Optimising the production of Masterpieces and genius work

by reestheskin on 15/11/2016

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There is a witty spoof on the ‘contact hours = quality education’ debate (sic) in the THE. AKA why are ministers so stupid.

Ministers are concerned that despite large differences in the quality of novels, they all seem to cost the same. From now on, under the National Assessment of Fiction Framework (NAFF), the quality of novels will be scientifically measured according to the number of pages they contain, and prices will be set accordingly. Ministers are said to be delighted to have finally proved that Riders, Jilly Cooper’s 900-page epic, is three times better than Jane Austen’s insubstantial Pride and Prejudice.

It reminded me (yet again) to track down something I had read many times on Brian Randell’s web page here. Computing was lucky because the inventors got to do so much before the academy tried to close it down.

Masterpiece Engineering, T. H. Simpson, IBM Corporation, (Via Brian Randell’s web page here.)

“Here on this spot in the year 1500 an International Conference was held”.

It seems that a group of people had gotten together to discuss the problems posed by the numbers of art masterpieces being fabricated throughout the world; at that time it was a very flourishing industry. They thought it would be appropriate to find out if this process could be “scientificized” so they held the “International Working Conference on Masterpiece Engineering” to discuss the problem. As I continued walking round the garden, now looking a little closer at the ground, I came across the bones of a group, still in session, attempting to write down the criteria for the design of the “Mona Lisa”. The sight reminded me strangely of our group working on the criteria for the design of an operating system.

Apparently the Conference decided that it should establish an Institute to work in more detail on production problems in the masterpiece field. So they went out into the streets of Rome and solicited a few chariot drivers, gladiators and others and put them through a five week (half-day) masterpiece creation course; then they were all put into a large room and asked to begin creating. They soon realized that they weren’t getting much efficiency out of the Institute, so they set about equipping the masterpiece workers with some more efficient tools to help them create masterpieces. They invented power-driven chisels, automatic paint tube squeezers and so on but all this merely produced a loud outcry from the educators: “All these techniques will give the painters sloppy characteristics”, they said.

Production was still not reaching satisfactory levels so they extended the range of masterpiece support techniques with some further steps. One idea was to take a single canvas and pass it rapidly from painter to painter. While one was applying the brush the others had time to think. The next natural step to take was, of course, to double the number of painters but before taking it they adopted a most interesting device. They decided to carry out some proper measurement of productivity. Two weeks at the Institute were spent in counting the number of brush strokes per day produced by one group of painters, and this criterion was then promptly applied in assessing the value to the enterprise of the rest. If a painter failed to turn in his twenty brush strokes per day he was clearly under-productive.

Regrettably none of these advances in knowledge seemed to have any real impact on masterpiece production and so, at length, the group decided that the basic difficulty was clearly a management problem. One of the brighter students (by the name of L. da Vinci) was instantly promoted to manager of the project, putting him in charge of procuring paints, canvases and brushes for the rest of the organisation.

Some people try to optimise the shit out of everything. Or, as we might say in South Wales, ‘tearing the arse out of it’.

EdTech the Devil’s way.

by reestheskin on 29/10/2016

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Great post by Bryan Alexander, titled ‘ A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology’. If you work in it, you will recognise it. I will start off with my favourites

Powerpoint, n. 1. A popular and low cost narcotic, mysteriously decriminalized.

YouTube, n. The ideal educational technology: everyone likes and uses it, it’s reliable and free, and neither you nor anyone you know has to support it.

Here are a few more:

Active learning , n. 1.The opposite of obedience lessons.

Asynchronous, adj. The delightful state of being able to engage with someone online without their seeing you, while allowing you to make a sandwich.

Best practice, n. “An educational approach that someone heard worked well somewhere. See also ‘transformative,’ ‘game changer,’ and ‘disruptive.’” (by Jim Julius)

LMS, n. 1) A document management system, whereby a faculty member can transfer a single document to his or her students. Curiously overpowered for this purpose, nevertheless universally deployed.

2) A good way to avoid legal notices about copyright.

3) The graveyard of pedagogical intentions. A sump for IT budgets.

Nice procrastination piece, or reality check, depending on whether you teach or you deliver teaching.

‘You Americans have the best high school education in the world. What a pity you have to go to college to get it.’ In Alan Kay

Edtech redux

by reestheskin on 25/10/2016

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Blackboards, school buses, Nissen huts, and the pencil (via John Naughton, with original link here). Sadly, you have to invest time and effort in learning how to use it  — so little to recommend to the multitaskers


We don’t need no teachers

by reestheskin on 24/10/2016

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‘People pay a lot for a great education now, but you can become expert level on most things by looking at your phone.’

Sam Altman quoted in the New Yorker

It is just nice to see it in black and white. So simple. BTW, the quote came via the wiser (not ‘smarter’) Nick Carr, who commented: ‘By “a really good life,” Altman means a virtual reality headset and an opioid prescription’.

