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PhDs are worthless? Perhaps (not?)

with 4 comments

Seems like everyone and their grandma have forwarded (via e-mail, how quaint is that?), Facebook-ed, Tweet-ed or in some way social media-ed the heck out of this story in The Economist on the worth of PhDs. I will spare you some effort with the spoiler: PhDs are a waste, the author – apparently a recovering PhD – claims. Having gone through the process myself, I will agree – but to a certain extent only, and with great deal of qualifiers (more on that later).

However, the manner in which the article is written is very disappointing. The author does a good job bringing up many of the issues and challenges facing PhD students everywhere: the low (or in some cases, no) pay, the slave-like status, the lack of proper mentoring for and opportunities in the ‘real’ world outside of academia etc. Unfortunately, she does so in a shallow, rambling manner that is short on cohesive arguments, and long on regurgitating clichés and anecdotes about the life of PhDs. It’s almost as if the author eavesdropped on a bunch of ranting graduate students sitting around beer and chicken wings (after-midnight happy hour half-price special, of course) and fashioned the conversation into a story. There is nothing new here that you haven’t already read in a PhDcomics.

What I was rather hoping for when I read the headline, and generally from a magazine like The Economist [1], was more in-depth analysis such as discussing the opportunity costs of a PhD degree – either in terms of economics (lost wages), social status (delayed marriage/starting family), gender issues (much more difficult for women PhDs to balance family/career) etc. But statistical figures in the story are few, and when provided, are often meaningless without context. For example, it says the number of PhDs have risen all over the world, but doesn’t mention if this has happened in the backdrop of rising number of bachelor-level college graduates, increase in population, changing economies or other factors. The author seems to contend that this rise is directly correlated to the fact that PhDs are cheap sources of labor in research and teaching. While that is certainly a factor, it cannot be the only one.

One of the few other places where numbers are provided, they seem to suggest that having a PhD could be useful:

The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Firstly, I am sure no one goes into a PhD program in comparative literature expecting a huge return of investment. In fields like engineering or computation, it is a given that a Master’s degree is enough for good job prospects and only a handful motivated people go into a PhD program. Additionally, if the percentages indicated above include MBAs as ‘master’s degree’ (which, IMHO is nothing but a professional accreditation for BS-ing your way to higher salaries [2]) then it highly inflates the numbers for the latter. Therefore it is difficult to put a real value on the premium provided by PhD – at least by the numbers stated here. As such, it would be foolish to define PhDs by the monetary benefit alone, considering how many people take it up as a labor of love.

Another problem with the article is that it lumps a vast swathe of diverse people under one group. The author mentions briefly, but never goes on to expand on the fact that a PhD in Literature is different from one in Economics (even though both come under ‘Humanities & Social Scienses’) and is very different from those in Chemistry or Biology. This is not even taking into consideration the flux of relevant PhD subject matters within disciplines (e.g Bioinformatics, not that popular couple of decades ago, is a hot topic now) or the variety in different countries. Such geographic, economic and disciplinary diversity needs to be taken into account to define what is worthless or not.

There are many more issues and fisking the full article might be a good sized thesis by itself! So here are only some of the comments I found most glaringly strange.

This statement, supposedly about the drawback of a PhD, is actually an universal issue:

The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget

Changes in fashion, technology or local economy could affect any profession (just ask the car-factory workers in Detroit with little transferable skills).

Other statements are just confusing:

Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being produced, and has stopped admitting them.

So is it that just one professor has stopped mentoring PhD students (which has as much affect as peeing into the Niagara Falls) or has the whole department stopped their PhD program, which arguably sends a stronger message? The author does not clarify.

Then there is some confusion about correlation-causation:

The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.

I think most people will agree that lack of academic jobs (a very real concern highlighted here) is the reason that post-docs are going on for so long, not the other way around.

But this bit towards the end is the biggest head-scratcher:

The organisations that pay for research have realized that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.

