Saturday, May 31, 2008

2008 JEE results

The results of JEE-2008 were announced yesterday. Here are a few key points (comparisons with the 2007 results use data from my posts from last year):

  • The Big Picture: 311,258 students took the exam; 8,652 have got a JEE rank, representing a 'strike rate' of 2.8 percent. Last year, over 243,029 students competed for 7209 ranks, with a strike rate of almost 3 percent.

    Thus, ranks have seen a 20 percent hike (8652 vs. 7209), while the number of seats at the IITs and their associates (IT-BHU, ISM-Dhanbad) is up by 24 percent (6872 vs 5537).

    The 24 percent increase in IIT seats is due to both the first phase of OBC reservation in the existing IITs and their associates, and the full 27 percent OBC reservation in the six new IITs (AP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Orissa and Punjab).

  • Women: Over 78,000 women took the JEE this year, about 44 percent increase over last year, and 840 of them got a rank, representing an increase of 43 percent.

    Here's a different way of looking at women's performance. Among the exam takers, women formed nearly 26 percent this year, while they formed 22 percent last year.

    Among the rank-holders, women form 9.7 percent this year; last year, they formed 8.1 percent.

    Finally, here's the most dramatic metric for the kind of advantage men enjoy in in JEE: they are over three times (3.1 times, to be more precise) as likely as women to get through JEE. This advantage is the same (3.2 times) as it was last year.

    The top ranker among women had a JEE rank of 14 this year (N. Vasuki of Bangalore, who also topped the Karnataka CET), a considerable improvement over last year's 55th rank scored by Ankita Sharma of Mumbai.

    [A quick aside: It turns out that Vasuki is from SRN Adarsh College, whose Principal, Prof. Sukanya Chattopadhyay, happens to be a good friend of ours! This must be a proud moment for Sukanya and her colleagues. Another noteworthy fact is that it's not a CBSE school; it belongs to the Karnataka Pre-University Board.]

  • Scheduled Castes and Tribes: SC and ST students. Out of 28,393 SC candidates (36 percent over last year's 20892), 690 qualified (16 percent over last year's 594). In terms of success ratio, this year's 2.4 percent is lower than last year's 2.8 percent.

    For the ST candidates, the figures are: 8,514 took the exam (44 % increase over 5,909 last year), and 159 cleared (46 percent increase over 109). Success ratio is about 1.9 percent, roughly the same as last year.

  • Other Backward Classes: Out of 72,116 OBC candidates (up 58 % from last year's 45,576), 1,134 have qualified (up 15 % from 990). They formed 23 percent of the exam takers, but were only 13 percent among the rank-holders.

    Last year, there was no reservation for OBC students; since IITs had collected the data, they released it. However, this year, there is some reservation, which implies that OBC students would have benefited from some relaxation in the cut-offs. Thus, in spite of this benefit, the strike rate for OBC students this year (1.6 percent) is lower than that for last year (2.1 percent).

IITs have not released more fine grained data. In particular, it would be great to have disaggregated data for men and women in general as well as in OBC, SC and ST categories. Further, IITs relax the cut-off marks for students in the reserved categories. Thus, if they release data separately for the numbers of OBC men and women, SC men and women, ST men and women, and general category women who make it through the general category cut-off, we'll have a clearer and more realistic idea of the extent of the respective gaps that exist. [What would be even better is the distribution of ranks -- and even better, distribution of marks -- for all these eight categories!]

* * *

An interesting thing you notice when you check Google News for JEE results is the number of newspaper stories celebrating JEE rank-holders (and not just the top rankers) from their cities and towns. While some are just interesting, quite a few are so heart-warming.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A smart move by Gujarat, Orissa and Punjab governments

As per the original plan (advertised on the IIT-JEE site), the new IITs in AP, Bihar and Rajasthan were to start their academic programs this year, and admit their first batch of students this August. In an interesting new move, the IITs in Gujarat, Punjab and Orissa have also asked for, and obtained, the go ahead for taking students this August. The interesting thing is this: in the name of 'mentoring', the students of these new IITs will be taught at one of the existing IITs (see also) this year. So, extra students and extra work for those IIT professors teaching first year courses!

I would say the governments of Gujarat, Orissa and Punjab have made a very smart move, which makes "their" IITs a reality. They seem to have realized that the announcement about the IITs in those states was just that: an announcement. Those who remember the fate of IISER - Bhubaneswar and IISER - Chennai would know what I'm talking about.

By acting quickly to get their IITs off the ground, Gujarat, Orissa and Punjab have eliminated the possibility of nasty surprises.

Rules of romance for academic tourists

The 'romance' in the title refers to intarnational partnership between universities, and the 'academic tourists' are the university representatives -- usually high officials and a few high profile professors -- who travel to far away places in search of 'suitors' with whom such 'partnerships' are clinched; there are way too many of these tourists, particularly during winter months in the West.

As you can guess, I have a pretty grim view of this sort of stuff. Research partnerships and collaborations are best left to individuals and their research groups. This is the only thing that works. When university officials start giving excited powerpoint presentations about mutuality and synergy, it usually means a huge time sink for those in the 'partner' institution being wooed.

Anyways, the content of this Inside Higher Ed story would sound very familiar to people in many institutions in India; it is the source of the metaphors of romance and tourists (when you combine the two, the result is too awful to even contemplate ;-). This paragraph is so true that it hurts:

Nico Joste, director of international education at Nelson Mandela [Metropolitan University], ... spoke from a somewhat unique vantage point. After South Africa’s education system opened to the world in 1994, it opened too to “so-called academic tourists.… The first thing presidents and vice chancellors said was, ‘Let’s sign an agreement,’ ” Joste said. “Hundreds of agreements were signed and very little happened.”

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Experimental verification of foundations of economics

This Guardian profile of Dan Ariely has a section that's just too delicious (via Brayden King, whose post also has an interesting comments thread):

Do mainstream economists really approach shopping and life with such clear and cold eyes? Listen to the story of Oz Brownlee, late professor at the University of Minnesota. One Friday, he and a colleague stopped to buy some steaks. Finding a long queue, they offered cash to the person in front to swap places. The shopper was dumbstruck - which the academics took as a bargaining ploy, so they raised the price. As news spread down the line, other customers turned hostile. The Minnesota department of economics alumni newsletter goes on: "Attempts to explain that they were ... trying to ascertain whether there was a mutually beneficial trade of time for money that might improve their welfare and that of the next person in line without disadvantaging others met with little success." The economists left without any steak.

Brownlee's mistake was to put into practice something that worked only in theory. That, Ariely and other critics say, is the point: conventional economics tries to make the man fit the model, rather than the other way around.

Update: The story, "perhaps apocryphal", is recounted in this obituary of Oz Brownlee (pdf).

Evolutionary explanation for women's superior memory

A study finds that women do better than men when it comes to remembering faces (and more particularly, women's faces). Here's a possible explanation:

[...]These findings may have an evolutionary explanation that is rooted in female-female competition, says David C. Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri–Columbia who was not involved with the study. “Women certainly fought and continue to fight over the best guys ... those with good genes and resources to invest in kids,” Geary says. Remembering details of personal experiences is important for monitoring and maneuvering relationships, including disrupting the social and romantic ties of other women who are competitors, he says. [...]


