Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Homi Bhabha Centenary Symposium, Examination systematics and Ramakrishna Mission.

Let me just jot down a few things that have been intriguing me off-late from my latest trajectories of life.

The topics covered are in this sequence.

1. Homi Bhabha Centenary Symposium
2. Examination systematics (inspired from the state in TIFR)
3. Ramakrishna Mission 

On the first count I will explain 9 observations during the function including description of brief meeting with Prof.Rajaram {for the n^th time!} and meeting Prof.Govind Swaroop and Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang. On the second count I plan to make 5 suggestions on how to improve its credibility as I am seeing from the dismal state of affairs of this particular system in TIFR. And on the last count I will narrate some disappointing aspects I observed about Ramkrishna Mission on my latest visit to their branch in Bandra in Mumbai. 

The central connecting idea (as is with most of my writings) among these pot pourrie of thoughts is mostly summarized by a poignant statement by Pip in Charles Dickens's legendary novel "The Great Expectations" brought again to my memory by the writings of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen,

" In the little world in which children have their existence there is, nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice"

* First 9 reflections about the Homi Bhaba Symposium lectures that are going on in TIR to mark his birth centenary.

1. Seems it has become fashionable among the foreign speakers to do some amount of pandering to India even though it was obvious that their attempt to connect their talks to India or Homi Bhabha was looking deliberate and contorted.

Why not just give a straight and professional scientific talk?

{Like what Shiraz did! He never ever mentioned Homi Bhbha in his talk and straightaway got to the busieness of explaining the current state of the search for Quantum Gravity. And as usual he gave a pretty much of an audience-capturing talk though nothing he said looked new to me because I have heard these stories from him and others many times earlier. But I am sure it was exciting to whoever heard them for the first time. Shiraz's talk is always also an exciting performance to watch!}

2. The orchestra by Zane Dalal from the School of Performing Arts and the dance presentation by the troupe of Dr.Mallika Sarabhai would win hands down in terms of quality with respect to almost all the other technical seminars. It is not clear to me why the government should give more funds to fundamental research rather than to development of artistic schools! I wonder whether apart from Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang's lecture any other lecture would be comparable to the above artistic performances interms of effect of capturing the audience's imagination.

I think the Indian scientists need to realize that when they are on the stage giving a seminar they also have a certain responsibility to catch the audience's attention since for many many topics in science the society doesn't seem to have any ovious reason to feel obliged to listen to what they have to say (like for most of mathematics and topics like particle physics and String Theory!)

Like the artists who perform, scientists too need to ensure that their performance is attractive to the people. Though never compromising on quality like the stunning lectures of Prof.Manjul Bhargav who sets an example of how to get the balance right. And one can't forget the legendary Feynman in this count!

3. I find it completely incomprehensible why all the Indian speakers and many of the Indian scientists attending the talk have to come dressed in some suit with a tie! Does India lack so much creativity in fashion that there is no other dress that people can find except that archaic British dress!? First of all it is so monotonous to see a number of black suits going around and further it seems so much weird to see so many Indians tip-toeing a particluar old-fashioned dressing style. As mostly over the last 3 years I am wearing some hand-embroidered khadi kurtas bought from the Gandhi Ashram in Sevagram. I just love the comfort these clothes have compared to anything else I have ever worn!

4. When will the Indian scientists (especially the mathematicians) stop talking of what science happened before 1965?

(thats so demoralizing to the students and so much repelling to prospective students to think of joining a place where people talk of what happenned before 1965 in a forum whose catchline contained the word "frontiers"!)

Has nothing interesting been done in TIFR in mathematics in the last 34 years that we still have to talk of what Seshadri, Ramanan and Narsimhan and Raghunathan did? Where are the young people? (Wasn't the catchline of the function "Science and Technology at the frontiers"!?) Isn't the audience already sick of listening to the same old things? (not taking away anything from these stalwarts and especially my great teacher Ramanan but still one can't ignore that the mathematics scenario today has moved universes away from the shadows of Bourbaki and Seminaire Cartan!) Why not have talks focussed on say the kind of mathematics that gets discussed in the blogs like Secret Blogging Seminar?

On the contrary to the above general depressing scenario with most Maths and Physics talks I was very impressed that the biology talks (the stunning seminar by Prof.Vidita Vaidya of TIFR on how emotional shocks and psychological stress during certain specific periods in childhood have detectable imprints at the molecular level of neurophysiology of the animal) and the chemistry talks and the climate change talks (the awesome talk by Swaminathan warning against blind use of genetic engineering but instead coupling organic farming to newer technologies) and the enriching talks on imaging by Knut Urban or Sunil Sinha focussed on what exciting things have happenned in the last 4-5 years and the string theory talk by Shiraz also went only as much back as 1997.

Can't we have it as a rule that the speaker cannot spend more than 10% of their allotted time on things done before 20 years from the date of the talk (or may be their microphones will get automatically switched off!) ?

5. I simply could not understand why so many of the top-notch officials in the DAE and BARC and TIFR paid homage to Prof.C.N.R.Rao. Even in Prof.C.N.R Rao's speech I simply could not find what was exciting about whatever he was talking of. Some new inorganic analogue (BCN) of Graphene has been found and some new properties of Graphene have been found. So? Whats the big point being made? I couldn't see the talk going towards some central principle or some bigger perspective and I somehow could not notice any error bars on any of the graphs he showed. I am not sure whether an experimental data has any value without the error bars or is this understanding of mine applicable only in Physics and not to Chemistry? I have earlier interacted with some Graphene specialists in my life (like Prof.Krishnendu Sengupta and Prof.Mandar Deshmukh) and heard their talks too.

{I first learnt perturbation theory in Quantum Theory from Prof.Krishnendu. His teaching was penetratingly insightful.}

6. As I briefly mentioned a little ago I was feeling pretty frustrated to see the average crowd age to be close to 50 probably! Where are the young people?

Where are the scientists in the age group of 25-35?

Why aren't they on the stage talking of what they are doing?

I understand as part of the celebrations a Young Scientists colloquium was held but even then the mathematics speakers were of the age around 50 and they never seemed to talk of the kind of things that I see getting discussed in the recent geometry seminars around the US. Something looks a bit disturbing. At that colloquium again the other subjects did seem to have put up a better show than mathematics in terms of how recent the topics were and definitely in terms of age of the speakers!

7. I met Prof.Rajaram Nityananda yet again (I had done a course on GR with him during my undergrad at CMI and he is the Director or NCRA and I have had many many exciting interactions with him over the last 4 years initially over emails to learn relativity! ). We yet again debated on whether it is very special that laboratory results match only when the Riemann-Christoffel connection is chosen and not any other of the infinite possible connections and about my point that Einstein's equations doesn't seem to use all the geometric information that is available from the connection on the space-time manifold. It is a coarse grained theory in some sense. But it seems it will take me much further studies and further research to convince Prof.Rajaram of my point which he currently dispproves of.

I wonder if there is a reformulation of Einstein's Theory purely in terms of the connection on the tangent bundle of the space-time manifold with no reference to the metric. Why is that not possible if gravity is to affect only the curvature of space-time which in general is completey determined by the connection with no referece to the metric? May be a wild imagination of mine but if realized that should convincingly prove Prof.Rajaram wrong.

Or what is more likely is that Prof.Rajaram is actually correct but his motivation based on mere experimental evidence is not convincing enough. Isn't it simply possible that there are einstein-like theories of gravity which use some other connection rather than the Riemann-Christofel one but just that experimental precision is not good enough to distinguish? Or may be Riemann-Christoffel connection is the only one that works but just that there is some deeper theoretical reasoning that rules out all the other infinite possibilities rather than just Prof.Rajaram's hand waving.

Will take me a lot of hard-work to decide whether my aesthetic motivation is realizable or is Prof.Rajaram's conviction of its impossibility.

8. I met Prof.Govind Swaroop. I wanted to meet the designer of the breath-stopping GMRT which I visited a month ago. This unparalled huge machine was built completely indigenously headed by this man. (he says that he designed that as an aftermath of a new-year drinking bout on 1st January 1982!) Even today there is no match for that telescope anywhere in the world. Unless Australia comes up with SKA, GMRT will have its monopoly for may be another 5-10 years. Over manythings Prof.Govind was grieving about the state of teaching in India and that Government is mindlessly opening up new institutes when there is a complete deficiency of competent teachers and on the other hand 5000Crores of instruments is lying unused in the Indian laboratories with nobody to use them. And Prof.Govind Swaroop on knowing that I am an ex-student of CMI got very excited and said that I am one of the lucky few to be from one of those very few state-of-the-art undergraduate institutes of India, 'the Seshadri's place". {I am now sure he has no clue of the state of the Physics departmnet of CMI!}

He told me that he has written an open-letter to the Prime Minister recently which will get printed soon in Current Sceince.

