Friday, January 30, 2009

How clueless is NDTV?

So clueless that they failed to anticipate not just outrage and scorn, but serious professional ridicule; see the posts by Falstaff and Kuffir.

[Update: See also Rahul's fan letter to Ms. Barkha Dutt: "Keep going. ... I am sure you will continue to make more news than you report"].

* * *

Here's another example. Yesterday, Prem Panicker wrote a balanced post; while he emphasized bloggers' right to express their opinion freely, he also pointed out that they cannot play with facts, and when they do, they have to face the consequences. The specific example he cites is Chyetan's use of this quote from Wikipedia's entry on Ms. Barkha Dutt as of 30th November 2008 (pointed out by one of the commenters on Prem's blog):

During the Kargil conflict, Indian Army sources repeatedly complained to her channel that she was giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties.

This part of the entry wasn't backed up by a citation, and sure enough, it went away, probably as soon as someone raised this issue. I don't know when the next change took place, but this is what we find now in its place:

Her reporting of the Kargil conflict was criticized by Admiral Sureesh Mehta who insinuated that she may have compromised the security of the troops by giving away locations.[10].

It is essentially the same accusation ("criticism") as the previous one -- but (a) it cites to a newspaper, and (b) it names a high-ranking official who made that 'insinuation'. Click on that link, and you get this:

The competition among news channels to score brownie points reminded him of the “famous shot” during the Kargil War that led to the destruction of an ultra-powerful artillery gun of the Army. Three soldiers died and the Colonel, who yielded to a woman reporter’s entreaty to fire the gun for the camera’s benefit was dismissed from service.

Sure, this paragraph doesn't mention the woman reporter's name explicitly, but how many embedded women reporters in the war zone were involved in the 'famous shot' incident during the Kargil War? The context seems to point to Ms. Dutt as the reporter in question. Is this citation good enough for Wikipedia? It must be, because of the following.

In that entry on Ms. Dutt, the above quote is 'balanced' with the following sentence:

Ms Dutt refuted these charges in her response by citing Gen VP Malik's book that had opined otherwise. [11]

This sentence also has a citation. Clicking through, we find that it's an article by Ms. Dutt herself:

Finally, I would like to point out that the Navy Chief made a factually incorrect and wholly untrue comment on NDTV's coverage during the Kargil conflict of 1999, claiming that NDTV asked for a gun to be triggered for the benefit of the camera. I want to state for the record: no such incident ever took place and we have an official aknowledgment of that, including from then Army Chief, V.P Malik. I would urge Admiral Mehta to read General V.P Malik's book on Kargil for further clarity. General Malik was the Army Chief during the operations and puts to rest any such controversy in his book. In a formal letter, NDTV has also asked for an immediate retraction from the Navy and officially complained that the comments amount to defamation. Several writers have already pointed out how the Navy Chief has got his facts wrong. (DNA, Indian Express, Vir Sanghvi in The Hindustan Times, Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph). This, incidentally, was the same press conference where the Admiral threatened literally to "chop the heads off" of two other reporters who aired his interview ahead of schedule.

It's a solid defence by Ms. Dutt. But the fact remains that the Navy Chief has uttered those damaging words, and despite NDTV's letter asking "for an immediate retraction from the Navy" and "officially [complaining] that the comments amount to defamation," no such retraction appears to have been made by the Navy (at least to my knowledge).

It's going to be interesting, watching how Ms. Dutt and NDTV proceed with this stuff. Will they sue the Navy Chief, and extract an apology and a retraction? Will they demand that he display it prominently on his blog?

* * *

The "criticism" section of the Wikipedia entry on Ms. Dutt is only going to swell. What is worse, Chyetan's original observations about Ms. Dutt's live coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks will also be fact-checked, and documented in detail.

Did NDTV anticipate any of this?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Congratulations, NDTV!

For winning the "Clueless Media Company of the Decade" award!

After screwing up big time on your on-air coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks you have just showed us how low you can go in the off-air world.

It is a surreal world indeed when you -- a channel whose very existence depends on the right to free speech -- unleash your legal team to stop a member of "We the People" from exercising that right.

You may have muzzled his voice, but the other members of his tribe have chosen to speak up.

Let's start with this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this. Or this.

Those are just from today. They make you go, "Enough is Enough!", don't they?

* * *

The apology you extracted reminds us of re-education programs that totalitarian regimes impose on dissidents. Or of re-induction rituals in third rate gangster movies.

But I think Gaurav has made the most appropriate link between what you did and what another organization did over three years ago.

That organization is IIPM.

You're in some seriously classy company.


Big news for the IITs

Yesterday, the IIT Council met after nearly five years. Yes, after five years.

It was the first meeting of the Council since the UPA government took over. The immediate provocation for calling this meeting appears to be the Chennai High Court's decision last month invalidating the re-appointment of Prof. M.S. Ananth as the Director of IIT-M, because it was not ratified by the IIT-Council. The Court's decision rattled MHRD, because there are several other IIT Directors whose appointment could also run into legal trouble because of the same procedural lapse.

In the event, the IIT Council has not only ratified the appointment or re-appointment of these directors, it also took several other decisions, including the appointment of directors to six of the eight new IITs. I am very happy to see Prof. M.K. Surappa, a colleague, in this august list:

Directors to six new IITs were also appointed at today’s meeting. U.B. Desai, an electrical engineer from IIT Bombay, will head IIT Hyderabad. M.K. Surappa, who teaches metallurgy at [IIT Delhi IISc, Bangalore], will be the director of IIT Roopnagar (Punjab). IIT Kanpur civil engineer Sudhir Jain will head the IIT in Gandhinagar. Anil Bhowmick, from IIT Kharagpur’s rubber technology centre, will be the director of IIT Patna. IIT Kharagpur deputy director Madhusudan Chakraborty will head IIT Bhubaneswar.

The other big move -- about which I don't want to comment right now, because I don't think it'll get the Parliament's approval -- is to exempt some 47 institutions (including IITs and IIMs) from implementing the official reservation policy of the government. Charu Sudan Kasturi's report in the Telegraph has an excellent overview on this issue.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dennis Overbye on science and democracy

I think he overstates his case when he says, "Science and democracy have always been twins;" but I really liked the middle part of his article, where he defends science from "cultural and religious critics":

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Einstein seemed to echo this thought when he said, “I have never obtained any ethical values from my scientific work.” Science teaches facts, not values, the story goes.

Worse, not only does it not provide any values of its own, say its detractors, it also undermines the ones we already have, devaluing anything it can’t measure, reducing sunsets to wavelengths and romance to jiggly hormones. It destroys myths and robs the universe of its magic and mystery.

So the story goes.

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 ...

Great news for Tamil lovers: Ariviyal is a great new blog devoted to science. It has been active for a couple of weeks now, with quite a few posts already on subjects as diverse as radio astronomy, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the geometry of potato chips.

Great stuff, and I love it!

Congratulations to Arunn, Badri, Venkat and Arul for this wonderful blog.

The first three also blog in English: Arunn, Badri and Venkat.

Temperature effect on poor countries' scientific output

Poor countries produced fewer scientific papers in hot years — a rise of one degree Celsius was associated with a nine per cent drop in the number of papers published.

There's more in this story by Sharon Davis, with some speculations about the underlying mechanisms.

This finding is just a part of a study entitled "Climate Shocks and Economic Growth: Evidence from the Last Half Century" by Melissa Dell (MIT), Benjamin Jones (Northwestern and Harvard) and Benjamin Olken (MIT). Here are some of the other effects of climate shock mentioned in their paper:

Our main results show large, negative effects of higher temperatures on growth, but only in poor countries. In poorer countries, we estimate that a 1◦C rise in temperature in a given year reduced economic growth in that year by about 1.1 percentage points. In rich countries, changes in temperature had no discernable effect on growth. Changes in precipitation had no substantial effects on growth in either poor or rich countries. [...]

