Thursday, December 27, 2007

Recycling woes

I try hard to minimize my carbon footprint (according to the calculator, my footprint is 5.5 tonnes, compared to the US average of 20 tonnes per person, pat pat). The years in Seattle ensured that recycling would always be on my mind, and that city is a wonderful example of what is possible, where there is a constant effort to maximize recycling and reduce waste and consumption.

Anyway, after having moved to Dallas, my efforts to conserve and recycle have run into a number of challenges, and plenty of amusing incidents.

Most of Dallas city itself still doesn't recycle (though there is some recycling in Dallas suburbs). Which means if you want to recycle, you need to collect whatever you can at home, and then drop it off at the nearest recycling center. Luckily for me, I managed to find a recycling center just a couple of miles from home, and started collecting and sorting trash out at home (into the usual, paper, plastic, glass and cans). The problem though lies in taking that trash in a timely manner to the recycling center. More often than not, I end up with a small mountain of recyclable trash, which eventually makes entry into the laundry room impossible. Loading all of that into the car ends up being quite an ordeal. But it’s also led to some embarrassing situations.

On one occasion there I was, standing by the apartment elevator, with two large trash bags and two smaller bags full of cans and bottles, and on my way down, the inevitable happened. One of the bags ripped open and there were cans rolling all over the corridor. As I was chasing down one of the fugitive cans, one of my neighbors stepped forward to help, and with a twinkle in his eye asked me if I was collecting trash for a reason. Perhaps I wanted to sell them on eBay!

On another occasion I had so much trash that the trunk of our little car wouldn’t close (damn those humongous plastic milk containers). As I huffed and puffed under the warm Texas sun, another neighbor who was driving out in his truck took one look at me and said “that’s why you need a truck”, smiled and drove off. On a third occasion, I almost made it to the car intact, when I tripped on the curb by the parking lot and splattered cans and bottles across the lot. But I soldier on.

Grocery stores sometimes provide even more entertainment. I was used to taking a shopping bag to stores in Seattle. Anyway, most stores there give a choice between paper and plastic bags, and also have drop-off points for store plastic bags. But only a few stores in Dallas have drop off points, and none (at least the affordable ones) offer paper bags. So, we try to take shopping baskets with us when we shop, or try to minimize plastic bags. Often when I say I don’t want a bag, the store attendants shrug incredulously but sometimes ask ”no bags?”, as if to ask if we plan to teleport the groceries. But today, when I said we’d like to put stuff in our own shopping basket, the cashier looked at them for the first time and said “Oh sorry, I thought they were your laundry baskets”, and burst out laughing. Clearly, there couldn’t be a funnier sight in town.

The hardest part of living in Dallas though is that the city is not built for people who like to walk. The pavements are bad, most people in their cars don’t notice pedestrians, and pedestrians are a rarity in most streets (bicycles are an even rarer species). I’ve often wanted to walk the 3 miles to work (on days when the weather is reasonable), but the streets aren’t particularly safe after dark, there isn’t any one else walking (except some homeless people), and at every third intersection the pavement disappears into the street.

Living the green life in Dallas sure is challenging. It’s almost as if every possible obstacle has been placed in your way, and it just might be easier for me to train and run next year’s city marathon.

But what’s life, if it isn’t challenging.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Newsmaker of the year: Rajendra Pachauri

Nature has announced its newsmaker of the year. It is Rajendra “Pachy” Pachauri.

For those of you who ask “Rajendra who?”, he’s the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the director of The Energy and Resources Institute (formerly Tata Energy and Resources Institute). The IPCC shared this years Nobel peach…uh…peace prize with the Goracle.

His profile in Nature is both entertaining and inspiring (particularly for Indian scientists, who should read the bit about his work ethic). From a slightly controversial selection, to being called a “feet dragger” or worse, Pachauri systematically overcame all critics and helped the IPCC forge ahead with its findings and getting global leaders to agree on something.

“On his way to collect his own medal, Gore stopped to shake Pachauri warmly by the hand. Patchy and Al, as they call each other, get along famously. It is all a far cry from the situation in 2002, when Pachauri beat Gore's favoured candidate to run the IPCC in a bitterly fought contest. Immediately afterwards, Gore lambasted Pachauri in the pages of The New York Times as the “let's drag our feet candidate”, a patsy put in place to weaken the IPCC as one of various “acts of sabotage” by the new Bush administration. Pachauri had fought back with a letter of his own to the Times . “In a 1991 speech, Mr Gore [referred] to my 'commitment', 'vision' and 'dedication' … Will the real Al Gore please stand up?”

You can read the entire profile here, on the Nature website. It is an excellent article to read.

(And if Nature decides this is subscription only, and you want to read it, send me an email and I’ll send you a pdf)

Monday, December 17, 2007

If this story sounds familiar.... many of you, it will probably be because you’ve seen or experienced something exactly like this.