9. I attended a discussion session with Nobel Laureate C.N.Yang where I came to know from him of his extreme frustrations and failures in his life during his college life and as a graduate student. I was quite surprised to hear this legendary scientist talk about his struggles and failures in his life till much later in his career when he did his major works which left an indelible mark on history of science. How he got thrown out of the laboratories for his clumsiness and got a joke about him "Where there is a bang there is Yang" and hence his hopes of becoming an experimental physicist crashed and he didn't like any of the theoretical physicists in UChicago. Hence for quite sometime he felt his career was going no where and he usd to write letter of disappointment and frustration to his friend in China about how he is feeling less and less convinced that Physics is his right career! Good to know the ordinary human stories behind the magic realism that science history books will paint.

Incidentally the lecture of C.N.Yang about motivating the connection on bundles approach to gauge theory from vector potentials and Aharonov-Bohm effect was almost exactly similar to a student-seminar I had given during the second year of my undergrad.


* Recently a lot of my energy has gotten drained and have been feeling tired as a result of struggling for hours explaining to my electrodynamics instructor in TIFR as to why I deserve more marks in the exam than what he has given me. And these cause immense disturbances to the mind and hence I went to the Ramakrishna Mission in Bandra to spend some time there. I will tell you about some reflections I made there at the end of this writing.

Somehow all this seems a bit embarrassing to be fighting for a few marks in an examination though I understand deep down that my life will not be judged by my marks in some course. The serious judge can find many many more credible parameters to measure me! But I feel thse struggles are necessary as small steps to bring in the much needed clarity and transparency in the grading policies as I have seen in both CMI and TIFR. It is a fight for justice in the long run. It is my struggle to get myself heard with the administration that the students have a right to free and fair judgement and explanation if they are made to sit in exams and that such things can't be left hanging at the mercy of the vagaries of the instructors.

I analyze 5 aspects of marking schemes in exams that needs to be rectified to make it more credible are:

These are drawn specifically from my harrowing experiences with the highly debatable marking schemes in examinations in TIFR and to some extent also in CMI. Today I am student at the receivng end of such situations. Tomorrow I will be an instructor and will be answerable for the justness of the schemes I devise. Hence these questions of justice in examination are of utmost importance that one needs to answer just as Pip mentioned earlier had felt.

1. The sub-division of marks among the questions should be announced publcily in the exam paper and not decided dynamically as a function of class performance and whose answer script it is. I have often been in situations where a difficult question I could do was deleted from the evaluation because most of the class couldn't do it and the instructor needed to save a situation of the class average dropping weirdly low!

2. The marking schemes should be uniform for everone and not dependent on whose answer script it is. I have often been a victim of marking schemes where somehow the instructor perceived me to be a "strong" student and hence decided to correct my answer scripts with greater stirctness and gave me less marks for the same answer for which a "weak" student would get more marks. Differential marking schemes look not only unfair but also wrongly change the student-teacher relation from being partners in learning to that of being contestants against each other!

And very often the instructors have made such schemes public with a dubious explanation that it is unfair to have uniform marking schemes when the students are from diverse backgrounds and departments. What a counter progressive idea orthogonal to free market society!

In some sense differential marking schemes also removes the anyway very little incentive that exists for working hard for a course!

Such practices seem to be deliberate efforts to make appear on paper as if the education system is working very efficiently by artificially cutting out the competitive aspect through unevening of the playing ground.

3. If one is going to have open-book exams then one should be framing questions very clearly stating what all can be directly used from the book and what not. It gets very troublesome for the student if he/she is expected to anticipate what knowledge he/she can borrow from the book. And in general very rarely have I seen Physics question papers which are set with a level of precision which can leave no room for ambiguity. Fortunately probably because of the nature of the subject, my experience with mathematics question papers have been considerably better.

4. The notion of accountability seems to be a bit skewed between teachers and students. After the exam when the instructor says that "As I have said in the class that..." , I have no way to prove that the instructor never ever said such a thing in the class! There is simply no record of anything that the instructor ever said and hence as a student I find it impossible to put up a strong case when I feel that what the instructor said in the class was incorrect. The students simply have no evidence to prove their point whereas as a student my assignment and exam answer sheets are written and hence there is always evidence for whatever I said. And students can get penalized for writing wrong things in the exam but nothing seems to work the otherway!

I think it should become mandatory that after every class the instructor should make available on the web-page a scanned copy of his lecture notes. That will add a lot of accountability to the entire system and if the instructor's teaching is very good then the students will actually benifit from reading the notes. It might also act as an incentive to the lecturers to teach better.

This is regularly practised by Prof.Sunil Mukhi and Prof.Shiraz at TIFR who either get their lectures video taped or put up the lecture notes. Students benifit a lot from this and I think such inspiring practice should become mandatory.

5. Given the current state of corruption in the examination system it will do good if the instructors and the graders interview the students based on what they have written in the answer scripts to check whether the answers are copied or self one. This may look too much of a policing or too much of work for the administration but the time has come for the administration to do a serious crackdown on the matter of corruption in examinations and assignments. May be we can have system of doing these interviews on randomly selected students on random questions in the exam to reduce the burden but woould send-out the efective message. Given the apalling level of corrption in exams and assignments that I see in the courses in TIFR I think such steps are necessary to stop the ongoing collapse. In the TIFR course exams that I have sat through I see students adopting every possible unfair means in the examinations ranging from simple copying to full fledged round-table discussions to excange of answer scripts to even going up to a fellow batchmate to have a chat about some question! The levels of corruption in the examinations and courses is very very demoralizing to us minority few who are working fairly.

While TIFR is busy lavishly celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Homi Bhabha I think it is worth reflecting whether Bhabha would have been happy seeing such a situation in his institute where people can getaway adopting every possible unfair means in the examinations and assignments! And most dangerously this socially ingrained corruption and a vacuous sense of crime and guilt permeates across all intellecual stratas of the students from the "weak" to the "strong"!

In dark times as now I think I have made a contrinution to Indian science simply by never ever adopting any unfair means in any examination right since I was in nursery to graduate school. I have a squeaky clean reputation in this respect and I think it is all because of my mother who inculcated this basic sense of fair play in me right since I went to nursery. And I never doubted the worthiness of fair play inspite of innumerable apparent counter-evidences. Though it should be a trivial thing to do but in such times as these it seems to me to be a big achievement!

As I grew up I naturally extended this policy of complete transparent fair play to matters of money and human relationships. In a relationship with me there is onething the otherside is guaranteed of and that is complete truthfulness from me. {Though as Morpheus said "I promised you the truth but never said that it is going to be easy". Now choose. Red pill or the blue pill? :P }

My mother would not be so saddened to see me lose if I played fair and put in my best for the goal. Right since childhood she also inculcated in me this basic principle of never setting my ambitions low and then to put in everything in capacity to attain it. And even if I fail she would tell me not to compromise on the ambition. This idea also goes back to my mother's father too with whom I had intensive interactions while he was alive who followed this principle of never lowering the ambitions inspite of every hurdle on the way. (His case is a slightly more poignant one since he could keep such ideas inspite of being one of those millions whose property got burnt in Bangladesh by the rioters during the partition of 1947 and he came into India as a refugee.) Anyway my mother is the greatest person I have ever met in my life and there is definitely far much more to write about her than the format of a blog can sustain. Probably someday I will write a book about this woman whom I know so well and in whom I see an embodiment of the essential human spirit of never letting any limitation curb efforts to excel. The babies in the paediatric wards of the horpitals will unfortunately not remember the perfectionist doctor who looked after them just after birth and who was more stressed by their illness than their mothers. My mother definitely develops some magcal bonding with any baby instantaneously. Her eye of detail and struggle for absolute perfectionsism in every aspect of life has strongly gone down with me. (Though my mother is never satisfied with my efforts for detail no matter how much I put effort into it! Oneday after I had given a talk on Klein-Gordon Field theory to Prof.Shiraz and failed to answer some of his penetrating questions he had told me "Learning should be 100% and not stop at 95%". My mother promptly agreed with Shiraz's philosophy when I told her of how Shiraz grilled me in QFT. I have learnt a lot more from Shiraz's questioning sessions than by reading books on the same topic.)


Now let me come back to my recent adventure with Ramakrishna Mission. It is not the first time I have been to any of their branches. Almost periodically I seem to get to know people closely who are someway or the other associated to them. And all of them have badly failed to motivate me to join them or belive in many of their principles. I have strong objections to the entire idea of religion or any method which uses "faith" as a substitute for logic. I am strongly in support of the path of reason, reasearch and deductive logic and proof systems. Somewhere down there is a small hope in me that oneday all understanding shall be reduced to axiomatization (though for this statement people like Biologists mights call me naive and artists might call me philistine)

The only 2 things I seem to appreciate about Ramakrishna Mission are:

1. The beautiful quality of the music their produce. I have bought about 3 CDS from them and earlier too I had a collection. The music is distinctive of them and has an amazing soothing effect.

