Monday, December 31, 2007

Last post of the year ...

Well, these links have been living as tabs in my Firefox browser for quite sometime now. It's time I freed them from their tabbed prisons. Here we go:

That's all folks. I wish you and yours a very happy new year. See you all in 2008!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Red tape in India's higher ed system

Academicians point out that the only ones getting into the education sector are those who can circumvent archaic rules through political connections or the ones who have enough capital to pay for clearances. [...]

Clearly, the multiplicity of governing agencies at the local, state and central level forces institutions to go through a maze of bureaucratic and time-consuming procedures. In Maharashtra, for instance, to start a B-school, an institute first needs a no-objection certificate from the government. Then it needs to apply to AICTE for recognition and then a local university for affiliation. For funds, the institute needs to send an application to University Grants Commission (UGC) and for accreditation (not mandatory) to NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council). And finally, the college needs to send its approval letters and brochures to the state government's admission committee and fee fixation committee, the Pravesh Niyantran Samiti and Shikshan Shulka Samiti.

That's from this report by Hemali Chhapia of ToI.

Links ...

Ari Melber on how the US government can use social networking sites for surveillance":

... The Bush administration runs massive domestic surveillance of our telephone calls, conducted with extensive assistance by private companies. It has also pressed search engines like Google and Yahoo to provide broad data on users’ search habits to investigate trends in potential domestic crime – not inquires targeting individual users. And as I wrote, Facebook has already been tapped by authorities ranging from campus police to the Secret Service. So even leaving aside any clandestine surveillance that has not been reported in the media, the public record shows that social networking websites are ripe for government surveillance.

I think the fact that the government can deputize websites for national security surveillance and criminal investigations is one more reason to demand that social networking sites ensure that users understand how their information can be used -- and the limits on any notion of privacy “controls” online. ...

* * *

Over at the Freakonomics blog, Ian Ayres calls a foul on the Education Testing Service (ETS) for using its sloppy analysis to unfairly put the blame on single parent families for their kids' poor performance in standardized tests.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

An important victory for Open Access

It's official: The US Congress has made Open Access (with a 12 month delay) mandatory for researchers funded by the NIH. Washington Post reports:

... [A] provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research represents a sweet victory for a coalition of researchers and activists who lobbied for the language for years.

Under the bill's terms, scientists getting grant money from the National Institutes of Health would now have to submit to the NIH a final copy of their research papers when those papers are accepted for publication in a journal. An NIH database would then post those papers, free to the public, within 12 months after publication.

The idea is that taxpayers, who have already paid for the research, should not have to subscribe to expensive scientific journals to read about the results.

Hat tip to Aurelie Thiele, who also has an extended commentary on the future of scientific publishing. She makes an important point: journals also serve as a signaling mechanism -- through metrics such as impact factor, citation index, etc.-- that allows non-scientists (in an admittedly imperfect way) to separate noteworthy, important research from pedestrian stuff. This leads her to worry that:

... [W]hile the end of for-profit publishing might not be a bad thing, its end before another quality-assessment is put in place certainly would be.

My first reaction is that this need not become a major concern. Internet has its own (open and democratic) mechanism for reputation formation. PLoS, for example, has a rating mechanism for all its papers; Nature also tried it for sometime (rather unsuccessfully). In social sciences -- where blogging has taken off among the academics in a big way -- blogs too promote important and high quality research. I am sure other, more robust mechanisms will eventually emerge. The only catch is that this will force folks -- who might otherwise want to hide behind their anonymous-reviewer status -- to come out in the open and participate.

Death of copyrights is just a decade away!

A simple experiment in audience participation reveals to NYTimes tech columnist David Pogue the truth: young people don't give a shit to copyrights. He draws the right conclusions:

I don't pretend to know what the solution to the file-sharing issue is. (Although I'm increasingly convinced that copy protection isn't it.)

I do know, though, that the TV, movie and record companies' problems have only just begun. Right now, the customers who can't even *see* why file sharing might be wrong are still young. But 10, 20, 30 years from now, that crowd will be *everybody*. What will happen then?

My guess is that the young people have already given their answer to that question: the world will be a better place.

* * *

Thanks to Bora for the pointer. He titled his post "Information wants to be free."

Friday, December 21, 2007

Subrahmanya catches a case of self-plagiarism

We have seen this sort of stuff before: same figures (and other experimental results) appear in two papers from the same research group. Subrahmanya Katte, who discovered this stuff, has written to the editors at both the journals that published this work. Let us see how they respond.

Free textbooks, with ads

They are available for free downloads from their publisher with an appropriate name: Freeload Press. There are quite a few text books in the humanities and social sciences, along with self-help titles on programming languages, etc. Check out their Book List.

I learned about this from Brad DeLong's post on the new Principles of Economics by Timothy Taylor, described by DeLong as "The Best Intro Econ Teacher I Know."

Proficiency in English and Scientific Achievement

One could use many different metrics for comparing research output in different countries. My own preference is for averages (either in the number of papers or number of citations); a fancier version would perhaps normalize these averages using some relevant measure (GDP, per capita GDP, population, science spending). At the other end of the comparison spectrum, we have studies using the (rather small) number of Nobel winners.

A recent study by Université Catholique de Louvain researchers uses the number of Highly Cited Researchers as a criterion for ranking countries. It comes to some interesting conclusions, including one about the importance of English.

We show that the English proficiency effect is fairly strong. For example, if France were to improve its English proficiency by 10%, thus reaching the level of the Netherlands, the number of French HCRs would increase in the long run by 25%. However, besides their linguistic advantage, former UK colonies also display a higher efficiency in producing HCRs. For example, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US have, ceteris paribus, 76% more HCRs than other countries. In order to match such an advantage, EU countries should more than double their research budget, or more than triplicate their human capital stock, or increase their per capita GDP by around 40%. These numbers give an idea of the strength of the UK legacy or, maybe, of the choice of US-like academic institutions made in those countries. In any case, they suggest that a variable directly related to the quality of the design of academic institutions matters more than the R&D budget, the GDP level and human capital.

