Monday, January 31, 2011

Link of the Day

Robert Mankoff in New Yorker: Tiger Mother and the Cartoon Arms Race. "Inspired" by Amy Chua's 'Chinese Mother vs. Western Mother' bombshell. Features lots of New Yorker cartoons. Fabulous.

Bonus Link: Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent review-essay on Chua's book.

In Chua’s binary world, there are just two kinds of mother. There are “Chinese mothers,” who, she allows, do not necessarily have to be Chinese. “I’m using the term ‘Chinese mothers’ loosely,” she writes. Then, there are “Western” mothers. Western mothers think they are being strict when they insist that their children practice their instruments for half an hour a day. For Chinese mothers, “the first hour is the easy part.” Chua chooses the instruments that her daughters will play—piano for the older one, Sophia; violin for the younger, Lulu—and stands over them as they practice for three, four, sometimes five hours at a stretch. The least the girls are expected to do is make it to Carnegie Hall. Amazingly enough, Sophia does. Chua’s daughters are so successful—once, it’s true, Sophia came in second on a multiplication test (to a Korean boy), but Chua made sure this never happened again—that they confirm her thesis: Western mothers are losers. I’m using the term “losers” loosely.

Darwin, the unit of scientific fame

The journal Science has an article by John Bohannon on measuring an individual scientist's fame and influence using "a data set based on the trillions of words within Google Books, which currently represents 15 million books, 12% of those ever published." The proposed unit for this fame is a darwin, "defined as the average annual frequency that "Charles Darwin" appears in English-language books from the year when he was 30 years old (1839) until 2000." There are just three scientists -- Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein -- who have a fame of 0.5 darwin or more; so a more convenient unit for the others is a millidarwin (mD)!

Here's an excerpt from near the end of the article on what you can do to become more famous:

3. Write a popular book.

This is a risky business. You'll have to take a year off from full-time research to write a book, says Pinker, and "most of them are never read." But if you can pull it off, writing a popular book can launch you into fame. For most of his career, Pinker was a well-respected psychologist with about 1 mD of fame. But that changed dramatically after the 1994 publication of his book The Language Instinct. "That's when people started recognizing me in the street," Pinker recalls, "and I got an avalanche of unsolicited mail from strangers." And then came the invitations—to write articles on diverse topics, to take part in conferences in other disciplines—and "that was a godsend for me," he says.

In fact, once you've got a scientific career up and running, you might consider switching to full-time book writing. The extreme case is Isaac Asimov. His 183 mD of fame came not from being a biochemistry professor at Boston University, of course, but for becoming a titan of hard science fiction. Carl Sagan (152 mD), Rachel Carson (152 mD), Richard Dawkins (90 mD), and many others show the value of reaching out directly to the public. These days, that could take the form of a blog.

Viral Rumours in Pre-Internet India

An important event in Bangalore during this period was the celebration of the centenary of the great visionary, Sir M. Visveswaraya. Every few weeks before the centenary, there would be a rumour that Sir M.V. had passed away. On one such occasion, C.V. Raman went with his wife to Sir M.V.'s house to express condolence. When he knocked on the door, Sir M.V. opened it. A shocked Raman recovered quickly and just blurted, "I thought that I should just say hello to you," and left immediately.

That's from Prof. C.N.R. Rao's autobiographical memoirs, Climbing the Limitless Ladder -- A Life in Chemistry. Going by the Wikipedia entry, this would have been during 1959-60.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How not to respond to a negative book review in an academic journal

File a lawsuit complaining of criminal defamation [Via].

The defendant in this case, Prof. Joseph Weiler, Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Law, has a blog post in EJIL Blog on the progress in the case. There's a lot of interesting stuff there (including the phrase "libel tourism"), but especially fascinating is this backstory about how the case landed in a French court:

... Why Paris you might ask? Indeed. The author of the book was an Israeli academic. The book was in English. The publisher was Dutch. The reviewer was a distinguished German professor. The review was published on a New York website.

Beyond doubt, once a text or image go online, they become available worldwide, including France. But should that alone give jurisdiction to French courts in circumstances such as this? Does the fact that the author of the book, it turned out, retained her French nationality before going to live and work in Israel make a difference? Libel tourism – libel terrorism to some — is typically associated with London, where notorious high legal fees and punitive damages coerce many to throw in the towel even before going to trial. Paris, as we would expect, is more egalitarian and less materialist. It is very plaintiff friendly.

In France an attack on one’s honor is taken as seriously as a bodily attack. Substantively, if someone is defamed, the bad faith of the defamer is presumed just as in our system, if someone slaps you in the face, it will be assumed that he intended to do so. Procedurally it is open to anyone who feels defamed, to avoid the costly civil route, and simply lodge a criminal complaint. At this point the machinery of the State swings into action. [...]

I wonder if it was such a great idea ...

... for the Indian Women Scientists Association to give the two prominent places in the Inaugural Session of its All India Meeting of Women in Science to ...

... men!

[here's the program (doc)]

More often than not, inaugural sessions in conferences feature one or two prominent people who are neither organizers nor participants. These celebrities -- ministers, directors, vice chancellors, and the like -- usually don't stick around for the rest of the meeting, and their primary job is to add a certain aura to the proceedings, to help get some press coverage for the meeting, and if the organizers are lucky, to help get some coverage for their organization and its vision-mission-objectives. In the event, the press coverage of this meeting doesn't mention even a single woman who spoke in the inaugural session.

Even without the press coverage problem (the organizers don't have any control over the level of cluelessness of the reporter, etc...), I wonder about the symbolism of having two men giving the inaugural and keynote addresses at the Meeting of Women in Science.

And this is not the first time I have wondered about this ...

First Mover Advantage

Mobile Number Portability was introduced recently in Haryana. Among the early trends reported by Thomas K. Thomas, this caught my eye:

Idea Cellular, which was the first to start an advertising campaign on MNP, has a net loss of 1,863 subscribers with 15,604 subscribers leaving its network and 13,741 coming in. [Bold emphasis added]

Friday, January 28, 2011

Beautiful Collaboration

I got this awesome picture from the Flowing Data post entitled Map of Scientific Collaboration between Researchers; the original work by Olivier Beauchesne can be found here -- it even has a link to a zoomable picture!

The darkness in China is intriguing -- the data are probably incomplete.

The bright and dark regions in India seem to agree with my perception of where the active centers of scientific research are.

Even the brightest corridor stretching from Delhi to Kolkata pales in comparison with what you see in Europe or Japan.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Are physicists arrogant?

Steven Blau weighs in on the matter over at Physics Today Blogs [Update: I think the real value in Blau's piece is in the link to an earlier article by Murray Gibson]. Here's Blau:

It hardly raises an eyebrow when someone proclaims that physicists are an arrogant lot. The topic recurs periodically at the Physics Today lunch table and even was the subject of a February 2003 Opinion piece that J. Murray Gibson wrote for the magazine. Gibson took the arrogance of physicists as a given and often helpful quality, but he argued that it had its negative consequences as well.

I think I see where the notion of the arrogant physicist comes from.

Don't forget to read the push-back in the comments!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Skin Whitener

Remember the first DST-P&G Challenge of the Month? The results are not officially out, but it is rumored that one of the "solutions" has been tested by the magazine Elle. Here's the result: a very white Aishwarya Rai Bachchan!

M. Rajshekhar: "A shrinking of world views"

He wonders why "we hardly see fiction about present-day rural India either written in English or translated into English?"

Seen any fiction recently about how the new lot of self-selecting government programmes are impacting rural India? Take NREGA. In Chhattisgarh and elsewhere, while the lot of the agricultural labour has improved after NREGA, small farmers are unable to afford labour now. [...]

Similarly, read any stories about environmental change in rural India? There is climate change, manifesting itself in erratic rainfall patterns across rural India. Or, for that matter, seen anything in your local bookshop about how villages are changing as our cities spill outwards — the rise in land values; the buzzing of real estate agents in and around villages looking for farmers willing to sell their land; and the younger rural generation, drawn by the gravitational pull of the cities, and only too aware that agriculture promises hard labour and uncertain gains, urging their parents to sell?

Sunil Khilnani on India's Knowledge Bankruptcy

Today, the Indian state seems particularly inept at generating the kind of knowledge it requires as it tries to realize its global aspirations. We have severe deficits when it comes to producing our own information, on the basis of which our strategic and policy decisions can be taken, our greatest long-term hopes pursued. The two major security threats we face, external and internal, embody this current lack.

From his latest Mint column. The external "security threat" Khilnani refers to is the once coming from Pakistan. But his views on the internal threat are worth highlighting:

...[The threat] emanating from the impoverished areas of the country in which Maoists are operating. We all acknowledge that these parts of the country are in great social and economic distress. But our sense of the nature of that distress is appallingly general. Our government and our social scientists lack the detailed, rigorous field studies that would illuminate, in a nuanced, non-ideological fashion, the key drivers and the casual [sic] chains that lead towards violent agitation. It’s all the more galling, then, to learn that it’s the Maoists themselves who turn out to be, in addition to gun-toting militants, rather expert social scientists with a more impressive grasp of the structures of contemporary agrarian society than our own government. Some in their membership have done real field work to advance plausible explanations of why so many Indian citizens feel compelled to take to armed revolt.

Is it true that "our social scientists lack the detailed, rigorous field studies" that illuminate "the key drivers and the casual [sic] chains that lead towards violent agitation"? Or is it the case that India's social scientists (and journalists and human rights activists) know a great deal about -- and understand -- the key drivers and the causal chains, but the Indian state has no intention of listening to them?

Paul Samuelson, the Activist Investor

It turns out that the great MIT economist was influential in the creation of one of the earliest and most influential hedge funds. Launched in 1970, Commodities Corp. blazed a trail of extremely high returns throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, before disappearing in various pieces into Bermuda mailboxes and Goldman Sachs. Many of its star traders – Bruce Kovner of Caxton and Paul Tudor Jones, chief among them—formed successful hedge funds of their own. Samuelson thus had a ringside seat at the birth of an influential industry that is still only poorly understood.

About the same time, he invested a substantial amount in shares of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. It was in 1970, too, that he won the Nobel prize in economics, the second to be awarded. Long famous for the fortune that his pioneering textbook earned him after 1948, it turns out that Samuelson may have made more money as an investor than as an author. He was both smarter and richer than is generally understood: as an investor, a bigger winner, perhaps, than the more volatile John Maynard Keynes.

That's David Warsh on Samuelson's secret life as an activist investor.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Just to cheer you all up this Monday morning ...

... here's a link: Journal of Universal Rejection [Via Retraction Watch where you can find an interview of the journal's editor Caleb Emmons]. Here's an excerpt from About the Journal:

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

  1. You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.

  2. There are no page-fees.

  3. You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).

  4. The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.

  5. You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.

  6. Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

Friday, January 21, 2011


  1. Jacopo della Quercia at 5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam.

  2. Scicurious at Neurotic Physiology: Friday Weird Science: The Magnificent Mammal Menage a Trois. It's about wild whale sex.

  3. Apoorva Mandavilli in Nature: Peer review: Trial by Twitter: "Blogs and tweets are ripping papers apart within days of publication, leaving researchers unsure how to react."

  4. Pam Belluck in NYTimes: To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test. "Test-taking actually helps people learn, and it works better than repeated studying, according to new research."

  5. Christine Carter at The Berkeley Blog: How to raise an unhappy child.

Catchy Blog Post Title of the Day

When Cleavage is a Bad Thing.

Written by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky over at Cocktail Party Physics, that post discusses a recent Nature Materials report by Demetriou, et alon a tough metallic glass made from an alloy of palladium.

In everyday English, 'strong' and 'tough' may appear to mean the same thing, but in materials engineering, they mean two distinct properties : a material is strong if it resists deformation (denting, bending, or shape change) being hit, poked or pounded; it is tough if it resists fracture (breaking or shattering). Here's Leslie-Pelecky on this difference:

Cleavage [a particularly easy form of fracture] is a good thing for materials you want to break; however, this is not a desireable property if you are trying to build airplanes or buildings. You need a material that is strong which means that it resists changing shape when it is pushed or pulled. You want to be able to put a heavy load on your material without the material denting or bending. You're also looking for toughness, which is a resistance to shattering. If a material is going to give, you'd like it to bend or dent, not shatter.

The study by Demetriou, et al has been making waves -- see here and here -- not only because their palladium-based glass sets a new record for toughness for metallic glasses, but also because it is the first metallic glass that has proven to be "tougher than steel".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spot the Difference: "Chinese Parenting Style" Edition

Which of these pieces of "parenting advice" is from a real author?

  1. Take your children to Chuck E. Cheese's and let them play any game they choose, then make them watch as you burn their tickets.

