Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The God Particle And Why It Might Be OK For Languages To Die

Physics rocks, and other stuff

National Geographic has a very nice piece on the Large Hadron Collider and the quest for the God particle. Links to one page summaries of the Higgs boson are here.

Quote from the National Geographic piece:

And anyone who thinks these big machines are soulless contraptions should listen to Richard Jacobsson. The LHC is replacing a particle detector he worked with for a decade. He came to know every inch of that instrument. He understood its moods and idiosyncrasies. The day the engineers came to rip it out, Jacobsson was overcome with emotion. "I had tears in my eyes," he said. "When they cut the cables, I thought blood would flow out." Now entire lives are wrapped up in the new machine, which physicists have been dreaming about since the 1980s.

Thank goodness we still live in a world where a physicist wells up when his particle accelerator is dismembered. Some hope remains.

In other news, the excellent Language Log has Geoffrey Pullum's review of a review. A Professor Ronald Butters reviews Language in the USA (ed. by Edward Finegan and John Rickford, CUP, 2004) and "...he seems to be fed up with being pushed around by language-loving sentimentalists." Pullum:

Ever want to see some liberal diversity-loving multi-culti-lefty linguists get slapped about a bit, just so they could taste some of their own medicine? This review is for you!
In short, widespread faith in the ideal of linguistic and cultural assimilation should — especially in a democracy — be treated with respect and considered thoughtfully, not snapped at as if it were ignorant bigotry.

Lately, there have been many reports in many places (including NPR) about languages that have been dying out, mostly Native American/indigenous dialects.

An odd coincidence is that in the week that this issue of Language reached me, the obituary of the week in The Economist (February 9th) was about Marie Smith, the last speaker of the now extinct language Eyak. But far from echoing anything like the tough-minded what-economic-benefit thinking that Butters alludes to, the Economist obituarist's discussion of the Eyak language, though well-written and interesting, is entirely devoted to sentimental musing about its many words for trees and roots and spruce needles and resin and abalone and nets and mixing bowls, and the way the word for "leaf" was the same as the word for "feather", as if that were the crucial thing we needed linguistic diversity for.

There's a meta-review of the meta-review here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Death By RSS

Where we're actually referring to Really Simple Syndication, not that the other RSS is much better

We came to feed reading quite late, we will blame Space Bar for telling us about it and convincing us that it wasn't too hard. So now we have 200 (200!) subscriptions classified into

Business (26)
Design (3)
Movies (12)
Personal (61)
Policy-type-stuff (23)
Quizzing (7)
Science (28)
Software-dev (39)
Stuff (10)
Technology (13)
Writing (10)

Please don't add the numbers and say the sum is > 200, some feeds count in more than one category. Also, the above is the most ridiculous possible classification, need to get more fine-grained ("Sports", "Politics", "Literature", "Arts", "Science", "History" etc.)

By far the most prolific feed is from the GWT Google Group. Don't ask why. Basically every message that gets posted there shows up, >200 per day.

Second, and definitely a candidate for favourite is ScienceBlogs Select feed. Possibly Brad DeLong's is third, although more often than not we don't understand/don't have the time for the stuff there.

So a random sample of interesting things that the feed reader has delivered over the last couple of days:

Conservative physicist and climate change skeptic Luboš Motl on How to Disprove Spoon Bending. Valuable in itself for a description of what it means to be scientific, it leads us to two other very readable articles, one on telekinesis and the other on What I Believe But Cannot Prove at Cosmic Variance, the group blog of a bunch of physicists and astrophysicists. The second post is really very, very useful and worth reading end-to-end and quoting from. The temptation to quote wholesale is overwhelming, but we will cease and desist. But do read the post. In passing, it will lead you to the Edge Question Center which every year asks an interesting question (What have you changed your mind about? Why? in 2007) to a bunch of interesting people (scientists, philosophers, mathematicians etc.) Hours and hours of browsing beckon...

Anand Giridhardas has a post (via Sepia Mutiny?) with a little documentary about how technology is making some professions disappear.

