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.

Scary

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

Link

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].

Speechless.


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](https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/03/07/film-worlds-wes-anderson/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Saturday%20Longread%20215&utm_content=Saturday%20Longread%20215+Version+B+CID_6bde7e16baa8a5fb9813ae90820b9f63&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_term=Keep%20reading)

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.

Link

What are universities for

by reestheskin on 11/03/2021

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GLOBAL: What are universities for?
This is a quote from 2009 by Geoffrey Boulton, a former Vice Principal in Edinburgh.

We should be careful not to foist on universities tasks which they may be ill-equipped for and which, if too actively pursued, could damage their ability to deliver what they are uniquely able to deliver in terms of education and innovation. We need only look at banks to see the consequences of excessive and ill-conceived diversification. Let us not follow them. [emphasis added]

The analogy is an arresting one. Not certain how many were listening. The multiversity comes with great costs.

Facts

by reestheskin on 10/03/2021

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Science is all about finding broad underlying theories that unite apparent differences. It is not a looseleaf book full of facts. But sometimes mere facts are so adamantine that they stop you in your tracks and make you smile or even gasp out loud. Think of Erwin Chargraff and his observation that the ratios of guanine to cytosine and of adenine to thymine are both unity. What limits that placed on the search space for the structure of DNA.

Laying in bed early one morning at the weekend I came across a not so grand fact. I was listening to a Talking Politics podcast in which David Runciman and Helen Thompson were joined by two Irish historians, Niamh Gallagher and Richard Bourke. The topic was the state of the UK union, and Ireland. The discussion meandered in and around some unique characteristics of Irish demography (at least in terms of European states).

Ireland’s population was greater in the mid 1840s that it is now. Perhaps one million souls starved to death in the famine, and maybe two million emigrated in the same decade. The population of eight million was reduced by close to 50%. The population today is just short five million. This much I knew already.

But what made me sit up with surprise was the relative populations of England and Ireland at the time of the Act of Union in 1801. Ireland’s population was about five million whereas England’s was only eight million. So, this pacification was undertaken by a country only slightly larger (in absolute terms).

YMMV, and the discovery of a fact is, in one sense, always personal, but this made me pause the podcast, jump out of bed, and gasp. How much of my inferred world is as mistaken as this example reveals it to be.

Spring, springs up & forward

by reestheskin on 08/03/2021

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At my door this morning. Calm and collected. I didn’t hear any knocking.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 27/02/2021

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On the right stuff

From one of Paul Graham’s essays:

Princeton professor Robert George recently wrote:

“I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.”

He’s too polite to say so, but of course they wouldn’t.

Quoted by Paul Graham, The Four Quadrants of Conformism.


Smallpox (again): It takes time

The Economist | Broken arrow

Nevertheless smallpox vaccination became near universal. And then in 1977, 177 years after Benjamin Waterhouse, a Harvard professor and correspondent of Jefferson’s, published his pamphlet “A Prospect of Exterminating the Small-pox”, it became obsolete. The disease was wiped out. No other human disease has yet followed it to oblivion, though polio is close. But many death tolls have been slashed.


A man of principle: Nobel got it right

The Economist | Seer of the Anthropocene

Paul Crutzen, the atmospheric scientist, died on January 28.

When in 1995, while running the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, he heard of his Nobel prize, he celebrated with sekt rather than champagne: not because of his modest, Dutch, cycling-to-work frugality, but because of France’s blinkered position on nuclear testing.


Of bacon and eggs, and that wonderful film

Defector Tae Yong-ho: ‘A very small spark could topple Kim Jong Un’ | Financial Times

The former North Korean diplomat on life under the Kims — and how the world should counter the regime.

Pictures of a full English breakfast left Tae mystified. “How could it be possible for just breakfast you have eggs, bacon, milk, butter, cheese, all of these things? We thought it was propaganda.” And after watching Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music he wondered how it was that a country like America, which killed people at random, could also produce such good films. “I started to have other thoughts.”

As for the Sound of Music, at Xmas, I watched it for again for the first time in close to 60 years. Wonderful. Growing up I remember a story in the South Wales Echo about a woman pensioner In Cardiff who saw it every day for well over a year. Eventually, she was given a free pass. But no popcorn or Coca-Cola, I suspect.


Scale, dissent and staying small

How to Think for Yourself

I enjoy Paul Graham’s essays. I don’t always agree with him, but I admire the clarity of his expression. Here, he is talking about the need to promote and protect dissent.

