Monday, October 30, 2017

Why I like intelligent machines spying on me

Last week on Reddit people repeatedly freaked out about artificial intelligence machines (Facebook, Google, Amazon) spying on us, humans. Listening to keywords we utter through phone apps that run in the background; inferring who our friends are based on WiFi networks we connect to, and so on.

And I have to admit that in principle I actually like the idea of advertisers spying on me. For two very different reasons.

One, I am a big fan of targeted advertisement. The day when Instagram finally figured that I'm not buying a new luxury car, but instead started advertising books, I celebrated. I actually tried to pat the AI on the back, to trick it into showing even more books-related ads (I'm not sure it worked, but I kept promoted posts on the screen for a bit longer, as I think it tracks it, and then also clicked on some every now and then). Because I'd really much rather stare at book covers or fancy musical instruments than at cars and fashion items. I'll never buy either, but hey books are so much more enjoyable! And as long as ads are unavoidable, at least let's pick the ones we care about.

Second, I think the privacy is dead, but the society is in denial and does not realize that. It's a huge topic, and I have 5-6 draft posts saved that I never have time to finish, but basically the concept of privacy as we knew it is gone quite some time ago. We shed parts of our identity all the time, and it only takes some time and effort to figure out everything. Have you heard of this artist who collected hairs on the floor of Grand Central station in NYC, ran DNA tests on them, and then reconstructed faces of their owners? It was more of an art project, because we are not yet that good in facial reconstruction from DNA, but in principle it's quite doable. In 2-3 years if not now. Or have you heard about how it's possible to ID the driver based on how they turn, accelerate and break? The information that is recorded by any GPS device with a built-in accelerometer (aka smartphone). Privacy does not exist, yet there are no social or legal protections for the new world in which privacy does not exist. The sooner we realize it, the better. And in a crooked way, Facebook spying on people may accelerate changes in the society that would protect individuals from impacts of sudden exposure.

Again, that's a huge topic, but if you think of it, the main risk of living in post-privacy world is that some forces (your government, police, health insurance company) can access your life much easier than you can access theirs, and has much more to gain. It's the asymmetry of power that is dangerous, not the absence of privacy itself. Once we realize that everything that is hidden will be revealed, we have at least some chance of making sure it won't destroy us. It's like with Equifax breach: the breach is not the problem (some leak was bound to happen sooner or later), the problem is that our whole lives can be ruined by a single stupid number. Don't shoot the messenger, you know? And I think in this case Facebook and Google are, in a way, the messengers.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Books: "Lab Girl" by Hope Jahren

Everybody in the sciences have apparently read this book long ago; and I know of a professor who made all their students read it. So I felt a bit ashamed not having read it, and had big expectations about it.

Well, it's a great book, and I'm happy that it happened to be about scientists.

It's not a good "book about scientists" though.

I think it's an important distinction (and a horrible wording). My "liking" or "not liking" this book, or "recommending" vs. not recommending it to anybody (say, a student) would really depend on this framing.

I mean, there's genre f iction, and every now and then there's a person in fiction who happens to be a cook, or a policemen. This fact on itself would not make it a book about cooking, or about police, would it? "Indiana Jones" franchise is not really about archaeologists (even though the protagonist happens to claim this profession the calling of medicine), and "The adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is not really a book about the calling of medicine, even though one of the main characters is very much a doctor. And then there are books and movies about medical doctors specifically, that are created as such, to cater to the interest of the public, or maybe to ignite this interest. And you can discuss whether a certain portrayal of a certain profession is truthful, positive, negative, etc., which is one sort of a discussion; or you can discuss the plot, the soap opera, and whether the characters are psychologically plausible, which is a completely different discussion. These are two different dimensions, and a book or a movie can be great in one, and horrible in the other, or vice versa.

So my main trouble with "The Lab Girl" is that, while I totally loved the book, I feel a bit uncomfortable that it was picked by the scientific community, and transplanted from one category to another. From a moving memoir of a person who also happens to be a scientist, it was made into a book about scientists. I totally see the temptation: for one, there are not that many touching, human, vulnerable books that would truthfully describe scientific life. Science is often present in a cartoonish form in scientific fiction, apocalyptic thrillers, or books about political conspiracies, but psychological, literary books about sciences are rather rare. Second, books about women in science, written by women in science, are not that frequent, to put it mildly, and very much in need. Third, the topic of mental health and existential struggle, vulnerability, and success, are all extremely important ones, and ones traditionally shunned and downplayed by the scientific society. This book suddenly filled quite a few niches that were under-occupied, and it resonated with readers.