  2. When [your child] turns in a poor practice session on the piano..., [scream]: "If the next time's not perfect, I'm going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them."

Life imitating The Onion? Or, The Onion making fun of a "Tiger Mother"?

Website of the Day

Women in Science, moderated by Laura Hoopes and hosted by SciTable, an education arm (free!) of Nature.

About once a week, Hoopes describes some event / problem / experience, and follows it up with a question -- for the community to discuss. See, for example, this week's discussion which builds on a key insight -- why science must adapt to women -- in a 2002 interview of Elizabeth Blackburn:

"The argument has been that the pipeline will take care of this," Blackburn says, referring to the idea that if enough women are encouraged to enter science early, the gender gap, over time, will disappear. "But the pipeline has been good for a number of years, and it hasn't taken care of it. In biology it's especially insidious because 50 percent of grad students are female. This has been the case for quite some time. Yet when I was chair of my department, I was the only woman chair in the entire medical school. We are putting a lot of our students off continuing—both men and women, but more women. They vote with their feet."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A (real) assistant professor's pick-up line

Except it's not a line, but an essay. At McSweeney's. Need I say more?


Hey ladies, want a drink? Oh, yeah, that's my university ID. Sure, here, check it out. That's right, I'm part of the faculty.

Oh, I'm no adjunct. I'm an assistant professor. I know things about this university you can't even imagine.

Do you have any idea how big my interlibrary loan privileges are? I didn't think so. I get books longer, faster, and harder.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Memories of Grad School: The Quals

You can blame it on this story in The Chronicle about taking the Comprehensive Exam in a history department.

During my early months at grad school, the PhD qualifying exam -- The Quals -- used to fill us newbies with dread and fear. At our department, we used to call it the 'Valentine's Day Massacre.' In one of the previous Quals, the results were announced on Valentine's Day, and they were really, really bloody; out of a dozen or so who took the exam that year, I think just one or two passed it.

Though the results were not so awful for my cohort, we still stuck to calling the Quals by that colourful name. It gave those of us who passed it an inflated sense of achievement -- surviving The Massacre sounds so much more cool than passing The Quals, no?

[The Quals-as-massacre frame seems quite popular -- a recent play by our students has a hilarious scene that uses precisely this frame.]

After passing the exam, our seniors (who had been there and done that) greeted us by saying we had just reached the peak; from here on, it was all downhill all the way!

In The Chronicle story, a friend tells the author something similar as he was getting ready to face the last of his exams: "This is as smart as you'll ever be."

Different times, different schools, different disciplines.

But The Quals and the grim humor that goes with it are the same ...

Astronomical, Economical and Geological ...

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers. -- Richard Feynman (source)

That quote is from an age when huge -- economical! -- numbers looked powerful. But economic(al) phenomena can also negate it all, and drain the big numbers of all power and awedomeness:

At the height of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown in 2008 when Zimbabwe's world record inflation was running into the billions in percent annually and prices were climbing each hour, the 100 trillion bill scarcely bought a cart of groceries.

Teachers reported the printing of bank notes from millions to billions and then trillions skewed their pupils' sense of numeracy, making them fail to grasp the realities of numbers.

On one geography field trip, students scoffed at being told granite rocks swept over Zimbabwe by ancient glaciers were 700 million years old. That time frame seemed insignificant.

Back then in 2008, 700 million Zimbabwe dollars bought a loaf of bread. [source -- via]

Monday, January 10, 2011

Links ...

  1. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy: INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture.

  2. James Choi at The .Plan: A Quasi-Blog: Evidence of professional soccer player chokes [A post on a forthcoming paper by Jose Apesteguia and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta entitled Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Experiment].

  3. Eric Schoenberg at Huffington Post: Zombie Economics and Just Deserts: Why the Right Is Winning the Economic Debate

  4. Dan Ariely at Predictably Irrational: A gentler and more logical economics

  5. Could this really be John Venn's original Venn Diagram? ;-)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

UG Program @ IISc: Admissions Process has Started

IISc will welcome its first batch of UG students this August, and the admission process has been kicked off with the official launch of the online application portal which went live on the 1st of January. During December 2010, the Institute mailed the UG program poster to over 10,000 schools and PU Colleges, and placed quite a few ads in various newspapers -- including Indian language news outlets.

Here's the most interesting bit about the admission process: selection is going to be based on not just one exam, but a bunch of them: KVPY (SA, SB, and SX streams), JEE, AIEEE, and AIPMT.

UG Program @ IISc

Hindustan Times' Rahat Bano interviews someone at our Institute about the 4-year BS program which will welcome its first students in less than 8 months. HT plays it rather coy by leaving the name of the interviewee out altogether -- with the result that the 'interview' reads more like an FAQ!

Here's an excerpt:

How will it be different from a BSc and a BE or BTech?

These are several aspects that make the BS programme different from the currently available BSc, BE and BTech programmes. The unique features of this programme include: Interdisciplinary character: Students specialising in a particular discipline will be encouraged to broaden their knowledge and skills by taking about 30% of the courses from other disciplines.

Substantial component of engineering: Students will take five-six courses in engineering, including three compulsory courses on engineering essentials (computation, data analysis and electronic instrumentation).

Exposure to humanities and social sciences: Students will be required to take three lecture courses and several seminar courses in humanities and social sciences.

Experience in contemporary research: In the fourth year of the programme, students will carry out a one-year research project with a member of the faculty.

Interview for IIT Directors

Well, the previous post on the UK style faculty recruitment reminded me of the interview process used by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to select IIT directors.

There is no larger point here -- just a (tenuous) link between two selection/recruitment processes.

Faculty Recruitment: The Contrast between the US and the UK

Samuel Wren in The Chronicle:

Rule Britannia

Britain really is another country. It can produce a sensation of irreducible foreignness. For me, that feeling did not hit until I was in an anteroom waiting to be called in for my interview. [...]

[...] It was there that I realized that this academic search was completely different from any American one—for seated with me in the anteroom were the other three candidates for the job.

All four of us, in turn, had given presentations to the faculty that morning. Thankfully, we didn't have to sit through one another's talks. Our presentations were to last no more than 15 minutes, leaving another 10 minutes for questions. In the afternoon, when each of us was to be interviewed in succession by the hiring committee, we waited together in that anteroom.

In an American search, of course, you never see the other candidates. You don't even know how many there are.

Nor does any search take merely one day. A candidate on an American campus visit must have conversations with countless potential colleagues, tour the library and grounds, meet with benefits staff members, converse at dinners, lunches, and breakfasts, meet students at the undergraduate and graduate level, give talks or teaching demos in sessions that often last more than an hour, and otherwise endure a surreal and draining 36 hours, more or less, of social contact lasting from flight to flight. Every gesture is scrutinized, and still American academics complain that they are not able to really get to "know" a person in the "brief time" accorded their campus visit.

Then job candidates in an American search wait for a month or two or three as all of the other candidates are brought in and the committee, department, dean, and provost deliberate. If you are lucky, an offer comes at the end. If less lucky, you hear news that confirms what your sinking heart thought all along: that another candidate, unnamed, better suited the needs of the university.

In British searches, every candidate is assessed in a single day, between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. Not only that, but every candidate meets every other candidate. The process is as transparent as glass.

Ed Glaeser on Ethics Code for Economists

Quick summary: The American Economic Association (AEA) doesn't have a hold on economists, so it makes no sense for it to to issue an ethics code. But AEA controls a lot of prestigious journals; it makes a lot of sense for them to make disclosures of potential conflicts of interest mandatory for all the authors.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Classics from The Onion

Short-n-sweet snippets from the Tech section:

  1. November 2000: Employee Worries Coworker's Computer Screen May Be Larger

  2. April 2008: Computer Being Stupid

  3. September 2008: Internet Explorer Makes Desperate Overture To Become Default Browser

  4. November 2009: Report: Fiber Optics Not A Real Thing

  5. Undated: New Google Phone Service Whispers Targeted Ads Directly Into Users' Ears (video)

Setting the tone for 2011

Here's a report on a recent conference called Boring 2010.

For seven hours on that Saturday, 20 speakers held forth on a range of seemingly dreary diversions, from "The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs" and "Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast," to "The Draw in Test Match Cricket" and "My Relationship With Bus Routes." Meanwhile, some of the 200 audience members ... tried not to nod off.

Not many did, surprisingly. "It is quintessentially English to look at something dull as ditchwater and find it interesting," said Hamish Thompson [...]

Here's wishing you all an interesting 2011.