Saturday, May 26, 2007

In favour of Sanskrit education

I have this in common with the RSS-parivar crowd: I favour Sanskrit education and mandatory reading of ancient epics. Because that may be the only way to counter the Hindu moral brigade.

Consider this (via desipundit): these nitwits are protesting the depiction of Krishna in a dating advertisement; they (the nitwits) define "dating" as "a social vice" and "Obscene behaviour indulged by young girls and boys under the pretext of meeting each other", and say that "those advocating this concept are launching an attack on our culture." I don't know what they understand of the Krishna-Radha legend: did they think that Krishna and Radha were married, or even planning to get married?

Consider this hit job on Leela Samson and Kalakshetra, that I recently linked to: the author says "Teachers hand-picked by [Samson] teach Geeta-Govindam in a very vulgar manner". Is he aware of the nature of the Gita-Govinda, which tries to "combine religious fervour with eroticism"?

The trouble is that most Indians, me included, learned the epics from our grandmothers or from Amar Chitra Katha, and those versions are -- to understate things -- Bowdlerised. So we imagine that, for example, Vyasa magically made two queens and a maidservant in Vichitravirya's court bear children merely by staring at them, while the original Mahabharata has him go to their beds and do things the explicitly biological way.

It's high time we restored our original Sanskrit epics to their full, uninhibited glory and force-fed them to our RSS-brainwashed public.

Mall pall

This news is very interesting -- I seem to have missed it, being away.

The court-mandated sealing of shops in Delhi has been upsetting many people, not just the affected traders. (I previously posted on it here.) Moreover, there were several murmurs that it was being done at the behest of mall developers who felt threatened by small shops.

Now Mid-Day has published a report alleging that the sons of former Chief Justice Y. K. Sabharwal (in whose time the sealing orders came) are business partners of "one of the biggest mall builders in the country."

If this is true, at the very least he should have recused himself citing conflict of interest.

Mid-Day has been slapped, predictably, with a contempt of court notice -- in our country, even criticising a judge is contempt, let alone implicitly questioning his motives. But they promise to fight, and interestingly, say they got their information and evidence from a government web site (the official website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs). And on this occasion, they'll surely have the support of politicians, of all hues.

As for the contempt question -- recently Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju has questioned the relevance of contempt laws, while Parliament has recently amended the Contempt of Courts act to permit truth of the allegations as a valid defence. (Link to Abi's post on this.) So if Mid-Day can prove its allegations, it may unleash quite a storm. And if the court uses its powers to quash Mid-Day without refuting the allegations, it may well become an international incident.

Bye-bye Sify Broadband

I don't always believe in naming and shaming, but sometimes it is merited. Besides, it really can't hurt them in this case.

If you search the net for a good internet service provider in India, Sify will always show up near the bottom of customer opinions. Nevertheless, I stuck with them for the past 2 years for a couple of reasons.

First, at that time they were almost the only option where I live. That is no longer true.

Second, most complaints are about their last-mile service or about the intrusive software they install on windows computers. But my last-mile provider was good and their linux client was not intrusive.

That changed this week.

Date: Sat, 26 May 2007 08:16:50 +0530
From: Rahul Siddharthan
Subject: Goodbye Re: linux client installation steps

Dear Mr XXX and Mr YYY,

You have just lost a customer who has been with you for nearly 2
years. I will be moving to another provider as soon as possible
(probably Airtel or BSNL).

In case you care, the reasons are below, but I'm sure customer
satisfaction is the last thing you care about.

1. Sify has a terrible reputation generally because you force clients
to authenticate through your own flaky, broken software. Windows
users are particularly angry because your software completely
messes up their installation. (Take a look at the forums on to know how much you are

However, being a linux user, I ignored this issue. Moreover, your
software authenticates via the MAC address of the ethernet card,
which is ridiculous -- it only serves to annoy the customer, while
it can be easily spoofed.

2. I lived with the authentication mechanism because, under linux, it
was not intrusive and did not endanger my computer. But that
changed this week.

3. Yesterday, when I returned from vacation, I found that the linux
software I used no longer worked. On contacting Sify, I was told
by Mr XXX (quoted below) to download an updated Linux client. I
find that this client must be run as root, or it doesn't work.
This makes me suspicious -- there is no good reason why Sify should
need root permisssion on my client. Moreover, it is a security
hazard to run any GUI program as root and the GTK developers
specifically warn against it: see

4. The Sify client automatically launches Firefox. Needless to say,
this too is as root and is an even bigger security hazard. (Or
maybe not, since at least Firefox is open-source software whose
code is inspected by others for bugs or malicious code.)

