Friday, August 31, 2007

IEB: The gift that keeps on giving

Tate a perfectly plausible and (probably) harmless stand or position, for which there may be reasonable arguments. And begin stretching it. To the max. Beyond its breaking point.

In this exalted blogging realm, the Indian Economy Blog has been a consistent outlier [see footnote]. Here's the latest episode in which Dweep Chanana argues that India should refrain from "[demanding] cuts in agricultural subsidies".

There is, of course, the argument that lower subsidies will raise prices and thus raise farmer incomes. But this reasoning is egregious in so many ways, I don’t know where to begin.

First, it ignores the fact that while there are several million farmers in India, there are over 1 billion consumers too. This is the classic problem with farm subsidies in general - they benefit a strong, well organized group of producers, but against the interests of the much larger, but disorganized majority of consumers. Worse, the result will be incentives for farmers to stay in farming - just when they should be encouraged to move into other forms of production. [bold emphasis added by me]

I think Dweep has failed some of his IEB colleagues in not going far enough. Here's how we can stretch this argument even further.

We should get rid of our totally counterproductive anti-dumping laws, and allow Asia's manufacturing biggies to just dump their goods at rock bottom prices: Barbies, GI Joes and Holi water guns, bicycles, motorbikes and cars, computers, mobile phones and MP3 players, ... ! It makes perfect sense because manufacturing accounts for only a small share of our GDP and employs a far smaller workforce than our agricultural does. On the other hand, we have a BILLION consumers who have a gucking-fod-given right to enjoy their cheap toys and low-priced gadgets and dumped cars! Worse, keeping manufacturing alive will only result in perverse incentives for the workers to stay in manufacturing -- just when they should be encouraged to move into our sunrise sector: BPO.

* * *

Footnote: We have encountered IEB insights on incentives for academics (even for those who participate in open source projects), on the role of expectations, and on how quotas may interfere with India's quest for excellence.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ultra Violet

Have you checked out the new feminist blog -- Ultra Violet? I learnt about it through Anindita Sengupta, who is one of the bloggers at Ultra Violet. Here's an excerpt from the most recent post by Anita Ratnam:

... A nationwide study by Sakshi conducted a decade ago revealed that judges carry leanings, sensitivities, as well as prejudice and bias about women’s identities and roles. Through interviews of judges, lawyers, litigants and witnesses, as well as rigorous analysis of the texts of several judgments from five states (including Karnataka) the extent of judicial gender blindness came to light.

Husbands emerged as protectors and bread winners and wives as home makers in judges’ world views, with 79% of judges attributing this to Indian culture. With regard to domestic violence as well as sexual assault, 64% of judges felt that women must share the blame for violence committed against them with 27% of judges attributing domestic violence to a wife’s provocation (husbands never provoke wives!) and 40% of judges attributing it to alcohol. Only 27% of judges were able to see domestic violence as a result of unequal power relations in the family and 51% of judges felt that a slap to his wife by a husband on one occasion in the course of their marriage, does NOT amount to cruelty.

OLPC News celebrates its first anniversary

Congratulations to Wayan Vota on this fantastic achievement!

Can you believe that your favorite independent source for news, information, commentary, and discussion of One Laptop Per Child "$100 laptop" is one year old this week?

Was it really just a year ago that we jumped onto the OLPC stage with the news of The Children's Machine 1 name change? Could we have grown from a handful of itinerant readers and three writers to over 1,500 decided daily viewers and a whole crew of contributors?

I am still in shock that OLPC News has propelled me into the blogging big leagues with this humble effort. Did I actually get on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon or 60 Minutes with Leslie Stall?

While we are on single-theme blogs, let me point you to another great one: Peter Suber's Open Access News.


A child is taken to the health centre of a premier institution for emergency care and first aid. He is refused treatment, and he dies while being taken to another hospital.

Why was he denied emergency medical assistance? He was just a construction worker's child. In other words, he was not "officially" associated with the institution, so he was not 'entitled' to treatment at the health centre.

The following mail (which I received through an anoymous tip, but Mridula has confirmed the events described in it) is truly devastating, and needs no further commentary. Read on:

A Tragic Death at IIT Kanpur

Students of IIT Kanpur were shocked to receive a mail on Monday forwarded by the President of the Students' Gymkhana. The mail is attached below and a brief description of the later developments are given after the mail.

This is to share an incident which reflects the state of affairs for the disenfranchised in our Institute of excellence. I suspect this incident could not be reported by anybody in authority in the Institute and hence would not reach most of us. In this case too we got to know of it just by chance, as would be evident from the account, which makes us believe that occurrence of such incidents may not be a rarity after all, but that is just not shared with the community. A similar incident happened a month ago and the sequence of events are much similar. This account is to inform the community of this incident, acknowledge a feeling of collective shame that this could occur in an Institute which claims to be the best, and hopefully to evoke some collective action to prevent such occurrences in future. I am sure of the facts, as I got to know of it from a first person account and yet would not name anybody to avoid unnecessary personal vilification. This is the system and not the individuals involved.

On Sunday morning at about 4.15 am one of the canteen owners of one of the Halls was going back after work when he chanced upon a crowd of migrant workers at the security crossing near the Motor Transport/Air-Strip road. Apparently a boy, whose family had been employed in the construction site of the Environment Engineering building had been bitten by something poisonous (they were not sure whether it was a scorpion or a snake), in his sleep. The workers including the family consisting of the father a brother and a younger sister (his mother is no longer alive) had come to the SIS (institute security service) for help. The boy who was around 12-13 seemed to have been bitten around 3 in the morning and was alive though unconscious. The SIS guards (there were around 20-25 of them there) kept urging the workers to take the boy to the city hospital but refused to extend any help. The group of migrant workers did not know anything about the city, and this is usual because they are brought from far of places like Malda and Chhattisgarh by the contractor and are herded back at the end of their term. The canteen owner requested the SIS to lend their jeep for transporting the boy to the Health Center. The SIS guards refused to ask for their jeep (though several of them had their walkie talkie) and instead told this man that the boy would not be treated in the institute Health Center and hence has to be taken to the city. At this point the Canteen Owner decided to take the boy in his motorcycle, along with another worker to hold the inert form, to the Health Center.

At the Health Center, the person at the desk refused to entertain the case, when he came to know that the boy was not related to an Institute employee and was neither a student. The canteen owner tried to impress upon the person that the case was very serious and the boy may just survive if only the hospital intervened and the formalities and the expenses could be handled later. He also volunteered to get the health card of his father who is an Institute employee, as treating guests is routinely done in the HC. The attendant at the desk refused to comply but conceded to give the phone number of the doctor on duty. He told the canteen owner that he may call up the doctor to check if she would treat the boy, but not to mention that he was calling from the HC, but tell her that he was calling from one of the hostels.

The canteen owner called the doctor, who when she realized that it involved the child of worker, was extremely annoyed and said that this facility was not available to them. When the canteen owner pleaded that the case was serious and may turn fatal she apparently shouted 'which language do you understand?' and slammed the phone down. After that the canteen owner decided to take the child to the city and requested the hospital attendant to provide the services of the ambulance so that he could be taken as soon as possible and anyway it is extremely difficult to negotiate the GT road with an unconscious person. But he was refused even that. The boy was still alive till that point.

The rest of the story in short - the canteen owner took the boy to a nearby nursing home in Kalyanpur (about 2 kilometers from the institute) but that setup was not equipped to handle snake bites. Then he drove with the unconscious boy all the way to the Hallett (medical college) - the doctor on duty was much more prompt and immediately attended to the boy, but unfortunately he had already died. Then this canteen owner drove all the way back to the campus with a dead child in the pillion. As he ended his account 'bilkul kuch achcha nahin lag raha hai tab se - health centre hote hue ek chote se bachche ko marne de sakten hain - kyun ki woh ek mazdoor ka bachcha hai sirf isiliye?'

