Archive for October, 2012

On the economics Nobel

October 31, 2012

A good one!

Roth and Shapley have made a perfect match. The latter may well have been labelled an ivory tower economist. But Roth has shown that good theory can have important real world applications. The Nobel economics prize could not have gone to a better matched pair.

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Knowledge: insider versus outsiders

October 31, 2012

An interesting thought from Krugman and Henry:

Paul Krugman writes about journalists’ obsession with the quest for insider knowledge.

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand. But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

most of the time, you can learn as much or more from intelligently consuming publicly available information as you can from attending purportedly insider briefings. And, as a secondary matter, if you graze free-range from a variety of sources, rather than re-masticating a pre-chewed monocrop diet of selected facts and opinion, you are likely to end up with a less biased understanding. Communities of generalists relying on a very limited set of information sources are peculiarly vulnerable to self-reinforcing illusion. I wasn’t in DC during the run-up to the Iraq war, but from what I’ve been able to piece together in the aftermath, the reasons for the apparent near-unanimity among foreign policy specialists that going into Iraq was a good idea was a combination of bad sources (reliance on people like Ken Pollack, who had a patina of apparent credibility), careerism (the general sense that you would do your career no favors by publicly dissenting from senior Republicans and Democrats), and substantial dollops of intellectual (and indeed non-intellectual, more or less flat-out) dishonesty.

Take a look! In this regard, this post of Ram Mohan on insiders and outsiders as heads of institutions might also be of interest!

Books that stay with you

October 27, 2012

Paul Krugman(pdf) :

My Book—the one that has stayed with me for four and a half decades—is Asimov’s ‘Foundation Trilogy’, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.

OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don’t expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.

Via MR and a must-read!

Sometimes-I-just-don’t-get-it edition

October 19, 2012

This one! Really? Ban free education!?!

An appreciation of Alan Cottrell

October 17, 2012

Lindsay Greer and Frans Spaepen pay their tributes to Alan Cottrel in PNAS:

It was his lifelong ambition to bring to metallurgy, a field rich in observations but still mostly phenomenological in method, the quantitative and predictive rigor of the recent developments in atomic-scale physics.

His work on dislocations was a first success in this endeavor. The dislocation had been introduced as a theoretical concept in 1934 to explain the ease of plastic flow in crystals: moving a line defect that localizes shear
deformation requires a much lower stress than uniform shearing of the crystal planes. The concept was only gradually accepted. Even though dislocations provided key insights into mechanical behavior and crystal growth, it was only in 1956 that electron microscopy produced the first direct images of moving dislocations. In the late 1940s, Cottrell showed that dislocation theory could be used to make quantitative predictions.

A very nice piece!

Annals of life-changing admission mistakes

October 16, 2012

We have heard about Verghese Kurien’s switch to metallurgy thanks to his reaching Michigan State University to study diary engineering. Now I learn from here (thanks to Arunn at Nanopolitan) that  a mix-up in the admissions office allowed Sir John Gurdon to study zoology instead of classics and he is the Nobel prize winner in Physiology and Medicine this year!

After receiving the report Sir John said he switched his attention to classics and was offered a place to study at Christ Church, Oxford, but was allowed to switch courses and read zoology instead because of a mix-up in the admissions office.

It was at Oxford as a postgraduate student that he published his groundbreaking research on genetics and proved for the first time that every cell in the body contains the same genes.

He did so by taking a cell from an adult frog’s intestine, removing its genes and implanting them into an egg cell, which grew into a clone of the adult frog.

The idea was controversial at the time because it contradicted previous studies by much more senior scientists, and it was a decade before the then-graduate student’s work became widely accepted.

But it later led directly to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep by Prof Ian Wilmut in 1996, and to the subsequent discovery by Prof Yamanaka that adult cells can be “reprogrammed” into stem cells for use in medicine.

The report in question is very interesting too. Take a look!

On the benefits of a close reading of Austen

October 10, 2012

A very interesting article on how reading Jane Austen can activate the whole of your brain:

Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Austen’s most famous heroines — Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett? Phillips thinks Bennett’s distractability was key to Austen’s characterization of her lively mind — and that Austen herself was drawing on the contemporary theories of cognition in her time.

If neuroscience could inform literature, Phillips asked, could literature inform neuroscience?

She decided to conduct a study, looking at how reading affects the brain. She had volunteers lie still in a brain scanner and read Austen. Phillips sometimes instructed her volunteers to browse, as they might do at a bookstore. Other times, she asked them to delve deep, as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis.

Phillips said the experiment produced some surreal moments: “If you asked me on a top 10 list of things that I did not expect to find myself doing as an 18th-centuryist when I first started this study on the history of distraction, I would say laying on my back in an MRI scanner trying to figure out how to position paragraphs by Jane Austen so that you wouldn’t have to turn your head while reading with a mirror.”

Phillips and her collaborators scanned the brains of the volunteers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The scanner paints a rough picture of brain activity. A computer program simultaneously tracked readers’ eye movements across the page, and researchers kept tabs on the volunteers’ breathing and heart rate. At the end of the experiment, Phillips asked each volunteer to write a short essay based on the passages he or she read.

Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn’t see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading.

“Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects,” she said, “because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways.”

Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.

But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: “What’s been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading.”

Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.

Take a look!

Kannadiga-ness of R K Narayan

October 6, 2012

Ram Guha on xenophobia in Karnataka:

I was reminded of Gandhi’s polemical words when reading about a protest by some well-known Kannada writers against the proposal to make R.K. Narayan’s home in Mysore a memorial to his life and work. Fifteen writers — among them the lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah, the poet G.S. Shivarudrappa, the novelist S. L. Bhyrappa, and the critic L. S. Sheshagiri Rao — argued that since Narayan was born in Chennai and spent his early years there, and since even while he lived in Mysore he wrote in English, he was not really a Kannadiga, and thus the government of Karnataka need not spend money honouring his memory. Narayan, complained these writers, “never introduced any Kannada work to the outside world through an English translation.” Narayan’s betrayal apparently ran further; he was guilty, it was said, of selling the scripts of his novels to an American university rather than gifting them gratis to a university in Karnataka.

Of course, the saving grace is there too!

the angry chauvinists of Karnataka have been put in place by two men who are the best-known, and perhaps also the most greatly admired, Kannada writers now living. The playwright, Girish Karnad, asked to comment on the statement signed by Bhyrappa, Sheshagiri Rao, et al, pointed out that “Narayan lived in Mysore, wrote about Malgudi, a place he created [out of towns and locations in Karnataka].” Therefore, to say that he was not a Kannadiga was “absurd”. Karnad’s words were weighty enough; and here they were endorsed by his great contemporary U.R. Anantha Murthy. “Anyone who lives here and writes on the state is a citizen of Kannada,” remarked Anantha Murthy. He thought it “very mean on the part of those who have said Narayan is not a Kannadiga.”

Take a look!

Metallurgists are cool!

October 3, 2012

Officially, metallurgists have become part of the nerd community thanks to XKCD  cartoon titled metallurgy (hat tip to Deep for the pointer).