The Gatekeeper

Adam Tooze · The Gatekeeper: Krugman’s Conversion · LRB 22 April 2021

Terrific essay by Adam Tooze in the LRB reviewing Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics and the Fight for a Better Future. Three passages that caught my attention.

What sets Krugman apart within this cohort is the way he has, since the 1990s, stopped being a gatekeeper of the status quo and instead become its critic.

The basic idea of the MIT school of the neoclassical synthesis as defined by Samuelson was that Keynesian macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics were not contradictory but complementary. As Krugman put it, if you can get macro right then micro will follow. ‘In the Samuelsonian synthesis, one must count on the government to ensure more or less full employment; only once that can be taken as given do the usual virtues of free markets come to the fore.’ It was a dichotomised view of the world, with two different modes of analysis enshrined in separate textbooks and separate career paths for micro and macroeconomists. But as Krugman insisted, ‘inconsistency in the pursuit of useful guidance is no vice. The map is not the territory, and it’s OK to use different kinds of map depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.’ [emphasis added]

The Great Depression, Krugman wrote, ‘ended largely thanks to a guy named Adolf Hitler. He created a human catastrophe, which also led to a lot of government spending.’ ‘Economics,’ he wrote in another essay, ‘is not a morality play. It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished.’


by reestheskin on 10/05/2021

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Follow the Link that is here

xkcd is here

Fumes 9 May 2021

by reestheskin on 09/05/2021

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Academic grade inflation: quite the opposite!

John Cash: former director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, who warned against imported blood products | The BMJ

At Edinburgh University, he was secretary to the rugby club and won a gold medal for his essay on hospital infection, spending the prize money on an engagement ring for his future wife, Angela Thomson, a physiotherapist he had met at a church youth group.

I am just trying to do the sums. Times have indeed changed.

The male of the species

Threats | No Mercy / No Malice

When young women feel shame and rage, they don’t turn to AR-15s. The most dangerous person on the planet is a bored, broke, lonely young male. The U.S. is producing too many of them.

As I used to say to med students, melanoma may be one of the commoner cancers in young adults, but it is not nearly as deadly as the male of the species. Next time you let one of them drive you to the beach party you have more than remembering the sunblock to worry about.

Just a great heading

Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows | Climate change | The Guardian

The massive melting of glaciers as a result of global heating has caused marked shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation since the 1990s, research has shown. It demonstrates the profound impact humans are having on the planet, scientists said.

Probably not of the same magnitude as that induced by a Welsh victory over England at Cardiff.

Nice to be able to afford to go up market

23rd April 2021. Economics | Museums – Just Two Things

I was also struck that the paper appeared in Nature rather than an economics journal. It wouldn’t surprise me if bypassing the economics journals was a deliberate strategy, since they tend to be a source of conservatism in the discipline, not of innovation.

The story is about a paper by the noted Irish economist Brian Arthur. The paper is here. I suspect there are differences but the example in medicine I always think of is the paper by John Wennberg and Alan Gittelsohn that was bounced by the NEJM but ended up (as in, up, literally) in Science. Sadly, my work has always been shoved in the other direction. Drat!

What we thought was a cat was, to them, a cash cow.

Going to the vet: what happens when private equity invests in a cottage industry | Financial Times

The (great) title is from a comment on the above article (excepts below are from the article).

IVC have been gradually buying up all the vetinery practices near us. The pattern is always the same. A light-touch rebrand, and a massive increase in drug prices. But they make even more money on unnecessary diagnostic procedures. Our pets are well insured. What we thought was a cat was, to them, a cash cow. [emphasis added]

The story is not an unfamiliar one. The traditional professions — or more accurately— the professional model that some of us want to believe is essential to the practice of the professions is being bought out by cheap debt. The article reminds that if you are selling practices, prices are high, but time will tell if the corporate efficiencies just translate as rip-offs or merely getting fat on asymmetry of information. The article shows a group of youngish vets with the comment:

supporters of Europe’s largest vetcare provider say that in an industry traditionally dominated by men, it offers a career path more suited to younger women juggling families with careers.

I suspect that this is just another intergenerational transfer.

On silent pandemics

From a comment in the FT (apologies I can’t find the original source, as comments do not appear searchable).

These new materials are already used in catheters, ventilator tubes and even wound dressings. They are preventing and resolving infections as a result. As we have seen with the coronavirus pandemic, new innovations are vital—this also applies when the pandemic is “silent”.

I like the phrase silent pandemics; they are the ones you have to watch out for.

Breadcrumbs 7 May 2021

by reestheskin on 07/05/2021

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On certification

Professor: ‘certification’ mania hobbles Middle East development | Times Higher Education (THE)

Students in the Middle East and North Africa are too often more interested in “acquiring” a degree than developing the understanding that should come with it, a leading scholar has warned.

“Students – and the parents who bankroll them – are often more interested in acquiring professional certification than truly understanding the world and the role of an educated citizen within it,” said Professor Masri.

Gee. Well, all I can say is that the Middle East must be a very big place. I wish it were otherwise.


Appointment of Founding Dean of the Medical School at University of Worcester

The School’s planned curriculum emphasises problem-based learning, early consultations, programmatic assessment, and professional, emotionally intelligent communication at every stage. The Dean will be responsible for overseeing the GMC approval process and instituting an ambitious strategy that will ensure that the School becomes a highly successful new medical school.

Medical education has a lot in common with the catwalks of Paris and Milan, and airport business books.

The pleasures of rejection

Writing a grant proposal is like doing your taxes, except that you can’t pay your accountant to do it for you.

Paul J. Silvia

Although I do remember stories of academics who outsourced their online training modules in which mouse movements were the only outcome measure (unconsciously of course…)


Standard Life Aberdeen to change name to Abrdn | Scotland | The Guardian

Standard Life Aberdeen has announced it is changing its name to Abrdn, in an attempt to give the venerable UK asset manager a 21st-century makeover.

The Edinburgh-based company, which dates back to 1825, said that the change reflected a “modern, agile, digitally-enabled brand”. The name, however, which is pronounced “Aberdeen”, has not been well received.

BGGD as they might say up North. And of course:

The new identity, developed by the branding agency Wolff Olins, will be rolled out this summer “alongside implementation of a full stakeholder engagement plan to manage the transition”. The company would not reveal the cost of rolling out Abrdn, which will replace five brands the company had been using across its business.

Education may or many not scale but wealth does

Break Up the Ivy League Cartel – BIG by Matt Stoller

Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. schools rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions. The common joke, that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm, is not so far off.

According to the IMF, the value of these endowment funds is greater than the GDP of New Zealand, Finland, or Chile.

In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five percent. In 1970, it was twenty percent. This year, for the class of 2025, it was 3.4 percent.

(author: Sam Haselby)

Citizen of nowhere

Prince Philip’s scaled-back funeral marks shifting times for UK’s royals | Financial Times

Looking from askance, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, said what was more remarkable was how uncomfortable, in all the “orgy of coverage”, commentators had been to address the very European nature of Prince Philip’s story.

