Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tavleen Singh wants Marine Drive to go to the dogs

This is actually old news, but surfaced in today's Dinamalar. Apparently the municipal corporation in Mumbai wants pet owners to clean up after them, as is done in major cities around the world; and Tavleen Singh, columnist for Indian Express, was not happy to be fined last year when her dog pooped on Marine Drive. (DNA link, which doesn't work for me at the moment; Google cache of same).

The DNA article has some depressing quotes from the columnist who loses no opportunity to complain about poor sanitation in Mumbai and India (1, 2, 3). Why, she asks, is Mumbai's corporation concerned about Marine Drive and not about the suburbs and the slums? Why, one could ask her, does she not choose to live in the suburbs or the slums?

She also makes the bizarre claim that the government supplies citizens with poop-scooping equipment in New York and Paris. Since she speaks with such authority, methinks she should go and live in New York for a while (Paris tends to be notoriously laissez-faire about this), and when she is fined there, she can try demanding equipment from the authorities (and also try not paying the fine in absence of such government-supplied equipment).

Around the same time, Mumbai Mirror had a story on littering, and quoted Tavleen Singh as saying: "People who spit on the road should be locked up. People who litter are criminals." Would I rather step in someone's spittle, a discarded plastic bag, or dog poo? I think the answer is "None of the above."

Today's Dinamalar says a concerned citizen filed a right-to-information request to find out whether Singh ever actually paid the fine. She didn't. Maybe she won't be asked to. She's an important person, by virtue of her regular pontifications in an important newspaper.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Presidential non-debates

From an article last year by Newt Gingrich (via Donklephant):

We don't really have presidential debates today; we have a kind of meaningless political performance art: a recitation of talking points choreographed to avoid any risk.

In the 2004 election, the Bush-Kerry debate rules ran a full 32 pages of do's and don'ts, including one rule that ordered the moderator to stop any candidate who dared to depart from the script to reference someone in the audience.

The candidates also were ordered to turn over for inspection "all such paper and any pens or pencils with which a candidate may wish to take notes during the debate." Pen and pencils. Talk about the vital stuff of democracy!

In telling contrast, the ground rules for the most famous debates in U.S. history were outlined in a two-sentence letter from Abraham Lincoln to Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the 1858 race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. After a prompt exchange of letters, they settled on the terms for seven debates. Lincoln insisted only that "I wish perfect reciprocity, and no more." There was no talk of pens and pencils.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"Hillary Strangelove"

I was looking for a US media response to Hillary Clinton's recent threat to "obliterate" a country that has not been the aggressor in any war in living memory, a civilisation a few millennia older than her own, in the hypothetical event of its launching a nuclear attack on Israel. Other than this strong editorial in the Boston Globe, which compares her with the Kubrick movie character and concludes by rubbishing her 3AM ad, I don't see very much out there.

Let me amend the above. Even if Iran had been a johnny-come-lately country with no history or culture to speak of and even if it had been the aggressor in several recent wars, that still wouldn't be a reason to kill every single man, woman and child living there.

The only remotely reasonable explanation -- which some Clinton spinmeisters are hinting at -- is that this is not a serious threat, but a strategy: "Let's convince the Iranians that we're so batshit crazy that we will do anything."

No, let me amend that too. It is not a remotely reasonable explanation. There isn't one.

Inside view of OLPC

I have always had a dim view of the One Laptop Per Child project, which, after years of hype, is now seeing some negative publicity and the departure of many key figures. I figured that $100 per laptop per child was a lot of money for a developing country: that kind of money would buy several years' textbooks in India. I figured, also, that it is more important to teach kids basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, and there is no evidence anywhere in the world that laptops help with this goal. And the pontifications of Nicholas Negroponte, the project's founder, always sounded a bit pompous: as if he knew better than anyone else what schoolkids in developing countries need.

