Sunday, June 29, 2008

An academic at a Page Three party, and other fun links ...

The academic in the title is Sunil Mukhi, who went to a wine tasting party in Mumbai.

In a father-daughter argument involving a multilingual pun, is it surprising that it is the daughter who wins?

Drawing inspiration from Kamal Haasan's Dasavataram and a real-life cricket match in Chennai, Raj has a fantastic idea where Sachin Tendulkar can play at least three roles -- all of them as a batsman, and all of them in the same innings.

Is the Long Tail toast?


The title of this post is inspired by that of an article -- Is the Tipping Point toast? -- about another hot phenomenon that didn't stand up to experimental scrutiny.

* * *

This HBR paper by Anita Elberse provides some pretty solid evidence against the Long Tail hypothesis (if you can't access the article, try reaching it through Chris Anderson's response on the HBS blog). Elberse's research leads to a pretty blunt conclusion:

For Chris Anderson, the strategic implications of the digital environment seem clear. “The companies that will prosper,” he declares, “will be those that switch out of lowest-common-denominator mode and figure out how to address niches.” But my research indicates otherwise. Although no one disputes the lengthening of the tail (clearly, more obscure products are being made available for purchase every day), the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow. It is therefore highly disputable that much money can be made in the tail. In sales of both videos and recorded music—in many ways the perfect products to test the long-tail theory—we see that hits are and probably will remain dominant. ... [Bold emphasis added by me]

As the article progresses, you can see that it keeps pushing the knife deeper and deeper into the heart of the hypothesis, and it ends with what can only be described as a killer twist:

How appropriate that proof of this can also be found in management literature. Over the course of 2006, Hyperion Books, which publishes adult trade fiction and nonfiction, brought dozens of original hardcovers to market. For a handful of them it spent heavily on acquisition and marketing, hoping for the profits that only blockbusters can provide. One was Mitch Albom’s novel For One More Day, which became the single best-selling hardcover of 2006. Another was a business title that had engendered an intense bidding war. Hyperion was determined to get it; New York magazine quoted an industry insider as saying that “jaws hit the floor over how much they paid.” Everyone recognized it as a high-stakes gamble in a high-risk genre. But ultimately it paid off big. It was, of course, The Long Tail.

* * *

Elberse's research findings arrive at a time when Chris Anderson's next half-baked Big Idea -- that the scientific method has been rendered obsolete by the petabytes of data in the internet clouds -- hit the internet; this time, though, it has been declared dead on arrival almost immediately. If you are not familiar with this episode, start with Tom Slee , and work through the links.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Links ...

Sometime ago, I linked to Nicholas Carr's piece about the internet's effect on reading. Now, go take a look at Caleb Crain's take on the effect of internet on writing.

What struck me when I read [Philip Larkin's novel Jill] was how wonderfully calm it is. It makes no effort to seize the reader's attention. It assumes, rather, that the reader has taken the risk of extending his attention unsolicited, almost as a gift, which the novelist will do his best to repay by the quiet and steady work of elaborating a world and the way that one character sees it.

The internet is inhospitable to that kind of quietness. If your browser were to happen on such a page, your eyes would likely go blank with impatience. Who is this guy? Why aren't there any links? And, more damningly, Is anyone else reading this? A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. ...

* * *

Peter Singer recoomends Blatant Benevolence:

Jesus said that we should give alms in private rather than when others are watching. That fits with the commonsense idea that if people only do good in public, they may be motivated by a desire to gain a reputation for generosity. Perhaps when no one is looking, they are not generous at all. [...]

A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus’s advice. One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. Perhaps we will eventually reach a tipping point at which giving a significant amount to help the world’s poorest becomes sufficiently widespread to eliminate the majority of those 25,000 needless daily deaths.

* * *

Jake Young has a pretty nice discussion of a recent paper whose key conclusion was that "gender gap in math scores disappears in gender-equal culture." [I linked to the paper here]. Here's Young:

Now I will grant that this is a correlation study. It does not speak to the issue of causation. There could be some other cultural factor that is confounding. It could be income or access to child care, or a million other things. Also, the correlation factors -- while significant -- are not overwhelming. There are no doubt other issues at play.

What I am arguing, however, is that this is another piece of evidence suggesting that the disparity between men and women in math and science is primarily cultural, not innate. How are differences in innate ability supposed to account for this data? Basically for the innate differences hypothesis to be true, you have to say that not only are women and men different, they are differently different in each of the studied countries. Is that statement accurate? Is the effect of prenatal hormones on brains different enough in France and Norway to explain this effect? Does the additional X-chromosome function sufficiently differently in various countries to explain changes in performance?

Monday, June 23, 2008

IIPM? A fake university?

Who could have imagined that our very own UGC would classify the 'think beyond the IIMs' institution as a fake university, along with the likes of "Commercial University, Ltd."?

But IIPM doesn't like this classification, and has gone to court.

... [S]enior advocate A S Chandiok, appearing for the IIPM, contended that the main reservation was regarding the use of the word "fake" by the UGC about the institution.

"We do not mind being called unrecognised. But, the word fake is not correct and this should not be used as it gives wrong signal," Chandiok said.

Selection procedures in the presence of measurement ambiguities

Well, we have been talking about multiple ways of selecting a bunch of high achievers from a larger -- much, much larger -- pool of highly driven souls with tremendous motivation (and in quite a few cases, money and other resources). At the end of the day (er, exam), you still have to use one procedure (or one combination of procedures) and arrive at a list of candidates who can go on to the next stage.

Phani has a great post (with graphs, distributions, and stuff!) on the considerations that will inform an organization's choices during this entire process.

Obviously no such thing like a perfect exam exists. An exam must be completed before the examinees drop dead and must be evaluated in a reasonable time frame and as objectively as possible. This puts a limit on the range of questions (therefore, marks) for the measurement and defines the measurement window [...]. There will then be examinees who will cluster at the boundaries (shown by the arrows), the actual number of them depending on where the boundaries of this window lie within the range of variation of actual ability.

