Money doesn’t talk, it swears

by reestheskin on 02/02/2018

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The surge in open-access predatory journals is making it harder for contributors and readers to distinguish these from legitimate publications — a confusion that is fostered by the predatory-journal industry. One solution could be to deploy a variant of a well-established quality-control test. The scientific community could submit replicate test articles several times a year to a wide array of open-access journals, suspect and non-suspect.

From Steven N Goodman who, as ever, is worth reading. Of course, in one sense, it is a question of serial monogamy, or polygamy.

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 long does it take to learn?

by reestheskin on 31/01/2018

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After earning his medical degree in 1951 he trained in hospitals in Montreal. “To my surprise I also found I enjoyed clinical medicine,” he wrote in his Nobel prize biography. Then he quipped, “It took three years of hospital training after graduation, a year of internship and two of residency in neurology, before that interest finally wore off.”

David Hubel

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.

“The chaos in exam rooms… akin to texting while driving,”

by reestheskin on 29/01/2018

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This article in the NEJM gets to the kernel of one of the major problems in medicine: the increasing dysfunction of doctor-patient interaction fuelled — in part — by awful IT, and a systematic ability to admit that it is no longer possible to actually do what is required within the ‘allocated’ time. In many industries the goal is to match task with skill and, wherever possible, to reduce costs by allocating low skill tasks to those who cost less: ‘right person at the right time’. There is a variation of this in medicine: those charged with ‘support’ or undertaking ‘low skill tasks’ have just been removed, meaning all tasks — both high and low — are done by the same practitioner, but without any change in time allocated. This is akin to asking the pilot of a plane to serve you snacks and check you in, but keep the schedules the same.

In terms of medicine, that this happens is not so much a manifestation of a managerial view that places little value on ‘care’ (true), nor where business innovation (sic) is viewed as synonymous with sacking people (true), but a complete failure to understand their own business and what their own product is. In an ideal world businesses like this should go bust. The problems are when: they are run by the government; there are third party payers; or there is actively created informational asymmetry. Sometimes all three apply.


Asleep at work

by reestheskin on 26/01/2018

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This is from the obituary of Ben Barres [link]

An utterly committed researcher, Professor Barres would regularly work until 2am or 3am. He “slept on the floor of my small office”, recalled Professor Raff. “Every morning when I arrived and opened the door, it would whack him in the head – he eventually learned to sleep facing the opposite direction.”

Somewhere, I cannot remember where, after one of his seminars, his intellectual depth (Ben Barres) was judged more favourably to that of his ‘sister’. His sister was his his former ‘self’, Barbara Barres. Such a neat experimental design to tease apart causality.

I too worked somewhere where people slept overnight in the lab, although I think the deciding factor there was an inability to find or pay for a suitable flat, rather than enthusiasm

Sports, rock and roll, beautiful substances and stuff.

by reestheskin on 25/01/2018

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Not the usual stuff Nobel Laureates spiel, but take a look. An article in Quartz is here and Wikipedia is useful on him

I like the ‘biogibberish’ epithet. And cannot help but suspect he would agree with David Hubel’s line that reading most papers now is like chewing sawdust. But you can see the fire still burns: you have to be dissatisfied with the state of the universe. How polite or angry you are is a question of personal style.

Blowing smoke on old ideas

by reestheskin on 24/01/2018

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As each year passes, the once celebrated barriers between man and the other animals become less secure. Once we were the only tool makers, once we were the ones who discovered drugs or used technology. This report is about how finches commandeer cigarette butts for a new purpose.

That idea has been around, though never proved, since 2012. This was when Dr Suárez-Rodríguez showed that nests which had butts woven into them were less likely to contain bloodsucking parasites than were nests that did not. What she was unable to show was whether the nest-builders were collecting discarded cigarettes deliberately for their parasite-repelling properties, or whether that parasite protection was an accidental consequence of butts being a reasonably abundant building material.


And finches, again! Where would  biology be without Darwin’s finches?

