Leavitt and Dubner's Freakonomics is the kind of book you pick up on a Friday night and then cannot stop reading till you are done. Only when you glance at the clock you will realise that it's 2 a.m.(Thank God for Fridays!) Steven Leavitt is an economist who believes that economics is nothing but a tool to answer all sorts of questions. For those who thought that economics is simply about about stock markets, demand and supply, GDP growth etc., wait till you read this book. I really doubt most of us would have really thought about questions like the ones below and then went on to investigate them and publish the findings in serious economic journals. Apparently, Leavitt has made a career in economics (in case you don't believe me!)trying to answer questions like these:

"What is common to Sumo wrestlers, school teachers and the office bagel stand?"
"What is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?"
"Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?"
"Why do we have less crime now?"
"What the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents have in common?"
"Do parents really matter?"

Without not giving too much away upon reading the book a lot of things become clearer. I read their book and the next day this month's National Geographic arrived talking about the Global Aid in response to tsunamis and other natural disasters. There was a telling quote in the issue (pg. 23)
... One WHO representative reminded me that the HIV/AIDS pandemic kills as many people as this tsunami every three weeks." The issue showed how volunteers were throwing clothes and water away because they could not distribute it.

If I were a few years younger I would have definitely looked at economics as a career after reading this book (Yes, it is that kind of book!). The part about obsessive parenting is the most hilarious. My chief questions upon reading this book are to investigate:

Upto what extent is it worthwhile to park illegally?
What are the costs of speeding?
Is it cheaper to adopt or have kids of your own?

A Sample of Freakonomics:
Why vote at all?
In their typical style they take a mundane nquestio and turn it on its head and justify why a true economist would never vote.

For the more academic minded:
His home-page has the pdfs of his work, some of it figures in the book.

Darwin's Finches

"No field of study has been so dominated by the thoughts of one man..."
- Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of A Finch

I was really glad to hear that the Ann Arbor Library has chosen Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch for Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads 2006. This promises some really interesting discussions and events centered around evolution. Given recent events in Pennsylvania and Kansas one really wonders where this country is headed. Ann Arbor thanks to its proximity to the University is quite a liberal town, which explains that there were no demonstrations outside the library and the book decision was generally welcomed. On the library blog, one of the members commented that Ann Arbor should have a book drive and donate copies of this book to places in Ohio, Iowa, Kansas and Pennsylvania where they need it more. It seems ironic that Jonathan Weiner lives in PA.

This book has been around for quite sometime and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and I feel that a 'second-act' for this book is much needed in these dark ages. It describes evoltionary theory with the backdrop of the fantastic study undertaken by the husband and wife team of Peter and Mary Grant. They have visited a remote island (Daphne Major) in the Galapagos Islands year after year (for more than 30 years) painstakingly studying Darwin's finches. They have branded almost every bird on the island and have collected every possible statistic about these birds over the years. Most readers, like me, will be surprised to know that till the Grant's began their research almost 30 years ago there was no real experimental proof for Darwin's Theory. This was a serious gaping hole in arguing the case for evolution. Darwin never saw evolution actually occur and the Creationists were justified to call it 'Only a theory' and they went on to say that, "... believers in evolution and creation must accept either view by faith."
The Grant's work on the finches is one of the most intensive and valuable studies ever conducted and is the best and most detailed demonstration of the power of Darwin's process. Their most startling conclusion is that evolution occurs 'daily and hourly' and not after a long passage of time, that it cannot be humanly observed, as Darwin himself thought. Weiner lucidly explains the pressures of sexual and natural selection, the fusion and fission forces that dictate the formation of a new species and how G.O.D. (generation of diversity, hah!) works. The book is also full of anecdotes about Darwin, his 'bulldog' - Julian Huxley and other colorful characters who have dotted the evolutionary studies landscape over the years. He also tells the story of how J.B.S. Haldane coined and defined the unit of evolution 'darwin'. He also describes some interesting parallel experiments carried out by Endler on tropical guppies and other studies by Dolph Schluter in Canada.
I liked Wiener's approach in writing this book. He provides a good background of the history and interestingly describes the 'scientific process' in action. He has maintained the focus on describing the Grants' work and evolutionary theory without slinging mud on creationism or debating the issue other than referring to it in passing. There are only two faults, if any, with the book. One, is that recent popular work on this subject by Dawkins, Gould and other merits not more than a couple of paragraphs; second, the long bibliography is appreciated but a short list of more accessible sources under Further Reading would have been more helpful for more enthusiatic readers. This is an extremely well-researched book and a must for anyone wanting to quote some solid facts about evolution to creationists and their pseudo-scientific cousins who believe in 'Intelligent Design' (such a cleverly coined misnomer!). It is a good read even if you are not really into pro-evolution militancy and proselytization campaigns like me.

