Sunday, September 30, 2007

Vinod Mehta on the Sabharwal affair

After publishing some very hard-hitting stuff from Arundhati Roy in his own magazine, Outlook's editor Vinod Mehta (one of the saner voices in Indian media) goes to Hindustan Times to argue for a 'harmonious relationship' between the judiciary and the media:

As we discuss the Justice Sabharwal affair, we in the media should not lose sight of self-interest. There are not many institutions in our 60-year-old republic which enjoy public confidence. Certainly, the executive and the legislature have sunk to depths in the perception of the aam admi from where it seems impossible to sink any lower. For all their faultlines and fatuities — and they are legion — the media and the judiciary are widely seen as the last bastions in a crumbling state. No amount of self-congratulation and celebration of the wonders of Indian democracy can obscure the rot at its core. If journalists and judges can no longer provide optimism that the crisis can be contained if not conquered, we might as well say bye-bye to creating a nation state which does not annually compete with Burma in the corruption stakes.

I strike a cautionary note not to condone the sensationally silly judgement of the High Court (silly because the “offence”, allegedly undermining the dignity of the courts, which could have been amicably resolved, currently has both sides with swords drawn), but because if the media and the judiciary get into do-or-die hostilities, the only winners will be the politicians. Indeed, over the past couple of weeks all the politicos I have met have urged me to persist and intensify the media’s struggle against the judiciary. ...

Affirmative action after Proposition 209

... Despite all the political heat that still surrounds the issue in California, its universities seem to be pointing to a better version of affirmative action — one that uses a little less race and a lot more class. ...

That's from David Leonhardt's article on what University of California (particularly the one at Los Angeles) is doing to ensure a diverse student body despite Proscription 209 -- thou shalt not take race into consideration for admission into public universities -- that California voters chose to support in 1996.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Speed dating for Muslims

Very, very interesting stuff by Farooq Ahmed, who participated in one such event in Chicago (catch it before it goes behind the FT paywall).

At the check-in desk where I went to pick up my name-tag, stood a line of aunties. “Auntie” is used throughout south Asia as a term of endearment, referring to an older woman who may or may not be a blood relative. Aunties are often stern, judgmental and have an uncanny ability to unman a potential suitor by placing emphasis on a single word. A typical utterance would be: “Yes, yes, he went to graduate college but, dear, he is a writer.” [...]

... As we waited to meet our potential future spouses, Yasmeen’s assistants segregated us by gender, directing the women to one set of doors and the men to another. While this did seem somewhat inauspicious – only moments before we had been socialising as one loud, nervous and confused group – what followed was measurably worse. The assistants began to subdivide each gender by age: 20- to 30-year-olds on one side, 31 and up on another.

I graduated to the latter group a few years ago and reluctantly joined this line of men, most of them significantly older and taller than me.

The women entered the ballroom first and were instructed to sit in groups of five at the neatly arranged circular tables. The men were next, also in groups of five. We filled the empty seats between the women as we joined them.

Once we were all seated, we were given simple instructions over the loudspeakers. We would be given five minutes to introduce ourselves, after which the men were to move to the next table and begin the process again. The women were to remain seated. If someone at the table interested us, we could take notes or ask for an e-mail address or phone number, or more decorously, seek them out during dinner.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards - 2007

Check out this year's winners (pdf) of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

I am pleased to find IISc represented quite well in that list: Prof. N. Srinivasan (Biological Sciences) and Prof. P.N. Rangarajan (Medical Sciences).

In addition, the two winners in Engineering Sciences are good friends: Prof. B.S. Murty (Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, IIT-M) and Prof. Rama Govindarajan. That they are both IISc alumni is the icing on the cake!

With the announcement of this year's SSB awards, my friends' circle now has a 'Bhatnagar couple'! [Rama's husband, Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy (Department of Physics, IISc), won the Physics Bhatnagar in 2000.]

Special congratulations to all these great folks!

* * *

You do know that I refer to the Bhatnagar Awards as the Oscars of Indian Science, don't you? My posts about previous years' awards are here and here.

* * *

I have to chide CSIR (I did it last year, too!) for the way it announces its highest awards. Is it too much to expect CSIR to put together a press release with more information about the scientists' background, their work, and why India's biggest and most prestigious science awards are going to them? Can't they get the Prize Committee(s) to write up a one-page citation for each winner to be issued along with the press release?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hello, Nomad Metallurgist!

Folks, it gives me great pleasure to present to you Nomad Metallurgist.

Prof. Ranganathan, the blogger behind Nomad Metallurgist, is a colleague and a friend. He has traveled far and wide (his RMS velocity is pretty high, as Anant would put it) in the real world as well as in the intellectual one. In India's Legendary Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World, he and his co-author Dr. Sharada Srinivasan take you on a rollicking tour of archeology, history, geography, anthropology, art, craft, myths, legends, literature, and, of course, modern materials science.

His blog, too, fits this pattern: it has posts on his visit to Kazakhstan as well as on his forays into what he calls the Lilliputland -- the world of nanotechnology. In another post, his link to an onine article reveals his strong interest in Syria, not only for its legendary Damascus swords, but also for its fine lingerie!

It feels great to welcome this avid traveler to the wonderful world of blogs!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A millionaire, his mistresses, and Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

This bit of history behind Harvard's engineering school SEAS (which existed as as a mere Division until last week) is far too delicious to pass up ;-)

... Around the turn of the 20th century, there lived in Boston an enormously wealthy inventor by the name of Gordon McKay who made his fortune in shoe making machinery. He had no heirs but six young mistresses. He was considering donating his entire fortune to the MIT after his death. However, a neighbor and friend of his was a history professor at Harvard and convinced him to give the money to Harvard instead. However, his will stipulated that the bulk of his estate should first be used to support his six mistresses in the style they have grown accustomed to. Only after they have all died will the fortune come to Harvard. As it turned out the last of his young mistresses died in 1948 at the ripe old age of 98. Between the time from turn of the 20th century to 1950, Harvard did not have access to the bulk of the money which by the standard of today is about 120 million dollars. ...

... In fact, at one point Harvard University in its puritanical tradition thought it was rather unseemly that Harvard should wait for the deaths of the mistresses of others. So Harvard decided that she rather let MIT have this future “fortune” after all and proceeded to transfer the assets of the then miniscule engineering school together with the Gordon McKay Will to MIT. However, this caused some distant relatives of Gordon McKay to sue Harvard for violating his expressed will and thus they (i.e., the distant relatives) instead should be entitled to the fortune. Consequently, Harvard had to swallow her pride and retrieve the assets from MIT. ...

* * *

Thanks to my colleague Ram for the pointer.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Arundhati Roy on the Sabharwal affair

She has a hard-hitting article in Outlook about the Sabharwal affair. Her article's so full of sarcasm, scorn, ridicule, and yes, contempt, (check out the picture captions, too!) that it effectively invites 'contempt of court' charges!

Scandals about powerful and well-known people can be, and often are, malicious, motivated and untrue. God knows that judges make mortal enemies—after all, in each case they adjudicate there is a winner and a loser. There's little doubt that Justice Y.K. Sabharwal would have made his fair share of enemies. If I were him, and if I really had nothing to hide, I would actually welcome an investigation. In fact, I would beg the chief justice to set up a commission of inquiry. I would make it a point to go after those who had fabricated evidence against me and made all these outrageous allegations.

