Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comfortable with not knowing the answer

Do you call yourself an atheist?

I prefer not to use the term. Although I guess I am an atheist. I just don't believe in God. I've always liked Thomas Huxley's term, "agnostic," by which he meant it's an unknowable, insoluble problem from a scientific point of view. By my personality, I'm comfortable with not having the answer to everything. I'm perfectly happy going through my day, thinking, I really wish I knew the answer to that but I don't. I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. Most people get cognitively dissonant about having uncertainties and need to close that loop and have an answer.

That's from the Salon interview with Michael Shermer, who writes the 'Skeptic' column in the Scientific American. [Caution: Salon requires that you view an ad before you get to the good stuff. This interview is worth it.]

Here's a bit about his early experiences with religion:

I was in high school when one of my best friends talked me into being born again. So I just went along with it, and it seemed to work for me, although my stepbrothers and -sisters always gave me a hard time about being a Jesus freak.

Still, I felt that if I'm going to take this seriously, I should be proactive about it. That includes challenging people and speaking out. I even went door-to-door in Malibu. Although it was anxiety-producing to walk up to strangers' houses and say, "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Jesus." You were also supposed to tell people that you loved them. I remember telling that to a girl who actually liked me. And she took that the wrong way. I had to correct her. No, I don't mean it that way, I mean it in the agape way, the kind of love that C.S. Lewis talks about, the love for your fellow humans. I can't believe I did that. Although I guess in a way I'm doing the same thing, only now I do it through public lectures and books: "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Darwin."


Two links:

First, The Statesman has a good article recounting the history of reservation in Tamil Nadu:

The first standing order on reservation (No 128-2) was passed in the Madras Presidency by the British government in 1854. The collectors were told to divide the subordinate appointments in their districts among the principal castes. Madras Presidency comprised the whole of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, parts of Kerala and Karnataka and a small portion of Orissa. The order was soon mired in protests by the then babudom and was not implemented.

The South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF), popularly known as the Justice Party ~ after the English daily it published called Justice) ~ which came to power towards the end of 1920, passed a new order (GO No 613) in 1921, reserving government jobs for various caste-based social classes. [...]

Next, the Hindu reports on the legal case against Tamil Nadu's 69 percent quota-regime which violates the Supreme Court-mandated upper limit of 50 percent.

The Supreme Court will go into the constitutional validity of the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act providing for 69 per cent quota in educational institutions and employment.

A nine-judge Constitution Bench will also examine the validity of the subsequent law enacted by Parliament to include the Act under the Ninth Schedule for taking away the court's power of judicial review. The Bench will hear a batch of petitions questioning Parliament's powers to enact laws and include them in the Ninth Schedule. It will examine whether an earlier five-judge Bench decision "that all Constitution amendments by which additions were made to the Ninth Schedule on or after April 24, 1973 [when judgment in the Kesavanand Bharti case was delivered] will be valid only if they do not damage or destroy the basic structure of the Constitution" is correct or not.

'How do you want to go out?'

In an admirable move, the Kannada movie icon Raj Kumar had pledged to donate his eyes on his death. When he died a few months ago, his family honoured his pledge. Narayana Nethralaya's chief, Dr. Bhujang Shetty, and his team did the eye-harvesting. [Full disclosure: Padma, my wife, is a consultant at NN.] Among cine stars, I know Kamal Haasan insists that the members of his Fan Club must pledge to donate their eyes.

Well, this is the limit of my imagination about what people might want to do with their 'bodies' after their death: donate their bodies to be used for some medical purpose or the other. To my great surprise, I found the following in Janet Stemwedel's review of Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's book Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death:

... [It] is a book whose author shares her surprise at some of the non-standard ways for dealing with human remains. Want to be mummified? Get in touch with Corky Ra to prepay (and get your $60K ready). If you feel a connection to the sea, you can get your ashes scattered over it (helping a pilot make ends meet in a post-9/11 world), or, you can have your ashes mixed with cement and cast into a "reef ball", then placed in the sea as part of a reef-building program. Want to help protect open space? Arrange to be buried in a "green cemetary" frequented by hikers and protected by developers. (Also, if you want to be good fertilizer for the native plants, opt for whole-body burial -- hold the embalming -- rather than cremation.) A bit of an exhibitionist? Perhaps you'd like to sign up for post-mortem plastination so you can tour with a "Body Worlds" exhibit.

Or maybe you'd like your ashes to be pressed into diamonds. [...]

Fascinating stuff!

Oscars of Indian Science: 2006

Yes, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prizes have been announced for the year 2006. Some of my thoughts appear in a post over at nanopolitan 2.0. Comments are welcome there.

The title of the post is a hold-over from last year.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Kerala government says no to Micro$oft

What is it about the word 'communist' that makes certain brains go mushy? Take a look at this NYTimes story conflating two recent decisions by the Kerala government: banning Coke and Pepsi, and promoting the use of Linux and Open Source software in public institutions.

In a new attack on multinational corporations, the Communist government in India’s southern state of Kerala is campaigning to eliminate Microsoft from use in public institutions, just weeks after it imposed a ban on Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

A couple of paragraphs later, the conflation shows up again, in a decidedly alarmist avatar:

The news will further unsettle foreign investors in this state. Also this month, Kerala imposed a sweeping ban on the sale and production of Coke and Pepsi ...

I am willing to admit that a part of the blame must go to the government of Kerala. When some of your decisions -- like banning Coke and Pepsi -- are patently loony, they colour the prism through which the world sees your other decisions. Yet, it shouldn't absolve the reporter -- Amelia Gentleman, in this case -- of the duty to get the essentials of the story right. Interestingly, she did get at least one essential piece right, except that she chose to bury it the most inessential part of the story -- at the very end!

Financial, rather than ideological, reasons may be at the root of the state’s decision to promote free software.

The Education Ministry has an annual budget of 40 million rupees, or $1.86 million, to promote computer technology among the one million students, aged between 5 and 15, currently at school — a sum that will be stretched as Mr. Baby attempts to fulfill his ambition of making all the state’s “schoolchildren computer literate.”

In between, the story also mentions Microsoft's 'concessional' pricing for schools: $25 to $30 for the Window$ operating system; even this price is about 10 to 20 percent of the cost of a low end PC. As an 'enlightened' -- even if Communist! -- consumer, doesn't the Kerala government have the right to choose the less expensive option? Why should alarmist interpretations -- attack on multinational corporations, unsettling of foreign investors, etc. -- override a simpler one?

* * *

Update (31 August): In a post three days ago, Krish castigates the Financial Express for the same offence: leading off with a stupid reference to the cola ban, in spite of knowing the details behind the decision to use linux in public institutions.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Gosh, we are all going to lose our jobs!

Another title: Computational Materials Design: Is this some mega-hype, or are our jobs really in danger?

From the MIT news release:

The same computer methods used by online sales sites to suggest books to customers can help predict the crystal structures of materials, MIT researchers have found.

These structures are key to designing new materials and improving existing ones, which means that everything from batteries to airplane wings could be influenced by the new method. [...]

Using a technique called data mining, the MIT team preloaded the entire body of historical knowledge of crystal structures into a computer algorithm, or program, which they had designed to make correlations among the data based on the underlying rules of physics.

Harnessing this knowledge, the program then delivers a list of possible crystal structures for any mixture of elements whose structure is unknown. The team can then run that list of possibilities through a second algorithm that uses quantum mechanics to calculate precisely which structure is the most stable energetically -- a standard technique in the computer modeling of materials.

The Nature Materials paper from Gerbrand Ceder's group is here [subscription required].

Parenting chronicles

Just a bunch of quick links:

From the BPS Research Digest:

Toddlers read to daily by their mothers from an early age have bigger vocabularies and superior cognitive skills.

Jane E. Brody in the NYTimes:

Refusal to go to school is not an uncommon problem; up to one-quarter of children do it at some point. While you might expect the problem to be severest when a child first enters school, it occurs most often and hits hardest at ages 10 to 13.

Malcolm Gladwell on the loony idea called "zero tolerance" (this is not quite on parenting, but still ...):

Schools, historically, have been home to this kind of discretionary justice. You let the principal or the teacher decide what to do about cheating because you know that every case of cheating is different—and, more to the point, that every cheater is different. Jimmy is incorrigible, and needs the shock of expulsion. But Bobby just needs a talking to, because he’s a decent kid, and Mary and Jane cheated because the teacher foolishly stepped out of the classroom in the middle of the test, and the temptation was simply too much.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Geeky undergarment

Here. Via Reddit.

