Science in India

Ashutosh has already written an excellent post on Science in India that summarizes the original set of articles in the Chemical and Engineering News and adds a significant missing point - the need for change in the Indian mindset when it comes to science. I would highly recommend reading that before you read the following. Here, I want to mention a few additional points and also put certain issues in perspective.

Whither higher education in India?
This is a subject which is worthy of a whole slew of posts. I have seen both sides of the coin for roughly the same amount of time in India and in the US. Here, I am more of a cross-disciplinary scientist-cum-engineer. After my first month in the US, I stopped making comparisons between Pune University and the University of Michigan. They might both be universities, but the two are entirely different; almost different genera.
Why is this so? We all know the reasons - India is a developing country, with more pressing needs than 'wasting money on research that might lead to something'; the legacy of British bureaucracy permeates through all institutions and academia is more about how to deal with red-tape than about R & D; then we have the age-old caste, religious and cultural biases compounded with the politics of 'reservation', which have totally distorted the meaning of merit and fairness. So the mantra is 'pack your bags for the US, the sooner the better.' But does this apply only to us, Indians?

In the past four years, I have come across a whole lot of European students, post-docs and professors who have chosen to leave famous places like Cambridge and Oxford to pursue their careers in the US. Most have cited reasons or excuses that any Indian provides when asked to justify his presence as a scholar in the US - better funding opportunities, more career growth options, an international experience that will be valued back home in Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and elsewhere. Even friends who went to study in Europe looked or are looking for the first opportunity to hop on to the US bandwagon.
While the US school system has its own problems, the system of higher education in the US currently has no equal and I think that is the way it will be for the next few decades. The American model is being applied in other countries, notably in Asia - in China and Korea this wind of change is turning into a gale, but not surprisingly, it is still a light breeze when it comes to India. While I wish there was a more bold initiative from the government and a clear policy with regards to R & D and science, I am encouraged by recent moves.

Public Funding
I find it rather encouraging that funding from the government for Science and R&D in India has increased over the past decade and it looks like it will keep increasing. In the US, universities and professors vie for national grants and funding from governmental agencies such as the NSF, NIH. In time, I hope that such agencies are created in India, current agencies are given more autonomy and awards have the same sort of transparency and minimal interference from bureaucracy,not being scuttled by political considerations and appointments. For example: I greatly like the model of the NCSB and also its special program for attracting young scientists and providing them with generous start-up funds.

Private Funding
Another aspect of the US model is the huge private funding from large foundations such as Whitaker, Kresge and Hughes and other personal donations. Such contributions, though not in the league of governmental budgets are nevertheless very important in endowing chairs, providing funds for buildings and taking specific initiatives. In India, alumni giving is not particularly big. Apart from the few usual suspects and recent donations made by people who made it big in the late 90s in the computer industry there isn't much of a culture of alumni donations. This needs to change. Universities here try to hit alumni for cash, the moment they graduate in whatever way they can. So far, I have yet to receive any sort of demand for contribution from my college in India.
It isn't like there aren't Indians with cash to spare. Currently, there are 23 Indians in the Forbes list of billionaires, more than the combined net worth of the ones from Japan. I would like to know how much of their charity goes to education, and in that specifically to funding research. On a personal note, I see a huge waste of funds in fattening the various denominations of swamis and gurus by the general public. Why not directly build temples of learning? Or invest directly in the future of lakhs of students instead of going through these fraudulent religious intermediaries? I bet there is tons of money right there.

The traditional mindset of Indians
Quoting from Ashutosh's post,
"... the lack of respect for science and humanities in our society, and indeed almost anything that does not involve a professional career. No matter what changes, unless people's mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress."
I cannot but agree. But how does one exactly change the mindset?
One definite way is to make it more remunerative and on this I would like to slightly disagree with Ashutosh. I agree with him that most of the mad scramble in India for whatever degrees, diplomas you can lay your hands on is for a better pay or job. But Mammon is the great archer. Modeling was certainly not considered very respectable a decade ago. The liberalization in the early 90s led to a rapid rise of consumerism and hence a modeling boom (don't give Ash and Sush all the credit!). Parents have quickly gotten over their sons and daughters strutting about in their underwear. There will be an automatic respect for TV producers, disc-jockeys, historians, writers and scientists when parents are reassured that their talented children will keep up with the Kapoor's next door and won't have to be doctors or engineers to do so.

