Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Memories of a Dead Head

I realise that science administration may not be everyone's favourite topic, so today I want to talk about the Grateful Dead instead. I can reveal that at the tender age of 17 or thereabouts, I became an officially certified Dead Head, the name given to fans of this rock band. It all started when my cousins in Delhi got hold of a couple of albums of the Dead, as they are known to their fans. I quickly became a convert. So much so, that eventually (with consent) I pinched my cousins' long-playing record of "American Beauty", one of the Dead's seminal albums, and still have it in my possession. It plays rather well, even though I vividly remember their dog once jumping on it while it was playing on their turntable.

Rock music has long been one of my passions though it has steadily become a guilty pleasure as I grow older. In 2003 I attended the Rolling Stones concert in Bombay and was relieved that everyone there was in their forties/fifties, as I was. With hindsight I can see now that it was the entire combination of power chords, pounding rhythms, exploration of meaning with an anti-establishment attitude, and (occasionally but importantly) brilliant poetry that attracted me to rock music, and still does.

Still, rock music is one topic and the Grateful Dead are quite another. One wonders if they even qualify as a rock band. Some of their albums (like American Beauty mentioned above) are described on Wikipedia as "folk rock and country music". And yet, if it wasn't for the Dead, I wouldn't be caught dead listening to country music! So what is it about them, exactly?

They lack much of the obvious appeal of rock bands -- they are nothing much to look at, they did not dress up or perform stunts on stage, they have few hit songs and never sought commercial success. They don't use power chords or pounding rhythms very much - quite the opposite, in fact. The Dead were always a "Zen" thing. With a very light rhythm and bass section and a singer (the late Jerry Garcia) who always sounded as if he had a bad cold, the only obvious redeeming feature was Garcia's amazing lead guitar -- melodic, gentle and sweet as honey. I strongly recommend this live version of "Uncle John's Band" from 1974, a peak period for them. You should be delighted by the incredibly subtle guitar solos sprinkled throughout (particularly if you're a fan of either jazz or Indian classical music). You may also notice Garcia's out-of-tune singing at various points, no doubt related to the massive ingestion of chemicals for which this band was collectively famous. Though I suppose we can't rule out that he also had a cold.

But it was not Garcia alone who made the band what it was. It was an extremely collective effort with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh playing key roles in composition and vocals, along with Ron McKernan in the early days. In fact the first song I remember hearing was the beautiful "Box of Rain", Lesh's outpouring of affection for his terminally ill father:

What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.

If there was one thing that rock bands rarely did, and still rarely do, it's write songs for their fathers. So that was very special, right there. But the other song I remember from those days was "Dark Star", a long, rambling spacey blues that was sung (out of tune as usual) by Garcia. It was mostly a vehicle for his guitar playing, but also featured the memorable lines:

Shall we go, you and I
While we can?
Through the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

One has to remember that in those days pretty much everyone was seeing strange things in their mind's eye, but few could put them down quite so compellingly. Much of this was due to their resident poet Robert Hunter, who was a member of the band but didn't perform any instrument other than poetry. You can read the full lyrics of Dark Star here. In the process you will learn another special thing about the Dead: there is an entire website devoted to analysis and interpretation of their lyrics. For this song, one reader has contributed the following gem:

"Each haiku-like verse of "Dark Star" captures an image in transition, and does so in very economical language. The star crashes; reason tatters; searchlights seek; the mirror shatters; a hand turns to a flower; a mysterious lady disappears."

So how did I become an official Dead Head? In 1974 or so, I wrote an airmail letter to an address I found in a magazine. A month later (I know this sounds unreal today) I got a reply from one of their staff saying "We didn't know there are fans in India, that's great! I will put your letter up on the notice board for the band to see". This was followed by a gift of an LP, From the Mars Hotel, which arrived quite warped in the post but I was able to play it after it had settled down for a few days. Sadly I don't seem to have this LP any more, nor the letter.