Actually, learning how to research a topic and presenting them to a broader audience is one of the most valuable lessons that one learns during a PhD. At the same time, there are law-firms, consulting companies (e.g McKinsey) etc that highly value the analytical skills and disciplined approach towards problem solving that PhDs bring to the table.

And of course there is the rather tired argument about ‘foreigner’s driving down PhD incomes’:

In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students. Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.

I somewhat agree about the foreign students perhaps tolerating poor working conditions, but (and I have argued this in details before) pay-scales for both post-docs and PhDs have been low even when the foreign talent pool was small. Also, not sure how this argument reconciles with the flatlining of foreign enrollments in US universities.

In addition to some of the issues mentioned here, Madhusudan has done an excellent job on his blog, in proposing that the answer to the PhD ‘problems’ stated in the article are staring in the face of the author.

Let me get this straight: we have MORE students enrolling in college, competing to get into overfull classes taught by FEWER faculty every year, and TOO MANY PhDs who would love to have those faculty jobs that are clearly needed to teach all the new students! Does that sound about right? How does this make any kind of economic sense even with a supply-and-demand analysis? Seems to me that the demand is there, as is the supply, yet they aren’t exactly meeting up!

(do read in full)

I guess the point of this post is not to vehemently defend the PhD process, or to to say that doing a PhD is not “a waste of time”. As with almost everything in life, if you do a PhD, your mileage may vary. I have gone through 10 years of semi-wilderness earning a PhD followed by a post-doc. There have been stressful times, times of self-doubt; but overall, when I look back at it, I don’t really regret the decision (one decision I do regret is not moving directly to the industry after graduation, but there were other factors beyond my control in that respect). The trick is to be aware of what is coming to you and not just drift into graduate school because it is the easiest available option and then carp about it later. You wouldn’t buy a car without doing a bit of research on what you’re getting into – same principle applies to your life.

However, to dismiss without any nuance, an entire complicated and varied system such as obtaining a PhD as a waste of time simply based on a bunch of personal stories, is rather unfair.

[1]: Perhaps I was too optimistic, considering how badly Economist handled an earlier story about rise of Asian science.

[2]: Without any malice and heart-felt apologies to my MBA friends 🙂  Scientists always need to rib MBAs till they get one themselves!

(Cross-posted here)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 21, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Posted in General, Rants

Tagged with , ,

The difference between good journalism and …

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…pure shit is a thin one. Consider two articles that came out recently regarding the action of Sri Lankan bowler Suraj Randiv in their last ODI match against India.

Bit of the background: India needed one to win with plenty of overs to go, Sehwag was on 99, threshold of a well-deserved century. Randiv bowls a no-ball that galli-cricket players would be ashamed of, India has won and Sehwag doesn’t get the century even though he hit the ball for a six!

Sehwag being Sehwag, dispenses with any diplomatic niceties in the post-match questioning and asserts that Randiv did this on purpose. As you can imagine, this  incident unleashes a stupid shit-storm in the Indian media which completely over-reacts (wait! where have I heard that one before?). Even more surprisingly, though Randiv admitted his lack of sportsmanship and apologized personally to Sehwag, he was banned for a match by the Sri Lankan board!

Well, that was pretty much the gist of Sambit Bal’s (someone I often do not agree with) article in Cricinfo concerning the incident, with the perfect summation of the situation:

The bowler apologised, the batsman accepted; where do the rest of us come in?

Good stuff.

OTOH, Anand Vasu, former Cricinfo editor, tries to make the same point in Hindustan Times but with far less conviction. Firstly, he tries to make some  bizarre  analogy with breaking law in real life (speeding, drunk driving etc) and breaking law in cricket! This doesn’t really hold, since Randiv did not break any laws  (a better comparison may have been holding the lift door open for someone and not being an ass and pressing ‘Close Door’, yes you know who you are).

