Sunday, July 28, 2013

Prof. Obaid Siddiqi

Prof. Obaid Siddiqi passed away last Friday. He was 81. Here's an obituary at The Hindu.

NCBS, which Siddiqi founded over two decades ago, has posted a truly wonderful tribute -- Catalyst of a Culture of Creativity -- by Prof. Vijay Raghavan who succeeded him as its director. Here's an excerpt from the part on Siddiqi's appointment at TIFR:

Obaid met Szilard and as a result of that meeting, Szilard wrote to Homi Bhabha after talking to Alan Garen. Szilard writes to Bhabha, "The enclosed letter of a distinguished colleague of mine, Alan Garen of the University of Pennsylvania, is self explanatory. The second enclosed letter is from Pontecorvo, a distinguished geneticist and whom you may know and relates to the same subject matter. I should be grateful to you for reading these two letters and following it up which such action, which appears appropriate in the circumstances. I regret that our paths haven't crossed for a long time... With kindest regards." Bhabha writes back to Obaid saying "I've received a letter regarding you from a friend, Szilard. I am very interested in personally supporting work in Molecular Biology... We should give you an appropriate offer of appointment either at the Tata's Institute of fundamental research or the Atomic Energy Establishment of Bombay, the Biology division. I should be grateful if you send your CV. We usually ask for several letters of recommendation but those have already arrived so don't bother too much about that and if you want to know anything, just let me know". So that's an interesting way of getting a job; the letters have come in first and all Bhabha wants is Obaid's CV for the record because Bhabha, quite rightly, trusts the judgement of people like Szilard and Szilard trusts the judgment of people like Alan Garen and Guido Pontecorvo.

* * *

Thanks to my colleague, Prof. S. Ranganathan, for the pointer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Absolute Must-Read Post of the Year

The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.

That's the title of the post by Prof. Radhika Nagpal, professor of computer science at Harvard. The post lays out, with a great deal of humour, the specific schemes and hacks (including "I stopped taking advice") that helped Nagpal navigate a 7-year long journey to tenureland. To me, the best part of her piece is the way she frames her junior faculty job -- as 7 long years of job security! It is this framing that allows her to enjoy the journey. The rest of the article offers some great tips for prioritizing travel and service commitments, work-life balance, recovering from bad news, and time management.

Here's an excerpt -- really, you should go read all of it, like, right now!

And in that moment it suddenly dawned on me what was taking me down. We (myself included) admire the obsessively dedicated. At work we hail the person for whom science and teaching is above all else, who forgets to eat and drink while working feverously on getting the right answer, who is always there to have dinner and discussion with eager undergrads. At home we admire the parent who sacrificed everything for the sake of a better life for their children, even at great personal expense. The best scientists. The best parents. Anything less is not giving it your best.

And then I had an even more depressing epiphany. That in such a world I was destined to suck at both.

Needless to say it took a lot of time, and a lot of tears, for me to dig myself out of that hole. And when I finally did, it came in the form of another epiphany. That what I can do, is try to be the best whole person that I can be. And that is *not* a compromise. That *is* me giving it my very best. [Emphasis in the original]

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


  1. Pankaj Jalote has excerpts from his convocation address to the first batch of graduates of IIIT-Delhi: Role of Alumni for an Institute.

  2. Kaneenika Sinha at The Academic Garden: A sexist, bully or both (or none)?

  3. T.T. Ram Mohan at The Big Picture: How IIM came to Ahmedabad

  4. Finally, something from PhD Comics: Zeno's Paradoc.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Woody Allen: "I shot a moose once"

Direct link
in case the embed doesn't work.

A Muslim Professor's efforts to rent a house in Ahmedabad

“On house-hunting at Bopal, I introduced myself as Prof Malik to an owner who took me as a Punjabi. He assured me of no hurdles in loan processing. But the deal couldn’t take place the moment I told him about my faith. The owner expressed his inability to sell the house to a non-vegetarian. I could just quip ‘Aren’t Punjabi non-vegetarian?’ But his understanding was beyond the realm of logic,” said Prof Malik, sharing his experience. The professor had almost got a house on rent through a common friend. “IIT-Gn was willing to pay extra rent for the house. Everything was finalised but the society members reportedly opposed the owner’s decision of giving the house on rent to a Muslim. Two days later when I was preparing to shift, I was told that the house was given to someone else,” he said.