Naipaul's Area of Darkness

I am really enjoying the free time and I have been reading, mostly between bouts of watching movies. A review of Naipaul and his book: India: A Wounded Civilization on the lit blog.


When you really have to study for an exam the slightest excuse is excuse enough to drift away from 'what-you-should-be-doing'. There is always this play between reward and punishment. To bring back the focus you think about the payoff - the period of relaxation after the exam. Visions of the promised land seduce you into reading that paper or making those notes. I don't know what the Old Testament promised, but for me the promised land is:
1) A place where you can wake up as late as possible
2) Have to do zero 'real' work
3) Where you read books, papers you WANT to read instead of books/papers you SHOULD read.
4) Nice, tasty food is always readily available.

If rewards are not in your scheme of incentives then try punishment. What really works for me is the more realistic scare of 'doing-this-painful-process-all-over-again'. Again and again this has proved to be a powerful incentive. It makes me avoid checking my email every 2 mins, or keep me from taking more than frequent UGBs (unnecessary Google breaks). I think it will be an interesting topic of research to see what percentage of internet users are taking UGBs and how this is affecting graduation rates.

Is the Writing on the Wall?

"FeudTween 2hses- Montague&Capulet. RomeoMfalls_<3w/_JulietC@mary Secretly Bt R kils J's Coz &&is banishd. J fakes Death. As Part of Plan2b-w/R Bt_leter Bt It Nvr Reachs Him. Evry1confuzd-bothLuvrs kil Emselves"

Got it? Check this out.

Mr. Parikh goes to Washington

I am now in the nation's capital Washington D.C., home to a certain George W. Bush and his pets. As my labmate John informs me, also the city that 8 years ago re-elected a cocaine addict as a mayor (after he was convicted).
I am here for Neuroscience 2005 the biggest annual conference on the Brain.
The Society for Neuroscience that organises the conference chose to invite the Dalai Lama as the keynote speaker. An odd choice but a good one. Those who went for the lecture were struck by his charisma. You could immediately feel that you were in presence of a person who is at ease with himself and the world. He seems rather open to science and wasn't the least bit dogmatic. He subtly hinted at a paradigm shift. I largely agree with what he said but he really hit the nail on the head with this sentence -

"I believe we want happiness, and the way to transform society is through education and by boosting among individuals, families and communities some of the useful emotions such as compassion or forgiveness."

Then he mentioned (what did not get reported in 90% of the papers) that humans can do without religion but not without affection. I was convinced that humans needed either love, money or respect, but upon closer examination I think he is right. The more I think of the word 'affection' and its meaning the more apt it seems to me. What a lovely word - affection. Imagine going up and saying to somebody and saying, "I don't want your love, money or your respect; what I really want is your affection." How true, isn't it?

For more on the Dalai Lama at SFN see: NDTV Story and from the Washington Post.
* * *
Other than that it has been hard-core science most of the time. Most conferences have their share of the schoomzers and snoozers and I would like to stay away from both. My labmate and I were talking about the possibility of a bomb explosion in the Convention Center. What would it mean? At a big meeting like this you would loose 75% of the world's top neuroscientists and it would be huge setback for science. Tim argued that a terrorist might want to do that to strike at the heart of progress and destroy the intellectual wealth of a society. It sure seems like a smart idea but terrorists aren't that smart to begin with, right? Also, the impact factor (intentional pun) would be quite small. Who cares about a bunch of scientists being blown to bits?
* * *
Went to a seminar on How to get published in Nature. That is really wishful thinking. I have made a pledge that if I ever got published in Nature, I would retire. It also interesting to know that Nature has got on the latest pop-technology bandwagon: a) they have a blog and
b) a podcast. There is something new and unusual to learn everyday.

Politics is a Sport

I have been following Liberia's Presidential run-off election for the past few days. Liberia has an interesting history. It was founded by freed black slaves from America in 1847. Despite being enshrined with American constitutional ideals there has been little peace and the country has either been a dictatorship or embroiled in civil wars. It just emerged from a 14-year civil war after a peace agreement that brought 15,000 UN peacekeepers into the country. More than 250,000 people died in this brutal conflict where pregnant women were often disembowelled by child soldiers who placed bets on the sex of the unborn baby.

The run-off election featured two candidates: 'King' George Weah and 'Mamma' Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. No two candidates could be more different:

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is 67, the granddaughter of an illiterate market woman and a German soldier, has spent almost 30 years in politics. She is a Harvard-educated economist and has served in several senior positions, including Finance Minister and Africa director at the UN Development Programme. She has been imprisoned, exiled and endured threats to her children in her quest for the leadership of the West African nation.

