Disorganization and intimidation: how not to manage scientific reesarch

The New York Times buried this at the end of their article, but it's hilarious and hits close to home.

The case of Mr. Ayyadurai, the M.I.T. lecturer, illustrates just how frustrating the experience can be for someone schooled in more direct, American-style management. After a long meeting with a top bureaucrat, who gave him a handwritten job offer, Mr. Ayyadurai signed on to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or C.S.I.R., a government-financed agency that reports to the ministry of science.

The agency is responsible for creating a new company, called C.S.I.R.-Tech, to spin off profitable businesses from India’s dozens of public laboratories. Currently, the agency, which oversees 4,500 scientists, generates just $80 million in cash flow a year, even though its annual budget is the equivalent of half a billion dollars.

Mr. Ayyadurai said he spent weeks trying to get answers and responses to e-mail messages, particularly from the person who hired him, the C.S.I.R. director general, Samir K. Brahmachari. After several months of trying to set up a business plan for the new company with no input from his boss, he said, he distributed a draft plan to C.S.I.R.’s scientists asking for feedback, and criticizing the agency’s management.

Four days later, Mr. Ayyadurai was forbidden from communicating with other scientists. Later, he received an official letter saying his job offer was withdrawn.

The complaints in Mr. Ayyadurai’s paper could be an outline for what many inside and outside India say could be improved in some workplaces here: disorganization, intimidation, a culture where top directors’ decisions are rarely challenged and a lack of respect for promptness that means meetings start hours late and sometimes go on for hours with no clear agenda.

But going public with such accusations is highly unusual. Mr. Ayyadurai circulated his paper not just to the agency’s scientists but to journalists, and wrote about his situation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India is “sitting on a huge opportunity” to create new businesses and tap into thousands of science and technology experts, Mr. Ayyadurai said, but a “feudal culture” is holding the country back.

Mr. Brahmachari said in an interview that Mr. Ayyadurai had misunderstood nearly everything — from his handwritten job offer, which he said was only meant to suggest what Mr. Ayyadurai could receive were he to be hired, to the way Mr. Ayyadurai asked scientists for their feedback on what the C.S.I.R. spinoff should look like.

To prove his point, Mr. Brahmachari, who was two hours late for an interview scheduled by his office, read from a government guide about decision-making in the organization. Mr. Ayyadurai didn’t follow protocol, he said. “As long as your language is positive for the organization I have no problem,” he added.

As the interview was closing, Mr. Brahmachari questioned why anyone would be interested in the situation, and then said he would complain to a reporter’s bosses in New York if she continued to pursue the story.

Many of my classmates have moved back to India, but they tend to work in sectors like electronics design or software. While the private sector has, for the most part, become dynamic and driven, public-sector scientific organizations remain hide bound. Little innovation happens there and mainly it's because they are managed that way.

The old country, well regarded

The Obamas just got done hosting their first state dinner. A full year after they took office. Gordon Brown didn't get one on his visit. Neither did Netanyahu. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, has been the only visiting head of state to get one. Interesting ...

It's gone relatively unremarked, but there are 2-million Americans of Indian descent now. Indian Americans are the wealthiest minority in the US (not the Jews: please don't tell the neo-Nazis). The community is also extremely engaged in the political and cultural milieu of this country. And of course, Silicon Valley is chockful of Indian millionaires. So, this is not just about India being a natural ally of the US, it's also about domestic politics. Still, it's gratifying to see the old home country being well regarded.

... the meatless menu included a mix of Indian and American favorites, including some African-American standards. Collard greens and curried prawns, chickpeas and okra, nan and cornbread ... So, you have a vegetarian guest and you decide to have a meatless meal in his honor. How about a vegetarian meal? Come on, can't you give the crustaceans a rest? Still ... collard greens and curried prawns is an inspirational combination, especially for a state dinner: it's reflective of vibrant melting pots, of New Orleans (Mississippi & Cajun) and Mumbai (Karnataka & Goa). Curried prawns, eh? Wonder if they're as good as mine. Could us plebes get a recipe?

Obama gave a shout-out to the shared ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that these giants were the reasons why he (Obama) and Manmohan Singh could be there that night. Brings to mind this famous photograph of MLK standing beside a picture of Gandhi. A good set of shared ideals to harken to.

