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.


Anonymous said...

When I was at IITB, I was very nearly convinced that the administration's decisions were carefully chosen and designed to inflict the *most* pain and discomfort on the student body. There were some policies you just couldn't explain otherwise.

The last straw was in my final year (thankfully) when they cut Internet (powered down every router) to the hostels from 11 PM at night to 8 AM in the morning. Every day.

IMHO the problem is with mediocre admin people who don't really care for the job. With higher salaries one can attract sharper people who pay attention to details and thinking things through. But then who has the money?

Prithwiraj said...

@Anonymous I really doubt its a question of money (IISc is flush with funds in its centennial year). I think this decision was taken by a faculty committee (who are the cream of India's talent) rather than a systems analyst. I think its more to do with mentality, and these guys are just not aware of the world outside their journals and conferences.

Khalil Sawant said...

Generation Gap Problem

Anonymous said...

why so serious? peeleraja

Hip Grandma said...

'What is required, however, is an upgrade of mentality instead.'

I agree. We have professors who sit in airconditioned offices deciding on the syllabus of intermediate students they never plan to teach. As a result the vast syllabus is simply rusged through and students learn by rote instead of understanding the subject.They have entrances to answer and the syllabus and pattern for each of these exams varies.The pressure of two entirely different examinations compounded by parental ambition stifles the natural inclination of students and the process of teaching/learning takes a beating.We are producing a generation of thickheads who cannot think beyond their course and books.Funtime and pranks??who has the time with parents and teachers taking turns to breathe down their necks?

Anonymous said...

Ah Anonymous #1, you hit the nail on the head. IITM seems to have a very similar system. The proxies, which make everything hell, are powered down at midnight every day.

Madhurima said...

Hi Prithwiraj,

This is a thought provoking article and well written. I am writing to you on behalf of Voices, The IISc Student's newsletter. We would like to publish this article of yours in our October issue and seek your permission for the same. Do write in to us at to let us know what you think.
Looking forward to a positive reply.
Madhurima Das

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