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Lou Dobbs’ truthism on science

with 11 comments

Lou Dobbs is a TV and radio hack on the lines of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage who comes on CNN every evening to supposedly champion the cause of the American middle-class against the excesses of capitalism. In reality, he shrills about immigrants and BPOs taking American jobs with a paranoia that borders on xenophobia.  More often than not while furthering his alarmist agenda, he does not shy away from deliberate dishonesty e.g. often obfuscating facts vis-a-vis legal and illegal immigration issues.

Having taken on technology companies, H1B workers, Mexicans etc. for the longest time, he recently turned his attack on US science, with the usual malicious blend of partial facts and truthisms:

Quite a bad case of ascribing causation based on evidence that does not exist. Generally, I would not bother myself with this level of idiocy. The segment would have been conveniently ignored but for the fact it was highlighted by a science blog, Biocurious, with the following commentary from the blogger:

I think the process Dobbs describes is basically correct. If Americans cut off the supply of foreign scientists by making it even harder to get visas, postdoc salaries would increase because of the sudden drop in available labour,…..

Excuse me ?!! I can understand someone like Dobbs pandering to his constituency to drive his ratings, but for a graduate student in one of the premier universities in the US to be taken in by this  unbalanced rhetoric is quite perplexing  – not to mention, a bit disturbing. A few counterarguments are thus necessary.

Firstly, this foreigner argument would imply that post-doc/scientist salaries were high before the so-called influx of foreign scientists. But that is obviously not true. Post-doc, and even professorial salaries in science have been historically low (even globally) compared to other professions.  I remember my PhD supervisor who was a post-doc in the 70s talking about the extremely low (inflation adjusted) salaries way back then, when very few foreign post-docs came to the US. In fact, ever since 98/99, when Congress changed rules placing universities and non-profit organizations outside the H1B quota, thereby providing these institutions with ‘unrestricted access’ to  foreigners,  NIH-recommended salary scales have actually gone up.

Secondly, it is not as if foreign scientists are coming to work in the US for cheaper salaries,  they get paid the same as any US-based PhD. In fact, it is a bit more costly for a professor to hire an foreign post-doc, considering that in most cases international air-fares have to provided as part of the relocation package, visa paperworks need to be submitted – and paid for (contrary to what Dobbs is saying, obtaining a US work visa is still not a trivial issue).  Thus it also takes more time for a foreign post-doc to start their work after receiving an employment offer, meaning loss of research time for the professor. Additionally, an investigator is taking a bit of a risk in investing on an international person without the benefit on a in-person interview. The fact that foreign post-docs  get hired in spite of all these hassles would indicate that there aren’t enough qualified candidates in the US (and even as such, I not believe that scientific jobs or scientific investigation is a finite quantity ).

[We could argue about the causes for and the unsustainable nature of the currently skewed ration of  post-doctoral positions and academic jobs available to them, not just in the US but in countries like the UK and Australia as well. But that is not related to foreign scientists or salaries, and is a separate and more serious issue]

Thirdly, anyone related to academic sciences should know that the post-doctoral position is not one that offers  a choice. Any academic position (even teaching jobs in liberal arts colleges) now require a significant post-doctoral experience. In such a scenario, salaries can be kept low artificially whether or not there is a glut of labor in the market.

Apart from these primary arguments, here are some more points – not all directly related to the salary issue, but obviously neglected by Dobbs:

1. A small nitpick, but the story mentions salaries as low as $35K; AFAIK NIH minimum standards are $36-38K for first year post-docs plus health insurance in most cases.

Also, a number of grants funded by NIH, NSF and federal agencies such as National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Naval Research etc offer post-doc fellowships at a much higher rate, to the tunesof $ 50-70K (though reserved mostly for US citizens).

2.  Not all post-doc positions can be held by foreigners, certain training salaries even stipulate that only US-citizen/permanent residents can hold the job. Moreover, international post-docs are not allowed to work  at certain places like the NIH campuses in Bethesda and Frederick (possibly at the one in North Carolina as well) under the H1B worker’s visa (sometimes they can work, but only under the much more restrictive J-1 exchange visa). Finally, NIH’s prestigious post-doctoral fellowships can be obtained only by US citizens/PRs.

