Friday, April 26, 2013

Collateral damage in University Brouhahas

Earlier in this blog I reported on some emails I had received from students that seemed "off" to me, where I had responded professionally and in an anodyne manner, sticking to the facts and issues, and not addressing the tone. I did not know what was up, and even later when I posted the emails I did not know what was going on. I finally got some insights in the last week from other students.

I was in effect collateral damage of problems that did not originate with me, and to which I had contributed very little. In that sense, my response that stuck to the issues rather than the tone was appropriate. It might have been useful to deal with the email-ers more directly and personally. My mistake.

More generally, for whatever reason you want to avoid getting splattered with blood and guts, or even worse becoming a target yourself. At least if this is a fight where you have no dog involved. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rare events

Robert Litterman (a protege of Fischer Black at Goldman-Sachs):

Given the nonnormality of daily returns that we find in most financial markets, we [Goldman Sachs] use as a rule of thumb assumption that four-[daily]-standard-deviation events in financial markets happen approximately once per year. 

in Lehmann, The Legacy of Fischer Black, chapter 4 (2004).

He also points out that in general daily Value at Risk is about 4 times the daily variance, but not always.

There are also excellent chapters by Myers and Ross, a nice brief discussion of real options, etc

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Getting away with murder...

For me, being a professor--teaching and research--has been like getting away with murder. I'm not sure there is another place for me to be gainfully employed at much above the minimal wage. But what makes it special is that I can follow my intellectual nose. Of course, I have to  be productive--grants, publications, courses taught that attract students--but that seems fairly straightforward. I usually have a portfolio of potential projects or courses I might teach, and depending on the flow of grants, the department's needs, and my own inclinations, I can almost always match my desires with what the world will support. What's amazing is that a project that seems too far out, or a course that would appear to be too esoteric, usually do have markets, sometimes if you wait for a while, sometimes if you dress them up in more presentable clothes.

It took some time for me to find a place where this match of desires and opportunity would work best, but along the way (maybe 15 years after my PhD), I could find temporary places and grants that led to my being able to be remarkably productive years later. Almost everything I was interested in, or courses I taught, would somehow end up being employed in the my work. That "end up being employed" involved my being inventive and willing to set up more presentable clothes, but that never seemed to be a burden.

Put differently, it would appear that whatever I was interested in, no matter how idiosyncratic, eventually would become grist for the mill, and lead to productive projects. It's not that the world came to see my ideas as natural. Rather, I could find ways of doing my work. And if you get grants and publish respectably, most departments will leave you alone and perhaps even celebrate you. I don't believe you win them over, but they cannot help but cashing in on you.

You also need to be able to survive for a long time. For the projects and courses only become possible in time, not when you first think of them. Hence, it's vital that you have enough alternatives in action at any one time that you can live long enough to be able to do some of your work. (Similarly, if you want to win awards, live long enough so that eventually they will get around to recognizing you. Posthumous recognition is ironic.) In effect, you have to have a diverse portfolio, be willing to wait for the right time, and at any time have work that you want to do (work that you may have been waiting to get to for some time).

They tell me the secret is to outlive the bastards. But I think you just have to live--it's not the bastards who are out there. Rather, there is lots of noise, and you just have to focus on your conversation--what is called the cocktail-party effect. (In a noisy cocktail party, you can understand the person you are talking to much better than would be expected: Wikipedia: "The cocktail party effect is the phenomenon of being able to focus one's auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, much the same way that a partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room. This effect is what allows most people to "tune into" a single voice and "tune out" all others."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fischer Black: We should be paid for teaching alone. Those who really want to do research will do it nonetheless. Also, how to test models...

