Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sexual Harassment Charges Against a Retired Supreme Court Judge

It all started with a post -- Through My Looking Glass -- by Stella James who alleged that she was harassed by a "recently retired" Supreme Court judge back in December 2012 when she was interning with him. She elaborated a bit more in an interview to Legally India. While a a three member committee set up by the Supreme Court is inquiring into this case, several things have happened:

  • Another intern leaves a Facebook comment supporting James' allegations.

  • Mihira Sood writes an opinion piece at Legally India: In one of India’s ‘most sexist professions’, harassment by powerful men is rife.

  • Nikhil Kanekal's story at Outlook leaves several clues that help reveal the alleged perpetrator -- see this post at Law and Other Things for further clues.

  • Indira Jaising, Additional Solicitor General of India, pens an open letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court demanding greater transparency in the functioning of the inquiry committee. It's filled with scathing remarks about the legal profession, the attitude of the judges, and even the "architecture of the Supreme Court".

  • An NGO called Lawyers Collective has asked the Supreme Court to follow its own policy -- called the Vishaka Guidelines -- in dealing with this case.

  • In a MInt column, Farah Rahman draws the parallels between this case and the allegations of harassment made by Anita Hill against the Justice Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings. Her column ends on a hopeful note:

    One result of Hill’s decision to come forward with the allegations was that it brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the fore and the hearings brought the issue live to anyone who had a television and could bear to watch the hearings. The year after the hearings, 1992, saw a record number of women run for office and win. There is no question that Hill’s decision to out the truth was brave, unprecedented and paved the way for women to speak up and take charge. This is also happening now in India.

Narendra Modi: "Vote for the Louts"

Freudian slip, or misspeak? In either case, this fabulous fail of a tweet is way too funny:

Urged people to start voting early, vote for the Louts & give BJP a chance to serve them once again.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

More links

  1. Dhimant Parekh: Of Rains, Cows and a Picture: "For that moment, we four [three men and a cow] were all in one world, in one picture."

  2. G. Lakshmi: Handwriting:

    I hated articles that expounded the relationship between handwriting and character/future/talent/life. According to all these articles, I was a potential criminal, utter failure and possibly not worth living.

  3. Anil Kumble's Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi Memorial Lecture: Perception and Practice:

    He first led the team at 21, when every other player was senior to him. He must have worked hard at appearing almost casual in his stroke play, as if to suggest that cricket was the easiest game in the world— in fact so easy that he could play the best bowlers with just one good eye. The effect on his team was phenomenal. The perception of ease communicated itself to the many who were inhibited, diffident and under-confident.


  1. Wildlife photographer, author of Secret Lives, and IISc alumna Natasha Mhatre writes about the hard work that went into the wonderful potter wasp pic that won the first prize in the National Wildlife Federation photo contest. Key quote: " I didn't click it, I didn't snap it, no, no, I stalked it and I made it."

  2. Mathematical eye-candy: John Baez has an animated picture of the Enneper Surface drawn by Greg Egan.

  3. Vi Hart: How I Feel About Logarithms: "I like the number 8. I like the way it smells like 2 and 4 with a hint of 3 in a cubic sort of way ..."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Faculty Power!

Two links. First, from The Telegraph: Carrot for IIT directors:

A former IIT director, however, said the new system [of assessing the performance and effectiveness of IIT directors] would encourage the directors to appease the faculty members.

“Since the selection panel will receive feedback from the faculty, the director will not take any tough decision (that might annoy the teachers). The administration will concentrate on appeasing the faculty,” he said.

Second, from Forbes: The Toughest Leadership Job Of All (It's Not What You Think:

The most powerful group within a university is its tenured faculty. If they refuse to listen to you, you can’t fire them. That’s the whole idea behind academic freedom. But it makes moving in a new direction fraught with peril.

As one college president told me, “You don’t say, ‘Professor Smith, I need you to make this change.’ Instead, you say, “Professor Smith, I have a great idea I’d like to run past you. I really need your input in order to make this work, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to improve my idea and how to implement it?”

Can you imagine Steve Jobs saying that? Brilliant as he was, he’d last eight nano-seconds as the president of Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Caltech ...

Sexual Harassment at Tehelka

The charges of sexual harassment against Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal are very serious, and I am amazed that he has tried to "manage" the crisis by sending a wishy-washy, euphemism-filled e-mail to his deputy (and on down the line). Finally, goaded by intense public pressure, Tehelka appears to be thinking about following the law -- Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013; it may actually set up a committee to inquire into the charges.

