Sunday, July 31, 2011

Women in Computer Science

Computer science has always been a male-dominated field, right?


In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.

Fascinating stuff from Anna Lewis at the Fog Creek blog. [Link via Sociological Images.

John Cage's 4:33

Apparently, you can buy this piece of 'music' for $0.99 at the iTunes store.

Samuel McNerney muses on the reasons why people might actually buy this stuff.

Placebo Effect with a Twist

...Kirsch [found] that the six antidepressants he studied were more effective than placebos, but the difference was very small [...]. Kirsch then speculated that even this small effect might not be real, because patients who received the antidepressant instead of an inert placebo would experience side effects that might enable them to guess that they were receiving an active drug, and therefore might make them more likely to report an improvement in their depression. In support of this hypothesis, Kirsch pointed to a few trials employing placebos that themselves had side effects, where no differences were found between drug and placebo. [...]

That's from Marcia Angell's response to critics of her reviews (Illusions of Psychiatry< The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?) of books on mental illness.

The entire set of articles offer a great primer on the power of Big Pharma in biomedical research and medical practice. Here's another excerpt from the end of her article:

Friedman and Nierenberg refer to the death of Rebecca Riley, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as ADHD when she was just two years old, as a “tragic anecdote.” While that is true, I believe it should also be seen in the context of the extraordinary epidemic of juvenile bipolar disease that was stimulated largely by the teachings of some of Dr. Nierenberg’s colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Three of them were recently disciplined by the hospital for not having disclosed some of their hefty payments from drug companies.

If readers check the NYR website, they will see that Dr. Nierenberg discloses his external sources of income, which include consulting arrangements with some of the major manufacturers of psychoactive drugs. While I am not in a position to, and will not, comment on Dr. Nierenberg’s consulting work, it seems to me that in general, one of the risks of close collaborations with industry is that even the best of physicians might develop an insufficiently critical attitude toward a company and its products, as well as to pharmacologic treatment generally.

Dr. Friedman seems to agree. In a review of a book by Alison Bass, published in The New England Journal of Medicine (June 26, 2008), he refers to the handsome payments by drug companies to physician researchers who test their drugs, and goes on to say, “Bass’s riveting and well-researched account of these disturbing ties should be widely read by members of the medical profession, many of whom continue to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they are immune to the influence of drug companies.”

More on the IV Patent Trolls

This one is from Tim Lee in a post entitled "Nathan Myhrvold's Evil Genius" [this is from 2009; link found in his recent post]:

The fundamental question we should be asking about this business strategy is how it benefits anyone other than Myhrvold and the patent bar. Remember that the standard policy argument for patents is that they incentivize beneficial research and development. Yet IV’s business model is based on the opposite premise: produce no innovative products, spend minimal amounts on research and development, and make a profit by compelling firms that are producing products and investing in R&D to pay up. Not only does this enrich Myhrvold at everyone else’s expense, but it also reduces the incentive to innovate, because anyone who produces an innovative product is forced to share his profits with Intellectual Ventures. Patents are supposed to make innovation more profitable. Myhrvold is using the patent system in a way that does just the opposite. In thinking about how to reform the patent system, a good yardstick would be to look for policy changes that would tend to put Myhrvold and his firm out of business.

There are quite a few links in the comments section of Brayden King's post at

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Patent Trolls and the Mafia

An awesome investigative piece at NPR on the 'business model' of Intellectual Ventures, and the dysfunctional hell created by developments in the US patents law. Key quote:

... Chris Sacca attended one of those meetings [addressed by Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myrhvold] a few years back.

The pitch he heard was, basically, Intellectual Ventures helps defend against lawsuits. Intellectual Ventures has this horde of 35,000 patents — patents that, for a price, companies can use to defend themselves.

Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging "from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars ... to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders," Sacca says.

There's an implication in IV's pitch, Sacca says: If you don't join us, who knows what'll happen?

