Monday, May 31, 2010

This is your brain on internet

Wired has excerpts from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, the man behind the very viral "Is Google making us stupid?" meme.

I'm a great admirer of people who can come up with vivid analogies to explain stuff. In this particular case, the 'stuff' is not all that difficult, but still, Carr has a pretty neat analogy to explain the feeding of long-term memory, and how the intertubes derail that process:

The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a bottleneck in our brain. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in moving information from working memory into long-term memory. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by varying the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer much of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. [...]

Thursday, May 27, 2010


  1. Ten Days in a Carry-On: A slide-show of a demonstration by Heather Poole, a flight attendant from Los Angeles, of "how to pack enough for a 10-day trip into a single standard carry-on".

  2. Anthony Grafton in NYRB: Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities.

  3. Jennifer Hunt in VoxEU: Why Do Women Leave Science and Engineering?

    American women leave science and engineering at a higher frequency than men. This column suggests that the gender gap is explained by women’s relative dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities. This gap is correlated with a high share of men in the industry. Remedies should therefore focus on such fields with a high share of male workers.

  4. Robert Gottlieb in NYRB: Who Was Charles Dickens?

JEE-2010: How well did the OBCs do?

Not very well, seems to be the verdict. Even though 2,357 of them qualified, that number is 210 short of 2,567 seats (27% of 9,509 seats overall) reserved for them. Thus, those extra seats will now go to the general category.

This year marks the third and final stage of OBC reservation -- bringing the total to the full 27%. The quota policy at IITs doesn't work like it does in other institutions: IITs use a cut-off for the reserved categories: for OBC candidates, it's 10% less than the general category cut-off, and for SC and ST, it's 50%.

It turns out that 11.3% (or, 1,489) of the students in the Common Merit List are from OBC -- these are the students who did not need the relaxation in the cut-off. This figure was close to 14 % (~1400) last year.

The share of OBCs among the JEE-qualified candidates (13,104) stands at just under 18%, less than the 2009 figure of 19%.

This is roughly in line with what I said last year:

Out of 1930 students who make it to the OBC list, about 1400 would have made it to the common list without needing a relaxed cut-off. In other words, 14% of the available seats would have gone to the OBC students anyway; this figure was the same last year [2008] too. Thus, a relaxation of 10% in the cut-off marks (both at the subject level and in the aggregate) gets OBCs only an additional 500 seats (or, 5% additional seats).

And here's the thing: the IITs will probably keep this relaxation in cut-off marks at 10%. If the ratio (10% relaxation to 5% additional OBC seats) holds, this would imply that OBCs' share of IIT seats will settle at about 19-20%, and that this share can go up only if the OBCs get into the common pool in greater numbers. [Bold emphasis added].

In the event, OBCs have a smaller share of the common pool this year; as a consequence, they have been unable to fill the seats reserved for them.


Some quick comments. First, some groups that have done extremely well to reach major milestones:

  1. SC Students have managed to fill all the seats (and then some) reserved for them. For the first time.

  2. Andhra Pradesh: First and second rankers are from AP, which is also the home of seven among the top ten. The state has scored in other ways too:

    Students from the state also scored well in the reserved category. In the OBC category , AP bagged seven out of the top 15 ranks. Among all reserved categories, including SC, ST, OBC and Physically Handicapped (PH), the state secured over 50 ranks in the top 200.

    Officials from IIT-Madras said that students from AP already account for 21 per cent of the total strength in IITs.

    [Be careful with that ToI report, though: it has howlers like, "An estimated 30 per cent of the 50,000 students who wrote the exam from the state cleared the test this year." If these numbers are correct, AP alone would account for 15,000 of the 13,104 ranks!]

  3. Hindi speakers: The number of JEE rankers who took the exam in Hindi tripled to 554 from 184 last year -- despite the problems that plagued the Hindi paper this year. [See items 2 and 3 in the corrective steps taken by the IITs].

Some other interesting bits:

  1. JEE-2010 was taken by 4,55,571 students, up 18% from JEE-2009's 3,84,977.

  2. The number of JEE-qualified candidates has gone up 30% to 13,104 from 10,048.

    [Not all of them can demand a seat at an IIT (or JEE affiliates), however. The number of IIT seats is only 9,509 this year.]