Some links:

Outlook Blogs: Tarun Tejpal Faces Sexual Assault Charges, and Sexual Assault Charges Against Tarun Tejpal: Reactions

Nivedita Menon at Kafila: Sexualized workplaces, predatory men and the rage of women.

Priya Ramani at Mint: Sorry Boss, We Found Our Voice.

Reetika Subramanian at Ultra Violet: Of Penance and Justice.

Ultra Violet: Atonement is Insufficient: The Rule of Law Must Prevail: NWMI Statement on Tehelka

* * *

Update: Police Begin Sexual Assault Inquiry into Editor

Jessica Benko on Randomized Trials and Poverty Reduction

A neat article on the use of randomized trials in economics research into poverty reduction: The Hyper-Efficient, Highly Scientific Scheme to Help the World’s Poor. "Hyper-efficient" is probably hyperbole, considering how some of the insights and solutions needed several years of hard field work.

... One of the most cost-effective ways to boost attendance came as a big surprise: treatment for intestinal worms, which caused absenteeism to drop by one-quarter. And it wasn’t only the schools receiving treatment that benefited. Attendance also rose at nearby schools as the overall transmission rate in the region dropped. The researchers calculated that, on average, deworming “buys” one extra year of school attendance for just $3.50, less expensive than any other intervention tested. This unexpected finding has led researchers to found an initiative called Deworm the World, which has worked in partnership with governments and NGOs to treat 37 million children.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Research Focus Areas - 2: How to Make a List

Read first, the earlier post for context.

Let us suppose a list has to be made by an academic department with established research program, spelling out their research focus for the future. How to make the list? Here is a scheme. Can this procedure be bettered in the Indian context?

1) Check the present strength -- core competence -- of the department. Analyse what the existing faculty members have been doing as successful and significant research in the recent past and choose some or all of those topics.

2) Do the analysis in 1), but put all of the topics that have been worked so far, by grouping them together (using band-aid) into impressive phraseology a.k.a the said focus topics

The major difference between 1) and 2) is, the topics of 1) will be a sub-set of those made in 2) thus excluding possibly few faculty members from the 'research focus' of the department.

Research Focus Areas - 1: To Have or Not

1) An academic department should promote diversity in research (as many topics as its faculty strength). 2) An academic department should promote only few focused research areas. Which one do you believe is the 'right way' forward for an Indian academic department that has an established research program?

You may agree that the 'few topics of research focus' is a model adopted in the USA. The topics are decided primarily by the availability of research grants, which is determined largely by entities and policies that may not be connected to the department. So, the 'focus topics' get renewed or transmogrify every few years. This re-sizing of the legs to the available size shoes is accepted as the norm in that model. Of course, growing new legs in place of a numb or phantom one is possible.

The 'unity in diversity' model is more in line with the philosophy of what academia should be. Essentially democratic, housing all possible knowledge, without characterizing them as (only) useful. This model promotes all research topics pursued by the faculty members and likewise distributes its annual funding equally. It does encourage group research in similar topics by teams, but can only expect such groups to seek their additional funding (for some concerted research effort or common resources) from external sources.

So, question: Which one of these models do you think an Indian academic department with an established research program should follow? Any other (better) model for Indian academia?

Some open thoughts to get us discussing:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Arunn's Essay on C.N.R. Rao

If you can read Tamil, I strongly recommend my co-blogger Arunn's essay on Prof. Rao and his career.

* * *

Here at IISc, we had a charming little event to felicitate Prof. Rao on the Bharat Ratna award. His arrival was greeted with a standing ovation from all the faculty gathered at the Faculty Hall. Prof. Rao gave a short, sweet and very gracious speech in which recounted some of the key events in his life at our Institute.

The Strange Case of Prof. Joy Laskar

NYTimes has a long story on Prof. Joy Laskar who was fired by Georgia Tech three years ago for "misusing university funds" and arrested on "state racketeering charges" (but not charged -- at least, not so far). At the end of the story, I have no idea about what he did wrong (and neither does Laskar, the story seems to imply). Bizarre:


On googling, I found Joy Laskar's Story, a website maintained and updated by Joy Laskar and his wife Devi Sen Laskar. This time line appears to indicate he has won several legal battles against Georgia Tech.

