Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!


More Happiness!

And, do remember to say no to new year resolutions!

Have a great 2006, folks!

The Hindu on the IISc 'incident'

In its second editorial in as many days on the terrorist attack in the IISc campus, the Hindu argues, rightly, that converting academic institutions into 'armed fortresses' cannot be the response.

... Increasing security entails two kinds of costs. One is monetary, which can be considerable. The other is inconvenience: if security procedures become onerous, the institution's links with the larger community of scientists and society will be severely damaged. As the director of a leading national research laboratory remarked, an academic institute cannot — and should not — be secured like a military base. IISc will be increasing its security but will strive to do this in a non-intrusive way through a mix of technology and management, according to its director, P. Balaram.

Moreover, when the aim is to spread fear through mayhem and create a sense of vulnerability, there is no dearth of `soft' targets in Bangalore — or, for that matter, in any southern city — for determined terrorists. ...

Instead, it calls for 'systematic steps' to combat terror:

So putting in place city-wide measures against terrorism is an imperative. In London, for instance, a wide network of surveillance cameras proved invaluable in swiftly identifying the perpetrators of the July 2005 bombings. Likewise, it is important to make sure that the local police have the tools they need to cope with terrorist organisations and terror attacks, including the latest in technology and the training needed to wield it effectively. But even if all of this is done, the painful truth is that absolute security is going to be impossible.

Prof. Balaram, Director of IISc, addressed the presspersons yesterday. You can read the HIndu's report here.

Where do we want to go?

My take on the direction in which our education system should go (partly provoked by this):

  • Education at the primary level must be universal, free and funded by the government. Right now, all these are enshrined in law, but large holes remain both in quality of education, and in the number of students being educated. We must find ways to plug these holes.
  • Our current system of publicly funded schools discriminates against poor people. The standard of all these schools must be raised, over time, to that of a Kendriya Vidyalaya (at the least).
  • Our schools must move from their present, highly centralized paradigm to one that gets the local community involved.
  • For admission into undergraduate and graduate programs, we should aim for just one pan-Indian entrance examination, offered on demand and in as many subjects as necessary.
  • Higher education, whose real cost is quite high, is enjoyed by a small minority (about 6% of the relevant population). This percentage may increase, but I don't foresee college goers ever becoming a majority. Therefore, I am against subsidizing higher education. Having said that, I have no problem if the government wants to (or is compelled to) fund higher education by running a college.
  • A strong, independent regulation of colleges and universities is a must. It should specify a set of essential behaviours and another of unacceptable behaviours, with a focus on mandating unconditional disclosure of a lot -- a lot! -- of information in the public domain.
  • Colleges and universities, run as non-profit entities, must have complete freedom to choose their mix of programs, fees, admission criteria, and in fact, pretty much everything.

Currently, our education policies are characterized by over-centralization, rigidity, an inability to innovate, and an inability to create and nurture large (or even adequate) numbers of high quality institutions. Worse, they have run aground quite a few institutions of excellence that existed at the time of independence. Thus, they have, perversely, forced students to compete for entry into the few good places; in an ideal world, it is the universities and colleges which should be competing for good students.

We should move towards large numbers of universities of all sizes, each with its own unique mix of programs and fee-scholarship structure. Such a system will be student-centric, because stringent disclosure norms would allow students to make an informed choice, and diversity will ensure there is something for everyone. With regulators ensuring only the tiniest of entry barriers, universities will have to compete for students -- good ones in particular. The diversity and competition can be relied on to produce high quality education -- if not for all -- for a far larger number of students than at present.

* * *

Let me take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Just say no ...

... to new year resolutions. It will make you happier. So says Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Charlottesville, in this wonderful NYTimes op-ed.

In his article, Wilson uses a couple of nice quotes:

"Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse", by the poet Theodore Roethke.

"We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage", by Aristotle.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people - unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we're doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

Wilson advises us to not waste our time thinking about all that we did wrong during this year, and about how we can improve upon them in the new year. In other words, no new year resolutions. The advice is based on the finding that when you brood over negative stuff in your life, well, you end up with an even more negative mood. The punchline is this:

If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

I like the advice about new year resolutions, and it has already made me happy. I can't imagine how much happier I will be when I actually follow this advice ...


Cross posted at nanopolitan 2.0, where I also featured another article on the theme of 'happiness and the new year'.

All that glitters: the complete series

A while ago, we looked at a New York Times story about the serious damage unleashed on the environment by a violent production method known as heap leaching using cyanides. Since the present day gold ores have far lower gold content than in the past, more and more abusive and 'torturous' methods are used to tease gold out, and heap leaching is the most common.

It turns out that the reporters of that story have also published two other stories, examining some of the ill effects of gold production in several other countries as well. I seem to have missed them, but found them all through today's story by Kirk Johnson.

They are all quite long, and highly informative. The environmental damage they recount is chilling. Do read them, and you won't look at gold with the same fascination again.

Here they are:

There's also a Q&A section in which the reporters Jane Perlez and Kirk Johnson answer readers' questions.

Outlook awards ...

... for dubious distinction. I like them all. But, this one is the best.

Hat tip: Shivam Vij.

In praise of pranks

The best pranks have always blurred the lines between legality and illegality, good and bad taste, right and wrong conduct. Festivals like Saturnalia appeared to undermine the social order, but paradoxically helped to reaffirm it, by allowing people to act out their frustrations in a harmless way. The nearest thing to this today is April Fool's Day—“the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year,” as Mark Twain gently put it—though the best April 1st jokes tend to be media hoaxes, rather than traditional pranks. A classic of the genre is a 1957 BBC “documentary” on Swiss spaghetti farmers. Many British viewers asked where they could buy pasta trees.

Some of the best April Fool's stunts are those that send up national characteristics. To prove the point that Germans who break even minor rules struggle with their guilt, a few years back a newspaper in Tübingen announced a new experiment by the traffic authorities. Local drivers who had knowingly exceeded the speed limit in recent days were to turn themselves in, pay a fine and take lessons in safe driving. More than 60 sinners obliged.

From this absolutely wonderful essay in the Economist.

Link via slashdot.

Some press-speak, and some me-speak

From the Hindu's editorial:

...Terrorism may do precision-targeting or it may not. Shock-and-awe serves to demonstrate the softness of civil society, the vulnerability of a whole system. IISc was a soft target, if ever there was one. Praveen Swami's exclusive report published on page one sets out a disturbing context in which two dozen intelligence warnings over the past four years should have better prepared the Bangalore authorities for Wednesday's heart-rending tragedy. ...

... can anything be done to prevent trained gunmen fielded by a resilient fanatical outfit from spraying bullets or lobbing hand grenades on unsuspecting scientists coming out of an international conference? Provided intelligence inputs can be acted on quickly, in a coordinated way, and the system can be made to assign a high enough political priority to vigilance and pre-emptive action against terrorism, the answer could be `yes.' ...

Praveen Swami's report, referred to by the Hindu editorial, is here.

Some snippets from another report by the Hindu's Bangalore reporter:

A heart-wrenching scene was witnessed at the M.S. Ramaiah Hospital on Thursday morning, when Saurab Puri, son of M.C. Puri, the Delhi IIT professor killed in the terrorist attack, and other relatives came to take away the body.Saurab Puri and other family members reached the hospital by 11.15 a.m. The son broke down on seeing his father's body. ... IISc director P. Balaram was seen consoling the family. Several IISc staffers had volunteered their services to help out at the hospital.

Pankaj Gupta, a scientist who was injured in the shoot-out, is recovering from his wounds in the same hospital, doctors said. Another injured person Patelappa, a lab assistant, is also recovering. Both are in the intensive care unit. Gupta, was wounded in his right arm and nose and Patelappa went through a 90-minute operation for an injury in the pelvis.

