Sunday, July 26, 2009

God and Biometric Identification

The following report published today by Times News Network makes interesting reading. On one hand, it shows people's desperation, taking 'cheating' as a means of 'pleasing' God - funnily enough! On the other hand, one can dig deeper and ask - why do they do what they do? I saw a documentary where dacoits donate 10 percent of their robbery to a temple as the share of the God.

I can share my personal experience in visiting Tirumala. The first occassion was way back in 1984 with my parents and it went smoothly, moving from one waiting hall to the next - took about 5-6 hours. The next visit was in 1998 when my elder sister was being treated at Vellore. We were attending her and got a day's off. We reached Tirumala early morning. Even for the special 'darshan' which is priced at a medium level we got a time to enter only at 9 p.m. and the waiting time after entering was estimated as 5-6 hours. For free 'darshan' it is more than a day. We had to return that evening and thus couldn't have darshan. We spent the entire day there and offered prayer from outside. Till today we feel bad, dejected about it. Imagine, somebody coming from far off places from North or North-East taking all the hardship and he/she has a train reservation to return next day - how much frustrated will that person be, all that one gets is a few second darshan of the Lord Venkatesh with people constantly pushing from behind. And a tout surfaces and offers a solution which is anything but cheating but gurantees darshan within a finite time! In those hours of dejection, frustration - no wonder one may feel tempted! While we take note of 'cheating', we should not lose sight of the longing.

I am not trying to justify anything. There is no need either. I am only trying to analyse. As the proverb goes - Errors like straws upon the surface flow/Those who are in search of truth must dive below.

Now the article:

Hire a child for quick darshan at Tirupati

Atop Tirumala Hills, Touts Rent Out Kids For Rs 200


Tirumala: Are you a couple with no kids and still want to have a Mahadwaram darshan of Lord Venkateswara — a quick visit meant for couples with children? No problem. There are touts offering kids on hire.
The charge is Rs 200 per hour for an infant and if the demand is more, the rate goes up to Rs 500. A flourishing “infant on hire” racket atop the Tirumala Hills, kids are rent
ed out for couples to gain an easy entry into the temple.
Talking to TOI, N Vijaya Lakshmi of Nanganallur in Tamil Nadu said: “My friend who got married recently tried her best to get darshan tickets. When her attempts failed,
she and her husband paid Rs 250 to a broker, hired an infant and finished their darshan in two hours flat.”
Sources said an infant is rented out three to four times a day and the touts pocket a cool sum by the end of the day.
“During peak hours and festive days, we repeat the infant six times,” a tout said.
Temple sources said not less than 2,000 couples and 10,000 physically handicapped pilgrims, who are also given the Mahadwaram privilege, have darshan of the lord every day. The Mahadwaram entry for mothers carrying small kids was introduced by the TTD in May 2007 to ensure darshan in a couple of hours and avoid long queues. After protests from women that their husbands should also be given direct entry, the TTD board allowed them from July 1.
On the thriving infant racket, a former temple official said TTD officials should issue onspot photographs of the family to check whether they have children and then allow dar
shan. When contacted, top TTD officials said they are introducing biometric and finger-ink systems to keep tabs on the misuse of the Mahadwaram entry by couples.
But experts feel the system would not help. “The reason: fine rays and rings on the palm are not fully developed in infants who are less than a year old. If the TTD opts for the ink system, it can be easily erased using nailpolish remover,” an expert said.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Explaining Unexplained

Till the other day any report on ability of Yoga, healthy lifestyle curing ailments brought anything but ridicule and disbelief from people who appeared to know more. Slowly, people have started accepting that for many diseases, it is better than taking medicines. There were some reports (e.g. Baba Ramdev's camp, one in US being detected cancer was given six months lifetime and after fun-filled six months he finds that he is cured) that even the dreaded of all diseases cancer can be cured which is not possible by any human made medicine. That perhaps hurt our ego like anything. Now, it is heartening to note the following development coming from an India born scholar. We may find around us two distinct type of things - man made and nature/God(give it any name) made. While we may show greater amount of confidence on man made things (though side effects are known much later which often has proven to be counter productive), we can be humble in explaining other things - to say that we understand only this much as on today. Exploration, evidence collection and drawing inferences is a long process and till that time it is unscientific to reject any hypothesis that comes from someone's experience. Outliers need not be noise. In fact, it can provide vital clue in our attempt to explain the unexplained.

