Sunday, May 24, 2009

RSS: Paleo-conservatism rules

This doesn't come as a surprise. But it'll disappoint those -- a large number of commentators -- who opined that BJP's debacle in Elections-09 might force the party to seriously consider transforming itself from RSS's political wing into a real political party.

“The silver lining in this electoral outcome is the unmistakable play of the national psyche and the emergence of a clear two-party system,” the editorial [in the latest issue of Organizer, RSS's in-house magazine] has said.

“There is no evidence to show that the ideology of the party has failed. There is also no evidence that the Modi campaign or the Varun Gandhi speech damaged its prospects. The BJP actually failed in presenting itself as a better alternative offering stability and a national vision. This has more to do with a mismanaged campaign and organisational weaknesses.”

Greg Mankiw: Subtle changes in teaching Econ 101

From latest column:

THE CHALLENGE OF FORECASTING It is fair to say that this crisis caught most economists flat-footed. In the eyes of some people, this forecasting failure is an indictment of the profession.

But that is the wrong interpretation. In one way, the current downturn is typical: Most economic slumps take us by surprise. Fluctuations in economic activity are largely unpredictable.

Yet this is no reason for embarrassment. Medical experts cannot forecast the emergence of diseases like swine flu and they can’t even be certain what paths the diseases will then take. Some things are just hard to predict.

Likewise, students should understand that a good course in economics will not equip them with a crystal ball. Instead, it will allow them to assess the risks and to be ready for surprises.

Obama and Onion

After going on and on about how mainstream comedians have such a great difficulty mocking Obama, the Economist gets to some of the good stuff coming out of the Onion -- "America's Finest News Source":

The writers of the Onion are unencumbered by any obvious party loyalty. To fit in, you have to hate everything around you, muses Joe Randazzo, the editor. Hence the headline that greeted Mr Obama’s election victory: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job”. The Onion News Network, an online video venture, did a segment entitled “Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters to Realise How Empty Their Lives Are”. The camera showed pitiful young campaign volunteers lying comatose on a couch or wandering aimlessly through a park. “Who will take care of these people?” asked the anchor. “We really don’t know. Many have already driven away their friends and family with months of endless praise for Obama’s latest speech and constant reminders to vote,” said the breathless correspondent on the scene. “That does sound annoying,” said the anchor.

The Onion lampooned previous presidents, of course. No prizes for guessing who inspired the headline “New President Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts”, or who regaled dinner guests with an impromptu oration on Virgil’s minor works. What sets the Onion apart, however, is that Mr Obama has not blunted its barbs at all. On the contrary, the way more serious journalists fawn over the new president offers an irresistible target. “Media Having Trouble Finding Right Angle on Obama’s Double Homicide”, the Onion reported last month. “‘I know there’s a story in there somewhere’,” said the editor of Newsweek, after Mr Obama brutally murdered a suburban couple. The Onion is better at spotting good yarns, which is why, despite the recession, it is prospering. The main threats it faces are that its staff might grow up—or that the earnest papers it parodies may go out of business.

Enough of BJP ...

... so how about libertarians -- especially the anarcho kind? [Hat tip: Dani Rodrik who has a great quote from an academic paper about Robert Nozick and the Sopranos]

If you wish to dig further, there's always Crooked Timber, and from the comments section there, this UnNews story.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A physics fraudster's story

The Rise and Fall of a Physics Fraudster is the title of the article which is an "abridged and edited" version of Eugenie Samuel Reich's Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World. Here's the blurb:

Seven years after rumours of massive fraud began to surface, the repercussions of Jan Hendrik Schön’s lies still reverberate. In her new book Plastic Fantastic, abridged and edited here, Eugenie Samuel Reich chronicles how his fraud shook the scientific world.

Here's an extract:

This dramatic end to Schön’s case brings us back to the question of whether science is, or is not, self-correcting. Science was corrected in the Schön case, but not by itself — only because individual scientists made corrections. From would-be replicators in dozens of labs to many sceptics, only a couple of researchers were transformed into whistle-blowers by the unlikely pattern of evidence. The correcting process turned out to be as human and haphazard as the fraud — and certainly less systematic than Schön’s single-minded commitment to keep trying to publish fabrications.

The problem is that when data are fraudulent, they are designed to elude all the self-correcting processes of science. Keen to oblige, Schön tuned his data to pass quality-control checks and fulfil expectations for his research programme. Fraud was able to stifle questions about Schön lab technique that would otherwise have been asked, and to turn review processes at journals into opportunities for additional fabrication. Other scientists’ support of the fraud was unwitting, but the decision to place so much trust in a colleague was a conscious rationalization that continues to be defended in science to this day.

That is where the danger lies. Even now, Schön would be happy to work in science again. Somewhere in science, there must be a place for a logical, intelligent, literal and meticulous person who is not brilliant, who does not quite “get it”. Schön’s gift for agreeing with whatever others want to hear, his uncanny ability to pick up on any demand in any environment and duplicate answers that seem to work well, and to be plausible and friendly as he goes; these qualities will not go away. A couple of years after this article is printed, his ban by the German Research Foundation will expire. Then maybe he will find an opening. If not him, maybe others, and would science fraudsters less extreme, less literal, less once-in-a-generation than Schön be any less dangerous than he was; or more?

T.T. Ram Mohan on Elections-09

Understanding the results of the 2009 elections:

3. The results are a vote for "reforms" and the Congress-led UPA should, therefore, fast forward "reforms": The Congress benefited from a rise in rural incomes and prosperity driven by growth in agriculture, an area that is least touched by reforms. It also benefited from measures that "reformers" relentlessly fought: NREGA, the farm debt waiver, the Sixth Pay Commission award, an increase in subsidies and OBC quotas.

The one formation that lost heavily from its attempt to push through "reforms" was the Left in West Bengal which tried to usurp farm land in order to push ahead with industrialisation. (SEZs are an important item on the "reforms" agenda). It is fair to say that the UPA benefited from measures associated with the Left while the Left lost because of measures associated with the "reformers'!

And a follow-up: A cohesive and stable government?:

I do hope good sense prevails in the Congress and the finance portfolio stays with a politician and doesn't go to a technochrat. It wasn't the pro-reform brigade that helped the Congress do well in the 2009 elections, it was the solid political instincts of the Gandhi family, much of which goes against the spirit of "reforms".

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hero of the day ...

Manish Pandey.

A huge fan of the Royal Challengers right from the first day of IPL-08 (what a disappointing season that was!) our seven-year old son adores Manish Pandey for his heroics yesterday. He also loves R.P. Singh for dropping that catch (when Pandey was at two) and making that fantastic century possible ...

Though my inner Chennaiyan continues to like the Super Kings (especially for their super-cool captain), he has wisely chosen to to yield to the father in me, and will be rooting for RCB in their semi-final against CSK tomorrow.

Quality time, intra-family harmony, bonding, &c ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sunil Mukhi and Rahul Basu on Elections-09

First, Sunil Mukhi: Time to Gloat:

I'm savouring every moment. In a few days India will go back to being the mess that I love to complain about, but today it is a country where democracy has triumphed and stability is more or less assured. Moreover, some people have got what they richly deserved and I wish to gloat about their forthcoming political demise.

His list of 'some people' who "have got what they richly deserved" is pretty interesting; it includes, in addition to Advani and Karat, a couple of minor journalists.

Rahul Basu: The Indian Elections 2009:

Having said that though, I believe that the left has a very constructive role to play, not just in secular matters, but also indeed in economics, if it could only get more pragmatic and less dogmatic and ideological. The tendency to follow a laissez-faire capitalist model with no regulations, allowing the markets to correct itself is a view propagated by many of our business houses and right wing economists, with results that are now there for all to see. Relaxing labour laws, in a country with no safety net, allowing private banks to play with people's hard earned pension funds are actions that are ill-suited even to the US, let alone India and it helps to have a gentle restraining hand to curb some of these excesses. The Montek Singh Ahluwalias of this world, (tipped now to become the Finance Minister) trained in some of the discredited policies of the IMF and World Bank need this control and now with the left having, well, left, we hope that Mr Ahluwalia has learnt some lessons from the disastrous actions of his Wall Street friends to not try and emulate that environment.

Paleo-conservative Right's critique of BJP's electoral strategy

I'm sure you have seen all kinds of post-poll opinion pieces -- in blogs as well as newspapers -- about what BJP should do to stop its electoral slide and gain broader acceptance. Most of them advise BJP to dump Hindutva and become a proper Right Wing Party (conservatism in the economic sphere); some have suggested the model of Christian Democratic Party (whatever that means ;-).

Koenraad Elst says all that is bunkum; it should, instead, get back to its Hindutva core: "only a clear ideological profile, mature but distinct, could have won the election for the BJP."

I mean, I have seen BJP getting walloped by people to its left (if not *the* Left). But the way the party is being criticized from its right -- imagine that! -- is interesting. It is this that makes me link to this piece.

[Don't forget to read the comments; there are three as I write this post]

Here's Elst's opinion of L.K. Advani:

In 1991 already, right after the election victory that made the BJP the leading Opposition party, it discreetly disowned the Ayodhya movement that had earned it this breakthrough. The media scapegoated Mr LK Advani for the subsequent Babri Masjid demolition, though everybody knew that it had taken place in spite of him. He had gone there to demonstrate to the secularists that he was the one man who could control Hindu anger and prevent it from demolishing this symbol of secularism. When the crowd bypassed him, he broke down in tears, and ever since, he has been deploring the event as the ‘blackest day’ of his life. Disowning his role of flag-bearer of Hindutva, he should have bowed out gracefully. Instead, his clinging on to the leadership reminds us of Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen, the aged French Rightist leader who has sacrificed his party to his own pitiable ambitions.

To be compared to Jean-Marie Le Pen? This is too cruel. Even to Advani.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Ever wonder if a decidedly unspectacular vote share (say, less than 30 %) can make a professional pundit gush? Wonder no more; heeeeere's Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

There are moments in the life of nations that are harbingers of deep changes. The Congress has achieved what even so many of its friends thought was unthinkable: not just a return to power, but a return with such aplomb. No amount of psephological quibbling can take away from this achievement. They put a lie to the proposition that this was not a national election, but a sum of state elections. The swing towards them across large parts of the country is too significant to be dismissed as a conjuncture of lots of local factors. But this is also a moment where the nation is also entitled to some degree of self-congratulation. Small exceptions apart, this election represents a big defeat for the politics of opportunism, obfuscation and obscurantism. Those political forces that thought that mere political bargaining with others was a substitute for an electoral strategy have lost. Instead a message has been sent out, loud and clear, that playing spoiler, switching sides in order to pre-empt the people’s mandate, changing positions at the last minute are simply not on. Elections are fundamentally about comparative credibility, and those who were foolish enough to assume that mere words could hoodwink electorates have been cut to size. A large number of parties have been punished for this reason and rightly so.

For someone who wrote this extremely harsh pre-poll assessment of Manmohan Singh and his government, Mehta's post-poll views are very surprising, to say the least.

