Monday, June 30, 2008

Fiction stranger than fact

Did you know that "Johann Bach" was a Nazi war criminal who was recently arrested on the Karnataka-Goa border after he tried to sell an 18th-century piano? So says Rediff, among other news sources. Apparently the Germans did this without the knowledge of the Karnataka or Goa police, and the press release was put out by "Perus Narkp", "the intelligence wing of the German Chancellor's Core at Berlin".

The article is noteworthy because it contains the only insightful reader comment I can ever recall seeing on rediff. As the commenter points out, "Perus Narkp" is an anagram of "Super Prank", there was no such concentration camp as "Marsha Tikash Whanaab", and all Google searches for those terms turn out, suspiciously, to lead to variants of this particular news story.

To which I will add, while a "Johann Bach" was certainly associated with 18th-century keyboard instruments, he is unlikely to have ever visited Goa or Karnataka, and would be rather old today.

Also, let me point out that the alleged concentration camp name is an anagram of "Ashram Shakti Bhawana" (whatever that may be).

I wonder what it takes to successfully generate such a news story that has also been picked up by TOI, the Telegraph, the Deccan Herald, the Express.

UPDATE: DH link corrected above (thanks Sunil); an article on the hoax; the perpetrators.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Women in the Tamil media

Here is the front page of today's Dina Malar:

Why are these six young women the most important news of the day? According to the caption (translation courtesy my wife: my Tamil is rather bumpy), "Anna University in Chennai had introduced several regulations for dress restrictions for women college students. However, because private colleges have no such bans, female students dress up according to their wishes and breathe the free air. Who will the people side with if a situation were to arise where individual freedom were to clash with social responsibility?"

And there you have it: women who dress in western clothes (which are not remotely "revealing" -- a sari reveals much more bare skin, but is somehow OK) are socially irresponsible, and Dina Malar suggests that, if they are harassed, the people should pick sides based on this concept of social responsibility. And this is such an important issue that Dina Malar finds it appropriate to invade the privacy of six random, inoffensive-looking women and frontpage their photos.

This is a side of Chennai that English-speakers do not see, and may not even know exists. I'm not sure what it's like in other cities but I don't think it is quite this bad. (My wife wrote an article some years ago on the attitude of the Tamil media to women, and nothing has changed.)

And anyone who wants to take the caption at face value should note a few minor details: First, contrary to the suggestion in the caption, Anna University's dress code applies to both genders. Second, at least one of the women in the caption (the second from the right) is clearly not a student: her employee identity card is dangling around her neck. Third, private colleges in this city are hardly more laissez-faire than Anna University: see this medieval example.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Redefining "chickenhawk"

The New York Times boasts, if that's the word, a rather pathetic stable of op-ed writers. There's Tom Friedman (flat-earther, "give war a chance", "France is our enemy", "Suck. On. This.") There's Maureen Dowd, prone to bestowing cute nicknames on her subjects (somewhat like Dubya), but with little substance. There's Paul Krugman, who generally mistakes polemics for argument, likes to stray far out of his field of economics (and these days fails to convince even when sticking to that field), and whose distaste of Barack Obama has inspired him to a series of absurd columns lately.

But one name leads the rest: the Times' latest hire, Bill Kristol. Some days ago he got in a twist over a commencement lecture that Barack Obama gave at Wesleyan University because Obama asked the listening students to consider public service, but did not mention the military as a possible form of service. "He felt no need to remind students of a different kind of public service — one that entails more risks than community organizing. He felt no need to tell the graduating seniors in the lovely groves of Middletown that they should be grateful to their peers who were far away facing dangers on behalf of their country"

Today he outdoes that, with an attack on He's talking about a TV spot by that group, portraying a mother with her infant son Alex, telling John McCain that she doesn't want Alex to be stuck in a 100-year-war in Iraq. That's enough to set him off on an increasingly incoherent rant: "the United States has an all-volunteer Army. Alex won’t be drafted... Unless we enter a world without enemies and without war, we will need young men and women willing to risk their lives for our nation.... The ad boldly embraces a vision of a selfish and infantilized America, suggesting that military service and sacrifice are unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past. And the sole responsibility of others."

