Monday, March 31, 2008


  1. Harini excerpts B.R. Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste. Here's how Ambedkar debunks the "division of labour" defence of the caste system:

    ... the first thing is to be urged against this view is that Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.

  2. Janet Stemwedel on science vs. politics.
  3. Sean Carroll on politicians and critics.
  4. P.Z. Myers on the trauma and the mayhem unleashed by godless Newtonism.
  5. The arguments for, and against, privatization of US public universities.
  6. Why does this xkcd cartoon work so well? [For added pleasure, do read the text embedded with the pic -- just hover the mouse over the cartoon]

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Dalai Lama

The New Yorker carries Pankaj Mishra's essay -- a review, really, of Pico Iyer's The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama -- on the spiritual leader and his political burden.

None of his compromises, however, have aroused as much bitterness as his decision, first announced in 1988, to settle for Tibet’s “genuine autonomy” within China rather than press for full independence. As the Dalai Lama sees it, countries must pursue their interests without harming those of others, and Tibetan independence, in addition to being an unrealistic ideal, needlessly antagonizes Beijing. This stance has failed, however, to convince the Chinese that he is not a “splittist”; they have accused him of having “masterminded” the latest disturbances. It has also made many Tibetans suspect that what makes the Dalai Lama more likable in the West—mainly, his commitment to nonviolence, reiterated during the current crisis—makes him appear weak to the Chinese.

“The more he gave himself to the world,” Iyer writes, the more Tibetans have come to feel “like natural children bewildered by the fact that their father has adopted three others.” The Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu complains that Tibetan support groups and the government-in-exile have become “directionless” in trying to “reorient their objectives around such other issues as the environment, world peace, religious freedom, cultural preservation, human rights—everything but the previous goal of Tibetan independence.”

Avidly embracing the liberating ideas of the secular metropolis, the Dalai Lama resembles the two emblematic types who have shaped the modern age, for better and for worse—the provincial fleeing ossified custom and the refugee fleeing totalitarianism. Even so, his critics may have a point: the Dalai Lama’s citizenship in the global cosmopolis seems to come at a cost to his dispossessed people.

Then there's this short piece on the Dalai Lama by Outlook editor Vinod Mehta.

This 72-year-old celebrity priest has the innocence and enthusiasms of a four-year-old child. As he relates the brutal tales of "cultural genocide" in Tibet, he remains, miraculously, unemotional, devoid of bitterness or desire for revenge. I hope I am not trivialising my conversations because we were discussing matters of life and death and unspeakable violence by the Chinese. However, throughout my 90-minute chat with Tibet's supreme leader, I was constantly made aware that I was talking not to a religious-political saint fighting for basic civil rights for his people but to an ordinary human being simultaneously burdened by divine status and a Nelson Mandela-like mission.

In which I go aggressively after an NC-17 rating for my blog ...

  1. Let's start with the best of the lot: Lauren Berlant's "I feel sorry for sex" [if that link doesn't work, use this search to get to the article].
  2. Sudhir Venkatesh: Your Sex Industry Questions Answered.
  3. Pamela Paul reviews Mary Roach's Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
  4. Howard Jacobson: Prada Prostitutes.
  5. These links are old, but let me go with the spirit of this post: Kamasutra of reading and Kamasutra of personal computing.

Conformity, anonymity, ways of disagreeing, black money, extreme segregation, Obama poster

  1. David Berreby defends conformity.
  2. Three academics discuss the advantages of anonymity on the web.
  3. Swaminathan Aiyar thinks that black money saved India's financial sector.
  4. Paul Graham has a taxonomy of ways of disagreeing on the web.
  5. Krish Ashok on the ill effects of extreme segregation in Sathyabama Deemed University and many other private engineering colleges in Chennai (and perhaps all of Tamil Nadu).
  6. Krish Ashok has two fictional characters deconstructing the US elections; one of them suggests a better poster for the Obama campaign.

Geometry time sink!

A bit of lazy blog-hopping took me to Log base 2 where, among other things, I found a post on quilts linking to several sites with mathematically inspired quilt designs.

The second link is a part of a bigger site -- National Curve Bank! -- with tons of fabulous mathematical goodies (with lots of animations).

Along the way, I also got the link to M.C. Escher: The Official Website, which has an extensive set of galleries; the symmetry gallery has some stunning (and rather famous) pieces of art.

* * *

There are some more links to mathematics and arts here, and through Swarup's comemnt on this post, we also have a link to an article on the mathematics of kolam (needs subscription, but the pdf of the German version is free, so click through for the pics).

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nanopolitan Times: Interview with Iron Man

Basking in the huge success of his new campaign ad, Iron Man, India's least favourite PM-in-waiting, was in an upbeat mood when we approached him for an exclusive interview with Nanopolitan Times. Some excerpts:

Nanopolitan Times: Congratulations on the success of your book. How does it feel?

Iron Man: Oh, it feels fantastic. You see, I didn't want to write just another book, I wanted to create history.

NT: Yes, that's quite evident. Given your own penchant for creative retellings of events from your life, how come your party goons partywallahs are protesting a harmless academic article on the many tellings of the Ramayana?

IM: No. No! We'll never allow it. Adventures and achievements of mere men are pliable. Ram is not a mere man, he's Iron Men's Iron Man! Also, he is the rath that took me to where I am today, and I'll need him to become the PM. So, we'll never allow it. Never.

NT: Now, your version of the events surrounding the 'terrorists-for-tourists' swap at Kandahar seem to be different from that of the others ...

IM: You know what? The first rule in Iron Men's playbook is this: There is only one version, and that's mine. All the others are perversions.

NT: Including those of the Development Man?

IM: Yes, if he talked. But he hasn't! He's an old, weak-kneed   Bhishma, and better yet, he's a silenced Bhishma. He won't talk. He knows who the Iron Man is ...

NT: How about the socialist minister's words?

IM: Yes, his words, too. How can you trust a man who remained silent about the strip-searches?

NT: But, how about the terrorist-accompanying minister?

IM: Oh, him! I don't worry about him. Besides, he can't really complain, can he, when I flatter him by imitating him?

NT: How about the Ambassador?

IM: What about him?

NT: He said he wasn't in India during the Kandahar events ...

IM: Oh, did he? If so, he must be right.

NT: How come you are willing to concede this man's version, while trashing the others'?

IM: Because he represents Superpower. Iron Men fear Superpower.

NT: Are you suggesting that you'll make amends, now? How?

IM: I will ask my publisher to issue a new, revised version of the book.

[Iron Man thinks a bit, and starts talking excitedly ... ]

I'll tell you what, I just found a more apt title for my book, so I'll ask my publisher to change the title, too.

NT: Really? What's the new, more apt title?

IM: "My life, my ass!"

Friday, March 28, 2008

New IITs, IIMs

Orissa, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (Indore) will be the next states to get freshly minted IITs. Take a look (see also the update below):

... [The government] on Friday decided to establish four new IITs and six IIMs in various states besides upgrading some of the state universities to the status of Central Universities.

While the new IITs would be located in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh (Indore), Gujarat and Punjab, the IIMs would come up in Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh (Raipur), Uttarakhand and Haryana.

It would be so much better to create large, "real universities" with a mandate to do research and teach (graduate as well as undergraduate) courses. Engineering, management, law, medicine can be built into these universities in various combinations with natural and social sciences, arts, humanities and languages. Such an environment is particularly important for undergraduate students, a vast majority of whom currently languish in affiliated colleges with poor facilities and non-researchers, or study in elite, but specialized institutions (IITs, NITs, AIIMS, NLSUI, etc).