5. Finally, the connection does not stay alive longer than 20 minutes
or so. I need to reconnect at frequent intervals.

As I said, I am abandoning Sify, and I intend also to file a complaint
with TRAI about your intrusive, hazardous and customer-unfriendly
practices. I will also be posting this on my personal website and
blog, and will also post any replies I receive from you. Please do
not reply to this mail unless you are willing to stand by your mail in
public: I will assume that a reply to this mail implicitly gives me
permission to post it publicly. I am uninterested in a pointless
discussion with you, and am uninterested in any solutions you may
offer me unless it is applicable to other Sify users on the internet.

Rahul Siddharthan

(above, XXX is some hapless customer service executive, while YYY is the contact person for Chennai. As promised, I will post any replies I receive. Meanwhile, stay away from these guys -- as I would already have done if I had been a windows user.)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thicker than water, if less substantial

The Hindu -- on a good day, one of the more readable newspapers in India -- is a family-run enterprise, and on most days you can find a story or two of little news value, that has clearly been inserted because of some connection with someone in The Family. (A minor example in today's paper is this one.)

But even so, this story seems rather brazen. It's the most prominent on the back page of today's Madurai edition, but the web site calls it "Front Page", which perhaps it is in other editions. And its news value? You'll have to read to the last paragraph to find out.

(As the astute reader will have divined, I'm away at the moment, so posting is slow. Normal irregular service will resume in a few days.)

Street cred

On NDTV today I saw my favourite Indian band, Indian Ocean, speaking for a cause. The cause is of street food in Delhi.

Apparently the powers that be -- which, in Delhi, means the Supreme Court -- have decided that street food -- even the cooked variety -- is Bad and unbefitting of Delhi's desired future image as a Global City. As bassist Rahul Ram asked on TV, have these people actually been to a city like New York? Or, one could add, Paris or London or Rome or Barcelona or San Francisco.

On the other hand, this report suggests that the proposal is of regularisation, not banning (except of unhygienic practices). To the extent that this reduces the regular outbreaks of cholera and gastroenteritis, it may be a good thing -- but ensuring a clean water supply would be a much better thing.

And what about the livelihoods of the affected people? Delhi is already one of the more crime-prone cities in the country; taking away honest jobs hardly seems likely to improve things.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Leela Samson's response

Following up on my recent post on our friendly neighbourhood fascists harassing Leela Samson for her work at Kalakshetra, here (from the Prakriti Foundation) is Ms Samson's response. In case you have received the RSS allegations by email, please do circulate this rejoinder. Not that it will help, any more than any amount of good sense helps dispel the myth (that I previously mentioned here) that Tagore wrote the song that became our national anthem in praise of the English king. Ms Samson's name is probably besmirched for all time.

Now, a curious observation: in my previous post on this, I linked to this article by Sushila Ravindranath, in the New Sunday Express, that paints a clear picture. Ms Ravindranath's article observes:
Leela, understandably hurt, is maintaining a dignified silence. But we did do our research and found that there is an orchestrated campaign, for whatever reason, to discredit her.

and continues with text that is almost word-for-word identical to that in Ms Samson's mail, linked above.

I should admit that, when I made my previous post, I had seen Ms Samson's response on a forwarded email. But I did not comment on the similarity because, first, I wasn't sure who copied from whom (it certainly looked like Ms Ravindranath copied from Ms Samson, but the mail from Ms Samson had the date stripped, as it is on the webpage linked above); and second, it was in a good cause and I supposed Ms Samson wouldn't object to any "plagiarism".

But this page seems to settle the issue: Ms Ravindranath's article is dated May 11, while Ms Samson's mail was written on or before May 6.

Even if you're writing in support of someone who you know will not object, why should a self-respecting journalist claim another's words as her own? Is it really that hard to rewrite a few lines in your own words?

Gautaman Bhaskaran of the Hindu did it. Subhash K. Jha of the Times of India did it. Many others have done it. Apparently their bosses don't care. But in this case, Ms Ravindranath is the boss -- she's the editor of the New Sunday Express. Is this now officially sanctioned practice in Indian journalism?

Or was my initial gut reaction -- "it's in a good cause" -- correct?

