Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Einstein ...

... and his theory of general relativity, which he published in the year 1915, some 10 years after his publication of his paper on special relativity theory. The latter is one of the five -- three of which are highly celebrated -- that he published in the year 1905; the centenary of these papers are being celebrated this year -- 2005 -- as the World Year of Physics.

All that is fairly well known -- particularly the latter part about his five papers of 1905. I won't claim to understand even a single one of them, so I won't bother to comment on them here. This post has a different purpose.

Some of you may have read James Watson's The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (if you haven't, I would strongly recommend it). In this book, Watson gives a frank account of the journey that Francis Crick and he undertook towards unravelling the structure of the 'molecule of life', the DNA. The best thing that this book is remembered for -- aside from the science -- is its ability to convey how science is done. In fits and starts, entering dark alleys that lead to a dead end -- and starting over, many times over. [There is also a strong emphasis on the highly competitive environment in which this research took place; this is not common to many areas of research, so I won't go into it]

It appears that Einstein too went through a similar process between 1905 and 1915. Over at Cosmic Variance, Clifford Johnson has a wonderful post about the tortuous path taken by Einstein before he finally hit the final version of his theory of general relativity. Do read it, even if you don't understand the science. Concentrate on the process; Johnson describes it in the middle part of the post.

The next Freakonomics

Early this year, Freakonomics was published [that link is to the blog-cum-website of the authors]. Tim Harford has a follow-up act in his recently published The Undercover Economist.

Now, via Marginal Revolution, we have a link to an interesting interview of Tim Harford by Patri Friedman over at Cattalarchy. In this post, Friedman has included several links to reviews of the book as well.

In the interview, Tim Harford is asked to compare himself, the undercover economist, with Steve Levitt, the freakonomist:

In a cage match against Steve Levitt, would your undercover spy talents or his sumo-wrestling win the day? Bonus: would adding mud or oil change the result?

Steve Levitt will tell you if sumo-wrestlers are cheating. My ‘Dear Economist’ advice can tell you if your partner is cheating. Place your bets.

Now, if this line doesn't want to make you go buy the book, what will?

I have read Freakonomics, and I really liked it for its ability to explain all kinds of interesting nuggets that can be teased out from vast mountains of data. Tim Harford's book also sounds interesting. I will have to wait, though, for its price to fall to my range -- under 500 rupees.

Tim Harford's writings, including his 'Dear Economist' column in the Financial Times, are here. He also has a blog called the Private Sector Development Blog. And yes, these links were stolen shamelessly from Friedman's post, though I have to also admit that I had looked at his blog sometime earlier.

Teen repellent!

Read this. [Via slashdot].   It's hilarious, alright. But is it true? Are there sound waves that the younger people -- under 20 -- hear and detest, but the people older than 30 don't?

I particularly enjoyed the 'plan' to blast classical music into the parking lot to repel the rowdy teenagers who were loitering around ...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

100 dollar laptops will be sold ...

... at 200 dollars!, says this report. [Scroll down to the update].

Now we have a free market evaluation of the utility of this machine. This was a concern that I had for a while; it is good to know that Negroponte and his colleagues at OLPC initiative are planning to sell it in open market, too. This is good news.

I reiterate my earlier view that it is still a bad idea for our government to spend money to buy this stuff in bulk for our school children. That money is better spent elsewhere. Further, this news implies that we can afford to wait for a year or so after the laptop hits the markets to evaluate if it is a good idea even for philanthropic organizations to buy this stuff to be distributed to kids.

Et tu, Hindu?

Plagiarism in the main (newspaper and magazine) pages of the Hindu? I would have laughed at any such suggestion. Nina presents a strong case, backed by solid evidence, it is impossible to laugh it off [link via Desi Pundit]. Hindu has a problem on its hands.

Great work, Nina!

Science news of the day

Quite a few things appeared today. Since I don't have the time, I will just list them here:

  • A nice article in the New York Times by Denise Grady about the kind of illusions that can be created using apparently simple means -- simple only for an experienced researcher, not us! Do you want to feel slimmer or feel that your nose is growing, find someone who can give you that illusory experience!
  • In NYTimes, again, there is an interview of Kristi Anseth by Claudia Dreyfus. Dr. Anseth is a tissue engineer. Here is a definition given by her:
    We are the people interested in building living systems in humans and animals called the tissue. We start with the basic building blocks of these systems, which are cells or different proteins or molecules, and then we reassemble them into something that becomes living tissues within a body.

    The promises of tissue engineering are many. In trying to regenerate cartilage, we're very far along. In terms of progress, things related to our cartilage, bones, skin, we're likely to see products within 5 to 10 years. The really big impact areas - treatments for Parkinson's disease and diabetes - those will happen later, within my lifetime.
  • This one is for my wife, who is an ophthalmologist: Retina for different people have been found to be quite different, says Sara Goudarzi in this report in MSNBC. Among all that description of the innards of the eye, I managed to find something that I can relate to:
    "Adaptive optics is a technique borrowed from astronomy, where it is used to obtain sharp images of stars from telescopes on the ground," said David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science. "All such telescopes suffer from blur due to the effects of turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere. In our case, optical defects in the cornea and lens of the eye blur images of the retina."
  • This ToI editorial talks about some new science policy. Does anyone know about it? If you have links to any report or government website that may have additional information, I would greatly appreciate it if you leave a comment or send an e-mail to me. Many thanks in advance.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Narayana Murthy vs. Deve Gowda

Do read this balanced article by Narendar Pani, on the Murthy vs. Gowda spat. He gives some really interesting historical details about the previous spurts in industrial activity that Bangalore has seen. The development of the cantonment in the 1890's and the public sector spree of the 1950's and the 60's. Contrasting the present behaviour of the IT industry with that of the planners of the previous growth spurts, he notes:

[The media coverage of the spat] brushes under the carpet the failures of the dominant imaginations of the future of cities like Bangalore; imaginations that have led the IT industry to shoot itself in the foot.

At the core of this dominant imagination is a belief that what is for the immediate good of the IT industry is good for the city.

Bangalore's resources are then expected to be used to provide international quality physical infrastructure for the IT industry.

Since the state government does not have the resources to take infrastructure in the entire city to that level, the focus is on the elements that are most visible to the global IT market, whether it is an airport or a tech park.

Towards the end, however, he simply seems to suggest that the IT industries must do something to ensure that poor and lower middle class can also afford engineering education that brought the IT industry to Bangalore in the first place.

I understand his concern for availability of higher education -- professional education in particular -- to the poorer sections. One can even make a case that it is in industry's long term interest to address this concern in a meaningful way.

But linking it with the ongoing spat on infrastructure is just not on. How is this going to help the current infrastructure problems in Bangalore? How will it suddenly produce the money that Pani says the State government doesn't have?

It is this very problem -- of poor roads -- that made Bangalore spurn the previous Janata government led by Gowda's hankpicked successor, the late J.H. Patel. In a later, coalitional avatar, Gowda is playing an essentially similar game of neglecting Bangalore in the name of 'serving' rural Karnataka. Just how good a job is he doing there? I really have no idea.

For now, all this just means that we have to learn to live with poor roads and traffic snarls for several more years.

Jumping car?

Prof. Amar Bose -- yes, the very same Bose behind the highly expensive Bose speakers, among much else -- has been secretly working on a suspension system that can help make your car jump over obstacles. Someone from Associated Press caught up with him when such a system was being tested in a Toyota Lexus.

Preliminary verdict? It is possible to make it work, but it will also be quite expensive.

[Via digg.]

The Kushboo controversy seems to be losing steam

Uma has a round up of early articles and analyses. Summarizing Jaya Menon's analysis of the controversy, she said, "Caste, film, politics make a strange cocktail in Tamil Nadu". What a strange cocktail it is! It would take great skill to unravel the ingredients of this cocktail, and Jaya Menon does it quite well -- but she covers only the recent events.

