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India’s leading science funding agency has withdrawn a prestigious fellowship it had awarded last year to a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, after an investigation charged him with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

A pessimistic take on higher education in India

Read this column by Tapan Raychaudhuri, former professor of modern Indian history at the University of Oxford, in The Telegraph:

... [T]he education of our MAs and honours graduates, except in the case of a small percentage of them belonging to some elite institutions, consists in memorizing lecture notes. The quality of the said notes determines the quality of our higher education. The truth or otherwise of this statement can be very easily tested by using the method of sample survey.

Assuming my hypothesis to be true, and I should be very happy if it turns out to be false, what exactly do we gain by multiplying further the number of universities at a very heavy cost to the nation? If, as I suggest, our institutions are spreading mainly non-knowledge (for how else would we describe education based almost exclusively on lecture notes?), is it really worthwhile to increase their number? If we want more people with degrees that are worth very little in terms of the knowledge acquired, this target could be more inexpensively attained through open universities and correspondence courses ...

What should undergrad curriculum be like?

Over at Understanding Society, Daniel Little has a post Defining the University Curriculum, in which he lays out the issues and arguments for (at least) two kinds of UG curriculum -- each starting from the same goal:

.. [In practical terms] a university education should allow the student to develop the capabilities he or she will need to succeed in a career and to make productive contributions to the society of the future.

And what do these goals require in terms of a curriculum? What are those skills, capabilities, and bodies of knowledge that young people need to cultivate in order to achieve the kinds of success mentioned here?

This is the point at which there is often disagreement among various academic voices and non-academic stakeholders. [...]

The situation in IIM-Shillong

This story has little that we didn't know (from Rashmi Bansal's report), but I just wanted to highlight two things which, taken together, paint a rather grim picture:

  1. IIM Shillong started its first session in July, 2008, with 13 faculty members. At least six of them resigned recently, though some officials at IIM Shillong said some of them were asked to leave.

  2. IIM Shillong chairman RN Datta, however, has defended the director. Datta told Financial Chronicle, “There is nothing extraordinary or abnormal in people leaving or joining any organisation. ..."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Meanwhile, on the cram school front ...

Sunday Tribune has a longish story on Kota's cram schools. Here's an excerpt from the section that talks about the nexus between the cram schools and 'regular' schools:

Another interesting aspect of the IIT aspirants joining coaching classes in Kota is that a majority of them prefer to get enrolled in the local schools, as it saves them the hassle to return to their native place to appear in Plus II exams. Surprisingly, none of them appear in these exams as a private candidate. Then how do they fulfill attendance criterion of the schools amid immense pressure of IIT-JEE coaching? "There are schools which give some relaxation in attendance to these students," says Sharma from Resonance. Though he ruled out any nexus between coaching classes and schools, he said some schools, which don’t have adequate infrastructure and fail to meet the parametres set by the CBSE or the state education board, are happy to get more students even if they are not attending the school. However, a student of Resonance told on the condition of anonymity that almost all the coaching classes have a tie-up with some private schools and they persuade the parents to admit their wards to these schools in lieu of which they get commission from the schools. These schools, he said, are affiliated to either the CBSE or the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE). About attendance, he said though these schools tell such students to attend classes thrice in a week, but the latter do the same in a month. "All the students who get relaxation in attendance pay more to the schools while those who don’t want to attend school at all have to shell out more money," he added. According to him, the coaching classes also get a cut from hostels and other such facilities. In view of such activities, the CBSE has tightened the noose around its affiliated schools in Kota and has asked them to admit students in Class X and XII only if one has a "strong reason"for seeking admission in the town.

* * *

And this ToI story from Neha Pushkarna is positively scary:

FIITJEE for instance will be starting a course for class VI students from 2010 session to train them for competitive exams, admissions for which, will begin in January.

* * *

Over at Midway, blogger L (who teaches at a college) calls these schools 'concentration camps'; here's her comment about how they manage to beat the life out of their students:

Students after their spell in these Intermediate college/concentration camps, don't even joke amongst themselves. Many have forgotten how to laugh, I think.

Only normal youngsters are those who went to CBSE/ISC schools without the engg/medical coaching.

* * *

We have noted that China has a nationwide entrance exam for university admissions. Now, a prestigious university in that country is experimenting with a new system of admitting some of its students through a different route -- recommendation from school principals:

One of China's top higher education institutions, Peking University, last week released a list of 39 high school principals nationwide recognised to recommend students to be enrolled without taking college entrance examinations...

The scamference goes completely "In Absentia"

On the ICFCA-2010 website, this is what we find:

Due to unexpectedly higher number of "Application of Absentia", ICFCA Board has found it unfeasible to conduct an oral presentation of the research papers for a minor number of attendees as previously mentioned in the website on 20-21 March, 2010. Publishing Board of ICFCA apologizes to the few students who opted for oral presentation. However, all the selected research papers will be published in IJFCA Digital Library as regular research papers ...

Some update:

  1. In this comments thread, someone mentioned that the conference has a bank account in a Bangalore branch of ICICI Bank.

  2. The identity of the organizer(s) is yet to be established.

  3. The logos of several tech companies are still flashing in the left panel, misleading people into believing that they are associated with the conference.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to see the rich irony in an online scamster taking a whole bunch of tech-savvy people -- tech companies, ACM, IISc, researchers, faculty, students -- for a ride.

The scamference is supposed to be devoted to "futuristic computer applications." The organizer perhaps wanted to lead by example, with an application called "Conference In Absentia". Looks like it has been one hell of a success so far...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Links ...

  1. :-(

    That emoticon serves as the logo for Despair, Inc, which sells, among other things, posters with such elevating messages as "AMBITION: The journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very, very badly" [Link via].

  2. Steven Poole in The Guardian: A review of Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice.

  3. Amartya Sen is cited as the source of this juicy quote:

    The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.

    I got that quote from Daniel Little's extended musings on "conditional altruism" as a possible explanation for "the spontaneous occurrence of collective action."

