Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jayant Haritsa on enhancing research capabilities in our premier institutions

The Research track at the PanIIT Global Conference featured a session on IIT Research: Inputs and Outputs. My colleague and friend Prof. Jayant Haritsa was one of the panelists in this session; the slides for his talk are here.

One of his points, which should be familiar to readers of this blog, is about how our top institutions need to do more -- much, much more -- to set people up for success. Since there's a lot in his talk that I agree with, I'm producing his extended abstract below. Treat this as a guest post by Jayant.

* * *

Rethinking the Research Crisis @IITs

Jayant Haritsa
Indian Institute of Science

The following opinions are based on my experience of 8 years as a graduate student and researcher in the US, followed by over 15 years as a computer-science faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.


Here's a quote from one of the slides:

Cassius to Brutus: “the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”

Similarly ... “the fault lies not in our inputs/outputs, but in how our institutions support and utilize these inputs/outputs”

* * *

The issue raised by the panel is how to improve the quality of the faculty and students that enter premier scientific institutions in India and how to improve the productivity and impact of their research. Certainly there are a variety of national stumbling blocks that do negatively impact the attractiveness of the IITs as scientific destinations, and these factors have been enumerated by the moderators. However, I would like to make the case that this is really the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the more germane and urgent question to be asking is "How do the talented students and faculty that do join the IITs fare?". My point is - had most of these folks turned out to be success stories, then we would have seen a "domino effect" that would have automatically generated a rich stream of similar applicants - in fact, we wouldn't be having this panel discussion in the first place! In a nutshell, "institutional mechanisms must be consciously set up to mentor star faculty and students for visible success".

Unfortunately, the typical experience is otherwise. Specifically, we have had several cases of faculty with top-notch academic pedigrees who after returning to India have largely disappeared from the international research arena. For example, it would not be stretching the realms of credulity for a faculty to have produced more PhDs and publications in a few years as a junior faculty in a top US school as compared to a couple of decades spent at our institutions!

Similarly, we have also had several instances of our own best master's students who have subsequently gone on to join our Phd programs failing to either produce a thesis commensurate with their talents, or sometimes even to complete the program. In a recent instance, a star in-house student "timed-out" after spending no less than ten years in the PhD program!

The above anecdotal information serves only to highlight my point that stemming the perceived rot first requires introspection about the internal mechanisms of our institutions, before we start agonizing over the external interfaces. Specifically, what causes even highly talented individuals to unceremoniously fade away without giving full expression to their abilities?

My analysis is that the following reasons are primarily to blame for this unhappy state of affairs:

Firstly, the poor level of academic professionalism and administration. A typical situation faced by applicants is the wall of indifference with no response, either positive or otherwise, forthcoming to their applications for extended periods of time. Subsequently, their offices and accomodation are rarely set up adequately by the time they enter the academic portals. Then, during the initial years, they rarely get to meet with top administration officials and are often left to fend for themselves in figuring out the system. Overall, an atmosphere of benign indifference, often bordering on neglect, characterizes our treatment of new recruits.

Secondly, a particularly thorny issue that often plagues new researchers, while they still retain their idealism, is the institutional pressure to carry out "locally relevant" research, which is also highlighted in the panel agenda. While on the surface this would seem an unarguable objective, yet in practice it usually turns out to be the case that it merely provides a "holier-than-thou" fig leaf to justify poor quality research and third-rate publications. I would suggest that it would instead be far better for us to first attempt to keep our heads above water in international research, and if it coincidentally happens that the work is also of local relevance, so much the better. That is, the local relevance should be the icing on the cake, and not a moralistic justification for a moldy cake. Our first duty is to put India on a high pedestal in world research.

Further, the lip-service paid to locally relevant research is evident from the fact that most institutions talk only about the research objectives without using the same yardstick for the students or faculty performing the research. If one wants to be truly relevant to local society, there is a much simpler and immediate option - welcome the reserved category students and faculty with open arms, instead of the arms-length approach currently in vogue! That is, start with "locally relevant researchers" before we wax eloquent on the merits of locally relevant research.

Thirdly, the unwillingness to call a spade a spade when it comes to professional judgements of one's colleagues or their students. For fear of vitiating the collegial department atmosphere, we make the grave mistake of providing sugar-coated assessments and, in the long run, encourage researchers to fall prey to a false sense of accomplishment. Instead, we should clearly enunciate the performance metrics at the time of joining and, most importantly, stick with these metrics in the judgement process. At IISc now, quite a few departments, especially in the Electrical Sciences division, have authored documents outlining their expectations and modes of evaluation for both faculty and students. As a simple case in point, a recently implemented policy in the Computer Science department is that ME students can be considered for an S (outstanding) grade in their project work only if they have submitted a paper to a journal or conference that is internationally recognized to be of A+ or A calibre. While earlier about 60% of the students used to routinely obtain an S grade in the project, beginning last year, we have not only had the percentage come down steeply to around 20%, but more importantly, the departmental publications have shot up significantly. Further, grades are not only used as carrots but also as sticks. Last year, for the first time, a non-neglible number of students were forced to stay behind without graduating until they satisfied a baseline quality requirement. The basic point here is that once we enforce accountability criteria for both faculty and students, the genius of the Indian mind is such that it will automatically deliver!

In closing, I would like to reiterate my main point - echoing Cassius' injunction to Brutus, "the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves", I would say "the fault lies not in our inputs but in how our systems utilize these inputs".

TheJoyOfSex 2.0

... The book is still emphatically straight, but Quilliam has given it a gay-positive tone, in sharp contrast to Comfort’s advice that if you might be that way inclined it was better not to experiment too much with a partner of the same sex, lest you let the gay genie out of the bottle. The original drawings have been replaced, with a mixture of modest photographs and impressionistic sketches. The hairiness has been eliminated, and the attractiveness gap between the man and the woman has been bridged. But the people in these pictures do not look as if they were in any kind of sexual ecstasy. Rather, they have the smug smiles of a couple whose 401(k)s have just appreciated. They look as if they were in a Viagra commercial, which is to say that they look like two people who have never, ever had sex.

Once you remove those memorable drawings and Comfort’s batty, phallocentric prose, what you are left with is something that bears little resemblance to the subversive, explosive original. “The Joy of Sex” redux becomes generic—Cook’s Illustrated with boobies. What was revolutionary in 1972 seems obvious now, and to present the material otherwise feels silly and square. ...

From Ariel Levy's great review of the latest edition of Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex [the NYTimes review is too pale in comparison]. Levy's essay has all kinds of interesting material:

... [Alex Comfort] offered readers a creation myth for “The Joy of Sex” on the first page, claiming that the book was based on a manuscript that an anonymous and particularly sexually advanced couple had presented to him in his capacity as a biologist. “I have done little to the original draft apart from expansion to cover more topics,” Comfort wrote. “The authors’ choice of emphases and their light-hearted style have been left alone.” In fact, both the choice of emphases and the lighthearted style were Comfort’s; he wrote every word of “The Joy of Sex,” though his credit on the book says “edited by.” Comfort later claimed that he had made up this randy authorial couple because in England at the time it was frowned upon for physicians to write mass-market books, “an implementation of the principle that doctors don’t advertise—of which I thoroughly approve, by the way,” he remarked to a journalist in 1974. But it was also probably a subterfuge, to protect the feelings of his wife of thirty years, Ruth Harris. For more than a decade, Comfort had been sleeping with Ruth’s best friend, Jane Henderson. (Comfort met both women at Cambridge.) Comfort and Henderson took dozens of Polaroids of their erotic experiments, which they gave to the publisher Mitchell Beazley along with Comfort’s manuscript—originally titled “Doing Sex Properly.” The artists Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss were charged with transforming those photographs into pencil drawings, although the couple they depicted looked nothing like Comfort and Henderson.

