Friday, January 22

If US Could Create 'Avatar', It Could Fake 9/11 Attacks: Mahathir

You cant make this up. I quote:


Malaysia’s former premier Mahathir Mohamad said on Wednesday there was “strong evidence” the US faked the September 11 terror attacks as an excuse to go to war against Muslims.
“There is strong evidence that the attacks were staged. If they can make Avatar, they can make anything,’ Mahathir told the Conference for the Support of Al-Quds (Jerusalem), as quoted by local media.
The former premier also blamed Jews for hindering progress in US foreign policy. Voicing his disappointment that Barack Obama had not yet ended the war in Afghanistan or closed the US terror detention center at Guantanamo, he explained that “there are forces in the United States which prevent the president from doing some things. One of the forces is the Jewish lobby.”
Jews “had always been a problem in European countries. They had to be confined to ghettoes and periodically massacred. But still they remained, they thrived and they held whole governments to ransom," Mahathir said.
"Even after their massacre by the Nazis of Germany, they survived to continue to be a source of even greater problems for the world."

The white male effect

I came across this paper, which talks about something very interesting which I had never heard of before. It talks about how white males are generally less risk averse compared to females and non white males (which is the more politically correct way of saying coloured males).

Here’s a graph of how various risks that one could face in life are judged by these four demographic groups. Surprise surprise, one finds that on EVERY risk factor, white males think of the risks on a lower level compared to others. As the paper commented:
they generally possess a higher-than-average level of education and household income, are politically conservative, display hierarchal and individualistic worldviews, are more supportive of technological advances, and tend to place greater trust in authority figures, such as industry and government officials
Now keep in mind that this is research is based on an American population so the particular biases, limitations, etc. etc. apply. But I never thought of this in this manner. Before I go into this a bit more, let me point out that the research paper specifically emphasizes that this research should not be considered a conclusion that the White Males are the root cause of all issues and that the rest of the population is a homogenous lot and are put upon by these white males. No, the research clearly shows that there are statistically significant differences in risk taking in other parts of the population and that the actual risk taking is much more nuanced.

But going back to the white male effect, what grabbed my attention was how important this factor was. Look down history and take just the last century for example,and you will see that white males have generally been at the forefront of most historical turning points. Some photographs will prove my point.

1.  The Treaty of Versailles

2. Yalta
3. League of Nations

4. United Nations founding.

5. Breton Woods

6. Kyoto Protocol

7. Celebrating fall of Berlin wall.

Anyway, you get the idea, there is a blaze of white male faces. Yes, yes, I know about Obama and Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel and Golda Meir (there is much doubt about these ladies anyway typified by the quote about Margaret Thatcher that she was the only real man in the British cabinet...), but for the vast majority of the recent historical turning points,  the preparation work, the negotiations, the signing, the implementation, the execution of these public policies have all been done by white males. Now think about this. Recent history has largely been driven by white males whose risk perception is statistically significant in being lower compared to other parts of the population.

What does this mean? This means that much of what we are currently living through (whether food standards, security standards, health and safety standards, etc. etc.) are governed by a scale which is lower than what one would have expected if the grand poo bah’s had more non white male members in the decision making and execution areas.

Let's take the first example, cigarette smoking and the eco-system around it. We are talking about the manufacturers, the regulators, the judges, the lawyers, the scientists, the journalists, the analysts, the reporters, the TV reporters, the protestors, by and large, were white males. And they thought that the risk of cigarette smoking was much lower than what other parts of the population thought. Now doing a bit of back testing of this argument, if we had say a race/gender weighted risk understanding of cigarette smoking in the post Berlin Wall fall period, one can make a reasoned argument that restrictions on smoking would have been rolled out considerably earlier than what actually happened.

In each of the risk factors mentioned in the first graph, because of the nature of white males towards risk, one can make a good argument that a more nuanced way could have considerably reduced the risk for humans. Now that we have figured out that belling the cat would be a great idea to save the mice, who will bell the cat? Affirmative Action? Gender equality laws? Or is the prevention worse than the cure? I am not sure I have the answer, but I am sure that the answer is not going to be easy.

