Tuesday, October 10, 2017

BIG Issues


Uncertainty--when you haven't a clue, when it makes little sense to pretend you have information, when probability, markets, and strategy are unlikely to be of great use.

The End of (Economic) Growth--If Robert Gordon is correct that we have been living high on the hog from 1870-1970, plus a decade from 1994-2004, in effect floating on a rising tide, and that tide is now going out not likely to return in the next decades, what does that mean?

Intractable Problems, for which we can do something, but they return or are never worked out. Matters of race, of insufficient education and training, of deliberate attempts to game the system being justified, congestion and the time it absorbs. There are the recurrent issues of nuclear war and epidemic, of disaster and inadequate preparation and resilience, and of young people finding themselves leading lives that are criminal and dangerous. Alcohol and opiates and conventional addictive drugs.

The University of the Future--The notion of teaching is becoming a matter of didactic and instructional efficiency, with matters of modeling and mentoring, of thinking and criticism, falling by the wayside. The research enterprise is almost surely too big, and the incentives for research force people who would otherwise do something useful into a world of weak scholarship. Likely, about 20% of our research productive-scholars would be more than enough. Fischer Black said something to the effect that we ought be paid to teach, in effect to discourage research that is not driven by the need to find out.
"I see our university system as similar to the former Soviet empire, and as having similar problems . . . teaching and research are too uniform. They do not respond quickly to shifts in tastes and technology. . . . And, most important, teaching and research cost too much. . . . The basic problem is that we have too much research, and the wrong kind of research, because governments, firms, foundations, and generous alumni support it.[i]

Counting and Scaling: Often when we enumerate something, perhaps weighting each case by a function of that case's "energy" or significance, we end up with a sum that exhibits scaling--much as a sum the values of identical independent random variables produces a distribution, often a Gaussian, that builds in such scaling. What is going on?

I'm sure there's lots more, but this is just a beginning.

[i].P. Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance. New York: Wiley, 2005, pp. 300-301.

Big Issues: the Future of this Blog

In future posts I will be writing about the biggest issues, leaving aside the concerns with the academic life that have informed this blog since it began. There is little new to say about Scholars' Survival, and I will leave it to other. But it makes sense to take on other issues...

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hiatus in this Blog

I realize that there has been a six month hiatus in the blog. I will try to start up again.

The Post-Postgrowth Era (Robert Gordon...)

Perhaps I am the last of you to have looked at Robert Gordon's 2016 book on the history of American economic growth. But if not, Gordon's study has deep implications for what we are trying to do in our teaching and research.

Briefly, the great spurt of 1870-1970 in American economic growth was a one-time wonder. What has happened since is greater inequality, where most of the growth goes to the top 1%. He outlines the big headwinds we face--demographic, for example. We can through various aspects of tax policy make a difference (but those aspects are very different than the ones proposed by Trump/Ryan/McConnell).

The book is sobering. Most of our students, and all of our faculty, came of age during the period when growth has been slowing down. There are no signs that that slowdown is about to end. When we look back to that period pre-1970, we are likely ignoring the evidence of the last almost 50 years. 

We might be asking ourselves: What are the best policy, planning, and development strategies in these times of ongoing slow growth, where in fact whatever we do in terms of policy little will change. Yes, increasing skilled immigrants, more progressive taxation, etc., will help, but the major forces of the past are no longer available. Of course, economic growth is not the only measure of societal well being, so we might look elsewhere for resources.

If I have misread the book, please correct me. 
As long as I have been involved with planning and policy schools, now almost fifty years, there have been two pervasive themes: inequality/empowerment and efficiency/fairness. If we increased wages, then producers would be encouraged to invest in more efficient machinery and organization, so providing one source of robustness. For industries where technological improvements were not available, as in universities and symphonies, no such efficiencies were possible and so costs and prices have risen disproportionately, as William Baumol argued years ago.

My involvement has been in this period of slower growth, where it is unlikely that any of the sources of 1870-1970 were available to supply windfall bonuses. And it is unlikely, according to Gordon, to have those sources available any time soon.