And Levy ends his review with this:

“He was good about talking about sex in the abstract, but when he had to tell me about the facts of life he was embarrassed,” Nicholas Comfort [Alex Comfort's son] told a reporter on the occasion of the book’s thirtieth anniversary. “He got it all over with quite quickly and hoped I wouldn’t ask any questions.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

P. Balaram on Burjorji Padshah's Role in Creating and Shaping IISc

IISc-Stamps In his latest Current Science editorial, Prof. Balaram pays rich tributes to Burjorji J. Padshah, one of the men who find a place in one of the two commemorative stamps (top row, second from right) issued by the Department of Posts and Telegraph to mark the Centenary of the Indian Institute of Science.

Burjorji Padshah played a central role in the creation of IISc. He's the man who was given the task of realizing Jamsetji N. Tata's dream, and he pursued it with extraordinary commitment and vigour. Even after Jamsetji's death in 1904.

Here's an excerpt from Balaram's editorial:

Padshah emerges as an extraordinary figure who corresponded with Viceroys from Curzon to Willingdon, Gokhale, Gandhi (with whom he disagreed on satyagraha), Ratan and Dorab Tata. Descriptions of Padshah by those who knew him, highlight his encyclopaedic knowledge and his courteousness even in disagreement. For a man trained in philosophy, his abilities to manipulate and remember numbers, as recorded by his contemporaries, seem remarkable. At IISc in its early years Padshah seemed intent on nudging the institution to embark on studies in the social sciences and medicine. The 1898 document for the proposed University or Institute of Research included a ‘Medical Department’ and a ‘Philosophical and Educational Department’. The latter was envisaged to engage in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from Indian History and Archaeology to Statistics and Economics. Padshah met resolute opposition to his ideas from the first Director of IISc, Morris Travers. Between 1907 and 1913 there was little agreement but Travers had launched the institution towards its eventual focus of science and engineering. Both men severed their association with IISc in 1914, in none too happy circumstances ...

* * *

An earlier post summarizes Padshah's intense -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- efforts to mould IISc's mandate to include teaching and research in humanities and social sciences.

* * *

I thank my colleague and friend Prof. S. Ranganathan for his e-mail alert about Prof. Balaram's editorial.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sampoorna Transformation at PanIIT: The Real Story

First, some background (if you already know about it, go to the end for the latest info).

The Pan-IIT folks created a 'spouses' program built around the theme of 'sampoorna' (complete) woman (the original web-page has disappeared, but I have a back-up copy here). When Ludwig outed this disgrace, there was quite a bit of blogospheric outrage (see, for example, here, here, here). A couple of leading women graduates (Prof. Priti Shankar and Prof. Rama Govindarajan, both from IIT-D) wrote to the organizers protesting against the insult implied in the program. Chandra Ranganathan did a story, in which the conference's chief organizer wondered what all the fuss was about, indicating that he wasn't going to ask for a change in the program.

And he didn't. Initially.

But he did, eventually! A couple of weeks ago, Ludwig told us that the 'spouses' program had transformed into a program 'for the family.' He also hinted at the real reason behind the sampoorna transformation:

This caused a certain very very very important sponsor to apparently gently hint that changes in the programme would be "appreciated", and hey presto. Paisa bolta hai.

Ludwig is right. Here's what Pradnya wrote about it over a month ago:

Additionally, in this case, I was lucky to have a supportive colleague who realized the ridiculousness of the whole thing and who had the tenacity to follow up the matter with the concerned folks. He pointed out that as a sponsor company, we should engage in a dialogue with the organizers, and highlight the wrong attitude of the track in question. After some back and forth between the organizers, and our HR folks (who were very persistent themselves), the outcome was quite positive, as seen in the final changed version.

So, there you have it: it's Pradnya and her colleagues (and folks like them at other firms) that pushed for this progressive change, and got it implemented through their persistent efforts.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Regulation is Good!

Who saved India from the financial crisis? Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Y.V. Reddy, according to Joe Nocera in the NYTimes:

But there was also another factor, perhaps the most important of all. India had a bank regulator who was the anti-Greenspan. His name was Dr. V. Y. Reddy, and he was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Seventy percent of the banking system in India is nationalized, so a strong regulator is critical, since any banking scandal amounts to a national political scandal as well. And in the irascible Mr. Reddy, who took office in 2003 and stepped down this past September, it had exactly the right man in the right job at the right time.

But Dr. Reddy's actions were quite unpopular among the bankers at that time:

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth! Mr. Parekh told me that while he had been saying for some time that Indian real estate was in bubble territory, he was still unhappy with the rules imposed by Mr. Reddy. “We were critical of the central bank,” he said. “We thought these were harsh measures.”

Amartya Sen at the PanIIT Global Conference

Prof. Amartya Sen delivered the concluding remarks at the Pan-IIT Global Conference.

Counselling critics of reservation in Indian institutions like the IITs to take a long-term view of the delicate social issue, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Sunday said the justice component in quotas could not be wished away, as many sections of Indian society had been denied access to education for centuries.

"There are concerns that those who benefit are from the upper layers of the reserved categories," Sen said, replying to a question from the audience after he delivered the valedictory address at the Pan-IIT global meet here. However, he added that issues like merit and efficiency should be seen from the point of view of creating a just and equitable society.

"You have to see what best you can do to meet the demands for justice and efficiency in the delivery of public services," he said, adding that affirmative action was prevalent in many societies. Harvard had a policy of giving extra credits to those from a disadvantaged school, other criteria being equal. Merit should not be discerned from the performance in an institution, but from a person's efficiency over a period of time.

Hema Malini among the Crème de la crème

Apparently, the location of her program at the PanIIT Global Conference and confusion over what she was going to do (eventually, she just did a Q&A) caused a mini-riot. Here's an excerpt from a report about the Q&A with Hema Malini:

When asked how she managed to look so stunning and fit, she said, “Dance, yoga and a vegetarian diet. I also fast two days a week.” And after a brief pause added with a grin, “But of course I use some cream. Cream ke bina kaise hoga? (How is it possible without cream?)”

Here's another quote from this 'sampoorna' woman:

On her relationship with her actor-husband and how she managed home and work, she said, “Women are good managers. I never interfered in Dharamji’s family affairs. I believe in giving dignity and space to others.”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Facebook-style story ever

I know it was written over a year ago, but it's never too late to link to Krish Ashok's Facebook Mahabharatha.

Reminded of Ashok's Mahabharatha when I saw God's Facebook Profile on the LOL God blog. [Bonus link from there: Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the most peaceful religion of them all?]

Oh, btw, I should also link to this piece of Facebook history from 1945.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pan IIT Global Conference

Some links:

  1. The text of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special address is here:

    There is enough evidence from the IIT Joint Entrance Examinations that for every student who got an opportunity to study in IITs, there are at least 3 to 4 who are as bright, but are denied the opportunity because of the intake capacity constraints. This is highly regrettable because it denies opportunity to thousands of deserving young men and women. If India is to become a global leader in science and technology as well as an economic super power, such talent must not go unutilized. Many more such institutes are needed. Realizing this, our government decided to increase the capacity by creating eight new IITs in the 11th Five Year Plan. I am proud of the fact that during the current academic year 2008-09, we could start 6 IITs though through temporary campuses or through the campus of an existing IIT. I am grateful to the existing IITs for mentoring and helping in the establishment of the new IITs.

