Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Books: A God that could be real by Nancy Abrams

About a year ago I entered my e-mail in a giveaway for a book on theLibraryThing web-site. The idea of these give-aways is that you kind of promise to read and review the book in exchange for a free copy. And then I suddenly won a free copy! So I found myself reading it.

The book is called "A god that could be real" by Nancy Ellen Abrams. The topic of it, to put it simply, is to reinvent and re-envision the concept of God that would not contradict modern cosmology, yet would also be an active personally engage-able God, a type one could conceivably pray to, as opposed to a cold rational impotent deistic construct. So Abrams takes a chisel and starts working on the clumsy block of our standard God-related preconceptions (such as omniscience and omnipotence), trying to get to the believable core, while not destroying the piece entirely. To summarize her message in one sentence, the author revisits post-Hegelian dialectics and applies it to religion, defining God as a truly (but dialectically) existing teleological representation of meta-humanity.

My biggest problem with this book is that Abrams rejects, ignores, and sometimes plain hides from the very idea of Platonism, be it the original Greek version, the Jewish interpretation of it (something in the style of the Gospel of John), or Hellenistic and Medieval versions. She chooses to understand all key theological words, such as "to create" (as applied to the Universe) in a very practical, matter-of-fact way, which then obviously leads to contradictions. But she pretends that these purely materialistic (as opposed to idealistic) interpretations are the only possibly ones. Which is of course not true.

In a similar fashion, she ignores, or politely dismisses, the mystical tradition. Her book is dedicated to the active process of defining and redefining God, which contradicts the very central message of most mystical traditions (from St. Symeon the New Theologican, to St. John of the Cross, and early Hassidic rabbis). While not all authors spell it out explicitly, the core message of Judeo-Christian mysticism is that not only one cannot define God, but even more strongly, it is not possible to formulate a logical predicate, a true/false statement that would contain God as an object, as God is not an object of our reality. In mystical monotheism, God is fundamentally a subject, staying outside of our world (and in most extreme versions - outside of our logic as well). God is the subject in the sense that s/he makes our world exist; God exists us. But we cannot ensnare God in our statements or trap God in our definitions, however clever they might seem (see apophatic theology).

Abrams ignores, or rather dismisses with a half-a-paragraph-long hand-wave this entire stratum, and entire school of thought. Which is annoying, as it means that in order to test and taste the validity of any of her statements I need to first translate them into their weaker versions, and only then think about them. Because of course these weaker versions are very possible: the whole concept of angels (messengeres) in Judaism, and then Christianity, as well as related concepts of Metatron, Son of Man, Messiah, prophets, Wisdom of God, etc. - all grow from this very same tension that made Abrams write her book: the tension between the intuition of God as infinitely "another", and the intuition of God's full presence in one's existence here and now. The impossible leap through this void was again and again reinterpreted by religious thinkers as different kinds of messengers, projections, incarnations and deputies, from the Angel wrestling with Jacob, and to the concept of Church as the body of God. Abrams is not the first person to fight this very fight.

Overall, it took me about half a year to finish this book. Every now and then, feeling guilty, I would try to pick it up, but it just would not go. I do hope that it could make a more pleasant read to a non-scientist (as it talks a lot about science), or a non-believer (as it talks a lot about God), but if you happen to be interested in both religion and science, then this book may feel too slow for you. At the same time, the book is definitely thought-provoking. It contains several interesting, poetic metaphors that were a pleasure to read, and a nice discussion of physical scales that could be welcome in any classroom. It has some really nice material, but it did not quite work for me as a book, and I definitely cannot subscribe to its main argument.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Against economic growth

One thing that really annoys, or maybe even frightens me, is economic growth. Because when growth becomes a goal, and not a means towards a goal, you are dealing with cancer. Not an organism, not a healthy tissue, but a cancerous outgrowth.

I'm fine with change. It may be Buddhist, or it may be nervous, anxious desire to change everything again and again, but while it may be empty, at lest it is not self-destructive.

Stasis, stability, conservatism, tradition are also fine. Perhaps dead a little, but fine. I like it.

Even improvement is fine, as improvement, efficiency, can still be self-contained. If I learn to do my job better and better, I can end up freeing some time to walk around the block, or play a banjo.

But growth is self-destructive.

And unfortunately it seems that our society is addicted to growth.

But then maybe I'm wrong, as I know positively nothing about economics.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Small linguistic victories

I was talking at the board, describing some imaginary scientist that does some imaginary experiments, and I referred to this scientist as "she".

