UK science policy

The government thinks if you pump up UK science with a verbal diarrhoea of optimism – it can somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Andre Geim of the University of Manchester

New Scientist

higher education had become just too important to be allowed to be free

Free: as in free speech rather than free beer.

Peter Scott in Times Higher Education: 50 years of critical friendship | Times Higher Education (THE)

Losing at the Starting Line & the Nine Nine Six Culture

Wang Xiuying · Losing at the Starting Line: Nine Nine Six Culture · LRB 18 November 2021

Children start taking extra classes when they’re still at primary school. Chinese (language and literature), maths and English are the cornerstones: they are compulsory subjects in the gaokao, the College Entrance Exam, which students take in their final year of school and is the sole criterion for university admission (you can do another language, but hardly anyone does). The Olympic Mathematics Class is popular with primary school pupils who show an early interest in the sciences. In a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, one-to-one maths tutoring for young children can cost 500 RMB per hour (the average wage in big cities is around 50 RMB per hour). As well as academic tutoring, singing, dancing, piano, violin, swimming and badminton classes are also hugely popular. A private piano lesson taught by a conservatoire professor can cost 2500 RMB per hour. Middle-class parents often joke (not without bitterness) that their child is shredding money before their eyes.

She is a typical Gen Zer: can’t stick a job for more than a year (‘too boring, salary no good’) and has absolutely no desire for a family (‘taking care of myself is hard enough’). Women who do want a family have to prepare long before the wedding. In big cities, the downpayment on a decent apartment would empty six bank accounts (the couple plus all four parents). Occasionally viral clips circulate of random street interviews. The interviewer asks a passerby: ‘You’re about to divorce. Do you choose the house or the children?’ Most men choose the house because houses are too expensive to buy again. You can always find another wife and have another child if you have the house. Most women choose the children.

Shareholder value

The myth of healthy smoking

Menthol cigarettes were first promoted to soothe the airways of “health conscious” smokers. Long used as an analgesic, menthol evokes a cooling sensation that masks the harshness of tobacco smoke. In the competition to capitalize on the growing menthol market, the industry’s marketing experts “carved up, segmented, and fractionated” the population, exploiting psychology and social attitudes to shape product preferences.

[emphasis added]

For reasons of State

Stephen Sedley · A Decent Death · LRB 21 October 2021

A sharp pen from Stephen Sedley, a former appeal court judge, in the LRB.

Absurdly and cruelly, until the 1961 Suicide Act was passed it was a crime to kill yourself. While those who succeeded were beyond the law’s reach, those who tried and failed could be sent to jail. In the 1920s the home secretary had to release a Middlesbrough woman with fourteen children who had been given three months in prison for trying to kill herself. There is a Pythonesque sketch waiting to be written about a judge passing a sentence of imprisonment for attempted suicide: ‘Let this be a lesson to you and to any others who may be thinking of killing themselves.’ In fact, by the mid 19th century the law had got itself into such a tangle that a person injured in a failed attempt at suicide could be indicted for wounding with intent to kill, an offence for which Parliament had thoughtfully provided the death penalty.

But the repeated resort by doctrinal opponents of assisted dying to the need for safeguarding tends to be directed not to resolving any difficulties but to amplifying and complicating them to the point of obstruction – the kind of argument which, as Gore Vidal once put it, gives intellectual dishonesty a bad name.

[emphases added]

Boom boomers… well not quite

by reestheskin on 19/10/2021

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Without an economic plan, patriotism is Boris Johnson’s last refuge | Financial Times

Martin Wolff writing in the FT today.

Yet does this really matter? One used to think that economic performance was crucial to political success. Now we know there are alternative political tactics. If economic outcomes and fiscal largesse disappoint, Johnson can return to what has worked so well since 2016: the battle of undaunted Britain against the despotism of Brussels. Indeed, we are already seeing just this in his attempt to rewrite the agreement he reached over Northern Ireland just over two years ago.

In the last resort, blame what is wrong on foreigners. This has worked so far. But the patriotism card surely cannot work its magic forever.

Dr Will Welfare

Covid PCR tests: at least 43,000 in UK may have had false negatives | Coronavirus | The Guardian

What a great name for a public health doc?

