Thursday, December 06, 2007
Next to car showroom, Chennai
I've never had missing mail, but I have been miffed for a while that our weekly issue of Tehelka (to which we subscribed a few weeks ago) generally arrives a few days late. Today, too, we received a similarly delayed issue. But I took a closer look at the envelope.
The address was something like
Next to Kun Hyundai,
That was it. No street name, no "part of town" -- just a door number, landmark and pincode. (Chennai-41 covers Thiruvanmiyur, Kottivakkam, Palavakkam, Neelangarai, and more, most of it -- including my house -- outside city limits). And my issue has been getting delivered without fail -- late, but not missing.
I'm pretty sure I included a proper address when subscribing, but have mailed them requesting an address correction. I should also mail my thanks to the postal department.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Nandigram links and thoughts
Here are some more links from prominent leftists peddling the CPI(M) line: Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Howard Zinn et al. ("We understand that the government has promised not to build a chemical hub in the area around Nandigram. We understand that those who had been dispossessed by the violence are now being allowed back to their homes, without recrimination. We understand that there is now talk of reconciliation.") Kafila provides an admirable takedown, signed by Mahasweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, and other prominent Indian leftists, here. ; Kunal's savage response to Tariq Ali, in particular, is here. And our usual local suspects, Irfan Habib, Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik et al have not been silent; a Kafila response to them is here.
A cynic, such as myself, will note that both the Chomsky and the Habib letters appeared in the Hindu (to which I deliberately did not link directly above). Perhaps they are the only Indian newspaper willing to peddle this rubbish. Perhaps, more insidiously, they are the only source of information for the foreign writers of the first letter. (The Chomsky letter opens: "To our friends in Bengal." If they really wanted to address their friends in Bengal, why did they choose a Chennai-based daily that has no edition published in Bengal?)
Finally, even a hard-core CPI(M) veteran like Ashok Mitra feels compelled to speak out, here. I have never found myself in agreement with his writings before, but he seems to be a rare example of a communist who actually believes that the people should come first.
There is much, much more on Kafila's site; take a look if you are interested.
My first reaction to Nandigram (and, before that, Singur) was this: why is anyone surprised?
One needs, first, to draw a distinction between the "liberal left" and communists -- a distinction that is often not appreciated even by the liberal left. Communists are not liberals in any sense of the word. They do not believe in individual liberty. They do not believe in property rights. They do not even believe in the sanctity of human life. The state is the absolute master. If one thinks of the history of communism, one thinks of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung (and his son), and numerous lesser figures. One thinks of the Gulag, China's Great Leap Backward, and the wasteland that is today's North Korea. These were only the most extreme examples of savage repression of the people in the interest of a mythical "greater good". India's democratic institutions and free press have prevented such extremes from happening yet. But it's happening now.
That said, one would hope that anyone calling themselves "liberal leftists", even if they thought of themselves as soft communists, would, most importantly, have the ability to think for themselves. Studies in the US have suggested that liberals are more open than conservatives to new ideas (sorry for not providing a better link); this very likely accounts for the dominance of liberals in academic environments. Yet we see Chomsky, Patnaik, et al. falling for the CPI(M) line, not even attempting to do their own research on the matter.
The most despicable part of the Chomsky letter is this: "The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left." To me, "all those in the left must stand together" is just as bad as saying "all Hindus must stand together." These are alternative routes to totalitarianism, and a negation of the supposed receptiveness of the liberal mind to new ideas.
Let's recapitulate what happened in Nandigram: On January 2, 2007, the Haldia Development Authority issued a notification earmarking this land for a proposed Special Economic Zone. (It was no rumour, as the CPI(M) now likes to claim.) The people of Nandigram had already seen what happened in Singur, where land was taken by force to give to the Tatas for their small car project. They decided to resist, and took over the area by force, in the process expelling many villagers with CPI(M) sympathies. For months Nandigram remained out of reach of the state government or the CPI(M). The state government machinery was totlaly absent. Then the CPI(M) decided to act by sending in armed cadres to take over the villages by force. Bloodshed, rape, murder ensued; the state government kept out the Central Reserve Police Force until the "operation" was completed; and finally the place was back in CPI(M) hands. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the chief minister, declared that the villagers had been "paid back in their own coin."
Most of the country was outraged; but a section of the left -- including a self-proclaimed "national newspaper" in Chennai, certain "intellectuals" at JNU, and certain international talking heads -- declared that all was well, except for a few trouble-makers who had been taken care of. Great. Now let's celebrate.
Not even Narendra Modi dared to say in public that the victims of the Gujarat riots were "paid back in their own coin". If this is what Buddhadeb was willing to say publicly, I wonder what was said in private.
But it is fair game to communists. It has happened all over the world.
After the Tehelka sting on Gujarat, I commented that Gujarat was in a real sense worse than the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and other riots in our history, because it wasn't a one-off but "arose from an ideology that has been poisoning our lives since well before independence".
But Hindutva isn't the only toxic ideology in our midst. I do not consider Nandigram a one-off incident. It is time for our leftists to ask themselves some hard questions.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
"Why am I surrounded by idiots?"
When such "manifestly crackpot" work can cause such excitement, one is inclined to sympathise with Motl when he frets: 'Would cranks with their "theories of everything" who know less than 1% what I do and whose IQ is 45 below mine - literally an inferior species - would be placed upon us or even dictate what we can think about physics? Well, this epoch just here...'
Motl observes that the author, Garrett Lisi, is so ignorant of basic physics as to add fermions to bosons, or Grassman numbers to ordinary numbers. As he says, high school students know not to add quantities of different dimensions. So this Lisi guy must be quite a crank.
But the media quotes some well-known physicists -- Lee Smolin, for one -- as being quite excited by Lisi's work. And Abhay Ashtekar is quoted here as being receptive to the work, and unconcerned about its defects: "You have to solve problems one at a time." We're surrounded by crackpots.
Or maybe Motl missed something? Lisi thinks so.
What is this work that is causing so much fuss? It is a preprint with the bombastic title "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything", placed online by Garrett Lisi earlier this month. (Its categorisation on the arXiv seems itself to have been a matter of some controversy.) The title is partly a parody of the grandiose claims that have been made by string theorists in recent times, and partly a pun on its subject matter: it deals with the E8 group, a Lie group that is simple and exceptional.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) I studied quite different areas of physics, and have only a hazy idea of what this preprint is about (much less whether it is correct). However, it is clearly not a theory of everything; Lisi himself says it is at best a starting point that may prove to be wrong.
The background is that the "holy grail" of physics, since the middle of the twentieth century, has been to unify the four "fundamental interactions" known in nature. Three -- the strong, weak, and electromagnetic interactions -- are unified in the "standard model" that has been accepted since the 1970s. Efforts to include the fourth -- gravitation -- have proven futile.
Since the late 1970s, a particular idea has taken hold among a section of the physics community: the idea that the fundamental entities of nature are not particles, but one-dimensional strings. There has never been any empirical evidence for this, but many physicists have found the mathematics very attractive, with the result that an enormous body of work on "string theory" has been done in the past three decades. Yet there is not a single testable prediction. Worse, recent results in string theory suggest that our universe may be only one of 10500 possible universes. Such a result destroys any predictive power of the theory, without resorting to the "anthropic principle" ("our universe is the way it is because if it weren't so, we wouldn't be here") -- a principle understandably scorned by many physicists. Dissatisfaction with string theory resulted in the publication of two books, Lee Smolin's "The trouble with physics" and Peter Woit's "Not even wrong", last year. These authors argued that physics was in crisis because of the over-focus on string theory for three decades that had not only failed to produce any useful predictions, but had usurped some of the best younger minds (and funding) in the process. The books upset many string theorists; Motl is one of those who took up cudgels on behalf of his field, writing savage reviews on amazon.com of Smolin's book (that was later removed by Amazon) as well as Woit's book, and also attacking them on his own blog and elsewhere.