Remember your physics

by reestheskin on 23/01/2018

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The value of your mountains of data is becoming obvious, especially as you continue to push into new areas that collect more information about consumers while binding them closer to you, such as the home microphones you are careful to call home speakers. Link

Remember your physics 101: when is a speaker a microphone? And of course this is not all new — see the Intercept article (with great graphics) here

Like this!

by reestheskin on 22/01/2018

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The OU’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, says it must adapt to a world where Facebook or LinkedIn could start doing degree courses on a global scale


I think this is just silly. There are lots of things universities do badly, and there are a lot of things they have done well. And it is true most seem to be unaware of how they need to change, and what they need to hang onto.

The problem in my neck of the woods is that many of the proposed solutions to these problems risk making things worse. A lot worse. And in any case, using Eblen Moglen’s terminology, how long do you think the thug with the hoodie will be running things.

Theatres of the mind

by reestheskin on 19/01/2018

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I am not a big fan of lectures. The single best piece of advice I received at medical school was not to attend. I therefore skipped lectures for three years (although I got the handouts). It is not that all lectures are bad, they are not. It is just that often they are used for ‘content delivery’, much as we think about delivery of a takeaway. They are ill suited to this role, now that we can write and distribute text cheaply. Good lectures serve a different purpose, but you don’t need too many of them and, in my experience of medicine, there are very few people who lecture well. Lecturing well means choosing those fragments of a domain that lend themselves to this media type. Lectures are (and should be) theatre, but the theatre of the mind needs more.

By chance, I came across the following thoughts from the preface to the Ascent of Man (the TV series and the book). Bronowski understood many things, and I still marvel at how prescient his ideas were.

If television is not used to make these thoughts concrete, it is wasted. The unravelling of ideas is, in any case, an intimate and personal endeavour, and here we come to the common ground between television and the printed book. Unlike a lecture or a cinema show, television is not directed to crowds. It is addressed to two or three people in a room, as a conversation face to face – a one-sided conversation for the most part, as the book is, but homely and Socratic nevertheless. To me, absorbed in the philosophic undercurrents of knowledge, this is the most attractive gift of television, by which it may yet become as persuasive an intellectual force as the book.

The printed book has one added freedom beyond this: it is not remorselessly bound to the forward direction of time, as any spoken discourse is. The reader can do what the viewer and the listener cannot, which is to pause and reflect, turn the pages back and the argument over, compare one fact with another and, in general, appreciate the detail of evidence without being distracted by it.

Then there was PowerPoint and lecture capture.

On mastering certification and signalling

by reestheskin on 18/01/2018

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As Bryan Caplan points out in his new book, The Case Against Education, most of the earnings differential associated with college does not reflect stuff colleges teach their students, but rather the already-existing advantages that college graduates possess (more intelligence, greater discipline, more ambition, more prior learning, etc.) that a diploma reveals to employers. The Sheepskin Effect is real. We expend enormous resources in producing pieces of paper (diplomas) conveying labor market information. The move toward getting a master’s degree—more diplomas—aggravates an already hugely inefficient system. [link]

This of course is the debate about what is valuable about the HBS is not what they teach you, but their ability to recognise those who are already likely to succeed. Many years ago, Paul Graham wrote a great essay touching on so many key issues that Higher Ed wants to wish away.

Tips for teaching

by reestheskin on 17/01/2018

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Luis von Ahn, somebody who has changed the world on more than one occasion, has also been awarded a teaching award from his own university. Take  his tips seriously 😉

  • Pick great TAs. Over the years, I’ve had the most amazing set of TAs, and this teaching award is more than 50% due to them. If you’ve TA’d for me,I would like to give each of you part of the cash prize associated with this award. Too bad there isn’t one.
  • When you don’t know the answer to a question say it’s outside the scope of the course.
  • Teaching evaluations are highly correlated with the grade the students think they will get at the time of filling out the surveys. Make your course easy, then crush them on the final.
  • Never, under any circumstances, disclose the exact grade cutoffs at the end of the semester. Somebody has to get the highest B, and they won’t be happy. “You’re lucky you got a B, dude.”
  • Finish lecture 10 minutes early every time – they love this (and they’ll never know you love it even more).
  • Easiest way to get rid of whiners without yielding: “I’ll take that into account when calculating your final grade, dude.”