He also appeals with an anecdote from Chandu Borde showing gamesmanship has always existed:

Chandu Borde, who played at a time when cricket happened at a much gentler pace, recounted his experience. “When Gary Sobers was batting against us on 199, we ran him out by bringing in the field. We could have allowed him to make a double ton but we did not,” said Borde. “The lines between fair and unfair play have blurred.”

Really? Since when is running out, or dismissing a batsman unfair play? Don’t all teams like to put pressure on batsmen when they’re at 99/199/299 etc ? This wasn’t a question of trying to dismiss Sehwag, there wasn’t even a whiff for SL to win the match. The action, without doubt, was classless (but again, not worthy of so much controversy). A similar Indian action would have been to deny Murali his 800th wicket in the test match earlier this year (or if Pakistan had denied Kumble the 10-fer during that famous match).

But the ultimate zinger is this:

Closer home and specific to the latest controversy, Ajay Jadeja has a practical view. “Sehwag would have done the same thing if he was bowling,” says Jadeja. “This is very common in cricket.”

Oh yes, Jadeja – the guy who took money to lose for his team. Good to know he’s a mind-reader too. In the same vein, let me declare that even Ricky-the-ball-touched-the-ground-but-I-will-still-claim-a-catch-Ponting wouldn’t have resorted to this type of gamesmanship in a similar situation. Makes as much of logical sense.

Even more amusing is how Vasu tries to claim a badge of honor for upsetting Indian cricket fans. Newsflash: just tweet ‘Bradman was much better than Tendulkar could or will ever be’. Watch the fun. Doesn’t take much to upset Indian cricket fans (I know, I’ve been guilty too).

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 18, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Cricket, India, Rants

Superbugged

with 12 comments

There has been much brouhaha in India during the last two days  over a recently published paper in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases. The paper outlines the emergence of major antibiotic resistance in enterobacteria isolated from patients in  UK, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The appearance of bacteria resistant to the strongest of antibiotics is a cause for global concern, especially in these days of globe-trotting and in light of lack of new antibiotics developed by drug companies recently.

The authors conjecture is that patients in the UK who were found to harbor this ‘superbug’ picked it up during surgeries – some during health tourism visits – from the subcontinent. Needless to say, the results of the study  has been (excuse the pun) a bitter pill for Indians. The medical community is upset, the politicians and media are outraged and screaming ‘Western conspiracy‘.

Unfortunately most of this anger is highly misplaced. I strongly recommend reading Bhalomanush’s well-argued (and in the face of some of the stunning ignorance out there, highly restrained) response debunking much of the media outrage.

I just wanted to add a few words of my own.

1. The main problem I see with the Indian reaction is the  usual cry of victim-hood  (MNCs and the ‘West ‘are out to get us and our health tourism industry) that is unbecoming of a country that wants to be global player.

The mature (and the right) way of dealing with such a publication would have been a statement explaining that India has taken serious note of this study in major journal and will be conducting its own investigations, at the same time reassuring people with numbers (number of cases small compared to the vast number of patients in India) etc. Instead we’ve taken on a jstrange ingoistic tone mixed with juvenile petulance: blaming the scientists for spreading falsehoods and finger-pointing like a school kid (suggesting that the virus is everywhere, why point to us?).

The best (worst) example of this over-the-top reaction is the idiotic notion that naming the protein that confers resistance to the bacteria (NDM1 = New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1)  after our capital is somehow a huge insult to our nation.

National pride that is so easily dented is not really a pride worth having.

2. There seems to be no concern in the media about the actual consequences of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. The rise of resistant strains is a real, fearful possibility in our antibiotic munching culture. What is anyone doing to ensure that such strains do not turn into a large public health problem in our country?

The medical tourism industry and most private hospitals in India are restricted to an elite population. These are the places where disinfection and sanitary methods are at their best. One wonders about the consequences of these bugs turning up in regular hospitals.

I am quite surprised that the supposed champions-of-the-underprivileged Indian media is rather silent on this (OTOH, actual medical and health concerns such as this don’t make good screaming matches on TV).