A set of ancient (circa 2002-03) events form the backdrop to the current controversy. When Rajinikant made his now infamous 'last' film Baba, it was expected to do very well; everything was indeed going well for that film, until PMK, a party that claims to represent some backward communities in northern Tamil Nadu [dont' snicker ... TN does have a north and a south!], chose to take Rajinikant on. It asked why this man, who claims to be led by spirituality in real life, glorifies and propagates such bad habits as smoking in his films. [The present Union Health Minister, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, is a son of P.K. Ramadoss, the PMK leader; is it surprising that he recently tried to ban 'smoking scenes' in all movies?]. In the event, Baba flopped, probably because it was a bad film -- many mainstream magazines panned it. But Ramadoss and his PMK followers claimed 'victory', and somehow they lived with that aura for sometime.

Armed with this 'victory' they tried to take on the entire film industry by insisting that all Tamil movies must have their titles in Tamil, and Tamil only. Kamal Haasan's 'Mumbai Express' fell foul of this exacting condition, and there was an agitation. Things were pretty dicey for Kamal, until he managed to get the Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's support for artistic freedom!

Nursing their wounds after this 'defeat', these guys were waiting for their next opportunity. Kushboo was a great target, in more ways than one. (a) Cinema: She is an actor. (b) Region: She is from the North (Maharashtra, I think). and (c) Politics: She has a quiz show on Jaya TV, a channel that is openly aligned with the CM of Tamil Nadu, Ms. Jayalalithaa and her party, ADMK. [Ramadoss and PMK are aligned (at present) with the opposition in the state, but are a part of the ruling coalition at the Centre.]

That is ancient history in three paragraphs. Let's cut to the present.

Thankfully, the matter is likely to come to an end soon. As reported in the Hindu (Friday, 25 November 2005), the Madras High Court has stayed all the proceedings against Kushboo in the lower courts. The judge has also taken the police to task. This probably happened too late to be included in Suresh Nambath's article yesterday, but even there, it is clear that things are calming down:

But the civil society responded, slowly but surely. Journalists' associations were quick to sense a threat to freedom of expression, and opposed the moral policing. Among the political parties, the Left organisations recognised the seriousness of the issue and condemned the protests. Eventually, it became clear that the protestors enjoyed no public sympathy despite the wide coverage they got in a partisan section of the media.

Only at this point did the leaders of the PMK and the Dalit Panthers choose to distance themselves from the actions of their party men. Although they continued to criticise the actors, they denied that their parties had anything to do with the protests, which they claimed were "spontaneous".

In the meantime, people have also started filing cases against Suhasini, another actor who has expressed solidarity with Kushboo. Here is what a couple (one filed a case, and her husband gave a 'witness' statement) had to say about the two actors under fire:

The complainant sought to punish the actress for making provocative statements with an intention of causing riot and enmity between different groups.

She alleged that Ms. Suhasini's statement had tarnished the image of the Tamils.

Ms. Suhasini's support to Ms. Kushboo would lead to more cases of HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Vadivel Goundar said as a father of a girl, he was disturbed by Ms. Suhasini's views, as the bridegroom's parents would seek medical certificate on his daughter's virginity at the time of wedding.

Can you think of anything more laughable than this interpretation of what Kushboo said, originally? [Do these people even remember what she said?] It is on such utterly flimsy grounds that the magistrates of the great land of Tamil Nadu send summons to the two actors to appear in court.

Nambath observed, "the argument [behind the lawsuits] was that Kushboo's remarks were offensive and could breach public peace and order. However, the only threat to public peace came from the organised protests. "

Precisely. Thankfully, the end appears to be near.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Are there good reasons to fall in love with ...

...digg? The main reason, for me, is the pointers to resources on history of technology. Let me give you some examples:

  • This postis about the origins of the graphical user interface and the mighty little mouse. The source is 1989 piece originally published in IEEE spectrum.
  • This post points to some early Google stuff: a talk given by none other than Larry Page; it includes the basis of the PageRank algorithm.
  • Did you know why eBay is called, well, eBay? What was its original name? Find out here.
  • It's not all modern technology. Here is an interesting post that links to a site that explains the ancient (er, 18th century) Mokume Gane technique of metalworking, that produces intricate -- and absolutely beautiful -- patterns using billets of copper, silver and gold. This link has some history, a brief description of the technique, a series of pictures that explain how this stuff is made, capped with a wonderful gallery of products made with it.

There are also other interesting stuff -- and, sometimes w-e-i-r-d stuff -- that show up at digg. Such as nine disturbing facts about Google, how a retired Canadian man brought an uppity bank to its knees (because he was outraged that the bank that outsourced(!) its credit-card processing to the US -- to the US! ) by making hundreds of micropayments, and why an author is suing for not removing some of the bad -- and tasteless -- reviews of his book.

Then there is science; in fact, very interesting, eye grabbing -- and sometimes beautiful -- science. Here are two examples:

  • The number spiral (digg) that shows interesting properties, as explained in this original page.
  • This post is an alert about a bunch of educational applets that help you visualize things in physics (acoustics, waves, signal processing, electricity and magnetism, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics ...), mathematics (linear algebra, ...), and others.

Check out digg; some 50 appear there everyday, each with the briefest possible introduction to the topic of discussion. The topic is usually an online resource. Not all of it is wonderful; but there is enough of it to make you fall in love with it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bangalore Book Fair

Well, it got over about a week ago. I visited last Saturday, just one day before the close. It had the usual mix of publishers and booksellers from all over India, with everyone giving 10 % off on all that they had on offer. There were also quite a few stalls with used books!

Among the English language publishers, the Fair had a fair share of academic publishers: Oxford, Cambridge, Thomson, Prentice Hall. Surprisingly, I didn't find any of India's mass market biggies -- Penguin, Rupa, et al. May be BBF is just too small for them.

I am usually leery about such fairs, because they are organized on open grounds, with no decent flooring: if it rains, you would wade through slushy mud, and if it shines, you would wade through a palpable dusty fog. Because of these fears, I haven't been to a BBF or any of the consumer exhibitions and trade fairs in a long time.

I am an admirer of both their wonderful blogs:

Education in India

Nothing frivolous, only serious'

I have had an occasion to write about their publishing venture once: here.

What spurred me to go to BBF this time was an alert from Satya, about the stall of Kizhakku Padhippagam (KP), a Tamil publishing house run by Badri and him. When I did go there, I was pleasantly surprised by the way it was organized: no open stalls, no slush, no dust! On the contrary, the ambience there was actually quite pleasant.

Now, KP's was one of a handful of stalls by Tamil publishers and book sellers. Since it is a new venture, its collection was rather small -- some 80 titles or so. Most of their books are devoted to nonfiction: biography, politics, essays, spirituality and self-help. Their fiction section included short story collections, a few novels and a couple of books in the humour section.

The collection on non-fiction is quite admirable: US, Pakistan, terrorism (including comparative terrorism!), 9/11, biographies of Dhirubhai Ambani, N.R. Narayanamurthy, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, Rajinikanth, Thomas Edison, and so on. I picked up the biographies of C.N. Annadurai and K. Kamaraj.

Their fiction collection is small. Fortunately, they have started with classics: Indira Parthasarathy, Aadhavan and Malan, among others. In the essay section, they even had Ashokamitran's essays in two fat volumes at Rs. 350/ each. I picked one or two of these as well.

Finally, I have to mention that all their books have been produced really well. Especially, their hard-bound volumes (such as Ashokamitran's essay collections), are beautiful to hold and behold. Given such a high production value, I am surprised that most of their books are priced at between 30 and 100, with only a few getting into the three figure range. I believe this is because of their desire to reach as many people as possible, as explained by Satya in this post.

The staffer at the KP stall told me that they will unveil a bunch of new titles at the Chennai Fair, which is scheduled for sometime in Janurary. I am certainly looking forward to it; I just have to figure out how to take a few days off from the beginning of the semester ...

Science 3

We are going to see Simon Singh in flesh and blood soon, when he comes to IISc to give a talk on "Big Bang". In addition to writing some of the most widely read popular science books, he looks absolutely cool, too: take a look at his picture on his website.

Clifford Johnson points to an article in the Guardian titled 'Keats claimed physics destroyed beauty. Keats was being a prat'. It's by Simon Singh, the author of several popular science books including those on cryptography ("The Code Book"), and cosmology ("Big Bang"). I have read the one on Fermat's last theorem, which is really nice.

Two key passages:

Britain was the home of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and Paul Dirac, and Brits made world-class contributions to understanding gravity, quantum physics and electromagnetism - and yet the British physicist is now facing extinction. But so what? Physicists are not as cuddly as pandas, so who cares if we disappear?