Failing again. Improved possibilities.

by reestheskin on 04/10/2016

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I have always thought two Irish writers great guides to life: Samuel Becket, and Brian O’Nolan (aka Brian Ó Nualláin, Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen ). Becket’s line, in a postcard of the lithograph by Tom Phillips of him, hangs on my wall: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” But now I have come across something more fitting for my state, and with optimism:

“I work on, with failing mind, in other words, improved possibilities.”

Review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV, in the FT.


by reestheskin on 01/10/2016

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“The original Apple Watch has 450 nits of brightness. The new one has 1,000 nits. That’s a lot of nits. In case you were wondering, a “nit” is a unit of luminance equal to one candela per square meter.”

My father used to call me a nit on a daily basis. Now I know he was being flattering. Tricky for us dermatologists, too

David Sparks

Bridget Jones on medical education

by reestheskin on 12/09/2016

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“And still her life is a relative mess. I like the message in that: that we can tick off the boxes, and yet we still don’t quite have it together. And that’s pretty much the truth of growing up, isn’t it?”  NYT

Well this is from Renée Zellweger talking about her Bridget Jones persona. But everywhere I look now I see the great and the good from HEE and the RCP admitting that all this tick- boxing has been a disaster and has subverted medical education. They were told this years ago. It is an irony of the age that those charged with directing postgraduate medical education, are most in need of it themselves. Worse still, the postgraduate world has been allowed to infect the undergraduate world.

Students are not fish

by reestheskin on 26/08/2016

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This is such a brilliant graphic from an article by Doc Searls posted on Medium and here.  A sort of universal metaphor (recursion intended) for universities, education and much else. Data rich, attention limited.

doc searls

doc searls



The GMC don’t get design

by reestheskin on 17/08/2016

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I am not going to comment on the content (the usual Newspeak), but if you were looking for an example of how not to design informative graphics or communicate, this has to be up there: Edward Tufte will have to kill yet more kittens.

Hospitals are inhospitable places

by reestheskin on 30/07/2016

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“Being in the hospital is horrible. They woke me up at 4:00 am once to ask whether I was sleeping well.”

Via Philip Greenspun, describing a friend with a terminal disease, and why he wanted to avoid chemo.

10 similarities between Higher Education and the Catholic Church

by reestheskin on 28/07/2016

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10 similarities between Higher Education and the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation? 

Ivan Illich might be concerned with at least one half of this comparison. But it is difficult to read it without feeling a little twinge of guilt. Short of original sin, of course. Donald Clark, in fine icon smashing form.

If the the student has no topic of his own, he should not even think of a PhD.

by reestheskin on 22/07/2016

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“On this note, he quotes mathematician and family friend Jacques Hadamard, apparently complaining about a student who asked for a thesis topic, “Can you imagine that? If he has no topic of his own, he should not even think of a Ph.D.!””

Which brings to mind David Hubel’s practice of trying to persuade students not to do a PhD — he only wanted the ones who ‘really’  wanted it, rather than those who were just judged able.

From a book review of Fractalist in Science


by reestheskin on 18/07/2016

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I didn’t know.

Two Stanford graduate students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, saw opportunity. Working from a trailer on campus, they began compiling websites into a list, organized by topic. They eventually named it Yahoo, an acronym for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.


I now have a new term for ‘learning outcomes’. Yahoo. Although ‘hideous’ competes with hierarchical

University web sites

by reestheskin on 10/07/2016

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Seen it before, but always makes me smile. And think.

The ratio of expertise or expense between what you currently spend on the students already registered with you, versus that which you spend attracting new students, is a statement of ethical values (or lack of them). The same goes for the staff who work for you already. Your current students may get a bunch of ugly  Powerpoints with no design support; the potential  students get professional videos.


The Quad and the aggrieved townsmen

by reestheskin on 14/06/2016

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On the origin of the university quad:

These facilities were often enclosed quadrangles that were accessed by defensible gated entrances to protect their scholars and faculty fellows from aggrieved townsmen.

From Wisdoms Workshop 

Broadcasting your rectal temperature…just so we know

by reestheskin on 23/04/2016

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Vicks sells a rectal thermometer with a Bluetooth transmitter and accompanying smartphone app. Under Armour has announced plans to put biometric sensors in the underwear and other garments it makes. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere companies won’t go to collect information about us.

Nicholas Carr,on surveillance and the internet of things.

Shakespeare: not much impact for the RAE/REF, then.

by reestheskin on 22/04/2016

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Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616, went largely unremarked by all but a few of his immediate contemporaries. There was no global shudder when his mortal remains were laid to rest in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. No one proposed that he be interred in Westminster Abbey near Chaucer or Spenser (where his fellow playwright Francis Beaumont was buried in the same year and where Ben Jonson would be buried some years later). No notice of Shakespeare’s passing was taken in the diplomatic correspondence of the time or in the newsletters that circulated on the Continent; no rush of Latin obsequies lamented the “vanishing of his breath,” as classical elegies would have it; no tributes were paid to his genius by his distinguished European contemporaries. Shakespeare’s passing was an entirely local English event, and even locally it seems scarcely to have been noted.

