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What money can’t buy

by reestheskin on 13/05/2020

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But, as R.H. Tawney once observed, shifts to collective provision are only realised after demonstrations that ‘high individual incomes will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus and ignorance’: many elements of the coming future ought to be favourable to the left, though only if they are shaped politically, and if blame – always elusive in the UK’s diffuse system of responsibility – is correctly apportioned.

James Butler · Follow the Science · LRB 4 April 2020

I’ll Drink to That

by reestheskin on 08/05/2020

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The value of wine exchanged yearly between consumers, connoisseurs and collectors—the secondary market—has quadrupled to $4bn since 2000, says Justin Gibbs of Liv-ex, a wine-trading platform. He reckons that just 15% of those buying wine on his website are doing so to drink it. The rest see it as a store of value.

Amateur buyers of fine Burgundy fear a speculative bubble – Smoking barrels

Annoying, isn’t it? But we all tend to a naive idea of value. Especially when we think about pricing drugs.

Just so.

by reestheskin on 07/05/2020

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As a human being, and a citizen of this country, I deplore almost everything that’s going on in public life,” Mr Herron says. “As a novelist with a bent towards the satirical, it’s a gift.

Mick Herron quoted in the Economist.

Mick Herron’s novels are a satirical chronicle of modern Britain – Spy fiction

Cito, longe, tarde.

by reestheskin on 28/04/2020

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Cito, longe, tarde.

(Leave quickly. Go far away. Come back slowly.)

Faced with a highly contagious, lethal disease for which there is no known cure, President Donald Trump has ignored that timeless advice.

Instead, like a medieval demagogue, Trump is spouting quackery and hatred straight out of the 14th century, when panicked Europeans confronting the Black Death strapped live chickens to their bodies, drank potions tinged with mercury and arsenic, and blamed the Mongols and the Jews when none of it worked.

Covid-19 Highlights Trump‘s Malignant Narcissism

Covid-19

I want to come out of this better than when I started.

A cliché, but one of the best guides to living through covid-19. From the Cortex podcast with Myke Hurley and CGP Grey.

(If you use Overcast, the direct link is here).

Please, no…

Feel in need of a “mental health day” right now (or what we used to call “a break”)? We certainly do.

FT Moral money 8 April 2020

Twenty year of schooling…day shift

by reestheskin on 14/04/2020

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The millennial generation — the first to have lived entirely inside the mature meritocracy — appreciates these burdens most keenly. Elite millennials can be precious and fragile, but not in the manner of the special snowflakes that derisive polemics describe. They do not melt or wilt at every challenge to their privilege, so much as shatter under the intense competitive pressures to achieve that dominate their lives. They are neither dissolute not decadent, but rather tense and exhausted.

The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits.

(“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift – look out out kid, they keep it all hid”, Bob Dylan)

Leviathan redux

by reestheskin on 09/04/2020

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I have been reading the ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Micheal Lewis. It is a book for out time, telling many stories about how competent governments can be. Or not, as is increasingly the case in many modern states. We can blame a group of ideologues for our current crisis. A quote about the book by Cory Doctorow (in the frontispiece) strikes the right tone. The book he says is:

‘A hymn to the “deep state,” which is revealed as nothing more than people who know what they’re talking about’

Five year plans

by reestheskin on 02/04/2020

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Bruce Charlton pointed me to this entry in Wikipedia on Seymour Cray

“One story has it that when Cray was asked by management to provide detailed one-year and five-year plans for his next machine, he simply wrote, “Five-year goal: Build the biggest computer in the world. One year goal: One-fifth of the above.” And another time, when expected to write a multi-page detailed status report for the company executives, Cray’s two sentence report read: “Activity is progressing satisfactorily as outlined under the June plan. There have been no significant changes or deviations from the June plan.”

Which brings to mind Sydney Brenner’s comments that eventually requests for research grant funding will eventually resemble flow diagrams recording who reports to who.

On the hazards of a good methodology

by reestheskin on 24/03/2020

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Alfred North Whitehead: “Some of the major disasters of mankind have been produced by the narrowness of men with a good methodology” (The Function of Reason).

