Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Amerikka Desi - My Tamil Novel

Amerikka Desi (அமெரிக்க தேசி) is my first Tamil novel (yes, you read that right; no spelling mistakes from my end either) published by Tamizhini.

The release function is on Jan 4th, 2015, Sunday, 10 AM, at Raga Sudha hall in Luz, Mylapore, Chennai. Drop in.

Further reading: details about the novel in my Tamil blog; an interview related to the novel and literature in general (and here, in Tamil).

Briefly: The novel is about 700 pages. It is about the expectations, experiences, exultations and possible enlightenment of a Tamil graduate venturing as a research student to the USA. It is also a love story in absentia, on music, on philosophies and so on...

If you choose to miss the release function, the novel should be available in Tamizhini stall, in the Chennai Book Fair from Jan 9th, 2015. For international readers, online sales should begin in a month. Shall update.

BTW, a(nother) science book of mine in Tamil - Ulage un Uruvam Enna, a collection of science essays - is also getting released on the same day. Details about the past efforts are here.

Irony alert! In response to a query from MHRD, DoPT says IITs are autonomous and "not bound" by government rules

Basant Kumar Mohanty of The Telegraph makes an excellent catch!

The HRD ministry had sought the DoPT's views after the tech school cited a Government of India rule to ask Swamy to disclose what he had earned while teaching at Harvard University after the IIT had sacked him in December 1972.

The department, the regulating authority for central employees, yesterday wrote to the ministry, saying the tech schools were "autonomous" organisations "not bound" by central government rules.

Shevgaonkar's Resignation: Update #2

  1. Two important constituencies back Shevgaonkar: IIT-D faculty and IIT-D alumni.

  2. In an effort to debunk all kinds of allegations emanating from the government, IIT-D released a statement reiterating that it had all the necessary approvals for the Mauritius initiative. [See also this India Today story]

  3. In the face of all this evidence, three unnamed MHRD officials continue to push the "there's something fishy about the Mauritius initiative" line. [See also the stories from this Telegraph and The Indian Express].

  4. Lots of high level meetings have happened: The Chairman of IIT-D Board of Governors met the President, as well as the HRD Minister, who also met the President.

  5. Shevgaonkar's resignation has not been accepted so far. It is not clear where exactly it is stuck, but the long chain ends at the President's desk.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Shevgaonkar's Resignation: An Update

Three things.

First, via The Telegraph, we get some details on how Prof. Shevgaonkar was being pressured into settling the Subramanian Swamy case:

In 2008, he wrote to Prime Minister Singh but then human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, to whom the matter was forwarded, decided against granting extraordinary leave. The matter is before the high court.

The new NDA government wanted to settle the matter. Irani's ministry has sought the opinions of the department of personnel and training and the finance ministry. No advice has yet come.

Irani called Shevgaonkar and Swamy to a meeting about two months ago and again summoned the director two weeks ago, both times suggesting an out-of-court settlement, ministry and IIT Delhi sources said.

Swamy, on the other hand, has been insinuating that Shevgaonkar resigned because his actions regarding IIT-D's initiative in Mauritius are being inquired into. The government has also unleashed its "top HRD ministry sources" to run with this story [see also this story in The Financial Express].

The possible reason for the resignation of IIT-Delhi director RK Shevgaonkar could be his alleged involvement in illegally setting up an off-shore campus of the institute in Mauritius, top HRD ministry sources claimed on Sunday.

A top HRD official insisted Shevgaonkar was cornered on the Mauritius issue. "We were asking him questions to which no satisfactory reply was forthcoming," he said. According to him, Shevgaonkar had taken the proposal of IIT-D campus in Mauritius to IIT Council which told him that the Institutes of Technology Act that governs IITs do not enable creation of offshore campuses. However, he said, Shevgaonkar went ahead and had Memorandum of Understanding with Tertiary Education Commission of Mauritius. The proposed institute was to be called International Institute of Technology Research Academy.

In an attempt to squelch this twisted story, IIT-D has responded by clarifying that the Mauritius initiative had the full backing of the HRD ministry all along. As Anubhuti Vishnoi reports in India Today:

Hitting back at the Smriti Irani-led Union Human Resource Development ministry which was blaming IIT Director Prof R Shivgaonker's sudden resignation on possible irregularities related to its Mauritius MoU, the IIT on Monday said that all due clearances and approvals were taken and approved by the HRD ministry.

The IIT hit back clarifying that International Institute of Technology Research Academy in Mauritius is not an extension campus of IIT Delhi, that the IIT's role was simple advisory in nature and no financial commitment was incurred on its part. It has also brought home the point that the final MoU was approved by the HRD ministrt and signed in the presence of then HRD minister Pallam Raju.

IIT Delhi on Monday shot off a communication to the Smriti Irani-led HRD ministry with a detailed sequence of events supported with ten annexures on the Mauritius MoU to clarify its stand on the issue. The IIT also released a press statement saying the same.

We now have a PR battle between an HRD minister and an IIT director. Right now, my bets are on Shevgaonkar. That Subramanian Swamy is on the other side is one of my strongest reasons. [Here's yet another example of his unhinged imagination: Who financed the PK film? According to my sources it is traceable to Dubai and ISI. DRI must investigate.]

* * *

Update: Among the political parties, AAP does the right thing [Update (3 Jan 2015): AAP's Press Release] by bringing the debate back to the basic question of autonomy.

AAP said that BJP's "unjustified political interference" is trampling the autonomy of the top institutions for professional and technical education.

"The Aam Aadmi Party challenges the human resources development minister to answer the following two questions. Is it not a fact that she had recently summoned the IIT Delhi director ?

"Is it not a fact that impolite language was used against such a senior professor and is it also not fact that he was humiliated in that meeting?" the party said in a statement.

The party alleged that the BJP was hell bent on imposing its "dangerous agenda" on the nation.

This debate in NDTV is revealing for all the non-arguments from the highly agitated BJP spokesman. Arguing for the other side, Yogendra Yadav is absolutely flawless!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Shocking: Prof. Shevgaonkar has resigned?

Shocking, if true:

IIT Delhi director Raghunath K Shevgaonkar has quit more than two years before the end of his term. A senior IIT official confirmed the news on Saturday though human resource development ministry officials claimed they were unaware of it.

Shevgaonkar has been under tremendous pressure from the ministry to accede to two of its demands, IIT sources said. He was reportedly asked to provide the IIT ground for a cricket academy Sachin Tendulkar wanted to open and also pay nearly Rs 70 lakh to former IIT D faculty and now BJP functionary Subramanian Swamy as his "salary dues" between 1972 and 1991.

Shevgaonkar was opposed to both the demands, the sources said. [...]

[Source: Akshaya Mukul's report in the Times of India]

I knew about the Swamy case, and I can see why he might be angling for support from the present government led by his party. But the other issue -- involving Sachin Tendulkar -- appears totally bizarre. Especially since Tendulkar has clarified that he neither has a cricket academy nor has he any designs on IIT-D land!

Other journalists (whose work I respect) have been tweeting that Prof. Shevgaonkar has indeed resigned, and the Swamy case is certainly one of the reasons. [I would rate Mukul's reporting also as solid; so, I expect some clarification from him / ToI on their mistake about Tendulkar's involvement]

* * *

Sure enough, ToI has issued the following clarification [in a rather personal-blog-like language] at the end of the news story. Oops, indeed.

