in Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Kolkata. This is to fill the posts of the three directors whose terms are nearly over, a process that throughout the history of the IIMs was undertaken by the institutes themselves. Now, applicants will have to be vetted by Shastri Bhawan.

MHRD, however, has denied any shady motives behind the ads; in particular, it has clarified that IIM directors will continue be chosen by a search-and-selection committee, and that the ads are meant just for ensuring a diversified pool of candidates.

In a follow-up post, Ram Mohan offers a more nuanced perspective:

The search committee is still there, the board of governors is still represented, it will also be free to go beyond applications received in response to the ad and reach out to eminent academics.

So what are we left with? Well, a clear improvement over the existing process! Earlier, if you considered yourself suitable you would have to beseech some IIT/IIM director to nominate you. Those outside the charmed circle had no chance of staking a claim. Now, the field is open to anybody and, of course, the nominations process is still on and the search committee is free to seek inputs from IIM faculty.

On the role of IIM faculty in the selection process, Ram Mohan makes a few sensible observations. Here's a sample:

The choice of director cannot be reduced to a popularity contest amongst faculty. Perhaps a minimum of acceptability is necessary but the director need not be somebody who gets the highest number of "votes" from faculty. Such a requirement can only promote demeaning behaviour among the contenders for the job at an IIM- and it does. You have people begging for votes from their colleagues. That apart, where an institution needs radical change and an individual stands for such change, lack of acceptability could be a virtue.

There'sa lot more in his post, which you must read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Blogging, blogging

Quite a few articles about the rise and rise of blogging. WSJ's Tunku Varadarajan starts with the premise that the first blog was born ten years ago. His article has generated some controversy; start with someone believed by many to be the first 'blogger': Dave Winer, and follow the links (specifically, his own contribution in a comments thread).

Marc Andreesen lists the lessons he has learnt in his five-week long career as a blogger. Along the way, he cites this page of his from 1993 as the candidate for the title of "the first blog." He also says, essentially, that "original content is king":

... [It] is totally clear that original content is what generates readership, at least for most bloggers.

Some bloggers who blog a lot and link to a ton of interesting things every day have high levels of readership without a lot of original content, but I'd argue they are in the minority -- most of the bloggers I've talked to over the last year who have significant levels of traffic attribute their readership mostly to original content, and this is certainly true for my blog.

I can see this in my blogging statistics -- a piece of original content that goes viral generates way more page views than a piece of content that does not.

I guess I shouldn't expect this linky post to generate a lot of readership for this blog...

The Business Week has a story on blogs that make money. There's also a slide show on some of the more prominent money-makers. I have to confess that I am reasonably familiar with just one of them: Boing Boing.

Effect of culture on ...

... on neurobiological response:

They found that the American participants demonstrated higher mirror neuron activity while observing the American making gestures compared to the Nicaraguan. And when the Nicaraguan actor performed American gestures, the mirror neuron activation of the observers dropped.

"We believe these are some of the first data to show neurobiological responses to culture-specific stimuli," said Molnar-Szakacs. "Our data show that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How does group diversity lead to better decisions?

... [W]hite jurors were actually responsible for a large proportion of the group differences, as they behaved differently in a racially mixed jury than in one all-white. White jurors in diverse groups mentioned more facts, made fewer factual errors, corrected more mistakes and raised the possibility of racism more often than did white jurors in homogeneous groups. Even before the deliberations began, white participants who expected to deliberate with black jurors privately espoused less harsh views of the (black) defendant than did white participants who expected to deliberate in an all-white group. Both the anticipation and the experience of serving on a diverse jury seemed to sharpen the white jurors' sensitivity not just to race but to accuracy and due process.

One explanation for this pattern is that white jurors felt more motivation to avoid prejudice in the presence of black jurors. The motivation to avoid prejudice could lead not only to more careful consideration of racism itself, but also to more systematic and thorough information processing of all relevant facts about the defendant.

From this article in Scientific American's Mind Matters feature by Rebecca Saxe who describes a fascinating piece of research by Samuel Sommers of Tufts.

* * *

On a related note, both Henry Farrell (at Crooked Timber) and Cosma Shalizi have reviewed Scott Page's The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

Why does it take so long to get a PhD?

