Archive for January, 2008

Review of Devidayal’s Music Room

January 25, 2008

Jayan reads Devidayal’s The Music room, and recommends it strongly:

Though this is biographical in nature, and not having most of the fictional qualities, Namita Devidayal uses the method of writing, which is a combination of both styles, retaining the admiration of the art and the gurus as you often observe in biographies, as well as the use of language as in fiction writings. At no point of time she is away form the events and the stories, always retains her ( and the readers) interest in the stories and anecdotes. A very well written book and great value to someone like me who has near zero knowledge of the Hindustani Music and its heroes.

He also collects several relevant links towards the end of his post; take a look!

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David Lindley’s Uncertainty

January 25, 2008

I finished reading David Lindley’s Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the struggle for the soul of science. It is a short book running into 230 pages or so and makes a good and easy reading. However, I did not enjoy the book in spite of what Doug Natelson and Chad Orzel had to say about it.

As a matter of fact, I specifically did not like the character sketches that Lindley offers of various scientists (which sounded too caricaturish to me), though both Natelson and Orzel seem to have liked it:

It’s a compelling story, though there are no major surprises: Heisenberg was ludicrously bright; Bohr was incapable of writing a short, declarative statement; Pauli was a sarcastic bastard who could get away with it because he was brilliant; Einstein was already the grand old man. (Natelson)

Where the book really shines, though, is in presenting the personalities of the people involved in the making of the theory. Lindley includes brief character sketches of all the important players, and enough anecdotes to give a good sense of what they were like. You get the maddeningly evasive and philosophical Bohr, the standoffish Heisenberg, the prickly Max Born. There are also nice portraits of Einstein as a cranky conservative, Schrödinger the utter cad (unsurprisingly, he got on well with Einstein), and the extremely sarcastic Pauli. Pretty much anyone who’s anyone in the history of quantum theory shows up, and they all get their due. (Orzel)

Having said that, if you can ignore Lindley’s descriptions of these scientists–in case, like me, you do not enjoy such descriptions a lot–you will enjoy the book.

HowTo: write grant proposals

January 24, 2008

Kerim at Savage Minds points to two classic “how to” guides on writing grant proposals; though there are explicit mentions of anthropological and sociological research in the titles of these pieces, let that not mislead you. In fact, the core advice is more general and is valid for any kind of research.

Here is Sydel Silverman’s advice for example:

Three questions are basic to most research proposals: What is it you want to do? How are you going to do it? and Why is it worth doing? You need to have the answers to these questions clear in your mind before you can articulate them in a grant proposal. Indeed, if you are not sure what you want to do or why you think it important, you should not be looking for funds at all; and if you do not have a clear idea of how to go about doing it, nothing that you write on an application about “methods” will make sense.

And, here is Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon articulating the same view point in almost identical language:

While the form and the organization of a proposal are matters of taste, you should choose your form bearing in mind that every proposal reader constantly scans for clear answers to three questions:

  • What are we going to learn as the result of the proposed project that we do not know now?
  • Why is it worth knowing?
  • How will we know that the conclusions are valid?

Though Prezeworski and Salomon begin their piece with the sentence

Writing proposals for research funding is a peculiar facet of North American academic culture, …

again, let that not mislead you; it would be fair to say that grant proposal writing is part of every researcher’s life, and it transcends not only geographical details like which continent you are working in, but also others such as whether you are working for a government or industrial lab, or in a university.

Here are some of the earlier posts in this blog with pointers to guides on research and grant proposal writing:

  1. HowTo: write grant proposals;
  2. HowTo: write research proposals;
  3. HowTo: write a project proposal;
  4. HowTo: write a research proposal; and,
  5. Teaching, research and grants.

Happy writing times!

Why is the social life of humans filled with innuendo, hypocrisy and taboo?

January 22, 2008

Steven Pinker, Martin Nowak and James Lee discuss the issue in their latest paper in PNAS titled The logic of indirect speech:

When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is supported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particular, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other’s intentions with high confidence.

Take a look!

Transforming the way people think about blogging!

January 21, 2008

Apparently, that is the aim of wordpress; and, I understand that towards that end the free space that comes with the wordpress account has been increased sixty fold! Here is Matt Mullenweg on the developments:

Today, one of those developments comes to fruition — everyone’s free upload space has been increased 60x from 50mb to 3,000mb. To get the same amount of space at our nearest competitor, Typepad, you’d pay at least $300 a year. Blogger only gives you 1GB. We’re doing the same thing for free.

Our hope is that much in the same way Gmail transformed the way people think about email, we’ll give people the freedom to blog rich media without having to worry about how many kilobytes are left in their upload space.

How are we able to do this? Over the past year we’ve developed our file infrastructure, replication, backup, caching, and S3-backed storage to the point where we don’t feel like we need to artificially limit what you folks are able to upload just to keep up with growth. We’re ready for you. )

This certainly transforms my way of thinking about blogging: may be I should try and increase my blogging frequency, if not sixty fold, at least by a factor of two or three!

Boyle and Bio-ed online resources

January 21, 2008

The Librarians Internet Index points to a couple of online educational resources: Robert Boyle project home page (which includes a link to his manuscripts among other things), and BioEd online (a resource page for biology teachers from Baylor college of medicine). Have fun!

Writers and editors!

January 21, 2008

One of Dostoevsky’s sentences I like a lot goes something like this:

Even if it were proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really so that the truth were outside of Christ, then I would still prefer to stay with Christ rather than with truth.

An admirable sentiment; by the way, strangely, I found one of the religious teachers I admire a lot made a similar point in one of his discourses; while discussing how people decide to follow one religious leader or other, he said that people decide based not on how intellectual the leader is but how impeccable his conduct is.