Dr Will Welfare, the public health incident director at UKHSA, said: “There is no evidence of any faults with LFD or PCR test kits themselves and the public should remain confident in using them and in other laboratory services currently provided.”

The west is the author of its own weakness

The west is the author of its own weakness | Financial Times

What Trump understood, as did populists elsewhere, is that the voters’ respect for established politics is rooted in a bargain. Public faith in democracy — in the rule of law and the institutions of the state — rests on a perception that the system at least nods towards fairness. There have been reforms to that end since the crash, but little to suggest they are enough.

There was nothing wrong with the ambition of the post cold war optimists. It remains hard to see how the world can work without liberal democracy and a rules-based international system. What the optimists missed then, and the China watchers overlook now, is the hollowing out of trust in democracy at home. Of course, China is a potential threat. A second presidential term for Trump would be a much more dangerous one.

It may be that history will conclude that the excessive optimism of the 1990s is being mirrored today by too much pessimism. That’s a judgment I intend to leave to others. For a political commentator, 25 years in the same slot is long enough. So this is my last column. I will continue to write from time to time as an FT contributing editor, but otherwise intend to go in search of a better understanding of, well, history.

Philip Stephens

Twin miseries

It was not deliberate policy; it simply seemed to be only men who applied, usually refugees from the twin miseries of academia: low salaries and high tables.

The Fear Index. Robert Harris

Line manager

Every time I hear the term line-manager used by or about an academic, retirement gets a day closer.

I once wrote.

Business has always hated competition

Full quote:

Business has always hated competition. The City of London, home to our banking sector, was founded on the trade guilds which policed quality but whose hidden agenda was to fix prices.

Sounds familiar.

Paul Lewis in the FT

Shurely shum mishtake

by reestheskin on 29/09/2021

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From today’s FT online. A moment’s hesitation. Who is this fed guy?

Voting for Turkeys

The Government is telling the world that it is fighting night and day to save Christmas, in September. Don’t you find that the fight to save Christmas starts earlier every year? I know I do. But what message does that send? Things are so bad, putting a turkey on the table in three months time, is now top of the government’s agenda.

Jonty’s jottings, Jonty Bloom

The Lie of Nation Building

The Lie of Nation Building | by Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books

Fintan O’Toole in fine form.

The great question of America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan was not whether the Afghans were fit for democracy. It was whether democratic values were strong enough in the US to be projected onto a traumatized society seven thousand miles away. Those values include the accountability of the people in power, the consistent and universal application of human rights, a clear understanding of what policies are trying to achieve, the prevention of corrupt financial influence over political decisions, and the fundamental truthfulness of public utterances. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the American republic was fighting, and often losing, a domestic battle to uphold those values for its own citizens.

Critics of the war argued that the US could not create a polity in its own image on the far side of the world. The tragic truth is that in many ways it did exactly that.

The easiest way to cope with the reality that the longest war in US history (longer than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam put together) has ended in defeat and an ignominious and deadly evacuation is to fall back on the belief that the Afghans were never capable of creating or sustaining a modern nation-state. The US, after all, spent $143 billion on “nation building” in Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than it spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Why did it not achieve similar results? The problem, it is comforting to conclude, must lie with the Afghans themselves: too backward, too poor, too inextricably entangled in medieval tribalism and obscurantist religion. [emphasis added]

Worth reading in full.

The next five years will be worse

The next five years will be worse for English universities than the past five years have been. And the five after that could be worse still.

Alison Wolf writing in 2015. And don’t think this is all to do with Covid.

Can higher education’s golden age of plenty continue? | Times Higher Education (THE)

School’s out for summer

by reestheskin on 28/06/2021

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Things will be even quieter here than usual. Summer is here, and I have some long form writing to do. Take a break.

Good teaching

by reestheskin on 27/06/2021

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A comment on this article on the WONKHE site. Scale matters, but not in the way that the C-suite want.

It has been salutary being an insider-academic doing visit days. It has confirmed my long held view that one of the most important things for a would be student is to get on a smallish course irrespective of subject wherein they will be personally known and recognized by their lecturers, not just an allocated ‘tutor’ or ‘supervisor’.

