Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Links: Bad sex award and menu vaastu

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

* * *

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

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

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

Two links on the financial crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Links ...

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

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

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

  4. The mystery link [via BlogBharti].

Monday, November 24, 2008

Search for an Indian Obama

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

Anyway, here's Guha:

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

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

* * *

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Krishnakumar on the pathology of policies for primary schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IITs deflate Yash Pal's trial balloon

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Here are some (not completely original) observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Links: Women in Science edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Ed trial balloons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IISc Centenary Conference: 21 days to go ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blogging blogging

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

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

  2. Daniel Drezner: Public Intellectual 2.0.

  3. Dan Cohen: Professors, Start Your Blogs.

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

  5. Steve Yegge: You should write blogs.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here are the other highlights in the press release:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Promising research areas in physics


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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

IISc Centenary Conference: 25 days to go...

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

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




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

Many thanks to Prof. Ananthasuresh for sharing the pics.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


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

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

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



Scientific Eye Candy

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

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

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

NanObama: The Black Cool and the Nano Cool

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


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


Here's the info accompanying the pic:

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Aus $ 2 billion

That's the sum of money Australia counts as income (pdf) from India by "exporting" its higher education (i.e., by "importing" students from India). Income from India is second only to that from China at Aus $ 3.1 billion. Here are the top five:


Australia earned some 14 billion Australian dollars last year through its higher ed 'exports'. But look at the growth rate from last year: 23 percent! Over ten years, it has been growing at a rate of 16 percent annually, which implies it has more than quadrupled from its 1998 value. Here's a short excerpt from the same document:

International education activity contributed $14.2 billion in export income to the Australian economy in 2007-081, up 23.4 per cent from the previous financial year. Over the 10 years to 2007-08, education exports have grown at an average annual rate of 16 per cent, compared with an average annual rate of 7 per cent across all services exports.

Also, the Australian Education International claims that there are over 370,000 international students studying in that country. By any yardstick, this is a stupendous figure; the US, a country whose population is over 14 times larger, hosts perhaps 50-60 percent more students than does Australia.

* * *

Thanks to Kris Olds of the Global HigherEd blog.

Tequila can produce doped diamonds!

I'm sure you have heard about how some scientists used tequila to produce diamond coatings. Here's the last paragraph from one such story:

For now, the scientists are continuing to test different tequilas´ abilities to produce diamonds. They´re also working on creating doped diamonds, which contain impurities, to serve as semiconductors.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nicely done ...

All the wet dreams of (American) liberals come true! But only in the fake NYTimes.

Very nicely done. Here's a story on some of the people who did it.

Hat tip: Inside HigherEd

* * *

Update: The NYTimes' coverage of this affair is here.

Here's another neat prank about a fake 'McCain campaign insider' who also doubled up as a fake 'senior fellow at Harding Institute' and who was responsible for spreading the rumour about Sarah Palin's not knowing Africa is, actually, a continent.

International comparisons of gender gap

The Global Gender Gap Report - 2008 is available from the World Economic Forum. India's ranked at 113 (out of 130) this year, whereas it stood at 114 (out of 128) last year. As in many things, rankings are for lazy people, they are susceptible to large scale changes if the underlying criteria get changed; actual scores in each individual factor can tell us a great deal more about where the serious gaps are.

Detailed (but not too detailed!) data for each of the 130 countries are available. Here's the report for India.

Here's the summary for India:


While India's performance in closing the gender gap is just about average (actually, slightly below average) in education and health, it is much worse in the economic sector. But look at the political side of the picture: India is doing significantly better than the average.

Uh, really?

Under 'political empowerment,' in two of the three sub-indices for gender gap, India does very poorly indeed: women in (a) parliament and (b) ministerial positions (where the gendar gap index is just 0.10 and 0.11).

But on the third sub-index, 'years with female head of state in the last 50 years', India's score of 0.43 is far, far higher than the global average of 0.13! And its rank on this sub-index improves dramatically to No. 5!

Thank FSM for Indira Gandhi! This one-woman army has got India into the top 5, leaving the US and 90 other countries far, far behind at No. 40.

Given the 50 year time frame used for this sub-index, she will continue to 'serve' India for another 7 years!

