Archive for January, 2010

RIP: J D Salinger

January 29, 2010

From Paper Cuts I learnt the news:

There will no doubt be a lot of tributes and appreciations to Salinger in the coming days — a notion that would surely have driven Salinger himself crazy. Here’s Holden, cranky as ever:

Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

But I’d rather remember Salinger (and Holden Caulfield) with the last words to “Catcher in the Rye,” words that signaled Salinger’s future seclusion even as they allowed for the joy and the pain of human connection:

It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

We’ve missed J. D. Salinger for a long time, but now we can bid him farewell and wish him peace.

Interview with Venki

January 27, 2010

At Current Science (pdf) — Abi, from whom I got the link, has excerpted the following passage, which I am reproducing here because it seems to contain something very interesting and relevant:

Do you see any difference in the way research is done in developing countries and developed countries?

I think, well, if you had asked this question 20 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a big difference because the amount of resources people had were very very different. They were even at different scales. I know that in my father’s department, there was only one spectrophotometer in the entire department, and everybody had to use that. That was a big deal to have a UV spectrophotometer. Whereas in a Western lab, every lab, or maybe surrounding labs, had spectrophotometers. It was a big deal to have a pH meter. But that’s all changed. So I think part of it is psychological. One thing that taught me at the LMB – when I went to LMB, I found that it was not that different in terms of its equipment. In fact, it was very crowded; it almost looked like a rundown place. There are all these centrifuges in the hallways, freezers in the hallways, and so on. It didn’t look like a posh place at all. Of course, it had almost every equipment you would need, but it was shared. It didn’t have hundreds of different kinds of equipment. It’s not that every group owned its own equipment. Expensive equipment is shared throughout the lab. So why did the LMB do so well? Why does it continue to do well? I think it’s a psychological problem. You have to say I’m not going to do boring derivative problems where I’m doing a second or third example of something that’s already been done, and I’m not going to learn that much new from it. I see a lot of that going on in India where something is done in one system and they’ll do it in another system. And I don’t think that’s going to lead to really important breakthroughs. Actually, if people wanted to, they could do particularly Indian problems. They could study specifically Indian plant diseases or even Indian biology. They could look at ecosystems and molecular biology related to it. Or they could compete on worldwide problems where all the molecular biologists are interested in it. They could go either way. And I think the worst thing is to do something where someone has established something in one, say E. coli, and somebody does it in some other bacteria. In general, it’s not going to be helpful.

As you said in your lecture, the first few proteins of the ribosome were published in Nature, the next in lower impact journals . . .

Exactly. Exactly. So that’s an example. You know, I could have made a career just going on doing that. And as long as I kept publishing papers, I would’ve gotten grants. And that’s the kind of mentality that we see more of here. But in good labs in the West, they would see immediately –- okay, this is not getting so interesting. We need to move on. Even with the 30S –- I could keep on doing a bunch of antibiotics. There are dozens of antibiotics, right? We just did six and we stopped. But if I wanted to publish a paper in say JMB or Acta Crystallogr., I could just do one antibiotic, one paper. And I could just make a career out of it. That would be the kind of thing I see more in India. But that’s a psychological problem. It’s not a problem of resources or infrastructure. I think if people had good ideas, at least my colleagues tell me, there’s plenty of funding.

Take a look!

Life, like death, lasts only “yon ti moman”

January 27, 2010

Edwige Danticat writes in the latest New Yorker:

One cousin had an open gash in her head that was still bleeding. Another had a broken back and had gone to three field hospitals trying to get it X-rayed. Another was sleeping outside her house and was terribly thirsty. One child had been so traumatized that she lost her voice. An in-law had no blood-pressure medicine. Most had not eaten for days. There were friends and family members whose entire towns had been destroyed, and dozens from whom we have had no word at all.Everyone sounded eerily calm on the phone. No one was screaming. No one was crying. No one said “Why me?” or “We’re cursed.” Even as the aftershocks kept coming, they’d say, “The ground is shaking again,” as though this had become a normal occurrence. They inquired about family members outside Haiti: an elderly relative, a baby, my one-year-old daughter.

I cried and apologized. “I’m sorry I can’t be with you,” I said. “If not for the baby—”

My nearly six-foot-tall twenty-two-year-old cousin—the beauty queen we nicknamed Naomi Campbell—who says that she is hungry and has been sleeping in bushes with dead bodies nearby, stops me.

“Don’t cry,” she says. “That’s life.”

“No, it’s not life,” I say. “Or it should not be.”

“It is,” she insists. “That’s what it is. And life, like death, lasts only yon ti moman.” Only a little while.

A moving piece.

PS: Hat tip to Jayan for the email pointer.

Writing: some links

January 25, 2010

All via Abi and his shared links.

[1] Writing is like golf:

I saw Simmons on a late night talk show recently, and I got really interested when the host asked him to talk about what it’s like to write as much and as well as he does. Simmons compared writing to the game of golf. It’s something you have to work at every day if you’re ever going to be  good at it. If you stop writing, you’ll likely lose some of that touch it’s taken so long to develop. I thought this was a great analogy for writing, and because I’ve wanted to say something on this blog about the practice of writing social science for a while now, I thought I’d expound on the analogy.

Like playing golf, writing well is harder than it looks.

Learning how to putt well is the best way to improve your score.

Like golf, writing doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It’s something you need to work at if you want to improve.

There are lots of ways to get the ball to the green.

Quantity really does equal quality.

Even experienced golfers still need coaching; good writers never stop seeking feedback.

Get to know the course/your audience.

Enjoy the scenery. Writing should be fun.

A nice one!

[2] Review of Stephen King’s memoir on writing (about which I have heard lots of great things from elsewhere too — if I remember correct, Elizabeth George’s book on writing).

[3] Rules for writing a PRL.

Argumentational skills for different contexts

January 21, 2010

Winston Churchill once praised the argumentational skills of the celebrated barrister and politician F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, by stressing their suitability to context: ‘The bludgeon for the platform; the rapier for a personal dispute; the entangling net and unexpected trident for the Courts of Law; and a jug of clear spring water for an anxious perplexed conclave’.

Andrew Aberdain in his enjoyable The informal logic of mathematical proof (in 18 unconventional essays on the nature of mathematics).

Erich Segal: RIP

January 21, 2010

Hindu reports on the passing away of Erich Segal whose Prizes is one of the books I enjoyed a lot.

What could be a wonderful feature

January 20, 2010

In email readers is that if I can mark the messages to be deleted after a particular date/time. I use squirrel mail and gmail. As far as I know, both do not give such an option. More often than not, one likes to get rid of a mail, but not immediately. If at the time of reading, the message can be marked so, then, it would be available to me till that date and then will disappear. Are there any mail services which offer this facility?

Google, warlords and roving bandits

January 19, 2010

Tom Slee and Whimsley’s turn at analysing the actions of Google:

In his posthumously published Power and Prosperity, Mancur Olson tells a story of China in the 1920s, when the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang defeated “a notorious roving bandit called White Wolf”. Most people in Feng’s domain preferred life permanently under the thumb of a warlord to life prone to the periodic invasion of roving bandits, and Olson wondered why? His answer was that even a warlord who wants to extract as much tax from his citizens as possible must look to the future, and unlike a roving bandit that future depends on having a relatively productive population. There is an alignment of interests between the population and the warlord that does not exist between the population and the bandits: it is in the interest of the warlord to restrain his takings and so ensure that his victims have a motive to be productive. The warlord also has a motive to clamp down on crime (other than his own), and to provide public goods that benefit those he taxes. Olson describes this as a “second invisible hand”, by which autocrats are guided “to use their power, at least to some degree, in accord with the social interest.” In a similar way, in a neighbourhood under the control of organized crime there will be no robberies, only a protection racket.

In many ways the Internet is, of course, a place. There is even a word, netizen, to describe us in our role as citizens of the Internet. And if the Internet is going to be a reasonable place to spend our time someone has to provide those common goods that keep it so – security, community standards, and so on. Who will do so?

Google is a warlord of the Internet, surrounded by bandits. It provides public goods because its revenue (advertisements) depends on a safe and yet wide-open Internet. For Google to make money the Internet must be accessible from Google’s search engine: enclosures are a threat to its business, whether they be ad-funded like Facebook or subscription-funded like the Wall Street Journal. Netizens must be comfortable and safe from bandits as they go about their daily electronic lives. Google also clamps down on attempts by companies other than itself to generate revenue from the Internet, for example by pushing the limits of copyright in its book-copying efforts, or by pushing open source software at the client side of applications.

While autocrats provide some public goods, there is a limit and in Google’s case we see that limit in privacy and to some extent in copyright. When CEO Eric Schmidt says (30 second video) “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”, we have bumped up against that limit. And while we may be grateful to Google for keeping us free from the claims of copyright owners, attempts to restrict advertising on and around content will not find a friend in Google.

Take a look!

Information is anything but free!

January 19, 2010

Nicholas Carr does the math for you!

Do the math. Sit down right now, and add up what you pay every month for:

-Internet service

-Cable TV service

-Cellular telephone service (voice, data, messaging)

-Landline telephone service

-Satellite radio


-Wi-Fi hotspots


-Other information services

So what’s the total? $100? $200? $300? $400? Gizmodo reports that monthly information subscriptions and fees can easily run to $500 or more nowadays. A lot of people today probably spend more on information than they spend on food.

There is also something about the poor artists at the end of that post. Take a look!

HowTo: plan your semester

January 18, 2010

Kerry Ann Rockquemore has some career advice:

The beginning of a busy spring semester is a great place to start with the first mistake many new faculty make: assuming that the time management and writing strategies that worked for you as a graduate student will continue to be effective in your new role as a faculty member. The problem with this approach is that the workload, responsibilities, and pressures you had as a graduate student are different than what you are now facing on the tenure-track. That sounds pretty obvious, and yet I regularly meet new faculty members who don’t own a calendar, are trying to keep everything they need to do in their head, have no concrete research plan, and whose entire writing strategy consists of hoping for a large block of time to materialize so they can go on a multi-day writing binge.

While this may have worked in graduate school, large blocks of uninterrupted time are unusual for new faculty who more often find themselves scrambling to prepare new classes, attend departmental events and committee meetings, manage graduate and/or undergraduate RA’s and TA’s, settle in to a new community, and make a positive impression on their colleagues. Let’s be clear — “junior” faculty members are expected to participate, perform, AND be productive, but without a proactive strategy for research and writing, productivity is often the first thing that suffers.

Take a look!