Oops. A clarification:-

IIT sources had told TOI that there was pressure on the director to give land for SachinTendulkar's cricket academy. However, Tendulkar has strongly denied that this is the case. In fact, he has said he has no plans for a cricket academy. We are sorry to have carried the news on the basis of sources which have been reliable in the past and didn't check with Tendulkar. We are sorry for this. We are also removing all mentions of this from the story.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

University Assessments in the US and the UK

This month saw two significant events in higher ed elsewhere.

The first was in the US, where the Department of Education released a "draft framework" outlining a set of parameters which can form the basis for rating colleges and universities. The report is open for public discussion and debate, before the rating policy is finalized. See the NYTimes story on the report, and Kevin Carey's commentary on it. The ratings are meant to help aspiring undergraduate students in choosing the right colleges to apply to.

The second was the much awaited announcement of the results of an extensive assessment exercise called REF (Research Excellence Framework). As the name suggests, this exercise is only about the research conducted at the UK universities, and its results have a strong impact on universities as well as on individual departments. See The Guardian story: REF 2014: why is it such a big deal?.

The Guardian's coverage is a good place to start, but you can get all the data at the REF site.

See also: Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose‬‬‬.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Umpiring Bias

A neat study by Ian Gregory-Smith, David Paton, Abhinav Sacheti -- Not really cricket: Home bias in officiating -- confirms what many fans "know":

... This column investigates this problem using new data from cricket matches. The authors find that neutral umpires decrease the bias against away teams, making neutral officials very important for a fair contest.

* * *

Merry Good Governance Day, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Wonderful Educational Module

Vi Hart and Nicki Case have created a web page with very instructive browser-based and visually attractive simulations: Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the Shape of Society. It's also a practical and playful introduction to the 1971 classic, Dynamic Models of Segregation, by Thomas Schelling; the model itself is an interesting variation of the Ising model.

* * *

Hat tip to: Joshua Gans at Digitopoly.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Japanese First at Hosei University

Miki Tanikawa of NYTimes profiles Prof. Yoko Tanaka, the first woman to lead a "major Japanese University":

The traditional, mild-mannered appearance of Yuko Tanaka, clad in a kimono and geta sandals, belies the unbending determination of the woman who has become the first female president of one of Japan’s oldest and largest universities.

With the curious mixture of quiet Japanese elegance and the gravitas that comes with holding the top seat at Hosei University, a 130-year-old institution with about 30,000 students and 1,500 faculty and staff, Professor Tanaka, 62, makes regular appearances on a Sunday morning talk show aired on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, where she is known for her tirades against the right-leaning government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The appointment a year ago of Professor Tanaka, the first woman to be named president of a major Japanese university, could not have come at a more relevant or ripe moment. A long, sleepy era for Japanese universities ended in the 1990s when a demographic shift occurred: A sharp decline in the number of young people put academic institutions in the position of having to compete for new students. [Bold emphasis added]

Ranking Tail and Institutional Dogs

Ranking of universities in the US has thrown up several cases of fraudulent reporting by places like George Washington and Claremont McKenna. Others have taken a more strategic route by re-prioritizing their spending to target higher scores in the metrics that matter. I just linked to a Boston Magazine story on Northeastern's efforts to align its priorities with those of US News.

We now have a BBC story about the French government taking this strategic route, which will cost "only" 7.5 billion euros:

As part of a huge government-driven academic and economic project, there will be a new university called Paris-Saclay, with a campus south of the French capital. The project has initial funding of 7.5bn euros (£5.9bn) for an endowment, buildings and transport links.

The French government is bringing together 19 institutions into a single structure, with the aim of building a university of a size and scale that can compete with global giants like Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Dominique Vernay, the president of this new university, says that within a decade he wants Paris-Saclay to be among the top ranking world universities.

"My goal is to be a top 10 institution," he says. In Europe, he wants Paris-Saclay to be in the "top two or three".

* * *

Sometime ago, we also saw a study that looked at how much it would cost Rochester -- "consistently ranked in the mid-thirties" -- to break into the top 20 in the US News list. It arrived at a figure of 112 million dollars to take care of just two of the metrics -- faculty salary and resources provided to students.

Friday, December 12, 2014


  1. Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus, and Ivan Oransky in Nature: Publishing: The peer-review scam. "When a handful of authors were caught reviewing their own papers, it exposed weaknesses in modern publishing systems. Editors are trying to plug the holes."

  2. Matt Kutner in Boston Magazine: How to Game the College Rankings. "Northeastern University executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in higher education. Its recipe for success? A single-minded focus on just one list."

  3. S. Rukmini in The Hindu: 40 % faculty posts vacant in Central varsities. "Faculty vacancy in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) was 40 per cent as of July this year, most acute in Varanasi, Roorkee (above 50 per cent), Kharagur and Delhi. Vacancies were highest for OBC faculty. ...In the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), faculty vacancies stood at over 20 per cent, highest in Indore (52 per cent) and Ranchi (48 per cent)."

Auctioning of Jim Watson's Nobel Medal

There are just too many bizarre twists in this sequence: James Watson auctioned off his 1962 Nobel Medal; the highest bidder, a Russian multi-billionaire, bought it and returned it to Watson. Read more about Watson's peevish motivations here, and about the aftermath of the auction here.

Fallen Hero

This was really sad to read about an academic superstar [see this NYTimes profile] with millions of student fans across the globe:

MIT indefinitely removes online physics lectures and courses by Walter Lewin
"MIT policy on sexual harassment was found to be violated."

MIT is indefinitely removing retired physics faculty member Walter Lewin’s online lectures from MIT OpenCourseWare and online MITx courses from edX, the online learning platform co-founded by MIT, following a determination that Dr. Lewin engaged in online sexual harassment in violation of MIT policies.

MIT’s action comes in response to a complaint it received in October from a woman, who is an online MITx learner, claiming online sexual harassment by Lewin. She provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his MITx courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners.

MIT immediately began an investigation, and as a precaution instructed Lewin not to contact any MIT students or online learners, either current or former.

The investigation followed MIT protocol for complaints of sexual harassment. The head of the physics department, Professor Peter Fisher, ensured an objective and timely review, which included a review of detailed materials provided by the complainant and interviews of her and Lewin.

Based on its investigation, MIT has determined that Lewin’s behavior toward the complainant violated the Institute’s policy on sexual harassment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

When a HBS Faculty Met a Chinese Restaurant Owner

The tale of a professor of negotiation tangling with a mom-and-pop restaurant owner over 4 dollars is, like, totally awesome ...

What ails Indian science: Two views

Here are a couple of links if you are in the mood for a rant about Indian science establishment:

  1. Free Science from Oligarchy by A. Jayakrishnan.

  2. What is Wrong with Science in India? by B.M. Hegde, and

Jayakrishnan is a former VC of the University of Kerala and CUSAT; Hegde is a former VC of Manipal University.

Hegde also cites this (unpublished) study of mine, but that cannot be the reason for my link to his article, right? Right?

The Myth of STEM Shortage

Robert Charette sets the record straight in this IEEE Spectrum piece. It *is* US-centric, but I think there's something in it for folks elsewhere too.

* * *
See also Noah Smith: What Tech-Worker Shortage?

The situation is so dismal that governments everywhere are now pouring billions of dollars each year into myriad efforts designed to boost the ranks of STEM workers. President Obama has called for government and industry to train 10 000 new U.S. engineers every year as well as 100 000 additional STEM teachers by 2020. And until those new recruits enter the workforce, tech companies like Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are lobbying to boost the number of H-1B visas—temporary immigration permits for skilled workers—from 65 000 per year to as many as 180 000. The European Union is similarly introducing the new Blue Card visa to bring in skilled workers from outside the EU. The government of India has said it needs to add 800 new universities, in part to avoid a shortfall of 1.6 million university-educated engineers by the end of the decade.

