Note to recruiters

Note to recruiters: We are quite aware that recruiters, interviewers, VCs and other professionals generally perform a Google Search before they interview someone, take a pitch from someone, et cetera. Please keep in mind that not everything put on the Internet must align directly to one's future career and/or one's future product portfolio. Sometimes, people do put things on the Internet just because. Just because. It may be out of their personal interests, which may have nothing to do with their professional interests. Or it may be for some other reason. Recruiters seem to have this wrong-headed notion that if somebody is not signalling their interests in a certain area online, then that means that they are not interested in that area at all. It is worth pointing out that economics pretty much underlies the areas of marketing, strategy, operations and finance. And this blog is about economics. With metta, let us. by all means, be reflective about this whole business of business. Also, see our post on "The Multi-faceted Identity Problem".

Friday, March 29, 2013

Internet pioneers honored

Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf and Marc Andreessen of the United States will share the first ever £1 million (1.2 million euro) Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering with Louis Pouzin of France and Tim Berners-Lee of Britain. "The emergence of the Internet and the web involved many teams of people all over the world," said Alec Broers, chair of the judging panel. "However, these five visionary engineers, never before honoured together as a group, led the key developments that shaped the Internet and web as a coherent system and brought them into public use."

Thursday, March 28, 2013

An article in the Hindu on tech entrepreneur Freeman Murray (with some useful information on the startup scene in India) :
He’s been there, done that and, as a result, is one of Silicon Valley’s success stories. Now, renowned entrepreneur, angel investor and tech wiz Freeman Murray is in Kerala to teach young entrepreneurs the tricks of the trade. Freeman has set up in Kochi. It’s a three-month residential mentoring programme designed to help a new generation of entrepreneurs create mobile and internet-based start-ups. The programme is hosted by and is run in partnership with Jaaga, a Bangalore-based art and technology space that Freeman co-founded in 2009. 
“The time is right to be an IT entrepreneur in India,” says Freeman, who was in the city to share his success story at the TEDx talks organised at the College of Engineering Trivandrum. “In India there is a very large, very young population who are eager to be part of the internet revolution. Now the mobile revolution has sort of added on to it. However, there is a lack of experienced developers. The world is hungry for high-end software developers and India seems to have potentially millions people who are eager to do this. And so the soup here is very exciting,” adds Freeman. He should know. After all, he was “lucky enough” to grow with the World Wide Web as it happened in Silicon Valley in the 90s.
Update: Thanks to Anand for the post text.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The $1 million bus stop

Read the Washington Post for the full article. The caption under the picture says it all.
Arlington County's new $1 million bus stop on Columbia Pike at Walter Reed Drive features an electronic bus tracking map. However, the roof may not keep rain off the heads of those waiting.
Update (Mar 27): Thanks to Anand for the post text.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is the Presidential System a better system for India?

Speaking of Shashi Tharoor: it has been a major thoughtpoint of Shashi Tharoor's over the past couple of years that India would be better off with a Presidential System. Would a Presidential System be better for India? My short answer is : No. More on that below, but just to clarify : this is what I was talking about when I said that "I don't believe much of the other stuff [Tharoor] has written as well" in my previous post. 

A sampling of his opinion on this matter : 
“I believe that the Presidential system would be far better in our country than the Parliamentary system because of the nature of our polity and the fact that we have so many political parties, coalition governments have the say in the last couple of decades,” Tharoor said. He also said, “Parliamentary system sadly privileges a situation where checks and balances outweigh the possibility of decisive action and instead of electing someone to get something done and then holding him/her accountable at the next elections, we are essentially forced to elect someone who spends a large portion of their time try ing to stay in power rather than exercising their power in terms of effective governance.” 
Vivek Dehejia in the New York Times argued against this proposal raising four major points against the idea.
(1) The best government is the one you can get rid of most easily. (2) Voting patterns are not independent of the electoral system, and you may get something you didn’t wish for.  (3) Lack of decisiveness in government is not always, or even usually, socially undesirable. (4) Because of its complexity and importance, great prudence should be exercised in introducing sweeping constitutional reforms.
Points #3 and #4 are arguably the most weighty ones, the one with the most bearing on the matter at hand. The economy of India is doing quite well now that the government is out of the way in the growth sectors and there is no reason to bring it back in. Further to these points, here are three other reasons why the Presidential System is not a good one for India.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Where Apps Meet Work

