Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Biobigotry, etc...

Word of the day: Biobigotry.

Gender gap in competitiveness: the role of culture.

Mark Alpert in the Scientific American: We need more novels about real scientists.

Daniel Solove, author of The Future of Reputation on privacy in the online world .

Finally, today's mystery link [via Rahul Basu].

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From an Italian farm to MIT's math department ...

The amazing journey of Gigliola Staffilani, who's now a tenured professor of mathematics at MIT:

Improbable. That's one way to describe it. Or you could say very lucky. Then again, you might believe in destiny. Gigliola Staffilani's life is the story of one unlikely event after another that have collided in just the right way to land her where she is now, which is sitting in a sunny, spacious office at MIT, where she is, at age 42, the only female full professor of pure mathematics.

"My life has been like billiards," she said, reaching for an explanation. "Balls have hit me and I've shot off in different directions. And I feel like all the balls that have hit me have shot me off on the maximal path."

Thanks to Jillu Madrasi for the pointer.


First, the mystery link, that I wish to dedicate to N. Ram and the Hindu... [Thanks to Vivek and Chris for the pointer]

Nicholas Bakalar: Memory training shown to turn up brain power.

Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Ahmed Zewail: We need a Science White House.

Plagiarism Chronicles: From (a) Poland: Priests threatened with jail for plagiarising sermons [from the internet], and (b) Australia: University chief lifted text from Wikipedia.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on India's "national shame"

He spoke today at a conference on "saving the girl child". Amelia Gentleman reports:

In his first speech on the subject, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlighted an "alarming" decline in the number of girls for every 1,000 boys in India, slipping to 927 in 2001 from 962 in 1981. "This indicates that growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation in this acute problem," Singh said.

"No nation, no society, no community can hold its head high and claim to be part of the civilized world if it condones the practice of discriminating against one half of humanity represented by women," the prime minister said.

Singh made the comments in the opening speech for a national conference dedicated to "saving the girl child" that brought together politicians, doctors and advocacy groups.

Describing female abortion as "inhuman, uncivilized and reprehensible," Singh said the government had a responsibility to crack down on the large numbers of Indian doctors who illegally revealed the sex of unborn children to parents and then arrange abortions to get rid of unwanted girls.

Related links:

  1. Data on sex ratio in Indian states from 1901 to 2001.
  2. A clickable sex ratio map of India.
  3. Amartya Sen's essay titled Many faces of gender inequality.


A new, interesting news/blog aggregation site called Alltop has an India-centric channel. This page aggregates content -- news stories and blog posts -- from many sources including this humble blog. Thanks, Alltop!

The number of topics that have their own subdomain -- like X.Alltop -- is increasing. The latest to be added, according to the Alltop Blog, is Adoption.Alltop. The first topic in the "Living" section is Beauty.Alltop.

Education.Alltop is worth following too ... ;-)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Links ...

Someone is not wrong on the internet! [How can he be wrong when he's saying nice things about colleagues in my Department?]

Brutally honest: PHD Comics on post-doc stints.

Bansal Classes of South Korea! [Except that the target is an Ivy League university]

T.T. Ram Mohan on the new IITs and IIMs. Yes, he offers a convincing counter to the 'brand dilution' argument.

Amrutha is (also) upset with P.V. Indiresan's screed arguments against creating new IITs; her critique covers some areas that I did not pursue in my post.

And, finally, to-day's mystery link [Thanks to Badri for the link].

What do we teach Young Indians about reservation?

The Telegraph ran a story yesterday about how NCERT's textbooks dealt with reservation. I don't know how you feel about this story, but it appeared to me to insinuate that NCERT is doing something sinister by including a discussion of reservation in its texts. That made me look at the NCERT's social science text for Class VIII. Here are the direct links to the two lessons discussed in the Telegraph story.

It turns out that reservation forms a small part of what these two lessons are really about: marginalization. One lesson -- Chapter 7 -- is about multiple dimensions of marginalization, with the discussion focusing on Adivasis and Muslims. The lesson in Chapter 8 is about ways to combat marginalization, with the discussion focusing on the Dalits and Adivasis. Reservation is brought up within this context, and disposed off in just two and a half paragraphs!

As part of their effort to implement the Constitution, both state and central governments create specific schemes for implementation in tribal areas or in areas that have a high Dalit population. For example, the government provides for free or subsidised hostels for students of Dalit and Adivasi communities so that they can avail of education facilities that may not be available in their localities.

In addition to providing certain facilities, the government also operates through laws to ensure that concrete steps are taken to end inequity in the system. One such law/policy is the reservation policy that today is both significant and highly contentious. The laws which reserve seats in education and government employment for Dalits and Adivasis are based on an important argument- that in a society like ours, where for centuries sections of the population have been denied opportunities to learn and to work in order to develop new skills or vocations, a democratic government needs to step in and assist these sections.

How does the reservation policy work? Governments across India have their own list of Scheduled Castes (or Dalits), Scheduled Tribes and backward and most backward castes. The central government too has its list. Students applying to educational institutions and those applying for posts in government are expected to furnish proof of their caste or tribe status, in the form of caste and tribe certificates. (Many government and educational institutions also ask for candidates to mention their caste/tribe status.) If a particular Dalit caste or a certain tribe is on the government list, then a candidate from that caste or tribe can avail of the benefit of reservation.

For admission to colleges, especially to institutes of professional education, such as medical colleges, governments define a set of ‘cut-off’ marks. This means that not all Dalit and tribal candidates can qualify for admission, but only those who have done reasonably well and secured marks above the cut-off point. Governments also offer special scholarships for these students. In your Class IX Political Science textbook, you will read more on reservations for the backward classes.

As I said, these paragraphs appear in a chapter where the discussion is largely about Dalits and Adivasis. Within this context, they don't have anything objectionable, since SC/ST reservation is an issue that has not been in dispute for over fifty years. I have no idea why the Telegraph reporter chose to use "OMG, look what they are teaching our kids!" tone.

* * *

The preamble to the section on Marginalization connects the subject with what the students have learned before. For example, in Class VI, students learn about prejudice and discrimination; a sidebar features Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, and his teachings. In Class VII, the first and last chapters are about equality and inequality, and discuss the many ways in which the latter operates in real life.

As one moves forward to Class IX, the chapter on the working of institutions discusses how our government operates, using as an example, one of its major actions. Can you guess what it is? You are right: it's Mandal-I and OBC reservation in government jobs!

On the whole, I was impressed with the texts' authors' choice of supporting material: cartoons from around the world, ads and other pop-cultural references, poems, personal narratives, stories. When the discussion turns to the actual subject, however, I found much of it rather uncomplicated and nuance-free (as can be seen from the paragraphs I have excerpted above); perhaps this is because the text's target audience is made up entirely of mid-teens. While one cannot expect a detailed exposition of why a policy of reservation may be opposed by some people, I think the discussion ought to go a little beyond describing this policy as "highly contentious"!

The Class IX text is a bit better, however; it has a paragraph on OBC quota opponents' views and another on how the Supreme Court resolved the Indira Sawhney case. It also features a couple of Amul ads from that era!

* * *

NCERT's textbooks for Classes I to XII are all available online. Check them out!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Some fun links ...

  1. Some brilliant put-downs.
  2. Ever seen the 'close door' button in elevators? Does it work? [The analogy with prayer is delicious!]
  3. Ctrl-Alt-Ouch!
  4. How do diplomats do it?
  5. To end the day, here's the mystery link.

Two findings that will unnerve a professor ...

Does a discussion of real life examples help in teaching abstract concepts in mathematics? A recent research finding says it ain't so.

... The idea is that making math more relevant makes it easier to learn.