It's not clear why the government keeps choosing IITs and IIMs, when it can make a much bigger difference in people's lives -- and for the country as a whole -- with real universities.

I don't know about you, I see this news as yet another lost opportunity.


* * *

Update: The official press release (thanks to an e-mail alert from Yogesh Upadhyaya) has a lot more information about the new institutions that are to be set up during the 11th plan. It turns out that 14 'world-class' Central Universities are being planned in the following states:

  1. Pune, Maharashtra
  2. Kolkata, West Bengal
  3. Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
  4. Mysore, Karnataka
  5. Vishakapatanam, Andhra Pradesh
  6. Gandhinagar, Gujarat
  7. Jaipur, Rajasthan
  8. Patna, Bihar
  9. Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
  10. Kochi, Kerala
  11. Amritsar, Punjab
  12. Bhubaneshwar, Orissa
  13. Greater NOIDA, Uttar Padesh
  14. Guwahati, North Eastern Region

Further, 16 more Central Universities will be set up in those states that do not currently have one.

Thus, it would appear that I spoke a little too soon. While I welcome the setting up of a large number of universities, I have a grouse against those as well! Currently, our Central Universities do not do any undergraduate teaching -- the lone, honorable exception being the Banaras Hindu University, which has UG programs in many, many disciplines. Thus, I will wait until I have a better idea about the kind of institutions that are actually set up, before I start celebrating ...

[Interestingly, the official press release says that BHU's Institute of Technology (which is also where I studied) will be converted into an IIT. Its path to IIT-hood has been quite tortuous -- so tortuous, in fact, that I will believe it only when the deed is done. ]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Death of a dream

Before we move to columnists explaining to us the implications of the US Fed's actions following the Bear Stearns fiasco, we must turn to the only folks who can be trusted to tell it like it really is: Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi.

What are the implications of what just happned? The short version: more and more of the financial sector will now come under regulations. Click on the links for the longer version; thanks to Mark Thoma for both the links.

Here's Martin Wolf in the Financial Times:

Remember Friday March 14 2008: it was the day the dream of global free- market capitalism died. For three decades we have moved towards market-driven financial systems. By its decision to rescue Bear Stearns, the Federal Reserve, the institution responsible for monetary policy in the US, chief protagonist of free-market capitalism, declared this era over. It showed in deeds its agreement with the remark by Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, that “I no longer believe in the market’s self-healing power”. Deregulation has reached its limits. [...]

The lobbies of Wall Street will, it is true, resist onerous regulation of capital requirements or liquidity, after this crisis is over. They may succeed. But, intellectually, their position is now untenable. Systemically important institutions must pay for any official protection they receive. Their ability to enjoy the upside on the risks they run, while shifting parts of the downside on to society at large, must be restricted. This is not just a matter of simple justice (although it is that, too). It is also a matter of efficiency. An unregulated, but subsidised, casino will not allocate resources well. Moreover, that subsidisation does not now apply only to shareholders, but to all creditors. Its effect is to make the costs of funds unreasonably cheap. These grossly misaligned incentives must be tackled.

I greatly regret the fact that the Fed thought it necessary to take this step. Once upon a time, I had hoped that securitisation would shift a substantial part of the risk-bearing outside the regulated banking system, where governments would no longer need to intervene. That has proved a delusion. A vast amount of risky, if not downright fraudulent, lending, promoted by equally risky finance, has made securitised markets highly risky. This has damaged institutions, notably Bear Stearns, that operated intensively in these markets.

Here's David Wessel in WSJ:

The past 10 days will be remembered as the time the U.S. government discarded a half-century of rules to save American financial capitalism from collapse.

On the Richter scale of government activism, the government's recent actions don't (yet) register at FDR levels. They are shrouded in technicalities and buried in a pile of new acronyms.

But something big just happened. It happened without an explicit vote by Congress. And, though the Treasury hasn't cut any checks for housing or Wall Street rescues, billions of dollars of taxpayer money were put at risk. A Republican administration, not eager to be viewed as the second coming of the Hoover administration, showed it no longer believes the market can sort out the mess.

Harnessing Materials for Energy

The Materials Research Society has a special issue of MRS Bulletin on Harnessing Materials for Energy, edited by Prof. V.S. Arunachalam (Chairman, Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, C-STEP) and Dr. Elizabeth Fleischer (Editor, MRS Bulletin). The issue has articles covering many different energy-related technologies, and how materials play a central role in shaping their future.

Happily for us, all the articles are in the public domain.

Thank you, MRS!

Links ...

Arvind Panagariya: Loan waiver: a primer.

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is twenty-five years old; here's a look at how it has influenced the field of education.

Gardiner Harris: Cigarette company paid for lung cancer study.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's 3:00 a.m., and a plane is about to leave for Kandahar on an important mission

A very manly voice: It's 3:00 a.m., and a plane is about to leave for Kandahar on an important mission.

The Deputy Prime Minister is sleeping: safe, sound and oblivious. Like a child.

And   the   phone   doesn't   ring.

At this Deputy PM's residence, the phone never rings. Even when important things happen.

He always sleeps peacefully. Like a child.

The Iron Man voice: I am L.K. Advani, the Deputy PM that the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister -- pals from my own party! -- didn't give a damn about. I approve this message.

On-screen slogan: Vote for someone his own party colleagues don't trust!

* * * fade out * * *

It's 3:00 a.m., and I reject the politics of fear!

A brilliant rebuttal from the Obama campaign: "I'm Casey Knowles, and I approve this message. And not the other one."

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the pointer.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pay Commission Report

The much awaited report of the Sixth Central Pay Commission is out. If you are really up to it, you can get the information directly from the source: the 678-page report, and the accompanying annexures. A poorly drafted document containing the highlights is also available. [All of them are PDF files].

News channels are projecting a 40 percent increase in gross salaries for officers whose position in the government is equivalent to faculty members in our elite institutions (the so called Institutions of National Importance). A quick look at the report is not enough for me to figure out how exactly this figure of 40 percent has been arrived at. So, any further blogging on this topic will have to wait until I get a clearer picture on how these computations are done.

As for faculty salaries, one may also have to wait until another committee goes into making them consistent with the salaries of officers working in the government. As I recall, for implementing the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations, we had to wait for quite sometime before two committees -- yes, TWO committees, one for UGC-controlled institutions and another for the INIs -- finished their work. In the present vresion, I know about UGC's committee, but I have not heard about one for the INIs. So, it may take some more time before we get some idea about how our salaries are going to be affected.

In his most recent post on the Pay Commission and its mandate, Vivek pointed out that fixing the salaries of government employees is only one of the many tasks. Among the remaining tasks, he rightly points out, those related to "performance evaluation and performance-linked incentives" are as important as the salary itself.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Links ...

Bhutan takes a decisive step towards democracy, with its first elections tomorrow.

Gurcharan Das's latest column has a Godwin's law index of 0 (or 1, depending on how you count). The target? Raj Thackeray.

We all know Delhi is far ahead of the rest of the country on many counts (except its female to male ratio). How far ahead? Find out for yourself.

"It all started the day my second daughter was born"

Go to Nita's post to read the rest.

The Iraq war: Five years on ...

At the end of five years of a rather brutal occupation (that also saw the tragic loss of and the loss hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives), it has been raining columns and op-eds in the US media. Thanks to blogs and their well-earned reputation as a reputation-spreading engine, we need to read just two:

First up, we have John Cole's rather comprehensive list of things he got wrong in 2003 when he was "as big a war booster as anyone."

