Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Did you hear this one?

Via slashdot: John P. A. Ioannidis has an essay with this provocative title: 'Why Most Published Research Findings Are False'. The essay seems to be about experimental studies in various fields of medicine (epidemiology, clinical trials, etc). It uses probability arguments to make this bold claim: "It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false".

Now that I have made your day with this wonderful news, I wish you all a happy blog day. And, don't forget to visit Desi Pundit, whose tireless bloggers deserve our love and affection.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Economics of tipping

Madman, who runs Shiok, a restaurant specializing in Far-Eastern cuisine, has a nice post on the restaurant business in general, and on the difference in the expectations of Indian and Western guests. Towards the end, he has some general observations about how Indians tip.

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has a nice post on tipping in restaurants, prompted by a New York restaurant's decision to replace it with a 20 % service charge. He provides interesting links, too.

Here is one of the hypotheses he puts forward for why a restaurant might move from tipping to a service charge:

2. The balance of power in labor markets is shifting against workers. We therefore see owners trying to capture tipping income. Some of this income will be given back in the form of higher wages, but some of it will be kept by owners. Perhaps this is the most palatable way of rewriting the implicit labor-management contract.

Life, outsourced!

The Esquire article by Jacobs is here, but it has only the teaser. The rest of the article requires a subscription, or can be purchased for $2.95!

It was only a matter of time before it happened. Read this ABC News story [link via Tilotamma] about Esquire magazine's editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs who "began wondering how much of his own life he could send overseas". And, guess what?

... He discovered he could outsource almost everything, from ordering his food to fighting with his wife, and wrote about his experience in this month's issue of Esquire.

"To begin with they were answering my e-mails, making calls for me, ordering groceries, buying movie tickets," Jacobs said. "By the end they were reading my son bedtime stories."

Non-profits and web design

Let's say you run a non-profit organization, and you get an e-mail from someone who says he could re-design your website for free, and sends you a bunch of his work to help you decide. If you needed help in that area, you would jump at such an opportunity (particularly if you liked the work), wouldn't you? Apparently, in the real world, you wouldn't. Not only that; in the real world, you would actually pay a lawyer to draft a 'cease and desist' notice!

Read this post by Chugs. And, if you like his designs, you know what to do!

Monday, August 29, 2005


Over at the excellent anthropology blog Savage Minds, Kerim has a nice post summarizing the recent blogospheric debate about the book The Bell Curve. The post also has links to other online resources relevant to the debate.

Bottomline: in spite of so much of scholarly debunking ('fisking' seems to be the preferred word these days) over the years, this book seems to have a great staying power in the minds of right wingers, who never fail to get pounced on (as this current episode shows, for the umpteenth time) every time they praise the book in a discussion on IQ.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Elisabeth Lloyd provokes anger

Elisabeth Lloyd is the author of 'The Case of the Female Orgasm : Bias in the Science of Evolution', published recently.

Many women -- and feminists in particular -- are angry with Prof. Lloyd, who has now responded to her critics in a guest-post in the blog Philosophy of Biology [link via Pharyngula].


Do read this IHT story titled 'In defence of the welfare state'. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries represent a great (optimal ?) middle ground between the "laissez-faire" capitalism vs. "let's plan collectivize it all" communism.

Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's view (through which I got the link to the IHT story), has a nice discussion.

Denver Airport

Let us start with this great opening paragraph:

Denver's new international air port was to be the pride of the Rockies, a wonder of modern engineering. Twice the size of Manhattan, 10 times the breadth of Heathrow, the airport is big enough to land three jets simultaneously-in bad weather. Even more impressive than its girth is the airport's subterranean baggage-handling system. Tearing like intelligent coal-mine cars along 21 miles of steel track, 4,000 independent "telecars" route and deliver luggage between the counters, gates and claim areas of 20 different airlines. A central nervous system of some 100 computers networked to one another and to 5,000 electric eyes, 400 radio receivers and 56 bar-code scanners orchestrates the safe and timely arrival of every valise and ski bag.

That was from an article published in Scientific American in 1994 (archived, thankfully, here). The article then describes how this grand vision was undone by a series of delays in writing the software that would run this great 'system' composed of conveyors and gadgets. This episode is used as an example to show how "the software industry remains years -- perhaps decades -- short of the mature engineering discipline needed to meet the demands of an information-age".

That was 1994, and this, of course, is 2005. Now, NYTimes reports that it's all over. The headline says it all: "Denver Airport Saw the Future. It Didn't Work".

I got the link to the NYTimes report through a discussion in slashdot.

