Sunday, July 30, 2006

A new kind of evolution

The NYTimes has a great article (first in a series) about how different the present-day humans are compared to those who lived just a hundred years ago. The studies mentioned in the article are all about the US and other Western countries, but the conclusions are valid for other populations too.

New research from around the world has begun to reveal a picture of humans today that is so different from what it was in the past that scientists say they are startled. Over the past 100 years, says one researcher, Robert W. Fogel of the University of Chicago, humans in the industrialized world have undergone “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth.”

The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in the human form. It shows up in several ways, from those that are well known and almost taken for granted, like greater heights and longer lives, to ones that are emerging only from comparisons of health records.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years.

The proposed reasons are as unexpected as the changes themselves. Improved medical care is only part of the explanation; studies suggest that the effects seem to have been set in motion by events early in life, even in the womb, that show up in middle and old age.

“What happens before the age of 2 has a permanent, lasting effect on your health, and that includes aging,” said Dr. David J. P. Barker, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southampton in England.

An outrage comes to an end

It is atrocious that our media even dared to 'announce' -- without any evidence whatsoever -- that Prof. V.S. Arunachalam (former Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister) was the 'mole' mentioned by Jaswant Singh in his recent book; such an outrage could never have happened in a country with strong libel laws. This episode must surely count as among our media's darkest.

Do read this HT column by Arunachalam to get a feel for what he and his family went through:

... [T]he front gate had to be locked to prevent people invading our privacy. That didn’t stop a few overzealous cameramen and reporters from squatting outside hoping for some sensational developments. What then followed could only be described as pure nightmare. I was left scrambling with all the phones at home ringing incessantly and all asking the same questions about my alleged betrayal. My factual denials didn’t satisfy. With nothing to hide, I decided to stay at home, despite a few well meaning friends advising me otherwise. In hindsight, I wish I had done that at least for the sake of my family members. On seeing all the calls and people waiting outside, my sister, a heart patient had a few episodes of pain and all I could pray was that the tablets stashed under the tongue would work their magic. My son who took all the calls in the night, refusing to even think that his father was a traitor, was a broken young man in the morning after hearing numerous summary judgments from speculators and sensationalist media-men.

The ordeal ended only after Jaswant Singh 'clarified' that "it was irresponsible to accuse me." Here's the concluding paragraph from Arunachalam's piece:

Many years ago, I stood before President Venkataraman in the hallowed hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan receiving one of the nation’s highest honours. Yet a few days ago, because of a whodunit gone awry, I was being accused by zealots of unspeakable crimes against my country. I now know the transience of such recognitions: “We are all naked when faced with the absurd”.

The man with a capitalist mind and a socialist heart

Um, that would be N.R. Narayana Murthy, Infosys' co-founder and chief mentor.

You used to be a socialist who gave your money away. How does that go with heading a captialist organisation, doing business with America?

When I left the French software company where I first worked, I kept $450 for hitchhiking from Paris to Mysore, and donated the rest to the organisation "Brothers of the Third World".

I'm a capitalist in mind, a socialist at heart — a compassionate capitalist, because we need clear thinking about the creation of wealth and jobs. But for those of us who live in a poor country where the gap between the haves and have-nots is large, where suffering is visible, we need to have our hearts in the right place.

I see no conflict in being a capitalist and a socialist at the same time. As Bernard Shaw said, "If you're not an idealist in your 20s you have no heart, if you're an idealist in your 40s you have no brain."

Murthy has already announced that he will retire from his role as the chief mentor at Infosys. What does he plan to do?

I'm on the boards of several companies and universities worldwide. As it is, I spend a week each month in the U.S., Europe, Asia Pacific, and India. I'll continue to do that and may spend most of my Indian time at our Global Education Centre in Mysore among young people — they energise me. Youth is about confidence, enthusiasm, big dreams, new ideas, openness. Teaching is my primary interest — I have offers from well-known business schools. My son, who's doing his Ph. D. at Harvard, thinks I should do one, too! I'll read a lot. I'll be the non-executive chairman of Infosys, in charge of the board, responsible for governance — ensuring our value system remains intact. I'll go there once a month, retain an office there — but in another building.

And, no, he doesn't plan to run for public office.

... I know my limitations. Managing people with homogeneous backgrounds and aspirations is not the same as managing a country with such multiple divides — rich and poor, educated and illiterate, urban and rural.

* * *

Do read this interview from six years ago in which he describes his transformation from a 'staunch leftist' to a 'compassionate capitalist'.

What prompted your change of heart from being a staunch leftist?

After my Paris stay, I donated my earnings and with $450 in my pocket decided to return home overland. I came to Nis, a border town between the then Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to take the Sofia Express. I struck up conversation with a girl in the compartment. After about 45 minutes the train stopped, the police took the girl away, ransacked my backpack, and put me in a room that had no mattress and a window 10 ft high. They kept me there for 60 hours after which they freed me saying that since I was from a friendly country they were letting me go. I felt that if this system treats friends this way then I did not want anything to do with it. This experience really shook me.

So the socialist in you became a committed capitalist?

I am a 100% free marketeer but I call myself a compassionate capitalist. While I’m very conservative in economic matters I’m very liberal about social matters. But I have no illusions about socialism. In a country like India, when we have to make capitalism an attractive alternative to people, it is extremely important for us to show tremendous compassion to the less fortunate. That doesn’t mean that you should give jobs to people who don’t deserve them or that you should make less profits but wherever you can show compassion you should.

Gunslingers with itchy trigger fingers

That's how Businessweek described bloggers in its story on corporate blogging. Take a look:

... [E]stablishing a corporate blog is not a risk-free proposition. The blogosphere is full of quasi-journalistic gunslingers with anticorporate leanings and itchy trigger fingers. If your blog falls afoul of their unwritten code—as it almost surely will—they'll shoot first and think later. Having a blog can actually make your company a more inviting target.

Interestingly, the story begins with pitfalls of corporate blogging, and only after recounting some scary stories does it move on to what the possible advantages might be.

... By providing companies with unvarnished feedback from customers, it can serve as an early-warning system for product or service problems. It can also provide an easy and inexpensive way to deliver specialized information to narrow segments of the market. And because subscribing to a blog is a snap, it can be a great way to distribute technical updates, new product announcements, and other periodic messages.

It's a pity the article doesn't mention the Official Google Blog. Google uses it to announce product launches, feature launches, and programming contests. It also uses it to get across its views on important policies, and legal and regulatory battles. When it also throws in occasional feel-good stories and medical advice for geeks, the effect is about right. Sure, it's a tightly controlled blog, but you wouldn't want some itchy-fingered' blogger taking over your company's blog and making a mess of it, would you?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The expert mind - Part Deux

How to be an expert on anything by Stephen Colbert, whose expertise, in such fields as Civil Lights, is legendary.

