Sunday, December 30, 2012


This has to be among the best blog commentaries on open peer reviews of a published article: Another just-so story, this time about fists by T. Ryan Gregory at Genomicron is about a recent study that attracted tons of attention and coverage in news media:

To sum up, this is a paper that presents a small dataset of biomechanical analyses. It used an inappropriate sampling of subjects, and the only conclusions that can be drawn from the data are that the fists of trained martial artists are buttressed better than other arrangements of the hand. There is absolutely no information that is relevant to the question of why the human hand evolved as it did. (Note that this was not published in an anthropology or evolutionary biology journal). Moreover, to connect these observations with the evolutionary origin of human hand morphology requires some very unrealistic assumptions and a rather poor grasp of how one actually studies trait evolution.

The most impressive thing about this study is that it managed to gain so much attention with so little substance.

While we are on the topic of evolution, here are a couple more links:

  1. P.Z. Myers has started a series on αEP (or, Anti-Evolutionary Psychology; apparently, the symbol α is used in the sense of "anti" in immunological circles), and two posts are already up: αEP: Shut up and sing!, and αEP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise.

  2. Carl Zimmer has a nice summary -- in Of men, navigation and zits -- of a recent paper about sex differences in spatial abilities, and the proposal that "male spatial ability is not an adaptation so much as a side effect."

  3. These two short videos are noteworthy for their use of vivid physical metaphors for describing how a lot of evolution is due to just plain "dumb luck".

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Brothers in Harmony

Brothers in Harmony -- is my 400 words review in today's (22/12/2012) The Hindu, of the music concert by Trichur Brothers.

Here is the version I had sent to the editor.


When you read the two versions, you can observe the editor had done a good job this time, without mangling what the writer wanted to convey.

My thanks to the editor of 'Margazhi Reviews' -- in which section these appear -- for taking my 're-review' of the previous instance in stride and showing, at The Hindu, they care for the writers and importantly, the readers.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mobiles on a Plane

Why is the use of mobiles banned in planes? There are technical reasons, but what we are fed routinely -- that it might interfere with flight equipment on board -- is probably not all that important. I found this bit really interesting:

The truth is that the FCC never was concerned about the possibility of electronic interference when, in 1991, it banned the use of mobile phones on board aircraft. All it was really worried about was their impact on cellular networks on the ground. These work on the principle that, at any given moment, a mobile phone is within range of only one or two nearby masts. Each mast uses a set of channels different from those allocated to the masts closest to it, but the same as others further away. In this way, each channel can be used, and reused, to carry calls from multiple users.

Unfortunately, a mobile phone operating in an aircraft flying overhead might be within reach of any number of masts using the same channels. This could not only cause calls to be dropped, but would also confuse the network's software—reducing the mobile system’s overall capacity by blocking the reuse of channels.

There is also the added problem of an airborne phone moving too fast across the sky for the ground-based network to respond. The highest speed a mobile network is expected to cope with is that of an express train—not a passenger jet travelling at just below the speed of sound. A mobile used on an aircraft could traverse a tower too quickly to register with the network. If that happened, it would then bombard multiple towers along its route with repeated attempts to register, causing yet further network confusion.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

IITM Research Highlights

In an inspired move, IIT Madras website now carries a separate section on their research highlights. This is an idea proposed by Prof. S. K. Das, our current Dean - Academic Research; and was executed by Dr. Phanikumar and his team.

The main page would show a catchy image that leads to a short write-up about the research intended for the general reader. A separate link can be provided there for more technical details. Each 'research highlight' would stay on the main page for about two weeks, before going into an archive, subsequently ready for recycle in a future time.

Now for the shameless plug part (you saw it coming miles ahead, didn't you?): One of my recent research project happens to hog the main page for these two weeks.

Check it out.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Enthusiasm with the stamp of classicism

Enthusiasm with the stamp of classicism -- That is the version of a concert review (400 words limit) by me, which has appeared on The Hindu today (Dec 19, 2012)
Aswath Narayanan Music Concert Review -- is the version that I had sent.
If you are a Carnatic music buff, I am sure you could read more than those 400 + 400 words. Enjoy :-)

Saturday, December 15, 2012


  1. Planning Commission says, "Indian School of Mines could be converted as IIT."

  2. PTI reports, "UGC inspects 53 private varsities, finds 5 in order."

  3. Sridhar Vivan in Bangalore Mirror: Shop employee posed as college principal to fool inspecting team.

To end the post on a lighter note: What would a dog tweet? was the tweet-contest at New Yorker magazine's Questioningly blog last month. Among the noteworthy responses:

Success is the ability go from hydrant to hydrant without losing your enthusiasm.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Academy, the house of bards

Another Chennai December music season is going on. Here is a feature article written by me in today's Hindu (page 7 in Dec 14, 2012 print version)

Academy, the house of bards

Credit: The Hindu

The original version (which was a revised version from an earlier version) is here :-)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


  1. Ritika Chopra (Mail Today) updates us on how the new IITs have been (not) shaping up.

  2. Matthew Bailes at The Conversation: The Rise and Rise of the Science Politician.

Blacklisting Foreign Scientists

G. Mudur (The Telegraph) and R. Ramachandran (The Hindu) have reported today about American seismologist Prof. Roger Bilham's discovery that he now figures in a blacklist of "unwanted foreigners". His "crime" appears to be a paper -- written with an Indian collaborator, and published in Current Science, India's premier science journal -- on the seismic risk to the Jaitapur nuclear power plant. [See K.S. Jayaraman's summary of the scientific controversy triggered by that paper.]

There doesn't seem to be anything in these stories that the Indian government can claim as a net positive for itself.

India loses its moral high ground when Indian scientists face travel-related hassles in other countries [remember this   from   2006?], and a relatively unknown scientific controversy about the safety of the government's flagship nuclear power plant has escaped from scientific journals into mass media.

Monday, December 10, 2012

UC's New Logo

Here's the new logo of the University of California system:

It has led to strong protests:

One student posted a comment at The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, comparing the new logo for the University of California System to the loading icon on YouTube. Another posted: "That was what I was thinking! Then someone had to ruin it for me with the toilet flushing comments, which I now cannot unsee...." [...]

More than 30,000 people have signed a petition against the new logo. [...]

One of the best comments about the logo comes from Steve Postrel:

[...] When I see the new logo, I imagine little enzymes acting like keys to unlock the stains in my laundry.

* * *

The picture of the logo is from Wikipedia.


  1. Karen Markin in CHE: Plagiarism in Grant Proposals.

    It's not news that software exists to check undergraduate papers for plagiarism. What is less well known is that some federal grant agencies are using technology to detect plagiarism in grant proposals.

  2. Louis Menand in New Yorker: Today's Assignment: Arguments for and against homework for school children.

    Like a lot of debates about education, what Cooper calls “the battle over homework” is not really about how to make schools better. It’s about what people want schools to do. The country with the most successful educational system, according to the Economist study, is Finland. Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short. It is estimated that Italian children spend a total of three more years in school than Finns do (and Italy ranked twenty-fourth).

    The No. 2 country in the world, on the other hand, is South Korea, whose schools are notorious for their backbreaking rigidity. Ninety per cent of primary-school students in South Korea study with private tutors after school, and South Korean teen-agers are reported to be the unhappiest in the developed world. Competition is so fierce that the government has cracked down on what are called private “crammer” schools, making it illegal for them to stay open after 10 p.m. (though some attempt to get around this by disguising themselves as libraries).

    Yet both systems are successful. [...]

  3. Ranjit Goswami in University World News: Indian Exchange Programmes Must Start at Home:

    Student exchange programmes in India have tended to mean exchange at the international level.

    Despite the tremendous language, cultural and social diversity that various Indian states and regions enjoy, both at the interstate and intrastate levels, India has not considered whether there could be more effective, more affordable, more popular and more effective national-level student exchange programmes between institutions within the country, particularly in areas such as business studies or other applied academic programmes. [...]

    It is difficult to believe that an MBA student studying in Assam would not benefit from the cultural diversity and sharing of local history, culture and traditions that could come through an exchange programme with an MBA student in Tamil Nadu or with a student from a business school in Gujarat.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


  1. Chrostopher Shea in The Atlantic: The Data Vigilante. "Students aren’t the only ones cheating—some professors are, too. Uri Simonsohn is out to bust them." [Via Andrew Gelman]. Simonsohn's statistical sleuthing has already uncovered fraud by two scientists who have resigned their academic jobs. Here's a direct quote from Simonsohn in the article:

    When you have scientific evidence, ... and you put that against your intuition, and you have so little trust in the scientific evidence that you side with your gut—something is broken.

  2. Hannah Seligson in NYTimes: Hatching Ideas, and Companies, by the Dozens at M.I.T.. A profile of Prof. Robert Langer and his lab.

  3. James Surowiecki: Warren's Way -- a conversation over lunch with Warren Buffett, whose recent op-ed argues for a minimum tax on the wealthy.

  4. And, finally, the latest non-news from the OLPC world: OLPC cancels XO-3 tablet, downplays need for new hardware.


  1. This hilarious piece of pop science "news" deserves its place right at the top because it sets the right tone for what comes next: Brain Region Found that Does Absolutely Nothing at Collectively Unconscious.

    Dr. Ahlquist was rather surprised at the finding. “During a pilot study we noticed that this small section of the cortex did not show differential activity in any of our manipulations. Out of curiosity, we wanted to see whether it actually did anything at all. Over the months that followed we tried every we knew, with over 20 different participants. IQ tests, memory tasks, flashing lights, talking, listening, imagining juggling, but there was no response. Nothing. We got more desperate, so we tried pictures of faces, TMS, pictures of cats, pictures of sex, pictures of violence and even sexy violence, but nothing happened! Not even a decrease. No connectivity to anywhere else, not even a voodoo correlation. 46 voxels of wasted space. I know dead salmons that are more responsive. It’s an evolutionary disgrace, that’s what it is.”

    The stuff about "dead salmons that are more responsive" doesn't provide a link, but I guess it's about the work [pdf] that won an IgNobel this year.

