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 reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Friday, March 4, 2016

Now I ain't sayin' they're a speech suppressor...

I'm posting this a few months late, but free speech is on my mind since watching this debate last night. Also, God help me, I never thought I would go to the mat for the right to emulate a Kardashian, but here goes:

Last fall students at UCLA held a frat party at which they dressed up as Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and people associated with them (e.g. some women dressed as gold miners, in reference to one of West's catchier songs). Student activists claimed that this is racially insensitive.

Let me start by saying that blackface is clearly offensive and outside of acceptable norms of good taste. If a white person does that, social sanction, peer pressure, and so forth are entirely proportionate responses.

Let me also note that no photos of white students in blackface have been produced. In 2015. We live in an era where my students actually take selfies in class (presumably to provide supporting evidence for how little work they did, strengthening my case when it comes time for me to assign a bad grade), and yet nobody was able to produce a cell phone photo with anyone in blackface? Really? Nobody can find selfies of objectively racist make-up at a frat party in 2015? Not a photo taken by an idiot who thought this was worth documenting? Not a photo taken by a (justifiably) offended bystander? The lack of evidence here does not pass the smell test.

The central issue, though, is that the proper response to an offensive party theme is shunning. Whether this party is within the bounds of acceptable social norms is debatable, and it is precisely BECAUSE it is debatable that institutions should not squash it via administrative fiat. By its very nature, the charge does not merit investigation. It probably DOES merit advising for the fraternity (the whole purpose of an adviser in an educational institution is to advise people, and one of things that social organizations exist to promote is social skills and a level of understanding necessary to navigate social norms), but by its very nature there is nothing that merits an investigation for the purpose of pursuing punitive action.

I will close by noting that dressing up as Kim Kardashian is just so objectively in bad taste that it bears no further comment, and that Kanye West's ego is so big that the only people who could hope to pull off a convincing imitation are all tenured faculty, not frat boys. (Note to self: Lose some weight so I can attend a party dressed as Kanye West.)

The Journals of Irreproducibly Irreproducible Results

A while back I blogged about a study of reproducibility in experimental psychology.  A critique of the methodology has just been published.  I haven't had a chance to chew on it and form a judgment, but since I blogged the original study I should blog the critique.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

My first try at SF writing

I tried writing a short story.  It got rejected.  I probably won't resubmit it elsewhere, because it was written for a rather unique audience and a rather unique venue with a very low word limit.  It wouldn't be suitable elsewhere.  So I'll just put this out there to share.  But don't worry, I am working on other stories, and I have submitted one of them.  And the next one is a story that I could see myself resubmitting to other venues if it gets rejected from the first venue.

There's No Good Coffee in the Martian Lowlands

I should be working, not blogging, but my boss is the biggest idiot in the solar system, so I must vent.  I’m busting my ass on a manuscript because he wants to tell the Project Interim Review Panel that it’s under review at Nature Arescience.  Please.  We’re a year behind, we should be surveying SEC sites on the western foothills of Tharsis Montes by now, but Roger’s hung up on a mudslide on the south face. People have been finding ancient mudslides for decades, but Roger thinks that this particular find will justify our delays. Sure, the first 5,000 year-old mudslide discovery made the cover of Nature, but since then all of the mudslide finds have been in middling-impact places like Journal of Martian Morphology (on a good day).  And, yeah, the paper showing that correlated isotope signatures at different mudslide point to a global wave of hydrological activity in 2,500 BCE made Proceedings of the Interplanetary Academy of Sciences, but we don’t have that.  All we have is really unusual silt composition.  So?  That won’t make a Glamour journal.

I should have taken that postdoc offer at Armstrong Colony University, instead of joining a SEAR contractor for the Superconducting Equatorial Cable.  I’m getting all the “my boss is crazy and the money is soft” downsides of a postdoc without the creature comforts of a college habidome.  Have you tried getting Szechuan tacos or good coffee in the Martian lowlands?  I’m lucky if I can find a decent pizza.

How did I get sucked into this?  I thought I wanted to “see the world” after all those years in school, and here was my chance to literally circle the globe! Roger and his buddy Worf got the contract for a chunk of Western Lowlands and hired me, fresh out of my PhD, to join the racket that is government contracting.  Get a piece of that sweet “Scientific Exploration and Areological Record” money.  It’s silly, really.  The melting ice caps and daily microcomet bombardments are covering half the northern hemisphere with a new ocean, erasing a few billion years of areological history, and the Habitability Engineering Consortium worries about documenting the areological history of a dinky strip of land around the equator before they bulldoze it? This is what happens when you elect Blue Future Coalition to parliament. Well, a job’s a job, and at least I can tell my family I’m helping us get a magnetic field (finally!).

I should move to Earth.  Agriculture’s recovered, the gravdaptation treatments are painless these days, and we Martians are tall enough to rule the basketball court.  My grad school classmate Fiona says that aquifer engineering in Nevada is an easy transition from Areology.

Anyway, this is all Roger’s fault for relying on Worf.  Worf is from Miner stock, so he’s too frail to set foot on the surface.  Still, he can run drone support remotely, and the rules favor subcontracts with Miners because Blue Future gets votes from the orbiting districts. You’d think that it would be enough that all of the superconducting wire suppliers are Miner-owned companies, but no. The result is that ground-based projects subcontract with people whose ancestors underwent genmods for zero-g work in the asteroid belt. Total spoils system, but that’s government contracting for you. Most people just subcontract back-office support and exotic materials to orbiting companies, but Worf is Roger’s buddy, so he gets mission-critical operations.

So Worf is running drone support, for some loose definition of “support.” I’m in the hopper pod, with the full complement of sample grabs and drills, but site selection and real-time evaluation requires integration of data on nearby sites in about 10 different imaging channels.  That’s what Worf’s drones are for.  There’s no other way for a measly twenty contract teams to survey all the “interesting” stuff on the entire equator in eight years.  Except Worf’s inefficient, because he has no understanding of rock formations.  The only rock formations that he’s touched with his own hands are on Phobos.  Not the same.  Not even close. So I’m training Worf rather than collaborating with him; he doesn’t really “get” that when I’m sampling cliff walls I need data on what’s downstream, even if it isn’t on an SEC site, more than I need data on an adjacent branch of the delta.  He’s never walked a lava field and doesn’t appreciate the cues for picking features out of those fractal landscapes. I kept begging Roger to hire a second drone coordinator and Roger kept giving shifty answers about budgets.

A month ago, though, Roger went into full panic mode.  HEC announced new rules for Project Interim Reviews, and Roger is suddenly obsessed with showing “advancement of public knowledge via high-impact dissemination.”  So not only are we behind on surveying, now we have to show that what we do have is attention-getting.  That did, however, give Roger an “out.”  He just has to show that we’ve been emphasizing quality over quantity.  His solution?  Send a paper to Nature Arescience.  Getting published is Not Happening, but if we avoid a desk rejection then Roger can make up some story about a “highly interested” editor to keep from getting sunk in interim reviews.  As long as it’s sent before the reviews and gets rejected after the reviews, we buy two years.  Two years is a long time on Mars.

So, here I am, procrastinating from this manuscript, because knowing that Roger will bug me in the morning just isn’t motivation to write.  On the bright side, in the time that it took me to blog this, Fiona got my message and replied.  After I tease her about Vegas debauchery I absolutely MUST get back to work.

Copyright Alex Small, 2015

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

No, see, the revolution was just never tried

In the previous post I noted that personality surveys are the easiest things in the world to game.  I closed with a link to an article on a college that decided to give applicants a survey on study skills, which is pathetically easy to game.  Well, just google the name of that school and "locus of control" (a psychological term related to what the school believes they will be measuring.)  See what you get:  Admissions coaches!  WHO COULD HAVE PREDICTED THIS??!!11?1!?1!!????111!?

You cannot game your way out of advantaged kids gaming the system. By definition, the advantaged will out-game you.  Especially in an asymmetric game where the first mover loses their advantage by carving in stone the rules that the second mover can respond to and the first mover is bound by.

What is measured improves, but nothing else does

Oh, good!
A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance. So other states are watching these districts as a potential model. But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the tests but in the stakes.  Go ahead and create the world's most perfect, reliable, valid, accurate, and all-around good measure of grit, or growth mindset, or whatever.  Administer it in a setting where nobody has been primed to answer disingenuously and nobody has any real reason to deceive.  You'll get results that tell you something meaningful.  Now attach stakes to it.  And watch as the teachers start feeding students slogans about grit and growth mindset, and students start giving answers that sound good rather than answers that accurately tell you something about their actions outside of the testing situation.

Fortunately, a few of the people interviewed in the article agree:
In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for “superficial parroting” rather than real changes in mind-set. 
“You think test scores are easy to game?” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is working with the districts in California. “They’re relatively hard to game when you compare them to a self-report survey.”
I actually don't fault the entire idea of measuring non-academic things.  The very fact that people will try to game measures is actually an argument for measuring more things rather than fewer.  The more things you measure the harder it is to game all of them at once.  Still, it's better to make more of those measures be about things that are harder to game.  As opposed to this.

This concludes our monthly feature titled "Something actually interesting in the NYT education section."