Thursday, October 23, 2014

Philosophy of Word

Escape from Microsoft Word by Edward Mendelson in NYRB:

The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius, but it had nothing to do with the way writing gets done. The programmers did not think about writing as a sequence of words set down on a page, but instead dreamed up a new idea about what they called a “document.” This was effectively a Platonic idea: the “form” of a document existed as an intangible ideal, and each tangible book, essay, love letter, or laundry list was a partial, imperfect representation of that intangible idea.

A document, as Word’s creators imagined it, is a container for other ideal forms. Each document contains one or more “sections,” what everyone else calls chapters or other subdivisions. Each section contains one or more paragraphs. Each paragraph contains one or more characters. Documents, sections, paragraphs, and characters all have sets of attributes, most of which Word calls “styles.” [...]

Monday, October 20, 2014

IISc Alumni Global Conference - 2015 will be right here at IISc

IISc and its alumni started this series of conferences with the first one in Santa Clara, California, in 2007 (Flickr pics) -- just a year before, and possibly as a prelude to, the Institute's Centenary Celebrations. The second edition followed in due course in 2013, this time in Chicago, Illinois.

The third edition of this Conference is coming home to the Institute. The dates are: 26-28 June 2015.

It is a sign of the times that this Conference gets announced on social media well before the conference website is ready. Much as I hate to send you to any of these time sinks, here are the links to the community / group pages:

If Twitter is your social media poison of choice, the relevant hashtag is #IIScAGC.

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If you happen to be an IISc alum, do please pass this message along to your buddies.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When a Nobel Medal Went to Fargo, North Dakota

Astrophysicist and 2011 Nobel winner Brian Schmidt has this totally priceless story:

"When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’

I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’

They said, ‘What’s in the box?’

I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.

So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’

I said, ‘gold.’

And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’

‘The King of Sweden.’

‘Why did he give this to you?’

‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’

At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

"Beautiful Chemistry"

Wonderful stuff [Hat tip: Cocktail Party Physics]. Here's the website with lots of interactive graphics.

Batmobile: The Origin

For the Annals of Pop Culture: The Batmobile: The Concept Car That Became a Star by Michael Beschloss.

[In] 1965, ABC television greenlighted a new series called “Batman,” and its producers needed a Batmobile — fast. Within three weeks, using blowtorches and saws, the automobile customizer George Barris transformed the Futura’s deteriorating concept car — which he had bought from Ford for a dollar — into a rakish roadster suitable for TV’s new Batman and Robin ... [Bold emphasis added]

Links: Parenting Edition

Two links. The first one is a summary of an economics paper: Tiger moms and helicopter parents: The economics of parenting style by Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, who use cross-country data to support their conclusion that in times of rising inequality, a more authoritarian parenting style will likely be chosen by parents:

This column argues that the choice of parenting style is driven by incentives. Parents weigh the expected costs and benefits of implementing a certain parenting style. The popularity of the authoritarian style is declining because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen. The rising inequality implies higher returns to education. This calls for pushier parenting styles, such as the authoritative one. A decline in inequality is likely to prompt a more relaxed parenting.

The second is a column by Pamela Druckerman: A Cure for Hyper-Parenting.

Measuring the effectiveness of medication

Sarah Fallon at Wired has an informative story on putting a number, called the number needed to treat (NNT), on the effectiveness of medication and procedures.

Developed by a trio of epidemiologists back in the ’80s, the NNT describes how many people would need to take a drug for one person to benefit. [...] If your kid is throwing up and you take her to the hospital, she might get a drug called Zofran. The NNT for that is 5, meaning that only five kids need to take Zofran for one of them to stop throwing up.

The story goes on to talk about a site called with the tagline, "Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine."

It’s unfortunate ... that the NNT is not a statistic that’s routinely conveyed to either doctors or patients. But you can look it up on a site that you’ve probably never heard of: Started by David Newman, a director of clinical research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital, the site’s dozens of contributors analyze the available studies, crunch the numbers on benefits and harms, and then post the results.

