Monday, May 30, 2011

Kakodkar Committee Report: Part 5. Gender Equity

In Chapter 3 which is devoted to "IITs as Research Institutions," we find a couple of sections on UG students. One of these sections is essentially an expression of concern that women form such a small minority among the UG students.

After identifying this as something about which "We Must Do Something," the Committee suggests two possible ways to "encourage women to seek entry into IITs":

  • When there is a tie in total marks in JEE, the rank is decided by marks in individual subjects. It is recommended that whenever there is a tie in total marks, women may be ranked higher than men. Individual subject marks may then be used to rank within men and women as before. This will help women get better choices of branch. Also, some more women at the bottom of the merit list may benefit from such a system.

  • Women, who get admitted and are required to pay a fee, may be reimbursed 50% of the fee amount by the Government.

The Committee's audacity to appear to be addressing this issue are just too overwhelming!

Kakodkar Committee Report: Part 4. Catch'em Young

A bold plan for a 10-fold increase in PhD graduates within a decade demands equally bold plans to get PhD students into the IITs in the first place.

One of those plans involves "attracting youngsters working in industry to join part-time PhD programmes" [my emphasis], and the Committee feels that the IITs should be able to admit 2500 of these candidates every year.

Here's another idea from the Committee:

Admitting bright undergraduate (UG) students for PhD at the end of their 3rd year undergraduate engineering programme from any institute in India. The IITs would have to take up a programme to identify such students purely on the basis of their academic performance of the past 3 years, recommendations from their teachers and evaluation of their research potential as identified through an interview (conducted by the IITs). Once identified, these students would be admitted immediately in an IIT and would complete their B.Tech programme as well as their PhD in about 5 years’ time. The UG degree could be awarded by the institute they came from and the PhD in due course by IIT. The IITs should aim to take 2500 such youngsters for PhD programmes from this stream every year. [My emphasis]

* * *

Anyways, this suggestion reminded me of what is said to have happened in another elite research institution a long time ago ...

Kakodkar Committee Report: Part 3. The Vision Thing

Even if you don't feel like reading the rest of the report, you really ought to check out Chapter 3. IITs as Research Institutions. Just look at the bold plans proposed by the Kakodkar Committee:

  1. A four-fold increase in faculty strength in the next ten years -- from under 4000 now, to about 16,000.

  2. A whopping 10-fold increase in graduates -- from about 1000 now, to about 10,000 by 2024.

  3. The intake at the BTech and MTech levels will also go up to 20,000 each.

  4. By 2024-25, the total student strength at the IITs will be 160,000 [80,000 BTech, 40,000 MTech and 40,000 PhD students] spread out, possibly, over 20 IITs!

As the Committee says:

We recommend that the IITs should strive to increase the number of PhD graduates from the currently less than 1000 PhD students graduating each year, to 10,000 research scholars graduating every year by 2024–25. As a PhD student would normally take 4 years to complete the programme, 10,000 PhD scholars need to be admitted to the PhD programme at IITs by 2020–21. This is the minimum number that would be required to meet the country’s requirements. For 20 IITs, it would mean an average of 500 PhDs. The stablished IITs have to strive to reach a number of 800 to 900 PhDs graduating each year, so as to provide leeway and time to the newer IITs to gear up.

The first reaction of most would be that such a scale up is not possible. While it would not be an easy task, we would suggest the means to ensure that such numbers are indeed achieved. There is little doubt that such numbers are required by India. [My emphasis]

I love the way the Committee has chosen to back up the bold plans with even bolder assertions. There's little doubt! Minimum for our country! 10,000 PhDs! All from IITs!

As I said, this is the most amazing chapter -- filled with what former US President (1989-92) George HW Bush called "The Vision Thing."

Fashion Industry's Culture of Copying

Awesome talk by Johanna Blakley at TEDxUSC-2010.

In case of embed fail, hop over to the TED Blog.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kakodkar Committee Report: Part 2. What else is wrong with the proposal to hike tuition fees?

Here is a summary of why I don't like Kakodkar Committee's recommendation for a hike in tuition fee hike:

  1. In my previous post, I said the fee hike implies a change in the character of IITs from public institutions serving a public purpose into essentially private institutions that can, potentially, go on to institute a regime of exorbitant tuition fees just "because we can," or "because the market can bear it."

    [There are two indications in the Kakodkar Committee Report about the possibility of even higher fees: (a) it presents a dubious computation that implies that Rs. 200,000 represents only 30 % of the real cost of education at IITs, and (b) it has another section on autonomous governing boards with powers to set the tuition fees. The zeal with which the Committee goes about its business is truly scary!]

    And worse, all this could happen while the institutions keep taking a lot of money from the government! This . is . just . wrong.

