Friday, March 27, 2009

"Rejoice, damn you"

The Economist does not supply bylines, but it is safe to say that this article was not written by N. Ram.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A flatpack car?

While everyone is talking about the Tata Nano, it seems there may be some quite unexpected automobile news elsewhere in the world...

It appears that Swedish furniture firm Ikea, known for cheap flatpack furniture that you assemble at home, is shortly launching a car in France, with the support of the WWF. There is a link to that site from Ikea's official French site, so it seems to be genuine. (Both links in French.)

No, I don't imagine it really will be flatpack, but -- given that it's Ikea -- I would be disappointed if there aren't any revolutionary ideas.

(Spotted on HuffPo, where there a few more details in English.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How Wall Street has got the US government by the ****s

I'm yet to read an article by Matt Taibbi where he doesn't drop the F-bomb somewhere -- but when it's the sixth word in the article, you know he's upset.

And with good reason. He goes into gory details of what happened at AIG and how a AAA-rated company let itself be submerged by toxic instruments, how those instruments were enabled by laws passed by people like Phil Gramm (by the way, lets stop blaming the Bush administration over this crisis: many of the crucial legislative and regulatory changes occurred on Clinton's watch), how much influence firms like Goldman Sachs have over policy (a large number of Fed and Treasury officials have been their alumni), and most of all, how Wall Street is using the crisis to line its own pockets. Go read it.

(I had no major expectations of Obama, but I must say I'm pretty disappointed so far. He seems to have no coherent vision of what to do about all this, and the recent 90% tax on bonuses must count as the rankest and most useless form of populism.)

Question for any economists reading this: Once upon a time, you decided whether or not to buy a stock by comparing its price with the earnings of the company, estimating the dividends you would get, and comparing with other investment options. Somewhere along the way, the goal of investment changed into something rather different: buy a stock in the hope that its price will rise, and sell it. It doesn't matter if it is ridiculously overvalued: if the market is going up, buy. What exactly was wrong with the old model, and how many mutual fund managers actually looked into the strengths of the companies in their portfolios before putting their customers' money into them? I can see that, in boom times, such a cautious strategy would "underperform" -- that is, Rediff Money would not list your mutual fund among the top ten that "outperformed" the Sensex by vast amounts that year. But does nobody think of the long term? (And I'm not even getting into derivatives, futures, hedge funds, and so on.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bad laws return to bite you

Most people in India don't know or care about DVD region codes because most players sold here are "region-free". Most people in the US don't care because the rest of the world doesn't exist -- however, holidaymakers routinely return home to find that the DVDs they bought in Europe don't work. But DVDs have an annoying technology built into them, on the insistence of the Motion Picture Association of America, called region control. DVDS are meant to be played only in their region of sale: the US and Canada fall in region 1, most of Europe is region 2, India is region 5. The intention was that players sold in a region can only play DVDs sold in that region. This intention is legally enforced in the US and UK. But in many countries, including India, region-free DVD players are freely available and the norm. When I lived in Paris, the Virgin Megastore had an entire shelf of Region-1 (US) DVDs on sale (I don't know the situation today).

So it gives me great pleasure to see that it is not only the lay public that gets tripped up by these laws. When Barack Obama gifted Gordon Brown a set of DVDs, neither Obama, nor his advisors and technical team, nor Brown, realised that they wouldn't work in the UK.

Will this lead to a change in the law? I wouldn't count on it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bad news for the US?

As I type this, the Washington Post, like many other news sites, has Pakistan news on its main page, linking to this article. But here's the blurb on the main page:

Pakistan Reinstates Judges
After street protests, move reflects the weakening grip of President Zardari, a key U.S. ally.

Ooh, our key ally Musharraf, er, sorry, Zardari, is in trouble! His undemocratic maneuverings failed and the people won! What do we do?

And that comes from one of the two or three most respected newspapers in the US. And then they wonder why the world doubts their intentions.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Giving "credit" where it is not due

The NYT reports (link via Abi) on possibly one of the longest-running and most significant scientific frauds ever: an anaesthesiologist, Dr Scott Reuben from the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, has admitted falsifying his data since 1996 -- faking data for clinical trials that were never conducted. Unlike many other cases of scientific fraud, this case directly affects "ordinary people" in that it could have affected their treatment. Significantly, many of his questionable papers are on the efficacy of specific pain-relieving drugs, specifically Cerebrex and Lyrica from Pfizer. Pfizer "underwrote much of [his] research" from 2002 to 2007.

But I found a perhaps comparatively harmless piece of fraud on the bad doctor's part equally remarkable: he apparently included other researchers' names as co-authors without their permission and without any contribution on their part. Why would anyone do that? Usually, to gain credibility from the other "authors'" reputations. Why would the other authors not object or notice? Evan Ekman says his name appears on at least two of the retracted papers despite his having no hand in that work; he calls the inclusion of his names forgeries. According to PubMed, Ekman and Reuben have co-authored four papers between 2005 and 2007; surely Ekman would have noticed earlier that he was being wrongly given authorship?

In the recent case of a paper whose lead author was from Anna University being a near-verbatim reproduction of another paper by another group in another journal, two authors distanced themselves from the work. On the other hand, most of us in science know of cases where senior figures are given authorship merely in recognition of their position or funding, without regard to any actual contribution to the work. When it turns out that some of their "co-authored" works are fraudulent, how much responsibility should they bear?

I know of two older papers where one author, famously, was not a contributor to the paper. The first is this one, regarded as a classic; the authors were George Gamow and his student Ralph Alpher, and Gamow included Hans Bethe, who had no connection with this work, purely so that the author list would read "Alpher, Bethe, Gamow." (If that joke is Greek to you, never mind.) I can't remember whether Bethe was "in" on it, but he did not protest, at least not publicly.