That idea may be wrong, if researchers at Ohio State University are correct. An experiment by the researchers suggests that it might be better to let the apples, oranges and locomotives [and other such real world examples] stay in the real world and, in the classroom. ...

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The other research finding is even more insidious: professor ratings on are highly correlated with other such evaluations!

Two statements that define the internet era

  1. On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
    -- A New Yorker cartoon (1993) [Wikipedia entry]
  2. Someone is WRONG on the internet.
    -- An xkcd cartoon (2008) [and another].

Genome variation in India

Thanks to Pratik, I found this interesting piece in the Telegraph about the Indian Genome Variation Project, an ongoing study by a consortium of six Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories and the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta. Here's one of the broad conclusions (quite unsurprising, if you ask me):

... [The Project]has provided the strongest genetic evidence yet to suggest that several populations have intermingled in India over the centuries.

Dravidian lineages have mixed with Indo-Europeans, Austroasiatics have mingled with Dravidians, and bridge populations in central India are blends of Dravidian, Indo-European and Himalayan groups.

Here's a very interesting manifestation of this general result:

... [S]ome Hindu caste groups are genetically closer to Muslims in the same geographical region than to their own caste cousins elsewhere in India.

But this bit is really sad:

“We had intense debates on whether to reveal the names of communities,” said Mitali Mukerjee, project coordinator at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), New Delhi.

“I don’t think scientists are prepared yet to understand the full social ramifications if such information is made public,” Mukerjee told The Telegraph.

Pratik has some more links.

Links ...

Once again, I start with the mystery link, a blog with an interesting theme and a multiple personality disorder ...

Please don't have a nice day: WSJ's review of Eric Wilson's Against Happiness

What is the value proposition of the humanities?

On a similar note, did you know that there are quite a few arguments to support the proposition that graduate education is a public good?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Localized news

The best coverage of yesterday's Indians-Super Kings thriller, of course, is at Prem Panicker's blog. The coverage is pretty good too. But that's not what this post is about. Instead, it's about how this news is "localized" in different parts of the world.

Radio New Zealand: [Jacob] Oram gets plundered in Chennai

Trinidad and Tobago Express: [Dwayne] Bravo's Indians lose IPL thriller.

Herald-Sun (Australia): Hayden hammers Chennai to victory. (don't forget to check out the first comment! It appears at the bottom of the page). Actress Nayanthara hospitalised, won't perform at IPL match.

Alia Sabur, the world's youngest professor

She became a professor in Konkuk University, South Korea, "three days shy of her 19th birthday". Yes, it's a world record; the previous record-holder, apparently, was Colin Maclaurin, a student of Isaac Newton! And yes, she is a materials scientist.

Here's website. From her bio page:

Alia has been setting records and making history starting with reading at 8 months old. Her IQ was determined off the charts. She went from 4th grade to college, earning a B.S. in Applied Mathematics summa cum laude from Stony Brook University at age 14, the youngest female in American history. She then earned an M.S. and Ph.D. (ABD) in Materials Science and Engineering from Drexel University. Alia is the youngest ever to receive fellowships and awards from the Dept of Defense, NASA, GAANN and NSF.

Also multi-talented, Alia has been performing with orchestras since her solo debut at 11 with the Mozart Concerto where she was billed a music prodigy. She has also performed with musicians as diverse as Lang Lang and Smash Mouth. She enjoys performing as an orchestral member, chamber musician and soloist equally and is venturing into crossover, jazz and fusion. As a Juilliard School student she was mentored by some of the world's greatest musicians and is the winner of several celebrated awards.

Alia has done groundbreaking work towards developing nanotube-based cellular probes for use in medical research. This will allow the ability to measure the reaction of nano-materials injected into individual cells. She is also interested in a venue to develop non-invasive optical blood glucose meters for people with diabetics. Alia tries to be a role model for young people, especially girls by breaking the stereotype that scientists are nerdy. She is also passionately interested in helping improve the quality of STEM education in this country.

Alia wanted to help the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, so when she learned that Southern University at New Orleans, a historically Black public college, was the only college still operating out of trailers, she accepted a temporary position there as her way of giving back. While continuing her research efforts long distance with Konkuk and SBU, she has been teaching four courses at SUNO and living at the Mount Carmel Motherhouse, also devastated by Katrina. In May Alia will head for South Korea.

Here are a couple of media reports about Alia Sabur's multi-faceted achievements.

Links ...

Let me start with the mystery link. The entire blog is worth following, for its sharp focus on a very interesting theme.

Have you ever wondered about Google's design principles?

A new kind of economic indicator: Lasik eye surgery. But is it a leading indicator?

And, finally, a post on the neuroscience of meditation and attention.

N. Ram credibility watch

Rahul Basu, a theoretical physicist at IMSc (Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai), has started a blog: As I Please [I blogged about his letters to the Hindu just the other day]. His third post is on a recent lecture by N. Ram, the Hindu's Editor in Chief, at the Beijing Forum on Human Rights:

... N Ram says that all round development is itself a sign of progress in human rights. For a novel take on the human rights issue, this is hard to beat. By this logic, the erstwhile Soviet Union was a shining example of human rights for the people since overall development (in the sense of infrastructure and so on) in the Soviet Union was close, if not the same as in Western Europe and America, and way ahead of any of the developing countries like India which had full fledged democracy and a free press. Never mind the few sent off to the Gulags... they were irrelevant and expendable presumably.

Another theoretical physicist at another leading institution -- Sunil Mukhi of TIFR -- finds a pattern in the Hindu's hypocritical views on freedom of speech: it supports it only when it makes China happy!

Now going through some old emails, I found that Mr N. Ram, under very different circumstances, turns out to be quite a supporter of freedom of speech. In 1998, Dr T. Jayaraman of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (funded by India's Department of Atomic Energy) wrote some articles in the Hindu's Frontline magazine, opposing India's nuclear weapons programme. For this he was warned by his Director that disciplinary action may be forthcoming. Ultimately the Director was persuaded to back off following pressure from the scientific community, including a signature campaign signed by 170 TIFR scientists (I conducted that campaign and sent him the results).

[excerpts from an e-mail from a "jubilant" Mr N. Ram snipped]

While it was a perfectly valid democratic option to oppose the Pokhran II tests, this also happened to be a line that would have pleased the Chinese government at the time. So for some people, freedom of speech appears to be OK when it makes China happy, and not OK otherwise!

Sam Pitroda writes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ...

... about selecting heads of institutions (pdf). The letter outlines some broad but sound principles (that are marred only by slippery phrases like "result in unfortunate situations"):

  1. The appointment of Directors /Vice Chancellors of the new IITs , IIMs, IISERs, Central Universities, AIIMS must be made by a Search Committee that has an independent Chair, capable of exercising the highest quality of judgment .The direct involvement of Administrative Ministries can result in unfortunate situations.
  2. The Procedure for appointment of the Chairperson and members of governing Councils/Boards needs to be carefully crafted in order to ensure that institutions have the benefit of the widest inputs from academia and society.
  3. The involvement of the Chair of the Governing Board and at least two independent members in the selection of the Director /Vice-Chancellor will ensure smooth functioning at later stages of an institution’s development.
  4. Appointments of heads of institutions must be made well in advance of a vacancy arising, so that a smooth transition is effected. In view of fixed tenures, there is no reason that this cannot be done in all institutions.
  5. The proposal for an independent regulatory body for higher education was also advanced by the Commission as an expression of its concern at the deteriorating ambience of institutions of learning in many parts of the country.

All this is fine, but what I would really like to know is this: what made Pitroda to write this letter on 17 April 2008? What was the immediate provocation?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

P.V. Indiresan's bad arguments against creating new IITs.

