David Salsburg’s The lady tasting tea

August 2, 2020

One of the pleasures of the campus life is the book and movie recommendations that you get from friends and colleagues; once in a while, these books and movies blow your mind away! Salsburg’s book is subtitled How statistics revolutinized science in the twentieth century and, it is one of those recommendations that blew my mind. It is full of interesting details, anecdotes and lucid descriptions of statistical concepts, techniques and models. There are plenty of biographical details too. So, this semester, when I am teaching, some of this material is going to make it to my course and I am thankful to the colleague from IDC who recommended the book to me!

Now what follows is a long post of some interesting thoughts, anecdotes and quotes from the book along with my comments. You can either read this now, or, read the book (very strongly recommended) and come back here for comparing notes.

There is a story about Laplace: when asked about the place of God in his model, he answered Napoleon that he did not find the need for that hypothesis. However, Salsburg informs us that Laplace had to introduce a function called error function to account for small, random deviations. It was his hope that as measurements were made more precise, the need for error function will diminish. But, it so happened that as measurements were made more precise, the contribution of the error function increased. This book is the story of this transformation and how scientists, engineers, statisticians and mathematicians tackled this new challenge. Interestingly (and, somewhat ironically), the error function of Laplace has morphed into God now; Ian Stewart has a new book called “Do Dice Play God?”.

Salsburg’s book not only describes the story of the development of statistical techniques and their deployment, but also talks about the philosophy and the anthropology of science. Very early in the book, Salsburg, for example, says this:

Unfortunately, whatever nonscientists may think about science and its importance, my experience has been that most scientists engage in their research because they are interested in the results and because they get intellectual excitement out of the work. Seldom do good scientists think about the eventual importance of their work. (…)

What I discovered working at Pfizer was that very little scientific research can be done alone. It usually requires a combination of minds. This is because it is so easy to make mistakes.

And then, somewhere about the 100 page mark, Salsburg has this to say about science writing:

Although the reader may not believe it, literary style plays an important role in mathematical research.

There is also some interesting information about how the language and terminology can play a crucial role in development and deployment of ideas:

The Russian word for random variable translates as “accidental magnitude”. To the central planners and theoreticians, this was an insult. All industrial and social activity in the Soviet Union as planned according to the theories of Marx and Lenin. Nothing could occur by accident.

Of course, this is not true not only for Russian bureaucracy but also for managers of American industrial research centres; Salsburg indicates how one of a senior executives in the drug industry refused to send a report prepared by him to Food and Drug administration because the first column of the table was called “error “.

“How can we admit to having error in our data?”, he asked.

Salsburg had to replace the word with “Residual” before the report was accepted!!

The contrast with Soviet Union is, of course, the case of India:

In India, P. C. Mahalanobis became a personal friend of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the early days of the new government of India. Under his influence, Nehru’s attempts to imitate the central planning of the Soviet Union were often modified by carefully conducted sample surveys, which showed what really was happening to the new nation’s economy. In Russia, the bureaucrats produced false figures of production and economic activity to flatter the rulers, which encouraged the more foolish excesses of their central economic plans. In India, good estimates of the truth were always available.

What is also important is that people in the government assert their independence. Here is the case of Janet Norwood who became the Commissioner of Labor Statistics:

Before Norwoord became commissioner, it had been the practice of the Department of Labor that a representative of the policy arm of the department sat in on all reviews of the press releases planned by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Norwood informed the representative that he would no longer be welcome at these meetings. She believed that the economic information produced by the bureau not only had to be accurate and nonpartisan, it had to appear to be so.

One of the advice that is commonly given for attaining master over mathematics is that you should try to solve problems on your own before looking up the answer. Salsburg describes a totally different method (and this is the first time I heard it) used by I J Good:

Good was fascinated with books of mathematical puzzles, but he preferred to look at the answers first and then find a way to get from the puzzle to the proposed answer.

Salsburg gives many examples of Stigler’s law of eponymy — mostly in the footnotes; if the wrong naming of distributions, curves and concepts is ubiquitous, I am also surprised by how many of them can be traced to the Bernoullis!!

We are in an age where availability of large data is not uncommon; even in this time and age, small sample sizes is ubiquitous and knowing how to deal with them is important. This problem of small sample size goes back to at least a century:

In Gosset’s experience, the scientist seldom had the luxury of such large samples. More typical was an experiment yielding ten to twenty observations. (…) In one of his letters … he writes “If I am the only person that you’ve come across that works with too small samples, you are very singular. It was on this subject that I came to have dealing with Stratton -a fellow at Cambridge University, where] … he had taken as an illustration a sample of 4!”

