Thursday, November 30, 2006

Three more IITs?

Two weeks ago, Urmi Goswami of the Economic Times reported that the government plans to open three new IITs over the next five years. This comes as a surprise, since there was no prior talk (discussion? debate?) about this sort of stuff. It really makes you wonder how the government takes these decisions. As Prof. T. Jayaraman pointed out sometime ago, there's too much of 'ad hoc'-ism in formulating and implementing policy. For example, some of these questions came to my mind immediately: Why three? Why IITs? Why not NITs? Heck, why not some real universities? What is a reasonable cost per faculty (or, per student)?

Which leads me to highlight some pretty unreal estimates for the costs involved. Since we are talking super-elite institutions, these beauties don't come cheap:

Each of the new institutes would require sustained funding of Rs 650 crore annually for the first six years. Recurring costs, which would include salaries, would be at Rs 231 crore per year, while non-recurring expenditure, that is capital investment, would be at Rs 419 crore annually.

It's good to know that we have that kind of spare change to start institutions like these. Yet, I can't help feeling that this is another one of those trial balloons floated by some sarkari babu. For one, I have seen this report only in one newspaper. For another, the report doesn't mention the owner of the idea (or the position paper that's being discussed).

Who knows, the government may actually be serious about this initiative. In any case, do read the full story which, as I said, has some unreal numbers.

Scenes from a management class

Anand Giridharadas takes you to a classroom in a second tier college:

...[The] classroom environment ... treats students like children even if they are in their mid-20’s. Teaching emphasizes silent note-taking and discipline at the expense of analysis and debate.

“Out! Out! Close the door! Close the door!” a management professor barked at a student who entered his classroom at Hinduja two minutes late. Soon after his departure, the door cracked open again, and the student asked if he could at least take his bag.

The reply: “Out! Out! Who said you could stand here?” A second student, caught whispering, was asked to stand up and cease taking notes.

Then there is the matter of teaching style. At Hinduja and Dahanukar, the mode of instruction at times evokes a re-education camp of some sort. In a marketing class at Hinduja, the professor paced in front, then pressed her chalk to the board.

She drew a tree diagram dividing it into indirect and direct marketing, then divided those into components, and those further into subcomponents. As students frantically took notes, she kept going, and before long she was teaching them that each region of Mumbai would have its own marketing representative: eastern Mumbai, western Mumbai, central Mumbai. There was no discussion, and there was little to discuss.

The professor then led the students in a chant: “What is span of management?”

“Span of management is the number of subordinates a supervisor will manage.” She chanted the refrain four times.

The NYT story is a variation of his IHT story.

Pankaj Jalote: IITs are slipping in world rankings

Pankaj Jalote, a professor of computer science at IIT-D (and whose ideas we have covered earlier), has a ToI op-ed today about the continuing slide of IITs in world rankings. After presenting some ideas about the ways in which IITs need to change to stem the slide, he concludes his column on a dim note:

IITs have suitable structures to potentially implement such schemes and lead the way, if they get the right leadership and necessary autonomy.

Unfortunately, the leadership of these institutes, being a beneficiary of political patronage, is unwilling to take any bold moves.

They have tended to play safe and keep the ministry happy, rather than bring about innovation and controversial changes. So, changes are undoubtedly needed, without which Indian institutions will continue to slide.

But it is doubtful whether any movement along this direction will be undertaken. That is why I believe that IITs will continue slipping in global rankings, despite having the potential to improve.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Being Indian

Via Rosa Vasanth's blog (in Tamil), I heard about Being Indian, a documentary that traces the lives of four kids. It has been shortlisted for BBC's "Best Documentary of the Year" contest, and as of now, is at second position. Voting closes on 4 December; the best six films will be broadcast in late December.

One of the episodes in the film is about Biru Malik, a Dalit child (you can watch a 15 second snippet on the BBC site). Like Vasanth, I too urge you to vote for this film, which could help the Dalits and other oppressed classes in our society by getting their cause some international visibility.

Please spread the word.

A tale of two interviews

Ms. Shirin Ebadi, human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is on a visit to India. She was interviewed by both the Hindu and the Times of India, with contrasting results.

The interviewer for the Hindu is its highly knowledgeable Deputy Editor Siddharth Varadarajan (who has also posted the interview on his blog). He asks questions that allow Ms. Ebadi to tell us about her work, the purpose of her visit, her views on global terrorism, her anti-nuke stand, Iranian politics, and so on. In short, it's what one calls a wide-ranging -- and very good -- interview.

In contrast, the ToI sent someone called Ratnottama Sengupta, whose questions appear to slot Ms. Ebadi into a little box labelled 'Muslim woman', without giving us any clue about the other facets of her life and work -- including the work for which she won the Peace Prize. The published interview features only three questions; take a look at them:

You're a Muslim arguing for dynamic interpretation of Islamic laws to make women equal before law. What's your message to those who believe Islam condemns women to an inferior status?

Is it possible to follow every tenet of Islam in today's world?

Why is Islam among the most powerful religions, also the most dreaded?


To her credit, the Nobel winner provides classy answers to all these questions. Here's a punchline with which she opens her answer to the third question:

Don't fear Islam, fear the dictators who hide behind the flag. ...

E-mail etiquette

After publishing this primer (I linked to it yesterday), Eszter Hargittai says this in her post on Crooked Timber:

Of course, one problem is that the people who are most likely to write pathetic notes are the least likely to read an article of this sort. But at least for those who care, perhaps this can offer some helpful pointers.

Later in the comments, she adds:

My main motivation for writing the piece was the numerous ridiculous inquiries I get all the time. I plan on creating a “Contact me” page where I will link to this piece so people who write to me know what they need to include for me to be able to assist them. I am happy to help people out, but with the best of intentions, some of the emails are either impossible to answer meaningfully or would require a ton of work on my part. [Bold emphasis added]

This is a great idea for anyone who has to deal with lots and lots of such e-mail. I'm not there yet, as I'm able to deal with the e-mails I receive without going -- or getting -- mad. But when I do get there, I know what to do.

I guess I will probably never get to a stage that Neal Stephenson has reached [link via a comment on Hargittai's post]. For those who don't wish to click through: he defends the idea that not responding to e-mails and letters is not only in his interest, but it is also in the interest of his readers/correspondents.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Encouraging news on happiness

The happy news is that the hitherto asserted 'set point' for an individual's happiness may not be the accurate picture of reality; it may be possible for people to increase their happiness levels over the long term. The 'techniques' that they could use are being uncovered, and this article talks about two of them.

There's no shortage of advice in how to become a happier person, as a visit to any bookstore will demonstrate. In fact, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues have collected more than 100 specific recommendations, ranging from those of the Buddha through the self-improvement industry of the 1990s.

The problem is, most of the books on store shelves aren't backed up by rigorous research, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, who's conducting such studies now. (She's also writing her own book).