While I agree with Ashutosh and the general premise that there is more freedom to choose an alternative career in America, the desire for parents wanting their children to become a doctor or an engineer is quite strong, more than one would think (and this is not just Indian parents and their American-born children!). My colleague Tim (a neuroscientist) has this theory which I formulate thus:
"A reasonably intelligent person will continue on a straight line towards being a doctor if not suitably acted on by forces that make him choose otherwise."

If the mountain does not come to science, then science ...

Can we make science attractive? I still don't think we will ever be at a point when you will see a scientists being asked to endorse toothpaste/cars/suitings on primetime television but more space needs to be devoted to science and humanities in magazines and newspapers. Most Indians can name all members of the Indian cricket teams but will be hard-pressed to name more than half-a-dozen Indian scientists who are still alive. There has to a better platform for outreach for scientists. In the US, I face constant requests from outreach programs to teach kids about the brain, judge science fairs and talk about my research. I don't once remember a chemist or a physicist (even a grad student) coming to my school and talking about what he/she did and how much fun it was. The rare opportunity was the Exploratory program run by the Center for Scientific Research(hope I got this right) that selected students on basis of a city-wide test to participate in a unique class that was taught by eminent scientists. Perhaps more of such programs would have led me to chose otherwise and earlier instead of my current circuitous path towards science.

I am rather optimistic about the future of higher education and science. Cricketeers will still make more money but at least kids will grow up with heroes other than them.

Sobering Note
I agree that are other problems of implementation, scale and feasibility. In reality for half of India's 1.1 billion who are below 25, higher education is less of a burning issue than tackling the poor and unfairly distributed primary and basic education. Much of what can be our strength is currently worth just as much as cattle.
But, that is another issue. Where do we start and where do we end?

Peeves (updated)

People talking on the cellphone while jogging on the treadmill.

People haggling over a 30c discount coupon with the cashier in the check-out lane.

Badly parked cars that make it near impossible for you to get in or out of your car.

Not enough ketchup pouches.

People talking in the movie theatre while the movie is playing.

Having to wait at restaurants when you are dying of hunger.

Powerpoint slides with lines and lines of text. Yuck!

(Thought I would add some more....)

More yuck. Powerpoint slides with unnecessary animation and color schemes that distract from the real content.

Poorly spell-checked emails without any punctuation. Spare me your stream of consciousness and spare the ellipses ....

* Emails written as long instant messages eg: gtg, brb, gr8! What does it cost to punch in a few more keys?

* Overuse and abuse of emoticons. Very :( See old post

* Hot showers that become cold midway.

Not waiting your turn at the STOP sign.

Bone-headed pizza places who can't take an order or an address without you having to repeat it a million times.

* - New


This blog has been up for 3 years. Anniversaries such as these are mostly meaningless (and harmless) but they certainly provide a pause for thought. I don't have much to add to my last year's anniversary post except:
This year has clearly been "the" year for the Indian blogworld. Thousands responded in one way or another to the rallying cry in response to a fraudulent management institute who could not stand up to some honest probing or face public scrutiny. Blogs have not changed the world yet, but they are now a part of media consciousness or scientific study. It is true that newsfeed aggregators and portals like Google News have been instrumental in allowing people to sample hundreds of opinions at the same time, of the same subject and have greatly reduced information inequality and have allowed people to overcome the bias of a particular viewpoint; nevertheless blogs show that there is information out there that is unreported and still interesting. Personally, blogs salvage the best of the e-junk.

As for me, I get by with a little help from my friends.
* *
Private Selection

*..and miles to go before I sleep (A work in progress)
* Inglish
* Instant Computer Gurudom
*Back Home I and II, III and IV
* China Posts I and II and III
* People: Naipaul, Dylan and Johnny Cash
* Evolution Posts: Religion and Science, Daniel Dennett and Darwin's Finches.