For a public policy school, one with a substantial concern for urban development and for a major institution such as health, what should we be teaching? Presumably, there is still room for marginal improvements on the efficiency frontier, and so much of what we teach and research is exactly at that point. What we do not yet provide is a way of thinking and working to a different future, a different conception of policy, planning, etc.--although there is enormous room to work on inequality and fairness. 

Those who feel left out but who had benefitted unwittingly from the great growth period, in a sense the archetype of the Trump base (I have no idea if that is a good category), are likely to find the future rather more disenchanted--for they thought that their well being was a matter of their own initiative and hard work, when in fact it was rather a matter of a rising tide on which they floated. Finding various scapegoats or sources of their disenchantment, they miss the point that the tide as gone out never to return in their lifetimes. It is tragic and comic at the same time. (Curiously, the great demographic transition in the US, from workers to retirees, would be in part remedied by more immigration rather than less. Or, the availability of contraceptives and ready abortions likely reduced the population of those potential to become low-level  law-breakers, and hence the decline of crime in the last decade or two--and hence, given recent political moves, the likely rise in the next two decades.)

Those who might be called liberal or centrist are warranted to work on inequality, but that too won't make the tide return, although fairness is a political good. Regulation of the world of money and finance makes it less likely we have epidemics of imprudent risk-taking, but I am "encouraged" by human device and desire in the world of greed and gaming.

So what are we doing in our fields?  If it is marginal improvement, that is very important. But as far as I can tell, there is little in the way of invention, political or technical or ..., that would point the way forward. I remain grateful for medical advances in the last fifty years, for computational improvements that lead to new ways of living, and for mechanical improvements that make for LA's better air (albeit big trucks and our port are still major sources of crud in the air). Little compares to antibiotics, the telephone or even IBM 360 machines, or the automatic transmission, though.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Printing our Digital Images, Scanned Negatives, and the Limits of the Digital.

I print out some of my digital or digitized color images using a color xerox machine. They look ok, until you get close up and realize that what you will see are the dot patterns of the screen. If I printed them out on a inkjet printer (or even at Walgreens), one that was good on photos, the deeper details would be retained. I will have to find out.

Put differently, insofar as a photograph will necessarily capture all that is within the purview of the lens and film, there is usually lots more than we attend to--details, and whatnot in the fore/background, whatever. When we make a print, we are selective but also give up lots of the detail, usually. Yet for archival purposes you want everything. Hence the archives we have of digital images, and often of scanned negatives and transparencies, are abstractions from the originals. Yes, you can get better resolution up to the Nyquist limit in a digital, but film loses its resolution more gently and may go further (albeit with weak quality) than the digital sensor or scan. None of this is new or surprising, since what we save is often such an abstraction, whether it be sound or materials or images.

One might argue that digital will become much more capable as we get more resolving sensors. I believe that will be the case. And a well scanned negative will print better than the negative itself (at least in most enlargers), since you are not demanding anything of the enlarger lens since it has been replaced, for a scan, with a lens that is typically of fine quality since it need not cover a large area. The mechanics of the scanner is also important.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tragedy and Being "Research Productive."

When tragedy strikes, what is most important is to care for yourself, and if nearby others can care a bit for you, ask. 

A friend described her situation: 

I am living my life post-mortem, and that I'm supposed to fit in the clothes and shoes, eat the food, live the life, of a person who is now dead, as if i am an imposter unable to connect with a person whose place i have taken.

The description is poignant and concrete. She is eloquent in talking about herself, with a genuine of literary and psychological insight. It may be useful try a diary or a memo about how you feel, if only to write such wonderful prose. 

People are always saying something like: just snap out of it, you'll get over it, get down to working--you'll be fine. They do not acknowledge tragedy, and wounds that won't just heal--the wounds are chronic although you do learn to live with them and go on, eventually.

I do believe it is good to read, to think, to write oneself notes about what's on your mind, future projects, etc. But real work demands a level of presence that may not be available.  In a culture of "research productive faculty," there's insufficient room for tragedy or thinking that takes time. 