From Times News Network : July 25, 2009

Body secretes its own cancer-busting protein

Kounteya Sinha | TNN

New Delhi: Last year, he hit the headlines for creating the world’s first breed of super mice, which are resistant to all forms of cancer. Now, Mumbai-born and US-settled Dr Vivek Rangnekar, professor of radiation medicine at the University of Kentucky, has in another breakthrough discovered that the Par-4 protein (a mass killer of cancer cells) is produced within the human body itself and spreads through circulation to distant organs.
This finding will now help scientists look at ways to naturally increase the secretion of the protein, for ex
ample, by certain natural diets and develop resistance to the growth of cancer.
Scientists can also develop approaches to safely inject the Par-4 protein to inhibit cancer.
The team headed by Dr Rangnekar has also found that the Par-4 protein is capable of killing cancer cells, when applied
from outside. Till this discovery, scientists believed that Par-4 protein has to be present inside cancer cells to kill them.
Since it isn’t easy to deliver large amounts of the protein inside cancer cells, scientists have been studying other methods to target and kill cancer cells.

Par-4, after being secreted by human tissues, has also been found to kill only cancer cells. It didn’t harm normal cells, proving they aren't toxic. The presence of large amounts of the Par-4 protein in the super mice had made them completely immune to cancer. Not only did they not develop tumours, they even lived longer.
According to Dr Rang
nekar, who is associate director of the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center, what these findings mean for the future is that it may not be necessary to use invasive or genetic approaches to inhibit the growth of cancer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Follow Up

Liked the following post from a current batch of IITkgp students.

I requested the author for a follow up article in the comment section. Waiting for it.

The freshers introduction this year had many firsts.

President, TSG quoted profusely from Vivekananda. Prof. Mandal dug deep into one's inner self in responding to'why a iit student should feel low' and other questions. This morning, Prof. Chowdhury had a three hour talk on 'Spirituality'. Wish it is follwed up properly. Couldn't find VP, TSG's mail id. Got up to his orkut profile. But couldn't proceed further. Saturday afternoon he talked about many societies under TSG. There wasn't any that addresses basic inquiries of life, certain fundamental questions - purpose of life, who am I, God, what is success etc.

I wish there is something under TSG like what is there in IIT Madras Have already written to other speakers. The response so far is positive. Let's see.

Chiranjeev Maharaj's visit was all fun. Had taken running notes. Shall put them up when I get some time. Lot of works have piled up. Today spent 2 hours in the 2nd half in NSS registration. Would like to see NSS plays the role it is supposed to.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Feedback

Picked up the following thread from
An IIT Madras alumnus writes his side of the story and few suggestions. Simply admirable.

This is by no means a report of criticism, but one with a goal of providing honest feedback to the authorities concerned towards the goal of making OUR ALMA-MATER even better than the state it was in, when we left it. Nor, is it a rebuke to the department of Electrical Engineering, as almost all of these ills abound every department that we have come across, by talking to friends and hostel-mates in these departments. Moreover, a few of us, with the hunger to pursue fundamental research have chosen not to return (at least not now) to guide our alma-mater towards this goal. The reasons for this are manifold. We elucidate some of the issues on this sensitive topic and short and long term solutions for a few issues, with an adaptability to correct our stated positions, if addressed in a ratiocinative way. We start with the most important issue,

1) Quality of students: While it is well accepted that the JEE has brought in extremely good quality undergraduate students, the same cannot be said of GATE. Exceptions to this rule do happen once in a while, but unless there are good quality students pursuing fundamental research, no amount of intellectual coaxing from the faculty can lead a mediocre student to greatness. With the current software/MBA boom, it is highly unlikely that most graduating undergraduate students will stay back, unless they like what they are doing and do not feel short-changed in the process. Towards this one has to increase the (to be continued after the Update …)

Update since the last editing: It is now patently clear that even the “standards” of JEE are slipping with qualified students acting as force-multipliers of the Kota-business model. Thus it is imperative on the part of the JEE admissions committee to diversify their selection criteria from a rote regurgitation of facts and “concepts” that would make a B.Sc. graduate feel dumb to that of indirectly deducing the long-term potentials of a student. A good mix of students who would continue to pursue Engineering, or pursue fundamental research in Engineering and Sciences, would become managers in the Technology industry, or would enter administrative positions such as the IAS is ideal for any Tier-1 University. Unfortunately, the JEE has thrown candidates who are skewed at one end of the spectrum.

