New Year’s Day with attitude

by reestheskin on 01/01/2019

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Yes, Carrot weather continues to insult me. Or does it know something I don’t ?

Words for a New Year

by reestheskin on 01/01/2019

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The likes of Barry John, Phil Bennett and Tony Ward, impish 10s dowsed in devilry, were considered obsolete as Jonny Wilkinson, all structure and sinew, pocketed the keys to No10. The romantic age was over, faded into black and white. There was no space to drift into and fly-halves became the executors of someone else’s will.

Barrett and George Ford are hardly throwbacks to John and Bennett, but neither are they Jonny-come-latelys. They are, in the grand traditions of fly-halves, the masters of opportunity.

Paul Rees

As one Oxford university scholar and administrator courted by the Gulf, who is against satellite campuses, puts it: “We have open doors, but they are our doors.”

[Link]

On relaxing and distressing

by reestheskin on 28/12/2018

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Yep, that time of year. This is how Irvine Welsh puts it. Remember: art is not a mirror; art is a hammer.

I’m generally pretty relaxed and very rarely suffer from stress. I see my role as more of a “stress enabler” in others. The last thing I would do if I was stressed would be to read a book. I’d rather write one.

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Skills which allow the art”

by reestheskin on 27/12/2018

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Alan Kay: The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet, OOPSLA 1997

Of course, children can learn many things without special mentoring just by experimentation, and by sharing knowledge amongst themselves. But we don’t know of any examples where this includes the great inventions of humanity such as deductive mathematics and mathematically based empirical sciences. To use an analogy: what if we were to make an inexpensive piano and put it in every classroom? The children would certainly learn to do something with it by themselves – it could be fun, it could have really expressive elements, it would certainly be a kind of music. But it would quite miss what has been invented in music over centuries by great musicians. This would be a shame with regard to music – but for science and mathematics it would be a disaster. The special processes and outlook in the latter (particularly in science) are so critical and so hidden that it is crippling not to be taught them as “skills which allow the art”. As Ed Wilson has pointed out, our genetic makeup for social interests, motivations, communication, and invention, is essentially what humans were in the Pleistocene. Much of what we call modern civilization is made from inventions such as agriculture, writing and reading, math and science, governance based on equal rights, etc. These were hard to invent, and are best learned via guides.

Wheelchairs not suitable for family viewing

by reestheskin on 26/12/2018

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I have forgotten which search rabbit hole I was down, but ended up at Robert Wyatt’s Wikipedia page. I know this story, or at least I knew the tale, but was uncertain about the veracity. The older I get the more I think social change happens ever faster. Yes, there is another more mundane explanation.

Robert Wyatt – Wikipedia

Two months later Wyatt put out a single, a cover version of “I’m a Believer”, which hit number 29 in the UK chart. Both were produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. There were strong arguments with the producer of Top of the Pops surrounding Wyatt’s performance of “I’m a Believer”, on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair “was not suitable for family viewing”, the producer wanting Wyatt to appear on a normal chair. Wyatt won the day and “lost his rag but not the wheelchair”.

Fairytale of New York

by reestheskin on 25/12/2018

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Well, the excellent FT series says this — “The Fairytale of New York”,  by the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl — is the Christmas song for people who hate Christmas songs. I dissent. I like Xmas records, but agree this is maybe the best. And cynicism is necessary at this time of year, too.

“I could have been someone.”

“Well, so could anyone.”

But cynicism only gets you so far into the human condition. If you need to laugh, check out the Christy Moore version ‘Live at the Point (‘I was looking for the Shannon..’).

Merry Xmas

Ed-tech is a confidence game. That’s why it’s so full of marketers and grifters and thugs. (The same goes for “tech” at large.)

Audrey Watters

Fifty years ago this year

by reestheskin on 20/12/2018

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That picture that changed everything. Nice piece in Nature tells the story. (Image: NASA)

In climate science, you can check out of the lab anytime you like, but you can never leave.

How I stave off despair as a climate scientist.

Dave Reay, University of Edinburgh, quoted in Nature this week.

Gresham’s law redux

by reestheskin on 19/12/2018

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UK regulator warns on degree grade inflation | Financial Times

The OFS report on degree class awards at UK English unviersities has attracted lots of press attention today. Rightly so. But the report looks back only a decade. One commentator (bd d’Avranche)  in the FT urges us to delve a little deeper:

Please take the research back to 1980 and then prepare to be astounded.

