Saturday, February 28, 2009

Prize proliferation

Here's the description of research interests of Prof. X:

[Prof. X's] research focuses on deviance and social problems. His current research concerns awards, prizes, and honors in American culture.

That juicy quote is from the web page of Prof. Joel Best whose recent paper is entitled: Prize Proliferation: A Social Worlds Perspective. This paper addresses this issue: "Prize proliferation is a common theme within contemporary culture. How can we account for this pattern?"

The paper is fun, and not too long. If you want an even shorter version, go read SocProf's summary.

From Best's article filled with all kinds of interesting insights, I learned a new phrase: symbolic inflation. This is how it's defined by Orrin Klapp:

Inflation occurs when the supply of tokens in a social market place outstrips the supply of values for which tokens stand. . . . if an army wished to give out more medals as an incentive to heroism, and the material from which medals were made was cheap, it would be easy to greatly increase the supply of tokens. But since heroism is a rare thing, and calls for extraordinary courage, the supply of that value is inelastic, so increasing the number of medals given out will not “purchase” more heroism but only cheapen the medals, . . . that is, inflate them.

Trillion dollar blog

Welcome to my first blog post at the Office of Management and Budget.

In this blog, I want to open up OMB even more to the public and share with you what we’re doing to address the many challenges that we face as a nation. I know that, for many people, blogs are the easiest way of receiving information – so this blog may prove to be useful even if it simply provides a convenient way of keeping up with information from OMB that is already available in other formats. President Obama is committed to ensuring a direct link between citizens and our federal government. Especially in light of our difficult economic times, I am committed to ensuring that OMB’s work is accessible. Although OMB is extensively discussed in the media and elsewhere, the blog will allow me to communicate and explain our work directly.

That's from the first post by Peter Orszag, Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.

The Supreme Court's apocalyptic judgement that would end blogging as we know it

You can read it here.


Nisha Susan on the Pink Chaddi campaign

Susan, one of the women behind the Pink Chaddi campaign, has a column in Tehelka: Valentine's Warriors: Why it began and how [Hat tip: Mekie]. Here's a short extract:

Did we anticipate the response we got? No. Within a day of starting the campaign we had 500 odd members. In a week we hit 40,000. From Puerto Rico to Singapore, from Chennai to Ahmedabad, from Guwahati to Amritsar, people wrote to us, how do I send my chaddis? But by then the campaign had gone offline. Elderly men and women, schoolchildren, middle-aged housewives, gravelly-voiced big men from Bihar who did not quite want to say the word chaddi aloud called us. The Sene called us on the numbers we had helpfully left online demanding, “Who is your leader?” How satisfying it was to say that we had none. How satisfying that young people offered their homes as collection points, bravely allowing their addresses to be published online. How satisfying that the crazies and conspiracy theorists were outnumbered ten to one by hilarious stories. Were you the one who told us that a famous Bollywood lyricist had written a song for the gulabi chaddi? Or were you the one who sent us the Amul ads featuring the pink chaddi? Or were you one of the Mumbai housewives gravely posing with underwear? Or the biker who created a miniature pink chaddi to tie on your handlebars?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Established: SERB

R. Ramachandran has a great Frontline story on the politics behind the recent establishment of the Science and Engineering Research Board.

First, the good news:

For the SERB’s 2009-10 budget, Ramasami proposes to double the amount that was disbursed by the SERC for projects during 2008-09, which means the Board will have an initial budget of about Rs.600 crore for 2009-10.

Now, the politics. SERB will be managed by a committee whose composition speaks for itself:

The approved SERB structure will have up to a maximum of 16 members and will include the Secretaries of the DST (who will also be the Board chairperson), the DBT, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), the Department of Health Research (DHR) and the Department of Expenditure in the Ministry of Finance (or his/her nominee), the Member-Secretary of the Planning Commission, and up to three members each to be appointed by the government from academic institutions, government research laboratories and other socio-economic sectors including industry. The Board, in consultation with the government, will also appoint an eminent scientist as its Secretary.

The Board will have an Oversight Committee of Experts (OCE), with quite a few scientists in it. But Ramachandran points out that while the OCE has the scientists, "it is only the Board [SERB] that has the powers to take decisions."

Here's another piece of the politics:

“The scientific community is not homogeneous,” pointed out a DST official. “There are camps and lobby groups and even sycophancy. After all, the Secretaries of the scientific departments are also scientists of calibre in their own right,” he added. Apparently, some scientists have pointed out that at least in the SERC there was a level playing field but in the SERB, funding might become vulnerable to the pressures from the Oversight Committee. “It would have been even worse if it had been left entirely to the scientists,” the official, who did not wish to be named, remarked.

There's a lot more in there for students of politics and sociology of science. Go read all of it.

Is Bangalore safe for women?

After the Mangaluru pub attack, it appears to be Bengaluru's turn, with several reported attacks -- at least two of them in broad daylight -- in public spaces and in the presence of quite a few witnesses / bystanders.

In what appears to be inspired by the pub attack in Mangalore, three women have been attacked in the city over the past week. All three in their 20s and in “western clothing” were subject to varying degrees of violence....

This is how brazen the attackers in one incident were:

“When I said I would call the police, one of them offered me his mobile phone and told me to go right ahead."

Here's a first person account of another victim. [Hat tip to the Pink Chaddi campaign for all the links].