But it seems I am not the only one with a dim view of Negroponte. According to Ivan Krstić:

To those on the outside and looking in: remember that, though he takes the liberty of speaking in its name, Nicholas [Negroponte] is not OLPC. OLPC is Walter Bender, Scott Ananian, Chris Ball, Mitch Bradley, Mark Foster, Marco Pesenti Gritti, Mary Lou Jepsen, Andres Salomon, Richard Smith, Michael Stone, Tomeu Vizoso, John Watlington, Dan Williams, Dave Woodhouse, and the community, and the rest of the people who worked days, nights, and weekends without end, fighting like warrior poets to make this project work. Nicholas wasn’t the one who built the hardware, or wrote the software, or deployed the machines. Nicholas talks, but these people’s work walks.

And more strong stuff about how Negroponte has actively misrepresented aspects of the project and how recent developments have been despite him, not because of him. Now, this guy is writing from the point of view of the technical aspects of the laptop; but he also says the laptop is doing real good in Uruguay, Peru, Nepal and elsewhere. It would be interesting to see some impartial reviews of this work.

I haven't changed my opinion about this project being ill-conceived, but the device they produced is pretty cool and I don't know why they don't mass-market it: I'm sure lots of parents would want to buy it as a geeky programmable toy for their kids.

As for the point about the money being better spendable on textbooks: yes, I have to ask myself, but what if the government isn't spending on textbooks? What if government schools are lamentably ill-equipped with educational materials? What if the choice is not $100 worth of textbooks and other old-fashioned materials, but -- nothing?

Our government in India rejected OLPC, for reasons I agree with. But it would be nice to see an alternative programme implemented.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ram has fellow travellers

The Hindu's N. Ram is not alone in his China-apologism over Tibet. Here is an astonishing article, by one Floyd Rudmin, pointing out that, a month before the Tibet clashes, there was a bomb blast by the Basque separatist organisation, ETA, in Bilbao. The article points out numerous parallels between the Basque and the Tibetan people: both are cultural minorities, who have survived for centuries in isolated mountainous regions, but are threatened by larger countries who claim their land. He concludes,

This year, merely one month apart, separatists attacked government buildings and police forces in both capital cities. The Tibetan separatists also attacked civilians, killing some, even burning them alive. The Basque separatists gave a forewarning so that civilian casualties would be avoided.

Nevertheless, the world wide response to these two events has been very different. After the attack in Lhasa, the response has been massive, with many street demonstrations denouncing China and supporting the separatists. The French President, the British Prime Minister, and the UN Secretary General have announced they will boycott China. Following the attack in Bilbao, there has been no response. Nothing. Perfectly nothing. No street demonstrations in Paris, London, or San Francisco. No one announcing a boycott of Spain.

There is one difference between these two very similar events that might explain this very great difference in the world wide response: The United States government has been covertly backing the Tibetan separatists for fifty years...

Yes, that is one difference. Here, for Mr Rudmin's edification, are a few others.

  • China under Mao marched into Tibet in the 1950s. The Basque country was already under Spain for decades before Franco came to power. Franco did brutally suppress them, as he did all dissent in Spain.
  • Franco, like Mao, died in the mid-1970s, but Franco's regime died with him. Spain has been a democracy for about 30 years. China continues to be a brutal dictatorship where free speech and dissent are stifled.
  • The Basque country, like Catalonia, is given a great deal of autonomy under today's Spanish system. China has ruled out any such arrangement for Tibet.
  • ETA has little mass support among the Basque people, and fewer than 40% of the Basque people in Spain's Basque region support independence, according to a 2007 poll. If you want to know more in person, go there and find out. It is a free country and there are no travel or media restrictions. It is impossible to tell what Tibetans in Tibet want, since China won't let us ask them. While Ram may be contented with a guided party tour accompanied by official translators, not everyone is satisfied by such things.

Oh yes: ETA's official ideology is "Marxist-Leninist". That's why they must be the good guys.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How to react to fan material

There are many reasons I like Leonard Cohen. Primarily his words and music, of course. But here's another.

