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
Every time I hear the term line-manager used by or about an academic, retirement gets a day closer.
I once wrote.
A university is a gym not a hotel
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.
As ever, some beautiful cadences in an obituary in the Economist. This one is of Chick Corea.
Sometimes he wrote phrases down, or composed at a keyboard so they were stored. All too often, though, he couldn’t catch them. Music, like a waterfall, never stayed still, and nor did bands. But that was good. Every change of players brought in something fresh.
He treated music more like a swimming pool, where he just jumped in and had fun.
In short, he was not to be tied down, not even to success
According to Tom Bower, who has written more on him than anyone else, [Robert] Maxwell once lost his temper with Ghislaine after she provided him with what he considered an inadequate account of a dinner she had attended on his behalf. Having been reduced to tears by his outburst, she wrote a memo: ‘I should have expressed to you at the start of our conversation that I was merely presenting you with a preliminary report of the evening and a full written report was to follow.’ She went on to list everyone at the dinner who had praised him, adding that she herself had been honoured to represent him.
By the end, the man who had always been able to turn on the charm at will was so egotistical that his company was unbearable. Cruel, grandiose, self-absorbed and ludicrously boastful, he lived in a flat at the top of Maxwell House, his appetites, sexual and otherwise, serviced only by people he paid. His need for food became so excessive that on one occasion he broke into a locked larder and ate a pound of cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two jars of caviar, a loaf of bread and a whole chicken in a single sitting. True, when he picked up the phone, the world’s most powerful people would take his call. But, for all that, he ate his last meal sitting on his own in the corner of an empty dining room in a Tenerife hotel.
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.
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.
Excellent summary of recent discoveries in human evolution by John Lanchester in the LRB1. Lucid writing. When I worked on the evolution of skin and hair colour, I was always puzzled about the way a single find of skeletal remains could pivot a whole narrative of how we got here. N-of-1s, are tricky. In recent years many remains have been discovered and, amazingly (because it is amazing), using DNA we can literally spy on the past, not quite in real time, but in a way that when I was a medical student would have seemed like science fiction.
Another thing that I never understood was why these remains were often found in caves. Is that where the action was? John Lanchester put me right — to an extent.
In the case of the Neanderthals, the sense of distance and the sense of strangeness are stronger; empathy seems both more necessary and more remote, harder to access. I have stood at the site of a Neanderthal shelter at Buoux in the South of France and been hit by an overwhelmingly strong feeling of remoteness, the idea that these people, these similar-but-different humans, were so far from anywhere human and place-like that they must have been hiding from something. Their very existence — we now know there were only a few tens of thousands of Neanderthals alive at any one time — seems contingent and marginal. What were they trying to get away from?
But that’s bollocks. That sense of remoteness, of distance from and hiddenness, are a side effect of humanity’s planetary domination: the only places where traces of the deep past remain are places we haven’t built over or crushed underfoot. There could be Neanderthal remains all around where I’m writing this, but I live in London and those traces, if they ever existed, are long and permanently lost. We find evidence mainly in caves because they’re the only places where remains haven’t been washed away by time and the human present. This is the same reason the far past continues to make news: we are constructing knowledge from scraps and fragments, and big new discoveries have the potential to rewrite the story.
Bollocks, as he says. As for my title, well, the best mnemonics at medical school tended to be rude. Lanchester writes
If you’re having trouble remembering the sequence of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, I can recommend the mnemonic ‘Kieran, Please Come Over For Gay Sex.
In truth, mnemonics never did much for me.
The above was the title of a book by Leo Abse, the Labour MP for Pontypool when I was growing up in Cardiff. I do remember my parents mentioning his name, although I am not certain what their views of him were. As the Economist writes.
A little after 10pm on Monday July 3rd 1967, just as most sensible Britons were turning in for the night, the member for Pontypool was warming up. Leo Abse (pronounced Ab-zee) had been working the tea rooms of the House of Commons all day, charming and cajoling his fellow MPs in his rococo tones—a little flattery here, a white lie there. Now he slipped into the chamber, turning heads as always in spite of his short frame. Settling in his usual perch on the Labour government’s benches, his mischievous eyes darted about the place, searching out both his “stout fellows” and his foes. If his bill were ever to get through, tonight was surely the night.
His bill, printed on the green pages each MP clutched, was plain enough: that, in England and Wales, “a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years”
Abse what a colourful character in all sorts of ways. His WikiP entry gives you some flavour. His second marriage was to Ania Czepulkowska, in 2000, when Abse was 83, and she fifty years younger. A bust of him was unveiled in 2009 at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, but his nomination for a seat in the House of Lords had been vetoed by Margaret Thatcher. What would you expect?