Amazing memory

Not the kind that allows its possessor to reel off the New York City phone book, but the autobiographical kind. In this piece, Amy Ellis Nutt talks about a couple of people who possess this sort of memory and about what researchers have learned from them. Here's an extract:

"If you take a random date," Williams said, "I can usually tell you what town I was living in, whether I was in school, what job I was working at, and then I can cross-reference to something else."

McGaugh asked, "So if I say the year is 1987, the month is July and the day is the 15th?"

"Well, I was working at the radio station at La Crosse and I had already been working on a play, backstage, on a production of 'Peter Pan.' But that particular date doesn't bring anything specific to mind."

"You didn't give the day of the week," said McGaugh.

"It was a Wednesday."

"So how did you know it was a Wednesday?"

"The Fourth of July was on a Saturday that year."

"How did you know the Fourth of July was on a Saturday?"

"Because it was two days after 'Peter Pan' closed, which was on a Thursday."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Physics works!"

According to this NYTimes story, MIT's Walter H.G. Lewin may well be the physics professor with the largest international fan club. Reason? Videos of his   introductory   physics   courses that are available on the Open Courseware website. Here are some of the things he does in his lectures:

In his lectures at, Professor Lewin beats a student with cat fur to demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet — nerd safari garb — he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

He rides a fire-extinguisher-propelled tricycle across his classroom to show how a rocket lifts off. ...

[In another video,] “We have here the mother of all pendulums!” he declares, hoisting his 6-foot-2, 170-pound self on a 30-pound steel ball attached to a pendulum hanging from the ceiling. He swings across the stage, holding himself nearly horizontal as his hair blows in the breeze he has created.

The point: that a period of a pendulum is independent of the mass — the steel ball, plus one professor — hanging from it.

“Physics works!” Professor Lewin shouts, as the classroom explodes in cheers.

Like other great performances in the world of sport or art, his 'performance' too requires intense practice:

He said he spent 25 hours preparing each new lecture, choreographing every detail and stripping out every extra sentence.

“Clarity is the word,” he said.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Too much committee-work can push you into "learned helplessness" ...

Sometime ago, Animesh had a post about various methods of proving a theorem. I didn't find 'proof by committee' there, but legitimation by committee is a time-honoured technique in management circles. Here's Bob Sutton quoting from a letter:

I feel so used for having [agreed] to be part of the building committee. I haven't felt this way since I came to [the university]. Not one thing I said or argued for the whole time mattered. Not one thing the consulting company who did the early study of our needs for space mattered.....[My wife] warned me when I joined the committee that they would use the faculty committee for legitimation and do what they wanted anyway.

Sutton describes this phenomenon in greater detail, and offers some advice to administrators and committee members about the best way to deal with it. For the unfortunate folks who end up participating in the committee work of a totally pointless kind, he advises some devious means of protecting themselves: For example:

In some organizations, a more socially acceptable strategy is to say you will join the committee, but to miss most meetings, and to arrive late and leave early when you do attend a meeting. I guess this is a safer strategy for anyone who wants to be an effective organizational politician. These latter strategies mirror institutional theory -- you as an individual can engage in "symbolic" membership in the committee, and thus have little or no impact on a committee that, in turn, has little or no impact. That way, you can ingratiate yourself with your superiors by pretending to support the sham, and everyone is happy that you are playing the meaningless game so well (except perhaps for the users whose needs are completely ignored).

These guidelines are, I confess, fairly obnoxious. [...]

What kind of salaries did professors command in the 1920s?

Here's an ad for a professorship at IISc in electrical engineering. It appeared in the 18 August 1922 issue of "The Electrician" (which appears to be a journal of a professional society):

Applications are invited for the Professorship of Electrical Engineering in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Experience in teaching and research work an essential qualification. Salary from Rupees 1500 per mensem, according to experience, with passage and equipment allowance. A house is provided. The agreement will be for five years, and probably for three years thereafter. ...

What would be today's equivalent of Rs. 1500 per month in 1922? The mind boggles!

With its Centenary celebrations just round the corner, our Institute has made a great move in setting up a proper Archives Cell (you might want to read this Current Science editorial by Prof. Balaram on the importance of archives). The Cell has a basic website which I am sure will become better in scope and design in the months to come. It also organized a small exhibition of the Institute's history for the folks here; the recruitment ad at the beginning of this post came from the flier for the exhibition.

* * *

Did I mention that we recently looked at faculty salaries in the US at the beginning of the 20th century?

Selva's daughter

The Selvas have given their daughter a really cool name: Nidhi Nova. Check out his post on why they chose this name.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Of college students and monkeys

Researchers at Duke University have demonstrated that monkeys have the ability to perform mental addition. In fact, monkeys performed about as well as college students given the same test.

I am sure you want to know more. Go read all about it here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

PhD: How to cut the time to degree?

Harvard's shows the way. Bottomline: Penalize the faculty for unduly long PhDs.

A series of new policies in the humanities and the social sciences at Harvard University are premised on the idea that professors need the ticking clock, too. For the last two years, the university has announced that for every five graduate students in years eight or higher of a Ph.D. program, the department would lose one admissions slot for a new doctoral student. The results were immediate: In numerous departments that had for years had large clusters of Ph.D. students taking eight or more years to finish, professors reached out to students and doctorates were completed.

