I have no idea how I do what I do (spoke the dermatologist)

by reestheskin on 21/02/2018

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This article (‘Humans may not always grasp why AIs act’) in the Economist gets to the right answer, but by way of a silly example involving brain scanning. The issue is that people are alarmed that that it may not be possible to understand how AI might come to a certain decision. The article rightly points out that we have the same problem with humans. This issue looms large in medicine where many clinicians believe they can always explain to students how they come to the correct answer. The following is one of my favourite Geoff Norman quotes:

Furthermore, diagnostic success may be a result of processes that can never be described by the clinician. If the right diagnosis arises from pattern recognition, clinicians are unlikely to be able to tell you why they thought the patient had gout, any more than we can say how we recognize that the person on the street corner is our son. Bowen claims that “strong diagnosticians can generally readily expand on their thinking”; I believe, instead, that strong diagnosticians can tell a credible story about how they might have been thinking, but no one, themselves included, can really be sure that it is an accurate depiction.

We are Strangers to Ourselves, as Timothy Wilson put it.

“Debt douses every flame – it’s a great retardant.”

by reestheskin on 19/02/2018

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The result, he says, is not only a meek student population but also “the biggest Ponzi scheme in British history” – a comparison famously made by Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy.

“The great thing about a Ponzi scheme”, Professor Sutherland continued, “is that you can keep expanding it.”

(All the way to jail, some might say).

John Sutherland (‘The war on the old’ and now the ‘War on the young’, quoted in the THE. Not so much kindling a flame, nor even filling the vessel, then.

Human matters

by reestheskin on 15/02/2018

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“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”

Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm1, (2015)

via John Naughton

Living and working in Day 2

by reestheskin on 01/02/2018

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“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”

That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Jeff Bezos

How to be right. Always.

by reestheskin on 30/01/2018

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”Davos specialises in projecting a future from a recent past that took it by surprise,” Edward Luce quoting himself

This reminds me of a proof of calculus I learned all those years ago: infinitesimals, and all that.

Off piste, no more; and wear a helmet.

by reestheskin on 12/01/2018

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The endless concern about stamps of approval and achievement distorts education and can even rob an interesting career of its joys. A professor friend introducing students at an East Coast college to Beethoven was greeted with a dead-eyed question from the back of the class: ‘Excuse me professor, will this be in the test?


The fatal success of obfuscation

by reestheskin on 01/01/2018

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“For example, I studied Physics, so I learned about how physicists think… and it is not how most people think. They have these tricks which turn difficult problems into far easier problems. The main lesson I took away from Physics is that you can often take an impossibly hard problem and simply represent it differently. By doing so, you turn something that would take forever to solve into something that is accessible to smart teenagers.”

Daniel Lemire’s blog

But the opposite is now much more common. I think there are whole swathes of modern institutional and corporate life, that are designed to make the simple, complicated. At best, simple may sometimes be wrong, but complicated is usually useless — or much worse. I seem to remember Paul Jannsen, when asked why we do not seem to be able to discover revolutionary new drugs like we once did, respond: ‘in those days the idea of obviousness still existed’.

Shorting the futures

by reestheskin on 26/12/2017

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When asked why he had made so few films—thirteen features over a period of forty years—Robert Bresson invariably answered that it was hard to get funding for the sort of work he wanted to do. “Money,” he memorably said, “likes to know everything in advance.”


The dystopia is already here

by reestheskin on 22/12/2017

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Science fiction writer William Gibson coined the phrase, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It’s a well-known and oft-repeated line.

I’m proposing a slight variation, or perhaps a corollary principle:

The dystopia is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.


Marry Xmas.

Limits to bureaucracy

by reestheskin on 21/12/2017

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The finite speed of light ensures that no bureaucratic authority can be effective over large distances.

Freeman Dyson in brilliant form on the merits of space exploration. And what a way to respond to one’s critics:

I am happy to hear views contrary to my own. I hope there will always be clashes of cultures. I hope there will always be Malvolios to engage Sir Toby’s wits. With thanks to my critics.

Against the laity

by reestheskin on 20/12/2017

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“In the harshest single sentence of an otherwise gentlemanly book, he calls the French educational system “a vast insider-trading crime”.

An economist’s guide to the real world

“De Correspondent is ambitious in its ideals, yet modest in its claims”.

by reestheskin on 18/12/2017

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Seems a nice term of phrase for what the academy might once have been (and still should be). But I guess the the definition of the Fourth Estate in a networked world is broad.

“De Correspondent” and the blueprint for a successful membership model

Poetry in motion

by reestheskin on 05/12/2017

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Wikipedia has some (quoted) beautiful lines about the greatest fly half that I had the pleasure to watch on so many occasions at the old Arms Park.