The decrease in independent-mindedness in growing startups is still an open problem, but there may be solutions.

Founders can delay the problem by making a conscious effort only to hire independent-minded people. Which of course also has the ancillary benefit that they have better ideas.

Another possible solution is to create policies that somehow disrupt the force of conformism, much as control rods slow chain reactions, so that the conventional-minded aren’t as dangerous. The physical separation of Lockheed’s Skunk Works may have had this as a side benefit. Recent examples suggest employee forums like Slack may not be an unmitigated good.

And he is bang on the nail with regard to universities.

The most radical solution would be to grow revenues without growing the company. You think hiring that junior PR person will be cheap, compared to a programmer, but what will be the effect on the average level of independent-mindedness in your company? (The growth in staff relative to faculty seems to have had a similar effect on universities.) Perhaps the rule about outsourcing work that’s not your “core competency” should be augmented by one about outsourcing work done by people who’d ruin your culture as employees.


Sickness is just a business opportunity

‘It needs to change its culture’: is McKinsey losing its mystique? | Financial Times

Moreover, it collected millions of dollars designing and implementing marketing campaigns for three other opioid manufacturers — Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt — the lawsuits found. One presentation released in court showed it suggesting that “high abuse-risk patients” were an “opportunity” for J&J with a patch based on fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Always remember the mantra: if there are not enough sick people about, create some more.

A Pox on You All

by reestheskin on 26/02/2021

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Or not, as the case may be.

Smallpox is the greatest success story in the history of medicine. It once took huge numbers of lives — as many as half a billion people in the 20th century alone — and blinded and disfigured many more.

So writes the distinguished historian of science, Steven Shapin in the LRB (A Pox on the Poor, February 4, 2021). He is reviewing The Great Inoculator: The Untold Story of Daniel Sutton and His Medical Revolution).

In historical times you had a one in three chance of getting smallpox, and, if you got it, the case-fatality was 20%. Some outbreaks, however, had a case-fatality of 50% and, unlike Covid-19, its preferred targets were children.

My exposure to smallpox was (thankfully) limited. My mother told me that there was an outbreak in South Wales and the West of England when I was around five or six. There was widespread vaccination, but kids like me with bad eczema, were spared, with the parent advised to ‘shield’ the child indoors (my sympathies go to my mother). (The risk was from the grandly named, but sometimes fatal, Kaposi’s varicelliform reaction, which was due to the vaccinia virus — not smallpox — running riot on the diseased skin).

As a med student, I remember learning how to distinguish the cutaneous lesions of smallpox from chicken pox. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, but, as a dermatology registrar, seeing the occasional adult with chickenpox who seemed so ill (in comparison with kids), I often had doubts that I had to reason away. Perhaps those stores held by the US and USSR were not so secure…

Before Jenner

Jenner and smallpox vaccination go together in popular accounts, but the history of this particular clinical discovery is much older and richer — at least to me.

As ever, in medicine, and in particular for anything involving the skin, the terminology is confusing. The Latin name for cowpox is Variolae vaccinae, meaning the pox from the cow (vacca). It was Pasteur who subsequently honoured Jenner by deciding that all forms of inoculation be called vaccination.

Edward Jenner took advantage of the already-known fact that whilst milkmaids tended to be afflicted with the far more mild cowpox virus, they rarely suffered from the more serious, smallpox (they are different, but related, viruses). Jenner, in 1796, inoculated an eight-year-old boy with the pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox sore. After being exposed to smallpox material the boy appeared immune, in that he did not suffer adversely when subsequently exposed to smallpox.

Once Jenner’s method was accepted as safe, Acts of Parliament introduced free vaccination n 1840, and vaccination became obligatory in 1853.

I had never been quite certain of the distinction between inoculation and vaccination, but there is history here too. Shapin writes that the term inoculation was borrowed from horticulture — the grafting of a bud (or ‘eye’) to propagate a plant (something I was taught how to do in horticulture lessons when I was aged 11, in school in Cardiff, by Brother Luke, who, I thought so old, he might have been a contemporary of Jenner). Why the name is apt is explained below.

Before vaccination, inoculation was actually meant to give you a direct form of smallpox (this was also referred to as variolation, after variola, the term for smallpox). The source material, again, was from a lesion of somebody with smallpox. The recipient it was hoped would develop a milder version of smallpox. Shapin writes:

The contract with the inoculator was to accept a milder form of the disease, and a lower chance of death, in exchange for a future secured from the naturally occurring disease, which carried a high chance of killing or disfiguring.