Previous studies by various groups have found that time-to-completion rates for humanities fields lag those for others, and the Council of Graduate Schools effort provided more confirmation. In the physical and biological science and technology fields, more than half of those in entering cohorts are earning a doctorate between year six and seven of a program. In the social sciences, year seven sees only a completion rate of just over 40 percent; in the humanities the figure is 29 percent.

From this Inside HigherEd story that has a link to a recent report -- with data -- on PhD completion rates. The question of 'why it takes so long' is still unanswered.

Sometime ago, Sunil Laxman pondered this question. At that time, he asked me for my comment, but I have to confess that I really have no special insights to offer.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Women in engineering: Data for RPI

... When move-in day rolls around next month, 405 of the freshmen, or 31 percent, will be women. That's up from 259 in 2004 and part of a 54 percent increase in females over the last five years.

From this story on admissions this year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The story is not just about the data, however:

In more recent years, RPI has attacked the gender imbalance like a tough engineering project.

It entices female teenagers interested in technical fields with on-campus programs, sponsors contests with girls schools, creates special female scholarships and helps women with mentoring programs once they get to RPI. Its admissions department markets to female high schoolers with women-centered "messaging" and dedicates an officer to female outreach.

Thanks to Inside HigherEd for the pointer.

Bloomberg LP

CNN-Money has a very fascinating story on the rise and rise of Bloomberg LP, founded by Michael Bloomberg in the early 1980s. Here's something offered by the company's product:

Yes, you can search on Google for people. But a Bloomberg can give you a quick-and-dirty rundown that, at its best, will provide address and phone, year of birth, education, employment history, news stories about your subject, compensation when that's public, maybe some family details. If you'd next like to e-mail that person, and maybe send him a raunchy joke that would get you in trouble on your corporate system, you can send it on the Bloomberg e-mail system. "Just Bloomberg me" is a common Wall Street instruction.

Sounds somewhat like Facebook, right? Of course, this is just a side-dish to the main course which is the huge volume of financial data packaged together with tools for analyzing them:

... From its start in bonds, Bloomberg gradually poured in data and analytics on commodities, equities, foreign securities of all kinds, energy, mortgage-backed securities, derivatives, mutual funds, real estate, hedge funds, foreign exchange. Its oceans of information today include earnings estimates, SEC filings, merger and acquisition facts, legal documents and data on 1.3 million people.

* * *

Thanks to David Warsh's Economic Principals for the pointer.

'IIT model ought to be replicated'

The credit for the excellence of IITs should go to the system underlying it. This system has two pillars — complete autonomy, and relatively generous funding.

Let us take the funding first. For about 5,000 students and 400 teachers, IIT Madras gets nearly Rs. 100 crore per annum. Even if put together, all universities in Tamil Nadu or in Bihar, with several times more students and teachers, get less.

Besides, IITs earn through consultancy and receive donations from their alumni. They also attract international funding. IIT Madras may not be rolling in money, but it can meet its needs and some fancies. Its faculty may not be getting salaries as in Massachusetts, Singapore, Tokyo or Toronto, but their working environment and the autonomy they enjoy make those salaries a less important factor in career choice. For conferences and researches, they can go abroad. They can buy a book or a laptop.

The other pillar of the IIT system is its autonomy. Reporting to the President of India, Visitor or Chancellor to all IITs, IITs have managed to escape politicians. Ministers have tried to interfere, but the Presidents have used their position and the trust reposed in them to save this their sacred charge. The IITs, therefore, work unhindered; and so do all their departments, laboratories, hostels, libraries, every unit and individual running them. They know their rights and duties, privileges and responsibilities, and enjoy those privileges and discharge those responsibilities without fear or favour.

That's from this Open Page article in the HIndu by Shreesh Chaudhary, a professor in IIT-M's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences.

My blog's 'film rating' shouldn't constrain me from posting this quote

Running simulations is very much like masturbation. Do it often enough, and it starts to feel better than the real thing.
-- Prof. George Rose (quoted here).

The link for the quote is from this post by Guru, who's too scared to post it in full because he wants to protect his blog's "G" rating.

