Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Caste and religious discrimination in India's private sector companies

Here's the abstract of this paper by Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell:

This article examines the prevalence of discrimination in the job application process of private sector enterprises in India. The study is based on a field experiment where authors replied to job advertisements in major English dailies sending three applications to each call – as an upper caste Hindu applicant, as a dalit and as a Muslim. Using statistical analysis they assess the data and find that discriminatory processes operate even at the first stage of the application process.

The authors used a neat method: Look for recruitment ads for entry-level or near entry-level jobs in private sector companies. Send three identical CVs with different names that would easily identify the (male) candidate's background: upper caste, Dalit or Muslim. And wait for who gets the call for the next step in the process (typically, an interview).

What did they find?

... [T]here are statistically significant effects of both caste and religion on job outcome. Appropriately-qualified applicants with a dalit name had odds of a positive outcome that were 0.67 of the odds of an equivalently qualified applicant with a high caste Hindu name. Similarly-qualified applicants with a Muslim name had odds of 0.33 of an otherwise equivalent applicant with a high caste name.

I would say this conclusion is pretty devastating. We will have to wait and see how the industry people respond to this study.

* * *

Thanks to Madhukar Shukla (who also has an extended commentary) for the pointer. I was keen to read the paper ever since it was mentioned in Ram Mohan's blog. I'm glad it's now available in an open-access journal like EPW.

* * *

Before closing, I also want to highlight something else from the paper:

The most common answer to an application was no response whatsoever. Rejection letters were rare: only 17 applications (one-third of 1 per cent) resulted in rejection letters. In other cases, those we classified as positive outcomes, employers either phoned or wrote to certain applicants asking to interview the person (or in some cases requesting the applicant appear for a written test). There were 450 positive outcomes of this type (9.4 per cent of all experimental applications).

The response rate itself is less than 10 percent! Unbelievable, isn't it? What kind of professionalism is this?

Tehelka's Operation Kalank: Some links

Rahul Siddharthan:

... What happened in Gujarat arose from an ideology that has been poisoning our lives since well before independence; and that ideology is not just alive and well, but given respectability by the participation in our political process of parties such as the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

It amazes me that people bother to protest when the RSS, or its offshoots like the BJP, are labelled "fascist". The founders of this organisation, such as M. S. Golwalkar, quite openly modelled the RSS after fascist European organisations of the 1930s. The inspiration ranged from their supremacist ideology down to cosmetic details like the wearing of shorts at their "shakhas". And Hindu supremacism is every bit as evil as white or "Aryan" supremacism.

The ideology has not changed one iota since those days. From Golwalkar's time, the RSS and its offshoots have continuously striven towards the same goal; and all the "incidents" punctuating their history since then -- such as Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, the Babri masjid demolition, numerous riots including the 1993 Mumbai riots -- all stem from that ideology: Hindus (of a particular description) are supreme, and don't dare to be nice to Muslims.

Dilip D'Souza:

Consider, on the other hand, the situation of the guys who feel forced to defend the killers.

They have to make out that your concern is motivated by elections, or profit, or some other triviality. They have to resort to the curious logic that because you speak about some murders, you don't care about other murders (and if you mention those, then its some others still). They have to ask peculiar questions like "Who started it?" -- because they cannot express straight out the perversity they really believe, that hundreds of innocent Indians killed across Gujarat somehow had asked to be murdered. They have to pronounce that Gujarat (or Bombay, or Meerut, or Delhi, or any of many other places before) has "moved on" and we must not "reopen old wounds." They have to insult you, your friends, your family, whoever -- because they have to try everything to discredit you who asks for justice.

Bhupinder Singh:

... for the already beleaguered BJP at the national level, Mr Modi has now become an albatross around its neck. It is yet to recover from its electoral debacle of 2004, it is not clear who exactly its leaders are, despite courageous attempts to re-live their past authority, Vajpaee and Advani have both age and past record against them. The skeletons in the cupboard that emerged after Pramod Mahajan’s death call into question the calibre of its NextGen leadership that now is on the defensive, more often squabbling amongst itself if not, like Ms Uma Bharti, discrediting, the mother Party. TV channels are not banned outside Gujarat, and Mr Modi’s misdeeds will not go unnoticed by the substantial number of fence sitter supporters of the BJP.

Virtual teaching: Some of it may even be off-shored!

The university classroom of the future is in Janet Duck’s dining room on East Chocolate Avenue here.

There is no blackboard and no lectern, and, most glaringly, no students. Dr. Duck teaches her classes in Pennsylvania State University’s master’s program in business administration by sitting for several hours each day in jeans and shag-lined slippers at her dining table, which in soccer mom fashion is cluttered with crayon sketches by her 6-year-old Elijah and shoulder pads for her 9-year-old Olivia’s Halloween costume.

In this homespun setting, the spirited Dr. Duck pecks at a Toshiba laptop and posts lesson content, readings and questions for her two courses on “managing human resources” that touch on topics like performance evaluations and recruitment. The instructional software allows her 54 students to log on from almost anywhere at any time and post remarkably extended responses, the equivalent of a blog about the course. Recently, the class exchanged hard-earned experiences about how managers deal with lackluster workers.

Interesting stuff. Two weeks ago, the Freakonomics blog featured an interview with Jamie Gladfelter, an online economics teacher for students in -- get this! -- six colleges all across the US.

Today's NYTimes also has another story about online tutoring (and other such services) outsourced to India.

TutorVista also stands out for its well-known venture backers, its scale and its ambition. The two-year-old company has raised more than $15 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Silicon Valley Bank. TutorVista employs 760 people, including 600 tutors in India, a teaching staff it plans to double by year-end. Its 52-person technical staff has spent countless hours building the software system to schedule, monitor and connect potentially tens of thousands of tutors with students oceans away.

BlogBharti celebrates its first birthday ...

The wonderful folks at BlogBharti deserve our appreciation. Let's go there and say, "Happy Birthday", shall we?

Prof. M.S. Ananth's lecture on higher education in India

Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT-Madras, will give a lecture on 25 November 2007 on a topic dear to many of us: "The changing environment of higher education and some India-centric concerns."

His lecture is a part of an annual lecture series organized by the Kumari L.A. Meera Memorial Trust. Among the trustees is my friend and colleague Prof. B. Ananthanarayan who also has a blog.

The lecture is scheduled at 6:00 p.m. on 25 November 2007 (Sunday) at the Indian Institute of World Culture, B. P. Wadia Road, Basavanagudi, Bangalore. If you are planning to be there, please let me know; it'll be great to meet up.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Felix Salmon on blogging

In a post on blogonomics:

... [T]he pamphleteers of the Victorian era were bloggers avant la lettre, and blogging is, in many ways, simply pamphleteering with a lower barrier to entry.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Raj Chetty

Rediff features an interview with Raj Chetty, a hot shot economist at Berkeley. The interviewer -- Arthur Pais -- actually allows Chetty to explain his research projects and its policy implications, and they are all very interesting. Sometime ago, there was a profile of Chetty in the AEI magazine, The American, covering much the same ground. But the interview is far better, simply because Chetty is a gifted communicator, and because Pais lets him talk.

You became a professor at Berkeley when you were 23...

Many people wondered if I was a student or a professor, but one of the things that is great about academics is that it is almost purely merit-based. It does not matter how you look, how you dress, or how you act. Once you establish that you are an expert in your subject and have good ideas, you immediately earn people's respect. Youth is to some extent viewed favorably (unlike in other professions that have a strict ladder system) since breakthrough discoveries are often made when people are young. My colleagues treated me like anyone else in the department as soon as I arrived at Berkeley, even though most of the graduate students in the department were older than me.

