Monday, August 27, 2012

How to Cheat A Lot More

A couple more links that reached me through my Google Reader stream recently:

  1. David Streitfeld in NYTimes: The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy:

    In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.

    There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month. [... snip, snip ...]

    One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

    And this stuff is super-awesome:

    Mr. Rutherford tried to start another service, Authors Reviewing Authors — a scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours approach. Authors preferred receiving over giving, however, and that venture failed.

  2. Ben Murray in India Ink: The True Culprits of College Data Fudging.

Exotic White Culture

Les Blanches Exotiques, a mono-themed Tumblr blog, is getting some serious attention and links. Especially for this post:

The beautiful white dialect

I love how beautiful and simple the exotic white dialect is. Because it has less words and lacks any logical grammar, it just sounds so peaceful, calming, and real. You can just feel the emotion when you listen to them speak. It varies from tribe to tribe, but throughout the white motherland is basically the same. I took a two-week service trip to build a McDonalds with authentic white food and lived with an authentic white family, so I know. It’s so sad that they’ve started using civilized words from modern languages, “cash” and “pajama.” It must be because there’s no concept of cash in white culture. Did you know they have twenty different words for “coffee” but no word for “self-aware?”

[More about the blog here]

How to Cheat a Lot

A bunch of links on academic cheating at different levels.

  1. We already saw this article about the Shadow Scholar, the guy who earned a living selling term papers, academic reports and even parts of masters and PhD thesis to clueless or lazy students in American universities. Apparently, he has quit that line of work, and written a book -- The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat -- about that experience. The Chronicle has a commentary on the new book: An Academic Ghostwriter, the 'Shadow Scholar,' Comes Clean:

    The book also offers an unsettling account of higher education at perhaps its most cynical and mercantile. Some of his clients are rich and entitled, and see outsourcing their papers as a logical extension of the transactional nature of their relationship with their college. Others are simply unprepared for college because they lack the ability or the language skills to communicate adequately in English.

    "There was a clear economic demand for it," he said, during an interview, of students' interest in his services. "To them it was a financial transaction utterly consistent with everything else about college."

  2. Gautam Naik in WSJ: Journals' Ranking System Roils Research:

    The IF is easily gamed, too. One in five academics in economics, sociology, psychology and business said they had been asked by editors to pad their papers with unnecessary citations to articles in the same journal, according to a study published in Science in February.

    Here's another example:

    In April, Phil Davis, a publishing consultant who writes for a blog called The Scholarly Kitchen, noticed unusual citation patterns at Cell Transplantation.

    In the blog, Mr. Davis noted that a review article published in another journal, Medical Science Monitor, had cited a total of 490 articles in the field, of which 445 were articles that had appeared in Cell Transplantation alone, in 2008 and 2009. Both those years were used to compute the 2010 impact factor for Cell Transplantation, and those citations apparently had an effect: the journal's IF rose from 5.126 in 2009 to 6.204 in 2010, a jump of 21%.

  3. Richard Holmes at University Ranking Watch: Self Citation:

    In 2010 Mohamed El Naschie, former editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, embarrassed a lot of people by launching the University of Alexandria into the world's top five universities for research impact in the new Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. He did this partly by diligent self citation and partly by lot of mutual citation with a few friends and another journal. He was also helped by a ranking indicator that gave the university disproportionate credit for citations in a little cited field, for citations in a short period of time and for being in a country were there are few citations.

    Clearly self citation was only part of he story of Alexandria's brief and undeserved success but it was not an insignificant one.

    It now seems that Thomson Reuters (TR), who collect and process the data for THE beginning to get a bit worried about "anomalous citation patterns". [...]

    El Naschie's shenanigans (with ample assist from another academic) were the subject of an excellent article titled Integrity Under Attack: The State of Scholarly Publishing by Douglas Arnold.

Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Write a Lot

Another book on how to write; this time, a lot. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia is short, light-heart-ed throughout and good. It primarily attends to academic writing in the field of psychology but also contains essential advice that holds true for any science writer in academia.