For the record, my blog is also G-rated (at least as of now). But that shouldn't prevent me from my pursuing my passion for freaky quotes in which academics talk dirty or bad-mouth other academics and academic fields.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

uSuckBook: the anti-social network ...

Like many of you, I too have my profile up on many, many sites (Orkut, MySpace, MyBlogLog, LinkedIn, Nature Network, Vox, and Facebook). Not (really) out of any great conviction that this is the way to go, but just to get a feel for this phenomenon called social networking. Sadly, I'm still not sure what all the rage is all about, but that may be because I am clueless.

In any case, given the sudden, steep and awesome rise in popularity of Facebook, it's only a matter of time someone realizes the great hidden potential of uSuckBook.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Laffer Curve ...

One of the sharper descriptions of the Laffer Curve appears in the novel A Tenured Professor by John Kenneth Galbraith (my review):

Even some of the more theoretically committed members of the faculty found themselves asked about the budget priorities of David Stockman [President Reagan's Budget Director], the monitarist magic of Professor Milton Friedman, the now compelling doctrine that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much. And about the Laffer Curve. Especially about the Laffer Curve.

The economic formulation of high personal importance to the Marvins held that when no taxes are levied, no revenues accrue to the government. An undoubted truth. And if taxes are so high that they absorb all income, nothing can be collected from the distraught, starving and otherwise nonfunctional citizenry. Also almost certainly true. Between those two points a freehand curve, engagingly unsupported by evidence, showed the point where higher taxes would mean less revenue. According to the accepted legend, the original curve had been drawn on a paper napkin, possibly toilet paper, and some critics of deficient imagination held that the paper could have been better put to its intended use. ..

Today, the Wall Street Journal is being laughed at because of its attempt to better the 'freehand curve, engagingly unsupported by evidence' with a modern version. Mark Thoma started this riot, and much fun is being had by many.

Bizarre ...

"Give me your money, or I'll start shooting," [the intruder] said, according to D.C. police and witnesses.

Everyone froze, including the girl's parents. Then one guest spoke. "We were just finishing dinner," Cristina "Cha Cha" Rowan, 43, told the man. "Why don't you have a glass of wine with us?"

The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, "Damn, that's good wine." [...] The robber, with his hood down, took another sip and a bite of Camembert cheese. He put the gun in his sweatpants.

The story then turns even more bizarre.

More here.

Link via Kieran Healy's post with this title: "More Camembert, Less Crime"!

Friday, July 13, 2007

A comparison of universities across the globe

Over at Inside HigherEd, Scott Jaschik has an interesting interview with Philip G. Altbach (director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College) and Jorge Balán (visiting professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto), who have edited World Class Worldwide: Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America. The discussion covers quite a few topics related to university systems in the US and Europe on the one hand, and those in Latin America and Asia on the other. A quick excerpt:

Q: Americans are used to paying attention to developments at Oxford and Cambridge and more recently at IIT. Are there a few research universities in developing nations that deserve close attention?

A: Americans should carefully watch developments among the top universities in Asia. In Japan, the University of Tokyo, the University of Kyoto, and Waseta University are “world class” — along with some others. Seoul National University in Korea, and several universities in Taiwan are also excellent. A half dozen top Chinese universities are moving ahead rapidly, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Fudan University, and a few others. The University of Hong Kong, the National University of Singapore, are the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok are also very good. Curiously enough, although the Indian Institutes of Technology produce outstanding graduates, they are not research universities — they are small, high specialized, and do not have appropriate infrastructures. There in no Indian universities that rank along the institutions mentioned here. Thus, the United States and Europe should look at what is happening in Asia.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mega University in Orissa

Shailaja Neelakantan reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education (it's likely to go behind a paywall soon, so go read it NOW):

On 6,750 acres that [Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Resources] plans to buy with the blessing of the government, which will lease him another 800 acres, Mr. Agarwal intends to build a $3.5-billion university.

In 2023, when it is scheduled to be completed, Vedanta University is expected to house 100,000 students and 40,000 faculty and staff members.