On the lighter side, here's a page whose sole commodity is photos of people proving mathematical theorems in sarongs (though many of the provers simply have the sarong wrapped around their shoulders, which is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention). Side splitting. On similar lines, 41 Hilarious Science Fair Experiments and they're really hilarious ("Crystal Meth. Friend or foe?", "Eww", "Fat man to Mars")!

Kufr should really be on your bookmarks list. He/she has a way of putting things across that cuts through the bovine ordure, smacks you in the face, and grabs your attention wholeheartedly. Fluidity of the Cesspool is one such ("once upon a time, not so long ago, educated hindus found a handy teddy bear in the theory of sanskritization. if a jati can move up the hierarchy by shedding its old, ugly customs and beliefs and adopting sanskritic mores, the caste system can't be so bad, right?...") There are many more.

Via the Delhiwalla, we hear about a Pakistani blogger who shares a name with a very famous poet.

Abel Pharmboy liveblogs his vasectomy, we kid you not. "doc started asking about workplace. told him about [controversial proprietary work] not being popular - he was not amused and asks why anyone is opposed to such a thing. man has now exposed my vas deferens and is cutting it. I will not argue."

What would "Stairway to Heaven" sound/look like, if "The Beatles" did it? Pretty catchily awesome, actually!

And Richard Dawkins tells us that one of evolutions missing links has been found in the Sydney Harbour.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

5 Best Post 1990 "Mainstream" Hindi Movies

Where we return to the fine art of list making

A few hours back, we (= The Enlightened One Formerly Known As Prince Nitwit, Teen Shark, Jamadagni, Ludwig) had dinner. The food took forever to arrive, and if it wasn't for the engrossing subject we picked, we would've happily strangled the wait staff. A sincere attempt was made to list down the top 5 post 1990 "mainstream" Hindi movies. The rules were simple.

1. Everyone had to have seen the flick.
2. Simple majority needed at a minimum to make the cut.

And the winners (in chronological order) are [fanfare...]

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992)
Andaz Apna Apna (1994)
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
Company (2002)
Munnabhai MBBS (2003) - A bit of a con here: We all liked both movies, and picked one, it's like The Return of the King getting Oscars for all the trilogy.

We were unanimous on these, as in all of us agreed that we couldn't think of anything better. Three of us were really keen on Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003), but it was torpedoed by the Teen Shark because he didn't like it, and because it isn't really all that "mainstream".

Other mainstream contenders that were considered briefly but didn't rise into the top 5 - Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Rangeela (1995), Gupt (1997), Dil Se... (1998), Satya (1998), Lagaan (2001), Main Hoon Na (2004), Lakshya (2004), Chak De! India (2007). Mainly because that the Chosen 5 are all individually arguably better (for various reasons which we could elaborate on, if someone is interested) than all of these ones. Unfortunately for him, this means that SRK narrowly misses getting into the top 5.

Darr (1995) and Kaho Naaa... Pyaar Hai (2001) were also considered, but all of us had not seen it.

Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006), Iqbal (2005), Johnny Gaddaar (2007), and the good Nagesh Kukkonoor movies weren't mainstream enough. Hera Pheri (2000), Raincoat (2004) and Dor (2006) were remakes/derivative (although Shakesepare and older was allowed) and missed out.

Points to note in the main list

1. No Shah Rukh
2. No Madhuri (My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense...)
3. No Amitabh
4. No Mani Ratnam
5. No Govinda (My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense...)
6. Salman gets a back door entry
7. Aamir is all over the place
8. 1994-2000 was very dreary

What say, vox populi? Fair? What did we miss out?

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Road to Wigan Pier

Which contains a prescient quote about our lives and times, and more videos

George Orwell is a rather smashing bloke, and he proves it again and again. For many people, he is simply the author of one satire and one dark novel that rail against the Great Satan, communism. 1984 and Animal Farm have been milked for all they are worth whenever a handy anti-left quote is needed. But Georgie Porgie was a lot more complicated than that, he was not the supremely anti-leftist literary genius that left-bashers with no imagination of their own could periodically dip into for a fresh nugget.