The expert mind

In the latest issue of Scientific American, Philip E. Ross presents an overview of what we know about the Expert Mind, culled from decades of research on chess (which he calls the Drosophila of cognitive science). Here are some of the key conclusions:

The better players did not examine more possibilities, only better ones...

... [T]he expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge ...

... [E]xperts rely more on structured knowledge than on analysis ...

... [A]bility in one area tends not to transfer to another.

... [I]t takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. [Herbert] Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others. ...

... [K. Anders] Ericsson [whose views on expertise was linked to here] eargues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. ...

... [M]otivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families. ...

... [S]uccess builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child's motivation.

All of which lead to the ultimate conclusion:

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.

Designing the 100 dollar laptop

eWeek did a story (with pictures) sometime ago about the latest version of the 100 dollar laptop.

Technology Review did a story about the design of the laptop's human-powered generator.

Wired has a profile of Yves Béhar, the designer behind some of the nifty things in the 100 dollar laptop from the OLPC initiative.

Figuring out how to protect everything from dust and moisture was harder. Béhar replaced the traditional keyboard on Design Continuum’s model with a sealed rubber one and built a sensor right into the palm rest to eliminate the seam between it and the trackpad found on a regular laptop. Other problems: The USB ports were exposed to the elements, and a pair of radio antennas had to stay outside the machine. (The Media Lab wanted the antennas to have a half-mile range for building a city- or village-wide mesh network, with each laptop acting as a node.) Solving one problem solved the other: Béhar turned the antennas into a pair of playful “ears”that swivel up for reception or down to cover the laptop’s naked ports.

“Everything on the laptop serves at least two purposes,” he says.

There are at least two places where Wired sounds skeptical of the whole OLPC initiative:

... Depending on who you asked, it was either soon-to-be-legendary vaporware or a shortcut to modern education for tens of millions of poor kids around the world. [...]

If it succeeds, Béhar’s design will become an icon. If it fails, it will be something more like the first English-Esperanto dictionary – an artifact of ill-fated idealism.

The skepticism expressed in the Wired piece is about the technology, its feasibility and its acceptability. These technical problems may well be overcome, if a lot of smart minds (and money) are thrown at them. What I would question is the OLPC's strategy of selling the laptops directly to bureaucrats, but not to the actual users.

Finally, Nicholas Negroponte is quoted in the Wired story as saying that he is willing to delay the launch of the laptop until he is able to sell a self-imposed minimum of 5 million units. This is an interesting confession.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Just how competitive can scientists get?

Put yourself in the shoes of a young, hot-shot post-doc who has got several offers for a faculty position, including one from a Great University in your field. Naturally, you are keen on joining GU, except for one small glitch. GU also has a leading senior researcher -- a Nobel laureate, no less! -- with research interests that overlap yours considerably; the glitch is that this senior researcher is not keen on having you as a colleague. He says so in so many words in his e-mails (doc):

... I am afraid that accommodating your lab would be difficult.

... [As] you are very aware, two competing labs in the same building is something we should avoid by all means. Some people who are promoting your arrival here are ignoring this basic principle, but I don't believe that they are doing a service to you.

I am sorry, but I have to say to you that at present and under the present circumstances, I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague. ... I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us.

What would you do? How would you react?

* * *

After thinking this over, do read these two reports in Boston Globe about the sordid saga that played itself out in MIT, involving a star neuroscientist (Alla Karpova) and a Nobel laureate (Susumu Tonegawa). Links via Inside Higher Ed (1, 2).

* * *

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0

Vidya Subrahmaniam on communal harmony in Varanasi

Vidya Subrahmaniam has a two-part series in the Hindu on how Varanasi has been coping with the aftermath of the March 7 bomb blasts at the Sankat Mochan temple and at the railway station. In particular, the series emphasizes the stellar role played by two key religious leaders: Veer Bhadra Mishra (Mahant at the Sankat Mochan temple) and Maulana Abdul Batin Nomani (Mufti-e-Banaras). Some excerpts:

The Mahant's brilliant management of the blast aftermath is the talk of the town — resuming puja and aarti before nightfall, converting the evening bhajan to a shanti aur satbuddhi (peace and equanimity) prayer for communal harmony, and evicting those — Vinay Katiyar's entourage arrived to shouts of Har Har Mahadev and Jai Shri Ram — looking to stir the communal pot. To quote the Mahant, "Katiyar wanted to sit on a dharna and Advani wanted to start a rath yatra from the temple. I said nothing doing." For Muslims, the gallantry could come only from a true man of God, and with the Mufti responding in kind — swift and emphatic condemnation of the blasts followed by visits to the temple, hospitals, and appeals for calm — it was as if the floodgates had opened. Says Mahant Misra: "These days I'm very popular with Muslims. But I remind them that I'm not a neta." Yet the respect the two men command is, in fact, because they are not netas, because they foiled the politicisation of the blasts. If the Mahant has lost count of the invitations for Muslim seminars and festivities, the Mufti is a similar attraction at Hindu gatherings.

Today the Mahant and the Mufti, each a visionary in his own way, are local heroes whose communal spirit has spawned a rush of copycat gestures — on both sides. Consider the following: The temple city's showcase annual event is the Ram Katha Mandakini Shobha Yatra — an illuminated procession of motorboat-driven tableaux along the Ganga on Ram Navami day. The yatra is flagged off by Mahant Misra with a celebrity invited to be the chief guest. This year, there were two chief guests, the Mufti-e-Banaras and Noor Fatima, a practising criminal lawyer who last year built a temple in the city. A third attraction was Bismillah Khan's son, Mohammad Jamin Khan, who played the Ram dhun.

Yatra over, Varanasi was witness to a unique sight — of burqa-clad Muslim women taking to the streets, shouting "Khichdi hai saara Hindustan, alag na honge Hindu, Musalman (We are a composite people, no one can divide us) and "Muslim mahilaon ne thana hai, aatankwad mitana hai (it is our promise to end terrorism)." The chunauti rally (challenge rally) ended at the Sankat Mochan mandir where the women assembled at the very spot where the bombs had gone off and recited the hanuman chalisa. The same evening, the temple resounded to the strains of Hindustani classical music — again a composite annual festival. But this year the festival became a statement with the biggest names in music and dance turning up to support the Mahant — Birju Maharaj, Pandit Jasraj, Rajan and Sajan Misra, and so forth.

Subrahmaniam uses the famed Banaras silk sarees as a metaphor for the HIndu-Muslim harmony. In the second article, for example, we get this:

Most wholesalers are Hindu while most weavers are Muslim, and the six yards of shimmering silk is quite the metaphor for Varanasi's composite culture. Enter any shop, and you will hear paeans sung to the city's ganga-jamuni sanskriti (complementary like the Ganga and the Jamuna) and to the reshmi mizaz (gracious manner) of its people. "Kashi jahan banti hai yeh saadi, Hindu uska tana hai, Muslim uska bana hai (Kashi where the Banarasi saree is made, Hindu is its warp and Muslim its weft)," goes an ode to the intertwined lives of Varanasi's Hindus and Muslims. This is not made-in-Bollywood integration but integration born of proximity, interdependence, and of an understanding shaped by years of sharing each other's joys and sorrows, of celebrating holi and Id as secular festivals. In these parts, it is the Hindu wholesaler who hosts the Roza iftar during Ramzan.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

100 Dollar laptops: MHRD takes a sane stand

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has taken a lot of flak on the reservation front from almost all quarters; but it did get something right. And, that is to say a firm 'No' to the 'One Laptop Per Child' (OLPC) project aka the 100 Dollar Laptop project. Among the several arguments it has put together, this is probably the most important.

"It is quite obvious that the financial expenditure to be made on the scheme will be out of public funds. ... It would be impossible to justify an expenditure of this scale on a debatable scheme when public funds continue to be in inadequate supply for well-established needs listed in different policy documents," the ministry said.

Veteran readers of this humble blog would know that I have been a strong opponent of these low-priced laptops being dumped on the poor countries in millions -- at public expense. [I would welcome it if they are sold in the open market for individuals to buy for themselves/their children] What our poor children need are good schools, with real classrooms, real blackboards, real infrastructure (including toilets) and real teachers. In the absence of these real things on the ground, spending money on fancy gadgets is a cruel scam. I applaud the MHRD for putting its foot down and saying 'No'. I applaud them even more for this special touch:

It also finds it intriguing as to "why no developed country has been chosen" for MIT's OLPC experiment "given the fact that most of the developed world is far from universalising the possession and use of laptops among children of 6-12 age group".

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The popular -- but unknown -- Google artist

[Dennis Hwang] has been manipulating the six letters in the Google name into shamrocks, fireworks, hearts and goblins since shortly after he got an internship there in 2000. Company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin found out that he was an art major in college.

"They said 'Hey Dennis, why don't you give this a shot,' and I've been doing it ever since," he said.

From this CNN story about the man who has possibly the world's most enviable job: creating Google logos. The story also has a link to a slide show of his logos.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Blog block: A few more links

This time, the links are to commentary that treats the government's attempts to muzzle free speech at just the appropriate level of analysis: contempt and ridicule.


Goddamnit, can't the Indian government even indulge in some freedom-curtailing and dictatorial authoritarianism without skewering its dignity in the process? How can one trust a government to pursue and catch the perpetrators of the Mumbai bomb blasts when it can't even bring its ludicrously wrong-headed policies to a successful conclusion? Christ, these clowns can't even do the wrong things right. It's like the neighbourhood peeping Tom who climbs the wrong tree in front of the wrong house and spends the night trying to peep into the wrong window. Shit, this government sickens and embarasses me with its ineptitude.

Angry Fix:

BREAKING NEWS: angry fix has heard from reliable sources that birdsellers in Crawford Market are jubilant. Apparently, the demand for homing pigeons is skyrocketing.

A Crawford Market birdseller looking for pigeons he's not sold yet.

The more internet-savvy birdsellers claim to know the real reason behind the sudden surge, but they aren't telling.

When we contacted our friendly neighbourhood policeman, he said he believed the ban on blogs was the prime cause for the increase in demand for homing pigeons. He said terrorists, desperate to contact each other, and crippled by the ban on blocks, were forced to use homing pigeons. He said, not without a touch of pride, that terrorists, considerably cramped by the acute shortage of homing pigeons, have been thinking of using other alternatives (see below), but the other alternatives have been thinking otherwise.


Kabali Times Special Correspondent(s) Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, July 19 2006:

Home Minister of Government of India received a note from RAW stating that certain Small Intenstine Manipulating Individuals (SIMI), were using Internet 'addresses' to communicate among themselves. The RAW apparently were dissapointed to find that their agents constantly developed bowel movement problems after eating in the military canteen and wanted to communicate this to the minister. The Home Minister, who in school had never passed into a standard, where Social Studies actually diversified into Geography and History (but has a honorary PhD doctorate to cheat all his 23 grandchildren), assumed that the 'Internet' was a 'Madrasi' town near Vijayawada and sent a GOI notification that banned several addresses. This would prevent people from actually walking into/visiting several home addresses. Press agencies say that major colonies and suburban places have also been blocked off. All service providers were intimated of the government block notice. As a result in many places in Mumbai and Chennai - autos, trains and buses refused to travel to certain parts of the city.

Blog block: A few links


All well in god's own country? Sure enough. Except for one small detail. As I write this, the instructions to ban those few specified sites still stand.

Any anger about that? Should there be?

To my mind, of course. That's the point of all this, after all: the government's decision to shut down my access to some sites. (As, before, governments have decided to shut down my access to some books, some films, etc). The lifting of a stupid blanket ban, by itself, was never the point.

So any RTI queries, any legal action, any blogger anger, must focus, first, on getting government to explain exactly why and how it took this decision about these specific sites; second, on using that information to set up the framework that will prevent government from banning anything, and I mean anything.


[Let us] remind ourselves that somebody sitting in the Government office has decided on your behalf that you are not capable of digesting some content online. I might wake up tomorrow and find just my blog blocked. I share my server with perhaps seventeen other websites. Some of you may notice tomorrow that you get strange errors on my page. You’ll come once, twice and maybe even an odd third time when you google for something. You’ll get irritated and never come again. I won’t have an army of bloggers to defend my rights then. Even suppose you are inordinately fond of reading me - you won’t find anyone to support your right to read. You may never realize that the blog is blocked because the government doesn’t even find it fit to tell you what is blocked. And let’s face it - one piddly little navel gazing blog isn’t going to make someone fish for a copy of a government note and fax it to anyone.

In the end - a drop will go missing from the ocean. Somebody somewhere will tsk away and say something about how it’s not censorship - just the state’s good intentions.


i wonder how many of us would even have noticed that indian government had asked internet service providers to block some 20 urls, if it's not for technical incompetence of these isps, who ended up blocking thousands of them. i guess they would get around the problem sooner than later. after that, what?


3-4 days back, when it became apparent that the Govt of India had once again asked India's 153 ISPs to block some internet sites, I had thought that I will start this post with a quote often attributed to Voltaire:

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

Unfortunately, I found soon that quoting Voltaire in this situation will be an anticlimax.

I realised that one was up against, not a conspiracy against freedom of speech/information, but plain ignorance and stupidity!!!

The Hindu:

Various forms of speech have been growing on the Internet to the discomfiture of governments, some of which have responded with broad restrictions on their dissemination through laws and technological barriers. The reasonableness of such curbs, which can only be the rare exception in an open society, depends on whether the banned material can cause immediate violence or harm. Such a principle may apply to some online activities such as child pornography and incitement to hate crimes of a direct nature. In general, though, free speech must remain unfettered and protected vigorously as one of the most prized of freedoms. The order of the DoT to the Internet Service Providers appears to meet none of the tests restricting the freedom of speech and smacks of arbitrariness.