We also find evidence that temperature affects numerous dimensions of poor countries’ economies. While agricultural output contractions appear to be part of the story, we likewise find adverse effects of hot years on industrial output and aggregate investment. Poor countries also produce fewer scientific publications in hot years, which suggests that higher temperatures may impede innovation. Moreover, we show that higher temperatures lead to political instability in poor countries, as evidenced by irregular changes in national leaders. Many of these effects sit outside the primarily agricultural focus of much economic research on climate change and underscore the challenge for approaches that seek to build aggregate estimates of climate impacts from a narrow set of channels. These broader relationships also help explain how temperature might affect growth rates in poor countries, not simply the level of output.

Citizen Initiative: Never Forget

Never Forget   has been in the works for 2 months, and it went live this Republic Day -- yesterday. While the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai is the immediate trigger (look at the site's banner), it is only a hook; the site is meant for changing the very way we are governed, by getting the community -- us -- to monitor our politicians by holding them up to their own election promises.

... [I]f WE, the people, who elect them, do not care to evaluate their performance periodically, WHO will be the appraiser of enforcement of promises?

We maintain that, as a collective force, we can work to keep track of what our elected representatives -- whether at the centre, state, city, town, district or village level -- promised us and how far the promises have been fulfilled.

How is this going to be done? Here's the Vision statement:

At the heart of our effort is the idea of promises that can be evaluated. We want to find out whether our elected leaders are implementing what they promised to do in their common minimum program/manifestos , and that can be done by periodically monitoring the progress on each and every one of them. And this data can be used by the electorate to assess performance by way of our ballots.

The other core principle that we base our endeavor on is that of verifiable analysis. Each and every claim made in the course of our effort, without fail, will have to essentially be accompanied by a reference either documentation or factual press release. We believe that this will give our work the credibility that is seen lacking in several current editorials and articles about the state of the nation.

The people behind this initiative are young, tech-savvy, driven and committed. I met one of them -- Animesh Pathak, a fellow BHU alum (he blogs here), and I still remember his energy and enthusiasm while he was describing this project to me.

Go check out Never Forget. More importantly, if you believe in the concept, participate in it.

Quote of the Day

... [M]athematician [is] a device for converting coffee into formulas.
-- attributed to Albert Einstein [see the update below]

The attribution looks suspicious, and I have not been able to confirm it. [Update: This appears to be a variant of Alfréd Rényi's original: "a mathematician is a machine for converting coffee into theorems." Thanks to Rahul for his comment and the link.] In any case, it's a great way to start the morning!

I found the quote in James Fallows's 1994 musings about the goodness of coffee, which I found through his post about recent findings that links coffee to lower risks of developing dementia.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Science 2.0

  1. Via Nascent: Scitable (okay, I should perhaps call it Science 1.5):

    Scitable is an online learning tool for students in science. It has three main parts: content, tools, and community. Most of the content has been specially developed for this site by NPG staff editors, supported by an Editorial Board of teaching faculty, leading an author group of faculty, researchers, and science writers. Some of the content comes from various NPG journals, and another segment has been provided by Freeman and Sinauer, two excellent publishers who have partnered with us. All of the content is pitched at the university level. The most interesting tools – yet at an early stage – are intended to personalize learning paths and experiences (utilizing site content) for individual students or classrooms of students, based on their needs and preferences. The community is registered site members – for the most part they are structured within online classroom groups created by their faculty, but we intend to make it easier in time for site members to connect with each other across traditional academic boundaries for purposes of common interest, whether study or dialogue.

    Genetics is all it has right now, but it has plans to expand to other sciences. Will have to check back later.

  2. AcaWiki:

    AcaWiki is a "Wikipedia for academic research" designed to collect summaries and long-abstracts of peer-reviewed academic research, and make them available to the general public.


Two cartoons:

  1. Laptop hell.

  2. Atheist hell.

Higher Ed links

Hemali Chhapia has a report in which Prof. Damodar Acharya, Director, IIT-Kharagpur, is quoted as saying that JEE is a 'flawed system' of selecting students, and that it "hurts the high school system".

The start of Techfest's 2009 edition was not all fun and games. The controversial issue of scrapping the IIT-JEE came under the spotlight when IIT-Kharagpur director Damodar Acharya pointed out the "flawed system'' of selecting students with an objective type entrance examination. ...

He told TOI, after the discussion, that JEE in a way was hurting the high school system as IIT aspirants focused only on JEE. "I am against JEE and feel it should be eliminated. Why can't we take students on the basis of Std XII marks? Anyway, we take in less than 1% of our top science students after 10+2 and these are very bright children."

In expressing these views, he joins Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT-M.

* * *

Shafi Rahman has short piece in India Today about how the National Knowledge Commission, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission have been fighting over the autonomy levels at the new Central Universities. since this government is in a hurry to set the ball rolling, and since the next session of the Parliament may be too late (the General Elections may be announced anytime soon, and the government may not be able to announce any new policies), it has gone with the ordinance route. This bit in an otherwise bleak report is genuinely good

As a first step, the ministry has decided to do away with the tag of World Class University, an idea which has won it the NKC’s applause . The Act will now be termed the National Universities System Act instead of the World Class University System Act. “We can’t name a child ‘genius’, who is at risk of growing up clueless,” says a ministry official.

Padma Awards

Here's the list for this year. And here are the winners in Science and Engineering:

Padma Vibhushan:

  1. Anil Kakodkar (Atomic Energy)
  2. Madhavan Nair (Space)

Padma Bhushan:

  1. Bhakta B. Rath (Materials Science)
  2. Conjeevaram Srirangachari Seshadri (Mathematics)
  3. Gurdip Singh Randhawa (Horticulture)
  4. Sam Pitroda (Telecom)
  5. Sarvagya Singh Katiyar (Chemistry)
  6. Thomas Kailath (Electrical Engineering)

Padma Shri:

  1. Pramod Tandon (Biotechnology)
  2. Syed Iqbal Hasnain (Geology)
  3. Goriparthi Narasimha Raju Yadav (Agriculture)

The list of award winners includes academics such as Iravatham Mahadevan (Padma Shri), C.K. Prahlad, Ramachandra Guha, Isher Judge Ahluwalia (Padma Bhushan) and D.P. Chattopadhyaya (Padma Vibhushan).

* * *

Previous Republic Day Award posts: 2008, 2007, 2006.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Now available online: All the essays in Lilavati's Daughters

This time, it's *not* a false alert. I have checked it myself. This page has the links to all the essays; each link first takes you to a short profile of the scientist's career, and clicking on the title gives you access to her essay -- in pdf.

Now I can link directly to the essay by Prof. Rama Govindarajan and that about Dr. Anandibai Joshi by Pooja Thakar.

I thank Prof. Rohini Godbole, a colleague and one of the editors of Lilavati's Daughters, for getting these essays online, giving them a wider reach that they deserve. Here's her own contribution: It has been an interesting journey.

Now available online: Videos of the IISc Centenary Conference

Go straight to the Conference Program, and they are all there.

[Update: Oops! The page has this statement:

These videos can be downloaded and watched within the campus LAN only. Access from outside campus will be made available ... after the [copyrights] are put in...."

Sorry for the false alert. Will post the links -- again -- when the videos are *really* available to the world outside. In the meantime, the following links work only within the campus.

And thanks to the anonymous commenter for pointing out this problem.]

