Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Let's talk about Heritage

Every reader of this blog knows that one of my favorite books is Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  Another favorite book is Albion's Seed.  Both of them have a lot to say about the Puritans.  The Puritans were arguably the most intellectual of America's founding cultures.  Their clergy were educated at Oxbridge, and their sermons were transcribed and distributed publicly for discussion.  There were meaningful parallels with the Jewish tradition of reading the Bible, reading the commentaries, and then discussing and debating the primary text and the commentaries.s

They were also among the most egalitarian Western societies of their era, in terms of their laws on marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance.  They fell far short of our modern standards, but they were ahead of their time, and helped to enable the progress that has been made since.  They did own slaves, but they owned fewer than other American sub-cultures and abolished it well ahead of others.

Since America is currently debating whether Nazis and Klansmen are bad, let me note that some of the most ardent abolitionists were New Englanders of Puritan heritage.  They marched to Kansas with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state.  Uncle Tom's Cabin, an abolitionist novel dripping with Biblical references, was written by a scion of the Puritans.  John Brown was of Puritan descent.  Though we typically think of New Englanders as less militaristic than Southerners, fire-breathing abolitionists of Puritan extraction eagerly matched the Confederate ardor for civil war.

So, you want to talk about Heritage?  Yeah, let's talk about Heritage.  Some of us trace our cultural influences to New England, and the people who crushed the Confederacy are our Heritage.  Some of us look at the Confederacy the way we look at Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Moral Syndromes and the Two Cultures

Although it's not possible to map perfectly from the Two Cultures of C.P. Snow to the Two Syndromes of Jane Jacobs (if it were then Jacobs' book would have a lower Kolmogorov Complexity, being equivalent to a couple essays by C.P. Snow), I think there are a lot of parallels.  In particular, I am inclined to say that just as the STEM culture maps roughly to the Commercial Syndrome (a point I argued yesterday), the arts and humanities map more or less to the Guardian Syndrome.

At first glance that may seem absurd:  Artists are often great critics of political power, and are often pacifist critics of Guardian activities like war.  Moreover, artists love to defy tradition.  Besides, isn't art often put to Commercial ends, and without the corruption that we see when Guardian and Commercial activities are blended?

The answer to all of those questions is "Of course."  You can't fit all of life into a single, simple framework.  At best, a framework can generate insights to place alongside other analyses.  And though artists are often critics of the establishment, the arts are heavily reliant on patronage.  That needn't be seen as a flaw or indicator of hypocrisy; dissent can be a constructive element of a society, even while existing within it.  Moreover, while an artist of today may break from tradition in many ways, when a person in the future wishes to study that artist it will be necessary to look at the context of this time, to see the artist in the context of the society that he/she was breaking from or critiquing.  The study of the arts and humanities can illuminate the present but it also requires a look backward.  That is not a bad thing, it is actually a source of strength.  The study of arts and humanities is an attempt to learn from tradition, even while challenging it.  If one wishes to learn from the Greeks and Romans one can and should draw on contemporary sources, but one cannot escape the need for primary sources.  That need for connection with the past is a mark of how the arts and humanities fit more closely with the Guardian Syndrome than with the Commercial Syndrome.

At this point some ardent defender of the liberal arts will probably feel a need to say that many people study humanities in college but go on to have great careers in the private sector.  Indeed.  All of teaching, even in STEM, is a heavily Guardian-based activity.  And even armies rely on commercial products.  Identifying a field of study with one Syndrome does not mean that the rest of society must look askance at it.  A healthy society draws heavily upon the best of both Syndromes, and even individuals may have experience in both types of activities.  Simultaneous mixing of activities in one organization is different from partaking of both in the course of a well-lived life.

Now, one big difference between Two Cultures and Two Syndromes is that mixing two Syndromes in areas with very tangible stakes for money and power can result in monstrosities (e.g. Marxism and the Mafia).  Mixing Two Cultures in academia, if done properly, can be quite positive.  I respect historians of science, scientists using their tools to help archaeologists or art historians, computational methods applied to linguistics, etc.  Of course, it can also be done to dangerous effect, either through "interdisciplinary" work that lacks a rigorous foundation on either side or through the false ecumenicalism of STEAM.   But then again, academia is (properly) different from the rest of the world, which is not the same as saying that we're completely immune to problems that could plague the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Systems of Survival, mid-way thoughts

I'm half-way through Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  She divides many activities into "Commercial" and "Guardian" activities, and the associated value systems into "Commercial" and "Guardian" moral syndromes.  (The word "syndrome" simply means "things that go together", not necessarily "illness.")  Commercial activities are fairly self-explanatory.  "Guardian" activities are not just the military and police actions of government, but many things in government, and many things reliant on patronage or largesse.  The arts and sports fall largely under "Guardian" values because traditionally they have enjoyed substantial patronage. Also, athletic competition was historically an activity of warrior castes biding time between wars. Yes, art has been made for commercial purposes, and yes, sports are an entertainment business, but the local Little League team usually relies on sponsorship from the community, and the revenue-generating college football teams subsidize the track team.

