Archive for September, 2012

A different opinion: edition 2

September 25, 2012

Of course, this time it is Sitaram Yechury:

For this, the current high fiscal deficit must be contained and, hence, the hike in the prices of diesel and cap on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders became essential. The subsidy on petroleum products, we are told, was “ Rs. 1,40,000 crore last year”. If the prices were not increased, then this would “have been over Rs. 2 lakh crore. Where would the money for this have come from? Money does not grow on trees”.

How has this subsidy figure been arrived at? This is much higher than the budget estimates. This seems to be calculated on the basis of the ‘under recovery’ of the oil companies. What is this? It is the difference between the retail price of petroleum products and its import price. It is, hence, notional in nature because import prices include duties, insurance, freight and other levies. These are not paid by the Indian companies since what we import is crude oil, which is processed in India to produce petrol, diesel, kerosene, etc. Instead of linking the price to the cost of imported crude plus domestic refining cost, the international price is taken as the benchmark. This is the gigantic fraud.

This fraud is reflected in the fact that all the oil companies are reporting handsome profits, not losses. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Limited declared a net profit of Rs. 25,123 crore for the year 2011-12. For the following quarter ending June 30, 2012, it has reported a further growth of 48.4%. Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has reported a net profit of Rs. 4,265.27 crore. Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL) reported a net profit of Rs. 911 crore. For the last quarter, January-March 2012, this further increased by 312%.  Bharat Petroleum has reported a net profit of Rs. 1,546.68 crore.

Further, parliamentary answers and proceedings show that from 2010 onwards, the central exchequer has been earning anything above Rs. 1,30,000 crore annually through taxes and duties on petroleum products. After accounting for all subsidies, the Centre was still left with a surplus of over Rs. 90,000 crore in 2010-11. Who is subsidising whom, Mr prime minister?

Interesting throughout. Take a look!

A different opinion

September 23, 2012

By far, as far as I have noticed, Siddharh Varadarajan is the only one who has not praised the FDI in retail bill:

There is no doubt that foreign capital inflows, including FII monies, have played a big role in India’s success story over the past decade. But the problem with the Manmohan Singh strategy today is three-fold. First, it leaves untouched the very structural imbalances in the Indian economy that are responsible for the onset of the slowdown and, worse, stagflation. Second, by pinning all hopes on the revival of foreign inflows, those imbalances will most likely get exacerbated. Today, instead of being used for productive investment, capital is getting locked up in property, gold and other ‘safe’ outlets. A revival of the Sensex on the back of renewed FII interest may breathe some life into the stock market. But the risk is that this may trigger speculative demand and have no impact on the real economy. The third problem with the Prime Minister’s current approach is that the appetite of finance capital will not be sated so easily. One concession must necessarily beget another in order for the foreign investor to keep the faith in the India story.

But even this piece does not talk about throwing open pension and insurance sectors. Take a look!

If it is about ice, and about nucleation

September 22, 2012

It should certainly get a mention in this blog; here is more; here is much more!

On grade inflation

September 22, 2012

Andrew at SM, CI and SS:

The fact that profs don’t give all A’s, even though they can, is interesting to me.

I also like the proposed solution:

At the institutional level, these problems with grades would be fixed using standardized tests or with some sort of statistical correction such as proposed by statistician Val Johnson, who writes:

There are two approaches that might be taken in reforming our grading system. The first is to encourage faculty to modify their grading practices and adhere to a “common” grading standard. The second is to make post-hoc adjustments to assigned grades to account for differences in faculty grading policies.

The beauty of Val’s approach is that it does three things:

1. By statically correcting for grading practices, Val’s method produces adjusted grades that are more informative measures of student ability.

2. Since students know their grades will be adjusted, they can choose and evaluate their classes based on what they expect to learn and how they expect to perform; they don’t have to worry about the extraneous factor of how easy the grading is.

3. Since instructors know the grades will be adjusted, they can assign grades for accuracy and not have to worry about the average grade. (They can still give all A’s but this will no longer be a benefit to the individual students after the course is over.)

For any instructor, the only objective in giving quizes and examinations should be to allow students to assess their progress; however, the fact that the marks/grades that the instructor gives will be used outside of the classroom environment for other purposes (such as short-listing of candidates for jobs/admissions) can (and in most of the cases do) affect the grading process. Standardised tests and/or standardising grading are thus the moves in the right direction, if you ask me.

Coe’s Terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim

September 20, 2012

I heard about Coe from Andrew Gelman. I tried Terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim. It is a good book; but there were several things (including the last chapter) that did not work for me. Readable once. I am going to try other Coe (there are two more in my to-be-read pile)!

On writing

September 20, 2012

Why write?

It says a lot about Carl Djerassi that his first venture into literature was as an act of revenge. It was 1983; he was 60, an eminent professor of chemistry at Stanford University, famous for his successful synthesis, in 1951, of norethindrone, the first oral contraceptive. And he was in love with the woman who would become his third wife – Diane Middlebrook, the biographer, poet, and fellow Stanford professor. But, after several years together, she had fallen in love with someone else.

When he found out, Djerassi was distraught. “Like any man, I thought, ‘Who is this other person?'” he says now. “It turned out that he was a professor of literature. So I decided, ‘Well, I’m going to show her.’ And I started writing.”

From here; via John Hawks.

Why write clearly? Fabio Rojas tells why!

Mechanics of curved creases

September 14, 2012

You see a title like Geometric Mechanics of Curved Crease Origami and you know that L Mahadevan should be one of the authors! Have fun!