Siddharth Varadarajan calls for "humility in victory" and "introspection in defeat"

There's a lot of stuff in his The Hindu opinion piece that I agree with, especially on BJP and Congress. Here's an excerpt about the latter:

the party needs to guard against the hubris that usually accompanies the kind of dramatic, unexpected victory it has just received. The INC defeated the Left fair and square but must realise that its success owes more to the social-democratic elements of its economic policies than to the ‘reforms’ the party’s more affluent backers espouse. Second, vanquishing the politics the BJP stands for requires more than electoral success. The socio-economic and administrative support structures on which the politics of communalism thrives need to be dismantled through careful, sensitive intervention. The party must resist the old Congress way of pandering to identity politics as a low-cost way of doing the right thing by India’s diverse electorate. India’s Muslims, for example, want equal opportunities and justice, not the banning of a book or the expulsion of a Taslima Nasreen. Providing these will involve taking on entrenched interests and attitudes, especially in the police and administration, something the Congress has always shied away from doing.

Finally, the re-election of the UPA must not be seen as a licence to indulge in the ‘Congress culture’ of the past. The public got a glimpse of that culture when some leaders started pushing for Rahul Gandhi to be made Prime Minister as soon as the scale of the party’s victory became apparent. Sonia Gandhi did well to nip these demands in the bud. If she can go further by pensioning off entrenched interests and democratising the functioning of the party’s leadership, the Congress will be better placed to meet the expectations of those who have voted for it.

The stuff about "Congress culture" is quite scary. Just look at the kind of hardball they play with people like Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav; heck, look at the way they are dealing with Karunannidhi! If the arrogance is so palpable even without a UPA majority, just imagine how much worse it could get if Congress had the majority all by itself ...

Another part of the Congress culture is the shameless sycophancy to the "Ruling Family." To be fair, both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi appear -- so far -- grounded enough to rebuff attempts by immature Congresswallahs (including one by Arjun Singh about a year ago) about making the latter the PM. Rahul has also made the right noises about institutionalizing democracy within their party. Let's hope they stick to their views in spite of their obsequious partywallahs.

Sensible Sensex?

Five years ago, just after the results of Elections-04 were out, the stock market's reaction was one of utter horror. The Sensex lost over 17 % in two consecutive trading sessions.

That initial reaction proved to be a horribly poor indicator of where the Sensex and the broader economy were headed during the following five years.

The stock market's first reaction to Elections-09 was euphoric; the Sensex went up (17 %) so fast that trading was stopped within a minute of the opening of the markets last Monday.

Let's just hope the markets got it right this time.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Vote shares

In Elections-09, Congress had a vote share of 28.6 % in 2009; up about 2 % over 2004. BJP, on the other hand, ended up with about 18.8 %, down about 3.5 % from 2004.

The vote share difference widened, then, from 4.5 % in 2004 to almost 10 % in 2009.

This statistic, however, is not all that useful, because these two parties contested in alliance with others, so we really ought to look at the performance of these alliances -- UPA and NDA. Also, the number of constituencies in which the two parties (and perhaps the two alliances) contested are likely different.

This statistic also doesn't take into account the diversity of contests in our States. At one extreme, we have straight fights (in Delhi, for example); and at the other, we have multicornered contests (in UP, for example) with multiple players with roughly equal strength.

In Delhi's one-on-one contests, your vote share has to be close to 50 % to win (indeed, Congress did get 57 % against BJP's 35 % or so).

In UP, on the other hand, we had a four-cornered contest. Thus, BSP, SP, and Congress got 27.4, 23.3. and 18.3 %, respectively. They won, respectively, 20, 24 and 21 seats.

In other words, even though BSP had a 4 % and a 9 % lead in votes over SP and Congress, its seat tally was less than theirs! No wonder Mayawati is upset.

In between these two extremes, we have situations where a minor (third place) player whose small vote share is also larger than the difference between the winner and the runner-up. In AP, for example, Chiranjeevi's party played such a role. Or, Raj Thackeray's MNS in Maharashtra. P. Sainath alluded to a similar role by BSP in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. In many constituencies, rebel candidates also play this role.

I'm looking for some state-wise analysis of vote shares to see how things panned out for the UPA and NDA. Similarly, I'm also looking for some data on how the women, different caste, religious, income and age groups voted in different states. (I'm not yet ready to buy all the glib TV talk about Muslims switching to Congress in UP ...).

In the meantime, all I have found are these pieces.

Gender, Money, Criminal Profile of the 15th Lok Sabha

Some quick numbers from The Telegraph (numbers in bold have been added):

The 15th Lok Sabha will have 46 women [8.5 % (or) about 1 in 12], the second highest after the 13th Lok Sabha’s 49 [9.0 %]. Uttar Pradesh elected 12 women, and Bengal and Andhra Pradesh six each. Only 556 of the 8,070 candidates (6.9 per cent) were women, but they had an 8 per cent success rate (one in 12 won) compared with 6.5 per cent for the men.

Some 300 of the new MPs are crorepatis compared with the previous House’s 154, shows an analysis by civil society group Association for Democratic Reforms. Economically backward Uttar Pradesh has thrown up 52 of them, followed by Maharashtra (37), Andhra (31) and Karnataka (25). The Congress accounts for 138 and the BJP for 58. Four own more than Rs 100 crore. Telugu Desam’s Nama Nageswara Rao, who defeated Renuka Chowdhury, is the richest at Rs 173 crore, followed by Naveen Jindal (Congress).

Some 150 of the new MPs — more than one in four — face one or more criminal cases, compared with 128 in 2004. Some 73 are charged with serious offences. The BJP has 42 such MPs, followed by the Congress (41). Among states, UP tops with 31, followed by Maharashtra at 23. Eight face at least 10 cases. Those with five or more cases include Varun Gandhi and Tapas Pal.

How good were the exit polls?

Exit pollsters should join BJP and the Left parties in doing some serious introspection. As Churumuri shows, their record has been quite pathetic in both 2004 and 2009.

Vinod Mehta, Editor of Outlook, tells us why he stopped doing exit polls: "In 2004, all of us pundits and pollsters had their reputation in shreds. And I personally decided that Outlook would no longer be part of this hazardous prediction game."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mallika Sarabhai's letter to Shri Advani

Penned before the election results were out, it appears on Outlook's website:

Instead of the hunger, thirst and soul-chilling deprivations that our people still suffer, you talk of swords and trishuls. Instead of the lynching of Dalits and the rape of thousands of women and girls, you speak of building temples and destroying mosques. Instead of propagating the Hindu thought of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is my family), you split our family into religions and tell all "others" to get out or live as minions in their own country.

As a proud Hindu and a proud Indian, I feel vilified by you. You have reduced the great Sanatana philosophy to a Taliban-style Hindutva. As an Indian, you have tried to reduce my identity to a single factor—Hindu or not.

* * *

Vinod Mehta's column in Outlook:

The people have spurned the divisive, negative, low, petty, self-defeating, erratic, irrelevant politics of God’s Own Party. The BJP, which is very good and very swift at introspection, has much to introspect about. For the sake of the party, I hope the inevitable clamour for returning to Hindutva is resisted. If the BJP, already wounded, goes back to Ram mandir type mobilisation, the return could be fatal.

The proposition that Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, is in trouble. This time the Opposition lost unilaterally. ...

Lessons from Elections-09

What are the lessons for the BJP? Offstumped offers a Top 10 list:

4. Riots have consequences we can no longer be in denial on VHP’s conduct. There has to be accountability for the rot in Orissa.


10. Last but not the least, it would be in complete denial if it did not ask tough questions of how Acts of Adharma in the name of Hindutva have been condoned and the relevance of Hindutva as an ideology to guide on Socio-Economic issues.

Memories of Elections-09

Sort of like this, but without the kind of work that went into that site. [Update: Rahul Siddharthan has converted it into a nice graphic: pdf (700+ KB) or PNG (500+ KB)].

In no particular order, here we go:

* * *
India Shining
No, no. Bharat Shining!
Naveen Patnaik
1984 riots
No security forces for 20/20 matches
BJD breaks with BJP
Varun Gandhi
Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar
Mangalore pub attacks
N. Gopalswamy
EC Advice to BJP: Don't field Varun
Varun booked under NSA
Shoes flung at P. Chidambaram!
26/11 Trial
Nikamma PM
Sri Ram Sene
Strong Leader
BJP to EC: Fuck you!
Kasab's lawyer
Third Front
Decisive Leader
Shoes flung at Advani!
Mayawati for PM!
Nano Nandigram
Mamata Didi
Modi for PM!
Taliban video
Arun Jaitley sulks
Shoes flung at Yeddyurappa!
Obama: Manmohan Singh is a wise and decent man
Social engineering
Jai Ho!
Babri Masjid
Nuclear Deal
Humble farmer and secret meeting
Iron Man melts
Moral Police
Is Pakistan a failed state?
Fourth Front
Bhay Ho!
Political crisis in Nepal
Left's dalliance with extremist Islamic party in Kerala
Three-Hour Fast
Halt to use of heavy artillery
Why is Brendan McCullum still the captain?
What will Buddha do?
Human shield
Strength in speech and weakness in action
Samosa:Aaloo :: Bihar:Laloo
Af-Pak Strategy
2 Square-kilometers
I'm hurt by the PM's words. Boo-hoo!
Special Investigating Team
Obama's First Hundred Days
Black Money Stashed Abroad
Pink Chaddi Campaign
Kamran Khan
Racism in Kolkata Knight Riders?
Jayapradha may commit suicide
Modi for PM!
Strong Leader
J supports creation of Eelam
Sonia Gandhi
Rohit Sharma can bowl?
Mulayam for PM!
Exit polls
Varun Gandhi
Prakash Karat
Hung Parliament
Racism in KKR?
Rahul Gandhi as PM!
Competent, confident leader
Vodafone Zoo-zoos
Laloo for PM?
Centrist politics
Rahul, the game-changer?
Singh is King!

Annals of Epic Fail Punditry

The Swapan Dasgupta edition:

... Having won the "weak" versus "strong" debate conclusively - the PM's contribution to the victory should not be underestimated - Manmohan Singh must now live to the faith reposed in him and actually exercise the tough options. Will he take steps to curb a fiscal deficit that has become unmanageable? Will he inject a sense of urgency into the security establishment so that terrorists, and not citizens, become the hunted? The voters have been very generous to an incumbent government which allowed too many things to drift in the past five years. But the season for excuses ended on Saturday afternoon.

Let's get this straight. You just conceded that Manmohan Singh won the weak-versus-strong controversy; and you still expect to be able to set the agenda for him, even though you represent the, um, losing side? Nice try, but ... Fail!

You talk about the government's drift. But, here's the thing: the verdict shows that people didn't see this drift. Or, if they saw it, they weren't bothered by it.

Isn't punditry about testing your own views against that of the public, and responding creatively to the differences? By peddling the same old arguments and buzzwords which didn't find too many buyers, you have just displayed an acute inability -- or, arrogant unwillingness -- to engage with the people's verdict. Fail, again.

Finally, voters have all kinds of virtues in a democracy, but 'generosity' is most definitely not one of them. They have been ruthless when it comes to judging governments. Ask BJP about 2004. And yes, they have also been ruthless in judging the Opposition. Ask BJP about 2009!

Yet, you view Congress's (and UPA's) gains through the lens of voters' generosity.

Epic Fail!

Elections-09: Reactions

Rahul Siddharthan: The (relatively) good guys won:

A recent US president said of the opposition: "They misunderestimated me." Manmohan Singh could well have said the same, only in correct English.

Because of his soft-spoken nature he has attracted charges of being weak, a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, and a temporary substitute for Rahul Gandhi. L K Advani attacked him viciously during the 2009 campaign, but it seems to have backfired. In fact, during his tenure, Singh pushed through the Right to Information Act, which he saw as one of the most important ways to improve transparency; he broke ranks with the Left to push through the nuclear cooperation deal with the US, and personally intervened with other parties (including some quite unsavoury politicians) to ensure that his government continued to have the support to last its full term; and, meanwhile, he let the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul, focus on rebuilding the Congress party from the grassroots.

* * *

Bhupinder Singh: Relieved but not enthused:

I am relieved that the UPA is back, and that the NDA has slightly declined. This is, however, not to say that one is enthused. The loss of the Left, BSP and the Lalu Janata Dal means that the UPA/INC’s gain has been mainly at the expense of the secular groups that have supported it anyway. The Left’s loss also means that there is no major opposition to the neo- liberal model expounded by Manmohan Singh, at least at the national level. It leaves the field open for the Congress’s autocratic ways. It needs to be remembered that the Congress party has fielded a record number of crorepatis and criminals in the 2009 general elections.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Here's Dilip D'Souza:

A man wanted to be Prime Minister on the back of riding a Toyota around the country and calling it a chariot. On the back of fueling resentments, nurturing victimhood and selling weakness. On the back of no vision for this country of any kind.

LK Advani has lost probably his last chance to be Prime Minister of India. Thank you, voters.


I'll have more later. For now, I am simply relieved and grateful that I live in a country whose government will not be headed by LK Advani.

20 Questions about the 2009 Elections

For some of the smartest commentary on Indian politics, Churumuri is the blog to go to. Here's a great set of questions posed by Churumuri about Elections-09.

Presumably, the Iron man is asking himself many of these questions, especially the last one:

20. Do Google ads work?

Here's another good one:

16. Is Naveen Patnaik smarter than most people think?

16 a. Is K. Chandrashekhar Rao dumber than you think?

Yesterday vs. Tomorrow

While my own immediate reaction to the results of Elections-09 is one of (immense) relief, Harini's reaction is quite exuberant:

Advani v/s [Manmohan Singh] came down to basics - Whining v/s strength. Bitterness v/s vision. Powerlust v/s duty. Exclusion v/s inclusion. Hindutva v/s Bharatiyata. Yesterday v/s Tomorrow. The people have chosen well. [Bold emphasis added]

I have a quibble, though. The appropriate era the Iron Man is to be associated with is not "yesterday." It's the Stone Age.

With all due apologies, of course, to the people of the Stone Age.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Links ...

  1. Nina Paley: Free as in Phreedom.

  2. Sir John Maddox: the man who transformed Nature, "a parochial and withering publication, ... into a globally influential scientific giant."

  3. Inside HigherEd: Obama jokes about honorary degree controversy.

  4. Dan Ariely's short profile of Nicholas Christakis: "... [H]appiness, like the flu, can spread from person to person. When people who are close to us, both in terms of social ties (friends or relatives) and physical proximity, become happier, we do too."

Highest compensation in India in a medical malpractice case

The figure is Rs. 1 crore (approximately US $ 200,000); the victim was asking for seven times this figure. Here's the report. I don't know much about the kinds of arguments / guidelines the Supremes would use for fixing the damage awards, but Rs. 1 crore in this case appears too low. But we live in a land where victims of railway accidents receive a small fraction -- just a few percent -- of this figure.

Prashanth was an engineering student, specialising in software, when he was admitted to the hospital in September 1990 with unexplained fever.

After diagnosing a benign tumour, institute doctors advised surgery saying the growth could put pressure on the patient’s respiratory, cardiovascular or neurological systems, or turn malignant some day. Following surgery, Prashanth developed paraplegia — paralysis of the legs and the lower portion of the body.

Six months after his discharge, his father, a Bhel employee, wrote to the institute in November 1991, alleging negligence. In 1993, Prashanth moved the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and sought about Rs 5 crore in damages.

The commission held the institute negligent since it had not included a neurosurgeon in the surgery team or taken the opinion of sister institutes. It awarded Rs 15.5 lakh in compensation.

The institute appealed against the verdict and the patient too challenged the compensation as inadequate, raising the demand to Rs 7 crore. The case reached the Supreme Court in 1999.

The court agreed that Prashanth — now an Infosys employee — had lost out on future income, had had a brilliant career cut short and faced huge medical bills for life, and that his whole family had paid “an enormous price, physical, financial and emotional”. Still, it said, the claim of Rs 7 crore was exaggerated and unreasonable.

The timeline is worth repeating: the malpractice happened in 1990. The case reached the Supremes in 1999. Final verdict arrives in 2009.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Delayed Gratification: The Marshmallow Experiment

First, watch these two videos. Just concentrate on Cute Overload, and ignore the commentary (especially in the second video, which misrepresents the experiment with some religious nonsense).

By way of commentary (with a discussion of the experiment's significance), you have something much, much better: Don't! The Secret of Self Control by Jonah Lehrer in New Yorker.

* * *

All the links come to us via Daniel Lende's Wednesday Round-up at the excellent Neuroanthropology blog.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Check out the website of IIT-Hyderabad.

The Future Directions section, for example. It has a table with projections about where the institute is going to be at different points of time in the future. By 2108 -- i.e., about a hundred years from now -- IIT-H will have 1000 faculty and 10,000 students!

Anyway, this post is not about such dreams. It's about two other things that IIT-H will do in the immediate future. The first is that it's starting its masters and doctoral programs! In nine areas, including humanities, physics and chemistry. What's more, even materials science and engineering is included in this list!

This is really interesting because there's absolutely no information very little information in the IIT-H website about its faculty [update: IIT-H website has the names of chairmen of two departments; there's still no info on its faculty. See the comments section, below.] that can give us a clue about the kinds of areas PhD students can hope to enter at IIT-H.

It's not clear why this IIT is in such a hurry to start these programs. [Update: In fact, it has already started the doctoral program! In his comment, Giridhar provides the link to the page with a list of students admitted into the program in the January-May semester] While it could take the help of its mentor, IIT-M, for its undergraduate program, it's not clear how it'll manage the masters and doctoral programs which demand a critical mass of resident faculty. Does it make sense to start the doctoral programs even before the faculty have been recruited in sufficient numbers? [Does anyone know how many faculty have been recruited by IIT-H? Is this info available online?]

Frankly, this doesn't look good at all.

BTW, I checked the websites of the other IITs: IIT-Patna, IIT-Bhubaneswar, IIT-Gandhinagar, IIT-Punjab and IIT-Rajasthan (the first two have their own identities -- IIT-P and IIT-BBS -- and their own domains; the other websites are hosted within the domains that belong to the mentor IITs). None of them is talking about starting programs at the masters and doctoral level. [Also, among these IITs, IIT-Patna is the only one that has a page listing its faculty members, their background and research interests.]

Coming back to IIT-H, here's the second thing I noticed, and this is very, very, encouraging. It's about faculty recruitment, and I was very happy to see this:

Research Initiation Grant
In the initial 5 years of the Institute, newly recruited faculty members may submit a technically sound research proposal for internal funding. The research initiation grant for a newly recruited faculty member will be up to Rs.1 Crore for a faculty member at entry level, and up to Rs.2 Crores for a faculty member at senior level. It is proposed to maintain the initiation grants at these levels in the subsequent years also.

Read that last sentence again to see why it makes me glad.

Voter apathy and what to do about it

Rahul Basu's friend Arunava Sen (from ISI Delhi) offers a game theoretic argument for what may work.

A better strategy is to emphasize that voting is duty just like paying taxes and not throwing garbage into your street. The effect of this is to add a positive constant K on the left hand side of the equilibrium equation. Voters get this benefit independently of the outcome of the vote - you can think of this as the "warm glow" you get when they put that ink on your index finger. It is quite easy to verify that if K is large enough, you get a corner solution where all voters irrespective of their voting costs, vote.

Here's a set of top ten lists of why Delhi voted but (South) Mumbai didn't.

Things internets teach me - 12

CNR stands for "Could Not Reproduce" in software circles involved in identifying bugs and getting rid of them.

Source: the latest from xkcd.

Links ...

  1. Aurelie Thiele: The Dark Side of Academia.

  2. Elisabeth Rosenthal in NYTimes: In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars.

  3. Parvathi Menon and S. Bageshree in The Hindu: Caste and electoral choice: the Karnataka case: "The theory that Lingayats and Vokkaligas constitute a ‘vote-bank’ is based on three erroneous assumptions. The first is that they are a numerical majority in certain districts of the State. Secondly, members of these communities vote only for a community candidate. Third, a non-Vokkaliga or non-Lingayat cannot win from a constituency in which one of these groups dominates without getting the community vote."

  4. Yogendra Yadav in The Hindu: The Endgame and What It Portends: "The outcome of this phase is linked to women. This is not merely because three major women leaders are in the fray, but also because of the way women vote, says Yogendra Yadav

  5. D. Karthikeyan in The Hindu: Tamil Nadu's Dalit Vote.

You know times are tough ...

... when serious cut-backs are happening ... in PhD Comics.

Check out the follow-up; it's also pretty good.

Economy to 2009 graduates: Consider grad school

Sara Murray in WSJ: The Curse of the Class of 2009: "For college grads lucky enough to get work this year, low wages are likely to haunt them for a decade or more." This grim prediction is based on research in the US that looked at the effects of "the deep 1980s recession":

Economic research shows that the consequences of graduating in a downturn are long-lasting. They include lower earnings, a slower climb up the occupational ladder and a widening gap between the least- and most-successful grads.

In short, luck matters. The damage can linger up to 15 years, says Lisa Kahn, a Yale School of Management economist. She used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a government data base, to track wages of white men who graduated before, during and after the deep 1980s recession.

Ms. Kahn found that for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, those with the misfortune to graduate during the recession earned 7% to 8% less in their first year out than comparable workers who graduated in better times. The effect persisted over many years, with recession-era grads earning 4% to 5% less by their 12th year out of college, and 2% less by their 18th year out.

For example, a man who graduated in December 1982 when unemployment was at 10.8% made, on average, 23% less his first year out of college and 6.6% less 18 years out than one who graduated in May 1981 when the unemployment rate was 7.5%. For a typical worker, that would mean earning $100,000 less over the 18-year period.

Perhaps it's a good idea to link to >Dean Dad's "Commencement Address", again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

University rankings

Asian university rankings by QS. All the IITs, JNU, DU, Calcutta, Pune and Mumbai universities figure in the top 200.

US News' ranking of American graduate programs. In case you are interested, here's the top 10 list for materials.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A great commencement address by Dean Dad ...

... except that he never gave it at a 'real' graduation ceremony. He has posted the transcript:

In boom years, I've seen some folks succeed a bit too easily, and draw some falsely flattering conclusions about themselves. It wouldn't matter, I suppose, if it didn't lead to a certain smugness about the failures of others. I've heard it said that success is a terrible teacher; no less a mind than Aristotle suggested that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. When circumstances conspire to flatter us, it's easy to lose sight of the breaks we've caught. Yes, we help create our own luck, but we do no more than help. You don't choose your parents, or your genes, or your time and place of birth. As hard as you've worked – and you have – others have worked, too, to make this possible for you. Ignoring that is both inaccurate and rude. Assuming that the chain of responsibility stops with you is arrogant and infantile. I've worked hard, but I was also born to educated parents of dominant ethnicity and culture in a world superpower during the age of antibiotics and abundant food. That gave me possibilities not available for a similarly hard worker in most other times and places in human history.

Among those who've been on the underside for too long, I've sometimes seen a fatalism that can curdle into misplaced rage. If nobody around you catches a break, it's easy to assume that the fix is in, that someone, somewhere, is masterminding a scheme to keep you down. Sometimes it's partly true. But jumping to that too quickly can defeat initiative. It can lead to habits that amount to self-sabotage, and to distrust even of the possibility of something better. Among unsubtle minds, it's a short path from that to rage and violence, usually against whomever is close at hand.

Both of these stories we tell ourselves are wrong. The world is far bigger than our puny efforts, as well as those of anybody else. The fatal flaw in both is the same; the idea that the world is organized around you, whether in the form of 'your oyster' or a conspiracy. It isn't. But our culture acts as if it is.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Wikipedia hoax

John Timmer in Ars Technica: Wikipedia hoax points to limits of journalists' research:

A sociology student placed a fake quote on Wikipedia, only to see it show up in prominent newspapers, revealing that a lot of the press doesn't go much further than most 'Net users when it comes to researching a story. [...]

[Shane] Fitzgerald [who's a student at Ireland's University College Dublin] was apparently curious how far his hoax would spread, and expected it to appear on a variety of blogs and similar sites. Instead, to his surprise, a search picked it up in articles that appeared at a variety of newspapers. Fitzgerald eventually removed his own fabricated quote and notified a variety of news outlets that they had been tricked, but not all of them have apparently seen fit to publish corrections or to ensure that their original stories were accurate, even though fixing a webpage shouldn't be a challenging thing.

Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise that journalists use Wikipedia as part of their research—especially in this case, as Jarre's entry comes out on top of the heap in a Google search for his name. However, the discovery that so many of the writers apparently failed to find an additional source on that quote comes at a rather awkward time for journalists in traditional media, who are facing a struggle to stay above water as the newspaper industry is sinking and the line between traditional journalism and casual reporting gets ever blurrier.

Among Indian newspapers, the Economic Times has fallen for this hoax; there may be others as well, but my cursory search didn't yield any links.

The Guardian was also a victim of this hoax. In her commentary, its Reader's Editor dwells on how the Wikipedia editors/monitors dealt with the unsourced quote planted by Fitzgerald before it got a chance to stay long enough for lazy obit writers to run with it:

Fitzgerald's fakery was not particularly sophisticated. All he did was add a quote to Jarre's Wikipedia page and he provided nothing to back it up. The absence of a footnote containing a reference for the quote ought to have made obituary writers suspicious.

Wikipedia editors were more sceptical about the unsourced quote. They deleted it twice on 30 March and when Fitzgerald added it the second time it lasted only six minutes on the page. His third attempt was more successful - the quote stayed on the site for around 25 hours before it was spotted and removed again.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Jesse Bering on the "Secrets of the Phallus"

Excerpting even a single paragraph will turn get this blog an NC-17 rating. So, let me just give the article's title: Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

It discusses certain special features of the human male sexual organ based on evolutionary psychological speculations. This is a field that's notorious for just-so stories masquerading as "scientific explanations" with questionable politics -- particularly sexual politics. [see 1 and 2 for parodies, and 3 and 4 for a more serious discussion]. So beware.

[Update: SciCurious has a discussion (with pics!) of the research by Gallup et al. whose work forms the basis of Bering's article].

Shiv Visvanathan to L.K. Advani: "What is the genocidal quotient of your speeches?"

Visvanathan has a lot more to say. Here:

let me address the central issue of Gujarat and the violence of 2002. Let us begin with a simple fact that violence began from your constituency. The dead bodies from the Godhra carnage were paraded here, triggering not a ritual of mourning but an orgy of the most obscene violence our country has witnessed in recent times. Yet you spoke as if a balance of murder is the only sense of justice you have. When you can mourn for Kashmir and what happened to the Pandits there, what prevents you from acknowledging a moral responsibility for what happened in your constituency or are you saying that ethnic cleansing is a permitted and legitimate form of political hygiene? Today, the evidence before the Nanavati Commission and the investigations of the SIT team show that your party has been deeply involved in rioting, violence and genocide. Your attitude seems to suggest that majoritarianism exhausts the democratic imagination, that violence is an acceptable tactic for enforcing majoritarianism. Your close colleague and our current CM seems to suggest that it is part of the logic of development.

Violence negates politics and a party that banalises violence eventually exhausts its own political imagination. One wonders whether the current emptiness of your party is a result of this indifference to the atrocities that so many citizens suffered?...

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Seth Finkelstein on Twitter

... Twitter implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of blogging. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one's life matter to an audience.

The "A-list" phenomenon, where a few sources with a large readership dominate the information flow on a topic, was particularly stark. Since the numbers of "following" and "followers" are visible, the usual steep ranking curve was immediately evident. A highly ranked person is free to attack anyone lower down the ranks, as there's no way for the wronged party to effectively reply to the same readers.

