Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Corporate ethnographers

We know what you're thinking: Corporate ethnography can sound a little flaky. And a certain amount of skepticism is in order whenever consultants hype trendy new ways to reach the masses. Ethnographers' findings often don't lead to a product or service, only a generalized sense of what people want. Their research can also take a long time to bear fruit. Intel's India Community PC emerged only after ethnographer Tony Salvador spent two years traipsing around the developing world, including a memorable evening in the Ecuadorean Andes when the town healer conducted a ceremony that included spitting the local hooch on him.

From this Business Week article about the many new and interesting roles ethnographers play in the corporate world. Here is an interesting quote attributed to Michigan State University's dean of social sciences:

Ethnography [has] escaped from academia, where it had been held hostage.

Clouds of suspicion

One of the reasons given by quite a few anti-reservationists is to claim that quotas end up victimizing the beneficiaries, because their non-quota peers would scorn them. I'll leave aside for the moment what such an attitude says about the scorners. I was looking for s suitably strong rebuttal to this stupid charge (preferably from a quota beneficiary); quite coincidentally, I found just such a rebuttal by an American blogger:

[Because] of Affirmative Action, there are clouds of suspicion over African-American students... like those students are only there because of a hand out. [My] response? Who gives a crap?

It's the most bogus argument you could make... Sure, you grew up in a crappy neighborhood in a overcrowded school with no budget and no library. Sure, we could help you by giving you the opportunity to go to college... but it would be too unfair to make you deal with the scorn of some of your classmates. You'd be better off without an education.

Some people go to college, work hard and succeed in life. Others go there, drink a lot and drop out. The bottom line is this: Anybody who goes to college and makes something out of themselves deserved the opportunity to go there. So some losers point at a kid and say he doesn't deserve to be there. So what? Would that kid be better off with no college education? Is that better than having a bunch of 20-year-olds think less of him for a few years?

Last days of Larry Summers

They were full of intrigue. You can get all the details here.

And the debate does continue ...

That's what I wanted.

Thanks to people like Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, the authors of a fine-tuned affirmative action plan, the debate does continue. And they offer some sensible proposals, in their ToI op-ed.

First, they acknowledge that there is something wrong with the way the quota decision was taken:

The way in which this decision was taken exemplifies what is wrong with the policy-making process in our country. A major decision affecting the career prospects of lakhs of students every year was taken without careful deliberation and transparent procedures that could have inspired some confidence.

They follow it up with the key observation:

Even a crude caste-bloc based quota is better than no provision at all.

Then, they talk about what the pitfalls of this 'crude caste-bloc based quota' are, and they are familiar to us:

... [It will] result in an inefficient targeting of this scheme. The relatively better off families, that too from 'upper' OBCs, will be able to corner most of the benefits.

In regional terms, students from south India and other states with long history of affirmative action and backward caste movement are much better placed to take advantage of this scheme.

Needless to say, most of these opportunities will be cornered by OBC men, for the gender gap in education is higher among OBC communities as compared to upper caste Hindus.

Yet, ..., yet, they still suggest some ways of making the quota regime serve (at least some of) its key goals. They are:

First, it can declare that the 'creamy layer' within OBCs will be excluded from the benefits of the new reservation.

... Second, the 27 per cent quota should be sub-divided among 'upper' and 'lower' OBCs.

Third, the government can make some provision to ensure that OBC women have a special opportunity to access this quota. Finally, for taking a final decision on all these and related matters to target the OBC quota more effectively, the government can constitute an independent expert committee to work out the modalities.

I hope in the on-going public-interest-lawsuit in the Supreme Court, these smart, thoughtful people will be invited to present their views.

Letter by IIT-K professors

Badri has the full text of the letter by 125 professors of IIT-K. In a great follow-up post, he does a bit of fisking.

Let me just say that I am with Badri here. One hundred percent.

Rahul Varman on reservation

I received by e-mail an article by Rahul Varman a professor of industrial engineering and management at IIT-K. I wrote to him seeking his permission to host it here, but someone else (in fact, quite a few people!) has already beaten me to it! So, here it is, on Amit Kumar Singh's blog; Singh seems to have pruned the article, though.

After a bit of search, I found the version that I received by e-mail (the main difference is at the beginning). This, more complete, version is at Fiaz Babu's Blog: Crap and More.

While Rahul covers quite a bit of the ground that we have already gone over, here is the bit that's new (at least to me):

For the last few years I have been studying small industry clusters, like Moradabad brass, Varanasi silk and Kanpur leather. Put together (all the clusters in the country), they are exporting more than the IT sector and their cumulative employment will be several times of the whole of IT industry. In all these clusters they operate with miniscule resources – small investment, no electricity, forget about air-conditioning, non existent roads, lack of water, and little formal education. These clusters are primarily constituted of these so called backward/ dalit castes and are truly a tribute to the genius that our society is. But in spite of centuries of excellence these communities have hardly produced any formal ‘engineers’, ‘doctors’ and ‘managers’, and conversely these elite institutions have not developed any linkages with such industries and their people.

This brings me to a further question, what do ‘meritorious’ students from these institutions do when they pass out? I recall what Srilata Swaminathan, the noted activist, had said at the beginning of her talk at IIMA in the early 1990s (I at the time was a student there), “I am told that this is the cream of the country, and what do you do, sell soaps and toothpastes (ITC, HLL, etc. were the most coveted recruiters those days)?”. There was hushed silence in a room full of students and faculty. I remember in the mid-90s my sense of disbelief, when I was the placement coordinator for my department, the HR manager of one of the big three Indian IT companies told me, “as long as somebody can recognise a keyboard we take him” in response to my query about what they sought in a potential employee. Remember this company over the years has employed thousands of IIT-IIM engineers - managers. As a child I remember the famous surgeon in my home town, who would first cut up a patient and then renegotiate the price with the relatives, before proceeding with the surgery! Or everywhere around me I find ‘meritorious’ doctors employed in public hospitals, drawing comfortable salaries and doing roaring private practice! You are not even required to turn up in the village health centre even once if you have a rural posting. If the majority of our people usually have to do with the village quack, they would not mind a ‘slightly less meritorious doctor’ coming to take care of them, instead of finding solace in the fact that super-specialised doctors are ensuring that the elite of our country have no wrinkles, and such like grave ailments. [...]

This also reminds me of a recent article in Rediff by Tarun Jain, wherein he says:

Could a more diverse student body work more broadly in the national interest than it currently does? The national institutes produce computer programmers, dam builders and investment bankers, and fine ones at that. But perhaps a more enlightened investment would also produce managers of farming co-operatives and social movements, and young engineers designing check-dams and inexpensive power generators for remote hamlets.

Diversity of outcomes is closely linked with what is taught. "In my civil engineering classes at Kanpur, we never discussed issues of displacement that accompanies big dams, says Shivani Saxena, who obtained a BTech from IIT Kanpur and went on to get an MS from Berkeley. "There is a severe disconnect between the class work and what are the real issues around infrastructure projects. It took me many years to develop a holistic view of my work."

This disconnect comes not just because of the demands of the curriculum, but also because there are very few students who have been displaced by construction projects. How different would the classroom be if tribal students from the Narmada valley also present?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The ball is in the Supreme Court

Now that the Supreme Court has got into the act, some sanity will be restored. The political class can take a breather, the medicos can get back to work, and we can look forward to the Court posing some serious questions, demanding a dispassionate study and analysis based on hard data.

My guess is that the Supreme Court's intervention is a positive only for those in the middle; it's unlikely lead to conclusions that either side -- with its own extreme positions -- can claim as a clear victory. In particular, the anti-reservation lobby, that has been citing the recent NSSO data on the OBC share in the population are not going to be happy (a) when the Supreme Court also asks for the caste break-up in our elite institutions, and (b) if a new, larger, more extensive study ends up showing that the OBC population is actually larger than the NSSO figures. On the other hand, the government is unlikely to be fully vindicated when, for example, its classification of OBCs is found to be faulty, because its OBC list is padded up with some castes that just don't belong there.