The Wildings of Nilanjana Roy

September 12, 2012

I completed The Wildings of Nilanjana Roy. I have a few comments; they have already been made by others, here and here! So, I will quote from these reviews:

In attempting to be serious and accurate, but also whimsical, mythic and tragic, The Wildings falls short in establishing its own internal vocabulary. This results in rather cloying anachronism. Humans are referred to as Bigfeet, a cutesy touch that’s particularly grating when one realises that the cats not only use perfectly normal, and human, names for most other species, but also utter phrases like “keeping the airwaves clear”, and “wet-behindthe- whiskers”.

There are inconsistencies between passages too. Early scenes with Mara the kitten employ the baby-talk and anthromorphising tendencies of works for younger readers, with the spoken-aloud enthusiasm of Enid Blyton. Elsewhere, a recollection of an adult cat’s first season and the lining-up of suitors for mating, while continuing the cats-as-people framework, seems like it belongs in a different book. A gliding cheel weighs – with comic machine-precision – the benefits of a SD&K (swoop, dive and kill) before registering a “46% kill probability”. A council debate takes place with mythic intonation to their speech (“In the years since Tigris died, there has been little need for a Sender among us wildings”). Unintentionally comedic phrases are created when the differing approaches collide, for example: “‘WoofWOOF’, he said in contrapuntal fashion. ‘WOOFwoof! WOOF!’”

Much of the dialogue is expository, meant to establish the personality types these animals represent. There is a desire to explain everything; the twitching of whiskers, for example, doesn’t have to be qualified: “twitch in irritation”. Claws are unsheathed “reflexively”. This overwriting is prevalent in the smallest of descriptions. Instead of a kitten simply staring at a face, we read about one who “found himself staring” into that face. This makes the reading slow going, and has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters, which end up feeling a bit like variations of each other – though they are sketched out as archetypes.

However, Prabha Mallaya’s black-and-white illustrations are superb; moody and yet brimming with energy. Each one adds a touch of a setting that ultimately feels unfulfilled by the book. These gorgeous pictures provide tantalising suggestions of what a different book this could have been, perhaps with reduced text and a co-authorship for the illustrator. The Wildings is an ambitious book, but would have been helped with a little more story and a little less telling.


If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that some of the action sequences – a fight at the baoli, the long-drawn-out climactic battle with the ferals – didn’t fully hold my attention. Though written with skill and sharply observant of cat manoeuvres and the graceful litheness of their movements, these passages felt a little mechanical compared to the breeziness of the rest of the narrative.

The Wildings is, before anything else, a terrific adventure tale with a fine cast of characters, and because itcan be enjoyed wholly at that level one hesitates to over-analyse or get solemn about its themes. But “serious” and “entertaining” are not exclusive categories, and even genres that are viewed as being relatively low-engagement or non-cerebral often produce works of quiet, unselfconscious wisdom. This book has things to say about the potential for kinship between natural adversaries, about rules of conduct in a survival-of-the-fittest situation, about heroism taken to reckless extremes contrasted with reluctance to get involved at all, and about the advisability of taking only as much as you need from the world around you.

I also personally felt that with a little more of editing for consistency and several more illustrations, this could have been a book that one wanted to read and re-read. But, as it stands, it is just a good read!

PhD: To or NotTo

September 12, 2012

Some advice on deciding to do PhD:

One thing I make sure to tell my students (and this is something I told myself before accepting to go to Texas for a Ph.D.) is that it is also completely OK to change your mind. Deciding to pursue a Ph.D. is not a prison sentence, and if they realize that they do not enjoy math as much as they thought, or that they don’t really want to spend so much time learning more mathematics, then there is no reason to stay.

Of course, other things besides not enjoying learning math can happen, like not passing quals or prelims or whatever they’re called these days. It is my opinion that people who truly want to stay in graduate school find a way to do so. I have also had friends who have left for a few years, come back, and are very successful. Other friends have switched from one institution to another that was a better fit. This reminds me of a talk Kathryn Leonard gave at MathFest this past August,  “I failed, and no one died”. In it, she explains how we need to teach our students (and learn for ourselves) to distinguish between failure and Failure. A Failure is when an airplane pilot fails to land his airplane or a surgeon botches a procedure. These are bad places to fail at what you’re doing. In mathematics, we are constantly faced with little-f-failure. We are working on a research problem that we can’t prove, or we don’t pass our qual, or we get a bad grade on our Real Analysis midterm. These are not huge problems, and no one is going to die. They are also indicative that you need to change something that you’re doing. Either try a new approach to your research problem, figure out how to study for your qual, find a study group for your next midterm. These failures could also indicate other issues, like maybe your problem is much more difficult than you thought (maybe you need to assume GRH!) , and in the other two situations, maybe you realize that you don’t care enough to struggle. This is important, because math is difficult, and if you don’t enjoy it then it is very hard to get through some of these obstacles. This goes for many difficult occupations, by the way.

Take a look!

The metallurgist and the white revolution

September 10, 2012

From the obituary of Verghese Kurien in Hindu:

“What do you know about pasteurisation,” an interviewer asked the young man who had applied for a Government of India fellowship for a Masters in Engineering abroad. “Something to do with milk?” was the uncertain reply. The year was 1946. In his biography From Anand: The story of Verghese Kurien, M.V. Kamath recounts the story of how the youngster was selected to do a Masters in dairy engineering by a government committee that was impervious to his pleas that he be allowed to specialise in metallurgy instead.

As it turned out, Michigan State University did not have dairy engineering, and Verghese Kurien was able to do metallurgy and Physics. But when he came back to India in 1948, it was to a small and unknown village in Gujarat called Anand that he was sent, to work out his two-year bond at the Government creamery on a salary of Rs.600 per month. Hating his job, he waited impatiently for his fetters to loosen. That did not happen. What it did was that V. Kurien, by the conjunction of politics, nationalism and professional challenge, decided to stay on. He would transform rural India.

Take a look!