Tuesday, September 30, 2008


The worst thing of all is that buying an option has nothing to do with owning a share of a company. When a company grows and prospers, all the shareholders benefit, but options are a zero-sum game. For every dollar that's won in the market there's a dollar that's lost, and a tiny minority does all the winning.

When you buy a share of stock, even a very risky stock, you are contributing something to the growth of the country. That's what the stocks are for. [...] In the multibillion-dollar futures and options market, not a bit of money is put into constructive use. It doesn't finance anything, except the cars, planes and houses purchased by the brokers and the handful of winners. What we are witnessing here is a giant transfer payment from the unwary to the wary.

[... snip ...]

Warren Buffett thinks that stock futures and options ought to be outlawed, and I agree with him.

That's from the legendary mutual fund manager Peter Lynch in his 1989 classic, One Up On Wall Street.

* * *

Among all the explanations of the current crisis, the one by Robert Feinman is possibly the best [thanks to Swarup for the link]. It describes in vivid terms the kind of crazy creatures that financial derivatives really are, and shows you that they just aren't investments at all!

* * *

In 2003, Warren Buffett was as blunt as he was in 1989: he called financial derivatives "time bombs" and "financial weapons of mass destruction."

* * *

In a short, but hard-hitting post, Dani Rodrik asks:

... What I would love to hear are some examples such financial innovation — not of any kind, but of the kind that has left a large enough footprint over some kind of economic outcomes we really care about. What are some of the ways in which financial innovation has made our lives measurably and unambiguously better?

If I had asked this question a little over a year ago, I suppose I would have been hearing a lot about how collateralized debt obligations and structured finance have allowed millions of people to purchase homes that they would not have been able to afford otherwise. Sorry, but you will have to come up with some other examples now.

* * *

Two more links before I end:

1. Rahul's post on Markets and Honesty.

2. A gripping account a part of the on-going crisis [thanks to Lekhni for the link].

Tuesdays with NYTimes

NYTimes' sections on Health and Science appear on Tuesdays. The Health section, in particular, always has some useful stuff. Today, it has two articles on websites that provide reliable information on health and medicine. Let me just point you to them:

  1. Favourite Health Resources: "Science Times asked some of its contributors for their favorite resources on health, whether online or in print."

  2. Logging On for a Second (or Third) Opinion: "... [P]aging Dr. Google can lead patients to miss a rich lode of online resources that may not yield to a simple search. Sometimes just adding a word makes all the difference."

These two are worth checking out too:

  1. Searching for Clarity: A Primer on Medical Studies

  2. Applying Science to Alternative Medicine

Brain gain at the IITs, again ...

This meme seems to have the kind of traction that makes it keep popping up every few months. The latest to play it up is Amba Batra Bakshi's story in Outlook with a strange title The Boomerangers. It profiles a bunch of IIT-D faculty members.

As I said in this post, I welcome such stories for their PR value that could encourage more and more people to consider returning to India to take up faculty positions. So, let's hear the positives that some of the new hires have mentioned (I'll get to my complaint below):

Niloy J. Mitra, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Delhi:

The salaries are not at all competitive but the facilities and funding are as I expected. IIT Delhi was my choice because of the great research opportunities that it offers.

Vinay Joseph Ribeiro, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Delhi:

Culturally we are more comfortable at home, there are more research opportunities here. Also, opportunity and funding from industry for research work has increased.

Supratik Chakraborty, Department of Computer Science at IIT-Bombay:

It was a great feeling to know that there are opportunities back home in academia and research. I feel the number of people coming back is due to this support system. Other than the formal applications, there is a lot being done through informal networking and word-of-mouth which is influencing people to return.

Then there is this:

There are many industry tie-ups that professors like [Amitabh Bagchi, Department of Computer Science at IIT-Delhi] are working on whereby students will be paid high salaries by the industry to do research work at the Institute.

[BTW, Amitabh Bagchi is also the author of Above Average, a pretty good 'IIT campus novel'.]

So, there you have it: research opportunities, cultural fit, funding from industry for both research and for attracting graduate students, and support systems. And in the case of IIT-D, there's one more factor: an additional salary of Rs.10,000 per month -- through a fellowship -- for the first five years. At IIT-B, this takes the form of a signing bonus of Rs. 300,000.

* * *

Now that the positives are out of the way, let me turn to my main complaint about the tone of the story.

You see, for all their wailing about the faculty crunch (a very sad tactic if one is really interested in attracting faculty ;-), the IITs do hire 25 to 40 faculty members each annually. Presumably most of these new hires are at the Assistant Professor level, for which an essential requirement is PhD followed by several years of post-doc experience.

Given the almost non-existent culture of post-doccing within India -- at least in engineering, the field that I can claim to know something about -- I would bet that most of the new hires at the IITs are returnees from abroad. Indeed, the Outlook story says 25 of the 40 recruits at IIT-D last year were from abroad [the really interesting story is about the other 15!].

Thus, this tone of 'awwshucks, isn't it great that we live in an era when NRIs actually choose to return to teach here' seems sort of misplaced. If a large fraction of current IIT recruits (and a sizable fraction of recruits at other places too) are desis who have had extended stints abroad, all I can say is that there's nothing new here. It has always been so, and it will continue to be so.

I don't know why journalists keep falling for this meme.

* * *

Here's my take. I think computer science departments in IITs saw a flood of new hires in the last couple of years after experiencing a severe drought over many years. If there was indeed such a sudden spurt -- and I think there was -- the meme about returnees and brain gain takes us away from any fruitful examination of the causes that drive this trend. Journalists are looking at the wrong story!