That reminded me of a story of Dharma Kumar:

There are some marvellous stories in Dharma’s unpublished memoirs. She recalls a conversation with Nicholas Kaldor, an eminent Cambridge economist who advised the Government of India en route to a British peerage. After meeting a beautiful Indian girl named Lata Sen, Kaldor told Dharma: “I have done some research on your country, and discovered that all women named Sens are gorgeous and all men named Sens brilliant’’.

But Nicky, you know only two Sens,’’ she protested. “Yes,’’ admitted Kaldor, “but my other generalisations are based on even less evidence.’’

Like everything else, statistics is a very human endeavour and hence subject to all our follies and foibles:

According to some who knew Fisher, …Pearson and his friends effectively froze Fisher out of the mainstream mathematical and statistical research. According to others, Fisher himself felt rebuffed by Pearson’s cavalier attitude and by his failure to get a similar paper published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (the other prestigious journal in the field); and he proceeded to use other journals, sometimes paying the journal to have his paper appear in it.

Upon a time, doing computations involved physical labour; apparently, Fisher used a hand cranked calculating machine to do his computations, and,

If it took about one minute to complete a single large-digit multiplication, I estimate that Fisher needed about 185 hours of work to generate that table. There are fifteen tables of similar complexity and four large complicated graphs in the article. In terms of physical labour alone, it must have taken at least eight months of 12-hour days to prepare the tables for this article.

One of the important lessons from the book is the sanctity of data and how imposing our views on data instead of learning from data can lead to disaster:

Although Kolmogorov and his students made major contributions in the mathematical theories of probability and statistics, the Soviet Union gained little from the statistical revolution. Why this was the case provides an example of what happens when the government knows the “correct” answer to all questions.

There is another story — as to how Japan benefited from statistical methods of quality control:

He told them that , with the proper use of statistical methods of quality control, they could produce products of such high quality and low price that they would dominate markets all over the world. Deming noted in later talks that he was wrong in predicting this would take five years. The Japanese beat his prediction by almost two years.

As with the Soviet story, Deming could not get these methods implemented in his home country, USA, though –mainly because upper echelons of managements would not play ball!

I also learnt from the book about the observer influencing the results effect that exists in statistics called Hawthorne effect; apparently, an experiment tried to choose between two methods failed because, they workers, knowing that they are under constant scrutiny performed extremely well in both!!

There is much more of interest in this extremely well written book; I wish more textbooks on statistics are written with this clarity and style. Once again, strongly recommended! Have fun!!

T C A Raghavan’s History Men: Part II

July 25, 2020

Here are some more thoughts and quotes from Raghavan’s History men, which is a very good and interesting read — which reads like a racy mystery novel at places — with all intrigues, conflicting interests, and double and triple-speak of the actors in the drama! Once again, strongly recommended!

Apparently, the Maratha troop movement to the north was also accompanied by the movement of pilgrims and we have this interesting information:

Pilgrims required protection on the way and took advantage of the constant movement of troops that journeyed back and forth from their homeland for military purposes.That is how the practice arose of ladies accompanying military expeditions often encumbering the operations

And, there are a couple of interesting pieces of information which do not appear in the books — such as the scandals of illicit affairs and, murder or manslaughter in the name of Hindu medicine:

Who was Sidhoji or Saddaji, described as Mahadji’s wife’s brother and an expert in Hindu medicine, whose dose of mercury in gold leaf killed Mahadji after Hakim Baqa Khan had been removed from the treatment of the patient?

And, of course, Jadunath Sarkar was not just giving writing advice to his students but also to colleagues (who asked for it), and it is a very nice piece of advice indeed (albeit a bit dated in its references to ornate prose and Dr Johnson and Macaulay):

In fact, the surest means of acquiring a good style is (1)to read aloud the best English prose — avoiding ornate and involved authors, such as Dr Johnson and Macaulay — half an hour every morning, (2) to avoid trashy authors, except when it is necessary to pick facts out of them, and (3) to pause and revise frequently in the course of our own writing.

There is one more paragraph of writing advice that follows; I will leave it to the readers to find the book and fill the gap!!

In the later half of the book, there are detailed descriptions of the efforts to get historical documents preserved and published, the partial successes in these endeavours and the personality and Institutional clashes that came in the way including law suits and defamation claims and so on. Some of these efforts included some dressing up too!