  2. Yogesh Upadhyaya's interview of Prof. M.S. Anant, Director, IIT-M.

  3. Mallik Putcha has an interesting article on the IITs' pre-history.

  4. Ludwig informs us that the Pan-IIT spouses program has undergone a sampoorna transformation to become a Family Track -- For the Whole Family. He also tells us that this change was probably not a result of blogospheric outrage (there's more here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Chanda Kochhar

ICICI Bank has been the home of quite a few hi-fi(nance) women for quite sometime, so the choice of Ms. Chanda Kochhar as the next CEO of the ICICI Bank is not surprising at all. Yet, her elevation to the top job in India's largest private bank is certainly worth celebrating as a major milestone for women in business. Here's the Mint story:

Confirming a succession that had been widely anticipated, ICICI Bank Ltd is set to formally anoint Chanda Kochhar as chief executive-designate, putting a driven but low-key woman banker at the helm of India’s largest private bank.

When finally named CEO in May, Kochhar, 47, will be the youngest in the bank’s 54-year history. She will take over from the well-regarded K.V. Kamath who ... will become the non-executive chairman of the bank ...

Women in Indian banking industry still have a long way to go. Here's another excerpt from the same Mint report:

Only two women have risen to the top position in Indian banking, both at state-run banks following their nationalization. Ranjana Kumar took over the reins at the Chennai-based Indian Bank in May 2000.

The second woman chairperson, H.A. Daruwalla, reached the top in 2005 at the Mumbai-based Central Bank of India. Kochhar will become CEO after Daruwalla retires and will then be the lone woman bank CEO in India, at least as of now.

Two of the four deputy governors at the RBI are women—Usha Thorat and Shyamla Gopinath. RBI had to wait 68 years to get its first woman deputy governor in K.J. Udeshi, who was elevated to the post in 2003.

Out of 2.18 lakh bank officers in India, only 5.6% are women. But women’s representation goes up to 21% when it comes to the clerical cadre. Overall, women account for 14% of 7.71 lakh state-run bank employees.

In this background, the record of ICICI Bank is truly outstanding:

ICICI Bank, however, has about 33% women and at the senior level, this rises to 40%. The bank’s board has two women directors: Kochhar and an executive director Madhabi Puri Buch. Also on staff are Shikha Sharma, who heads the group’s life insurance business, and Renuka Ramnath, who heads the venture capital wing.

The Satyam Swindle

The Satyam-Maytas swindle deal has been dropped by the promoters, after the stock price crashed following the original announcement of the deal that would have enriched the Raju family members tremendously -- the deal was valued at $1.6 billion!

There has been tons of commentary. In particular, the shameful behaviour of Satyam's independent directors was flagged two days ago by T.T. Ram Mohan in a hard-hitting post (see also his follow-up posts.

Poor judgement on Mr Raju's part and also on the part of the board of Satyam which approved the deal. How could the board have even imagined that the company would get away with a deal of this kind? The board's independent directors comprise: M Rammohan Rao (director, Indian School of Business), Vinod Dham(the Silicon valley entrepreneur), T R Prasad (former cabinet secretary) Dr(Mrs)Mangalam Srinivasan ( a retired academic and bureaucrat), and Prof V S Raju (former director, IIT Delhi). It also has HBS prof Krishna Palepu as non-executive director.

The independent directors were paid between Rs 12.1 to Rs 13.2 lakh last year as sitting fee and got between 5000-10,000 stock options. Did the chairman get the board's consent for calling off the deal? Or will the board simply ratify the chairman's decision?

This meme has been picked up by Mint whose editorial has a blunt message: replace the independent directors and the management.

family that controls India’s fourth largest software services company thought it could use a slim 8.6% stake, worth $275 million on Wednesday morning, to spend $1.8 billion of reserves and fresh borrowings to bail out two sister companies in the realty and infrastructure businesses. It is time to ask Satyam chairman B. Ramalinga Raju to step down voluntarily (as we did in our front-page Quick Edit on Thursday) and sack the independent directors on the company board, who have been appointed to protect other shareholders against precisely such raids on their company.

Spicy IP's Sumathi Chandrashekaran makes an interesting connection between the now-dropped proposal to siphon away over 1.6 billion dollars of cash from Satyam and the company's legal troubles arising from a lawsuit filed by an American company called Upaid.

In a Business Standard column, Shobhana Subramanian gives us other examples of similarly shady shenanigans by the promoters:

In the past institutional investors in this country haven’t really spoken up against corporate misbehaviour. Even Sterlite’s attempt, in September this year, to transfer the high-quality aluminum business and merchant power to Malco, in return for the low-quality, high cost, copper Konkola mines, again without so much as a by-your-leave, didn’t anger shareholders. In that instance too, the promoters were enriching themselves, at the cost of minority shareholders, but no mutual fund really said so. There have been numerous other instances, admittedly of smaller consequence, that should have provoked mutual funds to ask questions.

The Sterlite example is important for those interested in India's higher education, because its promoters are behind India's most audacious university project: the Vedanta University, for which the Orissa govenment has allotted several thousand acres of land.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


  1. What are blind people's dreams like?

  2. Australian universities' dependence on foreign students.

  3. Gary Stix in the Scientific American: Darwin's Legacy: Evolutionary Theory 150 years later.

  4. Vijaysree Venkatraman| in the Christian Science Monitor: Ethan Zuckerman on how to engineer serendipity online .

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The IISc Centenary Conference: Inauguration

Just a couple of links about the inaugural day of the Conference.

First, the PTI report on Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's address, in which he outlines his vision for the IISc:


Update: Here are a couple of other reports: The Hindu and The Times of India.

Former President A P J Abdul Kalam on Saturday envisioned a greater role for the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in its second century by emerging as one of the top 10 institutions for science in the world.

... [H]e said that his vision for IISc 2030 included creating 10 Nobel laureates in different disciplines.

Over at Lab Rats, Seema Singh offers a somewhat more personal take on what was said at the inauguration:

While President Kalam, in his characteristic style, gave a PowerPoint presentation listing a bunch of things he wants to see IISc achieve by 2030, he made it look lofty as well as simplistic (which, for some reason, all his solutions appear). But I was amused at his credulity - he expects 10 Nobel laureates from IISc by then. Was he kidding himself or others?

The only one Nobel connected with IISc is of Sir CV Raman, and he won it in 1930, became IISc director in 1933. Thereafter, we've not even had a nomination, through rumour is rife that CNR Rao was in the reckoning once.

This (Rao) grand old man of Indian science and two-time director of IISc, loved and somewhat criticized (for acting like a banyan tree and hindering young talent) in great measure, was candid enough: If IISc strives to be the best in India, it's not hard; if it wants to be the best in the world, it's not easy.

Faculty perceptions of university education in India


The IISc Centenary Conference kicks off this afternoon with speeches by Prof. C.N.R. Rao and former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

* * *

Professor [A.H.], head of electro-technical department found, “the main weakness of the university science graduate is his entire ignorance of mechanical engineering and lack of workshop experience. As regards the work done by students during the session, it was found that not one of them was sufficiently well-trained, either as regards to actual knowledge of the theory of the subject or practical acquaintance with the method of measurement.” Echoing his observations, Professor [N.R.], who had four students in his applied chemistry department, makes a stinging remark on Indian education system [...].

“These students possess to a more or less greater extent, one peculiarity, which I attribute to the system under which they have studied, in which the passing of examination appears to have been the main object of University life. I refer to the fact that the students have rather an experience of learning than real knowledge itself...”

