Monday, March 02, 2015

Stephen King on Writing

An article he published in 1986 in The Writer -- Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes -- is largely devoted to advice on publishing fiction [hat tip to @AkshatRathi on Twitter].

By sheer coincident, Jessica Lahey's interview of Stephen King on how he teaches writing to high school students also showed up in my linkstream.

If you are into this sort of stuff, both are worth your time. Let me post a couple of excerpts from the first article. Here's how he defines success for a writer:

... For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success – publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented. Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?

Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We’re not talking about good or bad here. I’m interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn’t get paid.

He ends his piece on a highly quotable quote:

If it’s bad, kill it

When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Not Entirely Unintended Consequences of the Erasmus Program

Ah, the possibilities of student exchange [This is six months late, but I'm struck by the timelessness of this "news"]:

A study published by the European Commission this week suggests that more than a quarter of those who take part in its long-running Erasmus scheme meet their long-term partner while studying abroad – and that more than one million babies may have been produced as a result. [...]

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said the one million babies statistic was a “touching little figure” that proved the scheme “creates a lot of positive things”. “It is a great encouragement to young people to go and live abroad and open up to all the opportunities that exist if you are willing,” she added.

And, oh, the report has a lot more about how great the Erasmus program has been.


  1. David Pilling: Lunch with FT: Amitav Ghosh.

  2. Ram Guha in HT: The suit might not have suited Gandhi and Patel.

  3. Nandini Sundar in The Indian Express: Whose National Interest?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Amartya Sen's Tenure at Nalanda

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan presents a dim assessment of Sen's Chancellorship at Nalanda: This isn't the first time Nalanda and Amartya Sen have been controversial – it happened during UPA too:

Controversies from the beginning

From the very beginning, the Nalanda project ran into trouble. Conceived as a way of reviving an age-old institution that had once been the world's first university, the project initially garnered lots of interest from East Asian countries with links to India. Parliament passed a law in 2010 to set up the university with the assistance of the Nalanda Mentor Group, which included a number of other nations that were a part of the project, meaning the Ministry of External Affairs rather than the Human Resource Development Ministry was put in charge of what should have been one of India's most important educational institutions.

Even before the act had been signed by the president and notified, however, MEA appeared to have appointed a Vice Chancellor to run the university. [...]

Group Discussion to Select IIT Directors?

Basant Kumar Mohanty reports The Telegraph: Smriti bins IIT heads shortlist:

In May last year, after the results of the national elections were out but no HRD minister had formally taken charge, the ministry had advertised the posts seeking fresh applications.

The NDA government later set up the search panels for scrutinising applications.

The committees invited the applicants for group discussions and decided to video-record the interaction. But some of the applicants found the process embarrassing and later - when called for the interview with the HRD minister - opted out.

The last sentence doesn't surprise me.

The result of this royal botch-up is that the selection of new directors for three IITs (Ropar, Bhubaneswar and Patna) has been set back by months.


  1. Deevy Bishop: Editors behaving badly?. It starts with this (and goes down from there!):

    ... I found that for 32 papers co-authored by Matson in this journal between 2010 and 2014 for which the information was available, the median lag from a paper being received and it being accepted was one day.

  2. Scott Burns in Dallas Morning News: Tortured data will confess to anything. Mentions Uri Simonsohn and p-hacking. And, of course, torture of data.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Pauli's Inferiority Principle

Esther Inglis-Arkell in io9: The Romance That Led To A Legendary Science Burn:

Pauli was not just hurt by the fact that his marriage had come apart - he jokingly referred to being married only in a "loose way" - but by his bride's choice of man. Deppner had left him for a chemist, of all things, and not even a good one. Pauli loudly complained to his friends, "Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood - with such a man I could not compete - but a chemist - such an average chemist!" [Bold emphasis added]

I heard this quote in Prof. George Whitesides's talk titled "Reinventing Chemistry" at IISc two years ago; it's nice to get the back story with names (if you are impatient, go to 28:45 in the video).

Dissonance of the Day

From this story from the UK:

Survey results published by YouGov on 15 February found that only being an author or a librarian was more attractive than a life working in higher education. [So, that's Rank # 3 out of 31 professions.]

A little later in the same story:

According to the Cabinet Office’s career “happiness index”, published last year, “higher education teaching professionals” are the 61st most contented section of the UK workforce of 274 professional areas assessed.


  1. Harvard University press release: Cooperation, considered. "New model reveals how motives can affect cooperation". This is based on an interesting game -- a variation of the cooperation game by adding a twist that conveys some information about the first player's motives to the second player.

  2. Emily Singer in Quanta: Game Theory Calls Cooperation Into Question. "A recent solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic game theory scenario, has created new puzzles in evolutionary biology."

  3. Clive Thompson in Smithsonian: How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played. A very interesting excerpt about how the US lawmakers viewed "xeroxing":

    “It was really a great moment in the late ’70s when it was a wonderful loosening of copyright,” says Lisa Gitelman, professor of English and media studies at New York University. These days, Congress is working hard­—often at the behest of movie studios or record labels—in the opposite direction, making it harder for people to copy things digitally. But back in the first cultural glow of the Xerox, lawmakers and judges came to the opposite conclusion: Copying was good for society.

