Thursday, February 28, 2013

On the Errors of SuperFreakonomics

In a must-read article in the recent American Scientist, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung summarizes the take-downs of several error-prone examples in SuperFreakonomics, the new 'pop science' book by Levitt and Dubner (authors of the popular Freakonomics book), and the associated Freakonomics blog.
An extended quote about a sample case:
Monica Das Gupta is a World Bank researcher [...] attributed the abnormally high ratio of boy-to-girl births in Asian countries to a preference for sons, which manifests in selective abortion and, possibly, infanticide. [...] Emily Oster (now a professor at the University of Chicago) attacked this conventional wisdom. [...] Dubner and Levitt praised Oster and her study, [...] published in the Journal of Political Economy during Levitt’s tenure as editor:
[Oster] measured the incidence of hepatitis B in the populations of China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, and other countries where mothers gave birth to an unnaturally high number of boys. Sure enough, the regions with the most hepatitis B were the regions with the most “missing” women. Except the women weren’t really missing at all, for they had never been born.
Oster [...] eventually [she] admitted that the subject-matter experts had been right all along. One of Das Gupta’s many convincing counterpoints was a graph showing that in Taiwan, the ratio of boys to girls was near the natural rate for first and second babies (106:100) but not for third babies (112:100); this pattern held up with or without hepatitis B.
In a follow-up blog post, Levitt applauded Oster for bravery in admitting her mistake, but he never credited Das Gupta for her superior work. Our point is not that Das Gupta had to be right and Oster wrong, but that Levitt and Dubner, in their celebration of economics and economists, suspended their critical thinking.
The article is a reminder of the perils of 'popularizing science' for all of us who attempt dissemination of science in some form or other. A relevant passage from a separate section that discusses the perils of pop-science:
Success comes at a cost: The constraints of producing continuous content for a blog or website and meeting publisher’s deadlines may have adverse effects on accuracy. The strongest parts of the original Freakonomics book revolved around Levitt’s own peer-reviewed research. In contrast, the Freakonomics blog features the work of Levitt’s friends, and SuperFreakonomics relies heavily on anecdotes, gee-whiz technology reporting and work by Levitt’s friends and colleagues. Just like good science, good writing takes time.
I liked the 'blog' part of that quote.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

IITM on Twitter and Facebook

Here is what you Nerds of the Internet-public have been waiting for.

From today, IIT Madras officially is on Twitter and Facebook.

You already know it is on Google+, right? Right?

Follow and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Link of the Month

Dr Inger Mewburn at Thesis Whisperer : Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness. Mewburn poses the all-important question, "Do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?" [Hat tip: Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed].

Here's just a snippet of her post which is an absolute must-read.

How does it happen? The budding asshole has learned, perhaps subconsciously, that other people interrupt them less if they use stronger language. They get attention: more air time in panel discussions and at conferences. Other budding assholes will watch strong language being used and then imitate the behaviour. No one publicly objects to the language being used, even if the student is clearly upset, and nasty behaviour gets reinforced. As time goes on the culture progressively becomes more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students. Students who are upset by the behaviour of academic assholes are often counselled, often by their peers, that “this is how things are done around here”. Those who refuse to accept the culture are made to feel abnormal because, in a literal sense, they are – if being normal is to be an asshole.

Not all academic cultures are badly afflicted by assholery, but many are. I don’t know about you, but seen this way, some of the sicker academic cultures suddenly make much more sense. This theory might explain why senior academics are sometimes nicer and more generous to their colleagues than than those lower in the pecking order. If asshole behaviour is a route to power, those who already have positions of power in the hierarchy and are widely acknowledged to be clever, have less reason to use it. [Bold emphasis in the original]

Monday, February 25, 2013

Advancing Science in India

That is the title of an article by Adarsh Sandhu that appears in the Science Careers section of the journal Science.

With views from Indian scientists, the article describes several initiatives and funding opportunities that are now in place to foster research and advances in science. For instance,
"The government is going to inject $5 billion into science and technology over the next five years," says C.N.R. Rao.
Ways to spend it? In the section about developing new research areas, the article mentions
The new funding policy will advance India’s prowess in [...] space, energy, and the life sciences as well as important research areas in physics, materials science, and atmospheric science. Planned missions to Mars and a neutrino observatory will receive financial support under the new framework.