Oscars: No more surprises

The Academy Awards of 2006 will not go down in posterity. There were no surprises ( I don't think Crash was a surprise) and there were no moments that will show up again and again on future montages (of which there was too much of this year). No kiss scenes, or Michael Moore style rhetoric or tearful speeches. Although, Reese has a fighting chance for the Over-the-Top Acceptance Speech Award.

Yet, there were moments.

The Academy had its own agenda. It wanted to encourage its captive audience to watch movies in theaters and not on DVD. Who's listening? 2005 was the Year of BitTorrent. An Oscar for Technical Achievement? Clooney and the rest of Hollywood is a little out of touch there at least.

Was Ben Stiller trying to play a piece of snot?

It was a little sad to see Laureen Bacall stutter, slur and forgot her lines as a lovely B/W photo from the 50s looked on. When Jon Stewart quipped, "Imagine how they would have looked in color" when the noir montage folded, I thought, "If only Bacall was younger."

It seemed to me that quite a few presenters were given lines to speak and they seemed so wooden and these people are actors! Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson were not among them.

The night did not belong to Robert Altman but he managed to steal some of the limelight for the brief 5 minutes he was on stage. As expected, there was no letting up from the man and certainly no compromise even today. He subtly poked fun at the Academy for trying to award him a death sentence. I admire how he turned it around calling it "being there under false pretences" since he has the heart of 30-year woman. Then taking a crack at people who thanked everybody and their dog, he made his doctor to be a token to stand for everybody and then thanked her. Hah! Altman never fails to dazzle and amuse.

This might soon be forgotten but Larry McMurtry deserved credit for standing up there and stressing the importance of booksellers and reminding everyone that there are often books before the movies.

* *
As far as hosting goes, Jon Stewart was not a disappointment and gets an A-. He seemed quite concerned to be invited back next year. Perhaps.

Oscar Addendum

I stumbled upon this after writing this post and it was too good to leave out. For a sober look at the nominees and the Hollywood publicity machine see Morgenstern's beautiful article on his own movie experiences. He writes,
"Whichever movies and performances win Oscars Sunday night, they won't be the ones I reviewed. For better or worse -- and I do think it's worse -- you and I don't see the same stuff. What I see at advance screenings is prebuzz and prehype. I'm privileged to see movies pretty much pre-everything that's calculated to transform entertainments, or occasionally works of art, into cash cows."

He perfectly summarized my attitude regarding reading movie reviews beforehand:
"The essential point is to protect one's authentic and precious responses to a new experience from those who could or would program them in advance, and then to see with clear eyes what's there to be seen on the silver screen."

I should frame this sentence.

Oscar Night and the Oscars

Sunday is Academy Awards Night and I am looking forward to it. There are those who see the Oscars as a farce and I don't blame them. Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman have yet to win a single one after being nominated 6 and 7 times respectively. The Academy has this unkind tradition of handing out Oscars for Lifetime Achievement, which is their way of saying, "We are real idiots and we have really ****ed up all these years. Sorry!". Each year, there is a thinly veiled theme to the Oscars awarded which makes most awards rather meaningless. I wonder if this year's theme is gay rights. Capote, Brokeback and Transamerica are highly-nominated. Brokeback Mountain is an outstanding movie and deserves to win in some categories, but I would hate to see it overshadow other better nominees. Then there are mercy Oscars tossed to people for not exactly their best performances, to make amends for past wrongs or simply because they-were-due. So as far as the Oscars go, I personally like to take the comfortable neutral position. I give the Academy a lot of credit for nominating the better movies and performances of the year and for bucking box-office and film critic opinions.

Regardless of who finally wins the Oscar the ceremony itself never disappoints. As a keen observer of feminine pulchritude the red carpet is always a big treat. You can't miss that for all the popcorn in the world. It's worth watching for those moments when kisses are shamelessly planted or when people burst into reckless tears. The big question is can Jon Stewart step into Billy Crystal shoes? Steve Martin, Chris Rock and Whoopi proved they couldn't. We will all find out. Stay tuned!

* * *
As for the awards themselves here are my picks based on insufficient knowledge.