* * *

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where he was a professor of electrical engineering, Dr. Laskar did research on chip design. He mentored dozens of Ph.D. students and, over the years, started and sold a number of tech companies. The last one, called Sayana, created a promising wireless chip and was being courted by the likes of Samsung and Qualcomm.

But on May 17, 2010, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, wearing bulletproof vests, raided his university offices. A parallel scene played out at Dr. Laskar’s home, where his wife, Devi Laskar, found armed agents in her driveway. While agents went through the house and confiscated files and computer equipment, she went to a coffee shop to call a lawyer.

“What were they looking for?” Dr. Laskar said in disbelief, recounting the event recently. “Cash under the bed? Chips in the ceiling?”

The day of the raid, there was to be an auction for Sayana. It never happened. Instead, Dr. Laskar was suspended without pay from his tenured position. He was later arrested on state racketeering charges and eventually fired by Georgia Tech, accused of misusing university resources.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Congratulations to Prof. C.N.R. Rao

He joins Bharat Ratnas C.V. Raman (1954), M. Visvesvaraya (1955), and Abdul Kalam (1997) to take the S&T count to four (out of forty three).

Gopal Raj at The Hindu and Pallava Bhagla at NDTV have written credible summaries of the Prof. Rao's career, while The Hindu has the first reactions from India's science biggies.

Prof. Rao is probably getting annoyed by all the news coverage portraying him as the "other" Bharat Ratna. Grating though they may be, the twin spotlight on Prof. Rao and Sachin Tendulkar, and the inevitable parallels between them -- dependable consistency, prolific scores, centuries, child-like enthusiasm coupled with a professional approach, and the sheer length of their career at the highest level -- do have the virtue of getting a lot of people to relate better to Prof. Rao's pursuit of science.

* * *

Update: G.S. Mudur's piece in The Telegraph is also pretty good.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Rick Webb Proposes a Taxonomy of Plagiarism

Plagiarism comes in different types (A, B, C, and D, with 'A' being the mildest), forms (oral or written), and flavours (ordinary, grievous, and extreme)!

Useful for discussing plagiarism cases.

Recommending Albert Einstein

Over at Letters of Note, Shaun Usher featured recently two letters of recommendation for Einstein written by Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie for a professorship in theoretical physics at ETH-Zurich. Einstein was 32 when the letters were written (1911), some six years after his Annus Mirabilis ("the extraordinary year") that saw the publication of his landmark papers on photoelectricity, Brownian motion and special relativity; his other major paper on general relativity would arrive some five years later.

The letters themselves are awesome little gems. Poincaré gets straight to the point with these opening lines:

Mr Einstein is one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. In spite of his youth, he has already achieved a very honourable place among the leading savants of his age. [...]

Curie, too, is quite effusive in her praise:

I have often admired the papers published by Mr. Einstein on issues dealing with modern theoretical physics. Moreover, I believe that theoretical physicists agree that these papers are of the highest order. In Brussels, where I participated in a scientific conference in which Mr. Einstein also took part, I was able to appreciate the clarity of his mind, the extent of his documentation and the depth of his knowledge. If we consider that Mr. Einstein is still very young, we are right to have great hope in him, and to see him as one of the leading theoreticians of the future. [...]

But both of them end their letter by highlighting the benefits to the institution:


The future will show more and more the worth of Mr Einstein, and the university intelligent enough to attract this young master is certain to reap great honour.


I think that the scientific institution willing to give Mr. Einstein the work he desires, either by appointing him an existing chair or by creating for him the chair in the conditions he deserves, could be greatly honored by such a decision and would certainly be providing a great service to science.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Joseph Stromberg on the Polywater Fiasco

Slate has a wonderful contribution to narrative history of a key episode in "pathological science" (a term used by Denis Rousseau in his paper; Rousseau himself was involved the work that led to the quick death of the polywater myth) -- The Curious Case of Polywater: In the 1960s, scientists discovered a new form of water. How did they get it so wrong?. It's filled with insights into hidden biases in research, bandwagon effect, and competitive international politics. Towards the end, it makes the right connections to similar episodes, including cold fusion. Great stuff!

Here's an excerpt on some of the sociological and political factors that fed the polywater frenzy:

Just before the team submitted a draft of their analysis for publication, Uncle Bob told me, he coined a catchier term for the chemical everyone had been calling anomalous water. “That just didn’t seem right as a name to me, so I wanted to think of something better,” he said, handing me the original June 27, 1969, issue of Science, which he’d held onto for all these years. “The properties,” his team wrote in the paper, “are no longer anomalous, but rather, those of a newly found substance—polymeric water or polywater.”