Tinder as a metaphor

by reestheskin on 16/01/2018

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The internet, as digital journalist and commentator Cory Doctorow has remarked, is “an ecosystem of interruption technologies”. Always imagine that your readers are looking for a reason to — in Tinder terms — swipe left on your prose


Why Orwell matters

by reestheskin on 15/01/2018

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‘On December 16, 2017, the staff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were instructed not to use 7 words in its 2019 budget appropriation request: diversity, transgender, vulnerable, fetus, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based. These basic phrases are intrinsic to public health. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offered alternative word choices, such as by modifying “evidence-based” with “community standards and wishes” and using “unborn child” instead of “fetus.”’


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?


Textbooks and smartphones

by reestheskin on 11/01/2018

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A new copy of Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien’s widely used introductory economics textbook costs more than some smartphones. The phone can send you to any part of the web and holds access to the sum of human knowledge. The book is about 800 heavy pages of static text. Yet thousands of college students around the US are shelling out $250 for these books, each semester, wincing at the many hours ahead of trying to make sense of this attempt to distill the global economy into tiny widgets and graphs.


Quote of the day

by reestheskin on 10/01/2018

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The easiest way to predict the future is to prevent it.

Original version is Alan Kay (the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it), and this permutation is his, too. As he says, very appropriate for education.

New playlist from Skincancer909 on YouTube

by reestheskin on 09/01/2018

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New boss: same as the old boss

by reestheskin on 09/01/2018

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“In Sweden, if you ask a union leader, ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer, ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology,’” says the Swedish minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”


  • “Won’t get fooled again”; The Who.

Real numbers from the opaque world of cookbook publishing

by reestheskin on 08/01/2018

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In my professional area of medical education there is clear market failure. Publishers are simply unable or choose not to, to develop what we need. And the institutions — universities — despite their origins have simply looked the other way, ignoring the needs (and wants) of their students. And do not get me started on “lecture recording”.

The quote below is a great article on some of the economics of book publishing: it is about a cookbook. And why not?

One of the most opaque industries around is publishing, not here online, but good old-fashioned print-books and their digital and audio spin-offs. Poke around and try to find some hard sales numbers and you’ll quickly find that it’s near impossible to do so. You can find bestseller lists from reputable sources like the NYTimes, Amazon and others but tying those rankings to an actual number of books sold at retail is simply not doable. Publishing costs, deals, and profit lines are even harder to shake loose.

“Why We Are Self Publishing the Aviary Cookbook – Lessons From the Alinea Book”. Real numbers from the opaque world of cookbook publishing. [Link]

And if you want insights into the research publishing business, here is a link to a great article that appeared in 2017 on this topic by Stephen Buranyi. Mind you, I almost have a sneaking admiration for some of the crooks: foxes in the henhouse.

A change of perspective is worth…

by reestheskin on 05/01/2018

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Alan Kay says:

a change in perspective may be worth 80 IQ points (or words to that effect). A nice visual metaphor for this below. (The one that is revealed from 1-20 seconds works for me, best).



Carving Nature at the joints

by reestheskin on 04/01/2018

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David Hubel, on statistics: “We could hardly get excited about an effect so feeble as to require statistics for its demonstration.”

I came across this (below), in my end of year clear out. And even if this was 2016, rather than 2017, it is as good a thought to open 2018 with, as any other. It is from a review of “Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code”, by Matthew Cobb. The review is by H Allen Orr. NYRB

Finally, and perhaps most important, Life’s Greatest Secret highlights the power of the beautiful experiment in science. Though Cobb pays less attention to this subject than he might have, the period of scientific history that he surveys was the golden age of the beautiful experiment in biology. Biologists of the time—including Nirenberg with his UUU, Crick and Brenner with their triplet code work, and others including Matthew Meselson, Franklin Stahl, and Joshua Lederberg—were masters of the sort of experiment that, through some breathtakingly simple manipulation, allowed a decisive or nearly decisive solution to what previously seemed a hopelessly complex problem. Such experiments represent a species of intellectual art that is little appreciated outside a narrow circle of scientists……..

