Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chess Links ...

  1. A Psychology Today (2005) article by Carlin Flora: The Grandmaster Experiments. The story of the intense training at home that made the Polgár sisters who went on to excel in chess.

  2. Gary Kasparov has an excellent essay in NYRB: The Chess Master and the Computer:

    There have been many unintended consequences, both positive and negative, of the rapid proliferation of powerful chess software. Kids love computers and take to them naturally, so it's no surprise that the same is true of the combination of chess and computers. With the introduction of super-powerful software it became possible for a youngster to have a top- level opponent at home instead of need ing a professional trainer from an early age. Countries with little by way of chess tradition and few available coaches can now produce prodigies. I am in fact coaching one of them this year, nineteen-year-old Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, where relatively little chess is played.

    The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn't care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn't good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn't been done that way before. It's simply good if it works and bad if it doesn't. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

  3. Eben Harrell in Time: A Bold Opening for Chess Player Magnus Carlsen:

    Carlsen joins chess's élite at a time of unprecedented change. He is one of a generation of players who learned the game from computers. To this day, he's not certain if he has an actual board at home. "I might have one somewhere. I'm not sure," he says. Powerful chess programs, which now routinely beat the best human competitors, have allowed grand masters to study positions at a deeper level than was possible before. Short says top players can now spend almost an entire game trading moves that have been scripted by the same program and that such play by rote has removed some of the mystique of chess. He likens chess computers to "chainsaws chopping down the Amazon."

  4. An 2006 SciAm article on The Expert Mind by Philip Ross, chess is referred to as the Drosophila of cognitive science!

Reservations and JNU faculty

It was quite shocking that a bunch of JNU faculty members resorted to the same cliched arguments against reservations at the faculty level -- especially at the full professor level.

That was two weeks ago.

Now, in a welcome move, quite a few of them have backtracked from their earlier stand.

As for the official stand, this is what the Vice-Chancellor B.B. Bhattacharya had to say:

... [T]he university was in the process of furnishing its response to the query. “We have to first get a clarification on whether reservations in the academic faculty is a law; if so, we won’t go against it.”

While this seems to me like a strange thing to say, I hope he finds the time to figure out the right thing to do, and do it.

This is the title of a link-filled post

Following convention, the post starts with the first sentence. This -- the second -- sentence warns you about the shamelessly derivative nature of this post.

The links appear in a numbered list:

  1. This sentence contains the first worthwhile link: to this video. This sentence tips the hat to a famous journalist/blogger and my senior from BHU, just so they know I read their blogs.

    This paragraph has a snarky sentence, a boilerplate sentence and a gratuitous reference to Iron Man.

  2. This is the container for a link to the blog post that might have inspired the video in Item 1. (This is a parenthetical remark to note that the blog post is from 24 January and the video was uploaded on 27 January). This sentence is for citing my source for the link to the blog post, just so you know I read blogs by Cool Linguists.

    This paragraph has an installment of snark, boilerplate and gratuitous reference to N.R. Narayana Murthy. (This remark is to note the redundancy in the last sentence).

  3. This sentence is for a link to something from 1990, a classic that appears to have inspired it all. This sentence links to this genre's blog version -- which is a classic also because it anticipates the arrival of Twitter.

    This is where I acknowledge the source for the last two links. (This parenthetical note is to inform you that this source is the same as the author of the blog post in Item 2).

This is the next-to-last sentence. This is the last sentence.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Here's the most hilarious take on iPad -- from 26 months before its launch:

Here's the link if the embed doesn't work.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Talks at IISc

Two talks that should be of general interest to folks in Bangalore:

  1. Anil Ananthaswamy (Consulting Editor, New Scientist): The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology. Centre for High Energy Physics, Tuesday 2nd February, 2010, 4:00 p.m.

    Abstract: This talk is based on my book, The Edge of Physics, which tells of story of modern cosmology in the form of a travelogue. Cosmologists, and indeed many physicists, are waiting for answers to some profound questions: What is the nature of dark matter? What is the nature of the dark energy that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate? What is the origin of mass? How can Einstein's general relativity be reconciled with quantum mechanics? I went in search of the telescopes, detectors and experiments that make up the cutting-edge of cosmology today, almost of which are located in some of the most extreme environments on Earth, including Lake Baikal in Siberia, an underground mine in Northern Minnesota, the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes and even the South Pole. I'll talk about some of my journeys to these remote parts of the world, and also discuss how these experiments could provide the answers physicists are after.

  2. Dr. Sharada Srinivasan (Associate Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore): Phases and faces: Bronze and high-tin bronze metalware traditions from southern India. Thursday, 4th February 2010, 4.00 p.m. Centre for Contemporary Studies (Formerly TIFR Mathematics Building), IISc.

    Abstract: This lecture summarises some of the speakers original ethnometallurgical and archaeometallurgical investigations made over the past decade and half on archaeological bronzes which demonstrate the ways in which the properties of bronze of different compositions including high and lower tin bronze were skilfully exploited in Indian and south Indian antiquity to get a range of artefacts suited to specific functions. The skills in making bronze statuary is best exemplified by the 10th century Chola figurines of Tamil Nadu with continuing icon making traditions at Swamimalai. At the same time, the use of specialised bronzes of a higher tin composition known as high-tin bronzes exploiting the properties of intermetallic compound alloys has been established through these studies. It is also demonstrated that from early antiquity going back to the south Indian megalithic period, an interesting alloy of bronze, exploiting the properties of the beta intermetallic compound was used to make elegant vessels and continuing into recent times to make vessels, musical instruments. On the other hand the properties of the intermetallic high-tin delta compound of bronze are still exploited to make fine mirrors in Kerala. Thus the paper covers many fascinating facets of the alloys of bronze and correlations between the 'phases' and 'faces 'of bronze.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How many Indian PhDs from US universities stay back in the US?

The figure is pretty high -- over 80 percent. This finding comes from a study of foreign students who graduated in 2002 and were still in the US in 2007.

Newly released data revealed that 62% of foreigners holding temporary visas who earned Ph.D.s in science and engineering at U.S. universities in 2002 were still in the U.S. in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available. Of those who graduated in 1997, 60% were still in the U.S. in 2007, according to the data compiled by the U.S. Energy Department's Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education for the National Science Foundation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

China's growing stature in science

A bunch of links -- which have links to other pieces of interest.

  1. Evan Osnos in New Yorker: Science Superpowers. This follow-up post strikes a sobering note.

  2. An online panel discussion in NYTimes on Will China Achieve Science Supremacy?

  3. Clive Cookson in The Financial Times: China scientists lead world in research growth. [Check out the graph accompanying this story: China's publications grew by more than 12 times between 1990 and 2008, while India's grew by just three times.]

  4. And finally, an example of China's Big Think: hiring Big Guns.

Schooling across the gender divide ...

Two interesting examples.

1. From Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan's interview in Current Science:

In your talk you put up a slide saying you studied in a girls’ school at Baroda. How did you happen to study in a girls’ school?

When my parents moved there that was the only English medium school in Baroda. And since they didn’t know Gujarati, they were not comfortable with the idea of sending me to a Gujarati school because then they wouldn’t be able to help me. They wouldn’t be able to understand even my teachers, for instance. So they wanted me to go to an English medium school. So they sent me there because at that time it was for both girls and boys. Then what happened is that when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade, another school called Roseway High School, which was a Jesuit school, opened up an English medium section. So my school decided to make their school strictly for girls because it was run by nuns. But they let all the old boys stay in the school. As I went through school, there were fewer and fewer boys. In the end it became mostly girls.

2. From this autobiographical essay by R.J. Hans-Gill in Lilavati's Daughters:

... The opportunities for education for girls were non-existent in villages: there were no schools for girls, and girls were not allowed to join schools for boys. So the first few years of my life were spent studying at home, longing to go to school. My parents encouraged and guided me in learning. Sometimes, I had the opportunity of going to school and attending classes unofficially, since my father knew the headmaster. I enjoyed these visits immensely. [...]

My father was transferred to Isroo when I was about six years old. This village boasted of a primary school for girls. The school was housed in an enclosure which had a large room and a courtyard. After an informal test I was admitted to the fifth class. Only one teacher somehow managed all the classes, so very little was taught and I was not interested in it. All my classmates were much older than I and did not like the fact that I knew much more than they did, so I had no friends. I was immensely bored but continued going to this school since it was the only available one. Then for one year I studied English, Arithmetic and Punjabi at home. My uncle Narsher Singh, who was naib tehsildar at Balachaur, very reluctantly agreed to let me stay with him and study at a school for boys, where I could only go posing as a boy. This was a secret between our family and the headmaster. ... [Bold emphasis added]

Current Science interviews Venki Ramakrishnan

V.T. Yadugiri, an S. Ramaseshan Fellow at Current Science, interviewed Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan just after he delivered a semi-autobiographical talk at IISc three weeks ago (see my post on that event). After covering his Nobel Prize winning work on ribosomes, the interview turns to his personal life as well as his views on doing science.

The whole interview is fascinating, and gives us a glimpse into the way Venki thinks and acts. It crystallizes our impression of Venki as a man who loves his science, as a man who likes to have no gap between his feet and the ground beneath, and as a man who's unafraid to speak his mind. I urge you to go read all of it [pdf].

I'll excerpt here the part where Venki offers a view on whether doing science in a developing country is any different from doing it in a developed country:

Do you see any difference in the way research is done in developing countries and developed countries?

I think, well, if you had asked this question 20 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a big difference because the amount of resources people had were very very different. They were even at different scales. I know that in my father’s department, there was only one spectrophotometer in the entire department, and everybody had to use that. That was a big deal to have a UV spectrophotometer. Whereas in a Western lab, every lab, or maybe surrounding labs, had spectrophotometers. It was a big deal to have a pH meter. But that’s all changed. So I think part of it is psychological. One thing that taught me at the LMB – when I went to LMB, I found that it was not that different in terms of its equipment. In fact, it was very crowded; it almost looked like a rundown place. There are all these centrifuges in the hallways, freezers in the hallways, and so on. It didn’t look like a posh place at all. Of course, it had almost every equipment you would need, but it was shared. It didn’t have hundreds of different kinds of equipment. It’s not that every group owned its own equipment. Expensive equipment is shared throughout the lab. So why did the LMB do so well? Why does it continue to do well? I think it’s a psychological problem. You have to say I’m not going to do boring derivative problems where I’m doing a second or third example of something that’s already been done, and I’m not going to learn that much new from it. I see a lot of that going on in India where something is done in one system and they’ll do it in another system. And I don’t think that’s going to lead to really important breakthroughs. Actually, if people wanted to, they could do particularly Indian problems. They could study specifically Indian plant diseases or even Indian biology. They could look at ecosystems and molecular biology related to it. Or they could compete on worldwide problems where all the molecular biologists are interested in it. They could go either way. And I think the worst thing is to do something where someone has established something in one, say E. coli, and somebody does it in some other bacteria. In general, it’s not going to be helpful.

As you said in your lecture, the first few proteins of the ribosome were published in Nature, the next in lower impact journals . . .

Exactly. Exactly. So that’s an example. You know, I could have made a career just going on doing that. And as long as I kept publishing papers, I would’ve gotten grants. And that’s the kind of mentality that we see more of here. But in good labs in the West, they would see immediately –- okay, this is not getting so interesting. We need to move on. Even with the 30S –- I could keep on doing a bunch of antibiotics. There are dozens of antibiotics, right? We just did six and we stopped. But if I wanted to publish a paper in say JMB or Acta Crystallogr., I could just do one antibiotic, one paper. And I could just make a career out of it. That would be the kind of thing I see more in India. But that’s a psychological problem. It’s not a problem of resources or infrastructure. I think if people had good ideas, at least my colleagues tell me, there’s plenty of funding.

Links ...

  1. Here are this year's Padma Award winners. Congratulations to our colleague Prof. Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath for winning the Padma Shri. Nobel winner Venki Ramakrishnan gets Padma Vibhushan.

  2. Alan Becker at Deviant Art: Animator vs. Animation. [video]

  3. Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Feminism 101.

  4. Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics: Let Me Explain.

  5. Christopher Beam and Josh Levin in Slate: The iState of the Union -- Steve Jobs delivers the annual presidential address.

  6. A video on priming. Messing With Your Mind. It's amazing and scary how your mind can be tricked by seemingly irrelevant things. [This also looks to me like another example of 'embodied cognition,' though it's not presented as such.]

  7. The Economist: The Psychology of Power -- Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tough Times for Higher Ed Spending

The Economist carries a report on the tough times for universities in the US, the UK and elsewhere:

In California the students are revolting—not against their teachers, but in sympathy with them. The state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has cut $1 billion, some 20% of the University of California’s budget, as he tries to balance the state’s books. Fees may rise by a fifth, to over $10,000. Support staff are being fired; academics must take unpaid leave. [...]

Just before Christmas the British government said it planned to reduce spending on higher education, science and research by £600m ($980m) by 2012-13, just as a chilly job market is sending students scurrying to do more and longer courses. ... A House of Commons select committee is investigating the effects on British science.

Even where education spending has not been slashed, it may face a squeeze as short-term stimulus spending ends. America’s $787 billion Recovery Act passed by Congress nearly a year ago included $100 billion for education. More than half is to be spent this year, meaning that the budget will have to be cut in 2011. A study ... found that half of American states will have spent all of their stimulus money for education by the end of July. Cuts will follow. Privately funded schools and colleges have seen their endowments and donors’ enthusiasm wither.

Elsewhere, the cuts are less severe. Japan, for example, is reducing university spending by a flat 1% over each of the next five years. [...]

Women as University Leaders

Ronald G. Ehrenberg has a post at VoxEU entitled The Gender of American Academic Leaders Matters:

We find that institutions with female presidents and female provosts, and those with a greater share of female trustees did increase their share of female faculty at more rapid rates. Moreover, the magnitudes of the effects of these leaders appeared to be largest at the smaller undergraduate institutions, where central administrators may play a greater direct role in hiring decisions than they do at the larger research universities.

The prior research on corporate boards of directors suggests there is a critical mass of female directors on the board which is necessary before fundamental changes occur in board operations. Similarly, we test whether this was true in academia and find that a critical share of the board of trustees of an academic institution of 25% must be reached before the gender composition of the board influences the speed with which an institution diversifies its faculty across gender lines.

Links ...

  1. Kalpana Sharma in The Hindu: Educating India:

    The latest ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2009, a comprehensive survey of government and private schools in 575 out of 583 districts in India, revealed that only 50 per cent of government schools have toilets and that four out of 10 government schools did not have separate toilets for girls. Even where there were separate toilets for girls, as many as 12-15 per cent were locked and only 30-40 per cent were “usable”.

  2. Charu Sudan Kasturi: Kendriya Vidyalayas to start pre-primary classes.

  3. Pretty hilarious pics: This happens only in India [via Lakshmi].

  4. Findings from a study of external markers of people's political views:

    ... the bedrooms and offices of liberals, who are generally thought of as open, tend to be colorful and awash in books about travel, ethnicity, feminism and music, along with music CDs covering folk, classic and modern rock, as well as art supplies, movie tickets and travel memorabilia.

    Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to surround themselves with calendars, postage stamps, laundry baskets, irons and sewing materials in their personal spaces [...]

Umm, shouldn't the government be apologizing to Indian women?

People are upset over the government's ineptitude in featuring a Pakistan Air Force officer among Indian heroes in an ad. So, the government has apologized for bad implementation.

Aishwarya highlights the real scandal in the ad's concept and subtext -- for which it should apologize to every Indian woman:

Notice that all the important people in this particular advertisement are men.I realise that the government have issued lots of public-service ads in the past highlighting the idea that women are actually worthwhile, contributing members of society and that we might want to keep them around... but this? The girl child is important because she may some day give birth to boy children who are what really matters. Never forget that that is what we're here for. [Bold emphasis added]

* * *

Update: Here's Dreamer at Gawd's Own Country [via BlogBharti]:

The message seems to be that we should keep our baby girls alive so that they can grow up and, no, not achieve something on their own, but can give birth to sons who would make the country proud! So lets keep the girls around as a bunch of living incubators. That real tragedy of female foeticide apparently is that if there were no women where are all our strapping sons going to come from? Now if that isn't an endorsement of the age old "putravati bhava", I don't know what it is. That, people, ... is the real goof up. [Bold emphasis in the original.]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Links ...