[also] role of innovation in targeted technological industries [contributing to] renewed excitement among India’s scientists. Energy is one of those strategic sectors...
Enticing 'foreign Indians' to return, expanding facilities and infrastructure, increasing career opportunities, growing talent early...the article pretty much covers every essential aspect of advancing science in India. It ends with a quote from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "One has to be optimistic. (...), unless one is optimistic, one is overwhelmed by the dimension of the development task that we have to accomplish."

A good read, for regular Science Magazine readers.

Prof. P. V. Indiresan is no more

Prof P.V. Indiresan, former Director of IIT Madras, Padma Bhushan in 2000, member on countless GOI committees and a frequent writer on several academic issues, is no more.

Strong academic reforms and a focus on 'research culture' at IIT Madras is instilled during his tenure as the Director. That is the perception I gather from some of my senior colleagues.

After the period of all-out praise -- of, by and for academics -- that should now follow, a true appraisal of his deeds should emerge.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Where do foreign-born PhD candidates go?

Paula Stephan, Chiara Franzoni, Giuseppe Scellato have an NBER working paper entitled "Choice of Country by the Foreign Born for PhD and Postdoctoral Study: A Sixteen-Country Perspective." Here's the abstract:

We analyze the decisions of foreign-born PhD and postdoctoral trainees to come to the United States vs. go to another country for training. Data are drawn from the GlobSci survey of scientists in sixteen countries working in four fields. We find that individuals come to the U.S. to train because of the prestige of its programs and/or career prospects. They are discouraged from training in the United States because of the perceived lifestyle. The availability of exchange programs elsewhere discourages coming for PhD study; the relative unattractiveness of fringe benefits discourages coming for postdoctoral study. Countries that have been nibbling at the U.S.-PhD and postdoc share are Australia, Germany, and Switzerland; France and Great Britain have gained appeal in attracting postdocs, but not in attracting PhD students. Canada has made gains in neither.

I just want to park the link here for future reference because the paper has citations to quite a few data sources on foreign students and post-docs working in the US, the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada.

I did skim through the first part, and the overwhelming impression I get is that the number (and therefore, the share) of foreign students and post-docs in developed countries continues to grow at a fair clip, and China and, to a smaller extent, India, are the key players in this growth story.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

WaPo Special Report: Biased Research, Big Profits

Peter Whoriskey's story -- As drug industry’s influence over research grows, so does the potential for bias -- starts with research on Avandia (in comparison with two other drugs) in which pretty much everyone had a financial connection with GSK:

Whether these ties altered the report on Avandia may be impossible for readers to know. But while sorting through the data from more than 4,000 patients, the investigators missed hints of a danger that, when fully realized four years later, would lead to Avandia’s virtual disappearance from the United States:

The drug raised the risk of heart attacks.

“If you looked closely at the data that was out there, you could see warning signs,” said Steven E. Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist who issued one of the earliest warnings about the drug. “But they were overlooked.”

Annals of Awesome Insults

... The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link.
-- Mark Twain, in a letter addressed to a salesman who sent him an ad for some bogus medicine [Source: Letters of Note]

Neal Stephenson: "Why I am a Bad Correspondent"

In his post, below, Arunn talks about Neal Stephenson's preference for pen, and his love and passion for what he does -- writing novels. It reminded me of a short piece Stephenson once wrote to explain "why I am a bad correspondent". His website doesn't have it; but, thanks to a good soul who saved it, you can read it here [Update: Thanks also to, which has a copy]. These two paragraphs stand out:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

Do it Write

Today morning -- a weekend day -- I open my email and read this. Flowstate -- a paid app for the iPad to make you write without distractions.
The app launches with a full-screen editor and a countdown timer. You select the amount of time you want to write and start typing away. Sounds like a pleasant experience until you stop writing to look at your tweets and gasp in horror as your wonderful prose is deleted by the app.
First you buy an iPad or one such tablet with a screen full of iconized distractions -- distractions for writing at least. Then you go about finding apps to close off all such distractions in order to write in it. Why buy a tablet for your writing needs? How we go about inventing ways to complicate our lives; and try to simplify them back through more complications.

Another gentleman wrote a book on such distractions. The Shallows. And blamed our 'pronounced jumpy nature in these browsing times' on our online activities as it 'rewires our brains'. Let online activities 'rewire the brains'. But if it is distracting, why not simply pull the plug instead of over-analyzing such distractions. And get on with what you love to do -- writing, in this case (for my kid, it is reading; she doesn't come near the computer; period).

Is it that we don't want to agree on our lack of self-control so invent ways to shift the blame on the distractions -- online activities. I am reminded of the 'time management' books. Book length schemes and suggestions to manage your -- *your* -- time. When in principle all one needs to manage time is to wake up early; early enough; daily.

When we are passionate about and love to do an activity, we find ways to do it amidst all such 'distractions'. A Neal Stephenson -- one of the tech-savvy fiction writers I have read -- had written one of his (actually a three volume set) thousand and odd pages books with his bare hands -- ink on paper. All in our internet times, as tablets and distractions rewire our grey cells. A proof (from here) that he loves what he does? Coming to think of it, you don't see him on the internet more. Doesn't blog; tweets occasionally; and doesn't blame the internet or 'distractions'. But writes thousand-page delectable fiction as staple.

Years back there was a movie called The Piano; after watching it I wondered how such a simple feeling called Love can be transmogrified by the human mind to such complicated feelings and actions.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Geeky-Corny Video of the Day

How many corny-horny jokes can a geek create out of the uncertainty principle? Watch:

Heisenberg from seth w on Vimeo

Hat tip: Jennifer Ouelette at Cocktail Party Physics, where you'll find links to other such videos.


  1. WiseGeek: What does 200 Calories look like? Pictures of 200 Calories of Various Foods.

  2. Robert Cottrell (the editor of The Browser: Writing Worth Reading) in FT: Net Wisdom.

    My first contention: this is a great time to be a reader. The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

    I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader ... Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.

    The essay covers a wide variety of topics -- including what is so great about blogs by academics writing about their fields of expertise.

  3. Makarand Sahasrabuddhe's answer in Quora to: India: Is reservation the best method of affirmative action in India?


  1. Nature reports that a Company offers portable peer review: Author-pays service cuts down on redundant reviews.
    The concept comes from a company called Rubriq. Charging authors an estimated US$500–700 for its service, the firm plans to offer a standard-format anonymized review, and is currently testing its concept with publishers including Public Library of Science (PLoS), Karger, F1000Research and Wiley, as well as more than 500 reviewers.
    The idea is for authors to pay for a quick independent peer review, as done currently, with the reviews to travel along with the paper when submitted to journals. If it gets rejected in one, the paper goes to the next journal along with the peer reviews already done and so on, saving time for all involved, before the authors find a suitable journal for getting their paper published.
  2. Journal impact factor is useless and even detrimental. Assessment done based on journal ranking is bad scientific practice. As an academic if you still need convincing on these observations, read the recent salvo by Björn Brembs, Marcus Munafò titled "Deep Impact: Unintended consequences of journal rank" posted in the arXiv.

    The authors suggest to close down this journal publishing enterprise in toto "[...] in favor of a library-based scholarly communication system".
  3. The claim that most biomedical research is wrong was first put forward by John Ioannidis at the University of Ioannina in Greece in 2005 [PLoS paper].

    This is being challenged in a recent paper posted in arXiv titled "Empirical Estimates Suggest Most Published Medical Research is True". Analysis in this paper suggest that the real number is just 14 per cent.

    Read a brief on this Technology Review article.
  4. In an opinion piece titled Why Business Schools Teach Transparency but Practice Ambiguity Larry Zicklin provides several examples on why business schools should consider doing less research and more teaching. Here is his starting argument
    [...] if faculty members assumed larger teaching workloads, while doing less research, universities could deliver a college education at a fraction of its present cost. And all that would be lost would be a succession of what he sees as research papers that are of only marginal interest.
  5. Dean Keith Simonton, Professor of psychology at UC Davis,has a provocative Scientific genius is extinct comment in Nature. A copious quote from the article:
    Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the Universe, and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles. It is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worthy of its own discipline alongside astronomy physics, chemistry and biology. For more than a century, any new discipline has been a hybrid of one of these, such as astrophysics, biochemistry or astrobiology. Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge. One of the biggest recent scientific accomplishments is the discovery of the Higgs boson – the existence of which was predicted decades ago.

    [...]If anything, scientists today might require more raw intelligence to become a first-rate researcher than it took to become a genius during… the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, given how much information and experience researchers must now acquire to become proficient.
    The article would have made me reflect more, if only it had defined properly what (according to the author) is scientific genius.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Death of a Scientist in Singapore

Raymond Bonner and Christine Spolar have a hugely damning FT story about the death of Shane Todd, an American scientist, in Singapore where he worked at the Institute of Microelectronics.

On June 24 last year, the body of a young US electronics engineer, Shane Todd, was found hanging in his Singapore apartment. Police said it was suicide, but the Todd family believe he was murdered. Shane had feared that a project he was working on was compromising US national security. His parents want to know if that project sent him to his grave.

Very, very grim stuff.


  1. Daniel Hamermesh in VoxEU: Aging and Productivity: Economists and Others.

    Is economics still a young person’s game? If not, what is changing? This column argues that although top-level economic research in the 1990s was very much a young person’s game, the last 15 years has been kinder to older economists. More and more economists over 50 are being published in the top journals. Why? Because technological change in economic research is slowing, giving young researchers less competitive edge.

  2. Geoffrey Pullum in CHE: Being an Adverb. Yet another take-down of a columnist/blogger advising the removal of adverbs from one's writing. Great stuff. Pullum also has a link to his earlier take-down of "Strunk & White’s toxic little compendium of misguided maxims."

  3. Interesting column explaining how to prune this paragraph:

    It is important to recognize the fact that every subject, given that its content is not totally reducible to some other subject area, presents a special set of pedagogic problems arising as a result of the distinctive character of their contents and their essential nature. The problems may be regarded as particularizations of the general pedagogical considerations which must be treated by any and all teachers who seek to seriously discharge his or her educational responsibilities in a highly efficacious manner.

    into this:

    Every subject presents its own pedagogic problems.

  4. BBC: awesome pictures of Kumbh Mela from space.

The Story of Vitreous Circulation

Several months back my father noticed black spots in his vision in the right eye. After a thorough check-up at a premier eye hospital in Chennai, he was diagnosed with a 'retinal tear'. Read more in wikipedia, under retinal detachment. Why does this happen? Remedy? What has this got to do with the title story of vitreous circulation?

The human eye is an imperfect sphere, about 24 mm (just about an inch) thick in the major axis, from the cornea on the front side to the retina on the back side. In between we have the lens supported on the front side by two tubular 'hooks' containing the aqueous humor fluid. As the name implies, this fluid is aqueous and can even circulate within the tubular 'hooks'. The retina, on which the lens focuses the images of what we see, is separated from the lens by a vitreous humor. This vitreous humour, by default, is not aqueous; it is jelly-like, what is known technically as a Non-Newtonian fluid. It maintains the shape of the eye, keeping the distance between the lens and the retina. As we age, the vitreous gel loses its aqueous nature and hardens. Unfortunately, as it hardens and contracts, confined between the retina and the lens, it 'pulls' on the walls. In effect, for some of us as we age, the retina is pulled in -- a retinal 'tear'.

The remedy is to stick the retina, figuratively, back in its place. For this, first we need to slice open the eye behind the lens and scoop off the jelly-like vitreous humour. Then, the retina is stuck back in its place by cauterizing it with targeted laser heating. Then the eye is stitched in place and closed. Within few weeks, bodily fluids ooze into the region between the retina and lens to replace the original hardened vitreous humour that was scooped off. Hopefully, when the eye patch is taken off, the vision should be minus those black spots and become normal. These things went on fine and let us say my father regained his normal vision.

But all of this is only background information for a short story that took off in between, which (obviously?) involves me and my research.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Two IITM News

Two students of the [IIT-M] have developed a wheelchair prototype that allows users to sit, stand and recline too.
The design team includes students Harshal Girish Chaudhary and Sushant Veer guided by Prof. Sujatha Srinivasan of the Machine Design section of the ME Department.
[IIT-M] will not only coordinate part of the much-awaited national programme, Solar Thermal Project, but will also integrate the efforts of all the other IITs involved in the project.