By 'writing', Paul means not only the act of putting words onto a medium but includes any and all tasks related to generating those words. Thinking, analyzing data, drawing graphs, reading related literature, making notes, editing and re-writing, revising a manuscript, writing rebuttals... activities that makes you progress in a particular project involving writing. However, it doesn't include doing peer reviews of research, chatting up with colleagues even on a research problem, discussing research with your students, teaching, committee meetings and so may be already doing "a lot" in any or all of these, but these are not writing activities. Not surprisingly, 'blogging' doesn't feature at all -- neither in the 'writing' nor in the 'not writing' group of activities. Perhaps, one should neither schedule nor feel distracted about pastimes.

The first two chapters -- if not the rest -- are worth the price of the book. The second chapter on Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot hits the mark with humor. It correctly identifies some of the 'lies' we tell repeatedly until such time we start believing them as 'reasons' for not writing more. Complaining about 'not finding time' is one such. One should not 'find' time to write; one should make time to write.

Here is another sample from that chapter:

When unproductive writers complain that they don’t have fast Internet access at home, I congratulate them on their sound judgment. A close look at Figure 2.1 (where Paul shows a picture of his writing desk with an old laptop and few other rudimentary stuff) shows that there’s no Internet cable plugged into the computer. My wife has fast Internet access in her home office, but I don’t have anything. It’s a distraction. Writing time is for writing, not for checking e-mail, reading the news, or browsing the latest issues of journals. Sometimes I think it would be nice to download articles while writing, but I can do that at the office. The best kind of self-control is to avoid situations that require self-control.

“In order to write,” wrote William Saroyan (1952), “all a man needs is paper and a pencil” (p. 42). Equipment will never help you write a lot; only making a schedule and sticking to it will make you a productive writer.

I could immediately relate to the above advice. A not so different sentiment is discussed some years back in Disconnecting Distractions essay by Paul Graham. He uses two computers, one with the internet and the other where the real work gets done, without it.

At the end of the second chapter Paul Silvia provides the remedy for thwarting such 'writing barriers': Schedule your writing and stick to it. That is the only way one could write a lot; at least in academia (non-fiction). Sounds too simple? Scheduling a task means hermetically sealing oneself from the rest of the tasks and thoughts that life's juggernaut generates at any instant and doing only that task, come what may. From my limited experience, I would agree with him.

The rest of the book, in my opinion, is an overstatement of this idea. If you can take my 'blogger' words for granted, close this book at the end of the second or perhaps third chapter (Motivational Tools). And make a schedule for your writing and stick to it. OTOH, go ahead and read the book and then schedule your writing; the results should convince you that you should have taken my word.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


  1. Simon Rich in the New Yorker: Unprotected.

  2. Scott Barry Kaufman: Brain Stimulation Makes the 'Impossible Problem' Solvable.

  3. James Gorman: Pardon Me! A Fearless Look at Our Bodies’ Mundane Functions [A review of Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping and Beyond by Robert R. Provine.

There's something rotten in Academia

  1. Joern Fischer: Why we need a new culture of science. He's also a co-author of a piece titled Academia’s obsession with quantity

  2. Stephen Curry at Occam's Typewriter: Sick of Impact Factors

  3. Björn Brembs: Journal Impact Factors Are Silly And Everybody Knows It

  4. DrugMonkey: A Smear Campaign against Impact Factors, ... and the Sheep of Science

Write to the Top!

How to go about prolific publishing in academia? If prolific writing can be learnt through profligate reading, here is a book on the topic: Write to the Top!: How to Become a Prolific Academic by W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen. As the book title suggests, it provides tips, advice and suggestions on how to become a prolific writer in academia; to write better non-fiction like research publications, books and book chapters on technical topics, grant proposals. Non-fiction is our intent in such writing, not necessarily their final content.