I don't know if the Supreme Court can initiate, on its own accord, fresh and detailed studies -- by a Committee of accomplished social scientists -- on the social, educational and economic status of different castes. I hope it can also demand a serious study of different ways of pursuing affirmative action, and suggest to the political class some of the better ways.

Unfortunately, all of this implies that the Supreme Court is being asked to get into the nitty-gritty of policy making. However, when our politicians -- legislators, in particular -- shy away from tough questions, we should take some solace in the fact that we can turn to some other constitutional authority that can afford to take a cold, hard look at the reservation issue. The SC intervention also implies that those taking extreme positions cannot use the 'urgency of the situation' to keep peddling their stereotyped, cartoonish views. That can only be a good thing!

Finally, do take a look at this Hindu editorial. This extract is quite illuminating:

That the medicos are refusing to see reason suggests their concerns lie elsewhere. Traditionally, the Indian Medical Association, a national body of doctors, has been opposed to any increase in the number of medical college seats. Although the negative position is couched in terms of opposition to a dilution of standards and privatisation of medical education, the self-serving, protectionist streak is unmistakable. The greater the number of doctors, the more competitive medical practice gets.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The reservation issue and the media

CNN-IBN's question of the day was "Have the media been one-sided on the reservation issue?". The final tally of the SMS and online poll was: Yes-46% and No-54%.

I just finished watching the program that discussed this question. At the end of it, the anchor, Sagarika Ghose, announced the final tally and declared (and I am paraphrasing here), "Well, 54% are with us".

Strange kind of victory, no? I mean, almost half the people said your coverage was biased ...

* * *

The program featured Shivam Vij (aka Albert Krishna Ali) as a citizen journalist (his picture appeared on the screen for a microsecond), and showed a video clipping of a pro-reservation march through AIIMS. [Update: Albert gives us the story behind how he and his TV footage of the pro-reservation rally made it to this show Face the Nation.]

Among the panelists on Ghose's program was Purushottam Agrawal of JNU (whose affirmative action plan was featured in this post). Surprisingly, he lauded the media for their coverage of the reservation issue; however, when he explained further, it was clear that he was impressed by the fact that the media underplayed the two self-immolation attempts.

More substantive was the participation of Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook, who came out strongly against the media. He said he was aghast when a TV channel aired a live program with the anti-reservation protestors; the anchor was discussing -- and in a way egging them on about -- how they can do a Rang De Basanti on Arjun Singh! His second accusation was this: in our merit obsessed society, why did the media miss covering the fact that the elite universities in the US (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) are known so much for their excellence while also pursuing affirmative action? Finally, he accused the media of lack of balance, and termed them unprofessional. His was the only real, meaningful contribution to the program.

* * *

I too did a post on CNN-IBN's bias over at How the Other Half Lives.

A tale of two IISERs

The goal is ambitious: two high-quality research institutions [Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research] exclusively offering Bachelor’s and Master’s programme in sciences to attract the best of 10+2 talent. And direct PhD programmes in frontier areas of science research. Student strength: 2,000 over the next five years, with 200-strong faculty.

But consider the progress:

  • Neither institute has a permanent campus nor permanent faculty.
  • Despite this, the HRD Ministry is trying to push through the first batch from this July in “makeshift and temporary locations”.
  • In Kolkata, for example, classes for the first batch of 70-odd students, selected via the IIT entrance exam, will be held in the Kolkata campus of IIT Kharagpur.
  • With no hostel ready, students will stay in nearby campus of National Institute of Technical Teachers’ Training and Research (NITTTR) at Salt Lake.
  • “We have just started the process of acquiring land (200 acres) in Kalyani (a Kolkata suburb), and hope to complete the modalities soon,” said IIT (Kharagpur) director Shishir K Dube, who is the project-director for setting up IISER (Kolkata).
  • Its counterpart in Pune, too, is in a hurry to start the first batch in August at the “temporary location” in National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune. “About 100 acres, adjacent to the NCL, have been acquired recently. But no work on the construction of the campus has started yet,” sources said.

From this story in today's Indian Express.

Andre Beteille and Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Some quick links.

* * *

You all know that the distinguished sociologist Andre Beteille resigned from the National Knowledge Commission recently. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the other Commissioner to resign from NKC. Their resignation letters were made public, and you can read them both here.

Yogendra Yadav, one of the authors of a fine-tuned plan of affirmative action (which I linked to here), wrote a letter addressing some of the issues raised by Mehta, who wrote a reply -- both appeared in the Indian Express [links via Aswin].

Now, Andre Beteille opens up and reveals some of his concerns about Indian universities in this ToI op-ed.

Science and marriage

Several years ago, Satoshi Kanazawa, then a psychologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, analyzed a biographical database of 280 great scientists--mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists. When he calculated the age of each scientist at the peak of his career--the sample was predominantly male--Kanazawa noted an interesting trend. After a crest during the third decade of life, scientific productivity--as evidenced by major discoveries and publications--fell off dramatically with age. When he looked at the marital history of the sample, he found that the decline in productivity was less severe among men who had never been married. As a group, unmarried scientists continued to achieve well into their late 50s, and their rates of decline were slower. [...]

Marriage has also been shown to have an adverse impact on the careers of female scientists. Data from the National Science Foundation show that female, doctoral-level scientists, and engineers are less likely to be married than are their male counterparts (66% versus 83%). Among those married, however, women are more likely to confront problems accommodating a two-career marriage--one reason being that they are twice as likely as men to have a spouse who works full-time. Add children to the mix, and the problem is compounded. Research by Kimberlee Shauman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, found that time off for birth and child rearing poses a significant, often irreversible, impediment to a woman’s career.

That's what the data say. Now, what does one make of this evolutionary psychological explanation of the data:

Kanazawa's perhaps controversial perspective is that of an evolutionary psychologist. "Men conduct scientific research (or do anything else) in order to attract women and get married (albeit unconsciously)," he says. "What’s the point of doing science (or anything else) if one is already married? Marriage (or, more accurately reproductive success, which men can usually attain only through marriage) is the goal; science or anything else men do is but a means. From my perspective, scientists are no different than anybody else; evolutionary psychology applies to all humans equally," he adds.

Hmmm ...

* * *

Thanks to this recently married scientist and blogger for the pointer.

Calvin and Hobbes


The original link doesn't work any more. Sigh!

Mother's milk

Check out these two wonderful posts over at Pharyngula: Mother's milk, and Breast beginnings. The latter explains a (currently speculative) theory about the evolution of breasts.

Of hemlines and bra sizes

The Glossary page (on the website of a user-friendly investment company) has an entry on the Hemline Theory (Carefully Capitalized, of course):

Hemline Theory: Capricious idea that stock prices move in the same direction as women's dress hemlines. Short dresses and skirts are considered bullish signs that stock prices will rise. Longer dresses and skirts are considered bearish signs that stock prices will decline. Notwithstanding that it is occasionally correct, the hemline theory has endured more as wishful thinking than serious market analysis.

Last week, I encountered, in Outlook Business (sorry, it has no web presence), the Bra Size Theory of Economic Development:

Here's a biological proof of China's prosperity. Women there are growing larger. The country's bra makers have started making larger cup sizes since last year, with some even creating sub-brands specializing in large sizes. Demand for small bras has fallen so much that Hong Kong-based Embry Group has halted production of smallest sizes for some of its product lines. ... The Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology has released a report saying the average chest circumference of Chinese women has hit 83.53 cm, up nearly 1 cm from the early 1990s. Call it the fruit of reforms; the growth trend is credited to women eating more nutritiously and taking part in more sports. Obviously, the trickle-down hasn't reached rural China yet. ...

A quick search for Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology revealed that it is seeking talent.

Here's a BBC report on the BICT report.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Teen repellent - Part Deux

After the original use of high frequency sound waves, it is time for revenge.

The debate continues ...