Two strong recommendations from me:

  1. Prof. Subra Suresh's keynote (hi-res version if you are on our campus). After a longish introduction, Suresh's talk starts at about 8 minutes; he spends the first part on what engineering is about, and how its mission is getting redefined, and hence, how engineering education must be re-oriented. Bottomline: an awareness of and a concern for the environmental and cultural effects of all that they engineer, and therefore, an interdisciplinary focus that includes not just the physical sciences, but life sciences, social sciences and humanities as well.

    He illustrates these trends with a couple of examples. This part relies quite heavily on slides (animations, videos, etc); since the video, sadly, missed the slides, this part does not come out all that well. Just so you know.

  2. Prof. Sidney Brenner's keynote (hi-res). You can safely skip the long introduction and go straight to the 20th minute -- yes, the intro was *that* long!

    Before he gets to his main theme -- how to read the genome -- Brenner does two things: he starts with a great story that takes a dig at the lengthy intro, and he trashes a couple of sub-fields: systems biology and synthetic biology. It's not just that he points out the major limitations of these enterprises, but just plain trashes them -- for example, he calls them "low input, high throughput, no output" sciences. Ouch!

    If you enjoy strong views that are backed up by strong arguments and a willingness to wage verbal war -- and if you are not a systems or synthetic biologist -- you'll greatly enjoy this part of the talk.

    The other part is very good too. It's an excellent illustration of a great public lecture: presenting some of the key ideas of a field to an audience that includes a lot of 'outsiders'. Don't miss it!

    Here's a great quote from the talk:

    Someone said that sequencing the human genome is like sending a man to the moon. They were absolutely right. [pause] Because sending a man to the moon is easy; [it is] getting him back which is the problem.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is there anything that Obama can't do?

Yet another interesting finding, but it will still have to be verified and replicated:

... [R]esearchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.

The inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude in a report summarizing their results.

“Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking,” said Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, one of the study’s three authors. “We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results surprised us.”

Yes, it is true: academics are *not* hot ...

... but some are more not-hot than the others. Henry Farrell has the graphic, and the weighty, emotion-laden conclusions that flow from it.

Not surprisingly, Chemistry is the most not-hot, followed by Computer Science (I knew it!) and Engineering (Ouch!).

An analysis of the hotness ratings of professors in 36 fields reveals that every field has a negative score. In case you are wondering, languages, at -0.062, have the least negative score, followed by law (hmmm...) and religion (yikes!).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lilavati's Daughters: 2. Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandibai Joshi was the first Indian woman to get a medical degree -- in 1887, and from Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (which is now the Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia). In Lilavati's Daughters, Joshi's life story, possibly the most amazing and moving story in the book, is recounted by Pooja Thakar in a first person narrative. I'm giving below an extended extract from Pooja Thakar's essay. I have added a few links at the end of this post.

* * *

Anandi Gopal

by Pooja Thakar

I was born on 31st March, 1865 as Yamuna Joshi in Kalyan, a small town near Mumbai. My family used to be the landlords in the town, but had lost their riches. When I was 9 years old, I was married and my name was changed to Anandi.

Before my marriage, I could barely read Marathi. Education of girls was not common then. But my husband, Gopalrao, was an ardent supporter of widow remarriage and women's education. After our marriage, he started teaching me. This was very difficult. In those days, a husband didn't even speak directly to his wife in front of others. In the beginning, my husband tried to enroll me in the missionary schools. But that did not work out. We had to move from Kalyan to Alibaug to Kolhapur and finally to Calcutta where he was left free to teach me.

I didn't have much of a choice whether I liked to learn or not. He was my husband and I had to listen to what he said. I was terrified of him and the scoldings I would receive from him. But once I started learning, I was soon also able to read Sanskrit and als read and speak English.

After my rapid progress, my husband was insistent that I should acquire higher education. We were confused about what I should study. But then I realized that female doctors were a nonexistent facility to any woman in our country. Many women, ashamed or reluctant to approach a male doctor, would suffer a lot as a result. I myself lost my infant son when I was 14. So I decided that I would like to be a doctor. Even the subject I picked for my thesis later was 'Obstetrics among Aryan Hindoos.'

My husband tried very hard to get me admission to some university in America. He even tried to pretend becoming a missionary to that end but it invited only ridicule. However, a Mrs. Carpenter of Roselle, New Jersey, by chance came to know the story and was moved by the correspondence and wrote me a letter. She offered to host me in the USA. Since Gopalrao wasn't able to get a job there we decided that I should leave for America alone. We had to face a lot of opposition and criticism, to the extent of people throwing stones and cow dung at us. Finally, after many trials and tribulations, in June 1883, I reached America and was met by my Carpenter mavashi (aunt).

[... snip ...]

... [T]he room that was provided to me at the college didn't have a proper fireplace. The fireplace emitted a lot of smoke when lit. So it was a choice between smoke and cold! I tried to get another place, but that was not possible as no one was ready to rent a place to a brown, Hindu girl trying to be a doctor. After 1.5-2 years in that place, I had started having a constant temperature and cough.

Well, being in an alien culture, weather was always going to be difficult and I was ready to face it. What was most taxing was my husband's behaviour. After the first few letters, his letters had taken a strange turn. They had grown highly unpredictable, sometimes full of love and support and most of the times chiding and taunting me. Even in his nicer letters, there would be one nasty comment that would sour everything. He kept on taunting me that I was a free bird in a foreign land and that I had probably forgotten my 'poor', 'uncivilized' and 'incapable' husband who wasn't as 'great' as me. On seeing an innocent photograph I had sent him, he made a remark that I appeared to have forgotten my tradition and culture as my pallu was askew. I had no idea what the cause for his nastiness was. I was doing exactly what he had told me to and was only fulfilling his dream. But I had always found it difficult to figure out my husband. Sometimes I used to feel that he was way below me and pictured him at the bottom of a ladder while I was at the top. But then the next minute I reminded myself that he was the one who had given me access to the ladder in the first place. He was my husband and my teacher.

My health was severely affected by my stay there. After around two years in the USA, I had sudden spells when I used to feel very faint and get a high temperature. The cough never left me. By the end of the three years, my condition had worsened. I somehow scraped through the final exams. At the convocation where my husband was present and so was Pandita Ramabai, it was announced that I was the first woman from doctor of India and got a standing ovation for that! It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.

Day by day I grew worse, and nothing was working. My husband then admitted me to the Women's hospital in Philadelphia. I was then diagnosed as having Tuberculosis but the disease hadn't yet reached my lungs. The doctors advised me to go back to India.

[... First person narrative ends here]

From the rest of Thakar's article we learn the following: Anandibai died on 26 February 26 1887, not long after her arrival in India and just a month shy of her 22nd birthday. She never managed to practice medicine in India.

* * *

Wikipedia has a good entry on Dr. Anandibai Joshi. This opinion piece talks about the different ways in which Joshi's biographers have recounted her life. Here's a key quote: "Different Anandis fashioned by different authors — so much so that Kosambi muses candidly, 'has the *real* Anandibai Joshee eluded us?' "

* * *

The first biography of Anandibai Joshi was penned by Caroline Healey Dall in 1888, just a year after Joshi's death. This book is available online, and Joshi's image, above, is from its cover. Right at the beginning of this book, Dall reproduces an entry from an album of Mrs. Carpenter, Joshi's host in the US; in it, Joshi answers a series of questions (you can view them here: page 1, page 2). Let me highlight three of them:

20. What epoch would you prefer to live in? The Present.

26. If not yourself, whom would you like to be? No one.

36. What is your aim? To be useful.

Last professor?

Quite a few people have recommended Stanley Fish's post, The Last Professor, whose grim thesis is that humanities in US universities are about to become extinct. There is some empirical evidence for this thesis, and Fish cites statistics about the decline in the number of full time faculty members, and a rise in adjuncts. What is even more grim is Fish's characterization of the enterprise of humanities: "determined inutility."