Then we have Jim Henley on "How I Got It Right: Looking Back at a Time of Justified Opposition to a Mad, Violent Enterprise."

There are no excerpts here because they just won't do justice to what they have written.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Stories of Rama, Ravana, Sita and Hanuman

Recently, the History Department of the Delhi University got into a bit of trouble because ABVP goons had strong objections to a course's reading list that included an essay by the late A.K. Ramanujan titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation. Raghu Karnad of Tehelka reports that ABVP found this essay "malicious, capricious, fallacious and offensive to the beliefs of millions of Hindus."

Fortunately, the essay is available online, so you can judge for yourself how much of it is "malicious, etc, etc". It is a celebration of the diversity of "tellings" of the story of Rama -- nearly 300 different versions, apparently, and that's before Ashok Banker wrote a 4-volume book and wrote the script for this animated film! Ramanujan's essay highlights the differences among some of the versions of Ramayana, and meditates about how these 'mutations' might have occurred as the story spread to many parts of Asia. It's scholarly and entertaining.

Here's a fabulous little tale that, Ramanujan says, appears in quite a few Ramayanas:

... To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas . I cannot resist repeating my favorite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana , 16th C.), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile, and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, "Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn't go with Rama to the forest?" That clinches the argument, and she goes with him.[11] And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana. ...

Salaries of American scientists at the end of World War II

At the beginning of Steven Shapin's review of Craig Venter's autobiography -- A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life -- we find this bit about faculty salaries in the US in the 1940s and 1950s:

Until fairly recently, you did not choose a scientific career with the idea of getting rich. After the end of World War Two, American academic scientists started out on about $2000 a year – the rough equivalent of $17,000 these days – while few full professors at the peak of their careers commanded as much as $10,000. The American scientist, a writer in Science magazine observed in 1953,

is not properly concerned with hours of work, wages, fame or fortune. For him an adequate salary is one that provides decent living without frills or furbelows. No true scientist wants more, for possessions distract him from doing his beloved work. He is content with an Austin instead of a Packard; with a table model TV set instead of a console; with factory rather than tailor-made suits. . . . To boil it down, he is primarily interested in what he can do for science, not in what science can do for him.

Around the same time, a US senator asked Karl Compton, a physicist and president of MIT: ‘Do you believe this is a correct statement, that probably of all the professions in the world, the scientist is least interested in monetary gain?’ Compton agreed: ‘I don’t know of any other group that has less interest in monetary gain.’

In fact, the enormous wealth thrown at American science from early in the Cold War was already beginning to erode these sensibilities. In the 1950s, it was increasingly said that the scientist uninterested in material rewards ought to become an extinct species. Americans respected occupations according to a money metric and it was, therefore, a disservice to the dignity of the scientific profession for a researcher to settle for a cheap car. The Science piece elicited a quick response: ‘The plumber who owns the new Packard and the salesman who owns the new Buick can only look with pity upon their learned neighbour, the professor, who can hardly afford to keep up his Austin.’ The labourer was worthy of his hire, and if that labour was reckoned to contribute to national power, social welfare and commercial profit, why shouldn’t scientists be richly rewarded? Why shouldn’t they do science in order to secure such rewards?

It was physicists who first experienced a bump in their salaries and, for a few of them, an entrée to the corridors of government and corporate power. And while many scientific disciplines enjoyed Cold War largesse, those few commentators who fretted about the effects on knowledge of ties to wealth and power both expected and hoped that the life sciences would remain forever unaffected by such things: calm and quiet disciplinary spaces where traditional scientific virtues might continue to flourish. By the mid-1970s, these hopes had been proved wrong. ...

Here's a a previous post on faculty salaries in the US at the turn of the previous century.

Happiness and money

But "the catch is: you have to spend [the money] on someone else."

Friday, March 21, 2008

"A country that includes a peaceful graveyard"

Merely urging the Chinese government to exercise the "utmost restraint" in dealing with the Tibetan people, as governments around the world are doing, is far too weak a response. The international community, beginning with the United Nations and followed by the European Union, Asean, and other international organisations, as well as individual countries, should use every means possible to step up pressure on the Chinese government to allow foreign media, as well as international fact-finding missions, into Tibet and adjoining provinces in order to enable objective investigations of what has been happening; release all those who only peacefully exercised their internationally guaranteed human rights, and guarantee that no one is subjected to torture and unfair trials; enter into a meaningful dialogue with the representatives of the Tibetan people.

Unless these conditions are fulfilled, the International Olympic Committee should seriously reconsider whether holding this summer's Olympic games in a country that includes a peaceful graveyard remains a good idea. [Emphasis added]

That's from a group of intellectuals led by Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic; the other members of the group are: André Glucksmann (French philosopher), Yohei Sasakawa (Japanese philanthropist), El Hassan Bin Talal (president of the Arab Thought Forum and president emeritus of the World Conference of Religions for Peace), Frederik Willem de Klerk (former president of South Africa) and Karel Schwarzenberg (foreign minister of the Czech Republic).

* * *

Dilip asks us to Stand With Tibet. Please consider signing the online petition addressed to the Chinese President asking him to open "a meaningful dialogue" with the Dalai Lama.


Not Expelled, the movie, but Expelled, the joke. Hilarious stuff.

I have seen this link on so many Desi blogs (Parseval even has a great pic) that I think PZ would get elected if the Rajya Sabha had a constituency for science blog lovers ...


Is it ever possible for someone -- like me -- who grew up in a staunchly un-Holi land of Tamil Nadu to ever celebrate Holi like the natives? After going through those mud baths that we hapless Southies -- MAKKUs as we were called -- had been thrown into in our BHU hostels over a quarter-century ago, one would think that getting into the flow of (a much more mellow version of) Holi should be easy.

I tried this morning. It was an honest attempt. It actually was a bit of fun. But, ...

I'm happy it's over.

I hope you had a better time ...

Happy Holi, folks!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union

It was billed as a 'major speech' on race in America. You can watch it here; the text is here. It's an impressive speech, though I think comparisons to Dr. King's I have a dream speech are a bit over the top.

John Stewart devoted a segment of his show to the speech, and had this to say at the end of it: "At 11am on Tuesday Obama spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."

Let me note blog reactions from a couple of Desi students in the US:

Animesh: Won't it be nice if someone talked to Indians about caste, religion, and region-based differences like this :).

Patrix: If you wonder why a desi student like me who has hardly spent time in the U.S. understand about race relations fraught with discrimination and prejudice, then try and contextualize Obama’s speech in an Indian context as well. Just simply replace blacks with Muslims and whites with Hindus and you’ll find plenty of common ground in the way religion (and now caste) is ingrained in Indian politics. I’m sure you will nod your head when Obama talks about opinions within a particular community against another expressed in hushed tones while being politely deferential when with others. You might remember a certain relative or even your parent who agreed that Muslims deserved to be taught a lesson in Gujarat or how Babri Masjid deserved to be torn down.

* * *

If you want a bit of humour aimed at Obama's message of 'change', you should be heading over to Onion.

* * *

Thanks to Saurabh, Animesh and Anonymoustache for the pointers; all the links above have been shamelessly stolen from their posts.

Fantabulous time travel forum

An unbelievably funny thread. Go read it right away!

Tons of thanks to Doug Natelson for the pointer.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When small-minded people have pots of money and power ...

