Monday, November 28, 2011

The Good Old Days

In sharing his memories of a friend who passed away recently, Swarup writes about his own father's tenure as the Head Master of a village school:

It seems that those days some of the students would not come to school during busy farming days. Apparently, the first Head Master would go to the farms and persuade the farmers to send the students to school.

I'm now reading the biography of Prof. K.S. Krishnan, and early in the book, the authors -- D.C.V. Mallik and S. Chatterjee -- write about the American Mission College, Madurai, that Krishnan attended after finishing high school in 1914:

...[Rev. Zumbro, Principal, American Mission College] used the age-old method of sending 'beaters' to the city and the nearby villages to announce the vacancy of seats. When people gathered in response to the loud beating of the drums, they were treated to a persuasive speech, originally prepared by Zumbro, that extolled the virtues of modern higher education and how American College was the place where this was readily available.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Quick Note

While it has always been nice to see people becoming "followers" of this blog using the "Friend Connect" feature in the side bar, I never quite figured this feature out. I mean, aside from allowing one to declare one's interest in a blog (which I have done at several places), it didn't seem to do much else. Now, it turns out even Google is not quite clear what to do with it, and the company has announced that it's killing this tool. I don't know if this is of any consequence to anyone, but I just wanted to note that it'll soon be gone forever.

FWIW, I have set up a Google+ page for Nanopolitan. I don't foresee any (special) activity there -- I just wanted to claim the name +Nanopolitan before someone else did.


  1. B. Aravind Kumar: A Question of Ratings. "As many as 44 universities were bracketed under ‘C'. [... It is likely that many of the 44 deemed-to-be universities could be reverted to college status again."

  2. Christopher Shea: Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology. "Even legitimate researchers cut corners, some admit."

  3. Emily Ramshaw and Ryan Murphy: Payments to Doctors by Pharmaceutical Companies Raise Issues of Conflicts. "Dr. Stanley Self, a part-time psychiatrist at Texas’ state-run Rusk psychiatric hospital, earns $166,000 a year from the state. He also earned at least $145,000 from drug companies in 2009-10, largely for speaking engagements. ..."

  4. Noah Smith: Niall Ferguson does not know what "Western Civilization" means. "... By "Western," Niall Ferguson is not referring to a geographic region, a political system, an economic system, or a religion. He is not even referring to a specific set of countries. He is referring to a set of people; people who have pale pinkish skin, fine wavy hair, and prominent eye ridges. By "Western," Niall Ferguson means "white people." Asian Americans may have American passports, Ferguson thinks, but civilizationally speaking they are permanent foreigners. ..."

  5. Andrew Hill: Inside McKinsey. "The world’s most prestigious consultancy prides itself on its intellectual prowess and ethical standards. But this year, an insider trading scandal surrounding former McKinsey luminaries has left staff and alumni reeling"

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Perfect Terrorist

A chilling profile of David Headley (the guy who scouted the targets of 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai) by ProPublica's Sebastian Rotella. About an hour or so, over at PBS Video.

Economic Efficiency

From Cosma Shalizi's fable on Pareto optimality and economic efficiency:

And so, in yet another triumph, the market mechanism has allocated a scarce resource, viz., the turkey, to its most efficient use, viz., being turned into artificial shit. What makes this the most efficient use of the scarce resource? Why, simply that it goes to the user who will pay the highest price for it. This is all that economic efficiency amounts to. It is not about meeting demand, but meeting effective demand, demand backed by purchasing power.

Video Links

  1. A neat video on the Montessori method: Superwoman was already here! [via Christopher Shea]

  2. Errol Morris: The Umbrella Man: "On the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Errol Morris explores the story behind the one man seen standing under an open black umbrella at the site."

  3. A TEDx talk by Jay Smooth: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race [see also this shorter video How to tell people they sound racist].

  4. Oh, what the heck. Here's Kolaveri. It has traveled as far as Salman Rushdie and Mark Liberman.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Department of "Awesome-if-true": 37 % of those who got through JEE didn't use "specialized coaching'"

A good catch by commenter Raj:

Candidates appearing for JEE prepare either through “self study” or through “specialized teaching (other)”. Data (Table A8) for JEE 2011 shows that 295618 out of 468280 (63.1%) have prepared using “self study”. Out of the 13196 candidates who qualified, 4912 (37.22%) have used the “self study” mode.

What are the odds that the sociological data collected by JEE is just deceptive fluff? [And, yes, this probably means the income effect is tainted as well].

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stats for JEE-2011: Income Effect

Just skimmed through the report on JEE-2011. It has all kinds of sociological data (though not fine-grained enough for us to perform our own analysis). Here's an interesting set of data on the candidates' parental income.

