Thursday, August 28, 2008

The technology behind the Obama campaign

The MIT Technology Review has a fascinating story on Obama's very tech-savvy campaign:

Of course, many of the 2008 candidates had websites, click-to-donate tools, and social-networking features--even John McCain, who does not personally use e-mail. But the Obama team put such technologies at the center of its campaign--among other things, recruiting 24-year-old Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, to help develop them. And it managed those tools well. Supporters had considerable discretion to use MyBO to organize on their own; the campaign did not micromanage but struck a balance between top-down control and anarchy. In short, Obama, the former Chicago community organizer, created the ultimate online political machine.

By July 2008, the campaign had raised more than $200 million from more than a million online donors (Obama had raised $340 million from all sources by the end of June), and MyBO had logged more than a million user accounts and facilitated 75,000 local events [...]

[...] "On every metric, this campaign has operated on a scale that has exceeded what has been done before. We facilitate actions of every sort: sending e-mails out to millions and millions of people, organizing tens of thousands of events." The key, he says, is tightly integrating online activity with tasks people can perform in the real world. "Yes, there are blogs and Listservs," Franklin-Hodge says. "But the point of the campaign is to get someone to donate money, make calls, write letters, organize a house party. The core of the software is having those links to taking action--to doing something."

Mistake in Math JEE

This must be awfully embarrassing:

The question carried four marks — a score capable by itself of taking students to within a mark of the math subject cut-off of five. Only on clearing subject cut-offs are students eligible to be considered for IIT seats.

The results this year also revealed that math scores of around 6,700 general category students selected were separated by just 87 marks — translating into an average of 77 students on every mark between the topper and the last entrant.

For those selected, four marks, on an average, would mean a rank jump of over 300, enough to secure them a more popular stream of engineering than the one offered.

The picture becomes even worse when you take into account the negative mark for a wrong answer.

* * *

In GATE (an exam that I am familiar with), the answers are circulated to all the participating institutions -- the IITs and IISc -- as soon as the exam is over. A set of people in each institution pores over question paper to see if everything hangs together. Whenever a potential problem is located (such as two possibly correct choices when the student is asked to choose only one, or the absence of the correct answer in the four choices, ambiguous wording, etc), an appropriate action -- including removal of the problematic question from consideration -- is taken.

Even this procedure has its flaws. By the time a mistake is discovered, some damage has already been done: some students would have wasted their time answering a question that's removed from evaluation, or they would have been thrown off -- or, emotionally upset -- by a poorly worded question.

But, the mistake in math JEE comes well after the results are out; it is really surprising that it slipped through the JEE's stringent controls -- probably more stringent than those for GATE -- at multiple levels.

I wouldn't be surprised if the IITs end up facing a bunch of lawsuits.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reservation links

First, an article by S. Narayan, a former finance secretary and economic advisor to the prime minister, titled A new class of civil servants (thanks to Raj for the e-mail alert):

The character of the All India Services has changed in my lifetime, and in my view, the new entrants are far more representative of the aspirations of the “inclusive growth” view. Bright and hard-working, yet from families that know the meaning of hardship, these are the youngsters most likely to be able to administer from the heart, not just from the book. I have also seen a complete social transformation in the composition of the services, a transformation, though painful, which has brought up people much more representative of the diversities in our society. In the South, especially in Tamil Nadu, it has taken almost 70 years to get here, and I do believe that the rest of India must follow, and it may perhaps take far less time. Though one had to compete all the harder to succeed, I am a strong votary of affirmative action to provide preferential opportunities, especially education, to those who don’t have them.

* * *

V. Venkatesan (of Law and Other Things blog) reviews Rajeev Dhavan's book Reserved!: How Parliament Debated Reservations 1995-2004:

In Mandal I, Dhavan advanced the “empowerment” argument, which touched a chord in the majority judgment of Justice Jeevan Reddy. ... Dhavan identifies disempowerment as one of the three considerations to determine backwardness of a class, the others being disadvantage and discrimination. He explains that there was a cutting edge to the argument of disempowerment: empowerment included both political and bureaucratic empowerment. The empowerment argument did not appeal in Mandal II because the case pertained to reservation in educational institutions. One is left wondering why Dhavan does not believe that many disempowered classes see admission to educational institutions as a passport to gain entry into the civil services.