With the students, I tried to take advantage of the fact that I was roughly the same age as them to make it easier to approach the professor. In one of my classes, my teaching assistant (a graduate student) and I started the class with a practical joke. She began the first lecture and pretended to be the professor. I sat in the back, dressed informally like the other students. I started raising several questions once she started the lecture, eventually asking whether she was really qualified to teach the class. I then suggested that perhaps I should teach the class myself. The students were quite surprised that one of their peers would be so brash. She said, "Sure, why don't you give it a try?" I got up and began teaching. The students figured it out and enjoyed the joke. It was particularly funny because one of the students asked me while I was sitting in the back if I knew whether this professor was supposed to be hard!

Thanks to Swarup for the pointer.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Subprime crisis, structured investment vehicles, and ...

... the sharp and sophisticated people who run THE markets!

Great video. Hat tip to Marc Andreessen.

Why we hate

Alex Gunz has an excellent overview of what psychologists have found out about this important question. The article starts out with personality-based theories (for example, "New research ... [shows] that people who are very low in the commonly measured “openness to experience” construct seem to be more likely to be both right wing, and prejudiced."). But it moves quickly to the situational causes, and this is where it gets scary. It appears that it's easy to make us -- yes, all of us -- create "Those Bastards Over There" and start hating them. It has a nice discussion of the situational forces -- competition, upbringing, culture, situations that make you feel low, etc, with vivid examples from clever experiments.

Here's an excerpt, that has a pretty positive message:

Prejudices, it seems, are more malleable than the people holding them tend to think. The end of World War II saw Germany and Japan switch rapidly in the Allies psyche from terrible enemies, complete with derogatory nicknames, to stalwart friends, demonstrating that even those prejudices that had been chiselled, literally, into granite, aren’t. Ever since Sherif's experiment, psychologists have wondered about the best way to help such thaws along.

Recently psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Trop (2006) gathered the results from hundreds of studies on this question (covering thousands of people), and used complex "meta analysis" statistics to take a powerful new look at the collected results. What they found is strong support for the ‘contact hypothesis’ - that personal contact between group members helps improve feelings. Contact even works substantially better when a number of conditions are present. From what you've heard so far, you won't be surprised to know that it helps to have a shared goal to work towards (like getting your bus unstuck), and that it is good to have a shared outgroup to rally against ("stupid vandals"). Other things help too, though, such as having the contact occur on an equal footing, with no group having higher status than the other.

As they say, read the whole thing. Don't forget to read the kicker in the final section!

* * *

Thanks to the ever-excellent The Situationist for the pointer.

Three great posts on Tehelka's Operation Kalank

Prem Panicker, who picks apart some tired old arguments from those who support Modi/BJP. You have to read his counterarguments on his blog, but let me quote this part where he calls them out for vacuous name-calling:

... [C]ould we please stop using “"secular", “intellectual” and such like adjectives, invariably with the arbitrary ‘pseudo’ preceding it, in this knee-jerk fashion? It is an indication of nothing so much as the intellectual laziness of the person using such portmanteau adjectives. It has never been made clear to me what is in fact wrong with being secular, or an intellectual; in fact, it is none too clear how those terms are defined, in the first place. I believe religion is a matter of personal faith—and yes, I am religious. My beliefs, my faith, manifests in the privacy of my home; I don’t have this exhibitionist desire to parade it before the world. And equally, I believe that everyone out there has the right to worship whatever takes their fancy, equally in private, without allowing their faiths, their beliefs, to become a nuisance for the rest of us. Does that make me ‘secular’? And does the fact that I think my attitudes and beliefs through, and put them into words, make me ‘intellectual’? Damned if I know; damned if I know, too, how you decide whose secularism is true secularism, and whose secularism is ‘pseudo’. To use such phrases in lieu of debate is laziness; to then require the foreshortening of those phrases into ‘p-sec’ and the like is—what—an attempt to reduce the risk of RSI?

Over at Indie Quill, Amrita too takes on a few other arguments coming from pro-Modi/BJP quarters:

You’re not with us ergo you’re with the Congress: Grow up. I was going to make this huge speech about how there are more things on heaven and earth and blah blah blah - but why bother when it all boils down to this: Grow. Up.

I don’t know if they actually believe this “logic” or whether this is the catchiest thing they could come up with for the TV cameras but either way it’s absurd. There are those of us out there in the wilderness that don’t believe in a single thing that the Congress or the Left believes in, that are very happy and proud of their nationality, culture and religion - and feel absolutely no desire whatsoever in campaigning for a Hindu rashtra, feel belligerent about events that went down 800 years ago or want to shoot the next Muslim we meet.

I know the leaders of the Sangh Parivar think highly of Indira Gandhi’s leadership qualities, but take it from me: nobody bought it 30 years ago when she tried to tell us she was India and we’re not about to buy that you’re India either and that voting against you makes us anti-national. Mrs. Gandhi is what is commonly called a cautionary tale, people. She fucking lost her marbles and got booted out of office for it. Ask Atal Behari Vajpayee about it: I’m sure he remembers a few things from that time.

Patrix takes the argument to the trash-Tehelka crowd:

As far as the allegation of why Gujarat and why not goes, I don’t think anyone has ever stopped those individuals or any other media outlet from investigating other acts of terrorism. If Tehelka investigates Gujarat, you are free to investigate Kashmir, Delhi 1984, Bombay blasts 1993, and the more recent Hyderabad blasts 2007. More the merrier, right? Go and steal Tehelka’s thunder. We have plenty of acts of terror going around (unfortunately) to keep everyone busy for a long time.

And here's a bonus! It's from Rohit, who concludes that "It is high time Mr Modi is asked to leave."

Many of my friends on the Right (and indeed on INI) endorse Modi brand of politics. It is regretful. Notwithstanding Modi’s administrative acumen and pro-market policies, he can never emerge as the mascot of the Indian Right. After all, the starting point of any such movement must be respect for the individual irrespective of his community allegiance. A chief minister who presided over an administration where people were killed only for the religion they professed can never lead a movement which would place the individual at the pinnacle.

Tehelka tells us what we have always known

Indian Express: "What a sting operation in 2007 says has been in the public sphere since 2002. We have always known that the state in Gujarat allowed the gruesome violence to play out, when it didn’t actively collude in the killings."

The Economic Times: "The Tehelka-Aaj Tak sting operation adds nothing new to the shameful truth about how the state machinery enabled the ruling BJP and its sister-organisations to carry out the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat."

The Hindustan Times: "But in a way, all the grisly details that were aired on prime time TV have been recorded and known for some time now."

Some have seen this exposé as something that Tehelka did with the intent of targeting the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. That may well be the case, but that need not detract us from the 'on camera confessions' from so many people implicating themselves and so many others in the 2002 massacre. Not just politicians, but police and public prosecutors as well.

And the utter lack of remorse with which the men behind the massacre recount the grisly details is absolutely, totally chilling. For example:

Suresh Richard, an accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre, confesses to rape. He tells you he is not lying, because he is admitting to it in the presence of his wife.

As Tarun Tejpal tells us repeatedly in his editorial, "Read. And be afraid."

That message is for mere mortals like us. But how about the judiciary? Here's HT:

So while the Tehelka footage seeks to provide a ‘flesh and blood’ reminder about what took place in Gujarat in 2002 and has re-stirred many of us into sitting up with horror, the real business — that of bringing the guilty to justice and providing the nation with a closure on the episode — lies elsewhere.