It's interesting how (some) faculty perceptions have remained stubbornly static for nearly 100 years!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The IISc Centenary Conference: The IISc Press

In a way, the Centenary Conference will double up as a launch party for the IISc Press. I can't think of a more big-bang launch than the release of these wonderfully produced beauties by two of IISc's people about IISc's non-people:

Secret lives


The Inaugural of the IISc Centenary Conference will see the release of Secret Lives by IISc graduate (and blogger) Dr. Natasha Mhatre, and Indian Institute of Science Campus: A Botanist’s Delight by Prof. Sankara Rao.

Together, the two books cover the vast variety of plants and animals that reside in the IISc campus. Published by the newly created The IISc Press [they are not its first publications, however], they will go on sale after their formal release tomorrow; if you buy them at the conference, you'll get a 20 % discount!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Breaking news ...

Area Man Travels Back In Time To Kuriya, USSR, On An Important Mission

Farokh Arumugam, a Mumbai area man, has defied all odds to become the first Indian to travel back in time. His flight took off yesterday from an undisclosed location near Mumbai. If his first mission succeeds, he may just be able to rid this world of certain kinds of terrorism forever.

Mr. Arumugam has gone back to the post-Revolution years of 1917-18 to Kuriya, in the former USSR. In a press conference before his historic flight, he said his plans include a lawsuit in the Revolutionary Court of Altai Krai. His lawsuit seeks to force a local area couple to use contraceptive technologies he has brought from the future.

The couple in question are the parents of one Mr. Kalashnikov.

Mr. Arumugam said if his legal maneuvers in Kuriya didn't succeed, he would resort to his Plan B, which he declined to elaborate.

Mr. Arumugam claimed he was inspired by another Mumbai area man, Amit Karkhanis, who has reportedly filed a lawsuit that shares the spirit -- if not the audacity -- of Arumugam's quest to save humanity from itself.

If I had time, I could have developed this story further. For the moment, this will have to do.

The idea about time travel and the teaching of contraception comes from an ancient -- and very, very funny -- Dilbert cartoon, which I'm not able to locate right at this moment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: Just three more days to go ...

... things are getting more exciting.

Last Sunday, the IISc Alumni Association organized a "Science And Technology Run" that attracted over 1500 participants. Rupesh and Gururaja have blogged about it, with pics. Check them out.

An interesting new intiative is the Centenary Gallery, which has been created to enable folks here (and elsewhere) to share their pictures and videos of the Institute, its people, and its science. For something that was created just days ago, there's already quite a bit of activity. Check out, for example, Prof. A.G. Samuelson's IPC Archives should be of interest to graduates of the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Links ...

I want to start with the mystery link.

* * *

Michael Nielsen: The Future of Science: Building a Better Collective Memory. Money quote: "Unfortunately, science currently lacks the trust infrastructure and incentives necessary for such free, unrestricted trade of questions and ideas."

Phillip Davis: An Authorship Accelerator: Value of authorship in the age of 3000-author papers.

Female Science Professor: Which is better: thesis after papers, or papers after thesis? [Link via Guru]

Doug Natelson: Words of Advice about Giving Talks.]

Sunday, December 07, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: Six days to go ...

A couple of days ago, Divya Gandhi wrote a short piece about a book on plant biodiversity in the IISc campus: Indian Institute of Science Campus: A Botanist’s Delight by Prof. Sankara Rao. The book is expected to be released during the Centenary Conference.

One hundred years ago, when the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.) acquired its campus in the city, it was not quite the green oasis it is today. In 1909, the campus was essentially a vast tract of thorny shrubs and rocky outcrops characteristic of the stark landscape of the Deccan Plateau.

Interestingly, the exotic flowering trees, orchids and sedges that set apart the IISc. from the concrete jungle (and keep it several degrees cooler), were brought from all over the world as part of a greening project that began in the 1930s.[...]

The large woody creeper that twines around the CES building was brought from the Western Ghats; the vermillion-flowered Sterculia colorata outside the metallurgy department comes from south-east Asia and the tall coniferous trees that flank the main administrative building are from Australia, he explained. Among those to whom IISc. owes its greening is Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel, one of the chief architects of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens who introduced several exotic plants in Bangalore. “However there are still precious pockets of original vegetation left. There are several old trees, including the banyan that pre-date the campus,” he added.

Here is some visual evidence for the statement that a hundred years ago, "the [IISc] campus was essentially a vast tract of thorny shrubs and rocky outcrops characteristic of the stark landscape"!

And here are two   pictures that give you a glimpse of the very twisted (and weirdly alluring!) plant -- "the large woody creeper" -- in front of the Centre for Ecological Sciences.


1. Anjali Deshpande and S.K. Pande: Three days of Mumbai terror reporting:

We support the call for restraint reporting, for terrorism has international and national linkages and is often used to destabilise countries. The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.

If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.

2. While we're on the disgraceful coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (particularly by our TV news channels), I should link to the critiques from Sevanti Ninan (in The Hindu) and Harini Calamur (who has a lot more on this issue on her blog).

3. Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar: Dangers of Bushspeak:

Many Indians, while sympathising with the US after 9/11, pointed out that 6,000 feared dead in the World Trade Centre wasn't a big number compared with 50,000 killed over a decade in Kashmir. The US was getting a small dose of the Islamic terrorism that had long devastated Kashmir, and was over-reacting. The US never equated Kashmiri terrorism with war, and always told India to be calm and not bomb terrorist training camps in Pakistan. But when the US itself got a taste of this at home, it went ballistic, declared it was at war with terrorism, and vowed to bomb and kill all those bad guys.

Cooler heads pointed out that "war on terror" was a meaningless phrase. Terror is simply a tactic used by certain groups, and you cannot wage war against a tactic. You can declare war on an enemy country, but not on an NGO (terrorists are exactly that - non-government organizations). When terrorism arises from an ideology or set of grievances, imaginary or otherwise, killing one bunch of ideologues may simply deepen the grievances and create thousands of fresh terrorists.

4. Shashi Tharoor: Time to improve relations between police & minorities:

We in India also need to recognize that if we want under-represented Muslims to compete effectively for police jobs, they need to feel the police is part of them, rather than an external entity. It's clear we need to: actively solicit applications from minorities for the police at all levels (including the Provincial Armed Constabulary and the Central Reserve Police); offer special catch-up courses open only to members of the minority communities that will prepare them for the entrance examinations; at the moment few feel qualified to take the exams, and fewer still pass; and require police officers to work with community organizations, mosques and madrasas to encourage minorities to apply.

In other words, instead of more "reservations", with the resentment that breeds, let us make it easier for minorities to join the police. But let's not stop with recruitment: we also need to focus on the retention and progression of minority officers. ...

5. The tension between India and Pakistan is so intense that the latter gets spooked by a hoax call:

Pakistani officials said Saturday that a bellicose phone call to President Asif Ali Zardari from India, purportedly placed by the Indian foreign minister, prompted Islamabad to put its air force on high alert before concluding the call was a hoax. [...]

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Prof. C.N.R. Rao: 75 years and over 1500 papers

Yesterday, Prof. C.N.R. Rao's 75th birthday was celebrated in a grand fashion by his students and admirers. While I missed the event, I was happy to see two news reports on it. Some excerpts from one of them:

"The Indian Institute of Science is celebrating its centenary year and this year is also my golden jubilee as a scientist. The only weapon I have is publishing papers, and I want to do research till my last day,” said Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, CNR Rao, here on Friday.