In fact, she says, there has been very little research in how people become happier.

Why? The big reason, she said, is that many researchers have considered that quest to be futile.

* * *

Thanks to Swarup for the pointer.


You can only be young once. But you can always be immature.
-- Dave Barry

Etiquette in electronic communication

An academic's occupational hazards include having to wade through a lot of unsolicited e-mails from people one doesn't know; in my case, quite a big chunk of these mails is from undergraduate students seeking summer internships. I find most of them are poorly written (I wouldn't blame them; as an undergrad, I was quite pathetic too in this department), and I have seen so many of them in a strange language which, I later learned, is called SMS/Orkut.

I have often wished they had access to advice on how to communicate with others (i.e., how to make a 'cold call') in a professional way -- particularly when they seek some help/favour from the person they are writing to. Please don't get me wrong here; I'm not arguing here for letters in stilted prose that start with 'respected sir' and end with 'your obedient servant' (though I do like obedient servants who are respectful to their masters). I will be happy with something that's even 10 % compliant with Eszter Hargittai's advice.

You might want to read a counterexample that violates so many of Hargittai's rules.

Some fun videos

Check out this spidermobile rolling ('climbing') up the side wall of a building. The video has been posted by Mr. Jose Berengueres (of Tokyo Institute of Technology, cleverly abbreviated to 'titech'); Mr. SpiderMan (as Teng Li calls him) has also posted another explicatory video on interesting features (aka hair) on geckos' feet that allow them to walk upside down on a ceiling. In the video, you will see how this understanding can be applied to enable humans to act like a spiderman climb up a vertical wall.

While on the topic of fun videos, take a look at this very funny advertisement.

The tall, the smart, and bad labour market outcomes

You ought to read Stephen Hall's NYTimes piece presenting a nuanced analysis of the correlation between a person's height and his/her cognitive abilities. Here's a highly quotable sentence:

While understandable, the economist’s focus on income as the key determinant of success reflects a narrow bandwidth of human value; in economic studies of this sort, penniless artists like Vincent Van Gogh or impoverished leaders like Mahatma Gandhi would be examples of bad labor market outcomes.

The International Herald Tribune on higher education in India

Anand Giridharadas is refreshingly blunt:

In the shadow of [IITs and IIMs], most of the 11 million students in the 18,000 Indian colleges and universities receive starkly inferior training, heavy on obeisance and light on marketable skills, students, educators and business leaders say. All but a tiny handful of graduates are considered unemployable by top global and local companies.


The Indian educational system is locking millions of students in the bottom berth of a two-tier economy, critics argue, depriving the country of the fullest expression of their talents and denying students a chance to share in the fruits of reform.

The problem, experts say, is in a classroom environment that infantilizes students well into their mid-20s, emphasizing silent note-taking and discipline at the expense of analysis, debate and persuasion.


India is one of those rare countries where you become less able to find a job the more educated you get. College graduates suffer from higher jobless rates - 17 percent in the 2001 census - than high school graduates.

Later in the article, we get a few scenes from a second tier college:

"Out! Out! Close the door! Close the door!" a management professor barked at a student who entered his classroom at Hinduja two minutes late. A second student, caught whispering, was asked to stand up for the duration of class.

At Hinduja, the mode of instruction is often more evocative of a communist re- education camp than a modern campus.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Barrels of whine ...

It's sad when someone in a position of power decides to berate his/her society for celebrating the 'wrong' sorts of people and things. It's not clear why Prof. C.N.R. Rao has chosen this form of protest:

When we see what has happened in the last few years to cities such as Bangalore, my worries become real. Bangalore is slowly losing its soul. We see large numbers of young people busily moving around, making money from BPO, IT, and other service sectors, but there is hardly any concern about other matters. There is still a chance for us to develop a country of a different kind.

A few great links

1. John Lennon's Imagine (short video, via Selva).

2. Neil deGrasse Tyson's kinship with the cosmos (short video on Nayagam's blog).

3. Hot experiments that produce cool data (via Guru):

The popcorn study is an example. We found that people ate more popcorn when we gave them bigger buckets. I’d originally done all that in a lab. So that’s great, that’s enough to get it published. But it’s not enough to make people go “hey, that’s cool.” I found a movie theatre that would let me do it. It became expensive because we needed to buy a lot of buckets of popcorn. Once you find out it happens in real theatres, people go “cool.” You can’t publish it in great journal because you can’t get 300 covariates; we published it in slightly less prestigious journal but it had much greater impact than a little lab study would have had.

4. The curious case of Ranjit Chandra (see Seth Roberts for the gory details):

In order to try and prop up his case, Chandra published a study by someone named Amrit Jain in Nutrition Research confirming his previous results. Amrit Jain was supposedly affiliated with the Medical Clinic and Nursing Home, Jaipur, India; however, this place appears to be completely fictional. It has never been referred to anywhere except in Amrit Jain's paper. Also, Amrit Jain's mailing address is not in India, but a Canadian post office box. When investigators attempted to contact Jain, they were unable to get a reply or even confirm his existence or credentials.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Endowments of US universities

In 2004, the endowments of the 10 richest American universities were worth $78 billion — more than the gross domestic product of the world's 75 poorest nations combined ... [emphasis added]

This sentence is from this LATimes op-ed in which Martin Kimel argues that "there are better places for donations than wealthy universities that already have billions in endowments."

Saturday, November 25, 2006


This NYTimes story is about a spy who died of polonium-210 poisoning. In spite of our good understanding of what radiation could do to us, this story still evokes horror.

Imagine an era in which radiation effects were known but poorly understood. Add to it an intense, obsessive passion for work that led to important discoveries of radioactive substances such as radium and, yes, polonium-210 too. In her excellent biography of Marie Curie (I mentioned it here, here, and here), Barbara Goldsmith dwells on the tragic consequences arising from just such a scenario:

[Even on her deathbed ...] Marie Curie never acknowledged that her beloved radium might have betrayed her. [...] A frequently asked question is, How could her denial have been so strong? How could the Curies expose themselves, their associates, and even their daughter Irène and her husband to the devastating effects of radiation? The answer, I believe, was love. It prevented Marie and Pierre from seeing radium with the same cold, scientific eye they brought to their other work. Even as they warned of the dangers of radium exposure, at their bedside the Curies kept a vial of radium salts to observe its beautiful glow before falling asleep. Marie referred to radium as "my child."

... As early as 1903 in his Nobel lecture, Pierre obliquely referred to Becquerel's accidental burn after placing the vial of radioactive barium salts in his vest pocket. ... [His] own fingers and those of his wife had become hard as cement with recurrent fissures that split open like red crags in clay. ... [In 1925] ... two engineers who were former pupils of Marie died after preparing industrial solutions of thorium X. Another had his fingers amputated, then his hand, then his arm. Subsequently, he went blind.

