Friday, October 30, 2015

The plunge in DNA sequencing costs

These pair of remarkable charts are from the US National Human Genome Research Institute:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The meaning and purpose of higher education

Balu's paper: "Rethinking a Humboldtian vision for the 21st century". (PDF file)

The teacher does not presuppose a pre-existent motivation in the student; in fact, s/he is indifferent to the multiple motives present among the students. The teacher provides a goal for the student, induces the student to search for truth, and instils in that student a capacity to reach that goal as well. The teacher does not merely provide ‘information’ for the student to choose and pick but actively participates in the learning process by convincing the student that pursuing the goal of seeking truth is the ultimate goal of higher education. Far from being a mere (pre)condition for learning, the teacher becomes an equal partner in the educational process of the student. Pedagogy, in this new Humboldtian vision, is not subordinated to psychology, but becomes as crucial to the learning process as the presence of the learner.

The student learns autonomously, but this autonomy is taught by the teacher and is acquired by the student at the end of a particular phase in the learning process. Through the active intervention of the teacher in the learning process, the student slowly acquires the ability to learn autonomously. Autonomy, then, is the end-product of higher education and not its presupposition. The teacher becomes an exemplar for the student to follow because the former embodies the unity of facts and values, namely, knowledge.

Consequently, the University does not merely become an institution that functions as a reservoir of information. It becomes that social institution which builds bonds between two generations.

If one accepts this as a mission of the University and the Teacher, then
Pedagogical innovations become interesting only to the extent they succeed in the goal of inculcating the value of searching for truth in the student.

IMO, that is the answer to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Global Climate Prospects

Vox has an article worth reading carefully: The math on staying below 2°C of global warming looks increasingly brutal.

With respect to India:
One possibility is that emission cuts would be divided equally among countries. The United States and Europe and China and India and Zimbabwe would all make proportionally similar sacrifices to stay below 2°C. When the dust settled, the average American would still emit more than the average Indian, but they'd each have made similar percentage cuts. The authors call this the "inertia" approach.

Another option would be to divvy up cuts so that every country has roughly the same level of per capita emissions. In this scenario, India's emissions are allowed to grow, while the US and Europe have to cut much more deeply. The authors call this the "equity" approach.
With that under your belt:
India would also have to make wrenching changes. On Twitter, Peters posted a graph comparing India's projected emissions under current policies (the purple line) with what'd be required under "inertia" or "equity" scenarios for staying below 2°C:

Given that India is currently planning to double coal production by 2020 as it lifts itself out of poverty, this looks incredibly unlikely.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sanjaya Baru: India's Cultural Revolution

Sanjaya Baru points out:

The elections of May 2014 marked a turning point. After storming the Delhi Durbar, Narendra Modi chose to marginalise the Nehruvian elite rather than coopt them. The consequent Left-Right divide in India’s intellectual discourse is now out in the open. While Vajpayee sought to win over the ‘liberal centre’, Modi has pushed them away, allowing them to move closer to the Left. Modi seems to view his electoral victory as the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Nehruvian elite in India’s intellectual discourse.

That this intellectual regime change should impact so many institutions, ranging from an institute to train film and television talent to one aimed at promoting research in recent history, is a reflection of the enormity of the role of the Nehruvian State in shaping post-colonial intellectual discourse in India. In how many modern democracies does the government run a film and TV institute or a school for journalists? The Nehruvian State was involved in manufacturing not just scooters and bread but also culture. While other post-Nehruvian prime ministers began the process of getting the government out of the business of manufacturing scooters and bread, none of them, not even Modi, has tried to end governmental grip over cultural institutions.

It is not surprising that the first salvo against Modi’s attempted intellectual regime change in the Delhi Durbar should have come from none other than Jawaharlal Nehru’s own niece. Several generations of the Nehruvian elite and members of the Delhi Durbar are now up in arms. This will go on. In many institutions they may well be replaced by less accomplished people. Such is the nature of cultural revolutions.
We saw the lament of the displaced elite in Aatish Taseer's recent OpEd in the New York Times; and I expect we'll see much more ululation in the New York Times and the London Times and so on, as this elite draws on its international resources.  Maybe it will be their swan song.