“The only Indian scientist that I know who did research till his last day was Sir C V Raman. Most scientists publish one or two papers and forget about it. I feel miserable if I do not publish 20-30 papers a year. The only way to stay alive in science is to publish papers,” Rao said in his address during a felicitation ceremony organised to honour him on his 75th birthday. The Linus Pauling Research Professor, who published his first paper at the age of 19, has about 1,500 papers to his credit.

“As I am getting old there is one doubt that bothers me: What happens after I am gone? Will all things I did disappear? To this I would say that publishing paper is the only course to reach immortality.

There are many people in this country who look down upon people who publish papers or comment on their work. In fact, I am sorry to say, some of the Academies have encouraged the art of non-publishing,”

IISc blogging

Rupesh has compiled a great list of IISc faculty, students and alumni who blog. Go check it out.

If you know of blogs that should be on that list, please leave a comment on that page.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Lecture

Here's an opportunity for those of you in Bangalore to listen to a very impressive speaker: Prof. P. Balaram (Director of IISc, and Chief Editor of Current Science), who will deliver the the 17th Kumari L. A. Meera Memorial Lecture.

The lecture is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on 12 December 2008 (Friday) in the Indian Institute of World Culture, B.P. Wadia Road, Basavangudi, Bangalore.

Prof. Balaram will be speaking on Chemical Analysis in the Age of Biology. Here's the abstract:

Analytical chemistry has been transformed over the past two decades from an old, classical discipline to a vibrant area of research focused principally on biological problems. Mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy and a variety of imaging methods based on optical and vibrational spectroscopy have begun to provide a level of sensitivity and resolution which have led to a renaissance in chemical analysis.

This lecture focuses on the applications of mass spectrometry in biology. A brief historical account of the field, whose origins may be traced to the work of J.J. Thomson will be followed by a consideration of the soft ionization procedures which have made biological analysis possible. Specific applications to the identification of disease causing mutations in proteins and the analysis of complex peptide libraries in natural venoms will be illustrated.

The lecture is organized by Kumari L.A. Meera Trust. My friend and colleague Anant is on its board of trustees.

Some of you may remember the previous edition of this annual event featuring Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director of IIT-M.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

IISc Centenary Conference: 9 days to go ...

... and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in our Institute to "inaugurate" its centenary celebrations. He covered quite a few different things in his speech. Here's something about what his government has done for science and technology:

The Government has done a lot in the past four years to improve opportunities in education in the sciences. We have created a number of scholarships and fellowships. The Ramanujan fellowships have been instituted to attract young talented scientists to work in India and the J. C. Bose fellowships have been created to reward outstanding senior scientists. We have improved the emoluments of research students taking up Ph. D. studies.

One of the most significant initiatives of our Government in this area is the special scholarship scheme titled “Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research” [INSPIRE]. This programme seeks to attract youth to the study of science and targets learners in the age group 10-15 years. One million young students are proposed to be covered under this scheme. Scholarships will also be provided to senior students for continuing science education. Assured Opportunities for Research Careers is another initiative under this scheme that will support a thousand young researchers with contract positions backed with research grants of Rs. 10 lakhs per year for five years.

At another function in Bangalore, Dr. Singh also "dedicated the International Centre for Material Science to the Nation and opened the C.N.R. Rao Hall of Science." His speech at that event is here.

Terrorism and politics

After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, it has become fashionable to suggest that we should banish -- or, at least, rise above -- politics and seek ways of preventing terrorist attacks, and of minimizing the damage and loss of life if a terrorist attack does get underway.

But it seems to me that any suggestion about what needs to be done is inherently political. Consider the following suggestions/demands/ideas:

  1. the ritual resignation of some minister or the other.

  2. different kinds of internal security measures -- POTA, for example -- which imply different levels of loss of personal freedom

  3. going to war with a nuclear armed neighbour -- "There is only one way to deal with [international terrorism] - the Dubya way!"

  4. getting Ratan Tata to be our Prime Minister with NSG commandos running the state's affairs.

Which of these ideas is not political? Even if one couches them in non-partisan rhetoric -- "I don't care who's in power, NDA or UPA.I want action!" -- each of the ideas depends on a certain view of the state, who should run it, what it should do, and at what cost. When each of them comes into conflict with others -- your POTA is my draconian law, after all -- what you have is politics. Gnani puts it even more strongly:

... [T]errorism is not above politics. It is politics by other means.

To come to grips with it and to eventually eliminate it, the practice of politics by proper means needs constant fine tuning and improvement. Decrying all politics and politicians, only helps terrorists and dictators who are the two sides of the same coin. [...]

Let me leave you with some links. And, yes, they are all intensely political:

  1. Gnani Sankaran's class-based take on how our media -- especially the TV channels -- are spinning the terrorist attacks. [Update: See also Mukul Kesavan's column.]

  2. Biju Mathew asks us to be skeptical about what the media tells us about the attacks. A lot of their stories are based on selective leaks from the police, intelligence agencies and the armed forces; when the leaks are selective, they are likely to be self-serving and/or ass-covering. [See this, this and this]

  3. Why did we end up losing top police officials and NSG commandos? Mad Momma wants to know, because "because tomorrow my son might want to join these forces."

* * *

Let me end this post on a not-so-political note with the following links:

  1. WSJ has a detailed -- and chilling -- account of how the terrorists did what they did. Here's an equally chilling account from an NSG commando of the fight to liberate the Taj.

  2. A daughter recounts the hours and days when her father -- a police official -- was inside one of the hotels fighting the terrorists.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Links: Bad sex award and menu vaastu

Bad Sex in Fiction Award has been announced for 2008. Take a look. [Link via Amit Varma]

* * *

The art of Menu Design [via the Nudges blog]:

The first step is the design. Rapp recommends that menus be laid out in neat columns with unfussy fonts. The way prices are listed is very important. "This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong," he explains. "If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing." It's better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer's appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

Also important is placement. On the basis of his own research and existing studies of how people read, Rapp says the most valuable real estate on a two-panel menu (one that opens like a magazine) is the upper-right-hand corner. That area, he says, should be reserved for more profitable dishes since it is the best place to catch--and retain--the reader's gaze.

Two links on the financial crisis

First, an editorial from the Scientific American: After the Crash: How Software Models Doomed the Markets:

If Hollywood makes a movie about the worst financial crisis since the Great De­­pres­­sion, a basement room in a government building in Washington will serve as the setting for a key scene. There investment bankers from the largest institutions pleaded successfully with Securities and Ex­­change Commission (SEC) officials during a short meeting in 2004 to lift a rule specifying debt limits and capital reserves needed for a rainy day. This decision, a real event described in the New York Times, freed billions to invest in complex mortgage-backed securities and derivatives that helped to bring about the financial meltdown in September.

In the script, the next scene will be the one in which number-savvy specialists that Wall Street has come to know as quants consult with their superiors about implementing the regulatory change. These lapsed physicists and mathematical virtuosos were the ones who both invented these oblique securities and created software models that supposedly measured the risk a firm would incur by holding them in its portfolio. Without the formal requirement to maintain debt ceilings and capital reserves, the commission had freed these firms to police themselves using risk tools crafted by cadres of quants.

The other link is to this great Portfolio article by Michael Lewis, the man who "chronicled [Wall Street] excess" of the eighties in Liar’s Poker:

I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, “How quaint.”

I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale, but if you got a few drinks in me and then asked what effect I thought my book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to figure out what to do with their lives will read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up and abandon their passions to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at, say, Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Morgan Stanley, and set out to sea.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Links ...