A reader would be forgiven for guessing that Kristol had served his time in the military, but as others have pointed out, he never did -- though he became eligible in age during the Vietnam war -- and never explained why not. Nor did Kristol do anything else particularly memorable: any claim to fame he has can be traced to his being the son of his father, Irving Kristol.

But it is Kristol's ability to twist words that is breathtaking. Obama mentioned public service and not the military, therefore he must be against enlisting. The woman in does not want her son to end up in an unnecessary and criminal war in Iraq, therefore she must not want her son to join the military. And so on.

Not only won't you hear from Kristol that he himself steered clear of the military, but you won't hear that

  • Even with a volunteer army, many families are not as well off as the Kristols were, and the military is, if nothing else, an attractive career option.
  • Though there is no draft now, there is increasing talk that the military is overstretched and a draft in the future may be hard to avoid.
  • Many Americans do want to serve in the military, but they want it to be in defence of their country: not fighting an unprovoked war overseas to satisfy the interests of the neoconservative chickenhawks or the oil industry.
  • The war on Iraq was sold to the public on false pretences, exaggerated and cherrypicked evidence, and a systematic silencing of all dissenting voices within the administration and elsewhere.
  • Kristol himself was one of the war's more enthusiastic cheerleaders and has not explained why, given what most Americans know now and what most of the world already knew back in 2003, the war was necessary.

A natural interpretation of the ad would be that the mother thinks it possible that her son will join the military, out of patriotism or as a career option, but does not want his service to be misused for the chickenhawks' benefit. Clearly Kristol cannot allow his readers to see it that way. So he twists himself in knots explaining why the ad is unpatriotic.

Kristol's appointment as a NYT columnist met with many protests. If I had been a subscriber I would have cancelled in protest. However, even during the NYT's failed TimesSelect experiment, I was not tempted: Kristol's fellow-columnists do not impress either, except by comparison.

Driving in Iran

Interesting video from LiveLeak. (Go there for further comments.)

My reaction was probably not what the posters expected: I thought to myself, how orderly the place looks, and why can't we be like that? There are a few "interesting" moments (mostly involving buses and pedestrians), but on the whole it seems refreshingly disciplined compared to India.

I suppose that's the danger: in India you know damn well to watch out for everybody else while you're driving, but if you expect that most people would follow rules and it turns out that one in a hundred doesn't, that's a problem.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another article on Indian education

From Gautam Desiraju (University of Hyderabad), who previously wrote this this piece in Nature, comes another excellent article, "Science Education and Research in India", in the current (June 14) issue of EPW. Unfortunately EPW's website is rather weird and I can't provide a direct link; but The PDF is here (thanks km!), and it is on the front page at the moment and will be freely readable for the next four weeks.

I agree with nearly everything he says. Only with regard to the cost of education I have a disagreement. (Based on the rest of his article, and my previous conversations with him, the disagreement may not be major.) He seems to suggest that, in contrast to subsidising everyone heavily as at present, only meritorious students should be subsidised and others asked to pay full fees. I think the concept of "merit" is overvalued, and financial aid should be entirely need-based (see MIT's policies for example). In the "nature vs nurture" debate, I come down on the side of nurture, but I also believe that nurture does not end at a cram-school in Kota. It should be the job of an elite institution to create merit, not just demand it at the entry level.

This also relates to a current debate on Abi's blog on the IIT-JEE rankings. The reason the IIT-JEE test is so savagely difficult is that the IITs want to rank each individual candidate on entry. I think that is an extremely unhealthy practice. But the reason they want to do it is that they want to assign courses and campuses to students at the entry level: a "meritorious" student picks, say, computer science at IIT Kanpur even before ever entering the campus of that institute. It would be far better to give all students the same broad-based education (covering engineering, science and humanities) for two years, and ask them to specialise in the third year onwards; that way, some bright and motivated students, who have seen the atmosphere at several departments first-hand and done hands-on work there, will learn that there are interesting and productive areas beyond the "hot topics" favoured by the media, reducing the competitive pressure to get into the "hot" departments (and departments can effectively compete to attract the better students); and, to the extent that comparison of student merits is required at all, it will be based on their performance over 2 years at the institution itself, not on a 3-hour examination.

The "merit" mania and the mushrooming of cram-schools has poisoned the childhoods and teenage years of a few million Indian schoolchildren by now. It needs to be tackled, and the IITs should take the lead, since they are the major cause of the problem.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The prescient Dave Barry

The following passage has been floating around for years as a fortune cookie; I don't know when it was written.

