On this day 1966: Aberfan

by reestheskin on 21/10/2020

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I don’t remember where I was when JFK died; I was too young. And my brother, Alun,  still chastises me for not remembering where we were  when man first landed on the moon (answer: the West Cork hotel in Skibbereen, watching it on TV). I do however remember when my mother told me that Bobby Kennedy has just died after being shot. For some reason she had picked me up from school that day, and some  fragments of our conversation I can still hear. I would have been ten at the time, but an Irish mother and a Catholic school education, meant that the Kennedy clan were not too recondite for even a small boy to not know about.

There is one other ‘event’ from those 1960s days in Cardiff that I do remember well.  It was closer to home.  On this day, in  1966 I can remember the anguish of both my mother, and my Welsh father who had grown up in the Welsh valleys trapped on all sides by slag heaps, both literally and metaphorically.

From Wikipedia

The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at around 9:15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed Pantglas Junior School and other buildings.

The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million. The remaining tips were removed only after a lengthy fight by Aberfan residents, against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. Clearing was paid for by a government grant and a forced contribution of £150,000 taken from the memorial fund. In 1997 the British government paid back the £150,000 to the ADMF, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken.[emphasis added]

Some aspects of one’s politics are formed so young, you just forget where they came from.

Grahame Davies, a poet who writes in Welsh and English wrote the following words about another disaster — not Aberfan — but the deaths of 268 men and boys in an explosion at the Prince of Wales Colliery in Abercarn in 1878. They  seem apposite for my purpose.

We do not ask you to remember us:
you have your lives to live as we had ours,
and ours we spent on life, not memory.
We only ask you this – that you live well,
here, in the places that our labour built,
here, beneath the sky we seldom saw,
here, on the green earth whose black vein we mined,
and feel the freedom that we could not find.

The Aberfan disaster featured in the Netflix drama The Crown. In this dramatisation we learn that the Queen was advised to show some emotion — this was South Wales not the Home Counties. There are some heart-wrenching photographs in an article in the Smithsonian 1 — all the more powerful because they are in black and white. A quote from this article is below:

“A tribunal tasked with investigating the Aberfan disaster published its findings on August 3, 1967. Over the course of 76 days, the panel had interviewed 136 witnesses and examined 300 exhibits. Based on this evidence, the tribunal concluded that the sole party responsible for the tragedy was the National Coal Board.”

“The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above,” the investigators wrote in their report. “Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.”

Plenty of them still about.

  1. A History of the Aberfan Disaster From “The Crown” | History | Smithsonian Magazine. MEILAN SOLLYSMITHSONIANMAG.COM | Nov. 15, 2019,https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-aberfan-disaster-featured-crown-180973565/

Where there is muck, there is…science

by reestheskin on 20/10/2020

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The background is the observation that babies born by Caesarian have different gut flora than those born vaginally. The interest in gut flora is because many believe it relates causally to some diseases. How do you go about investigating such a problem?

Collectively, these seven women gave birth to five girls and two boys, all healthy. Each of the newborns was syringe-fed a dose of breast milk immediately after birth—a dose that had been inoculated with a few grams of faeces collected three weeks earlier from its mother. None of the babies showed any adverse reactions to this procedure. All then had their faeces analysed regularly during the following weeks. For comparison, the researchers collected faecal samples from 47 other infants, 29 of which had been born normally and 18 by Caesarean section. [emphasis added]

Healthy childbirth — How to arm Caesarean babies with the gut bacteria they need | Science & technology | The Economist

They always put me on hold. Thank You for Being Expendable

Years after I first returned from Iraq and started having thoughts and visions of killing myself, I’d call the Department of Veterans Affairs. They always put me on hold. 

NYT

Statisticians and the Colorado beetle

by reestheskin on 19/10/2020

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‘Statisticians have already overrun every branch of science with a rapidity of conquest rivalled only by Attila, Mohammed, and the Colorado beetle’

Maurice Kendall (1942): On the future of statistics. JRSA 105; 69-80.

Yes, that Maurice Kendall.

It seems to me that when it comes to statistics — and the powerful role of statistics in understanding both the natural and the unnatural world — that the old guys thought harder and deeper, understanding the world better than many of their more vocal successors. And that is without mentioning the barking of the medic-would-be-statistician brigade.