  1. I'm a little late to the party, but I must link to John Baez's post about the scientist who has published over 300 papers in a journal of which he's the chief editor. Don't forget to check out the comments; there are over 125 of them! [Thanks to Anand (e-mail), Jatkesha, Arunn and Philip Davis for the pointer.]

  2. Rahul Basu reviews India after Gandhi by Ram Guha.

  3. Should Prof. Yash Pal's trial balloon about converting IITs into Real Universities become reality? The Times of India offers a view and a counterview.

  4. The mystery link [via BlogBharti].

Monday, November 24, 2008

Search for an Indian Obama

Ram Guha has announced his choice(s): Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. There indeed are many parallels, but it sounds strange to be calling Ambedkar, who passed away over fifty years ago, an Indian Obama. Shouldn't we be calling Obama an American Ambedkar?

Anyway, here's Guha:

Ambedkar was born in a Dalit, working-class household. His father had a small job in the army, and there was no history of education in the family. Obama’s father at least had a college degree, and his mother was white. Both Obama and Ambedkar were, in their birth and social origins, anything but men of privilege — but Ambedkar was even more underprivileged. Like his American successor, the great Indian jurist made his mark by dint of exceptional courage and a still more exceptional intelligence. Like Obama, he owed his degrees, from the best universities in the world, to his brilliance and hard work alone. Like Obama, for his persistence and his achievements, Ambedkar did, in the end and after much struggle, get his rewards. Before Independence, he was a member of the highest decision-making body in British India — the viceroy’s executive council. After Independence, he became law minister in the first cabinet of free India. If we consider that slavery existed in the United States of America for a bare 200 years, while caste has existed in India for two millennia and more, then the fact that a Dalit supervised the drafting of the Indian Constitution must be reckoned to be as significant, as boundary-breaching, as earth-shattering a historical event as that of a half-black man becoming the president of the United States of America. And let us remind ourselves that the Indian, and India, took precedence in this regard — for Ambedkar became law minister sixty years before Obama became president.

Also featured in Guha-the-historian's list of possible Indian Obamas are Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Nitish Kumar, Bihar's current chief minister.

* * *

Thanks to Pradeepkumar (via e-mail) and Guru for the alert.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Krishnakumar on the pathology of policies for primary schools

The immediate provocation comes from Prof. C.N.R. Rao's outrage at the way six new IITs started academic programs this year. Here's Krishnakumar (Director, NCERT):

As one of the architects of India's science and technology policies, Rao is rightly concerned [about the haste in launching new IITs] and one must respect his candour. What one finds sad and difficult to accept is the manner in which he has argued for better planning for their expansion. He has pointed out that it has taken India 50 years to take IITs where they are today, and then he says, according to newspaper reports: "After all it's not like opening primary schools."

Krishnakumar then gives us a summary of all the ways in which this sort of callous-dismissive attitude has affected policy-making in primary education:

Both these remarks offer us valuable insight into India's failure to provide education of an acceptable quality to all children. The attitude these remarks signify is quite common. No one needs to doubt the genuine validity of Rao's anguish over the importance of maintaining IIT's high standards. But his comparative frame, in which primary schools rank so low as to symbolise a hastily established IIT, deserves critical attention. His remarks have come at a time when public policy seems to be waking up from a century-long sleep. [...]

The pejorative reference Rao made to primary schools is not just offensive to those of us who serve children in our formal capacities; it also reveals a huge mental block in the mind of India's highest-level development planners. The idea that primary schools can be established and run cheaply has been central to educational planning since independence. The idyllic myth of the village schoolmaster under a tree persisted for several decades after independence.

It was as late as the 1980s when a scheme to equip every primary school with basic minimum amenities and at least two teachers was mooted under the name 'Operation Blackboard' (OB). The modest gains of OB and other initiatives taken in the years following the National Policy on Education (1986) were supposed to get consolidated under the auspices of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), but the opposite happened and contradictions multiplied.

Enrolment increased, but the status of teachers and the quality of their training declined. During the 1990s the axe of fiscal rationalism fell on India's children and their teachers. State after state recruited para-teachers, and Madhya Pradesh went to the extent of declaring career teachers a 'dying cadre'. Those who objected to such changes were told that insecure, meagrely paid teachers produced better results than qualified career teachers.

One also heard that multi-grade teaching had virtues that one-teacher-per-class policy somehow missed, and so on. The net result was that primary schools lost whatever little right to dignity they had acquired over the first three decades of independence. Thousands of them could be set up without prior planning, exactly as Rao has indicated in his comment.

A plea for comprehensive and sophis-ticated policy for children and their education sounds like asking for the moon these days. We feign ignorance of the complexity of the demands that little children make on the state, and not just on their malnourished mothers. If they are to be nurtured to live and participate in a vibrant democratic order, India will need to pay the same meticulous attention to the needs of a primary school as it does in the case of IITs.

IITs deflate Yash Pal's trial balloon

The IITs have used some strong words in expressing their opposition to Yash Pal's proposal (which I termed a trial balloon) that they be converted into a university, offering a wide variety of programs. [Thanks to Prof. Ranganathan for the link].

Today, at a meeting with the panel in Mumbai, officials from the IITs, however, said [Yash Pal Committee's] proposal ["to convert IITs from mere 'undergraduate factories' to full-fledged universities"] was unnecessary and “retrogressive”.

The IIT system, they argued, was superior to that employed in central universities, the sources said.

Let's see how Prof. Pal handles the push-back from the "little more than undergraduate factories." Those impolitic words, by the way, are a direct quote from Yash Pal, who doesn't seem to be very good at "how to win friends and influence people."

* * *

Coming to the substantive points, the IITs are certainly right to point out that they offer a wider choice of courses to their engineering students and have started new programs in not only in management, but also in humanities and social sciences. IIT-KGP also has a Law School in the works.

Here are some (not completely original) observations:

  1. I do think that IITs' progress is in the right direction -- I am a big supporter of Real Universities. But I also think this progress is too slow.

  2. IITs are overstating their case about humanities and social sciences; despite their protestations, they continue to remain (primarily) tech schools; H&SS are a sideshow, and they know it.

  3. Prof. Pal should seriously consider a strategy for converting our Central Universities into real universities. Right now, they lack a strong undergraduate program (with BHU being an important exception); they are mainly graduate schools, with perhaps a tiny UG program in this or that subject. This should change.

  4. Three years ago, Prof. Pankaj Jalote (then at IIT-K, later at IIT-D and now Director of IIIT-D) wrote a nice op-ed about the possible futures for the IITs (or, go to his article). He suggested several models: a large public -- and real! -- university (UC-Berkeley), a large tech university (Georgia Tech) and a small university with a greater focus on graduate research (CalTech).

    Last year, in a different context, Jalote revised his views, and offered the Georgia Tech model as the one that was suitable for the IITs.

    To my knowledge, his article received the coldest possible response: silence.

  5. But when someone with a little bit more power -- like Prof. Yash Pal, heading a committee -- comes along and starts thinking aloud about a possible future for the IITs, they come out swinging.

  6. IITs don't seem to like participating in public discussions (I'm sure they talk about this sort of stuff among themselves all the time) about their possible futures. They end up reacting when others start a public conversation about them, and their public response ends up looking either smug (to Jalote) or reactionary (to Yash Pal).