A budding boffin in Bangalore probably stands more chance of having good mathematics and physics teachers than the equivalent bright young spark condemned to a British science education. A British politician in 1950 would have laughed at the thought of Indian schools ever being better than British schools, but last year's Physics Olympiad shows how things have changed. In this international competition for schools students, India won two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, whereas Britain won only two bronzes.

It is probably difficult to resist the temptation to read this piece with a sense of schaudenfreude, taking a smug view of the troubles that physics in UK finds itself in. But we too should be worried about the kind of things Singh says in his article. In our society, we are obsessed with getting a professional degree -- engineering and medicine in particular. People would rather send their kids to a third rate engineering program (of which there are many) than a first rate science program in an excellent college (of which there are quite a few).

Many scientists have expressed an alarm (sometimes in absolutely horrible and inappropriate ways), and the fear is genuine. We are currently in a stage similar to that of an extremely diabetic person who doesn't realize that a rat is chewing his toes in his sleep. It is better to wake up well before some serious damage is done.

Science 2

If I tell you that there is a book that has an 'intermezzo' titled 'The Brain, Language and The Human Condition', what do you think the book is about? Further, I tell you that this intermezzo has the following:

brain - information - memory - what is language?, what is a concept? - infinity - why use mathematics? - is mathematics a language? -- physical concepts, lies, and patterns of nature - what is existence? - do things exist? - does the void exist? - is nature infinite? - does the universe exist? - what is creation? - reason, purpose, explanation - and on and on

Well, to complicate matters, a small picture of Ludwig Wittgenstein adorns the first page of this intermezzo, one would be apt to take that this book is about some strange philosophy.

But the book itself is a physics text, written by Christoph Schiller, whose affiliation I couldn't locate, even with the mighty Google. The text, in all its 1200-page glory, and available for free download. Here.

The intermezzo that I mentioned is in this downloadable file [pdf, about 1 MB]. Here is an extract from near the beginning of the intermezzo:

The reason for studyingde definitions is simple. We need the clarifications in order to get to the top of Motion Mountain. Many have lost their way because of lack of clear concepts. In this situation, physics has a special guiding role. All sciences share one result: every type of change observed in nature is a form of motion. In this sense, but in this sense only, physics, focusing on motion itself, forms the basis for all the other sciences. In other words, the search for the famed `theory of everything' is an arrogant expression for the search for a theory of motion. Even though the knowledge of motion is basic, its precise description does not imply a description of `everything': just try to solve a marriage problem using the Schrödinger equation to note the difference.

This text is a wonderful resource. Do bookmark the site. You can download individual chapters as and when you need them; some chapters are not available yet, so you will have to go back for more; and, you can use it to search the entire text.

Science 1

Over at Making Light, Jim Macdonald has a great post explaining diabetes: what it is, what it does, what are the symptoms, why and how these symptoms are related to the diabetic condition, the works. He does, of course, stop short of the suggesting specific medication because he can "neither diagnose nor prescribe".

Macdonald has an excellent and highly readable post, but he doesn't dumb it down. You get a lot of stuff thrown at you, but in a nice way. For example, if you don't know Kussmaul breathing, you will find out. Do read it.

Let the Doha Round fail

Talk to World Bank and WTO officials, and you will get an earful of inflated claims about the benefits that a successful Doha round would bring. These officials often make it sound as if the livelihood of hundreds of millions of poor people in developing nations hangs in the balance. Look closer at these claims, and you find that they are built on sand.


... The next time around, trade talks should take up the two most glaring omissions to date:
  • A comprehensive effort to enhance the mobility of temporary workers from poor countries to rich countries. This is where the gains from liberalization would be the largest, because it is here that the barriers are the highest.
  • Creation of a "policy space" for developing countries in WTO agreements. Developing nations' pursuit of growth-promoting trade and industrial policies are increasingly running afoul of restrictive WTO rules. Growth superstars such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, and many others would not have been able to adopt the growth strategies that they did if today's WTO strictures had applied to them. Trade officials must acknowledge the lessons from these countries' experience and reform the rules accordingly.

That's from a recent column by Dani Rodrik. You might also be interested in his academic papers.

Simputer company becomes ...

... a 100% subsidiary. Yes, Geodesic, a Mumbai based IT-services firm, pays about 7 million dollars to gobble up Pico Peta, the makers of the Amida brand of simputers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Agricultural subsidies in the US

A funny thing happened on the way to our cheap food system. The books were being cooked in a kind of shell game, Enron-style. The real cost of these monocultures were not being properly accounted for: those taxpayer-financed subsidies ($143 billion over the last decade), the unfairness that results when our excess production gets dumped on developing countries that then can't develop their own resources, the environmental effects of pesticide runoff - the list goes on.

From an op-ed in the New York Times. The subsidy regime in the US is scandalous by itself; but the one in Europe and Japan is even worse.

Snuppy creator Dr. Hwang Woo Suk steps down

The South Korean researcher who won world acclaim as the first scientist to clone a human embryo and extract stem cells from it apologized Thursday for lying over the sources of some human eggs used in his work and stepped down as director of a new research center.

After months of denying rumors that swirled around his Seoul laboratory, the researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, confirmed that in 2002 and 2003, when his work had little public support, two of his junior researchers donated eggs and a hospital director paid about 20 other women for their eggs.

Read it all in this NYTimes story.

The dream-like quality of ... reading!

Novels make you change your emotions -- mental states -- perhaps every ten minutes (or more). Movies do it perhaps every two minutes. It is safe to say that these changes would be gentle.

If a movie or a book produces these effects (a) fast, (b) in an unpredictable, seemingly random way and (c) in big swings taking you to great heights and depths, we would be apt to call it a roller coaster ride. In the hands of a terrible director or novelist, this could produce an equally terrible bodily malfunction in your body (nausea or headache). If it is done well, however, it could also produce a strangely satisfying experience -- dream-like and almost addictive. This might explain the cult following of some movies (Rocky Horror Picture Show!), and cartoon shows (Spiderman!).

Over 70 percent of the people who visit my blog spend less than 30 seconds here, and probably do the same at other blogs that they come across in their blog-reading journey. They probably cover some 60 posts within half an hour, and go through an emotional roller coaster, while doing that.

If you use a blog aggregator, such as bloglines, you will also find that blog reading has this dream-like quality. Two caveats: (a) in an aggregator, you choose the blogs, and (b) the aggregator cues you about what you are going to read, so it is not all totally unexpected.

Here is what I 'saw' in my dream this morning :

  • Charu on Project Why and how even one rupee a day can make a big difference.
  • Dilip on the use of GPI, 'Genuine Progress Indicator' (instead of GDP) to measure the state of health of a nation.
  • Neelakantan on the curious case of who runs the graveyard shift in a 24-hour pharmacy.
  • Selva on what it takes to become a world-class expert (in anything); the figure is -- hold your breath -- 20,000 hours of deliberate practice.
  • Brad DeLong points to Charlie Stross's post on why this is possibly the best time to live.
  • DeLong, again, with some pointers to what makes us happy in our jobs.
  • Eszter Hargittai suggests some key strategies that graduate students -- particularly in humanities and social sciences -- might use for successfully completing their dissertation. Good luck!
  • Tyler Cowen on the use of randomized trials using controls in economics research, with a specific pointer to the Poverty Action Lab.

I have given a list of only those that are worthy of highlighting here. There were at least four times as many posts that I covered in a half-hour period. Is it any wonder, then, that blog reading is so dream-like, charming, and addictive?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Slogan for DesiPundit

I know, I know, the good folks at DesiPundit did not ask for a slogan for their website. Yet, I couldn't resist:

Tu likh, We link.

I am also reminded -- I wonder why? -- of this New Yorker cartoon showing a big fish and a small fish side by side. The big fish tells the small one, "Son, some people will love you, and some will hate you. It has always been so with anchovies."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Manju Nathan

Mridula at Travel Tales from India and Sonia Faleiro have DesiPundit-like posts on his death.