And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Adventures in Publishing

Just a bunch of links:

  1. Will Oremus in Slate: This Is What Happens When No One Proofreads an Academic Paper. "Should we cite that crappy Gabor paper?"

  2. This link is from Oremus's piece. Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin in Slate: The Snarky, Clever Comments Hidden in the "Acknowledgments" of Academic Papers. “This work was ostensibly supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research. … The Ministry however has not paid its dues and it is not known whether it will ever do.”

  3. Jeffrey Beall: Bogus Journal Accepts Profanity-Laced Anti-Spam Paper. “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List.” [Via Inside Higher Ed].

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Plagiarism Allegations against VCs at Jadavpur, Pondicherry Universities

I completely missed these two other stories about plagiarism allegations against the Vice Chancellors at Jadavpur University and Pondicherry University. Serious stuff!

Mayank Jain in Plagiarism charges fuel demands for removal of Jadavpur University's vice chancellor.

The Telegraph: Jadavpur VC credentials under court scanner.

Arun Janardhanan in The Indian Express: Pondicherry V-C has a problem: CV has a suspect book, two that can’t be traced, and his follow-up: ‘Plagiarism’: Teachers at Pondicherry varsity seek V-C’s removal.

Deepak Pental's Arrest (and Subsequent Bail)

Wow, this came out of nowhere! Prof. Deepak Pental (a professor of genetic engineering at the Delhi University, and also its Vice Chancellor during 2005-1010) was arrested, sent to Tihar Jail, before he got bail later in the evening. The charges against him were filed by a fellow DU professor (but in a different department), and they include forgery, illegal transport of genetically modified material, and plagiarism. For some strange reason, most news outlets have played up the plagiarism angle; the other charges appear far more grave (one of them, apparently, is so serious that one can be sent to jail for life).

Most news stories I have seen today were short on details, since they were reacting to fast-changing events of yesterday. Only a few have managed to go beyond the bare-bones version put out by PTI. Here are the links to some of the better-reported stories: The Telegraph, India Today, and here.

I'm sure we will get a lot more details in the days to come.

* * *

Update: The NDTV debate doesn't offer details, but the comments by K.L. Chopra (from the Society for Scientific Values) are quite damaging to Pental's case.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Google Scholar Turned 10 This Month

Let me start with links to profiles / interviews of Anurag Acharya, the IIT-KGP and Carnegie Mellon alum who co-created this wonderful service along with Alex Verstak. First up, an interview at the biggest scholarly venue of them all: Nature, where Richard Van Noorden interviews him: Google Scholar pioneer on search engine’s future.

Where did the idea for Google Scholar come from?

I came to Google in 2000, as a year off from my academic job at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was pretty clear that I was unlikely to have a larger impact [in academia] than at Google — making it possible for people everywhere to be able to find information. So I gave up on academia and ran Google’s web-indexing team for four years. It was a very hectic time, and basically, I burnt out.

Alex Verstak and I decided to take a six-month sabbatical to try to make finding scholarly articles easier and faster. The idea wasn’t to produce Google Scholar, it was to improve our ranking of scholarly documents in web search. But the problem with trying to do that is figuring out the intent of the searcher. Do they want scholarly results or are they a layperson? We said, “Suppose you didn’t have to solve that hard a problem; suppose you knew the searcher had a scholarly intent.” We built an internal prototype, and people said: “Hey, this is good by itself. You don’t have to solve another problem — let’s go!” Then Scholar clearly seemed to be very useful and very important, so I ended up staying with it.

The second is a nice profile that I saw on Medium: Making the world’s problem solvers 10% more efficient [the URL text is even better: "the gentleman who made scholar"] by Steven Levy. Here's an excerpt from near the end, where Anurag is asked about his plans, now that Scholar has entered a mature phase:

Acharya is now 50. He’s excited about adding new features to Scholar — improving the “alerts” function and other forms that help users discover information important to them that they might not know is out there. Would he want to continue working on Scholar for another ten years? “One always believes there are other opportunities, but the problem is how to pursue them when you are in a place you like and you have been doing really well. I can do problems that seem very interesting me — but the biggest impact I can possible make is helping people who are solving the world’s problems to be more efficient. If I can make the world’s researchers ten percent more efficient, consider the cumulative impact of that. So if I ended up spending the next ten years going this, I think I would be extremely happy.”

* * *

Anurag's Scholar profile is here. And the Google Scholar blog has been running a series of posts to mark its 10th anniversary: Start from Helping Researchers See Farther Faster, and look for newer posts.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Jack Grove: Germany's Import-Export Model

An interesting article on how Germany views Study Abroad aspects of college education:

Sending half of Germany’s university students abroad for part of their studies by 2020 will give the country a major competitive advantage over other export-driven nations, a leading figure in German higher education asserts.

Sebastian Fohrbeck, director of internationalization and communication at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which promotes German higher education abroad, dismissed fears that its plans for “a massive movement of students abroad” represented an “organized brain drain.”.

About a third of German students now undertake some of their degree study in another country, but government ministers are keen to increase this to 50 percent within six years, Fohrbeck told a conference in London, which was jointly organized by the UK HE International Unit, the Institut Français and the DAAD.


Following the #shirtstorm (and the apology), there has been an outpouring of articles and blog posts on the women-unfriendly culture in academic science in particular, and academia and science in general. Here are a few links:

  1. Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science: The Rosetta mission #shirtstorm was never just about that shirt and A guide for science guys trying to understand the fuss about that shirt.

  2. Kelly Baker in Vitae: Science Isn’t the Problem; Scientists Are.

  3. Noah Smith in BloombergView: Economics Is a Dismal Science for Women. Money quote: "Why is it that the sciences look like a feminist nirvana compared with the economics profession, which seems to have a built-in bias that prevents women from advancing?"

Marguerite Del Giudice: Why It's Crucial to Get More Women Into Science

National Geographic:

So what difference does it make when there is a lack of women in science? For one, it means women might not get the quality of health care that men receive.

It's now widely acknowledged that countless women with heart disease have been misdiagnosed in emergency rooms and sent home, possibly to die from heart attacks, because for decades what we know now wasn't known: that they can exhibit different symptoms from men for cardiovascular disease. Women also have suffered disproportionately more side effects from various medications, from statins to sleep aids, because the recommended doses were based on clinical trials that focused largely on average-size men.

Such miscalculated dosages often have not been discovered until the drugs were on the market. Just last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised women to cut their doses of the sleeping pill Ambien in half, after learning that the active ingredient in the drug remained in women's bodies longer than it did in men's.

Was the oversight in medical research deliberate? No, many scientists say. There was simply a routine procedural bias not to include sex as a variable in scientific research.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Congratulations to ...

I completely missed the Infosys Prize announcement [reason: travel, with little internet access]. When I eventually caught up with the news, I was absolutely delighted see this year's list featuring Prof. Jayant Haritsa, a friend and colleague (and a friend of this blog!), who won the Engineering Prize.

I was also pleased to find Prof. Shamnad Basheer winning the Humanities Prize. I have never met him, but I have been following his work (on and off) through Spicy IP, a blog / forum / initiative founded by him to discuss issues related to intellectual property laws.