Capitalism on the way up, and socialism on the way down is cronyism.
“I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.”
John Maynard Keynes, 1917, in a letter to Duncan Grant.
The above quote via John Naughton who commented
I wonder how many officials in the US and UK governments currently feel the same way.
From this week’s Economist | Breaking through
Yet nowhere too little capital is being channelled into innovation. Spending on R&D has three main sources: venture capital, governments and energy companies. Their combined annual investment into technology and innovative companies focused on the climate is over $80bn. For comparison, that is a bit more than twice the R&D spending of a single tech firm, Amazon.
Market and state failure may go together. Which brings me back to Stewart Brand’s idea of Pace Layering
Education is intellectual infrastructure. So is science. They have very high yield, but delayed payback. Hasty societies that can’t span those delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at infrastructural pace also lose out.
I won’t even mention COVID-19.
It remains overwhelmingly likely that Scotland will vote in September to remain part of the union. But it is also more likely that the UK is sleepwalking towards disintegration — not in this vote but in the next. Political leaders were wrong to think they would bind the UK together through devolution, and they are probably wrong to believe giving more power to Edinburgh will now have that effect. These moves only strengthen the sense of a distinct Scottish identity. They need instead to make being British something to be proud of.— John Kay writing in the FT in 2014…
Doesn’t look good, does it?
‘Statisticians have already overrun every branch of science with a rapidity of conquest rivalled only by Attila, Mohammed, and the Colorado beetle’
Maurice Kendall (1942): On the future of statistics. JRSA 105; 69-80.
Yes, that Maurice Kendall.
It seems to me that when it comes to statistics — and the powerful role of statistics in understanding both the natural and the unnatural world — that the old guys thought harder and deeper, understanding the world better than many of their more vocal successors. And that is without mentioning the barking of the medic-would-be-statistician brigade.
“Like the rest of the leadership of the ANC, he was blindsided by the collapse of socialism worldwide; the party had no philosophical resistance to put up against a new, predatory economic rationalism. Mandela’s personal and political authority had its basis in his principled defense of armed resistance to apartheid and in the harsh punishment he suffered for that resistance. It was given further backbone by his aristocratic mien, which was not without a gracious common touch, and his old-fashioned education, which held before him Victorian ideals of personal integrity and devotion to public service…
… He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.”
On that day in 1981 when he first sat at the pinnacle of British journalism, the editor’s desk at the Times, and wrote his first policy editorial, Harold Evans heard Abraham Lincoln’s voice in his ear. In 1861 the president had said he knew of nothing more powerful than the Times, “except perhaps the Mississippi”.
Another wonderful obituary in the Economics — this one about a great man, whose life was changed by an evil one whom to this day continues to be dirt on humanity.
I think1 the words are mine:
Every time I hear the term line-manager used about an academic, retirement gets a day closer
But the great JK Galbraith (senior) had some words of his own on line-management (Galbraith, a famous Harvard Professor of Economics, was ambassador to India for JFK)
Galbraith proved up to the task, in part, as Bruce Riedel writes in “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis”, because he had access to the president and his aides. Most ambassadors report to the State Department, but the blunt Galbraith told the president that going through those channels was “like trying to fornicate through a mattress”.
A year ago, “TT [tenure track] or bust” was a common but ill-advised attitude toward the job market. That attitude should be unthinkable today. COVID-19 is an accelerant to a fire in academia that has been raging for at least a decade. When that fire is finally extinguished, the landscape of higher education will be unrecognizable at best and decimated at worst.
Think of it alongside a quote from Stephen Downes:
Educational providers will one day face an overnight crisis that was 20 years in the making. Link
After he had been dismissed from government, and implicated in the anti-Medici conspiracy, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, before returning to the family farm. But his passions ran deep.
…Machiavelli was unable to turn his mind from politics. ‘I could not help but fill your head with castles in the air,’ he wrote to Vettori in 1513, ‘because since Fortune has seen to it that I do not know how to talk about either the silk or wool trade, profits or losses, I have to talk about politics.’ He spent the days chewing the fat with woodcutters on the farm and playing cricca in the tavern. But in the evening, he told Vettori,
I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable court of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them … and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that: no one understands anything unless he retains [it], I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus. [emphasis added]
I cannot see the future, but like many, I have private models that I use to order the world, and for which I often have very little data. For instance, I think it obvious that the traditional middle-class professions (medicine, lay, veterinary medicine, architecture, dentistry, academia) are increasingly unattractive as careers1. I am not complaining about my choices — far from it; I benefited on the tailwinds of the dramatic social change that wars and other calamities bring. But my take on what has happened to school teachers and teaching is the model for what will happen to many others. I say this with no pleasure: there are few jobs more important. But the tragedy of schoolteaching — which is our tragedy — will continue to unfold as successive gangs of politicians of either armed with nothing more than some borrowed bullet points play to the gallery. Similarly, in higher education within a timescale of almost 40 years, I have seen at first-hand changes that would make me argue that not only are the days of Donnish Dominion(to use Halsey’s phrase2) well and truly over, but that most UK universities will be unable to recruit the brightest to their cause. I think we see that in clinical academia already — and not just in the UK. Amidst all those shiny new buildings moulded for student experience (and don’t forget the wellness centres…); the ennui of corporate mediocrity beckons. The bottom line is the mission statement.