2. Most of their institutions maintain large halls and open spaces where anyone can walk in and sit. This is wonderful given that even research institutes like TIFR hardly provide any large silent space anywhere in the campus to sit and think. The somewhat of a library reading room of TIFR is cramped and more than that the air condition is freezingly distractive. And more over such large open places should be maintained since they can be used as shelters in times of calamities.

But what I found very weird was the ritual of praying and doing a "pooja" of Ramakrishna's marble statue like one sees of every other God's sculpture in most Hindu temples. Why have they made that man into a God? He was a social reformer in many ways and lets not convert him into a soource of something that can be used to cut out logic.

Hero worshipping is getting dangerous for India!

{And such increasing hero worhipping attitude among the scientific student community of India also looks very amusing and ominous! Our education system seems to have created a lot of paper tigers in the student community}

It felt very terrible when I saw that Ramakrishna Mission seems to make money by selling goods that are used in pujas like those weird candle stands and corals etc etc. And my shock didn't end their. They seem to print books for children which have tremendous religious under-pinning! I saw them selling colouring books and drawing books for children which are about drawing and colouring picturs of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and elemnts of Hindu puja! And then I had another revelation when I saw in their shops books to teach the english alphabets to children where for each letter the representative character was some God! Like they had S for Saraswati and Z for Zeus! I find it hard to understand how it is very different from a news report I had read at some-poiint that in terrorist training camps the children are taught the alphabets like "G for Grenade"!

I find it hard to swallow such a base system spanning across the world where every action has religious undertones and even education to children! It looks so contrary to the whole idea that education should be teach people to think. Ramakrishna Mission seems to go so contrary to such simpl ideas by enforcing such particular religious biases even when teaching alphabets to children. The stinking undertone of myth is so very contrary to the age of logic and science that one aspires for and identifies with modernism.

I have a doubt that may be I will have similar sights if I visit book shops of other religions too.

Just that the interwining of beautiful music to religion seems to be a deep knot to cut through. Most of the religions have been source of beautiful music like the aratrikams of Ramakrishna Mission or Sufi music from the middle-east.

I wonder whether the human civiliation could have reached such beautiful music without going through the intermediate issue of myth and religion. Or were they just not imaginative enough to seek out alternatives? Thankfuly today modern music seems to have come quite far away from religious content. But it still looks hard to find a way to preserve the beautiful music like that of aratrikams born out of religions without accepting the asociated slag of myth and religion.

May be we can solve this problem if we think a little more harder.

These days I am voracously reading through the book "The idea of justice" by Amartya Sen. The initial part of the book isn't very well -written and gets slightly repititive but its very likley to get insightful as it progresses as I am already feeling. One more step among my many to get a better undersatnding of the notion of justice and the notion of fairness as in distribution of resources and products. The jeopardy of the Indian education system necessiates my journeys along myriad of directions to get a higher, global and deeper perspective!

A piracy free semster of studies in TIFR

Proud to make this short announcement that I have finally managed to complete a semeter of studies in TIFR without using a single pirated book or watching even a single pirated movie.

This semester I also created this webpage on free knowledge ideas. With the help of other ex-CMI-ites Shreevatsa (currently in Operations Research department of MIT) and Vipul (currently in the Mathematics department of UChicago) I wrote this article on open-access movement.

Obviously the article in a more finished state than the webpage.

Such a piracy free educaion system should have been trivial to achieve in normal circumstances but in India where Physics courses mostly run in absolute hapazard way and where one has to fight corruption on a daily basis the use of pirated and downloaded books from Gigapedia becomes almost inevitable.

I especially had a tough time trying to get through my astrophysics course where most books in the library are lost or stolen or there is only one copy which has been issued out! And astrophysics books are priced astronomically high compared to other subjects and I can't afford to buy them.

So the Astrophysics course was a real challenge in terms of avoiding pirated means when every other person in the class seemed to have downloaded pirated copies of the book by Dina Prialnik. I had to fight out alternative means. Thankfully the prof. was great (Prof.Alak Ray) and he has himself written a few large extensive review papers on the topics he was covering in the class. I substituted the books by his excellent review papers. Towards the end of the course I borrowed some of his personal books from him. He was anyway a great teacher and probably Prof.Alak Ray is one of the microscopic few inspirational Physics techers I have seen in India. (mostly in TIFR!)

Actually many many courses in Physics in TIFR as I see it and in CMI as I had seen it would not even run without pirated books. Its a serious problem that the education system has to compromise so much on the moral front and adopt illegal methods to keep the institutes running. This is a grave problem that the administration is yet to wake up to. As a principle courses should not be organized unless there are enough number of relevant and affordable books for the course available either in the library or in the markets.  I am not sure that Physics is so very important to do even at the cost of adopting illegal means. 

The problem was also acutely felt in the courses in Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics where too none of the required books were availble either in the library or the market. I was fortunate to know some very helpful seniors who kindly lent me their books and I sailed through smoothly. But for the rest of the batch they were all depending on pirated books. The situation was stinking of corruption, somewhat forced and somewhat out of limited imagination.  And to add to the already abysmal state of ethics the instructors decided to freely distribute pirated books! I protested in writing against such malpractices.

I think such courses should not be organized when the basic minimum resources for studying the subject are simply not available. Anyway it remains debatable to me as to whether it is at all important to teach such sophisticatred subjects to any and every person in the street in developing countries. In developing countries like India where 250 million people go hungry I see no reason why teaching obscure things like Particle Physics or Nuclear Physics should be anyone's priority! Probably it is more important to teach people on means of organic farming and how to synergetically couple it to genetic engineering and to teach people economics. Arrangements should be made to the extent of teaching such sophisticated physics only to them who are interested and not made a part of compulsory courses.  {It is a separate question that I am interested in learning Particle and Nuclear physics}

In developing countries like India where the reach of education is negligible it is actually of greater importance to enhance Free Knowledge Movement as explained in the article above.

Access to pirated books leads to further cascading problems. Like one can download all sorts of solution books to questions and obscure books of solved problems from which the students can copy the answers to the assignments. Thus adding to one of the many ways in which the whole concept of assignments in TIFR (and also in CMI as I saw it) has been reduced to a complete farce. 

Somehow people seem to have limited their imagination about alternative sources of learning and the first reflex seems to be to download the pirated books from the internet and feed the corruption network. For once I wanted to prove that there are alternative ways in life and hope to continue with it.

And more interestingly people seem to use the euphemism of  "e-books" for pirated books!
What is intriguing is that even when students are given 15000Rs per year just to buy books people might avoid buying them but would prefer to download from Gigapedia. This situation is again somewhat due to circumstances like procrurement delays and somewhat due to lethargy of thinking out of the box.

I invested about 8000Rs from my scholarship and 2000Rs from my stipend to buy books in the last 6 months. I also spent about 2000Rs on buying movie DVDs to watch since as a part of my movement I have also stopped watching pirated movies.

This adoption of no-piracy rule for books and movies led me explore resources like Google Videos and You Tube for occasional entertainment more than ever and this led me to discover breath-stopping beautiful newer kinds of music than I had ever heard before. These new exciting finds of mine are songs like "Aicha" by Cheb Khaled from Algeria and "Is it true" by Yohana from Iceland and "In love with a fairy tale" by someguy from Norway and many others. Especially I would recommned people to listen to the Eurovision 2009 version of the song by Yohana. She is awesome!

Had I not adopted the no-piracy principle there was little chance I would have come across these beautiful musical creations across the world.

There are many more challenges to be solved in this process,

1. I still have the problem of eliminating pirated music from my life. Wonder how I am going to find my way around it. It doesn't seem prudent to delete all the collection I have though I haven't added to it in the last 6 months.

2. I still have the problem of some very rare and specialized books in Physics and Mathematics whose photocopies I have with me. I think it would be stupid to now burn them. These books are either out of print or are just prohibitingly expensive to buy and all of them even if in print are beyond the reach of the Indian market. Some of these rare books whose photocpoies I have are the book on "Spinors in Space-Time" by Penrose and Rindler and the book on curvature and betti numbers by Borcherds and a book on Yang-Mill equations on Riemann Surfaces by Atiyah and a book on magnetic monopoles by Atiyah and Hitchin. There is little hope that I am ever going to find these books for sale!