A public/finishing exam is usually conducted for a very large population at that level. The measurement window is chosen to spread across a wide range. If the exam is designed and conducted properly and in the absence of negative marks, the percentage of marks obtained and the percentile will be similar and will have a reasonable correlation with the actual ability. However, the unavoidable clustering at the top due to the finite size of the measurement could be problem. As in eg., if one needs to resolve and sequence the clever examinees for the purpose of, say, admission to a course that has limited number of seats - so limited that only top 2% are to be picked up. Selection of a small fraction and sequencing them reliably is the perceived need. The problem arises because of the inherent scatter in the data.

Naps and coffee ...

Naps are good for you (here and here).

Coffee is good, too.

Now, Rahul Basu suggests a way to combine both.

Internet memes

An interesting pop history project [via Eszter Hargittai].

An interactive view of the all the memes that swept across the internet and burrowed in our zeitgeist. Built from Wikipedia and Memelabs, open for you to add and maintain.

Course evaluations

Aurelie Thiele has extracted a few fine gems from the 1991 course evaluations at MIT.

Here's a geeky one:

The absolute value of the TA [Teaching Assistant] was less than epsilon.

Here's a clever one:

The course was very thorough. What wasn't covered in class was covered in the final exam.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do institutions -- and their professors -- have a right to choose?

Alternate title: An auction theory of entrance exams!

* * *

In a thoughtful post, Arunn Narasimhan of IIT-M lays out two possibilities for selecting students (look at this and this for some more background).

While the first mechanism selects students based on high cut-off in each of the three subjects of the exam, the second uses just the aggregate marks. The first method could de-select those -- let's call them specialist stars -- who excel in one subject, but don't meet the cut-off in one or both of the other subjects. A corollary is that the second method may put some -- let's call them all-rounders -- at a disadvantage.


Clearly, at the top end of the achievement spectrum, the difference between two procedures has a very high probability of being small; you cannot be among the top 500 (or, even 1000) unless you score exceedingly well in all the three subjects. But as you go down to ranks beyond 1000, the differences are likely to mount. The Telegraph's story about JEE-2006 shows that this is indeed the case: the number of discrepancies between the two procedures was only nine in the top 1000 ranks, and it increases to 54, 125, 255 and 354 for the next four sets of 1000 ranks each.

To me, the real surprise is the 35 percent difference by the time you come to 5000th rank. Remember, this position falls in the top 0.5 percentile of the pool of higher secondary (Pre-University or Plus Two) students in the science stream! In this exalted regime, this represents a huge divergence between the all-rounders and specialist stars.

* * *

Arunn points out that it is difficult to select one of the two procedures over the other (JEE-2006 went for the all-rounders, while JEE-2007 went for star specialists. But, as I said, the difference is not much at the top end of the spectrum). I don't see why a choice has to be made between these two procedures. Why not select students using both? Since all-rounders and specialist stars bring different sets of aptitudes and attitudes to the table, isn't it a good thing for the IITs?

I would say yes, but only if something else is also taken care of. That something is this: if you select specialist stars, you should find some way by which they get to study fields that play to their strengths. What good does it do to the institution (or, even the student) if someone who excels in math (but scores poorly in the other two subjects) if he/she cannot find a place in computer science, or does not choose mathematics because of parental pressure? Similarly, is it desirable for a chemistry star to skip studying chemistry, chemical engineering and metallurgical engineering, and choose electrical or mechanical engineering?

Let me state categorically again: I am not arguing for a Big Brother who'll 'guide' students to areas that he thinks is right for them. My argument is that institutions -- and their individual departments (and their professors!) -- also have a right to be choosy about the kind of students they want to teach; their exercise of this right need not infringe on the right of individual students to choose what they want to do.

Thus, for example, a computer science department may want a student body that has more than a few specialist math stars (irrespective of how well they did in their physics and chemistry exams). Similarly, a chemical engineering department may want a few chemistry whizkids even though they may not have done all that well in the other two.

If we accept this line of thinking, we still have to address the issue of matching students to specific departments in specific institutions. Currently, the IITs rank students, who then take their turn at choosing an institution-department combination, with professors being mere spectators. Is there an alternative that respects the rights of professors as well as those of the students?


Rahul has argued (see this post and this comment) for dispensing with the idea of assigning a student to to a specific department at an IIT (which is currently being done through a ranking mechanism). Students will then take a common set of courses during the first one or two years, at the end of which they can be assigned to a department; this step will have the backing of the 'revealed competence' of the students (through their grades in the relevant subjects). Let me say that I like Rahul's point about giving students a year or two to explore the intellectual territory before they specialize.

But, in this post, I want to explore a different possibility that allows students to join a specific department in an IIT.

* * *

Let me take a stab at this question:

  1. Let each student get a numerical score (normalized to, say, 1000) in each JEE subject . In principle, every student taking the exam may be given this score; but the IITs may want to not embarrass those with negative marks!

  2. Each department in every IIT announces, before the exam, its preferred weights for individual subjects. For example, a chemical engineering department might choose (0.25, 0.3, 0.55) as weights for (math, physics, chemistry), while a computer science department may use (0.5, 0.3 and 0.2). Heck, another CS department at another IIT may even go for (0.6, 0.4, 0.0)!

  3. While the scores may be sent to as many students as the IITs choose, only those in the top X percentile (say, X = 5) in any of the subjects are invited to give their preferences for specific institution-department combinations. This is best done through a website.

  4. For each department, a list of all eligible students is prepared, in the decreasing order of their composite scores. Similarly, each student may be eligible for multiple fields of studies in different places.

  5. Students are assigned to their top-most choice for which they are eligible.

Such a procedure would not have been possible in the 1980s (for example) when students' choices were processed manually. It can be contemplated now only because the technology for doing it is available. After all, fancy auctions are being used (and some IIT professors are probably designing even fancier ones!) for matching advertisers with search phrases at Google and other online firms; what we are talking about here is essentially an auction -- involving IIT seats as the object of desire and JEE marks as the currency -- that aims to maximize the 'outcome' for the interested parties.

