Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Adventure 44

IISc and the Slow Death of Innovation

Today's newspaper carries an article saying that IISc plans to restrict internet access of its denizens to 1 GB per week per head. As a recent alumnus, I am not surprised. The Institute, for many years now, is degenerating into a bureaucratic corporate company well past its sell-by date (think General Motors, Air India), focussed on attracting on huge cash infusions, rather than the liberal centre of learning it was meant to be. In the recent past there has been a flurry of articles (press releases?) in various sections of the media, hailing J.N. Tata's gift to India on its centennial year, and the high quality of academic research being performed by the faculty here, and all of this is indeed true. But, does faculty research alone make an institution great? Unfortunately no. Let us look at some quirky aspects of the world's great educational establishments - places considered to be hallowed portals of learning - and we will soon realise that there is more to learning than just cutting edge research (with high-speed computers and the latest gizmos), and these quirks have contributed in equal measure to these centres of learning, along with their huge numbers (higher than IISc's) of scholarly publications with high Impact Factors.

MIT is known for its high quality of research in physics, engineering, economics, and a variety of other subjects. But, its students are better known for their annual April Fools pranks that have an astonishing degree of innovation in them. Recently, some students hacked into the Institute's website and posted the headline that Disney would acquire MIT for a few billion dollars. Now, not only would an IISc student ever be capable of such a prank, they would probably be expelled if they did execute it. MIT officials, on the other hand consider it a sporting challenge to thwart such attacks, and publicly share a laugh with the community when such a thing is perpetrated. Students at Caltech managed to change the flashcards in a cheerleader routine in the Rosebowl, while Oxford students managed to mysteriously place a car on the roof of one of the University's buildings many many years ago. Since gambling is forbidden in India, there will probably never be an IISc Blackjack Team either!

Jason Katz-Brown, a 19-year old undergraduate student at MIT created Quackle in 2006, a sophisticated Scrabble simulator that can thrash the best of champions (it is to Scrabble's Artificial Intelligence what Deep Blue is to chess), apart from creating quirky Linux games like Kolf. The entire scientific community (and scientific institutions who are cash-strapped) are thankful to the John W Eaton, the creator of GNU Octave, who, as the chemical engineering department's computer administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created what was intended to be a basic differential equation solving package. Today, Octave is a fully functional math and simulation package, and the favourite of students with limited access to the expensive MATLAB. Berkeley Madonna, developed by George Oster, a biologist at UC Berkeley is another instance of a popular software package coming out of an academic institution.

Molecular simulation packages are the staple of doctoral students the world over, and Indian scientific institutes are no exception. Countless students of physics, engineering and chemistry in institutes like IISc, JNCASR and the IITs depend on at least one of GROMACS, NAMD or CHARMM to acheive their publications. These packages were not made by highly-paid PhDs sitting in cushy offices. GROMACS (Groningen Machine for Chemical Solutions) was developed at the University of Groningen, with inputs from the University of Uppsala, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Stockholm. CHARMM (Chemistry at Harvard Macromolecular Mechanics), though not free, is the hallmark of Martin Karplus and his group at Harvard. NAMD (Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics) was developed by a research group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sadly, even though crores of rupees are spent every year in organising conferences and schools dealing with these simulation packages, nothing close to their usefulness seems to be ever coming out of the hallowed portals of IISc, even as these packages continue to account for a large chunk of high-impact publications coming out of there.

Let us not even go into the advent of Google (Stanford), Facebook (Harvard), TeX (Stanford) and Napster (Northeastern), that changed the faces of their respective genres beyond recognition. Even if a similar innovation did ever come out of IISc, the Internet restrictions placed on its denizens will ensure that these never see the light of the day. Hell, they may even be rendered dependent on commercial software, since Linux upgrades and the various new free packages available on the web will no longer be accessible to IIScians due to the regressive download limit. The computer administrators of IISc are like the CEOs of the defunct American Investment Banks - they just refuse to believe that the world around them has changed. IISc may have been the pioneers of Internet access in India, but it continues to live in that curious time warp, even as millions of rupees are spent to upgrade computers, electron microscopes and spectrometers. What is required, however, is an upgrade of mentality instead.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Adventure 43

Big Brother's Watching

Imagine a world in which you are continuously being watched. There are cameras at random, undisclosed locations, tracking your movements, and those of your compatriots. You have to wear an identity card above your waist, which contains your photo, and a serial number that identifies you. The card can be tracked by Them to locate your whereabouts any time They want. They decide when and what you eat, and also where you eat.

All is not a bed of thorns in this world. You are recognized for your perseverance and hard work by being called to dinner with the Big Brother. Big Brother is all powerful, a shining beacon who has risen from your ranks to His exalted position. You are, but a statistic to Him. He leads Them; They who can monitor every keystroke of yours; They who decide what websites you visit and what you don't; They who make sure you don't step out of line. Big Brother is part of a Hallowed Inner Circle, one that dines separately, and sits in special chairs in special rooms; that travels the world in luxury jets and gives motivational talks, while advising you to pinch every if it were your own. Big Brother is benevolent, a Comrade who understands your pain and identifies with your plight; he even shares your burden by subjecting himself to the same pay cuts as you. He however doles out little monetary gifts whenever your overseers are happy with whatever work you have done.

The above is not a description of a Communist or otherwise dictatorial regime. This is the case in most large corporate companies of the world. The regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe collapsed under their own weight, and so have a lot of big commercial behemoths recently. Maybe change is imminent yet again...