Other approaches to "quantum gravity" have been tried, with no better success; "loop quantum gravity" is one of the more popular. Smolin and Ashtekar belong in the LQG camp, that attracts Motl's hostility.
As far as I can tell, Garrett Lisi doesn't claim to have solved the problem, but he claims to have found a significant piece of the puzzle. He believes that the "particle zoo" that we know today is related by the E8 symmetry (much as the strong interaction is associated with a SU(3) symmetry and the electroweak interaction with SU(2)xU(1)), associating particles with the 248 basis elements of E8, and that this framework predicts 20 new particles that could conceivably be found by the Large Hadron Collider (thus making his theory testable). His theory makes a number of other concrete predictions, many of which agree with what is observed so far. Notably, it requires only the three spatial and one temporal dimension that we actually know; string theory requires many additional dimensions to work.
That's about all I understand of the work. I'm hoping some of my colleagues will tell me what they think.
Garrett Lisi himself is an unorthodox character: he has a Ph.D. from UCSD, but no current association with any university; he spends his non-physics time surfing, snowboarding, or doing odd jobs to make ends meet (he says, "Being poor sucks. It's hard to figure out the secrets of the universe when you're trying to figure out where you and your girlfriend are going to sleep next month."). However, he is a recent recipient of a sizeable grant from the Foundational Questions Institute, enabling him to do independent research.
If this theory turns out to make correct predictions, he can certainly expect much bigger prizes to come his way. And string theorists may need to think of changing their field.
A fun take on the story is from Uncyclopedia (which, for the uninitiated, is a sort of bizarro-Wikipedia).
(Dr Lisi purportedly says:) "String theory is something that doesn't work, for guys without charm or a personality. No romantic prospect worth talking to will take a string theorist seriously."
Dr Lisi is not fazed [by Motl's attacks]. "String theory is a dying field," he said. "I mean, it's not like they're going to reproduce."
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
You may have read about recent events at Nandigram. You may have heard that local farmers were protesting the appropriation of their land for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). You may have heard that the recent violence was perpetrated by armed CPI-M cadres, who kept out media, activists and even the CRPF for days until their operation was complete.
According to Ram, the Left Front is appealing for peace, it is the Maoists (who remain elusive, even according to the West Bengal Home Secretary) who are behind the violence, and it is "peasant families owing allegiance to the Left Front" who have been driven out at gunpoint. The CRPF was brought in at the state government's request; presumably they were also promptly deployed (Ram does not say). Governor Gopal Gandhi, who criticised the CPI-M government, overstepped his limits.
Well, N. Ram is welcome to his alternate reality, but there is no reason why I should (literally) subscribe to it. He does not need my money; he has ample other sources.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
One of my favourite comments on Frank Gehry's work was from The Onion: "Frank Gehry no longer allowed to make sandwiches for grandkids".
But it turns out that there are bigger problems than weirdness: his sandwiches, er, buildings, leak and develop mould. At least, that's the fate of one particular building, that I happened to admire (or not admire) from up close just three weeks ago.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The captchas are here
One of my recent, and rather widely linked, posts has attracted a huge amount of automated spam, linking to what seems to be a nasty spyware-purveying site. I have deleted perhaps 10 copies so far, but more keep coming in.
So, hello captchas, sorry commenters.
Monday, October 29, 2007
I would hope that nobody who received the mail was fooled. Apart from obvious questions like what this person is doing in Nigeria, there is, as the above article says, "the troubling detail of why their knowledge of grammar and punctuation has forsaken them."
How do you lose access to your account? By someone stealing your password, obviously. How do they do that? There are various ways:
- First of all, there are dictionary attacks. If you use an English word as your password, you can be sure your password is not safe. Even a straightforward combination of words and numbers, like "Hello123", is not safe.
- Then, most webmail access is unencrypted, and it is hard for a newcomer to see how to encrypt. This is one of the many disgraceful aspects of how free webmail providers behave. With Google mail, you should go to https://mail.google.com/ (note the "s" at the end of the "http"; you'll also see it in bank gateways and the like.)
What's wrong if it's unencrypted? Simply this: anyone sitting in your network, or administering a gateway between yours and the server's, can read it. Worse, if you're on an unencrypted wireless connection, or on a WEP-encrypted one (WEP is useless), anyone within range of your access point can read it.
- There is cached data on your disks. If you throw away an old computer, or give it to the service centre, much compromising information may be readable.
- Then there are phishing scams. Scammers routinely send out a mail along the lines of "Your hotmail account has administrative problems, please authenticate it here", and send you along to a fake site where you log in and they keep your password. Unfortunately, many people still fall for it.
- Then there's the most insidious of all: keystroke loggers. These are trojans that sit on your computer and keep track of what you type. Getting one on your computer is as easy as visiting a spyware-infested site, if you use certain operating systems and web browsers that originate in Redmond, WA. So keep your computer clean (I'd say avoid Microsoft Windows totally if it's at all possible for you, and if you must use it, don't use Internet Explorer, and if you absolutely must use IE, disable ActiveX, and if you must use ActiveX, there's no hope left for you); and don't access important sites from cybercafes or computers you don't control.
So what does one do? A colleague pointed me to a very informative article by Bruce Schneier, on how to choose good passwords and keep them safe, which should be required reading for all computer users. He describes the capabilities of dictionary attacks and forensic tools, and how to bypass them.
You should not only choose a secure password, but a different secure password for each website you use: otherwise, if one is compromised, they all are. One problem is that many users can't remember one non-trivial password, let alone a unique one for each site. So here's a trick that I came across some years ago, I can't remember the source. The general idea is as follows, the details can be varied.
- Choose a word or string that you will remember for sure. It need not be very complex. For example, "MyPassword".
- Append to it the domain name of the site you are accessing, for example "MyPasswordmail.google.com".
- Run the resulting string through a hashing program like md5sum. In this case, the output is "0017e27585c50866609a6d41a127555e -"
- Use the first 8 characters of that output, in this case "0017e275", as your password.
As I said, many obvious variants are possible, and if you pick your own -- or even if you follow the above scheme entirely -- chances are essentially zero that your password will ever be guessed. The disadvantage is that you need access to the md5sum program to recover your password. But this is usually available already on linux and can be installed on windows and other platforms. So, if you follow the injunction above against using untrusted computers, it should not be a problem.
This protects against dictionary attacks; it may also protect to some extent against forensic analysis of a disk (since the password looks like random hex, not like an obvious password, it may be harder to find among all the other junk on your disk). And if you lose your password on one site, the other sites stay secure. But it will not protect against the other attacks mentioned above; you should still use secure HTTP, particularly when on wireless networks, should be vigilant against phishing attacks, and should not let spyware onto your computer.
Caveat emptor: I am not a security professional. If you're in a security-critical situation, don't go by the above; get professional advice.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Not for children
If you're Prince (formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), you file a demand, under the DMCA, that YouTube take down the clip. You see, your rights as an artist (even one formerly known as Prince) are being violated if people can hear 29 seconds your music as background to a video of a dancing toddler. "It's simply a matter of principle," says a Universal Music spokesman defending Prince.
The song was "Let's go crazy."
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Yes, Gujarat was worse than anything else.