The area will also be home to a resort, a golf course, a government-built airport, and townships to house the employees who will operate those many ventures. If it succeeds, Vedanta will boast faculty members and students from all over the world, producing "tomorrow's Nobel laureates, Olympic champions, and community leaders," according to promotional materials.

And then there's this:

Many local residents are predisposed to distrust Mr. Agarwal. His mining operation in the state's dirt-poor Kalahandi district is controversial for dodging environmental laws. A Supreme Court investigation in 2005 found that the company had failed to disclose that it planned to encroach on endangered forests.

"When people who are known for flouting the rule of law talk about setting up a university, you wonder, and everyone knows the land earmarked for it is a dream area for setting up industry or dealing in real estate," says Mr. Patnaik.

I hope I am wrong here, but I have to say this: When you read the article, you can't help thinking that this might be a scam masquerading as a university. Lots of very important people refuse to be interviewed, and lots of questions and concerns go unacknowledged. Mega-projects, even noble ones such as those for a university, need to be mega-transparent about how exactly they are going to be implemented. The news trickles that I have seen on this initiative have only led to stronger suspicions. Frankly, I am surprised that our press has not taken any serious interest in Vedanta University's plans.

Like I said, I would like to be proven wrong on this one. If you have information or links that can help me change my mind on Vedanta University, please leave a comment below (or send me mail).

* * *

Some of Neelakantan's previous articles are available at her website.

D. Balasubramanian on higher ed in India

In his latest Speaking of Science column in the Hindu:

Undergraduate education, which should provide the broad base, has increasingly become single-field oriented, neglecting vital support subjects. Many PhD degree holders in India today in, say biology, have not learnt physics, chemistry and mathematics beyond high school level, and are ignorant in economics, sociology, geography or languages.

What is true of a PhD in biology is also true of a Ph D in economics, physics or Urdu (with due variations).

Given his strong support for a broad-based education, I don't understand why he praises the setting up of IISERs. The real scandal is not (just) that India has neglected the development of this or that field, it is that it has not bothered to set up and nurture real universities in large enough numbers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


The Wikipedia entry on Thirukkural, a Tamil literary masterpiece from nearly two thousand years ago, also features a few of its famous couplets. One of them defines friendship:

As swiftly as the hand moves to seize a slipping garment,
Friendship acts to assuage a friend's distress.

Günter Grass is lucky to have a true friend in John Irving, whose review of Grass's Peeling the Onion is an absolute must-read.

Breathing problems? Try eating right foods.

"Teens with the lowest intake of fruit, vitamins C and E, and omega-3 fatty acids had lower lung function and higher reports of respiratory symptoms such as cough and wheeze," says study author Jane Burns, an epidemiologist at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

[Burns and her colleagues] discovered that teens who consumed less than 25 percent of one serving of fruit each day were more likely to have less efficient lung function than their compeers.

Burns and her colleagues speculate that fruit plays a role because it is rich in vitamin C—also associated with healthy lungs — as well as in flavonoids, antioxidants that hamper the production of free radicals.

From this Scientific American report.

WTF: The US military edition

Some of the ideas pitched to the US military:

The plan for a so-called "love bomb" envisaged an aphrodisiac chemical that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among troops, causing what the military called a "distasteful but completely non-lethal" blow to morale.

Scientists also reportedly considered a "sting me/attack me" chemical weapon to attract swarms of enraged wasps or angry rats towards enemy troops.

A substance to make the skin unbearably sensitive to sunlight was also pondered.

Another idea was to develop a chemical causing "severe and lasting halitosis", so that enemy forces would be obvious even when they tried to blend in with civilians.

The report adds that these ideas were not pursued.

Thanks to Sharath Rao for the pointer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Blogging commandments

Here's some serious wisdom about blogging. Don't miss it.

12. Make no Haste in your Scribblings. It is better to await the Passage of time to re-write from the Beginning, than to post Thoughts unformed.

Thanks to Ruchira Paul for the pointer.