Daniel Dennett on Evolution


Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder ...

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Do check out (before it goes behind the paywall) this great NYTimes op-ed by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. Titled "Show me the science", the op-ed trashes ID in so many different ways, it just amazes you.

I wouldn't be recommending it if it did just that one thing (though trashing ID is a GOOD thing). You get a lot more than that: you get wonderful explanations of how evolution works (without the help of any designer), and how science works, and how science makes progress.

It's a great read, so go grab it now.

More about Daniel Dennett:

Saturday, August 27, 2005

End of homeopathy?

Jacques Benveniste, a French researcher, was awarded the IgNobel prize in Chemistry (you will have to scroll down to the year 1991) "for his persistent discovery that water, H2O, is an intelligent liquid, and for demonstrating to his satisfaction that water is able to remember events long after all trace of those events has vanished".

Guardian reports:

Homeopathy, favoured medical remedy of the royal family for generations and hugely popular in the UK, has an effect but only in the mind, according to a major study published in a leading medical journal today.

According to this report, this leading journal, Lancet, wrote a hard-hitting editorial against the use of homeopathy.

It is hardly surprising that homeopathy does badly compared with conventional medicine, it [the Lancet editorial] says - it is more surprising that the debate continues after 150 years of unfavourable findings. "The more dilute the evidence for homeopathy becomes, the greater seems its popularity."

Emphasis added by me.

Let me end this post with this memorable quote from David Deutsch:

As I understand it, the claim is that the less you use Homeopathy, the better it works. Sounds plausible to me.

Private sector in higher education

Here are a few key links

Over at Education in India, Satya has a summary of the Supreme Court verdict. His commentary (which was published as an op-ed in Financial Express) is here.

The Economic Times story on the verdict is here, and it wrote several editorials. Narendar Pani's op-ed has some nice arguments. ToI had a commentary by Biswajit Bhattacharyya.

The Hindu has a balanced editorial; it has another one on the judiciary vs. legislature debate that arose from this issue.

The Supreme Court's recent verdict has clarified the role of private sector -- vis a vis that of the government -- in the field of not just professional education, but higher education in general.

First, a little bit of background. Up until this academic year,

  • the government appropriated to itself a certain proportion (typically, 50 %) of the seats in private professional colleges; this 'government quota' had reservation -- or, affirmative action -- for socially deprived sections of society
  • the government also set the tuition fees not just for the students under the government quota, but also for those under the 'management quota'.

The Supreme Court verdict has ended both these practices, offering private colleges new freedoms to fix their fees and select their students. These freedoms now come with some constraints as well: they should not take capitation fees, they are subject to government regulation, and students are to be selected through a transparent, merit-based system.

An immediate upshot of the verdict is that a huge number of seats will now revert back to the college managements (for example, in Tamil Nadu alone, the government stands to lose some 35,000 seats). While this is a good thing for the private colleges, it is a disaster for the government; a cozy, comfortable scheme (for which it did not have to pay) has now been snatched away.

For the politicians, the main issue is, not surprisingly, reservation; they are not particularly worried about the loss of the 'government quota'. However, being politicians, they are looking for a short cut. So, they are considering new legislation to force reservation (and, perhaps, lower fees) down the throats of private colleges. I see at least two problems with this route:

  • an immediate problem is that the industry will oppose it tooth and nail; if private colleges are forced to gulp the 'R' word today, private industry is sure to be hit tomorrow!
  • a medium term problem is that such a legislation is likely to be constituionally suspect. After all, the reasoning behind the recent verdict is that these colleges are 'private', and hence the government has no right to meddle in their functioning.

In spite of these problems, there is something nice -- er, for the politicians -- about the legislation route: they can make a lot of noise about it without doing anything. Any resemblance to the Women's Reservation Bill is not at all coincidental!

Bottomline: I suspect that there will be a lot of hot air, but no firm action. The 2006 admission cycle will proceed according to the (un-amended) Supreme Court verdict.

More science

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll informs us that, the preprint service that physicists love so much -- and have come to depend so much on -- now allows trackbacks, and therefore has started resembling blogs.

At the same blog, Sean's co-blogger, Clifford Johnson, is running several on 'greatest physics text book', 'greatest popular science book', etc. So, go there if you wish to nominate a book.

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers did a thorough fisking job on Deepak Chopra. The overwhelming number of visitors he received moved him to muse about science bloggers role.


Over at Notional Slurry, Bill Tozier has a nice post, in which he defines 'science' as 'a way of quickly recovering from stupidity'.