  3. This year, 1476 girls have qualified, an increase of over 40 percent over last year's 1048. Girls' share in the exam takers also increased 15% from 98,028 to 1,13,127, and Their success rate went up from 1.06% to 1.3 %. So, this is a clear gain for girls.

  4. Akansha Sarda is the topper among girls -- with a rank of 18. She's not joining an IIT, however; she's going to MIT.

  5. Sahal Kaushik of Delhi at No. 33 is just 14 years old, and home-schooled. And, what does he want to study? "I want to study pure science, physics or mathematics, not engineering. ... I took the JEE because I could also get science courses through it."

  6. Anand Kumar's Super 30 achieves 100% success -- for the third time in a row. [An ally-turned-rival has raised some questions about this institution's record, however.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Links ...

  1. Nishith Prakash at VoxEU: It pays to speak English: English skills raise wages for some, not all, in India.

  2. Jonah Lehrer in The Guardian: Why We Travel, on the cognitive benefits of travel.

  3. Mark Abrahams in The Guardian: Improbable research: The repetitive physics of Om [via Ludwig]

  4. Suvrat Kher at Rapid Uplift: Computers And Sexism In 1920's Harvard.

HRD Minister Kapil Sibal is planning a US visit

During the visit he will try to convince American universities to come to India and lure IIT professors into betraying their country.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


  1. Gwen at Sociological Images: Sex, College Degrees, and Campus Equity.

  2. Lisa at Sociological Images: Matt Groening on Graduate School.

  3. A YouTube video: Dr. Sheldon Cooper gives an "inspiring" speech to graduate students at a physics department.

  4. John Wilkins's advice on Accepting/Rejecting a Job Offer [Hat tip: Ross McKenzie].

Onion's take on NYTimes's take on the latest in social networking


New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It
Let Someone Else Report On This Bullshit

NEW YORK—While millions of young, tech-savvy professionals already use services like Facebook and Twitter to keep in constant touch with friends, a new social networking platform called Foursquare has recently taken the oh, fucking hell, can't some other desperate news outlet cover this crap instead?

[Snip, snip, snip]

Here's the fucking link:

If you are a well paid professional in an Indian IT firm ...

If you’re a well-paid professional in an Indian IT services firm, your freedom is limited.

  • You clock-in and clock-out.

  • You’re searched on your way in and out.

  • You need your boss’s permission to leave.

  • You work on what you’ve been told to work on.

  • You cannot be trusted to freely access the Internet.

That's from S. Anand's You Are In Prison.

Mental Health Break: The Case of Disappearing Teaspoons

This paper in the British Medical Journal.

The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute

Objectives To determine the overall rate of loss of workplace teaspoons and whether attrition and displacement are correlated with the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom.

Design Longitudinal cohort study.

Setting Research institute employing about 140 people.

Subjects 70 discreetly numbered teaspoons placed in tearooms around the institute and observed weekly over five months.

Main outcome measures Incidence of teaspoon loss per 100 teaspoon years and teaspoon half life.

Results 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days. The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in rooms associated with particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons' value. The incidence of teaspoon loss over the period of observation was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.

Conclusions The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.

Hat tip: Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber.

Kapil Sibal's test for patriotism

In a speech at an "education conference", he "sought to dispel fears about IIT faculties joining foreign institutes after they set shop here." This is what he said:

I know my faculty is patriotic and passionate about India and I know my faculty will not sell their conscience for a little bit of money. [Source].

This is sick. Horribly, totally sick.

That's all.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

One Year of UPA-II: Kapil Sibal's Record

Pramath Raj Sinha in Mint: UPA's Man On A Mission To Transform Education:

The most far-reaching reforms are being attempted in higher education. Sibal envisions that India’s abysmal 12% gross enrolment ratio may be taken to a respectable 30% by 2020. Some 1,500 universities will be required for the task, and for its own part, the Centre is planning to start 16 Central universities, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology and seven new Indian Institutes of Management while 14 innovation universities have been proposed. And to catalyse this rapid growth and encourage well-meaning private players, he is also attempting a bold regulatory regime.