While following the groundswell of conversation that welled up among Indian bloggers (even a touching offer of help from Pakistan), something became frightfully clear: most of the people who were writing against censorship and for freedom believed in no such thing. I repeatedly came across messages that said “If the government wants to block a few websites, that’s alright, but blocking all of blogspot is terrible.” I have a name for these people, and it’s “free speech free riders“.


... It is perfectly natural that bloggers are more concerned about themselves than about a distant event. If you sat in a Mumbai train and listened to the conversation, we bet they’ll be talking about the bombings, not blogs.

If bloggers were talking about the bombings without either first-hand experience or new insight, that is when you should be calling them pretentious. The fallacy is in assuming that bloggers or the blogosphere have a greater purpose than navel-gazing.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Victory ...

... er, sort of. Shivam Vij informs us that the blog block will be lifted within a day (it has already happened for me!). I think we are all justified to feel hugely relieved.

But, this is only a partial victory. As Dilip and Neha have observed, the censorship is still on. Some sites are still being blocked, on the pretext that they have objectionable content. It's not clear who decides what's objectionable, and whether a blanket ban can be ordered without any due process (that would allow the content owners to offer their defence). [Let's not even get into the meaning of a 'ban' or a 'block' that is so laughably easy to circumvent ...]

Several applications under the Right to Information Act have been filed demanding why these sites were sought to be blocked in the first place. We should continue to support the people behind these moves.

Now, can this momentum be sustained in the fight for lifting the ban on the few sites that are still blocked? I certainly hope so. Getting to a "framework that will prevent government from banning anything" is, as Dilip says, "a huge goal, and it will take some doing to get there". I agree with him that it's worth fighting for.

* * *

Having said that, I would still say that this episode has done something quite invaluable. And that's to make issues such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press real and relevant to a set of people who are thought to be full of apathy: the youth. These freedoms are not some lofty ideals that talking heads discuss on TV; they have now become personal, and personally valuable to a huge number of people and, in particular, young, educated, tech-savvy people. And, this can only be a good thing.

Sunday, July 16, 2006 being blocked by some Indian ISPs?

It appears to be so. Mridula and Neha have the details.

At Mridula's suggestion, I called up the Spectranet's Call Centre in Delhi, and their agent told me that the Ministry of Communications had indeed sent a letter asking them to block the sites. He was unaware of the reasons behind this move.

So, blogspot-blocking is real, but appears (at least, as of now) to be localized. In Bangalore, for example, I have been able to access both my blogger account and blogs on the domain from my home, where I use BSNL dial-up.

If you have any clue about what's going on, do please head over to Mridula's blog and leave a comment. She has been following up on this one.

Friday, July 14, 2006

10 Acres, 250 Crores, 2500 students

... IIT-Kharagpur plans a new campus in/near Kolkata. In other news, its convocation is scheduled for tomorrow, conferring degrees to 1370 students, inclusing 84 PhD, 11 MS and 452 M Tech degrees.

The Convocation Address will be delivered by ... HRD Minister Arjun Singh!

A great info-graphic on Lasik surgery

NYTimes has an excellent infographic on Lasik surgery. A must see.

Thanks to Venkat's excellent Tamil blog for the pointer.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

An explosive commentary on the status of women in science

When I was 14 years old, I had an unusually talented maths teacher. One day after school, I excitedly pointed him out to my mother. To my amazement, she looked at him with shock and said with disgust: "You never told me that he wasblack". I looked over at my teacher and, for the first time, realized that he was an African-American. I had somehow never noticed his skin colour before, only his spectacular teaching ability. I would like to think that my parents' sincere efforts to teach me prejudice were unsuccessful. I don't know why this lesson takes for some and not for others. But now that I am 51, as a female-to-male transgendered person, I still wonder about it, particularly when I hear male gym teachers telling young boys "not to be like girls" in that same deroga-tory tone.


Here are a few examples of bias from my own life as a young woman. As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me. I was not given any credit. I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my application was much stronger (I had published six high-impact papers whereas my male competitor had published only one). Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

This explosive commentary in Nature by Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is going to be discussed quite widely. There will be a lot of spin on either side, but there's nothing like the original. Do read Ben Barres' very personal commentary; you will learn and understand a lot more about 'innate differences' (see another quote below) and 'discrimination' from just this one source than from the tons of spin-filled meta-commentary that's sure to follow.

The link is to Nature's website, and if it's pay-walled, take a look at this story [via].

In an accompanying piece (in a side bar, I think), this is what Barres says:

As a transgendered person, no one understands more deeply than I do that there are innate differences between men and women. I suspect that my transgendered identity was caused by fetal exposure to high doses of a testosterone-like drug. But there is no evidence that sexually dimorphic brain wiring is at all relevant to the abilities needed to be successful in a chosen academic career. I underwent intensive cognitive testing before and after starting testosterone treatment about 10 years ago. This showed that my spatial abilities have increased as a consequence of taking testosterone. Alas, it has been to no avail; I still get lost all the time when driving (although I am no longer willing to ask for directions). There was one innate difference that I was surprised to learn is apparently under direct control of testosterone in adults — the ability to cry easily, which I largely lost upon starting hormone treatment. Likewise, male-to-female transgendered individuals gain the ability to cry more readily. By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

Diplomatic (parking) violations

Kuwait (246.2)
Pakistan (69.4)
Nigeria (58.6)
Bahrain (37.7)
Indonesia (36.1)

Some of the countries from the top of the list of parking violations by diplomats in NY City per year (and per diplomat, too!) during the five year period 1997-2002. The data is from this paper [via Tim Harford], which concludes that:

... diplomats from high corruption countries ... have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time.

You do want to know the figure for India, don't you? It's 6.1 per diplomat, and it gives India a middling 79th position out of 146.

But, before I end this post, I just wanted to point out the other main conclusion from that paper:

... officials from countries that survey evidence indicates have less favorable popular views of the United States commit significantly more parking violations ...

Chinese proverbs for Type A types

When the wind rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills.

When is the best time to plant a tree? A hundred years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Yesterday.

Daniel Gross wonders why business executives are so fond of quoting Chinese proverbs. Did you know that the old story about Chinese character for crisis being the same as that for opportunity is not quite correct?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On education, we now have some significant statements ...

... first, from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh:

... The deteriorating health of our universities in the past two decades has hobbled our scientific research base ... [The reconstruction of the university system] must be a top priority and the issue has to be addressed comprehensively, not in a piecemeal fashion. ... We will promote public-private partnerships to increase funding for frontier areas of scientific and technological research, de-bureaucratise science and technology institutions and ensure their academic autonomy.

We cannot have pretensions about being a leading `knowledge power' if we do not substantially upgrade our scientific and technological expertise — both in quality and quantity.

... and, from the Oversight Committee (entrusted with the job of charting the roadmap for implementing 27% OBC reservation from 2007):

... [The Committee] wants to do away with the prevalent practise of recruiting alumni as teachers. Describing this trend as "academic incest," the Committee — in its theme paper for consultations — noted that this "is leading to a stultifying atmosphere of limited intellectual interaction and undermining fresh thinking, new ideas and innovative research."

Advocating "cross-fertilisation of ideas" in institutions of higher learning, the Committee pointed out that all great universities of the world have an inflexible policy of recruiting only alumni of other universities into the faculty. Noting that this was the pattern in India, too, in the earlier decades, the Committee notes with concern that over the last three decades, "increasingly faculty is drawn largely from among the alumni of the same university." As part of the effort to rejuvenate Indian universities in the larger exercise to build a knowledge society, "we need to adopt the global best practices in recruitment."

These refreshingly candid statements are all nice for us to hear; will they be followed up with firm action on the ground?

Marvellous Mumbaikars

In his NYTimes op-ed titled India's Indestructible Heart, Naresh Fernandes says:

Soon after hearing about the blasts, I made my way to the local hospital to see if they needed blood donations. It had been less than an hour since the first explosion, but I’d been beaten to it by nearly 200 people.

When the volunteers found that the authorities had adequate supplies of blood, they waited patiently to help carry victims into the wards. Others stood over shocked survivors, fanning them with newspapers and helping them contact relatives.

Stories of exceptional selflessness have flooded in all evening. One came from my friend Aarti, who was in one of the trains on which a bomb went off. As she jumped out of her compartment, she saw streams of slum dwellers from the bleak shanties along the tracks rushing toward the train with bed sheets. They knew that there would be no stretchers to be found and were offering their threadbare cottons to be used as hammocks to carry victims away.

Uma's post has links to several more stories about utterly selfless, deeply moving gestures by the citizens of the great city of Mumbai.

Terror in Mumbai

A city under attack. A nation in mourning. A history of terror on Indian soil.

The immediate emphasis should be on helping those in need. Mumbai Help blog is on the job. It also has a round-up of blog posts on the blasts. So do Global Voices and DesiPundit.

* * *

Dilip's reports are here, here, here and here. Uma's reactions are here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


If you’re on the fence about whether to sell your stock, sell it.

Most people predict that they’d be more unhappy if they sold a stock that went through the roof than if they kept one that tanked. They’re wrong—aggressive actions that go awry are mentally catalogued as valuable learning experiences.

One of the twenty strategies for a happier life presented in this article, a sidekick to the main piece, which does a great job of surveying the state of the art in happiness research, featuring the work of such 'positive psychologists' as Martin Seligman, Daniel Gilbert and Barry Schwartz.

* * *

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Kundalini and Kamasutra

What Is the Sannyasin's Kundalini Path?


The sannyasin balances within himself both the male and female energies. Complete unto himself, he is whole and independent. Having attained an equilibrium of ida and pingala, he becomes a knower of the known. Aum.

From Mandala 24 in the book Dancing with Shiva in Himalayan Academy Sacred Hindu Literature Collection, one of the many collections that offer over 300,000 e-books for free during this month at the World e-Book Fair. No thanks to this guy for the tip that took me -- through several clicks -- to the scary quote above.

* * *

The quote above sent me scurrying over to Project Gutenberg to check out its lists of top 100 downloads yesterday, last 7 days and last 30 days. In all the three lists, Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra is at No. 3, (almost) restoring my faith in humanity.

How the Other Half Lives

Over at How the Other Half Lives, our team has doubled in size in just the last three months.

The latest to join us is Gawker (who blogs here and here), and he starts with an open letter to the dear leaders of Shiv Sena on their "decision to protest against the desecration of the statue of our good leader’s wife, Mrs Meenatai Thackeray".

* * *

I count this post (from two months ago) as among Gawker's best.

Fisking Outlook's rankings

Arunn Narasimhan (Mechanical Engineering, IIT-M), performs this wonderful service so that we all know how crappy the latest Outlook rankings really are.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Outlook's ranking of engineering and medical colleges

The rankings are just out: top 100 engineering colleges and top 25 medical colleges. The cover story is here, and the methodology is described here. If you read the methodology, you will find good reasons to not take this entire ranking exercise too seriously. So there.

However, there are other interesting stories that accompany the Cover Story. One of them recounts the sad story of how the famed Karnataka model was undermined and destroyed. There are two articles by engineering graduates (and currently employed in IT industry) from private colleges in Tamil Nadu. While both of them (with a not so high grades and entrance marks) are grateful for the opportunity to study engineering, they are quite candid about the problems in the system of private colleges. From T.R. Muralidharan's article:

... Anna University (to which all engineering colleges are affiliated) is still finding it difficult to ensure that infrastructure and facilities at the colleges conform to standards. The quality of education rendered too is often substandard. There is a shortage of good professors in areas like IT and communications where developments happen rapidly.

Here's S. Senthil Kumar, a Dalit student who is now with Infosys:

Private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu operate like small-scale businesses with disproportionately high turnover. Their marketability is determined by the numbers getting distinctions, the number of students going abroad for higher studies. Most of these colleges come up with bare minimum facilities, just about meeting AICTE requirements. Once revenues go up, more "facilities" are added. My college had a few good lecturers but many mediocre and not-so-good ones.

Love affair with fountain pens

Then came seventh standard, when I persuaded my father to buy me a Hero pen. The fancy nib was attractive, and hero pens were the trend in class. "What number do you have?" we asked each other the model numbers of our hero pens. I had a `442', and loved it. When I lost my pen, I went around shops searching for a 442, and never bought a different model. This was the time I heard about Parker, but never dreamt of getting one; the price was more than three or four times as that of a hero. This `hero worship' continued till the end of school.

That's from Vishnu's wonderful new blog at the same old URL [In case you are curious, here's an explanation of sorts].

Women in science

The Girl from Ipanema writes thoughtfully about women in science; her thoughts are triggered by a recent faculty appointment in her department, where graduate students get to voice their opinion through a formal mechanism.

While the broad principles -- diversity, mentorship, affirmative action, and yes, social justice -- are well known, the question of whom to choose for a given faculty position is hard to resolve when one specific candidate is pitted against another. The devil, certainly, is in the details.

On saying 'no' to our genes

A recent survey showed that 30 % of German women are childless intentionally. David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, asks, "... isn't it curious — indeed, counterintuitive — that people choose, and in such large numbers, to refrain from participating in life's most pressing event?"

... [I]ntentional childlessness is indeed curious — but in no way surprising. It is also illuminating, because it sheds light on what is perhaps the most notable hallmark of the human species: the ability to say no — not just to a bad idea, an illegal order or a wayward pet but to our own genes.

When it comes to human behavior, there are actually very few genetic dictates. Our hearts insist on beating, our lungs breathing, our kidneys filtering and so forth, but these internal-organ functions are hardly "behavior" in a meaningful sense. As for more complex activities, evolution whispers within us. It does not shout orders.

People are inclined to eat when hungry, sleep when tired and have sex when aroused. But in most cases, we remain capable of declining, endowed as we are with that old bugaboo, free will. Moreover, when people indulge their biologically based inclinations, nearly always it is to satisfy an immediate itch, whose existence is itself an evolved strategy leading to some naturally selected payoff. A person doesn't typically eat, for example, with the goal of meeting her metabolic needs but to satisfy her hunger, which is a benevolent evolutionary trick that induces the food-deprived to help out their metabolism.

Fun with metaphors and similes

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

There is more here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Some thoughtful posts on the reservation issue

I discovered them quite a while ago, but somehow missed linking to them. It's never too late, though!

Over at Angry Fix, there are two posts. This post by Arjun reminded me to act!

There's a great four-part series by Chiru, an IIT-IIM alumnus.

Finally, Blackadder (another IIT and IIM alumnus) wrote this in November 2005! Pretty prescient, no?

Yesterday, a great hero passed away

Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (Dr. V), founder of the Aravind Eye Care System, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. The Hindu has a short obituary.

I have never met Dr. V, nor have I visited Aravind. However, I have heard so much (especially from P, my wife and an ophthalmologist) about this remarkable man and the great institution he built. Dr. V is recognized now as a pioneer and innovator, and his contributions have received rich tributes not just from the beneficiaries of the Aravind's 'system', but also from health organizations (WHO), philanthropic institutions (Lions International), NGOs (SEVA), and B-Schools (Harvard). Let me quote from a few online sources.

First, this is what Arun Shourie says about Dr. V in an Indian Express column:

Dr G Venkatswamy retires from government service at the age of 58 in 1976. He has a dream: he yearns to provide eye care to the masses. But he has no resources. He calls on one mill owner in the Coimbatore area after another for donations. A week’s trudging around yields Rs 2,000. He persuades his sister and brother-in-law, and two other ophthalmologists in the family to give up their practice and join him. They rent a house. As the numbers they serve multiply, they secure an acre of undeveloped land. They need to expand beyond the 30-bed facility they have set up. Bank after bank rejects their applications because they are not ‘‘credit-worthy’’. They mortgage family property to raise Rs 23 lakhs. A British doctor affiliated to the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind gives them another lakh. Today Dr Venkatswamy’s hospitals handle 14 lakh visits by out-patients; they perform over two lakh major eye surgeries every year. They conduct over 1,500 eye camps, examine over four lakh patients in them, and then conduct over 90,000 eye surgeries on those among the patients who need operations.

Aravind has extensive links with NGOs such as the SEVA Foundation:

Initially, Seva assisted Aravind in establishing essential finance, community outreach, and staffing structures. Now this dynamic partnership focuses on human resources development. The Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology engages Seva volunteers (see Volunteer) as trainers for staff from Aravind and other eye care programs throughout Asia. Seva and Aravind provide on-site training and consultation to eye hospitals that seek to provide high volume, sustainable services for their communities. Seva addresses childhood blindness and well-being by supporting the Aravind Centre for Mothers, Children, and Community Health.

Just how great is the institution that he built? The Guardian says it's a great example of 'social entrepreneurship'. The Harvard Business School has two case studies (summaries are available here, and here). From the second case study (2000):

[Since first Case in 1993] Aravind had also made progress in two other key areas. First, it set up its own manufacturing facility, Aurolab, to produce an intraocular lens (IOL), given that cataract surgery using IOL implants was most successful in treating blindness. Second, Aravind created the Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology, a training facility designed to educate health-related and managerial personnel in the development and implementation of efficient and sustainable eye care programs in India, Asia, and Africa.

And, here's something from this profile:

... Taking its services to the doorstep of rural India, the Aravind Eye Care System has become self-sustaining, treating over 1.4 million patients each year, two-thirds of them for free. It is an international resource and training center that is revolutionizing hundreds of eye care programs in developing countries. With less than 1% of the country's ophthalmic manpower, Aravind performs about 5% of all cataract surgeries in India. Since its inception, Aravind has performed more than 2 million surgeries and handled over 16 million outpatients. ...
[bold emphasis added]

Finally, getting back to the man himself, this is from this profile in Fast Company (2001):

... Ride for seven hours with an eye doctor who is 82. Ask him to tell you the secret, to answer the question, to solve the mystery. Listen carefully to what he says. Watch everything he does. And learn.

You know he knows. He's an eye surgeon -- a man of vision. He has learned how to deliver perfection, and to do it despite crippling obstacles. As a young man, a brand-new obstetrician, he contracted rheumatoid arthritis and watched helplessly as his fingers slowly twisted, fused, and grew useless for delivering babies. So he started over, this time studying ophthalmology. He managed to design his own instruments to suit his hands, and these tools enabled him to do as many as 100 surgeries a day. He became the most admired cataract surgeon in India.

Twenty-five years later, he confronted another potentially crippling obstacle: retirement. In 1976, facing the prospect of social shelving at age 57, he opened a 12-bed eye hospital in his brother's home in Madurai, India. Today, he runs five hospitals that perform more than 180,000 operations each year. Seventy percent of his patients are charity cases; the remaining 30% seek him out and pay for his services because the quality of his work is world-class. He is a doctor to the eyes and a leader to the soul.

Well, the last sentence says it all:

Dr. V was a doctor to the eyes and a leader to the soul.

Good bye, Dr. V.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Pankaj Mishra questions the 'India Shining' story

Apurva points to Pankaj Mishra's NYTimes op-ed that takes on the 'India Shining' cheerleaders (such as a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, which gets a specific mention in his op-ed). Excerpts:

Since the early 1990's, when the Indian economy was liberalized, India has emerged as the world leader in information technology and business outsourcing, with an average growth of about 6 percent a year. Growing foreign investment and easy credit have fueled a consumer revolution in urban areas. With their Starbucks-style coffee bars, Blackberry-wielding young professionals, and shopping malls selling luxury brand names, large parts of Indian cities strive to resemble Manhattan. [...]

But the increasingly common, business-centric view of India suppresses more facts than it reveals. Recent accounts of the alleged rise of India barely mention the fact that the country's $728 per capita gross domestic product is just slightly higher than that of sub-Saharan Africa and that, as the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report puts it, even if it sustains its current high growth rates, India will not catch up with high-income countries until 2106.

Nor is India rising very fast on the report's Human Development index, where it ranks 127, just two rungs above Myanmar and more than 70 below Cuba and Mexico. Despite a recent reduction in poverty levels, nearly 380 million Indians still live on less than a dollar a day.

Malnutrition affects half of all children in India, and there is little sign that they are being helped by the country's market reforms, which have focused on creating private wealth rather than expanding access to health care and education. Despite the country's growing economy, 2.5 million Indian children die annually, accounting for one out of every five child deaths worldwide; and facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of the country (the official literacy rate of 61 percent includes many who can barely write their names). In the countryside, where 70 percent of India's population lives, the government has reported that about 100,000 farmers committed suicide between 1993 and 2003.

The purpose behind Mishra's op-ed is not simply to diss the economic progress in some sectors; it's to remind us to (a) not take all the sloganeering seriously, and (b) keep the focus firmly on the urgent problems the confront us. The concluding paragraph says it well:

Many serious problems confront India. They are unlikely to be solved as long as the wealthy, both inside and outside the country, choose to believe their own complacent myths.

It's "India Shining" day at the Economic Times

Today's Economic Times was guest-edited by the top managers of Infosys. N.R. Narayana Murthy penned the lead edtorial, and the others wrote short columns (Nandan Nilekani, Mohandas Pai, Srinath Batni, K. Dinesh, S.D. Shibulal, and S. Gopalakrishnan).

Just how did they like this experience? How did they go about this onerous job? You can read all about it here and here.

Needless to say, today's print edition is full of feel-good stories about all kinds of stuff. Let me just link to three of them related to education.

The story titled "Primary is secondary no more" gives you all the good news you ever wanted to read (but never suspected possible) about the state of our primary education.

Then there are two stories about private institutions in higher education: the Manipal Academy of Higher Education and the Indian School of Business. In fact, the second story is by none other than Rajat Gupta, the Chairman of ISB.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Kama Sutra of reading


Tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean region

Nature reports:

The state-of-the-art system, set up and coordinated by the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), consists of a seismic network, a set of buoys deployed throughout the Indian Ocean, and several deep-ocean pressure centres that measure the power and propagation of waves.

All data are transmitted in real time to the existing tsunami warning centres in Japan and Hawaii, which have traditionally focussed on the Pacific. If a potentially tsunami-generating quake occurs in the Indian Ocean, these centres will issue a warning to the authorities in 24 countries around the Indian Ocean. Four countries, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are not yet linked into the system. ...

But these countries still need to find the best way to get the information out to the people. If a tsunami were to strike tonight, millions living near beaches around the Indian Ocean would still not be alerted in time, says UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams.

"It is the last and crucial mile which is still missing," she says. "Some countries, such as Australia, India and Malaysia, are more active than others. But we are not sure how many do actually have the capacity of warning people before a tsunami hits the beach." Coastal populations could be warned by sirens, for example.

Paul Graham on ...

...choosing good things to copy:

It can be hard to separate the things you like from the things you're impressed with. One trick is to ignore presentation. Whenever I see a painting impressively hung in a museum, I ask myself: how much would I pay for this if I found it at a garage sale, dirty and frameless, and with no idea who painted it? If you walk around a museum trying this experiment, you'll find you get some truly startling results. Don't ignore this data point just because it's an outlier.

Another way to figure out what you like is to look at what you enjoy as guilty pleasures. Many things people like, especially if they're young and ambitious, they like largely for the feeling of virtue in liking them. 99% of people reading Ulysses are thinking "I'm reading Ulysses" as they do it. A guilty pleasure is at least a pure one. What do you read when you don't feel up to being virtuous? What kind of book do you read and feel sad that there's only half of it left, instead of being impressed that you're half way through? That's what you really like.

Even when you find genuinely good things to copy, there's another pitfall to be avoided. Be careful to copy what makes them good, rather than their flaws. It's easy to be drawn into imitating flaws, because they're easier to see, and of course easier to copy too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.

Nanotech research in India

[Even] with the NSTI [the Nano Science and Technology Initiative] in place, the level of funding has been sub-critical as compared to China with which India inevitably tends to be compared. In 2002, for example, compared to China's $200 million, India spent a mere Rs.15 crores. Over the four and a half years of the NSTI, a total of about Rs.120 crores has been spent, much of which has gone towards basic research projects and related infrastructure, the implementation of which is overseen by a National Expert Committee headed by C.N.R. Rao. ...

Besides funding about 100 basic science projects to date (worth about Rs.60 crores), part of the money (about Rs.20 crores) has gone towards establishing six centres for nanoscience at institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the different IITs, six centres for nanotechnology each aimed at producing a product or a device within a reasonable time-frame and two national instrumentation/characterisation facilities. In all, 14 national institutions, including seven IITs, and 10 universities have been supported under the NSTI.

Pay no attention to the howler in that last sentence, and do read this Frontline article by R. Ramachandran on the state of nanoscience and nanotechnology research in India. [Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.]

* * *

Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0 (where there has been some activity lately); comments are welcome there.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Business Today's B-School Ranking

Madhukar Shukla gives this year's B-school ranking by Business Today something it deserves: a thorough fisking. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

When gurukul met cybernetics ...

... the result was this software:

This is the fourth generation knowledge transfer system which combines the gurukul system of education and book-based teaching, Vasanth told PTI adding that it maps the student's mind 18 times per second to work out a strategy.

"After mapping his activities, it tells the student what time of the day he is most attentive and formulates a strategy for preparations," he said.

The software evaluates the student's lack of subject- wise knowledge and its remedial teaching technologies and provides optimal learning from a huge knowledge bank compiled by 60 full-time professors, according to Vasanth.

It does all this; but it can do even more!

On the basis of its evaluation, the software may even advise a student not to take a particular examination.

In case you are wondering, this software is called 'CLEaRS,' acronym for Compuertised Learning, Evaluation and Review System.

* * *

Thanks to Apurva Mathad for the e-mail alert.

New Yorker's review of The Long Tail

Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail has been reviewed by John Cassidy for the New Yorker. Let me excerpt the part that puts the Long Tail pheonmenon in perspective:

All this is snappily argued and thought-provoking, if not quite as original as Anderson’s publishers would have us believe. Back in 1980, another futurologist, Alvin Toffler, anticipated the “de-massifying” of society in his best-selling book “The Third Wave” (Bantam; $7.99), which is still in print. “The Second Wave Society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation and entertainment,” Toffler said in a 1999 interview. But no longer: “The era of mass society is over. . . . No more mass production. No more mass consumption. . . . No more mass entertainment.”

Not only did Toffler, writing a decade before the advent of the World Wide Web, recognize information as the basic resource of the modern economy; he also discussed concepts like knowledge workers, customization, peer production, and several other “big-think” concepts that are still providing stories for magazines like Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0, and, indeed, The New Yorker. The Internet has accelerated the trends that Toffler identified, but that’s not news, either. In 1998, Kevin Kelly, a technology writer who also worked for Wired, published a book called “New Rules for the New Economy,” in which he described the emerging order thus: “Niche production, niche consumption, niche diversion, niche education. Niche World.”

The real novelty of Anderson’s book is not his thesis but its representation in the form of a neat, readily graspable picture: the long-tail curve. For decades, economists and scientists have been using this graph, which is formally known as a power-law distribution, to describe things like the distribution of wealth or the relative size of cities. By applying the long tail to the online world, Anderson brings intellectual order to what often looks like pointless activity. ...

The best sentence in the review:

Even in the online era, to be human is to follow the herd.

* * *

A quick summary of the Long Tail phenonmeon is available at Anderson's blog. The original Wired article is here.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Daniel Gilbert on the psychology of threat perceptions

The editors of the Los Angeles Times asked Danil Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness:

... [For] some reason [people] don’t seem to get bent out of shape over global warming. What can psychology tell us about that?

Gilbert says on his blog:

I don’t know if I’d ever thought about this question consciously before, but I must have been thinking about it unconsciously for quite some time because once the question was posed, the answers came quickly. ... I keep having the odd thought that I will someday look back on this and realize that it was the only important thing I ever wrote.

The LATimes column that was born out of this exercise is available in the same post. In it, Gilbert identifies four possible reasons for why we don't take global warning seriously, even though the odds of lower Manhattan turning into an aquarium (due to global warming) are "better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb". Here's the first one:

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Greater accountability through a school-based cadre of teachers

One of the key problems that many studies and surveys have (repeatedly) identified in our system of primary education (see here, here, here) is the lack of accountability that the teachers should be held to. The underlying reason is also fairly clear: control over how a public school functions is not with the people it serves, but with a bunch of bureaucrats at the district and state levels. Urmi Goswami of the Economic Times reports on a proposed move that could help make teachers more accountable:

The Centre’s Model Right to Education Bill, ‘06, which will have to be adopted by all states, has made it mandatory for all government-run schools to move to a system of school-based cadres. Besides curbing absenteeism, this provision of the Bill is expected to deal with politicisation of teacher transfers.

A school-based cadre would mean that teachers would be appointed by the school as per its requirements, and that these teachers will not be able to seek transfers to another school. A school-based cadre would mean that school authorities and the local community which is involved in the school management committee would have greater control on the teacher.

This would mean that teachers would be accountable to the school and community and not to a faraway authority. At present, state or district authorities recruit regular teachers and place them in schools without regard for specific needs of any institution.

Monsoon forecasts

Technology is coming to the rescue of the beleaguered India Meteorological Department (IMD) to perfect the monsoon prediction system in the country. The weather office is working in collaboration with Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune; Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore; Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad; and Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, Bangalore, to fine-tune the forecasting system. The mandate is to put in place an integrated method for studying the weather. Based on advanced technology, a dynamic model is being developed in collaboration with IISc — a welcome change from the present statistical model that is prone to inaccurate prediction.

From this story in the Financial Express. Given what happened   last year, IMD seems to have learned its lessons, and is doing the right thing by collaborating with other organizations.

Nanopolitan Saves Your Soul!

That was one of the advertising slogans dished out by the Automatic Slogan Generator for this blog. Most of its slogans are inane, and appear to be rehashed and remixed versions from ancient advertisements with expired copyrights. Still, some of them can make you smile. Like this:

Choosy Mothers Choose Nanopolitan.

Yeah, I know it's not as great as Pharyngula's.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

What is the biggest lie about blogging?

High-profile bloggers give their answers. Here.

I found two that are worth quoting here. Here's the first:

Oh for sure, it's this: That people care what you say. They don't. They care what they get.
-- Seth Godin.

Here's the second, a comment by Jonathan Kranz:

I don't know what the biggest lie about blogging is, but I think I have a handle on the biggest truth:

What's the most-discussed, most-heated, most-commented-upon subject in the blogosphere? Blogging itself...

Look at the Daily Fix, for example: no other topic generates as many comments or sends as many bloggers, descending like Hitchcock's "Birds," upon this site.

Bloggers are interested in blogging.

* * *

Hat tip: Chugs.

Website Vaastu: "Air is the HTML!"

Who knew?

Just as the world comprises of the five basic elements, each Website has five elements and these need to be in balance with one another. Earth is the layout, fire is the color, air is the HTML, space is name of the Website, and water is the font and graphics. ... [E]ach must be chosen carefully and strike a balance with the other.

If that technical wizardry doesn't get a buy-in at the highest level, this should:

... [A] Website that is not designed according to Vaastu rules will have few hits and will negatively affect the business.

So, memorize this rule: "Air is the HTML!"

A pioneer: Dakshina Kannada Police blog

The India Beats section (which "features stories of the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary"!) in today's Hindu has an interesting article about the blog of the Dakshina Kannada Police Department with posts by Mr. B. Dayananda, the Department's Superintendent of Police (the story features his picture, too!).

I had written about the DKPD blog twice: here and here.

While the use of technology is but natural in an IT-driven world, what makes the story of these blogs interesting is that it has sparked off a mini war in the cyber world. It all started when Associated Press carried an e-mail interview with B. Dayananda, Superintendent of Police, Dakshina Kannada district about the police blog started by him.

The AP report, picked up by newspapers in the United States, while making a passing reference to the DK police blog anointed the LAPD blog as the first one to come from the police force of a major U.S. city. The Boston Police, who reminded its citizens that was launched on November 5, 2005, much earlier than the other two blogs, however, politely contested this.

So who was the first?

In a posting under the title "Still First in the Nation", states, "So far as we can tell, this (blog launched in November 2005) makes us the first law enforcement blog anywhere (We apparently beat Mangalore, India, by a few weeks). If you know of an official police blog that was launched sooner, please let us know. Till then, we're happy to be known as the First in the Nation."

The report also goes on to say that this trend is catching on in Karnataka:

Now, even the Chitradurga and Udupi district police have followed suit by starting their blogs on April 23 and June 18 respectively. The latest entrants are just warming up to the task of blogging and their numbers are only expected to rise.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Deborah Tannen recounts her 'Blank Noise' moment ...

... in this NYTimes op-ed, which could well have been her entry to the recently concluded Blank Noise Blog-a-thon project.

After recounting her experience in a crowded train, Tannen goes on to compare the reactions of NYCity women to such violations with those of Greek women in Athens. She identifies one major difference:

The experiences the Greek women described were similar to those I'd heard from Americans. But there was a difference. Most of the American women — like those recently interviewed in the New York news media — told me they had felt humiliated and helpless and had done or said nothing. Of the 25 stories Greek women told me, only eight concluded with the speaker doing nothing. In the others, she said she had yelled, struck back or both.

What cultural differences could explain this huge difference in the American and Greek reactions to molestation? She offers two possibilities:

For one thing, most Greeks, like their Mediterranean neighbors, place value on expressiveness, whereas American culture is influenced by the Northern European and British emphasis on public decorum. That's why Americans often mistake animated Greek conversation for argument. Another cultural difference is how readily strangers get involved in others' interactions. I once saw two men arguing on an Athens street; when one raised his hand to strike, he was immediately restrained by a passer-by.