Monday, October 29, 2012

Higher Ed News of the Day

In a development widely seen as God's last ditch attempt to restore religious faith among IIT faculty and students, Mr. Kapil Sibal was moved out of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

Quick-gun reviews of Sibal's tenure at HRD ministry can be found here and here.

Music Time

A hit from this Tamil movie [which had several other hits by Ilayaraaja]:

Direct link

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to Dunk your Biscuits

Some of us, butter-toothed blokes, dunk our biscuits in tea or coffee before chewing on them. Dunked biscuits are tasty, but have their fender-bender moments. The dunking should be done within a critical time, else the soaked biscuit, before reaching our mouth, would bend in slow-mo back into the coffee with a 'splatch' or worse, spatter on the inside of our thigh like hot crow-poo.

Nevertheless, dunking biscuits is popular across the World -- be it in UK, where about five hundred burn themselves annually with a badly timed lift-up of the soaked biscuit, or in Indonesia, where the famous Tim Tam Slam is performed annually, wherein you slurp the tea or coffee through the specially made porous biscuits, before eating them in one piece.
During a recent 'academic meeting', while dunking a Good-day biscuit in hot coffee, I was wondering about the 'critical time' for safe-dipping. So I timed my Good-day dip much to the dismay of those around me, snicking (snacking) a few more biscuits from the passing tray. The time for safe-dip was just about 5 seconds; dip longer, it is bound to buckle when you attempt eating.

Is this safe-dip time universal? Is it valid for all other biscuits -- Marie with 9 or 18 holes; Krack-jack with 9 holes; Tiger biscuit with no holes; Bangalore Iyengar Rusk with random number of holes in differing sizes. What about dog biscuit?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

When Darkness Falls and Other Stories

Ruskin Bond is one of the Indian authors who writes in English; well. His English is not strained and doesn't read 'translated' from a native Indian tongue -- especially when writing the thoughts and emotions of Indians. Another writer with such language ease is R. K. Narayan (I wouldn't put a Salman Rushdie in this league, not because he lacks skills in English -- far from it -- but his would often read pompous and 'high-browed'). Ruskin Bond lives as a bachelor, away from the cities and on the hills, not mingling with the 'literary crowd' and their intellectual cocktail parties ("The cocktails usually run away with the intellect"). But he has prevailed and been prolific with an impressive profile, decked with the Sahithya Akademi to Padmashree honors. Penguin India is re-releasing some of his earlier titles and I bought a bunch.

When Darkness Falls and Other Stories is a collection of stories written by him around 2001. The book is less than hundred pages and takes an hour to complete. Most of the stories are set in and around his hometown Dehra Dun, at a time when he was young and forming. The first story, which lends the name to the book title, is also the best. It describes the life of Markham, the man with a scary face -- result of an army-term accident -- who no one wants to engage or endure. Put up by his longtime friend, Markham dwells in a forgotten corner of the dilapidated Empire hotel in his hometown, rotting along with the furniture through the changing times. A lifetime of resigned acceptance and dormant frustrations manifest one day (rather, night) unexpectedly, irrevocably, and an era passes in an inferno. I liked this story because it didn't pretend to be a story; just events and experience and the rest is upto the reader.

There are other lighthearted stories like The Writer's Bar (supposedly visited by great writers like Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham... to boost the sales) or the Monkey Trouble (Ruskin's younger self describing the enjoyable childhood phase with a grandfather who loves to keep pets, much to the chagrin of the grandmother). The 'ghost stories' are the driest in content and charm, predictable and bland. But then, as one of the character says, "People can't live without stories". These are stories from a corner of India, events and experience told with a personal touch, in simple language. When Darkness Falls... is not the best by Ruskin Bond, but his regular is a better read than the self-professed nine-point someones in the market.

Monday, October 22, 2012


  1. G.B.S.N.P. Varma in Caravan: For Song’s Sake. "A man’s crusade to prevent Telugu film songs from fading into obscurity"

  2. FĂ«anor at Just a Mon: Rice -- a delightful tour of rice varieties from many parts of the world.

    In another post, he describes his participation in a BBC show on the novelist-poet C. K. Stead.

Nobel warning

Expecting (and demanding from) researchers -- particularly experimenters -- to spell out in every detail, what is to be expected out of their research program and its 'usefulness' is an efficient way to prevent crackpots from usurping research funds. It is also an effective way to dampen curiosity-driven research.