Hopefully with gradual progress of the Free Knowledge Movement we shall steadily be able to solve these problems.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Proposal for change of demands rather than stipend hike for TIFR graduate students

{Blogging seems to reveal a lot about the skewed priorities of the world. When I wrote about some large-scale issues like reactive self-perception theory or use of technology in elections or nuclear disarmament, nobody ever cared to read the blogs. Now when I write about some very narrow local petty issue of salary hike etc lots of people are reading it and commenting about it!

It seems that we prefer to be living in a radiation filled world and get blown up with nuclear weapons as long as we are paid a high salary.}

I would urge the reader to look at the 17th comment on this blog where I have made more efforts to clarify some of the important counter points raised by a batch mate of mine in the 16th comment.

TIFR never leaves me searching for topics to write about. Almost always something debatable is happening here. So here I find myself in the midst of a huge hullabaloo going on about some students asking the authorities for a stipend hike suposedly in accordance with the UGC rules. And off-late many have decided to sit in silent protest infont of the main canteen for 2 hours daily for a week demanding that their requests be met. Apparently they are disappointed that neither the director is meeting them nor is any progress happening with their demands. I have also been receiving many emails from the coordinators asking me to join the General Body Meetings that they organize for this and to join this demonstration.

I have not attended any of the GBMs or the demonstrations. Simply because I am not convinced of the reasonableness of their demands. I am pretty disappointed at the adoption of such cheap means of protest and TIFR students denting the dignity of the instiute and their own image by choosing such coarse techniques such as mass demonstrations even if silent.

Before jumping to calling me an "elitist", let me list 8 objections and weaknesses that I see with this entire scheme of things,

{Or you can jump to the last italicized paragraph where a person I know for quite some time has summarized what all I have to say here}

Basically I think there are much more important, pertinent and useful ways in which government can pump in necessary money into TIFR rather than increase of salaries. There are issues far higher in priority and areas of monetary deficit where government can pump in money rather than salaries. Along this article I shall propose various such alternative ways of sending money into the institute which are likely to have greater positive impact than just a slary hike.

1. I know students in TIFR who have recently bought cycles costing upto 15000Rs and I have myself bought an Apple iPoD of the same cost from my stipend. We students of TIFR seem capable of affording such objects of luxury beyond fulfilling our essential needs of roti-kapda-makan-internet. None of us are dying of poverty.

Hence I 't see a real "need" for a hike in the salary.

2. There are students in TIFR whose families are dependent on their stipends and they have to send a good fraction of their stipend home to sustain their families. This is the segment of the population which really needs a hike.

Why not put in a precise demand for a need-based-scholarship for such students? Why not ask the authorities to set up a committee to accept applications from such needy students and grant specific scholarships to them on a case-by-case basis.

I am disappointed that this specific demand doesn't seem to have been made.

In general a flat hike to everyone seems quite debatable. One can ask for more incentive based hikes like ask for a rewarding system for students which will increase their salaries by a certain fraction everytime they publish a paper or give a seminar in some international conference. (modulo all the debates of how you can compare quality of research papers etc, one person's single paper might be more non-trivial than another person's 5 papers. I think these questions are secondary here and can be tackled later)

Such hike would definitely add more accountability to the money being spent by the government. It would surely make the student feel more cared for as he/she gets rewarded for efforts and the government can also feel the money getting well spent.

Or why not ask for a salary hike with some added quality check like cutting down the TIFR intake by say half and then doubling the salary ?

Otherwise what is the guarantee that a flat hike in the salaries will not merely add to the sales of the local bar 'Gokul" ?

Is there any guarantee that a flat hike in the salary will actually channelize money into useful directions?

Is there any guarantee that increase in salary will actually make the people refrain from such corrupt practices like photocopying books and downloading pirated movies and books from Gigapedia?

Will just a pay hike ensure that the students actually buy more books and buy the movie DVDs that they want to watch instead of using BitTorrent?

I don't see any such guarantee of good effects of just a flat salary hike.

3. One can surely say that a hike in the salary of graduate students will have little effect in drawing the top-notch students of colleges like CMI, ISI, and IIT to join TIFR for graduate studies. (I have interacted most with students from these 3 instututes) Even if the salary be made 50000Rs per month the top people of these collegs are unlikely to consider TIFR over a place in Princeton or Harvard or a job in an MNC. 50000Rs will be peanuts to the best students of these places since they are looking for and are getting much more deeper returns from their studies than just a big salary.

With even a tripling of the salary TIFR is likely to still lose out on almost all of the of the best people from CMI, ISI and IIT who don't seem to see the incentives here that they see in the options elsewhere. With reasonable confidence I can say that the incentive is not a big salary.

4. None of the mails that I have been sent give me a primary reference proof of the claimed fact that the government has indeed made a rule about stipend hike. The only document I ever received was a clipping from a newspaper (Page 9 of August 18, 2009 Hindustan Times epaper). Now a newspaper report is a secondary reference and definitely not an official document. Who is to say that the article was not just the reporter's day dream?

Apparently they claim to have primary reference but for reasons unknown to me they cannot be shared with us.

5. None of the emails to me state precisely what are the demands they are making and why? Any arbit person on the street can come and shout at the governmnet that "I want more money". So? Should the governmnet pay more money to whoever comes screaming at it? The organizers don't seem to state any clear reasons in any email as to why the hike is being asked for.

6. Apart from the general lack of precision and thinking in the emails that I receive in this regard one is also repelled by the general sense of hype and senstionalism around about it. Many people campaiging for the hike don't seem to have done enough studies about the rule and laws and pros and cons of it. Much isbeing driven by local limited imagination. Most people seem to have conjured up their own personal reasons for why they want a hike and there doesn't seem to be a common consensus. For example some of reasons that I heard from the students are like,

a) I should be paid enough salary so that I can marry and have a family. I am of marriable age and the government should provide me enough money to fulfill this dream.

{One is free to dream whatever one wants. Why should the government go about fulfilling every dream of every person?}

b) I support the hike since the price of food in the canteen has risen by 20% and hence government should compensate for that.

{Seems this person is confused between the idea of a D.A and a salary. And moreover the prices of objects are fluctuations in local economics and government can't implement rules based on such flimsy statistics. One can argue that in the converse scenario the government is likely to reduce the salary once the prices come down. Will that be acceptable?}

c) I want more salary because I think the 12000Rs that I get is too low compared to my peer group who work in IT jobs.

{Then why didn't you join it? I am sure you saw some benifits in joining a research career than an IT job when you made the decision. Has that reason suddenly disapeared?}

d) It is a fight for legal justice since government normally follows the principle that people with equal qualification should be paid equally and the scientific officers of TIFR who have equal or less qualification than the graduate students are paid about triple the graduate students.

{Why should qualification be a criteria for the amount of salary given by the government? I am not sure. I would find it more reasonable if the salary is a function of the impact factor of the job or the importance of it measured in some scale that the government chooses. One can have 3 Nobel Prizes hung up in one's living room and then be a complete drunkard all the day. Hence contributing nothing to anyone. Now should the government pay this person more than others based on his/her past deeds knowing that the money now goes to the wine shop?}

7. Moreover this counting of the salary as 12000Rs is just simply misleading. One should add to it the fact that the TIFR student gets free lodging in Colaba in Mumbai near the sea-shore! Colaba in Mumbai is definitely one of the costliest places to live in India and that too near the sea-shore a plot of land will be worth its weight in gold. Further as a student in TIFR one gets extremely subsidized food and free broadband connection. In this region of the world food and broadband are both costly and here in TIFR one gets one at very low prices and the other for free. So one is being extremely narrow in one's vision by doing such a reductionaist count of the salary.

One notes that the grad students in the US pay for their housing from their own stipend. And house rents near universities like Cornell can be as high as 600$ a month. All this is completely factored out as a student in TIFR. And the pristine location near the sea makes the housing option here far more attractive and costlier. All this one gets for free in TIFR. And the first year students are kept in far more luxurious apartment alsbeit very very far from the instutute and probably the travelling pain nullifies the apartment grandeur.

I would have found it more reasonable if I saw the first year students on a protest demanding housing near TIFR than how painfully far they have to live. Such a protest makes more sense.

Like a another student in TIFR said that he would want to see the kids in the campus protesting against why there is only one badminston court.

I can think of many more reasons for putting up demonstrations and protests in TIFR like,

a) Demand for better classes and lectures.
b) Demand for a complete overhaul of the library (it has currently practically gone defunct! Over the last few months most astrophysics books I have gone looking for have either been lost or stolen or there is only 1 copy issued by someone else. Almost never do I find any book in the library for any of my courses.)
c) Demand for repair of the seeping doors and roofs of Theoretical Physics students room.
d) Demand for fair and transparent grading systems.
e) Demand for upgrade of some of the labs.
f) Demand for better sanitation systems in some of the hostels.
g) Demand for a proper cricket and a football ground.
h) Demand for more shelves to keep books and cubicles.