In all sincerity, there are sixty four elaborate tips segregated into relevant chapters, on how to become prolific. Beginning with how to establish a well honed writing habit, the book discusses pertinent issues like systematic writing from start to finish, when to collaborate and when to cut losses, tackling thoughts and emotions that block productivity and so on up to cautionary remarks on how not to lose perspective about our life in our pursuit for being prolific; You are the writer, writing is not you.

Although most of the academic publishing aspects mentioned in the book (how to fumble with, write, edit, edit and edit a research paper, how to submit, peer review polemics, dealing with rejection and success etc.) were apprenticed from an excellent adviser, I did enjoy reading this book. It provides a comprehensive, and at times inspiring, reminder about academic writing, its purpose and prominent-but-not-pervading place in a balanced academic life. The book is not set in a lighter tone, if you are looking for such sugar to make you read the medicine, but meets its goal, which is fine with me.

From one of the tip, here are some “scholarly irrationality” in academic writing

  • I must be successful in getting all of my work accepted for publication.
  • I ought to be an outstanding scholar, clearly better than other writers and professors in my department, university, or discipline.
  • I have to be greatly respected and loved by colleagues and editors.
  • If a reviewer or editor caustically denigrates my work or rejects me, he or she is obviously worthless and should be removed from the position of power.
  • If a reviewer or editor caustically denigrates my work or rejects me, it just proves that I am worthless and will always fail.
  • I should find writing easy and enjoyable like other scholars in my college and field.
  • If the audience at a professional conference should react negatively to my paper, it would be catastrophic — so awful I would probably vomit, faint, and be barred from ever attending the conference again.

According to the authors, if you are in academia and cannot relate to any of the above then you perhaps are either unproductive or too far on the wrong side of tenure.

In this context, the only 'inspiration' I could end this with is, there is no such thing as good luck in research publication. Painstaking work, coupled with careful risk taking, is required for success. Success; not necessarily -- as the above "scholarly irrationality" warn us -- significance.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Digital Life in Dangerous Clouds

A couple of weeks ago, Mat Honan wrote a must-read post for those of us who love this version of living dangerously: How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking.

With lots of help, and after spending considerable sums of money, his digital life appears to be back on track: How I Resurrected My Digital Life After an Epic Hacking. Towards the end of this post, he gets to the lessons from this nasty episode:

I’ve been asked again and again what I’ve learned, and what I now do differently. I’m still figuring some of that out.

I’m certainly a backup believer now. When you control your data locally, and have it stored redundantly, no one can take it from you. Not permanently, at least. I’ve now got a local and online backup solution, and I’m about to add a second off-site backup into that mix. That means I’ll have four copies of everything important to me. Overkill? Probably. But I’m once bitten.

And then there’s the cloud. I’m a bigger believer in cloud services than ever before. Because I use Rdio, not iTunes, I had all my music right away. Because I use Evernote to take reporting notes, everything that I was currently working on still existed. Dropbox and 1Password re-opened every door for me in a way that would have been impossible if I were just storing passwords locally via my browser.

But I’m also a security convert. [...]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Research Replicated

In Good Scientist! You Get a Badge ["Precious research money is wasted on unreal results, but we can change the culture of science."] Carl Zimmer presents some shocking evidence of research results that fail the replication test:

C. Glenn Begley, who spent a decade in charge of global cancer research at the biotech giant Amgen, recently dispatched 100 Amgen scientists to replicate 53 landmark experiments in cancer—the kind of experiments that lead pharmaceutical companies to sink millions of dollars to turn the results into a drug. In March Begley published the results: They failed to replicate 47 of them.

He then goes on to describe an interesting new initiative:

After her own rough experience with replication, [Elizabeth] Iorns went on to become an assistant professor at the University of Miami. Last year she also became an entrepreneur, starting up a firm called Science Exchange that brings together scientists with companies that can perform the services they need—everything from sequencing DNA to producing a genetically engineered mouse. And today she’s using Science Exchange to launch a service called the Reproducibility Initiative. If it works, it could be a strong medicine for what ails science these days.