More here. Prof. Javed Malik is currently at IIT-K.

* * *

Update (23 July 2013): The link appeared in my RSS feed yesterday, I didn't check the date on the story; it turns out that it was published over 16 months ago (February 2012). Hat tip to Sunil Mukhi, who goes on to point out:

Though this story is often used for Modi-bashing, for once I don't think it's his fault (and nor is it Sonia/Rahul's fault, though so many believe them to be the root of all evil in our country!). The remarkable thing is that such blatant and ignorant discrimination is practised not by uneducated villagers, but by the upwardly mobile residents of elegant housing complexes. Even in the stylish new developments in Pune there are signs warning against "renting out to bachelors and foreigners". This is a general statement of prejudice but also comfortably covers the many Iranian students in the city. The same is true in certain areas of Malabar Hill in Bombay, where buildings are declared "vegetarian" in a bid to keep out the obvious communities. And let's not forget the time the actress Pooja Bedi Ibrahim (as she was then) was asked to drop the "Ibrahim" when applying for a credit card. "You see madam, our bank doesn't give credit cards to Muslims" she was told. It wasn't the BJP or the Congress that took this decision. It was a middle-class bank official. In other words it was you, me and our uncles and aunts.


  1. Atul Gawande: Slow Ideas: Some innovations spread fast. How do you speed the ones that don’t?

  2. Rex at Savage Minds: How to explain anthropology to a physicist.

    Anthropology is the science which studies human behavioral diversity. Because culturally-influenced conduct can take radically different forms in different places, it is foolhardy to use intuitions developed in one culture as a source of hypotheses about another. For this reason, it is reckless practice for natural scientists to stray into the expert territory of our discipline simply because they believe that if they are good at testing hypotheses in one realm they must be good at it in another.

    A good analogy to using the intuitions of one culture to to generate hypotheses about another culture would be to imagine a non-physicist with pre-theoretical intuitions about motion creating hypotheses about life aboard the international space station. Expectations about momentum, weight, and the behavior of fluids will founder in a micro-gravity environment. Because they have not had experience in microgravity, their intuitions will be incorrect.

    Simply because you are very good at shark embryology does not mean that you are ready to speak authoritatively about human societies. And, I am sure you will agree, vice versa.

    Often times specialized language in the life sciences is considered as a sign that those fields are mature and specialized, while specialized language in the human sciences is merely obfuscation or meaningless jargon. There seems to be an assumption that because biologists engage in marriage, commensality, and linguistic interaction they should, in principle, be able to understand all technical writing about these subjects. And yet somehow biologists think it obvious that layman cannot understand the the technical terminology of biochemistry, despite the fact that all laymen have metabolisms.

  3. James Surowiecki: E-Book vs. P-Book. Largely about Barnes & Noble's iffy fortunes (and about its dumping its Nook tablet business), the article ends with the following on the continuing relevance of physical books:

    For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Shivam Vij on Class XII History Text from NCERT

In What I learned about Partition in The Tribune, he writes:

I had to wait till college to satiate my curiosity about Partition because the history textbooks in school told me so little about it, such as that Jinnah was the villain of the event and so on. I was thus surprised that India’s new history textbooks for Class 12 (last year in school) that were made in 2005, spend 29 pages on Partition.

So, what is the new narrative? The chapter begins not with politics but three short oral testimonies written by an unnamed Indian historian doing research in Lahore in 1992. [...]

