Thursday, October 23, 2014

Philosophy of Word

Escape from Microsoft Word by Edward Mendelson in NYRB:

The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius, but it had nothing to do with the way writing gets done. The programmers did not think about writing as a sequence of words set down on a page, but instead dreamed up a new idea about what they called a “document.” This was effectively a Platonic idea: the “form” of a document existed as an intangible ideal, and each tangible book, essay, love letter, or laundry list was a partial, imperfect representation of that intangible idea.

A document, as Word’s creators imagined it, is a container for other ideal forms. Each document contains one or more “sections,” what everyone else calls chapters or other subdivisions. Each section contains one or more paragraphs. Each paragraph contains one or more characters. Documents, sections, paragraphs, and characters all have sets of attributes, most of which Word calls “styles.” [...]

Monday, October 20, 2014

IISc Alumni Global Conference - 2015 will be right here at IISc

IISc and its alumni started this series of conferences with the first one in Santa Clara, California, in 2007 (Flickr pics) -- just a year before, and possibly as a prelude to, the Institute's Centenary Celebrations. The second edition followed in due course in 2013, this time in Chicago, Illinois.

The third edition of this Conference is coming home to the Institute. The dates are: 26-28 June 2015.

It is a sign of the times that this Conference gets announced on social media well before the conference website is ready. Much as I hate to send you to any of these time sinks, here are the links to the community / group pages:

If Twitter is your social media poison of choice, the relevant hashtag is #IIScAGC.

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If you happen to be an IISc alum, do please pass this message along to your buddies.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When a Nobel Medal Went to Fargo, North Dakota

Astrophysicist and 2011 Nobel winner Brian Schmidt has this totally priceless story:

"When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.

“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’

I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’

They said, ‘What’s in the box?’

I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.

So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’

I said, ‘gold.’

And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’

‘The King of Sweden.’

‘Why did he give this to you?’

‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’

At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’”

"Beautiful Chemistry"

Wonderful stuff [Hat tip: Cocktail Party Physics]. Here's the website with lots of interactive graphics.

Batmobile: The Origin

For the Annals of Pop Culture: The Batmobile: The Concept Car That Became a Star by Michael Beschloss.

[In] 1965, ABC television greenlighted a new series called “Batman,” and its producers needed a Batmobile — fast. Within three weeks, using blowtorches and saws, the automobile customizer George Barris transformed the Futura’s deteriorating concept car — which he had bought from Ford for a dollar — into a rakish roadster suitable for TV’s new Batman and Robin ... [Bold emphasis added]

Links: Parenting Edition

Two links. The first one is a summary of an economics paper: Tiger moms and helicopter parents: The economics of parenting style by Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, who use cross-country data to support their conclusion that in times of rising inequality, a more authoritarian parenting style will likely be chosen by parents:

This column argues that the choice of parenting style is driven by incentives. Parents weigh the expected costs and benefits of implementing a certain parenting style. The popularity of the authoritarian style is declining because the economic returns to the independence of children have risen. The rising inequality implies higher returns to education. This calls for pushier parenting styles, such as the authoritative one. A decline in inequality is likely to prompt a more relaxed parenting.

The second is a column by Pamela Druckerman: A Cure for Hyper-Parenting.

Measuring the effectiveness of medication

Sarah Fallon at Wired has an informative story on putting a number, called the number needed to treat (NNT), on the effectiveness of medication and procedures.

Developed by a trio of epidemiologists back in the ’80s, the NNT describes how many people would need to take a drug for one person to benefit. [...] If your kid is throwing up and you take her to the hospital, she might get a drug called Zofran. The NNT for that is 5, meaning that only five kids need to take Zofran for one of them to stop throwing up.

The story goes on to talk about a site called with the tagline, "Quick summaries of evidence-based medicine."

It’s unfortunate ... that the NNT is not a statistic that’s routinely conveyed to either doctors or patients. But you can look it up on a site that you’ve probably never heard of: Started by David Newman, a director of clinical research at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital, the site’s dozens of contributors analyze the available studies, crunch the numbers on benefits and harms, and then post the results.

Here's a bit more on NNT and how it is assigned to a medication or a treatment procedure:

As statistical tools go, the idea of the number needed to treat is relatively new. It was first described in 1988 by epidemiologists Andreas Laupacis, David Sackett, and Robin Roberts in a New England Journal of Medicine article titled “An Assessment of Clinically Useful Measures of the Consequences of Treatment.” They start by sketching out the problems with a number called the relative risk reduction. That’s the measure you often see hyped in media reports of scientific studies. Imagine, for example, a study of heart disease that finds that a new drug reduces the risk of death by an astonishing 50 percent. The reality behind that number is that the risk of death over a 10-year period for, say, a healthy 45-year-old man weighing 200 pounds went from 5 percent to 2.5 percent—50 percent! Such a finding is clinically significant, yes. Worthy of publication, maybe. But not quite as astonishing.

It would be better, the authors write, to look at a number called the absolute risk reduction—the 2.5 percent reduction that resulted from the new drug. But working with that measure can be hard to understand, because it is actually a percent of a percent. To make it more intuitive and apprehendable, the authors explain, you can use the inverse of absolute risk reduction: Divide 1 by 2.5 percent, or .025, to get 40. And that’s the number needed to treat. Forty people have to take the drug for one person to benefit. So is it worth taking? That depends. The NNT isn’t crazy high, so you might go for it, especially since a heart attack can kill you. But if the drug has terrible side effects, you might not.