Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Nair Affair: It's not about science

The former ISRO chief has been banned (along with three of his colleagues) from holding any government position -- apparently as a punishment for a deal between an ISRO arm and Devas, a company headed by an ex-ISRO employee. The appearance of an incestuous relationship should have made ISRO extra-careful in pursuing that deal, but didn't.

The government's order is about administrative decisions (or, more likely, administrative lapses) by Nair and his colleagues. And, Nair himself has been fighting the order on administrative and procedural grounds -- that he has not had a chance to defend himself, as well as that he is still in the dark about what the specific allegations are! [However, this report suggests that he did get a chance to tell (at least a part of) his side of the story to two committees.]

Now, will Nair take his fight to a court of law? Will he continue his outbursts that appear to point to a serious internal power struggle within ISRO? Will he drag other bigwigs down with him? Or, will the government blink before he inflicts any more damage?

While waiting for this harrowing drama to play itself out, it's worth keeping in mind what is being questioned is the Nair's role as an administrator. If, as he claims, he is the target of a vile campaign to malign him, it's most definitely not because of what he did as a scientist!

Calling the latest government move an assault on ISRO scientists (or, more broadly, Indian scientists) is the kind of hyperbole that we can do well without.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Quote of the Day:

We Hindus may believe in an infinity of lifetimes, but we maximize our welfare in this one, just like everyone else.
-- Jagdish Bhagwati: The Brain Drain Panic Returns.

The article is more about the perceived problem of brain drain from Africa, but this quote is from a paragraph on what our academic parents and grand parents endured in India:

In India in the 1950’s and 1960’s – a time when many professionals were emigrating – working conditions were deplorable. Bureaucrats decided whether we could go abroad for conferences. Heads of departments carried inordinate power. So, no surprise, many of us left. We Hindus may believe in an infinity of lifetimes, but we maximize our welfare in this one, just like everyone else.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Incorrect Answers

Scott Dalrymple has a Gotcha Test for Aspiring Deans which is a lot of fun -- try it even if you don't have any deanly aspirations.

A sample:

2. As dean, do you plan to maintain an active research agenda?

YES   ->   Incorrect. You know you have to work summers, right? Besides, we need you to keep the trains running, not write about the epistemology of postcolonial fruit flies or whatever.

NO   ->   Incorrect. Have you no intellectual curiosity? How can you possibly oversee research faculty? They'll never respect you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Notes from a Dragon Mom"

A very, very moving piece by Emily Rapp on parenting a child who she knows will likely die before his third birthday.

The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.


I would walk through a tunnel of fire if it would save my son. I would take my chances on a stripped battlefield with a sling and a rock à la David and Goliath if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain. What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go.

But today Ronan is alive and his breath smells like sweet rice. [...]

HHMI International Awards

Howard Hughes Medical Institute has announced the winners of its International Early Career Awards, meant for (non-US) researchers who "trained in the United States as a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow and have published important research." And each awardee will "receive $650,000: $100,000 a year for five years plus $150,000 the first year for major equipment purchases and other investments."

HHMI's elite list features one Indian scientist: Sandhya Koushika of the National Centre for Biological Sciences [link via Subhra Priyadarshini].

* * *

This is the first time for these awards. Also, the awards are meant for a special group of people (who have done their doctoral or post-doctoral research in the US). The country-wise break-up of the applicant pool is not known. And, finally, the numbers are small -- we are in the anecdote territory, not the statistical one.

All these factors make it difficult for us to say anything meaningful about the country-wise break-up of the HHMI awardees.

But some comparisons become inevitable: one that stares at us (because our leaders -- including Prime Minister -- seem obsessed about it) is this: China leads the list with seven IECS awards, while India has just one.

The countries with the most IECS awardees are China (7), Portugal (5), and Spain (5), but recipients are also based in nine other countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Hungary, India, Italy, Poland, South Africa, and South Korea. Nine of the 28 (32 percent) are women.