The proposed National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) will do away with the current University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education. Reports suggest that both legal and medical higher education will be brought under NCHER, removing them from the aegis of the Bar Council of India and the Medical Council of India. Complementing NCHER, there will be a National Accreditation Regulatory Authority for higher educational institutions—the associated Bill was just tabled in Parliament.

Once enacted, it will mandate institutions of higher education to obtain accreditation from an approved agency, potentially ensuring a pan-India global standard. Presently, accreditation is voluntary. As a result, fewer than one-fifth of colleges and fewer than one-third of universities apply. In addition, the ministry of human resource development is also looking at creating an Education Finance Corporation, with a corpus of Rs20,000 crore, to provide aid to projects and loans to students.


  1. Great T-Shirt! [Via Aaron Cohen]

  2. Martha Nussbaum's Commencement Address at Colgate University: Not For Profit: Liberal Education and Democratic Citizenship

  3. David Glenn in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Carol Dweck's Attitude: It's not about how smart you are.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


  1. Let's start with a cartoon about an insomniac programmer (Abstruse Goose).

  2. IIM-K becomes the first IIM to breach the 30 percent barrier for women in an MBA class. Its class of 2012 has 100 women and 200 men.

  3. T. Vasu Babu: One Night @IISc. Spooky!

  4. Delhi University enters the 21st century -- but only selectively -- by introducing the semester system for its science courses.

  5. In a move similar to the one it took when scandal and fraud hit Satyam, the Government of India has effectively taken over the Medical Council of India.

  6. Let's end with a cartoon on successful blogging (xkcd).


Using information unearthed under the RTI Act, The Telegraph's Charu Sudan Kasturi has been digging into IIMs' choice of Prometric for conducting the glitches-galore CAT-2009:

  1. Immunity clause for IIM test provider

  2. Out: IIM doubts on inexperienced Prometric

  3. Sweetener in IIM pact

The picture that emerges is not pretty. I just want to highlight this from the third article:

Global testing service provider Prometric sweetened its bid proposal to the IIMs for the contract to computerise CAT with an offer to support a research chair — a matter unrelated to the examination.

The firm, which won the contract to conduct the computerised CAT for five years, made the offer in its final proposal to the IIMs, which swung the deal for Prometric and away from three other contenders.

The research chair at the IIMs would be named after Prometric and its parent firm, the US-based Educational Testing Services, says the firm’s proposal, accessed by The Telegraph from the B-schools through the Right to Information Act.

On the topic of sweeteners, here's a post about those offered by a textbook publisher to an American professor teaching a large class.

On Blogosphere Rants and Weighty Cudgels

The TLS letters are no mere blogosphere rants by nameless individuals. They are weighty cudgels from the academic crème de la crème. And their passions exist in some kind of parallel universe -- detached from the real world of politics and oil spills.
-- Michael Johnson in Taken to Task at the TLS, a fun article about the Letters section of The Times Literary Supplement

Monday, May 17, 2010

A tale of two transgendered Stanford scientists

How the Sex Bias Prevails: Excerpts from Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain.

When Barbara Barres became Ben Barres:

Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn't know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister's."

Ben also noticed he was treated differently in the everyday world. "When I go into stores, I notice I am much more likely to be attended to. They come up to me and say, 'Yes, sir? Can I help you, sir?' I have had the thought a million times, I am taken more seriously."

When Jonathan Roughgarden became Joan Roughgarden:

[In response to her theory of 'social selection'] ... [at] a workshop at Loyola University, a scientist "lost it" and started screaming at her for being irresponsible. "I had never had experiences of anyone trying to coerce me in this physically intimidating way," she said, as she compared the reactions to her work before and after she became a woman. "You really think this guy is really going to come over and hit you."

At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Joan said, a prominent expert jumped up on the stage after her talk and started shouting at her. Once every month or two, she said, ''I will have some man shout at me, try to physically coerce me into stopping …When I was doing the marine ecology work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, 'You have not read all the literature.'

