Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Rolls Royce of Chalk - Part Deux

Gizmodo has a cute story -- Why Mathematicians Are Hoarding This Special Type of Japanese Chalk. Apparently, the firm that made these chalks is no more.

I posted a link to a post at the Williams College blog on the legend of Hagomoro chalks (this post is also fondly quoted in the Gizmodo story):

3. So what is the best chalk out there?

I have wrestled with this question and spent a bit of time pursing this over my sabbatical last year. There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists. It is called the Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.

For those lucky few who have used it, it can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk. [Bold emphasis added]

Visa Venkateswara: Part Deux

BBC has a pictorial story on temples whose gods specialize in visas. Chilkur Balaji temple is one of the two shrines covered there; the other is a gurdwara in the Punjab village of Talhan.

The essay features a priceless picture of toy airplanes offered by the devotees at Talhan; this alone is worth a click on that link!

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'Part Deux' is because this is the second time that this phenomenon appears in this blog. The first time was 9 years ago!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ricardo Hausmann on The Education Myth

His Project Syndicate column argues that education is not what we should look to for economic growth.

... [T]hough the typical country with ten years of schooling had a per capita income of $30,000 in 2010, per capita income in Albania, Armenia, and Sri Lanka, which have achieved that level of schooling, was less than $5,000. Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.

A country’s income is the sum of the output produced by each worker. To increase income, we need to increase worker productivity. Evidently, “something in the water,” other than education, makes people much more productive in some places than in others. A successful growth strategy needs to figure out what this is.

Make no mistake: education presumably does raise productivity. But to say that education is your growth strategy means that you are giving up on everyone who has already gone through the school system – most people over 18, and almost all over 25. It is a strategy that ignores the potential that is in 100% of today’s labor force, 98% of next year’s, and a huge number of people who will be around for the next half-century. An education-only strategy is bound to make all of them regret having been born too soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fired: ISI Director Bimal Roy

Update: I'm adding more information and links at the end. See also the comments.

* * *

The firing of Prof. Bimal Roy from the post of the Director of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata, seems unusual because (a) a new Director is to take charge in less than two months (b) the said new-Director has also been identified, and (c) Bimal Roy is among the recipients of the 2015 Padma Awards. To top it all, the official order says the man is being fired "to prevent indiscipline and mischief, and to prevent the eventualities of administrative malfeasance."

Here's an excerpt from the order from MoSPI, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation:

... A number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities which show the direct or supervisory responsibilities for acts of omission and commission on the part of present Director, Prof. B.B. Roy, are available in the Ministry in the various files on the different subjects.

There is justified and reasonable apprehension that the present Director, Prof Bimal Roy may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety in the interregnum up to 31st July, 2015 (before the new Director, Prof S Bandyopadhyay takes charge on 1st August 2015)

After this news became public, the Chair of ISI Council, Dr. Arun Shourie, has defended the order from MoSPI, saying that the Government had no option.

Given the unusual combination of a blunt verdict and vague allegations about possible future crimes, it is surprising that no news organization has chosen to dig deeper. The silence of The Telegraph, in whose backyard all this stuff is happening, is not just surprising, but also deeply puzzling!

* * *

Update 1 (20 June 2015):

  1. The Wire has a story (thanks to commenter Pulsereed) with some additional details culled from a petition seeking Justice for ISI, and from this Reddit thread.

  2. Outlook also has a story with original reporting by Dola Mitra: Portal Of Unease ("The ISI director is ruthlessly sacked as curtains are drawn shut in secrecy").

    Thanks to a comment (by "counterfeiter", an ISI alum), we now know of this Facebook page ("Justice for ISI") which features messages of support for Prof. Roy, and messages of protest against the Ministry; it also features video messages from ISI alums who are now academics in the US.

  3. The petition (which I have signed) gives some background information, and concludes with the following demands:

    1. Proper independent public investigation must be done regarding the Ministry's allegations against Prof. Roy, the charges against Prof. Roy must be presented to the council, and a proper hearing must be conducted by the Council, before deciding upon the next course of action.