In my personal, and anecdotal, admittedly, experience, of family members, and of teaching undergrads this has determined more than anything how well students do, in terms of academic performance and personal development. It is not wholly related to RG vs post-92 either. The latter seem to do really well, if the cohort is small.

The Long Now

Which living thing is the best ‘mascot’ for long-term thinking? – The Long-termist’s Field Guide

Richard Fisher:

Perhaps the most famous one is about the oaks of New College, Oxford. The tale goes that, sometime in the 1800s, officials realised they needed replacement beams for their main hall. To their surprise, they discovered that the college’s founders had planted a grove of oaks in the 1300s to supply the job. The story is often told to illustrate the virtues of long-term planning – even the former British Prime Minister David Cameron recounted it once during a Tory party conference speech. However, it is apocryphal. “I am amazed that this myth still continues: long-term tenacity if not long-term thinking,” the college archivist Jennifer Thorp once told me.

Such a shame. I always loved the story.

A university is a gym not a hotel

(source ?)

Regulatory subventions

Pluralistic: 02 Jun 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

Uber’s main project has always been regulatory, not technological: that’s why it funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into passing California’s Proposition 22, a law that legalized worker misclassification and banned unionization.

The irony? Uber is a “bezzle” – JK Galbraith’s name for “the magic interval when a confidence trickster knows he has the money he has appropriated but the victim does not yet understand that he has lost it.” Uber is a scam and it will never be profitable.

I give you the tea bag and Tractatus!

A century ago Ludwig Wittgenstein changed philosophy for ever | The Economist

Of all the innovations that sprang from the trenches of the first world war—the zip, the tea bag, the tank—the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” must be among the most elegant and humane.

That the book ever made it into print was miraculous. Before the war, as a student at Cambridge, Wittgenstein’s talent was clear to his contemporaries, who begged him to put his many thoughts into writing. He refused, fearing that an imperfect work of philosophy was worthless. His mentor, Bertrand Russell, made a habit of taking notes when the two spoke, lest his protégé’s genius be lost to memory. Wittgenstein himself had other preoccupations, principally suicide.

 Now I don’t have to feel so guilty

Letter: Socialist historian foresaw Covid work habits in 1967 | Financial Times

Anyone who has read the socialist historian EP Thompson’s article “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, written in 1967 and collected in Customs in Common in 1993, will recognise his account of pre-industrial work habits in Pilita Clark’s article about modern workers’ reluctance to engage on Mondays (Business Life, May 17).

Thompson identifies a work pattern composed of “alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives”. He remarks that the “pattern persists among some self-employed — artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students — today [1967], and provokes the question whether it is not a natural human work-rhythm”.

Michael Williams, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, UK.

Arithmetic matters

Summer reading 2021 | Science

From a review of “The Ascent of Information” by Caleb Scharf.

Every cat GIF shared on social media, credit card swiped, video watched on a streaming platform, and website visited add more data to the mind-bending 2.5 quintillion bytes of information that humans produce every single day. All of that information has a cost: Data centers alone consume about 47 billion watts, equivalent to the resting metabolism of more than a tenth of all the humans on the planet.

Scharf begins by invoking William Shakespeare, whose legacy permeates the public consciousness more than four centuries after his death, to show just how powerful the dataome can be. On the basis of the average physical weight of one of his plays, “it is possible that altogether the simple act of human arms raising and lowering copies of Shakespeare’s writings has expended over 4 trillion joules of energy,” he writes. These calculations do not even account for the energy expended as the neurons in our brains fire to make sense of the Bard’s language.

Better not a “mere snip” at £6m a litre

Thoroughbred horses are increasingly inbred | The Economist

Superstar sires “cover”, as horsey types call mating, over 200 mares per year, up from 40 in Northern Dancer’s day.

At first, horse breeders did not consider inbreeding a problem. On the contrary: horses, like maidens, were better when purer. Within a century of the arrival of those three stallions, it was decided that the job of perfecting the horse had been done so well that the stud book was closed to new entrants. Aristocrats policed the parentage of their horses, listing their dams and sires in Weatherbys stud book. In 1826 Burke’s Peerage appeared, allowing aristocrats to do much the same for themselves. Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, recommended that “no time ought to be lost” in instituting a human equivalent to the stud book, to record not class, but fitness and form.

