Archive for March 27th, 2008

A Malayan trip of Musiri

March 27, 2008

I knew about Musiri’s connection to Ramakrishna Students Home — it so happens that my music teacher’s husband learnt his Thiruppavali from Musiri while he was at the Home — and the Musiri school had those poems tuned to ragas which were in existence at the time of Andal — and Maami taught the poems only in those Ragas and made it a point to tell us about the Home, Anna, and Musiri.

However, I did not know about Musiri’s going against the orthodoxy to help the Home:

The Hindu archives throw up some interesting news item or the other pertaining to Carnatic music. Take March 29, 1935 for instance. Under the heading ‘In Aid of Ramakrishna Students Home – Return of Party from Malay States’ we have this small paragraph:

Madras, Mar 28 – Vidwan Musiri Subramania Aiyar and other artistes returned this morning from the Malaya States where they gave performances in aid of the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home, accompanied by Rao Bahadur C. Ramanujachariar. They were given a rousing reception on their arrival at the Harbour.

Behind that brief write-up was an interesting tale.

It was a fairly courageous decision on the part of Musiri, for, while travelling to Rangoon (via Calcutta) and to Colombo (across the waters) was acceptable; going to Malaya was still taboo among the orthodox community which frowned on people crossing the black waters. Musiri convinced a team of accompanists which comprised Madras Balakrishna Iyer (violin), Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer (mridangam) and Palakkad Sacchidanandam Iyer (morsing) and the party duly set off.

An interesting piece of history (and, fitting too — considering the fact that Swami Vivekananda too railed against such meaningless orthodoxy — and, if I remember correct, did not even hesitate to eat beef and defended it spiritedly). Take a look!

Best reason to become a materials scientist

March 27, 2008

Wired has a wonderful gallery of gadgets that materials scientists get to play with (not my kind, though, I should admit — though nothing stops me from taking a look at what my colleagues get to enjoy):

Materials science is the study of stuff, and researchers in this field study such exotic substances as tin nanowires and colloidal crystals — the building blocks for future sensors, electronics and medical devices. To study materials at this small scale, you need instruments of phenomenal precision, accuracy and awesomeness.

Nanotech tool vendors hawked their wares to innovative engineers at the spring meeting of the Materials Research Society this week at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. We took a break from presentations on molecular motors and the mechanical properties of human skin to take a walk across the showroom floor. What follows are close-ups of some of the most precise molecular-building and measurement tools in the world.

Take a look!

Training for peer review

March 27, 2008

In this blog, a few of times in the recent past, I discussed the peer reviewing process with specific reference to the training, if any, that a reviewer receives for the process: here and here, for example.

DrugMonkey, over at his/her blog, shares his/her experience:

Well I don’t know about “formal” training, but I certainly received some informal training in manuscript review from a postdoctoral mentor. The commenter, Greg Cuppan, has a great point when it comes to grant review.

I am hoping that most readers’ experience with manuscript review is similar to mine. In that during training (certainly as a postdoc) the mentor provides a scaled opportunity for trainees to learn paper reviewing. One approach is simply the journal-club type of approach in which the trainee(s) and mentor read over the manuscript and then meet to discuss strengths and weaknesses. A second approach might be for the mentor to simply assign the trainee to write a review of a manuscript the mentor has received, and then meet so that the mentor can critique the trainee’s review.

[I should note here that I do not consider the sharing of the manuscript with the trainees to be a violation of confidentiality. The trainees, of course, should consider themselves bound to the same confidentiality expected of the assigned reviewer. I can imagine that this runs afoul of the letter of many editorial policies, not sure of the spirit of such policies at all journals. The one journal editor that I know fairly well is actually a major role model in the approach that I am describing here, fwiw.]

Ideally, the mentor then writes the final review and shares this review with the trainee. The trainee can then gain a practical insight into how the mentor chooses to phrase things, which issues are key, which issues not worth mentioning, etc. Over time the mentor might include more and more of the trainees critique in the review and eventually just tell the editor to pass the review formally to the trainee. I is worth saying that it is obligatory mentor behavior, in my view, for the mentor to note the help or participation of a trainee in the comments to editor. Something like “I was ably assisted in this review by my postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Smith”. This is important mentoring by way of introducing your trainee to your scientific community, very similar to the way mentors should introduce their trainees to members of the field at scientific meetings.

I am not sure that “formal” training can do any better than this process and indeed it would run the risk of being so general (I am picturing university-wide or department-wide “training” sessions akin to postdoctoral ethics-in-science sessions) as to be useless.

While I haven’t had any experience with post-doctoral ethics-in-science sessions, I still am not sure why we cannot have a formal training. Here is how I envisage the training: say, I pick a few manuscripts, for which, I also have access to the reviews they received as well as the post-review version of the manuscripts/papers. With these in hand, one can always go through the process that DrugMonkey describes. And, by carefully choosing the manuscripts and reviews, this process can also be used not only to show how to review but also to teach how not to review. By the way, as I noted earlier, PLoS journals which give open access to reviews are also ideal for such a course, though the fact that there is no access to pre-review manuscript does reduce their usefulness a bit.

DrugMonkey, however, do seem to agree that some sort of training for reviewing the project proposals is a good idea:

My view is that this is most emphatically not part of the culture of scientific training, in contrast to the above mentioned points about manuscript review. So I agree with Cuppan that some degree of training in review of grant applications would go far to reduce a certain element of randomness in outcome.