Now, Jacobs also notes that when people try to blend the syndromes bad things occur.  You get corruption when government and business mingle, you get inefficiency when government planners try to provide goods that the market could handle better, and you get the mafia when a family uses bonds of loyalty and threats of violence (Guardian traits) to take control of neighborhood businesses.  Interestingly, the mafia loves its ceremonies and symbolism as much as royalty does, and as much as armies love their dress uniforms and parades, while businesses tend to pay less attention to aesthetics (except in advertising and branding, or in response to specific consumer demands).  Moreover, the Mafia dispenses largesse to the poor and the Church, to bolster their image and command loyalty, just as governments do.

The problems of mixing Guardian and Commercial activities help us understand why sports teams (traditionally Guardian, though now Commercial) pressure city governments (Guardians) to build stadiums.  They help us understand why there's so much corruption in revenue-generating college sports.  Yes, yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there a Division III College Athletics Director is dealing with a pole-vault scandal, but it pales in comparison with the corruption in Division I football and basketball.  It also helps us understand why agricultural policy is always and everywhere a quagmire:  Agriculture is most efficient as a commercial enterprise but because it relies on control of land (historically a government activity) it is always entwined with politics in ways that go beyond ordinary corruption or misguided regulatory zeal:  The value and use of land goes to deep values of what it means to be a state.

Anyway, let's take this to the things that I care about: Science and academia.

Jacobs argues that science is largely in sync with the values of the Commercial Syndrome:  Honesty is the best policy (unlike the deception and secrecy required for many security functions, whether espionage or sting operations), innovation is more valuable than tradition, collaboration with outsiders is to be welcomed (scientists collaborate internationally, just as merchants have always done business across borders), at the same time competition is to be encouraged (hence we look for replication processes to weed out error), etc.  I agree with these points, but at first I disssented because basic science is so heavily subsidized.

However, I think I can nonetheless endorse her equating of science with the Commercial Syndrome for three reasons:
1) No analogy is perfect.  Yes, the funding source is more than just a tiny flaw in the analogy, but we shouldn't just ignore the fact that in a great many ways the values of science fall much better under the Commercial Syndrome than the Guardian Syndrome.

2) Plenty of science happens outside of state-subsidized labs.  To the extent that science happens under state subsidy the rationale is generally some mix of long-term benefits (states can afford risk-reward ratios that competitive businesses can't), the value of knowledge and education (Guardian-provided activities) or national security (Guardian activity).  This doesn't change the fact that most science graduates go out and work in the Commercial realm.

3) Education fads, which drive me up the wall, have been pushed into the scientific community in large part through the efforts of the National Science Foundation and its "Broader Impact" criterion for grants.  The purpose of Broader Impact is service to the wider society, not the efficient advancement of the specific project in play.  It is the yoking of a community adhering (mostly) to Commercial values into Guardian endeavors.  And it sucks, just as the mixing of the two Syndromes so often sucks.

Yes, yes, edufads get some scientific respectability lacquered onto them, but it's mostly BS.  Education, with its focus on tradition and respect for the authority figure, is Guardian all the way.  Universities have always been subsidized by largesse.  Education is as Guardian as it gets. It's practically a priesthood, and it's about inculcation of social values as much as the sharing of knowledge.  And that's great, within its proper scope and place.  The practice of science should be Commercial and the education of people should be Guardian.  Hence we make teaching and research separate criteria for performance evaluation, and hence we have separate physical space, separate funds, etc. for those activities.  Indeed, graduate school is about transitioning from one to the other.  To the extent that it's inefficient, well, what did you expect when you transition between realms?

And the priorities and motives driving edufads and Broader Impact are all about national competitiveness and the moral legitimacy of the social order.  That is a thoroughly Guardian pair of priorities.  Eminently defensible priorities, but a poor match for Commercial activity.