Eugenics has fallen out of fashion. The horsey equivalent has not. Thoroughbreds can earn far more from propagating their race than from running races. At the National Stud, one commands a fee of £25,000 ($35,000) for a cover. Galileo, among the world’s finest stallions, is rumoured to command £600,000 a pop.

Such fees make the very best thoroughbred semen one of the world’s most expensive substances, at around £6m a litre.

Resilience and sustainability

Hack the Planet: Tega Brain on Leaks, Glitches, and Preposterous Futures

This quote is actually from an article about washing machines, water supplies and ‘wastage’. But it just reminds me of the technical and intellectual debt that is drowning health care and the NHS

That balancing act reminds me of something engineer and professor Deb Chachra wrote in one of her newsletters. She wrote, “Sustainability always looks like underutilization when compared to resource extraction.”

UK Universities and their dismal future

The Guardian view on funding universities: the market model isn’t working | Editorial | The Guardian

But perhaps the time has come for a deeper rethink. The marketisation of the higher education sector, through the loan system, successfully expanded access and fears of social exclusion were not borne out. But the numbers are not looking good, and there has also been a significant cultural cost. Universities, increasingly run as competing businesses by overpaid vice-chancellors and a coterie of financial managers, have lost touch with the collegiate ethos that used to inform campus life. Crude systems of measurement and monitoring have eroded trust and generated false incentives, leading, for example, to grade inflation. A drive to cut costs has targeted staff pay and pensions, and created a disillusioned underclass of pitifully rewarded young academics on insecure short-term contracts. Strike action, currently taking place at the universities of Leicester and Liverpool, has become commonplace.

Removing, or greatly reducing, upfront fees and recasting the direct funding relationship between government and universities could help address such problems. The market model pioneered 10 years ago has begun to look dated and unsustainable. New thinking is needed.

Yes, I know all of this. But solutions, please. And ones that can be defended and not crapped all-over in that place 400 miles south of me.

What do I need to know to pass the exam?

by reestheskin on 24/06/2021

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After thirty-five years of teaching medical students dermatology the 2021 GMC’s Medical Licensing Assessment (MLA) content map makes for dispiriting reading. The document states that it sets out the core knowledge expected of those entering UK practice. It doesn’t.

My complaint is not the self-serving wish of the specialist who feels that his subject deserves more attention — I would willingly remove much of what the GMC demand. Nor is it that the document elides basic clinical terminology such as acute and chronic (in dermatology, the term refers to morphology rather than just time). Nor, bizarrely, that it omits mention of those acute dermatoses with a case-fatality rate higher than that of stroke or myocardial infarction: bullous pemphigoid, pemphigus, and Stevens-Johnson syndrome/Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis are curiously absent. No, my frustrations lie with the fact that the approach taken by the GMC, whilst superficially attractive, reveals a lack of insight into, and, knowledge of medicine and expertise in medicine. The whole GMC perspective, based on a lack of domain expertise, is that somehow they can regulate anything. That somehow there is a formula for ‘how to regulate’. This week, medicine; next week, the Civil Aviation Authority. The world is not like that — well it shouldn’t be.

Making a diagnosis can be considered a categorisation task in which you not only need to know about the positive features of the index diagnosis, but also those features of differential diagnoses that are absent in the index case (for Sherlock Holmes aficionados, the latter correspond to the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night’ issue). It is this characteristic that underpins all the traditional ‘compare and contrast’ questions, or the hallowed ‘list the differentials, and then strike them off one-by-one’.

Take melanoma, which the MLA content guide includes. Melanoma diagnosis requires accounting for both positive and negative features. For the negative features, you have to know about the diagnostic features of the common differentials that are not found in melanomas. This entails knowing something about the differentials, and, as the saying goes, if you can’t name them, you can’t see them. A back of the envelope calculation: for every single case of melanoma there are a quarter of a million cases made up of five to ten diagnostic classes that are not melanomas. These include melanocytic nevi, solar lentigines, and seborrhoeic keratoses; these lesions are ubiquitous in any adult. But the MLA fails to mention them. What is a student to make of this? Do they need to learn about them or not? Or are they to be left with the impression that a pigmented lesion that has increased in size and changed colour is most likely a melanomas (answer:false).