It would appear therefore that US nationals and permanent residents are well protected in terms of obtaining post-doctoral jobs/fellowships, sometimes at salaries higher than the market rate.

3. It should be noted that those post-docs working in universities on quota-exempt H1B visa cannot move to the industry or to for-profit organizations without returning to the H1B ‘quota pool’. For the last few years this industry quota has been oversubscribed making it highly difficult for international post-docs to land jobs outside academia.

This means a relative lack of competition for US nationals in the industrial sector, which certainly does not pay badly.

4. As pointed out in the comments section of the Biocurious blog-post, a percentage of the foreign post-docs in the US come from Europe or Australia, where they often bring funding from their own countries.

5. No mention is made of the percentage of the foreign post-docs who received their PhD in the US. It would be self-defeating for US to allow scientists trained by them to take their expertise elsewhere.

From these points, it should be obvious that the influx of international scientists cannot be the major reason for scientist salaries to be low. Science policies, lack of funding, failure to groom scientists at an early age, fewer career prospects and a host of other factors have contributed to the situation.

On the other hand, the question of low salary, or to be more exact, the issue of post-doc periods getting longer without proper career prospects is indeed a major one. The likes of Dobbs are guilty of  trivializing  an important concern by using the red herring of foreign labor.

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While on this topic, I am not even bringing up the point of how in the present climate of globalization it is fool-hardy to be restrictive on  themovement of human capital. Or, the more obvious point of how US science could hardly have scaled the heights it is at today with tough restrictions to entry of foreigners. Imagine Einstein and Bohr prevented from entering the US, and you can just as well imagine the Manhattan project being conducted in Germany! Not to mention the slew of Nobel prize winners who were born abroad but did their path breaking science in the US.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Question to all the US residents……

with 2 comments

Has Obama solved the financial crisis, prevented torture, made global warming go away,  stopped war etc (oh, and found me a nice, cushy job) !? I mean he has had 24 hours to work on these stuff, come on !

On a serious note: I am quite happy that the US finally has a president who can more than put together two consecutive coherent sentences – in fact, one who is truly a great orator. I am even happier as a scientist that the new President does not share his predecessor’s disdain for intellectualism, and in fact has gone out of his way to court scientists in his administration. And I do realize it is quite an historic occasion for the US to be electing an African-American president, barely a few decades removed from an era when in some parts of the country they were not even allowed to ride in the  same portion of the bus.

However, what does  irk me is the group of Twitterers, bloggers and Facebook-ers who seem to view the inauguration of Obama as the 44th US president as the coming of some sort of a Messiah. The manner of going into raptures over every bit of  utterings/actions of the new President and the examples of  near-worshipping devotion I have noted on the internet are simply beyond satrical proportions. And the sad thing is that these people are setting themselves up for a big disappointment, because whatever he is, Obama apppears to me firstly as a very pragmatic politician.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 22, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in Politics, Rants, Science

A Spanish approach won’t work

with one comment

Amitav Ghosh writes an op-ed in New York Times, continuing the western liberal media (mainly BBC/NYT) motif of equating India and Pakistan as equal sufferers of terrorism:

The choice of targets in Mumbai clearly owes something to the September bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, another high-profile site sure to include foreign casualties. Here already there is common ground between the two countries — for if this has been a bad year for India in regard to terrorism, then for Pakistan it has been still worse.

Ghosh isn’t as bad of an apologist as some of the other recent commentators, but his political opinions are equally naive. Ghosh recommends a Spanish-style response in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings:

If 9/11 is a metaphor for one kind of reaction to terrorism, then 11-M (as it is known in Spanish) should serve as shorthand for a different kind of response: one that emphasizes vigilance, patience and careful police work in coordination with neighboring countries. This is exactly the kind of response India needs now, and fortunately this seems to be the course that the government, led by the Congress Party, has decided to follow.

While Spain has suffered from internal terrorism at the hands of the Basque militants, I doubt if the the Portuguese are as single mindedly devoted to the cause of seeking destruction of its neighbor as ours. In the last 30 years or so, isn’t only Pakistan that India has had to face, but other neighboring countries like Nepal or Bangladesh haven’t been the friendliest either, often harboring suspected terrorist, if not providing a launching pad for them.