Students have investigated the reported event and their representatives are in possession of the names of all the people who are involved in this incident. The students arranged a condolence meeting yesterday evening and marched to the Health Center to demand an explanation from the Chief Medical Officer. After a long standoff and hours of deliberations with the authorities the CMO met the students but failed to answer many of the questions students had about the issue. Students are presently planning to get the whole campus community involved in the protest. What saddens the entire student community and me is the reluctance of the institute administration letting the entire campus community know and the tax-payers know about the incident. The reasons they give are beyond any sane argument. Witnessing a few incidents during my stay at IIT Kanpur has led me into thinking that this time too, the incident and related issues shall be buried to bask into what I feel is vacuous feeling of glory.

Open access and its discontents

Dr. Free-Ride demolishes some of the anti-open-access arguments put forward by an organization called PRISM - Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine. I certainly agree with her concluding thought:

... I'd be thrilled if this lobbying group would choose some word other than "Integrity" to fill in the "I" in their acronym. At least in the context of scientific practice, it's not clear that they understand what integrity means.

A science writer (and editor) is frustrated

... [S]cientists seem peculiarly bad at comprehension of the written word (they have many other virtues to compensate)

That's from Philip Ball commenting on a reader's reaction to his recent article on the Large Hadron Collider. Ball is an editor at Nature. His columns appear regularly in several Nature publications (and in other places too!), and he parks some of them on his blog. He has also written quite a few books; check out his website!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Psychology of blink

NYTimes' Claudia Dreifus interviews Gerd Gigerenzer, German social psychologist known "for his breakthrough studies on the nature of intuitive thinking."

Q: Do you think of yourself as intuitive or rational?

A: Both. In my scientific work, I have hunches. I can’t explain always why I think a certain path is the right way, but I need to trust it and go ahead. I also have the ability to check these hunches and find out what they are about. That’s the science part. Now, in private life, I rely on instinct. For instance, when I first met my wife, I didn’t do computations. Nor did she.

Q: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is about a young man who doesn’t respond to his first best instinct, which is to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle. If Hamlet had listened to his gut, how would the play be different?

A: This is not a scientific kind of question. But the play would have been shorter and probably fewer people would have been killed.

Ajay Srichandra

In what appears to be a depressed state, Ajay Srichandra, a student in Biological Sciences at IISc, committed suicide yesterday. From the news reports, we gather that one or two friends and a teacher were beginning to be aware of Ajay's depression but, sadly, he ended his life before psychological help could reach him.

Suicides are always tough to deal with, and all I can do now is to repeat the rather un-original message I posted back in December 2005 (following the suicide of an IIT-K student): depression is treatable. There's a lot of very helpful (and academically validated) information available at the American Psychological Association on both depression and its opposite, emotional health. See, for example, this overview on depression. Another recent article talks about prevention strategies such as teaching school kids anti-depressive thinking.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Anthology of Dalit Poetry

Over at Blogbharti, Kuffir has posted a letter from Dr. K. Purushotham (Associate Professor of English, Kakatiya University), who's working on an anthology of Dalit poetry. Specifically, Purushotham's looking for help with translating these poems from Indian languages into English, and with editing them.

See Kuffir's post for more details about how you (or anyone you know) can contribute to this project.

The field where women enjoy a 4:1 majority

In American universities, women outnumber men by a margin of about 3:2. Since their representation is low in science and engineering (in general), their numerical advantage in humanities and social sciences is better than 3:2. Thus, this news about a scientific field being "predominantly female" came as a big surprise:

While men still outnumber women in scientific fields such as computer science and engineering, the field of veterinary medicine is well on its way to becoming predominantly female, The Boston Globe reports.

The reporter, Sarah Schweitzer, notes that 79 percent of the students at the 28 veterinary schools in the United States are female. The ratios are even more skewed at some schools “such as Tufts, where last year 89 percent of its first-year class were women; at Michigan State and University of California-Davis, 88 percent and 81 percent, respectively, of the incoming classes are women,” she adds.

The Boston Globe report is here. Thanks to Arun for the e-mail alert.

Out of body experiences

They can be induced using some cool gadgets and clever illusions. Do they cease to be spooky now, or have they become spookier?

When people gaze at an illusory image of themselves through the goggles and are prodded in just the right way with the stick, they feel as if they have left their bodies. [...]

[Usually, ... ] sensory streams, which include vision, touch, balance and the sense of where one’s body is positioned in space, work together seamlessly, Prof. Botvinick said. But when the information coming from the sensory sources does not match up, when they are thrown out of synchrony, the sense of being embodied as a whole comes apart.

The brain, which abhors ambiguity, then forces a decision that can, as the new experiments show, involve the sense of being in a different body.

The research provides a physical explanation for phenomena usually ascribed to other-worldly influences, said Peter Brugger, a neurologist at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Washington Monthly's ranking of US universities

Washington Monthly has been ranking US universities based on its own methodology (which favours indicators related to social mobility, service and research -- as measured by the number of PhDs), which produces results that are dramatically different from those of the US News. For example, the top twenty in the WM list is studded with state schools while the USN list has none. And four University of California campuses (LA, Berkeley, San Diego and Davis) figure in the top ten!

FWIW, here's the rank list (pdf) You can read the accompanying article and their methodology for further details.

Annals of Absurdity: China's new regulations on reincarnation

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation."

Do read the story for a better understanding of the underlying motives for China's regulatory overreach.

Thanks to Dhimanth for the pointer.

Are bloggers like real journalists?

Not all bloggers, for sure. But there are quite a few whose work would qualify as journalism -- in the sense of reporting -- of both news and investigative kinds. Want some examples? Take a look at journalism professor Jay Rosen's stinging response to a clueless op-ed in LATimes. Among the examples, this is my favourite:

2003 to present. Groklaw becomes the go-to source for coverage of SCO vs. IBM. Law blog -- one obsessive blogger, plus readers -- takes on saturation coverage of key lawsuit involving open-source software, becomes an authoritative source of knowledge for the case's participants, who have never seen anything like it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

All academics in India belong to the top 4 percent of the population

Arjun Sengupta, Chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, writes about the staggering number and the sorry status of the aam aadmi in India:

... [The] total number of people in India belonging to the poor and vulnerable group having a daily per capita consumption of less than Rs 20 in 2004-05 was 836 million, constituting about 77 per cent of our population. By all means, they constitute our aam aadmi.

You really ought to read that column for an articulation of what our government can -- and should -- do for the aam aadmi.

* * *

I want to take Sengupta's column in a different direction. When you read his column, do keep an eye on the definitions of the six classes (income groups) of people. The middle income group is defined as one with a per capita consumption of around Rs. 37 per day; some 210 million people (19.3 percent) are in this group.

The high income group (which has 43 million people, forming 4 percent of the population) is defined as one with a consumption of over Rs.93 per day. Let's look at this definition: on an annual basis, the per capita consumption comes to about Rs.34,000, or equivalently, Rs. 136,000 for a family of four.

Thus, a monthly consumption of about Rs.12,000 for a family of four makes that family a part of the 'high income group', and puts it in the top four percent of the population. In the government sector, who are the people who earn Rs. 12,000 per month and above?

In India's elite institutions (IITs, IIMs, TIFR, IISc, IISERs, ...), a freshly recruited assistant professor (typical age: under 35, with a Ph.D. and some post-doc experience) starts at a basic salary of Rs. 12,000 per month; the gross salary, with house rent allowance in a metro city, would be between Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 25,000 per month.