He has posted the pdf of this chapter at Kafila, and adds:

I wrote recently about the surprising political maturity with which NCERT textbooks teach Indian students about the Partition. These textbooks were prepared under the National Curriculum Framework of 2005. This is of course not limited to the Partition chapter or indeed just the history textbooks. But I was particularly moved to see the Partition chapter. As you read it you realise what school textbooks can do in shaping how future generations see themselves, their own history and identity. I think a lot of people in both India and Pakistan would like to read it.

* * *

I share Shivam's appreciation of NCERT textbooks, all of which are available online for free. Back in April 2008, I had a chance to look at what these textbooks had to say about the reservation policy, and I came away quite impressed. [The direct links to the specific chapters in that post don't work, though].

Parachutes, an unproven technology

The British Medical Journal has a fun paper -- Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials -- raising questions about the use of parachutes because its effectiveness has never been proved using a randomized control trial [Hat tip: Fabio Rojas]. This footnote says it all:

Contributors: GCSS had the original idea. JPP tried to talk him out of it. JPP did the first literature search but GCSS lost it. GCSS drafted the manuscript but JPP deleted all the best jokes. GCSS is the guarantor, and JPP says it serves him right.

Modi's Media Machine

Jatin Gandhi unearths a lot of details on Narendra Modi's PR operations. In the section on a "Request for Proposal" issued by the Gujarat government to recruit a PR agency, Gandhi writes:

The devil is concealed in the details of objectives such as this: ‘Crisis perception management and informing the Commissionerate of Information about impending stories about Gujarat State / leadership.’ In effect, an industry insider reveals, this is where the dirty work comes in. The ‘leadership’ clearly refers to Modi. From slowly working on journalists and feeding them stories, and, in some cases, doling out advertisements to their employers, the state government does it all. ‘Crisis perception management’ essentially kicks in at times when Modi goofs up an interview with remarks like the recent one he made to Reuters about a puppy under his car’s wheel. Or when he told The Wall Street Journal in June 2012 that malnutrition among children under five was explained by middle-class girls in Gujarat being “more figure conscious than health conscious”.

The Request document clearly demands that the agency’s officials ‘monitor the presence of, and discussions about, brand Gujarat in social and political circles…This can be achieved through, among other activities, continuously monitoring and tracking all national and regional newspapers, magazines, TV channels, the inter-web, blogs and other channels of external communication at regular intervals.’

MOOC Fail?

In the middle of breathless hype about MOOCs' disruptive potential, Udacity and San Jose State University offered a set of online courses earlier this year. The results are in, and they don't look good: [San Jose State University] Suspends Online Classes After More Than Half the Students Fail. Will Oremus adds:

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun ... told the AP that the failure rates in the five classes ranged from 56 to 76 percent. Nor was the course material exactly rocket science—the five classes were in elementary statistics, college algebra, entry-level math, introduction to programming, and introduction to psychology.

Thrun did note that 83 percent of students had completed the classes, a far higher rate than is typical for the free, open courses that have come to be known as MOOCs. Why so many failed is not fully clear, though the AP cites “officials” saying that a lot of the students who signed up had little college experience or were working full-time while taking the classes.

* * *

Update: See also: Udacity Project on 'Pause' at Inside Higher Ed.

Links: Indian Higher Ed

  1. The biggest news of the week: the Supreme Court scrapped NEET, the medical entrance examinations for UG and PG admissions. In doing so, it appears to be going against its own earlier views. See also Arun Mohan Sukumar's strong critique of the verdict: A hatchet job, NEETly done.

    Here's another relevant piece of info pointed out by Ramya Kannan in The Hindu:

    Tamil Nadu was among the first few States to oppose the conduct of NEET. Subsequently, as the Central Institutes, AIIMS and PGI, stayed out of NEET, conducting their own entrance examinations and admitting students, the chorus of dissent against NEET grew more vociferous.

    Soon, the National Board of Examinations, which awards the DNB qualification, also conducted its own examinations.

    In effect, then, it turned out that what was not good enough for the Central Institutes was considered good enough for the States. Naturally, the States objected; slowly, their voices grew louder. A number of cases were filed across the country by medical institutions and States objecting to the implementation of NEET. States also reasoned that they would have to have a control on PG admissions if they were to be able to retain professionals in the State's medical services cadre.

  2. In an interview Prof. Amartya Sen reveals some of the plans for Nalanda University (including his hope to "advertise the [academic and research] posts this summer, and ... [start] in a small way 2014". Other highlights [bold emphasis added]:

    We hope we will get large sums of money. We have some money initially from the government of India to survive the core plans that we have at the moment. We will start with six faculties, and as and when we have the money, we will expand. We have to make sure the quality of education in those areas is extremely high.

    The six faculties are environment, information technology, economics and management, history, linguistics, and international relations. One of the problems many newly created universities face, especially in India, is this idea that you have to begin with absolutely every department.

    That’s not the way we have to see it. We have to expand faculty by faculty to be financially comfortable. Within the finances we will try to provide curriculum reach and coverage as we can, subject to maintaining the highest quality of experts that the world can offer.

  3. Shame on our Central Universities for doing such a shoddy job of their entrance exam this year. Seriously:

    And then were puerile queries, some relating to soap operas that had garnered eyeballs but very little critical acclaim.

    One question sought to test potential students for doctorate degrees to identify which channel ran the “Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’’ serial and which telecast the serial “Mowgli”.

  4. UGC to establish chairs on 7 Indian Nobel Laureates; 31 more on 9 ‘illustrious’ persons.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


  1. Extra points for the fairer sex at IIMs to encourage "gender diversity"

    Only 28 per cent of students in IIM-Kozhikode’s last year batch were women. This year, 54.29 per cent are women. IIM Rohtak’s present batch comprises of 47.6 per cent women compared to 9.6 per cent of last year; IIM Raipur – 35.2 per cent compared to 24.1 per cent and IIM Kashipur – 20.8 per cent compared to 2.5 per cent of the previous batch. The other top three IIMs, namely Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta, have 20.8 per cent, 26.8 per cent and 23.2 per cent women in their 2015 batch respectively.

  2. No director, IIT-Kharagpur teachers fast in protest.

  3. Alan Jacobs: Do As the Technologists Say, Not As They Do

  4. Andrew Gelman: “Meritocracy” is not what you think: don’t forget about the “ocracy”:

    In short, when people talk about meritocracy they tend to focus on the “merit” part (Does Kobe Bryant have as much merit as 10,000 schoolteachers? Do doctors have more merit than nurses? Etc.), but the real problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy.”

  5. Finally, McSweeney's Short Imagined Monologues: Your first short story speaks:

    Look at me. Look at me. I’m a mess. [...]

    It’s going to take some time to realize how to fix me, and even more time to realize I shouldn’t be fixed. I should be thrown into a dumpster. I should be deleted in one of those dead blue-screen catastrophes your second short story is wishing for. ...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Foreign students in STEM graduate programs in the US

Fascinating data in this Inside Higher Ed story:

It will come as no surprise to observers of graduate education that the report documents the fact that foreign students make up the majority of enrollments in U.S. graduate programs in many STEM fields, accounting for 70.3 percent of all full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 63.2 percent in computer science, 60.4 percent in industrial engineering, and more than 50 percent in chemical, materials and mechanical engineering, as well as in economics (a non-STEM field). However, the report, which analyzes National Science Foundation enrollment data from 2010 by field and institution, also shows that these striking averages mask even higher proportions at many individual universities. For example, there are 36 graduate programs in electrical engineering where the proportion of international students exceeds 80 percent, including seven where it exceeds 90.

Also, elite universities have a much smaller dependence on foreign students than lower-ranked universities:

“There’s a relatively small number of high-quality domestic students who can be accepted into our master’s and Ph.D. programs,” said Leonid Tsybeskov, professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He added that those domestic students who are strong candidates typically apply to higher-ranked programs than NJIT’s.

