Friday, April 30, 2010


  1. Fake University Alert: The Indian School of Business -- which figures in the top 25 in the Financial Times list of top B-schools worldwide -- is also among the institutions that are running without the mandatory approval from AICTE, the regulatory authority for B-schools. It shares this dubious honor with IIPM, among others.

    Before some of you jump on me for using the F-word in the context of ISB, let me hasten to add that it's from what the HRD Minister said in the Parliament:

    “Statutory bodies have also been advised to launch effective campaigns against such institutions which are fake and to take appropriate action under law. The media has also been requested to refuse to publish misleading ads by such institutions ,” Sibal said. [Bold emphasis added]

  2. This week's episode of Steven Strogatz's series Math: From Basic to Baffling: Chances Are -- The improbable thrills of probability theory.

  3. Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking: Essential or Incidental -- On the fallacy called Confusion of Essence and Accident.

  4. Mark Liberman answers several interesting questions about the multiple uses of the phrase "begging the question":

    ... First, how did "begging the question" come to be a technical term for (a certain kind of) circular reasoning? Second, do people really need a way to talk about circular reasoning, anyway? Third, why did "begging the question" get re-purposed in common usage to mean "dodging the question" or "raising the question", rather than simply subsiding, along with the rest of the terminology of medieval logic, into the midden heap of obsolete idioms? And fourth, should you go with the flow and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question", or should you fight for the traditional usage, or what? I'll take up these issues one at a time.

Colleagues who are friends and colleagues who are friendly

Nick Southgate makes the case for friendly colleagues:

To be friendly is to be polite, engaged and respectful without, on the one hand, stooping to being obsequious or, on the other, remaining aloof and being surly. It is the virtue, in other words, of being easy to be around and straightforward to deal with. This would seem an ideal benchmark for being a good colleague who builds good relationships, yet stops short of friendship itself.

This is why we like colleagues who are interested, but who do not intrude and prefer those who rely upon us but are never a burden. The colleagues we admire are those who know that professional imposition is different to personal imposition; that the obligations of the workplace are not the obligations of friendship.

They recognise that work gathers people together through chance and that the bonds of happenstance are weak and should be easily broken – in sharp contrast to the strong and unbreakable bonds of friendship.

We should happily conclude, therefore, that a good colleague is not a friend. We should not see this as losing friendship, but as gaining true and friendly colleagues. Friendship is a great commitment we can only make to a few and can be a great burden. Friendliness is something we can offer to all and good colleagues do not burden us at all.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Links ...

  1. Anubhuti Vishnoi in the Indian Express: New Incentives for IIT faculty.

  2. Saumitra Dasgupta in The Telegraph: What the franchises won’t chronicle: From Season I, a Profitable League. An analysis of the accounts of Deccan Chronicle -- owner of IPL's Hyderabad team, the Deccan Chargers -- reveals the team actually made a tidy profit in 2008 -- the year in which it was at the very bottom of the League.

  3. Simon Winchester in The Guardian: Iceland volcano: why we were lucky we weren't wiped out

  4. Gendy Alimurung in LA Weekly: Been There. Done What?! Jillian Lauren opens up about her life as a teenage harem girl in Brunei.

Word of the day: Sprezzatura

At The School of Life, Nick Southgate explains this lovely concept:

... In 1528 Italian noble Baldassare Castiglione wrote a small manual of advice about desirable conduct in the Renaissance court, an arena every bit as conscious of success as any in the modern day. The Book of The Courtier urges the importance of the value of what Castiglione calls sprezzatura. His advice is “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

However, we shouldn’t just note that Castiglione’s sprezzatura is about the importance of being effortless, but that it emphasises appearing to be effortless, and concealing the effort that goes into what we do. For how ever beguiling the spell of sprezzatura it has a paradox at its heart – it’s a lot of hard work. [Bold emphasis added]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Income effect on SAT scores

A very interesting set of results on the effect of family income and ethnicity on SAT scores in the US [Hat tip to Droolrag for the pointer]:

... [We] looked at the College Board’s 2009 California demographic research study and parsed out the data showing scores by income and ethnicity, and then added an aggregate mean for additional review. This data shows that test-takers with family incomes of less than $20,000 a year had a mean score of 1310 while test-takers with family incomes of over $200,000 had a mean score of 1715, a difference of 405 points. Further calculations showed a 40-point average score increase for every additional $20,000 in income.