Sarah Palin, meet SCIGen Clone

About InterviewPalin.Com: "The answers are computer generated based on probabilities calculated from Sarah Palin's actual speech" [via Andrew Sullivan]. Here's an example:

Q: What is the role of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Afghanistan will lead to war and it doesn't have to second-guess what their efforts would be if they believe that what you are seeking, also? That strategy that has shown his foresight, his pragmatism, and his leadership abilities. And that is the foundation of national security. It's that significant. I have understood the world is and how important it is in their country and their parents give them a passport and give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world. And as Ronald Reagan used to bailout these corporations. And we've got to play an appropriate role in the world.

Just in case you are wondering, here's SCIGen [here's an old post with some more links]:

SCIgen is a program that generates random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations. It uses a hand-written context-free grammar to form all elements of the papers. Our aim here is to maximize amusement, rather than coherence.

Oh, well. I think this is a good time to re-link to xkcd's version of the Sokal affair.

Monday, September 29, 2008

S.S. Bhatnagar Prizes - 2008

I have called these prizes the Oscars of Indian Science; they are arguably the highest honours -- they are certainly the most prestigious -- in India for its scientists under 45. This year's list is here. A Hindu report is here. [And, in case you are interested, here are the posts about previous years' SSB Prizes: 2007, 2006 and 2005 and 2004].

It's great to see a couple of our friends among this year's winners: Prof. P.N. Vinayachandran, a neighbour of ours at IISc faculty quarters, is with Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and Prof. Srikanth Sastry is with Theoretical Sciences Unit, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) [I had an opportunity to mention Srikanth's work sometime ago].

* * *

Here's what I wrote in 2006 about the way CSIR handles the SSB Prize announcements:

I have to fault the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the organization that awards these Prizes, for giving just the barest of details about the [Prize winners]. Is it so difficult to put together a news story that has details about each awardee’s important contributions? Wouldn’t it be nice — offering a higher profile for the Prize winners, and more information for the others — if full citations are available on the CSIR website? Currently, all that it offers is this press release [pdf] which deserves a prize for minimalism.

This year's announcement is no better. The contrast with other similarly prestigious Prizes -- such as the MacArthur Awards, or the Infosys Mathematics Prize -- cannot be more stark.

Primate science of American politics

Some interesting commentary on the body language of the candidates during the first presidential debate. Here's the first:

And here's another note from TPM Reader TB. I guess I'm really not sure quite how to characterize it ..."

I think people really are missing the point about McCain's failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear--look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior--low ranking monkeys don't look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.

So McCain may have given away his status as a low-ranking monkey. I'd never even considered monkey rank.

Here's the second, from Frans De Waal:

Looking at the body language of the candidates, however, I did not come away with the same impression. A confident alpha male chimpanzee would never show studied indifference. I have seen such behavior only in males who were terrified of their challenger. Chimpanzees provoke higher-ups by making impressive displays in their vicinity, hooting loudly in their direction, and sometimes lobbing objects at them to see what happens. Will the other startle or will he return the challenge? It's a war of nerves.

A self-confident alpha male just approaches his challenger and sets him straight, either by attacking him or performing a spectacular display of his own. No avoidance of eye contact: he takes the bull by the horns.

It rather is the hesitant or fearful alpha male who avoids looking straight at the other, sidesteps him as if nothing happened, ducks when objects fly, and just hopes that the other will give up and go away. This may work, but also signals weakness. One day, the challenger will pick up courage and do something more drastic, such as hitting the old guy's back. If the latter still tries to ignore his challenger after this, he's toast.

I read the body language between McCain and Obama as that between a senior male being challenged by a remarkably confident junior one. The senior didn't know exactly what to do. He avoided eye contact and body orientation, probably realizing that a direct confrontation might not go his way.

If McCain was an alpha male, it was an incredibly insecure one.

* * *

There has also been some caustic commentary on the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Particularly on her disasterous interview with Katie Couric. I liked this comment.

She makes George W. Bush sound like Cicero.

The latest SNL opening act is also very good; but, as Andrew Sullivan notes, "There is no way Saturday Night Life could make more fun of Palin than she made of herself."]. Watch:

* * *

Update: This one from Matt Yglesias is worth quoting too:

The press likes the unusual. The man bites dog story. The maverick senators who do weird stuff. But just because men who bite dogs make for good copy doesn’t make biting a dog a good idea.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Anand Bora

I was pleased to see that Friday's Economic Times profiled Anand Bora and his mathematical art. Since the time I met him in March 2007, this young man has gone places: he has had his art exhibited at Bridges-2008, a conference dedicated to Mathematical Connections in Art, Music and Science. [Check out his blog where he describes his experience at Bridges-2008].

I think this is a good time to wish Anand (once again) all the best in his artistic journey.

* * *

A minor aside: In the ET article, Anand has been too kind in calling me a 'guiding force'. While I feel very nice at being acknowledged this way, I was also amused that he placed me in the wrong department at IISc: Mathematics!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Links ...

  1. Nature Network is looking for science bloggers from Africa, Asia, and South/Central America. [Link via the Women in Science blog].

  2. Vineeta blogs about some seriously fabulous Street Art.

  3. Sean Carroll's unsolicited advice for aspiring postdocs (and, to a lesser extent, for aspiring grad students and faculty members too) about what kind of website they should have (if at all).

  4. Samanth Subramanian profiles Rajesh Kumar ('Pasha of Pulp) who has written over 1500 pulp novels/novellas in Tamil over the last four decades.