Second, the guide essentially provides a list of nouns, with little in the way of modifiers. Students should know about ‘acute rashes’ and ‘chronic rashes‘ — terms I should say that jar on the ear of any domain expert — but which conditions are we talking about, and exactly what about each of these conditions should students know?

In some domains of knowledge it is indeed possible to define an ability or skill succinctly. For instance, in mathematics, you might want students to be able to solve first-order differential equations. The competence is simply stated, and the examiner can choose from an almost infinite number of permutations. If we were to think about this in information theory terms, we would say we can highly compress in a faithful (lossless) way what we want students to know. But medicine is not like this.

Take psoriasis as another example from the MLA. Once we move beyond expecting students to know how to spell the word watch what happens as you try to define all those features of psoriasis you wish them to know about. By the time you have you finished listing what exactly you want a student to know, you have essentially written the textbook chapter. We are unable to match the clever data compression algorithms that generate MP3 formats or photograph compressions. Medical texts do indeed contain lots of annoying details — no E=MC2 for us — but it is these details that constitute domain expertise. But we can all agree, that we can alter the chapter length as an explicit function of what we want students to know.

Once you move to a national syllabus (and for tests of professional competence, I am a fan) you need to replace what you have lost; namely, the far more explicit ‘local’ guides such as ‘read my lecture notes’ or ‘use this book but skip chapters x, y and z’ that students could once rely on. The most interesting question is whether this is now better done at the level of the individual medical school or, as for many non-medical professional qualifications, at the national level.

Finally, many year ago, Michael Power, in his book, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification demolished the sort of thinking that characterises the whole GMC mindset. As the BMJ once said, there is little in British medicine that the GMC cannot make worse. Pity the poor students.

The philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly a)er the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then le) Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.

Another philosopher, when I told him this story, commented drily that what it showed was that Hampshire was a very poor choice for the assignment.

LRB Vol. 43 No. 11 · 3 June 2021, Types of Intuition, by Thomas Nagel.

Innovation, and rule breaking

by reestheskin on 23/06/2021

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How ‘creative destruction’ drives innovation and prosperity | Financial Times

From time to time, I vow not to read any more comments on the FT website. Trolls aside, I clearly live in a different universe. But then I return. It is indeed a signal-noise problem, but one in which the weighting has to be such that the fresh shoots are not overlooked. I know nothing about Paul A Myers, and I assume he lives in the US, but over the years you he has given me pause for thought on many occasions. One recent example below.

Comment from Paul A Myers

Science-based innovation largely comes out of the base of 90 research universities. One can risk an over-generalization and say there are no “universities” in a non-constitutional democratic country, or authoritarian regime. Engineering institutes maybe, but not research universities. Research is serendipity and quirky; engineering is regular and reliable. Engineering loves rules; research loves breaking them. The two fields are similar but worship at different altars.

This contrast is also true of medicine and science. Medicine is regulated to hell and back — badly, often — but I like my planes that way too. But, in John Naughton’s words, if you want great research, buy Aeron chairs, and hide the costs off the balance sheet lest the accountants start discounting all the possible futures.

Keyboard warriors and the reverse Voltaire

We are living through a time of online outrage and increasing irrationalism, and the combination has not been a happy one for public discussion. Generally, shallow emotion seems to be in the driving seat for many keyboard warriors: not the slow burn of genuine anger that fuels the prolonged, difficult pursuit of a worthwhile goal, but rather a feel-good performative outrage whose main expression is typing furious snark onto a computer screen before switching over to Netflix. [emphasis added]

Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock.

And applicable to a lot more than the topic of her excellent book. Sometimes, it takes a philosopher to spell out exactly what people are saying. She also introduced me to the reverse Voltaire from Mary Leng

I agree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to prevent you from saying it.