First, some news. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh struck just the right note when he met the striking medicos two days ago:

Dr. Singh told a delegation of students that he foresaw a big expansion in the capacities of the higher education system, resulting in huge educational opportunities for all classes and categories. Hence, they need not worry about shrinking educational opportunities ...

The medicos have decided to continue with their strike. While I don't support their agitation, I am with them on one of their demands: "a judicial commission to review the reservation policy".

Clearly, the debate is not over; let me just link to some new and noteworthy views from the past day or two.

First, we have Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, with his weekly column Swaminomics in ToI.

The canteen boy who brings me tea may be more intelligent than me, and so too may be the man shining shoes on the roadside. But they were born in the wrong family, and never had access to good education or economic opportunities. So they remain on the fringes of society.

Meanwhile, lesser beings like me dominate society, on the spurious claim that we are the most meritorious. What gall! We got good marks because we had the most educated parents, the best books, and went to the best schools and colleges.

But others far more meritorious are rotting without education or opportunity in the slums and villages of India. In a fair and just society, the top two million or so positions would be occupied by people with an IQ of over 135. Lesser folk like me (and most striking doctors) would be just clerks or labourers.

He also goes on to the question of how to improve the reach and quality of our primary education.

We need to experiment with new, fairer systems. Let me suggest one. The government spends Rs 110,000 crore a year on education. Let Rs 10,000 crore of this be channelled through business federations like the CII and Ficci to run quality schools with 80% reservation for lower castes and tribals.

Technical assistance can come from Delhi Public School, which has already created a chain of quality schools in India and abroad.

Within five years, let us create two quality schools in every district headquarters. In the next five years, let us cover every tehsil headquarters, and give scholarships to needy students for school for college.

Next, we have Prof. N.S. Ramaswamy, former Director of IIM-B, who suggests that we make better use of our investment in education.

Without investing government funds, it is possible to double or even treble the capacity of universities, IITs, IIMs and similar institutions.

These institutions work only for 180 to 200 days a year. It is possible to stretch them up to 300 days or more. Classes in India start only after 9 a.m. or even later. Even in cold countries, classes start at 6 a.m. and go on till 10 p.m. It is possible to have two shifts in HES, thus expanding the capacity with the same physical infrastructure.

To compensate for these fine attempts to take things forward (with some new ideas towards solving problems), we have an utterly vacuous article in the Hindu's Sunday Magazine. After summarizing the pro-quota and anti-quota positions, the author, Akhila Sivadas, has the gall to say this:

The biggest casualty has been timely and effective debate and discourse. ... [A] valuable opportunity to revisit and engage in a wider debate ... has been lost.

Has Sivadas been sleeping through all the 'debate and discourse' going on all over the place? Is she not aware of well-argued articles by people like Purushottam Agrawal, and Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, and by Pratap Bhanu Mehta before his resignation? If they don't constitute 'a wider debate', what will?

Finally, a link from the blogosphere: Abhinav grapples with various questions about reservation in the IITs on his brand new blog All about IIT. He admits that he doesn't have all the answers yet, but he is asking some right questions. While on IITs, the Hindu reported today that 125 IIT-K professors have written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him not to implement quotas: "in the eventuality, [they] have threatened to resign en masse."

CBSE Results: Girls have done better

The results of Classes X and XII exams of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are out. Here are the links for the reports on Class XII and Class X results.

In both the exams, overall, girls have done better than the boys. The difference is smaller for Class X (77.7 for girls compared to 76.77 for boys and 77.16 overall) than for Class XII ((84.4 for girls compared to 75.93 for boys and 79.55 overall). This is what the Chairman of CBSE had to say:

"Unlike the Class XII examinations in which the gap between the girls and the boys was substantial, in the Class X examinations there was a less than one percentage point difference between them. This reinforces our theory that up to this level, girls and boys are almost the same, but the difference sets in after they are 16 years and above," CBSE Chairman Ashok Ganguly told a press conference ... [Link]

"The trend of girls doing better than boys started in 1991. We would like to do an analysis of why girls are doing better than boys to understand this trend. However, independent feedback that we have got so far shows that girls at this crucial juncture are more creative, innovative and focused than boys," said CBSE Chairman Ashok Ganguly at a press conference ... [Link].

The number of girls taking these exams is (slightly) lower, as can be seen from the fact that the overall pass percentage is (slightly) closer to the boys' than the girls'.

Not only have the girls done well overall (in terms of pass percentage), they have also done quite well in the 'elite' (with a score of over 90 percent) and 'super-elite' (over 95 percent) categories in the Class X exams:

While they might have done better than boys in the "elite" category of students getting 90 per cent or above, boys seem to have taken the lead as 10,617 of them scored over 90 per cent, compared to 10,385 girls. [...]

A total of 1,677 children in the country have scored over 95 per cent marks this year. There are 888 girls and 789 boys who made their mark in this "super-elite" category. [Link]

For class XII, however, this boys-vs-girls break-up among the '90+ percent' students is not given in any of the reports I checked. The CBSE website is of no help, either.

A couple of weeks ago, the ICSE and ISC exam results were also announced; once again, girls did better (overall) than boys. I looked for info on the boys-vs-girls break up among the toppers in these exams, but couldn't find any.

Any pointers would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

Bangalore University

It has been more than two months since we had a look at the Bangalore University. The new Vice-Chancellor has been chosen: Prof. H.A. Ranganath, formerly with the Zoology Department at the University of Mysore, now has this job.

Prof. Ranganath has a lot on his hands. I strongly feel he should put an end to this silly proposal I don't know if he wants to handle this new proposal to impose a dress code on its students, and to make the boys and girls sit in separate sections (within the same classroom). Does Bangalore University's Syndicate have Prof. D. Viswanathan (Vice-Chancellor of Chennai's Anna University, who has imposed similar rules in its colleges) as one of its members?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

An announcement in the public interest ...

No, I am not stopping my posts on reservation!

This is for users of contact lens who also use Bausch and Lomb's ReNu MoistureLoc brand of lens cleaner. This product has been withdrawn from the market all over the world (US, India).

So, if you are a user of this product, stop using it!

This message is brought to you by Dr. M. Padmamalini, an ophthalmologist who claims that many people in India are still unaware of the recall of the product. She wanted her blogger husband to spread the word.

Thank you for your patience. Regular programming on the hot topics of the day will resume soon.

How to create a Silicon Valley

Get nerds and VCs (who, by the way, are former nerds) to come and settle down, says Paul Graham. He gives you the algorithm for doing that.

I think you only need two kinds of people to create a technology hub: rich people and nerds. They're the limiting reagents in the reaction that produces startups, because they're the only ones present when startups get started. Everyone else will move.

Observation bears this out: within the US, towns have become startup hubs if and only if they have both rich people and nerds. Few startups happen in Miami, for example, because although it's full of rich people, it has few nerds. It's not the kind of place nerds like.

Whereas Pittsburgh has the opposite problem: plenty of nerds, but no rich people. The top US Computer Science departments are said to be MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Carnegie-Mellon. MIT yielded Route 128. Stanford and Berkeley yielded Silicon Valley. But Carnegie-Mellon? The record skips at that point. [...]


Have you heard about the AIIMS quota?

Me neither, until I read Mom Knows Everything:

The main grouse of AIIMS students - at the forefront of the stir against 27% reservation for OBCs - is that merit is being sacrificed at the altar of votebank politics. But they forget two things: 25% reservation that AIIMS graduates get in PG admission and the Supreme Court judgment of 2001 that declares the earlier system of 33% reservation for them bad in law.

Read the whole story, there is more there ;-). Like, how the AIIMS quota enabled an AIIMS student with a lower score than an SC student to get a 'better' specialization in the PG course ...

I just found it too juicy to pass up ...

Sujai Karampuri

Check out his five-part (so far ;-) series on reservations:   I,   II,   III,   IV,   and   V.

Update: Sujai is prolific! Here is the sixth in the series. And, here is the seventh.

Update 2: Sujai is on a roll! Here is the eighth post in the series.

Here is my favourite sentence from this series:

Unfortunately, most parents in India judge their kids performance ONLY by their scores.

Friday, May 26, 2006


First, this:

What is the best thing about work?

Figuring out how the mind works.

Then, this:

Our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, will engage in barter. Meat is a scarce and valuable commodity, and successful hunters will trade bits of their catch to earn favor with higher-ranked members of the troop, for grooming and even for sex--it really is the world's oldest profession.

Both excerpts are from this Forbes special on Work. The first is a quickie interview with Steven Pinker on his first job (Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard) and the second is a wonderful article by P.Z. Myers (of Pharyngula fame) titled Non-human work. The Forbes special has a whole bunch more than these two, of course.

* * *

While on work, do take a look at this column by Austan Goolsbee, discussing a curious link between your career earnings and the economic conditions in the year of your graduation (and joining the workforce) [via Alex Tabarrok].

Thursday, May 25, 2006


I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
-- Voltaire

I support your right to be an asshole, but do not assume that you are entitled to my respect.
-- Aishwarya

The company that publishes this newspaper suffers, like other investors, when the value of its investments in the market erodes. ... But we uphold the right of the bear to do his job without the government coming down on him like a tonne of bricks.
-- Economic Times

Reservation: Why the debate must continue ...

First, the government has decided to go with a blanket 27% reservation for OBCs, with no 'creamy layer' exclusion. This was as expected; anything else would have been a political suicide for any of the parties in the parliament.

While the quota opponents put up a strong and vigorous fight (sometimes in insensitive ways), theirs was bound to be a losing battle. First, they didn't have the backing of any of the mainstream political parties. More importantly, they didn't have time on their side; the government (ministers, top bureaucrats, ...) could protract the proceedings, creating an illusion of forward movement, all the while fully expecting the students to give it up and return to classes. The bureaucrats have all the time and nothing to lose, while the opposite is true for the students.

The students' protests have not been in vain. They have achieved several (minor) victories: the implementation has been postponed to next year, and the government has promised to 'protects' the number of general category seats by increasing the overall number of seats by more than 50 percent.

* * *

The media are already going 'uh-oh' about the current plan to increase the number of seats. They are publishing scary stories about how this will ruin our education system. I am not worried, for the following reasons:

  • this increase doesn't kick in all at one time; student population will rise roughly by 12-13 percent every year until they stabilize after 4-5 years.
  • Even the initial spurt of 12-13 percent has been postponed to 2007.
  • Government is committed to funding this increase; it must be held to it.

Institutions must now look for ways of dealing with the increased number of students, and teachers will have to figure out how to handle larger classes. While I admit that the problems are difficult, they are not insurmountable, and the institutions have one full year to work on them.

* * *

Quotas for OBCs have attracted specific criticism: Pratap Bhanu Mehta (who, together with Andre Beteille, resigned from the National Knowledge Commission; read their letters here) is quite blunt:

[...]OBCs have been capitalising on a narrative of injustice which is not theirs, and in the process compounding greater injustice. It is a widely known fact that many OBCs are now akin to what used to be dominant castes. Giving them special access to state offices is, in some cases, working against the interests of SCs/STs. While many of the atrocities against Dalits are perpetuated by high castes, OBC atrocities on Dalits are no less significant. It is a travesty of justice to contrive special measures to reinforce OBC dominance. [...]

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit columnist, has argued that among the OBCs, only the truly oppressed (the Most Backward Classes, or MBCs) deserve special attention, but not the others.

Among bloggers, RealityCheck and Confused have strongly argued against quotas for OBCs (while supporting the existing quotas for SC/STs). As Yogendra Yadav observes, OBCs are a vast group with "substantial differences within different jatis ... from different regions". While I feel that Rreality Check (unduly) focuses on the high end of the OBC spectrum, I also realize the danger that quotas may become dominated by a few castes at the top of the OBC spectrum, leaving a lot of the really needy behind.

This implies that this debate and discussion must continue, through collection and analysis of hard data. The government is unlikely to part with information it finds uncomfortable; but we must extract it using every available means: the Right to Information Act, the courts, and the parliament itself.

* * *

Quotas are a blunt tool for achieving the goal of speedy integration of disadvantaged groups into the mainstream. They don't take into account the different levels of oppression -- and the resulting social disadvantage -- experienced by different groups of people. They also ignore other types of disadvantages: gender, urban-rural divide, for example. An affirmative action program that gives due weightage to these factors (such as the plans -- linked here -- suggested by Purushottam Agrawal, and Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande) would be far more preferable to a crude mechanism like quotas.

Having said that, I must add that these other AA mechanisms open up many more variables that would need to be negotiated politically. Also, given the long history of cream-free quotas for SCs and STs, it would be difficult to push -- politically -- for any other kind of plan for OBCs. While I am all for fine-tuned, wonkish plans that are backed by solid data, I also realize that they are dead on arrival when there's no political backing.

However, the final outcome -- choosing a blunt tool of quotas, without a broader consultation and debate -- is disappointing. Here was an opportunity to take a fresh look at reservation, and do it right. This opportunity appears to have been lost. Not only that, the way the government is going about it indicates that it won't monitor how well its quota program is doing. Thus, some vigilance on the part of NGOs and the press (and bloggers, too!) is essential.

* * *

Now that the shortage of educational opportunities is in stark display, this is probably the best time to push strongly for reforms in higher education. See Satya's blog (and, specifically, this post, and the links in it) for great ideas on many differnt reform measurres: private sector participation, strong regulation that demands voluntary disclosure of all relevant information by institutions, accreditation by independent rating agencies, the works.

Who's afraid of castes? Not me ...

In his comment on this post, the blogger who runs Reality Check asks, "Would you agree to adding caste enumerations to census 2011?". I say 'yes', unconditionally.

When I learnt, during this ongoing debate on quotas, that our census process does not collect data on caste, my first reaction was "What a loony thing to do?". However, there probably were good reasons behind the decision to not collect caste-related information after the 1931 census. I am just not sure if those reasons still apply.

Right now, 'caste' is a bad word because it is inextricably linked with notions of 'caste discrimination', and 'caste hierarchy'. Naturally, people -- including me -- feel uncomfortable talking about specific castes; we refer to only broad groupings such as Dalits, OBCs, General Category, etc. This is sad, and I hope we will achieve a state where caste is irrelevant.

Note that I said 'irrelevant', not 'abolished'. While getting 'caste' out of the Oxford English Dictionary is a worthy goal, it's just not going to happen. For many, many people, their caste -- and its associated social rituals, customs, traditions -- will continue to be an important part (but still only a small part!) of their identity, and to the extent that castes reflect the diversity of our country, we can accept their reality, all the while working towards extricating them from the nasty things associated with them. Also, I don't see anything great in a caste-free utopia India, in which everyone belongs to a single, smeared-out, homogenized, pasteurized caste called 'Indian'. That would be a boring place indeed.

In a caste-agnostic India, 'caste' would just be another dimension of one's identity, without any connotations of hierarchy. As a crude analogy, consider the US, with its Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans, and yes, Indian Americans; your ethnic background is just that: your ... ethnic ... background. It matters zilch when it comes to issues of public interest. The same goes for religion (and religious subgroups): Jew, Catholic, Hindu, Baptist, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist, the works. Presidential candidates are open about their religious backgrounds and upbringings. Such a state is far more desirable than a homogenized state with no caste, no religion, no ethnicity, etc.

Make no mistake: as OBCs and SC/STs grow their collective stature, clout and power (socially, economically and politically), we make progress towards the era of caste-irrelevance. That era will be a lot more fun to be in. I won't have to feel uncomfortable about talking about this or that caste. Also, it'll be wonderful to see visiting cards that feature their owners' blog URLs and castes. We are not there yet, but it's something to look forward to.

* * *

Coming back to the current context of reservation, caste is an important criterion (in fact, right now, it's the *only* criterion) that the government seems to want. If so, it's important that the caste-related information is collected and subjected to a dispassionate, scientific analysis. It's also the only way to assess the progress that's made by verious groups of people. Social justice -- in whose name quotas are being implemented -- also demands that we keep track of groups that are still out of the mainstream, even after reservations. Without any caste-based tracking, they may continue to suffer even while all of us begin to claim victory and go home.

So, I say yes to the next census collecting caste-based data.

* * *

Could someone point to some good resources -- preferably, online resources -- on why caste enumeration stopped after the 1931 census, and on why we continue with that policy. Many thanks in advance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

'Stumbling on Happiness' ...

... is the title of a recent book by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of 'hedonistic psychology' at Harvard. From the reviews (NYTimes, Washington Post), it seems like a great book, so I am on the look out for it. In the meantime, here is the link to the first chapter. Just a quick quote from the NYTimes review:

Gilbert is an influential researcher in happiness studies, an interdisciplinary field that has attracted psychologists, economists and other empirically minded researchers, not to mention a lot of interested students. (As The Boston Globe recently reported, a course on "positive psychology" taught by one of Gilbert's colleagues is the most popular course at Harvard.) But from the acknowledgments page forward, it's clear Gilbert also fancies himself a comedian. Uh-oh, cringe alert: an academic who cracks wise. But Gilbert's elbow-in-the-ribs social-science humor is actually funny, at least some of the time. "When we have an experience . . . on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time," he writes. "Psychologists calls this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."

Here's another quote, this time from this profile of Gilbert in the Toronto Star:

Although we humans have the capacity to imagine what will make us happy lodged in our well-developed frontal lobes, we are not good at it. It's the way we consistently err that fascinates the professor.

His researchers at Harvard interviewed voters before and after recent U.S. elections who said they would be extremely unhappy if George W. Bush won and would likely move to Canada — but who reported after the vote that they feel just fine.

"In prospect it always seems so dire," he says.

* * *

Previous posts that featured Daniel Gilbert: here and here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A cry for diversity

Given the calcification of ideas at the top, it would be hard to think that there can ever be change. But reservations work here too. One distraught agitator on the Internet said, "There should be reservations for Arjun Singh's job too!"

There actually is. Seats in Parliament and legislative assemblies are reserved for scheduled castes and tribes all over India. And their representatives have succeeded at their jobs. SC and ST legislators vote consistently to fund welfare programmes for their SC and ST constituents, despite political pressures from the upper castes.

The same for women in reserved panchayats. Women pradhans implement policies that increase access to drinking water, primary education and basic health. Policies that 'meritorious' men prefer to ignore.

In study after study, representatives from reserved constituencies debunked the myth that they are incompetent, or puppets of others, or just not capable of handing the pressures of their jobs because they reached there through reservations.

From this Rediff column by Tarun Jain, an economics student at the University of Virginia, who argues strongly for diversity in our institutions -- including the elite ones.

Medical tourism

As word has spread about the high-quality care and cut-rate surgery available in such countries as India, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, a growing stream of uninsured and underinsured Americans are boarding planes not for the typical face-lift or tummy tuck but for discount hip replacements and sophisticated heart surgeries. [...] What may accelerate the trend is that some pioneering U.S. corporations ... are taking a serious look at medical outsourcing.

Here is the link to the Time article by Unmesh Kher. [Link via: Mark Thoma].

What is the effect of job quotas on the quality of our government schools?

Professor P.V. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M, has a rambling op-ed in the Business Line; he offers several familiar arguments against reservation. This one, however, is new:

[...] As a natural corollary of the Reservation Principle, teaching posts have been reserved on caste basis. That is a cardinal error. What poor students need most are the best teachers available, not the least qualified. [...]

First of all, by conflating reservation and the failure of our state-run schools, he isn't contributing meaningfully to a discussion on either. Second, while his argument, like those based on 'merit', has a certain appeal to it, it isn't difficult to show that it has very little basis.

Different states in our country have had different experiences with quotas, thus allowing us to check if, and how well, reservation correlates with poor quality of schools. Fortunately, we don't have to look far. Indiresan's article itself contains some:

In the past fifty years, the population of Chennai has increased almost ten times. Yet, many schools run by the City Corporation have been closed for "want of students". In truth, it cannot be that the students, but the quality of teachers selected that was found wanting.

It is a recorded fact that discipline among school teachers has come down. Across the country, half the time teachers are not attending to class work at all. It is a fact that most students in Delhi's Corporation schools cannot do simple arithmetic -- multiply two-digit numbers -- even after five years of education.

I believe his statements about the poor quality and work ethic of teachers are broadly true (but overstated) -- for both Chennai and Delhi, and indeed for most schools across the country. But, Chennai has had a long history of far more aggressive reservation than Delhi, thus debunking the correlation between reservation and poor quality schools/teaching.

* * *

Indiresan's bad analysis need not deter us from examining what ails our state-run schools. Most of us have our own views on this issue; here's my take. Feel free to to add your perspectives in the comments.

Heck, it's not just the schools that have difficulty attracting -- and retaining -- good teachers. This problem persists all the way upto the highest levels: colleges, universities, IITs, and IIMs. (Medical and law colleges don't seem to suffer from this problem, though. I wonder why ...)

The reality of our state-run schools (other than the Kendriya Vidyalayas) is quite well known: crowded classrooms, poor infrastructure, bad working conditions, poor pay, ... It's safe to say that teaching in government schools is not the career of choice for the vast majority of us. Yet, we are fortunate to find many, many competent, committed and inspiring individuals who choose to become teachers. The law of large numbers [er ... our population] continues to come to our help!

Sadly, however, not all the teachers are great. Our employment exchanges select teachers from a vast pool of applicants who span a huge spectrum in terms of competence and commitment. And, inevitably, they select a bunch of teachers who are neither competent nor committed. Further, our system doesn't have a mechanism for kicking anyone out for non-performance. So, the bad teachers, once selected, stick around for several decades, bringing the average quality down.

Here's the main point: our 'system' has -- and will have -- these problems, irrespective of whether the bad teachers are from the general category (GC) or the reserved category (RC).

The remedy isn't hard to guess: make teaching more attractive as a career, and enforce strict standards of accountability. With the former, capable people will choose teaching over other careers, and the latter will help get rid of poor performers. Other measures, such as de-centralizing our school system and giving parents a greater control over schools, are good in principle, but won't work if the system selects (some) bad teachers and isn't able to weed them out.

In pursuing accountability, state governments face significant opposition from the teachers (more specifically, teachers' unions) themselves. Amartya Sen refers to the phenomenon of "friendly fire" in which "these institutions of justice [Sen is referring to unions here ;-) ] seem to work largely against justice through their inaction -- or worse -- when faced with teacher absenteeism and other irresponsibilities".

Thus, the broad goal of 'improving our schools' takes us face to face with problems such as the above. These are real, hard problems that can be addressed only through popular awareness and political will. Instead of contributing to solving real problems, Indiresan has, sadly, chosen to foist on us a bogus problem that conflates reservation and poor quality of our schools.


Dependable software

The latest issue of Scientific American carries an excellent article about software that is designed to be dependable. It starts with something that the magazine talked about over a dozen years ago: the Denver Airport!

An architectural marvel when it opened 11 years ago, the new Denver International Airport's high-tech jewel was to be its automated baggage handler. It would autonomously route luggage around 26 miles of conveyors for rapid, seamless delivery to planes and passengers. But software problems dogged the system, delaying the airport's opening by 16 months and adding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. Despite years of tweaking, it never ran reliably. Last summer airport managers finally pulled the plug--reverting to traditional manually loaded baggage carts and tugs with human drivers. The mechanized handler's designer, BAE Automated Systems, was liquidated, and United Airlines, its principal user, slipped into bankruptcy, in part because of the mess.

Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande have an affirmative action plan

In the Hindu: Part 1 and Part 2.

This effort is similar to the one by Purushottam Agrawal, that I linked to here.

Yadav and Deshpande are to be congratulated for taking the debate forward to a territory that lies beyond absolutist positions that argue, on one side, for zero percent reservations, and on the other side, for reservations that are based only on caste without any provision for creamy layer (statistics be damned, and through an ordinance if necessary!). There is a lot of nuance in their articles, and I hope to say some more about their specific proposal later.