Then Gujarat 2002 happened and I decided never to have any further truck with their sympathisers.
Now Tehelka has revealed exactly how the riots were orchestrated by the state machinery, headed by Narendra Modi. Complicity is not the word. They organised the whole thing.
The reaction has been predictable. Opposing politicians have demanded Modi's resignation or removal. The BJP, while not really refuting the stories, has questioned the motives behind the article: "How is it that this magazine never carries an expose on Congress either at the Centre or states?" The media seems to think that this confirms what we all knew anyway. The Hindu's N Ram, never short of words where it doesn't matter, has not yet editorialised on this topic, nor did his paper give the story any importance when it broke. But today, at least, it carries a couple of front-page stories. Abi summarises the reactions of some other newspapers.
I took some time writing my own reaction, but the blogosphere has mostly beaten me to it. Prem Panicker, in particular, deals well with the standard defensive reactions. I haven't yet spotted anyone willing to identify themselves in Modi's defence. But there are lots of anonymous comments asking things like "What about the Godhra train? What about the 1984 Sikh riots? What about the Kashmiri Pandits?", as if any of those lessened the importance of this outrage, or that our acknowledging and addressing this outrage would weaken our response to those other outrages.
So let's get that out of the way first: yes, these and other such occurrences should all be condemned. In particular, the 1984 purging of Sikhs in the capital was a genocide by any definition. Rajiv Gandhi may or may not have been complicit, but most certainly winked and nodded at it ("When a great tree falls, the earth shakes"). Other Congress leaders in Delhi were complicit, and some were actively organising the affair. It is a disgrace that no action has been taken against any of them to this day; some, such as H. K. L. Bhagat, have died unpunished. As an example of state terror, 1984 Delhi was just as bad as 2002 Gujarat. The Kashmiri pandits have suffered too long. Godhra was an atrocity, regardless of whether it was spontaneous or premeditated, and regardless of what the provocation (if any) may have been. There have been many, many more such incidents where Muslims were not the victims; all of them should be condemned and we should try to ensure they never happen again.
Ok, that's out of the way. Here's what I want to say: though many of those incidents -- in particular, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots -- equalled or exceeded Gujarat in barbarity and had just as much connivance from those who are supposed to protect us, Gujarat was worse. Because what happened in Gujarat arose from an ideology that has been poisoning our lives since well before independence; and that ideology is not just alive and well, but given respectability by the participation in our political process of parties such as the BJP and the Shiv Sena.
It amazes me that people bother to protest when the RSS, or its offshoots like the BJP, are labelled "fascist". The founders of this organisation, such as M. S. Golwalkar, quite openly modelled the RSS after fascist European organisations of the 1930s. The inspiration ranged from their supremacist ideology down to cosmetic details like the wearing of shorts at their "shakhas". And Hindu supremacism is every bit as evil as white or "Aryan" supremacism.
The ideology has not changed one iota since those days. From Golwalkar's time, the RSS and its offshoots have continuously striven towards the same goal; and all the "incidents" punctuating their history since then -- such as Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, the Babri masjid demolition, numerous riots including the 1993 Mumbai riots -- all stem from that ideology: Hindus (of a particular description) are supreme, and don't dare to be nice to Muslims.
So Gujarat was not a one-off like the 1984 riots. It was the culmination of the RSS routemap towards taking over Indian society. It was everything that this crowd had been working towards since before independence. Even in 2002, many commentators were calling Gujarat a laboratory. The goal is to follow this laboratory trial with country-wide field tests, and then release it on the nation.
That is why Gujarat was so unspeakably bad. If it goes unpunished, and even worse, if it appears that civil society wants it to go unpunished, if Modi is allowed to get away with it, it is the green signal to the RSS that they can go forward. It is the start of India's slide into fascism. If you thought Gujarat was bad, wait for phase 2 of the RSS's laboratory trials.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Ego boost, courtesy Google
The Google Toolbar lets you see the page ranks of sites that you visit, and the opinion page of the WashPo has an even lower page-rank: just 4. Which, as it happens, is also the page rank of the blog that you are now reading.
So my humble abode is, in Google's estimation, as important as The Washington Post's opinion page. And my work web page has a page rank of 5: more important than the WashPo's opinion page.
(Um... actually, their opinion articles are written by people like Charles Krauthammer and Robert Novak. So perhaps I shouldn't be too flattered.)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
A play and a musical
At one time, Hollywood produced quite a large number of musicals. But growing up in India, I, like most young people, knew only of two: The Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady. Admittedly these have been among the most successful movies of all time, but I still wonder why Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, West Side Story -- to name a few -- did not find more of an audience in this country.
My Fair Lady was, of course, adapted from Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (free Project Gutenberg e-text). The movie (and its predecessor, the Broadway musical) contains notable differences from the play. In particular, where Shaw -- distressed by an early performance that introduced a romantic ending -- appended a lengthy prose diatribe explaining why Eliza would marry the uninteresting Freddie and develop no romantic relationship with Higgins, Alan Jay Lerner concluded My Fair Lady with Eliza returning to Higgins' room (though the question of subsequent romance was left unresolved). I generally assumed that Shaw would have squirmed at this, as he would have at the idea of his play being converted into a Broadway musical.
So it was with great interest that I recently watched the 1938 movie of Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza. The screenplay is credited to Shaw himself, who received an Oscar for his efforts; it deviates significantly from his original play, but what struck me was how little My Fair Lady deviates from this movie. Even the ending is the same (Shaw presumably was persuaded of its merits) -- except that in Lerner's version, Higgins, walking home, bursts into song ("I've grown accustomed to her face") and, where the 1938 movie concludes with the line "Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?" Lerner substituted "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" Numerous other new elements in the 1938 film -- from the "educating Eliza" scenes, with marbles in her mouth, to the line "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain", to the ballroom scene featuring Higgins' former Hungarian student Karpathy, who "exposes" Eliza as a Hungarian princess -- have been borrowed almost without modification by Lerner. Most surprisingly, the melody of "I could have danced all night" is clearly audible in the ballroom scene. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that "My Fair Lady" is the 1938 movie interspersed with songs, and with different actors.
As for the actors -- I wasn't born early enough, or in the right city, to watch Julie Andrews as Eliza; but Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn do a great job in the movie. However, to me, Howard rings truer. Harrison's Higgins seems to be playing a part: he is a rude, mannerless, inconsiderate character, not out of his inner nature, but in order to be provocative and to have a bit of fun at everyone's expense. Howard's Higgins does not seem to be acting a role: he really is like that. And Wendy Hiller, as Eliza, is absolutely outstanding from start to finish.
That leaves the songs. Compared to the 1938 movie, these (and Technicolor) seem to be the main value additions to My Fair Lady. And Lowe's melodies are indeed valuable. But I have several nits to pick with the lyrics.
Henry Higgins, let us remember, is fanatical about the English language; while his field is phonetics, surely grammar would not be much lower on his priorities (and, indeed, he repeatedly corrects Eliza's grammar.) Yet the first lines that Lerner's Higgins sings are these:
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters;
By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
But in English (as opposed to American), only inanimate objects are hung; humans, when executed, are hanged. ("By rights" does not sound very British either.)
We may excuse Lerner for this: he was after all an American. But what do we make of these lines from "I'm an ordinary man"? Could Higgins possibly have uttered such a monstrous line as "I'd be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever let a woman in my life"? I would have thought that "equally as willing" is incorrect English on both sides of the Atlantic; "for" and "than", following that phrase, ring quite wrong; and shouldn't the refrain be "let a woman into my life"?