What I certainly wouldn't do is to make things worse by writing an ineffective, sappy defence of myself which doesn't address the allegations and doesn't convince anyone (Times of India, September 2, 2007).

The Delhi High Court's intervention -- and its subsequent finding that Mid-Day journalists are guilty of contempt of court -- has received some commentary from V. Venkatesan and T.T. Ram Mohan. Here's a protest letter signed by a group of activists.

When Greenspan met O.J. Simpson ...

... and they talked about writing books!

Simpson: I also thought your book was fascinating, not just for what you said but for what you chose not to say. For example, when you were chairman of the Federal Reserve, didn’t you get a lot of tail?

Greenspan: I’m a happily married man.

Simpson: (laughing) I’ll take that as a yes! Seriously, though, N.F.L. players get buckets of ass, but being able to cut the lending rate—that must make the ladies horny as hell.

Greenspan: (laughing) As I used to say when I was at the Fed, it is my policy not to comment on rumors.

Myths about terrorists

Alan Krueger lists five of them. Here's one:

4. Terrorism is mainly perpetrated by Muslims.

Wrong. No religion has a monopoly on terrorism. Every major religious faith has had followers involved in terrorism. (Sri Lanka, for instance, has grappled for decades with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group that pioneered suicide bombing as a terrorist tactic and hopes to create a homeland for the country's mostly Tamil minority, who are largely Hindu.) Although radical Islamic terrorists are the worry du jour because of 9/11 and Iraq, the data show pretty clearly that the predominant religion of a country is not a good predictor of whether its people will become involved in terrorism.

After all, it was not long ago that homegrown villains such as Timothy McVeigh and the so-called Unabomber were the most notorious terrorists. That makes sense; the vast majority of terrorist incidents are local, motivated by local concerns and carried out by natives. Even international terrorist events tend to be local affairs, most frequently carried out by local militants who target foreigners who happen to be in their country. (Just think of last week's foiled plot to attack U.S. targets in Germany.) This suggests that the likelihood of attack by homegrown terrorists is far greater than the threat of another 9/11-style attack by foreigners.

Krueger follows up with a post over at VoxEU.

Randy Pausch's Last Lecture

Got 90 minutes? Then watch this video of (almost literally) the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon) who is battling pancreatic cancer.

Thanks to Uma, Animesh and Guru for the pointer.

Friday, September 21, 2007

How do you get more students to pursue their PhDs in India?

Remember this op-ed that I linked to two days ago? In it, Jaideep Srivastava and Pankaj Jalote address the issue of increasing the number of science and engineering PhDs in India. In particular, they propose creating a new fellowship program for PhD students who could use it to spend two years -- say, their third and fourth years -- in labs of their advisers' collaborators in universities abroad. They cite China and Pakistan as the countries that have adopted this method to boost the number of PhDs. They feel that this will "pump-prime" academic R&D and PhD programs in India.

Let me come right out and say I don't like it. When we bemoan the (generally) poor state of R&D in India, we ought to be examine the bottlenecks within our system and make every effort to remove them. An option that uses an external source of help can at best be a a crutch; in my view, Srivastava and Jalote elevate this crutch and give it a privileged treatment! The US researchers are placed on a pedestal, and the opportunity to work in their labs is being cited as the 'feature' that will attract bright PhD aspirants to our universities. It demeans the expertise of Indian academics by making them, at best, second class partners in the PhD students' development. (Even if this is not what Srivastava and Jalote meant, I certainly don't see how the collaborative arrangement proposed by them can be thought of as one between equals). This is just not on.

[Aside 1: There are also other problems with their proposal: it's too small, and it's quite expensive. The numbers they cite for China (4000) and Pakistan (400) clearly are too small to make a big difference. Even their proposed numbers for India -- about 1000 every year in science and engineering -- for India represent less than 20 percent of the current PhD output! Thus, even with their program in place, India will still have to deal with the problems that plague the remaining research enterprise.]

[Aside 2: Does India really need to increase its PhD numbers? If all we want are more PhDs, we can get them -- including foreigners, and desi PhDs who are working elsewhere --- by paying the right price. If we believe this report, this price may not even be too high! Also, do we know what our current PhDs do after their graduation? For example, do we have a thriving market for PhDs in India, and if so, how big is it? Our R&D labs are notorious for selecting bachelors graduates for filling the bulk of their staffing needs. Finally, how many of our PhDs go abroad, never to return?]

[For the rest of this post, we will assume that there really is a strong need to increase India's PhD output. Read on ...]

Coming back to the proposal by Srivastava and Jalote, does India really need this external help for increasing its PhD output? In engineering, the number of PhDs is admittedly small (about 800 per year). Across all our engineering institutions, there ought to be at least 5000 faculty members who could, in principle, be graduating 2000 PhDs every year without asking for any special favours! If I may put it using industrial terminology, there is ample "spare capacity" that we can press into operation, if only an adequate supply of "raw material" were available. The raw material that is in short supply is the bright young research talent with a solid academic training at the undergraduate level.

[Aside 3: Money is certainly a very, very important factor. We know that India's support for university research has been abysmally low; we really have been running our university research on the cheap. Unless funding levels increase, asking for more PhDs is futile. It does not require great deal of smarts to realize that if you want to double the PhD output, you should be willing to double the funding for academic R&D. Given the decades-long neglect of our universities, we may actually need to more than double the funding for academic research during the initial years]. Fortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced huge increases in education funding over the next five years, so money for higher education may no longer be such a major constraint.]

Thus, the key question is: what are the ways in which we can ensure an ample supply of the right raw material to run India's PhD enterprise?

The supply of students with a good undergraduate training. Out of some half a million engineering graduates, less than 25 percent are deemed by NASSCOM as employable. Let us use employability as a proxy for quality of undergraduate education. Then, if we can improve our undergraduate institutions to double this employability figure to 50 percent, our pool of PhD aspirants would also double. Clearly, this requires rethinking and reforming our undergraduate programs and institutions. I have written about it before, so let me move on.

Enhanced supply need not translate into enhanced PhD enrollment. We live in an era when our bright stars have tons of options to choose from. This implies that that we ought to find ways to make doctoral studies in Indian academic institutions attractive. This, in turn, demands that we address financial and non-financial needs of our PhD students. Here are some ideas to start with:

  1. World-class academic infrastructure: well-equipped labs, excellent internet bandwidth, great academic library that works 24x7, uninterrupted power and water supply, etc.
  2. An increased stipend: currently, it's around Rs.12,000, and it should be higher. [How much higher? Is the starting salary in a public sector company a good benchmark?]
  3. Good on-campus accommodation. They should preferably be studio apartments for everyone (it should definitely be better than hostel accommodation), and one-bedroom apartments for married students. Nobody should be made to wait in a queue for on campus accommodation (which happens routinely in many of our institutions for married couples).
  4. Academic autonomy: they should be able to work with advisors of their choice (with the advisors' consent, of course). In case they run into trouble with their current advisors, they should be able to switch to someone else without much trouble.
  5. Financial autonomy: An annual grant of, say, Rs. 20,000, placed at the disposal of each student.
  6. A comprehensive health coverage for the students and their spouses and children.
  7. A reformed administration that treats PhD students with respect. Currently, our students undergo a lot of procedural indignities, which must be removed. Payment of stipend, for example, must be automatic unless there's a good reason to withhold it.
  8. Generous travel grants, that allow a student to participate in conferences within India at least once every year and in international conferences abroad at least once during the PhD tenure. [Right now, students scrounge around for travel grants from multiple agencies.]
  9. A well-maintained non-academic infrastructure, including facilities for games, sports, yoga, dance, aerobics, a swimming pool, a well-stocked, non-technical and multilingual library, and good places for socializing (eateries, coffee houses, ...).
  10. A graduate student hall (with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a TV) in each department: PhD students do spend long hours -- even after dark -- in the Department, and they need some non-lab space to chill out.