2) (contd) Financial benefits for students pursuing research: The financial benefits that IITs offer (around Rs. 10,000 per month) maybe sufficient for making the ends of single students meet, but for students with a family to support, it may be too much of a financial stress. A compromise that some students seek is a “technical industrial position” that pays at a reasonably comfortable level. It may be assumed that students with ‘drive’ will indeed get back to do a Ph.D. once their financial situations permit it. The hard reality of life however is that forces such as marriage, family, settled life etc. would dissuade most students who postpone a Ph.D. from enrolling in the same at a later stage. All this forcefully extols the virtues of “going with the flow.”

Short term Solution: Establishment of alumni funds to reward students pursuing Ph.D. on par with current industry salaries. Establishment of fellowships/scholarships with a great financial incentive and renewals (of the scholarships) based on the students’ progress.

Long term Solution: Alumni funds and active involvement of GoI and state governments in promoting fundamental research in the basic and engineering sciences.

3) Grants: Given that technological advancement and fundamental research in India is still on the backburner (due to the lack of primary literacy and affordability of a square meal for a significant percentage of the population), absence of agencies similar to the NSF, DARPA, ONR etc. is one of fundamental concern to prospective faculty members. A comparison of DARPA with our very own DRDO is unfair, as the freedom to perform research within a broad framework (that is implicit at NSF/DARPA) is usually absent and is more guided by problem-fixing in funded/existing projects. Even assuming significant grants for fundamental research (like in Europe) it would take at least a few decades to catch up with the US. An absence of such a possibility only lengthens the time-span between now and the day we catch up with the US and other European countries.

Long term Solution: Alumni funds can only go a particular distance in catching up. However in the absence of a policy change at the GoI level (which is likely to be the case for a long while given the GoI’s responsibilities at the primary education level), alumni funds is probably the only way to offset this shortfall. And alumni will not donate their hard-earned income unless they are made to feel a part of the decision-making process. The IIT administration has to trade off its autonomy with the amount of feedback and participation received from the alumni.

Update: Alumni funding has not caught up to the level expected. However, to be fair to GoI and alumni, the primary cause for woe is actually the lack of a significant number of qualified students pursuing Ph.D. that could fully utilize what the GoI has sanctioned.

4) Emoluments for an academic position: While some applicants looking for an academic position would consider emoluments to be a secondary or even a tertiary issue, the fact that academic positions pay less than what an MBA or an MS/Ph.D. can earn in the industry would certainly dissuade a good fraction of the candidates from pursuing the academic route. It is hard to ascertain what percentage of possible candidates would change their mind if better salaries are made available, but it would be great in the long run if academic positions are monetarily as attractive as industrial positions for it would encourage competition among the population that could shift either way.

Long term Solution: Establishment of sponsored chairs and professorships, industry sponsored positions, alumni sponsored positions etc. Tenureships and higher wages on the line of American universities could help in competition and benefit the institution as a whole. The possibility of the faculty paying themselves from their grants (like in the US) upto a certain limit and upon independent verification by a body within the IIT.

Update: The GoI set-up Sixth Pay Commission re-evaluation exercise seems to have come in as a temporary “boon” to those who are employed at the IITs. While the positives have been stated, the negative has been that the pay commission’s recommendation has not been implemented for a small sub-set of the GoI employees, including the faculty, staff and research students of the IITs. Needless to say, most of the states have also proportionately increased the pay of their state government employees leaving the IIT faculty in a unique, but weird position. If the education sector, which is the backbone of any country’s progress, is treated so step-motherly when compared with other sectors such as the Railways, Administration etc., and even if unavoidable delays such as the IIT Act are cited, we are in for a shaky ride.