In Perry Mehrling's Fischer Black,

Fischer Black, "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." Namely, pay professors for their teaching only, since those not interested in research will stop producing it, and those who want to do research will do it anyway. (pp. 300-301)

p. 112. Black would stress his theories of portfolio management using past stock behavior. If the theories did not work well, then you might learn how to fix them. Empirical work is not so much to test theories, as to guide us to likely theoretical enhancements. Hence, the usual sophisticated econometric procedures and statistical tests are less useful than is running the theory "practically" on a given data set and seeing if there is a substantial effect. (This reminds me of Tukey's Exploratory Data Analysis, or the way particle physicists work with their theories. In each case, what you are looking for is what is missing, and it is remarkable when things work reasonably well {as well as being dispiriting since there is nothing more to think about, hence the problems with the Standard Model of particle physics--it works much too well}.)  Black was skeptical of econometrics, with its use of (linear) regression models: misspecification, identification problems, collinearity, and lack of independence of the independent variables--so the meaning of the estimated coefficients is not at all apparent. (pp. 117-118).

Note: Fischer Black was an innovator in finances (Black-Scholes equation), and worked at Arthur D Little, U of Chicago, MIT and Goldman Sachs. His earliest work was in artificial intelligence.

Beyond Tenure--Working in Government and Enterprise. What next for faculty...

1. Faculty member X had enough service so he could comfortably retire. At that point, 3 years ago, Big Company contacted him out of the blue about becoming their "technical person." There was a long period of courtship, but in the end X joined BC and took leave from the university. X is a distinguished member, with a wide swath of contributions.

2. X is making a significant contribution to BC, although proprietary concerns mean that I don't know the details. X is very much appreciated there. 

3. While the university would not want to lose faculty of X's stature, it surely redounds to the university to have one of our faculty in his role at BC. Some departments have a faculty that is hard to keep, they are bid away by other universities of great prestige.

4. I believe that many faculty would be given a new lease on professional life by going out in the world. This is not about age. Some faculty have languished, others who are productive--could find a new way of contributing. They might take a leave or terminate or retire. I am less concerned here with faculty that leave for other universities or move on to administrative appointments.

5. X's offer from BC came unbidden. Put differently, faculty who might have terrific opportunities may not realize it. I don't know how the university can make faculty aware of these sorts of opportunities, but I think it would be a good idea. I am less concerned with our most productive faculty as I am with those faculty who are languishing. I don't know if deans can be useful here. We don't want to push people out, we want them to have very tempting opportunities.

6. More people should go into governmental service, the private and philanthropic sectors, etc. (Our faculty have served in State, HUD, WHO, NSF...) It's good for them, and good for the university. It is fashionable to talk about start-ups in engineering and the sciences and medicine. But here I am thinking of large bureaucracies.

I have no idea if this is a useful suggestion. Some fields may not lend themselves to other opportunities--except during times of national mobilization (as in WWII).  But I think it would be valuable for faculty to realize there are possibilities beyond tenure and full professorship, whether for a short term or termination.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tenure, Slavery, Marriage

In a wonderful article, Franke of Columbia's Law School, unearths the history of the freed slaves after the Civil War, now allowed to marry legally. How such an "achievement" came with lots of strings, many of which were used by white suprematists to control and punish Negroes. She analogizes this with the desire for same-sex marriage, with again the informal and folkways of gay people will be under attack when gay marriage becomes legal.

As I read Franke's article, I could not help thinking of tenure. What are the modes of control exercised upon us once we are tenure-track or tenured? I'm not for slavery, against marriage, or against tenure. But Franke's point is that one has to understand the consequences of becoming institutionally secure, in effect over-protected.

I always thought that the best defense in the case of tenure would be to have job offers from other places, not all the time, but regularly. Tenure or on the tenure track would not take you out of the market, and the potential to leave would make deans and chairs and provosts think a bit before they exercised their powers. The net effect would be a much more liquid market for faculty, less secure about the institution, more secure about your value. And one would not so much be applying for academic jobs, as the headhunters would be looking for you.

Some of us would find we are not very marketable, yet at least we do have tenure. Still, my guess is that more people would look for other positions where their talents were a better fit. On the other hand, the transaction costs would be large, the disruptions problematic: but perhaps the greater salary and respect and role would be attractive.

Those who really need tenure, to protect their ability to follow their research and teaching where it will lead are not much hurt here, although it may be that their compensation would not be so robust--except if there are institutions who see the these tenure-needing scholars as doing special work.

In any case, non-tenure-track faculty should be aware of what they are wishing for.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bargaining for Grades, for Tenure, for Blessing and Authority, ...