Monday, January 23, 2012

One Chinese University Leader's Crusade against Misconduct in Science

Here's an excerpt from David Cyranoski's article in Nature:

[In his second big case, in mid-2010, the] editor-in-chief of a journal published by Springer contacted Yang to say that plagiarism and fabrication in an article from a ZJU researcher were so egregious that Springer was considering blocking all submissions from the university to its 2,000 science, technology and medicine journals. (Yang declines to name the researcher or editor.) “It put pressure on. We had to convince them that we could handle the case,” says Yang.

This time, Yang was ready. He dismissed the main scientist involved, and cut the salary and PhD-student allocation of the corresponding author. “Springer was satisfied,” says Yang.

Over the past two years, Yang says, he has dealt just as briskly with another 40 or so misconduct cases at the ZJU. More than 20 researchers have been found guilty of wrongdoing after discussion by the university administration. For the ten cases involving recent graduates, more than half lost their degrees. One sued the ZJU to overturn the ruling of plagiarism. She lost. If work done during your training is fraudulent, “your degree should be taken away”, says Yang firmly.

In cases involving faculty members, three had their employment terminated, four faced disciplinary action including a pay cut, and the rest were issued with public or internal warnings. Some have been temporarily forbidden from taking on PhD students.

Noah Smith on the Seven Principles for Arguing with Economists

A terrific piece, according to Paul Krugman. Some of the principles need not be specific to economics; an example:

Principle 1: Credentials are not an argument.

Example: "You say Theory X is wrong...but don't you know that Theory X is supported by Nobel Prize winners A, B, and C, not to mention famous and distinguished professors D, E, F, G, and H?"

Suggested Retort: Loud, barking laughter.

Alternative Suggested Retort: "Richard Feynman said that 'Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.' And you're not going to argue with HIM, are you?"

Reason You're Right: Credentials? Gimme a break. Nobody accepts received wisdom from sages these days. Show me the argument!

The Hindu interviews IIT-M Director Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi

In the U.S., an engineer can do a literature course and earn credits. Why can't an Electrical Engineer in IIT do an elective in the humanities department? Is the system here constricting?

That is where we should head towards. Today, we do have a system that has electives. But, it is not the same as in the U.S. The problem is that you can give the freedom to students to do what they want, provided you can then declare what they are in the degree. How to do this is a question that we have been asking ourselves.

Some of the older IITs have for sometime wanted to remove the branch allocation at JEE. The problem is the newer IITs are not ready for that. Actually, giving a branch at that young age is a terrible thing to do. But that's the reality. Besides, the public wants that. Public will prefer if you give the branch in LKG itself. But I think what we'll do is try to loosen up, give some options, and make sure the degrees are branded right. Instead of creating departments that function like silos, we must try and liberalise. We'll probably move towards that in the next few years. [Bold emphasis added]

More here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What It's Like to Attend IIT ...

Apparently, that's something that someone at Quora was terribly interested in, and a revealing tell-all happens. Here's a sample:

Academic Life

While the students that enter the IITs may be fairly assumed to be the best produced by the country, the same cannot always be said of the professors. There is a structural reason for this : over the 70s and 80s, all the academically inclined students in the IITs went to the US for PhDs and became professors there. From a lifestyle and financial point of view, there is little reason to come back and work/teach at the IITs. Thus, the professorial ranks at the IITs are often heavily populated with PhDs from the IITs (ie, those who came to IIT for grad school) or less prestigious foreign universities.

As you can expect from young undergrads with enormous chips on their shoulders (having surmounted the JEE), IIT grad students – who enter through another rather less highly regarded exam – are looked upon with derision, even pity. That these very students become TAs and later IIT professors is galling. Thus, in my experience, the relationship between professors and students is always somewhat tense. It is a very transactional relationship – students go to class because they have to (grades are docked for poor attendance), submit routine homework, take exams and move on to the next semester.

But things are not so bad. Here's the next paragraph -- and note the square brackets!

[This is not to say that all professors are second-rate. Some are truly terrific, and a few have been very inspirational to me, personally].

* * *

And here's a bonus mystery link!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

James Lang on Metacognition and Student Learning

In the latest in his series of articles on what psychological research can tell us about student learning, he writes about metacognition with the help of Stephen Chew, a psychologist at Samford University. Along the way, we get links to videos on How to Get the Most out of Studying by Prof. Chew, and to more resources.

An excerpt from Lang's piece:

I asked Chew to give readers a basic definition of metacognition, with some illustrations of the concept both from education and everyday life. "Metacognition," he explained in an e-mail, "is a person's awareness of his or her own level of knowledge and thought processes. In education, it has to do with students' awareness of their actual level of understanding of a topic. Weaker students typically have poor metacognition; they are grossly overconfident in their level of understanding. They think they have a good understanding when they really have a shallow, fragmented understanding that is composed of both accurate information and misconceptions."

That leads weak students, he said, to make poor study decisions: "Once students feel they have mastered material, they will stop studying, usually before they have the depth and breadth of understanding they need to do well. On exams, they will often believe their answers are absolutely correct, only to be shocked when they make a bad grade."

As for examples outside of education, Chew had no trouble pointing them out in a variety of areas, including reality television shows.

"Poor metacognition is a big part of incompetence," he explained. "People who are incompetent typically do not realize how incompetent they are. People who aren't funny at all think they are hilarious. People who are bad drivers think they are especially good. You don't want to fly on a plane with a pilot who has poor metacognition. A lot of reality shows like American Idol highlight people with poor metacognition for entertainment. Everyone knows people who are seldom in doubt but often wrong."

Monday, January 16, 2012

High Tech Cheating

The scamsters targeted one of India's most high-profile exams: the national entrance exam for admissions to PG programs in medical colleges, and the details are fascinating:

The police say two of the men – recent MBA grads – pretended to be candidates and went in to write the exam with Android cellphones strapped to their forearms, hidden beneath their shirt cuffs. They used the cameras in the phones to scan the exam questions through holes in their coats, and images of the pages were sent automatically and wirelessly to an email address.

In a bedroom a few blocks away, a recent computer science graduate downloaded the images and printed out the exam paper. He handed it over to the scam kingpin, a second-year medical student, who sat surrounded by textbooks and some friends, and solved the problems.

He then sent the answers back to at least six candidates writing the exam; they had Bluetooth devices stitched into their shirt collars that sent the answers to microchip earplugs the men were wearing.

And how did the scam get busted?

It appears that this plot was busted after a disgruntled fellow candidate who knew of the service but couldn’t afford it tipped off police. ...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Dr. Ken Murray on How Doctors Die

The subtitle -- It’s Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be -- is a little cryptic, but these early paragraphs present a good summary of how doctors choose to live their last days, weeks and months:

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).

See also: Paula Span's post at The New Old Age blog at NYTimes:

Dr. Murray contends in his post that doctors know too much about the futility of aggressive end-of-life treatment to subject themselves to it. His argument is anecdotal, based on people he has known but lacking statistical underpinnings. “It’s a fair criticism,” he said.

But recently an alert reader e-mailed him a study, published in 2008 in The Archives of Internal Medicine, of more than 800 physicians who graduated from Johns Hopkins University between 1948 and 1964. Most had reached their late 60s and 70s, so questions about end-of-life treatment were not purely hypothetical.

Asked what treatment they would accept if they’d suffered irreversible brain damage that left them unable to speak or recognize people but was not terminal, the doctors overwhelmingly said they’d decline CPR, feeding tubes and a host of other common interventions. “So there is actual evidence about this,” Dr. Murray said, pleased.

Anu Partanen on Finland's School Success

At The Atlantic:"The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence."

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

* * *

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see.

Pico Iyer on the Joy of Quiet

From here:

Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.

Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. [...] During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.

[... long snip ...]

In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.

None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

Prime Ministerial Speeches at the Indian Science Congress

You read one, you've read them all! Amitabh Sinha reports:

... freeing the lab from bureaucratic red tape has been a refrain down the years. In 2002, Vajpayee said that “bureaucratism is an enemy of a result-oriented approach and must be shunned, for it demotivates our scientific talent.” The next year, he echoed this: “We have to ensure that our scientific institutions do not become afflicted with the culture of our Governmental agencies...the main cause leading to frustration among young scientists is seniority displacing merit and talent suppression.”

Singh then struck the same notes in 2005 on the “tyranny of bureaucracy” and the perils of bureaucratic systems in 2009. In 2010, he reiterated the need to “liberate Indian science from the shackles and deadweight of bureaucratism and in-house favouritism.”