At Mallige Medical Centre, Vijay Chandru of IISc is recovering after a long operation to treat multiple wounds. Several colleagues gathered at the hospital on Wednesday night to donate blood. Sangeetha, another scientist wounded near her eye, is also recovering at the ICU there.

Yesterday, when a colleague and I visited Vijay Chandru at the hospital (we couldn't see him, since he was still in ICU), we saw Sangeetha leaving the hospital after being discharged.

The Economic Times's editorial:

Yes, an institution like IISc can and should be guarded better. But there are so many other soft targets — cinema halls, shopping malls, restaurants, railway stations, schools — that it is futile to place the entire burden of security on the state machinery.

Even if the government releases all those policemen currently guarding our cash-for-questions specimens for policing the populace at large, they will be spread out too thin to be effective in terms of conventional policing.


It is up to the government and the political leadership to institute effective frameworks for coordinated action by the citizenry and ensure voluntary involvement.This is a complex, multifaceted challenge. It means politics that eschews both communal hatred, which sows the seeds of terror, and appeasement of communalism, which allows the malaise to spread.

It means inclusive politics and justice that do not close all avenues other than violence. It means throwing out the legacy of the caste culture that fragments society, to enlarge the framework of cooperation beyond one’s own group to the entire nation. It calls for replacing custom and tradition as guidelines for personal conduct with disciplined adherence to new systems of organised action. Ad-hocism and quick fixes must give way to strong systems.

Many commenters fail to appreciate the trade-offs which are an essential part of our life when they demand 100 % action, 100 % preventive measures, and 100 % security. There is no such thing; by definition, these 'features of modern life' can only be provided at sub-100% rates. In other words, we necessarily have to deal with probability of security; this probability is reduced by anything that takes the police forces' time and effort away from providing security to people, such as 'guarding our cahs-for-questions specimens' as the Economic Times put it, or raiding dance bars in our cities and towns, and arresting some hapless people who are just trying to earn a living.

This doesn't mean that our police forces need not improve their capabilities in collecting, assessing and acting on intelligence that has a bearing on people's safety and security. Those efforts must be beefed up as well; what I would argue for is to take a whole lot of unnecessary baggage off from our police officers' backs, and allow them to concentrate on things that really matter. From this point of view, harassing streetside vendors (selling vegetables to dads abd moms, and balloons to kids in Malleswaram) will possibly emerge with a far lower priority than other things. Yet, this sort of shit happens on a daily basis. I would argue strongly for taking those pieces of 'law' that allow this sort of harassment out of our lawbooks as well as improving our police forces' capabilities in combating terrorism.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

One day later ...

Let me thank all of you who came by and left a comment on my previous post. It was really touching to see so many messages. In this post, let me add a few more personal impressions.

Yesterday, I wrote about how we all needed to get back to work. Fortunately, today was not declared a holiday, and the campus had a chance to prove that it can spring back to life. Everyone did show up for work, the coffee and tea shops were buzzing with life.

I just saw, on NDTV, Nupur Basu asking several members of our campus community about the attack, and how they reacted. Prof. Sulochana Gadgil reminisced about Vijay Chandru (who co-founded the PicoPeta Simputers and Strand Genomics), and said she was shocked. The other two interviewees, Smita Visweswara [I'm not sure if I got her name right] and Diptiman Sen, said something which may safely be paraphrased as "yes, the attack was a horrible thing; but it's time for us to move on!" Basu also informed the viewers about a high level meeting called by our Director, Prof. Balaram, who told all the participants to put the attack behind and get back to work.

Last night, the reporter from Headline News asked a bunch of our students for their immediate reactions. One of them said [I am paraphrasing here] his first thought was to go out and donate blood. I am not sure if he did, but I do know that several students landed up at the hospitals offering to donate blood. This is another wonderful thing about the student community here; whenever there is a medical emergency, someone takes charge of organizing help. Usually, it is in the form of blood donation, but it could also be help for those who need hospitalization.

The Chief Minister of Karnataka, Mr. Dharam Singh, visited the victims of yesterday's attack at the hospital. It is a nice gesture by itself; it may also help the patients indirectly.

After I wrote the comment (here) about how our coffee shop did some 20% less business today, it occurred to me that this drop in business must be due to tighter security in the campus. There is always a floating population in our campus, with product vendors, job seekers, bookshop visitors, and students coming in to buy forms for various programs, etc. Their number is quite significant. Most of these people would not have been able to enter our campus today because of lack of identification. So, in effect, all the regular IISc-ians were all back at work, but these other people who make up a vital part of our ecosystem didn't show up.

There were tons of police personnel; I would put the number at about 100 near just one entrance this morning! However, later in the day, things were slowly getting back to normalcy even on this front. In the morning, no one could enter the area where the shoot-out took place. By this afternoon, that restriction was gone. I didn't have the stomach to venture into that place, though.

All of which is to say that our campus is back on its feet, and is full of life. A life that's almost normal, and little (just a little) less innocent.


Subir Roy has a nice piece arguing why the shut-down of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company (scheduled to happen three days from now) is actually a good thing.

Roy is a columnist for Business Standard, a business daily; so it's a pleasant surprise to see an op-ed in that newspaper arguing strongly for protecting the environment and the biodiversity in the Western Ghats, even if it means shutting down an industrial enterprise.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Terrorist attack in IISc

Yet another conference. Academics and industry professionals come out of the last session of the day; some of them are on mobile phones, and others are in deep conversation, and all of them are on their way to dinner. A pretty mundane, ordinary sight in IISc during these December days, actually. Except today.

At around 7:30 p.m., unidentified gunmen (one, two, or more? no one is sure) opened fire on a group of conference participants leaving the J.N. Tata Auditorium, which is just across the road from the main campus of IISc. As of this moment, one academic (Prof. M.C. Puri of IIT-Delhi) has succumbed to the gunshot wounds and several others are being treated in at least two different places: M.S. Ramaiah Hospital and Mallige Hospital.

TV footage from these centres (IISc and the two hospitals) show quite a few familiar faces. At Mallige Hospital in particular, where one of our colleagues Prof. Vijay Chandru (of the Department of Computer Science and Automation) has been admitted for surgery. Through the glass windows, we can clearly see two other colleagues Prof. Swami Manohar and Prof. Ramesh. Reports indicate that Prof. Chandru will pull through. I hope the others do, too.

The police have announced that the perpetrators of this crime is still at large, and that the entire city has been put on high alert. Back in the campus, though, things have quietened down. Most students are back at work, just as they normally are. Tonight, however, they will probably spend substantial amounts of time trying to find and share new information, and trying to come to grips with this atrocious attack within our campus.

Whatever spin one puts on this incident, it is clear that it is big for Bangalore, and even bigger for us in IISc. Some day, we will probably look back at it and say "That was the day when ...". Tomorrow, however, we will all be back at work, just like any other day. For, that's the only way to beat the terrorists. I sincerely hope the government does not declare tomorrow a holiday -- for us in the Institute, or for any of the other establishments in the city. Except, of course, for security reasons.

Even more importantly, tonight, right at this moment, our thoughts -- and best wishes for a speedy recovery -- go out to our colleagues and other conference participants who are in the hospital. Our sympathies and condolences -- go out to the family of Prof. M.C. Puri, an unfortunate victim of a random act of violence in the Garden City of Bangalore.

Sexy scientists?

Cross-posted from nanopolitan 2.0, which is now active. Please visit me at my other home, and (if you feel like it) do tell me what you think.

While at it, I might as well point to this particular post, in which I wrote about a recent op-ed by Prof. Ranjit Nair on this year's physics Nobel, and he has come by to offer a comment.

Science is sexy, but scientists?

Yeah, I know the idea sounds spooky. But there is this uber-elite club, and I know quite a few among my colleagues who would qualify.