In an Outlook column titled "F*** All Editors", Kushwant Singh says this is what they do:

... [The Illustrated Weekly of India], like all others published by Bennet Coleman, including the Times of India, had been restored by the government to the Jain family. As soon as they took over, they started meddling in my business. My contract was terminated and my successor appointed. I had one week to go. I wrote a tearful piece of farewell, wishing the Illustrated Weekly future prosperity. It was never published. When I arrived at the office in the morning to tidy up my desk, I was handed a letter asking me to quit immediately. I picked up my umbrella and walked back home.

It was an undeserved, deliberate insult. It still rankles in my mind. The Jain vendetta continues to this day. Even functions held in my honour presided over by people like Amitabh Bachchan, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while reported in the Times of India, never carry my name or photograph. That is how small-minded people with pots of money and power can be.

* * *

Back in the 1990s, ToI was well on its way to becoming a tabloid, with very little real news. When it sacked its editor (I think it was Dilip Padgaonkar, who was re-hired sometime later), a rival newspaper suggested this recruitment ad for ToI: "Editor wanted; journalists need not apply." ;-)

Stop the link rot, please!

Bruce Schneier wrote recently about link rot -- web pages that are no longer available at their old URLs -- and the inconvenience it causes to internet users (in some cases, like online communities, it's much more than inconvenience). As a blogger who links to lots of online stuff, I find link rot a major pain in the neck.

I use this blog for linking to things that I find interesting; but I also use it as a place holder for things that I may need later (many links to data sources on higher ed around the world belong to this category). The hope, of course, is that these links will still take me to those pages when I need to visit them. This is just a hope.

Among Indian newspapers and magazines, I haven't had any link rot trouble with the Indian Express, Telegraph, and Outlook. While the Hindu has been good in keeping all its content open; it dishes out stuff using multiple sites, some of which don't seem to work later. And I haven't figured out which are the ones to avoid!

Some sites take their content behind a paywall after sometime. I think these sites are committing a slow suicide by ruling their content out of conversations, more and more of which are happening on the internet. Newspapers like the Business Standard belong to this category, and I wouldn't shed a tear when they all eventually die.

Some other sites go through a website redesign which creates a completely new URL structure. Examples of this sort of heightened incompetence include the Times of India and the Economic Times. All my old links to articles in these newspapers are totally useless!

Another example is the Economic and Political Weekly, whose redesign also leaves us with tons of link rot. To make things worse, their current design makes it difficult to link to their articles (pdf files) directly. What use is free content that defies direct links?

And finally, we have bloggers -- who really ought to know better! -- who simply decide that they need to start over! The most recent example is Ramnath, who retains the old blog URL, but none of the old content (A lot of it was so interesting.... Sigh!). Before him, Arunn canned his old blog and started a new one; much of the old content is there, but the URLs have changed! As a crowning example, let me cite the vanishing act of How the Other Half Lives (you can see the link -- broken, of course -- on the sidebar) to which I contributed quite a few posts.

It pains me to go back to the archives, and see that many of my posts have useless links! Grrrrr!

* * *

Some lessons:

  1. Don't get yourself a website if you cannot maintain (pay for and keep) the site's domain name for years and years.
  2. Don't go through site re-design if you don't know how to keep the old URLs intact.
  3. If you want to start a new blog on domains like WordPress or Blogspot, please start a really new blog; leave the old one alone. As someone who read and linked to your blog, I'll be grateful!

BTW, (1) and (2) should tell you why I don't have my own domain ;-)

Carol Dweck

Ever since I read this piece by Po Bronson, I have linked to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's work whenever I found an article on it. It came as a surprise that I have not linked to this one -- together with a sidebar -- particularly since I remember reading it several months ago. It's great stuff. Go read it now.

Thanks to Shruthi for the pointer.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An atheist challenges a murderous tantrik on live TV ...

... and wins [via Prashant]:

Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.

The encounter took place under the open night sky. The tantrik and his two assistants were kindling a fire and staring into the flames. Sanal was in good humour. Once the ultimate magic was invoked, there wouldn’t be any way back, the tantrik warned. Within two minutes, Sanal would get crazy, and one minute later he would scream in pain and die. Didn’t he want to save his life before it was too late? Sanal laughed, and the countdown begun. The tantriks chanted their “Om lingalingalingalinga, kilikilikili….”

Reduce Sterotype Threat

We all know what stereotype threat is. Now there's a site -- Reducing Stereotype Threat, run by social psychologists Steven Stroessner and Catherine Good.

It's devoted to research on many aspects of this subject.; in particular, check out the page on ways to reduce stereotype threat.

A general means for protecting the self from perceived threats and the consequences of failure is to allow people to affirm their self-worth. This can be done by encouraging people to think about their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important. [...] Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master (2006) described two field studies in which seventh grade students at racially-diverse schools were randomly assigned to self-affirm or not to self-affirm as part of a regular classroom exercise. For students who self-affirmed, they were asked to indicate values that were important to them and to write a brief essay indicating why those values were important. For students who did not self-affirm, they indicated their least important values and wrote an essay why those values might be important to others. Although the intervention took only 15 minutes, the effects on academic performance during the semester were dramatic. As reflected in their end-of-semester GPAs, African-American students who had been led to self-affirm performed .3 grade points better during the semester than those who had not.

Thanks to Zuska for the pointer.

Global Gender Gap Report - 2007

If you are into rankings and such, check out the Global Gender Gap Report - 2007.

India's ranked at 114 -- below Bangladesh (100) and above Pakistan (126). Philippines (6) and Sri Lanka (15) are the only Asian countries in the top 20. The country profile for India is here (pdf); profiles for other countries are available here.

India does considerably poorly (compared with the average) on economic and education indicators. On health, India is still below average, but not by much.

Despite scoring poorly on the number of women legislators and ministers, India manages to stay above average on political empowerment of women. Why? Because it scores very high for "number of years with a female head of state in the last 50 years", a category in which it's ranked at No. 4 in the world!

Instead of rankings (even if they cover two years -- 2006 and 07) , it is far more preferable to analyze how much progress each country has made over the years -- or even decades. For such analysis, one would have to look elsewhere ...

Seema Singh on IISc

Curiously, she focuses on our Institute's entrepreneurial initiatives (and their less than stellar track record):

In its centenary year, the country’s leading academic and scientific research organization, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is focusing on making entrepreunership an attractive career option for its students.

“We are consciously trying to encourage entrepreneurial activities on the campus in the hope that the graduating students will look at entrepreneurship as a serious career option,” says P. Balaram, director, IISc. He admits that not much attention was paid to private business enterprise in the past, but is convinced that it has enormous potential.

The next paragraph reveals the real focus of IISc:

... With 1,600 publications, about 9% of India’s total scientific output, 400 faculty members and 2,000 students including 1,200 doing doctorates, IISc ... can boast of an enviable wealth of knowledge.

Nothing new here for most of us, but I'm glad to link to some IISc-related stuff that's out in the public domain.

Monday, March 17, 2008


In U.V. Swaminatha Iyer's autobiography -- En Sarithiram, in Tamil -- I found something intriguing about weddings in the mid-nineteenth century South. On p.31, in a section on his father's wedding, he says:

It was time for my father to get married. In those days, it was the groom's family that bore much of the wedding expenses. It is they who used to pay for the wedding ceremony, bridal dress and jewelry. The bride's family was responsible primarily [and only?] for the thirumaangalyam. Thus, brides' families of that era -- unlike those of the present era [1940] -- would not be worried about lack of resources for taking care of wedding-related expenses.

