Archive for May, 2008

A trickle down theory

May 30, 2008

Of pens, of course: over at Bitch PhD, Sybil Vane:

I find this hard to comprehend. “Where,” he eventually asks, “do you think pens come from?”

This question (which was not but should’ve been followed by “Do you think they grow on trees?”) was fascinating to me because I realized I’ve not really any idea where pens come from. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased pens. Ever. And yet I have more or less always had one when I needed it.

So I thought for a few seconds and realized that I’ve never considered individuals to be in ownership of pens (fancy engraved pens excepted). Basically, what I assume happens is that offices (of companies, doctors, university departments, whatever) buy a big quantity of pens every year and that they serve as the source for the distribution of pens throughout society. I need a pen, I go to the main office in my department. I assume Mr. Vane does something similar. Its the trickle-down theory of pens, especially in the sense that one never really owns the pen, it just stops with you for a spell before re-entering circulation.

So lately I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t really work this way, but should. I’ll probably continue to operate as though it does. Thank god I personally have never had to think about actually buying pens. Worse than batteries almost.

While you are at it, this teaspoon research might also be of interest to some of you!

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A tribute to two musicians

May 30, 2008

Lakshmi Devnath profiles Tanjore Kalyanaraman:

He tuned the ashtapadis of Jayadeva only in Hindustani ragas, incorporating his unique touch. After all, wasn’t Jayadeva from Orissa? Kalyanaraman’s recitals of these included fast-pace taans too. Listening to his disciple sing Suddhananda Bharati’s ‘Nilayam Onru Enukku Arulvaai,’ GNB walked up to him and demanded, “Teach me this and give me the notation.” And that, one supposes, is the final word.

Sriram Venkatkrishnan, in his Encore piece, profiles a musicians’ musician  of the bygone era, Sabhesa Iyer. As usual, Sriram’s piece contains some hard to come by nuggets of information — like this one, for example:

Padinaindu Mandapam, or the street of fifteen pavilions, is in Tiruvaiyaru. At the instance of King Tulaja II of Thanjavur, Rama Brahmam, Tyagaraja’s father, was entrusted the responsibility of distributing the houses on this street to learned Brahmins who specialised in Varuna Japam, the chant that induced rain. One of the families that benefited from this munificence was that of Nayam Venkatasubba Iyer, a vainika in the Thanjavur Court. His grandson was ‘Pallavi’ Doraiswami Iyer. He was a vaggeyakkara also, composing songs with the mudra ‘Subramania.’ He was also a talented painter and did watercolours for the themes of his songs. Some of these have survived and are with his descendants.

Take a look!

What does Indiana Jones carry in his shoulder bag?

May 29, 2008

That is what some archaeologists are wondering about!

Unbelievable: Being Caught Without a Pencil

OK, the scene where Indy tore into a mummy with his bare hands raised an eyebrow, but I almost fell out of my seat when he turned to his sidekick Mutt and asked to borrow a knife. Not even completely incompetent archaeologists go anywhere without a multi-purpose knife and a pen and paper (and maybe even a measuring tape) to at least make a basic record of what they find. It got even worse in a later scene when the archaeologist had to borrow a freakin’ pencil. What’s Indy carrying in his shoulder bag — a change of undies and some trail mix?

The messages that cities send

May 29, 2008

The inimitable Paul Graham:

Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.

One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge in 1960, but you’d never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it’s just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley.

A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

On the ethics of clinical trials

May 29, 2008

Dr. Balasubramanian, in his Speaking of Science column in the Hindu, writes about the need to stick to Helsinki declaration and not follow FDA:

Take the case of the trial, in 2001, of a drug that acts against sudden lung collapse in children and thus saves lives. Initiated by the U.S. firm Discovery Labs, this wanted to try the drug on children in a Latin American country.

Rather than compare their drug with one of the several effective drugs already in use, the company wanted to give inactive placebos to 325 children in the control group.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S., which clears such trials, warned them that this was unethical, since effective treatments were available in the U.S. and Europe (even if not in the Latin American country).

The company then had to change the protocol and gave the control group the alternative active treatment. This was in keeping with the Declaration of Helsinki.

Yet, with increasing pressures from companies and sponsors, FDA is starting to buckle.

It has announced that starting October 2008, it will shelve the Helsinki Declaration, and adopt a new standard called Good Clinical Practice (GCP).

This is a document prepared by drug regulators and drug companies from the US, European Union and Japan.

As the journal Nature notes in its 22 May 2008 issue: ‘Although GCP deals with subject protection, it is in essence a manual on how to conduct rigorous clinical trials, not a human rights document…. If FDA jettisons Helsinki, it risks sending a message that ethical considerations are expendable when research subjects live half a world away’.