I did manage to see them live, and can even tell you the exact date and venue: 23 April 1977, or 38 years ago last week, at the Civic Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was then doing my Ph.D. in Stony Brook and hitched a ride with other fans to see them. It was not their best concert - there were issues with the sound, and the crowd was rather listless. It included a bunch of Hell's Angels who sat around looking tattooed and mean, as is their habit. And (did I mention?) Garcia sang mostly out of tune. But it was the Dead for sure, and thanks to modern technology I possess the actual recording of the entire concert. This is due to another remarkable quirk of the band. Every concert they ever performed for which "soundboard" recordings exist, only excluding those marketed as live albums, is available for free on a dedicated Grateful Dead section of I recalled the venue and the approximate year and was able to track down the precise concert. It even has the disappearing vocals during "Scarlet Begonias" that I can distinctly remember.

The cosmic-sounding name Grateful Dead arose for its own fascinating reasons and seems to have influenced their work. Among other things it led them to record an album called Blues for Allah and I recall they even performed it in Egypt in the shadow of the pyramids (I remember this story from the old days, but can't find internet evidence about such a concert. Still, do read this excellent article about the title song).

Their lyrics, if not their lifestyle, reflected a keen interest in philosophy and the mystery of life and death. If you saw the video of Uncle John's Band linked above, you may have noticed the lovely thought "Like the morning sun you come, and like the wind you go". Famously, their song about touring, "Truckin'", has the chorus "what a long, strange trip it's been." I'll leave you with the full lyrics of their haunting song Ripple which says what many bands have tried to say, only somewhat better. The concept of "ripple in still water" is borrowed openly and directly from Zen philosophy. Do listen to the original version of the song, which Garcia even managed to sing vaguely in tune:

If my words did glow
With the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played
On the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice
Come through the music?
Would you hold it near
As it were your own?

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

It's a hand-me-down
The thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall, you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I told you so

I was casually browsing some old articles and letters stored on my computer and found a letter of mine published in Current Science in January 2003. I had mostly forgotten what I'd written in it, but it turns out to be closely related to the issues in my last two blog postings.

While no one seems to have disputed any of the suggestions I made, approximately zero percent of them have been implemented in any institute I know of in India. In view of several disasters that have struck Indian academia in the last few years, I'm really tempted to say "I told you so"! Of course my suggestions were hardly original, these are standard procedures in much of the developed world. Sadly it seems quite clear that we in India claim to aspire to excellence but won't put in place the things that would help lead to it.

The original letter can be viewed here, but for the reader's convenience I'm reproducing the full text below.

Science Administration

The editorial ‘Requiem for a missing generation’ has done well to raise pertinent questions about science administrators and governing bodies of science institutions in our country.

I would like to make a few observations in this connection. The present set-up of science administration in India is inherently feudal. This was perhaps understandable at the time the system was set up, but it is now a serious liability. A feudal approach to administration is inherently personalized and based on the whims and prejudices of a small number of ‘eminent’ persons. In such a system, senior administrators are given power without accountability, their appointments are based on cronyism rather than administrative merit, and the administration functions in its own interests rather than the interests of the institution.

In order to pass to a new system, we must codify and implement modern administrative principles, namely consultative, transparent and accountable functioning. A few examples would be the election of Chairpersons and Deans by the Faculty for limited terms, the public announcement of search committees and inviting of nominations for Directorial candidates, and the regular rotation of Governing council members (following consultation with faculty members). Institutions should be subjected to regular peer reviews which critically examine both their science and their administration. Also, those practices in which age or seniority are deemed to be the equivalent of wisdom should be discontinued. Committees should be constituted based on genuine suitability for the given purpose, and we should not panic if the youngest member is made the Chair.

It would also be useful to have a written statement of what tasks are expected to be performed by administrators such as Chairpersons, Deans and Directors, and their performance should be honestly assessed. Reappointment to such positions should be based strictly on past performance. The mission statements of institutions should be formulated or updated, along with their rules and bye-laws (which, for many Indian scientific institutions, have remained essentially unchanged since independence, and today seem rather antiquated and irrelevant).

In this context, I cannot help recalling a famous piece of folklore from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, that a Senior Professor was entitled to commandeer an Institute vehicle, even if another member had already booked it! This pernicious practice may now be forgotten, but it symbolizes the old system, in which it did not matter what was being done so much as who was doing it. It is high time we moved to a new system where personal power and privilege is largely irrelevant and is replaced by consensual, principled functioning in the interests of science.

1. Editorial, Curr. Sci., 2002, 83, 1297–1298.

Department of Theoretical Physics,
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,

(Current Science Vol. 84, 25 January 2003, page 123)

Postscript: I just re-read Prof. Balaram's editorial "Requiem for a missing generation", to which my letter was a response. The editorial is also remarkably prescient about recent developments!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Last Sunday I quoted an article in Nature about hiring at top levels in academia. I listed some of the recommendations from that article about how such hiring should be done, and today I'd like to continue the discussion by looking at the instruction "Articulate the offer clearly".

There are several aspects to such articulation. If hiring is being made to a definite institute or agency, the goals of that institute/agency should be stated. Is it dedicated to teaching, or research, or both? If the last, then in what combination? What areas fall within its scope? What standards would it realistically like to achieve and what resources would it provide in order to achieve those standards? Does it have some additional responsibilities besides its primary mission (e.g. mentoring another institute, providing some assistance to the underprivileged etc). An important detail is the duration of the position, and the agency/committee/board to which the hired person would report. Finally, the role to be played by the person has to be eludicated in some detail, including the degree of autonomy that he/she would, or would not, enjoy.

If you seek the opinion of any senior academic in India on this matter (though I haven't personally tried), they would most likely brush it aside impatiently with "it's all obvious, isn't it. If someone of any calibre is applying for a position then they would know about the institute and its goals, they would figure out whom they report to, and they would dynamically work out the role they have to play". Readers are invited to verify/falsify my hypothesis by asking a senior person of their choice...

Personally I'm all in favour of articulation, and I'm not completely alone. In 1996 the Lord Porter Committee, which carried out the first-ever academic review of TIFR, recommended that TIFR should formulate a brief statement of its goals and put this up prominently in the institute. They even offered a draft of such a statement. It was briefly discussed in the faculty, where someone humorously suggested it should be put up prominently outside the Registrar's office! (This was a comment on the series of dubious Registrars at TIFR from the late 1980's for the next three decades. These gentlemen all held the view that faculty members were the main problem. A research institute without faculty, like the famous hospital without patients in Yes Minister, would evidently have suited them better). Anyway, this recommendation of the Porter Committee was buried and, to my knowledge, there is no such statement of goals in existence even two decades later.

People may still be wondering why articulation of a job offer is important, so let me try to articulate this here ;-). Different people carry different models in their mind of what a particular institute is intended to achieve, and what the role of the chair/registrar/director/board of governors really is. In my three decades at TIFR I could identify widely varying models that were implicit in the discussion. Later when the Hyderabad campus of TIFR came into existence the debate sharpened and people came up with truly divergent models that, at the root, were based on entirely divergent assumptions. Today, looking at the five IISER's and the differences between them, one can see that varying models are still the norm.

I'm referring to variations not just in fine details but in major conceptual issues. Given an institute X, is it predominantly a teaching institute where a little research is done? Or the reverse? Does the institute train students primarily for its own benefit (because they contribute to research) or for their benefit (because they, or rather their parents, are taxpayers)? Are faculty members in an institute considered part of a pyramidal decision-making structure that evolves academic goals and standards, or should such goals and standards be decided exclusively by the top bosses? Do students have any statutory rights and authority (in some institutes they are part of the Senate). Is it ethical for a Director/Vice Chancellor to institute major changes that affect faculty and students without consulting them? Or even against their will? Besides ethics, is such a thing practical? Is the Institute responsible to raise funds for its faculty's research or is that the sole responsibility of faculty members? I have posed each of these questions as either/or, but in fact there is a continuum of possible answers and I believe it helps to know where on this continuum the true answer lies in every case.

Look at the recent history of TIFR, BARC, the other DAE research institutes, IISc, IIT's, IISER's, central and state universities. The newspapers are full of stories about controversies and disagreements (as a widely known example, consider FYUP). I claim that these have at least part of their origin in the lack of articulation of what the institution is for, and what the role of the Director/VC is supposed to be.