Congratulations to all the Prize winners, and especially to Jayant and Shamnad!

* * *

[Aside: It's great to get back to this blog with such wonderful news!]

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Philosophy of Word

Escape from Microsoft Word by Edward Mendelson in NYRB:

The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius, but it had nothing to do with the way writing gets done. The programmers did not think about writing as a sequence of words set down on a page, but instead dreamed up a new idea about what they called a “document.” This was effectively a Platonic idea: the “form” of a document existed as an intangible ideal, and each tangible book, essay, love letter, or laundry list was a partial, imperfect representation of that intangible idea.

A document, as Word’s creators imagined it, is a container for other ideal forms. Each document contains one or more “sections,” what everyone else calls chapters or other subdivisions. Each section contains one or more paragraphs. Each paragraph contains one or more characters. Documents, sections, paragraphs, and characters all have sets of attributes, most of which Word calls “styles.” [...]

Monday, October 20, 2014

IISc Alumni Global Conference - 2015 will be right here at IISc

IISc and its alumni started this series of conferences with the first one in Santa Clara, California, in 2007 (Flickr pics) -- just a year before, and possibly as a prelude to, the Institute's Centenary Celebrations. The second edition followed in due course in 2013, this time in Chicago, Illinois.

The third edition of this Conference is coming home to the Institute. The dates are: 26-28 June 2015.

It is a sign of the times that this Conference gets announced on social media well before the conference website is ready. Much as I hate to send you to any of these time sinks, here are the links to the community / group pages:

If Twitter is your social media poison of choice, the relevant hashtag is #IIScAGC.

* * *

If you happen to be an IISc alum, do please pass this message along to your buddies.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When a Nobel Medal Went to Fargo, North Dakota

Astrophysicist and 2011 Nobel winner Brian Schmidt has this totally priceless story:

"When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’

I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’

They said, ‘What’s in the box?’

I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.

So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’

I said, ‘gold.’

And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’

‘The King of Sweden.’

‘Why did he give this to you?’

‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’

At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

"Beautiful Chemistry"

Wonderful stuff [Hat tip: Cocktail Party Physics]. Here's the website with lots of interactive graphics.

Batmobile: The Origin

For the Annals of Pop Culture: The Batmobile: The Concept Car That Became a Star by Michael Beschloss.

[In] 1965, ABC television greenlighted a new series called “Batman,” and its producers needed a Batmobile — fast. Within three weeks, using blowtorches and saws, the automobile customizer George Barris transformed the Futura’s deteriorating concept car — which he had bought from Ford for a dollar — into a rakish roadster suitable for TV’s new Batman and Robin ... [Bold emphasis added]

Links: Parenting Edition

Two links. The first one is a summary of an economics paper: Tiger moms and helicopter parents: The economics of parenting style by Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, who use cross-country data to support their conclusion that in times of rising inequality, a more authoritarian parenting style will likely be chosen by parents:

This column argues that the choice of parenting style is driven by incentives. Parents weigh the expected costs and benefits of implementing a certain parenting style. The popularity of the authoritarian style is declining because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen. The rising inequality implies higher returns to education. This calls for pushier parenting styles, such as the authoritative one. A decline in inequality is likely to prompt a more relaxed parenting.

The second is a column by Pamela Druckerman: A Cure for Hyper-Parenting.

Measuring the effectiveness of medication

Sarah Fallon at Wired has an informative story on putting a number, called the number needed to treat (NNT), on the effectiveness of medication and procedures.

Developed by a trio of epidemiologists back in the ’80s, the NNT describes how many people would need to take a drug for one person to benefit. [...] If your kid is throwing up and you take her to the hospital, she might get a drug called Zofran. The NNT for that is 5, meaning that only five kids need to take Zofran for one of them to stop throwing up.

The story goes on to talk about a site called with the tagline, "Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine."

It’s unfortunate ... that the NNT is not a statistic that’s routinely conveyed to either doctors or patients. But you can look it up on a site that you’ve probably never heard of: Started by David Newman, a director of clinical research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital, the site’s dozens of contributors analyze the available studies, crunch the numbers on benefits and harms, and then post the results.

Here's a bit more on NNT and how it is assigned to a medication or a treatment procedure:

As statistical tools go, the idea of the number needed to treat is relatively new. It was first described in 1988 by epidemiologists Andreas Laupacis, David Sackett, and Robin Roberts in a New England Journal of Medicine article titled “An Assessment of Clinically Useful Measures of the Consequences of Treatment.” They start by sketching out the problems with a number called the relative risk reduction. That’s the measure you often see hyped in media reports of scientific studies. Imagine, for example, a study of heart disease that finds that a new drug reduces the risk of death by an astonishing 50 percent. The reality behind that number is that the risk of death over a 10-year period for, say, a healthy 45-year-old man weighing 200 pounds went from 5 percent to 2.5 percent—50 percent! Such a finding is clinically significant, yes. Worthy of publication, maybe. But not quite as astonishing.

It would be better, the authors write, to look at a number called the absolute risk reduction—the 2.5 percent reduction that resulted from the new drug. But working with that measure can be hard to understand, because it is actually a percent of a percent. To make it more intuitive and apprehendable, the authors explain, you can use the inverse of absolute risk reduction: Divide 1 by 2.5 percent, or .025, to get 40. And that’s the number needed to treat. Forty people have to take the drug for one person to benefit. So is it worth taking? That depends. The NNT isn’t crazy high, so you might go for it, especially since a heart attack can kill you. But if the drug has terrible side effects, you might not.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Other Big Verdict

Outlook reports [hat tip to my collegue Atul Chokshi for the e-mail alert]:

Delhi High Court



and its management from using “MBA, BBA, Management Course, Management School, Business School or B-School” ” in relation to the courses / programmes being conducted by them."

The Outlook link also has the pdf of the verdict.

* * *

See also this Mint report: High court censures IIPM, Arindam Chaudhuri for misleading students.


  1. Samanth Subramanian in The New Yorker: India's Frugal Mission to Mars (November 2013) and Why India Went to Mars (25 September 2014).

  2. Eldho Mathews in Inside Higher Ed: Internationalization: Where Is India Headed?

  3. UGC tags 8 deemed universities 'unworthy', Basant Kumar Mohanty reports in The Telegraph.

  4. India's Town of Toppers, Rakesh Kumar reports in Gulf News - Weekend Review.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Nalanda University is off to a modest start this year, admitting the first batch of 16 students in its School of Historical Studies and School of Ecology and Environment Studies.

Mint marks this occasion with a photo essay by Shamik Bag on this unique university project (e.g., its funding is through the Ministry of External Affairs).

Academic Stardom through Falsified Resume

Someone is a academic star?

He is from India? Check.

He used fake credentials? Check.

His victims include several American Universities? Check.

Him? No, but there are many parallels.

Nona Willis Aornowitz and Tony Dokoupil of NBC News have a totally gripping story: Ivory Tower Phony? Sex, Lies and Fraud Alleged in West Virginia.

seemed like the Doogie Howser of India, able to crack the country’s best medical school, and work there as a 21-year-old doctor. Anoop Shankar later claimed to add a Ph.D. in epidemiology and treat patients even as he researched population-wide diseases. He won a “genius” visa to America, shared millions in grants, and boasted of membership in the prestigious Royal College of Physicians.

In 2012 West Virginia University hand-picked this international star to help heal one of the country’s sickest states. At just 37, Shankar was nominated to the first endowed position in a new School of Public Health, backed by a million dollars in public funds.

