Friday, March 30, 2007

The Long Tail in DesiPundit links

Details over at Patrix's blog.

Ranking of US graduate schools based on your priorities

You can do it for your field at the site. For example, if you are an Indian student looking for a high-prestige school, two things that would matter most to you would be (a) indicators of faculty quality and (b) financial assistance. So, I tried a combination that places a lot of value ("extremely important"!) on funding and faculty quality, with other things (such as program size or SAT scores of undergraduates) receiving a priority of "important" or less. For materials science, I got this list which has Northwestern, Caltech, MIT, PennState and UPenn at the top.

The site also offers canned versions of rankings. For example, here's the ranking for "large prestigious programs" in materials science. This one has PennState, Northwestern, MIT, UC-Santa Barbara and Cornell occupying the top five slots.

Do check out this Inside HigherEd story that has more details about this very wonderful way of ranking graduate schools and about some of its limitations.

Even if you don't care much for rankings, you would still be interested in getting some basic data on many different kinds of parameters. The site is useful just for giving us this data in one place. The ranking feature -- interesting as it is -- is icing on the data cake!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shashi Tharoor ...

Cricketers retire, coaches get murdered, actors fade away, politicians get assassinated, the better writers get fatwaed... but fools, they endure. Nothing ever affects them.

These sharp words are from Angry Fix, prompted by this execrable ToI column by Shashi Tharoor about "[saving] the sari from a sorry fate". Emma has an appropriate response [Via Uma] covering multiple levels of badness in Tharoor's piece. [Example: At one point, he casually -- oh so casually -- slides in this stuff about "... the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters."]

Tharoor's 'diplomatic' skills were on display just last week in this NYTimes column with all its gratuitous insults hurled at those uncouth Americans who cannot appreciate cricket's superiority over baseball [is he still angry with them for thwarting his 'election' to the top UN job]. Siddhartha has a great response to that 'bilious sortie by Tharoor'.

Why do universities have so much learning?

The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none out, so [learning] accumulates through the years.
-- A. Lawrence Lowell

From this article by Fred R. Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations. In the article, he goes into the history behind this and a few other quotes (such as 'Publish or perish', and "Academic politics is so bitter because the stakes are so low").

Supreme Court stays the implementation of OBC quotas

Here's the immediate report.

In a major setback to the Centre, the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the implementation of the 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in elite educational institutions like IITs and IIMs for 2007-08.

A Bench comprising Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice L.S. Panda however said that the quota for SC/STs could be implemented by the Centre in these educational institutions.

The judges have not closed the door on quotas ("The Bench said the State is empowered to enact affirmative action to help the backward classes, but it should not be unduly adverse to those who are left out."). So, this is not a setback for the principle of affirmative action.

But the judges appear to be mightily pissed at the government's handling of this 'higher-ed' round of OBC reservation. Thus, this stay is certainly a slap in the face of the UPA government.

Consultants for everything: Personal branding on MySpace

Treating our personalities as products reflects an increasingly competitive society in which the best way to stand out is to develop an engaging--and easily defined--image. Companies and celebrities have been doing it for years. Now it's the average guy's turn. "For a long time, parents discouraged their children from worrying about what others think. They didn't realize how shortsighted and stupid that was," says Mark Leary, a social psychology professor at Duke University who studies impression management. "We need other people to think well of us."

Here's the Link. It comes via Made to Stick.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Importance of 'executive functioning' in children

The measure for academic success for decades has been a person's intelligence quotient, or IQ. But new research published in the journal Child Development says that a thought process called "executive functioning," which governs the ability to reason and mentally focus, also plays a critical role in learning, especially when it comes to math skills.

"It's often thought that kids don't do well because they're dumb, and there's nothing we can do about it," says lead study author Clancy Blair, associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. "But not only is executive function pivotal for academic success, it's amenable to training, and this training might make a big difference in a child?s ability."

From this fascinating Scientific American story. After identifying 'executive function' as important for math ability, it decomposes it further into two components (working memory and inhibitory control), and suggests the kind of problems that can be used for strengthening them.

Blair says that some tests of executive function can be used as training tools. A "backward digit span" test is a case in point: Person A recites a string of numbers, like 3, 6, 10, and person B has to respond with the same string, only in reverse order: 10, 6, 3. This task requires one to restrain his or her automatic inclination to mimic person A (inhibitory control), but also requires keeping the actual numbers in mind (working memory).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Management delusions

Phil Rosenzweig is the author of The Halo Effect: . . . and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers. He has an article based on this book in McKinsey Quarterly (free registration required). Here's the description of the halo effect:

How does the halo effect manifest itself in the business world? Imagine a company that is doing well, with rising sales, high profits, and a sharply increasing stock price. The tendency is to infer that the company has a sound strategy, a visionary leader, motivated employees, an excellent customer orientation, a vibrant culture, and so on. But when that same company suffers a decline—if sales fall and profits shrink—many people are quick to conclude that the company’s strategy went wrong, its people became complacent, it neglected its customers, its culture became stodgy, and more. In fact, these things may not have changed much, if at all. Rather, company performance, good or bad, creates an overall impression—a halo—that shapes how we perceive its strategy, leaders, employees, culture, and other elements.

As an example, when Cisco Systems was growing rapidly, in the late 1990s, it was widely praised by journalists and researchers for its brilliant strategy, masterful management of acquisitions, and superb customer focus. When the tech bubble burst, many of the same observers were quick to make the opposite attributions: Cisco, the journalists and researchers claimed, now had a flawed strategy, haphazard acquisition management, and poor customer relations. On closer examination, Cisco really had not changed much—a decline in its performance led people to see the company differently. Indeed, Cisco staged a remarkable turnaround and today is still one of the leading tech companies. The same thing happened at ABB, the Swiss-Swedish engineering giant. In the 1990s, when its performance was strong, ABB was lauded for its elegant matrix design, risk-taking culture, and charismatic chief executive, Percy Barnevik. Later, when the company’s performance fell, ABB was roundly criticized for having a dysfunctional organization, a chaotic culture, and an arrogant CEO. But again, the company had not really changed much.

Hmmm ... Vivek makes a similar point about Indian cricket team's batting! "There has been no fundamental change in Indian batting in the last few years. We have remained as good (or as bad) as we were before."

Murder most academic

Being a graduate student is the most grueling and intense part of becoming a scientist, but it rarely leads to murder. Here are some rare instances.

Thus begins this rather morbid account of murders by graduate students of their professors and/or advisers. The bloodiest of them -- with the largest number of victims -- took place on Friday, Nov. 1, 1991, at the University of Iowa:

: "... with a .38 caliber revolver and a .22-caliber handgun , [Gang Lu, a physics graduate student] shot five people to death and seriously wounded another before committing suicide."

The people he killed were Christoph K. Goertz (his advisor), Linhua Shan (a fellow Ph.D student from China), Dwight R. Nicholson (department chair), Robert Alan Smith (associate professor, Lu's co-advisor), and T. Anne Cleary (vice President for Academic Affairs at UI). A student employee, Miya Sioson was shot in her spine, permanently paralyzing her arms and legs. [source: Wikipedia entry on Gang Lu].

NYTimes carries another story today about the movie Dark Matter, "a fictionalized account inspired by the [University of Iowa] shootings". The movie, by Chen Shi-Zheng, has already won a film festival award; it's not clear when it will open in theatres. Here's an extract:

As Mr. Chen, the director, said, “[The movie is] about power, in a way.” That would be the nearly feudalistic power that a graduate adviser has over his student, who after 16 or more years sitting in a classroom listening and regurgitating information must now change gears and learn how to produce original research. That grueling process has been the crucible in which new scientists are made ever since Plato mentored Aristotle, and although it rarely leads to murder [adjoining article], it can often lead to disaffection, strife and lifelong feuds.

