Archive for June 24th, 2008

Exquisite is the word!

June 24, 2008

You must take a look at this wash basin! Oh, it is ever so lovely!

A recommendation for The Craftsman

June 24, 2008

Rex at Savage Minds:

I also recently finished reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, which I would highly recommend to all and sundry. In The Craftsman Sennett explores how “the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others”. By charting out a sort of phenomenology of working with the hands he attempts to understand how we can best work with each other. Its a vindication of craft over art, of workmannship over ‘inspiration’ in a truly American idiom—written with a homespun clarity which is also truly elegant. The chapter comparing three different recipes for stuffed boneless chicken took my breath away.

Take a look!

What is a tribe?

June 24, 2008

Following the recent Gujjar agitation to be identified as scheduled tribes, Andre Beteille looks at the question of how to define a tribe from a sociological viewpoint:

Leaving aside the rivalries among Meenas, Gujjars and Jats, can the claims of the Gujjars, or any community, to be designated as a scheduled tribe be judged any longer on merit, or on objective grounds? Does expert or professional opinion on the subject count any more? The problem is not simply that the subject itself is replete with ambiguity, but that professional opinion on such subjects bends so easily to the prevailing political winds.

What was so striking about the claims and counter-claims made over the designation of the Gujjars as a scheduled tribe, was the absence of any serious discussion of what we should mean by the term ‘tribe’. Does a tribe have any specific features as a social formation, or can any social formation be designated as a tribe because it once had, or is presumed to have had, the characteristics of a tribe even though its social composition and organization have in the meantime changed substantially?

Anthropologists have written about tribes for well over a hundred years. It was, in fact, one of the key concepts of their discipline in its formative years. No one will claim that all anthropologists have reached complete agreement on the definition of tribe, but that does not mean that no yardstick exists for deciding which groups may be regarded as tribes. One reason why anthropologists shifted their attention away from tribes is that in the world as a whole there are today fewer communities that can be reasonably characterized as tribes than there were even a hundred years ago.

In October 1960, that is, nearly 50 years ago, the Seminar magazine brought out an issue on ‘Tribal India’. In my contribution to that issue, I had suggested criteria for the definition of tribe, and, like several of the other contributors, including N.K. Bose and Verrier Elwin, had drawn attention to the many changes in tribal life that had already become visible. The criteria proposed by me were that a tribe should be more or less self-contained as a community, and that it should be relatively small and compact, and relatively undifferentiated and unstratified. Like the other contributors, I too had pointed out that what we had in India were not so much tribes in their pristine form as tribes that were in transition to a different mode of organization.

Significant changes have taken place in the character and composition of many of the groups that continue to be designated as tribes. Despite the changes they have undergone since independence, there is little prospect of any of them being declassified and removed from the list of STs. As a matter of fact, new groups have been added to the list, so that the officially designated tribal population increased significantly as a proportion of the total population between 1951 and 2001. It is said that groups such as the Meenas and the Gujjars were organized as tribes at some time in the past. This is almost certainly true: the Burgundians and the Lombards were also tribes at a certain time, and the Germany about which the Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote was inhabited mainly by tribes. All this changed elsewhere in due course of time: only in India, once a tribe, always a tribe.

The piece also describes at least one documented case of the conflict between the “Sanskritisation” tendency of caste groups, and the political forces that favour a “backward”-isation tendency:

In a book entitled First We Are People, the Swedish anthropologist, Stefan Molund, described the changing social position of a caste called the Koris in Uttar Pradesh. The Koris had, before independence, been grouped with the SCs. This, their leaders felt, compromised their dignity by tainting them with the stigma of pollution. They successfully petitioned the government to have their name removed from the list. But shortly after independence, their new leaders realized that they had foregone the special benefits in education and employment by asking for a change of status. So they made another plea, again successfully, to be re-included in the SC list. The Koris are not the only community to have gone through this kind of forward and backward movement.

An interesting piece; take a look!

PS: Though I am subscribed to Telegraph, I missed the piece till I saw the link at Churmuri.

Has scientific method become obsolete?

June 24, 2008

An article in Wired by Chris Anderson argues that it is:

The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years.

Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Learning to use a “computer” of this scale may be challenging. But the opportunity is great: The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

There’s no reason to cling to our old ways. It’s time to ask: What can science learn from Google?

There are several other articles too in the same issue about areas where petabytes of data are the norm — crop predictions, monitoring epidemics, visualization of big data and so on.

However, I still do not see this kind of “science without models” succeeding in all areas of science; from the examples that are discussed, I see that this type of methodology might be very useful in cases where there are far too many parameters, and most of them are not controllable.

At a more fundamental level, in spite of what Chris Anderson has to say, science is about explanations, coherent models and understanding.  In my opinion, all of what Anderson shows is that, if you have enough data, you can develop technologies without having a clear handle on the underlying science; however, it is wrong to call these technologies science, and argue that you can do science without coherent models or mechanistic explanations.

In-situ observation of phase separation, crack propagation, …

June 24, 2008

From this Scienceblog report:

Using femtosecond X-ray free electron laser (FEL) pulses, the team, led by Anton Barty, is able to observe condensed phase dynamics such as crack formation, phase separation, rapid fluctuations in the liquid state or in biologically relevant environments. Other Livermore scientists include Michael Bogan, Stafan Hau-Riege, Stefano Marchesini, Matthias Frank, Bruce Woods, former Livermore researcher Saša Bajt and former LLNL scientist Henry Chapman, who is now at the Centre for Free Electron Laser Science, DESY, in Hamburg, Germany.

“The ability to take images in a single shot is the key to studying non-repetitive behavior mechanisms in a sample,” Barty said.

The new technique is necessary to study ultrafast dynamics of non crystalline materials at nanometer-length scales. This includes fracture dynamics, shock formation, spallation, ablation and plasma formation under extreme conditions. The technique also allows researchers to image dynamic process in the solid state such as nucleation and phase growth, phase fluctuations and various forms of electronic or magnetic segregation.

There are also some sample snapshots, and you can access the paper itself if you have subscription to Nature Photonics, I understand. Have fun!

Quotes from Linnaeus’ Lapland

June 24, 2008

Jenny Davidson is

currently in a non-painful but slightly nerve-racking stage of novel-writing, one that’s by now very familiar to me, in which I read a lot of books and glean from them some quantity of facts and sensibilities that will ultimately (sooner rather than later, I hope) make me ready to put all the books aside and plunge into the process of actually writing the actual book.

But, she is reading some good stuff in the meanwhile — A tour in Lapland of Linnaeus; she quotes from the book to show the enchanting and blog-worthy aspects it: the language, the funny parts, the natural-historical curiosities, delicious linguistic curiosities, and, the endearing descriptions of the relationship of Laplanders with their reindeers.

To give a sample, here is the one about Laplanders and their reindeer:

I could not help wondering how the Laplanders knew such of the herd as they had already milked, from the rest, as they turned each loose as soon as they had done with it. I was answered that every one of them had an appropriate name, which the owners knew perfectly. This seemed to me truly astonishing, as the form and colour are so much alike in all, and the latter varies in each individual every month. The size also varies according to the age of the animal. To be able to distinguish one from another among such multitudes, for they are like ants on an anthill, was beyond my comprehension.

Take a look!