On a not entirely unrelated note, have you seen this?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

HHMI's grants to individual researchers

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is "a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation's largest philanthropies, [and] plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the U.S." It announced yesterday the selection of 56 HHMI Investigators.

What's so special about this particular version of HHMI grants?

  1. First, it's the amount of money that's involved: US $ 600 million in all! Over 10 million dollars, on average, per HHMI investigator. This is big money, even by American standards. A far better comparison for us in India is with the total support for scientific research (through individual, competitive research grants, and excluding direct, bulk, institutional grants) in our universities from our government agencies. A while ago, I estimated this to be about US $500 million.

  2. And second, these are direct grants to individuals, without tying them down to specific projects. Here's the relevant part of the press release:

    HHMI values innovation and encourages its investigators to extend the boundaries of science. By appointing scientists as Hughes investigators — rather than awarding research grants — HHMI is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” HHMI investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition — even if that process takes many years.

In other words, the HHMI Investigator awards are essentially like the MacArthur Fellowships -- aka 'Genius' awards -- except that HHMI awards are specific to biomedical research.

The take-home message, at least for me, is this: modern research -- particularly in the highly promising biomedical fields -- is expensive. If we want to nurture our faculty members, we should be willing to spend big money to support their research. Our leaders do us all a huge disservice when they keep whining only about faculty salaries without doing anything to address their very real and very vital needs: adequate grants that will take care of their equipment needs, day-to-day running of their labs, and travel to several conferences a year.

And these needs are the most acute during the very early stages of their careers. What our institutions offer them, instead, are puny start-up grants!

The closest thing to HHMI awards we have got are the Swarnajayanti awards; but there are just a dozen such awards (covering all of science and engineering) made every year, and the support tends to be limited to about 10 million rupees (or, US $250,000).

Abhijit Banerjee on the merits of universal public services

The MIT economist seems to be in India, with the result that business newspapers have profiled and interviewed him. Here he is, talking about the importance of aligning interests of the middle class with those of the poorer classes:

In one sense, the system is not designed to work, i.e., deliver the goods, as employees are the top priority of the system. Political will needs to be generated, and that can happen when the interests of the middle class coincide with those of the poor. If there is demand from the non-poor, the likelihood of the administration taking action is greater.

For instance, availability of railway tickets gets a priority over streamlining the public distribution system (PDS). If concerns of the poor can be tied up with that of a segment that can complain, government will respond faster.

At another place, he talks about how targeting services just to the poor is inferior to universalization of the same services:

Targeting does not work. It leads to corruption. Universalising is more effective. I favour direct cash transfer to people. Technology should be used more aggressively. The administration of the old age pension system in South Africa is an example of cash transfer system that has worked with active use of technology. The government should not shy away from giving money.

It makes more sense to get rid of all the schemes and programmes for poverty removal, stop topping up expenditure on existing schemes and instead give money to people directly. ...

Among the bloggers I read, Kuffir has been a strong and passionate advocate of shutting down a whole bunch of (leaky and corruption-ridden) 'poverty alleviation' programs in favor of a direct dole. [See his posts here and here and the links therein].

* * *

Related: Earlier posts on Abhijit Banerjee's work (with links).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Four-year bachelor's program in the sciences

India's three science academies -- the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, and the National Academy of Sciences, India -- came together to organize a meeting at IISc last Saturday to discuss this topic.

Participation was by invitation; while I wasn't among the invitees, my colleague Prof. Ranganathan alerted me about this event and encouraged me to attend it.

* * *


The Academies' position paper on the need for a four-year BS program is not available online. However, a couple of things mentioned in it are. The first one is a column by D. Balasubramanian (President, IAS) in The Hindu last July. The other one is a letter to the editor of Current Science by Tushar Chakraborty of IICT.

* * *

The meeting started with statements from the Presidents of the three academies -- Prof. D. Balasubramanian (IAS, Bangalore), Prof. M. Vijayan (INSA, New Delhi) and Prof. Ashok Misra (NASI, Allahabad). All of them said they liked the idea (phew, that's a relief!). Then, there were four talks: Prof. S.C. Lakhotia (Professor of Zoology at the Banaras Hindu University) outlined the reasons why there is a need for this program, its advantages and (potential) disadvantages. Then, Prof. V. Balaji took the audience through several different models of undergraduate programs that are in actual practice: Harvard, Oxford, National University of Singapore and University of Toronto. Two IISER directors, Prof. N. Sathyamurthy (Mohali) and Prof. S. Dattagupta (Kolkata), spoke about how their 5-year MS programs are structured, and the philosophy behind their choices. Both emphasized that the MS programs could be thought of as a combination of a 4-year BS program and an additional year of masters thesis research.

* * *

Two years ago, I liked this idea so much that I felt that IISERs missed a great opportunity to introduce this program; they chose a 5-year MS program instead. I still like the idea, and it is worth pursuing. I think institutions with a strong research footprint -- IISERs, IITs, and Central Universities, in particular -- are best positioned to introduce it.

We should resist the urge to impose One National Curriculum on all the institutions. During the meeting, it was made clear that we have a wide variety of institutions, ranging from tightly focused schools such as the CMI, through IISERs with their science programs, IITs with their programs in both science and engineering, all the way to research universities with programs in many fields. While a program that has a broad base in humanities, natural and social sciences (such as that in Harvard) is feasible in our universities, it would be impossible at CMI. Thus, each institution should have the freedom to choose a curriculum that plays to its strengths.

For a large fraction of our students, a bachelor's degree is just a stepping stone for other things in life: a job, an MBA, or a masters in computer applications or History. While these students may also benefit from a 4-year BS program, they would probably prefer the current 3-year program to continue. .

Given that colleges cater to more than 90 percent of our UG population, and given that not all of them are likely to be able to offer the BS program, the BS and BSc programs will need to coexist for a long time to come!

From the structure of the MS programs at IISERs, it appears that they are a combination of a 4-year BS program and a one year of thesis research. In other words, they are like the dual degree programs in the IITs. Thus, in principle, IISERs could easily switch to what the IITs currently do: admit students into both the 4-year BS and the 5-year MS programs (perhaps in the ratio of 60 percent to 40 percent). While the institutions benefit from the MS students' research, they will be able to satisfy the country's need for a greater number of well trained science graduates.

* * *

Finally, a couple of observations about the meeting; specifically, about the people that were missing at the meeting.

  1. I got the impression that there were just a few professors from our colleges (where over 90 percent of our students study). Their views -- particularly about the possible pitfalls in implementing the BS program in our universities and colleges -- would have been helpful at this stage.
  2. Another jarring absence was that of professors from humanities and social sciences. Surely a change in the UG program's structure in the sciences cannot happen (easily) without a corresponding change in the other fields? Getting these folks on board at an early stage would be a good idea, no?

Big Day for IISc

Yes, our Institute -- the Indian Institute of Science -- enters its Centenary Year today.

The year-long celebrations are being kicked off today, with the inauguration of the first of a series of Centenary conferences: Managing Complexity in a Distributed World. Christened MCDES-2008, this conference is organized by the Institute's Electrical Sciences Division which has under its wing the formidable departments of Electrical Engineering, Electrical Communication Engineering, and Computer Science and Automation, and the Centre for Electronic Design and Technology.

The inaugural lecture of MCDES -- The Foundations of a Digital Wireless World by Prof. Andrew Viterbi of the University of Southern California -- will also double up as the Institute's second Centenary Lecture. [I blogged about the first Lecture by Prof. C.N.R. Rao].