* * *

T.T. Ram Mohan points to this Outlook article about the strong resistance to caste-wise census in Karnataka. Here's Ram Mohan's comment:

When the OBC quota controversy flared up, people questioned the basis for the 27% quota, saying there was no data to back it up. At the time, it was pointed out that there has been a marked refusal on the part of successive governments to collect the data in the first place. Ok, what is past is past, but surely there is merit in trying to see whether quota policy rests on a sound basis of data? ...

And here's a quote from the Outlook story:

According to [Dr C.S. Dwarakanath, an eminent lawyer and KSCBC chairman], the survey is necessary as there have been enormous social and economic changes in the last few decades. "Each time the backward classes' quota issue has come up, the Supreme Court has asked for data and we have had none to provide. This survey may be the first step in addressing that lacuna. Other states can replicate or improve on Karnataka's experiment," he says.

* * *

Vikram is upset about the tone of a ToI story -- and even more by the casteist views of some of the commenters on that story -- about SC/ST reservation in the IITs.

NRI University

We have some more info on this initiative which was mooted over three years ago. It's going to be set up near Bangalore, and it will be run by the Manipal group.

Manipal Universal's (the education arm) CEO Anand Sudarshan told ET, "The NRI/PIO university will come up in Bangalore and is expected to start by the academic year 2010." The campus will come up on a 200-acre site towards north Bangalore, closer to the international airport.

Typically, a varsity of a large size and scale would require investments in the region of Rs 200-300 crore. The university will come about in phases over a five-year period.

While the university is essentially targeted towards the NRI community, there will be a percentage of Indian students too. Manipal is still working out modalities like course structure and fee. It is understood that general management, medicine and engineering would be mainstays with studies on Indian culture weaved into them. The varsity is hoping to offer a value arbitrage for its students.

The IISc Centenary Conference: The Speakers

The IISc Centenary Conference is just 107 days away. The Conference website has some new information about the speakers.

First, check out the impressive line-up of plenary speakers. I'll just highlight a few personal favorites:

In addition, the Conference will host quite a few workshops and panels, each featuring 5 - 7 speakers. My personal favourite among them is Prof. P.M. Ajayan -- we were classmates at BHU!

* * *

I believe some of the invitees are yet to confirm their participation; so the list of speakers will see some additions in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where else can you get a 50-fold return on your investment?

The researchers found that US$86 billion ... were saved in personal health care expenditure between 1989, the start of the [California Tobacco Control Program], and 2004. This generally grew over time, reaching 7.3% of the total in 2003–2004. The personal health care expenditure savings represented about a 50-fold return on the $1.8 billion spent on the program during the same period (all 2004 US dollars).

That's from the Editor's summary of this PLoS Medicine article by James M. Lightwood, Alexis Dinno, and Stanton A. Glantz.

Hat tip to Seema Singh.

Links ...

Decidedly unclassy credit card companies: ABN-Amro in India, and American Express in the US.

Extreme Googlization?

An intervention designed to reduce rrandmother death resulting from college exams.

An interview of the Delhi University's Vice Chancellor:

How has the character of the DU student changed over the years?

Options are more widely available, students are perpetually connected to the Internet. The exposure is huge but personally my concern is how much value are they adding to themselves while in college. Education is far more important than merely going in for a job. Also, I feel they’re not taking too many initiatives and their reading habits have decreased. Not many show a keen enthusiasm in knowledge. But I do realize the challenges today’s youth face.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Links ...

Blogging has been non-existent over the last ten days or so because of my Chennai visit for a series of family events. Here are a few links to (re-)start things off:

  • Andrew Gelman and Noah Kaplan on why we vote at all. Bottom line: Yes, voting is rational. And no, being rational is not the same thing as being selfish.

  • National Geographic's Tom Mueller on biomimetics -- "applying designs from nature to solve problems in engineering, materials science, medicine, and other fields."

  • Aaron Swartz on how to launch new software. Bottom line: The GMail-style launch -- "you grow the site" -- is better than the Hollywood launch.

  • An interview with Michael Kimmel who "has just published a new book that offers an inside look at this young male culture, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men."

