Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Motherhood and Tenure

The tenure system of academia is uniquely incompatible with the biological clocks of working women, according to a new study, one of the first to examine the persistent "leak" of talented women from the pipeline that produces professors.

For women intent on becoming both scholars and mothers, the timing of the tenure track could not be worse. The average female doctorate is awarded at 34, an age when many college-educated women are starting families. Tenure, a defining moment in a professor's career, is decided roughly seven years later, just as the parenting window is closing.

That's from the start of this WaPo story.

Fifty percent limit on reservations

Looks like this arbitrary, nationwide limit is now history:

The Supreme Court today virtually lifted its 50 per cent cap on job and education quotas, allowing Tamil Nadu to exceed the volume if “quantifiable data” justified it.

The order implies that any state can now do a headcount of all groups it deems backward, place the numbers before the state backward commission, secure its recommendation for higher or additional quotas, and pass a law implementing them. Such higher quotas can no longer be legally challenged for exceeding the 50 per cent ceiling but only on other grounds, such as a faulty headcount.

Here's what this ruling implies for the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka:

The quota volume in [Tamil Nadu] can, therefore, rise even above the existing 69 per cent if the data justify it. Tamil Nadu would ideally like 88 per cent reservations.

Neighbouring Karnataka, which had enacted a 50 per cent quota for the Other Backward Classes in addition to 23 per cent for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes — raising the total to 73 per cent — too has been allowed the same leeway.

Till a year from today, the quota volume in Karnataka will stay at 50 per cent, but the state can within that period do a survey of backward communities. If its backward commission then accepts that the data justify a hike to 73 per cent or higher, the state can pass a law to that effect.

Karnataka wants 57 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes alone, which means a total quota volume of 80 per cent.

Martha Nussbaum: Veiled Threats

An extended argument -- philosophical, political, and pragmatic -- rebutting those of the supporters of a ban on the burqa (especially in some European countries).

Five arguments are commonly made in favor of proposed bans. Let’s see whether they treat all citizens with equal respect. First, it is argued that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, closely related, argument says that the kind of transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens is impeded by covering part of the face.

What is wrong with both of these arguments is that they are applied inconsistently. It gets very cold in Chicago – as, indeed, in many parts of Europe. Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths. No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated. Moreover, many beloved and trusted professionals cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, (American) football players, skiers and skaters. What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering.

A reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman have a full face photo on her driver’s license or passport. With suitable protections for modesty during the photographic session, such a photo might possibly be required. However, we know by now that the face is a very bad identifier. At immigration checkpoints, eye-recognition and fingerprinting technologies have already replaced the photo. When these superior technologies spread to police on patrol and airport security lines, we can do away with the photo, hence with what remains of the first and second arguments.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gender gap in academic job satisfaction

Here's a surprising finding:

Looking at areas where job satisfaction had a gender gap, the social sciences come up far more than other disciplines. Of 45 categories in which at least one disciplinary area was found to have a gender gap in job satisfaction, with men feeling more satisfied, the social sciences came up in 36. Further, in 13 of the job categories, the social sciences were the only disciplinary area with such a gender gap, and in another eight, social sciences were one of two fields with gender gaps in job satisfaction. (In five other categories, there was a statistically significant gender gap in satisfaction, with women more satisfied.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Quote of the day

Why do we need to pay scientists when we make the best shoes in the world?
-- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy [source].

Annals of Extreme Vigilance

Against cheating in exams:

No gum is allowed during an exam: chewing could disguise a student’s speaking into a hands-free cellphone to an accomplice outside.

The 228 computers that students use are recessed into desk tops so that anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later — is easy to spot.

Scratch paper is allowed — but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student’s real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

Hat tip to The University World News, which also pointed to this story about lab monkeys that made a daring escape, only to wait outside the gates to be lured back with peanuts.

Can we all agree to bury our fond, pathetic hopes about how home computers are good for poor children?

Randall Stross reviews recent research on "home computer's educational impact on school children in low income households":

... [T]here is an automatic inclination to think of the machine in its most idealized form, as the Great Equalizer. In developing countries, computers are outfitted with grand educational hopes, like those that animate the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which was examined in this space in April. The same is true of computers that go to poor households in the United States.

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

Here are the summaries of a couple of studies:

Professor [Ofer] Malamud [economist at the University of Chicago] and his collaborator, Cristian Pop-Eleches, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University, did their field work in Romania in 2009, where the government invited low-income families to apply for vouchers worth 200 euros (then about $300) that could be used for buying a home computer.