The title of this post may appear a little over the top, but let me just give a short extract from Prem Panicker's post:

No, seriously: what has the police and the state done to those involved in the Mangalore pub attacks? Arrested them for show, and let them loose again when your back was turned. What do you expect the Bangalore police to do about this latest atrocity? The same. It is not in a political party’s interests to restrain goons who nominally owe it allegiance, even if it disagrees with their actions [And while on that, have you heard of any major political party or leader coming forward to condemn these attacks?]

Now go read Prem's post. All of it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Links: Gender difference edition

Amrita Rajan on Hollywood movie villainy:

Male villains get cool names, all the chicks they can bang, and fly around the world like the billionaires they frequently are; female villains are typically the mom or the wife from hell, nobody loves them much less wants to bang them, and all their plotting and planning usually leaves them with a wrinkly face.

Chee. Who’d want to be a female villain?

Wray Herbert: Stigma: His and Hers: gender differences in stereotyping of mental illness:

[The psychologists] had a group of volunteers, mostly in their 40s, read a case history of a person with mental illness. Some read about Brian, who was a stereotypical alcoholic, while others read about Karen, who showed all the classical symptoms of major depression. Still others read switched-around versions of these cases, so that Karen was the one abusing alcohol and Brian was depressed. The idea was to see if the typicality of Brian and Karen’s symptoms (or lack of it) shaped the volunteers’ reactions and judgments.

And it did, without question. As reported in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers expressed more anger and disgust—and less sympathy—toward Brian the alcoholic than toward Karen the alcoholic, and vice versa for depression. They were also more willing to help Brian and Karen when they suffered from an atypical disorder. Most striking of all, the volunteers were much more likely to view the Brain’s depression (and Karen’s alcoholism) as genuine biological disorders—rather than character defects or matters of personal irresponsibility. What this suggests is that stigma-busting campaigns might profit by putting a different face on these mental disorders—and perhaps others as well.

Finally, gender differences in sinning (or, at the least, confessions of sins), as unearthed by the Vatican:

According to a new Vatican study, Roman Catholic men and women sin differently.

The study was based on confessions taken by Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit scholar. The results were supported by the Catholic Church.

Father Jim Martin, an associate editor for America Magazine, ...says that the most common sin among women was pride, while lust topped the list for men — or at least, that's what churchgoers actually owned up to.

"You read the survey, and you could also interpret it as those are the sins they confess more," Martin says. "Which may not mean that they're actually sinning in that way, but those are the sins they confess most often to confessors."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Let me try again ...

Caution: this is about the same editorial in Mint that I ranted about in the previous post. You have been warned.

There were some things in that editorial -- its faux-sympathy for women's issues, its dismissive, mocking tone at the end, and other things (see below) -- which made me sense an anti-women bias in it. Here's my attempt to explain what those things are.

* * *

First, here's Mint's "critique" of the Pink Chaddi campaign:

1. The pink-bloomer war against the moral police managed a victory of sorts, but failed to raise the issue that gender injustice in India goes beyond pub-going and Valentine’s Day. [This is followed by several paragraphs with statistics about women's status in Indian society, without referring once to the Pink Chaddi campaign].

2. [The atrocious last paragraph which doesn't deserve to be elevated to the status of a "critique"; it betrays a certain callous attitude towards crimes against women.]

3. [At the end of the article, the editorial poses this question, and seeks readers' response] Did the women-in-pubs controversy grab headlines at the cost of more pressing gender issues?

Well, here's my case -- or, six different versions of my case:

  1. The business case: By any yardstick, getting 50,000+ people to support a movement in less than 10 days is an amazing feat. That the Pink Chaddi campaign used its ideas, people, technology and resources so well to beat back -- using chaddis as their non-violent weapon -- a bunch of violent street thugs is a huge achievement. A clear victory for peaceful protest. For innovative thinking. For the mobilizing ability of those who put this campaign together. For women. And also for men who are not Muthalik, SRS goons or their supporters.

    Mint cannot even bring itself to recognize this achievement. It calls it, grudgingly, "a victory of sorts." Why?

  2. The business newspaper case: Business newspapers thrive on dissecting a success story, extracting the key takeaways (lessons in management!), and peddling them to unsuspecting management types readers.

    Mint, on the other hand, does something strange with the success of the Pink Chaddi campaign: it frames it as a failure! This alleged failure is interesting: it's not a failure to achieve the stated goals, but a failure to do other things -- specifically, a failure "to raise the issue that gender injustice in India goes beyond pub-going and Valentine’s Day." It doesn't matter to Mint that this was a 10-day old campaign aimed at solving a short term problem.

    Why does Mint, a business newspaper, dive into this success story looking for failure?

  3. The Updike rule case: John Updike's first rule for reviewing a book is this: "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt." [In the academic world of peer review, this rule is restated as follows: "don't write the paper for the authors."]

    Mint fails the Updike test when it complains that the 10-day long Pink Chaddi campaign failed to raise the centuries-old issue of gender injustice. Why should such a huge burden be placed on a group that's fighting against a gang that threatened women with imminent violence?

    [BTW, this is a critique of the internal logic of the Mint editorial. In other words, its conclusion is invalid even if its premise is valid. But I don't think the premise -- that the Pink Chaddi campaign and the issues of gender justice are two separate things -- is valid. See below.]