From the New York Times:
Some apps onto which employees may move company information, like Facebook and Amazon, are well known. Others, like Remember the Milk, used for completing tasks, or CloudElephant, a data backup service, are news even to some of the experts in I.T. Skyhigh Networks, which recently started monitoring personal use of apps, has counted more than 1,200 services used in corporate networks from personal devices. 
Skyhigh signs up for each service, along with 1,000 others that have not yet touched a corporate network, and researches them for security issues, like whether people can share data anonymously, or how easy it is to get inside the system and obtain another customer’s data. The company then tunes a customer’s corporate network to allow services to have different degrees of access to information. 
“We have to be careful how we inspect for security vulnerabilities, since we don’t want to get arrested ourselves,” says Rajiv Gupta, the chief executive at Skyhigh. “What makes an iPhone interesting and scary is what happens in the cloud, and how I can upload things with one device and then download them to another from someplace else.” 
The problem of data leakage is as old as someone taking a carbon copy home on the weekend. What is different today is how people can take data with a finger swipe, and how little they know about whether a service has malware or how much it can see of what is going on elsewhere in a phone.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shashi Tharoor on the English language - some errors in his analysis

This article by Shashi Tharoor in the New York Times came up on the BAQC Facebook group earlier today.
An English friend of mine says that he nearly had a heart attack on a flight in the United States when the American pilot announced that the plane would be airborne "momentarily.' 'In British English, the language my friend speaks, "momentarily" means "for a moment," and he thought the pilot was suggesting an imminent crash soon after takeoff. In American English, however, "momentarily" means "in a moment," and the pilot was merely appeasing the impatient passengers.
I had my suspicions that Shashi Tharoor was not, in fact, accurately representing the subject matter. I had my suspicions, that's all. This is not intended to be a commentary on Shashi Tharoor himself. Although I hate to miss out on any opportunity to call into question a politician's motives.

Some of it was pretty clearly false.
A British linguist once told a New York audience that whereas a double negative could make a positive, there was no language in the world in which a double positive made a negative. A heckler put paid to his thesis in forthright American: "Yeah, right."
So, yeah, this is an old joke. "Yeah, yeah" and "Yeah, right" are two instances of usage in the English language where two positives seem to make a negative. But it occurred to me that, besides that problem, Shashi Tharoor was mistaken in ascribing this to the differences between British usage of the English language versus American. It is, in fact, a matter of context. (This would be studied as part of what is known as pragmatics in linguistics.) Even a British speaker of the English could say 'yeah, right' (and also 'yeah, yeah') to imply disagreement. The tone of voice is what would give away the context in this case. Unless, of course, the speaker is a teenager. Those fellows give nothing away.

As for Shashi Tharoor's point on the usage of the word "momentarily", it turns out that Mark Liberman has written up an entire post on this topic.
Cavett wrote: 
When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?” But I see the forces of darkness have prevailed, and this and many wrong uses are now deemed acceptable by the alleged guardians of our language, the too-quickly supine dictionary makers. Are they afraid of being judged “not with it”? What ever happened to, “Everybody does it don’t make it right”? 
I chose the quotation because it's an especially clear example of the sentiment that usage, no matter how widespread and how authoritative, doesn't outweigh the peever's sense that a certain usage is somehow morally wrong. But having chosen the passage, I felt in duty bound to check the implication that the evil sense of momentarily is a recent development, limited to ill-educated flight attendants and similar corporate drudges.
It was my understanding too that the word 'momentarily' should be used in the sense of 'for a moment'. People who use the word 'momentarily' in the 'soon' sense may strike some as ill-educated or under-educated but that usage, in fact, has some history to it. It is merely a deprecated usage of the word. It has little do with the differences between British and American English. So, anyway, Shashi Tharoor is quite mistaken on many points in this article. I don't believe much of the other stuff he has written as well. Poor Mr. Tharoor. The trouble with being a politician is nobody believes you even when you are being sincere. Because it is just so hard for anybody to tell.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Civil War is not yet over