P.V. Indiresan (ex-Director, IIT-M) has two articles -- Does India need more IITs? and IITs: Quality only because of exclusivity -- on the government's decision to create new IITs (together with new IIMs, Central Universities). I'm not a fan of Indiresan, and these two pieces do nothing to make me change my opinion. His articles demand some serious fisking, but I don't have the time for it. Let me just take a couple of his arguments.

To counter the argument (which he attributes to some IIT alumni) supporting the creation of new IITs since there is so much demand, he uses this absurd analogy:

Extending the argument, as many more people want to become MPs, should we increase the size of our Parliament indefinitely? Similarly, is it desirable to expand the size of the Cabinet?

Implicit in the demand for engineering seats is the demand -- backed by India's fast economic growth -- for well-trained engineers. It is the latter need that drives the creation of new institutions. I'm sure Indiresan knows this, but why acknowledge it when you can use a cheap analogy that serves the purpose -- however illegitimate -- of winning the argument for you?


Nanopolitan bleg: Indiresan talks about a blog run by IIT alumni who argued strongly for creating new IITs. Does anyone know which blog he's talking about?

* * *

Indiresan then proceeds to dazzle his readers with some stuff about Nyquist's theorem, and uses it to argue thus:

... [T]he essence of Nyquist’s theorem is quite simple. Its philosophical import is: it is not possible to build a system that never makes mistakes; it is best to correct mistakes after they occur rather than attempt a system that never makes mistakes.

On that basis, it is acceptable to increase the number of IITs even if it is a mistake. However, the Nyquist theorem explains also that not all systems are correctable; only certain designs are stable. In the case of IITs, once poorly trained students flood the market, their brand image is liable to suffer, quite like Humpty Dumpty — not all the government’s ministers and not all their money will be able to get its reputation back again.

Thus, his fear is that since not all IITs can ever be the same, some of the new ones may not be up to snuff. Fair enough. But, he then conflates this fear with the potential erosion of IITs' brand image.

The short answer to this silly (but popular) complaint is: University of California (or, any other state university system in the US with multiple campuses). No one (at least, no one that really matters; since Indiresan is so high on exclusivity, he should be able to understand this) would confuse UC-Irvine with UC-Davis, or UCLA with UCSD, and none of these with Berkeley.

Similarly, each IIT is essentially on its own -- IIT-Patna is going to swim or sink based on how well it manages its affairs: selecting and nurturing its faculty, its pedagogy, its relationship with industry, its research credentials, etc..

But, why should that institution in Patna be an IIT, and not Jagannath Mishra College of Engineering? In other words, what is the big deal about IIT at Patna? The big deal this: since it will have the status of an IIT, it starts with huge probability of success. Why? The argument is fleshed out really well in an article by S.C. Chaudhary, a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT-M). While I'm sure you too will love this article's opening sentence ("IITs are good colleges" ;-), here's the relevant part:

The credit for the excellence of IITs should go to the system underlying it. This system has two pillars — complete autonomy, and relatively generous funding.

Let us take the funding first. For about 5,000 students and 400 teachers, IIT Madras gets nearly Rs. 100 crore per annum. Even if put together, all universities in Tamil Nadu or in Bihar, with several times more students and teachers, get less.

Besides, IITs earn through consultancy and receive donations from their alumni. They also attract international funding. IIT Madras may not be rolling in money, but it can meet its needs and some fancies. Its faculty may not be getting salaries as in Massachusetts, Singapore, Tokyo or Toronto, but their working environment and the autonomy they enjoy make those salaries a less important factor in career choice. For conferences and researches, they can go abroad. They can buy a book or a laptop.

The other pillar of the IIT system is its autonomy. Reporting to the President of India, Visitor or Chancellor to all IITs, IITs have managed to escape politicians. Ministers have tried to interfere, but the Presidents have used their position and the trust reposed in them to save this their sacred charge. The IITs, therefore, work unhindered; and so do all their departments, laboratories, hostels, libraries, every unit and individual running them. They know their rights and duties, privileges and responsibilities, and enjoy those privileges and discharge those responsibilities without fear or favour.

Coming back to Indiresan's suggestion that "it is folly to increase the number of IITs without enough competent teachers to teach," which institution do you think has a better chance of attracting competent teachers: IIT-Patna or Jagannath Mishra College of Engineering at Patna?

"Our inability to predict what will make us happy"

Claudia Dreyfus has a fantastic interview of Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness:

Q. How does [your research] relate to understanding happiness?

A. Because if we can’t predict how we’d react in the future, we can’t set realistic goals for ourselves or figure out how to reach to them.

What we’ve been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy — or unhappy. If you can’t tell which futures are better than others, it’s hard to find happiness. The truth is, bad things don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That’s true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.

So the good news is that going blind is not going to make you as unhappy as you think it will. The bad news is that winning the lottery will not make you as happy as you expect.

Q. Are you saying that people are happy with whatever cards are dealt to them?

A. As a species, we tend to be moderately happy with whatever we get. If you take a scale that goes from zero to 100, people, generally, report their happiness at about 75. We keep trying to get to 100. Sometimes, we get there. But we don’t stay long.

We certainly fear the things that would get us down to 20 or 10 — the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a serious challenge to our health. But when those things happen, most of us will return to our emotional baselines more quickly than we’d predict. Humans are wildly resilient.

Here's a crucial section:

Q. As the author of a best seller about happiness, do you have any advice on how people can achieve it?

A. I’m not Dr. Phil.

We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.

We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy — money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.

Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

Mistranslations in Kamasutra!

Check out today's xkcd.

You may also want to look at the very interesting links in Kamasutra of personal computing and Kamasutra of reading. The former is one of the most visited pages -- several tens of visitors a day -- on this blog ...

Frontline on OBC reservation

Equity in Education is the theme of the latest issue of Frontline. The lead article is by V. Venkatesan, who also interviews P.S. Krishnan, former Member-Secretary of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC).

In addition, there's an article by M.P. Raju questioning the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the concept of creamy layer. Here's a relevant part of his critique:

In the case of the S.Cs and the S.Ts, Parliament has the power to exclude from the list of S.Cs and S.Ts not only any caste or tribe but also any part of or any group within the caste or tribe. Exclusion from the Backward Classes list can be made in the same way. But it is very clear that the Constitution does not contemplate exclusion of individuals from a particular group for the purpose of group rights. The exclusion of individuals for identification of Backward Classes is a contradiction in terms. Exclusion will be permissible for an identifiable section, part, or group of a socially and educationally Backward Class.

Similarly, the test for exclusion should be relatable to the test for inclusion. When inclusion applies to a social group, that is, caste coupled with social and educational backwardness, the exclusionary criteria should apply to caste coupled with the criteria of social and educational backwardness.

It is not reasonable, on the face of it, for the court to say that inclusion should be on the principle of caste coupled with educational and social backwardness but exclusion should be based on economic criteria, affluence, trade, business, profession, occupation, employment or holding of governmental and other offices. The concept of creamy layer needs to be redefined and perhaps even renamed. There is no proper definition of the term and the concept.

Sick and the city

Check out John Noble Wilford's NYTimes piece on how Cholera outbreaks of 1832 and 1849 shaped the evolution of New York.

The initial response to the epidemic, Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, said recently, exposed more than ever the city’s divisions of class, race and religion. The disease hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods, particularly the slum known as Five Points, where African-Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were crowded in squalor and stench.

“Other New Yorkers looked down on the victims,” said Dr. Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. “If you got cholera, it was your own fault.”