* * *

What else do you think Indian institutions need to do if they are to become attractive destinations for a great number of bright young PhD aspirants? Feel free to pitch in with your ideas.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Talking about TimesSelect, Paul Krugman, Olivia Judson, Evolution of Altruism

NYTimes has got rid of the stupid TimesSelect (TS) program which hid some of its interesting content behind a paywall. This move was widely expected ever since it was implemented two years ago; frankly, I am surprised that TS survived as long as it did. From yesterday, everything in the NYTimes site is free -- and you can thank Google for it!

Talking about TS, I don't have to rely on the Hindu (print version) for reading Paul Krugman. Now, I can not only read his columns, I can also link to them.

Talking about Krugman, he has chosen this opportunity to start his blog -- The Conscience of a Liberal -- on the NYTimes site. He has two posts up already on the poor job by news magazines and pundits of covering important political events in the US.

Talking about its blog section, NYTimes also had this curious policy of putting some of its blogs behind the TS paywall, and it bugged the hell out of me! One of the blogs (which had a short life) that I wanted to read is that of Olivia Judson -- the author of Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.

Talking about Judson, in an interview with The Atlantic, she talks about the evolution of kindness, generosity and atruism:

You mentioned that monogamy actually helps the spread of altruism. How does that work?

If you have small groups living together in communities and they are fighting each other and one community can exterminate the other, then you might expect that over time the more cohesive, cooperative groups are more likely to be the winners because they are more likely to cooperate with each other during fighting.

However, the problem is that if you spend all your time helping others and not reproducing yourself, then your nice, helpful genes don’t get a chance to spread. Sam Bowles’s argument is that one way to increase the chance of spreading altruistic genes is if you have some kind of reproductive equality, so that very few people are outreproducing others. So you don’t have one guy with fourteen wives and everybody else with none. Instead, everybody has more or less the same number and therefore more or less the same number of children.

Talking about evolution of altruism, the Atlantic has published an article by Judson on this topic. But, it is behind a paywall!


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An interesting proposal to increase the number of PhDs in science and technology

This Economic Times op-ed by Jaideep Srivastava (Minnesota) and Pankaj Jalote (IIT-D) appeared two days ago. The authors suggest that we adopt a technique that China has used to increase its PhD output significantly. I don't have much time to comment on it, but do go through it and let me know what you think.

China has embarked on a bold strategy to address [the problem of low numbers of PhDs], with the help of the US in an unexpected way. The programme is simple and brilliant. PhD students in Chinese universities are given fellowships to spend 12 to 24 months in some US professor’s laboratory, when they are ready to start their dissertation research.

During this period, the candidate defines his research problem, does most of the research work, and then comes back to complete his PhD in the parent university in China. An attendant benefit is the collaboration created between the US and Chinese faculty, which can lead to more international exposure for the latter, something which is also high on the priority list of the Chinese administration. It is estimated that approximately 4,000 Chinese students will be the beneficiaries of this programme in the 2007-08 academic year.

Krish Ashok finds the perfect way to deal with the Adam's bridge issue

Here. His post is just perfect.

In my previous post, I have already linked to the 'research paper' by Mobius Stripped (who has published an addendum). We need more such perspectives. To paraphrase Sujai, where is Curious Gawker, when we need him the most?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Faith-based attacks on science and the reluctance of Indian science community to fight them

Our Hindu Fundamentalist Party (HFP) has launched a shrill campaign to prevent the dredging of a geological feature -- called Adam's bridge -- in the thin stretch of the Indian ocean between India and Sri Lanka because it 'believes' that this feature is the same as the bridge built by the Ram's army in the mythological epic Ramayana [1]. HFP's campaign is going on in spite of a perfectly natural explanation for the formation of this feature.

Both Krish and Sujai, who have been following this ugly campaign quite extensively, have also raised this question: Why has India's scientific and academic community not risen up in protest against HFP's crass attempt to whip up religions passions and to establish the primacy of faith over science.

Now, among the desi bloggers I read, at least one has expressed her dismay and disgust at HFP's campaign; another poured scorn and ridicule on it in a 'research publication'. While I have not been following this debate in our media much, I presume that some scientists have also voiced their opinion -- favouring science, I hope! -- on this issue in TV debates, etc.

But these are isolated voices. What about the voice of the scientific community as a whole? By this I mean our science academies -- of which we have three! Wouln't if be nice if they come forward with their opinion on Adam's bridge? Wouldn't it be nice if they explain what science has to say about its formation? Wouldn't it be nice if they also offer a strong argument for a scientific outlook to life in general and natural phenomena in particular? Wouldn't it be nice if they lend their collective support to ASI and its scientists? Wouldn't it be nice if they take a united stand for science and against superstition?

All that would be nice, but don't hold your breath. It is extremely unlikely to happen. The science academies' past silence on issues impacting on science has been spectacularly eloquent.

Consider the following excerpt from The Saga of Indian Science since Independence by Pushpa Bhargava (founder director of CCMB, Hyderabad, and a former member of the National Knowledge Commission) and Chandana Chakrabarti (see also footnote [2]):

... Rarely have scientists occupying important positions, even in autonomous organizations such as our numerous universities and institutions of higher learning, taken a firm and consistent stand against superstition and irrational belief. The same would be true of the country's socially and intellectually sterile science academies none of which have, for example, formally and officially objected to the proposal of the Universities Grants Commission ... to introduce and fund liberally graduate and postgraduate courses in Vedic astrology in our universities from the 2001-02 academic year [p. 107]

Given this kind of deep reluctance to stand up to political masters and fundamentalist thugs, it is extremely unlikely that our academies will bat for science in the current debate about Adam's bridge. All we have got -- and all we will get -- are just isolated voices. And we should be happy with what we get.

* * *

[1] I have no opinion about the commercial benefits of the Sethusamudram project that requires the dredging up of the Adam's bridge. This post is essentially about the faith-based claims about the origin of this bridge.

[2] It's not just on science vs. superstition that Indian scientists have been reluctant to take a stand. This realm also includes policies where scientific inputs are essential. For example, sometime ago, Nature did a profile of Sunita Narain and her organization, the Centre for Science and Environment. Accompanying this profile was an editorial which pointed out the reluctant of Indian scientists (not just the science academies, but individuals) to get involved in policy debates:

... Indian scientists who resent either the CSE's positions or its influence do themselves no favours by carping about either the activities of the Delhi think-tank, or about the media outlets that lap up its output. They should instead look at themselves, and ask if their public influence is commensurate with their own expertise, and with the ever-expanding scope and scale of scientific and environmental policy debates in India.

According to CSE director Sunita Narain, and many journalists, India's scientists too often remain old-fashionedly aloof from the discussions that accompany policymaking. Seeking status and advancement chiefly among their peers, and suspicious of the media's tendency to simplify and exaggerate, scientists who could assist the messy democratic process are inclined, instead, to look down on it. This approach by scientists to science policy is, of course, a global phenomenon. But it is particularly pervasive in India — and particularly inappropriate, given India's vast and pressing need for more public, more thorough, more detailed policy preparation, in areas such as environmental regulation.

