Archive for March, 2008

Philip Pullman’s His dark materials

March 31, 2008

I have been reading so much about Pullman and his His dark materials trilogy, finally, I decided to check them out of the library. I have finished The golden compass (Northern lights in England, I suppose). I am half-way through The subtle knife. I have liked whatever I have read so far. More detailed comments have to wait till I finish all the three. In the meanwhile, for those of you who are so inclined, the Complete Review review is available here (which gives it a B+).

Update: A bit spooky perhaps, but nonetheless, here is a recent B-squared post which sounds as if the authors got their inspiration from Pullman:

Two physicists are publishing what sounds like a bizarre scientific paper that they claim explains poltergeists. The researchers–Pierro Brovetto, formerly of the Institute Fisica Superiore, and his colleague Vera Maxia–hypothesize that female neuronal changes at puberty can cause quantum mechanical disturbances.

Why Borges took to writing short stories

March 31, 2008

According to Borges himself — as quoted by Jonah Lehrer:

… I had an accident. You can feel the scar. If you touch my head here, you will see. Feel all those mountains, bumps? Then I spent a fortnight in a hospital. I had nightmares and sleeplessness – insomnia. After that they told me that I had been in danger, well, of dying, that it was really a wonderful thing that the operation had been successful. I began to fear for my mental integrity – I said, Maybe I can’t write anymore. Then my life would have been practically over because literature is very important to me. Not because I think my own stuff particularly good, but because I know that I can’t get along without writing. If I don’t write, I feel, well, a kind of remorse, no? Then I thought I would try my hand at writing an article or poem. But I thought, I have written hundreds of articles and poems. If I can’t do it, then I’ll know at once that I am done fore, that everything is over with me. So I thought I’d try my hand at something I hadn’t done; if I couldn’t do it, there would be nothing strange about it because why should I write short stories? It would prepare me for the final overwhelming blow: knowing that I was at the end of my tether. I wrote a story called, let me see, I think, “Hombre de la esquina rosada,” and everyone enjoyed it very much. It was a great relief to me. If it hadn’t been for that particular knock on the head, perhaps I would have never written short stories.

Take a look!

A perspective on Indian democracy

March 31, 2008

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan reviews the three volume Explaining Indian Democracy of Lloyd I Rudoplh and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph for the Hindu (and recommends them strongly):

Lloyd Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph are two of the most distinguished social scientists ever to have written about India. Immensely knowledgeable, culturally sensitive, and unceasingly alert, they have much to teach anyone who reads their work. This assemblage of 51 papers spanning half a century is a testament to scholarship in the best sense; it combines meticulous empirical work with a developed philosophic sensibility expressed in consistently clear and accessible arguments.

Some sections of the second volume does sound very interesting to me based on what Arvind has to say:

Volume two bears the title “The Realm of Institutions: State Formation and Institutional Change”; here the Rudolphs provoke much thought, starting with the argument that the state in, India is not a European import but an autochthonous entity that has been known in India since the Mauryas and the Guptas, not least because those rulers maintained centralised fiscal mechanisms, bureaucracies barred from inheritance of office or estates, and military formations controlled by the ruler, not by feudal chiefs or local military entrepreneurs. Seen thus, the state in India shows remarkable continuity into and beyond its British imperial forms; they even suggest that the preservation — or creation — and maintenance of local jurisdictions under a central power are embodied today in India’s broadly federal system. The authors’ comment that the relation between central and local institutions is dialectical is intriguing, but it is not clear if they mean dialectically progressive in the sense often attributed to Hegel; they do, however, argue that the Indian state as a historically continuing entity is close to liberal conceptions of the state in that society precedes the state and limits it, and in that in India the state-society relation is largely instrumental in nature. The authors also remind us that there was nothing inevitable about the liberal form of the contemporary Indian state; had Patel — or, the authors also hold, Bose — won the arguments the Indian state would have been far more authoritarian and even fascistic than it has been or is.

Take a look!

PS: By the way, a bit of Googling for Amar Singh (to whom the reviewer makes a couple of mentions) gets you loads of links. You can also get some pdfs of papers by visiting the home pages of Lloyd Rudolph here and Susanne Rudolph here.

Reading the election trends on the wiki page

March 31, 2008

I should have added democratic since McCain does not figure in the piece at all.

Eva Fairbanks at The New Republic (via /.):

The bitterness of the fights on Obama’s page could be taken as a bad sign for the candidate. But it may actually be Hillary’s page that contains the more troubling omens. Few, if any, Hillary defenders are standing watch besides Schilling. In recent days, the vaguely deserted air of a de-gentrifying neighborhood has settled over her page, with some editors losing interest and the main excitement provided by the “slut” and “cuntbag” graffiti artists. While Obama’s political past and future provoke intense argument, when I look at Hillary’s relatively static page I am reminded of Schilling’s description of the Rudy page at the beginning of his decline.

To test the air, I undertook my own little, highly unscientific experiment. I made a professional-looking but somewhat negative edit on each of the candidate’s pages. For Hillary, I wrote a line on the hopelessness of her chances even when you count superdelegates; for Obama, I added a phrase about his loss of some white support. My Obama edit was fully scrubbed within three minutes, by an editor I’d never even seen before. My Hillary edit languished untouched for four hours until Schilling finally got around to deleting it. But, even then, he carefully preserved my skeptical text and pasted it onto the separate history-of Hillary’s-campaign page, a gesture of acceptance. It has remained there, a little wart on Hillary’s Wikipedia face, untouched, ever since.

Take a look!

What professors are good for and why

March 31, 2008

Professors are generally people with the inclination to think long and deeply and carefully about specific problems, not people with the inclination to take a few general principles and wade into a complex mess of problems changing daily. Thus, professors tend to be good at developing fundamental new truths but not at offering practical policy advice. On the bright side, that leaves a lot of running room for policy-oriented economists like me! On the dark side, that means that economists are often under the streetlight rather than closer to where their keys might be. This problem may be especially acute when the problems are new and hard. The profession took a decade, perhaps, before we got our minds around stagflation.

Doug Elmendorf, as quoted in the Freakonomics post on missing macoreconomists.

HowTo: write grant proposals

March 31, 2008

As I mention in this blog time and again, rarely one gets to see project proposals online (unlike pre-prints) — which makes it difficult for beginners to get an idea as to how one should write such documents. So, what little we have access to, is all the more important.

Over at Aardvarchaelogy, Martin Rundkvist posts his grant proposal (link via Savage Minds), and, on his asking for comments on the same, there is some very good discussion too on the various aspects of the proposal and the manner in which it is written. I only hope he also posts the review reports he receives for the proposal.

Darwin in Indian biology textbooks (the absence of)

March 31, 2008

Prof. Balaram, in his latest editorial at Current Science, brings some disturbing news to our attention (pdf):

 … I wondered how much are our children are taught about Darwin. I took a clandestine look at a X standard biology textbook and found a picture of Gregor Mendel, but no mention of Darwin. There were sections on cell structures, genetics, respiration, nervous and reproductive systems, population and health, but surprisingly not even a passing mention of the origins of biological diversity. On enquiry, the owner of the textbook was dismissive: “Only you and the BBC are interested in Darwin”.

Considering the accepted importance of evolutionary  concepts in biology, the cavalier treatment meted out to Darwin in the high school textbook puzzled me. But, I quickly discovered that “evolution” is a word that is avoided elsewhere too.

Till I read the editorial, I was under the impression that in India at least, we did not have any problems with teaching evolution. May be my impression was incorrect; may be the biology textbooks that we perused also did not have any reference to Darwin, and all of what I know about Darwin and his work stem from my non-textbook reading. In any case, I only hope that Prof. Balaram’s editorial will be a starting point for the revision of the textbooks!

The magnificent Chola bronzes

March 31, 2008

Last time when I expressed my disappointment in not seeing the representation of Chola bronzes in the Frontline piece on Chola art, I belielve I spoke too soon. Naturally, I should have realised that Chola bronzes, by themselves deserve a piece. And that is precisely what Benoy K Behl does in the 17th part of the ongoing 25 part series:

By about the 8th century, in the temples of Tamil Nadu, the utsava murtis began to be made in bronze. This tradition of bronzes, which reached its height during the Chola rule, resulted in some of the finest works of Indian art.

The art historian Sharada Srinivasan writes: “A very different tradition of modelling was followed here in India and particularly in these South Indian bronzes. Unlike the European tradition of using models, the images were all made using mnemonic techniques, whereby the craftsmen were meant to memorise dhyana shlokas which describe the attributes of various goddesses and gods and they used the taalamana canon of measurement to essentially visualise the image and then sculpt it out of their own imagination rather than using models.”

In the skilled hands of devoted artists, the metal images communicated the majesty and dignity of the deities as well as the suppleness and dynamic movement of their bodily forms.

These are remarkably expressive and graceful. They convey the spiritual fervour of the artists who made them. These works of art are part of a divine architecture where the deity manifests in forms that awaken bliss and peace within the viewer. These fluid and subtle images were a means of expressing the beauty of the divine that is in all that one sees.


The technique used to make South Indian bronzes is called the lost-wax process. First, the image, complete in all its details, is carefully made out of hard beeswax. Then, the wax is covered with layers of clay. The clay-covered model is then heated so that all the wax melts and comes out. What is left is a cavity that exactly replicates the wax image. Next, the molten bronze is poured in through channels made in the original design. Once the cast has cooled down, the clay is broken away and the stems of the channel are filed off. During Chola times, the moulds were made so perfectly that no further details needed to be carved. These days, however, the fine details are cut after the casting process is over.

The accompanying photographs of Siva, Tribhanga Parvati, Bhikshadanar, and Kalyanasundarar, to mention but a few, are a feast for the eyes. Take a look!

Erdos number: xkcd definition

March 30, 2008

You get to see it when you move your mouse over this cartoon: in case you don’t here it is. (more…)

A scorecard for Poincare

March 30, 2008

In the April issue of the Notices of AMS, Philip J Davis and David Mumford write (pdf) about Poincare’s The future of mathematics (pdf) talk delivered a century ago; there are many interesting comments on the general aspects of Poincare’s talk (specialisation, increase in the corpus of mathematics, rigour, computation,  quantitative versus qualitative, aesthetics as an element of mathematical discovery, and the linguistic elements of mathematics); they also go on to discuss more specific comments of Poincare on many different fields of mathematics (algebra, geometry,  …). Finally, there is a scorecard in which they list the developments that he had foreseen and the ones that he missed (and, he missed more than he had foreseen, obviously — though, that doesn’t, in any way, diminish what he had achieved).

Poincare’s Science and Method (of which book, the Future of mathematics talk is a chapter) is a book that I read nearly ten years ago (and enjoyed it a lot too); and, it is really nice for me to see a mathematician’s appraisal of some sections of it.