  4. An old op-ed in NYTimes: College Advice, From People Who Have Been There Awhile. The line-up has quite a few big hitters.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fun links ...

  1. Here's a link you should send to all your friends/family members/associates who believe in astrology. From that post, I also learned the name of the effect that many of us are familiar with:

    The tendency to see ourselves in vague or general statements has since been called the Forer effect or, alternatively, the Barnum effect, after the famous catchphrase attributed to the travelling circus impresario P.T. Barnum: "There's a sucker born every minute!"

  2. xkcd on the difference between academia and business.

  3. Onion on the Montessori School of Dentistry, where "dentistry is whatever our students want it to be."

  4. In Manhattan, Preparing for Kindergarten Admission Test. The story has everything that a parent dreads, including coaching classes for toddlers. But let's look at the bright side: this is a great business opportunity for the Bansal Classes, Brilliant Tutorials, and Ramaiah Study Circle!

Links ...

  1. Charu Sudan Kasturi in The Telegraph: Read storybooks & get more marks, suggests CBSE:

    India’s largest school board has asked affiliated institutions to include reading habits among parameters to be used in the comprehensive and continuous evaluation (CCE) of students in English, and has even proposed a reading list.

    The CCE, already in place till Class VIII and extended now till Class X, is aimed at reducing a student’s dependence on his performance in term-ending examinations to secure good marks.

  2. Tamar Lewin: A Crown Jewel of Education Struggles With Cuts .

  3. Chronicle of Higher Education: Average Faculty Salaries By Field and Rank at 4-Year Colleges and Universities, 2007-8: In engineering, new assistant professors made $71.8 k, and the salaries of assistant professors, associate professors and full professors were $ 72.7 k, 82.8 k and 107.1 k, respectively.

  4. Chronicle of Higher Education: AAUP Faculty Salary Survey: Ten years of average faculty salaries at more than 1,200 institutions.

  5. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing: Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blogs, Attention Markets and Public Intellectuals

Public intellectuals are successful suppliers of commentary in the attention market for serious thought. Blogs are a relatively new technology that substantially alters this market. More people can now nurse aspirations to be public intellectuals, but blogs also make plain the difficulties of actually reaching a public in ways that books do not. Blogs also vitiate other romantic ideas about the public intellectual as transcendent figure. Even so, blogs may well provide the services for which transcendent public intellectuals are often lauded better than these figures ever did.

That's the abstract of Blogs and the Attention Market for Public Intellectuals by Northwestern University sociologist Jeremy Freese (if that link doesn't work, go here).

If you have been into blogging or blog-reading as long as some of us have, you won't find much in there that's new; it's nice to have a summary, though.

Here, for example, is Freese's take on the evolution of a blogger's (political) views / stance towards extremes:

No one has studied the effect of audiences on the stances bloggers take. Blog archives allow one to read the opinions of some bloggers back before they had the audiences they presently do, and a story of audience-author co-evolution is easily sketched. An intellectually engaged person of moderate views begins blogging about political issues. Mostly, they get no response, but the response they do get accrues disproportionately to posts that either provide especially clear representations of a perspective or offer unusually provocative arguments. Links from major blogs to small blogs can bring in a hundred times more readers than an author usually gets. Links from major blogs to small blogs overwhelmingly support the political orientation of the major blog (that is, major bloggers argue with one another and draw on obscure blogs for support). If attention is rewarding, incentives for blog authors to provide more commentary in line with what generates reaction is plain. Blog authors may thus increase attention by focusing only on a subset of their opinion or expressing especially extreme versions of their opinion. In other words, engaged intellectuals often enter the blogosphere with an eye toward shaping the opinion of an audience, but that audience may more strongly influence the intellectual by what they reward with attention.

Here's something that I wish Freese hadn't said (;-):

Blogs are highly unusual among leisure-time activities in that readership is highest during conventional working hours. Blogs owe much of their popularity to the rise of a workforce engaged in jobs that involve many hours of unsupervised, anomic isolation in front of a computer. In part, blogs feed an enormous craving for distraction that many members of the American reading public have. ...

What can one do about the fake conference?

Let me start with an apology. In my previous post on a scamference, I was being needlessly offensive towards the victims of that hoax. What I said about the participants was in poor taste. I was wrong, and I apologize.

* * *

A quick update about the conference venue: "Prof. J. Thorpe" (who, as we now know, does not exist at Duke University) has responded to a query from IISc officials (about booking the J.N. Tata Auditorium) stating that the conference may move to Madrid, Spain!

* * *

Let me go out on a limb here. Given:

  • the extremely low conference registration fee -- just $45 which is far too low to run a professional conference),

  • the shadiness involved in the unauthorized use of ACM, IISc, (and possibly every "real" person on the technical committee, as well as the sponsors), and

  • that no "real person" has emerged to take the responsibility for the conference,

we really ought to consider the possibility that the "organizers" never intended to, you know, run this conference.

In other words, we are not talking here about a low-quality conference with a near 0% rejection rate. We are talking about the possibility that there's NO conference at all!

* * *

In the comments thread, the discussion has taken a constructive turn; now that so many people have been cheated, what can they do now to punish the guilty?

Someone suggested that the cybercrime branch of Bangalore police must get involved. I'm not sure. The entire operation seems to be run out of the US.

Given that a paper trail exists -- bank accounts, money transfers, etc -- it should be possible to establish the identity of folks behind this scam, and go after them.

A loss of $45 is too small for an individual to take the trouble to file a case. Thus, any action has to be by the collective of victims.

Let me throw out two possibilities:

  1. First, the participants need to organize -- which requires them to know who the other participants are -- the conference website does not have a list of participants (unsurprising). The way to solve this problem would be to form an (open) online group -- Google, Yahoo, Ning, or Facebook. I'm sure the group will have quite a few public-spirited folks who can help guide group's actions.

    [I'll be happy to link to the group in an update to this post, as well as the previous post.]