At home, though, it's a different shared history between India and the US that has taken hold. The kids and I somehow ended up reading back-to-back the stories of Paul Revere ("The British are coming"), the first War of Indian Independence (the brutal put down of the "Sepoy Mutiny") and the Madison presidency (Madison fleeing across the Potomac as the British burned down the White House). Now, the 5-year old thinks "British" is just one type of monster. Americans have put their sordid history with the British behind them, to the point where a British accent is fawned over. In India, however, British influences are still a prickly point. In contrast, Indian attitudes towards America and Americans are uncomplicated and mostly admiring.

But, forget all that! Curried prawns ... wish I can find Marcus Samuelsson's recipe. I bet you anything the he's fruited it up with mango sauce or something. Mine's probably better. Sure, it is.

The miracle of spray paint

Now that S1 has moved on to a 20" bicycle, S2 inherited the 16" one.

"But," she complained, "this is a boys' bike." This is a first. We've been palming off her brother's old clothes and toys on her for 5 years with no word of complaint. Still ... frugality dies hard.

Two cans of spray paint can do wonders, especially if she gets to choose the colors and hold down the sprayer.

Before and after:

UPDATE: K., snarking on Facebook, wants to know why I don't have a close-up picture of the finished handiwork. "Must not be too proud," he muses. Jeez, have some trust people!

Google Maps not reliable anymore

I've long been a user and fan of Google Maps -- its user interface and data mining simply can't be beat. In places like New York City, it even links to train and ferry timings, so you can get combination walking+public transport directions.

But the quality of their directions has dropped. Earlier this month, I needed walking directions in Syracuse and was directed to a spot a quarter-mile away and on the other side of the interstate. This would be bad enough if you are driving, but when you are walking, it's a disaster. If I'd known the walking path would require me to take a 1-mile detour to cross the interstate, I'd have taken a taxi!

Why is the map location so bad? Google's stopped buying map data and is instead using internal data. So, the quality of the maps is now much poorer; they're relying on user reports to correct errors and bring the maps to the old quality. Did I report that error in the location of the Syracuse building I was getting to? No, I didn't. Few people will.

Use Google Maps with care.

Aspiring to be Detroit

One country's industrial desolation is another country's aspiration.

The ad on the left is advertising a new housing addition in Chennai, which is fast becoming India's automotive capital. Note the names of the companies whose manufacturing plants are located nearby. The name of the development? Detroit.

Schwinn bicycle designers should read Wikipedia

S1 has outgrown his 16" bicycle and so we went out and bought a 20" one yesterday. I had taken it out of the box and started to assemble it when I discovered that I needed an Allen key. Turned out that I had three sets of Allen keys -- in one set, I had 4mm and 5mm. In the other set, I had 7mm, 8mm and 10mm. The third set was English units -- 5/32, 3/16, 1/4 and 3/8-inch keys.

But the Allen key that I needed to assemble the bike? 6 mm. Of course Home Depot's not going to carry a single key. I'm going to have to buy yet one more set, this time one that includes a 6mm key.

Wikipedia, useful as always, offers: 4 mm keys are almost exactly the same size as 5/32", and 8 mm keys are almost exactly the same size as 5/16", which makes 4 mm and 8 mm preferred numbers for consumer products such as self-assembly particle-board furniture, because end users can successfully use an imperial key on a metric fastener, or vice versa, without stripping. Wish the designers of Schwinn bicycles would read Wikipidea.

Please, Microsoft. No upgrades

The change from Office 2003 to 2007 broke all my Powerpoint presentations. Old templates and macros didn't work. Text got randomly resized. Callout boxes pointed to the wrong things. I can never just borrow slides from older presentations -- I need to inevitably edit the stuff. And now, just when I thought I'd caught up, Microsoft is releasing the beta of Office 2010. Yikes! Enough already.

Dead bottom

Yesterday at the bridge club was one of those days when nothing worked. Consider this deal where we scored a dead bottom.

I was playing South, in 6H on a 4-3 heart fit. I cash the two top spades and lead the third spade for a ruff. West discards a diamond; I ruff with the 9. I then cash A-K of hearts and learn the bad news about the heart split. I come back to my hand with a diamond. Then, I cash the Q-J of hearts. At this point, West has his fifth heart and I have none. Then, I play a club to the Ace and club back to hand and start playing clubs from the top. West can ruff the club, but he is end-played. He doesn't have a spade, so has to lead a diamond to the K-diamond in dummy on which I pitch my remaining spade. Then, a club to my hand.

6H made on a 4-3 fit when West has more trumps than me! Unfortunately, though, every one else was in 6NT and that contract has 12 cold tricks.

Book tour fail

Sarah Palin is going to be visiting Norman to sign her book.  The story quotes a book store manager as saying that she wants to visit small towns.  In pursuit of "real America", no doubt.

But here's the thing.  What kind of small towns have bookstores big enough to host a celebrity book signing?  College towns.  Towns whose politics would tilt 180 degrees from the hockey mom's.

Disney morals

This summer, we took the kids to Disney World. It was one of the worst things we've ever done with our kids. As my Facebook status soon during the visit read: "I don't like what Magic Kingdom is doing to our kids". We bailed out after one day even though we'd originally planned to spend 3 days in Disney parks.

S1, for the most part, was unaffected. He was simply thrilled that he got to go on rides all by himself. But S2 was totally engrossed in the crazy Disney spectacle of princesses. She picked up a lot of ideas that we had to work on correcting.

The image above, from here, therefore struck a nerve.

Changed, changing and stuck

Singapore was all agog recently because a Chinese immigrant professed that she still loved her native country. What they would think of someone with three "homes" escapes me ...

When I first interviewed for a job in Oklahoma, the only thing I knew about the state was "Grapes of Wrath". I came expecting dusty cornfields and weather-beaten people. Instead, I got a dramatic horizons, green fields and a friendly bunch of people. So, this struck me as true:
... several locals were telling a visitor about some of the assets of their state ... Their wives say that Oklahoma could use a beach. Otherwise, they had no complaints ... Between 2005 and 2007 Oklahoma had some 6,000 transplants from California. The grapes of wrath taste a little sweeter now.
In India, a government-owned enterprise is trying to increase condom usage amongst prostitutes:
WHICH flavour of condom do you prefer? ... Prostitutes in India opted for paan, or betel nut wrapped in a leaf, which many Indians chew as a digestive. Their answer persuaded HLL Lifecare, a company based in the state of Kerala, to market a paan-flavoured condom.
Admirably open-minded, don't you think? A state-owned enterprise conducting surveys among prostitutes and listening to their preferences ... Less open-minded, not suprisingly, is Africa. Liberia is, hands down, the most bigoted place I've ever lived in (not that I don't love Liberians and Liberia, mind you). It may be Uganda, but this describes Liberian attitudes to a T:
The country’s mix of vigorous heterosexuality and religiosity have made it one of Africa’s more homophobic places ... “Carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, as one MP put it, is imported by corrupt white men and women.

Thoughts on Google's new Go Programming Language

Google's been working on a new programming language called "Go". I went through the tutorial today and here are some hasty conclusions. I'll use Java as a contrast even though Go is more similar to C/C++ because you're likelier to be familiar with Java.

The Good:
  1. Functions can return multiple values. In Java, you're often creating useless new data structures just so you can return multiple objects from a method. Don't have to do that in Go.
  2. The concept of goroutines -- lightweight processes that communicate via a channel -- is quite awesome. They are easy to set up and you can feed one channel easily from another channel. You can even specify what types of objects the channel will receive. Presumably, serialization takes place under the covers.
  3. Things are very terse and UNIX-like. A steeper learning curve, but improved productivity. That's usually a worthwhile trade-off.
  4. There are lots of existing packages, so it's a full-fledged language already. And it's all open-source, so you have tons of examples to look at.
  5. No exceptions. Exceptions in Java have lead to a lot of crud. Go is back to basics.
  6. Interfaces in Go are really cool. If a method in Java asks for an interface as a parameter and you want to pass it a class, it's got to implement that interface. Which means you probably need access to the source of the class if it doesn't already implement the interface, even if you know the class has the methods that you need. Templatized methods in C++ are nice in that regard because you can pass in any class that has the necessary parameters. Interfaces in Go share the characteristics of both Java interfaces and C++ templates. They form a type hierarchy, but you can fit a class to an interface after the fact as well.

The Bad:
  1. Namespaces in Go as just as ugly as in C++. Java conventions have you naming your namespaces something like org.wdssii.polarvil so that you don't mistakenly name your packages to something someone else is using. In Go, the package is the same name as the file, so you're totally dependent on your project organization. Pretty fragile.
  2. There are way too many optional things in Go. Semicolons at the end of statements are optional, for example. Variables can be declared without actually specifying the type. This is just asking for trouble. It's better for a programming language to be simple and consistent. Java is very nice that way.
  3. There are magic variables defined globally by packages. For example, to parse command-line arguments, main() doesn't give you any parameters. Instead, you've got to use the package "flag" which magically gives you a Arg variable.
The Ugly:
  1. I see a line import "fmt" that seems to import strings. Really? Shouldn't you only import packages? Well turns out that you are importing a file at a particular location. Sort of like a #include. Java's import and classpath idiom is much nicer for moving code around.
  2. Functions whose names are capitalized are exported. If a function's name starts with a lower-case, it's private. Yikes. Didn't we already try this with Fortran? Variables whose names start with i, j or k are integers? Else not. Why go through that type of mess again?
  3. Every C-like language puts its return type before the method name. So what does Go do? It puts the return types after the method and its parameters. Why? Just to be cute?
  4. The claim is that Go programs can call C -- important because so many scientific libraries are written in Fortran/C. But it depends on using a particular compiler (gccgo) . This really ought to be built into the language. Java's Native Interface is better that way.
The Bleh:
  1. You define variables with a keyword "var". Functions with a keyword "func". They must have been looking at studies that say new programmers can't tell variables from functions and declarations from usage. So, they decided to be helpful. But it's ridiculous. Here's a language that tries to be all terse and everything and then they have this verbose crap?
  2. The distinction between reference objects and value objects is quite clear. You create reference objects with "make" and value objects with "new". You can also pass around pointers to value objects and garbage collection is automatic. This would be quite neat except that the lack of type information means that many of the advantages of this are lost when you start passing these around. People using the classes will have to just know whether they are dealing with a reference type or a value type. C++ is nicer here. The user chooses whether it's a reference type or a value type, not the creator of a class.
  3. The big selling point of "Go" seems to be how fast it compiles. What I really want to know how fast it runs. No real numbers on that.
  4. There is no pointer arithmetic, so Go doesn't need to support ++x. You only get x++.

Two worlds

There are two worlds out there. One world which searches for stuff on the left, and the other which searches for stuff on the right. More here and here.

Does Alexander McCall Smith know me?

Alexander McCall Smith (author of the Isabel Dalhousie series) on bridge in the Wall St. Journal:
Bridge is a quintessentially bourgeois game. It is a fine game for respectable people to play—people who don't get to night clubs or bars all that often, or who do not have all that many extramarital affairs. It is also a very good game for those who have no other excitement in their lives: If your average day has no great salients to it, then the prospect of getting a high-point hand at the bridge table in the evening is a very attractive one. And if you are an all-round inadequate, then being a strong bridge player is a tremendous boost.
The fellow must know me. And quite well too.

(The WSJ is not link-friendly -- links expire -- so I can't link to the whole article).


You know how some museums put art at their entrances? Sometimes, all that art amidst urban chaos can be unsettling:

This is another interesting cityscape. Fall colors reflected on a skyscraper:

A really good chick book

I was going on travel but was running short on books. The wife was headed to the library. So, I asked her to pick up a couple of books for me to read on the plane.

Naturally, she picked up a bunch of chick books.

Day After Night turned out be extremely good, however. Sure ... it's about 4 young women discovering themselves. But these women have been through the Holocaust. They're discovering themselves in the British Mandate of Palestine. That novelty makes up for a lot. The book manages to continually shock.

The story is based on a historical event (I don't want to spoil it for you) and what comes through in the book is the founding myth of Israel. Founding myths are, of course, great ways to understand a nation's character. Much of American attitudes can be explained by two founding myths: immigrants fleeing Old Europe to found a city on a hill, and how the West was won.

So, read Day After Night. It's not just a chick book.

A rap song about Alexander Hamilton

I wasn't a fan of their choice of the Obamas' tastes in paintings. But their taste in poetry is impeccable. Ironic, erudite and witty:

And my favorite Founding Father too! The others were such stuffed shirts.

The $8000 Housing Credit is a Lousy Incentive

Yikes! Talk about making a bad thing worse:
The homebuyers’ credit — enacted last year, expanded this year and scheduled to expire Nov. 30 — would be extended to cover homes under contract by April 30. Also, it no longer would be limited to first-time buyers; people who have owned a home for at least five years could get a $6,500 credit on a new residence. Income limits for eligibility would be raised, making many more people qualify.
The problem with the housing crisis is lack of demand. What needs to happen is for house prices to come down so young people can afford to buy houses. A $8000 credit essentially allows sellers to keep their prices irrationally high. Buyers get the money from Uncle Sam and pay the sellers. No houses are made more affordable. Extending this credit from starter houses to the more expensive houses that second-time buyers will purchase is a horribly bad idea -- this just means that the housing market will take longer to stabilize while simultaneously depleting the US Treasury.

The housing credit is just one more thing (not as bad as the mortgage deduction, but nearly so) artificially inflating housing prices and providing an incentive for people to get houses that are larger than they need or can afford.