  1. Featured link: Antara Dev Sen in The Asian Age on the sorry state of free speech in India -- with examples of serious threats emanating from the ruling Communists in Kerala and from a Supreme Court Bench. [Hat tip: V. Venkatesan at Law and Other Things]

  2. Brayden King at Orgtheory.Net: Writing is a lot like golf.

  3. Robert Nozick's 1986 article: Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? [Link via Chetan's comment in an earlier post on left-leaning-ness of American professoriat]

  4. Sam Sommers at Science of Small Talk has figured out the ingredients of The Greatest Blog Post Ever. The post has everything that attracts readers like bees to a flower: Sex, Infidelity, Happiness, Race, Tiger Woods, Pictures of Celebrities, and "every single stereotype you've ever heard about men and women is, in actuality, an unavoidable, Darwin-sanctioned truth," ...

  5. Barbara Isanski and Catherine West in APS Observer: The Body of Knowledge -- Understanding Embodied Cognition.

Vir Sanghvi Brings Us P. Chidambaram's Speech ...

... on India's higher education. In the speech at St Xavier's College, Kolkata, Chidambaram takes an admirably hard line against private institutions that are operated as money-spinning businesses (though they are ostensibly run by non-profit "trusts").

[Sanghvi has posted this article on his blog; there's a perceptive comment from Kartikeya Tanna on what the law says about private sector participation in higher ed, and how it has been circumvented in quite a few Indian states.]

I'm not able to locate Chidambaram's speech online (but found a couple of sketchy reports); what we have, then, is Sanghvi's retelling:

He began by demolishing the general view that Indians are fans of higher education. He pointed out that less than 12 per cent of school-going children were able to find place in colleges or universities. The world average is 45 per cent.

Given that there is a shortage of places in higher education institutions, how do we fill the gap? Chidambaram claimed that “Higher education — or what passes as higher education in India — is, save a few shining examples, either a money-spinning business or a moth-eaten system.”

He said that higher educational institutions fell into three categories. There were government-run universities. He was scathing about them: “They are no different from any government office. As a matter of tiresome duty, they produce graduates and post-graduates every year, the vast majority of whom are no more ‘educated’ at the end of their terms than they were when they first enrolled in the college or university.”

A second group consists of elitist institutions, run with the support of the government. He conceded that these were often well-run but attacked them on the grounds of elitism.

It was the third set of institutions that drew most of his ire: “For them, education is commerce. Since demand for seats and colleges far exceeded the supply through legitimate sources there was a huge business opportunity that was grabbed with both hands by shrewd business persons. The bulk of these self-financing colleges and self-styled universities are no more than money-spinning businesses that exploit the demand-supply gap.”

Given the contempt in Chidambaram’s tone, nobody will be surprised by what came next: “I recognise and support the role of the private sector in higher education. But I am absolutely clear in my mind that the private sector in higher education ought not to mean private business in education. No one should be allowed to profit from offering higher education. As far as I am aware, no great university in the world was established for the purpose of profit. I believe some activities in a society must stand outside the world of profit and higher education ranks first amongst such activities.”

Chidambaram’s conclusion was unambiguous. He hoped that when the higher education policy was formulated “we will be able to ensure that higher education is a domain that will have no place for profiteering”.

Indira Gandhi? A Reformer?

T.T. Ram Mohan makes the case, but it's hardly convincing. [link via this post in Ram Mohan's blog].

He focuses entirely on the 1969 nationalization of banks, which he ties to (what are now perceived as) good things that happened later -- growth in the number of branches and savings. He also ties it to the spurt in economic growth rate to 5.5 percent in the 1980s.

But, how much of that policy was driven by a firm grasp of "the full potential of bank nationalization"? Ram Mohan's answer is that "we shall never know." How much of it was driven by a sheer desire to spite her political opponents? Ram Mohan says:

At the time, Mrs Gandhi faced a challenge from the old guard in the Congress . She also believed that the private owners of banks were in cahoots with the Swatantra Party. By nationalising banks and sacking Morarji Desai as finance minister, Mrs Gandhi felt she could upstage her opponents within and outside the Congress, bolster her slogan of garibi hatao and gain the votes of the nation’s poor. She succeeded admirably.

Given these unholy, politically motivated reasons behind that nationalization policy, how does Ram Mohan justify placing the reform crown on Indira Gandhi? This is how:

Reforms are not the items on some list prepared in Washington. Reforms are what reforms do. If government ownership in banking delivers higher and more stable growth, then putting that to creative use is also reformist. Judged by this yardstick, Indira Gandhi can justly lay claim to being the original reformer.

When people are willing to blame Nehru (and Gandhi and the British and the Mughals and the Vedic people) for the bad things that we have now, I guess it's okay to go the other way and praise someone for the good things -- like the strong public sector banks we have now. But, as arguments go, both kinds fail to convince.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rajiv Sethi on Market Bubbles and Timing the Exit

In a post ostensibly about the efficient market hypothesis, Rajiv Sethi takes on a key argument (which looks eerily like the $20-bill argument) for EMH:

There are really two separate questions here: can bubbles be reliably identified in real time, while they are in the process of inflating, and if so, does this present opportunities for making abnormally high risk-adjusted returns? It is possible to answer the first question in the affirmative but not the second, for the simple reason that the eventual size of the bubble and the timing of the crash are unpredictable. Selling short too soon can result in huge losses if one is unable to continue meeting margin calls as the bubble expands. Trying to ride the bubble for a while can be disastrous if one doesn't get out of the market soon enough. And avoiding the market altogether can also be risky, if one's returns as a fund manager are compared with those of one's peers.

Each of these risks may be illustrated with some vivid examples from the bubble in technology stocks that eventually burst in April 2000. [...]

Folk wisdom on testosterone effect

Here's a fascinating study by C. Eisenegger, M. Naef, R. Snozzi, M. Heinrichs & E. Fehr published in Nature: Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour [via Kieran Healy].

Here's the abstract:

Both biosociological and psychological models, as well as animal research, suggest that testosterone has a key role in social interactions. Evidence from animal studies in rodents shows that testosterone causes aggressive behaviour towards conspecifics. Folk wisdom generalizes and adapts these findings to humans, suggesting that testosterone induces antisocial, egoistic, or even aggressive human behaviours. However, many researchers have questioned this folk hypothesis, arguing that testosterone is primarily involved in status-related behaviours in challenging social interactions, but causal evidence that discriminates between these views is sparse. Here we show that the sublingual administration of a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo. Thus, the folk hypothesis seems to generate a strong negative association between subjects’ beliefs and the fairness of their offers, even though testosterone administration actually causes a substantial increase in the frequency of fair bargaining offers in our experiment.

Friday, January 22, 2010


  1. Featured Link: Joel Johnson in Gizmodo: Show and Sell -- The Secret to Apple's Magic.

  2. A blog devoted to Ampersands.

  3. Guy Sorman in Invasion of European economists:

  4. Matthew Yglesias: Efficient Markets Hypothesis Rhetoric.

  5. Tim Junod in Esquire: Barack Obama -- Papa in Chief.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Political Typing and Liberal Professoriat

The political liberalism of professors -— an important occupational group and anomaly according to traditional theories of class politics —- has long puzzled sociologists. To shed new light on the subject, we review research on professorial politics over the past half-century, identifying the main hypotheses that have been proposed to account for professorial liberalism. Using regression decomposition, we examine hypothesized predictors of the political gap between professors and other Americans using General Social Survey data pooled from 1974-2008. Results indicate that professors are more liberal than other Americans because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas. Together, the variables linked to our hypotheses account for about 43 percent of the political gap between professors and other Americans. We conclude by outlining a new theory of professorial politics that integrates these findings, moves beyond existing approaches, and sets an agenda for future research.

That's the abstract of a working paper -- Why Are Professors Liberal? (pdf) -- by Prof. Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Ethan Fosse of Harvard.

You can bet that their 'new theory of professorial politics' will attract a lot of attention and commentary in the coming weeks. Here's a quick summary of this theory from Scott Jaschik's piece in Inside Higher Ed:

Gross and Fosse cite research by others about how some professions become "sex typed" such that they are associated with gender. Even if some men and women defy these patterns and there is nothing inherently gender-related to these patterns, these types have an impact on the aspirations of young men and women.

"We argue that the professoriate, along with a number of other knowledge work fields, has been 'politically typed' as appropriate and welcoming of people with broadly liberal sensibilities, and as inappropriate for conservatives," they write. "This reputation leads many more liberal than conservative students to aspire for the advanced educational credentials that make entry into knowledge work fields possible, and to put in the work necessary to translate those aspirations into reality."

See also: NYTimes story by Patricia Cohen.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Links ...

  1. Hemali Chhapia in ToI: IIT Placement Diktat - Coaching Classes Not Allowed.

  2. Ranjani Iyer Mohanty in NYTimes: No Idiots:

    Today, in an emerging and more affluent economy, there are a variety of ways to be successful. And in such a time and place, the simple but liberating message of “3 Idiots” — enjoy what you’re doing, and success will follow — may inspire many to do just that.

  3. Daniel Bardsley in The National: Dubai may revoke [foreign] university licences.

    Some university branches in Dubai have not convinced regulators they are matching the standards of their home campuses and could be closed this year, the head of the group that governs free-zone institutions warned yesterday.

MIT's Report on Faculty Race and Diversity

This seems like a major event at MIT. I don't have the time to go through it right now, but I'll link to the report, as well as to some immediate comments from others.

  1. MIT News: MIT releases report on minority faculty. The Report On The Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity is here.

  2. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has a story on MIT's report: Race and Merit at MIT.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Links ...

  1. K.S. Jayaraman in Nature-India: J.C. Bose -- Scientist who paddled to work [free registration required].

  2. Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Proof that Mentoring Matters:

  3. Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi in Churumuri: A Tale of Two Cities As Narrated By A Cricket Field.

  4. Eric Mazur of Harvard: Confessions of a Converted Lecturer [Video of a lecture; approx 80 minutes]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Website for new faculty at IISc

An excellent initiative.

The site packs tons of useful stuff that'll make life a lot easier for a new faculty member (or even an old one!). It covers not just the admin stuff, but also the personal / family stuff, with helpful hints and suggestions on life insurance agents, LPG agencies, and even milk and newspaper vendors!

How about 'cultural' matters that are especially relevant to those returning to India after an extended stint in the West? It has them covered too!

Many local culture specific issues that faculty coming back from abroad after a long time may not know.

  1. Address senior faculty (aged above 55, divisional chairmen, associate director, director etc.) as Professor X, unless they tell you otherwise.

  2. Remember no one (faculty or administrative staff) can be fired. Therefore, request people to help you with the purchase, bills etc. Do not tell them it is their duty (it is a sure way for failure).

  3. Some people will ask you personal questions (Why are you not married? You have been in the US but don't drink?). Do not be offended.

  4. Ask senior faculty for advice. Many will be glad to help but will wait till you ask.

Hat tip to my colleague and friend Prof. Giridhar Madras who's one of the faculty volunteers behind the website.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Links ...

  1. Sumedha at Bits of Fluff: 3 Idiots and Education:

    After school, during the mad months of college applications and terrifying decisions, I sat down to talk to my father about which subject I should choose to study for the next four years of my life. The main problem I was facing was that while I knew what I didn't want to study, I had no idea what I did want to study. I knew I didn't want to study Science, but I didn't know enough about History or Economics or Philosophy or Literature to make an even remotely informed choice.

    My dad told me something that made a lot of sense. He said that there are some very lucky people who have a passion in life. They have a direction, they have a purpose. He said that that group of lucky people is a very small group (1% of the population, as he put it). My dad's a professor and a researcher, and he's excellent at what he does. But he got into engineering and science not because that was his passion, but because he didn't know enough to choose anything else. He didn't have a strong inclination towards anything, so he gave JEE, got his Master's and Ph.D. and somehow "ended up as a professor".

  2. Anti-Imperialism in 3-D: a review of Avatar by Nagesh Rao aka LeftyProf.

  3. Ranga at My Cup of Tea: Cat in the Basket [Alternate title: Invention of tradition superstition!]

  4. Poor Brijesh Nair! He seems to have had an uncanny ability to choose only the nasty kind of Desi professors to interact with in the US. He has suffered enough; there's no need to add to his suffering by saying nasty things about his stereotype-filled post.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Prof. Kaushik Basu on his new job

Prof. Basu joined the Indian government recently as its Chief Economic Adviser. At BBC, he tells us what it has been like:

The first week was harrowing.

My in-tray reached for the ceiling till someone pointed out that on my right was an out-tray.

Questions concerning the economy came at rapid fire from parliament and from policy-makers.

I was asked, for example, if allowing futures trading in food created inflationary pressure on the spot market price of food.

This is the kind of question on which I would love to spend some months thinking and reading and then write a paper. Here I had 24 hours to respond.

For all the bewilderment of the first week, there was one pleasant surprise.

I did not expect the level of professionalism and commitment to work that I encountered in my ministry.

It is entirely possible that this is a recent phenomenon and special to Delhi, but the level of individual industry that I have seen in my first weeks is entirely on a par with or even higher than the best private sector firms.

Thanks to Krish for the Twitter-alert.

Links ...

  1. An inspiring lecture at TED India by Dr. Thulasiraj Ravilla on the truly revolutionary Aravind Eye Care System that has used the McDonald's model to provide eye care to millions. This post has a bunch of links about Dr. Venkataswamy, the founder of Aravind.

  2. Year of first mention of Contact Lens in NYTimes: 1930.

  3. NPR story -- Atul Gawande's 'Checklist' For Surgery Success -- on the author's latest book, The Checklist Manfesto (along with excerpts from Chapter 1):

    "Our great struggle in medicine these days is not just with ignorance and uncertainty," Gawande says. "It's also with complexity: how much you have to make sure you have in your head and think about. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong."

    At the heart of Gawande's idea is the notion that doctors are human, and that their profession is like any other.

    "We miss stuff. We are inconsistent and unreliable because of the complexity of care," he says. So Gawande imported his basic idea from other fields that deal in complex systems.

    "I got a chance to visit Boeing and see how they make things work, and over and over again they fall back on checklists," Gawande says. "The pilot's checklist is a crucial component, not just for how you handle takeoff and landing in normal circumstances, but even how you handle a crisis emergency when you only have a couple of minutes to make a critical decision."

Willpower as a muscle

The implications of this muscle metaphor are vast. For one thing, it suggests that making lots of New Year's resolutions is the wrong way to go about changing our habits. When we ask the brain to suddenly stop eating its favorite foods and focus more at work and pay off the Visa…we're probably asking for too much.

The willpower-as-muscle metaphor should also change the way we think about dieting. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, has demonstrated in several clever studies that the ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex.

That's from The Science Behind Failed Resolutions by Jonah Lehrer (the man behind the blog The Frontal Cortex).

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Arguments and Manners ...

  1. From an old post at Brian Leiter's blog (this is just a teaser, Leiter's post has more):

    A young philosopher at a top research university writes: "The thing that always astonishes me is that they [bloggers, journalists etc.] put on this air of pained affront if an academic gets short with them - 'I don't expect this tone from an educator' and all that jazz. Jesus, they should have been in a room with Jerry 'I just have one question; was your paper a joke?' Fodor, or Kim 'but there's no fucking evidence for that!' Sterelny. Or most of the economists I know. Where do so many people get this idea that academic discourse is conducted by people wondering if they could regretfully venture to take issue with distinguished colleagues who are respectfully suggesting an emendation?"

    Where, indeed?

  2. Dr. Isis at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess: How to argue

  3. Drug Monkey at the Drug Monkey blog: How to argue ... and actually accomplish something

  4. Paul Graham: How to disagree.

Now, go check out this funny poster about paranoia at Very Demotivational, a blog that specializes in demotivating posters.

Video link of the day: Krish Ashok gets Hitler to comment on ...

... Chetan Bhagat! Why? Only because Krish Ashok decided to have some fun with Hitler, Chetan Bhagat and 3 Idiots!

Watch (with the captions on):

If the embed doesn't work, watch it on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Thanks to a nifty web app called Seesmic Web, I have found a way to re-engage with Twitter [here] without blowing up large chunks of time. Ambient Intimacy, baby!

Here are a few links to celebrate my newly acquired digital awareness. Have I mentioned I believe in the power of positive reinforcement?

  1. David Carr in NYTimes: Why Twitter Will Endure. This particular feature is worth excerpting:

    ... And the ethos of Twitter, which is based on self-defining groups, is far more well-mannered than many parts of the Web — more Toastmasters than mosh pit. On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you, so best not to act like a lout and when people want to flame you for something you said, they are responding to their own followers, not yours, so trolls quickly lose interest.

  2. Cory Doctorow in The Guardian: How to say stupid things about social media: "Criticising social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook is as pointless as knocking people who discuss the weathe."

  3. Lydia Polgreen in NYTimes: Indian Official [um, Shashi Tharoor] Gets Far On A Few Words.

MIT Technology Review profiles Esther Duflo

A few years ago, economist Esther Duflo, PhD '99, found a problem that threatened to stump her. In the rural villages of Udaipur, a district in northern India with one of the worst child mortality rates in the world, parents were spurning health clinics' offer of free immunizations against deadly diseases such as measles and tuberculosis. Only 2 percent of local children were being immunized by age two.

Duflo, MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, specializes in finding unorthodox ways to help the world's poor. So she concocted an experiment with MIT-based collaborators Abhijit Banerjee and Rachel Glennerster, along with officials from Seva Mandir, a local nongovernmental organization. In some villages, they offered parents about two pounds of free lentils when they brought their children in for shots. Before long, families started streaming into these clinics. About four in 10 children got immunized where free lentils were available.

According to mainstream economic thinking, the success of the lentil giveaway made no sense.[...]

The profile is by Peter Dizikes. Prof. Duflo is a 2009 MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowship winner. Her colleague and collaborator, Prof. Abhijit Banerjee won the Infosys Science Prize for humanities / social sciences.

Venki's talk: Press reports

Some readers asked if the video of yesterday's talk by Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan will be available online. Frankly, I don't know. But I do know that there were video cameras, and that the video feed was sent to the smaller halls in the J.N. Tata Auditorium. (See this post by Shencottah who watched the talk from one of those halls).

In the meantime, you can watch Venki's interview aired several days ago on NDTV; you can also read the interview here. It was recorded in the open area just in front of our Institute's Main Building.

Trust me, listening to Venki is a far better experience than getting his views filtered through our media (or even blogs, if I may say so myself).

* * *

Here's a sample of the newspaper headlines this morning:

  1. Deepa Kurup in The Hindu: I’m not a prophet, I only know about ribosomes: Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. See also this story: Fame rests lightly on him.

  2. T.A. Johnson in Indian Express: ‘Don’t pursue science to win a Nobel’.

  3. Finally, The New Indian Express and The Economic Times led with variations of this:

    Venkataraman Ramakrishnan won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2009 but decades ago he failed to clear entrance tests for both the IITs and a reputed medical college.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan's scientific journey

This evening, Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, India's latest Nobel sensation, gave a talk on Baroda to Cambridge: A Life in Science to a 'not-even standing room' audience of over 1000 people.


Seema Singh, Mint's science reporter, has a blog post on Venki's lecture. She has remembered something Venki said right at the beginning of his talk: "I am going to start with some autobiographical details … because if the Indian press doesn’t know things about me, it doesn’t hesitate in making them up."

[End Update]

While his lecture had a semi-autobiographical flavour, it was a strictly professional affair: there was nothing at all about his family except for a stray quip -- probably intended as a joke -- about how the young Venki was 'repelled' by science because his parents were scientists.

While he acknowledged the early influence of Mr. T.C. Patel, an exceptionally gifted math teacher at school, he attributed his deep interest in basic science to Prof. S.K. Shah, Prof. H.S. Desai and Prof. Pandya, all in the physics department of M.S. University, Baroda. He praised them for modernizing the physics curriculum and for their enthusiastic teaching.

Venki clearly enjoys telling the story of how he ended up studying physics in college. It starts with the IIT entrance exam -- which he took without any coaching, and did not clear. It then moves to the CMC (Vellore) entrance exam, which he did not clear (he said CMC took very few men those days). A mini climax is reached when he reveals that he got into the Baroda Medical College, but only because he was among the the top 10 students in Pre-University exam. He then adds, "If there was an entrance exam for doing medicine at Baroda University, I would have flunked that too!" But the real climax is yet to come ...

In the meantime, thanks to his mother's encouragement, he had taken the National Science Talent Scholarship exam. He didn't mention it today, but he said somewhere else that he had a bet with his father (who wanted him to study medicine): if he won the NST Scholarship, he could dump medicine to pursue his passion in the sciences.

Conveniently, the letter announcing his NTS Scholarship arrived when his father was away! He used that opportunity to go to the University and seek a transfer to the physics department. This request prompted the clerk there to ask all his colleagues to come and take a look at this strange man who wanted to shift out of medicine and into physics...

