Monday, February 28, 2011

Use and Misuse of Scientometrics

In a letter in the latest issue of Curent Science, Prof. Ramasesha and Prof. Diptiman Sen (both from IISc), present a strong case against the use of scientometrics in "judging" the scientific contributions of individual scintists.

Scientometry can be helpful in assessing institutions and departments, instead of individuals. This is so because, like statistics, scientometric analysis is helpful when applied to large numbers. It can tell us about the state of activity of groups to make decisions regarding funding and remedial measures to improve a certain institution or department. But, using it to evaluate individual scientists for career advancements and recognitions must be stopped. Henceforth nominations for awards and fellowships, papers for promotion, and application forms for faculty positions should desist from asking for scientometric information of individuals. Assessments must be made solely on the merit of the scientific contributions of the individual concerned.

Ramasesha and Sen are right to demand that application forms "desist from asking for scientometric information of individuals.Here's something that was brought to my attention sometime ago by a commenter: a school of biological sciences at an IIT was proud to display on its website (alas, the URL no longer exists) the h-index expected of its faculty applicants at different levels. The commenter went on to point out that Prof. Venky Ramakrishnan, one of the 2009 Nobel winners in Chemistry, would not be eligible! [Update (10 March 2011): This particular meme is wrong. See this post. See also the comments by Giridhar and Sunil, below. The appearance of this meme here is my mistake, and it doesn't take anything away from Ramasesha and Sen's argument, below, which is a lot more carefully worded.]

Ramasesha and Sen use a similar argument:

Thankfully, for the most prestigious prize in science, it is heartening to see that scientometrics is not the basis of the award. Recent Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists who may not rank at the top either on the number of publications or on the h-index. Examples are Venky Ramakrishnan (2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry)and Koichi Tanaka (2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). It is indeed well known that in some instances the work for which a Nobel Prize is awarded becomes highly cited only after the award, as the award highlights the importance of the work.

It's a short, punchy letter. Do read all of it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi is blogging

Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi of the Department of Computer Science at IIT-K has been blogging for a while, but I discovered his blog just yesterday. Here's a quick taste of some of the things he has been blogging about lately.

  1. Are we serious about PhD program? Part I, and Part II.

    One of my colleague once said that we talk about PhD program because it is in fashion to talk about research, and we need to justify not doing research. But we really don't want to admit more PhD students because we are afraid we will have to work harder.

  2. Sexual Harassment Case at IIT-Bombay:

    I was shocked not because such an incident could take place in an IIT, but that such an incident was not swept under the rug and someone was actually being punished.

    I know of another incident in another Institute of National repute, where a faculty member even admitted that he had "touched" the female PhD student against her wishes. That he had sent emails with inappropriate contents, and many more things. And what does the Institute do. Make him the Head of the department.

  3. And this is from October 2010: Does Indian Industry Value Merit?

He has commented on a lot of things on his blog. Do check out his blog and its archives.


  1. Killugudi Jayaraman at The Great Beyond [a blog]: Indian government competition for better skin whiteners draws fire. Good to see wake up to the controversy two months after it broke. [Thanks to Sharmishta for the pointer].

    BTW, there has been no Challenge of the Month contest since the second one -- cost effective alternatives to silicones to improve feel, shine and tactile properties of surfaces -- ended on 31 Januuary 2011.

  2. Freeman Dyson: How We Know. A review of James Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

  3. Kevin Carey in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Dangerous Lure of the Research-University Model.

  4. J.B. Deaton: Do you need ideal conditions to do great work? [Hat tip: Swarup]

  5. Sunday fun link: The Girl Who Loves to Levitate (14 photos).

Abraham Verghese on Watson's role in hospitals

Watson would be a potent and clever companion as we made our rounds.

But the complaints I hear from patients, family and friends are never about the dearth of technology but about its excesses. My own experience as a patient in an emergency room in another city helped me see this. My nurse would come in periodically to visit the computer work station in my cubicle, her back to me while she clicked and scrolled away. Over her shoulder she said, “On a scale of one to five how is your ...?”

The electronic record of my three-hour stay would have looked perfect, showing close monitoring, even though to me as a patient it lacked a human dimension. I don’t fault the nurse, because in my hospital, despite my best intentions, I too am spending too much time in front of the computer: the story of my patient’s many past admissions, the details of surgeries undergone, every consultant’s opinion, every drug given over every encounter, thousands of blood tests and so many CT scans, M.R.I.’s and ultrasound images reside in there.