Democratic governance in pirate ships

...[P]irate ships developed models that in many ways anticipated those of later Western democracies. First, pirates adopted a system of divided and limited power. Captains had total authority during battle, when debate and disagreement were likely to be both inefficient and dangerous. Outside of battle, the quartermaster, not the captain, was in charge—responsible for food rations, discipline, and the allocation of plunder. On most ships, the distribution of booty was set down in writing, and it was relatively equal; pirate captains often received only twice as many shares as crewmen. (Woodward writes that Privateer captains typically received fourteen times as much loot as crewmen.) The most powerful check on captains and quartermasters was that they did not hold their positions by natural right or blood or success in combat; the crew elected them and could depose them. And when questions arose about the rules that governed behavior on board, interpretation was left not to the captain but to a jury of crewmen.

That's from James Surowiecki in the New Yorker.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Two great videos ...

I discovered them here and here. Good stuff.

Robert Cahn and David Turnbull

Two leaders of materials science died this April: Robert Cahn and David Turnbull. Nature carried an obituary of Cahn by Lindsay Greer (Chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at Cambridge), and the latest issue of Science carries an obituary of both men by Roger Doherty (Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel).

Links to the obits via Guru's posts here and here.

Dads' influence on their daughters' interest in math and science

Over at Women in Science, Peggy points us to a new study that shows how important dads are when it comes to their daughters' interest in math and science.

They found that girls' interest in math decreases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase, whereas boys' interest in math increases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase.

"Fathers' gender stereotypes are very important in supporting—or in undermining—daughters' choices to pursue training in math and science," Davis-Kean said.

Gender disparity in science and engineering

Nature Jobs has a special section on participation of women and under-represented minorities in science and engineering. Some excerpts from this report about the US:

In 2003, 51% of the US population was female and more than 25% of the population was from a minority group under-represented in science: African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Women earned well over one-third of the science and engineering doctorates awarded in 2003–04 and African American and Latino doctorates have steadily increased during the past ten years. [...]

But women hold fewer than one-third of all science and engineering faculty posts, and just 18% of full professorships. For minorities, the numbers are below 10% and 6.7%, respectively. When the numbers are dissected at the disciplinary level, many fields find they are doing far worse in hiring talented women and minorities than should be expected, given the numbers of doctorates they award to those groups. [...]

This article looks into one of the major causes for under-representation of women and minorities: BIAS.

Women and minorities must both deal with implicit bias, a problem that is well-documented in the social-science literature, but one that has garnered little attention from the science sector until recently. Dean describes the problem of implicit bias in these terms: "People are most comfortable with people who think and look like themselves."

This type of bias cuts across all divides and has been shown to affect everything from basketball refereeing calls to hiring practices. In addition, a strong gender bias has been found in workplace scenarios, with both men and women consistently overrating men and underrating women in job qualifications (see Virginia Valian's chapter in Why Aren't More Women in Science? (eds S. J. Ceci and W. M. Williams); American Psychological Association Press, 2006).

An interesting case study accompanies this article; it's about 55 chemistry chairpersons who attended a workshop on gender disparity in their field:

Before the workshop, when participants were asked why women were not being recruited, hired and retained in their departments, the participants blamed factors largely beyond their control: too few women in the applicant pool, losing females to other departments and no money for recruiting both members of a couple. After the training on implicit bias, participants were more likely to admit to a lack of commitment or downright opposition to hiring female faculty members, says Geraldine Richmond, a chemist at the University of Oregon in Eugene who is evaluating the workshop's impact.

Participants left with a commitment to implement at least two items within their departments or institutions, such as doubling the number of female applicants in the next faculty search, or advocating subsidized childcare. And the participants agreed to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts in the future.

Men talk about as much as women

Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?
Matthias R. Mehl, Simine Vazire, Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, Richard B. Slatcher, James W. Pennebaker

Women are generally assumed to be more talkative than men. Data were analyzed from 396 participants who wore a voice recorder that sampled ambient sounds for several days. Participants' daily word use was extrapolated from the number of recorded words. Women and men both spoke about 16,000 words per day.

That's the abstract of this paper in Science. Since the paper may be behind the firewall, you might want to check out the commentary by Nikhil Swaminathan in the Scientific American:

[James Pennebaker's] device, called EAR (for electronically activated recorder) is a digital recorder that subjects can store in a sheath similar to a case for glasses in their purses or pockets. The EAR samples 30 seconds of ambient noise (including conversations) every 12.5 minutes; carriers cannot tamper with recordings.

