Sunday, February 28, 2010

Just in case anybody here needs a reminder ...

The Internets Never Forget.


Clouds and Silverlinings

Two links.

  1. Jessica Hamzelou in New Scientist on the dark side of happiness.

  2. Jonah Lehrer in NYTimes on the bright side of depression.

On a related note, Louis Menand has a great article on Can Psychiatry Be A Science. Here's a section on the criticism (from within the profession of psychiatry itself) that a lot of conditions, which arise as a natural expected response to nasty events, are being labelled using scary terms and 'treated':

Greenberg is repeating a common criticism of contemporary psychiatry, which is that the profession is creating ever more expansive criteria for mental illness that end up labelling as sick people who are just different -— a phenomenon that has consequences for the insurance system, the justice system, the administration of social welfare, and the cost of health care.

Jerome Wakefield, a professor of social work at New York University, has been calling out the D.S.M. on this issue for a number of years. In “The Loss of Sadness” (2007), Wakefield and Allan Horwitz, a sociologist at Rutgers, argue that the increase in the number of people who are given a diagnosis of depression suggests that what has changed is not the number of people who are clinically depressed but the definition of depression, which has been defined in a way that includes normal sadness. In the case of a patient who exhibits the required number of symptoms, the D.S.M. specifies only one exception to a diagnosis of depression: bereavement. But, Wakefield and Horwitz point out, there are many other life problems for which intense sadness is a natural response—being laid off, for example. There is nothing in the D.S.M. to prevent a physician from labelling someone who is living through one of these problems mentally disordered.

Links ...

  1. The Deflationist: How Paul Krugman found politics by Larissa MacFarquhar. In addition to explaining the evolution of the political Krugman, it has a great section on how economics works. Here's a teaser:

    The most successful paper Krugman ever wrote was about target zones, and it was completely wrong. In the years before Europe adopted the euro, it was thought that establishing something between floating exchange rates and fixed ones—a “target zone” within which a currency would be allowed to float—might reap some of the advantages of each. He estimates that by the time the paper was officially published, in 1991, some hundred and fifty derivative papers had already appeared. “Empirically, it doesn’t work at all,” Krugman says. “People loved it as an academic thing, but it had some very strong predictions about interest rates inside target zones. Those predictions all turned out to be wrong. But nobody attacked me for that. I was showing that if target zones worked the way that people say they’re supposed to work, then this is how it would play out.”

  2. See also this commentary by Thomas Levenson, picking up from MacFarquahar's article on the nature of academic economics:

    The point being that economists, for good reasons, often need to rebuild a structure of known facts and ideas — not because they could not know these things by other means (like a good cartographic historian would) but because for economists to talk to each other, they need to express the objects of their curiosity in a form that their colleagues can understand. So far so good — but such mutual comprehensibility can come, as MacFarquahar documents Krugman discovering, at the expense of insights available for the taking. This is what I mean when I say, as I have on occasion that economics is an aspiring, or simply a young discipline.

    That is: economics as practiced in the academy is in possession, its practitioners believe (and I mostly do too, not that my opinion matters) of a body of methods and a growing number of results that suggest that it is a powerful way of analyzing certain kinds of human behavior, and for making useful predictions about some things. But it is far from as comprehensive in its explanatory power as some of its practitioners — and many more in the economic pundit class — would have one believe.

  3. Steven Levy in Wired: How Google's Algorithm Rules The Web. The algorithm gets tweaked hundreds of times a year, using "contextual signals" culled from search queries:

    Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. “We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

    But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

Unfair tax relief

Under the tax scheme proposed in the budget today, someone with a taxable income of Rs. 800,000 will enjoy a tax relief of nearly 35 percent -- he/she will pay Rs. 96.8 k as opposed to last year's 148.3 k.

For someone with an income of Rs. 500 k, the tax relief works out to 40 percent!

But, but ...

For people earning 160 k to 300 k, the tax relief is a nice round figure of zero percent.

In other words, a vast majority of tax payers (with incomes less than 300 k) will not see a single rupee of tax benefits, while their richer siblings will see pretty fabulous savings -- as much as Rs. 51,500 for those earning 800 k and more!

This would be a cruel thing to do even in a normal year. But this year is one that has seen pretty high inflation rates -- especially for food.

This is too bizarre for a government that claims to work for the Aam Aadhmi!

* * *

Data: See the table in this blog post for the data. The quantum of tax relief rises from zero percent (for incomes up to Rs. 300k) before maxing out at about 40 percent for 500k. From there on, it keeps falling steadily to, for example, about 35 percent at 800 k, and about 25 % at 1 million.

Monday, February 22, 2010


The draft legislation for creating NCHER, the National Commission for Higher Education and Research, is here (pdf). When it is created with the Parliament's nod, it'll replace almost all the major higher ed regulators -- UGC, AICTE, etc.

The legislation describes the organizational structure -- NCHER will be headed by a Chairman, and it'll have a Collegium that's so large as to include a representative from each state! The legislation also provides a huge list of things the Commission will do -- leaving the details of how those things will be accomplished to the Commission itself.

So far, so good.

There's one jarring note, however. It's about creating a 'national registry' of academics -- university vice chancellors are expected to be picked from this registry.

This provision is really, really strange. Why can't the government allow NCHER to evolve the norms for selecting university VCs? Why should it tie NCHER's hands on this issue, when the Commission has been given the mandate to do so many other things?

The composition of the Collegium and the concept of national registry have come under sharp attack from the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

[In a separate development, the employees of UGC have opposed the formation of NCHER.]

In the op-ed pages of The Hindu, Thomas Joseph, Member-Secretary of the Higher Education Council of Kerala, started a debate over NCHER. This is what he says about the national registry:

The Bill provides for the preparation of a national registry of people eligible to be selected as Vice-Chancellors and mandates that Vice-Chancellors of State universities be appointed from a panel of names selected by the commission from the registry. The question is not whether the commission would always act fairly, but whether such an arrangement would be consistent with the principles of autonomy of higher educational institutions, which is touted as the basic objective of the commission. The idea of a registry may not be an objectionable one if States have the option to choose any name from the registry and if the right to appoint a person as Vice-Chancellor from outside the list is not entirely ruled out.

Prof. Madhava Menon, a member of the Task Force that drafted the legislation, has a point-by-point rebuttal. Here's the section dealing with the national registry:

An innovative measure to secure academic autonomy that is proposed in the Bill relates to the selection of Vice-Chancellors. Many ills of higher education, at present, can be traced to corruption and manipulation involved in the appointment of Vice-Chancellors. The Bill empowers the Collegium to prepare a registry of suitable persons with expertise and experience after a worldwide search and to keep it updated from time to time. It is not necessary that only persons who figure in the registry be appointed. Whenever the Central or State governments want to appoint Vice-Chancellors they can ask, if they so like, for a panel of names from the Commission as per their requirements, and the Commission may provide it. This is to facilitate the search and to present available candidates of distinction within and outside the country. There is no infringement of autonomy in the process; rather, it enhances autonomy by removing potential risks to such autonomy. The States' choice of the person and the right to choose one from outside the registry is in no way compromised by the provisions in the Bill.

The Task Force has been holding public hearings on the Draft Bill; it has already had one each in Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.

Links (Very SFW Edition)

  1. The Genetics of Full Professors. Link via Rainbow Scientist.

  2. Jonah Lehrer in WSJ: Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity [You'll find it very depressing if you are, like I am, on the 'wrong' side of the age spectrum]:

    ... In 1953, when Mr. Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.

    Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.

  3. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber: Good Writing in Political Science: An Undergraduate Student’s Short Illustrated Primer:

    Leo Tolstoy famously observed that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 2 Tolstoy, happily for all of us, was not a teaching political scientist. Had he been, he might have observed that undergraduate political science papers are subject to a different logic. Really good papers are unique – each has its own particular thesis, style of argumentation, body of empirical evidence and set of conclusions. Really bad papers, in contrast, tend toward a dismal uniformity. They draw on the same evidence (garbled versions of what the professor has presented in class), are organized according to similar principles of incoherence, and all wend their eventual ways towards banal conclusions that strenuously avoid making any claims or positive arguments whatsoever.

    This short set of guidelines cannot make you into a really good essayist. For that you need time, practice, and native genius. What it can do, however, is help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls of undergraduate essay writers. You can surely avoid being a very bad essayist, and you can very likely become a better essayist than you are already. What follows is a short set of suggestions, accompanied, where available, with cautionary examples drawn from online essay mills.

  4. Gail Hornstein in The Chronicle: Prune That Prose -- Learning to write for readers beyond academe [Link via Subharmonics, Arunn Narasimhan's new blog]:

    Writing for a popular audience ... forces you to figure out what the hell you're trying to say and come right out with it.

    For me, that's the hardest part. At first, I couldn't bear to part with any of my ideas, and found it almost physically painful to cut so much. Then I realized it was like growing carrots. Similarities between weeding in the garden and on the page have long been noted, but the focus is usually on the technical process—what to take out, how to clip back sprawling clauses, and so on. But for me, the key similarity is emotional.

    I love carrots, and eating them fresh from my organic garden is especially wonderful. But you have to thin aggressively to get a decent crop. I hate thinning. It seems brutal. I decide who lives and who dies, who becomes a carrot and who ends up just a green top in the stockpot. But forcing myself to thin carrots taught me a lot (although for a long time, I preferred simply to let my partner, a professional editor, do it without a shudder). I got a vivid sense of how too much of a good thing in the first version—in a carrot bed or an article—can result in stunted plants or spindly, overgrown prose.

  5. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on Why You Want To Be An Engineer.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Links (NSFW Edition)

In an eternal quest for an NC-17 rating, this blog is proud to present:

  1. Mary Roach at TED-2009: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm.

    Here's the web page for her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

  2. Noise to Signal: Relationship Status (cartoon).

  3. Careers I didn't even know existed: Lactation Consultant. [Update: Several commenters have objected to this link being characterized as NSFW. I agree; it doesn't belong in this list. Sorry about this sloppiness.]

  4. MIT's The Tech: Sex@MIT. Money quote: "Compared to national numbers for college-age students from the Centers for Disease Control, MIT students are having less much sex than their peers — but significantly more than no sex."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Outrage at AMU

Two updates on the outrage at Aligarh Muslim University:

  1. A group of 13 academics and teachers have issued a statement. Read it at Kafila or at Hindustan Times:

    The outrage of the university authorities is deeply misdirected. Instead of suspending Dr Siras, they should have taken stern and serious action against those who so blatantly took on the role of playing moral police with no regard whatsoever for Dr Siras’ constitutionally recognised right to privacy and dignity within his home and the university.

  2. Interestingly, AMU was also in the news yesterday for something else: its tie-up with the Law School of George Washington University. Here's how the Dean of the high profile American private university outlined their joint research program:

    The major areas of research between the two institutes would include intellectual property law, Islamic law, constitutional law, international and comparative law and environmental law.

    Notably, he didn't specify privacy laws (presumably, it's included in constitutional law ...).

    I wonder if GWU even knew who it was getting into bed with ...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Links ...

  1. A worthy project that aims to reclaim the GeoCities pages and make them available again. [via Madhukar Shukla]

  2. To the folks at Aligarh Muslim University: WTF is wrong with you? Really, W . T . F ? [via Indian Homemaker]

  3. Vaughan Bell: From the Printing Press to Facebook -- A history of complaints about information overload.

  4. The curious case of a French philosopher "citing a fake philosopher".

Are Scientists Dull?

Bruce Charlton has a provocative paper that argues that they are indeed dull, and identifies the cause: "the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people."

If you think, like I do, that science already has too many psychotics (borderline, or worse!) or that it rewards them with leadership positions, you'll be surprised and upset by the proposed remedy:

... As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Med Schools at IITs? MCI Says, "No."

Looks like MCI has shot down the idea. For now.

Apparently, the IITs -- with the exception of IIT-KGP -- want to run an MBBS program without running a teaching hospital; they would tie up with a private hospital. MCI, naturally, doesn't like it one bit.

At least, that's the explicitly stated reason for saying 'No' to the proposal. I'm not very clear about whether it is such a big deal; I mean, are there medical colleges that don't run their own teaching hospitals?

Prof. C.N.R. Rao's Valentine's Day Message

National research professor and renowned scientist C.N.R. Rao on Sunday expressed concern over lack of innovation in Indian science and said rapid commercialisation and particularly, the information technology industry, contributed to this decline.

“IT has destroyed Indian science as much as it has contributed to its economy,” he told presspersons on the sidelines of a ... conference ... at the National Institute of Technology-Karnataka, Surathkal. The IT sector might have contributed to the country’s GDP, but it had done little for its development, he said.

He said that there was a growing trend of “internal brain drain” in the country, where students succumbed to temptations and took up jobs that had nothing to do with scientific innovation. “Why does one need to study engineering if the ultimate aim is to do an MBA and sell soap?”

Here's the source.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Higher Ed Links ...

  1. Kounteya Sinha in Economic Times: Doctors from IITs? Govt to Brainstorm Today:

    Some IITs, like Kharagpur and Hyderabad, are working on starting medical schools in about three years. Ministry officials said IIT Kharagpur has supposedly signed an MoU with University of California, San Diego, to set up a hospital which will offer graduate , PG and research programmes in medicine and bio-medical engineering.

    IIT Hyderabad has been expressing its interest to offer MD degrees in three years. In recent meetings with IIT directors, HRD minister Kapil Sibal had asked them to expand their courses.

  2. Ding Jie in SciDev.Net: Science Paper Trade Booms in China:

    He defined five questionable paper-publishing practices in China: charging exorbitant publication fees, where instead of a peer review systems authors pay hundreds or thousands of yuan for publication in a journal; the establishment of illegitimate journals; ghostwriting of papers; paper brokering, where authors pay agencies to get their papers published in particular journals; and the fabrication of awards by illegitimate journals.

    This trade is a product of the way Chinese universities and research institutions use rates of publication as a measure of performance and eligibility for promotion or graduation, wrote Shen. Many institutions, for example, stipulate that doctoral candidates cannot gain their PhD unless they have published one paper before graduation.

    As a result, researchers and academics — particularly those in lesser universities or institutes — plagiarise or buy papers.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Illegitimate MBA degrees that may even be dangerous!

As some of you may have guessed, this is an IIPM alert!.

[All the text enhancements in this post are "inspired" by the institution's print ads]

Careers 360 has the goods on the real value of the BBA and MBA 'degrees' that IIPM students are eligible for.

Since a recent IIPM ad mentioned that these degrees are "from IMI, Europe!", Careers 360 wrote to the higher ed regulator in Belgium to get the inside scoop. And they've got it.

The essence of the letter [the Belgian regulator's response] is as follows:

  1. The MBA/BBA degree given by IMI, Belgium is not recognised and hence not legitimate even in its country of origin, Belgium.

  2. Students in Belgium using the title ‘Master’ or ‘Bachelor’ can even be prosecuted, if it is based on a degree given by IMI.

  3. Using those titles (given by IMI, Belgium) without holding a legitimate degree is illegal in Belgium.

The gullibility of some MBA aspirants in India is truly shocking.

Webcast of a lecture by Nobel Laureate Eric Cornell in Bangalore

The lecture is on The How and Why of the World's Lowest Temperatures, and it's scheduled for 10:00 a.m. tomorrow (Feb 16, 2010). See this page for more info, and this page for signing up.

Here's an excerpt from the note I received from Simon Frantz, Senior Editor at

... [W]e are involved with a regular series of lecture events in India that I hope you will be interested in. We have an educational partnership between and Honeywell, called the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative, which six times a year brings Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry to universities worldwide, where they interact with students through lectures, question and answer sessions and lab visits.

Two of these six events involve a Nobel Laureate visiting a university in India, and on the 16 and 17 February, the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Professor Eric Cornell, will visit the MSRIT campus at Visvesvaraya Technology University, Bangalore. A live webcast of Professor Cornell's lecture, entitled “The How and Why of the World's Lowest Temperatures,” will be broadcast on the event's dedicated website on 16 Feb at 10am.

We are keen that savvy online people with an interest in this area are aware of this lecture webcast, as any online viewer can submit a question directly to Professor Cornell in the Question and Answer session following his lecture (by emailing questions to or by posting them to the Honeywell-Nobel Initiative’s orkut, facebook and twitter pages).

Links ...

  1. QOTD: Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy:

    Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.

    People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.

    Link via the Heath brothers' blog.

  2. Two comments on the 'Facebook Login' hilarity on ReadWriteWeb (you have to see a few comments there to see what I'm talking about): Quiet Babylon and Daring Fireball.

  3. Finally, a few Valentine's Day coversfrom New Yorker. See also this post on BPS Research Digest: Evidnece-based Tips for the Valentine's [via Raghu's Buzz].

I know it's a day late to be linking to Valentine's-related stuff; it's still better than The Hindu's cover story on assisted suicide in its Magazine issued on teh Valentine's Day!

The Almost-Doomed

Sometime ago, MHRD gave the Supreme Court a list of 44 deemed universities (DU) that are unfit to be universities, and should be shut down (see this post).

Apparently, it also disclosed to the Court another list of 44 DUs that have been given three years to spruce up their act, or else. See this Telegraph story by Charu Sudan Kasturi who has also reproduced the almost-doomed list.

This list includes flagship institutions of the government itself: two Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), as well as the Indian Instittute of Space Science and Technology (which, I think, is less than three years old). It also includes such well-known private institutions from Tamil Nadu as VIT, SASTRA and Sri Ramachandra Medical College (along with known-to-be-dubious ones such as Satyabama and SRM).

An interesting entry in that list is the Allahabad Agricultural Institute: Prof. Valson Thampu, Principal of St. Stephen's, got his PhD from this institution ... in theology!

* * *

Also in The Telegraph: this story about the Bihar government's plans to regulate coaching classes in the state.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Deadly faculty meeting at UAlabama

Among the dead are three faculty members, including the Chairperson [via Madhusudan Katti].

From the first link:

Three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville were shot to death, and three other people were seriously wounded at a biology faculty meeting on Friday afternoon, university officials said.

The Associated Press reported that a biology professor, identified as Amy Bishop, was charged with murder.

According to a faculty member, the professor had applied for tenure, been turned down, and appealed the decision. She learned on Friday that she had been denied once again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Buzzzz ...

I like Buzz, Google's latest offering. You can follow me if you like this sort of poison.

