A guide for our times

by reestheskin on 03/11/2016

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“It is a variant of the (at present unfashionable) historical method. It consists, simply, in trying to find out what other people have thought and said about the problem in hand: why they had to face it: how they formulated it: how they tried to solve it. This seems to me important because it is part of the general method of rational discussion. If we ignore what other people are thinking, or have thought in the past, then rational discussion must come to an end, though each of us may go on happily talking to himself.” from “The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge Classics)” by Karl Popper

In your final year, you get to crack eggs

by reestheskin on 31/10/2016

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“Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science. Until they were twelve, children would read about baseball technique and history, and occasionally hear inspirational stories of the great baseball players. They would fill out quizzes about baseball rules. College undergraduates might be allowed, under strict supervision, to reproduce famous historic baseball plays. But only in the second or third year of graduate school, would they, at last, actually get to play a game. If we taught baseball this way, we might expect about the same degree of success in the Little League World Series that we currently see in our children’s science scores.”

Alison Gopnik

‘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

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’.

“The immune system is unknowable, dynamic, complicated, and it always surprises you.” Stephen Deeks quoted in Science. And yet, useful discoveries are made, and have been made for a long time.

“If we want our health care practitioners to be more humanistic, perhaps we should begin by treating them as human beings.” Sarab Sodhi Academic Medicine

Marvin Minsky once quipped “Every educational reform is doomed to succeed”. He meant “with some students”.

Alan Kay

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.

‘Innovative’ educational practice is more fashion-driven than those who attend the catwalks are.

The NHS could then become a threadbare charity, available to avoid the embarrassment of visible untreated illness. Julian Tudor Hart  BMJ 2016:354;i4934

Use of the term world-class. Usually means one of the following: you are lazy, corrupt, or deluded. Rarely, it means something else that in almost all instances does not need saying. 

“Physicists studying sport have established that many fieldsmen are very good at catching balls, but bad at answering the question: “Where in the park will the ball land?” Good players don’t forecast the future, but adapt to it. That is the origin of the saying “keep your eye on the ball”.
As complex systems go, the interaction between the ball in flight and the moving fieldsman is still relatively simple. In principle, most of the knowledge needed to compute trajectories and devise an optimal strategy is available: we just don’t have the instruments or the time for analysis and computation. More often, the relevant information is not even potentially knowable. The skill of the sports player is not the result of superior knowledge of the future, but of an ability to employ and execute good strategies for making decisions in a complex and changing world. The same qualities are characteristic of the successful executive. Managers who know the future are more often dangerous fools than great visionaries.”

I think you could say the same about education and medicine: you can say less than you know.

John Kay

A sceptic’s weekend read

by reestheskin on 20/08/2016

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A nice dose of uncommon  common sense:

“The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, MaslowMyers-BriggsLearning StylesPiagetNLP, Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.”

Donald Clark Plan B

“It’s no accident that only 11% of the US workforce is passionate about their work. This is a sign of great success. This is exactly what these institutions were designed to do – suppress passion. It starts with our schools that seek to prepare us for all the other institutional environments seeking people who can reliably follow instructions and execute in a predictable manner. Think of our current institutions as powerful chisels, relentlessly chipping away at our edges until we fit neatly into the tightly defined roles that our institutions have create.

John Hagel

Somebody’s going to get paid less.

by reestheskin on 13/08/2016

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“If we’re really going to save money in health care, it means that somebody’s going to get paid less,”

Of course, this is not always true, but just in the same way that you should never say never in medicine.
Austin Frakt, quoted in the Boston Globe

The most important thing in learning is copying how other people think. I don’t think learning by doing really gets one to emulate how other people think. Marvin Minksy

‘The Socratic slogan: “If you understand it, you can explain it’, should be reversed: Anyone who thinks he can fully explain his skill, does not have expert understanding’. Hubert Dreyfus.



by reestheskin on 23/07/2016

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Kevin O’Rourke refers to the “cocooned elites in Brussels”, which gets to the heart of the matter. The dignity of office can be a terrible thing for intellectual clarity: you can spend years standing behind a lectern or sitting around a conference table drinking bottled water, delivering the same sententious remarks again and again, and never have anyone point out how utterly wrong you have been at every stage of the game. Those of us on the outside need to do whatever we can to break through that cocoon — and ridicule is surely one useful technique.”

This is not confined to Brussels. I seemed to remember some comment about the dangers of academics suffering ‘Kissengeritis’ — they end up a hopeless amalgam of academic and politician. The antithesis of science is not art, but politics. Just look at all these ‘professors’ peddling NHS nonsense and defending the indefensible.

Paul Krugman: Of cockroaches and commissioners

‘This makes clear that one consequence (and one suspects one purpose) of TEF is to facilitate the division into institutional sheep and goats, followed by starvation of the goats.’

Dorothy Bishop

Minute particulars

by reestheskin on 15/07/2016

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“I have never kept count of the many inventions I made but it must run into the hundreds. Most of them were trivial, such as a wax pencil that would write clearly on cold wet glassware straight from a refrigerator. It was published as one of my first letters to Nature in 1945.”

A Rough Ride to the Future” by James Lovelock.  Blake said it: it is all about ‘minute particulars’. Of a piece.

For many, assessments are a lighthouse in the fog of education—a clear guide by which to make safe decisions. But in reality, assessments create the fog.

Dan Schwartz here

A physicist who chose physics over Wall Street in 1990 was making a sacrifice that a physicist in 1960 wasn’t.

Very thoughtful essay by Paul Graham. Bad news for the academy.

“There is a naive view that giving more education to young people will help them get employed. This is a myth” 


‘AI’ as the buzzword for everything, understood or not.

Benedict Evans

Dawkins’s Law of Conservation of Obscurity

by reestheskin on 03/06/2016

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‘Dawkins’s Law of Conservation of Obscurity states that obscurantism in a subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Academics sometimes language up their writing to conceal how little they have to offer.’

Richard Dawkins. Here

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…..

by reestheskin on 30/05/2016

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[Professor Glyn David] highlighted the requirement across the sector to cross subsidise loss-making research with student fees. ‘So many of us have been arguing the real issue isn’t student fees, it’s proper funding of research.’

This is the view from Australia, but what they do, we do a little later.

THE 19/05/2016

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”]

Chief ethics officer

by reestheskin on 19/04/2016

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“In an attempt to clean up, Novartis has appointed a chief ethics officer and is in the process of tightening its rules on relations with doctors”. FT

Martin Wolf awhile back in the FT drew attention to the danger of pharma being viewed in the same light as many of us view Banks. Ethics committees don’t work. It is in  the corridors outside the committee rooms that people act natural. The problem is both with an organisation, and with what organisations are.

Posh professors.

by reestheskin on 28/02/2016

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Private schools teach 7% of Britain’s pupils, but account for half the country’s senior civil servants, cabinet ministers and leading journalists. Seven in ten generals and judges went to independent schools, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity. In some jobs the proportion has even increased. A decade ago, half Britain’s senior doctors were privately educated; today the figure is 61%. The share has risen in the law, too.

Feels like it too. Economist.