* * *

A quick look at the data reveals why rankings are a bad way to look at this stuff. If you take something like enrollment in primary education, India's score is 0.96 (which is the ratio of female to male enrollments of 87 and 90 percent). What this tells us is that we still have a long way to go in getting all our boys and girls into our schools: over 5 million boys and 6.5 million girls are 'missing' from our schools!

But here's the thing: this score of 0.96 gives India a rank of 110, and this rank wouldn't budge one way or the other if the same score of 0.96 came out of a different scenario: 96 percent enrollment for girls and 100 percent enrollment for boys!

In the economic realm, however, the picture for Indian women is truly grim: women earnings are only a third of that of men; their participation in the workforce is less than half that of men, and their share of professional and technical workforce is just 21 percent. As you move up the status scale, it gets far worse: their share is just 3 percent among legislators, senior officials and managers.

All of this yields a score of 0.4 for 'economic participation and opportunity', far lower than the global average of close to 0.6. India's rank in this category? 125.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Giridhar on JEE, GATE, ...

Giridhar offers some observations on JEE, mixing them together with his thoughts on GATE. [Especially on the latter, Giridhar can speak with deep knowledge, as he was the Deputy Chairman of GATE at IISc several years ago]. Here's an interesting bit:

I know that one of the measures that is being thought of is to only allow candidates who have represented the country in the (Math/Physics) Olympiad OR secured an average plus two standard deviations in their respective board exam to write JEE. Because most of the board exams follow a normal distribution, only the top 2.5% will be allowed to write JEE. JEE will not be an objective exam (i.e., multiple choice questions) but will include several descriptive questions with marks ranging from 1 to 10 for each question. Subsequent to this exam, JEE will announce the marks in each subject for every student that took the exam. The departments in each IIT will decide the weight to each subject. The candidate then decides which branch to apply and to the IIT that (s)he likes. Computer science may give 60% weight to marks in maths and 20% weight each to physics and chemistry. The maths department in IIT may give 90% weight to marks in maths and the candidate can join for M.Sc (Maths) there.

Advice for post-docs and new faculty

With her first post-doc not working out well, TGFI is looking for a job. She has a must-read post on what went wrong, on the lessons learned, and on what she'll do differently this time. Here's one of her pieces of advice:

2) Do not start off with two high risk projects. Plan such that one project is in my area of expertise, the other can be a discovery/broadening horizons/learning new techniques experience.

* * *

From the very interesting Tomorrow's Professor blog, here's some advice for new faculty: Management for Beginners - So You're a Principal Investigator - Now What?

India shining blogging

In the beginning, there was Good News India, a site meant for "News from India: of positive action, steely endeavour and quiet triumphs ~ news that is little known." While the site still exists, it has not been updated in over two years.

Now, the husband-and-wife team of Dhimant and Anuradha Parekh have started The Better India with similar objectives. Here's the blurb:

The Better India is an attempt to bring out the happy stories, the unsung heroes and heroines, the small good deeds happening across India and showcase them to the world. Over here, you will be able to read about the incremental progress being [made] by the industrious people of this country, the developments happening on the social and economic front.

Anuradha and Dhimant have highlighted several heart-warming stories, including the latest one on Writing to Save Cultures. Do please go over there and say hello to them! They would love it if you could give them some feedback. You could also contribute to the site through citizen essays.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tinkering with a flawed exam vs. an evidence-based admission policy

The IITs are tinkering with the cut-off marks. Again.

During the last three three years, the IITs first selected the top 80 percent of the exam takers in each subject. The survivors after this step were then ranked according to their aggregate scores.

In JEE-2009, the first cut-off is not at the 20th percentile, but at the average score in each subject. If the students' scores in each subject fall on a true bell curve (do they?), then the average would correspond to the 50th percentile. I think this is the only difference in the ranking procedure between JEE-2008 and JEE-2009.

All of which leads to questions like these: Why the 50th percentile? Why not, say, a cut-off at the 80th percentile? Or, what was wrong with the earlier procedure -- with the cut-off at the 20th percentile? I don't think there will be any public articulation of answers to these questions.