George Weah, is a retired Liberian-born football hero. He was born in a Monrovia slum and is one of 13 children who were abandoned by their parents and raised by their grandparents in a hut on reclaimed swampland. He never went to high-school, has never held a normal job, and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was his extraordinary skill at football that took him first to Cameroon, then to Europe (playing for AC Milan and Chelsea) and eventually, in 1996, to win the FIFA footballer of the year.
Not hard to understand why he is the idol of poor young men in Liberia, most of whom are addicted to football — and there are a lot of young men in Liberia: almost half its potential voters are under 30, and a quarter are actually under 23.

Who should be ideally suited to run the country? and win the battle between the old and the young, elite appeal vs popular appeal, the experienced campaigner versus the political neophyte, a Harvard degree vs a primary education? The answer is not that simple as Johnson a 66-year-old member of the old Americo-Liberian elite, simply lacks the street credibility that might persuade the tens of thousands of recently demobilised boy soldiers with no immediate prospect of improvement in their circumstances that there is somebody in power who understands their anger and their impatience.

Democracy is perhaps the least worst system. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won (Reuter story), but Weah is not accepting defeat and it looks like the country might be plunged into another civil war after an uncertain peace. The attitude on the street can be summed in this quote from the Times Online:
“UNMIL must go!” screamed a woman, referring to the United Nations Mission in Liberia. “We will solve our own problems. When we kill each other, who will survive will survive. That is how we make peace.”

Hungry Planet

Imagine laying out all the food that you eat for a week and then taking a picture of it as the husband-and-wife team of Peter Alusio and Faith Mendel have done in their book - The Hungry Planet
From the NPR Story:
"...(they) wanted to see how globalization, migration and rising affluence are affecting the diets of communities around the globe. Each chapter of their book features a portrait of a family, photographed alongside a week's worth of groceries."
Page shows poignant comparisons from Darfur, Germany and others.

I am deeply interested in how globalization, free markets affect daily lives. I am not too interested in general hypotheses about their gross ill-effects or their silver-bullet effects on the economy. Simply looking at how a basic factor such as diet is affected in the East vs. West, rural vs.urban, rich vs. poor can reveal a lot. Looks like this will be another addition to the list of requests at the local library.

Amusing anecdote
In the NPR story they talk of a family that decided to be more healthy and joined a gym. Ironically, they began to eat more fast-food since going to the gym gave them less time to cook!

A Shortcut To Becoming a Computer Guru

In my book, a computer nerd is someone who uses vi not MS Office, Python not MATLAB, and can be seen mostly using a cmd prompt typing syntax which would give most people a brain hemorrhage. Most people, however don't seem to have such exalted standards for 'a computer expert'. I am not much of a 'computer expert', but definitely a lazy computer user. If my hands are on the keyboard, I like them to stay there. If they are using the mouse, I like them to stay there. So, to save precious calories I try to learn as many shortcuts as I can. My academic sounding excuse is that Knowing keyboard shortcuts is more ergonomic . With mouse gestures browsing has never been so much fun.

I have realised that knowing shortcuts has another added benefit - people think 'you really know computers!'. I have seen quite a few people completely amazed to see how I moved stuff around on the screen. The next level after the Shortcuts 101: CTRL + S,A,X,Y,Z,C and V is making stuff bold (CTRL+B), Italicizing (CTRL+I), Justifying, left, right and center (CTRL + J, L, R or E) and renaming files(F2), etc. These might impress some people but not all.

If you really wish to be revered as a computer guru then the next step is knowing the Windows (or system) shortcuts. Your average user's estimation of your expertise will take a quantum leap if he(*) sees you can minimize the desktop windows ( Windows + M), or access the desktop (Win + D), cycle through active windows (ALT+Tab) or close apps ( Alt+F4) in less than an eyeblink. If they have not reconciled to the fact they will, once they see you open the Run window to start Firefox ( Win + R, firefox). If you wish to add to your mystery use mouse gestures. They are so subtle and wonderful that most don't catch on and think are a magician.

I have a labmate who really knows computers inside-out. He is a master of networking, XML, Java, C+, hardware setup, 'you-name-it'. The kind of guy who chews 200 lines of code for breakfast. A few days ago, we were working on a grant and we had this complicated equation to add. He was trying to add a subscript to a term and was fumbling for the button in Word. Then I chipped in with the shortcut (CTRL + '=') and he raised his eyebrows, "Goddamn Hirak, you really know THAT shortcut!". In two keystrokes I was instantly elevated to 'someone who knows computers' by someone who really knew them. How easy it has always been to be instantly raised (CTRL+SHIFT+'+')to computer guru level! If only all things in life had such easy shortcuts.

* Such knowledge somehow does not impress chicks at all. They seem to have more practical and realistic expectations. Unless you want to drastically reduce your chances for this Saturday night do not reveal or revel in knowing shortcuts in front of the fairer sex.