  5. Finally, from the wonderful PhD Comics: Evolution of the "Yes".

Pan-IIT's disgraceful 'program for spouses'

Did I want to really say 'disgraceful'? No. I want to amend it, so make it disfuckinggraceful. Just as Ludwig called it 'unfuckingbelievable'.

But a more serious question is this: Why is IIT-M putting up with these morons? As if dissing women in general and IIT alumnae in particular wasn't enough, these guys have put together "a mystic trail" -- right within the IIT-M campus -- that will feature "some of India's most well known practices such as Astrology, Palmistry, Gemology, Nadi and Kili Josiyam..., giving the participants an opportunity to get a first hand experience of some of India's most occult practices and beliefs."

Showcasing occult practices and beliefs? Right within the campus of an IIT? These guys have some gall.

Emma has an awesome post with this conclusion:

What utter nonsense. Why didn't the PanIIT group just point the spouses to this page instead?

Here's Veena's take:

Obviously there is some serious indignation that can be thrown into this but I think Luddo does a nice job of it already and I have nothing to add. Except to say that it doesn't really come as such a big WTF to me because seriously, who expected them to do anything different? [Bold emphasis added by me]

Apurva: "Quite simply, the worst example of patronisation and sexism by members of my alma mater."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some IIT alumni are fantastic, but ...

... the folks behind the Pan-IIT Global Conference seem to live in the seventeenth century. How else can you explain their plans for the spouses of IIT alumni during the upcoming Pan-IIT meet in December? Here is a teaser:

Especially for Spouses

While the IITian chooses to inspire, innovate and transform, here is an exclusive track designed to keep Spouses and Families completely informed and entertained.

The theme for the spouses' track in this year's PANIIT is "Sampoorna" - programs meant for the complete woman, who is able to perfectly balance her personal, professional and public personality. With this in mind we have a galaxy of presenters and performers who are bound to enlighten the IIT spouses. [Emphasis in red added by me]

Following the best blogospheric traditions, Ludwig has a fantastic rant. Here's a part where he unpacks the above message for us:

Here's a little bit of mind-boggling deductive reasoning:

  1. All the spouses of IIT alums are women.

  2. Some IIT alums are married women.

  3. Ergo all married women alumnae are married to women.

There's more -- much, much more -- at the Pan-IIT site whose awsome WTF-ness is brilliantly captured by Ludwig:

WTF? WTF? WTF? WTF? WTF? factorial(WTF)factorial(WTF). This is a gigantic WTF, believe you me. In WTFland, it's called the WTGoogolplexF. ...

Just go read Ludwig's post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fun with Financial Crisis

  1. You have heard of the Large Badloan Collider, haven't you? [Via Yackety Yak]

    Using a series of increasingly hysterical and absurd statements by White House officials, the dollars are gradually accelerated to very nearly the theoretical upper limit at which bullshit can fly -- the so-called “Speed of Lie” – at which point they will be slammed into the global financial system.

  2. The crisis according to lolcats, found at The G-Spot :

    Lower Middle Class: OH HAI! I CAN HAS HOUS?


    Lower Middle Class: KOOL. LOL!

    Couple years later...



    Lower Middle Class: NO, THEY BE TAKIN' MAH HOUS


  3. The best, of course, is this letter (whose origin remains unknown):

    Dear American:

    I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.

    I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.

    I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of the Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.

    This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.

    Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to wallstreetbailout@treasury.gov so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.

    Yours Faithfully
    Minister of Treasury Paulson

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


  1. Meet the MacArthur Fellows -- this year's winners of the 'Genius' awards of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

  2. Saul Hansell: How Wall Street Lied to Its Computers

  3. Sam Harris: When Atheists Attack. In an article largely about Sarah Palin as the Republican veep nominee, there's this great passage:

    The prospects of a Palin administration are far more frightening, in fact, than those of a Palin Institute for Pediatric Neurosurgery. Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn't seem too intelligent or well educated.

  4. Hugh McLeod: Good Ideas Have Lonely Childhoods.

    6. Human beings are messy creatures. I suppose the main thesis to this post is; the hard bit of having a "good idea" is not the invention of it, nor the selling of it to the end-user, but managing the myriad of politics and egos of the people who are supposedly on the same team as yourself. Managing the vast oceans of human chaos that all enterprises ultimately are, underneath the thin veneer of human order.

  5. Evolution of PhD resolutions.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

SNL on American politics

Two fantabulous SNL opening acts. One with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton:

... and the other, with John McCain approving his campaign's ads.

Links ...

  1. Virginia Heffernan: Charisma Sensei: The celebrity academics who are "camera-friendly, .. and easily downloadable", with links to fabulous video lectures by five academics in different fields. I have already watched three of the five: Walter H. G. Lewin (physics, MIT), the late Randy Pausch (Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon) and Dan Ariely (behavioral economics, MIT and Duke). I should check out the other two.

    There's an accompanying blog post where you can vote for your favourite.

  2. Harry Brighouse: The Man Who Outsmarted IQ (a profile of Howard Gardner, the man behind the 'multiple intelligences' theory).

  3. Right to Information Act strikes again: Bihar's State Information Commissioner directs the state's universities "to provide photocopies of the examined papers to examinees, if they so desired."

  4. Mark Bauerlein: Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming [via Ponderer].

  5. Janet Rae-Dupree: When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder [A critique of the Bayh-Dole Act].

  6. Megan McArdle: Sure glad I got that MBA.

  7. Finally, from the great PhD Comics: How Professors Spend Their Time [via OrgTheory.Net].

Saturday, September 20, 2008

LHC and India

The LHC was built at a cost of billions of Swiss Francs by CERN member-states, along with the participation of countries like India, which enjoys 'observer' status. It is a proud moment for many players from India—among these, the DAE Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, barc, tifr and others have played notable parts, and teams from universities and research institutes have been involved at many stages of the project. ECIL, BHEL, Kirloskar Electric Co. Ltd, Crompton-Greaves Ltd are among companies that have participated in r&d and fabrication of components. The LHC project has demonstrated the coming of age of Indian science, technology, engineering and manufacturing in the 21st century.

That's my high energy physics colleague Prof. B. Ananthanarayan in an Outlook article. Anant's blog is here.

I like his analogy for something called the strong electromagnetic interaction:

The [electromagnetic interaction] arises from electrically charged particles interacting via the exchange of force carriers, namely mass-less photons, not unlike two children (electrons) who throw a tennis-ball (photon) back and forth in a game.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

White and Black

Tim Wise: This is Your Nation on White Privilege [Link via Ta-Nehisi Coates]:

White privilege is when you can call yourself a "fuckin' redneck," like Bristol Palin's boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll "kick their fuckin' ass," and talk about how you like to "shoot shit" for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

If the intent is to help Obama (and I don't know if it is), it seems odd that almost all the comparisons involve Sarah Palin (and her family members), and not John McCain. Like this last example does:

And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion, just because white voters aren't sure about that whole "change" thing. Ya know, it's just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same, which is very concrete and certain.

* * *

While on this topic, let me also link to Jonathan Bines' very funny Black Comic Introduces McCain [Caution: lots of four letter words!].

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Women in business

Check out this McKinsey Quarterly article entitled A Business Case for Women by Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger, and Mary C. Meaney [free registration required]:

In recent years, McKinsey has done extensive work on the relationship between organizational and financial performance and on the number of women who are managers at the companies we’ve studied. Our research has shown, first, that the companies around the world with the highest scores on nine important dimensions of organization—from leadership and direction to accountability and motivation—are likely to have higher operating margins than their lower-ranked counterparts do (Exhibit 1).5 Second, among the companies for which information on the gender of senior managers was available,6 those with three or more women on their senior-management teams scored higher on all nine organizational criteria than did companies with no senior-level women (Exhibit 2).7

These findings suggest that companies with higher numbers of women at senior levels are also companies with better organizational and financial performance. Although the analysis does not show a causal link, our research argues for greater gender diversity among corporate leaders.

There's an accompanying piece on how talented women thrive in corporations.

* * *

While on this topic, let me link to this HBS Working Knowledge piece: How Female Stars Succeed in New Jobs:

Women tend to do better after a move for two reasons.

One is that they are more invested in external than in in-house relationships. There are four main reasons why star women maintain external focus: uneasy in-house relationships, poor mentorship, neglect by colleagues, and a vulnerable position in the labor market. External focus makes them more "portable" in terms of making a positive move, but can cause problems if they want to progress within their own organization, because you need a solid internal network and good political capital to get things done in organizations. Anyone who focuses mostly on external relationships will not have that.

The other reason is that women do far more due diligence when they receive a job offer than men do, because women need to ensure that the company is good for women and that they won't be treated as token females. In the process of due diligence, star women learn a lot of valuable information about the company that helps them make good strategic decisions. They scrutinize prospective employers on receptivity to women, managerial support, latitude and flexibility, and performance measurement. There's no downside to that strategy—it is one that men could benefit from just as well.

Infosys Mathematics Prize

The first award goes to IIT-K computer science professor Manindra Agrawal. Here's the press release from Infosys:

Dr. Manindra Agrawal has been awarded the Infosys Mathematics Prize for his outstanding work in Complexity Theory, the branch of mathematics concerned with the study of algorithms for solving mathematical and related scientific problems, especially their efficiency and running times. Dr. Agrawal is best known for the discovery of a deterministic polynomial time algorithm, for primality testing in his joint paper with his former students. This discovery resolved a long-standing problem of a fast test of primality, which had been the subject of intense study in the field of mathematics and computer science research.

Prof. Agrawal's breakthrough work on prime numbers made a big splash worldwide in 2002 [NYTimes, Frontline], and he won the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize for Mathematics the following year. Here's a brief bio.

The Infosys Mathematics Prize is the biggest award (in any branch of science) in India; it carries a cash award of one million rupees. Here's an earlier post on this Prize.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dysfunctional academic systems: An international comparison

Check out this article by Philip Altbach and Christine Musselin with an international comparison of dysfunctional ways of structuring academic careers. Here's the French system:

In France, the access to a first permanent position as maître de conférences occurs rather early compared with other countries (on average prior to the age of 33 years) and opens the path to 35 to 40 years of an academic career. These recruitments happen after a period of high uncertainty as in almost all disciplines the ratio of “open positions per doctors” has worsened, while the doctoral degree is still not recognized as a qualification by businesses or the public sector. Recruiting a new maître de conférences thus constitutes a high-stakes decision. But currently university departments have about two months to examine the candidates, select some of them, hold a 20- to 30-minute interview with those on the short list, and rank the best ones. Despite the highly selective process that the first candidate on the list successfully passes, this new colleague is rarely considered as a chance on which to build by the recruiting university. Not only is the salary based on a national bureaucratic scale below the average GDP per capita for France, but new academics are frequently not offered a personal office and may be asked to teach the classes colleagues do not want to offer or to accept administrative duties. The difficult road toward the doctorate leads to a rather disappointing and frequently non-well-remunerated situation, thus undermining the attractiveness of the career. [Bold emphasis added by me]

NKC gets a term extenstion

It's not just judicial inquiry commissions that get their terms extended. Joining that special list of entities that don't finish their work in time is the National Knowledge Commission, which now gets six extra months. Here's a semi-official explanation:

“We believe the commission still has a role to play, though its three years are about to get over. That is why we have extended its term,” a PMO source said. [...]

“But the impressive performance of the commission suggests the country could use such a body in its administration for policy framework in the future, too.” The source also said “the Prime Minister is keen that the commission continue its work”.

NKC's output is quite impressive. It has produced an enormous number of reports on all kinds of things: school and university education, research in natural and social sciences, library network, innovation policy, entrepreneurship, and so on. By their very nature, NKC's recommendations will take several years to play out. However, as the Telegraph's Charu Sudan Kasturi points out, there are several areas where the NKC has already had some real impact:

The panel’s proposal for an unprecedented thrust to skill-based vocational education has resulted in the Centre announcing plans to launch a massive skill development mission that Singh will head.

The UPA government has also accepted its proposal to revive libraries across the country and link them through the Internet to allow access to documents and books at any library from any other.

The proposal for a national knowledge network linking all higher educational institutions through high-speed Internet is in the process of implementation.

News we can use: Parents edition

Today's NYTimes carries a bunch of articles on raising kids; each article does a good job of summarizing relevant scientific findings and connecting them with advice from experts. Check them out:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Links from the past week ...

  1. Meena Kandasamy: Book, Booker, Booked.

  2. Seth Godin: How often should you publish?

  3. Ripples: TR's speech to his fellow graduates several years ago.

  4. Obama's response in 1994 to the abominable The Bell Curve [via Ta-Nehisi Coates].

  5. Parseval: Two plus two makes five: selling danger by ignoring evidence.

  6. An ex-student's frustrating experiences with the IISc administration.

  7. Reema, who teaches in a private college, offers her take on the education boom. Also read her post on a recent day at work. Scary!

  8. Bob Sutton: Leadership vs. Management: An Accurate But Dangerous Distinction?

  9. Clive Thompson in the NYTimes: Brave New World of Digital Intimacy [via Chris Blattman].

  10. Spencer Green in McSweeney's: All I really need to know I learned in my spam box [via Chugs].

  11. Amy Ozols in the New Yorker: A mass e-mail.

  12. Good students and bad students: A senior faculty member's advice on how to treat them differently.

  13. Finally, the mystery link.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin on the Bush Doctrine


For an Onion-like take on Palin's preparations to be VP, you should check out this post by our very own Gawker.

* * *

James Fallows has a must-read post on why Ms. Palin's cluelessness about the Bush Doctrine "implies a disqualifying lack of preparation for the job":

Each of us has areas we care about, and areas we don't. If we are interested in a topic, we follow its development over the years. And because we have followed its development, we're able to talk and think about it in a "rounded" way. We can say: Most people think X, but I really think Y. Or: most people used to think P, but now they think Q. Or: the point most people miss is Z. Or: the question I'd really like to hear answered is A.

Here's the most obvious example in daily life: Sports Talk radio.

Mention a name or theme -- Brett Favre, the Patriots under Belichick, Lance Armstrong's comeback, Venus and Serena -- and anyone who cares about sports can have a very sophisticated discussion about the ins and outs and myth and realities and arguments and rebuttals.

People who don't like sports can't do that. It's not so much that they can't identify the names -- they've heard of Armstrong -- but they've never bothered to follow the flow of debate. I like sports -- and politics and tech and other topics -- so I like joining these debates. On a wide range of other topics -- fashion, antique furniture, the world of restaurants and fine dining, or (blush) opera -- I have not been interested enough to learn anything I can add to the discussion. So I embarrass myself if I have to express a view.

What Sarah Palin revealed is that she has not been interested enough in world affairs to become minimally conversant with the issues. Many people in our great land might have difficulty defining the "Bush Doctrine" exactly. But not to recognize the name, as obviously was the case for Palin, indicates not a failure of last-minute cramming but a lack of attention to any foreign-policy discussion whatsoever in the last seven years.

Fallows has more on this, so do read his entire post.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

PhD completion rates in the US

Here's the Inside HigherEd story. Even though I knew that a fairly large number of people who enter a PhD program do not complete it, I didn't know that by the end of their tenth year, only 58 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women manage to get their degree.

Here's an interesting finding -- related to international students:

One of the most striking gaps was found between international and domestic graduate students, with the former much more likely (67 percent vs. 54 percent) to complete doctorates within 10 years. Many graduate students from outside the United States enroll in science and technology programs, which historically have speedier Ph.D. completion times than do other programs. But even comparing international and domestic students with disciplines factored in, the non-Americans are much more likely to finish.

Here's the relevant table:

10-Year Completion Rates by Field and Citizenship


Domestic U.S.





Life sciences



Math and physical sciences



Social sciences






Great way to start your day

Watch this video about chemical interactions.

It's from the site with a curious name: Marie Curie Actions for Teens, which sort of sounds bizarre. But the Marie Curie Actions is a European Commission project with worthy goals:

The Marie Curie Actions provide research training, career development and mobility schemes allowing researchers to be truly mobile both internationally and between commercial and non-commercial sectors. There are opportunities for researchers at any career stage and of any nationality.

* * *

Thanks to Phanikumar for the e-mail alert. I agree with him: Europe is really cool!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

NKC on India's World Class Universities

Whoever thought of calling some of our proposed institutions "World Class Universities" -- just like the one who coined "Institutions of National Importance" -- deserves some serious punishment. I have no idea why we go for, and accept, such insults to other institutions which, going by this terrible terminology, are "mere" universities -- non-world-class and non-nationally-important.

Since the government has proposed creating over a dozen of these beasts (I mean the WCUs), the UGC has drafted legislation with this horrendous title: "Indian World Class University System Act." This draft has been circulated (no, I haven't seen it), and the National Knowledge Commission has responded with suggestions for quite a few amendments. One of them is to call the legislation "National Universities System Act," which is something that's eminently worthy of our support.

There are more substantive recommendations, including a demand for autonomy for these proposed universities, another about small governance mechanisms, and a suggestion that this Act be applicable to universities that may be created by non-profit organizations.

The NKC missive -- which is just three pages long -- is here. Do check it out.


When the LHC is switched on, could it "create a shower of unstable black holes that could 'eat' the planet from within," as some scientists suggest? Over at tantu-jaal, Sunil Mukhi answers this question: unlikely.

On a related note: do read this absolutely fascinating story by Cory Doctorow on petabyte data centers, including the one created for handling the huge amounts of data from LHC.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Science in India: A progress report

Over at Science Watch, Christopher King has a short report on the progress of Indian science since 1981. The year 2000 was a major turning point:

In 1985, the number was approximately 12,500, and for the next 15 years the total never much exceeded 14,000. Around the year 2000, however, the number began to tick upwards, rising to nearly 17,000 in 2001, reaching 20,000-plus in 2003, and winding up at more than 27,000 in 2007.

But the citation impact continues to lag the world average in every field (check out the graphs accompanying the report). In physics, for example, citations received per paper from India is about 80 percent of the world average (3.13 vs. 3.96 per paper).

Yet another factoid that caught my attention is this bit about my field:

Materials Science, in fact, is the field in which India displays the steepest growth in representation during the period covered by National Science Indicators. In 1981, only 432 Thomson Reuters-indexed materials papers included an India institutional address—3.68% of the field. In 2007, nearly 2,300 papers with India-based authors were indexed, a share of 6.13%.

Interestingly, the previous issue of Science Watch carried a similar report about China, so some direct comparisons are possible. Overall, the science enterprise in China is about three times as large as that in India, and China's citation figures, like India's, lag behind the world average in all the fields.

Here's some interesting stuff about China's progress in materials science:

China's greatest concentration in the latest five-year period proved to be in materials science, but the change between then and now is striking and illustrative of China's progress. In the previous survey, the nation fielded roughly 15,000 materials papers, or nearly 10.5% of Thomson Reuters-indexed papers in the field. The current figures, by contrast, show more than 27,000 materials papers, representing upwards of 16% of the field. [...]

Phrase of the day: Data paparazzi

Here's what they did:

An Italian-led research group's closely held data have been outed by paparazzi physicists, who photographed conference slides and then used the data in their own publications. [...]

... At least two papers recently appeared on the preprint server arXiv.org showing representations of PAMELA's latest findings ... Both have recreated data from photos taken of a PAMELA presentation on 20 August at the Identification of Dark Matter conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

"We had our digital cameras ready," says Marco Cirelli, a theorist at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, and one of those who took pictures. The preprints fully acknowledge the source of the data and reference the presentation photographed.

You really ought to read Janet Stemwedel's post discussing the ethics of this controversial method of 'collecting' data.

Evolution, faith, Darwin, god

Only Onion could turn this incendiary mix into such a hilarious combination:

A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.

"I brought my baby to touch the wall, so that the power of Darwin can purify her genetic makeup of undesirable inherited traits," said Darlene Freiberg, one among a growing crowd assembled here to see the mysterious stain, which appeared last Monday on one side of the Rhea County Courthouse. The building was also the location of the famed "Scopes Monkey Trial" and is widely considered one of Darwinism's holiest sites. "Forgive me, O Charles, for ever doubting your Divine Evolution. After seeing this miracle of limestone pigmentation with my own eyes, my faith in empirical reasoning will never again be tested."

Thanks to John Hawks for the pointer.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Setting people up for success

Among many other things covered in a 2007 article entitled "Letter from America: Random Walks By Young Economists" by Princeton economist Angus Deaton, this stuff stood out (for obvious reasons):

... in recognition of the extent to which economists salaries are too low, in spite of their sharp growth, new assistant professors do very little teaching, one course in the first year, two and a half courses in the second year and then, to recover from that effort, a full year off in the third. Included in the bargain is a slush fund that would buy a small house in much of the US (although not in Princeton or Cambridge). (I am exaggerating only to the extent of representing the best offers as typical.) ...

Deaton's article is about economics; in science and engineering, the start-up grants in US universities are in the range of 200 K to 500 K dollars (or, Rs. 0.8 to 2 crores!) In biomedical fields, they could even top a million dollars (see the comments section of these posts).

Bottomline: Modern scientific research -- and particularly experimental research -- is very, very expensive. If you hire bright young assistant professors and provide them with a paltry start-up grants, you are setting them up for a mediocre career at best, or a failure at worst.

Links ...

Steve Levitt's evidence-based advice on wines:

... [A] paper entitled “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” [concluded that] fancy people with lots of training can tell cheap wine from expensive wine, but regular people cannot. (A non-gated working paper version is available here.)

What lesson should we take from this? No matter what, do not let yourself become a wine expert who can tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. When it comes to your pocketbook and wine, ignorance is bliss.

An FT report entitled "Women Crack the Glass Ceiling from Above":

On average, women hold one in seven board positions in Fortune 500 companies and about the same proportion of senior managerial -positions.

But the study found that companies where the percentage of female directors was highest – where women made up about a quarter of the board – ended up with a third more women corporate officers than rivals that have fewer female directors.

“Women board directors are a predictor of women corporate officers,” the study’s authors said. “The more women board directors a company has [had] in the past, the more women corporate officers it will have in the future.”

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Yet, the Lecture Remains!

Brad DeLong wonders about the amazing endurance of classroom lectures as an institution. With the availability of other relevant technologies (books over many centuries, and the internets now), knowledge is available, basically, on tap. He asks:

Why not get everybody to buy the book, read the book, and then assemble in seminars to discuss the book?

  • Almost all of us can read faster than a lecturer can talk.

  • It is much easier to index and rewind a codex than a live audio stream before the age of mechanical reproduction.

"Yet, the Lecture Remains. Why?" Here are his four hypotheses:

  • Budget stringency: lectures are cheap for the university relative to seminars, and even if they are markedly less effective they do soak up students' time.

  • Alternative information channel: The ears are wired to the brain differently than the eyes, and there is value in not only reading something but also hearing something in producing the synaptic changes that we want to see happen in college.

  • A self-discipline device: if people have to show up at a certain place at a certain time to accomplish a task or be disciplined, they are more likely to do so. Lecture as a way of solving our self-command and self-control problems.

    • But why not then just have a study hall? Everyone reads the book, and the monitor circulates and answers quetions?

  • A sociological event: East African Plains Apes like to do things in groups that involve language -- that is just who we are -- and the lecture is just another example of this.

DeLong's question is about the relative merits of lectures vs. seminars. At the undergraduate level, there's nothing that can beat the experience of being introduced to an exciting new field -- gently, in a series of lectures -- by a great teacher. That still leaves us with another question: What about video lectures? Would 'live' classroom lectures survive when great lectures are freely available (see footnote)? For example, if you are taking an undergrad course in physics, what would you prefer: real lectures or video lectures from Yale or MIT? [Let's assume that the quality of live lectures is not too different from those others].

My own preference is clear: live lectures. Largely because of the interactive nature of the 'live' classroom. And because of the presence of others around me with shared interests.

* * *

Footnote: Check out Sramana Mitra's model that uses such video lectures for taking high quality college education to large numbers of Indian youth. The motivation for this model is the acute faculty shortage in our institutions at all levels.

Economic red shift?

Dalton Conleysays that "it is now the rich [in the US] who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most." Here's one of the reasons:

... [It] turns out that the growing disparity is really between the middle and the top. If we divided the American population in half, we would find that those in the lower half have been pretty stable over the last few decades in terms of their incomes relative to one another. However, the top half has been stretching out like taffy. In fact, as we move up the ladder the rungs get spaced farther and farther apart.

The result of this high and rising inequality is what I call an “economic red shift.” Like the shift in the light spectrum caused by the galaxies rushing away, those Americans who are in the top half of the income distribution experience a sensation that, while they may be pulling away from the bottom half, they are also being left further and further behind by those just above them.

And since inequality rises exponentially the higher you climb the economic ladder, the better off you are in absolute terms, the more relatively deprived you may feel. In fact, a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that “seeing other people with money” makes them feel poor.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Academics on Bolt

  1. Usain Bolt: It's just not normal by Justin Wolfers.

    Usain Bolt’s wonderful run in the Olympic 200-meter sprint reminds us that the normal distribution — the familiar bell curve beloved by economists and statisticians — can be wildly inappropriate when analyzing extremely selected samples.

    This morning’s New York Times shows Usain Bolt’s new world record, relative to the 250 greatest 200-meter sprints ever. Not only does this not look like a normal distribution, it doesn’t even look like the tail of any standard distribution I’ve ever seen.

    BTW, this infographic on the history of world records is a fascinating time sink!

  2. The gene for Jamaican sprinting success? No, not really by Daniel MacArthur.

    I'm certainly not arguing here that genetics doesn't play any role in Bolt's success - or in the remarkable over-representation of West African descendents in Olympic short-distance track events, or the similarly impressive skew towards East Africans among marathon runners. ... Rather, my point is that an excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance. This suggestion goes against everything we've learnt about the genetics of complex traits from recent genome-wide association studies, which have revealed that quantitative traits (like height and body weight) are frequently influenced by dozens to hundreds of genes, each of small effect; if anything, it's likely that athletic performance will be even more genetically complex than these traits. The ACTN3-centred argument also dismisses the importance of Jamaica's impressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes, the effects of a culture that idolises local track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

    It is almost certainly true that Usain Bolt carries at least one of the "sprint" variants of the ACTN3 gene, but then so do I (along with around five billion other humans worldwide). Indeed, I'm fortunate enough to be lugging around two "sprint" copies - but that doesn't mean you'll see me in the 100 metre final in London in 2012. Unfortunately for me, it takes a lot more than one lucky gene to create an Olympian.

  3. Velocity dispersions in a cluster of stars: How fast could Usain Bolt have run? by H. K. Eriksen, J. R. Kristiansen, O. Langangen, I. K. Wehus. Link via Sean Carroll.

    Since that very memorable day at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, a big question on every sports commentator’s mind has been “What would the 100 meter dash world record have been, had Usain Bolt not celebrated at the end of his race?” Glen Mills, Bolt’s coach suggested at a recent press conference that the time could have been 9.52 seconds or better. We revisit this question by measuring Bolt’s position as a function of time using footage of the run, and then extrapolate into the last two seconds based on two different assumptions. First, we conservatively assume that Bolt could have maintained Richard Thompson’s, the runner-up, acceleration during the end of the race. Second, based on the race development prior to the celebration, we assume that he could also have kept an acceleration of 0.5 m/s^2 higher than Thompson. In these two cases, we find that the new world record would have been 9.61 +/- 0.04 and 9.55 +/- 0.04 seconds, respectively, where the uncertainties denote 95% statistical errors.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

War on resource-hogging senior faculty!