While a non-(military)confrontational approach might not be a bad idea itself (although, as I will try to explain in another post, some flexing of military power is probably good in order to force a political solution), hoping for a great deal of co-operation from our neighbors is bit far-fetched.

And I have much less faith in the Congress Party than Ghosh.

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Speaking of political parties, Ghosh inserts a rather pointless descriptor early in the article:

The secretary general of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading Hindu nationalist political faction,

Now whether you agree with BJP’s political views or not,  you have to admit that it is a mainstream political party in India, and the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha. Calling it a nationalist political faction, makes it sound like an Indian version of the BNP or Family First.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 3, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Mr Mishra, please STFU

with 4 comments

I have ranted before about Pankaj Mishra’s intellectual dishonesty, but his latest piece in the New York Times in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, can only be described as the work of lunatic who has lost all sense of perspectives.

Indeed, the outrage in Mumbai is the latest and clearest sign that the price of India’s uncompromising stance on Kashmir has become too high, imperiling its economy as well as its security

Yes, Mr Mishra, it is because of Kashmir that a bunch of 10-15 odd religiously motivated psychos trained their automatics and hand grenades on unarmed civilians!

Unfortunately, Mr Mishra is not alone among the blame the victim terrorist apologist’ crowd. As David Aaronovitch says,

There is a branch of apologetics – which I take crudely to be the belief that the crime is the fault of the victim – that assumes a milder form, and which I’ll call explanetics. So the explanatists view of the Mumbai massacres last week is that the cause lies in what concretely has been done to, or in the vicinity of, the young, cool-looking men with the grenades and the machineguns. (link)

And, ‘outrage in Mumbai’ ? Excuse me, in an article which mentions the Indian police as having supposedly ‘brutally suppressed’ protests in Kasmir, the killing of 150+ innocents and burning up of landmark buildings over two days is just simply an ‘outrage’ ?

Someone please send Mr Mishra a thesaurus for a Christmas gift.

I could probably go on about the meaningless ramblings, the gargantuan leaps of logic,  the anachronisms, an almost pity-inducing political naivete (India in Kashmir and China in Tibet are equivalent?), a messianic faith in Obama’s  ability to solve  both India and Pakistan’s problems through Kashmir(!), not to mention the poor editing and  general daftness that pervades the article.

But I will desist – the need to conserve my own sanity is more paramount. Instead I do recommend a full reading of the David Aaronovitch Times Online article quoted above.

(Both NYT and Times Online articles via Rohit)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 3, 2008 at 12:07 am

Anger

with 2 comments

For the last two days, since the news of the terror attacks on Mumbai (which is still not over as I write), I have been through a myriad range of emotions – deep sadness, sorrow for the victims, horror at the widespread carnage, helplessness, depression……and anger. Anger that such an audacious attack could happen in India’s most precious city with the intelligence community totally caught unawares.

And then I am further pissed when I read things like this….

Sources said though the plane carrying NSG Commandos was ready by midnight, it could not take off due to the delayed arrival of a VIP, who wanted to accompany them to Mumbai, at the Delhi airport. Worse, the Commandos had to wait for a vehicle at the Mumbai airport until morning.

Pretty much sums up our lack of planned response for such attacks – even though recent history  shows that such attacks could happen anytime.  Last time in India, around August navigating the bureaucracy, I was frustrated by the ad-hoc , highly disorganized method of doing everything. We  as a people, in fact sometimes even celebrate the fact stuff actually gets done in spite of the ‘chalta hai’ attitude.  Unfortunately, the lack of organization is severely exposed at such times of crises.

I am also angry at the foreign media – which suddenly seems to have woken up to the wider problems of Islamic terrorism in India, mainly because westerners were targeted (CNN since last night is  droning on about the Jewish community – now nothing wrong in that, but you would think that only foreigners died in this terrorist strike)!

And the refusal of news outlets like the BBC to call a spade a spade, constantly equating India and Pakistan as joint-sufferers of terrorism (more here). Even after reports like this.

And the less I say about the insensitivity and ineptitude of the Indian media, the better.

I am pissed at idiotic articles like this, that provides an half-assed thesis relating the mindless brutality of religiously-motivated terrorists to the social dynamics in India !!!