“He was a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, one of Theresa May’s citizens of nowhere: Greek, Danish, German . . . British. He changed his name, his religion, his citizenship, his identity,” said O’Toole.

“In that there’s this deep contradiction of Englishness. The monarchy, guarantor of the ‘island nation’, is a multinational firm. No one embodied this more than Philip.”

And I guess he didn’t shop at John Lewis, either.

Graphically gynaecological

Whereas the Economist throws in some historical asides:

Prince Philip and the dynasty factor | The Economist

A royal marriage could reshape international alliances. Hilary Mantel describes the politics of Henry VIII’s reign as “graphically gynaecological” because it was dominated by the king’s desire to produce a son. Modernity is built on the negation of all of this.

The theatre of monarchy is not primarily a theatre of works performed and duties fulfilled. It is a theatre of majesty. The only way to fully modernise the monarchy is to abolish it: the point of the institution is to act as a counterbalance to the everyday world of value for money and performance targets. Monarchy is romance or it is nothing.

Exhaust trails 6 May 2021

by reestheskin on 06/05/2021

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The propaganda machine

NHS faces exodus of doctors after Covid pandemic, survey finds | NHS | The Guardian

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are record numbers of doctors, nurses and NHS staff [in England] – over 1.18 million – and there are now more medical students in training than at any point in NHS history.

“We are backing our NHS with an extra £7bn for health and care services this year, bringing our total additional Covid-19 investment to £92bn, including £1bn to support NHS recovery by tackling waiting lists.”

It released figures last week showing there are record numbers of doctors working in the NHS in England. There are more than 123,800 doctors, almost 6,300 more than a year ago, and more than 303,000 nurses, more than 11,200 up on last year, it said.

Nothing beats not so much the lies of the Dept of Health but the insincerity with which is shouts at you with statements that are often both 90% accurate and 100% wrong. Its aim is to dissemble. Those who work there must know it, too.

The messiness of the real world

“It’s quite easy to keep all your principles intact and end up with a result which is not what you wanted.”

Classicist Mary Beard, in an interview with the Financial Times, 1 May 2021. (h/t to John Naughton).

Down the drain

UK water groups pour £26m down the drain in dispute with regulator

Consumers pay an average of £400 a year for water and sewage, of which around 20 per cent goes on financing debt and providing a return to shareholders, according to the CMA.

Research by Greenwich University has shown that water companies had taken on £51bn in borrowings and paid out £56bn in dividends by 2018 after being privatised free of debt in 1989. This suggested that the bulk of borrowings were used to pay returns rather than invest in network infrastructure.

The beauty and power of that Queen of Sciences

For a change, a hint of new physics does not fade away | Science

A potential chink in physicists’ understanding of fundamental particles and forces now looks more real. New measurements confirm a fleeting subatomic particle called the muon may be ever so slightly more magnetic than theory predicts, a team of more than 200 physicists reported this week. That small anomaly—just 2.5 parts in 1 billion—is a welcome threat to particle physicists’ prevailing theory, the standard model, which has long explained pretty much everything they’ve seen at atom smashers and left them pining for something new to puzzle over.

“Since the 1970s we’ve been looking for a crack in the standard model,” says Alexey Petrov, a theorist at Wayne State University. “This may be it.”

My response: pure envy.

On that fundamental faith

Adam Curtis: my hope manifesto | Financial Times

What passages or reading material do you turn to for reassurance, or optimism? The activist David Graeber, who sadly died last year. He invented the idea of “bullshit jobs”. But he also wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” I also like Malcolm X’s observation: “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” [emphasis added]

Good spelling is just politics writ large

The Economist

A big reason spelling systems never seem to get overhauled in more liberal societies is that those in a position to change the rules have learned the old ones. Put another way, the type of folk who were once good at spelling bees now run the world. Those who would benefit most from reform, meanwhile, hardly have a voice, being either children or illiterate adults whom politicians can safely ignore. For the broad middle who muddle through, technology has made it easier to hide what they don’t know. It seems the illogical systems are here to stay. In which case, politicians had better learn to spell-check their tweets.

On the late Chick Corea

by reestheskin on 05/05/2021

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On the late Chick Corea

The Economist | Music without limits

As ever, some beautiful cadences in an obituary in the Economist. This one is of Chick Corea.

Sometimes he wrote phrases down, or composed at a keyboard so they were stored. All too often, though, he couldn’t catch them. Music, like a waterfall, never stayed still, and nor did bands. But that was good. Every change of players brought in something fresh.

He treated music more like a swimming pool, where he just jumped in and had fun.

In short, he was not to be tied down, not even to success

On politicians

by reestheskin on 05/05/2021

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Arlene Foster faces DUP revolt that could topple her as leader | Arlene Foster | The Guardian

Critics said she frittered away unprecedented levels of goodwill and made strategic errors over Brexit. “Her intransigence, petulance, arrogance, lack of generosity, and political myopia have been catastrophic for unionism,” tweeted Deirdre Heenan, a social policy professor at Ulster University.

Northern Ireland’s unhappy centenary | The Economist

Northern Ireland’s founders viewed the link between religion and constitutional preference as essentially fixed at birth. Ninety years later, 21st-century unionists saw those two issues detach to an extent which would have astonished their forefathers. By 2016 there was significant Catholic support for the union; not enthusiastic, certainly not flag-waving, and rooted in self-interest. They didn’t want to give up the free health care of the National Health Service or to risk well-paid public-sector jobs. Since the Good Friday Agreement (gfa) of 1998, which brought peace and set up a devolved government in Belfast, residents could be legally Irish, enjoying taxpayer support for Irish sports, culture and language while territorially within the uk.

And then unionism’s leaders blew it. In five years Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has arguably done more to advance Irish unity than the 72-year-old Gerry Adams, former head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (ira).

And then there is Boris.

Fintan O’Toole: Boris Johnson’s gibberish may be surreal but it’s also dangerous

It’s not when Boris Johnson is lying that you have to have to worry. If he’s lying, that just means he’s still breathing. No, the real danger sign is the gibbering. It’s what he does when he can’t be bothered to think up a lie. [emphasis added]

In the court of King Boris, only one thing is certain: this will all end badly | Rafael Behr | The Guardian

Third, Johnson’s character. The prime minister approaches truth the way a toddler handles broccoli. He understands the idea that it contains some goodness, but it will touch his lips only if a higher authority compels it there.

Not a nice man

by reestheskin on 16/04/2021

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Owen Bennett-Jones · Pissing on Pedestrians: A Great Unravelling · LRB 1 April 2021

According to Tom Bower, who has written more on him than anyone else, [Robert] Maxwell once lost his temper with Ghislaine after she provided him with what he considered an inadequate account of a dinner she had attended on his behalf. Having been reduced to tears by his outburst, she wrote a memo: ‘I should have expressed to you at the start of our conversation that I was merely presenting you with a preliminary report of the evening and a full written report was to follow.’ She went on to list everyone at the dinner who had praised him, adding that she herself had been honoured to represent him.

