✒ words are all I have

“There are those who loathe puns, anagrams and wordplay of any description. They regard practitioners as trivial, posey, feeble, nerdy and facetious. As one such practitioner, I do understand the objections. Archness, cuteness, pedantry and showoffiness do constitute dangers. However, as a non-singing, non- games-playing, -dancing, -painting, -diving, -running, -catching, -kicking, - riding, -skating, -skiing, -sailing, -climbing, -caving, -swimming, -free- falling, -cycling, -canoeing, -jumping, -bouncing, -boxing sort of person, words are all I have. As the old cliché has it, they are my friends. I like to say them, weigh them, poke them, tease them, chant their sound, gaze at their shape and savour their juiciness, and, yes, play with them. Some words are made up of the same letters as others, some can fit inside others, some can be said the same backwards as frontwards, some rhyme outrageously, some seem unique and peculiar like yacht and quirk and frump and canoodle. I take pleasure in their oddities and pleasures and contradictions. It amuses me that a cowboy is a boy who rounds up cows, but a carboy is a flagon of acid, that conifer is an anagram of fir cone and esoteric of coteries, that gold has a hundred rhymes but silver has none. 20 It saddens me that the French talk of the jouissance of language, its joyousness, juiciness, ecstasy and bliss, but that we of all peoples, with English as our mother tongue, do not. Such frolicsome larkiness may put you off, but if you wish to make poems it seems to me necessary that some part of your verse, however small, will register the sensuousness, oddity and pleasure of words themselves, as words, regardless of their semantic and communicatory duties. Not all paintings draw attention to their brushwork – art can, of course, as validly make transparent its process as exhibit its presence – but each tradition has value and none represents the only true aesthetic.”

― Stephen Fry, “The Ode Less Travelled” (2005)

14 September 2019

✒ things fall because of gravity

Unfortunately, once something is found that is true or useful, it tends to be presented in books as though it were obvious or very straightforward, when in fact it may be neither, and may have taken years, and chance, to discover.

From “Entropy, Scientific Explanations, Pseudo-Scientific Explanations, and Teaching Science” by Rick Garlikov. It goes on with a good example:

“The most common, I think, form of pseudo-explanation is to give a name to a phenomena, consider that name to name some sort of trait,  and then explain the occurrence of the phenomena in terms of the “existence” of the trait.

For example, imagine that a student gets mostly B’s in school.  Parents and teachers, and even the student himself, may come to think of him as a “B student”.  Notice that at this point, that just means that the student gets B’s generally.  It is synonymous with saying that he gets mostly B’s.  If someone asks you how you kid does in school, you can answer either “He gets mostly B’s” or you can answer “He’s pretty much a B student.” Both of these statements in this context mean the same exact thing.  Now there is no problem with this terminology unless people, including the student, begin to think that he gets B’s because he is a B student.  “Why didn’t you get an A on this exam, son?” “Dad, I couldn’t; I am just a B student.”  The reason this is not an explanation is because it just says essentially that the student gets B’s because he gets B’s.  For “being a B student just meant that one received B’s for the most part.”  It is not that getting B’s necessarily means a child has some sort of trait that causes him to get B’s.”

And further down:

“So although there may be some precise definition or notion of “entropy” that is useful, it cannot be just “measure of disorder” with the claim that disorder is always increasing only because you already know which “direction” phenomena occur and then call that direction the direction of increased entropy.  That is like saying objects fall because they are heavier than air, and rise because they are lighter, where what tells you which objects are which is that you know they rise or fall when released under normal conditions. Yet, that is what some physics texts seem to do.”

10 September 2019

✒ eight ways universities disrupt social mobility

This post was published by Kavan Wolfe on his blog "The War on Bullshit". The permalink is not working any more, so here is a repost of the complete article from my archives.

In a free society, being born poor should not stop an intelligent, capable, hard-working person from becoming prosperous. Social mobility refers to the capacity for people born in a lower social class to transition to a higher social class during their lives. Industries that have historically improved social mobility include professional sports and universities. These meritocracies promote those with the most talent – nobody cares whether LeBron James or Neil deGrasse Tyson came from a rich family or a poor one.

Universities are also supposed to be pure meritocracies, rewarding students and faculty primarily on their academic accomplishments. Unfortunately, the structure of modern universities and their surrounding educational-industrial complex includes myriad insidious elements that exacerbate the disadvantages faced by less financially secure students. Here are some of the worst offenders.

1. Student loans instead of grants

Student loans are supposed to provide funds for full time students to live on during their studies. Student loans systems generally suffer from two serious problems. First, the amount of money a student receives depends on their parents’ income, regardless of whether those parents are willing or able to contribute to their childrens’ education. Second, in the U.S., Canada and many other countries, you have to pay them back. A $120 000 loan to go to medical school is much more daunting to the child of a medical secretary than to the child of a neurosurgeon. (In some countries, like the U.K., you only pay back a portion of your student loan depending on how much money you make after your education.)

2. Busy work

Universities in general (and business schools in particular) inundate their students with repetitive, unchallenging assignments – busy work. Busy work serves no pedagogical purpose (by definition). You learn nothing from it, and it does not separate good students from bad students. It is primarily used in subjects like business where the material is straightforward. Since faculty cannot or will not provide challenging problems, they make getting through the endless barrage of menial tasks the challenge. This discriminates against students who have to work part time (or even full time) to fund their studies.

3. Lack of evening and distance classes

Again, as many poor students have to work to fund their education, offering classes only during conventional business hours forces students to choose between attending the class or making the money to pay for the classes.

4. Participation marks and punishing absenteeism

When a student has to choose between a work shift and a class, between next month’s rent money and this term’s participation marks, poor students’ marks suffer one way or another. Punishing absenteeism also facilitates pandemics, but that’s an issue for another post.

5. Market-priced student housing

The purpose of a University is to educate the populace and produce high-quality research, not to turn a profit. When universities are located in areas with high real estate prices, they can accommodate financially challenged students by providing housing at cost. However, where “at cost” means $400/month, and similar apartments in the area go for $800/month, universities smell the opportunity to extract more money from students and provide “market-priced student housing”.

6. Pressuring or forcing students into volunteer work

When I was an undergrad, many professional programs pressured students to engage in “resume-building” volunteer work or unpaid internships. Volunteer work is all well and good when you’re on a full scholarship and daddy pays for your Benz. When you’re already pulling 20 hours/week cleaning a movie theatre to pay your tuition, volunteer work is money out of pocket, plain and simple.

7. Pathetic pay rates for research and teaching assistants

Many faculty view students as cheap (if not free) labour. I got paid less per hour as a research assistant in undergrad than most gas station attendants. Worse, foreign students’ visas often stipulate that they can only work within the university, so they take these jobs regardless of the pay, removing the pressure to increase salaries for lack of willing workforce. Poor students have to turn down more educationally beneficial research jobs in favor of better paying menial labour jobs. In the words of Chris Rock, that is fucked up.

8. The tuition-economy link

Recently the UK elected a conservative government, which drastically cut university funding. In response, universities are tripling their tuition fees, in the middle of a recession. Where tuition fees are directly linked to the economy, they are highest when people have the least money. This flies in the face of basic Keynesian principles … but then, since when have conservatives ever understood Keynes?

Conclusion

One could argue that there are good reasons for all of the practices criticized above. I would simply counter that improving social mobility in society and reducing class discrimination is more important.

9 July 2018

✒ seven most important things to know before beginning a PhD

This post was published by Kavan Wolfe on his blog "The War on Bullshit". The permalink is not working any more, so here is a repost of the complete article from my archives.

Are you thinking of pursuing graduate degree? The Internet is rife with advice on how and whether to proceed. Most of this advice is wrong. Today I am officially “Dr. Wolfe.” Here is what I wish I knew when I started.

1. Find a Reasonable Supervisor

The single most important part of a PhD is finding the right supervisor. Most people will tell you to try to work with someone who is 1) a (famous) prolific researcher, 2) brilliant, 3) similar in research interests. Bullshit. The most important quality in a supervisor is reasonableness. Your supervisor can indefinitely forestall your graduation and make your life so miserable you’ll quit. If you get an unreasonable supervisor, you’re hosed.

Many academics become prolific by cracking the whip over an army of grad students and then taking credit for their hard work. Worse, truly important research is often time-consuming, so those who do the most important stuff rarely publish the most articles. Brilliance is nice, but not necessary for the same reason as overlapping research interests: your PhD should be your own. Never mind your supervisor’s agenda, or your department’s, or your school’s. You need to pursue your interests, your project, your way – otherwise your job talk will be uninspiring and you won’t get a good position.

2. When Choosing a Program, Focus on Past Graduates

Most people compare programs based on two factors: the overall reputation of the school and the research reputation of the faculty in your department of interest. This strategy suffers from two problems: 1) famous universities aren’t necessarily strong in your particular field; 2) having a bunch of prolific researchers does not imply that the school’s PhD program is pedagogically sound.

To choose a program, ask consider two questions. First, where did previous students from this program get jobs? Second, how long did they really (not officially) spend in the program? If students like you went to this program, and got the kind of job you want after a reasonable time, then it’s your kind of program. Of course, you also have to watch out for changes in the program or faculty.

3. It Usually Takes Longer than you Expect

Longer than they tell you. Prospective students are commonly told fairlytales about three- to four-year programs. In some countries, like the UK, this is still accurate because university funding is sometimes tied to program duration, but this is unusual. Find out how long previous students took, and don’t take their word for it. PhD’s have ambiguous end-dates: there’s the date you finished writing your thesis, the date of your defense, the date you submit your corrected thesis, the date you accept a position, the date you begin your position, and the date you get your diploma. You want the last one. When did you start, and when did you receive your diploma? Seven or more years is terrible. Six is bad. Five is realistic. Four is fantastic. Three is a myth. But it varies by field.

4. Be Damn Sure you Want to do This

As far as I can tell, PhD students fall into one or more of three categories: aspiring academics, egomaniacs, and people just aren’t sure what else to do with their lives. If you’re not an aspiring academic, think long and hard about whether you really want to go through five to eight years of hell, followed by an anticlimactic post-doc position. Then read every strip at PhD Comics, and think about it again.

5. Difficulty comes from Politics, not Research

PhDs are supposed to be difficult, and they are. However, they’re not difficult for the reasons you would expect. A PhD is supposed to be difficult because doing good research is wickedly complicated. A PhD is actually difficult because of all the political wrangling, endless debates about inconsequential minutia and general academic assholery.

6. Go Big or Go Home

Doing good research is easy. Pick a real group of people who are in trouble, and use all that expert knowledge you’ve accumulated to improve their lot in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re in physics, medicine, anthropology, or English, helping real people is a powerful thing. The trouble is, all the while you’re trying to do something real, people around you will bitch and moan about how it’s risky, too novel, methodologically questionable, and doesn’t make a clear academic contribution. During my proposal defense, I desperately wanted to say “If you’re not going to help, get the fuck out.” In hindsight, I wish I had.

7. Most Academics are Simultaneously Geniuses and Morons

At the end of middle school, someone always gives a motivational speech about how “when you get to high school, you won’t be spoon-fed anymore – you’ll really have to work hard.” And then you get to high school and the spoon-feeding continues. And then you get the same speech at the end of high school, and you get to university, and the spoon-feeding continues. And then at the end of undergrad, you get a similar speech, but with the “now when you get to grad school you’ll meet some of the smartest people in the world and they’ll knock your socks off” twist. Yeah? Where?

Academics are almost all intelligent, because many of the tests you have to pass to get in (LSAT, MCAT, GRE, GMAT, SAT, etc.) are glorified IQ tests. The trouble is, intelligence isn’t the only thing you need to become a great intellectual. You also need rationality, creativity, and persistence. And the other trouble is, none of these are highly correlated with the kind of IQ. The result of this misalignment between entrance criteria and required characteristics is an academic system populated by intelligent yet irrational people. This leads to all sorts of hilariously demotivational exchanges:

“I never authorized you to buy that!”
“Yes you did. You said right here in this email, ‘go ahead and buy it.’”
“Yes but you were supposed to confirm first.”

“You should have used grounded theory”
“Yes, and I would have, if you hadn’t told me not to when I proposed it three years ago.”

“I don’t think you should rely on this reference.”
“Then why did you send it to me?”

“Your supervisor didn’t actually read your proposal, did he?”
“Considering that the answer to his question was in the abstract, I suspect not.”

“Just pick the survey questions that will give you the answers you want.”

Conclusion

In summary, don’t do a PhD unless you’re absolutely certain you want to be an academic or you have some other extremely compelling reason. If you decide to do one anyway, choose a school that graduates students quickly and gets them reasonable positions. Then find the most reasonable, easy-going supervisor you can. Choose an ambitious topic that matters, and go make someone’s life better. Then do your best to ignore all the negative bullshit around you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until you can stand up at a conference and identify by name real, living, breathing people whose lives are better today than they were yesterday because of you.

9 July 2018

✒ why the world is so screwed up

This post was published by Kavan Wolfe on his blog "The War on Bullshit". The permalink is not working any more, so here is a repost of the complete article from my archives.

Why is the healthcare industry hemorrhaging money? Why is the military being used to fight ideas, when ideas can’t be killed by bullets? Why is the legislature unable to make laws that make sense? How can 12 years of basic education produce an unthinking populace? How can a man believe in his god, but not in himself? How can the “free” market enslave humanity to rational immorality?

In the immortal words of every cynical, sardonic, apathetic adolescent, the world is fucked up.

And it’s not because of stupidity, religion, avarice, sadism, immorality, hedonism, drugs, terrorism, global warming, the clash of cultures, imperialism, abuse of power, overuse of force, or the flying spaghetti monster. It’s not because people are born good or evil or gullible or jealous or greedy or reckless or lazy or irrational or too rational or emotional or idealistic or straight-jacket-crazy.

The true cause is subtle. Far. More. Subtle.

In every developed nation, human existence is regulated by laws. Each law is written by lawmakers, most of whom are ex-lawyers elected to political office, often for a short time. The system of laws has thus haphazardly grown, been trimmed back, grown some more, and eventually become inextricably intertwined in a self-contradictory, indecipherable, regulatory labyrinth. And every once in awhile some wannabe Theseus comes charging in to kill the minotaur at its center, only to find that there is no minotaur, just a bunch of people doing their best. The problem, you see, is not simply that laws are long and confusing and interconnected in ways no one understands.

The first part of the problem is that laws imply the design of the systems that enact them. The education acts imply the structure and makeup of schools, academic programs and school boards. The healthcare legislation implies the configuration of the hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies that comprise the healthcare system. The economy, military, political process, police force, and even the neighborhoods in which we live are structured and organized according to legislation.

The second part of the problem is that lawmakers are primarily experts in lawmaking; NOT experts in education, healthcare, economics or any other domain for which they are designing the system! The rules pharmaceutical companies must abide by are predominantly written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about chemistry, biology, scientific research or medicine. The rules of the economy are written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about economics, labor markets, business ethics or financial markets. Doesn’t this explain why the copyright legislation is so screwed up?

The third part of the problem is that lawmakers have no expertise in the design of complex systems. Knowing lots about buildings doesn’t make you an architect – you have to know how to match the design of a building to a specific purpose. An expert in design knows how to make the form fit the environment. This is the same reason so much open-source software has poor interfaces. Being a great programmer does not imply knowing anything about designing interfaces. Similarly, being a great lawyer does not imply knowing anything about structuring a taxation system to empower, not oppress, a people.

We as the developed world asked lawyers, people who’ve spent their careers writing legal briefs and coming up with arguments, to design the socially-constructed, artificial reality we inhabit. It’s not their fault they’ve done a piss poor job. They were, and are, completely unqualified! Honestly, what the fuck were we thinking?

To drive the design of a social system through the legislative process, three kinds of knowledge are needed: knowledge of laws and lawmaking, knowledge of the social system in question, and knowledge of design. For example, if we want to write a bill about healthcare, we need: 1) someone who understands the system of laws (a lawyer), 2) someone who understands healthcare (a physician), and 3) someone who understands how to structure a complex system to meet certain goals (a designer).

To take a more complicated example, consider copyright legislation. Since copyright involves ethics, money, intellectual property, information technology, taxes, cryptography, marketing, engineering, the culture of young people, the parent/child legal relationship, criminal penalties… holy shitballs! Besides a lawyer and a designer, we’d need a whole panel of experts to design a sensible copyright system and embed it in legislation. But does the government bring in a panel of experts? No. The laws are written by lawyers and lobbyists.

Every major social system that constrains human existence is designed at the highest level by people who have no clue how to design anything, who aren’t experts in the things they’re designing.

And that’s why the world is so screwed up.

9 July 2018

✒ Gauss facts

The Chuck Norris of mathematics.

http://www.gaussfacts.com/

  • When Gauss died, he did not leave any conjectures but exercises.
  • Gauss knows the last digit of pi.
  • Erdos believed God had a book of all perfect mathematical proofs. God believes Gauss has such a book.
  • Fermat once made Gauss angry. The result - Fermat’s Last Theorem.
  • The common phrase used by mathematicians, “Let n be an integer”, is literally a request to Gauss to allow it to be so.
  • Gauss didn’t discover the normal distribution, nature conformed to his will.
  • Gauss doesn't understand stochastic processes because he can predict random numbers.

15 March 2015