Another smart man's life comes to an early and brutal end because he did the right thing. Gaurav Sabnis has a moving post in Manju Nathan's honour. The similarity to Satyendra Dubey is quite unmistakable.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The final year project

A revolution was unleashed in engineering education (and for other professional courses, too) sometime in the eighties. A large number of private colleges were allowed to offer engineering courses; they didn't get any government funding -- hence the name self financing colleges. These were pioneered by Karnataka, and one seems to find one of them every other kilometer along any highway! There are so many of them, in fact, that some 400,000 to 500,000 students graduate with engineering degrees every year. That's a large increase, and considering that it took place in under 25 years is quite amazing.

Let's just separate our colleges into 'good' and 'bad' ones, irrespective of whether they are government colleges or private ones; the good have well trained faculty with high qualifications, using excellent, well equipped lab facilities, and the bad ones are just the opposite. Evidently, the bad ones greatly outnumber the good ones.

There was a discussion sometime ago in CNBC with participants from several sectors: engineering, software, head hunters. The guy from Ma Foi gave interesting statistics: among our engineering colleges, only a small percentage are in the 'first tier', and a larger percent of them are in the 'second tier' (I don't remember the exact figures here), but nearly 60 to 65 percent are in the 'third tier'. There is very little demand for the students coming out of these third tier colleges; these are the students who end up unemployed for sometime even in a booming market.

In this scenario, the companies scramble to hire those from the the top 40 percent or so of the colleges; and this competition is brutal indeed. This explains -- partly -- the soaring salaries, and a large number of unemployed engineers.

Given the huge demand for professional degrees, and given that the good colleges are so few, you will find reasonably good students in both types of colleges. This leads to a curious result: in terms of pass percentages, and high scorers, the bad ones don't do so badly after all!

But there is one area where there is a real difference between the good and the bad colleges. It is in the much dreaded final year projects. In good colleges, much of it is done in-house. One only needs good equipment, lab staff, a good library, enthusiastic teachers who encourage students to work on interesting ideas -- the kind of things good colleges have. If you study in a bad college, you are simply thrown out into the big bad world, and you start your search for a project.

These newbie adults get an education about how the world really works. Some start writing to people in well known universities and companies for an 'internship'. Some visit major companies for the same thing. Only in extremely rare cases, they succeed. Some pair up with their classmates whose parent, uncle, aunt or cousin is in an 'influential' position in some firm; they do a 'group project' in that company. A large fraction of the students fail to land a project through any of these methods, and become quite desperate as they near the deadline for submitting their preliminary report.

Nature abhors a vacuum; some keen observers noticed these poor sods running up the stairs of engineering firms, and walking down the same stairs with dejection written across their faces. They saw an opportunity to make money, quickly set up fake firms, and took these final year students as project trainees -- these are very interesting trainees indeed! The trainees pay good money to get trained in these fake firms.

These guys -- I mean, those running the fake firms -- are good fellows. They would make working prototypes of various gadgets or programs (automatic door opener! remote control for microwave ovens! an account management solution for a financial institution!), together with a 'project report' that is so authentic that it would be poorly written and have all kinds of mistakes. After all, if the student turns in a near flawless report, and -- an entirely likely scenario -- gets caught, there may be an investigation!

What is the point of all this? According to the Economic Times, this trend has percolated down to school going children. It has all the elements of the above story, only miniaturized. Sure, what ET is reporting is only a small trend, practiced by school kids with some cash to spare -- a rare breed. Nevertheless, it is a bad one, and it is a pity that these things get institutionalized at such a young age.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Massive survey

In the 10th chapter of his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen talks about the (sorry) state of primary education in West Bengal, where the Pratichi Trust, established by Sen with his Nobel Prize money, conducted a study. I hope to give some excerpts later. A quick overview is provided in news reports from that era (~ 2002). One of them has been reproduced here. A scholarly article is here (pdf).

Apparently, a very large all-India survey of primary schools has been underway for a while now. This report in the Hindu's Karnataka pages has some information about it. The report on the survey's findings is expected to be out in January 2006.

Tech history

In the history of modern technology, there are many key milestones, and the year 2005 seems to be celebrating some 'round number' anniversaries of these milestones. We have already seen the tenth anniversary of the birth of the web (Netscape and its IPO). In addition, Yahoo! and eBay also celebrated their tenth birthdays this year.

The big one of course, was the tenth birthday of Windows 95; and via digg, we learn that the seeds for world domination were sown 10 years earlier: Yes, this year marks the 20th birthday of Windows 1.0.

That and this

That was then, and this is now.

I got the link to 'that' via the academic blog Marginal Revolution, and it gave me the courage to post about 'this', the link for which I got from

One more thing: to read the article about 'that', you need a day pass, which is available for free if you are willing to endure an ad.

A 'short story'

Yesterday's Sunday Magazine of the Hindu carried a nice essay that threads together a lot of interesting information about clocks. Since the Hindu filed it under 'short story', after reading it (all the while looking for the short story in it), I went WTF. After seeing the email address of the contributor -- Rohit Gupta -- I modified it to 'What the Fadereu ...'   ;-)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The hottest post in this blog!

Recently, I installed sitemeter in my blog to get an idea about the visitors to this blog. First, some general observations before I reveal the hottest post.

This blog gets about thirty to fifty people visitors daily. This number is probably over and above that of people accessing it through some aggregators, who don't have to visit except for commenting. However, there are some events that give a short term boost in traffic. In my case, such events happen to include

  • a mention in some high traffic blogs such as Desi Pundit, Amit's India Uncut and Dilip's Death Ends Fun.
  • a mention in blogmelas, such as the current one by Veena. This effect, however, is smaller than the previous one.
  • some posts getting into the first few pages of a search engine.
  • a mention in some high volume mailing list.

Many of these short term boosts tend to have a very short half-life -- typically a couple of days.

Now, the hottest post in my blog is [drum roll, please] 'Naugthy academics, again'. It was posted so long ago that I have no idea how many people read it -- probably not more than a few. But now, it gets a steady stream of one or two visitors every day, even after such a long time. Invariably, visitors come here by googling just one word: 'naugthy' -- yes, with a spelling mistake. When you google this word, my post appears right in the first page (at least as of now)! Just check it yourself, to have an idea about the rather exalted neighbourhood I live in ...

So, some poor soul who cannot spell 'naughty' visits this post looking for horny stuff, but ends up getting informed about how academics cheat!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Now, we have this ...

After the previous post, we now have a cheery report from the International Herald Tribune about how some of the wealth in cities is flowing to the rural areas. Now you have a choice between Sainath and Anand Giridharadas.

A positive agenda for P. Sainath

P. Sainath has been a reporter, editor and columnist for the Hindu for quite a while now. I greatly admire him and the Hindu for relentlessly keeping the issues of poverty and inequality centrestage. In an era when all the media go gaga over the 'India Shining' mantra, it is indeed praiseworthy that Sainath has carved out niche for himself in the unfashionable areas of poverty and related issues. Also praiseworthy is the support provided by the Hindu to him and several others.

Let's take, for example, his latest op-ed column in the Hindu. It lays out several key problems faced by the rural folks, together with statistics. It is clear that he has done his homework, and much of the anecdotes he recounts are from his own reports from the affected villages (his recent series of reports has been from Vidarbha region in Maharashtra). Let's look at some excerpts:

... [H]ave a look at the news from the nation's farm households. There are millions of those .... The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of farm households across India was Rs.503 in 2003. That is just about Rs.75 above the rural poverty line. And it is an average across regions and classes and income groups. So even this dismal figure hides huge inequities.

The dry facts and figures follow, one after another, forming a deluge that is relentless and depressing. And, I have no doubt that Sainath is telling it like it is: what he has seen in villages must gel with these figures.

But -- you knew there would be a 'but', didn't you? -- I still find two things that are missing here. The first one that is missing is a viable way forward. He does propose one possible way in his latest column, but it has no substance. Let me explain what I mean:

He starts his column with some statistics from Business Standard about how India now has 311 billionairs (probably rupee billionaires -- worth 100 crore rupees) and their collective net worth is about 3.64 trillion rupees (364,000 crores or about 70 billion dollars). He then goes on to suggest ways of tapping this huge wealth for running, for example, the rural employment guarantee progrram.