The Civil War is not yet over. For some, it is still raging on. One very interesting experiment to confirm the attitude of people from the American South is described below. The science of the brain never ceases to fascinate. 
In the early 1990's, two psychologists at the University of Michigan—Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett—decided to conduct an experiment on the culture of honor. . . . So they decided to gather together a group of young men and insult them. Their methodology was disarmingly simple. "We sat down and tried to figure out what is the insult that would go to the heart of a 18 to 20 year old's brain," Cohen says. "It didn't take too long to come up with 'asshole.'" 
The experiment went like this. The social science building at the University of Michigan has a long narrow hallway in the basement, lined with filing cabinets. The young men were called into a classroom, one by one, and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they were told to drop off the questionnaire at the end of the hallway and return to the classroom—an innocent, seemingly simple academic exercise. 
For half the young men, that was it. They were the control group. For the other half, there was a catch. As they walked down the hallway with their questionnaire, another man—a confederate of the experimenters—walked past them and pulled out a drawer in one of the filing cabinets. The already narrow hallway was now even narrower. As the young men tried to squeeze by, the confederate looked up, annoyed. He slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut, jostled the young men with his shoulder and, in a low but audible voice, he said the trigger word—"asshole."
Update (Mar 27) : Thanks to Anand for the post text.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 4 - Hello, I am George Ringo and I am your new Pope

No, seriously. How come Hinduism doesn't have anyone with the 'Authority' that somebody at the head of an organization such as the Catholic Church has? One can blame colonialism, racism, and a bunch of other -isms, but these explanations seem not to address the fact that colonialism is an -ism of the past, the fact that racism doesn't seem to have blunted the aspirations of the non-white contenders for Popedom, et cetera, et cetera.

As part of the main thesis of this series of posts, I would like to argue that there are actually three main reasons that Hinduism has until now lacked an 'Authority':
  1. the constitution of India : India is, of course, the birthplace of Hinduism. The constitution of India has significant lacunae in its treatment of free speech and this makes it impossible for people to freely speak their minds;
  2. the network structure of Hinduism makes it impossible for a large 'Population' of Hindus to agree on anything.  
  3. A third reason is that, and this is important too, edcuated Indians are generally willing to give anyone who has an opinion a chance to speak, and are often more concerned about fairness than about correctness.
Now, correctness in academic inquiry comes from both knowledge and methodology and the problem is that very few of the intellectuals have good methodology. As recently as 2004, we have had someone wih the reputation of Pankaj Mishra strenuously arguing that 'Hinduism is largely a fiction'. Even a first pass on his article shows that the argument lacks any methodology whatsoever. Here is Pankaj Mishra in Axess magazine, his article now having been picked up by somebody at Columbia. 
Hinduism is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernisers. Unlike Muslims, Hindus have tended to borrow more than reject, and it has now been reconfigured as a global rival to the big three monotheisms.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jared Diamond and the anthropologists

From Razib Khan on Gene Expression:
I want to be clear that I think Jared Diamond is wrong on a lot of details, and many cultural anthropologists are rightly calling him out on that. But, they do a disservice to their message by politicizing their critique, and ascribing malevolence to all those who disagree with their normative presuppositions. Scholarship is hard enough without personalized politicization, and I stand by Jared Diamond’s right to be sincerely wrong without having his character assassinated. As the vehemence of my post suggests the only solution I can see to this ingrained tick among many cultural anthropologists is to drop the pretense of genteel discourse, and blast back at them with all the means at our disposal. Telling them to stick to facts nicely won’t do any good, these are trenchant critics of Social Darwinism who engage in the most bare-knuckle war of all-against-all when given any quarter. Coexistence in the academy is simply not possible with this particular culture, extirpation is the only long term ESS for the rest of us.

Update (Mar 27, from Sankaran Manikutty): Hi Anand, an interesting story I came across on Discover magazine's blog. Any thoughts on this? If so, open up the comment section and comment away.

Response (from Anand, 7:39 pm): Not worth my time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Quantum algorithm performs a true calculation for the first time

From the University of Bristol:
An international research group led by scientists from the University of Bristol, UK, and the University of Queensland, Australia, has demonstrated a quantum algorithm that performs a true calculation for the first time. Quantum algorithms could one day enable the design of new materials, pharmaceuticals or clean energy devices. 
The team implemented the ‘phase estimation algorithm’ — a central quantum algorithm which achieves an exponential speedup over all classical algorithms.  It lies at the heart of quantum computing and is a key sub-routine of many other important quantum algorithms, such as Shor’s factoring algorithm and quantum simulations.
Dr Xiao-Qi Zhou, who led the project, said: “Before our experiment, there had been several demonstrations of quantum algorithms, however, none of them implemented the quantum algorithm without knowing the answer in advance. This is because in the previous demonstrations the quantum circuits were simplified to make it more experimentally feasible. However, this simplification of circuits required knowledge of the answer in advance. Unlike previous demonstrations, we built a full quantum circuit to implement the phase estimation algorithm without any simplification. We don’t need to know the answer in advance and it is the first time the answer is truly calculated by a quantum circuit with a quantum algorithm.”

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 3 - Blistering barnacles

Bad ideas are like barnacles. They have a tendency to hold on. In Hindu Studies, there has been this tendency to think that every opinion is created equal. This is an understandable intellectual response to the organizational nature of Hinduism. If there is no organization that can serve as an 'Authority' (as, for example, the Catholic Church for Catholicism), then surely, all opinions must be equal. (Ed Note: Of course, they are not). My thesis, as part of this series of posts, is that Hinduism is different from other religions in that it does not possess a hierarchical structure but rather has a network structure. This is the reason for the mistaken intellectual response that you often see.

The same sort of mistake, oddly enough, also happens in India Studies, but it may be a bit more involved to state why. The reason is incentives. Professors have no incentive to point out mistakes in the work of others. Tenure decisions are not made based on how much you help other academics correct their analysis. It is much better to execute a policy of 'live and let live' wherein nobody finds fault with anybody else. This strategy is a Nash equilibrium. And not surprisingly, that is exactly what professors do.

Unfortunately for these professors, they are many of us who know that not all opinions are indeed created equal. An academic paper is much more likely to convince if it has the backing of sound mathematical statistics and solid numbers. The non-mathematical approach to academe continues to be popular, but it is unfortunately a recipe for disaster. What we have in place of actual intellectual analysis is a perfect storm of confusion. In the case of Hinduism, billions of people with billions of ideas about their faith, all of them somehow treated as correct. In the case of India Studies, hundreds of academics with conflicting ideas about India, all of them somehow consistent. I suppose anything else would be considered 'privileging' according to the so-called Theories of Power fancied by the Marxists.

Below is an example of this sort of a mess. The article I had linked to before by Paul Brass clearly suffers from this same sort of a non-mathematical analysis problem. The author argues that secularism in India is somehow different from that in other countries. To a social scientist, this is an inconsistent, even bizarre, position. Why is it be different? Why should it be different? Why are the social scientific methodologies that are already providing excellent insights on the economics and political economy of India invalid? The answer is straightforward : they are not.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Happy, snappy tweets

From the New Scientist:
Want to be popular on Twitter? There are plenty of people who claim they can help, but their tips rarely work and many of them are scammers. Now scientists have joined in, boiling down half a million tweets to a few simple rules for gaining a following. 
C.J. Hutto (@cjhutto on Twitter) and colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta examined the content and retweeting fate of tweets sent by 500 non-celebrities over a 15-month period. They looked for 2800 terms that convey positive and negative emotions, including slang and swear words, a set of emoticons and common acronyms, like LOL. 
By giving each term a score on a sliding scale of positivity they were able to assess whether Twitter users who used each term gained or lost followers. The keys to success, they found, were to tweet positive messages, write clearly and retweet interesting titbits of news.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Block throwing robot

While on the topic of robots, here is a video that is too cool to not post. Behold BigDog! Boston-based Boston Dynamics has developed a four-legged robot called BigDog, which has a throwing arm strong enough to throw cinder blocks. See below. Enjoy!

Update (Mar 3): Updated post with typos fixed, etc.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Making mobile robots work together

From McGill University comes news of novel, innovative uses for robotic technology:
The danger that icebergs represent to both shipping and to the underwater cables that traverse the ocean floors is very real. It’s tricky for satellites to identify icebergs, and almost impossible to accurately predict the level of risk they present. Drifting clouds can make it difficult to see the movements of sea ice as well as the underwater shape of the icebergs that determines their movement and whether they are a threat. This is why ships moving off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and the coast of Labrador are asked to report their position and ice observation to Ice St. John’s every six hours.  
But one of the goals of the newly formed NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), led by McGill University Computer Science professor Gregory Dudek, is to find ways to solve this problem by using robots to monitor both the above ground and underwater dimensions of icebergs. This is just one of many applications made possible by this network, which will develop robotic tools that will not only enhance our ability to measure and understand the Canadian environment, but will advance planetary exploration as well.