A look at the details reveals that the income advantage is even higher at the low end: For income under $100,000, the advantage is nearly 60 points for every additional $20,000 in income.

The Patel Motels in the States

Tunku Varadarajan in NYTimes about the dominant presence of Indians -- and the Patels, in particular -- in the US hotel industry.

This statistic is revealing: "[S]lightly more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are now owned by people of Indian origin."

And this one, even more so: "... [A]bout 70 percent of all Indian motel owners -- or a third of all motel owners in America -- are called Patel, a surname that indicates they are members of a Gujarati Hindu subcaste."

Here's a quick excerpt:

In the earlier days of the motel phenomenon, Indians tended mostly to buy mom-and-pop establishments. ''They liked the independence,'' Vilpesh Patel told me. ''We Patels, we Gujaratis, we don't like working for other people.'' But there were other, less romantic factors keeping Indians out of the franchise motel chains. According to Mit Amin, an independent hotelier himself, ''The big brands didn't really want us.''

Indeed, there was a time when Indians were the underdogs of the lodging sector. Mike Patel, the industry-relations chairman of the A.A.H.O.A., explains that some insurance companies thought Patels were scam artists who bought, insured and burned down the property and cashed in. He says that after a couple of fires in Tennessee in the early 1980's, Indian moteliers had trouble getting insurance coverage. The association was formed, he adds, ''in response to that prejudice.''

Baseball's Quantum Fielding Theory

Will Leitch of the New York Magazine on the hottest new development in sabermetrics, the science of studying baseball statistics: analyzing defence -- specifically, fielding. Here's how a bunch of video scouts collect raw data:

Each season, the company pays fifteen to twenty video scouts whose lone job is to watch every single Major League Baseball game and notate everything that happens. Every. Single. Thing. “Each of our video scouts has a computer screen with a replica of the field and about 50,000 pixels to choose from to determine the exact location of every batted ball,” Dewan says. “We mark the exact location and velocity of everything.” [Bold emphasis added]

At IISc, it's raining campuses

During the Centenary year, our Institute got a huge piece of land -- nearly 2000 acres, or about five times the size of its main campus -- at Kundapur in Chitradurga district, about 200 km from Bengaluru. Sometime ago, Divya Gandhi had a story on IISc's plans for constructing a synchrotron there.

And now, a letter from HRD Minister Kapil Sibal reveals an Andhra Pradesh government plan offering IISc a thousand acres in Anantapur district, about 100 km. from the main campus.

“Since there was an enthusiastic request from the governments, a team from IISc visited two sites in Anantpur. That does not mean we are going to set up a campus anytime soon. We took 100 years to build IISc to what it is today. Expansion is no child’s play,” said a top scientist.

The AP offer and the HRD Minister's support for it are very interesting, especially since the previous avatar of the UPA government frowned upon similar offers to the IITs -- for IIT-M's Kerala campus and IIT-B's Gujarat campus, for example.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Links ...

  1. Development economist Esther Duflo of MIT wins this year's John Bates Clark Medal of the American Economic Association. She's the second woman to win this Medal. Here's her home page. [Hat Tip: Amol Agrawal and Swarup].

    Quite a bit of her work at The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) -- which she co-founded with Infosys Prize (2009) winner Abhijit Banerjee (MIT) and Sendhil Mullainathan (Harvard) -- has been done in India. Here's an excerpt from the NYTimes story:

    One of her own recent studies looked at how quota systems for female politicians affected Indian attitudes toward female leadership. [Another paper] looked at ways to motivate teachers to have better attendance at Indian schools ...

  2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in NYTimes: How to end the slavery blame game:

    While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers [...], there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others.

    [...] In recent years, some African leaders have become more comfortable discussing this complicated past than African-Americans tend to be. In 1999, for instance, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example.