This computer record creates what I call an “iPatient” — and this iPatient threatens to become the real focus of our attention, while the real patient in the bed often feels neglected, a mere placeholder for the virtual record.

That's his NYTimes piece. Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

I find that patients from almost any culture have deep expectations of a ritual when a doctor sees them, and they are quick to perceive when he or she gives those procedures short shrift by, say, placing the stethoscope on top of the gown instead of the skin, doing a cursory prod of the belly and wrapping up in 30 seconds. Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: “I will see you though this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” It is paramount that doctors not forget the importance of this ritual.

An answer that might have been posed on “Jeopardy!” is, “An emergency treatment that is administered by ear.” I wonder if Watson would have known the question (though he will now, cybertroller that he is), which is, “What are words of comfort?”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Links ...

  1. Must-see: BBC's Audio Slideshow: Beautiful Science [hat tip: Dilip D'Souza].

  2. Must-read: Joshua Foer on Secrets of a Mind Gamer -- How I trained my brain and became a world-class memory athlete [hat tip: Animesh Pathak]:

    Most national memory contests, held in places like Bangkok, Melbourne and Hamburg, bill themselves as mental decathlons. Ten grueling events test the competitors’ memories, each in a slightly different way. Contestants have to memorize an unpublished poem spanning several pages, pages of random words (record: 280 in 15 minutes), lists of binary digits (record: 4,140 in 30 minutes), shuffled decks of playing cards, a list of historical dates and the names and faces of as many strangers as possible. Some disciplines, called speed events, test how much the contestants can memorize in five minutes (record: 480 digits). Two marathon disciplines test how many decks of cards and random digits they can memorize in an hour (records: 2,080 digits and 28 decks). In the most exciting event of the contest, speed cards, competitors race to commit a single pack of playing cards to memory as fast as possible.

Internship request letters

Just a quick note to alert you all to the links posted in the comments section of yesterday's post. This forum thread is a classic -- I had seen it before, but I couldn't locate it yesterday (thanks, Shyam!).

* * *

I haven't kept count, but I think some 15+ undergrad students have done an internship in my group, and that experience has been positive enough for (at least some of) them that they stay in touch with me to this day. At least seven of them have gone on to graduate school.

In the 1990s, I used to select the summer interns from the bunch that wrote to me -- and I can recall only one from this group going to grad school (those were also the times when the IT industry was like a super-sponge, absorbing engineers from all disciplines].

In the naughties, students came to my group almost exclusively through references from their teachers (I have also had a couple of them coming in through JNC's Summer Research Fellowship program). And almost all the summer interns who went to grad school are from this group.

In my experience, I have seen two types of students: some are genuinely keen to develop their research skills by spending some time in a research-intensive environment, and some who want to escape from the requirement of "in plant training" at an industry [in metallurgy / materials engineering, most of the industries are in some of the hottest parts of India!]. If there are other motivations, I have not been able to figure them out from my interactions with the students who came to our group.

In any event, I have enjoyed interacting with them, and as I said, the students also seem to have had a positive experience. I still don't know how important this summer internship business is for the students -- other than that they get to see a research group in action, giving them a chance to assess whether a research career will work for them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"After the Revolution"

This and this should be added to this compilation of cartoons about libertarianism.

That's all.

Unfilled faculty positions in India's elite institutions

Altogether, IITs have a sanctioned strength of 4,712 teaching posts, but only 3,148 are filled. The vacacny stands at 1,564 posts. IIMs have a combined faculty strength of 555 teaching posts, but only 455 are filled. There is a vacancy of 100 posts. National Institutes of Technology have 4,632 posts, but there is a vacany for 1,522 slots. Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has 150 vacancies. Out of 518 posts, only 368 are filled.

These details are from the information given to the Lok Sabha by HRD Minister of State D. Purandeswari.

Indian undergrads' internship request e-mails

They are written poorly. They get the recipient's fields and sub-fields wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. They contain boilerplate in a peculiarly quaint English. They read eerily like the Nigerian scam mails -- except for the promise of a couple of million dollars.

Many professors think they are being spammed -- so they delete these mails without even bothering to read them.

Here's Paul Goldberg:

IIT student seeks internship at your esteemed institute
A question: has anyone taken on one of these prospective interns? (And if so, how was it?) Most of them would clearly be hopeless, but there are some that look like they might be OK. The trouble is, there's some kind of economic principle at work here, that says that in a market that's flooded with bad eggs, the good eggs cannot be sold. In this case, what happens in that we end up deleting all these emails without reading them.