But at the same time, I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of normalizing some of the messages of this book: that science requires special sacrifices, that it demands from its followers not just monastic existence (which would be bad enough), but sort of transcendental, esoteric transformation, incompatible with free time, with family, with life, with pretty much everything. Science as a calling, a flame that consumes you, burning from within, the insatiable quest for knowledge, and so on and so forth. A field that you can enter only after being hazed by your elders, because if they don't torture you now, you won't be ready for the tortures of real life (sorry for the spoiler, I hope it's a minor one). I hate it. I mean, for every extreme feeling there exists a person who can live this hype and be happy, or normal, or functioning, so I gladly accept that there are people in the world that feel like that. But I would hate to live this kind of life, and I don't want any student ever think that to be a scientist they need to experience these extremes. Ideally, I want students to be mistaken that science can be a normal routine profession, maybe a bit demanding, maybe a bit under-payed and under-appreciated, all things considering, but still just one profession out of many, that just happens to be also be fun. Because I suspect that one of the ways to make scientific word less torturous is to raise a generation of people who would expect it to be normal, and demand this normality from those around them.

To sum up, I really liked this book, but I regret presenting it to a student last year without finishing it first. I hope we'll have more books written by scientist that would mention science casually, between love affairs and problems with teen-aged kids. Books that would use scientific metaphors, and describe real scientific anecdotes as a backdrop for the main story. So that this lovely book could become one of many, but not necessarily the one.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

New personal page, and a review of new Google Sites

Google has being slowly promoting their new Google Sites for about a year now, and recently I've moved most of my website to this new platform. Behold:


  • It looks really pretty, with these large sliding images on top and everything
  • Looks perfect both on a wide screen and a mobile phone (old google sites couldn't cope with a phone screen at all). I was critical of this feature at first, as I thought they were pushing the phone layout a bit too aggressively, but it turns out that I was just formatting it wrong. If you just add one block of text below another, sure, it will look poor, kind of like mobile wikipedia, when opened on a computer. But what you should do is add columns, or put images on the side. Create a matrix. In a mobile format it will nicely reshape into a column-vector, so that's the best of both worlds.
  • Intuitive interface: it totally feels like Google was inspired by the recent development of Paper by Dropbox (which is awesome by the way), as the interface is clean, clear, and easy to use. It may be a bit harder to move large blocks around, but still possible.
  • If you know html, you'll appreciate that the blocks you add follow <div> mentality, and there's a logic behind div-embedding. While it is not shown to the user explicitly, if you ever worked with divs, you'll immediately recognize the structure (and beauty) of it.
  • I like the little magic thing they do when you put images behind text (they adjust the color of the font and the lightness of the image)
  • For now they don't support tables, and I need tables to publish protocols. But I think the Google team promised to eventually introduce them.
  • For now they only allow 1 level of subpages, but this thing they explicitly promised in one of their blog posts, so it should, theoretically, come live within about a year.
  • Very few styles for now, and it's impossible to create your own styles, but then again I think it will be changed in the future.
  • Impossible to attach files to the page, which was a very nice feature in old sites, both for hosting large-resolution images, and for uploading pdfs. I'm not sure whether they plan to implement it; I hope they would, otherwise I'll have to use external ftp storage for files.
But overall it definitely wins over Wordpress and Weebly, in my opinion, and hey it's free!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On race and teaching props

In one of my classes, I run a short lab on the rubber hand illusion, so naturally when I ran it for the first time I was in need of some fake rubber hands. I figured that for the illusion to work well, I'll need hands that are at least somewhat similar to real hands real people have. So my intention was to buy a bunch of small hands, a bunch of large hands, some light-skinned hands, and some dark-skinned hands. About 20% of our students are dark-skinned, and I guessed it would be silly to make them work with pale pink rubber hands.