Researchers used this device to collect data on the chatter patterns of 396 university students (210 women and 186 men) at colleges in Texas, Arizona and Mexico. They estimated the total number of words that each volunteer spoke daily, assuming they were awake 17 of 24 hours. In most of the samples, the average number of words spoken by men and women were about the same. Men showed a slightly wider variability in words uttered, and boasted both the most economical speaker (roughly 500 words daily) and the most verbose yapping at a whopping 47,000 words a day. But in the end, the sexes came out just about even in the daily averages: women at 16,215 words and men at 15,669. In terms of statistical significance, Pennebaker says, "It's not even remotely close to different." He does point out that women tend to jaw more about other people, whereas men are apt to hold forth on more concrete objects—so the stereotypes of ladies as gossips and guys engaging in car talk can live on.

Here's the NYTimes story.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Ultimatum games and online games

Effect of testosterone on men's sense of fair play:

[In the 'low utlimatum game'], each subject started out with $40 and could anonymously offer either $5 or $25 of this sum to another player.

Comparing the hormone data with the results of the money game showed a correlation between high testosterone levels and an increased likelihood of refusing the low, "unfair" offer of $5.

Men who rejected the deal had an average testosterone count of 380 picomoles per litre of saliva, whereas those who accepted it had an average of almost 40% of that figure.

* * *

Wired's Clive Thompson profiles Carnegie Mellon's Luis von Ahn who uses online games that tap into the 'free CPU cycles' of human brains for accomplishing certain things that computers are just not good at solving.

And Chronicle's Andrea Foster profiles Indiana University's Edward Castronova who uses online games for large-scale social experiments.

Altriusm in rats?

Science Daily reports on altruistic behaviour discovered in rats:

Although many models have predicted reciprocal altruism, scientists had found evidence only of direct reciprocity ("if you help me, I'll help you") in non-human animals in previous studies. Direct reciprocity is intuitively appealing, yet requires that animals interact repeatedly with the same individuals and remember past interactions. By comparison, generalized reciprocity makes no such cognitive assumptions. In generalized reciprocity, animals are more likely to help a partner if they have been helped in the past, regardless of the past helper's identity. [...]

In this study, Norway rats received help gaining food from a partner who pulled a stick to produce the food. Rats could therefore be grouped into two classes: those that had previously received help and those that had not. The rats who had previously been helped were then more likely to help another unknown partner receive food. This simple mechanism may promote the evolution of cooperation among unfamiliar non-relatives in many other animals.

Thanks to Bora for the pointer.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Links ...

Jessica Shepherd reports : "A popular new site could see scientists exchanging ideas, posting data ... and even finding love online. " Nature Network is "Facebook for professors, postdocs and PhDers in the sciences."

* * *

T.S.R. Subramanian reports [via Sugan]: "[A] seventh century Jain sculpture [has become] an Amman idol in rural Tamil Nadu."

* * *

Zoe Williams: Wake up, Feminism is more than just capitalism with tits: "Enough of the numbers game. The issue is not how many women are in power, but how many fight for collective rights."

* * *

Chris Dillow argues that "that there’s more to incentives than simple selfishness." :

[Some kindergartens in Haifa, Israel] had a problem with parents being late to pick up their toddlers. So they fined latecomers. And the numbers of them subsequently rose.

What happened? The same thing that researchers in New Zealand discovered when they found that two fifths of blood donors said they would stop giving blood if they were offered payments.

See this earlier post on the psychology (and economics) of incentives; also check out the links in the comments by TR, Suresh and Swarup.

Valson Thampu defends St. Stephen's new admission policy

This one is much better than the earlier one. As you may recall, St. Stephen's new policy is under fire because it increases the quota for Christians to 40 percent, with a new sub-quota for Dalit Christians. Thampu's defence revolves around legal issues; since St. Stephen's is a minority institution, it is bound by a Supreme Court verdict which caps the non-minority intake in these institutions to 50 percent!