The Centenary year will feature quite a few events -- conferences, public lectures, focused seminars, and panel discussions. If you are an Institute alumnus / alumna (or, if you know one), you'll be interested in the flagship event the year: The IISc Centenary Conference (13-16 December 2008).

* * *

Among the newspapers, the Hindu carried an op-ed piece by Gopal Raj to mark the Centenary Celebrations with a focus on the Institute's pre-history.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Links ...

Leslie Kaufman's profile of Jill Bolte Taylor: A Superhighway to Bliss: A stroke leads a brain scientist to a new spirituality. [Taylor's TED talk is a must see!]

Barack Obama's Commencement Address at Wesleyan.

* * *

Now, a couple of fun links:

Chris Clark in Creek Running North: Belief in Evolutionary Psychology May Be Hardwired, Study Says [via Allison, the Economic Woman]:

A new study, published in today’s issue of the German publication Unwirklichen Genetikjournal, ... [suggests] that some men may be genetically predisposed to believe in evolutionary psychology, a finding that may well suggest future methods of treatment of the psychological malady.

Believers in evolutionary psychology maintain that feminism sets itself in opposition to millions of years of anthropoid evolution, and is thus futile and inhumane to men. Allegations made by believers include references to putative differences in math skills between men and women, a supposedly irresistible but entirely non-visually stimulated female attraction toward powerful and/or arrogant males, and the existence of a genetically preordained male right to multiple female sexual partners.

Finally, the girlfriend in today's xkcd cartoon makes a deep observation: "You have to get out either more or less. I can't decide." Don't you want to know what made her say that?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

McGrath on one of the defining moments in IPL

In a guest column for The Week, Glenn McGrath says:

For me, the defining moment of the DLF Indian Premier League was at the Eden Gardens on May 13, when Kolkata Knight Riders bowler Shoaib Akhtar dismissed Delhi Daredevils captain Virender Sehwag. The cheer around the stadium was deafening even though an Indian batsman had just got out to a Pakistani bowler. In April, I had written that it will take city loyalties a bit of time to take root in the IPL circuit, but it has happened sooner than anybody imagined, and the sight at Eden Gardens encapsulated the intensity of these loyalties. Country affiliations have been suspended for a bit, and right now I am as much of a Dilliwala as Viru!

I'm sure this thought -- about a very partisan Indian audience (remember World Cup semis in 1996?) cheering a Pakistani bowler against one of our own -- has occurred to a lot of us. But it's still nice to see it articulated in print.

* * *

Following Badri (one of the founders of, I too have a confession to make: I'm hooked on IPL! While the Bangalore Royal Challengers haven't done much to cheer us, the other team we are rooting for -- the one from the very hot Chennai with a very cool captain -- is still in the race to reach the semis. My inner Chennaiyan will be rooting for Rajasthan Royals against the Mumbai team tomorrow. I know it's shady to wish for someone else's downfall so your favorite gets ahead, but I figured, all's fair in war and cricket ...

* * *

Update: Rahul Basu has a post about the Royals vs. Super Kings match he went to in Chennai, where the fans tend to be significantly less partisan (I still remember the time -- several years ago -- when they cheered the Pakistani team celebrating a comprehensive win over India with a victory lap!). When Rahul says (see his comment below) the fans had a good time despite the Chennai Super Kings's loss, it's consistent with the Chennai fans' past behaviour.

Yogesh Upadhyaya on India's initiatives in technical education

Yogesh Upadhyaya, a fellow IT-BHU alumnus and a long-distance friend, has two articles summarizing the current status of different proposals for the creation of new IITs and NITs, conversion of IT-BHU into an IIT, and of several engineering colleges into IIESTs. He covers a several other related things, such as the legislative changes that are required to see these initiatives through, and the funding patterns these institutions may expect. And yes, he gives us an estimate of the faculty shortage, too!

As usual, Yogesh packs these two articles with a lot of very useful info and data that are quite difficult to find; I've bookmarked them for future reference.

The academic side of Al Quaeda

Lawrence Wright has an article in the New Yorker about the 'transformation' of "Dr. Fadl", an Al Qaeda mastermind. Fadl, we learn, wrote a book in the nineties -- The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge -- that provided "religio-intellectual" legitimacy to that organization's terrorist tactics -- particularly those involving suicide attacks; his current, 'revised' views -- which appeared in Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World (2007) -- have raised serious questions about terrorism as a jihadi tactic. Wright uses Fadl's two books as a backdrop for the kinds of arguments that have been going on among radical jihadists in Egypt (primarily) and elsewhere. Along the way, he also traces the history of some of the (Egypt-based) radical Islamic movements and the personalities -- and personal rivalries -- that shaped them.

When thousand-page books and 200-page rebuttals have a go at each other, the discussion is bound to assume an academic tone, with each side citing religious scholars, sometimes going all the way back to the Prophet himself. Here's Wright writing about Zawahiri's rebuttal to Fadl's second book:

Some of Zawahiri’s commentary may seem comically academic, as in this citation in support of the need for Muslims to prepare for jihad: “Imam Ahmad said: ‘We heard from Harun bin Ma’ruf, citing Abu Wahab, who quoted Amru bin al-Harith citing Abu Ali Tamamah bin Shafi that he heard Uqbah bin Amir saying, “I heard the Prophet say from the pulpit: ‘Against them make ready your strength.’ ” ’ Strength refers to shooting arrows and other projectiles from instruments of war.”

When the discussion takes a decidedly academic turn, (a) it tends to cover all bases, and (b) the underlying issue (in this case, terror) becomes, well, academic. The effect is eerily comical. In the example below, Fadl invokes sanctity of contracts as an argument against the 9/11 attacks, and Zawahiri has a pointed response.

The most original argument in the book and the interview is Fadl’s assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 “betrayed the enemy,” because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’ ” ...

When Zawahiri questions the sanctity of a visa, which Fadl equates with a mutual contract of safe passage, he consults an English dictionary and finds in the definition of “visa” no mention of a guarantee of protection. “Even if the contract is based on international agreements, we are not bound by these agreements,” Zawahiri claims, citing two radical clerics who support his view.

Go read the whole thing.

* * *

While we are on this subject, let me point you to the NYRB article titled Jihadi Suicide Bombers: The New Wave in which Ahmed Rashid reviews a bunch of books on Al Quaeda.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Quick update on the Hellinga story

Just to follow up on this post: the Nature story is available (pdf) at the author's website. Like I said, do read it.

Thanks to the author, Erika Check Hayden, for the alert, and for making it available for free.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Educating S. Prasannarajan

In a quasi-editorial in India Today on the recent terrorist attacks in Jaipur, S. Prasannarajan says:

We may not have to go to the extent of Guantanamo and other extremities but, in the age of the jihadist martyrdom chic, giving up a little bit of civil liberty for the common good is not the same as giving in to the paranoia of a totalitarian state.

The Government killed POTA because it was “draconian”, but what has it got as an alternative? It is as if this Government’s humanism abhors any law that violates the fundamental rights of the terrorist.

Clearly, Prasannarajan thinks POTA -- The Prevention of Terrorism Act (2002) -- is what India needs for taking on the terrorists. Perhaps he needs some education about how "effectively" it took on the terrorists was when it was in force.