... There was no doubt that radium had destroyed Marie, slamming its raging power into her bones and organs. A century later, this contamination still clings to the preserved clothes she wore. ... When Irène Joliot-Curie died at fifty-nine in 1956, her death was duly noted as leukemia induced by exposure to radioactive substances. The main cause ... was her youthful exposure to X-rays and radon, exacerbated by a capsule of polonium-210 that exploded on her laboratory table fifteen years before her death. This deadly substance is readily absorbed into tissue and is too dangerous to handle even in minuscule amounts. Irène's husband, Frédéric Joliot, who ... died two years later from the effects of radium and polonium. With morbid humour, Frederic called death from radioactive exposure "our occupational disease."

Friday, November 24, 2006


This short video defines the word.


Women in science: Some links

A bunch of links to recent articles and blog posts on this important topic.

1. Let me start with a celebration of women in science.

2. Here's J.D. Nordell's review of sociological research on how people's ambitions are shaped. (it also briefly touches upon the views of Ben Barres); here's a quick extract:

Ambition is a complex internal drive, and it relies heavily on a belief in one's own potential. "In order to have high aspirations, you have to have a sense of your own competence," says Shelley Correll, a sociologist at Cornell who studies the development of aspirations. Correll has found that, in the presence of a stereotype that men are better, women tend to underrate their own performance, while men overrate their own, regardless of demonstrated ability. "We find that if you compare boys and girls, or men and women, with the same grades in math classes, and the exact same scores on standardized math tests, boys think they are better than girls," she notes.

3. Zuska gives a stinging reply to a Cornell freshman who claimed that there's no discrimination. This issue also generated some discussion on Janet Stemwedel's blog.

4. In a deeply personal post, Cognitive Daily's Dave Munger starts with a quote from Lester Thurow:

The decade between 25 and 35 is when men either succeed or fail. It is the decade when lawyers become partners in good firms, when business managers make it onto the "fast track," when academics get tenure at good universities, and when blue collar workers find the job opportunities that will lead to training opportunities and the skills that will generate high earnings.

But the decade between age 25 and 35 is precisely the decade when women are most apt to leave the work force or become part-time workers to have children. When they do, the current system of promotion and skill acquisition will extract an enormous lifetime price.

Dave Munger then goes on to answer the following question:

[In 1992] Greta and I were both 25, and we had already had our first child. Greta was on track to become a scientist, and I was an up-and-coming textbook editor and writer. Why didn't our child doom Greta to failure?

5. A recent academic paper examines underrepresentation of women in tenured positions in US universities. Here's the abstract:

Many studies have shown that women are under-represented in tenured ranks in the sciences. We evaluate whether gender differences in the likelihood of obtaining a tenure track job, promotion to tenure, and promotion to full professor explain these facts using the 1973-2001 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. We find that women are less likely to take tenure track positions in science, but the gender gap is entirely explained by fertility decisions. We find that in science overall, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor after controlling for demographic, family, employer and productivity covariates and that in many cases, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor even without controlling for covariates. However, family characteristics have different impacts on women's and men's promotion probabilities. Single women do better at each stage than single men, although this might be due to selection. Children make it less likely that women in science will advance up the academic job ladder beyond their early post-doctorate years, while both marriage and children increase men's likelihood of advancing.

The link comes via Tyler Cowen who also points us to comments from Matt Yglesias.

6. In a different setting (business), we recently saw what Tim Harford has to say about pregnancy and women's careers.

"Friedman's most profound damage"

Within days after Friedman's death, sharp critiques have started appearing [see also Bhupinder's links to those that appeared immediately after his death]. Here's William Greider [via Political Theory Daily]:

This is what the memorials left out: the cruel quality of Friedman's obliviousness. Art Hilgart, a retired industrial economist, recalls hearing Friedman lecture in 1991 and recommend the destruction of Medicare, welfare, the postal system, Social Security and public education. The audience was dumbfounded.

Finally, a brave young woman asked what this would mean for poverty. "There is no poverty in America," Friedman instructed. A clear voice arose from the back of hall: "Bullshit!" The audience cheered wildly.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Econ bloggers are like rock stars!

LATimes covers economics bloggers:

"I don't think most people look up to nerdy academic economists as heroes," he said.

But economists who blog might be different.

Lee Beck, a 21-year-old math major who attends the University of Texas at Houston, reads a handful of economics blogs daily. Cowen's Marginal Revolution is a favorite. Cowen is "a pretty big celebrity to me," Beck said. "Of all the people alive today I could meet and have dinner with, he's one of the first couple names on the list."

Other readers have taken their interest in Cowen a step further. One saw his daughter Yana at her supermarket job and introduced himself as a Cowen fan who knew her name from the blog.

Such devotion doesn't strike fans as odd.

"I would ask one of those guys for an autograph," said Eric Husman, a 41-year-old engineer in New Mexico.

Link via one of the rock stars himself! Interestingly, while LATimes's list of econ bloggers does not include Berkeley's Brad DeLong.

Negative income tax

Most of the articles on Milton Friedman point to his super-sharp intellect and his advocacy of small-government. The latter puts him on the same side as economic conservatives who defend free markets against meddling by government; at times, it also puts him on the side of social liberals on, for example, drugs. Since it's his defence of free markets that kept him in the limelight, he is seen, rightly, as a conservative.

But there's also another facet to this man's work that, frankly, I became aware of through the recent spate of articles on Friedman. It's his ideas on "negative income tax", which is now implemented in a narrower sense in the US as 'earned income credit'. Quite a few obituaries did mention his advocacy of this measure, but only in passing. Robert Frank has chosen to build his entire NYTimes column on this part of Friedman's work:

Market forces can accomplish wonderful things, [Milton Friedman] realized, but they cannot ensure a distribution of income that enables all citizens to meet basic economic needs. His proposal, which he called the negative income tax, was to replace the multiplicity of existing welfare programs with a single cash transfer — say, $6,000 — to every citizen. A family of four with no market income would thus receive an annual payment from the I.R.S. of $24,000. For each dollar the family then earned, this payment would be reduced by some fraction — perhaps 50 percent. A family of four earning $12,000 a year, for example, would receive a net supplement of $18,000 (the initial $24,000 less the $6,000 tax on its earnings).

Mr. Friedman’s proposal was undoubtedly motivated in part by his concern for the welfare of the least fortunate. But he was above all a pragmatist, and he emphasized the superiority of the negative income tax over conventional welfare programs on purely practical grounds. If the main problem of the poor is that they have too little money, he reasoned, the simplest and cheapest solution is to give them some more. He saw no advantage in hiring armies of bureaucrats to dispense food stamps, energy stamps, day care stamps and rent subsidies. [Or, we might add, cows and buffaloes!]

Do read Frank's article; it has several other interesting ideas as well.