* * *

On an unrelated note, here's a Seed article/interview that answers this rather technical question:

So why have humans and most other animals evolved this bizarre, slightly dirty quirk of sexual reproduction?

Lies, damn lies, and opinion polls

How questions are phrased can mean wide shifts, even with wholly neutral words. Men respond poorly, for instance, to questions asking if they are “worried” about something, so careful pollsters will ask if they are “concerned.”

The classic “double negative” example came in July 1992, when a Roper poll asked, “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” The finding: one of every five Americans seemed to doubt that there was a Holocaust. How much did that startling finding result from the confusing question? In a follow-up survey, Roper asked a clearer question, and the number of doubters plunged from the original 22 percent to 1 percent.

From this helpful note from NYTimes' Public Editor to help readers "know something about polls — at least enough to sniff out good polls from bad."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Grigory Perelman is a great hero

My friend Anant says in his comment on this post:

... I think Perelman is one of the great heroes of all time. We need more such. [...]

I entirely agree. The fight for academic credit, encouraged by metrics such as citations, can get ugly sometimes. Unfunnily enough, it seems to get uglier when the stakes are lower. When the rest of the world seems to choose ugliness, Perelman has the good sense -- and the guts -- to choose otherwise. We should applaud him for this choice.

George Johnson has some more on this theme in his NYTimes piece:

... It was not so much a medal that he was rejecting but the idea that in the search for nature’s secrets the discoverer is more important than the discovery.

“I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest,” he told a London newspaper, The Telegraph, instantly making himself more interesting. “I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing.”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The politics behind the Poincaré conjecture

Do read this excellent New Yorker article on "a legendary problem and the battle over who solved it". The article is by Sylvia Nasar (author of A beautiful mind, a biography of mathematician and economics Nobel winner John Nash) and David Gruber.

Here are two highly quotable quotes from the article:

Grigory Perelman: “It [the Fields Medal] was completely irrelevant for me. Everybody understood that if the proof [of the Poincaré conjecture] is correct then no other recognition is needed.”

Yuri Burago (Perelman's Ph.D. advisor): "He [Perelman] was not fast. Speed means nothing. Math doesn’t depend on speed. It is about deep.

* * *

Thanks to Swarup for the pointer -- through his comment on an earlier post.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw on the status of women in Indian companies

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CEO of Biocon and India's richest woman, was interviewed by ToI on the occasion of Women's Equality Day. She says the right things for almost all of the interview, but drops this bombshell right at the beginning:

Can you think of financial incentives that government can provide women?

In the corporate world, women in the workplace may be encouraged by:

Extending additional subsidy for new industrial enterprises that employ more than, say, 30 per cent women in their workforce; offering special financial incentives for women entrepreneurs, particularly those from economically poorer sections of society; and offering subsidised vocational training for women from disadvantaged sections seeking self-employment.

The other suggestions are unexceptionable, all right. But, with all due respect to Ms. Mazumdar Shaw, her first suggestion is utter nonsense: "Extending additional subsidy for new industrial enterprises that employ more than, say, 30 per cent women in their workforce".

This suggestion frames the 'problem' in a totally counterproductive way. It takes the current practices (which are atrocious; see below) as a given, and assumes that 'incentives' will somehow get firms to do the right thing.

What we need is for the government to define the norms for fair and non-discriminatory employment practices, and punish the violators. In other words, we expect firms to do the right thing, and punish them for wrong-doing. Just as we punish them, for example, for polluting our rivers, or groundwater, or air. Discriminatory and unfair employment practices are no less corrosive than pollutants in our rivers.

Just how bad are the current corporate practices? In the same interview, Mazumdar Shaw says:

Women find it harder to get jobs than men, even if they are equally or better qualified. And when they manage to find one, they constantly have to contend with sexual discrimination and innuendoes at the workplace. In the organised sector, they are often overlooked for promotions.

In many companies, the glass ceiling is in evidence. [...]

Given the serious nature of these problems, what we need are regulations that (a) give exemplary punishment to companies (and their promoters) for practising discrimination, and (b) mandate disclosure of information such as:

  • number of men and women at different levels of the organization
  • number of complaints of discrimination and harassment filed by the employees in a given year, and how many of these complaints have been resolved.

As they say, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

A lot of HR management theory tells you that, for changing a person's behaviour, reinforcing good behaviour is better than punishing bad behavour. As a five-year old's father, I can tell you that this is sound advice. However, firms are not persons! They -- and their managers -- need clear rules for good, normal, acceptable corporate conduct, and well-defined punishment for violations. This is the way affirmative action is implemented in the US: you are expected to be an equal opportunity employer, and if your employment practices are unfair and discriminatory, well, you don't deserve federal contracts! [See this site.]

Is there any role for incentives in altering firms' behaviour? Sure, there is. Use a rating mechanism to give gold and silver stars to firms that aim for -- and reach -- excellence in fair employment practices. Or, give awards to those firms that keep doing this consistently. Such awards, and gold and silver stars will give the good firms a chance to brag in their advertisements and on their websites. This is the way to go; not some shady bribes in the form of 'financial incentives'.

Good bye, OLPC. Hello, CM1!

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), aka the 100 dollar laptop (actually, the current price is about $140), has a new name: Children's Machine (CM1) [via OLPC News]. Ars Technica has an update (with quite a few links) on the status of the project.

Ranking the world's universities

I have put down some of my thoughts on this topic, triggered by the latest ranking from the Shanghai group, over at nanopolitan 2.0.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Annals of unintended consequences

I admit that I was surprised at how disruptive this little blue pill [Viagra] had become. As a psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, I’m well aware of the side effects that drugs can cause in my patients.

Who would have imagined that a drug that most consider so helpful, if not harmless, could stir up such trouble in a relationship? I certainly hadn’t.

Sometimes, more is worse. Read the whole thing.


A quick note to tell you -- particularly those of you in Bangalore -- about the Bangalore Materials Quiz (BMQ), an annual event organized by us for the students of Classes XI and XII. As the name suggests, BMQ covers all aspects of materials: their physics, chemistry, production, processing, properties (mechanical, thermal, electrical, magnetic, optical, ...), applications and use.

I have created the BMQ blog which will be used to both disseminate information and coordinate our team's activities.

BMQ is organized almost entirely by the wonderful graduate students of our Department. They orchestrate all aspects of the event, with some minimal guidance (and cheering from the sidelines) from me. This is the tenth year since I took over the responsibility of running this show, and I have met some of the brightest students (one of them runs this blog) through it.

BMQ is not a mega event; we usually get about 25 teams (of two each) every year. This year, we hope to attract 50 teams. On the other hand, we aren't set up to handle a large number of teams either; so 50 is the hard limit!

The Prize we offer is admittedly small -- books worth about Rs. 500 for each student! But the top two teams from BMQ get to take part in a grander event with bigger prizes at stake (see the blog for details).

* * *

Well, if you know anyone in Bangalore-based schools (higher secondary schools and pre-university colleges) who might be interested in BMQ, do please spread the word. Many thanks in advance.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Day One

No, I'm not going to say anything about all the events on Day One of the Big One. I just want to link to a quick summary by Santonu.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Big One

The next few days are going to be really exciting. I will be in the Big Conference on Small Things. Take a look at the program (pdf), and you'll realize why we are all excited. It has nanophysics, nanochemistry, nanobiology, nanomechanics, nanoelectronics and nanoelectromechanics. It's going to be great!

Since it's being held right here in Bangalore, there is a lot of Big People (aka organizers) sweating the small stuff; and many of us are helping them with getting things done.

I know it's redundant to say this, but still ... Regular blogging may have to wait till the Big Conference is over. As for irregular blogging, we'll have to wait and see ...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What is so great about the proof of the Poincaré conjecture?

Jordan Ellenberg has a truly wonderful article in Slate.

The entities we study in science fall into two categories: those which can be classified in a way a human can understand, and those which are unclassifiably wild. Numbers are in the first class—you would agree that although you cannot list all the whole numbers, you have a good sense of what numbers are out there. Platonic solids are another good example. There are just five: the tetrahedron, the cube, the octahedron, the dodecahedron, and the icosahedron. End of story—you know them all. [...]

In the second class are things like networks (in mathematical lingo, graphs) and beetles. There doesn't appear to be any nice, orderly structure on the set of all beetles, and we've got no way to predict what kinds of novel species will turn up. All we can do is observe some features that most beetles seem to share, most of the time. But there's no periodic table of beetles, and there probably couldn't be.

Mathematicians are much happier when a mathematical subject turns out to be of the first, more structured, type. We are much sadder when a subject turns out to be a variegated mass of beetles. [...]

[...] [Perelman's proof of the conjecture of Poincaré] means ... that we can think about proving general statements about three-dimensional geometry in a way that we can't hope to about beetles or graphs.

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Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Annals of Academic Put-downs

Alex Tabarrok: Gordon, do you think we should ban child labor?

Gordon Tullock: No, keep working.

There are lots more in Tabarrok's post.

* * *

Cosma Shalizi, one of my favourite science bloggers, has a post with a couple of put-downs. Here's the first, attributed to a theoretical physicist:

I could go crazy tomorrow and find an appointment in the sociology department.

Happiness quote

The Myth: We think the finer things in life will make us happy.

The Reality: Most of what makes us happy is pretty prosaic.

From a short, snappy survey on what makes us happy in Psychology Today. Here's a quick quote from the opening paragraph:

... Circumstances under our control (employment, education, money) account for only about 10 to 15 percent of our "subjective well-being," the technical term for how good we judge life to be. Happiness is largely due to personality traits and temperament; the torments or glories of fate don't make a huge difference in how we feel. When it comes to subjective well-being, "you don't get a big bang out of the real world," says Alex Michalos of the University of Northern British Columbia.

Friday, August 18, 2006

How do you create a technology hub?

Paul Graham thinks creating top universities in a certain place is vital if you want to create a technology hub there. Here he is in How to be a Silicon Valley:

The exciting thing is, all you need are the people. If you could attract a critical mass of nerds and investors to live somewhere, you could reproduce Silicon Valley. And both groups are highly mobile. They'll go where life is good. So what makes a place good to them?

What nerds like is other nerds. Smart people will go wherever other smart people are. And in particular, to great universities. In theory there could be other ways to attract them, but so far universities seem to be indispensable. Within the US, there are no technology hubs without first-rate universities-- or at least, first-rate computer science departments.

So if you want to make a silicon valley, you not only need a university, but one of the top handful in the world. It has to be good enough to act as a magnet, drawing the best people from thousands of miles away. And that means it has to stand up to existing magnets like MIT and Stanford.

This sounds hard. Actually it might be easy. My professor friends, when they're deciding where they'd like to work, consider one thing above all: the quality of the other faculty. What attracts professors is good colleagues. So if you managed to recruit, en masse, a significant number of the best young researchers, you could create a first-rate university from nothing overnight. And you could do that for surprisingly little. If you paid 200 people hiring bonuses of $3 million apiece, you could put together a faculty that would bear comparison with any in the world. And from that point the chain reaction would be self-sustaining. So whatever it costs to establish a mediocre university, for an additional half billion or so you could have a great one.

Not so fast, says Austan Goolsbee, a UChicago economist. This strategy may not work, he says, simply because people and ideas can run away!

advocates should remember an old maxim of economic development: Beware of investing in things that can move. As it turns out, graduates and research ideas both tend to move around a lot.

Is there any evidence to back up this claim? Goolsbee provides plenty of it. The biggest of them all, perhaps, is the following:

Marc Andreessen, for example, invented the Web browser while at the University of Illinois, but then founded Netscape in the actual Silicon Valley rather than starting a new one in Urbana.

So, who is right?

* * *

Update: has a nice discussion of Paul Graham's views -- including his political ones. Thanks to Selva for the pointer; see his comment below.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

This is bizarre ...

Via Annie, we get this:

The Agra police on Saturday night busted a racket in which 10-12 year-olds were found correcting the answer sheets of undergraduate students from various institutes affiliated to Meerut’s Chaudhary Charan Singh University during a raid on a house in Lawyers Colony.

Singapore's Biopolis

The centerpiece of Singapore’s biotechnology effort is the Biopolis, a seven-building biomedical hive that opened in late 2003 at a cost of 500 million Singapore dollars. It is outfitted with the latest high-tech equipment and features a bar, a day care center and an underground facility made to house a quarter-million laboratory mice.

Authorities are now building a stem cell bank at Biopolis, which will be able to count on some of the world’s most liberal laws on human embryonic cell usage.

Read this NYTimes story about how Singapore is positioning itself to become the new centre of the Biotech Universe. Quite impressive.

"Elusive proof, elusive prover"

Depending on who is talking, Poincaré’s conjecture can sound either daunting or deceptively simple. It asserts that if any loop in a certain kind of three-dimensional space can be shrunk to a point without ripping or tearing either the loop or the space, the space is equivalent to a sphere.

The conjecture is fundamental to topology, the branch of math that deals with shapes, sometimes described as geometry without the details. To a topologist, a sphere, a cigar and a rabbit’s head are all the same because they can be deformed into one another. Likewise, a coffee mug and a doughnut are also the same because each has one hole, but they are not equivalent to a sphere.

From this NYTimes story about a century-old conjecture, and about Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who made the key breaktrhough needed for proving it. Just how hard has it been to prove this conjecture?

Poincaré’s conjecture was subsequently generalized to any number of dimensions, but in fact the three-dimensional version has turned out to be the most difficult of all cases to prove. In 1960 Stephen Smale, now at the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, proved that it is true in five or more dimensions and was awarded a Fields Medal. In 1983, Michael Freedman, now at Microsoft, proved that it is true in four dimensions and also won a Fields.

“You get a Fields Medal for just getting close to this conjecture,” Dr. Morgan said.

This just in ...

Don't argue with idiots; bystanders have a hard time telling the difference.

I just read it in this post in Doug Natelson's Nanoscale Views.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Romance of ...

... Proctology! Marc Abrahams has the details on a passionately written book that "has the most surprising depths" ...

Martha Nussbaum on Arts Education

From this Newsweek article:

We live in a world that is dominated by the profit motive -— which suggests to concerned citizens that education in science and technology is crucially important to the future success of their nations. I have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I don't wish to suggest that nations should stop trying to improve it. But I worry that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry. The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both to the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. These include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach international problems as a "citizen of the world." And, perhaps most important, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

This essential ability can be called the narrative imagination: it leads us to be intelligent readers of other people's stories and to understand their emotions and wishes. The cultivation of sympathy was a central public task of ancient Athenian tragedy, and thus a key element in ancient Greek democracy; it has also informed the best modern ideas of progressive education in both Western and non-Western traditions. (American John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore in India had very similar ideas about the importance of arts education.) One of the best ways to cultivate sympathy is through instruction in literature, music, theater, fine art and dance.

Each culture—indeed, each student—has blind spots: groups within it or abroad that are especially likely to be treated ignorantly or obtusely. A good arts education will select works specifically to promote criticism of this obtuseness, and a better vision of the unseen. Ralph Ellison, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man," wrote that such a novel could be "a raft of perception, hope, and entertainment," on which American culture could "negotiate the snags and whirlpools" between us and our democratic ideals. Through the imagination we can have insight into the experience of another group or person that it is difficult to attain in daily life—particularly when our world has constructed suspicions and divisions that make any encounter difficult.

Kaushik Basu on faculty salaries ...

Previous posts on faculty salaries: 1, 2, 3.

Via Pradeepkumar: In his BBC column on the (sad) state of higher education in India, Kaushik Basu, a Cornell economist, spends some column space on faculty salaries:

With universities in research-active nations, including China, switching over to the "star system" - where for leading academics salaries and research funding are allowed to rise to match productivity - there is no choice for India.

Our government has to allow pockets of excellence to emerge and to allow them to bid for the best researchers.

Most current academics will tell you that the salary was of little consequence in their choice of career.

I think they are right. But to survey only the ones who have chosen to be academics is to miss out on people who are sensitive to salary and therefore did not choose to be academics.