Tuesday, January 19

Operating in the microsecond arena

One didn't realise that one has spent too much mucking around with photographs and politics and other far too exciting bits and not enough on the geeky hard sciences bit. One realised so when one was sent a press release on execution speeds on the NYSE and NASDAQ.  The operative bits of the press release are:

NYSE Arca, NYSE Euronext’s all-electronic U.S equities exchange and already one of the fastest equities markets, is further speeding up its order execution time with the implementation of the company’s Universal Trading Platform. NYSE Arca customers are experiencing roundtrip executions of 650 microseconds for Nasdaq-listed issues, and 950 microseconds for NYSE- and NYSE Arca-listed issues, which generally have deeper books and more orders.

The release helpfully goes on to explain that a microsecond is one millionth of a second. For those who might not be familiar with the arcane bits of electronic trading, let me explain albeit with some massive simplification.

Basically, when you want to buy one stock on a stock exchange, you power up the website, select the stock that you want to purchase, the quantity and then hit enter. That goes off into the great broker system. The broker will either fulfil your order from its own holdings or route the order to the exchange. As soon as the order electronically leaves the computer gateway of the broker, the stopwatch starts. The order goes into the exchange, finds out a seller for that amount of stock, agrees terms, and then a notification that a sale has been agreed is sent back to the broker. As soon as the notification hits the inbound gateway, the stopwatch stops. This is the round trip that the press release is talking about.

Given that the vast majority of transactions are electronic like this, every “bit” of faster communication with the exchange means that you get in your order (for buying or selling) before the others. So there is an electronic arms race. Its gotten so bad that people are jostling to actually site their own gateways (servers) physically next to the exchange server boxes. The brokers have absolute squads of people trying to tighten and reduce the round trip time, they are investing in better hard disks, faster communications, better networks, ever tighter coding, all in an effort to squeeze out more and more time from this round trip. I have even heard a rumour that one head of market data networks in an investment bank has linked the bonus payments of his coding chaps (has divided them into three teams) to the number of micro seconds each improves per month. Now there’s a motivation :).

If you wanted to comprehend what 650 microseconds is, then you can perhaps picture it in this way. In 650 microseconds, light would have travelled 195 kilometres. The distance between New Delhi and Agra is about 180 kms (as the crow flies). Add another 15 for navigating around cows (sacred or otherwise) and that is the distance that light will travel in the time taken by an order leaving a broker, getting executed and getting back.

Another way of thinking about a microsecond is to see these pictures which were taken with a flashgun which fired off a microsecond burst of light just when a 0.22 rifle bullet hit these objects (there’s the damn photography again). Couple of examples are given below:

Ok, this was a strange post, but what the heck, one wanted to get back and get one’s hands dirty with some tech and numbers.

Monday, January 18

An understatement by 850 times is not an anomaly, its stupidity

This is what puzzles me, apparently the UK branch of this charity says that it had an income of £6.8 million submitted accounts to the Charity Commission saying that it had an income of £8,000. And they say this is an anomaly.

This is not an anomaly, this is stupidity and crass incompetence. How can you make a mistake in filing accounts of this magnitude? This is ridiculous. But I am also concerned that my tax dollars are being used to fund this kind of opaque institution. This is right after I read this story and I quote:

Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In 1999 New Scientist reported a comment by the leading Indian glaciologist Syed Hasnain, who said in an email interview with this author that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035.

Hasnain, of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who was then chairman of the International Commission on Snow and Ice's working group on Himalayan glaciology, has never repeated the prediction in a peer-reviewed journal. He now says the comment was "speculative".

Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.

And I end with the statement from the fellow concerned.

"It is not proper for IPCC to include references from popular magazines or newspapers," Hasnain adds.

So what happens in India?

The inclusion of this statement has angered many glaciologists, who regard it as unjustified. Vijay Raina, a leading Indian glaciologist, wrote in a discussion paper published by the Indian government in November that there is no sign of "abnormal" retreat in Himalayan glaciers. India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, accused the IPCC of being "alarmist".

The IPCC's chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as "voodoo science" lacking peer review. He adds that "we have a very clear idea of what is happening" in the Himalayas.

IPCC seems to be continuously doing this kind of rather vague statements all over the place. Lets head over to the Antarctica.