The Indian Express has a rather different take; Yatish Yadav and Pratul Sharma write:
As intellectuals take a political stand against the Modi government, polarising the cultural establishment, the NDA refuses to rise to the bait.

But others are responding, e.g., as quoted by them:
Nayantara Sahgal received the award from the Prime Minister who had previously said that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. She was ready to receive the award from him.

The Prime Minister in question was Congress's Rajiv Gandhi; and what he said was in response to the Congress-led anti-Sikh riots in Delhi that happened after his mother and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. This is the kind of example that would have any objective observer reach the conclusion that selective outrage and politics go hand-in-hand.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

India - lighting energy efficiency savings

By replacing incandescent and CFL bulbs with LEDs, in Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh, a government program has resulted in:
A staggering 68 lakh kilowatts of energy is saved every day. This includes a cut in 645 megawatts of power during peak hours, a 5,520-tonne drop in daily carbon emission and domestic savings of Rs 2.71 crore every day.
The LED project is financed by consumers themselves through two plans. The first one is an 'onbill EMI' model under which consumers have to pay Rs 105 for an LED bulb across 10 months, which is added to the monthly power bill. The second plan allows the consumer to buy bulbs in one go — every consumer is entitled to four LED bulbs — by paying Rs 100 apiece. (The bulbs come with a three-year replacement warranty.)

LED bulbs actually cost Rs 300-350 apiece in the market — the government offers cheaper bulbs because it procures in bulk, around 7.5 crore bulbs so far. The government effort has already halved market prices from Rs 650-700 apiece a year ago.

For the project, LED lamps are procured at Rs 78 apiece. The additional Rs 27 that consumers must pay are due to the interest charges on financing, database maintenance and distribution cost.
(1 crore = 10 million.   The exchange rate today is 1 USD = 64.79 INR)

Monday, October 12, 2015

A nation stuck in high school

The Martian is a movie worth watching.  It is about the struggle for survival of an astronaut stranded on Mars.  The story is in the "hard" science fiction category, i.e., it mostly gets the science right, and the technology is not far from feasible.  If we don't blow ourselves up or pollute ourselves to death, we will be the spacefaring species whose first baby steps are depicted in this movie.  But will America be leading these steps?

This story about the movie, (and witnessing America's news shows and political debates) makes me think that high school is a traumatic experience for Americans, which very few outgrow.
  • "15 Times The Martian Made Science Nerds Look Totally Bad-Ass"
  • "But at its core, it's just a feel-good movie about science nerds."
  • "This isn't your average Interstellar-like tear-jerker, after all; this is an all-out love letter to math. And chemistry. And physics. And botany. And again (and most importantly) nerds. Argue what you will about the scientific accuracy of each and every plot line (although chances are experts won't find too many moments to discredit), but The Martian officially makes it cool to be a nerd."
PS: Prof. Paul Krugman, in his blog:
Anyway, it’s quite sad that after all these years political coverage still treats the momentous issue of who will lead the world’s most powerful nation like a high school popularity contest.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Retd US Army Col. W.P. Lang on Syria


What to do?-  I was asked today to state what I think should be done:
    * Accept the truth that we destroyed the Iraqi state and from that act of vandalism all present chaos in that country derives.
    * Don't do it again in Syria.
    * Stop saying that no "Assad cronies" can be in the government or head the government.  They ARE the government.  Assad himself is dispensable, but not the government of Syria.
    * Act like Russia, China and Iran matter as something other than rivals and adversaries.
    *  Ignore Erdogan's Turkey.  It is  a manifestation of the jihadi enemy.  They will deny us use of Incirlik and the other bases?  Fine, that would clarify the situation.  Move onto Syrian bases or the big, unused NATO built base north of Tripoli in Lebanon.
    * Ignore Saudi Arabia's wishes with regard to Syria.  They are jihadi supporters.
    *  Ignore Israel's wishes with regard to Syria.  Natanyahu's government is pursuing a mistaken and short sighted policy of eliminating coherent government in Syria for the purpose of crippling their Lebanese Hizbullah adversaries whom they think exist because of Syrian and Iranian help.  The Likud's imagined interest in Syria is not America's interest.
    * Accept Russian and Iranian co-belligerence in the war against the jihadis, ALL JIHADIS.
    * Fully coordinate operations, intelligence analysis sharing and logistics with the co-belligerent partners.

Friday, October 09, 2015

India's carbon dioxide emissions

Via BRF, an Economist article, and this graphic below.
A quote from the article:
India’s programme to subsidise the replacement of 400m cheap incandescent light bulbs with dearer LED ones would save 6,000 megawatts of installed capacity—equivalent to the entire electricity-generating capacity of Nigeria.

Monday, October 05, 2015

On free speech in India

Postscript at the start - it may be best to first read MEMRI's Tufail Ahmad - he captures the sentiment accurately: "India's Thought Cops are Angry with Modi".


Let it also be absolutely clear that there is no justification for a lynching or a murder.  There are time-honored methods of protest available in India, such as the Gherao and the Dharna. There is no indication that the aggrieved tried these methods.

In the New York Times, Ms. Sonia Faleiro makes the claim:
IN today’s India, secular liberals face a challenge: how to stay alive.
There is some truth to it;  Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, who had taken asylum in India, fled to New York City earlier this year, after the government could not secure her against further Islamist threats emanating from Bangladesh.

Oh, sorry, wrong topic.

In the assassinations of 3 rationalists, the investigative agencies are making progress.  Just a couple of days before Ms. Faleiro's screed, the Hindu reported:
Documents seized from Samir Gaikwad — an accused under arrest in connection with the murder of social activist Govind Pansare — indicate a link to the murders of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and noted scholar M.M. Kalburgi.
Mr. Gaikwad is a full-time member of extreme right wing Hindu organisation, Sanatan Sanstha, which has its headquarters in Goa’s Ramnathi village.
which is not exactly the center of the Indian universe.  Anyway, we have to wait and see if the agencies come up with enough to launch a prosecution.

Supposedly, the ruling party at the center not speaking about this is some kind of crime.  Anyway, in other worrisome news, no one is talking about 
IN today’s Uttar Pradesh, journalists face a challenge: how to stay alive.
A TV journalist was assassinated a couple of days ago; it was the third assassination in four months in Uttar Pradesh.  The motive for the killings seems clear, these journalists were touching on the government-mafia nexus.    But Uttar Pradesh is not ruled by a "right wing Hindu Nationalist Party" and so the journalists of the New York Times cannot spare two lines for their martyred colleagues in that state.

Oh, by the way, the Prime Minister has not publicly condemned these murders either, so no doubt, by Faleiro logic, he must be complicit in them.  Somehow.

Comment:  if Americans wanted to comment on, say, Hungary, there is not a lot of English press, and so what Krugman puts on his NYT blog may have to suffice; but with India there is available, on the web, free -- not behind paywalls -- the national English press; and yet Americans are happy to make categorical comments about India without bothering to even keep up with that press.  People who do so are to be shunned like the plague.

I'll contrast with the Pakistan watchers on BRF - the Pakistani English press is avidly consumed,  there are a few who follow the Urdu; and the Urdu broadcast media is also followed.    Some people also keep track of prominent Pakistanis on social media; and others follow Pakistani forums online (e.g.,   Yet, opinion emanating from there, no matter how informed, is likely to be dismissed offhand.  Yet spout off about "the threat posed by India's Hindu nationalism" and sound both learned and liberal!  And for Americans, a master of foreign affairs; a globally conscious citizen of the world!!

As to Sonia Faleiro herself, she seems to be of the school that Hindus are superstitious, but the miracles of the Bible are true religion.