IPCC Chief R.K. Pachauri Accused of Sexual Harassment

India Today has excerpts from e-mails and SMSs between a colleague and him, and they are sure to make you go, "Holy **** man, what were you thinking?".

When the allegation surfaced (see also this story), Pachauri claimed that his computer and phone were hacked into. But there is a new allegation by another woman who claims that many other women have also been harassed by Pachauri -- a decade ago.

Despite Pachauri's calling the allegation "a cloud which is causing problems personally", this is not going to end well for the IPCC chief and Padma Vibhushan awardee.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A PhD Glut?

As India's top institutions are being asked to admit, train, and graduate ever larger numbers of PhD scholars, the "overproduction" issue will come back to haunt us quite soon. Neuroskeptic presents a summary of a recent study of this question: Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia by MIT's R.C. Larson, N. Ghaffarzadegan, and Y. Xue.

The main conclusion is that academics are overbreeding PhDs. Here's the relevant plot from the (open access) paper by Larson et al:

Here's Neuroskeptic:

Larson et al. approach this question by borrowing a concept from epidemiology: R0 (R nought), known as the basic reproduction number. In the context of an infectious disease, R0 is the average number of people who are newly infected by the disease by each existing patient. Influenza, for example, has an R0 of about 1.2 – 1.6. If R0 is greater than 1, the disease will spread exponentially.

Larson et al. define the academic R0 as the total number of PhD graduates created by (supervised by) the average tenure-track academic (i.e professor) over the course of the professor’s career. If this number is greater than 1, more PhDs will be created than there are tenured posts for them all to occupy – assuming that the number of tenured professors is roughly constant.

It turns out that the R0 at MIT is approximately 10. MIT produces some 500 PhDs per year, and it has 1000 faculty. So each faculty member produces 0.5 students per year. Since the average faculty member’s career at MIT spans 20 years, each faculty member produces 10 PhDs in total.

Though Neuroskeptic refers to the use of R0 in studies of disease propagation (an interesting parallel, isn't it?), a more relevant analogy is in demographics (see total fertility rate in Wikipedia). And analogy is what Bill Condie runs with in his post at Cosmos Blog:

"We show that the reproduction rate in academia is very high," they write. "For example, in engineering, a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position.

"This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA."

One quick critique of this research, which Neuroskeptic points out, is its focus on academic jobs as the relevant criterion for assessing whether the US is producing too many PhDs. Doctoral degrees in many applied fields open up many opportunities outside academia, and therefore, "overproduction" may not be an issue at all. However, there certainly are fields (humanities) and subfields (theoretical astrophysics and cosmology come to mind immediately) where academic jobs are the primary -- if not the only -- motivation for the incoming graduate students.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Must-Read Post of the Week

Sabine Hossenfelder at Back Reaction has a great post -- Open Peer Review and Its Discontents -- about the role of commentary (in blogs, FB and G+ streams, etc) on papers that have already appeared in the public domain either as a journal article or as pre-prints at sites Her post is triggered by a "back reaction" of sorts from an author whose paper came in for some open criticism in her blog; this is what she says about this reaction:

Hummel [the journalist who wrote about the article in a German magazine] wrote by email he found my blogpost very useful and that he had also contacted the author asking for a comment on my criticism. The author’s reply can be found in Hummel’s article. It says that he hadn’t read my blogpost, wouldn’t read it, and wouldn’t comment on it either because he doesn’t consider this proper ‘scientific means’ to argue with colleagues. The proper way for me to talk to him, he let the journalist know, is to either contact him or publish a reply on the arxiv. Hummel then asked me what I think about this.

To begin with I find this depressing. Here’s a young researcher who explicitly refuses to address criticism on his work, and moreover thinks this is proper scientific behavior. I could understand that he doesn’t want to talk to me, evil aggressive blogger that I am, but that he refuses to explain his research to a third party isn’t only bad science communication, it’s actively damaging the image of science.

IISc Scientist in Forbes-India's 30-Under-30 List

A recent issue of Forbes-India featured a 30-Under-30 list (which sounds very much like the MIT Tech Review's 35-Under-35 list of innovators). It's great to see Prerna Sharma, a colleague in the Department of Physics (and a TIFR alumna), in the list. Also, Sharma is the lone scientist in the list!

Oliver Sacks on His Last Months

He has recently learned that he has "multiple metastases in the liver," the kind of cancer that "cannot be halted." He has a detached, yet touching, article on "how [he plans] to live out the months that remain to me." Here's a section on some of his choices, and the reasons behind them:

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. [...]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Game Theorist as Finance Minister

Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister of Greece and a former econ professor specializing in game theory, has a great op-ed on why his field provides a very poor basis for his actions: No Time for Games in Europe:

Game theorists analyze negotiations as if they were split-a-pie games involving selfish players. Because I spent many years during my previous life as an academic researching game theory, some commentators rushed to presume that as Greece’s new finance minister I was busily devising bluffs, stratagems and outside options, struggling to improve upon a weak hand.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.

The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.