  2. Again, as I pointed out in the previous post, the fee hike proposal still leaves the IITs dependent on the government for a huge bulk of its budget. Thus, it certainly doesn't solve the specific problem which, as identified and articulated by the Committee, is the IITs' quest for "financial independence" as a prelude to their autonomy.

  3. IITs are not just another set of academic institutions. As India's leading institutions, they also serve as a benchmark. A 200,000 rupee tuition fee would send the wrong signal to the wrong sorts of people -- businesspeople, crooks, thugs and muttheads who run some of our shadiest self-financing colleges. It will only end up giving a license to every unscrupulous Rai, Pai and Chaudhuri to stiff their students even more.

  4. The idea of a "National IIT Scholarship Programme" exemplifies what I call the doctrine of "IIT Exceptionalism." This doctrine not only refuses to see the IITs as a part of India's larger system of higher ed, it wants to keep the IITs separate and exclusive (The demand to keep JEE in addition to any other national test flows directly from this doctrine; so does the demand for maintaining a salary differential for faculty.).

    [Aside: There is a case to be made for a national scheme to help students go to college -- it could take the form of direct grants (like the Pell grants in the US) or a system of post-payment (by way of a slightly enhanced tax rate on one's income, as in Australia). But such a scheme must be created for all students.]

  5. The Committee recommends a loan scheme, "so that no student is deprived of education because of want of means." It doesn't seem to acknowledge some of the bad consequences of saddling graduates with loans (which may now start at, say, Rs. 800,000, but could get much stiffer in future if the governing boards choose to go aggressively after revenue from students).

    What about students who drop out? What about idealistic students who join an NGO, a non-profit, a charity? What about enterprising ones who choose entrepreneurship over a steady, cushy job? What about those who go for jobs in the government sector where salaries are oh-so-low? What about students who want to pursue a PhD (e.g., in the IITs themselves -- something that the Committee so eagerly desires; more on this in another post)? Is it right to burden them with a (potentially crushing) loan?

  6. A nasty consequence of the Committee's blinkered IITs-only view is this: whether they deserve it or not, IIT students are seen as among the best, not only by the society at large, but, as a recent episode reminded us, by people in the government as well. How can the government justify making India's "top" students pay Rs. 200,000 (or more), while their "less-than-top" cousins get educated in other colleges at a fraction of that cost?

To me, (1) is paramount. The IITs, together with some of our central and state universities, represent the very best of what is possible when our government chooses to do the right thing. They are a slap in the face of all those who like to go on and on about the irredeemable badness of the public sector. For all the rhetoric from industrywallahs about the glories of the private sector philanthropy, they can't cite even a single private college / university that comes even close to what these fine institutions have achieved. To the crowd that has drunk the Kool-Aid of private sector superiority, IITs are anathema; they would use every opportunity to "take IITs private."

I see the fee-hike proposal as a thin edge of the wedge. And that's why I want our government to stand firm against attempts to change the very public character of these very public institutions.

So, here's my request to our HRD Minister: Just say "No!" to the fee hike proposal.

Kakodkar Committee Report: Tuition Fee Hike

Last month, the Kakodkar Committee issued its report, available for download at the MHRD website [pdf; 8MB]. The report bears the title "Taking IITs to Excellence and Greater Relevance." [Yeah, really. Taking them to Excellence! Don't tell Jairam Ramesh about it ;-)]


If you wish to read it in smaller chunks, I have the individual chapters in my Posterous blog.]

* * *

I read somewhere that MHRD has opened the report up for public discussion; here's my contribution.

The topic I want to look at first is the tuition fee hike, which is covered in Chapter 4. Governance, Autonomy, and Finances.. The specific recommendation is for a four-fold increase in the tuition fee for UG students from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 200,000 [PG students also face a hike, but it's treated differently in the proposal; see below].

Let me come right out and say I don't like this fee-hike recommendation. At all. In this post, I deal only with the facts and figures as presented by the Committee. In the next, I'll go beyond the figures to explore the proposal in a wider context.

  1. The Committee prefaces the fee hike proposal with the following (p. 73 - 74, Section 4.2):

    The root of the autonomy challenge lies in the inability of the IITs to be financially independent. [... huge snip ...] Without attaining financial independence, true autonomy will not be a reality. [...] Towards the objective of taking IITs to the level of world-class institutions, it is recommended that the IITs become independent of any non-plan (operational) budgetary support of the Government [...]

    We have just seen the first thing that's wrong with this argument: Autonomy is possible only with financial independence.

  2. The Committee's specific recommendation is that the IITs begin to "recover the recurring part of the cost of education through fees levied on undergraduate (B.Tech) and postgraduate (Dual degree/M.Tech/MS/PhD) education" (p.76).

    That part about "Dual degree/M.Tech/MS/PhD" made me jump! I said to myself, "Wow, that's really radical! How the hell are they going to make masters and PhD students pay tuition fees?"