My Buzz aggregates much of my Web 2.0 litter -- this blog, my shared items on Google Reader and Twitter. So, if you already subscribe to this blog's RSS feed (for example) you'll end up seeing the content twice if you also choose to follow my Buzz.

Buzz is Twitter-without-limitations: No 140-character limit. No ugly URL shorteners. No need to post pictures elsehwere. And no scrambled conversations, with bits lying all over the place (responses appear as comments in the same Buzz item). [See Dave Winer's post on must-have features for any wannabe Twitter-killer. Buzz has quite a few of them; but Winer doesn't like Buzz for other reasons.]

Buzz is a lot like FriendFeed, but without the latter's popular features such as groups and rooms. Buzz may be able to implement these features later (perhaps with Google Wave); when that happens, not only will Buzz become tremendously more interesting, it might even become indispensable.

In the meantime, let me just say that I'm very happy to be on Buzz.

* * *

On the other hand, Wanderlust (at The NIT-K Numbskulls Page) would like Google to Buzz Off! Some of her complaints (especially about the stalkers) have now been addressed [via Patrix]. Her real problem, however, is with Buzz bringing in a whole bunch of people into her little e-mail corner; this problem cannot be solved, because this is a 'feature' -- a design choice.

Professor: "A term of derision"?

“When Palin and others describe Obama as professorial in style, they are invoking themes and tropes that have a long history in American politics,” says Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “That longstanding tendency in American politics is also in this case being drawn together with an implicit criticism of liberal professors, which really only became a mainstay of conservative discourse in the 1950s.”

A leading voice in that discourse was the late William F. Buckley Jr., who famously opined that he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Other conservatives took aim at Harvard faculty as well, including Richard Nixon, who derided that pesky special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, as a “fucking Harvard professor,” according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account in The Final Days.

The use of “professor” as a term of derision may have hit its stride in the 1950s, but it dates back to scolding characterizations of Socrates, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. By the 1940s, Hollywood had cashed in on the stereotype with a film called “Ball of Fire,” which cast Gary Cooper against type as a na├»ve professor who learns the real ways of the world from a nightclub dancer called Sugarpuss O'Shea. In the political realm, Adlai Stevenson was similarly labeled an “egghead” in his 1950s campaigns for the presidency, Nunberg added.

If the term professor is used in politics, it's seldom a compliment, and instead "implies dry, hectoring, unemotional, self important, all of the negative stereotypes of somebody who is vainly certain of his own superior mental capacities but doesn’t have a human connection,” says Nunberg, author of The Years of Talking Dangerously and a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

That's from this Inside Higher Ed article by Jack Stripling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Links ...

  1. Olivia Judson at the Opinionator Blog: Unorthodox -- Hairier, Edgier Sex Life of Ciliates.

  2. Joshua Green in The Atlantic: Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead.

  3. Leader of largest U.S. university takes on tenure -- The President of The Ohio State University calls "the emphasis on research, publishing in job-for-life protection ... outdated."

Nina Paley: All Creative Work is Derivative

She has a really cool video (2:20). Fabulous!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

UGC to NSD: Have your faculty passed the NET exam?

Filed under: "It would be too funny if only it were not so appalling!"

Two recent news stories shine a spotlight on how UGC has treated some of India's top institutions [during a time when it was busy dishing out 'deemed university' status by the bundles to the moneyed and the unscrupulous].

Exhibit 1: NSD, the National School of Drama, New Delhi. This is already a deemed university (DU). It went through a UGC review recently, and it looks like it went through hell.

The NSD ... [was] hauled up recently by the UGC for not meeting requirements like stipulated number of professors and readers with mandatory teaching qualifications, [and] says culture cannot be straitjacketed to fit norms.

Director Anuradha Kapur said the NSD was a “practising arts institution” with acclaimed stage artistes, choreographers and dance gurus, and could not be treated like any other normal university. “Great kathakali gurus and exponents teach our students. You cannot ask them to go in for a NET examination,” she had said. [The Telegraph]

Exhibit 2. NID, the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, whose quest for a DU status has been futile -- so far.

The NID sought deemed university status in 2005, at a time when under Arjun Singh, the human resource development ministry had opened the floodgates for institutes desperate for the tag.

But while 55 other institutions, mostly run privately, won the UGC’s approval for deemed status between 2005 and 2009, the NID had to wait four years, only to be turned down. The institute did not have the minimum number of faculty with PhDs required under UGC guidelines for the deemed university status, the commission said in its response to the NID request. [...]

“Many of the best teachers of design need not be PhDs. We get grassroots people to come and teach here. That is the beauty of NID and its strength,” Vyas said. The UGC formulations on teacher standards do not match the requirements of NID, which needs autonomy to evolve its own standards, curricula and courses, he argued.