Where is the problem? It lies in what Sainath himself recognizes; he notes that 'the collective net worth of this [billionaire] Club was computed by Business Standard on "the basis of average market prices for promoters' stocks in August 2005."' In other words, this money is not some free cash available for tapping; instead, it is tied up in investment in companies. Saying one can tap this wealth is like saying we can tap the wealth that the government of India possesses when, in reality, this 'wealth' is in the form of land, forests, and the like.

It would really be great if Sainath thinks through these issues, before dropping these jarring 'solutions' that damage his credibility. Remember, this criticism of lack of substance would not arise if he suggests a straight forward appropriation of a part of the wealth by the government (for example through a small wealth tax) -- it would be raise an outcry (and I may also join in this outcry!), but it won't be about lack of substance!

The second thing missing in this column is the lack of a positive agenda, some program that

  • has been formulated and implemented in some other part of the country (Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura come to mind. I wonder why!), and
  • has produced some desirable result in terms of reducing poverty, or reducing household debt in rural India, or whatever.

In the absence of such a positive agenda, the problems end up appearing too large to be solved. Inspiring outrage is one thing, and Sainath does it very well. When he does it repetitively, it does end up producing something that I am sure he would not want : a feeling of helplessness.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Google, Apple and Digg

Via digg: Here is some great stuff for Google fans: some 150+ logos used by Google over the years. All in one place!

Via digg (again!): the famous 1981 print ad from Apple that said "Welcome IBM, Seriously" in bold headlines.

... and, via digg (that's three times in a row!): Time has a top 25 list of this year's inventions.

I just checked out digg; it is also fantastic.

Cute and colourful bubbles

No, we are not talking about the Google-induced bubbles on the Wall Street. These are regular soap bubbles. But, the colours we are talking about are not the ever-changing bunch of colours you see on the run-of-the mill soap bubbles. We are talking about bubbles that "radiate a single, vibrant hue throughout the entire sphere—a green bubble, an orange bubble, a hot-pink bubble." Bubbles that are unnaturally beautiful.

Mike Haney's Popular Science article -- in 11 parts -- recounts the story of one man's obsession (struggle, quest) to produce utterly colourful bubbles with dyes on the bubble wall that do not stain things when the bubbles go 'pop'. Here is a quick, evocative description of this man's struggle:

Tim Kehoe has stained the whites of his eyes deep blue. He's also stained his face, his car, several bathtubs and a few dozen children. He's had to evacuate his family because he filled the house with noxious fumes. He's ruined every kitchen he's ever had.

When he did finally succeed, Kehoe's obsession finally led to "an outcome even more amazing than he had ever hoped, an outcome no one could have anticipated for the simple reason that no one imagined it possible. The secret to nonstaining colored bubbles, it turns out, is a dye that could unlock a revolution in color chemistry. All you need to do is make color disappear."

Link via the wonderful site that celebrates geekiness in every walk of life: slashdot.

Read the full story. Just one look at the accompanying picture is enough to hook you!

Foreign students help bolster national security

Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said that parents used to ask him, “How can you give away [enrollment spots] to foreigners” when there are Americans that need them, Nye recalled. “Because it’s one of the best investments we can make,” he said. Nye said having foreigners “learn here, make friends here ... is a tremendous source of attraction” that bolsters America’s “soft power.” The fight against terrorism is “not something we can win without soft power,” Nye said. “In the information age, it’s not just whose army wins, but whose story wins.”


... [Nye] added that student visas are not the preferred method of entry for terrorists.

The full story by David Epstein is here.

PS: Sigh! I should remember to do a spell-check on my posts before posting them. The title should have a 'bolster' instead of the other word. On the other hand, poorly spelled words can also be helpful if one is looking for traffic ...

It looks like a bubble, feels like a bubble ...

... and appears to be going up like a bubble, too! But it's not a bubble, says John Battelle in a NYTimes op-ed.

...[W]e are witnessing the Web's second coming, and it's even got a name, "Web 2.0" - although exactly what that moniker stands for is the topic of debate in the technology industry. For most it signifies a new way of starting and running companies - with less capital, more focus on the customer and a far more open business model when it comes to working with others. Archetypal Web 2.0 companies include Flickr, a photo sharing site; Bloglines, a blog reading service; and MySpace, a music and social networking site.

He could have added and (see this Wired article about

After seeing and experiencing the dizzy heights to which the previous bubble took us, and feeling the deep pain of the fall, I would be careful whenever someone says, 'this time, it's different'. Battelle has some interesting things to say, and to be fair to him, he is not leading a gang of cheerleaders. But there is still some amount of 'it's different' in his piece.

100 Dollar Laptop Unveiled

There are many reports about the unveiling of the 100 dollar laptop from the OLPC initiative at the Tunis UN technology summit yesterday in the presence of Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN. The pictures are all nice, and the machine looks wonderful. As I have said, I would love to buy one of these, except that it is not for sale. I won't bore you with other stuff. Go check out any of these sites: Reuters and BBC.

I just want to point out Urmi Goswami's news story from several days ago. She reports that the Indian Government wishes to double its spending on school education (from its current 47,000 crore -- 470 billion -- rupee budget) in order to implement effectively the Right to Education Act that is likely to be enacted soon.

I have outlined other reasons for why the Indian government should not spend its resources (money) on this laptop initiative. See here, here and here. Suvendra Nath Dutta also has some strong views here.

If you take a child population of about 20 million in each age group, the total number of children to be educated in classes 1 through 10 comes to about 200 million or 20 crore. Even if you take the new figure of about 100,000 crore ruppes as the amount the government will spend on implementing the Right to Education Act, it works out to about Rs. 5,000 per child.

In case you didn't notice, that's about the price of the 100 Dollar laptop. If you go by the current expenditure, well, you do the math.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


That crazy combination of letters stands for "Third World Organization of Women in Science". Before you pounce on me for calling it crazy, let me add that it is a fine organization, but it is just that the acronym somehow sounds so, ..., un-okay. However, this post is not about how TWOWS sounds.

Now, TWOWS will have its Third General Assembly, together with an international conference on 'Women's impact on science and technology in the New Millennium'. Are you impressed? Yet, this post is not about the impressive Assembly and Conference.

The impressive Assembly and Conference are going to be held in an auditorium that resides inside the IISc campus. Since we are all on the faculty of IISc, sometimes we get invited to such impressive conferences to the inauguration of these impressive conferences. This is one such occasion. Are you impressed? And yet, this post is not about the impressive fact of an impressive conference sending an invite to me.

Now, here is the list of people that will be sitting in the dais during the inauguration ceremony. Please bear with me while I type it all out: Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy, Shri Kapil Sibal, Dr. M.H.A. Hassan, Prof. C.N.R. Rao, Prof. Lydia Makhubhu, His Excellency T.N. Chaturvedi, His Excellency Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Prof. V. Krishnan.

Ha! I made you go 'WTF?', didn't I? Now that you have noticed the presence of just one woman in that list, that is what this post is about!

Why in freaking hell are so many men occuupying the prime seats in an event that's meant to celebrate women's contribution? Whose bright idea was it? Do these people -- er, the organizers -- have no shame? Even the local organizing committee's chair'person' (Prof. V. Krishnan) is a man!

Unbelievable, no?

Perils of (academic) blogging

After a double Tribble attack, there have been a couple of replies that extoll the virtues of blogging and explain in broad general terms about how blogging can actually be useful for academics.

The first is by a faculty member: Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber. And the second is by a graduate student: Rebecca Goetz of (A)musings of a graduate student.

Both are good, and reasonably argued. Do read them; if you are planning to blog and you are worried about any adverse fallouts on the professional (not necessarily academic) front, they should help you clarify some of the things. Oh, btw, do read the two not so subtle pieces from Ivan Tribble too.

Fake guests: One wedding and two funerals

Back in August, Tyler Cowen wrote this post about a firm in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, that does roaring business renting out wedding guests.

Yesterday, he has another curious post about professional mourners who "wail, scream and create the anguished sorrow befitting a proper funeral." In Taiwan!

Recently, I came to know of the practice of hiring professional mourners in some parts of southern Tamil Nadu. Apparently, a group of these professionals shows up at the house where the dead person lies 'in state' (so to speak), and perform their wailing and screaming act. If the grieving family can afford it, they may even hire a set of loud speakers that allow the mourners show off their talents!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Google Base: A new service

In the official Google blog, Bindu Reddy announces the launch of Google base. She says a user "can use it to submit their content in the form of data items. [Google]'ll host the items and make them searchable for free."

