Thursday, November 29, 2012

Never Push when it Says Pull

I like essays. Even the entirely fictional ones. I like the most, essays that blur the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They are the creative ones that shape your thought through the unease they suffuse through their fine mix of facts and fantasy. Finding such essays, leave alone finding such essayists, is hard. It is an endeavor. In Tamil, several essays/short-stories by Nanjil Nadan repeatedly define this standard with ease. Recent collections titled "kAvalan kAvAn enin" and "sUdiya pU sUdarka" (that won him the sAhithya akAdemy award) are treasures that demand your thinking and action. Discussing these books is for another note.

While on a recent splurge at a local bookstore for such essay collections in English, along with the relative heavy-weights like "The Collected Essays" of A. K. Ramanujan, "Patriots and Partisans" by Ramachandra Guha, "Selected Essays" of G. K. Chesterton, "Readings" by Michael Dirda, "Inventing the Enemy" by Umberto Eco, "Some Remarks" by Neal Stephenson, I also picked "My Husband and Other Animals" by Janaki Lenin with a prompting from my dame and on a lark, Never Push When It Says Pull by a guy named Guy Browning, a relative unknown to me. But that is one reason we read books, don't we -- to meet over a course of their printed discourse made available for a price, strangers whom you could become life-long friends with.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


  1. Anirudh Krishna (Duke University) at Ideas for India: The root of poverty: Ruinous healthcare costs.

  2. James Choi at : How Noisy is Economics/Finance Peer Review?, with excerpts from this paper. I was quite surprised to read this:

    For economics journals, when two referees are consulted, the top-10p [percentile] paper receives two rejects with probability 14%, one reject and one non-reject with probability 47%, and two non-rejects with probability 40%. With three referees, the top-10p papers receives a majority of reject recommendations with 30% probability, a majority of non-reject recommendations with 70% probability.

  3. Annie Murphy Paul in NYTimes: It’s Not Me, It’s You, an essay on intelligence and stereotype threat.

  4. Felix Salmon: What education reformers did with student surveys.

Friday, November 23, 2012


  1. Julie Mitchell in CHE Conversations Blog: Sexy in STEM?

  2. The Telescoper: To Hype or Not To Hype? -- a detached approach to blogging that most people (including me) have settled down on.

  3. Joshua Gans at Digitopoly: What an academic article of the future should look like.

    See also his earlier post -- I’m a Mac. You’re a PC. There really are two types of people.

  4. Jonathan Beckman in FT: Bleak Encounters. "The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award may provoke sniggers. But its real aim is to help banish poor prose."

IIT-M Platform for Pseudoscience?

Check out this blog post at Nirmukta about a recent talk on Vedic Science in which the speaker makes all kinds of wild claims about the scientific content in vedic and other texts from ancient India. [Don't forget to read the comments section, where quite a few IIT-M faculty, students and alumni have been posting their views.]

Pretty amazing, especially since this talk appears to be a part of a series of lectures hosted by IIT-M; in other words, it's not like this other talk organized by a cultural group/club at IIT-M.

Here's something that redeemed the event: The speaker faced a strong challenge from the great folks at IIT-M. You can find YouTube links to these snippets at the end of the post at Nirmukta. [IIT-M has a great tradition of gutsy protests.]

* * *

The speaker runs a research institute of vedic technology. See especially his boast about how "a pioneer institute like Indian Institute of Technology Madras has recognized a vedic research institute as its external centre for pursuing MS/PhD."

* * *

If you have the stomach for it, you can watch the fiasco unfold over a period of an hour or so. Since it's too painful (not to mention cringe-inducing) to watch, you are probably better off with the snippets from the Q&A after the talk.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Technology and Female Foeticide

The practice of female foeticide is more prevalent among relatively rich and educated families. This flies in the face of ideas about backward women being enslaved to old customs. But it is consistent with ‘modern’ women being more receptive to new technologies and wanting fewer children. These factors appear to override lower self-reported ‘son preference’ among women of higher socio-economic status.

There's more in Prof. Sonia Bhalotra's post -- Where have all the young girls gone? The rise in female foeticide in India -- at the Ideas for India blog.

Eww Overload: The BBB Project

... The project got a set of volunteers to run a cotton swab through their belly buttons, and then looked at all the bacterial species growing there. The results suggest that the belly button is a diverse environment, and the communities living there respond to the habits of their host. Notably, a few species that were discovered for the first time on human skin were found in an individual who hadn't bathed in a few years.

That's from Belly Button Biodiversity finds no two navels are quite the same by John Timmer.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

"Rise of the Poll Quants"

Tom Bartlett has a nice entry at The Chronicle on poll quants -- Nate Silver, Sam Wang, Drew Linzer and others -- whose statistical firepower has raised strong doubts about the mainstream punditry's claim to insights into who the American voters are likely to choose as their leader in today's elections.