The response was beyond anything they could have imagined. The new findings, catchy name, and prestige of the journal Science led the press to take notice of polywater for the first time. Within days, my great-uncle’s team was interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of other outlets, as I saw from the yellowed clippings he’d kept in a gray folder. Some articles speculated that the work—both his team’s and the Soviets’—might one day lead to a Nobel Prize.

Over the next few months, polywater—and its uncanny resemblance to the world of science fiction—struck a nerve with the public. “It really caught on, because of the fact that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an unusual structure of something else, nobody would have cared. But everybody uses water—your life depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s commercial potential, perhaps as an industrial lubricant or a means of desalinating seawater. The government, fearful that a polywater research gap had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, took an interest too: the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a grant of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to mass-produce it. Once, after Deryagin stayed at my great-uncle’s house in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterward to debrief Uncle Bob about what had occurred.

G.B.S.N.P. Varma on science careers in India

The second article in the two-part series is out: In India, Rising Resources, Realistic Expectations. It talks about "some of the downsides of working in India compared to the fully developed West."

[Link to Part I].

Thursday, November 07, 2013

C.V. Raman's Speech ... in Russian!

The story behind this curious event is recounted by Mr. S. Narayan, the man who wrote that speech for him. It appeared in The New Indian Express today which happens to be Prof. Raman's 125th birth anniversary:

One bright morning, Dr. Raman told me with a beaming smile that he had been invited to visit USSR as a State Guest to receive the prestigious award. He added that he would very much like to address the Soviet Academy of Sciences at Moscow in the Russian language during his visit. The Russian Language which I had taught him in those few weeks was too rudimentary to undertake such a mammoth exercise.

Nothing is impossible for a great scientist like him. He immediately hatched a plan and suggested that I should give him a scripted text of the speech which he would practice to deliver. A couple of days later, Lady Raman told me during a repartee that her husband used to practise the speech delivery by heart like a school boy, something she could not decipher. On hearing his wife's jibe, Dr. Raman told me he was ready to deliver the speech. At the rehearsal session, he waxed eloquence over his heavily Tamil-accented Russian speech. Both lady Raman and myself had a hearty laugh. While appreciating his sincere effort, I told him that nobody would understand him if he spoke with that accent. I then gave him a cassette with the speech delivered in my voice. With the help of this cassette Dr. Raman fine- tuned his speech.

* * *

Two asides: (a) Today's Google-doodle celebrates Prof. Raman's 125th birthday. (b) The author of the TNIE piece was a lecturer in our department at IISc for a brief period in the 1950s.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mid-career Academic : Award :: Pregnant Woman : Nausea

This out of the box analogy appears in a post from J. Devika at Kafila about a new award instituted by the University of Calicut. Here's an extended quote:

... If you are in the business of reading and writing in Kerala then you MUST receive some award by mid-career — it’s a bit like experiencing nausea and tiredness in early pregnancy. You MUST have it, it is the surest sign of being pregnant, and sometimes to enjoy people’s kindness towards a pregnant woman, you need to get vomiting soonest possible. You can’t get into a conversation about pregnancy with other women without being able to recount your experience of being nauseous and tired.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Starting your S&T career in India

G.B.S.N.P. Varma's article -- Science Careers in India: Part 1. In India, Abundant Opportunities -- in Science Careers is something you could point to if you know people looking to start their careers in academic institutions as well as R&D labs in India. It hits the two main big-picture buttons: abundant opportunities and benign funding environment. [The second part will appear sometime this week].

Bonus for IISc folks: quite a few of our colleagues are featured in the article: Vishu Guttal, Prof. Maria Thaker, and Sriram Ramaswamy (who's now Director at TIFR's Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences in Hyderabad).


  1. Megan Garber in The Atlantic: Computing Power Used to Be Measured in 'Kilo-Girls'. "The earliest computers were human. And, more often than not, female."

  2. Nick Rowe: What will really old, stupid and uneducated people do?

  3. East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait. Brain Pickings channels a set of infographics from a Chinese-German artist. All are stereotypes, but some are funny.

  4. Beautiful science, Zen art, or both? [hat tip to FYFD]