Annals of bad policy

A policy that's not thought through can cause all kinds of unintended -- and BAD -- consequences for the people the policy is supposed to help. A good case of good (even this is doubtful) intentions that wreak havoc. Here's P. Sainath's description of the policy:

Giving quality cows to thousands of poor farmers was a high-profile element in the relief `packages' of both Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The first would bring 40,000 new cows to the district in three years. The second, 18,000 in the same period. ...

What were the consequences?

"They landed up at my house and made me take this cow," protests Kamlabai Gudhe in Lonsawala, Wardha. This Dalit farmer's husband committed suicide five months ago. "I said we don't want this. We have never kept cattle and don't know how to. Give one of us a job, any work. Instead, my son is full time in service of this cow. Were he not tied down by it, he would earn Rs.50 a day as a labourer. This brute eats more than all us in this house put together. And we don't get more than four litres of milk in a day from it."

"The buffalo I got through the government cost me Rs.120-Rs.150 a day," says Mr. Gowarkar's neighbour. "It never stopped eating." He and several others have sold their animals. Next door, Anjanabai Dolaskar still has hers. "I feed it the wheat meant for my son — who was the `beneficiary.'" As for suicide-hit households, says a top official in Amravati, "none of them even applied to government for an animal."

Read the whole piece.

The Strand Book Festival

The Strand Book Stall, which has become a major institution for book lovers in Bengalooru (as it had in Mumbai a long time ago), has announced its Book Festival. It opens tomorrow (24 November), runs until 10 December, and is open during 10 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.

This time, it's going to be at the Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium; entrance is through Gate 17 on the Link Road which, from the Cubbon Park, is on the other side of the stadium. The map in Strand's newsletter shows a lot of free parking space on the Link Road and the Cubbon Road. To entice us even further (as if it's even needed), the newsletter promises "upto 80 % off".

Well, that's where I'm going to be this Saturday morning. If you plan to be there Saturday, and would like to meet up, do please e-mail me. I plan to leave the IISc campus at around 10 a.m., if you would like a ride, let me know.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Subconscious thoughts about money are enough to make you more stingy!

Benedict Carey of NYTimes describes the research in this story:

In a series of experiments, psychologists found that subconscious reminders of money prompted people to become more independent in their work, less likely to seek help from others or to provide it. They became reluctant to volunteer their time and stingy when asked to donate to a worthy cause.

“Everybody says that if they had the money, they’d give more away, they’d do what Warren Buffett did,” said Kathleen D. Vohs, lead author of the study...

“Well, we thought that that was a nice thing to bring into the lab, to test in a variety of ways,” added Dr. Vohs, a psychologist in the University of Minnesota school of management.

Her co-authors were Nicole Mead of Florida State University and Miranda Goode, a graduate student in marketing at the University of British Columbia.

A sociological study of IT workers

I started to write a post on a recent sociological study of employees in IT and IT-enabled services industry in Bangalore. I have decided to post it over at How the Other Half Lives. Comments are welcome there.

NSSO Thick Survey: Social indicators

Here's a summary of the NSSO thick survey's figures for educational achievements for different groups of people. The key figures (taken from this ET story) must be read in this order: ST, SC, OBC and Others.

Literacy among 15+ years (in %): 44.6, 50.4, 59.4, 75.7

Higher secondary (in %): 2.9, 3.6, 4.9, 9.0

Graduate plus (in %): 1.9, 2.3, 3.7 and 11.1

% of 5-14 year olds in school: 87.1, 85.0, 88.1, 91.5

* * *

I'm tired of waiting for this slow trickle of information nuggets about the NSSO survey. Does anyone know how to get this survey's results online? From this source, I'm unable to get the reports; it keeps asking me to become a member, but refuses to take the information that I type in the form.

Any pointers/shortcuts will be greatly appeciated.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Award humour

I have never been a fan of Oscar award shows (or others like them) in which each award winner mouths some ritualized and humourless thank-yous to everyone he/she ever knew. These people are supposed to be entertainers, and they keep dishing out this kind of crappy stuff! Year after year!

On the other hand, accomplished academics often surprise us with speeches with a light touch and a good sprinkling of humour. There aren't many examples, but the ones that stand out end up shining brightly -- simply because no one expects any humour from this group known for its members' gravitas and sense of self-importance. But, I'm digressing here.

Interestingly, the humour in their speeches often revolves around self-deprecation or mocking the award culture. I still remember Leon Lederman's speech after receiving an honorary doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1989 (or was it 1990?); he first 'proved', using a quick -- 'back of the envelope' -- calculation, that the number of honorary degrees far exceeded the number of those eligible for them. Clearly, he said, too many awards were chasing too few people. The situation was so grim, and the 'need' to award these degrees so great, that a university in Kentucky even contemplated giving an honorary doctorate to the horse that won the Kentucky Derby! While we were busy laughing, he sneaked in an even deadlier punchline: "that would have made it the only time a whole horse was awarded an honorary degree!"

It's a pity this speech is not available online. But, some others are. I found a few among the acceptance speeches by the winners of the Timoshenko Medals, hosted at the portal iMechanica. For example, Anatol Roshko (1999) starts with this:

David Belden’s letter announcing the award was really a surprise, almost a shock. At first I wondered whether it was another example of a story which you may have heard and which, I believe, originated in the FSU. Two friends are at a grand reception sipping cocktails when one notices a man with his chest almost completely covered with medals. Says one to the other, “Do you have any idea what those medals are for?” and the other replies, “Well, you see that one at the top left? That one was a mistake; and the others followed automatically.”

John Hutchinson (2002) offers similar lines at the beginning:

This is a great honor for me; I know that I am undeserving. Nevertheless, I will gladly accept the medal. Several weeks ago, the NPR journalist, Daniel Schor, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in his acceptance speech he remarked that he had learned how to be gracious about undeserved honors from Henry Kissinger. Shortly after Kissinger received his Nobel Peace Prize, a reception in his honor was held at the State Department. An elderly woman approached Kissinger, grasped his hand, and thanked him from the bottom of her heart for saving the world. Following one of his heavy pauses, Kissinger replied, “you’re welcome”.

Kenneth L. Johnson (2006), too, starts with "Awshucks, there must have been a mistake":

When I received Virgil Carter's letter informing me that I had been selected, I could not believe it. There must have been a mistake; after all Johnson is a very common name. I am reminded of my first meeting with Bernie Budiansk from Harvard, also a Timoshenko medallist. He asked, "Did you write that book on vibration with Bishop?" "No. That was Dan Johnson"; " Did you edit that British Journal of mechanical sciences?": "No. That was Bill Johnson"; "Who the hell are you!"

Somewhere in the middle of his talk, Morton Gurtin (2004) sneaks in the following:

... [W]hile we’re in a nonserious mood, let me add a quote from the writer Frederick Raphael about awards: Awards are like hemorrhoids; in the end every asshole gets one.

* * *

Do you know of other acceptance speeches laced with humor? Would you like to share them?