  2. We can be reasonably certain that at least some of the so-called "sponsors" of the conference have been scammed. Perhaps the participants can write to these companies -- Google, Yahoo, Intel, HP, Philips, Alcatel, etc; I'm sure they all have friends, former students, and family members who work in one or more of these companies. They should alert them about the possible illegal use of their companies' logos on the conference website.

I would think the second option is probably more effective. If the companies didn't agree to be the sponsors (likely), why are their logos being flashed (and why were they mentioned as "supporters" in the conference brochure)? On the other hand, if the companies did pay to become sponsors, I think they have an even stronger case to go after the scamsters because of all the misrepresentations they have made. Either way, alerting the companies and goading them into action would be quite effective.

Any other suggestion?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mobsters and Academics: Signaling Incompetence

In his review essay on Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, Scott McLemee touches on a mode of communication that's common between mobsters and academics:

Rather than getting involved in running a restaurant or dealing drugs, they [the mafiosi] joke about their cluelessness in such matters and simply collect payment for "protection." But this professed incompetence (evidently quite well-demonstrated on the rare occasions that a mafioso tries to go legit) makes them strangely "trustworthy" to those using their services: "If [mobsters] showed any competence at it, their clients would fear that they might just take over."

Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the baroni (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, the struggle for advancement often involves a great deal of horse trading. "The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. Debts and credits are even passed on from generation to generation within a professor's 'lineage,' and professors close to retirement are excluded from the current deals, for they will not be around long enough to return favors."

The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. They do little research, publish rarely, and at best are derivative of "some foreign author on whose fame they hope to ride.... Also, and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts."

Well, one also has the impression that the author is here on the verge of writing a satirical novel. But a friend who is interested in both the politics and academic life of Italy tells me that this account is all too recognizably accurate, in some fields anyway. Gambetta calls the system "an academic kakistocracy, or government by the worst," which is definitely an expression I can see catching on.

This may seem like a tangent from comparative criminology. But Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the baroni is akin to the mafioso's way of signaling that he can be "trusted" within his narrowly predatory limits

"Being incompetent and displaying it," he writes, "conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one's own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity.... In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts."

Links ...

  1. Affirmative Action for the Future -- an e-mail interview of James P. Sterba, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and author of a recent book with that title.

  2. Raymond Tallis: Neurotrash. "From ethics and art history to social policy experts are embracing neuroscience as the answer to understanding human behaviour. Raymond Tallis rallies the neurosceptics."

  3. Colin Pantall's cartoons: Great Author Considers His Response, and Blogger Considers His Response.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This conference is so prestigious, you can even participate in it in absentia!

Take a look at the website of this conference, and then at the brochure (which, presumably, was circulated quite a while ago) for the same conference.

See any difference?

For one thing, the brochure says that the conference is organized by ACM (Association of Computing Machinery). The website, however, is silent about the involvement of ACM. Similarly, the brochure mentions -- and the website is silent on -- the ACM Digital Library as a destination for the papers presented at the conference.

We now know why the conference website has been cleaned up. This is what ACM says on its main page:

Conference Misrepresenting ACM as Sponsor
ACM has been made aware that the International Conference on Futuristic Computer Applications (ICFC) to be held in Bangalore, India, March 20–21, 2010, is using ACM's name to promote their event. This is not an ACM conference, and the organizers have been asked to remove all references to ACM on their site.

The brochure lists Google, Intel, Texas Instruments, HP, Philips, Yahoo Inc, Alcatel-Lucent Technologies, NASSCOM, and Vnysea as "supporting" the conference. While the website has their logos flashing in the left panel, its page for participating companies just thanks "all our current sponsors," without naming a single one of them.

This page lists a "Patron" and a "Co-Chair" from Duke University which seems to be unaware of their association with it: its directory has neither Steve Paterson nor J. Thorpe [except possibly this guy in the Department of Pharmacy!].

Finally, any conference that says this should make your scam sensors antennae tingle and throb violently:

Participate in ICFCA in your Absentia.
Those who cannot come to Bangalore on the conference days due to prior engagements but wish to present a paper in absentia are encouraged to send in their "Application in Absentia" by January 15, 2010. Papers presented in absentia are eligible to be included in the conference and shall avail of all the privileges bestowed on any regular paper.

* * *

Well, this has got to be one of the most fabulous conferences! I mean, wouldn't it be great to participate in it "in absentia" and still get a paper in a journal which will be distributed by the "Harvard Press", and available on Google Scholar?

I was sort of looking forward to running into some of the conference participants because the venue, J.N. Tata Auditorium, is right here in IISc.

I'm deeply disappointed that the "organizers" have not booked this auditorium (yet).

* * *

Thanks to a couple of colleagues who alerted me about this scamference conference.

Louis Menand: The PhD Problem

Must-read link of the day: The PhD Problem (excerpts from The Marketplace of Ideas) by Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard.

Here's Menand on the academy's attempt to monopolize not just the production of knowledge, but also the production of knowledge producers:

It is easy to see how the modern academic discipline reproduces all the salient features of the professionalized occupation. It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. The history department does not ask the mayor or the alumni or the physics department who is qualified to be a history professor. The academic credential is non-transferable (as every Ph.D. looking for work outside the academy quickly learns). And disciplines encourage—in fact, they more or less require—a high degree of specialization. The return to the disciplines for this method of organizing themselves is social authority: the product is guaranteed by the expertise the system is designed to create. Incompetent practitioners are not admitted to practice, and incompetent scholarship is not disseminated.

Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers. The academic disciplines effectively monopolize (or attempt to monopolize) the production of knowledge in their fields, and they monopolize the production of knowledge producers as well.

Here's another quote; this one comes from the section on perverse incentives that encourage institutions to be unconcerned by the long duration of the doctoral programs, as well as by they overproduction of doctorates (this, despite the huge drop-out rates among doctoral candidates):

One pressure on universities to reduce radically the time-to-degree is simple humanitarianism. Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get. Unfortunately, there is an institutional efficiency, which is that graduate students constitute a cheap labor force. There are not even search costs involved in appointing a graduate student to teach. The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s.