Best Motion Picture of the Year - Crash
Tough call. Good Night, and Good Luck was really impressive. Munich was not quite there. Brokeback Mountain seems to be a favorite, but Crash was a much better movie overall - it has a colorful cast of characters, situations and paradigm shifts and makes a much larger statement.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role - Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line)
I have not seen Capote and I bet even Edward R. Murrow could not have wished for a better actor to portray him than David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), but in terms of effort and dedication Phoenix tops them all.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role - Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)
She was fantastic as June Carter. Felicity Huffman(Transamerica) might have an outside chance.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role - Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback)
I have not seen George Clooney in Syriana, but Jake Gyllenhaal stands a good chance in Brokeback Mountain as Jack "effing" Twist.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role - Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain)
Now I wish I had seen Capote.

Best Achievement in Directing - Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)
While Crash was a great movie overall and Haggis did an admirable job directing the large cast; Ang Lee quite clearly wins over him, Spielberg and Clooney for his compassionate telling of an akward, painful story shot in the most beautiful of places in America.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Crash (Paul Haggis)
What a lovely story!

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published - Brokeback Mountain
Munich might have an outside chance.

Best Achievement in Cinematography - Brokeback Mountain
The great blue sky and the green meadow. Each scene was like a postcard or brochure for Wyoming. The B/W in Good Night, and Good Luck was a great touch. Memoirs of a Geisha was a great movie that underperformed.

Best Achievement in Costume Design - Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score - - John Williams (Memoirs of a Geisha)
John Williams created a great score and admirably marshalled the energies of Yitzshak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. It is hard to believe that it was an American and not a Japanese composer. I also liked Gustavo Santaollala's approach in Brokeback Mtn - clean and simple riffs on acoustic guitars, twangy country music thrown in the bar scenes and for throwing in King of the Road (liked how they showed Jack Twist totally upbeat, as he sings the song to the radio as he drives, after which he learns that he cannot stay and has to return to Texas.)

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year - Tsotsi(pure guesswork!)
This has always been my favourite category. I have often found the nominees in this category to be better than the Best Movie of the Year. Tracking these movies down is rather hard at times. At least, the winner will be shown soon in the local liberal-indie type movie theater. Tsotsi sounds like a winner, doesn't it? Why? The story is set in the apartheid-era and is about a thug who has to take home a baby. Can't fail with a storyline like that.

Movies of 2005

This is Ebert's List of the Best of 2005. Over the course of the past year, I have managed to see quite a few of them. Some, after waiting patiently for my turn to check them out at the library, other after hazarding clambouring over bodies of children dressed as witches and wizards on the day the latest Harry Potter was released.
* *
The Upside of Anger was really well-written (despite reviewers upset with the trick ending). While Kevin Costner totally hammed in this one, Joan Allen was fantastic as a middle-aged alcoholic whose husband has abruptly left her. All the daughters did a great job showing different ways in which they handled the situation. There was the detached, intellectual elder daughter; the rebellious second daughter doing everything contrary to what the eldest did; the third daughter who was generally confused and became ill; while the youngest who resented being treated as a baby.
Of late, I have been well-trained (by guess who?) to appreciate and enjoy Ms. Austen's opus mirabilis - Pride and Prejudice and thus have seen most recent TV and film versions/remakes of it including the forgettable Bride and Prejudice. The latest Pride and Prejudice is a pretty decent remake with good casting choices, except for Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) who was just too wooden. Really, Colin Firth has no modern equal in playing the restrained passion and wounded pride of Mr. Darcy. Brenda Blethyn (Secret and Lies), has delivered as always and Donald Sutherland's portrayal of Mr. Bennet has been unjustly overlooked. I still can't I get enough of Ms. Knightley's lovely smile and apparently the Academy cannot either. I wouldn't give her the Oscar, yet. However, the movie was completely massacred by a quite unecessary last scene with Lizzie and Darcy muttering absolute nonsense.
Another outstanding movie of the year was Millions from the director of Trainspotting - Danny Boyle and was delightful except for the soppy, syrupy 5 minutes at the end. Little Alex Ethel is irrestibly cute in a way that girls won't be able to resist and his older brother Anthony played by Lewis McGibbon is cute in a way that guys will not fail to appreciate. These were great movies with a little soppiness on part of the director that lead to sloppiness in editing at the very end. Great movies, just avoid the last five minutes.