And then there are institutions that have not bothered to get an institutional recognition from our higher ed regulators. ISB is possibly the most important example. This top Indian private school has been ranked among the top 20 business schools in global rankings by the Financial Times; and, yet, it has not sought any official academic recognition.

UGC and the Deemed University Fiasco

Recently, MHRD made a big bang announcement in the Supreme Court that it had decided to strip 44 institutions of the "Deemed University" status. The Supreme Court has ordered the government to wait until the affected institutions tell their side of the story.

Just what kind of universities were they? Media have gone to town over the fact that quite a few of them "belong to" politicians (both active and defunct), their cronies, thugs and muttheads. Here's Anubhuti Vishnoi in The Indian Express:

... Those with deemed varsity status ... included family-run institutes, either linked to politicians or business houses. Like the Jaypee Institute of Technology; Manav Rachna International University in Faridabad which was set up by a one time property dealer O P Bhalla; and Maharishi Markandeshwar University near Ambala which also has a property dealer for Chancellor. Several of the deemed varsities in Tamil Nadu, which have been now found unfit by the HRD Ministry, have linkages with prominent political parties in the state. Tripura Governor D Y Patil is the founder of the D Y Patil University which has also been found unfit. Santosh University is run by Chennai's Dr P Mahalingam who was a personal physician to BSP leader Kanshiram.

In this battle (and subsequent revelations), the University Grants Commission appears to be the main loser. After all, it is this organization that has the responsibility to ensure institutions possess certain minimum academic standards before conferring on them the "Deemed University" status. By dropping that bombshell in the courtroom, MHRD has essentially made a unilateral statement that the UGC has failed in this duty.

In a selective leak, some folks in the government have also pointed out that quite a few of these 44 universities had been given a clean bill of health by the UGC as recently as a few months ago! The implication is clear: UGC has lost its ability (or willingness!) to ensure academic integrity in the universities under its charge.

Bottomline: UGC is facing arguably its most serious threat. Mainly because its masters at MHRD appear to have given up on it.

Monday, February 08, 2010

An IIT Figures in Top 20 Most Cited Institutions in Engineering

The February 2010 issue of Science Watch has the list for the 10-year period 1999-2009.

Of greater relevance to India: an IIT makes it to the list at No. 11 with over 25,000 citations and over 7000 publications. The list doesn't specify which IIT it is, but from the context, it appears to be IIT-K. [Correct me if this is wrong].

Update [9 February 2010]: All the five commenters (so far) have pointed out that it's probably the entire IIT system that is at No. 11 in that list. I think they are correct; Ram (in comment #2) is especially persuasive.

The reasoning goes like this: The average number of papers from the five original IITs is between 800 and 1000 per year now, and it was half this number as recently as 6 years ago. The Science Watch article says the analysis is only for 'engineering'; so, it doesn't count papers in 'science'. Heck, its definition of engineering is so narrow that it excludes quite a few engineering disciplines -- for example, my field, metallurgical and materials engineering, doesn't figure in the list. Nor does chemical engineering.

Given these facts, a total figure of 7000 papers in 'engineering' in 10 years makes sense only for the IIT system as a whole, and not for any single IIT.

Concrete Mathematics

Rock Groups is the title of the second installment [the first one is here] of Steven Strogatz's NYTimes series on Math: From Basic to Baffling.

It's about using rocks to learn numbers and their properties. Rocks even help in 'proving' a couple of these properties (example: the sum of the first N odd numbers is a perfect square: 1 + 3 = 4, 1 + 3 + 5 = 9, etc).

It's all absolutely fascinating. Strogatz has this great ability to make mathematical ideas sing and dance in your head!

No excerpts here. Just go read it!

It's a morose Monday morning ...

... and, naturally, you think about 'difficult' people and 'socially enabled psychopaths'! A couple of links:

  1. Are you the person whom everyone finds difficult?: A self-assessment quiz at Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.

  2. On socially enabled psychopaths: The Godfather Paradox by the neuroscientist Dr. E.S. Krishnamoorthy (VHS Hospital, Chennai). And yes, the article has a quiz that you can take; scroll down to the bottom.

    In the competitive world of business, [...] the most effective leader is often perceived as the one who “delivers” whatever the means he employs. It is in this environment that the socially enabled psychopath with his unique perceptions of reality, willingness to shift societal norms and expectations to suit his agenda, and most importantly “willingness to reason with his fellow men” using a range of strategies from charming persuasion to latent threat, comes into his own. His “killer instinct”, lack of empathy and inability to experience and empathise excessively with the pathos of his fellow men consequent to his actions, serve him well here. His actions may hurt his fellow men, or be distasteful; but in the rough and tumble modern world we inhabit, the ability to achieve tangible and productive goals profitable to his organisation and to him, without twinges of conscience or feelings of regret, is often advantageous. The modern-day CEO is, therefore, in many cases, a socially enabled psychopath [...]