His Down and out in Paris and London talks about time spent as a menial in a Paris hotel, and as a London vagabond, and is possibly more valuable as a book than the other two. A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant hit you like a punch in the solar plexus. "A Hanging" makes capital punishment personal, and that perhaps is the most effective argument against it (for the record, the Choultry is against it). "Shooting an Elephant" is merely touching, and about a horrible dilemma faced by a young and sensitive anti-imperial functionary of Empire.

Apart from Douglas Adams, Orwell appears to be the only other person to have written an essay on making tea, both versions (Adams' can be found in The Salmon of Doubt) are delicious. And finally, Reflections of Ghandi(sic) is one of the most well-balanced evaluations of the Mahatma, taking a nice line somewhere between vilification and hagiography.

Anyway, the point of all this is That Man Keynes and His Homosexual Intrigues (TMKAHHI) (who is well known to some of you) points us to the following from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive. For enormous blocks of the working class the conditions of life are such as I have described in the opening chapters of this book, and there is no chance of those conditions showing any fundamental improvement. The very best the English-working class can hope for is an occasional temporary decrease in unemployment when this or that industry is artificially stimulated by, for instance, rearmament. Even the middle classes, for the first time in their history, are feeling the pinch. They have not known actual hunger yet, but more and more of them find themselves floundering in a sort of deadly net of frustration in which it is harder and harder to persuade yourself that you are either happy, active, or useful. Even the lucky ones at the top, the real bourgeoisie, are haunted periodically by a consciousness of the miseries below, and still more by fears of the menacing future. And this is merely a preliminary stage, in a country still rich with the loot of a hundred years. Presently there may be coining God knows what horrors— horrors of which, in this sheltered island, we have not even a traditional knowledge.

Splendid, no?

That's that about Georgie Porgie. Peruse this post at Presentation Zen. It has a bunch of videos from the TED talks.

Al Gore's talk is a hoot, especially the first 4-5 minutes that he spends laughing at himself. The man has changed so much. You would think he would be a shoo in for President in 2009, wouldn't you?

Majora Carter's talk is depressing and inspiring at the same time. If you can watch only one of the videos (each is just shy of 20 minutes long), this is the one. It will hopefully show the links between discrimination, race, crime, poverty, urban stagnation etc. in new ways. Definitely, definitely, check this one out.

Hans Rosling's talk should result in jaws dropping. If there be such a thing as an ideal way to present statistics, it is this, it is this, it is this.

Monday, February 11, 2008


And no, it's about that party across the border. But first, let us get the random stuff out of the way.


It rained in Hyderabad this morning. Apres le deluge, hornbills.

(Note besplattered and bedraggled beeeater (?) in the bottom right of the frame.)

These twits are obviously very far away, but rather endearingly bumbling through the wet foliage.


Mathematical jokes have appeared here before. A variation on the theme is to be found at the "Wild About Math" blog. The "Deferential Equations" one is side splitting.


The search for the Democratic presidential nominee has now resulted in the creation of two new electoral constituencies whose behaviour psephologists must be falling over each other to understand and predict. With a black man and a white woman as the front runners, black women and white men in the electorate find themselves in the unique position of having been sliced and diced into a "vote bank". How will they vote? Will race pip gender, or what?

The NPR type commentators are positively tickling themselves silly into paroxyms of pleasure trying to figure out what these two demographics will do? A Hillary-Obama (Hilbama?) ticket might just turn out to be solid gold, but it's such a pity it will be wasted because this (of all elections) should be a wrap for the Dems. A scarecrow endorsed by Ted Kennedy should do the trick (although, against that notorious outlier McCain, one must be cautious about making predictions freely).

We live in interesting times, the radio need not be turned off.


In a seminal discovery made about 3 minutes ago, we realize that mashing up dates (i.e. khajoor) with those Amul cheese cubes (or chiplets or whatever) results in the most delicious and pasty confection ever. Mmm. Try it. Remember, you heard it here first.

Yes, we skipped breakfast, and these two things were all we could find in the fridge that were consumable at short notice. This is how Alexander Fleming discovered pencillin.