Science is "offensive"

Traditionally, Unix computer systems (including Linux) come with a "fortune" program: type "fortune" at a command prompt, and you are rewarded with a "random, hopefully interesting, adage", much like opening a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant in the USA. Type "fortune -o" and you get a "potentially offensive aphorism". The manual page for the fortune program says:
Please, please, please request a potentially offensive fortune if and only if you believe, deep in your heart, that you are willing to be offended. (And that you'll just quit using -o rather than give us grief about it, okay?)

Being quite willing to be offended, I typed "fortune -o" today on my Linux laptop, and was rewarded with this:
"Creation science" has not entered the curriculum for a reason so simple and so basic that we often forget to mention it: because it is false, and because good teachers understand exactly why it is false. What could be more destructive of that most fragile yet most precious commodity in our entire intellectual heritage -- good teaching -- than a bill forcing honorable teachers to sully their sacred trust by granting equal treatment to a doctrine not only known to be false, but calculated to undermine any general understanding of science as an enterprise?"
[Stephen Jay Gould, "The Skeptical Inquirer"]

Yup, I'm offended. Not at the fortune, but at the fact that the maintainers of the fortune databases -- presumably intelligent, educated techies -- considered this "potentially offensive", while they did not consider the following fortune, in the regular database, "potentially offensive":
We're fighting against humanism, we're fighting against liberalism... we are fighting against all the systems of Satan that are destroying our nation today...our battle is with Satan himself.
-- Jerry Falwell

But I won't give them grief about it.

(Click here for more quotes from the recently deceased Falwell.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Unspeakably evil

The title refers to the Sangh Parivar.

Leela Samson is one of the country's top dancers. She is also the director of Kalakshetra, an art institution in Chennai that originated with the Theosophical Society and Rukmini Devi Arundale. And she happens to have Jewish-Catholic parents.

That is enough to make the saffron see red. That's a crowd that has, collectively, not contributed a fraction of a percent of what she has to Indian culture; that's a writer who exhibits his ignorance of Kalakshetra almost in every sentence, yet says he is "ashamed of the Samsons in our midst". A previous writer in that rag details her alleged anti-Hindu sins, such as removing the "restrictions on the meeting of boys and girls within the boys’ and girls’ hostels."

You thought the Taliban were the worst kind of fundamentalists? Just pray our homegrown variety don't take over our country.

Here's a better perspective on the current Kalakshetra fuss.

World gone wrong

A newspaper, run by a member of the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, publishes a survey suggesting that the chief minister's eldest son is unpopular. Angry "supporters" set the newspaper office ablaze, killing three. Punishment is swiftly meted out by the party -- to the brother of the newspaper owner, for publishing that survey.

An art student puts up an exhibit at a well-known university in Vadodara, based on ancient erotic Hindu art, as part of his coursework. Right-wing thugs invade the university and vandalise the exhibition. Retribution is swift: the art student is arrested. The dean, who backed the student, is suspended.

A US-based cult called the Church of Scientology, started on a bet by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, propounds a bizarre mythology about aliens invading human souls, and has long terrorised its critics (such as Keith Henson). The BBC, having made a critical documentary on this "church", feels obliged to defend itself.

It's all backwards.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Provocative quote of the day

"White blues fans, for example, redefined the genre in the name of authenticity to exclude anything too jazzy or upbeat, thus enforcing a snobbish and racist exclusion of certain blues artists from the canon because they were too sophisticated. Instead, they lauded the most primitive blues artists they could find, such as John Lee Hooker, from whom blacks turned away. In this way, the quest for authenticity did tremendous damage to the blues by codifying certain traditions and limiting innovation."

That's from Faking it: The quest for authenticity in popular music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, of which I recently reviewed a review. Comments on that post (by Thalia May in particular) led me to order the book, and I received it today. (Off-topic: why is it cheaper and faster to order from Amazon than from an Indian site? The price difference is more than the cost of international shipping, and the two Indian sites I looked at said it will take a month to deliver.)

I'll probably read the book during a vacation later this month, and review it after that. As of now, I've looked through the one-and-a-half blues-related chapters, and it's fascinating. There's also a provocative (and thought-provoking) comparison of Neil Young with Billy Joel, and I'm happy to report that they favour Neil, both in authenticity and in artistic merit.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I wish these people were history

The last post was kind of funny (at least I thought so), but this isn't. A newspaper office firebombed, three dead because the DMK cadres disagreed with an opinion poll published in a DMK newspaper that, supposedly, belongs to the "rival faction".