He says it reminds him of "a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, 'It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn't happen.' "

Sacca continues: "Here's what's funny: When I've seen Nathan speak publicly about this and when I've seen spokespeople from IV they constantly remind us that they themselves don't bring lawsuits, that they themselves aren't litigators, that they are a defensive player. But the truth is the threat of their patent arsenal can't actually be realized, it can't be taken seriously, unless they have that offensive posture, unless they're willing to assert those patents. And so it's this very delicate balancing act that is quite reminiscent of scenes you see in movies when the mafia comes and visits your butcher shop and they say, 'Hey, It would be a real shame if they came and sued you. Tell you what: pay us an exorbitant membership fee into our collective and we'll keep you protected that way.' A protection scheme isn't credible if some butcher shops don't burn down now and then."

Derek Sivers: "Why You Need to Fail"

I like this video because it distills a lot of literature (and popular articles) on becoming an expert (deliberate practice, the 10,000 hours rule, "talent is overrated," the growth mindset, etc.), and presents it all in under 10 minutes.

ACS Nano Editorial: "Fraud, the h-index and Pasternak"

The editorial (pdf) by Nicholas Kotov, an associate editor at the journal, appeared in 2010. A quick excerpt:

... if we look deeper, we can also see that this evaluation system established by officials of science and education ministries (China is only one of them) has simply formalized many aspects of the evaluation process of academic researchers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, the primary component of the degree, tenure, and promotion processes of scientists and engineers at research universities in the U.S. are the number of published articles and the ranking of the journals in which they were published. Now the question becomes, who is promoting evaluation based on simple numbers?

In this respect, as scientists, we ought to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we have done. It is not any academic bureaucracy that forced us to evaluate our peers based on specific numerical metrics of ranking creativity and intellect, but rather the scientific community itself that generated and is perpetrating the “simple number approach”. [...]

Ken Auletta: "A Woman's Place"

New Yorker has a great profile of Sheryl Sandberg with the subtitle: "Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture?" Here's an excerpt about how male-dominated it really is:

Among the hottest new companies— Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Groupon, Foursquare—none, as Kara Swisher reported in the blog All Things Digital, has a female director on its board. PayPal has no women on its five-member board; Apple has one of seven; Amazon one of eight; Google two of nine. When I asked Mark Zuckerberg why his five-member board has no women, his voice, which is normally loud, lowered to a whisper: “We have a very small board.” He went on, “I’m going to find people who are helpful, and I don’t particularly care what gender they are or what company they are. I’m not filling the board with check boxes.” (He recently added a sixth member: another man.) The venture-capital firms that support new companies have even sharper imbalances; Sequoia Partners lists eighteen partners on its Web site, none of them women.

One reason there are few female executives in Silicon Valley is that few women become engineers. In the United States, less than twenty per cent of engineering and computer-science majors are women. Girls are said to think that software and video games and computer programming are for guys. “Growing up,” Mark Zuckerberg’s older sister Randi told me, “my brother got video games and I got dolls.” For girls, there is a stigma attached to engineering, Marissa Mayer, who is now a vice-president at Google, says. “They don’t want to become the stereotype of all-night coders, hackers with pasty skin.” Michelle Hutton, who is the president of the international Computer Science Teachers Association, says, “Computer science is seen as a very masculine thing”—just “as girls don’t want to be garbage collectors because that’s seen as a boys’ thing.”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

N.R. Narayana Murthy on the Ancient Glory of the IITs

First, you should all go read what Arunn said.

* * *

NRN's diatribe speech included this bit:

In 1967, at the electrical engineering department of IIT-Kanpur there were about 60 to 70 students registered for PhD. But today, at the same department if there are five PhD students joining in a year, that would be fantastic.

Arunn has posted some data on the number of PhD graduates from IIT-M in recent years -- which should dispel some quaint notions NRN seems to have about the IITs of the sixties. [Update: Giridhar has also posted some data on the state of CS research in China and the US, and, more importantly, the number of research students in the EE department at IIT-K].

Let me add some more data about IIT-K -- which is presumably the IIT of 1967 NRN was talking about. The following data, available for select years, are from Table 9.1 in E.C. Subbarao's An Eye for Excellence: Fifty Innovative Years of IIT Kanpur:

YearNo. PhD Degrees
1965 6
1972 39
1979 105
1986 44
1989 44
1996 50
1997 66
1998 35
2000 58
2001 31
2003 39
2004 45
2005 61
2006 42
2007 86
2008 101

Subbarao also states (p. 295) that "the faculty strength in 1972 was 272 and remained stagnant at 290 (plus or minus ten) till recently."