  3. Ask Dr. Free-Ride: Ethically, which field of science is the worst? Not surprisingly, there is no clear answer, but just look at the links in that post! They contain a short history of scientific skullduggery, misconduct and fraud.

Bribery Charges Against MCI President

Ketan Desai, President, MCI, was arrested by CBI Thursday night allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs two crore to grant recognition to a medical college in Punjab." DNA reports that "he was removed from MCI on similar charges [in 2002], but re-elected later."

* * *

In July-August of 2009, one of the key officials at AICTE was arrested on graft charges [see this, this and this; see also Bibek Debroy's op-ed]. Following the arrest, the government also suspended the Chairman of AICTE "so that there is no possibility of investigation being influenced by his continuation in office.”

Medical education at IITs

Under the Ministry of Health, the Medical Council of India (MCI) has been given the power to set the rules for institutions offering MBBS (as well as post-graduate degree) programs.

According to an editorial in The Indian Express, three IITs have plans to start medical courses. Now, we have to assume that they accept MCI's regulatory powers over their faculty of medicine, and that they have done -- or, are committed to do -- everything to meet MCI's mandatory requirements.

But the ToI reports:

Health Ministry officials said there was no clarity on who will regulate the proposed medicine courses in IITs which are run by the HRD ministry.

This implies that the health ministry is afraid (or, at the least, unsure) that the Faculty of Medicine at the three IITs may remain outside MCI's regulatory reach. Do we know if the IITs have explicitly sought an exemption from MCI regulations?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Paul Krugman on what made Paul Samuelson great

The moral, I believe, is that only someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously is really fit to produce ideas that make the world a much better place. Paul Samuelson didn’t, and he did.

That's from Paul Krugman's remarks at the service held in honor of Prof. Paul Samuelson. Here's a bit about Samuelson's playful geekery:

... We talk about people playing with ideas; Paul Samuelson really did, and it shows throughout his writings. There’s an irrepressible quality to his best work, a sense of someone having a huge amount of fun and wanting to share it with the rest of us. One of his most influential papers ... is brimming with humor, from its mock-pompous title -– “An exact consumption-loan model of interest, with or without the contrivance of money” -– to the footnote that begins, “Surely, no sentence beginning with the word ‘surely’ can validly contain a question mark at its end?”


Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you’re trying to do something else.
-- Barbara Kingsolver: How To Be Hopeful, Commencement Address, Duke University (2008).

Link via this rather sordid story in which Kingsolver's speech is described as "a talk that turns up on some lists of the best commencement talks ever."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Diffusion of Knowledge in Indian Politics

Girish Shahane at Shoot First, Mumble Later, three weeks ago:

One of the many annoying things about Narendra Modi is how he equates himself with the state of Gujarat. Whenever Modi's administration is criticised, particularly with respect to the riots of 2002, during which a thousand mainly Muslim citizens were killed under his watch, and probably with his connivance, the Chief Minister proclaims that all of Gujarat has been insulted. I'm astonished at how many people actually fall for this humbug.

Kanchan Gupta, quoted in Churumuri, today:

“By repeatedly referring to Thiruvananthapuram and Kerala, the “ethos of Kerala”, the people of Kerala (with whom he had no association at all during his growing up years in Kolkata and Delhi and the many decades he spent at the UN) he has tried to link high issues of ministerial probity with low politics of provincial identity.

“The unstated though clear message he has sought to send out is that an elected representative of Kerala is being unjustly penalised. That’s balderdash and Mr Tharoor, more than anybody else, knows it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

News Analysis of the Day

Onion does it again: Report: China To Overtake U.S. As World's Biggest Asshole By 2020 [link via James Fallows]:

WASHINGTON—According to a new report released Monday by a panel of top economists and social scientists, the People's Republic of China will overtake the United States as the world's dominant asshole by the year 2020.

The findings, published in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, support recent speculation that America's unquestioned reign as the leading super-prick may soon be drawing to a close, leaving China as the foremost shithead among all developed nations.

"We are seeing a changing of the asshole guard," said Andrew Freireich, noted economist and lead author of the article. "Although the U.S. will remain among the world's two or three biggest cocks through much of this century, we can now confidently project that China, with its soaring economic growth, ever-expanding cultural influence, and total disregard for basic human rights, will overtake America as King Prick Numero Uno within the next 10 years."

Added Freireich, "It's the dawning of a new huge bastard era."

Links ...

  1. Sunil Laxman at Balancing Life on his e-mail conversation with Suvrat Kher, an earth scientist, about a recent discovery of "some fossils in India, which showed a prehistoric snake devouring dinosaur eggs."

  2. Vinod Khare at Wanderlust: Misquoting Evolution, in which he corrects a common mistake -- or, a misinterpretation -- people make about evolution.

  3. Ken Auletta in New Yorker: Publish or Perish: "The iPad, the Kindle and The Future of Publishing."

Two things I didn't know about Tharoor

... until today. The first one is an allegation, while the second is being reported as a fact:

  1. From The Hindu editorial:

    That Mr. Tharoor's “mentoring” of the bid for the franchise ended in a windfall for his partner, Sunanda Pushkar, is not in dispute. Mr. Tharoor allegedly went much further: he is even accused of negotiating the percentage of her 'sweat equity' in the consortium that successfully bid for the franchise, Rendezvous Sports World. [emphasis added]

  2. From Siddarth Varadarajan's piece in The Hindu today:

    Such was his five-star appeal that the Indian and diasporic middle class forgave Shashi Tharoor for living in an expensive hotel for months on end, even when it emerged that he tried very hard to have the government pay for his stay there. [Bold emphasis added]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Links ...

  1. Nisha Susan and Nishita Jha in Tehelka: Sex, Lies and Homework. "While adults turn a blind eye, urban schoolchildren are playing high-stakes games inside a super-sexualised world."

  2. Rahul Basu at As I Please: Julie, Julia, Lobsters and All That. "For some of us like me, though, the movie has a resonance way beyond what most people might feel."

  3. Anu at Time and Us: Some Vedic 'Reasons': Engaging with an academic paper on prostitution in Vedic times.

JNU and Reservations

It's sad to read Anuradha Raman's Outlook story on the ongoing 'debate' within JNU on faculty reservations:

Given [Vice Chancellor] Bhattacharya’s ambivalence on reservation -— amply demonstrated, faculty members say, in two meetings of the academic council and the last executive council meeting of April 6—many at the university think his continuance will thwart any effort to introduce reservations in the faculty. In fact, the meeting of the executive council—the highest body in the university—was marked by a vicious debate. It was even decided to refer the matter to the solicitor-general of India, prompting executive council member P. Sainath to ask why the highest legal officer of the country should opine on the administrative matters of a university, especially when the university had submitted to the Supreme Court in 2008 that it would implement faculty quotas in two years.

Lateral entrants in Indian politics

Shankarshan Thakur on what a lateral entrant to politics needs to do to succeed:

At the top of the [success] pole is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist-technocrat, who seemed to have absorbed the cardinal rules of khadi before donning them: never menace your master. Singh has served three party bosses, an equal number of Prime Ministers and looks set to become the longest reigning head of government since Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

As India’s best-educated helmsman, Singh has eminent qualifications for high office, but it can be argued that what brought him and keeps him where he is has only little to do with his erudition; it is about his grasp of the norms of public conduct and the in-house rules of the Congress of unambiguous hierarchy and, under Sonia Gandhi, of perceived morality too.

At the bottom end of this pole, of course, is Shashi Tharoor:

[Tharoor] appears to have donned khadi with the intention of imposing his own ethic — and sense of humour — on the essential fabric of Indian politics. He has publicly taunted the austerity regime, tweeted close to insubordination and against strong advice, bravely lectured Nehru’s foreign policy, blithely fiddled with key and established formulations of Indian diplomatese and, lately, worn the proliferating stains on his credibility variously as badge of honour and proof of being unfairly profaned.

Tharoor has spent so much of his first year in the business tempting the noose that he must have felt entitled to believe he had mastered the great Indian rope trick.

Monday Morning Math with Steven Strogatz

This week's column in the series Math: From Basic To Baffling deals with integral calculus: It Slices, It Dices. I find it unsatisfying -- I think it's because it lacks a fully solved demo calculation (like many of his previous columns do). There's a lot of tell, but very little show.

[Interestingly, some of the show is left to the footnotes and citations to books and articles, but much of it is not accessible online -- I would think that this is a good reason to use and explain some of that material in the column itself. Having said that, one of his footnotes does take us to this really cool demo -- or this one -- that relates the volume of a sphere, a cone and a cylinder. Mamikon Mnatsakanian of Caltech has many more of such goodies.]

Anyways, here's an excerpt:

In a 3-D generalization of this method, Archimedes (and before him, Eudoxus, around 400 B.C.) calculated the volumes of spheres, cones, barrels, prisms and various other solid shapes by re-imagining them as stacks of many wafers or discs, like a salami sliced thin. By computing the volumes of the varying slices, and then ingeniously integrating them — adding them back together — they were able to deduce the volume of the original whole.

Today we still ask budding mathematicians and scientists to sharpen their skills at integration by applying them to these classic geometry problems. They’re some of the hardest exercises we assign, and a lot of students hate them, but there’s no surer way to hone the facility with integrals needed for advanced work in every quantitative discipline from physics to finance.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Two cartoons about libertarians

  1. Bob the Angry Flower's Classic Literature Sequels: Atlas Shrugged 2: One Hour Later.

  2. A New Yorker cartoon featured in Paul Krugman's blog.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rant of the Day

Fuve Things The Media Loves Pretending Are News.

* * *

[Yeah, I know it's nearly two months old; but I just heard about it today. Via Samia.]

Collaborative Math

Julie Rehmeyer of Science News has what I think is one of the best versions of the story of the Polymath Project -- mathematician Tim Gowers's successful experiment to solve a non-trivial mathematical problem using online collaboration through his blog (and, later, a wiki).

[In January 2009,] University of Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers decided to run a little experiment. Was it possible, he wondered, for a large number of mathematicians to collaborate openly on the Internet, pooling their ideas around a single problem? If it were possible, would it be easier, more efficient, more fun? Could the mathematicians together solve a problem they might not be able to solve individually?

So he posed a problem on his blog, one that was important and challenging and that lots of people had already worked on, including himself. [...]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Must-read article of the day: The Single Mother's Manifesto

It's by J.K. Rowling.

Yes, that Rowling.

It's about the ugly politics of the Tories, narrated using a bunch of inter-related things: raising a family as a single mother, watching single-parent families "castigated ... as 'one of the biggest social problems of our day,' and the importance of -- and gratitude for -- the safety net provided by the Welfare State that the Tories treat with great hostility.

It's great stuff -- mixing the personal and the political in a way that packs awesome power. Excerpts won't do justice to it, so just go read the whole thing.

Pushback time

It was just yesterday when Charu Sudan Kasturi reported in The Telegraph   on the very interesting contents of a report from a committee of IIT directors suggesting that JEE be replaced by a combination of Board exams and a SAT-like aptitude test.

Some of the early reaction [here, here and here] has focused on coaching centers: since the proposed move strikes at the very soul of their business, we may expect them oppose it with all their might.

Coaching centers may yet get into the act, but the credit for being the first off the block should go to the one constituency that is bound tightly to the JEE -- the IIT alumni.

Here's their petition: An appeal not to abolish JEE. [Hat tip: Apoorva Mathad's comment on this buzz]

I wouldn't take the petition's contents as representing the views of all the IITians; with that caveat out of the way, I've got to admit that it's an amazing document. With its condescending tone, marketing jargon, sad grammar, and poor punctuation, it's still a virtual gold mine -- offering us nuggets of insight into how some IITians view themselves, their achievements, and their relationship with the rest of India and the world.

Some excerpts [with my 'commentary' restricted to adding bold emphasis]:

[In JEE, there] was no emphasis on overall performance at high school and none on student's educational background, promoting a level playing field for students from nooks and corners of India.

