Sunday, August 31, 2014


The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) – the original five campuses, often considered to be the top engineering institutions in India and in Silicon Valley, have been losing luster. Its graduates, understandably proud of a rich tradition, look over the fact that it never figured in the top 100 educational institutions in the world. Now that “forward thinking politicians,” have decided to take split milk and spread it across the country, the demise of a good brand may be round the corner.

There are many reasons why the IIT brand never climbed into the top echelons of the most cherished educational brands in the world. Stanford, for example, propelled to the top of the pile in a few decades by combining research with entrepreneurship and creating a climate of futuristic learning. Heavy investments in technology and marketing kept MIT close and in the Midwest, Carnegie Melon, Northwestern and the University of Illinois show flashes of greatness in their chosen specializations. What is common among all of them is research – and the ability to innovate. Great institutions are often criticized for their focus on research at the cost of teaching, but this fear is totally misplaced, for there is no learning without research and any institution, vying to compete with the best has to produce the goods – both in fundamental advancement of science and innovative applications of technology. IIT has never been able to do either.

The second reason why the IITs are failing is their focus on bookish knowledge at the cost of experimentation. A well hyped and advertised brand has had its pick of the top 2000 students in the country for decades, and the fact that its graduates have done reasonably well is no reflection on the ability of the institution to shape them. It may have been the opposite. It has taken excellent raw materials – perhaps as good as any institution could hope for and turned them into bricks in the wall – adept at solving known equations and commonplace problems – with high efficiency. However, in a world of accelerating knowledge and information, efficiency is delegated to machines and the only remaining premium is in intellectual property (IP). A nation, unable to create IP at a sustainable rate in a regime that allows protection, cannot go anywhere, how many efficient engineers and doctors it can produce.

To make matters worse – much worse, in a country run by corrupt politicians, proudly wearing socialism on their long sleeves, nothing better could have been expected. In this grand tradition, they always wanted to democratize the brand. The idea of an elite educational brand, known across the world, for the benefit of a few, make them weep at night – for their nephews could never cross the threshold and their Swiss bank accounts were not enough to secure admissions. Such passion is never futile and the solution seems obvious – make an IIT in every state of the union and if possible every district, village and street corner – and spread the brand like chutney on dosa for the good of all. Those who say creativity is waning in a country bursting at its seams never studied its political intelligentsia – they have always been creative.

The IIT – now reachable for politicians on demand and fully functioning on a quota system – dividing the pie neatly to every cast, creed and religion – has to prepare for the inevitable fall from giddying heights, it never was designed to reach. Perhaps, a tolerable exit is in the works – opening the markets to higher education will instantly expose the venerable brand to competition and that may be the shock it needs to wake up from the long stupor. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gut feel

Recent research from UCSF argues that the bacteria in the human gut could be strategically altering our eating habits. The study published in BioEssays (1) go as far as arguing that bacteria rule our minds.It even suggests a mechanism, the vagus nerve – apparently controlled by the bacteria to alter our eating habits.

This is a case of analyzing the roots of the trees in the Amazon forest and not recognizing one is in the forest. Scientific specialization has led to deep analysis, often disconnected from overall understanding of complex systems. Is one eating broccoli, really because the gut bacteria ask her to? Is one avoiding sugar, really because the gut bacteria have diabetes? In that context, would a human consume anything without the command from the bacteria – and perhaps the chief bacterium – from the gut?

Observing complex system behavior and then equating that to one of the underlying factors is not just a curse of biology and medicine, but every other scientific discipline. Stronger hurricanes are caused by global warming, market crashes are caused by stupid bankers and the stability of the universe is credited to “dark matter.” Sure, gut bacteria are powerful – but are they truly strategic as to cause weakness to the hand lifting a pint of beer, when they are in no mood to get intoxicated? Are they really reprogramming the vagus nerve with 100 million nerve cells to dial up what they want – sort of an Amazon ordering system? A system, overrun by 10:1 in favor of bacteria to human cells, is bound to have some effect from the lowly single cell organism.