"They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Riot Contractor

Pramod Muthalik? Red faced?

Yes, a sting did achieve what the Pink Chaddis and the Black Paint could not.

Read the exposé by Pushp Sharma in Tehelka:

Sri Ram Sene members ... are also cynical lumpen that can be bought for a price. “Contract rioting” — thugs being handed out contracts or money to create riots — no longer needs to be a matter of mere speculation. TEHELKA’s investigation shows it is an alarming reality. Vandalism can be purchased; ‘cultural nationalism’ can go on sale. It’s all kosher in the “business” of outrage.

To expose this aspect of the Sri Ram Sene, a TEHELKA journalist posing as an artist met Pramod Muthalik, the president of the Sri Ram Sene, with a proposal. Using the rationale that all controversy is good publicity, he asked Muthalik if the Sri Ram Sene would orchestrate a pre-paid, pre-meditated attack on his painting exhibition so that the resulting furore would spark public interest, catapult him to fame and help sell his paintings both in India and abroad by attracting higher bids at art auctions. (Never mind that the supposed paintings this furore might help sell evoked Hindu- Muslim amity, particularly Hindu-Muslim marriages — a phenomenon the Sene abhors.) In return, Muthalik and the Sene would regain the national stature they had achieved during the Mangalore pub attack, besides pocketing the agreed upon fee. Far from rejecting this proposal with horror and outrage, Muthalik readily connected the TEHELKA reporter to one Sene member after another — down a food chain that exposed a disturbingly entrenched criminal mindset, which is confident of fixing the system to abet it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mashelkar's Adventurism

Three links to comments from others; I have nothing to add to whatever I have said here (see also the comments section) and here. [And I'm off to the wonderful Tata Steel City; I'll be able to come back to blogging only after I return Sunday.]

  1. Arunn Narasimhan at Unruled Notebook: Maverick Academic Blogger Rants Off.

  2. Giridhar: Adventurism and Irreverence.

  3. P. Balaram (Director, IISc) in a Current Science editorial: Irreverence and Advancement [pdf].

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Caste Census

Three links.

In the first, Pratap Bhanu Mehta goes ballistic in opposing the very idea of a caste census. Scratch the surface a little bit, and you too would wonder how much of his opposition is driven by an almost visceral hatred towards the so-called OBC politics:

Third, giving in to a caste census is giving in to a discourse of raw political power. The blunt truth is that designing remedial measures for Dalits, including addressing discrimination does not require a census. This demand has rather been fuelled by politically assertive groups like OBCs, who first hijacked the Dalit discourse on deprivation to their own ends.

Nandini Sundar, on the other hand, goes into the question of whether a caste census can do anything to reduce inequality, and concludes:

... [W]hile the census can provide base figures, it cannot substitute for the kind of information needed both for inclusion of castes in an OBC list or for ‘graduation' of castes out of the list, even assuming the latter were ever to be politically feasible.

In the meantime, Amitabh Bachchan knows what he will say when the census enumerator asks for his caste: Indian.


  1. Animesh Pathak: Oops for Indian Voting Machines.

  2. S.R. Darapuri IPS (Retired) at Counter Currents: Who Is Afraid Of Caste Census And Why?

  3. Laura Miller at Salon: Bad Writing: What Is It Good For?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ethical Puzzles

The US Office of Research Integrity has been posting questions on research ethics on its blog. Take a look at a couple of recent examples:

  • Being Recruited by the Competitor of a Sponsor. Conflict of Interest?

  • A graduate student completes a dissertation based on research that was partly funded by a corporate sponsor. After graduation, the student is offered a job working for another corporation that competes with the first. There can be no doubt that the dissertation and experience with a competitor’s research played a role in this offer. Is there a conflict? Does it matter whether the student personally received any funding from the corporate sponsor?

    This one is easy. Employees leave and join competitors of their former employers all the time. This case is no different, and there is no conflict for the student: she has already done the work for which she received stipend / payment, and it's now time to move on to the world of work -- either with the sponsor or someone else. Short of making an attractive counter-offer, all that the sponsor is entitled to is for the student to know and respect her professional / contractual obligations -- for example, non-disclosure agreements that she might have signed.