If you are really upto it, you could read The Fourth State of Matter a deeply harrowing (and fictionalized) narrative by Jo Ann Beard (whose boss was Chris Goetz, Gang Lu's adviser and one of his victims), in which the Iowa shootings play a central role.

Best practitioners of the (modified) Vatican Roulette find it effective!

Christopher Mims of the Scientific American presents the key results in the second and third paragraphs:

A new German study, however, has found that, when practiced correctly, a method of periodic abstinence known as the sympto-thermal method (STM) leads to an unintended pregnancy rate of only 0.6 percent annually. This rate is comparable with that of unintended pregnancies in women who use birth control pills, the most popular method of contraception in the U.S.

For the sympto-thermal method to work, women must keep track of three things: their core body temperature, the fertile days of their cycle as measured by a calendar, and their cervical secretions. Using this information, women are able to abstain from sex during their fertile period, which is the two weeks that surround the day on which they ovulate. According to lead study author Petra Frank-Herrmann, a fertility researcher at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, STM is more effective than the other so-called periodic abstinence methods because it uses more than one type of information to predict the dates of a woman's fertile period.

The rest of the story is used to point out how STM cannot work for everyone, and in particular, young couples: As a women's health expert says in the story, "It's difficult to abstain from sex for two out of four weeks. That means half the month you can't have sex. That's very difficult for young couples"

The best summary of the story appears right in the first paragraph:

For years the birth control methods collectively known as periodic abstinence have been jokingly referred to as "Vatican roulette," a nod to the fact that these techniques are both Vatican approved and quite likely to end in pregnancy.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Travel through India in 10 days!

Well, it's not quite all of India. Jonathan Allen of NYTimes suggests a short trip through New Delhi, Agra, Gwalior and Orchha.

Did he say Orchha?

About 90 minutes south of Gwalior by train, Orchha was once the grand capital city of the powerful Bundela clan, but is now, as per the usual laws of Indian entropy, a cheerful farming village. The main 17th-century, semi-ruined palace complex sits on what amounts to an island in the Betwa, an implausibly clean and pretty river. For a little baksheesh, one of the guards will unlock a couple of the royal bedrooms leading off the main quadrangle in the Raj Mahal to reveal some well-preserved murals of hunting scenes.

A 20-minute walk south along the river bank leads to the cenotaphs of Orchha's former rulers, each a large mansion-size hunk of spire-topped stone. You can hunt around the walls for the deathly slippery stone staircases to the roofs, where you can sit among the spires enjoying the river views alongside the resident vultures.

Orchha village itself is dominated by its lively market-lined square, where bedraggled, dreadlocked and saffron-robed sadhus — ascetic Hindu holy men — wander around in a kind of daze, detached from the more pedestrian plane of reality through a precise combination of religious devotion and cannabis. Sometimes a few of them will sing very long songs.

On one side of the square stands the cavernous Chaturbhuj Mandir, looking as much like a hollowed-out European cathedral as a Hindu temple; nearby is the gaudy Ram Raja Temple, a magnet for Hindu pilgrims and wedding parties.

There's also some good temple-hopping in the opposite direction to the cenotaphs, where temple spires — sikharas — recede into the soggy horizon spanned with flooded rice paddies. The occasional child might come galloping over from three fields away in the certain knowledge you'll want her posing in your photograph, but by and large so few tourists bother to come here that the local women have taken to drying their laundry on the information boards.

I will wait for my favourite travel blog to comment on Allen's choice of places for an American to visit.

Abel Prize for S.R.S. Varadhan

I would like to join Swarup and Guru in their celebration of Prof. Srinivasa Varadhan's winning this year's Abel Prize. The Science magazine's report on the award is here.

Srinivasa Varadhan, a researcher at New York University (NYU) in New York City, has won the 2007 Abel Prize for mathematics. The $975,000 award--bestowed by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters--honors Varadhan's contributions to the field of probability theory, a branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of random phenomena. The Abel citation credits Varadhan for fundamental work that has "greatly expanded our ability to use computers to simulate and analyze the occurrence of rare events."

Fittingly, in the manner of a random event, the prize announcement on Thursday caught Varadhan by surprise. "It was a shock. I couldn't believe it. It's still like a dream," he told Science.

* * *

Thanks also to Anant and Anand for e-mail alerts.

A new biography of Albert Einstein

Einstein and women are a complicated story, and Isaacson doesn’t attempt to tell it all. There were a number of extramarital relationships; how many of them tipped from companionship into sex is, like the electron, difficult to measure.

That's from this wonderful New Yorker review by John Updike of Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe.

American universities in India

In today's NYTimes, Somini Sengupta has a story about the American universities' growing interest in India. The second part of her article examines the different models used by those universities.

... American universities, eager to expand to markets abroad, are training their sights on India. Some 40 percent of the population is under 18, and a scarcity of higher education opportunities is frequently cited as a potential hurdle to economic progress.

The American universities are just testing the waters, because the law here is still vague on how foreign educational institutions can operate. But that may soon change.

[The Bush administration’s envoy for public diplomacy, Karen P. Hughes, is visiting India this week with a half-dozen American university presidents to promote Brand America in Indian education. The United States wants an easing of rules under a draft law on foreign investment in Indian education, which is to be introduced in Parliament in April.]

If the law is approved, foreign institutions would be exempt from strict rules that currently apply to all government-accredited universities in India on fees, staff salaries and curriculums. The government has already proposed setting up an expert committee to review the standards and reputation of foreign universities that want to establish independent campuses here.

The growing American interest in Indian education reflects a confluence of trends. It comes as American universities are trying to expand their global reach in general, and discovering India’s economic rise in particular. It also reflects the need for India to close its gaping demand for higher education.

Among Indians ages 18 to 24, only 7 percent enter a university, according to the National Knowledge Commission, which advises the prime minister’s office on higher education. To roughly double that percentage — effectively bringing it up to par with the rest of Asia — the commission recommends the creation of 1,500 colleges and universities over the next several years. India’s public universities are often woefully underfinanced and strike-prone.

Indians are already voting with their feet: the commission estimates that 160,000 Indians are studying abroad, spending an estimated $4 billion a year. Indians and Chinese make up the largest number of foreign students in the United States.

"Largest poisoning of a population in history"

That would be the ongoing crisis caused by arsenic-laden groundwater in many parts of the state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The latest issue of Science has a story about the dangers (probably pay-walled) the people in these parts have already been exposed to, and about the lack of a vigorous response from the Central and State governments. Some excerpts:

Although there are no reliable statistics on arsenic victims in India and Bangladesh, one research group has counted at least 14,000 cases of arsenicosis in West Bengal alone. The arsenic scourge, says Allan Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the "largest poisoning of a population in history."

It didn't have to turn out this way--certainly not in India, whose government frequently touts the country's burgeoning science and technology capacity. Here in West Bengal, officials have had a quarter-century to tackle the contamination. (Bangladesh learned of the threat a decade later.) Yet the government failed to investigate it adequately or provide alternative water resources to affected areas, critics charge. "For many years, government officials accused us of lying and exaggerating the problem," says dermatologist Kshitish Saha, who uncovered the first cases of arsenicosis while at the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata.

Vi$ta: Just say 'No.' World Cup: Just say 'Yes.'

If you need reasons for saying 'No!' to Vi$ta, go here. "What went wrong? Basically, Vista was designed with almost no consideration for the needs of Microsoft's customers." And here's something else from that post: "Small business and consumer demand for computers with Windows XP is very high, but Microsoft has moved swiftly to make sure they can't get it. No sane person wants Vista, so Microsoft is making sure they have no choice."

In other news, India's officially out of the cricket World Cup. For some commentary on what went wrong, see Dilip's post. As for the deeds of disappointed Indian fans, both Dilip and Rahul find the right words to describe them.

This ends my obligatory post on both Vi$ta and the World Cup.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lawyerly links ...

