Archive for November 3rd, 2007

Sanjay Subrahmanyam on Naipaul’s Writer’s people 

November 3, 2007

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian (as the LRB helpfully notes), as befitting his academic credentials, turns his book review of Naipaul’s A writers people into an interesting analysis of diasporic Indians and their social, political, and religious outlook.

Here is what he has to say on Naipaul himself:

What would happen if he were to be analysed as an actor in history, the spokesman for a point of view? What does he really represent, and where does he come from? We can do without the materialist presumption that all men are merely creatures of their circumstances, even if Naipaul seems determined to be one. He is a prisoner by choice, and also as a matter of taste. But of what is he a prisoner?

Subrahmanyam does find Naipaul’s book useful, though; and, he has a specific prescription for reading it:

… in the end, there is a reason why we should be grateful that Naipaul exists. With his clarity of expression and utter lack of self-awareness, he provides a window into a world and its prejudices: he is thus larger than himself. This book, like his others, should be read together with those of Munshi Rahman Khan for a deeper understanding of the Indian diaspora and its ways of looking, feeling and suffering.

Along the way, there are some telling sentences about neo-Hinduism that pervades Naipaul’s book as well as expatriate Indians (specifically in California) :

It is the ghost of this neo-Hinduism of the diaspora that lives on in this book, and which also inhabits hundreds of websites posted by other expatriate Indians who find themselves caught in the trap of in-betweenness. Naipaul is wide of the mark in his claim that most Indians today in the US ‘wish to shake India off’ and would rather ‘make cookies and shovel snow’ than deal with their Indian past. On the contrary: these are communities which often greatly admire Naipaul, share his roots in various sorts of neo-Hinduism, claim insistently that Islam is a worldwide threat, agitate over school textbooks in California which state that Hinduism is chaotically polytheistic, and wear surgical masks when they visit India and their relatives, who stir tea with their forefingers. For, ironically, ‘Indianness’ is the chief element in the cultural capital of such groups, as it is for Naipaul himself. On the distant other side, Protestantism beckons, but most Protestantism does not go together with cultural métissage; it is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal. Further, Indians living outside India have, it is well known, been rather racist when it comes to other people of colour, and the anti-black rhetoric that pervades Naipaul’s writings (including the first chapter of this book) is once again only symptomatic of a larger malaise that extends from East Africa to New Jersey.

A must-read review (and, by far the best analysis of Naipaul and his latest offering), irrespective of whether you are interested in Naipaul and his writings or not. Take a look!

Hat tip: A & L Daily

A few links, literary!

November 3, 2007

It is the first Sunday of month, which I look forward to eagerly, for the wonderful Hindu Literary Review edition. Here are a few pieces that I found interesting in the latest edition.

A book shop whose patron saint is Borges

Pradeep Sebastian writes about a very special antiquarian book shop that he visited recently:

Lame Duck has the only known manuscript of several of Jorge Louis Borges’ most important work. I had seen several photographs, sketches and even a fascinating installation of Borges all over the store.

Tom then informed me that Borges was the Lame Duck’s patron saint. And then it made sense why I was so happy and wonder struck browsing inside the Lame Duck. Because it is Borges who said, “I don’t know why I believe that a book brings us the possibility of happiness, but I am truly grateful for that modest miracle.”

A realisation on reading Naipaul’s A writers people

Imraan Coovadia tells us about the remarkable realisation that he reached on reading Naipaul’s latest offering:

The most remarkable realisation one reaches reading A Writer’s People is that V.S. Naipaul identifies with Gandhi. He has found his match at last. When he describes Gandhi’s history, Naipaul is practising a form of not-so-secret autobiography. “Everything about Gandhi is clear, even,” Naipaul concedes, “when wilful and irritating. A certain amount is even funny.” We can read that line as a condensation of Naipaul’s self-understanding and we can say that, at the age of 75, he understands nothing new and has forgotten everything he once understood.

Ondaatje’s Divisadero

Rumina Sethi reviews Ondaatje’s Divisadero:

Moving from a rural setting in California to the groggy air of Nevada casinos to France, the novel is an intimate account of a splintered family like the dominant image of shards of glass that runs through the novel. It is a multifaceted novel, a geography of the mind, peculiar in its structure yet gripping in its hold, yielding more if one is ready to surrender oneself completely to its symphony of seductive prose and vibrantly complex characters.

Happy reading!

The Economic Naturalist : why you might want to read it

November 3, 2007

I finished reading Robert H Frank‘s The Economic Naturalist: in search in explanations for everyday enigmas. It is an interesting book running into nearly 200 pages and makes a very smooth reading.