But the larger lesson of Life’s Greatest Secret is one that may be worth remembering. When scientists require definitive answers, not merely suggestive patterns, they require experiments that are decisive and, if all goes well, beautiful.

Teaching led research, anybody?

by reestheskin on 03/01/2018

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There is something about teaching that makes you a better researcher. I know this is very countercultural wisdom, but I believed it all along. Luria, Magasanik, and Levinthal all believed it. Levinthal and Luria both had a very strong influence on me in this regard.

An (old) interview with David Botstein, in PloS genetics. Link

At least we are spared the ‘research led teaching’ mission statements.

Of patients, clients, customers and the student experience

by reestheskin on 02/01/2018

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Like all good business people, he often knew better than the client what they needed. He once told The Guardian: “I look at the whole body and the face. You must not necessarily cut what the client wants. Often when clients think they’re looking at the hair, they’re actually admiring how stunning the model looks.

Toni Mascolo, hairdresser and entrepreneur, 1942-2017

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’.

Allan Holdsworth RIP 16/4/2017

by reestheskin on 31/12/2017

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Legato to kill for

I am a bad (awful) guitarist, but remain fascinated by guitars and the people who wield them. In recent years I have become ever more interested in the pedagogy of the guitar, and what insights it may throw on professional practice and education, and how people learn outwith the academies. And even if I would not have expressed it in these terms at that time, as a teenager the guitar was my intellectual bridge into understanding that there is as much — if not more—  discipline and rigour outside the academy than within it. (If you are interested in the ‘how’ of learning the guitar, check out Gary Marcus’ book).

With many great players, even if I cannot work out exactly how they do it, I have a good idea. You can spot the pentatonic or the classic major and minor scales easily enough: Clapton doesn’t play the same notes as Akkerman. But the first time I heard Allan Holdsworth (playing with Bill Bruford), I was confused. I couldn’t work out the scales and his phrasing was not like that of any guitarist I knew (nor was I any wiser, quite frankly, after seeing him on stage at Newcastle University,  on this tour I suspect).

Bjørn Schille, says it well below 

“As opposed to much of the music I spent time listening to and examining, his music left me with both chills and a feeling of total confusion. I had no idea what he was doing. Both his chord progressions and his phrases defied my sense of tonality and sounded like nothing I had ever heard. At the same time, it all sounded so perfectly unstrained and logical; like a beautiful language I had yet to understand. His choice of notes may have resembled jazz, but the character of the music had a much darker melancholy, as well as an absence of the swing rhythm that to me makes traditional jazz always a little too cheerful.”

(Bjørn Schille, Master Thesis in Musicology – February 2011 Institute of Musicology, University of Oslo [ you can hear the author here])

There was an obituary in the Guardian here, which contains a phrase from the Mahavishnu himself (worthy of Holdsworth’s tombstone, I think):

The guitarist John McLaughlin has wryly admitted he would have been happy to borrow just about anything his fellow Yorkshireman invented, if only he could have figured out how it was done.

There are some YouTube clips below. The sound is not too good, but they give a flavour of his genius. There is also a 12CD boxed set released shortly before he died [link here]. He would have hated the title.

Let us change your skin

by reestheskin on 29/12/2017

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Just thinking of the New Year resolutions. Let us change your skin…and empty your wallets.

First, the practice, then the theory

by reestheskin on 28/12/2017

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Yan Lecun of Facebook wrote:

In the history of science and technology, the engineering artefacts have almost always preceded the theoretical understanding: the lens and the telescope preceded optics theory, the steam engine preceded thermodynamics, the airplane preceded flight aerodynamics, radio and data communication preceded information theory, the computer preceded computer science.

Science and Technology links (December 8th, 2017) – Daniel Lemire’s blog

This is so true for (much) medicine, too. The journal comes after the discovery.

Philosophy 101

by reestheskin on 27/12/2017

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When is a wheelbarrow a chair?