News you can use

Brought to you by the Science section of the NYTimes:

Monday, September 17, 2007

Does copying help the fashion industry?

Update: Rahul's comment that the use of the word 'piracy' for copying music, fashion designs, etc. is inappropriate. I agree, and the title has been changed.

James Surowiecki offers some evidence for 'yes':

... [F]or the industry to keep growing, customers must like this year’s designs, but they must also become dissatisfied with them, so that they’ll buy next year’s. Many other consumer businesses face a similar problem, but fashion—unlike, say, the technology industry—can’t rely on improvements in power and performance to make old products obsolete. Raustiala and Sprigman argue persuasively that, in fashion, it’s copying that serves this function, bringing about what they call “induced obsolescence.” Copying enables designs and styles to move quickly from early adopters to the masses. And since no one cool wants to keep wearing something after everybody else is wearing it, the copying of designs helps fuel the incessant demand for something new.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What is wrong with econophysics?

Cosma Shalizi offers his take, which I have been looking forward to for quite sometime (over a year, actually). And it is Cosma at his best -- full of incisive arguments (with tons of links) as well as provocative insights. Here he is on the physicists' blind spot in econophysics:

If econophysics is dignified enough to have a tragic flaw, it is this. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard other statistical physicists insist, or explain, or just assume, that ecology, or evolution, or neuroscience, or, social networks, or, yes, economics, "is, after all, just another many-body problem", so of course it must yield to the insights of statistical mechanics. This is why our conquistador spirit leads us to make assaults on these disciplines, and not, say, classical philology. I don't even think that this is wrong. I think the problem is that we have a drastically impoverished notion of bodies, and how they might interact.

Here he is about neo-classical economics:

... [M]ainstream economics is clearly false. I don't say this just because perfectly competitive markets aren't the only economic institution in this world; the neo-classical framework now includes very sophisticated theories of imperfect competition, imperfect information and non-market institutions, and these developments are mainstream enough to result in Nobel Prizes (in, e.g., 1993, 1994 and 2001). The foundation on which the neo-classical framework is raised, though, is an idea about rational agents: rationality means maximizing expected utility, where expectations come from maintaining a coherent subjective probability distribution, updated through Bayes's rule; moreover, the utility function is strictly self-regarding. ... Alas, experimental psychology, and still more experimental economics, amply demonstrate that empirically it's just wrong. We are boundedly rational, and, for good or for ill, we give a damn about others. Moreover, there are very general reasons, having to do with the computational intractability of optimization problems, and the severe limitations on computable Bayesian learners, to think that no creature could ever be a "rational agent" in the neo-classical sense. Bounded rationality is the only kind we encounter, and the only kind we are going to encounter. ... But, as I said, all the rest of the neo-classical framework rests on this conception of individual decision-making; remove it and all the models are standing on air. So: neo-classical economics is false.

Dystopia: When Google owns your online life

Google controls your e-mail, your videos, your calendar, your searches… What if it controlled your life?

Cory Doctorow poses this spooky question in this fictional account of some very scary possibilities.

Thanks to Book Forum for the pointer.

Why does physics treat physicists so badly?

In other words, why do physics departments demand one or more post-doc stints (lasting as much as 5 or six years) for their faculty applicants, when many engineering departments recruit fresh PhDs? Ponderer ponders this and related questions:

The whole situation is not fair. Assuming an average college grad is 21 or 22 years old, going into experimental physics means you are likely to graduate by the time you are 28 (give or take). A 3-year postdoc means you are 31. Two postdocs (that are not uncommon in physics nowadays) stretches starting age to 34 or so.

In comparison, engineering PhD may start her or his faculty career at a tender age of 26 or 27, barely out of the diapers as far as I am concerned. It obviously depends on the field, but there are personal blog accounts in the blogosphere of getting faculty offers from ivy league schools during their 5th year of grad school, before defending PhD thesis.

This is a serious problem for a number of reasons ...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Happiness, age, kids

... [P]sychological well-being moves along a U-shaped curve as we age. ... Happiness among American men and women reaches its estimated minimum at approximately ages 49 and 45 respectively. Among European men and women, life satisfaction levels are at their minimum at ages 44 at 43 respectively.

That's from this NBER commentary on the work of David G. Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald (which I haven't read). Here are some of the plausible reasons for why happiness levels pick up after reaching the minimum:

... [F]irst, ... individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell the unfeasible aspirations of their youth. Second, ... cheerful people live systematically longer than those who are miserable, and that the U-shape somehow traces out, in part, a selection effect. Third, ... a kind of comparison process is occurring - for example, I may have seen school-friends die and as a result eventually come to value my blessings during my remaining years.

What about this finding (articulated in a Daniel Gilbert column)?

Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away. When the popular press invented a malady called "empty-nest syndrome," it failed to mention that its primary symptom is a marked increase in smiling.

In praise of specific praise

Children were given a pretend drawing task, and were praised either with "you are a good drawer" (generic) or "you did a good job drawing" (specific).

Read the rest of the post by Dave Munger for how a specific praise may be more helpful. This work builds on Carol Dweck's fascinating research that we linked to sometime ago. For more on her work, see these two posts at The Situationist blog.

Right to be offended, Neocons' learning disability, Newspaper ethics

Salman Rushdie's Defend the Right to be Offended was published in 2005. I don't know why I feel the need to link to it now ;-)

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.) [Bold emphasis added].

* * *

Francis Fukuyama on the neocon's inability to learn from their failure:

The United States today spends approximately as much as the rest of the world combined on its military establishment. So it is worth pondering why it is that, after nearly four years of effort, the loss of thousands of American lives, and an outlay of perhaps half-a-trillion dollars, the US has not succeeded in pacifying a small country of some 24 million people, much less in leading it to anything that looks remotely like a successful democracy.

* * *

Chenthil catches The Hindu in an ethically challenged state:

The reader's editor and the correspondent obviously think that downloading a photo without acknowledgement is not a mistake. For them the mistake was only in downloading the wrong photograph.

I went back to the archives to see if there is any acknowledgement of the site from where the photo was downloaded. As expected there was none.

* * *

The blogger behind PenPricks stings a Goan newspaper by exposing its willingness to offer editorial and news space for sale (via Desi Pundit):

Penpricks posed as business consultants and booked nearly a dozen editorials for Rs 3 lakh per piece for the tourism-frenzied months of October and November.

Penpricks posed as Manoj Rastogi, business manager of a fictitious Delhi-based vacation-marketing company called ‘Acer Consultants’, which was interested in writing and placing six commercially-driven editorials as part of its Rs 35-lakh advertising campaign in Goa. Penpricks has been in email communication with a senior member of the Herald business development team Mr Harry Mann since August 28. Herald finalised the deal for the sale of editorials (at Rs 3 lakh per editorial, makes it Rs 18 lakh for six editorials) on September 5 with this email from Harry Mann. As part of the deal ‘Acer Consultants’ would write six commercially driven editorials for publication in the Herald, for which Acer Consultants would pay the newspaper Rs 3 lakh each for every editorial published.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Links ...

  1. PLoS has collected its popular Ten Simple Rules series on things a graduate student would need to know or learn (writing papers, writing grant proposals, giving seminar talks, etc) into a wonderful PDF document. Download it and use it!
  2. Janet Stemwedel links to Freedom in the Classroom, a report on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors, and offers her commentary on the report.
  3. Tenured Radical's reading of The No Asshole Rule leads to some reflections on how the book's findings and insights may find an application in academia.