Alison Wolff has written somewhere that the quality of what constituted a particular award was, not so long ago, fairly consistent across UK universities. No longer. Academics should hold their heads in shame, as they have shorted what many of us hold most dear about higher education.

 “criticism and optimism are the same thing. When you criticize things, it’s because you think they can be improved. It’s the complacent person or the fanatic who’s the true pessimist, because they feel they already have the answer. It’s the people who think that things are open-ended, that things can still be changed through thought, through creativity—those are the true optimists. So I worry, sure, but it’s optimistic worry.” Jaron Lanier. We Need to Have an Honest Talk About Our Data

Models of our mind and communities

by reestheskin on 18/12/2018

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Google’s AI Guru Wants Computers to Think More Like Brains | WIRED

This is from an interview with Geoffrey Hinton who — to paraphrase Peter Medawar’s comments about Jim Watson — has something to be clever about. The article is worth reading in full, but here are a few snippets.

Now if you send in a paper that has a radically new idea, there’s no chance in hell it will get accepted, because it’s going to get some junior reviewer who doesn’t understand it. Or it’s going to get a senior reviewer who’s trying to review too many papers and doesn’t understand it first time round and assumes it must be nonsense. Anything that makes the brain hurt is not going to get accepted. And I think that’s really bad…

What we should be going for, particularly in the basic science conferences, is radically new ideas. Because we know a radically new idea in the long run is going to be much more influential than a tiny improvement. That’s I think the main downside of the fact that we’ve got this inversion now, where you’ve got a few senior guys and a gazillion young guys.

I would make a few comments:

  1. First the history of neural nets is long: even people like me had heard about them in the late 1980s. The history of ideas is often like that.
  2. The academy is being sidetracked into thinking it should innovate or develop ideas that whilst important are not revolutionary. Failure should be the norm, rather than the continued treadmill of grant income and papers.
  3. Scale and genuine discovery — for functioning of peer groups — seldom go together.
  4. Whilst most of the really good ideas are still out there, it is possible to create structures that stop people looking for them.
  5. Hinton makes a very important point in the article with broad relevance. He argues that you cannot judge (or restrict the use of) AI on the basis of whether or not it can justify its behaviour in terms of rules or logic — you have to judge it on it ability to work, in general. This is the same standard we apply to humans, or at least we did, until we thought it wise or expedient to create the fiction that much of human decision making is capable of conscious scrutiny. This applies to medicine, to the extent that clinical reasoning is often a fiction that masters like to tell novices about. Just-so stories, to torment the young with. And elsewhere in the academy for the outlandish claims that are made for changing human behaviour by signing up for online (“human remains”)courses (TIJABP).

All has been said before, I know, but no apology will be forthcoming.

JLR has been seriously mismanaged in recent years.

Agreed. But this one is about the car manufacturer rather than yours truly.

Jaguar Land Rover set to cut thousands of jobs in new year | Financial Times

The importance of obsession

by reestheskin on 16/12/2018

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How a Welsh schoolgirl rewrote the rules of publishing | Financial Times by Gillian Tett

In 2011, Beth Reeks, a 15-year-old Welsh schoolgirl studying for her GCSE exams, decided to write a teenage romantic novel. So she started tapping on her laptop with the kind of obsessive creative focus – and initial secrecy – that has been familiar to writers throughout history. “My parents assumed I was on Facebook or something when I was on my laptop – or I’d call up a document or internet page so it looked like I was doing homework,” she explained at a recent writers’ convention. “I wrote a lot in secret… and at night. I was obsessed.”

But Reeks took a different route: after penning eight chapters of her boy-meets-girl novel, The Kissing Booth, she posted three of them on Wattpad, an online story-sharing platform …. As comments poured in, Reeks turned to social media for more ideas. “I started a Tumblr blog and a Twitter account for my writing. I used them to promote the book…[and] respond to anyone who said they liked the story,” she explained in a recent blog post. 

… while Reeks was at university studying physics, her work was turned into an ebook, then a paperback (she was offered a three-book deal by the mighty Random House) and, this year, Netflix released it as a film, which has become essential viewing for many teenage girls.

Statistical pitfalls of personalized medicine

by reestheskin on 14/12/2018

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This is from an article by Stephen Senn in Nature. He keeps making this point — for the very good reason that people want to pretend there is no problem. But there is.