Here's a bit more on NNT and how it is assigned to a medication or a treatment procedure:

As statistical tools go, the idea of the number needed to treat is relatively new. It was first described in 1988 by epidemiologists Andreas Laupacis, David Sackett, and Robin Roberts in a New England Journal of Medicine article titled “An Assessment of Clinically Useful Measures of the Consequences of Treatment.” They start by sketching out the problems with a number called the relative risk reduction. That’s the measure you often see hyped in media reports of scientific studies. Imagine, for example, a study of heart disease that finds that a new drug reduces the risk of death by an astonishing 50 percent. The reality behind that number is that the risk of death over a 10-year period for, say, a healthy 45-year-old man weighing 200 pounds went from 5 percent to 2.5 percent—50 percent! Such a finding is clinically significant, yes. Worthy of publication, maybe. But not quite as astonishing.

It would be better, the authors write, to look at a number called the absolute risk reduction—the 2.5 percent reduction that resulted from the new drug. But working with that measure can be hard to understand, because it is actually a percent of a percent. To make it more intuitive and apprehendable, the authors explain, you can use the inverse of absolute risk reduction: Divide 1 by 2.5 percent, or .025, to get 40. And that’s the number needed to treat. Forty people have to take the drug for one person to benefit. So is it worth taking? That depends. The NNT isn’t crazy high, so you might go for it, especially since a heart attack can kill you. But if the drug has terrible side effects, you might not.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Other Big Verdict

Outlook reports [hat tip to my collegue Atul Chokshi for the e-mail alert]:

Delhi High Court



and its management from using “MBA, BBA, Management Course, Management School, Business School or B-School” ” in relation to the courses / programmes being conducted by them."

The Outlook link also has the pdf of the verdict.

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See also this Mint report: High court censures IIPM, Arindam Chaudhuri for misleading students.


  1. Samanth Subramanian in The New Yorker: India's Frugal Mission to Mars (November 2013) and Why India Went to Mars (25 September 2014).

  2. Eldho Mathews in Inside Higher Ed: Internationalization: Where Is India Headed?

  3. UGC tags 8 deemed universities 'unworthy', Basant Kumar Mohanty reports in The Telegraph.

  4. India's Town of Toppers, Rakesh Kumar reports in Gulf News - Weekend Review.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Nalanda University is off to a modest start this year, admitting the first batch of 16 students in its School of Historical Studies and School of Ecology and Environment Studies.

Mint marks this occasion with a photo essay by Shamik Bag on this unique university project (e.g., its funding is through the Ministry of External Affairs).

Academic Stardom through Falsified Resume

Someone is a academic star?

He is from India? Check.

He used fake credentials? Check.

His victims include several American Universities? Check.

Him? No, but there are many parallels.

Nona Willis Aornowitz and Tony Dokoupil of NBC News have a totally gripping story: Ivory Tower Phony? Sex, Lies and Fraud Alleged in West Virginia.

seemed like the Doogie Howser of India, able to crack the country’s best medical school, and work there as a 21-year-old doctor. Anoop Shankar later claimed to add a Ph.D. in epidemiology and treat patients even as he researched population-wide diseases. He won a “genius” visa to America, shared millions in grants, and boasted of membership in the prestigious Royal College of Physicians.

In 2012 West Virginia University hand-picked this international star to help heal one of the country’s sickest states. At just 37, Shankar was nominated to the first endowed position in a new School of Public Health, backed by a million dollars in public funds.

But there was a problem: Shankar isn’t a Ph.D. He didn’t graduate from the Harvard of India. He didn’t write dozens of the scholarly publications on his resume ...

Thursday, September 11, 2014


  1. Amy J. Binder (sociologist at UC-San Diego) in Washington Monthly: Why Are Harvard Grads Still Flocking to Wall Street?. "Students from elite colleges march off to jobs at the big banks and consulting firms less by choice than because of a rigged recruiting game that the schools themselves have helped to create."