I read or examine drafts of student work, suggest how it might be improved, and am willing to look at another draft. My eyes glaze over after seeing several "improved" drafts, so it makes sense to give me your best shot each time, improving the work in ways you discover on your own as well as following my suggestions. But . . .

1. "I did everything you said, and all I got was a B!" When I read drafts, what I am looking to do is to provide guidance on how to make the work better. When I read a final version to give it a grade, I am evaluating the work's quality. I give A's for work that is excellent, work that I would proudly show my colleagues. B's are for good work, and if I can I try to make sure that my guidance makes the work Good. C's are for work that is fair, work that has never been much improved. I believe that most students can get a B under this regime.

On the other hand, even with all my guidance, the work may not become excellent. I may not be able to help enough, not seeing how to make it excellent. The student may have chosen a project or topic that does not allow them to do excellent work. Maybe many more revisions and drafts are needed. In any case, the work is very very likely to be good, but it may not be excellent.

2. It is hard to show people why they did not get an A. It's easy to show why they got a C. A grade rubric might be useful, but I have never found it helpful for my students. What students want is a checklist that if they fulfil it, they should get an A. For the kind of courses and assignments I give, there is no such checklist.

3. More generally, rules and regulations do not lead to the best even if they are effective in marking the worst.  We live nowadays in a world where there is a demand for specific rules, in the name of fairness and to penalize or avoid outrageous behavior. I just don't know what those rules should be for the work I assign, and if they existed I would be wary of seeing so many drafts since I could then be pushed to give a grade that I thought was wrong but which fulfilled the rules.

4. All of these issues come up in promotion and tenure decisions. If one's standards are not too demanding, rules will work fine. But if one is seeking excellence, they won't help. You surely want to be fair and gracious, and a set of rules will be helpful. But excellence is not well encompassed by those rules. [Similarly, you want to avoid sexual harassment, but as a dean from another university pointed out to me, you will encourage a distancing among people that may be alienating--which is fine if you don't want your professors working closely with students. (He was not arguing for sexual harassment; he was saying that the rules have some unintended consequences that need consideration.)]

5. I teach in a professional doctoral program. Its students are experienced actors in the world. Currently, there is a committee charged with reforming the program. Whatever happens, the rules in place when the students were admitted apply for them, so whatever the reform it does not or need not apply to them. But students act as if their admissions into our program is an implicit and actual contract they entered into, and so any news about the reform seems to cause a brouhaha. Some also believe that since they are paying tuition they are consumers with the rights of consumers as they understand them. Yet they want as well the authority they attribute to the faculty, to be transferred to them as they do good work. But authority is never transferred through the marketplace relationship of consumer and seller. We might invoke rules, but then we want the blessing that is beyond rules.

Again, the issue is not about being fair and avoiding outrageous behavior. Rather, it is on the up-side where decency and excellence and authority are not so rule governed, where the participants have to trust each other.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Are Universities Subject to Corporate Shenanigans?

If we think about the news of the last five or ten years, the varieties of corporate shenanigans is wondrous and pervasive. Perhaps we are more aware of the issues, or perhaps there is more gaming of the system. In any case, universities are large corporate entities, and so I wonder about their potential for shenanigans. I need to work this out more clearly, but here are first rough thoughts. Keep in mind that these suggestions may not be actual and not be true. But you could imagine this list as a guideline for accrediting agencies.

1. Money laundering in development and fund-raising.
2. Pedophilia by faculty, although most colleage students and graduate students are over 18, and it would seem some are seeking out older paramours (although the issues of asymmetric power are still there). Do universities act like the Catholic Church in terms of moving people around?
3. Insider information--legacies or other such greased admissions, searches for faculty that are in fact set before the search.
4. Misleading unsophisticated investors, securitization of mortgages. Selling people goods you know are not valuable, packaging stuff so it looks better than it really is--perhaps in distance education, perhaps in very large courses, perhaps ...
5. Making policy with poor intelligence or with politicized intelligence--do we have enough teachers (troops) who are qualified for the programs we offer. Are MOOCS like Rumsfeld sending too few troops to Iraq, under the philosophy of Revolution in Military Affairs or what was called Transformation.
6. Preemptive war--Is U of Phoenix the real enemy, is it your enemy?