Are bacteria really controlling the human mind or humans with free-will flushing them down the toilet every night? Do bacteria reincarnate? Would bacteria make humans regress to organisms that simply feed them – or have they already done that?

(1) Do gut bacteria rule our minds? Published: Saturday, August 16, 2014 - 05:12 in Biology & Nature

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fooled by observations

Two recent theories – one that hypothesizes that the universe is a floating 3D brane at the edge of the event horizon created by the collapse of a 4D star into a black hole and the other speculating that the expansion of the universe is an illusion created by changing mass – are both instructive. Observations in the presence of faulty foundational theories could diminish the understanding of non-linear systems over time. In astrophysics and in economics, this has been happening for long. In the former, heavy instruments that bring large amounts of data – that almost agree with the hypothesized theory creates a feeding frenzy to create even more refined instruments, bringing more observational data “close enough” to prove the established theory. In the latter, uncertainty has afforded enough flexibility for back fitting data – essentially allowing anything to be proved or disproved and to stick to belief systems that do not need any further proof.

Humans have been experimentalists who like observations as the primary path to proof. Even their most famous invention, religion – a highly sophisticated and abstract notion, makes use of tactical observations to prove the underlying complex theory. Physics has been no different – and lately, it appears that the need for experimentalism has been expanding at an accelerated rate – perhaps in frustration - as many felt a few decades ago that the field is coming to an end, after having revealed everything there is to know. Experimentalism has a dark side - when combined with theories that cannot be proven, observations can only lead down the path of either asserting the original wrong or incrementally modifying it to make it worse. Additionally, the human mind, designed with a simple objective function containing two factors - food and sex, has been in awe of the puzzles presented to it and predictably prefer unknown complexity as the only answer.

There have been rare excursions all through history, outside her limitations, in which she simply imagined the next state – with no instruments in hand and no data to analyze. In a world replete with engineering and economics, such a process is becoming even more rare.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Carbon conundrum

Global warming has been a hot topic – in science, popular press and politics. On this topic, it is difficult to separate the three cohorts, which on most issues give themselves up by showing dogma, entertainment value and ignorance, respectively. The topic does present significant optionality for everybody involved to prove and disprove, to believe and disbelieve, to embrace strategy and tactics, to divulge compassion and ignorance, to showcase intellect and political affiliations and to make a living. Such is the state of affairs on the warming Earth, that even scientists of repute disagree on observations and projections, it is unbelievable that a reality show has not taken root.

Carbon, the building block of all known life, could never have imagined such negative press. As the owners of fossil fuels encourage more burning and those who have been burning for ages show signs of restraint, the black smoke rises with unpredictable long term impacts. Those who are convinced of the impending doom pose rational arguments, couched in risk management. Wouldn’t one, they ask, cut back on fossil fuels, even if the risk of catastrophic outcomes is very small - for the worst outcome is nothing less than possible eradication of humans? Even such small probabilities of really bad outcomes are reason enough to take action, they argue. The same argument should make air travel the most dangerous to undertake - that a small probability of a catastrophic failure would be sufficient to avoid taking part in such an adventure. On the other hand, the talking heads on TV, mistake weather for climate, and ponder if “global warming is dead,” when the arctic air blows in from the North in the winter. Surely, there is a reality show in here somewhere.

Some of the brightest scientists, in an attempt to get the public to see the problem, have made arguments that make their own positions untenable. The gradual downward trend in surface temperatures in the last decade is an anomaly, they argue, but the upward trend 30 years prior is a certain sign that temperatures will rise exponentially. The less scholarly, in an attempt to show affiliation to the money-makers want every drop of hydrocarbon out of mother Earth and as fast as possible, to feed the economy and themselves. The collision of statistics, science and ignorance has cooked up a potent soup of confusion, attempting to decipher and predict the behavior of a highly non-linear system, driven by many different cyclic effects, some with a periodicity of millions of years. Meanwhile, sure signs of magnetic pole switches on the Earth and the Sun, the tactical impacts of which are unclear, have been swept under the rug.

Dogmatic science, entertainment based press and ignorant politics boil up the debate as the drama continues – those who can see the lighter side of it, could be the eventual winners