IIT-B director Devang Khakhar's response is worth highlighting:

“He might have impression of his own time (seventies) when actually IIT’s were not doing any research. We are doing very good research now. IIT-B is publishing more than 1,000 papers in international journals every year."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Marilyn Monroe Statue

Here are some pics. The one with (mobile/camera)-wielding dudes is priceless.

Links ...

  1. PhD Comics: an animated conversation (which appears to have taken place in a cafeteria) on Dark Matter(s).

  2. If you still think it's difficult to run a fake school in the US, well, think again.

  3. A Chinese scientist is arrested for financial misdemeanours. What caught my attention is this:

    ... He was a postdoc and later a research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, before returning to China in 2004. Duan's wife and son remained in the United States.

    Three weeks ago, Duan's wife opened a blog on a popular Chinese Web site and began airing misdeeds she claims her husband committed, including the misuse of grant money. [...]

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Prof. P. Balaram: Blogs, Google and Cognitive Decline

History has just been made by Current Science: The words 'blog' and 'blogger' make their first second appearance in its editorial pages! [Update: Thanks to Richa forsetting the record straight. She adds, "25 July editorial might be the first to have "blogs" in the title :)".]

... A few days ago, another departing student gave me a book with an eye catching title, ‘blog!’. The absence of capital letters and the exclamation mark in the title were all signs of a new age. While presenting me with the book my student added, for good measure, that it was time that I learnt to blog. Her message was simple and direct; the student attempting to educate the professor. Anyone with pretensions to writing for a general readership, she felt, would be well advised to blog, in the hope of attracting the increasing number of people who seem to flit from site to site on the internet. [...]

Monday, July 18, 2011

Is Canada the New Australia ...

... for Indian students?

Canada, which has long promoted its eagerness to attract foreigners, is experiencing a surge in the number of Indian students heading there for higher education.

Besides the country’s positive attitude toward outsiders, the chief attractions for Indian students are the lower costs for both tuition and living expenses, in addition to its lenient visa requirements, according to students and consultants who advise them about overseas study options.

The number of Canadian student visas issued in India jumped to more than 12,000 in 2010, from 3,152 in 2008.

While applications have increased at all levels, growth has been greatest at community colleges, which typically offer career-focused certificate and diploma programs

The Pope on Twitter

Paul Rudnick of New Yorker offers us a possible preview of his tweets. A couple of samples:

I loved that best-seller about the boy who momentarily died and went to Heaven, but all I wanted to ask was, “Did He say anything about me?”

I counsel couples who are about to marry, “If it feels good, stop.”

IIT-M Scientists Scooped on Super Sand?

K.S. Jayaraman in Nature India [free subscription required]:

'Super sand', hailed as a low-cost water purification option for developing countries, recently made headlines across the world after researchers reported its merits. The sand, they said, could be made by coating ordinary sand grains with graphite oxide and could remove mercury and dyes from water. Its uniqueness — five times more filtering capacity than that of sand, which is traditionally used for water filtration.

While US and Australian authors have been given credit in the popular and scientific press for the finding, researchers [led by Prof. T. Pradeep] at the nanoscience lab of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai claim they were two years ahead of the US-Australia group in figuring this out. They say they missed out on the recognition since their scientific paper got delayed in a series of rejections by journal publishers.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Links ...

  1. Amitabha Bagchi (IIT-D): Am I A Product Of The Institutions I Attended? Unstructured learning in structured learning environments: A personal view.

  2. Dave Johns: Disconnected? "We've heard that obesity and divorce can be passed from one person to another. Critics now wonder how the 'social contagion' studies ever passed peer review."

  3. Female Science Professor: The A to Z of Dual Career Couples. "Zero. That is the number of times I was not asked about my husband during interviews for a faculty position."

  4. Andrew Marantz: My Summer at an Indian Call Center. "Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from."

Monday, July 04, 2011

Maria Charles: What Gender is Science?