If you take lecturers, who are just a step below Assistant Professors (typically about 25-30 years of age, with a masters and above), their salary of about Rs. 15,000 per month would also put them in the 'high income' category. Lecturers are the entry-level employees in all the colleges in India.

Thus, all academics with a regular job (by which I mean a job that pays UGC-approved salaries) belong to the top 4 percent of the population.

Can you think of a developed country where junior faculty members find themselves -- automatically -- in the top 5 percent of the population by income? How do academics fare in, say, China?

* * *

Here are my earlier posts about faculty salaries in India.

Be thankful, be happy

Reporting on his research, Emmons writes, "Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. [...] [G]rateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism [...] [T]he practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness." That cultivating gratitude can fight depression is no small deal, as antidepressants have become the most-prescribed medications in the nation. Not only all that, but being grateful can, or might, also protect us from heart attacks, lessen physical pain and confer other physiological benefits.

This is from Steve Heilig's review of Robert A. Emmon's Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Emmon's website is here. On his research page, we find some of the benefits of gratitude:

  • * In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  • A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
  • A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
  • Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
  • In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

If you are Harvard ...

... even the performance of your endowment comes under sharp scrutiny!

For the record, Harvard's endowment enjoyed a 22.4 percent return during the year to 30 June 2007, beating the 20.5 % return of S&P 500. This pushed up the total value of the endowment from 33.5 billion dollars last year to about 41 billion dollars now.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Serial plagiarist outed

A 63-year-old German economist has for decades falsely claimed an affiliation with the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, according to an article in tomorrow’s issue of Nature. The economist, Hans-Werner Gottinger, also appears to be a serial plagiarist, according to Nature’s report.

Mr. Gottinger’s deceptions began to unravel two months ago, after an attentive reader noticed that a paper he published in the journal Research Policy in 1993 had pilfered a string of complex equations from a 1980 issue of another journal. The editors of Research Policy started to sniff around — and their plagiarism investigation eventually turned into something much larger. When they contacted Mr. Gottinger’s ostensible employers in Maastricht, they learned that he had never worked there. According to Nature, Mr. Gottinger has claimed an affiliation with the Dutch university since the mid-1980s.

Here's the post at the Chronicle's news blog. The Nature story (behind the paywall) is here.

Niall Ferguson on the Heroes of the Marshall Plan

In a fabulous review of Greg Behrman's The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe (check out some of the posters from that era), Niall Ferguson offers his take on the heroes behind the Plan:

There is Marshall himself, truly a titan among public servants. As Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army during the war, he had been, in Churchill’s phrase, the “organizer of victory,” and, as Secretary of State, he approached Europe’s postwar reconstruction with the same sangfroid and self-discipline. There is William Clayton, the Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, a Southerner who had made his fortune in cotton and his political reputation in wartime procurement. Clayton was another formidable workhorse, whose only weakness was his demanding wife, Sue, who hated his absence on government business and vetoed a succession of more senior appointments he was offered. (To crown it all, she divorced him a year after he retired, only to remarry the hapless fellow two months later.) A third hero is Arthur H. Vandenberg, a leading Republican in the Senate, who had been converted from isolationism to internationalism by the experience of war. Without him, Behrman suggests, the Marshall Plan might have been stymied by Republican opposition. The fourth member of Behrman’s quintet is W. Averell Harriman, the imperious tycoon who, as Commerce Secretary, headed the President’s Committee on Foreign Aid and then became the European Recovery Program’s Special Representative in Europe. His contribution was to broker the diplomatic deals within Europe, whereby aid was subtly tied to other American objectives. Finally, there is Paul Hoffman, the indefatigable automobile salesman and president of Studebaker, whom Truman press-ganged into the job of Marshall Plan administrator. It was Hoffman, more than anyone else, who sold the Plan to Americans. (Richard Bissell, whom Hoffman summoned from M.I.T. to act as his chief economist, comes close to being a sixth hero—something of a rehabilitation for a figure now mostly recalled as one of the C.I.A. men behind the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Academics in legal trouble

Even as one lawsuit (between Steven Levitt and John Lott) is nearing its end, another one begins: Stuart Pivar is suing Pharyngula's P.Z. Myers for libel.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Thomas Friedman is not our Prime Minister's speech writer, is he?

What is this sentence doing in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Independence Day speech?

Unity in diversity are the wall and roof of the fabric of our nationhood.

In case you are wondering about the reference to TF, you should look at this review.

Nitin Pai on India's quest for excellence

In a commentary on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's musings on the eve of the 60th anniversary of India's Independence, Nitin Pai says that India's quest for excellence -- as articulated by the PM -- is doomed to failure. You and I may think that factors such as corruption, lack of resources, "chalta hai" attitude (that the PM himself "despairs of") or religious intolerance and fundamentalism might be among the key factors holding India back. But, no. According to Nitin, one factor trumps everything else: reservation (aka quotas).

... [This PM's] government has done nothing to improve the incentives for excellence. Why would a marginal student aspire to be in the top 5% of the class if reservations guaranteed that person a place in an engineering college as long as he made the ‘cut-off’ for his community? And why would the marginal student in the engineering college attempt to score top grades, when quotas guarantee a government job? And why would the marginal government employee strive for excellence if promotions can be had with far less effort, as long as there is a quota?

If you are a pro-reservation fellow like me, you probably want to go "Grrrrr", and I certainly do. But I realize that I have to go beyond making angry, guttural noises (not necessarily because of this post!); so, I will try to offer some evidence for my side, and leave it to Nitin to offer some evidence for his side.

But wait a minute! I have already given my reasons for supporting quotas. More than 15 months ago, over at How the Other Half Lives. Here's a quick summary: in spite of the 'burden' of reservation, (a) our public sector companies -- particularly banks -- are flourishing in the face of de-licensing and unfettered competition, and (b) the southern states -- and in particular Tamil Nadu, the state with the highest level of quotas -- have also done quite well -- if not better than the rest of the country. Finally, I also pointed out that the dramatic turn-around of our Railways in just two or three years is a clear indication that the primary responsibility for its former state of inefficiency and sloth must be somewhere else.

Nitin goes on to tell us about the private sector:

Mercifully, there is no ‘chalta hai’ attitude in the private sector, especially in those segments that have been opened to global competition. That’s one part of India that is indeed striving for global excellence. But why would a marginal employee in a private sector factory strive for excellence when he knows that it’s virtually impossible to sack him for underperformance. ...

Does anyone remember all these enterprises: Maxworth and Sterling, Malavika Steels and M.S. Shoes, Himachal Futuristic and Pentamedia Graphics, Pertech Computers and D-Squared Software? In a famous article, Swaminathan Aiyar talked about the decline of many enterprises run by the Birla and Modi clans. What happened to these eminently quota-free companies? What caused their decline? Quotas? Or, incompetence, corruption and greed?

Don't get me wrong here. I am not against the private sector, nor am I an apologist for the public one. The simple point is that when our country faces many complex problems, attributing them to One Single Cause is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.

Let me also add here that one could be against reservation for other valid reasons -- for example, the way it is implemented, who gets in and who's kept out, the level of quotas, its seemingly sunset-free status, etc. But to attribute to quotas all kinds of problems is not just sloppy thinking, but also a misdiagnosis of the causes. And that is no help, especially coming from someone writing at a site called "National Interest."

* * *

When I say that the southern states are doing quite well compared to the rest of the country [just a month ago, Outlook devoted an entire issue to "Dakshin Rising"], I am not arguing that they are repositories of excellence. Yet. I am just arguing that they are a lot closer to 'excellence' than the other parts of India. At the least, then, their march towards excellence has not been hindered by reservation. Some might say that quotas actually boosted their economic and social development; but I will take the lesser claim -- that quotas have not come in the way -- since that is enough to counter Nitin's argument that quotas actively harm progress.