Let me just say that I found Mark Liberman's response to be much better:

Determined inutility is one thing — Prof. Fish is free to choose that path if he wants to — but determined ignorance of history is something else again.

It's odd for a scholar to throw around phrases like "today's educational landscape" as if contemporary economic and cultural forces were laying siege to institutions that were founded and managed as ivory towers committed to impractical scholarship. But the truth is that American higher education has always explicitly aimed to mix practical training with pure intellectual and moral formation, and to pursue research with practical consequences as well as understanding abstracted from applications.

[... snip ...]

He quotes Michael Oakeshott: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.” This is true enough — and the distinction between skills and principles is important — but Fish goes on to equate "understanding and explaining" with with "the absence of a direct and designed relationship" to "measurable activities in the world". This is logically false and historically preposterous.

Researchers in the natural sciences and mathematics have always been motivated to a significant extent by the desire to affect as well as to understand "measurable activities in the world". This has also been true, traditionally, of social scientists, historians, and even philosophers. And in the humanities, many of the most famous and influential scholars of earlier centuries and decades have applied their scholarship to practical ends, and have thereby gained knowledge and skills that made their "pure" research better. Indeed, the whole point of Edward Said's Orientalism thesis, flawed as it was conceptually and factually, was that the humanities scholars of past centuries, whatever their ideology, were useful servants of empire.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obligatory post on The Inauguration

I'm yet to watch / read Obama's Inauguration speech. But I have seen Asif Mandvi's pre-Inauguration report that Obama's speech will 'make sweet, sweet love to the English language, and ... expose Shakespeare as an untalented hack." Enjoy:

* * *

Okay, one more link. This Onion piece about another inauguration deserves to be read just for its prescience [Thanks to Apurva for sharing the link on Google Reader].

Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that “our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.”

“My fellow Americans,” Bush said, “at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us.”


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lilavati's Daughters: 1. Prof. Rama Govindarajan

Published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Lilavati's Daughters is a collection of biographical and autobiographical essays in which 100 Indian women scientists talk about "what brought them to science, what kept their interests alive, and what has helped them achieve some measure of distinction in their careers." Since it's modeled after One Hundred Reasons To Be A Scientist (pdf, published by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy), we may expect Lilavati's Daughters to become available online.

In the meantime, I'm reproducing here one of the essays with the author's permission.

The author is Prof. Rama Govindarajan -- IIT-D alumna, faculty member in the Engineering Mechanics Unit at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNC), and winner of a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (btw, she's also the author of this letter to the PanIIT organizers protesting against their infamous 'spouses' program!).

Here's her essay:

* * *

Dream Your Own Dream

by Rama Govindarajan

The stars shone down on 47 weeping girls, while a gentle sea breeze tried to soothe them. On this evening of drama, the prosaic words “housewife”, “graduate”and “bank employee”, were being scrawled in autograph books under “Your ambition is to become a ...”. And no, the overweight, under-confident specimen occupying the schoolyard for the last time did not scribble “research scientist”!

Not even years later did I understand what the term meant. What does it feel like to be one today? My website talks about the science I do, so I’ll only say here that I completely love it. However, I did not know this when I started out. All I wanted to become was a “regular guy”, which to me and my peers meant having enough money for a gracious life-style and being in charge of a group of people, preferably large. First big mistake: borrowed objectives.

Dear reader, if you are young, please dream your own dream. Also, please, please dream big. My grandmother, Alamelu, did. For me. She also set an example by fighting tooth-and-nail for what she believed was right, and by never obeying a rule of which she was not convinced. As a young bride, circa 1920, she risked ostracism by her community to cook and eat meen kozhambu with a Dalit family in their hut. My other early influence was my mother, Shakuntala, practically a single, working, parent, who made light of an extremely tough life to create a home where poetry and laughter ably substituted for luxury. My only regret is that my achievements fall far short of her sacrifice.

Doing a B.Tech. at I.I.T., Delhi was a simply superb experience. I was given the opportunity to study rather than memorise, and had the fun of discussing science with peers. Like many other girls in I.I.T., I emerged near the top of my class, picking up self-assurance, a “can do anything” attitude, and many close friendships. It would be good if within the next few years, half of every IIT class would be girls – it would be a change from when I was one of 54 in the chemical engineering class!

My Ph.D. advisor Professor Roddam Narasimha, has been the biggest influence on my scientific career. Apart from fluid mechanics, he taught me to do science the right way, which for him includes a thorough and critical understanding of the literature, extreme care in methods, and zero exaggeration in making claims. I also like his conviction that the youngest student in a group may be right in a scientific discussion.

I am also blessed with a home completely free of gender bias and its manifestations. So, what can go wrong when one has the best education and heavy-duty determination, and is surrounded by good people? Read on.

I am an engineer first, and fluid dynamics has always been a favorite, but my career in research began almost by accident. When I graduated, I wanted and got a plush job, in Mumbai. Every morning I became part of the compacted mass of humanity in the ladies compartment of the 6:57 fast train to Andheri. Soon the mass revealed itself as having faces, lives, and stories. The one common theme in the stories was the incredible hard work and determination involved. These women — executives, secretaries, fisherwomen, new mothers, very-soon-to-be-mothers, many malnourished, some from home-lives too terrible to describe, running top-speed across the overbridge at Grant Road at 6:56 a.m. — are my role-models and I think back to them every time I imagine I am having a hard time. An important ingredient for success is the willingness to push yourself to work really, really hard.

It took me two months on the job to realise that something a lot less plush and a lot more mentally demanding would suit me better. I then did a Masters in the U.S., which did not launch me into the planned orbit in industrial R&D, maybe because I soon tied myself by marriage to one city. A guest at my wedding remarked that Bangalore (as it was then) was not at all the place for a chemical engineer, and how right he proved to be!

In my efforts to leave no stone unturned, I went to dozens of interviews within the next couple of months, looking for unsuitable jobs. I finally took one of them just to put my share of rice on the table. The really big mistake: not realising that the world offers myriad choices for a young couple in search of two good careers. Just don’t be scared to experiment, to spend a few years as a nomad. Don’t feel guilty if your spouse has to make some temporary sacrifice as well. It would be best if you can postpone marriage to the post-nomadic stage!

It dawned on me that to succeed in Bangalore, I must redefine myself. The software industry was in its infancy, but I decided, maybe stupidly in some people’s opinion, that I would not be part of the big boom which I didn’t know then was coming. I went into the defence-related aerospace industry instead. Here, I wanted my experience with process control and computing skills, to be put to use to avoid importing control algorithms. The set-up of the industry made this wish impossible to fulfil.

So, four years after my B.Tech., I finally turned towards research in fluid mechanics, and have never in the nineteen years since then wished to do anything else. For ten of these years I worked in a national lab, during which I also completed my Ph.D. and post-doc. The last nine years in academia have finally been the “real thing”, this was an extremely lucky break, since the place I work, the J.N.C., came into existence at the right time for me! In my experience, independence and constant exposure to other researchers is crucial for doing basic research, and for these, an academic institution is unbeatable. A typical national lab has other main objectives to fulfil, and cannot be expected to focus on basic research in the same way.

If you are the type who likes every day to be different, scientific research is the career for you. If you like working with young people with bright ideas, who keep you on your toes, and if you like teaching yourself new concepts, this is the career for you. If you are prepared to toil long and desperately for the dazzling discovery you are not sure you’ll make, this is the life to choose! Even on a bad referee-report day, I am happy I do science!