5) Library resources: The Central library at IITM is probably the best “technical” library in Madras from our experience as undergraduates. However, comparisons even with a low/medium ranked US university would be agonizing. The reasons for these include: the large number of journals published in Electrical engineering alone, the cost of most of these journals (USD/Euro pricing), and students’ tardiness and impatience which leads them to tearing off scripts that they deem as more important to them than the general population. The state of special topic books is even more painful to describe.

Long term Solution: Pooling the library funds/facilities of the IITs/IISc/other top level universities and setting up a nationwide electronic database of “absolutely necessary” journals. Re-bargaining with European/US publishers for financial incentives citing the sheer size of the Indian market addressed by such a database is a must. This re-bargaining must include copyright issues, rights to older issues when electronic journals were not in vogue, the need for pricing the goods at the purchasing power of the market etc. GoI involvement is a must to ensure that lobbying gets done and make sure that this business deal does not fall through. Inter-library loan agreements with universities in the US/Europe/Oceania/Japan/South Korea/anywhere else can lead to faster access times for manuscripts and obscure books. Development of alumni funds for shipping “book loans,” that cannot be electronically transmitted, to and from the foreign country, in case of extremely speedy requirements of certain obscure books. While the long term solution will get rid of the problem of students’ tearing off scripts, a short term remedy for this is the presence of dummy/non-dummy closed-circuit cameras, development of an honor code and strict punishments to offenders.

6) Teaching loads – Mini Sabbaticals: While some academicians do and most claim to love teaching, it is a well-known fact that most of them clamor for lesser teaching loads in lieu of pursuing their research interests. Exceptionally great research performance/contributions (like award winning papers in international journals, special issue publications, accolades like nomination as IEEE Fellows etc. or any other suitable justification) can be rewarded by lifting the teaching burdens for those who request it (for a semester and upto a year). Such temporary “accolades” could be cancelled for that semester (or year) if no faculty member in a department has made “significant” contributions worthy of such accolades. Not only would a semester or two of zero teaching load reductions be annoying to any proud faculty member, but such limited positions would also ensure that there is a positive competitive atmosphere among the junior and senior faculty, thus advancing the department as a whole. Even if the department would be a few faculty members too short to teach the basic/advanced courses, the research benefits accrued by such a scheme would more than offset the negative effects. Besides, people who fare badly in research can be made to share more than their normal share of courses, thus discouraging poor research performance. Appointing non tenure-track teaching faculty/lecturers (with a Ph.D. or M.S. + teaching training) and temporary positions can also aid in sharing the teaching burden. First year engineering courses can be taught by well-trained teaching assistants who are either graduate or exceptional senior undergraduate students. This will also aid in rounding off the development potential of the student population. Some financial/logistical investment may be necessary to train/reward/pay the teaching assistants.

Update: After I talked with some senior colleagues of mine with this half-baked idea, I was castigated roundly for its obvious hare-brainedness. The logic is as follows: The responsibility of a faculty member is to teach and research. It is not one of the two, but both. Teaching sabbaticals are known in the US as “buy-outs.” While buy-outs happen often enough in the US, it is a practice that breeds academic jealousies. Further, if there is a reward mechanism, someone will get the award irrespective of their absolutist credentials. Even if a mini-sabbatical is offered as a reprieve mechanism to improve the performance of the department, the prospects that it will create distrust, breed nepotism, burden the administrators with an unenviable exercise etc. are huge. The emotional maturity of Ph.D. students to teach a course is also questionable, more so in the case of India. Above all, the most important issue I encountered was: “Undergraduate students do not pay their tuition fees to get taught by intermediates such as Teaching Assistants or Teaching Fellows.” At the end of the day, teaching load for a faculty member is not really that huge except the first time (or the first few times) a syllabus and course materials are prepared, so foregoing continued teaching in the guise of re-apportioning resources for research is a cop-out of the highest order. In the light of this criticism, I will retain this half-baked idea under the heading of a personally motivated half-baked idea.