Shapin tells us that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, when holed up with her husband in Constantinople in 1717, heard stories about how such ‘in-grafting’ was in widespread use by the ‘locals’. She was scarred from smallpox, and therefor she had the procedure carried out on her then five-year-old son. The needle was blunt and rusty, but her son suffering just a few spots and the procedure was judged a success. He was now immune to smallpox.

Not surprisingly, the story goes back further: inoculation was folk medicine practice in Pembrokeshire as early as 1600, and the Chinese had been blowing dried, ground-up smallpox material up the nose for many centuries.

There is capitalism and then there is capitalism.

The London medical establishment were apparently not too impressed with the non-British origin of such scientific advance, nor its apparent simplicity (and hence low cost). So, they made the procedure made much more complicated, with specific diets being required, along with advice on behaviour, and, of course, blood-lettings and laxatives, all in addition to not just a ‘prick’ but a bigger incision (payment by the inch). The physician’s ‘fees’ no doubt rose in parallel. Not a bad business model, until…

There is plenty of room at the bottom.

The London physicians’ ‘add-ons’ put the treatment costs of inoculation out of reach of most of the population, restricting it, for decades, to the ‘medical carriage trade’. Along comes Richard Sutton, a provincial barber-surgeon, with no Latin or Greek, no doubt, who effectively industrialised the whole process, making it both more profitable and cheaper for the customer.

Based in a village near Chelmsford, he inoculated tens of thousands locally. The method was named after him, the Suttonian Method. On one day he inoculated 700 persons. Incisions (favoured by the physicians) were replaced by the simpler prick, and patients were not confined, but instead told to go out in the fresh air (day-case, anybody?). Product differentiation was of course possible:spa-like pampering in local accommodation was available for the top end of the market, with a set of sliding fees depending on the degree of luxury.

Shapin writes:

Splitting the market and niche pricing were aspects of Sutton’s business success, but so too was control of supply. The extended Sutton clan could satisfy a significant chunk of provincial demand, but Daniel also worked out a franchising system, which ‘authorised’ more than fifty partners throughout Britain and abroad to advertise their use of the ‘Suttonian System’ — provided they paid fees for Sutton-compounded purgatives, kicked back a slice of their take, and kept the trade secrets. Control was especially important, since practically, anyone could, and did, set up as an inoculator. The Suttons themselves had become surgeons through apprenticeship, but apothecaries, clergymen, artisans and farmers were inoculating, and sometimes parents inoculated their own children. The profits of the provincial press were considerably boosted as practitioners advertised their skills at inoculation and their keen prices. Daniel went after competitors — including his own father-in-law and a younger brother — with vigour, putting it about that the Suttonian Method depended on a set of closely held secrets, to which only he and his approved partners had access. His competitors sought to winkle out these secrets, occasionally pouncing on Sutton’s patients to quiz them about their experiences.

Sutton admitted that had ‘lost’ five out of forty thousand patients (due to smallpox). He offered a prize of 100 guineas to anybody who could prove he ever lost a patient due to inoculation, or that any patient got smallpox a second time. More confident, and perhaps more generous, than modern Pharma, I think. By 1764, Sutton had an annual income of 6300 guineas — over one million sterling in today’s money.

The Bondage of Thine Own Desire

by reestheskin on 23/02/2021

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Perry Anderson · Ever Closer Union? · LRB 7 January 2021

Perry Anderson wrote three articles recently in the LRB on the EU. The first I found hard to get into, but the second and third are terrific. Whether he is right about everything or makes the right calls, I cannot say. But strongly recommended. I will be interested to check out any letters.

The quote below is, about, and in part, from Chris Bickerton who is a regular on Talking Politics podcast. He wields a scalpel more sharply through your eyes than your ears.

Christopher Bickerton’s European Integration, whose anodyne title, shared by dozens of other books, conceals its distinction, which comes in the subtitle that delivers its argument: ‘From Nation-States to Member States’. Everyone has an idea what a nation-state is, and many know that 27 countries (with the UK’s departure) are member states of the European Union. What is the conceptual difference between the two? Bickerton’s definition is succinct. ‘The concept of member state expresses a fundamental change in the political structure of the state, with horizontal ties between national executives taking precedence over vertical ties between governments and their own societies.’ This development first struck him, he explains, at the time of the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. ‘When the No result was announced, members of the Irish government expressed a mixture of surprise and embarrassment: surprise as they were unfamiliar with the sentiments prevailing within their own population, and embarrassment because this compromised many of the promises they had made to their peers at previous meetings in Brussels.’ (The description is something of an understatement. Spotted outside a pub in Dublin that evening, Brian Lenihan, minister of finance at the time, was white around the gills.)