    2. The audio recording of the Director selection meeting along with its transcript should be released immediately and investigated by independent authority.

    3. Till these investigations are over and the Council decides otherwise, citing valid proof, Prof Bimal Kumar Roy should be immediately reinstated at the position of interim Director.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sir Tim Hunt: Part Deux

  1. "... [Yes], I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was OK. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.”
    -- Sir Tim Hunt

  2. That assertion -- "I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way" -- is strongly disputed by Deborah Blum, who was there and who quized him about what he meant. [Update: She elaborates on those tweets in an essay at The Daily Beast.]

  3. Michael Eisen offers a different perspective on Hunt's self destruction, and it involves a previous event in Kashmir: Sympathy for the Devil?

  4. Geoffrey Pullum in CHE: 36 Words.

  5. #DistractinglySexy -- storified!

Sunday, June 14, 2015


  1. Barbara Oakley in Nautilus: How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math. "Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need."

  2. William Kremer in BBC: The strange afterlife of Einstein's brain. A truly bizarre story.

  3. Steven Shapin in WSJ: Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History. A review of Steven Weinberg's book To Explain the World. The following excerpt gets to the main problem with an enterprise like Weinberg's:

  4. There’s a story told about a distinguished cardiac surgeon who, about to retire, decided he’d like to take up the history of medicine. He sought out a historian friend and asked her if she had any tips for him. The historian said she’d be happy to help but first asked the surgeon a reciprocal favor: “As it happens, I’m about to retire too, and I’m thinking of taking up heart surgery. Do you have any tips for me?”

    The story is probably apocryphal, but it displays a real asymmetry between two expert practices. The surgeon knows that his skills are specialized and that they’re difficult to acquire, but he doesn’t think that the historian’s skills are anything like that. He assumes that writing history is pretty straightforward and that being a 21st-century surgeon gives you a leg up in documenting and interpreting, for example, theories of fever in the 17th century. Yet not every kind of technical expertise stands in this relation with the telling of its history. Modern installation artists don’t think they can produce adequate scholarly studies of Dutch Golden Age paintings, and it’s hard to find offensive linemen parading their competence in the writing the history of rugby.


  1. Carnegie Mellon Reels After Uber Lures Away Researchers (Mike Ramsey and Douglas Macmillan in WSJ)

  2. Deepak Singh in The Atlantic: 'I've Never Thanked My Parents for Anything'. "In America, saying thank you is routine. In India, it can be insulting."

  3. Chris Woolston in Nature: Fruit-fly paper has 1,000 authors "Genomics paper with an unusually high number of authors sets researchers buzzing on social media." See also a related story from physics.

  4. The Economist: Keeping it on the company campus. "As more firms have set up their own “corporate universities”, they have become less willing to pay for their managers to go to business school."

  5. A picture gallery on 150 years of mathematics in the UK in The Guardian

Sir Tim Hunt

A high-caliber scientist has some unscientific notions about women scientists. Who knew?

A couple of links on the Nobel laureate's thoughts "his trouble with girls".

  1. Marion Walker in Nobel laureates must set an example to their field, not bring shame."Sir Tim Hunt's resignation as honorary professor at University College London must not be the end of the debate over gender in science."

  2. #Distractinglysexy Twitter campaign mocks Tim Hunt's sexist comments

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Computer Science, Women, NYTimes!

NYTimes has yet another story on how some college or the other is doing such a great job of attracting, and retaining, women in its computer science program. If it is the University of Washington this time, it was Harvey Mudd last year, and Carnegie Mellon back in 2007. These are the ones I have read; there may be others that I didn't even know about. [Update: And, oh, there's also this from 2011, though it is not quite about women in computer science].

It would have been interesting if the later stories showed some awareness of the earlier ones -- for example, if Carnegie Mellon did some great things get a lot more women into its computer science program back in 2007, how well is it doing now? Has it improved enrollment figures for women even further? Has it hit a wall? Has it let things slide?