7) Faculty collaboration: First-rate research usually never gets done single-handedly. Presence of a large pool of talented faculty to brainstorm and lead research in multi-farious directions is the key to a department’s renown in the international community. Besides, it is more likely that brainstorming with a group that has expertise in different, but slightly related, backgrounds can lead to inspired and complementary methods of attack for complex problems. While this is not meant to berate the quality of current faculty at IITM, it would be significantly attractive to work in a place with people who are well-known in their fields. Moreover, an assemblage of experts in different fields is a blessing in disguise for the students who can run into them with their fundamental questions. On a side note, such an assemblage in turn would motivate the best students to do their Ph.D. at IITM and not run away to American universities/software industry.

8 ) Interactions with industry: While interactions with the industry have to be encouraged, they cannot be a substitute for publishing and performing fundamental research. There is a significant difference between fundamental research which is path-breaking and sets trends for the future and “sustenance research” which meets the needs of today. A lot of importance was (and still is), at least in Electrical Engineering, accorded to implementing things in coordination/collaboration/conjunction with the industry. In the process, IITM lost (loses) out on two things: One, new avenues/directions of research just when the engineering sciences are in the cusp of a major revolution, and Two, a paradigm shift and a strategic meltdown in the priorities of the institute.

Anecdote: As undergraduate students, we had seen first-hand the focus that was placed on “getting our hands dirty and making things work.” Such a skill is fundamental and essential to surviving the real world we were to have entered upon graduation. But primary focus in projects on making things work, killed the analytical skills of some of us beyond repair. We would not be making far-fetched comments in stating that such projects totally demotivated a few students who had hard-to-match analytical capabilities. The lack of vision, knowledge of our capacities, the sheer logistics of assigning 90 students projects and the indifference of the department administration in assigning a “one-glove fits all” project assignments could have been easily overcome by drawing simple correlations from our grades in some of the core courses and our capabilities. (For example, Communications students who tend to do well in theory/Math courses could have been assigned theoretical problems, those doing well in networking/programming related courses could have been assigned networking projects, those doing well in device physics/quantum physics courses could have been assigned hardcore projects in device modeling etc.) Such indifference has also been seen in other departments. While some credit must go to the communications group to ensure that the WLL scheme is well-known in India, in the context of research health of IITM and the department of Electrical Engineering, this has been possible only by trading-off sustenance and utilitarian research with fundamental research. I am personally of the opinion that IITs should not take the responsibility that firmly belongs with GoI.

9) Indifference of undergraduate students: This issue is of tremendous importance given the falling attendance in many undergraduate courses today. The truth is that a few students do go on the “cruise mode” once they have cleared the JEE and entered the prestigious IITs, but a vast majority of them are turned off because they are not sufficiently “intellectually challenged.” I recall my undergraduate advisor telling me, both directly and indirectly, in the course of my project: “Please prove your analytical talent, if you have any.” Such a challenge not only ensured that I did justice to what my capabilities were, but also furthered me in loving doing research.

Long term Solution: The “one glove fits all” attitude of curriculum development at IITM is the fundamental issue at the heart of this problem. While this may offer a logistically simple solution to the administrators, such an attitude destroys students’ enthusiasm in research, making them wander around the pristine campus, unaware of what they can do (academically) and cruise along by doing the bare minimum necessary for graduation. In most of the American universities, an outline of fields in which a particular number of credits have to be mandatorily taken is prescribed, but never the courses themselves. There is the freedom to choose the courses one would like to pursue. Such a freedom was (and even today is - except for the final year curriculum, the time by which the rot has already set in) absent in many inter-disciplinary courses that we had to take, like Fluid Mechanics, Material Sciences for Electrical Engineers, Chemistry 101/102 etc. While these courses may have been important for a particular branch of Electrical Engineering (like Device Physics), such an overview can be obtained by students interested in Communication Systems by taking a single course. An all-around development of the individual is necessary, but not to the point of indifference. If a communications student had the choice to pursue advanced courses in Mathematics, many indeed would have.

Update: Things seem to have been streamlined far better today with curriculum revision. The number of credits an undergraduate student “has to” take for a degree is far less than that necessary when we were students. It is, however, not clear to me as to what alternatives have been proposed to fill the gap. Unless such credible opportunities exist, little long-term direct benefits can be expected.

10) Relationship between professors and students – The Generation Gap: While the fact remains that every professor wants his/her students to succeed, the divergent paths adopted by them is not only a symbol of their uniqueness and their academic and intellectual freedom, but also a potential source for unintended consequences. In this context, given that there are at least 90 students in an EE class, the possibilities that a professor knows every student by name or background is particularly remote. Moreover, given that the professors are at least 5-10 years older than the general student population, what was necessarily the right approach in the past does not necessarily have to be perceived by the student populace to be the right approach. When the professors tend to set themselves as the “Never committing an error, morally or intellectually” example (at least in front of the class), even a small double standard can be blown out of proportion. While a few students would remain inactive and be an “intellectual drain” on the resources, despite providing them the “best” research topics, generalizing this to every student in the class (the most probable reason for our predicament of uninterested and indifferent faculty) seems to have been a bit insensitive to our goals and aspirations and more so, our logical reasoning capabilities.

Long term Solution: To be fair, I must add that a few of our professors, did advise us and help us to the best of their abilities. But it remains that the wide gulf between the students and the professors only seems to be widening to this day and not being engulfed. A refrain from most of us is: We never got to know any of the professors except for their teaching. Even professors who are perceived to be bad teachers by the students would have been “forgiven,” if they had showed an “explicit” and genuine interest in our well-being. While not every one of us would have been enthusiastic about a tea party with the professors, those who would have been could have convinced our hostel/branch-mates that “they are not as bad as they seem.” It is the imperative of the professors to be mature enough to not impose their “time-tested, right” way of doing things on the students. In this setting, it would be worthwhile to note that most students are in their teenage years, well-known for its rebellious attitude. Sermonizing was the last thing we wanted, but we would have sapped up any advice, provided it came for free without having to sacrifice our freedoms in making “informed” decisions.

Other issues of concern include
11) Financial aid in attending international conferences – a necessary requirement to be known by the research community. This is still a GIANT problem, and perhaps the BIGGEST problem faced by faculty at the IITs.

12) Bureaucracy in getting paperwork through (especially at the Ad-Block)

13) Official apathy to perceived injustices/Corruption – What is right is not always perceived by the student population to be right. Thus speedy decisions not only have to be made, but also sold well to the student community. An example would be the case of Internet ban (in the hostel zone), if such a decision were to be taken today. Given that Internet in the hostels is not a necessary condition for success, and is responsible for many unforeseen issues that lead to estrangement from the system at large, it would be easy to ban it today, but hard to sell it.

Conclusion: Despite the lure of family, friends, low cost of living, living where your heart is, cultural moorings, nationalistic ideals, and many other reasons, most undergraduate students from IITM who are now on the brink of an academic career at the US do not tend to return because of the “ills” that are elucidated above. It is highly timely that at least a few of these ills are fixed, if there is any hope that some of them will return in the immediate future. At a crucial point in time, when administrators of government bodies are seriously pursuing the renaming of existing universities to IITs, which would further dilute the already diluted brand that is IIT, it would be imperative on them to consider the question: “Why not fix the leaking house that exists, instead of building new ones or increasing the pool of leaky houses?”

Update: Since this personal recollection was written five years back, the GoI has gone full-steam ahead with renaming of existing institutions as IITs and starting new IITs. Going into the reasons behind GoI’s decision will divert us from the focus here. But unfortunately, it remains a fact that many of the new IITs are running (or planning to run) from creeky old-infrastructure, and more importantly, hiring for these new IITs seems to be a big problem. But the problems that non-metro (but established) IITs such as those at Guwahati, Kanpur and Kharagpur face today is a more serious issue especially with the expected retirement of old faculty members or return of “borrowed” faculty members. Hiring new faculty members for these non-metro IITs is becoming a big problem as returnees from the US and elsewhere find it a non-attractive option for family reasons. Other problems such as international travel grants for students and faculty, a short-fall in quality Ph.D. candidates, adequate compensation packages etc. only add to the mess. The steep demands and challenges by the GoI to the IITs and IISc to “produce” at least 1000 Ph.Ds per annum without a proportionate increase in infrastructure and fixing of the fundamental ills listed above is certainly a cause for concern. Nevertheless, the progress that some of the IITs (and the education sector, in general) have made makes this author optimistic that the “elephant may amble, but it will get to its intended destination.” The global economic downturn only makes his optimism grow, and in that sense, the best service the west could do for India in a long time is to sustain the downturn in their economies.