(Sakshi has a longer post detailing this concern)

3. This is not to say the western media is not totally guilty of hyping things a bit and spreading panic and fear. As Bhalomanush has pointed out, the misrepresentation of the UK and other international media is equally disgusting.

But again, a kicking and screaming response to such smearing doesn’t do anyone any good.

But, do also read the very balanced pieces by LA Times and Discover Blogs

4. The Indian media claims that the lead author of the study, an Indian doctor, Karthikeyan Kumaraswamy, has ‘retracted’ the study or at least distanced himself. If this is true, then there has been gross misconduct on the part of either Dr. Kumaraswamy or Lancet. As is true for any scientific publication, final manuscripts have to be vetted by all authors. As the footnote in the paper says:

All authors were involved in the compiling of the report and approved the final version.

If something was added after Dr. K looked through the draft and it was something he did not agree with it, he can and should take it up with Lancet. Retracting is not done in front of TV.

[actually, if you see the actual video of the interview with Dr. Kumaraswamy, he doesn’t really say anything that’s related to dissociating himself!]

5. Finally, thrown into this conspiracy theory mix is the fact that Glaxo-SmithKline recently published a paper in the online version of the journal Nature, where they have identified a compound that binds to a bacterial processive enzyme. It is possible that such a compound could escape the antibody destroying enzyme of the resistant bacteria and kill them.

Firstly, do note: the paper describes the snap-shot of the protein in its inhibited state i.e in a state where it is in a crystallized form. How such a compound succeeds as a drug is anybody’s guess with details such as efficacy, safety and stability that needs to be worked out (over a period of years).

And to those seeing another conspiracy in this, I really doubt that GSK could have pulled off the timing of their publication  (which btw is currently an advanced publication online only, has not come out in an issue) to coincide with the Lancet publication. More likely, it was a fortuitous occasion and the GSK PR department has jumped on it seeing a great opportunity to raise share prices. This is borderline dishonesty because, as I mentioned above, there is really no way to determine if the compound will be an actual drug and such drugs aren’t expected to be produced in a short time.

There are few other issues e.g the constant touting of the supposed ‘conflict of interest’ that have been covered by fellow bloggers, so I am not going there.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

August 14, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Posted in Desi Connections, India, Rants

Tagged with ,

Off failing iPhones and fawned upon iPads

with 2 comments

As they say, if you can’t beat them – join them. So fair warning: this post contains iPad-related stuff.

As much as I was inured by the recent avalanche of bytes over the impending release of Apple’s iPad, I just couldn’t take it anymore on Saturday, and simply decided to be internet(thusly,  iPad coverage)-free. But  this perhaps made the iGods (oh yes – there is very much a religion where Jobs is the messiah) angry.  Before the end of the day, it had to be that I actually got to hold and try out an iPad at the Apple store!

Here’s the story:

So I was happily spending the day driving top down on a beautiful sunny day through windy roads leading to the desert, taking snaps of wild-flowers growing on cacti, followed by a nap in the backyard hammock and such suitably non-iPaddy stuff, when – wouldn’t you know it – my iPhone started showing the white screen of death! As my favorite saying goes – karma’s a bitch (okay second favorite saying, and note to self: stop using cliched sayings). So faster than you could say irony, I booked an appointment with one of them Apple ‘geniuses’ (Apple – I hate you for that [1]).

And since I was already there in the Apple store – where any craziness for iPad purchases seems to have subsided and replaced by  a teaching session for  a bunch of geriatrics on how to use the machine –  I couldn’t resist temptation and actually got to playing with the thingie for a while.

Sigh! As the god said – so it goes.

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Seeing as I am bothering to write a post that involves the iPad, might as well cover some of my impressions:

Honestly, this stuff is a technological beauty. The apps open much faster than they do on the iPhone/Pod, display is stunning, especially for playing HD movies, and contrary to what what a lot of people have mentioned, I thought it was quite compact and light.