For the moment, however, let me just quote this curious paragraph from their article:

The scheme we propose here is a modified version of one that was designed for the selection process of a well-known international fellowship programme for higher education, where it was successful for some years. Thousands of applications have already been screened using this scheme. A similar scheme has been used for admissions to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The working of this scheme does not seem to offer any insurmountable operational difficulties, despite the vast expansion in scale that some contexts might involve. [with bold emphasis added by me]

Now, does anyone have more information about the JNU scheme? Thanks in advance for any pointers (preferably online).

Monday, May 22, 2006

Huge endowments ...

Last February, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) announced the completion of "the most successful fund-raising campaign in the history of higher education, generating more than $3 billion"!

Campaign UCLA secured funding used to support cutting-edge research, provide student scholarships and fellowships, attract and retain top scholars in a wide range of academic disciplines, and enhance classroom, laboratory, health care and other facilities. The campaign benefited all sectors of UCLA — from the College of Letters and Science to the 11 professional schools, from physical and life sciences to social sciences and humanities, from law and medicine to engineering and the arts, and from libraries to UCLA Extension.

Now, Columbia University is getting ready to launch an even bigger campaign, whose goal is to raise $4 billion! Not just that, this NYTimes report starts with two other ambitious fund-raising efforts:

The University of Virginia will announce a $3 billion fund-raising drive in the fall. New York University is in the middle of a $2.5 billion campaign.

Note that at least two of the institutions are public universities. And, of course, the mother of them all, Harvard, has an endowment whose corpus exceeds $25 billion.

In a post back in November of 2005, I wrote:

I am sure there are still many people who would be willing to donate big money to the corpus funds of higher ed institutions -- IIMs and IITs in particular. A corpus of some 1000 crore (10 billion) rupees should be quite easy to build in a short time for an IIT if it makes a concerted effort; such a corpus would help it become financially independent. In principle, the government can either reduce or even stop its funding of those institutions with big corpus funds, and use the money thus saved to create new IITs, IIMs and so on.

This grouse is still valid. I am sure there are tons of people who would be willing to donate to our universities, colleges and institutions. I am also sure that some of the contributions are likely to be quite big. While our private institutions (including those run by charitable trusts) make an effort to raise funds [not much data is available in the public domain, though], our public institutions are prevented from building their corpus funds to beyond a certain limit which, for IITs (for example), is Rs. 100 crores -- about $22 million.

This is a big opportunity that our society is missing out on.

Hey, what happened to the thought experiment?

Remember this little experiment? It's time to look at the results.

First of all, I thank all the participants for 'voting', and the verdict (from an admittedly small, un-representative and self-selecting voters) is clear: being an also-ran (academically speaking) in an elite institution (one of the IITs in that post) is preferable to doing well in a second rung college.

The 'voters' have also provided some good reasons for choosing the elite institutions: infrastructure, exposure, brand image, networking with alumni, etc. Several commenters opined that prior investment and hard work -- and the exhilaration on getting through JEE -- are good enough to choose the IIT option. The discussion there is absolutely great, so go read it.

Here's my own response to the question, which I had written up at the time of writing that post:

In our country, IITs have a special place, a special status (so do AIIMS, NLSUI, and other such elite institutions). If you get into to one of them, you know you have 'arrived'. So what is so special about the IITs? They give you access to some of the best minds: both faculty and students. You are taught by active researchers. Your class mates and you have a high probability of landing great, challenging jobs. Even if your career is not all that great, you will have personal friends with high-flying careers. This network of high flyers is available to you on tap. Anytime you need it. Also, since getting into an IIT is recognized as a great achievement, you benefit from the social 'bhav' you receive from your extended family, neighbours, friends (and this 'social' benefit lasts a long time, indeed!). Finally, the IIT card opens many doors for you.

My response has much in common with those of the commenters: academic excellence, brand equity, network of peers and seniors, open doors and opportunities, and enhanced self-esteem.

* * *

So, what the hell was the point of that experiment? Well, in a terribly written screed by Prof. P.V. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M, I found this paragraph:

As one correspondent has pointed out, reservation is like declaring a boundary scored in a cricket game as a six if hit by a backward caste player. Such artificial boost appears beneficial. It may not be. As one SC student remarked: "I won a degree in the IIT but lost my self-image." How many students would have done better with their lives if they had been exposed to what they can master, instead of being subjected to a difficult drill for which they were not trained, we do not know.

I am now going to ask you to forget the casteist overtones in the paragraph. Forget also the fact that his article is about reservation (two of the commenters -- barbarindian and cipher -- can breathe easy now, and continue to hold on to their absolutist views against reservation ;-). Stripped of all these considerations, Indiresan's algorithm for choosing an institution is:

Since you are less likely to do well in a top tier institution than in a second tier one, you must choose the latter.

To me, this sounded totally wrong! Loony, even. I was going to write a solid rant on how Indiresan was peddling wrong sort of advice, but decided against it. Instead, I decided on the 'experiment' and the accompanying 'mini-poll' that pits my view against that of the mighty Prof. Indiresan. I am glad that I beat him in a near land-slide!

This is what would be called 'Proof by Majority'. In the best traditions of social un-scientific analysis, I will choose to ignore the non-random, self-selecting nature of the voting population!

Parables, case studies and management theory

Some of my friends with an MBA are going to be angry that I am linking to this article by Matthew Stuart. On the other hand some others -- with or without an MBA degree -- will be grateful for it. In any event, this is one article that you must read, just for the vigour with which Stewart debunks critiques management theory -- and has loads of fun while doing it. Here's an extract:

The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn't usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It's that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of "business process re-engineering", the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as "BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!" and "BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!".

Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another - first it's efficiency, then quality, next it's customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it's efficiency all over again. If it's reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that's because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn't to say it's completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.

These people need some psychological help ...

This story in Zee News (based on Bureau reports) is bizarre:

A group of students from IIT, Delhi have submitted a memorandum to President seeking permission to commit suicide if reservation to OBCs in elite educational institutions is implemented.

These students need some serious help.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Faculty crunch at IIMs, IITs

The shortage is most acute in IIT Roorkee, which has a sanctioned strength of 575 faculty, though only 345 faculty members are in position.

IIT Delhi faces a 28% shortage: of the sanctioned strength of 583, only 418 are in position. IIT Guwahati has the best figures and faces a shortage of only five faculty members.

From this report. This takes on an urgency because the government is mulling the possibility of increasing the intake this year by almost 50%, so as to 'protect' the number of general quota seats from being eroded by reservation.

At the IIMs, the faculty shortage is pegged at about 8%. The inability of IITs to attract quality faculty is something that I understand (I think ...); the salary, start-up grants, lab facilities, teaching load (particularly for junior faculty) are some of the deterrents, which make prospective candidates think of other places which treat them better on these parameters (except, of course, the salary, which is fixed by the government).

Since I am not familiar with the IIMs, I am not able to comment on the shortage there. However, I understand that consulting is encouraged in IIMs, and consulting and EDPs (Executive Development Programs) can be quite lucrative. A recent report in the Economic Times covered this aspect of being on the IIM faculty:

[...] Under the Fifth Pay Commission, the entry-level salary of an assistant professor at IIM-A is Rs 12,000 a month while the maximum salary of a professor is Rs 22,400 per month.

But one area where the faculty end up making Rs 23 lakh per annum alone is consulting with private or government firms. This includes consulting done under two slabs. First, the faculty can do consulting worth Rs 6 lakh which they do not have to share with the institute, and is called ‘free allowance’ . Once the Rs 6-lakh mark is reached, the faculty is allowed an additional 52 hours of consulting a year — at Rs 75,000 an hour — 50 per cent of which is shared with the institute.

BTW, isn't there an error (and possibly two) in the last sentence?


That's the only word that comes to my mind when I read some of the reasons given for restricting the entry of foreign universities into India. Of course, there's nothing official about them!

Indian universities are inadequately equipped to handle foreign competition and so they should only be allowed in areas where we have no expertise.

The move to allow foreign universities is likely to create a further crunch on the already fund starved universities, if they lose the best of their human resource pool. “There is some very good quality teaching and teachers to be found in Indian universities,” the expert said.

I can't believe our 'experts' and 'senior members of the Planning Commission' actually entertain such utterly loser-type notions.

BPS Research Digest

I subscribed to the blog BPS Research Digest (BPS = British Psychological Society) some six months ago; ever since then, I have been meaning to post a link here, but never got around to it. Now that they have made an explicit request that we spread the word, here it is.

If you are interested in some of the really interesting psychology research, BPS Digest is the place for you. The research findings are summarized in simple language, with links to semi-popular and scholarly articles that you can consult if you want to dig deeper.

Here are some of the recent posts that I had bookmarked:

The power of prayer ... to harm you!

Be creative: Don't even think about it.

Are you a grumpy maximizer or a happy satisficer?

Self-discipline matters more than IQ

How being ill can be good for you.

The dark side of the American dream?

All but the first two are on one of my pet topics: Happiness! Specifically, positive psychology.

India's industrial renaissance

Anand Giridharadas has this story in today's NYTimes about the industrial renaissance in India:

Here in Tamil Nadu State, where the changes are the fastest, global corporations are already taking advantage of this shift toward manufacturing. Victoria's Secret buys 6.5 million bras a year in this city, roughly one-tenth of its global total, from a factory run by Limited Brands, the parent company. Nokia recently erected a high-volume factory here that it says will produce more than 30 million phones a year and account for at least one-tenth of its global output.

Hyundai Motor, which produces cars in Tamil Nadu, has made India its global hub for the Santro hatchback; it plans to ship 100,000 India-made cars to 60 nations this year, and 300,000 within two years.

According to this WSJ story by Rasul Bailay and Peter Wonacott, network management is poised to see a big wave of outsourcing to -- where else? -- India:

The latest wrinkle in outsourcing has come to this: The network-computer guy working for American and European companies is an Indian engineer -- working in India. Industry executives think the market for long-distance monitoring of computer networks, dubbed "remote infrastructure management," could be worth tens of billions of dollars, as multinationals try to cut costs and Indian outsourcers tighten security checks on corporate data they manage.

Growth is expected as factories become more computerized and remote services expand to include controlling plant temperatures from afar and even monitoring who enters and exits the premises. "Theoretically," says Azim Premji, chairman and founder of India outsourcing company Wipro Ltd., "anything on a network can be managed remotely from India."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Donald Knuth

In 1957, a lanky, bespectacled college student named Donald Knuth caught a glimpse of a beautiful stranger through a window and fell deeply in love. The object of his affection blinked enticingly back at him. It was an IBM Type 650, one of the earliest mass-produced computers and the first Knuth had ever seen. Although computer science wasn’t even really a science yet, Knuth was a goner.

As he would later muse in a memoir, “There was something special about the IBM 650, something that has provided the inspiration for much of my life’s work. Somehow this machine is powerful in spite of its severe limitations. Somehow it is friendly in spite of its primitive man-machine interface.” Knuth saw it as his passport to the new, man-made landscape of computer science, a world he would never tire of exploring.

From this profile by Kara Platoni in the Stanford Magazine. Knuth is the author of The Art of Computer Programming. Here's a quick tale about this multi-volume epic:

In the early ’60s, publisher Addison-Wesley invited Knuth to write a book on compiler design. Knuth eagerly drafted 3,000 pages by hand before someone at the publishing house informed him that would make an impossibly long book. The project was reconceived as the seven-volume The Art of Computer Programming. Although Knuth has written other books in the interim, this would become his life’s work. The first three volumes were published in 1968, 1969 and 1973. Volume 4 has been in the works nearly 30 years.

And, check this out:

He famously regards e-mail as a time sink and no longer reads it -— except for correspondence (printed out by a department secretary) ...

A thought experiment

Okay, let's try a thought experiment. Assume that you are just finishing high school in a medium-sized town, and you have a pretty good academic record: first rank in school, and top one percent in your school board. Your family runs on a modest income, but it places a great deal of value on education. Your hard-working parents look forward to the good times that will surely roll in when you start your career after college.

Assume now that you have been admitted to one of the IITs (yes, you went through a moderately expensive coaching program by mail). While you have done quite well in academics so far, you are also aware that you will be studying with a bunch of other bright students. Thus, you are apprehensive about your ability to do well in your courses in IIT. In the meantime, you also have an admission offer from a second tier college.

Assume now that you somehow 'know' (say, God told you in your dream!), a priori, that you are not going to do well in IIT; you will pass, but not with flying colours; let's say you will be a 'six-point-someone'. You also 'know' that if you choose to go to the other college, you will do very well (above average marks, first class, etc).

Given this choice between doing well in another college, and being an also ran in an IIT, which one would you choose? Why?

* * *

'IIT' here is being used as a proxy for any top tier institution in any professional field: AIIMS in medicine, NLSUI in law, etc. Clearly, we are talking about institutions in India, where there is a significant (perceived) difference between tier I and tier II institutions.

And, yes, there is a point behind this exercise. I will post my own choice at the end of the experiment, whose 'success' depends on your honest inputs. I thank you in advance for taking the time to comment.

Two more interesting takes on reservation

In an ad, Lenovo urged companies to be "equal opportunity employers", by giving everyone a Thinkpad.

On the day (12 May) the election results were announced, a Trinamool Congress functionary was questioned about the firm grip the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- together with its allies in the Left Front -- continues to have over the entire state of West Bengal. He quipped (and I am paraphrasing here), "Those guys control so much (more than 80%) of the Legislature that there is virtually no opposition presence. I think what we need is at least 25 percent reservation for the opposition!".

Now, here's a guy with a sense of humour; I wonder why he is still with Trinamool.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

An interesting take on reservation

Many people who claim they oppose reservation are not really opposed to reservation per se, but are opposed to the kind of reservation program that uses caste as its basis. They are amenable to a quota program based on economic considerations. For example, they say that poor among the general category also deserve to be included in the quota. And, in particular, they are aghast that a 'creamy layer' end up cornering much of the benefits of the quota program.

Such people may find this Tehelka article appealing. The author, Purushottam Agrawal (who the blurb says teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University), presents a fairly detailed plan that takes into account multiple ways in which one could be disadvantaged. His is effectively an affirmative action plan in which people get 'points' added to, say, their entrance exam score; then, the 'merit list' is prepared. For example, a rural Dalit student from a poor family would get points for all three 'social handicaps': 'rural', 'Dalit' and 'poor family'.

I hereby propose a model of affirmative action that I will call miraa — Multiple Index Related Affirmative Action. As the name suggests, this model will take into account several factors when a candidate is considered for admission or employment.

In the specific situation of our country, miraa will consist of the following indices:
  1. Caste/Tribe
  2. Gender
  3. Economic status of family
  4. Kind of schooling received
  5. Region where candidate spent his/her formative years
  6. Status as a first generation learner/educational achievement in the family

If the points for 'caste/tribe' are different for different castes based on their relative 'social backwardness', this plan would certainly address one of the concerns I raised in this post over at How the Other India Lives: in the present quota program, a large number of castes are lumped together as OBCs, which could allow a few of the top castes to benefit disproportionately from the quotas, leaving behind a large number of really needy groups. So, Agrawal's MIRAA plan might help in converting a blunt tool (our present quota program) into a surgical knife. To that extent, I would support this MIRAA.

Having said that, I don't see it being acceptable to a large number of people, simply because it adds some complexity to the program. If at all it is even taken up for consideration, it will probably be killed by endless discussion on the relative number of points to be assigned to the different 'social handicaps' listed above.

But still, it's an interesting, nuanced perspective.

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Update (18 May 2006): In today's Hindu, A. Vaidyanathan (a development economist and ex-member of the Planning Commission) offers a similar perspective, but a different plan: restrict reservation to only those who don't pay income tax!

Indian doctors, made in China

Pallavi Iyer has an interesting opinion piece in today's Hindu about the growing number of Indian students studying medicine in China.

Currently, a total of 230 Indian students are studying for an MBBS at TMU. According to Professor Gao Feng Lin, Director of TMU's International Exchange Department, the number of applicants from India far exceeds the available places at the university. He reveals that TMU received over 600 applications in 2005 but was able to accept only 180.

Vishwajit Sagar, an agent with the Nagpur-based South East Asia Educational Services, recruited 107 Indian students to study medicine at Suzhou University in 2004. Last year, the number of new students at Suzhou had risen to 200. Mr. Sagar also recruited an extra 100 students for placement at Nantong and Jiangsu universities in 2005, which given neighbouring Suzhou's success, decided to throw open their doors to Indians as well.

"This is a win-win situation for all," claims Mr. Sagar.

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Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


After all the accusatory comments I have got for my previous post on Lok Parithran, this news (scroll down to the last news item in that page) brings some relief (via RosaVasanth's Tamil blog): Lok Parithran's Tamil Nadu unit has split. And what a split it has been! Just look at the allegations:

"We left Lok Paritran on Sunday in disgust after witnessing the favouritism shown to the Mylapore candidate Santhanagopalan, who was given all the financial support and workforce for the campaign. We got nothing by way of support. On the other hand, we were abused, humiliated and even threatened by our national leadership,"� said K. Rajamany, the Anna Nagar candidate and an engineering consultant.

He alleged that he was first appointed treasurer of the party but was sacked when he asked for accounts.

There is more! Mr. Elanthirumaran, who contested against M. Karunanidhi in Chepauk, makes this bizarre allegation:

�"... the party president and state general secretary had said that Mr. Santhanagopalan would get huge public sympathy and win in Mylapore if I got beaten up contesting in the politically sensitive Chepauk," he claimed.

Phew! If you will excuse me, I feel like basking in some schadenfreude ...

Women in IITs

Out of the 650 students in the undergraduate departments of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IIT-Kgp), only 32 are women.

An effort to trace why there are so few women in premier tech schools found that women constitute only one-eighth of the total number of JEE (entrance test) applicants.

To encourage more girls to apply, the IITs have now slashed the application fee for women by half. So, while men have to pay Rs 600, women pay just Rs 300.

The report (from three months ago) claims that this year, the number of women candidates went up to some 60,000 (from the usual 25,000 or so) this year. The results of this year's JEE should be out soon (does anyone know when?); we will see how well they have done.

In other news, girls in Karnataka have done quite a bit better than the boys in its SSLC (Class 10) exams, whose results were announced last Saturday. Pass percentage is 71% for girls, and 66% for boys. More importantly, this statistic is even more impressive:

While the ranking system has been abolished, all students who have secured 85 per cent marks and above, will have their marks-cards stamped “distinction”. As many as 15,954 candidates have secured distinction. Here too girls outscored boys with 9,236 girls obtaining distinction marks as against 6,718 boys.

Emotions and e-mail: they don't mix!

... Though e-mail is a powerful and convenient medium, researchers have identified three major problems. First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning well. Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness. Finally, the inability to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

In effect, e-mail cannot adequately convey emotion. A recent study by Profs. Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. Their conclusion: Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but e-mail recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

Here's the link to the story by Daniel Enemark in the Christian Science Monitor.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gosh, these guys actually got 34,000 votes?

Over at Vkpedia Vijay has an interview of Santanagopalan Vasudev, Lok Parithran's candidate in the Mylapore constituency in Chennai.

On economic policy:

Frankly, I don't have any concrete agenda. The fact is we are a new party. We know that there are plans now, and that they don't work. The existing policies are flawed. So, we need to do a lot of research on those lines and come up with policies that will work.

On the change that Lok Parithran wishes to bring about:

We know for sure, all of us, that the current political setup is not correct, and it has contributed negatively to our country's growth. You and I are in the same mess. I think it is time to clean up the mess, and I seek your support. It is all too easy to pass comments about politicians and the state of our country. We think it takes courage to stand up, and we think we have ideas to make things happen. [...] As I have always maintained, it is not about political power, but about political activism. ...

And finally, on the issue of reservation:

I'm very doubtful about introducing reservations in medical education. After all, it is a question of life and death. Why would I want anyone who is incompetent to be handling such a situation? Should we open up reservations in niche areas? I will not favour it.

Frankly, I am surprised that nearly 10,000 votes went to this party in the Mylapore constituency alone.

Questions you have been clamouring to know the answer to ...

Over at Scientific American: Why does fat deposit on the hips and thighs of women and around the stomachs of men? Answer: Harmones Hormones and sex-specific fat.

Over at Wired: What are the fastest-growing plastic surgeries in the US? Answer: those that deal with the aftereffects of 'gastric bypass surgery'.

New IITs?

Check out this report in the Deccan Herald:

To meet the burgeoning demands for human resources in the global market, the Centre plans to create more world-class institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology, in the 11th plan that will begin in 2007.

This was indicated by Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia on Thursday at a function here to celebrate Technology Day, which commemorates the 1998 Pokhran tests.

“Many more IITs should be created to expand our capacity for creating skilled people. We are paying a lot of attention to have new IITs, in the 11th plan,” Dr Ahluwalia said, adding that the Centre would prefer to create new institutes rather than rename or upgrade the existing institutes.

If these institutions are going to be created from scratch, whatever happened to the plan to upgrade a bunch of 7 engineering colleges?

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Yogesh Upadhyaya points to this article in the Financial Times with news about the status of the scheme to upgrade the seven engineering colleges. See his comment below.

Visa Venkateswara Swami

Deccan Herald covers the "God of Sure Visas":

The 500-year-old Balaji temple at Chilkur, about 40 km from Hyderabad attracts plenty of visitors, the devout praying for a hundred different things, as at most temples. But none as many as those who want visas. So, much so, the (swayambhu) god here has begun to be referred to as 'Visa Venkateswara Swami'. It is a growingly popular belief, around here, that this god grants the most difficult-to-obtain visas to go abroad for jobs, post-marriage emigrations, or higher studies, in a miraculously short time after making a vow.

... when your vow is fulfiled, you come back and make 108 circumambulations. To help you remember the numbers as you walk around, the temple gives you little pieces of paper with 108 marks on them so you can keep count by crossing out one number each time you complete a round.

Priceless ...

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Thanks to my friend anc colleague Jayant for the tip-off.

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Update: Kaps points to this post about another such temple near Chennai; even a US consulate official recommends it!

Tutoring, outsourced

Thousands of U.S. students such as Del Monte are increasingly relying on overseas tutors to boost their grades and SAT scores. The tutors, who communicate with students over the Internet, are inexpensive and available around the clock, making education the newest industry to be outsourced to other countries.

Tutoring companies figure: If low-paid workers in China and India can sew your clothes, process your medical bills and answer your computer questions, why can't they teach your children, too?

-- Amit R. Paley, in this story in the Washington Post.

Analyzing Google

In the last several weeks, there have been a bunch of interesting articles analyzing Google: the company, its swagger, its business, its prospects, its competitors, and yes, its motto ("Don't do evil"). Here are the links to a few good ones:

First up is the Wall Street Journal piece: Management a la Google by the management strategy guru, Gary Hamel.

Next is the London Economist piece: Fuzzy math: In a few short years, Google has turned from a simple and popular company into a complicated and controversial one. The accompanying photo-cartoon itself is worth a visit! Also, don't forget to check out this short take by the Economist on the phenomenon called "Web 2.0".

Finally, here are two fine pieces by Robert X. Cringely: It Doesn't Take an Einstein to Realize Why Microsoft Is Headed Down and Google Is Headed Up (from last week) and Google Doesn't Have to Try Nearly as Hard as Microsoft, Yet to Maximize Its Success Google Ought to Try Even Less (from this week).