  • Jeffrey Rosen on the impact of neuroscience on law: "To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. But should judges and juries really be in the business of defining the normal or properly working brain? And since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused?" [Link via n! in a comment to this post].
  • Matthew Hutson on the 'science' of jury selection: "Jury consulting has become a big business over the past three decades. Hundreds of firms now rake in several hundred million dollars a year. ... Despite all the money and research poured into predicting and shaping jury decisions, to a large degree the state of the art remains just that: art." [Link via the excellent Situationist Blog].
  • Talking about lucrative 'professions' that derive their sustenance from lawsuits, you have to read about Berkeley economist David Teece, who has built a consultancy firm around his expertise in being an expert witness in business litigation. "LECG has been a fast-growing company for most of its existence and has 32 offices in 10 countries. But it stumbled last year, when it earned $21.5 million on revenue of $354 million." [Link via Alex Thomas].

Best sentence I have read in a long time

Research suggests that we are hard-wired with a strong and intuitive moral impulse — an urge to help others that is every bit as basic as the selfish urges that get all the press.

This is from a NYTimes column titled "Compassionate Commercialism" by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The column itself is about the nasty and corrosive effects of ads that appear to 'use' our humanity and compassion to insult us.

Hidden social costs of vehicles

What are the hidden costs? The Centre for Science and Environment and its chief Sunita Narain have come up with a whole bunch of them; Swaminathan Aiyar's column in today's ToI has a nice summary of their work. Here's one of the hidden costs:

... [C]ars impose high social costs by occupying parking space. Residential space in Delhi sells for Rs 1.5 lakh per square yard in most localities. So a parking lot 100 yards long and 20 yards wide has a social cost of Rs 30 crore. A single parking space of 23 sq m has a social cost of Rs 37.8 lakh. A car occupies more space than an office desk, yet the desk space pays full commercial rent while parking space costs just Rs 10 per day.

This is a huge, unwarranted subsidy, especially to those who keep their cars parked all day. In New York or Washington DC, parking costs $9 (Rs 400) per hour. CSE's efforts to raise the parking rate to Rs 120/day in Delhi were kayoed by the middle class and politicians. The parking space occupied by cars is estimated by CSE at 11% of Delhi's area, as much as all its parks put together. That is a measure of the social cost.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Helsinki Complaints Choir: "It's not fair!"

This video is fantastic! [via Cosma Shalizi]. Punchiest complaint? "Our ancestors could have chosen a sunnier place to be!"

Talking about complaints, here's a video that should make Hillary Clinton complain bitterly. But why is Apple (the company whose ad is used in this parody) not complaining?

And here's a Ph.D. (Piled Higher & Deeper) comic strip that made the professor in me wince. The rest of me appreciated the strong dose of truth in it ...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Doctorly links

First, Dr. Jerome Groopman on the kinds of mistakes (and logical fallacies) in diagnosis doctors make.

Let's deconstruct Leslie's case. Yes, the arrival of a third child can cause stress in a family. This truth strongly colored the physicians' impressions, so they made what is called "an attribution error." This involves stereotyping -- in Leslie's case , casting her as an anxious and somewhat depressed and distraught postpartum woman. The diagnosis of indigestion and abdominal discomfort with occasional diarrhea was too quickly fit into the pattern of a stress-related condition.

The doctors fixed on this diagnosis, so called "anchoring" where the mind attaches firmly to one possibility. Anchoring so tightly to one diagnosis and not broadly considering others is called "premature closure." Even when, later in Leslie's evaluation, a blood test result was obtained that was very abnormal, it was not sufficiently considered; no one involved in her case could lift their mental anchor and comprehensively explore other possibilities.

Discounting such discrepant or contradictory data is called "confirmation bias" -- the mind cherry-picks the available information to confirm the anchored assumption rather than revising the working diagnosis.

We have met Dr. Groopman here.

* * *

And, this one is for my ophthalmologist wife: NYTimes carries a wonderful article by Jane Brody about the advances in cataract surgery that has made it a two-hour outpatient procedure.

After a preoperative health checkup and eye exam by the ophthalmologic surgeon, he entered a freestanding eye clinic at 8 one morning and walked out an hour and a half later with a “new” eye, able to walk the streets, drive and even read without glasses. The morning after surgery, the acuity in his left eye was already 20/25, and further improvement was expected as it healed.

It is nothing short of amazing. ...

Foreign students going to the US

This report is interesting: it analyzes the trend in student (F1) visas issued by the US embassies and consulates in various countries. It covers the period 1998 to 2006.

The number of student visas issued to Indian and Chinese students in 2006 was double the number for 1998, with roughly more than 26,000 visas issued for each country.

In India, government and private sources have been providing students with more grants and loans to pursue international education. In China's case, an unusually large percentage of students in the U.S. study at the graduate level and are thus more likely to qualify for teaching and research positions that can reduce the cost of their tuition, thus removing a major barrier to seeking an education in the U.S.

This report points to this page on the Open Doors website with country-specific information. The Fact Sheet for India (doc) tells us that in the year 2004-05, there were nearly 80,500 Indian students studying in US universities, making India "the leading place of origin for students in the United States." A huge majority of Indian students (72 %) were in grad schools, with 20 % pursuing undergraduate courses.

Thanks to Scott Jaschik of Inside HigherEd for the pointer.

Neurobiological basis of morality?

Following up on this post from two days ago: The latest issue of Nature has a paper (abstract, via Swarup) by Michael Koenigs and coworkers with some fascinating results. Here's an extract from a NYTimes story on it:

Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists reported yesterday. In a new study, people with this rare injury expressed increased willingness to kill or harm another person if doing so would save others’ lives.

The findings are the most direct evidence that humans’ native revulsion to hurting others relies on a part of neural anatomy, one that evolved before the higher brain regions responsible for analysis and planning.

Drug companies' payments to doctors -- 2

Following up on yesterday's piece (see the previous post), Gardiner Harris reports on how FDA is handling this issue:

Expert advisers to the government who receive money from a drug or device maker would be barred for the first time from voting on whether to approve that company’s products under new rules announced Wednesday for the F.D.A.’s powerful advisory committees.

Indeed, such doctors who receive more than $50,000 from a company or a competitor whose product is being discussed would no longer be allowed to serve on the committees, though those who receive less than that amount in the prior year can join a committee and participate in its discussions.

A “significant number” of the agency’s present advisers would be affected by the new policy, said the F.D.A. acting deputy commissioner, Randall W. Lutter, though he would not say how many. The rules are among the first major changes made by Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach since he was confirmed as commissioner of food and drugs late last year.

Advisory boards recommend drugs for approval and, in rare cases, removal, and their votes can have enormous influence on drug company fortunes.

“The $50,000 threshold is something that we think strikes an appropriate balance between” getting smart advisers and reassuring the public that their advice is not tainted, Dr. Lutter said.

Harris quotes a recent incident:

In one famous example, 10 of the 32 advisers who voted in 2005 to allow the painkiller Bextra to remain on the market and the painkiller Vioxx to return to the market despite safety worries had taken money from the drug makers. Under the new rules, their votes would not have counted and the committee would have voted to keep both drugs off the market.

In the end, the F.D.A. removed Bextra from the market anyway, and Vioxx has never returned. But the controversy surrounding that panel’s vote, and similar ones, tarnished the process and provided new fodder for critics in Congress.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The ethics of pharma companies' payments to doctors

The preferred mode, at least in the US, seems to be to invite doctors to deliver lectures. Another is to fund this or that foundation, and perhaps to fund the doctors' research. Do read NYTimes article by Gardiner Harris and Janet Roberts:

... [R]esearch shows that doctors who have close relationships with drug makers tend to prescribe more, newer and pricier drugs — whether or not they are in the best interests of patients.

Here's a specific case:

Dr. Donald Hunninghake served on a government-sponsored advisory panel that wrote guidelines for when people should get cholesterol-lowering pills. The panel’s 2004 recommendations that far more people get the drugs became controversial when it was revealed that eight of nine members had financial ties to drug makers. The full extent of those ties have never been revealed.

