Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A Review of Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

In this book, the author, Malcolm Gladwell, hammers home how and why certain individuals have succeeded enormously, i.e., are outliers, by leading the reader from the obvious observations to the more non-obvious conclusions:
"It is not the brightest who succeed. ... Outliers are those who have been given opportunities -- and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."

"To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the unfortunate birth dates and happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all."
After chronicling the lives of many successful people, and making some interesting observations along the way, Gladwell concludes that success is not completely inherent to an individual's IQ and other genetic factors, but is influenced rather heavily by circumstantial factors as well.

The book is written in a story-like style, makes for captivating reading, and is full of very insightful comments, some of which are given below.

Excerpts from the book.
Characteristic Page Excerpt
Hard work 39 "... once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it ..."
Practice 40 "The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything", writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin ... And, what is ten years? Well, it's roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice."
Practice 42 "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."
Accidental presence 64 "If January 1975 was the dawn of the personal computer age, then who would be in a best position to take advantage of it? ... Ideally, you want to be twenty or twenty-one, which is to say, born in 1954 or 1955."
Intelligence 101 "... general intelligence and practical intelligence are 'orthogonal' ..."
Parenting 104 "[sociologist Annette] Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style 'concerted cultivation'. ... Poor parents tend to follow ... a strategy of 'accomplishment of natural growth'. ... But, in practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. ... The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to constantly shifting set of experiences."
Parenting 107 "... Lareau describes a visit to the doctor by Alex Williams, a nine-year-old ... and his mother... Alex is used to being treated with respect. He is seen as special and as a person worthy of adult attention and interest. These are key characteristics of concerted cultivation. Alex is not showing off during his checkup. He is behaving much as he does with his parents — he reasons, negotiates, and jokes with equal ease."
Human memory 229 "... Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. ..."
Schooling 252 "The KIPP program represents one of the most promising new educational philosophies in the United States."
Who are the Outliers? 267 "It is not the brightest who succeed. If it were, Chris Langan would be up there with Einstein. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our behalf. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities -- and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."
Book's lesson 268 "The lesson here is very simple. ... We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think that outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at Bill Gates and marvel ... But that's the wrong lesson. ... If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the unfortunate birth dates and happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all."

In summary, the insight in this book is something every parent would do well to keep in mind, as a child is being reared into adulthood.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Prospect for Biotechnology Graduates, 2011.

Recently, someone asked me what the prospects would be for biotechnology graduates after a bachelor's degree and after a graduate degree. Naturally, answering the request would require some researching, and this blog post is the result. To begin with, we need to distinguish between two terms1 [Click on the hyperlinks to see definition on the dictionary's web page]:
  1. Biotechnology. n. the manipulation (as through genetic engineering) of living organisms or their components to produce useful usually commercial products (as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals); also : any of various applications of biological science used in such manipulation.
  2. Bioengineering, Biomedical engineering. n. 1: biological or medical application of engineering principles or engineering equipment —called also biomedical engineering 2 : the application of biological techniques (as genetic recombination) to create modified versions of organisms (as crops); especially : genetic engineering
It is not important whether the foregoing definitions are universally accepted, but we will use these definitions in the rest of this blog post.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job market for [US] engineers in 2018 at 1,750,300 and, for biomedical engineers, at 27,600.2 This number, to my mind, seems awfully small for a total engineering population of 1,750,300.

BLS' View of Bioengineering and Biotechnology
Bioengineers Biotechnologists
Alternate terminology Biomedical engineers Biological scientists
Employment in 2008 16,000 91,300
Employment in 2018 27,600 110,500

US News and World Report - Best Graduate Schools

When you search for the word 'biotechnology' on the US News and World Report's Best Graduate Schools web site, you are led to Best Biomedical and Bioengineering Programs! In other words, the definitions given earlier are not applied by US News & World Report. The top 10 best engineering schools in biomedical and bioengineering programs support a total of 20,974 graduate students in March 2011.

Google Search for Graduate Assistantships

If you click on the image below, you will be taken to a Google Search browser window with the search words — "(biotechnology OR bioengineering) graduate assistantships" — already filled in.

As an example, the Department of Biology at Northeastern University provides graduate assistantships worth $28,252.50/year, along with remission of tuition for full-time graduate students.

Sample Salaries from a Job Site

The job site Simply Hired compiles average salaries of different types of jobs that it promotes. While this may not be a good measure of absolute salaries, it can give a good sense of relative values of the salaries.

Type of Job Salary/year3
Software engineer $72,000
Bioinformatics engineer $71,000
Biotechnologist $65,000
Medical Doctor $59,000

1from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
2The BLS is remarkably silent about software engineers, and projects 'other', presumably including the software types, at 195,400 in 2018.
3As of 1 July 2011.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Views from the UVCE Mega Reunion, 2011.