Here’s how it is supposed to work. Let’s say you have found a drug that shrinks tumors. You write up your results, which are sexy enough to get into Nature or some other big-name journal. You also send the Reproducibility Initiative the details of your experiment and request that someone reproduce it. A board of advisers matches you up with a company with the experience and technology to do the job. You pay them to do the job—Iorns estimates the bill for replication will be about 10 percent of the original research costs—and they report back whether they got the same results.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Memories of Another Counseling Session

Here's something triggered by New Prof's post on her experience with a recent counseling session at her institution.

* * *

Place: A high profile science and engineering institution in India.

Time: Eons of internet time. Maybe a year ago.

Occasion: Counseling session for the in-coming undergrad students.

A part of the session is devoted to informing the students about what they can expect to study and learn in different streams of specialization. Typically, someone from each stream makes a short presentation, with an overview of the curriculum and the philosophy behind its design.

For the math stream, the professor used the pitch that learning at the undergrad level would be significantly different from what they did at high school -- in that it's not just about learning new concepts, but also about rigorous proofs. The experience, he suggested, might even be a bit like learning a new language.

He then went on to describe all the exciting courses designed for the math students by the department.

During the Q&A, a parent commented that while the curriculum is all great and fine, it still lacked something very, very important: a course on Vedic Mathematics. He wondered how the learned faculty at this great institution could neglect this important field of knowledge, developed by the great sages of ancient India.

The temperature in the hall dropped by a few degrees in anticipation of how the professor was going to handle this tricky question -- a bouncer from the right field [pardon the mixed metaphor].

The professor's answer is what I call an Epic Win (I'm relying on my memory here, so this is not an exact quote):

You remember what I said about our curriculum -- that it's a bit like learning a new language? You see, when you learn a new language, you learn the prose first, before getting to the great poems in that language!

Two Videos on Plagiarism

Both via Andrew Gelman (here and here).

First, here's Tom Lehrer's non-video song (getting the words may be a bit difficult at first -- you might want to read the lyrics while listening):

And the second is from the University of Bergen, Norway (you'll need to turn the subtitles on):

Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer

By now, you should be familiar with the names of these two journalists who got into trouble, and have received some punishment, for plagiarism (FZ), manufactured quotes (JL) and a bit of self-plagiarism (JL). If not, start with this post at the Atlantic Wire by Alexander Abad-Santos [I thank my friend and colleague Atul Chokshi for the e-mail alert].

There has been quite a bit of commentary on the Lehrer affair which unravelled several weeks ago. Let me point you first to Mark Liberman's posts which shine a spotlight on the practice of "unquotations" which he says is so common in mainstream journalism; after laying out his case with tons of examples in two posts (Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan and Journalistic Unquotations, and More Unquotations from the New Yorker), Liberman provides a recap/summary in which he distinguishes between "journalistic carelessness and journalistic deceit" -- in Approximate Quotations.

Andrew Gelman, on the other hand, highlights the most important difference between the case of Jonah Lehrer and so many other cases involving academics: Lehrer got punished. The title of Gelman's post says it all: Double standard? Plagiarizing journos get slammed, plagiarizing profs just shrug it off.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fab Four from Our University Laundry List

...according to Krishna Kumar, Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.

He discusses the four major differences between Universities, ours and theirs (i.e. the West), in a lead opinion piece in The Hindu.

Providing samples is difficult when the rant is as wholesomely scathing as this one. First in his list is 'faculty selection'; here is how, according to him, we do it:
We start discouraging talent early, but a few bright youngsters manage to come up despite our best efforts. They are the ones who face the greatest resistance from our institutions at the time of selection for vacancies.[...] If there is someone with an unusual background or achievement, you can depend on the selection committee to find a technical ground to reject him or her. [...] Democratic procedures and correctness have become incompatible with respect for quality. [...] Selection committees debate over the finest of technicalities to justify the selection of the average, allowing anyone with sheen to get stuck and lost in the maze of criteria.
Read the entire article on how we compare in other issues like teaching, research, libraries.