In 1995, a Finn called Jarkko Arjatsalo launched a fan site called leonardcohenfiles.com, based, as you can guess, on Cohen's work: extensive commentaries, lyrics, and so on, entirely unauthorised. In 1997, Cohen found out about it, and contacted the author... and proceeded to send him much unpublished material (lyrics, poems, drawings, and so on). A couple of years later, he invited Arjatsalo and family for a visit to California. (Source: a recent article in The Toronto Star.)

Contrast with -- for example -- J. K. Rowling.

When N Ram supported freedom of speech

Sunil Mukhi (TIFR Mumbai) has been digging through his archives, and unearthed an example of when N Ram was pro-free-speech. Recently, of course, he has refused to provide any coverage on China's crackdown on free speech, while industriously pushing the Chinese line on Tibet.

What was that example? When my colleague T Jayaraman wrote protesting the nuclear tests in 1998, and was threatened with action by the then director of this institute. And why was that an occasion that free speech needed to be defended? Could it be, as Mukhi observes, that Jayaraman's position happened to coincide with China's?

Why do we bother with Ram? His newspaper would by now be wallowing in obscurity if the other papers weren't such utter rubbish too.

Space Bar had a recent post on "found poetry". (It is amusing that Wikipedia's article on the subject cites one of the earliest examples as occurring in a 19th century mechanics textbook.) Anyway, it occurred to me that Ram's reply to his Readers' Editor had a certain rhythm to it. As follows:

We have an arrangement with Xinhua. We
've also used Western agencies and P-
T-I. The violence reported, you see,
We confirmed it all editorially.

'Twas Tibetans done it, some hundreds of them.
The Chinese authorities, first unprepared,
Moved quickly to stop the riots and mayhem
In Lhasa and elsewhere. No effort was spared.

The violence in Lhasa, by every account,
Was done by protesters, who included monks.
No case of violence (or none that would count)
Came from the police or paramilitary bunks.

Why edit the Lama? Because he's a splittist
And tended to justify the murderous
Riots. Other than what we published,
Letters to us were not very numerous.

(Well, the meter is a bit bumpy, but one takes it as one finds it.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bogus science in textbooks

When I was a kid, I read an article of Martin Gardner (in a book of collected columns originally published in the 1960s) observing that many textbooks "prove" that air is 20% oxygen by burning a candle in a plate of water, with a jar inverted on top. When the flame goes out, the water rises into the jar, to a distance of about 20% (of course, nobody measures this exactly). That, apparently, "proves" that the used-up oxygen constituted 20% of the air. Of course, this had been in my textbooks too (and even a class demonstration), and nobody had thought to question it.

A ten-year-old tends to be a bit uncritical of such "arguments". But surely anyone older -- such as the teachers teaching this -- would know that (a) The candle would't use up all the oxygen; (b) The oxygen is being used up in making carbon dioxide and water vapour, which are both gases (and water molecules, unlike oxygen molecules, have a single atom of oxygen), so if anything the volume of gas should have increased inside the jar; (c) the heat should have caused the air to expand; (d) the heat should have caused some water to evaporate from the plate, adding to the volume of air in the jar.

The only reason the water rises into the jar is (c) above. When you invert the jar on top of the candle, the air around the candle is already hot. When the candle goes out, the air cools, contracts and sucks in the water.

Another question was why do stars twinkle? One book attributed it to the stellar equivalent of solar flares, which is nonsense. Thankfully that was the exception: other books said, correctly, that atmospheric turbulence "bends" the starlight. But then why don't planets twinkle? Not one textbook that I remember explained the reason. (The reason is that stars are so far off they are effectively point sources of light, while planets are more disc-like -- one can see the discs with a quite modest telescope -- and the amount of atmospheric bending is small compared to the diameter of the disc.)

Today I came across another such bogus explanation posted by a commenter on Space Bar's blog in response to her (rhetorical?) question "Why do smells sit so heavily in the summer?" The explanation was that air moves faster, and carries smells more quickly. Plausible at first thought, but the math doesn't work out (as I show in my reply there). But I expect there are several textbooks out there that trot out some such explanation all the same.

How many such bogus "scientific" answers were there, and are still there, in school textbooks that I have forgotten about (or continue to believe credulously)? Richard Feynman reports regularly blowing up like a volcano when asked to review some California state school science books. I suspect my own temper may be hard to keep when my son starts learning science in school.

But no textbook, however atrocious, could compare with the the unauthorised "guide books" / "sample questions and answers" that were, and are, a staple of kids preparing for exams. The following, I remember, was a source of hilarity for my brother. "Question: Though India's north-south dimensions are about the same as its east-west dimensions, the difference in longitudes between east and west is much greater than the difference in latitudes between north and south. Why is that? Model answer: Because Bangladesh comes in the middle."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Proper attribution

Blogger doesn't reveal the full name in comments, only the first name[*]. A colleague who shares my first name, but outdoes me in literary venom, recently had the experience of being complained to by one of his victims that "your colleague Rahul Siddharthan" leaves such nasty comments on his (the victim's) blog. The victim was a bit taken aback when my colleague revealed that he, not I, was responsible.

If you ever happen to writhe in your chair on reading a particularly mordant comment by "Rahul", please first click on the blogger profile before admiring my writing skills. I don't want to take undue credit.

[*]UPDATE: Actually that's an option, not a feature. I notice my colleague Rahul has now altered his settings to show his full name. So have I, though my full name is much longer than his...

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Times, they are a-changin'

When I was growing up in Delhi, the two major English-language papers were The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. The latter was, at the time, regarded (by the people I knew) as superior in classified ads, and in little else. The ToI was the "serious" paper; but by the mid-80s its decline was already becoming apparent, and its concern was clearly with selling the product rather than being newsworthy. So when the Hindu started publishing in Delhi, it was a breath of fresh air. It never topped the circulation charts but it rapidly found a strong readership, not just among south Indians.

Some months ago we stopped buying The Hindu because of their ludicrously biased coverage (both news-wise and editorially) of the Nandigram affair. We switched to Deccan Chronicle, a far worse newspaper than I ever remember ToI being, but I still prefer it to The Hindu.

Today the Hindu's Reader's Editor discussed the latest controversy about the Hindu's biases: its recent coverage of Tibet. It's worth reading in full.

This quote from the Editor-in-Chief, N Ram, says it all:

The Dalai Lama's statements were edited because he isa separatist and tended to justify the savage and murderous riots in Lhasa.

So presumably the Hindu would have edited statements from Gandhi, who was a separatist. And note the weaselly words "tended to justify" -- did he justify the riots (I haven't seen a news report of this) or didn't he?

Today, also, The Times of India entered Chennai. I am tempted to subscribe. And I am very interested in seeing what this does to the circulation figures of The Hindu. As far as I can tell, The Hindu has now alienated the following classes of readers:

  • Readers interested in local news who don't like the blatant pro-DMK slant
  • "Traditional" (conservative) Tam-Brahm readers who believe they don't find enough respect for their religion or culture
  • The Hindutva right-wing, for the same reasons as above
  • The liberal left, who are appalled by the coverage of Nandigram and Tibet
  • People who want new and original reading matter, not rehashes from The Guardian and The New York Times (which are now available online to anyone)

Is there anyone left out above?

The ToI has two paths to building its readership: first, building a quality product; second, pandering to as many of the disenchanted categories above as possible. I think the latter will be easier.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fraud in Indian Science

T V Jayan and G S Mudur have a long article in The Telegraph discussing various instances of fraud in Indian science. I am one of those quoted (for the most part accurately) thanks to my involvement in the Kundu case.