This sure does not sound like an achievement: of course there are women scientists! My science classes are typically between 80% and 100% female after all. But for me every time it feels like a small breakthrough, for a very different reason. The thing is, while I teach only in English, inside my head I still think a little bit in Russian, at least to some extent. And in Russian all nouns are gendered (they are either masculine, feminine, or neutral). So for me, at a very intuitive, subconscious level, all cells are "she", while all neurons are "he". Neurons are dudes, cells are lasses, while nuclei don't care - nuclei are "it" (neutral). For me, mitochondria are always maternal, and not just because they carry mDNA and can prove maternal lineage, but because they are feminine, while receptors and channels are clearly masculine. It is probably ridiculous, but it's true, and follows the patterns described in the literature (there are some famous studies, one on bridges, and one on kitchen utensils)

And so, "of course" (sarcasm here) "a scientist" (учёный, ucheny) is masculine in Russian. But it's worse than even that: "a scientist" in Russian, while grammatically a noun, does not read or sound like a typical noun, but has all signs of an verbal adjective that is used as a noun. It's somewhat similar to English nouns like "grown-up", "initiate" or "trainee": essentially a "grown one", "initiated one", or "trained one" respectively. So in Russian the word for "scientist" is literally "the learned one"; and this "one" is grammatically male. In Russian, "A scientist" etymologically means "the learned male". Only think of it. "The learned male!". It's bizarre!

It is a very curious case, and seems to be almost an exception. Most words for professions and occupations in Russian are not like that: "a teacher", "a professor", "a student" are all normal nouns; some are masculine but can be used for females without a grammatical collapse; some have both masculine and feminine forms. All of them are more or less OK. "A scientist", however, totally hurts my brain. On several occasions, when I tried to make my writing in Russian more gender-inclusive, I was attacked by Russian speakers (women and men alike!) for ruining the grammar. Because if you write in Russian something like "When a scientist is tired, she takes a break", it short-circuits the grammar. It reads like "When a well-learned male man is tired, she takes a break", which is seriously weird.

And no, there's no "learned female" form for this word (like for German der Professor / die Professorin). If you try to forge a "feminine form", it sounds very unusual, and is completely unheard of. I gather with some effort it should be possible to introduce a "feminine version" by force, kind of how notation "they" was re-introduced in English for the purpose of gender inclusiveness, but so far nobody bothered to even start playing with these possibilities. And probably the society will be very resistant to changes like that, for quite a while. And even then, the controversy would probably remain, as it remains in German, as having two different words for male and female people in a profession is a bit weird.

But in my private life, for my private brain, this whole strange situation means that while I work mostly with female scientists, it is still curiously hard for me to refer to an imaginary "placeholder" scientist as "she" in speech. Because grammar representation in late life bilinguals is weird. Even after years of training, it feels that I have to consciously override some circuit in the Broca area to make it happen.

If you are a native English speaker and cannot relate to this story at all, try to imagine that you learned a language where the words for "scissors" or "pants" are singular, and not plural, as they are in English, and you now need to say something to the effect "my scissors is red", or "give me a pants". Would not it feel weird? I bet it would! Even though you would know perfectly well what you are talking about, and how to properly say it, you would still have to consciously override something in your brain to use "trousers" as a singular.

So, here you go: small linguistic victories.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On some differences between industry and academia

Are there differences in the "workplace politics" in academia, compared to that in the corporate world? Is academic politics really worse than that in the industry? I think the answer is "yes": academic politics is indeed more painful than corporate politics, both emotionally, and in terms of being more destructive for the organization. Here are some thoughts about why it could be the case.

Compared to the corporate world, there are three unpleasant things about academic politics. One is that there is no clear common goal. In the corporate world at any moment of time usually there's a well defined goal (profit, saving, market expansion, sales, loss reduction etc.), and if something doesn't work, it least in theory, you can always stand up and ask the team to relate back to the goal. Look, we are not doing ourselves any good by getting involved in THIS, because it does not move us towards our main goal for this year. And then supposedly everybody readjust.

In academia, large-scale goals are almost never articulated, so every person comes up with goals of their own, and there is no clear way to figure out what do we want as a team. Basically, except in situations of emergency, we never want anything collectively, as a team. Sometimes the majority of people happen to have their goals aligned, but it always happens spontaneously, not because we are explicitly required, or want to work together. I guess the whole mythology about tenure and academic freedom does not help here as well. People are so proud of the concept of academic freedom that they basically flip out every time somebody tells them what to do. It's very much a "don't tread on me" mentality. How dare you tell me how to teach! What speakers to invite! What research to do! People are very protective of their freedom, which is great, but it makes things harder in so many cases, as they may become protective of their freedom "just in case", preemptively, before any actual conflict arises.

Another, related complication, as there is no culture of escalation and arbitrage. In the corporate world if you say "do it", and another person or function says "don't do it", you can always escalate to the management, have a meeting, and agree on the priorities. There is typically a procedure for resolving conflicts, and there is a clear power, so when sales and IT have a conflict, they just calculate the costs, have a meeting, put these costs together, and delegate the decision up. In academia the structure is much flatter, the responsibilities are less clear, and there is no culture of escalation. If you would write to the dean about a conflict with another faculty, it would be perceived as an insult and open war, not as a working moment that happens literally every other week. Which means that pretty much conflicts of interest can sit there for years without ever being resolved.

Finally, the last issue is that academics really like to think, analyze, and look into details, and really don't like making decisions. Which is the exact opposite of the corporate world: there people usually work against a pressure of time, so they know (or are taught hard way) that in many cases it's more important to make a decision, any decision, than over-eanalyze and procrastinate. So, at least in my experience, in the corporate world when you call a meeting, present your analysis, and no obvious red flags are identified, typically people vote for a "go" decision, and immediately send a proposal to the management. In academia typically nobody would believe your analysis, because they will feel that they need to do it themselves (not that they have the time of course), and then several hypothetical reservations will be voiced, and "what if" scenarios will be described, and a few people in the room will have some strong reservations they'll never voice (because, again, there is no culture of conflict resolution), and then everybody would agree to give it another thought, and maybe reconvene in half a year, or maybe form a committee, and give it another look, so forth and so on. There is no decision culture, and things can drag forever, even when people are generally sympathetic to the cause, just because they don't have a habit of working small things out in order to push something big forward.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Cheat sheet for a busy professor

I was asked by a colleague to share some hacks and cheats that make life of a SLAC professor easier. Here's a quick list I came up with:

Grading:
  • Challenge every assignment: is it really needed? What purpose does it serve? Would a shorter / easier to grade assignment serve this purpose better?
  • Challenge the number of assignments: can you remove one? Don't create busywork.
  • Taking feedback is hard, so there's no point in critiquing more than one point at a time. If aspect A needs to be improved the most, don't even comment on aspect B for a while.
  • Students don't understand complicated rubrics, so don't use complicated rubrics.
Teaching:
  • Sometimes you don't need to prepare for classes in-depth, as most important confusions lie on the surface, and improvising with the blackboard, in dialogue with the students, may actually be more useful for them.
  • But if you need to prepare, prepare well so that you could reuse it fully next year.
  • If something didn't work, or you have an idea, write it down now; your future you (in a year) will be very grateful.
  • Use your own work / things you think about in your research at least once a semester; it makes it easier for you, and more fun for them.
  • Don't be afraid to teach fun topics instead of "useful topics"; "standard courses" are overrated. Your goal is not to bring them from point A to point B, but to encourage them to get there themselves. Emotion is more important than content or skill-drills.
Classroom:
  • Push as much work as you can to the students. Use things like reflective writing, discussions, pair-share, peer-review. Make them submit questions before class instead of generating all questions for them. Bounce their questions back to them. It so happens that most techniques that are proven to be more effective in teaching are also easier for the teacher, even if they feel risky and weird. Learn the best practices from good books, and use them to your advantage.
Research:
  • Integrate research with teaching in all ways possible.
  • Use labs for pilot experiments, to troubleshoot your methods.
  • Use honors theses for pilot experiments, to generate some data.
  • Bend upper college courses towards your current interests, to give you an excuse to read a few more reviews / primary papers.
Time management:
  • Schedule in chunks of few hours; don't break chunks. Don't give in to temptation to use these chunks for urgent matters. If it's research time, do research.
  • Do only things that are either important (even if they are unpleasant), or that you like to do (even if it feels that you're indulging yourself). Don't do kind-of-useful things that you don't like. Nobody cares about them anyway, and they drain your willpower stamina. Only critical strikes + fun stuff. That's what makes the difference.
  • Use some kind of a GTD-inspired time / e-mail / project management system. Google inbox seems promising, but I haven't used it yet. I use Google Keep, with a note for each project / class, and a checkbox for each action step.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Safe spaces

I actually like the idea of safe spaces in college. But not because they allow students to hide from the world; on the contrary, I like them because they offer a training ground.

In a way, the only reason we would need safe spaces at all, is because we are engaged in unsafe activities. Risky discussions, dangerous thoughts. Students deserve "safe spaces": classes that are designed so carefully, and so kindly, that they can explore conflicting opinions without the risk of repercussions. Students need to have a chance to explore merits of controversial ideas, ask problematic questions, all while knowing that they are covered by some kind of a "blanket intellectual insurance".

