Thursday, December 31, 2009

Links ...

  1. Nobel Laureate Vekatraman Ramakrishnan will deliver the IISc Centenary Lecture on the 5th of January, 2010 on From Baroda to Cambridge: A Life in Science.

  2. International Student Admission at IISc:

    ... IISc is happy to announce that fellowships will be awarded to the most promising students who are selected for admission to one of these programmes.

  3. Pallavi Singh in Mint: Innovation universities may have fiscal freedom:

    The 14 innovation universities that are being planned as centres of excellence along the lines of Harvard and Oxford may be kept outside the purview of the nation’s top audit body so that they are financially independent, which would make them unique in the country.

    [An MHRD note] ... states that the innovation universities will frame their own rules on academics and the qualifications needed for teaching positions, and get to decide their own fees, curriculum and rules for the appointment of faculty.

    With regard to financial autonomy, the ministry says funds spent on research or teaching will be kept out of the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, or CAG, a constitutional body that audits and assists state and Central institutions with accounts and accountability.

  4. Samantha Stainburn in NYTimes: The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor. The scene is pretty grim in the US:

    In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track professors; today only 27 percent are. The rest are graduate students or adjunct and contingent faculty — instructors employed on a per-course or yearly contract basis, usually without benefits and earning a third or less of what their tenured colleagues make. The recession means their numbers are growing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nina Paley on The Cult of Originality

Nothing is original. For a work to have meaning, it must use language – it must “make sense.” It needs to work with memes already living in the host mind: language, images, melodies, patterns. It can’t be wholly original. It can hardly be original at all.

From Nina Paley, a free culture enthusiast/activist whose Sita Sings The Blues is available -- yes, all of it -- on YouTube.

'Why your boss is incompetent'

... following promotion a person is likely to regress to their baseline competence, losing that extra something that prompted their rise. That baseline might be above or below the degree of competence demanded in the new, high-level job. If in a particular workplace the staff who are promoted consistently fall short in this respect, promotion can become the dominant force driving pervasive ineptitude [...]

More in this New Scientist article.

Hat tip: Teppo Felin at OrgTheory.

Education in India: A Year in Review

Archana M Prasanna in the Business Standard: A Testing Year for Students, Despite Reforms. [Update: The Hindu also has a summary of key developments during 2009.] Here's the section on the HRD Ministry's plans and actions after Mr. Kapil Sibal took over:

HRD’s 100-day plan

The Ministry of Human Resource Development rolled out a 100-day agenda this June with an aim to set up an autonomous overarching authority for higher education and research; making the Class 10 board exam optional; review the functioning of deemed universities; give interest subsidy on education loans taken by poor students and public-private partnership in school education, among others.

National Commission for Higher Education and Research is based on the recommendations of the Yash Pal Committee and the National Knowledge Commission and will subsume in it agencies like the UGC, Medical Council of India and the AICTE. It will formulate policies for law and medical schools, engineering colleges and technical institutions, among others.

Among others, the agenda also mentions a law to regulate entry and operation of foreign educational providers that will regulate these and let good foreign universities enter India. The minister had already directed the UGC to review the functioning of all the ‘deemed-to-be-universities’ and report the deficiencies within the next three months. Operationalising the newly established 12 central universities and 2 new IITs and academic reforms like the semester system and a choice-based credit system will be among the other priorities.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The decade in pictures

A US-centric graphic from NYTimes, but still worth a look: Op-Chart: Picturing the Past 10 Years by Phillip Niemeyer.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Physics in the Living Room

... I [love] the people at PSI. They are not only smart physics students, but good pool players, nice cooks and fantastic friends. PI provides you with a nicely furnished apartment (you do not even need to bring in towels!). Each flat has 3 bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The living room has a huge blackboard on which we usually discuss our doubts with flatmates, or make cartoons.

That's Saurabh Madaan on the Perimeter Scholars International program of the Perimeter Institute.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

ICTS Public Lectures


Do spread the word to your folks and friends in Bangalore. Here's the brochure.

* * *

The inaugural event of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS) of TIFR will feature three public lectures in the J.N. Tata Auditorium in the IISc campus.

  1. Avi Wigderson: The "P versus NP" problem: Efficient computation and the limits of human knowledge
    5:30 pm, 27 December 2009

    The “P vs. NP” problem is a central outstanding problem of computer science and mathematics. In this talk I will attempt to describe its technical, scientific and philosophical content, its status, and the implications of its two possible resolutions.

  2. David Gross: The Role of Theory in Science
    5:30 p.m., 28 December 2009

    On the occasion of the inauguration of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, TIFR, I shall share some of my observations and conclusions as to the various roles of theory in science. Physics is the field of science where theory is most established and it is the most mature and powerful of the sciences. But theory, much of it derived from physics, is growing in importance in the neighboring fields of astronomy, chemistry and biology. Theory can both deepen our understanding of separate areas of science, as well as provide the intellectual glue of interdisciplinary research.

  3. Albert Libchaber: The Origin of Life: from Geophysics to Biology?
    5:30 pm, 30 December 2009

    One of the deepest and most controversial questions of our time is that of the origin of life. In this public lecture a hypothesis is presented, according to which the temperature gradients existing in the earth - which led to plate tectonics and the formation of undersea thermal vents - also led to the evolution of life around these vents. Movies will be shown of experiments, in which all stages of this scenario are justified: how thermal gradients led to plate tectonics, to DNA amplification in thermal vents, to polymerisation of peptides at high pressure, and to the organization of bacteria. This mixture of physics, chemistry, and biology illustrates how life can originate without the intervention of the sun, driven only by geophysical thermal gradients

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sexual rivalry / battles


... to really study the mechanics of the duck penis, you can't just fluff the animal. You need to give it something to have sex with. That's where the glass tubes come in. Brennan used four different shapes: a straight tube; a counterclockwise helix that matches the spiral of the male's penis; a clockwise spiral going in the opposite direction; and a tube with a sharp 135 degree kink, that mimics the position of the first cul-de-sac pouch in the female's vagina.


Pity the man whose wife writes a memoir. [...]

Consider Elizabeth Weil's husband, Dan. On Sunday, in the New York Times Magazine, Ms. Weil previewed a memoir she is writing about their effort to improve their marriage. She doesn't stint on the frisky bits—or rather, what she proclaims to be the insufficiently frisky bits. The conjugal part of their equation is apparently "not terribly inventive." Ms. Weil derides their "safe, narrow little bowling alley of a sex life" and tells us that she and her husband "hadn't been talking to each other while having sex. And not making eye contact either." One thing's for sure: If that hesitation to make eye contact suggested a certain reticence, Ms. Weil has overcome it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scoundrel Suraiya

[Update: Some readers seem to have a problem with the word 'scoundrel.' Read the quote at the end of the post to see where it comes from -- it dates back to Samuel Johnson aka Dr. Johnson.]

Jug Suraiya may not like the idea of carving new states out of existing ones; he violates all norms of debating ethics in equating the demand for smaller states to treason:

Should Pakistan's ISI give a medal to K Chandrasekhara Rao, the spear leader of the separate Telangana movement? Or to Mayawati who wants a separate Bundelkhand, and to those who are clamouring for Harit Pradesh, Vidarbha and Gorkhaland?

The ISI has always wanted to balkanise India, to break it up into small bits and pieces which can be gobbled up at will, or left to languish in their fragmented insignificance. Are those who are agitating for smaller and smaller Indian states willy-nilly doing the ISI's job for it?

What is worse, this trash appears right at the beginning of Suraiya's post, which just goes to show that Ambrose Bierce is right:

Patriotism, n. In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first. -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

Swamy's tribute to Samuelson in Rediff and The Hindu

Via T.T. Ram Mohan, I had seen this tribute to Paul Samuelson in Rediff by Subramanian Swamy, a political non-entity with an uncanny ability to stay in the news. In his post, TTR had already alerted his readers about one of the sidelights in the article: Swamy's grouse with the Delhi School of Economics; in recounting this part of the story, Swamy names names:

Amartya Sen invited me to join the Delhi School of Economics as a full Professor in early 1968 stating in a hand-written letter that my 'gaddi was being dusted.' I therefore spent three months in the summer of 1968 at the Delhi School of Economics as Visiting Professor, before returning to Harvard with the intention of winding up and joining as Professor of Economics at the Delhi School.