Let me be the first to admit that what I have suggested is probably not the most perfect way matching students to institutions; the procedure I outlined above may not be air-tight, and there may be other mechanisms that achieve the same goal in a more elegant way.

But, what cannot be denied is that individual departments have a right to select their students who, in their opinion (and collective wisdom), will benefit the most from the education they impart. If this right is conceded, I think it's difficult to justify the JEE's current format with its undifferentiated ranking that selects specialist stars but places them in sub-optimal settings.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

IIT grad students use RTI

Here's a news report:

Arvind Kejriwal, RTI activist and Magsaysay Award winner, described this as the real magic of RTI. "An RTI application can provide instant solutions to problems of a large number of people if real public interest is involved," he said.

A simple RTI application of research scholars at IIT-Bombay to the HRD Ministry and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) earlier this year seeking information on the fellowship hike for M.Tech students had the HRD Ministry announcing an increase in fellowship for students who had cleared the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering last year. Before 30 days, the stipulated period for providing information under the RTI Act, the ministry released additional money to all IITs and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to increase the stipend.

Earlier, the research scholars got the University Grants Commission and the ministry moving on an RTI application on the increase in fellowship for Ph.D scholars enrolled under the UGC programme. Within a month of receiving the application, the UGC released Rs 2.14 crore. Till then, the IIT authorities had been blaming the UGC for not paying dues for three years. The UGC said IITs had failed to submit the utilisation certificates.

Intel's anti-trust troubles

Joe Nocera on A.M.D. and its war with Intel:

Let’s start with a simple question: Are discounts good or bad? When I put it like that, the answer is obvious: discounts are clearly good. They allow consumers to buy things at lower prices. Indeed, price competition is at the very heart of free-market capitalism, and it is the natural result of competition. It’s what we as a society want companies to do.

For as long as we’ve had antitrust laws in the United States, predatory pricing — pricing intended solely to prevent a rival from being able to compete — has been against the law. After all, if a big company drops its prices on a short-term basis to drive a smaller rival out of business — and then can raise prices with impunity because it has eradicated its competitor — consumers are ultimately harmed by the price cuts.

But our definition of predatory pricing has tended to vary over time. ...

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sam Bowles on policies designed for self-interested citizens

The title of his article -- Policies Designed for Self-Interested Citizens May Undermine "The Moral Sentiments": Evidence from Economic Experiments -- makes it clear where Samuel Bowles stands on the desirability of such policies. Here's the abstract:

High-performance organizations and economies work on the basis not only of material interests but also of Adam Smith's "moral sentiments." Well-designed laws and public policies can harness self-interest for the common good. However, incentives that appeal to self-interest may fail when they undermine the moral values that lead people to act altruistically or in other public-spirited ways. Behavioral experiments reviewed here suggest that economic incentives may be counterproductive when they signal that selfishness is an appropriate response; constitute a learning environment through which over time people come to adopt more self-interested motivations; compromise the individual's sense of self-determination and thereby degrade intrinsic motivations; or convey a message of distrust, disrespect, and unfair intent. Many of these unintended effects of incentives occur because people act not only to acquire economic goods and services but also to constitute themselves as dignified, autonomous, and moral individuals. Good organizational and institutional design can channel the material interests for the achievement of social goals while also enhancing the contribution of the moral sentiments to the same ends.

The paper itself is behind a paywall, but a popular science version is worth reading too:

A basic tenet of economics is that people always behave selfishly, or as the 18th century philosopher economist David Hume put it, "every man ought to be supposed to be a knave."

But what if some people aren't always knaves?

Sam Bowles argues in Science June 20 that economics will get it wrong then, sometimes badly so. He points to new experimental evidence that people do often act against their own personal self-interest in favor of the common good, and they do so in predictable, understandable ways. Poorly-designed economic institutions fail to take advantage of intrinsic moral behavior and often undermine it. .

Take this example: Six day care centers imposed a fine on parents who picked their children up late. The effect? Tardiness doubled, and it stayed high even when the fine was removed. Parents, it seems, stopped seeing lateness as an imposition on teachers, and instead saw it as something that could be purchased with no moral failing.

Another example is a study this year which showed that women donated blood less frequently when they were paid for it than when it was an act of charity.

These examples show that economists ignore human altruism at their peril.

In a post that may be of some relevance here, Dan Ariely comments on a recent story about "a new movement among doctors and hospitals to admit their mistakes rather than continue with the more traditional approach of denying and defending them"; the apparent benefit of this move is that these hospitals are sued less often! Here's Ariely:

... We live in two worlds. The first is governed by social norms, which generally implies that all parties involved share a level of trust and a general understanding that everybody will act with the best intentions, bearing in mind the well being of others in addition to their own. In this social world, small transgressions are usually acknowledged and both parties work together to respectfully fix the situation in a manner that does the least damage to the other. The second world is generally governed by market norms-things like contracts, numbers, and hard facts. In this world both parties tend to be so concerned with sticking to the terms outlined in a contract that the slightest transgression is treated without an ounce of empathy often causing it to evolve into something larger. After all it is a violation of the contract. In this world intentions do not matter and it is only actions that count-you are either fulfilling your contract or you are not.

I suspect that the doctors and the hospitals that have enacted these disclosure policies, have tapped into the power of operating in accordance with social norms so that both the doctor and the patient can work together to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evolution of the theory of evolution

Two very good articles: the shorter one, with a clear emphasis on Darwin's contributions, is by Olivia Judson, and the longer one, with some details about the prehistory of the idea of evolution is by Richard Conniff [via Jason Kottke].

The interest in Darwin and his big idea has been rekindled now because, as Judson explains,

... July 1, 2008, is the 150th anniversary of the first announcement of his discovery of natural selection, the main driving force of evolution. Since 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12), as well as being the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species” (Nov. 24), the extravaganza is set to continue until the end of next year. Get ready for Darwin hats, t-shirts, action figures, naturally selected fireworks and evolving chocolates. Oh, and lots of books and speeches.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A pre-history of WWW

Alex Wright of NYTimes has a story on Paul Otlet whose work in the pre-computer era of the 1930s is interesting simply because of its parallels with the present day web:

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or “electric telescopes,” as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a “réseau,” which might be translated as “network” — or arguably, “web.”

Historians typically trace the origins of the World Wide Web through a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. But more than half a century before Tim Berners-Lee released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet (pronounced ot-LAY) described a networked world where “anyone in his armchair would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.”

Although Otlet’s proto-Web relied on a patchwork of analog technologies like index cards and telegraph machines, it nonetheless anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. “This was a Steampunk version of hypertext,” said Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired ...

Some more on JEE cut-offs

Another title for this post: Some more on why JEE sucks.

Manoj Mitta of ToI does a great job of following up on his previous reports on the cut-off marks in JEE.

In his previous report, we found that the subject-wise cut-offs in JEE-2007 were as low as 1, 4 and 7 in math, physics and chemistry, respectively -- these were the marks scored by someone at the 20th percentile of the JEE takers in each exam. At that time, several commenters pointed out that meeting the cut-offs doesn't ensure that you will get a rank. At that time, I too wondered why the IITs chose such low cut-offs; if they are into selecting top students, the cut-offs should perhaps be at the 80th percentile, no?

With further revelations about the inner workings of JEE, it became clear that the IITs followed a two-stage process, with the first stage (based on the subject-wise cut-offs) short listed candidates, followed by the second stage which rank ordered them according to their total marks (I sitll don't know if this total is a simple sum or a weighted sum of the three marks).

But we still didn't have the answer to the key question: is it possible for someone with low marks in one of the subjects to still get a JEE rank (because of a stellar performance in one or both of the other subjects)? Thanks to Mitta's latest report, we now know the answer: yes, it is possible. Here's an example cited by Mitta:

Consider the case of the candidate who scored just 12 [or, 7 percent] in mathematics, a subject crucial to all engineering branches, and yet managed to get rank 3,989 on the strength of his aggregate of 239 marks.

Another candidate who got merely 12 more in mathematics and 6 more in the aggregate, however, jumped 590 rungs higher in the AIR list: his rank 3,399 was, according to the latest counselling browser published by IITs, good enough to secure admission in 2007 in IIT-Kanpur and IIT-Kharagpur.

Mitta opens his article with an understandably scathing remark:

... [I]f you score 7% in your Class XII mathematics paper, you fail. But if you score 7% in your IIT-JEE mathematics paper, you can still make it. That's exactly what happened in the 2007 entrance exam

Thanks to RTI, we now know more about the real state of JEE and its ranking procedure: they are a mess. Yogesh had a perceptive comment about it sometime ago:

IIT-JEE is supposed to test the logic of students, not that of examiners.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More links ...

Over at Tantu Jaal, Sunil Mukhi talks about reading Shakespeare at bed time. While you have to read Mukhi's post for the main story, I will highlight this 'aside' about short reads for bed time:

...[I]t's hard to figure out what to pick out of the shelf for a short bedtime read.

A newspaper would be the obvious choice, but there isn't any Indian newspaper that doesn't make me want to instantly throw up. The Hindustan Times, my last hope, has turned into a pathetic little tabloid. Yesterday it presented as *headline news* the fact that some assistant at a sports clothing store in Bombay tried to photograph a woman in the changing room using his mobile camera... leading of course in typical Indian fashion to (i) strictures against sporting goods stores, (ii) confiscation of all mobile phones in India, (iii) armour-plating all changing rooms, (iv) renaming the store in Marathi. The last one will, I'm sure, work best.

OK, I digressed. ...

* * *

And, Apurva is tickled by a bizarre search query that led someone to his blog.

Links ...

Mekhala points to A glimpse behind the masks of Dow; elsewhere on the latter site, Indra Sinha explains why he has joined Bhopalis in their fast for justice.

* * *

Over at Entertaining Research, Guru discusses a recent column by Pushpa Bhargava arguing that India's bureaucrats are wrong in their reliance on OPV for in polio eradication, because IPV is better. I'll let doctors and public health experts to chime in on this issue.

* * *

At Law and Other Things, Tarunabh links to an article by Sunita Narain about the use of lawsuits by corporates to "to threaten, intimidate and gag" individuals "and, in particular, professionals who refuse to prostitute their science to suit industry."

* * *

T.T. Ram Mohan at The Big Picture: Six new IITs -- Will 'merit' be a casualty?

Later in the piece, [Swagato Ganguly] indicates they may not have the requisite faculty either given the huge shortage of faculty.

What is the government to do? Should it wait until full-fledged campuses are set up and the country starts generating enough faculty? IIMA started off in a small building and with a small complement of faculty. So have the newer IIMs such as IIM (Indore). Over time, these problems came to be addressed. The point is: you get started, you muddle through for a while and then things start happening. I am optimistic about the new IITs and the contribution they can make.

* * *

Prashant alerts us about a study of mathematical achievement at grade school level in Orissa and Rajasthan; in a comparison against 51 countries, these states ended up at 42 and 46, respectively. More importantly, the study found evidence for very high inequality in these states, with "the difference between the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent in both states [being] among the highest in the world, next only to South Africa."

Friday, June 13, 2008

JEE-2006: Cut-off opportunities

Do read The Telegraph story about the conflicting versions given by the IIT-KGP authorities of how exactly they arrived at the ranking algorithm for JEE-2006; evidently, people who lost out under one of the (not-used) versions are challenging the results of that year's JEE (and they have lost the first stage of their battle in the Kolkata High Court). Here's the key part:

The cutoff marks for math, physics and chemistry — the three subjects tested in the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) —should have been 7, 4 and 6, respectively, in 2006 using the IITs’ stated formula.