But there was a problem: Shankar isn’t a Ph.D. He didn’t graduate from the Harvard of India. He didn’t write dozens of the scholarly publications on his resume ...

Thursday, September 11, 2014


  1. Amy J. Binder (sociologist at UC-San Diego) in Washington Monthly: Why Are Harvard Grads Still Flocking to Wall Street?. "Students from elite colleges march off to jobs at the big banks and consulting firms less by choice than because of a rigged recruiting game that the schools themselves have helped to create."

  2. Claire Cain Miller at The Upshot: The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus. "A Child Helps Your Career, if You’re a Man".

  3. Michael Shermer in SciAm: How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality.

  4. Richard Harris in NPR: When Scientists Give Up.

    Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right — attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.

    But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.

    So, he's giving up on science. And he's not alone.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Links: The Women-in-Science Edition

  1. Patricia Fara in Nature (and non-paywalled!): Women in Science: A Temporary Liberation. "The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality."

  2. Zuleyka Zevallos, Buddhini Samarasinghe and Rajini Rao in's SoapboxScience blog: Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM. In a section devoted to institutional interventions, they say:

    Active intervention at the institutional level also leads to positive change. Already, some colleges are reporting huge improvements: at Carnegie Mellon University, 40% of undergraduate incoming class in computer science are women, a welcome contrast to the dismal 18% of graduates in the U.S., and at Harvey Mudd College, more than half of the freshman engineering class this year were women. Their strategies ranged from featuring women on their brochures and as tour guides, to training teachers and hosting camps for high school students.

  3. Mark Guzdial in Computing Education Blog: The most gender-balanced computing program in the USA: Computational Media at Georgia Tech. Making sense of two trends in one institution: growth of women's share from 25% to 45% in ten years (while that in the CS program grew from 9% to 19%), accompanied by a shrinking enrollment in the CM program.

  4. Ruthe Farmer in Shriver Report: 10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


This is at # 96 in the list of UGC approved degrees in the Gazette notification of July 5, 2014.

That's all.

UGC's War on FYUP - VII: Some Observations

  1. The very first thing to note is the shameful silence of the science academies which championed the cause of a four year bachelors program in the sciences; their position paper was a precursor to the IISc's FYUP (and also Bangalore University where it has been in suspension since 2013) which started in August 2011, the same year IIT-K converted its five-year Integrated MSc program into a 4-year BS program.

    The Academies didn't defend, even partially, the FYUP at Delhi University. I can understand, sort of, their silence because DU's FYUP was not just for the sciences, but for all areas of study including commerce and the "arts subjects". But I just cannot understand their quiet aloofness after UGC came after IISc and now, the IITs.

  2. The statements of support from Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Dr. Anil Kakodkar have been timely. But their framing leaves much to be desired: "why are you doing this," they seem to say to UGC, "to our premier institutions?" It's as if it's okay for the UGC to do this to other institutions. As influential leaders, they could have stood solidly behind all our institutions of higher ed, and demanded autonomy for all of them.

  3. It has become fashionable among the influencers to support the creation of new types of institutions such as IIESTs and IISERs as well as starting new IITs, NITs and IIMs. An assumption which drives this trend is that our universities are so badly doomed that reforming "the system" is not even worth the effort.

    But, this mindset ignores the fact that an overwhelming majority (more than 95%, going by a recent talk by President Pranab Mukherjee) of our students study in our universities and their affiliated colleges. It is important for our scientific elite to support them in their struggle against irrational regulations.

  4. One of the strongest critiques of Indian higher ed policies of the 1950s was that the then government chose national labs (basically, the CSIR labs) over universities for science funding. This choice had the effect of pretty much decimating university research, and helped make many of them just examination-conducting bodies.

    Our current enthusiasm for creating IIXs can only have a similar debilitating effect on our universities, and may end up solidifying a two-tier system in which some get elite and expensive education while a vast majority go to increasingly impoverished universities.

    We should be aiming for a system where our good universities have the same exalted status as the IITs, and others know what they need to do to achieve that status. It is in our own long-term interest that our policies keep us moving toward this goal.

    I'm afraid our policies are dragging us in the opposite direction.

UGC's War on FYUP - VI: Newpspaers Ask UGC To Back Off

Several newspaper editorials have come down hard on UGC, and asked it to back off from its highhanded actions against FYUP at many institutions, including the IITs and IISc.

The Economic Times:

There is every reason for these institutions to experiment with varied programmes. The UGC and the government must encourage, rather than thwart, innovation in pedagogy. Centres of excellence such as the IITs and the IISc and small, private universities are ideal for carrying out such experiments. If found successful, these can then be deployed in larger universities across the country.

The Indian Express:

... [T]he UGC [has been accused of] regulatory overreach. Actually, this is more than linear overreach. It is a category mistake, a blunder that logicians abhor. ... The Kakodkar Committee, set up in 2010, had recommended that centres of excellence be liberated from the educational bureaucracy. The board of governors of each IIT should have complete control over the teaching process, ranging from course design to expenditure management, human resource development and rules governing staff and payroll.

UGC's War on FYUP - V: How the Others Reacted

Symbiosis University in Pune is one of the institutions to receive the love letter from UGC, and it hated it so much that it took UGC to court:

Symbiosis International University, a non-profit private institution in Pune near Mumbai, took the matter to the Mumbai high court on 20 August, for a stay on a July UGC directive received by Symbiosis on 9 August to discontinue its four-year liberal arts programme.

The court ruled that the UGC “never communicated and-or even asked any explanation and-or even issued a show-cause notice before taking such a drastic action”, court documents said.

The same report contains some information about how some other recipients of UGC's missive have responded. Here's how Ashoka University reacted:

But pre-empting UGC intervention, the university has re-jigged the course to a three-year degree with an optional fourth year project or research paper.

And this is the response of the O.P. Jindal Global University:

Although it was also contacted by the UGC, another non-profit, OP Jindal Global University, said it did not offer four-year programmes, only an optional study abroad year where students can go to the United States.

UGC's War on FYUP - IV: A Great Tactical Move by the IITS

Ask the UGC to send its diktat to the IIT Council, which is chaired by the HRD Minister, and has as its members some of the most respected and admired people -- IIT Directors as well as Chairpersons of their Boards.

Meanwhile, stating that the President of India, who is also the Visitor of IITs, “will have to take a call” on the issue, the directors of some institutes have said that until now, there has been “no requirement of clearance from the UGC on any matter concerning the IITs”.

Reacting to the UGC’s clarification, IIT Kanpur director Prof Indranil Manna told The Indian Express, “We are empowered to run our courses through our senate and our statutes. This is clearly stated in the IIT Act. If there is to be a change in this, the IIT council will have to take it up… In my opinion, UGC guidelines only apply to institutes under the commission and the IITs are clearly outside their ambit.”

* * *

Update: The Economic Times reports that the UGC Chairperson is also a member of the IIT Council, and the HRD Ministry has endorsed this move.

UGC's War on FYUP - III: What if UGC's Real Problem is with the HRD MInistry?

Here's an interesting speculation based on what some UGC insiders have said: UGC's problem is not with IISc/IITs/Universities, but with the HRD Ministry!

Even as UGC chairperson Ved Prakash did not respond to email questionnaire or text messages, sources said the Commission's missive to institutions is part of its growing battle with the HRD ministry. UGC, a source said, was not comfortable with the idea of scrapping Delhi University's Four-Year Undergraduate Programme but had to acquiesce as the government had made up its mind.