On liberal education

Shalini Advani, in an op-ed in the Hindu, has a great quote from Amos Oz:

... [A]s Martha Nussbaum writes, education is not simply a producer of wealth; it is a producer of citizens. Citizens in a democracy need, above all, freedom of mind — to learn to ask searching questions; to reject shoddy historical argument; to imagine alternative possibilities from a globalising, service and market-driven economy; to think what it might be like to be in others’ shoes. Recently, the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, spoke about the importance of reading novels as what he calls an antidote to hate. He said:

“I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better lover but even a better person. Part of the tragedy between Jew and Arab is the inability of so many of us, Jews and Arabs, to imagine each other. Really imagine each other: the loves, the terrible fears, the anger, the passion. There is too much hostility between us, too little curiosity.”

* * *

Tyler Cowen offers his take:

Bias is everywhere, and overcoming bias yields great gains. Empirically, our biases stem strongly from our nationality, our language, and our cultural background. (It is, by the way, remarkable how much libertarianism is an Anglo-American phenomenon.)

To overcome those biases we should travel, spend some time living in other countries, and learn other languages. In other words, the more knowledge is held in the minds of other people, the more competent we wish to be in assessing who is right and who is wrong, and that requires exposure to lots of different points of view.

* * *

Finally, Martha Nussbaum's enthusiasm for liberal education is something I have noted here before; she gets to reiterate her views in this interview in Tehelka; you will have to get past the incendiary headline, though. Don't tell me I didn't warn you! [Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the link.]

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gender differences in science and math achievement

The good folks at The Situationist blog point us to an excellent article in the Scientific American by Diane F. Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde and Morton Ann Gernsbacher. The subject is something that we have discussed quite a bit in this blog: "Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement".

The Situationist post has a bunch of links to several other online resources on this subject, so I recommend clicking through to that post. Let me just excerpt the concluding paragraphs of the SciAm article:

Where We Go from Here

If Larry Summers’s comments had one appealing feature, it was the benefit of simplicity. If the lack of women in science were a reflection, in part, of lack of ability, then the take-home lesson would seem to be that we can do nothing but accept the natural order of things.

As this article shows, however, the truth is not so simple. Both sexes, on average, have their strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the research argues much could be done to try to help more women—and men for that matter—excel in science and coax them to choose it as a profession. The challenges are many, requiring innovations in education, targeted mentoring and career guidance, and a commitment to uncover and root out bias, discrimination and inequality. In the end, tackling these issues will benefit women, men and science itself.

Brain rain at IITs? Good for them! But ...

Pallavi Singh's report in the Indian Express has one central idea: It's good times again at the IITs; faculty are flocking to them. The report features short profiles of a few IIT-D faculty, who give us their reasons for choosing academic jobs even though other options are seen by our society as more attractive: being one's own boss, being a part of a vibrant academic life, setting one's own pace, presence of high tech labs here, etc. Also among the reasons is housing inside safe, pollution-free campuses.

All of that is pretty positive, and I would heartily recommend this article to anyone who's considering an academic job in India as an option.

But Pallavi Singh goes overboard in reeling off statistics, some of which is quite vacuous. Consider, for example, the breathless claim that "more than 20 per cent of [IIT-D's] most experienced faculty would retire in the next seven years." WTF? If you assume an academic life that spans 30 to 35 years (on average), you would get about 20 percent attrition through retirement in any seven year period!

With all that fluff out of the way, let me turn to the key problem with Singh's report: its relentless hype of the rather meager measures by the IITs. Don't get me wrong; if these measures have led to hiring of more faculty, well, it's good for them! But this sort of hype is pointless: the only thing it achieves is a general feeling of smugness all around. And when IITs still face substantial faculty shortages (as much as 40 percent at IIT-Roorkee) and when we are in the process of creating several new IITs, IISERs, IIMs, and Central Universities, smugness is the last thing we want!

Why do I feel that Singh's report is full of hype? I'm glad you asked. The long answer is here, but the short answer is that IITs should do better than what they have done to create conditions for setting up their junior faculty for professional success. In operational terms, this would translate to things like a 10 to 20 fold increase in start-up grants, generous travel grants (Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year, for example), a spiffy, individual lab for each faculty member, a world-class research infrastructure (no power cuts, for example), and a faculty-friendly administration. Taking additional steps to attract and retain excellent graduate students would also help!

Why do I keep harping on these steps? Remember, I am not even talking about salaries! There is a reason: these non-salary measures are far easier to implement, particularly in this era of institutional affluence and alumni generosity. More importantly, they are under the direct control of the IIT administrations. If the IITs have been tardy in implementing them -- and I believe they have been tardy -- the conclusion is clear: their whining about faculty shortage is an empty PR exercise to deflect the blame from themselves.

In any event, the enhanced salaries for junior faculty through fellowships (Rs. 1 lakh for five years at IIT-D) or signing bonus (Rs. 3 lakhs at IIT-B) are nothing to write home about. The best you can say about them is that they are better than nothing.

* * *

Thanks to Sharath Rao for the e-mail pointer.

Some more on IQ ...

... in this profile of James Flynn and his work on IQ and in this post by Malcolm Gladwell discussing the work of University of Virginia psychologist Eric Turkheimer.


Gawker finds this gem in the Guardian (via Brad DeLong):

We misspelled the word misspelled twice, as mispelled, in the Corrections and clarifications column on September 26, page 30.

Wisdom of the crowds

W00t!: "The word "W00t" got most votes in the poll looking for the word that best sums up 2007. ... In a statement Merriam Webster president John Morse said it was a good choice because it blended "whimsy and technology".

Mob Jurisprudence: A Kiwi wiki for re-writing that country's police law.

By the way, Mob Jurisprudence is one of the 70 ideas of the year, according to NYTimes. The most interesting among them is Posthumous E-mail.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ravi Mathai

In his article -- and in this post -- about how Ravi Mathai nurtured IIM-A during its early years , T.T. Ram Mohan is clearly impressed by some of the governance practices institutionalized by Mathai. Here's a sample:

... [W]hat is, perhaps, Mathai’s greatest bequest to IIMA: the principle of a single term for the director. After six years as director, Mathai stunned the community by announcing his decision to step down and stay on as professor. He gave two reasons for doing so.

One, leaders of academic institutions tended to use their positions for career advancement; this was not good for the institutions. Two, it was important to establish the principle that the director’s position is not hierarchical; he is only first among equals. You are professor, you become director and then you become professor again.

This one contribution of Mathai’s cannot be overstated. In the present scheme of things, the director has sweeping powers. The board of governors does not quite have the monitoring authority of a corporate board. Faculty governance can work only to the extent the director is willing to let it work.

A misstep by Harvard's new president

Over at Cosmic Variance, Julianne Dalcanton catches some arrogant stuff from Drew Gilpin Faust (this was picked up by Doug Natelson too):

Update on 7 February 2008: Prof. Faust didn't say the words attributed to her.

“One thing we all must worry about — I certainly do — is the federal support for scientific research. And are we all going to be chasing increasingly scarce dollars?” says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s new president.

Not that Faust seems worried about Harvard or other top-tier research schools. “They’re going to be—we hope, we trust, we assume—the survivors in this race,” she says. As for the many lesser universities likely to lose market share, she adds, they would be wise “to really emphasize social science or humanities and have science endeavors that are not as ambitious” as those of Harvard and its peers. [link]

Along the way, Dalcanton also offers this interesting argument:

The fact is that institutions of all kinds (universities, funding agencies, graduate admissions commitees) are frequently lousy at anticipating in whom to invest their money. We invest in people whose research evenutally fizzles, while our rejects do amazing things elsewhere. Given this empirical truth, science is best served by sprinkling the money far and wide, and seeing what sprouts.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dealing with trolls

Here are three ways: Sirensongs has banished them from her blog (and a short follow-up on online etiquette), Compulsive Confessor asks them to go take a hike if they don't like her blog (I like her first three rules: "1) You not likey blog, you not visit. 2) You not likey blog, you definitely not refresh comment section to add new two cents. 3) You have opinion, very nice, you start own blog."), Blue tries hard to reason with a semi-anon (with what looks like an online version of multiple personalities, all of them humorless) who has been bugging her about dissing "my culture"; this prompts Sharath Rao to give the semi-anon a short lesson in culture as competition, not legislation."

Many bloggers have an explicit comment policy. Developing and maintaining an online community built around one's blog is a lot of work, some parts of it involving unpleasant decisions. Among the Desi blogs, Sepia Mutiny has the most fun comments section; I'm sure the SM folks too have had trouble from anonymous trolls, but they seem to have a good handle on this problem.

In any event, Cory Doctorow's piece on How To Keep Hostile Jerks From Taking Over Your Online Community has some valuable advice. One of the most effective weapons in the bloggers' arsenal is disemvoweling:

... For example, Teresa invented a technique called disemvowelling -- removing the vowels from some or all of a fiery message-board post. The advantage of this is that it leaves the words intact, but requires that you read them very slowly -- so slowly that it takes the sting out of them. And, as Teresa recently explained to me, disemvowelling part of a post lets the rest of the community know what kind of sentiment is and is not socially acceptable.

It's a pity that such a tool is not available on (at least, for its free blogs). It would give the blog owner a wonderful delight that can come only from skewering a troll's comment totally out of shape!

Oh, well ...

Update: BTW, if you want more on how to keep the trolls in check, you can go straight to the expert, whom Doctorow calls the troll whisperer! does OpenID!

Looks like I spoke too soon yesterday when I said may not be too keen on using the OpenID mechanism for authenticating users' identity when they comment. It turns out that it did exactly that. Yesterday. The engineers were probably applying their finishing touches while I was writing that post ...

Well, it makes me happy. I hope it will make people like Amrita, Ruhi and Jawahara happy too, because their names can now be accompanied by a link to their blog's URL when they leave a comment. Better yet, (where Amrita and Ruhi have their blogs) is one of the OpenID services; and Sharath Rao does not need to resort to tricks like this one! ;-)

Why is this a big deal (at least for folks like us with their blogs on Here's a snippet from's official blog:

You'll see the OpenID icon (OpenID icon) next to the names of commenters who posted with their OpenID. This icon assures you that the person who posted the comment is the same person blogging at the URL their name links to. Say goodbye to comment spoofing!

All I can say is, "Yay!" Way to go, Google!

Thursday, December 13, 2007's new commenting system: Is Google being evil?

I didn't notice it until I saw the posts by Amrita, Ruhi and Jawahara: has quietly introduced a change in its commenting system: if you don't use your blogger account (which does not force you to have a blog on the blogspot domain), it does not allow you to leave your website/blog's URL. In other words, it treats you as an anonymous commenter (with a nickname, if you so wish). Since other blogging platforms don't do this (yet), it has created a bit of an uproar, with some bloggers calling Google evil, and urging a boycott of

But, hold on a moment! This is a good deed by (though it introduces a little bit of inconvenience), because it prevents identity theft. Here's the comment I left over at Amrita's blog, with a bit of editing:

In the earlier system, people could impersonate anyone — you, for example. They just needed to use your name, and leave your blog in the box for URL, and say any old thing they wanted. [And some people did! See Rahul’s post on this issue.] There was no verification, because verification of non-Blogger commenters was impossible.

Under the current system, though, if your name is to be associated with a site, you are forced to login as a Blogger user. Now, verification is possible. All the others are treated as anonymous commenters (and if they wanted, they could use a nickname, but that’s about it).

For a non-Blogspot user/commenter, there is a simple workaround: login with a blogger id (You don’t need a blogspot blog for getting this). I know that this is a little bit of extra work, but you will have to decide if it is worth it.

As of now, Blogger’s user profile page allows you to list your website or blog. When Blogger decides to diable this feature, I will then get on board and start calling Google evil.

I also said, "BTW, I think Wordpress should also implement such a system (and when every blog platform gets on board, it may force us to think in terms of a unified identification mechanism such as OpenID." This is a sentiment expressed in this comment by Karthik who blogs here but has a membership presumably for the purpose of commenting (I can't think of any other use!).

* * *

This brings up another point. As Danny Sullivan pointed out about a month ago (via Siva Vaidhyanathan), Google is not keen on promoting "openness" in areas where it is strong. On the other hand, in those segments where its market share is small (social networking, for example), it takes the lead in supporting open, inter-operable mechanisms (the OpenSocial initiative, for example).

While blogs are a mature part of the interwebs, the comment system is still primitive. Here's a situation where OpenID is a great way to protect commenters from identity theft. Will Google take the lead in promoting the use of OpenID for its comments? No way! With the change in its commenting system, it has clearly indicated that it's not interested in doing something that is good for the users. If anything, it is Google's unwillingness to do the right thing (OpenID or some such mechanism) that we should be upset about.

Having said all this, Google seems to be getting some well-deserved flak from Philip Dawdy for the way his AdSense account has been yanked. Once again, the link is via Siva's book blog Googlization of Everything, where you will get a lot of dirt (and some good stuff) on Google.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When nasties are on the prowl ...

The interweb tubes are supposed to facilitate interactions, allow free exchange of ideas, help people to network with and understand each other, make this world a better place. But it's only the normal people who suppose such things; while they are willing to live with some of the side effects such as the online disinhibition effect, they are forced to give up -- or seriously curtail -- their online presence when bad elements get out of control.

Some recent events (Amrita recounts one here) are forcing a few bloggers -- all of them women -- to consider such defensive moves. At least one of them has made her blog private, and another may follow suit. Anindita Sengupta (who contributes to Ultra Violet, a feminist blog) has chosen to keep only some of her posts in the public domain.

We, in India, woke up late to the many charms of Internet communication and as a result are behind on the curve. For example, nothing like the Kathy Sierra incident has happened in the Indian blogosphere. But there are the early signs — aggression in various forms.

Anyway, I was am increasingly uncomfortable about the different kinds of blurring and there is the temptation to yank this page off cyberspace altogether but it’s also an empowering space in many ways. So I decided to impose some sort of control over it, or try to, at any rate.

I opted for a compromise by changing the look and feel, the name, the mood. I kept the posts that talk about the things I like or feel strongly about. I removed the ones about ‘me’. [...]

This sad development poses some questions for us: Can anything be done? What can we do with these nasty people who are polluting the interwebs? What can we do to prevent the nasties from gaining control? I don't know what motivates them, but, to the extent their tantrums (name-calling, threats) are attention-grabbing exercises, I think something can be done.

So, here's my humble request: banish them from your (online) world. Completely. Totally. Don't give them a chance to participate in your blog's comments section. If you don't want to do that, the least you can do is to not link to their posts.

I admit that in the current episode, I don't know who the nasties are. Except for one. Fortunately, I have not had much of an interaction with this person, and nor am I likely to. I promise to do my best to keep this person off my blog.

Peter Foster on Sri Lankan government's human rights violations


Sri Lanka's forgotten ethnic war is one of the nastiest conflicts on earth and ... the current administration is prosecuting that war with little or no regard for human rights. [...]

As the Sri Lankan government likes to remind anyone that accuses them of behaving badly, the Tamil Tigers are a proto-fascist organisation which recruits child soldiers, targets civilians and murders dissenters at will.

All that is true, but if the same Sri Lankan government wants to lay any claim to the moral high ground, then it must not stoop to the same level as its enemies.

Onion: "Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement"

Once again, Onion is back to what it is very, very good at: edgy humor. Here's an example:

"All the feminist movement needed to do was bring on someone who had the balls to do something about this glass ceiling business," said McGowan, who quickly closed the 23.5 percent gender wage gap by "making a few calls to the big boys upstairs." "In the world of gender identity and empowered female sexuality, it's all about who you know."

"A Christmas Warning"

Before you ask Santa Claus for a new Windows PC, remember the adage "Be careful what you wish for."

In the best of all possible worlds, we would all benefit from the Microsoft monopolies of MS Windows and MS Office, by enjoying the network effects that result from most people using the same software: Everyone can easily exchange files, and teach each other how to use the software efficiently.

Unfortunately, since Microsoft's goal is to maximize its profits and not its benefits to users, the world Microsoft actually delivers is not the best of all possible worlds -- far from it. Indeed, network effects have become a weapon in Microsoft's arsenal as they are a boon to consumers.

Sidebar: Talking about Micro$oft, have you heard about its "sex-obsessed RoboSanta [spouting] filth at children? [Link via Marc Andreessen].

* * *

So starts A Christmas Warning by Aaron S. Edlin in the latest issue of Economist's Voice. After describing the perverse incentives that makes Microsoft introduce new software that's incompatible with its own older versions, Edlin expresses the hope that "the antitrust authorities [will] give serious consideration to the [following] remedy:

Suppose Microsoft had to allow licensing of old versions of Microsoft software at a reasonable price (perhaps the price of the new version) whenever Microsoft brings out new versions. This would give Microsoft an incentive to make sure that new versions were compatible and significantly better than old versions -- otherwise, the new versions wouldn't sell, or at least wouldn't sell easily. Wouldn't it be great if Microsoft's new software had to compete successfully at least against its old software?

The best blog post title I have read in a long time ...

"Ebony, Meet Irony." Here are the opening lines:

This is one of the funnier things I've read recently. It turns out that 1962 Nobel laureate, James Watson, who recently made some disparaging comments about the intelligence of Africans, probably is of African descent himself.