The commission of enquiry looking into the Godhra train deaths and the subsequent mayhem was first set up by the state government on March 2, 2002. With growing criticism against the head of the commission, retired High Court judge K.G. Shah, being close to the BJP, the commission was ‘reconstituted’ on May 22, 2002, with retired Supreme Court Justice G.T. Nanavati heading it. One understands that what the commission is investigating is a vast collection of disparate, disjointed, rambling incidents that require interviewing many witnesses and many conflicting points of view. But considering the fact that it will be the report’s findings that will enable judicial proceedings to be carried out against the many individual perpetrators of the pogrom, it is time for the Nanavati Commission to deliver that report and set the ball in motion.

The National Human Rights Commission report, based on the findings of a team visiting Gujarat between March 19 and March 22, 2002, also mentions what the latest Tehelka sting ‘shows’. It had called for the CBI to look into those cases that it stated to be the very worst incidents “of murder, arson, rape and other atrocities, including many committed against women and children”. So, in a way, while Tehelka has jogged our memories and shown us what is deemed to be another visible and horrifying aspect of the Gujarat riots, the job is pending with the Nanavati Commission. Surely, any delay in starting the judicial process against the killers and their abettors — and there were abettors in the state official machinery — will be a delay in bringing justice not only to victims in Gujarat but also to the nation. Instead of sinking into the quicksand of politics that is bound to develop from the Tehelka ‘exposé’ in the months leading up to the December polls in Gujarat, let the Commission findings be expedited fast. Before a very real genocide turns into a myth that turns into a rumour that no hand of the law will be able to touch.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Questions about stem cell research at AIIMS

An anonymous commenter has posted the contents of an e-mail message raising some strong ethical concerns about the stem cell research at AIIMS. You may recall that this work is already the subject of a different ethics inquiry as the researchers published the same work in two different journals.

These comments come from an anonymous source, and I have no way of verifying their validity -- if any of you can do that, please e-mail me (or, blog your findings). Further, it's entirely possible that the AIIMS researchers have answered some or all of the criticism (though one allegation -- that they have tried some procedure without establishing its effectiveness in animals -- is pretty damaging). At this point, I just want to point to the comment, as the ethical issues raised there are quite serious.

Towards the end of that comment, there's also something about the callous way in which clinical trials are conducted in India. This, again, is something that is well known.

All in all, it's a pretty grim way to start the day ...

Jim Watson leaves Cold Spring Harbor

Here's the Scientific American story:

World-renowned geneticist James Watson today resigned as a top officer of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), in Long Island, N.Y., culminating a rapid fall from grace triggered last week by racially charged statements he made during a newspaper interview.

"This morning I have conveyed to the trustees of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory my desire to retire immediately from my position as its chancellor, as well as from my position on its board, on which I have served for the past 43 years," Watson said in a statement in which he heaped praise on the research facility to which he brought both fame and infamy. "Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Crime against peace"

According to an entry in Wikipedia, "A crime against peace, in international law, refers to the act of military invasion as a war crime, specifically referring to starting or waging war against the integrity, independence, or sovereignty of a territory or state, or else a military violation of relevant international treaties, agreements or legally binding assurances.'' As per the definition above, the war against Iraq by the US led so-called "Coalition of the Willing" qualifies in no small measure as indeed a crime against peace. It may be further noted here that the next paragraph of the Wikipedia entry reads, "An important exception to the forgoing are defensive military actions taken under Article 51 of the UN Charter.''

The basis of the launch of the war (to provide the pretext required to circumvent the "crime against peace" charge), was that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed "weapons of mass destruction" which was always known to be bogus, and was covered with the fig leaf of "intelligence failure". However, what is also known is that the Bush administration in the US has been suffused with enthusiasm for a doctrine of preemptive strike and regime change and for the use of massive force against an inimical government with nary a thought for the peoples of the country. Therefore, it may be readily concluded that it would not be possible for the Bush administration to credibly hide behind the exception referred to earlier.

That's B. Ananthanarayan writing in Lok Raj Sangathan . His blog is here. And here's the Wikipedia entry on crime against peace.

* * *

For the latest demonstration of "the gap between what President Bush and members of his administration were saying publicly during the run-up to the war and what they were saying, and doing, in more private settings, " take a look at the Crawford Transcript, and the accompanying commentary by Mark Danner.

How does a normal person become total dickwad?

John Gabriel explains the process with a simple graphic. And I confess that I had to look up the meaning of dickwad even though it was clear from the context.

Link via Ann Bartow at

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


It is bad enough if you -- like Matt Ridley -- are a libertarian heading an institution (even if it was only in a non-executive capacity) that needs to be bailed out by government. It gets even more painful when George Monbiot gets on your case.

If you are of libertarian persuasion, don't read this stuff:

I doubt that Ridley would be able to sustain his beliefs in a place where the state has broken down. Unless taxpayers' money and public services are available to repair the destruction it causes, libertarianism destroys people's savings, wrecks their lives and trashes their environment. It is the belief system of the free-rider, who is perpetually subsidised by responsible citizens. As biologists we both know what this means. Self-serving as governments might be, the true social parasites are those who demand their dissolution.


* * *

Thanks to Swarup for the pointer.

* * *

This case reminds me of of "Anarchy, State, and Rent Control" involving Robert Nozick.

Lakshman Nyari

It is always sad when we get a notice to come to the Institute's main building for a condolence meeting. So it was when we received one two days ago.

Mr. Lakshman Nyari, one of the workers in a mess at IISc, was killed (along with his wife and a daughter) in a road accident. Though I could not go to the condolence meeting, I learned later that quite a few students had visited his house to pay their respects. And I knew immediately that Lakshman must have been special.

As if I needed confirmation, at least a couple of people have paid their tributes to Lakshman on their blogs.


It was men like Lakshman whose services went beyond the call of duty that made A-mess the place it was — a home away from home, a surrogate home, and the only mess where I felt at home, literally.


When he serves from the buffet place, I am sure everyone eats more happily. If you tell him, "enough". He says, "Crispy Dosa, Sir. Take two more." You cannot refuse. You take at least one.

At last, CAT may enter the 21st century

Mansi Bhatt reports in the Economic Times:

... In what could be a dramatic shift in the entrance system of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the CAT committee of IIMs is considering to hold the test online.

And if this isn’t enough, the committee is also considering to give respite to lakhs of IIM aspirants from the one-year long wait to write the toughest test, common admission test (CAT). Instead, the IIM aspirants might be allowed to take the test online for a definite number of times during the year. The CAT committee of IIMs is in talks with leading global online test company Prometric to get the job done.

I have always been amazed at the zeal with which IIMs protect their monopoly over CAT (and, similarly, IITs protect theirs over JEE). So much so that they actually come in the way of India's progress towards one standardized test administered at the national level for MBA, engineering, etc.

Great institutions and their administrators do not -- or, should not have to -- take pride in their ability to run entrance exams (even if they are deeply flawed); if you listen to Bakul Dholakia, he seems to be doing precisely that:

Today, we have more than 100 non-IIM institutes affiliated to CAT and it is still being governed and run by IIMs. Is this not success that we still run the show of holding CAT and such large number of non-IIM institutes are using our system to recruit students?

Are there good reasons for our leading institutions to run their own entrance exams? I can think of one: money. Entrance exams are money spinners, and the money that institutions generate this way comes with no strings whatsoever. So, our administrators are unwilling to let go of them, even if it means it's a drain on their faculty time. Remember, I'm not talking about setting the exam, I'm talking about the mechanics and logistics of running the exam at hundreds of centers, protecting the question papers and answersheets, etc., for which faculty are recruited routinely.

What is the kind of money we are talking about? Let's get back to the ET story:

... CAT forms cost around Rs 1,100 ...

With 200,000 students taking the exam, the total revenue is about Rs.220 million (Rs.22 crores), or about Rs. 30 million per IIM. It may not be big money, but it's no chicken feed either. (I understand that this would at least be 10 percent of the operating budget at each IIM.)

[BTW, This "money with no strings" is also the motivation for the distance education programs and short term certificate programs offered by many of our cash-starved universities; see the sidebar on this post].

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How should we perceive the Corruption Perception Index?

Alex Tabarrok offers some details that lead to a perception that the CPI is tainted. Take a look.

AIIMS researchers publish the same work in two journals

Here's the Hindustan Times report [Hat tip to Anon's comment]:

Six professors as well as the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, P Venugopal, have been accused of fraudulently publishing the same research material in two different medical journals.

The article — Use of stem cells in congenital anomalies — appeared in the October-December issue of Indian Journal of Pediatric Surgeons and the January 2007 issue of International Journal Transplantation Proceedings.

The article was written by Dr D.K. Gupta, head of paediatric surgery in AIIMS. It was co-authored by Venugopal, Shilpa Sharma, Lalit Kumar, S. Dattagupta, N.K. Arora and Dr S. Mohanty. All are senior professors in the premier medical college and hospital.

Experts said this is a case of duplicate publication, considered an academic fraud. “My personal opinion is that they are based on the same data and come to very similar conclusions. Much of the text is repeated and neither paper cites the other,” said Harvey Marcovitch, chairman of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organisation for editors of peer-reviewed journals formed to tackle breach in research and publication ethics. [Bold emphasis added]

Sleep: Make sure you get enough!

Today's NYTimes's Science section has a special feature on sleep, with quite a few articles covering lots of different things. This article by Jane Brody, for example, is on the effects of too little sleep on academics (and other things too); its emphasis is similar to that in Po Bronson's article we linked to a few days ago.

Another article examines the West's taboo proscription against kids co-sleeping with their parents. ["Ask parents if they sleep with their kids, and most will say no. But there is evidence that the prevalence of bed sharing is far greater than reported."]

And finally, this page has some nice quotes from scientists, philosophers, poets and other celebrities. Here's one from Leon Lederman, a physics Nobel winner:

My experience was that one can survive on two to three hours of sleep per night — with occasional naps — for two or three weeks. After that, all pretenses of rationality were blown. I’ve since asked sleep scientists what happens to your brain in a three-minute nap that restores your ability to drive, teach, think and yell at grad students. They’ve never answered.

Smaller gangly cortex in Red Sox players!

CAMBRIDGE, MA--In a study published today in the prestigious journal Nature, Harvard professor Dr. Thomas Jacobson, an expert in the field of physical neuroscience, finds that the gangly cortex, the area of the brain associated with stumbling, fumbling, and general klutziness, is smaller in members of the Red Sox sports team than in other major league baseball players.

Aaron Swartz is a genius! Read this "news story"! Don't forget to read all the way down, where he points to similar studies.

Jim Watson, the "social irritant"

Philip Ball says "there is more than metaphor in this image [see the quote, below]" and I think he's right:

Jim Watson seems to be genuinely taken aback by the furore his recent comments on race and IQ have aroused. He looks a little like the teenage delinquent who, after years of being a persistent neighbourhood pest, finds himself suddenly hauled in front of a court and threatened with being sent to a detention centre. Priding himself on being a social irritant, he never imagined anyone would deal with him seriously.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Na Peru Nirodhu Anna!

Check out this really cool video that the Mutineers are going gaga over. Hilarious!

Be careful, though: it's seriously NSFW!

"Nine nights of dancing in circles"

This happens every year. Not just to me, but to all Gujaratis in the country and around the world. Monsoons end and we all get itchy feet. We carry around beats of garba-raas in our heads and try not to clap, leap, swirl in middle of a mundane conversation-we then know, Goddess is sure to arrive. With subdued excitement we get out our mirrored costumes and "dandiyas". Families play garba music and mothers train children in the ways to welcome the goddess-with lots of music, lots of dance.

That's from Arati Chokshi, a newly minted blogger from the IISc campus!

IgNobel candidates?

Take a look at this list of top 10 most bizarre scientific papers. Here's No. 4:

Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans (S. Ghirlanda, L. Jansson, M. Enquist; Stockholm University; 2002): Authors at the Stockholm University explain it: "We trained chickens to react to an average human female face but not to an average male face (or vice-versa). In a subsequent test, the animals showed preferences for faces consistent with human sexual preferences (obtained from university students). This suggests that human preferences arise from general properties of nervous systems, rather than from face-specific adaptations. We discuss this result in the light of current debate on the meaning of sexual signals, and suggest further tests of existing hypotheses about the origin of sexual preferences."


And it looks like MHRD has the upper hand:

A full Planning Commmission met on education for the 11th Plan, where the Prime Minister called for constitution of a working group to review the role and functions of these institutions. A month after that, the working group is still not in place.

Fears of loss of authority on part of the MHRD and a marked reluctance to accept the recommendations of the Sam Pitroda-led NKC appear to be at the heart of the delay.

The Anna University case: An update

Via Proses Anonymitus and Gautam's comment on Rahul's post, we get this IANS news item at Yahoo! News (it was carried by Sify News too).

Here's how the Anna University has handled this case:

'I am extremely sad that my faculty is involved in this sordid affair,' P.K. Palanisamy, head of physics department at Anna University, told IANS, adding that it was the first time such an incident had happened in his university.

He said that after an internal inquiry, the university has barred Selladurai from guiding any more doctoral students.

This action has been taken even though Selladurai (the corresponding author) tried to wiggle out of the paper:

In email interviews, Mathews and Selladurai told IANS their names were added 'without their knowledge or concurrence' by K. Muthukkumar, the paper's first author and a PhD student of Selladurai.

The student, Muthukkumaran, is clear about what's happening:

He says he committed the 'mistake' of sending to JMS the manuscript written by a ghost writer without realising that the writer had simply copied the PNAS paper. But he believes he was made a scapegoat in the entire affair and added that his mouth was sealed because he was a student. [Bold emphasis added]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Blue's cultural immersion at Bangalore

After her grand show at Hyderabad, Blue took a vacation at Bangalore and Mysore. During Dasara!

With Garba dancing, Kolu, and a visit to ISKCON, her cultural immersion seems to be complete (except perhaps for the sumptuous goodies at the Durga Puja, organized by Bengalis in several places in Bangalore). And, oh, there was medical tourism, too!

That's just a sampler; there's a lot more at Blue's blog.

Sean Carroll would like to know what god means ...

He asks for specifics:

I can imagine two possibilities. One is that you sincerely can’t imagine a universe without the existence of God; that God is a logical necessity. But I have no trouble imagining a universe that exists all by itself, just obeying the laws of nature. So I would have to conclude, in that case, that you were simply attaching the meaningless label “God” to some other aspect of the universe, such as the fact that it exists. The other possibility is that there is actually some difference between the universe-with-God and the materialist universe. So what is it? How could I tell? What is it about the existence of God that has some effect on the universe? I’m not trying to spring some sort of logical trap; I sincerely want to know. [...]

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I'm taking a break to watch this video

It's about how to turn a sphere inside out, without puncturing it or causing a fold on the surface. A cool, wonderfully executed video lecture mathematical dialog.

Thanks to Guru and Doug for the pointer.

"Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition"

This study has been covered by the Economist, and I found it through The Situationist. Here's the abstract of the paper by Jing Feng, Ian Spence and Jay Pratt:

We demonstrate a previously unknown gender difference in the distribution of spatial attention, a basic capacity that supports higher-level spatial cognition. More remarkably, we found that playing an action video game can virtually eliminate this gender difference in spatial attention and simultaneously decrease the gender disparity in mental rotation ability, a higher-level process in spatial cognition. After only 10 hr of training with an action video game, subjects realized substantial gains in both spatial attention and mental rotation, with women benefiting more than men. Control subjects who played a non-action game showed no improvement. Given that superior spatial skills are important in the mathematical and engineering sciences, these findings have practical implications for attracting men and women to these fields.

Role of culture in racial differences in IQ

Here's the abstract of a recent paper by Joseph F. Fagan and Cynthia R. Holland [link via -- who else?! -- Cosma Shalizi]:

African-Americans and Whites were asked to solve problems typical of those administered on standard tests of intelligence. Half of the problems were solvable on the basis of information generally available to either race and/or on the basis of information newly learned. Such knowledge did not vary with race. Other problems were only solvable on the basis of specific previous knowledge, knowledge such as that tested on conventional IQ tests. Such specific knowledge did vary with race and was shown to be subject to test bias. Differences in knowledge within a race and differences in knowledge between races were found to have different determinants. Race was unrelated to the g factor. Cultural differences in the provision of information account for racial differences in IQ.

Roland Fryer and Steve Levitt on race and IQ at first birthday

Here's Steve Levitt:

In my work with Fryer, we analyzed a newly available nationally representative survey of children ages two and under, done by the Department of Education. Included in this study are tests of mental ability around a child’s first birthday. While you might think it would be impossible to capture anything meaningful at such a young age, it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores.

The striking result we find is that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life.

So what does this mean for the genetics vs. environment debate? Quoting from our abstract, "the observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age. Our findings are not consistent with the simplest models of large genetic differences across races in intelligence, although we cannot rule out the possibility that intelligence has multiple dimensions and racial differences are present only in those dimensions that emerge later in life." [With bold emphasis added by me]

Training for IQ

Cosma quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky on an important experimental result:

It describes an experiment on ghetto children whose mothers had IQs of below 70. Some of these children received special care and training, while others were a control group. Four years after the training period the IQs of the former averaged 127 and those of the latter 90, a spectacular difference of 37 points. The fact that the control children had a 20-point advantage over their mothers is not unexpected [because of regression toward the mean]. ...

Cosma Shalizi on the statistical myth called 'g', the general factor of intelligence

We can use the Jim Watson's us-and-them comments to inform ourselves about intelligence and its heritability and malleability. We cannot do better than start with this set of four posts by Cosma Shalizi.

In particular, the last post in the series demolishes g, the general factor of intelligence, whose very definition is based on statistical arguments, and Cosma uses convincing counter-examples that undermine those arguments. (This also means you will need some -- only some! -- knowledge of statistics to follow the arguments).

It's worth reproducing here the concluding paragraphs:

In primitive societies, or so Malinowski taught, myths serve as the legitimating charters of practices and institutions. Just so here: the myth of g legitimates a vast enterprise of intelligence testing and theorizing. There should be no dispute that, when we lack specialized and valid instruments, general IQ tests can be better than nothing. Claims that they are anything more than such stop-gaps — that they are triumphs of psychological science, illuminating the workings of the mind; keys to the fates of individuals and peoples; sources of harsh truths which only a courageous few have the strength to bear; etc., etc., — such claims are at present entirely unjustified, though not, perhaps, unmotivated. They are supported only by the myth, and acceptance of the myth itself rests on what I can only call an astonishing methodological backwardness.

The bottom line is: The sooner we stop paying attention to g, the sooner we can devote our energies to understanding the mind. [With bold emphasis added by me]

In the third post in that series, Cosma also tackles the issue of heritability (which is at the center of claims about race differences), and malleability. One of the examples he uses is interesting: height, which is known to be highly heritable. He then proceeds to show how heritability has very little -- and how environment has so much -- to do with the dramatic growth in height over the last century:

... height is heritable, and estimates for the population of developed countries put the heritability around 0.8. Moreover, tall people tend to be at something of a reproductive advantage. Applying the standard formulas for response to selection, we straightforwardly predict that average height should increase. If we select a population without a lot of immigration or emigration to mess this up, say 20th century Norway, we find that that's true: the average height of Norwegian men increased by about 10 centimeters over the century. But that's much more than selection can account for. Doing things by discrete generations, rather than in continuous time, height grew by 2.5 centimeters per generation. (The conclusion is not substantially altered by going to continuous time.) If the heritability of height is 0.8, for this change to be due entirely to selection, the average Norwegian parent must have been 3 centimeters taller than the average Norwegian. This, needless to say, was not how it happened; the change was almost entirely environmental. The moral is that highly heritable traits with an indubitable genetic basis can be highly responsive to changes in environment (such as nutrition, disease, environmental influences on hormone levels, etc.).

In contrast, the best estimate for heritability of IQ is far lower (at about 0.34) than that of height (about 0.8). And we know about the Flynn effect: a steady increase in average IQ with time -- about 2 to 3 points per decade. Here's Cosma:

The population average IQ rose monotonically, and pretty steadily, over the 20th century in every country for which we can find suitable records, including ones where we can definitely rule out immigration or emigration as significant contributory causes. (If it really is global, and I think we don't know enough yet to say either way, then the idea that it could be due to migration is — peculiar.) The magnitude of the gains are, as these things go, huge: two to three IQ points per decade. As I said in the earlier post, this puts the average 1900 IQ at 70 to 80 in 2000 terms. Let's check how intense natural selection would have to be to explain this. Over a twenty-five-year generation, we're looking at an IQ change of 5 to 7.5 IQ points. Sticking with the usual biometric model, and taking the best estimate of heritability within that model, namely 0.34, we'd have to see a reproductive differential of between 14 and 22 points, i.e., the average parent would have to have an IQ that much higher than the average person. (I am neglecting correcting for assortative mating and for continuous time, which don't change things much.) Since 15 IQ points is one standard deviation, this would imply a huge bias in reproductive rates towards those with higher IQs. Needless to say, nothing of the kind is observed in any of the countries where the Flynn Effect has been documented.

[For more on the Flynn effect, see Tyler Cowen's posts; also see Andrew Gelman's posts.]

* * *

There is a lot more in those posts by Cosma, so I will have to ask you to spend some time on them. In the following posts, I'll link to some studies whose results are bad news for people who believe that racial and gender differences in IQ have a strong genetic basis.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Clay Shirky on online miscommunication

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes:

Can we do anything to prevent or reduce these kinds of miscommunications? I recently posed this question to Clay Shirky, a professor of social computing at New York University and someone who has given this problem a lot of thought. Shirky emphasizes that, for starters, we shouldn't make the mistake of seeing online communication as a replacement for face–to–face contact. "Social software is not better than face–to–face contact—it's only better than nothing," he says. "I think everyone has had the experience of emailing back and forth with someone—whether it's a new friend or someone you meet online or someone in your business—then meeting that person in person. Afterwards, the email takes on a very different tone."

Shirky also suggests ways to respond to "flamer" situations, especially where a flamer is a complete stranger who you'll never meet in person. For instance, he notes that flaming is much more severe in online groups than it is in two–person exchanges. So users often find that they can defuse flamers by contacting them directly. "When you take them out of the social part of the conversation, where they're performing in front of an audience, and address them as an individual, they become much less prone to name–calling and vituperation," he says.

Affirmative action of a different kind

Researchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.

Five years ago, two researchers working for the Educational Testing Service, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, took the academic profiles of students admitted into 146 colleges in the top two tiers of Barron's college guide and matched them up against the institutions' advertised requirements in terms of high school grade point average, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and records of involvement in extracurricular activities. White students who failed to make the grade on all counts were nearly twice as prevalent on such campuses as black and Hispanic students who received an admissions break based on their ethnicity or race.

The Boston Globe story is here. There's some discussion over at Sepia Mutiny and; in particular, don't forget to read Gabriel Rossman's comemnt.

* * *

I'm sure you all remember earlier posts on Daniel Golden's work on affirmative action for the rich.

Why Jim Watson should shut the **** up

Over at SciAm Observations, Gary Stix brings in a new angle: the organization he once led and still belongs to.

... for the sake of the laboratory he did so much for as an administrator, that the man should keep his mouth shut about the social implications of genetics. What is today known as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was once at the center of the American eugenics movement, where it was home to the Eugenics Record Office from 1910 to 1939, at first under the tutelage of the infamous eugenicists Charles Benedict Davenport and Harry Laughlin.

* * *

Sidebar: Watson has apologized 'unreservedly' "for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites."

"I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” Dr. Watson said in a statement given to The Associated Press. “There is no scientific basis for such a belief."

The Sunday Times reported (in its entertainment section!):

[James Watson] says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” ...

As P.Z. Myers notes, Watson is known to say "shockingly offensive and bizarre things." Earlier, Zuska had taken him to task for "continuing to spread outright lies about Rosalind Franklin after her death..." Guru has collected some links to reactions from other bloggers.

* * *

I don't know if I can blame this video for my choice of words in the title of this post ;-)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to reduce the duration of doctoral degree programs?

Aurelie Thiele has some suggestions:

... [I]f universities really want to shorten the length it takes for their students to get a PhD, they should implement mechanisms for students to switch advisors without the new advisor fearing retaliation from the old one, for instance, or for students to appeal their advisor's decision that the work isn't yet good enough. Also, many projects in science fail because this or that technique doesn't achieve the expected goal; students (and their advisors) currently see this as time wasted but such "non-results" should also be considered as important, publishable scientific advances, as they can help other teams of scholars by telling them not to go down that road. When all is said and done, the real issue should not be to shorten the PhD but to reduce the (currently absolute) power an advisor has over his or her students, or at least reduce opportunities for advisors to misuse that power. ...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Parents, let your kids sleep some more

... The performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the normal gap between a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader. Which is another way of saying that a slightly sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explains.

Wow! Po Bronson has more on the relationship between your kids' sleep and their cognitive development. An accompanying story has some tips on how to get your kids to sleep more.

* * *

This is the second article by Po Bronson that I'm linking to. The first one also had some very useful stuff for parents.

* * *

You can get mo' Po on his website. His collection of articles on 'social studies' is here.

* * *

Thanks to Chris Hayes for the pointer.

What's with the vice chancellors of Indian universities?

... Our education system is devoid of being practical within industries. ...

[O]ur curriculum is inadequate as well. ...

The course curriculum no longer reflects the needs of the industry. So, we must update it and make it relevant. ...

The university suffers from lack of quality staff. Most of them are not qualified enough to teach at the university level. ...

Most of the vice-chancellors admitted that nearly 60% of their faculty did not have a clue on what was new in their field.

These complaints from vice chancellors of our universities are taken from this ToI report by Pragya Kaushika about a recent conference of VCs.

To be fair to the VCs, I have to say that the ToI report is short on details on many other aspects of their conference. It is possible that they shared their experiences and insights about our higher ed system. It is also possible that they diagnosed the major problems in the system and made sensible recommendations for solving them. We have no way to know what exactly they deliberated on, since their report is not in the public domain.

Still, to the extent that the VCs deemed it fit to make these complaints to the ToI reporter, they are worth commenting upon. And I want to restrict my comment to just this:

Isn't it pathetic and depressing when powerful people whine about things that are actually under their control?

* * *

The ToI report also ends on a comical note:

... [E]ach university should also run a school, so that the root-cause of problems existing in the education system could be easily identified.

Which, for no obvious reason, reminds me of this story from an elite research institution ;-)

Bakul Dholakia steps down from IIM-A directorship

Which HRD minister was worse — [Murli Manohar] Joshi [of BJP/NDA] or Arjun Singh [of Congress/UPA]?

(Grins sheepishly) All good questions need not be answered.

That's from the DNA interview with Bakul Dholakia who has just stepped down after completing five years as the director of IIM-A. Here are two reports, and another interview.

In the DNA interview, here's how he saw his tenure at IIM-A:

Availability of faculty is one of the main concerns. During 2001-2002 a whopping 50 faculty members had resigned from the institute for corporate careers. During my tenure of five years, only three left for better opportunities in corporate sector.

I realised that as an academic institution we were not on a level playing field to retain the kind of talent we required. We liberalised consulting norms and fee sharing with the institute for faculty members.

Norms were further eased for publication of international papers, which requires extensive research but pays equally well. We are recruiting faculty at the rate of seven to eight per year.

If this rate can be sustained, I do not anticipate too many problems.

In the ToI report, there's this totally silly stuff:

Bakul Dholakia, who steps down as director of IIM-Ahmedabad on Tuesday after a stormy term taking on successive governments, plans to pen his memoirs. And those are bad signs for those who crossed his path. And, when Dholakia — who’s crossed swords with heavyweights like Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh and come out unscathed — says it’s going to be a "tell-all," it’s time to fasten seat belts.

"If you are going to write your memoirs, you have to be candid," Dholakia told TOI.

To see the silliness behind this bombast -- and to see Dholakia's political savviness -- go back to the beginning of this post.

Gender gap in India's top B-schools

"I suspect the Common Admission Test for the IIMs is heavily biased towards engineers; mathematics constitutes a large portion of the test. Since the number of women opting for engineering is very low, the number of women who get into B-schools is also low," says [Naina Lal] Kidwai [CEO of HSBC-India], the first Indian woman to pass out of Harvard Business School. Kidwai feels that B-schools should consider having a more diverse selection procedure. "After all, we don't want a company full of people who look the same," she adds.

From this Economic Times report on the low numbers (just about 10 percent) of women among the students our leading management institutions' students.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lawrence Lessig on corruption

Watch this video (about an hour) for what he calls the alpha version of his views on corruption.

University: A definition

... The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition – in Widener and Houghton and our 88 other libraries, in the Fogg and the Peabody, in our departments of classics, of history and of literature. We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part “for their own sake,” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.

We pursue them because they offer us as individuals and as societies a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present. We pursue them too because just as we need food and shelter to survive, just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why. For many people, the four years of undergraduate life offer the only interlude permitted for unfettered exploration of such fundamental questions. But the search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found. An answer simply yields the next question. This is in fact true of all learning, of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, and thus of the very core of what universities are about.

From the speech by Drew Gilpin Faust at the (formal) inauguration of her presidency of Harvard University. The NYTimes report on the event has this quote from W.E.B. DuBois:

Education is not to make men carpenters so much as to make carpenters men.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Swarm intelligence and its applications

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Consider the problem of job allocation. In the Arizona desert where Deborah Gordon studies red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), a colony calculates each morning how many workers to send out foraging for food. The number can change, depending on conditions. Have foragers recently discovered a bonanza of tasty seeds? More ants may be needed to haul the bounty home. Was the nest damaged by a storm last night? Additional maintenance workers may be held back to make repairs. An ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next. But how does a colony make such adjustments if no one's in charge? Gordon has a theory.

From this fascinating story by Peter Miller in the National Geographic.

Aamir Khan's blog

Chugs is right, Aamir's site does look awful.

Aamir bhai, take Chug's advice; hire him to redesign your site!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

When birds fly in a flock ...

... they form pretty amazing patterns. Check out the video. Via Julianne's post pointing us to some recent research on this phenomenon:

There’s a lovely two page article [in the latest issue of Physics Today] on the STARFLAG project, which is modeling the 3-dimensional flocking behavior of starlings outside of Rome, using 3-d stereograms. The pictures are just spectacular ...

Reaganomics works!

And how! The Onion has the details:

Twenty-six years after Ronald Reagan first set his controversial fiscal policies into motion, the deceased president's massive tax cuts for the ultrarich at last trickled all the way down to deliver their bounty, in the form of a $10 bonus, to Hazelwood, MO car-wash attendant Frank Kellener.

Pan-IIT alumni plan a new IIT

The Economic Times reports that the plan is in very early stages. But it is a serious plan:

Work has already begun though. A concept note has been prepared and a couple of PAN-IIT members have broached the subject with the Union HRD ministry. Details regarding the location of the proposed institute and the funding model it would follow remain to be worked out.

‘‘There has been a discussion at the top ministry level and initial talks have been positive. We could look at a PPP (public-private-partnership) model or the new IIT could be a gift to the nation, or we could look at some other arrangement. But that has not yet been finalised,’’ added Desai.

This plan will require a great deal of money. Thus, if it does go through, and if much of this money is to come from Pan-IIT alumni, the flow of alumni contributions to the existing IITs will certainly take a hit.

Experiential teaching!

How do you teach the operation of a four-stroke engine? From the point of view of the gas-air mixture, of course! No wonder you get to see this kind of stuff in the Made to Stick blog.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Um, that would be the World Toilet Association. The chairman of the organizing committee of the inaugural General Assembly of WTA has a house whose architecture says it all. Go see it on Gizmodo.

Via Geroge Borjas who observes, "... apparently, money can't buy you taste."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Geeky hepness in the most elite institution in India

Samudrika has a tutorial on how to be 'grep' -- geekily hep -- in her esteemed institution. Here's the advice on computer operating systems:

7. OS - "Never judge a book by its cover, a man by his shoes or a geek by his operating system.", so said a wise man. but who listens to wise men anyways? Be warned, you WILL be judged by your OS. You must know UNIX/LINUX or at least pretend to use it even if you cannot use the command terminal and prefer a mouse. OSX is a close second. Mention Windows XP you will be summarily eliminated from the conversation. Vista and you might as well jump into the sea.

And I like this one:

10. Must be a blogger or a blogger to be. The latter mainly means reading blogs.

Thirty five

That's the number of computer science PhDs graduating from Indian universities every year.

So says Ravi Venkatesan of Microsoft India, and he cites a figure of about 1000 for the US. The Financial Times report is here.

Thanks to Ram Mohan for the pointer.

The Anna University case: Notes from the blogosphere

Aside from posts by Rahul (1, 2, 3) and Guru that I have already linked to, here are a few more that are noteworthy:

Improbable Research (home of the IgNobels!) probably has the most caustic remark on this case, with this title: "Infinite monkey theorem — proved?"

Seeji: "Anna University's future reputation lies with the action they are going to take on this case."

Karthik (an alumnus of Anna U): "Anna University is a dying university thrust with the administrative responsibility of the other engineering colleges in the state. Research has taken a backseat due to a number of factors and its more a teaching university. ..."

The Anna University case: JMS Editor has spoken

I don't know if you can access this page, but here's the entire text of the short note from Prof. C. Barry Carter, Editor, Journal of Materials Science. It went online two days ago.

Corrigendum to: J Mater Sci DOI 10.1007/s10853-006-1486-5

It has come to our notice that a paper by entitled Determination of dopant of ceria system by density functional theory which was ‘authored’ by Muthukkumaran et al. [1] and was published in the Journal of Materials Science is essentially a reproduction of a paper entitled Optimization of ionic conductivity in doped ceria which was authored by Andersson et al. [2] and was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

There is no doubt that the paper by Andersson is the original work and that the paper by Muthukkumaran et al. does not just plagiarize the results presented in the PNAS paper but actually copies most of it word for word.

The Editors and Publisher of Journal of Materials Science have apologized to the authors and publishers of the PNAS article and are thoroughly investigating the origin of the J Mater Sci article to determine who was complicit in the fabrication. We are in contact with officials at Anna University and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research. A report of this investigation will be published in an Editorial when it is completed.

Particularly welcome is Prof. Carter's promise to publish the report of the journal's investigation.

A quick observation: This note from the editor still does not say explicitly that the paper is withdrawn (at least, not yet). Indeed, the paper can still be downloaded from the site, and there's nothing in either the the web page or the pdf to indicate that the paper is under investigation for misconduct.

In an era when people discover things primarily through the web, it is important to make sure that this article does not appear in search results (for example, on Google Scholar).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Anna University case: Update 2

First, take a look at the posts by Rahul and Guru for some thoughtful comments.

* * *

One question that keeps cropping up is why the plagiarized paper continues to be available on the journal's website. The Swedes who wrote the original article are pissed that some of the credit for the work may go to the plagiarizers, outsiders like us don't like it, and presumably even the 'authors' of the JMS paper would rather not deal with it. So, clearly, the paper must be pulled from the website, no?

Apparently, no! As Guru has pointed out, a plagiarized paper from Sathyabama University, Chennai (which Arunn blogged about) continues to be available. Similarly, the paper from Kundu's group, which was 'withdrawn' by the Journal of Biological Chemistry, continues to be available at the website (with an obscure link -- An addition or correction has been published -- on the sidebar taking you to the withdrawal notice).

I am told that there's some legal issue that prevents articles that have been published from being taken off the publisher's website.

* * *

In some medical and biomedical journals, all the authors (a) are informed that a paper has been submitted listing them as co-authors and (b) are required to submit a disclosure form regarding any conflict of interest. In some others, (c) all the authors must sign the copyright form. Further, following recent scandals, several journals require (d) a statement from each individual author a statement about his/her specific contribution to the paper.

Clearly, JMS does not do or demand any of these. I guess this -- in particular, (a) -- is what is being used by two of the 'authors' to wiggle out of this mess (and their case may well be a valid one).

* * *

In the hierarchy of crimes in science (or, scholarship in general), plagiarism ranks lower than fabrication and falsification of research data, and rightly so. In other countries, one loses one's job for fabrication, and at least one went to jail! But I'm not aware of anyone who has lost his/her job for plagiarism.

What about India? The results (at least, the ones that I know about) have been mixed. In the highest profile case of fabrication, the culprit -- Vishwajit Gupta of Punjab University -- never lost his job, and his career had a normal end: retirement. In the highest profile case of plagiarism, B.S. Rajput was forced to step down from the vice-chancellorship of Kumaon university (but he did not lose his job).

* * *

Our institutions are not great when it comes to organizing a fair, impartial inquiry into allegations of misconduct, taking them to their logical conclusions, punishing those found guilty, and implementing systemic changes that could prevent similar misconduct in future. [Take a look at Sharath Rao's cynical take on this issue]. One would expect our science academies to take the lead in advocating policies and guidelines that safeguard the integrity of science practiced in India.