Personally of course, I have no use for a device that doesn’t come with a camera, doesn’t allow me to multi-task, and doesn’t allow me to transfer data.  As for the supposed 10 hours of battery life, I can only emit a hollow laughter. I am sure all the fanboys will buy one have bought one already. I can see a great use for college students, if they can download all their text-books into the iPad (will be a great interactive experience e.g if in a biochemistry book, you can click on an animation showing protein movements and likes). The one interesting demographic could actually be the elderly people not as much used to computers. I can already think of several relatives in India who are not quite comfortable with the pressing of keys , the clicking of icons etc.  The simple touch interface might allay their fear.

So, perhaps a ‘granny computer’ then.

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Oh, I was able to get a replacement iPhone, not before arguing with a Genius about how I  do know how to handle a smart phone and the white-out wasn’t my fault (even if the crack in the screen was – but the phone had been working perfectly with the crack for several months). Of course, the new iPhone had to have a white out screen this afternoon again! Fortunately, it was temporary and the problem fixed itself. No idea what caused it.

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[1]: Apple, as much as I really like your products, I need to point out that pimpled teenagers (or punly middle-aged ladies such as the one I got talking to), pompously trotting around with nerdy air of superiority does not a genius make. I know, what’s in a name you say, but a bit of honest honest nomenclature will not hurt.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

April 4, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Why I prefer my Martini stirred..

with 3 comments

…not shaken; because vigorous shaking introduces…err… stuff into the solution which could actually cure me. And I don’t want to be cured of my alcohol addiction.

Essentially, that is what this woo-ridden atricle by Dana Ullman in HuffPo explaining Homeopathy is trying to claim (via). It’s filled with gems like:

Further, the micro-bubbles and the nano-bubbles that are caused by the shaking may burst and thereby produce microenvironments of higher temperature and pressure.

Of course, what he is saying has to be true – after all he talks of nano-doses and nano-pharmacology and micro-environments (why didn’t he go to pico and femto ? Those sound even sexier and is actually more accurate to describe homeopathic dosage levels) and Quantum Medicine (I gotta take myself an online degree in that one)!

Sadly however, Ullman missed the clincher: James Bond drank his martini shaken and the shaking introduced super-bubbles into his drink and that’s how he managed to sleep with all the random women. As stated, I drink my martini stirred, and ergo no liaisons with alluring women.

After all, that makes as much sense as the rest of the so-called evidence.

Seriously  folks, there is very little in the way of scientific/medical evidence that homeopathy works. And before people who have been ‘cured’ by homeopathy start flaming me, let me state that I come from a family where ‘allopathy’ was always a last resort. And I too have been purportedly cured of a skin infection with homeopathy. However, at that time, my diet also changed and my mom started making me eat a lot of neem and turmeric etc. I’d think that these latter items which have actual ingredients and not some infinitesimally diluted and vigorously shaken nano/pico drop of water might have done the curing.

Unfortunately, most of the support for homeopathy seems to stem from such anecdotal evidence and not from rigorous double-blind studies that would convince skeptics (alas, some people – check the comments on HuffPo – have even come to regard double blind studies as a big-pharma conspiracy).

I have no problem if people want to indulge in homeopathy to waste time and money, but it becomes dangerous when people ignore good medical advice thinking they are getting a cure, or when homeopathy falsely advertises cure and/or prevention (e.g this earlier bad advice on H1N1 prevention by homeopathy which was being touted by a celebrity on Twitter).

So call it magic, call it a miracle, but explaining homeopathy with some technical mumbo-jumbo doesn’t make any sense.

(also read Dictatorji’s earlier post on homeopathy and astrology and the comments therein )

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 15, 2009 at 11:51 am

Shoddy journalism by Sagarika Ghose on Global Warming

with 29 comments

Last night on her Twitter account, Indian journalist Sagarika Ghose posted the following:

Is even the science of climate change dodgy? is there any evidence that CO2 is bad for us? who says the climate’s changing for the worse?