Doesnt really look like the entire ice cap is heading into the ocean, does it? I quote:

Translation: In contrast to model forecasts, Antarctic ice shelf collapse still appears to be isolated to a very tiny area in the western region of a continent otherwise experiencing continued glacial and ice shelf advancement.

And that fact certainly casts further serious doubt on the U.N.'s most recent century-end SLR predictions. Last year, the 18- to 59-centimeter estimate that appeared in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was increased to a full two meters, based entirely on fears of accelerated glacial melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Keep in mind that since the prolonged cold snap of the Little Ice Age ended in 1850, the global rate of SLR has remained essentially steady at approximately seven inches per century, due largely to thermal expansion.

Reality check time: Does anything in this chart suggest to you that SLR might increase over tenfold -- as the IPCC now predicts -- this century?

And another doozy:

In fact, despite the IPCC insistence that global warming will be most prevalent at the poles, southern-hemisphere sea ice area has remained virtually unchanged since satellite sensors and analytical programs were first capable of measuring it in 1979.

So perhaps when the green-gospel-pronouncing IPCC releases its Fifth Assessment Report, tentatively due for 2014, contributors and lead authors alike might carefully consider the NPI findings, the steady rate of SLR over the past 150 years, and the overall resilience of Antarctic ice before formulating their next soggy doom-and-gloom prophecy. (And don't forget this undeniable fact: Across the continent, the 2008-2009 southern hemisphere summer hosted the lowest Antarctic ice melt in thirty years.)


And I am funding this voodoo science business ??? There is something in climate change and global warming, but I am not sure that the science behind it is that stable and good. There can be pressures on climate, definitely. There is definitely population and resource pressures, agreed. But lets do proper analysis, and btw, lets fix that funding issue, shall we?

Also check out this rather interesting report.

Sunday, January 17

The Auschwitz Album

This old photo album really got me going. The power of a photograph reaches out despite decades having had passed since it was taken at Auschwitz. This album shows the people  arriving at the concentration camp, getting processed into those who would be workers and those who would be gassed immediately. The black and white photographs throw a seriously blunt light on this truly horrible time.

Here’s one example of the arrivals. The faces are numb. Look at the faces of the children, innocent and uncomprehending.

Once they arrived, they were then selected according to what the SS officers felt as to their working capability, old men, women and children were more than likely to be sent straight into the gas chambers. The piles of clothing in the right back were reprocessed. In the top far left is a line which has already been processed and are heading towards the gas chambers (see air picture below).

These are 2 boys. Notice the Star of David on the greatcoat of the boy on the right, the Jews were identified that way.

Old men being led to the gas chambers, again notice the Star of David.

The same fate awaited old women and children.

Women and men who were fit for forced labour were deloused, had their heads shaven and were then moved to the labour part of the camp.

A photograph of a line of prisoners being lead to the gas chambers. These reconnaissance photographs were taken by the allied forces. In many cases, they did not even know what this was, or rather what the camps really were used for (or at least that's what was being claimed then).

and how the Germans then tried to hide the evidence.

it is all bloody painful…
The above related to the victims, but what about the Germans? Here’s another photo album from the other side.

There are more photographs of how the SS officers enjoyed their lives, as if they were on holidays, eating blue berries with cream and singing along with accordions. I get into frequent arguments with TBS about why the Holocaust is considered so extra special. Well, it's the efficiency with which this large scale killing happened, the scale and scope, the rabid ideology, and and and, which all lead us to hope that it will not happen again. And despite this, we have seen Bangladesh, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc. Some said, we need to educate people more. In one of the next posts, I will be exploring why its the educated lot who actually drive or commit these monstrous crimes against humanity.

Making universities independent makes them more productive

Universities are usually under very tight control of the governments, which is a shame and is of a comparatively recent origin. From a historical perspective, universities were independent bodies, privately funded, and having high standards. Ever since we ended up having education, specially tertiary education, as an element of state policy, the universities have become tied to the government purse strings, which frankly sucks.

Recently, the UK announced cuts of up to $500 million. Broadly, this just continues a tradition of poking their noses into something that should be left independent and to their own devices. Why on earth would a government desire to tie up the independence of universities? I dont understand this, but because of this behaviour, quality has dipped, many subjects are no longer taught, core sciences get hammered and generally the universities are a pit. And because of this, the output suffers.