JEE, Engineering and Reality

In a recent TOI article titled Anyone worried about what’s wrong with our education?, Prof. T. T. Narendran from IIT Madras observes:
JEE ranks do not correlate well with the academic performances at IITs. Rarely has the JEE topper finished first in the BTech programme.
If the primary occupation of the engineer should be creation, design and development of new products, then the very existence of engineering education in this country looks purposeless.
Although not offering any solution, Prof. TTN raises several concerns about the current engineering education system. Read more...

Friday, August 10, 2012


  1. Matt Honan in Wired: How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking

  2. Patrick Combs in FT: A man walks into the bank. "Patrick Combs deposits a junk-mail cheque for $95,000 – for a joke. The bank cashes it." And follows it up with a series of foolish actions.

  3. Peter Griffin in Forbes India: The Olympics: Still sexist after all these years.

  4. Nishita Jha in Tehelka: After fairness cream, vaginal tightening cream is here to empower the Indian woman.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Quantum of Tweed

British writer Conn Iggulden is known for his historical mysteries. He took a break perhaps, with this one released in the Kindle Singles format. This novella is a send up of James Bond type of spy stories. A 'light' story, tightly plotted, fast paced to suit the genre and format, The Quantum of Tweed features the exploits of a super spy -- (in)appropriately named, Albert Rossi -- who is everything a James Bond is not. Although tagged '00' by a mysterious voice over telephone and licensed to kill, Albert manages to keep the license fresh, and yet strikes havoc and gold and eventually gets away rich. Even as he plans and tries to assassinate the adversaries, they get eliminated without his 'service', first by happenstance, then by coincidence and finally by enemy action (remember Goldfinger?).

The book is not exactly hilarious and no single line is LOL type funny, but throughout its short span (took my slow reading self, less than an hour to complete) holds your smile and attention in place. There are no 'Bond girls', no BMWs (but our man has a Nissan Micra), no gadgets or Walther PPKs (our man favors a Colt), but the plot has enough twists and action. As expected, there aren't any character development or sub-plots, or for that matter an intricate main plot. But it doesn't get as nonsensical and absurd as the 'detective story' from the Nonsense Novels of Stephen Leacock either. This is a story that mocks at spy thrillers and mafioso don-corleone-ish stuff in a stiff upper lip Brit way.

A quick and thrill read that leaves you stirred but not shaken.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Assessing Academic Researchers

...the Stanford Chemistry department way.

From the Angewandte Chemie April 2012 editorial by Prof. Richard N. Zare:
How do we judge someone’s worth as a researcher?
We do not look into how much funding the candidate has brought to the university in the form of grants. We do not count the number of published papers; we also do not rank publications according to authorship order. We do not use some elaborate algorithm that weighs publications in journals according to the impact factor of the journal. We seldom discuss h-index metrics, which aim to measure the impact of a researcher’s publications. We simply ask outside experts, as well as our tenured faculty members, whether a candidate has significantly changed how we understand chemistry.
That is, 'outside expert opinion' through 10 to 15 letters of recommendation from international experts. Perhaps more RTI compliant than the MIT way of assessing tenure-worthiness?

These views are presented by Prof. Zare, while discussing the tenure system followed by Stanford CY dept., as a contrast to the evaluation based largely on "scientometric" data being followed by some of the universities in China and India that he learnt during his recent trip.

He goes on to discuss the inadequacy of h-index and citations to judge the early career of a researcher.

More... [DOI 10.1002/anie.201201011]

(Thanks to an email share by Prof. Krishnaiah)

Monday, August 06, 2012

Mammalian, fleshy, inflatable cylinder

Because Arunn started it, and because we were just talking about a deceitful professorial dude wanting to stiff students, I just couldn't resist posting this one:

Advice to Young Faculty and Researchers

No, not by me. At least until the very end of this short note.