It's not just these general observations; UVS also presents a lot of other details of the financial position (not quite precarious, but not fabulous either) his father's family to indicate that these financial worries were real. In fact, he returns to this topic again on p. 113 when he talks about his own wedding in 1868; he reiterates his point that "the bulk of the wedding costs fell on the groom's family."

From the above quote, it's clear that this practice had already changed drastically during UVS's own life. By 1940, when he wrote his autobiography (serialized in Ananda Vikatan, a Tamil weekly magazine), the wedding costs and their associated worries were squarely with the bride's family. I just find it amazing that this transformation -- a reversal of financial responsibility -- took all of three generations.

* * *

Googling a bit, I found a couple of links to the work of Veena Talwar Oldenburg on the institution of dowry in Punjab; her work seems to blame the imperial policies for the transformation of a community-based, women-led institution of streedhan into the horrible monstrosity that it has become today, killing thousands of young women every year.

Has anyone mentioned that JEE's rank order is a joke?

Manoj Mitta has the goods (in a follow-up on this), thanks to the Right To Information Act:

In 2006, the cutoff marks in maths, physics and chemistry were 37, 48 and 55 respectively. The corresponding marks for IIT-JEE 2007, in a bizarre twist, fell to as low as 1, 4 and 3.

Shocking as they are, the figures were kept under wraps in order to protect the credibility of IITs, a global brand. The authorities have, however, been forced to disclose the cutoff marks thanks to applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The reduction in cutoff marks to single digits has made a mockery of the concept which is meant to ensure that selected candidates display a certain minimum level of knowledge in each of the three subjects. This has opened up the possibility of students making it to the merit list of IIT-JEE despite scoring nearly zero in the crucial test in mathematics.

The fall in the cutoffs in last year's examination defies logic as the overall performance of candidates actually went up. This is evident from the fact that the aggregate of the last candidate to have been selected in 2007 is 206, which is up from 154 the previous year.

The first and last paragraphs in the above quote do paint a seemingly illogical picture. It would be great if someone who knows more about this issue comes forward to share some inside info.

* * *

Here's an early rant from April 2006 about our deeply flawed entrance exams (one-shot, non-standardized) of which JEE is a horrible example. Here's another, from last year.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the state of higher education

In order to understand why our high school students are under such tremendous stress, he says, we must look at the state of our higher ed system. Here's an excerpt from last week's column:

But Parliament spectacularly misdiagnosed the source of the stress. The primary source of stress on the students is not the curriculum. It is simply that quality institutions in higher education are in extremely short supply. In the current system, every marginal mark might make a difference to your prospects of admission, no matter what the curriculum. An ideal system of higher education has two attributes. There must be an adequate supply of good quality institutions. But equally importantly, the differences in the quality of institutions must be a gradual downward sloping curve. If you did not get into the best institutions, the price you pay for getting into the second best is not that high. In our case, there is a very small cluster of desirable institutions, surrounded by a sea of low quality colleges. Unless the supply and quality of higher education institutions are changed, the quest for the marginal mark will continue to produce stress on grandparents like the Lok Sabha speaker.

Right brain magic, price of wine, happiness, loving one's hands

And here's a bonus:

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Regime change at St. Stephen's

With the resignation of Valson Thampu as the college's principal, St. Stephen's now has an opportunity to leave behind all the controversies he brought about. The immediate cause for his resignation appears to be the realization that his PhD in theology is not enough for his appointment as the principal; apparently, UGC (or, is it Delhi University?) regulations demand that the PhD should be in a "relevant" field, which is interpreted as a field taught at the college. It turns out St. Stephen's does not have a department of theology.

Right from his appointment as the principal -- technically, an officer on special duty acting as principal! -- Thampu has been a controversial figure. One of his early actions was to increase the quota for Christians to 40%. This move attracted the ire of many prominent Stephen's alumni, including Ram Guha and Burkha Dutt.

Another series of controversies -- which eventually led to Thampu's resignation -- arose when his tenure as principal needed to be formalized. Here's an approximate version of events (please correct me if I am wrong): An initial recruitment ad specified qualifications that appeared to be tailored to suit Thampu (Masters degree without specifying any minimum marks, age range of 50 to 60, etc). However, when questions were raised about these requirements being incompatible with the regulations of UGC and Delhi University (to which St.Stephen's is affiliated), the college administration tried to use its status as a "minority institution" (which, apparently, confers on it certain special privileges). One of these UGC/DU requirements is this "PhD in a relevant field".

There's a report that suggests that Thampu did not have a PhD when he took over in May 2007, but obtained one late last year from Allahabad Agricultural Institute (a "Christian University of Rural Life"), which has a faculty of theology, "established to impart religious studies based on the fusion of the Gospel and modern means of farming."

The St.Stephen's administration -- and Thampu -- went through a whole bunch of legal maneuvers such as challenging, unsuccessfully, the DU and the Minorities Commission in the Delhi High Court, whose interim observation last week (that St.Stephen's must adhere to UGC norms) sealed Thampu's fate.

In the wake of Thampu's resignation, St. Stephen's Supreme Council has seen it fit to appoint a media adviser -- one Mr. Sunil Matthew -- who told the media that the appointment of the new principal will be "in accordance with the Constitution of the college and with due regard to the University regulations."

* * *

Now, it's time for Stephanian bloggers (of whom there are many) to come forward and tell us the "real" inside story behind the struggle for the soul control of this college ;-)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Prof. Alladi Sitaram will speak on Harish-Chandra: A Mathematician's Mathematician

Anant has the announcement over at his blog. The talk -- the eighth L. K. Ananthakrishnan Memorial Lecture -- is scheduled for 6 pm on Saturday, March 29, 2008 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium.

BTW, Anant has restarted blogging with a renewed vigor, with a flurry of posts in the last couple of days. One of them reproduces an article titled Right to Strike by Justice Alladi Kuppuswami, former Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

While there, check out this post on what's so special about the number 935.

Advice to a novice blogger

What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger?

The blogosphere is a province of the commonwealth of letters. What happens there - flame-wars, fiskings, 'the lurkers support me in email', emotional involvement with strangers' literary personas - is what happens whenever lots of people communicate with each other in print. So the rules are the same, too: either write about things that matter to you, and try not to care too much about whether or how you're being read; or else push your audience's buttons relentlessly, and ingratiate yourself with whoever happens to be a taste-maker at the moment.

That's from this Q&A with Cosma Shalizi, one of my favorite bloggers, over at Norman Geras's blog. The Q&A covers a lot more than just blogging, but let me stick to this topic here. So, what else does Cosma have to say about blogs? First, its usefulness:

What has been your best blogging experience?

Getting my job! That's an exaggeration, but not a complete one; when my last post-doc was ending, I put up a post mentioning that I was going on the job market. One of the senior faculty in my present department and I had been reading each other's blogs for a while before that, and when he saw my post he encouraged me to apply here, which I wouldn't have done otherwise.

But there are also these words of caution ...

What, if anything, do you worry about?

Being too lazy, too procrastinatory, or too preoccupied with blogging and committees to do significant scientific work [...]

Quote of the day

... [R]eally what counts is not what you cover, but what counts is what you uncover.

This bit of teaching philosophy comes from MIT professor Walter Lewin, in this profile [via Selva]. His physics lectures -- with videos! -- are the main reason for his almost cult-like fan following [you can find the links here].

Prof. Lewin was also the subject of a NYTimes profile sometime ago.