I happen to think it would be a GoodThing if the NIH managed to do some degree of training on grant review. To be fair, they do publish a few documents on the review process and make sure to send those to all reviewers (IME, of course). I tend to think that these documents fall short and wish that individual study sections paid more attention to getting everyone on the same page with respect to certain hot button issues. Like how to deal with R21s. How to really evaluate New Investigators. What criteria for “productivity”, “ambitiousness”, “feasibility”, “significance”, “innovation”, etc are really about for a given section. How to accomplish good score-spreading and “no you do not just happen to have an excellent pile” this round. Should we affirm or resist bias for revised applications?…

Here again access to some sample manuscripts and the reviews they received might be a very good idea; though I do not know of many such proposals and reviews, here is one which was submitted to NFS that is available online.

In summary, I think a formal training for peer review is possible; and, the simple process of making the reviews as well as the pre- and post-review manuscripts available under open access itself will be the ideal way of delivering not only such a training but also a nice way of making the review process more standardised, open, and relatively uniform.

Update: Here is a nice paper by Alan J Smith titled The task of the referee (pdf) which gives detailed instructions; thanks to Siddharth for the pointer.

Update 2: Gregory Cuppan, in his comments below, alerts to some bad advice in Smith’s piece for reviewing project proposals:

In Smith’s work, he suggests that subjective assessment of grants is acceptable. That is, judge merit of future work based on prior output even if proposal is sloppy or contains insufficient detail and judge the merit of proposed work based on where one is educated.

HowTo: make good academic presentations

March 27, 2008

Teppo at Orgtheory tackles the question: not much in the post itself except for a few tips of how not to; but there are some pointers towards the end.

Good Unix programming

March 27, 2008

Greg Laden, recommends Robbins and Beebe’s Classic shell scripting, and goes on to summarise some parts of the good Unix programming advice from the book:

  • Do one thing well;
  • Process text, not binary;
  • Harness the power of regular expressions; and,
  • Default to standard I/O;

This post itself is part of an on-going series I think. Have fun!

Fun with century old textbooks

March 27, 2008

Greg Laden reads “The leading facts of English history”, enjoys the experience, and tells us about it:

I’ve been reading “The Leading Facts of English History” by the American writer and historian David H. Montgomery. It is dark maroon cloth bound textbook, and cost $1.14 at the time of publication in 1900. From the price we can infer that a nickel meant something in those days (otherwise it would have been priced $1.19). I think that would have been a Buffalo nickel.

The boards are heavily annotated by an early owner of the book. Perhaps the original owner inscribed his name, but it can only barely be made out. It appears to be “Herbert H. Hov….” (can’t make out the last two or three letters). The list of English Sovereigns is cribbed on the back boards, starting with Henry II and ending with Queen Victoria. Victoria was alive and kicking as Queen of England at the time the book was published, but since her dates (1837-1901) are given in full, Herbert H. was using a volume that was at least a couple of years old.

It is fun to read an old book in one’s own area of interest. I know next to nothing about English history, but I was reading for the first few chapters on “Britain Before History Begins” and “The Relation of the Geography of England to it’s History.” These chapters cover the entire period of human evolution through the Neolithic and touch on geology, paleoclimate, and the beginnings of food production and the ages of metal.

The book was written before the development of modern chronology for Europe (not that the currently used periodization is ever used without a disdainful comment these days). It was written after the Eolithic was discovered but before the Eolithic was discovered to have not actually happened. The ancient savage brutish cavemen are described in the usual pejorative way, later “races” are given more credit for their humanity but not much more, the Romans are worshiped but the Britons imbued with a sense of ruddy freedom, etc. In other words, the early periods are treated in the usual pitifully backwards way of the Victorians, and you can get a more entertaining version with a few carefully made adjustments to your Netflix Que. One is reminded how far archeology has come in a century.

But there were a few items that really stood out for me, that made me think, made me laugh, made me cry. Well, OK, they really just made me laugh, but that’s perhaps unexpected from a dusty old book.

The entire post is great fun to read; and do not forget England being the centre of the world picture that accompanies the following excerpt towards the end of the post:

… the position of England with respect to commerce is worthy of note. It is not only possessed of a great number of excellent harbors, but it is situated in the most extensively navigated of the oceans, between the two continents having the highest civilization and the most constant intercourse. Next, a glance at the map will show that geographically England is located at about the center of the land masses of the globe. It is evident that an island so placed stands in the most favorable position for easy and rapid communication with every quarter of the world. On this account England has been able to attain and maintain the highest rank among maritime and commercial powers.

Have fun!

How Muriel Rukeyser became my favourite poet this morning!

March 27, 2008

I read Sean’s post at Cosmic Variance:

So I was poking around Amazon.com looking at biographies of some of the founding names of thermodynamics and kinetic theory — Boltzmann of course was an interesting character, but there are a lot of good stories out there. The American physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs obviously was a major player — among other things, he introduced the concept of the statistical ensemble, the primary tool by which we nowadays think of thermodynamic systems.

One of the notable biographies of Gibbs, it turns out, is by none other than Muriel Rukeyser. That’s a name that should be familiar to long-time blog readers, as she was the author of the delightful poem The Conjugation of the Paramecium. Any poet who spends her free time writing biographies of the titans of statistical mechanics is my kind of poet.

Now, if there is a poet who writes a biography of Gibbs, she is my kind of poet too. There is more biographical information about  Rukeyser in Sean’s post (and an excerpt from a poem of hers too). Have fun!