As for medicine, a few quotes below from an FT article from late last year. I assume that without revolutionary change, we will see more and more medical students, and more and more doctors leaving mid-career. If you keep running to stand still, the motivation goes. And that is without all the non-COVID-19 effects of COVID-19.
One of the major factors for doctors is the electronic record system. It takes a physician 15 clicks to order a flu shot for a patient, says Tait. And instead of addressing this problem, healthcare companies end up offering physicians mindfulness sessions and healthy food options in the cafeteria, which only frustrates them further…[emphasis added]
Over the past few years, efforts have been made to increase the number of medical schools in the US to ensure that there is no shortage of doctors. “When you think about how much we’ve invested to create, roughly, 10 to 12 new medical schools in the last decade, at hundreds of millions of dollars per school, just to increase the pipeline of physicians being trained, we also need to think at the far end of the physicians who are leaving medicine because of burnout,” says Sinsky.
Take the case of a final-year resident doctor in New York, who spends a considerable part of his shift negotiating with insurance companies to justify why his patient needs the medicines he prescribed. “When I signed up to be a doctor, the goal was to treat patients, not negotiate with insurance providers,” he says.
According to Tait, 80 per cent of the challenge faced by doctors is down to the organisation where they work, and only 20 per cent could be attributed to personal resilience.
Re the final quote, 80:20 is being generous to the organisations.
Many years ago I was expressing exasperation at what I took to be the layers and layers of foolishness that meant that others couldn’t see the obvious — as defined by yours truly, of course. Did all those wise people in the year 2000 think that gene therapy for cancer was just around the corner, or that advance in genetics was synonymous with advance in medicine, or that the study of complex genetics would, by the force of some inchoate logic, lead to cures for psoriasis and eczema. How could any society function when so many of its parts were just free-riding on error, I asked? Worse still, these intellectual zombies starved the new young shoots of the necessary light of reason. How indeed!
William Bains, he of what I still think of as one of the most beautiful papers I have ever read1, put me right. William understood the world much better than me — or at least he understood the world I was blindly walking into, much better. He explained to me that it was quite possible to make money (both ‘real’ or in terms of ‘professional wealth’) out of ideas that you believed to be wrong as long as two linked conditions were met. First, do not tell other people you believe them to be wrong. On the contrary, talk about them as the next new thing. Second, find others who are behind the curve, and who were willing to buy from you at a price greater than you paid (technical term: fools). At the time, I did not even understand how pensions worked. Finally, William chided me for my sketchy knowledge of biology: he reminded me that in many ecosystems parasites account for much, if not most, of the biomass. He was right; and although my intellectual tastes have changed, the sermon still echoes.
The reason is that corporate tax burdens vary widely depending on where those profits are officially earned. These variations have been exploited by creative problem-solvers at accountancy firms and within large corporations. People who in previous eras might have written symphonies or designed cathedrals have instead saved companies hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting trillions of dollars of intangible assets across the world over the past two decades. One consequence is that many companies avoid paying any tax on their foreign sales. Another is that many countries’ trade figures are now unusable. [emphasis added].
Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International by Matthew C. Klein, & Michael Pettis.
But after completing medical training, Sacks fled the homophobic confines of his nation and family—his mother had called him “an abomination.” Paul Theroux tells Burns that Sacks’s “great luck” was ending up in Los Angeles in 1960, where he found ample “guys, weights, drugs, and hospitals.”
Advance requires those who can imagine new spaces, and medicine is even more hostile today than it was all those years ago. We pretend otherwise, thinking those tick-box courses will suffice, but real diversity of intellect is the touchstone of our future.
I read Malcolm Bradbury’s satire The History Man many decades ago and loved it as a satire on university life (and which demonstrated to me why medical schools and universities were unlikely bedfellows).
The History Man is Malcolm Bradbury’s masterpiece, the definitive campus novel and one of the most influential novels of the 1970s. Funny, disconcerting and provocative, Bradbury brilliantly satirizes a world of academic power struggles as his anti-hero seduces his away around campus. (Amazon’s brief).