Aren't these problems -- loooong doctoral programs, huge drop-out rates, and overproduction -- common to some sub-fields of the sciences (theoretical physics, for example)?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More links ...

  1. David Searls in PLoS - Computational Biology: Ten Simple Rules for Choosing between Industry and Academia.

  2. Michigan State University News: College job market hits bottom, though some bright spots remain.

  3. Dan Ariely at Predictably Irrational: Sex, Shaving, and Bad Underwear. Or how to trick yourself into exerting self-control.

  4. Geoff Maslen in University World News: AUSTRALIA: Has the great Indian bubble burst?

  5. John Gray in LRB: We Simply Do Not Know! A review of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller

Links ...

  1. Aishwarya at Kaleidoglide: Wholesome TV for Kids -- The racist and sexist ideology of Chhota Bheem, a popular Indian cartoon show for kids.

  2. Satya at Education in India: Details about the Azim Premji University.

  3. Shamsheer Yousaf in The New Indian Express: Ex-Vice Chancellor in the Net for Tweaking Marks. Shady shenanigans at Mysore University.

  4. Jaithirth Rao in The Indian Express: Area of Darkness: "Professor Sheldon Pollock has just announced scholarships for Dalit students who wish to study Sanskrit at Columbia University. This is indeed welcome news. The tragedy is that this initiative is not being undertaken in India, the home of Sanskrit as well as Dalits."

  5. Gaurav Sabnis at Vantage Point: Attacking another Marathi Icon? Really?

Plagiarism Hall of Shame: A case from Kakatiya University

In the age of search engines, plagiarism is possibly the easiest way to self-destruct. M. Sreenivas is the latest to induct himself into the Plagiarism Hall of Shame. Hiis co-"author", T. Srinivas, has made moves to stay out of it, but they have also landed him in a different Hall of Shame -- the one for not doing anything about what is euphemistically called a guest authorship. [Thanks to reader "B" for the alert].

T. Srinivas is a professor of mathematics at Kakatiya University. While M Sreenivas is a faculty member at Alluri Institute of Management Sciences, Hanamkonda, he also appears to be a PhD candidate at Kakatiya University, working under Prof. T. Srinivas (in an area which is apparently outside the latter's expertise).

Go check out the SIAM site for the full story. These dudes were also caught by another journal (pdf) sometime ago; this page has the details.

Just as in the Selladurai scandal at Anna University (more links here), the student -- in this case, M. Srrenivas -- takes all the blame. Here's an excerpt from his letter with some cringe-worthy abjectness:

As per the letter dated August 25, 2009, I corresponding author, M. Sreenivas, take this humble opportunity to request you that the article titled Probabilistic Transportation Problem (PTP), appeared in Volume 3, Issue 1 of International Journal of Statistics and Systems, I ashamed for the situation and I have been stopped such type of submissions to the Journals.

The "guide" corroborates this story, but there's a catch (see below):

Recently I have received a letter from American mathematical reviews .From this only I came to know that some bad things happened in 2007 without my knowledge and my name was included in the papers of M.Sreenivas, a student of O.R. and working in a private college (Business Management ).

The catch is this: his department's website had listed the plagiarized (and published) papers under his name (when I checked a few days ago, they were still listed; I'm not able to access the website now, but SIAM folks took a snapshot). When the SIAM editors pointed this out, this is the reply they got:

I have already mentioned that I have worked in Algebra but no idea in O.R. and Mr. M .Srinivas , working in a Business Management College, has written the articles and communicated by including my name without my notice. After the publication only he brought the reprints to the department. All the faculty members know that my contribution to those papers is nil. In the department we don't have any expert working in the field of O.R. We were of the opinion that the work is original and genuine, but we never thought that such type of coping by M. Srinivas. Moreover we were of the opinion that these papers were published after the verification and positive response from the referees. While preparing the departmental profile the Head asked to give the list of papers and M. Srinivas gave the list and thus these papers were included in the list of publications, because my name is there. To be frankly speaking we felt happy because he published so many papers by including my name that too with out my contribution. That is the reason why I gave the apology, even though the mistake was done by my student. Still we don't know how many papers are not genuine. So we are removing all the papers of M. Srinivas from the list of publications and from the web.

I don't know which is more damaging: plagiarism or not removing your name from the plagiarized papers (even after their publication) though "my contribution to those papers is nil."

[Update: I found seven papers by T. Srinivas and M. Sreenivas (mis-spelled as M. Srinivas, I think) listed in the website of the math department at Kakatiya University:

  1. Transportation Management & Services by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, Kakatiya Business Review (KBR), Vol. 3, No.1, September 2006, PP: 121-128, Warangal.

  2. Effectiveness of Distribution Network by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, International Journal of Information Systems and Supply Chain Management (IJISSCM), Vol.1, No.1, January-March 2008, PP: 80-86, USA.

  3. A 7 Step Approach for Transportation Optimization by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, Pratibimba, Vol. 8, Issue: 1, Jan-June 2008, PP: 67-69, Bhubaneshwar.

  4. Transportation Applications of Neural Networks by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, International Journal of Computing and Applications (IJCA) Serials Publications, Vol.2, No.2, Dec 2007, PP: 157-162, New Delhi.

  5. Modeling the Transportation Problem As a Flow Problem by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, Proceedings of the first International Conference on Emerging Technologies & Applications in Engineering, Technology & Sciences (ICETAETS – 2008), Vol. III, PP: 2616-2619, Gujarat.

  6. The Role of Transportation in Logistics Chain by T. Srinivas and M. Srinivas, Indian Journal of Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences (IJMMS) Serials Publications, Vol.4, No.2, June 2008, PP: 75-82, ( in press ), New Delhi.

  7. T.Srinivas and M. Srinivas : Transportation: More for less criteria, International Journal of Statistics and Management System, Serials Publications, Vol. 3, No. 1–2, Jan, 2008. (in press), New Delhi.