I think the essential point, that they have brought out well, is the reluctance of our scientific establishment to deal with such matters or even acknowledge that they exist. The article quotes R Chidambaram as telling the journal Science that the number of cases of fraud in India is too small to justify a full-time oversight body. I'd say that, taken as a proportion of the research from the country published in top-tier journals (which is pathetically low even compared to other Asian countries), the number of cases in India is probably among the highest in the world -- and it's thanks to the attitude of our science administrators, which is either ostrich-like or deliberately condoning of such things.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Another random note

Could an enormous part of the experimental psychology literature on cognitive dissonance be wrong? Keith Chen thinks so. (Link to his working paper, PDF).

The problem is this: a large class of studies compare how subjects' choices influence each other: suppose A, B and C are comparable, and the subject prefers A to B, they find that more often than not the subject also prefers C to B. The researchers can't understand why that would happen when B and C are comparable, and conclude that when the subject compares A to B and prefers A, the subject also decides that B is bad. (Monkeys do that too, so the researchers conclude that monkeys suffer cognitive dissonance.)

Chen points out that, if you do have an internal ranking of A, B, C -- not visible on the point scale the researchers give you (say, you give them all 3 points out of 5, but you have finer preferences among them) -- then if you prefer A to B, the probability of your preferring C to B is well over 1/2. To be precise, it is 2/3. This is because there are only three ranking scenarios where A is preferred to B: ABC, ACB, CAB; and in two of these three, C is preferred to B. (2/3 corresponds quite well to what was seen in the experiments on monkeys.)

Can this trivial detail really have escaped the psychology community for half a century?

A large number of cognitive-dissonance experiments fall in another category, which is a bit trickier to analyse, but Chen does that in his working paper above and comes to a similar conclusion.

A final thought: if an otherwise rational psychologist does not admit the error, can we take that as evidence of cognitive dissonance?

Random notes

Amid all the chaos in London and Paris, despite heavy police presence (reportedly comparable to what is given to a visiting head of state in Paris), only one official reaction stood out for me:

Embarrassed Chinese organizers cancelled a reception for the torch at Paris city hall at the last minute after a banner supporting human rights was hung from the facade, Paris mayor Bernard Delanoe told reporters.

"The Chinese officials decided they would not stop here because they were put out by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is their responsibility," he said.

Next time a Tibetan unfurls a banner -- as happened some time ago at my alma mater -- can one hope for a similar reaction? Last I checked, peaceful protest is legal in India (and violent protest is tolerated far too often): why not allow a few banners near the torch?

From this Rasmussen report comes the following:

In North Carolina, Barack Obama has opened up a twenty-three percentage point lead over Hillary Clinton. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey finds that Obama attracts 56% of the vote while Clinton earns 33%. A month ago, Obama’s lead was just seven percentage points...

Perhaps the only disturbing news for Obama in the survey is that most Clinton voters (56%) say they are not likely to vote for the Illinois Senator in the general election against John McCain. A month ago, 45% of Clinton voters said they were not likely to vote for Obama against McCain.

Is it so disturbing? A month ago, according to Rasmussen, Clinton's support was at 40%. We can safely assume that only those open to Obama switched in the intervening time. Today her support is at 33%, which one assumes includes all those resolutely opposed to Obama. How many are those? A month ago, it was 45% of 40%, or 18%; today it is 56% of 33%, or 18.5%: an insignificant change.

A year ago I complained about audiophile magazines, and others, not understanding basic statistics. But a polling agency?

Posting has been slow, and so has reading (sorry all of you out there, I haven't been keeping up). The reason is that I got tired of my feedreaders: both Liferea and Akregator mysteriously deleted most of my feeds. I tried Google Reader and hated the interface. Any recommendations, especially for a linux user who prefers navigating with a keyboard? I suspect I'll end up by setting up an RSS-to-email thingie and read via my preferred mail client.