Long post. Ram wrote us an email pointing to an article (PDF) in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). The author is Prof. Krishna Kumar, director of NCERT. The article is titled "Partners in Education" and is apparently about:

Public-Private Partnership in school education is projected as a strategy to distribute the ownership of institutions, rather than tasks within institutions, between private entrepreneurs and NGOS on the one hand, and the government or state on the other. While the rationale for PPP is inefficiency of the government, the means offered to overcome it actually promise no relief or improvement. PPP is not an idea, but rather an ideology which promotes privatisation as a means of reducing the government’s responsibility to increase the number of schools.

Ram wanted some of us (including Melli and Rajni) to comment on how we thought Asha (with which we have all been associated one way or the other) fitted into the NGO scheme suggested by Prof. Kumar. This resulted in Ludwig actually spending a boatload of time reading the article and trying to parse it, and a very, very long email comment, which basically follows, in lieu of the usual insane blog post.

So much for where I think Asha lies in the spectrum of NGOs (i.e. this is my answer to your question!). That being said, I think the article has some problems, mostly to do with the way the argument is presented, which I will try and describe. My basic point is that the article is somewhat confusing and this clouds the argument.

The line of reasoning in the article appears to be as follows:

1. There are valid sounding arguments for why the state should be dislodged from the business of education. Data on teacher absenteeism, dropout rates, achievement etc. proves that state investment in schools is wasteful. On a less quantitative and more rhetorical level, there is the argument that "quality" in state schools is abysmal. The state has failed, therefore a privatized system is needed.

2. One flaw in this argument is that votaries of privatization are seemingly unable to point to a successful model where the state does not serve as the primary education provider. There are no answers to this query, and in any case this question is increasingly never asked.

3. One way to confer increased legitimacy on any argument is to claim that it is a new idea. So the name "public private partnership" (PPP) is invented and touted as the silver bullet.

4. However, the idea of private intervention in education is quite old, and what is being called PPP has been around for many years now, since colonial times at least, in the form of the aided-school model. There are structural weaknesses in this model which have been visible for the last 100 years, but effectively, it continues to be promoted under the new name (PPP).

5. [So far, so good. Here is where, in my opinion, the confusion (textual, logical) starts.] Kumar says:

"Offering solid evidence of the meagreness of structural change in education since colonial days, the state-aided private-initiative model of institutional expansion has earned a renewed and vigorous favour today. And the state continues to feel persistently reluctant to own up to its primary responsibility for educating all its children in ways that would necessitate reforms in the system. This aspect of the meaning of PPP is quite apparent."

This, I confess, is somewhat incomprehensible to me. I'm afraid I cannot fathom what the "aspect of the meaning of PPP" is. Likely, my training (such as it is) is insufficient for me to parse this paragraph. If you can decipher and explain, I will be obliged. Further:

"The meaning which lurks in the zone of opacity has to do with the culture of outsourcing, especially in the context of non-government organisations (NGOs)."

A segue into the NGO section ("NGO Outsourcing") of the article follows (we briefly bid goodbye to the PPP angle). An important point (to my mind) is that no distinction is made between not-for-profit NGOs and for-profit NGOs (businesses).

6. Broad descriptions of the 3 types of NGOs (discussed above, in the context of the Asha position).

7. The NGOs, regardless of what type they are, have contributed to making the PPP argument sound more plausible i.e. NGOs (especially the corporate ones) assert that the state is redundant, run their own school systems, and in some sense "prove" the claim that PPP (in the sense of setting up a parallel system of schooling) works. This is in contrast with the notion of PPP where the private party (HSTP, MVF, for example) aids/supplements existing state school systems.

8. "In the history of private education, philanthropic efforts leading to high-quality education have played a very limited role, while profit-seeking has been an inappropriate (and illegal) goal to acknowledge. Private providers and their supporters therefore continue to succeed in shielding the normal, entrepreneurial aspect of educational ventures." Only the judiciary has so far called a spade a spade and said that these private entities are nothing more than profit seeking enterprises (by saying that setting up schools is part of their "right to occupation").