  4. The freedom case: The Pink Chaddi movement is about women's freedom to pursue their interests and hobbies -- including pub-going.

    Mint misrepresents the campaign by painting it as exclusively about pub-going; in fact, Mint accuses the campaign of not going "beyond pub-going and Valentine’s Day."


  5. The management case: It doesn't take much to see the relationship between achieving gender justice and the Pink Chaddi campaign. If the former is the mission, the latter is a tactic.

    Mint talks about them as if they are distinct; it asks its readers, "Did the women-in-pubs controversy grab headlines at the cost of more pressing gender issues?"

    Why does Mint try to create the impression ("at the cost of" is the key phrase here) that the two things are mutually exclusive?

    [Consider the Tylenol recall. When the executives took various actions to deal with the crisis, would a Mint editorial scream at them? "But all your efforts are taking the attention away from the company's long-term mission!"].

  6. The jumping-to-conclusion case: Many women who enthusiastically supported this campaign have been long time activists fighting for gender justice -- some of them blog here. They are in this for the long haul; and they can be expected to use the success of the Pink Chaddi campaign for mobilizing new supporters for their cause.

    Mint insinuates that the women's groups will declare victory and go home -- or, rather, go back to the pub and get drunk, because it thinks that this campaign is just about pub-going.

    Why does Mint try so hard to portray the campaign as a frivolous effort by non-serious people whose sole interest is in getting drunk in pubs?

* * *

I have to wonder how much of what Mint has written is because the Pink Chaddi campaign was conceived, designed, implemented and marketed by women.

Just consider the novelty of it all, the savvy use of social networks, and the very viral marketing. Throw in the right kind of mid-course corrections -- for example, the campaign changed the blog's header image because its organizer had "no interest in annoying people or upsetting people's religious beliefs." These are all examples of great organization and management.

But the Mint editorialists are grudging in their praise -- "a victory of sorts". Worse, they locate the source of the campaign's successful "spill into the real world" elsewhere -- "the speed of the internet" -- rather than in the tech-savviness and organizational abilities of the campaign's leaders.

Instead, the Mint folks are overly keen to frame the campaigners as one-shot wonders and frivolous pub-goers. They are unwilling to wait to see how the movement proceeded after the Valentine's Day, because they seem to have concluded that the campaigners are a bunch of non-serious hobbyists who don't care about the 'serious' issues of gender equity, and that their only interest is in pub-going! They place the short-term, highly focused campaign within a frame of failure using the "failure to work towards gender justice" trope. [And don't even get me started on that last paragraph ...].

* * *

Does the editorial, then, represent?

A one-off mis-speak at Mint?

Anti-women bias at the business broadsheet?

Misogyny at Mint?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Someone is wrong on the internet ...

... and that someone is the editorial team at Mint.

Mint carried an editorial today on the Pink Chaddi campaign to name and shame the bunch of thugs who issued a threat to women's safety. Remember, the threat was a credible one, as it was made immediately after a violent crime in Mangalore. The Pink Chaddi campaign was successful in shining a bright spotlight on those violent thugs. I think it can take some of the credit when they called a halt to their 'plans' for the Valentine's Day -- at least in some parts of the state.

The rest of this post is a addressed directly to the editors.

* * *

WTF, Mint Editors? I really, really mean it. WTF?

In the first of your two accusations, you say that the Pink Chaddi campaign has "failed to raise the issue that gender injustice in India goes beyond pub-going and Valentine's Day."

Tell me, how does fighting a clear and imminent threat to women's safety somehow preclude a battle for broader gender justice? Why should it? By the same token, why should the longer term battle against entrenched inequity come in the way of a short term protest aimed at thwarting a mob that issued a specific threat -- in the here and now?

I'm sure you'll agree that the long term battle against gender inequity needs all the help it needs, and therefore, it'll benefit from a diversity of approaches and tactics. Doesn't it then follow that this hugely successful campaign has opened up an important new way of fighting that battle? Is it so difficult to see that this success can be translated to other situations? Also, isn't it valuable that it has probably brought a certain awareness about gender issues to a lot of people?

An implicit assumption in your editorial is that the Pink Chaddi campaign is a one shot deal. That the groups behind it, having achieved some measure of success, will just go to a life of pub-going comfort, and forget the larger battle. Is there any evidence to support this assumption? On the contrary, the main group behind that campaign has already issued a call for its next action: This is Indian Culture.

Towards the end of your editorial, you offer your second 'critique':

The speed of the internet let [the Pink Chaddi campaign] spill into the real world. It's a pity that nobody thought of such measures when a management student in the National capital region was gangraped a few months ago. How about having a "Consortium of Rape-revolting, Angry and Ambitious Women" that would twitter through the year against gender injustices rather than just support sporadic sentiments?

Shame on you!

Shame on you for exploiting a horrible crime for your silly purpose of belittling a successful campaign. Shame on you for conflating this crime (with an identifiable victim) with the threat issued by a powerful mob to endanger the safety and dignity of a large number women.

And shameonyou, shameonyou, shameonyou for using a crime to beat up on women's groups, when your newspaper has not even bothered to report on that very crime.

[Yes, I checked. Again. And again. And yes, your pathetic little sermon set me off on this morbid search.]

You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Oscar zeitgeist

Washington Post's Amy Argetsinger:

... Spanish actress Penélope Cruz ... delivered the first of the night's many heavily accented acceptance speeches.

Guardian's Catherine Shoard:

Brits also did well in other categories. [...]

The Hindu:

The Mozart of Madras, A.R. Rahman bagged two of the coveted statuettes for Original Score and Best Song for Jai Ho ... Slumdog [Millionaire] also won ... [bold emphasis added]

And, yes, all these quotes have been taken out of context. '-)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Links ...

  1. Law and Other Things: Another instance of the pathology of caste, a guest post by Chandan Gowda, National Law School, Bangalore.
  2. Kafila: Caste/Gender in a Poem by Varavara Rao
  3. Zuska: When Women Get Together Outside The Kitchen, It Must Be To Plot Against Men
  4. Jaya Jha: Why do I have to feel apologetic that I did not like Slumdog Millionaire :)
  5. Clive Crook's review of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller

Stephen Quake: The Absurdly Artificial Divide Between Pure and Applied Research

Another nice guest post at The Wild Side. He illustrates a key point using an example from his own career:

practical problems can be equally compelling as fundamental ones, and often lead in turn to the discovery of new fundamental science. In particular, there is an intimate connection between the invention of new technology and its application to scientific discovery. My own research has certainly benefited from this interplay. Although I was trained to do pure physics (my doctorate is in theoretical physics) at a certain point I became interested in developing new measurement technology.

I began developing microfluidic chips, which is the technical name for what I like to call small plumbing. Eventually my collaborators and I figured out how to make small chips that had thousands of miniature valves on them — and I realized that we had invented the biological equivalent of the integrated circuit. Instead of a silicon chip with wires and transistors, we built rubber chips with channels and valves. This seemed like a universal tool with which we could automate and expand biology, just as the integrated circuit automated and expanded computation and mathematics.

After a serendipitous meeting with the structural biologist James Berger, I decided to focus on protein crystallization as an application — it seemed like a logical choice and there would be substantial engineering economies of scale that one could achieve. What we eventually stumbled on was in fact a rich playground of very basic problems surrounding the physics of crystallization, some of which continues to occupy me to this day.

American government supports RSS

In fact, it demands RSS ... feeds!

I know it's past its use-by date, but still, I couldn't resist this one. Sorry!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Quote of the day

It's ironic that we have progressive stone works, but they're taking us back to a Stone Age
-- Radhika Prakash

More outrage here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Infosys India Prize

This is really, really big.

Simply because of the prize money. At 5 million rupees, each prize is worth twice as much as the highest award for scientists in India: the India Science Prize [see footnote].

And also because of its coverage -- there's a prize in each of five different areas: mathematical, physical, biological, engineering and social sciences.

Here's the company's press release:

Infosys Technologies Ltd. (Infosys) today announced that it has set up "Infosys Science Foundation", a not-for-profit trust to promote research in sciences in India. Under the aegis of the foundation, Infosys will honor outstanding contributions and achievements by Indians across various sciences. The annual award for each category is Rs. 50 lakh.

The Infosys Science Foundation will be funded by a corpus of Rs. 21.5 crore contributed by Infosys executive board members and an annual grant from Infosys Technologies Ltd.

The “Infosys India Prize” categories include:

  • Physical Sciences – Physics and Chemistry

  • Mathematical Sciences – Mathematics and Statistics

  • Engineering Sciences – All branches of Engineering

  • Life Sciences – Biology and Medicine

  • Social Sciences and Economics – Economics, History, Sociology, Political Sciences and other Social Sciences

The jury panel for each area will consist of eminent international personalities in each area selected by the trustees of the foundation.

Announcing the award, Mr. N. R. Narayana Murthy, Chief Mentor and Chairman of the Board, Infosys Technologies Ltd. said, “India needs bright minds across all areas of academics, government, business and society to strive for global excellence. We need to encourage research in India to address our developmental problems. This award will honor outstanding researchers who will make a difference to India’s future.”

All in all, a great move for Infosys. It'll now be associated with the most prestigious award in the country.

Now, how long is it going to take before someone institutes the Indian version of the Genius award, aka the MacArthur Fellowship?

* * *

Footnote: The India Science Prize has been awarded only once in its five year history -- to Prof. C.N.R. Rao.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Links: Ethics in Science Edition

  1. In Mentoring Ethics and Authorship Ethics, Janet Stemwedel discusses what appears to be a pretty egregious case of grabbing authorship:

    A graduate student, in chatting with a colleague in another lab, happened upon an idea for an experimental side project to do with that colleague. While the side project fell well outside the research agenda of this graduate student's research group, he first asked his advisor whether it was OK for him to work on the side project. The advisor was reluctant to allow the student to work on the project, but agreed to give him a relatively short window of time (on the order of weeks, not months) to work on the side project and see if he got any results.

    As it happened, the graduate student and colleague were able to generate enough data in that short window of time to write up the results as a manuscript.

    When the graduate student discussed this with his advisor, the advisor wanted first authorship on the paper. [...]