Friday, April 12, 2013

"What's the Big Idea?"

The title of this post comes from Seymour Papert: "...the most neglected big idea is the very idea of bigness of ideas. I want to argue that the neglect of big ideas—or rather of the bigness of ideas—has become pervasive in the culture of School to the point where it dominates thinking about the content of what schools teach, as well as thinking about how to run them."

When I read a paper, when I see a student research proposal, when I see almost anything written, and when I listen to a seminar, I am trying to figure out where's the beef. Typically, one gets no end of preliminaries, detailed considerations of method, but by the time you get to the beef, you are (I am!) worn down by boredom. I don't think this is a deliberate act. People don't know where's the beef, what's the Big Idea, in their work, or better put they know it implicitly but they cannot give it away. It's too simple, too unpretentious, too common.

Crucially, the Big Idea empowers you, argue Papert.You are no longer just a student, but you are now active and out in the world....

The Long Term Interests of the Universities: Deans, Faculties, Clawbacks, Fear,

1. One of my favorite stories concerns the University of Chicago. The history department had a more junior member who worked in the history of ancient science. He was not being very well treated, although outside experts thought he was very very strong. A distinguished member of the science faculty went to the president and had the historian transferred to a science department, where he was much better treated.

What's interesting here is that a member of the faculty could go to the president and make a difference. (That the junior member was worthy is a given, and that the senior faculty member is very distinguished is also a given.)

There are few institutions where I imagine such might happen, although I am not at all sure: maybe Princeton, Caltech, MIT. There are many distinguished institutions where size or bureaucratic silos might prevent such action.

In general the chair or the dean are feared by the faculty. In places where the chair is rotating, the chair is unlikely to be feared. But in most places, the dean's relationship to their faculty is such that the dean holds most of the cards.

In some institutions, the faculty is so strong, that deans and even provosts must pay attention to some faculty if not most.. Very few institutions from what I am told.

You know you are a great university when the deans and the provost are afraid of the faculty. When the administration views itself as servant to the faculty rather than their boss.

2. In general deans are transient, while the faculty is ongoing and continuing, with many of the members having 25 years of service ahead of them or behind them. It makes sense to believe that the faculty has in mind the longer term interest of the institution, while the dean is concerned about what will happen in the next few years and perhaps their legacy. It also makes sense to think that the faculty might be collectively foolish, and the dean is there to make them rise above their nonsense.

We do not have clawbacks if deans make poor decisions. At least faculties that appoint or promote unworthy colleagues have to live with them for the next 30 years and they condemn their successors to that as well (keep in mind the dean is long gone). Of course, faculties might be shortsighted, and deans be strategic and committed to the longest terms. But the incentives are otherwise arranged.

3. I am told that you never want to make a weak appointment since that is likely to lead to further weak appointments, and declining standards. I do know that strong appointments reset the bar in measuring performance. 


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Human capital was not only the largest fraction of his (Fischer Black's) own personal wealth . . .

The title is a quote from Mehrlings biography of Fischer Black. In effect, Black thought for a living.

Black  believed that human capital was the major component of wealth for a country too.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pre-Ordering The Scholar's Survival Manual, and ...


I just saw that is offering my Scholar’s Survival Manual for $16.50 rather than $25.00. I believe it will prove useful for undergraduates and doctoral graduate students, all the way through assistant professors, deans, and even provosts. It’s practical, straightforward, and I am told very useful. It won’t be out til early in the Fall, but the price is right. If you order it with another of my books, Doing Physics, now its second edition, then you can get free shipping, and they will likely ship Doing Physics now. Doing Physics is driven by social science models—markets, institutional analysis, kinship theory,…, so it may actually speak to your interests, while along the way you will learn a bit about natural science. ( ) I’ve pasted its page below as well.