  2. Claire Cain Miller at The Upshot: The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus. "A Child Helps Your Career, if You’re a Man".

  3. Michael Shermer in SciAm: How the Survivor Bias Distorts Reality.

  4. Richard Harris in NPR: When Scientists Give Up.

    Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right — attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.

    But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.

    So, he's giving up on science. And he's not alone.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Links: The Women-in-Science Edition

  1. Patricia Fara in Nature (and non-paywalled!): Women in Science: A Temporary Liberation. "The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality."

  2. Zuleyka Zevallos, Buddhini Samarasinghe and Rajini Rao in's SoapboxScience blog: Nature vs Nurture: Girls and STEM. In a section devoted to institutional interventions, they say:

    Active intervention at the institutional level also leads to positive change. Already, some colleges are reporting huge improvements: at Carnegie Mellon University, 40% of undergraduate incoming class in computer science are women, a welcome contrast to the dismal 18% of graduates in the U.S., and at Harvey Mudd College, more than half of the freshman engineering class this year were women. Their strategies ranged from featuring women on their brochures and as tour guides, to training teachers and hosting camps for high school students.

  3. Mark Guzdial in Computing Education Blog: The most gender-balanced computing program in the USA: Computational Media at Georgia Tech. Making sense of two trends in one institution: growth of women's share from 25% to 45% in ten years (while that in the CS program grew from 9% to 19%), accompanied by a shrinking enrollment in the CM program.

  4. Ruthe Farmer in Shriver Report: 10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


This is at # 96 in the list of UGC approved degrees in the Gazette notification of July 5, 2014.

That's all.

UGC's War on FYUP - VII: Some Observations

  1. The very first thing to note is the shameful silence of the science academies which championed the cause of a four year bachelors program in the sciences; their position paper was a precursor to the IISc's FYUP (and also Bangalore University where it has been in suspension since 2013) which started in August 2011, the same year IIT-K converted its five-year Integrated MSc program into a 4-year BS program.

    The Academies didn't defend, even partially, the FYUP at Delhi University. I can understand, sort of, their silence because DU's FYUP was not just for the sciences, but for all areas of study including commerce and the "arts subjects". But I just cannot understand their quiet aloofness after UGC came after IISc and now, the IITs.

  2. The statements of support from Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Dr. Anil Kakodkar have been timely. But their framing leaves much to be desired: "why are you doing this," they seem to say to UGC, "to our premier institutions?" It's as if it's okay for the UGC to do this to other institutions. As influential leaders, they could have stood solidly behind all our institutions of higher ed, and demanded autonomy for all of them.

  3. It has become fashionable among the influencers to support the creation of new types of institutions such as IIESTs and IISERs as well as starting new IITs, NITs and IIMs. An assumption which drives this trend is that our universities are so badly doomed that reforming "the system" is not even worth the effort.

    But, this mindset ignores the fact that an overwhelming majority (more than 95%, going by a recent talk by President Pranab Mukherjee) of our students study in our universities and their affiliated colleges. It is important for our scientific elite to support them in their struggle against irrational regulations.

  4. One of the strongest critiques of Indian higher ed policies of the 1950s was that the then government chose national labs (basically, the CSIR labs) over universities for science funding. This choice had the effect of pretty much decimating university research, and helped make many of them just examination-conducting bodies.

    Our current enthusiasm for creating IIXs can only have a similar debilitating effect on our universities, and may end up solidifying a two-tier system in which some get elite and expensive education while a vast majority go to increasingly impoverished universities.

    We should be aiming for a system where our good universities have the same exalted status as the IITs, and others know what they need to do to achieve that status. It is in our own long-term interest that our policies keep us moving toward this goal.

    I'm afraid our policies are dragging us in the opposite direction.