Personalized medicine aims to match individuals with the therapy that is best suited to them and their condition. Advocates proclaim the potential of this approach to improve treatment outcomes by pointing to statistics about how most drugs — for conditions ranging from arthritis to heartburn — do not work for most people. That might or might not be true, but the statistics are being misinterpreted. There is no reason to think that a drug that shows itself to be marginally effective in a general population is simply in want of an appropriate subpopulation in which it will perform spectacularly.

When you treat patients with chronic diseases such as psoriasis, it quickly becomes clear that there is considerable within person variation is response to treatments. We do not understand what this variation is due to. What we do know however, is that assuming variation in response between people at single time points may be misleading in that we have no measure of within person variance. This is only one of the problems. But hey, precision, personalised.. whatever: it shifts units (as Frank Zappa once said of Michael Jackson).

EBM meets capitalism — prescription for carnage

by reestheskin on 13/12/2018

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This is from a book review in the FT of American Overdose. by Chris McGreal — prescription for carnage.

McGreal has written an interview-based book, with especially vivid reporting from West Virginia, the state hit hardest by the epidemic. In the little town of Williamson, or Pilliamson as people came to call it, pharmacies were dispensing opioids at a staggering rate both to locals and to out-of-state visitors, who clogged its streets with their cars but boosted some local businesses as well as city tax revenues.

When the federal authorities belatedly raided one Williamson clinic in late 2009, they found that an individual doctor had written 355,132 opioid prescriptions over the previous seven years — about 1,000 for every inhabitant of the town. Another wrote 118,443 scrips over the same period. Most were handed out for cash fees without the doctors bothering to see their patients. The investigators estimated that the clinic took in $4.6m cash during 2009 and they found banknotes stuffed into safes and cupboards in the doctors’ homes and offices.

In the beginning was the..

by reestheskin on 12/12/2018

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My  “Beginner’s Guide” to the messy world of medical education over at Wonkhe.

[Link]

Red..well any hair colour, again.

by reestheskin on 11/12/2018

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Genome-wide study of hair colour in UK Biobank explains most of the SNP heritability.

Michael D. Morgan, Erola Pairo-Castineira, Konrad Rawlik, Oriol Canela-Xandri, Jonathan Rees, David Sims, Albert Tenesa & Ian J. Jackson

[Link to Nature Comm paper]  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07691-z

My guess is this is likely my last ‘research paper’ (although I now choose to redefine what counts as research). But not my last ‘thinking paper’. I cannot help but contrast the sheer volume of activity with that from our original papers on red hair. Things seemed so much simpler when we were young. But it is a nice coda to a career fugue.

Maxim 2 of 2

by reestheskin on 11/12/2018

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If you can reliably assess knowledge and capabilities within a standardised and regulated framework it is not education.

Maxim 1 of 2

by reestheskin on 08/12/2018

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Any real education is incapable of robust widely accepted psychometric assessment that will satisfy a professional regulator.

The academy and asymmetric information.

by reestheskin on 06/12/2018

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Paul Romer on the Unrivaled Joy of Scholarship (Ep. 55)

Great interview with Paul Romer over at Conversations with Tyler. Romer won the Nobel prize for economics this year, and has had a wonderfully varied career (academic; founder of a software company that produces computer assisted learning material (Aplia); and time at the World bank. There are some earlier statements by him about education  on my web page.

What caught my eye in this interview was:

“We should always remember that the education business is one of the ones that has the biggest problems with asymmetric information. A young person who pays somebody to educate them is very dependent on the decisions that the educator makes about “Study this, go in this direction.”

……

“I think that the problem in higher ed is that the institutional incentives don’t provide the kind of training that would maximize the opportunities for the students or, for that matter, maximize outcomes for the nation.”

Indeed:  in many ways, the situation is even worse than in medicine.

“Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hot hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them.”

Richard Rumelt “Good strategy/Bad strategy”. A moral for our time

Not so much compatible scholarship as built to order

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Well, no surprises here.

DfE study of English universities’ costs seen as path to fee cut | Times Higher Education (THE)

The UK Department for Education has commissioned accountants KPMG to conduct a study of how much it costs universities to teach their students, in a move seen by some as a potential mechanism to lower the tuition fee cap in England.

The world is full of ‘compatible scholarship’ (Noam Chomsky’s phrase I think). But if you want to be 100% certain that the results are built to order, then you need professional service firms — just look at their track record! Academics come cheap, so only use them when you are not too worried about the results.