In the story, all the big recipients denied that the money affected them in any way at all. They were doing it (and receiving money for it, whatever 'it' is) without it biasing them in any way. Some former drug company insiders, on the other hand, are more candid:

... [F]ormer drug company sales representatives said they hired doctors as speakers mostly in hope of influencing that doctor’s prescribing habits.

“The vast majority of the time that we did any sort of paid relationship with a physician, they increased the use of our drug,” said Kathleen Slattery-Moschkau, a former sales representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Johnson & Johnson who left the industry in 2002. “I hate to say it out loud, but it all comes down to ways to manipulate the doctors.”

And, here's how another (former) drug company executive put it:

“If a doctor says that he got flown to Maui, stayed at the Four Seasons — and it didn’t influence him a bit? Please.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evolutionary origins (?) of morality

Macaques and chimpanzees have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment. Other primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape.

These four kinds of behavior — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — are the basis of sociality.

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

From this NYTimes article by Nicholas Wade. The first part of the article lays out the evidence used in arguing about how morality might have evolved. But the second part is more interesting: it's here that philosophers get to air their objections to the evolutionary view of morality!

'Please fail very quickly—so that you can try again'

That is from Erich Schmidt, Google's CEO, quoted in this Economist story on how corporate R&D has changed in the last several decades. It's a little too computing-centric; it covers the R&D philosophy at companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, HP ... For example, here's the bit about Cisco:

The post-war R&D model needs updating ... because companies now have a greater choice of where to shop for ideas. “If you go back to that period of AT&T, there wasn't the same kind of engineering going on at universities, and Bell Labs could not rely on an external cadre of engineers for their research—they really had to do it internally,” says Charles Giancarlo of Cisco.

He admits his company has long been accused of “R&D by M&A”—but he does not see why that should be a problem. Cisco spends $4.3 billion a year on employing over 16,000 engineers around the world, in addition to tapping into the venture-capital industry's start-ups. Basic research inside companies is impossible in a competitive industry, according to Mr Giancarlo. “We might decry this on a public-policy basis, but at least as far as public markets are concerned it is a Darwinian world. You live or die by that.”

Commenting on this article, Gordon Watts makes a valid point:

But this product driven model won’t work for the next big thing. If transistors powered this revolution — what will power the next? You’ll need something hidden away, insulated from the corporate winds, to do that research. Currently only the government has a “business model” that can fund that sort of research.

If basic research (which will lead to the 'next big thing') is the responsibility of universities, Doug Natelson points to some of the problems:

... Anyone who knows how university research actually works can tell you many reasons why this is a bad idea. Apart from low-level practical considerations (publish vs patent? foreign vs. domestic students? export controls?), the big killer here is just one of resources. Back when I was at Bell, if they wanted to they could have put a dozen condensed matter PhDs to work on a problem, along with technical support staff. Given how universities work, with teaching commitments, administrative tasks, student timescales, etc., no university achieve that kind of critical mass.

In comments, Incoherent Ponderer seems to agree:

Universities are not likely to fill the vacancy, for reason Doug mentions - university research happens in small groups, collaborations are often discouraged - everyone wants to claim the intellectual ownership of idea/research. Besides, grant reviews every 3 years makes it difficult to do long-term research.

'More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette'

That was one of the slogans used in ads a long time ago, according to this short history of cigarettes as they went from from "a cultural icon of sophistication, glamour and sexual allure" during 1900s to 1960s to "a symbol of death and disease" today. Needless to add, the essay by Howard Markel also goes into Big Tobacco's shady shenanigans, as described in a recent book (The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America) by Allan M. Brandt, a medical historian at Harvard.

In 2004, Dr. Brandt was recruited by the Department of Justice to serve as its star expert witness in the federal racketeering case against Big Tobacco and to counter the gaggle of witnesses recruited by the industry. According to their own testimony, most of the 29 historians testifying on behalf of Big Tobacco did not even consult the industry’s internal research or communications. Instead, these experts focused primarily on a small group of skeptics of the dangers of cigarettes during the 1950s, many of whom had or would eventually have ties to the tobacco industry.

"I was appalled by what the tobacco expert witnesses had written," Dr. Brandt said in a recent interview. "By asking narrow questions and responding to them with narrow research, they provided precisely the cover the industry sought."

Apparently, the judge, Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed. Last August, she concluded that the tobacco industry had engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to defraud smokers about tobacco’s health dangers. Her opinion cited Dr. Brandt’s testimony more than 100 times.

On committee-giri

In her Outlook column, Laila Tyabji describes the dynamics of government committees. Tyabji's credentials in committee-giri ("My diary reveals I spend an average of 45 to 50 days a year on government committees, commissions, and consultations ...") allow her to distill the key features of being a part of sarkari panels:

The one common factor of all these disparate, diverse appointments is the effusive ritual dance of initiation and the correspondingly brusque termination. When one is first invited to join each committee or board, one is wooed, feted and fussed over. The secretary of the relevant ministry calls to beg one's "invaluable" guidance, followed by a formal, hand-delivered letter, one's name is listed in the official gazetteer, at least one flunkey escorts one inside the ministry. Sometimes, there are garlands and five-star lunches.

But when one's usefulness is over, or a change in government results in the inevitable "reconstitution" of the committee, it all ends with neither a cheer nor a whimper—just silence. Gone are the notices in triplicate (fax, e-mail, and hard copy), the urgent phone calls to ensure one's presence, the obsequious PAs desperate to get a quorum, lying through their teeth that the minister has expressly asked for one's presence, the compliments on the sagacity of one's insights, or the beauty of one's sarees...

The silence is so complete that, until, somewhere, sometime, there is casual mention of such and such meeting, one actually doesn't realise one is no longer a member! No thank-you letters, no telephonic intimation, not even a handshake acknowledging one's services, to break the news that one is no longer required! Every government department behaves in exactly the same way. [...]

Monday, March 19, 2007

Radical proposal for college admissions


In that column, Barry Schwartz outlines some of the virtues of this proposal (in essence, reduced stress on high school kids, all the good things that will flow from it). In addition, he points to our tendency to overestimate our ability to pick that one best thing out of many 'good enough' things (this applies to kids picking colleges and vice versa):

The tragedy of all this selectivity and competition is that it is almost completely pointless. Students trying to get into the best college, and colleges trying to admit the best students, are both on a fool's errand. They are assuming a level of precision of assessment that is unattainable. Social scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards made this case 30 years ago when they articulated what they called the "principle of the flat maximum." What the principle argues is that when comparing the qualifications of people who are bunched up at the very top of the curve, the amount of inherent uncertainty in evaluating their credentials is larger than the measurable differences among candidates. Applied to college admissions, this principle implies that it is impossible to know which excellent student (or school) will be better than which other excellent student (or school). Uncertainty of evaluation makes the hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students a waste of time; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data. It also makes the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges silly for assuming a precision of measurement that is unattainable.

We also tend to underestimate the role of 'luck':

Now, it is no doubt true that, on average, students at the very top of the heap of outstanding applicants will be more likely to succeed than students near the bottom. But plenty of high school superstars turn out to be supernovas who burn out while at college. In my 35 years at Swarthmore, I've seen more than my share of "can't miss" freshmen miss (not for intellectual reasons but for psychological ones including all those pre-college years spent becoming "can't miss"). Surprisingly, there are no good studies on how ranking at the time of admission predicts college achievement, not to mention achievement in life after college.

There is probably a right answer to the questions "Whom should we admit?" or "Which college should I select?" But we won't know until after the fact. Chance factors (roommate assignment, romantic successes or failures, or which English professor evaluates your first papers) might have a bigger effect on success and satisfaction than the tiny differences among applicants (or schools) within the range of acceptability. So once a set of "good enough" students or "good enough" schools has been identified, it probably doesn't matter much which one you choose; or if it does matter, there is no way to know in advance what the right choice is.