    A little later, the Committee comes clean. They don't quite mean that the postgraduate students will actually pay a stiff tuition fee; the government would pay it for them! Specifically, the Committee "recommend[s] that a National IIT Scholarship programme be instituted." Not only is his scheme meant for PG students, it would cover a nearly half of the UG students as well.

    Assuming, as the Committee does, a UG-to-PG ratio of about 1, tuition costs of nearly 75 % of all the IIT students would actually come from the government!

    Now, that is real financial independence!

  3. The Committee then presents a table in which it estimates, for the seven "establised IITs" [i.e, IIT-KGP, B, K, M, D, R, G], the increase in the income from student fees for the year 2011: in the new regime, it would go dramatically up by Rs. 775 crores (from Rs. 103 crores to Rs. 878 crores). The government's contribution to the operating budget would come down equally dramatically from Rs. 1112 crores to 333 crores.

    This is misleading. As we already discussed, the government would still foot nearly 75 % of the the tuition bill; thus, its real contribution is not 333 crores, but 993 crores (333 crores + 75 % of 878 crores).

    In the new regime, its saving is not nearly 780 crores (as the table implies), but just about 120 crores -- which would translate into far less than 10 percent of its current contribution to the IITs' capital and operating budget.

All of which leads us to the following questions:

  1. Should the government agree to a scheme that would change the very character of its flagship institutions, while having such an underwhelming financial implications?

    Make no mistake: under the new regime, the default position of the IITs would be that everyone should pay for their education -- except those who are covered by a government-funded scholarship. This is a huge change indeed, because it transforms IITs into, essentially, private institutions.

  2. Looking at it from the IITs' point of view, their "dependence" on government funds has probably come down from about 80 % to about 70% -- and this doesn't even include the capital costs, all of which is taken care of by the government. In what way -- and in which parallel universe -- could this be called "financial independence"?

Isn't it better to acknowledge the fact that the government will continue to be a big source of funds for the IITs -- and remember, we are not even talking about the research grants a huge chunk of which is also from the government? Isn't it better to de-link autonomy from this mythical entity called "financial independence"?

The Committee has only created a false dichotomy between "autonomy" and government funding -- without realizing that the latter is the very life-blood of academic institutions. And it has failed utterly in its effort to find a viable path to greater levels of autonomy (and accountability) without destroying the public character of the IITs.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why IITs should scrap JEE: Two more data points!

Memo to the IITs: Wake up, People! You are losing the battle.

  1. Mainstream media have started comparing IIT faculty to cram school faculty. And, guess what? It's the cram school guys who get the "World Class" tag!

    While comparing the calibre of the students of the Indian Institutes of Technology versus the teaching faculty there, Jairam Ramesh left out one crucial element in the equation: the coaching classes. Even if the much-vaunted tech schools' teachers do not match up to the environment minister's exacting world standards, our tutorial networks certainly do.

    I checked, and checked again: there's no indication (on the website) that this story is in the "Humour" section of that newpaper.

  2. Mainstream media have also started celebrating reporting on the "success" of school shirkers [Many IIT faculty would tell you in private conversations that these students bring this attitude to the IITs]:

    [Student X] echoes a dominant trend among students these days, an increasing number of whom are paying little attention to HSC exams, and are instead concentrating on entrance tests for medicine and engineering colleges, since professional courses have their own entrance tests.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crunching JEE-2011 Results

  1. While most other reporters were content with reproducing raw numbers from the IITs' press release, Charu Sudan Kasturi does a good job of putting the JEE-2011 numbers in perspective in this HT story:

    But the results ... also reinforced some long-standing concerns.

    The IIT Madras and IIT Bombay zones, where coaching classes most dominate through JEE training hubs like Kota and cities across Andhra Pradesh, have dramatically higher success rates for students.

    One in every 20 candidates in the south — under the IIT Madras zone — has qualified while the figure stands at one in every 25 in the western, IIT Bombay region. Together, they have contributed nearly half the total number of successful candidates, though less than a third of all candidates appeared from these regions.

  2. A key metric in the progress made by OBC/SC/ST folks is their share in what the IITs call the Common Merit List which features candidates who met the cut-offs set by the IITs [these cut-offs are 10% lower for OBCs, and 50 % lower for SC/ST/PD candidates]. I don't know why the IITs' press release doesn't say anything about this, but I found a ToI story with this data:

    ... Of the 2,545 OBC candidates who qualified, 1,540 made it to the common merit list. In case of SC students, of the 1,950 who qualified, 122 made it ..., and of the 645 ST candidates shortlisted to join the IITs, 33 made it ...

    Again, these are just raw numbers. Let's see what they mean. First, they mean that there are about 10150 candidates in CML [this number is approximate, since we don't have the data on PD candidates]. In other words, CML candidates form about 75% of all the candidates who are eligible for admission into the IITs and other institutions -- which includes IISc, by the way! -- that will admit (some of their) students through JEE.

    Those raw numbers translate into OBC, SC and ST shares of 15.2%, 1.2% and 0.3 %, respectively, in CML.

    They also mean that nearly 5 in 6 ranks have gone to general category candidates.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Workshop on Academic Ethics

Rahul Siddharthan and Gautam Menon of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, along with N.S. Siddharthan of the Forum for Global Knowledge Sharing, are organizing a Workshop on Academic Ethics this July (specifically, 15-16 July 2011) in Chennai. I am grateful to be invited to give a talk. This is the first time I venture outside my technical discipline, so I'm a bit nervous ...

In his blog post announcing the workshop, Rahul says:

Anyone who would like to join in is welcome to write to us, at the address listed on that webpage. We would prefer advance notice, even from Chennai residents, for logistical reasons.

So, do please spread the word.

* * *

The Workshop has a pretty ambitious coverage. I especially liked this part:

Possible outcomes from the meeting:

  • A perspective on how these problems are viewed globally and what various national academies and scientific societies, including our own are doing to address these problems

  • Proposals for a syllabus (readings, material, discussion topics, case studies) for a module on "Scientific Ethics" to be introduced in the University syllabus as part of the "Methodology" exam. Indian Academies could collaborate on creating this material and liaise with UGC to ensure its implementation.

  • Formal mechanisms for examining ethics issues: What avenues exist currently? How does a university Vice-Chancellor deal with ethics issues? Is there a natural way in which such discussions might find their way to the Academies? Is there a need for a formal research ethics values watchdog, and should the academic community take initiative in forming [one]?

  • Legal aspects of action which can be taken in respect of scientific ethics complaints. What can institutions/universities do at all in terms of mechanisms to evaluate these complaints? If they are upheld, what mechanisms are there to discipline the persons involved?

  • General guidelines for maintenance of repositories, lab books, computer code etc. Are there typically institutional guidelines for these? Should the Academies discuss and propose such guidelines as a general rule?

  • ...


That's the number of 16-18 year-olds who learned today that they are actually world-class, a privilege that allows all of them (and actually goads some of them) to live a life filled with a sense of entitlement and utter disdain for mere mortals -- especially their teachers. The press release is here.

* * *

Some highlights:

  1. "A total number of 4,68,240 candidates appeared in JEE-2011 ... 13,602 candidates have been declared qualified to seek admission for 9618 seats in the IITs."

    Thus, about 3 percent of the candidates qualified. This figure is as high as ~5 percent for the Madras zone. I guess there's a lot of celebration at Hyderabad, which has probably overtaken Kota, Rajasthan, as the city of JEE dreams.

  2. "This year 108647 girls appeared for JEE-2011 out of which 1491 qualified."

    There are several ways to see this result. First, the fraction of girls who qualified is 1.4 %, which is less than half the overall figure of about 3 %. Second, and more tellingly, boys are about two-and-a-half times more likely to be among the rank-holders than girls (3.36 % for boys against 1.34 % for girls).

    Third, girls form about 11 percent of rank-holders, while their share among the exam-takers was 23%.

  3. In the OBC category, 138,104 took the exam, and 2700 qualified -- a ratio of about 2 %. A more relevant figure is the fraction of OBC students among the JEE-qualified: about 20%. While this figure is better than those of the previous two years (19% and 18%), it is still far short of the 27 percent supposedly set aside for them.

  4. In the SC category, 45172 students took the exam and 1966 qualified -- yielding a pretty fabulous (by JEE standards) ratio of 4.3%.

    This also means that the SC quota has been filled to the brim. This is the second time that this key mark of progress has been achieved.

  5. In the ST category, 766 students qualified out of 18125 -- for a ratio of 4.2 % which, while impressive, still doesn't allow them to fill all the available seats (mainly because their share in the group of exam-takers is low: 3.9 % which is about half as much as their quota.

  6. The PD category is special: over 19 % of the PD candidates qualified (440 out of 2286); since their number among exam-takers is small, this huge pass-through ratio is still not enough to enable them to fill all the available seats.

More later, when the IITs release detailed information.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shashi Tharoor of the Day

On his Ministry’s decision to have a joint venture with Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) to set up a National Centre for Marine Biodiversity in Jamnagar, he said the decision was taken as a world class research centre cannot be built in a “Governmental set up” and can never attract young people. Let us understand our experience in the last 60 years. Government research institutions can never attract young talent. [My emphasis]

This is not from some random libertarian loon; it's actually from a Union Minister, who appears to have decided to play Shashi Tharoor for a day.

To me, that comment about government-run R&D labs is far more jarring than his arrogant, self-serving nonsense about the IITs. [JEE is worth junking just for keeping such ingrates out! ;-)]

Monday, May 23, 2011

There's something rotten at IIT-KGP

If you are a part of the leadership team at a premier academic institution facing the following situation what would you do?

You finalize a procedure (essentially, a rate contract) by which a particular brand and model of laptop could be purchased from a vendor (or a set of vendors) by your faculty at a certain price. Then a member of your own faculty -- the tribe of "intended beneficiaries" -- finds out that an essentially similar laptop actually sells at a much lower price. And this news hits the headlines in major national newspapers.

What would you do?

See the bottom of this post for obligatory disclosures.
* * *

I don't know about you, but the wise guys at IIT-KGP looked deep into a document that contains a list of "service rules" and found something there that could be used to -- in the words of Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi -- shoot the messenger. And teach an unforgettable lesson to him and to others who might -- horror of horrors! -- begin to think like him.

They have suspended Prof. Rajeev Kumar, the person accused of outing the laptop shenanigans and going public. Here's how the suspension order reads:

Often directly and indirectly, through your personal acquaintances, you used your access to both electronic and print media on issues of personal interest without seeking the permission of authorities. Thereby maligning the institutions and exerting huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff. This is a serious violation of conduct rules. [Source: The Tribune]

Let me reiterate the obvious irony: An academic institution which should stand up for freedom of speech in general, and academic freedom in particular, chooses to punish a faculty member for talking to the press!

A few points worth keeping in mind when we get updates on this case:

  1. If the press revelations about the laptops were embarrassing, they are. None of the counter-allegations from the wise guys at IIT-KGP can erase the shame.

  2. Potentially shady deals are not State Secrets. And outing them is a courageous deed. It's not for nothing that Prof. Rajeev Kumar has been hailed as a hero for his relentless pursuit of accountability at IIT-KGP (especially in the shameful JEE-2006 episode -- see below).

  3. If, on the other hand, if the newspaper reports had really maligned IIT-KGP and its officials, IIT-KGP should sue those newspapers for defamation. Absent such a move, what the wise guys at IIT-KGP are doing to Prof. Rajeev Kumar is clear: unleashing institutional power on an individual.

    To the best of my knowledge, IIT-KGP has fully deserved the kind of attention and press coverage it got on the laptop scheme.

  4. Thanks to government-given autonomy, our academic institutions (and especially the IITs) really do have the freedom to adopt better ways of organizing their internal affairs -- in other words, they have the autonomy to write their own "service rules." Clearly, this autonomy is wasted on the wise guys at IIT-KGP who don't want any of it -- they fell back on the government's version of service rules (which are meant for maintaining a strict line of authority within the organization) to gag one of their colleagues.

  5. The government has been mulling a law to protect whistle-blowers. It's utterly shameful that a leading academic institution is doing something that would go against the spirit of such a law.

  6. I hope the Supreme Court (where the IIT-KGP - Rajeev Kumar spat has landed) will put an end to this travesty and teach the administration a lesson in RTI and free speech.

  7. I have been watching the slimy way in which IIT-KGP kept changing its story line in response to RTI query about the cut-off marks in JEE-2006, and while the case was fought through the courts [see the mandatory disclosure at the end]. At last count there are some half a dozen stories put out by IIT-KGP. Remember, all this is a matter of legal records. In other countries with stricter perjury laws, some of those behind these stories would have been in jail.

  8. The wise guys at IIT-KGP contested the Hindustan Times' coverage of the laptop shenanigans, to which the paper gave a fitting response by putting all the relevant documents online. A key part of the IIT-KGP argument was the assertion that a certain circular (Doc 1 in the HT list) was never issued -- an assertion that HT debunks with solid evidence. Again, this sort of willful misrepresentation would be called perjury if it was made in a court of law.

  9. Some of you would recall the IIT faculty strike in 2009 over the issue of autonomy. The laptop-related shenanigans represent yet another instance of how IIT-KGP undermined its own autonomy. When the laptop case hit the headlines, it chose to deflect the problem by referring the matter to MHRD, which said no to the purchase of laptops by faculty using their CPDA -- an allowance IIT faculty are entitled to under the Sixth Pay Commission scheme. Thanks to these wise guys, faculty members are not allowed to buy a laptop using funds meant for "professional development" -- not because of their institution's policies, but because of a diktat from MHRD.

  10. Finally, the suspension order issued to Prof. Rajeev Kumar states that his actions have "[exerted] huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff." Clearly, the faculty and staff there are an extremely sensitive lot. I wonder how they would feel about a scenario in which their own Chief Vigilance Officer officer (who also doubled up as JEE chairman) was running a fake diploma mill right under their nose. Wait, what?

* * *

Disclosure: 1. I once computed the average and standard deviation of the Math, Physics and Chemistry marks obtained by all the candidates in JEE-2006. This was to provide an independent verification of computations made by Prof. Rajeev Kumar who used his results in his lawsuit against the IITs.