As an example of the kind of uses it may be put to, Reddy uses this quote:

"Students need as much information as possible when they are searching for the right college or university. Google Base helps us reach students and parents and deliver more of the information they need when making important college decisions." - Hal Higginbotham, President,

UGC, AICTE: take note!   ;-)

'America's future is stuck overseas'

Stuart Anderson has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, presenting a strong argument in favour of getting more foreign students into American universities.

... [W]ithout international students, certain science and engineering programs could not be offered at many American universities, because the foreign students populate classes and serve as teaching assistants. They also go on to supply faculty for those programs. About one-third of America's engineering professors are foreign-born.

Some of you have probably seen the latest statistics [link via Reuben] about the presence of foreign students in the US. There has been a steady decline since 9/11 that has made presidents of American universities sit up and take notice. Sometime last year, they asked for [sorry, no link!] a relaxation of visa policies (this year, there has certainly been an improvement in the visa procedures, and successful visa applications).

This op-ed, on the other hand, points out some of the other difficulties faced by foreign students once they get there for higher studies. In other words, visa procedures may have been the first trigger, but the current problems have been a result of many causes.

Many kinds of time: meta, para, conscious ...

[...] The associate of observation is conscious time.

What is conscious time? There is a meta-concept of time, meta-time, which is inert and unusable except as the argument of a multitude of temporal functional forms, time-forms, like conscious time of everyday use.

Conscious time is composed of instants, and a stream of conscious time that is composed of instants of equal duration is called timeframe.

The time-forms that are not conscious time are presently grouped and collectively called para-time. [...]

That's from an op-ed (the fashionable name for which appears to be 'Leader Article') in today's Times of India. Its title is "Black holes are an enigma", and it is by J K Barthakur who "has authored books on theories of time."

BTW, the above quote appears on the second part of a five part article.

What is the purpose of ToI publishing such a highly specialized piece in its op-ed sections? Sure, all newspapers have to fight the impression that they are dumbing down science, history, philosophy, politics -- in fact, pretty much everything. But, is this the best way to counter that impression?

Yale University's approach to diversity among faculty

... is to set numerical targets as a "spur to great seriousness about the effort". The goal -- to reach those targeted figures in about seven years -- also comes with the promise that financial resources will not come in the way.

Interesting experiment. MIT did it one way, Harvard is trying a different route, and now Yale is choosing yet another path. There is definitely a great diversity in approaches ...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

UGC's scholarship for the single girl 'child'

Girls and women who are the only child in their families are in for more goodies. The latest is the UGC's scholarship for pursuing PG education.

Out of 1062 such scholarships awarded so far this year, 544 went to Kerala alone! Tamil Nadu with 182, AP with 85 and WB with 46 and Maharashtra with 42 round out the top 5 in the list.

I am sure a news item like the following is not far away.


Women who retain the 'single girl child' status because of their parents' choice a long time ago deserve all encouragement, government sources said, adding that the recently announced PG-level scholarships from UGC were an important step in the right direction.

When asked to comment on the latest initiative by the UGC, the education minister said "We don't want the parents to have second thoughts, do we?"

All ministries have been asked to formulate suitable 'incentive' schemes for the benefit of the single girl child. Government sources in different ministries told this reporter that the following incentive schemes are under active consideration:

  • Old age pension for every single girl 'child'.
  • Concessional relaxation in age limit from 35 to 45 for applying for government jobs for every single girl 'child' with a Ph.D.
  • A guaranteed annual payment of Rs. 30,000 to every single girl 'child' who chooses to remain 'single'.

In other news, the spokesperson for the Registrar of Medical Establishments said the office continues to receive a large number of applications for a license to set up diagnostic centres in many places. He further added that Salem district in Tamil Nadu tops the list by sending the largest number of applications.



IIPM's new ads and faculty pages

IIPM ads are back! I saw them in the Hindu (13 November) and the Economic Times (14 November) -- both are Bangalore editions. Nothing much has changed; the bombastic language has certainly not changed.

A few new observations: Under the 'Placements' section, it has a subsection titled '2006', but contains info about the 2005 placements. In this subsection, there is this: "The minimum entry package itself at campus for companies this year is Rs. 3 lacs [300,000 rupees] and the average will surely be beyond 4 lacs [400,000 rupees]." (the empashis is definitely from the original!).

What kind of a value addition is this? Is a 400,000-rupee package even respectable, as an average (that the ad says IIPM says 'will be surely beyond')? For an institution where students pay some 5+ lacs (500,000 rupees or more) over two years?

The 2005 season is gone, and why are they not able to give an exact figure for the average? Why do they say the 'average will surely be beyond ...".

In the meantime, IIPM's faculty webpages still have not changed since the time we looked at them over four weeks ago. I am sure you are really surprised.

"Dare to think beyond ..."? Yeah, sure.

Spyware maker sues ...

... maker of spyware detectors!

Three things:

Evidently, if the former didn't exist, the latter wouldn't either. Sort of like IIPM and the JAM article, or like IIPM and the recent spate of blogposts.

From the point of view of Dilip's recent post, this one is a double boost to the GDP, except that neither of them represents a lack of efficiency. But, you have got to agree that both of them lack a certain necessity (from the user's point of view). [BTW, where is the follow-up to the threat, Dilip?]

Why the hell is spyware a legal business?

Link to the original story via: (where else?) slashdot!

Linux on supercomputers

Via the hot-as-ever slashdot, we get a link to the November top 500 list of supercomputers. Slashdot piece also helpfully notes that four of the top five are based on linux; and the fifth one (placed at No. 4) is Altix, which I believe is another unix variant (proprietory cousin of linux) peddled by Silicon Graphics.

This is just ultra-freaking great news!

Open source software ...

... is the way to go for developing countries, says this ZDNet story by Ingrid Marson. The story is about an excellent study by Rishab Ghosh of the University of Maastricht, Netherlands.

Ghosh ompared the licence fee for the (Windows XP + Office XP) bundle with the per capita GDP, and got some amazing numbers:

The results, even after software price discounts, showed that the cost of proprietary software for developing markets is "enormous" in terms of relative purchasing power. Buying Windows XP and Office XP on in the US is equal to almost 3 months of GDP per capita in South Africa and over 16 months of GDP per capita in Vietnam. This is equivalent to charging a single–user licence fee in the US of $7,541 and $48,011 respectively.

Even if software is discounted to account for local pricing, it is usually still extremely expensive and there is no guarantee that this discount will be sustained in the long term, says Ghosh.

Let us quickly compare things in India. I checked recently the price of Windows XP - Professional Edition, and it is about 6,000 rupees. This figure, when compared to India's per capita GDP of about 24,000 rupees (about 500 dollars), works out to about 3 months of per capita GDP. This is just for the operating system. [since this comparison is all in rupees, we don't have to worry about PPP adjustment].

We may be able to get PCs at under 10,000 rupees, and perhaps they come with some chopped-up, stripped-down, low-value version of Windows installed in them. Considering the ever-falling price of PCs, it is clear that an increasing fraction of the cost is going to be for the operating system software. If you add the cost of the other pieces of software that one needs, we are definitely racing to reach a stage where the software will cost more than hardware!

ICT for the masses will remain a dream if we insist that it should be Windows-driven and legal. At least one of them has to give. It is better to build our society on Open Source Software -- Linux operating system and all the applications that come bundled with it -- that is completely free and legal.

[lint to the ZDNet story from slashdot]

Monday, November 14, 2005

First movie

The Wockhardt folks organized a nice event for kids yesterday -- a painting competition which I heard was more like a mela (I had to be out of town the whole day, so my wife took our four year old.) There was no judging, which is the way I like these events. Anyways, at the end of the painting event, they showed 'Finding Nemo', a Disney animated movie; the venue was the famed Chowdiaa Hall, arguably the best music hall in Bangalore.