Less-is-more approach

In the Acknowledgments section, Frank thanks his Nepali language instructors for the idea behind the book:

My first inkling that there was a more effective way to learn languages came during the instruction I received before serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal.

… my first thanks go to my Nepali language instructors of long ago, who opened my eyes to the remarkable effectiveness of the less-is-more approach to learning.

My own experience in learning to speak Sanskrit using a similar approach is not too different. The instructor of the two week long course (Venkatesh Mahodhaya) started the class with “Mama Namah Venkateshah. Bavathah nama kim?” (which, not unexpectedly, lead to some jokes about what difficulties he would face if he is trying to teach the same to a group of Korean students). But, pretty soon, since he would not talk anything other than Sanskrit wherever he met us (which lead to some very interesting dining experience in A mess), we were quite fluent in spoken Sanskrit. Of course, we made up our own Sanskrit vocabulary too; for example, a girl who used questionable means to win the language games that we used to play got the name Cheat-ika (which sounded Sanskrit enough for us). Those classes also were an extraordinary experience for me from an altogether different point of view; we, the students, were from all parts of India. Sometimes, since Venkatesh Mahodhaya would not tell us what the word means in English, we had to take a guess. I found that the same Sanskrit word, or its modified form, is used at least in one other Indian language, indicating the strong influence of Sanskrit on many of the Indian languages (including the Dravidian ones) — which was such a wonderful linguistic lesson to discover. There was never a word that he uttered in Sanskrit which, at least one of us could not understand.

I know I am digressing; but the point I am trying to make is that less-is-more approach that Frank adapts is fun; if it was fun in learning Sanskrit or Nepali using this approach, it is as much fun learning about economics too; and, on reading the book, I can picture how much lively his classes would have been where most of the material that is presented in the book were discussed.

Clarity in writing

The book is largely based on the submissions to a writing assignments titled “economic naturalist”. And, as Frank explains

The specific assignment was “to use a principle, or principles, discussed in the course to pose and answer an interesting question about some pattern of events or behavior that you personally have observed.”

“Your space limit,” I wrote, “is 500 words. Many excellent papers are significantly shorter than that. Please do not lard your essay with complex terminology. Imagine yourself talking to a relative who has never had a course in economics. The best papers are ones that would be clearly intelligible to such a person, and typically these papers do not use any algebra or graphs.”

So, in addition to the less-is-more approach, what makes the book such a smooth reading, in my opinion, is the adherence to these instructions (as some of the examples I quote below indicate).

Some specific examples from the book that I found interesting

On mathematization of economics

Given the emphasis on no algebra, no maths in the instructions above, it is not surprising that Frank considers the extreme mathematization of economics as the equivalent of shouting matches in cocktail parties:

The level of mathematical formalism in economics may thus be too high for the same reason that people tend to raise their voices at cocktail parties.

On different writing styles and the underlying reasons

In a similar fashion, Frank attributes the near incomprehensibility of the writings of humanities professors to market place signaling. On the other hand, the near unintelligibility of beauracratic language gets attributed to the ease with which the responsibility can be shifted away from oneself, vaguer the wording.

On pay premiums for morally questionable work

Frank also answers the question about CEOs of tobacco companies, namely,

Why are CEOs of large tobacco companies willing to testify under oath that nicotine is not addictive?

with an interesting lesson from Adam Smith‘s theory of compensating wage differentials:

This theory holds that the more unpleasant and risky a job is, the more it pays. Some of the largest pay premiums, it turns out, go to highly qualified people who are willing to do morally questionable work.

On finding mates and all that

There are couple of neat explanations in the book to the following questions:

  1. Why is it easier to find a partner when you already have one?
  2. If polygamy benefits men and harms women, as is commonly assumed, why do predominantly male legislatures prohibit it?

I will leave the answers out here (so that you may have the pleasure of discovering them yourself in the book).

One last reason why the book worked great for me

I have already mentioned less-is-more approach and the clarity in writing to be the strong plus points of the book. But, finally what made the experience of reading the book pleasurable for me is that sometimes what is written in the book is not quite correct (and, what is more, I could find a good “economic naturalist” reason of the correct explanation).

I will highlight this aspect of the book with “Why there are only movie rentals, and no book rentals?” question in the book. The answer Frank gives is of course the availability of good public libraries (which are subsidised by governments) and no such mechanism for movies (which are not subsidised by governments). However, while this observation is true for Chicago, it is not true for Bangalore, for example, where, educational movies do get tax exemption from the government and unfortunately, there are no good public libraries. So, not surprisingly, there are book rentals (where you pay nearly 10% of the book cost for keeping it two weeks).

