Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Kizuna Project: the grand Japanese plan to revitalise the economy of 2011 tsunami affected area

We were invited by the Japanese government to visit the area affected by tsunami in March 2011 under the banner of Kizuna Project. It is the Japanese version of rural employment guarantee scheme: to bring in about 10000 international visitors to visit the tsunami ravaged area, pumping in money in the aviation sector, hotel/hospitality sector, and boost tourism and help revive local economy from the sale of local souvenirs to the visitors and at the same time to convey the message to international community that it is safe to visit these areas - the Fukushima disaster notwithstanding. Ours was the third batch from India comprising of students and faculty supervisors from IITs to visit Sendai, Onagawa and Minamisanriku during Feb. 4-13, 2013.

Apart from other obvious take aways, one lasting impression is that of taking due diligence to the extreme - the Japanese go into minute details on everything they do whether it is planning an excursion or going out to dinner! I post some of the pictures from the visit here. I'll add my notes as and when I can - have been postponing this post for that very reason!

Yukata - the Japanese night dress
Prevention is better than cure! Most of the Japanese can be seen with such masks in public places.
Bullet train station at Tokyo
The bullet train
Bullet train station at Tokyo

The bullet train

Snow fall at Sendai

Snow fall at Sendai

Saturday, 17 October 2015

In search of Shrikhande family roots: A trip to a remote village in Goa

One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is the story behind our family name: Shrikhande. I was told that the Shrikhande family tree had roots in Korgaon, a small village near Mapusa, North Goa. Our ancestor was a priest in the temple of Shri Kamleshwar Maharudra. It is said that this priest led the protest against proselytisation by Christian missionaries under Portuguese occupation and was beheaded for his resistance. His family took refuge in Kolhapur/Satara and subsequently the title of Shrikhande was conferred on them (Shrikhande = Shir + Khande = the beheaded).

We had an opportunity to visit the temple and site where the beheading had supposedly taken place and it is my pleasure to share the pictures from that visit (29 March 2013).

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The PhD quality

I am told that IIT Roorkee is going to award about 235 Ph.D. degrees in the forthcoming convocation on October 03, 2015. This marks an increase of almost 100% on YoY basis. This upward trend of producing PhDs is going to continue in foreseeable future, if the thinking of the apex advisory council is of any guidance. The 100% rise is indeed eye popping even if we take into account the fact that PhD is not exactly a time bound programme. This increase in the PhDs can not be attributed to the increased faculty strength in recent times as they have not been around long enough, as yet. Since the good candidates are not exactly queueing up to join our PhD programme, this extra-ordinary increase in the PhDs produced calls for discussions and to re-examine our system of checks and balances to maintain quality of our output and to assure that it is not being compromised.

How should one define the quality of students (doctorates, in particular, since there is no grading) that we graduate? The process of the making of a doctorate is akin to the manufacturing process wherein raw material is processed to produce a finished product. So, the definition of quality from manufacturing industry should be a good guidance:

''In manufacturing, a measure of excellence or a state of being free from defects, deficiencies and significant variations. It is brought about by strict and consistent commitment to certain standards that achieve uniformity of a product in order to satisfy specific customer or user requirements. ISO 8402-1986 standard defines quality as "the totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bears its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs." If an automobile company finds a defect in one of their cars and makes a product recall, customer reliability and therefore production will decrease because trust will be lost in the car's quality.'' Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/quality.html#ixzz3mG9zEJIP 

Every milestone in the formal educational set-up is associated with the development of well-defined set of skills. The undergraduate programmes are aimed at "How to" skills whereas the post-graduate programmes should aim at "Why" to encourage and develop critical thinking. In an ideal situation, this would be construed to have been achieved if the candidate gets a couple of peer reviewed publications under his/her belt by the time of graduation. But it is not a fool proof system. The scholarly journals are only interested to see the novelty in the submission and have no mechanism to check how the work was actually carried out and reported. It is quite possible that the candidate worked like a robot carrying on the detailed instructions of the supervisor to produce the results and the supervisor wrote the majority of the manuscript with very little input coming from the student. Obviously, the candidate gets the credits in authorship but has learned little to progress on the path to developing an attitude of critical enquiry. Ideally, the candidate becomes eligible to be conferred a doctorate degree when he/she develops the faculty of critical enquiry to the extent that he/she can take up an independent career in research and to supervise/train other candidates in this process. There is, unfortunately, no way to gauge/ascertain this capability other than an honest assessment of the supervisor. If the supervisor, for whatever reasons, fails to perform this basic screening then it is a rather remote possibility that the candidate may not get the license to philosophize and supervise independent research and produce questionable PhDs in the process.  It is not without reason that PhD is such a valued and respected academic accomplishment and it is our solemn duty to maintain its high esteem. I quote a paragraph in this context:

"PhD is hard. It is meant to be hard not because inflicting pain is necessarily fun, nor because some scientists are 'dementors', and not because your PhD is expected to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s hard because it is an apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster. A PhD is essentially a test. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you pass this test by passing your PhD. Wrong. The fact is that passing a PhD is like getting a certificate of participation. Why? Because almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one. No, the real test is what happens after your PhD. That’s when you’ll know whether you’ve really passed. Do well and it will open the door to a career of unparalleled intellectual freedom." [from Tough love: An insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD]

Recently, I had a chance to go through a PhD thesis on analytical modelling of vibration of plates. I was quite amused to note that the main argument of the thesis was in finding virtue in an approximate numerical solution scheme that affects the computed frequency parameter in fourth or fifth place of decimal in comparison with the benchmark case computed using a different numerical approximation. As a practitioner of the vibration theory, I can swear on oath that I would be more than happy to get a reliable estimate of the natural frequency to unit's place or at most one decimal place. Moreover, I wonder if it ever occurred to the candidate that for all his singing praises for the adopted numerical scheme, the difference could probably have been caused by the standardization of the floating point operation since late 1980s (because the benchmark result dates back to the time before the advent of floating-point standard and hence the coding and platform of computing made a lot of difference in the accuracy of numerical computations). Probably, the candidate has never heard the golden advice, "The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers!" This lack of appreciation of insight into the basic mechanics of the problem is the biggest failing of our training process that is called PhD and is worrisome. This fresh PhD now has the license to supervise a PhD and will have a cascading effect on this academic lineage of PhDs.

While we are discussing the PhD students and their work, another issue that is worth debating is the authorship of the publications. Should the supervisor be a co-author? If he is a co-author of the research papers published prior to submission of thesis, then is it not a case of conflict of interest when the supervisor examines the PhD thesis of the candidate? In this scenario, will it be a better proposition to insist on at least one single author journal publication by the candidate before the thesis is submitted? This sole authorship in a journal article will also go a long way in helping the academic career of the student while ensuring that the candidate owns 100% responsibility for at least part of the work being examined.

I am sure that I have done enough to stir the hornets' nest and welcome a healthy discussion/debate on this issue. Having said that I am also sure that we all have some interesting anecdotes to share about our days as graduate students that it'll make for an interesting discussion. Let me share something that I had conjured up on the basis of an empirical analysis of available data:
The Supervisor's Law of Inertia:
"A supervisor tends to produce graduate students who are his/her academic replicas, unless influenced by some external factors."

A few links to recommend to your PhD students about the PhD process: 

Some Important Things Most Students Never Ask About Graduate School 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The technical content of technical festival: The case of Cognizance

The current Cognizance season allows me to put things in perspective (my point of view, in any case). You may or may not choose to look at the same perspective view. Two years back when I was part of the coordinating team for Cognizance, I was rather peeved at the repeated approvals being sought by the students for purchase of ply boards for erection of arenas for robotics events. The students were going by the estimate provided by the carpenter and used to revise the estimates for boards almost every alternate day. Since the same arenas are constructed year after year for the same set of robotics events, I asked them to prepare proper drawings of these arenas and estimate the required quantity precisely. This could also be kept as a formal record for use as guidelines for future. The entire event passed by but not a single piece of drawing could be produced by the students -- and the team of students involved in Cognizance are above average students with respect to CGPA. Whenever I used to ask them about the drawings, they used to look at me as if I had descended from Mars!
Another episode relates to the matter of quality checks for the T-shirts that had been ordered for distribution to participants. More than 2000 T-shirts were ordered and the terms of purchase included one line about random checks for ensuring quality. I asked one student (who was pursuing B.Tech. Industrial Engineering) about the plan of random checks. How many samples should drawn out for random checks and how do we decide if the lot is acceptable or should be rejected. Again, a complete blank!! It seemed that it had never occurred to him that whatever was taught in Statistical Quality Control would be expected to be applied in some real situation. So much for the technical competence of our bright students.

The other issue that bothered me was the propensity of everyone to be involved in the "organization" of the event and not actually participate in technical events. Very few of IITR students actually participated in the technical competitive events taking the plea that being part of management team, they are not allowed to participate. I wonder of what use is the organization of technical festival in campus if the students are not going to take part? In the same vein, I am kind of perplexed about how are song and dance events in tune with the aims and objectives of the "technical festival" Cognizance? It seems to be just one more opportunity for the students to vent off -- notwithstanding the fact that they are not under any great academic pressure any way.
I hardly notice any intellectually challenging activity taking place which could give some new ideas and directions to the students outside of the classroom. Considering that the budget of this event is about Rs. 70-80 Lakhs and we have been hosting this for more than 10 years: what is the tangible gain from an input of Rs. 7-8 Crore? Sooner or later as this sum accumulates, questions will be asked and we better be prepared with an answer.

I wonder if it would be worthwhile to turn this annual event into a sort of annual problem solving challenge with a decent prize money for proposing solutions to one or two challenging problems identified by the faculty members of one or two departments (on rotation basis) and invite the short-listed proposals to make a presentation on the campus. Who knows, this kind of crowd sourcing may indeed throw up interesting ideas and leads worth pursuing. After all, the scientific community got the powerful technique of Fourier series through this kind of problem solving challenge.