[...] We as scientists expect people to be wrong, including ourselves. The scientific process is not about finding the truth, but rather noticing and recovering from the stupid mistakes we make, faster and better than anybody else can.


A discussion item over at Slashdot informs us that 24th of this month (just three days ago) marked the 10th anniversary of the launch of 'Windows 95', and gave a link to this Washington Post story about the launch event.

Those of you interested in slices of history that you lived through might want to check out that WaPo story. Recent posts on cyberhistory are here and here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Monsoon forecasts

An update to the controversy about DST's decision to ban monsoon forecasts by organizations other than IMD, the 'official' organization.

Professors Sulochana Gadgil and J. Srinivasan, both from the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at IISc, have a guest editorial (PDF) [thanks to reader Guru for the link] about this controversy in a recent issue of the journal Current Science. Towards the end of their balanced editorial, they make this valid point:

... the meteorological predictions are more akin to results of research on impact of various factors (including drugs) on health, than those in mathematics and particle physics in which the preprint culture has thrived.

After discussing the issue of monsoon forecasts from many different points of view, they conclude with this sensible recommendation:

In order to ensure accountability and transparency, it is necessary to stipulate that forecasts from models can be made public, if and only if, information about the performance of the model and the objectively assessed error levels is included. After all, when a company makes a public offering, it is obliged to state the potential risks. Once the responsibility of including such information is accepted, freedom to make the predictions public, irrespective of whether they are generated by an agency of the government or private enterprise, should not be curtailed.

Get an apple

Jeff Jarvis recently had trouble with his Dell PC, and wanted to get it fixed; when he ran into a different set of troubles, he started blogging about them. Result? A PR disaster, that was serious enough to warrant this BusinessWeek story.

In one of his posts, Jarvis called his Dell PC 'a lemon', to which someone responded with, "Dude, get an apple"!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Another quote

Though it is not about bloggers or blogging, it is still a great one ;-). In any event, I found it in P.Z. Myers' blog, Pharyngula. And, it is from "The Last Will and Testament" of Philip J. Klass, whom Myers calls 'the famous UFO debunker':

To UFOlogists who publicly criticize me…or who even think unkind thoughts about me in private, I do hereby leave and bequeath THE UFO CURSE: No matter how long you live, you will never know any more about UFOs than you know today. You will never know any more about what UFOs really are, or where they come from. You will never know any more about what the U.S. Government really knows about UFOs that you know today. As you lie on your own death-bed you will be as mystified about UFOs as you are today. And you will remember this curse.

A bloggable quote

... about what goes into one's blog. Joel Achenbach says [link via Blogspotting]:

[My] blog originated in January as a catch basin for mental detritus, for the kind of stuff not good enough for print, but too good to waste on casual conversation or, worse, mere thinking.

Emphasis added by me, of course.   ;-)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Dalits in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is seen (probably next only to Kerala) as a 'progressive' state. It is known for, among much else:

  • a near-complete dominance of the 'Dravidian' political parties, accompanied by a decline of all the national ones
  • its universal Mid-Day Meal Scheme (introduced by M.G. Ramachandran by expanding an earlier, limited scheme initiated by K. Kamaraj); this program is now credited with keeping children (girls in particular) in school during the eighties, and the resulting surge in social indicators in the nineties and later.
  • a militant caste-based 'reservation' (or, affirmative action) policy that led to, at one point, reservation of almost 70 % of the seats in professional courses (50 % for Most Backward/Backward commnunities, and the rest for Scheduled Castes and Tribes); the state was a pioneer in reservation for 'backward communities', and a fore-runner to the 'Mandal' politics that exploded at the national level in the early nineties.

One area in which Tamil Nadu has an atrociously shameful record is in the lack of (or a very slow pace of) progress made by the Dalits of this state; to be fair, the other states, too, share in this shameful record. Two episodes stand out in Tamil Nadu: (a) many years ago, Dalits in the village of Meenakshipuram converted en masse to Islam, and (b) just about five years ago, there was a case of massive police brutality against Dalit workers in Manjolai (I will try to dig up the links for these news stories).

A more egregious example is the inability of the state government to organize the panchayat elections in four villages in south Tamil Nadu; these villages are 'reserved' for Dalits, who are prevented from contesting the elections; in one bizarre episode, a Dalit was allowed to contest and win, but resigned immediately after the result was announced.

Today's Hindu published K. Nagaraj's review of DALITS IN DRAVIDIAN LAND — Frontline Reports on Anti-Dalit Violence in Tamil Nadu 1995-2004, a collection of articles and news reports by S. Viswanathan published in the Hindu's sister publication, Frontline.

From the review:

The articles painstakingly document these deprivations and discriminations in terms of livelihood issues: Dalits are denied access to land; their legitimate and traditional fishing rights in ponds are taken away; they are denied access to roads and often their living space, the Cheri on the outer fringes of the village, is encroached upon by the `caste Hindus'; their access to clean drinking water is virtually non-existent and their wells are often poisoned during anti-Dalit riots; the majority of Dalits are agricultural labourers with low wages and long stretches of unemployment — the list appears to be unending.

Monday, August 22, 2005

From the world of slashdot ...

Here are the links to some interesting discussions in slashdot, and to the underlying stories. Enjoy!

Google gives reasons why it is built on Linux (slashdot, story).

Modern history of cryptography techniques (slashdot, story).

Case studies in adoption of open source software by businesses (slashdot, story).

Monsoon vacations

I have never understood why anyone would want to go on vacation to a place where one knows it is going to rain like crazy. But I keep seeing Goa tourism's ads [Magic of the Monsoons!] all over the place, so I guess there are people who like this sort of stuff.

In a post under the theme 'markets in everything', Tyler Cowen points to a Wall Street Journal story (sorry, no link!) about the citizens of UAE being the main customers of these monsoon vacations in Goa. The post has some interesting links, too.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Not so boring news from academia ...

Via the absolutely fantastic Political Theory Daily Review (PTDR) (which I discovered only recently (through Scott McLemee) -- do check it out, it is truly wonderful), we get a link to this Guardian piece about how "engineering ain't what it used to be, ... it's much more fun".

Here is another link [via PTDR, again]. Don't click on it, though; it takes you to some seriously wicked content!


Friday, August 19, 2005

Update on new IITs

Yogesh Upadhyaya, a fellow-alumnus of IT-BHU, has been following up on the progress made in implementing the government's intention to elevate a bunch of engineering institutions to the IIT status. Here is his latest Rediff piece. His earlier piece is here.

Friday science-blogging blogging

Over at Living the Scientific Life, GrrlScientist has a nice post summarizing a recent article by David Secko in The Scientist (don't bother with the link, it requires subscription!) on The Power of the Blog. She says:

Secko's article is a general synopsis of the value of blogs to scientists, and to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. In this essay, I condense Secko's piece for you, adding considerable commentary of my own, and then conclude by offering a few of my own opinions regarding the value of blogs to science.

Do read her post. Several others have commented on this post; in particular, Chad Orzel and P.Z. Myers. Myers' post also linked to an earlier debate about academic contributions of blogging, and its follow-up.

Do you know what is really dreadful about death?

I really liked this answer:

Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.

Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.

This quote is from a nineteenth century Bengali poem by Ram Mohun Roy. I found it in Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian (p.33).


Slashdot says:

To mark the one hundredth anniversary of Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, NOVA has gone live this month with a Web site that features exclusive content and podcasts from ten of the worlds top physicists. ...

Do check it out. There is a great deal of good stuff there.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

World university rankings

Update (13 November 2005)

I have a post about the 2005 rankings by the Higher Education Supplement (THES) of the London Times.

Update (26 August 2005)

Check out an earlier ranking (pdf) of world universities by the (London) Times published in November 2004, using a different set of criteria. It features the 'Indian Institute of Technology' (location is not mentioned, so it is probably the entire IIT system) at the 41st position.

How much significance do you attach to these rankings? Particularly, if this exercise is done on an international scale? Even if you, like me, don't really give a damn, do you (again, like me ;-) want to get a sneak peek at who is where in the pecking order? You might be interested in looking at the 'much awaited' Academic Ranking of World Universities - 2005 (the third in the series), published by the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, MIT, Caltech, Columbia, Princeton, University of Chicago and Oxford are the top 10 universities. Overall, the top 25 list features nineteen universities from the US, and two from Asia (Tokyo and Kyoto).

Three Indian universities make it to the top 500 list: IISc (World rank: 301-400, Asia-Pacific rank: 37-65), IIT-Kharagpur (401-500, 66-93) and University of Calcutta (401-500, 66-93).

Interesting markets

The great bloggers at Marginal Revolution have a running theme called "markets in everything", with very interesting posts. A recent post linked to a site that would help owners of gas-guzzling SUVs reduce their guilt. Another one links to a site that helps people overcome their addiction to porn.

But I want to talk about a startup venture that marries outsourcing (to China!) and blogging in an interesting way [the MR link is here]. Let us just call it Outsource-Blogging-to-China (OBC) Inc. The business model of OBC has two tiers:

... The first tier is to create original blogs. These blogs will pop up in various areas of the net and appear to the unknowing reader to be written by your standard American. Our short term goal for these original blogs is to generate a steady stream of revenue through traditional blog advertising like google adwords. We estimate that our current blogforce of 25 can support around 500 unrelated blogs. Hopefully a few of those will be hits. The long term goal is to generate a large untraceable astroturfing mechanism for launching of various products. When a vendor needs to promote a new product to the internet demographic we will be able to create a believable buzz across hundreds of ‘reputable’ blogs and countless message boards. We can offer a legitimacy to advertisers that doesen’t exist anywhere else.

The second tier of our plan is a blog vacation service where our employees fill in for established bloggers who need to take a break from regular posting. As all bloggers know, an unupdated blog is quickly forgotten. For a nominal fee we can provide seamless integration of filler.

Markets in everything, indeed!

The post goes on to discuss the ethics of OBC's business, too! This post also got the following in the very first comment: "you should probably save a little of the seed money for one of those fire suits. ... i hear it gets hot in hell".

From another post in the OBC blog (it is not clear if this one is genuine, though), it appears that several blogs are already underway; one of them is "a blog about life as a math professor in a southern community college", and another is a weatherman's. The Chairman of the venture says:

... you would be amazed how good this stuff is. Our most talented guy keeps writing about how the weatherman got his forecast wrong and is sad. We are also considering the ethical ramifications of having one of our faux-bloggers get wrongfully accused of murder.

Looks like a hoax is being unleashed ;-)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Intelligent theory of gravity

This is serious stuff. We now have a competing theory of gravity. Go read it! [Link via Pharyngula]

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

More professional mixups

I posted a while ago about some of the interesting responses from people when they are introduced to anthropologists.

Commenters are having a riot on this post at Cosmic Variance and this one at Brian Weatherson's site. The topic? Strangers' responses when they meet physicists and philosophers, respectively.

This one by a commenter named 'Barry' is a jem:

Five or so years ago I was on a panel of prospective jurors being questioned by an attorney for the defendant:

Attorney: What is your profession?

Me: I am a philosopher

Attorney: Philosophy? Is that a "helping profession"

Me: Its more like a helpless profession

Judge (laughing): This is no place for jokes..your out.

My all time favourite story, however, was from Alex Tabarrok. The conversation is between Tabarrok and his masseuse:

"Has anyone told you that you are great today? I can tell that you have a lot of loving energy. You're a very giving person."

"Wow," I replied, "no one has ever said that. I'm an economist."

"Oh," she replied, pausing slightly, "I guess I was wrong."

A veritable rant

T. Jayaraman, a gutsy professor at the DAE funded MatScience (Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai), has written a stinging critique of the way science policies are made and implemented in India.

He points out a lot of problems, and he is bang on target!

Tim Berners-Lee

[Via Mark Trodden of Cosmic Variance] BBC reports that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), the inventor of the world wide web, has been named Greatest Briton 2004.

BBC also carried Mark Lawson's interview of Berners-Lee. Lawson tries, repeatedly, to force him to 'feel responsible') for a whole bunch of things that are bad about the internet. However, Berners-Lee comes out of this relentless nonsense quite unscathed. Like Mark Trodden, I too found this bit absolutely wonderful:

Question: Moving on to the consequences and the uses of the internet, the first question that arises a lot is the quality, the reliability of the information that is there. Now some people think that the internet has led to this great empire of lies, of unreliability. You simply don't know what the state of any of this information is.

TBL : When you say there are a lot of lies out there, if you go randomly picking up pieces of paper in the street or leafing through garbage at the garbage dump what are the chances you'll find something reliable written on the paper that you find there? Very small. When you go onto the internet, if you really rummage around randomly then how do you hope to find something of any of value?

But when you use the web, you follow links and you should keep bookmarks of the places where following links turns out to be a good idea. When you go to a site and it gives you pointers to places that you find are horrible or unreliable, then don't go there again.

You see out there right now, for example, when you look at bloggers some of them are very careful. A good blogger when he says that something's happened will have a point to back, and there's a certain ethos within the blogging community, you always point to your source, you point all the way back to the original article. If you're looking at something and you don't know where it comes from, if there's no pointer to the source, you can ignore it.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Sometime ago, I linked to a recent warning, issued by a pseudonymous Ivan Tribble, to young academics about the perils of blogging, particularly if they are looking for jobs. Several academics have given a fitting reply, pointing out, rightly, that this piece reveals more about the author and his/her obnoxious colleagues than about the bloggers.

Nevertheless, we have to thank Tribble for articulating certain paranoid -- but all too common -- beliefs among recruiters. He talks about at least two such beliefs; I just want to argue that neither of them is unique to academics.

First, during your job search, you try to create a certain image: you know, ..., an image that exudes competence, professionalism, sincerity, likability, and the like. In a blog, sometimes, you tend to just be, well, yourself, not some carefully created image; Tribble warns that your online self, as revealed through your blog, may actually work against you in your job search. So, you'd better leave your conversation with your therapist out of your blog ... ;-)

All this is not new, and nor is it unique to academics; personal interviews, group discussions, and plant visits are meant for this sort of 'assessment about the person', and are routinely used in all industries. Now, recruiters have one more option: your blogs.

The second fear of the recruiter, also explicitly stated by Tribble, is a variation of the first. It is that the blogger may gossip about -- or, rat on -- his/her colleagues and associates. What if he/she starts washing departmental dirty linen in public? Again, I don't see why this should be unique to academics, nor, actually, to blogging. If one wants to badmouth one's colleagues, it can be done in so many ways! And, departmental politics is universal; this is why Dilbert strips strike a chord in all of us -- cubicled or non-cubicled.

[One obnoxious thing about the recruiters' suspicion about the blogger's potential for 'bad behaviour' is the following: "Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum". For saying this, Tribble was, rightly, chewed out by many bloggers; Dan Drezner's response was absolutely great! ]

Now, just as saying bad things about your employer on a TV talk show is likely to get you fired, writing about your colleagues and associates in an inappropriate manner in a public forum will also get you fired. Make no mistake: blogs are a public forum! Your intention to keep your blog private does not make it so; Google will find it, and out it!

Do take a look at this post over at Savage Minds for a thoughtful discussion about how some of these instances are related to the modern American culture being "structured around the hard division between public and private spaces, personaes, and expression".

There are many examples: a new recruit was fired -- within a month of joining Google -- for writing about his workplace. Several months ago, an adjunct faculty at SMU was fired because her anonymous blog, in which she wrote a lot of unpleasant things about her students and colleagues, somehow got outed. So, anonymity is of no help! The most recent example is that of a journalism professor who was fired for writing some pretty inappropriate things about one of his student in his blog. Another recent example is that of a nanny being fired for things that she had on her blog. Out of these four examples, two have nothing to do with academics.

So, here is the bottomline:

(a) Don't volunteer any information on your blog that you wouldn't in a personal interview; this information may be held against you!

(b) If you knew the room is bugged, you wouldn't say vile things about your colleagues in a conversation in that room, would you? A blog is like a room that is swarming with snoopy bugs.

Intelligent design

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll writes:

The immediate purpose of this post is tell search engines where to point when they’re asked about intelligent design. Steve Smith of the National Center for Science Education (a great organization, devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in schools) has sent around an email mentioning a surge of interest in the subject, seen for example in the list of top searches on Technorati (right now it’s the most popular search). So he suggests that people with a web page point to this article on Intelligent Design at the NCSE website; we physicists here at CV are happy to help out, as we know that we’re next once the forces of pseudo-science finish off our friends in the squishy sciences.

As I noted sometime ago, ID cranks in the US are somewhat similar to the astrology cranks in India. It is a shame that the 'jyotir' stupidity (it is certainly not 'vigyan'!) was allowed to infiltrate into academia by the less than stellar activism on the part of the Indian academics. Now, in the US, ID is being pushed -- through political means -- into school curricula as yet another 'scientific theory'.

Here is a more permanent link to the Krugman piece.

In his op-ed, Paul Krugman writes that the political strategy now adopted by the religious right [in pushing ID] is esentially the same as that which "has been used with great success by the economic right". It is worth quoting some more from this op-ed:

Some of America's most powerful politicians have a deep hatred for Darwinism. ... But sheer political power hasn't been enough to get creationism into the school curriculum. The theory of evolution has overwhelming scientific support, and the country isn't ready - yet - to teach religious doctrine in public schools.

But what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations?

Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: "creation science" was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn't have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends with banishing Darwin from the classroom.

So, the danger is very real, and it is important that this strategy is not allowed to succeed. Thus, in my own small little way, I am also happy to help out; so, there you have it: Intelligent Design.