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This is not entirely unrelated, but do read this story in Inside Higher Ed about a most unusual attempt to deny tenure to a faculty member because of lack of collegiality'. The decision is yet to be taken.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Annals of Fun: Exam Howlers

On a medical school examination, students were asked: What is a fibula? To which one replied: "A little lie". Another question asked, What happens to a boy during puberty? and an answer came back: "He says goodbye to his childhood and enters adultery". [...]

Even religion has its moments. [...] [A student] offered the profound thought that "unlike drink and drugs, there's no recovery from religion''.

From Geoff Maslen's column in University World News. But, the author says, some are more than howlers; the students may be mocking the examiners! For example:

... [T]he comment that "Jaws was the worst public relations exercise that sharks ever had'' is no blooper. Nor is the observation that "If you feed a cow sunflower seeds you get poly-unsaturated milk".

Psychology of Anti-aging

Via Swarup: BBC News story on the power of thought to stop aging. It's almost entirely about research done in 1979 by Ellen Langer, who has written a recent book on it: Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and The Power of Possibility.

Some of the stuff is pretty amazing:

Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that [the 70- and 80-year olds in the experimental group] were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.

As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of "touch" American football.

Langer's blog is here.

Love's in the air ...

"Dopamine is released when you're doing something [highly] pleasurable," like having sex, doing drugs or eating chocolate, says Larry J. Young, a psychiatry professor at ... Emory University.

That's from Jessica Pauline Ogilvie's LATimes column [Thanks to The Situationist blog for the pointer].

Love and dopamine are not all about young lovers; a bit later, there's stuff for middle-aged (and above) married couples:

... [A] great deal of research shows that doing novel, exciting things together boosts marital happiness. "Take a class together that you know nothing about," suggests Aron, who has co-written several studies in this area. "See a play, go to a new location, go to a horse race." The release of dopamine during these activities might remind couples of how it felt to fall in love or even be happily misattributed to the experience of being together.

Also, says Acevedo, be thoughtful with your partner.

"We know that things like celebrating the positive is important for a relationship's well-being, as well as being supportive when [our partners] need us," she says. Couples that took part in Acevedo's study also resolved conflict smoothly and quickly, were affectionate and communicated openly with their partners, and spent time bettering themselves as well as the relationship.

"And sex!" she adds. "Sex is always good."

While on the topic of married couples, John Medina at Brain Rules has a post on marriage reinvention.

Finally, check out the artwork in this website for a condom brand [NSFW]. For a sharp perspective on these drawings, read the first comment in this post!

Cool site of the week

The Indian Railways Fan Club.

Lovingly put together by train travel's true fans, the site has trip reports, locomotive sightings and many other goodies.

And there are the picture galleries, wonderfully organized into thematic albums. Just look at these steamy beauties!

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There's even an IRFCA Convention going on even as I'm writing this post, and someone is liveblogging it and posting pictures.

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Should have posted this link earlier; I learned about IRFCA from Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi of IIT-K (currently Director of the Lakshmi N. Mittal Institute of Information Technology, LNMIIT, Jaipur) when he was at IISc last month. And, yes, he's a card-carrying IRFCA member, and was among those who organized IRFCA's second third convention in Kanpur [See Prof. Sanghi's comment below].

Friday, February 05, 2010

Bad News of the Day

Brought to you me by Nick Carr: blogging is now the uncoolest thing you can do on the Internet. It's so uncool that it's "like mahjong or needlepoint or clipping coupons out of Walgreens circulars: something old folks do while waiting to croak."

The underlying study is here. It's this take (spin?) in Yahoo! News that Carr is (sort of) upcool about.

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Here's another piece of meta-blogging. Over at Cheap Talk, Jeff has a short post on why he blogs. Here is his second reason:

I have a hard time coming up with topics of conversation. i am a total loser at parties. now i can slip away, break out my iPhone, go to the blog and remember what i blogged about last week. instant conversation topic. now i am even more of a loser at parties.

Lifetime earnings advantage of a college degree

In the US, this subject appears to have been of quite a bit of interest, and keeps popping up in the media every once in a while. Here's WSJ's Mary Pilon with the latest:

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

These estimates about the average advantage that says nothing much about the earnings distribution. With that caveat in mind, let's look at the figures: they range from a high of about $800,000 (in a 2002 Census Bureau report) to a low of just about $300,000 (from a 2009 report by Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research).

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Links ...

