Its madness…

by reestheskin on 12/05/2022

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Its madness…

Former US mental-health tsar calls for a care overhaul

A kidnapper holds a psychiatrist and a cardiologist hostage. He pledges to release the one who has done most for humanity — and shoot the other. The cardiologist explains that drugs and procedures in her field have saved millions of lives. The psychiatrist begins ruminatively: “The thing is … the brain is the most complicated organ in the body.” “I can’t listen to this again,” says the cardiologist. “Shoot me now.”

This is one of the jokes that Thomas Insel, former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), scatters through early chapters of Healing, his probing analysis of what has gone so wrong with the treatment of people with mental illness in the United States.

Another telling quote

US prisons hold ten times as many people with severe mental illness as do state psychiatric hospitals.

And you thought it was just the Russians who spoke like this?

Augar response: ‘highest earners benefit’ in student loan revamp | Times Higher Education (THE)

The DfE also said ministers would be announcing “almost £900 million of new investment in our fantastic HE system over the next three years”, including “£300 million of recurrent funding and a total of £450 million in capital funding over the next three years to support high quality teaching and new state of the art facilities, which we will ask the Office for Students (OfS) to distribute through the Strategic Priorities Grant (SPG).

“This funding will be used to drive up provision that the nation needs, including science and engineering courses, courses to support the NHS, and shorter degree alternatives focused on developing the right skills for our dynamic economy. [emphases mine]


Life force

Edward O. Wilson (1929–2021)

“Oh, to be 80 again!”

A comment from just a few years back.

Edward Osborne Wilson, who wrote extensively on ants and popularized the field of sociobiology, died on 26 December 2021 at age 92.

The poverty of learning

Homeschooling has revealed the absurdity of England’s national curriculum – Prospect Magazine

Part of the problem is that “knowledge” has been incorrectly defined as “grammatical concepts.” Children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce tells me he has done readings in primary schools where the teacher says afterwards: “Now class, let’s identify the wow words, connectives and metaphors that Frank is using here.” This is not the fault of teachers: “I see amazing work all the time,” he says, “but it’s in the teeth of what they’re asked to do—they’re having to gouge moments out of the day and twist the curriculum to be able to do it.”

Cottrell-Boyce believes the value of listening to stories is being missed. “It’s a strange thing for a writer to say,” he tells me, “but I think we really overvalue writing”. A lot of the writing that’s done in the classroom is to create some physical entity that can be assessed. It has no intrinsic value apart from the testing—and kids know that.” [emphasis added]

I was just going to say: some people seem to hate children — and it is not the teachers. But it is more than that: some people just seem to hate the idea of childhood.

The thing to be known grows with the knowing

A climber’s story evokes classic mountaineering literature | The Economist

Though most celebrated mountaineers have been men, many of the best books about climbing are by women. Ms Fleming pays tribute to perhaps the greatest of all mountain writers, Nan Shepherd, the Scottish author of “The Living Mountain” (written in the 1940s but not published until 1977). Part memoir, part Buddhism-inflected meditation, Shepherd’s work influences both Ms Fleming’s prose and her approach to mountain life. “The thing to be known grows with the knowing,” Shepherd thought, a conviction reflected in Ms Fleming’s attitude to the mountains she scales. “We shape the rock,” she says, and “the rock shapes us”. [emphasis added]

A motto not to be confused with learning outcomes.

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

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.”

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 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.

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.

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.

Do we still need medical schools?

by reestheskin on 20/05/2021

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An article available online today in the Times Higher. The answer of course is:

Yes, but not as we know it, Jim.

The Times Higher has a good summary of what I am trying to get across.

Does the UK need a radical shake-up of its medical schools? asks Jonathan Rees, emeritus professor of dermatology at the University of Edinburgh. Currently, they have three roles, which pull them in different directions: educating students, providing clinical leadership, and conducting academic research. But medical researchers are drifting away from treating real patients, or even lecturing to students, to pursue the pure research that best serves their careers – and the league table positions of their universities. Medical schools should focus on teaching “foundational knowledge and intellectual skills” for three years, but then medics should complete their training as full employees, Rees argues.


by reestheskin on 10/05/2021

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Follow the Link that is here

xkcd is here

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

Red, white and blue

by reestheskin on 18/02/2021

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A graph

by reestheskin on 10/02/2021

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That was then and this is now

by reestheskin on 05/02/2021

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This is a slide from a John Kay talk. It is a few years old but the message resonates more than ever.

Life on the margins

There are two gangs of people you tend to see loitering in or close to hospitals. Groups of smokers (staff or patients) trying to find a safe-space close to, but outwith, the official perimeter. And medical students, forlornly waiting for the teacher to arrive.

Writers start early:

by reestheskin on 04/02/2021

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Richard Flanagan: ‘Art was something that happened elsewhere’ | Financial Times

No, this is not the advice about getting 500 words in by sunrise, but rather a fun Lunch with the FT column.

FT: By the time I sit down with Richard Flanagan, he is armed with a glass of champagne. Technically speaking, it is a sparkling white wine from a vineyard in Tasmania, the remote Australian island state that the Booker Prize-winning novelist has lived in for all but three and a bit years of his life. Everyone calls it champagne in Australia but either way, Flanagan is not just drinking it but knocking back hefty swigs of the stuff.

“I’ve also got an Armagnac, just to help me along,” he says.

FT: I laugh uncertainly. Each to his own and all that, but it is barely 7 o’clock in the morning in Hobart and I had been expecting to see him with at least a slice of toast.

Whether it is the booze or not, Oxford doesn’t come out of it too well.

“Well,” he says, staring into the distance for so long that I think my screen must have frozen. “What can I say?” he eventually says, 28 long seconds later. “I found it a place of sublime emptiness.” 

FT: He was, he says, surrounded by people from whom he felt utterly alienated. One don told him Australia had no culture. Another routinely addressed him as “Convict”. The whole place left him cold.

“These were people who thought women were slime. These were people who thought black people were apes. These were people who didn’t think they were the master race, they knew it.” Another pause. “I went from a universe of wonder to a storied place and I discovered to my astonishment it was small,” he says. “Oxford above all else is a bit dull.”

On his books not been viewed favourably closer to home, in Australia, and his decision to not enter them for the Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s oldest and most important literary prizes.

“I just decided I wouldn’t enter it any more,” he says quietly. “Prizes need writers but writers don’t need prizes.” [emphasis added]

Winnowing XXMMI

by reestheskin on 19/01/2021

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The crisis within Britain’s care system | Financial Times

From a review of Madeleine Bunting’s Labour of Love in the FT.

Bunting deplores the marketisation of care, in which looking after others is reduced to a commodity requiring specific outputs. (I was reminded of the nurse who, within minutes of my mother’s death, handed us a feedback form on which we were apparently to rate her handling of my mother’s closing moments.)

On Human Remains and NHS management

The Economist | Straight talking

Other changes are required to end the gobbledygook that plagued the previous regime. We will no longer have a “human resources” department: our employees are people, not resources. That section has been renamed personnel.

A few years back I read how the hospital I worked in considered FY1 doctors ward resources. They would not work for and learn from a particular group of more senior doctors (this after all is supposed to be an apprentice system) but be a generic utility for whatever patients were placed on that ward. At once, all we know about learning, security and safety was thrown out the window. As one of my colleagues told me, based on his experience of having to treat a senior hospital manager, many know next to nothing of how medicine works. This form of competence inversion is known as Putt’s law.

Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat

“Technology is dominated by two types of people, those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.” Putt’s Corollary: “Every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion.” with incompetence being “flushed out of the lower levels” of a technocratic hierarchy, ensuring that technically competent people remain directly in charge of the actual technology while those without technical competence move into management…”


The Economist | The wisdom of Scrooge

The Christmas Economist was in fine form — at least, better than the state the UK finds itself in.

Today almost everything is the opposite of what it pretends to be. Companies claim that they are devoted to advancing gay rights, promoting multiculturalism or uniting the world in a Kumbaya sing-along, when they are in fact singlemindedly maximising profits. Chief executives claim that they are ever-so-humble “team leaders”—in homage to another great Dickens invention, the unctuous Uriah Heep—when they are actually creaming off an unprecedented share of corporate cash. Private schools such as Eton claim that they are in the business of promoting “diversity” and “inclusivity” even as they charge £42,000 a year. Future historians seeking to sum up our era may well call it “the age of humbug”…


Whether the purveyors of this sanctimonious guff actually believe it, or whether it is cynical doublespeak, is immaterial. Either way, spin doctors, sycophants and so-called thought leaders pump noxious quantities of it into the atmosphere. The nation is in desperate need of a modern-day Dickens to clear the air. Until one emerges, Britons should repeat his great creation’s Christmas mantra in every season: “Bah, humbug!”

Going back to the future

by reestheskin on 13/08/2020

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“Harvard sees me as a dollar sign, and not a person,” wrote one student on a petition currently circulating. The university did not respond to requests to comment. (link)

“With a significantly reduced value proposition, you should not be surprised that people will ask for lower fees,” said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD. “In the long run, the unbundling of educational content, delivery and accreditation through digitalisation will make that inevitable anyway.”

I am no fan of much of what Andreas Schleicher says about education, and the above views have been circulating since at least the mid-1990s. I have been sceptical, and would add many caveats. Now I think I may have been too cautious, and have underestimated how fast the political landscape may change. If he and others turn out to be right, the traditional universities have only themselves to blame. The lower piece of bread of the educational sandwich may well be swallowed whole, but much of the filling is going to go, too. For the record, at least with respect to medicine and some other professional domains, the unbundling existed in the past, and it is not hard to reimagine how things could change back. Possibly for the better, even without the emetic that is Covid.

US universities under pressure to cut fees because of remote learning | Financial Times