The second is this one, which was also quite well-received. The author was J W Hetherington. After his manuscript was written and ready to go, he was told that Physical Review Letters objected to single authors referring to themselves as "we"; and rather than be forced to rewrite the paper, he included his pet cat, Willard, as a co-author. As I remember, the initials "FDC" stand for "Felis domesticus Chester", Chester being the cat's sire. Willard, too, did not protest (as far as we know) and even "autographed" some reprints with his ink-stained paws. [UPDATE March 15: I got the names mixed up. Chester was Hetherington's cat, and Willard was the sire.]

These examples are regarded as amusing, but I wonder if people would play such jokes today.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Our new CEC

Rediff reports that Navin Chawla will be our next CEC, despite our current CEC's well-publicised objections.

A little earlier, Rediff had a story (thanks to Shivam Vij for his fb link) on exactly what Navin Chawla did during the Emergency, as documented by the Shah Commission and validated by the L P Singh committee, of which the author was a member. Meet the new boss.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

My thoughts on the rosy undergarments

I have seen and heard lots of the criticism of the "Pink Chaddi" campaign, some of it intelligent, some not. I'm myself not very sure what to think, so here are some questions and answers.

Q. Is drinking wrong?
A. Medically speaking, moderate drinking is fine and may even be beneficial. The recommended limit in the UK is 2-3 units a day for women and 3-4 for men. Few Indians drink to that extent. Where alcohol health warnings on bottles in the West say something like "alcohol abuse is dangerous: consume in moderation", in India it is a flat "alcohol is injurious to health", in type too small to read. However, it is not fine to be teetotal for 6 days and then consume 20-30 units during the weekend.

Q. No, I mean is it morally wrong?
A. Ask your religious leader. But don't impose that advice on others in an extra-legal way. If you disapprove of any form of alcohol consumption, campaign for prohibition and let a law be passed.

Q. Was it right to beat up girls in a Mangalore pub for the crime of drinking?
A. Of course not. Apparently even L. K. Advani agrees. And it is not a crime to drink in Mangalore. If it is a crime in your state, or if you believe the bar was not licensed, call the police.

Q. But what if it was a moral crime, against Indian society and culture?
A. First, see above answer: if you feel so strongly, campaign to make it a legal crime, and then deal with it within the law. Second, why pick on the women alone?

Q. But is this "pub culture" healthy?
A. I don't know. Binge-drinking is not healthy but you can't make everything that is unhealthy illegal. The only pub I've been to in years is Pecos in Bangalore, and that too not recently. I saw nothing unhealthy there, except the tobacco smoke, which legally should be a thing of the past now (if not, complain!) My companions and I did not binge-drink. But perhaps some people do.

Q. I don't mean Pecos. Have you seen what goes on in these night clubs and discos?
A. No. What goes on?

Q. Skimpy dresses, kissing, things that should only be in the bedroom.
A. If that offends you, why are you looking?

Q. What's with the Pink Chaddi Campaign?
A. Apparently several people (not only women) decided to retaliate against the leader of the group responsible for the Mangalore attacks, by sending him pink female underwear. 50,000 pieces were collected, I believe, and duly dispatched.

Q. Isn't that a tacky thing to do?
A. It got headlines and publicity, and has contributed to keeping the issue alive and under discussion.

Q. But for how long?
A. Not for very long.

Q. What practical impact will it have?
A. In terms of direct impact, none at all. It may even have had some short-term negative impact by turning off some large, prudish sections of society from an issue that they would otherwise agree with. But it has demonstrated the numbers of people who are upset by this.

Q. Is the right of women to go to pubs the most important thing that Indian women are being denied?
A. No, but to many urban women, it is a symbol of everything that is going wrong. The Mangalore incident was a trigger, a call to action. And also the proximity to St Valentine's Day helped.

Q. That reminds me. What's with the "Pub Bharo Andolan"?
A. I don't know. Maybe it was secretly planned by Vijay Mallya.

Q. So what to do next?
A. First, as Prem Panicker points out, the hoodlums responsible for the Mangalore attacks (and other recent attacks in Bangalore and elsewhere in Karnataka) are protected by politicians. It is the politicians that must be targeted. If you can mobilise 50,000 pink chaddis, can you mobilise 10,000 people to sit on a dharna in front of the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore every day, until the chief minister is compelled to take action?

Second, there is the larger issue of society, and I am very much afraid that very large sections of society would agree with the Sri Ram Sene that girls shouldn't go to pubs -- even if they may not agree with the Sene's means of tackling the issue. But this is just one symptom of many, many things society finds acceptable and normal in terms of treatment of women, from unequal pay at work to groping on public transport to dowry harassment. Protecting the rights of pub-goers is starting from the top, and it can be done only by heavy policing. (I remember how jarred I felt in England, where outside every pub I saw hefty bouncers standing at its doors. It certainly did not make me feel comfortable.) But you can't police every street, every workplace, every bus, every household. (And do we really want a society where only the very rich have their rights protected?) If we want a society where women can move freely, work freely and socialise freely in places of their choosing, on equal terms with men, without a policeman or security officer watching a few metres away from them, we need to change things from the roots.

Take another example: the girl (again, in the Mangalore region) who was harassed by Hindu-fascist goons for meeting a Muslim boy, and committed suicide the next day. Her parents duly filed a police complaint the next day -- against the Muslim boy!

This is the sort of society we live in, and if we want change, I'm afraid pink chaddis won't achieve it.

But it's a start. Will it now lead somewhere?