Curious Bends – Vandana Shiva, antibiotics in chicken, asteroid hunters and more

Few technologies, not the car, the phone, or even the computer, have been adopted as rapidly and as widely as the products of agricultural biotechnology. The tools of genetic engineering have allowed a good proportion of the current population to survive and prosper. But such statistics (or any scientific argument) does not stop Vandana Shiva from thinking that the root of all evil lies in GM technology. (42 min read)

2. Chicken consumption is at an all-time high in India. It may be contributing to antibiotic resistance

An investigation of chicken from around Delhi shows that they contain antibiotics beyond the limits setup by international bodies. These antibiotics are used not to treat diseased chicken but to prevent them. However, there are no regulations in India for their use in poultry. This means the amounts used are often excessive, probably contributing to increasing antibiotic resistance. (21 min read)

3. India’s outdated approach to education is hurting students and academia

The University Grants Commission wants to reign in elite institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, by making their courses shorter. This decision, however, isn’t based on any sound research. If such institutions aren’t allowed to experiment with education, then how would you know what works best for Indian students and academics? (5 min read)

+ The author, Vishu Guttal, is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science.

4. India has an asteroid search mission made up of mostly students

“Four years, 260 teams across India, 1200 observations of celestial bodies and 21 discoveries of asteroids. All India Asteroid Search Campaign was started by SPACE, an NGO in India, in 2010 with an aim to increase the love for science, astronomy and scientific research in Indian students. SPACE provides training to students and amateur astronomers to hunt for asteroids.” (2 min read)

5. An interview with Manjul Bhargava, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal

The first Indian-origin mathematician has won the Fields Medal, which is considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics. In an interview, he talks about growing up in India, Canada and the US and how his upbringing shaped up his desire to pursue mathematics, tabla and sanskrit. His hope is that Indian youth will take up research in basic science.

Chart of the week

You must have heard that even today half of India’s population lives off agricultural activities. But how true is that? Turns out that estimating how many cultivators and agricultural labourers India has is no easy task. Here’s an attempt by Hindustan Times.

Is education the great leveller? No, says UNESCO

Immigrant students and those from poor backgrounds living in developed countries are being failed by the school system and face a high risk of marginalisation, according to a UNESCO report.

Data from the 2009 results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that only 60% of French 15-year-old students pass the minimum benchmark for reading if they are immigrants. This is the same proportion achieved by an average Mexican student. Non-immigrant students in France fare much better, with 82% achieving that benchmark.

Similarly, reading levels of England’s immigrant students’ are on par with an average student in Turkey, and Germany’s are on par with an average student in Chile.

Rich poor education-01

According to Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, “On average economic migrants and refugees from less educated social backgrounds may tend to do worse, wherever they go.” He said that when UNESCO quotes difference in attainment rates for immigrants in different countries, “it is important to bear in mind how developed these countries are and where the influx is from.”

This comparison between immigrants and non-immigrants may mask issues over first-generation immigrants studying in a second language. Gorard said factors of social class are of key importance. Where new children perform worse at school than their indigenous peers, “this is not necessarily a consequence of their immigrant status of their treatment by others.”

The key question is what happens over time, perhaps over a generation or two. But, he said, “This is in no way an excuse for situations where there is direct evidence of unfair treatment of recent immigrant students.”

A 2013 report by the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, pointed to chidren of some migrants being denied access to education and housing.

Their analysis found that in England, the gap between rich and poor children achieving minimum levels in maths grows as they progress through school. At grade four (nine-year-olds), the gap was 8%, but it was 19% by grade eight (13-year-olds).

New Zealand has similar disparities, with only two thirds of poor students achieving standards, compared to nearly all rich students. In Australia, the problem has persisted for more than a decade, with two-thirds of indigenous grade 8 students achieving the minimum level in maths between 1994-5 and 2011, compared to 90% of non-indigenous students.

Rich poor divide-01

Such discrepancies are not inevitable. Policies in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, as well as in Finland, have promoted quality teaching and helped level reduce disparities in learning, creating a level playing field for students from different social class.

Policy interventions to address discrepancies between ethnic groups can be difficult to get political attention. When it comes to analysis of achievement of different ethnic groups, David Gilborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham, said race equality isn’t currently taken very seriously in debates around education in the UK. “I think certainly over the last few years, policymakers have not just taken their eye off the ball in terms of inclusive education. They’ve removed it from the agenda all together.”

Gilborn has worked on the differences in attainment between children of black Caribbean heritage, and the national average, which he said remain pronounced. “Education policy at the moment is dominated by a kind of colour blind rhetoric that emphasises standards and choice, and if anything, talk about inclusion and social justice tends to emphasise a particular view of white students being the race victims,” he said.