Here are just a couple of examples from this report (of The People’s Tribunal on POTA and Other Security Legislation, Delhi, March 13-14, 2004).

Bhagat Singh and Prabhakaran, both teenagers, were arrested by Tamil Nadu police and charged under POTA. Why? Because the police couldn’t find their fathers, the boys were picked up as proxies for their absent fathers. ...

Are Bhagat Singh and Prabhakaran terrorists, Mr. Prasannarajan? Do you want them to "[give] up a little bit of civil liberty for the common good? Have they given you enough of their civil liberties, or do you want more? Have you talked to Vaiko, Mr. Prasannarajan?

Here's more from the same report, for Prasannarajan's benefit:

POTA detainees include writers and thinkers who wrote or thought things with which the State disagreed. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Valeti Arvind Kumar, who writes under the pen name "Rivera," was found in possession of literature deemed revolutionary and was arrested. Others detained under POTA in Andhra included poor tailors, a photographer and a doctor. K. Balagopal commented, "These statutes claim to be legal instruments for counter insurgency. They are, in fact, political instruments of the Indian states’ policies of counter insurgency dressed up as legislative instruments… the only method that the Indian State has had of meeting this challenge is to attack the social base — the communities or classes of society — in whom, among whom, and purportedly for whom, these activities take place. This is a policy that should be unacceptable to any notion of democracy." [...]

As one of the Tribunal panellists, Ms. Syeda Hameed, observed, "Listening to the victims through the two days, it struck me that with the exception of the politicians from Tamil Nadu, every person who deposed before the Bench was ragged and wretched." Ms. Hameed pointed out that the State’s view seems to be that "terror is spread only by the poor and marginalised. The rich and famous, by definition, are peace-loving loyalists while the poor, by the same definition, are anti–national terrorists…"

Not only are the individual testimonies heard by the Tribunal compelling, their combined effect is so chilling that we are all forced to ask ourselves if we have been so driven over the edge by our fears that instruments of the State that exist to protect its citizenry have really been used to target the powerless in society, including religious minorities, because they make such convenient scapegoats.

Perhaps Prasannarajan will benefit from this paragraph as well:

Experience has shown that anti-terrorist laws like TADA or POTA have neither prevented the occurrence of terrorist acts nor acted as deterrents to the use of violence for dispute resolution. The conviction rate for TADA cases was less than two per cent. Ironically, political organisations led by the BJP were at the forefront of the opposition to TADA, even during the height of violence in Punjab. A review of the testimonies of the accused under POTA heard by the Tribunal reveals the same pattern as was prevalent in the widespread abuse of the universally discredited TADA. Innocent people, rather than terrorists, have once again been the victims. We do not believe that such laws can be reformed or ‘improved upon’. They must be repealed lock, stock and barrel. POTA, in particular, should be repealed retrospectively, deleting all charges framed under it. [Bold emphasis added].

Why is it, Mr. Prasannarajan, that you don't acknowledge the real reasons behind the repeal of POTA? Why should your wet dreams about how POTA will make India safe take precedence over the horrible reality of how it actually functioned? What, in other words, makes you so sure that POTA is what India needs?

Finally, aren't you being such a demagogue when you equate opposition to POTA to a concern for 'fundamental rights of terrorists'?

Where is your concern, Mr. Prasannarajan, for the fundamental rights of what all our national pledge calls 'my brothers and sisters'-- all Indians?

* * *

As for how India can become better at combating terrorism on its soil, Mr. Prasannarajan should read what some of his own colleagues have to say. POTA and other such ideas come late in their article (with some qualifications), but the first things that they talk about are basic things: better intelligence gathering, better coordination among our law enforcement agencies, more cops on the ground, etc. Even the use of bigger, better, more expensive hi-tech gadgets gets a higher billing in their article than POTA!

"Life, in short, just wants to be"

These memorable words are from Bill Bryson's A short history of nearly everything:

It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But-and here's an interesting point-for the most part it doesn't want to be much. [Bold emphasis added].

As I recall, in that chapter, Bryson gives many examples of organisms -- life -- that exist and thrive in unthinkable environments: hot, cold, acidic, dark, etc. The Scientific American website has a story about a recent discovery of an extremophile species:

... Based on genetic analysis, [this extremophile] appears to be a type of archaea—a single-celled organism similar to but distinct from bacteria.

The microbe lives about a mile below the ocean floor, in temperatures ranging between 140 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. There they munch on methane and other hydrocarbons. They thus beat all previous sub-seafloor-life records for extreme conditions—twice as deep, twice as hot, and in sediment three times as ancient, more than 110 million years old. ...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Adviser from hell

No student deserves the kind of ordeal Mary Dwyer went through; when certain problems were raised about a paper she and her adviser wrote, the latter accused her of having fabricated and falsified her research. The Chronicle blog provides a quick summary of this sordid affair:

In February, Homme W. Hellinga retracted articles that he had published in Science and the Journal of Molecular Biology claiming to use a computer program to design a highly active enzyme, one of biochemistry’s tough problems. Mary A. Dwyer, then a graduate student in Mr. Hellinga’s laboratory, had performed much of the work described in the two articles, but she told Nature that at the time of publication, “I felt like we weren’t quite there yet.”

Another scientist, John P. Richard, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tried to repeat the work but could not, turning up what looked like problems with Mr. Hellinga’s experiments. After Mr. Richard contacted Mr. Hellinga, the Duke professor contacted Ms. Dwyer last fall, after she had moved to another department at Duke to do postdoctoral research.

She told Nature that Mr. Hellinga said, “I find it really hard to believe that you didn’t make this up.” She defended herself, showing him data from her laboratory notebooks. But Mr. Hellinga referred her to the dean’s office, which conducted an inquiry into potential research misconduct.

The full story is recounted in Nature by Erika Check Hayden; it's behind a subscription wall [Update: a free copy is available (pdf) at Hayden's website], but do read it if you can. Here's an excerpt:

All this time, Dwyer had heard nothing about Richard’s communication with Hellinga. After earning her doctorate in 2004, she had left Hellinga’s lab in 2005 to pursue postdoctoral research in a different department. So she was not seriously concerned when Hellinga e-mailed her on the Labor Day holiday on 3 September last year, asking her to meet with him later in the week to discuss issues about NovoTIM. But Dwyer’s new adviser, Donald McDonnell, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, advised her not to meet Hellinga alone; he felt she should go with someone who could advocate on her behalf. McDonnell arranged a meeting later that week at which he, Dwyer and Hellinga were joined by two other faculty members from the biochemistry department. And that’s when Hellinga dropped the bombshell. “He said, ‘I find it really hard to believe that you didn’t make this up’, and he kept saying that kind of statement over and over again,” Dwyer says. “It was horrible.”

Dwyer’s adviser defended her, and she proclaimed her innocence. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous, no, I didn’t do that’,” she says. “What he was saying wasn’t true.”

A few weeks later, McDonnell, Hellinga, Dwyer and the head of the biochemistry department met again. Dwyer’s husband, who is also a scientist, was there. Dwyer showed Hellinga the data from her lab notebooks that, she thought, exonerated her. But, she recalls, “he didn’t want to look at any of that. It was just flat out my fault, and that was it.” Hellinga remembers it differently. “That’s not true,” he says. “Of course I looked at the data. I also had people in my lab repeat the experiments,” he says. [...]