"The commission and chairperson had to literally go against their own words about FYUP. Before the new government decided to scrap FYUP, UGC had endorsed the new programme. While UGC is within its right to send communication to educational institutions, it has been done now to drag in the HRD ministry. The ploy seems to have worked as the Commission has gone silent and the ministry is left defending the communication," a UGC source said.

UGC's War on FYUP - II: Response from the Guwahati University

To be filed under "I learn something new everyday": Guwahati University appears to be the first one to have started a four-year UG program -- way back in 2009, two full years before the FYUPs at IISc and IIT-K. Unfortunately, GU has also been bullied into scrapping its FYUP:

The university's Institute of Science and Technology (GUIST), which conducts the course, will not enroll a fresh batch of students this year, considering the University Grants Commission (UGC)'s opposition to four-year undergraduate programme ( FYUP).

"The UGC has asked several leading institutions of the country to do away with their four-year undergraduate courses. GU does not want to violate UGC's diktats. So, its academic council has recently asked GUIST to discontinue the four-year BS programme," said a senior GU official.

UGC's War on FYUP - I: A Fighting Response from the IITs

I have no new insights into UGC's actions (which include writing to the IITs and asking them to get their degrees aligned with the UGC notification), other than what is reported in the newspapers, and what others have said. As for the latter, Dheeraj Sanghi's musings are about the best; start with his posts: UGC decides maximum standards, and MHRD agrees with UGC.

The IITs claim that since they were created through an act of Parliament, they are outside the purview of UGC; this view has been contested by the UGC which says that while the IITs have all the autonomy in how they structure their courses, they simply do not have the right to call their degrees whatever they want.

Reacting to the controversy, UGC chairman Professor Ved Prakash said there is "no question of any encroachment".

"Every university is also a statutory body, but there is a procedure to be followed… no other body except the UGC can specify degrees. We are a conduit between the government and the institution, and no one can award a degree that is not approved," he said. [Source: India Today]

If UGC has its way, the 4-year BS degree, which was introduced by IIT-Kanpur in 2011 (the same year IISc started its own BS program) would be in trouble, since the abbreviation "BS", as a degree, does not appear in the Gazette notification of July 5, 2014. [The funny part, of course, is that this list has "only" 129 degrees!].

It now appears that the IITs are itching for a public fight which the UGC is very likely to lose. This realization is probably behind the HRD Ministry's suggestion that the IITs and UGC sit together across a table, and work things out; UGC's utterances have also mellowed lately.

Given the high-handed way the UGC has conducted itself in the last several months (starting with the gutting of the FYUP at the Delhi University), it is understandable that people root for the IITs in their fight.

[Disclosure: There is a personal interest for me: if the IITs win, we at IISc will also be able to restore the name "BS" to our own 4-year degree program].

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Some Bad Habits are Learned at School

A letter from S. Ramasesha in Current Science:

... While wilful plagiarism should be punished exemplarily, it may also, in some cases, be due to a lack of understanding on the part of the offender as to what constitutes plagiarism. In the Indian context, often the young researchers, mainly students, commit plagiarism ‘unknowingly’ because it is not clear to them as to what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. This is especially true for students in India, since in their formative years in school, often teachers give full credit only for answers which are reproduced verbatim from their textbooks or class notes. Students who write answers in their own words are often penalized. [...]

And also, this article by Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie in Times Higher Education:

Further discussion with our own undergraduate research students uncovered what they considered to be the main cause of such misconduct: the way science is taught at school. The obsession with box-ticking is a major culprit, where assessment rewards only the right answer rather than the process of research and the integrity of reporting. Students told us of teachers who encouraged them to make up results (the right ones, of course) when a particular experiment had not “worked”. The problem is obvious: teachers have not been given sufficient time by governments and curriculum developers to properly teach the scientific process and to do experiments carefully. If an experiment or demonstration fails, pupils need to understand why. It is ludicrous that pupils should ever be encouraged to fake results when their experiments do not turn out as expected, or be punished with lower marks when they do not get the “right” answer. We expect that for some ambitious young scientists, the mis-training they received at school sets the agenda for the rest of their career.

Einstein's Grade Card

We saw Ramanujan's grade card last week. It's Einstein's turn this week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Links ...

  1. Infosys Science Foundation donates Rs. 20 crores to IISc for chaired professorships in mathematics and physics.

  2. The Lower Ambitions of Higher Education. Dwight Garner reviews William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

    William Deresiewicz, of course, is the author of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, an article that went viral almost immediately after it went online in 2008. It now seems to have been expanded into a book.

  3. Plagiarism Allegation on Textbook's Definition of Plagiarism. The title says it all.

    [This reminds me of plagiarism in an book on ... intellectual property!]

  4. Graeme Wood in The Atlantic: The Future of College?

  5. It's official: paying reviewers does get results! Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and László Sándor describe the lessons from their experiment with referees at an economics journal.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vishwesha Guttal on Higher Ed Regulation in India

Over at The Conversation, Vishwesha Guttal, a colleage in the Centre for Ecological Sciences, has a piece on Indian higher ed with a specific reference to the recent UGC directive to IISc on its FYUP. An excerpt:

India has adopted the UK’s model of three-year BSc program for more than 50 years, but the quality of most of the programs is abysmal. A paper prepared jointly by three Indian science academies in 2008 identified various limitations of the present system that focuses on quantity of information rather than the quality of education. The report argued for a four-year program with an emphasis on flexibility in curriculum, choice of subjects and research experience. They also recommended allowing students to switch between science and engineering.

India’s requirement as a large and diverse country cannot and should not rely on a failed mode of higher education uniformly imposed across the entire country. Experiments to improve education must be encouraged, especially if the premier institutes of the country are taking the lead. We can only know what works best if we attempt a variety of approaches.

FYUP at IISc: A Resolution?

This post has some updates at the end.

* * *

Basant Kumar Mohanty reports in The Telegraph (also check out Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi's take on it in a comment in an earlier post):

The Indian Institute of Science and the University Grants Commission have agreed on a compromise formula to wriggle out of the latest controversy surrounding the four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) course.

The IISc’s proposal to tweak the four-year BS course to BSc (Research), making the fourth-year research voluntary, has been accepted by the UGC, even as students and parents continue to be unhappy.

The BS course will now be known as BSc (Research), with an exit option after three years as a general BSc programme while the fourth year will be devoted to research.

I'm sure we will learn more in the days ahead, and I'll update this post with links.

* * *


  1. (9:00 AM, 14 Aug 2014) The proposed change in the degree awarded at the end of four years -- from the original, nationally advertised B.S. to the new, decidedly underwhelming B.Sc. (Research) -- is bound to rankle the students. I dont' expect the second change (that of an exit option after 3 years leading to the usual B.Sc. degree) to cause a major stir.

    It is not clear how exactly this name change came about. In one version (in Mohanty's Telegraph report, above), it was IISc's idea: "The Bangalore institute yesterday [11 August 2014] sent a letter suggesting it was ready to tweak the BS programme to BSc (Research)." CNN-IBN and Deccan Herald also support this view: "According to a ministry official, the IISc also proposed to change the nomenclature and scheme of the programme making it a three-year course for BSc degree and four-year BSc research degree."

    In a second version (also reported by Mohanty in The Telegraph, one day earlier!):

    Official sources said the UGC has suggested that the IISc should tweak the format of its course and rename it BSc (Research). The first three years could be devoted to a general BSc course as offered by other universities, and the fourth to research, which could be optional.