The UNESCO report points out that 250m of the world’s 650m primary school-age children are not learning the basics of reading and maths. The researchers put the cost of this to governments at $129bn, or 10% of global spending on primary education.

Bearing the price in mind and the fact that many of the children going through the school system are not actually achieving basic levels in reading and maths, it is possible to break down the cost-efficiency of spending on primary education. For example, in Burundi, the average spend per pupil is $60. But if you remove those who are not learning the basics, and the cost per pupil is $204.The Conversation

Written with Gemma Ware. First published on The Conversation

Image credit: PennState

Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work
Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.

Response to comments on the Aakash Op-Ed

On March 29th I wrote an Op-Ed in The Hindu, a national newspaper in India, on the Indian government’s plans to hand out $35  tablets to poor students. It attracted a number of comments and emails. I’m writing this post as a response to some of the common points that they raise.

1. Are test scores the best way to evaluate student’s learning?

The studies I quote (references to which can be found here) also took into consideration other factors. For instance, the Peru study looked at behaviour of the students: enrolment, attendance, study at home, and reading habits. While even this is not perfect a way to evaluate students, but I believe it enough to draw conclusion about the success or failure of this large scheme.

2. India already has plans in place to take care of malnourished children. There are mid-day meal programs and healthcare program like the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). Isn’t it ok for the Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry to work on other issues?

This is true. But consider the fact that NHRM was started in 1975. In nearly 40 years it has not been able to cut down the number of malnourished children. More than 40% still suffer from stunted growth, which means that they don’t reach their proper physical or mental potential. Read detailed report here. These are serious worries, and despite government’s efforts little has happened. One of the reasons may be that it is not just the lack of food that is causing malnutrition. Read this excellent article to find out more.

3. Many schools don’t have access to books beyond their curricula. Aakash will enable them to get that access without added expenditure. Isn’t that good?

I’d accept the first argument about scalability But one needs to weigh the utility of gaining more knowledge while most of those who will get it may not even have the basic knowledge to approach the idea gaining more knowledge.

4. The infrastructure requirement for 3G is minimal when compared to building schools and it has a profit component which invites private expenditure. Even if it’s not profit-based, it’s easier for the govt. to deal with huge mobile companies than with different contractors working in every village.

The physical infrastructure needed for Aakash might be less, but the software and educational material that will be needed for it is by no means a small project. It is scalable as it can be deployed on all tablets at once, but the implementation of that material will need teachers on the ground. So I don’t think it’s as easy as that.

5. This is only the beginning. The trickle down effect of this initiative will be large.

This particular comment can be made about pretty much every initiative of the Indian government. See the NHRM example in answer 2 above.

6. Your complaint of poor hardware is justified, but if that is overcome then content will reach more people. The content is there, look at Khan Academy

It’s nice to hope that content that worked for the west will also work for India. See answer 4.

Some notable comments below:

It also seems that the government has taken pre-orders for the device. From an email:

I’ve made an advance payment of Rs. 2999 for the much publicized Aakash Tablet by GOI in Feb 2012. Now even after a year, Datawind has not delivered it. My reminders are answered with a reply stating that the delivery is under process.

On The Hindu’s website:

From Himanshu:

The middle ages had Tughlaq and his leather currency .. we have Sibal and Akash.



From Saurabh Sharma:

I got a SIM Card buy just showing my Aadhar card. The pleasure was immeasurable. For once I felt I was a decent human being and not a punching bag of government rules. Aadhar is another favourite punching bag of pessimists and armchair critics.

From S Nandakumar:

Whatever said and done even in the age of e-learning and Computer Based Training there is nothing like effective classroom interaction between students & teachers

This tablet is not the magic pill

The Indian government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education, poverty or inequality

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started the project, denied Mr. Raju’s comments. He further added: “I want public services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform for 1.2 billion people.”

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers’ money on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First, there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he claims it can. Second, it is not clear how the Indian government will ever be able to produce (or procure) a tablet that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OLPC’s hope was that empowering children in the developing world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it hadn’t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100), though they weren’t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the panacea to all problems irrespective of a country’s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the results are in and OLPC hasn’t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 8,50,000 laptops were given out at a cost of Rs.1080 crore ($200 million). In treatment schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to 1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal. Enrolment isn’t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn’t have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says: “Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.” It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC’s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr. Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all problems. It’s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than $35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims. Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school? Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water, toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology “strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the content created can reach the learner.” This adoption of OLPC’s main idea is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing out laptops, or in India’s case, tablets, ignores the local context and thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would be foolish to continue.