Benefits of college education

Here's a US-centric study that describes both private and public gains (I found the report via Inside Higher Ed). Here's what the press release has to say about the benefits to society:

College graduates are also more likely than others to engage in behaviors that improve their health. Additionally, society reaps significant rewards when a higher percentage of its residents have postsecondary education, the study shows. Higher rates of volunteering, voting and donating blood correspond to higher levels of education as do lower unemployment and poverty rates. Similarly, socially valuable behaviors, such as tolerance for the opinions of others, seem to increase with education. A more educated workforce also would lead to higher wages for all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Difference between teaching a course and directing a play

Blue offers this insight:

A play can't present itself in a "bell curve," with some A sections and some F sections and a bunch of B and C sections.

Co-ed schools are good for boys but bad for girls

It's not clear how robust these findings are to cultural variations (or age group variations), but here's the main result from a study on school children in Israel:

Boys benefit from being in a classroom with girls, but girls do not benefit from being in a classroom with boys.

Here's an extended excerpt:

Their answer chimes perfectly with the conventional wisdom: Boys benefit from being in a classroom with girls, but girls do not benefit from being in a classroom with boys. What is interesting about Lavy and Schlosser's work is that it uses survey data provided by the children to work out what is causing the effects. The survey questions ask, for example, about violence in school, respect for teachers, classroom distractions, and relations among students.

Boys pollute the educational system, it seems, for a number of unmysterious reasons: They wear down teachers, disrupt classes, and ruin the atmosphere for everyone. And more boys are worse than fewer boys, not because they egg each other on but simply because more of them can cause more trouble in total.

* * *

Thanks to Sharath Rao for the e-mail alert.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Quote of the day

An economist is a surgeon with an excellent scalpel and a rough-edged lancet, who operates beautifully on the dead and tortures the living.
-- Nicholas Chamfort

I chanced upon this quote on my iGoogle start page.

Negative campaign in the US presidential election of 1800

Jill Lepore's review of Edward J. Larson's A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign is full of fascinating stuff. While you will have to read the review for a flavor of "smear tactics [and] skulduggery" employed in that election by both sides, I want to highlight a curious passion of a lone individual:

... [In] one of the strangest and most heroic tales in the annals of American historical research, a man named Phil Lampi decided to devote his life to compiling [the election returns from that era]. He began this work in 1960, when he was still in high school. Living in a home for boys, he wanted, most of all, to be left alone, so he settled on a hobby that nobody else would be interested in. He went to the library and, using old newspapers, started making tally sheets of every election in American history. His system was flawless. It occupied endless hours. Completeness became his obsession. For decades, at times supporting himself by working as a night watchman, Lampi made lists of election returns on notepads. He drove all over the country, scouring the archives by day, sleeping in his car by night. He eventually transcribed the returns of some sixty thousand elections. Since 2004, the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Massachusetts, has been digitizing Lampi’s collection; soon “A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns, 1787-1825” will be available online.

Gender differences ...

1. Big disparity in top American philosophy departments:

Haslanger studied the gender breakdowns in the top 20 departments (based on The Philosophical Gourmet Report) and found that the percentage of women in tenure track positions was 18.7 percent, with two departments under 10 percent. She also looked at who published in top philosophy journals for the last five years and found that only 12.36 percent of articles were by women. Figures like that might not shock in some disciplines, but they stand out in the humanities. In history, for examples, a 2005 report found women making up 18 percent of full professors and 39 percent of assistant professors.

* * *

2. No disparity at all in in science ability in nine-year olds.

... [For] the first time, researchers in London have looked at the amount of genetic and environmental influence on girls' and boys' science ability. Their finding: nine-year-old girls are just as good at science as nine-year-old boys, and genes and environment affect the science ability of both sexes in just the same way, and to just the same extent. [Bold emphasis added.]

The big HR problem at ISRO

A massive 52.82 per cent of the scientists recruited during 2006 have left the Indian Space Research Organisation for the private sector due to better remunerative packages being offered by them. ... [In] 2006, 187 out of 354 scientists/engineers recruited left ISRO ...

Ouch. So, what is ISRO doing?

... [A] host of steps were being taken to encourage and motivate students in schools and colleges to join space studies and space research like providing opportunity for visits to ISRO centres, organisation of open house discussions and exhibitions every year.

The department of space has submitted a proposal to the VIth pay commission for enhanced pay and special incentives as performance based annual increments. [...]

Thanks to Manoj M. Prabhakaran for the e-mail alert.

Annals of Neuropolitics


Update: Over at Cognitive Daily Dave Munger cautions against hyping these results by pointing out that the authors of the study make claims that are far more modest.

On the neurobiological basis of political beliefs:

"In the past, people thought that…[political leanings were]…all environmentally influenced, a combination of biological dispositions as well as cultural shaping," says David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University. However, a new study, led by Amodio, indicates that political bent "is not just a choice people have, but it seems to be linked to fundamental differences in the way people process information." [...]

"They are more sensitive to the need for change and more sensitive to the need to change their behavior," Amodio says about the politically left-leaning subjects.

* * *

These findings have had such an impact on Krish that he has "decided to be more sympathetic to conservatives and other right wingers" :

I will learn to live with [conservatives and other right wingers] like how we learn to live with an incurable disease.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Mobius Stripped offers a few more data points about ...

... the issue we blogged about here: Is the West more attractive to Indian women than to Indian men? In his post, laden with some sharp humour, he offers quite a few data points supporting the thesis of Sharath Rao's friend. Here's a sample:

[Sridevi Thayirvadai] now is Dam sHoor she can’t gel with her parents or in-laws back in India.

Wouldn’t she be the chief conspirator of her thayirvadai husband’s death by not wearing the thaali for a day in India? In the name of a tradition that is immune to the utilitarian demands of the times, why the heck should she wear the madisaar - nine yards of insulation wrapped to keep her innards always molten and sweaty? And anyway, doesn’t she have a right to lead her life with her thayirvadai the way she wants it?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

"Pay attention in biology class"

Just drop everything, and go read this hilarious story on Bora's blog. And no, an excerpt here won't do, so head out over there.

Department of 'Who Knew?': Baby formula for power athletes

The name is Lyte. Pedialyte [Update: As Rahul points out in the comment, I took some liberty with "baby formula"; the "baby elixir" that athletes have fallen in love with is actually a rehydration liquid for kids experiencing diarrhea.]:

Athletes are always looking for an edge, even the macho ones who would rather be seen off the field with a Cadillac Escalade than with a teddy bear. But despite that cuddly label, Pedialyte continues to pop up in locker rooms.

If there’s some secret formula to victory, and, these days, if it’s legal, athletes will try it. [...]

From the beverage cart on the Anaheim Ducks’ team flights during the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs to the training camps of the National Football League teams whose regular season started this weekend, Pedialyte has found its place in the kit bag of professional athletes.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

X-Phi: Extreme Philanthropy

... with some help from the US tax code!

What qualifies for ... tax deduction has broadened over the 90 years since its creation to include everything from university golf teams to puppet theaters — even an organization established after Hurricane Katrina to help practitioners of sadomasochism obtain gear they had lost in the storm.