9. The state's response to pro-privatization claims is increasingly muted, thanks partly to the "speedy spread of the ideological discourse associated with neoliberalisation and globalisation among government officials." From this rises the instrumentalist view of the state where it is just another player in the market, one that merely performs a set of tasks without regard to the long term health of the system. An advantage of this view is that it makes the state look different from a corrupt regime of bureaucracy and less prone to political indoctrination.

10. The state doesn't view existing or past successful PPPs (for that is what they are/were) such as Ekalavya or the MV Foundation programme as a partnership, which is a pity.

11. There are other glaring gaps in the education scenario such as teacher training etc. which need to be addressed in a serious way. We need IIT-IIM style institutions to deal with this. Why don't PPP votaries advocate these things?

Phew. OK, my email is in danger of turning out to be longer than the original article, but it is helping me make more sense of the original. Would it be fair to say that in summary, what Krishna Kumar is saying is the following:

People are advocating PPP in education.
They are doing so claiming that the current state system of schooling has failed, and that PPP will improve the efficiency of the system i.e. improvements in quality and efficiency is the _main_ reason why PPP ('bad' profit seeking PPP) in education should be encouraged.
What they are hiding is that the real reason for PPP is that it might be very profitable. It is somehow politically incorrect to say that PPP is about making a profit and not about philanthropy/improving the system etc. and so they have to resort to the "state has failed, PPP will make things better" argument, to look good.
The activity and attitude of some NGOs (the 'corporate' ones especially) give credence to the PPP argument by repeating it.
An important argument against PPP (i.e the 'bad' privatization and corporatization of education by setting up a parallel schooling system rather than improving the existing system (HSTP, MVF) PPP) is that it hasn't been shown to work anywhere before. Most (all?) nations with advanced levels of education involved considerable state contribution.
So PPP may not work.

OK, so in my view, Krishna Kumar's main gripe is that "(i) PPP votaries claim that PPP is about improving efficiency and not about profit (ii) PPPs (the 'bad' ones) haven't worked historically anywhere".

This really doesn't constitute a solid argument against PPPs (the 'bad' ones) itself, no? At best it is an accusation of hypocrisy/bad faith/whatever against PPP supporters, "You're claiming that you support PPP for one reason, but the actual reason is something else."

If this is the main thrust of the article, I find it a somewhat complicated way to state the case (resulting in even more complicated emails!). On the other hand, if the article is about arguing against PPPs themselves...

Someone of the libertarian ilk will happily concede that "Yes, PPPs are about making money for the NGOs involved we don't deny that, the improvements in education/increased efficiency are side effects of this activity. The fact that there are no instances of a majority PPP driven effort successfully improving the lot of education in a country is neither here nor there, it hasn't been tried so you can't claim it will fail."

In my opinion, a coherent argument against PPPs has not been presented in this article. At the very least, some instances of PPP (the 'bad' ones) based programmes in other comparable parts of the world that have failed totally would have helped. Questions/arguments involving some reasonably basic economics, common sense and straightforward reasoning would have also been great. Some points might be:

How many successful private schools exist in the remote rural areas? (see this)
How can they be profitable and high quality at the same time?
Is it really possible to set up a perfect 'market' like system, where parents can switch kids from a bad school to a good one at will?
If government schools don't work, how do you explain Kendriya Vidyalayas and other such schools? Why do they work?

Of course, these are all very lowbrow for an EPW piece :-) but I am sure it is possible to spin the necessary verbiage around this foundation.

Note that one of the confusions in the original article is that I feel the need to keep distinguishing between the 'good' PPPs (MVF, HSTP) and the 'bad' PPPs (profit seeking), it would've been nice to use different terminology for both, no?

OK, this is long enough. I hope I've made my point clear.

In response, Melli (among other things) said that:

(1) Interesting that you felt that the article does not make the case against PPP strongly. I felt it made the case, but after reading your note I realized it is my bias which influences my thinking - I agree with most of what KK says anyway, so I was not looking for a strong case so to speak. In my mind, education is a state responsibility, simply because "for all, equally" is not something the market can ensure. The market is inherently unequal in my opinion functions on the basis that there are multiple levels. That is OK when it comes to say the transportation system, where one can say "I cannot afford to go in a luxury bus which will go on time, so I will go in this cheaper, standing room only bus". Education, IMHO, has to be "for all" and "equal".