Coetzee on the last great man

by reestheskin on 18/10/2020

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“Like the rest of the leadership of the ANC, he was blindsided by the collapse of socialism worldwide; the party had no philosophical resistance to put up against a new, predatory economic rationalism. Mandela’s personal and political authority had its basis in his principled defense of armed resistance to apartheid and in the harsh punishment he suffered for that resistance. It was given further backbone by his aristocratic mien, which was not without a gracious common touch, and his old-fashioned education, which held before him Victorian ideals of personal integrity and devotion to public service…

… He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.” 

JM Coetzee on Nelson Mandela in the NYT

Attacking the devil

by reestheskin on 17/10/2020

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On that day in 1981 when he first sat at the pinnacle of British journalism, the editor’s desk at the Times, and wrote his first policy editorial, Harold Evans heard Abraham Lincoln’s voice in his ear. In 1861 the president had said he knew of nothing more powerful than the Times, “except perhaps the Mississippi”.

Another wonderful obituary in the Economics — this one about a great man, whose life was changed by an evil one whom to this day continues to be dirt on humanity.

There is Higher Ed and there is higher ed

by reestheskin on 16/10/2020

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That said, his [Chris Bustamente, president of Rio Salado College ] discussion underscored some of the stark labor realities driving the proposed solutions for increased access to higher ed. Rio Salado [in the USA] educates 60,000 students with 22 full time faculty and 1500 adjuncts. Let me say that again, Rio Salado educates 60,000 students with 22 full time faculty and 1500 adjuncts. And while a small percentage of these part-time faculty may do it for the love of teaching as Bustamente suggested, it’s all but certain the vast majority are teaching on subsistence wages to eke out a living, much like many of the students they serve. Such a mixed message about the power of a college education to set you free, at least financially, hasn’t been lost on me since my first adjuncting gig in 1997.

Jim Groom, The bloody waters of Higher Ed (a post from 2014)

Fornicating through the mattress of organisational flow diagrams

by reestheskin on 15/10/2020

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I think1 the words are mine:

Every time I hear the term line-manager used about an academic, retirement gets a day closer

But the great JK Galbraith (senior) had some words of his own on line-management (Galbraith, a famous Harvard Professor of Economics, was ambassador to India for JFK)

Galbraith proved up to the task, in part, as Bruce Riedel writes in “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis”, because he had access to the president and his aides. Most ambassadors report to the State Department, but the blunt Galbraith told the president that going through those channels was “like trying to fornicate through a mattress”.

Economist.

  1. I think they are mine, but apologies if I have nicked them …

Freckles and angel kisses

by reestheskin on 14/10/2020

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I had forgotten this piece I wrote a few years back for Reto Caduff’s amazing book onFreckles. Here it is:

Imagine at some future time, two young adults meet on an otherwise deserted planet. They are both heavily freckled. What would this tell us about them, their ancestors and how they had have spent their time? First, all of us learn early in life that skin colour and marks like freckles are unequally distributed across the people of this earth. They are most common in people with pale skin, especially so if they have red hair, and we all know that we get our skin colour from our parents. Second, freckles are most common in those who have spent a lot of time in the sun. So freckles betray both something about our ancestors, and how we ourselves have lived our life.

Skin colour varies across the earth, and the chief determinant of this variation has been the interaction between sunshine (more particularly ultraviolet radiation) and our skin over the last 5 to 50 thousand years. Dark skin is adapted so as to protect against excessive sunshine, whereas we think light skin is better adapted to areas where the sun shines less. As some humans migrated out of Africa, say 50,000 years ago, a series of changes or mutations occurred in many genes to make their skin lighter. Their skin became more sensitive to both the good and the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. One way this change was accomplished was the development of changes in a gene called the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), a gene we could also call a gene for freckles.

Skin and hair colour arises from a mixture of two types of the pigment melanin: brown or eumelanin, and red, or pheomelanin. If the MC1R works effectively, eumelanin is favoured; if the MC1R  works less well, pheomelanin is favoured. We know that the change to pheomelanin is associated with skin that is more sensitive to sunshine. When people who harbour changes in MC1R are exposed to sun they are much more likely to develop freckles, than those who contain no changes in their MC1R.