The unbearable boredom in academic writing

Jonathan Wolff contrasts literary writing and academic writing to illustrate why the latter tends to be boring. Here's his key point:

Academic writing needs to be ordered, precise, and to make every move explicit. All the work needs to be done on the page rather than in the reader's head. By contrast, good literature often relies on the unsaid, or the implied or hinted at, rather than the expressed thought. But as we tell our students: you will only get a mark for it if it is written down, however obvious, and however infantile it seems to spell it out. Such discipline applies all the way through as the pressures of writing for peer-reviewed journals are much the same. To call a paper "thorough" is high praise.

And here's how he illustrates the consequence of these 'rules' of academic writing:

At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: "In this novel I shall show that the butler did it." The rest will be just filling in the details.

Gender difference in US-based Indians' desire to return to India

Sharath Rao has a friend with an interesting point of view:

... [He] went to say that if one were to compare the marginal improvement in quality of life (India vs. US) for men and women, women get a better deal. Of course, whether there is an overall improvement in quality of life is debatable. But lets say we have a pool of 2000 Indians - 1000 men and 1000 women - who already claim that they see a better future for themselves in the US compared to India, and then see how much that improvement is, women have more to show. In particular, the independence, self-expression and freedom from harassment, from colleagues at workplace and from in-laws and extended family at home, are factors that dominate the reasons women have to insist on ’settling’ down in the US.

I think there is some validity in the stuff about women's sense of greatly expanded independence in the West. I remember a fellow Indian post-doc (who, it so happens, did her PhD from IISc) that I met in Paris; she was absolutely categorical in saying that the independence she enjoyed there was too important for her to think about returning to India. She said, "Back home, I can't go home after 9:00 p.m. without my neighbours giving me suspicious looks and and some in my own family asking me questions."

I also recall a Pittsburgh couple who returned to India despite the wife's wishes to stay in the US (alas, I don't know her reasons); their marriage didn't last long after that (and, to complicate matters, the guy is back in the US after his second marriage!).

So, that's two more data points for Sharath's friend's. But we remember what we are primed to remember. Also, we remember what sticks out, sometimes at the expense of the mundane and the ordinary: I live in a place with tons of people who returned from abroad (and who keep shuttling back and forth!), and they all seem to enjoy being here. Thus, I get the feeling that while there may indeed be a skew in one's desire to stay on in the West, this skew is probably small.

In any case, Sharath is looking for counterexamples to his friend's thesis. If you know of any, go to his blog and leave a comment.

UGC sets up a Pay Commission

The Sixth Pay Commission was set up in October 2006 with Justice B.N.Srikrishna as the Chairman, and it is expected to submit its recommendations by March or April of 2008 (just about seven months from now). It has been asked to "examine the principles, the date of effect thereof that should govern the structure of pay, allowances and other facilities/benefits" that would govern the Central Government employees. When it finishes its work, a cascade of smaller pay commissions would be created for individual sectors (such as banking, higher education, etc) that are nominally autonomous but are 'owned' by the government. Another branch of this cascade would lead to the creation of pay commissions by individual state governments.

For example, when the Fifth Pay Commission submitted its recommendations in mid 1990s, the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) had a smaller one that looked into the pay structure of faculty (and other staff members) in universities and colleges. Similarly, a separate committee headed Dr. U.R. Rao (ex-Secretary at the Department of Space) recommended a new pay structure for the faculty in the so-called Institutions of National Importance (which include the IITs, IISc, IIMs, ...)

I don't know if UGC is breaking with tradition here, but I was certainly surprised to learn this morning that UGC has appointed a committee -- even before the Sixth Pay Commission has finished its work -- to "review the pay scales of teachers in universities and colleges." This committee is headed by Prof. G.K. Chadha, former vice-chancellor of JNU and currently member of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council. And its mandate is quite broad:

... [It] will review implementation of the previous decision of the government/UGC under scheme of revision of pay scales approved for university and college teachers, librarians, physical education personnel and other academic staff.

It will also evaluate extent to which earlier recommendations in relation to qualifications, service conditions and pay-scales have been implemented. ... [It] will also examine the present structure of emoluments and conditions of service ... and suggest revision in the structure, taking into account the minimum qualifications, career advancement opportunities and total packet of benefits available to them (such as superannuation benefits, medical, housing facilities, etc).

It will examine cases of anomalies in the pay structure or career advancement opportunities for academic staff after the last pay revision and suggest remedial measures.

The committee may initiate necessary studies and analysis in regard to the terms of reference, keeping in mind demands and requirements of universities and higher education institutions.

The other members of this committee are: Atul Sharma (former Vice Chancellor, Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar); G Padmanaban (former Director, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore); Sudeep Banerjee (Chancellor, National University for Educational Planning & Administration, New Delhi), and Manimala Das (Principal, Bathune College, Kolkata).

* * *

With UGC getting all proactive on the faculty salaries front, there is going to be great pressure on the government to set up a similar committee for IITs, IIMs, and other such INIs.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A brilliant move by the IISc Hockey Association

Bring "Chak De India" to IISc. And make it free for every IIScian.

Ever since the announcement was made two days ago, there was a lot of excitement, which got to even those who have never played hockey in all their lives. Like our six year old son.

So it was that I took him and his friend to our Gymkhana this evening, and we all became a part of a fantastic mela there.

Since none of us know Hindi, the early and middle parts were a bit of a drag. This was when a lot of chips and biscuits got consumed, and our son had a brain wave about starting hockey from tomorrow. The stall selling hockey sticks and balls outside the Gymkhana seems to have had a subliminal effect.

Anyways, once the story got to the World Cup, the kids enjoyed every minute of it.

Well, almost.

Their lusty cheering was marred by King Khan's pre-match talk to the players before the final against Australia. After what seemed like an painful mini-eternity, the best moment of the evening came when our son's friend asked, "Why is this uncle talking so much? They should be playing the final, no?".

What is the best way to reward excellence in teaching?

I propose ... that institutions should empower graduating seniors to reward teaching excellence. Colleges should do this by giving each graduating senior $1,000 to distribute among their faculty. Colleges should have graduates use a computer program to distribute their allocations anonymously.

This idea is from James D. Miller (an economist at Smith College), and it appeared today in Inside HigherEd.

ToI covers the IIT-K incident

Akhilesh Kumar Singh of the Times of India covers the callous way in which a boy with a snake-bite was turned away by a doctor at IIT-K's health centre. The basic details are essentially the same as those posted here as well as on Mridula's blog. The only new information we now have is the name of the doctor: Meera Batra.

Singh's report, however, does not cover the second incident in IIT-K in which a contract labourer died due to safety violations at his workplace.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

AID comes to the aid of workers at IIT-K

This is just a quick follow-up on the IIT-K   incidents.

The Association for India's Development (AID) has a bunch of documents, which include a petition to the Director of IIT-K.

The petition seeks, among other things, free health care facility for all labourers and monitoring their working conditions to ensure that they comply with the laws regarding safety, minimum wages, and health and education for the workers' family members.

Over 400 people have signed this petition. Please do consider adding your voice in support of this good cause.

Thank you.

* * *

Thanks to my colleague Prabal Maiti and commenter Ravi for the pointer to the AID-India website.

Abhijit Banerjee on how well we understand the Economic Machine

The problem, in the end, is that we economists and development experts are still thinking in machine mode—we are looking for the right button to push. Education is one such button. Within education, there are more buttons: Economists talk of decentralization, incentives, vouchers, competition. Education experts talk about pedagogy. Government officials seem to swear by teacher training. If only we could do it right, whatever the favored “it” might be, we would be home free.