The success of IIT alumni who have done the Nation proud belongs to the Indian Government, the IITs themselves and also the Indian Tax Payers, whose money was invested unconditionally by GoI in IITs for five decades.

Whilst all of the above share credit for the success of the IITs, basic marketing principles would say that a Global Brand is created more by its graduates and the benefits that those alumni bring to India and the world at large, than any other single entity; thus, IIT Alumni is a critically important group to consider.

The key ingredient to the IIT system is the JEE ( Joint Entrance Examination ), that has helped pick truly gifted students for 50 years for a B.Tech Degree. Quality materials are needed to develop a quality product, and JEE does just that, selecting from about 400,000 aspirants annually, the cream of the nation to study at IITs.

Any system that has consistently delivered high on career development can be prone to abuse. There have been allegations of some misuse of the JEE too. Private coaching classes have mushroomed around the country to circumvent JEE methodologies used to identify excellence. This needs to be fixed.

However abolishing JEE would be a case of "throwing the baby out with the bath water". We are sure you will see our appeal is fair, in the best interest of the nation and children of the future.

Okay, I can go on and on [and the entire petition cries out to be fisked], but I think I should stop with this:

JEE is very different from 10+2 board exams in that JEE tests a students raw intelligence, which is an individual's ability to grasp abstract concepts, recognize patterns plus apply prior knowledge while 10+2 school board exams test knowledge acquired at school. [...]

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

IITs Radical Idea: Board Exam Marks to be Given 70 % Weight

It takes a lot of guts to reject the old (but increasingly dysfunctional) way of life mode of admissions, and I commend the IIT Directors for this radical idea [thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert]. We don't know the final shape of this idea (just raw marks will not work, so we'll need some sort of scaling or normalizing -- we just don't have those implementation-level details), but for the moment, let me just say that I like this proposal. I really, really like it.

The IITs and all other engineering schools may soon pick students based more on board examination marks than on entrance test performances, under testing reforms recommended by a panel of IIT directors.

The panel, appointed by human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, has recommended replacing the four-decade-old IIT-Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and myriad other engineering entrance examinations with a common test modelled on the US-based scholastic aptitude test (SAT).

The panel has suggested that the IITs accord a 70 per cent weightage to board examination scores in picking students [...]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Marriage vs. The PhD

A great cartoon at -- where else? -- the PhD Comics.

Thanks to Pratik Ray for his nudge.

Monday Mornings With Math

This week's episode of Steven Strogatz's series -- Math: From Basic To Baffling -- is on calculus: Change We Can Believe In:

Calculus is the mathematics of change. It describes everything from the spread of epidemics to the zigs and zags of a well-thrown curveball. The subject is gargantuan — and so are its textbooks. Many exceed 1,000 pages and work nicely as doorstops.

But within that bulk you’ll find two ideas shining through. All the rest, as Rabbi Hillel said of the Golden Rule, is just commentary. Those two ideas are the “derivative” and the “integral.” Each dominates its own half of the subject, named in their honor as differential and integral calculus.

Roughly speaking, the derivative tells you how fast something is changing; the integral tells you how much it’s accumulating. They were born in separate times and places: integrals, in Greece around 250 B.C.; derivatives, in England and Germany in the mid-1600s. Yet in a twist straight out of a Dickens novel, they’ve turned out to be blood relatives — though it took almost two millennia to see the family resemblance.

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan's Autobiographical Essay

From Chidambaram to Cambridge: A Life in Science.

The essay will eventually find a home on the Nobel Prize website. The current version, hosted by The Hindu, lacks the pictures that Prof. Ramakrishnan included in the essay.

There's a lot in the essay that will be of interest to Indians; there are sections on his school and college education, and on his somewhat more regular visits to India since 2002. And also on how he has been treated like a rock star during his post-Nobel visit to India. "I have come to realize," he concludes, "that I have inadvertently become a source of inspiration and hope for people in India simply by the fact that I grew up there and went to my local university, but could nevertheless go on to do well internationally."

I had already listened to Venki's talk at IISc; it is still nice to see the details on people, places and cultures that had influenced the man.

Here's a short excerpt where Prof. Ramakrishnan's thoughts on the politics of scientific recognition:

The Politics of Scientific Recognition

People go into science out of curiosity, not to win an award. But scientists are human, and have ambitions. Even the best scientists are often insecure and feel the need for recognition. Our ribosome work led to lots of invitations to give seminars and speak at conferences. It resulted in my election to the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also led me to receive a prestigious European prize, the 2007 Louis-Jeantet prize for medicine. Thus in both my scientific efforts and the recognition for it, I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Although few scientists are foolish enough to enter a field to win a Nobel Prize, ever since the 30S subunit had been solved, people would regularly bring up “the Prize” in conversations whenever I went to conferences or give seminars. It was clear to me that the ribosome was at least as important as other structures that had been awarded the Nobel Prize. But there were many more than three people who had contributed to the ribosome, even if one only counted principal investigators, which itself is a fictional view of the way modern science is done.

While we were solving the structure of the 30S subunit, I had mostly refused to be distracted by going to meetings to speak about our work. So it was something of a shock when only a couple of months after the atomic structures of the subunits came out, a prize in the USA was awarded to just one aspect of the ribosome, peptidyl transferase. It seemed to me that instead of waiting for the impact of the ribosome work to become clear and then thinking hard about what had really made a difference to the field, the committee had hurriedly decided on which three people they wanted to honor and then written a citation around them that would exclude the others. Richard Henderson, my director, suggested that I should accept more invitations to meetings and talks to get our story known if only to get proper recognition for our work, regardless of prizes.

Deep down, I felt that the scientific event that transformed the field more than anything else was the determination of the atomic structures of the ribosomal subunits and the functional studies that followed as a result, to which we had made a major contribution. However, international prizes for work on ribosomes always seemed to go to other people. So over the years, I had gradually come to accept that I would probably not get a major international prize for the ribosome, least of all the Nobel Prize. Once I had accepted that, I felt liberated and happier, but I have to confess that I felt some trepidation each October. Every time I learned the Nobel Prize was for something other than the ribosome, I would be relieved because it was a postponement of what I felt would be the inevitable disappointment. As the years went by, it seemed to me and many other scientists that there would never be a Nobel Prize for the ribosome because the problem of choosing three people out of all the contributors appeared insurmountable.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Philip Pullman: No one has the right to spend their life without being offended

Just watch the author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:

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

Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision ...

... to Go to Graduate School.

Adam Ruben's book with that title promises to be a lot of fun, if we go by Scott Jaschik's preview:

... [Ruben] covers everything from selecting professors to work with to figuring out when you need to finish up already (the latter in a chapter appropriate for the Passover season, "Let My Pupil Go.")

There are more professorial types to avoid, in Ruben's world, than to cling to. You want to watch out for the "jet setter" (she's "giving the keynote address at a different conference every week" and so doesn't believe in such duties as "hand-holding" or "clarifying" or "anything"); the "deaf optimist" ("Bad news about your research? Say no more, No, really -- say no more, because she won't hear it."); or "the founder" (the longest serving faculty member in the department... "think Strom Thurmond meets George Burns, but without the racism or the entertainment... well, maybe a little racism.")

Other sections cover important ways to answer questions, such as the passive-aggressive answer that "implies the question was poorly worded." And there are graduate student recipes, such as "Roasted Undergraduate on a Spit" (to fantasize about), "Macaroni and Tears" (to eat) and "Bribery Brownies" (to serve your committee members). Ruben also focuses on the importance of getting out of grad school by actually finishing a dissertation, and he discusses the difficulties of satisfying committee members -- who want their work cited, want certain ideas explored and so forth, without regard to the original concept. (Ruben reads that section in a podcast that can be found here.)

Must-read Article of the Day: Krugman on the Economics of Climate Change

Paul Krugman has an excellent primer on what environmental economics has to say about climate change and strategies to mitigate it: Building a Green Economy in NYTimes Magazine:

In what follows, I will offer a brief survey of the economics of climate change or, more precisely, the economics of lessening climate change. I’ll try to lay out the areas of broad agreement as well as those that remain in major dispute.