Barry Schwartz is at Swarthmore College. His publications are listed here (with some links). His 2004 commencement address ("... I want to talk to you today about autonomy, freedom, and choice") has some of the best advice anyone can get.

More Economist bashing

Following up on this post with links to pieces by James Fallows and Tom Scocca, here's a bit more. There are two posts with great comment threads: Brad DeLong and Henry Farrell.

And, here's Brad Plumer on the Economist, before he gets to what is wrong with one of its articles on the Green Revolution:

Whenever I'm traveling and not keeping up with current events—as has been the case over the past two weeks—I tend to pick up a copy of the Economist at the nearest airport in order to catch up. "How nice," I say, "this pretty little newsmagazine has all the international news I need to stay abreast." Plus, of course, it has that British "edge" we insecure yuppies find so enchanting. What's not to love?

The downside is that I sometimes get taken in by the magazine's very subtle and usually quite reasonable-sounding free-market agitprop. For reasons unknown, I find myself nodding amiably when I read: "And that's what makes America so dynamic." Or: "This problem is nothing a bit of market competition can't solve." Or: "Of course, since Marxism is fatally flawed..." (And since I was too busy salvaging what usable chunks I could from my United Airlines "chicken" dinner, I could hardly come up with the usual retorts: "Dynamic for whom?" Or: "That's what we're afraid of." Or: "No it's not.") It's stunning, how charmingly right-wing this pretty little newsmagazine is.

For what it's worth, here's what I wrote about the Economist's take on open souce projects.

[Some people in the comments threads have talked about the high quality of the Economist's science pages. I agree. It does feature some very good science writing (at least in physics and mathematics).]

The Economist's own Democracy in America blog links to some of the articles and blog posts. Its un-named author admits that there are 'some fair points' in the criticism; he/she doesn't elaborate on what they are.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Mashelkar resigns

Today, Mashelkar resigned from the 'Technical Expert Committee'. In doing so, he has chosen to take cheapshots at his critics:

In a letter faxed to Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary Ajay Dua, Mashelkar said he was "deeply pained by the fact that doubts, explicit or implicit", have been expressed about his "integrity, competence and motives".

In the light of "personalised attack", Mashelkar said he was relinquishing the position of Committee Chairman and had dissociated completely from the technical expert group on patent law issues.

In choosing to highlight the 'personalised attacks', Mashelkar does serious disservice to those who have used substantive arguments to criticize the Panel's report. Even though plagiarism was the initial trigger, the report has been slammed more for its anemic and poor quality analysis. As Dwijen Rangnekar points out in this EPW article:

... [The Mashelkar Panel report] couches its recommendations in hesitant tones. For instance, in paragraph 5.6 it says that the proposed exclusion is "likely" to contravene India's obligations under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement and proceeds to acknowledge the "perception that even the current provisions of the Patents Act could be held to be TRIPS-non-compliant." Unfortunately, we are neither told why this is "likely" nor whose "perceptions" were considered.

For a more scathing evaluation -- but very much within the realm of professional trashing of a report in the public domain -- take a look at what Graham Dutfield has to say:

Frankly, the Mashelkar report is absolute rubbish and should be trashed completely. And not because of the particular conclusions it came up with. It would not have been a better quality report if the conclusions had been the other way. One wonders how much time these committee members spent on a report that they were apparently given 1-2 years to produce, and that is so feeble. These people plagiarised 14 lines of Shamnad Basheer's paper plus 22 lines comprising a slight "repackaging" of the definitions of micro-organism compiled from the literature by Margaret Llewelyn and Mike Adcock for the Quaker UN Office as presented (and correctly cited) in Basheer's report. That=92s my count but I may have missed more than this. So that is 36 lines from, well, not a 56 page report as the Indian press tends to state, but one that just about stretches to 10 pages excluding annexes. As for Annex 5, this seems to have been put together by a Brazilian law firm. But thankfully they are named, so the committee is at least in the clear there from accusations of plagiarism.

They were so unprofessional and incompetent that that couldn=92t even do a proper table of contents, with the section numbering going from page 2 to 4, back to 2, 10, 15, back again to 2, and then 8-53. If this came from my students as "finished" work, I would throw it back at them. But the audience is not me or a couple of PhD examiners: it's the government and people of India. How can they look at themselves with pride when they are so sloppy even about the most basic report writing tasks?

Let's now look into the text. Some of these problems were pointed out to me by my student Rajesh Sagar but I have gone through it all myself too. On page 2 they refer to themselves as an Expert Group. I shall resist the temptation for cheap sarcasm and move on. Suffice it to say, this report displays little genuine expertise.

On page 4, the first paragraph repeats what is on page 2. This means that section 1.0 (Background) and 2.0 (Approach) contain the same text, albeit 2.0 adds the names and job titles of these eminences. After this it hardly gets better.

On page 5, Annex II promises to summarise patenting practices relating to new chemical entities and micro-organisms in some countries. For NCEs, it summarises that of just one country, the USA. As for micro-organisms, the number of countries covered isn't at all great. Such information is very easy to get. Apparently they could not be bothered to go find it. That's poor.

Page 5 also promises to provide a summary of the various submissions and presentations. Well, there are quite a few of those submissions and presentations. In fact, they form the greater part of the whole report. But there is little if anything in the way of synthesis or analysis of these. One wonders how and in what way they influenced the thinking of the commissioners. Or are they just there for window dressing?

On page 6, the report chooses not to say anything about new medical entities except to note they are not mentioned in TRIPS. Is that not a missed opportunity and a failure to fully comply with the terms of reference? Looks like a cop-out to me.

I understand Professor Mashelkar is a very distinguished scientist. Nonetheless, this is much more than just a "slip -- in the rush of the last working day", as he called it. Having said that, this report minus annexes could have been written by five reasonably hardworking people in one day quite easily! As for his talk of "technical inaccuracies", that's an incredible euphemism for plagiarism; rather like Janet Jackson's notorious "wardrobe malfunction" for what others might call "indecent exposure"!

Finally, the whole report looks very suspicious to me. My guess is that the conclusions had been decided on from the start. This would explain their total disinterest in producing any original and objective legal and technical evidence to support those conclusions. I think they just couldn't be bothered. Therein lies the real scandal of this affair, not the plagiarism.

I am willing to concede that a sensitive soul might take the sentence -- "My guess is that ... " -- in the last paragraph as bordering on the personal (and also that Dutfield has other grouses with Mashelkar); but the rest of it is just good solid fisking! To focus on the 'personalised attacks' so exclusively as to ignore the substantive critique is also a form of cheating.

Under the circumstances, the only right response would be "I goofed. Big Time. I'm sorry." It is clear that Mashelkar is not willing to say it.


My education was dismal. I went to a series of schools for mentally disturbed teachers.
-- Woody Allen.

Parasites, bacteria, scavengers, rag-pickers ...

... and bloggers!

Nicholas Carr's article appeared in the Guardian sometime ago, and in the Hindu today.

Questioning the 'public morality' of the Mashelkar Panel

Today's ToI carries a stinging critique by Sudhir Krishnaswamy, who is on the faculty the National Law School University of India (NLSUI):

Policy-makers and government functionaries cannot be swayed by the forms and fashions of discourse and must advance the 'public interest' in all circumstances.

To meet this demanding standard, policy-making must be an exercise in elaborate public reasoning — where policy-makers consider varied interest group positions and reconcile them in a coherent fashion.

TEG has completely failed to meet this standard or appreciate its role. Recent disclosures point out that the central conclusions in their report are directly reproduced — without citation — from a consultancy research paper.

Mainstream media debate in the last fortnight has focused on the charge of plagiarism. But an equal, if not more serious concern, is interest group capture.