St. Stephen’s College 1992 verdict [presumably by the Delhi High Court or the Supreme Court] reserved 50 per cent seats for non-minorities. The Pai Foundation verdict [by a 11-judge Supreme Court Bench in 2002] reversed this and stipulated that non-minority admissions in a minority institution shall not exceed 50 per cent. It did not cap minority admissions. [bold emphasis added]

To the charge that the college favours Christians while taking public money, his answer relies, in part, on another Supreme Court order:

The Supreme Court has settled the issue of what happens to minority rights when grant-in-aid is received from the State. No affiliated college can function without State subsidy. Colleges are allowed to collect only a pittance in the form of tuition fees. This revenue is not retained by the college, but remitted to the UGC. As the Apex Court has said repeatedly, you cannot create a situation in which a college is obliged to receive grant-in-aid and then use that obligation to rob it of its minority status.


What our IITs are to engineering and science, St Stephen’s is to the world of liberal arts and humanities.
--- Barkha Dutt.

Thampu's response, presumably, was prompted by a couple of op-eds last Sunday by Vir Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt. It relies so heavily on legal issues surrounding minority institutions that I have to depend on legally minded souls (such as the bloggers behind the excellent Law and Other Things) to tell us if other interpretations of the law are possible.

Daniel Gilbert on The Colbert Show

And the topic of discussion is Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness. The short interview is great fun, and it made me happy.

Thanks to Apurva for 'stumbling' me on this happiness-inducing video, while I continue to wait for the opportunity to buy the book.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Big news about Current Science

Divya Gandhi reports on an interesting new development for Current Science, India's premier science journal:

The country’s premier science journal, Current Science, will, in all likelihood, soon bear on its cover the logo of the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), publishers of Nature magazine. The U.K.-based NPG and Current Science Association are set to get into a unique publishing partnership, the proposal for which is in the initial stages.

What does this partnership mean for Current Science? To begin with, the journal will receive international exposure once it finds a place on Nature’s popular website, G. Madhavan, executive secretary, Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), a co-publisher of Current Science, said. Nature.com will also display a list of titles published in Current Science along with abstracts of the articles. N ature has granted permission to have pages from its news sections reprinted in the journal.

I heard people in our Institute talk about the possibility of this partnership, and one of my concerns was about the wonderfully open-access nature of Current Science; it currently allows complete and free access -- all the way back to the very first issue! What would happen to open access under Nature -- a journal that's notorious for keeping stuff behind its paywall?

I needn't have worried; the Indian Academy of Sciences, the publisher of Current Science, has ensured that the journal will remain open-access.

One of the “pre-requisites” the IAS insisted upon for the future tie-up was that Current Science, which has open-source access online, must be allowed to retain it, said Mr. Madhavan. The title links for the article will direct the user to the IAS server, where the full text can be viewed.

"Fight Corruption NOW" needs our support

The website Fight Corruption NOW has been gaining traction (I saw it on CNN-IBN and thanks to Anand Giridharadas, it's now on IHT as well). It carries a powerful message in a simple, direct, and very personal voice:

I am Jayashree J.N, married to an IAS officer M.N.Vijayakumar of Karnataka Cadre who has served in Karnataka for the last 25 years. ...

If the site appears too personal it is intended to be so. ...

My husband , a WHISLEBLOWER, is continuously fighting corrupt practices in the system. As my husband is being harassed for exposing the corrupt practices of the senior officers, and as this harassment is silently watched (or more probably supported) by the head of the bureaucracy, I also decided to take up his causes independently. ...

The website chronicles the injustice and harassment faced by Vijayakumar (for example, he has been transferred seven times in ten months since September 2006). It has been around for a while, but now it faces a new threat:

I started this website to mobilize like minded people across the country to fight against brazen corruption in Karnataka . The Chief Secretary sent a notice to my husband recently to the effect that he should either disown association with this website (created to fight against corruption) or else he should disassocite himself from me- i.e, he should divorce me! Against this obscene and pervert notice I have filed complaint against him with the Karnataka Women's Commission. ...

Fight Corruption NOW is a good example of citizen activism, particularly one that involves higher levels of state administration. It builds its case using the Right to Information (RTI) Act extensively. Its owner is not anonymous, and it airs specific complaints against specific individuals who are named.

