Archive for June 23rd, 2007

You know that you are an economist

June 23, 2007

when both sides of a good debate hate your guts, call you names and disparage your profession.

John Whitehead, here. And, the entire post is a must-read, by the way!

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Net social value of Bill Gates

June 23, 2007

Whether the net social value of Bill Gates is positive or negative depends on his impact in creating and shaping Microsoft: relative to its competitors and to its alternative paths of development, did he make it more of a lockin-breaking innovator or a death zone-creating predator? Did he do more to make Microsoft a company that takes advantage o economies of scale or more to make Microsoft a company that raises profit margins? I’m on the side that thinks that Microsoft has been a considerable net plus. But others I respect see it is a net minus. And my judgment that the net social value of Bill Gates is large and positive is not because I attribute the total producer plus consumer surplus in the industry to him and him alone: I am not that naive, and not that slow-witted.

Brad DeLong, here.

Architecture and sanitation of Varanasi

June 23, 2007

It was also effortlessly bilingual, as when he described Banaras as a city whose buildings soared and whose sewage stank: as he put it: “Wo shahr, jiska Architecture Swarg ka, aur jiska Sanitation Narak ka.”

(That city, the architecture of which is of heaven, and the sanitation of which is of hell?) From this tribute by Ram Guha to Ramachandra Gandhi.

Getting ideas for research

June 23, 2007

Highly Allochthonus has some thoughts on the most mysterious of all the aspects of a researcher’s life, namely, getting ideas:

If there’s one thing that a scientist can’t be without, it’s ideas. A good working knowledge of your field, and its outstanding research questions, is not enough; you also need to have the imagination to exploit it. But it’s a very specific sort of imagination: it’s reading a paper on a particular field area and thinking, ‘this is the ideal place to collect data on x’. It’s looking at a weird data point and realising ‘if this isn’t an error, then theory a can’t be right, but theory b might be…and if so, then we should also see y’. It’s reading a report on a new experimental method and thinking ‘hmmm, I wonder if I can use it to measure z more accurately?’

Chris Rowan also identifies the inklings of transformation in a researcher’s outlook quite nicely:

I also find myself looking at things slightly differently: my “hmm, that’s interesting” has evolved into “hmm, that’s interesting, I wonder if you could test that further with x…” Even more invigorating is how this surge in enthusiasm is also reaching back in time, to inspire new insights and ideas in my old research.

I have also found that the first step in getting new ideas is to read research papers at the meta level (which, I believe, is akin to a novelist reading a novel–not so much for the novel, but with a keen eye on its architecture).

Most of the times, while reading research papers during my graduate school days, my primary motive was understanding what is there in the paper; it took a while for me to start looking for what is missing in a paper.

Plenty of reading (as well as writing) experience is needed before one starts seeing where the gaps are; of course, knowing something about the history of the field, evolution of ideas and concepts, a broader outlook, talking with people with different backgrounds, and trying to explain your research to non-specialists, are some of the things that can expedite the process of such a meta level reading.

Finally, like many other things, getting ideas also needs lots of practice; as that great Tamil poet Avvai called it, it is but the “practice of the mind” (மனப்பழக்கம்). If one keeps generating ideas, and keep working on them, with experience, one might be able to identify the good ones from the not-so-good ones. One day, one might even be able to come up with that big idea and successfully work it to is logical conclusion; and, those are the kinds of thoughts that keeps us ticking!