    Students could then exit the course after three years if they wished. If they chose to continue for the fourth year, they would be awarded a BSc (Research) degree. They would also get credit points that would help them get direct admission into a PhD programme.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


  1. On this the World Elephant Day, you should enjoy this cute overload video shared by Sanjeeta in our Institute's Ecological Students Society blog. Institute.

  2. Andy Thomason in CHE: How Did the Federal Government Rate Your College a Century Ago?

  3. Another bit of historical curiosity: Did Srinivasa Ramanujan fail in math? A. Venkatachalapathy clarifies with some documentary evidence.

  4. Amir Alexander in SciAm: The Glory of Math Is to Matter.

    ... [M]ost fields of higher mathematics remain as they were conceived, with no practical application in sight. So is higher mathematics just an intellectual game played by exquisitely trained professionals for no purpose? And if so, why should we care about it?

FYUP at IISc: Links

Two former directors of IISc have been quoted in the press about this issue. The first, of course, is Bharat Ratna C.N.R. Rao, in a CNN-IBN news report: After DU, IISc Bangalore at loggerheads with UGC over scrapping of four-year undergraduate programme

Rao said that premier institutes should not be dealt with military commands. "IISc is the oldest also the best institute of this kind in India. It is the only institute which can be compared properly to many better institutes of the world and they should not be dealt by issuing circulars," Rao said.

The other is Prof. P. Balaram, under whose watch the FYUP at IISc came into being, quoted in The Hindu: IISc. is not Delhi varsity, say students, faculty.

The former director of the IISc. P. Balaram, during whose tenure the programme was introduced, described the Ministry’s current approach as “retrograde”, and added that the move “will dampen any kind of innovation in education.”

The government must consider that the IISc. is the only Indian institute with a global ranking, he said. “It has a 100-year history and an even longer future, and must keep evolving with the times.” [...]

As the title of the second story makes it clear, an IISc student has articulated the one key difference between the FYUP in DU and that at IISc:

A third-year student in the UG programme, Suhas Mahesh, described the move as “a terrible decision” by the Centre. “Unlike Delhi University’s case, here both IISc. faculty and students actually want the FYUP,” he said. Students take three competitive exams to make it to the course, and are each supported by scholarship.

The last point -- "each [student is] supported by scholarshi" -- is important; these are students who receive a scholarship -- primarily through KVPY and INSPIRE programs -- for studying science in any institution, and the fact that they have chosen to come to IISc should count for something.

Friday, August 08, 2014

A Nasty Surprise

G. Mudur and Basant Mohanty in The Telegraph yesterday: Meddle Virus Spreads to IISc:

The Centre today told Parliament that the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has been asked to discontinue its four-year undergraduate BS programme but the institute said it had not received any such orders.

HRD minister Smriti Irani, in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha, said the University Grants Commission has reported that several universities, including the IISc, that are conducting four-year programmes have been asked to discontinue them and follow UGC notification on degrees.

Although IISc faculty said they had not received such a directive from the UGC, the reply in the House has triggered expressions of outrage in the science community.

And a follow-up story today: Parents to IISc: defy order on 4yr course with quotes from lots of parents, as well as non-IISc affiliated scientists -- Prof. Pushpa Bhargava and Prof. Lakhotia, in particular -- expressing their concern and/or outrage.

* * *

This is cutting too close for my comfort, so I'll refrain from offering any comment other than to express my hope that this will get resolved soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Experiments in HigherEd

The Economist has an article entitled The Digital Degree on the disruptive potential of online education. In the middle of a lot of hype, one finds this interesting concept that combines the benefits of online education and traditional universities:

Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposes an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC, followed by two years attending university and a final year starting part-time work while finishing their studies online. This sort of blended learning might prove more attractive than a four-year online degree. It could also draw in those who want to combine learning with work or child-rearing, freeing them from timetables assembled to suit academics. Niche subjects can benefit, too: a course on French existentialism could be accompanied by another university’s MOOC on the Portuguese variety.

BTW, I liked this summary of the benefits of attending a traditional university:

Traditional universities have a few trump cards. As well as teaching, examining and certification, college education creates social capital. Students learn how to debate, present themselves, make contacts and roll joints. [Bold emphasis added]


  1. Mary Beard in CHE: What's So Funny? A neat overview of the history of theories of laughter. I like this line: "Confronted with the product of centuries of analysis and investigation, one is [tempted] to suggest that it is not so much laughter that defines the human species, as Aristotle is supposed to have claimed, but rather the drive to debate and theorize laughter."

  2. Here's a big one fit for the Annals of Research Misconduct: SAGE is retracting 60 articles published in their Journal of Vibration and Control [Update: The scandal has now forced the resignation of Taiwan's Education Minister]. Reason? A peer review ring:

    While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

  3. The Philosophers Mail: How we end up marrying the wrong people:

    ... Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.

    It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. [...]

  4. The Economist: The Digital Degree. "The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake."

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


  1. Heidi Ledford in Nature News: We dislike being alone with our thoughts. "Many people would rather endure physical pain than suffer their own wandering cogitations."

    Here's my cynical take: A fun study makes bold claims in psychology, and gets published in Science. How long will it survive before it gets retracted?

  2. Patricia Fara in Nature: Women in science: A temporary liberation:

    The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality.

  3. Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun in Nature: A Test that Fails.

    Universities in the United States rely too heavily on the graduate record examinations (GRE) — a standardized test introduced in 1949 that is an admissions requirement for most US graduate schools. This practice is poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences.

    We are not the only ones to reach this conclusion. [...]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


  1. Retractions of the Year? The Rise and Fall of STAP (a Special Section in Nature website on the STAP fiasco, with all the relevant links. I presume (but haven't checked) that all the links there are open access).

    Two papers published in Nature in January 2014 promised to revolutionize the way stem cells are made by showing that simply putting differentiated cells under stress can 'reprogram' them and make them pluripotent — able to develop into any type of tissue in the body. But soon, errors were found in the papers, and attempts to replicate the experiments failed. Haruko Obokata, the lead author, was found guilty of misconduct, and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she worked, was threatened with dismantlement. Five months after publication, Nature published retractions of the papers, but the aftermath of the episode is likely to endure for much longer.

  2. R. Grant Steen in Publications (yes, there is a journal by that name ...): The Demographics of Deception: What Motivates Authors Who Engage in Misconduct? From the abstract:

    Journal IF was higher for papers retracted for misconduct (...). Roughly 57% of papers retracted for misconduct were written by a first author with other retracted papers; 21% of erroneous papers were written by authors with >1 retraction (...). Papers flawed by misconduct diffuse responsibility across more authors (...)) and are withdrawn more slowly (...) than papers retracted for other reasons.

  3. Joel Achenbach in WaPo: Science is open to error, misinterpretation and even fraud.

    Since science is a human enterprise, it is open to error, misinterpretation and, rarely but notoriously, fraud and fakery. Here’s a rundown of a few science mishaps, misapprehensions and debatable interpretations in recent years.

  4. Jalees Rehman in 3 Quarks Daily: The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy: "The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions."

  5. Dan Drezner in CHE: The Uses of Being Wrong: "Why is it so hard for scholars to admit when they are wrong?"

Experiments in Higher Ed: Fractal Courses at IIT-H

IIT-Hyderabad is experimenting with an undergraduate curriculum that contains many, many "single module" or "breadth" courses (typically, one lecture hour per week) in various disciplines at an introductory level, followed by a more traditional set of "depth" courses (which require two or more lecture hours per week) in the student's chosen discipline.