A committee on research misconduct convened a formal inquiry hearing in December, at which Dwyer was asked to address the claims against her. On 4 February, she received a letter from Wesley Byerly, an associate dean in the medical school, clearing her of the allegation of falsifying and fabricating results.

This blog has quite a bit of info on l'affaire Hellinga; start with the latest post, and work backwards through links. In particular, note the contribution of pseudonymous commenters!

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Related stuff: Nature editorial, and a previous post on how blame gets assigned when a published paper is withdrawn.

* * *

Thanks to Anand for the e-mail pointer to the Nature story.

Gender gap in science

I echo Kathy G in urging you all to read Echidne of the Snakes coomenting on a recent Boston Globe story which suggests that women may be 'self-selecting' themselves out of hard sciences. Let me excerpt the part where Echidne compares the framing of women's underrepresentation in the sciences with that of men's underrepresentation in US colleges and universities.

To see what stinks in all this, let us take a step backwards, away from this particular article and into the wider field of science politics about gender. All comfortable now? Sit back and notice that the debate about women and numbers has its rough mirror image: the debate about boys' trouble at school. Do you notice anything different in those two big stories? Do you happen to notice, say, that we never read someone writing that maybe boys just self-select away from education? Maybe they are not just interested in staying at school or in going to college? I don't recall ever reading a single article like that. Nope, all the articles I've read about the topic have as their goal a greater success rate for boys. Boys must be educated! Nobody suggests that they might choose not be educated and that we should honor that free and democratic choice.

But when it comes to girls and science, the story immediately changes. Perhaps it's girls themselves who choose not to become scientists? Perhaps that's Just How Things Are?

The two big stories have other odd differences: The stories about boys-and-schools are mostly about what is wrong with schools that makes boys less than thrive. The stories about girls-and-science are more complicated, often focusing on what is wrong with girls rather than with the culture of science. Or that nothing is wrong at all, because girls just don't want to do science.

There is a lot more there, so go read the whole thing.

Here's another example of what Echidne's talking about.

Carbon nanotubes: Health concerns

For a change, this nanoscale material is in the news for a very wrong reason: it could be as dangerous as asbestos. Kenneth Chang reports in the NYTimes:

... [S]cientists have ... long wondered whether the needle-shaped nanotubes might cause the same types of disease as needle-shaped asbestos fibers. ... An article published Tuesday on the Web site of the journal Nature Nanotechnology suggests that the answer may be yes. A team of researchers reported that injecting nanotubes into the abdomens of mice induced lesions similar to those that appear on the outer lining of the lungs after the inhalation of asbestos.

Here's Scientific American's report about the same study.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Links ...

MIT's Dan Ariely at the Scientific American: The Science of Irrationality: Why We Humans Behave So Strangely.

Economic Times: Majority of [India's B-school faculty] lack basic economic awareness.

Monkey Cage: Humor for Graduate Students [link via Chris Blattman].

Finally, the mystery link [via Chirru].


Here's one way to stick to a firm "No".

On second thoughts, you can give in and say, "why not?"


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two Materials Engineers on what really sank the Titanic

The Materials Engineers in question are Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who studied the "recovered material from the RMS Titanic" in her PhD research, and Tim Foecke, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and they have a book: What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries Solve One of History's Deadliest Mysteries.

According to them, what really sank the Titanic were the weak rivets. The NYTimes' William J. Broad did a story on McCarty and Foecke's work. Their book's website has tons of links and some samples.

The pointer to McCarty's work comes to us via Women in Science (thanks, Peggy!), where you will also find McCarty's interview on the Colbert show.

Delhi High Court: Two verdicts for free speech

Two weeks ago, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul wrote a fantastic verdict upholding the principle of freedom of speech and expression:

Coming down heavily on the "new puritanism" being carried out by "ignorant people", the Delhi High Court on Thursday dismissed criminal proceedings against eminent painter MF Husain, overruling the charges of obscenity against his paintings. [...]

"A painter has his own perspective of looking at things and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him," Kaul said in his 74-page judgement.

"In India, new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalizing art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era," he observed.

The court said the question of obscenity was nowhere to be seen in his paintings, as it was his perspective of looking at things and one should not challenge that.

At that time, several bloggers -- including Sunil Mukhi and V. Venkatesan -- celebrated that verdict. Given the assault on free speech from pretty much all of the political spectrum, it is a verdict worth celebrating.

Yesterday, it was the turn of two other Delhi High Court judges -- Chief Justice A.P. Shah and Justice S. Muralidhar -- to bat for free speech. They dismissed the lawsuit filed against the inclusion of the 300 Ramayanas paper in a Delhi University history course.

Holding that the history syllabus under-graduate course was based on "well researched" materials, the Delhi High Court rejected the contention by the petitioners that Hindu gods and goddesses were referred to in a "defamatory" and "derogatory" language saying these are folklore and interpreted in various ways. [...]

"These are folklore. Let the university decide it. It's not for the court to interfere in the matter. We are here to defend Article 19 (freedom of speech and expression) and not to defy it," the bench said. [Bold emphasis added].

Monday, May 19, 2008

Links ...

Lisa Belkin in IHT: Diversity isn't rocket science, is it?

Niket Kaisare on getting started with research. Guru offers a slightly different take on Niket's views. I really have nothing new to add, except that mastering this stuff is also pretty important ;-)

Sachin Tendulkar can do no wrong: Part 1 and Part 2.

Finally, a mystery video! [Link via Ann Bartow at].

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Links ...

Health was like the wilderness: it could only be spoiled by human intervention. “We’re not saving patients,” Rajiv told me. “We’re just stabilizing them so they can save themselves.”

That's from Sandeep Jauhar, excerpting from his Intern: A doctor's initiation.

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Geoffrey Colvin on becoming great in any field [link via Anand Kashyap]:

The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.

Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

Much of what this article talks about is from Anders Ericsson's work on developing expertise through, among other things, deliberate practice and effortful study. Here are two related posts with links.

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Vikram Doctor on why Marathi food lost out (outside Maharashtra) to those from other regions [link via Deepak Krishnan].

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Finally, for a change, a mystery cartogram [link via Economic Woman].

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Higher ed links ...

Are we (finally) ready for four-year BS programs in the sciences? [I like the idea!].

A curious twist to Valson Thampu's PhD saga. Here's some background, and you might be interested in this story too.

Just a few days before it enters its centenary year, IISc names four new IISc Fellows: Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Mr. Ratan Tata, Prof. Roddam Narasimha and Prof. M.S. Swaminathan. The press release is here.

Prof. P. Balaram, Director, IISc, devotes his most recent Current Science to remembering the contributions of Prof. Morris Travers, the institution's first Director.

Faculty crunch: The view from below (Part 2)

“I applied to the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Niper) more than a year ago but I’ve not even received an acknowledgement, whereas Singapore National Institute of Chemistry processed my application and offered a position within two months,” said a postdoctoral fellow, who did not wish to be named as he is still keen on joining an Indian institution, as are 12 other researchers in his lab. [...] Mails to the director and dean of Niper bounced back. [...]

The [Indian] researchers [at the Max Planck Institute, Dortmund, contemplating a career in India] are a representative group -— from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune, Niper, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) in Hyderabad and University of Hyderabad—and not one of them has received a speedy response from any Indian institution.