  1. Let's warm up with an Abstruse Goose cartoon on getting published: Rejecta Physica.

  2. Just discoverd this through Robert Scoble: Did you know that Google has something called Social Circle? Go to this link after logging into your GMail account, and you'll be amazed at the amount of stuff Google has unearthed about your friends, contacts, followers, followees, ...

  3. Joel Schwarz in University of Washington News: Of girls and geeks: Environment may be why women don't like computer science.

  4. Naughty Bits in the Bible by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. Among other things, you'll find out the origins of the word 'testify.'

  5. Liquid glass will change your life, eliminate detergent profits by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing.

  6. Crystals in Meteorite Harder Than Diamond by Larry O'Hanlon in

  7. Tensile vs. Shear Strength at xkcd.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Edge of Physics

Anil Ananthaswamy gave an absolutely brilliant lecture yesterday at IISc about The Edge of Physics, his book on some of the most extreme experiments that are going on at some of the most extreme locations on earth -- for example, the South Pole!


Check out the website of Anil's book, The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.

To get a sense of "Earth's Extremes" he visited for his project, see this page.

Anil's blog is here. I posted his lecture's abstract here.

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Anil is an alumnus of IIT-M and the University of Washington. After a brief stint in the software industry, he decided to pursue his dream of science writing. He went back to school -- to the science journalism program at UC-Santa Cruz. He joined New Scientist as an intern a decade ago, and is now a Consulting Editor at that magazine -- check out his most recent story.

"Edge" is just the right word to describe the essence of Anil's project:

  • The science part of Anil's story is about experiments that aim to answer Big Questions at the frontiers of two of the most fundamental sciences: cosmology and particle physics.

  • The experiments are right at the very edge of our current engineering capabilities. We are talking about, for example,

    1. detecting extremely rare events producing tiny signals -- neutrino striking a water molecule in a large body of water -- a 3 km thick sheet of ice at the South Pole or a 650 km long Lake Baikal, Siberia.

    2. high precision measurements of extremely weak signals -- for example, those coming in from deep inside the universe.

  • The 'edge of earth' locations are the other part of Anil's story -- the travelogue. These are the "Earth's Extremes" where these experiments are going on, because they provide the greatest immunity from adverse effects of the atmosphere or human habitations. So, the experimenters end up toiling away in such barren, high altitude locations such as Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes, or Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. In the case of balloons that go up tens of kilometers into the sky, the right conditions are found only in places like the Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo, Antarctica.

  • Scientists and support staff living the hard life -- of constructing their equipment under hazardous conditions, sometimes carrying on even after serious injury. All because of their passion for science.

To me, the most interesting feature of Anil's work is his focus on experimentalists -- the folks who get a couple of pages in most pop science books while their theory siblings hog hundreds.

Part popular science and part travelogue, Anil's talk took us on a guided tour of the Big Questions in 21st century cosmology (with a bit of history) and the "Earth's Extremes" where experimenters are trying to answer them. The guided tour made deft use of some of the most wonderful pictures I have seen. Barren, inhospitable and godforsaken places have never looked more beautiful!

The ideas, the people, the places and the pics gelled together nicely in Anil's talk, keeping the audience spellbound for nearly 80 minutes -- breaking the TED-era attention span barrier by a factor of four! [Even more impressive is that most people stuck around for a further 40 minutes of Q&A.]

Anil's talk has had just one downside for me: I'm now impatient for the release of The Edge of Physics! While we, in India, have to wait until May, it's out in March in the US, and in April in the UK.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Math: From Basic to Baffling

That's the subtitle of a new series by Steven Strogatz on mathematical ideas in NYTimes -- I couldn't find the title, though!.

Sidebar: If you want to subscribe just to Strogatz's series (without having to subscribe to the entire blog) use this link.

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Check out the debut essay: From Fish to Infinity [via Selva at Scientific Indian]:

I’ll be writing about the elements of mathematics, from pre-school to grad school, for anyone out there who’d like to have a second chance at the subject — but this time from an adult perspective. It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it.

The inaugural essay starts with a quick introduction to numbers (with ample help from a charming Sesame Street video). It's not all intro, however; within this basic material, you find this:

Sure, [numbers] are great time savers, but at a serious cost in abstraction. Six is more ethereal than six fish, precisely because it’s more general. It applies to six of anything: six plates, six penguins, six utterances of the word “fish.” It’s the ineffable thing they all have in common.

Viewed in this light, numbers start to seem a bit mysterious. They apparently exist in some sort of Platonic realm, a level above reality. In that respect they are more like other lofty concepts (e.g., truth and justice), and less like the ordinary objects of daily life. Upon further reflection, their philosophical status becomes even murkier. Where exactly do numbers come from? Did humanity invent them? Or discover them?

A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control … except that those things exist outside our heads.

This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part- earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”