I'm sure many readers will also cite political interference (then, as well as now) as another important source of controversy. That could be true enough, and I can propose a related solution. When a citizen puts her faith in a politician at the voting booth, she should be asked to "Articulate the offer clearly". That would perhaps be hard to record or take into account, but it would keep Arnab Goswami busy for years, and for a change this is something the nation really does want to know.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia

A few weeks ago, Nature carried an opinion piece titled "Leadership: Ten tips for choosing an academic chair". Although "chair" is in the title, the article broadly addresses the decision-making process for the selection of "Departmental chairs, deans, facility directors and other leaders". Though this is obviously an important topic, discussions on it are rare in India and usually lacking in factual information about the decision-making process. This in turn is not surprising, because the decision-making process in our country tends to be a tightly guarded secret.

Part of the Nature article recounts the hiring process for a chair of clinical academic medicine. What I found more interesting than the article itself was an attached 10-point "Checklist for high-level hiring". (Apparently Nature too has realised that the only thing people read these days are 10-point lists!). I thought of picking out a few of these criteria and asking how well we follow these in India.

(i) Articulate requirements clearly in the job advertisement.
(ii) Articulate the offer clearly.
(iii) Ensure accountability in the selection process. 
(iv) Seek strong emotional, personal and social skills.

Note that my numbering does not correspond to the order in the original list.

On point (i), the authors of the Nature article say: "Before candidates can be considered, the hiring committee must clearly state the standards required in clinical ability, research and teaching." I looked at a couple of recent advertisements for the top job at two prestigious institutes in India, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (here) and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre, Bangalore (here). The former says:

"He/She should have an excellent publication record and be highly regarded in both national and international academic circles. Desirable: Apart from the above essential qualifications, the candidate is expected to be familiar with administrative and financial matters, preferably in Government set up."

The JNC advertisement says:

Essential: The candidate should have a Doctorate degree in the area of physical sciences/chemical sciences/life sciences /any other related interdisciplinary area. Desirable: (i) Post-doctoral research (ii) Original published work of high standard and (iii) Evidence of high professional eminence by way of recognitions like fellowship of academies, national/international awards in science etc.

I find this somewhat baffling -- apparently a degree is essential, but having good publications and an international reputation are merely "desirable"! The IMSc advertisement does better, stressing that publications and an international reputation are essential.

One notices that nowhere in either advertisement is any meaningful statement made about the goals of the institution or the qualities required (as opposed to qualifications) of the candidate. Both ads are fairly dull and prosaic, worded in early 20th century English and scarcely inspiring. 

I'll end here for now and leave points (ii), (iii) and (iv) for another time. Meanwhile I invite readers to post an advertisement for a comparable position (Director/President of a research institution) from some other country, so we can compare the approaches taken. Among other things, I would love to know if literary gems like "Professor or Scientific Officer/H in PB - 4 with the Pay Band of Rs. 37400 - 67000/- plus Grade Pay of Rs. 10,000/-" are universal, or unique to Indian culture.

This blog might be back

It has been two and a half years since I joined IISER Pune, and in all that time, I did not manage to complete a single research paper. However this finally happened last week and the result is here. I don't expect it will change the world (but see below), still it has been a pleasure to get back to research mode. I'm sure it was also a pleasure for my very bright student Sagar, for whom it's his first paper. I also think (and hope) it will get easier to produce more papers from now on. Entanglement entropy is a rather new field for me, with connections to multiple branches of physics. In recent years it has come to interface closely with gravitation and string theory, indeed the most striking development in this area during the last decade has come from this direction.

About changing the world, I recall my very first paper. It was a tedious and difficult calculation suggested by my advisor that I carried out on my own and completed in May 1979. When I showed him the draft he said, in his usual acerbic way, "It's fine, though it probably won't bring down the government". Of course he was wrong: the Janata government fell just a couple of months later.
But back to IISER: it's fascinating to reflect that my lack of output was not literally due to a lack of time (although between chairing a Department, being Dean of Student Activities and teaching a course of 200 students the time does tend to all get used up). Rather, it was a question of my head not being "in the right place". The drying up of this blog was further assisted by my going on Facebook regularly -- that is a low-investment, high-return option but certainly doesn't encourage creative writing.

In the next posting (soon after this) I want to comment on a recent article in Nature: "Leadership: Ten Tips for Choosing an Academic Chair". It touches on issues of what is/is not good science leadership that have concerned me a lot in recent years. I find it instructive to think about it within the Indian context. So, do stay tuned.