Watson, whose genome was completely sequenced, is the second person whose entire genome was published on the internet. As a result, it is freely accessible to the public. So, because scientists will be scientists, an Icelandic company, deCODE Genetics, carried out an analysis of Watson's genome and found that 16 percent of his genome is likely to have come from an ancestor of African descent. In contrast, the genome of the average person of European descent has only one percent that is consistent with African ancestry.

See also the SciAm's 60 Second Science post.

Update: All right, enough fun already; it's time to look at the science. As Guru points out in the comments (and as did the 60 Second Science post), several people have raised serious questions about the validity of these claims about Watson's ancestry. Start with P.Z. Myers, and through him, move to Laurence Moran and Meredith Small.

Monday, December 10, 2007

University mottos: The unofficial edition

Sample these:

... Plenty of colleges have unofficial mottos, which make their way onto T-shirts and coffee mugs. For instance, Reed College's underground slogan is "Communism, Atheism, Free Love." Students at Swarthmore College experience "Guilt Without Sex." And then there's "Where the Hell Is Grinnell?" and "The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die."

Thanks to Fabio for the link. He also very helpfully provides a link to Where Fun Comes to Die that collects unofficial slogans of the University of Chicago.

T.T. Ram Mohan on Bangalore's angry reaction against IT


The feature set me thinking. There are other professions that pay even more- the financial services sector as well. How come we do not see a similar resentment towards investment bankers and private equity people in Mumbai? I guess that's because partly the city is not yet identified with these professionals, they are not that numerous and, besides, in Mumbai, there are other sectors that absorb people and pay well. IT dominates Bengalooru in a way in which other sectors do not dominate any metropolis and, also, the disparity between a dominant sector and other sectors in any city is not as great. If the proposed International Finance City materialises in Mumbai, we can expect an even greater backlash.

The Readers' Editor finds fault with the Hindu on its coverage of Nandigram

Go past the first sentence, and it's as devastating an indictment as is possible for an insider like Readers' Editor K. Narayanan:

There was balance in the coverage to the extent that protesting voices against what was "happening" in Nandigram got adequate representation. But what was really happening? The reader was left to guess. The Home Secretary said it was a "war zone"; Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya described what had happened in Nandigram as legal and justified and added, "we have paid back in their own coin." These widely reported (but not in The Hindu) remarks indicated something serious had happened and it needed to be justified. Obviously it was not Maoists and Trinamool alone, who were responsible for the situation and the published reports did not make things clear.

The reporting in The Hindu was selective. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s comment on the situation (while on his way to Kuala Lumpur) did not find a place and this had to be inferred from the Chief Minister’s reaction to it. Similarly, the Chief Minister’s "paid back" remark found mention only when there were reactions to it.

The unprecedented public protest in Kolkata was well covered, but one was left wondering what was the "situation" in Nandigram against which the intellectuals and artists were protesting. As a newsman, my first priority would have been spot coverage. That media persons were denied access to the "war zone" was unknown to The Hindu readers. The first Nandigram-datelined report, from Antara Das, appeared much after things had quietened down in the area. Nandigram did not get the detailed analysis that an explosion in tiny faraway Maldives got at the same time.

Narayanan's verdict is a stinging slap in face of Editor-in-Chief N. Ram, who penned this defence of the paper's Nandigram:

According to the Editor-in-Chief, “We have done a perfectly balanced news and pictorial coverage of Nandigram and taken a clear editorial position, avoiding the traps of anti-left campaign journalism that various other newspapers and television channels have got into. I am satisfied that the news coverage has been accurate and balanced. Working out the editorial stand is our journalistic privilege. A serious content analysis of our coverage of Nandigram will vindicate my claim of factual and sober coverage. Of course journalism works with constraints when it comes to access to what happens in embattled or complex circumstances. But you always have a chance to catch up or fill in what happened.

“It is absolutely inaccurate to say we have not sent any reporter to Nandigram. Antara Das’ recent report, for example, speaks for itself.”

Congratulations to my neighbour at work!

When my colleague Prof. U. Ramamurty wins an award, and it's reported in MSM (with a picture, too!), I have to to record it here on my blog. So, here it is: Scopus Young Scientist award.

Congratulations, Ram!

IQ: Flynn effect

An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

That's from Malcolm Gladwell's review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?. Here's an interesting finding that illustrates the sentence quoted above:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

And, yes, Gladwell covers the hot button issues of race and IQ, and genes vs. environment. Needless to say, the Flynn effect plays a prominent role in the arguments. Let me just quote from the concluding paragraph:

“The mind is much more like a muscle than we’ve ever realized,” Flynn said. “It needs to get cognitive exercise. It’s not some piece of clay on which you put an indelible mark.” The lesson to be drawn from black and white differences was the same as the lesson from the Netherlands years ago: I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in.

Gladwell's blog post is here.

In my previous post, I should have linked to Stephen Metcalf's critique of William Saletan's extended expressions of his own gullibility. I have done it there, but let me link to it here too!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

"All Brains Are the Same Color"

University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett has an excellent piece on IQ and race.

Sidebar: The article mentions a recent series of articles (in Slate) by William Saletan. Cosma Shalizi has a series of posts on them, and as usual, they are all a must read.

Slate's very own critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf castigates William Saletan for basing his article largely on racist junk peddled by a couple of hereditarian fundamentalists .

* * *

Nearly all the evidence suggesting a genetic basis for the I.Q. differential is indirect. There is, for example, the evidence that brain size is correlated with intelligence, and that blacks have smaller brains than whites. But the brain size difference between men and women is substantially greater than that between blacks and whites, yet men and women score the same, on average, on I.Q. tests. Likewise, a group of people in a community in Ecuador have a genetic anomaly that produces extremely small head sizes — and hence brain sizes. Yet their intelligence is as high as that of their unaffected relatives.

Why rely on such misleading and indirect findings when we have much more direct evidence about the basis for the I.Q. gap? About 25 percent of the genes in the American black population are European, meaning that the genes of any individual can range from 100 percent African to mostly European. If European intelligence genes are superior, then blacks who have relatively more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s than those who have more African genes. But it turns out that skin color and “negroidness” of features — both measures of the degree of a black person’s European ancestry — are only weakly associated with I.Q. (even though we might well expect a moderately high association due to the social advantages of such features).

Left intellectuals attack CPI(M) ...

... for the way it "handled" Taslima Nasreen and the Nandigram issue.

The statement in Kafila signed by Mahashweta Devi et al is a response to the largely pro-CPI(M) letter from a group led by Noam Chomsky urging the Indian Left to go easy on the party on the Nandigram issue. Nasreen figures in it only peripherally.

On the other hand, this Outlook column by Priyamvada Gopal hauls the Left Front government over the coals for the callous way it treated Nasreen. It starts off by drawing ironic parallels between a set of writers (who were members of CPI) seventy five years ago and Nasreen now:

In 1932, a young woman named Rashid Jahan was denounced by some clerics and threatened with disfigurement and death. She and three others had just published a collection of Urdu short stories called Angarey in which they had robustly criticized obscurantist customs in their own community and the sexual hypocrisies of some feudal landowners and men of religion. The colonial state, always zealous in its support of authoritarian religious chauvinists over dissenting voices, promptly banned the book and confiscated all copies under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Rashid Jahan, as a woman, became a particular focus of ire. A doctor by training like Taslima Nasreen, she too had written about seclusion, sexual oppression and female suffering in a patriarchal society.

What has changed in three quarters of a century? Periodically, we witness zealots of all faiths shouting hysterically about 'insults' to religious sentiments and being backed by the state while little is done to address more serious material injustices that affect members of their community.

But in the light of the Taslima Nasreen controversy, the Angarey story has particularly ironic resonances. For Rashid Jahan and two of her co-contributors, Mahmuduzzafar and Sajjad Zaheer, were members of the Communist Party of India who would go on to help found the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1936. The PWA was to be a loose coalition of radical litterateurs, both party members and 'fellow travelers', who would challenge all manner of orthodoxies and put social transformation on the literary map of India. Unsurprisingly, many PWA-linked writers had run-ins with the law, constantly fending off charges of obscenity, blasphemy and disturbing the peace. Challenging these attacks with brave eloquence, they defended the task of the writer as one of pushing social and imaginative boundaries. The then beleaguered undivided CPI too faced constant attacks, including censorship, trials and an outright ban.

Today, heirs of that same Communist party, the CPI(M), find themselves on the same side with the state and religious orthodoxies whose excesses they once challenged. ...

And there's more in Gopal's piece:

There's an odd kind of condescension in maintaining that some sentiments are more fragile than others and that some forms of belief are less resilient and, therefore, beyond questioning. Critique and dissent are essential, particularly when they come from those most affected by particular forms of religious and political practice.

When CPI(M) leaders commend the withdrawal of passages from Taslima's book and insist on the objectionable nature of some of her writing, they would do well do remember that a good many people in this world claim to find communism profoundly objectionable, even deeply offensive to their most cherished sentiments. The right of the left more generally to articulate critique and opposition has been hard won and remains under siege in many parts of the world.

Finally, there's this Telegraph column from the well known CPI(M) baiter Ram Guha.

It was speculated — probably rightly — that the Left Front’s decision to send Taslima Nasreen away was prompted by the fear of losing the minority vote as a consequence of Nandigram (where the vast majority of the victims of the latest round of violence were Muslims). Will the opinion polls that show a vast majority of Calcutta residents wanting to have Taslima Nasreen back in their midst cause them to rethink? Or will Narendra Modi’s cleverly brazen invitation to the writer to take refuge in Gujarat embarrass the CPI(M) into rescinding the expulsion order? Or will these facts and provocations be disregarded and the fundamentalists win after all?

Philosophers don’t observe, experiment, measure and count ...

... or, do they? Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has a delightful essay in NYTimes on the latest fad -- the new new thing -- in philosophy: X-phi or experimental philosophy. Every paragraph there is worth excerpting, but I have to limit myself to just two:

Not only are philosophers unaccustomed to gathering data; many have also come to define themselves by their disinclination to do so. The professional bailiwick we’ve staked out is the empyrean of pure thought. Colleagues in biology have P.C.R. machines to run and microscope slides to dye; political scientists have demographic trends to crunch; psychologists have their rats and mazes. We philosophers wave them on with kindly looks. We know the experimental sciences are terribly important, but the role we prefer is that of the Catholic priest presiding at a wedding, confident that his support for the practice carries all the more weight for being entirely theoretical. Philosophers don’t observe; we don’t experiment; we don’t measure; and we don’t count. We reflect. We love nothing more than our “thought experiments,” but the key word there is thought. As the president of one of philosophy’s more illustrious professional associations, the Aristotelian Society, said a few years ago, “If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can.”

But now a restive contingent of our tribe is convinced that it can shed light on traditional philosophical problems by going out and gathering information about what people actually think and say about our thought experiments. The newborn movement (“x-phi” to its younger practitioners) has come trailing blogs of glory, not to mention Web sites, special journal issues and panels at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. At the University of California at San Diego and the University of Arizona, students and faculty members have set up what they call Experimental Philosophy Laboratories, while Indiana University now specializes with its Experimental Epistemology Laboratory. Neurology has been enlisted, too. More and more, you hear about philosophy grad students who are teaching themselves how to read f.M.R.I. brain scans in order to try to figure out what’s going on when people contemplate moral quandaries. (Which decisions seem to arise from cool calculation? Which decisions seem to involve amygdala-associated emotion?) The publisher Springer is starting a new journal called Neuroethics, which, pointedly, is about not just what ethics has to say about neurology but also what neurology has to say about ethics. (Have you noticed that neuro- has become the new nano-?) In online discussion groups, grad students confer about which philosophy programs are “experimentally friendly” the way, in the 1970s, they might have conferred about which programs were welcoming toward homosexuals, or Heideggerians. Oh, and earlier this fall, a music video of an “Experimental Philosophy Anthem” was posted on YouTube. It shows an armchair being torched.