How to get tenure at MIT?
Achieving tenure is not possible merely by checking off a series of accomplishments; MIT does not have a list of specific, objective criteria for tenure such as a minimum number of publications in designated journals.
More here [pdf].

Its not all 'tick-nology' at the MIT we gather.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

An Indian restaurant in London, reviewed by a Yelp user ...

... and narrated by an actor. [Read more about this meme at Total Hilarity: Actors Reading Ridiculous Yelp Reviews].

Drunk on Kakodkar Kool Aid

The idea of making students pay their "full share" for their college education (IIT education in particular) has been around for quite sometime. It gathered some force when the 'original' IIMs at Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta raised their fees to the stratosphere for their MBA-equivalent programs sometime ago, and declared financial independence from the government. The idea gained a much-needed legitimacy when the Kakodkar Committee (KC) adopted it as a central theme in its report on IITs and their autonomy.

I have blogged about how the KC depended on some bad (and downright deceptive) arguments in its report. I addressed (here and here) the specific stuff about raising the tuition fees to over Rs. 200,000 per year.

Along comes an article from a professor at an IIT peddling this idea, once again.

Using similarly deceptive arguments, once again.

For example, raising tuition fees is touted as a great way to help government save money by ridding itself of the onerous burden of funding the education of spoiled brats with a sense of entitlement IIT students; while this noble goal is presented fairly early in the article, the second half of the article is all about how the student loans can be converted into grants for students who choose careers in allegedly nation-building core sectors (DRDO and CSIR labs, IITs and NITs), and / or repayment of loans may be suspended if they choose to go for higher education. And who foots the bill for all these concessions? The government, of course!

At the root of it all is a simple, crass argument: students flock to us, and most of them are affluent enough to afford expensive cram schools, so let's go out and stiff them for what they can pay; and we might as well have some fun by throwing around erudite terms like "market forces"!

It's revealing, isn't it, that when it comes to making their customers students pay, some IIT professors are no different from the vast number of businesspeople, thugs, crooks, politicians and muttheads who run self-financing colleges.

The only difference is that these IIT professors can cover it all up by talking about "building research infrastructure."

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Anant, The Interviewer

With the announcement of the discovery of Higgs-like boson, my colleagues at the Centre for High Energy Physics at IISc were approached by news organizations to offer their comments. Anant, who is also the Chairman of the Centre, has catalogued on his blog the media apparances (such as this one) by his colleagues and him. He has also written articles on this exciting discovery in Current Science and EPW

His most recent post has Anant in the role of an interviewer, conversing with Prof. Qaisar Shafi of the University of Delaware. A quick excerpt:

A-O:You have been very patient with all these questions. I would like to request you to help us wrap up with conversation with your thoughts for the future.

QS: I would like to end the conversation on an optimistic note: the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC is only the beginning of a new round of exciting discoveries in high energy physics. It would be extremely exciting if supersymmetry is found soon and one or more extra dimensions are discovered, dark matter is identified and the equation of state of dark energy is determined precisely. Furthermore, I very much hope that the Planck satellite would find gravity waves which would have remarkable consequences for the physics underlying the very early universe. It would mean, in particular, that the energy scale during observable inflation was of the order of the grand unified scale of 10^16 GeV. This would be a very beautiful link up between cosmology and high energy physics.

Friday, August 03, 2012

IITM Research Graduates Data

The 49th convocation of IIT Madras concluded recently on July 20, 2012, conferring degrees for 1688 students from 16 departments. Go here for photographs and videos.

Here is some data of research graduates from four major departments, over the recent years.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Liberating Ketchup

with super-hydrophobicity, as demonstrated in this video

by the MIT research group headed by Prof. Kripa Varanasi (BTech. from IIT Madras).

A commercial product is due; more info in this FAQ.

Here are two explanatory write-ups on super-hydrophobic surfaces from my notes-kitty.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Spooky stuff to freak you out

Here's "Tracking the Trackers", a talk by Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs [thanks to Dr. R.V. Krishnan for the e-mail alert]: