Politics, Science

Why publishers?

This year I participated in organization of a computer science conference. To my surprise, I found that conferences hire publishers instead of publishers own the conferences. Here is how organization of a usual CS conference works.

A conference is defined by its steering committee, which is a small group of top academics from the field of the conference. The steering committee appoints program chairs every year. The program chairs of a year sign a contract with a publisher to publish the conference proceedings. These contracts are signed every year. The program chairs organize the conference independently of the publishers.  They appoint the program committee with the approval of steering committee. The program committee reviews the submitted papers and accepts a subset of the papers. The program chairs send these accepted papers to the publisher for final printing. The copyright of the papers are held by the publisher in return of providing the publishing service for free.  They also give some free copies of published books to the program chairs. The copyright allows them to charge exuberant amount of money to the academic institutions to access the publications.

The natural question comes to mind: “Why publishers exist?”.

One may argue the following three contributions of the publishers.

  1. Quality Publishing: The publishers proof read the papers. Sometimes they  move around figures to pretty-up the paper. This task is usually done by some third party company located in some third-world country. They assign ISBN number etc to give the proceedings a unique identifier. And finally, they publish the physical books. Publishers do not make any editorial decisions.
  2. Reliable Dissemination: These proceedings are usually available at the publishers website for rest of the eternity. For Academic libraries, it is easy to follow these publishers to find most of the scientific literature. Publishers make dissemination of scientific works easy.
  3. Legacy Reputation: If publisher signs publishing contracts  only with high quality conferences then they build a reputation over time. There are no lack of conferences in academia. Academics keep inventing conferences to promote themselves. But if the proceedings of a conference is published by a publisher then the conference inherits the reputation of the publisher.

The first two contribution are already obsolete. The proof-reading service can be provided without the publisher. Usually, the cost of doing research is very high and hiring a proof-reader should only be marginal. An institution can easily pay for proof-reading of its papers by those third world companies. The printing of physical books and hosting the papers on internet are fast becoming inexpensive technology.  The cost of running a scientific publication website can easily be covered by scientific funding agencies. Anyway, they are paying for producing the content. Why not they also pay for dissemination?

The reputation of a publisher is the only reason, I think, that keeps them in business. While evaluating a published work, funding agencies factor in reputation of the publisher. This makes life of evaluators easy. Therefore, the steering committees of the  conferences do not want to move away from reputed publishers. This is hardly a compelling reason to have publishers. This is a classic legacy systems problem.

The underlying technology for publishing scientific works has shifted sufficiently that makes “the publishers” irrelevant and unnecessary overhead. All the scientists I have spoken to also say that they do not see any value of having publishers. However, it is very hard to chart a path from current system to a publisher-free system, without breaking scientific reputation system. Here is a great opportunity for innovations. I am very sure soon scientists will start experimenting with different publishing models for important conferences.

Politics, Science

Capitalism is live! Socialism is safe!

I am a researcher in the field of verification. In this field, the systems are verified against desired properties. For example, we may want a space ship to have a property of not exploding in mid-air. After building the ship, we may also want some engineer to analyze the ship design to verify that indeed the ship will not explode. In our research, we are developing tools and techniques for the verification engineer. The ideas of the field can be applied in any dynamic system, e. g., Economics, Society, etc. Some parallels are very interesting. Here is an example.

In verification, we divide the desired properties of the systems into two classes: safety and liveness. Safety properties require that something bad will never happen. For example, the space ship will never explode. In contrast, the liveness properties require that something good will eventually happen. For example, the space ship will some day reach to the Moon. This distinction is there because verifying safety properties are computationally much easier as compared to verifying liveness properties. In our field, the first question the other researchers ask, “Are you dealing with safety or liveness?”.

I recently realized that the distinction between safety and liveness can be used to see the distinction between the socialist thinking (welfare state) and the capitalistic thinking (free market). Today, the argument between socialists and capitalists is raging all over the world. A socialist demands social justice, a safety net against extreme poverty, a liberal set of laws, etc, while assuming that the society is sufficiently wealthy. On the other hand, a capitalist demands efficient economy, free market, simpler laws to start businesses, minimal state, well defined property rights, etc, while assuming well developed legal and political system to protect citizen rights. I see both of them demanding desirable properties of the social system, while assuming too much. In fact, assuming something, which exactly the other one is demanding.

Essentially, the socialist wants safety.

Inequality in the society will never be above a certain level.

But he doesn’t consider an undesirable situation in which  the society is mostly egalitarian but does not have enough food. Everybody is equal but hungry.

On the other hand, the capitalist demands liveness.

Some of the people will eventually create wealth.

But he doesn’t consider an undesirable situation in which the society is vastly wealthy but a few oligarchs control almost all the wealth. Most of the society is poor and exploited by the oligarchs.

What we need is each of the properties without ignoring the other one.

culture, Politics

Book: River of smoke

Just finished River of smoke: the latest book by Amitov Ghosh. This book is the sequel of Sea of Poppies. This book takes the story from India to China. The most part of the book follows an Indian merchant who is trying to sell opium in China, while Chinese government is about to crackdown on opium trade. As usual, Amitov Ghosh’s firm understanding of history makes the story all too vivid. Endlessly revealing.

River of smoke is not as convoluted story as Sea of poppies. Therefore, sometimes doesn’t feel that captivating. This may be because the River of smoke is more locked into the actual historical events and there was not much scope to add turns and twists.

Worth reading!


Book: Curfewed night

Curfewed night by Basharat Peer is a well written book about the rise and fall of Kashmiri Militancy in the duration of last two decades. His account is very personal. He describes his experience of the early stages of armed conflict when he was in his early teens. During the later part of the armed conflict, he was out of Kashmir and educated himself in Delhi and he watched his homeland being torn apart.  After the decline of armed conflict, he went back and collected the stories of the conflict. He interviewed the ordinary people who caught up in between equally abusive Militants and Indian Army. He also tried to capture the militants and the army perspectives but I would say that was not fully comprehensive.

As an Indian, I was deeply troubled by the accounts of Human rights abuses by Indian army. Indians often counter these stories by calling them as fabrication or telling another story of militant abuse on Kashmiri pundits or may be on Kashmiri Muslims. The first counterpoint is just state of denial. Answer to the objection is an impartial international investigation. I hope one day Indian government will see some wisdom of conducting investigations on these allegations. But the other counterpoint is the real sinister one.  Two wrongs does not make one right. Such argument gives a license to Indian army to abuse as much as they like with no accountability. We do not really know how much abuse has been done. In a decent society, we can not let slightest of abuse go unpunished. Specially by our own side. We must aim to create a decent society but not an India that is build on top of pile of corpses.

Until Indian population does not developed certain sympathy for Kashmiri people and recognize the abuses against them by Indian army, there will be no solution.

My fellow Indians, Please read this book!

Politics, Science

Book: The Quest

The Quest by Daniel Yergin is about development of business of energy in last 20 years. He wrote another book called “The prize” in early 90s that covered the history of oil industry and this book is a kind of squeal. This book tells a grand story in which the world started looking  for energy instead of oil, while oil remain a significant policy issue of the governments.

Book is an easy and fluent read to learn about the world of energy: major players, major technologies, major technical challenges, major sociopolitical challenges, and major environmental issues. The author is a pro-business American and he has inherent biases in his presentation of various political issues around energy business. Sometimes ridiculously simplified view of some political conflicts. For example, his description of coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 is full of false statements (If you read the book then try to understand his explanation of the failure of the coup). Another example, the recent Bahrain protests are defined as ‘protracted violence’ therefore Saudi king had to send an army there to ‘restore law and order’. And of course in his view, 2009 protests in Iran were a long cry for freedom. I hope technical aspects are accurate or at least he truly reflected the world view of the businessmen who run the world energy companies.

Here are the key questions one may ask about energy. I also list a summery of his answers.

  • How much oil is left?
    • At least 5 times the humanity used so far… that means a lot..
  • How much natural gas is left?
    • Not much exploited so far. New technologies and gas fields are arriving fast. No one knows really..
  • How much damage oil/gas drilling can do to environment?
    • All you can learn from accidents. The impact of all the accidents have been limited.
  • Is nuclear energy safe?
    • It depends to whom you ask. France has excelled in error free mass nuclear energy production. US and other developing countries are not totally sure what to do. It is very much clear that one major accident and whole nuclear energy dream is off the table.
  • How much nuclear material is out there?
    • This book did not discuss this issue.
  • Is climate change real? and how urgent?
    • Very real! Data is becoming undeniable. The book stands with the scientists.
  • Are renewable energy sources viable?
    • This book has a lengthy discussion about each kind of renewable energy. Each one has enormous challenges to make them acceptable. May be things will work out.
  • Can electric car replace normal cars?
    • There is a big push around the world to go electric. It will depend a lot on government policies if they make sure electric remain competitive against oil cars.

In general it claims, there are significant problems but trust businessmen. They will solve them.

culture, Politics

Being citijan*

I saw an interview of Salman Rushdie, in which some caller asked him about his reasons to live in US. He answered, “Do I live in US? I didn’t know that. I live in New York.” He subsequently explained that he does not identify him self with the nation state, an intangible idea,  but with the city, which he can feel tangibly.

After living 5+ years in various cities in Europe, I  share his feelings about living in a city rather than in a nation state. I can feel the city. I can walk across it. I see neighborhoods. I recognize shop keepers. I feel that I know the city but not the nation state. The city is my home not the nation state.

In India, it was opposite. I had distinct feeling about being in India, which was pushed into my conscience by patriotic songs and propagandized education. But, once I step out of the mother country.  I do not have that emotional attachment with any other nation state. When I move to a foreign nation state, the attachments  that I form are with the streets on which I walk to my workplace, the shops where I buy bread, and the passersby to whom I say hi. The city becomes the home. I do not know if this feeling is shared by many people who move every other year. But, it is an interesting idea. This feeling saves one from the dreadful nationalism.

The current conception of an identity implies that citijan(city person) can not be a unit of identity for modern society. Since world is globalized and people are increasingly interdependent, city identity is too fragmentary. We need to rethink the notion of identity and tone down some emotional aspect of an identity. I think that the concept of nation states are getting more and more at odds with the social and technological world in which we are living. May be the city identity can serve our need to feel part of some thing greater and derive a social support system. Emotional element can be removed from the nation state and it will reduce into an administrative body such as UN.

* citijan == city+jan == city person