Unlike most upper-class residents, John Pintard, the respected civic leader who was the historical society’s founder, remained in the stricken city. His letters to one of his daughters are included in the exhibition.

The epidemic, he wrote in an attitude typical of his peers, “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations.”

In another letter, his judgment was even harsher. “Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Was President Kalam ready to invite Sonia Gandhi to form the government in 2004?

Many right-wing hacks and xenophobes went to town after the 2004 general elections with rumours -- I repeat, they were just rumours -- that President Kalam nixed Ms. Gandhi's 'illegal attempt' to become PM. Now, a forthcoming book by P.M. Nair, Kalam's secretary at that time, reveals what really happened.

Kalam was told [by his aides] that Gandhi will come with letters of support from different parties. "You do not have to read all of those. Just leaf through them and ring the bell," Nair suggested to the President, saying he would be in the adjacent ADC's room with the letter appointing Gandhi as Prime Minister.

"Please sign it, shake hands with her and congratulate her. You should also ask when she would like to be sworn in," Nair advised Kalam who said "Okay". ...

Nair says contrary to the rumour doing the rounds then, there was no suggestion at all from Kalam to Sonia not to become Prime Minister.

With the issue of Gandhi's foreign origin being raked up, there were speculative reports in the media that the President had advised the Congress chief against occupying the key post.

The Kalam-Gandhi meetings were brief and courteous, the only purpose being to hand over the letter appointing Gandhi as Prime Minister, recalls Nair.

Gandhi's meeting with Kalam was fixed for 12.15 p.m. on May 18. Gandhi arrived with Manmohan Singh. "I waited in the ADC's room, alert for the bell, armed with the letter (yet to be signed) from the President appointing her the Prime Minister of India.

Minutes ticked. The bell rang. I hurried out with the papers -- only to see Gandhi and Singh leaving," recounts Nair.

Kalam then told Nair "you told me she would come with letters of support, but she came just for discussions. She said she would come again tomorrow with the letters of support from other parties".

The President, recalls Nair, said he had told Gandhi "why wait till tomorrow? I am available any time this afternoon or this evening. You please come as soon as you are ready with the papers. My papers are ready for you".

The message came that Gandhi would meet the President at 8.15 p.m. on the next day, May 19.

Precisely at 8.15 p.m., Gandhi drove in along with Singh. "I waited in the anteroom. The moments ticked by. The bell rang, and I went in.

"The President told me that he had been informed that Manmohan Singh would be the leader of the Congress party. The letter said he was nominated as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party and as the prime ministerial candidate of the party. Letters of support from other parties were also there," Nair wrote.

Nair said he then went back to change the letter since Singh was being appointed Prime Minister. Singh stood by in all humility and thanked Gandhi. The President congratulated the Prime Minister-to-be.

The Internets teach me something new ...

... here's today's lesson:

Women who spray testosterone on their stomach to raise their sex drive may not see much benefit — unless they also want to grow hair on their belly.

Bonus: You really, really, cannot swallow your own tongue, even when you have a seizure.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Three links

Among all the things I have read about Indian Premier League, Tabula Rasa's short take -- less than 10 lines -- is arguably the most insightful. Here's the punchline: "All that's left is for organized religion to rear its ugly head."

* * *

Badri has a great post on the kinds of people BCCI has chosen for developing cricket-based content.

* * *

Amitava Kumar posts an eerily funny snippet from an e-mail that's doing the rounds. I can't excerpt a three line post, can I? Go read it! [via Guru].

Annals of modern teaching: On banning laptop use in classrooms

A law school professor writes a paper about his experiment [via The Situationist]. Here's the abstract:

Over the last several years law school classrooms have seen an explosion of student laptop use. Law professors have allowed this by default, generally under the pretense that laptops make note-taking easier. However, many professors complain that students use their laptops to play games, watch movies, or if they have an Internet connection, to do web surfing and e-mailing during class. This paper presents my experience in banning laptops from my classroom in the Fall of 2006, the first time it was done at my institution. The article covers the reasons for and against allowing laptops in the classroom, my reasoning and procedure for banning them, perceived differences in the classroom experience and relevant student comments from my course evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive to the laptop ban. Also covered are the cognitive psychological reasons in support of banning laptops. Studies show that lower grades were correlated with increased student web browsing during class (Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001; Hembrooke & Gay, 2003), and the amount of time which students used their laptops for tasks other than taking lecture notes (Fried, 2007). MRI studies of the brain indicate that the brain stores information differently when distracted, which occurs when students attempt to multi-task in class (Foerde, Knowlton, & Poldrack, 2006). The science of note-taking is also covered, which indicates verbatim typing may interfere with learning (e.g., Kiewra, 1991). The paper concludes by urging law school professors to review why laptops are allowed in their classrooms and, unless they feel that laptops increase student learning, to ban or heavily restrict their classroom use.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Invocations, blogs, gossip ...

Niket on Invocation Nonsense. He's bugged -- and so am I -- by invocations at the beginning of pretty much every event. Will someone consign these things to where they really belong: in religious events?

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Guru points us to Seth's post that frames blogs as a vehicle for gossip. He also reminds me of my own post where I have a bunch of links to some psychological research on gossip and its uses.

Steve Colbert 's power

He gets not just Senator John Edwards to do a pretty funny stand-up comedy act, but also Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to indulge in (some self-deprecating) fun. All in the same show! Check them out over at Animesh's blog where he has collected the three videos.

Here's a report on this event.

Brain rain - Part 2

A few months ago, I blogged about an Indian Express story about PhDs returning to India to teach at IIT-D. Now, it's the Hindustan Times's turn to play up this angle. To the extent that they portray faculty positions in our institutions in positive terms, stories like these are welcome; but it is irritating when their dominant narrative is one of 'Can you believe it, Desis [actually] quit jobs abroad to teach at IIT!'

FWIW, here's another story -- this time in a foreign newspaper -- about India's brain gain.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Taxes: Fairness, Liberty, Complaints

  1. Kwame Anthony Appiah: If You Think Your Taxes Are Unjust, Just Think Again [via Mark Thoma]
  2. Cosma Shalizi's review of The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes.
  3. Elizabeth Anderson: How not to complain about taxes: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

"Black costs and white privileges"

Social psychologists Philip Mazzocco and Mahzarin Banaji once asked white volunteers how much money would cover the "costs" of being born black instead of white. The volunteers guessed that about $5,000 ought to cover the lifetime disadvantages of being an average black person rather than an average white person, in the United States. By contrast, when asked how much they wanted to go without television, the volunteers demanded a million dollars. [...]

"The point we were making is, whatever the cost of being black might be, whites are vastly underestimating it," said Mazzocco, of Ohio State University at Mansfield. "You throw in the 5-to-1 wealth gap . . . if you wanted to put a dollar-and-cents value on the difference, you would come up with a number much larger than $5,000."

The unusual experiment is one of dozens that have found that whites tend to have a relatively rosy impression of what it means to be a black person in America. Whites are more than twice as likely as blacks to believe that the position of African Americans has improved a great deal. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to believe that conditions for African Americans are growing worse. [...]

Mazzocco and Banaji, who teaches at Harvard, found that when volunteers learned about the disparities, they started to demand much larger sums of money.

"Many whites assume blacks are making use of old crimes to gain present-day benefits that are unearned," Mazzocco said. "Underlying this is a misunderstanding and ignorance about black costs and white privilege."

From this interesting article by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post [via The Situationist].

On a related note, here's Outlook reporter S. Anand's candid assessment of unearned privileges he has enjoyed as an upper caste person in South India: Notes on my Brahmin self.