(I think there is actually a study that showed that the illusion still works if the hand is of a different skin tone, or of a different size and shape than your own, but that it does not work that effectively. But I wanted to just demonstrate the illusion, and so needed the most robust effect.)

I went online to order some hands, and lo and behold... There are no fake brown hands on sale.

Look for yourself, here is the google images search for "Fake hand". Here's amazon search. All hands are light pink, not even tanned. Isn't it weird?

Why is it so? About third of all fake hands are visibly zombified, so maybe it's considered a faux pas to manufacture dark-skinned zombie parts? That would be weird, but who knows, people are weird. Another third of hands are non-zombified Halloween props. Don't African American celebrate Halloween? Again, I don't know, I'm a foreigner, I have no idea. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. I'm sure some do. Still no Halloween hands for dark-skinned people.

But the last third of fake hands are actually props for different kinds of beauty industries. There are "nail mannequin hands" (google it) that are used to showcase nail art, then there are training mannequins that nail polishers and such use to practice, and finally hand mannequins to show jewelry in window stores. And if you google them, all of them are pink - with the exception of jewelry hand mannequins that also come in pitch-black (that looks cool and artsy, but totally unrealistic). And I'm pretty sure dark-skinned people use all sorts of nail beauty products, and rings, and manicure.

But there are no naturally dark-skinned fake hands on the market, period.

I actually thought I found one, which was ridiculously expensive compared to "white hands", and ordered it, but it turned out that the photo was bad, and then hand was barely tanned. Maybe a bit brownish, but definitely not what I was looking for.

The practical outcome for the students that day was that the dark-skinned students had to work with weaker effects than light-skinned ones, and were also reminded of a lot of interesting social aspects of race in science that I totally did not want them to be reminded of on that particular day. Of course I told them the whole story of hand-hunting before the lab, and we all laughed about it in a sad wise laugh of a person who've seen worse things in their lives, but I was still annoyed and disappointed by the whole situation.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Scientific funding

It seems to me that most people don't realize how much science can be hurt by fluctuations in scientific funding. And that's because most people don't realize how slow and vulnerable "scientific process" is.

I mean, if I didn't know better, I'd probably assumed that money to science is like fuel to a car. You give it a bit more gas, you move forward faster. You take your foot from a pedal, the car goes a bit slower. With this logic, a dip in funding would be just a dip. There was a surge during Obama administration, there could be a dip now, not a big deal, right?

Wrong, sadly. The nature of science is that it relies on thousands of individual people acquiring idiosyncratic skills in a quest for some highly fragmented knowledge. It takes about 12 years to develop a professional scientist: 12 years of manual painful nurturing handover from one person to another. It's quite an investment! And only after these ~12 years this person is ready to inherit one thread of  research, leading in one unique direction.

And that's exactly what makes dips in funding so devastating: it would cut through these unique threads and kill them, tear them off, strangling scientific progress. People are not bears: they cannot hibernate with their labs through the funding crisis, to start from the same place in four years from now. They also cannot just start doing everything 10 times slower (and cheaper) as lizards on a cold morning. They either run their labs (paying salaries, breeding animals, pumping air through HVAC systems etc.), or they stop, and this particular thread of research collapses. The running costs are pretty high. And people need to eat and feed families, so without funding they change careers, or move to other countries, but either way they disappear from science. If a limb gets ischemic - it dies.

Therefore a decrease in scientific funding is not at all like trying to save money by not eating out for a month. You can stop eating out, and you can start eating out again; that's not a big deal. But a decrease in scientific funding, for a taxpayer, is more like not feeding their dog for a year, or not paying their mortgage. When in a year you change your mind, the dog is dead, and the house is taken by the bank. And while it's technically possible to get a new house and a new dog, it suddenly becomes insanely more difficult, much more expensive, and takes way too long.

And for a government, to stop paying for science, is not just about not continuing the work of their predecessors, or correcting their plans in some way. It's more like consciously burning everything their predecessors built, in a pyre. Which is thing not unheard of, obviously, but at least in some cases (say, in case of medical insurance) this ritual pyre is at least advertised as such, and people have at least a chance of forming an opinion about it. There is some discourse, some discussion. In case of scientific funding, I feel, this discussion is largely absent, which is particularly troubling.