Monday, November 20, 2006

James Surowiecki on protectionism

From this excellent article in the New Yorker:

... [P]rotectionist rules flourish because the benefits are concentrated among a small number of easy-to-identify winners, while the costs are spread out across the entire population.

P.M. Ajayan among this year's Scientific American - 50

Hooray! This year's Scientific American's list of 50 leaders in science (and policy too) features my IT-BHU classmate P.M. Ajayan who has been doing a lot of ultra-cool things in the ultra-hot area of carbon nanotubes at Rensselaer Polytechnic.

Here's the SciAm's description of Ajayan's recent research (scroll down a bit):

Carbon was also the material chosen by Pulickel M. Ajayan at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and his colleagues to create super-resilient springs. The researchers used a foam made up of carbon nanotubes to devise springs that combine the properties of stiffness and compressibility. Stiff materials take a lot of force to squash but often break after their limits are exceeded, while compressible substances often buckle easily but can rebound to their usual shape afterward with little to no damage. Repeatedly compressing a cushion normally squashes it, with a loss of springiness. But the nanotube foams remained elastic even after 10,000 squeezes, a property that could make the material suitable for artificial joints or vibration dampeners.


Of course the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you--if you don't play, you can't win.
-- Robert Heinlein

There's more here; here's another one I liked:

A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.

"I'm an atheist, but ..."

Richard Dawkins, who has been on a promotional tour for his book The God Delusion, gets questions that start with "I'm an atheist, but ...". In fact, he claims to have identified five different variants of what he calls "I'm-an-atheist-buttery". Here's one of them:

5. I'm an atheist, but I wish to dissociate myself from your intemperately strong language.

Sam Harris and I have both received criticism of this kind, and Nick Humphrey probably has too, for the quotation given above. Yet if you look at the language we employ, it is no more strong or intemperate than anybody would use if criticizing a political or economic point of view: no stronger or more intemperate than any theatre critic, art critic or book critic when writing a negative review. Our language sounds strong and intemperate only because of the same weird convention I have already mentioned, that religious faith is uniquely privileged: above and beyond criticism.

* * *

Thanks to Dr. Rajesh Babu, Padma's colleague, for his e-mail alert about Dawkins' website.

Sunil Jain on poverty in India

One of the better commentaries on the latest -- 'thick' -- survey from NSSO is from Sunil Jain. His column has several different strands, and I'm excerpting the poverty strand:

... In 1993-94, we're told India's poverty level was around 36 per cent, and this fell to around 26 per cent in 1999-00.

That is, it fell by around 1.7 percentage points per annum (it fell 0.9 per cent per annum between 1983 and 1993-94). In 2004-05, however, the NSS data suggest two poverty estimates, 22 or 28 per cent. Why there are two estimates is a long story related to how two types of questions were used for different samples, but suffice it to say the 22 per cent figure of 2004-05 poverty levels correlates with the 1999-00 levels of 26 per cent. That is, poverty levels fell by just 0.8 per cent per annum in a period when jobs growth rose anywhere between two and three times!

It is true, the country's poverty experts will tell you, poverty estimates are not calculated on the basis of wages, but from consumption data. But eventually, the two have to give the same results -- if wages go up, consumption will logically go up since the poor are too poor to save, and consumption cannot go up unless wages do, right?

Which corroborates the point economist Surjit Bhalla has been making all these years, that the NSS data capture less and less of the country's actual consumption. Consumption levels in the country can be got in two ways, from the National Sample Survey type of consumption surveys or from the National Accounts, which is where the GDP numbers come from, by aggregating value added in various sectors.

In the perfect world, the total national consumption should be the same from both methods. But, in India, the share of total consumption that you get from the NSS figures is consistently getting smaller -- in the latest round, the NSS consumption figure is less than half got from the national accounts.

I'm adding it to the reading list in this post.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is GDP a good measure?

Eric Weiner in the LATimes.

GDP is the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. GDP measures the size of the pie, not the quality of the ingredients — fresh apples or rotten ones are counted the same. Or, to put it another way, the sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally (assuming the sales price is the same).

GDP doesn't register, as Robert Kennedy put it, "the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate." GDP measures everything, Kennedy concluded, "except that which makes life worthwhile."

* * *

John Quiggin in his blog:

...[T]he Gross Domestic Product is a bad measure of a nation’s economic welfare because it’s Gross (doesn’t net out depreciation of physical or natural capital), Domestic (doesn’t net out income paid overseas) and a Product (takes no account of labour input)).

* * *

In both, you will find Gross Domestic Happiness mentioned as an alternative; however, this is yet to be defined in a rigorous way. But the larger point is still the same: if people's welfare (happiness) is what politics is all about, GDP may not be right proxy for it.

Faculty search: a primer

Candidates come in for interviews. Each interview is a two-day affair. The candidate is scheduled to meet pretty much everyone on the search committee, and maybe a couple of other people in addition if there's time. Usually at 4:00pm on the first day, we have the candidate give a departmental colloquium. We point out to them when we invite them that the audience for our colloquia is very general ... The point is we want to see how well the candidate communicates to a general audience about their work .... There are more visits on the second day. In the late morning (usually), the candidate sits down with the committee and gives a shorter (say 20 minutes) research plan talk. This is where the candidate tells us what they want to do in the near and longer term, and what kind of resources they think they'll need to do it (e.g. a big laser system, or a dilution refrigerator, or access to fab and microscopy tools, etc.). ...

That's from Doug Natelson, who has written "A primer on faculty search" (in a US university, presumably in a science/engineering department). Two posts have appeared, with probably one more to go.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Two exciting advances

Wing regeneration:

Chop off a salamander's leg and a brand new one will sprout in no time. But most animals have lost the ability to replace missing limbs. Now, a research team at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has been able to regenerate a wing in a chick embryo -- a species not known to be able to regrow limbs -- suggesting that the potential for such regeneration exists innately in all vertebrates, including humans.

Their study, published in the advance online edition of Genes and Development on Nov. 17, demonstrates that vertebrate regeneration is under the control of the powerful Wnt signaling system: Activating it overcomes the mysterious barrier to regeneration in animals like chicks that can't normally replace missing limbs while inactivating it in animals known to be able to regenerate their limbs (frogs, zebrafish, and salamanders) shuts down their ability to replace missing legs and tails.

"In this simple experiment, we removed part of the chick embryo's wing, activated Wnt signaling, and got the whole limb back - a beautiful and perfect wing," said the lead author, Juan Carlos Izpis�a Belmonte, Ph.D., a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory.

Human heart valves from stem cells:

Scientists for the first time have grown human heart valves using stem cells from the fluid that cushions babies in the womb, offering an approach that may be used to repair defective hearts.

The idea is to create new valves in the laboratory while a pregnancy progresses and have them ready to implant in a baby with heart defects after it is born.

The Swiss experiment follows recent successes at growing bladders and blood vessels and suggests that people may one day be able to grow their own replacement heart parts, in some cases, even before they are born.