Of these, 2,6 and 7 have already been flagged for plagiarism at SIAM. By his own admission, T. Srinivas has made no contribution at all to any of these papers. Why, then, is his department claiming 'credit' for these publications? ]

* * *

We have to thank the editors of 4OR, who caught the plagiarism by Sreenivas and Srinivas a while ago, for this bit of humour:

We communicated to these “authors” our ban from publishing in 4OR, and our intention to publicize by all appropriate means the fact that they submitted such a paper. Their answer is worth reporting:

Dear Sir,
We are very sorry in sending such type of article to your journal. Actually, we are working on the topic. Sorry once again.
M. Sreenivas
Dr. T. Srinivas

(Is the second sentence a threat?)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

L'Affaire Ayyadurai: Was CSIR wrong to hire a 'foreigner'?

Before I get to that question, let me first link to this post by Rahul Siddharthan, who has linked to Ayyadurai's website. Here's an excerpt from near the end of his post:

... [M]aybe he was already told not to expect to be hired in a permanent position, and his report was his way of venting his grievance at the CSIR DG. Which makes it even more unprofessional. Regardless of the truth or otherwise in his observations, I don't think the report will now be taken seriously, nor should it be.

But that shouldn't detract from two key issues. First, exactly what sort of position was Shiva hired under in the first place, why, and what was his mandate? Second, the need to reform and streamline CSIR remains: what does the DG plan to do in this regard? I suspect the CSIR DG made a mistake (caused by over-eagerness to "get things done") in hiring V A Shiva, and knows it; he should now make amends -- first, by coming clean on exactly what happened; and second, by making sure the need for reforming and modernising CSIR is not sidetracked.

Let me now turn to the question in this post's title. It's triggered by this column (free registration required) in Nature - India by Prof. Gautam Desiraju (who, btw, is now a colleague at IISc -- he moved from the University of Hyderabad recently).

Desiraju frames the issue as one of hiring an outsider -- and more specifically, a "foreigner":

There is no dearth of qualified and highly successful scientists with long and enriching careers in India. CSIR itself has many such scientists. Some of them have obtained PhD degrees from prominent universities abroad and have significant collaborations with respected scientists from around the globe.

Most of these scientists are also well aware of the ground realities in India, meaning they harbour realistic expectations of what may or may not be achieved in India. In short, there is no shortage of hard headed, knowledgeable and practical Indian scientists who have lived and worked in India.

The thought that prominent research organisations feel the need to turn to foreign shores to find 'leadership' for their rudderless bodies is anachronistic. This can hardly be a colonial hang-up: not after 62 years.

Now, it's possible that Prof. Samir Brahmachari, DG, CSIR, hired Shiva Ayyadurai in spite of the availability of a more capable CSIR insider. While we don't know much about why Ayyadurai was hired, what we do know is that he turned out to be a bad bet -- however, we know this only after his report blew up so spectacularly in Brahmachari's face.

But, isn't it too much of a stretch to cite what is essentially a case of hiring FAIL as evidence to oppose -- or, to erect nationalist barriers to -- hiring of outsiders?

Unfortunately for Desiraju, he undermines his own case with the last paragraph:

The rot has set in deep within CSIR and elsewhere. Cosmetic changes here and there would be like dusting rouge on a corpse. In the end, we run the grave risk of perishing.


Didn't he start this line of argument with how CSIR is swarming with "qualified and highly successful scientists with long and enriching careers in India"? How, then, does this mighty CSIR morph, in just a couple of paragraphs, into a "corpse" in which "the rot has set in deep"?

Links ...

  1. Jorge Heine in The Hindu: A Nobel Prize for Political Science.

  2. Trey Popp in The Penn Gazette: Are Better Brains Better?

  3. Cory Doctorow reviews "Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene: Problems With Darwinian Psychology

  4. David Dobbs in The Atlantic: The Science of Success.

  5. Steven Pinker in NYTimes: Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective.

Anand Kumar and Super 30

The Hindu has a profile of the man behind Super 30, the Patna residential school that coaches 30 students every year for IIT-JEE. In the context of the proposal to increase the cut-off for board exam marks, he says this about the JEE:

Reacting to Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal's idea of scrapping the IIT entrance examination, he says, “He should rather think of cutting down the lofty standard of questions in the entrance. They are for research scholars, not for class 12 students.” [Bold emphasis added]

* * *

Sometime last year, Al Jazeera did an hour-long story on the Super 30. You can watch the first part here, and select the other parts from the accompanying menu. It weaves the story of this remarkable man, with the journey of a handful of candidates through his rigorous residential program at Super 30 (it even covers the "sting in the tail" that followed the announcement of JEE results in 2008).

Super 30 runs an "entrance exam" to select the students who'll benefit from its residential program. This exam is taken by over 4000 students. In other words, Super 30 is more selective -- it admits less than 1 % of the students taking the exam -- than even the IITs which admit about 2 percent of the JEE takers!

Friday, November 13, 2009

N.R. Narayana "Boilerplate" Murthy

Over at Plus Ultra, Raj has been collecting "vacuous and verbose" stuff uttered by various people -- today's post, for example, catches Lata Mangeshkar holding forth on Sachin Tendulkar.

When I saw N.R. Narayana Murthy's op-ed in The Hindu on Securing Indias Science Future, I thought it would be fun to go plus-ultra on Raj, and list the instances of largely meaning-free verbiage in it. Here we go:

  1. The importance of scientific and technological advancement in today’s highly globalised environment cannot be overstated.

  2. In an increasingly competitive global economy, knowledge-driven growth powered by innovation is a critical imperative.

  3. While India is uniquely positioned to use technology for progress, it has in the recent past lagged behind considerably in the quality and spread of science research.

  4. This is a critical lacuna that could well determine the fate not just of our scientific and developmental future but, more importantly, of our progress as a nation.

  5. It is common knowledge that research in basic sciences is a critical pre-requisite for the success of applied sciences and the bedrock of all technological advancement.

  6. The key to continued success for India in a globalised knowledge-driven economy is building a higher education system that is superior in quality and committed encouragement of relevant research in science and technology.