I have seen similar situations in USA, in mainland Europe and of course in India. The case of India is really shameful, between the UGC and the other accrediting institutions, they have stopped the growth of universities. While the funding aspect is important, just see the difference between institutions which are independently managed (IIM’s, ISB, IIT’s etc.) and compare that to where everything is government controlled. Having been inside one of these jails, it's highly surprising that any kind of research emerges. Forget about teaching, which is pathetic anyway. Just think about it. If we had managed to make our universities independent post WWII, we would have had sixty years of more research from two generations, more papers, more patents, more discoveries, more improvement of humankind and advancement of human knowledge from independent universities. So that's the opportunity cost that we are paying for the governments control of the universities. And then we want all to be knowledge societies The shameful thing is that because of this stranglehold, we have missed out on so much productivity. And that’s criminal - to actually kill off so much research which could have helped our lives to become so much better.
Here’s an interesting research paper and its abstract.
We test the hypothesis that universities are more productive when they are both more autonomous and face more competition. Using survey data, we construct indices of university autonomy and competition for both Europe and the United States. We show that there are strong positive correlations between these indices and multiple measures of university output. To obtain causal evidence, we investigate exogenous shocks to US universities' expenditures over three decades. These shocks arise through the political appointment process, which we use to generate instrumental variables. We find that an exogenous increase in a university's expenditure generates more output, measured by either patents or publications, if the university is more autonomous and faces more competition. Exploiting variation over time in the 'stakes' of competitions for US federal research grants, we also find that universities generate more output for a given expenditure when research competitions are high stakes. We draw lessons, arguing that European universities could benefit from a combination of greater autonomy and greater accountability. Greater accountability might come through increased reliance on competitive grants, enhanced competition for students and faculty (promoted by reforms that increase mobility), and yardstick competitions (which often take the form of assessment exercises).

The researchers use the Shanghai and HEEACT rankings of world universities to compare them. Shanghai uses the following metrics:
  • The number of alumni from the university who have won Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, or economics or Field Medals in mathematics (10% of the overall index).
  • The number of faculty of the university who have won Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, or economics or Field Medals in mathematics (20% of the overall index).
  • The annual number of articles authored by faculty of the university that are published in the journals Nature or Science (20% of the overall index).
  • The annual number of articles authored by faculty of the university that are in the Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index (20% of the overall index).
  • The number of Highly Cited Researchers (copyright Thomson ISI, 2008) in the university's faculty in 21 broad subject categories (20% of the overall index).
  • All of the above indicators divided by the number of full-time equivalent faculty (10% of the index).
The HEEACT adds the following metrics to the equation:
  • The number of research publications in the relevant field in the last 11 years (10% weight) and the current year (10% weight).
  • The number of citations to research publications in the relevant field in the last 11 years (20% weight) and last 2 years (10% weight).
  • The number of highly cited papers in the last 11 years (15% weight), the number of articles in 'high-impact' journals in the current year (15% weight), and the H-index for the last 2 years (20% weight)


Quite a simple answer if you look at the correlations. The researchers have also done some regression analysis to confirm what we know. Autonomy, competition and independence from government clutches helps in the productivity of the universities. The overall impact is startling, they produce more patents and publications, and I quote specially for the US universities:
“expenditures are more than twice as productive in states with the most autonomy and competition, compared to states with the least”
The situation in Europe is more complicated, but still there are pockets of good behaviour (Switzerland, Sweden and UK!!!) where more competition and more autonomy are good drivers of university excellence. But will it happen? I doubt it, because the governments in these countries have a stranglehold on this sector of the society, which is a shame really.