Happiest countries

Here's the list of happiest countries (via BPS Digest):

1. Denmark
2. Switzerland
3. Austria
4. Iceland
5. The Bahamas
6. Finland
7. Sweden
8. Bhutan
9. Brunei
10. Canada

I'm sure you want to know where some of the big countries figure in this list: US (23), China (82), Japan (90), and India (125). The least happy country is Burundi at 178.

NSSO's thick survey, poverty in India, etc.

Finally, the National Sample Survey Organization (NSS or NSSO) has started publishing the results of its large-sample or 'thick' survey from 2004-05 that many people were keenly waiting for. NSSO conducts 'thin' (or, small-sample) surveys annually, and thick surveys every five years.

Sidebar Links:

In May 2005, I had collected some links on poverty in India.

NSSO Press Release

Mor than 50% jobless (Rediff, 30.9.06)

11 % of households headed by women (The Hindu, 30.9.06)

230 million people still below poverty line (The Business Line, 15.6.06)

Have reforms helped India's poor (Businees Standard editorial, 17.11.06)

Sunil Jain's commentary (20.11.06) is quite good.

The previous thick survey, done in 1999-2000, had used a different methodology for collecting poverty-related data from that used in the previous surveys. This made it difficult to compare its results directly with those of earlier surveyes. Thus, in addition to giving us the latest statistical snapshot about the Indian society, the 2004-05 survey is also expected to clear up the confusion arising out of the fiasco unleashed by the previous thick survey [see my earlier post].

Evidently, a lot of information is going to become available when all the reports come out, and we will get a chance to refer to them in various debates. So, let me collect here (in the sidebar) the links to the news stories and commentaries on the NSSO reports. It will help us when we revisit some of the economy-related issues at a later date.

Before I end the post, I want to give an extended quote from yesterday's Business Standard editorial entitled "Have reforms helped India' poor?":

What of the larger poverty question? While the NSS estimated the percentage of people living below the poverty line in 1993-94 at 37 per cent, the latest data place this at 22 or 28 per cent in 2004-05 (the two numbers are derived from two ways of asking the question!).

That is, poverty in India has fallen by between 0.8 and 1.3 percentage points per year. At that rate, it will take up to two decades and more to eradicate absolute poverty - a scenario that most people will rightly find unacceptable.

What complicates the debate is that the measurement of consumption, and therefore poverty, is fatally flawed. The optimists use the data in one way to argue that poverty levels are much less than the official figures aver; right or wrong, this is not the mainstream view, which is that rapid economic growth has not been accompanied by a fast enough decline in poverty levels.

It is important to go beyond the economists' debate and focus on the kind of issues highlighted in the latest Human Development Report. Sanitation levels in India are among the worst in the world, and account for a substantial part of the health problem.

Clean water supply is another scarce commodity. The standards of health and literacy are nothing to write home about, and governance standards in the key states have fallen to levels where the government's programmes suffer from both poor effectiveness and extensive leakages.

These issues need to be addressed because they affect the poor the most, and they are therefore more important for poverty removal than abstract debates about statistical methodology, patterns of development and inclusiveness.

The challenges of development and poverty removal lie more in the area of devising effective delivery models and less in arcane debates about the changing patterns of demand and supply.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A follow-up on resveratrol, the great ingredient in red wine

In addition to enhancing lifespan (even when one is on a high-calorie diet), it has now been shown to increase endurance.

An ordinary laboratory mouse will run one kilometer on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion. But mice given resveratrol, a minor component of red wine and other foods, run twice as far. They also have energy-charged muscles and a reduced heart rate, just as trained athletes do, according to an article published online in Cell by Johan Auwerx and colleagues ...

Indications are that the same effect should work for humans too. Before you start stocking up on red wine, read the fine print (which appears deep in the report):

... Though resveratrol has long been known to be an ingredient of red wine and other foods, its presence there is minuscule compared with the doses used in experiments.

Dr. Sinclair dosed his mice daily with 22 milligrams of resveratrol per kilogram of weight, and Dr. Auwerx used up to 400 milligrams. No one can drink enough red wine to obtain such doses.

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, passed away yesterday at 94. Here is a set of links to obituaries and reminiscences:

I'm sure there will be quite a few insightful commentaries on Friedman's work in the days to come. If you know of any, do please give the link(s) in your comments below. Thanks.

In the meantime, let me just link to Friedman's 1955 memorandum to the Government of India and his 1956 commentary on the Nehru/Mahalanobis Plan.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

M. Natarajan's response ...

... to the series of articles in the Indian Express (I have collected all the links here) trashing the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). In a conference on defence finances, M. Natarajan, the chief of DRDO, made a number of remarks that answer -- only obliquely, of course -- some of the concerns. There's one place where he even talks about "uninformed reporting". Do read this Hindu report on his speech.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Happiness and Genius

Happiness: Sometimes we are not very good at figuring out what we really want; or, our perceptions of what will make us happy or unhappy are unreliable. Implications? Think economics. An old article by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker

Expertise: A review of Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Bottomline: Genius (interpreted here as experts or expert performers) are made, not born.

Blog-writing and writing for publication

Let's look at the evidence, all of which came to my notice last week.

Evidence 1

Let's hear David Warsh (author of the widely acclaimed Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery), who quotes John Updike:

I’ve been discovering how fundamentally antithetical is the world of the blog to the ethos of writing for publication. This disjunction was described supremely well by the novelist John Updike in a little essay that appeared yesterday in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, adapted from an earlier speech to booksellers.

The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us — our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant “Aw, shucks,” disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.

The printed, bound and paid-for book was — still is, for the moment — more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.

Evidence 2

Let's give the mike now to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on happiness :

... I made a commitment to myself when I started this blog that I wouldn’t insult its readers by yapping about nothing just so that I can say I made an appearance. Every one of my blog entries reprints an essay that I spent a great deal of time writing and that I hope is worth your time to read. So for those of you who want to hear me babble about my every third thought, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to get me drunk first. For those of you who don’t want to read a blog that has no real meat on the bone, I’m your man.

Evidence 3

This one is about the blogospheric misrepresentation of what Tim Berners-Lee said at a recent press meet (To be fair, bloggers were not alone; almost all MSM outlets lustily participated in this crime). Here's Becky Hogge on this 'incident':

Let's take a break for comic interlude.

A search on Google News several days after the event reveals tremors still reverberating from as far as Spain, India and Taiwan. "World Wide Web developer concerned Internet could be misused" and "World Wide Web creator warns of cheats and liars" scream the headlines; my favourite being from Mac Daily: "World Wide Web creator (and Apple Mac user) Berners-Lee fears for Web's future."

It was the story the traditional press had been waiting for. Misinformation will take over the web, warns internet inventor; "undemocratic things" will start happening. Quick, big media, save us! And then, just as surely, the backlash: "Hands off the Web, Sir Tim," demanded Sarah Dempster in the Times on 6 November, presumably so that her paper's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, can continue to get his hands on it.