  7. What is needed is an environment where the government, universities, companies, venture capitalists, and other stakeholders come together for the enablement of the entire science eco-system with an eye on future sustainability. [This is my favourite!]

  8. The government must play a key role by enhancing the number, quality, and management of science schools focussed on science research.

  9. The IIT model of success needs to be replicated on a far larger scale.

  10. Providing the requisite autonomy to research institutions is an important necessity.

Okay, I give up! There's a lot more in there, because I have barely finished one half of Murthy's op-ed.

* * *

The only potentially redeeming part of the entire article is the middle portion that has some data on the state of funding and on the number of PhD graduates. Even this part is marred by sloppiness -- in both data and argument.

For example, his article's focus is on scientific research. Why, then, is he citing data about engineering, without citing any on science?

Although India produces about 400,000 engineering graduates and about 300,000 computer science graduates every year, just about 20,000 master’s degree holders and fewer than 1,000 Ph.Ds in engineering graduate each year.

At another place, he mentions US $ 24 billion as India's "R&D spend" in 2007-08. I wonder where he got that number from. That's over Rs. 100,000 crores -- it's well over India's defence expenditure for that year!

* * *

Maybe I shouldn't, but I expect a solid, grounded, reality-based analysis from Murthy, because he has that street-cred that can come only from building a great company. I expect relevant and unimpeachable data to support his opinions and suggestions, especially since he likes to chant, "In God we trust, everyone else brings data to the table."

What I see in his op-ed, instead, is just tons and tons of boilerplate.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Horror stories from IIM-Shillong

Rashmi Bansal has a story in JAM about how this brand new institution under the IIM banner is being undermined from the top. The troubles appear to start almost right from the appointment of a non-academic as Director.

[ Aside: Just the other day, I linked to the first chapter (pdf) of Amanda Goodall's Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars. While academics are no angels, appointing a bureaucrat / businessman as the first director of an academic institution is pretty atrocious. ]

Back to IIM-Shillong. Here's some background on Director Ashoke Kumar Datta:

Dutta's profile includes 40 years of erratic corporate experience and does not list any academic credentials. Directors and faculty at IIMs are generally required to have a PhD in their subject.

Mr Dutta's biodata lists his qualification as PGDM from IIM Calcutta and 2 years on the doctoral program of Case Western University between 1971-73 (he left without receiving the degree).

At the time of his appointment Mr Ashoke Dutta was already past the age of 60, a fact which should have disqualified him from what is meant to be a five year term.

And here's a partial list of some of the shady things that an academic institution would be ashamed to put on its website:

a) Daily faculty meeting for 1 hour between 9 and 10 am with no specific agenda

b) Administrative staff being invited to attend faculty meetings where they have no locus standi

c) Administrative staff interrupting lectures on minor pretexts.

d) Officer on Special Duty (Finance) sending emails questioning professors on issues related to CAT interview selections

e) Professors being humiliated in faculty meetings, intimidated verbally and through memos; and being told by the director "you are welcome to leave" if they raised their voice on any issue, including issues like CPF (contributory provident fund) not being provided by IIM Shillong, as per prevailing laws of the land.

There's a lot more in that report, and all pretty shocking. Go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nature on the Ayyadurai affair

K.S. Jayaraman has a piece in Nature entitled Report Row Ousts Top Indian Scientist (probably behind a paywall). Leaving aside the bit about "top scientist," let me focus on the new information in Jayaraman's report. In the following, bold emphasis has been added by me:

  1. "Ayyadurai says that the report — which was not commissioned by the CSIR — was intended to elicit feedback about the institutional barriers to technology commercialization."

  2. "Our interaction with CSIR scientists revealed that they work in a medieval, feudal environment," says Ayyadurai. "Our report said the system required a major overhaul because innovation cannot take place in this environment."

  3. [Deepak] Sardana [co-author of the report] [has written] to science minister Prithviraj Chavan on 19 October saying that "it is not possible for me to continue working without your immediate direct intervention" because of the problems triggered by the report.

  4. "I am more worried that the incident will dampen the enthusiasm of Indian institutions to hire expatriates in the future," says Valangiman Ramamurthy, the former science secretary of the government's Department of Science and Technology, who recommended Ayyadurai's selection.

Just one quick comment. Ramamurthy may have "recommended Ayyadurai's selection," but he's being silly in suggesting that it'll affect the hiring of expats.

Sure, Ayyadurai is an NRI, but are all NRIs Ayyadurais?

For the record, Jayaraman's piece does salvage the situation by quoting several others -- Gangan Prathap, Rajan Sankaranarayanan, and Samir Brahmachari -- who don't see things the same way as Ramamurthy.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Ayyadurai: "[DG, CSIR] believes he knows it all"

In the 42-page document Shiva and Sardana described Brahmachari as the “director general who believes he knows all even though he has minimal depth of information and domain knowledge.”

The duo accused Brahmachari of “maintaining a close coterie of sycophants, mostly incompetent” and not allowing the opposition views for any debate. [source]

That's from the now infamous Chapter 7 of a report entitled "CSIR-TECH -- Path Forward" by Shiva Ayyadurai and Deepak Sardana. This chapter is about "the multiple challenges to realizing a CSIR-TECH company."

The authors also suggest a possible solution to this "challenge" of having to deal with a DG who "believes he knows it all" and who "maintains a close coterie of [mostly incompetent] sycophants". Here is their suggested solution, in full:

SOLUTION: 21st Century Leadership Training both short and long-term to be repeated until basic elements of leadership are learned. Beyond book learning.

May I request you all to stop laughing, now?

* * *

A couple of quick observations:

  1. If Ayyadurai chooses to pull this kind of stunt against the man who hired him (and whose support he needs for setting up CSIR-TECH), I have to wonder why he's protesting his dismissal.

  2. Having vitiated the working environment with his report, why would Ayyadurai -- a man with 4 degrees from MIT and with 'rich' experience in starting and running companies -- want his job back? Strange ...