In his recent Nature piece, Serge Haroche, co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics for his, primarily experimental, work on quantum optics, warns:
During this long adventure in the micro-world, my colleagues and I have retained the freedom to choose our path without having to justify it with the promise of possible applications.

Unfortunately, the environment from which I benefited is less likely to be found by young scientists embarking on research now, whether in France or elsewhere in Europe. [...] Scientists have to describe in advance all their research steps, to detail milestones and to account for all changes in direction. This approach, if extended too far, is not only detrimental to curiosity-driven research. It is also counterproductive for applied research, as most practical devices come from breakthroughs in basic research and would never have been developed out of the blue.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rejection improves impact?

Research papers, rejected first-time elsewhere, when eventually get published, get cited more than others in that journal.

According to the recent Nature report by Philip Ball, based on the submission histories of 80,748 scientific articles published among 923 bioscience journals between 2006 and 2008 and related information provided by the papers’ authors (via emails), Vincent Calcagno, an ecologist at the French Institute for Agricultural Research in Sophia-Antipolis, and his colleagues
[...] found that 3–6 years after publication, papers published on their second try are more highly cited on average than first-time papers in the same journal — regardless of whether the resubmissions moved to journals with higher or lower impact.
Related article: Calcagno, V. et al. Science (2012).

To paraphrase Calvin's father, Rejection builds character!

From my limited rejection experience in engineering research, I haven't observed this 'citation trend' for my publications. But then, I may be way out of field and league.

(read the Nature report for contrasting observations from another study).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tumblr of the Week: Mansplaining in Academia

Academic Men Explain Things to Me. The blog asks women students and faculty to share their experiences when "a man tried to explain your field or topic to you, on the assumption that he must inevitably know more about it than you do."

A sample:

Mansplaining of Unread Paper

I am a senior postdoctoral researcher in Physics, with 8 years experience. In our weekly paper meeting, I was presenting a paper by another group working in my field.

“Unfortunately”, I said “the paper is flawed because they used method xyz, which is not appropriate here because of reasons a and b.”

“What!” A male PhD student, who had just started his thesis 2 months ago and who had not read the paper exclaimed. “They used method xyz despite reason a and b?! This cannot be true.”

“Yes, it is”, I replied, irritated. “They clearly say they use method xyz.”

“You must have read the paper wrong”, he concluded.

Music Time

White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scary Sentences of the Week

Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes, the authors said.

From this NYTimes story by Gretchen Reynolds.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Birth of a Meme: Binders Full of Women

Binders Full of Women on -- where else? -- Tumblr [link via Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nahesi Coates]

For context on Mitt Romney's poor choice of words, watch this clip from yesterday's debate:

Monday, October 15, 2012

From the Annals of Longest Gramatically Correct Sentence

... that made a spectacularly wrong assessment.
"I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous. If he can't learn simple Biological facts, he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time both on his part, and of those who have to teach him."
From the 1949 school report card of Sir John Gurdon, 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, when he was 15.

Here is an image of part of that report card.

Read more from this Telegraph article.


  1. Stefanie Cohen in WSJ: Fourscore and 16000 Books: There are already over 16000 books about President Abraham Lincoln -- there will be 20 more in the coming year, in addition to Spielberg's biopic.

  2. Enrico Moretti in CNN: The Key to Economic Success? Geography

  3. Greg Hampikien in NYTimes: Men, Who Needs Them? "... women are both necessary and sufficient for reproduction, and men are neither."

Video of the Day

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's speech in the Australian Parliament: "I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man [Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Tony Abbott]. Not now, not ever.":

Sunday, October 14, 2012

From the Annals of Gaming the System

This one, however, is about a failed experiment, a loss of two years and 2 million dollars, and lawsuit:

The Chows, who lived in Hong Kong, knew little about the US educational system, but they did know that they wanted an Ivy League education for their sons. And they had money to spend on consultants like Zimny, who, they believed, could help make the dream come true.

What transpired, however, turned out to be a cautionary tale for the thousands of parents who are fueling the growing global admissions-consulting industry.


  1. Samanth Subramanian at India Ink: Happy 80th Birthday, Air India.

  2. Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham at Ideas for India: Why Indian education needs to get back to reality:

    What is the best advice to give an Indian education department official? This column argues that the best thing officials can do is drop the assumptions and stick to reality – otherwise many children will be missed out and left behind.

  3. Confirmation of Marc Hauser's fraud. While there was a lot of circumstantial evidence, Harvard played coy on Hauser's misconduct by not releasing its investigation report; so it's good to have ORI's report in the public domain.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Music Time

From the movie Azhiyadha Kolangal, a personal favourite [Music: Salil Chowdhury; Singers: P. Jayachandran and P. Susheela]. A video is available, but its audio is sad. You can listen to a much better version (click on AB3).

That last link takes you to The World of Salil Chowdhury, a true labour of love by a devoted fan, Gautam Chowdhury. The site has extensive cross-references to other versions of Salil's compositions; among the four variants -- Malayalam (1977), Tamil (1979), Bengali (1980)and Hindi (1989) -- the best is the Hindi version (click on AB3).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

From the Annals of Innovation -- Bag Tags

Yes, the airline baggage tags. In recounting all the wonderful innovations that have led up to the state of the art in tags, the article has some fascinating stuff about the materials that go into these tags:

Let’s look first at how an ABT is made. In the interconnected, automated, all-weather world of modern aviation, tags must be resistant to cold, heat, sunlight, ice, oil, and especially moisture. Tags also can’t tear—and crucially, if they’re nicked, they must not tear further—as the bag lurches through mechanized airport baggage systems. And the tag must be flexible, inexpensive, and disposable. Plain old paper can’t begin to meet all these requirements. The winning combination is what IATA’s spokesperson described as a “complex composite” of silicon and plastic; the only paper in it is in the adhesive backing.

Bag tags must meet another set of contradictory requirements. They must be easy to attach, but impossible to detach—until, that is, the bag arrives safely at its destination and the traveler wants to detach it. Old tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast. The current loop tag, a standardized strip of pressure-sensitive adhesive, looped through a handle and pressed to form an adhesive-to-adhesive bond, debuted with the ABT in the early ’90s. And the ABT, unlike string tags and earlier loop-y tag ideas, is easily attached to items that lack handles—boxes, say. Simply remove the entire adhesive backing and the loop tag becomes a very sticky sticker.

Of course while tags must remain rigorously attached, they must also be easy for passengers to remove. Intermec’s spokesperson raves about the adhesive’s “excellent flow properties”—in layman’s terms, simply grab the loop from the inside, with two hands, and gently pull apart to remove the tag. A couple of other clever innovations: Like the tags themselves, the adhesive must be all-weather. Early adhesives couldn’t cope with extreme cold, so snowy tarmacs would end up littered with detached tags (and lost bags). Also, passengers don’t want sticky residue left on their bag’s handles—so the adhesive’s backing is designed to stay in place on the inside of the loop.

My Book

My book "Essentials of Heat and Fluid Flow in Porous Media" has been published a few days back by Ane Books (India) and CRC Press (International).

Start in this page to read more on the salient features, table of content etc. The two forewords [ here and here ] were provided by Prof. Andrew Rees (Uty. of Bath, UK) and Prof. Pradip Dutta (IISc. India). The preface explains the content and the acknowledgements express my gratitude to the academics whose association helped me remain positive.

The Indian paperback (student) edition should be available by next week in your local Tata Book House (I believe most of the IIXs house one) and such stores that sell technical books. The international (hard bound) edition should be distributed from Oct 31st, 2012. You can pre-order at Amazon (link in the above 'details' page).

If you are an instructor of a related course (graduate fluid mechanics or heat transfer) or a researcher from civil, mechanical, chemical and bio-medical engineering, you may find the content useful. If you want to suggest the book to your students and require an evaluation copy or want to suggest copies for your libraries, contact me.

Similarly, if you want to write a review of the book in a related research journal (or in your blog), please contact me and I could arrange a copy of the book for you.

I would love to hear your feedback, comments, suggestions and errata (it seems, 5% typos are expected by the publishers in the first edition).

And now for some related 'gyan', beneath the fold...

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


  1. Amrita Ghai in Down To Earth: When Supervisors Cheat. A review of Experiment eleven, dark secrets behind the discovery of a wonder drug by Peter Pringle.

  2. Connor Bamford in The Scientist: Solving Irreproducible Science: "Will the recently launched Reproducibility Initiative succeed in cleaning up research and reducing retractions?"

Innovation-Killing Patents

Alongside the impressive technological advances of the last two decades ... a pall has descended: the marketplace for new ideas has been corrupted by software patents used as destructive weapons.