  • Carolyn Johnson on multiple ways of doing open science via the web.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Facets of reservation in Tamil Nadu

Out of 425 seats in medical college open to everyone, 332 go to reserved category students (378 if you include 28 backward Christians and 18 backward Muslims):

Out of 1,368 medical seats available for distribution in the first phase of admissions, 425 are in the open category since Tamil Nadu has a total reservation of 69%, which leaves 31% for open competition. Of these 425 seats, 378 have gone this year to candidates belonging to communities covered by quotas but who made it in the general category on their merit. They account for 88.94% of the open seats.

Of those from underdeveloped communities who have made it through the open quota , as many as 244 are backward class candidates and 60 from the most backward group. In addition, there are 27 scheduled caste candidates and one from a scheduled tribe. The rest comprise Christians (28) and Muslims (18) who come from disadvantaged groups who also enjoy a quota of 3.5% each in the backward class category.

* * *

I am not at all sympathetic to this kind of broad, general attacks on affirmative action policies (particularly when they are based on stuff like "oh, it's just not good for the beneficiaries' self esteem"), but the following observation is so striking that it makes me want to go read Marc Galanter's work on affirmative action:

Marc Galanter [in his 1984 book Competing Equalities] points out that, in Tamil Nadu, the highest of the so-called ‘backward classes’ legally entitled to preferences, constituting 11% of the total ‘backward classes’ population in the state, received almost half of all jobs and university admissions set aside for these classes. [Link]

* * *

Finally, this news item is noteworthy simply because of certain interesting arguments used by one potential beneficiary of reservations in his case against the 30 percent quota in TN government jobs for women:

The petitioner, a most backward class candidate who had applied for Group-I services in August last year, said the horizontal reservation of 30 per cent for women candidates was unconstitutional as the discrimination was based on sex.

Noting that the reservation , provided for under Section 21 of the Tamilnadu State and Subordinate Service Rules, ran counter to Article 16(2) of the Constitution , Vijayaraghavan said it would help women candidates with less marks to enter the services.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Diploma mill

[Chicago] Tribune reporter Russell Working tells about his adventures with diploma mills, where $699 and 'life experience' would earn him a degree in just about anything.

Read the fascinating story here.

Two links on India's higher ed

First, Jason Overdorf in Newsweek:

[Prime Minister Manmohan] Singh, himself a former economics professor at Delhi University, has promised to open 72 new post-secondary schools over the next five years, including eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology. To fund them, he's promised to boost the government's higher education spending ninefold, to $20 billion annually, during the five-year period that began in 2007.

But these changes may wind up addressing India's quantity problem without affecting its quality crisis. Already up to 75 percent of India's 400,000 annual technology grads and 90 percent of its 2.5 million general college grads are unable to find work. That's not due to a lack of jobs, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom)—it's due to a lack of skills. "For a long time after Independence, we were trying to solve the employment problem. Now we're trying to solve the employability problem," said Vijay Thadani, head of the Confederation of Indian Industry's committee on education. Loosening the purse strings will help Singh improve infrastructure and expand access for students, but it will take more than money to solve the faculty shortage, revamp outdated courses, encourage innovation and crack down on diploma mills. Indeed, rapid expansion could make these problems worse.

Geoff Maslen in University World News:

[Fazal Rizvi, a professor in the department of educational policy at the University of Illinois] said there had been widespread recognition of the role of higher education in sustaining high levels of economic growth and broader distribution of national wealth. Yet there were many indicators of a decline in the higher education system and these included:

  • An inability of the system to meet the growing demand.
  • Considerable evidence of poor teaching, especially in state universities.
  • Ineffective quality control.
  • Poor graduate outcomes with unemployment for most graduates from colleges.
  • Declining research performance and productivity.
  • Low status of Indian universities in international ranking.
  • Widespread corruption in appointments of faculty and selection of students.
  • Poor governance with cumbersome bureaucratic impediments to reform.

Many of these problems were caused by the structure of higher education in India and its colonial beginning in the mid-19th century, with a strong emphasis on disciplinary learning and examinations, Rizvi said.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Thermodynamics is like a parent!

An old McSweeny's list compared different physical theories to women in a man's life. For example,

0. Newtonian gravity is your high-school girlfriend. As your first encounter with physics, she's amazing. You will never forget Newtonian gravity, even if you're not in touch very much anymore.