In the absence of a vigilant civil society which exposed these faults, the plagiarised conclusions would have masqueraded as the 'official view' and may have even secured government approval.

The public morality of the policy formulation process is of far greater consequence than the personal morality of TEG members that the charge of plagiarism highlights. ...

In the first part of his column, Krishnaswamy counters Shamnad Basheer's defence of his work against allegations of bias:

The author of the paper defends the academic integrity of his paper by citing his university affiliations as a law professor and a doctoral student, and insists that since his paper satisfies the highest academic standards, only academic objections are relevant.

For an academic to claim that one's research is both neutral and not compromised, it is not sufficient to merely belong to an academic institution in the formal sense.

Other conditions under which the research is carried out are relevant as it is necessary to prevent a potential blurring of the lines between one's role as an academic researcher and as a consultant.

A fundamental requirement for the paper to be an academic paper is that one should not receive financial assistance from any party which has a commercial interest in the outcome of the research.

The 2005 paper was funded by INTERPAT which consists of multinational pharmaceutical companies directly concerned with findings of TEG.

It would make little difference if the paper had been funded by Indian generic pharmaceutical companies.

In either circumstance, we must conclude that research done under these conditions is 'consultancy' research which represents the concerns of a particular interest group.

JEE blues

The notoriously brutal -- and also non-standardized and noisy -- Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) is just a few weeks away. Now that the board exams are over, preparing for the JEE becomes the chief -- only ? -- occupation for hundreds of thousands of hapless aspirants with hyper-competitive parents.

What with numerous distractions during daytime, coaching class tutors feel students get little time for a lengthy, uninterrupted session of study.

Many of them, therefore, prefer to call them in at night for some long and intensive sessions. Praveen Tyagi, who runs the IITian's Pace coaching centre, is among those who prefers this method. [...] The institute conducts five to seven [classes] in a month which run from 9 pm to 7 am with breaks every three hours.

Sometimes, if a student starts to doze off, he either gets a light whack from his neighbour, or has some water sprinkled over him. [Source].

* * *

Here's something that made the news last year. And here's something from 2003 [with bold emphasis added]:

The heavy demand for IIT admissions has spawned a number of institutes and tutorials offering coaching for the JEE. One preparatory school, the Ramiah Institute in Hyderabad, which claims an extraordinarily high rate of success in sending students to the IITs, has gone so far as to conduct an entrance exam for students to gain admission into its own training course! An IIT hopeful who attends the year-long preparatory course at the Ramiah Institute goes through a punishing process. A typical day at the Institute is reputed to begin at 4.30 a.m. and go on till 8 a.m., when the students leave for regular school. After school, students undergoing the course need to spend long hours completing the homework assigned by the Ramiah Institute.

* * *

On a lighter note -- oh, maybe not! -- Cosmic Voices (who would make an excellent Minister for Wars, Takeovers and Other External Affairs -- for Andhra Pradesh!) has a plan for how Andhra can annex IIT-M in exchange for a few TMCFT of Krishna water.

Criticizing the Economist

Two examples: First up, here's James Fallows, writing in 1991:

A certain modesty would seem appropriate in The Economist’s leaders [editorials] these days, considering that after 10 years in which the Thatcher government essentially did what the magazine said, Britain has the weakest economy in Europe. (Remind me, again, why we’re looking to the British for economic advice.) But the implied message of the leaders often seems to be, “I took a First at Oxford. I’m right.”

The cover of anonymity for the magazine’s writers is an important part of its omniscient stance, among other reasons because it conceals the extreme youth of much of the staff. “The magazine is written by young people pretending to be old people,” says Michael Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker,” who now lives in England. “If American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.”

Next, here's Tom Scocca, writing in 2007:

... The smug glibness that Mr. Fallows diagnosed 16 years ago is still there—adjectives and adverbs deployed in place of evidence: “rightly,” “admirable,” “impressive,” “encouraging,” “predictable,” “worrying.” “Here,” one story begins, “are three pieces of conventional political wisdom what are almost all certainly wrong.” Almost all certainly. Elsewhere, an obituary of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declares that “Mr. Schlesinger was too young to remember the New Deal.” Mr. Schlesinger, by the piece’s own internal evidence, was born in 1917.

But The Economist is less provocative than it is aggressively boring: “The last time he ran for president John McCain spent months rolling around New Hampshire in a bus, the Straight Talk Express.” “In the absence of reliable, up-to-date information, markets go awry.” The layout is even duller—thick columns of type wrapping from page to page, like a cross between the old New Republic and the telephone book. The back page is filled with currency tables (for those who would convert the 16 different cover prices longhand). The only nod to magazine aesthetics is the sheen of the paper stock.

Stupefaction is its own form of power. “When a Garuda Indonesia airliner crashed and burst into flames at Yogyakarta airport in central Java on March 7th it naturally saddened the nation.”


The audience for this is not people who care about the world, but people who believe it is important to care about the world. When other magazines say they want to be like The Economist, they do not mean they wish to be serious. They mean they wish, by whatever means, to be taken seriously.

Friday, March 16, 2007

We retire at 65!

Yes, the age at which teachers retire -- superannuate -- has been raised from 62 to 65. Here is the press release from PIB:

The Union Cabinet today gave its approval for enhancing the age of superannuation for teaching positions in Centrally Funded Educational Institutions under the Ministry of Human Resource Development from 62 to 65 years of age, with provision for re-employment beyond 65 years and upto 70 years of age against sanctioned vacancies if they are not filled up by regular candidates, after screening under the UGC Guidelines at the age of 65 years.

I view this across-the-board increase in retirement age as bad news. The provision for re-employment beyond the current retirement age of 62 would have been far better; if it makes sense at 65, it makes better sense at 62! A long, pay-protected tenure is a terrible thing in a system that's incapable of getting rid of deadwood and nasty, negative people.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Secret

Here's the Skeptic Magazine's very serious debunking of The Secret. If you would rather have a much shorter and more effective version, you've got to go to the Onion.

Antigovernent crusaders' loony commandments

Is it better to solve a problem by spending two extra dollars in the private sector than by spending one additional dollar in the public sector? The two commandments insist, preposterously, that it is.

What are the two commandments? Robert Frank opens his column with them:

When asked to identify the two most important items from their list of 10 public policy commandments, most antigovernment crusaders pick (1) public spending shall be kept to an absolute minimum and (2) the state shall not transfer income from rich to poor.

It's getting worse for Mashelkar

After the original allegations of plagiarism (minor) and sloppy analysis (major), followed by some more (and more serious) allegations of plagiarism in an academic work, the news is getting worse for Mashelkar. This time the accusation is that he has signed on two different reports with radically different conclusions!

You may recall that the Mashelkar panel concluded that making incremental innovations non-patentable (which is what India's current law states) is not compatible with TRIPS. However, back in 2002, as a part of another committee, Mashelkar seems to have held the opposite view:

The Mashelkar Committee conveniently ignored the recommendations of the 2002 study entitled "Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy" produced by United Kingdom Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, an authoritative international group. It also ignored the conclusions reached by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health in its 2006 report.

Both these international bodies have unambiguously clarified that "since there is no definition of invention in the TRIPS Agreement, developing countries may determine in their own ways, the definition of an invention, the criteria for judging patentability, the rights conferred on patent owners and what exceptions to patentability are permitted".

In fact, the U.K. Commission specifically recommends that developing countries should aim at "limiting the scope of subject matter that can be patented". Mashelkar was himself a member of the U.K. Commission. Furthermore, the Pharmaceutical Research and Development Committee (PRDC), which produced its report in 2001 and was chaired by Mashelkar, also recommended that "pharmaceutical patents should be granted only for new chemical entities or new medical entities".

In the meantime, the government has given Mashelkar to clean up his Panel's report -- in three months. The Business Standard's report has some more damaging things to say!