Perhaps Higgins is being sarcastic, but that doesn't make much sense either: if he wanted to lampoon someone, it would be a Cockney, not an American. I'm rather mystified that Rex Harrison, who was reportedly a Shaw purist who carried the Pygmalion script to rehearsals, allowed himself to sing these lines. But they have become classics, so what do I know.
Having picked those nits, let me admit that the songs are indeed very enjoyable. So here are a couple of links to close out this post. Though Julie Andrews was sidelined for the movie, we can watch her do "Wouldn't it be loverly" here. (She also sings on the 1956 Broadway cast recording, which is marvellous, and on the 1959 London cast recording, which I haven't heard.) Audrey Hepburn was mostly overdubbed by Marni Nixon in the movie, but the DVD includes her versions of two songs as alternate takes; you can watch that here. (She struggles a bit on the high notes; one can understand why she was dubbed, but it is really quite a creditable performance.)
It's a country so prudish that the site of Janet Jackson's exposed breast at the Super Bowl traumatised the nation, yet toddlers are exposed to guns and gun crime routinely and pre-teens are marketed sexually provocative clothing.
It's a country where airport screeners unerringly detect and remove that lethal shower gel that you're carrying. (I should have known, but forgot to check mine in, particularly as I had carried it days earlier on Air India -- an airline not unaccustomed to terrorism -- without demur.) Yet, in tests in Los Angeles, they failed to detect 75% of fake bombs.
It's a country where racial discrimination was not only normal 50 years ago, but enshrined in the law in many states. Today it is socially unacceptable, not just to discriminate, but even to joke about it. That's a remarkable turnaround, which I'm sure we could replicate in India, with respect to our disgraceful treatment of the "lower castes", if we made the effort -- but we refuse even to recognise the seriousness of the problem.
Some may argue that political correctness now goes too far -- see this for example -- but the achievements can't be denied.
Yet, taking the subway (the "T") in Boston, I saw advertisements saying (from memory): "Take the T to Salem and enjoy a haunted weekend." I don't think Americans would countenance tourism advertisements saying "Take a trip to Georgia and enjoy a trail-of-tears weekend", or "Take a trip to Alabama and enjoy a weekend of lynching and cross-burning". But an episode in American history that, to the modern mind, should seem just as disgraceful as those more recent episodes, is seen as harmless family entertainment. Is it because the victims were white women? Or because they were regarded as pagans (though they probably weren't)? Or did it just happen too long ago to worry about it?
Here's a thought-provoking post about the stereotypical witch (Misshapen green face, stringy scraps of hair, and a toothless mouth beneath her deformed nose. Gnarled knobby fingers twisted into a claw protracting from a bent and twisted torso that lurches about on wobbly legs) and why this image probably did describe the witches of the time.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Translation of the Swedish article on the plagiarism case
A commenter on Abi's blog pointed out the only example of media coverage that seems to have occurred of this case (which seems to have been known for two months). Unfortunately it's in Swedish.
Dag-Erling Smørgrav very kindly sent me a translation. I don't in general reproduce entire articles on my blog, but in this case I think it's merited (and, needless to say, DES is not responsible).
Article was pure plagiarism
A scientific article written by five Swedish researchers has been plagiarised in a respected international journal. "I have never seen anything like it," says Börje Johansson, professor at the University of Uppsala and KTH and one of the authors.
In late August Sergei Simak, lecturer at the University of Linköping, sat down at his computer and looked up cerium dioxide. A recent article with an exciting title popped up on his screen and he started to read.
After only a few sentences, it was clear. The text was identical with the one he himself, Börje Johansson and three other researchers had written and published a few years earlier in the respected journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
"They have replaced the abstract, changed the figures a little and added a citation to our article - beyond that the content is exactly the same as in ours," says Börje Johansson.
The article is about research that might prove useful in the development of fuel cells - a potentially important energy source in the future.
"There are perhaps four years of work behind the results presented in our article."
The plagiary was published in May in the Journal of Materials Science, a respected scientific journal. Editor-in-chief Barry Carter writes in an email to DN that it is one of the most serious cases of plagiarism he has seen. A retraction will soon be published in the journal. The article is still published online, but Barry Carter writes further that the publisher, Springer, are investigation whether and how it can be removed from their home page.
Barry Carter considers it likely that one or more of the so-called authors of the plagiary are innocent.
Tom Mathews, doctor at the Indira Gandhi center for nuclear research in India and one of the four researchers named as authors, distances himself from the article in an email to DN. So does Roshan Bokalawela, graduate student at the University of Oklahoma in the USA.
DN has not been able to reach the other two authors. One of them claims in an email to the Swedish researchers that he received a draft from a researcher in Nepal.
According to the Swedish regulation on university colleges, it is the duty of the university college since September 1st, 2006 to investigate all reported cases of suspected scientific cheating.
Lisa Kvist Wadman
 Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm
 The Swedish word "plagiat" can mean either the act or the result of plagiarism; I chose to use "plagiarism" for the former sense, and the archaic form "plagiary" for the latter.
 sic, I assume they mean "web pages".
 "förordning" equivalent to a federal regulation in the US or a statutory instrument in the UK
 "högskola", literally "high school", officially translated as "university college"; an institution that offers education up to a master's degree or equivalent in a limited range of subjects.
I find it odd that, after two months, Springer is still investigating whether and how to remove it from their home page. Even if they do not, surely they can put up a notice that this article was plagiarised. (arxiv.org has an automatic plagiarism detector. It is high time journals started doing the same thing.)
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Great minds think alike?
Abstract of "Optimization of ionic conductivity in doped ceria", Andersson et al., PNAS, 2006:
Oxides with the cubic fluorite structure, e.g., ceria (CeO2), are known to be good solid electrolytes when they are doped with cations of lower valence than the host cations. The high ionic conductivity of doped ceria makes it an attractive electrolyte for solid oxide fuel cells, whose prospects as an environmentally friendly power source are very promising. In these electrolytes, the current is carried by oxygen ions that are transported by oxygen vacancies, present to compensate for the lower charge of the dopant cations. Ionic conductivity in ceria is closely related to oxygen-vacancy formation and migration properties. A clear physical picture of the connection between the choice of a dopant and the improvement of ionic conductivity in ceria is still lacking. Here we present a quantum-mechanical first-principles study of the influence of different trivalent impurities on these properties. Our results reveal a remarkable correspondence between vacancy properties at the atomic level and the macroscopic ionic conductivity. The key parameters comprise migration barriers for bulk diffusion and vacancy–dopant interactions, represented by association (binding) energies of vacancy–dopant clusters. The interactions can be divided into repulsive elastic and attractive electronic parts. In the optimal electrolyte, these parts should balance. This finding offers a simple and clear way to narrow the search for superior dopants and combinations of dopants. The ideal dopant should have an effective atomic number between 61 (Pm) and 62 (Sm), and we elaborate that combinations of Nd/Sm and Pr/Gd show enhanced ionic conductivity, as compared with that for each element separately.