And what about the freckles themselves? They are just tiny areas of melanin production. Ironically, to the best of our knowledge the freckles themselves seem to protect against the sun quite effectively. It is the non-freckled areas that are most sensitive to the sun. If in a bid to protect skin against the harmful effects of excessive sun, we were to join all the freckles up, the sensitivity might disappear. Of course, on a planet located far away in time and place, our two young adults might already possess the technology to join all their freckles together. It is just that they chose not to.

Timescales

by reestheskin on 12/10/2020

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A year ago, “TT [tenure track] or bust” was a common but ill-advised attitude toward the job market. That attitude should be unthinkable today. COVID-19 is an accelerant to a fire in academia that has been raging for at least a decade. When that fire is finally extinguished, the landscape of higher education will be unrecognizable at best and decimated at worst.

What I learned from leaving academic philosophy (Guest post by Samuel Kampa) — The Philosophers’ Cocoon

Think of it alongside a quote from Stephen Downes:

Educational providers will one day face an overnight crisis that was 20 years in the making. Link

Machiavelli on study habits (and passion).

by reestheskin on 12/10/2020

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After he had been dismissed from government, and implicated in the anti-Medici conspiracy, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, before returning to the family farm. But his passions ran deep.

…Machiavelli was unable to turn his mind from politics. ‘I could not help but fill your head with castles in the air,’ he wrote to Vettori in 1513, ‘because since Fortune has seen to it that I do not know how to talk about either the silk or wool trade, profits or losses, I have to talk about politics.’ He spent the days chewing the fat with woodcutters on the farm and playing cricca in the tavern. But in the evening, he told Vettori,

I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable court of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them … and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that: no one understands anything unless he retains [it], I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus. [emphasis added]

Erin Maglaque · Free from Humbug: The Murdrous Machiavel · LRB 16 July 2020

Mindlessness

by reestheskin on 10/10/2020

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I cannot see the future, but like many, I have private models that I use to order the world, and for which I often have very little data. For instance, I think it obvious that the traditional middle-class professions (medicine, lay, veterinary medicine, architecture, dentistry, academia) are increasingly unattractive as careers1. I am not complaining about my choices — far from it; I benefited on the tailwinds of the dramatic social change that wars and other calamities bring. But my take on what has happened to school teachers and teaching is the model for what will happen to many others. I say this with no pleasure: there are few jobs more important. But the tragedy of schoolteaching — which is our tragedy — will continue to unfold as successive gangs of politicians of either armed with nothing more than some borrowed bullet points play to the gallery. Similarly, in higher education within a timescale of almost 40 years, I have seen at first-hand changes that would make me argue that not only are the days of Donnish Dominion(to use Halsey’s phrase2) well and truly over, but that most UK universities will be unable to recruit the brightest to their cause. I think we see that in clinical academia already — and not just in the UK. Amidst all those shiny new buildings moulded for student experience (and don’t forget the wellness centres…); the ennui of corporate mediocrity beckons. The bottom line is the mission statement.

As for medicine, a few quotes below from an FT article from late last year. I assume that without revolutionary change, we will see more and more medical students, and more and more doctors leaving mid-career. If you keep running to stand still, the motivation goes. And that is without all the non-COVID-19 effects of COVID-19.

One of the major factors for doctors is the electronic record system. It takes a physician 15 clicks to order a flu shot for a patient, says Tait. And instead of addressing this problem, healthcare companies end up offering physicians mindfulness sessions and healthy food options in the cafeteria, which only frustrates them further…[emphasis added]

Over the past few years, efforts have been made to increase the number of medical schools in the US to ensure that there is no shortage of doctors. “When you think about how much we’ve invested to create, roughly, 10 to 12 new medical schools in the last decade, at hundreds of millions of dollars per school, just to increase the pipeline of physicians being trained, we also need to think at the far end of the physicians who are leaving medicine because of burnout,” says Sinsky.

Take the case of a final-year resident doctor in New York, who spends a considerable part of his shift negotiating with insurance companies to justify why his patient needs the medicines he prescribed. “When I signed up to be a doctor, the goal was to treat patients, not negotiate with insurance providers,” he says.