(And by the way, it does not feel like colleges offer these safe spaces right now. At least here at Bard students seem to feel very unsafe when controversial topics are brought up. It's a challenge. Discussions don't happen; everything just shuts down.)

Think about it. Questioning Aristotle does not mean that you disagree with Aristotle in your private life, as a private citizen, and subscribe to, say, the philosophy of Plato (let's assume it is out of vogue for solid moral reasons). It means literally what it means: that you are currently, temporarily, engaged in questioning Aristotle. It is your assignment, perhaps, to question the validity of Aristotle's logic, or his claims, or the practical consequences of his thought, and so that is what you do. Because you were assigned to explore this position. Once the class is over, you are free to go your way, and be as Epicurean or Cynical as you wish, but right now the topic of the day is "questioning Aristotle", and so students in class should (ideally) feel comfortable enough to do so.

Safe spaces are good. A gym with mats is a safe space - because it has mats. The fencing room with masks and bending sabers is a safe space as well. The safety harness on a rock climber is, well, exactly the thing that turns their climbing practice a (relatively) safe exercise. The same is true for college. It is an intellectual harness, an intellectual mat; a mask perhaps (rich metaphors here). It is absolutely necessary.

And once the "safe space" is there, we can use them to discuss morally questionable topics and opinions. Because we need to discuss morally questionable opinions, it is our civil duty! If we stop questioning the morality of our opinions, or any opinions for that matter; if we believe in them unthinkingly; if we don't weigh them on the poorly defined intuitive and intellectual scales of morality, we are doomed. Opinions exist to be questioned, ethically, intellectually, morally; and where else if not in college would one practice this skill. To stay tactful and kind against all odds; to experience anger, disgust, and indignation without letting them breach on the surface, but using them as fuel for deeper thought and even more careful, deliberate dialogue. Not a debate (debates are ultimately evil, for a different reason), not as an attempt to win, to prove, to break, or impress somebody. But as a slow, sincere, painstaking attempt to establish a working relationship with a different opinion. And maybe (but not necessarily), arrive at a compromise, or maybe (again, not necessarily), reject one of the opinions as unproductive: the outcomes may differ, but the process is the same.

With that, hail to safe spaces, and to morally questionable discussions in the classroom! They are absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More on scientific bottlenecks

If you think of it, even during "peaceful times" academia is full of bottlenecks. I was on a job market just 3 years ago, and  I remember this feeling very well: you get trained for some 12 years (feels long!), and now you pretty much have 2 years (feels very short!) to make a jump to the next level (professorship), with something like only 2-3 attempts per year. So about 6 attempts overall! If you don't make it, you are mentally prepared to quit. Because by that time you are probably exhausted, and you are probably in your mid-30s, and you want a family, a place to live, and the clock is ticking.

So a person arrives at this landing pier and waits for a ferry to come, for a job to open, at mercy of random luck of somebody retiring. Somebody who used to teach exactly the courses this new person can teach; exactly in the field they are interested in; and in the region where they are OK to live. They are waiting there, like Frogger on a moving log, with this very limited time to make the leap. Because after that both the guidelines for postdoc employment, and personal patience, and the faith of potential employers would probably run out.

This bottleneck of possibility feels completely ridiculous. I am sure there are great postdocs our there who can teach courses A and B, but we now need somebody who would teach C and D, and be a good teacher, and a good researcher, and be fine with moving to our neck of the woods. If you multiply all these probabilities, you end up with a ridiculously low number of qualified candidates. Call if "fit", or call it "luck", but it almost feels like a numerical problem. A candidate may be great, and the probability of them finding a job may be quite high, but there are only that many years to try, and only that many openings each year. It's a rather cruel system, if you think of it.

Especially considering that postdocs cannot hibernate like bears from one job season to another.

(And even if they could, they'd loose "research momentum" while in hibernation, so it would not have worked anyways).

I'm guessing good mentorship would really make a difference in this situation, as a mentor could help a candidate to understand what part of their CV or application package to boost, how to hone their research talk, how to get "street credibility" if they are applying to an adjacent field (say, a computational neuroscientist to a computer science position). But it seems that most postdocs don't have this mentorship for some reason.

By the way, that's also the main reason I think age-restricted scholarships are evil. It's bad enough that everybody die, and get older, and are scared of missing the Frogger-train. Adding some artificial deadlines to this story, and making people who were on a maternity leave, or changed careers, or served in the army, - making them explain how they are not as old as they seem to be - that's just plain evil.

I guess time to join some support group, and maybe support or mentor somebody somewhere, to pay it forward and dispel the gloom.