Archive for May, 2007

HowTo: Write a project proposal

May 28, 2007

Writing project proposals is part and parcel of academic life; what better way to learn how to write a proposal than to take a look at one? Here you go for a proposal submitted to NSF; the proposal did not get funding; however, since Prof. Suo has published the referee comments also along with the proposal, they might also give you some pointers about the proposal writing process.

It was Paul Halmos, who called himself a maverick mathematician, and argued against funding mathematics projects since that would force only those who are truly interested in mathematics take it up; he thought that too much of funding attracts people who are more interested in funding than in mathematics (in this book, I think). I do not know how far it is true; however, in this case, as is clear from the comments of the Prof. Suo, the non-funding turned out to be  a blessing in disguise:

Lack of funding in this case may as well be a blessing in disguise. When the idea of using the Internet to evolve all knowledge of mechanics first came to me, as an academic, my natural action was to talk about it and write a proposal. During that period, I had many long conversations with Zak Stone, a student in physics and computer science. He once asked me, “but Zhigang, why do you need funding for doing this?” Indeed, for what we want to do, at least initially, we don’t need more research about online communities. Rather, we need to motivate many people to participate. The technology already exists.

The lack of funding has drastically reduced the scope of the proposed work, and focused our attention to one aspect: bringing the community together through Drupal. This has given us time to reflect on what we have learned through online interactions. The levels of commitment of the participants are not too high to disrupt our other activities.

Now we can regard iMechanica as a testbed for further experiments. One possible way to move forward is to decentralize the development. Individual users may include their iMechanica activities as parts of their regular NSF proposals. Possible ideas include helping K-12 students produce videos, posting innovative material for teaching, promoting a new area of research through forum discussion…

For more ambitions development of iMechanica as an online platform for mechanics, we can use iMechanica as a forum to discuss specific ideas, and can even write a proposal as a community.

Take a look!

Diary of a reader!

May 28, 2007

Today, I finished reading Alberto Manguel‘s A reading diary; it is a nice read. As the blurb notes,

While traveling in Canada, Alberto Manguel was struck by how the novel he was reading (Goethe‘s Elective affinities) seemed to mirror the social chaos of the world he was living in. An article in the daily paper would be suddenly illuminated by a passage of the novel; a long meditation would be prompted by a single word. He decided to keep a record of these moments, rereading a book a month and forming A reading diary: a volume of notes, reflections, and impressions of travel, of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by his reading.

The twelve books that Manguel reread are

  1. The Invention of Morel — Adolfo Bioy Casares
  2. The Island of Dr. Moreau — H G Wells
  3. Kim — Rudyard Kipling
  4. Memoirs from beyond the grave — Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand
  5. The sign of four — Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. Elective affinities — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  7. The wind in the willows — Kenneth Grahame
  8. Don Quixote — Miguel de Cervantes
  9. The Tartar Steppe — Dino Buzzati
  10. The pillow book — Sei Shonagon
  11. Surfacing — Margaret Atwood
  12. The posthumous memoirs of Bras Cubas — Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

There are some gems in the book; here is an example:


The word “nostalgia” was invented on June 22, 1688, by Johannes Hofer, an Alsatisn medical student, by combining the word nostos (“return”) with the word algos (“pain”) in his medical thesis, Disertatio medica de nostalgia, to describe the sickness of Swiss soldiers kept far away from the mountains.

As Anne Fadiman notes on the blurb,

For a true reader like Alberto Manguel, the membrane between life and literature is exquisitely permeable… A reading diary records the glorious seepage between the two and, in the process, illuminates both.

My only problem with the book is that it is mere seepage, whereas I would have loved some gushing floods. In other words, I would have loved the book in essay format instead of the diary format. However, it is rather difficult to work The beast must die (Nicholas Blake), Bones and silence (Reginald Hill), A judgement in stone (Ruth Rendell), The murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie), The black spectacles (John Dickson Carr), Rosaura a las diez (Marco Denevi), How like an angel (Margaret Millar), La Donna della domenica (Fruttero & Lucentini), Mildred Pierce (James Cain), A philosophical investigation (Philip Kerr), Gaudy night (Dorothy L Sayers), The master of the day of judgement (Leo Perutz), Devil take the blue-tail fly (John Franklin Bardin), The tragedy of X (Ellery Queen), Trial and error (Anthony Berkeley), Compartiment tueur (Sebastien Japrisot), The steam pig (James McClure), Verdict of twelve (Raymond Postgate), Les fiancailles de Monsieur Hire (Georges Simenon), My son the murderer (Patrick Quentin), and Cotton comes to Harlem (Chester Himes) in a single essay, while the diary format allows you to list them all under my favourite detective works.

Bottomline: A book certainly worth checking out; you might even buy yourself a copy, hunt down the books that Manguel notes in the diary, read them, and compare your reactions with that of his (provided you have enough time and inclination).

PS: Here is the Complete Review of A reading diary:

It’s a decent little diary, but not really exceptional, trying to do too much, probably, and excelling at none of it. In a way, the individual books get in the way: he focusses on them, and yet doesn’t do so enough to make them stand out from all the rest of his reading and activities.