Comments that seem germane to some of our current day covid-19 debates.

Only now do I get it.

by reestheskin on 20/03/2020

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Michael Chabon writing in the NYRB:

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

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

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

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

I wish I had said that

In discussing some aspects of Higher Education, Dennis Tourish writes:

On all sides, it seems that long-term loyalty is an idea without a long-term future.

Throwing woks

by reestheskin on 03/03/2020

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Nice article in the LRB by Wang Xiuying, ‘The Word from Wuhan’.

(Throwing woks: when everyone denies all responsibility and tries to shift the blame back onto the blamer, they are busy ‘throwing woks’).

Throwing woks is an art you need to understand if you want to get things done in China. Whether you’re building an airport, applying for a research grant or inviting a foreign national to give a talk, you have to fill in so many forms, and get approval from so many departments with all their competing demands, that you risk getting trapped somewhere in the middle: whichever way you turn you risk causing upset or offence in one quarter or another. In the workplace too, a step in the wrong direction can provoke a superior and ruin a career, so that sometimes it’s wisest to do nothing at all. Until a virus strikes, that is.

With couples confined together 24/7, ordinary marital friction soon escalates into all-out war. Domestic servants, often migrants, who went out of town over the Chinese New Year, have been unable to return to work – but someone still has to do the household chores. Men slump on the sofa playing video games or hide behind a laptop pretending to work, while still expecting three meals a day and fresh laundry. A joke went around:

Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together! I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?

Lawyer: 14 days … hmmmm … Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.

If not now, when?

by reestheskin on 12/02/2020

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I have lots of thoughts about why and when I retired (from paid employment). And I do not feel able to dismiss them, nor not introspect on them. The following is a from the ‘The Daily Stoic’ (a retirement gift from Caroline M). Apposite.

Is this the life I really want? Every time you get upset, a little bit of life leaves the body. Are these really the things on which you want to spend that precious resource? Don’t be afraid to make a change – a big one.

Before reproducibility must come preproducibility

by reestheskin on 10/02/2020

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This is an article by Philip Stark in Nature published awhile back. I like it.

In 1992, philosopher Karl Popper wrote: “Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification — the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit.” What may be omitted depends on the discipline.

You can say this another way: all experiments do violence to the natural world. We always want to cleave at the joints. But doing so may lead to error.

In 1992, philosopher Karl Popper wrote: “Science may be described as the art of systematic oversimplification — the art of discerning what we may with advantage omit.” What may be omitted depends on the discipline. Results that generalize to all universes (or perhaps do not even require a universe) are part of mathematics. Results that generalize to our Universe belong to physics. Results that generalize to all life on Earth underpin molecular biology. Results that generalize to all mice are murine biology. And results that hold only for a particular mouse in a particular lab in a particular experiment are arguably not science.

Science should be ‘show me’, not ‘trust me’; it should be ‘help me if you can’, not ‘catch me if you can’. If I publish an advertisement for my work (that is, a paper long on results but short on methods) and it’s wrong, that makes me untrustworthy. If I say: “here’s my work” and it’s wrong, I might have erred, but at least I am honest.

In medicine we have particular problems. Repeating experiments in model organisms is often possible whereas in man things are much harder. There is an awful lot of published medical research that is not a reliable guide to action.

Before reproducibility must come preproducibility

On one word after another

by reestheskin on 28/01/2020

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Well, I doubt if any readers of these scribblings will be shocked. After all TIJABP. But this piece by the editor of PNAS wonders if the day of meaningful editing is over. I hope not. Looking backwards over my several hundred papers, the American Journal of Human Genetics was the most rigorous and did the most to improve our manuscript.