[...] IIT-Bombay will meanwhile look into air-conditioning options through solar power while IIT-Guwahati will look at ways of storing thermal energy to be utilised later.
75-100 kilo watts of electric power was expected to be generated in the IITM project, which should attend to the energy needs of Pathashala, a school run by the KFI, in Vallipuram village near Chennai.

The project team involves Prof. Sundararajan, current head of the ME department, Prof. Srinivasa Reddy, again from ME department, and Prof. R. P. Saini from IIT Roorkee.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Most Exciting News from the World of Science

Apparently, the ninth drop in the Pitch Drop Experiment is getting ready to fall -- in the 83rd year (or is it the 84th year?) of this long running experiment.

If you want to catch the excitement, check out the live stream.

The Wikipedia entry informs us that "the eighth drop fell on 28 November 2000," and no one has ever witnessed any of the previous drops fall. This Physics Buzz post appeared on Reddit over four days ago, and the drop doesn't seem to be rattled by all the attention.

[Hat tip: Fuch Yeah Fluid Dynamics.]

* * *

Improbable Research has a good write up about this and two other long-term experiments.

Annals of Occupational Hazards

This Indian Express story is not quite the most link-worthy news of the day, but it *is* about an Indian university:

The officiating dean of the law faculty of M S University (MSU), Ghanshyam Solanki, was arrested ... Monday evening for allegedly spraying a herb, known in local language as kuvech which causes acute irritation when it comes in contact with human body, on the chair that was to be occupied by university vice-chancellor (V-C) Yogesh Singh at a national seminar organised Saturday. [...]The effect of the herb was so strong that Singh was forced to leave the venue within 2-3 minutes after he occupied the chair, university officials said.

In case you want another source: ToI.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


  1. Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky (the Retraction Watch bloggers) in Lab Times: How to Report Alleged Scientific Misconduct - Some advice from the co-founders of Retraction Watch.

  2. Kaustubh Thirumalai has a great catch: Best reply-to-comment, ever.

  3. Spiked Math Comics: Science vs. Math [via Sachin Shanbag]

  4. FauxPhilNews [Tagline: Possibly True, Necessarily Entertaining]: Philosophers Discover a New Moral Principle. "A previously unrecognized moral principle was discovered last week ..."

Doctors, Money, Big Pharma

One more data point:

... ... [T]he Johnson & Johnson episode is also illuminating a broader medical issue: while experts say that doctors have an ethical obligation to warn their peers about bad drugs or medical devices, they often do not do so.

[...] There is another reason doctors may choose to remain silent, experts say: their financial ties to a drug or device maker.

For years, such consulting payments have raised concerns about the impact of money on a doctor’s decision about which drugs to prescribe or how to interpret research findings. Money can also shift a physician’s sense of loyalty, said George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied medical conflict-of-interest policies. “If someone has been paying you or employing you, it is very difficult to blow the whistle,” said Professor Loewenstein, who teaches economics and psychology. “It offends our sense of loyalty.”

Meteors and Dashcams

I'm sure all those videos of the awesome Russian meteor made you wonder why they were all filmed from inside moving cars. I found the answer here:

The dashboard-camera videos of the meteor, which proliferated on the Internet all Friday morning, represent an intersection of astronomical forces with the technological and sociohistorical conditions of Russian life. Dash cams, as reported in Animal, have become ubiquitous in today’s Russia, where road hazards range from “insane gridlock” to “large, lawless areas” habited by “police with a penchant for extortion and deeply frustrated drivers who want to smash your face,” and where courts rarely award damages without video evidence. A large percentage of Russian car crashes are thus captured on video and aggregated on a devoted LiveJournal page that gets more than four million views per month.

The link in that excerpt elaborates on why so many Russians drive around with a video camera on their dashboards. It also features a video collection of raw footage of many, many colliding vehicles, and men going berserk. [Caution: Another video at the bottom is too gruesome to watch; you've been warned.]


I'm sure you have already figured this out, but here it is anyway: If anyone needed a one-stop shop for all the goods on the bads of IIPM, MediaNama has it. I think it's worth spreading the word.

For this fantastic resource, we must thank the PR geniuses at IIPM.