Two telling excerpts from her article in Contexts, the magazine of the American Sociological Association. The first is about an international comparison of women's participation in engineering:

Engineering is the most strongly and consistently male-typed field of study worldwide, but its gender composition still varies widely across countries. Female representation is generally weaker in advanced industrial societies than in developing ones. In our 2009 article in the American Journal of Sociology, Karen Bradley and I found this pattern using international data from the mid-1990s; it was confirmed by more recent statistics assembled by UNESCO. Between 2005 and 2008, countries with the most male-dominated engineering programs include the world’s leading industrial democracies (Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.S.) along with some of the same oil-rich Middle Eastern countries in which women are so well-represented among science graduates (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates). Although women do not reach the fifty-percent mark in any country, they come very close in Indonesia, where 48 percent of engineering graduates are female (compared to a 49 percent share of all Indonesian college and university graduates). Women comprise about a third of recent engineering graduates in a diverse group of countries including Mongolia, Greece, Serbia, Panama, Denmark, Bulgaria, and Malaysia.

The second one is about how women's participation in science has changed in the US over the decades since late 19th century:

... representations of scientific and technical fields as by nature masculine aren’t well-supported by international data. They’re also difficult to reconcile with historical evidence pointing to long-term historical shifts in the gender-labeling of some STEM fields. In The Science Education of American Girls, Kim Tolley reports that it was girls who were overrepresented among students of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural science in 19th century American schools. Middle-class boys dominated the higher-status classical humanities programs thought to require top rational powers and required for university admission. Science education was regarded as excellent preparation for motherhood, social work, and teaching. Sociologist Katharine Donato tells a similar story about the dawn of American computer programming. Considered functionally analogous to clerical work, it was performed mostly by college-educated women with science or math backgrounds. This changed starting in the 1950s, when the occupation became attractive to men as a growing, intellectually demanding, and potentially lucrative field. The sex segregation of American STEM fields—especially engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences—has shown remarkable stability since about 1980.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Oh, No. Not again.

WTF Headline of the Week:

Kakodkar to Review Functioning of 30 NITs.


  1. Jeremiah Jenne at Jottings from the Granite Studio: It’s a Mad Mad 90th Anniversary. "I present the Mad Men guide to 90 years of the CCP."

  2. By Vanessa Fuhrmans in WSJ: In Search of a New Course -- Germany's once-lauded education system is under fire. But fixing it hasn't been easy.

  3. Carl Zimmer in NYTimes: It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right. "As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest."

  4. Global University Rankings and Their Impact [pdf] -- a report from the European University Association.

  5. David Leonhardt in NYTimes: Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite.

"... For Everyone Else, There's Wikileaks"

Great stuff:

In case of embed fail.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Two new private universities

[There's an update at the end of the post.]

It's worth highlighting these two because they appear to be a result of philanthropic efforts of the founders. Perhaps they will start a new trend for India's rich folks to follow.

  1. Shiv Nadar University is a major new initiative from Shiv Nadar (of HCL Group of companies). It "seeks to be a leader in multi-disciplinary, research-led collaboration among faculty and students, and shall have a strong focus on high quality, result-oriented education. When fully operational, the university shall have about 8000 students on its fully residential campus. "

    SNU's academic programs are starting this year itself -- its School of Engineering and School of Natural Sciences are the first off the block. The application form states that the first batch of students will get a waiver of tuition fees -- a pretty steep Rs. 185,000 per year!-- for the entire course.

    Shiv Nadar's earlier educational footprints were in Chennai; his new institution, however, is is in UP -- in a 280+ acre campus near NOIDA.

  2. The Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) has the backing of a group that includes Nandan Nilekani and Rohini Nilekani (whose donation of Rs. 500 million to the institution was in the news recently). It's starting its masters program in 2012, with plans to roll out UG programmes soon afterwards. [Here's an interview of Aromar Revi, the founding director of IIHS].

    [Update: According to this report, IIHS plans to charge a tuition fee in the range of Rs. 300,000 to 400,000 for the masters program!]

    [I hope IIHS will soon switch to "" or "" from the current "" in its URL.]

Are there other such philanthropic initiatives that are worth highlighting (and keeping an eye on)?

* * *

Update (3 July 2011): Azim Premji University also belongs to this category. [Thanks, Hari, for the comment-alert].