At the UVCE Mega Reunion yesterday, several distinguished alumni were recognized by presenting each one of them with the Sir M. Visvesvaraya signature ಪೇಟ — head gear —, among other things such as a shawl, a necklace, a plaque and a trophy, as you can see in the photo here. Deccan Herald has published a list of the award recipients1 and Ramesh Aravind, fellow alumnus and a movie actor, was awarded one later in the evening, during the Mano Murthy-directed music concert.

The concert, though well conceived and ably conducted by local RJ Rapid Rashmi, was a disappointment in terms of the acoustical experience. I had imagined that the Palace Grounds would somehow produce a more satisfying effect. After all, the venue is part of a Maharaja's palace, right? Wrong.

The food fare for the evening dinner was an extravaganza of such proportions that it seemed like a mini food court. I later learnt that this is Bangalore culture these days, and this concept is very prevalent at weddings, etc.

It is nice to mingle with fellow alumni, and the concept of a mega reunion is particularly interesting because it allows for a larger scale operation than a single class reunion would.

1 The idea of upgrading the status of UVCE to that of an IIT was also proposed.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Why I (almost) like Bangalore.

My present visit to Bangalore grew partly out of a desire to take part in the UVCE Mega Reunion, and partly out of an approximately once-a-year visit to be with my octogenarian father. It has been nearly a month since I arrived at the Bangalore airport and, after taking in Bangalore in some of its awesome variety, I have reflected here on why I almost like Bangalore.

In his book The World is Flat, first published in 2005 and now newly republished as 3.0, Thomas Friedman has colorfully introduced Bangalore in story fashion through his experience in the golf course in the central part of the city.
"No one ever gave me directions like this on a golf course before: ... 'Aim at Microsoft or IBM'. I was standing at the first tee at the KGA Golf Club in downtown ... I had come to Bangalore, Indian Silicon Valley ...' .
Today, if you visit Whitefield — now considered part of Greater Bangalore —, you will see many more buildings, many of them high rises, that belong to who's who of multi-national corporations (MNCs) in the IT and other industries. Thus, as an IT professional, you simply cannot be lost in Bangalore. If anything, there is the added dimension of dealing with the Indian psyche to all of the rest of what is involved in an IT transaction.

If you are a programmer type, there is sufficient reason to be effective from being in Bangalore too, thanks largely to cloud computing. Dijkstra made the observation, in his famous 1972 Turing Award lecture, that programming is probably the most complex in terms of the orders of magnitude that the human mind has to conquer: 1010. While Dijsktra's comments were focused on a software system programmed on a single computer, the advent of cloud computing adds a new spatial dimension to the order of magnitude1, not to speak of the higher-speed electronics, which itself can add 3 more orders of magnitude, from microseconds to nanoseconds. So if you are a programmer interested in dealing with taming programming complexity, you can do so quite effectively while being in Bangalore.

Google Maps is another major boon to the chaos inherent to the Bangalore I grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. During this visit, I have never had major difficulty to get to anywhere within the city and, that too, by the Volvo bus transport, thanks to the Bangalore Google Transit Trip Planner. What is required is a bit of taming of what you type into the Google Maps' search window: I have discovered for example that, if you do not include street address, or door number as it is generally known here, the positioning of your location of interest is reasonably accurate, and that is good enough for getting you around.

Nearly any problem that needs a solution in the Indian society needs to be highly scalable2. Consider the mundane problem of outfitting the entire city of Bangalore with proper infrastructure of footpaths — or sidewalks, for the American reader. You have to be amazed why, in the last 4 decades, the quality of these footpaths has not improved at all! Take the Outer Ring Road3, for instance, as shown in the Google Maps Web Element at left. In some sections, in J P Nagar, pedestrians are forced to avoid the footpath and walk on the road, by the curb! Forget uniform paving on the footpath, the granite slabs intended to cover the drainage system are regularly missing near the Outer Ring Road underpass at J P Nagar 24th Main Road! Why is this? Is the problem so complex that it cannot be suitably solved? I'll leave the reasons to the reader's imagination.

In summary, if you can make do with traffic imperfections, including insufficient concern for pedestrians, there is sufficient excitement in the Bangalore air. And, that is enough for anyone, with sufficient non-concern toward traffic and pedestrians' problems, to like the city.

1In a Special Report: The World's Largest Data Centers, we learn that the largest single building data center is about 1.1 million square feet.
2This statement is true not only of India, but also of China; both are countries with more than billion people.
3When it was first conceived, Bangalore city limits were probably within this envelope. Now, of course, the city has grown beyond the Outer Ring Road, thus mocking the use of the word 'Outer'. That is besides the point.