  • Advisor Steals Student's Work. What Would You Do?

    A graduate student prepares a research proposal as part of her dissertation requirements. Her faculty advisor reviews the proposal but otherwise provides only minimal assistance in developing the concept. The student later learns that her advisor has paraphrased sections of her proposal and incorporated them into his own application to a different funding agency. How should the student respond?

    This one is tricky. There are very few options for the student, and they are all ugly. In a conflict between a student and her advisor, the 'system' tends to take the latter's side, and the price of calling out misconduct could be pretty high for the student. I am not at all sure how she should react.

Indian Science in Two Figures

Gangan Pratap has been having too much fun with data on India's standing in the world of science and science funding. The following two figures taken from his most recent publications in Current Science should go a long way in demolishing the spurious claim that a shortage of 'the spirit of adventurism' is what stands between India and S&T superpower status.

The first figure is a comparison based on two variables: (a) the proportion of researchers (defined as FTER, Full Time Equivalent Researcher) in the population and (b) proportion of GDP spent on R&D:

The second figure is a comparison based on (a) percentage share in world GDP and (b) percentage share in S&T output. This figure packs a lot of data since it tracks the progress of each country (or group of countries) during the period 1995-2007.

Ram Guha on Real Universities

In a Current Science conversation (pdf) with Richa Malhotra:

You taught in various top ranking universities and institutes (Stanford University, University of California, Indian Institute of Science, etc.). What do you think is lacking in the Indian education system?

I think the Government of India made a serious mistake by taking scientific research out of universities into state-run laboratories post independence. This was compounded by the setting up of specialized institutes of technology and management. Universities that cultivate highquality research and teaching simultaneously in the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and in professional disciplines (such as law and medicine) are what India needed, and what it still needs. For a flourishing intellectual culture to develop, these varied disciplines need all to be taught (and researched) in a single campus whose colleges and departments offer both undergraduate and graduate instruction. I was fortunate in that I studied in the Delhi University of the 1970s, which came closest to replicating such an integrated experience.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Kasab Verdict

Kasab should be allowed to live -- in prison, for life.

That's the unanimous verdict in the blogs I read: Dilip D'Souza (at a blog whose name appears apt here, "Death Ends Fun"), Vinod George Joseph (Winnowed), and V. Venkatesan (Law and Other Things).

At Have You Heard, Ayeshea Perera offers what I think is a compelling reason (this is also Joseph's reason):

I believe that by killing Kasab you are making him a martyr – and then in some sordid twisted way, he wins. Kasab was sent here on a suicide mission. It was just his bad luck and sheer circumstance that saw him captured alive. He came to Mumabi fully prepared to die – to become a martyr. But by keeping him alive and in prison, he has been denied this ‘final glory’.

In the midst of all this sordidness, The Daily Tamasha manages to keep its funny neurons alive: Nation Shocked As Suhel Seth Has ‘No Comments’ On Kasab Verdict. [In case you need a refresher course on Suhel Seth, read this post by Girish Shahane].

Annals of Grading

Inside Higher Ed: No Grading, More Learning:

When Duke University's Cathy Davidson announced her grading plan for a seminar she would be offering this semester, she attracted attention nationwide. Some professors cheered, others tut-tutted, and others asked "Can she do that?"

Her plan? Turn over grading to the students in the course, and get out of the grading business herself.

Now that the course is finished, Davidson is giving an A+ to the concept. [...]

Art of the Possible: The Curious Case of the Caste Census

The caste census is (most likely) on! Let's hope the formal decision will be announced soon.

To see the significance of this (impending) decision, we need to jiggle our neurons and go back to 2006 -- to the height of the OBC reservation debate.

The more wonkish of the opponents of the reservation policy kept questioning the Mandal Commission's estimate of 52 % for the OBC share in the population. They kept hammering away at the fact that the last caste census happened way back in 1931 -- almost four generations ago! They kept denying the validity of caste data from surveys such as the National Sample Survey.