  2. Gary Marcus in New Yorker: Neuroscience Fiction: What Neuroscience Really Teaches Us, and What It Doesn't. A good overview of the limitations of fMRI:

    ... [O]ur early-twenty-first-century world truly is filled with brain porn, with sloppy reductionist thinking and an unseemly lust for neuroscientific explanations. But the right solution is not to abandon neuroscience altogether, it’s to better understand what neuroscience can and cannot tell us, and why.

    The first and foremost reason why we shouldn’t simply disown neuroscience altogether is an obvious one: if we want to understand our minds, from which all of human nature springs, we must come to grips with the brain’s biology. The second is that neuroscience has already told us lot, just not the sort of things we may think it has. What gets play in the daily newspaper is usually a study that shows some modest correlation between a sexy aspect of human behavior, with headlines like “FEMALE BRAIN MAPPED IN 3D DURING ORGASM” and “THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON POKER”

    But a lot of those reports are based on a false premise: that neural tissue that lights up most in the brain is the only tissue involved in some cognitive function. The brain, though, rarely works that way. Most of the interesting things that the brain does involve many different pieces of tissue working together. Saying that emotion is in the amygdala, or that decision-making is the prefrontal cortex, is at best a shorthand, and a misleading one at that. [...]

    The sort of short, simple explanations of complex brain functions that often make for good headlines rarely turn out to be true. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t explanations to be had, it just means that evolution didn’t evolve our brains to be easily understood.

Music Time

Imagine by John Lennon (whose death anniversary was yesterday):

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hard and Soft Forms of Bigotry

Two posts appeared on my Google Reader just in the last couple of days. While they are triggered by the anniversary of atrocities committed many years ago (coincidentally, on the same day, the sixth of December), they really are about a slow, corrosive kind of bigotry.

First up, here is Sunil Mukhi on the twentieth anniversary of the outrage at Ayodhya:

... this fateful day still resonates in my mind after twenty years. Not because I was personally impacted, or anyone I know was personally impacted. But because this is when I saw the appallingly foolish and self-destructive fascist agenda unfurl before my eyes for the first time.

As of that date it suddenly became fashionable, even in a place like TIFR, to whisper (or hint) unpleasant things about Muslims. [...]


These "sophisticated bigots" did not personally bring down the mosque, nor would they ever engage in manifest politics. Their opinions surface only when they feel the atmosphere will tolerate it. Today the agenda of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, and thereby miraculously converting India into a great country, is in shambles. This agenda has done terrible things to our social fabric but not one good thing for the nation's structure, morality or self-esteem, forget social or economic development (how could it possibly??). So at this time the bigots are hiding their views. But I don't intend to ever forget who they are, or what damage they did by conferring legitimacy on such an aberrant movement in India's history.

And here's Janet Stemwedel on the 22nd anniversary of the Montreal Massacre:

Most of the people who believe women do not belong in science and engineering classrooms, or in science or engineering jobs, or in other domains that used to be exclusively male, will never pick up a gun to enforce their will.

But, there are plenty who will send women the clear message that they are not welcome as equal participants in these domains. [...]

Sunday, December 02, 2012


  1. Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post: As drug industry’s influence over research grows, so does the potential for bias:

    Arguably the most prestigious medical journal in the world, the New England Journal of Medicine regularly features articles over which pharmaceutical companies and their employees can exert significant influence.

    Over a year-long period ending in August, NEJM published 73 articles on original studies of new drugs, encompassing drugs approved by the FDA since 2000 and experimental drugs, according to a review by The Washington Post.

    Of those articles, 60 were funded by a pharmaceutical company, 50 were co-written by drug company employees and 37 had a lead author, typically an academic, who had previously accepted outside compensation from the sponsoring drug company in the form of consultant pay, grants or speaker fees.

  2. Kate Masur in CHE: A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s. A historian critiques Spielberg's Lincoln.

  3. Louis P. Masur in CHE: Lincoln at the Movies. An overview of movies about Lincoln.

  4. Jeffrey Young in CHE: Welcome to Star Scholar U. About academic stars going rogue offering online courses under their own brand.

Searching Calvin and Hobbes

This is from S. Anand's post from 2010:

There were a few Calvin and Hobbes search engines around. None quite did what I wanted them to – which was to search the text, and show me the strip, with a nice scrollable interface.

So I set out to build one. I can’t remember when, exactly, but it was before Sep 11, 2002.

It took me many years. I’d spend several train rides and evenings typing this stuff out. My friends, employers and family were a bit puzzled, but just added it to my list of eccentricities and carried on. I was halfway there in 2005, pushed further in 2006, and with some help, I managed to finally complete it.

I was able to do a lot of cool stuff with this, like statistically improbable phrases and some amusing posts as well.

When his efforts were picked up by Reddit and Metafilter, he received a take-down notice, and all his stuff went offline.

How things change in just two years!

A search engine by Michael Yingling (who credits the script, "likely from S. Anand" posted online) has also been in operation at least since the time Anand got the take-down notice, but survived long enough to get a better treatment. When news about this site went viral recently, it received official sanction, praise, and reward.