Here's an excerpt from the section on Pigouvian tax (and its cousin -- the Cap and Trade) to soften the impact of 'negative externalities' -- "costs that economic actors impose on others without paying a price for their actions":

... What Pigou enunciated was a principle: economic activities that impose unrequited costs on other people should not always be banned, but they should be discouraged. And the right way to curb an activity, in most cases, is to put a price on it. So Pigou proposed that people who generate negative externalities should have to pay a fee reflecting the costs they impose on others — what has come to be known as a Pigovian tax. The simplest version of a Pigovian tax is an effluent fee: anyone who dumps pollutants into a river, or emits them into the air, must pay a sum proportional to the amount dumped.

Pigou’s analysis lay mostly fallow for almost half a century, as economists spent their time grappling with issues that seemed more pressing, like the Great Depression. But with the rise of environmental regulation, economists dusted off Pigou and began pressing for a “market-based” approach that gives the private sector an incentive, via prices, to limit pollution, as opposed to a “command and control” fix that issues specific instructions in the form of regulations.

The initial reaction by many environmental activists to this idea was hostile, largely on moral grounds. Pollution, they felt, should be treated like a crime rather than something you have the right to do as long as you pay enough money. Moral concerns aside, there was also considerable skepticism about whether market incentives would actually be successful in reducing pollution. Even today, Pigovian taxes as originally envisaged are relatively rare. The most successful example I’ve been able to find is a Dutch tax on discharges of water containing organic materials.

What has caught on instead is a variant that most economists consider more or less equivalent: a system of tradable emissions permits, a k a cap and trade. In this model, a limited number of licenses to emit a specified pollutant, like sulfur dioxide, are issued. A business that wants to create more pollution than it is licensed for can go out and buy additional licenses from other parties; a firm that has more licenses than it intends to use can sell its surplus. This gives everyone an incentive to reduce pollution, because buyers would not have to acquire as many licenses if they can cut back on their emissions, and sellers can unload more licenses if they do the same. In fact, economically, a cap-and-trade system produces the same incentives to reduce pollution as a Pigovian tax, with the price of licenses effectively serving as a tax on pollution.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Prisoner's Dilemma and Monty Hall played by rats and pigeons

Interesting stuff:

  1. Brian Mossop at The Scientist Blog: Rats Playing Prisoners' Dilemma (especially the iterated version).

  2. Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science: Pigeons Outperform Humans at Monty Hall Dilemma.

Bonus link (from Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow: Ant Slaves' Murderous Rebellions.

Demotivational Poster of the Day

Here -- from the brave folks who have made a business out of despair.

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Via ScatterPlot.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Monday Mornings are for Math

I missed linking to last week's installment of Steven Strogatz's series -- Math: From Basic to Baffling. Here, then, are two links:

  1. Power Tools: In math, the function of functions is to transform.

    A mathematician needs functions for the same reason that a builder needs hammers and drills. Tools transform things. So do functions. In fact, mathematicians often refer to them as “transformations” because of this. But instead of wood or steel, functions pound away on numbers and shapes and, sometimes, even on other functions.

  2. Take It To The Limit -- Archimedes recognized the power of the infinite, and in the process laid the groundwork for calculus.

    The key to thinking mathematically about curved shapes is to pretend they’re made up of lots of little straight pieces. That’s not really true, but it works … as long as you take it to the limit and imagine infinitely many pieces, each infinitesimally small. That’s the crucial idea behind all of calculus.

    Following the excellent tradition he has established in this series, Strogatz then goes on to provide an intuitive proof for the well known relation between a circle's area (A) and its radius (r): A = π r2.

Kalid Azad's Better Explained is the best resource for simple explanations of math concepts (and business concepts, programming concepts, ... ;-). So I checked to see if Azad has covered the Problem of Pi, and sure enough, he has. So, here are a couple of links:

  1. Prehistoric Calculus: Discovering Pi describes the logic behind Archimedes's method of calculating π .

  2. A Gentle Introduction To Learning Calculus has a different -- but equally intuitive -- proof for the relationship between a circle's area and its radius: A = π r2