At the Indian Academy of Sciences website, you'll find this report on scientific values; and sure, it has a section on plagiarism:

3.1 Plagiarism

Appropriating the already published results of others without proper reference is obviously dishonest. When exposed, plagiarism generally receives the highest publicity and the authors concerned and the system they belong to are put under tremendous pressure. In most cases, the concerned authors offer some explanation in their defense. However, sometimes they disown responsibility and even the knowledge of the papers' existence, claiming that the co-authors included their names without consulting them. Such disclaimers should not be accepted at face value, but should be looked into in more detail. Nobody should communicate a joint paper without the knowledge of the other authors. There is a strong need to take punitive actions to discourage plagiarism. There is a general impression among the scientific community in India that those who indulge in this form of dishonest behaviour do not receive appropriate punishment, and escape relatively unscathed. Stronger and more consistent action would redress this situation.

* * *

Well, I'm yet to find any official statement from the Academy about what it has done (or plans to do) with a known plagiarizer -- whose plagiarism was for a book on intellectual property (!) and who has not issued a public apology -- among its Fellows. Is this document on scientific values just empty rhetoric? Does the Academy have any moral authority when it asks universities to "take punitive actions to discourage plagiarism"?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Isn't it a scam when members of an award jury are among the awardees?

A couple of weeks ago, Sujai Karampuri had a rant about the pathological side of awards doled out by Indian industry, colleges and universities. In his list of pathologies, one thing is curiously missing: judges giving awards to themselves!

A recent example is the 'prestigious' Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence; this year, two of the jury members were also among the eventual award winners! These two eminent worthies are: N.R. Narayana Murthy (winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and co-chair of the jury) and Aviation Minister Praful Patel (winner of the Business Reformer Award).

The accompanying reports try very hard to paper over this bad practice (which, I believe, is not the first for ET, and may not even be unique to it) by pointing out that the jury members who were also nominees recused themselves when their award categories were being discussed. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- can hide the fact that this practice is ugly. I don't know if the judges knew before they agreed to be on the jury that they were among the nominees; if they did, I would say it is even more ugly.

Also, what does it say about the 'prestigious' ET awards sponsor when it's unable to put together an untainted jury?

Shailaja Neelakantan on the acute faculty shortage in India

Her article in the Chronicle of Higher Education covers many different views (including mine) on this problem. You can read all of it on her website.

Here's a description of how grave this problem is:

A report released last year by a parliamentary committee outlined the magnitude of the crisis. At 16 universities under federal control — considered the country's elite — as many as 1,988 faculty positions lay vacant as of March 2005. The committee said the problem is probably even worse at state universities and that "drastic steps need to be taken so that students are not deprived of proper guidance."

The situation has changed little since then. At the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, for example, 29 percent of faculty positions are unfilled. At a recent graduation event V.S. Ramamurthy, the institute's chairman, called the situation "a disaster in the making," and said it needs to be tackled on "a war footing."

At lower-rung institutions like the regional engineering colleges, which suffer some of the most acute faculty shortages, courses are left unfinished or untaught. In June, a number of third-year students at Jalpaiguri Engineering College, in the state of West Bengal, went on a hunger strike saying that they were unprepared for exams because no classes had been held for six months. These students were supposed to have 20 full-time professors. They had one. Administrators tried to recruit more faculty members from other institutions but realized that many of them didn't have enough professors to meet their own needs.

Naturally, there is a section on faculty salaries, and this is where I get quoted:

Professors and administrators say that flexibility in setting salaries would go a long way toward fixing the problem. As it is, India's notoriously bureaucratic higher-education system is hobbled by rules under which professors, no matter how brilliant, are treated like civil servants. "Even if you get five Nobel Prizes, you can't get more than what an additional secretary [a bureaucratic position] earns, which is something like 45,000 rupees a month," or $1,120, says C.N.R. Rao, scientific adviser to the prime minister. And a bureaucrat typically has a lot more perks and power.

Because strong performance is not rewarded, all assistant professors, regardless of how much they have published, earn about the same."There ought to be some way of measuring the usefulness of a person, and this mechanism has to be created anew," says T.A. Abinandanan ...

Perhaps I can elaborate on this a bit: As some of you might be aware, I am against across-the-board salary hikes simply because our system does not distinguish between a high performer and an also-ran. In particular, it does not have a way of getting rid of poor performers, because government jobs come with life-time warranty.

Thus, I would like faculty job contracts that specify a certain minimum basket of activities for which a base salary is paid. Any performance over and above this minimum earns the faculty member an additional salary. Such a salary structure does not exist, and it is probably worth working towards.

However, even within the current paradigm of equal pay for unequal work, certain incentives can be built in to encourage faculty members to do more of things that are aligned with an institution's mission. Currently, industrial consulting is the only route for a faculty member to earn an extra income. But this route is not available for basic researchers.

Thus, I would recommend allowing a salary component for faculty through their externally funded research grants. Remember, this is already possible if the research grant is from private industry, philanthropic organizations, research foundations, or a foreign funding agency. It's only our government agencies that do not allow a salary component.

* * *

I have argued that salaries, while important, are only one of the reasons for the facutly crunch. Our institutions must do a whole lot of other things (which are easier to accomplish particularly because some of the elite institutions are now enjoying an era of unprecedented riches) if they are to become attractive destinations for top faculty talent.

The Anna University case: An update

The website of the Linköping University (academic home for two of the victims of this plagiarism carries a news item on this case. Many of the details are known, but this one is new (and it's a direct quote from Sergei Simak, one of the authors of the original paper, and the bold emphasis is added by me):

"Only the title had been changed, and some items in the list of references. There was also an alteration to an illustration; a fictive element, Tp, had been added."

Even in this sordid affair, there is something to laugh about ...

A Swedish newspaper published a report on this case (thanks to Sridhar for the alert). Rahul has posted a translation of this report on his blog. We learn that at least two of the authors have distanced themselves from the plagiarized paper. There's also a curious twist: "One of [the other two] claims in an email to the Swedish researchers that he received a draft from a researcher in Nepal."

As they say, read the whole thing, and Rahul's comments at the end.

* * *

Before closing, I just want to quote the last paragraph from the newspaper report:

According to the Swedish regulation[4] on university colleges[5], it is the duty of the university college since September 1st, 2006 to investigate all reported cases of suspected scientific cheating.

The ball is in Anna University's court; let's see how it plays this one.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Links: Anagrams of IISc and Google trends for astronomy and astrology

Did you know that one of the anagrams of 'Indian Institute of Science' is 'Nicest Infinite Educations'? Apparently, IISc can be reconfigured into many others as well.

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Parseval presents some interesting trends on Google searches for astronomy and astrology from the US, the UK and India.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Plagiarism: Culprits of the month

Rahul catches is tipped off about an Anna University group's paper (published in the Journal of Materials Science) whose abstract is a near-verbatim copy of that of an earlier paper in PNAS from a Swedish group. Here are the first two sentences (Rahul has the full abstract and the links, so go to his post for details):

The PNAS paper

Oxides with the cubic fluorite structure, e.g., ceria (CeO2), are known to be good solid electrolytes when they are doped with cations of lower valence than the host cations. The high ionic conductivity of doped ceria makes it an attractive electrolyte for solid oxide fuel cells, whose prospects as an environmentally friendly power source are very promising. ...

And the JMS paper:

Oxides with the cubic fluorite structure, e.g., ceria (CeO2), are known to be good solid electrolytes when they are doped with cations of lower valence than the host cations. The high ionic conductivity of doped ceria makes it an attractive electrolyte for solid oxide fuel cells, whose prospects as an environmentally friendly power source are very promising. ...

Very blatant, and very, very disturbing. All eyes should now be on Anna University's next move.