Check out the list of 10 Sexiest Geeks of 2005, compiled by the folks at Wired. Quite a few of the good looking ones in the list are people who have mastered the new media options offered by the internet (ermm, Web 2.0). The list also features at least two scientists:

  • Wise Young (you’ve got to love that name!), “a world-renowned spinal cord injury researcher” at Rutgers University. He also runs CareCure, an online community devoted to “the art and science of managing therapies, routines, medication, supplies, equipment and everything else needed to maintain the spinal injured person in top health..”
  • Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University, who specializes in “neurophysiology of economic decision making”. One of his recent papers is on “neuroeconomics of distrust: sex differences in behaviour and physiology”. It sounds really interesting, and I would love to link to it, except that the link on his site doesn’t work!

I am sure some of the more hardened souls among you wouldn’t take Wired’s word; hey, they *are* the techies, and they can be weird, right? I wouldn’t blame you if you want some real, serious evidence that will convince everyone of the existence of sexy scientists. Tell you what: just wear your seatbelt, and get ready to go to that ultimate destination where good taste and great judgement rule. The People magazine!

People has featured, in its “Sexiest Man Alive” issue,   Michael Manga, an academic in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. [link via inkycircus, a group blog by three women who are in the process of starting a science magazine for women. This particular post (and other such posts) are listed under the category: “men whose babies we want to bear”!]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Tsundue and Tibet

Dharamsala, like the 36 other settlements that the Indian government allotted to Tibetans fleeing Chinese-occupied Tibet, was meant to be a temporary refuge. But four decades after these settlements were established, Tibetans born in India still belong to the category of "stateless people." As permanent refugees, it is not easy for them to get jobs or own property. Tibetans selling woolen clothes and cheap electronic goods are a common sight on the streets of Indian cities. Even in Dharamsala, the Tibetans told me, they live in constant fear of India's often highhanded police. A few days before I arrived in Dharamsala, the police intervened in a dispute between an Indian shopkeeper and Tibetans by frog-marching the Tibetans through the main street. Yet few Tibetans wish to return to what they regard as a country under brutal occupation. According to recent Human Rights Watch reports, which confirm many Tibetan accounts, the Communist regime in Beijing continues to detain without trial, to torture and to execute those it suspects of being separatists or merely sympathizers of the Dalai Lama. More than 2,000 refugees arrive each year in Dharamsala from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

The quote is from Pankaj Mishra's sympathetic portrayal [via Sepia Mutiny] of Tibetan nationalist movement. In particular, its younger leaders like Tenzin Tsundue, the man who staged dramatic protests by unfurling the Tibetan flag during the visits of Chinese Premiers at the Oberoi Towers in Mumbai in 2002 and at IISc in Bangalore earlier this year.

Mishra, who argued (in a recent NYTimes op-ed ) that nationalism has been a great driving force for large scale violence, tries hard -- and to an extent, succeeds -- in this article to sympathise with the cause of Tibetan nationalism.

You can read Tsundue's essay My kind of exile (which won the Outlook-Picador Essay Contest in 2001) here. Dilip D'Souza has a post about Tsundue's protest at IISc, and another about three courageous nuns who suffered torture and solitary confinement in prisons for ... refusing to sing the Chinese national anthem.

Update (25 December): Dilip, in his comment below, points to his report on the meeting addressed by the three Tibetan nuns.

Science of the beauty myth

Via Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, we have this link to a Flash animation that shows how to "turn a photo of an (already attractive) young woman into magazine-cover material".

At the end of the demo, its creators say:

[...] This photo (featuring 14-year old Lynn) is a good example of how easy it is to alter a photo so it suits the beauty ideals of the media world.

We cannot stop the photos but we can make you aware that many of them are based on a lie. Because of this, it is impossible to compare yourself to them.

The demo from the Girlpower project (of the Government of Sweden) asks people to spread the word. I would recommend shouting from the rooftops.

In any case, just blog it!

8:00 p.m. on 25 December 2005

I am going to be glued to my TV, watching the Discovery Channel program describing some recent research on tsunami. The Hindu's R. Prasad has a report about some of the findings; its report about the program is here. The same program will be shown again at 8:00 p.m. on 26 December as well.

The Hindu also carried a short report (by Vani Doraisamy) on Sandhya Rao's book My Friend, the Sea about the devastation unleashed by the tsunami, as seen through the eyes of a young boy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Do you want to read about one of the shittiest ways to be informed about one's promotion? Read this post by a pseudonymous academic who just won her tenure. [via]

She has also been recently informed by a student that "Charlotte Temple (from the 18th-century novel of the same name) dies 'due to pregnancy during birth'."

Happy Bhutan

... is soon to become a democratic Bhutan!

Remember this post? I just learnt, through this ToI editorial, that King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan will step down in 2008, when the country will finally have a democratically elected government.

Google Zeitgeist - 2005

Check out this Google Zeitgeist page for the year 2005. It lists some of the most searched terms during the year in different categories. In the 'nature' category, the big ones are: tsunami, earth quake and hurricane.

Link via Google Blog.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I don't need no ...

...Google juice, says this brave blogger. He wants to get off the first page on Google searches.

Link via the Blog Mela post by Vulturo.

Fraud in science

In my new blog, I have a post on a recent NYTimes article on fraud in science. IMO, the reporters have really bungled the analysis.

What they do teach you in preschool

Last year, in preschool, our son was taught this little Kannada song that goes:

"Chamma Lakka, Chamma Lakka, Elli Hogidhe?"

It is full of a little child's observations about his/her own place in life in comparison to that of the mother and father. It's quite catchy, and when the singing is accompanied by expressive gestures (hands on both cheeks, rolling eyes!) by the child, it is indeed cute.

I don't know all of it, but stanzas are simple enough for me to memorize. Here is a rough translation of its three stanzas:

Appa gets to wear pants and shirt
Amma gets saree and blouse
But I get only half-trousers
I don't know why. I don't know why.

Appa has office work
Amma has kitchen work
But I get only home-work
I don't know why. I don't know why.

Appa gets two rotis
Amma gets one roti
But I get only half a roti
I don't know why. I don't know why.

If I were to guess, I would say the song was written about fifty years ago. What I don't know is: does this song reflect the reality of its time? Or, was it written to tell kids about how things ought to be?

Monday, December 19, 2005

'What they don't teach you at graduate school'

Parts 1   and   2.

Together, they cover graduate school years, dissertation writing, looking for a job, post-doc years, and early academic years. All of it may not be applicable to every person, but it is good to be aware of what awaits you.


Hugging for 20 seconds has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

That and other helpful advice on how to bust stress from the friendly folks at Google Blog.

The 25% curse

The new, new thing in the India Shining story is, ironically, the 25% curse. What is it?


There has been much excitement about how the exports from India's IT industry (broadly defined to include BPO operations) are projected to grow to $60 billion by 2010; our exports were about $17 billion in the financial year 2004-05. The study which made these projections was done by McKinsey for the IT industry's cheerleader cum lobbying arm NASSCOM [You can read the press release here]. Almost all the major newspapers have talked about this study. Internationally, both the BusinessWeek (via Badri) and the Economist (via slashdot) have also covered this report.

At this point, it is good to remind ourselves that the same McKinsey-NASSCOM combination produced a report in the late nineties projecting a $50 billion IT industry by 2008. We are probably going to fall short of that target. The shortfall is due to the lower than the highly optimistic growth rates projected in the old study. There is nothing in the present report to indicate that it is not informed by the same enthusiasm and overoptimism. Having said that, I have to admit that there is nothing wrong in aiming high and falling (slightly) short.

The new study identifies important things that must be in place for ensuring such a scorching growth rate. All the usual culprits figure in this list: new office space, new 'integrated' townships, new roads; the Economist estimates that the new office space alone works out to creating a 'new Manhattan'!.