They kept claiming that the economic and educational situation of OBCs is not so 'backward' as to require affirmative action. [Specifics in 2006-08 era posts, especially those under the category Caste]

Most importantly, they kept pounding into us that the OBC share in the population was quite likely far smaller than what the government claimed.

Since a caste census would prove them right, they kept insinuating that it would be killed by a pliant government too scared to take on the "OBC leaders" who would surely oppose it.

Guess what?

[In the Lok Sabha debate,] Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad — all OBC leaders — warned the Centre against committing the blunder of omitting caste. The Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, Trinamul Congress, DMK, CPM, CPI, ADMK, NCP, Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (Secular) unambiguously supported caste enumeration.

In the two major national parties, the initial response to the demand for caste census was not so much as to oppose it, but to side-step it and hope that it would go away. BJP chose to focus on Bangladeshi 'infiltrators', before outraged leaders like Gopinath Munde forced its hand.

The Congress too has its own supporters of caste census [see this report for a summary of the Lok Sabha debate]; but in a Cabinet meeting, they were sidelined:

At Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, whose Ministry oversees the census, argued against the demand to include caste. He said the enumerators lacked the sociological sensitivity to record and classify the population on the basis of caste and sub-caste. According to sources, he suggested that the backward classes commissions at the State and Central levels be better placed to conduct a detailed survey. Others not inclined towards a caste census were Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal.

The Natural Party of Governance appears to have come around to accepting caste census. And this is indeed good news.

It's not done, yet. So, let's wait for the official announcement before hailing it as an example of politics that works.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Experts Who Wink, Experts Who Get Hoodwinked

In one case, [CBI] found that the same building was shown to AICTE’s expert committees three times to obtain approvals for three different engineering colleges. [...]

Some expert committees, the official said, did not even visit the sites before submitting reports, while in many cases it was found that the experts deliberately visited the same site again and again and issued certificates for starting two to three engineering colleges at the same place.

Amazing. But even more amazing is one where the government itself has been caught trying to hoodwink the experts:

... [The Karnataka] government issued 15 transfer orders of senior residents, lecturers, assistant professors and professors between January 16 and March 6 this year. In each transfer order, seven to nine faculty members were transferred from established medical institutions like Bangalore Medical College and KIMS, Hubli to new colleges in Hassan, Mandya, Shimoga and other places.

Worse, the government, in its ‘stand-by’ transfer order, has committed that the transferred faculty will be re-transferred to their parent organisation, effective from the conclusion of the MCI inspection. During these one- or two-day transfers [...]

QOTD: The Kasab Verdict Edition

Two quotes taken from news stories on the death sentence.

  1. When you’re part of a mob ... , you lose your frontal lobe.
    -- Vivek Benegal, a NIMHANS psychologist and one of the experts commenting on the post-verdict frenzy.

  2. He told one of the doctors he was shattered that Pakistan had not come to his aid and that the Lashkar-e-Toiba had not done anything to free him as he had expected ... He has been reading a book on the betrayal of Tipu Sultan by his own people.
    -- An unnamed jail official

And, finally, a quote from T.K. Arun's ToI column:

The fight against terror is not just against bearded men hiding in caves. It is also a battle between different levels of civilisation, whose quintessential difference comes out in how each values human life, not just that of the innocent and the incidental, but even of a convicted criminal like Ajmal Kasab. To put him away for good, sparing his life, would, in fact, be a most forceful strike by India, with all its imperfections as a democracy, against the common enemy of humanity today.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Quick Gun Munden

You won't believe how quick this guy is until you see him in action. [Credit for this post's title goes to Natasha Mhatre].

YouTube link if the embed doesn't work. The real-life Lucky Luke also has his own official YouTube Channel.


I did not want to be a chemical engineer. That is the most important thing I learned in IIT.
-- Prof. Nitin Nohria who has just been appointed Dean of Harvard Business School. [The Economic Times]

Short profiles of Prof. Nohria and his work: WSJ and FT.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Mashelkar on the Spirit of Adventurism

The Beatles sang some four decades ago, "All you need is love." Raghunath Mashelkar sings now, "All you need is irreverence."

