Friday, February 28, 2014


  1. Richard Van Noorden in Nature: Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers. "Conference proceedings removed from subscription databases after scientist reveals that they were computer-generated."

  2. Female Science Professor: Talking About a Toxic Environment. "Should you tell administrators and colleagues why you are leaving?"

  3. In Pictures: Beautiful Science. A slide show of scientific maps and infographics over centuries. Great, great stuff. Especially, the polar area diagram, also called the Nightingale's Rose -- you can see a modern, animated version here.

  4. Adam Gopnik's book review essay on atheism: Bigger than Phil. "When did faith start to fade?"

    And here we arrive at what the [atheists], whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins. We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain. A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers.

    Given the diminishment in divine purview, from Galileo’s time on, the Super-Naturalists just want the language of science not to be actively insulting to them. And here we may come at last to the seedbed of the New Atheism, the thing that made the noes so loud: the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Penguin, the Pulper -- Part II: Pulp my books, or face legal action!

“I no longer have the confidence that Penguin will stand by my book,” Mr. Varadarajan, a journalist and former editor of The Hindu newspaper, wrote. “I would be grateful if our contract is canceled, all remaining copies of my book with you are pulped, and copyright for the book is reverted to me so that I may freely distribute it electronically without the fear of any future, arbitrary withdrawal by Penguin in the face of pressure from the sort of intellectual bullies who have managed to have their way with Prof. Doniger’s book.”

In a statement on the Doniger case, Penguin — which withdrew the book before the legal case was resolved — cited a responsibility to “respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be,” and “to protect our employees against threats and harassment.”

But in his letter, Mr. Sharma, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, struck back at that logic. If Penguin refused to cancel his contract, he wrote, he would “resort to legal action,” on the grounds that “my books published by you are grave threats to Indian law as interpreted by you and to the safety of your colleagues and employees.”

More here (citing this ToI story) on this fitting response to the shameful capitulation by Penguin India.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Adding Nuance to the Marshmallow Test

This study is from over a year ago, but I came across it only yesterday. Here's an excerpt from The Marshmallow Study revisited: Delaying gratification depends as much on nurture as on nature.

For the past four decades, the "marshmallow test" has served as a classic experimental measure of children's self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later?

Now a new study demonstrates that being able to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by innate ability. Children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task waited on average four times longer—12 versus three minutes—than youngsters in similar but unreliable situations. [...]

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

Michael Bourne's meditation on this study alerts us to the possibility that the way the original study was presented to the public was essentially an appeal to our own tendency towards instant gratification: we are all suckers for simple stories that gel with our own worldview.

Changing Face of Business Leaders

Jena McGregor at The Washington Post has an interesting story summarizing recent research on the changes over the last 30 years in the composition of top leaders in US firms: The resume that makes for a top executive.

... [T]he majority of these top executives now have undergraduate degrees from state universities, with only a fraction going to college at one of the Ivies. Nearly 11 percent of the top executives are foreign-educated, up from just 2 percent in 1980. And however few women there may be in leadership positions, they actually climbed the corporate ladder faster than men, spending fewer years, on average, in each job and taking a shorter time to get to the top. [...]

Interestingly, the education backgrounds of top corporate leaders are becoming much more equal over time. In 1980, just 32 percent of leaders went to a public university. By 2001 that had grown to 48 percent, and in 2011 the number reached a majority, with 55 percent of corporate leaders going to state colleges. While the percent of Ivy Leaguers has dropped slightly, from 14 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in both 2001 and 2011, those with degrees from private non-Ivies has plummeted, falling from 54 percent in 1980 to just 35 percent in 2011. [...]

That’s not to say elite schools don’t still hold sway among MBA-holders and the very top leaders. If you look at the three most senior executives in each organization (say, the CEO, CFO and chairman), 21 percent have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school, compared with 10 percent overall. Additionally, 40 percent of all the executives who hold MBAs got them at one of the top 20 ranked business schools in the country, many of which are at Ivy League universities.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mathematical Valentine

It's never too late to enjoy a beautiful math demo. Enjoy!

Hat tip to Tim Gowers via G+.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Graffiti Gandhi

Over at WSJ's India Real Time blog, a neat story -- How Gandhi Made It to Police Headquarters -- on a huge portrait of Mahatma Gandhi painted on a side wall of the Delhi Police Headquarters. This mural was done, with official permission, of course, as a part of a street art and graffiti festival at Delhi.