The second big story in the new study is in the projected manpower shortfall. It appears to me that this shortfall has been calculated by using (roughly) the same labour productivity as now. Since we have 0.7 million workers contributing to 17 billion, so we will need 2.3 million workers for $60 billion.

The gap is 1.6 million over five years. Considering that we produce over 400,000 tech graduates every year, this gap should be easy to plug, right? Wrong, says McKinsey. Why? Only 25 percent of our graduates have the necessary skills and conceptual background to contribute to the explosive IT growth that is ours to take.

This new figure of 25% has bigger things going for it; it is now going to be etched in our collective consciousness. It is going to be the 'new' conventional wisdom!


This figure was not always 25%. Until recently, it was pegged at 40%: see the sidebar of this post from sometime ago.

Well, I like this 'new' wisdom. It shines a spotlight on a pet issue of mine here in this blog: quality of our higher education. Since our students deserve better, we can use all the support we can get. And, in terms of importance, nothing can be bigger than the booming chorus of McKinsey and NASSCOM! The Big Two are asking for a deregulation of the education sector, whatever that means (they don't give the details of what they want -- at least, not in the press release). While waiting for their specific demands, just keep this in mind: the 25% curse.

ToI on women's status in the organized workforce

It's a cruel paradox that even though there are as many women as there are men in the country, only a small fraction has penetrated the organised workforce.


The fact that women form the single most oppressed caste in the country has completely escaped official attention.


If 'backwardness' is the criterion for right to better treatment, then without a doubt, women deserve top slot. Malnutrition, illiteracy, maternal mortality, overwork, mistreatment, discrimination and suppression are only some of the horrible burdens women have to bear and yet soldier on.

The quote is from this editorial, commenting on the finding by a recent CII study that women employees constitute only 6% in the (organized) manufacturing sector of India's economy.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Agricultural subsidies in rich countries...

... may actually be good for some of the poorer countries, says this NYTimes report by Eduardo Porter, citing the work of Arvind Panagariya and other economists.

And, here's an early report of the WTO talks ending in a last minute agreement.

Tim Berners-Lee has a blog

Via SlashDot: Tim Berners-Lee, "the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium", has started to blog.

... [It] is nice to have a machine [do] the administrative work of handling the navigation bars and comment buttons and so on, and it is nice to edit in a mode in which you can to limited damage to the site. So I am going to try this blog thing using blog tools. So this is for all the people who have been saying I ought to have a blog.

In praise of Bharat Nirman

Bharat Nirman, the ambitious and mega-massive public investment program undertaken by the Indian government to improve the physical and social infrastructure in rural India, acquired an unlikely ally: Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar.

Yeah, just read it!

Following the short posts by at least three Indian bloggers, let me too ask you to just drop everything and read it.

It -- the comment by Chetan -- is long, but worth it.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A bigger Bengaluru?

Subramaniam Vincent and Ashwin Mahesh ask you to just say NO!


Do pregnant women actually hate all these questions? [link via DesiPundit]

C.P. Surendran is a loser

In a totally vacuous op-ed in ToI, he argues that since "India's future is in English", change of city names (such as from Bangalore to Bengaluru) is terrible. The language is so ballistic that you can imagine him disturbed and angry. So disturbed and angry, in fact, that he lets this sentence slip into his argument:

Today's young do not give a damn what their city is called.


2005: The year in pictures

Time magazine's list has some really grim pictures: Hurricane Katrina, South Asian tsunami and earthquake, the attack on the London tube, Paris riots ...

Link via Kaps.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Nationalism is the new religion

The destructive potential of modern nationalism should not surprise us. Traditional religion hardly played a role in the unprecedented violence of the 20th century, which was largely caused by secular ideologies - Nazism and Communism. Secular nationalism has been known to impose intellectual conformity and suppress dissent even in advanced democratic societies. [...]

The quote is from Pankaj Mishra's op-ed in today's NYTimes. The immediate provocation is the trial of Orhan Parmuk in Turkey for having said in an interview that "that 'a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds' were killed in Turkey after World War I." He first identifies the culprit: secular nationalism, and goes on to mention several other countries where it has gone berserk:

In all these countries [India, China and Russia], a growing middle class turned a blind eye to, or even actively supported, the suppression of ethnic minorities in the name of national unity. In democratic India, up to 70,000 people have died in Kashmir in a violent insurgency that the Indian news media have yet to honestly reckon with. In Russian Chechnya, civilians and journalists have been as much victims as Islamic rebels. And such is the power of Chinese nationalism that even most dissident intellectuals in the West feel that Tibet and Xinjiang are part of their motherland.

Tim Harford on economic development

In an appalling op-ed in today's New York Times, Tim Harford says even if the developed countries got rid of their agricultural subsidies, many poor countries may not be able to capitalize on that opportunity. Reason: unnecessary red tape, and internal controls.

Sub-Saharan African exporters face, on average, delays of nearly 50 days for each shipment. They must get roughly 20 signatures on eight or nine separate customs forms.


India's commerce minister, Kamal Nath, has called for rich countries to "eliminate export subsidies as fast as possible." And so they should, but Mr. Nath might take note that an Indian exporter needs to collect 22 signatures on 10 documents - that puts India in the bottom 20 countries in the world for letting its own entrepreneurs trade across borders. Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, has condemned farming subsidies as "the most harmful single piece of commerce." The subsidies are indeed repugnant, but Brazilian exporters need 39 days to get their produce onto a ship, too long for some agricultural goods.

While his points about internal controls are valid, his argument adds insult to injury. The subsidies are in place; without urging the developed nations to dismantle them, he is poking fun at the poor countries.

Who will make the 100 dollar laptops

Via SlashDot: PCWorld reports that "Taiwan's Quanta, the world's largest maker of notebook computers, will manufacture an ultra-low-cost laptop ..." Some excerpts:

Under terms of an agreement with One Laptop Per Child, Quanta will devote engineering resources to develop the $100 notebook design during the first half of the year, according to a statement issued by the group. At the same time, Quanta and the non-profit organization will explore the production of a commercial version of the laptop.


One Laptop Per Child said trials of the notebook are planned for China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand, with 1 million notebooks to be shipped to each of these countries. In addition, the group expects "an additional modest allocation" of the notebooks to be shipped to developers in other countries.

Read that second paragraph again. India does figure there! This is not a good thing at all.

About a week ago, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett belittled the low-cost laptop by terming it an "ineffectual gadget". This characterization has been strongly disputed by Ryan Paul at Ars Technica.

Barrett's gratuitous comment is silly. Moreover, he is not exactly an unbiased observer here, since the laptop is built with a processor from AMD, Intel's competitor.

I certainly hope this product succeeds commercially; it could have a transformational effect on the way children learn. After it proves its ability to win in a commercial environment, I hope some of them will reach students in India through private philanthropy. I just hope our government doesn't spend its money on bulk pre-orders.

This human cloning thing

Act I: Grand entry. Celebrations. Fame.

Act II: Seeds of doubt. Early maneuvers by associates.

Act III: Admission of guilt. Loss of Kingdom.

Act IV: Some more doubt. Serious doubt.

Act V: Tactical maneuvers.

Act VI (now playing): Devastating revelations by a new character.

Act VII (yet to come): Outrage? Disgrace? Catharsis?

* * *

Update Dr. Hwang Woo Suk's defence; and then, defiance. Early reactions from others, and of course, an editorial.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Gadgets for your baby: Just how good are they?

Do you believe in buying lots of gadgets (including electronic ones, with touch-screen monitors) for your baby? If someone comes allong peddling "Baby Einstein" (I have no idea what it is), saying it is good for your 10 month old child, would you buy it, thinking 'it may be useless, but it can't hurt"? If you answered 'yes' to these questions (or, even if you didn't ;-), this NYTimes report by Tamar Lewin is for you.

From pediatrician's sensible advice to crazy stuff that overenthusiastic parents buy for their children: this report has all these and more; in fact, it has too much! So, I won't even bother to summarize.

People's desire for the very best -- for their children, or even for themselves -- sometimes pushes them to extremes. They spend lots of time to weigh the pros and cons of all possible choices before selecting something that is just right. This usually happens true when people become parents, or worse, grandparents -- "I just want the very best pillow cover for my (child) grandchild!!" For such people (or, for such times), Barry Schwartz has some excellent advice in his commencement address to recent Swarthmore graduates. Schwartz is also the author The Paradox of Choice, an excellent book that has become a 'must read' in the literature on happiness.

Breaking news about the wikipedia

... And Wikipedia gets a break! Finally.

Via both slashdot and digg, I just learnt of a study commissioned by the journal Nature that compared the science-oriented entries in both the wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A comparison of 42 entries apparently revealed an average of about four errors in the wikipedia, and about three errors in EB.

The Nature article, under the byline of Jim Giles, has this peg:

Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.

I don't know if the Nature's reviewers analyzed this article, but today's featured article in the Wikipedia is on shoe polish.

Why are there so many lawyer jokes?

Anand Sridharan, India's very own VC blogger, has finally figured out why there are so many lawyer jokes. He also finds swearing loudly in the vernacular (in his case, it is Tamil) "more fulfilling" than doing it in English.


... is on a roll.

And, he writes poems too! President George W. Bush makes a bold appearance in this one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Police blog

Via DesiPundit (it's a Tamil post), we learn of the official blog of the Dakshina Kannada Police, probably the first such blog by any police organization in India. Congratulations to Mr. B. Dayananda IPS, Superintendent of Police, Dakshina Kannada district, for this wonderful initiative. I would love to have congratulated him by leaving a comment, but commenting is not allowed there.

The blog's first post was posted less than a week ago. There are already about a dozen posts (and some of them are in a language that my browser doesn't display properly; they are probably in Kannada). Most of them appear to be press releases (including the first post). Here is an excerpt from the first post:

The D.K District Police with long years of professional police experience has got its own standing in the history of Karnataka State Police. In this communally hyper sensitive District, the police are always on their toes to maintain peace and tranquility, combat underworld activities and maintain general law and order.


In order to further strengthen this bond with the press, DK Police has come up with the novel idea of using the information technology to reach out to the press and public at the same time. A new web log (blog) has been created on the internet having URL In this weblog, all important matters relating to the District Police will be regularly posted which can be easily accessed by the media people. By this, authentic, accurate and official information of the department can be given to the press swiftly.

While I welcome this new mode of communication from the police to the public, I also feel sad that the reverse flow of communication through comments (particularly anonymous comments) has been disabled. As I said, it is still early days, and it could yet evolve into a better blog with time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Wonderful science

The New York Times has added quite a few nice pieces in their science section today. Let me just point to two of them that I found very, very interesting.

Carl Zimmer is also the winner of the Scientific American's 2005 Web Awards.

The first one looks at the way little kids learn, and compare their learning behaviour with that of some of our primate cousins, chimpanzees in particular. The specific question is whether learning-by-imitation is a common factor. Answers to such questions may have broader implications about, among much else, the evolution path that our species took. So, the essay by Carl Zimmer, an A-list science blogger, is interesting not just because of the importance of the research, but also because of the cleverness with which experiments are set up and conducted.

There is another article on the long tusks of the norwhals, "stocky whales that live in arctic waters". [The article also has some beautiful graphics.] Scientists have suggested several possibilities for the 'purpose' or 'use' of these tusks: "breaking ice, spearing fish, piercing ships, transmitting sound, shedding excess body heat, poking the seabed for food, wooing females, defending baby narwhals and establishing dominance in social hierarchies." The article is about interesting discoveries about the tusks. What are these discoveries? Find out for yourself!


Many have commented on the proposed change in the name of our city from Bangalore to Bengaluru. The best and most incisive analysis that I have seen so far is that of Gawker.

Same-language subtitles, anyone?

How would you like 'Sholay' (the original Hindi version) with Hindi subtitles? Or, how about 'Nayakan' or 'Anniyan' with Tamil subtitles? Makes you wonder why, doesn't it? It has a great value in helping people become literate, says Dr. Brij Kothari, President of PlanetRead, an Indian NGO that received a grant from the Google Foundation.

More than 500 million people in India have access to TV and 40 percent of these viewers have low literacy skills and are poor. Through PlanetRead’s approach, over 200 million early-literates in India are getting weekly reading practice from Same Language Subtitling (SLS) using TV. The cost of SLS? Every U.S. dollar covers regular reading for 10,000 people – for a year.

I hit upon this idea in 1996 through a most ordinary personal experience. While taking a break from dissertation writing at Cornell University, I was watching a Spanish film with friends to improve my Spanish. The Spanish movie had English subtitles, and I remember commenting that I wished it came with Spanish subtitles, if only to help us grasp the Spanish dialogue better. I then thought, ‘And if they just put Hindi subtitles on Bollywood songs in Hindi, India would become literate.’ That idea became an obsession. It was so simple, intuitively obvious, and scalable in its potential to help hundreds of millions of people read -- not just in India, but globally. So you can see how it works, we’ve uploaded some folk songs using SLS into Google Video. And we've uploaded other examples there as well.

Read Dr. Kothari's post over at the official Google Blog. He links to some of PlanetRead's their videos on Google Videos, a service that is not yet available in India.

Monday, December 12, 2005

NYTimes on the 100 dollar laptop

Negroponte's baby, the 100 dollar laptop -- aka the OLPC -- made it to 'The year in ideas' of the New York Times Magazine. I can comment on the story's headline ('the laptop that will save the world'), but I will pass on that.

After saying glowing things about the technological wizardry that has gone into designing this laptop (accompanied by pictures that make you go 'Oh, it's so lovely'), it gets to airing some of the criticisms and potential problems.

Of course, the real computing mother lode is the Internet, to which few developing-world users have access. But the M.I.T. laptops will offer wireless peer-to-peer connections that create a local network. As long as there's an Internet signal somewhere in the network area - and making sure that's the case, even in rural areas, poses a mighty challenge - everyone can get online and use a built-in Web browser. Theoretically, even children in a small African village could have "access to more or less all libraries of the world," Negroponte says. (That's probably not very useful to children who can't read or understand foreign languages.) His team is already in talks with several foreign governments, including those of Egypt, Brazil and Thailand, about bulk orders. ...

NYTimes should have said further -- but doesn't -- that almost all of the marketing strategy seems to be directed at getting the poor countries themselves to fork out big money to buy these laptops. Their governments cannot even order a small number of them (for example, as a pilot program); a 'bulk' order must be for at least a million laptops.

... millions of children with little exposure to modern civilization will suddenly have access to all the commercialism, idiocy, hate-mongering and pornography the Internet has to offer. Some critics have also complained that wealthy donors should concentrate more on less glamorous projects like stamping out malaria before trying to give every child an e-mail address. ...

Now, the last sentence in the above quote is really curious. When most of the money is to come from poor countries themselves, who cares about the 'wealthy donors'? [Sure, it would be nice if their contributions also go towards 'less glamorous projects' ...]. In other words, the complaints raised by 'some critics' are indeed valid, but directed at the wrong people! If these critics direct some of their complaints and concerns at the principal buyers of the laptops (the governments of poor countries), it will be a great help.

What doesn't help, is this sloppy report by the New York Times.

'The year in ideas'

Yes, it is that time of the year when newspapers and magazines (and blogs, too) look back at the year to highlight significant events and people. One of the more worthwhile attempts is by the New York Times Magazine, which seeks to "gain some perspective on what has transpired since January by compiling a digest of the most noteworthy ideas of the past 12 months." The list has 78 ideas!

A lot of the ideas are US-centric. Some are simply inane. I mean, is it really noteworthy that conservatives make better use of the internet to further their cause, or for that matter, republicans are closet elitists?

Let me highlight two really big ideas in that list. The first one should be very familiar to the Indian blog readers: the phenomenon of disaster blogs, epitomized by SEA EAT blog when tsunami struck south Asia; the NYTimes' entry features the Hurricane Katrina Weblog set up by the newspaper The New Orleans Times-Picayune. The other should also be familiar to most blog readers: the rising power of independent news outlets that many blogs have now become by following an open source reporting model.

Among the other interesting ideas, let me just point to a few:

The laptop that will save the world.

Econophysics, though I am not sure why it is being featured; I mean, it is a fairly well established subfield of statistical physics.

The anti-rape condom.

The consensual intterruptions (this is not what I thought it was ;-).

Cobblestones are good for you.

Amazing Wikipedia

This is what it has to say about 'nerd':

Nerd, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to people of above-average intelligence whose interests (often in science and mathematics) are not shared by mainstream society.

... beginning in the late 1990s, many nerds on the Internet reclaimed the word nerd as a badge of pride and began using it as a positive description of a technically-competent person. Although traditionally used to describe men and boys, the terms "nerd" and "geek" have been adopted by many women interested in technology, science, mathematics and other typically male-dominated intellectual fields as badges of their accomplishments in these areas.

And yes, 'geek' and 'nerd' do indeed have different entries.

Link via digg.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A bunch of links

Let's start with coffee. Not just refreshing, not just wonderful to taste, but also wonderful to look at. A work of art.

Democracy 2.0. In other words, it's democracy by wiki! Here is the blurb:

Democracy 2.0 hopes to answer the following question: if the country started from scratch today, meaning there are no laws, what laws would you make for society?

Recently, we had a brief discussion about incidence of depression. Here is a page that talks about schizophrenia using the person's art as evidence. There is more information on that website about other conditions as well.

Here is a wonderful piece of tech history: The first web page ever. In an offline world, a document with the same significance would be a collectors' item sitting in someone's vault, and gaining millions of dollars in value. Aren't you glad that we live in an online world?

Thanks to digg for pointers to all these sites/pages.

Women, work, career

After the previous post, I just thought I would give links to some recent activity on this issue. Just links!

The University of Virginia economist Amalia Miller examined the 'price of motherhood', and her research led to a startling conclusion: "a woman in her 20s will increase her lifetime earnings by 10 percent if she delays the birth of her first child by a year." That quote is from Steven Landsburg's piece in Slate. There is some interesting discussion on this issue over at Crooked Timber.

Linda Hirschman in American Prospect. This piece received some serious flak, notably from Laura over at 11 D (via).

Hirschman is back with another piece addressing the academics at Inside Higher Ed.

Public sector: whare are the women CEOs?

Today's Hindu carries an an article by C.V. Madhavi of the Centre for Organization Development, Hyderabad, examining why our public sector enterprises have so few women in top management positions.

The article promises quite a bit when Madhavi says she decided to ask the women managers themselves "to get first-hand information". It then lists some of the problems that were identified in the research. Here are the first two problems:

Marriage is still the principal determinant of women's social position. ... They shoulder majority of household and childcare responsibilities. After the first child, things become more difficult, and focus shifts. This becomes a major constraint in more productive years of woman's life (between 25 to 40 years) when she has to build her career.


Women also tend to be clustered at the lower levels of management, leaving them with fewer influential contacts with whom to network for opportunities. Women generally prefer to spend their evenings with their children rather than network.

This is the only part that seemed genuine, but it also identified rather well known problems. The ones that come later appear to blame women and their attitudes. Can you believe women managers actually said the following:

  • 'Many women seem to be satisfied with a routine 9-5 job.'
  • 'there is no burning desire to rise to the top.'
  • 'women do not think earning the daily bread is their responsibility.'
  • 'lack of ambition to learn or excel is another factor.'

The onslaught is relentless. For example, Madhavi quotes a General Manager who believes that "there are less number of women at the senior management level not because of discrimination, but because women do not avail the opportunities provided to them." And finally, we get this gem from Ranjana Kumar, the Chairperson of NABARD:

... "Opportunities are the same for men and women. We should be able to take up the challenge and deliver. There is no other way. At the end of the day, nothing succeeds like success."

Hello, just wait a minute, here! On one side, we have contented women who lack ambition, and on the other side, we have some high achievers who think that other women just don't have it in them. It is possible, of course, that the women in lower management are rationalizing their inability to move up in management. But, is it also possible that a methodological problem led Madhavi to talk to only these two kinds of women? If women really have all these sad attitudes, where is the 'problem' of lack of top women managers in PSEs?

Is it all some well meaning but misguided stuff, or is there a hidden agenda? Just why is the Hindu publishing such 'blame the victim' stories, under the guise of being a women-friendly paper?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Q&A with Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman, the India reporter for the New York Times, did a long four-part series built around the common theme of the Golden Quadrilateral, the ambitious highways program that is being implemented now.

Links to all the four stories are available in a previous post.

She answers some of the questions posed by the readers (of this particular series) here. The questions range from the particular (the working conditions in the diamond cutting industry in Surat) to the general (cultural and linguistic homogenization).

I found the multimedia associated with the series to be brilliant. If you just want the impressions conveyed by Waldman (without the rich details in the written version), this short presentation is probably worth a look.

Both Amardeep Singh and Reuben seem to like this series. Bradford DeLong, on the other hand, doesn't like at least one of the stories (the second one, that talked about the auto boom in India). His post had a general point about how terrible the MSM news outlets have become in the US (including NYTimes and the Washington Post), and picked Waldman's story at random, and went on to trash it. Quite a few readers, including me, pointed out that it was a part of a longer series, but he hasn't budged (so far). Some of the comments there give links to several other stories that NYTimes and other newspapers have done in the recent past on India.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Simon Singh

Remember this post from two weeks ago? Well, Simon Singh finally visited IISc to give a popular lecture yesterday. To me it was more than a lecture. It was a Show! And what a wonderful show it was!

I have a write up about the Simon Show here.

Yes, this is probably as good a time as any other to announce that I launched my new blog called nanopolitan 2.0 about a week ago. I now have a full featured blog on the WordPress platform. I chose it mainly because WordPress is an open source blog program. That it is also a full featured blog is another reason. In terms of ease of use, I still have to get over some rough edges over there. When I become fully comfortable, I expect to move to nanopolitan 2.0. Until then, posts will be shared between the two.

Please post your comments over there at nanopolitan 2.0.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An elusive Nobel

I am not an expert, but whatever I have read so far tells me that this one is unfair.

Quite a few physicists have written to the Nobel Committee that decided the Physics Prize that the contribution of E.C.G. Sudarshan, a physicist of Indian origin and currently at the University of Texas, Austin, has not been given due recognition in its decision to award one half of this year's Prize to Roy Glauber of Harvard University. The half that went for the theory of quantum optics, they have contended, should at least have been shared by both Roy Glauber (who got it) and Sudarshan (who didn't). The other half was shared by two experimental physicists.

Here is a little connection between IISc and Prof. Sudarshan: he was the founder chairman of IISc's Centre for Theoretical Physics, which has recently morphed into the Centre for High Energy Physics.

The details are set out in these two pieces by R. Ramachandran: Frontline and Hindu.

The version in the Hindu gives a long list of names of people who have signed that letter to the Committee. This story has made it to some of the outlets in the US as well: Inside Higher Ed, and the Harvard Crimson. The story in Inside Higher Ed (by David Epstein) also gives a short (and probably not exhaustive) list of similar occurrences in the history of the Nobel Prize.

NASSCOM asks for government help

Yes. Can you believe this?

[Begin Rant]

Here we are, thinking that the Indian software industry is a great success story and a role model. This news makes us -- me, at the least -- wonder why Kiran Karnik, the IT industry's major leader and figure-head seeks more help from the government.

It is good to recall the crucial help IT industry has received from the government in at least three ways: exemption from corporate taxes for N years (N = 10?), improvement in telecom infrastructure, and a policy non-interference in many other matters.

Let's look at the kinds of help he wants. Use of existing infrastructure in the government labs, and funds for filing patents. If you, like me, had any impression that IT industry has a solid VC culture, where good ideas will always be rewarded funded (along with a whole lot of bad ones too), just erase those impressions. Karnik wants government help!

If private players are unable to see something as patentable, just how will the government be able to decide? Using a committee of secretaries? If infrastructure is a problem, is it too much for someone with a great product idea to get enough VC funding to collaborate with labs as an equal partner? Just why should the government be spending more and more money on private initiatives, when public infrastructure -- roads, power, ports -- is crying out for attention.

Finally, government funding comes with government interference as well. Does Karnik want the latter too?

* * *

Just look at this editorial in yesterday's Hindu, which points to the "dismal scenario ... that only about 40 per cent of graduates from engineering colleges are employable". Why? Lack of qualified teachers.

Imagine a fresh engineer recruited by an IT company such as Infosys or Wipro. If his/her prior training is poor, the company spends extra money for remedial training. Instead of this mode of functioning, doesn't it make sense to spend some money on training the faculty? Of course, individual companies would not be able to do this, because each company is not sure that the benefits would accrue to it. But, a collective of IT companies -- NASSCOM! -- can certainly do it, with funding coming from its members. This collective could also publish manuals and other teaching aids.

Instead of taking up steps which are (a) entirely within its circle of influence, and (b) likely to result in a broadbased improvement in quality of human resources (IT industry is a Knowledge Industry, remember?), NASSCOM is wasting its time in asking for government help for a small segment of the industry.

* * *

It's not surprising at all that NASSCOM is identified more with lobbying than with any proactive measures.

[End Rant]

Cartoon summary of cricket

Except that it is all in French! [caution: it's a pdf file].

Link via Daniel Davies [aka dsquared] of Crooked Timber.

Don't fight with your spouse

If you want your wounds (physical ones, whether or not they were caused by your spouse) to heal faster. Wound-healing may be delayed as much as a day, says this report in New Scientist. The underlying research study was done by a team led by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at the Ohio State University College of Medicine.

The following comment is from Patricia Price of the Wound Healing Research Unit at Cardiff University, Wales, who was not involved in the study:

This study was carried out on healthy people – a lot of them young. So imagine the effect on people who are elderly or already immunosuppressed. Some wounds, such as leg ulceration associated with diabetic foot disease, can take months to heal and the implications of stress for these people could be enormous.

Link via Selva of SciAn Blog.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Today's science & tech news

Many, many years ago, a now-successful American cardiologist did some work on the side that showed some strange bacteria in the stomach linings of ulcer patients. But others could not reproduce his results partly because of private agendas. He was then dissuaded from pursuing this stuff, because his main line of work was cardiology. Others came along later, discovered the bacteria all over again, and are on their way to Stockholm to receive their Nobel Prize.

There aren't many people who can even claim to be in the same league. We are, after all, talking about Nobel-worthy work.

Read this sensitive and sympathetic profile of Dr. A. Stone Freedberg, a 97-year-old retired Harvard scientist.

Dr. Marshall [one of the Nobel-winners this year], asked in a telephone interview whether he would have won his Nobel Prize if Dr. Freedberg had been able to pursue his ulcer research, said, "No way."

"If Dr. Freedberg's team had been able to culture H. pylori," Dr. Marshall said, "they would have seen that bismuth kills the bacteria and they could have developed a treatment in a few years."

He added: "They would have won the Nobel Prize about 1951 as I was getting born. So it was just a bit of bad luck for a lot of people."

Very touching.

* * *

Donald McNeil Jr. has an article in the New York Times about some of the ideas being pursued by brilliant minds. If these ideas ever fructify, they would make this place a lot easier for people to live in. In particular, poor people would benefit a great deal from their success.

Just look at a sample of them: Dried vaccines that you can mix in a cup of juice, infecting mosquitos with life-shortening bacteria, studying prostitutes who are extremely resistant to HIV infection, developing cyanide-free cassavas, a kind of tuber that sustains life in Africa during hard times, developing a portable (palmtop?) diagnostic kit for use in poor areas, messing with the smell organs of mosquitoes so they leave humans alone, and many others.

Another news story earlier in the week reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated 84 million dollars to two organizations that are "working to prevent needless deaths of babies in the first few days of life."

They are some of the 43 research projects to be funded by the 'Grand Challenges to Global Health' program announced by Bill Gates in 2003. His 450 million dollar kitty "was to make sure that innovation wasn't reserved just for big-ticket items like cancer and heart disease".

Mr. Gates, in an interview, sidestepped a request to name his favorite projects. "Oh, I love all my children," he said.

But he remained brutally realistic about where his "children" - and the money he lavishes on them - were likely to end up. "Eighty percent of these are likely to be dead ends," he said. "But even if we have a 10 percent hit rate, it will all have been worthwhile."

Though I don't like the business or the tactics of M$, but I certainly admire the philanthropic instincts of one of its founders.

* * *

Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Google, and Hal Varian, a Berkeley professor and consultant to Google, have a Newsweek column in which they talk about "seven key principles we use to make knowledge workers most effective."

In case you are wondering, yes, one of them is "Don't do evil".

Monday, December 05, 2005

'The most amazing illusion' says so. And, guess what, it is so!

New York Times on India's Golden Quadrilateral

Here are the links to all the parts of Amy Waldman's series titled "India Accelerating":

  1. Mile by Mile, India Paves a Smoother Road to Its Future: about the Golden Quadrilateral.
  2. In Today's India, Status Comes With Four Wheels: about the auto boom.
  3. On India's Roads, Cargo and a Deadly Passenger: about the spread of AIDS
  4. All Roads Lead to Cities, Transforming India: about the migration to the cities

Amy Waldman, the India reporter of the New York Times, has a long and detailed story on the flagship highways programme of the Vajpayee government, that continues to be implemented by the Manmohan Singh regime. Also embedded within this story is a multimedia presentation on the Golden Quadrilateral that has lots of pictures accompanying her commentary.

I am linking to this because Waldman brings interesting perspectives of a Westerner to the table. Perspectives that a bright-eyed reporter for a business magazine might overlook. Some may take offence at the kinds of stuff she has put into the story: grinding poverty, manual labourers carrying concrete at a bridge construction site, bonded labourers working under bright lights supervised by a foreman with a whip. ...

Take, for example, the peg with which she starts her story.

In the middle of the old Grand Trunk Road a temple sits under a peepul tree. The surrounding highway is being widened to four lanes, and vehicles barrel along either side. But the temple and tree thwart even greater speed, and a passing contractor says they soon will be removed.

Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction, thinks otherwise. She is angry, say the colorfully garbed women massing in the holy tree's dappled shade. As evidence, they point to one woman's newly pockmarked face and other mysterious ailments recently visited on their nearby village, Jagdishrai. They have tried to convince Kali that the tree and temple devoted to her must go, but they have failed. Now they have no choice but to oppose the removal, too, even if they must block the road to do it.

Goddess versus man, superstition versus progress, the people versus the state - mile by mile, India is struggling to modernize its national highway system, and in the process, itself.

Or, consider this:

Outside Jaipur, young men virtually bonded into labor hack with primitive tools at old tires. They work in an archaic assembly line beside the highway, chopping the tires into pieces and loading them onto trucks so they can be burned as toxic fuel at a brick kiln. The tent camp they call home splays out in dirty disarray behind them. A brutish overseer verbally whips them to work faster.