But I did not realise then that the Left triumvirate of Sen, K N Raj and S Chakravarty had in the three months discovered that I was not only not ideologically neutral or soft like Jagdish Bhagwati, but hard anti-Left and wanted to dismantle the Soviet planning system in India besides producing the atom bomb.

So when I arrived in India in late 1969 this triumvirate scuttled my ascending the dusted gaddi. Sen was at his hypocritical best in explaining to me his volte face. [...]

Fortunately there was a professorship open at IIT-Delhi. Dr Manmohan Singh was the chairman of the selection committee. Samuelson with Kuznets, the 1971 Nobel Laureate in economics, wrote the committee strong letters of recommendation. Armed with it, Dr Singh did not wilt under the huge pressure mounted by the triumvirate and I was appointed a Professor of Economics in October 1971. But it did not last long.

The triumvirate then persuaded Indira Gandhi that I was a closet member of the RSS with chauvinist views, and a danger to her. With the KGB favourite Nurul Hasan as education minister, I was easily sacked in December 1972, but re-instated by court in 1991.

A couple of days ago, I saw the same article as an op-ed in The Hindu. It was the same article, alright; except for this episode where Swamy trashes "the Left triumvirate of Sen, K N Raj and S Chakravarty" and "the KGB favourite Nurul Hasan"!

Links ...

  1. Noam Scheiber in New Republic: Upper Mismanagement. "Why can't Americans make things? Two words: business school. "

    The business schools had their own incentives to channel students into high-paying fields like finance, thanks to the rising importance of school rankings, which heavily weighted starting salaries. The career offices at places like Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago institutionalized the process—for example, by making it easier for Wall Street outfits and consulting firms to recruit on campus. A recent Harvard Business School case study about General Electric shows that the company had so much trouble competing for MBAs that it decided to woo top graduates from non-elite schools rather than settle for elite-school graduates in the bottom half or bottom quarter of their classes.

    No surprise then that, over time, the faculty and curriculum at the Harvards and Stanfords of the world began to evolve. “If you look at the distribution of faculty at leading business schools,” says Khurana, “they’re mostly in finance. … Business schools are responsive to changes in the external environment.” Which meant that, even if a student aspired to become a top operations man (or woman) at a big industrial company, the infrastructure to teach him didn’t really exist.

  2. Scott Berkun: Everything is a Project, Even This.

    I wrote awhile ago about why project managers get no respect, and that’s because people who make a big deal out of the project-manageryness of their work, as opposed to the domain of the things they make (homes, software, films, cookies) come off as a kind of weenie, a pm-weenie if you will. They appear to be people who are more interested in schedules, budgets and methods than the results those tools help achieve, which is kind of weird. It’s like the director of a bad movie who talks only about his fancy zoom lenses, or that the film came in under-budget. They miss the point.

    But the best project managers, including those people who do lead or manage things yet never use the pm title, somehow know instinctively that everything is a project. They know there needs to be a driving force of thinking, a constant source of social energy, a list or a table or a spreadsheet, that makes it easier for everyone to push their own small decisions forward, increasing the odds with every single effort that the results will be good.

  3. Robin Marantz Henig in NYTimes -- Books of the Times : A Hospital How-To Guide That Mother Would Love -- "Atul Gawande’s provocative new book explains how a technique used by pilots — the simple checklist — can dramatically reduce patients’ deaths in hospitals." [The book appears to be an expanded version of Gawande's New Yorker article in 2007].

    In 2001 Dr. Pronovost borrowed a concept from the aviation industry: a checklist, the kind that pilots use to clear their planes for takeoff. In an experiment Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the I.C.U., infections in patients with central intravenous lines (catheters that deliver medications or fluids directly into a major vein). Central lines can be breeding grounds for pathogens; in the Hopkins I.C.U. at the time, about one line in nine became infected, increasing the likelihood of prolonged illness, further surgery or death.

    Dr. Pronovost wrote down the five things that doctors needed to do when inserting central lines to avoid subsequent infection: wash hands with soap; clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic; cover the patient’s entire body with sterile drapes; wear a mask, hat, sterile gown and gloves; and put a sterile dressing over the insertion site after the line was in.

Sheer awesomeness of exponentiation

Two cartoons:

  1. Abstruse Goose.

  2. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

That's all.

Vivek Reddy on Telangana

In an Indian Express op-ed, he concludes:

Internal self-determination is essential for the survival of the Indian state which has to accommodate people with multiple identities. Creating a separate state should be a function of two factors — identity and governability. Telangana satisfies both these criteria.

* * *

See also: Vikram's post at An Academic View of India: Mayawati is asking for more states, therefore it must be a bad thing.

Peter Griffin on Chetan Bhagat

In Forbes India, Griffin has a great profile of Chetan Bhagat -- the man behind novels that sell and sell even as critics yell bloody murder.

Teller of Stories:

The literary establishment wasn’t impressed. Some reviews were savage. Many put his success down to smart marketing and pricing. Bhagat was bewildered. They were comparing his books to classics and finding them wanting. “Does it say on the cover: ‘this is a great book’? Do I say that on my Web site? Saying Chetan is no Tolstoy is like saying Infosys is no Google, so Infosys is a crap company. Why are they [the media] so high-handed? Newspapers that are sold for a two rupees, magazines that are sold at railway stations, read by ordinary people...” he trails off, takes a breath. “They’re not serving the country, they’re serving the country club.”

The criticism of his output evidently hurts, though he claims a thick skin. When 2 States was being edited, he says, he asked Rupa to put “the most anal liberal arts major to vet the copy.” He wanted to say to critics at large, “It’s not bad English! Just say you don’t like it! I got bigger pricks than you to work on it.”

He’s made a choice here as well. “People who love me will love me. Those who hate me, nothing I do will change their minds. Even an Obama has critics. Who the hell am I? I can please those who love me or try to convert those who hate me. But negativity brings my spirit down. So I chose to do the former.”

There's also an accompanying interview of Bhagat. FWIW, Giiffin's version of the writer is far better than Bhagat's own version.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Venki in India

The latest Nobel sensation of Indian origin, Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, gave a lecture yesterday at the Madras University to a 3000-strong audience [pic]. Here's the way different media outlets covered this event:

  1. Priscilla Jebaraj in The Hindu: Appreciate Science for What It Is:

    Asked how students could aim to emulate him and “win a Nobel for India,” Dr. Ramakrishnan answered emphatically: “That is the wrong question to ask…You can’t go into science thinking of a Nobel Prize. You can only go into science because you’re interested in it.”

  2. Sify: 'Red tape, politics dither scientists from returning home':

    Calling for "autonomy from red tape and local politics" in India, Nobel laureate Indian-American scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan on Tuesday said many scientists of Indian origin may return home if the government made "attractive offers" to undertake research in science.

  3. G.C. Shekhar's report in The Telegraph is a commentary on Madras university officials. The very opening paragraph -- which is not about what happened, but about what did not happen! -- is revealing:

    Thankfully, there were no welcoming arches or roadside banners for “Tamil Nadu’s third science Nobel laureate”, or Venkatraman Ramakrishnan might have turned back and returned to England.

    There's more such fluff before the business of reporting the main event even begins:

    After arriving at vice-chancellor G. Thiruvasagam’s office, Venki spurned a car ride to the nearby auditorium. He chose to walk down, striding past the waiting Toyota Innova with his backpack slung over his shoulders even as the varsity officials hurriedly fell in step.

    ... Venki arrived in khakis and a half-sleeve green shirt while the VC wore a suit.

See also: Venki's dad commenting on his son's work, and Venki's views on 'helping' Indian science. This bit of candor is touching:

Asked whether he would like to teach Indian students through EDUSAT facility, Ramakrishnan said, "You must realise that I have never taught in my life except for two years in Utah. Otherwise, I have been doing research in labs where there is no teaching."