This episode marks the first of several landmarks in Venki's scientific journey when he forced a decisive change in its direction. Another such landmark would be his decision to dump physics -- "In my third or fourth year of grad school, I realized that I could, at best, be a second- or third-rate physicist." He chose to become a biologist -- "Molecular biology was such a young field; breakthroughs were being reported almost every other week." He was so clear about this choice that he was even willing to go back to graduate school to study biology!

Within a couple of years, his career got the first major break in his new field -- a post-doc offer from Yale to work on ribosomes. His efforts to land a faculty position after his post-doc failed; after a short, frustrating stint at Oak Ridge (because it denied him a shot at doing independent research), he joined the Brookhaven National Lab for what would turn out to be the longest tenure (1983-95) of his career at one place.

When he came up for tenure, he was asked what he would do if he had tenure. His response was that he would go on a sabbatical. Which is exactly what he did; he spent a year at MRC in Cambridge, a place that he would return to in 1999 after a 4-year period as a professor at the University of Utah.

* * *

The second part of the talk was about his work on ribosome itself. While the technical details were beyond me, it was absolutely captivating to watch a great mind conveying complicated ideas using simple explanations. For example, we (normally) don't think of imaging and diffraction as the same thing: images live in 'real' space while diffraction patterns live in 'reciprocal' space. Venki, however, used a neat sleight of hand that implied that the diffraction pattern is essentially an image. Except that the image is obtained from the pattern using a computer whose role is 'essentially' that of a lens in direct imaging.

Right at the end, Venki turned to advice on what is needed to be able to do great science. He used Max Perutz's four Gs of success: "Geld (money), Geschick (skill), Geduld (patience) and Glück (luck)." He pointedly added that the four Gs didn't include 'genius'!

* * *

The Q&A drew out several refreshingly blunt candid responses from Venki: to a question about whether he had plans to return to India, he said, "The short answer is, NO!" To another question about his message to Class XII students about pursuing science, he said, "I don't have any message. I may have solved the ribosome structure, but it doesn't mean that I can advise people on this or that. I'm not a prophet!" To the person who asked him about his value system that sustained him and his scientific endeavours, Venki responded by saying he was first and foremost a scientist -- which means his science was guided by a pragmatic quest for solving specific scientific problems. Philosophy or value systems don't come into this picture.

* * *

I was intrigued by Venki choice to frame his scientific journey -- he kept referring (not just in his speech, but also in his slides) to 'wandering' into this and that.

When you listen to his story, however, it's clear that it's anything but a 'wandering.' Sure, there was luck, serendipity, being at the right place at the right time, generous people who were willing to give him a chance, etc. He did emphasize the role of 'Glück" at the end.

But running through this story of lucky breaks is his agency, his conscious, willful effort to steer his professional life. Several events in his life jump right at you: his choice to dump medicine to study physics at Baroda, his choice to dump physics after a PhD to go back to grad school to study biology, and finally, his choice to leave Utah for Cambridge, even though it meant an over 50% effective pay cut!

* * *

Let me end with his answer to someone's question about whether there was serious competition in his professional life. In response, he said he doesn't recall sleeping well during 1999-2000!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Links ...

  1. After one Rao (CNR, in 2005), it's time for another: C.R. Rao Bags India Science Award.

  2. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech at the 2010 Indian Science Congress at Thiruvananthapuram. You are better off reading a summary in The Hindu or The Telegraph (by T.V. Jayan).

  3. Citara Paul in The Telegraph: Call for First Caste Census:

    India may next year witness its first census since Independence that refers to caste, if the Centre accepts a social justice ministry recommendation that could be politically controversial.

    Officials said the ministry had asked for caste to be included as one of the criteria in the 2011 census, and recommended a differential headcount of the Other Backward Classes and reassessment of their conditions that could lead to changes in the OBC list.

    Here's my view from 2007 supporting the caste census.

  4. This 2007 post has relevant links to the academic debate on caste census.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

If economists economize, what do chemists do?

A couple of links.

  1. First, this WSJ article calling economists 'cheapskates' [via Paul Krugman].

    Children of economists recall how tightfisted their parents were. Lauren Weber, author of a recent book titled, "In Cheap We Trust," says her economist father kept the thermostat so low that her mother threatened at one point to take the family to a motel. "My father gave in because it would have been more expensive," she says.

  2. Next up, we have Professional Verbs by Mark Liberman at Language Log, who cites this great slogan for a beer::

    "Brewed by brewers, not chemistered by chemists".

    Liberman uses this to launch a nice discussion of verbs to describe what different professionals profess ....

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Links ...

  1. Must-read link of the day: Night by Tony Judt in NYRB:

    I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig's disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration.

  2. Age-relevant link of the day: How to Train the Aging Brain by Barbara Strauch in NYTimes.

    “There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

    Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

  3. Stephanie Zvan at Quiche Moraine: Readings in IQ and Intelligence. Lots of great stuff -- with links to many articles available online.

  4. Greg Laden's Blog: The argument that different races have genetically determined differences in intelligence.

A quote from the ICTS Inaugural Event

I wish you all a very happy 2010! Let's start the new year with a quote:

Cut, Paste, Copy.

With (short pieces of) DNA, you can do pretty much everything you can do with Microsoft Word.

That's from the talk by Prof. Yamuna Krishnan, NCBS, at the ICTS Inaugural Event.

Some of the cool things -- 'unusual architectures' -- made by her group are described here (paywalled) and here (free subscription required).