That I know all of what I say here does not insulate me from believing I should be able to just produce.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rereading Some of My Earlier Books

I have no idea if this will be of wider interest, but I am recording what I have just experienced.

I have been thinking about What next? in my work. Usually, I do not reread my books once they come out, unless for another edition or some such reason. In any case, I just reread four of my books, from 1982, 1989, 2000, and 2011. (I had a much clearer sense of the contents of the 1992, 1996 (2), 2003, and 2013 books.) Each chapter of each book is a distinct essay or a study of a particular example, linked together by the Introduction and other materials.

1. I realized that most of the themes that have concerned me over the years were there, developed in some detail and elaboration, even though I did not now recall what I wrote then. Much of what I might have written about in future work was already worked out in these earlier books. (In general, to be effective in scholarship, you have to say the same thing, in different ways or with further elaborations, several times. So, what was said earlier might still be reimagined and expanded.)  
2. Moreover, I was struck by my analytic descriptions of various phenomena in planning, public policy, and design. There is a consistency in my approach (or you might call it a lack of inventiveness) to thinking about the world. Moreover, those analytic descriptions are not abstractions, per se. Rather they have particular examples and situations in mind, and I am trying to find out what is essential in those examples and situations and in related examples and situations. Analogy characterizes how I think about the world, and I even write about that mode of thinking (presumably using analogy). My descriptions are generic descriptions, using a mildly technical vocabulary, of the particular cases, in light of other cases (the analogy) and their description.
3. I tried again and again to write without polemic or taking advantage of positions with which I did not concur. For me, it was a matter of providing an adequate description, borrowing from whichever theoretical or ideological perspective that would serve my description.
4. I had forgotten how much I had been influenced by my reading of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and books about Husserl, and how useful those authors' works were for me. When I use the term "useful," I am saying that my concern was not to faithfully present their thought, so much as to find in their thinking and writing what I needed to do my descriptions.

Right now, I have little idea how I came to think in terms of analogy and analytic description, not even sure who are my models for such work.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Having a Sense of What You are Up To

It is useful to write yourself a paragraph or two about what you are up to. You are doing some sort of research, or preparing to do such research. But that research lives in a larger environment of others' research and the policy realm. If you can see what you are doing in that larger perspective, you will have a better sense of where you might be going.

Even senior scholars benefit from such an account of what they are doing. Often, they are so productive, the larger questions are put aside to get the work done. Perhaps they will win an award or become a member of an honorary society, and their friends who are trying to have them admitted will write such an account. But I believe it is useful for the actual scholar to do so.

Over the years I have been forced to write such an account for myself, as I apply for fellowships and grants that are much less specific than are most of my colleagues' projects. I have to tell a story that makes sense of the diverse materials I have worked on, and why and how they fit into that larger context. 

My initial attempt, what I had written below in greyed italics was too compressed to be understood more widely. Let me try to extend it a bit, so that it will be understood in two ways--What does this have to do with planning and public policy? and, What are the concrete instances of this work? It totals to 174 words. Don't be concerned if you leave out some things--rather be sure that what you include is effective and a good description. 

​    Over the years, I have written about: 
        --the artificiality of the natural environment;
        --the probability of doom; 
        --how abrupt collective changes (such as neighborhood tipping) may come about through the interaction of  individuals; 
        --the ideas built into seemingly innocent mathematical techniques or physical models; 
        --how actors such as entrepreneurs and special forces in the armed services make decisions and commitments; 
        --how big decisions are made and justified (as in infrastructure investments);
        --and, in the last fifteen years, I have pursued systematic photographic documentation of Los Angeles (storefront churches, people at work in industry,...) and written about doing such documentation.

    My concern is with models or ways of thinking that might appear algebraic or quantitative, and ways of acting and thinking that are better understood in the sacred realm of commitment and sacrifice. Topically, I have been concerned with mathematical and physical models in planning and cities, the environment both natural and built, and actors and the decisions they make--each of which cuts across the quantitative/sacred divide.  [Early on, I was quite surprised that I needed to understand religious discourse and thinking if I was to do my work.]