According to Tait, 80 per cent of the challenge faced by doctors is down to the organisation where they work, and only 20 per cent could be attributed to personal resilience.

Re the final quote, 80:20 is being generous to the organisations.

Burnout rife among American doctors | Financial Times

  1. Richard and Daniel Susskind provide a good take on this theme. See The Future of the Professions OUP, 2015.
  2. Decline of Donnish Dominion : the British academic professions in the twentieth century, Halsey, A. H. OUP, Oxford, 1992.

The biomass of parasitism approaches unity.

by reestheskin on 09/10/2020

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Many years ago I was expressing exasperation at what I took to be the layers and layers of foolishness that meant that others couldn’t see the obvious — as defined by yours truly, of course. Did all those wise people in the year 2000 think that gene therapy for cancer was just around the corner, or that advance in genetics was synonymous with advance in medicine, or that the study of complex genetics would, by the force of some inchoate logic, lead to cures for psoriasis and eczema. How could any society function when so many of its parts were just free-riding on error, I asked? Worse still, these intellectual zombies starved the new young shoots of the necessary light of reason. How indeed!

William Bains, he of what I still think of as one of the most beautiful papers I have ever read1, put me right. William understood the world much better than me — or at least he understood the world I was blindly walking into, much better. He explained to me that it was quite possible to make money (both ‘real’ or in terms of ‘professional wealth’) out of ideas that you believed to be wrong as long as two linked conditions were met. First, do not tell other people you believe them to be wrong. On the contrary, talk about them as the next new thing. Second, find others who are behind the curve, and who were willing to buy from you at a price greater than you paid (technical term: fools). At the time, I did not even understand how pensions worked. Finally, William chided me for my sketchy knowledge of biology: he reminded me that in many ecosystems parasites account for much, if not most, of the biomass. He was right; and although my intellectual tastes have changed, the sermon still echoes.

The reason is that corporate tax burdens vary widely depending on where those profits are officially earned. These variations have been exploited by creative problem-solvers at accountancy firms and within large corporations. People who in previous eras might have written symphonies or designed cathedrals have instead saved companies hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting trillions of dollars of intangible assets across the world over the past two decades. One consequence is that many companies avoid paying any tax on their foreign sales. Another is that many countries’ trade figures are now unusable. [emphasis added].

Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International by Matthew C. Klein, & Michael Pettis.

  1. William Bains. Should you Hire an Epistemologist. Nature Biotechnology, 1997.

Go west young man

by reestheskin on 08/10/2020

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But after completing medical training, Sacks fled the homophobic confines of his nation and family—his mother had called him “an abomination.” Paul Theroux tells Burns that Sacks’s “great luck” was ending up in Los Angeles in 1960, where he found ample “guys, weights, drugs, and hospitals.”

Advance requires those who can imagine new spaces, and medicine is even more hostile today than it was all those years ago. We pretend otherwise, thinking those tick-box courses will suffice, but real diversity of intellect is the touchstone of our future.

A case study of Oliver Sacks | Science

The History Men

by reestheskin on 07/10/2020

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I read Malcolm Bradbury’s satire The History Man many decades ago and loved it as a satire on university life (and which demonstrated to me why medical schools and universities were unlikely bedfellows).

The History Man is Malcolm Bradbury’s masterpiece, the definitive campus novel and one of the most influential novels of the 1970s. Funny, disconcerting and provocative, Bradbury brilliantly satirizes a world of academic power struggles as his anti-hero seduces his away around campus. (Amazon’s brief).

I have forgotten much of the detail, but not how fine a novel I thought it was, nor how funny I found it. But for every great thesis, there is an antithesis. Here is one:

Ignorance of history is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley. “The only thing that matters is the future,” self-driving-car engineer Anthony Levandowski told The New Yorker in 2018… I don’t even know why we study history,” Levandowski said in 2018.

Scientists use big data to sway elections and predict riots — welcome to the 1960s

I know which past — and future — I would prefer.

You don’t need a college degree

by reestheskin on 06/10/2020

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You don’t need a college degree

I dislike agreeing with the corporation that is Google as I am always suspicious of their motives, but in this narrow domain, they are surely correct.