The burden of starting an institution without adequate planning

I excerpt below a couple of e-mails that highlight how the burden of starting new IITs without adequate planning falls disproportionately on a small number of faculty. These e-mails give me the sense that (a) quite a few of the faculty carrying this extra burden are at the junior level, and (b) they don't get much appreciation from their administration. They show how a problem imposed by Delhi (and other state capitals) is made worse by the local powers -- Directors and Deans at the mentor IITs.

In these excerpts, the IIT locations have been rendered generic; I don't want my friends to get into trouble! Here's the first:

I have some idea of what is going on at [IIT-X] (that's being mentored by [IIT-Y]) -- there are no buildings, no labs, no faculty, and classes have already started! One of my friends, who is on deputation there for a semester, told me that he has been given a really crappy place to stay in, and to get any food, he has to go to campus, which is around 2.5 km away. Also, he was somewhat coerced into doing this because no senior faculty was ready to do this.

And, here's the second:

The IITs have been started in a hurry. There were no hostel or classrooms or labs when [IIT-Z] started. Its housed in [a factory].... Faculty have hardly been recruited.

Two colleagues ... were teaching first year students. They have to teach a class of 570 students here on Mon/Tue; fly to [Z City] on Wed; teach a class of 120 on Thu/Fri and return on Sat. And guess what, the Institute DOES NOT give them credit for the extra work [at IIT-Z] (in form of releasing from teaching duties next semester). One of them is a rather new assistant professor, whose lab is still being set up [...].

Let me hasten to add that I received these mails over the last month, but well before the post on Prof. C.N.R. Rao's recent outbursts.

Planning a new university: Contrast between the US and India

Here's an excerpt from an e-mail from my friend Vishnu l highlighting the contrast in the way new institutions are created in the US (specifically, UC-Merced) and India (specifically, lots of IITs, IIITs, Central universities, etc):

It's really funny when you see the govt. planning to set up 14 world class universities. Why 14? Why not 30 (let the other central univs also be "world class")?


I just read about how UC Merced, the latest UC campus, was set up. The planning started in 1988, and the first undergrad students came to campus in 2005. Here, the MHRD decides to set up 7 new IITs, and they start taking students from the next year onwards, without caring about whether there are enough facilities! Sadly, some people will say with pride that we were extremely efficient in setting up these new IITs.

I can give another data point from a century ago: the Indian Institute of Science. It took over 13 years (1896-1909) for Jamsetji Tata's vision to be realized, and two more years before the first students started trooping in (a part of this tortuous prehistory is summarized in an earlier post).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shobo Bhattacharya: India’s Education Experiment in Basic Sciences...

... The IISER solution:

The establishment of the IISERs is noteworthy because it attempts to correct a key misguided policy of post-independence India that separated teaching from research. Under that policy, excluding a few exceptions, Indian undergraduate education took place in colleges, post-graduate education in universities, and research in institutes. Moreover, driven by a desire to push the country quickly to the frontier of science, India’s government allocated resources disproportionately to the institutes at the expense of the colleges and universities. The result, not surprisingly, was dismal. Teaching without the excitement of original research created dull and disheartening intellectual environments in colleges and universities, thereby discouraging all but the most dedicated from pursuing careers in science. Research without teaching deprived researchers in institutes of daily interaction with the bright young minds that keep creative instincts active. In that environment, research became largely imitative and sterile. Today, India’s universities – after taking into account those who pursue research abroad – do not graduate enough motivated students for the research institutes in the country. Similarly, the institutes almost exclusively offer doctoral programs and produce fewer scientists who can teach in colleges and universities and create a vibrant culture of research.

From one economics Nobel winner to another ...

I really don’t know why this is so hard to understand.

Ouch! That's Paul Krugman dishing it out to Gary Becker.

Vijaysree Venkatraman reviews "Lilavati's Daughters"

The review appears in Chemical and Engineering News, so do catch it before it vanishes behind a paywall. Here's an extended extract from her review:

[...] In India, a developing nation with few quality child care centers, reliable help comes from considerate grandparents, but this happens only when they don’t need care themselves. In the chapter “Why and How I Became a Scientist,” biochemist Maharani Chakravorty recalls taking her infant along to her workplace. “The poor child used to sit on the rubber sheet spread on the floor of the laboratory playing with test tube stands, right there in front of my working bench,” she writes. Some contributors to the book proudly mention in their essays the fact that their children have become researchers themselves. Sulochana Gadgil, a Harvard University-trained meteorologist, writes in the chapter “My Tryst with the Monsoon” that her mathematician son made critical contributions to two of her recent papers.

Without enlightened policies in the workplace, women scientists can find it hard to realize their potential. In this book, more than one woman mentions years of separation from her spouse because it was too difficult to get appropriate work in the same Indian city. In the chapter “She Was a Star,” the woes and achievements of Darshan Ranganathan, an organic chemist who was also married to one, are recounted by her husband. He writes that she languished as a research associate when he was a professor of chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK), because an unwritten rule forbids spouses from simultaneously holding faculty positions in the same department. “I am left with the wistful feeling that Darshan would have flowered more, much earlier, had she been offered a faculty position at IITK,” writes D. Balasubramanian, director of the L. V. Prasad Eye Research Institute, in a moving tribute to Ranganathan, who died of cancer in 2001 (Curr. Sci. 2001, 81, 217). The Indian National Academy of Science has instituted a biennial lecture in her memory.

Thanks to this book, aspiring women scientists in India can find role models closer to home. Readers with no connection to the subcontinent may enjoy many of the essays because few stories are more heartwarming than that of an underdog who wins against the odds. Clearly, many of these women were by no means favorites. One chapter is about a mathematician who, as a little girl, sported a turban and disguised herself as a boy to attend school. Her uncle, a village headman, thought that educating her was pointless and said so. A city school principal requested female students who had done well in the qualifying exams to give up their spot in science to boys because lab space was scarce. His reasoning was that women only have to work in the kitchen; a science education would be wasted on them.

Given this milieu, what these women have accomplished in the rarefied field of research is nothing short of amazing. The book acknowledges their lonely struggles. Although this anthology has no manifesto, nearly every essay hints at the fact that the establishment can do more to accommodate highly qualified women who want a career in pure science. Open-minded policymakers in India looking for ways to retain talent in research institutes can certainly find some answers here. And despite cultural differences, readers from elsewhere are likely to find unexpected resonances in these narratives on and by women scientists. That is, in part, a testimony to the universality of a life in science. Sadly, it also reveals the ubiquity of the bias faced by women pursuing this demanding vocation.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What do you get when policies don't survive a change in government?

I don't know what kind of inputs Prof. C.N.R. Rao gave to the government before it announced the launch of eight new IITs. And I don't know why he keeps going on and on about how the government -- his own government! -- has mucked them up through poor / non-existent planning. But I do want to point out one (possible) reason behind the alacrity with which three states -- Gujarat, Punjab and Orissa -- chose to start 'their' new IITs within six months from the announcement: lack of policy continuity.

I'll give two examples.

  • There was this curious case of "upgrading" a bunch of engineering colleges into IITs. During the NDA regime, four such colleges were identified. Under the UPA government, however, this list changed; it now had seven colleges. And only IT-BHU was common to both the lists.

    Oh, there was something else that was common to both the lists: the committee that chose these colleges! Bizarre, no?

  • Similarly, in 2003, the NDA government announced the setting up of National Institutes of Science at four places: Allahabad, Bhubaneswar, Chennai and Kolkata; acting on it, the UGC had initiated some steps (see this, for example). After the General Elections, the new UPA regime scrapped this proposal, and announced that two IISERs were to be set up in Kolkata and Chennai (Mohali, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram were added later). The letters -- NIS as opposed to IISER -- might be different, but I don't think anybody would dispute that the spirit behind these initiatives was the same.