And the abstract of "Determination of dopant of ceria system by density functional theory", Muthukkumaran et al., Journal of Materials Sciences, 2007:
Oxides with the cubic fluorite structure, e.g., ceria (CeO2), are known to be good solid electrolytes when they are doped with cations of lower valence than the host cations. The high ionic conductivity of doped ceria makes it an attractive electrolyte for solid oxide fuel cells, whose prospects as an environmentally friendly power source are very promising. In these electrolytes, the current is carried by oxygen ions that are transported by oxygen vacancies, present to compensate for the lower charge of the dopant cations. Ionic conductivity in ceria is closely related to oxygen-vacancy formation and migration properties. A clear physical picture of the connection between the choice of a dopant and the improvement of ionic conductivity in ceria is still lacking. Here we present quantum-mechanical first-principles study of the influence of different trivalent impurities on these properties. Our results reveal a remarkable correspondence between vacancy properties at the atomic level and the macroscopic ionic conductivity. The key parameters comprise migration barriers for bulk diffusion and vacancy–dopant interactions, represented by association (binding) energies of vacancy–dopant clusters. The interactions can be divided into repulsive elastic and attractive electronic parts. In the optimal electrolyte, these parts should balance. This finding offers a simple and clear way to narrow the search for superior dopants and combinations of dopants. The ideal dopant should have an effective atomic number between 61 (Pm) and 62 (Sm), and we elaborate that combinations of Nd/Sm and Pr/Gd show enhanced ionic conductivity, as compared with that for each element separately.
I am unable to access the full text of the second article, but I am told that it continues to be very similar to the first. It shows the cutting-edge nature of research at Anna University, that they independently came up with identical results to the Swedish group, a bare few months after the Swedes published their paper. Surely it must be independent work: it beggars belief that the Anna University group would have copied their work, verbatim, from a paper published in a high-profile journal like PNAS in the very same year -- if we admit such possibilities, the sky is the limit and beyond anyone's imagination. Right?
(The similarity, apparently, was spotted by students at IIT Madras, and is being investigated by the journal).
UPDATE - As a commenter on Abi's blog observes, coverage of the story has appeared in Sweden here. Unfortunately I don't know Swedish, and the online translators seem much less capable than the German-to-English translators, for example. So I'd welcome a translation. Using Intertran, I get this gem:
Chefredaktören Barricades Carter am typing in one mejl to DN that the tube themselves if a of they grossly nominal of plagiarism he has looking. A amendment am arriving within short in magazine. Article find still publish p nätet , but Barricades Carter am typing forth that sheepish , Am leaping , analysing if and how the able tas away frn their ghastly. Barricades Carter deem that the is believable that a ors several of they s call authors to plagiatet is innocent. Vacant Mathews , doctor wide Indirect Gandhi centre for atomic research in India and a of they four scientist as mention as author , am grabbing divide frn article in one mejl to DN. The do also Roshan Bokalawela , doctor wide University perceive Oklahoma in America. They television second authors am not having kunnat ns of DN. A of them assert in one mejl to they Swede authors that he was getting outline frn a scientist in Nepal.
I think that means Barry Carter, chief editor of JMS, is sheepishly leaping around to find out how this happened, will be publishing a retraction soon, and believes that several of the "authors" are innocent; Tom Matthews dissociates himself from the paper; and so does Roshan Bokalawela. But I can't be sure. And I wonder where Nepal comes in.
Finally, I didn't intend to make fun of Anna University above -- there are some fine people there (but, as Abi says, their future institutional reputation will depend on how they act here). My "sky is the limit" comment was a quotation from here.
UPDATE - I have posted a better translation of the Swedish article.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
The point of having access to the internals of your car, or the source code of your software, is not necessarily that you personally can fix it if it goes wrong. The point is that you have access to numerous experts who can do so for a fee, or who can advise you for free.
So Microsoft sells you cars with the hood welded shut, and you are at their mercy when things go wrong, which is pretty often. But Apple takes it to the next level.
At least Microsoft allows you to install your own fittings. If you prefer your own car stereo, or upholstery, or radio, you may install them. You have freedom of service providers -- you can use what fuel you like, what oil you like, what roads you like.
Apple seals not only the hood, but the fittings. You are not allowed to install your own. If you install any third-party utility, or if you use an unapproved service provider, they come in and destroy your machine. You spent a few hundred dollars on a shiny new iPhone, and you are now left with a useless slab of metal and plastic, a "brick", because you had the temerity to install third-party applications on it or try to use it on a service provider other than AT&T. (Incidentally, in the case of the iPhone, the hood is literally welded shut -- you can't even replace the battery without shipping it to Apple, and renting a replacement phone at exorbitant rates while you wait.)
This story came out days ago. Some commentators argued that it must have been an honest mistake -- Apple pushed out an incompletely-tested update that "bricked" some unmodified phones as well as modified or unlocked ones. One could believe this, except that Apple themselves threatened their customers with bricked phones if they dared "unlock" them. Others said that maybe AT&T forced Apple to do this -- but every previous report about the iPhone had said it was Apple calling the shots over every aspect of the deal.
No matter. What sort of company goes around destroying its own customers' property? If it had been a genuine mistake, wouldn't you expect, at least a mea culpa, if not some sort of compensation? None has come -- Apple's spokespeople have recommended that customers buy a new iPhone. Which may happen in the fantasy-world that Apple seems to live in, but in the real world, not only are owners of bricked iPhones unlikely to touch Apple again, but interested spectators like me are likely to stay away too. (I was seriously considering a Mac for a new computer -- Unix under the hood, more stable than Windows, friendlier -- at least in some ways -- than Linux. But no longer.)
So, no mea culpa from Apple. Instead comes the expected lawsuit.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The falling dollar
Today the US dollar fell past the 1.40-to-the-euro barrier, for the first time ever. It also fell below the 40-rupees-to-the-dollar mark for the first time in 9 years.
Predictably, the Indian media will be focussing more on the second point than on the first. Every article these days -- such as this one -- talks about the "rising rupee". But while the rupee has risen sharply against the dollar this year, it has risen much less sharply against the euro (and has been mostly falling since late May). The same is true of other currencies.
So my questions are:
- Why the obsession with the dollar? If the rupee rose against a basket of currencies one could call it strong. Today, it is the dollar that is weak, against every currency. So why are people like the above writer asking the RBI to intervene? How can the RBI affect global currency rates?
- And why is a strong rupee (or a strong euro) a problem? Exporters say it hurts their competitiveness. But it also allows (some of) them cheaper imports.
- If the government decides that the strong rupee is bad, why can't the government just print more rupees and buy dollars with them? Only three things could happen: (1) The rupee falls against the dollar, so you achieve your goal and earn some dollars in the bargain (of course, you would also cause the rupee to fall against other currencies); (2) The rupee stays steady with the dollar, so you've earned some dollars for free; (3) The dollar continues to fall -- but it would have fallen even faster without your intervention. Your dollar purchases lose value, but it's ok because you didn't actually spend real money on them.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The bridge thing
So why are scientists and the academic community silent? One reason could be it's pretty pointless arguing logically with these people. But another reason could be that many of us have doubts about the project anyway, and don't want support for the ASI's position to be construed as support for the dredging project.
This is the second time in recent weeks that the Sangh Parivar has found itself on the same side as (sections of) the left. The first was the nuclear deal. On the one hand, the BJP, which did much of the spadework for it in the first place, has decided to oppose it apparently because they are now the opposition party. On the other hand, to the hard-left, any alliance with the US is verboten. So we have the spectacle of The Hindu, for example, first editorially supporting the deal, then backtracking, then twisting itself into contortions in an attempt to explain why it is not backtracking. We also have the spectacle of the communists doing their best to threaten the government without being seen as joining hands with the BJP to bring it down.