  2. Scientific misconduct as a principal-agent problem. Daniel Little discusses "how to create the institutional structures where misconduct is unlikely to occur and where misconduct is most likely to be detected when it does." Here's one of the radical ideas in his post:

    Brian Deer is one of Britain's leading journalists covering medical research (website). His work in the Sunday Times of London established the medical fraud underlying the spurious claim that MMR vaccine causes autism mentioned above. Following a recent public lecture to a medical audience he was asked the question, how can we get a handle on frauds like these? And his answer was blunt: with snap inspections, investigative policing, and serious penalties. In his perception, the stakes are too high to leave the matter to professional ethics.

  3. Marcia Angell in NY Review of Books: Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption. [see also the follow-up discussion]

    Take the case of Dr. Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital. Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.

    Legally, physicians may use drugs that have already been approved for a particular purpose for any other purpose they choose, but such use should be based on good published scientific evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Biederman's own studies of the drugs he advocates to treat childhood bipolar disorder were, as The New York Times summarized the opinions of its expert sources, "so small and loosely designed that they were largely inconclusive."[1]

    In June, Senator Grassley revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007. Two of his colleagues received similar amounts. [...]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Links ...

  1. Prof. S. Ranganathan at Materialia Indica: A brief history of materials - 1: Metallurgical heritage of India.

  2. Abraham Lincoln, the "sound-bite machine"!

  3. Graeme Wood on Lalu Yadav. The Indian Railway King: How did India’s Huey Long become its Jack Welch? [Link via Reuben Abraham]

  4. From this page: the Budget Speech. Since it's only the interim budget, it lacks a lot of details. And in any case, it'll likely see a lot of changes when a new government comes in. So, an analysis is probably not worth our effort now.

  5. Brad Stone in NYTimes: Classroom computers now have a competitor: Do 'smart' phones in classrooms really make kids smarter?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Steve Quake: Invest broadly and let scientists off their leashes!

In a guest post on The Wild Side, Olivia Judson's blog, Stanford biophysicist Steve Quake offers a stinging critique of the US system of funding research. He identifies financial volatility as the chief villain in his piece, and explores its devastating effects on researchers' ability to pursue novel, high-risk ideas:

... [T]he university rarely pays the full salary of the professor — depending on the department, the professor must find between 25 percent and 75 percent of his or her salary from outside grants.

It strikes me as one of the ironies of modern life that professorial faculty, who by and large lean to the left politically, accept such a brutal free-market approach to their livelihood. If they can’t raise grants to support their research every year, they won’t get paid. So not only do they have to worry about publish or perish, it’s also funding or famine, in the very real sense that without a grant there might not be food on the family dinner table! [...]

Such a system does not come without its own perils. It is not so easy to ask our young scientists to think out of the box when a significant portion of their salary (and mortgage payments) depends on guaranteeing a steady source of funding. Consequently, professors become highly attuned to the institutional priorities of various funding agencies — often at a cost to their own creativity and desired research directions.

He ends his post with some questions along with his own answers:

As we think about how to heed President Obama’s call to “put science back in its rightful place,” I wonder if this should also be the time to rethink the basic foundations of how science is funded. Could we stimulate more discovery and creativity if more scientists had the security of their own salary and a long-term commitment to a minimal level of research support? Would this encourage risk-taking and lead to an overall improvement in the quality of science?

As we consider the monumental challenges facing our generation — climate change, energy needs and health care — and look to science for solutions, it would behoove us to remember that it is almost impossible to predict where the next great discoveries will be made — and thus we should invest broadly and let scientists off their leashes.

Darwin 200

Happy 200th birthday, Darwin!

DarwinsigNature has an issue out today, and it's filled with tons of stuff on Darwin's life, work and legacy. Most of this content may not be paywalled (I'm taking a wild guess here), so go check it out. [Update: I think the section on Darwin 200 may be open to everyone. I'll post an update if it's not]

One of the curious things there in Nature's Darwin 200 issue is a debate on whether scientists should study race and IQ: Steven Rose says 'no', and Stephen Ceci and Wendy M. Williams say 'yes'.

* * *

Image credit: Wikipedia.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meanwhile on the IIT faculty salary front ...

The Committee headed by Prof. Goverdhan Mehta has submitted its report to MHRD, so the official announcement about what it has recommended (and about how much of it is acceptable to the government) will be out soon. The expectation is that it could be out as early as this weekend.

In the meantime, Charu Sudan Kasturi has tried hard to extract some information from MHRD officials about the Mehta Committee recommendations. Here are the results of his efforts:

Faculty at the IITs, IIMs and other technical education institutions will receive salary hikes accompanied by a bouquet of perks and research incentives under a pre-election package to be unveiled by the government.

Besides, teachers in hundreds of university engineering colleges and in the National Institutes of Technology will for the first time receive higher pay than provided by the University Grants Commission [...]

The committee in its report, however, has not accepted a demand of teachers at the NITs that their pay be brought on a par with that of IIT faculty. “The NITs and university teachers of technical education will receive a pay a step higher than other university teachers. The IITs and IIMs will receive a take-home salary another step high,” the official said.

An earlier panel had on an average recommended a salary hike of 70 per cent — the Mehta committee’s recommendations, sources indicated, could improve that by around 10 per cent.

It's not much, but hey, we take whatever comes our way.

But, as I said, an official announcement should be out anytime during the next few days. Let's wait and watch...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Pink Chaddi campaign

This novel protest is being choreographed by the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women:

It does not matter that many of us have not thought about Valentine's Day since we were 13. If ever. This year let us send the Sri Ram Sena some love. Let us send them some PINK CHADDIS.

And their poster is fabulous:

Increase in number of GATE applicants: A sign of bad economic times?

Here's Deepa Kurup's report in The Hindu:

The Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE-2009), which is being conducted in 147 cities across the country on [8 February 2009], has 2.3 lakh candidates vying for PG seats/doctoral programmes at central institutes and other government scholarship/assistantship at engineering institutes which use GATE scores. Last year, this number was 1.7 lakh, a 27 per cent increase in the number of aspirants.

Voices, IISc's student magazine, is now online

Yes, finally.

Unlike last time, it is really available to the the whole wide world outside IISc (I checked it from home myself). This, I'm sure, is great news for a lot of people -- especially IISc alumni. The February 2009 issue is here.

Congratulations to the Voices team! And, many thanks for taking your magazine online.

* * *

Thanks to Rupesh, a member of the Voices team, for the alert.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Materialia Indica

Just a quick post to tell you that I have started blogging at Materialia Indica, an India-centric group blog (and website) by and for materials scientists and engineers: academics, researchers, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students in materials science and allied fields (minerals, metallurgy, ceramics, polymers ...). See the About page for details.

While a part of Materialia Indica is decidedly India-centric (announcements about conferences, job openings, awards and recognition, etc), there will be a lot in there -- journal club, recap of classic papers, teaching tips, etc -- that materials science folks everywhere should be able to relate to.

Materialia Indica is a group blog; I'm joining Guru (M.P. Gururajan, IIT-D) and Phani (G. Phanikumar, IIT-M) in starting this blog. That would make us co-founders; isn't that exciting? ;-)

The site has been in an about-to-be-launched mode for quite sometime; indeed, the earliest posts date back to October 2008. We have finally brought it to a stage where we are ready to announce its launch.

We are keen to keep the site open to contributions from materials researchers everywhere. We are mailing to a lot of people announcing the launch and asking them to join us. In the meantime, if you know someone who you think ought to be with us at Materialia Indica, please let us know through the contact form on the Contributors page.

Materialia Indica is an interesting new project for us, as it involves a bit of community-building. It's something that we have been talking about on and off for several years (we were always sure about its usefulness), and we are glad that we have finally got this project off the ground.

It's take-off time. This is going to be fun ...

Academic Earth

Check out Academic Earth which has "thousands of video lectures from the world's top scholars" at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Most of the videos come with a rating as well!

Fantastic resource. Bookmark it.

Create your academic webpage on is “a tree of academics around the world.” It’s exactly what it says: once you become a member, it allows you to place yourself at one ‘leaf’ of the tree; as you go up the hierarchy (or, down the tree), you go through your department, institution/university, and country, with the trunk being the world.

It’s a free site; membership is open to anyone who’s a faculty member, post-doc, or graduate student. Once you register, you can create a node for yourself in the hierarchy I mentioned above. If some of the other nodes in the tree are missing (say, your institution or department), you just go ahead and create those nodes as well.

Once you have your own node on the tree, “enables [you] to have an easy-to-maintain academic webpage” with a nice URL, like For example, here’s my webpage. Better yet, the webpage of one of the founders of, Richard Price, will give you a better idea about what all you can use the site for (some of which I describe below).

To be sure, there are many sites that allow you to create a home page for yourself, but they typically give you a "" URL. For an academic, there's nothing like having a URL with ""!

On your own website on, you can

  1. store your papers, books, talks, CV, teaching material
  2. give links to your other home pages on the web, and
  3. start a blog! (Here’s mine; the blog functionality is not all that great, though).

In short, your webpage on Academia can be an excellent and permanent home for your ‘academic portfolio’. has some social networking features such as followers, friends, contacts, … There’s also an internal e-mail mechanism through with you can contact other members of

Overall, I really like As it gets better, it has the potential to give sites like Nature Network a serious competition.

What are the features that I would really like on Here are several that I can think of right now:

  1. A good e-mail feature ( that can be used for corresponding with other academics, journals, publishers, …
  2. A better blog platform with RSS feeds, and so on. Right now, it’s too rudimentary for any serious use.
  3. does a good job of highlighting one’s individual portfolio. It will be nice if it can aggregate data on individuals to present a departmental portfolio as well. Such a feature can present data on faculty, fields of interest, publications, academic programs, etc. The data that cannot be obtained from the individuals (for example, academic programs) can, in principle, be obtained through a wiki. I realize that this will require collecting information in a structured fashion, but it’s worth it.

* * *

Cross posted from Materialia Indica.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Tim Gowers' experiment in collaborative problem solving in higher mathematics

Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal winner at Cambridge, has started an interesting experiment in collaborative problem solving. At research level. On his blog!

I certainly can't claim to understand the nature of the problems that are posed and discussed, but I'll be watching closely how this experiment evolves.

He calls his experiment the Polymath project, and Polymath 1 is here and here. He has also given a fair bit of attention to the rules and procedures, which have been made better and sharper with community feedback.

For quite sometime, folks in humanities and (to a lesser extent) social science have felt comfortable talking about some of their preliminary research ideas on their blogs. Some of them even state explicitly that they want to use the ensuing discussions to sharpen their ideas, explore related questions, etc.

In the sciences, however, I have not seen much of this sort of stuff. While many science bloggers do a great job of explaining 'existing science', there is very little in their blogs devoted to some thinking aloud on research problems that they are working on. [Maybe I'm hanging around the wrong blogs, but I think what I'm saying here is generally correct.]

In fact, someone said (I think it's P.Z. Myers, but I'm not able to locate the post/comment) he's against this sort of stuff because of the danger of being scooped; as I recall, he said he was a victim of one such incident: he posed an idea on his blog, and someone else ran with it and published it first. Academic credit (or, 'Idea ownership', or 'who got there first') appears to be important to scientists (much more than it is for humanities folks).

Therefore, I'll be watching Gowers' experiment on how it handles this tricky issue when Polymath 1 nears completion.

To be fair, Gowers has thought about the 'credit sharing' problem as well as the 'getting scooped' problem. He seems to think that community norms may change to take care of them. Here he is on the first:

Why would anyone agree to share their ideas? Surely we work on problems in order to be able to publish solutions and get credit for them. And what if the big collaboration resulted in a very good idea? Isn’t there a danger that somebody would manage to use the idea to solve the problem and rush to (individual) publication?

Here is where the beauty of blogs, wikis, forums etc. comes in: they are completely public, as is their entire history. To see what effect this might have, imagine that a problem was being solved via comments on a blog post. Suppose that the blog was pretty active and that the post was getting several interesting comments. And suppose that you had an idea that you thought might be a good one. Instead of the usual reaction of being afraid to share it in case someone else beat you to the solution, you would be afraid not to share it in case someone beat you to that particular idea. And if the problem eventually got solved, and published under some pseudonym like Polymath, say, with a footnote linking to the blog and explaining how the problem had been solved, then anybody could go to the blog and look at all the comments. And there they would find your idea and would know precisely what you had contributed. There might be arguments about which ideas had proved to be most important to the solution, but at least all the evidence would be there for everybody to look at.

True, it might be quite hard to say on your CV, “I had an idea that proved essential to Polymath’s solution of the *** problem,” but if you made significant contributions to several collaborative projects of this kind, then you might well start to earn a reputation amongst people who read mathematical blogs, and that is likely to count for something. (Even if it doesn’t count for all that much now, it is likely to become increasingly important.) And it might not be as hard as all that to put it on your CV: you could think of yourself as a joint author, with the added advantage that people could find out exactly what you had contributed.

And here he is, on the 'getting scooped' problem:

And what about the person who tries to cut and run when the project is 85% finished? Well, it might happen, but everyone would know that they had done it. The referee of the paper would, one hopes, say, “Erm, should you not credit Polymath for your crucial Lemma 13?” And that would be rather an embarrassing thing to have to do.

I haven't thought much about the use of blogs for collaborative problem solving, so what I have now are just a bunch of (not particularly well posed) questions. Let me get them out:

  1. Assuming that Gowers' experiment succeeds, how can it be extended to experimentally oriented fields? For example, can it be transplanted to pose and solve a research problem at the cutting edge of a biomedical field?

  2. I can think of two other settings where collaborative problem solving is quite common: industrial R&D and open source software development. How does credit-sharing work in these other settings? Is it all just peer recognition?

  3. Also, in industrial R&D and OSS development, what kinds of collaboration tools do they use? Would Gowers' experiment benefit -- which is based largely on the discussion threads in his blog, right now -- from some of those tools?

As I said, all I have are questions. In the meantime, Gowers has already started his experiment. Let me wish him all the best!

What's next? Twitiquette?

I suppose technology has always been an endless source of stories about inappropriate use which, in turn, is a source of hilarity -- and some angst as well. Whenever Tech-X makes it easy for you to talk to anyone other than yourself -- email, mailing lists, USENET groups, blogs, and now 'social networking sites' -- along comes an army of people playing on this angst to start teaching you how to use it without hurting yourself. Like you are a baby.

Here's the latest. It purports to teach professors -- yes, professors ;-) -- about How Not to Lose Face on Facebook. Here's a step-by-step procedure to set your privacy settings:

Here's what you should check: Under "Settings," look for the "Privacy" section. Click on "Profile" to control who can see your pages. The default is to share with anyone on your network — many professors join the network for their college, but some might choose the one for the city where they live — along with anyone marked as a "friend." You may want to change that setting to "Only Friends," to keep out others who happen to be on your network.

Sheesh! Over three years ago, it was all about what (not) to say in our blogs. Now, it's privacy settings in Facebook.

What's next? Twitter etiquette? Oh, wait ...

Higher Ed news of the day

1, After the new IITs, IIITs, IISERs and IIMs, it's now time for new AIIMSes:

Nod for two more AIIMS-like institutions:

The Union Cabinet on Thursday approved two more AIIMS-like medical institutions, one in West Bengal and the other in Uttar Pradesh, at a cost of Rs.823 crore each. The Cabinet also decided to upgrade five government medical colleges in five States to the level of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

2. After etching Guindy and Chromepet on the world map for excellence in technical education, Anna University is going places:

Anna University to set up campus in Dubai:

Anna University, Chennai, is expanding its global reach.

On Wednesday, its Syndicate approved a proposal to set up an off-shore campus in Dubai. From the coming academic year, undergraduate courses in four departments – automobile, chemical, electrical and civil engineering – will be offered at the new campus, Vice-Chancellor P. Mannar Jawahar said on Thursday.

Links ...

  1. Rahul Siddharthan: 15-month long journey of a mail envelope that was posted just last week.

  2. Mark Liberman: Statistically Significant Other.

  3. Ramesh Mahadevan: Slumdog Millionaire and Beyond.

    Gupta also told this reporter that he is currently working on several projects – including re-releasing classics like Dara Singh’s ‘Lootera’ (Loot it, dude, for Hollywood) and the timeless ‘Daku aur Mahatma’ (dubbed ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Mahatma) But for now, he is busy working on the re-re-release of Maa dot com in India with the new title Amma.

Vikram Garg on India's Middle Class

Vikram Garg: Thoughts on India's Middle Class.

... It seems that for now these [middle class] aspirations are mostly consumerish and professional, not political.

But why not ? So much is wrong with India’s politics. What [explains] this most unforgivable disengagement ? Many different reasons have been proposed, but I think it really starts in school. Although the syllabus is now much better, when I was in school I mostly learnt about the Freedom Struggle, Shivaji and the Maratha Empire. I learnt a lot about what the results of the Freedom Struggle should have been and how a democratic India should be run. But I learnt absolutely nothing about what happened in the 50 odd years of a supposedly ‘free’ India. My textbooks were silent on the Emergency, the Babri Masjid demolition, problems in Punjab, Kashmir and the North East. They were silent on the day to day corruption. They did a very bad job of making me an Indian citizen. Add to this, the traditional nepotistic and self-serving attitudes of most Indians meant that we choose ambitions/aspirations with little regard to what effect our life will have on the broader society we are part of.

So in India today, we have a generation of young men and women who ‘dream’ of Harvard, neuro-surgery, nano-technology and New York, but there are few signs of environmental lawyers, quality journalists and film-makers, professors with India-specific research interests and politicians from the middle class. The entire nation seems in decay, institutions that are the fundamentals of the nation are collapsing, because the young blood that would have nourished them is now either in America doing a PhD in Computer Science or working in a tech company in Bangalore. For now it seems, middle India has abandoned the Republic.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Ananth Kamath: "Indian graduates lack inspiration, not infrastructure"

Here's the short abstract of the article in "India should be inspiring science and technology graduates to stay in the sector, rather than building new institutions."

In a study he conducted at IIT-Madras (where he surveyed both faculty and students), Kamath explored the factors behind S&T graduates' career choices. Here's his rather bleak summary of 'economic, non-economic and institutional' reasons behind why students leave S&T careers:

To begin with, students report being de-motivated by uninspiring classroom environments. They criticise textbooks as being sluggish and out of touch with reality.

Many students report that internships, which are supposed to give them hands-on experience of industry, only fuelled further disinterest or indifference towards an S&T career. Many claim they faced a bureaucratic work environment and outmoded infrastructure in the S&T organisations they are sent to, which stonewalls their creativity.

Even seemingly minor factors, like the quality of pre-placement presentations, sway students' minds. Students observe that wealthier multinationals, even many homegrown corporations, are conscious of the attractive power of good presentations and have visibly invested in them, in contrast to presentations by many government-run R&D labs or even private S&T organisations.

And however much teachers strive to make S&T or R&D more appealing and relevant, the long time it takes to gain recognition in a research career leave students uninspired. In today's highly connected and informed world, finding alternative professions or academic opportunities that offer faster recognition — in India or beyond — is easy.

There's also a somewhat more extended summary of Kamath's work.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Links ...

  1. First, the mystery link (via).

  2. Sean Carroll: I'm pretty sure this is what that NSF official was watching.

  3. Dear Students, Don't let college unplug your future (and a response).

  4. Should You Invest In The Long Tail?

  5. And let's end with another mystery link (via).

Price of hype ...

... includes ridicule. Look at the headlines:

  1. $10 laptop proves to be a damp squib (Times of India): "... the computing device is 10 inches long and 5 inches wide and has been priced at around $30 at the event. ... it [is] being projected as a laptop when it was not. ... [F]or now at least the $10-laptop turned out to be damp squib. "

  2. India's $10 laptop sounds like a bad joke (PC World): "... we’ve yet to see an official photo of the vaporous hardware." [Update: This Hindu story has a picture.]

  3. India's $10 Sakshat laptop announcement is a complete bust (NetBooks): "It's some second grader sitting in the back of the bus, convincing his classmates that, really, his dad used to play basketball with Michael Jordan and that, seriously, he's totally hooking up with a seventh grader over at Parkland Middle School."

And the name! "I still can’t get over that name" and "an unfortunate name" are among the polite descriptions I have seen. Our government needs some lessons in product-launching and brand building.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Pittsburgh Steelers ...

... win their sixth Super Bowl.

And they found a great way to win it:

[With about 3 minutes left] The Steelers’ comeback did not begin well. A holding penalty put them in a deeper hole, if that was even possible. But it ended spectacularly. Roethlisberger, as he had many times in the game, extended plays with his lumbering legs. Starting from their 12, Roethlisberger pushed the Steelers to midfield and then, after an amazing pump fake, he finds Santonio Holmes. Pure speed to about the 5. An amazing play. An amazing drive. An amazing game. Two plays later, Holmes made a dramatic catch for a touchdown. At the edge of the end zone, his tippy-toes in the red and the whole crowd watched him fall out of bounds. The officials reviewed the play. It was good.