"Please take me out of here," Rafiq Ahmed, 21, whispered as he bent in the darkness to lift another load. "My back hurts."

She also reports on the positives which I am sure you have seen in umpteen magazines. Business magazines, in particular.

Just go read the whole thing. Like it or not, it's out there. While at it, don't forget to see the accompanying multimedia presentation [the link is embedded inside the story]. This seems to be the first of a four part series; I will keep adding links to the other parts.

An interview with ...

... Narendra Jadhav, Principal Adviser and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of India.

The blurb on the India Together page adds that "he is also a Dalit and strong advocate of reservations in the private sector."

The interview covers a lot of finance and economics stuff, and becomes quite heavy at times. His views on reservation for Dalits, particularly in the private sector, appear towards the bottom third of the interview.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Brain imports

The New York Times, in an editorial urges the State and Homeland Security Departments to sort out the issue of "cumbersome and off-putting" visa procedures for students.

Here is an excellent reality-check paragraph:

The fact is that the competition for foreign students has become far more intense. While American campuses are still by far the favorite destination, they have been steadily losing market share for years, especially to Canada, Australia and Europe. Now the European Union is considering offering citizenship to foreign students who complete their doctorates at European universities. That's a powerful incentive, even if it does smack of actively encouraging a brain drain from developing countries. But then, Rajiv Gandhi's famed formulation still holds: "Better brain drain than brain in the drain."

BTW, does anyone know when Rajiv Gandhi said this interesting quote?

In an op-ed from exactly a year ago, Ashis Nandy says:

"... Technically, no university could invite a foreign scholar to give a lecture even while he was visiting India as a tourist. It too required prior clearance, and of course, as everybody knows, foreign participants of all seminars had to be cleared. ... "

He was talking about the Indira Gandhi era of the late sixties and early seventies!

I only wish some Indian newspaper would write such a well reasoned and passionate editorial asking the Indian government to ease its visa procedures for foreign students and scholars. Right now, the procedures are absolutely horrible!

Take, for example, foreign scholars visiting the country for a conference. The conference organizer must inform the Indian government about the foreign scholars, and seek its clearance and permission. Then, this information should go to the Indian embassy/consulate where the visitor applies for a visa. There are default waiting periods (and delays) in every step. These procedures smack of a collective insecurity, impose immense costs in terms of time and energy for everyone, and deserve immediate change.

Wikipediaaah! (Part 2)

Rememeber this post from two days ago? It has made it to New York Times! Katharine Seelye, the reporter, goes a little bit deeper into the vandalism issue, and has taken the views of Jimmy Wales, the creator of wikipedia. After citing some impressive figures, she gets to the crux of the problem.

It has, by most measures, been a spectacular success. Wikipedia is now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world. As of Friday, it was receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic doubles every four months.

Still, the question of Wikipedia, as of so much of what you find online, is: Can you trust it?

And beyond reliability, there is the question of accountability. [...]

Wales has promised some new initiatives that will address these concerns. One of them is to have a reviewing and rating mechanism, and another is to disallow unregistered users to create new pages.

I also want to correct the impression that I may have given unintentionally here. Wikipedia works, and works very well most of the time. Its entries on many topics are superbly written (so superb, in fact, it is difficult to imagine that it is all *only* a volunteer activity), and it is a vital resource for all of us. It is important to keep in mind that these issues of reliability and accountability are newsworthy only because they are so rare. Aren't you glad to know that vandals are so rare? Or perhaps, there are many more vandals, but most of them are writing virus programs for M$ Windows. ;-)

'What they don't teach you at Graduate School'

In a rather irregular series on 'advice' to graduate students in this blog, this one is truly special. This article in Inside HigherEd by Paul Gray and David E. Drew gives a coherent set of advice to not only thosee thinking about graduate school, but also those thinking about post-doctoral positions, and about their first faculty jobs. It's all US centric and too general (it addresses people in pretty much every discipline), so take it all in the right spirit -- as a generic guide to what one might expect in academia.

A lot of what the authors say is quite sensible. For example, look at this:

Finish your Ph.D. as early as possible. Don’t feel that you need to create the greatest work that Western Civilization has ever seen. Five years from now the only thing that will matter is whether you finished.

Or, this

A Ph.D. is a certification of research ability based on a sample of 1. The Ph.D. certifies that you are able to do quality research. ... The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do it again and again in the future.

A very sobering perspective, but very true, as well.

While reading this article, don't forget the comments. I found at least one of them that had a really interesting idea:

... I have often thought the Ph.D. process was the most INTELLECTUALLY unbearable part of my life. Focus, focus, focus, narrow, narrow, narrow, grind, grind, grind. Prospective academics should have the option of writing a Ph.D. dissertation (Zzzzzzzz) or completing three, more or less related (and be creative in relating them) master’s degrees, all with serious master’s theses, of course.

Writing those papers for publication as a graduate student was quite wonderful — even exciting at times – but I would have much preferred completing a master’s in mathematics (probability), a master’s in physics (“modern” physics), and a master’s in philosophy (history of science). Now, wouldn’t that have been fun? And if education can’t be fun ... well what’s the point?

In addition to producing a generalist, in a science setting, it would also produce a truly interdisciplinary person. I really like this idea; there is a real need for people who can talk multiple languages in science and engineering, because many of the exciting problems are at the interfaces (or the walls) between disciplines. There is really a great value in having a few cats that can negotiate such walls skillfully. Except that individual departments will have to develop an expertise to evaluate candidates of this kind; I don't expect that to happen anytime soon. So, this proposal of multiple masters instead of one long Ph.D, though interesting, is dead on arrival.

'Press Plagiarist of the Year Award'

Via slashdot: BBC has a story about three bloggers coming together to announce the inaugural Press Plagiarist of the Year Award.

Check it out; it is a lot of fun, at the expense of a bunch of people who really don't deserve their reputations.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Farmer suicides in Maharashtra ...

... and cotton subsidies to farmers in the US.

Yesterday's Hindu carried an op-ed by P. Sainath, about the plight of farmers in the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, that has driven more than 300 farmers to commit suicide in just one of the eleven districts of that region between 2001 and 2005. Not surprisingly, Sainath's op-ed is passionate, vigorously argued, rich with details. Here is a couple of excerpts [with some emphasis added by me]:

Vidharbha's mainly cotton farmers have been hit by rising input costs and the crash of output prices. They have also been ruined by the collapse of rural credit. The banks will simply not help them. So they turn to moneylenders. While 58 per cent of all farm households in the State are in debt, it's a lot worse in Vidharbha. Here, close to 90 per cent of short-term credit needs are met by private loan sharks. Meanwhile, farmers have also been crushed by fake seed dealers. Mindless de-regulation has crippled the sector.


Meanwhile, the State Government has helped boost private traders. Those who exploit this mess to lift the farmer's produce at rock bottom prices. Their parallel markets can now function openly. Also, the State has never pushed the Centre to stop the dumping of highly subsidised cotton from the rich nations. Giant subsidies by the United States to its producers have killed the price of cotton. The duty on cotton imports is just 10 per cent. On sugar — affecting western Maharashtra — it is 60 per cent.

Those sentences in bold point an accusing finger at the rich countries -- in the case of cotton, it is the US -- for the subsidies that they provide to an ever dwindling number of farmers. Recently, Tyler Cowen had a post with this little nugget:

Over 2001 and 2002, America's 25,000 cotton farmers received more subsidies -- about $3 billion -- than the entire economic output of Burkina Faso in a year. Two million people in Burkina Faso live partly or fully from cotton farming.

These subsidies are at the centre of the struggle in WTO between developing and developed countries. Recently, Brazil has threatened to stall the ongoing Doha Round of negotiations until the developing nations' demands on agricultural subsidies are met -- a move that was wholeheartedly supported by the New York Times in an editorial.