* * *

I know the context is different, but that quote from Lewin reminded me of this quote attributed to Prof. C.N.R. Rao:

While in Europe they dress for dinner, we in India undress.

Puzzles ...

Can you guess which PowerPoint presentation would have used this as its summary slide?

Go to the presentation itself to find out.

* * *

Which magazine is this commenter talking about?

I love [Magazine X]! I have a subscription since 1995 and have always read it backwards. The obituaries are fantastic.

Go to this post to find out. [Related reading: here and here, here and here].

News you can use ...

Never heard of GArchiver that apparently helps back up your GMail account on your machine. Until I saw this [via]. Bottomline: Don't touch this program!

The post I linked to appears in a blog called Coding Horror. How appropriate!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thoughtful comments

I spent a huge part of the last ten days in Chennai; while I managed a bit of blog reading during that time, I didn't get a chance to respond to comments here on my blog. I have been very lucky in getting some thoughtful comments, and I say to all the commenters: Thank you!

Here are some comments that I want to highlight:

In the comments thread following a new twist to the Kundu case, an anonymous commenter tried to use this case to justify closed access publishing. This comment received a fitting reply from Rahul:

Open access is refereed just as stringently as closed access, or more so. Take a look at PLoS and BMC, the two most prominent open-access publishers. In addition many publishers -- OUP, etc -- have optional open-access systems in place.

And I don't know what conclusions you draw from Kundu and Chiranjeevi's cases. Kundu's 2005 paper was published in a respected, non-open-access journal (though his paper seems to be accessible from my home machine too -- perhaps JBC has country-wide access for India, as PNAS does). His 2006 paper is published in an entirely obscure non-open-access journal that epitomises everything that is wrong with closed-access (namely, very few people can read the paper -- few institutions subscribe to the journal, because of its obscurity -- so the duplication is less likely to be caught). Chiranjeevi's papers were mostly in tier 2 or tier 3 closed-access journals.

If you really want to make a point, please highlight a case of fraud that has happened in an open-access journal and then say why it couldn't happen with a closed-access journal.

Staying with the broad theme of misconduct in science, Gautam responded to the post on IGCAR's verdict on the Anna University case with the following comment, which I fully agree with (especially the second paragraph):

I think this is a reasonable, though possibly somewhat strong recommendation. (It wasn't clear, on the evidence placed in the public domain, that Mathews had actually seen the paper submitted with his name on it.) On the other hand, Selladurai, I would think, got off with what seems like a mere slap on the wrist - no enquiry committee whose findings were made public but just a prohibition on taking students. This despite the fact that the paper was submitted from his email ID and he must have acceded to the transfer of copyright.

The transparent and careful procedures of IGCAR deserve to be commended, as well as their decision to place the report in the public domain. I do hope similar high profile cases are treated with the same care and transparency by the respective institutions involved.

Moving on, an anonymous commenter responded to Feynman's views on worthwhile problems with a link to Richard Hamming's lecture titled You and Your Research. This is indeed a great talk, and Hamming does devote a section to describing what kind of problems one should try to work on. Needless to say, there's an interesting contrast:

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, ``Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven't changed my research,'' he says, ``but I think it was well worthwhile.'' And I said, ``Thank you Dave,'' and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, ``What are the important problems in my field?''

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

Finally, the post about our President's wish for an IIT exclusively for women, received the following comment from Manasi:

gender-segregated educational institutions as a rule are not a great idea, but I think it is important not to be dogmatic about this principle. Given that IITs predominantly attract mofussil, non-progressive Indian males who use it as a tool for social mobility, it would be an interesting experiment to see what effect such an institution would have on the imagination of the aspirational classes. In terms of real access, precious little will be achieved but then that is another battle. Evidence institutions such as Morehouse, Spellman, Smith, etc. that have thrived in separate but equal situations and have essentially been refuges for folks that would otherwise not have had the same opportunities.

I agree with her that "it's important not to be dogmatic about this principle." First, there is considerable evidence that women are better off studying in all women colleges; heck, there's even evidence to prove that boys do ruin schools for girls! Second, given that our IITs have a long history -- over half a century! -- of being almost exclusively male, an all women IIT is nothing to be sneered at. I found the concept 'amazing' simply because (a) our President's suggestion goes against the trend of setting up co-educational institutions, and (b) it gives preference to a single sex institution over other institutional mechanisms -- such as giving some weight to students' high school marks during the admissions process -- that would allow a greater number of women to enter our top institutions (including IITs and NITs).

Punishing plagiarism: An episode from Pakistan

Googling a bit led me to this recent report about a plagiarism scandal at the Punjab University in Lahore:

Renowned physicists on Monday lauded Chancellor/Governor Lt General (r) Khalid Maqbool for taking action against the five Punjab University (PU) plagiarists, said a PU statement on Monday.

The scientists also demanded that the governor should impose heavy fines on the convicts for damaging the repute of the 125-year-old educational institute.

‘Forcible’ retirement of plagiarists: In February, on the recommendations of an inquiry committee, the governor ‘forcibly’ retired on charges of plagiarism PU Centre for High Energy Physics director Dr Fazle Aleem along with four other teachers of the same department: namely, Rashid Ahmad, Sohail Afzal Tahir, M Aslam Saeed and Maqsood Ahmad. ...

At the end of the report, we get this too:

PU’s pending grant: On February 24, Higher Education Commission (HEC) Executive Director Dr Sohail H Naqvi had said the HEC would release PU’s pending grant of Rs 110 million. The grant had earlier been stopped by the HEC last year due to the plagiarism issue. ...

Threat of withdrawal of grants and 'forced' retirements are harsh punishments indeed.

* * *

While on the topic of plagiarism by Pakistani academics, take a look at this case from the University of Karachi:

The person who has allegedly committed the act [of plagiarism] is no other than Dr Jalaluddin Noori, professor and the dean of faculty [of Islamic Studies]. While Dr Noori denies the charges, documents present incriminating evidence. Even his colleagues and high-ups in the university do not doubt the allegation.

The News contacted Dr Noori on Wednesday to find out what he has to say in his defence. According to him, the affair was so old that it had simply gotten 'stale' and hence had no importance. ...

How old was this 'affair'? It dates back to 1969, in Noori's PhD thesis!

Oh, you'll also be interested in this blacklist of sorts...

IGCAR's verdict in the Anna University case

Remember the Anna   University   plagiarism   case? The authors of the plagiarized paper were K. Muthukkumaran (a student at AU), R. Bokalawela (a student at the University of Oklahoma, Norman), T. Mathews (a researcher at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research), and S. Selladurai (a faculty member at AU).

Anna University has already taken some action against its faculty member and student. The fate of Bokalewela is unknown. Now, we have some idea about what IGCAR has done; this page on the IGCAR website has a summary.

Bottomline: T. Matthews has been found guilty of a couple of minor crimes (not withdrawing his name from the paper to which he contributed nothing, and not realizing that the student could not have done the research reported in that paper), for which the internal investigation committee has suggested some punishment.

I don't know how long IGCAR will keep the summary at this URL, so I am reproducing all of it below.