Goldberg also points to an earlier discussion in another professor's blog.

While these posts are about internship requests from IIT students, there's also a large number of non-IIT students who have got into this habit of sending a form e-mail to hundreds of professors.

I am in materials engineering, a field that produces perhaps 1000 Indian graduates a year, and I work right here in India. And I feel I'm getting too many of these requests. I can only imagine the frustration of professors -- especially those in the US or the UK -- in computer science and mechanical engineering where the numbers are quite easily 50 - 200 times larger than in my field.

Thanks to Raghu for the pointer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Watson vs. The Champs: Post-Match Commentary from the (Ex-) Champs

  1. Ken Jennings in Slate: My Puny Human Brain.

  2. Brad Rutter at WSJ Blogs: Ideas Market: Why I Lost to Watson.

The da Vinci Resume


Before he was famous, before he painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, before he invented the helicopter, before he drew the most famous image of man, before he was all of these things, Leonardo da Vinci was an artificer, an armorer, a maker of things that go “boom”.

And, like you, he had to put together a resume to get his next gig. So in 1482, at the age of 30, he wrote out a letter and a list of his capabilities and sent it off to Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan.

Well, we at have tracked down that resume

Plagiarism in PhD thesis taints a popular German minister

It all started less than a week ago, when a German newspaper outed a bunch of instances of plagiarism in the PhD thesis of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a popular minister in the German government; here's a Spiegel Online story from 16 February.

After trying several   evasive   maneuvers, the minister finally retracted his PhD thesis, and gave up his doctoral titlefor good. He has managed to retain his boss' political support -- for now:

Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted on Monday that she is standing by her defence minister, who is seen as something of a rising star in her conservative coalition.

"I appointed Guttenberg as minister of defence," she told reporters. "I did not appoint him as an academic assistant or doctor. What is important to me is his work as minister of defence and he carries out these duties perfectly."

Crisis in Rare Earth Elements

For scarce elements it may also mean to better manage their consumption. Crucial is to reuse and recycle where possible. The use of rare earths in electronic gadgets has risen so much that their concentration in computers is actually higher than that in mines. It pays to recycle. [Emphasis added]

From the editorial in Nature Materials [you'll probably need a subscription to read the article, though].

Monday, February 21, 2011

Example Indian

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Indian-American in possession of some years’ experience of India must be in want of a book contract.

Uh-oh, who's it this time? I haven't read Anand Giridharadas's recent book (nor am I likely to), but Mihir Sharma's review manages a snark score of 0.2 taibbi (in honor of Matt Taibbi).

Here's an excerpt:

The man [Example Indian], blissfully unaware of the burden of representation he is about to be asked to carry, will share his story. Giridharadas listens, his formidable New York Times- and McKinsey-trained interpretive skills clicking into high gear. The man will explain to Giridharadas why he turned to Maoism, or why he is divorcing his wife. Giridharadas reports the man’s words, and then explains to us why he is turning to Maoism (because Nehruvianism failed an idealistic generation) or why he is divorcing his wife (because Indians are ill-prepared for the work that comes with freedom). The Example Indian is finally summarised (“India’s complicated relationship with modernity and money cut through his own soul”) and — I am serious about this next bit — frequently compared, disparagingly, with a suitably upright or inspiring member of Giridharadas’ own family.

Hat tip to Smoke Screen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A "security" firm gets a lesson about what the word means

This is a fascinating account -- no, make that a riveting account -- of how a 'security firm' had "its servers broken into, its e-mails pillaged and published to the world, its data destroyed, and its website defaced" -- through run-of-the-mill exploits the company was well aware of, but didn't protect itself against.

And, oh, the exploits were by the group that calls itself "Anonymous".

Great, racy story. Do read all of it.

Anonymous speaks: the inside story of the HBGary hack
By Peter Bright

It has been an embarrassing week for security firm HBGary and its HBGary Federal offshoot. HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr thought he had unmasked the hacker hordes of Anonymous and was preparing to name and shame those responsible for co-ordinating the group's actions, including the denial-of-service attacks that hit MasterCard, Visa, and other perceived enemies of WikiLeaks late last year.