Here’s the story, and you just might be able to replace the situation and the people without changing a single incident.

The wife goes down to her alma mater for the graduation ceremony of some of her friends. Now, graduation ceremonies are a rather grand celebratory affair, especially when someone is getting the doctoral “hood”. Two of her friends were being hooded, and so she was given the job of being their official photographer and cheerleader.

Like almost everyone else, she was at the auditorium early, and quietly seated herself at the back, where there was seating. When it was close to the time her friend was going to be hooded, she quietly went up (going unobtrusively from the side), found a corner where she could stand without disturbing anyone to take a picture, and got her camera out. The American couple who were seated besides her (likely waiting for their son or daughter to graduate) saw her, and asked if she’d like to come to their spot in order to get a better picture. Everything was as it should be, joyous and celebratory.

And then these two Indian students walked, or should I say, swaggered into the front aisle without a care in the world. While every one was perfectly well behaved, these two behaved as if they ruled the world. They walked right up, obstructing as many views as humanly possible, all while talking happily. One guy whips out a camera, and stands akimbo right in the middle of the stage taking a picture. They decide to stand right there and turn back and wave or call out to their friend (who was walking up on stage). You know…..the “hey, look here, we’re here” kind of voice that was hardly congratulatory. While this was going on, and everyone else in the hall was getting pissed off, one of their cell phones rang (with a suitably colorful ringtone). Instead of switching the damn thing off, he turns back, grins and says “sorry, bad timing” and continues, incredibly, to click pictures without shutting off that phone, even as some of the audience looked at him in disbelief. This, right after a clear message from the organizers requesting the audience to shut off their cellphones. Now, to top things, after clicking the pictures he wanted, he proceeds to whip out his (still ringing) phone and yell “do minute me phone karna, main thoda busy hoon” (call me after two minutes, I’m a little busy right now). Two minutes later, almost on cue, the phone rings again! This time, an American gentleman sitting in front couldn’t take it any more, and asks this guy to take it outside, which he reluctantly does, talking away on his phone as he’s leaving the hall.

Meanwhile, my wife gets ready to quietly take her friend’s picture. Just as she’s about to take a short video, this same guy and his friend walk right back in, and stand right in front of her (as her friend is hooded), shutting off her view. She now has a delightful video of the back and head of this guy for posterity, with some of his running Hindi commentary to boot.

And this was hardly the only incident of the day, but a single sample from many such. Here’s yet another one. In the aisle behind where she and her friends were seated were yet another group of Indian students, talking away as if they owned this world (while all others in the audience were quietly seated, listening to the names being read out, and clapping politely). The all important topic of the discussion of this group of loudmouths was cameras. The conversation goes thus:

“Hey, check out my camera phone, it’s got 1 megapixel resolution”

“That’s nothing, mine’s got 3 megapixels. Shut up and smile.”

Few more loud words exchanged in a few Indian languages.

Click. Click. What fun.

The wife was understandably furious with all of this, and was talking to her friends at the end of the day (two of them were European, the other Canadian). Since she had initiated the discussion, the others said they didn’t want to say this in her presence, but in numerous public places (from places on campus to airports or restaurants) they had all experienced some extremely boorish or downright rude behavior from Indians. Most times they were too stunned to respond (I’ll avoid details here).

This is hardly surprising to most of us. Anyone who has gone to a movie hall screening an Indian movie, or an Indian concert, must have experienced this and much more. Cell phones ring constantly. Kids run berserk, yelling at the top of their voices as their parents let them be, oblivious to the disturbed crowd around them. Conversations continue in loud voices (talking is bad enough, but if you have to, whisper). People stand up and obstruct everyone’s view of the stage/screen, without a care in the world, and certainly don’t put in any effort to get out of the way. Others answer loudly ringing cell phones and engage in long, loud conversations within earshot of everyone else. Still others don’t bother to stand in line, but walk right up to the front of the counter without even acknowledging the existence of others in line, or jostle for space using painfully bony elbows. An endless list.

I’ve been reluctant to admit it (or usually have been defensive about it when some non-Indian friends bring it up), but I think, after viewing a rather large sample size, I’m compelled to say that we’re a country of rude, inconsiderate boors. And unfortunately, most of us haven’t even heard of the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and don’t behave as well as most American audiences would.

And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or how much money you have.

It NEVER hurts to be polite and considerate.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ethics, plagiarism, eTBLAST and déjà vu

(It has been an eventful week, with moving apartments and lots of boxes to pack and unpack, but there are some interesting blog posts stored in my mind, and they’ll be up as soon as I get typing)

Abi and other Indian researchers have written extensively about a couple of cases of plagiarism in research from India over the past year or so. There have been two major recent examples of what can only be called blatant and unacceptable cases of plagiarism, which have rightfully been panned by Abi and many others.

But here’s the thing which perhaps hasn’t been discussed enough. Sure, there have been a few researchers who resort to plagiarism or make dubious ethical decisions to steal research or duplicate their own work and present it as different work. But at a larger scale, within the broader education system, there is no understanding or even recognition that this is a problem, nor is there any effort to educate all students about ethics, plagiarism and the importance of citing one’s sources.

The simple concept of citing references should start at a very early stage, in junior school or middle school. I recall numerous science, history and geography projects that we did starting late in junior school. The charts and reports were always something I looked forward doing, and for projects in my 9th and 10th grade, I spent many wonderful hours in the library of the Indian Institute of World culture, looking up their terrific collection of history books. Thankfully, we had been told to cite our references by our history teacher, and I meticulously made a list of all my references and added that to a bibliography. But I remember many more examples from school and even college where students would come up with reports without a single reference, or in other cases copy large sections of text from textbooks or other sources, verbatim. They were never once told that they were wrong, and that was unacceptable. In one instance, for a social studies class project, a teacher proudly announced to the class that one such project was “outstanding” and “beautifully written” (a comment more pertinent to this student’s elegant artwork and layout, but nothing about the content). This project was copied out faithfully from a textbook, which wasn’t even cited in the non-existent reference/bibliography section. In stark contrast, when I moved to the States some years ago, I was pleasantly surprised when I found that most school kids here were required to cite their sources in their class projects and essays. The lackadaisical approach towards ethics in research often continues through college in India, and the student learns of citing resources or ethical issues only when he/she is a graduate student, or in some cases never at all. I’ve hardly been surprised to find some international students here in the States (this malady isn’t restricted to India, but may be widespread across parts of Asia or Africa) who aren’t exactly sure what is acceptable and what is not. There is an urgent need to educate educators in India, and make an ethics and plagiarism course a serious part of the curriculum at least in the freshman/sophomore years of college. (And when I say serious, I mean that if a person “flunks” this course, that person should not be allowed to progress to the next year in college).

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
That said, here’s an interesting second part of this post. A month or so ago, Dr. Harold “Skip” Garner, a researcher here, talked about some of his latest research. He, amongst other things, is a bioinformaticist, and his group came up with the eTBLAST resource. Now, most of us researchers are used to searching for other researchers’ work using databases such as PubMed and SciFinder. What these do is allow us to find research publications or resources typically by topic or author. But eTBLAST is a more sophisticated tool since it is capable of searching large sections of text. So, let us say you put in an entire summary of a research paper, and you want to find more research similar to this entire topic, eTBLAST in its results section spits out a list of researchers/authors who have worked on topics similar to what you have queried, with a listing of the details of the work/publications (if it isn’t all clear to you, give it a try here). This allows the user to do a number of things. It allows the user to identify leading researchers in a certain area, or identify the most appropriate journals for a particular type of research. It is popular now with journal editors or grant funding agencies to identify appropriate reviewers for papers or grants. In short, if used well, this can be an extremely powerful tool for bibliographical data mining.

Skip and his team built eTBLAST primarily for this purpose, but found that eTBLAST had a potentially very useful “side effect”. It turns out that his tool was extremely good at finding duplicate citations.

Yup, this tool is extremely useful in finding published work which are very close replicates of already existing published work.

Skip and his team used a sample of about 60000 citations that they drew from Medline, and used eTBLAST to analyze them. What they found were a couple of dozen cases of citations with no shared authors, i.e. cases which were very likely to have been completely plagiarized. Some of the examples Skip gave were hilarious, with one particular example that had me in splits. There was this researcher in England (and I couldn’t help but thinking that his name seemed suspiciously of subcontinental or middle-eastern origin) who had published a paper, and then decided that this paper was so good that he would publish the entire thing again, practically verbatim, in a different journal. What’s more, not satisfied by this he published this paper yet again, an incredible third time, without changing much more than a few numbers, in a third journal! He must think his work is so good that it need to be published the same way three times. In addition to these examples, there were many hundreds of cases where the same author had published “very similar work” in different journals, without having bothered to change the text, title or references too much.

The utility of eTBLAST was incredibly apparent in this live demonstration that Skip put together. I’m just hoping that along with an increasing awareness of ethics in research, there will be more such tools that not only help research and bibliographical mining, but also can be used effectively to find and expose these “researchers”.

The details of using eTBLAST to find duplicate citations have now been described in an excellent publication in Bioinformatics. Here’s the link to the research paper from Skip’s group in Bioinformatics, titled Déjà vu – A Study of Duplicate Citations in Medline. This second link is to the aptly titled Déjà vu database, a “repository of duplicate citations” from numerous databases.