But the institutes, in response to an earlier RTI application, had disclosed to parents that the cutoffs they used for the same subjects were 37, 48 and 55.

Clearing all three subject cutoffs entitles students to be considered for the final cutoff, based on their aggregate scores. Students with the top aggregates among those who have cleared all three subject cutoffs are selected to the IITs.

Thus, it appears that there were two filters: the first selected candidates who met the subject-wise cut-off marks, and the second ranked them based on their aggregates (it's not clear whether it was a simple or weighted sum of the three exam marks; probably the former). In 2006, the first filter used high cut-offs (if they were indeed 37, 48 and 55) which, clearly, would have promoted consistency over variability across the three subjects. In other words, it would pick someone who has scored reasonably high marks in each of the exams (say, 50, 60 and 70), over another who was a star in one subject but scored sub-par marks in another (say, 90, 65, and 45), even though the latter might have had a higher aggregate.

In 2007, IITs played it safe by choosing a very low subject-wise cut-off marks: in the single digits! In this scheme, the variability across the subjects wouldn't matter, as long as the candidate meets the aggregate cut-off.

All this is a great lesson in how one's "rank" depends not only on his/her performance (and luck!) on the day of the exam, but also on how the examining authority chooses to draw its line (over which even the authority does not have any control before the exam, since JEE is not a standardized exam with questions that are 'tested' on a representative population). This clearly puts a fairly big question mark over the sanctity of one's rank -- particularly for ranks beyond 1000.

And it's not clear why the IITs make a fetish out of it.

* * *

Many thanks to Pratik Ray for the pointer.

Links on regulations

When 'regulations' are on your mind, you end up seeing them all over the place, I suppose. First a couple of quotes:

  1. The moral of this story is that failure to regulate effectively isn’t just bad for consumers, it’s bad for business. [Paul Krugman, in his latest NYTimes column]

  2. ... successful markets need to be embedded in a larger set of man-made rules and governance structures. Markets need regulation, stabilization, and legitimation because they are not self-regulating, self-stabilizing, or self-legitimizing. The success of modern capitalism is due as much to the institutions that govern markets--political democracy above all--as it is to the power of markets themselves. [Dani Rodrik]

Recently, the subprime crisis (and the spectacular collapse of Bear Stearns) led to calls for regulations of the investment banking industry by the Fed. This flared up into a passionate debate among econ bloggers; as an outsider, I found the discussions quite educational. If you are interested, start with Mark Thoma, and Brad DeLong (and again), and follow the links.

Science Fiction Contest

Selva, The Scientific Indian, writes in to alert me about the latest edition of the science fiction contest. I think this is the third year of this contest. Check out the archives of Selva's site for the prize-winning entries from the previous two years.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nicholas Carr on the internet's effect on reading and thinking

His article is titled "Is Google making us stupid?" [via a strong recommendation from Guru]. Here's an excerpt:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Related reading: Seth Finkelstein's response using the "two cultures" framework to put some of Carr's stuff in perspective.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Regulating higher ed ...

Ravikiran Rao bemoans the snarky tone in my previous post on this topic, and asks me to address his point -- actually two points: (a) that 'regulations impose barriers to entry' and (b) 'they tend to penalize the honest the most.'

Without trying to offer a full blown defence of regulations, let me just state that any game involving multiple players requires rules, as well as someone to enforce them. In financial markets, for example, if a company wants to raise money by issuing debt instruments or shares, it has to obey all the rules formulated and enforced by a regulatory authority. One can't claim that this regulation is unnecessary or that it's a bad deal, without providing a better alternative.

Now, I don't need a degree in rocket science to realize that regulations are not costless; one of the costs, as Ravikiran says, is that they restrict entry. If I want to take my blog public and raise money through an IPO, I can't! While I might even agree that this is a bad outcome, I would accept it as a small price to pay for the kind of confidence and integrity markets get to enjoy because of SEBI's regulations.

Clearly, there is a huge spectrum -- from complete absence of regulations to totally brutal and draconian regulations that tie you up in knots -- to choose from, and what you choose depends on your political views.

Even for a given person with a given set of political views, the choice of regulations will depend on the kind of activity under discussion. Thus, I am happy that there is SEBI for IPOs; but I am also happy that there is no BEBI - a SEBI for blogs! One can't claim that these two cases belong to the same regulatory basket, and expect that claim to be taken seriously.

* * *

Let me now turn to higher education. There are colleges and universities on one side, and there are students (and their parents) on the other side. There is the society / government that stands to benefit from an effective system of higher education. What should be the rules of this game? Who should formulate and enforce them, and how? What are the principles that the regulator could use while choosing from among many possible (kinds of) rules?

Many possible regulatory regimes are possible, and I like the framework outlined by Satya over at his Education in India blog. He recommends separating the three functions of UGC, and farm them out to three sets of organizations; the first set -- regulators -- would formulate and enforce rules about the minimum standards that must be met by an institution to begin and continue its operations. The second set -- accreditors -- would take care of rating the institutions on all academically and financially relevant parameters. And finally, the third set -- funding agency -- will take care of providing funds according to norms such as the number of students, number of teachers, etc.

The first two functions -- regulation and accreditation -- have a parallel in the financial world: SEBI and credit rating agencies such as CRISIL. As Satya says, this model has been proved to be effective in the financial markets, and he makes a persuasive case to show that they are the right way to go for education markets as well.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta also has a series of op-eds (Part I, Part II, Part III) critiquing the model of higher education that India has chosen, and how it can get out of the rut that it finds itself in.

Finally, let me turn to one particular model of self-regulation for higher education. In this model, some of our leading institutions can come together and form an association -- a very selective club, something like the Ivy League! -- with strict entry criteria. To the extent that this club is seen as prestigious, others would want to become a member, and the club can wield its rule book (which sets forth parameters on selection of students, transparent functioning, teacher qualifications and achievement levels, research component, etc) to ask them to prove that they do indeed deserve entry.