Now, if we can get the DoT block order withdrawn ...

Friday, February 15, 2013

When internet laws strike: One more post you cannot see

This one is due to a DMCA complaint that I was illegally using content for which I don't have copyright. I haven't seen the complaint, and the site where I was supposed to find it doesn't have it -- at least not yet. All I can say here is that the post has no copyright violation whatsoever -- it had a bunch of links to stories and blog posts about Anil Potti, the science fraudster with money to spend on internet consultants. Blogger has put my post on hold (technically, it has made it a "draft" which I can choose to post, presumably after resolving this problem with them), but I'm sure you will be able to find it in some archive ...

Once again, I am in illustrious company: a bunch of Anil Potti-related posts at Retraction Watch are also down.

The folks at Retraction Watch have filed a counter, and may be able to get their posts back up again.

As I said, I am not able to see the complaint against my post. And, frankly, all the legalese in the e-mail from The Blogger Team has spooked me! I guess I will just wait until the Retraction Watch posts are back up before filing my counter-claim.

When internet laws strike: Nanopolitan posts you cannot see

If you are in India, you (probably) won't be able to see the posts entitled Breaking news: IIPM faculty pages have not been changed!, and Breaking news: the IIPM faculty pages have not been changed, yet.

I guess I should be proud that these two posts are featured in a list of URLs that our Department of Telecommunications has put a block on. Take a look -- the list even includes a notification from UGC!

That link takes you to a MediaNama story, an update to which says DoT's move was probably prompted by a court order.

Let us wait for the details. [Update: As of now (8:30 pm), these posts are still available, unblocked. There really is no reason to panic, though the MediaNama story is disturbing.]

In the meantime, let me just say this to IIPM's PR folks: You suck!

* * *

Thanks to Akilan for alert on Google+.

What should institutions do with (misconduct) investigation reports?

Berkeley shows the way, by putting it all in the public domain. It is possible that it has chosen this route because the investigation led to the exoneration of a member of its faculty. [Harvard's investigation of Marc Hauser, for example, has not been made public.] It is also possible, as Inside Higher Ed reports, that the allegations themselves were made in a very public website. Whatever the motivation, Berkeley has done the right thing.

* * *

While it's not about scientific misconduct, it's worth noting the line taken by MIT's investigation of the role the institution and its people played in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. The lead investigator, Prof. Hal Abelson, has promised to make the report public. He has already commissioned a public website to collect ideas on the issues and questions to explore in the investigation.

Tin Pest, etc.

Let's start with a video of tin pest:

From the Wikipedia entry on tin pest:

At 13.2 degrees Celsius (about 56 degrees Fahrenheit) and below, pure tin transforms from the silvery, ductile metallic allotrope of β-form white tin to brittle, nonmetallic, α-form grey tin with a diamond structure. The transformation is slow to initiate due to a high activation energy but the presence of germanium (or crystal structures of similar form and size) or very low temperatures ~-30 degrees Celsius aids the initiation. There is also a large volume increase of about 27% associated with the phase change. Eventually the α-form decomposes into powder, hence the name tin pest.

Tin pest plays a central role in the urban legend that Napoleon's disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia was a disaster because his soldiers' buttons, which were made of tin, turned to grey powder under the harsh, cold temperatures of Russian winter. Yale's Ainissa Ramirez calls it "the world's greatest wardrobe malfunction" in this video. [Update: See also Joe Knight's article in Slate: Napoleon Wasn’t Defeated by the Russians. According to Knight, the real reason is an infectious disease spread by lice.]

The utter calamity of the French invasion of Russia, and the subsequent retreat, is captured so well in Charles Joseph Minard's graphic map, that Edward Tufte calls "the best statistical graphic ever drawn". [see this map for a broader perspective that presents Minard's map with present-day national borders.]

For the Russians, Napoleon's retreat has been a source of intense national pride -- celebrated in major works of art including the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky:

* * *

What's the point of all this? Nothing, really; we just happened to be discussing all this in a recent class on the lead-tin phase diagram in my course on materials thermodynamics. Also, I've always wanted to link to Minard's map, the 1812 overture, and the lead-tin phase diagram ;-)

Thursday, February 14, 2013


  1. Gordon Marino in The Stone: Try a Little Tenderness.

    The philosophers, the lovers of wisdom, have pondered and written a lot about love, even erotic and romantic love, but they have given a cold shoulder to that offshoot of love — tenderness. Indeed, I don’t believe I have ever heard a member of the Socrates guild even mention the lovely word in a remotely philosophical context.

  2. Kate Clancy at Context and Variation: 5 Ways to Make Progress in Evolutionary Psychology: Smash, Not Match, Stereotypes.

    The biggest problem, to my mind, is that so often the conclusions of the bad sort of evolutionary psychology match the stereotypes and cultural expectations we already hold about the world: more feminine women are more beautiful, more masculine men more handsome; appearance is important to men while wealth is important to women; women are prone to flighty changes in political and partner preference depending on the phase of their menstrual cycles.

  3. Noor Brara at India Ink: In India, a Rise of Private Universities and Liberal Arts Programs.

    A number of new private universities with liberal arts programs have sprung up in India. There were fewer than 20 such schools in 2005, and there are more than 100 now, according to a report by Shiv Nadar University. [...]

    One of the newest of these private schools is Shiv Nadar University in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. The university, when it opened its doors last year, offered programs in engineering, math and natural sciences to its first batch of 274 students. This year, it began its School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the student population has risen to 574. As at liberal arts schools in the United States, students at Shiv Nadar University are required to take a core curriculum of varied subjects, regardless of their major.

  4. The Telegraph: Govt open to higher pay for IIM heads.

    "[HRD Minister] M.M. Pallam Raju today said the government should have no problems if the IIMs offered a higher package to new directors from their own funds"

Carnegie Mellon's new president

Carnegie Mellon University [1] has chosen Prof. Subra Suresh as its next president. Since Prof. Suresh is currently the Director of the National Science Foundation in the US, his move (back) to a leadership position at an academic institution was bound to raise some eyebrows. Over at Science Insider (the news blog of the journal Science), Jeffrey Mervis articulates the questions raised by this appointment, and reports on the answers from some of key people, including Prof. Suresh:

... [A]lthough Suresh's move is not surprising, the timing and his age (he took the NSF job in October 2010 at the age of 54) raise some intriguing questions:

  • Do university trustees see running NSF as an important steppingstone to the top job at their institutions?

  • Is it unseemly for universities to lure away federal officials after only a few years in the public posts?

  • Does choosing a midcareer scientist to lead NSF foreshadow a short tenure as director?

* * *

[1] Disclosure: I went to grad school there.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Personal Ads - Part Deux


A Research Associate to
assist a Ph.D Candidate
Interested candidates must
be knowledgeable about
management subjects,
research methodology,
be prepared to work to time
deadlines, work schedule etc.

From a recent issue of Mylapore Times, a hyperlocal weekly from Chennai [pdf]; the ad appears on p. 12.

Thanks to this alert from Tomorrow.

Personal Ads

FANNIE MAE with troubled assets, bored with Freddie Mac, seeks well-regulated stimulus package from counterparty too big to fail. No cash for clunkers.

* * *

DISPROPORTIONATELY BLESSED GENERALISSMO, deposed by an ungrateful peasantry, languishes in luxurious tropical exile. Seeks a talented contortionist with low morals and high pain threshold for long-term relationship, satori, and maybe a little narco-crime on the side.

These and more examples, along with an interview of NYRB's associate publisher Catherine Tice, at NPR.

Thursday, February 07, 2013


  1. India's Physics Rebels -- a Physics World podcast, accompanying the magazine's special report on physics education and research in India. On page 13, the report features an interview with Prof. Shobhana Narasimhan.

  2. It appears that the US Postal Service is going through some seriously tough times. The New Yorker has a slide show of some of its cartoons on postmen. The first and the last are especially fabulous!

  3. Aatish Bhatia at Empirical Zeal: What the Dalai Lama can teach us about temperatures below absolute zero.

In honor of no one in particular ...

... here's the link of the day: Christ, what an asshole. [a bunch of remixed cartoons]

Quote of the Day

If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.
-- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg [Source]

For background on the Brooklyn College event that moved him to issue such a strong statement supporting academic freedom, see the posts at Crooked Timber: 1, 2, 3, and 4.