By the end, the man who had always been able to turn on the charm at will was so egotistical that his company was unbearable. Cruel, grandiose, self-absorbed and ludicrously boastful, he lived in a flat at the top of Maxwell House, his appetites, sexual and otherwise, serviced only by people he paid. His need for food became so excessive that on one occasion he broke into a locked larder and ate a pound of cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two jars of caviar, a loaf of bread and a whole chicken in a single sitting. True, when he picked up the phone, the world’s most powerful people would take his call. But, for all that, he ate his last meal sitting on his own in the corner of an empty dining room in a Tenerife hotel.

Words fail.

Where Scotland is at.

by reestheskin on 14/04/2021

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Dani Garavelli · Diary: Salmond v. Sturgeon · LRB 19 March 2021

Dani Garavelli is the LRB.

MSPs are fixated on these meetings because a breach of the ministerial code would trigger an automatic resignation, or did in the days before Priti Patel. But the public doesn’t seem to care about exactly when Sturgeon knew, and you can understand why. Pan out and what do you see? A woman who refused to bow to pressure to help a friend when other women made sexual harassment complaints against him: ‘As first minister I refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.’

The SNP’s problems are not all linked to the Salmond allegations. After nearly fourteen years in power, the party is exhausted. But, with or without Sturgeon at the helm, there is no effective opposition (the Tories’ Scottish leader isn’t even in the Scottish Parliament, and Scottish Labour’s leader, Anas Sarwar, its sixth in the last decade, has only just been elected). The polls were predicting that on 6 May the SNP would regain the majority it won in 2011 (despite a PR system that was supposed to prevent absolute majorities) and lost in 2016, but now a hung parliament is being forecast (and a drop to 49 per cent support for independence). I find it hard to imagine that the spirit of 2014 will ever be rekindled. Defeat back then was strangely energising. Were the SNP to secure another referendum, could a truce be called in the party’s civil war? What shared idea of Scotland would Yes supporters unite behind now? It’s been a long six years.

Winnowing, 12 April 2021

by reestheskin on 12/04/2021

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Not exactly a bad idea

Steven Johnson &Evgeny Morozov Debate Social Media | The New Republic

Where good ideas come from still remains a mystery; where lucrative ideas come from everybody knows. It’s surprising that it has taken Johnson so long to discover one such lucrative idea in “the Internet.”

Evgeny Morozov (note: this quote is not a fair summary of the exchange).

On too much lurning

I find the concept of over-education repellent and was disappointed the Office for National Statistics used the word in the title of one of its reports. My starting point is that we are all under-educated. There is always more to learn and more to try to understand. The value of education goes beyond economic returns — though there are legitimate questions about the best use of public money. Moreover, it matters whether graduates and indeed non-graduates are unhappy in their work, something that touches on deeper issues of human fulfilment and flourishing.

David Willetts.Link

Same old NHS

Underfunded but ‘fabulously well organised’: a hospital trust chief on the NHS

An interview with Prof Marcel Levi, who is returning to the Netherlands. He doesn’t like the PFI swindle either.

Given this failure to give the NHS the money it needs, does he think successive governments, despite professing endless gratitude and appreciation of the service, have not valued it highly enough? He nods. “Politicians feel very positively about the NHS and speak very highly about what it’s doing. But then the Treasury comes in and looks at it from another angle.”

While the NHS is a beacon of universal access to healthcare and widespread public support, it has its flaws, Levi adds. “The NHS is a bit inward-looking. If I say to people ‘have you seen what’s happening [in health] in France or Germany?’ they say ‘we have no idea’. Also, if you meet an NHS executive they usually start the conversation by saying, ‘I’ve been in the NHS for 30 years or 40 years.’ But I think to myself silently, well maybe it’s time to move on then. There is not a lot of influx from new people with fresh ideas into the NHS.”

Scotland is even worse. His comments remind me of what Henry Miller wrote about NHS hospitals half a century ago.

The internet as a distributed con-artist

Liars, by Cass Sunstein, published by OUP was reviewed in the Economist. Some quotes below.

The remedy for false speech is not a ban, but promoting more speech—“counterspeech” as Mr Sunstein puts it—in the confidence that the truth will win out.

That principle is no longer as convincing as it once seemed. Mr Sunstein summarises decades of psychological research showing that people embrace congenial lies rather than difficult truths, and cling to them more firmly when confronted with contradictory evidence. Flashy whoppers spread faster than complex facts, and are remembered even after being debunked.

But what never ceases to amaze me is how others got there first using language that elevates my spirit (quoted in the article).

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late,” as Jonathan Swift concluded three centuries ago, even without double-blind experiments.

We learn that

America’s courts maintain that the First Amendment gives citizens a right to lie—unless they are speaking to those same courts. Then it is a felony punishable by up to five years in jail.

Not just fit for falling down wells

If universities sacrifice philosophy on the altar of profit>f universities sacrifice philosophy on the altar of profit, what’s next? | Julian Baggini | Opinion | The Guardian

I knew the antique mockery that had it that Thales fell down a well because he was too busy staring at the stars and predicting eclipses, but this anecdote was new to me.

Fed up of being told that he was poor and therefore his learning was useless, he applied his analytical skills to the climate and the economy and then (bought up every olive press) in town. When the bumper olive harvest came, as he had foreseen, the presses were in huge demand, he had a monopoly and made a killing. Thales pulled off this stunt not to earn money but to prove a point. Someone of his intellect and ability could devote themselves to getting rich if they wanted. But he valued wisdom and learning more. His lack of wealth did not reveal a personal flaw but a justified choice about what he held most dear.

Well, I guess if not enterable for the REF at least he could tick the impact box.

 The audit society

Onora O’Neill

“What we have tended to do in the last 40 years is to build up accountability and regulation regimes,” O’Neill tells Times Higher Education, “and we haven’t always done it very intelligently. I would say that’s particularly evident in higher education. We thought it was a terrible thing that universities spent a lot of public money and maybe were not doing it well enough, so let’s hold them to account more, and equally individual academics. And then in many fields we went for metrics, which sound wonderful but create perverse incentives… I think it is problematic when all universities are looking over their shoulders at their scores on [various] metrics.”

A charnel house

Pluralistic: 23 Mar 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

In 2017, at 72 people were burned alive when London’s Grenfell Tower went up in flames. It had been skinned in highly flammable “decorative cladding” to make it less of an eyesore for rich people in nearby blocks of luxury flats.

That charnel house was the opening act on a years-long odyssey of cruelty that just reached a new climax in Parliament, as Tory MPs ensured that working people – not landlords, developers or manufacturers – would fit the bill for removing cladding from their homes.

Kensington Council found a way to realise its twin goals of discouraging poor people from living in the borough and doing the absolute least to satisfy its legal obligations: it had the Grenfell survivors bid against their neighbours for homes.

Winnowing 9 April 2021.

by reestheskin on 09/04/2021

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All fall down!

The toppling of Edward Colston – DC’s Improbable Science

To those who say that removal of the statue erases history, there is a simple response. There are no statues to Hitler. And he most certainly hasn’t been forgotten.