The reason we like these buttons so much, it seems to me, is that they save us the trouble of stepping into the machine. By assuming that the machine either runs on its own or does not run at all, we avoid having to go looking for where the wheels are getting caught and figuring out what small adjustments it would take to get the machine to run properly. To say that we need to move to a voucher system does not oblige us to figure out how to make it work—how to make sure that parents do not trade in the vouchers for cash (because they do not attach enough value to their children’s education) and that schools do not take parents for a ride (because parents may not know what a good education looks like). And how to get the private schools to be more effective—after all, at least in India, even children who go to private schools are nowhere near grade level. And many other messy details that every real program has to contend with.

This is from Abhijit Banerjee's article full of all kinds of interesting insights. Banerjee, an economist, is at MIT.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Manifestations of income inequality in India

The researchers found that for every three percent widening in a state's income inequality between the most affluent and the most poor, the risk for being underweight increased by 19 percent and the risk for being obese increased by 21 percent.

See this report for more on the study by S. V. Subramanian and coworkers at the Harvard School of Public Health. Here's another key finding:

In an additional finding, higher per capita consumption expenditure at the state-level, which is a marker of economic development, was associated with an increased risk of obesity. Yet, no association was observed between higher state per capita consumption expenditure and reduced risk for undernutrition, suggesting that economic development does not have a guaranteed connection to alleviating disease among the impoverished, noted Subramanian.

* * *

Here's what Amartya Sen had to say about "endemic undernourishment and hunger" in India (go to my old post for more):

... [It] is amazing to hear persistent repetition of the false belief that India has managed the challenge of hunger very well since independence. This is based on a profound confusion between famine prevention, which is a simple achievement, and the avoidance of endemic undernourishment and hunger, which is a much more complex task. India has done worse than nearly every country in the world in the latter respect. There are, of course, many different ways of shooting oneself in the foot, but smugness based on ignorance is among the most effective.

Industry gets proactive (and a bit pushy)

"Madras University has become the first Indian university to introduce a mandatory course on soft skills for all its post-graduate students." With a strong push (and inputs) from the industry.

A brainchild of CII, the programme has received strong support from the IT and ITeS industry. A consortium of five IT companies — Satyam, Cognizant, TCS, Scope International and US Technologies — have collaborated with the Madras University, which has about 170 colleges affiliated to it, to start the programme. As of now, 135 staff members have undergone the training and 50 are in the process. Soon after the teachers’ training will finish, the course for students will begin by October.

It's a clever move by the industry; this is one great way to reduce the cost of training new recruits in 'soft skills'.

But, what's in it for the Madras University? Are the next targets going to be Anna University, JNTU, Poona Engineering College, NITs, and -- gulp! -- the IITs?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Two updates on 'Shocking'

Mridula has an update on the IIT-K incident. She also has a second update from which we learn about the death of a construction worker and the effort by the contractor to hush it up.

Both the updates are quite harrowing; they don't need any further commentary. Go read them on Mridula's blog.

Investigating scientific misconduct: Divya Gandhi on the Kundu case

MSM takes a closer look at curious case of Gopal Kundu, with Divya Gandhi's column in The Hindu examining several different issues surrounding this case. Her column uses this case to explore some other questions as well, but I want to stick to the Kundu case here.

Here's the key point:

In an unusually public mark of dissent, the generally discreet Indian scientific community has voiced its concern over what could be the latest case of science gone astray. [...]

The unprecedented attention this case has received, however, has to do with more than the alleged malpractice. The disquiet in science circles comes instead from what is seen as the failure of institutional mechanisms in dealing rigorously and impartially with such cases — and also from the frustration at the absence of a central authority to bring closure to the growing incidence of misconduct. [bold emphasis added]

Given Rahul's analysis of the available evidence (using online documents at the Society for Scientific Values -- SSV), we are led to a pretty inescapable conclusion: identical figures -- in seven sets! -- have been passed off as arising from different experiments. Thus, there has been some closure in the minds of people who have taken a look Rahul's analysis.

However, it is also true that this case has not seen an 'official' closure. And that's because of two conflicting conclusions: one from an official body and the other from an 'almost official' body (the journal that published Kundu's papers). Specifically,

  • The official committee, headed by Prof. G. Padmanaban, an ex-Director of IISc, exonerated Gopal Kundu and his coworkers of any wrongdoing. This happened in August 2006.
  • However, in February 2007, the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) withdrew one of Kundu's papers. On being queried by SSV (and also a Science reporter), the journal has admitted that the withdrawal of the paper followed the adverse conclusions of its own committee that went into the allegations against Kundu. More damaging was its admission that it was aware of the Padmanaban Committee's exoneration of Kundu.

JBC's withdrawal of the paper is clearly a slap in the face of the official investigative team, and it is this slap that's keeping this case alive (even though it has also been the subject of some sharp criticism in a Current Science editorial). Unless the Padmanaban Committee -- or NCCS, Kundu's employer, or the Department of Biotechnology, NCCS's official boss that the Padmanaban Committee also reports to -- gets the paper reinstated, the needle of suspicion will keep pointing at Kundu (and indirectly, at the investigative team as well).

Gandhi does a good job of highlighting the disconnect between the Padmanaban Committee's findings and what many others (including JBC) believe:

... Baffled by this verdict [of the Padmanaban Committee] and anxious for a resolution, many scientists have felt compelled to examine the papers for themselves. The two sets of photo-strips of the little protein bands have since been scrutinised keenly — as many as seven times — formally and voluntarily, by committees, individuals, and institutions, and have been discussed in the public domain.

The spotlight has shifted decisively from the authors of the contested paper ... to the Padmanabhan committee. Formed to bring an authoritative closure to the case, the committee has instead been embarrassingly contradicted by the JBC, which withdrew the paper, and finds itself increasingly isolated within the Indian scientific community, with its motives and investigation methodology brought under the scanner.

Here, then, is the current status of the Kundu case:

And so the NCCS saga continues. The Department of Biotechnology recently called for another report from the Padmanabhan committee, a vindication of sorts for SSV’s position. But the committee’s new report of 120 pages upholds its previous findings. The DBT will hand this one over to a set of three scientists for yet another review. The verdict of this eighth (and, with some luck, final) inquiry will signal more than the fate of this specific case. [bold emphasis added]

Clearly, there's something deeply wrong if a simple question -- Are two figures (bearing different labels) identical? -- needs an eighth inquiry (and more than a year) for a closure.

* * *

One final note. Gandhi quotes Satyajit Mayor (of the National Centre for Biological Science, Bangalore):

... [Others] in the scientific community are concerned that such cases could dent India’s credibility in the international sphere. Satyajit Mayor, a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, observes: “We need laws to protect the country from what happened to Korean science after the stem cell debacle. Now nothing they say is taken seriously, even though important research is being done.”

This quote (and it is possible that Mayor is being misquoted or quoted out of context) gives one the impression that Korean science was let down by their laws (or lack thereof). This impression cannot be more wrong. In the Korean case, when the allegations (which were doing the rounds in mailing lists and online forums for quite a while before they) finally broke through to the news media, the official investigation did its job impeccably well. And its conclusions and credibility have not been questioned! Acting on the conclusions of that inquiry, the papers with fabricated data were promptly withdrawn by the university. If at all any lesson needs to be learnt from the Korean episode, it is on how to act swiftly, impartially, dispassionately, and fairly.