According to parental income

Table A13 shows the zone wise distribution of candidates according to annual income of parents. Out of the 468280 candidates who appeared, 146882 (31.36%) had a parental income of less than 1 Lakh. 195220 candidates (41.69%) had a parental income between 1-3 Lakhs. Another 19.3% have a parental income between 3-6 Lakhs, while 4.87% have parental income between 6-10 Lakhs. 12520 candidates (2.67%) have parental income exceeding 10 Lakhs. The percentages for qualified candidates for the five slabs of parental income are 17.1%, 31.7%, 30.47%, 11.86% and 8.86% respectively. The income slabs used in JEE 2010 data analysis was more or less similar. However it is observed that a large percentage of appeared as well as qualified candidates belong to the low to middle income groups.

The report doesn't tease out the implications on the income effect on JEE outcomes, but we certainly can. When we do that, we find a clear trend:

Income No. of JEE Takers No. of JEE Qualifieds Pass %
Less than 1 lakh 146882 2258 1.54
1-3 lakhs 195220 4183 2.14
3-6 lakhs 90560 4021 4.44
6-10 lakhs 22835 1565 6.85
More than 10 lakhs 12520 1169 9.34
Total 468280 13196 2.82

In other words, a candidate from the top income slab is 6 times more likely to get through JEE than one from the lowest slab. This advantage is "only" 4 times when the comparison group is from the second lowest slab (which also has the largest number of candidates).

Website of the IIT System

In an interesting move, the IITs have come together to create a website for the entire system. And they have made a good start by populating it with all kinds of interesting documents of historical / archival value.

This page has reports of various IIT-related committees, right from the famous Sarkar Committee Report (which prepared a blueprint of sorts for the IITs) all the way to the infamous Kakodkar Committee report (which we had a chance to discuss sometime ago).

All in all, a good initiative with a great potential as a must-visit site for all things IIT.

* * *

This page features reports on the entrance exams conducted by the IITs in the years 2010 and 2011. The reports on JEE 2010 and 2011) are worth checking out!

Saturday, November 19, 2011


"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides."
--John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

From Brad DeLong's post:

* * *

Here's a juicy put-down, found in Paul Krugman's post:

"He’s a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like."
--Ezra Klein (about someone called Dick Armey)

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Can Well Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?"

Female Science Professor in The Chronicle: Can Well-Behaved Women Make (Academic) History?:

... [In responding to sexist slights] my tendency [is] to react in a calm, polite way, perhaps with a bit of humor or gentle sarcasm. Except in extreme cases, I prefer not to respond to insulting remarks with anger, and I try to move on with the research, teaching, or service task at hand.

It is important to note that I do not let every offensive remark pass without comment. For example, if I am serving on a hiring or awards committee, I speak up when I hear colleagues make derogatory or unfair comments about female (or any) candidates. The comments I tend to ignore are the ones directed at me, when I have to make a choice about how to respond in the context of my work environment.

My choice to react calmly and politely stems from several sources, including my personality (I dislike confrontation and argument) and my belief that this approach has been effective for me over the years.

This response from a law prof is seems appropriate: "... if you are regularly subjected to comments like the one you described ('You are only here because we needed a woman on the committee"), as well as the denigrating remarks you have heard directed at other women, then your department - and perhaps your college or university - has a legal problem that is waiting to blow up."

Library as a Social Hub: What about the Books?

I'm not sure how many will agree with this rant about where some of the university libraries (in this specific case, it's the one in New Castle) are headed; I find it difficult, for example, to even see his point about research skills being all about negotiating through musty / dusty old shelves. But there are some good bits:

The place, when busy, now often feels like a cross between an airport, Disney World, a social services drop-in centre and a primary school. Management no longer sees it as a centre of learning, a place set apart to provide the student with resources for study and research, but rather as a transient, exploitable ‘space’, an extension of the full-on uni experience, with added books, to be moulded to whatever ‘lifestyle’ the management thinks students find attractive or will demand. But the worst was yet to come.

This summer, management started removing books. The reasoning was explained in a loop heralding ‘Phase 1 of the great transformation’ that played endlessly on a TV at the library exit: ‘Welcome back to your refurbished Robinson Library. You asked, we listened... We have moved loads of shelving to make room for more study spaces. We’ve shifted crate-loads of the less-used stock to provide more light, more room and a more comfortable space to study in. And created a greater variety of study areas. Choose the one that best suits your work-style!’ And the final picture — empty chairs with the words ‘Now that Phase 1 is all done, we are just waiting for you to fill the empty spaces!’ Phase 2, it promises for 2012, will continue this noble mission.

The Social Graph?

It's neither social nor a graph. So argues Maciej Ceglowski, founder of It's heavygoing at first, but patience pays! Here's something from the second part that shines:

Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.

Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it. It's as if an ad agency built a nationwide chain of pubs and night clubs in the hopes that people would spend all their time there, rigging the place with microphones and cameras to keep abreast of the latest trends (and staffing it, of course, with that Mormon bartender).

We're used to talking about how disturbing this in the context of privacy, but it's worth pointing out how weirdly unsocial it is, too. How are you supposed to feel at home when you know a place is full of one-way mirrors?

We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage - we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. ...

Prejudice against Ugliness

Jon Stewart's The Daily Show tackles the economics of prejudice against ugly people.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Ugly People Prejudice
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Infosys Prize - 2011

Congratulations to my colleague, Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy, for winning this year's Infosys Prize in Physical Sciences. And it's great to see one of the two Social Sciences Prizes going to Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Here's the Jury's citation for Sriram:

Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy's work on the mechanics and statistics of active matter has given birth and shape to this rapidly growing field. He has used simple yet powerful arguments based on symmetry and conservation principles to uncover the strange laws governing the collective behavior of active particles in a medium, which could be motor proteins walking on cytoskeletal filaments, or schools of fish swimming in an ocean and forming a pattern. He was the first to conceive of an order parameter description of living matter that was connected to stresses and strains, to elasticity, hydrodynamics and thermodynamics. The body of work by Ramaswamy and his group, starting and illuminating an area considered by many to be the most interesting recent departure in the science of soft matter, has led to a large and growing collection of theoretical predictions and their verification. It has led to significant, controlled experimentation on real biological systems as well as on relevant non-living model systems.

This page has info on all the Prize winners, including their bio, and a detailed write-up about their work.


  1. At the Chronicle: Trends in international enrollments in US Universities: International Enrollments at U.S. Colleges Grow but Still Rely on China. The accompanying interactive map has more info on the top countries sending students to the US. China tops the list with over 157K (up 23% from last year), and India is second with 103K (down 1 %). [The table of institutions with the most international students is also interesting].

    Biggest surprise (at least for me)? On a per capita basis, Saudi Arabia sends seven times as many students as China.

  2. Peter Singer: Should we ban cigarettes?.

  3. The Scientist: Libel case against Nature starts.

    Opening arguments in the libel trial against the venerated scientific journal Nature got under way last week in London’s High Court. Egyptian physicist Mohamed El Naschie is suing the publication for running a 2008 news story that he claims damaged his reputation. The article alleged that El Naschie self-published numerous papers in the Elsevier-owned theoretical physics journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, where he served as editor-in-chief for 17 years. The Nature story ... also claimed that El Naschie listed several honorary professorships and other affiliations that journalist Quirin Schiermeier could not confirm.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Prof or Hobo?

This 'quiz' is funny, though I'm not able to figure out who's being mocked.

Here's another such quiz: Donald Judd or Cheap Furniture [via Fabio Rojas]

Awesome Comment of the Day

Olaf Storbeck blogged last weem about an upcoming conference to discuss "the merits and demerits of repeating oneslf." The immediate provocation for the meeting appears to be the outing of Bruno Frey as a serial self-plagiarizer.

Justus Haucap chimes in with an awesome comment:

Olaf, I heard there will be only one paper, but read and re-read numerous times.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Power of the Unconscious

Let's say you see / hear some stuff that makes an impression on you. And then you seem to start seeing similar stuff at a rate far higher than what you think is normal. Does this phenomenon have a name? [Update: It does: Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. In a kind-of-BM, the moment I saw Nishant-Dasgupta's comment giving me the name, I knew I had asked the same question and got the same answer several years ago].

Anyways, here's a bunch of links that came my way within the last three days:

  1. David Eagleman in Discover: Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

    The Knowledge Gap

    There can be a large gap between knowledge and awareness. When we examine skills that are not amenable to introspection, the first surprise is that implicit memory is completely separable from explicit memory: You can damage one without hurting the other.

    Consider patients with anterograde amnesia, who cannot consciously recall new experiences in their lives. If you spend an afternoon trying to teach them the video game Tetris, they will tell you the next day that they have no recollection of the experience, that they have never seen this game before—and, most likely, that they have no idea who you are, either. But if you look at their performance on the game the next day, you’ll find that they have improved exactly as much as nonamnesiacs. Implicitly their brains have learned the game: The knowledge is simply not accessible to their consciousness.

  2. Shreeharsh Kelkar: Propositional Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge: The Case of Tennis. Commenting on an article by Jonah Lehrer, he points out the role of coaches [and others] in translating "propositional knowledge of physics" into a bunch of practices that allow players to flaunt their "tacit knowledge".