[Aside: For an indication of the low morale of the South at the time of India's Independence, take a look at this article by E.V. Ramasami (aka 'Periyar') reproduced in the Hindu special supplement for India's 60th birthday. In it, Periyar used the possibility of domination by the north and its industrialists to argue that the South should secede from India! Even as I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, "Vadakku vazhgirathu, Therrku theigirathu" -- "North flourishes, even as South perishes" -- was a slogan repeated so often in public meetings of the Dravidian parties. Thus, one could argue that the South has traversed a greater distance during the last sixty years (at least on the confidence scale!), much of which has seen pretty high levels of reservation.]

How is the Iraq war going?

Listen to what the soldiers have to say.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader, was shot in the head during a “time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected to survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) ...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dalits in India - 2

Bhupinder Singh points us to Harsh Mander's article about a recent report on the status of Dalits in India. Here's what he says about Dalit children:

Of the many forms of untouchability that persist in modern India, unarguably the most unconscionable is the wide prevalence of discrimination against dalit children within schools. Children in rural India, and even parts of the cities, learn early the rules of caste, which survive unremittingly through their lifetimes, even as their country races into the 21st century. A survey of practices of untouchability undertaken in 565 villages in 11 major states of India reveals shockingly that in as many as 38 per cent government schools, dalit children are made to sit separately while eating. In 20 per cent schools, dalit children are not even permitted to drink water from the same source.

India Together has this article by Puja Awasthi on how Dalit children are treated in many UP schools:

Sanjeev Kumar, a class four student in a government run primary school of village Bhagwanpura of Jalaun district says his teacher does not permit him to sit on the mat. "The Thakurs and Brahmin students in my class ask me to keep away from the mat. My teacher asks me to sit on the ground. In school during mid day meal (MDM), we are forcibly seated very far and in the last. The children from the general castes don't like to play with us. If I go to the teachers for checking the home work or class work, they see it without touching it." Kumar is lucky his teachers do not thrash him.

In 2006, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Munoz, noted: "Teachers have been known to declare that Dalit pupils cannot learn unless they are beaten."

Dalits in India

In an op-ed in the Hindu, Balakrishnan Rajagopal of MIT chides India for its ineffective implementation of its andi-discrimination laws, and for its inconsistent position in the UN forums when it comes to human rights issues:

The Indian government delegation that appeared before the U.N. human rights body cited a litany of laws that have been passed to end caste discrimination and atrocities against Dalits. [...] But, in practice, these laws are poorly implemented. The Indian delegation refused to share data on implementation with the U.N. body, which it is legally obligated to do. Instead, the government delegation argued that ‘descent-based discrimination’ does not constitute racial discrimination under the specific U.N. treaty in question, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

This is a misguided position. India’s own Prime Minister has compared caste discrimination to apartheid, which is the worst example of racial discrimination. India should also not forget that its current position goes against much of the history of the last 50 years of human rights law making. The irony is that it was India that suggested the definition in the CERD be expanded for ‘descent-based discrimination’ to include caste when the treaty was being drafted. India’s current position simply disavows its own history.

India’s position before the U.N. human rights body also typifies its overall attitude towards the place of human rights in its foreign policy. Nervous, Third Worldist, lacking confidence in its own democratic credentials, India constantly sides with the likes of Zimbabwe and Sudan at the U.N. on human rights issues. ... [It] has abandoned the human rights agenda to the west. On the issue of caste discrimination against Dalits, India’s recalcitrant and nervous attitude is only reminiscent of similar attitudes adopted by the government of the U.S. in its treatment of minorities or the white South African state over apartheid.

Life, hacking, ... and productivity!

This article on blogs that specialize in productivity and life-hacking asks (and attempts a partial answer to) some interesting questions:

... Scott's story raises perplexing questions: Why are hundreds of thousands of young people so interested in what a teenager from Manitoba, Canada has to say about being productive? Since when did twentysomethings, the demographic that previously gave rise to the beatniks, hippies, punks, and slackers, care about something so prosaic, so establishment, as to-do lists and reclaiming wasted time?

Annals of put-downs ...

Our greatest novelist, alas.

Of Victor Hugo, by a contemporary critic.

This quote is taken from Neil Griffiths' take on what it takes to write a novel: "at some point it is necessary to believe you are the best writer in the world," in the words of Martin Amis.

Friday, August 17, 2007

V. Venkatesan on President Kalam's "overreach" and Justice Sabharwal's "conflict of interest"

In response to A.G. Noorani's accusations, Venkatesan offers a partial defence of President Kalam. Out of four accusations, he picks the gravest of them all -- that Kalam asked the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to resign (implying that he wanted to rule the country in the absence of a government) -- and proceeds to offer an interpretation that takes some of the bite off Noorani's column.

Mr.A.G.Noorani is a latest commentator to offer a critical assessment of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam's tenure as President. His article in HT and Mr.Harish Khare's article in The Hindu make the similar point that Kalam loved to overstep the limits of his office. While the authors are entitled to their views, facts are sacrosanct, and they need to be pointed out respectfully. [...]

In another post, Venkatesan recounts some of the points made by Justice J.S. Verma (another former Chief Justice at the Supreme Court) in a TV interview regarding the allegations of conflict of interest against Justice Sabharwal in the 'Delhi shop sealing' case.

The Goodwin case: An update.

Remember this post from a few days ago? While Kundu's paper was withdrawn (over his protest) by JBC, the journals that published the papers by Elizabeth Goodwin (who had fabricated some data, according to the investigation by her institution, the University of Wisconsin at Madison) had still not taken any action (as of last June).

We now have an update on one of the papers. In the latest issue of Science, Philip M. Iannaccone of Northwestern writes:

The authors of Lakiza et al. received a draft of a statement from the University of Wisconsin report by e-mail that suggested a possible problem with two panels out of five in Fig. 1 (one of nine figures in the paper). We identified original data for Fig. 1 and did new experiments with independent methods and reagents to verify the conclusions that the paper reached from data presented in that figure. That process is now complete, and after peer review and scrutiny commensurate with the matter, the results have appeared in Developmental Biology. They verify the original conclusions of Fig. 1 of the paper [...]

The additional validation work was undertaken with support from several labs and would not have been possible without their collective, independent help. Most noteworthy are the young scientists who worked so hard on the paper at early stages of their careers--because they are victims of this unfortunate situation and are doubly victimized if the conclusion the scientific community reaches is that this paper has no merit. Although the scientific results are the most important component of the vindication of the work, I feel strongly that we owe it to our young scientists to draw attention to the verification.

This brings me back to the Kundu case: if his coworkers and he had admitted that there was indeed a problem in their second paper, and if it was due to an error (which would imply that it was unintentional), a few additional experiments and a correction would have put a quick end to the matter. Now, having taken the line -- which I believe is no longer tenable -- that the figures in question came out of real and distinct experiments, and having dug their heels in (through their later actions including letters to SSV and Current Science), they have precluded this possibility.

Philosophy of politeness

Way back in the 18th century Montesquieu quipped that “The English are busy; they don’t have the time to be polite.” Later on, toward the end of the 19th century Henry Bergson gave a lecture on good manners to French students. He divided politeness into three kinds: of manners, of the spirit, and of the heart. Similarly, Max Scheler, his contemporary, exhorted anybody who would aspire to wisdom to cultivate empathy (Einfulblung) and sympathy (Mitfublung).

José Ortega y Gasset was of the opinion that philosophy ought to educate desire as well as the mind. Closer to our times we have the American philosopher Richard Rorty who in the 90s complained that philosophers in general had become not smarter, but meaner, more pugnacious, more argumentative and rationalistic and much less imaginative; while Umberto Eco has quipped sardonically that some wish to see truth naked, at any cost, but truth is a very modest and well mannered maiden and eludes the curious voyeur.

From this rather absorbing meditation on politeness, its different facets and its value in philosophical -- especially philosophical discussions.

Thanks to Book Forum for the pointer.

Philosophy through jokes

A man stumbles into a deep well and plummets a hundred feet before grasping a spindly root, stopping his fall. His grip grows weaker and weaker, and in his desperation he cries out, "Is there anybody up there?"

He looks up, and all he can see is a circle of sky. Suddenly, the clouds part and a beam of bright light shines down on him. A deep voice thunders, "I, the Lord, am here. Let go of the root, and I will save you."

The man thinks for a moment and then yells, "Is there anybody else up there?"

This joke appears in the chapter on "Reason vs. Revelation" in Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein. Both the book and the authors have been profiled here; a quick excerpt:

On [a] vacation in 2004, in Gloucester, they brainstormed about Klein's idea of a book of philosophy and jokes. Cathcart had said there can't be more than four jokes with philosophical implications, but Klein was sure there are hundreds. At the end of the trip, they agreed to give the book a try and soon got down to serious -- but not too serious -- research and development. [...]

Klein dug up most of the jokes, while Cathcart explained the philosophy. Yet they collaborated closely on both parts.

Klein: "We figured out that jokes and philosophy have a lot in common. Every joke has that 'aha!' moment."

Cathcart: "One reason you laugh at a joke is that you are so delighted with yourself that after that split second, you 'got it.' There is that experience with philosophy -- some ideas are a little offbeat. You have that moment when you don't get it, and then you say, 'Oh, right!' "

Will Arnie visit IISc?

The IISc has finalised agreements with three of the 10 universities in California for the collaborative research programme. The Governor of California is expected to visit India during November to give a concrete shape to the programme, he said. Prof. Mohan [who is chairman of IISc's alumni cell] said efforts would be made to hold meeting among the government and academic institutions as well as industries during the visit of the Governor to set the stage for making an announcement.

Hmmm. The quote is from this report. The website of the Governor of California is here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A.G. Noorani on presidential overreach

In this column about presidential overreach and ambitions (with several examples), A.G. Noorani is quite blunt about A.P.J. Abdul Kalam:

... [Kalam's] four major interventions reflect common traits — enormous self-assurance, disregard for the Constitution, the law and the Supreme Court’s rulings and a passion to set his own rules, though nothing in his career had equipped him on these matters. He decided to act as a ‘man of science’ prescribing order and certainty to all.

Attack on Taslima Nasrin: Some blog reactions

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Kundu case: Did JBC do the right thing?

In the controversy surrounding the two papers published by Gopal Kundu's group in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), the ethics of the journal's actions have come under some critical scrutiny. The questions revolve around the journal's unilateral withdrawal of the second of the two papers, overruling the objections from Kundu and his coworkers. [JBC is an open access journal, so you can see the original paper (May 2005) and the withdrawal notice (February 2007)].

The first question is straight-forward: the withdrawal notice states, simply, "This manuscript has been withdrawn." That's it! It does not elaborate on the reasons for the withdrawal. For example, it does not say that the journal was yanking Kundu's paper in spite of his objection (and probably, his protest). I believe a journal owes it to its readers a transparent account of the circumstances under which a published paper is withdrawn.

Let's turn to the second and more important (and also problematic) question now. In his Current Science editorial (in the 10 June 2007 issue which also carried several letters by key players in this saga), P. Balaram compares the fate of Kundu's 2005 paper with that of a University of Wisconsin researcher:

[...] A sad and disturbing case at the University of Wisconsin, which hinges curiously enough on manipulated Western blots, ended last year with the resignation of a professor, leaving questions about the veracity of data in three published papers in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Developmental Biology and Molecular Cell (Couzin, J., Science, 2006, 313, 1222). Over nine months after this report, none of these papers has been withdrawn, with one journal reportedly waiting for the results of an ORI investigation. The reluctance of journals to publicly state a position on these papers is in sharp contrast to the treatment of the NCCS paper by the Journal of Biological Chemistry. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion of bias; [...] [Bold emphasis added]

[For a background on the "disturbing case at Wisconsin," let me direct you to Janet Stemwedel's two posts on Elizabeth Goodwin of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; the focus of these posts, however, was on the rather sorry plight of her graduate students who did the right thing by blowing the whistle on her fraud.]

Let's recap: In the Goodwin case, "a UW investigation reported data falsification in Goodwin's past grant applications and raised questions about some of her papers." Yet, as Balaram points out, none of her papers have been withdrawn (at least as of June 2007). In the Kundu case, on the other hand, despite a clean chit from an 'official' committee and despite JBC's knowledge of this fact, the journal went ahead and yanked Kundu's 2005 paper. The difference between the two cases cannot be more stark. Is this fair?

Let's leave aside the question of whether all journals (should) follow the same procedure. If we focus instead on what we know about how JBC handled the Kundu case, it would appear to have followed a fair procedure. For example, the JBC committee probing the allegations against Kundu's papers gave him a chance to respond to them. From the fact that Balaram has not mentioned any specific shortcoming in the JBC process, I gather that his complaint is probably about (a) whether a journal has a right to order its own investigation, and/or (b) whether it can unilaterally yank an article even though an institutional inquiry found no wrongdoing.

I spoke to an editor at a top materials journal about this issue, and his answer was blunt and categorical: a journal has the responsibility to protect itself from getting sullied and therefore it should always have the right to conduct its own independent inquiry into any allegations of misconduct. And of course it has to follow a procedure that's fair to the accused authors, who must be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. When probed further about situations (such as Kundu's) where the journal's conclusions go against those of the official committee, he insisted that the journal should go by its own committee's decisions. He further asked, semi-rhetorically, "what would Current Science do?"

For the moment, I think I am with the editor I spoke to. Which makes me wonder why the journals that published Goodwin's papers have not yanked them; Balaram, on the other hand, is using the other journals' reluctance to withdraw her papers to imply that JBC was too harsh on Kundu. Since I know virtually nothing about what the other journals did or did not do, I would like to leave this angle for now.

So, as I said, I'm with the editor's view that journals should retain the right to pursue their own investigations into misconduct. But I am keen to see the arguments for the other side. What would they be?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Barkha Dutt's secular shrillness

I have to say I am annoyed by those -- like Barkha Dutt -- who try to claim a moral high ground simply by saying, "Here's my outrage, where is yours?" The immediate provocation for this renewed claim is the appalling incident in Hyderabad in which the Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasreen was attacked at a public event by a bunch of thugs, including legislators belonging to a party which also happens to be an ally of the Congress government in that state.

I don't know what Barkha is on about. It's not as if people have been silent. Among the bloggers I read regularly, Sujai has been eloquent in condemning the atrocity in Hyderabad; he also points out that for every violent loon behind such an incident, there are probably thousand other loons giving their tacit support. And I am sure many others have said expressed their indignation in a similarly eloquent fashion (no, I am certainly not keeping track!). [Update: I tried googling for protests against the attack on Nasrin; see the end of this post for a partial list.]

It's one thing to be outraged by atrocious incidents and by those who encourage them through their support or active exhortations. It's totally another when people start being outraged about the lack of competing outrage from others. Since when have people been given the right to demand that outrage be available, er, on demand? And since when has being-the-first-with-outrage started being equated with moral superiority?

Barkha has the advantage of having a mike in front of her pretty much all through her waking hours, so she can afford to be a professional outrage-dispenser. Her job gives her an opportunity to express her outrage one half of every minute, and to bask in the warm glow of indignant splendour during the other half. But, even with her prolific output, I am sure she has failed to express her outrage about something or the other in China, Chile or Chad -- or, for that matter, in Chikmagalur, Chittaranjan or Chinmayanagar. In the non-news-channel world, people have other things to fill their day (their day jobs for example), and they have to -- by necessity -- choose their battles they want to fight. Going frothy-mouthed all the time is not good for people's hearts, nor is it good for their mouths.

While it is obvious that a religious fundamentalist would keep mum when an atrocity is perpetrated by his/her fellow fundamentalist, it is equally obvious that not everyone who keeps mum is a religious fundamentalist. Through her meta-outrage, caused by what she calls "secular silence," Barkha seems to be implying the latter. Her column is not just an insult to her secular friends, but also to all our intelligence.

Barkha should stop this secular shrillness.

* * *


Contrary to what Barkha Dutt implied, there have been many, many protests -- large and small -- all across the country. Here's a quick sample, compiled with the help of a couple of minutes of googling:

The newly elected Vice-President of India, Hamid Ansari.

People's Union for Civil Liberties together with Socialist Unity Centre of India.

Women's World (India), together with Asmita Resource Centre for Women (Hyderabad)

Coimbatore Press Club.

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

(from the same report): Women's groups, including All India Democratic Women’s Association, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Guild of Services, Joint Women’s Programme, National Federation of Indian Women, Young Women’s Christian Association and the Muslim Women’s Forum.

(from the same report): The Prince of Arcot, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali.

(from the same report): All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations.

On the Website of The American Muslim: Mike Ghouse.

When I wrote this post yesterday, I could not put my finger on what really annoyed me about her column. Now I think I know what it is. It's the timing. Her column starts with insistent questions: "Where are the placard-waving protestors this time? What happened to the street marches, the irate editorials and the lament for creative freedom?" And she was demanding these things within 24 hours after the event! [The attack took place on Thursday, and her column went online 11:48 p.m. Friday night (which implies she wrote it during the day Friday). Instant journalism!

Justice Y.K. Sabharwal ...

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal is in trouble. Reason? He was the lead judge in the now infamous closure ("sealing") of commercial properties in Delhi sometime ago, and while he pursued this case, his sons, who are in the construction business, stood to benefit from the Supreme Court decision. He thus had a strong conflict of interest, and he should have recused himself -- but didn't.

It has now made it to Tehelka's cover story; there's also an accompanying interview with Shanti Bhushan, a former Law Minister. The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reforms is at the heart of this exposé.

This has been simmering for a while; The big-bang story in Tehelka gives it a much needed momentum.

Thanks to V. Venkatesan for the pointer to the Tehelka story. I presume he and his colleagues at the excellent Law and Other Things blog will keep a watchful eye on this sordid affair.

Supermarket 2.0?

Have you ever thought about a "fully Web 2.0 compliant" supermarket? Check out the short, hilarious video over at Krish's blog! Great stuff. And watch for all the comments on the milk cartons!


Check out the video on

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Kundu case: What if ...

Update: In this long post, it is easy to lose oneself in the multiple links (and links within links). So, let me cite here "the featured link" that really clinched the issue for me: Rahul's GIF animations of seven -- yes, seven! -- sets of figures. If you want to dig more, you can follow the links on his page, as well as those at the end of this post.

Here's a quick summary (follow the links at the end of the post for details): Two papers published in 2004 and 2005 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) by Gopal Kundu and members of his group at the National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) have been under a cloud because of allegations that several experimental figures have been used more than once with different labels. These allegations were investigated during August 2006 - April 2007 by three different external committees (in addition to an internal one).

The very first external committee to investigate the case returned a "Not Guilty" verdict. This committee, headed by G. Padmanaban, former Director of IISc, also enjoyed an "official" status, as it was constituted by NCCS itself. Instead of settling the issue once and for all, its clean chit to Kundu has to now contend with the diametrically opposite verdict from the other two committees. After Current Science allowed its space to be used by all the key players in this controversy to air their side of the story, the debate has entered the public domain.

Last month, Rahul used very clever and expressive GIF animations of the offending figures. His work allows us to see the evidence for ourselves in all its live action glory, and the conclusion is inescapable: the figures within each set are extremely, astonishingly, and oh-so-improbably similar. In particular, I urge you to check out the sixth example to see how dramatic the similarity is -- across two different sub-figures!

Rahul has also presented his analysis in a letter to Current Science:

A thorough forensic analysis would take into account a more realistic estimate of the horizontal shifting, the vertical alignment, the positions of streaks, smears, spots, and so on – all of which are evident to the naked eye, and all of which line up as soon as one aligns the black borders. Even if every one of these metrics has one chance in three of lining up, the probability of all of them doing so would quickly become infinitesimal, even for a single image.

However, as already noted, the presence of nine duplicated images makes such an effort unnecessary. If we unthinkingly estimate that a single image has a 5% – or even 10% or 20% – chance of being genuine, the probability of all nine being authentic is already vanishingly small.

For the record, Padmanaban has responded to Rahul's letter. And Rahul has a follow-up note on his website as well.

* * *

I think it is safe to say that this game is up for Kundu. Unless he introduces some dramatically conclusive evidence.

* * *

This allows us to step back and look at a couple of "what if" questions. The first is this: what if Kundu was alerted by, say, a reviewer of the 2005 paper about the similarities between some of its figures and those in the 2004 paper. Would he have challenged the reviewer's alert as strongly as he has contested the allegations? By his own admission, the papers' scientific merit is unaffected by the suspect figures, since they form only a small part of the work. Is it possible, is it just possible, that he might have chosen to change the problematic figures with those from other experiments? Could he have chosen a similar path when the original allegations arose? Could he have opted to "correct" the paper through an erratum, instead of denying that the offending figures were the same?

The second, and the more important one, is this: what if NCCS had taken the journal JBC into confidence, and asked the latter to appoint a representative to be a member of the Padmanaban committee? After all, these are not just some results doing the rounds within NCCS; they had already been sent out into the big bad world! And it was only a matter of time before JBC decided to take another look at the paper. So, it makes sense to get all the players on board the investigative committee so that its conclusions are final and binding on everyone. This way, the matter would have seen a clean closure.

Now, look at the consequences for NCCS of the current closure-less status in which Kundu is "officially" not guilty, but his JBC paper stands withdrawn. NCCS has the obligation to do everything in its command to fight his case with JBC -- in court, if it is needed -- to get the paper reinstated. Not doing so would imply that the Lab is not sufficiently interested in protecting the interests of its scientists.

On the other hand, if Kundu loses his case in the hearts and minds of biologists (which is very likely, given the evidence that is now in the public domain), and if the perception that he is being 'protected' takes root, it can only do long term damage to NCCS. Honest scientists would think many times before wanting to work there.

Clearly, NCCS is staring at some bleak choices.

* * *


The Society for Scientific Values maintains a web page on its own investigation of the Kundu case. This page has links to the 2004 and 2005 papers from Kundu's group, and to newspaper stories on this case following the release of SSV's report.

Current Science opened up this affair to the public in its issue dated 10 June 2007. Several letters have appeared in a subsequent issue. Rahul's letter, and Padmanaban's response appear in the latest issue.

Turning Right

... Starr, the deputy editor of The Weekly Standard, quotes the British poet Philip Larkin. Larkin the poet was an artist of the first rank, but Larkin the man was an infamously small-minded reactionary. He once told an interviewer, “I suppose I identify the right with certain virtues and the left with certain vices. All very unfair, no doubt.” These essays are Larkinesque, but with all the heavily qualifying sardonicism stricken out. The left is knee-jerk and borderline depraved; the right is freethinking and decent. All very fair, no doubt. Lay this down as your given and the comforting solecisms flow forth unregulated. When the left is being idealistic, it is naïve, utopian, technocratic and meddling. When the right is being idealistic, it is idealistic. Thus Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty reveals the left to be hopelessly overreaching, as David Brooks assures us, while George W. Bush’s war in Iraq “is one of the noblest endeavors the United States, or any great power, has ever undertaken.”

That's from Stephen Metcalf's sharp review of the recent essay anthology Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys.

Is "Baby Einstein" any good?

It's not just that it's no good, it may actually be bad for your baby's language development:

Educational videos designed to stimulate young minds, like “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby,” may actually impede language development, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of Pediatrics. The DVDs have become one of the most popular educational tools for parents, with promises to build the vocabulary and enhance the cognitive development of babies as young as 3 months old. The baby-brain industry now represents about $20 billion a year, according to Susan Gregory Thomas, author of "Buy Buy Baby" (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). But the claims of these manufacturers are largely unsubstantiated. And the new study says they may do more harm than good.

Researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute reported that for every hour infants 8-16 months old spent watching such programs, they understood an average of 6 to 8 fewer words than other infants who were not exposed to the videos. (Baby DVDs and videos had no positive or negative effect on the vocabularies of toddlers 17 to 24 months of age, researchers said.) One thousand families were surveyed about how much their kids watched the educational DVDs, educational television programs like “Sesame Street” and noneducational programming like “Sponge Bob” or “Oprah.” Researchers said that the results suggested that these DVDs are a poor substitute for warm human social interaction, when it comes to learning language.[...]

Programs like "Sesame Street" (or its Indian version "Gali Gali Simsim") work on a different principle. Here's a segment from the interview with the study's lead author and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, , Frederick Zimmerman:

What’s the difference between the content of something like Baby Einstein and traditional educational television programs like “Sesame Street” and “Blue's Clues”?

Shows that are educational have a specific educational agenda. In other words, they have learning objectives for every segment of the show. “Sesame Street,” for example, if they decide that a particular segment should teach the child the letter J, they’ll design it from the ground up with that learning objective in mind. Then they’ll test it with real children to see if they really do in fact learn to recognize the letter J. And if it doesn’t work, they’ll trash that segment and start again. Baby videos claim to be educational but they don’t go through that process—they don’t develop learning objectives and they don’t go through rigorous testing.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

THES ranking of universities: IITs at No. 3

Update: This report seems to be a rehash of the 2006 rankings. The THES website doesn't say anything about this year's rankings, so take this with truckloads of salt.

* * *

Today's Economic Times reports that in the latest ranking exercise by the Times Higher Education Supplement, the IITs are placed at No. 3 -- just behind MIT and UC-Berkeley -- among the technology universities across the world. They are also ranked 33rd among science universities.

Aside from the IITs, IIMs, JNU and DU also figure in the top 100 or 200 in different categories.

I haven't seen the THES lists for this year. If it is going to be behind a paywall (very likely), we will just have to go by reports in the Indian press.

Women in science and engineering: Data from several American tech universities

Today's edition of Inside HigherEd has the details. While I'll have to ask you to head over there for a discussion of the factors behind this year's surge in women's enrollment, here are the numbers from the report:

MIT : 44 percent overall and 38 percent in engineering in 2006-07

Caltech: 37 percent in this year's freshman class.

Rensselaer Polytechnic: 31 percent in this year's freshman class.

Michigan Tech: 26 percent in last year's freshman class.

Worcester Polytechnic: 26 percent in this year's freshman class.

Georgia Tech: "a little over 30 percent" for the last several years.

Previous posts with data on women in engineering: RPI, MIT's program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Vivek's wise words on anonymity on the web

Just 10 days ago, Vivek wrote Anon 101: An Introduction to Anonymity on the Web. In the section on those who assume two different identities, at least one of which is anonymous, he wrote:

Do not make the mistake of maintaining two blogs/avatars: one with your real identity and the other anonymous. [...] It requires a lot of effort and skill to maintain two identities, if only online. You would require two completely different styles of writing. [...] You would also need to write posts on different topics, or else to use completely different phraseology for your posts. [...] Remember, it just takes a momentary lapse for the manure to hit the fan.

These wise words came alive when I was reading this NYTimes story outing the man behind the fake Steve Jobs blog [Link via Shripriya]. Here's the relevant part in the story:

[Daniel Lyons' forthcoming] book, in part, led to [his] unmasking. Last year, his agent showed the manuscript to several book publishers and told them the anonymous author was a published novelist and writer for a major business magazine. The New York Times found Mr. Lyons by looking for writers who fit those two criteria, and then by comparing the writing of “Fake Steve” to a blog Mr. Lyons writes in his own name, called Floating Point (

Sunday, August 05, 2007

QOTD: Albert Einstein on telegraph and radio

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.
-- Albert Einstein

IIM-B shows the way ...

Just two posts ago, I ranted a bit about how IITs have been reluctant to share routine statistical information they collect as a part of their entrance exam process. IIMs have also shared this secretive trait -- until now.

IIM-B has made public (pdf) a lot of key information about the students it admitted this year. Take a look!

A few quick impressions: While engineers form less than half of the IIM aspirants, their fraction among the successful candidates is a whopping 83%. If you add Computer Science, this proportion goes up to 90%. The proportion of women among the aspirants, interviewees and succsessful candidates is 24.7, 17.1 and 21.3 percent, respectively. Curiously, IIM-B prefers people with work experience: their proportion rises quite sharply from 31% among the aspirants to 67% among the successful candidates.

* * *

Thanks to MBA Karma for the pointer.

Sevanti Ninan on blogs

Sevanti Ninan, one of the better commentators on Indian media, has a report in Outlook on Indian blogs and bloggers (referred 'affectionately' as "cyborgs"). From the tone of her article, it's clear that she's not impressed by what she sees in the Indian blogosphere.

Yet, her own report is pretty pedestrian. It trots out the usual statistics about the total number of blogs (she doesn't even bother to estimate the number of Indian blogs or that of blogs in Indian languages), mentions some of the top blogs (Engadget and Boing Boing) according to Technorati, and makes rather dubious claims ("those who read blogs are turning away from mainstream media"). In Ninan's opinion, "the best part of a blog is its name." And she doesn't get the idea behind DesiPundit (Disclosure: I am a contributor to this group blog).

Heck, she even mistakes the websites of Arun Shourie and M.J. Akbar for blogs. The former does not host a blog, and the latter's blog is "edited" by an "official blogger" whose name is not M.J. Abkar. Sigh.

FWIW, here are some extracts.

Desi Pundit offers a daily collection of posts, from what it describes as the best that the Indian blogosphere has to offer. The more hyperactive ones write a post a day, the average frequency of an update is much less. A post could simply be a link to what someone else has written or a piece of soulful prose, or a travelogue. People with personal blogs also blog at group blogs like Caferati run by a group of writers who post poems, book reviews. The list of contributors exceeds 70. One of them describes himself as an investor in start-ups, another is an actor who describes his interests as theatre, literature, poetry, long drives, soulful conversations, outdoor adventures, people. Would a reasonably well-informed person, not looking for someone to tell them what to think, get very much out of a non-specialised blog? The answer is no.

Yet blogs have a charm of their own. Somebody is writing about the birth and death of stars, somebody else about the benefits of coconut oil or Kannada movies. Veiled4Allah brings you "the occasional thoughts of a Muslim woman". And an Indian woman in the UK uses her blog to tell you that it is alright to be a bad mother.

How did the OBC students do in this year's JEE?

In the previous news stories (which we looked at here and here), this piece of information was missing. We now have some data in two related stories by ET's Hemali Chhapia.

Before we proceed with the numbers, let me recall here that there was no reservation for OBC students this year because the Supreme Court has ordered a stay on this scheme.