College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security. We need new, accessible job-training solutions—from enhanced vocational programs to online education—to help America recover and rebuild.

A digital jobs program to help America’s economic recovery

I used to think universities were always the solution now I realise they are part of the problem.

Human origins: just a little messy

by reestheskin on 06/10/2020

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Nice article in the Economist on how our ideas about speciation have been revised and updated. And not just for those animals but for humans too. In their words:

To be human, then, is to be a multispecies mongrel.

Medicine is awaiting its own Photoshop

by reestheskin on 05/10/2020

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My experience is limited, but everything I know suggests that much IT in healthcare diminishes medical care. It may serve certain administrative functions (who is attending what clinic and when etc), and, of course, there are certain particular use cases — such as repeat prescription control in primary care — but as a tool to support the active process of managing patients and improving medical decision making, healthcare has no Photoshop.

In the US it is said that an ER physician will click their mouse over 4000 times per shift, with frustration with IT being a major cause of physician burnout. Published data show that the ratio of patient-facing time to admin time has halved since the introduction of electronic medical records (i.e things are getting less efficient). We suffer slower and worse care: research shows that once you put a computer in the room eye contact between patient and physician drops by 20-30%. This is to ignore the crazy extremes: like the hospital that created PDFs of the old legacy paper notes, but then — wait for it — ordered them online not as a time-sequential series but randomly, expecting the doc to search each one. A new meaning for the term RAM.

There are many proximate reasons for this mess. There is little competition in the industry and a high degree of lock-in because of a failure to use open standards. Then there is the old AT&T problem of not allowing users to adapt and extend the software (AT&T famously refused to allow users to add answering machines to their handsets). But the ultimate causes are that reducing admin and support staff salaries is viewed as more important than allowing patients meaningful time with their doctor; and that those purchasing IT have no sympathy or insight into how doctors work.

The context is wildly different — it is an exchange on the OLPC project and how to use computers in schools, but here are two quotes from Alan Kay that made me smile.

As far as UI is concerned — I think this is what personal/interactive computing is about, and so I always start with how the synergies between the human and the system would go best. And this includes inventing/designing a programming language or any other kind of facility. i.e. the first word in “Personal Computing” is “Person”. Then I work my way back through everything that is needed, until I get to the power supply. Trying to tack on a UI to “something functional” pretty much doesn’t work well — it shares this with another prime mistake so many computer people make: trying to tack on security after the fact …[emphasis added]

I will say that I lost every large issue on which I had a firm opinion.

Following the science

by reestheskin on 03/10/2020

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That “scientific management” bungled the algorithm for children’s exam results, verifies a maxim attributed to J.R. Searle, an American philosopher: if you have to add “scientific” to a field, it probably ain’t.

AD.Pellegrini in a letter to the Economist.

I have written elsewhere about this in medicine and science. We used to have physiology, but now some say physiological sciences; we used to have pharmacology, but now often see pharmacological sciences1. And as for medicine, neurology and neurosurgery used to be just fine, but then the PR and money grabbing started so we now have ‘clinical neuroscience’ — except it isn’t. As Herb Simon pointed out many years ago, the professions and professional practice always lose out in the academy.

  1. Sadly, my old department in Newcastle became Dermatological Sciences, and my most recent work address is Deanery of Clinical Sciences — which means both nouns are misplaced.

Helicopter parenting

by reestheskin on 02/10/2020

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The following is from Scot Galloway at NYU Stern. He shoots from the hip, and sometimes only thinks afterwards. But he is interesting, brave, and more often right than most. I think I would have hated what he said when I was ready (sic) to go to university. But now, I think I wasn’t, and for medicine in particular, allowing 17 year olds to fall into the clutches of the GMC and their ilk should be a crime against….

Gap years should be the norm, not the exception. An increasingly ugly secret of campus life is that a mix of helicopter parenting and social media has rendered many 18-year-olds unfit for college. Parents drop them off at school, where university administrators have become mental health counselors. The structure of the Corona Corps would give kids (and let’s be honest, they are still kids) a chance to marinate and mature. The data supports this. 90% of kids who defer and take a gap year return to college and are more likely to graduate, with better grades. The Corps should be an option for non-college-bound youth as well.