Elizabeth Kolbert reviews Superfreakonomics

She opens her scathing review with the Parable of Horseshit, in which a major problem of the late nineteenth century was solved almost overnight by technological innovation -- essentially, motor cars that wiped out the horsecars.

She closes her review with another reference to horseshit:

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.


Patent balance sheet at CSIR

Hidden in the Mint story about Shiva Ayyadurai's travails at CSIR, there is this revealing statistic:

Over the past 10 years, CSIR laboratories have been granted 5,014 patents in India and abroad. The money earned from these was Rs. 36.8 crore, but the cost of filing them was Rs. 228.64 crore, according to official figures obtained by Hindustan Times (HT) through the Right to Information Act.

* * *

BTW, the previous post on Ayyadurai has comments expressing strong views -- both favourable and unfavourable -- about CSIR. Just in case you are interested...

There's nothing new to report on Ayyadurai, but commenters have also pointed to a couple of links that tell us a little bit more about him and his short career as a 'consultant' at CSIR:

  1. MIT News (from September 2007): East Meets West: Armed with 4 MIT degrees, Shiva Ayyadurai embarks on new adventure:

    In the 26 years since he first arrived at MIT as a freshman, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai has earned four MIT degrees and started two multimillion dollar companies.

    This fall, he will use his most recent degree, a Ph.D. in computational systems biology, and a Fulbright Scholarship to explore one of his lifelong interests: the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine.

    Ayyadurai's upcoming project is the latest in a series of personal ventures that have spanned fields as diverse as electronic communications, animation and molecular biology. His experience shows what is possible with an MIT education, he says.

  2. Scientist vs establishment battle simmers in CSIR:

    According to Ayyadurai, it all started when CSIR Director General Samir Brahmachari gave him a handwritten offer and detailed job description of the STIO's post.

    In June this year, Ayyadurai was in India on a Fulbright scholarship. "At that time, a scientist whom I know said the director general of CSIR would like to meet me. I met him the next day and he invited me to join the organisation and make it into a centre of excellence," Ayyadurai said.

    In a handwritten note, Brahmachari promised Ayyadurai that he would be the CEO of various companies he spins off and that he would also be eligible to be stake in such companies.

    "I accepted it because in the United States if two CEOs shake hands, the deal is done. In this case, I got a written offer few days later and it was fine," Ayyadurai said, adding, "It was much later on that I realised that according to Indian law, he can't even promise those things."

    Meanwhile, immediately after taking over, Ayyadurai set his sights on creating a structure for CSIR-Tech -- a company that would work with CSIR scientists to spin off their inventions into moneymaking products.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Devesh Kapur on the attitude of Indian business towards education

He is appalled by Indian business leaders' attitude towards higher education (in spite of its importance to their business). His list of complaints is long; here's a sample:

The commitment of Indian business to philanthropy in higher education was strong prior to independence and has dwindled ever since. Pre-independence, business interests not only made the transition from merchant charity to organised professional philanthropy, but did so in a significant way. They created some of India's most enduring trusts, foundations and public institutions, including the Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Millia, Annamalai and Indian Institute of Science. Of the 16 largest "non-religious" trusts set up during this period, 14 were major patrons of higher education.

Today, the so-called not-for-profit educational institutions do not engage in philanthropy. Their income comes from fees rather than endowments and investments. [...]

But Indian business has much to explain for a more egregious failing: for the most part, it sees little value in research and even less in building quality institutions that produce good research. This is manifest most starkly in its unwillingness to fund even world-class think tanks, let alone an outstanding university. The reality is that most Indian business elites' children study abroad, not in India. The sad implication is that this reduces their stake in lending a badly needed voice to genuine higher education reform in India.

It is extraordinary how much energy and capital Indian corporate titans are willing to commit to summits, conclaves and the like, where photo opportunities and power-point presentations pass off as the epitome of deep thinking and real insight. Yet, for all the posturing by Indian business elites and their courting of universities in the West (especially in the US), the notion of Indian business coming together to fund research centres that produce knowledge and provide quality education accessible to all sections of society in India does not seem to be on the horizon.

Gladwellian "Insult"

Maureen Tkacik does a great job of dissecting Malcolm Gladwell's brand of pop sociology (with an emphasis on 'pop') in Gladwell for Dummies. Here's a pretty blunt and devastating summary (buried somewhere in the middle of the piece):

In searching for an anecdote or image with which to convey the ultra-absorbency of Gladwell's book as compared with that of his soggier-sentenced peers, I found myself remembering a story Gladwell wrote in 2001 about the technology of diapers. In this story, Gladwell reported that "those in the trade" refer to the waste that diapers are engineered to retain as "the insult," and this image seems to me as useful as any for thinking about Gladwell's success. His masterful maneuver was to engineer a style that artfully conceals "the insult," honing it in his articles before finally unleashing it in book form with The Tipping Point.

If that was about the style, this, from near the end, is about the substance -- more precisely, about the absence of certain crucial kinds of it:

... I wonder if Gladwell sees himself as an office-park missionary dispatched by the church of academe to tour the lecture circuit and convert the leaders of corporate America with "good news" from the ivory tower, its gospel made easy and ecumenical by all those helpful exercises and sticky new terms.

In that case, perhaps Gladwell's intellectual compromises are neither commercial nor unintentional but rather a necessary outgrowth of his higher calling: to explore the secret workings of the world and impart the resulting data to its self-appointed stewards, the titans of industry. This conclusion, if true, may resolve many of the most puzzling incongruities riddling Gladwell's articles: his continued defense of the pharmaceutical industry even as he advocates for single-payer healthcare; his refusal to indict the financial sector's rigged "star system" as the engine of corruption that it is; the meticulous bleaching of his own prose so that he's whitewashed out any real context, any framework in which wars and economic collapses can actually be understood as wars and economic collapses rather than simulations or malfunctions; his near total avoidance of academic thought that does not base its findings on things observed in labs (with the exception of Carl Jung, whose legacy he reduces to the popularization of personality tests); his coyness about politics; and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability.

