Monday, August 29, 2011

Ferriss Profile

Rebecca Mead's profile of Timothy Ferriss, author of books such as "The 4-hour Workweek", is worth reading just for its disdain-dripping paragraphs. Like this one:

Finding one’s muse, like catching one’s rabbit before cooking it, is more easily said than done, but Ferriss’s advocacy of liberation from the workplace has had a wide appeal, especially among younger people to whom the workplace may be unattainable in the first place, given the unemployment rate. Similarly, his latest book, “The 4-Hour Body,” speaks to the peculiar obsessions and insecurities of the young American male. Ferriss tells readers how they might lose twenty pounds in thirty days without exercise—eggs, spinach, and lentils are crucial—and how to triple their testosterone levels. (Gentlemen, put your iPhone in the pocket of your backpack, not the pocket of your jeans.) The book, which is five hundred and forty-eight pages long, contains a lot of colorfully odd advice—he recommends increasing abdominal definition with an exercise he calls “cat vomiting”—but it also reassures readers that they need not go so far as to have Israeli stem-cell factor injected into the cervical spine, as Ferriss did in the name of inquiry. Nor need they necessarily incorporate into their regimen Ferriss’s method for determining the effectiveness of controlled binge eating: weighing his feces to find out exactly what kind of shit he was full of.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

(Some) IIMs Want a More Diverse Set of Students

And they are willing to take appropriate steps [via Dheeraj Sanghi] to get more women and more non-engineers in the next incoming cohort:

For years, every class at the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) was boringly uniform. Students were mostly boys, with only a sprinkling of the other sex. In class, these young men thought similarly, used identical logic and took decisions that were alike, for they were all hardwired to behave in a certain fashion at the engineering campuses they came from.

In a strange correction to break the monotony of these two singularly large constituencies that cornered seats for years at the IIMs, the management schools have decided to award special marks to girls and non-engineering students.

All the six new IIMs and the ones at Lucknow and Kozhikode feel it`s time to rebalance the gender scales in office spaces. So while IIM-Rohtak will give 20 marks to each girl and another 20 to a non-engineer, IIM-Raipur will add 30 marks to the overall scores of each girl-non-engineer. IIM-Lucknow has decided to grant five marks to each girl and two to non-engineers. [Source: this ToI story by Hemali Chhapia]

The bit about non-engineers is interesting, but I'll restrict my observations to the issue of gender disparity in our top institutions:

  1. This is a great move by these eight IIMs, and I can't think of a better application of their autonomy. After articulating the need to promote gender diversity, they have done well to tailor their admissions policy towards that goal. It looks like the older IIMs (and, of course, the IITs) will be flaunting their studly smugness for some more time.

  2. This real, meaningful attempt by (some) IIMs to promote diversity should be contrasted with the recent announcement from the IITs that they have abolished the JEE application fee for women [Update: link, link].

  3. Leaders of our leading institutions keep talking about their desire for greater diversity; but they plead helplessness by pointing to their system of entrance exams -- as if that procedure is so sacrosanct that even thinking about changing it is a crime against the Constitution.

  4. Note also how Hemali Chhapia's ToI article tries so hard to de-legitimize (some) IIMs' steps to ensure a more diverse cohort: the headline talks about "Grace Marks for Girls" and the text talks about "a strange correction" by awarding "special marks." I guess we should be grateful that Chhapia refrained from use of the word 'crutch' ...

  5. It's not funny at all to see some people blame Big Bad Society (and its lousy attitudes) for the under-representation of women in the IITs; they urge parents to shed their gender bias (!) and send their daughters to the best cram schools -- even if it means the said daughters should spend endless weeks and months ruining their adolescence at Kota.

    What these guys (and it's almost always guys) are saying, essentially, is this: "Our institutions are perfect, and so are our entrance exams! Now if only the stupid people can be goaded into doing the right things, ..." I think a good response would be this [said in a different context]:

    ... [A} system that for good outcomes requires that people act in ways people do not do is not a good system — and to blame the people rather than the system is to commit a major intellectual error.
    -- Brad DeLong [via Cosma Shalizi]

Chemistry at SMBC

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has what Mark Liberman calls "a chemical version of the classic 'Who's on First?' skit."

Good stuff.

Finnish Envy

LynNell Hancock in the Smithsonian: Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union. [...]

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

There's so much more in there (including a reference to "Finnish Envy") that I run the risk of 'excerpting' all of it. Go read the whole thing.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dating IITians

Back in 2008, a couple of IIT-M dudes created a dating site for IIT/IIM students and graduates just for a day -- the April Fools' Day.

Now, Subhra Priyadarshini, editor at the Nature India portal, points us to a niche dating / networking site called DateIITians with a crappy opening page [Sorry, no direct link].

Life imitating prank? Or, prank imitating prank?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The "Space Odyssey" Defence by Samsung against Apple

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant:

One element of Samsung's defense strategy is interesting enough that I wanted to report on it beforehand. Ever since Apple started to assert the design of the iPad against other manufacturers, many people have been wondering whether there's actually prior art for the general design of the iPad in some futuristic devices shown in sci-fi movies and TV series. And indeed, Samsung's lawyers make this claim now in their defense against Apple's motion for a preliminary injunction. [...]

Attached hereto as Exhibit D is a true and correct copy of a still image taken from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey." In a clip from that film lasting about one minute, two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers. The clip can be downloaded online at As with the design claimed by the D’889 Patent, the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table's surface), and a thin form factor.

Via Christopher Shea.

Gossip in Academia

In his post on gossip, anthropologist Kerim Friedman made this observation:

.. [W]hile gossip can play [a role] in policing community behavior, the gossip I’ve personally encountered in academia seems to often serve a different function. Namely, gossip is what allows the very different worlds of professors and graduate students to interact.

* * *

Also worth checking out: the April-2006 issue of Monitor on Psychology which has a bunch of popular articles surveying research on gossip.

* * *

Now, we have an update on the role of gossip in academia through a personal essay by Barbara Pinckus, (a newly minted faculty member writing under a pseudonym) in Inside Higher Ed -- The Gossip Scene. Good stuff!

British anthropologist R.I.M. Dunbar compares human gossip to primate grooming. Both are group-based activities that center on trust. And it often feels good, comforting actually, to disseminate and receive private information, because it makes you feel “part of the team.” Just consider this: How would you react if you were the last to learn a succulent piece of information that affected your network? I, at least, would feel left out, as if my confidantes didn’t care enough to clue me in to the developments shaping our environment. After all, who likes to feel unpopular? And a lack of information may indicate a weak connection to the power brokers.

As residents on the lowest rung of the academic ladder, my fellow graduate students and I honed our skills at investigation with a constant comparative analysis about the goings-on in our doctoral program. [...]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Academic Man

[Via Tarunabh Khaitan at Law and Other Things]: Delhi University has a digital archive of its off-copyright books. Browsing through it, I came across Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession (1942) by Logan Wilson. Here's Wilson about the need for such a book-length study:

... [O]n the basis of present sociological literature the future historian would have less difficulty in ascertaining the social behavior of the railroader, or the professional thief than he would have that of contemporary university professor.

A quick search tells me that this book is a classic in sociology, and that Wilson is one of the people credited with coining the phrase "Publish or Perish."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Benefits of Teaching to Research

... [University of Virginia's David F. Feldon] and his colleagues gathered two sets of research proposals from 95 beginning graduate students in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—at three universities in the Northeast from 2007 to 2010. About half of those students taught, on average, one undergraduate course. The other half had no teaching responsibilities.

All of the graduate students submitted research proposals at the beginning of the academic year and provided revised versions at the end of the year.

Mr. Feldon's team used a rubric to rate several various aspects of the students' research skills, including the context of the proposed study, framing of the hypotheses, attention paid to the validity and reliability of study methods, experimental design, and selection and presentation of data for analysis.

The graduate students who both taught and did research scored higher on those measures, the study found. The results suggest that those students exhibited both superior methodological skills and greater improvement in those skills compared with their peers who focused on research alone.

"The findings resonate with people," Mr. Feldon said in an interview. "Of the people I've spoken to about this study, half said, 'Of course that's what you found.' The other half said, 'There's no way that can be true. Your data must be wrong.' Everyone's got an opinion on this, but there's been little data."

From Dan Barrett's story in CHE about Feldon's fascinating research published in the latest issue of Science (caution: requires subscription). Here's the abstract of that paper:

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate students are often encouraged to maximize their engagement with supervised research and minimize teaching obligations. However, the process of teaching students engaged in inquiry provides practice in the application of important research skills. Using a performance rubric, we compared the quality of methodological skills demonstrated in written research proposals for two groups of early career graduate students (those with both teaching and research responsibilities and those with only research responsibilities) at the beginning and end of an academic year. After statistically controlling for preexisting differences between groups, students who both taught and conducted research demonstrate significantly greater improvement in their abilities to generate testable hypotheses and design valid experiments. These results indicate that teaching experience can contribute substantially to the improvement of essential research skills.

A Chinese Chemist Issues a Wake-up Call

The country's administrators tend to judge the quality of scientific research solely by journal impact factors, Wang says. Articles published in journals with a high impact factor are considered excellent. Research proposals — and the referees who evaluate them — are judged based on the impact factor of previous publications, and salaries are calculated using information on the impact factor of published work.

This is a "very crude approach" to evaluating scientific research, says Wang. One problem is that impact factors measure how frequently the average paper is cited in a particular period, so the more popular the research area the easier it is to achieve a high impact factor.

"If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer science. It is changed to a field of fame and game," he writes.

That's from this SciDev.Net summary of the letter in Nature by Nai-Xing Wang, professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. [free registration required for the second link].

Asian Women's Flight from Marriage

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried ... Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single ... So far, the trend has not affected Asia’s two giants, China and India. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60m more men of marriageable age than women in China and India.

Women are retreating from marriage as they go into the workplace. That’s partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Women there are the primary caregivers for husbands, children and, often, for ageing parents; and even when in full-time employment, they are expected to continue to play this role. This is true elsewhere in the world, but the burden that Asian women carry is particularly heavy. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours. And Asian women who give up work to look after children find it hard to return when the offspring are grown. Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. ...

The Economist has more.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One year after Vinay Deolalikar's paper

Richard J. Lipton's blog was where the action was last year when Deolalikar announced he had a proof of arguably the most important problem -- Is P equal to NP? -- in theoretical computer science. Lipton has an update of sorts on the status of Deolalikar's work: nothing new on the paper itself (at least in the public domain), but plenty of lessons from those heady days of Public Science. Here's one:

... there may be substantial contributions, perhaps new conditional results, that can possibly come from [Deolalikar's] work. This may be where the worry most applies. If there is something in Vinay Deolalikar’s long paper, then this is worth attending to, and the first onus is on the author.

OBCs to get the full benefit of reservation at the IITs

The Supreme Court has spoken:

Other Backward Classes (OBC) students will qualify for admissions if they have 10 % less marks than the eligibility level fixed for the general category students, the Supreme Court has ruled. The apex court Thursday clarified that 10 % relaxation being given to OBC students did not mean it will be 10 % less than the last student admitted under general category.

Since the IITs were following the second policy (which now stands quashed), the fraction of OBC students among this year's JEE-qualified students was just about 20% -- as opposed to the 27 % they were eligible for.

Thanks to today's SC verdict, OBC students will start getting the full benefit of the reservation policy from next year (this year's admissions will not be affected).

All in all, a welcome clarification from the Supreme Court.

* * *

Update (19 August 2011): J. Venkatesan's report in The Hindu has all the crucial details. In particular, the SC order prohibits re-allocation of OBC seats to the General Category as long as there are OBC students who meet the (relaxed) eligibility criteria.

Patents: What's wrong with the current regime?

Nilay Patel has a good primer (possibly triggered by this recent NPR story on Intellectual Ventures and other such patent trolls):

... Patents publicly disclose some of the most advanced work ever done by some of the most creative and resourceful people in history, and it’ll all be free for the taking in several years. Stop offering patent protection and there’s no more required disclosure — all this stuff stays locked up as trade secrets as long as it offers a competitive advantage, after which point it may well be forgotten.

Western civilization has dealt with fiercely secretive industries going to insane lengths to protect their proprietary advantages in the absence of patents before: craft guilds like the Masons maintained an air of mystery and prohibited teaching outsiders their trades, and medieval Venetian glassblowers were assassinated if they tried to leave the city to set up shop elsewhere. And you think Facebook and Google are going to extremes trying to prevent employee defections now.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nanopolitan Bleg: Two Body Problem

A friend writes:

Both my wife and I are currently late into our postdocs, and would both like to have independent positions (classic two body problem). ... How hard is it for two people to find [faculty / research positions] in the same city in India? Do institutes have policies against hiring spouses?

Within the two-body problem, my friend's case is still more special: his wife and he are also in the same STEM field (but in different sub-fields).

In large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, and Hyderabad, which boast multiple STEM institutions (universities and R&D labs), this problem is less acute. But, even in such a case, I can think of reasons (horribly long commute times for one partner, for example) that would make it necessary for both partners to be working in the same place.

I am sure there is no written policy against hiring spouses at any of our institutions. But, ...

  1. How receptive are our institutions to the idea of hiring spouses? What vibes do you get on this issue?

  2. Which is a better course of action for a couple to take: be upfront about the fact that both spouses are applying, or apply as individuals and hope that both will make it to the same place?

    [Of course, if the second option is chosen, how does one deal with personal questions -- we all know there are always personal questions, don't we?]

  3. Are there institutions (and specific departments within them) which are known to be couple-friendly -- going either by recent recruitment history or by (internal) discussions among their faculty / administration?

It'll be great if you can share your experiences / information / suggestions on these and other related questions. You can use the comments section below, or send me an e-mail (I'll post a summary of e-mail responses in the comments).

Many thanks in advance.

[Update: Post edited to (a) improve clarity and focus on constructive discussion, (b) add a link to NPNI's post.]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Misconduct in India and the West: A Key Difference

This is the first of the posts with stuff that didn't go into the working paper on misconduct in India.

Richard Grant Steen's paper, Retractions in the scientific literature: do authors deliberately commit research fraud?, and discussions of some of its controversial findings were the ones that motivated me to take a detailed look at retractions of papers by Indian authors. Here's one of Steen's findings:

Retracted papers are more likely to appear in journals with a high impact factor (IF), are more likely to involve certain ‘repeat offender’ authors and are more likely to involve authors from the USA. [Bold emphasis added by me]

Just the other day, Retraction Watch linked to a study which looked at retractions by a bunch of journals spanning a wide range of impact factors, and found "a surprisingly robust correlation between the journal retraction index and its impact factor."

All that is about retractons. But Steen also found that "journal impact factor was higher among papers retracted for fraud than among those retracted for error." Interestingly, his definition of 'fraud' includes fabrication, falsification and data plagiarism; plagiarism -- just copying text from one's own papers or from otehrs' papers -- constitutes an 'error' in his classification.

Since almost all the misconduct cases from India are due to plagiarism, they too tend to be published in (and later, retracted from) lower profile journals. Indeed, the list of retracted papers by Indian authors doesn't appear to be populated with high profile journals. This should not really be surprising, because we expect plagiarizers to try to "fly under the radar" by sending their papers to lower tier journals where, presumably, plagiarism detectors were not much in use (at least until 2007-08 or so).

On the other hand, not only do the fraudsters from the West (or, more generally, the rich countries) tend to commit serious fraud (fabrication and falsification), they also appear to be ambitious: they work in fields where the stakes and payoffs (by way of high profile publications) are higher.

[The lead case (which is from Japan) discussed in this WSJ story by Gautam Naik is illustrative, The stakes just can't get any higher than playing with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people! The Retraction Watch blog is filled with cases of this kind.]

Why has there been such a huge increase in retractions of science publications?

Here's a finding in my working paper on retractions of papers by Indian authors: The 1990s (1991-2000) saw just 5 retractions; this number jumped dramatically to 69 in the noughties (2001-10). [If you feel like it, take a look at the list of retracted publications by Indian authors at PubMed. It has 77 papers right now, with two retractions from 1990 and one from 2011.]

Sure, India's scientific output has also grown, but not as fast. It went up from 31,500 in the '90s (1991-2000) to 103,000 in the noughties (2001-10) -- an increase by a factor of 3.25, which pales in comparison with the nearly 14-fold increase in the number of retractions.

According to Erik Hayden at The Atlantic Wire,

A lot more science findings have been found out to be wrong recently, and no one is sure why. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal quantified the trend: since 2001, there's been a 15-fold increase in retractions in scientific journals.

Hayden goes on to discuss some of the possible reasons for this increase.

Coming back to India, we know that almost all cases of misconduct were due to plagiarism, and that a lot more Indian scientists resorted to this shady practice in the noughties than in the 90s. However, we also know that there has been a steep fall in the number of retractions (green line in the figure below), as well as in misconduct cases (red line) since 2007. I suspect two possible reasons: (a) widespread use of plagiarism detectors by journals has now made it difficult to publish plagiarized papers, and (b) this has (already) had a deterring effect on potential offenders.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Pic Links

  1. Paul Krugman posts an old cartoon from The Economist: Efficient Markets in Action.

  2. A great picture on How People in Science See Each Other [via Matthew Peet ]. The technician's views are the best!

  3. xkcd on Password Strength. And on the problem with averaging star ratings.

  4. SMBC wonders about astrophysicists, and lays out the implications of linear regression.

  5. Abstruse Goose on Pythagorus. And on history of flight

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Scientific Misconduct in India: An Analysis of Retractions in PubMed

That is the title of a study I have done, and the preliminary results appear in a paper embedded below I have posted online [links appear at the end of the post]. The document is labeled Version 1.0, since study is yet to be wrapped up. Still, there's enough in there for it to be opened up for comments / suggestions.

I presented this work at the Workshop on Academic Ethics organized by Rahul Siddharthan, Gautam Menon and N.S. Siddharthan about a month ago.

Quick summary: PubMed database lists ~103,000 papers published by Indian authors during the previous decade (2001-2010); 70 69 of these papers have been retracted, and 45 of the retractions are due to some form of misconduct. Plagiarism is overwhelmingly the primary mode of misconduct: all but one of the 45 misconduct-related retractions were due to plagiarism.

If that doesn't sound bad enough, consider this: At 44 per 100,000 papers, India's misconduct rate is far higher than that of countries such as the UK, the USA, Germany and Japan.

There's some silver lining, though: Retraction of papers from Indian authors show a steep fall since 2007 -- either because Indian researchers know better now, or because plagiarized papers are ever less likely to make it to print in the first place due to increasingly widespread use of plagiarism detecting software by journals.

Here's the paper. Okay, the embed didn't quite work out well; here's the html version; if you prefer a pdf, get it from here.

Comments welcome.

* * *

Update (13 August 2011): The html version will keep getting updated with minor corrections which will be duly noted in the footnotes. There has already been one correction: the number of retractions of Indian papers for the decade 2001-10 is 69 -- the original version had it at 70.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Newborns, Paid Leave, Science Faculty

Two stories in my Google Reader stream in the last 24 hours:

  1. NPR: Time With A Newborn: Maternity Leave Policies Around The World [Infographic].

  2. And this one is US specific: Children they never had:

    Nearly half of female faculty members in top science departments wish they'd had more children, but didn't because of their careers, while about a quarter of their male counterparts feel the same way, according to a new study.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


An amazing new experiment will be launched in October when Stanford University professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig will start teaching a Massively Open Online Course in Artificial Intelligence. It's open to anyone who wishes to take the course online.

Here's a story at IEEE Spectrum.

The sign-up page is here.

Charles Kurzman: Where are all the Islamic terrorists?

... In the fields of Middle East and Islamic studies, bad news is good for business. The more that non-Muslims fear Islam, the more security threats are hyped, the more attention my colleagues and I get. Journalists want insights from "Islam experts" and "Middle East specialists," regardless of how remote our area of research is from the day's news. Universities are hiring—there were more than 40 tenure-track jobs last year in Middle East and Islamic studies. Federal research grants are plentiful, especially from the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

It all points to an inescapable conclusion: Martin Kramer was right. A decade ago, just after 9/11, he accused scholars of profiting from the Islamist violence that their political correctness prevented them from taking seriously: "How many resources within the university could they command if their phones stopped ringing and their deans did not see and hear them quoted in the national newspapers and on public radio? And how would enrollments hold up if Muslim movements failed to hit the headlines?"

Read it all at the Chronicle.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Misconduct: An Indian (Private) University Takes Swift Action

Two papers from the group of Sangiliandi Gurunathan have been retracted (so far_ due to image manipulatioin [falsification]. The retraction notice is also unusual because it flagged six other papers from the same group with a similar offence; it's only a matter of time before those too are retracted.

In his e-mail to Retraction Watch, Gurunathan tried to pin the blame on his students.

Krishna Pillai has been following up on this case by writing to SSV and Gurunathan's institution -- Kalasalingam University. He reports in his blog that KU has taken swift action by sacking Gurunathan and six of his students [see the press release].

Tales from the Academic Netherworld: Whistle-Blowers Victimized at Columbia

I just caught up with the latest news on the massive, masterly fraud perpetrated by Bengü Sezen at Columbia. [See also Janet Stemwedel's commentary on the C&EN story].

Following excerpts from William G. Schulz's story deal with the unfortunate victims in Dalibor Sames's group:

At least three unnamed subordinates left or were dismissed from the Sames lab, for example, for stepping forward and raising concerns about Sezen’s irreproducible research results.

“Two graduate students, [redacted], were asked by [redacted] to leave his group at the beginning of the third year of their graduate study and one graduate student, [redacted] decided to leave the [redacted] after passing the second-year qualifying examinations. Each of these students had spent much time unsuccessfully trying to reproduce and extend Dr. Sezen’s work,” the Columbia investigators write in their misconduct investigation report. And while they were not able to determine exactly why these students were asked to leave, “the wasted time and effort, coupled with the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had severe negative impacts on the graduate careers of these students.”

What became of those former Sames lab members is unknown. Columbia has erected a wall of silence around Sezen, her brazen fakery, and the consequences for those who had the misfortune of working with her. [...]

The editorial in the same issue of C&EN asks the right question:

But what of Sames? Questions about Sezen’s research were raised by other members of Sames’ group as early as 2002, Schulz reports. Those questions weren’t just ignored by Sames; those who raised them were punished. [...] As [Schulz's] report makes clear, these whistle-blowers were sacrificed in order to maintain her favored status in the research group. Sames acted, in fact, only after a member of his group specifically set Sezen up and presented irrefutable evidence of her misconduct.

In the words of Matt, "These students [whistle-blowers] (and their careers/future livelihoods) were thrown under the bus by Sames and Columbia."

Prof. M.S. Ananth's Directorship at IIT-M

In an interview with A. Chitradeepa of The Hindu, he looks back at IIT-M's progress during the 10 years of his leadership:

... When Prof. Ananth took over, IIT-M had 320 faculty and 120 of them were to retire in five years. “Having young faculty can refresh the system if they have the academic freedom. With this idea in mind, I recruited 300 young faculty. And this is the biggest addition in the institution in ten years time,” he says. [...]

... Research publication has gone up by a factor of four. IIT-M has three publications per year per faculty member. [...] “At IIT-M the research productivity is on par with any top university around the world.”

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Kenyon College Commencement Speech by David Foster Wallace (2005)

If you feel like listening to the speech, here are the YouTube links (there's no video, though): Part 1, Part 2. Here's the transcript.

An excerpt:

... This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted: You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

Bertrand Russell in Bollywood

YouTube link, which points to Shreevatsa's blog post as the source for Russell's Bacon number, which is 4.

The Wonder Woman Pose ...

... enacted by male superheroes. Good stuff.

Thanks to Bela Desai for the Buzz-alert.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Women in Computer Science: Early Programmers were Women

A quick follow-up to this post. Read Brenda Frink post -- Researcher reveals how “Computer Geeks” replaced “Computer Girls” -- about the work of historian Nathan Ensmenger, author of The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise:

It’s true [...] that the very first programmers were women and that the field remained open to women for many years thereafter. In the early 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on its ENIAC machine, which was one of the world’s first electronic computers. These six women, known by contemporaries as the “ENIAC girls,” were charged with “setting up” the ENIAC to perform computation tasks. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first computer programmers.

However, says Ensmenger, the presence of these women did not indicate that managers of the ENIAC project had modern attitudes toward women in the workforce. Rather, managers hired women because they expected programming to be a low-skill clerical function, akin to filing, typing, or telephone switching. Assuming that the real “brain work” in electronic computing would be limited to the hardware side, managers reserved these tasks for male engineers.

The idea that the development of software was less important (and less masculine), than the development of hardware persisted for many years and women continued to work as computer programmers. Employers, says Ensmenger, were in for a surprise when they discovered a truth that we now take for granted: “Programming,” he says with a smile, “is hard.” The women involved in the ENIAC project distinguished themselves by engaging in complex problem-solving tasks and by advising their male colleagues on hardware improvements. For example, Betty Holbertson convinced skeptical engineers to include a “stop instruction” in order to guard against human error.

As the intellectual challenge of writing efficient code became apparent, employers began to train men as computer programmers. Rather than equating programming with clerical work, employers now compared it to male-stereotyped activities such as chess-playing or mathematics.

Peter Kramer: "In Defence of Antidepressants"

Critics raise various concerns, but in my view the serious dispute about antidepressant efficacy has a limited focus. Do they work for the core symptoms (such as despair, low energy and feelings of worthlessness) of isolated episodes of mild or moderate depression? The claim that antidepressants do nothing for this common condition — that they are merely placebos with side effects — is based on studies that have probably received more ink than they deserve.

More here. A rebuttal of sorts to the NYRB articles by ex-JAMA editor Marcia Angell [See this post for links. Thanks to commenter Vijay for the pointer ]

Friday, August 05, 2011

Tales from the Academic Netherworld: Guest Editor's Plagiarized Paper

Over at Retraction Watch (which just celebrated its first birthday -- Happy Anniversary, RW!), there's a discussion about retraction of seven papers (and counting) by a researcher due to reasons such as "significant overlap with previously published material," and "references that could not be verified."

Here's the really interesting bit:

Ironically, Weber was guest editor for the JCAPN‘s special issue on Mental Health Nursing Care of LGBT Adolescents and Young Adults, which came out in January 2010. An article he wrote for that issue is the first [of the seven retractions we have] listed [in this post]. ...

RW reports that this guy has also authored this paper!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Nepotism in Italian academia

The database lists the first and last names of the 61,340 or so tenured professors in Italy along with their institutions, departments, and disciplines. ... Allesina approached the problem in a way that is "akin to computing how many species of trees we should find in a quadrant given the frequency of the species in a forest," he says. Correcting for natural name distribution in Italy, Allesina asked how many last names one should expect to find in a particular discipline if the names were selected randomly, and compared this number to the real-life number.

Allesina found "a severe paucity of names," which was most pronounced in engineering, law, medicine, geography, and pedagogy and also in the South of Italy. "The probability that the recruitment was fair is extremely low," Allesina says.

From this story. Here's the paper at Plos One.

Academic Blog of the Day

Academic Garden is an awesome blog by New Prof in New India who joined one of the newly minted STEM institutions in India. In her blog, NPNI has been writing about her experiences at this institution. In April, for example, NPNI described the kinds of things she considered before choosing a new institution (as opposed to old, established places); this post is worth reading just for the contrasting ways in which three top institutions in her list treated her application and her subsequent visits!

In the follow-up post -- To Have or To Be -- she talks about the pros and cons of her choice. Here's a quick excerpt:

Most of us will agree that an established group in one's research area is a highly desirable attribute in a school where one hopes to work. If such a group does not exist, it helps if the department concerned has a few senior professors with productive research programs. These people, apart from maintaining a research-oriented and intellectually vibrant atmosphere, also provide leadership and much-needed guidance to the new entrants.

When you join a baby department of a very new institute, the presence of such people may not always be possible. In my subfield, for example, there are only three research institutes in India with groups of > 1 people. As these places do not have undergraduate programs and I am a strong believer of the IIT/IISER/North American model of departments with both undergraduate and graduate programs, I did not have the luxury of joining an institute with readily available research collaborators. Most of my colleagues are in a similar situation. The institute provides us with all the professional support we need, but because it is itself very new, it cannot give us previously formed research groups. In fact, it expects us, the newbies to get our research programs going and build the groups that we want. In other words, it wants us to be what we cannot have.