This is a referenced version of an Op-Ed that was first published in The Hindu.
Image credit: The Hindu

On being creative

This week’s Brain Picking’s newsletter brought to my attention this gem of a talk on creativity by John Cleese of the Monty Python fame. Of particular interest to readers of this blog should be a quote from the talk:

Keep your mind gently round the subject you ponder. You can daydream, of course. But keep bringing your mind back [on to it], just like meditation. Because – and this is the extraordinary thing about creativity – if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious self. Probably in the shower later or breakfast the next morning, but suddenly you are rewarded and, out of the blue, a new thought appears mysteriously. If you have put in the pondering time, first.

In short, persistent contemplation is very important to be creative. The importance of creativity in any profession cannot be overstated and such nuggets of gold should not pass through our mental sieves. Thinking about something with purposeful intent requires effort but with practice it becomes a habit.

Cleese says, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” Persistent contemplation is one way to operate to be creative, but that alone may not be enough.

In another fascinating talk that John Cleese gave on creativity, almost two decades later, he reminds us, in a rather funny way, that our ideas come from our unconscious. He calls our unconscious mind a tortoise – one that hides in its shell unless the right conditions are created to allow it to come out. To create those conditions, Cleese asks us to create boundaries of space and time. By space, he means, not just the physical surroundings but also the mental ones which allow the tortoise to come out and play without distractions.

The most profound insight to be gained from the talk comes right at the end when Cleese reveals a profound discover he made about life. He says, “To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it requires to be good at that thing.” Applying which he finds that those people who have no idea about what they are doing have no idea that they have no idea about what they are doing.”

That job after that degree

Not too many years ago I was a teenager who shared the dreams of many other teenagers of getting a well-paying job after I completed my degree. I hoped, as many do of that age, that such a job will help me settle down, make enough money, raise a good family -in short, enable me to live happily ever after. It is a dream worthy of desire, but one that may only rarely ever turn to reality.

What brings such notions to young minds I do not know, but it is one that I have seen year after year as the newbies begin their professional education. It may be because of stories perpetrated by parents and relatives or may even be real life examples of people who pretend to be in such positions. Or perhaps it is the financial situation that most youth find themselves in.

If I have learnt anything, then it is that working towards a happily-ever-after future may be as futile as a dog chasing it’s own tail (may be that’s an exaggeration but you get my point). Wanting a job that will allow one to lead a life of stability without much struggle might just be dream, especially in today’s economic climate.

Many students come to read the ICT awareness pages on this blog to find information that may help them decide whether ICT is the right place for them. In the comments or by email, I get asked a question over and over again that pertains to the ‘placements’ offered to it’s graduates.

“I have admission for BChem at LIT, Nagpur and BTech Dyes in ICT, Mumbai. Will I get a better paying job if I choose ICT? What is the average salary offered to the graduating students?”

It is a vital question indeed, but should not be the only one on which the decision is made. It is not a bad thing to think about what one may achieve from studying at an institute, but it would certainly be unfair if money earned from a job after is considered the most important criteria.

As I mentioned before, I also, as a teenager, dreamt of an elusive job like the one you seek, but I am happy that I did not decide to come to ICT solely on that piece of information. Because within a year of my time in ICT, I had rid myself of that notion. From wanting to be a graduate with a fat pay-check, I decided to pursue higher studies at a student salary.

Many factors played a role in this change of direction. Today, I am glad that I took that step and can cite many reasons to discount the high-salary job as one of the decisive factors of one’s career.

It is important to remember that education of any kind will serve its purpose only when it opens doors for you that you did not know existed (by teaching you things that you did not know about before!). I certainly wasn’t thinking that I can become a scientist when I chose to do chemical engineering. Many things can happen when you spend time being educated with a group of smart people. That should probably figure as an important factor in deciding where you would like to get educated or where you would like to work when you finish.

Amongst all these news articles about IITians being paid huge salaries and IIM grads getting into the world’s top companies, one forgets about the day to day stuff. Behind all those big salaries and names there is a job which one needs to do everyday. A job that will involve going to the office, mixing up with colleagues, working on projects and delivering results. That daily stuff will be really hard, if you choose a job for the salary it offers and disregard your interest in the work. You may be able to survive the job if you are capable enough, but all that money will give you no satisfaction if the job is not of your liking.

Daniel Pink describes three things that give us great satisfaction and help us perform better: autonomy, mastery and purpose. You should go watch this talk to learn more and probably that will make it easy for you to see why people leave a very high paying Goldman Sachs’ position to work for a start-up.

It’s like the MasterCard line, ‘There are some things that money can’t buy, for everything else there is that high-paying job’.