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Release date: October 22, 2013

The product of a lifetime of experience in American universities, The Scholar’s Survival Manual offers advice for students, professors, and administrators on such matters as the path to becoming a professor, getting tenured, and making visible contributions to scholarship, as well as serving on promotion and tenure committees. Martin H. Krieger covers a broad cross section of the academic experience from a graduate student's first foray into the job market through retirement. Because advice is notoriously difficult to take and context matters a great deal, Krieger has allowed his ideas to percolate through dozens of discussions. Some of the advice is instrumental and on matters of expediency; some demands the highest aspirations. Readers may open the book at any place and begin reading; for the more methodical there is a detailed table of contents. Krieger’s tone is direct, an approach born of the knowledge that students and professors too often ignore suggestions that would have prevented them from becoming academic roadkill. This essential book will help readers sidestep a similar fate.

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"Original and insightful... Krieger provides a very demystifying account of how the university professoriat works and practical advice on how academics can successfully navigate through their university tenure and promotion process.... A how-to guide for all academics who are navigating their careers through a previously uncharted lost civilization called the tenure and promotion process." —John Gaber, University of Arkansas

(John Gaber, University of Arkansas )

About the Author

Martin H. Krieger is Professor of Planning in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He has taught at Berkeley, Minnesota, MIT, and Michigan and has served for many years on university promotion and tenure committees. He is author of Doing Physics (second edition, IUP, 2012), Constitutions of Matter, and Doing Mathematics, among other books.
His blog of the same name is found at

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·         Paperback: 364 pages
·         Publisher: Indiana University Press (October 22, 2013)
·         Language: English
·         ISBN-10: 0253010632
·         ISBN-13: 978-0253010636
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Release date: November 19, 2012 | ISBN-10: 0253006074 | ISBN-13: 978-0253006073 | Edition: Second Edition
Doing Physics makes concepts of physics easier to grasp by relating them to everyday knowledge. Addressing some of the models and metaphors that physicists use to explain the physical world, Martin H. Krieger describes the conceptual world of physics by means of analogies to economics, anthropology, theater, carpentry, mechanisms such as clockworks, and machine tool design. The interaction of elementary particles or chemical species, for example, can be related to the theory of kinship—who can marry whom is like what can interact with what. Likewise, the description of physical situations in terms of interdependent particles and fields is analogous to the design of a factory with its division of labor among specialists. For the new edition, Krieger has revised the text and added a chapter on the role of mathematics and formal models in physics. Doing Physics will be of special interest to economists, political theorists, anthropologists, and sociologists as well as philosophers of science.


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"This is an important and provocative book, timely and full of insight. Fail to read it, and you may miss out on the physics of the future." —John Gribbin, New Scientist
(John Gribbin New Scientist )
"This unusual book introduces 'the moves, the rituals, the incantations' physicists invoke as they go about conceptualizing Nature. The lucid-but-loaded writing makes quite complex ideas accessible to the mathless reader.... The rewards are a better understanding of how physics is done." —Whole Earth Millennial Catalog
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Krieger... excellently tells those in our human society outside the physics world how physicists think, plan, and go about understanding nature.Choice
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"An excellent [and innovative] book." —Isis
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"Not many books about physics have six citations of Adam Smith. Building on the analogy that Nature is like an economic system, Krieger provides a novel analysis of how physicists construct models of the world. A fascinating insight into the way scientists think." —Dick Easterlin, University of Southern California
(Dick Easterlin, University of Southern California )
About the Author
Martin H. Krieger, who was trained as a physicist at Columbia University, has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and at the National Humanities Center. He is author of Marginalism and Discontinuity: Tools for the Crafts of Knowledge and Decision (1989), Constitutions of Matter: Mathematically Modeling the Most Everyday of Physical Phenomena (1996), and Doing Mathematics: Convention, Subject, Calculation, Analogy (2003). He is on the faculty of the University of Southern California, and has taught at Berkeley, Minnesota, MIT, and Michigan.

Product Details
·         Paperback: 248 pages
·         Publisher: Indiana University Press; Second Edition edition (November 19, 2012)
·         Language: English
·         ISBN-10: 0253006074
·         ISBN-13: 978-0253006073


Martin H. Krieger, Professor of Planning
Sol Price School of Public Policy, U. of Southern California

Paris, 1870--Rephotographed: