Monday, September 23, 2013

Prof. Venky Ramakrishnan on Bicycles

The Nobel laureate has penned an opinion piece for The Telegraph (Kolkata) about the benefits of bicycles -- to the cyclists, to the cities, to the environment.

It's great to see him committing some sociology, and even quoting Arundhati Roy:

I suspect that the indifference or even contempt towards cyclists has its roots in the increasing segregation of the well-off from the rest of India.

The prosperous classes have effectively seceded from the masses, as pointed out by Arundhati Roy. They live in their own private bubbles, never encountering public spaces let alone the public.

They go from their home into their car from which they leave their gated compound, only to emerge in an equally private space, whether it is their place of work or their club, a restaurant or a friend’s home. They never encounter the general public except as people to serve them as domestic servants, waiters, shop attendants, etc.

They only observe the streets through the windows of an air-conditioned car, or perhaps from a speeding motorcycle. If advertisements are to be believed, they don’t even look like the masses, but rather like tanned Westerners. They certainly do not bicycle. And given the poor infrastructure and the condition of the streets, who can blame them?

By abandoning the larger society, the well-off in India are impoverishing themselves. They may live in luxurious, well-equipped homes, but their world has shrunk dramatically into a self-made prison.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sendhil Mullainathan on Mental Bandwidth

The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less:

Imagine that you are attending a late-afternoon meeting. Someone brings in a plate of cookies and places them on the other side of the conference table. Ten minutes later you realize you’ve processed only half of what has been said.

Why? Only half of your mind was in the meeting. The other half was with the cookies: “Should I have one? I worked out yesterday. I deserve it. No, I should be good.”

That cookie threatened to strain your waistline. It succeeded in straining your mind. [...]

Many diets also require constant calculations to determine calorie counts. All this clogs up the brain. Psychologists measure the impact of this clogging on various tasks: logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information. Together these tasks measure “bandwidth,” the resource that underlies all higher-order mental activity. Inevitably, dieters do worse than nondieters on all these tasks; they have less bandwidth.

Dysfunctional Academia: A Resignation Letter

In a a resignation letter, an (ex)-EPFL student (revealed to be one FeuDRenais, who shows up in the comments section) takes a cold, hard look at all the dysfunctional aspects of academic life (probably, the STEM side of it). An excerpt:

(6) Academia: Statistics Galore!

“Professors with papers are like children,” a professor once told me. And, indeed, there seems to exist an unhealthy obsession among academics regarding their numbers of citations, impact factors, and numbers of publications. This leads to all sorts of nonsense, such as academics making “strategic citations”, writing “anonymous” peer reviews where they encourage the authors of the reviewed paper to cite their work, and gently trying to tell their colleagues about their recent work at conferences or other networking events or sometimes even trying to slip each other their papers with a “I’ll-read-yours-if-you-read-mine” wink and nod. No one, when asked if they care about their citations, will ever admit to it, and yet these same people will still know the numbers by heart. I admit that I’ve been there before, and hate myself for it.

Thanks for the e-mail pointer go to Pradeepkumar.

"IIT Directors Reject Kakodkar's Model for Financial Autonomy"

Anubhuti Vishnoi has a news story on an apparent display of spinal stiffness and intellectual autonomy:

Arguing that IITs are not just teaching institutes, IIT directors have suggested that the institutes continue to be funded considerably and in fact be treated as "strategic assets of the nation". To be taken up at the IIT council meeting slated for September 16, this view of IIT directors on the Kakodakar Committee's recommendations on governance, autonomy and finances says that "the proposed model is not consistent with the funding pattern of any reputed public research university". "If IITs are to become institutes with an international profile, the expenses are likely to increase significantly compared to the current amounts and this must come from the Government rather than student fees and overheads", the IITs have said.

Since the quotes appear to be from a letter to MHRD, it would be nice to see this document in full. I wonder if it is available in the public domain.