To which we said:

Note that I carefully did not say anywhere that I didn't agree with KK :-) I'm sure I haven't given it anywhere near the kind of thought you all have, but in general even I don't see how PPPs ('bad' PPPs!) will change anything fundamentally. My role in the reply was to try and show that _if_ the purpose of the article was to critique PPPs, that wasn't done too well, and to play a limited devil's advocate role and show what points someone who is a "neoliberal" or "libertarian" or whatever could potentially raise to critique the critique. In general I mostly concur with your #1, with the caveat that I'm open to arguments which will convince me fully one way or the other.

A further point that Melli made was:

Oh, and one more point - I think it is well-worth answering the question of why KVs work and state run govt. schools do not. In past discussions we have come to realize some points: (a) KV has Rs. 6000 per child, whereas a govt. school has Rs. 2000 per child. (b) the quality of hired teachers - maybe because KVs are smaller in number and central govt. jobs are more 'prestigious' they do attract good people - some headmasters/mistresses and teachers are simply excellent at KVs (as a side point we do not have enough excellent teachers to staff all govt. schools in the country, there are some funny stats on that). Additionally, the KV headmaster/mistress seems to have some autonomy, which might make a critical difference (c) KV children are typically _not_ first generation learners, and as Ram says for first generation learners the teacher-student ratio should be 1:5. But this begs the question of why the Navodaya Vidyalayas (KVs in rural areas, introduced in Rajiv Gandhi's time) are doing well. Apparently they are doing quite well. Ram had some thoughts on figuring out these differences, but now he is happily at Puvidham, so we have to wait for him to come back before we can analyze this further :) Seriously, I think we should explore why this is so. KVs and Navodaya Vidyalayas show that govt. institutions can be well run (a Navodaya Vidyalaya near Mandya is apparently extraordinarily good, so says my old school (a KV type school) headmistress). What is their hiring mechanism? Are the students really first generation learners? How much autonomy do they have? (Autonomy clearly plays a role - as we can see from the success of IITs, another state institution, but run autonomously by a board with I suppose appropriate checks and balances).

To which we said:

I think we've had these discussions ourselves before, and pretty much all the points you make are possibly factors. I have a slightly more high falutin' thought behind why KVs work, which is a kind of class based analysis. The children in KVs come from the same socio-economic background (largely) as their teachers, indeed quite often the children of the teachers are _in_ the KVs that their parents teach at. This is possibly a factor in KV teachers/administrators having strong motivation to care of their own. The sense of accountability towards other parents etc. is a lot stronger. We like to take care of our own, and each class watches out for itself implicitly. I really haven't studied the Navodaya Vidyalaya system at all, but what you say sounds interesting.

Basically what we're saying is that a KV teacher/staff member has a degree of empathy with a KV parent (due their congruent socio-economic backgrounds) that results in more accountable behaviour from the teacher/staff member. Your average village or basti schoolteacher or headmistress with a B. Ed. or whatever doesn't have any stake in the lives of the villagers or construction workers whose kids (s)he teaches. Each 'class' looks out for its own.

Anyway, the discussion continues...

Friday, February 08, 2008

More Scary Videos

The Five Most Insane Japanese Game Shows - The marshmallow one, the ball-busting one, and the Komodo dragon one are particularly terrifying. Hat tip: TMKAHHI.

If you thought the Japanese were the only "weird" economic superpower, you have another think coming.

Watch Miss Teen USA 2007 as she answers a question.

She should go into marketing. Or become an Indian TV news reporter.

PS Increasingly all we do is post links to other works, isn't it? Sob...

UPDATES (15 Feb 2008):

1. Raj points us to an article in the New York Times ("Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?") which bemoans what it bemoans. The Kellie Pickler video referred to in the first paragraph is here.

2. TMKAHHI points us, in the usual manner, to Esquire.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

For Nothing Now Can Ever Come To Any Good

Which is a connection quiz question


The New England Patriots

Roger Federer


It's all ending.