I would have happily gone and stood for demonstrations demanding any of these things.

But never do I find people so keen on putting up demonstrations and protests demanding these things which seem to me to be of far greater importance than just putting money in the pockets of students. I wonder how many people will be ready to stand for demonstartions for a week for any of these demands.

If one is looking for money from the governmnet then why not ask it in the form of specific upgrades and new facilities? Almost always there is more to be gained by getting money used in building resources of common benifit rather than putting it in the pockets of individuals.

8. One has very little justification being here in TIFR and to ask for stipends comparable to US grad school since a major component of their stipend is a kind of payment they get for TA and RA duties. Unfortunately this idea hasn't come to TIFR in any major way beyond the idea of a "grader" which is just correction of assignments. One should probably make teaching tutorial courses compulsory for the TIFR students to ensure that the next generation of teachers are not of the same inspirng quality that we have to put up with! I can very well say that almost all the TIFR students I know are completely incapable of teaching and that explains the quality of teaching in general in India. One needs to take the job of teaching far more seriously and like Harvard we should probably have courses for students and graders on how to teach and awards for good teaching.

Unfortunate scenario is that some of the "top" students of TIFR would be reluctant to attend classes on how to teach or be willing to take up duties of regular tutorial teaching. It is an interesting paradox that many people who complain of terrible teaching in the classes are themselves reluctant to take up teaching duties. Such hipocrisy lies at the heart of the jeopardized Indian academic scenario.

A stipend hike would make a lot more sense if the students are ready to take up regular RA and TA jobs and demand the hike as a payment for it.

Conclusively I see little reasons why the administration should concede to the demands of the students as they stand now. There is definitely a need for greater money and resources to be pumped into TIFR but a salary hike is definitely not the way to get that in!

Finally let me quote here what Vipul had to say about the entire issue.
He has nicely crystalized many of my amorphous feelings,

``I don't think there is any problem with higher pay per se, but
increasing pay without increasing accountability or answerability
usually has no effect. It might have the effect of attracting somewhat
more talented people into TIFR over the longer term, because
competition for the higher pay will prompt people to try harder for

However, I think the stipend at TIFR is pretty reasonable considering
that most of you don't have any responsibilities other than research
(once you pass your courses). May be it needs to be increased by about
25-30%, but doubling or tripling it seems out of order, particularly
when you also consider that hostel fees are heavily subsidized in TIFR
as well. Most universities in the United States that offer higher
stipends (after controlling for the cost of living, the lack of
subsidy for living costs, etc.) also have students teach or grade plenty of
undergraduate homework -- for instance, last year I was TA for the
undergraduate algebra sequence, and this year I am teaching calculus
to first-years. Besides, at least part of the money for higher pay
comes from the tuition that undergraduates are charged. TIFR doesn't
even have undergraduate education, so almost all the higher pay will
come at taxpayer expense with little in return for the
taxpayer. Perhaps students at TIFR who seek more money should try to
get TIFR to tie in with local undergraduate colleges to offer their
services and help with teaching and grading undergraduate courses."

PS: Experience has made me aware of the many block-headed questions that one gets asked when one is trying to move out of the common road being walked by others. Here one such head-strong question that I guess many will be asking me is "If the demands are met and the salary hike does happen, will you return the extra money since you claim not to need it?"

Ans: I would not. (At this the the person asking me the question might feel a great sense of having drawn first blood and I can hear his/her jeering laughter arising from his/her illusory sense of victory) Firstly I know from previous experiences that returning money to the government can be a very troublesome process and I would like to save that trouble. Secondly in my second point I have said all the possible good effects that a raise in salary can have but is not all assured. At least I can try in my personal case to ensure that the good effects do happen. May be I can then buy some more of the costly books that I am refraining from buying now and mitigate to some extent the corruption caused by many others who photocopy books.

Friday, October 30, 2009

An article that TIFR student magazine "Imagine" did not publish

I am shocked.
I am saddened.
I am disillusioned.

{Mistakenly some readers of this blog thought that I am perturbed about my article not being accepted to the magazine. I was definitely surprised and saddened at that but that is a much minor reason compared to my central point of protest being that the editors did not inform me of the rejection. I came to know of their decision only when I saw the finished product when all the while over about 2 months I was under the reverse impression! Among many other expected abilities missing from the editors they definitely seemed to lack an understanding of the sensitivities of authors.}

These are those times when I really feel the importance of open-access movement and the great need for blogs in this society when I am faced with the extreme ghetoism that the entire idea of trying to get something published might entail. Like the turmoil and heart-burn I faced during this recent attempt on my part to get an article on open-access published in the magazine called "Imagine" that some noble TIFR students decided to come out with as a part of Homi Bhaba's birth centenary celebrations.

I was naive enough to have put my faith in the professionalism of the editorial team of that magazine. Probably I should have backed out on the entire idea when very early on I received a load of statements from the people higher up when I questioned them on the copyright issues of the magazine. People didn't seem to be thinking enough. The magazine is supposed to come out today and even yesterday when I met some of the members of the editorial board they did not seem to have the basic minimum sense of decency to inform me that my article has been rejected.

And as Mark Antony said on the death of Julius Caesar 'But they are honourable men"

I definitely acknowledge that no matter how stupid their reasons for rejections might be, the editorial team does have the right to reject articles they get. I definitely acknowledge this right they have. What hurt me deeply was the fact that I got to know of the rejection only when I looked at the contents page of the finished magazine which landed on my hands on the day of publication.

The article was not just my own work but it involved extensive painstaking editorial efforts over days by two other people namely Vipul from the Mathematics Department of UChicago and Shreevatsa from the Operations Research Department of MIT. I deeply acknowledge the help and research support that I got from them during the writing of the article.

I definitely have an awkward scenario to face with them as I tell them that the article in which they also put in quite a lot of effort has been dropped by the "Imagine"'s editorial board of TIFR students without any notice.

Hence I make public the article that the esteemed editorial board of "Imagine" neither perceived worthy of publishing not considered worth their stature to inform of rejection:

The article

I feel very sure that Homi Bhaba would have found great satisfaction to see such editorial etiquette being followed by students of his institute.

Or probably there are deeper issues involved here with the publishing of the magazine which I seem to be ignorant of. One of the many pertinent questions that one can raise here is about the ability of the editorial team to read and comprehend articles of size more than 1.5 pages (written in double spacing?) I do realize that not all people have the concentration to read something long especially if it has references and research backing.

I would not want to delineate the issue here but would definitely like to mention here some more associated pertinent questions here regarding the seeming narcissism on the part of the editorial team when they decided to put up a half-page photograph of themselves in the magazine. (Anyone ever heard of it? I have definitely seen magazines like "Scientific American" or "Resonance" where a stamp-sized photograph of the editor comes out but they also put up same sized photographs of every author of the articles which "Imagine" didn't bother to do). One can obviously go on here questioning various other things about the magazine like the pedestrian sense of aesthetics as apparent from the out of context cover page photographs and other such associated cheap publicity techniques. Also one can question the process of selection that the articles written by the editors themselves were subjected to? Or were they given a wild-card entry?

Oh! And before I forget let me thank the noble editors for publishing two of my poems in their magazine. I shall be forever filled with gratitude to the brim of my heart for them doing me this favour.

At least the fact that they did publish two of my poems, lets me claim boldly that this blog post is not just an issue of sour-grapes. Its a question of sustainable transparent policies and honesty.

{Actually this makes me wonder if space was a constraint for the editors then couldn't they have actually asked me to make a choice between publishing those 2 long poems of mine and the article? Somehow characteristically again they seemed to have chosen to play God here and not bothered to give me that option. Given this option I would have any day forsaken my poems and would have opted for this article which took much greater effort for me to write.}

Wishing for a freer world tomorrow.

Wishing in the eternal words of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore,

``Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.."

PS: To keep the slate clean I should also formally apologize for screaming at one of the editors when I realized this unfortunate state of affairs on the eve of the function. But definitely this apology doesn't mean that I concede even an inch of ground to them.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A brief critique of the movie "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan

Film Director Anand Patwardhan came to TIFR to screen his film ``War and Peace" I watched the film and the panel discussions before and after it and also watched the tape of the discussion on a Pakistani channel about the film with the director and some guests.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to prevent naivety from leading the pursuit of otherwise correct paths and this movie provoked me to reflect on that.

Firstly let me make a basic thing clear that I am strongly against all uses of nuclear energy. I oppose making of nuclear reactors even if it is for "peaceful" uses like generation of electricity or for nuclear weapons. Elementary undergraduate physics education and passing level knowledge of school history books would be sufficient to convince people of why nuclear energy is one of the greatest mistakes of mankind. Let there be no doubt that there is nothing called "peaceful" use of nuclear energy. The entire process of generation of nuclear power whether in controlled or in an uncontrolled way, in many steps causes some harm to the humankind. It is sad that in Nuclear Physics courses this most important thing is not taught!