If the Chief Secretary (or anyone else who is mentioned by FCN) has any serious problems against the website, he/she could try suing for defamation or libel. But using official route to muzzle this website is extremely shady [The Chief Secretary denies any such attempt].

Purely from the point of view of free speech, Fight Corruption NOW deserves to exist and survive, and deserves our support. Any attempt to shut it down -- except for defamation or libel -- must be condemned in the strongest terms.

Please do what you can to show your support.

Monday, July 02, 2007

How about paying kids to study?

Here's a very interesting experiment:

New York City has decided to offer cash rewards to some students based on their attendance records and exam performance. Diligent, high-achieving seventh graders will be able to earn up to $500 in a year. The plan is the brainchild of Roland G. Fryer, an economist who has been appointed as “chief equality officer” of the city’s Department of Education.

In this NYTimes column Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, points out some of the pitfalls in this approach. First, he highlights the key assumption behind this experiment:

The logic of the plan reveals a second assumption that economists make: the more motives the better. Give people two reasons to do something, the thinking goes, and they will be more likely to do it, and they’ll do it better, than if they have only one.

But, but ...

Unfortunately, these assumptions that economists make about human motivation, though intuitive and straightforward, are false. In particular, the idea that adding motives always helps is false. There are circumstances in which adding an incentive competes with other motives and diminishes their impact.

He goes on to cite some very interesting -- and rather counter-intuitive (at least to me) -- evidence from psychological research. As they say, read the whole thing.

How did London's congestion pricing succeed?

London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, explains:

This success had preconditions. In London, as will be the case in New York or any other city, an enhanced public transportation system was critical. To ensure readiness, we made significant upgrades to public transport. Our investment focused on enhancing London’s bus system, rather than the subway, because we needed to increase capacity in the quickest, most cost-effective way.

Specifications for a modern, more comfortable fleet were introduced, bus lanes were added, and more inspectors were put on to ensure buses ran at regular intervals. With London’s buses a more attractive alternative, the number of bus trips a day has risen to six million, an increase of two million from 2000 — with ridership growing most rapidly among the highest-paid social groups. In turn, this helped relieve pressure on the subway, ensuring it continued to run smoothly. Investment in public transport continues to this day, aided by the revenue from the congestion charge — the equivalent of some $200 million annually.

Blog rankings compete with US News

In this WSJ article, Amir Efrati examines the ways in which blogs are better than US News in ranking US law schools.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The debate about St.Stephen's mission

Remember Ram Guha's angry outburst two weeks ago? A brief summary: Guha is appalled by St.Stephen's new admission policy that 'reserves' 40% of its seats for Christians -- notwithstanding that a quarter of this quota going to Dalit Christians. He sees this policy as a first step towards 'Christianizing' the college: it's students today, but it's only a matter of time before it's extended to faculty. He also questions the ethics of using public money -- he claims 95% of the college's funding is from the government -- for favouring the Christian community. [Outlook readers' letters in response to Guha's piece are here].

Rev. Valson Thampu, the new principal at St.Stephen's, has responded through a ToI op-ed. He brushes aside the stuff about creeping sectarianism with something like: "oh, we were always a 'mission' institution!" On the charge that the new policy goes against the legendary "St. Stephen's tradition", here's his response:

Academic excellence in St Stephen's in recent decades has almost become a smokescreen for masking the privileges of the socio-economic elite. Vis-a-vis St Stephen's, 'merit', for those who are clamouring about it, is anything but 'academic excellence'.

In other words, he accuses his critics of elitism! Thus, we have critics like Guha harping on 30 percent reservation for non-Dalit Christians, and we have Thampu urging us to keep the focus on the 10 percent quota for Dalit Christians!

Karan Thapar: Women's courageous acts are frightening!

In his latest column, Karan Thapar talks about how three gutsy leaders -- Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Indira Gandhi of India -- seized the opportunity to show their opponents that they are made of sterner stuff.

But look at the way he frames these courageous acts:

Have you ever wondered why women in power can be so formidably impressive? Regardless of the correctness of their policies, they often display a steely determination, a cold, calculating, even ruthless belief in themselves. Faced with incredible odds they can be almost frighteningly courageous. On such occasions, men might waiver or reconsider, but not a woman.

Bold emphasis added.