Some more critiques: Praful Bidwai's column, an interview with Dilip G. Shah Secretary-General, Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, and an interview with Dr. Yusuf Hamied, Chairman of Cipla, a major Indian pharmaceutical company.

Diversity at another American university

When the New York Times covers some success stories in American universities' effort to enhance diversity on their campuses, the can Onion be far behind?

Brad DeLong on Milton Friedman

In his review of Milton Friedman: A Biography by Lanny Ebenstein, Brad DeLong offers his views on the man, his ideas, and how some of them have now become "central parts of the liberal policy agenda".

Part of what made Friedman a worthy adversary for American liberals was that he had a fully formed worldview, one that started with a bedrock commitment to people, to their ability to make judgments for themselves and to decide what they like best. Out of this commitment grew an imperative to maximize individual freedom. On top of that came the judgment that free markets are almost always the silver bullet to solve all of society’s problems, as well as a powerful conviction that the facts, if honestly examined, will always be on his side. And on top of that was layered a fear and suspicion of government as an easily captured tool for the enrichment of the cynical and powerful, who grab what they can.

Friedman hated government and society sticking their nose into people’s private business. He scorned government regulation of all kinds–regulators were, he thought, inevitably captured by those they were supposed to regulate. As a result, they regulated not in the public interest but in the interest of the companies where they hoped to get jobs when they left the government. He hated big government spending. He hated budget deficits–cynical politicians could use them to pretend that the costs of government were less than they were and push into the future the raising of taxes to pay for spending into the future. He sought to inoculate citizens against such political games of three-card-monte: "Remember," he would say, "to spend is to tax."

Here's the part about Friedman's views that American liberals could identify with:

But this antipathy toward the state masks a Friedman more amenable to contemporary liberal values. For Friedman hated government–except when he didn’t. To be sure, the generation of libertarians to follow Friedman wanted to eliminate government completely. Have a dispute with your neighbor? Agree with him to pick 12 of your other neighbors to adjudicate. If the neighbor doesn’t accept the judgment? Round up a posse to deal with the situation using your unalienable rights to bear arms. Friedman never went there. He had no problem with governments that declared and enforced property rights, that adjudicated contracts, that even, in certain specified situations, imposed extra taxes to counterbalance externalities or provided social insurance where transactions costs seemed to keep the requisite markets from existing. London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s congestion tax on cars in central London is Friedman’s idea. Friedman’s negative income tax is one of the parents of what is now America’s largest anti-poverty program, the Earned Income Tax Credit. Perhaps, you could get Friedman to say, in a first-best world you wouldn’t need a negative income tax, because people would sign up when relatively young for their own wage-insurance pools. But he would call that a sterile argument, given where we are now. Moreover, a negative income tax would be administratively cheap and effective, and it would remove the intrusive and offensive nanny-state overregulation of the lives of the poor that the existing welfare system imposes. Few liberals today would disagree.

Most importantly, in Friedman’s mind, the government has a very powerful and necessary role to play in keeping the monetary and banking system working smoothly through proper control of the money supply. If there was always sufficient liquidity in the economy–enough, but not too much–then you could trust the market system to do its job. If not, you got the Great Depression, or hyperinflation. Thus, it was Friedman’s belief that the government was required to undertake relatively narrow but crucially important strategic interventions in order to stabilize the macroeconomy–to keep production, employment, and prices on an even keel.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Michael Summers and the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program

I remember reading about about the Meyerhoff Program of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (sorry, no links!) sometime ago; it's meant for attracting members of under-represented minority groups into science. Today's NYTimes has an interview with Michael Summers, a professor participating in that program.

Q. Define the problem, please.

A. Less than 3 percent of Ph.D.’s awarded in science, mathematics and engineering go to African-Americans. In my field, chemistry, it’s around 2 percent. I think there are about a dozen blacks a year who get math Ph.D.’s. The numbers don’t have to be that low. We know from the College Board that there are large numbers of blacks who want to graduate with degrees in the sciences. Many want to become doctors. But we lose them in their freshman and sophomore years.

Q. Why do they leave?

A. The big thing is that the way beginning chemistry, calculus and physics are taught at most colleges is discouraging. They are taught as gateway courses, and they are structured to weed out students. The Chem 101 professor gets up at the first session and says, “Look around you; only one person here is going to end up a chemistry major.”

That’s discouraging to everyone, but for the African-Americans, it’s really negative. These are young people who — because of history — may already feel that society has low expectations of them. The crunch comes after the first exam when the black youngster might pull a C and when some of the whites and international students get A’s. When he or she goes up to the professor, he says, “Listen, you passed, what’s your complaint?” And the student thinks, “Maybe the professor is right, I don’t belong here.”

Q. What should the professor have said instead?

A. “How many hours a night are you studying?” “Can I help you find a study group so that you can do better?”

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the pointer.

'Socs rocks!'

If Socrates were a professor now, what kind of student evaluations would he have got? Thomas Cushman offers some possibilities. Here's an example:

One thing in his defense is that he was much more positive toward gay and lesbian people. Actually, there was this one guy in class, Phaedroh or something like that, who Socrates was always looking at and one day they both didn't come to class and they disappeared for the whole day. I'm quite sure that something is going on there and that the professor is abusing his power over this student.

This one, on the other hand, is somewhat better:

I don't know why all the people are so pissed at Professor Socrates! They say he's corrupting us, but it's really them that are corrupt. I know some people resent his aggressive style, but that's part of the dialectic. Kudos to you, Professor Socrates, you've really changed my way of thinking! Socs rocks!!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Not citing others' ideas and research is unethical

But it is not unethical in the same way as fabrication or falsification of data is. Someone indulging in the latter is likely to get fired. Immediately. Ask Jan Hendrik Schön.

While not citing other people's work (particularly for interesting research ideas) may not get a person fired, it could still blow up -- particularly when this offence is repeated -- to create an international scale embarrassment to the culprit and his/her organization. Ask Armando Córdova.

Thanks to Janet Stemwedel for the link to the C&EN story by William G. Schulz.

Laughter research


This video is both funny and interesting; the blurb says it examines "the omnipresent Powerpoint-culture in search for its philosophical potential." [link via Vivek].

* * *

John Tierney on research on laughter:

Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science. Researchers have scanned brains and tickled babies, chimpanzees and rats. They’ve traced the evolution of laughter back to what looks like the primal joke — or, to be precise, the first stand-up routine to kill with an audience of primates.

... [Researchers have] discovered something that eluded Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and the many theorists who have tried to explain laughter based on the mistaken premise that they’re explaining humor.

Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mathematics and art

Two days ago, I met a bright young friend (I found him through one of those Web 2.0 sites) who has a variety of interests: software engineering (his current day job), computer science, mathematics, visual art and literature. He said he's looking for ways of combining two or more of his interests, and we started talking about M.C. Escher's paintings, Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach and H.S.M. Coxeter(the man who saved geometry) . I thought it would be fun to collect some links on my blog.

This morning, I see Swarup pointing us to this video on the fascinating art of hyperbolic knitting. Swarup has also linked to this article on the mathematics behind this art.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Annals of academic putdowns: The 'feigned praise' edition

In physics recommendation land, there is no more damning praise than saying someone is a “hard worker”.
-- Julianne Dalcanton at Cosmic Variance

* * *

To call a young colleague's work "rather ... journalistic" is to signal a negative vote on tenure.
-- David Damrosch in The Chronicle

Criticising IITs

This opinion piece by Bhamy V. Shenoy has been doing the rounds by e-mail. Its broad thrust -- that the JEE, IITs' entrance examination, is needlessly brutal -- is not really new. And Shenoy says some things that will enrage IIT folks -- students and faculty. I want to quote here some interesting statistics quoted by Shenoy:

The sums spent by IIT aspirants for coaching factories is about Rs 2000 crore per year, which is four times the annual budgetary allocation of the government to IITs. About 1,60,000 take JEEs and 3,500 are admitted to seven IITs.