[Barry] John ran in another dimension of time and space. His opponents ran into the glass walls which covered his escape routes from their bewildered clutches

Pockmarked people?

by reestheskin on 23/11/2017

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He is one of 10 case studies in Black Tudors, an enlightening and constantly surprising book about the men and women of African origin who found themselves on a cold island on the fringe of Europe amid a pale and pockmarked people.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann — a hidden history

Screwing people as the social norm

by reestheskin on 09/11/2017

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“Whenever a company decides it’s ok to screw its suppliers, its customers, or its employees, it is only a matter of time until it gets around to screwing all 3 groups. That is because the idea that screwing people is ok becomes the corporate mindset.”

Comment by Howard on I, Cringely

No HR solution available

by reestheskin on 19/10/2017

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This was a comment on on the political question of our time by Janesh Ganash in the FT, but to me it has a wider relevance, including how we think about higher education. Of course, people will keep perseverating, believing the contrary.

There is no human resources solution to an ideological problem.

Education is an admirable thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Two cultures revisited

by reestheskin on 28/09/2017

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I now add the phrase “learning outcomes” to the list of words and phrases that should never be used, along with “stakeholders,” “imbricate,” “aporia” and “performative.”)


Of low salaries and high tables

by reestheskin on 27/09/2017

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It was not deliberate policy; it simply seemed to be only men who applied, usually refugees from the twin miseries of academia: low salaries and high tables.

Ah, those were the days…

The Fear Index, Robert Harris

Like arguing with a table

by reestheskin on 21/09/2017

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When you ask me that question I am gonna revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time? As you stand there with a picture of the President defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table: I have no interest in doing it.

Barney Frank, in response to questioner at a town-meeting in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, broadcast on CNN (18 August 2009).


So-called norms of so-called reality.

by reestheskin on 20/09/2017

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Just last week, when faced with a report that its advertising numbers promised an American audience that, in certain demographics, well exceeded the number of such humans in existence, judging by U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that its numbers “are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.” Facebook’s intercourse with the public need not adhere to the so-called norms of so-called reality.

Make Mark Zuckerberg Testify

Got the fags; got the phone…

by reestheskin on 11/09/2017

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It’s almost vanishingly rare that we pick a new device that we always have with us,” the historian of mobile technology Jon Agar says. “Clothes—a Paleolithic thing? Glasses? And a phone. The list is tiny.

In 2014, Wall Street analysts attempted to identify the world’s most profitable product, and the iPhone landed in the top slot—right above Marlboro cigarettes. The iPhone is more profitable than a relentlessly marketed drug that physically addicts its customers.

The One Device, Brian Merchant

You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that

by reestheskin on 06/09/2017

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There’s a great line in Beckett,” she says, searching for a quote to capture this equipoise of light and dark. “I can’t remember who says it. ‘You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.’ There’s as much common sense in that as in all of Sophocles or Socrates or anyone else.”

Feels like it too.

Novelist Edna O’Brien on sex, books and a lifetime of defiance

A week in quotes: 5

by reestheskin on 18/08/2017

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“What we see unfolding right before our eyes is nothing less than Moore’s Law applied to the distribution of misinformation: an exponential growth of available technology coupled with a rapid collapse of costs.”

Frederic Filloux.

A week in quotes: 4

by reestheskin on 17/08/2017

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“In a profession that is all about untapping individual potential, increasingly impersonal corporatism hangs like a dark cloud”

Interview with Stephen Milner

A week in quotes: 3

by reestheskin on 16/08/2017

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”There are the cohorts of bureaucrats in every university making a living out of keeping score of publications and citations, manipulating the impact of papers and producing empty marketing verbiage extolling the supposed research excellence of their institutions.”

A week in quotes: 2

by reestheskin on 15/08/2017

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“Fortunately, Bowie’s schooling didn’t interfere with his education.”


A week in quotes: 1

by reestheskin on 14/08/2017

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“Management is the antidote to innovation.”

FT. Comment on an article about GSK.

Punctuated non-equilibrium

by reestheskin on 09/08/2017

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This is via the ever insightful Status-Q:

“A couple of months ago I quoted this phrase from Sam Altman:”

‘The hard part of standing on an exponential curve is: when you look backwards, it looks flat, and when you look forward, it looks vertical. And it’s very hard to calibrate how much you are moving because it always looks the same.’

Plotting the future | Status-Q

I talk about a variant of it that I thought Larry Summers used, although when I have tried to check my memory, I turn nothing up. I see two straight lines, one with a shallow gradient close to zero, the other with a steep one, joined at an inflection point. When you are on the shallow line, you never perceive anything is changing. And even when you know things are going to change  — or you wish for change —you have no idea when. At least with an exponential function you can calculate: with a sudden shift, all you can do is pray. An optimist is somebody who wishes the inflection point comes soon. As does the fool.

The end of an age of optimism

by reestheskin on 28/07/2017

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This is from CP Snow’s ’Two Cultures’. I have never read the book, always warming to critiques of it from others. But I like this snippet quoted by John Naughton, recently.

“I can’t help thinking of the Venetian republic in their last half-century. Like us, they had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident. They had acquired immense political skill, just as we have. A good many of them were tough-minded, realistic, patriotic men. They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had been crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.”

Maybe I should go back and look at it. CP Snow, Two Cultures