But, I am digressing. What brought the Dostoevsky quote to my mind is Daniel Green’s stand, namely, that published Carver, irrespective of whether his editor Gordon Lish was a co-author or not:

As an erstwhile scholar of postmodernism, I am perfectly comfortable with indeterminacy and dislocation. I understand that texts can be elusive, unstable, self-contradictory. But a literal instability between different versions of the “same” text is a bit too pomo even for me. My introduction to Carver came through the Lish-edited stories that to me signalled a break from the formal experiments and self-reflexivity of postmodern American fiction but did not merely return to old-fashioned storytelling. The severely pared-back minimalism of these stories seemed to accept the postmodern critique of representation if not its alternative strategies. Character and plot are stripped to the bone, the former presented to us entirely through mundane actions, with no attempt at “psychological realism” (thus we never really get to “know” Carver’s characters, we just watch them wandering through their lives), the latter flattening out Freytag’s triangle to an unemphatic succession of events. It’s these stories that offered a Raymond Carver engaged in his own kind of experimentation (how bare and uninflected can realism become while still maintaing our interest?), which as far as I can tell is mostly absent in the more elaborated but conventional Lish-less originals. Even if Gordon Lish did essentially co-author the published stories, that’s still the Raymond Carver I’d rather have.

Take a look!

Origin of the phrase vote bank

January 19, 2008

Whoever in India hadn’t heard about vote bank politics? However, I never thought about the origins of the phrase. Ram Guha traces the first coining and exposition of the term to M N Srinivas and his Ramapura work:

Srinivas first reported his Rampura research in a long essay he wrote for a seminar organised by the University of Chicago. “The Social System of a Mysore Village” dealt principally with the relations between the different caste groups. A section on “patrons and clients” spoke of the relationship of dependence and obligation between master and servant, landlord and tenant, creditor and debtor; the first term in these relationships always denoting a person of a higher caste than the second. The last paragraph of this section ran as follows:

The word “party” has become a Kannada word. Every administrator and politician speaks of “party politics” in villages, and even villagers are often heard saying, “There is too much ‘party’ in such and such a village”. The coming of elections gives fresh opportunities for the crystallization of parties around patrons. Each patron may be said to have a “vote bank” which he can place at the disposal of a provincial or national party for a consideration which is not mentioned but implied. The secret ballot helps to preserve the marginal affiliation of the marginal clients.

A very interesting piece — also for the fact that MNS, RKN, AK Ramanujan, RK Laxman, and TS Satyan all make an appearance in the piece! What more can you ask for?

By the way, though the term was not explicitly used, during a discussion of the on-going US presidential election caucuses and primaries with an US friend of mine, I have heard about some of strategies employed by some of the successful presidential candidates, which would certainly fall under ‘vote bank’ political strategies!

Ram Guha’s first Chak de India moment!

January 19, 2008

In Telegraph, he recounts:

It was, I suppose, my first Chak de India moment. The famous cricket victories in West Indies and England lay five years in the future; the World Cup win a further decade on; Vishy Anand’s world chess championships in the next century altogether. This was the first time this particular Indian came to see that sometimes, in some places, and in certain conditions, some of his countrymen could take on the best in the world. The cynic would lay stress on the caveats; in fact, it was precisely because these victories happened so rarely that they were (and are) cherished so much and by so many. India generally get walloped by Australia in Test and one-day matches alike; but they did beat them in the Twenty20 World Cup—and we went nuts about it. Likewise, when no one expected the Indians to get so much as a set off the Australians in the Challenge Round of 1966, that Krish and Jaideep actually won a whole match made them one little boy’s first sporting heroes.

Take a look!

Marx’s Das Kapital: a biography

January 19, 2008

I finished reading the delightful little volume of Francis Wheen: Marx’s Das Kapital: a biography. It is a short book running into 120 pages or so (of a size, I think, called octavo); and, hence takes a couple of hours at the most to finish.

The quotes as well as some of Wheen’s sentences in the book are sharp, pungently funny, and, most of the times even politically incorrect; what is more, both Marx and his wife seem to have used a very colourful language. Here are a few samples:

  1. That last sentence, taken alone, could be adduced as another prediction of absolute financial impoverishment for the workers, but only a halfwit — or an economics lecturer — could hold to this interpretation after reading the thunderous philippic which proceeds it.
  2. ‘The secret hopes we had long nourished in regard to Karl’s book were all set at naught by the German’ conspiracy of silence,’ Jenny Marx complained. ‘The second installment may startle the slugabeds out of their lethargy.’
  3. ‘I am expanding this volume,’ he explained, ‘since those German scoundrels estimate the value of a book in terms of its cubic capacity.’
  4. Engel’s experienced eye immediately spotted certain passages in the text where the carbuncles had left their mark, and Marx agreed that they might have given the prose a rather livid hue. ‘At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day,’ he cursed. ‘What swine they are!’
  5. As Marx knew, however, these dialectical dalliances had an extra use-value. After writing an article on the Indian mutiny in 1857, …, he had confessed to Engels: “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.’
  6. Engels tried to stir up publicity by submitting hostile pseudonymous reviews to German newspapers and urged Marx’s other friends to do likewise. ‘The main thing is that the book should be discussed over and over again, in any way whatsoever,’ he told Kugelmann. ‘In the words of our old friend Jesus Christ, we must be as innocent as doves and wise as serpents.’
  7. Marx believed that ‘the peculiar gift of stolid blockheadedness was every Briton’s birthright, …

In the last few pages of the book Keynes and Shumpeter also make an appearance among others. The book ends with a suggestion that Marx could become the most influential thinker of this century. On the whole, an enjoyable and informative read.

PS: Here is an earlier post of mine with links to an excerpt from the book and a couple of blogposts as to why Marx was an effective blogger.