During a recent year under review 979 candidates from South Zone secured admission. Of them 769 were from AP, while TN accounted for 94 successful candidates, Karnataka, 84, and Kerala, for no more than 32 candidates.

Mushrooming of IIT tutorials in Hyderabad may have much to do with JEE results. In the Northern Zone, Rajasthan is an unlikely state that is reported to have been doing well sending high proportion of students to IITs like AP. Kota in Rajasthan has a reputation for offering pressure-cooker coaching for IIT hopefuls.

However, Shenoy's numbers for JEE-takers is way off; it was almost 300,000 last year. The estimate of Rs. 2000 crores as the revenues for IIT coaching centres is also questionable (Shenoy does not cite a source for this figure). I hope that the other numbers -- about the successful candidates from the southern states -- came from some official sources.

Addiction to lotteries

Lotteries used to be big business in Tamil Nadu in the 1990s. Estimates of people's spending on lotteries were in the range of thousands of crores of rupees a year. Interestingly, most of the lotteries sold there used to be from the north-eastern states: Manipur, Mizoram, etc., and the state lottery issued by Tamil Nadu had commanded just a tiny market share. Probably motivated by this fact, the previous regime under J. Jayalalithaa (aka 'Puratchi Thalaivi' or Revolutionary Leader) banned lotteries altogether, and the huge enterprise came crashing down.

During lotto's heydays in Tamil Nadu, vendors peddled an egregious (and illegal) scheme that promised immediate prizes. Lotto buyers had to scratch the ticket to uncover the hidden number, and claim the prize if it matched the number displayed by the vendor. I'm sure the prospect of instant gratification helped reinforce the buyer's addiction to lotteries. And a lot of people were really addicted to this very shady enterprise.

In an interesting artlcle in the NYTimes Benedict Carey examines some interesting findings on lotto addiction. Here's one of them:

... [T]he hope of a huge payoff, however remote, is itself a source of pleasure. In brain-imaging studies of drug users, as well as healthy adults placing bets, neuroscientists have found that the prospect of a reward activates the same circuits in the brain that the payoffs themselves do.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It is always interesting when ...

... one of your posts is up for discussion -- in someone else's blog!

Two days ago, Wayan Vota's OLPC News blog (which has excellent -- exhaustive and definitive -- coverage of OLPC-related news and opinion) featured my post.

In the comments section, Lee Felsenstein makes some excellent points about the nature of the OLPC project:

[...] If this were indeed an education project then it would proceed from the basis of an analysis as to what is wrong with education in the developing world and how it could be fixed. There would be copious and detailed references to research results, there would be pilot studies under way and a coherent argument would be advanced as to how the laptop or some other system - not just a device - would function to attain the desired results. There would even be discussion and argument as to what the desired results are and how they would be measured.

All this would be required if it were in fact "an education project". But what is happening? The whole argument rests upon a few anecdotal observations by Nick, some parables by Papert, and the boundless zeal of many computer geeks who know - just know - that if only laptops with cute user interfaces could "pop out of the box" into the hands of kids everywhere the world would be a "Much, Much Better Place". [...]

Oh, by the way, Wayan's post also informs us that the price of each OLPC '100 dollar' laptop is actually more like 208 dollars!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Vishnu's reincarnation? In Mumbai?

Via here's the news story.

A 30-year-old call centre employee, approached the Bombay High Court claiming to be Lord Vishnu’s reincarnation.

“I am the supreme lord and the god of all religions. I am Jesus Christ, Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and even Gautam Buddha. Earlier, I was born as Alexander the great,” Dharmendra Mishra told the court.

A revisionist(?) look at Nehru's legacy

In column in the Business Standard, the brave Jaimini Bhagwati takes up the tough task of convincing us to give Nehru's economic policies a break. Given the conflicting advice and demands from his associates and others, the 'correct' or 'optimal' economic choices were not at all obvious; and he appears to have chosen a middle path.

Within his political peer group Nehru had sharp differences of opinion both with those who argued for a lower government profile and those who advocated tighter controls. For example, in 1950 the then finance minister, John Mathai, opposed the creation of the Planning Commission. At the same time, Nehru was subjected to severe criticism from the left by Jayaprakash Narayan. It appears that Nehru decided to follow a left-leaning compromise among the several competing points of view. This has been corroborated by Arvind Panagariya in his article titled Political Economy of Trade and Foreign Investment Policies in India 1950-2006 (NCAER Golden Jubilee Conference, December 2006), which concludes that "it can be justifiably argued that if the influence of Nehru had not been dominant and India had strictly followed the prevailing academic orthodoxy, the outcome would have been more, not less, protectionist ... on balance, Nehru's approach produced a more liberal outcome in the 1950s".

Wise words of Warren Buffett

When someone with experience proposes a deal to someone with money,” he wrote, citing an old saying, “too often the fellow with money ends up with the experience and the fellow with the experience ends up with the money.”

The 'he' in the quote is the legendary Warren Buffett aka the Oracle of Omaha. The quote itself has been sourced from this NYTimes editorial about how often the man has been right on accountability and transparency in corporate affairs.

Whenever you find time, doread one or more of Buffett's letters to his company's investors.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Happy Women's Day!

Here are some links for celebrating Women's Day   2007:

The Indian Academy of Sciences has a section devoted to Women in Science. It is a little sparse at present, but it already hosts some interesting stuff. From this page, for example, we learn that "amongst the founding Fellows there was one lady botanist, E.K. Janaki Ammal (1897-1984)." Among the Fellows of IAS in 2006, there were 46 (or, 5.25 %) women.

From this page, we get links to the 2004 report from the Indian National Science Academy (yes, India has three academies of science!) on Science Career for Indian Women: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Summaries of this report can be found here and here.

The Department of Science and Technology has a scholarship program women scientists and technologists.

Finally, here's my own post about the first women scientists at IISc.

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Thanks to this site for allowing free use of the International Women's Day logo.

Intellectual monopoly is evil!

The basic conclusion of this book is that intellectual monopoly – patents, copyrights and restrictive licensing agreements – should be swept away. Always beware of theorists bearing radical ideas – most ideas are bad, and most theories are wrong. This book may be yet and other entry in that long list of confused and confusing dreamers.

Therefore, we must first and foremost convince you that our ideas are firmly grounded in facts and practice – most innovations have taken place without the benefit of intellectual monopoly. Indeed, the system of intellectual monopoly as it exists today is of recent vintage –- some parts of the current system are only a few years old and their damaging effects are already visible and dramatic.

No Gardens of Utopia, then, but the fertile fields of Practical Experience, as illustrated by thriving markets without intellectual monopoly, that is what this and the next chapter are about.

These bold claims are from the second chapter in Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, both of Washington University in St. Louis. Given the stand taken by the authors, it's not surprising that the entire book is available online. Do check it out.

Thanks to David Warsh for the pointer.

Questioning the OBC Reservation Act

The recently enacted Central Educational Institutions (Reservations in Admissions) Act (2006) has been contested in the Supreme Court. As a part of the proceedings, the government was asked to provide a justification for, among other things, the quantum of OBC reservation and for not excluding the 'creamy layer' from quota benefits.

The response from the government was pretty weak (to put it mildly). In particular, it chose to present the 1931 census (the last census to have collected caste-wise data on our population) as its main 'evidence'. (I linked to this story over at HtOHL).

Yesterday, the government lawyer (Gopal Subramanian, the Additional Attorney General) came in for some tough questioning by the Justices Arijit Pasayat and L. S. Panta. Here are a few reports: ET, ToI, Indian Express, and DNA.

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In related news, you might also recall that the Indian industry looked into the the question of reservation in private sector jobs, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that voluntary (non-mandatory) affirmative action is the best route for our companies. In an interesting move, the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has asked Indian companies to "incorporate data of SC/STs recruited from January 1, 2007 onwards in their annual reports for the financial year ending March 2007. "