What drives graduate student numbers?

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Interesting to sees the levers of scale. This is a piece about expansion at Harvard (the Allston expansion), drives by the shift to science and engineering (the proportion of students choosing applied math, computer science or engineering has gone from 6 to 20% (of the total annual intake of 2000 students)

Harvard’s Allston expansion ‘the next great innovation centre’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

The shift in student preferences towards science and engineering is creating a far greater net need for space than would be created by growth in other fields. More science and engineering students means more academics and classes, which in turn means more graduate students to help teach those undergraduates, which in turn means more lab space to house the graduate students [emphasis mine].

On being a para-academic, and the tyranny of counting

by reestheskin on 04/12/2018

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From an article in the THE, talking about Katherine Randell.

Scholars who write children’s literature | Times Higher Education (THE)

Rundell, whose books have already won several prizes, is a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford and describes herself as a “para-academic”. She is not required to submit work to the research excellence framework but is researching a book about the poet John Donne as well as preparing an edition of his works.

I return to something Larry Lessig said:

I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this cant be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

Well, much — but not all — of UK Higher Ed is little concerned with scholarship.

“The real world doesn’t care what you are bad at, it only cares what you are good at.” (It is not like school). CP Grey. On the podcast  ‘Cortex’.

Sinking not swimming.

by reestheskin on 30/11/2018

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At my old university, we were encouraged to explore our subjects and to love what we were studying. Now, at medical school, the emphasis seems to be don’t burnout, focus on not making mistakes, and understand that life is going to be hard, so develop the resilience to cope.

The above is from a letter to this month’s Academic Medicine [83(12) 1745-1884, 2018] written by a graduate student at Warwick medical school (TC Shortland). The title is what caught my eye: “Enjoying, and Not Just Surviving, Medical School”

He goes on:

At Warwick Medical School, staff and students are trying to build a more positive environment. Staff and students have organized art classes, interstaff/ student sports events, and several baking competitions; the last winner featured cupcakes that could be injected with either a salted caramel or raspberry filling. As positive health care workplaces and positive cultures are associated with better patient outcomes,why shouldn’t medical schools try and create such environments for future medical professionals?

I am not against the various suggestions (…well, I am actually), but what I and others are in despair about is how much (?most) medical education has become so dull, tedious, and brutal, rather than humane. When I have spoken to others, some hold similar views: the students put up with it, because they want to be doctors, but they no not enjoy most of it. If they are obliged to attend, they do; but out of choice, many would skip much of what we offer.

Now this is not a new thought or phenomenon. I didn’t enjoy — in fact I actively hated — the preclinical years (aka: the prescientific years) — but I did get a big kick out of the clinical years, and loved my intercalated degree. What made the clinical years work, was that the opportunity for some kind of personal  bond with some teaching staff made up for all the despots and dull souls who should have been destined to be gravediggers. And unless somebody has recently discovered something I have missed, scale and intimacy rarely go together.

Of course, what makes matters worse, is that the ennui and anomie will get worse: for many junior doctors, after the initial high of being qualified, their working jobs are miserable. If they get to higher training, things may improve, but not for all.

George Steiner’s comments in a slightly different context are apposite:

“Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented. It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui.”

The NHS (for this is the fault of the NHS rather thant the universities) is accumulating a massive moral debt, borrowing on the very market it has rigged (because it can!), forgetting that this is like PFI on steroids. It assumes it is too big to fail: I think otherwise.

Hemingway:

How did you go bankrupt: slowly and then suddenly.

 

Peanuts….I wish I had said that

by reestheskin on 28/11/2018

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This is from an editorial in the NEJM, discussing the results of a trial of a synthetic peanut antigen to facilitate tolerance. Prevously the ‘raw’ stuff had been shown to be useful. The synethic version will of course cost a lot, and might be considered IPR created through regulatory arbitrage.

AR101 and other, similar products such as CA002, which is being developed by the Cambridge group, would therefore appear to have a role in initial dose escalation. The potential market for these products is believed to be billions of dollars. It is perhaps salutary to consider that in the study conducted by the Cambridge group, children underwent desensitization with a bag of peanut flour costing peanuts.

Costing penauts: I wish I had said that

Oral Desensitization to Peanuts | NEJM

The frenzy of metrics rolls on

by reestheskin on 27/11/2018

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What are metrics good for? Reflections on REF and TEF from Dorothy Bishop