Indian agencies such as the Drug Controller General of India, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and contract research organizations that conduct and oversee human trials, and also the institutional ethics committees should take note.

Overall, the Helsinki Declaration argues for ethical universalism. Let us not follow FDA and change our guidelines. After all, it cannot be that some humans are more equal than others.

The lure, joy and political influence of drinking

May 29, 2008

Jayan reviews Barbara Holland’s The joy of drinking. Sounds like a very interesting book (which even makes Jayan wonder if he is missing something, being a teetotaller):

My last thoughts on this are, if this is so much fun and entertaining , am I missing something ?

The sections of the review about the role of alcohol in elections in US and India

One such story on George Washington is interesting. Apparently, he lost his initial election to the local body, later realised the power of alcohol in the electoral battle. This time he invested in 144 gallons of rum,wine and beer handing out to the voters. In India, it is a regular affair in the election , from the local bodies to the supreme Parliament, that supply of Alcohol does impact the result of the election. I recall one of the cleaning staff in Office telling me as ” he gave me Rs150 + 2 packets ( of local arrack) and I voted for him where as the other candidate gave only 100 and one packet “.

reminded me of Ram Guha’s recent piece in the Hindu on Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer and how India lost the diplomatic battle on Kashmir to Pakistan, among other things, due also to the vegetarian and teetotaller representative:

Many years ago, I was told by the civil servant C.S. Venkatachar, then a high official in the Government of India, that we were right in going to the United Nations, but wrong in the choice of the man sent to represent us. Pakistan had deputed Mohammed Zafrullah Khan to argue their case. Zafrullah was both a brilliant lawyer and a superb host. In the meetings of the Security Council he argued the Pakistani point of view eloquently and effectively. Outside the portals of the U.N., he entertained the representatives of the powerful Western powers.

The Indian representative was the canny administrator, Gopalswami Iyengar. Iyengar was a good man to have in the Secretariat, masterly in writing notes on file that summarised in a few crisp points a complex argument. But he was not the best of speakers, nor — at least in the context of Manhattan — the most charming of hosts (that he was a vegetarian and teetotaller hardly helped). In the early discussions, Zafrullah ran rings around Iyengar, establishing an advantage that Pakistan have never since relinquished. For, from those first days of the internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute, the Western nations have been inclined to take Pakistan’s side against India’s.

Venkatachar believed that Zafrullah could have been neutralised had India instead sent C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer as its principal spokesman. Sir C. P. was a brilliantly gifted lawyer and speaker, who had travelled widely in Europe and imbibed the best (some would also say the worst) in European culture. He had no dietary or drinking inhibitions. In and out of the U.N., he would have put the best possible spin on India’s case for Kashmir.

Interesting thoughts!

The Periodic Table of Primo Levi

May 29, 2008

Levi’s Periodic Table is, without doubt, one of the finest and must-read books. I am sure there are plenty of recommendations for it — online and elsewhere. The book was recommended to me long time back; I also bought it quite a while ago; but, only now, I had a chance to read it, and I am happy I did. There probably are some readers of this blog too, who know about the book but haven’t picked it up yet. So, this post is just a nudge for those to locate a copy (and a reminder to those who have read it already to read it once more!).

I have had a few posts already quoting from Levi — here, here and here. In this one too, I want to draw attention to a few more of the passages that I enjoyed a lot.

Here is Levi, for example, as to why God did not patent polythene:

Now, at that time, there did not exist polyethylene, which would have suited me perfectly since it is flexible, light and splendidly impermeable: but it is also a bit too incorruptible, and not by chance God Almighty himself, although he is a master of polymerization, abstained from patenting it: He does not like incorruptible things.

While the utterances of physicists like Einstein and mathematicians like Hardy and Erdos about God and his characteristics are part of common lore, this (and others like this) from a chemist, I think, also needs a bit of popularisation.

While the attempts of Levi and his wife to collect chicken shit and python shit (to obtain alloxan from them) is as hilarious as informative (as the following excerpts show),

I returned home that evening, told my very recent wife the story of the alloxan and uric acid, and informed her that the next day I would leave on a business trip: that is, I would get  on my bike and make a tour of the farms on the outskirts of town (at that time they were still there) in search of chicken shit. She did not hesitate; she liked the countryside, and a wife should follow her husband; she would come along with me. It was kind of supplement to our honeymoon trip, which for reasons of economy had been frugal and hurried. But she warned me not to have too many illusions: finding chicken shit in its pure state would not be so easy.

The director and the various workers attached to the exhibition received me with stupefied scorn. Where were my credentials? Where did I come from? Who did I think I was showing up just like that, as if it were the most natural thing, asking for python shit? Out of the question, not even a gram; pythons are frugal, they eat twice a month and vice versa; especially when they did not get much excercise. Their very scanty shit is worth its weight in gold; besides, they — and all exhibitors and owners of snakes — have permanent and exclusive contracts with big pharmaceutical companies. So get out and stop wasting our time.

his description of how industrial effluents, at very small quantities, can wreak havoc on some of the chemical processes and industries is a cautionary tale of ecological balance/imbalance (though, I am not sure if it had been recognised as such in the seventies when the book was published):

… when all was said and done, it became obvious that a few thousand molecules of polyphenol absorbed by the fibers of the overalls during the wash and carried by an invisible piece of lint from the overall to the paper was enough to produce the spots.

Finally, while the piece of vanadium is a moving tale about people and their failings (and successes), the last chapter on Carbon is an epic piece worthy of being the last piece in such a book. I think is it Nietzsche who said that there is a bit of star in everybody and Levi shows how there is also a bit of limestone in everybody!

As I noted in one of my earlier pieces, reading Levi, I had the feeling that he is the Sheila Dhar of Chemistry; and hence, when I saw this description by Levi himself of Periodic Table, though I was not surprised, I did feel a bit awed as to how successful Levi had been in achieving the goal he has set for himself:

I told him that I was in search of events, mine and those of others, which I wanted to put on display in a book, to see if I could convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade, which is only a particular instance, a more strnuous version of the business of living. I told him that it did not seem fair to me that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin, countess, ancient Roman, conspirator, and Polynesian livves and nothing about how we transformers of matter live: but that in this book I would deliberately neglect the grand chemistry, the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying output, because this is collective work and therefore anonymous. I was more interested in the stories of the solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foor, at the measure of man, which with a few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of the founders, who did not work in teams but alone, surrounded by the indifference of their time, generally without profit, and who confronted matter wihtout aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.

So, locate The Periodic Table today and have some non-stop fun for five or six hours!

The foolishness of Prometheus

May 26, 2008

Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire on men instead of selling it to them; he would have made money, placated Jove, and avoided all that trouble with the vulture.

That is the latest installment of Primo Levi; by the way, I also loved the story of how

… ammonium chloride, …completely useless and probably a bit harmful,

got to be

religiously ground into the chromate anti-rust paint, …, and nobody knows why anymore.

The more I read Levi, the more I get the feeling that he is the Shiela Dhar of Chemistry!

Primo Levi on doing research

May 24, 2008

I have made some progress with Levi’s Periodic Table. Here are a couple of quotes from the book that I found very thoughtful and perceptive. The first one is about choosing research problems and/or tackling them:

… to do work in which one does not believe is a great affliction.

Here is another about a routine chore in the lab that Levi enjoyed:

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition. which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

Poetic, don’t you think?

HowTo: grade fairly

May 22, 2008

Dr. Free-Ride gives some tips:

Thankfully for my students, I make serious efforts to apply a uniform level of harshness (or leniency) across the whole pool I’m grading. Here are some of my strategies:

  1. Invest some time in formulating good rubrics. To the extent I can, I want to give credit (including partial credit) uniformly. Working out which details are essential to a good answer, and how many points each of those details is worth — before I start looking at the actual responses — helps ensure that the first paper I grade and the last paper I grade get points awarded on the same basis.
  2. Re-evaluate rubric design after looking at a range of actual responses. Sometimes a question isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, or there’s a sensible way to answer that I didn’t anticipate, or there’s a common mistake that is common enough that it suggests some problem in my transmission of information during the term. Tentatively marking about 10% of the papers on the basis of my original rubric, then revisiting the rubric to adjust it before assigning real grades lets me be humane without being more humane to later papers and less humane with earlier papers.
  3. On exams, grade one item on all the papers (rather than one paper on all the items), moving on to grade the next item after getting through all the papers. Doing a single question in one sitting makes it more likely that there won’t be a “drift” in how I evaluate the answers against the grading standards.
  4. Shuffle the deck so different papers are at the top of the stack for different items. To the extent that I might drift toward being more harsh or more lenient at different points in the stack, I try to make sure each student is near the top of the stack for some items, near the bottom for others, and near the middle for the rest.
  5. Take frequent breaks. If I’m noticeably tired or grumpy, my grades will be suspect. Time to take a break and do something else, then come back refreshed. It certainly beats having to go back and regrade in remorse.
  6. Accept that students are surprising. It’s impossible to predict with certainty which students will wow you on a final exam and which will be having bad days. Coming to the grading table with no firm expectations one way or another makes it more likely that the marks will reflect their actual performance.

A nice post!