To attract some of the best minds to fundamental research, especially with top corporate salaries on the rise, we have to permit research funding to match a scholar's productivity.

A professor at a top research institute told how they recently hired a talented PhD, who was earning a big salary in a leading IT company and was giving that up to earn the standard 14,000 rupees ($305) per month for a starting academic.

This is roughly what a senior call centre worker earns.


Just a quibble, though. Rs. 14,000 is what is known in our bureaucratese as the 'basic' salary. The gross salary would be in the range of Rs. 20,000 to 25,000, depending on the city and on whether house rent allowance is included. The larger point, of course, remains valid.

I'm not sure about Basu's contention here. I believe [and please correct me if I'm wrong here], many European countries have the same salary structure across disciplines (like India does). The differentiation (in sciences and engineering, at least) is largely through other status indicators such as high performers getting bigger lab space, a bigger direct funding from the university (to support more students and post-docs) etc.

In other words, European countries (and Australia? New Zealand?) also have a 'star system', but it's based on non-salary status markers.

Is the lack of a salary-based 'star system' the main impediment to attracting more and better faculty candidates to our Elite Institutions?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Faculty salaries: Pay peanuts and get monkeys?

Does the payment of peanuts tend to result in the hiring of monkeys? Unfortunately, privacy and other constraints on data mean that surprisingly little is known about this issue. In this paper, I use some unique data from the New Zealand academic system to provide direct evidence that pay levels do matter in determining the available pool of quality workers. Academic salaries are independent of discipline in New Zealand universities, but because different disciplines face different outside labour market opportunities, their ability to recruit high-quality academics is also likely to vary. Utilising the results from a national research assessment exercise first undertaken in 2003, I find that discipline research performance is indeed negatively related to the value of outside opportunities: the greater a discipline's average salary in United States universities, the weaker its research performance in New Zealand universities. The latter apparently get what they pay for: disciplines in which the fixed compensation is high relative to opportunity cost are best able to recruit high-quality researchers and/or motivate their researchers to be productive. Paying (relative) peanuts attracts mainly monkeys.

That's the abstract of an academic paper titled Pay Peanuts and Get Monkeys? Evidence from Academia by Glenn Boyle. Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the pointer.

Hansdehar: India's first knowledge village

The village's pretty impressive website is here. Reuters' report is here. [Links via Krish and an e-mail alert from Rajshekhar].

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This post offers me a good opportunity to wish all of you a great Independence Day. Happy Birthday, India!

Coffee is good for you

Researchers have found strong evidence that coffee reduces the risk of several serious ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

So says this NYTimes report. The good stuff in coffee, apparently, is not caffeine, but a bunch of antioxidants. So you don't have to suffer sleeplessness to chase diabetes away; just drink decaf.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Metaphors in science writing

Roald Hoffmann on science writing:

Science writing is inherently pedagogical. And the scientist-writer will be able to both express and understand the specialized science he or she does more clearly as a consequence of the act of writing. Let me explain.

Our minds are full of inchoate ideas, inklings and partial explanations. Once verbalized, at a research-group meeting, for instance, or in the process of writing a paper, the ideas become real. Being human, we then marshal support, adduce arguments. The scientific paper explains. It has to teach—and to teach one must use those slippery words, eternally straying, lacking fidelity to the idea. But it is only with words that the removed reader may be reached. I see no dichotomy between teaching and research, only a continually varying set of audiences.

Good science writing has the audience firmly in mind—it teaches you (and a good editor can help so much) to teach others. This is not the mindless teaching of techniques or arid tables of dates and names: That requires neither acuity nor imagination. Rather, the act of skillful writing schools its author in ways of explaining structure and significance, of explaining ideas. Which is just what you need to do good science.

On popular science writing, this is what Anant, a good friend and colleague, has to say (in a post about the importance of publishing):

I think we owe it to the general public to explain what the important milestones in our field are.

The Scientific Indian now resides at ScienceBlogs

Everyone is invited to a noisy wedding party by Selva, the newest member of the ScienceBlogs team.

Let me tell you my personal marriage story. For my marriage I was woken up at 5 AM or thereabouts, dressed up and bought into the marriage hall. Ramya had the same done to her. We were kept awake by the insanely happy guys who played the Nathaswaram and Mridangam in such high decibels that its a wonder I can still hear. [...]

Barres vs. Pinker (and others)

Via Swarup's comment, we get a link to this blog post where Ben Barres has a short response to his critics:

It is remarkable that any one could read my commentary "Does Gender Matter?" and conclude that I said that there are not innate differences between male and female brains. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point of my commentary was to say that there is no convincing evidence that these innate differences are relevant to women's ability to advance in science. Rather the weight of the evidence is that prejudice and social factors (like lack of child care support for instance) are responsible for the great majority, if not all, of the problem.

On Nature's News Blog, Barres has also posted a somewhat extended reply to Pinker, Lawrence and Dierker [I wrote about Pinker's response here]:

In response to Steve Pinker’s comments, as referenced in my commentary, he has repeatedly argued that innate cognitive differences hold women back in science. The main point of my commentary was that there is no convincing evidence that innate differences are relevant to the failure of women to advance but instead much evidence that profound prejudice and social factors are responsible. Alas he did not respond to this point, but rather makes repeated misclaims in his correspondence about what he (and I) have said. Given the large degree of prejudice and social forces presently at work, it is not scientifically possible to make any determination about whether there are small innate differences that are relevant. For someone who has hurled so many insults at disadvantaged groups (including his endorsement last year on the book jacket of “The Man Who Would Be Queen”, a book that called transgendered folks like me liars best suited for work in the sex trades, and in the Boston Globe he was quoted as saying that my commentary was “science from Oprah”, which is also an obvious slur upon my transgendered identity), it is remarkable what a thin skin he has.

It's like being dead, but with better coffee!

In Paris, you sit in the cafe, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sitting in a cafe is one of the main activities in Paris. It's what Parisians do instead of working or jogging. They have a natural talent for it, the way Americans are good at going to the pool, grilling meat or driving interstate highways.

The crucial skill in a cafe is the ability to gear down, from second to first, and then down yet again to a special, Gallic gear that is nearly paralytic. It's a bit like being dead, but with better coffee.

From The Art of Doing Nothing. Here's one more extract:

... to my immediate left sat a Frenchman in a pose so relaxed he might have been modeling for Toulouse-Lautrec. He was doing nothing, and doing it with panache. Between two fingers dangled a cigarette that remained lit even though he never did anything so animated as puff. It was hard to tell if he was truly drinking his glass of red wine; the level went down so slowly it may have been merely evaporating.

Why did he not try to achieve something? The cafe advertised WiFi, but no one had a laptop. This was not Starbucks. There was no American compulsion to multitask, to use the cafe as a caffeination station and broadband platform for another increment of accomplishment.

I went back and checked who wrote this article. It's the wonderful Joel Achenbach, whose highly bloggable quote was featured here.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Independence eve speeches by Nehru and Jinnah

From Bhupinder's great commentary on the speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah on the eve of their countries' independence:

However great the stature of the leaders, it would be too much to expect them to sum up the past and the future aspirations of the millions of people of the sub- continent with surgical precision.

But one cannot help noticing that between the two of them, they are pretty much right in the priorities that they set out for their nations.

The future developments in both the countries have belied the hopes that their speeches contained. Nearly all the challenges that they indicate continue to plague the two nations. The speeches are rather contemporary in that sense.

People don't eat GDP figures!

Madhukar Shukla says there are two ways of looking at the recent trends in India's workforce/employment scene, and points to a misplaced emphasis in government policy on 'employment generation':

Much of our policy, interventions and thrust is focused on the assumption that the "employment/job-creation" solution lies in "big business" (creation of SEZs, FDIs into sectors, incentives to big private sector players, etc.).

Without underestimating the contribution of the "big" private corporate in the organised sector to growth of economy/GDP, etc., the fact still remains that the big, private players merely contributes to 2.5% of India's employment. Even if this sector grows by 30%/annum over the next 5 years, it will actually contibute to less than 1% growth to the employment!!

He hastens to add here parenthetically:

([N]ow before someone pounces on this statement, please let me clarify: "real" people in a society do not eat GDP figures or "feel-good" statistics - they need a gainful employment) [bold emphasis in the original]

Another new feature at the Dakshina Kannada Police blog

The following are the crimes reported in D.K. District during the last 24 hrs as at 1600 hrs on 12/08/06.