And the man at the centre of the violence, M K Azhagiri, wants action taken -- not against the arsonists, but against those who published the poll, who apparently had "ulterior motives".

Karunanidhi is history

Who says so?

The Hindu Office and National Press Employees' Union says so, in a large advertisement in today's paper (page 21 of the Chennai edition).

When your own sycophants supporters are writing your obituary, maybe it's time to go.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Do not touch

In Norway, it seems, a football match was organised to build friendship between Christian and Muslim clergy. But it was called off -- because the Christian team included women players and the Muslim imams "refused to play against women because it went against their beliefs about close physical contact with the opposite sex."

The article concludes with the meaningful quote from the Christian side: "Both sides have learned to better understand our cultures and we have had an open discussion."

I'm sure the obvious conclusions will be drawn by readers -- Muslims are backward creatures whose culture doesn't belong in Europe. But, given that women priests were unheard-of in Christianity until recently and are still uncommon, and that mixed-gender football teams are extremely uncommon, I can't help wondering if some mischief was afoot.

The other story this week about Islamic intimacy was of the uproar caused by the conservative, Ayatollah-appointed Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he kissed and embraced his elderly former schoolteacher. The kiss was on a gloved hand, and the old lady was more than modestly clad, but conservative media in the country were appalled.

Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher, and a lifelong rightwinger) observed recently that Iran is historically more an Indo-European than an Islamic culture, and the present regime is not at all representative of what the people want (and it would be ridiculous to go to war with that country). If even a nutter like Ahmadinejad can fall foul of the ayatollahs, I suppose that illustrates his point.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Bad ideas

  • I'm sitting in Chennai Airport. There are two wifi networks here: BSNL and Tata Indicom. BSNL is free (I know from past experience), but the signal is practically non-existent. Tata used to require toddling off to their booth downstairs to buy a card, but it turns out they have an online purchase now. So I try that.

    They ask for name, address, phone, email. Thankfully not for father's/husband's name or ration card number. I supply everything. Their credit card payment gateway is disabled, but they have an ICICI Bank gateway. I click on it. And it tells me my network isn't up.

    Well of course it isn't up. That's why I'm trying to pay, right?

    So now I'm using GPRS via my mobile phone. Slow, but it's actually good enough.
  • Today, and yesterday, I was benchmarking my program with the Sun Studio compiler, and with gcc, on two AMD Opteron machines: one running Solaris, one running Linux. On both machines, the gcc-compiled version beat the Sun Studio version handsomely. Free software is good...

    Also, it turns out, a 64-bit binary runs about 60% faster than a 32-bit binary. But the vast majority of new computers out there are 64-bit (AMD Opteron/Turion/Athlon or Intel Core Duo/Core 2 Duo/Xeon), yet are running a 32-bit edition of Windows. Which means they're running roughly 40% slower than they should be.

    Moreover, most of the recent benchmarks claiming Intel's new Woodcrest Xeons beat the Opteron were done in 32-bit mode. I'd really like to see 64-bit benchmarks.
  • If you find it entertaining to hear others bitch about ill-thought-out software, check out this site.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


One of my favourite webcomics is User Friendly. And one of the nice features it has is the "random comic" button. Today I hit it and obtained a picture that summarises what I spent a few thousand words on in my previous post...

(click on the little fuzzy image to read it on the original site. If I include a larger image it gets cropped. Did I mention that I hate blogger?)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The broken Web

Two months ago I got into an argument with TR on the quality of Microsoft Powerpoint; today I got into an argument with Truman on the quality of web-pages and the intellect of their designers. I suppose I have a short fuse when it comes to software quality, layout and usability issues.

On the first occasion, it was totally off-topic, but at least it was TR's own blog and it was he who introduced the powerpoint motif; but this time, though it was not entirely off-topic, it was a third person's blog (Dilip's) which makes it much less excusable. So I may as well put down what I think about the whole thing, and in future link to it rather than arguing. (Of course, many others have written similar things, and I will link to some of them below.) In this post I'll focus on the web, and webpages; in a later post I'll talk about Microsoft's products. But in both cases a key point is emphasising standards versus emphasising proprietary (and expensive) products.


We take standards for granted everywhere in daily life: my Sony CDs of Miles Davis will play on my Onkyo player, or someone else's Philips player, or on a laptop, without problem. That's because audio CDs adhere to the red book standard. Similarly, you can fill your car with petrol at any of a dozen pumps: the formulation is standard (we ignore the adulteration problem here) and a manufacturer of cars that insisted on its own particular formulation would not get a huge market. (This is also why alternative fuels like CNG find it hard to break in.)

In computer information too, many things are standard, like plain text files (created with the ASCII character set) or MP3 audio files. Specifications exist for these, and readers/players must conform to these specifications, or they don't work.

What happens if you create a document, or a CD or a petrol formulation, that deviates from the specifications? In mild cases you may just get degraded performance (eg, the document displays with errors, the CD may play partially, the car may run with poor mileage); in extreme cases the product is unusable.

For interoperability, then, adherence to standards is essential. So why does it happen so often that "this web page looks funny"?

The language of the web is HTML, or "hypertext markup language". The specifications of HTML are maintained by a consortium called the World Wide Web Consortium, whose members include Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation, Opera Software, and pretty much any other web-related company you can think of. There are now several versions of HTML (and its successor, XHTML), each with its own specification. The consortium hosts a validator to help you check the correctness of your webpage. Mozilla's webpage passes, as does Opera's; while Microsoft's has five errors, which is really quite respectable. Most web pages report dozens of errors. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding sites, other than the above two and W3C's own pages, that pass the validator.

Why is practically every page on the internet invalid HTML? There are several reasons:

  • If you write a syntactically incorrect C program, it will not compile. By contrast, if you write a syntactically incorrect HTML file, most browsers will attempt to display it anyway. If the results look good enough, most web developers won't care that it is wrong. This leads to the "slow degradation" problem I mentioned above: strict syntax-checking would have avoided it.
  • Most people no longer write HTML by hand: they use programs like Microsoft Frontpage. These, too, don't care about errors as long as it looks OK to a browser (and often, to a specific browser, typically Microsoft Internet Explorer).
  • Back in the early days of the web, there were very few browsers around; the first to achieve some popularity was NCSA Mosaic, but it was quickly supplanted by Netscape Navigator. Netscape, knowing it had a market lead and wanting to retain it, extended HTML in various ways without the consortium's approval, and encouraged developers to use its extensions (which its HTML authoring program also produced). Later, Microsoft strong-armed itself into the market lead and followed the same tactics. Meanwhile, neither company paid too much attention to actually following the W3C's recommendations. The result was a mishmash of standards -- the W3C's (which nobody fully supported), Netscape's, and Microsoft's -- and most developers (the ones who cared) just threw up their hands and supported the two most popular browsers, and eventually, just Microsoft's.

Today, the browser situation, at least, is much better: at least three major browsers -- Mozilla, Safari/Konqueror, Opera -- are largely standards-compliant, and the new Internet Explorer 7 is a big improvement over its predecessors. Nevertheless, most webpages out there don't support the standards.

Standards-compliant webpages tend to display properly across all browsers. With many webpages, that is not the case. But it is hard to blame web designers too much when the major browser vendors were so slow to the table. Unfortunately, there is much else that the designers -- and also the writers of web-authoring software -- can be blamed for.

Web authoring is not typesetting!

Printing a book, and creating a webpage, have this in common: they involve displaying text and graphics on a medium (a monitor, or paper). But there the similarities end.

While the book's layout is in the hands of the creator, the webpage's layout is in the hands of the web browser on the user's computer. For this reason, HTML is a "markup language", not a typesetting language: it describes the attributes of various text objects but does not prescribe (except at a crude level) where on the page the text should go. This is important: displays come in various sizes and resolutions, from tiny mobile-phone screens to 2048x1536 monstrosities (and beyond), and a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Moreover, high-quality serif fonts may be suitable for the hi-res displays, while a simple but readable sans-serif font would be more appropriate for the mobile phone. So one should not specify, or make assumptions, on such things as font families and font sizes.

Unfortunately, lots of pages do make such assumptions. For example, suppose I have poor eyesight and choose an unusually large font size. Wikipedia (which passes the validator) looks cluttered, because of its multi-column format, but the elements are still correctly positioned:

However, the home page of FreeBSD (a Unix-like operating system), which also validates, is a disaster when viewed at large font sizes:

Needless to say, pages that don't validate fare even worse. Try it (on Mozilla Firefox, Ctrl-+ increases the font size).

The Any Browser campaign has more information on how to make a web page look good on any browser, and how to make it "degrade gracefully" when assumed features aren't present in a browser.