When Barr told one of those he believed to be an Anonymous ringleader about his forthcoming exposé, the Anonymous response was swift and humiliating. HBGary's servers were broken into, its e-mails pillaged and published to the world, its data destroyed, and its website defaced. As an added bonus, a second site owned and operated by Greg Hoglund, owner of HBGary, was taken offline and the user registration database published.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Watson vs. The Champs: Post-match commentary

Samanth Subramanian also notes the alacrity with which Watson got to the buzzer so consistently. He provides some info on how the Jeopardy rules work:

... The Jeopardy buzzer system is set up such that you can’t buzz until Alex has finished reading the entire question in his slow, perennially wry drawl; if you do, you’re locked out, and you have to watch in frustration as somebody else answers. So I figured that computer and humans both had sufficient time to take the question in and work out whether they knew the answer or not. To boot, Watson didn’t buzz electronically; he (it? his highness? Master?) had to physically depress a buzzer like Ken and Brad.

It begins to make sense for me now. When the questions took long for Alex to read, Watson got the end-of-question signal electronically, and probably had an advantage over the humans who got it visually. On the other hand, when the questions were short, the humans had the advantage. I don't know if this interpretation is correct, but take a look at the first part of Day 3. There was one category on "Actors who direct" in which the clues were just movie titles, and therefore, short. And guess what? It was the human contestants who got to the buzzer faster than Watson -- for all the five questions in that category.

There have been some commentary on Watson and what it means for natural language processing. Ben Zimmer's piece at The Atlantic is about the best. Here's an excerpt where he red-flags a bunch of wild claims made in a pre-show hype ad by Dave Ferrucci who led the Watson team.

I first encountered IBM's hype about the tournament last month, during the NFL's conference championship games, when Dave Ferrucci, the ebullient lead engineer on the project, showed up in commercial breaks to tell us about the marvels of Watson. One commercial intriguingly opens with Groucho Marx telling his classic joke: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don't know." Ferrucci then begins: "Real language is filled with nuance, slang and metaphor. It's more than half the world's data. But computers couldn't understand it." He continues: "Watson is a computer that uncovers meaning in our language, and pinpoints the right answer, instantly. It uses deep analytics to answer questions computers never could before, even the ones on Jeopardy!" Then a Jeopardy! clue is displayed: "Groucho quipped, 'One morning I shot' this 'in my pajamas.'"

Now, that's a provocative set of claims. Watson's performance in the tournament (despite a few howlers along the way) clearly demonstrates that it is very skilled in particular types of question-answering, and I have no doubt it could handle that Groucho clue with aplomb. But does that mean that Watson "understands" the "nuance, slang and metaphor" of natural language? That it "uncovers meaning in our language"? Depends what you mean by "meaning," and how you understand "understanding."

And Zimmer punctures the hype with this verdict:

... [F]or all of the impressive NLP programming that has gone into Watson, the computer is unable to penetrate the semantics of language, or comprehend how meanings of words are shot through with allusions to human culture and the experience of daily life.

Finally, a link to a post-show discussion held at IBM moderated by Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Stephen Baker on Watson's Buzzer

Stephen Baker is the man who wrote a book on the science and engineering of Watson (excerpts and an interview on the book's novel publishing model).

In his post-match article we find this interesting bit about how Watson ended up using a physical buzzer -- much like the one used by human contestants:

It was the second night of the Man vs Machine Jeopardy match that the Sony nightmare appeared to be coming true. Throughout all of the negotiations between IBM and Jeopardy!, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, each side had been obsessed with its own disaster scenario. IBM, of course, worried that its computer, Watson, would lose and look foolish, embarrassing the company and the team. Jeopardy, meanwhile, worried that Watson would grow too smart and too fast, and steamroll the human competition. This would be demoralizing and, worse, bad entertainment.

It was this concern that led Jeopardy to press IBM, only nine months before the match, to fashion a finger for Watson, so that it could physically press the buzzer. Previously, Watson had been buzzing electronically. IBM’s chief scientist, David Ferrucci, initially objected to the finger. “They’re trying to graft human limitations onto the machine,” he told me one day over lunch. This would slow down Watson’s buzzing by perhaps 8 milliseconds. He worried that Jeopardy might continue to ask for adjustments in their hunt for a fair and exciting match. [...]

There are also other bits -- especially about the second episode in which Watson demolished its opponents and produced an Epic Fail moment of its own at the end. So, go read the whole thing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bobby Fischer

NYRB carries a great review essay by Garry Kasparov -- The Bobby Fischer Defense -- on a recent biography of the iconic American prodigy: Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady.