"But, I have been able to lecture about my research. I am actually not a professor," he said.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In which Narendra Modi concedes Italians' superior wisdom ...

In speaking to CNN-IBN, Modi resorted to the last, often-sought refuge of the bankrupt (or the once-colonized): other countries have compulsory voting laws too, including -- ever quick to remind us that he is not a man big enough to resist the temptation of a cheap shot, to let some resentments go, and that he will never stop appealing to others of similar bent -- Italy; surely the protesting Congress should be aware of Italian laws at least?

That's from Umair Ahmed Muhajir aka Qalandar.

See also Pratap Bhanu Mehta's analysis of the Gujarat government's move to make voting in local body elections compulsory.

Age-relevant links?

I'm talking about my age. Here we go:

  1. Jonah Lehrer in Wired: Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.

  2. Roni Caryn Rabin in NYTimes: Risks: Fighting Diabetes With Lots of Espresso.

  3. C. Claiborne Ray in NYTimes: Still, Then Stiff: Why do we stiffen up as we age after not moving for a long time?

  4. And, finally, Greg Ross at Futility Closet: The Bodisattva Paradox.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Year End Stuff: The Onion Edition

Great stuff from The Onion's The Annual Year: The Top 10 Stories of the Last 4.5 Billion Years.

It includes stories like "Internet Archaeologists Find Ruins of 'Friendster' Civilization," and "Early Humans Finally Drunk Enough to Invent Dancing."

... "In fact, we now believe that alcohol-fueled revelry paralleled and probably influenced the practice of the ill-advised hookup, the rambling apology for the previous night's behavior, and poetry," [said Yu Wei Lin of the Beijing Institute of Dance Studies].

The best, of course, is this: Sumerians Look on in Confusion as God Creates World:

"I do not understand," reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. "A booming voice is saying, 'Let there be light,' but there is already light. It is saying, 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' but I am already standing on grass."

"Everything is here already," the pictograph continues. "We do not need more stars."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Links ...

  1. The Economist: The three habits... ... of highly irritating management gurus!

  2. Daniel Little at Understanding Society: Robert Merton's Sociology of Science.

  3. Ram Guha in The Hindustan Times: Telangana isn’t scary

  4. Jonathan Rausch in NYTimes: You Be The Judge -- A review of Michael Sandel's Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?

  5. Clifton Leaf in Fortune: Law of Unintended Consequences:

    Twenty-five years ago a law known as Bayh-Dole spawned the biotech industry. It made lots of university scientists fabulously rich. It was also supposed to usher in a new era of innovation. So why are medical miracles in such short supply?

A 25-year old law student named Errol Tapiwa Muzawazi has set a new record by lecturing non-stop for 121 hours. [Here's some perspective: a semester-long course would typically feature about 45 hours of lectures].

Here's the site. Here are the previous record-holders, featuring several Indians and a fiery (former) head of state.

Here's a quick report:

To emphasise his solidarity with all cultures and a dream of a agreement across party lines, Muzawazi delivered an opening speech in six languages: Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Polish and Swahili. Then, during the lecture, he changed his attire six times, putting on clothing characteristic for different civilizations: European, Muslim, Chinese, Indian, African and Tibetan.

Farewell to the Iron Man

Vir Sanghvi's assessment of L.K. Advani's political career starts with some positives:

[L.K. Advani] is a man of integrity and stature who believes in old style politics when people were expected to work only for ideology. In Advani’s world-view, deal-making, the buying of MP’s and corruption all have no place in politics.

Nor is he motivated by power — unlike most of today’s politicians. Nobody whose chief motivation is power would have stuck with the Jan Sangh-BJP for so many decades when it looked as though the party would never come to power.

One gets the sense that Sanghvi's heart is not really in it, because each of these assertions is open to dispute: for example, the stuff about ideology is contradicted by Sanghvi himself later in the article (see below). Similarly, the stuff about Advani's alleged antipathy to deal-making can be countered by the Karnataka example.

But, Sanghvi follows up that trickle of positives with a deluge of negatives. Here's a quick sample:

Since the end of the Vajpayee era, the story of Advani’s leadership of the BJP has been the story of a man in search of an ideology.

Eager to shed the hardline image but without any core beliefs of his own, Advani looked for ways in which to project himself as a national leader. At every step along the way, he miscalculated.

He believed, for instance, that the BJP would win the 2004 election and that Vajpayee would step down in 2006, installing him as Prime Minister. In fact, the BJP lost.

Then, he believed that Sonia Gandhi would be PM and he could play the Indian alternative to her foreign leader. Sonia destroyed that calculation by installing Manmohan Singh. Advani miscalculated again by reckoning that Singh would be regarded as a puppet and promptly launched vicious personal attacks on him. In fact, Singh was widely respected and Advani’s abuse did the BJP more harm than good.

Next, he played the Pakistan card. Bizarrely, Advani believes that anyone who is soft on Pakistan is regarded as a liberal by Indians.

So, while during the Vajpayee government he had taken the credit for scuppering the Agra Summit, he now went around claiming that it had been his idea to invite Musharraf.

Advani had failed to learn his lesson when, during the 2004 election campaign, he had made the outrageous claim that Indian Muslims would vote for the BJP because the government had improved relations with Pakistan.

Indian Muslims angrily objected to the suggestion that they were pro-Pakistan.

But once he became Leader of the Opposition, Advani once again played the Pakistan card, visiting that country and showering MA Jinnah with praise. This won Advani no fans among Indian Muslim (who have no special affection for Jinnah) and damaged his credibility among liberals who wondered how far he would go in repudiating his past only to change his image. And of course, the RSS was outraged.

Year End Stuff: Errors, Corrections and Ideas

  1. Craig Silverman in Regret the Error: Crunk 2009: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections. The runner-up is from an academic publication:

    British Medical Journal:

    During the editing of this Review of the Week by Richard Smith (BMJ 2008;337:a2719,doi:10.1136/bmj.a2719), the author’s term “pisshouse” was changed to “pub” in the sentence: “Then, in true British and male style, Hammond met Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, in the pub and did a deal.” However, a pisshouse is apparently a gentleman’s toilet, and (in the author’s social circle at least) the phrase “pisshouse deal” is well known. (It alludes to the tendency of men to make deals while standing side by side and urinating.) In the more genteel confines of the BMJ Editorial Office, however, this term was unknown and a mistake was made in translating it into more standard English. We apologise for any misunderstanding this may have caused.

  2. NYTimes' Year in Ideas featuring, among other things, such geeky stuff as: the Polymath project ("Massively Collaborative Mathematics") and the use of the Google's page rank alorithm to model species extinction. A couple of Ig Nobel-worthy things have also made it to the list: cows with names produce more milk, and an empty beer bottle is a sturdier weapon than one with beer in it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fun links ...

  1. Krish Ashok at Doing Jalsa and Showing Jilpa: The Slacker's Dilemma.

  2. Giridhar: Decision Avoidance: A Taxonomy.

  3. The Situationist: Situationist Comedy: How would the behavior of 100 people influence you?

  4. Jest Me: Old ads on desi TV -- some from pre-cable days!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A blast from my grad school days

Boing Boing informs us that "the first full-length episode of The Simpsons ... aired on television" 20 years ago this week, and helpfully points to sites where one can get a streamable version. I found one in English here.

[Here's the Wikipedia entry for the show.]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Links ...

  1. Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Gender Matters:

    Between 1981 and 2007, the percentage of trustees who are women increased to 31 percent from 20 percent. [...]

    Among the findings:

    • Institutions with female presidents, female provosts (or academic vice presidents), and more women on boards of trustees saw larger increases in the share of female faculty members than did other institutions. [...]

    • The impact of having more women as trustees kicks in only when a critical mass has been reached, either of the female proportion on the board (25 percent) or the number of women on the board (5).

  2. Ian Dobson in University World News: Women Dominate the Campus in Finland:

    The female proportion increased in all of these disciplines except pharmacy (down from 83% in 1981 to 77% in 2008) but women comprised a whopping 91% of all enrolments in veterinary medicine in 2008, up from 72% in 1981.

    In 2008, women made up between half and two-thirds of enrolments in a number of other areas, including agriculture (58%), theology (59%), medicine (63%) and social sciences (66%). In 1981, they were under-represented in agriculture, theology, law, economics, natural sciences and engineering but by 2008 the under-representation was only in economics (45%), natural sciences (44%) and engineering (21%) whereas in 1981 the last ratio was only 15%.

Telangana ...

I'm an outsider to this debate, and I'm also not up to speed on the key issues involved here. Here are a couple of people I admire from the pro-Telangana side:

First, Manoj Mitta of ToI: Don't need to feel inferior any more:

The breakthrough just made on the statehood therefore seems to give an opportunity to Telanganites to come out of the cultural closet. The prospect of having our own state is exciting as it will let us find our voice, speak freely and unabashedly in our own dialect, without looking over the shoulder to see if any "refined" Telugu speaker from coastal Andhra is sniggering at us.

Egalitarian and earthy as the Telangana dialect is, there is an Anjaiah lurking in each of us, however much we may be educated or sophisticated. The revival of the old Hyderabad state will help us rediscover, among other cultural treasures, our Telangana cuisine which is so distinct from the notoriously hot Andhra counterpart.

The other is Sujai Karampuri, who has written a multi-part series (the latest is the eighteenth!). Here's an excerpt from the 17th post:

A and B in relationship

B wants to separate. A says, no, I won’t let you go.

B says, sorry, we tried for 50 years to make this work. I want to go my own way. A says, no, I won’t let you go.

B says, you are not getting it. I feel suffocated in this relationship. You have not been very accommodating. You have never respected me. You exploited me all through the relationship. A says, no, I won’t let you go.

B says, don’t you think you should say few things like, ‘Let’s give it another chance. Let me address your issues’ if you want me to stay with you. A says, I would die, but I won’t let you go.

B says, this is turning ridiculous. I am telling you I want to move out because you didn’t treat me good. Instead of trying to make it work you are just forcing yourself onto me. Aren’t you being little selfish? A says, we should be together because we both speak the same language.

B says, screw the language. I am not going to sacrifice another minute to keep this farcical relationship going on. I am moving out. A says, I will die but I won’t let you go. I will protest and tell our parents.

B says, screw the parents. I am done. You can’t keep blackmailing me like this. You have always exploited me. A says, I will protest harder. I will burn things down. I will riot. But I will keep you with me.

B says, don’t you think this is the right time for you to say, ‘Sorry, I will make amends. I will change. I will protect your interests. Please stay’. A says, you are taking away the mansion you brought in the dowry. I took care of it all this while. I won’t let you have it.

B says, Aha, so this is all about the dowry I brought into the marriage. A says, I invested in painting it.

B says, screw the paint. The entire mansion belongs to me. The last sixty years have been a hell for me. That paint you put on doesn’t even compensate for the pain I have gone through. A says, if I can’t have it, I won’t let you have it.

B says, Get lost, you freak. I cannot believe I lived with you for all these sixty years. I am moving out. Bye, Bye. A says, let’s stay together. We both speak the same language. What will other people think if we break up like this?

B says. Bye. Now, I don’t even know how we stayed together all these years. A says, I will not give you divorce. Let’s see what you will do.

Links ...

  1. Michael Bérubé in American Scientist: The Play is the Thing: A review of Bryan Boyd's On the Origin of Stories -- Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. You may or may not be interested in the book, but you ought to read it for this take-down of evo-psych:

    Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).

  2. Sujatha at Blogpourri: Book Review: Karadi Tales' Will You Read With Me? Series

  3. Sue Sellenbarger in WSJ: Placing A Value On A College Degree.

  4. Vikas Bajaj in NYTimes: In India, Anxiety Over the Slow Pace of Innovation .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It is with profound sadness that I note the passing away of Prof. R. Balasubramanian of IIT-K -- Bala to those who knew him.

Bala was a year senior to us in our Department (of Metallurgical Engineering at IT-BHU), so we knew him quite well. Not only was he the topper of his class, he excelled in many other spheres -- he was a good cricketer (I believe he played in the IT team) and he was the drummer -- a flamboyant one at that! -- in one of the rock groups. As the Gymkhana President, he organized the the biggest and the most spectacular Kashi Yatra -- IT-BHU's cultural festival -- of our era.

In our IT-BHU lives, Bala was a hero, a leader, and a rock star!

* * *

After grad school, and back in Indian academia, I met Bala at many events -- mainly conferences and thesis examinations. I'm indebted to him for his support when I applied for a faculty position at IIT-K.

While we didn't work in the same area, I was always aware of Bala's work -- primarily because of its popular science component.

Bala was at his creative best when he combined his deep interest in Indian history with his expertise in metallurgy (more specifically, corrosion science). Back in the 1990s, he launched his now celebrated study of the Delhi Iron Pillar -- a 'Rustless Wonder' and a 'Metallurgical Marvel of Ancient India.' His research covered not just its extraordinary resistance to rusting, but also its historical context and how the artisans of that age manufactured such a massive monument. [See the list of books he has published].

One can see the influence of this work in his later research into Indian cannons, as well as that into ancient Indian astronomy and metrology -- see, for example, this recent Current Science paper on "the connection of the traditional unit of measure, the angulam, of the Harappan Civilization (~2000 BC) with length measures of the Mughal period (AD ~1600)...," and this one on the astronomical significance of the Delhi Iron Pillar.

Bala was so outgoing and so full of life that he left an unforgettable impression on anyone who had even the briefest of contact with him. As this page testifies, he has also had a positive impact on those who had the good fortune to have been taught by him, or to have worked, played (cricket or music), or interacted with him.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ambidexterity Premium in Football

Alex Bryson, Bernd Frick and Rob Simmons: Wage returns to scarce talent: The case of professional football players:

The value of two-footedness

Two-footedness is the ability to use both feet to pass, tackle and shoot. Unsurprisingly, this versatility is strongly related to player performance. Furthermore, it is a fairly unusual talent – around one-sixth of the players in the top five European leagues are two-footed. Although it can be taught from an early age, it rarely occurs. This is changing. A football school was set up in the UK in 2004 claiming to be “the first and original soccer school that concentrates solely on improving the other foot”1. Nevertheless, this training of two-footedness is something that can only be properly developed at an early age in the formative years of a player’s career and is difficult to instil in today’s established professional players. Furthermore, a recent study of amateur and professional players found a “surprising absence of plasticity in foot use, given the importance of learning, experience, and culture in models of handedness and footedness” (Carey et al., 2009). Hence, we can treat footedness as a pre-determined specialist ability that is capable of generating a return.

Does this talent translate into wages? The answer is “yes”. [...]

Annals of Academic Productivity

Two links:

  1. Arunn has a post on Quantifying Research Quality through Article Level Metrics.

    The beginning of the end for impact factors and journals, a neat online article by Richard Smith [3], explains the newly introduced ALM indices with examples. Another recent article published in PLoS by Cameron Neylon and Shirley Wu [4] discusses the pros and cons of the newly introduced ALM indices. But both these articles leave out in their discussion, certain key journal requirements for proper functioning of the proposed ALM and their related shortcomings.

    Also, journal impact factor is being seen as a very poor measure of article impact. One distinction is essential in such generalization. Because we are able to debunk the efficacy of impact factors, we are not debasing the reputation earned by research journals.

    In this article, we discuss the efficacies of the proposed ALM indices, journal impact factor contrasted with the prevailing journal reputation and related issues in detail. In the summary, we provide possible rectification measures for ALM.

  2. Sachin Shanbag has one on Quantitative v/s Qualitative Evaluations: Impact Factors and Wine Experts:

    I think they are a lazy substitute for actually reading a person's research and evaluating its worth individually. While it is fashionable, and getting increasingly so, I've never really been a big fan of using purely quantitative factors to measure the worth of an individual, university, or country.

    You wouldn't necessarily think that the musician who sells the most records, or has the most covers made is necessarily the best (that would rate the likes of Back Street Boys over bands like Dream Theater).

Monday, December 07, 2009

Scientific Eye Candy

  1. Mathematics: Awesome roots of polynomials. [Via Arunn].

  2. Physics: Art inspired by quantum mechanics [Via Philip Ball].

[Update: In his comment, Rahul suggests 3D Mandelbrot.]

Sunday, December 06, 2009

What not to say in a recommendation letter ...

Omar Lizardo digs up evidence from social science literature to support his advice that we should avoid "grindstone words" (hardworking, for example!)

So for the love of everything that is holy ...don’t pepper (I don’t and I have been able to fill up up three or more single-spaced pages) your recommendation letter with allusions to hard work.

Luis Von Ahn's Advice on Grad School Applications. In his set of quirky-but-good advice, there's one about what not to say in recommendation letters:

4. DON'T have your recommenders write that you are "from a good family." Unless that family has a Turing Award or two, we don't care.

Related: Matt Welsh's post on How to Get into Grad School

Links ...

  1. Tara Brabazon in Times Higher Education: Universities' use of YouTube. Discusses many models of use, with caveats such as this one:

    Watching academics lecture is as exciting as changing the time on a microwave oven. The idea that underprepared PowerPoint lectures are uploaded so that even more people can feel their higher intellectual functions leak through their nose with boredom is a decision worthy of some attention.

  2. Inside Higher Ed interviews John C. Knapp and David J. Siegel, editors of The Business of Higher Education.

  3. Alan Osborne in University World News: European Universities Still Lack Autonomy:

    The study looked at four key areas of autonomy: organisational autonomy (academic and administrative structures leadership, governance); academic autonomy (defining study fields, student numbers, student selection, and structure/content of degrees); financial autonomy (the ability to raise funds, own buildings, borrow money); and staffing autonomy (the ability to independently recruit, promote and develop academic and non academic staff).

    In only half the countries do universities have the right to own their buildings, and even those with ownership are not always free to sell without government supervision. Most systems (22) allowed universities to borrow money but legislation could restrict the amounts.

  4. Robert Frank in NYTimes: How To Run Up A Deficit, Without Fear.

  5. Jared Diamond in NYTimes: Will Big Business Save the Earth?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The unravelling of Shiva Ayyadurai ...

... has begun.

Vinod Scaria has started a forum discussion thread on Ayyadurai at the Nature India website [Update (6 December 2009): Scaria's post has been removed by the forum administrators at Nature India; it's archived here, though]. Scaria is a scientist at IGIB (a CSIR lab), New Delhi; in his post, he says quite a few things that shatter Ayyadurai's self-portrait as a professional who -- before he gave up, or, was fired -- fought against immense odds for 'freedom for science' at CSIR.

Sidebar: Updates
(in reverse chronological order)

4. Rahul has an update in which he questions the ethics of Nature Network's removal of the forum posts by Scaria and Sivasubbu, while keeping alive Ayyadurai's 'commentary' on the front page of Nature India.

3. This post at The Shiva Ayyadurai Fan Club presents quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Ayyadurai may have misrepresented his affiliation with MIT. If this suggestion proves true, it will completely damage his credibility.

2. Wow. Things are happening fast. A second CSIR scientist, Sridhar Sivasubbu of IGIB, has joined the fray, with a separate post in Nature India forums [Update (6 December 2009): This post has also been removed; it's archived here, though].

1. Check out the blog of The Shiva Ayyadurai Fan Club.

* * *

While we are not in a position to comment on what really went on in those meetings (for example, Scaria paints him as not just unprofessional, but unethical as well), we can certainly form an opinion on what is available on the web. Scaria does a good job of unearthing this stuff for us:

... I am not amused to find a Nature Biotechnology in his CV with the word “submitted” in small type and his claim to have written a commentary in Nature , while it is nothing but a Blog in nature India.see it for yourself here. The homepage even features a PDF with a complete logo.

Here's the entry for his 'commentary'; as of now, it's No. 1 in Ayyadurai's resume under "Selected Publications":

S. Ayyadurai, Commentary: Innovation Demands Freedom, Nature, December, 2009.

Scaria is right: this 'commentary' is something that appeared in the Nature India website -- which is distinct from Nature, the science journal. To claim that it's a commentary that appeared in Nature (within a couple of days after it appeared at Nature India) says something about the man who has cried 'unprofessional' at every bloody opportunity.

[Thanks to this comment, I checked out this page that reproduced his 'commentary'; at that time, it featured '' logo prominenty, right at the top, as some sort of a 'masthead'. Evidently, Ayyadurai has been following blog comments; the masthead now features Nature India.]

[Similarly, I'm not able to locate the 'Nature Biotechnology' paper (which Scaria refers to in his scathing post) in Ayyadurai's CV, probably because this entry has now been 'corrected'.]

Science, Bureaucracy, Government

In an op-ed in the The Hindu, Narlikar, one of the finest popular science writers in India, describes recent experiments by Indian scientists from TIFR, CCMB, NCCS and ISRO, with very interesting the (sci-fi like) implications in astrobiology.

Astrobiology not the only topic that animates Narlikar's article, however; here's how he sees the impact of this work on Indian science:

This inter-institutional accomplishment illustrates the indigenous capability in successfully fabricating experimental set-ups of entirely new types. This trend for originality and creativity augurs well for Indian science. With fresh wind blowing in bringing global competitiveness and collaboration, attitudes to scientific research will change from that of a routine job to an adventure in creativity.

While that's a pretty positive outlook, there are concerns:

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to planning exciting experiments and achieving important results is the bureaucratic framework of our research institutes. The hierarchical structure, especially pay scales of our research institutes mimic the government’s administrative structure. However, the creativity and efficiency of a scientist vis-À-vis the administrator evolve differently, with the scientist bringing differential skill and qualification requirements to the table. Besides, a young scientist is in the prime of his creative life and an administrator, on the other hand, gains maturity with age. To base the promotion criteria of a scientist on the same pattern as for an administrator is to ignore this fundamental difference. This more often than not leads to frustration among the younger generation of scientists as they see their bright new ideas getting ignored or going unappreciated.

Narlikar's views reminded me of a perceptive analysis of science administration in India in a presentation by T. Jayaraman (ppt). Since our government funds scientific research, it treats science as a 'government department', with pretty serious consequences in the way it impacts the scientists' ability to get on with their work:

  • Scientific research is incidental to smooth functioning of the institution.

  • Individual research work (as opposed to `projects’) [is] simply a route to acquiring `personal benefits’ for the individual researcher.

  • Increasingly, even routine requirements (like adequate funding to invite and host visiting scientists program) have to be bundled as `projects'.

  • Financial and administrative accountability is central while scientific accountability is pushed to the background.

  • Mobility for research work [is] seriously affected.

  • Human resource management practices [are] hooked to that of government.

Here's an earlier post about Jayaraman's talk.

This is a good place to link (yet again) to Jayaraman's stinging critique (from 2005!) of the way our science policies are made and our science institutions are run.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Manu Joseph on 'the comic side of the right wing'

A fun read. I'm linking to it because of this:

In some prominent men, who looked sane and wise, I had to just scratch the surface to see their incurable conviction that Hindus are historically special. A senior scientist from the Indian Institute of Science once told me, as a matter of fact, “A reason why we were so superior in the olden days might have been because of a technology transfer from aliens. Our gods may have originally been representations of extraterrestrial visitors.”

Kumari L.A. Meera Memorial Lecture

This year, the Meera Trust invited TIFR mathematician Professor M.S. Raghunathan to deliver this public lecture, and he chose to speak on The Queen of Sciences: Her Realm, Her Influence and Her Health.

* * *


Thanks to my friend and colleague Anant, who played a major role in organizing this lecture, we now have the text of the talk, as well as the slides. They may eventually be posted on the website of Kumari L.A. Meera Memorial Trust; in the meantime, I've posted them on Posterous, where they can be viewed online. You may also download them -- look for the links there.

* * *

In his talk (delivered yesterday at the Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore), Raghunathan started with what really sets mathematics apart from the other sciences. The answer, he said, lies in what their practitioners are after: a mathematician's primary quest is for higher levels of abstraction and beauty, while other scientists' primary motivation is to 'crack' -- understand -- a 'real' phenomenon. While 'unreasonably effective' connections between math and physics (or other sciences) may exist or emerge, they are purely incidental to the mathematician's quest.