* * *

Meanwhile, Boalt Hall, UC-Berkeley's law school, has issued a report from a 10-year study to identify elements of an ideal standardized exam that would predict success as a lawyer (while LSAT predicts success in the first year of law school). The thrust of the report is clear: one has to look beyond LSAT, and Boalt Hall thinks it now has a good model that can be deployed. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to implement its own ideas.

The more important take-away (at least for me) is the serious effort expended by UC-Berkeley's law school in doing such a serious, academic study that could be used later for developing appropriate admission policies and procedures.

Both these news stories appeared today. The contrast is striking, indeed.

* * *

Thanks to Pratik Ray for the e-mail alert about the Telegraph story.

Monday, November 10, 2008

International comparisons of faculty salaries

* * *

Check out this PhD Comics graphic. [thaks Rahul!]

* * *

The full report is here; Inside HigherEd has a summary here.

  1. With purchasing power parity (PPP) adjustments, junior faculty salary in India is $ 1,151 per month, roughly a fourth of the figure for the US ($ 4,589) or Canada ($ 5,206). But it is more than 60 percent higher than the figure for China ($ 682).

  2. With a different kind of adjustment -- division by per capita GDP -- India is right there at the top! The average annual salary of a junior faculty member in India is nearly 9 times the per capita GDP.

  3. In any event, the figures for India are from pre-SPC (Sixth Pay Commission) era. Post-SPC salaries will be up by 60 to 70 percent.

You might also be interested in comments from Eric Beerkens and Chris Blattman.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

IISc blogging

It's great to see that my friend and colleague M. Giridhar has started blogging. He's a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at IISc, and a Swarnajayanti Fellow. In his first post, Giridhar tells us about software and online tools he uses for keeping his professional life organized.

* * *

This is perhaps a good time to list the blogs from the extended IISc community. My Google Reader subscriptions now include three faculty (Anant, Prof. Ranganathan, Giridhar), one student (Rupesh), several alumni (Natasha, Guru, Rahul, Fëanor, Phani) and a close friend (Arati, whose husband, Prof. Atul Chokshi, is a colleague in our Department).

I'm sure there are many others. So, please help me with this list by leaving their blog URLs in the comments, and I'll update this post with more links.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obama links

  1. Obama's victory speech; link via Swarup who has several other links as well.

  2. The inside story of Obama's march to the White House. In seven parts!

  3. If you are pressed for time, then you should go to

  4. Obama eye candy [21 slides. Via Hendrik Hertzberg]. A much longer version with 600+ pictures is here.

  5. Dilip D'Souza: Is Obama, a Democrat, good for India?

  6. Rahul Siddharthan: Is the US still behind the curve? "... the fact of [Obama's] election will almost certainly be positive for the future of race relations in America. Change in caste prejudices in India seems much slower in coming."

  7. Is Obama going to become the most popular baby name in Kenya? Part 1, Part 2.

  8. James Surowiecki: Copies of NYTimes dated November 5: Is there a bubble?.

  9. See how TGFI's clever way of acquiring this and other similar -- and I should add, un-distressed -- 'assets'.

  10. Bonus non-Obama link: It's worth linking to this video again. I think Tabula Rasa is correct in naming Tina Fey as one of the two MVPs of the 2008 election season (the other being Nate Silver).

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lilavati's Daughters: An update

Via Rahul Basu: Lilavati's Daughters can be bought online from the Scholars Without Borders.

[Edited by Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy, both members of the WiS Panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore] [t]his collection of essays ... was released two days ago at the annual meeting of the Indian Academy. The essays are both biographical and autobiographical, and typically run about three or four pages each... Ideal dipping material that one can read in bits and pieces, and of the hundred or so contributors there is a wide representation... Physicists, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, doctors, geoscientists, computer scientists... and from all parts of India.

As I mentioned earlier, the book release happened during the Annual Meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences, held at IIT-D last week; a part of this meeting was devoted to a Symposium on Women in Science. Over at SciDev.Net, T.V. Padma has a short report on the symposium.

A raft of incentives announced by India's minister of science Kapil Sibal in March to help Indian women scientists pursue research careers after marriage and motherhood are gathering dust, say top women scientists.

These include a key proposal to offer flexible working hours for women with children up to three years of age, which was turned down by the Indian Cabinet, said Vineeta Bal, member of a government task force on women in science, last week ...