Once you can fake that you can…

Monday 22 March, 2021 – Memex 1.1

Much of the Orwellian language that’s endemic in the tech business reminds me of Heidegger’s definition of ‘technology’ as “The art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it.” Just think how Facebook has perverted the word ‘friend’, or how nearly every company has perverted ‘share’. As Sam Goldwyn might have said, in Silicon Valley if you can fake empathy you’ve got it made.

(John Naughton)

Which side of the isle are you on?

Pluralistic: 24 Mar 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

By definition, you can’t shop your way out of a monopoly. If you don’t believe me, hit your local grocery aisle, where two companies – Unilever and Procter and Gamble – are responsible for nearly every product on sale.

The “cruelty free” brand is made by the same company as the “maximum cruelty” brand. The “organic” brand is made by the same company as the “Oops! All Additives” brand. The “low packaging” brand is made by the same company as the “padded with spotted owl feathers” brand.

Management consultants as seagulls

Outgrowing software — Benedict Evans

There’s an old joke that consultants are like seagulls – they fly in, make lots of noise, mess everything up and then fly out. That’s pretty much what tech has done to media industries – it changes everything and then it leaves.

Are they worse than the pigeons who hang about?

 We have no God-given right to be here for ever.

Ebola virus may lurk in survivors for many years | Science

Virus that lay dormant in a survivor of the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa between 2013 and 2016 apparently triggered a new outbreak in Guinea in January, genomic analyses show. Sequencing the virus from the Guinea outbreak, which has so far sickened at least 18 people and killed nine, found it was virtually identical to the strain that ravaged Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia more than 5 years ago.

Researchers knew the Ebola virus can linger in the human body and ignite fresh outbreaks for well over a year—but not 5 years. “This is pretty shocking,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University. The finding raises tricky questions about how to prevent such outbreaks without further stigmatizing Ebola survivors.

Why bother, indeed!

Apple Failure Modes. by Jean-Louis Gassée | by Jean-Louis Gassée | Mar, 2021 | Monday Note

We know the old organization joke: When upper layer people look down, they see brains; when brains in the lower layers look up, they see #$$holes. For an organization, the beginning of the end comes when the brains realize the upper layers are colonized by incompetents and get into Why Bother Mode.

Wouldn’t it be nice

by reestheskin on 09/04/2021

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An opening shot from the Adam Curtis series of films on BBC iPlayer. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acted as if Graeber was right.

Winnowing MMXXI, 8 April

by reestheskin on 08/04/2021

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Curing the care issue

Letting go: my battle to help my parents die a good death | Death and dying | The Guardian

My mother dreads the hospital for sound reasons. Like hospitals in general, this one is good at heroic interventions, less good at nursing care. It is an academic institution with many groundbreaking researchers, but frail elderly people with tedious, multiple conditions are not often of interest to them. When my mother had an emergency stomach bleed she was superbly treated, but when she had spine pain she was left for four nights on a trolley, and was even trundled to theatre on it at one point to have someone else’s operation (fortunately she was turned back at the door).

This all rings true to me. Although I am suspicious of those who argue that ‘groundbreaking researchers’ produce better cures or care. Clinical practice is not synonymous with research excellence, and, in some situations, I fear the relation may be an inverse one (as, I believe, some data from the US suggests). Clinical expertise is medicine’s ‘dark matter’: it is everywhere, but we understand little about it. Worse than that: we often appear indifferent to it.

Zooming in on virtual protests

Greta Thunberg: ‘It just spiralled out of control’ | Free to read | Financial Times

But today, the world is very different. When we speak in mid-March, most of Europe is under some form of lockdown. Thunberg is at her family home in Stockholm — her dad’s exercise bike and some houseplants form the backdrop of our Zoom call. She’s also back at school, and isn’t cutting classes on Fridays any more: protests during the pandemic have been mostly virtual. [emphasis added]

A rebel song

John le Carré, chronicler of Englishness, died Irish, son reveals | John le Carré | The Guardian

John le Carré, the great embodiment and chronicler of Englishness, saved his greatest twist not for his thrillers but the twilight of his own life: he died an Irishman.

The creator of the quintessential English spy George Smiley was so opposed to Brexit that in order to remain European, and to reflect his heritage, he took Irish citizenship before his death last December aged 89, his son has revealed.

“He was, by the time he died, an Irish citizen,” Nicholas Cornwell, who writes as Nick Harkaway, says in a BBC Radio 4 documentary due to air on Saturday. “On his last birthday I gave him an Irish flag, and so one of the last photographs I have of him is him sitting wrapped in an Irish flag, grinning his head off.”

The interview is available on the BBC Sounds app here. Wonderful stuff.

Resilience. Lessons from Uruguay.

Digital Education: Why Uruguay’s Schoolchildren Are Doing So Well in the Pandemic – DER SPIEGEL

Brechner has now also begun consulting countries and international organizations on educational issues. He says that when people ask him these days if it is really necessary for every schoolchild to have a laptop and internet access, he asks: “Do we really need electricity and warm water?” He says he is in no way interested in replacing teachers with technology. “But we can’t just continue on as we were before the pandemic,” Brechner says. “We are living in the 21st century and have 19th century schools.”

It has already been more than 10 years since the country – as one of six around the world – introduced a one-laptop-per-child policy. On top of that, Uruguay installed free internet in public squares around the country, including in rural areas, and also founded a state agency for digital education called Plan Ceibal. “In general, the last school year worked quite well,” says Fiorella Haim, a manager at Plan Ceibal.

In addition, the country began offering every schoolchild 50 gigabytes of free internet per month.

The Dream is Over 1

The Sonic (Entrepreneurship) Boom | No Mercy / No Malice

The world’s most powerful lubricant of upward mobility (U.S. higher ed) has morphed into a corrupt enforcer of the caste system. It has enjoyed 30 years of tuition increases matched only by the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of its leadership. Covid is the fist of stone coming for this chin. The pandemic moved 1.6 billion people into online education, and many will stay there. India’s largest edtech firm, Byju, is reportedly closing a $600 million investment, valuing the company at $15 billion, and Coursera is expected to go public at a $5 billion valuation.

We shall see. I fear the new boss will just be another rent collector. Hope I am wrong.

  1. The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, Simon Marginson. 2016.

What will tomorrow bring

by reestheskin on 07/04/2021

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Wonderful piece by Janan Ganesh in the FT on the life choices made by young bankers and corporate lawyers, and the crazy (work) demands placed on them. I was surprised that he also has junior doctors in his sights.

Yes, the graduates knew the deal when they joined, but the appeal to free will is an argument against almost any labour standards whatever. Nine-year-old Victorian chimney sweeps knew the deal. As for all the talk of character-forging, of battle-hardening: to what end, exactly? The point of a corporate career arc is that work becomes more strategic, less frenzied over time. The early hazing should not be passed off as a kind of Spartan agoge.

The ageing process — as I have lived it, as I have observed it in friends — has convinced me of one thing above all. The deferral of gratification is the easiest life mistake to make. And by definition among the least reversible. A unit of leisure is not worth nearly as much in late or even middle age as it is in one’s twenties. To put it in Goldman-ese, the young should discount the future more sharply than prevailing sentiment suggests.

The first reason should be obvious enough, at least after the past 12 months. There is no certainty at all of being around to savour any hard-won spoils. The career logic of an investment banker (or commercial lawyer, or junior doctor) assumes a normal lifespan, or thereabouts. And even if a much-shortened one is an actuarial improbability, a sheer physical drop-off in the mid-thirties is near-certain. Drink, sex and travel are among the pleasures that call on energies that peak exactly as graduate bankers are wasting them on work.

I don’t know enough to be confident about clinical medicine but I do often wonder how things will look in a decade or so. Many junior medical jobs are awful, the ties and bonds between the beginning, middle and end of medical careers sundered. Many drop out of training, some treading water in warmer climes, but with what proportion returning? Some — a small percentage perhaps— move into other jobs, and the few I know who have done this, I would rate among the best of their cohort. Of those who stick to the straight and narrow, many now wish to work less than full time, although whether this survives the costs of parenthood, I do not know. At the other end all is clear: many get out as soon as they can, the fun long gone, and the fear of more pension changes casting an ever larger shadow, before the final shadow descends.

Medicine remains — in one sense — a narrow and technical career. The training is long, and full confidence in one’s own skills may take twenty years or more to mature. By that time, it is hard to change course. This personal investment in what is a craft, leaves one vulnerable to all those around you who believe success is all about line-managing others and generic skills.

I am unsure how conscious (or how rational) many decisions about careers are, but there may well be an invisible hand at play here, too. I imagine we may see less personal investment in medical careers than we once did. It’s no longer a vocation, just a job, albeit an important one. Less than comforting words, I know — especially if you are ill.

Winnowing MMXXI. 6 April.

by reestheskin on 06/04/2021

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Bigger than Jesus

The Economist | God the rock star

So, these very words, John Lennon was reported to have once said (jokingly) about the Beatles. But this article is about online religion. Reminded me — of course — about the MOOC hype and Sebastian Thrun’s line that the world only needs a few universities. This is about church services, but remember whenever anybody says it is being ‘Uberized’ or ‘Netflixed’ they are selling something — usually the vapour of their money moving across accounts.

Simply because a service can be watched by almost anyone in the world does not mean that it will be. Many are streamed; few are chosen, at least in any great numbers. The Church of England website AChurchNearYou now lists around 20,000 services and online events, but in a market freed from the constraints of geography, more famous churches—like more famous artists on Spotify—get the big audiences.

This, says Laurence Iannaccone, a specialist in the economics of religion at Chapman University in California, is not a great surprise. People, he explains, “are drawn inevitably toward the congregations—we’ll call them the suppliers…that are able to use this technology. You get a sort of superstars phenomenon.” As Dr Iannaccone puts it, if you are going to be watching religion online, “Why not go with the very best?” [emphasis added]

Ah, the money-makers, as Jesus foretold, take over the temples.

Many think a hybrid model of worship—on earth and in the ether—may become normal. What is clear is that increased competition is probably here to stay. This is not, says Mr Iannaccone, necessarily a bad thing. “The hand of God and the invisible hand sometimes seem to work wonderfully well together.”

Nice final line, though.

No need for English, then.

The Economist | Netflix Europa

Umberto Eco, an Italian writer, was right when he said the language of Europe is translation.

Welfare for corporations

Why Taxpayers Pay McKinsey $3M a Year for a Recent College Graduate Contractor – BIG by Matt Stoller

Such practices used to be called “honest graft.” And let’s be clear, McKinsey’s services are very expensive. Back in August, I noted that McKinsey’s competitor, the Boston Consulting Group, charges the government $33,063.75/week for the time of a recent college grad to work as a contractor. Not to be outdone, McKinsey’s pricing is much much higher, with one McKinsey “business analyst” – someone with an undergraduate degree and no experience – lent to the government priced out at $56,707/week, or $2,948,764/year.

How does McKinsey do it?

Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is a good plan, in theory. We need to do a lot of what Biden wants to do. The problem is that every overpriced government contractor out there is gearing up to steal as much of the $2 trillion as they can. And they will try to steal it the way McKinsey has, by taking advantage of bad policy choices that turned the government into a sucker.

The land that gave us Bologna1 

John Foot · On the Barone · LRB 4 March 2021

I lived in Italy for twenty years, give or take, and although I never worked full-time for an Italian institution, I had enough dealings with its universities to be unsurprised by the allegations of corruption in the Suárez case. To have a career in an Italian university you have to be attached to a senior professor, usually a man, usually of a certain age. These immensely powerful figures are known as baroni — ‘barons’. They can be on the left or the right. All posts and other privileges pass through the baroni. Without a barone on your side, you may as well pack it in. University posts are generally filled by means of a public competition — a concorso — which is open to anyone with the right qualifications. In practice, concorsi are usually fixed. They are designed for one person, usually an internal candidate who has been waiting for this particular concorso for years. The new researcher or lecturer owes his or her job to the barone, and will remain loyal to them. With time and luck, the new appointees might become baroni themselves. The mismatch between formal rules and their application is characteristic of Italy. These networks of power and patronage have been studied by anthropologists: in some faculties at the University of Bari, for example, networks of family and kinship relationships stretch back generations. Disputes and divisions are often focused around key baroni. In one university two separate but essentially identical departments were created around two highly powerful and influential scholars.

Gravy train? Well, yes.

Did Australian universities ride the international gravy train too far? | Times Higher Education (THE)

In 2019, the latest year for which accounts are available, Australia’s higher education sector collected over 27 per cent of its revenue from foreign students — up from 17 per cent a decade earlier The dependence was particularly high at the biggest and most prestigious universities, such as Sydney (39 per cent), Monash (38 per cent), UNSW Sydney (36 per cent) and Melbourne and Queensland (both 31 per cent).

It comes at a cost, however. I remain deeply sceptical about economies of scale in traditional models of higher education.

  1. In the sense that Bolognia and Paris were the first modern european universities. For my money, Bolgnia was — in modern parlance — more student centric.

Winnowing XXMMI, 5 April

by reestheskin on 05/04/2021

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What’s for dinner mum? Chips.

The Economist | No smoke, no fire

Growing in up in South Wales, I seem to remember that the chip pan was a well-used piece of technology. I didn’t change my habits as a student, either. As far as I remember this chip pan — including fat — had been handed down cohort-to-cohort. But things change. Even firemen are affected by the winds of change.

While working practices have not changed much in two decades, the demands on workers have. Oven chips are one big reason. In the mid-1990s about one in five domestic fires in Britain began with a chip pan, but by the late 2010s that was down to closer to one in 20. Less combustible cooking, fewer smokers and safer electrical appliances have all contributed to a large decline in fires. In two decades, the number of domestic fires has fallen by more than half, while the number of firefighters has declined only slightly. The result is a sharp fall in the ratio of fires to firefighters (see chart).

The universe is queerer than we can imagine

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli — a brief lesson on quantum physics | Financial Times

From a book review in the FT.

The greatest populariser of physics today, Carlo Rovelli, prepares readers of his new book for this familiar fate when he warns that if “what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means I have not been clear enough about it.”

Which sort of reminds me of the idea that if students claim to have understood all of your lecture, you have been wasting your time. Or, they are just being polite, or deluded. Perhaps both.

That damned follicular microenvironment

Should you start a small business in your 50s? | Financial Times

Being a market gardener was his lifetime ambition. But it happened only after he retired from a decades-long career in IT management, 11 days before his 60th birthday.

Still, he grabbed his opportunity. “Grey hair and no hair is the future,” he says.

My thoughts concur. Living the dream.

Predator and prey

Essay mills ‘infiltrating university websites’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

Hundreds of university websites have been infiltrated by hackers aiming to steer unwitting students into essay mills’ clutches, according to preliminary studies by US experts.

Content ghostwritten by the essay mills, complete with embedded hyperlinks, has been grafted on to universities’ student service web pages. Links to legitimate services have been rigged so that they redirect to contract cheating companies, while university chat sites have been peppered with recommendations for essay mills.

The most “egregious” infiltrations involve fake essay contests for students who, hoping to win scholarships, inadvertently supply the essay mills with “clean” content unknown to plagiarism-detection databases.

Some honest intellectual hygiene would solve this problem. But universities would prefer to pretend their model is not broken. Would schoolteachers be so complicit?

Even at the time of its creation, the border made no sense

Colm Tóibín: Ireland’s bloody line of division | Financial Times

Wonderful clutch1 of book reviews by Colm Tóibín in the FT.

And then, in the decades after 1960, it [Ireland] could look outwards towards Europe and concentrate on building a good relationship with London without having to represent or manage a restive Northern Ireland. Dublin could claim a right to be consulted about Northern Ireland, but it did not have responsibility for what happened there. There were times when this was seen in Dublin as a relief. [emphasis added]

In The Partition, a meticulous and finely judged study of how and why the Irish border was created, Charles Townshend shows how various British governments and Irish nationalists were outmanoeuvred by a group of Ulster Unionists whose lack of imagination was amply compensated by obstinacy and inflexibility. It is “hard to dispute”, writes Townshend, the view that partition of the island was “against the considered judgment of all parties”. But he adds: “The intensity of Unionist hostility to home rule presented a political challenge of exceptional difficulty.”

While politicians in Dublin might issue pieties about their longing for an end to partition, it should be emphasised that they don’t mean it. The self-confidence and social ease in the Republic of Ireland has come at a price — leaving Northern Ireland to its own devices. Strangely, the governing class in Dublin, in its own quiet way, would be as likely to dread a vote on a united Ireland as the Unionists would. The Unionists, however, as we learn from these books, have never made progress through being quiet.

  1. The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925, by Charles Townshend, Allen Lane.
    Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided, by Ivan Gibbons, Haus Publishing.
    The Dead of the Irish Revolution, edited by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, Yale.

On the money making academy

‘This is a secular age,’ replies [Professor] Godwin. ‘You cannot turn back the clock. You cannot condemn an institution for moving with the times.’

‘By an institution you mean the university?’

‘Yes, universities, but specifically faculties of humanities, which remain the core of any university.’

The humanities the core of the university. She [Elizabeth Costello] may be an outsider, but if she were asked to name the core of the university today, its core discipline, she would say it was moneymaking. That is how it looks from Melbourne, Victoria…

JM Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (2003, p. 125), quoted here

Winnowing 30 March 2021

by reestheskin on 30/03/2021

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You have to let go of the ball sometime.

To Hell with Unity | by Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books

We are at a historic juncture in which being a safe pair of hands does not mean playing it safe.

Nye Bevan might have another explanation

mainly macro: Why are the Conservatives so bad at running the economy?(Simon Wren-Lewis)

Why do Conservative Chancellors keep making mistakes? I think it’s a combination of three things. The first is a lack of respect for academic economists and their received wisdom. The second is the search for popularity and election success. The third is ideology. Let’s go through this short history looking at all three.

Because you are not worth it.

29th March 2021. Fashion | Debt — Just Two Things

The story is about the high environmental costs of much of the fashion industry, and why making second-hand purchases ‘trendy’ might be ‘useful’ strategically (my wife and her family have led the field for decades).

Not that everyone is going down this road. Chanel, in contrast, has taken the resale platform The RealReal to court, claiming that its stores are the only places qualified to sell authentic Chanel. I’m not sure that’s a position that’s going to survive. [emphasis added]

The same could be said about great lectures

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli — a brief lesson on quantum physics | Financial Times

The greatest populariser of physics today, Carlo Rovelli, prepares readers of his new book for this familiar fate when he warns that if “what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means I have not been clear enough about it.”

Paul Graham

The winds of change originate in the unconscious minds of domain experts.

But we are increasingly less tolerant of domain expertise favouring, instead, dismal generic skills.


by reestheskin on 29/03/2021

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I clicked on a link, and then saw this.

Utter despair
Utter despair

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 25/03/2021

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But what a business model

Marcel Proust quote: For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke…

For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that one is ill.

Marcel Proust

Crony capitalism (ad nauseam)

Another terrific post from Scott Galloway.

I’m Not Done Yet! | No Mercy / No Malice

The capital structure of private firms is meant to balance upside and downside. CNBC/Trump want to protect current equity holders at the expense of future generations with rescue packages that explode the deficit. They also want to protect airlines, who spent $45 billion on buybacks and now want a $54 billion bailout, disincentivizing other firms (e.g., Berkshire Hathaway) that have built huge cash piles foregoing current returns. [Ed. note: Airlines ultimately received approximately $50 billion.]

The rescue package should protect people, not businesses. From 2017 to 2019, the CEOs of Delta, American, United, and Carnival Cruises earned over $150 million in compensation. But, now … “We’re in this together” (i.e., “bail our asses out”).

He goes on:

Since 2000, U.S. airlines have declared bankruptcy 66 times. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the sector, boards/CEOs of the six largest airlines have spent 96 percent of their free cash flow on share buybacks, bolstering the share price and compensation of management … who now want a bailout. They should be allowed to fail. Bondholders will own the firms. Ships and planes will continue to float and fly, and there will still be a steel tube with recirculated air waiting for you post-molestation by Roy from TSA.

A rationale for the dismal science

Patrick Collison has a Few Questions for Tyler (Ep. 21 — Live at Stripe) | by Mercatus Center | Conversations with Tyler | Medium

TYLER COWEN: Frank Knight once said something wise, maybe overstated, but he said, “The main function of economics was to offset the stupid theorizing of other people.” So it’s very useful as a form of discipline. And economics is a way of thinking — it’s very useful for inoculating you against other kinds of mistakes, even though in some ways, it may be a mistake itself.

Outsourcing student learning

Chegg: a $12 billion headache for academic integrity? | Times Higher Education (THE)

Chegg is a site that provides different types of educational material. But it also has a facility that allows students to fire off a question and get an answer within…well, the timeframe of some online exams.

Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, agreed. While the site was not a typical essay mill – where students pay for someone else to write an essay for them – it “falls squarely into what we have referred to in our research as a ‘place where students outsource their learning’” [emphasis added].