Getting a significant followership and thus being socially prominent is also important. Hence, there are major incentives to churn out quick punditry that is pleasing to partisans.

From here. He links to a recent piece reporting that "more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month."

I have tried Twitter. I didn't quite enjoy it, so I don't foresee becoming a regular user there. It's not clear to me what it was about Twitter that bummed me out; but it's certainly not the sociological issues highlighted by Finkelstein -- I really haven't thought much about them until I read his piece.

It's quite possible that I don't enjoy Twitter because I don't "get" it. That's okay; the Web does offer many ways of dealing with the online world, and we get to pick the pathologies we are comfortable with.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Links ...

  1. Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby: "So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species."

  2. Harriet Harman, the UK's Equalities Minister, "[denounces] the City [of London] as a 'breeding ground for discrimination and unfairness', [and] ... has taken action with a new Bill which will oblige companies with more than 250 employees to publish the average hourly pay gap between men and women. Companies have until 2013 to comply, after which an annual 'gender pay audit' will become law.

    Harman is confident that the onus will now be on to companies to show they are being fair to female staff, rather than vice versa. The Bill also tackles discrimination over age and class and outlaws secrecy clauses for pay.

  3. Pratiksha Baxi in Law and Other Things: A Critique of Tabloidization of Law.

  4. SocProf: In Praise of Strong Social(ist) Policy.

  5. Tara Parker-Pope: What Are Friends For? A Longer Life.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


  1. Russell Shorto: Going Dutch: How I learned to love the European welfare state.

  2. Ethics-free Elsevier: a fake   medical   journal, and other shenanigans.

  3. Lidija Davis: Anthropology: The art of building a successful social site.

  4. Academic Evolution: Scholar or public intellectual?

How to compete when you are weaker than your opponents

David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court.

That's the message from Malcolm Gladwell's latest piece in the New Yorker. As usual, you should read it for the vivid stories -- both fictional and real life -- that illustrate his thesis.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

State of Computer Science in the US and Canada

Ph.D. production [in computer science] continues to climb. A total of 1,775 new Ph.D.s were awarded between July 2006 and June 2007 (Table 1). This represents an increase of 18% over last year, and follows last year’s 26% increase over the previous year. This year’s production of more than 1,700 was predicted last year, and for the second straight year tracks the departments’ own estimates reasonably well. The “optimism ratio,” defined as the actual number divided by the predicted number, was 0.95, similar to last year’s 0.94. If this year’s optimism ratio holds again next year, there will be approximately 1,900 new Ph.D.s produced in 2007-2008.

From the Computing Research Association's 2006-07 Taulbee survey of of Ph.D.-granting departments of computer science (CS) and computer engineering (CE) in the United States and Canada. There's a lot of interesting data in there -- right from bachelor's programs all the way up to the professoriat.

Here's something about women in computer science:

For the second straight year, the proportion of women among new Ph.D.s rose to 19.1% in 2007 from 18.1% the previous year.


Perhaps even more alarming is the drop in the fraction of Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women, from 14.2% last year to 11.8% this year (Table 9). The fraction of new female students is reported now to be less than 10% in many Bachelor’s programs.


The fraction of women hired into tenure-track positions rose from 19.5% last year to 23.9% this year. This is a higher fraction than the 19.1% of female Ph.D.s produced (Table 2).

Scientific cooperation

John Tierney describes an interesting experiment in scientific cooperation in the NYTimes:

Dr. Cutler, an assistant professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside, knew that the rush to be first in this area had previously led to some dubious publications (including papers that were subsequently retracted). So he took the unusual approach of identifying his rivals (by determining which researchers had ordered the same genetic strains from a public source) and then contacting them. He told me:

Instead of competing with my competitors, I invited them to contribute data to my paper so that no one got scooped. I figured out who might have data relating to my work (and who could get scooped) using public resources and then sent them an email. Now that I have done this, I am thinking: Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? Why do we waste taxpayer money on ego battles between rival scientists? Usually in science you get first place or you get nothing, but that is a really inefficient model when you think about it, especially in terms of the consequences for people’s careers and training, which the public pays for.

Homework for 5 year olds?

Instead of digging in sandboxes, today’s kindergartners prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with cuddly names like Dibels (pronounced “dibbles”), a series of early-literacy measures administered to millions of kids; or toiling over reading curricula like Open Court — which features assessments every six weeks.

According to “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” a report recently released by the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, all that testing is wasted: it neither predicts nor improves young children’s educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands, like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing that truly is vital to their future success: play.

A survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles the group commissioned found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing. “Play at age 5 is of great importance not just to intellectual but emotional, psychological social and spiritual development,” says Edward Miller, the report’s co-author. Play — especially the let’s-pretend, dramatic sort — is how kids develop higher-level thinking, hone their language and social skills, cultivate empathy. It also reduces stress, and that’s a word that should not have to be used in the same sentence as “kindergartner” in the first place.

That's from Peggy Orenstein in NYTimes.

Our son Aadhu went to a Montessori for three years (age 3 to 5) before he started Class I. He never had any homework. He did quite a bit of work, though: alphabets (and later, words and sentences), a bit of arithmetic, drawing, colouring, etc, but all that happened in the school, which also retained his notebooks through the academic year. The no-homework policy made him happy, and that made his parents even happier!

Now he's in Class III in the Kendriya Vidyalaya in the IISc campus. He gets some homework: about a half-hour's work everyday -- already too much, I think.. Our only consolation is that it's not as much as what kids in some of the other schools get.