The idea, as I understand it, is to allow students to study a variety of subjects in engineering, sciences, liberal arts and creative arts and to get them to appreciate and integrate ideas from many different directions. This would not only give them a perspective and a context to place their own core field in, but also give them a leg up in interdisciplinary thinking.

Over at the IIT-H website, you can find a couple of presentations, both authored by the IIT-H Director, Prof. U.B. Desai, articulating the concept of fractal courses. They contain a model curriculum with a suggestive set of breadth and depth courses for students of electrical and chemical engineering.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Pinnacle of Human Communication


I needed this to figure it out: 9 Questions about 'Yo' You were Embarrassed to Ask.

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Hat tip to Joshua Gans whose post examines the informational content Yo.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40th Birthday of Barcode Technology

From the Wired story 40 Years on, the Barcode Has Turned Everything Into Information by Marcus Wohlsen:

... [Putting] barcodes on chocolate bars and instant oatmeal did more than revolutionize the economy, or the size of grocery stores. Thanks to bar codes, stuff was no longer just stuff. After a thing gets a barcode, that thing is no longer just itself. That thing now comes wrapped in a layer of information hovering just beyond sight in the digital ether. The thing becomes itself plus its data points, not just a physical object unto itself but tagged as a node in a global network of things. Barcodes serve up the augmented reality of the everyday, where everything can be cross-referenced with everything else, and everything has a number.

Haberman himself knew barcodes meant more than just a better way to manage supermarket inventory. He saw linguistics. He saw metaphysics. He also understood that those deeper abstract meanings held the key to barcodes’ radical practicality. “Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation,” Haberman once told The Boston Globe. “God says, ‘I will call the night “night”; I will call the heavens “heaven.”‘ Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect, the U.P.C. has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bias in Biology

Update: Vijaysree Venkatraman's Science Careers article does a good job of placing the PNAS study within the larger context of recent discussions about gender bias in STEM fields [Thanks to Madrasi for the comment-alert].

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Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Are the Stars Sexist. The 'stars' in the title are the academic elite of the male kind in biology departments in US research institutions.

... Men are less likely than are women to hire female graduate students and postdocs. And of particular concern, men who have achieved elite status by virtue of awards they have won -- in other words, the men whose labs may be the best launching pads for careers -- are the least likely to hire women who are grad students and postdocs.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Niranjan Srinivas: What I learned from an undergraduate education in mathematics

One of the nice things I get out of this blogging gig is to get e-mails from some truly fabulous people either commenting on something they saw here, or sending me a link that might be of interest to us. Sometimes, I even get to meet them in person when they visit our Institute or, more generally, Bangalore. Recently, I had the privilege of meeting one such person: Niranjan Srinivas who graduated with an integrated M. Sc. in Mathematics & Scientific Computing from IIT Kanpur in May 2008, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Computation & Neural Systems program at Caltech.

During our short meeting, Niranjan happened to mention an article he wrote sometime ago; when I asked him for permission to post it here, he readily agreed.

Thanks, Niranjan!

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What I learned from an undergraduate education in mathematics

Niranjan Srinivas

Typically, one’s undergraduate years involve several different kinds of learning: academic growth in the chosen field of study, social development arising from meeting and interacting with a fairly diverse set of people, and personal and emotional growth from teenage adolescence into full-fledged adulthood. In this article, my focus is on academic growth. Specifically, I shall try to articulate what I learned from my undergraduate education in mathematics, with its own particular virtues and weaknesses, and why I think such an education is valuable in the “real world”. I use “mathematics” in a broad sense (which includes theoretical computer science and statistics.)

Although the philosophy of mathematics and its relationship to science and logic is the subject of active debate, much mathematics may be viewed as an exercise in “pure reasoning”. An education in mathematics hence provides training in precise and careful logical reasoning. This logical thought process is a fundamental tool for solving complex problems, whether they arise in mathematics, scientific research, or industry, and is therefore a valuable skill to acquire.

Mathematics is as much a language as it is a field of enquiry. Indeed, it is a powerful language for expressing and investigating complex quantitative relationships between objects of interest. Therefore, it is the language of choice for the physical sciences and engineering. Facility with this language, which is essential to formulate and solve quantitative problems, is another advantage of studying mathematics.

Abstraction is an essential feature of mathematics, as it deals with the properties of and relationships between abstract entities. Although the entities are often inspired by the “real” world, mathematics is concerned with the abstract entities rather than the real world “instances” of those abstract entities. Even the number two is an abstract entity; one may find two birds or two stones or two mountains in the real world, but never just “two”. The ability to reason about abstract entities and formulate general questions is another skill one develops while learning mathematics. This skill is important because generalizing from the specific to the abstract and articulating a precise question that captures the heart of a complex problem is often a formidable challenge in itself.

In my personal experience, my training in mathematics has proven very valuable even though I have been working in very different fields. After I graduated, I spent one year working in the financial industry in a quantitative role. After that, I returned to academia to pursue my Ph. D. My current research interests lie in the intersection of computer science, bioengineering and nanotechnology; my work involves engineering smart molecular systems using synthetic nucleic acids. My colleagues include biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, and theoretical computer scientists, among others. Being trained in mathematics is very useful as it is often a common language between scientists from different backgrounds.

Apart from these specific skills and ways of thinking, an education in mathematics, which is one of the oldest intellectual endeavors, provides a historical perspective on scientific thought. A typical first course in calculus would consist almost entirely of mathematics that would be considered “well-developed” by the nineteenth century. Contrast that with a first course in molecular biology, which would consist almost entirely of ideas developed in the last fifty years. For an academic, this historical perspective is important because it provides context for his or her work. For the non-academic, the perspective provides one possible framework for thinking about modern issues and challenges.

However, majoring in mathematics as an undergraduate is not without its challenges. Although the mathematical education helps one acquire several important skills useful in the “real world”, one could conceivably graduate without any domain-specific knowledge about anything else. Leveraging the skills one acquires to actually solve problems outside mathematics would therefore entail acquiring knowledge about the particular field or problem of interest. However, this is usually not difficult if one has an open mind and is actually motivated to learn about the concerned subject. In my personal experience, acquiring new knowledge about a particular subject is significantly easier and faster than learning to think carefully and precisely in a mathematical way.

Related to this is what I like to think of as the “purist” trap. I think it is frightfully easy, at least if one is interested in “pure” mathematics as an undergraduate, to care only about mathematics for its own sake and not be interested in any “applications”. This is a perfectly admirable attitude after one has learnt a lot of both “pure” and “applied” mathematics, but is probably not the most helpful attitude for an undergraduate since it might bias the student against a lot of beautiful mathematics due to an arbitrary distinction between “pure” and “applied” mathematics. Indeed, historically much “pure” mathematics owes its development to particularly important and interesting real world problems. Personally, I fell into this trap as an undergraduate and it took me about three years of study to realize that a lot of mathematics I had labeled “uninteresting” due to my pre-conceived notions was actually quite fascinating.

Lastly, I think the single most important thing I got out of my undergraduate education is learning how to learn. Nearly everything I did after I graduated required me to learn a variety of new skills, and very few things I learned during my undergraduate education were directly relevant to my work. Indeed, almost every opportunity in an individual’s career would likely be based on what he or she can learn, rather than what he or she already knows. Learning how to learn is more valuable than the actual subject or field of study one chooses to focus on, because it empowers the individual to learn other subjects at will.