Ramachandra Guha on Current Science

For Guha, it all started with Prof. Balaram's editorials:

I first began subscribing to Current Science for Balaram’s editorials. These sometimes analysed the less salutary aspects of science (as when he wrote about the politics of prizes or the prejudices against women scientists), sometimes noted anniversaries of important or critical discoveries, sometimes explained the origin and spread of new sub-fields, sometimes spoke of the need for scientists to communicate to a wider public. The last injunction he put into practice, for his own editorials were written in an elegant, understated style.

Soon, I found other reasons to read Current Science. For one thing, it carried well-researched essays on climate change and on biodiversity conservation, two areas that I had an interest in. For another, it had really excellent obituaries. [...] This was a journal that cared about the traditions and histories of the men and women of Indian science. The obituaries it carries (averaging one or two an issue) are a model: sketching the scientist’s intellectual development, his or her major contributions, while not forgetting to mention personal landmarks (where born, where died, whether married, how many children, etc).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


  1. Conversation with a Field Biologist in India -- Vijaysree Venkatraman interviews IISc alumna Swati Diwakar who is now a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies, Delhi University.

  2. Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity. An in-dept report on HBS's sustained, persistent and on-going experiment in which "Harvard Business School gave itself a gender makeover, changing its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success."

  3. Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers? -- an NBER working paper by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, Kevin B. Soter. Their answer to the question: No!

Sunday, September 15, 2013


  1. Now that the UGC has issued guidelines for foreign universities to set up shop in India on their own (i.e., not necessarily with an Indian partner), a reality check.

  2. Japan debates reforms in its system of entrance exams. [Previous posts on Examination Hell: 1, 2].

  3. 25 nerdy jokes from many fields. Example: "There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t."

Now Online: Volume 1 of Feynman Lectures in Physics

A gorgeous new website now hosts this classic! Enjoy.

* * *

The other two volumes will also presumably go online -- but I haven't seen any info on such plans.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Of Cellphone Radiation and Sparrows

[UPDATE: Harmful but not lethal an article from the print edition of today's The Hindu newspaper has some content from the essay below.]

A wave has a wavelength, usually thought of as the length of a successive crest and trough. When continuous and unobstructed, a wave repeats this ‘crest+trough unit’ endlessly. If we stand at a location, how many such crest+trough units pass us in a given time determines the frequency of the wave. Longer the wavelength, shorter the frequency of a wave.

Sea waves and sound waves require medium (matter) to propagate. But electromagnetic (EM) radiation are waves that don’t require a medium to propagate. Sunlight is an example, called the visible radiation. All such EM waves we put to use can be placed in a slot in the electromagnetic spectrum, a continuous band of several wavelengths (and hence, frequencies) as shown in the accompanied graphics.

In photoelectric effect electrons are released from metals subjected to EM radiation bombardment. Importantly, this effect depends on the frequency of the incident radiation and not on its intensity. This was shown in 1905 by Einstein and is a direct proof of the quantized nature of electromagnetic radiation. In 1922, he won his Nobel for this proof. Take home point? Higher the radiation frequency of the EM wave, greater the ‘damage’ caused by that radiation.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Automated Management

I have been avoiding this sort of blogging for some years now, but then...

The body of an unsolicited email I received now reads:
Dear (My name),
This is from the Editorial Board Office of Journal of Management Science and Practice (MSP).
We recently read your paper titled “Thermal management using the bi-disperse porous medium approach ”
Considering your research in related areas, we cordially invite you to extend this paper and publish a new research in our journal.
You are welcomed to submit your papers online at (link)
Best regards,
Editorial Assistant
The concerned paper is about controlling temperatures and overheating of electronics by using metal porous media of two different length scales (small and large pores mixed together). Tempted to say the email invitation reiterates what I have been suspecting (typecasting) for long about 'management' subjects.

This trend of copy/paste invitation of relevance from 'research journals' with a 'business model' is a major hindrance in research publishing and is a contributing factor that galvanizes the myopic equation "Open Access = BAD" even among well-meaning academics in editorial boards.

Sunday, September 01, 2013


  1. A BBC news story on affirmative action policies in Brazil's federal universities. Almost all the arguments -- for affirmative action and against -- sound so familiar!

  2. Mail Online on the extent of faculty crunch in India's "top institutes".

  3. Greg Mankiw: A Carbon Tax That America Could Live With.