Having known that the Zamindar was an orthodox person, Professor Jadunath Sarkar assumed the garb and appearance of an orthodox Brahman by putting on sandalwood paint mixed with saffron on his forehead and both of them dressed in turbans…

Of course the most interesting lesson from the book to carry is collaborating with people with different view point, keeping the discussions academic, agreeing to disagree, and pushing each other to substantiate the conclusions with evidence. Specifically,

What is interesting is how, on account of these different perspectives, the same manuscript source was read differently by the two historians — an excellent illustration of an essential feature of all history writing.

and, a little while later

Identifying silences in the historical record and then locating sources that could fill these gaps was for Raghubir Sinh part of the real endeavour of the historian. Regardless of the differences over interpretation or assessments of the authenticity of sources, such an endeavour in itself provided a common platform in which historiams of otherwise divergent views could work together.

There is also some telling comment on the role of narrow nationalism that dominated history writing fuelled by the freedom struggle against the British and the contrarian approach that Raghubir Sinh took and refrained from airbrushing history.

Another interesting piece of information I have learnt from the book is the service of Jadunath Sarkar in not just locating the documents but also in his efforts of restitution:

Twenty-two bundles from these Jaipur papers were taken away by Tod … and deposited by him with the Royal Asiatic Society of London. Sir Jadunath Sarkar took and brought back to India full transcripts of these 22 bundles.

There is much in the book about the short-sightedness, non-academic view point, ego clashes, greed and other failings of historians and other actors in the book. But there are also some real bright spots in terms of people who raise above these. The first is from a director of a museum:

My concern in this matter is to get this work published without disfiguring by incapable “scholars” and I shall consider myself lucky to be instrumental in clearing the deadlock and entrusting this task to your capable shoulder.

The second is a Maharani who facilitated the publication after nearly four decades of delay. Finally, the epilogue of the book talks about an annual seminar in Sinh’s memory which is attended by historians as well as lay people and the mutual engagement.

To end this review, here is an interesting book, written in lucid and taut prose, of three great home-grown historians and their struggles and broad successes and very inspiring in its own way! Have fun!!

T C A Raghavan’s History men

July 17, 2020

The book is subtitled “Jadunath Sarkar, G S Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and their quest for India’s past”. The first three chapters are titled “Jadunath Sarkar”, “G S Sardesai”, and “Raghubir Sinh”; the next three chapters are titled “History as discipline”, “History as struggle” and “History as Heritage”.

The book is an interesting and enjoyable read. I am half way through the book. Already, I have more than enough material for a long post. Based on what I have read so far, I also have no hesitations in strongly recommending the book. The following thoughts and excerpts, I hope, will make it clear why I am fascinated by this book.

Let us start with the Jadunath Sarkar chapter. Apparently, Sarkar once riled up the colonial bureaucracy so much they decided to foist a case of sedition on him:

An acerbic exchange of letters offended the civil servants concerned and led to a police enquiry into Sarkar’s activities, which, predictably, recommended his removal from Patna College on the charges of sedition.

He also did not make friends with his attitude, writing style and views. Raghavan quotes Sarkar himself to indicate the nature of Sarkar’s historical pursuit:

I would not care whether truth is pleasant or unpleasant, and in consonance with or opposed to current views. I would not mind in the least whether truth is or not a blow to the glory of my country. … But still I shall seek truth, understand truth and accept truth. This should be the firm resolve of a historian.

In the Sardesai chapter also, similar concerns are indicated. At one point, we see Sardesai, in one of his letters to Sarkar, wonder

…why these people cannot credit us with ordinary honesty. Why they cannot allow us to hold our own views. … All history means interpretation and view, and I firmly believe history is useful on this account.

Sardesai’s autobiography also sounds like an interesting book — especially, his selections from his wife’s diary. There is an interesting quote from his wife’s diary about wearing sarees — whether the one end should be tucked behind the back (her preferences) or not (Sardesai’s preference) and the disagreement between the two on this account.

The chapter on Raghubir Sinh also continues with the concerns associated with the process of writing history. One of the quotes from Sinh’s book indicates the importance that Sinh placed on (i) Not judging the character and actions of medieval monarchs based on modern values; and, (ii) Evaluating Indian monarchs based on Western values.

The chapter on Raghubir Sinh also describes the interaction between Sarkar and Sinh as Advisor and PhD student. So, of course, I found some of the information very interesting and of general interest and use not just for historians. For example, here is Sarkar’s advice to his PhD students (emphasis in the original):

I have always told my research students that a general knowledge is absolutely necessary even for a specialised study and they must read not only in but also about their chosen subject.