    Press reports at that time (see this, for example) noted that the UPA government's move was meant to snub the previous government's HRD Minister, Mr. M.M. Joshi. I don't know what Joshi felt about this snub, but this change led to severe heartburn in Orissa, since that state lost 'its' NIS [check out this site].

May be it's worth pointing out that in the second example, Prof. C.N.R. Rao's role was -- I have to choose my words carefully here! -- not insignificant.

So, let's see what we get out of this little exercise:

  1. There is clearly a deep uncertainty about whether a stated policy will survive a change of government.

  2. When the UPA government announced its proposal for five new IITs in 2008 (the other three in AP, Bihar and Rajasthan were announced in 2007), it was just about a year from the next General Elections.

Given the prestige associated with 'getting' an IIT, is it surprising that the Gujarat, Punjab and Orissa governments jumped at the opportunity to get 'their' IITs going?

Is it surprising, then, that the new institutions would need to scramble to get their academic programs going -- within three months after their creation?

* * *

Here's a great op-ed by Prof. T. Jayaraman covering some of this stuff (and more).

Did Prof. C.N.R. Rao really say IISERs were "extremely well planned"?

NDTV interviewed Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, "about science and technology and how it is progressing in India." I was surprised to find this exchange about how the new IITs have been created without any planning:

Professor CNR Rao [...] we have to plan these institutions very carefully and not just start them by admitting students and putting them in a classroom. We need to plan things like the curriculum and the campuses. There is lot to be done in this regard.

NDTV: Were you consulted when these increased numbers of institutions [new IITs] were announced?

Professor CNR Rao: When it comes to the five science institutes [the IISERs], I was party to setting them up and they have been extremely well planned. The ones at Kolkata and Pune are doing extremely well. They are already in their third year. [...]

Why am I surprised? Because of this report from May 2006 about the first two IISERs at Kolkata and Pune, three months before the first batch of students were admitted (link from this post):

  • Neither institute has a permanent campus nor permanent faculty.

  • Despite this, the HRD Ministry is trying to push through the first batch from this July in “makeshift and temporary locations”.

  • In Kolkata, for example, classes for the first batch of 70-odd students, selected via the IIT entrance exam, will be held in the Kolkata campus of IIT Kharagpur.

  • With no hostel ready, students will stay in nearby campus of National Institute of Technical Teachers’ Training and Research (NITTTR) at Salt Lake.

  • “We have just started the process of acquiring land (200 acres) in Kalyani (a Kolkata suburb), and hope to complete the modalities soon,” said IIT (Kharagpur) director Shishir K Dube, who is the project-director for setting up IISER (Kolkata).

  • Its counterpart in Pune, too, is in a hurry to start the first batch in August at the “temporary location” in National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune. “About 100 acres, adjacent to the NCL, have been acquired recently. But no work on the construction of the campus has started yet,” sources said.

  • Classes for the first Pune batch will initially start in a two-storied building at NCL’s Innovation Park. “Construction of new buildings will take nearly three years to complete,” sources said. NCL (Pune) director Dr S Sivaram, who is the project director for IISER (Pune), was unavailable for comment.

  • No permanent faculty have been hired yet. Said Dube: “We will get faculty members from various institutes in Kolkata, like the Jadavpur University, IIT (Kharagpur) and S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences to teach the students.” Pune, too, will draw faculty from NCL and local colleges.

Update: This is also a relevant link, I think ;-)

Women at IISc

Here are some key milestones (taken from Celebrating 100 Years of the Indian Institute of Science, IISc, 2008, p 123):

1920: N.M. Mehta, AIISc from the Department of General and Organic Chemistry.

1924: R.K. Christie, AIISc from the Department of Biochemistry.

1940: H. Kale, teacher of German.

1953: Rajeshwari Chatterjee, faculty member in the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering.

1959: Piroja Vesugar, Council Member.

1960: Jelica Misovis, PhD degree (Bonus info from p.9: her thesis was entitled "Studies on X-ray crystal structure analysis).

In an earlier post on the first women researchers at IISc, I described -- wrongly, as it turns out -- Prof. Kamala Sohonie as the first woman to study in the Institute. Prof. Sohonie was the first woman to join the physics department in 1933, thirteen years after N.M. Mehta received her AIISc (Associate of the IISc, equivalent to a Masters degree).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Links ...

  1. Churumuri posts a picture of a great Amul ad on the Satyam fraud: "it takes a slice of good butter to tell it like it is"

  2. From Hyderabad to Harvard: An excellent profile of Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji by Weiqi Zhang in The Harvard Crimson

  3. James Fallows: In case you were wondering, about that airplane in the Hudson (Update: Here's a follow-up); see also Survival Lessons from a Sinking Plane.

  4. Cory Doctorow: Writing in the age of distraction

Higher Ed Links ...

  1. Michael Nielsen: Three myths about scientific peer review; see also: How are the mighty fallen, with a link to a great article about famous economists' troubles in getting their articles published.

  2. Arunn Narasimhan: Plagiarism, peer review and the power of internet

  3. Giridhar: Research Double: I learned that IISc has 75 people with 100 papers and 1000 citations. Prof. C.N.R. Rao is in a league by himself, with 1000 papers and 10000 citations!

  4. Eric Beerkens: The Principle of Open Access

  5. Sean Carroll: Unsolicited Advice -- Part IX: Choosing a Post-Doc

  6. Giridhar (again): Grad School to Professor, with a bunch of links with advice.

  7. T.T. Ram Mohan: How international are US universities?

  8. Julianne Dalcanton: Things the Grad Admissions Committee Does Not Wish to See

  9. KaalEdge: How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, and Part 2

  10. Inside Higher Ed: Manna from Washington.

Friday, January 16, 2009

How do you say "It's all Greek to me" in Sinhala?

Apparently, you would say, "It's all Telugu to me!"

In Arabic, you would say, "It's all Hindi to me!"

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman presents a directed graph of which language is used to denote incomprehensibility in a given language.

Among the Indian languages, there are two -- Telugu and Hindi -- at the receiving end of this graph, but none at the other end.

I couldn't think of a similar phrase in Tamil, but seriously, how do you say such a thing in any Indian language? If you have an answer, hop over and tell Liberman!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

TED Conference is definitely coming to India

This November. In Mysore.

So we learn from Sidin Vadukut's report in Mint -- the TED site doesn't have any info on its Mysore edition yet. We neither know the dates, nor the conference fees which, for the US versions, can go upto $6000!

Here's what the TED website says about speaking at one of its conferences:

This isn't a typical conference. The TED audience has exceedingly high expectations of the speakers; we will work with you well in advance of the conference to help you shape a presentation that will succeed on the TED stage. Rules for TED speakers include a ban on "selling from the stage" (no plugging your company or organization), and a strict enforcement of the clock.

TED presentations last just 18 minutes. We've found that a carefully prepared presentation of this length can have astonishing impact. This format also allows us to fit in more than 50 speakers/performers over 4 days. Everyone hears every presentation; there are no breakout sessions. Thanks to the intimate feel of the venue and the energy and attention of the audience, many speakers conclude that their TED appearance was the most exhilarating and valuable public speaking experience of their lives.

I really like this: "[W]e will work with you well in advance of the conference to help you shape a presentation that will succeed on the TED stage"!

If you know someone who really ought to be speaking there, go ahead and nominate her/him.

Ms. Aruna Roy of MKSS is my nominee. Who's yours?

Bees probably have consciousness

Christof Koch in the Scientific American:

Bees live in highly stratified yet flexible social organizations with group decision-making skills that rival academic, corporate or government committees in efficiency. In spring, when bees swarm, they choose a new hive that needs to satisfy many demands within a couple of days (consider that the next time you go house hunting). They communicate information about the location and quality of food sources using the waggle dance. Bees can fly several kilometers and return to their hive, a remarkable navigational performance. Their brains seem to have incorporated a map of their environment. And a scent blown into the hive can trigger a return to the site where the bee previously encountered this odor. This type of associative memory was famously described by French novelist Marcel Proust in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Given all of this ability, why does almost everybody instinctively reject the idea that bees or other insects might be conscious? [...]

... [T]here is no accepted theory of consciousness, no principled theory that would tell us which systems, organic or artificial, are conscious and why. In the absence of such a theory, we must at the very least remain agnostic about consciousness in these creatures.

"The High Probability of a God Delusion"

Check out the LOL god blog for some fantastic (and qualified) responses to the "There is probably no god" ad campaign on London buses.

Yash Pal Committee: "Dissolve AICTE, UGC"

Over at Mint, Pallavi Singh covers some of the recommendations that are likely to make it to the Yash Pal Committee report -- which is only in its draft stage.

First, the Yash Pal Commitee agrees with the National Knowledge Commission on the need to create a single regulator -- termed Higher Education Commission, HEC, while the NKC version was to be called IRAHE, the Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education -- that will replace the current multiplicity of regulators, including UGC and AICTE.

Before I proceed to some of the recommendations, I have to chide the committee for allowing one of its members to hide behind an anonymity cloak and make intemperate statements such as these:

[...] “Not a single university we visited had anything positive to say about the regulator (AICTE), which is steeped in corruption and inefficiency, which has, in turn, spawned illegitimate education institutions,” the member [who sought anonymity] said. “So, there is no point in allowing it to function.”

This sort of anonymous carpet-bombing can be horribly counterproductive. For example, someone in AICTE may come along and say UGC is being let off the hook because of Yash Pal's previous avatar as its Chairman! One can also raise a legitimate question about how the proposed HEC will be different from AICTE in regulating higher ed institutions.

The debate on the future of India's higher education is better served if the people in power offer specific, valid, evidence-based criticism. For example, instead of an allegation of "corruption and inefficiency," it's far better to list the specific deficiencies, and explain how they harm the country's higher ed system. Similarly, if "illegitimate educational institutions" have been spawned, the committee should list the ways in which rules have been flouted.

Leaving this sort of cheap shots aside, let's get to the substantive side of the Committee's recommendations:

The panel, rechristened as committee for rejuvenation of higher education in late 2008, suggests three wings for the proposed HEC: academic, accreditation and grants. The accreditation wing would subsume the powers of National Assessment and Accreditation Council, or NAAC, while the grants wing could continue to function like the UGC, a person with knowledge in the matter said on condition of anonymity.

The proposed accreditation wing is in line with the government’s plans to create a single accreditor for colleges by splitting the regulatory and accreditation roles of AICTE, which oversees the functioning of engineering and business schools. The ministry plans to merge the AICTE’s National Board of Accreditation and the UGC-funded NAAC.

The grants wing would release funds to colleges and universities while the academic wing would implement matters related to development of a “curricular approach to university education”, in which the departments in educational institutions, including the IITs and IIMs, become more interdisciplinary, instead of remaining “watertight compartments”, and broaden their menus to include more subjects and disciplines for research and teaching within a university system, Yash Pal said.

And then, there's this:

The panel has also recommended that institutions of higher learning, including the premier Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs, and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs, broaden their menus to include more subjects and disciplines.

When this proposal was floated as a trial balloon, the IITs reacted badly. Very badly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Better, more effective teaching

Three links, all of them fascinating:

Harvard's Eric Mazur, writing in Science (probably behind a paywall): Farewell, Lectures? Here's his highly quote-worthy problem statement:

... [T]he lecture method [is] a process whereby the lecture notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students without passing through the brains of either.

And here is his solution (he has a lot more about it at his website):

Since this agonizing discovery, I have begun to turn this traditional information-transfer model of education upside down. The responsibility for gathering information now rests squarely on the shoulders of the students. They must read material before coming to class, so that class time can be devoted to discussions, peer interactions, and time to assimilate and think (4). Instead of teaching by telling, I am teaching by questioning.

I now structure my time during class around short, conceptual multiple-choice questions. I alternate brief presentations with these questions, shifting the focus between instructor and students. The questions address student difficulties in grasping a particular topic and promote thinking about challenging concepts. After posing the question, I give the students 1 to 2 minutes to think, after which each must commit to an individual answer. They do this by submitting their answers using handheld devices called “clickers” (see the figure). Because of the popularity of these devices, questions posed this way are now often referred to as “clicker questions.” The devices transmit the answers to my computer, which displays the distribution of answers. If between 35% and 70% of the students answer the question correctly, I ask them to discuss their answers and encourage them to find someone in the class with a different answer. Together with teaching assistants, I circulate among the students to promote productive discussions and guide their thinking. After several minutes of peer discussion, I ask them to answer the same question again. I then explain the correct answer and, depending on the student answers, may pose another related question or move on to a different topic.

Here's Sara Rimer's report on MIT implementation of a teaching methodology called TEAL -- Technology Enhanced Active Learning.

Finally, Dan and Chuck Heath, autors of Made to Stick are offering a bunch of short articles on the book's website. One of them is titled Teaching that Sticks (requires registration, though).

Assorted links ...

Warning: some are R-rated:

  1. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (cartoon): Life tip: Nothing is different anywhere

  2. The (UK) Telegraph: Student auctions off virginity for offers of more than £2.5 million

    Natalie Dylan, 22, claims her offer of a one-night stand has persuaded 10,000 men to bid for sex with her.

    Last September, when her auction came to light, she had received bids up to £162,000 ($243,000) but since then interest in her has rocketed.

  3. NY Daily News: Porn kings Larry Flint and Joe Francis go begging for a bailout

  4. Onion Radio : Researchers Discover a Massive Asshole in the Blogosphere

Monday, January 12, 2009

Annals of plagiarism

Here's the quote of the day:

I seize the opportunity to congratulate [the authors of the original paper] for their previous and fundamental paper — in fact that article inspired our work.
-- A plagiarizer

This beauty appears at the end of this Nature story (probably behind a paywall) on the text-matching software eTBlast which has been used to catch "thousands" of similarities between papers.

BTW, it's the same software that was used to catch a plagiarized paper from Anna University Sri Venkateswara University [Update: Sorry for this mistake; thanks to Rahul for pointing it out in his comment.] last year.

The fraud at Satyam: the role of independent directors

Check out T.T. Ram Mohan's posts on the fate of some 'independent' directors at Satyam, and on the need for reforms that would prohibit directors of a company from consulting for it.

Ram Mohan links to this Sandipan Deb column which comes down hard on the most credentialed director in Satyam's now-discredited board: Harvard's Krishna Palepu:

... Think of Krishna Palepu, the Harvard professor acclaimed as the world’s greatest expert in corporate governance. His official CV states that “in the area of corporate governance, Professor Palepu’s work focuses on how to make corporate boards more effective, and on improving corporate disclosure”. Among the executive programmes he teaches is “Audit Committees in a New Era of Governance”. “He also co-led Harvard’s Corporate Governance, Leadership, and Values initiative, launched in response to the recent wave of corporate scandals and governance failures.”

A friend of mine wrote to Palepu. “Evidently,” he wrote, “you are guiding US-based global corporations in such matters. However, in your ‘home’ country, you are helping organisations like Satyam steal shareholders money. My question is simple—does this make you a traitorous hypocrite, or merely a greedy criminal? I’m inclined to the latter, but as an eminent Harvard professor, perhaps you can guide me on the correct terminology? Look forward to your response.”

Guess what? Palepu has not replied. “Greedy criminal”, I would think.

Does Satyam represent India?

Janmejaya Sinha does the right thing in calling a foul on those columnists who are using the Satyam fraud to beat up on India and the Indian corporate sector:

Quite a few commentators have opined that Ramalinga Raju's fraud (which may yet end up killing the company he founded) is a blot on India's IT sector, India's corporate sector, or even India itself. This is not only absurd, but it's also an insult to a whole bunch of law-abiding CEOs and their companies. Singur (as also some of the intra-corporate 'satrapship' problems) notwithstanding, the Tatas continue to enjoy a reputation for integrity, and so do Infosys, TVS and Sundaram groups, HDFC and HDFC Bank, L&T, Unilever India, and many, many others.

However, I am completely surprised by the reaction of so many wise people on what the scandal means for India. One writer in one of the Indian dailies, a Lord no less, wrote with amazing pathos: “even as recently as August 2008, India was touted as a success story, …we all knew it was a bit of Davos dalliance. But now four months later, after the September terror attacks in Delhi …26/11 and now Satyam, India is not shining. Will it ever again?” And there are others asking corporate India to walk further to prove its credentials.

I am surprised that corporate India and, indeed, India needs to carry such a burden. The tone of the writing smacks of a colonial hang up still evident after more than 60 years of independence and in the midst of the Madoff scandal and, indeed, the fall of the global financial system as we knew it.

Clearly, the Satyam episode has revealed that there are significant holes in our legal / regulatory / governance systems, which allowed Raju and his gang of thieves to get on with cooking the books, as Raju himself admits, for several years. I'm sure investigations will reveal where they are, and suggest ways of plugging them.

India, as a country, comes into the Satyam story only in how the investigations proceed, and what it does with the results. While the government's initial tardiness -- Sinha cites reports "that the authorities moved in late to seal the company accounts" -- is indeed disappointing, its move to reconstitute the board of directors (with the appointment of people of integrity, such as Deepak Parekh) is encouraging.

In the meantime, "Satyam=India" equations

  • take the focus away from what needs to be done (a) to get to the bottom of this fraud as speedily as possible, and (b) to salvage Satyam's core operations which, by all indications, are profit-making and hence, worth preserving,

  • are an insult to so many of the country's law-abiding companies, their executives and yes, their boards (e.g., the Tata group, the TVS group, Infosys, L&T, Unilever India), and

  • are intellectually lazy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


We have all heard of sleepwalking. But, sleep-e-mailing? You've got to love the way the doctors have described this behavior: “complex nonviolent cognitive behavior.”

Here's a sequence of things the patient managed to do while sleepwalking:

... while staying at a relative’s house, she started the computer, used a password to log on to the operating system, loaded software to reach the e-mail service and then used her username and password to access the e-mail system.

And sent (at least) three e-mails! Here's an interesting legal implication:

... it poses a challenge to the accepted notion that sleepwalking is confined to activities involving gross motor movements, with minimal cognitive activity. Until now, we have been able to take comfort in our understanding of our own sleepwalking as an impersonal phenomenon. [...] Legal doctrine is based on this same notion. Sleepwalkers have been acquitted of criminal felony charges by basing their defense on the concept of “noninsane automatism.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

L.K. Advani has a blog

I have nothing to say, except to speculate how happy he was when he set up his blog to add this at the end of each post:

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

Oh, one more thought. Given the kind of website he's likely to get if he were to become -- gulp! -- India's prime minister, I think it would be better for him -- for his own good, of course ;-) -- to remain prime-minister-in-waiting forever.

Redundant Verbosity Archives

Here's a headline from Economic Times (catch it before it vanishes / changes):

Pavneet Singh tops CAT, scores 100 percentile.

Friday, January 09, 2009

"There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Way to go, London!

Hat tip to Veena for alerting us about this fantastic ad campaign on London buses, sponsored by The British Humanist Association. She links to this BBC video -- watch it till the end!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fun links ...

After all that depressing stuff unleashed by Ramalinga Raju, one needs some balance. Here are two links:

1. Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn: Blow Daddy, a father-son conversation.

2. For the academic in you: how to cite "unconventional" sources, such as tattoos, alien conversations, and yes, restroom graffiti (via Kieran Healy)

Satyam scandal claims its first academic victim

ISB appoints new dean, as [Mendu Rammohan] Rao resigns. Under pressure he had earlier resigned from several high-powered committees, as well.

* * *

Other links:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A quote that jolts ...

IISc [is] not a substitute for IIT.
-- Prof. U.R. Rao

That's the headline of this story on a recent meeting in which a number of public intellectuals in Karnataka spoke in favour of starting an IIT in the state.

* * *

Last year, the Central Government announced a wide range of initiatives in India's higher ed sector; they included setting up of eight new IITs (six of which have already admitted students), 16 Central Universities, 7 IIMs, 20 IIITs, and 14 'World Class' Universities. Despite a Central and a 'World Class' university coming its way, Karnataka is unhappy with not getting an IIT.

Isn't it sad that people -- and people who (should) know better -- whine about not getting a technical institute when they have an opportunity to create a great university? Particularly since a university can have a huge, positive influence on a far larger number of the state's people. Consider an institution that

  1. is configured to be what I call a 'real' university -- a research university that does undergraduate teaching, covers natural and social sciences, humanities and languages, liberal arts and professions, and promotes exciting research in many interdisciplinary areas.

  2. has the kind of autonomy enjoyed by our INIs -- 'Institutions of National Importance' -- the IITs, IISc, IISERs, IIMs, etc.

  3. gets the kind of government grants that flow to the INIs (about 25 to 40 lakhs per faculty member).

  4. has a governance structure that manages to avoid political interference (which plagues many state universities).

  5. that draws faculty (and a large fraction of its students, too) from all of India.

Aren't these the nutrients that explain the stature of the IITs? Shouldn't our intellectuals be arguing for a flow of these nutrients to all our institutions -- INIs, Central and State universities?

* * *

To the list above, I would also add another key nutrient: scale. A 'real' university that graduates, say, ten of thousand students with UG degrees, and several thousands of PG degrees is far better than a technical institution that, almost by design, would not grow to beyond a few thousands of UG degrees. A large size gets the state more graduates at a lower cost, making this model replicable. Even at the State level!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Geeky blog names

Sean Carroll is urging his non-blogging readers to start blogs of their own. He has even suggested some wonderfully geeky names for them -- The Error Bar sounds really cool, doesn't it?

A long time ago, I noted that academics have the coolest blog names -- from a geeky point of view. I mentioned Uncertain Principles, Preposterous Universe, and the coolest of them all, Moebius Stripper. While the first has moved to the ScienceBlogs empire, the second morphed into Cosmic Variance (another cool name, now a part of the Discover empire), and the last does not exist anymore.

And commenters chimed in with other blogs with geeky names: Not Even Wrong, Marginal Revolution, Zeroeth Order Approximation (not updated since 2005).

Among the academic blogs that came up later (which are on my Google Reader), I can think of two:

  • Tantu-Jaal by TIFR string theorist Sunil Mukhi; aparently tantu-jaal means a web of strings in Hindi.

  • E's flat, ah's flat too by Rahul Siddharthan. I have no clue what it means, but it sounds cool! [Update: Rahul has some details in the comments.]

  • Update: I should have added The Curious Wavefunction by Ashutosh Jogalekar. Also, Unruled Notebook by Arunn Narasimhan.

If you're a materials scientist/engineer, I think Screw Dislocations would be a cool name ...

Here's my bleg: Which other blogs have cool, geeky names (geeky with respect to their subject matter)?