    Lehrer points out - correctly - that that laws of tennis are ultimately the laws of physics but the speed of the game means that no player actually computes the trajectory of the ball using Newtonian mechanics while playing. Instead the knowledge is displayed tacitly, in the way their bodies move, in the way they adjust their footwork and their racket motion, etc. In Michael Polanyi's terms, this is tacit knowledge - knowledge that is expressed in action but is hard to express propositionally. [...]

    "The top-ranked guys are all intuitive physicists," Hofmann says. "They know how the ball will bounce even if they can't explain why. This is what allows them to change their strategy based on the surface."

    I don't want to de-emphasize how talented the top tennis players are. But this makes it seem as though that that the only way of bringing propositional knowledge of physics into the game is if the players start calculating in their heads. If you look at the role of knowledge in tennis, as simply something that gets displayed on courts, then, sure, there's only tacit knowledge. But if you look at the world of tennis as a network (channeling Edwin Hutchins and Bruno Latour), then the propositional knowledge of physics comes into it at a number of different points: [...]

    Coaching: Coaches help to get a lot of propositional knowledge on to the courts. What's a "good" service action? How much back-swing should you have while playing a stroke? Is a long back-swing bad for grass? A lot of this is backed up by actually thinking about physics and it gets incorporated into a player's game. Novak Djokovic recently improved his service by making a "minor" adjustment - but this may have been key to his recent success because he is able to get some free points on his serve (69 more aces, according to the article).

  3. Samuel McNerny in Scientific American: A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You are not Your Brain

    Lakoff and Johnson to publish Philosophy in the Flesh, a six hundred-page giant that challenges the foundations of western philosophy by discussing whole systems of embodied metaphors in great detail and furthermore arguing that philosophical theories themselves are constructed metaphorically. Specifically, they argued that the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. What’s left is the idea that reason is not based on abstract laws because cognition is grounded in bodily experience (A few years later Lakoff teamed with Rafael Núñez to publish Where Mathematics Comes From to argue at great length that higher mathematics is also grounded in the body and embodied metaphorical thought).

    As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

  4. And here's a great quote from Vaughn Bell:

    ... The drive to "understand ourselves", the mantra of 21st century pop psychology, often produces more complex, more acceptable, "reasons", but little additional understanding of what causes us to react as we do. Ironically, this is where psychology has helped me out the most. There are causes we will never know about and sometimes it’s better to live with the ambiguity. I suspect we understand ourselves better by knowing the limitations of our insight.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


From Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry at Smithsonian [with a guest appearance by Nikola Tesla]:

The concern at Edison [that their DC technology could be wiped out by AC technology from Westinghouse] was palpable, as sales agents around the country were demoralized by Westinghouse’s reach into rural and suburban areas. But Thomas Edison had an idea. Surely Westinghouse’s system must be more dangerous, what with all that voltage passing through the wires. “Just as certain as death,” Edison predicted, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” [...]

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity “is a good idea,” Edison said at the time. “It will be so quick that the criminal can’t suffer much.” He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be “Westinghoused.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


  1. Three Biggest Myths about Women in Tech by Allison Scott and Freada Kapor Klein.

  2. Do Government School Teachers in Tamil Nadu educate their own children in Government schools or Private Schools? by Satyanarayan at Education in India.

  3. The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share, adapted from Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science.

  4. Chart: One Year of Prison Costs More than One Year at Princeton by Brian Resnick at The Atlantic.

Drug Reps' Tactics

After posting Dr. E.A.S. Sarma's warning about the potential for conflict of interest created by research funding by industry, let me follow it up with a link to Dan Ariely's description of drug reps' tactics in getting doctors to compromise on their ethics:

... One clever tactic that they used was to hire physicians to give a brief lecture to other physicians about a drug. Now, they really didn’t care what the audience took from the lecture, but were actually interested in what the act of giving the lecture did to the speaker himself. They found that after giving a short lecture about the benefits of a drug, the speaker would begin to believe his own words and soon prescribe accordingly. Psychological studies show that people quickly start believing what is coming out of their own mouths, even when they are paid to say it. This is a clear case of cognitive dissonance at play; doctors reason that if they are touting this drug, they must believe in it themselves — and so they change their beliefs to match up with their speech.

The reps employed other tricks like switching on and off various accents, personalities, political affiliations, and basically served as persuasion machines (they may have mentioned the word “chameleon”). They were great at putting doctors at ease, relating to them as similar working people who go deep-sea fishing or play baseball together as peers. They used these shared experiences to develop an understanding that the physicians write prescriptions for their “friends.” The physicians, of course, did not think that they were compromising their values when they were out playing with the drug reps.

That last sentence sums it up nicely: the trick is to play this game in which doctors become "willing victims." There's quite a bit of literature on such shady tactics (some of which could be quite unsubtle): see, for example, articles by Marcia Angell and Daniel Carlat. There have also been several news stories.