Monday, September 03, 2007

An elemental glass

It's a good day indeed when you see two of your friends featured in a news story on a recent discovery that was reported in Nature. The two friends are Srikanth Sastry (at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore) who is among the authors of that paper, and U. Ramamurty (Ram, my colleague whose office is just next door to mine) who has commented on its findings.

As The Telegraph's T.V. Jayan puts it, a myth was indeed shattered when a pure substance -- germanium in this case -- was coaxed into a glassy form for the first time. The story focuses on Srikanth, whose theoretical and computational work provided vital clues for achieving this feat. Jayan also has quotes Ram on the importance and implications of this research.

* * *

What good are metallic glasses? It turns out that they are fantastic in one key property: springiness (resilience), which should make some of them suitable for things such as golf clubs. In fact, the opening paragraph in the Telegraph story features Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova and Srikanth Sastry!

[Take a look at this video for a neat demonstration of a high-resilience material in comparison with normal materials such as a stainless steel.]

* * *

Alloys with two or more elements have been prepared in a glassy or amorphous state in which the atoms are not arranged in a regular three dimensional grid like they normally are in a crystalline state [Check out this Discover article or this Wikipedia entry]. The first metallic glasses were prepared using ultrafast cooling of molten liquid alloys; the cooling needed to be fast enough to suppress crystallization. Techniques based on fast cooling could produce glasses only in the form of thin sheets with thicknesses less than half a millimeter.

Subsequent research led to techniques for making metallic glasses in thicker blocks which can be used in a wider variety of applications. Centimeter-wide samples can now be made; they are called bulk metallic glasses (BMGs), and they enable a more precise and detailed study of their properties. Ram is an expert in the mechanical behaviour of these BMGs (and many other classes of materials, too).

Let me just end with a curious thing about the field of BMGs: it is unique in elevating 'Confusion' to the status of a 'Principle'! Since suppression of crystallization is important for coaxing an alloy into a glassy form, one of the strategies that scientists have hit upon is called the Confusion Principle according to which, very crudely, liquids with many elements -- with many different sizes and chemical properties -- are easier to turn into glass because the atoms in such a liquid are 'too confused' to form a regular crystalline arrangement on cooling.

Exit tax on emigrating graduates

This idea is gaining momentum. It was in the news sometime ago (and Rohit linked to it), but now within two days, it's on Outlook and Economic Times. Here are the opening lines from the Outlook story by Anuradha Raman:

Will taxing students from institutes of "higher learning" (read IITs and IIMs) who catch the first flight abroad after they complete their degrees stem the brain drain? Members of the parliamentary standing committee on HRD believe that a penalty—or "exit tax"—could act as a deterrent and keep students back in the country.

Picking up on this, Ram Mohan (a professor of finance at IIM-A) has commented on this proposal: he covers a lot of different angles, right from implementation difficulties to philosophical issues. Here are his questions on the implementation:

... At what point is the tax to be collected? Is a candidate expected to make a declaration to the Income tax department that he or she is an IIT/IIM product and leaving the country and, therefore, wishes to have a clearance certificate? What if the compensation is understated? Is the passport supposed to carry a stamp saying the candidate is from IIT/IIM? In the case of fresh graduates leaving immediately after graduation, they may not have the resources to pay the tax. So, are they expected to raise a loan? Will banks provide loans to departing individuals? And what about graduates who return after a few years' experience? Are they eligible for a tax refund? And why only IIT/IIM products?

Indeed, why only IIT/IIM products? Why only those who go abroad?

An across-the-board graduation tax is a good idea, and I am impressed by the Australian model. In this model, the government's higher education subsidy is treated as a loan in the hands of the student; when (and only when) he/she starts earning an income beyond a certain threshold, he/she pays a slightly higher income tax until the loan is repaid. Such a tax can help reduce government expenditure (subsidies) on higher education without sacrificing equity. It is easy to implement. It is easy to use this tax to signal to the students what our nation's priorities are. Even during the repayment stage, the tax is relatively painless, since it just means the ex-student and current tax-payer's marginal tax rate is higher just by a percent or two. I don't know how the Australians treat those who emigrate, but we can think of suitable mechanisms to get them to pay (either a lumpsum payment before they leave, or a transfer of their loan to someone else who would then be responsible for repaying it in installments).

Interestingly, the Economic Times report (which is by Urmi Goswami and someone else whose name I don't recall right now -- the print version mentions them by name) alludes to the Australian model:

... the Australians have worked out a scheme that could be considered for the Indian context. This would fit in with the finance minister’s plans for a simpler tax system. In Australia, higher education is considerably subsidised.

On graduation, students who seek to work outside the national priority areas have to pay back the subsidy, as the nation has not benefited from the investment. This ensures that tax structures are not meddled with and it incentivises working in priority areas through a subsidised cost of education.

I hope the idea of an across-the-board graduation tax also gains traction. It deserves to be considered seriously.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Whining about faculty salaries

Summing up his total expenditures for these nine years, and in like manner his salary for the same period, [this author, a university professor] finds his expenditures have been to his salary in the ratio of 2.1 to 1.

His average annual expenditure has been [2.1 times X].

His average salary has been [X].

For the privilege of teaching he has paid the difference, of [1.1 times X] annually, from private means.

Even the unbusinesslike professor must pause before such a state of affairs, and try to fathom the reason for this discrepancy, when his firm belief is that he is living on as low a scale of economy as is possible for him in his position.

It's an American professor writing (under the pseudonym G.H.M.) about the low salaries at the turn of -- get this -- the previous century! Read Brad DeLong's fascinating post for GHM's article as well as a commentary on the economic well being of the Americans during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Youngest fan of our National Anthem?

And he even has the most appropriate name!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Sujai Karampuri on ToI's 'Lead India' reality TV show

Times of India has been running Lead India, a campaign that's currently in the first phase when people send in their applications. It has an elaborate process of filtering people out, with city-level and region-level contests. What can the survivors expect? A chance to participate in a reality TV show!

The contest even features a web page devoted to those who look like celebrities leaders. Well, this totally sleazy exercise is crying out to be mocked, ridiculed and criticized! And Sujai has stepped up to this task and done a thorough demolition job.

Start with Quality of a Leader, and work your way up through Leadership, RDB style to the most recent ToI: Lead India Campaign.


... I now know its possible to be immensely happy and equally sad at the same time in a way that does not add up to zero (indifference).

That's Sharath Rao bidding farewell to Carnegie Mellon.

Some facets of IISc ...

... viewed through cartoons by Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti. I have seen some of his cartoons in our Institute's student-run magazine Voices (which, surprisingly for one meant for an audience of geeks, is not available online). I learnt today that Sujit also has a blog, where some of his cartoons are archived along with some commentary on the background or on readers' reactions.

In particular, check out one of the perils of being at IISc. And also the Tea Board scene; I love the way computer science types fight!

Halls of shame

SciAm blog's Christopher Mims compiles a list of "duplicitous PR flacks who have run afoul of the science blog mob." It includes a PR frontman for Stuart Pivar, the guy who sued P.Z. Myers (the lawsuit has now been withdrawn). It also includes a political appointee at NASA whose 'real' credentials were outed by science blogger.

While on the topic of credentials, NYTimes reports that South Korea has been rocked by a series of scandalous exposés of high-fliers and celebrities (including a Buddhist monk) who have made inflated or false claims of academic credentials.