While we are at it, let me just mention that Risa Wechsler, also at Cosmic Variance, has a nice cartoon in this post. Cosma Shalizi has an excellent post in which he says, "there is no scientific controversy over intelligent design. The best attempts of the intelligent design movement to produce scientific work are ... rubbish".

NYTimes on the blogosphere

[Vial Anand]: The editorialists of the mighty New York Times said:

... blogs are often just a way of making oneself appear on the Internet. It's like a closed-circuit video camera that catches a glimpse of you walking by an electronics store window filled with televisions. There you are in all your glory, suddenly, if not forever, mediated. Starting your own blog used to require a certain amount of technical expertise. Now you can do it from within popular Web portals like MSN and AOL, using tools that make it almost as easy as sending e-mail. These days, a surprising number of people write home by posting to their blogs - that is, by writing to everyone on earth.


When Freakonomists met Googlers

Yes, the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, visited Google to give a talk, and survived to tell the tale on the Google Blog. Some snippets:

Google had passed around a few hundred copies of Freakonomics ... looking across the long rows of chairs, you could see one Googler after the next with the open book in his/her lap, as if preparing to hear a speech from Chairman Mao. It was, well, freaky. A bit like happening upon your own funeral.

...there's surely no company in the world where so many employees wear t-shirts with their company logo, which we took to be a sign of deep pride (or perhaps simply a deep discount).

In their post, the freakonomists said, "The best question of the day was, 'What would you do with our data if we could give it to you?' We've thought about that quite a bit ever since; we'll keep you posted". Now, *that* is going to be interesting.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Friday dog blogging

Well, I don't have any pictures, because I don't have any puppies. So, do visit Pharyngula for some photos of the dog that had his day yesterday: Snuppy, whose name stands for Seoul National University puPPY.

P.Z. Myers warns:

Before you start dreaming of cloning your best buddy, though, take note: they needed to microsurgically insert nuclei into 1095 eggs and implant all of those eggs into 123 females in order to get two puppies…and one of them died shortly after birth. This isn't exactly routine assembly-line work yet.

Conference on laughter

Seriously. See this story in the Economist [link via Tyler Cowen]. You really have to love the reporter for writing this:

[the incongruity theory] says that all written jokes and many other humorous situations are based on an incongruity—something that is not quite right. In many jokes, the teller sets up the story with this incongruity present and the punch line then resolves it, in a way people do not expect. Alternatively, the very last words of the story may introduce the absurdity and leave the listeners with the task of reconciling it. For instance, many people find it funny that a conference on humour could take place in Germany.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Scientists get trained in writing screenplays

Update (6 August 2005)

This story has now been slashdotted.

This story is truly weird:

Tucked away in the Hollywood hills, an elite group of scientists from across the country and from a grab bag of disciplines - rocket science, nanotechnology, genetics, even veterinary medicine - has gathered this week ... [...] ... the 15 scientists are being taught how to write and sell screenplays.

The program is funded by the Pentagon. Did I hear you say, 'Huh, you must be kidding'? Read on.

Exactly how the national defense could be bolstered by setting a few more people loose in Los Angeles with screenplays to peddle may be a bit of a brainteaser. But officials at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research spell out a straightforward syllogism:

Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering. While immigrants are taking up the slack in many areas, defense laboratories and industries generally require American citizenship or permanent residency. So a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular, said Robert J. Barker, an Air Force program manager who approved the grant. And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies and television shows that depict scientists in flattering ways?

If the Indian Armed Forces have a plan to train academics in writing Bollywood screenplays, I can recommend someone who has this great story about ...

Nah! The mind truly boggles!

Congratulations, Dr. Shanta

Congratulations to Dr. V. Shanta, Chairperson of the Cancer Institute in Chennai, for winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service; a short citation lauds her for 'ensuring wisdom and compassion in cancer care'. A longer citation and profile can be read here, and the Hindu's editorial on this award is here.

The wikipedia entry for the Magsaysay award says it is 'often considered as Asis's Nobel Peace Prize'.

nano, nano

Today's Hindu had two really nice articles on nanoscience and technology.

Ram Sasisekharan grew up in Bangalore. His father, Prof. V. Sasisekharan, is a reputed biophysicist; after a thriving career in the Department of Biophysics in IISc, he retired a few years ago, and is currently a visiting scientist in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences & Technology program. Since the elder Sasisekharan is from a different era, his web footprint is small, indeed; here are two links in which he makes an appearance; the articles are actually about the younger one!

The first, by R. Prasad, describes a novel and promising way to treat cancer using 'nanocells'. This work was reported in a recent issue of Nature by Prof. Ram Sasisekharan's group. Nature's own commentary (technically more sophisticated than Prasad's piece) on this work is here.