Bickerton again.

With the advent of the European Community, once the Court of Justice had succeeded in effectively, if not formally, constitutionalising it, member states accepted a set of external constraints whose form was radically different. ‘The active subject, namely the people, is not doing the binding…

Now I get this! This is a device used by just so many organisations. They choose the bondage of their own desire (literally, it seems, for some politicians).

Anderson:

Rather, national governments commit to limit their own powers in order to contain the political power of domestic populations. Instead of the people expressing themselves qua constituent power through this constitutional architecture, national governments seek to limit popular power by binding themselves through an external set of rules, procedures and norms.

Perry Anderson · The Breakaway: Goodbye Europe · LRB 21 January 2021

Anderson in the third essay:

Much of​ the anger aroused by Brexit in once Tory circles comes from an acute sense of the anachronism of leading advocates of departure, the ostentatious fogeyism of Rees-Mogg, Bone, Baker and others, defenders of the indefensible in the age of climate change, crowd-sourcing and correct speech. What is the order they uphold? A first-past-the-post electoral system dating back to the 16th century, before most constituencies were even contested, which regularly produces results that bear no resemblance to the divisions of opinion in the country; an unelected upper chamber crammed with flunkies and friends of the two dominant parties; an honours system devised to reward bagmen and sycophants; a Parliament that can be bundled into a poll at a day’s notice; a judiciary capable of covering any administrative enormity. Little wonder its admirers quote Latin statutes from the time of Richard II or Henry VIII in praise of its workings.


The Great Dick Faker

To predict government policy, listen to Boris and wait for the opposite

John Crace writing in the Guardian:

During the biggest national health crisis in 100 years, it’s just our luck to have Johnson in charge. A man pathologically unable to make the right calls at the right time. The prime minister is a narcissistic charlatan. The Great Dick Faker. Someone who can’t bear to be the bearer of bad news or to be proved wrong by people who disagree with him. So he stubbornly ignores the evidence until he becomes overwhelmed by it and public opinion has turned against him. He isn’t just a liability as a leader, his indecision has cost lives. His hubris will only cost him his job.


Incoherence

Frontline UK teams query ability to vaccinate most vulnerable | Financial Times

A comment from Risk Man:

This Government is not capable of coherence.


A necessary and immodest proposal

These dark materials | Books | The Guardian

The great physicist Richard Feynman expressed the methodology of science beautifully: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If [your idea] disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Note the world experience.

But here, another great physicist and thinker says something even more profound for how we think about science.

Physical science has historically progressed not only by finding precise explanations of natural phenomena, but also by discovering what sorts of things can be precisely explained. These may be fewer than we had thought.

Steven Weinberg

Depending on your point of view you can either find this sentiment reassuring or — as in my case — terrifying.


The quality of the stool is not strained…

NIH’s ‘precision nutrition’ bet aims for individualized diets | Science

Well, lets leave the likes of real science and Feynman and Weinberg to one side.

A few posts ago, I talked about the hype that is the claimed discovery of, or facility for, precision medicine. Life is getting more and more messy as the story runs down and out…

The study “has the potential to truly transform the field of nutrition science,” generating new tools, methods, and “a wealth of data to fuel discovery science for years to come,” Griffin Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), said last year at an NIH board meeting where he introduced the project. Ultimately, it might enable nutritionists to tailor diets to an individual’s genes and microbiome.

With a few notable exceptions — usually from long ago — the words nutrition and science should rarely appear in the same sentence. When they do, they are best flushed down the pan.


Winnowing MMXXI

by reestheskin on 21/02/2021

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The Wealth of Nations

China’s hidden crisis

Much of the blame for all this rests with Mao, whose Cultural Revolution was “perhaps the largest intentional destruction of human capital the world has ever seen”.

The story is…

Their team gave an IQ-like test to thousands of rural Chinese toddlers. They found that more than 50% were cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an IQ of 90 (in a typical population, only 16% score so poorly).

Why?