2. I have corresponded with Prof. Rajeev Kumar on and off since April 2008, and we have met once. I have not consulted him for this post; nor has he asked me to write it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Evolutionary Psychologist Gone Wild

The article entitled "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?" by Satoshi Kanazawa has been taken down -- if you really need to read that filth, it's available elsewhere. Here are the take-downs at other sites:

  1. Anna North at Jezebel: The Illustrious Career of a Crap Psychologist [Via Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch]

  2. P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula: I Guess Even Psychology Today Has Its Limits: "Among the many reasons that I detest evolutionary psychology, one has a name: Satoshi Kanazawa."

  3. Dustin at Savage Minds: Why Are Evolutionary Psychologists Less Intelligent Than Other Mammals?

The Arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The Interwebs comment on the arrest of the managing director of the International Monetary Fund on charges of sexual assault:

  1. Kieran Healy: @kjhealy: "No-one told Dominique Strauss-Kahn that being Director of the IMF doesn't mean you get to do to people what the IMF does to countries."

  2. N.S. Ramnath on Google Buzz: "Strauss-Kahn's defense: I mistook her for a country."

  3. A commenter on Tyler Cowen's post: "The incentive for an IMF head to be a sex criminal is as you say quite low, but presumably the incentive for a sex criminal to be the head of the IMF is high…." [Hat tip to Christopher Shea's post: Are Rich, Powerful People Less Likely To Be Guilty?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Links ...

  1. Over at Babbage, the S&T blog at The Economist: Physics Anniversaries: How Professor Maxwell Changed the World:

    [Maxwell] showed that nature ought not to be taken at face value, and that she can be cajoled into revealing her hidden charms so long as the entreaties are whispered in mathematical verse.

  2. Jennifer Rohn in Nature: Give Post-Docs a Career, Not Empty Promises [via e-mail from Pradeepkumar.]

    The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the 'tournament' model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change. A system complicit in this sort of exploitation is at best indifferent and at worst cruel. I have no doubt that most lab heads want the best for their many apprentices, but at the system level, the practice continues.

  3. Jef Akst in The Scientist: I Hate Your Paper -- "Many say the peer review system is broken. Here’s how some journals are trying to fix it." [Via e-mail from Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam.]

    Problem #1
    Reviewers are biased by personal motives

    Solution: Eliminate anonymous peer review ( Biology Direct, BMJ, BMC); run open peer review alongside traditional review (Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics); judge a paper based only on scientific soundness, not impact or scope (PLoS ONE).

Errors in JEE-2011

The rate at which JEE has been getting into a mess -- thanks to the wonders of the RTI Act -- makes you wonder how many pre-RTI skeletons are still hidden in IITs' closet. In the latest episode of egg-meets-face, the IITs have admitted that "[the 2001 JEE] question papers ... had errors worth a mammoth 36 marks."

[The ToI report says the errors are worth 30 marks. All I could find at the JEE website is this page which, as a piece of public communication, has FAIL written all over it. The only thing I could glean from it is that every candidate will get 12 marks, because the three math questions were fatally pathological.]

Here's HT's Charu Kasturi on what these numbers mean:

The 28 marks worth errors in math are more than the cut-off in the subject for the past four years - 1, 5, 7 and 11 - revealing the scale of the problem. The cut-offs for physics - where the 2011 JEE had eight marks worth errors - were 4, 0, 8 and 19 for general candidates over the past four years.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Links ...

  1. Luis von Ahn's talk at TEDx-CMU: Duolingo -- The Next Chapter in Human Computation.

    [Hat tip to Dilip D'Souza, who has just started a series of columns "[exploring] the joy of mathematics, with occasional forays into other sciences." Here's the first one: Room at the Lodge.]

  2. A slideshow of 100 Incredible Views out of Airplane Windows.

Cram School for KG

The WTF story of the day is from the US:

Other tutoring companies like Sylvan have also moved into the prekindergarten market. But Kumon, a Japanese import that calls itself the world’s largest math and reading enrichment program, has pushed most aggressively, admitting students as young as 2. Those young students have become an increasingly important part of its business: Kumon grew by about 12 percent last year, to 250,000 students nationwide; Junior Kumon grew by more than 30 percent. In New York, where the company is colonizing storefronts like so many Starbucks, enrollment in Junior Kumon has tripled since it began opening centers in 2007.

“Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said Joseph Nativo, chief financial officer for Kumon North America. “But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

I can still think of one thing that's missing in this already-awful story of parental paranoia.

A Jumon that prepares toddlers to get into the Kumon program!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

It is 1986. You know in your mind you will be here for two years. You will get your degree and go back. You think you will work as a journalist. Maybe even teach. No, you will work as a journalist. Teaching is for people who keep themselves safe from the world. Why return to India if you aren’t going to go out every day to learn about the lives around you? [My emphasis]

That's from Amitava Kumar's essay -- The point of no return -- in which "an Indian-born, US-based author constantly battles that inevitable guilt question: Does he really belong here?"

Fun links

  1. The Week in Review at The Onion includes a summary on this story: "Update: Obama Yet Again Refrains From Obliterating Human Race."

  2. Bookavore: E-books article drinking game.

  3. Blogger Outage During Finals Week Rattles Some Students and Professors. This is actually a serious story, but I'm including it here for its Onion-esque headline.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Century of Superconductivity

IEEE Spectrum carries a a nice historical overview of superconductivity by Pradeep Haldar and Pier Abetti who focus on this rather baffling fact:

In the 100 years since superconductivity was discovered, only one widespread application has emerged.

A couple of excerpts:

Since [the discovery of superconductivity by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911], physicists have sought to understand the quantum-mechanical origins of superconductivity, and engineers have tried to make use of it. While scientific efforts in this area have been rewarded by no fewer than seven Nobel prizes, all commercial applications of superconductivity have pretty much fizzled except one, which came out of the blue: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

* * *

Müller and Bednorz's work triggered a flurry of research around the world. And within a year scientists at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and the University of Houston found a similar ceramic compound that showed superconductivity at temperatures they could attain using liquid nitrogen. Before, all superconductors had required liquid helium—an expensive, hard-to-produce substance—for cooling. Liquid nitrogen, however, can be made from air without that much effort. So the new high-temperature superconductors, in principle, threw the door wide open for all sorts of practical uses, or at least they appeared to.

The discovery of high-temperature superconductors sparked tremendous publicity—which in retrospect is easy to see was hype. Newsweek called it a dream come true. The cover of Time magazine showed a futuristic automobile controlled by superconducting circuits. BusinessWeek declared, "Superconductors! More important than the light bulb and the transistor" on its cover. [...]

Monday, May 09, 2011

Yale, Singapore, Academic Freedom

Academic freedom at Yale-NUS College, Yale's proposed joint campus with the National University of Singapore, is the subject of this hard-hitting Chronicle piece by Christopher L. Miller. I'm excerpting here some of the stinging blows:


See also: Elizabeth Redden's Inside Higher Ed piece from October 2010: Habitats for Academic Freedom, and Eric Weinberger's TNR piece from December 2010: Will Academic Freedom Be Protected at Yale's New College in Singapore?.

* * *

Most immediately troubling to me as a gay faculty member, male homosexuality is illegal in Singapore. Section 377A of the legal code bans consensual, private male homosexual activity as "outrages on decency," in effect making it illegal to be gay. Enforcement is not the issue here; this is a question of principle. Yale has no business establishing a campus in a state where some of its own faculty members are subject to arrest because of who they are. By doing so, the university has, in effect, violated its own nondiscrimination clause, which protects sexual orientation. Yale could have stayed away from Singapore until the repeal of Section 377A but chose not to. As a consequence, Singapore's discrimination becomes Yale's.


As plans for Yale-NUS were being reviewed last year, a 75-year-old British author, Alan Shadrake, was imprisoned and fined in Singapore for writing a book (Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock) that is critical of Singapore's death penalty. Provost Salovey claimed to be "greatly concerned," but he also said he was "not surprised by the result. ... I would have hoped for a different result, but Mr. Shadrake's book openly challenged the country's legal constraints on public criticism of identifiable government officials and institutions." Thus to a prisoner of conscience, Yale says, in effect, "What did you expect?"


To see these issues in concrete terms, consider the following: I am able to write this essay because I am protected by the United States Constitution and by Yale-New Haven's forceful policy on freedom of expression. Will the professors and students at Yale-NUS have that same freedom?

Shashi Tharoor of Academia

No analogy is perfect, but this one is pretty close -- with over 175,000 Twitter followers, a university "leader" loses the confidence of the people he's supposed to be leading:

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, may be the only college president to publicly describe his leadership as "in beta," a product rolled out before it's fully tested.

He's tinkered with using social media to connect with constituents on and off campus. He's blogged, posted video messages on YouTube, and tweeted more than any other college president. (He has more than 175,000 Twitter followers.)

He even has a new book due out this month, called Redesigning Leadership (MIT Press), relating scenes from his three years at RISD and samples of his tweets. One example: "When people ask if I've stopped designing I say, 'No. I'm designing how to talk about/with/for our #RISD community.'"

But many professors at the art school do not appreciate being part of Mr. Maeda's high-tech experiment in leadership. In March, more than 80 percent of faculty members voted "no confidence" in his performance. To them, all that tweeting feels more like distraction than engagement.

Krugman Quip

The latest -- from his blog post, VSP Economics -- is about a recent WaPo editorial:

... the WaPo editorial tries to have it both ways. Monetary and fiscal stimulus “kept unemployment from rising out of control” — but somehow doing any more of the same would be disastrous. I guess we’re supposed to believe that there’s some kind of nonlinearity that makes exactly the amount of stimulus we’ve already done a positive, but any slight further stimulus very negative. It would be interesting to think of what kind of model could generate that result.

