Archive for October, 2011

Producing citizens

October 21, 2011

Here is Rex at Savage Minds on education that produces citizens:

Of course, you don’t need to get a fancy degree to become a cultivated and intelligent person. After all, all of us know people who have got their degree from the school of hard knocks. In fact some of the smartest and most cultivated people I know are the men I’ve met in Papua New Guinea who have honed their skills of persuasion and politics through endless years of pig exchanges, marriages, and peace-making ceremonies — people so astute that they put our current crop of US politicians to shame, but who have never learned to read or even pick up a pen or pencil.

Nevertheless, a college education is uniquely valuable in today’s world because the type of learning it provides is especially suited to our form of democratic governance. But don’t take it from me, take it from one of the founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson believed in state-funded higher education because he thought an educated citizenry was central to democracy. “wherever the people are well informed,” he wrote Richard Price in 1789, “they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” It is for this reason that he wanted students at UVA to study everything from botany to Greek literature to the fine arts — a liberal education which would “form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves.”

One last thing: the funny thing about producing people who are free to think for themselves is that they can do a lot of other things to: learn new job skills, start new businesses, or even invent new industries. Holding fast to your values and doing what is important, rather than what is urgent, often has unexpected and gratifying consequences. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson thought that “knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness.”

A nice piece; I liked the piece especially, because, once in a while, I also get these questions — what are we training our students for and how successful are we in achieving these goals.


Stal was his name too!

October 16, 2011

Being a C programmer and GNU/LINUX fan, it would be wrong for me not to post this story about Dennis Ritchie that Mark Lieberman has shared:

The Unix culture favored short identifiers in general: programs like ed, cd, ls, cat, cc, sed, su; directory names like bin, lib, etc, dev; userids like dmr, bwk, mvm. Against this background, 14 characters is a long name; and as Brian Kernighan put it in Unix for Beginners (1979), “14 characters … is enough to be descriptive”. In order to have arbitrary-length file names, you’d need to add another layer of indirection to the file-system data structures; and as Richard Gabriel later wrote about the Bell Labs Unix ethos, “All reasonably expected cases should be covered. Completeness can be sacrificed in favor of any other quality. In fact, completeness must be sacrificed whenever implementation simplicity is jeopardized.”

However, Unix escaped from Bell Labs — that’s part of the story of how Dennis Ritchie helped change the world — and folks in Berkeley had looser (or at least different) moral standards. By 1982 or so, the Berkeley flavor of Unix had developed a file system with arbitrary (or at least much longer) possible file names. So one day, someone sent me a tar tape that had been made on a Berkeley system. And because they’d had the bad taste to take extensive advantage of those longer-than-14-character file names,  my attempt to un-tar the tape was a disaster.

Specifically, as I recall, the overlong file names were simply silently truncated; aside from often concealing their identity and purpose, this caused later files with the same initial 14 letters to overwrite earlier ones.

So I went around the corner to discuss this problem with my colleagues in the Unix research department. Someone patiently explained to me why the 14-character limit was, on balance, a Good Thing. Someone else — certainly not Dennis — may even have suggested that tar’s silent truncation of file names was the Right Thing to Do. Some inconclusive theological controversy ensued.

After talking it over with Dennis, I concluded that re-writing the V7 file system would be too much trouble, as well a violation of local cultural norms, but that modifying tar would be both fairly easy and culturally acceptable. So I got the source code, and hacked tar so that when it encountered over-long file names, it mapped them into 14-character versions guaranteed to be unique, at least insofar as 14 alphanumeric characters permitted, and at the end it wrote out a file giving the table of correspondences between the original file names and the new ones.

This allowed me to get at whatever it was that was on that foreign tape, so I was satisfied. I sent the code around by email to some people that I thought might be able to use it, with a brief note explaining what it was good for, and expressing the hope that this solution would be acceptable “even to those stalwart puritans in the unix research department”. Dennis wrote back that it was indeed acceptable, signing his response “Stal”.

And for some time after that, he continued to use that nickname in private email to me.

Ritchie: RIP

October 15, 2011

I learnt C programming from Kernighan and Ritchie, thanks to a friend (who is a colleague now) who insisted that I learn C from only that book. From Scott, I learn that Ritchie passed away. C being my (computer) mother tongue, I agree wholeheartedly with Scott’s assessment:

… I know Ritchie through the beautiful language he created.  It’s a testament to C’s elegance and simplicity that I, though extremely far from a hacker, find it almost as easy to express my thoughts in C …

And, till date, I found C to be sufficient for all my purposes — which are primarily scientific computing.

Computer as fashion accessory

October 15, 2011

Nicholas Carr talks about Steve Jobs’  greatest invention, the Bondi blue:

All the other PC makers back then basically saw their computers as industrial tools. What they cared about – and what most buyers had been told to care about – was the specs of the innards, things like chip speed and hard drive capacity. Jobs sensed that there was in fact a set of computer buyers who might actually want a computer that was the color of the ocean off the coast of Australia – and not only that, but they that might well enjoy forking out a little extra money for the privilege of owning such a computer. A computer, Jobs saw, wasn’t just a tool. It was a fashion accessory. And as the guts of PCs continued to turn into commodities, his instinct was confirmed: it was the outside of the PC – the shape of it, the color of it, the look and feel of it – that came to matter. His insight resurrected Apple and killed the beige box.

A nice piece.

Geometric undercooling

October 14, 2011

Undercooling, constitutional undercooling, and kinetic undercooling are some of the things that I have known; today, I learnt that there is geometric undercooling too! Take a look.

HowTo: choose a good scientific problem

October 11, 2011

Here; link via Sukumar at iMechanica (whose post also contains a link to a pdf version of the article). A must-read!

The Boss situation

October 11, 2011

To manage your boss, you have to know yourself:

In Chapter Ten we suggested that a look in the mirror is a good first step in dealing with difficult people, and the same holds for bosses—difficult or not. The plethora of books about bad bosses (see, for example, Graham Scott, 2005; Kellerman, 2004; Kets de Vries, 2003) tells you something: lots of people have worked for one—or thought they did. But it’s critical to know how much is you and how much is the boss. If your relationship with your boss is rocky, what’s your contribution to the strife? If you want more influence in negotiating with your boss, what can you do to increase your credibility? If you feel overwhelmed by a continuous stream of demands, like Jeffrey Hall, how are you responding to them? If you are frustrated by a boss who seems overwhelmed and reluctant to use the power of position, how do you react to the leadership vacuum? The answers to such questions are at the heart of an honest diagnosis of your situation.

That is an excerpt from Tomorrow’s Professor blog; interesting all through — parts of it reminded me of an advice from Yudhishtra in Mahabharata: that the king is like fire; if you are too close, you get burnt; if you are far off, you do not benefit; the wise thing to do is to find that optimum distance and maintain it. Here is the summary:

A seven step strategy can guide academic leaders in developing a more productive relationship with their bosses:
1. Know thyself.
2. Understand the boss.
3. Give the boss solutions, not problems.
4. Use the boss’s time wisely.
5. Avoid surprises.
6. Keep promises and deliver on commitments.
7. Speak up when necessary.

Take a look!

HowTo: self-edit

October 10, 2011

Carol Saller at Lingua Franca has some tips.

Innovation: how to foster

October 8, 2011

A nice piece from David Brooks:

Recently, a number of writers have grappled with this innovation slowdown. Michael Mandel wrote a BusinessWeek piece in 2009. Tyler Cowen wrote an influential book called “The Great Stagnation” in 2010. The science-Fiction writer Neal Stephenson has just published a piece called “Innovation Starvation” in World Policy Journal and Peter Thiel, who helped create PayPal and finance Facebook, had an essay called “The End of the Future” in National Review.

After identifying three compelling reasons/explanations, this is what he has to say:

The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

If you want to be the next Steve Jobs and end the innovation stagnation, maybe you should start in hip-hop.

Take a look.

Link: via MR.

A worry!

October 7, 2011

Brijesh Jayal is worried:

Strange as it may seem, there appear similarities between the jan lok pal agitation and the present stand-off between the ministry of defence and a service chief. The former case derived its strength from an individual perceived to be the upholder and practitioner of high moral values willing to sacrifice his life for a just cause. The latter involves the head of an institution that lives by the credo of ‘selfless service’ in which sacrificing one’s life is expected in the line of duty. The former brought into debate the finer points of the relationship among the different constitutional pillars of our democracy, whilst the latter highlighted the fraying relationship among institutions of governance brought about by archaic divisions amongst them. There is, however, a major difference as well. Whilst the former, if followed in its right spirit, could rejuvenate the institutions of democracy and governance, the latter, by its very existence, is undermining national security.

Take a look!