Such a thing does not exist in India. Yet. But, I don't see why reputed private institutions -- such as BITS -- can't take the lead and create such a club.

* * *

Well, there are all kinds of ideas that people have floated, and many of them are worth considering seriously. They all take regulations as a fact of life, and then focus on weeding out the bad kind of regulations, and strengthening the good kind. There are many ways of participating in this discussion, and if one is lucky, one may even end up influencing the course of policy-making.

It's also possible to sit at one extreme end of the ideological spectrum, and insist that all regulations are bad for all activities -- blogging and higher education, for example, without giving any consideration to the substantive differences in these two enterprises (especially the costs). If Ravikiran wants to do that, fine; but then he cannot demand that his views be given some weight in a discussion about real-world regulations. What good is it to us when his argument is, simply, that all regulations are bad -- no ifs or buts?

* * *

Perhaps, I should take this opportunity to point out -- Gently. Very, very gently. -- the snark implicit in his first post, where he said "Bzzt. Already answered. Next question please," and linked to a loooong post about the undesirability of regulating blogs, with an end-note saying, effectively, "Gotcha. Now what if I say 'blogs=education'?"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Links ...

Alex Tabarrok finds a lesson on sampling errors in Elizabeth Pisani's Wisdom of Whores.

Whatever happened to our President's request for an all-girls IIT at Amravati, her (former) constituency? Here's an update with an interesting spin on what's going on.

A Bihar story from BBC: Termites feast on trader's money. Hat tip: iisc life, who pointed out recently that anarchism outbreak is an anagram for Soumen Chakrabarti!

Book tag: Page 123

I've been tagged by Surya, and the rules are:

Get the book closest to you. Open the book to page 123.Count to line five. Write the next three lines. Tag five people and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

I have done a similar tag before, but here it is anyway:

She was hanging her clothes dry on a nylon rope strung across the length of her flat. I had flown in from New York a day earlier, and was meeting her after a gap of almost two years.

Wow, taken completely out of context, this stuff sounds corny! It's from Namita Devidayal's The Music Room ["This is the story of three great musicians. Two became India's most legendary singers. One remained unknown"]. And it's not from page 123 which is empty, but from the next text-ful page, 125.

I haven't read the book yet, but I know Guru has some great things to say about it.

Here's the author intro:

Namita Devidayal was born in 1968. She graduated from Princeton University and is a journalist with The Times of India. She lives in Mumbai.

And here's the book's blurb:

When Namita is ten, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighbourhood in Mumbai, home to hookers and dance girls. Ther in a cramped one room flat lives Dhonduttai with her bedridden mother and their widowed landlady.

Little does Namita know that despite her squalid surroundings, Dhonduttai has inherited riches of a different sort. For she is the only remaining student of the finest singers of the Jaipur Gharana: of the legendary Alladiya Khan and of the great songbird, Kesarbhai Kerkar. Dhonduttai is the keeper of all the gharana's secrets and of their rarest and most unusual compositions. And yet for all her devotion to music, and a lifetime of training with the best teachers, she herself never achieved fame.

Namita begins to learn singing from Dhonduttai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhonduttai sees in her a second Kesar, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline like her teacher? Or will there always be too many late nights and cigarettes?

The Music Room is the story of Namita and her teacher, of the charismatic Alladiya Khan who was unable to pass all of his knowledge to his sons, and of the foul mouthed, capricious and bewitching Kesarbhai. At its heart is Dhonduttai, a character half tragic, half victorious: shy, diffident yet full of single-minded determination. Beautifully written, full of anecdotes, gossip and legend, The Music Room is a stunning book.

And no, I'm not tagging anyone. I know I'm violating one of the rules, but the tag stops here ...

Monday, June 09, 2008

Regulating higher ed in India

Just a quick follow-up to this post from yesterday.

Increasing the supply of higher ed opportunities is the first idea that comes to mind; but it's not enough if the increase in supply means more of the same. In fact, there are signs that point to an oversupply of college seats in engineering and the sciences. All the clamor that we see (in terms of low strike rates in JEE, for example) is for "quality" education, which is available only in a small fraction of institutions. An important challenge is to improve the quality levels -- by coming up with the right incentives -- at existing institutions.

Another route -- which could be very effective in these days of oversupply -- is to give more power to the other stake-holders in an institution. One idea is to make it mandatory for all colleges and universities to disclose a whole lot of information on their website (as well as on the website of regulatory bodies): not just the bland stuff like degree programs and courses, but also the qualifications and achievements of their faculty, academic infrastructure, fee structure (with no hidden levies), graduation rates, pass percentage in individual courses, campus recruitment record, accreditation, (anything else?), etc. This will arm the potential students with data that they can use in making a truly informed choice.

It is a sad fact that our regulators continue to use age-old and dysfunctional methods of collecting useless information and filing it all away in their dusty corridors. And they haven't even woken up to the potential of the world wide web! In this day and age, it's amazing -- and frustrating -- to see so little useful information on so many of our universities' websites.

Another idea is for CII, FICCI or ASSOCHAM to advise their members to avoid visiting campuses of those colleges that lack a rating from a recognized, independent (and possibly private) accreditation agency.

While these ideas may help put some of the bad elements out of business (or make them mend their ways), the basic question still remains: why are good folks -- rich people who want to leave a legacy through philanthropy -- not able to start (or to help others in starting) high quality educational institutions? Which part of our regulatory structure poses an obstacle to such wonderful people?

* * *

In a curious response to my post, Ravikiran Rao points to an earlier post that draws an analogy between blogs and educational institutions. In particular, it should be easy for people to start educational institutions -- just as it is easy for people to start blogs. You have heard about the death of set-up costs, haven't you?

Students will be able to discover for themselves where the good institutions are, and they will flock to them -- just like readers discover good blogs now. Death of transaction costs, too!

Ravikiran Rao seems very confident that he has found a clever solution to our higher ed problems.

Just imagine the possibilities of this wonderfully costless world: our students will be able to sample a whole bunch of colleges / courses for two minutes each. Or, they'll just need to discover one or two good colleges, which will point them to many other similarly good colleges. After these initial steps, they can settle down on, say, several tens of colleges, and take courses in them. If they don't like a course after a month or so, they can just dump it and take another course at another college.

See, higher ed nirvana can be achieved as easily as blogutopia was ...

Serotonin: Neurochemistry of perception of fairness

It has been known for a while that people who have taken (through nasal administration, for example) oxytocin are less fearful and more trusting.

Here's an interesting finding about the effect of serotonin:

In [the ultimatum game], a proposal is made to the subject to unevenly split a sum of money. If the subject accepts, both parties get paid; if the proposition is rejected, both walk away with nothing.

Typically, people reject lowball offers of 20 to 30 percent of the total sum -- but those with depleted serotonin turned down amounts as high as 80 percent of the total. Researchers note that their moods did not change -- only their behavior -- meaning their perception of "fairness" became severely skewed.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Let's start with the perfect exam paper.

Sean Carroll: The purpose of Harvard is not to educate people.

T.T. Ram Mohan: Can management gurus manage? [and more].

Ray Fisman: The 100 dollar distraction device: Why giving poor kids laptops doesn't improve their scholastic performance.

Tom Slee: Avoid the average: A tale of two op-eds.

Finally, a conversation between a (wannabe) autocratic ancestor and his defiant descendant.

To all those who keep whining about government monopoly on higher education

... here's news for you:

Even without a legislation during the the 10th Plan, the share of private unaided higher education institutions increased from 42.6% in 2001 to 63.21% in 2006.

Their share of enrolments also increased from 32.89% to 51.53% in the same period.

Our current problem is not that there are no private players, but that they have among them too many crooks, politicians and thugs whose primary motive is demonstrably something other than education. So the real issue is this: What changes do we need in our higher ed regulatory structure so as to attract the 'right' sort of private players -- philanthropists -- in larger numbers? And, how do we keep the undesirable sorts out?

Jesse Larner reads Hayek

After reading Larner's piece in Dissent, I have a strong urge to read Hayek's Road to Serfdom. Larner's article is worth reading in full, but let me just highlight the section where he gives his reasons for reading Hayek:

I try to keep abreast of right-wing thought, so I’d been aware of Hayek for a long time, and aware of his status in certain circles. Recently I decided I should study his work, much as, in my twenties, I decided I really ought to read the Bible. Influential, whether I like it or not.

He moves quickly to offer a summary of his findings:

Hayek was a surprise, in several ways. He’s nowhere near as extreme as his ideological descendants. He admits that there are a few rare economic circumstances in which market forces cannot deliver the optimum result, and that when these occur, the state may legitimately intervene. He recognizes such a thing as the social interest and will even endorse some limited redistributionalism—he goes so far as to suggest that the state ensure a minimum standard of living, an idea that surely embarrasses the good folks at Cato. Politically, Hayek is not the cynic I had braced for. Plainly, transparently—and in stark contrast to many modern conservative intellectuals—he is a man concerned with human freedom. One of the unexpected things in Road is that he writes with passion against class privilege.

Related reading: Will Wilkinson endorses liberaltarianism, a combination or synthesis of (welfare) liberalism and libertarianism.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Infant internet's first breath

Leonard Kleinrock: September 2, 1969, is when the first I.M.P. was connected to the first host, and that happened at U.C.L.A. We didn’t even have a camera or a tape recorder or a written record of that event. I mean, who noticed? Nobody did. Nineteen sixty-nine was quite a year. Man on the moon. Woodstock. Mets won the World Series. Charles Manson starts killing these people here in Los Angeles. And the Internet was born. Well, the first four everybody knew about. Nobody knew about the Internet.

So the switch arrives. Nobody notices. However, a month later, Stanford Research Institute gets their I.M.P., and they connect their host to their switch. Think of a square box, our computer, connected to a circle, which is the I.M.P., 5, 10 feet away. There’s another I.M.P. 400 miles north of us in Menlo Park, basically at Stanford Research Institute. And there’s a high-speed line connecting those two. We are now prepared to connect two hosts together over this fledgling network.

So on October 29, 1969, at 10:30 in the evening, you will find in a log, a notebook log that I have in my office at U.C.L.A., an entry which says, “Talked to SRI host to host.” If you want to be, shall I say, poetic about it, the September event was when the infant Internet took its first breath.

From this absolutely fascinating oral history of the internet put together by Vanity Fair's Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb.

It's full of interesting little things -- trivia -- like this one about's early days:

When we launched, we launched with over a million titles. There were countless snags. One of my friends figured out that you could order a negative quantity of books. And we would credit your credit card and then, I guess, wait for you to deliver the books to us. We fixed that one very quickly.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Indians studying abroad

Check out this wonderful table with data on international student mobility, with a country-wise break-up for in-coming and out-going students. Where do Indian students go? Here are the figures for 2005:

UK 16,685
New Zealand1,563

One of the more interesting pieces of information in that table is about the recepient countries. If you normalize the number of foreign students in a country by its overall population, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and New Zealand score higher than the US! For example, UK has about a fifth of the population of the US, but hosts over half as many foreign students (318,000) as does the US (590,000).

* * *

There has been quite a bit of discussion in the press about how the US has not been the preferred destination for IIT graduates; here's the latest. Apparently, before 2001, over a third of them went to the US (primarily for higher studies, I think); this number has been dropping steadily, with 84 percent of the 2008 graduates choosing to stay in India.

IIT graduates may be saying no to the US, but a whole lot of others are saying yes, and their number is increasing by the year! This Boston Globe report says that the number of Indian students in the US has doubled in the last decade to over 83,000 last year. If recent numbers prove durable, over 70,000 of them would be in graduate schools.