One lonely blog post tells the real story. What had been an attempt to explain how reputation works in the blogosphere had apparently been misinterpreted, and Berners-Lee's words had been "turned upside down into a 'blogging is one of the biggest perils' message," as the Guardian reported on 3 November. The author of said lonely post was one Tim Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee's "lonely post" is here.

Is it possible -- is it just possible -- that a huge number of bloggers are into blogging in a way that was so nicely articulated by Joel Achenbach?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Harsh spotlight on DRDO

Update: Here are the links.

1. Big picture
2. Missiles
3. Main Battle Tank
4. Combat aircraft
5. Who audits the DRDO ?
6. DRDO's human resources
7. Some success stories
8. Advice from V.K. Aatre, DRDO's ex-Chief

Editorial (13 November).

Column by Vinay Shankar who was "director-general, artillery, during the Kargil conflict" (15 November).

Milind Deora's column comparing DRDO with DARPA of the US (21 November 2006)

The Indian Express has an ongoing series of articles (links in the sidebar) by Shiv Aroor and Amitav Ranjan strongly criticising the functioning of Defence Research and Development Organization. The immediate provocation is DRDO's request for an "assured grant' of Rs. 10,000 crores (about 2.2 billion US dollars) every year for the next 15 years.

Using parliamentary testimony (and leaked reports), Aroor and Ranjan pound on the organization relentlessly for sloth, drift, delay, cost overruns, and misleading the country (with its slogans on self-reliance). They cite examples from DRDO's flagship programs: "the ... guided missile programme, the Arjun tank, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas), the Samyukta communication system and Kaveri jet engine."

This sentence sums up the entire series of articles:

... if there’s one thing this behemoth of 50 laboratories with a staff of about 33,000 has developed to almost perfection, it’s this: wrapping itself around the flag to hide a record of delay and non-delivery in virtually all major weapons programmes.


* * *

Thanks to a good friend for the e-mail alert.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Practical importance of abstract ideas

When challenged to show practical importance of abstract ideas, Thomas Carlyle is said to have replied:

There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first.

I found this nugget in the delightful little volume titled Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller (Oxford University Press).

* * *

All this is a round-about way of saying, "The Bangalore Book Fair is on!" It opened last yesterday at the Palace Grounds (Near Mekhri Circle, entrance is on the road towards Windsor Manor), and runs till the 19th of November; it's open during 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 9 p.m. It's big, it's great, it's fun. I have been there, and so have some others. How about you?

Sex quotes

"According to a new survey, women say they feel more comfortable undressing in front of men than they do undressing in front of other women. They say that women are too judgmental, where, of course, men are just grateful."
--Robert De Niro

"Women might be able to fake orgasms. But men can fake whole relationships."
--Sharon Stone

There is more here. Link via Chugs.

Two stories

They are from the interweb, they are short, and they are good. One offers deep wisdom (I think) and the other is very funny.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Philosophia Naturalis

Philosophia Naturalis is a blog carnival -- very much like the now-defunct Bharteeya Blog Mela -- "focused on physical sciences and technology". It has already had three editions: the first was at Science and Reason, the second at our very own Arunn's Nonoscience, and the third (and the latest) at Geek Counterpoint.

The fourth edition of PN will be hosted at Down to Earth. There's even a helpful page on How to suggest an article for PN. So, do hurry!

Pittsburgh Pirates

In an earlier post, I linked to Matthew Price's review of biographies of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon. I had titled that post Pittsburgh Powerhouses after a phrase used by Price. A better title, used for headlining Richard Parker's review in NYTimes, is "Pittsburgh Pirates".

The word "Pirate" used to bring violent and horrific images to mind; after its appropriation by Pittsburgh's baseball team, it now brings to mind (to the American mind, at least) a bunch of people indulging in acts no more violent than throwing, hitting and chasing a ball. (I'm specifically ignoring the comic faux fights that break out every once in a while in baseball games!). The word's past and present reputations parallel, roughly, those of the two Andrews of Pittsburgh. The lives of Carnegie and Mellon had many episodes of atrocious public behaviour (corruption, union busting of a horribly violent sort, tax evasion, the works); and yet, their present reputation is in far better shape, thanks largely to their philanthropic acts that include the founding of many public libraries (Carnegie) and the National Gallery of Art (Mellon).

The biographies seem forbidding: both reviews emphasize their size (together, they add up to a formidable 1700 pages). The reviewers also point to Carnegie as a far more interesting character, and to his biography by David Nasaw as the better of the two. I will certainly be looking out for this book when it becomes available in India (preferably under the crucial 10 dollar price barrier).

Friday, November 10, 2006


Statistics: The only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions.
-- Evan Esar

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Welfare measures for our children

I can go on giving tons of possible reasons why a society should do everything it can to take care of its young children. You know, things like nutrition, good education, and freedom from having to work to earn a living. And the mother's welfare too, during the first few months of the child's life.

I will still not have made as strong a case for welfare measures as Annie has done in just one post. No excerpts will do it justice; so just hop over there and read her post in full.

* * *

A few days ago, I commented on Tim Harford's article on how businesses will love it if women were to delay pregnancy and child-birth to, um, after their retirement. Vivek too commented on that article. One of Annie's recent posts is also on a similar topic: economics of motherhood.

Discoveries that changed human history ...

... and yet, are underappreciated. What might they be? Listen to Thomas Hager:

I am very interested in Big Discoveries —- not theoretical insights, but major hands -- on discoveries that have a direct impact on human lives every day. Many of them are little-known. One was sulfa. Another is the subject of the book I'm finishing now, the discovery of the Haber-Bosch system for nitrogen fixation. In case you've overlooked that one, it's the discovery that's responsible for keeping alive two or three billion people on Earth today; also the source of half the nitrogen in your body. Another in this league, I think, might be the discoveries involved in the long-distance transmission of electricity. All of these changed human life and human history enormously, yet are -— like sulfa and the antibiotic revolution —- simply incorporated into daily life in such fundamental ways that they are ignored.

Here's Thomas Hager's website. His book on the discovery of sulfa drugs sounds quite interesting. In the Seed interview (from which I took the above quote) he says this about what he found interesting in that story:

I stumbled across this story entirely by accident, while I was researching something else. I think what first caught my eye was a researcher who won the Nobel Prize for finding the greatest medicine the world had ever seen, but instead of being honored by his government -— this was in Nazi Germany -— he was tossed in jail. That got my attention. The more I researched [Domagk's] life, the more I saw that his discovery is really a central story of our time. Science is at the core of our culture in so many ways, most of them pretty much unappreciated by most people. And I think this is a core story of twentieth century science, showing not only how science changes lives, but also how politics, money, personal agendas, and luck change science.

* * *

Thanks to Guru for the links.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

An attack ad we can all enjoy!