The YouTube video of the X-phi Anthem is here. A blog devoted to this field is here.

And oh, did I mention the American-style attack ad on Immanuel Kant?

Bengalooru has had it with IT!

That's the message in the latest Outlook cover story. While reading it, it appears to me that people -- even those who should know better -- are attributing to the IT sector what should really be placed at the doorsteps of governance. But, Sugata Srinivasaraju captures the change in the public perception quite well:

Infosys and Wipro are no longer considered gateways to heaven, but more as roads to hell. When Infosys's Narayana Murthy was charged with showing 'disrespect' to the national anthem, there was a glaring absence of sympathy for the IT czar in the public domain, whereas earlier there would have been a tidal wave of support. Likewise for Wipro, when it was charged by a government panel of encroaching upon Bellandur lake to build its guest house. Another time, when the state government proposed to set up an education training and management institute with the Azim Premji Foundation, there was a letter campaign against it. There is now a perceptible change in the way the public in Bangalore looks at Murthy and Premji, the two most revered symbols of its IT industry—that they're no different from other businessmen who merely make profits for their company and their shareholders.

But the really interesting stuff is in the two opinion pieces accompanying the cover story. C.N.R. Rao has used some intemperate language -- "If IT is going to take away our basic values, then you can burn Bangalore and burn IT." I am sure these poorly chosen words will come back to haunt him.

Subroto Bagchi, on the other hand, thinks that Bangalore's resentment against the IT sector is like some marital discord caused by a misunderstanding that can be cleared up through better communication. This sounds too silly to buy into when you realize that the IT industry is not some quaint little industry run by a bunch of newbies; it is now a multi-billion dollar industry, whose enormous and extremely media-savvy PR machine ensured that it got a big chunk of the credit for the "India Shining" story.

Bagchi's column also has some irony that's all the more delicious because it was unintended. At the beginning of his piece, we get the now standard story about how the heroes of the IT revolution made it all happen without any government help. [I don't know where the tax holidays stand in this grand picture, but I will let it pass.] But all that heroism vaporizes when he bemoans, just a little later, the government's lack of sympathy for the IT sector when it was hit by the recent surge in the Rupee against the US Dollar.

Nice try, Mr. Bagchi!

* * *

Thanks to Confused for the pointer.

Desi diversity in America!

Here's Chidanand Rajghatta in ToI:

... [W]hat happens when you put 2.6 million Indians in the US? They bring their full range of plurality with them to a country that, much like India, allows full expression.


Oh, how they multiply and divide. When one Andhra caste began to dominate TANA (Telugu Association of North America), the other went on to form ATA (Association of Telugus of America). GANA could not contain the forming of the Gujarati Leuva Patel Samaj and nor could KANA hold back the birth of the North America Nair Society. When Bihar split to make place for Jharkhand, folks here made sure everyone heard it by forming BAJANA (Bihar and Jharkhand Association of North America).

Sometimes, there are so many associations for a given state or community that they form an omnibus association of associations. Thus, we have JAINA (Federation of Jain Associations of North America) and FOKANA (Federation of Kerala Associations of North America). Conversely, a mere Tamil Sangam was not large enough to accommodate the voice of Chettiars (to which belongs our finance minister P Chidambaram) who formed the Nagarthar Chettiar Sangam of North America.

He goes on to give some really curious examples: Association of Indian Entomologists of North America and Volleyball Association of Jats in America.

* * *

This brings back some sad memories of divisions within the (fairly small) desi community in Pittsburgh during the mid-eighties. Even though the divisive issue was couched in terms of how to run the Balaji temple, it really boiled down to a fight between the Tamils and the Telugus, with each group going all out to recruit supporters. Their quest for numbers was so desperate that the two groups didn't mind having on their side utterly clueless (and FOB) graduate students like us! Fortunately, our own academic work (and our ever-expanding cultural horizons aided by interactions with newly acquired friends from across the globe) made us lose interest in the petty temple politics.

Assertion and celebration of one's linguistic and religious identities are all very well, but they do encourage some insecure and small-minded souls to blow up the differences, which flare up in the kind of divisive politics we witnessed briefly within the small desi community in Pittsburgh. From this point of view, I think the mildly mocking tone in Rajghatta's piece is entirely appropriate.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Error message from Window$

Marc Andreessen is absolutely right: this is the best error message ever.

Windows Problem Reporting has stopped working.


After a brief, conference-induced break, blogging begins again. On a grim note.

Asok, the brilliant Indian engineer in Dilbert, is no more [via Anantha and Anna, who have more on this sad news]. Ashok, however, has left open the possibility of making a come-back of sorts -- through cloning.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Greenspan, the arsonist!

Nayeri: But surely you will acknowledge that Greenspan saved the planet at crucial turning points?

Artus: Yes, but after the fact. He’s congratulated for his role as fireman, but he’s the one who started the fire.

Wow! That blunt judgment is from Patrick Artus, an economic adviser to the French government. Link via Paul Krugman.

Immediately preceding the section quoted above, Artus has these two observations:

Greenspan was an arsonist and a fireman combined. He derived all his glory from his reaction to the savings-and- loans crisis, to the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management LP, and to Sept. 11, 2001. But LTCM and the savings-and-loans crisis were his doing. He absolutely failed to see where the malfunctions in the U.S. economy were.

Greenspan came up with a phrase, ``irrational exuberance,'' in 1997, but he didn't do anything about it.

A big win for Facebook users ...

... in their fight against its new privacy-invading shenanigans. Now, "opt-out" is the the default for this offensive "feature," just the way it should have been in the first place.