The program provided a control group: the families who applied but did not receive a voucher. They showed the same desire to own a machine, and their income was often only slightly above the cut-off point for the government program.

In a draft of an article that the Quarterly Journal of Economics will publish early next year, the professors report finding “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian.” The principal positive effect on the students was improved computer skills.

At that time, most Romanian households were not yet connected to the Internet. But few children whose families obtained computers said they used the machines for homework. What they were used for — daily — was playing games.

In the United States, Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd, professors of public policy at Duke University, reported similar findings. Their National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Scaling the Digital Divide,” published last month, looks at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period. Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.

"OMG, the campus looks so photoshopped!"

Anisha on her walks at IISc:

I have just taken a long walk in the IISc campus. The rain has left a pleasant chill in the air. The fireflies have come flitting out. The tree opposite MCBL is creaking ominously to the passing bystander. The moon is calmly watching the grey clouds saunter across the sky. It has been almost a year here and I have had many walks.

The quick ‘I have to get to lab before cell recovery is over’ walks (Very annoying. No time for contemplating on the deeper meaning of science or on any deeper meanings).

The post-General Biology class philosophical banter walks (When one is overpowered by the exalted sensation of being in science nirvana and concludes that anyone who isn’t doing science should dig a pit and bury himself).

The ‘Oh-my-god, the campus looks so Photoshop-ed walks’ (A common phenomenon in the month of March when someone seems to have cranked up the colour saturation dial of the surroundings).

Bad research, junk papers and spam

Three links to bloggers commenting on bad papers -- whatever be the cause of their badness -- from the point of view of peer reviewers:

  1. Matt Welsh at Volatile and Decentralized: Who pays for conference reviews?. He suggests a remedy: make the authors pay at the time of submitting their articles to a journal or a conference.

  2. Jon Katz at Random Bits: Reviewing crappy journal submissions. He poses this question: "is spending even 15-20 minutes performing this “service” worthwhile?"

  3. Suresh Venkatasubramanian at The Geomblog: Bad research as spam. Posed this way, here are his thoughts on 'spam blocking':

    1. we can block spam by filtering certain domains. We also tend to ignore certain kinds of conferences

    2. we can block spam by blocking certain email addresses. We also might ignore certain researchers, or at least downweight their work after a series of bad experiences.

    3. More explicit spam blocking policies create a false-negative problem. False-negatives are also a big problem in research.

    Hat tip to Suresh for the other two links!

Autonomy at St. Xavier's, Mumbai

Here's an interview with Fr Frazer Mascarenhas, Principal, St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, which became an "autonomous college" recently:

Why is autonomy important for a college?

In India, we follow the old British system where the university controls more than 600 institutions, all of which are very different. But, all of them use the same syllabus and the same examination system. Owing to the large numbers, we have to standardise the examinations so that different types of students and faculties work toward the same exams. A lot of opportunity for more individualised instruction and evaluation is lost. It’s not a good system, and the Indian academia knows it. Under autonomous status, we are still under the university, which will give the degree, but, we are free to design our own courses, set our own syllabi and evaluating system. It means freedom.

We need deans who can read, not just count

In the Chronicle of Higher Education a month ago, there's a fantastic rant on sharp critique of the culture in science that privileges publication numbers at the expense of quality: We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research by American academics Mark Bauerlein, Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McKelvey, and Stanley W. Trimble.

The entire article is worth your time, and packs quite a punch. Here's an excerpt from the end:

... [W]hat we surely need is a change in the academic culture that has given rise to the oversupply of journals. For the fact is that one article with a high citation rating should count more than 10 articles with negligible ratings. Moving to the model that Nature and Science use would have far-reaching and enormously beneficial effects.

Our suggestions would change evaluation practices in committee rooms, editorial offices, and library purchasing meetings. Hiring committees would favor candidates with high citation scores, not bulky publications. Libraries would drop journals that don't register impact. Journals would change practices so that the materials they publish would make meaningful contributions and have the needed, detailed backup available online. Finally, researchers themselves would devote more attention to fewer and better papers actually published, and more journals might be more discriminating.

Best of all, our suggested changes would allow academe to revert to its proper focus on quality research and rededicate itself to the sober pursuit of knowledge. And it would end the dispiriting paper chase that turns fledgling inquirers into careerists and established figures into overburdened grouches.

