Archive for February, 2010

Innovations in Veena lost to us

February 26, 2010

Sriram Venkatkrishnan writes about Venkataramana Das:

According to Prof. Sambamurthy, the maestro had some rare veenas in his possession including one made of sampangi wood and another, a gift from the Maharajah of Mysore that had a “metallic spring suspended from the under side of the top plank of the bowl. When necessary the instrument was just tilted and the spring gave a ringing melodious series of sounds.” Wonder what happened to these?

A nice piece; it also mentions about the practice of holding veena vertical while playing it:

Venkataramana Das followed the now almost extinct tradition of holding the veena vertically while playing. Today, this practice is followed only in the Srirangam temple during the Ekanta Seva.

Take a look!

Correlations between citation and usefulness of papers

February 18, 2010

FSP muses on whether papers with less citation means worthless paper (and, of course, concludes no):

My musings on this topic made me dive into my citation index to look at some of my low-citation papers to see if I could reasonably defend them as worthwhile in some way. My favorite example of a deservedly ignored paper in my oeuvre has surprised me by being cited in the low double-digits. Does that mean that the paper is more worthwhile than it was a few years ago because it has now received (slightly) more than 10 citations (none by me!) instead of 2 (or zero)? No, I don’t think so. The difference between 14 citations and 2 citations really isn’t that significant in terms of gauging the worth of a paper. And yet, although I am well aware that it was a fairly insignificant paper, I am reluctant to say it was a waste of time.

Further rummaging in my citation history shows me that some of my most highly cited papers do not represent what I consider to be my most significant work but that happened to be on topics that are of more widespread interest than the core of my research. Does that make these more-cited papers more “important” than my others? I am not objective about this, but I don’t believe that citations correlate with significance, though I admit that it depends on how you define “important” and “significance”.

One more personal example: A paper that has received a very modest number of citations is frequently mentioned to me as a paper that is read and discussed in graduate seminars. I am very pleased about that. The paper is being read and used (perhaps as an example of how not to write a paper..), although it is not cited very often. I consider that paper to have been worthwhile.

So, although I agree that zero citations is not a good thing for non-recent papers, and my papers have thus far avoided this fate (though in some cases not for any good reason), I have trouble casting aspersions on papers that have received a modest but non-zero number of citations.

Tribute to a dreamer

February 18, 2010

Askoh Desai pays his tributes to the economist K N Raj who passed away recently, and who, not once but twice created wonderful institutions:

The plan and the annual budget apart, there was not much to do for an economist in the government. Raj lingered for a while, but working in the government is frustrating even today when economists are better valued; it must have been numbing in the 1950s. Raj lingered on for a while, but then looked for greener pastures; and V.K.R.V. Rao netted him. Rao did his PhD under Colin Clark in Cambridge in the 1930s. Clark had, with John Maynard Keynes’s encouragement, made the first estimate of British national income; Rao took his methodology and estimated India’s national income. After straying in south India for a while, Rao ended up teaching economics in Delhi University in 1942, and managed in 1949 to set up the Delhi School of Economics with some autonomy. On his invitation, Raj joined it in 1956. And Raj lured Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri to DSchool. They were not such famous figures then as they are now; they were bright young economists trained abroad — Amartya and Jagdish in Cambridge, Sukhamoy in the Hague, and Mrinal in Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This was the DSchool I got to know when I came to Delhi. But it was not these famous names that made DSchool what it was. It was the informality — the ever-open doors of teachers, the open area around the canteen where teachers and students talked their heads off, the lively seminars and the labyrinthine library, which contained everything. Though Raj had moved on to higher things by then, DSchool was his creation, and bore his stamp.

Five years later, when I was in Sussex University, Raj again came to me and said, “I have now started a new centre in Trivandrum; come and join me.”I listened to him and went. I saw something unique. Raj had got hold of Laurie Baker, who built him a beautiful, low-cost campus. He bought cheap bricks, and soaked them in water for a couple of days; if they did not disintegrate, he used them. He made large windows with wooden shutters; they gave ample cross-ventilation in the local humid climate, and obviated the use of glass. He scattered a few buildings on a hill; the woods separating them gave them a sense of privacy. And he built a tower to house the library; one could find a seat with a breathtaking view of the surrounding valleys, and get lost in books. Being on the campus, I could walk to the library at any time of the day or night. We could talk economics and much else in any of the many cosy corners. Students would walk into my home whenever they wanted sustenance, material or intellectual. The place was ideally designed for debating and creating economics. It was the DSchool model in a different environment.

I did not last long; Raj was away, and I ran into complicated faculty politics. And Raj was upset that I left. Personal fates do not matter. What matters is that Raj had an ideal in mind — of a free, democratic marketplace of ideas. He tried it out twice; it did not realize his dream either time. DSchool lost its young stars when Indira Gandhi brought high inflation, shrinking real salaries, and intellectual intolerance. CDS lost all the friends Raj had brought together — A. Vaidyanathan, N. Krishnaji, T.N. Krishnan, myself — the local politics made outsiders unwelcome. But Raj had a dream of creating an intellectual market place, where economics would emerge from friendly contention. It was a great ideal, and two failures do not prove it wrong. Raj was unlucky; but he was on the right track.

Take a look!

Structure of essays: the macro, the meso and the micro

February 17, 2010

Henry Farrell, among other things also tells how to structure your essay at all these three levels:

You should structure your essay at three levels.


This is the broad structure of the essay itself. Unless you feel very comfortable that you are an excellent writer, it is usually best to stick to the traditional frame of an introductory section, a main body, and a conclusion. The introduction tells the reader what you are going to say. The main body tells the reader what you are saying. The conclusions tell the reader what she has just read (perhaps adding some thoughts as to its broader implications if you are feeling adventurous).

This not only helps the reader understand your argument, but disciplines your thought and prose. It forces you to begin your essay with a clear, concise account of your major claims. When you write the main section of the essay (or re-write it, as needs be) the introduction will provide you with a roadmap of what you need to do. Your conclusions, in contrast, should draw the threads together, showing how the facts and arguments you have laid out in the main body actually speak to the broad themes discussed in the introduction, and drawing the threads of your narrative together into a proper whole. Of course, for this to work it is necessary that the main body of your essay actually speak to the arguments laid out in your introduction, that your conclusions relate to the main body, and so on.


This is perhaps the most commonly neglected element of structured writing. It concerns the paragraphs into which your prose is organized. Each paragraph should focus on one main point. The point of each paragraph should build on that in the previous paragraph, and create the foundations of the next. Each paragraph should be a necessary part of the overall structure of your essay.

I find that a useful mental exercise is to boil down the arguments of each paragraph, one after the other, into single sentences. Then, put all these sentences together into a consecutive narrative, looking to see whether each sentence can be made to flow naturally from the sentence previous to it, and into the sentence following. This will highlight any major structural problems. If you are not able to boil down each of the paragraphs into a single sentence summary (however simplistic), then the offending paragraphs most likely need to be rewritten more clearly. If there are gaps or non-sequiturs when you put the one sentence summaries together, then the meso-structure of your essay needs to be re-organized, by cutting and pasting paragraphs, or by introducing new paragraphs to fill the gaps, or deleting old paragraphs that detract from the flow of your argument.


What is true of the paragraph is also true of the sentence. Each individual sentence should flow in a logical and obvious way from the sentence before, and into the sentence after. Consider the following paragraph, taken from a term paper on global warming which is available for free online.

Weather these days has become very unpredictable. The increase in the world’s temperatures, believed to be caused in part by the greenhouse effect which is known as global warming has and will have a serious effect on the future. Global warming creates massive concerns for the entire earth. If the heat continues to increase several species may struggle to survive. There are numerous political, environmental, economic, and social issues when it comes to global warming. Global warming is an inevitable issue and by no stretch of the imagination can be slowed down easily. There is an inconceivable amount of causes that connect to global warming.

This is quite wretched writing. The first sentence is a vague generality that does not mean very much. The second sentence does not flow in any obvious way from the first. What does the greenhouse effect have to do with unpredictable weather? No explanation is provided for the reader. The third sentence merely repeats the argument of the second, with greater rhetorical alarm. The fourth does a little better, but loses force because it is so badly written (the claim that ‘several species’ may struggle to survive suggests that only five or six species are in danger, which sits awkwardly with the previous sentence’s suggestion that global warming causes “massive concerns” for the entire earth). The fifth sentence seems to build a new set of claims, and should be at the beginning of a new paragraph. However, it never goes anywhere. Instead, the sixth sentence warns that global warming is “an inevitable issue” (whatever that means), while the seventh sentence wrings its hands in despair over yet another new claim – that there is an “inconceivable amount” (sic) of causes “that connect” to global warming. These sentences are not only bad in themselves – they are not connected in any logical or orderly way. The result is that they do not add up to a coherent argument.

The full essay is available here in various formats. Take a look!

PS: Note the opening paragraph of the essay!

Two positives do make a negative

February 15, 2010

I just lo……ved this bit:

The eminent linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin of Oxford once gave a lecture in which he asserted that there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, but none in which a double positive makes a negative — to which the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, sarcastically replied, “Yeah, yeah.”

From here. By the way, in case I forgot to mention, the entire piece is a great one and a must-read.

What can microfluidics do for stem-cell research

February 12, 2010

An interesting Q&A.

Execution and not the idea

February 11, 2010

That is more important, says Jeff.

It is science if

February 10, 2010

The data and the code are in public domain (via).

Research funding: Matthew Effect

February 9, 2010

From an interesting article in SEED magazine on some sociology of research funding in US:

Over the last 40 years, the importance of fame in science has increased. The effect has compounded because famous researchers have gathered the smartest and most ambitious graduate students and post-docs around them, so that each notable paper from a high-wattage group bootstraps their collective power. The famous grow more famous, and the younger researchers in their coterie are able to use that fame to their benefit. The effect of this concentration of power has finally trickled down to the level of funding: The average age on first receipt of the most common “starter” grants at the NIH is now almost 42. This means younger researchers without the strength of a fame-based community are cut out of the funding process, and their ideas, separate from an older researcher’s sphere of influence, don’t get pursued. This causes a founder effect in modern science, where the prestigious few dictate the direction of research. It’s not only unfair—it’s also actively dangerous to science’s progress.

It’s time to start rethinking the way we reward and fund science. How can we fund science in a way that is fair?

Take a look!

Tribute to Mansur

February 9, 2010

Somak Ghoshal pays his tributes to Mallikarjun Mansur and his rare legacy.