The pics alone are worth a click!

Penguin, The Book Pulper

If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, ‘My feelings are more hurt than yours’.
-- Monica Ali, quoted in Kenan Malik's op-ed in The Hindu.

* * *

In an utterly abject move, Penguin India has reached an out-of-court agreement with a fringe outfit to "withdraw and pulp all copies" of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History. There have been many expressions of dismay and outrage at the way the publisher pulper caved in, and quite a few point to the irony in the fact that the same pulper stood solidly behind one of its celebrated novelist who faced a fatwa not too long ago:

Kenan Malik in The Hindu:

Twenty five years ago on February 14, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Salman Rushdie, for the “blasphemies” of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. It is perhaps disturbingly apposite that this should also be the week in which Penguin, the publishers of The Satanic Verses, should so abjectly surrender to hardline Hindu groups over Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, agreeing to withdraw it from publication in India. The contrast between the attitude of the old Penguin and that of the new Penguin tells us much about how much the Rushdie affair itself has transformed the landscape of free speech.

Arundhati Roy's open letter to Penguin:

Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. You existed long before publishing became just another business, and long before books became products like any other perishable product in the market—mosquito repellent or scented soap. You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why? You have all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle. Had you stood your ground, you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers. You must tell us what happened. What was it that terrified you? You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least. [Bold emphasis added]

See also: Wendy Doniger's statment in which she promises a longer article on this issue soon.

Then there's also this telling 'reveal' in this interview of a leader of the fringe outfit; it's an apt illustration of the novelist Monica Ali's quote at the beginning of the post.

Why does it matter so much to you about what someone writes about Hinduism?

If someone makes a cartoon of the prophet Mohammad, Muslims are outraged around the world. So why should anyone write anything against Hinduism and get away with it? [...]

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Interview with the Other Bharat Ratna

NDTV has a Walk the Talk interview of Prof. C.N.R. Rao. Shekhar Gupta, the interviewer, may appear a bit of a bumbler on science-related matters, but he's sharp at other times -- watch his glee when he probes Prof. Rao for his views on the pseudoscience of the M.M. Joshi kind!

There are lots of things in there, here are a few to watch for: his work on high Tc superconductors, his appreciation of Neville Mott, and his description of science as a kind of healthy virus.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

End of an Era: The Maruti 800 Edition

"The 800" was our first car, like it probably was for most Indian car owners. It served us well for nearly 12 years, even while acquiring a few hits and bumps along the way. It was still quite solid when we replaced it with its more spacious and much more expensive cousin, the Swift. A major repair and a fairly attractive buy-back offer helped us in rationalizing our choice to go for a (not entirely necessary) new car. While Swift is doing a fine job ferrying us around and its comforts make us feel pretty good about being ferried around in it, we still have fond memories of that cute little machine that was a part of our lives for such a long time.

So, it is with nostalgia that we note the end of the line for "the 800":

Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s Gurgaon plant rolled out the country’s last Maruti 800 car last month, ending the hatchback’s three-decade run on Indian roads after a phase-out that began four years ago.

The last of the Maruti 800s rolled off the production lines on 18 January, C.V. Raman, executive director of engineering at Maruti Suzuki, said in Hyderabad on Friday. [...]

More than 2.7 million units of the Maruti 800 have been sold since it was launched in India in 1983.

Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car maker by sales, has already stopped selling the hatchback in 16 cities, including in all the metros, as it became unviable for the company to upgrade the car to comply with BS IV emission norms. It began to phase out production of the car in 2010.

Maruti 800 today sells “very well” in rural markets, Raman said. [Bold emphasis added]

Monday, February 03, 2014

Gaming Google Scholar

Google Scholar has been well received by the research community. Its promises of free, universal, and easy access to scientific literature coupled with the perception that it covers the social sciences and the humanities better than other traditional multidisciplinary databases have contributed to the quick expansion of Google Scholar Citations and Google Scholar Metrics: 2 new bibliometric products that offer citation data at the individual level and at journal level. In this article, we show the results of an experiment undertaken to analyze Google Scholar's capacity to detect citation-counting manipulation. For this, we uploaded 6 documents to an institutional web domain that were authored by a fictitious researcher and referenced all the publications of the members of the EC3 research group at the University of Granada. The detection by Google Scholar of these papers caused an outburst in the number of citations included in the Google Scholar Citations profiles of the authors. We discuss the effects of such an outburst and how it could affect the future development of such products, at both the individual level and the journal level, especially if Google Scholar persists with its lack of transparency. [Bold emphasis added]

That's the abstract of a recent paper -- The Google scholar experiment: How to index false papers and manipulate bibliometric indicators -- by Emilio Delgado López-Cózar, Nicolás Robinson-García, and Daniel Torres-Salinas. [Link via Retraction Watch].