But I’m joking, of course. There is no model, just the unwisdom of the in-crowd. [My emphasis.]

Links: bin Laden edition

  1. Noam Chomsky in Guernica: My reaction to Osama bin Laden's death.

    We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.

    ... [And] the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders. It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”

  2. Lawrence Wright in New Yorker: The Double Game: The unintended consequences of American funding in Pakistan.

  3. NYTimes report on Bin Laden's Diminished Life in a Shrunken World.

  4. Felix Salmon: The Hermetic and Arrogant New York Times. [He has an awesome picture -- from this analysis -- of the Twitter network that helped spread the news of Osama bin Laden's death.]

Sunday, May 08, 2011

L'Affaire zu Guttenberg Nears Closure

Here's Spiegel reporting on the conclusions of the University of Bayreuth committee that looked into his PhD thesis:

When initial accusations emerged in February that then-German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis, he responded that the allegations were "absurd." In the ensuing weeks, as it became increasingly clear that significant passages of his dissertation were exact replications of previously published works, he insisted that it was the result of mere oversight. He never meant to copy, he maintained.

But on Friday, the University of Bayreuth, which awarded Guttenberg his Ph.D. title in 2006, announced its conclusion that [zu Guttenberg] had intentionally plagiarized. Guttenberg, the university said in a statement, "extensively violated academic standards and intentionally cheated."

Monday, May 02, 2011

Biggest News of the Day

Al Qaeda chief Bin Laden was killed by American troops in Abottabad [a couple of hours from Islamabad], Pakistan. [see also Nick Kristof's early reaction]. The Pakistan connection seems to me to be the biggest part of the news.

From President Obama's address:

Over the years, I've repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we've done. But it's important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Amartya Sen on Learning from Others

In his NYRB article on Quality of Life: India vs. China, Prof. Amartya Sen makes the obvious point that the pursuit of GNP and its growth has a larger purpose: increasing people's welfare.

Realizing, probably, that a direct comparison with China would allow his critics to counter him with China's longer experience with economic reforms (and, consequently, its higher GNP), he uses two different lines of argument. The first one is a comparison with Bangladesh, a country with half the per capita GNP as India's:

GNP per capita is, however, not invariably a good predictor of valuable features of our lives, for those features depend also on other things that we do—or fail to do. Compare India with Bangladesh. In income, India has a huge lead over Bangladesh, with a GNP per capita of $1,170, compared with $590 in Bangladesh, in comparable units of purchasing power. This difference has expanded rapidly because of India’s faster rate of recent economic growth, and that, of course, is a point in India’s favor. India’s substantially higher rank than Bangladesh in the UN Human Development Index (HDI) is largely due to this particular achievement. But we must ask how well India’s income advantage is reflected in other things that also matter. I fear the answer is: not well at all.

Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 66.9 years compared with India’s 64.4. The proportion of underweight children in Bangladesh (41.3 percent) is lower than in India (43.5), and its fertility rate (2.3) is also lower than India’s (2.7). Mean years of schooling amount to 4.8 years in Bangladesh compared with India’s 4.4 years. While India is ahead of Bangladesh in the male literacy rate for the age group between fifteen and twenty-four, the female rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. Interestingly, the female literacy rate among young Bangladeshis is actually higher than the male rate, whereas young women still have substantially lower rates than young males in India. There is much evidence to suggest that Bangladesh’s current progress has a great deal to do with the role that liberated Bangladeshi women are beginning to play in the country.

What about health? The mortality rate of children under five is sixty-six per thousand in India compared with fifty-two in Bangladesh. In infant mortality, Bangladesh has a similar advantage: it is fifty per thousand in India and forty-one in Bangladesh. While 94 percent of Bangladeshi children are immunized with DPT vaccine, only 66 percent of Indian children are. In each of these respects, Bangladesh does better than India, despite having only half of India’s per capita income.

A second argument is about some of the bad policy choices made by China, especially in healthcare:

... the economic reforms of 1979 greatly improved the working and efficiency of Chinese agriculture and industry; but the Chinese government also eliminated, at the same time, the entitlement of all to public medical care (which was often administered through the communes). Most people were then required to buy their own health insurance, drastically reducing the proportion of the population with guaranteed health care. [...] The change sharply reduced the progress of longevity in China. Its large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled during the following two decades—falling from a fourteen-year lead to one of just seven years.

The Chinese authorities, however, eventually realized what had been lost, and from 2004 they rapidly started reintroducing the right to medical care. China now has a considerably higher proportion of people with guaranteed health care than does India. The gap in life expectancy in China’s favor has been rising again, and it is now around nine years; and the degree of coverage is clearly central to the difference.

Sen has a more detailed version of this argument in this Lancet article.

* * *

See also Sen's guest editorial in ET in December 2006 urging Indian states to learn from the experience of the other states that have done well on different social indicators.