* * *


A paper entitled “Determination of dopant of ceria system by density functional theory," by K. Muthukkumaran, Roshan Bokalawela, Tom Mathews, and S. Selladurai; Published online: 18 May 2007 in J. Mater Sci 42, 7461 (2007) has attracted strong criticism of plagiarism from the authors of the paper entitled "Optimization of ionic conductivity in doped ceria," by David A. Andersson, Sergei I. Simak, Natalia V. Skorodumova, Igor A. Abrikosov, and Börje Johansson, PNAS, Vol 103, 3518 (2006)

Dr. Tom Mathews, Materials Science Division, IGCAR figures as one of the co-authors in the Journal of Materials Science paper. At IGCAR, which is a prestigious institute dealing with various aspects of science and technology of fast reactors and associated technologies, we are very keen to get to the truth of this sensitive and serious matter, as it involves the reputation of scientists and organizations.

A two member committee committee comprising of Dr. M. Vijayalakshmi, Head, Physical Metallurgy Division and Dr. K.S. Viswanathan, Materials Chemistry Division and Dean HBNI-IGCAR, had been constituted to investigate various aspects of the Plagiarism issue, that includes the extent of involvement of Dr. Tom Mathews and events leading to the submission and publication of the above paper. This Committee had conducted an enquiry in confidentiality by communicating with the various parties involved, that include the original authors, Editorial office of the Journal, and the authors of the plagiarized paper. They have also had personal interviews with Dr. Tom Mathews, Dr. Selladurai and the student K. Muthukkumaran. A detailed report was prepared taking cognizance of all the available information. The, principal findings of this report, submitted to Director, IGCAR, are given below:

“Based on the information collected from different sources and allowing for uncertainties due inconsistencies in the narrations of the different authors, it cannot be concluded if Dr. Tom Mathews had an active role to play in the conduct of Plagiarism at any stage of the communication / publication of the paper under discussion. The investigating team, however, finds Dr.Tom Mathews certainly guilty of not withdrawing his name from a paper where he has neither contributed nor is in his field of expertise. Furthermore, Dr. Mathews could not have failed to notice that the science discussed in the paper and the language used, are not consistent with what one can expect from Muthukkumaran, based on earlier research efforts and contributions of the student, which Dr. Mathews was well aware.”

The detailed report was also discussed at various levels of the Department of Atomic Energy, and Dr. Tom Mathews was also given an opportunity to explain.

We had also taken into account an independent report prepared by Prof. Kamanio Chattopadhyay, Editor, Journal of Materials Science.

Taking these inputs into account, as also the credentials of Dr. Tom Mathews, and that the above episode is a singular case of aberration in his long scientific career, the IGCAR management has taken the following decisions: (1) Not allowing Dr. Tom Mathews to take any students under his guidance for a period of two years; (2) Scrutiny of his future publications by Head, Materials Science Division and Director, Metallurgy and Materials Group, before sending for publications and (3) Cautioning Dr. Tom Mathews that if plagiarism on any publication with him as an author is proven at any future date, he will be debarred from participating in scientific activities at IGCAR.

In taking the above actions, we are conscious of the need to maintain a delicate balance between the seriousness of the issue and the sensitivities of the people involved. The transparency of our intent and actions, we strongly believe, will help us to build confidence in the overall system and redeem our image in the comity of scientific community.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

All about snowflakes

Check out the website devoted to snow crystals and snowflakes, so lovingly put together by the Caltech physicist Kenneth G. Libbrecht.

It's 3 a.m. ...

First watch the ad from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Now, go to this PhD Comics version.

And, finally, check out this fabulous Saturday Night Live version.

Beyond start-up grants

Here's Inside Higher Ed's Andy Guess on an interesting new initiative by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute:

... In continuing its mission to support biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute today announced a major effort to plug one of the gaps: the period when a junior faculty member’s start-up funds start to dry out. The idea, according to officials, is to provide a six-year respite of completely predictable funding for up to 70 scientists who have already spent two to six years in their own laboratories, often with funding from their first grant.

“We decided to focus on scientists who have led their own laboratories for several years because many of these scientists are at a high point of their creativity just as they see their start-up funds and early-career awards ending,” said the institute’s president, Thomas R. Cech, in announcing the program. ...

“I guess Tom [Cech] and I both thought that this stage in a person’s career is when they’re most productive, when they’re absolutely full of energy.... What are they doing? They’re stuck in their office, writing and rewriting their grant,” said Jack Dixon, the institute’s vice president and chief scientific officer. The solution, he said, was to take a “people not project” approach, to attract the most creative investigators and give them the resources to branch out and even change directions in their work, if necessary.

The program's website is here.

My own views on attracting bright young facutly to teach and research in India's leading institutions were posted here, and yes, our start-up grants should be far bigger than what they are now.

Our President wants an IIT exclusively for women


President Pratibha Patil has asked the government to set up an Indian Institute of Technology exclusively for girls.

She has also insisted that it be built in Amravati, her former Lok Sabha constituency. Amravati is in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, which has seen a spate of suicides by debt-ridden farmers.

None of the country’s top institutes of higher education like the IITs or the Indian Institutes of Management caters only to women. Nor is there any central university meant only for women.

Thanks to Yogesh Upadhyaya for the e-mail pointer.

* * *

Anand Mahindra on the future of IITs

His address to an audience of IIT-B alumni, students and faculty during the institution's Golden Jubilee Celebrations has been published by the Economic Times. Here's the section where he talks about the possible futures of IIT-B:

... I believe that an IIT is not just an institution, a place of brick and mortar. Rather it is an idea that ability deserves excellence and that excellence in education needs to reach all who merit it. And I believe that the Dharma of an IIT is to be the Constant Gardener of India’s technological future – to spread excellence as far as it can go without compromising on quality. And I believe you should not remain islands of excellence--the time has come to be a tsunami that inundates the whole of India. If you define your Dharma as spreading accessible excellence, then the ways to nurture and spread the seeds are many. Let me be consistent in my use of the metaphor of seeds and gardening, and suggest four possible routes.

You could simply ‘sow the field’ wider and deeper by creating more campuses perhaps using the wonders of technology to create virtual campuses. In our own small way, we are planning to create a Mahindra College of Engineering, which envisions five geographically dispersed campuses, each one of which will have a particular discipline, or two disciplines in which it will develop distinctive competence. But all campuses, through state of the art technology, will be networked and will benefit from the collective competencies through virtual classrooms and networked knowledge management. I’m sure that IIT could achieve this orientation faster and better than we could.

Second, let’s consider the technique of ‘grafting,’ adding your skills to existing institutions to upgrade them to IIT standards. I know that there was a programme to upgrade certain Regional Engineering Colleges that met particular criteria, to the status and brand of an IIT. I’m not sure how rapidly that plan is progressing and whether it is being passionately fostered by existing IIT’s, which are the only ones with the wherewithal to make this initiative succeed.

Third, you could employ ‘hybrid’ techniques to create joint programmes with other institutions. During my days in university in Boston, I recall how enthusiastically the great institutions of learning there collaborated on permitting students to cross-register for related course work; undertook joint teaching courses; and even established joint degree programmes. Such policies here would allow aspiring institutions to raise their standard of teaching in a dramatically brief period of time.

Finally, and most important in my view, you could go undertake ‘intensive irrigation.’ Could a task force examine how IIT could itself encourage or even incubate an army of Anand Kumars, who could establish centres of additional training in many neglected and benighted areas of the country which suffer from poor educational opportunities. I know this is a controversial topic, and will face a barrage of questions such as the role of tuitions in education, and even the role of privatization in coaching. But this is happening, as we all know, in any case, and all I’m suggesting is helping to level the playing field for aspiring IIT candidates in areas where private enterprise may fear to tread. Irrigation could also mean, in a non-controversial manner, the creation of a cadre of great teachers with IIT training, who could be placed with myriad institutions in the country, thus elevating the standards of learning in a widespread manner.