But then I suppose whatever I said till now was obvious and it will take truthful professional scientists in that field to explain the nitty-gritties of the issue and to be able to frame a convincing document which can stop all pursuits of nuclear energy. And I am not knowledgeable enough to do that.

But this writing is not about nuclear energy but about the interesting movie "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan and how he missed the point.

The "discussion" post the movie was equally forgettable for Anand's ability of sarcasm that came to the forefront. I would refrain from debating with people who would quickly resort to such "Smart Alex" kind of attitude that Anand was prompt to adopt whenever questions got tricky. (experience with public debating has taught me to judge a forum for its ability to sustain debates and then deciding whether to join!) His answers to most questions were more of street-smart thinking coupled with a sharp tongue than answer full of insightful thinking or research. After a first few questions it was probably clear that this discussion is going nowhere and asking questions can only lead to that person getting laughed at by Anand.

Not a great way to lead such a complicated movement like nuclear disarmament!

Hence I decided to keep shut during the entire show.
And I also know my inability to engage well in verbal debates but I am more comfortable through the writing.

The essential difficulty with all nuclear debates is the lack of knowledgeable and intelligent debaters on either side of the line. It doesn't take much intelligence to fence-sit in most of such discussions and have fun poking both the sides. The people who really understand what is going on have either bequeathed their freedom of expression to some regulatory body or have taken a laid back style of life. Hence the debate left to the limited imagination of the common man can only at most hope to produce movies like "War and Peace" by Anand.

On the other end of the scale I would like to refer the reader to the article on nuclear disarmament by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his book "The Argumentative Indian". He definitely gives a better example of leading such discussions. Not that Amartya Sen's approach is fool-proof either.

The 6 basic pit-falls of this attempt of Anand are the following,

1. Completely de-focused.

Had there not been that tiny little almost apologetic mention of the Bofors scandal at the end of the movie, I was beginning to believe that this movie has nothing to do with nuclear power but is an anti-BJP propaganda. Atleast the director was capable of main ting a semblance of political neutrality by his trump card of Bofors Scandal at the end. Although I am not affiliated to any party and have little sense of belongingness to any party, but I have strong objections to movies going around in the public which talk of every other thing in the world except for what they claim to talk about. Like the movie spent so much time on the Tehelka issue that again the audience was dragged into memories of India's sad narrow political imbroglio far away from the bigger issues of possible nuclear annihilation and need for disarmament. But then yes freedom of speech and expression is essential. How else would people get to learn how not to make a movie like "War and Peace" and how else would I get the chance of writing this blog about it! :P

2. The complete lack of research!

I was left hunting after sometime in the movie waiting for it to say at least one new fact about the issue or even at least one interview with a nuclear physicists or an international affairs experts who will explain the details! Not a single one! The movie seemed to too focused on lambasting the politicians and bureaucrats that it completely forgot to give at least a few minutes on the technicalities of nuclear energy and about all the million laws and conferences held around the world to understand the consequences of nuclear power.

The movie seemed to have no place for the many deep thinkers and experts and researchers around the world in the issue of nuclear power. It seemed to have more place for stupid statements by politicians than for research backed analysis of experts.

3. Naive look at deterrence.

The entire complicated issue of nuclear deterrence was thoroughly mishandled by the movie. The movie or the director's explanations after the movie completely failed to move even an inch beyond the common-sense understanding of nuclear deterrence that every lay man on the street seems to have. Nuclear deterrence is much more than just the idea of each country having nuclear stock-piles with a "no first strike" policy or M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction). Understanding of nuclear deterrence and whether or not it works requires quite a deep understanding of game theory which is a very sophisticated branch of mathematics.

The movie or the director seemed to have no clue about all the heaps of research available on understanding of nuclear deterrence and the subtle mathematics behind it. Like the documentary could have say interviewed experts in this field for analysis like Robin Powell of Harvard University or Martin Shubik at Yale University.

The movie briefly went to the US but again got lost filming the mass rather than getting hold of experts to add insight to the film.

4. Tremendous focus on mass hysteria.

The movie seemed to spend frames after frames on displaying all sorts of hype that gets pursued by the people about nuclear energy and its consequences. It spent inordinate amount of time filming the multitude of stupid comments by people in both India and Pakistan about how they feel they have become the "superpower" after their country testing an atom bomb. I was left pulling my hair as to when is Anand going to show some non-trivial stuff focusing away from the uninformed comments by lay men on the street each more hilarious than the other. If good movies have a sense of purpose about leading the society in a better direction then why spend so much time showing all the useless things that we anyway know the religious nuts on either side of the border have to say?

Much of the movie looked like a comedy show when they filmed people in Pakistan showing maps of the world where each country is coloured in green demarcating complete conversion to Islam under the title of "United States of Islam" (or something like that) or in India VHP selling maps of the world where each country is coloured orange and a VHP flag posted on each of them.

Such unintended humour content of movie completely distracted from the core debate about pros and cons of nuclear power.

5. Emotional arguments!

This is one of the biggest problems I see with many of the attempts that try to address such deep social issues. Very soon after some shabby attempt at scientific thought the movie moved fast into showing pictures of devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nightmarish footage of heavily injured people of Hiroshima getting treated at the make-shift hospitals post the atomic bomb-blast. No doubt such footage is painful to watch the first time and can give night mares for days afterwards. But then why show them when they actually serve no purpose to any side of the debate!

Showing a horrifying picture is not a substitute for a reasoned argument.

Time and again the director seemed to have lost his train of logical thoughts and seemed to use such emotional crutches of horrifying pictures to move the audience. The same happened when he showed pictures of brutally handicapped children being born to families of mine workers in Jaduguda near the uranium refineries of the Uranium Corporation of India Limited. I agree it is a horrifying story and one of the many reasons why I don't sanction even use of nuclear energy for power generation.

But then again showing these pictures is not an argument for the cause but only makes the director look logically weak who is trying to use such crutches to further his cause as if he has run out of points. The pictures would me meaningful if they were backed by research on their background correlation.

I would very much like to see a movie which promotes nuclear disarmament though research and various other means and doesn't step into the conventional trap of showing gruesome footage of Hiroshima victims.

The use of such cheap methods of furthering a cause send out wrong signals about the director as if he is trying to cut-short reasoned debates by using painful photographs as a short-cut to impose his view on the audience. There is very little room for thinking with the audience once it is so emotionally overwhelmed by horrifyingly painful pictures.

Emotions are not the way to argue a point and can only lead to further quagmires.

Let me illustrate my point by playing the devil's advocate here.

Especially with the Jaduguda photographs one could have easily picked holes saying that he never shows an evidence that the children being born handicapped are due to the radiation damage from the UCIL plant. (except of him showing the Geiger counter readings in the houses and roads but that is far from enough) That children are being born handicapped is a fact and that the UCIL plant is nearby is another fact and just from the statement of the two facts one CANNOT conclude that one is the reason for the other. How do you know that this very child born elsewhere to the same parents wouldn't have contracted the same disease? This cause-effect relationship has to be established through research to be convincing. (keeping up with his tradition at various other fronts in the movie Anand here too missed the necessary element of research!) And only such kinds of arguments can be used to present a case with the authorities when asking for closure of nuclear power plants.

6. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism

This was one more disturbing feature of the movie which blatantly failed to understand the natural diversion that can happen between the opinions of a government and the feelings of the people. It would be a great injustice to the large plethora of people who inhabit USA if they are collectively blamed for war-mongering and weapon-selling that American government is very often perceived to be doing. It is just so wrong! We have so many times heard of mass protests in the US itself against the government's foreign military policies. Now it is just so stupid on the part of the film to keep portraying USA as the devilish nuclear threat on the world as if there is some essentially unifying theme that binds and identifies each and every American!

We all know of the one million stupid things that the US government has been doing over the past decade but to think of them as the identity of the US would be a narrowly reductionist view of US (or for that matter of any country). As a science student I benefit so much from the scientific literature and products produced in the US universities and these are the first things that come to my mind when I think of the US. And I am sure many people have interactions with many other facets of US and it is an injustice to all of them if US is portrayed only as source of nuclear threat.

There are so many different some deeply fruitful ways of Indo-American interaction (like the recent example of Prof.Venkatraman getting Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research done in the US where he went after completing his undergraduate education in India) but the movie bent upon driving its own dogmas set out to video tape some stupid party by some stupid Indo-American ``Club" in Delhi which seemed to understand the only version of Indo-American interaction to be some Indian people doing stupid dances on the stage. I have definitely seen much more elegant and beautiful dance shows from both the Indians and the Americans!