It's a nice overview of what these quants are doing, and how they are doing it. Go read it.

Chris Rock's Election Message to White Voters

Direct link [via Chris Blattman]

Sunday, November 04, 2012


  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a special issue devoted to Gender in Academe. Women in science is the theme of several articles; start with a bunch of experts discussing the question Why STEM Fields Still Don't Draw More Women, and Sue Rosser's piece on how and why More Gender Diversity Will Mean Better Science. There are a couple of subject-specific news stories that are also worth linking: A Reboot in Recruiting Women Into Computer Science, and Is Biology Just Another Pink-Collar Profession?.

  2. Science Daily: The Academic Jungle: Ecosystem Model Reveals Why Women Are Driven out of Science, a summary of this paper by University of Queensland's Katherine R. O’Brien, Karen P. Hapgood.

  3. Richard Van Noorden in Nature: Global mobility: Science on the move. "The big picture of global migration shows that scientists usually follow the research money — but culture can skew this pattern."

  4. Philip J. Wyatt in Physics Today: Commentary: Too many authors, too few creators

  5. Dinesh Sharma in India Today: Top GM Researcher Falsified Patent Claim to Grab National Award. Dr. Kailash Bansal of ICAR's National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology.

Verdict in the L'Aquila Earthquake Case: Scientists Found Guilty

I have been following the developments in this court case in Italy, and the verdict came in about a couple of weeks ago (and the scientists are likely to go on appeal):

Italian court finds seismologists guilty of manslaughter
At the end of a 13-month trial, six scientists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict was based on how they assessed and communicated risk before the earthquake that hit the city of L'Aquila on 6 April 2009, killing 309 people.

... In addition to the prison term, those indicted will be permanently banned from public service and will have to pay financial compensation to the families of 29 victims named in the indictment and to the city of L'Aquila, totalling €7.8 million.

The Nature editorial on this case makes it clear that this verdict is not about scientists' failure to predict the fateful earthquake:

Despite the way the verdict has been portrayed in the media as an attack on science, it is important to note that the seven were not on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. As members of an official risk commission, they had all participated in a meeting held in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, during which they were asked to assess the risk of a major earthquake in view of the many tremors that had hit the city in the previous months, and responded by saying that the earthquake risk was clearly raised but that it was not possible to offer a detailed prediction. The meeting was unusually quick, and was followed by a press conference at which the Civil Protection Department and local authorities reassured the population, stating that minor shocks did not increase the risk of a major one.

In fact, an Italian official went so far as to say, “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy”. The problem for the scientists appears to be that they did nothing to correct this "scientifically incorrect" statement.

Nature has another piece with protections extended to American and British scientists when they serve on advisory committees:

Many scientists contacted by Nature agree that better legal protection, along with transparent guidelines about the obligations of science advisers, are long overdue in Italy. “The case resulted from the fact that the legal role of scientific advisers is still not well defined in Italy,” says Mariachiara Tallacchini, who studies science-related legal issues at the Catholic University of Piacenza. “Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States are more advanced in regulating science policy”.

John Beddington, the UK chief scientific adviser, agrees. “I do not think such an outcome would be possible in the United Kingdom, unless the advice was demonstrably grossly negligent or wilfully malicious,” he told Nature. “And in the case of civil proceedings, all advisers are indemnified by government.” Similar protection is granted to science advisers in the United States, where seismologists advising national and state governments would be immune from such prosecution.

Music Time: The King's Speech

The movie had the second movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony running in the background when King George VI makes his all important speech. You can watch the movie version of the speech; BBC has the original.

Here's the entire symphony; the second movement starts at 15:21.

Direct link

Music Time

An Ilayaraaja classic from Keladi Kanmani. Singers: K.J. Yesudas and Uma Ramanan.

Direct link.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Cute Overload: Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

BPS Research Digest summarizes recent research on this cute question:

... when the children thought they were invisible by virtue of their eyes being covered, they nonetheless agreed that their head and their body were visible. They seemed to be making a distinction between their "self" that was hidden, and their body, which was still visible. Taken together with the fact that it was the concealment of the eyes that seemed to be the crucial factor for feeling hidden, the researchers wondered if their invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people - a meeting of gazes - for them to see each other (or at least, to see their "selves").

This idea received support in a further study in which more children were asked if they could be seen if a researcher looked directly at them whilst they (the child) averted their gaze; or, contrarily, if the researcher with gaze averted was visible whilst the child looked directly at him or her. Many of the children felt they were hidden so long as they didn't meet the gaze of the researcher; and they said the researcher was hidden if his or her gaze was averted whilst the child looked on.