On a subject no one wants to read about (about which no one wants to read?) | PNAS

“Communication” remains in the vocabulary of scientific publishing—for example, as a category of manuscript (“Rapid Communications”) and as an element of a journal name (Nature Communications)—not as a vestigial remnant but as a vital part of the enterprise. The goal of communicating effectively is also why grammar, with its arcane, baffling, or even irritating “rules,” continues to matter. With the rise of digital publishing, attendant demands for economy and immediacy have diminished the role of copyeditor. The demands are particularly acute in journalism. As The New York Times editorial board member Lawrence Downs (4) lamented, “…in that world of the perpetual present tense—post it now, fix it later, update constantly—old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury…. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.” Scientific publishing is catching up to journalism in this regard.

We are not of this world

This is from Larry Page of Google (quoted in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” by Shoshana Zuboff)

CEO Page surprised a convocation of developers in 2013 by responding to questions from the audience, commenting on the “negativity” that hampered the firm’s freedom to “build really great things” and create “interoperable” technologies with other companies: “Old institutions like the law and so on aren’t keeping up with the rate of change that we’ve caused through technology. . . . The laws when we went public were 50 years old. A law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old, like it’s before the internet.” When asked his thoughts on how to limit “negativity” and increase “positivity,” Page reflected, “Maybe we should set aside a small part of the world . . . as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world.

As for his comments on safe spaces, I agree. There are plenty of empty planets left.

I wish I had said that..

A comment on an article:

With reference to Janan Ganesh’s column (“What the US lost when the Berlin Wall fell”, November 7). This is such a clever line.

“It is as though hatred obeys the first law of thermodynamics. Like energy, it can be transferred but never destroyed.

This apropos the US right’s shifting from the Soviet Union to immigration and climate. I’m trying to figure out how to work it into my own stuff. Full credit, of course.

Link

Term of the day

Negative egalitarianism (also known as jealousy)

Richard Gombrich

We need a science of the night

by reestheskin on 03/01/2020

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One-third of everyone employed in London, 1.6 million people, work at night.

In 2018, at least 8,855 people slept rough on the streets of London, a 140% increase over the past decade, with similar trends globally.

We need a science of the night

Finnish lessons

by reestheskin on 19/12/2019

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No, not Pasi Salberg, but cognate.

But idealists now have another international beacon of social mobility: long live the Finnish dream, in which a 34-year-old woman who once worked in a shop can become prime minister.

“I am extremely proud of Finland. Here a poor family’s child can educate themselves and achieve their goals in life. A cashier can become even a prime minister,” tweeted Sanna Marin

Meanwhile back in the UK as the FT rightly comments:

..egregious examples of rigging the game endure: on being rejected by the voters, Zac Goldsmith is to be elevated to the House of Lords, from where he will carry on as a minister in the government of Boris Johnson, also an Etonian from a high-profile family.

Looking in envy at Finland’s social mobility pin-up PM | Financial Times

On not being the Queen of Sciences

by reestheskin on 16/12/2019

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“If biology is difficult, it is because of the bewildering number and variety of things one must hold in one’s head”.
John Maynard Smith (1977).

Leo Szilard recalled, that when he did physics he could lounge in the bath for hours and hours, just thinking. Once he moved into biology things were never the same: he was always having to get out to check some annoying fact. Dermatology is worse, trust me.

Even the human world is queerer than I can imagine

The world is indeed very strange and common sense not much of a guide. Facts, my dear boy, facts…

link

Fiction, apparently.

“…what he read was clear proof of an Anglo-American covert operation already in the planning stage with the dual aim of undermining the social democratic institutions of the European Union and dismantling our international trading tariffs…In the post-Brexit era Britain will be desperate for increased trade with America. America will accommodate Britain’s needs, but only on terms. One such term will be a joint covert operation to obtain by persuasion — bribery and blackmail not excluded — officials, parliamentarians and opinionmakers of the European Establishment. Also to disseminate fake news on a large scale in order to aggravate existing differences between member states of the Union”

Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré

Knowing more than we can see

by reestheskin on 05/12/2019

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I spent near on ten years thinking about automated skin cancer detection. There are various approaches you might use — cyborg human/machine hybrids were my personal favourite — but we settled on more standard machine learning approaches. Conceptually what you need is straightforward: data to learn from, and ways to lever the historical data to the future examples. The following quote is apposite.

One is that, for all the advances in machine learning, machines are still not very good at learning. Most humans need a few dozen hours to master driving. Waymo’s cars have had over 10m miles of practice, and still fall short. And once humans have learned to drive, even on the easy streets of Phoenix, they can, with a little effort, apply that knowledge anywhere, rapidly learning to adapt their skills to rush-hour Bangkok or a gravel-track in rural Greece.

Driverless cars are stuck in a jam – Autonomous vehicles

You see exactly the same thing with skin cancer. With a relatively small number of examples, you can train (human) novices to be much better than most doctors. By contrast, with the machines you need literally hundreds and thousands of examples. Even when you start with large databases, as you parse the diagnostic groups, you quickly find out that for many ‘types’ you have only a few examples to learn from. The rate limiting factor becomes acquiring mega-databases cheaply. The best way to do this is to change data acquisition from a ‘research task’ to a matter of grabbing data that was collected routinely for other purposes (there is a lot of money in digital waste — ask Google).

Noam Chomsky had a few statements germane to this and much else that gets in the way of such goals (1).

Plato’s problem: How can we know so much when the evidence is do slight.

Orwell’s problem: How do we remain so ignorant when the evidence is so overwhelming.

(1): Noam Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, Cambridge University Press, (1999). Neil Smith.

Books

We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as stars in the sky. Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.

Best Sellers by the Bargeload | by Robert Darnton | The New York Review of Books

A job for life

In the essay “Telling,” he describes the upsetting case of the director of a hospital who, struck down by Alzheimer’s, is admitted to his own hospital. He behaves as if he were still running it, until one day by chance he picks up his own chart. “That’s me,” he says, recognizing his name on the cover. Inside, he reads “Alzheimer’s disease” and weeps. In the same hospital a former janitor is admitted; he too is convinced that he is still working there. He is given harmless tasks to perform; one day he dies of a sudden heart attack “without perhaps ever realising that he had been anything but a janitor with a lifetime of loyal work behind him.”

Truth, Beauty, and Oliver Sacks | by Simon Callow | The New York Review of Books

My mother, a nurse, took on such imagined roles when she too was demented and in a care home.

Writings from the margins

by reestheskin on 28/11/2019

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I was back in Dublin a few weeks ago for a family celebration. Then last night — on C4 I think— I was listening to an interview with Fintan O’Toole. Something stirred and below are two quotes from Brian Friel: the context may be Brexit, the reality is something much more.

As a character in Translations says, describing his own fading Gaelic world, “a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact”.

 

To remember everything is a form of madness,” warns one of Friel’s characters.

(1) Brexit, the UK and Ireland: a dialogue of the deaf | Financial Times

Dark matters.

by reestheskin on 21/11/2019

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Frank Davidoff had a telling phrase about clinical expertise. He likened it to “Dark Matter”. Dark Matter makes up most of the universe, but we know very little about it. In the clinical arena I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about ‘expertise’,  without developing any grand unifying themes of my own worth sharing. But we live in a world where ‘expertise’ in many domains is under assault, and I have no wise thoughts to pull together what is happening. I do however like (as ever) some nice phrases from Paul Graham. I can’t see any roadmap here just perspectives and shadows.

When experts are wrong, it’s often because they’re experts on an earlier version of the world.

any

Instead of trying to point yourself in the right direction, admit you have no idea what the right direction is, and try instead to be super sensitive to the winds of change.

How to Be an Expert in a Changing World

Bullshit (of the world-class variety)

by reestheskin on 12/11/2019

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Andrew Wathey its chairman [of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment] and vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said: “The UK delivers world-class education to students from all nations. It is therefore right that the sector commits to ensuring that the value of these world-class qualifications is maintained over time in line with the expectations of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.”

Universities agree more openness on degree marking guidelines | Financial Times

The language betrays all you need to know: spoken by somebody who clearly has no idea what UK higher education once stood for, or who has any sympathy or understanding of the academic ideal. Will the last person who leaves please turn off the ….