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Giving All Your Students A+ Can Get You Fired

That's what happened to a physics professor at the University of Ottawa, where he gave an A+ grade to each of the 23 students in his freshmen physics course.

Given the professor's extreme actions and the university's equally extreme response, one would have thought the two parties would have tried to find some middle ground. But no, they took the case to an arbitrator, whose decision upheld the university's extreme punishment.

That story is worth reading just for the kinds of arguments each side brought to the arbitrator.


  1. Sendhil Mullainathan in NYTimes: Get Some Sleep, and Wake Up the G.D.P.. A great essay on the economic consequences of (lack of) sleep; along the way, we get this about the role of technology:

    Technology is an obvious culprit here. Web searching and cellphone use both flourish in the wee hours. Before the dawn of the web, I would stay up watching television. But there is something soporific about television: I would often nod off. Not so when I’m online. As technologies expand, these problems may only worsen.

  2. Andrew Anthony in The Guardian: The British amateur who debunked the mathematics of happiness.

  3. Ross Pomeroy in Real Clear Science has an example each for scientific articles with the shortest editorial, the shortest abstract, and the shortest paper. I knew about the last one, but the other two are pretty good, too. The one with the shortest abstract has an author from IIT-K.

  4. SMBC on Gay Sex and Bad Weather.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Things I learn that make me go "WTF?"

... [It] is difficult, if not downright counterproductive, for public colleges and universities to tap private resources or seek to leverage old school ties with alumni to raise funds. The University Grants Commission’s practice of deducting such philanthropic contributions from a university’s grant-in-aid leaves little incentive for these institutes to conduct aggressive fundraising campaigns. While philanthropy cannot substitute public investment in education, there is certainly space for private players — at the individual and corporate levels — to drive change. An enabling regulatory regime would only help. [Bold emphasis added]

That's from this editorial in The Indian Express.

Is it true that UGC actually deducts "philanthropic contributions from a university's grant-in-aid"? Are our regulations really this bad?

Funding Boost 2: IISc Gets Rs. 225 Crores for Brain Research

This is the second major announcement this week, and this one is a philanthropic donation from the Pratiksha Trust run by Kris Gopalakrishnan, co-founder and ex-CEO of Infosys. The funding is specific to starting a major initiative in brain research at IISc.

Pratiksha Trust funds social projects (ToI).

A brain research centre at a cost of Rs 225 crore will come up here in a joint effort between Indian Institute of Science and a trust formed by Infosys executive vice-chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan and his wife.

The Trust will grant Rs. 225 crore over 10 years towards the establishment and functioning of the Centre, which will receive support from the Centre for Neuroscience and other research facilities at IISc and collaborate with various research hospitals across the city.

The Centre ... would be dedicated to study the numerous aspects of the functioning of the brain with specific goals to find cures for neurodegenerative conditions and diseases that are accelerated by old age. It will also work for a better understanding of relative functions of the brain as well as leveraging the existing understanding of its functioning to create better models of computing. [...]

Funding Boost 1: IIT-Hyderabad Gets a Soft Loan of Rs. 1300 Crores

This week saw announcements about huge funding boosts at two institutions. I'm posting the first one here: IIT-Hyderabad to get Rs. 1,336-crore aid.

... The institute will get a whopping Rs. 1,336 crore to set up a permanent campus building at Kandi on the city outskirts and to procure of high-end research equipment.

The fledgling IIT will receive the amount as a part of the Japanese Official Development Assistance (JODA) loan through the Central government. ...

... The project will be executed by IIT-H, and the expected year of completion is 2018. It is the result of an understanding reached between the Prime Ministers of India and Japan for funding and sharing of technical knowledge.

Eminent professors from the University of Tokyo will be involved in the preparation of concept design and architectural plans for some important campus buildings. An additional technical cooperation project envisages enhanced academic, research and human exchange network, besides conduct of joint research under the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS).