Archive for August, 2008

Biggest barrier to open science is …

August 23, 2008

Centralization, says John Hawks:

More broadly, the entire system of credit in science is based on being the first to publish a finding in a reputable journal; there’s no incentive to post on blogs or community websites. Scientists try to get their findings published in the top journals in their fields, and major scientific prizes are awarded to those who make breakthroughs.

I think that’s a pretty simplistic rendering of how scientific credit is assigned. It ignores all the factors that depend not on your results but on networking. Who you know may be vastly more important than what you do.

I think that if more researchers were independent (not tied to someone else’s lab) and if they spent less time grant-writing, we’d see more open collaborations. Right now the biggest barrier to openness is centralization.

Take a look!

On the solidification of ice-cream

August 21, 2008

A nice piece by Maria Brumm at Green Gabbro (with wonderful micrographs too — to go with it):

Much like igneous rocks, the same liquid mix can turn out very differently depending on what happens while it is freezing. The goal of most ice cream and sorbet is to have a smooth and creamy texture, which would be ruined by the presence of large ice crystals. To achieve this, you want to cool your ice cream so quickly that the crystals don’t have time to grow, and keep the mixture stirred up while it freezes. There’s a lot of energy involved in the transition from liquid to solid water, and a home ice cream maker can’t do the heat transfer quickly enough to keep the ice crystals small, so you have to sit there and turn the crank until your arm is sore while the mixture slowly freezes (or invest in a fancier machine that will do the stirring for you).

Or, you could acquire some liquid nitrogen – by pouring a -321º liquid (that’s a mere 77 Earth units above absolute zero) into your ice cream mix will freeze it so quickly that stirring is neither difficult, nor tremendously important. The crystals will be tiny no matter what. This method has the added advantage of being able to freeze mixtures whose melting point is below what you can get with home freezers and rock salt, enabling such monstrosities as a silky-smooth 80 proof rum raisin.

The difference between ice cream and sorbet is that ice cream contains cream and sometimes eggs or other emulsifying agents, while sorbet is just fruit, water, and sugar. The presence of fat and emulsifiers in ice cream provides another way to control the crystal structure (and another way to ruin the texture, if you let the fat globules get too big) but there’s no direct analog for this in igneous petrology.

Occasionally, you do want a dessert with a sharper texture to it, or maybe you’re just too lazy to stir very often. That’s how you make a granita: Leave the sugar slurry in the freezer, so that the crystals have time to grow, but interrupt the process every half-hour or so, so that they don’t get too big. You end up with a slushie or crystal mush.

Link via B-squared. The latest post of Brumm also talks about a book called The science of ice cream — which sounds like an interesting read; the blog looks like a good read too. Take a look!

Chabon’s writing– not legitimate?

August 21, 2008

Vivian Gornick, in this interview, claims that it is:

Roth and Bellow are titanic figures, they’re beyond criticism. But really, what I am saying in this piece is that Jewish writing is over. That is the point of contention.

Jewish-Americans did something in American literature that no other culture has done— they created world-class literature out of the immigrant experience. And that’s the only thing that mattered in Jewish-American writing. Had Roth and Bellow not been major talents, you wouldn’t have Jewish-American writing. It wouldn’t mean anything. It would just be parochial, local.

But we cannot have major talent writing this stuff anymore because there’s nothing to write about. What made them major was their gripe, the chip on their shoulders. The rage that they felt at the world for keeping them out. That experience became a great metaphor. There is no hyphenated Jewish experience anymore. I have two nieces who are both Ivy League babies and they’re in the ruling class. There’s nothing they can’t do. Nothing.

So there’s nothing to talk about. There’s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t count. Take Michael Chabon, or Jonathan Safran Foer. They’re cashing in on a world that’s long gone and they’re writing with open nostalgia. They’re making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers. It’s a habit to go on assuming that this is legitimate writing. But I truly feel it is not.

Link via Amitava Kumar.

Key to creating world class universities

August 21, 2008

T T Ram Mohan at The Big Picture addresses the question (while commenting on a recent piece by Dinesh Mohan in Business Standard):

Forget the notion, currently popular, that in order to create world-class universities, we need government to get out of education. Forget also the notion that private institutions, motivated by profit and charging appropriate (that is, sky-high) fees will do the trick. Think again about the notion that you need fabulous pay packages in universities in order to attract talent- no, the types who are attracted look for job security, decent pay and a supportive environment.

We need to strengthen the IIT-IIM model and give it wider application. At least where the IITs are concerned, fees remain reasonably low and affordable and they must remain so. Improved governance at generously funded state institutions and inclusive, affordable education are the key to creating world class universities. In short, the drift towards privatisation, higher fee and higher pay packets for faculty as the answer must be checked before it is too late.

Take a look!

Afarensis reviews Shubin’s Your inner fish

August 18, 2008

I liked the only piece of Shubin that I have read so far: an essay in the book Intelligent thought. Now, I see from this review of Afarensis of Shubin’s Your inner fish, and the comments therein, it might be another piece of Shubin that might be worth reading:

Shubin starts with an anatomical puzzle, compares the anatomy to that seen in other organisms, discusses the developmental aspects, and then brings in the paleontological record to support his points. This is a powerful approach to doing science, and a powerful approach to explaining science. Overall, the book is an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.

Take a look!

Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards music as art

August 18, 2008

Alex Ross in the New Yorker gives some examples and hints:

William Shakespeare felt a certain ambivalence toward music as an art, if his words are any guide to his thoughts. The plays overflow with merry songs, sweet airs, and other healthy-minded sounds, but they also contain many instances of music causing mischief, telling lies, or casting shadows. In “Measure for Measure,” the Duke says of a song, “ ’Tis good,” but adds, “Music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.” The opening line of “Twelfth Night”—“If music be the food of love, play on”—has been quoted and needlepointed ad nauseam, but the lines that follow are usually omitted, on account of their sardonic cast: “Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Hamlet’s dying utterance, “The rest is silence,” gives way to an ironic musical collision: first, Horatio imagines that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” and then the stage directions call for a “march within”—the thuggish sound of Fortinbras’s army. You get the sense that Shakespeare, the lord of language, viewed music with narrowed eyes, as if sizing up a rival nation.

Take a look!

Socio-cultural history of ACK

August 14, 2008

Over at Scholars without borders, there is a review of Nandini Chandra’s The classic popular: Amar Chitra Katha 1967-2007:

For all those who grew up in seventies and eighties middle-class India, Amar Chitra Katha, or ACK as it was popularly referred to among friends, was an important influence if not an iconic cultural artefact. Published at a time when ACK appears to be on the verge of a second lease of life, this compelling new book draws our attention to the stimulating and troubling potentials of Amar Chitra Katha as a force in modern Indian history. Based on a reading of visual practices and the complicated art history informing the comics, the book delves into core issues of communalism, history writing and the ways in which middle-class India negotiates the consumption of products of popular culture to suit its ideological moorings.

During her research the author found that the creators of ACK amalgamated both local art traditions as well as a realist aesthetic borrowed from the calendar art-derivative style of Ravi Varma to produce an evocative yet sober style, appropriate for a largely middle-class, child audience. This was supposedly distant from the vulgar Hindi film posters, yet in practice it was completely immersed in the techniques of larger-than-life hyper-representation characteristic of the commercial Hindi film aesthetic. This technique succeeded in furnishing the reader with a visual imaginary of a mythological Hindu past that could at once blend into a real historical continuum, stretching from the ancient past to modern India, rendering myth historical and history mythological.

A provocative and cleverly argued monograph, this book is a must-read not only for scholars and students of modern Indian history, contemporary culture and politics, but also for everyone who grew up with, loved or hated Amar Chitra Katha.’

Take a look!

The anthropology of photography

August 14, 2008

Malaviaka Karlekar writes about family photographs that get displayed, and those that don’t (and, what it tells about the owner/s):

The Oxford anthropologist, Elizabeth Edwards, who has worked on the interface between photography and anthropology, likens photographs to “surrogate memory”, and asks whether photographs are “intentionally hidden (in lockets, wallets, diaries, family bibles), where and why?” Such choices matter; in the case of family photographs, what are enlarged, framed and put on public view and those that remain in “small private worlds” — or are even abandoned, thrown into the waste-paper basket — depend on what the owner/s wish to remember, memorialize.

The walls of homes become spaces where a narrative is worked out not only with photographs but also with trophies of shikar, clocks, plaques and so on. In this visual of a Thalessary home, a venerable ancestor is flanked by mounts of two well-polished buffalo heads and horns. The photograph of the middle-aged man in a suit and tie is hung from the bevelling on the wall and touches the wooden ceiling well above eye-level. Clearly, it is supposed to be seen — but not looked at closely. The more recent photographs are at a lower level, there to be examined. The buffalo heads would indicate a family that had, at some stage, known a style of life that included shikar. And the sartorial style of the gentleman, a certain status. Both the photograph and the mounts are integral to the public face of the family; their display around the daunting old-fashioned bars of the window would indicate an old family home — where, however, members have little interest in replacing them with something more elegant and contemporary. In another home, an entire wall is devoted to a framed print of “HRH Prince of Wales” from Pears’ Annual of 1920 while other adjacent spaces are packed with family photographs.

An interesting piece; take a look!

PS: At our home, the pride of place goes to two photographs of Nehru (from Illustrated weekly — with four lines of Frost’s The woods are lovely below — was the photographer Jitendra Arya? Probably); and, in between the two is a photograph of my grandparents!

Not first, but second

August 13, 2008

Peter Robins argues (convincingly, for me) as to why it is the second sentence that sets the tone for a book and not the first (most of the times, I would add):

First sentences are a place to make your bid for the dictionaries of quotations, to let off verbal fireworks; they are the opening ceremonies of the literary Olympics. As always with opening ceremonies, there’s a temptation towards the overblown. Within a few years of the Earthly Powers zinger loved by James Higgs, Anthony Burgess was openly parodying that approach. Little Wilson and Big God (1987), his first volume of autobiography, begins:

If you require a sententious opening, here it is.

A book’s second sentence, while still setting the tone, has also to run or jump, to move the reader forward. The real events have begun – the ones that deserve the medals.

So, those two favourites. In both cases, they need quoting with the preceding sentence. The first, as my illustration might have suggested, is from Iris Murdoch’s The Bell:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

Two flat, clear declarative sentences, and we have drama, conflict, paradox, intrigue and menace. Already we’re moving at speed; already we’re in the fevered emotional atmosphere of Murdochland.

The second, which is probably my absolute favourite, is from Adam Bede, George Eliot’s first full-length novel. It’s not as break-neck – Eliot doesn’t really do break-neck – but still:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This I undertake to do for you, reader.

Link via Maud.

A text book for zero dollars

August 12, 2008

Inside Higher Ed alerts to the publication of a statistics text book online, for free:

Proponents of the open textbook movement have long envisioned a world of free (or almost free) educational materials, available to print or download, written by experts for others to read, share, improve or modify as they see fit.

For one popular textbook, at least, that vision is now a reality.

Connexions, a prominent online “open educational resources” hub based at Rice University, announced Monday that it has published a statistics textbook online that’s widely used in transfer-level community college courses. Officials at the site hope the zero-dollar price tag will help students deterred by ever-increasing textbook prices.

The book, Collaborative Statistics by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, is not only available as a full download. The content between the covers has been sliced and diced into “modules,” Connexions’ basic building blocks, that any student or instructor can rearrange or adapt for their own use. Developers of the project also plan on adding videos of class lectures by Illowsky as well as other supplementary classroom materials, effectively uploading an entire course experience to the Web.

Here is the summary of the book as given at the book download page:

Collaborative Statistics was written by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean, faculty members at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. The textbook was developed over several years and has been used in courses offered by many California community colleges in regular and honors-level classroom settings and in distance learning classes. This textbook is intended for introductory statistics courses being taken by students at two– and four–year colleges who are majoring in fields other than math or engineering. Intermediate algebra is the only prerequisite. The book focuses on applications of statistical knowledge rather than the theory behind it.

Their complete listing has some interesting stuff — I noticed a book on \LaTeX for math/science majors, for example; unfortunately, there does not seem to be any materials science texts — does that give you any ideas?