  7. It certainly doesn't take genius to see where it's going: it's better for the IITs to come out and discuss this sort of stuff in public. If they do that, it will give them a way of shaping the tone and direction of the conversation better.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Links: Women in Science edition

  1. Vineeta Bal in Nature India: Why women scientists in India need affirmative action [free registration required].

    If couples are looking for jobs, a policy should be in place to encourage their employment in the same institution, or the same city. Potential employers of one spouse should take proactive steps in helping the other spouse find a job, thereby facilitating the woman's entry into the workforce. Provision of campus housing similarly improves the quality of life, and a preference should be given to women scientists for campus accommodation. Provision of good, clean crèches and day-care homes for elderly, preferably in close proximity of the workplace or home, is also a promising proactive step. Providing child-care allowance until the child reaches a certain age is another option. Extra efforts are needed to facilitate a congenial work environment by having frequent gender-sensitisation programmes for men and women. Sexual harassment is a significant but unrecognised problem which needs sensitive and prompt action. Providing security and a women-friendly workplace atmosphere should thus be a responsibility of the head of an institution and specific recommendations have to be in place for achieving it.

  2. Cidem Kaitcibai [I'm sorry I'm not able to reproduce the Turkish name correctly here] in Nature: Caution: Men at Work. Interestingly, this article includes a section on the age profile of scientists.

    Developing countries have a great deal to gain from the full participation of women in the knowledge economy. It is encouraging to note that many developing countries enjoy a head start in their efforts to advance this goal, largely due to the comparatively high percentage of professional women found in elite, high-paying fields. The challenges today lie in increasing opportunities for poorer, less-educated women in cities, small villages and rural areas, and in breaking through the 'glass ceiling' so that more women will hold management and leadership positions.

    As for age imbalances, innovative policies must be devised to protect experienced knowledge workers without discouraging the next generation of students from entering science and other fields. For example, older professors could be allowed to remain on the faculty without remuneration and without administrative responsibilities — allowing them to pursue their own research agendas freely and to teach classes. This would allow older faculty to remain active and involved without blocking the career paths of younger researchers. It would also encourage an intergenerational exchange of ideas and research collaborations between young and old. It does, of course, depend on having reasonable pension systems in place, and a willingness to approve and enforce mandatory rules for retirement.

  3. Elizabeth Durant: Ellencyclopedia (a profile of MIT's alumna, Ellen Swallow Richards).

    Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as MIT's first female graduate and instructor, but launching coeducation at the Institute is merely the first in a long list of her pioneering feats. The breadth and depth of her career are astounding; a 1910 tribute in La Follette's Weekly Magazine professed that "when one attempts to tell of the enterprises, apart from her formal teaching, of which Mrs. Richards has been a part or the whole, he is lost in a bewildering maze." Authors and scholars have called her the founder of ecology, the first female environmental engineer, and the founder of home economics. Richards opened the first laboratory for women, created the world's first water purity tables, developed the world standard for evaporation tests on volatile oils, conducted the first consumer-product tests, and discovered a new method to determine the amount of nickel in ore. And that's just the short list of her accomplishments. In a nod to Richards's remarkable knowledge and interests, her sister-in-law called her "Ellencyclopedia."

Higher Ed trial balloons

Two such trial balloons have been floated, and both involve statements by Prof. Yash Pal who heads the MHRD's Committee for Rejuvenation of Higher Education.

Balloon 1: Soon, IITs may be turning out doctors too (a ToI report by Hemali Chhapia):

The IITs may be currently stretched to the limit, but the XIth five-year committee for higher education is working with these centres of excellence to expand their charts. The committee, headed by educationist Yash Pal, that is meeting IIT heads on Friday will discuss how the tech schools can change their character and, like American universities, enlarge their menu.

"Currently, the IITs are premier undergraduate engineering schools doing some postgraduation and research work. Now, we want to give them a bigger role," Yash Pal told TOI. The noted scientist said that he had discussed his suggestions with some IIT directors and that a clearer picture would emerge after this week's meeting.

Balloon 2: Panel on varsity functioning may focus on regulation instead (a MInt report by Pallavi Singh):

A panel set up by the government to review the functioning of the two top regulators of the country’s education sector, which have come under widespread criticism for their restrictive policies and sometimes opaque functioning, may actually not look at the details of how these two entities function and instead suggest ways in which universities can regulate themselves, according to its chairman. [...]

Yash Pal said the panel was looking into larger issues of curriculum changes and academic structures at universities than involving itself with the “nitty-gritty of the functioning of the UGC-AICTE”.

“I would like to give the universities a self-regulatory regime. If we can make the universities autonomous and evolve a process of internal management, they will be largely free from any unnecessary regulation. Freedom means that kind of a freedom,” he said.

IISc Centenary Conference: 21 days to go ...

1. Some more details about the Conference have entered the public domain. Here are a few that are noteworthy:

The centenary conference titled ‘IIS c: 100 years and beyond,’ will be inaugurated with keynote talks by former president APJ Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisor C N R Rao on December 13. [...]

Vice-President Hamid Ansari will release two special stamps to commemorate the centenary year on December 14. Two Nobel laureates, Sydney Brenner (Medicine, 2001) and Eric S Maskin (Economic Sciences, 2007) will deliver keynote talks on December 15 and 16 respectively.

... On December 16, the last day of the conference, all living former directors, CNR Rao, G Padbhanabhan, Goverdhan Mehta, including the present director P Balaram will share the stage during a special event, IISc: Past, Present and Future.

While all events during the conference will be open only to delegates, the inaugural ceremony will be a public function. IIS c will take up live webcasting of the events during the conference, Y Narahari, convenor of the core organising committee said.

2. The IISc Alumni Association will organize the IISc Centenary Science and Technology Run on Sunday, the 7th of December (less than a week before the Conference). [Link via Rupesh].

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I discovered Kaaledge through an e-mail alert from Rahul Thathoo, one of its founders. First I thought Kaaledge is a play on college, but apparently, it's kaalEDGE (whatever *that* means). Here's the blurb from its About page:

... Currently we offer a blog and a forum for you to take benefit of, read and ask questions that you may have regarding your dream of applying to universities in the US and/or Europe.

We are a bunch of highly motivated graduate students in the US who have been through the process and are willing to help you out where ever we can. We hope you benefit from interacting with us. And oh by the way, keep a look out on the new products and services we come out with in the very near future!

The site has all kinds of stuff targeted at (mainly, Indian) students looking to do grad school in the US. So, the potential audience is pretty big!

Now, I have seen quite a few specialized websites and blogs devoted to JEE and CAT, but almost all of them have been bad: their poorly designed pages have meager and useless info mixed in with tons of sad-looking ads. Kaaledge is refreshingly different: it appears to have been put together by people who are genuinely enthusiastic about the project, and I haven't seen any ads (so far). If at all the Kaaledge folks are promoting something, it seems to be their own stuff ("... look out on the new products and services we come out with in the very near future!"); for example, its GRE prep help -- via SMS (no, I haven't tried it!).

The site has a mix of department profiles, interviews of people who have been through US grad schools, sample statements of purpose, and higher-ed related news. I don't know how useful this sort of stuff is for potential grad students, but that's what you get there. Also, I found it a little too CS/EE centric, but that may be because of the background of its current set of people.

An interesting project, and I'll be keeping an eye on it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blogging blogging

A whole bunch of links that I have accumulated over time. Here they are:

  1. Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic: Why I blog.