United States Corona Corps | No Mercy / No Malice

Alas poor Copernicus: when consultancy masquerades as expertise

by reestheskin on 01/10/2020

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“We’re going through a Copernican revolution of healthcare, where the patient is going to be at the centre. The gateway to healthcare is not going to be the physician. It’s going to be the smartphone.”…

and

“Christofer Toumazou, chief scientist at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, says there are “megabucks” to be saved by using technology and data to shift the focus of healthcare towards prevention.”

Ahem. I have been reading Seamus O’Mahony’s excellent Can Medicine be Cured in which he does a great job of following up on the crazy hype of big genetics from 20 year ago (and many other areas of sales masquerading as science). The above quotes are from only seven years ago. Still crazy after all these years, sings Paul Simon. Health care excels at adding tech as a new layer of complexity rather than replacing existing actors. And when will people start realising that prevention — which may indeed reduce suffering — will often increase costs. Life is a race against an army of exponential functions.

 In the FT

The function of higher learning

by reestheskin on 30/09/2020

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The task of a university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue. The future is big with every possibility of achievement and of tragedy.

Nobody then would have imagined how bad it would get. The final word was prescient.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aim of Philosophy in Modes of Thought, 1938

The way Brenner sees the world

by reestheskin on 29/09/2020

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Alas, there will no more new ones of these, as arguably the greatest of modern biology’s experimentalists, Sydney Brenner, passed away last year. One of his earlier quotes — the source I cannot find at hand — was that it is important in science to be out of phase. You can be ahead of the curve of fashion or possibly, better still, be behind it. But stay out of phase. So, no apologies for being behind the curve on these ones which I have just come across.

Sydney Brenner remarked in 2008, “We don’t have to look for a model organism anymore. Because we are the model organisms.”

Sydney Brenner has said that systems biology is “low input, high throughput, no output” biology.

Quoted in The science and medicine of human immunology | Science

Image source and credits via WikiCommons

“At a certain age, there is only one subject.”

The fuller quote is:

She [Sigrid Nunez] was already well into her next novel by the time “The Friend” climbed bestseller lists. “What Are You Going Through”, out now, is not exactly a sequel, she says, but “these books belong together.” Both are “preoccupied with death”. And with ageing: “At a certain age, there is only one subject.”

The night must be drawing in.

The sudden success of Sigrid Nunez. Economist.

Words, dear boy…

Two quotes from Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB. The first, quoting Saki (H H Munro).

The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.

The second, his own.

In this demented solipsism, the entire American past is shrink-fitted so that it hugs Trumps own ample figure, cleaving both to his greatness and his victimhood as an object of unparalleled persecution.

With more than one bound he was free

by reestheskin on 26/09/2020

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No certification, here.

As miserable in the job as he was smart, autodidactic, and headstrong, he managed to escape a soul-destroying future trapped behind a shop on the counter by persuading his Latin tutor to hire him as a student teacher, then convincing his mother to pay off the indenture and set him free.

The Future was His, Maya Jasanoff in the NYRB, reviewing Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century by Sarah Cole.

As light as a bag of wind

by reestheskin on 25/09/2020

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In my ignorance I had always assumed that the ‘Haldane’ of the Haldane Principle1 referred to the great and singular geneticist and physiologist JBS Haldane. Not true. JBS once remarked that God must have been inordinately fond of beetles because there are so many species of beetles, so with the Haldanes; (good) fortune is, it appears, inordinately fond of the Haldane clan. A relative of JBS, Richard Burdon Haldane — who did indeed come up with the Haldane principle — is the subject of a new biography by Philip Campbell, and a witty and sharp review in the FT by Philip Stephens.

Watching today’s politicians fall over their own mistakes as they fumble with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that securing high office once required more than a few years of dashing off political columns for a national newspaper. So the life and political times of Richard Haldane, the subject of John Campbell’s engaging biography, offers a fitting rebuke to the trivial mendacity and downright incompetence of the nation’s present administration.

Exaggeration, it is not. Haldane…

…an Edinburgh lawyer and philosopher-politician before becoming a minister in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal administrations, was an important champion of universal education and one of the founding fathers of the UK university system. He also found time to create the Territorial Army, and to have a hand in the foundation of the London School of Economics, the Medical Research Council and the Secret Intelligence Service…

As Asquith’s minister for war, he created the expeditionary force that saved Britain from defeat in the opening stages of the first world war. As Lord Chancellor, his judgments did much to set in place the federalist tilt of the Canadian constitution.