But, but ... I'm just quibbling here. The most recent intervention by NYTimes in the Women-in-Computer-Science debate is quite good in its coverage of the kinds of experiments at different places (UWashington, Michigan State, Harvey Mudd, Harvard, ...), as well as of the kinds of curriculum-related debates within Computer Science.

Doing Science is, in fact, "Rocket Science"

Leonard Mlodinov has an op-ed in NYTimes arguing against the myth that science is just a series of flashes of intuitive insights that just hit people by accident.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle’s “Physics” was a wide-ranging set of theories that were easy to state and understand. But his ideas were almost completely wrong. Newton’s “Principia” ushered in the age of modern science, but remains one of the most impenetrable books ever written. There is a reason: The truths of nature are subtle, and require deep and careful thought.

Over the past few centuries we have invested that level of thought, and so while in the 19th century the Reuters news service used carrier pigeons to fly stock prices between cities, today we have the Internet.

Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.

But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson ... We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren’t quick, or easy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bad Incentives are behind Big Science Frauds

Updated with links.

* * *

Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, the folks behind Retraction Watch have penned an op-ed in NYTimes: What’s Behind Big Science Frauds? They flag a circle of behaviours to support their thesis that "the incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature"

  • Science fetishizes the published paper as the ultimate marker of individual productivity. And it doubles down on that bias with a concept called “impact factor” — how likely the studies in a given journal are to be referenced by subsequent articles.

  • Journals with higher impact factors retract papers more often than those with lower impact factors.

  • Scientists view high-profile journals as the pinnacle of success — and they’ll cut corners, or worse, for a shot at glory.

  • [The reviewers at top journals] seem to keep missing critical flaws that readers pick up days or even hours after publication.

  • [P]erhaps journals rush peer reviewers so that authors will want to publish their supposedly groundbreaking work with them.

The news that appears to have triggered this op-ed is a recent retraction of a high profile paper. Since the original paper was on a topic of wide interest, it got picked up by many news outlets. Now that many problems with the data presented in the paper have been uncovered, the senior author (Prof. Donald Green, at Columbia) has sought a retraction, the journal (Science) has responded with an expression of concern, and the junior author (Michael LaCour, a grad student at UCLA) says he stands by his study and promises a comphrehensive response by the 29th of May.

Read the whole thing at Retraction Watch: Author retracts study of changing minds on same-sex marriage after colleague admits data were faked.

Here's a round-up of how various news outlets which covered the original paper have responded to the retraction.

* * *

Update (26 May 2015): An Interview With Donald Green, the Co-Author of the Faked Gay-Marriage Study by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine.

How the Gay Rights Canvassing Study Fell Apart by Naomi Shavin in The New Republic.

Anil Kakodkar speaks out

In the NDTV interview by Shekhar Gupta, Dr. Kakodkar opens up on recent controversies surrounding selection of IIT directors, as well as the government's disgraceful treatment of Prof. Shevgaonkar, director of IIT-Delhi. Kakodkar chooses his words carefully (at one point he says he "stays within limits"), but the subtext is clear.

Here's the video -- the IIT-related discussion starts after 10 minutes or so. The interview is set to continue next week as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Ultimate Kill Bill - Volume II

Watch this interview of HRD Minister Smriti Irani by Rajdeep Sardesai:

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[Self-plagiarism alert!]

In the (unlikely) event that you haven't seen the two Kill Bill volumes (errr, movies), here's the iconic scene from the first volume.

The Ultimate Kill Bill - Volume 1

Watch this interview of HRD Minister Smriti Irani by Arnab Goswami:

In the (unlikely) event that you haven't seen the two Kill Bill volumes (errr, movies), here's the iconic scene from the first volume.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Gender and Affirmative Action Policies in India

S. Rukmini in has an interesting report in The Hindu -- ‘Quotas for education helped SCs, but boys alone reaped the benefit’ -- summarizing the results from a recent study.

The broad conclusion is in line with another study from 2008: Affirmative Action in Education: Evidence from Engineering College Admissions in India (pdf) summarized in a Mint op-ed by the authors. Key quote: "... we find that the affirmative action policy appears to hurt female applicants, given that a higher percentage of those let in through affirmative action are males."