Half of rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers (often illiterate grandmothers) cram them with rice, noodles and steamed buns, not realising that they also need micronutrients… A third of rural 11- and 12-year-olds have poor vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.

Some of these problems would be laughably cheap to fix. A pair of glasses costs $30. Multivitamin pills are a few cents. De-worming tablets cost $2 per child each year. One reason the problems persist is that harmful myths abound. Many rural folk believe that—as a grandmother told this reviewer—glasses are bad for children’s eyesight. Some fret that de-worming pills reduce fertility in girls. A recent study found that 99% of Chinese farmers gave their pigs de-worming drugs, but hardly any did the same for their children.

Read that last sentence again.


Having a thing for snails.

The Economist | The lives of others

Patricia Highsmith had a thing for snails. She admired their self-sufficiency and found it “relaxing” to watch them copulate, delighted by the impossibility of distinguishing male from female. She collected them for decades, keeping hundreds at home and scores in her handbag, which she let loose when bored at dinner parties. Her affection for snails was matched by her ambivalence towards people, whom she often found baffling and kept at a distance. When a literary agent suggested Americans didn’t buy her books because they were “too subtle” and the characters too unlikeable, Highsmith responded: “Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone.”


Not having a fling …for rotifers

The Economist | Godzilla the rotifer

Rotifers are famously asexual. The last time members of one group of the animals, the bdelloids, had sex is reckoned by zoologists to have been about 80 million years ago.


Who is cheating who?

Skidmore hopes to push UK government to outlaw essay mills | Times Higher Education (THE)

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore hopes that his private member’s bill on essay mills will prompt the Westminster government to finally take legislative action against contract cheating. Proposing the bill, which would make the operation and advertising of essay mill services illegal in the UK, Mr Skidmore said contract cheating was “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair”.

Hard to argue with, but would the essay mills fool school teachers? I suspect not. There is more than one way to cheat, just as there is more than one agent in any con.


Is that a fact!

The Economist | Betting all the chips

When microchips were invented in 1958, the first significant market for them was inside nuclear missiles. Today about a trillion chips are made a year, or 128 for every person on the planet.


We’re all just naked apes

Letter to the economist from Allan Milne Lees.

As Johnson rightly notes, we humans need regular undemanding social interactions such as small talk to support our well-being (January 2nd). As a primate species that is relatively hairless we are unable to use grooming rituals to establish and maintain social bonds. Chatting about the weather and stock performances is our equivalent of removing salt crystals and lice from each other.

The dermatologists might add that the value of host responses to such infestations, like stock prices, may go up and down in value.


The regulator as Ouroboros

WONKHE

Some lives leave love, others just a trail of utter destruction.

There was much amusement on Wednesday when outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber used his King’s College London Commemoration Oration to wade in on “no platforming”. He said he was willing to believe that the vast majority of controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead on campus, but that he would love to see figures — adding, “It’s hardly a job for a regulator but if I were a university administrator or an influence at UUK, I would be collecting the data.”

What he hadn’t clocked is that it is, in fact, a job for a regulator, given the Prevent duty — his regulator, whose most recent figures show that just 0.09 per cent of such events don’t go ahead. When we pointed that out later in the Q&A, adding that the example of a problematic speech code he’d picked from a book was both inaccurate and eighteen years old, Barber offered praise for our work here at Wonkhe but suggested that we may want to “spend less time on the detail”. We can’t imagine why.


Worthy of Wallace and Gromet

How clams fight pollution

The system is nifty. When the molluscs encounter heavy metals, pesticides or other pollutants, they close their shells, explains Piotr Domek of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, who has worked on the project for three decades. To create a natural early-warning system, Mr Domek and his colleagues collect the clams from rivers or reservoirs, and attach a coil and a magnet to their shells. Computers register whether their shells are open or closed by detecting changes in the magnetic field.

Priti Patel will be on the case

In the case of a terrorist attack, an ecological disaster or another contamination of the water supply, the clams will close,” says Mr Domek. This, in turn, will automatically cut off the water supply. The clams, he thinks, are life-savers.

Make certain you have your documents ready and open on..

by reestheskin on 20/02/2021

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Academics are promoting the wrong kind of rigour | Times Higher Education (THE)

When I was teaching — and I taught a lot towards the end of my paid career — there were many opportunities to talk to medical students off the record. It takes time, and some trust from both parties, but many students know what talking off the record means. To my surprise — yes, I am that paranoid — some of the online feedback they provide is also informative. My favourite, was a comment about specialty X, saying that they were certain that the teaching would have been of a high standard if they had actually had any. If you scour the BMJ online responses for comments from students, you can find similar views.