Here are the key numbers. OBC students constituted 18.75% of the exam takers and 14% of the JEE-qualified, indicating that they do suffer a disadvantage in terms of JEE-preparedness. Of the 990 students who qualified, 876 showed up for seat allotment, and only 590 enrolled. Without comparable numbers for the other categories, it is impossible to make any comment on why 286 students chose not to go to the IITs. But we can guess: the JEE list this year included some 1600 extra students -- 7209 candidates made it to the list, but IITs had only 5537 seats! Thus, it's possible that a large fraction of OBC students weren't willing to 'settle for' institutions and fields of study that didn't attract them.

Another interesting number is that out of the 990 OBC students who got through JEE-2007, fully a third of them -- 329 -- were from the Chennai region, which includes the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Pondycherry and Tamil Nadu. This indicates clearly the higher level of preparedness among the OBC students from this region (though a stronger inference will have to wait for detailed data on the numbers of candidates from different regions). The Mumbai region had the the second largest number of OBC students among the JEE-qualified.

Hemali Chhapia's story has only one quote from an IIT student, who also happens to belong to an OBC:

‘‘When there are so many OBC students who are doing well naturally, why set aside seats for them and demoralise them?’’ asked an OBC student who joined IIT Bombay.

The bit about 'demoralization' shows -- sadly -- that this student has bought into the rhetoric of the anti-reservation lobby. Leaving that aside, is it really true that "OBCs ... are doing well naturally"? Consider: the data show that the OBC share among the exam-takers is low, and it's even lower among the JEE-qualified. Given this fact, I would bet that their representation keeps dropping as one moves up the rank-list (say, the top 1000 or the top 200). If this is true, then the top branches -- say, Electronics Engineering or Computer Science -- would have a far smaller representation of OBCs. It's this disparity -- particularly at the top -- that a reservation policy is meant to address: OBCs and other disadvantaged sections must have opportunities in top colleges and most sought after fields of study -- not just some College X or in some Field Y.

A final comment about the IITs' penchant for hoarding information: instead of releasing data in selective trickles, it would have been great if the IITs made detailed statistics -- on all aspects they deem important enough to ask for in the application form -- available on their website. For example, I am interested in gender-wise and category-wise (i.e., OBC, SC, ST and General) details on the percentage of first and second timers among the JEE-takers, JEE-qualified, admission offers and acceptances. I am also interested in data on the economic status and background (urban or rural) of the students. I don't see any reason why the IITs should wait until someone files an application under RTI to reveal this kind of basic statistical information to the public.

Friday, August 03, 2007

More links ...

Jason Overdorf has a bunch of thoughts about affirmative action in the (Indian) private sector, and the kinds of governmental intervention that can make it more effective.

Vivek points us to an article on race and sporting prowess.

Arun Thiruvengadam points us to an op-ed by Sandeep Pandey explaining "the significant practical achievements of the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Generation Act." On a related note, Jean Drèze and Sowmya Kidambi analyze the results of a social audit of the functioning of NREGA in the Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu.

Public-mindedness (prosociality) is not an inherited trait

The 'Homo Economicus' assumption ... fails rather consistently in laboratory experiments. Notions of trust and public-minded-ness turn out to be much more common in human behaviour than they are in the theory. Economic outcomes such as growth, economic development, international trade, and labour market behaviour have been shown to depend upon such values. Recent advances in experimental economics are developing a set of results that should help economic theorists develop models that are better able to explain real-world economic behaviour in a variety of settings.

... [We] describe an experiment that tests whether public-minded-ness, or pro-sociality are transmitted from parents to children.

The experiment itself is interesting, so go read the VoxEU post by Marco Cipriani, Paola Giuliano and Olivier Jeanne.

Plagiarizing from a plagiarizer

S. Seethalakshmi and S Nandagopal of ToI have the story:

A research guide in Bangalore University copies from student, little realising that the student himself had lifted material from books.

What is even more bizarre is the way this seemingly straight-forward stuff was handled before the Governor of Karnataka -- who is also the Chancellor of the Bangalore University -- was forced to step in:

This is how the sordid saga unfolded. In 2002, Venkataramanappa did his Ph.D on 'Grameena Karnatakada Sanna Raitharu: Ondu Samaja Shashtriya Adhyayana' under the guidance of Mylarappa from the department of sociology.

Following complaints of plagiarism, ISEC was asked to examine the thesis and submit a report to the university. Though ISEC found the thesis was plagiarised and ghost-written, BU chose to ignore the report.

It referred the issue to Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, a deemed university in Pune, to conduct another probe. Curiously, some members of the inquiry committee did not even know how to read or write Kannada. This inquiry was rather vague in its findings but BU’s syndicate accepted the report and gave a clean chit to Mylarappa and Venkataramanappa. Sensing there was something wrong, the chancellor ordered a fresh probe which revealed the fraud. [Bold emphasis added]

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Thanks to my colleague Jayant Haritsa for the alert.

Hwang Woo Suk had a breakthrough!

In all the excitement about faking a different result, he didn't realize he actually had a scientific 'first'. Nicholas Wade has the story:

Dr. Hwang said he had derived embryonic stem cells from the adult cells of a patient, but the claim was discredited after parts of his research were found to have been faked. A team of Boston scientists has now re-examined stocks of Dr. Hwang’s purported embryonic stem cells and arrived at a surprising conclusion: His embryonic stem cells were the product of parthenogenesis, or virgin birth, meaning they were derived from an unfertilized egg. [...]

Other researchers have since developed embryonic stem cells from parthenogenetic eggs, but Dr. Hwang’s team would have been the first to do so had its members recognized what they had done.


Raj is puzzled by the first days of the rest of his life.

Confused finds it a sacrilege that Harvard has students who actually say no to sex. Did I mention that people have cited 237 reasons for saying yes to sex?.

Guru reads a paper that inspires him to do a version of the experiment described in the paper: it just needs a kitchen sink and a plastic sheet.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

It's raining IITs and IIMs

And IIESTs and IIITs and NITs and IISERs and Central Universities and ...

ToI reports that the real rain will happen over the next seven years.:

In a major rollout for high and technical education, Planning Commission has proposed a seven-year special plan (2007-14) which includes setting up eight new IITs, seven new IIMs, 20 NITs, 20 IIITs and 50 centres for training and research in frontier areas.

Thanks to Yogesh Upadhyaya for the pointer.

HigherEd links ...

The business plan for "getting [the University of Kentucky] into the top 20 among public research universities by 2020":

The first step for Dr. Todd and his team was to devise their own system for rating state universities. It involves measuring indicators like graduation rates; the academic quality of entering students; the number of Ph.D.’s being produced; the scholarly citations and awards amassed by the faculty members; and the dollar value of federal research grants awarded to the faculty members. Then, they designated benchmarks by which the university’s progress could be measured over the years.


There are already signs of momentum. The university, which had 45 endowed professorships a decade ago, now has 235. It won $300 million in federal research grants this year, compared with $100 million in 1997.

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Bonus link to a picture slideshow: What do unofficial slogans on T-shirts tell us about a college / university?

Psychology links

Scientific American: The New Psychology of Leadership, and Is Greed Good?.

LATimes: This is Your Brain on Love: did you know "romantic love is a lot like addiction to alcohol or drugs"?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Indian Express editorial from August 19, 1942

In which the newspaper's founder "indicated unambiguously that the newspaper was on the side of Gandhi’s nationalists, even if this meant that it had to shut down operations in defiance of the gag orders." Pretty stirring stuff. Read it here.

As the country celebrates the sixtieth anniversary as an independent entity, the Indian Express is highlighting some of its proud moments. The blank editorial on June 28, 1975 -- three days after Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency -- marks a major milestone in Indian journalism. Check out the image on this page.

Ramon Magsaysay Award for P. Sainath

The announcement is here. Link via Uma.

Kuffir managed to shock me with his unique way of announcing the award for Sainath.