And if there is any doubt about his intellectual gravitas, the review is headed by an image of Haldane with Albert Einstein whom he hosted on the latter’s first visit to the UK in the 1920s. Just conjure up BoJo or Patel or Hancock when you read the above, or when you step on something unpleasant and slimy.

It also seems that Haldane might have performed slightly better across the dispatch box than some of the current irregulars. Clark McGinn writes

He [Haldane] is also one of the few men to have beaten Winston Churchill by riposte. Haldane was a portly figure and Churchill remarked on his girth by asking when the baby was due and what it would be called. Haldane retorted: “If it’s a boy it will be George after the King, a girl will be Mary after the Queen. But if it is just wind I shall call it Winston.”

  1. The Haldane Principle is the idea that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers instead of politicians. It is named after Richard Burdon Haldane. For a recent take on the Haldane Principle see David Edgerton, The ‘Haldane Principle’ and other invented traditions in science policy here.

Pay related performance

by reestheskin on 24/09/2020

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The following is from the Economist and is about schoolteachers.

A bigger question is how many of the new trainees will stay in teaching. Research in America shows that people who enter the profession during recessions tend to make better teachers than those who do not, perhaps because high-skilled workers have fewer other options during a downturn. But they are also a bit more likely to give up. England already has a problem retaining new teachers. About a fifth leave the job within two years of qualifying. About a third go within five.

I don’t have any systematic data on this topic, but the story appears familiar — if different in degree — across other public sector1 jobs such as nursing, higher education and possibly medicine. I am not reassured by the account below, rather, I think we are seeing structural changes that will continue to play out. The change in professional status of teaching and the resulting decline in morale always seemed to me to be the model for what might happen to medicine.

Sam Sims at the UCL Institute of Education says “muscular” policies that were put in place before the pandemic provide reason for optimism. Last year the government said that starting salaries would rise to £30,000 ($39,000) by 2022, a 23% increase. It is offering annual bonuses to teachers of subjects with the biggest shortages. And it is promising more mentoring and training for people who are new to the job. The idea is that new teachers will eventually consider themselves better-paid and better-supported than peers in many other professions. That might make Mr Seadon’s cohort a bit more likely to hang around.

  1. Yes, higher education can be considered a special case of ‘public sector’ to the extent that much of its funding is underwritten by the state and decision making is heavily determined by political factors.

Skin trade

by reestheskin on 03/09/2020

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No, not that sort of skin trade, but inking1. This is from an article in the Economist, and sadly, although I cannot show them here, the images are remarkable. But some nice word lines too about the acquisition of high level skills and apprenticeship — vocation, if you will.

In China several prominent tattooists are taking a different approach. They have set up schools. In Wu Shang’s studio four students are hunched over flat pieces of silicon rubber—mimicking skin, just like his model arms—trying to recreate images that they first painted on paper.

That might seem inoffensive, but it goes against a widespread but unwritten code. Masters may take an apprentice or two under their wings, but only if they are truly committed to the craft. The idea that anyone can just show up, pay a tuition fee and after a few months apply ink to skin leaves purists aghast. Even in China some are critical. Mr Shen, the neo-traditionalist, says that he honed his technique over many years by wielding needles by hand. “You need to learn about the relationship between skin and needle. You can’t just get that overnight in school,” he says.

Many university staff would echo these thoughts.

The new ink masters – China makes its mark on the world of tattoos | Books & arts | The Economist

  1. Image of traditional Samoan tattoo via WikiP. Attribution CloudSurfer CC BY 3.0

Education is…

Mr Handy says this gave him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes in private. He argues that “education is an experience understood in tranquillity. You look back and see where you went wrong.”

Looking back over his career, he believes that teaching and writing is all about creating the “Aha!” moment. That occurs when people realise that an idea the teacher or writer has advanced is both useful and something they already knew but had not articulated.

No Excel or TEF here. The plain language belies the depth of the insight.

Charles Handy, Reflections of a business guru – Bartleby