To be fair to Frank, he does say that there are national variations to each of these questions — however, I thought he could have made a stronger point if he used Bangalore example and incorporated it into his answer — as he says elsewhere in the book, exception proves the rule.


To summarise, here is a book that, if you are interested in economics (and, had never done a economics course in your life, like me), you might enjoy. As some reviewers had pointed out, some of the observations and the explanations in the book might be suspect. However, that does not diminish the value of the book (or, the pleasure of reading the book); if anything, it makes the reading more interesting, since, at every stage you can question everything that is written in the book and try and come up with alternate explanations (which, automatically makes you an “economic naturalist”, albeit one with a different theory).

Before I end this post, here is Brad DeLong’s recommendation of the book:

… if you’re not putting on your coat to repair immediately to your local physical bookstore, or mousing over to your favorite online merchant to buy it, you are reading the wrong blog.

Have fun!

Visualizing phase transformations

November 3, 2007

In the latest issue of Science, Peter Baum, Ding-Shyue Yang and Ahmed H Zewail report on their results of a four dimensional (4D) femtosecond electron diffraction study of monoclinic to tetragonal phase transformation in vanadium dioxide:

Complex systems in condensed phases involve a multidimensional energy landscape, and knowledge of transitional structures and separation of time scales for atomic movements is critical to understanding their dynamical behavior. Here, we report, using four-dimensional (4D) femtosecond electron diffraction, the visualization of transitional structures from the initial monoclinic to the final tetragonal phase in crystalline vanadium dioxide; the change was initiated by a near-infrared excitation. By revealing the spatiotemporal behavior from all observed Bragg diffractions in 3D, the femtosecond primary vanadium–vanadium bond dilation, the displacements of atoms in picoseconds, and the sound wave shear motion on hundreds of picoseconds were resolved, elucidating the nature of the structural pathways and the nonconcerted mechanism of the transformation.

In an accompanying Perspectives piece, Andrea Cavalleri explains the significance of their results, as well as the significance of the experimental technqiue used by them and its relevance to other areas of study:

It is impressive that Baum et al. achieve this femtosecond time resolution in the reflection mode of diffraction, because the inherent velocity mismatch between electrons and photons can, in principle, smear out the time response and hinder the observation of the femtosecond movements of the atoms. To this end, the authors ingeniously tilted the front of the optical pump pulse, thus matching the speeds with which the surface of the sample is excited optically and swept by the diffraction probe. Reflection geometry opens the way to femtosecond electron diffraction in most bulk solids, whereas previous experiments performed in transmission were limited to very thin films.

Electron diffraction is a key probing technique available to materials scientists in both understanding the structure of materials and their evolution. And, as the perspective piece lined above notes,

The capability of interrogating matter with ultrafast electron and x-ray pulses is opening new horizons that could only be dreamed of as recently as a decade ago.

There are plenty of physics, chemistry and engineering along the way to make these studies “super” exciting. Take a look!

Linnean food fest and China’s supreme polymath

November 3, 2007

A couple of interesting stories relating to the history of science in the latest issue of Science.

Johan Bohannon attends the 300th birthday party of Linnaeus:

There seemed to be no academic realm the Swede left untouched. So it was not surprising that while I was in Sweden, there were no fewer than three Linnaeus-celebratory conferences under way.

Bruce wanted his party to stand out. As a nutrition scientist at the Swedish National Food Administration, he knew just how to do it. “Linnaeus was passionate about food and diet,” he says, and not just as an epicurean or a “foodie.” Based on the man’s published works, says Bruce, food–its origins, how best to prepare and serve it, and its effects on health–lay at the intersection of all of Linnaeus’s interests.

So for the past 3 years, Bruce has led a team of Swedish researchers to prepare the ultimate Linnean foodfest. Scholars from around the world were invited to explore the culture and science of food in the time of Linnaeus, as well as the progress that food science has made 300 years hence. And to get everyone in the proper frame of mind, master chefs collaborated.

The output was 3 days of food-related lectures by diverse experts–biochemists, historians, agricultural scientists, and psychologists–punctuated by recreations of 18th century meals.

Not only does the party sound like fun, the description of  the party, the food, the conference, the 18th century European eating habits, and the manner in which the calories of these food were burnt (by dancing) by Bohannon makes it a must-read piece.

In another piece, Richard Stone reports on the International Xu Guangqi Conference honouring the early 17th century China’s Renaissance man Xu Guangqi, and also describe his life and works and his continuing relevance:

In the early 17th century, this humanist and experimentalist helped avert starvation in China by disseminating hardier crops and devised dams and canals for irrigation and flood control. He launched a decade-long effort to improve the accuracy of the Chinese calendar by incorporating a more precise knowledge of celestial geometry. His monumental contribution was to team up with a Jesuit scholar to translate part of Euclid’s Elements, introducing late Ming Dynasty intellectuals to new mathematical concepts–and Western thought. For his achievements, he has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon.

Who was China’s Renaissance man? Go to the head of the class if you guessed Xu Guangqi.

Last month, scientists from a variety of disciplines met here at the Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first six volumes of Elements in Chinese and to explore Xu’s remarkable legacy. “He started China’s enlightenment,” says cell biologist Pei Gang, president of Tongji University in Shanghai. “Xu promoted the idea of learning from the West.” Over the past century, Chinese leaders have taken Xu’s advice to heart, including a reference by President Hu Jintao at last month’s Communist Party’s 17th National Congress to the importance of taking a “scientific view of development.”

The Wiki page on Xu Guangqi has some nice information too (and, some wonderful photographs and pictures).

Take a look!

Some new results on Brownian motion and random walks

November 3, 2007

Brownian motion and random walk, though are well known phenomena, continue to give rise to interesting new experimental and theoretical results, making them robust and interesting areas of study.

Wiki defines Brownian motion as

the random movement of particles suspended in a fluid.

Robert Brown observed this phenomenon in pollen particles suspended in water; here is the pdf of Brown’s original paper. Here are some Java applets of Brownian motion and related phenomena.

The Wiki definition of Brownian motion, though correct from a historical point of view, is not quite general. Brownian motion is a more general phenomenon and is not restricted to solid particles in a fluid. For example, a few days ago, I heard Uli Dahmen talk about the Brownian motion executed by liquid lead droplets embedded in a solid Aluminium matrix, which is sort of an inversion of the Wiki definition.

Closely related to Brownian motion is the idea of random walk; and here is the Wiki explanation of the relation between the two. In the latest issue of Nature, Condmain et al report on First-passage times in complex scale-invariant media:

How long does it take a random walker to reach a given target point? This quantity, known as a first-passage time (FPT), has led to a growing number of theoretical investigations over the past decade. The importance of FPTs originates from the crucial role played by first encounter properties in various real situations, including transport in disordered media, neuron firing dynamics, spreading of diseases or target search processes. Most methods of determining FPT properties in confining domains have been limited to effectively one-dimensional geometries, or to higher spatial dimensions only in homogeneous media. Here we develop a general theory that allows accurate evaluation of the mean FPT in complex media. Our analytical approach provides a universal scaling dependence of the mean FPT on both the volume of the confining domain and the source–target distance. The analysis is applicable to a broad range of stochastic processes characterized by length-scale-invariant properties. Our theoretical predictions are confirmed by numerical simulations for several representative models of disordered media, fractals, anomalous diffusion and scale-free networks.

The accompanying News and Views piece by Michael F Schlesinger puts the work of Condmain et al in perspective:

The idea of ‘random walks’ pops up in areas from biochemical reaction pathways to animals’ foraging strategies. A central question — how likely is it that a walker is somewhere for the first time? — now has a simpler answer.

Take a look!

Responsibilities of co-authors

November 3, 2007

Nature has an editorial as to

How the responsibilities of co-authors for a scientific paper’s integrity could be made more explicit.

It has several interesting things to say about co-authorship, the responsibilities of all the co-authors as to the contents and correctness of what is reported in the paper and so on. Finally, they also make a suggestion:

We suggest that journals should require that every manuscript has at least one author per collaborating research group who will go on record in a way that collectively vouches for the paper’s standards.

They go on to indicate who should sign such an undertaking:

Principal investigators traditionally bask in the glory of a well-received paper. We are proposing now that they willingly open themselves to sanctions that could be brought to bear should the paper turn out to have major problems.

I think the key word here is “principal investigator”; if it is not made mandatory for the PIs to sign such a declaration, I can think of one particular form of abuse that this system is prone to, keeping in mind some of the recent incidents that I have come across. For example, in the Anna University plagiarism scandal, one of the co-authors, who happens to be a student is reported to have said that

… he believes he was made a scapegoat in the entire affair and added that his mouth was sealed because he was a student.

Or, in other words, if one of the co-authors is forced to sign such a declaration, and, if the hierarchy in the University/Institution where she/he works is such that she/he has no choice but to sign such a declaration, then it makes it much more easier for the senior co-author to exploit the same to pin the blame on a junior colleague, should something go wrong. One way to overcome this problem is to make it mandatory that the senior-most person in the hierarchy sign such a declaration. Pinning the responsibility on the senior co-author also makes sense when we remember scandals like this, involving researchers who are at the pinnacle of the scientific administration pyramid.