Links ...

  1. From Amanda Goodall's Socrates in the Boardroom: Why Research Universities Should be Led by Top Scholars (pdf of Chapter 1):

    The reasons why presidents should be able scholars are fourfold:

    1. Scholars are more credible leaders. A president who is a researcher will gain greater respect from academic colleagues and appear more legitimate. Legitimacy extends a leader’s power and influence.

    2. Being a top scholar provides a leader with a deep understanding or expert knowledge about the core business of universities. This informs a president’s decision-making and strategic priorities.

    3. The president sets the quality threshold in a university, and the bar is raised when an accomplished scholar is hired. Thus, a standard bearer has first set the standard that is to be enforced.

    4. A president who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that the leader shares their scholarly values, and that research success in the institution is important. It also transmits an external signal to potential academic hires, donors, alumni, and students.

    Thanks to Diane Spencer's University World News article for the alert.

  2. Jeff Bleich in LATimes: California's Higher Education Debacle:

    My story is not unique. It is the story of California's rise from the 1960s to the 1990s. Millions of people stayed here and succeeded because of their California education. We benefited from the foresight of an earlier generation that recognized it had a duty to pay it forward.

    That was the bargain California made with us when it established the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960. By making California the state where every qualified and committed person can receive a low-cost and high-quality education, all of us benefit. Attracting and retaining the leaders of the future helps the state grow bigger and stronger. Economists found that for every dollar the state invests in a CSU student, it receives $4.41 in return.

    So as someone who has lived the California dream, there is nothing more painful to me than to see this dream dying. It is being starved to death by a public that thinks any government service -- even public education -- is not worth paying for. And by political leaders who do not lead but instead give in to our worst, shortsighted instincts.

  3. Hannah Smith in NYTimes on why "the majority of the schools [universities] I would apply to would be [all-women] colleges":

    My dream has always been a career in politics, and never before in history have women held as many powerful positions as they do today. But because politics is still a predominantly male field, I know that coming from an all-women’s college, or even just a school where the female population is significantly higher than the male one, can give me an edge. At all-women’s colleges there is no fear of your intellect seeming unattractive. In fact, at these institutions women aren’t afraid that voicing their opinions may poorly represent their gender.

    ... [W]hen it comes to the time in my life when the education I receive will dictate how the rest of things will turn out for me, I don’t want the distraction of boys, and I don’t want to compete with them. In my high school experience, the majority of my teachers have tended to pick boys’ raised hands over those of the girls in class discussions. I’ve even had to endure one teacher tell this joke: “Why couldn’t Helen Keller play basketball?” The answer? “Because she was a woman.”

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Curious Case of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai

Ankita Anika Gupta of Mint has the scoop.

Here's a basic outline of the plot: Ayyadurai, a 45 year-old NRI scientist / technocrat, was parachuted into the CSIR system at a plum salary (by Indian public sector standards -- Band Pay of Rs. 60,000 + Grade Pay of 12,000).

It's not clear to me what exactly his mandate or job description was, but he ended up producing a report that was critical of the leadership at CSIR.

Result: he has been fired!

Here is a summary of where the two parties -- Ayyadurai and CSIR leadership -- stand:

“(CSIR) is attempting to remove me (in) reaction to my addressing well-known, intrinsic leadership issues during the course of my professional duties to serve the cause of Indian science and innovation,” said Shiva Ayyadurai in a 30 October letter, a copy of which is with the Hindustan Times. [...]

Samir Brahmachari, director general of CSIR, said Ayyadurai’s services were terminated because he was a “financial mismatch”. “He was demanding too much salary,” said Brahmachari. “Everyone told me I was pampering him because he came from abroad.”

With so much of he-said-(s)he-said in Gupta's version of the story, I still don't have enough to be able to offer a comment.

Do read that story, though. It'll give you a sense of -- and an opportunity, perhaps, to bask in some schadenfreude on -- the kinds of troubles that our institutions (and their leadership) are capable of inviting.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ezra Klein on Superfreakonomics

He has a review in the Barnes and Noble Review. He does have a large section about that infamous chapter [see this post for links] on global warming, but here's his take on another claim:

Much attention has accrued to global warming section of the book, and we'll get to that. But for my money, the book's worst tendencies are on display in its beginning pages. There, the Freakonomists begin with an analysis meant to encapsulate the general Freakonomics take on life. But the topic here isn't cutesy or trivial, it is literally life and death. According to Levitt and Dubner, all those teary warnings about driving drunk have obscured the greater danger: walking drunk. That's quite a finding, if true. But is it true?

The Freakonomists arrive at this conclusion in a fairly unorthodox manner. They begin with surveys showing that one out of every 140 miles driven is driven by someone who's blood alcohol is above the legal limit. "The average American walks about a half-mile per day outside the home or workplace. There are some 237 million Americans sixteen and older," they continue, "all told, that's 43 billion miles walked each year by people of driving age. If we assume that 1 out of every 140 of those miles are walked drunk -- the same proportion of miles that are driven drunk -- then 307 million miles are walked drunk each year." Match those numbers against each other and drunk walking proves eight times more dangerous than drunk driving. "Friends don't let friends walk drunk," the Freakonomists conclude.

But that's not a data set. That's an assumption. And a few seconds of consideration will reveal its flaws. For instance: People frequently decide to walk instead of drive because they are going to drink that evening, suggesting that no basic equivalence can be drawn. For instance: People frequently decide to walk instead of drive because they are very drunk. For instance: People frequently decide to walk instead of drive because they live in an urban area, and walking is a viable possibility. In other words, there's not only reason to believe that a higher percentage of miles walked are miles walked drunk, but that the levels of drunkenness are not the same, and the environment is not the same. In other words, this is not enough data to prove anything close to equivalence.

This doesn't stop the Freakonomists, though, who conclude that "friends don't let friends walk drunk." In an interview I conducted with them for C-SPAN's Book TV, Levitt emphasized that "if someone holds a gun to your head," you should definitely drive drunk rather than walk drunk.