Tuesday, December 20, 2011

MIT's Experiment in Online Higher Ed

It's called MITx, and it'll be launched soon by MIT.

MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.

It's the third bullet point that makes this really interesting for students. While MIT has stated clearly that it's not getting into the business of offering course towards an MIT degree [see the FAQs], a certificate of completion awarded by MITx will still be attractive to many, many students worldwide.

Interestingly, this is precisely the idea that I first heard from Prof. M.S. Ananth over three years ago in a meeting to discuss the second phase of NPTEL. According to his grand vision, students all over India could use NPTEL course material, register for exams conducted by IITs, receive grades and certificates from the IITs. However, the idea appears to have gone nowhere.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Meta-university Takes Shape

Shaswati Das reports in today's Hindustan Times:

Cross-university education will no more remain a dream for students in Delhi. Pursuing two courses simultaneously at Delhi University (DU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) or graduate students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) trying their hands at technical courses offered at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) may soon become a reality.

To make this possible, four city-based institutes — DU, JMI, IIT and JNU — will join hands to tap their best faculties and make cross-discipline education available to students.

These are just early plans; as learn a little later, "Meanwhile, the institutes are awaiting further clarity on the matter to decide the future course of action."

Still, a fascinating development.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dr. S.R. Valluri on "Instant Excellence and Achievement"

An Indian 'experiment' from the 1990s is worth recalling for its resemblance to the shenanigans of a few Saudi universities. It is all the more remarkable since the institution that tried the experiment is now one of the top institutions in India.

The scientist who broke this story is Dr. S.R. Valluri, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore. In an op-ed in The Hindu (dated 2 November 1995) entitled Whither Ethics in Science, Valluri questioned the ethics of various actions of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore. [I can't provide a direct link since The Hindu archives don't go so far back.] The op-ed criticized JNCASR (and its leadership) on several counts, but here are the parts that are relevant to the issue at hand:

Were it not for the serious nature of the implications, one can only observe with amusement the efforts of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore to project an image of instant excellence and achievement. The centre has been attempting to achieve this image of "making rapid strides" by identifying some scientists from other institutions as its honorary faculty, and including in its annual report (January '95) a list of their publications, without mentioning there itself, their places of full time employment and where the work was actually done, thus making them appear as if they are the centre's own achievements.

It is tantamount to a whole scientific institution being less than truthful in matters of science.[...] [T]his practice violates the very ethics and culture of science. ... By this practice the centre's own credentials have come under a cloud.

... One ... wonders how the scientists concerned could have countenanced the omission, in the listings in the centre's report, of their affiliations with their own parent organizations which have been nurturing them. This denial of the credit by the centre is less than fair.

To give them benefit of the doubt, we have to assume that the scientists concerned acquiesced without examining its implications. Such things are happening as the senior scientific community has not cared to give enough thought to evolving and putting into practice a self-regulating code of ethics for the practice, management and administration of science in India.

[Snip, snip, snip]

The JN Centre deserves all the financial support it needs for its full time staff to work inhouse purposefully. But flaunting borrowed finery and basking in reflected glory has unfortunate implications for the cause of science and even for their own image considering the reputation of the scientists who are associated with the centre. [...]

The op-ed goes into some detail about some of the other actions by JNCASR, which, as I said, need not concern us now. It drew a response from the late Prof. Raja Ramanna; since I have not read that letter, I'm not quite sure why he chose to get involved. But Valluri got a chance to reiterate his points in a follow-up letter (published in The Hindu on 28 November 1995). Here's the relevant part of his rebuttal:

... I stand by what I have said in my article. ... The clarifications given by Dr. Ramanna are extraneous to the points I have raised in my article.

I have specifically raised three questions in my article. One is directly concerned with ethics in science. In instances I am personally aware, the honorary faculty [at JNCASR] did mention their places of full time employment and did indicate their honorary association with the JNCASR, and did acknowledge the financial support that they received from it. the JNCASR, however, deleted all reference to the place of full time affiliation of its honorary faculty, while taking credit for their research by listing their publications in its Jan '95 annual report (pages 38 to 56). It could have been considered accidental and not taken seriously if it happened once or twice. But that it was deliberate is indicated by the fact that about 200 listings or more belong to this category. It even took credit for the work of at least one honorary fellow who did not receive any support and who did his work entirely in some other organization. By such a practice, while the JNCASR takes credit for such research, it implicitly denies the same to the parent institutions which have been really nurturing the honorary faculty, while they may have received some financial support from the JNCASR also. In matters of science, such practices are unethical, as credits in progress of science are built on historical records. If everybody indulges in this practice, chaos will result.