I just wrote the above, but of course I have been saying something like it for years. My point here is that you want to see yourself in a more objective way.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Academic Roadkill. Who will bear a next generation...Parents as Professors

No one wants to become academic roadkill. Here is my contribution today to The Academic Minute. Above is a link to the actual podcast.
I have watched many a faculty member walk in front of an oncoming truck, ask, “What truck?” and become academic roadkill. You don’t want to follow their lead. Drawing from my book, The Scholar’s Survival Manual and a new book ms, …
It’s the work that counts. What is your project? What is the Big Idea? Tell a story about what you are doing. Buried in the manuscript is the main point—will a reader notice it? In the Introduction, have you presented the main idea and explained it?
Organize, Draft, Rewrite, and then Submit—first to a colleague, then to a publication venue, and perhaps then to another venue.
Quality matters, scrupulous matters, getting it out matters. Audience matter.
Teaching and Seminars are the occasion to give away the Main Idea, or to find out the spearker’s.. Find out, What is Really Going On in the speaker’s talk. You have to be an active listener.
Now, You have a job in a bureaucracy. Do what you are supposed to do, and if not find a more suitable position. Stay out of nonsense. Realize that you are at a particular stage in your career.
You will need the Kindness of Strangers, even if you have a home-run dossier at promotion and tenure time.
And, You’ll need a Go-Bag, so that if the bureaucracy is unresponsive to you, you can find another landing pad. Grants and External Support allow you to do your work, and they keep the Dean away. Do you owe them, or do they owe you?
Just because you are in a fine position, does not mean you are worthy.
And, Likely another truck is coming at You. It is already too late if you are asking, “What truck?”
I have been telling friends that the universities have yet to adequately address the fact that a next generation depends on women to have babies, and that in our society Mama not only bears the child but is likely to have to take major responsibility for bringing up baby and child. Papa may well be helpful, but in general Mama is expected to take on most of the work. My insight is not sociological but personal, having adopted a newborn on my own when I was 42 and an untenured associate professor, his having "special needs" discovered when he was 4 1/2, and his now being a gracious gentleman at age 30. The surprising outcome was that bringing up baby, so to speak, allowed me to write 8 books and plenty of articles--the focus was so essential. I did not travel much, few meetings, but was a good teacher and contributed to university service. I did attend lots of seminars with a child in tow, a child who played with LEGO during the seminar. BUT although my rank did not indicate it, when I was 42, I had published many significant articles, one book and had another in process, and had received major fellowships. And I did give up what most of us would consider a social life. I took what I could get, a job. I am the exception that proves the rule.

Here is an interview with concerning these issues. (https://www.insidehighered.com)

Q&A with authors of new book on balancing home and work life as an academic scientist