But the highly symbolic attacks dramatise a much wider set of struggles: the product of growing wealth for some and a revolution in communications.

I mean, could it get more WTF than this ? Even Somini Sengupta would be hard pressed to come up with such a mindless pontification like this.

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Perhaps it isn’t appropriate at this time to post rants like this.  Perhaps I should have waited for some healing to happen. But I need to get some of the feelings out of my system. And it is easier to write about these visceral emotions, than the much deeper sorrow that I am feeling at the moment.

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Before I end, a quote from Amit Varma that echoes another train of thought:

People are calling this Mumbai’s 9/11. In the sense that this city will never be the same again, I agree. But in terms of what we do about it, I’m not sure.

Once it was clear that 9/11 was caused by al-Qaeda, the US went after them, not bothering with niceties like their geographical location. From the information available at the time of writing this, it seems that we can soon be equally certain of who’s behind this. So what will we do?

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And finally, even though it may sound trite and cliched, a salute to those who fell during the counter-terror operations – Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte, Hemant Karkare, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, and other unnamed policemen (more about them here)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

November 28, 2008 at 9:05 pm

Posted in India, Rants

Tagged with , , ,

WTF Dravid

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18.4 Krejza to Dravid, OUT, Dravid continues to run dry. Gone for a duck. Jason Krejza gets his first wicket. It was quite a regulation off break. It turned in slightly from outside off stump and some extra bounce and Dravid jabbed it to short leg. His poor run continues. Congrats Jason. Enter SRT.
R Dravid c Katich b Krejza 0 (2b 0x4 0x6) SR: 0.00

Just remind me once again, what is Rahul Dravid still doing in this team. The guy Krejza was being belted around by debutant M Vijay and Sehwag was sweeping him around like a student cleaning his room before his mom got there. And Dravid gift his wicket !!!!!!! To a guy who conceded 0/199 in a match against the Indian second XI. Loses the huge momemtum India had in the first session.

This was as easy as it could have been for Dravid, hundred up for India within lunch, easy batting pitch, enough time on hand to build a solid innings and provide support to Sehwag.

Update: Dravid’s woes continues, in the field this time:

50.2 Sharma to Katich, 1 run, Dropped by Rahul Dravid at first slip. Katich went chasing a wide delivery outside off stump and got a thick edge to the left of Dravid at a comfortable height and he clangs it. It would have been Katich’s third worst shot of his career. What a start. Dravid went with both hands and should have caught it easily.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

November 6, 2008 at 1:57 am

Posted in Cricket, India, Rants

In which I am Conn-ed

with 3 comments

Gautam Gambhir apparently purposefully elbowed  Shane Watson yesterday in the third test between India and Australia. The Aussies are furious. How dare Indians turn cricket into a physical sport ! It should have been an innovation coming from them.

I reckon they have a fair enough complain, banging into opponent players has no place in cricket. However, reading most of the reports from the Australian media, you would have no idea about all the sledging being indulged by the Aussies all through the day. Or the fact that just before Gambhir’s elbowling, Watson had in a very unsporting manner stuck his hand out to block Gambhir’s running.

Local lad Gambhir and Watson continued their series-long feud and exchanged verbal barbs from the moment Gambhir charged the blonde fast bowler. This tension escalated when Gambhir appeared to purposely nudge Watson in the ribs when he completed a second run in the 51st over.

Nope, the Aussies were as pure as freshly fallen snow. Just watch this video and observe the Aussie bowlers indulging in ‘jaw exercises’ through the day.(you can see the elbowing incident here too) Now suppose the exact incident happened but with Matt Hayden elbowing Ishant Sharma. Here is how Australia’s leading cricket journalist Malcolm Conn would have seen it:

Having copped a verbal barrage all day from the frustrated Indian bowlers and close-in fielders, matters reached a boiling point when Sharma – in a blatant contravention of the spirit of the game – blocked Hayden on his way to the first of an easy two runs. In response, Hayden nudged Sharma with his elbow on his way back, a gentle reminder to the young speedster that it was the burly Queenslander who held the upper hand at that stage of the game.

(inspired by this post and my comment there).

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 29, 2008 at 8:22 pm