A deeper problem, IMHO, is the impersonal nature of higher education, and the lack of knowledge by the faculty of student achievement.

We travelled so far we hit our start point.

Half a dozen little 2021 predictions about life after COVID-19 | I, Cringely

The pandemic of 1918 was ended by social distancing, hand washing, and face masks. The fact that we forgot at first the importance of face masks shows just how far beyond the Spanish Flu we were able to get in 100 years — far enough to forget how to save our own lives. The current pandemic is receding thanks to social distancing, hand washing, face masks, and vaccines. Vaccines are the technology that wasn’t available in 1918 and are what will keep our total death rate below 1918’s 0.65 percent. By the way, 0.65 percent of 331 million would be 2,151,500 deaths. If we can get out of this thing with only the loss of, say, 900,000 people (that’s my guess) then vaccines will have saved 1.25 million lives.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 24/03/2021

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PE — no, not Pulmonary Embolism, but something as dangerous

Private Equity and Physician Medical Practices — Navigating a Changing Ecosystem | NEJM

Finally, physicians should be aware that private equity’s growth is emblematic of broader disruptions in the physician-practice ecosystem and is a symptom of medicine’s transformation into a corporate enterprise. For some practices, outside investment may help facilitate growth and extend a lifeline that allows them to compete with larger players in an increasingly consolidated market. But this trend may also contribute to practices getting squeezed. As more investors enter health care and drive value creation, it’s worth considering for whom value is being created. How physicians respond — and the extent to which they retain core values in the service of patients — will ultimately determine the ecosystem’s resilience in the face of stressors [emphasis added]

I wish it were so (easy)

The Economist | The race to zero

The most refreshing aspect of this book is its bracing mix of cold-eyed realism and number-crunched optimism. Mr Gates reveals that when he attended the un’s landmark Paris summit on climate change in 2015, he had serious doubts about mankind’s willingness to take on this Herculean task: “Can we really do this?” Even now, after making the case for why the world must do so, and urgently, he wonders if the climate challenge will be harder than putting “a computer on every desk and in every home”.

That is a useful analogy, for the techno-Utopian vision of a global internet seemed as impossible to achieve a few decades ago as solving the climate crisis does now. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, a pioneering computer firm, once stated flatly: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Yet before long the digital revolution succeeded—because of a happy convergence of top-down forces and disruptions from below.

University rankings as geopolitics


The high-stakes pursuit of bragging rights is distorting universities’ missions, favoring research over teaching and science over the humanities, said Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“It’s all about national prestige,” said Hazelkorn, who has written widely about rankings. “Rankings are less about students and more about geopolitics.”

Even less about students

‘Hard choices’ ahead as Spence mulls UCL’s sustainability | Times Higher Education (THE)

But the new president of UCL said that “hard choices” would have to be made about the scope of the university’s activities if it was not to become a 50,000-student campus over the next few years.

UCL’s recent expansion — it had just 17,000 students as recently as 2005 but is now the biggest in the UK apart from the Open University — has been criticised by some scholars over its potential impact on academic quality and financial stability.

This has little to do with education and perhaps even less to do with students.

Just a graph

by reestheskin on 21/03/2021

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This graph is from the Economist. The article is titled English higher education’s value-for-money problem. Indeed.

All is not well.

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 20/03/2021

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Cal Tech and the eunuchs of science

Catchy title.

Founded (1891) as Throop University [Cal Tech], a coeducational institution for manual training and basic education from fifth grade through college, it reinvented itself several years later as all-male Throop College of Technology (with a mission of intellectual excellence) and then assumed its current name in 1921.

In the 1960s, the undergraduates began lobbying the administration to admit women, believing that this would promote the “humanization of students.” Students complained of a sterile curriculum and social wasteland that created “eunuchs of science.”

After a 1967 national survey of rising sophomores revealed that Caltech students were much less happy with campus life than those elsewhere, an ad hoc faculty committee examined student experiences during their first two years.

The committee soon recommended that Caltech admit female undergraduates, arguing that discrimination against women is “morally unjustifiable.” A student poll in fall 1967 found 79% supported that change, and a month later the Faculty Board voted 50 to 10 to recommend to the administration and trustees to “proceed with all deliberate speed toward the admission of women undergraduates.”

A mouth without a brain: sounds familiar.

Robo-writers: the rise and risks of language-generating AI

In June 2020, a new and powerful artificial intelligence (AI) began dazzling technologists in Silicon Valley. Called GPT-3 and created by the research firm OpenAI in San Francisco, California, it was the latest and most powerful in a series of ‘large language models’: AIs that generate fluent streams of text after imbibing billions of words from books, articles and websites. GPT-3 had been trained on around 200 billion words, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Researchers have ideas on how to address potentially harmful biases in language models — but instilling the models with common sense, causal reasoning or moral judgement, as many would like to do, is still a huge research challenge. “What we have today”, Choi says, “is essentially a mouth without a brain.”

I know a few people like that.

Just 7%

The Economist | Shelter from the storm

At its most basic, the welfare state provides some form of social security and poverty relief. In 1990 Gosta Esping-Andersen, a political scientist, identified three models: market-oriented in Anglophone countries, where the state plays a “residual” role; family-oriented in mainland Europe, where the state and employers play a supporting role; and state-oriented for the Scandinavians, with universal protections and services. The balance between state, market and family shifts over the course of people’s lives, but most take out about as much as they put in (in any year 36% of Britons receive more than they pay in taxes, but over their lifetimes only 7% do).

Not the Mail or the Telegraph, then.

Making progress

I quote from just two of many good letters in the Economist of last week. The first, is the mess that Cummings has bequeathed. The second, how it seems our humanities masters are ignorant about, well, the humanities.

By definition, “blue skies research” is driven by curiosity, without any obvious practical implications (“Blue skies ahead”, February 6th). Yet the aim of Britain’s new Advanced Research Projects Agency is to develop proposals that give a payout to the economy. The left field nature of paradigm-changing scientific discoveries and their long path to being actually applied mean that no manager at arpa would understand the impact of such research. Who, for example, would have predicted that understanding blood-clotting in the horseshoe crab would end up protecting our drug supply from bacterial contaminants, including covid-19 vaccines?

Professor Brian Stramer, the author of the above, quotes a beautiful phrase from the father of modern neuroscience, Ramon y Cajal, who, in 1897, noted the preoccupation with applied research and ignorance of the “mysterious threads that bind the factory to the laboratory” [emphasis added]. If you know anything about Cajal’s work, the metaphor does not surprise.

The second letter is from Professor Jonathan Michie, who, if I am correct, has first hand familial experience of the example he quotes.

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate stem-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.

On bending the knee

The Economist | The pain of displacement

I always read the Economist by starting with the obituary. Last week’s was about Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian poet. The prose was fitting, too.

As a lover of freedom, he could not join a party or pledge allegiance to anyone: all you need to make a tyrant, he wrote, “is a single bend of the knee”.

“I rubbed the leaf of an orange in my hands/As I had been told to do/So that I could smell its scent/but before my hand could reach my nose/I had lost my home and become a refugee.”

Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 19/03/2021

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On being the right size

On being the right size

In the early 20th century, big companies were synonymous with efficiency. In the late 20th century they were synonymous with inefficiency.

Paul Graham, The Refragmentation, 2016

Student loans (again)

The latest estimates on the loan system from London Economics suggest that 53.9 per cent of the money loaned out will be written off, 88.2 per cent of graduates will still be paying when the 30-year write off kicks in, and 33 per cent of graduates will never make any repayment. With several years of sluggish growth now forecasted, and a long road ahead for the post-Covid recovery, graduate repayments are likely to fall further in coming years, giving the Treasury even more reason to worry about the unique way it funds higher education — particularly as demand for universities continues to increase while the costs per student are rising.

GP land

David Oliver: We can support primary care without blaming hospital doctors | The BMJ

Primary care (GPs and other practice staff—notably nurses) does around 90% of NHS patient contacts for about 10% of the budget and an annual budget of around £155 (€179; $217) per patient on the practice list. A 2019 study in The BMJ compared 11 high-income countries and found that UK GPs saw patients at twice the speed of those in the other nations. Surveys show an average of 41 patient contacts a day, and 10% of GPs see 60 or more.4

The number of GPs barely grew during 2010-15, and the Nuffield Trust has reported nearly 2000 fewer permanent, qualified GPs in 2020 than in 2015 despite a growing population and demand. Community nurse numbers have also fallen, and social care and local government budgets have been cut. The UK has some of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita in the world, and ever increasing activity means ever faster patient transfers into the community and more pressure to keep patients at home.

It will get worse before it gets better. Scrub that. Not in my lifetime. Scrub that. Perhaps it will not get better. (This is before you add in all the ‘professional’ and ‘technical’ debt the NHS has accrued over the last thirty years.)

Quelle surprise!

Union condemns Liverpool’s ‘rank and yank’ science cuts plan | Times Higher Education (THE)

Scientists at the University of Liverpool face being made redundant based on research grant income and citation impact scores, a union has claimed.

The institution is poised to cut 47 research jobs from its Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, with compulsory redundancies due to be made after voluntary severance packages were rejected.

The cuts are being made as part of Project Shape, which aims to realign the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences “in order to help tackle the extreme health inequalities and unmet health needs in the Liverpool city region”.[emphasis added].


A truly fluent narrative.

Squandering trust is no route to a ‘Global Britain’ | Financial Times

True, the [Global Britain] plans include some eye-catching proposals for new military technologies in the spheres of cyber, drones and space. These are largely chaff. Whitehall insiders say that overall, the document offers a fluent narrative largely detached from real strategic purpose [emphasis added].

Neat phrase. Cock-up, as usual.

On real teaching

by reestheskin on 18/03/2021

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Via John Naughton’s newsletter, I learned that Jonathan Sternberg died. I did not know him, having only come across his name in Tara Westover’s book Educated and in the LRB. There are also some words about him on the Cambridge Faculty of History page. Both sets of quotes say a lot about education when it is practiced by a master with a pupil keen to learn.

Tara Westover:

‘I am Professor Steinberg,’ he said. ‘What would you like to read?’

‘For two months I had weekly meetings with Professor Steinberg. I was never assigned readings. We read only what I asked to read, whether it was a book or a page. None of my professors at BYU had examined my writing the way Professor Steinberg did. No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence, a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction.’

‘After I’ve been meeting with Professor Steinberg for a month, he suggested I write an essay comparing Edmund Burke with Publius, the persona under which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had written the Federalist papers.’

‘I finished the essay and sent it to Professor Steinberg. Two days later, when I arrived for our meeting, he was subdued. He peered at me from across the room. I waited for him to say the essay was a disaster, the product of an ignorant mind, that it had overreached, drawn to many conclusions from too little material.’

“I have been teaching in Cambridge for 30 years,” he said. “And this is one of the best essays I’ve read.” I was prepared for insults but not for this.

At my next supervision, Professor Steinberg said that when I apply for graduate school, he would make sure I was accepted to whatever institution I chose. “Have you visited Harvard?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer Cambridge?”…

“I can’t go,” I said. “I can’t pay the fees.” “Let me worry about the fees,” Professor Steinbeck said.

And from Regius Professor Christopher Clark:

Jonathan said that there are three phases in learning how to teach history:

‘Phase 1: you learn the history.

Phase 2: you learn to teach the history.

Phase 3: you learn to teach the people.’

To be supervised by Jonathan was an illuminating and, for some, life-changing experience.

As a teacher, Jonathan was something of a cult figure, both as a lecturer and as a supervisor. There was a sense of occasion around a Jonathan Steinberg lecture. One felt grateful to be in the room.

Teaching is much degraded in many modern UK universities. It remains the greatest multiplier — to use a concept from economics— of human flourishing.

Only now do I get it.

Michael Chabon writing in the NYRB in eight years ago:

[The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson | by Michael Chabon | The New York Review of Books](

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

Smallpox again

by reestheskin on 16/03/2021

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For some reason — COVID of course — I keep coming back to perhaps the greatest vaccine success ever: the eradication of smallpox (here, here and here). But the figures quoted by Scott Galloway make you sit up and notice both the magic — and value — of science.

Values in America – Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions | By Invitation | The Economist

International bodies are immolated. Consider the World Health Organisation. Mr Trump’s decision to pull America out of the WHO in the midst of a pandemic (reversed under President Joe Biden) was galling, particularly as the WHO is responsible for one of humanity’s greatest public-health accomplishments: the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s. To appreciate the magnitude of this, Google images of “smallpox” and glimpse the horror that once killed millions each year. It was a victory for co-operative, state-funded projects and it cost a mere $300m. By one estimate, America, the largest contributor, recoups that value every 26 days from savings in vaccinations, lost work and other costs. [emphasis added]

On long hair and being irrevelant

Thirty years ago[now 40], scientists who studied climate change, and I am one of them, tended to have long hair and very colourful socks. We were regarded as harmless but irrelevant. But the serendipitous investment in their work revealed processes that we now recognise as threatening the future of human society, and the successors to those scientists are playing a crucial role in assessing how we need to adapt.

Geoffrey Boulton

I think you could see the same dress sense in the golden ages of molecular biology and computing.

Another snippet from a wonderful article (and previous aside).

Nice essay in the Economist by the ever interesting Scott Galloway.

The story of our time.

As the only child of a single immigrant mother who lived and died a secretary, I used to think I was self-made. But the truth is that I’m American-made and have benefited from a time and place of unprecedented prosperity, which dampened my failures and bolstered my successes.

To be sure, I work hard. But none of my ventures would have been possible without California’s public-education system, where I went to primary school, university and business school from the 1970s to 1990s for a total of $10,000. I entered as an unremarkable, lower-middle-class kid. I left with credentials, a network and my first startup. Without the generosity of California’s taxpayers, and being born in the right demographic (white, male), I’d probably still be installing shelving—my job until UCLA accepted my second undergrad application.