“IIT Madras asks for a demand draft of Rs300 and a certificate attested by a professor, along with a hard copy by mail at the time of applying,” says a researcher from Calicut University. “This is so impractical today; IIT Mumbai at least waives off the draft for foreign applicants.”

From this Mint story by Seema Singh on the utterly unprofessional conduct by "leaders" (and other people in responsible positions) in some of our premier institutions and laboratories.

I don't know if these horror stories will become a regular series here on this blog; in any case, Part 1 is here.

Links ...

Laura Vanderkam in the SciAm Observations blog: How Tetris makes you smarter.

Martin Portner in the Scientific American: The Orgasmic Mind: The Neurological Roots of Sexual Pleasure.

Paul Graham on lies we tell kids.

Dani Rodrik: Getting governance right is good for economic growth.

Finally, the mystery link [via Savage Minds].

So, you have a math PhD. Would you like to teach accounting?

Rebecca Knight in FT on an interesting experiment at some B-schools [link via Teppo Felin]:

Is it possible to convert an English literature PhD candidate into a marketing professor? What about an econ­omics professor into one who teaches corporate finance? According to John Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the answer is Yes.

What's in it for a math PhD, who could become an accounting professor?

"A math professor makes $70,000 a year, while an accounting professor makes $115,000 and will make much more than that over the course of his lifetime. There’s a big economic incentive. Some liberal arts disciplines are way overproducing PhD candidates. They can’t possibly be absorbed by academia,” he says. “A business degree has a lot of portability.”

But some academics soooo don't want to change!

However, Mr Fernandes admits the programme has got off to a slower start than he had envisaged. He recognises that perhaps the bump in salary might not inspire the average philosopher to embark on the programme.

What a surprise!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ferrari underwear!

Rashmi Bansal takes Mint to task for telling its readers about all the expensive stuff -- a Rs.50,000 beach dress, for example -- that they don't need or can't afford. She accuses its editors of peddling to their readers what they themselves would not buy.

Well, Bansal is an MBA, so I'm sure she knows that editors/publishers may want to use their newspaper's lifestyle section to maximize their revenues rather than, say, their readers' utility or welfare. This may also be the reason why they may want to project their newspaper as the kind that rich people read, so that it becomes the preferred destination for many more peddlers of expensive trash. What good is a business newspaper if it tells you where to buy cheap B&W television or an iPod knockoff?

Anyways, I just wanted to use Rashmi's rant to point you to this post in which Dan Ariely muses about the value of brands -- even those that others cannot notice (Ferrari underwear!):

We usually think of brands as signaling something to others. We drive a Prius to show that we are environmentally conscious or wear Nike to show that we’re athletic. In this case I didn’t want to send a signal to the world, but nevertheless I felt different, as if I were signaling something to myself-telling myself something about me and using the bag to do it.

Maybe this is the attraction of branded underwear. They are basically a private consumption experience, but my guess is that if I put on a pair of Ferrari underwear, and even if nobody saw them, they would still make me feel better about myself.

Links ...

An interesting classroom experiment from Andrew Gelman: The candy weighing demonstration, or, the unwisdom of crowds.

Computer Science in a Box: Unplug Your Curriculum "introduces fundamental building blocks of computer science -- without using computers. This selection of activities is designed for use with students ages 9 to 14."

An interview with James M. Lang, author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching .

Gary Wolf in Wired: Want to remember everything you'll ever learn? Surrender to this algorithm.

Chalmers Johnson reviews Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire by Alex Abella.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

100 dollar laptop: "Learning was never part of the mission"

Wow. Just. Wucking. Fow.

Commenting on these new, absolutely damning revelations, Rahul (from whom I got the link) asks:

... How did the world media, and several governments, get suckered into this giant con-job? Is everyone so much in awe of MIT that their critical faculties take a vacation?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Links ...

From Law and Other Things: (a) How come the Chief Justice is always in the majority? and (b) Is this the beginning of Mandal III?

From Scientific American: (a) Can you catch up on lost sleep? and (b) Scientists know better than you, even when they are wrong.

From InMind.Org: (a) Altruism: Myth or reality? (by Dan Batson and Nadia Ahmad) and (b) Anatomy of love (by the excellent Alex Gunz).

Vijaysree Venkatraman in the Christian Science Monitor: At MIT, low tech inventions with a high impact.

Tara Parker-Pope in the NYTimes: Eating your way to a sturdy heart.

From Second Life: Unicode in 5 minutes.

Finally, the mystery link.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Aruna Roy's talk at IISc

Democracy as Common Sense

Democracy is supposed to reflect the will of the people. Often people say that majority rule does not necessarily result in decisions that ensure common good. The opportunity to make informed choices, depends on the access to information,and place it in the public domain. In India today, competing and contradictory priorities of different sections of society, places conflicting and selective sets of information for the ordinary citizen to choose from. The more powerful use partial information, often to justify the decisions in their favour. For the marginal and less powerful, truth is the only recourse, based on hard facts and irrefutable realities. The Right to Information , common sense combined with a commitment to public ethics, becomes an important means of ensuring justice.

In the context of the overwhelming importance and power of the market and profits, even science is under constant threat of becoming a tool of commercial interests. The RTI therefore becomes vital to remove the ambiguities that arise when the use of science and scientific enquiry are pre-decided by a set of people only interested in private gain. Even within the RTI law, there is an interesting priority accorded to the public interest over ride, when all other considerations of trade secrets and commercial interests can be set aside.

That's from the abstract of a fascinating talk by Ms. Aruna Roy, co-founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers'-Farmers' Unity Union), and a key architect of the Right to Information Act - 2005. While one could find several online pieces that cover some or all of her talk's themes (here, for example), listening to Roy in person is a great experience; the intensity of her commitment and passion is very inspiring.

The talk was peppered with anecdotes about the various interesting ways in which the RTI Act has been put to use by people from all kinds of backgrounds. According to Roy, the RTI Act and the NREG Act are important milestones in our country's progress because of their emphasis on empowerment: RTI empowers people by giving them a tool with which they can hold their representatives accountable, and NREG empowers (poor) people by allowing them to lead a life of dignity.

Roy ended her talk with two quotes; the first one was in Hindi (which I didn't get), and the other one is from Jeremy Cronin of the South African Communist Party. Since I didn't take it down, I did a Google search for the key phrases. Here it is:

"Speak truth to power," was Palestinian thinker Edward Said’s injunction to intellectuals. But the challenge to thinkers goes beyond that, says Jeremy Cronin ... "How do you make truth powerful — and, if possible, power truthful?” he asked ...

Roy's talk was organized by Concern, an IISc student group with a keen interest in generating a debate on social issues in our community. This group has been doing a wonderful job over the years by getting many, many public intellectuals to visit our campus and share their ideas with us.

"Can a limited life still be a good one?"

"I don't have a choice about being ill, but I do have a choice about how I am going to live with my illness," she said.

"When you are faced with serious illness you can let it take over your life, or you can learn to co-exist with it, to make peace with how things are. [...]

"I am a philosopher and I use philosophy to make sense of my illness.

"Philosophy was traditionally a practical aid to life, a set of arguments and ideas designed to help humans improve their well-being. It is an aid for coping with issues such as death and loss and questions such as how can I make sense of a finite life? Can a limited life still be a good one?"

From this short profile of philosopher Havi Carel who's writing a book -- Illness -- that "examines how philosophy can deal with illness."