I have forgotten much of the detail, but not how fine a novel I thought it was, nor how funny I found it. But for every great thesis, there is an antithesis. Here is one:
Ignorance of history is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley. “The only thing that matters is the future,” self-driving-car engineer Anthony Levandowski told The New Yorker in 2018… I don’t even know why we study history,” Levandowski said in 2018.
I know which past — and future — I would prefer.
Nice article in the Economist on how our ideas about speciation have been revised and updated. And not just for those animals but for humans too. In their words:
To be human, then, is to be a multispecies mongrel.
My experience is limited, but everything I know suggests that much IT in healthcare diminishes medical care. It may serve certain administrative functions (who is attending what clinic and when etc), and, of course, there are certain particular use cases — such as repeat prescription control in primary care — but as a tool to support the active process of managing patients and improving medical decision making, healthcare has no Photoshop.
In the US it is said that an ER physician will click their mouse over 4000 times per shift, with frustration with IT being a major cause of physician burnout. Published data show that the ratio of patient-facing time to admin time has halved since the introduction of electronic medical records (i.e things are getting less efficient). We suffer slower and worse care: research shows that once you put a computer in the room eye contact between patient and physician drops by 20-30%. This is to ignore the crazy extremes: like the hospital that created PDFs of the old legacy paper notes, but then — wait for it — ordered them online not as a time-sequential series but randomly, expecting the doc to search each one. A new meaning for the term RAM.
There are many proximate reasons for this mess. There is little competition in the industry and a high degree of lock-in because of a failure to use open standards. Then there is the old AT&T problem of not allowing users to adapt and extend the software (AT&T famously refused to allow users to add answering machines to their handsets). But the ultimate causes are that reducing admin and support staff salaries is viewed as more important than allowing patients meaningful time with their doctor; and that those purchasing IT have no sympathy or insight into how doctors work.
As far as UI is concerned — I think this is what personal/interactive computing is about, and so I always start with how the synergies between the human and the system would go best. And this includes inventing/designing a programming language or any other kind of facility. i.e. the first word in “Personal Computing” is “Person”. Then I work my way back through everything that is needed, until I get to the power supply. Trying to tack on a UI to “something functional” pretty much doesn’t work well — it shares this with another prime mistake so many computer people make: trying to tack on security after the fact …[emphasis added]
I will say that I lost every large issue on which I had a firm opinion.
The following is from Scot Galloway at NYU Stern. He shoots from the hip, and sometimes only thinks afterwards. But he is interesting, brave, and more often right than most. I think I would have hated what he said when I was ready (sic) to go to university. But now, I think I wasn’t, and for medicine in particular, allowing 17 year olds to fall into the clutches of the GMC and their ilk should be a crime against….
Gap years should be the norm, not the exception. An increasingly ugly secret of campus life is that a mix of helicopter parenting and social media has rendered many 18-year-olds unfit for college. Parents drop them off at school, where university administrators have become mental health counselors. The structure of the Corona Corps would give kids (and let’s be honest, they are still kids) a chance to marinate and mature. The data supports this. 90% of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate, with better grades. The Corps should be an option for non-college-bound youth as well.
“We’re going through a Copernican revolution of healthcare, where the patient is going to be at the centre. The gateway to healthcare is not going to be the physician. It’s going to be the smartphone.”…
“Christofer Toumazou, chief scientist at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, says there are “megabucks” to be saved by using technology and data to shift the focus of healthcare towards prevention.”
Ahem. I have been reading Seamus O’Mahony’s excellent Can Medicine be Cured in which he does a great job of following up on the crazy hype of big genetics from 20 year ago (and many other areas of sales masquerading as science). The above quotes are from only seven years ago. Still crazy after all these years, sings Paul Simon. Health care excels at adding tech as a new layer of complexity rather than replacing existing actors. And when will people start realising that prevention — which may indeed reduce suffering — will often increase costs. Life is a race against an army of exponential functions.
In the FT
The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue. The future is big with every possibility of achievement and of tragedy.
Nobody then would have imagined how bad it would get. The final word was prescient.
Alfred North Whitehead, The Aim of Philosophy in Modes of Thought, 1938
Alas, there will no more new ones of these, as arguably the greatest of modern biology’s experimentalists, Sydney Brenner, passed away last year. One of his earlier quotes — the source I cannot find at hand — was that it is important in science to be out of phase. You can be ahead of the curve of fashion or possibly, better still, be behind it. But stay out of phase. So, no apologies for being behind the curve on these ones which I have just come across.
Sydney Brenner remarked in 2008, “We don’t have to look for a model organism anymore. Because we are the model organisms.”
Sydney Brenner has said that systems biology is “low input, high throughput, no output” biology.
Image source and credits via WikiCommons