In both his original article and in his rebuttal to Ramanna's response, Valluri does not mention the name of the the man at the helm of JNCASR at that time: Prof. C.N.R. Rao. It was clear, however, that Valluri placed the responsibility for the ethical violations on JNCASR's leadership. When Prof. Rao's autobiographical memoirs -- Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry -- were published sometime ago, I was curious to see how he dealt with this dark episode in his career as a top scientific administrator. This is what I found on p. 92:

One or two scientists made personal attacks on me at that time ... Another criticism was that in one of the early reports of the Centre, the Academic Coordinator had also included the publications of some of the honorary professors. No one expects a new centre to become famous from papers of others, but the criticism was that the Centre was using the reputation of others to become famous instantaneously. All this was far from the truth. ... Fortunately for me, all my colleagues including Raja Ramanna came to my defence at that time. I also made sure that subsequent reports of the Centre did not list papers of honorary professors even if their research was supported by JNCASR.

I'll just state that Rao appears to have misread Valluri's critique as a "personal attack." Valluri was careful to point to specific acts of "omission and commission" with a view to forcing a course correction. That his criticism was right -- and stingingly so -- is proven beyond doubt by the fact that Rao "made sure that subsequent reports of the Centre did not list papers of honorary professors."

* * *

All in all, this unholy experiment offers an excellent test to check if an institutional policy / action is right. The leader just has to ask, "Would it survive if Dr. Valluri decides to write an op-ed about it?"

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Academic Scam of the Year

It was only a matter of time, and this should not be surprising at all to those who have been watching JEE toppers being claimed by several different cramschools as their students [link, link]. I heard about the scam from a highly cited researcher from India a while ago, and it's great to see some fabulous reporting by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee of Science on the audacity of it all:

At first glance, Robert Kirshner took the e-mail message for a scam. An astronomer at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was offering him a contract for an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year. Kirshner, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, would be expected to supervise a research group at KAU and spend a week or two a year on KAU's campus, but that requirement was flexible, the person making the offer wrote in the e-mail. What Kirshner would be required to do, however, was add King Abdulaziz University as a second affiliation to his name on the Institute for Scientific Information's (ISI's) list of highly cited researchers.

“I thought it was a joke,” says Kirshner, who forwarded the e-mail to his department chair, noting in jest that the money was a lot more attractive than the 2% annual raise professors typically get. Then he discovered that a highly cited colleague at another U.S. institution had accepted KAU's offer, adding KAU as a second affiliation on ISIhighlycited.com.

Kirshner's colleague is not alone. Science has learned of more than 60 top-ranked researchers from different scientific disciplines -— all on ISI's highly cited list -— who have recently signed a part-time employment arrangement with the university that is structured along the lines of what Kirshner was offered. ... [Bold emphasis added]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Seth Myth

Mihir Sharma is turning into a one-man demolition squad. First came his review of India Calling, and what do we have now? The Age of Seth, a most delicious tear-down of Suhel Seth's Get To The Top: The Ten Rules For Social Success.

If you have seen Seth on TV -- and he appears there far too often -- it is very easy to hate the man. Here's Girish Shahane's post that's largely about Seth, the TV commentator. A memorable line: "He makes points forcefully and articulately, but never with any hint of insight."


  1. Namit Arora at 3 Quarks Daily: The Bhagavad Gita Revisited: Part 1 Given the big bang summary -- "Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core" -- I can't wait for Part 2!

  2. Sunshine has an article in Amreekan Desi: The FOB who became ABCD:

    Her acclimatization experience did not come without some ten dozen embarrassing experiences when she made a fool of herself. But she learned well. She learned that light switches worked differently, bathrooms were restrooms, baths were showers, notes were bills, bills were checks, and checks were also checks. She learned to run hot water without burning herself. She learned not to use the word dicky for car trunks, and learned that a fast food chain was called Dick’s. She learned that it was actually okay to ask for boxes for leftover food, and capsicums, brinjals, and lady’s finger had their own names here.

    She learned to drop the words sir and madam, and address her professor, as old as her grandfather, using his first name. [...]

  3. Rahul Siddharthan: An h-index for test cricket batsmen.

    Suppose we modify it as follows: the nh index is that value of h, for a given n, such that on h occasions the batsman has scored nh or more runs. For examples, the 10h index would be: if on 5 occasions I have scored 50 runs or more (and I have not scored 60 runs or more on 6 occasions) I have a 10h index of 5. For n > 1, basically, I am giving more importance to higher-scoring innings, and also benefiting those who played fewer matches (most older players played far fewer games than Tendulkar and can’t remotely approach either his career aggregate, or his h-score).

Potato Chips, Class and the Language of Food

A good one from Improbable Research: A research paper that analyzes the blurb on packages of potato chips:

Authenticity in America: Class Distinctions in Potato Chip Advertising,” Joshua Freedman and Dan Jurafsky [pictured here], Gastronomica, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 46-54. The authors explain:

“Our study uses the language of food to examine the representation of socioeconomic class identity in contemporary America by comparing the advertising language on expensive bags of potato chips with that on inexpensive chips. We find that the language on expensive chip bags indeed emphasizes factors that are more representative of higher socioeconomic status, such as more complex language and more claims about health. We also find support for Pierre Bourdieu’s hypothesis that taste is fundamentally negative: descriptions on expensive chips, unlike on inexpensive chips, are full of comparison (“less fat,” “finest potatoes”) and negation (“not,” “never”’), suggesting a goal of distancing the upper classes from the tastes of lower socioeconomic classes. Finally, our results expand the relationship between authenticity and socioeconomic status. Previous scholars suggest that the desire for authenticity is solely linked with upper-class identity; we find, however, two distinct modes of authenticity. For the upper classes, authentic food is natural: not processed or artificial. For the working class, by contrast, authentic food is traditional: rooted in family recipes and located in the American landscape. Thus, the authentic experience is linguistically relevant for both classes—an example of the rich meanings hidden in the language of food.”

Human Piano

A great performance / demo from 2009 by Bobby McFerrin (the same guy who gave us #kolaveri of the 1980s):

* * *

Thanks to The Kid Should See This for the reminder.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

N-dimensional Spheres in N-dimensional Boxes

In an imaginary world of high dimensionality there would be an automatic and perpetual potato famine, for the skin of the potato would occupy essentially its entire volume.
-- Herbert Callen, Thermodynamics and Introduction to Thermostatistics [1985].

Things do get weird in higher dimensions. Brian Hayes has an awesome essay in American Scientist on another one of those weird things -- the volume of an n-dimensional sphere is a vanishingly insignificant fraction of the volume of its bounding cube:

... Both the n-ball and the n-cube grow along with n, but the cube expands faster. In fact, the curse is far more damning: At the same time the cube inflates exponentially, the ball shrinks to insignificance. In a space of 100 dimensions, the fraction of the cubic volume filled by the ball has declined to 1.8×10–70. This is far smaller than the volume of an atom in relation to the volume of the Earth. The ball in the box has all but vanished. If you were to select a trillion points at random from the interior of the cube, you’d have almost no chance of landing on even one point that is also inside the ball.

What makes this disappearing act so extraordinary is that the ball in question is still the largest one that could possibly be stuffed into the cube. We are not talking about a pea rattling around loose inside a refrigerator carton. The ball’s diameter is still equal to the side length of the cube. The surface of the ball touches every face of the cube. (A face of an n-cube is an (n–1)-cube.) The fit is snug; if the ball were made even a smidgen larger, it would bulge out of the cube on all sides. Nevertheless, in terms of volume measure, the ball is nearly crushed out of existence, like a black hole collapsing under its own mass.

How can we make sense of this seeming paradox?

Kevin Carey on the Best Kind of Student Loans

The US Should Adopt Income-Based Loans Now:

Under an income-contingent loan system, like those in Australia and Britain, students pay a fixed percentage of their income toward their loans. Payments are automatically deducted from their paychecks by the IRS, just like income-tax withholding. Self-employed workers pay in quarterly installments, just as they do with their taxes. If borrowers earn a lot, their payments rise accordingly, and their loans are retired quickly. If their income falls below a certain level—say, the poverty line—they pay nothing. After an extended time period of 20 or 30 years, any remaining debt is forgiven.

In other words, nobody ever defaults on a federal student loan again. The whole concept of "default" is expunged from the system. No more collection agencies hounding people with 10 phone calls a night. No more ruined credit and dashed hopes of home-ownership. People who want to enter virtuous but lower-paid professions like social work and teaching won't be deterred by unmanageable debt. [...]

The concept has been proven to work—Australia and Britain have used it for years—and both liberals and conservatives have reason to get on board. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed the idea all the way back in 1955.

Indeed, income-contingent loans are such a good idea, one might wonder why they don't exist already. [...]


  1. I have no idea about how great BigRock.com is as a company, but its ads are great!

  2. C.K. Lewis hates Twitter.

  3. Onion TV: Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere. Charlie Brooker's classic is still the best of this genre. Yes, we have seen both before.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


  1. A Beautiful Prize: Nature Materials editorial on this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

  2. Female Science Professor: Imperfectionist. "Over the years, I have marveled at some of the weird things that people put in reference letters." Example:

    "In my opinion, Applicant X is an excellent scientist. Now let me tell you about my credentials. Attached is my CV."

  3. Perverse Incentives in Academia.

  4. The latest entry in Annals of Awesome Book Reviews is behind a paywall, but you can read the first several paragraphs in Evgeny Morozov's post [via Improbable Research]. Here's a sample:

    This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art.