The same Boston Globe report goes on to say that the University of Southern California is home to the largest foreign student population -- over 7,100 -- among the US universities. Indians alone account for over 1,500 of them. To put this number in perspective, consider this:

More than 1,500 Indian citizens are full-time students at USC, only about 100 fewer than the number of black students at the school.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Gender gap in math: "In more gender-equal societies, girls perform as well as boys in mathematics."

Here's a short paper by Luigi Guiso, Ferdinando Monte, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales: DIVERSITY: Culture, Gender, and Math (subscription may be required to access the full paper). Its abstract is short, straight and fabulous:

Analysis of PISA results suggests that the gender gap in math scores disappears in countries with a more gender-equal culture.

Here's a key section from the paper:

We find a positive correlation between gender equality and gender gap in mathematics (fig. S5). If Turkey, a low gender-equality country (GGI = 0.59), were characterized by the degree of gender equality manifested in Sweden (GGI = 0.81), our statistical model suggests that the mean score performance in mathematics of girls relative to boys would increase by 23 points, which would eliminate the Turkish gender gap in math (see table, p. 1165). In more gender-equal countries, such as Norway and Sweden, the math gender gap disappears. Similar results are obtained when we use the other indicators of women's roles in society. These results are true not only at the mean level, but also in the tail of the distribution (table S3). In Iceland, the ratio of girls to boys who score above the 99th percentile of the country distribution in math scores is 1.17.

There are many unobserved reasons why countries may differ in a way that affects the math gender gap. Without appropriate controls, we run the risk of capturing a spurious correlation between the unobserved factors and our measures of gender equality. We reran our regression at the student level, inserting a dummy variable for each country, to control for unobserved heterogeneity (table S4). The interaction between gender and GGI index remains statistically significant at the 1% confidence level in a two-tailed t test, which suggests that the correlation between gender equality and girls'math scores is not driven by unobserved heterogeneity. This interaction between gender gap and GGI remains significant even when we insert an interaction between gender and log of GDP per capita, which suggests that the improvement in math scores is not just related to economic development, but to the improvement of the role of women in society.

Over at Women in Science blog, Peggy has a post with related links.

* * *

Bonus link for the day. Jill U. Adams: Nurturing women scientists. Here's an interesting finding from Princeton, and the university's response:

When the Princeton survey team looked beyond the quantitative data, one thing they found was that women were less likely to request extensions of tenure for childbirth than were men. "Now this is really odd, right?" Girgus said. "When we asked people to comment, they said things like: we don't know if it's okay to ask for it, we're afraid we'll be seen as less serious, we're afraid we'll be penalized in the tenure consideration."

Princeton's response? Make the extension of the tenure clock automatic. When a tenure-track faculty member, male or female, brings a new child home, the dean of faculty sends a letter with a new tenure date and a book for the baby, said Girgus.

Buckminster Fuller

Elizabeth Kolbert' profile of the architect-inventor is a pretty nice overview of the man, his inventions and his quirks. Here's an excerpt from the section where Fuller's geodesic dome makes its first appearance:

Following this string of disappointments, Fuller might have decided that his “experiment” had run its course. Instead, he kept right on going. Turning his attention to mathematics, he concluded that the Cartesian coördinate system had got things all wrong and invented his own system, which he called Synergetic Geometry. Synergetic Geometry was based on sixty-degree (rather than ninety-degree) angles, took the tetrahedron to be the basic building block of the universe, and avoided the use of pi, a number that Fuller found deeply distasteful. By 1948, Fuller’s geometric investigations had led him to the idea of the geodesic dome—essentially, a series of struts that could support a covering skin. That summer, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where some of the other instructors included Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. (“I remember thinking it’s Bucky Fuller and his magic show,” Cunningham would later recall of Fuller’s arrival.) Toward the end of his stay, Fuller and a team of students assembled a trial dome out of Venetian-blind slats. Immediately upon being completed, the dome sagged and fell in on itself. (Some of the observers referred to it as a “flopahedron.”) Fuller insisted that this outcome had been intentional—he was, he said, trying to determine the critical point at which the dome would collapse—but no one seems to have believed this. The following year, Anne Fuller sold thirty thousand dollars’ worth of I.B.M. stock to finance Bucky’s continuing research, and in 1950 he succeeded in erecting a dome fifty feet in diameter.

Monday, June 02, 2008

OBC students' performance in JEE-2008

In the previous post, I noted that there were 1134 OBC students among the 8652 rank-holders in this year's JEE.

In the absence of detailed data from the IITs, all we have got are bits of information. Here's a news report (which is supposed to have been sourced from DNA, but I could not locate it on the DNA site [Update: found it!]), which claims that all the 1,134 rank-holders from the OBC category are in the "open merit list". It goes on to quote some IIT official:

This is 14.35% of the general category. 8,652 candidates have qualified to seek admission to 6,872 seats available. Last year, 13.74% OBC candidates had made it to the IITs without reservation.

“The OBC candidates have secured good ranks and all are in the common merit list,” said a JEE official.

“So, a relaxed criterion may not need to be invoked for them.”

Now, the figure of 14.35% is wrong; 1134 out of 8652 comes out to 13.1 percent. More substantively, the last statement is confusing because iffy statements (such as "may not need to") are meaningless when the results are already known -- either a relaxed criterion was used, or it was not!

Anyways, I think the following interpretation is reasonable: Since the overall quantum of OBC reservation (X percent -- I think X is 9 -- in existing IITs and 27 percent in the six new IITs) works out to a number smaller than 13.1 percent (and since OBC students already form 13.1 percent of the JEE rank-holders) there was no need to invoke a relaxation in the cut-off marks for OBC students.

Is this interpretation correct?

[Here's yet another bit: I found a blog post that says that someone with an overall rank of 2902 has an OBC rank of 367. Thus, about 12.5 percent of the top 3000 ranks belong to OBCS.]

The news report says that on the first of August, the IITs will make all the JEE-related information public on their website. We'll have to wait until then ...