  2. Daniel Drezner: Public Intellectual 2.0.

  3. Dan Cohen: Professors, Start Your Blogs.

  4. Jessica Wapner in Scientific American: Blogging -- It's Good for YOu.

  5. Steve Yegge: You should write blogs.

  6. Janet Stemwedel: Why would anybody want to blog under a pseudonym?

  7. Not specifically on blogging, but still: Michael Nielsen on Five problems with doing research in the open.

  8. Shelley A. Batts, Nicholas J. Anthis, and Tara C. Smith: Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.

  9. Dan Drezner and Henry Farrell: Power and Politics of Blogs. [See also: Dan Drezner: So, You Want to Blog ...]

  10. Simon Owens in MediaShift: Econ Bloggers Gain Clout in Financial Crisis


That's the number of Indians studying in US universities during 2007-08, up nearly 13 percent from 83,833 in 2006-07. India is now No.1 in the list, with Indians forming 15.2 percent of the foreign student population in the US.

Over seven in ten Indian students are in graduate programs, with undergraduate students forming just 14.4 percent.

The press release from Open Doors is here. The country fact sheets are here (and some more data can be found here). Take a look at the report for India doc).

Here are the other highlights in the press release:

India is the leading place of origin for international students in the United States with 94,563 in 2007/08 (an increase of 13% from the previous year), followed by #2 China (81,127, up 20%) #3 South Korea (69,124, up 11%), #4 Japan (33,974, down 4%), #5 Canada (29,051, up 3%), #6 Taiwan (29,001, down less than 1%), #7 Mexico (14,837, up 7%), #8 Turkey (12,030, up 5%), #9 Saudi Arabia (9,873, up 25%), #10 Thailand (9,004, up 1%), [...]

The top ten most popular fields of study for international students in the United States in 2007/08 were Business and Management (20% of total), Engineering (17%) and Physical and Life Sciences (9%), Social Sciences (9%), Mathematics and Computer Science (8%), Fine & Applied Arts (6%), Health Professions (5%), Intensive English Language (5%), Education (3%), Humanities (3%), and Agriculture (2%). Undeclared majors are excluded from the rankings of top fields of study.

For the seventh year in a row, the University of Southern California is the leading host institution with 7,189 international students. New York University hosts the second highest number of foreign students (6,404). Other campuses in the top 10 are: Columbia University (6,297), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (5,933), Purdue University (5,772), University of Michigan – Ann Arbor (5,748), University of California – Los Angeles (5,557), University of Texas – Austin (5,550), Harvard University (4,948), Boston University (4,789), and University of Pennsylvania (4,610).

California remains the leading host state for international students (84,800, up 9%), followed by New York (69,844, up 6%), Texas (51,824, up 6%), Massachusetts (31,817, up 11%), Illinois (28,804, up 12.5%), Florida (26,739, down 0.5%), Pennsylvania (26,090, up 12.5%), Michigan (22,857, up 8%), Ohio (19,343, up 4%), and Indiana (15,548, up 8%). 17 of the top 20 leading host states experienced increases in total international students, with Washington (21.5%) and Virginia (13%) showing the largest percentage increases. (For breakdowns by state, including leading host institutions and leading fields of study and places of origin for foreign students studying in each state, go to the Open Doors website and click on "State Sheets").

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Here's the post about last year's Open Doors report.

Promising research areas in physics


In an opinion piece in Nature Reza Mansouri argues that developing countries should strengthen their base in physics research, "not only because of its fundamental contributions to all science, but also because national capacity in physics correlates strongly with economic performance."

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The Education Plus section of today's Hindu carried a short piece about research areas in physics that are "brimming with promise," and it featured Prof. Gautam Menon and Prof. R. Shankar of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai [Caution: the Hindu mixed up the names and pics of the two scientists].

One of the areas mentioned in the article is 'emergent behaviour' in complex systems:

“To study a system, we isolate phenomena and study them independently,” says Dr. Menon. But, what do you do when you want to study the stock market? It is a complex system with a large number of independent agents interacting with each other. “There is a behaviour that emerges from this interaction. This ‘emergent behaviour’ can be studied.”

“Physics of complex systems has been made possible by computational power. There is a lot of promise,” says Dr. Shankar. As everything, from how diseases propagate to telecom networks are examples of complex systems, their study is of everyday importance. “Physicists try to find general laws that govern these systems. It is still at a nascent stage.”

It should not be surprising to learn that blogs are possibly the best forum for this sort of discussions. For example, Chad Orzel had a recent post on "What's interesting about atomic, molecular and optical physics." He followed it up with a question: "What's so interesting about condensed matter physics?. Doug Natelson provided an answer to that question here. I'm sure there are similar posts on what's interesting about other areas of physics.

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Blogs are good not only for broad discussions such as these, but also for detailed expositions on interesting new ideas. For example, just the other day, Bee at Backreaction discussed a recent paper by Mile Gu, Christian Weedbrook, Alvaro Perales, and Michael Nielsen entitled More Really is Different. Here's the abstract:

In 1972, P.W.Anderson suggested that `More is Different', meaning that complex physical systems may exhibit behavior that cannot be understood only in terms of the laws governing their microscopic constituents. We strengthen this claim by proving that many macroscopic observable properties of a simple class of physical systems (the infinite periodic Ising lattice) cannot in general be derived from a microscopic description. This provides evidence that emergent behavior occurs in such systems, and indicates that even if a `theory of everything' governing all microscopic interactions were discovered, the understanding of macroscopic order is likely to require additional insights.

IISc Centenary Conference: 25 days to go...

IISc's students, teachers and staff members gathered in the Gymkhana's cricket ground yesterday for a fun event: they formed a huge IISc logo. [I could not participate in this fantastic event, unfortunately]. Here are a couple of news reports. Rupesh has a scanned pdf of the DH report that carried a picture.

And, here are some pics: the first one is a composite, with a lot of unnecessary stuff edited out, and the others are from trial runs.




The credit for organizing this major community-building event goes to IISc Student Council, Voices, (IISc students' newsletter), and the publications committee of the Centenary Conference. The pics are credited to the company "SaimaNaina-Creating Dreams."

Many thanks to Prof. Ananthasuresh for sharing the pics.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


A proud day for ISRO, and yes, India. The Hindu's headline appears understated: "India Leaves Its Footprints on Moon."

ISRO's press release on this achievement puts it better : "Indian Tricolour Placed on the Moon on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Birthday."

ISRO has also released a few images from Chandrayaan. Here're a couple of them:



Scientific Eye Candy

Check out the site My Art In Science, one of whose goals is:

2. To provide a visual proof that Science and Engineering are not just important or interesting but also beautiful. This beauty is not manufactured by the scientists or the engineers directly, but appears and shows up in their work, as a side effect of their work. Unfortunately, the innards of the work of scientists and engineers are often inaccessible to the wide public. Many people think that your work is technical and lifeless. We, at MyArtinScience want to show how beautiful the materials, the processes and the effects of Science and Engineering are. In this sense, MyArtinScience is a cooperative and an educational museum dedicated to the artistic value of Science and Engineering. In fact, some users have used the images in MyArtinScience to show students the magical flavor of your work.

I got the link to this site through a tip-off from its creator, Amir Give'on of Princeton University.

NanObama: The Black Cool and the Nano Cool

First the Black Cool (via Ta-Nehisi Coates):


Now, the Nano Cool (for the really big picture, go to The Big Picture):


Here's the info accompanying the pic:

Images of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, each made with approximately 150 million tiny carbon nanotubes, are photographed using an electron microscope by University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering Department in this image released to Reuters November 10, 2008. The image, based on an original drawing by Shepard Fairey, is just wider than 500 microns and is made of approximately 150 million tiny carbon nanotubes, which is about the number of Americans who voted on November 4, according to John Hart at University of Michigan. (REUTERS/John Hart, Sameh Tawfick, Michael De Volder, and Will Walker/University of Michigan/Handout)