For many students, undergraduate medicine resembles flying in the pre-Covid days: the journey’s end is worth it, but you have put up with all the crap that passing through airport security entails. There is just no other practical way to get from A to B. Getting uptight about it as you pass through may come back to bite you.

I think medicine is worse than many other degrees, but there is plenty of misery to go around. The following is from an article in the Times Higher:

Leaning forward, he takes a deep breath and says: “Well, it’s like we’re running some kind of gauntlet, course after course, semester after semester, one year to the next, working hard, but our real selves are asleep. ‘Get good grades, good internships. Do lots of activities. Build an impressive résumé.’ That’s all we hear. We’re so busy proving ourselves that there’s no time to breathe, let alone think or reflect, and the stuff we have to do for classes mostly feels meaningless — to me, anyway. So we just go to sleep to get through it and hope it’s all worth it when the grind is over.” 

But my student wonders out loud why learning in college must be a forced march and not a playful adventure — and I silently wonder the same about the process of tenure and promotion.

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 19/02/2021

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Thinking clearly

It is a fun trope to imagine that ability in one domain comes at the cost of another. Scientists are geeks etc. I knew the quote below, but not who had said it. Perhaps technocrats devoted to public service are what we are missing.

We are not a great power and never will be again,” wrote Tizard. “We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.”

A distinguished Whitehall scientist, Henry Tizard, sounding the alarm. Quoted in Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit, by Philip Stephens.


Fast and slow-moving metaphors

Graduate deans ‘must speak up for PhD students’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

“Even today, people applying to graduate school feel obliged to say: “My goal is research”, according to Robert Weisbuch, former president of Drew University in New Jersey. Yet in reality only a small proportion will go on to find a permanent academic position, and failure to acknowledge this often prevents them making the most of their knowledge and talents.

“We teach them to believe they are Lamborghinis,” suggested Leonard Cassuto, professor of English and American studies at Fordham University in New York, “when in fact they are all-terrain vehicles. If you are an all-terrain vehicle and believe you are a Lamborghini, all you are going to do is stay on the racetrack, no matter how much traffic there is on it.”


Just so you know

Why can’t the UK tax year start on January 1? | Financial Times

Our April 5 year-end originates from when people in England were required to pay rents to their landlords quarterly on what were, and still are, known as quarter days; March 25, June 24, September 29 and December 25. The first in the year, known as Lady Day, came to be regarded as the start of the financial year.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that the old Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar should be replaced by the Gregorian calendar we use today. The old calendar, although reasonably accurate, was slightly too short and had slipped over the years. Much of Europe moved across immediately, but Britain took a little longer — 170 years in fact. By then, our calendar was out of step by 11 days and so it was that after the taxes had been paid on March 25 1752, 11 days were removed from the calendar and the new tax year started on April 5 1752. 


The Long Now: Plant the oaks now for we do not know when we might need them

Political union through science | Nature Physics

Almost 100 years later, in a Europe that had been forced apart by war, 17 nations from around the world came together in Paris on 20 May 1875 to sign what is now known as the Metre Convention. The aim of the convention — in the spirit of Talleyrand’s proposal — appears prominently on the first page, and states that the signatories desired “to assure the international unification and perfection of the metric system” and they undertook “to create and maintain, at their common expense, a scientific and permanent International Bureau of Weights and Measures with its headquarters in Paris”.


Turn of phrase

Moving mountains: the reforms that would push academia to new heights | Times Higher Education (THE)

It remains one of the great ironies of higher education that while most of us in the sector are employed to educate, any professional learning offered to improve our practice leaves us as repulsed and as lost as Jack Nicholson at a women’s studies conference.

I not in love with the gist of the article, all those dilemmas about whether opening doors for colleagues or strangers is micro-aggression or not, but a nice turn of phrase. Personally, I would have thought Nicholson would have gone down well (academically speaking, that is).


Just brilliant!

Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.

Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who contribute greatly to the global eradication of smallpox. Quoted in via Private Eye MD No 1541

I knew another scientist called Brilliant, Murray Brilliant, a melanocyte biologist. Always wondered what it was like being called Brilliant, and how Oscar Wilde might have played with it.


Retirement has its rewards

W.H. Auden imagined “The Fall of Rome” as the moment in which:

“an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form.”

Quoted here