Directors of several key scientific institutes have not followed up on any of the other government recommendations such as setting up crèches in institutes or offering feedback on recruitment of women scientists to senior positions. "Apathy is a big problem," Bal noted.

She said that despite some improvements — particularly the Department of Science and Technology's scheme to allow married women scientists to pursue research careers after a break — women scientists still face many unaddressed problems.

India's Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal announced "a raft of incentives" in a meeting last March on the occasion of the International Women's Day. Vineeta Bal and Vinita Sharma have a fairly detailed report on this meeting (pdf) in a recent issue of Current Science:

Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Science and Technology, and Earth Sciences, took the lead to announce concrete measures – all DST-aided institutions would be provided financial support to establish state-of-the-art crèche facilities. DST’s scientific institutions would start flexible working hours for women scientists with children up to the age of 3 years, with provision to work from home. These flexi-timings will be allowed for a total of 3 years. All women who are young associates of Indian National Science Academy, will be provided a research grant of up to Rs 10 lakhs a year for a period of 5 years, and support will be provided by the Government to build a residential block for women employees in all scientific institutions having more than 20 women scientists. The Minister also stressed that other scientific departments must ensure that these measures are implemented in their departments.

Someone is wrong on the internet ...

... and that someone is Shoba Narayan who, in her latest Mint column, says this:

... Men are better at some fields than women. Although he got a lot of flak for his “gaffe” about women not being good at math, I happen to agree with Larry Summers. There are exceptions—Sujata Ramadorai being one—but in general, women somehow don’t do so well in math. None of the Fields Medal winners so far has been a women. Part of the reason why women don’t excel in certain fields could be that they don’t “grab” us. Engineering, for instance, is a male-dominated field perhaps because it doesn’t engage the female mind as much as say, photography or design. ...

First the obvious point: When you say math and other such fields don't "grab" women, you don't mean there's something in math that's inherently masculine (or worse, unfeminine), do you?

Let me move on.

It is true that women form a small minority at the very top end of architecture (and STEM fields, in general). But, there's nothing immutable about the low numbers of women in STEM fields (at the high end or otherwise). If you went back to, say, fifty years ago, you would have found far fewer women. So, clearly, women have been entering -- and excelling in -- previously male-dominated domains in increasing numbers. The direction of progress is clear; the question is: can we hasten this progress?

That question leads to others about why women are in a minority in many STEM fields, and what the underlying mechanisms might be. One could think of many explanations: cultural factors, genetic factors, discrimination, etc. But it is not enough to just cite these factors in broad, general terms; it is important to figure out the details: which specific aspects of culture, which specific genetic factors, which specific behaviors have which specific effects. And why and how they have the effects they do.

That's what a lot of academics are doing, and their findings are, to say the least, extremely interesting: stereotype threat, role of video games in improving math (more specifically, spatial) intelligence, and so on. These findings have already led to better ways of teaching and testing to minimize the biases inherent in our current ways of doing them.

On the other hand, if you start saying stuff like "math doesn't 'grab' women" (even when you add a qualifier like "a part of the reason ... could be ..."), you are not just mouthing some inane generalization; you are, at best, ignoring all the wonderful scientific work on gender differences by psychologists and sociologists. At worst, you may also be putting a full-stop to any further inquiry, much like intelligent design enthusiasts who point to an 'intelligent being' as an answer to every question in biology.

* * *

Oh, by the way, Shoba Narayan prefaces her analysis (quoted above) with this: "I am a feminist." I have to wonder which brand of feminism encourages stereotyping ...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

More fun links on US elections



Academics on the other "skinny guy from Illinois"

  1. I think it's good to start with a not-necessarily academic -- but absolutely fabulous -- photo essay in The Big Picture blog on the next president of the United States

  2. Cosma has a gorgeous cartogram of the 2008 presidential elections (there are several more on Mark Newman's site). He adds, "This map makes me happy, though not nearly as much as the reality. "

  3. On The Daily Show Tuesday night, Charles Ogletree of Harvard said, "two skinny guys from Illinois have made a difference: Abe Lincoln and Barack Obama."

  4. Sam Summers at Science of Small Talk (a Psychology Today blog): Race and The Race - Epilogue.

  5. Kent Anderson at Scholarly Kitchen: The Scholarly Presidency: "... this administration will mark the first time our President, Vice President, and both their spouses have worked in higher education."