Murder: Nil
Dacoity : Nil
Robbery: Nil
Burglary: Nil
Ordinary Theft: Nil
Motor Vehicle Theft: Nil
Crime against Women: 01 [... with a short description ...]
Road Traffic Accidents: 03
Fatal: Nil
Non Fatal: 03 [... short descriptions ...]
Cheating/ Criminal Breach of Trust: Nil
Attempt to Murder: Nil
Riots: Nil
Hurts: 02 [... short desctiption...]

Others: Nil
Spl. And local laws: Nil
Unnatural Death Report: Nil
Missing Persons: Nil
Preventive Actions: Nil
Motor Vehicle cases booked & Fine Amount collected:
Cases booked: 188
Fine amount collected: Rs. 15,000/

For details contact district Control Room on 0824 2220500.

From this post, with information about yesterday's activities (or, lack thereof!) uploaded at 6:50 p.m. the same day. [A quick aside: take a look at this short video of the online program used by DKPD for trasferring its police staff within the district.]

* * *

Evidently, Mr. Dayananda (Dakshina Kannada district's Superintendent of Police) and his team have been expanding the scope of their blog. All their good work has been receiving praise from their peers elsewhere. See, for example, here.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Making aid work

Abhijit Banerjee starts the debate on international aid to poor countries and how to make it work, that leads to quite a few responses. The following excerpt is the central point in Banerjee's article:

Randomized trials ... —- that is, trials in which the intervention is assigned randomly -— are the simplest and best way of assessing the impact of a program. They mimic the procedures used in trials of new drugs, which is one situation in which, for obvious reasons, a lot of care has gone into making sure that only the interventions that really work get approved, though of course not with complete success. In many ways social programs are very much like drugs: they have the potential to transform the life prospects of people. It seems appropriate that they should be held to the same high standards.

Tyler Cowen's NYTimes column (which I linked to yesterday) describes a study (by a team that includes Abhijit Banerjee) that uses randomized trials in the area of microfinance in Andhra Pradesh.


Via Slashdot, we get this news about Ballbot developed by the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University:

... "Ballbot" is a self-contained, battery-operated, omnidirectional robot that balances dynamically on a single urethane-coated metal sphere. It weighs 95 pounds and is the approximate height and width of a person. Because of its long, thin shape and ability to maneuver in tight spaces, it has the potential to function better than current robots can in environments with people.

Ballbot's creator, Robotics Research Professor Ralph Hollis, says the robot represents a new paradigm in mobile robotics. [...] "We wanted to create a robot that can maneuver easily and is tall enough to look you in the eye," Hollis said. "Ballbot is tall and skinny, with a much higher center of gravity than traditional wheeled robots. Because it is omnidirectional, it can move easily in any direction without having to turn first."

Ballbot has an onboard computer that reads balance information from its internal sensors, activating rollers that mobilize the ball on which it moves — a system that is essentially an inverse mouse-ball drive. When Ballbot is not in operation, it stands in place on three retractable legs.

Atanu Dey wants OBPC and OTPC instead of OLPC

Well, he actually said OBPS (One Blackboard Per School) instead of OBPC (One Blackboard Per Classroom). Same with OTPC as well: One Teacher Per Classroom. I agree with him that OBPC and OTPC must be our priorities. Not OLPC.

Read his posts: OLPC: Rest in Peace and OLPC: Rest in Peace - Part 3.

* * *

Link via the Unofficial OLPC Blog, that has been covering all aspects of the OLPC: all the nifty technologies, all the hype, and the growing skepticism in blogs and media.

A tale of AIDS in two countries


Deaths on a large scale began here only in 2000. Suddenly the obituary pages of the national newspapers began to rival the sports pages in length, and the young as well as the old found their friends there. Funeral homes and coffin makers began their macabre ascendancy as this developing nation’s foremost growth industry. A wave followed not just of orphans, but also of children impoverished because AIDS killed the breadwinners of extended families. Today more than 150,000 of these orphans and vulnerable children exist on the margins of survival there.


As part of the [100 Percent Condom] campaign, public health officials aggressively focused on bars, brothels, nightclubs and massage parlors for condom education, promotion and distribution. Sex workers were likewise offered counseling, testing and treatment. The openness of sex venues there and health officials’ access to the women in them made this a relatively simple intervention.

Venues that did not agree to require condom use were shut down. Signs appeared over bar doors saying, “No condom, no sex, no refund!” And the government put resources behind the effort, distributing some 60 million free condoms a year.

A wider national effort was also under way. Condoms appeared in village shops and urban supermarkets, and frank H.I.V. education was introduced in schools, hospitals, workplaces, the military and the mass media. Thais worked hard to reduce fear and stigma and to support those living with H.I.V.

This national mobilization was classically Thai — funny, nonthreatening and sex-positive. When we briefed the Thai surgeon general on an H.I.V. prevention program for soldiers, he said, “Please be sure the program maintains sexual pleasure, otherwise the men won’t like it and won’t use it.”

It worked. By 2001, fewer than 1 percent of army recruits were H.I.V. positive, infection rates had fallen among pregnant women, and several million infections had been averted.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Faculty salaries ...

Due to some rather unnecessary rambling about PPP, etc., I failed miserably in getting my point across. So, what the hell was my point?

Most of our elite institutions (EIs) are publicly funded, a fact that constrains them from unilaterally deciding to increase faculty salaries (however desirable this course of action might be). What are these constraints? One is that faculty positions are essentially for life; dismissals for non-performance are rare. The second is pay parity with people in (regular) government service; bureaucrats will rebel at -- and derail -- attempts to disturb this carefully crafted 'equilibrium'. Finally, government just doesn't do differential pay structure (e.g., high fliers getting paid more, within the same scale).

Moreover, there's not much point in asking for an across-the-board salary increase. Why? Simply because there is a lot of non-performers in our system, and such a pay-raise would end up benefitting those as well.

Thus, under these circumstances, what we should aim for -- demand! -- is a situation where high performers are able to earn more through non-salary mechanisms. Consultancy is one such route, but it's not aligned 100 % with the goals of an academic institution.

Allowing faculty to earn money from their research grants would be far more preferable. It already happens in research grants from industry; I would like it to happen in grants from government agencies as well.

Pranab Bardhan on inequality in India

Over at How the Other Half Lives, Shivam has excerpted Pranab Bardhan's Financial Times column titled Time for India to reduce inequality. Here are some more excerpts:

Reforms have been halting in India. In the National Election Survey for 2004, the largest social-scientific study on Indian elections, three-quarters of respondents with any opinion on the subject said that reforms benefit only the rich. Indeed, over the last decade, even ruling politicians who supported reforms have played them down during election time, and a party that initiated reforms has been quick to oppose them when out of power.

This duplicity is also evident within the left: in states where it is in power, its representatives are often too driven by the inexorable logic of fiscal near-bankruptcy and competition for investment to be pro-reform; but in New Delhi, their leaders regularly indulge in ideological grandstanding. Of course, opposition to reform is not confined to the left. Trade unions of the right as well as leftwing groups are opposed to privatisation and labour reform.

Severe educational inequality, for example, makes it hard for huge numbers of people to absorb shocks in the industrial labour market, since education and training provide some means to adapt to market changes. In China the hardships of restructuring under a more intense process of global integration were mitigated by the fact there was some kind of a minimum rural safety net, largely enabled by egalitarian distribution of land cultivation rights. In most parts of India there is no similar rural safety net for the poor. So resistance to the competitive process that market reform entails is that much stiffer in India.

The discussion in India on economic reform is preoccupied with issues of fiscal and trade policy, financial markets and capital account convertibility. Reform would be more popular if it were equally concerned with the appalling governance of basic social and infrastructure services for the poor and with the need for greater transparency (recent attempts at backtracking on the new Right to Information Act, for example, do not bode well).

Tyler Cowen on microfinance in India

Tyler Cowen's NYTimes column opens with:

Microfinance is based on a simple idea: banks, finance companies, and charities lend small sums — often no more than a few hundred dollars — to poor third world entrepreneurs. The loan recipients open businesses like tailoring shops or small grocery stores, thereby bolstering local economies.

But does microfinance, in fact, help the poor?

To help answer this question, I visited Hyderabad, India, in June. The Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, run by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, economics professors at M.I.T., and Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard, has begun a study of microfinance in Hyderabad. The lab is monitoring thousands of borrowers from Spandana, one of the largest microlenders in India. At the end of a two-year trial period, the study will compare microfinance recipients to peers without comparable opportunities. The lab looks for the real-world equivalent of controlled experiments to study which programs actually alleviate poverty; this work is one of the hottest trends in the economics profession today.

Here are the homepages of Sendhil Mullainathan, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. And, the website of the Poverty Action Lab is here.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Should faculty salaries be higher?

It's almost an urban legend that our elite institutions (EIs) -- such as the IITs and IIMs -- are facing an acute faculty crunch. The shortfall in faculty in some IITs is alleged to be as high as 30%. With the impending 54 % increase in student intake due to the government's reservation policy -- this increase will preserve the number of general category seats -- the faculty crunch can only get crunchier. At least, that's the theory.

However, for each position that our EI's seek to fill, I'm sure they receive quite a few applications. The fact that so many faculty positions remain unfilled must be because the institutions find many -- if not most -- of the applicants unsuitable. Clearly, there's intense pressure on EIs to do something about making faculty positions more attractive, so that they attract more and better candidates. Increasing faculty salaries is one of the suggestions.

As attractive as this solution is -- hey, I would love a bigger paycheque! Who wouldn't? -- there are some issues that I want to ramble on about touch upon.

First of all, are the current salaries really too low? A fresh recruit (e.g., an Assistant Professor at an IIT) starts at a pre-tax salary of about Rs. 250,000 per year, which works out to a measly $5,000! Per year!! Convert this figure using purchasing power parity (and I believe the factor is about six for India), this figure magically 'grows' to a far more respectable $30,000 per year.

Let's add some non-monetary perks to this figure. Most EIs have rather nice campuses with their own residential zones with faculty housing, and on-campus schooling for their children. There are other benefits associated with staying on campus: silent, pollution-free campus and healthier living. Most importantly, commuting through brutal traffic conditions is not necessary. If you monetize these benefits, it would work out quite easily to between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000 a year, (or 5,000 to 10,000 PPP dollars).

From this point of view, the salary doesn't appear all that low. However, a PPP factor of six is only an average figure for the entire country. Presumably, this factor is different for different classes of goods; a dollar can go a long way in our country if food is what you are buying. It certainly doesn't go far when you are buying a car or a computer. Thus, the PPP factor is probably quite high for the former, and quite close to (or, even less than) one for the latter. Presumably, faculty members at EIs consume more of the latter than of the former; if so, the PPP factor appropriate for them is likely lower than six. This argument pushes the PPP adjusted salary back -- and down -- to sob-inducing levels.

Let's use another metric: compare the raw salary (without adjusting for PPP) against our per capita GDP, which is about Rs. 25,000. At about 10 times the per capita GDP, the salary of a junior faculty member in an EI doesn't appear too low. In fact, this salary would place our junior faculty members in the top 3 percentile of our population.

One may complain, rightly, that the above metrics are not quite correct. It's the low per capita GDP (and high PPP factor) that lead us to believe that the faculty salary is not too low. In absolute terms, the salary is still abysmal!

Also, one may argue -- and again, rightly -- that the comparison should be not with per capita GDP, but with a peer group of people with similar education and training who are working in other spheres, and in particular, in private industry.

To my knowledge, academics' salaries are generally lower than in industry in every country. If you think of this salary gap (between academy and industry) as the value of academic freedom, this value is huge in our country, and it's growing by leaps and bounds every year. [This perceptive observation comes from Jayant, a good friend and colleague of mine].

Does it mean that EIs should think seriously about enhancing faculty salaries? May be. However, across-the-board salary increases are unlikely due to practical difficulties, which stem from the fact that almost all our EIs are publicly funded. They are autonomous, all right; but public funding imposes certain restrictions. For example:

  • In our government, everyone is placed on a certain rung in an enormous ladder called 'pay scale'. The rungs in this ladder establish equivalence across areas. For example, an assistant professor's pay scale may be equivalent to that of a junior assistant deputy secretary (special duty) in the Central government. In our government, the structure of this pay-scale ladder is so sacrosanct, that only a high-power (but un-empowered) committee called the Pay Commission is allowed to tinker with it. Once every ten years or so. Bottomline: this is not a viable route, if you are thinking about enhanced faculty salaries in EIs.
  • Our government has difficulty in identifying high performers, and in rewarding them through differential pay. In theory, multiple increments in salary are possible, but this motivational instrument is used rarely. The upshot is that all assistant professors end up earning essentially the same salary. This implies that an across-the-board enhancement in faculty salary is not really a great idea, since it would end up 'rewarding' duds as well as the more deserving.

The answer, clearly, is in getting the EIs to move towards a system where incentives are aligned with their overall goals. What might they be?

Many faculty members offer their expertise to industry through consultancy, and earn some extra money. For example, some IIM faculty have been reported to earn, through consultancy, several times their regular salary. This route of rewarding people has its pitfalls, however. First of all, not all fields are consulting-friendly. Also, consulting can only be a small part (typically, less than 20 %) of an academic institution's activities. Yet another problem is that consultancy projects often tend to be routine tasks, require little intellectual input, and don't lead to substantial, publication-worthy research.

Yet another method, practised in the US, is to allow faculty members to earn some money through their research grants. In India, much of the research funding also comes from government, and at present, our funding agencies don't allow a 'salary component' for the recepient of research grants. If at all anyone should clamour for any 'reform', I believe it should be to get our funding agencies to change this rule. This one change also has the virtue of aligning rewards with the EIs' mission.

[Oh, by the way, research grants from private sources -- such as industry, philanthropic trusts -- do allow faculty to earn some salary. This mode of funding, however, is small in our overall research pie.]

Entrepreneurship is another possibility, but we have too little experience with this route. Moreover, I'm not too conversant with the rules of the game here, so I won't say much about it.

* * *

Finally, faculty salaries can be as high as the market would bear in private institutions. The current, intense competition for highly qualified people should have pushed up salary levels in those institutions that require them. Thus, I would guess that the faculty salaries in the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad are considerably higher than those at the IIMs. Is my guess right? If so, does ISB attract better candidates because of this 'salary advantage'? If you have some insights to offer, please leave a comment.

* * *

Are there other initiatives that our EIs can adopt and implement that will make faculty positions more attractive? I do plan to get back to this topic; but since I have rambled on for too long, let me stop here. It should not, however, stop you from giving your ideas ...

Must read posts on gender differences in cognition

Two posts. Over at Pure Pedantry. By Jake Young. Via P.Z. Myers.

Both the posts summarize neatly several key 'overview type' papers on what is currently known about gender differences in cognition and cognitive abilities.

Verdict: Yeah, sure, people have found some differences; but they can't be responsible for gender imbalances in sciences and engineering.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gender debate in science: Barres - 10, Pinker - 0

Remember the explosive piece in Nature by Ben Barres? It's behind the paywall, but I have some excerpts here. I have another post with links to quite a few other things that emerged in the aftermath of Barres' piece.

In his article, Ben Barres, who was a woman named Barbara before he underwent sex change treatment in 1997, takes offence at the suggestion -- which he calls the "Larry Summers Hypothesis" -- that "differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in scientific careers". He says:

My main purpose in writing this commentary is that I would like female students to feel that they will have equal opportunity in their scientific careers. Until intolerance is addressed, women will continue to advance only slowly. Of course, this feeling is also deeply personal to me. The comments of Summers, Mansfield, Pinker and Lawrence about women's lesser innate abilities are all wrongful and personal attacks on my character and capabilities, as well as on my colleagues' and students' abilities and self esteem. I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.

Given the controversy generated by Barres' original article, it's unfair on Nature's part to keep it behind its paywall while making the responses (including a nasty one by Steven Pinker) available to the public for free.

The latest issue of Nature has responses from two of those named in the quote: Steven Pinker and Peter Lawrence. Given what Barres says in the article, it's understandable that these two gentlemen would want to offer a defence of their views. I want to concentrate on Pinker's response. In Barres' article, Pinker appears in two other places in addition to the quote above:

Last year, Harvard University president Larry Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in scientific careers. Harvard professor Steven Pinker then put forth a similar argument in an online debate.

Steven Pinker has responded to critics of the Larry Summers Hypothesis by suggesting that they are angry because they feel the idea that women are innately inferior is so dangerous that it is sinful even to think about it.

Crying foul, Pinker says in his response that his views have been misrepresented.

In my book The Blank Slate, ... and in a published debate, I reviewed a large empirical literature showing differences in mean and variance in the distributions of talents, temperaments and life priorities among men and women. Given these differences, some favouring men, some women, it is unlikely that the proportions of men and women in any profession would be identical, even without discrimination. That is probably one of several reasons that the sex ratio tips towards women in some scientific disciplines ... and towards men in others. Barres renders this conclusion as "a whole group of people is innately wired to fail" — an egregious distortion.

Barres claims that I have denied that sex discrimination is a significant factor in professional life, whereas I have repeatedly stated the opposite... [bold emphasis added]

If you go back to the full article -- But, without a subscription, you can't! -- you won't find Pinker being linked to anything that he says Barres wrote about him. What you will find, instead, is the following, which comes close to Pinker's first complaint:

It is incumbent upon those proclaiming gender differences in abilities to rigorously address whether suspected differences are real before suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail. [bold emphasis added]

Similarly, the closest that I could come to Pinker's second complaint is where Barres says, "Despite these studies, very few men or women are willing to admit that discrimination is a serious problem in science."

Clearly, Pinker is upto some shady business here. Consider this. Barres says -- specifically, and in at least two places -- that Pinker belongs to the camp that regards innate differences as more important than discrimination in holding women back in science. Does Pinker dispute or refute that assertion? No!

Instead, what Pinker does is to de-link the two things. He first recaps research findings about gender differences, and then asserts that he never denied the significance of discrimination. For all we know, he may well be right on these two things, but Barres never claimed otherwise! In other words, Barres' claim is not about these two separate things, but about their relative importance in explaining gender imbalance in science. Thus, instead of addressing Barres' specific claim, Pinker chooses to address two separate things that Barres didn't say! Strawman, anyone?

Finally, Pinker ends his response on a snarky note:

... in my experience, students of both sexes are attracted to science because it promises an honest investigation into how the world works, an alternative to the subjectivity, simplistic dichotomies and moralistic name-calling that characterize politics and personal quarrels. Let's hope Barres's Commentary article does not discourage them. [bold emphasis added]

Coming from a leading academic, this is a mean, low attack, and he is wrong on everything he associates -- implicitly, mind you -- with Barres. Barres cites honest, objective studies to support his view that (a) innate gender differences are not all they're made out to be and (b) discrimination is quite rampant. His arguments are nuanced, and he is generous to his opponents when he says, "I'm certain that all the proponents of the Larry Summers Hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people." He certainly doesn't get into 'name-calling' (for example, he doesn't call Pinker 'sexist' or a 'discriminator'). And finally, citing Pinker as an example of those with certain views is not a 'personal quarrel'. By linking these evidently bad things with Barres (through that last sentence), it's Pinker who's doing the mud-slinging.

Score so far: Barres-10, Pinker-0

Saturday, August 05, 2006

N.R. Natraj and L.N.Mittal

When I examine Mittal and Nattu [N.R. Natraj], a few common things emerge (other than the fact that they both are iron men). They both chose a non-glamorous domain to build their self-actualization dreams. Once identified, they pursued the dream with a single-minded dedication, first by gaining the domain knowledge and skills and then by developing a game plan for the long haul. They both have that infinite patience, unwavering ‘stick-to-it’ive ness, in spite of so many distractions and naysayers around them. They allocate their physical, mental and spiritual resources for the entire duration of the course, avoiding dropping out or quickly burning out or settling for simple things. And most importantly, they stay the course – which is considered almost a sin in many corporate boardrooms, because most corporate types expect ‘action’ and ‘progress’ every two minutes. ...

From Ramesh Mahadevan's Newspaper Stories.

Nattu Natraj was a member of our 'virtual Desi joint family' in Pittsburgh during the late eighties, and lives in Boulder, Colorado. Here's Ramesh on Nattu's recent achievement:

Nattu Natraj, just last week completed the Badwaters Marathon in Death Valley, California, donning the Indian tricolor flag. This race is dubbed as the ‘baddest, toughest foot race on the planet’ and Nattu was among a selected group of 85 world class athletes from twelve countries. The ‘marathon’ is actually over five marathons long, covering a distance of nearly 210 km. Death Valley records a bone-melting 125 degree heat (50 deg C) which goes up to 145 degrees on asphalt. The temperature is so high that credit cards are supposed to melt and cold drinks turn into tepid soups in ten minutes, according to a reporter of the Washington Post. And the course goes through approximately five kilometers of vertical ups and downs. Nattu Natraj came in at number fifty overall, finishing the race in about 46 hours.

Media Lab Asia and the OLPC

Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative is also the founder of MIT's famed Media Lab which partnered with the Indian government to set up its Asian branch (Media Lab Asia) on Indian soil. This collaboration proved to be bitter and, consequently, short-lived. The man who pulled the plug on it was none other than Arun Shourie, the then Minister of IT and Telecom. Here's a BusinessWeek story from 2003:

... Media Labs Asia ran for a year solely on the $13.5 million seed money provided by the Indian government, with MIT contributing nothing yet calling the shots on the lab's project, say insiders. Much of the money went toward paying the lab's staff, as if they were international civil servants. ... Few MIT professors visited the labs at any of IIT's branches, say students and professors at the institutions. "MIT didn't add much value," says a source close to the project ... MIT's plan of getting funding for India was flawed from the get-go. Multinationals like Microsoft (MSFT ), Intel (INTC ), and Cisco (CSCO) already have huge research and development operations in India, so they likely saw little value in sponsoring other research projects that don't relate directly to their businesses. ... [T]he IIT professors whose job it was to oversee the projects declared that MIT added no value in research or in corporate sponsorships. And it was revealed that MIT asked the Indian government to pay $1.7 million for the use of the MIT name. That was perhaps the last straw.

Could India's recent rejection of the OLPC have something to do with the country's earlier experience with the Media Lab Asia? ZDNet-UK speculates:

As with MIT Media Lab Europe, which set up shop in Dublin in 2000 only to close its shutters in 2005, MIT Media Lab Asia (Mumbai, 2001-5) attracted government funding, criticism and then the bum's rush. According to one Indian researcher who talked to us, the bad feelings left behind are still strong enough to render Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder and lead wolf on OPLC, persona non grata within the subcontinent — and guarantee the rejection of any project with his name attached.

Let's just follow up on the first sentence of this quote. Just what was the record of Media Lab Europe, set up in Ireland? Here's ZDNet-UK again:

The Irish public auditor found that after five years and nearly 50 million euros, most of which was public money, the place had produced just 24 scientific papers and 12 useless patents. While it was running, MIT Media Lab Europe "refused to tell ministers how many people it employed, what they were paid, or to provide audited accounts", according to the Sunday Times, but it did manage to award them substantial severance payments when time ran out.

The ZDNet-UK article ends with a rather snarky advice to the countries that are considering buying a million laptops from Negroponte's OLPC:

For an experiment of this size and expense, one with the potential to set education agendas for millions, due diligence is required. As they say in the adverts, past performance is no guarantee of future results — but sometimes, it can be most educational.

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Thanks to the Unofficial OLPC Website's blog for the link to the ZDNet-UK article.

Gender differences

The Economist has a survey of recent research (with references) into gender differences in human behaviour.

... [B]iological explanations of human behaviour are making a comeback as the generation of academics that feared them as a covert way of justifying eugenics, or of thwarting Marxist utopianism, is retiring. The success of neo-Darwinism has provided an intellectual underpinning for discussion about why some differences between the sexes might be innate. And new scanning techniques have enabled researchers to examine the brain's interior while it is working, showing that male and female brains do, at one level, operate differently. The results, however, do not always support past clichés about what the differences in question actually are.

Arun Singh's advice to V.S. Arunachalam

This week I received a surprise phone call from Arun Singh, obviously shocked by Arunachalam’s name getting dragged into this ['mole' in Narasimha Rao's PMO] mess. He told me the truth behind his seemingly “abrupt” departure. He was back in the government as the head of Committee on Defence Expenditures (CDE) in the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments and advised Arunachalam that he had been the head of DRDO for too long, 11 years, and it was not good for him, his family, or the organisation. For how long was he going to run his household on a government salary, particularly when all three of his children could study overseas. It is then, Arun Singh tells me, that the scientist told him he had a position available at Carnegie Mellon, which has one of the finest labs in his field — metallurgy, robotics and computer sciences. “We thought this was a perfect place for him to go to, as he could also work with Dr Raj Reddy who is an icon in the world of robotics and high tech. This would have also given his children an opportunity to study free in one of the best schools in the US because Arunachalam, as a faculty member, would be entitled to it.” Singh says the problem was, how to convince the prime minister to let him go and who was to be the new head of DRDO. Arunachalam met Narasimha Rao several times to convince him that he needed to leave and that he would not be missed because there was a very logical successor, albeit a bit old. That rather “old” person was none else than President A.P. J. Kalam!   [bold emphasis added]

From Shekhar Gupta's column in today's Indian Express.

Two gutsy academics protest against Narendra Modi

Ram Guha on the protest by two gutsy professors from IIT-Madras:

The speech Modi was delivering in Chennai was part of a further ‘mainstreaming’ of his image, part of the somewhat successful attempt to make the English-speaking middle class forget his role in the riots of 2002 by re-presenting himself as an efficient administrator and engineer of economic growth. ... [T]he IIT Chennai meeting — hosted by the foundation named for and started by the eminent scientist, M.S. Swaminathan — was intended to further a technical mission to make ‘Every Village a Knowledge Centre’. Before Modi could speak, two women went up to the stage and held up a placard which read: “Mr Modi, We disapprove”. Later, they told a reporter that “we came to protest his government’s policies. He could not stop the Gujarat communal riots, his handling of the Narmada dam issue is deplorable, and recently he stopped the screening of the Hindi film Fanaa”.


... [I] ... believe that what Enakshi Bhattacharya and Nandita DasGupta did at Chennai last week was salutary. It was also very brave — for unlike the typical left-wing protestor, they could not seek the anonymity of the crowd, and had much to lose — namely, a career that was hard-won as well as highly prized.

As the elected chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has a right to be present at meetings organized by the Union government or public sector institutions. However, when it comes to meetings hosted by private or autonomous institutions, an invitation to Modi is a privilege, to be gifted or withdrawn as per the courtesy of the host. These have to judge not just his office, but also his record in office. And that includes not just his collusion in — some would say active sponsorship of — the riots of 2002, but also his continuing attempts to stifle the free expression of opinion in his state, as in the last illustration offered by the two IIT ladies — the shocking ban on the film Fanaa, enforced because one of its actors thinks that those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam should be decently rehabilitated.

The link to the Telegraph story on this 'incident' is here.

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Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the link to Guha's column.

Friday, August 04, 2006

PhD, Performance Measures, Professors

Links to three interesting articles. Let's go in the reverse order.

Teacher, researcher, professor: Just how different are these roles? (pdf; very interesting perspective)

Measuring research performance (a quirky take on how 'they' measure your worth as an academic)

Notes on the Ph.D. degree (a little too CS-centric).

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Thanks to Vishnu for the first, and to Subrahmanya for the last two.

Why do economists blog?

From this Economist story (via Brad DeLong (who is quoted in it):

Like millions of others, economists from circles of academia and public policy spend hours each day writing for nothing. The concept seems at odds with the notion of economists as intellectual instruments trained in the maximisation of utility or profit. Yet the demand is there: some of their blogs get thousands of visitors daily, often from people at influential institutions like the IMF and the Federal Reserve. One of the most active “econobloggers” is Brad DeLong, of the University of California, Berkeley, whose site,, features a morning-coffee videocast and an afternoon-tea audiocast in which he holds forth on a spread of topics from the Treasury to Trotsky.

So why do it? “It's a place in the intellectual influence game,” Mr DeLong replies (by e-mail, naturally). For prominent economists, that place can come with a price. Time spent on the internet could otherwise be spent on traditional publishing or collecting consulting fees. Mr DeLong caps his blogging at 90 minutes a day. His only blog revenue comes from selling advertising links to help cover the cost of his servers, which handle more than 20,000 visitors daily.

Arun Shourie's talk on "Equal Opportunity"

Arun Shourie gave a talk in IISc yesterday on Equal Opportunity: Alternatives and their Efficacies. I have a post on this talk over at How the Other Half Lives.

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Badri has the audio of P.S. Krishnan's lecture on Social Justice and Reservation. Krishnan is a "former secretary to the Government of India, former member secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes, [and] ... [was] the Secretary in-charge during VP Singh's time resurrecting the Mandal Commission Report."

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The reservation issue is in the news again. Mr. Veerappa Moily's Oversight Committee has recommended, in an interim report, a phased implementation (also check out this report) of the proposed OBC quotas in higher education.

Protecting the Web from 'regulatory capture'

When broadband companies try to charge consumers of internet content (such as you and me) as well as content hosts (such as Google, Blogger, Flickr), there's a clear danger of the internet being carved up into two (or more) kinds of 'internets': a faster net for companies that pay, and a slower one for those who don't. Since this tips the scale in favour of the 'haves' and against the 'have-nots', it endangers the democratic nature of the internet which (currently) carries your voice irrespective of how small you are. If you thought -- like I did -- that a regulation that mandates 'net neutrality' is a good way of combating greedy broadband companies, you will be forced into a re-think after reading the sobering message in this NYTimes column by Timothy B. Lee:

It’s tempting to believe that government regulation of the Internet would be more consumer-friendly; history and economics suggest otherwise. The reason is simple: a regulated industry has a far larger stake in regulatory decisions than any other group in society. As a result, regulated companies spend lavishly on lobbyists and lawyers and, over time, turn the regulatory process to their advantage.

Economists have dubbed this process “regulatory capture,” and they can point to plenty of examples. The airline industry was a cozy cartel before being deregulated in the 1970’s. Today, government regulation of cable television is the primary obstacle to competition.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Newton's first law of blogging

"When you write, you can't stop and when you stop, you can’t start," says Sue.

if you are a regular blogger out there, don’t stop - even if you feel like your world is collapsing around you and you barely have time to breathe, let alone the grocery shopping and the laundry and the umpteen boring things that makes life go on in a socially acceptable fashion - even then you should continue. Or you will be a victim of inertia, just like me. When you write, you cant stop and when you stop, you can’t start - who else can you blame but good old Newton, with the apple on his head.

Jas'made-up-a-story-now-what-do-you'want Singh

From the Hindu's editorial:

... In the days since the book's release, Mr. [Jaswant] Singh has chopped and changed the story — first relying on the "letter" to allege that the Rao regime put off nuclear testing under pressure from a forewarned U.S. Government, then dismissing the "letter" as being of no major consequence, going on to say that he was not sure if the person was a "civil servant or uncivil servant" or a "PMO official" and then simply throwing up his hands with "I don't have his name."

Thanks to this man's shenanigans, corrosive clouds hang over a gullible nation, causing acid rains that tarnish reputations that took an entire life to build.

All for what? A few more suckers to buy a silly book? I can't believe this selfish creep was considered a sane voice -- and even a wise voice, according to some -- in the previous regime.

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Krish finds this entry in the Right Wing Dictionary.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Rajat Gupta on IITs

... [I]f we are honest, we will say we have created a fantastic Joint Entrance Exam. We have then done a reasonable job of teaching them. These institutions –the IITs and IIMs –have created a brand because of the success of their alumni. Not because of their research output. Not because they have created huge amounts of innovation. We have to create innovation and research to make the IITs truly competitive. On that front we have to a long way to go.


The government has an important role to play—including in creating institutions of higher learning. But there is no reason why higher education should be the sole purview of the state. It should create a framework where the private sector can be deployed to create institutes of higher learning. Obviously, the government has a responsibility of setting standards and of regulating.

In the next 10 years, India will have more people of employable age than any other country in the history of the world. To deploy them effectively, we need a large system of higher and vocational education. All of these areas should be open to the public and private sectors and also public-private partnerships.

From this short interview.