Web misfeatures

The biggest misfeature to be a part of the web standard is probably frames. Rather than holding forth, I'll just link to what Jakob Nielsen says about them. (Nielsen's 1996 list of web-design mistakes is still worth reading, as are many of his later writings.)

Another misfeature is pop-up windows. Enough said. (It is never necessary to open a new window: the user can choose to do that when he/she wants to.)

So far I have talked about HTML. But a lot of web pages have chosen to avoid HTML altogether, and put together their entire website in Flash. There are several things wrong with this, such as:

  • Web browsers are available on nearly every platform; flash plugins are unavailable on most platforms, including all 64-bit systems (even 64-bit Windows-XP).
  • One can cut-and-paste, search, index, link to HTML pages. One can't do that with flash pages.
  • The visually impaired can resize the text on HTML pages, or use a reader. With flash they're out of luck.
  • The download is just so much bigger with flash. Many people still use dial-up internet connections.

Other non-HTML features include Java (these days less common) and JavaScript (which can be a security risk). A Microsoft-only feature is ActiveX, which is a severe security risk, and thankfully very few sites seem to require it these days (I haven't encountered any in a couple of years).

My other peeves with web design relate to usability (where links are placed, what they do, how you access them) and layout (a subject that overlaps with what I plan to say about Microsoft Word and Powerpoint); having expended sufficient verbiage for an evening, I will return to these topics later.

Dilip (correctly) pulled me up for suggesting that all web designers are idiots. The above observations suggest that to a large extent, they are more sinned against than sinning: if authoring software, and (till recently) browsers, do not satisfy standards, what are they to do?

Nevertheless, I do not absolve them of responsibility. Today, web browsers do follow standards, and it should be easy to ensure a webpage works on them. Moreover, Mozilla Firefox and Opera can both be installed easily on Windows machines (Safari can't, but its parent, Konqueror, can be installed under a unix-like environment called CygWin). Mozilla Firefox alone commands over 10% of the market, and the non-Microsoft browsers put together approach (or perhaps exceed) 20%. These browsers also allow easy scaling of fonts and setting of font-family and font-size preferences. It is, if not idiotic, at least completely irresponsible to choose to test only on one web browser, MS IE, and that too only on version 6. With the release of (and, often, enforced upgrade to) IE7, many sites are now broken and need to be fixed; they need never have been broken in the first place.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Diversity in universities

At this point, the discussion over at Abi's blog (and elsewhere) on the under-representation of women in IITs has gone all over the map. One of the essential questions is whether the IIT JEE is too difficult and unfairly biases admissions to those who can afford coaching classes (some say yes, some say no). Another related question is whether using the JEE as one of many criteria will improve matters (most people think that it will only increase favouritism, and certainly increase allegations of favouritism).

So I thought this link, an article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell on admissions in North America, would be of interest. (I have drawn no conclusions from it for the present context, but you are free to do so.)

The author's description of his own admission process in Canada is not very different from how one would choose among colleges in Delhi University. Meanwhile, he says, US universities like Harvard in the early 1900s relied on the College Entrance Examination Board tests for admission, but switched to a more diverse set of criteria within a couple of decades. The reason was not to increase diversity, but because too many Jews were getting in. And, the author argues, nothing significant has changed, to this day, in the way these universities admit their students. He extensively discusses studies on how well students that go to Ivy institutions, versus students who get comparable grades but go to other institutions, perform later in life. Read it for yourself: it's a fun read, no matter what sort of college you went to or what side of the argument you fall in.

I have to say, with some amusement, that this passage
Wherever there was one Harvard graduate, another lurked not far behind, ready to swap tales of late nights at the Hasty Pudding, or recount the intricacies of the college-application essay, or wonder out loud about the whereabouts of Prince So-and-So, who lived down the hall and whose family had a place in the South of France that you would not believe. In the novels they were writing, the precocious and sensitive protagonist always went to Harvard; if he was troubled, he dropped out of Harvard; in the end, he returned to Harvard to complete his senior thesis. Once, I attended a wedding of a Harvard alum in his fifties, at which the best man spoke of his college days with the groom as if neither could have accomplished anything of greater importance in the intervening thirty years. By the end, I half expected him to take off his shirt and proudly display the large crimson “H” tattooed on his chest. What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?

reminded me of my own alma mater -- St Stephen's College, an institution that (I say this while donning my flame-retardant vest) offers all the pretentiousness of Harvard with none of its accomplishments.