Coaching classes can get recursive ...

Rashmi Bansal has a great post about Bansal Classes, a coaching shop in Kota, Rajasthan, that helps a lot of students prepare for the Joint Entrance Examination of the IITs [link via DesiPundit]. Here's the clincher:

The secret of their success is 'pre selection'. Admission to Bansal classes is based on an entrance exam after class 10. There are 2 exams - the first is around April 15th, just after the 10th Boards. This exam is called 'Bullseye'.

The second entrance is in the first week of June. This exam is called 'Acme'. ...

Yes, there are 15 day crash courses to help you get into Bansal classes such as 'Garg classes'. Not only do they coach you for the Bansal test, they teach you 2-3chapters of their study material so you can score better in the first few weekly tests. Yup, it's one hell of a competitive environment. [Bold emphasis added by me]

Richard Feynman on worthwhile problems

Over at Scientific Indian blog, Selva has posted a fascinating letter from Richard Feynman to one of his former students. The letter is about what kinds of problems are worthwhile for a scientist to work on. The answer is not what you would think it is; it's far simpler!

Lasik surgery: Read the fine print

There was a time when inauguration of a Lasik unit at any eye hospital in Bangalore used to receive press coverage. Not any more; there are just too many of them here, as there are in the other metros as well. Clearly, this elective surgery has become very popular. And it's likely that you or people you know are considering it as a path to an eye-glasses-free future. If so, do please read this NYTimes piece by Abby Ellin to get a clearer picture.

After highlighting the 95.4 percent satisfaction rate enjoyed by Lasik surgery, Ellin turns to some of the nasty side effects that afflict some of the remaining 4.6 percent. The key take-away from this article is this: If you knew the full extent of these risks -- even low probability ones -- would you still go for a surgery whose main benefit is (merely) cosmetic?

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Kundu case: A new twist

I have just been alerted about this letter (pdf) in the March 10 issue of Current Science:

A greater shock awaited me when I entered a name that was discussed widely in the pages of Current Science last year, primarily as a test of the veracity of the database. Two pairs of citations were picked up. The first pair appeared to be legitimate, consisting of an original paper in one journal and a review article by the same group in another journal on the same theme. The second pair of publications was more alarming since it appeared to be a clear case of duplicate publications by the same group. The first paper ... was published in 2004 and the second3 in 2006. What was not apparent from the site without further browsing was the fact that the second paper had already been withdrawn from the journal precisely due to prior publication. The journal that published the 2006 paper had a bland erratum in fine print in 2007, stating ‘This article was withdrawn due to prior publication in an alternate publication by the authors’. It does not state who withdrew the paper, the authors or the journal. Shockingly, however, the erratum gives a link to the 2006 paper and one is able to view the full text, without any indication that the paper had been withdrawn. This information can be found only by chance. It appears that many journals also do not wish to take the responsibility for making a mistake. Incidentally, the 2004 paper2 was part of the controversy discussed at length in Current Science last year. The group was accused of misconduct and later exonerated of using part of the data in that paper to represent different sets of conclusions in another publication4 in 2005, which was subsequently withdrawn by the journal. Interestingly, the withdrawal of the 2006 paper happened when the controversy was raging in the pages of Current Science and found no mention anywhere at that time. As on 21 February 2008, the official NCCS website continues to include both withdrawn papers among its list of publications.

Wow. Just wow! This bit of smart sleuthing is by Prof. S. Mahadevan, a colleague, who goes on to echo sentiments similar to my own:

we in India have no formal mechanism to address such issues. What is to be done if we discover an unethical act? Whom do we approach? Whistle-blowers are exposed, their confidentiality violated. Independent watchdog organizations are accused of ulterior motives and maligned. Our science academies are mute spectators during most of these discussions. There appears to be a great desire for damage control rather than getting to the bottom of the issues and resolving them fairly. This is in stark contrast to what happens elsewhere, including our Asian neighbour Korea. The ability of the Indian scientific community to institute fair and transparent mechanisms to handle allegations of scientific misconduct will be a measure of its maturity. Where are the Luke Skywalkers, Princess Leias and Han Solos of Indian science?

Some of you may remember that the Kundu case was covered quite extensively in this blog. Let me link to these posts: here, here, here. The clinching evidence -- and a very good summary -- is available at Rahul's site: here.

Math instinct?

Check out this really fascinating article by Jim Holt about humans' ability to learn and do serious math. Here's a very brief summary:

According to Stanislas Dehaene, humans have an inbuilt “number sense” capable of some basic calculations and estimates. The problems start when we learn mathematics and have to perform procedures that are anything but instinctive.

Here's an excerpt about a theoretical prediction about "number neurons" that was later confirmed experimentally:

Dehaene has been able to bring together the experimental and the theoretical sides of his quest, and, on at least one occasion, he has even theorized the existence of a neurological feature whose presence was later confirmed by other researchers. In the early nineteen-nineties, working with Jean-Pierre Changeux, he set out to create a computer model to simulate the way humans and some animals estimate at a glance the number of objects in their environment. In the case of very small numbers, this estimate can be made with almost perfect accuracy, an ability known as “subitizing” (from the Latin word subitus, meaning “sudden”). Some psychologists think that subitizing is merely rapid, unconscious counting, but others, Dehaene included, believe that our minds perceive up to three or four objects all at once, without having to mentally “spotlight” them one by one. Getting the computer model to subitize the way humans and animals did was possible, he found, only if he built in “number neurons” tuned to fire with maximum intensity in response to a specific number of objects. His model had, for example, a special four neuron that got particularly excited when the computer was presented with four objects. The model’s number neurons were pure theory, but almost a decade later two teams of researchers discovered what seemed to be the real item, in the brains of macaque monkeys that had been trained to do number tasks. The number neurons fired precisely the way Dehaene’s model predicted—a vindication of theoretical psychology. “Basically, we can derive the behavioral properties of these neurons from first principles,” he told me. “Psychology has become a little more like physics.”

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Educating kids: Some links

  • Steve Mirsky of Scientific American: This is Your Brain on Arts.

    A three-year, multi-institutional study finds that early training in performing arts is really good for the brain.

  • Ellen Gamerman in WSJ: What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?

    Finland's teens score extraordinarily high on an international test. American educators are trying to figure out why.

  • Jennifer Medina in NYTimes: Next Question: Can Students Be Paid to Excel?

    School districts nationwide have seized on the idea that a key to improving schools is to pay for performance, whether through bonuses for teachers and principals, or rewards like cash prizes for students. New York City, with the largest public school system in the country, is in the forefront of this movement, with more than 200 schools experimenting with one incentive or another. In more than a dozen schools, students, teachers and principals are all eligible for extra money, based on students’ performance on standardized tests.

Sharing blame when a paper is retracted

Nature News has a report about the retraction of a paper published some seven years ago. This case is likely to attract some attention because it's from the group of Linda Buck, a Nobel winner,who admitted, "... we have totally lost confidence in the conclusions of that paper."

While we wait for the details of the real story to emerge, what is interesting is the way the blame for the fiasco is being assigned.

A synopsis of author contributions, published together with the retraction, ... lists co-first-author Zhihua Zou as solely responsible for providing data and figures for the paper. Zou, now a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, did not respond to Nature's requests for comment. Lisa Horowitz, who shared first authorship with Zou and continues to work in Buck's lab, was credited only with providing reagents and designing experiments.