It’s a quick, easy read, with a few very nice touches. Worth skimming — and there’s little more to do with it.

Have fun!

State of music

May 28, 2007

Once in a while, when she heard the Raja-Kooja songs (as she called them), my grandmother used to remember the following lines (of Koththamangalam Subbu?):

ஒன்ஸு மோரு கேட்டு பாட்டு கேட்ட காலம் போச்சு
சந்தக்கடை கூச்சலெல்லாம் ஸங்கீதமுன்னு ஆசசு

(Gone are the days, when we listened to the songs asking “once more”; the market place noises have become music). Anyway, that is what this post from Churmuri reminded me of; the quote from A K Coormaraswamy is a give-away of sorts; I do not think anybody quotes him in popular essays any more.

By the way, the author of the piece, M S Ramaswamy Iyer, is the Sangeetha Kalanidhi of 1929 (by virtue of his being the President of the annual congress of the Music Academy), I believe. There is a quote from the obituary that the academy published on his death at this page.

Psychology and neuroscience blogs

May 27, 2007

Neurophilosophy gives a couple of pointers; one of the posts links to this documentary about autism featuring V S Ramachandran. Have fun!


May 26, 2007

Julie Rehmeyer reports on some recent progress in polygon research of the following problem:

What is the polygon with the largest area that has n sides and fixed diameter?

The progress is for the case of even sided polygons of side 10 or more–numerical optimization software have apparently been used in the research. Take a look!

HowTo: successfully achieve tenure

May 26, 2007

Lesboprof at Inside Higher Ed has some pointers; take a look!

Ethics–too important to be left to philosophers?

May 26, 2007

Janet Stemwedel and Adventures in Ethics and Science tackles the question:

It is possible that learning ethics (even ethics-for-scientists) from a class in a philosophy department will have less of an impact on science students than learning ethics from their science professors would have.

I have seen other versions of the same question too, in its various forms, asked: where do we want our students learn their mathematics? their communication skills? their writing skills? their reading skills?

The answer, in my opinion, is that a 101 level course should be learnt from the specialists–namely, in the departments of philosophy, mathematics, communication, language etc; it should be  followed up by a course in the mother department. Works wonderfully; in addition, it also gives the students a perspective of what aspects of the same problem are  emphasised by the different disciplines. For example, a student who does a course on partial differential equations in a mathematics department, in a physics department and in an engineering department has a better chance of learning about three different approaches to the same problem–at least, it did to me, when I did a mathematical methods course in the chemical engineering, physics and mathematics departments.

Friday late night link fest

May 26, 2007

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:”


  1. A philandering string theorist is caught by his wife with another woman. “But darling,” he pleads, “I can explain everything!” — Sean while writing about String theory, and how it is not dead yet!
  2. An interview with Walter Isaacson, the author of the most recent biography of Einstein;
  3. I just can’t skip “coffee can prevent …” type research results;
  4. Tonal intervals in music and the underlying physics of the vocal anatomy;
  5. Sexual orientation and the performance of mental tasks;
  6. A must-read review of the book Cognitive foundations of muscial pitch;
  7. Chet on why primary texts in science are not the best way to learn it–I would tend to agree after my attempts at reading Gibbs — most of the time, I guess the difficulty relates to the change in notations, terminology and the way the field itself has developed — in that sense, like all books, scientific classics are also products of their time;
  8. Chad at Uncertain Principle discusses whether you should plunge right away into data aquisition, or, automate the process; and, Janne, in the first comment to the post, discusses the analogy (which popped into my head when I read the post) of doing by hand or writing a script of computer programmers; like Chad, I too take the script route only when it becomes too much of a pain doing things by hand;
  9. Bora’s Linnaeus birthday post and a real celebratory post!
  10. Dawkins on the many aspects of time (via, who else?)


  1. Kalevala–The Finnish National Epic (via);
  2. News of a new Sister Pelagia novel (with a link to a 30 page excerpt);
  3. Favourite fonts of some writers; via;


  1. A B-squared podcast of an interview (mp3) with the author of More sex is safer sex: The unconventional wisdom of economics, Steven E Landsburg;
  2. YouNotSneaky calculates the jerk factor needed for opposing immigration; via;
  3. What are the goods whose price should not be forbiddingly high, asks Thoma, and gives a list too in answer.


  1. Here is a video of (a rather youngish) Govinda and Kimi Katkar as superman and spidergirl respectively (via B-squared). I loved the vyuung…vyuung sound effects! Makes me long for Hindi movies at IISc gym!


May 25, 2007

Sriram Venkatkrishnan traces the history of the publication of R RangaRamanuja Iyengar‘s Kritimanimalai, a pioneering work in the history of Carnatic music.

Daring to see

May 25, 2007

An excerpt at NPR of Robert Kurson’s Crashing through:

At the age of 45, Michael May, who had been blind since childhood, was given the possibility of sight through a revolutionary stem-cell transplant surgery. Author Robert Kurson has documented May’s experiences regaining his sight in a new book, Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See.

Take a look!