Transforming China's higher ed system

In pure bulk, the numbers behind China’s expansion are startling. Between 1999, shortly after the country’s leaders decided to focus on expanding access to and improving the quality of higher education as tools to propel the former Third World economy into the leading ranks of the world’s powers, and 2005, the number of undergraduate and graduate students earning degrees from China’s colleges and universities quadrupled, rising to 3.1 million from 830,000. Enrollments grew even faster over that period, with the number of new entering students growing to nearly 5 million in 2005.

Much of the growth has occurred in scientific and engineering fields, prompting much of the concern that has gripped the American technology community and stimulated calls for heightened federal investment in the sciences. China has also taken significant strides in recent years to shrink the educational gap that separates its urban centers from its enormous rural populations, with rural students making up 53 percent of newly admitted students in 2005, up from below 47 percent in 1998.

Although China’s higher education system has continued to expand, growing to nearly 1,800 institutions in 2005 from about 1,000 in the late 1990s, much of that growth has occurred among short-term colleges and vocational schools. Among universities, the more pervasive trend in recent years, according to the NBER study, has been in consolidation, shifting away from an emphasis on having all institutions increase their enrollments to havinvg a smaller number of elite universities. “In many of China’s major cities there has ... been consolidation of universities, with, say, 4 or 5 small universities in the city consolidated into a large single entity as a way of improving their ranking,” the report notes.

That's from Doug Lederman's summary of a recent report titled The Higher Educational Transformation of China and Its Global Implications.

Kuffir's question: Where's the other side?

Over at Blogbharti, Kuffir "started out with the intention of linking to both sides: blogs that oppose reservations and those which support them," and went to Google's BlogSearch. His efforts led to these two posts with quite a few links. But the one-sidedness of it all led him to ask:

Where’s the other side?

The short answer, of course, is that the 'other side' doesn't have to speak because the Supreme Court judges have spoken. And, speaking for myself, any further posts here would just repeat the arguments which were made back when the controversy broke -- check the archives for April-August of 2006; I would think other supporters of OBC reservation would also feel the same way.

T.T. Ram Mohan on the Supreme Court decision on OBC reservation

T.T. Ram Mohan (IIM-A professor who blogs here) has a column in the Economic Times on the Supreme Court verdict on OBC reservation. He dwells a bit on how the judges answer objections raised by quota opponents:

... One [argument] is that ... quotas violate the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution and hence undermine the basic structure of the Constitution.

This roughly translates into the most common argument against quotas, namely, that ‘merit’ or marks obtained alone should be the basis for admission to educational institutions. If a person from a backward class gains admission even though he has lower marks than another individual, we are not treating the two equally.

Yes, says the SC, there is the right to equality but the basic structure of the Constitution is violated only when any right is abrogated, not when that right is amended or altered. As Chief Justice Balakrishnan puts it, “the principles of equality cannot be completely taken away”. However, the “facets of the principle of equality could always be altered especially to carry out the Directive Principles of the State Policy envisaged in Part IV of the Constitution.” In other words, it is legitimate to place some limitation on the right to equality in order to pursue a larger social purpose.

The 93rd Amendment was also challenged on the ground that quotas cannot be caste-based: we cannot equate “backward classes” with “backward castes”. This again is an argument often heard in popular discourse. Those who oppose quotas for SEBCs say they are all for affirmative action in favour of the economically weak. But they are opposed to caste-based quotas because well-off groups or individuals — the ‘creamy layer’— tend to walk away with the benefits.

The Supreme Court judgement addresses this argument squarely. Caste cannot be the sole criterion for determining backwardness. But it is certainly one indicator of backwardness. As long as caste is used along with other criteria for determining backwardness, it cannot be said to be violative of the Constitution. Identification of SEBCs today, the Supreme Court ruled, is indeed based on multiple criteria, hence it is valid.

On the "creamy layer" issue, Ram Mohan points to practical issues that need some attention:

If the ‘creamy layer’ is defined very rigorously, it may be difficult to fill the quota of 27%. The unfilled seats would go the general category. As there is to be an expansion of capacity, quotas for SEBCs would then have the perverse effect of giving more seats to the general category.

This is bound to trigger a strong political reaction. The exclusion of the ‘creamy layer’ also presents problems in light of the trend towards rising fees in higher education. Whatever the provision of loans and scholarships, high fees do pose a barrier to the economically weak. If we are to have inclusion in education while leaving out the ‘creamy layer’ in quotas, regulation of fees appears inevitable. The National Knowledge Commission has recommended the creation of a regulator for higher education.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A contrarian view on the 'creamy layer' exclusion

And it is from Satish Deshpande, a sociologist at the Delhi School of Economics. Here's his take:

The 93rd Amendment is not about removing poverty; it is about changing the social composition of elite higher education without compromising on merit. That is why the move to exclude the ‘creamy layer’ is singularly misplaced here although it may be imperative in other contexts.

Higher education presupposes privilege, particularly in India, where only about 10% of the relevant age group manages to get beyond high school. In every social group, only the privileged access higher education. By disqualifying those most likely to succeed in elite institutions, creamy layer exclusion undermines the very purpose of the proposed law. In fact, reverting unfilled OBC seats to the ‘general’ category could end up expanding upper caste access to elite education in the name of social justice.

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See Kuffir's post on what the creamy layer means. He has another post on how large it is likely to be. Short answer: Not very large.

Ethics in medical research

Two stories, both from NYTimes.

The first one is about a recent paper in JAMA that found that a drug company wrote papers first and added academic researchers' names later:

The drug maker Merck drafted dozens of research studies for a best-selling drug, then lined up prestigious doctors to put their names on the reports before publication, according to an article to be published Wednesday in a leading medical journal.

The article, based on documents unearthed in lawsuits over the pain drug Vioxx, provides a rare, detailed look in the industry practice of ghostwriting medical research studies that are then published in academic journals.

The article cited one draft of a Vioxx research study that was still in want of a big-name researcher, identifying the lead writer only as “External author?”

The second is about a group of doctors who have sworn to never take money from drug companies. Here's the story of one of this group's members:

Dr. Peter Libby, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that when he first began receiving offers from drug companies, in the early 1980s, they seemed like a natural reflection of his burgeoning reputation.

“When you start emerging as an opinion leader or as a researcher who has knowledge and expertise, the pharmaceutical industry takes an interest in either having you consult to help them with their research or to speak,” he said.

Dr. Libby wanted to assist. Like many scientists, he feels that it is important for researchers to consult with drug companies to help develop therapies and set up studies. He never owned stock in companies that he consulted for. He always disclosed the fact that he consulted and spoke for companies. And, he added, he thought that he was protected from accusations of favoring any particular company’s products because he consulted for so many.

“I lived safely in that comfort zone for many years,” Dr. Libby said.

Then he was hit with a moment of truth. He had spent four years working without pay to help create a public television series, “The Mysterious Human Heart.” The project was, he thought, a worthy effort to educate the public about what heart disease was and how to prevent it. He was proud and pleased when the series was broadcast in October.

But to his dismay, bloggers immediately attacked him and the other medical experts who appeared on the programs for having consulted for manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, Dr. Libby said, adding: “They said we were biased. What I thought was four years of public service was impugned.

“That was a wake-up call for me. I was singed in the blogosphere.”

This year, he made his decision. He would continue speaking at forums sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry and would continue consulting for companies. But he would no longer accept payment.

Some data from Tamil Nadu on the long-term effect of aggressive reservation

Drop everything and head over to Bruno's post where he has given the list of the top 100 ranks in this year's Entrance Exam for Post-Graduate Medical courses in Tamil Nadu. Each entry in the list has the candidate's name, rank, and his/her category -- Open Category, Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The post itself is in Tamil, but the list is in English. Let me just say that the list is open to many (Rashomonesque) interpretations ;-)

The Hindu Death Spiral Watch: Letters from Rahul Basu

In his comment on my previous post on the Hindu Death Spiral Watch, Rahul Basu, a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, has given us the text of his letter deploring the newspaper's Tibet coverage. Basu's letter was cited by the Readers' Editor in his column.

Over at Tantu-jaal, Sunil Mukhi, a string theorist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, has posted another letter by Rahul Basu, together with Gautam Menon (IMSc, Chennai), Rajesh Gopakumar (Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad) and Rukmini Dey (Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad). The letter is nominally about a recent exchange in the Letters section, but quickly moves on to cataloging the Chinese government's misdeeds, and asks that the Hindu stop "[taking] a purely partisan one sided view of the issue by aligning itself unquestioningly on the side of the Chinese Government."

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In other news, ToI launched its Chennai edition three days ago.

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In yet other news, Rahul Siddharthan has posted an important message on his blog ;-).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reservation in higher ed: An academic study

This 2008 paper (pdf), titled Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence From Engineering College Admissions in India, is by Marianne Bertrand (University of Chicago), Rema Hanna (New York University), and Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard University). Its methodology and key conclusions have been summarized by the authors (along with Sudha Krishnan) in an op-ed in Mint. Here's the abstract (with bold emphasis added by me):

Many countries mandate affirmative action in university admissions for traditionally disadvantaged groups. Little is known about either the efficacy or costs of these programs. This paper examines affirmative action in engineering colleges in India for "lower-caste" groups. We find that it successfully targets the financially disadvantaged: the marginal upper-caste applicant comes from a more advantaged background than the marginal lower-caste applicant who displaces him. Despite much lower entrance exam scores, the marginal lower-caste entrant does benefit: we find a strong, positive economic return to admission. These findings contradict common arguments against affirmative action: that it is only relevant for richer lower-caste members, or that those who are admitted are too unprepared to benefit from the education. However, these benefits come at a cost. Our point estimates suggest that the marginal upper-caste entrant enjoys nearly twice the earnings level gain as the marginal lower-caste entrant. This finding illustrates the program's redistributive nature: it benefits the poor, but costs resources in absolute terms. One reason for this lower level gain is that a smaller fraction of lower-caste admits end up employed in engineering or advanced technical jobs. Finally, we find no evidence that the marginal upper-caste applicant who is rejected due to the policy ends up with more negative attitudes towards lower castes or towards affirmative action programs. On the other hand, there is some weak evidence that the marginal lower-caste admits become stronger supporters of affirmative action programs.

The "one Indian state" which provided the data on its engineering students is unspecified; but it clearly had OBC reservation for its engineering colleges in 1996. Not only that, we also know this about the state:

In the state-year we study, a total of 2,643 seats were available, with 2,054 seats open to the reservations policy; the remainder were payment seats not covered by the policy. The quotas were determined by the distribution of castes in the state: there was a 16 percent reservation for the Scheduled Castes, a 21 percent reservation for the Scheduled Tribes, and a 14 percent reservation for the Other Backward Castes, for a total of 51 percent of seats reserved.< /p>

Okay, here's my bleg: Which state might this be? When did this state start implementing OBC reservation?

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Update: Swarup has posted links to (and the abstracts of) two papers by Nishith Prakash of the University of Houston; one of them examines the role of political reservation (in the form of electoral constituencies that are reserved for SC and ST) in reducing poverty, and the other is on how effective SC/ST reservation in (public sector) jobs has been in benefiting the intended beneficiaries. Both look interesting, but I haven't had a chance to go through them (the technical details appear forbidding!). Here's Prakash's website, where he has listed several other papers on affirmative action policies in India.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fraud in Science: Indian edition

T.V. Jayan and G.S. Mudur of the Telegraph have a great article on fraud in Indian science. They cover many different things, including the good work by the Society for Scientific Values in an unfriendly -- if not openly hostile -- environment. Most of the examples they cite are familiar, but their reporting provides a few new details. For example, here's a mea-culpa-of-sorts from R.A. Mashelkar (this story broke February 2007):

In March 2007, Mashelkar admitted in a letter to the SSV that sections of a book he had co-authored on intellectual property rights had reproduced verbatim material from a paper by a British scholar without crediting him. “…I am highly embarrassed by this and I have decided to take some hard actions,” he wrote. He said he would stop further editions of the book and not take any personal gains from it.

Another very interesting news is about the Kundu case:

... [T]he US Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) retracted a research paper by Gopal Kundu and his colleagues at Pune’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS). Kundu was accused of using the same data or images relating to proteins in two unconnected articles submitted to the journal. Kundu holds there was “absolutely no wrongdoing” by his team. He says another international journal has accepted the data.

But the authorities are still wary of confronting such accusations. Three committees, for instance, looked into the Kundu affair. A seven-member panel of top scientists exonerated him despite JBC’s withdrawal of the paper. Panel chairman G. Padmanaban says the journal’s decision was not “wrong”, but “harsh”.

Coming from the chairman of the committee that exonerated Kundu and his coworkers, the view that "[JBC's] decision was not 'wrong', but 'harsh'" is quite revealing. In discussing the Kundu case, Jayan and Mudur also have tapped Rahul Siddharthan for his views (Rahul's analysis of figures in the papers by Kundu et al was the clincher for me):

... Rahul Siddharthan, a physicist and computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, says he stepped into the controversy with “a sense of deep indignation” at the way the committee decided to dispose of the case. He says the duplication — intentional or unintentional — of images is so “blatantly obvious” that he cannot understand how a top scientists’ committee can dismiss the charges.

“There seems to be a mistaken notion that national pride is somehow involved, and this leads to pressure to exonerate or hush up cases,” says Siddharthan.

Finally, we have this:

The growing volume of scientific misconduct has intensified demands for an independent regulatory mechanism to deal with such cases. But Atomic Energy Commission ex-chairman R. Chidambaram, now a top scientific advisor to the government, told the US journal Science in January that the number of cases of scientific misconduct was still too small to justify a “full-time oversight body.”

Jayan and Mudur cite several other views that contradict this strange kind of 'wisdom' from R. Chidambaram. Rahul has an appropriate response on his blog:

I think the essential point, that [Jayan and Mudur] have brought out well, is the reluctance of our scientific establishment to deal with such matters or even acknowledge that they exist. The article quotes R Chidambaram as telling the journal Science that the number of cases of fraud in India is too small to justify a full-time oversight body. I'd say that, taken as a proportion of the research from the country published in top-tier journals (which is pathetically low even compared to other Asian countries), the number of cases in India is probably among the highest in the world -- and it's thanks to the attitude of our science administrators, which is either ostrich-like or deliberately condoning of such things.

Libertarian paternalism and choice architecture

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happinessis a new book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The Freakonomics blog gives it a thumbs-up, and so does the Situationist blog. The book's authors themselves provide a summary in a recent op-ed [via Mark Thoma]:

[Choice architecture is] the organization of the context in which people make decisions. Choice architects are everywhere. If you design the ballot that voters use to choose candidates, you are a choice architect. If you are a doctor and must describe the alternative treatments available to a patient, you are a choice architect. If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company healthcare plan, you are a choice architect. If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect. If you are a salesperson, you are a choice architect (but you already knew that).

There are many parallels between choice architecture and more traditional forms of architecture. A crucial parallel is that there is no such thing as a "neutral" design. Cognitive psychology and behavioral economics have shown that small and apparently insignificant contextual details can have a major effect on people's behavior. Researchers tell us that if a candidate is listed first on the ballot, he may well get a 4% increase in votes. If a doctor says 90% of patients are alive five years after a certain operation, far more people will have the operation than if the doctor says 10% of patients are dead five years after having it.

One memorable example of the power of choice architecture comes from the men's rooms at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, their attention and accuracy improve. Spillage at the airport decreased by 80%!

The Hindu Death Spiral Watch: Tibet edition

K. Narayanan, the Hindu's news editor, has a thankless job, and he's getting busier by the month. After the Nandigram episode, it's Tibet's turn this time. To reiterate, this criticism is about the Hindu's news coverage, and not about its editorial stand. He states his case with admirable clarity:

I compared the reporting of the events in other Indian newspapers (English) and also The Guardian and the New York Times with that in The Hindu from March 15 to 19 and could not but note the wide gap which led to the readers’ protests. (The angles given to the stories and their display are not to be questioned; that is editorial privilege). Overall, these points struck me as noteworthy:

1. Reliance on Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Its reports should have been balanced by inputs from other news agencies, but their use was scanty and selective. No doubt they too would have had their angles and biases but that would have been another side of the picture. Why was The Guardian, otherwise used extensively, ignored (except for an eyewitness account which was not very informative)?

2. The Hindu’s perceptive correspondent in Beijing, Pallavi Aiyar, made no contribution, except to report Prime Minister Wen’s press conference.

3. The statements of the Chinese Prime Minister and the Chinese envoy in Delhi were fully reported. The Dalai Lama’s were truncated versions. Many readers noted that his remark on “cultural genocide” was edited out.

4. The most surprising feature was the total absence of Tibet in the “Letters to the Editor column” — in which otherwise comments appear even as events are unfolding and continue for days. A few letters appeared after an article and an editorial were published and ceased abruptly.

The response from N. Ram, the Chief Editor, is noteworthy for its belligerence:

We have an arrangement with Xinhua. We have also used western agencies and PTI. The violence reported and confirmed editorially was by Tibetan discontents, some hundreds of them. The Chinese authorities seemed unprepared at first but moved to stop the savagery in Lhasa and violence in some Tibetan areas. The riots were easily overcome. The violence in Lhasa, by every account, was by protestors, who included monks. No specific incident of violence by the police or paramilitary forces has been reported by any credible news source or eyewitnesses.

The comments in the column fail to look critically at the abundant editorialising in the guise of news. If the content in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Western news agencies is analysed, the problems of professional news reporting on the Tibet developments can be better appreciated. They were full of editorial judgments and loaded phrases and were often inaccurate (such as death toll). Their websites published wrong photographs or photographs with wrong captions. The Dalai Lama’s statements were edited because he is a separatist and tended to justify the savage and murderous riots in Lhasa. Not many letters were received other than what we published.

Nobody asked Pallavi Aiyar not to report in The Hindu on Tibet. She has been on leave during the relevant period.

Guru wonders if it's time to start a series on the Hindu Death Spiral Watch. I think it is.

See also Bhaskar's post.

What gets stolen from refrigerators in MIT's dorms?

Coke cans, or dollar bills? An MIT press release on Dan Ariely's work on behavioral economics, and its implications:

Here's how the test worked: Ariely and his students went around and left six-packs of Coke in randomly selected dorm refrigerators all over campus. When he checked back in a few days, all of the Cokes were gone.

But when he later placed plates of six loose dollar bills in those same refrigerators, not a single bill was missing when he checked back. Even though the value was comparable--and thus the situations were supposed to be equivalent--people responded in opposite ways. Why is that?

Ariely says that when he started reading about the Enron case, he was struck by what he calls some bizarre contradictions. "They didn't seem like career criminals," he says of the Enron officials. "They gave money to charity. This is not the image of people who are purely evil." And there were 10,000 people working for the company; obviously those were not all bad people. "Could it be that there was something in the structure of the company that allowed normal people to act this way?"

Over at his own blog, the author of Predictably Irrational speculates on how these findings may explain the recent melt-down of Wall Street's Bear Stearns.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

ToI on the coaching school business in Kota

While the ToI story covers a lot of stuff -- including the economics and recursive coaching -- here's a bit about "managing" schools:

In addition to rented rooms, schools are also easy to come by. In fact coaching classes give students a list of schools which they can apply to. Enrolling in schools for Classes XI and XII, though, is a formality for most students. "I attend school around once in two weeks to show my face there," a student told TOI.

Some students even ‘manage’ schools in their hometown, which waive attendance norms for them. "When students from their institutions make it to IITs and score great marks in board exams too, why should the school object, anyway?" asks the director of a coaching class.

The Joint Entrance Examination of the IITs was held today; reports indicate that over 300,000 students had applied to take this exam. Here's Hemali Chhapia on the IITs' secret formula for selecting their students.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Politics of food and Dalit identity

Vikram Doctor has a fascinating essay in today's Economic Times; it covers a few other things before settling down to discuss a key part of the politics of food: meat eating. Some excerpts from this part of Doctor's essay:


Doctor's essay refers to the Out-Caste blog; the quote is from a post titled "Why Is Modern India Vegetarian?"

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Dalit food issues also seem to be getting involved with the politics of meat eating in India. One example was when 10 Dalit students were rusticated from Hyderabad Central University in 2002. One of their grievances apparently was that they were treated differently in the college mess because they ate meat, which lead some activists to wonder if the push for vegetarianism had a less palatable aspect.

The Out-Caste blog noted that official determinants of dietary adequacy and the Public Distribution System that existed to ensure it was met only supplied “rice and wheat at cheap rates, but no meat, egg or nuts, or any non-vegetarian food at all. So in a country where vegetarians are a definite minority, we now plan our daily meals based on a notion of a Brahminical notion of an ‘easily available, balanced diet’, and the cultural production of modern India as vegetarian.”

The implication was that rich upper-castes could survive on such a diet since they could afford the different vegetables and milk supplements needed for proper nutrition, but the lower-castes would have to survived on just the cereals, denied the meat that could have been an easy source of nutrition for them.


What is clear though is that the Dalit identity today increasingly sees meat as an established, if not essential part of it. In his excellently provocative collection of essays Dalit Diary:1999-2003, Reflections on Apartheid in India, Chandra Bhan Prasad ends with a description of a ‘Dalit food festival’ he organises in his home.

The very idea, he admits, seemed bizarre at first, but as he started planning the menu, the better it seemed: “tender pork cooked only with water, salt and black pepper; chicken cooked only in beer; and mutton cooked only in rum... Vegetarian food was also to be cooked, but again in dalit style.” It was a highly subversive success, he says, and I only wish he had written some of the recipes too in his piece. Making food might be the best way to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti on Monday, the festival for a man who knew all too well what not having food meant.

Friday, April 11, 2008

OBC reservation: Reactions from the media

Here are the editorials:

  1. Times of India.
  2. The Hindu
  3. Deccan Herald
  4. The Indian Express
  5. The Economic Times
  6. Hindustan Times

Of these, only the HT editorial is ideologically pure: it's openly hostile to the idea of quotas. The others highlight the exclusion of creamy layer, five-yearly revision of the OBC list, and / or the need to increase educational opportunities for everyone.

Among the columnists, Pratap Bhanu Mehta appears to be the first off the block, producing a column in less than 12 hours after the Supreme Court decision!

For law-related issues, I turn to the bloggers behind Law and Other Things, and sure enough, their first post is already up. A previous post has links to three opinions that form a part of the Supreme Court's decision.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Supreme Court has spoken

OBC reservation is on. This PTI report summarizes all the key points in today's verdict by a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court. According to Venkatesan's post yesterday, four different judges were to present their opinions on this case this morning, so I'm sure there is a lot of nuance in the verdict. I will be interested in the kinds of arguments (and the kinds of counterarguments against those of quota opponents) the Court has used in arriving at -- and justifying -- its decision on this important case.

But, all that will have to wait. I just want to highlight two things:

  1. The verdict upholding the law is unanimous.
  2. The 'creamy layer' among the Other Backward Classes is excluded from the quota benefit. CNN-IBN was quick to tell us what the Court means by this phrase].

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Two videos

An amazing self-portrait painted by an elephant [via Guru and Swarup].

Deep sea thinking [via Candid Engineer].

Links ...

After this post, Meena Kandasamy follows up with another on caste in Kerala.

Has Keith Chen debunked the concept of cognitive dissonance?

Ram Guha on the HIndu Chief Editor N. Ram's Big Brother Fascination (published originally in the Telegraph way back in 2000).

Surya points us to a post on a very interesting 3:00 a.m. call to the President.

Let me end with today's mystery link.

Data and interpretation

One of the things that makes scientific research intellectually rewarding and stimulating is the fact that it allows speculation -- hypotheses, really -- about how the experimental observations hang together. Two engaging posts by PhysioProf and Janet Stemwedel frame this aspect of research in terms of "correct" experimental data and their interpretation in "interesting" ways. Here's PhysioProf:

It is essential that one's experiments be "correct" in the sense that performing the same experiment in the same way leads to the same result no matter when the experiment is performed or who performs it. In other words, the data need to be valid.

But it is not at all important that one's interpretation of the data--from the standpoint of posing a hypothesis that is consistent with the data--turns out to be correct or not. All that matters is that the hypothesis that is posed be "interesting", in the sense of pointing the way to further illuminating experiments.

And here's the concluding paragraph of Stemwedel's commentary:

Being wrong about what the data mean is not a crime against science. Being unwilling to test your guesses about what the data might mean, however, is shirking your scientific duties. Since any worthwhile interpretation is going to need to be tested -- by you and by your fellow scientists -- getting a feel for drawing inferences that lend themselves to empirical probing is an important scientific competency. As well, making your peace with having new data blow your interpretation to bits -- then picking yourself up and coming up with a new interpretation to test -- is a valuable life skill.

Both the posts are excellent. Now, go read them!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Links ...

Meena Kandasamy on her recent book: Biography of Ayyankali. See also Arundhati Roy's interview for her views on casteism in Kerala (and other things, too).

Tom Slee reviews Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

Tara Parker-Pope on Randy Pausch's Last Lecture: Keeping Priorities Straight, Even at the End.

Dan Ariely on costly investment in keeping our options open.

Winnie Hu on the surge in popularity of philosophy major in US universities.

Harvard Business School turns 100

Here's the website for the Centennial celebrations. On this occasion, the Financial Times has published a column by Della Bradshaw on the utility of MBA programs [Thanks to T.T. Ram Mohan for the link]. Here's a short excerpt:

More significantly, the MBA gives people the opportunity to switch careers, according to Paul Danos, long-term dean of the Tuck school at the ivy-league Dartmouth College. “What is great about the MBA from the student’s point of view is that it lets you change your life.” Students enter as information technology specialists, engineers or soldiers and leave as management consultants, bankers and entrepreneurs.

It is a transformation appreciated by MBA students and alumni. “If you’ve never been in business before, as I hadn’t been, it opens up this mysterious world and language,” says Philip Delves Broughton, who graduated from Harvard in 2006. “The MBA provides a decoder to how business people talk and think.”

Neil Courtis, who graduated from Insead in December 2007, uses the analogy of a car. In their previous jobs, incoming students had concentrated on one aspect of the business – the windscreen wipers or the tyres. An MBA opens the bonnet and shows how the whole engine fits together. His one criticism is that the MBA does not teach implementation. “You don’t come out as a mechanic.”

Mr Courtis believes there are things an MBA cannot teach. “You can teach analysis but you can’t teach judgment,” he says. An MBA, he adds, can give “a sheen of knowledge – it’s a bullshitter’s paradise”. Such scepticism can be seen in the acronym’s many unofficial elaborations: Mediocre But Arrogant, Master Of Brainless Axioms and the like.

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Previous posts on critiques of management education: here and here.

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Bonus link: MBA Advice from the Oracle of Omaha.

Where are the good public schools in Inda? Why do people like Gurcharan Das ignore them?

Columnists such as Gurcharan Das keep telling us that our public schools are a mess. Are they, really? Are there counterexamples to this assertion? There certainly are, and they are called Kendriya Vidyalayas. As a group, these schools (together with Jawahar Vidyalayas) do even better than private schools in the examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Evidently, there are some things that are being done right in these schools that are not done well in so many other public schools being run by the state governments. What might they be?

Whatever they are, centralization is not one of them. All the KVs -- some 860 of them! -- belong to one monolithic organization: the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, headquartered in Delhi. With that out of the way, let me offer two possibilities that could explain the difference between KVs and other public schools. The first is financial resources: All KVs have pretty good -- not fancy, but adequate -- infrastructure: classrooms, blackboards, desks, labs, playgrounds, play kits, etc. Oh, yes, they also have separate toilets for boys and girls! And, yes, teachers show up for work every day! At the state-level public schools, particularly in rural areas, some (or all!) of these resources are missing.

Clearly, KVs command a lot of resources that other schools can only dream of. This is mainly because of their mandate: they are meant primarily for children of Central Government employees who keep getting transferred all over India, sometimes in the middle of the school year. Their admission policies reflect this mandate; they have a detailed priority list describing who has a higher claim to a KV seat than the others. "Outsiders" can claim only those places that are left out after taking care of children of employees of armed forces and central government ministries and departments. The competition for these limited number of left-over seats is very intense, indeed.

This line of reasoning leads us to the second factor: stake-holder interest. This interest is largely hidden from the public eye. It erupts only when something negative happens to the KVs. For example, if the general funding level (and therefore, quality level) goes down, the government will have a revolt on its hands from its army of bureaucrats and clerks and peons!

One of the things that infuriate me about Gurcharan Das and his ilk is the fact that they dismiss oh-so-casually all our public schools without looking into the differences among them, and the underlying causes for these differences. In their zeal for privatized education (and its public support through a voucher program), they use a very broad brush to tar the entire public school system.

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Kuffir offers a different line of criticism for this privatized education scheme:

every time i read choice in this debate over schooling in india, about different schools for different classes, i hear caste, and i hear different schools for different castes. and i think: why don't we carry this idea forward, why don't we have different nations for different castes?

i've seen mr.gurcharandas arguing on talk shows on reservations and couldn't help thinking: he should visit india some time. and find out how a dalit is different from a kamma. or a kammari. or a kurmi. or how yechury yesobu can't be sitaram yechury. and why they both need to go to the same school.

I certainly see this as a very serious problem with privatized school system: disparities are inherent in this market-led scheme. In the public school system, one can think of corrective mechanisms which can minimize these disparities. The present disparities between KVs and the other public schools tell us the direction in which our government ought to move; it is the job of politics -- us, really -- to find a possible way forward. It's a pity that folks like Das are unwilling to participate in the debate about how to improve our public school systems.

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In a pretty comprehensive post, Dweep Chandana "evaluates if education is also amenable to privatization," and tests the underlying assumptions behind the assertions of superiority of privatized education. Privatization enthusiasts are not going to be happy at all with his conclusions!

The preceding [analysis] suggests that a private system is not a sufficient condition to better quality and access. Is it, however, a necessary condition? Or, is there another way of solving the problem through a public system?

There is no better argument that the same results are possible from a public system than China. [...]