People looking at academic careers in India would want to keep this in mind and think about this issue carefully.

NPNI has been blogging for quite sometime now, but I just discovered the blog a few days ago; it's now on my Google Reader.

Freeman Dyson: "The 'Dramatic Picture' of Richard Feynman"

Dyson reviews a couple of recent books on Richard Feynman -- a scientific biography by Lawrence Krauss and a comic-book biography by Jim Ottaviani, with art by Leland Myrick. Both get a very good rating from Dyson. Here's an excerpt on the essence -- 'the central theme' -- of Feynman's scientific work:

The central theme of Feynman’s work as a scientist was to explore a new way of thinking and working with quantum mechanics. The book succeeds in explaining without any mathematical jargon how Feynman thought and worked. This is possible because Feynman visualized the world with pictures rather than with equations. Other physicists in the past and present describe the laws of nature with equations and then solve the equations to find out what happens. Feynman skipped the equations and wrote down the solutions directly, using his pictures as a guide. Skipping the equations was his greatest contribution to science. By skipping the equations, he created the language that a majority of modern physicists speak. Incidentally, he created a language that ordinary people without mathematical training can understand. To use the language to do quantitative calculations requires training, but untrained people can use it to describe qualitatively how nature behaves.

Along the way, we learn the difference between the comic-book literary forms manga and gekiga:

... The genre of serious comic-book literature was highly developed in Japan long before it appeared in the West. The Ottaviani-Myrick book is the best example of this genre that I have yet seen with text in English. Some Western readers commonly use the Japanese word manga to mean serious comic-book literature. According to one of my Japanese friends, this usage is wrong. The word manga means “idle picture” and is used in Japan to describe collections of trivial comic-book stories. The correct word for serious comic-book literature is gekiga, meaning “dramatic picture.” The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers.

Tales from Academic Netherworld: After Tri-Valley, it's now Northern Virginia

... a Chronicle investigation suggests that Tri-Valley is only the beginning. Other colleges—most of them unaccredited—exploit byzantine federal regulations, enrolling almost exclusively foreign students and charging them upward of $3,000 for a chance to work legally in the United States. They flourish in California and Virginia, where regulations are lax, and many of their practices—for instance, holding some classes on only three weekends per semester—are unconventional, to say the least. These colleges usher in thousands of foreign students and generate millions of dollars in profits because they have the power, bestowed by the U.S. government, to help students get visas.

While these institutions are well-known among Indian students looking to work full time, they have managed to go mostly unnoticed in the United States. That anonymity is just fine with Daniel Ho, the owner of the University of Northern Virginia, an unaccredited college that has called itself the most popular American university for Indian students. Says Mr. Ho: "We don't want people to know us."

From this Chronicle story by Tom Bartlett, Karin Fischer, and Josh Keller. [It comes with a chart and a slideshow -- grim stuff.]

See also Indira Kannan in The Business Standard: That risky rush for a US degree.

Some or several of the students may not be blameless victims. They had enrolled at these universities precisely as a way of getting into the US on student visas to work immediately – some at grocery stores or a McDonald’s, in cities hundreds of miles away from campus – while ostensibly taking classes online. But for those who joined these schools in pursuit of their dream of a US education, it’s a grim awakening.

The Telugu Association of North America, or Tana, which has been counselling the affected students, fears the Tri-Valley and UNVA cases are just the tip of the iceberg. “There are another 15,000-20,000 Indian students minimum” at similar universities of dubious repute, says Ashok Kolla, the Chair for NRI Student Services at Tana.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Paul Simms: "God's Blog"

Excerpted in the New Yorker.

This god happens to be the christian version -- see this comment:

There’s imitation, and then there’s homage, and then there’s straight-up idea theft, which is what Your thing appears to be. Anyone who wants to check out the original should go to (And check it out soon, because I think they’re about to go behind a paywall.)

Historic Day at IISc

The 101st batch of students entering our Institute today includes some 80+ students joining the four-year undergraduate degree program -- believed to be the first in India -- in the sciences.