Academic scientists are not the only people who have to straddle worlds, and to the extent that we are attempting a hybrid activity we should expect scandal and inefficiency.  But not all Syndrome-straddling activities are like the Mafia.  Jacobs notes that lawyers have to straddle the Syndromes, working in private firms and generally in support of commercial interests (law is far more about property and contracts than it is about criminal trials) but interacting with the government.  To the extent that they do it well it is by clearly understanding which duties apply to which parts of the job and to what types of activities.  We would do well in academia to think about which duties apply to which parts of the job.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I don't have much to say about it, but this post from education policy blogger Robert Kelchen is well worth reading.  As long as education policy discussions are dominated by people who treat college as a given and state flagships as "backup" schools, we're doomed to insanity.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Next book: Systems of Survival

I couldn't bring myself to finish Hayek's Counter-Revolution in Science.  I got his point dozens pages ago, and he mostly went into tedious intellectual history after that.  Mind you, intellectual history can be fun, but he was zeroing in on individuals without saying anything terribly interesting or revealing.

After that I read some fiction and wrote some fiction.  Some of the fiction writing is still ongoing, but one story was submitted.  We'll see what happens.

The next non-fiction book that I'll blog here is Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  I actually read it several years ago, but it's worth re-reading.  She wrote it as a dialogue between several characters discussing the ethical ideas underpinning societal structures.  She contrasts commercial endeavors with "Guardian" institutions.  Obviously police and the military are guardian institutions, but so are all other government offices, as well as educational and artistic institutions dependent on patronage.  The concept of duty comes up a lot, and since I believe that a dilution of the concept of duty is one of the problems with American higher education, I think this book is worth re-reading.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

This article is so on fire that the nuclei in the screen displaying it are being fused to release more energy

Oh, snap!
Many teachers, educational administrators, and politicians/policy makers believe in the existence of yeti-like creatures populating present day schools namely digital natives and human multitaskers. As in the case of many fictional creatures, though there is no credible evidence supporting their existence, the myth of the digital native (also called homo zappiëns) and the myth of the multitasker are accepted and propagated by educational gurus, closely followed and reported on by the media (both traditional mass-media, Internet sites, and social media) and dutifully parroted by educational policy makers at all levels. But while the myth of the existence of a yeti or other creature is fairly innocuous, the myth of their digital variants is extremely deleterious to our educational system, our children, and teaching/learning in general.
The article is titled "The myths of the digital native and the multitasker."  And it's on fire.

The lead author is a heretic whom I've cited before.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Speed matters

An idea that's gotten a lot of attention lately is "competency-based education", essentially the idea that instead of having courses of fixed time (e.g. a 15 week semester or 10 week quarter) you have shorter modules that students take and retake as needed, and they move on when they've achieved competence in whatever topic/skill/idea/etc. they are pursuing as part of their educational program.  For a professional program like business or engineering it is probably pretty clear what it means to achieve competence at some particular skill.  For many of the more skill-based aspects of science I think it also  makes sense.  For humanities, I assume that once somebody has, say, successfully read some list of writers and produced critiques that analyze specified aspects of the work in light of specified concepts, one would also achieve competence, and then move on to some other list of works and ideas.

It's not a bad concept.  It's not entirely objectionable.  But to the extent that the idea is based on a critique of a traditional course, I want to defend traditional courses from the critique.

The critique seems to be that in a traditional course a grade of (say) B means that you got most of it and did pretty well but didn't get all the way, which is fine, but you never know what the student was strong on and what the student was weak on.  To the extent that the critique is rooted in "you never know..." my question is "Who?"  Presumably the answer is "The person reading the transcript."  Fine.  In response, my next questions are "Who reads the transcript and what do they want to know?"

I've spent a lot of time interacting with people who hire physics graduates.  To a large extent they don't read transcripts at all, and maybe that should give us some humility about our enterprise.  But before we conclude that our transcripts thus need to be more information-dense in order to be more useful, let me observe something else:

The employers that I've interacted with seem to care (at most) about whether students took a lot of lab classes and used a few specific tools in those classes.  Beyond that, they just assume that students will need to be trained.

And that should not be surprising in science and technology.  Everything is highly specialized and rapidly changing. And every employer is working in a different niche, and hence needs people for a different niche.  Knowing that a person is smart and capable of learning seems to matter more than the specifics because of how steep the on-the-job learning curve is, even under ideal circumstances.

Given that, knowing very specific things is less important than knowing that the student has done lab work and can learn quickly.  In that case, the person who learned a whole lot in 15 weeks really is more valuable than the person who would need substantially more time to learn the same amount (which competency-based education would allow for).

So what a grade in a traditional class really tells is what  happens when you throw a lot of challenges at a person in 15 weeks.  The real question is whether the ability to surmount those challenges is predictive of ability to learn on the job.