I know it sounds all wrong. But nothing, it appears, is right about science in India. Mashelkar has diagnosed the missing ingredient: irreverence. And he has gone public with it in an editorial in Science.

Let's get real and frank here, shall we? The thesis that Indian scientists are held back because of lack of irreverence is amazingly self-serving, coming as it does from a man who led a massive organization for scientific research -- the CSIR -- for over a decade. It says, in effect, that Indian scientists have failed in spite of an abundance of water, electric power, intertubes, money, infrastructure, and yes, leaders.

If only they had a bit of irreverence ...

Tsk, Tsk!

* * *

[If that link doesn't work, use the one at the end of this note at].

* * *

Let's turn to (some of) Mashelkar's arguments. Here's how he explains the origin of Indians' purported reverence:

  1. The situation has deep roots in Indian culture and tradition. The ancient Sanskrit saying "baba vakyam pramanam" means "the words of the elders are the ultimate truth," thus condemning the type of irreverence inspired by the persistent questioning that is necessary for science.

  2. The Indian educational system, which is textbook-centered rather than student-centered, discourages inquisitive attitudes at an early age. Rigid unimaginative curricula and examinations based on single correct answers further cement intolerance for creativity.

  3. And the bureaucracy inherited from the time of British rule over-rides meritocracy.

Let's leave aside the silliness of blaming the Raj, even obliquely; the British left 60 years go. Let's also ignore the blame-the-bureaucracy argument; it's disingenuous when it comes from a man who headed that bureaucracy for over 10 years.

Blaming rote learning won't get us far as an explanation for lack of creativity. Exceptions abound -- especially in music, a field famous not just for mind-numbing repetition during the early years, but also for institutionalized reverence.

Finally, as stereotypes go, reverence to authority is seen as a defining feature of not just the Indian culture, but of Asian cultures in general. And as arguments go, it's too convenient: When you are down, it explains why you are are not competitive; when you are competitive, it explains why you are not creative; when you are creative, it explains why you don't get Nobels.

It's one thing for the Westerners to beat the Asians with that stick. It takes a certain "reverent Asian mind" to peddle that argument to his own people, and bask in the audacity of it all!

* * *

I don't wish to go on. I'll just say that Indian scientists work under conditions that take a lot of basic, essential things out of their control -- from funding to electric power to water. What they need from their leaders are the resolve, the skill and the mental wherewithal to solve these little problems, so that they -- I mean the scientists -- can go about solving Big Problems.

Leaders who are impotent -- or, were impotent -- to get the little things right for their scientists should, at the least, shut the fuck up.

* * *

Mashelkar's little lecture about irreverence does many wonderful things -- for the leaders. It underplays -- conveniently! -- their role in ensuring the success of the scientists working in their organizations. It puts the blame for lack of success -- conveniently! -- on the working scientists themselves.

It allows leaders like Mashelkar give a grand and statesmanlike sheen to their high-profile outpourings -- it doesn't get any more high-profile than an editorial in Science! -- even though what they're doing are trashing their own people and peddling mindless boilerplate. Just think about it: wouldn't Mashelkar's editorial work even when we replace irreverence with initiative, proactive nature, big-think, audacity, or creativity? In fact, Mashelkar himself uses creativity synonymously with irreverence.

As a synonym for irreverence, Mashelkar also uses something else: 'spirit of adventurism.'

Yes, you read that right: it's adventurism, not adventure.

All I can say is: Sic!

Monday, May 03, 2010

IISc bloggers

Rupesh has put together a comprehensive rank list of blogs by IISc alumni, students and faculty.

And, there's also Planet IISc -- an aggregator of all the known IISc blogs. [Hat tip to, who else, Rupesh].

Excellent initiatives, both.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Are You a Topper? Here's Rs. Fifty Eight For You!

In a bizarre move, Bangalore University gave its toppers cash instead of gold medals.

In some cases, the cash award was as low as Rs. Fifty Eight.


Amrutha Venkatesh, a BSc student of MES College, who had won nine gold medals, sounded upset: “It was sad to receive a cash prize. They gave me Rs7,000 which I can spend in a minute. They could have given me at least one gold medal instead of nine, which I could have preserved for life.”