This time, the communists have not been terribly vocal; but the environmentally conscious among us are not enchanted by the idea of destroying the rich marine ecosystem and coral reefs in the interests of better shipping. And, anyway, this project is hardly going to compare with the Suez or Panama Canal. Most international shipping will continue to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, and as for domestic shipping, small ships can already pass through the channel (and there's always the land route, which is very likely faster). As Natasha points out, we should make our arguments on such grounds. But we live in a world ruled by strawmen; maybe we are nervous that opposing the BJP-types on this will defeat the larger purpose, or that speaking out on the environment aspects will be construed as supporting the BJP.
That apart, was it advisable for the ASI to file such an affidavit? My opinion is this: like it or not, people in this country have strong religious feelings. And, unfortunately, many people (who are not necessarily sympathetic to the Parivar) seem to think -- rightly or wrongly -- that Hindu sensitivities get less importance than minority religions'. They would point out, probably correctly, that no Government department would dare observe that there is no evidence of the strand of hair at the Hazratbal shrine belonging to the Prophet. So, in this case, given all the other very relevant issues to be discussed, this particular provocation was quite unnecessary.
We do need to introduce some rationality into public debate, and keep religious bigotry out of it. But we should pick our battles carefully. In this particular case, I think fighting the BJP-types directly isn't worth it. Changing the terms of the debate, by focusing the discussion on the very real environmental concerns, is a much more useful idea.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
A bad week for photos
The correspondent clarifies that the error occurred as the picture was downloaded from a website by a photographer who was ignorant of the difference between an African and an Asian elephant.
So, as Chenthil observes, the job of photographers at The Hindu seems to be to download photos from the web, and use them without attribution (and without even checking what it is they represent: even if they were Indian elephants, how did the "photographer" know they were prowling the plains of Kodagu? In fact, since when did elephants, of any species, prowl?)
As it happens, that correction -- on Friday -- was the third relating to photos in a week. On Wednesday, we had this:
A reader said that the photograph in the page 1 promo “Solar plane’s record” (Early editions, September 11, 2007) was not that of the solar plane. The story, which was a detailed graphic used in the “International” page, was on the “Zephyr UAV smashing the flight duration record”. The reader is right. The promo picture was that of an MQ-9 Reaper...
And on Tuesday, there was this:
In an article “Many firsts to her credit”, a profile of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi (The Hindu-Magazine September 9, 2007, page 5), the photograph captioned "Tough Act: Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi" is that of Sarojini Varadappan.
I cannot locate the mislabelled MQ-9 Reaper; the article on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi is here, and as usual, the photo has no credit. Even if it were a file photo from The Hindu's own collection, should it not be credited to the original photographer? But then, if the photo were from a documented and authoritative source such as The Hindu's own files, it would not be likely that the caption would be incorrect.
When our mainstream media -- including our most pretentious newspaper -- decides that it is correct and appropriate to download photos from random sources on the internet and use them without attribution, why would our children learn any better? Why am I surprised when students -- and even faculty -- cut-and-paste from other sources, without attribution?
Thursday, September 13, 2007
"First the sentence, and then the evidence!"
Here's an email I just received, which was sent out on a mailing list that I ended up on some time ago for obscure reasons. The moderator of the list, a journalism professor at a top university, apparently sees nothing amiss. (Perhaps there's indeed nothing amiss, and I'm over-reacting?)
Hi [journalism professor],
I'm XXX doing an internship with [a highly respected broadcaster] London. I am writing to request some help- we were looking for a skilled immigrant who initially worked in Europe and found it difficult and then moved to America where the process of immigration is easier.
We have a programme going out today, and would have to interview him in the next three or four hours. Complete apologies for the ASAP type of thing, but I do hope that [your organization] can help me locate this person!
Monday, September 10, 2007
We are all supply-siders
Hm. India too used to have such absurd tax rates. And in Britain it went as high as 95% (as George Harrison sang: "There's one for you, nineteen for me, 'cause I'm the taxman.") But today I doubt there's a single person, economist or otherwise, who thinks that a marginal tax rate of 90% will boost either the economy or the government's revenues. Does that mean we're all supply-siders now?
Leading from which, here's a question that's always bothered me. Why not supply-side the tax itself, in the form of taxing products, not incomes? We do tax products (formerly sales tax, now VAT), but what if we taxed them a bit more -- the tax increasing according to luxury value, but not becoming exorbitant -- and removed all income tax?
In India, everyone buys things, but fewer than 4% of the population pays income tax. And that's not because 96% of us are wallowing in poverty. Income tax evasion is astronomical. And the evaders tend to be among the richest people: even if they do pay tax, they do not declare all their income. Only the salaried class is honest, because they're forced to be: it's deducted at source.
If we decided that income tax merely annoys citizens and abolished it, replacing it with an equitable scheme of taxing products (being careful not to tax products that the poor depend on), why wouldn't that work? Could we even have "negative taxes" on essential items?
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
The media maketh the President
As he was running for president, Al Gore said he'd invented the Internet; announced that he had personally discovered Love Canal, the most infamous toxic-waste site in the country; and bragged that he and Tipper had been the sole inspiration for the golden couple in Erich Segal's best-selling novel Love Story (made into a hit movie with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal). He also invented the dog, joked David Letterman, and gave mankind fire.
Could such an obviously intelligent man have been so megalomaniacal and self-deluded to have actually said such things? Well, that's what the news media told us, anyway....
Eight years ago, in the bastions of the "liberal media" that were supposed to love Gore—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, CNN—he was variously described as "repellent," "delusional," a vote-rigger, a man who "lies like a rug," "Pinocchio." Eric Pooley, who covered him for Time magazine, says, "He brought out the creative-writing student in so many reporters.… Everybody kind of let loose on the guy."....
One obstacle course the press set up was which candidate would lure voters to have a beer with them at the local bar. "Journalists made it seem like that was a legitimate way of choosing a president," says Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter. "They also wrongly presumed, based on nothing, that somehow Bush was more likable."....
[New York Times columnist] Maureen Dowd boiled the choice between Gore and Bush down to that between the "pious smarty-pants" and the "amiable idler," and made it perfectly clear which of the presidential candidates had a better chance of getting a date. "Al Gore is desperate to get chicks," she said in her column. "Married chicks. Single chicks. Old chicks. Young chicks. If he doesn't stop turning off women, he'll never be president."
Yes, thanks so much, "liberal media". Half a million dead Iraqis are grateful to you.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Ms. Patil ended her address by invoking Swami Vivekanada’s "immoral clarion call" to fellow-citizens to “Arise, Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached."
(It also appears in the print edition.)
(President Patil's speech was a masterclass in how to mix metaphors and recycle cliches, but I don't think she was responsible for that description of Vivekananda's call, or that spelling of his name.)
Monday, August 13, 2007
Much verbiage has been expended on whether Dravid was right not to enforce a follow-on yesterday (one reason seems to have been a strain suffered by Zaheer Khan), and on why he made such a laboured 12 off 96 balls (it was something like 5 off 80 balls at one time), when the hope would have been to get some quick runs on the board and give themselves time to bowl England out.
But I got reminded of another test, over three years ago: this one, at Multan.
Then, India declared their first innings closed at 675 on the second day, and Pakistan faced 16 overs that day without losing a wicket. Here, India were all out for 664 on the second day, and England faced 8 overs, losing one wicket.
Then, Pakistan ended their first innings early on the fourth day, for 407 (a deficit of 268). Here, England ended their first innings early on the fourth day, for 345 (a deficit of 319).
Then, the captain, Rahul Dravid, enforced the follow-on; here, he did not.