It was the first movie for our son. First impressions? He liked the big TV, but it was too noisy.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Google Print

Here is yet another service which I am very enthusiastic about: Google Print. A part of it will make books with elapsed copyrights and those in the public domain available in electronic form -- in full. It will all be fully searchable. Here is the announcement in Google blog. To illustrate the point that the whole thing will be searchable, this post gives the following example: In an old book, you can use the search facility to find for yourself that in 1855, the list of wealthy people in New York had more grocers than bankers!

In another post, Google blog has re-published an op-ed in Wall Street Journal written by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google; Schmidt uses this op-ed to answer some of the publishers' misgivings about Google Print.

If you are planning to murder someone, ...

... then don't Google for information about how to accomplish that task! Such information, these days, is either stored in your computer in some form, or is easily available to investigators (probably through Google suggest). In this case, it is not clear how the investigators got that information, but they are using it in a court of law.

Slashdot wonders if investigating agencies will one day be able to subpoena Google or any other site to cough up things about you (e.g., your search queries)?

Parenting question

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen asks "Why do parents talk with their children's friends?", and provides a bunch of possible motives.

I certainly want our four year old to bring his friends home, and like it and encourage it. Of course, he is at an age that he doesn't care about things like privacy and stuff, but I certainly hope he won't mind -- nor resent -- our getting to know his friends and chatting with them when he is a teenager.

I think the trick is to keep inviting his friends to come to our place and play, talk, sing, dance, etc. for all time to come: childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Rebellion and resentment arrive on the scene only when we ignore all his friends now -- the 'safe' stage -- and start taking an interest in them during his teens. Now that I think about it, this is what my mother did! And, I don't think any of us resented it. Of course, she also had this great knack for making people feel comfortable in our home. Now, this is something I have to work on!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Now, hear this!

Bibek Debroy writes about a study he has done with Laveesh Bhandari on economic freedom in various states. Do you want to know the most free state (econmically speaking)?

Tamil Nadu !

Last year's study ranked Gujarat as the No. 1 state, and it landed Debroy into some serious soup. [I found a later report that said that Sonia Gandhi didn't accept his resignation, and he had agreed to stay. He still seems to be with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.] He makes an oblique reference to that incident:

... Our 2004 rankings resulted in some controversy in the first half of 2005, chiefly because people hadn't bothered to read what we had actually done. ...

The West preaches to the rest

Ninan starts his great article with:

It is the privilege of the rich and the powerful to preach to others -- without having to bother about whether they are delivering what they ask others to do.

How true! Ninan chides John Snow, the US Treasury Secretary who asked for further opening up of our financial sector, by recounting all the entry barriers faced by Indian bankers who want to set up a branch office in the US.

In this editorial, the New York Times notes the appalling behaviour of the US, Europe and Japan in the realm of farm subisdies.

For the last half-century, the World Trade Organization and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, have aggressively dismantled barriers against trade in industrial goods and services, areas in which rich countries in Europe, along with the United States and Japan, hold a comparative advantage. But when it comes to areas where poor countries could flourish, like textiles and agriculture, it has been a different story.

The title of the NYTimes editorial is: "Memo to poor countries: Stand Fast". It applauds the words of the Brazilian foreign minister who said that unless the European Uninon cuts farm subsidies, the current negotiations to open up trade in manufactured goods and services would take "not one month, two months, one year or two years. The talks ... just won't move."

Peter Drucker ...

... is no more. I am sure many obituaries and tributes to that great management thinker will be written. But the first one, from which I actually learnt of Drucker's death, is also likely to be the best. In a short post on Coffee House, Ramnath says:

... management students will continue to wonder what's so great about Drucker - he just said what was obvious. Not unlike the student who, on first reading Shakespeare, said all the bard did was to string together a bunch of wellknown quotations.

10 Web moments that changed the world

Via SciAn's Selva: The Webby Awards are out. Usually, these awards are meant for "honoring excellence in web design, creativity, usability and functionality"; but this, the 10th, year, the awards recognize the 10 great web moments that "changed the world".

In addition to the usual "internet boom and bust", the role played by bloggers and others using the net during the Asian Tsunami is also recognized as a 'web moment'. This is what the Webby Awards said about the Asian Tsunami:

Citizens Journalists Are the First on the Scene to Document the Tsunami

With news agencies racing to reach the hardest hit areas, the first accounts of the disaster were largely provided by ordinary people armed only with digital cameras and internet access. The 7/7 London terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina, further spurred the ascension of "citizen journalism" which can sometimes be more immediate, passionate, and illuminating than professional reporting.


Tributes to KRN are appearing in the press, and on blogs. Evidently, one can't read all of them. Among the blog posts, the one by Anand is the best. It is also filled with lots of links.

Among the others, the Hindu op-ed by Gopalakrishna Gandhi, who served as secretary to KRN during his Presidential stint, is very good indeed. Some excerpts from the article about the young KRN:

... [W]hen he was 25 he had asked of the Mahatma questions that shine over the answers. He had just been awarded a Tata scholarship and was going to London. You have simplified for us the choice between truth and untruth, he asked, but what would you advise when the choice is between two truths? And then, when in England I am asked about the untouchability issue in India, should I reply honestly or should I `defend' India? The questions and answers are part of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

Not recorded anywhere is a conversation that occurred when KRN finished his course of study in London with a First Division. "The Kerala people there threw a party to felicitate me," he related. "And Krishna Menon was invited to be the chief guest. Leaning on his walking stick at the doorway, Menon said to me: `So, Narayanan, I hear you have got a First. You know, some people get it by a fluke.' I do not know how but I managed to say, `Is that how you got yours?'"

The title of Gandhi's essay is: "Definitely no fluke: KRN at the high table".

A different part of the conversation between KRN and Mahatma Gandhi is recounted here. [link from Anand'spost on KRN.]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Denotified Tribes

Or, the DNT's, aka 'criminal' tribes. [Google search]

Indian blogger Dilip D'Souza has written a book about them: Branded By Law: Looking at India's Denotified Tribes.

An American anthropology blogger Kerim Friedman (who writes in the group blog Savage Minds that has made quite a few appearances here on nanopolitan) announced recently the release of Acting like a thief,   "[a] short documentary film [he] shot and co-produced with Shashwati."

Kerim says in his post:

We are releasing the film as a free BitTorrent download for all those tech-savvy people (the less tech-savvy can get a DVD for a $50 donation to our next project). I hope that this short piece will help raise awareness about DNTs and maybe even encourage some grad students who are still thinking about what they might like to research for their dissertation. If you think you might like to do such research, please contact me and I can help arrange some introductions.

I was hoping to see the documentary before writing a post about it, but I haven't had the time to download the necessary software. I hope to see it soon. In the meantime, I am linking it here to let you know about it.

We all need to be aware of how some of our own brothers and sisters have been branded, en masse, as criminals. I am sure this documentary will be an eye-opener for me, and probably for you as well.

Nature says 'Stop copying!'

A recent issue of the premier science journal Nature takes a very strong stand against plagiarism in an editorial.

Human nature hasn't changed recently, but reusing with the intent to deceive seems to be on the rise, both in the literature and in grant proposals. The replacement of pen and paper with software makes it far easier to slip in large sections of text. Internet connectivity, online repositories and sophisticated search tools provide almost irresistible accessibility to the polished thoughts of others.

Students trained today have grown up in an environment where access is taken for granted and attribution only loosely enforced. So they need more rigorous instruction than their predecessors regarding the ethical standards expected of them. Mentors must counter the ever-rising promotion and funding pressures that reward prolific publication rather than support creative quests.

Shirtless in Seattle

Actually, it is not Seattle. It's Chapman University in Southern California, where Jacob Authier, a student in his third year, has been walking around shirtless. The story by David Epstein has been published by Inside HigherEd.

Interestingly, the only ones who even notice this are some of his fellow students who have formed some kind of a fan club!

[...]He’ll often paint his nipples black, or, on special occasions, some more festive color, like green for St. Patrick’s Day. He said he’s considering candy cane swirl nipples for Christmas this year. For Valentine’s Day, Authier’s brother Joe, a sophomore at Chapman, used a pocket knife to carve a heart – not the cartoon kind, but one with veins and ventricles – into Authier’s chest, and wings on his back. Authier said the wing markings have faded, but the heart “was cut a little too deep,” and the scars are still there.

There is other such weird stuff in the story. The really amazing thing is that the faculty don't really seem to mind.