In a spirited response, Jennifer Oullette offers us -- "in the interests of fair play, the women should have their own version while we're having fun with the battle of the sexes." -- physical theories as men [Thanks to Guru for both the links]. Here's the same Newtonian gravity as a man:

0. Newtonian gravity is that guy you had a crush on in high school. You never really dated, but you spent a lot of time together, and once you even made out in the science lab after school over a partially dissected fetal pig. It didn't go well. Things were kinda awkward after that, but you remained friendly from a distance. Or so you thought. Years later, you find out he told everyone you were a frigid lesbian -- even though he was the one who wouldn't go past second base because he "respected" you too much. To paraphrase Whistler, the helpful demon from Buffy (Season 2): "Newtonian gravity is like dating a nun. You're never gonna get the good stuff." You suspect he may have been gay.

Both the pieces are fun and interesting, and all. But neither of them had anything to say about thermodynamics.

I was glad to see a few comments on Oullette's blog filling this crucial gap:

Tom: Thermodynamics is the guy you're never really into, who helps you move into a new apartment/dorm, even while you're dating Electrodynamics or Special Relativity. By the time Quantum comes along, he realizes it's hopeless.

Matt: Tom is too generous. Thermodynamics is your dad. [see also the Footnote]


* * *

But I think Matt is onto something. Like a good parent, thermo lays down very few laws. They are laws that can never be violated (Even Homer Simpson got it right when he said "In this house, we OBEY the LAWS of THERMODYNAMICS!"). And they are laws that are full of wonderful insights about all kinds of things, and make us see the connections among them.

* * *

Why am I posting this stuff? Well, I start teaching this subject today.

* * *

[Footnote] Here's Lab Lemming on who thermo is really like:

Thermo isn't your dad, it's your daughter.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Links ...

A mini debate on Prof. M.S. Ananth's views on the need to reform the JEE: For and Against.

Olivia Judson: Feel the Eyes Upon You.

Seth Godin: Advice for Authors.

John Leland: Simulating Age 85, With Lessons on Offering Care.

Men's self esteem, body image, ...

... and physical attributes. And one of the attributes of interest, unsurprisingly, is penis size! The world needs to know more about the strength of the causal chain running in the reverse direction, and Australian researchers are keen to help. But they need more volunteers, and have a site where volunteers can participate in the sudy:

One of the instructions is pretty simple:

If possible, please have a tape measure ready. [Bold emphasis in the original]

Saturday, August 02, 2008


Three links. First up, Mission Human Mirror by the great folks at Improv Everywhere.

Next, a great prank.

And finally, an article on the psychology of mirrors by Natalie Angier.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

When we look in the mirror, our relative beauty is not the only thing we misjudge. [...]

I found the first two links over at Crooked Timber.

Friday, August 01, 2008

At a glance: 2008 JEE results

IIT-Roorkee has released a lot of data on JEE-2008. As we have seen earlier, the IITs use two filters before students are given a rank. The first filter gets rid of students who fall in the bottom quintile in *any* of the three subjects (math, physics, chemistry). The subject-wise cut-off marks are, respectively, 5, 0 and 3. Yes, you read it right: in physics, this cut-off is indeed zero.

The IITs have used a reduced cut-off for reserved categories. This concession is 10 percent for OBC candidates, and 40 percent for SC and ST candidates. Thus, for SC and ST candidates, the subject-wise cut-offs were at 3, 0, 1.8 marks in math, physics and chemistry, respectively.

The second filter simply picks the top N students using just one measure (this year, N=7903): the aggregate (or, the raw total of the marks in the three subjects). When multiple people end up with the same total, some procedure is used for breaking the tie. The details of this procedure does not interest me, so I won't go into it.

The cut-off in the aggregate score is 172. The reserved category students enjoyed a concession in the aggregate score as well; thus, the effective cut-offs for the OBC, SC and ST candidates were, respectively, 172, 104 and 104. The reason for the OBC cut-off being the same as the overall cut-off must be because of technicality, which I am yet to figure out. We will re-visit it later, if needed.