Then there are a few paragraphs about writing — the need for reducing in size (since the draft is double of what it ought to be) and the need for correct grammatical usage and style. Of course, there is also a quote with this long reflection on the writing skills of his students (again, emphasis in the original):

I am myself a lecturer in history, and would naturally prefer to give my pupils the philosophy of history, glimpses of original sources, a sense of historical perspective, and a comparative survey. But much of my time is taken up in correcting the grammar of the pupils in my history class, in teaching them to arrange their thoughts methodically and to discriminate between what is relevant and what is not, and in training them in the art of summarising correcting …. All these simple things they should have learnt at school, if their school education had been genuine…. — the natural result of a commercialised and cheap Matriculation, which is no test for admission to college.

While some of these problems still persist, most of us consider at least some of these skills such discrimination, methodical arrangement of thoughts, summarising precisely as part of the PhD training itself.

Of course, the fascination for me with the book is with the last three chapters. In the chapter on History as discipline, we learn of Sarkar’s view of national history (in his own words):

National history, like every other history worthy of the name and deserving to endure, must be true as regards to the facts and reasonable in the interpretation of them. It will be national not in the sense that it will try to suppress or whitewash everything in our country’s past which is disgraceful, but because it will admit them and at the same time point out that there were other and nobler aspects in the stage of our nation’s evolution which offset the former.

Such ideas continue — both from Sarkar himself (historian as a judge who will not suppress any defect of the national character) and others (R C Majumdar, for example, on the unmistakable tendency shown by historians to write history to suiting particular theories and practices about society and government, and, Habib, for example, history as a normative science and the concern of historians with morality and justice).

Of course, one of the pleasures of reading a book like this is that I learn about other books which, I think, will be interesting for me to read — and there are at least a dozen that I have noted so far and may be there is more in the rest of the book.

There are some minor quibbles about the book — typographical errors, some bad editing (why should Romila Thapar alone be called Prof. Romila Thapar while all the others are not, for example), and so on. I also would have like more photographic plates. But, like I said, there are minor quibbles. This is a book that is certainly worth your time if you are interested in India and its history.

Gijubhai Badheka’s  Divaswapna

July 12, 2020

A colleague of mine not only recommended but also lent me this book. It is a good read — a short one at 100 pages. A free copy is available here though the National Book Trust paper copy I read has some nice sketches to go with the text!!

Nearly after 100 years, in some aspects we have not improved when it comes to education in general, and school education, in particular; and, in some, we have regressed. When we are looking forward to the new education policy, may be it is a good idea to revisit the book and the issues discussed. Specifically, the tendency to centralise things in the name of maintaining uniform standards which comes in the way of diversity, teaching locally relevant material and skills, and innovation, if avoided, will be a good thing.

At least on one aspect, I believe that there are enormous changes. Unlike the parents in Gijubhai’s book, at this time, most of the parents are involved in the education of their children (and at times, are more involved — than they should be).

Overall, a good, enjoyable and thought provoking read — strongly recommended if you are interested or involved in teaching or have kids at home!

A R Venkatachalapathy’s Dravida iyakkamum velalarum

July 8, 2020

This book is a silver jubilee edition of the book that was originally published in 1994. The book looks at the cooperation and the differences that existed between the Self-respect movement and the Saivite movement. It is a very short book and leaves you craving for more. It did bring a fresh perspective to me about the political movements in Tamilnadu during the pre-independence times.

The point behind the book is to show that the Dravidian movement is not just the movement of one community as well as to show that the Dravidian movement also faced opposition from the Saivite movement; in fact, I was not aware that the Tamil Saivite movement itself had its own moderates, conservatives, and extremists. Apparently V O C belonged to the extremist group.

The book has several interesting footnotes and appendices. From one of the appendices, for example, we learn that VOC said that “When we have an uncorruptable judge (God) what is the need for middle-men (Brahmins)?”. The one footnote about Pudumaippiththan and the”kalai nunukkavaadhi”‘s doubt about his political affiliations is a riot.

It would be nice to have an update on the book; in recent times, I have seen some comments how Vaishnavism is now more popular in Tamilnadu than Saivism and how that might have something to do with the Darvidian and Saivite movement. Of course, from the book, it is clear that sometimes the Dravidian movement did not even give credit to the massive temples of South India their due even as pure architectural marvels that they are; may be in the popular opinion, this carried through to the Saivites and their movement also. It would be interesting to explore this aspect. Having said that, I always had a soft corner for “Saiva Siddhantha Noor Pathippuk Kazhagam” for their publications of Tamil books (including Thirukkural).

It would also be nice to know more about the people involved in the story; for example, it would be nice to read a biography of Gnaniyar or Thiru Vi Ka or Pa Jeevanandam. Of course, I need to locate a biography of Maraimali Adigal next and, I am looking forward to the biography of Periyar by A R Venkatachalapathy.

Paul Davies’ The demon in the machine

July 3, 2020

The book The demon in the machine by Paul Davies won the Physics World book of the year in 2019; after listening to the podcast, I decided to give it a try. I am glad I did. This is one of the best books of popular science that I have read and enjoyed in the recent past. Before I go on rambling in the rest of this post, strongly recommended. Do buy it and read it.

Thermodynamics has always been a fascinating subject. During my undergraduate years, a couple of us spent lots of time trying to read some of the thermodynamic classics in the original (and translations into English when it was not in English). It did not help us score well in the examination. But, it did keep the interest in the subject alive.

During my Masters, when the instructor talked about Shannon and his information entropy I was intrigued; but at that point I could not understand the nuances; I kept wondering how the manner in which we decide to represent information can have any entropy; I did ask him for some explanations; he did supply some; but I was not scientifically mature enough to follow the arguments. This was also the time when I read some popular pieces about Maxwell’s demon in the Hindu science page.

When I was completing my Masters and embarking on the second, I came across Schroedinger’s What is life. It is one of the books that influenced me a lot. I did not carry much from the book about life. But, the idea that molecules and solids are qualitatively the same is the one big idea that I carried from the book. The second one was the dictum that “Living matter evades decay to equilbrium”, of course!!

But, with all the nanotechnology hoopla, I still never made the connection to What is life and the treatment of molecules by Schroedinger. Somewhere, I once read that nanotechnology is useful as a study to understand the fundamentals of materials phenomena and is useful in applications in medicine and military where the costs are not a concern; I took it to heart. I should have paid more attention and should have connected to molecules as precursors to solids.

I also did not do much of follow-up reading on What is life. Even though I did keep in touch with thermodynamics, Maxwell’s demon and Szilard’s engines remained just some esoteric topics in thermodynamics for me.

Here is a book which brings together all these ideas — life, information, Maxwell’s demon, and nanotechnology with quantum mechanics, for a good measure, thrown in and out of this mix comes the remarkable ideas, speculations and concepts about life and information flows. There are interesting molecular machines and the remarkable ways in which they work the second law to their advantage.

There is also the fascinating fact that life’s machines work well in a narrow range and achieve quite a bit of efficiency compared to mechanical engines that we build which achieve higher and higher efficiencies only when operated at higher and higher temperature differences. I have heard from a colleague that this aspect of biological systems used to excite Professor C V Seshadri and I understood the technical details of this process by reading this book.

So, if you are looking for a good science-y read, here is a book which will not fail you! In fact, reading the book made me put together a more serious reading list with lots of papers and articles — from Scientific American to Physical Review and I am looking forward to reading all of them!

Once again, strongly recommended. Have fun!!

Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest

July 3, 2020

Thanks to BBC4’s A good read hosted by Harriett Gilbert, I have been discovering some nice books, and Raymond Briggs’ graphic book about his parents is one such. Nice book and very enjoyable; funny and moving! Strongly recommended.

Chi Su Chellappa’s Koodusalai

June 27, 2020

A short story collection edited by Perumal Murugan. Several nice stories and a very satisfying read!

Hephzibah Jesudasan’s Puththam Veedu 

June 14, 2020

This is a wonderful novel. It is about 150 pages and I enjoyed every page, every sentence, and every letter of it.

Even though it seems to have been published in early 1960s, I did not know of this novel till now — which is a pity. There are many classics that I have not yet read in Tamil; but to not even know of a classic is a shame. Anyway, I am glad that I finally learnt about it and read it — I located this book thanks to a book of Sundara Ramasamy where he made a reference to the circumstances in which the novel got published.

Kalachuvadu is doing a great service by keeping these books in circulation.

If you read Tamil, here is a strong recommendation for you!! If you don’t, there is an English translation by the author herself which is available in Kindle here; I do not know about the translation — especially, the way the dialect is brought to life in English. But given the author is a Professor of English, and she herself translated, it should be a wonderful read too!!!

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic stories for Punjabi widows

May 29, 2020

Three years ago, this book got published and got some very good reviews (here is one for example). I have been meaning to read it ever since and finally got a chance now. I enjoyed reading it. It is a romantic novel; there is a bit of mystery; and, of course, there is plenty of erotica. Overall, a pleasant and gripping read. Recommended (only if you do not mind reading erotica).