I am not sure where to begin parsing the statement, which displays either a stunning naivete or a sly dishonesty  calculated to get people charged up. Either way, it is quite appalling.

Actually, what is really appalling is the way she then goes about trying to prove her point.

Considering she works for CNN-IBN, which must to their disposal have at least one computer connected to this technology called the internet, where there exists these sites called Google and Bing that can be used to quickly search any topic. Not to mention that she must have at her disposal some sort of a research team, or the ability to get in touch with the relevant specialists for researching.

But what does she do when called for evidence of her statement? She retweets from some other guy offering up Bjorn Lomborg, the thoroughly discredited Danish academic as her source for anti-climate change (e.g see this, this or this).

If you are going to argue such a controversial issue, it pays not to be lazy – not to mention incredibly lame – enough as to cite Lomborg as your anti-climate change source! Heck, she could have even gone the Dubner-Levitt pathway given it has been on the news so much recently!  This is just stupendously shoddy journalism.

I have no problems with Ghose formulating a question for a proper debate – after all it is a supposedly free country with freedom of speech (though one of her contemporaries at least, has some sort of a problem with the definition of free speech, but we will let that go for now). However, it is inexcusable that she goes forth and makes statements that could be proven to be laughably false with the most perfunctory research.

Could it be that she is simply indulging in cheap sensationalism to improve ratings of her news channel? Quite possible given that she framed her question in the context of India’s role in reducing green house emissions, and whether

we [are] about to retard our industrial development because of america’s demands that we cut carbon emissions? (link)

Trying to whip up a bit of nationalist pride and sentiments against the US does no harm to ratings.  Statements such as, “Interesting point raised last night: our problem is poverty, not climate. lets first get rich, then we can go green.” are lame but sure to be a hit with the masses. Even then, it is  rather sad what she does to a complex discourse.

Consider that most die-hard skeptics now agree that climate change is real, and there is even a major consensus regarding the anthropogenic contribution to climate change. But how to solve the issue is however a highly charged debate involving as it does socio-economics and politics of a wide variety of country. For Ghose to reduce such complexity to levels stooped by the likes of Fox News and cronies is an incredible low.

(Thanks to Sakshi for many of the links)

update: Found this link with an incredible amount of resources to satisfy anyone’s climate change questions. I am not asking Ghose or anyone to absolutely agree with everything said here, but at least the person should argue on some intellectual basis.

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1. On these lines, it is quite unfortunate that TV journalism in India has been reduced to screeching hosts and overexcited, juvenile on-site reporter.s Ghose is married to Rajdeep Sardesai, whose histrionics during the Mumbai bombings were rightly criticized. Much has also been said about the media’s culpability during the 26/11 siege of Mumbai.

2. On a lighter note, Ghose’s naive question “ is there any evidence that CO2 is bad for us?” reminds me of Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachman trying to argue that global warming is of no concern because carbon-dioxide is natural and causes no harm!!

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm

My faith in humanity….

with one comment

….and its future is currently at an all-time low. As the Dictator pointed out, such faith should be pretty much non-existent in a world which consists of Twitters and Rediff message boards. But this article in The Telegraph that tries to create equal arguments for evolution and creationism, plunges moi into epic despair.

However, there is some comic value in this. Just read the comments section, especially a long, ‘reasoned’ post by one “Matt Klemp September 10, 2009 at 01:32 PM”. Just to wet your appetite:

Thirdly, whilst i am a part of the most devout christian movement in history, i fully accept that no mere human being can or ever will know for certainty whether there is a god or not until he (God) taps one on the shoulder and says well done. Do you understand? both religion/god and scientific/evolution is pure theory!!! Never has it been fact. Like the majority of court cases one must digest the available data and and make the most probable conclusion.

The whole comment reproduced below the fold, it’s just too awesome and deserves a wider read.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

September 10, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Fun, LOL, Rants, Religion, Reviews

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