In the smartphone industry alone, according to a Stanford University analysis, as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years — an amount equal to eight Mars rover missions. Last year, for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on patent lawsuits and unusually big-dollar patent purchases exceeded spending on research and development of new products, according to public filings.

From this NYTimes story by Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr who start with the story of a small speech recognition software firm that was driven out of business by a lawsuit by a bigger rival with patents.

The Rolls Royce of Chalk

Over at Williams College's Mathematics and Statistics Blog, Satyan Devadoss has an old post about one of the most important items in a mathematician's toolkit: chalk. His entire post is a build-up to this all important question:

3. So what is the best chalk out there?

I have wrestled with this question and spent a bit of time pursing this over my sabbatical last year. There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists. It is called the Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.

For those lucky few who have used it, it can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk. [Bold emphasis added]

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Music Time

A song based on the theme music of Seven Samurai [Direct link]:

A part of that movie's soundtrack is here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Evidence-based Presidency

From Michael Lewis' profile of President Obama:

“I want to play that game again,” I [Michael Lewis] said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

This was the third time I’d put the question to him, in one form or another. [...]

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.” [Bold emphasis added]

Scientists in Legal Trouble

The lawsuit against the Italian scientists who mis-estimated the odds of a major earthquake in the town of L'Aquila is nearing its end. Edwin Cartlidge reports in Science Insider that the prosecutors are asking for a 4-year jail term for the scientists.

Affirmative Action Goes to Wachington

Even before the US Supreme Court sits down to hear arguments in the latest affirmative action case to land at its doorsteps, it has been getting tons of reading material from various groups. One of them [link, link] makes an interesting case: replace race-based AA programs with one that's based on factors such as parental income and education, wealth of the student's neighbourhood, etc. A class-based AA program, in other words.

The broad idea, I think, is to create something that would achieve the diversity-related goals of institutions (without using race explicitly as a factor), and still be acceptable to the public, the lawmakers, and the courts.

The case itself is scheduled for a hearing in the coming days and weeks, and the SCOTUS verdict will probably arrive early next year. It will be interesting to see how this case is decided, and the arguments used for supporting that decision.

* * *

During the Mandal II debate in 2006-07, Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande argued for a reservation system [see this post for links] that would, in essence, provide additional points to students from disadvantaged backgrounds due to their caste, sex, education and income levels of their parents, etc. In the event, the UPA-I government decided to run with a fixed quota for OBC students; the Supreme Court accepted this scheme with just one modification -- the so-called creamy layer clause that would exclude students from wealthy families from the quota benefit.

Unlike the US, there is an expectation in India that admission policies should be based on completely objective criteria; this explains the emphasis on cut-off marks, entrance exam scores, and the like. It's probably this that led Yadav and Deshpande to propose their "deprivation index" so that admissions officials would still have some objective numbers to base their decisions on.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Misconduct Accounts for Two out Three Retractions

The big news of the day is the PNAS paper -- Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications -- by Ferric Fang, Arturo Casadevall and Grant Steen who looked into the reasons behind retracted papers in the PubMed database -- all 2047 of them. There is quite a bit of buzz -- see this post at Retraction Watch for some commentary and links to press coverage.

G. Mudur's news story in today's The Telegraph covers the Indian angle and presents some additional details which are only implicit in the paper. A couple of quick comments:

  1. PubMed has less than 200,000 papers by Indian researchers out of over 25 million entries. It's safe to say India accounts for less than 1 % of the papers in PubMed.

    But, India accounts for 3.4 % of fraudulent papers, 10 % of plagiarized papers, and 9 % of duplicate papers. [Look at the graphic in Mudur's story.]

  2. My own study last year had flagged just one Indian paper for fraud (specifically, falsification); but Fang et al appear to have flagged more than 25 papers for fraud.

    My guess is that this difference is probably due to papers that could have been flagged either way. For example, a bunch of PubMed papers (in addition to several tens more that are not in PubMed) from Prof. P. Chiranjeevi's group at Sri Venkateswara University at Tirupati could easily have been flagged for fraud because (a) it was a part of a massive, deliberate scam, and (b) the group also changed names of some of the chemical entities in their plagiarized papers.

    [I flagged them for plagiarism, primarily because that's what those papers really are; moreover, the retraction notices are not entirely clear about the nature of the offence].