Submitted by Colleen Flaherty on December 2, 2016 - 3:00am
Much of the literature on balancing faculty and home life centers on women. There’s talk of the “baby penalty” [1] for women who choose to have children, for example.
A new book, based on five years of research involving academic scientists, sheds more light on the struggles of both men and women as they try to grow their careers and their families. Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science [2] (New York University Press) is based on the idea that work-life balance is not an issue exclusive to women -- and must be addressed with gender-neutral solutions. Failure to meet that challenge will result in a dangerous talent drain away from academic science, warn authors Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, and Anne E. Lincoln, associate professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University.
Ecklund and Lincoln participated in a written discussion about the book.
Q: The book draws on 2,000 surveys of junior and senior scientists and in-depth interviews. Can you share a bit more about your methodology? What did you want to know, about whom?
Ecklund: We surveyed biologists and physicists at 20 top American universities in late 2008 and early 2009 and then followed up over the next few years with 150 in-depth interviews with a random sample of those who responded to the survey. We spent three years collecting data and two years analyzing data on the lives of junior and senior scientists at top U.S. research universities; through a survey of 2,503 scientists and in-depth interviews, they captured both the breadth that comes from surveying a large number of scientists and the depth that comes from face-to face discussions.
This is a book about how women and men who are scientists at the top U.S. research universities negotiate family life and how the strategies they use will change science. The inability to balance life as a scientist with life as a parent is more than a personal issue or a women’s issue. It is a structural failure resulting from the expectation that the “ideal” scientist will prioritize complete and utter devotion to career above all else.
Q: What are your major findings? How did they differ by gender?
Lincoln: When this research began, we planned to tell the story of how scientists perceive women’s achievements in science and impediments to achievement for women in science. As research often does, ours uncovered something we were not expecting. While women definitely discussed discrimination in science, we were surprised to find that both women and men mostly talked with us about work-family dynamics in science.
We find that indeed women are hit harder by the pressures of elite academic science, and there is definitely “a motherhood penalty” (we devote a chapter of our book to discussing it). But the institution of science -- and academic science, in particular -- is bad for those who want to have children or pursuits outside of their careers, bad for both men and women.
Perhaps most importantly and most consequential for universities, our five years of research reveals that early-career academic scientists struggle with balancing their work and family lives. This struggle is stopping many young scientists from pursuing positions at top research universities -- or further pursuing academic science at all -- a circumstance that comes at great cost to our national science infrastructure.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the challenges early-career scientists face?
Ecklund: Reaching the level of tenured faculty, the pinnacle of achievement in academia, is a more momentous task than it has ever been. Four years of undergraduate studies are followed by four to six or more years of Ph.D. work. By the time a scientist earns her doctorate, she is likely to be in her late 20s, the time in the life course when most Americans are beginning to settle down. Scientists still must undertake at least one, and increasingly multiple, postdoctoral appointments, which usually range from two to six years, and because many postdoctoral positions are dependent on grant funding, they do not offer the competitive pay, benefits or stability of private-sector jobs.
Next comes an appointment as an assistant professor, lasting five to seven years, and finally -- if successful! -- a tenured associate professor appointment. At this point, most scientists are in their late 30s or early 40s, well past the time most Americans have started raising children. The time as a tenure-track professor is perhaps the most intense and stressful in an academic life, with no specific timeline for moving from associate to full professor. In this highly competitive and lengthy process, when is the right time to start a family? Scientists in academia often feel they have to wait until they are tenured, a perception that has led to a trend of later childbearing among scientists.
Q: How does the book add to the existing literature on work-life balance in the sciences?
Lincoln: Nearly all of the literature on work-life balance in the sciences focuses on women’s experiences. That work is needed, but our work takes the tension between family life and the calling of scientific work out of its current framing as just a “woman’s problem” to talk about the experiences of both men and women. The tension of scientists balancing work and family is really a structural problem for universities and national science bodies, like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Q: What are the particular challenges that academic scientists face, as opposed to other scientists and/or faculty members in other disciplines?
Ecklund: Among all academic disciplines and all professions, scientific disciplines increasingly require longer training and more travel, core structural factors that impinge on family life. Furthermore, researchers find that, when compared with middle- and working-class occupations, the professions, such as medicine, law and banking, have been slower to accommodate workers with families -- and universities are particularly poor at accommodating family life. They’re often far behind the corporate world in providing family-friendly workplaces.
Today, academic scientists must keep multiple complex tasks going simultaneously, which might in any one day include lab management, teaching and applying for funding. At the same time, universities are providing fewer and fewer administrative supports.
Q: What are the implications of your findings for higher education? What’s at stake when academics feel they can’t find balance between work and home?
Lincoln: We are finding that some of our best and brightest will leave science.
Q: What are your recommendations for higher education? What can institutions do to help? How should science as a whole respond?
Ecklund: Universities need to follow the most family-friendly corporations. Provide child care centers that are affordable for all scientists. Provide better nonstandard child care benefits, like child care credits for when scientists need to travel for scientific work and need to take their children with them. Make leaves and stopping tenure clocks automatic upon the birth of a child. Develop checks and balances at the department level. Empower individuals to change cultures. The last chapter of our book provides extensive recommendations for universities and science departments, as well as national scientific funding bodies, like the NIH and the NSF.