Here is the problem: for many years, the Supreme Court wrestled with the issue of pornography, until finally Associate Justice John Paul Stevens came up with the famous quotation about how he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. So for a while, the court's policy was to have all the suspected pornography trucked to Justice Stevens' house, where he would look it over. "Nope, this isn't it," he'd say. "Bring some more." This went on until one morning when his housekeeper found him trapped in the recreation room under an enormous mound of rubberized implements, and the court had to issue a ruling stating that it didn't know what the hell pornography was except that it was illegal and everybody should stop badgering the court about it because the court was going to take a nap.
-Dave Barry, "Pornography"

Once more, life imitates art.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Young Hillary Clinton

Via Donklephant: footage of young Hillary and Barack.

PS: Andrew Sullivan sums up her disgraceful non-concession speech.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Organising my online reading

This time, the title refers not to blogs (where I haven't figured out the answer yet) but to scholarly articles.

Like most scientists I know, I tend to read journals online, accessing their webpages with a browser (usually Mozilla Firefox), reading either the HTML or the PDF on my screen, and only rarely bothering to take a printout. Many trees have probably been saved this way.

Also, like most scientists I know, when writing papers I use bibliography software (in my case BibTeX; Microsoft Word users are likely to use Endnote) to organise my references, and I maintain a database of papers I refer to.

The question is, what happens in between? There are two problems here: I want to save my reading material in a systematic way, so that I will find it again when I want to; and I want to save the citation information for it so that I can easily reference it in my own writing.

Saving things systematically is not my strong point. Ideally, I would save it to a subdirectory named after the topic of interest, and rename the file with an informative name, so that I can locate it with a simple directory listing. If a file belonged to multiple topics, I would make symbolic links to it in all relevant subdirectories. I'm sure it would work well. Instead, what I end up doing is saving everything to a directory named "papers" (or, worse, on my desktop), with the original filename which could be something like "10.1371_journal.pcbi.0020053-L.pdf". Good luck finding that again. Then when I need it again, I end up searching PubMed or Google Scholar for it.

As for citations, an alternative to the extreme tedium of manually entering each BibTeX entry into my database was to search for the paper on sites such as Hubmed (a PubMed front-end that can export to BibTeX format and do other nice things). This, in practice, is not tedium-free either.

Such was my workflow until recently. Now I have a better solution: Zotero.

I'm sure I'm late to the party and lots of people are using it already, but here's a description for the uninitiated. Zotero is a Firefox extension: when installed, you get a "zotero" button at the bottom right of the Firefox window, which when pressed, pops up the Zotero interface (or pops it down again). What it does is, it captures bibliographic information about the page you are currently viewing, and saves it to a database. Capturing is as easy as clicking an icon that shows up in your URL bar. (It's not restricted to scholarly journals: it works with news articles from the New York Times, or BBC News, for example.) Each item in that database has numerous fields: the usual bibliographic ones (title, author, journal name, etc), but also web links, notes, attachments, tags. It automatically extracts tags from some articles (via their "keywords" or equivalent section), but you can specify your own. You can search your articles, filter them by tag, and do various other neat things, most of which I haven't explored. Most importantly, you can export citations in BibTeX format (and also Endnote and various other formats).

Zotero works with Firefox 2, and the latest version also works well, in my experience, with Firefox 3 RC1, but has glitches with the previous release (beta 5) of Firefox 3. If you are overwhelmed by scholarly reading matter, give it a try.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hillary and mendacity

I've been following the Democratic primaries in the US with interest. It is all over now, except in the opinion of Hillary Clinton. 48 states, plus Puerto Rico, have voted; two more will vote on Tuesday, but they are too small to make a difference. Barack Obama is far ahead in delegate count, and is likely to end on top after the "superdelegates" are counted too.

So why is Hillary pressing on? She claims that she has won the "popular vote" (received more individual votes than Obama) and therefore is more likely to win the general election.

The problem is, that claim is bogus, like so much else about the Clintons.

First, it counts Michigan and Florida in full, though those states were disenfranchised for moving their primaries without permission and neither candidate campaigned there. (Hillary had no problem with the disenfranchisement until she fell behind in the other states.) Enfranchising them now means ignoring the votes of those who stayed home assuming their votes wouldn't count. (The states have been reinstated but each delegate will now have half a vote.)