The less said about ME universities the better. While I was closing this, I came across this Memri report. Pretty interesting what the top said:
In TV Debate on Arab Universities, Arab Students' Union Head Ahmad Al-Shater Says Western Universities Are 'Laboratories for Weapons... Who Created Swine Flu, Bird Flu, & the Financial Crisis?'; Jordanian Professor Adib Al-Zu'bi Says Arab Countries 'Imported All the Prostitutes [After the U.S.S.R. Fell]... Scientists Imported by Israel & the U.S'
I wouldn't even repeat what the student said, but the professor was quite right in many ways. I loved this bit:
There is a well-known example from an Arab country, which goes like this... A teacher asked: Who can give me the name of a creature that flies? One student said: A cow. The teacher said: You idiot, cows don't fly. Whose son are you? The boy said: I'm the son of so-and-so, who's a colonel in the army. So the teacher said: Cows fly, but they don't rise up from the ground. That is the situation."
Again, no exceptions, it's just relative across the world. Here the universities are tied to the government purse strings, in India and the ME, they are tied in even more ways. Forget about publications and research, they can't even teach properly if the foaming of the student above was any example.

50 reasons not to marry a Bengali man/woman

These two stories literally had me in splits. Somebody has a total wicked sense of humour. I think my wife will agree to most of them for the man..Few gems:

2. A similar Powerpoint presentation will explain why the leg piece of the chicken is also reserved for the man at the table. There is an additional reason here. Growing Bengali boys, who keep growing into growing Bengali boys, need more “protein”, which is good for the “brain”. The “brain”, when encased within the head of a boy, is a collective Bengali obsession. Nurtured by his parents, Horlicks and chicken legs, it will be a potent weapon when he grows up: it will be the highest point reached by a man with a steady, decent job, besides being the embodiment of sex appeal. A Bengali man draws women towards him with his “brain”. For these reasons the popular Bengali sayings: Maachher muro khao, brain-er pokkhe bhalo (Have fishhead, it’s good for the brain); TV dekho na, brain-er pokkhe kharap (Don’t watch TV, it’s bad for the brain); Beshi khela dhula brain-er pokkhe kharap (Too much sport is bad for the brain); Amartya Sen maachher maatha kheye boro hoyechhen (Amartya Sen grew up on fishheads). Fishheads being another powerful Bengali obsession.

12. If they do put the food away, the fridge looks like a battlefield, with several things dismembered, dismantled and oozing liquids. In any case, they would never clean the refrigerator. Ditto for the cooking gas.

27 .They think growing hair on their upper lip will make them more “manly”.

28 .Men are reluctant to make the bed, open the windows in the morning or make the morning pot of tea. Most of all they are uncooperative about hanging the mosquito net. It shakes the foundation of marriage.

33 .They not only have an opinion about everything but they think they take the right decision in everything, though this could be a universal male trait.

39 .They like to pat their pot bellies in private. Sometimes in public.

46.-50 .The Bengali boy’s mother thinks he’s “flawless”. He secretly agrees.

But the women are not spared. I haven't married a Bengali woman but am infested and inflicted by a whole thundering herd of assorted Bengali females in the form of my mother, sisters, friends and colleagues. And after having read this, I think some of my non Bengali females are actually Bengali as well, hence would suggest that they might be universal traits. Here are some choice ones:

50. She expects you to write poetry about her eyes. Or at least to be able to recite Bonolota Sen (where she is that beauty) and pretend that you mean it.

48. Her English is better than yours. And she will never let you forget it.

44. Like the accomplished women of Pride and Prejudice, they all sing Rabindrasangeet and Nazrulgeeti, dance, paint and recite poetry. God help you if she takes her talent seriously.

43. She will never get along with your mother. It is a matter of principle.

42. They will pet and spoil their husbands like overgrown babies and then they’ll ask you not to be a mamma’s boy. The truth is they’d rather you be a “wifey’s pet”.

40. They remove gift wrappers for hours and then preserve the paper under the mattress. If she had her way, she would keep the sellotape too.

29. She will make you bend in front of her and fix her sari pleats, although you have no clue how to, in a manner that is in equal parts helpless and in equal parts authority. Only she knows how to do that.

28. She says eeshh… but it can get very hissy depending on her mood.

27. She dives for the weekly magazine and hides it somewhere until she has finished reading it. And by then it’s time for the next week’s edition.

14. Her son will always come before you.

12. She will spend her life obsessing about her pet and later her son/daughter. Also her bonsais and cacti. And she expects you to do the same.

2. All you can do is ogle discreetly. She is a firm practitioner of mind over matter. She’s the quintessential tease.

1. And yet, despite it all, she is just too good for you. Sorry men.

Go read the full lists, its funny all right.