The way mathematics develops is mostly determined by an internal dynamic, the imagination of the mathematician. It does every now and then draw upon natural sciences for inspiration, but even when that happens, the new mathematics that is born takes on a life of its own and often charts a path that has little relevance to its origins: the mathematician's imagination takes over.

Raghunathan peppered this part of the talk with interesting episodes from the history of mathematics. Here's one of them:

It would appear that great mathematicians tend to set greater store by mathematics that is concerned with its own constructs rather than mathematics that enlists itself into the service of other disciplines. ... When admonished by Joseph Fourier, a major figure of eighteenth century mathematics for pursuing useless mathematics, his greater contemporary Carl Gustav Jacobi responded with “A savant like Fourier ought to know that the sole end of science is the glory of the human mind and under that title, a question about numbers is worth as much as a question about the system of the world”.

The second part of his talk was an extended detour into some of the greatest mathematicians who had wide interests and / or led colourful lives. The idea, I believe, was to dispel the stereotype that mathematicians -- with their heads filled with 'cold logic,' as it were -- are socially inept nerds.

Raghunathan then turned to the 'health' of Indian mathematics. He expressed his deep concern about the state of mathematics education -- especially at the school level. He ended with a plea for making teaching an attractive profession for our bright young people.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dr. Shambu Nath De: A hero whose pioneering work went unappreciated at home

From the Wikipedia entry on Dr. Shambu Nath De (1915-85):

De made significant contributions to our recent understanding of cholera and related diarrheal diseases and set a permanent milestone in the modern view of diseases caused by bacterial exotoxins. [...] The seminal works of De in Calcutta (now, Kolkata), during 1950-60 breached several qualms pertaining to the enteric toxin produced by bacteria including V. cholerae and Escherichia coli. [...]

Says Eugene Garfield,[6] founder-editor of Current Contents and Science Citation Index and publisher of The Scientist, in his 1986 tribute to De: "In 1959 De was the first to demonstrate that cholera bacteria secrete enterotoxin. This discovery eventually promoted research to find a treatment aimed directly at neutralizing the cholera enterotoxin. De’s paper “Enterotoxicity of bacteria-free culture-filtrate of Vibrio cholerae,” while initially unrecognized, today is considered a milestone in the history of cholera research." [...]

... De was never elected a fellow of any Indian academy and never received any major award. Indeed as Professor Padmanabhan Balaram pointed out in an editorial in Current Science, “De died in 1985 unhonoured and unsung in India’s scientific circles. That De received no major award in India during his lifetime and our Academies did not see it fit to elect him to their Fellowships must rank as one of the most glaring omissions of our time.

In 1990, some five years after his death, Current Science devoted a special issue to Dr. S.N. De and his pioneering work on cholera [contents can be accessed through links in this page -- scroll down to July]. Even if you don't read all of it, do read Eugene Garfield's 1986 article on the impact of De's work. This issue also carries a short piece by Prof. Balaram -- the above quote is from this piece.

I learned about Dr. S.N. De, his scientific work and the lack of appreciation of his work by the Indian scientific community over several conversations with Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, whose views are featured in Garfield's article.

Rahul Siddharthan on the Infosys Prize

Some of you asked for an appreciation of the Infosys Prize winners. Rahul has a great post on Prof. K. VijayRaghavan (Director, NCBS, and winner of the Prize for Life Sciences) with whom he has an ongoing collaboration.

[While there, make sure you also read Rahul's other post where he has a fantabulous one-liner: "With enemies like Ayyadurai, who needs friends?"]

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Nobel : Mathematics :: Infosys : Chemical Sciences

There are some wacky stories about why there's no Nobel in mathematics.

But why is there no Infosys Prize in Chemical Sciences?

Could it be because of all those tirades against India's infotech industry by this icon of Indian science?

Inquiring minds always want to know ... ;-)

Shiva Ayyadurai ...

... is back in the news.

  1. Through a blog -- Freedom for Science -- written by card-carrying members of Ayyadurai Fan Club. The blog has also made public the report by Ayyadurai and Sardana (check the side bar of that blog). The really juicy bits that led to Ayyadurai's dismissal (he claims that he resigned) are in Chapter 7. The report is also noteworthy for its atrociously sappy (and shall I say, 'unprofessional' -- see below) 'Dedication.'

  2. In Heather Timmon's NYTimes story on how expats who choose to return to India find stuff here to be "inefficient" and "unprofessional". And the poster child for that stereotype-laden story is none other than Ayyadurai, whose saga at CSIR occupies over a third of it.

    [Do make sure to read Timmons' report all the way to the end, to learn a bit more about DG-CSIR's unique skills in handling journalists!]

    I have only one comment: Ayyadurai may have a "fistful of American degrees," but his tenure at CSIR was a disaster. For someone who was hand-picked by the top honcho, he had every opportunity to make his job a success -- but he botched it. As Timmons' story reveals, "Within weeks, he and his boss were at loggerheads." [See also Ayyaduraii's report -- with its 'Dedication', the stuff in Chapter 7, the stupid 'historical time-line' in Chapter 1. If that damned thing is not unprofessional, I have to wonder what is...]

    When outsiders fail in their jobs, it's natural for some of them to blame the environment, the 'inefficient' and 'unprofessional' culture of the natives. Timmons has been rather uncritical in peddling the stereotypes mouthed by those who failed in their jobs, fled, and now use martyrdom as a mask.

  3. Also in a Nature - India article -- Innovation Demands Freedom [free registration required] -- penned by Ayyadurai himself.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

'The danger of a single story'

Watch this 18-minute TED video of a talk by Chimamanda Adichie on The danger of a single story.

That's all.

The Grand Prize for Epic Fail goes to ...

... the Infosys Science Foundation!

For its immense failure -- Epic Fail! -- to find a single Indian researcher for the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Sciences.

The Infosys Science Foundation is being recognized for:

  1. Its failure to grasp the magnitude and the extraordinary symbolism of its assertion that there's no one in India deserving of the Engineering Prize right in Year One.

    [It's not as if this Prize has already been awarded to some five people in the past, and the jury is now unable to find anyone in the same league as those past winners. This is Year One we are talking about, and the jury has declared there's no one who measures up to The No One!]

  2. Its failure to realize that if no one deserves this Prize in Year One, its Prize in Year Two is in deep doo-doo.

    [If the Prize in Year Two goes to someone from the present set of nominees, the question would be, "What changed in the last year?". If it goes to someone else, the question would be, "Why was he/she not considered last year?" Either way, the jury for Year One ends up looking incompetent, if not downright stupid.]

  3. Its failure to, simply, get Prize-worthy nominations.

    [What good is a jury if they could not reach out to people who can nominate Prize-worthy candidates? I mean, what good is your Prize -- that too, one that carries the highest monetary award in India -- if all you can attract is spam?]

  4. Its failure to see the irony in no one getting the Engineering Prize from a foundation set up by what is arguably India's leading tech company.

That was one moronic decision from you, Infosys Science Foundation! Perhaps we should have expected a screw up from you, but we could never have expected such a big one right in Year One.


Monday, November 30, 2009

DST nails an IIT-KGP professor

The verdict:

India’s leading science funding agency has withdrawn a prestigious fellowship it had awarded last year to a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, after an investigation charged him with scientific misconduct.


Suman Chakraborty, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT-KGP.


Two panels of experts set up by the DST found that Chakraborty had portrayed research he had completed before 2005 as the outcome of a DST-supported project which he had undertaken between 2005 and 2008, sources told The Telegraph.

His DST-supported project involved the prediction of how biological tissues interact with lasers, a science that may lead to new strategies to fight cancer. In a project completion report submitted to the DST earlier this year describing his work during the 2005-2008 period, Chakraborty had reproduced verbatim his own research paper published in a scientific journal in 2005, according to the findings.

G.S. Mudur of The Telegraph has the full story.

Some quick observations / comments:

  1. First, a disclosure: Suman Chakraborty is an alumnus of IISc's Department of Mechanical Engineering, where he finished his thesis in record time (IIRC, less than a year). I have had casual chats with him a few times when he was a student; I do not recall any interaction with him after his graduation.

  2. Chakraborty has been accused of passing off his old (pre-2005) research as something that was done under a project whose funding started only in 2005. At least two panels have found him guilty of this charge. From The Telegraph story, it appears that Chakraborty himself is not disputing the fact behind the charge.

  3. I know of situations where people do quite a bit of groundwork before the project begins officially; they are then in a position to start publishing within a short time after the project starts. Chakraborty seems to have taken his groundwork to publications well before the official project start. In his mind, the whole thing -- his groundwork as well as the work he did after the project started officially -- may have formed one long continuum, but the funding agency (and the people it appointed to investigate this issue) has not bought into this view.

  4. In comparison with the "high crimes" in science -- fabrication, falsification or plagiarism -- Chakraborty's offence is a minor one. If I may use an analogy here, he has not been accused of murder or manslaughter; he has been found guilty of a Section 420 offence.

  5. Section 420 is an apt analogy here: he has been accused of cheating the funding agency. The penalty for it is in the nature of a fine -- the Swarnajayanti Fellowship, which he won before his offence blew up, has been withdrawn.

  6. This penalty appears to fit the offence here; it's far lower than what the 'high crimes' attract. [For example, fabrication and falsification might attract an outright dismissal, while plagiarism is punished with not allowing any student to come anywhere near the culprit.] While he has lost out on getting a grant from DST for some years to come, his right to work with students (as well as to seek funding from other agencies, including private industry) has been left intact.

  7. The Telegraph story talks about how this case has led to a debate among Indian scientists. I don't really get what the 'debate' is really about; maybe it's it's about whether the punishment is appropriate.

    If Chakraborty is really guilty as charged, not punishing him would make the funding agency look foolish. I mean, someone cheats you, and you still go ahead and reward him with a Swarnajayanti? WTF?

    Chakraborty has been unlucky in that the agency that felt cheated and that which made the Fellowship offer happened to be the same -- DST. The Swarnajayanti might still have been his if it was awarded by a different agency.

  8. Frankly, I'm surprised that DST's project review panel caught Chakraborty on this offence; typically, end-of-project reports get only a cursory look to see if the broad objectives have been met. The scrutiny that's required for catching this sort of offence must have been pretty deep indeed. Either the panel was amazingly effective (very admirable, but unlikely) in its scrutiny, or its members must have had some other reason to subject Chakraborty's project to a higher level of scrutiny.

  9. It looks like this stuff -- the investigation, the verdict and the Swarnajayanti withdrawal -- happened several months ago. Due to lax (or, lack of) disclosure norms, DST hasn't made its decision public. It is this lack of disclosure that makes The Telegraph story read like a major scoop.

    Compare this with what the NIH does: it discloses on its website, as a routine matter, the results of all its misconduct investigations -- see this example.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Talent, Expertise, Excellence

Here is a bunch of links:

  1. Daniel Chambliss: Mundanity of Excellence. A classic paper on how experts differ from novices -- based on a long-term study of competitive swimmers at different levels. There's a fabulous section on why 'talent' does not lead to excellence. [You might want to get hold of the full original from the source; requires subscription, though.].

  2. Greg Downey at Talent: A Difference That Makes A Difference. Here's an excerpt from the section on "What is talent and how to identify it":

    ‘Talent’ or ‘potential’ are ways that some of us think about inequality in ability, or variation in the way that different people seem to benefit from training. ‘Talent’ is alleged a potential trait, a symptom of nascent ability, a foreshadowing of future greatness, or a way of explaining someone’s early achievements or performance advantage. On the other hand—paradoxically—the concept of talent is a way of understanding why some experts are more proficient than others; unlike a concept like jeito, a Brazilian term for something like a ‘knack,’ ‘talent’ is usually quite task specific or specialized, even though a ‘talented’ person is often quite versatile.

    ‘Talent’ is typically contrasted with ‘hard work’ or ‘determination,’ suggesting skill is some mix of natural ‘talent’ and ‘hard work,’ in various proportions. The cultural concept of ‘talent’ is a bit unstable; no one would expect a talented musician to simply pick up an instrument and play. Rather ‘talent’ is usually an idea that some people learn quicker, more effortlessly, and with greater effect. In some ways, ‘talent’ can be like a multiplier, allowing a person to get more out of formative experiences and instruction.

    At times, ‘talented’ seems to mean little different from skilful, but ‘talent’ also has a bit of an edge: it can be an evaluation tinged with disappointment, ’squandered talent,’ a suggestion that a person has potential which may not have been fully developed because of other failures, like an absence of hard work or discipline.

  3. Anders Ericsson: Updated Excerpts (2000) on Expert Performance And Deliberate Practice. [You may also be interested in popular science articles covering Ericsson's work at CNN and Scientific American; see also this post for further links.]

  4. Dr. Doyenne at Women In Wetlands: Is Talent Overrated? (and Part 2).

  5. Fabio Rojas at You Need More Than Talent to succeed in academia.

  6. Malcolm Gladwell in New Yorker: The Talent Myth:

  7. Gladwell's book Outliers has several chapters on successful people at the very high end. From what I know, his summaries of academic research are fairly accurate, though I'm not able to evaluate his spin on that research. For a flavor of what he covers in this book, take a look at these reviews.

Lilavati's European Daughters

Women in Science:

For much of human history, women were officially excluded from the scientific realm. However, in spite of their invisibility in the history narrative, this did not mean that science was exclusively a man’s world. Many women, throughout the centuries, have managed to overcome their marginalisation and excel in their chosen field, making vital contributions to the sum of human knowledge.

With this book we would like to celebrate European women scientists throughout the ages. The book tells the compelling stories of some of the heroines of European science – some sung but many unsung – and, through their narratives, it enriches and completes the history of scientific knowledge by highlighting its female face.

The entire book is available as a pdf; the website also has audio-chapters.

Links ...

  1. List of Professor-Approved Holidays at PhD Comics.

  2. Raghu at A Heuristic Viewpoint of Life: Graduate School Mahabharata.

  3. Johann Hari in The Independent: A morally bankrupt dictatorship built by slave labour: "Dubai is finally financially bankrupt – but it has been morally bankrupt all along. The idea that Dubai is an oasis of freedom on the Arabian peninsular is one of the great lies of our time."

  4. Anubhuti Vishnoi in The Indian Express: Brand IIT goes to the world, gets OK to set up a campus in Qatar. From the Wikipedia entry on Qatar, we learn the following:

    Qatar University was founded in 1973. More recently, with the support of the Qatar Foundation, some major American universities have opened branch campuses in Education City, Qatar. These include Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College and Northwestern University.

  5. Aaron Swartz at Raw Thought: How I Hire Programmers: "There are three questions you have when you’re hiring a programmer (or anyone, for that matter): Are they smart? Can they get stuff done? Can you work with them?"

  6. Geoff Maslen in University World News: AUSTRALIA: Collapse spreads around global village:

    News spreads fast in the global village created by the World Wide Web. And bad news always travels that much more quickly than any other kind - as the Australian government found to its likely cost this month when a Chinese-owned company called the Global Campus Management Group that ran a series of vocational education colleges in Melbourne and Sydney for foreign students suddenly shut its doors and went into voluntary liquidation.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Annals of MBA Scams

Volume XIV: This University Operates from a Car Shed.

Conference with No Participation

We have already seen one version -- the scamference, which is essentially a fraud.

Thanks to an e-mail alert from a colleague, I became aware of a second kind: Journal Conference.

Journal Conferences are virtual conferences, where blind papers are peer reviewed by at least two/three experts and accepted papers are published in International Journals. No paper presentation is required.

Don't you love that part about "blind" papers?

Going by the names of people in the National Committee, it seems like an Indian operation. Poking around that site, I couldn't find a physical, "real world" address, though.

Anyways, the conferences (in four areas!) "didn't happen" in 2009. I wonder if they will be repeated next year ...

Manhattan Project at Chicago

... [T]his trouble with graphite [that boron impurities in it quenches a chain reaction even before it gets started] is one of the reasons America far outpaced Germany in the race to obtain a sustained nuclear chain reaction. The arrogance of German physicists made them suppose they alone had the intellect and talent required to achieve their goal. They didn’t bother to consult chemists and engineers, the very people who made the American project feasible. Tests by German physicists showed that graphite was unsatisfactory as a moderator in a reactor, but the physicists did not realize that the trouble lay in traces of boron. So they opted for heavy water, a material available only at great expense from one Norwegian hydroelectric plant. Sabotage prevented the Germans from ever attaining enough heavy water for a nuclear reactor. Pure graphite can be made in quantity far more cheaply and easily than heavy water.

That's from Work on the Manhattan Project, Subsequent Events, and Little Known Facts Related to its Use, a short article by Lawrence Bartels, University of Michigan chemist who's "one of the few remaining survivors of the war-time project."

Bad day for the IIMs?

India Today:

The Common Admission Test (CAT) that was supposed to go paperless from today has been rescheduled at some centres as the servers developed some glitches.

Reports are pouring in from several places in the country that because of network problems, the CAT examination has been put off.

At centres in Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Indore, Pune and Bhopal the test has been put off.

Meanwhile, IIM authorities, have denied reports that online exam servers crashed. They have told the HRD Ministry that the exam was not cancelled but has been rescheduled at some centres.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Philosophy Quotes

Over at 3 Quarks Daily, Gerald Dworkin has put together a wonderful collection. Great fun!

Here's a geeky put-down:

He is a quantum philosopher. I can’t understand him and his position at the same time.
-- S, Morgenbesser

Here are a couple of other quotes:

Philosophy is the cure for which there is no adequate disease.
-- Jerry Fodor

Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.
-- Mencken

Links ...

  1. Suzanne Franks at Thus Spake Zuska: Lives of the Saints of Science: Darwin:

    This past year the scientific community has been engaged in a massive telling and retelling of the story of one of those key figures - Charles Darwin. All year long, I have been reminded of my first encounter with the actual writings of Mr. Darwin, as opposed to the presentation of his myth. It happened in a women's studies class.

  2. Charu Sudan Kasturi in The Telegraph: Foreign University Bill in Deep Freeze:

    A proposed law to allow the entry and regulation of foreign universities will now be reviewed afresh under a panel of top bureaucrats, threatening to delay indefinitely a legislation scheduled for cabinet approval. [...]

    The decision to refer the bill to a committee of secretaries effectively means the proposed legislation, which may now undergo fresh changes, is unlikely to see the light of day for some time.

    Typically, committees of secretaries take several months to review a proposal or draft legislation before finalising their reports. But they have no time restrictions within which they are required to complete the review.

  3. Thomas Frank in WSJ: A Liberal Thanksgiving: "We hear much less nonsense about the wisdom of markets these days."

    ... Just about the only ones who still believe in omniscient markets anymore are the think-tankers who are paid to believe in it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Links ...

  1. Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics: My work has been plagiarized. Now what?. She offers some advice; and so do her readers.

  2. Spiegel interview with Umberto Eco: 'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die'

    ...I realized ... that the [Louvre] exhibition [that I would curate] would focus on lists. Why am I so interested in the subject? I can't really say. I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences.

    SPIEGEL: Still, you are famous for being able to explain your passions …

    Eco: … but not by talking about myself. Look, ever since the days of Aristotle, we have been trying to define things based on their essence. The definition of man? An animal that acts in a deliberate way. Now, it took naturalists 80 years to come up with a definition of a platypus. They found it endlessly difficult to describe the essence of this animal. It lives underwater and on land; it lays eggs, and yet it's a mammal. So what did that definition look like? It was a list, a list of characteristics.

  3. Larry Hardesty in MIT News: Explained: The Discrete Fourier Transform.

Chrome OS

Just a couple of links telling us this is a very big deal -- even though the first machines won't be available for another year or more.

  1. John Stokes in Ars Technica: Chrome OS: Internet failing at PC > PC failing at Internet:

    In 2009, it's better to be an Internet company that's taking slow, awkward first steps toward the PC, than a PC company that's still trying and failing to truly integrate with the Internet. Ars looks at what Chrome OS means for Google, Apple, Microsoft, the netbook, ARM, Intel, and the cloud. "Revolutionary" is a clichéd term, but Chrome OS is a good candidate for it.

  2. Robert Cringely at I, Cringely: Chrome and Chrome, What is Chrome?

    While we’re talking about operating systems here, Google’s real target is Microsoft Office. Redmond makes money from Windows but makes a lot more money from Office, its productivity app monopoly. Google already has its Google Apps pitted against Office, but Brin and Page know they won’t crack Office’s hold on corporate America without addressing the Windows flaws that effectively underlie both Office and Google Apps in their current incarnations. That’s where the Chrome OS comes in.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Autonomous Colleges

I want to return to the column by Tapan Raychaudhury who doesn't like the idea of converting some of the academically better equipped (and more accomplished) colleges into universities:

My particular concern here is with the new initiative to confer the status of universities on selected colleges. One assumption behind it seems to be that colleges that, perhaps after a glorious past, are now suffering in quality will regain their old excellence if turned into universities. The logic underlying this assumption is incredibly bizarre. Spelt out, it would imply that institutions which are mediocre or worse today will become centres of excellence tomorrow by virtue of having university status conferred on them. It is well to remember that in the golden tomorrow, the people running these institutions will continue to do so still. If they are sought to be replaced by allegedly abler people, the seat of learning will be converted into a battleground for power. If, on the other hand, the old guard are allowed to remain in power they will ensure that the newcomers do not excel in any way. Such, indeed, is the way of all flesh as is well-known to all but the most doggedly optimistic among us.

On the other hand, the logic behind conferring university status on a particular college may well be a recognition of its excellence, and making that excellence available for the service to a higher level of learning. If this is so, I suggest some very simple tests to ensure the validity of the judgment. First, since we are, these days, so enamoured of American academic practices, let us take anonymously the opinion of students about the quality of teaching and make a high mark a sine qua non of the relevant decision. Secondly, since these institutions will be expected to contribute to knowledge, let us have surveys of the amount of quality research they have produced in the last ten years — in terms of scholarly books (reviewed in authoritative journals), refereed articles and theses done under their supervision. Thirdly, a quiet survey of library books issued to students and teachers in an average year. Of course both may have borrowed or bought books to supplement what is available in their college libraries and an enquiry into this aspect of the pursuit of knowledge would be indeed worthwhile.

Clearly, Raychaudhury is pretty negative about converting colleges into universities. But I want to shift the focus to a related system: autonomous colleges.

In our hub-and-spoke system of higher education, academically better-positioned colleges could be given an "autonomous status" by their university (the hub). This system has been in place for at least three decades -- I still remember colleges like Loyola College and Madras Christian College flaunting their autonomous status in the 1980s. And this system appears -- going by this list -- implemented vigorously by the universities in Tamil Nadu.

As I recall, this autonomous college issue was not particularly controversial -- people just assumed that the better colleges would eventually get the autonomous status, and many did.

For all practical purposes, the autonomous college is a university -- it designs and implements its own curriculum and grading schemes, with the parent university's role being limited (largely) to issuing degree certificates. At least, that's the theory.

There's much going for this theory. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in a recent op-ed on the reforms at the Delhi University,

Ideally, a semester system allows you to achieve the following objectives. It can facilitate the creation of a credit system, and hence allow more choice and flexibility. In institutions where the semester system has real pedagogical bite, it is premised upon one important fact: that the teachers teaching particular classes evaluate their own students. [...]

A semester system works well when each individual faculty member has substantial freedom to innovate in course offering at his or her level. This is possible only where there is no disjunction between those who set the syllabus, those who teach and those who evaluate. The crisis of undergraduate education has its source, in part, in this disjunction.

The academic autonomy enjoyed by these elite colleges has all the ingredients identified and recommended by Mehta. And this system has been around for over 30 years now. Has there been a review of this system? Is it seen as a success?