Thursday, July 08, 2010


I didn't know that the scientific prefixes for large numbers (such as mega and giga) stop at yotta for 10^24, and no officially recognized prefixes exist for 10^27 onwards.

Apparently, there's a Facebook group led by a 20-year old physics student named Austin Sendek to lobby for the use of hella for 10^27.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Two data points for Kapil Sibal

  1. Michigan State University shuts down its UG program at its Dubai campus.

    Any followers would do well to learn from Michigan State’s combination of ambition, mistakes and misfortune. After just two years of operation, MSU Dubai has moved to immediately discontinue its undergraduate programs due to under-enrollment. That just 85 students are affected is testament to the extent of the institution’s struggle.

  2. The New York University's Abu Dhabi campus opens this fall with an in-coming class of 150 students.

    ... NYU Abu Dhabi, by far the most ambitious overseas branch campus to be launched by a U.S. university, opens this fall, and today announced the profile of its inaugural freshman class. More than a third (36 percent) of the 150 incoming students hail from the United States, which is the single largest country of origin, followed by the host country, the United Arab Emirates (8 percent), and China (6 percent).

    All told, the students come from 39 countries and their median SAT score is an impressive 1470 -- as befitting an institution that has already dubbed itself the “World’s Honors College.” The acceptance rate for students at NYU Abu Dhabi, of just 2.1 percent, compares to 29.4 percent (fall 2009 data) at NYU’s main campus in New York and makes it among the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world.

This is a good place to remind ourselves (once again) about the pre-history of NYU's Abu Dhabi campus:

When John Sexton, the president of New York University, first met Omar Saif Ghobash, an investor trying to entice him to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Sexton was not sure what to make of the proposal — so he asked for a $50 million gift.

It’s like earnest money: if you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Mr. Sexton said. “It’s a way to test their bona fides.” In the end, the money materialized from the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates.

Tweeting the Declaration of Independence

Our Rights from Creator (h/t @JLocke). Life, Liberty, PoH FTW! Your transgressions = FAIL. GTFO, @GeorgeIII. -HANCOCK et al.

This tweet is the first runner-up in the contest at Slate: Life, Liberty and 140 Characters [Hat tip to Chris Blattman].

Attack on a professor in Kerala

Prof. T.J. Joseph was attacked by a bunch of thugs, allegedly because of a provocative question in his exam caused offence. In that barbaric attack, they chopped off the professor's right hand.

Police have arrested a couple of people belonging to a radical Islamist outfit.

The story is scary in itself; but Dilip poses some questions that are even scarier:

What I do not understand about the news:

  • Why the college management "apologised".

  • Why the Kerala government saw fit to issue "instruction" that the professor should be suspended.

  • Why the college followed the government's instruction and suspended him.

  • Why the police lodged a case against the professor.

Clearly "freedom of expression", especially its value in an educational institution, is a foreign phrase to all these people.

P.Z. Myers has a link-filled post on Atrocity in Kerala. See also Josh Newtonn's post: The chopped arm & the dissent of structure; and the editorial in Deccan Herald: Barbaric Act.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Human uniqueness

Jesse Bering in Scientific American: One reason why humans are special and unique: We masturbate. A lot.

No excerpts here; the title says it all.

Website of the week

Richard Wiseman's blog, featuring all kinds of interesting puzzles and illusions.

Check out this totally awesome animated illusion!

Here's how the blog introduces Wiseman:

Psychologist, magician, and author Prof Richard Wiseman posts daily on quirky mind stuff. Based at University of Hertfordshire in the UK.

And here's the website for one of his books: 59 Seconds.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Blogging by experts and non-experts

Fed economist Karthik Athreya's rant -- Economics is hard, don't let bloggers tell you otherwise -- against bloggers (both experts and non-experts, and he names them) holding forth on the Big Economic Questions of our time has had at least one good effect: many bloggers, including those not named in Athreya's rant, have risen up to defend the role of blogs in policy debates; some have also used this occasion to talk about the role of blogging in their professional lives. Here are a few to start you off:

  1. Mark Thoma: Don't let a Fed employee tell you otherwise ...

  2. Rajiv Sethi: On blogs and economic discourse

  3. Mike Konczal: Blogging and the economics profession.

  4. Nick Rowe: The use of knowledge in blogging.

  5. Matt Yglesias: Do I have something interesting to say?.