  6. Patrix has a great graphic. See also his comments on Obama's election: "In Dr. King’s words, Obama did not win this election on account of his skin color but through the power of his ideas."

  7. Ponderer was excited back in January, but now he's wondering when "I get to be disappointed by president Obama", because "it can only go downhill from here."

  8. Over at Cosmic Variance, Risa quotes a poem by Maya Angelou.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's views on US higher ed

A compilation of his views, expressed through speeches and position papers, is here.

I realize that campaign rhetoric could be vastly different from actual policies that eventually get implemented. Also, it's too early to pay attention to details. For the moment, I just want to park this link here, so that I can come back to it later.

Fun Links: US Elections edition

Andy Borowitz (at Huffington Post): Failure to Blow Election Stuns Democrats.

[DNC Chairman Howard] Dean pointed to several key elements the Democrats put in place to ensure defeat, ranging from "a rancorous primary campaign" to "the appointment of me."

"Somehow, despite our best efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, we won," he said. "I came in here with a mandate to blow this thing and I didn't get it done."

Onion: Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job:

African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. [...]

President Barack Obama

This is one of those moments in history when it is worth pausing and reflecting on the basic facts:

An American with the name Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a white woman and a black man he barely knew, raised by his grandparents far outside the stream of American power and wealth, has been elected the 44th president of the United States.

From the NYTimes editorial.

* * *

It feels so wonderful.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bomb or Tax-cut

From this McCain "interview" with Fafblog:

FB: Okay John McCain, now it's time to play Bomb or Tax Cut! Get your buzzer ready!

MCCAIN: Okay, heh heh, here we go!

FB: Iran!


FB: Russia!


FB: Global warming!


FB: Guantanamo Bay!

MCCAIN: Tax cut.

FB: Health care!

MCCAIN: Bomb. No, no, tax cut, tax cut!

FB: Nuclear proliferation!

MCCAIN: Bomb and tax cut!

FB: The increasing irrelevance of the human soul in the face of global capitalism!

MCCAIN: Tax cuts for bombs!

Links ...

Is there a way in which the impact of research publications can be compared across disciplines? Apparently, there's a simple method that allows such comparisons.

Arunn Narasimhan on promotions @ edu.

PC vs. Mac version of the debate between standard economics and behavioural economics.

Anil Kumble announced his retirement from Test cricket. Comments from Arunn Narasimhan and Rohit, and a link to Sunil Laxman's post from two years ago.

Raj on the choice the East India Company had to make in the Deccan way back in the 1830s: Rail or Canal. If the Company had chosen the latter, Raj observes, "Lalu Prasad Yadav might be the Minister for Waterways now."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Fun links on the US elections

The call from a fake Sarkozy: A prank on Sarah Palin [thanks to Jatkesha for the e-mail pointer].

In this election, white racists have some strange preferences [link via Ta-Nehisi Coates].

John McCain has been forced to raise money by peddling some campaign paraphernalia. On Saturday Night Live! (video). [To add just a touch of seriousness, here's James Fallows's take on what this McCain appearance might mean].

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Links ...

  1. Janet Stemwedel: Physics professor gives common sense the day off

  2. Vikram: The college culture of the US and India - Part 2

  3. Winnowed asks: Why this step-motherly treatment for polygamy?. Money quote: "if two consenting adults can do what they like in the privacy of their bedrooms and beyond, three or four or more consenting adults should have a similar right."

  4. Tabula Rasa: Hope kicks fear's ass.

  5. Fabio Rojas has some freaky predictions for the US elections. Here's one: "Obama will start hedging on withdrawal from Iraq, about a week after the election."

  6. Fëanor catches a funny English-Welsh translation error.

  7. It has been a while since we looked at this stuff, but George Washington University is no longer at the top of the league table for expensive colleges in the US. The new occupant, apparently, is Sarah Lawrence College.

Scientists for Obama

First, the science journal Nature.

Next, the science blog host and popular science magazine Seed.

Finally, a letter to the American people from 76 American Nobel winners in science (video), read by Murray Gell-Mann.

Thanks to Sean the endorsement-aggregator for all these links.