Perhaps Anna University should send its Vice-Chancellor Prof. D. Viswanathan to Chapman on a study tour!


Of the software kind.

Wired's Simson Garfinkel has a short article on the worst software bugs in history. When you read it, do notice that some of them happened when a 'new, improved' version of the software replaced the old one. Amazing!

Garfinkel offers a quick history lesson that explains the origin of the word 'bug':

[...] in 1945 ... engineers found a moth in Panel F, Relay #70 of the Harvard Mark II system.1The computer was running a test of its multiplier and adder when the engineers noticed something was wrong. The moth was trapped, removed and taped into the computer's logbook with the words: "first actual case of a bug being found."

Sixty years later, computer bugs are still with us, and show no sign of going extinct.

The rest of the story features ten of the biggest bugs including the famous public relations disaster caused in 1993 by the 'floating point division error' in the first generation Pentium which led to a loss off some 475 million dollars for Intel. Interestingly, Garfinkel calls it a 'silicon error'.

There are others in the top 10 list that led to death and disease; some led to mere financial losses; there is at least one bug that was allegedly inserted at the insistence of the CIA!

Read the whole thing!

Hat tip: Slashdot.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A little piece of fiction

Here's a little story which a friend of mine claims actually happened (btw, I heard it from him); I like to think of it as fiction.

In a meeting of all the faculty in an elite research institution (ERI), the perceived fall in the quality of incoming students was being discussed. The issue was that while our schools are good, our colleges aren't. And, it is the output of these bad colleges who come to the ERI. So something must be done.

Someone suggested inviting a bunch of bright masters students from colleges to the ERI's campus to do their summer projects -- sort of like summer internship for research. Someone suggested that, instead of such a restrictive policy, this outreach program should be extended it to the bachelors students too. Someone else took the idea further, saying, "if we wish to catch them young -- when they are really, really 'good' -- we must go all the way down to high schools."

The discussion came to an abrupt end when an elderly professor stood up and asked "how about starting a sperm bank?"

I was reminded of this story while writing the previous post.

Nobel ...

... Prizes? No way. This post is about the Nobel sperm bank!

An exerpt from the Boston Globe review:
As David Plotz demonstrates in his winning account, ''The Genius Factory," it didn't quite work out that way. The enterprise quickly became an object of derision in the media, thanks in part to the only Nobelist who admitted donating -- William Shockley, the father of the transistor, who was a notorious racist. Like Shockley at the time, the few participating Nobelists were too old to have useful sperm, and in fact their ejaculate yielded not a single baby, brilliant or otherwise. Demand for high-end sperm was strong, though, and the bank soon found it convenient to lower its standards somewhat. ''Forget about Nobel laureates," Plotz writes. ''The Nobel sperm bank was taking men you wouldn't wish on your ex-girlfriend."

In 1980, Robert Graham, a California millionaire, established a sperm bank called the Repository for Germinal Choice; the media immediately dubbed it as the Nobel sperm bank. I had not heard of it until a few days ago, when I found a recent book titled The Genius Factory by David Plotz in our bookstore [yeah, it is the same bookstore].

Well, the blurb sounded interesting, but at some 20 dollars, it was out of my reach. So, what does one do? Google search, of course. It led me to all kinds of interesting and some bizarre stuff. Plotz certainly knew the book-length potential of his story!

When it started in 1980, all its donors were supposed to be Nobel Prize winners. But, it soon ran into a serious problem (see the sidebar): the Nobelists were too old to have useful sperm, and its first -- star -- donor, William Shockley, was a "notorious racist".

That's about the donors; what about the 'acceptors'? Well, when the sperm bank folded, all its confidential information was sealed, and no one had access to it. Plotz, a deputy editor at Slate, wrote a story in 2001 in which he asked if any of the women could get in touch with him to tell him their side of the story. This book is the result.

The book's website has more info. Along the way, Plotz wrote a bunch of articles in Slate, all of which can be accessed from an index page. Let me also link to a few reviews: NYTimes,   Boston Globe (excerpted in the sidebar).

As for the book itself, either I get the hardcover version to be reviewed (wink, wink!), or I wait for the soft cover at a more reasonable price of under 8 dollars.

Hmmm ...

The bookstore in our campus called the Tata Book House (and I don't think the House of Tatas has anything to do with it) doesn't bother to stack its books in some (any!) order; the business is so brisk -- they offer 20 % discount! -- that they don't have to. Anyways, their low-end stacking technology throws up surprises all the time.

A while ago, I was tickled to find a book on human resources management stacked right next to a book on pest control.

This morning, I found John Gribbin's popular science book 'Schrodinger's kittens' rubbing shoulders -- er, covers -- with another book. Can you guess which one?

Arindam C's Chickens!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hi-tech medicine and the Amish

Or, when technology met some seriously orthodox, tech-averse people living in the midst of some 250 tech-lovers -- the Amish. In health sciences, "genetic medicine" is about as hi-tech as it gets.

Most Indians -- why, even most Americans! -- would have encountered the Amish only through movies (and, to a lesser extent, documentaries). One of the movies I recall is this wonderful murder mystery called "Witness" with Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas. I believe the movie's depiction of the Amish and their lifestyle is quite authentic. But, I must confess that I am not sure.

This wonderful (but long) article in the New York Times by Lisa Belkin explains the Amish angle to modern (read technology-driven) medicine. The connection is because the Amish are ideal for studies in this new, new thing in medicine.

At first, the juxtaposition seems a paradox - this simple culture being treated at Morton's high-tech clinic, which sits literally in the middle of an alfalfa field in Strasburg, Pa. But look more closely, and it makes perfect sense. These groups, known collectively as the Plain People, have long been entwined with genetic research in the United States. Because members keep to themselves and marry within their communities, they rarely get to shuffle their genetic decks, and they are afflicted with a wide variety of rare diseases in far greater frequency than the population as a whole. For more than 30 years, genetic researchers have flocked here to study them, identifying the mutations that cause dozens of disorders by using samples of Amish and Mennonite blood. (McKusick's groundbreaking book, "Medical Genetic Studies of the Amish," was published back in 1978.) Most researchers, though, swoop in from their universities, collect their samples, then return to their labs. Morton is the first who has stayed, not just researching but also treating - taking tomorrow's health care to a world that lives in yesterday.

The 100 Dollar laptop, again

Suvendra Nath Dutta has a post on the same topic over at Amardeep Singh's blog. His offers quite a few other arguments against the 100 dollar laptop for kids.

Hat tip and thanks to Neha at Desi Pundit.

Via slashdot: Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman previews the sub-hundred dollar laptop. Apparently, the project's original name had the unfortunate acronym SHiL, and so it has now been changed to OLPC -- One Laptop Per Child. From Zuckerman's post, it is clear that a lot of things have been thought through, and this low-cost laptop probably has design breakthroughs in every byte of it. At 100 dollars, clearly everyone would want one; unfortunately, it is not for sale!

I have already outlined why I strongly feel that our government should not spend money on this OLPC initiative until it solves the problem of brick-and-mortar infrastructure (buildings and blackboards!) and human infrastructure (teachers and getting all the children in the 6-15 age group IN SCHOOL!).

Some quotes from the Zuckerman post:

On the third and fourth fronts of the project - the marketing, distribution and maintenance of these devices and their connection to the Internet, and their use in the classroom - I think there's a lot of unanswered questions and I think the global community of folks interested in IT in education, especially in IT in the developing world, could assist Negroponte and team with their thinking.

In comments, Roger Hyam says that he would be willing to 'buy' such a beautiful toy (if you have seen the pictures, you too would fall for it; I certainly did!) for 400 dollars (and without support, too!) if it means that one of them will go to a poor child for free. Now, this is an idea that I really like!

If a trust accepts voluntary donations -- those paying 500 dollars or more get this laptop free! -- and provides these wonderful machines to poor children through UNICEF or some such agency, I am all for it. Heck, even with my rather modest salary, I will donate enough money to get our four year old a laptop -- it will make a great gift!

What rankles me is this idea that poor countries should place an order of at least a million pieces of this machine; 100 million dollars (5 billion or 500 crore ruppes) is big money, even for a big country like India -- "a rich country with poor people", as some perceptive people have said.