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 on hiatus from book blogging, since I am reading fiction and I generally don't like to blog about fiction.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Monday, October 24, 2016

Another article in the Chronicle!

I have just published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  "Tips for Managing Curmudgeons."

Easiest $300 I ever made.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Shove it up your pipeline

I know that I should treat this report on preparing students for non-academic careers as a good thing, because it involves academic physicists and professional societies finally recognizing that we need to get serious about the fact that most physics majors will go into industry, not the PhD pipeline/pyramid.  I should be glad that people are recognizing this, and that the Important And Serious Types get it.

The problem is that I hate the important and serious types because they are always so disconnected from reality, half of them still say all the Acceptable And Serious stuff about PhD production, and it seems like they only figured out 4 minutes ago what the physics community should have figured out 4 decades ago:  That most people don't get PhDs and don't wind up in academia.  How can I take these jokers seriously when they started revising their Party Line yesterday while I've been taking students to industry meetings and teaching computational physics and applied optics since I was a junior professor?  These jokers will no doubt get the world to pat them on the back for "Steering the Conversation to Recognize the Need for Change" while some of us have been in the trenches doing this stuff for a long time, and we figured it out without the Serious And Important People issuing reports and trying to "Change The Conversation" or whatever.

And they dress it up in all of their administrative language instead of plain English, speaking the language of administrivia and bureaucracy.  And I know, I just KNOW, that when the next grant opportunity comes along, if it's for some PhD pipeline bullshit they'll be talking up the importance of that when five minutes earlier they were talking about preparing students for industry.  Because they're a bunch of parasites.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Gritty reality

I just came across this article from May arguing that grit research is over-hyped.  Essentially, the claims are that (1) the effect of grit is sometimes exaggerated, (2) a lot of other known variables (e.g. the much-maligned standardized tests) are more predictive, and (3) grit is not nearly as novel as Duckworth claims.  It was mentioned in the comments on this article, where the author worries that if grit is the key to success then advantaged kids are more likely to be in environments that emphasize it.  The problem is that advantaged kids are, by definition, the ones with the greatest access to the secret sauce of success, whatever you think that secret sauce may be.  Also, whether we respond to [insert latest success fad here] by seeking to help the poor get access to it or by blaming the poor for not having it depends not on our theory of success but our theory of the poor.  If we see them as victims through no fault of their own then compassion will move us to help them develop [grit, growth mindset, whatever the latest trendy thing is].  If we see them as people of low character then we will blame them for not possessing our trait.  We don't need a humane theory of success, we need a humane theory of poverty.  I've said this before.

As an aside, Duckworth spent some time at McKinsey early in her career.  Those people are everywhere.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Post-Literate Society

Today an administrator sent out a request that faculty fill out a survey as part of some study involving educational fads.  Since I love to be the fly in the ointment I naturally took the survey as soon as possible.  Among the questions on the survey were a few about whether/how frequently we use videos in our classes.  The context strongly implied that assigning students to watch videos is considered a good, progressive thing to do.  Reading assignments did not receive commensurate attention.

Mark 2016 as the year that one of my "superiors" openly embraced the post-literate society.

Alternative is back in style, so I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?"

The editors of Nature deign to notice reality:
Alternative career paths should be celebrated, not seen as a compromise.
Do go on.
...but young scientists have more reason than most to be disillusioned when things do not go to plan. Almost all have completed a PhD. And almost all would have been told that the qualification — and the effort and dedication involved — was the first step on the ladder to a permanent academic position. 
Nature and others have long pointed out that this is a lie. There are simply too many PhD students and too few senior posts. Hence the purgatory of the postdocs: trapped in transition and trying to accrue the necessary credit to move on.
Well, I'm not sure how "long" they've pointed it out.  Their link is to 2011.  If they'd pointed this out in the 1970's I'd be more impressed.

Up next:  The editors of Nature suspect that these newfangled desktop computers might have an effect on how people do science.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Niches vs. Competition

I was talking to a student, and I was articulating some of the points that I make on this blog, concerning the folly of trying to send everyone to college or get everyone to succeed equally in the same programs.  He asked me if I believe that in any group of people there will inevitably be a winner and a loser.  I paused, and tried to come up with something less stark, and came up with this:

If everyone tries to succeed at the same thing then there will indeed be a winner and a loser, because it really is that zero-sum and stark when everyone is trying for the same path.  But if people find their niches, then you can avoid that brutal competition because people mostly avoid going head-to-head.  The only time competition really matches econ 101 and really gets at the absolute efficiency limits of the most ideal econ models is when everyone tries to go head-to-head.  When people find niches then you still get a good outcome for consumers via choice, and there's a moderate level of efficiency so they do get the benefit of innovation and (some) cost competition, but it isn't so brutal that everyone's profits go to zero (when opportunity costs are taken into account) and nobody can get ahead and everyone is constantly sweating.  The best growth opportunities come via niches.

If we try to send everyone to a classic 4 year degree program then the world will be a stark place.  Credential inflation will strip away any value from education.  If we recognize that people need a variety of paths, and that no one path is for everyone, then we can develop people to their potential without sacrificing quality and rigor.  I hope we go for sanity and embrace a diverse range of paths for people.  The worst part of US economic and social policy for the past few decades has been the belief that increasing the production of 4 year degrees is the only way forward in a post-industrial economy.

SF story accepted

I forgot to blog this, but last weekend one of my stories was posted at 365 Tomorrows, a daily blog for flash-fiction sci-fi stories.