Here's an excerpt on how Fischer transformed chess:

Fischer’s brilliance was enough to make him a star. It was his relentless, even pathological dedication that transformed the sport. Fischer investigated constantly, studying every top-level game for new ideas and improvements. He was obsessed with tracking down books and periodicals, even learning enough Russian to expand his range of sources. He studied each opponent, at least those he considered worthy of preparation. Brady recounts dining with Fischer and hearing a monologue of the teen’s astonishingly deep analysis of David Bronstein’s openings before the two were to meet in the Mar del Plata tournament in 1960. No one had ever prepared this deeply outside of world championship matches. Today, every game of chess ever played, going back centuries, is available at the click of a mouse to any beginner. But in the pre-computer era, Fischer’s obsessive research was a major competitive advantage.

In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity” was a revelation. His fresh dynamism started a revolution; the period from 1972 to 1975, when Fischer was already in self-exile as a player, was more fruitful in chess evolution than the entire preceding decade.

Watson vs. The Champs: Day 3

Once again, from über YouTuber Rashad8821. In two parts. No spoilers here.

Links ...

Sociology in maps:

  1. Nathan Yau at Flowing Data: How tech tools have changed today’s prostitution business. On Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh's recent research .

  2. Gwn Sharp at Sociological Images: Global Alcohol Consumption. Indians consume 2.5 to 4.5 liters per person per year -- about less than a third of the figure for the world champs: Russians! And we are surrounded by countries with even lower consumption. Another map shows that "spirits" are Indians' favorite drink -- as opposed to beer in most western countries, and wine in France.

  3. Jeremiah Dittmar at Vox EU: Information technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press. While the focus is on the economic impact of Gutenberg's invention, the post also has fascinating maps on how this technology "diffused" across Europe during the next 50 years .

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Watson, Watson

Some links:

  1. Greg Lindsay in Fast Company: How I Beat IBM's Watson at Jeopardy (3 Times!)

  2. Chris Matyszczyk at IBM's Watson bores as 'Jeopardy' big shot Sherlock.

  3. Henry Lieberman in The Christian Science Monitor: On Jeopardy, Watson's mistakes reveal its genius.

Watson vs. The Champs: Day 2

Short version: Watson decimates the Champs. Here's how. [Thanks, once again, to Rashad8821 at YouTube.]

Watson keeps beating them to the buzzer so consistently often that you have to wonder if the text of the question reaches Watson somehow faster than it does the human contestants. Interestingly, however, with full 30 seconds at its disposal, it gets the final question completely wrong -- When did Toronto become a US city? [For an explanation how Watson might have been confused by the clue, read this post at IBM's Smarter Planet blog].

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Watson vs. The Champs: Day 1

Thanks to a good soul called "Rashad8821", we have the video, in two parts.


I wish the program skipped the ad-like stuff at the beginning of the first segment. But the backgrounder on Watson's 'dumb' mistakes in the second segment is quite charming.

Monday, February 14, 2011

If you are not with your Valentine ...

... you might want to read about The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us -- a recent book by Sheril Kirshenbaum.

That's all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yukti: 19-20 February 2011

Yukti 2011, an event to promote scientific temper, ... will take place on Febuary 19-20, 2011 at the premises of Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat at Banashankari, Bangalore.

We've brought together the foremost experts in the war against pseudo science, providing the participants with a chance to indulge in discussions and talks on all things rational. Take a look at our speakers.

Yukti promises stimulating talks, and fun discussions. It is targeted at working professionals and students from Bangalore.

See this page for more details about this wonderful little conference put together by the good folks at Nirmukta, an organization of rationalists and freethinkers.

Thanks to A.V.N. Murthy for the e-mail alert.

Problematic AICTE reports come back to haunt two IISc professors

From yesterday's ToI: CBI Seeks Nod to Prosecute IISc Professor [a statutory disclosure appears after the excerpt]:

Prof L M Patnaik, who is now on deputation and the sitting vice-chancellor of Defence Institute of Advanced Technology, Pune, faces the threat of prosecution for allegedly giving misleading report to the All-India Council of Technical Education on starting a new engineering college near Chennai. Patnaik is allegedly a signatory to an expert committee report that visited the site at Mogappair, but recommended starting of a college at Koyambedu. [...]

... AICTE has asked IISc to take disciplinary action against a retired professor of computer science department for allegedly giving a false report regarding the facilities at an engineering college in Palakkad. The apex body sought action against D K Subramanian for being a signatory to a report that allegedly gave false information about lab facilities at a Kerala college. IISc will now write to AICTE stating that it can't take any action as the professor has retired.

[Disclosure: I have had some interactions with Prof. D.K. Subramanian; one of those was for my article on blogs and blogging which I wrote, at his request, for the newsletter of the Computer Society of India -- CSI Communications -- over five years ago. As for Prof. L.M. Patnaik, I do not recall any interaction with him.]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kinetic Sculptures of Theo Jansen

Watson is an engineering marvel made possible by a Big Science set-up -- a big team of bright folks, over $30 million, IBM. As amazing as it really is, I think it also enhances our appreciation of what one man can achieve by pursuing his passion -- watch these beauties:

If that embed didn't work, here's the YouTube link. You get a lot more when you search for Theo Jansen, the man behind these kinetic sculptures.

Hat tip: Tony Comstock guest-blogging at James Fallows' site.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Previewing Watson

When IBM's Watson plays against the two most successful Jeopardy contestants next week, we may not be able to view it live, but IBM itself is likely to make it available on YouTube. At least that's what IBM's CEO Sam Palmisano told a huge crowd of over 1000 people at IISc during the Q&A following his talk [which was a part of the IISc Centenary Lecture Series].

Which made me go to YouTube checking for videos of Watson's "practice sessions"; I found quite a few. If you don't pay attention to all the PR stuff in the videos, Watson does amaze you -- even when it gets it horribly wrong! I'm embedding three of them:

Thomas Matussek: Das ist Innovation

In his HT column on scientific cooperation and partnership between India and Germany, Thomas Matussek, the German ambassador to India, presents a nice summary of the various funding mechanisms to promote collaboration between scientific groups in the two countries.

Germany is India's second-biggest collaborator world-wide. The prestigious Humboldt fellowships have gone to 1,680 of India's best scientific minds. German and Indian scientists have collaborated successfully on more than 2,000 projects. All this has involved more than 7,000 exchanges of scientists, more than 2,000 joint scientific publications and more than 400 Indo-German workshops and seminars. There are over 170 projects in progress right now and the number is on the rise. [...]

The Max Planck Society, renowned for its excellence in basic research, is very active in India too. Since 2005, it has established some 17 Max Planck Partner Groups here, the newest addition being the Indo-German Max Planck Centre for Computer Science (IMPECS). What is now needed is a 'one-stop shop' that can give assistance on such matters to make life simpler for the prospective researcher. We are now setting up a German House of Science and Innovation in Delhi, which we hope will do exactly that.

Links ...

  1. Paul Krugman: Gradual Trends and Extreme Events

  2. Adam Gopnik in New Yorker: The Information -- How the Internet Gets Inside Us. A great review-essay on books about whether we should be happy or worried about what the internet is doing to us.

  3. Matt Chafkin in Inc.: In Norway, Start-ups Say Ja to Socialism: "We venture to the very heart of the hell that is Scandinavian socialism—and find out that it’s not so bad. Pricey, yes, but a good place to start and run a company. What exactly does that suggest about the link between taxes and entrepreneurship?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Post-Doc Culture and Computer Science

Over at Geomblog, Suresh Venkatasubramanian argues strongly against making post-doc experience a requirement for an academic job in Computer Science:

I think that this is a dangerous trend, for the following reasons:

  • Quickly, doing a postdoc will become the norm, rather than an option, when looking for academic jobs. I think this is unnecessary from a training perspective for everyone (though it might be appropriate for some).

  • One of the things that has kept CS viable academically is that people can leave after a Ph.D, go to industry, and still make it back into academia. This no longer seems to be true in places like the natural sciences, with long postdocs. I wouldn't want their career path.

  • Postdocs are glorified free labor for PIs. Salaries are miniscule, and competition is fierce. And again, it's not entirely clear that fresh Ph.Ds are so incompetent that they need 5 year postdocs to be ready for a faculty job.

  • Ph.D training suffers, because "you can fix it in the postdoc". I don't think that's healthy either.

Krugman Links

  1. The Joy of Research:

    A bit of personal meta here: I realized a few hours ago that I was actually having a good weekend, and that made me step back and think about what I actually enjoy in my current role as public intellectual.

    It’s not the hemidemisemicelebrity; I’m actually a bit uneasy about being recognized. It’s not mainly the ability to get my voice heard, either. [...]

  2. Models, Plain and Fancy:

    Karl Smith argues that informal economic arguments — models in the sense of thought experiments, not necessarily backed by equations and/or data-crunching — deserve more respect from the profession. I agree ...

    And there's More on Simple Models

  3. Bonus Link: Sexual Identity in Florida.

Monday, February 07, 2011

More on Jeopardy-Playing Watson

WSJ has an extended excerpt from Stephen Baker's Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.

... Right before the lunch break, one clue read, "The inspiration for this title object in a novel and a 1957 movie actually spanned the Mae Khlung." Now, it would be reasonable for a computer to miss "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," especially since the actual river has a different name. Perhaps Watson had trouble understanding the sentence, which was convoluted, even for humans. But how did the computer land upon its outlandish response, "What is Kafka?" Mr. Ferrucci didn't know. Those things happened, but Watson still won the two morning matches.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Watson Plays Jeopardy

Here's the latest from IBM:

What Is Artificial Intelligence?
By Richard Powers

IN the category “What Do You Know?”, for $1 million: This four-year-old upstart the size of a small R.V. has digested 200 million pages of data about everything in existence and it means to give a couple of the world’s quickest humans a run for their money at their own game.

The question: What is Watson?

I.B.M.’s groundbreaking question-answering system, running on roughly 2,500 parallel processor cores, each able to perform up to 33 billion operations a second, is playing a pair of “Jeopardy!” matches against the show’s top two living players, to be aired on Feb. 14, 15 and 16. Watson is I.B.M.’s latest self-styled Grand Challenge, a follow-up to the 1997 defeat by its computer Deep Blue of Garry Kasparov, the world’s reigning chess champion. (It’s remarkable how much of the digital revolution has been driven by games and entertainment.) Yes, the match is a grandstanding stunt, baldly calculated to capture the public’s imagination. But barring any humiliating stumble by the machine on national television, it should.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Annals of Academic Absurdities

How do you deal with a professorial colleague who pisses you off?

Tihomir Petrov, a math professor at California State University, Northridge, found a novel way.

Lekhni: Why Indian women scientists drop out

Over at The Imagined Universe, Lekhni's post on why Indian women scientists drop uut covers two recent studies published in Current Science:

Gender Divide

A bunch of links, all, except one, are from the US:

Louis Menand: Why the women’s movement needed “The Feminine Mystique.”

The persistent characterization of “The Feminine Mystique” as some kind of bolt from the blue is part of a big historical mystery. Why did a women’s movement take so long to develop in the United States after 1945? “Our society is a veritable crazy quilt of contradictory practices and beliefs,” Komarovsky wrote, about gender roles, in 1953, and, as the revisionists have demonstrated, if you pick out the right data you can identify trends in the direction of gender equality in the nineteen-fifties. The number of women enrolled in college nearly doubled in that decade, for example, and the employment rate for women rose four times as fast as it did for men. At some point, presumably, the increasing numbers of women in the educational and vocational pipelines would have produced pressure to get rid of gender discrimination. Coontz concludes that a women’s movement “would have happened with or without Betty Friedan.”

That may be so, but it’s a counterfactual assertion. ...

From his review of Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

"Technology marches on, but sexism is eternal"

Carol Tavris of The Sunday Times has a great review-essay on the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine:

The new neurosexism
Cordelia Fine has produced a witty and meticulously researched exposé of the sloppy studies that pass for scientific evidence in so many of today's bestselling books on sex differences.

Wandering wombs, an anatomically conferred destiny of penis envy and masochism, smaller brains, smaller frontal lobes, larger frontal lobes, right-hemisphere dominance, cross-hemisphere interaction, too much oestrogen, not enough testosterone – all have been invoked to explain why women are intellectually inferior to men, more emotional, less logical, better at asking for directions, worse at map reading, hopeless at maths and science, and ever so much better suited to jobs involving finger dexterity, nappies and dishes. Today we look back with amusement at the efforts of nineteenth-century scientists to weigh, cut, split or dissect brains in their pursuit of finding the precise anatomical reason for female inferiority. How much more scientific and unbiased we are today, we think, with our PET scans and fMRIs and sophisticated measurements of hormone levels. Today’s scientists would never commit such a methodological faux pas as failing to have a control group or knowing the sex of the brain they are dissecting – would they? Brain scans don’t lie – do they?

Well, yes, they would and they do. As Cordelia Fine documents in Delusions of Gender, researchers change their focus, technology marches on, but sexism is eternal. ...

Friday, February 04, 2011

Teaching, Research, B-Schools

FT has a scathing op-ed by Freek Vermeulen of London Business School [hat tip:]:

Popular fads replace relevant teaching

But business education clearly also suffers [due to the divide between teaching and research]. What is being taught in management courses is usually not based on solid scientific evidence. Instead, it concerns the generalisation of individual business cases or the lessons from popular management books. Such books often are based on the appealing formula that they look at several successful companies, see what they have in common and conclude that other companies should strive to do the same thing.

But how do you know that the advice provided is reasonable, or if it comes from tomorrow’s Enrons, RBSs, Lehmans and WorldComs? How do you know that today’s advice and cases will not later be heralded as the epitome of mismanagement?

See also: Timothy Devinney's response.

Related link: Michael Skapinker on Why business still ignores business schools

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Shane Greenstein: Bing "crosses a line."

Shane Greenstein of Kellogg School of Management asks [hat tip to Mark Thoma]:

... why does Bing’s imitation of Google’s search results seem to cross some sort of ethical line? Why does Microsoft’s conduct leave me shaking my head, wondering why Bing’s management did not put its nerdy foot down and just say “That is shameful. Let’s not go there.”?

Here's the first part of his answer:

There is nothing wrong with one retailer walking through a rival’s shop and getting ideas for what to do. There is renothing wrong with a designer of a piece of electronic equipment buying a rival’s product and studying it in order to get new ideas for a better design.

In the modern Internet, however, there is no longer any privacy for users. Providers want to know as much as they can, and generally the rich suppliers can learn quite a lot about user conduct and preferences.

It also means that rivals can learn a great deal about how users conduct their business, even when they are at a rival’s site. It is as if one retailer had a camera in a rival’s store, or one designer could learn the names of the buyer’s of their rival’s products, and interview them right away.

In the spat between Google and Bing, it boils down to this:

the transaction between supplier and user is between supplier and user, and nobody else should be able to observe it without permission of both supplier and user. The user alone does not have the right or ability to invite another party to observe all aspects of the transaction.

That is what bothers me about Bing’s behavior. [...]

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"delhipublicschool40 chdjob" = Bing Fail!

"delhipublicschool40 chdjob" was one of the "honeypot" phrases used by Google in its sting operation on its rival Bling [See also Danny Sullivan's scoop and commentary for a very good description of how the sting was implemented.].

Looks like somebody at Google is an alumnus of Delhi Public School. Could it be Amit Singhal -- "a Google Fellow who oversees the search engine’s ranking algorithm" --himself?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sexual Harassment: IIT-B Sacks a Professor

Details here.

Going by news reports, IIT-B appears to have handled this case in a professional way. It's good to see that the institution has clear procedures and institutional mechanisms in place to deal with charges of sexual harassment. Also noteworthy is the reiteration by the Institute officials of its policy of "zero tolerance" in dealing with this menace.

The institute had first received a formal complaint by the victim against Prof Gupta in March 2009, said the press release. Before this, the case was informally reported to the Student Counsellor attached to Dean of Student Affair’s office in December 2008. After weeks of verifying and ascertaining facts, a suspension order was issued to Prof SK Gupta, who is a senior professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering.

A panel was formed to probe into case in March 2009. In cases of sexual harassment, the complaint committee of the Women’s Cell initiates an inquiry with just a complaint. “In such cases, the complaint itself is treated as a chargesheet,” the statement reads.

The inquiry was concluded in August 2009 and a report was submitted to the Director of IIT Bombay. A copy of the report was provided to Prof Gupta too.

“We have zero tolerance for such incidents and a probe into the matter was conducted immediately in a systematic way and as per the rules and regulations laid by the institute. During the proceedings of the panel, Prof Gupta was given an opportunity to cross examine the victim and other witnesses. All procedures laid down for the conduct of the inquiry were scrupulously followed,” a senior official from IIT-B said.

Thus, while the investigation itself appears to have been concluded in under five months after the charge was made, there has been a huge delay in getting the guilty verdict ratified by various administrative entities.

In another report yesterday, we find this:

Gupta, however, said norms were violated during the probe. “I was not even given a chargesheet,” he said. The IIT-Bombay administrator said the probe was conducted according to procedures laid down by the institute.