Second, it does not count a single popular vote for Obama in Michigan. That's because Obama (like Edwards and most other candidates) withdrew himself from the ballot in that state, because of the sanction. Hillary was the only serious candidate; nevertheless, 45% of the electorate voted "uncommitted", and nearly all of them would have voted either Obama or Edwards (who has endorsed Obama). Hillary doesn't want those votes to count.

Third, she doesn't count many of the caucus states which did not release popular vote tallies. And even the caucus states that did release vote tallies would weigh much lower, because an order of magnitude fewer people vote in caucuses.

Fourth, she counts Puerto Rico, which does not vote in the general election.

If Hillary wanted to stay honest about even one of the above points, she could not claim the popular vote lead. But as it stands, she is turning into a parody of Saturday Night Live's savage portrayal of her a few weeks ago.

Which brings me to the last SNL point about Hillary: "I have no ethical standards... Obama has been reluctant to play the race card, but I would be happy to play the gender card." Indeed, she has been complaining of sexism and belittled the racism exhibited against her opponent. (Seriously. Would anyone, at the height of "Freedom Fries" days, have predicted that a black man with a surname one letter away from "Osama" and a middle name shared with Iraq's former dictator would be a serious presidential candidate? But despite his progress, channels like Fox continue their Obama-Osama confusion.)

My take on that issue is: in the developed world, lots of women have reached the top spot: Margaret Thatcher and Mary Robinson in the past, Angela Merkel today. But nobody from an ethnic minority, that I can recall, has ever been elected president or prime minister. There is no doubt to me whose victory would be more historic, and who has faced hurdles in his path. And let's not forget that Hillary's path has been smoothed (though also roughened) by her husband.

Faced with clamours to quit, she protested recently that primaries can go on till June, as Bill's did, and doesn't anyone remember that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June? (She then pretended that she didn't see the implications of that statement.) As for Bill, he remembered it differently in his autobiography.

People have been asking her to bow out gracefully. But grace is not a defining characteristic of the couple who left the White House armed with valuable gifts, having pardoned wealthy fugitives like Marc Rich on their way out.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Aarushi case

There are enough outrageous things going on in every corner in India that one should be sensitised to these things, but the case of Aarushi Talwar's and the servant's murder sets new lows. (Google if you're unfamiliar with the case.)

First, the NOIDA police arrest the father on circumstantial evidence that seems laughable at best. Then, they claim that not only was the father having an affair that his daughter didn't approve of, but the daughter was having an affair with the murdered servant. Now they leak emails and messages sent by Aarushi, for purposes that are not clear at all.

The Times of India has an impassioned editorial appeal, available online here, calling on readers to protest this invasion of a dead girl's privacy and the smearing of her character.

Which is very creditable, but the same TOI has frontpaged one of the leaked e-mails, in full, in their Chennai edition. What about the privacy issue there?

Anyway, the police apparently claim that the email reproduced by TOI reveals tensions between Aarushi and her father. To me, at least, that email reveals nothing of the sort. It is about some argument Aarushi had with her parents about what a teen is permitted to do, and reveals a great deal of understanding on Aarushi's part of her parents' point of view. I see no acrimony there. So TOI was probably right to reproduce that mail, despite the privacy issue -- it rips the police's case, but worse, it exposes them as incompetent morons who have no idea about the lives of teenagers but are happy to smear them when they are dead.

The CBI has now apparently begun a probe into this case but it is not clear that the NOIDA police have been taken off the case. Is there any prospect of the police officials concerned being punished for this sort of loose talk about a dead teenager? And what if the father is exonerated: who will compensate him for the additional trauma and slander, at a time that was already traumatic enough for him? The police's job was to keep the neighbourhood safe. Having failed at that job, they were under pressure to "solve" the case, and seem to be taking the easy route.

An old joke in Delhi went like this: Police teams from all over the world participated in a lion-capturing competition. At the end of the day, all the police teams had returned -- some successful, some not -- except the Delhi Police. So the organisers went to look for them, and found them with a bear that they had captured, thrashing the animal mercilessly and shouting, "बोल, तू शेर है!" ("Admit it, you're a lion!")