Then, Dravid declared the first innings closed when Sachin Tendulkar was on 194 and there were still 16 overs to go in the day; the reason for denying Tendulkar his 200 was, reportedly, a lack of urgency shown by him. Here, Dravid did not declare the first innings closed (a decision which allowed Kumble a well-deserved century); India were eventually all out with 8 overs to go in the day. In the second innings, Dravid's sense of urgency was exhibited by his 12 off 96 balls. (Granted, India were 10 for 3 at one point. But they did have a lead of over 300, so they were really 329 for 3 in effect.)
Then, India won by an innings. Here, a result looks rather unlikely.
Basically, then India wanted to win; here India wanted not to lose.
Nothing much wrong in that, but let's not have fancy talk about positive cricket, wanting to win, and so on.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Seal the shops, seal the lips
In May this year, Mid-Day posted an article alleging that the sons of the then Chief Justice, Y. K. Sabharwal, had business links with mall developers. (I posted on that news here.) If true, it seemed highly improper of Sabharwal to have presided over that case: he should have recused himself citing conflict of interest.
In June, Mid-Day published reactions from a cross-section of the legal community, expressing shock at the news. Lawyer Prashant Bhushan demanded an investigation. Another top lawyer, R. K. Anand (who has since come under a cloud himself), said that if true, Sabharwal must be prosecuted.
On August 3, the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms -- an organisation whose patrons include Prashant Bhushan, former law minister Shanti Bhushan, Justice V R Krishna Iyer, Admiral R H Tahiliani -- held a press conference alleging that, according to government documents, when Sabharwal issued his sealing orders, his sons had already tied up with big mall owners; the registered business address in 2004 for one of their companies was Sabharwal's official residential address (note the irony -- it means his official residence was being used for a commercial purpose, which was the precise reason for sealing those shops); and in the two years since 2004, the junior Sabharwals grew rapidly from a small import-export business to a multi-crore commercial development business.
Tehelka carries a cover story, an editorial, and an interview with Shanti Bhushan. (Hat tip - Abi, who cites V. Venkatesan.) It is all worth reading, and it is staggering.
The rest of the media says ... nothing. Silence. Blackout.
The news conference was on August 3 (and was reportedly packed, with all major newspapers represented), and I found exactly one report dated August 4, which credits UNI; however, none of the newspapers seem to have carried that report, or if they did, they have prevented Google from indexing it.
The only exception seems to be Outlook, which carries an article. But note that this article is written by three members of the campaign (Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Bhaskar Rao), not by a journalist.
Even Mid-Day seems to have been silent, if Google is any indication.
Why the silence? Is it a fear of our contempt laws? Is that why Outlook did not ask their own journalists to write about it? One can understand that if the members of the campaign cannot prove what they say, they risk a contempt case against them; but does a newspaper that reports what they say also risk it? Do I, or Abi or Venkatesan, risk contempt by writing these blog posts?
Tehelka: If a common man has a genuine grievance against a sitting judge, what recourse does he or she have?
Shanti Bhushan: None. Because as soon as he makes an allegation he will be guilty of contempt. Now Parliament has amended the contempt law and truth has been made the defence.
Exactly. Truth is now a defence, and even if the allegations are not true, it is true that Shanti Bhushan and others are making these allegations. So why not report them?
Saturday, August 11, 2007
For some people, Kumble can do no right
That's the front page headline in The Hindu (Chennai edition) after he scored an unbeaten 110 to propel India to 664.
And what is this tremendously important world record that he denied India? The highest Test total that didn't contain a century.
(Incidentally, he did establish another record, of equally dubious significance: the longest gap between Test debut and Test century. He did it in his 151st innings.)
I was hoping that, after he became the first Indian to get 500 test wickets, he would get a bit of respect from our media. But no.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Update on the Kundu case
Unless something new and interesting comes up, these are my last words on the subject.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Dear Hitch, Tom Lehrer was first
I'm sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that!
(Watch a different performance of that song, sans intro, here.)
Christopher Hitchens, 2007:
The enemies of intolerance cannot be tolerant
(Read the whole thing here.)
The difference is that Hitch seems to be serious.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Security expert Bruce Schneier is quoted as saying:
"Honestly, the four incidents described, with photos, sure sound suspicious to me...Honestly, if someone has a block of cheese with wires and a detonator – I want the FBI to be called in."
To which the writer says:
Honestly, Bruce, cheese is edible, not explosive.
Well... fans of Asterix know otherwise. Maybe it was Corsican cheese.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
The world's best umpire
Taufel was one of the field umpires (the other being Darrell Hair) who ruled Inzamam-ul-Haq run out when he left his crease to avoid a throw. Hair has, of course, since quit amid controversy over his calling off a Test between England and Pakistan after alleging ball tampering, and subsequently demanding money to retire. At the time, Taufel said Hair "knew the laws better than anyone"; Inzamam would beg to disagree.
And, today, Taufel has wrongly sent back Tendulkar and Ganguly -- both of whom were approaching centuries.
If these are the world's best umpires, we badly need more TV referrals, and should delegate all LBW decisions to HawkEye.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Letters on ethics
Subsequently, I have talked to several biologists, including (unexpectedly) two committee members; this helped me understand a little better what's going on. I also read Prof. Padmanaban's second letter on the subject, in the July 10 issue. Padmanaban starts by criticising Sohan Modak's language skills, goes on to question his motives, and reiterates as "fact" that "no manipulation is detectable".
My own (non-waffling) response will be posted here in a couple of weeks (though it already seems to be circulating privately). But the current issue of Current Science has further correspondence on the topic. P M Bhargava points out in forceful terms that if the committee were convinced by their conclusions, they should have shared the analysis with the journal that withdrew the paper; that they didn't do this is not good for their credibility. G R Desiraju has a terse comment that, unfortunately, sounds very true. P N Shankar discusses another, much higher-profile ethics case involving an Indian scientist (R A Mashelkar) and asks why Current Science hasn't covered it.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
The anti-war candidate
The exception is Ron Paul, from Bush's party and his home state (Texas). The oddity of a solidly anti-war libertarian running against "Rudy McRomney" has caused quite a buzz; he has appeared both on the Daily Show and on the Colbert Report in June. And now the New York Times has a long and informative feature on him and his ideas.
Extreme libertarianism of the kind Paul espouses seems a bizarrely unworkable idea. But increasingly in today's world one wonders -- well, I wonder -- whether every other system isn't worse. And at least some of Paul's ideas will find support on all sides of the political spectrum.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
My favourite things
Dave Brubeck is 86 and going strong. The BBC has just honoured him with a lifetime achievement award at their jazz awards.
It's rare that these two musicians are mentioned in the same breath. Coltrane was a hard-bop pioneer; Brubeck is a west-coast jazzman. Coltrane is a demigod among jazz (and, often, rock) musicians. Brubeck has always been hugely popular with the public, but always seemed to be taken less seriously in the New York-dominated jazz scene. And yet it seems to me they have much in common.
They both expanded the rhythmic and harmonic boundaries of jazz. Coltrane is perhaps best remembered for "Giant Steps", a "hurtling" composition, as the Guardian says, that "changes chords almost every beat". Brubeck is perhaps best known for the gimmicky Time Out album that explored odd metres. But long before that, he was pushing the limits of harmony too. Twentieth-century classical composers were writing "twelve-tone" music that didn't sound like music to most listeners: the twelve tones are not made equal, why should they be treated as equal? But Brubeck wrote "The Duke" (a tribute to Ellington) that casually explored all twelve chord roots within the first twelve bars, yet was consummately musical. (The best-known performance is by Miles Davis in his "Miles Ahead" album.) Brubeck explored challenging concepts of polyrhythm and polytonality while all the time remaining immensely popular with the public. Coltrane took chord substitutions to undreamt-of heights, again in a way that made sense to listeners.
I think these two musicians did what classical composers of the twentieth century unsuccessfully tried to: they broke all the traditional rules, but made music that people could listen to and relate to.
And yes -- they both recorded albums called "My Favorite Things", featuring completely contrasting takes on the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune. Coltrane's is regarded as a classic, Brubeck's is hard to obtain (I have a Japanese edition).
Friday, July 13, 2007
Chocolate by any other name
Now the NYT has an article on how the world's best "candy" bars are English -- and, specifically, Cadbury's. Apparently, Cadbury's in the US is made by the Hershey company, and is no good. And, apparently, Cadbury's in the UK is good.
Perhaps the word "candy" was well chosen. Until recently, Cadbury's (any version) could not legally be sold as "chocolate" in many European countries because it contains vegetable fat. Today, thanks to a 2000 European Commission "chocolate directive", it may be sold as "family milk chocolate". But in France, for example, you'll still find it (if available at all) in the candy section of supermarkets, not in the chocolate section.
The NYT article quotes Cadbury Schweppes as saying the local taste in different countries is determined by what "people grew up with"; in the US, that means Hershey. I wonder how they determined the taste in India.
Monday, July 09, 2007
Avion à la Mallya
Like Paramount, Kingfisher does not advertise an "economy class". They have "first class" and "Kingfisher class" (Paramount has "business" instead of the latter). And as with Paramount, the only improvement I could discern over, say, Jet's economy class was leg room: it really is quite a bit more. But elbow room is much the same, and the food quality is good but not noticeably better than economy food in other airlines in this country.
But the most interesting difference was the in-flight magazine. Where other airlines offer articles on travel and tourism, Kingfisher offers a hundred or so pages of page-3 material. And the prime focus seems to be Dr Vijay Mallya himself. I counted at least a half-dozen photos of the great man, posing with a racing team, with politicians, with various others, and by himself, unfailingly referred to with doctoral prefix intact.
Dr Mallya's editorial mentioned their recent acquisition of a 26% stake in Air Deccan, and crowed that while Kingfisher had promised to be the country's largest airline by 2010, they had already managed it by 2007. I don't quite see how acquiring a minority stake equates to becoming the country's largest airline, but perhaps that's why I didn't go to business school.
But grabbing your attention at the outset was not Dr Mallya, but the man featured in the fawning cover story: Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel. In between hailing his contributions to the boom in India's airline industry, the article found the space to praise his dress sense (apparently he's his own fashion designer), his numerous educational institutions in his hometown, his twenty luxury cars, his self-assurance at cocktail parties, and his ability to be universally liked across party lines.
Perhaps the adulation is mutual. No doubt Kingfisher hopes so.
(Speaking of Dr Mallya: on my last trip to Bangalore I spent a pleasant couple of hours with a college friend at a bar on the top storey of the Barton Centre on M G Road, staring at the city's skyline. And in a south-westerly direction was a blot that I hadn't seen before: a complex of skyscrapers that included what looked very much like New York's Empire State Building, and nearby, another that somewhat resembled that city's Chrysler Building. I am told that for these latest additions to Bangalore's skyline, too, we have Dr Mallya to thank.)
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Update on the Kundu image alignments
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Anatomy of an alleged academic fraud
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Do the math? Redmond can't
Now, equations have always sucked in Microsoft Word's equation editor; but presumably they looked fine in Word 2007 when the authors submitted them. So the problem is not with Word, but with the conversion software that Science and Nature use. I haven't seen Word 2007's output, but it has to be an improvement on previous efforts: nothing could be worse.
in fact, an experienced user will immediately recognise that the the image of the equation at the top of that post was typeset not in Word, but in TeX. This program was written, single-handedly, by Donald Knuth in the 1970s, revised by him in the 1980s, and has scarcely been touched since then. It is about as bug-free as a program can be; and more to the point, it produces not only beautifully typeset mathematics, but beautifully typeset text -- far superior, in typographic terms, to any but the most expensive commercial typesetting programs. (None of which can come close in the quality of math typesetting.) And it's free, in every sense of the word.
In the form of LaTeX, a macro package that makes TeX easier to use, it has become the standard in the scientific typesetting world; the vast majority of preprints on arxiv.org are typeset with LaTeX.
Here are three examples of equations from the few Microsoft Word-typeset papers on today's cond-mat listing.
(click on all images for larger versions: the inline images are somewhat randomly resized.) Not particularly awful at first glance, but then you notice the disproportionately tiny integral sign, the inadequate spacing on either side of the "=" sign, and the fraction line that almost bumps into the subsequent "d". And the subscript on the left really ought to be in roman, not italic.
But Word can be much worse than that. Here are examples from from here:
Now, the subscript is quite the wrong size (perhaps you need to adjust the size manually in Equation Editor) and is still in italic, the exponent 2 in the first equation is too large, the integral sign in that equation is ridiculously small and the limits are disproportionately sized, the exponent 2 at the end of the second equation's denominator bumps against the preceding bracket, and (as before) the spacing everywhere is bumpy.
Here are the results of typesetting the same equations in LaTeX (with the default Computer Modern fonts, but one can also use Times Roman or other fonts).
Knuth nailed it a quarter century ago. Microsoft (and other vendors) still can't be bothered to get it right.
Contempt for users? This is what Ms Heffernan should be angry about.
(PS - in case it wasn't obvious, the clipped "L" and brackets in the first equation of the LaTeX output are my fault, not LaTeX's.)
Friday, June 15, 2007
It's ok at Harvard, if you're not Kaavya
If you're Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, nothing much happens. You get exonerated by your university, and life goes on.
And you get to successfully lobby against tenure for the man who exposed your plagiarism.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Piecing the full picture together
This was a Canon A-80, and served me well till recently, when its colours started going new-age. But before that happened, one of the features that intrigued me was the "panorama mode". You could click multiple overlapping images, and the camera had a "panorama mode" to help you align them (and also to keep the exposure level constant, and so on); and Canon also supplied software to "stitch" these photos together into a larger image.
Unfortunately, the software was Windows-only. I did have a Windows partition on my laptop, but rarely booted into it. But this software didn't even make the pain worthwhile. It provided no fine-tuning capabilities, and the results were rather Dali-esque:
So I abandoned the idea, but still had lots of panorama shots lying around in my laptop.
Recently I tried hugin. It's based on the venerable Panorama Tools, which I found too hard to use when I checked in 2003; but hugin really makes the whole thing much easier. The idea is, you provide "control points" to say where your images overlap (and there's a really neat program called autopano-sift that does this for you, providing output in a format hugin can understand); you optionally indicate lines that should be maintained horizontal (typically, the horizon) or vertical (for example, walls and doors); you choose from various stitching options to correct for various forms of distortion; and, finally, you stitch the program. While hugin can provide the final output by itself, it is recommended that you install enblend, which hugin can then call automatically. Enblend intelligently gets rid of ugly "seams" arising from different light exposure levels, and even deals intelligently with other discrepancies, for example, where people appear in one overlapping frame and not in the other.
It's much slower than Canon's software, but it's quite easy to use after you figure out the basic ideas, and it works beautifully.
Who needs a wide-angle lens?
(The above software claims to work on windows too, but I haven't tried it.)
PS: These examples aren't defect-free. In the first hugin example, the needle is slightly bent (though not as broken as in the Canon stitching). This can be corrected by picking more and better control points. And in the last photo, the same individual appears twice, having been photographed in non-overlapping frames: correcting this is beyond enblend's impressive capabilities.