Thanks to Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber for the pointer.

Binayak Sen

We ... wish to express grave concern that Dr. Binayak Sen appears to be incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental human rights, in contravention of Articles 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—to which India is a state party—and that he is charged under two internal security laws that do not comport with international human rights standards. We are pleased to learn that Dr. Sen’s trial has, after numerous delays, now begun. While the judicial process involving our professional colleague moves forward, we respectfully request that Dr. Sen be freed from incarceration on humanitarian grounds to receive his award [2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights] and to continue his important medical work.

From this letter (pdf) signed by 22 Nobel winners and addressed to the Prime Minister and the President of India (link via excellent blog of B.R.P. Bhaskar).

Last January, Lok Raj Sangahhan carried a column -- Dr. Binayak Sen Must Be Released Immediately -- by my colleague B. Ananthanarayan. In two days, Dr. Sen will have completed one full year in prison.

There's a lot more info at the Free Binayak Sen website.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Links: Global higher ed edition

  1. Satya points us to Philip Altbach's article arguing that international higher education is facing a bubble much like the sub-prime crisis.
  2. Tamar Lewin of NYTimes on the ethics of universities hiring middlemen to attract foreign students.
  3. A serious rant from Malaysia (written by "Disgruntled Former Staff" ;-) on how an Australian university is taking that country for a ride. All in the name of helping Malaysia develop its "intellectual capital," of course.
  4. The UK Higher Education International Unit has some interesting factoids about globalized higher ed:
    • In 2004, 2.7 million students were enrolled in HEIs outside their countries of citizenship. In 2005-06, six countries hosted 67% of these students (23% in the US, 12% in the UK, 11% in Germany, 10% in France, 7% in Australia, and 5% in Japan). (UNESCO, 2006)

The last two links come to us via the excellent Global Higher Ed blog (here and here).

How to achieve sprezzatura in blogging

Brad DeLong offers a quick tutorial:

On the internet, if you are to be successful, you need to recognize that you are not S.I. Hayakawa with control over the megaphone. So:

  • You need to name, quote from, and link to your targets--real targets, important targets, not ineffectual and marginalized loons (unless you are just in it for entertainment value)--or else people will point out that you did not do so, and you will appear and will be either ignorant, lazy, mendacious, or off-base.
  • You need to get to the point quickly: there is lots to read on the internet, and people who chase pointers through fifteen paragraphs only to come across nothing but a weak-tea denunciation of the Noam-Norm axis will be snarky.
  • You need to bring information to the table that your readers lack--at least one of these three: new information you have, information others have not been aware of that you can point to, analyses that have not occurred to your readers.

Links ...

Tehelka has excerpts from Behenji, Ajoy Bose's biography of UP Chief Minister Mayawati [via Bhupinder].

Krish Ashok on Iyer vs. Iyengar; while he has missed two old favorites ("Iyer you go, Iyengar you become," and "three stages of development of the ego: I, Iyer, and Iyengar"), he introduces tons of original stuff -- there's even one involving the poor old 'vi' editor! -- in this fight.

Philip Ball on a pretty strange piece of art at a traffic junction.

And, as usual, the mystery link [via the Nudge blog].

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Does GATE serve our institutional needs?

In a post filled with provocative ideas, Arunn argues for the use of GRE (or, presumably, another exam like the GRE General Test) for graduate admissions. Currently, in engineering (and to a smaller extent, in the sciences too) GATE is the exam of choice at all our top institutions, and this is really unfortunate.

GATE started its existence in the mid-eighties; I think I took the second edition of GATE in 1985. It was originally designed as an entrance exam for the masters programs in engineering. In those innocent days, the use of GATE for PhD admissions was out of the question, simply because a masters degree was a pre-requisite for getting into a PhD program.

But that era is gone; most institutions (including IISc) now have a provision for undergraduate degree holders to gain "direct admission" into the PhD program; these students have to fulfill a bunch of requirements, and a decent score in GATE is one of the first level filters (followed by, typically, an interview). As Arunn points out, GATE is not the right exam to use; a more appropriate exam -- like GRE -- would emphasize basic mathematical, statistical, analytical competence.

Arunn's arguments against GATE cover the many different ways in which it hurts our PhD programs; here's one:

... [S]ince [GATE] is a subject exam and involves concepts and number crunchers (questions) that require a thorough brushing up of the subject basics, potential students who have finished their UG degree some years back (and working somewhere) and want to take the examination are so apprehensive of what they need to study that they don’t even give it a try. This, even though they yearn for higher education.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Links ...

The Economic Times on the faculty shortage in India's B-schools.

Hemali Chhapia reports on IIT-D's proposed restrictions on its student's internet access, similar to those at IIT-B.

Manoj Mitta on the latest episode in the drama surrounding the 2006 JEE cut-offs: This exam's chief organizer is to "appear [today] before the Central Information Commission to account for his failure to explain the basis on which he had arrived at subject-wise cut-off marks."

Vinod at Sepia Mutiny on the strange, twisted case of tale of Priya Venkatesan.

Finally, today's mystery link [via Chris Blattman].

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Links ...

Mark Pilgrim: The day music died:

So what happens on August 31, 2008? On that day, Microsoft will turn off the servers that they maintain for the sole purpose of validating that the songs that people have already “purchased” through MSN Music are still theirs to play. ...

Robert Nadeau: Brother, Can You Spare Me a Planet? Mainstream Economics and the Environmental Crisis. Here's some interesting history:

... The progenitors of neoclassical economics, all of whom were trained as engineers, developed their theories by substituting economic variables derived from classical economics for physical variables in the equations of a soon-to-be outmoded mid–19th century theory in physics. [...]

The strategy used by the creators of neoclassical economics was as simple as it was absurd—the economists copied the physics equations and changed the names of the variables. In the resulting mathematical formalism, utility becomes synonymous with the amorphous field of energy described in the equations taken from the physics, and the sum of utility and expenditure, like the sum of potential and kinetic energy in the physical equations, is conserved. Forces associated with the field of utility (or, in physics, energy) allegedly determine prices, and spatial coordinates correspond with quantities of goods. Because the physical system described in the equations of the theory in physics is closed, the economists were obliged to assume that the market system described in their theory is also closed. And because the sum of energy in the equations that describe the physical system is conserved, the economists were also obliged to assume that the sum of utility in a market system is also conserved.

The Tamil Nadu Board's textbooks for classes I - XII are all available online. [Thanks to U. Veena for the e-mail alert].

Finally, the the mystery link.

Higher Ed links

The UN has a higher education portal that "offers access to on-line information on higher education institutions recognized or otherwise sanctioned by competent authorities in participating countries," which include the big English-speaking countries: the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia. While China and Japan are in that list, India, France, Germany, and South Korea are not. Clearly, this portal has a long way to go.

Here's a report on some exciting developments in Tamil Nadu: two new Central Universities, one new IIM, and conversion of several colleges into universities (Presidency, Queen Mary's, PSG-Coimbatore).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Links ...

James Surowiecki: "Calling Toyota an innovative company may, at first glance, seem a bit odd. ... But if Toyota doesn’t look like an innovative company it’s only because our definition of innovation—cool new products and technological breakthroughs, by Steve Jobs-like visionaries—is far too narrow. Toyota’s innovations, by contrast, have focussed on process rather than on product, on the factory floor rather than on the showroom. That has made those innovations hard to see. But it hasn’t made them any less powerful."