American voters are going to the polls today to elect a new Congress (all of the House, and a third of the Senate), and I'm sure they are all sick of the attack ads deployed by candidates in elections at all levels -- local, state and federal. But, here's one attack ad that we can all enjoy; this news comes via the good folks at Inside HigherEd:

The University of Chicago Press this spring published In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. John G. Geer, the author, is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, and he argues that “positive ads” tend to focus on personality, while “negative ads” serve a purpose because they are more likely to focus on policy questions.

When Jeremy D. Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, was asked to appear on a panel about Geer’s book, Mayer couldn’t help himself: He prepared an attack ad about Geer. The ad — now featured on the blog of the Chicago press — criticized Geer as a “flip flopper,” questioned whether his CV omits secret details, and cited ratings as questioning his teaching ability. The charges — all false — allegedly come from “Academic Veterans for the Truth.”

Geer said in an e-mail Monday that he found Mayer’s ad funny: “If one defends negativity, one must be willing to be ‘attacked.’ “

Ashis Nandy on Bengalooru

Much of Ashis Nandy's ToI op-ed is a celebration of the many-sided splendours of cities. Towards the end, he gets back to the point:

like the recognition given to Bengalooru. It corrects and compen-sates for the sanitised, 'de-vernacularised' image that Bangalore has always projected first as a city of retired bureaucrats and army officers, then as the capital of Indian science, and now as a citadel of information technology.

Bengalooru, unrecognised by the rest of the world, has always been a living criticism of Bangalore and, outside our range of vision, powered and added colour to Bangalore's rise to eminence. The Bengalooru that has lovingly nurtured Kannada and protected vernacular literature, art, theatre and cinema must be granted its dignity.

For too long it has survived as the underside of Bangalore. But the answer to that is not to turn the situation upside down and pay homage to the new officialese.

The time has come for us to recognise Bengalooru's counter-self in the Bangalore that is being superseded. Now that Bengalooru is official, let us learn to celebrate the charisma of Bangalore.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

WTF: Women in business

From Tim Harford's latest Undercover Economist column:

Women may have already overtaken men at US schools and universities, but perhaps they will not do so in the boardroom until they can reliably delay pregnancy into their fifties and sixties. Then employers might start to dismiss as remote the risk that a valued employee will take time off to have a family. Indeed, having one might become something you do once you’ve made it to the top and retired.

Tim Harford is too smart to put down in black and white all the implications. It's weird to suggest that women wait until changes in their reproductive function -- aided by advances in medicine -- deliver to them boardroom berths and top jobs. And, why should the employers' concerns be paramount? Are they right, for example, in seeing a woman employee as a risk because she "will take time off to have a family"? Isn't it better for business (an institution) to change, rather than for women (real people!) to make different -- expensive, unnatural and possibly risky -- reproductive choices? Wouldn't women -- and men -- be right in fighting to change the attitude of busness?

And, shouldn't Harford lend his voice in support of this fight? That would have been far better than saying lame things like if the reproductive breakthrough materializes, "then employers might start to dismiss as remote the risk that a valued employee will take time off to have a family".

WTF: Wealth of nations

Tyler Cowen's column in the NYTimes::

Economists typically explain the wealth of a nation by pointing to good policies and the quality of a country’s institutions. But why do these differences exist in the first place?

In “A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World”, ... Gregory Clark, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, identifies the quality of labor as the fundamental factor behind economic growth. Poor labor quality discourages capital from flowing into a country, which means that poverty persists. Good institutions never have a chance to develop.

It's not clear from the article how this "quality of labor" thingy is defined; it seems to be some combination of education, skill level, work ethic and so on. It's also not clear how it differs from human capital. In any event, one finds, a little later in the article, this:

The poorer countries remain stuck at the bottom as growing populations mean fewer resources for everyone else. Paradoxically, advances in sanitation and medical care, by saving lives, have driven down well-being for the average person. The population is rising in most of sub-Saharan Africa, but living standards have fallen below hunter-gatherer times and 40 percent below the average British living standard just before the Industrial Revolution. The upshot is this: The problem with foreign aid is not so much corruption but rather that the aid brings some real benefits and enables higher populations. [bold emphasis added]

Did it make you go WTF? In case it was not clear enough, Tyler says it explicitly in his blog post:

Clark also argues that sub-Saharan Africa is poorer than ever before, and that foreign aid worsens a zero-sum Malthusian trap. He makes the startling claim that gains in health are the worst thing we can bring to modern Africa. ... [again, bold emphasis added]

Surprisingly, not many commented on this observation; among the few that did, AdamSmithee has managed just the right tone in his comment [there's more on his blog]:

Thank God for AIDS, then. Surely the best thing to happen for Africa's growth prospects since Mr Mosquito met Mr Falciparum. Although strange that that one didn't seem to help much. Clearly we need Diseases That Try Harder [...]


* * *

Update: Don't miss Mark Thoma's commentary (and the comments thereon) on Tyler's WTF-inducing pronouncement about poor countries and foreign aid.

On the internet ...

... nobody knows you are a dog, according to a rather prescient cartoon in New Yorker (it was published in 1993).

Also, it turns out, nobody knows you are a man, either. Listen to the man behind the woman (woman's blog, actually):

Vishnupriya Roychoudhury is entirely a figment of a very colourful imagination. She was brought to electronic life by a slightly diseased mind with a tiny bit of a god complex.


She was created as a prank. In order to make the prank work better, she was fleshed out. She had a personality, a history, friends and a family. She had interests and opinions. Most importantly, she had three things:

a) an email id
b) an Orkut account
c) a blog

Thanks to a 'man' who calls 'himself' Vivek for the link. [Who knows? One can never be too careful, so it's better to use those 'scare-quotes' ...]

Sankarshan Thakur on Kherlanji

In this Tehelka editorial [link via Shivam]:

The roused conscience of the nation should ask itself why [nobody heeded the horror of the Bhotmanges of Kherlanji]. Because Kherlanji is a remote location? But it’s only a mobile call away from everywhere on earth. Because the Bhotmanges were dalits? Because this was not a People-Like-Us crime? That roused conscience of the nation should ask itself those questions. Does it operate beyond city limits? Is its cry for justice a cry for justice for all?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Atrocity in Kherlanji

This is what happened to one Dalit family in Kherlanji five weeks ago.

Be prepared to cry before you click on that link.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The purpose of studying economics

The purpose of studying economics is to learn how to avoid being deceived by other economists.
-- Joan Robinson

I found this gem in this essay, written by an admirably moderate economist. The whole essay is devoted to a strong argument against "economic fundamentalism".

Resveratrol and lifespan

Exciting new reserach on resveratrol, an ingredient in red wines:

Can you have your cake and eat it? Is there a free lunch after all, red wine included? Researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging report that a natural substance found in red wine, known as resveratrol, offsets the bad effects of a high-calorie diet in mice and significantly extends their lifespan.