Stephen Greenbelt in the NYRB

Yes, I know not as good as the quip about Jesus of Nazareth: “A fine teacher, but didn’t publish”.

On bullshit (again)

by reestheskin on 20/04/2016

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This is referring to Harry Frankfurt’s excellent monograph on bullshit.

Frankfurt concluded that the difference between the liar and the bullshitter was that the liar cared about the truth — cared so much that he wanted to obscure it — while the bullshitter did not. The bullshitter, said Frankfurt, was indifferent to whether the statements he uttered were true or not. “He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”  Statistical bullshit is a special case of bullshit in general, and it appears to be on the rise.

And there is plenty to go around — even in medicine.

[or as one FT commentator christened it:“taurine waste”  a euphemistic reformulation of “bullshit”]

Half a colon is worth..

by reestheskin on 27/03/2016

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Now I know; I think.

Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Quoted by John O’Callaghan in the Economist.

by reestheskin on 22/02/2016

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Andrew Oswald in the THE

‘A key purpose of a PhD is to destroy a young person’s ability to enjoy leisure. Presumably, this is what it is like to be in the SAS’

But adds (salvation is on hand)

The world does not prosper when humans are consumed by duty.

I have read a fair bit about Clark Kerr, and skimmed some of his writings, but I had missed this titbit (quoted in Nature by Colin Macilwain). ‘It was Clerk Kerr, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who most memorably defined the role of a university administrator: to arrange parking for the staff, sex for the students and sports for the alumni’. I have a definitive opinion on the merits of two of these three issues.

MC1R, now the magazine.

by reestheskin on 12/11/2015

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Gee, now there is a magazine named after that gene I spent so much of my life studying (MC1R). I am not on commission.

A magazine for redheads and their appreciators, MC1R is proof that independents can grow fast by tapping into a clear niche. 

Launched last year in German, the magazine switched to English for issue two when founder Tristan Rodgers realised he’d stumbled across an editorial concept with truly global potential, and this third issue is his biggest and best yet. Smart and sexy (and tastefully NSFW in places) it’s a brilliantly focused read.

  • Ginger vs red: the great debate
  • Tracing the roots of mixed-race redheads
  • Beautiful Gingers – a photographic study
  • A cultural history of redheads

“He mocks the millions of dollars schools squander on golden parachutes for coaches with losing records. And he explores the far reaches of the infrastructure necessary to sustain big-time college football, like the “walkers” who escort players to classes to ensure they attend.” Gives me an idea…


Find x. So, come on: what’s the answer?

by reestheskin on 30/04/2015

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Via John Naughton from here (These Are Hysterically Genius…). So, what answer did you want, I hear you say….

Bullshit, all over again

by reestheskin on 27/04/2015

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Epidemiologists to be replaced by robots, and will need to retrain.

by reestheskin on 20/10/2014

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Well,  this did make me laugh. You cannot think about modern medicine without thinking about the generation of new useful knowledge, and how we can parcel out what knowledge we already possess and package it so that those with fewer experiential skills can use it. The latter is a bit of a mouthful, but I mean breaking tasks down such that they can be accomplished by those with less (expensive) training. So, do you need to be a dermatologist to undertake skin surgery: the answer is clearly no, but the exact answer  depends on exactly what type of surgery. There are parallels in other professions, such as using paralegals instead of lawyers. I cannot remember my sources but I think doctors made up around a  third of the health care workforce a century ago, where now it is 1 in ~14. This trend will continue, and our friendly machines will be looking for work too. Students be warned.

So, I was following up on this theme with some background reading, Race Against the Machine and all that. And I came across a study by Carl Benedikt Frey  and  Michael A. Osborne  with the title The Future of employment : how susceptible are jobs to computerisation? I cannot speak to their methodology, but they have come up with probabilities for how likely various jobs are likely to be replaced by the dreaded machines. What made me smile was that the estimate for ‘Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists’ was p=0.0045, but for Epidemiologist it was 0.2. Chuckle.


On why you might prefer med school to vet school. Philip Greenspun. Or not.

Edward Tufte, where are you now?

by reestheskin on 31/08/2014

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Well I am glad I am not the only one who thought this graphic was awful.  It is absolutely dreadful. Migraine inducing.



Please smile: where derm (and dentistry) meets the academy

by reestheskin on 14/08/2014

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Well, no longer are students  just consumers or clients, so I shouldn’t be surprised. The Time Higher (24/7/2014) reports that firms are offering graduating students digitally enhanced photographs at graduation. Body sculpting, complexion enhancement and smile enhancement, all available at low cost. Less is hidden than with many an honorary degree, perhaps…