Such reductionist view of any country is dangerous to the world. Like many times I have seen in European literature India being always associated to issues of poverty and malnutrition. That is again another example of narrow perception of a country.

With such non-intelligently made films the cause of nuclear disarmament seems only further weakened. When one has such a daunting task ahead of getting nuclear weapons and establishments removed from all countries one cannot risk even a single weak step or an attempt in which even school children can pick holes.

Nuclear disarmament is the need of the hour and it needs far more intelligent and thoughtful attempts than what one finds in "War and Peace" by Anand Patwardhan. We need more thoughtful people to lead this march who come backed up with more critical research. Thankfully probably not many a looking up to "War and Peace" for leadership!

Monday, August 24, 2009

A discussion with Vipul on education systems

After we watched the video of the discussion on education between Hillary Clinton and Aamir Khan on education, Vipul and I had this email discussion. As usual to most of our discussions (most of which are technical discussions in mathematics and some are of this kind) between us over the past 4 years of knowing each other it was highly multi-layered and non-linear, convoluted, cross-referenced and self-referenced and hence this is merely an attempt in releasing to the world an approximately linearized version of that discussion,

To get the obvious legal questions out of the way, when I put up the proposal of making these discussions public Vipul said

"You can feel free to put up the content in this email and previous emails online"

Hillary Clinton shows that she's good at acting. Aamir Khan comes out as a reasonably good politician, but he could do with some improvement. It's interesting to note how Bollywood actors are getting so Anglified in their accent. c'mon, the average issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is more substantive.

Aamir Khan very importantly mentions the importance of cooperative learning versus competitive learning.

This cliche about the importance of cooperative learning versus
competitive learning is like a hundred years old.

When the skill differential between educated and uneducated people
translates to a higher earnings differential, and seats in educational
institutions that train for those "high-skilled jobs" are limited,
competitive learning is a natural outcome. When there is a large
number of job opportunities that depend on education of different
sorts, this "competitive" aspect will reduce.

I agree that given the current scenario competitive learning is the natural outcome.
But I can't agree that competitive learning is the optimal situation.

It is of utmost importance to create job opportunities which harnesses different capabilities and hence will give an incentive to cooperative learning. But to start off the schools can encourage cooperative learing in hope for a better world.

Today the schools since kindergarten tell you day in and out only 1 thing "prepare for the rat race","compete". This destructive education is probably doing more damage to India than Mayawati's building statues or Lalu's scams.

(Especially in Kolkata and why I am apprehensive of getting my sister back to Kolkata's schools whereas the schools in Wardha encourage a more liberal attitude letting the students hone their personal skills)

Competitive learning is definitely is channelizing useful energies into useless activities.

{Like the average amount of time wasted per day in just travelling to the coaching institutes in the life of a normal high school student. I am sure, I could have spent my energies better in high school if I had better opportunities and more information regarding the opportunities and a more sensitive society around me. I used to be too fatigued to do any useful work, by the time I came back home at 8:30Pm having gone out of home at 9AM. 1 month after all my stupid entrance exams were over, I took to a self-training in mathematics for the ISI exam and that time I think I was most productive working on my own at home and not travelling anywhere. For one thing I was enjoying the process of solving challenging mathematical problems and learning advanced mathematics on my own and more importantly I was more focussed because I was doing only 1 subject mathematics day in and out. I learnt and did more useful science in that time than during all my 2 years before that travelling regularly across the ganga to go to those stupid coaching centers. {And I think it is completely because of mental comfort with the format of the exam and the comfortable self-training that I had done that helped me smoothly sail through the ISI exam and interview.}

Aamir also emphasizes on the importance of making teaching a lucrative profession and a socially enviable job and the most respected job. To create an environment where the best of minds want to become teachers. He clearly mentions the reverse scenario happenning in India where people uninterested in teaching but land up in this job because of failure in their wanted job.

Yeah, right. Why should the best of minds want to become teachers? Obviously teachers help society, but so do doctors, engineers, and even particle physicists. It isn't clear that the net benefit that a person generates for society through teaching is greater than through choosing one of the other professions. AK offers no comparison of the
benefits to society between teaching and any other profession.

Second, if learning is so valuable for children, schools should have no problems charging children much higher rates and paying their teachers enough for teaching to be as lucrative a profession as medicine or engineering. In fact, governments have maintained control over both the fees charged by institutions and salaries that teachers can draw, even at such "premier" institutes like the IITs.

I agree with the point that teacher's salaries across India is very low and it needs to be increased. The teaching salaries aren't competitive enough.

It is not just about salary. In India there is absolutely no incentive to learn or share knowledge, sadly even so in the research institutes. The society has to learn to value knowledge and its dispensers. A nation en route development has to first become a strong "knowledge society".

Increasing salaries may be one of the million steps required to achive the above social change.

But I can't agree that the fees across the colleges need to be increased.

Anyway, IITs charge their students quite a high fee which many students coming from various socio-economic backgrounds find hard to pay. And in myriad of colleges that I know there is so much of black-money around that it is apalling! The "cost" of seats in MD courses in some Indian medical colleges in the lucrative subjects like physiotherapy etc is near 20-30 crores! People pay the colleges in 10's of crores to secure a seat for their ward in these departments whereas the students in the merit list don't get the seats.

With so much of disproportionate amount of money floating around in the education system, I can't see a logic to support a further hike in the student fees.

On intuitive grounds I would agree that paying the employed people handsomely might lower the corruption but is there a study which shows that raising the student's fees will have any effect on the black-money floating in the education system?

On more basic grounds we should agree that many students in the IITs find already find it very difficult to pay the fees. I wonder whether this encourages people to go in for MBA after an IIT degree, so that they can "recover" the huge money spent in the entrance process and durng study at IIT!

Atleast I am aware of such thinking in the medical circuit. People who way 20crores for the seat in the medical college. invariably open up posh nursing homes in the big cities targetted at the elite and charge exorbitant rates completely inaccessible to even the upper middle class. These "doctors" are basically trying to recover the money spent in getting the medical degree.

Now the other doctors also want to "compete" with them and start moving into the bigger hospitals which pay more.

At the end of the day there are no doctors who cater to the lower sections of the socity.

Obviously the problem starts at the deeper level that the government is too busy helping AIIMS but hasn't made efforts to open equivalents of AIIMS in the remore corners of India.

One could make a more complicated argument involving social benefits not directly captured by the student ("positive externalities to society") but there isn't anything that special about teaching that generates such positive externalities. Everything does.

It would be foolish to expect that the "positive externalities to society" out of cultivation and sharing of knowledge will be obvious. Had it been so easy to see then 2 Indians 60 years after independence would not have to write these emails to each other!

I can conjecture that a huge positive externality exists but it definitely needs to be rigorously established to be convincing to the larger population.

And please don't say that the doctors and engineers and the MBA's and the IT sector people and the financial sector people are anyway contributing towards the aim of a knowledge society! They are not! Many of them ideally could have but are not. Most of them haven't probably learnt or created a single new concept in their field after their college and what they did in their college is also highly dubious given that we know/hear of the lackadaisical and the corrupt attitude taken even in the best institutes towards education.

Its actually sad that most potential contributors to knowledge and its sharing are NOT in the teaching profession but are in the above fields.

I am not saying that we can dispense with doctors and engineers and the MBA's and the IT sector people and the financial sector people, but we can probably do with a lesser number of them whereas we need to hugely multiply the reach and quality of education in India.

Hillary's mention of the famous research by Howard Gardner of Harvard University on the theory of multiple intelligences and modes of reception. Why the conventional education system is biased towards only 1 form of communication, an approach proven to be hugely ineffective by Howard's research.

Howard's research was pivotal in illuminating the importance of what in psychology is called "kinesthetic teaching"

You can read about it here: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences#encyclopedia

The theory of multiple intelligences is _not_ a widely accepted
theory. For instance:


Smooth-talkers in politics have exploited this theory to somehow argue that different people are "differently abled" (rather than "less abled") and so people who "aren't good at academics" may be "good at
other activities". But the evidence for a number of totally _uncorrelated_ intelligences is non-existent.

It is very difficult to judge whether a person is really incapable in a given particular field or is this person actually grossly less abled in all fields.

This raises the controversial issue as to why should the government spend resources on mentally challenged people. What is the incentive? I had raised this topic once in my blog and I had gotten harsh responses privately and publcily. Ravitej had screamed at me for proposing such a thing!

I am aware of these criticisms. Especially of the lack of data regarding uncorreralated intelligence.

Analysis of standardized tests like GRE,SAT etc have repeatedly shown high degree of correlation (generally >0.6) across the various areas of testing.

Even in my personal experiences I have many times seen that the best students in school in the language subjects is also the same student who does best in mathematics. But not so probably with the sports and performing arts. There is lot of room for debate.

But definitely it is plausible that Ronaldinho is as intelligent with the football as Andrew Wiles is with number theory.

Variation in the manifestation of abilities is definitely completely ignored by the schooling system which is perpetually harping on a unidimensioanl set of skills but again that may be the result of a social pressure to produce employable people where opportunities are less.

She crucially mentioned the importance of bilingual teaching given the multi-ethnic reality of our modern world.
{For a reverse scenario, I am completely incapable of communicating anything non-trivial in my mother tongue . Though I have taken efforts to learn enough of my mother togue to read the best literary works in that language but to explain it to someone, I will have to shift to english. Even when I am teaching my sister, I very soon shift to english as a mode of communication!}

Bilingual has many pluses (and some minuses).

All this pandering to India ("best education in the world") with a straight face just highlights her political skills.

And all this talk about disparity and inequality! For God's sake! Carping about inequality makes it sounds like the better schools and the worse schools are to blame equally for the disparity.

I agree. Thats why I said "looking beyond the media glitz" :)

I don't agree with many of the statements you've made, but I don't have the time right now to air my views. Perhaps I will do so at a later stage. Let me just talk about one point.

You say that fees at the IITs are extraordinarily high and many people find it difficult to pay these fees. This is not true. The annual fees at IITs, if my estimates are correct, are less than what a typical IIT graduate can earn in one month (and what almost all IIT graduates can earn in two months) after graduation, even with a job in India.

Most people from upper middle-class backgrounds can pay these fees easily. But your concern about people from lower middle-class backgrounds and poorer backgrounds is valid. Which is why I suggest that people from lower middle class backgrounds, as well as historically disadvantaged/discriminated against groups be given a combination of tuition discounts and loans, while poor people and those from severely disadvantaged groups be given a tuition waiver. In fact, loan availability should not be a problem for people getting admission in the IITs because the IITs open up so many future educational opportunities.

It is ridiculous that the government subsidizes an IIT education to the tune of more than 60% for people coming from rich backgrounds.

Most private nonprofit institutions in the US, suhc as the University of Chicago, charge tuition rates that are 30-40 times those at the IITs (and 10 times those at the IITs even after adjusting for purchasing power parity). The U of C's annual tuition+compulsory fees come to around $42K. However, they offer complete tuition waivers to people whose parents earn less than $60K and substantial discounts to people earning between $60 K and $100 K. In addition, there are merit-based discounts. In addition, there is ready availability of loans. Despite what you might hear about the "burden of college debt"
in the media in the US, most people pay off their college deby comfortably over the next few years. This includes people who take up relatively low-paying jobs such as teaching and working for NGOs.

You talked of scholarships for the needy in IITs and accessibility of educational loans. I think it is a very subtle point and some of the realities of its implementation needs to be taken into account like

a) I have no objections to scholarships for the needy and its a great idea in parallel to what you said happens in UChicago but then what really happens in the IITs (as I hear from many of my acquaintances there) is that most of the scholarships in the IITs are merit based and hence most of the good students in the batch get them who are rarely ever the needy ones!

It will be politically incorrect to say so but I will stick my neck out so say this that most often the really economically needy ones are not the top performers in the class. It necessarily does not reflect a lack of ability but a lack of exposure and resourcefullness.

We have to ensure that the scholarships retain their meaning by being given to them who are in need of it.

If I take a hard look at it, then I think I was never in really need of the KVPY scholarship. In some sense the govt. wasted its money by giving it to me and that 2.5lakhs could have been better used by giving to one of those many children who can't go to school because of lack of money. At some level I feel guilty.

The part of KVPY that I really needed was that it gave me a ticket into India's best LASER labs and the summer program with Shiraz and the bangalore camp where I met you! The money part of it could have been better used instead of wasting on me.

I think the entire concept of meit based scholarship is non-sense. They will always be gotten by the top students of the big schools in the big cities who anyway don't need it.

Your arguments against black money in colleges confuses the issue of an increase in fees with black money. It is only natural that colleges that keep fees low for most people charge exorbitant fees from people with less merit and more willingness to pay. This is called "price discrimination" and it is often the most efficient way for colleges to make the most money that in turn allows them to provide substantially subsidized service to people with greater merit/need. Priec discrimination is common in the US in many private nonprofit institutions.

I have no opinion per se on the increase in fees in private for-profit colleges. They are only responding to a heavy increase in demand. The solution to the problem is to open new private institutions that compete with them. However, I do strongly feel that the government should allow the IITs to set higher tuition rates, provided that adequate provisions are made for low-income and discriminated-against sections.

Also, your belief that high college tuition forces people into taking jobs that are lucrative to the detriment of the national welfare gets the issue backward. Ricardo, a nineteenth century economist, said, "It is not that the price of corn is high because the rent is high; rather, the rent is high because the price of corn is high." It is not that engineers demand higher salaries because they paid more to get through engineering colleges; rather, it is that parents and students are willing to pay more to get through engineering colleges because of the prospect of higher salaries.

My opinion is that heavy government regulation of teaching institutions has been a major factor in limiting growth in the
education sector. Recently I read a fascinating book by James Tooley, a British person who came to study schooling in Hyderabad, describing the growth of private schools for the poor. Despite running completely as private for-profit schools, lacking any government subsidies, and having to deal with painful regulators, these private schools offered
a consistently superior education to poor children. You can read more of the research in the book "The Beautiful Tree" which is available from The Cato Store as a PDF (http://www.catostore.org). Interestingly, these schools for the poor
_still_ manage to provide scholarships to the poorest of the poor, so the richer poor end up subsidizing the poorer poor. If private schools on top of a shop can do that, surely the IITs can do it too.

Your detestation of the value provided by doctors and engineers speaks of your affiliation with academia. Doctors provide valuable services to patients and get paid accordingly. Coaching institutes often do a better job at teaching stuff than schools. Engineers do a lot of valuable stuff too. It is not at all obvious whether India "needs" more or less of these people. I am rather amused that, sitting in TIFR, you are able to make these pronouncements.

About your opinion regarding the value added to the society by the doctors and engineers etc, I have one thing to say. Yours seems to be a text-book opinion written about an idealist society.

How many medical or engineering innovations have happened in India?
Why are all the equipments in the hospitals and most physics labs in India imported?
Why can't India make a single microchip?
Why can't India make a tera-hertz CRO which would revolutionize experimental physics research in India? (and thanks to US sanctions India can't buy it even)
Why can't India make indigenous equivalents of Intel Pentium processors?
(again US sanctions prohibit India from using them in its satellites which hugely hampers the efficiency of the Indian space missions)
Why can't India make a single cell-phone?
Why can't India even not make a single wireless data tranfer system?
(what is used in India in the cell-phones is far inferior in quality than what is used in Europe. Again due to US sanctions)
Why can't India make a single tera-hertz laser or a spin polarized STM which would revolutionize condensed matter research in India?
Why can't India get its sole synchrotron source at Indore working even after all these years? (India has to pay heavily to european labs to buy "time slots" in their machines)

I hold thousands of the engineers and doctors produced in India responsible for this situation. They have surely made good of themselves but with no foresight about the future of Indian science!

After all this I can't buy your argument that the engineers and doctors are adding a great value to the society! Many of them are working for MNC's with very little thought about how India's dependence on imported technology and crippling sanctions is harming work here.

Definitely some people of these professions are adding to the society but then again they are affecting locally without making any big difference to the national scenario!

It is interesting to note that you lambast the "competitive spirit". But at the same time you detest it when your batchmates "cooperate" to solve homework problems.

I knew you would retalliate about the competitive spirit thing regarding my objection to collaboration in the homeworks. This is again a 2 step reasoning which you missed.

I appreciate collaborative work but my objection was that the evaluation system works independently of the reality that there is collaboration!

You can't have the cake and eat it too!

If at the end of the day there is going to be a numerical evaluation then I am going to stick my neck out to say that I deserve 5 times more marks than them who also did the assignment with 5 people collaborating and I did it alone.

If the system really wants to encourage collaborative work then why not show the guts to get into a system of evaluation which Prof.Sanjeev Arora at Princeton University uses? I really appreciate his stand point about collaboration in homeworks and assignments in his couses

The problems lies somewhere else:

Very often when such problems arise, the prof is incapable of setting classy assignments where they can have the confidence of publicly encouraging collaboration like Prof.Sanjeev Arora does. The profs most often know that a collaborative work will locate the internet resources from where the solutions can be downloaded. As we are all aware in Indian colleges what happens in the garb of collaboration is not cooperative learning but mass copying and internet source locating.

As an instructor of the course, first you need to have a strong knowledge of the subject yourself to allow the merits of collaboration to bloom among your course students without the slip-side of it taking over.

When I become a prof, I plan to adopt Prof.Sanjeev Arora's model.