Indeed, said Anderson, “You talk to the professors, they say, ‘O.K., if we were MIT or Stanford we could get all the top U.S. students,' but by definition there are only a few of those schools. Obviously everyone can’t be MIT or Stanford." At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the proportion of international students in graduate electrical engineering programs is 52.5 percent and, in computer science, 35.3 percent. At Stanford, 56 percent of graduate electrical engineering students and 43.7 percent of graduate computer science students are international.

Sports and C-Suite Women

FT's Gillian Tett has a nice column on a recent study which found that "some 19 out of 20 women who sit in the “C-suite” – holding the title “chief something” – were sporty as a teenager; indeed, seven out of 10 still play sport as a working adult, while six out of 10 played sport at university." Musing on possible causal links that might explain this finding, Tett says:

... Girls who play sport at school learn at a young age that it is acceptable to compete aggressively. They also discover that success does not depend on looking good and that it can be acceptable to take pleasure in winning. That might seem an obvious point, at least to an adult man. But it is not so self-evident to young girls who are exposed to modern Hollywood teen – or tweenie – culture. Indeed, when I look at the cultural messages that kids receive now from films and television, compared with my own childhood, I suspect that girls need sports today more than ever. Being an athlete is one of the few socially accepted ways for teenage girls to compete, without peer criticism.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


  1. A nice video from the Royal Institution -- Levitating Superconductor on a Möbius strip:

  2. Bruce Upbin in Forbes: Debunking The Narrative Of Silicon Valley's Innovation Might:

    This is going to sound completely heretical to everything Forbes has stood for over 96 years (and The Economist for a few decades longer than that) but here goes: The real innovation engine in the global economy is not the entrepreneurial class blazing capitalist trails through the thicket of government red tape and taxation. No. The real engine of innovation is government.

  3. Feminist Philosophers excerpts the Chronicle story entitled Philosopher’s Downfall, From Star to ‘Ruin,’ Divides a Discipline -- the star philosopher is UMiami's McGinn, and his career turned towards ruin "after a graduate student complained that he behaved inappropriately toward her."

  4. The state of Oregon in the US is debating a plan in which students will receive free university education "in return for agreeing to be taxed a set percentage of their income for the first twenty years after they leave college." Calling it "an audacious, innovative, terrible idea," Matt Reed provides many arguments against this plan.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Countering Stereotype Threat

Here's the abstract of L'eggo My Ego: Reducing the Gender Gap in Math by Unlinking the Self from Performance:

Stereotype threat can vary in source, with targets being threatened at the individual and/or group level. This study specifically examined the role of self-reputational threat in women's underperformance in mathematics. A pilot study showed that women report concerns about experiencing self-reputational threat that are distinct from group threat in the domain of mathematics. In the main study, we manipulated whether performance was linked to the self by asking both men and women to complete a math test using either their real name or a fictitious name. Women who used a fictitious name, and thus had their self unlinked from the math test, showed significantly higher math performance and reported less self-threat and distraction, relative to those who used their real names. Men were unaffected by the manipulation. These findings suggest that women's impaired math performance is often due to the threat of confirming a negative stereotype as being true of the self. The implications for understanding the different types of threats faced by stereotyped groups, particularly among women in math settings, are discussed.

Here's an article about this paper.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


  1. Next Chief Justice of India favours reservation in higher judiciary.

  2. Unreserved on the rolls: "The merit argument is debunked as many OBCs make it to IITs in general category."

  3. Indian government's plans for 'heritage' universities:

    ... It will ... give a special 'heritage status' that are at least a 100 years old as per a Rs 100 crore proposal being finalised by the Union human resource development ministry.

    Making the cut are state universities like Universities of Calcutta , Bombay and Madras set up in 1857, Presidency University (1817), Osmania University (1908) Central Universities Aligarh Muslim University (1875) and Allahabad University (1887) and deemed universities like Indian Veterinary Research Institute (1889), Ramakrishna Mission Vivekanand University (1897) , Jamia Hamdard (1906), Indian Institute of Science (1909) and Bengal Engineering & Science University (1856). Jadavpur University, Forest Research Institute (1906), Indian Agricultural Research Institute (1902) are also being considered for the heritage tag.