This rant post (with a mandatory disclaimer at the end!) has been triggered by an Inside HigherEd article making the case for a higher salary for assistant professors than for 'full' professors:

Although it is far from the norm, a few colleges pay their assistant professors more on average than they do their tenured professors. Although such pay scales might harm the egos of tenured professors, they can benefit colleges. [...]

Assistant professors in many ways have harder jobs than tenured professors do. They have more pressure to publish. They usually spend more time on class preparation because they have taught their classes relatively few times. And, keeping in mind their looming tenure bids, they often feel compelled to be more deferential to their senior colleagues than they would prefer. Those who care about economic fairness consequently should support the idea of assistant professors making more than tenured professors. And those who care about markets should understand that the less pleasant the job, the higher salary you must pay to attract top talent.

Well, that's all in the American context, where the laws of supply and demand play a huge role in determining the salary. In Indian institutions, the salary structure is fixed by the government (even in many private institutions, the salaries tend to follow the 'UGC' scale); this leaves the 'other resources' up for grabs. I have been saying that giving these resources to young faculty is essential if we want to set them up for success:

... The long answer is here, but the short answer is that IITs should do better than what they have done to create conditions for setting up their junior faculty for professional success. In operational terms, this would translate to things like a 10 to 20 fold increase in start-up grants, generous travel grants (Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year, for example), a spiffy, individual lab for each faculty member, a world-class research infrastructure (no power cuts, for example), and a faculty-friendly administration. Taking additional steps to attract and retain excellent graduate students would also help!

If an age-wise resource audit is done in many of our institutions -- with the possible exceptions of resource-rich DAE institutions (such as TIFR and IMSc) -- I bet it will reveal that a huge fraction of the money is cornered by their senior faculty. What I'm talking about here is not external funding, but internal funds (left over after taking care of salaries, utilities, etc). IMHO, the bulk of these internal funds should flow to those who need it the most: junior faculty who are setting up their labs while waiting for their own external grants to come through -- a process that could take as much as three years or more.

BTW, it's not just the money; you take any other resource that would make a faculty member salivating profusely -- lab space, travel grants or endowed fellowships -- you would find senior faculty chewing on huge, juicy chunks of it.

In a cruel twist, the MHRD decided recently to hike the retirement age for faculty members to sixty five. I call it cruel because the justification for this move was that the senior faculty would help with teaching. If you talk to folks in our elite institutions, you would find that this justification is a sick joke: many senior faculty 'teach' seminar courses and highly specialized electives in small classes, while junior faculty are given required courses and large classes. Worse, not only do these biggies not carry their fair share of the teaching load, they get three more years to continue doing what they do best: hogging more and more of their institutions' resources.

[Instead of extending the tenure of all of them by three years, MHRD should have suggested using an existing mechanism: re-hiring of some of them on contract specifically for teaching. This would also have had the additional benefit of their lab spaces -- some of the most prime real estate! -- becoming available for re-allocation.]

Some committee or the other will adapt the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations for faculty salaries in our academic institutions. When its recommendations are made public, the press (and perhaps others too) will shed a lot of tears about how the poor academic salaries make it difficult to recruit bright young faculty; in doing so, they will ignore the real scandal: abysmal start-up grants and higher teaching loads that will greet a newly minted assistant professor.

[Disclaimer: I'm sure you'll find exceptional senior people -- who run their labs with external funding, and who do more than their fair share of teaching. I'm also sure some of you know of exceptionally great deal offered to a new faculty member. I just want to alert you that these are not the norm; the sad reality is that, on average, the junior faculty in our institutions get disproportionately low share of the resources and disproportionately large share of the teaching.]

Monday, September 01, 2008

P.V. Indiresan on JEE

Here he is, at his most blunt:

The IITs have known for years that the JEE is vitiated by coaching classes. Instead of designing a new system matched to the era of coaching classes, it has been trying to preserve as much as possible what it devised 50 years ago. In that respect, the IITs are no better than the manufacturers of the Ambassador car, which too is of the same vintage as the JEE.

The JEE is obsolete. It remains in force because IITs have ceased to be learning systems. The IITs are not learning from their own errors nor are they willing to learn from those that are more successful.

Seven year old egalitarians?

Via Swarup comes the link to this fascinating study about the early onset of egalitarianism among kids. While the paper may need subscription, a news report about the study may not. Here's the abstract:

Human social interaction is strongly shaped by other-regarding preferences, that is, a concern for the welfare of others. These preferences are important for a unique aspect of human sociality—large scale cooperation with genetic strangers—but little is known about their developmental roots. Here we show that young children's other-regarding preferences assume a particular form, inequality aversion that develops strongly between the ages of 3 and 8. At age 3–4, the overwhelming majority of children behave selfishly, whereas most children at age 7–8 prefer resource allocations that remove advantageous or disadvantageous inequality. Moreover, inequality aversion is strongly shaped by parochialism, a preference for favouring the members of one's own social group. These results indicate that human egalitarianism and parochialism have deep developmental roots, and the simultaneous emergence of altruistic sharing and parochialism during childhood is intriguing in view of recent evolutionary theories which predict that the same evolutionary process jointly drives both human altruism and parochialism.