In another disclosure, IIT-R has revealed the aggregate scores for a bunch of uniformly spaced ranks. It has given this data for not only the common pool (for which the cut-off is 172), but also the OBC, SC and ST candidates. Let's see what these data look like; in the following plot, the aggregate score is on the horizontal axis, and the rank (in the respective lists) is on the vertical axis. Here's the plot:

Figure 1

The first thing that strikes you is the steep drop-off in the aggregate as you go up in ranks at the higher end. For example, the first five hundred ranks span a range of 146 (287 to 433), the remaining 7403 ranks span a range of just 107! The latter range works out to almost 70 students for each aggregate score between 172 and 287; In other words, there's a whole lot of tie-breaking the IITs would have indulged in from the 500th rank onwards!

Figure 1 is not particularly useful, because our reservation formula ensures that the x percent of the seats in each class (Institution-Department combination) is reserved for the beneficiaries. This means that the top 10 percent of the OBC students (for example) will be studying in the same classes as the top 10 percent of the common pool (and the next 10 percent in OBC will study with the next 10 percent in the common pool). It makes sense, therefore, to use a scaled rank on the vertical axis; thus, the rank in each category is divided by the total number of ranks in that category, so that each curve will end up at 1 at the top/left. Here's the scaled plot:

Figure 2

The striking thing in this figure is the closeness of the OBC curve with that of the common pool. I have to warn you, however, that the common pool includes the OBC candidates. Thus, the curves for the non-OBC general pool and the OBC pool are likely to be separated a little; I am confident that this difference is small, because both the curves end at an aggregate score of 172 (by definition), a cut-off that was used for both the groups.

Here's a second warning: The OBC students form about 14 percent of the common pool (1134 out of 7903). In the next couple of years, this fraction will have to be ramped up (theoretically, to at least 27 percent). If the full OBC reservation had been implemented this year, the additional OBC students would all have come with an aggregate of less than 172. I don't know what kind of cut-off the IITs would have employed for OBCs, but let's assume that they used a cut-off that selected 2000 OBC students. We can now re-plot the above figure and see what effect of a higher OBC reservation would looks like. Here it is:

Figure 3

[Caution: I need to warn you again that this figure is based on speculations about where the IITs might have drawn the line for the OBCs.]

Now, you can see the effect of reservation, which was absent in the second figure. You have the common pool, followed (to its left) by the OBCs, SCs and STs at a difference of about 30 marks, 80 marks and 80 marks, respecitively.

[Aside: One can perform this sort of an analysis for each subject, but that kind of disaggregated data has not been made public.]

Let's go back to the second figure. If we assume (and this is a BIG assumption) that JEE marks are a good predictor of a student's performance in IIT, some conclusions follow. Since the OBC and general pool curves are so close, an OBC student is not particularly at a disadvantage in choosing one of the 'highest' branches available to him / her. This is because the difference between his / her marks and those of his / her classmates are not likely to be terribly large (at least, this year).

Alas, the same cannot be said about SC and ST students. In particular, life would be extremely difficult for someone with a rank of SC 100 (whose aggregate of 167 is already below the common pool's cut-off) to compete against his / her classmates whose ranks are likely to be near 500 (for which the aggregate is 287). Such a student is better off by choosing a "lower" discipline where the students will have scores closer to his / her own.

To all those who complain ...

... about how the eight new IITs have no teachers, no infrastructure and, heck, no campus: here's something that might interest you:

“I applied after seeing a small news item in The Hindu. My uncle recommended that I apply to this new institute rather than the more established CEG [College of Engineering], Guindy. My mother was so angry with him for sending me off to a jungle,” laughs S. Srinivasan.

The jungle was untouched in those days, with no buildings on campus ready for the first batch of students. “Back then, IIT existed in the minds of the planners and its physical presence was discerned in the borrowed classrooms of AC Tech,” said Mallik Putcha, writing in a campus paper a quarter of a century later. Students lived at the old Presidency College women’s hostel in Saidapet. “We used to cycle from there and cross the Adyar river by boat. I remember the ride used to cost us about 25 paise a week,” remembers R. Mahadevan.

Thanks to Yogesh for the e-mail alert.

* * *

Today, the IITs are to release a lot of information about this year's JEE. So there will be quite a few occasions during the rest of the week to comment on my least favorite entrance exam conducted by my favorite institutions.

I believe the stuff will go on display on IIT-R's JEE website (the site is not loading as of this writing). If you find anything of note (on that site or elsewhere), do please share it with us through comments here, or send me an e-mail.