The second piece is by Anand Parthasarathy. Titled 'harnessing science of the very small', it recounts India's efforts at sprucing up its research in this promising field through the creation of a 'national mission in nanotechnology'. In this really wonderful piece, he weaves in all kinds of interesting details about nanoscience, nanotechnology, nanodevices, nanotubes, and yes, nanowarfare! This story has a nice hook at the beginning [update: see this page about the colours of a peacock feather; link via Selva], and ends with a refreshingly new metaphor for the double-edged nature of nanoscience (or, for that matter, all of science):

Warriors skilled in the ancient Malabar art of Kalaripayattu, use one weapon with care and respect: the coiled flexible sword, or `urumi'.

Handled carefully, it can dispatch dozens of opponents, but one false move and you could end up chopping your own limbs. Nanotechnology may well turn out to be 21st century's `urumi'. A powerful tool — but only if used right.

See this post by Uma for an award-winning ad for the Hindu.

Two smart writer-reporters, one great newspaper.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


I knew of the MIT Open Courseware, and have actually looked up a few of them for materials that I can use in my own courses.

Today, I learnt, through Inside Higher Ed, another such initiative called Connexions at Rice University. This one goes beyond Open Courseware, however. Here, people can contribute their own course materials for others to use; in other words, it is a little like open sourcing of class notes!

Connexions has quite a bit of music-related stuff, as well as the usual culprits: computer science and electrical engineering. It also has courses on logic, general chemistry, signal processing, bioinformatics, sound reasoning (which, contrary to what you might expect, is actually a course on music apprciation), world history, teaching methods, ...

Where are the science graduates?

Another ToI editorial on the decline of science education at the university level. There is some interesting data. Here is a key quote:

The ostensible reason given is that students are migrating towards more lucrative opportunities in the fields of IT, finance, and a range of professional courses. While this may be true, the underlying cause is pure science doesn't pay. And the reason for that is the widening mismatch between the demands of Indian industry experiencing an acute shortage of skilled personnel and the crude, unfinished human resources developed by the nation's rapidly-obsolescing higher education system.

Today's Economic Times has a debate on 'An educational setup to boost knowledge economy' in which the participants are R. Govinda (National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration), Dileep Ranjekar (Azim Premji Foundation) and Dhruv Raina (Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University). It has some interesting discussion, and I would like to link to its online version. The freaking 'Indiatimes' website is so awful that it is difficult to locate the URL. Grrrr!

In defence of street vendors

Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, has an excellent op-ed in today's ToI about how, in spite of its great benefits to society, street vending is treated essentially as a crime by our society in general, and our municipal governments in particular. She calls for a liberalization of this sphere of economic activity.

Trade plays the same role for an economy that blood circulation does for the human body. The health of an economy is seriously jeopardised if needless bureaucratic obstructions are placed in the way of trade and flow of goods from the producers to the consumers. While all those lobbying in favour of globalisation and liberalisation have begun to recognise this truth with regard to the products manufactured in the corporate sector, they are not willing to extend the logic of this approach to the micro enterprises run by the poor, such as street vendors.

Kishwar's op-ed ends on a mildly optimistic note; still, there is a long way to go.

[...] Manushi's plan of developing model hawker markets in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (such as the one in-the-making at Sewa Nagar) includes strict self-regulation and civic discipline as well as willingness of vendors to pay rent for the space they use.

After years of struggle by Manushi, Self-Employed Women's Association and others, a New National Policy for Street Vendors was approved by the cabinet in January 2004. Serious institutional mechanisms should be put in place to implement this new policy, signalling an era of pro-poor economic reforms.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Avner Greif's book on economic history

The book is titled Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade and is available online. [link via Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber].

I haven't read it; I guess, given my current backlog, it may be a long time before I get to it. In any event, I record it here just so that I know where to find it when I need it!

Virginia Postrel's article on economic sociology


Women in academia

It is not just science and engineering; now, political science, too, has a serious problem: a recent report from the American Political Science Association has noted "an 'alarming stall' in the progress of women up through the faculty ranks, despite advances toward gender equity when it comes to awarding". The report also has interesting comparisons across other fields such as psychology, sociology and economics.

In response to my previous post on this topic, Surya commented, "is it more difficult for a woman to be in academia than to be in the corporate world? I would have expected the flexibility of research would have been more ideal for women, who often need to juggle multiple roles".

The APSA report has some answers; are those US-centric answers applicable also to India?