Sunil Mukhi: "Let a hundred universities bloom... " This post extends the discussion in Rahul Basu's blog on the state of Indian science.

And, as usual, today's mystery link.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Links ...

Rahul Basu's post with links to two recent articles on the state of Indian science -- both painted a gloomy picture -- has generated quite an interesting discussion featuring, among others, blogger-academics Rahul Siddharthan, Ananthanarayan and Sunil Mukhi. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

Dan Ariely on three main lessons of psychology.

Via Tyler Cowen, an Econ Journal Watch Symposium titled Reaching the Top? On Gender Balance in the Economics Profession (pdf).

Ian Chappell on the Magic of Shane: Warne is "the best skipper [I've] seen never to captain Australia" in Test cricket.

Celebrity Blog of the Day: Shubha Mudgal. In particular, check out her post on My Land, My State.

Finally, the mystery link.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


In a great post, Vivek asks why IPL's Twenty-20 matches use the kind of statistics that were originally created for Test matches, and modified (only slightly) for One Day Internationals. He goes on to suggest a few metrics that can help assess more meaningfully a player's usefulness in T20 matchs. As I said, it's a great post on an interesting topic that will appeal to the academic, the non-playing captain, and the statistical junky in you. Go read it!

Now, let me use this opportunity to connect Vivek's post with what I have read about Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (of Liar's Polker fame). The book is about how

... a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball. [link]

The team in question is the Oakland Athletics which went on to win the top spot in the American League - West in 2002.

The secret of their success? A reliance on (new, unfashionable, or under-utilized) statistical measures of a player's sporting prowess that really matters to the team's performance, and using these measures to evaluate, bid for, and trade players. Clearly this approach places a premium on past performance rather than on potential. As Fabio points out, moneyball tactics are an example of evidence based management!

As cricket becomes more professionalized, with lots more players and lots more matches, and with the availability of ball-by-ball accounts and videos available in the archives, our ability to slice and dice a player's every move and extract all kinds of statistical measures will only improve. As of now, Twenty-20 is a very young format, with even experienced players having played just a few tens of games. But Vivek's larger point is valid: this format cries out for new, more meaningful statistical yardsticks.

I haven't read Moneyball, but one of the impressions I get from reading about it (Wikipedia, NYTimes review, and Failure Magazine) indicates to me that some of the unfashionable metrics used by the Oakland A's were popular among enthusiastic amateurs. There is no reason why such cricket-loving amateurs cannot come up with new and interesting ways of looking at T20 players' records.

[Aside: In any event, I don't expect IPL franchises to start using serious statistical techniques -- moneyball or otherwise -- simply because they are all too busy counting the dollars that are pouring in. ]

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For what it is worth, here's my early nomination for the IPL Moneyball Team of 2008: Rajasthan Royals!

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In business, I can think of at least one initiative that would qualify for use of Moneyball tactics: Adventnet, the company behind the Zoho suite of products. What is so 'moneyball' about this company? Let me give the mike to Sramana Mitra:

... [In[ India [Adventnet CEO Sridhar] Vembu's operation does not hire engineers with highflying degrees from one of the prestigious India Institutes of Technology, thereby squeezing his cost advantage.

"We hire young professionals whom others disregard," Vembu says. "We don't look at colleges, degrees or grades. Not everyone in India comes from a socio-economic background to get the opportunity to go to a top-ranking engineering school, but many are really smart regardless.

"We even go to poor high schools, and hire those kids who are bright but are not going to college due to pressure to start making money right away," Vembu continues. "They need to support their families. We train them, and in nine months, they produce at the level of college grads. Their resumes are not as marketable, but I tell you, these kids can code just as well as the rest. Often, better."

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Let me round this post out by taking you back to the US. Here's the latest Freakonomics column by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner on how a statistician may have helped Boston Celtics in their turn around from an abysmal record of just 24 NBA wins last year to an impressive record 66 wins this year.

Links ...

Check out Scholars Without Borders, "a bookstore for academic books from India as well as from different parts of the world" [Link via Rahul Basu]. These scholars have a blog too.

Clay Shirky on Gin, Television and Social Surplus. Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody ("a book about organizing without organizations").

Spencer Kelly: BBC exposes facebook flaw (and a text report: Identity 'at risk' on Facebook) [Link via Liz Losh].

On a related note, here's Google's advice on online security [Link via Chetan].

Here's Google co-founder Larry Page on some of the things he has been "working on" and "looking at":

You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven't changed much in 50 years? We've been looking a little at geothermal power. And you start thinking about it, and you say, Well, a couple of miles under this spot or almost any other place in the world, it's pretty darn hot. How hard should it be to dig a really deep hole? We've been drilling for a long time, mostly for oil - and oil's expensive. If you want to move heat around, you need bigger holes. The technology just hasn't been developed for extracting heat. I imagine there's pretty good odds that's possible.

Solar thermal's another area we've been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.

The amount of land that's required to power the entire U.S. with electricity is something like 100 miles by 100 miles. So you say, "What do I need to do to generate that power?" You could buy solar cells. The problem is, at today's solar prices you'd need trillions of dollars to generate all the electricity in the U.S. Then you say, "Well, how much do mirrors cost?" And it turns out you can buy pieces of glass and a mirror and you can cover those areas for not that much money. Somehow the world is not doing a good job of making this stuff available. As a society, on the larger questions we have, we're not making reasonable progress.

Finally, today's mystery link.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Higher ed links from around the globe

US: Marty Nemko has a hard-hitting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree.

Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: "I wasn't a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I'd be the first one in my family to do it. But it's been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go."

I have a hard time telling such people the killer statistic: Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later. That figure is from a study cited by Clifford Adelman, a former research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education and now a senior research associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Yet four-year colleges admit and take money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!

Even worse, most of those college dropouts leave the campus having learned little of value, and with a mountain of debt and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles. Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. So it's not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you're likely to meet workers who spent years and their family's life savings on college, only to end up with a job they could have done as a high-school dropout.

Such students are not aberrations. Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.

US: Elia Powers summarizes a recent study that looked at why college graduates earn more than their peers.

... [F]inancial returns are immediate for college alumni first seeking employment, and that typically doesn’t change with labor market experience.

The authors note that college students are often rewarded right away because their resumes include information on grades, majors, standardized test scores and college attended — all of which allows employers to sort individuals by background.

On the other hand, individual ability is revealed to the job market much more gradually for high school graduates, whose wages are initially “completely unrelated to their own ability,” the report notes. Their financial returns rise steeply with experience, in part because employers at first have limited data on their ability to perform.

China: China curbs rapid enlargement of doctoral programs:

The Ministry of Education has decided to curb rapid expansion of doctoral programs at universities as China sees more doctoral degree holders being churned out annually than the United States. [...] China produced about 50,000 doctors in 2006, a similar figure with the United States. [...] The national expenditure on research and development, however, was roughly one ninth of the U.S. federal R&D spending in the same year, according to statistics. [...] Yang said the ministry is going to keep the doctoral program admission growth rate under two percent each year [...]

China sees soaring numbers of doctoral degree holders. In 1983 the country for the first time produced 19 doctors. Too rapid expansion of doctoral programs in recent years resulted in mass production with its quality being questioned. It's not rare to see one professor advises more than two dozens of doctoral candidates in research institutes or universities.