Another argument for the importance of scientific literacy, I guess.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Diversity statements and academic freedom

Some scholars (?) from Oregon have recently published a manifesto that calls "Diversity statements" that are now required for all newhires in the Oregon State University a violation of academic freedom. Does not it sound curious? Diversity statements violate academic freedom. That's surely something new!

Here's where I read about it:

And here's the full version of the "report" (essentially, a manifesto):

In short, the logic goes as following: Diversity statements invite people to comment on some sensitive topics, such as gender equality, LGBT issues, racial politics, and so on. Presumably, if a person does not share left-wing values, they won't be able to write a "smashing" diversity statement, and thus will be discriminated against. And that would be a violation of academic freedom.

On the surface it sounds kind of logical, but at the same time I feel it is as divorced from reality as it can possibly get. Diversity statements are not supposed to be an expression of one's agenda, neither political nor philosophical. A diversity statement generally serves two rather modest purposes:

1. It allows the candidate to present some of their redeeming features that are traditionally not put on a standard academic CVs, and that are hard to quantify, but that make them a more interesting person. Maybe they had an unusual period in life, a unique experience, some curious background. Anything that makes them less of a cookie-cutter clone of a perfect student. For the hiring committee, these unique experiences are a promise of some flexibility, at intellectual and personal level, and an opportunity for strategic team-building. It's nice to know that as a team we'll be able to better represent the complexity of the world around us; that we are not a set of 12 identical twins that will hate each other within a month! This makes the "Diversity statement" pretty much the only part of the application package where one can spin their personal story, that could otherwise be perceived as a weaknesses, as a strength. For example, you went to grad school really late because you were doing something else for 10 years, and now you have fewer publications behind your belt? Here's your chance to explain that. There are probably other people around that can relate to this story, so it would be helpful to have a prof on the team who knows how this side of life works.

2. Perhaps more importantly, the diversity statement is an opportunity for the candidate to show that they thought about issues of inclusiveness in the classroom, and have at least some ideas, even if rudimentary, about ways in which students may be different; how it can affect their education, and what can be done about it. Nobody is perfect, everything is highly personal, and I am quite convinced that by definition there is no "perfect" diversity statement, but it's an extra opportunity to guess whether the candidate is thinking about these issues at all. Whether they are humble of heart, ready to change if needed, and are driven by kindness. What you don't want is to hire somebody who only believes in tall athletic brunets (or short nerdy blondes, it doesn't matter what profile we are talking about), and is only prepared to work with this type of students. Hiring a person like that would be a huge disservice to the students.

What I am trying to say is that the bar is pretty low. One: be a human. Two: be ready to change, and try to be kind. That's the crux of it; the rest is a commentary.

Moreover, most diversity statements I've seen were written so poorly that writing a passable one should be a really low bar. Gosh, they are usually even worse than teaching statements! And teaching statements are always bad, even in a teaching school; probably because teaching is a trade with little theory, and lots of experience and art aspects to it, which makes it hard to write a meaningful one-pager about these things. But while teaching statements are always pretty bad, diversity statements are even worse. On this background, any thinking human who is not completely evil should be able to do a decent job.

Which brings me to my last point. Actually, as I think of it now, it should not be too hard to write a good diversity statement even if you are covered with tattoos of red stripy star-covered elephants and yellow hissing snakes from toes to shoulders. Because ultimately this whole concern about right thinkers not being represented in academia is a concern about diversity!! (They don't use the word diversity in the "report", as I guess it would have been too ironic, but that's what they actually seem to mean when they say "academic freedom"). A person who can relate to conservative students, and who can describe that kindly and thoughtfully, would be a great asset on any team. They just need to stay practical and write about teaching and work, and not about their treasured philosophy. (Because if they work in political science or gender studies, they can write about it in their research statement, and if they don't - it's irrelevant, exactly for academic freedom reasons). Just think about inclusive classroom, and how you'd make sure that you make your students succeed even if they are tall nerdy red-heads or whatever. Concentrate on topics of outreach, transcending political boundaries, and building a welcoming, constructive atmosphere. And it will be fine.

tldr: It's a non-issue and straw-man argument; diversity statements are useful, easy to write, and don't violate academic freedom.