Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Skating to where the puck will be... +Other ideas.

Referring to a strong neuroscientist someone says, "He is really good in that Wayne Gretzky way of skating to where the puck will be."

It seems that in Brecht's Mother Courage, she says something to the effect that you need courage when someone has failed to plan correctly.  So you need courageous soldiers when the generals screw up.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Jury-rigged and Jerry-built

Jury-rigged is a matter of an improvisation in repairing something. [comes from nautical use, jury-rigging a sail]

Jerry-built is shoddy workmanship.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What you can do in a classroom-- And why there's room for a person in the classrooms

I have been thinking about what made the difference in my higher education, college and graduate school.  What mattered was the interaction with my teachers, and watching them talk or lecture or comment. Actually, a good fraction of the time, nothing much mattered, but when it mattered it was that person thinking about a subject.

I studied physics and did my advanced work in elementary particle physics. My teachers were of varying degrees didactic, but what mattered was watching them think and work out problems and explain stuff. You could learn most of physics from textbooks and doing problems, but what you needed to learn was thinking like a physicist. Now the Feynman textbooks convey that rather well, but I know of no other such textbooks in physics, at any level, that really teach you this. So I was stuck with my teachers (about 7 or 8 had or eventually received Nobel Prizes in physics). Watching them think is what I learned: how to think like a physicist about the world. I imagine that watching videos or movies of those lectures might have done the work, but often it was a matter of the less polished, more impromptu moves that made the difference.

I also had a heavy dose of the great books, great thinkers, in both literature and social science and politics. Again, what I needed to master was how to read and think about the world of imagination and ideas, of culture and society. Actually, my teachers were not in general so good at teaching me this, and it is only in my later years, ten to thirty years post PhD that I began to learn to think in the ways humanities scholars do. As for the social sciences, those that emulate something like physics, I can see what they are doing. If there is something more subtle, say fieldwork in sociology, my humanities training was what was crucial. Trained as a physicist I was never much diverted by people pulling out equations or models--for I knew that what mattered was the basic ideas about such--and I discovered that many of my colleagues in the social sciences were so involved with the formalism that the ideas escaped their consideration.

In other words, what mattered to me was to learn to think. I imagine that if I studied a field where substantive detailed knowledge was crucial, I would not have been very adept, and perhaps those fields benefit from distance learning technologies and other didactic methods. But if you want to learn to think, you have to watch people do it, and model yourself after them. And it matters if you are in the room with them, engaged with them, and having a sense of what is at stake.

I do not do much didactic teaching. I don't know what to teach. Rather I teach people how to think about matters of public policy and city planning, about methodology and reliable knowledge, about critical analysis of scholarly work. I can write down some rules. But what matters, I believe, is watching me in action, and having me take on a student's work and try to make it better.  I will discuss reading and try to give people a sense of what matters in the text we are analyzing. I will take on questions and try to see how the question relates to what we are studying. I am a performer, an intellectual performer, and I live and die by my ability to think.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Technical Yiddish and Formal Mathematics: Bupkis and Unbelievable Chutzpah, Nonstandard Analysis

My colleague Ed Kleinbard of USC Gould School of Law, referred to the comparatively small amount of money you can raise in taxes from the ultra-rich as Bupkis ("This is what is known in public finance circles as bupkis.") that is, goat droppings, and the Yiddish term for nothing or something quite small.

In an earlier quote, he referred to some of Apple's tax strategy as Unbelievable Chutzpah (“There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this, Unbelievable Chutzpah.”), where by locating economic activity in low tax nations, taxes are reduced--actually a very large number of dollars being involved.

Such technical Yiddish has a theoretical structure in mathematics.There is in mathematics a whole theory of very small and very large quantities (as 1/small)--nonstandard analysis. It arose out of mathematical logic, set theory, and what is called model theory. Turns out to be very useful, for talking about infinitesimals, etc, when 4 x epsilon is still epsilon, and for many other mathematical notions.

Friday, February 7, 2014

I give up... You can't tell them if they don't want to hear.

Briefly: I will advise a colleague or a student about how to be more effective, with suitable disclaimers that I might well be wrong. They then defend themselves, in effect ignoring what I said about their behavior, justifying what they did without paying attention to matters of decorum or style. I have in the past tried to get back to them, to make them realize what I was trying to say.

I give up...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Potshots vs. Deep Questions

Often one goes to a seminar, and there is a continuing series of questions that are ok, but in fact are potshots at the speaker's work. What you want to do is to ask deep questions, questions that allow the speaker's work to be rescued from idiocy. But only some scholars are capable of rising to the occasion. If you are one of them, you want to avoid potshots. Another way of putting it is that a great scholar takes a dumb question asked by a student or colleague and converts it into an interesting and deep question and answer.

To a really talented scholar, I would say: You are too good to spend your time or effort shooting things down. You ought launch your own rockets. That is, when someone is giving an unsatisfactory talk, you want to ask a question that allows them to grow, and in effect that allows your deep intelligence to inform the conversation. I realize that what I am saying is not so sweet, but since I have respect for you, I will keep saying it. Of course, all of what I am saying could just be wrong, but at least I am putting myself on the line.

Your job, given your reasonable request for theory and mechanism, is to present your observations in terms of a theory rather than a series of scattershot observations. You might have said, "I just want to be sure we understand that your work tells us nothing much about the motivations or scheming of these actors. In fact I can imagine a whole variety of innocent explanations for your observations. Here are some...  " I realize this is hard to do, but you don't want to be  too smart by-a-half. For the ability to discern such innocent explanations is nice, but that gets you nowhere unless you also start thinking about how you would go about checking them out. That is why I mentioned fieldwork as well as statistical studies.  The reason I am so sharp here is that you are more than too smart by-a-half, you are really smart and deep.  You don't want to diminish your power by being that half.

What makes Chicago/Moscow style objections in a seminar is that the objections are never cheap. They reveal the depth of the questioner. You have all that depth.

Now of course, I understand that you could be frustrated by a talk that does not do what you think it should, and that may have driven you off course. What I usually do is about 15 minutes in try to ask a question to find out what is going on. That question almost always puts me at risk, since I am making a positive claim: "Is what you are doing X, Y, and Z?"  Potshots are a waste of your depth.

Monday, February 3, 2014

When a Project Fizzles

Right now I am thinking about my next project. I wrote an outline for a presumed book, and in the last day or so I expanded it in an essay of about 2500 words. As I was writing, the book seemed rather more pedestrian than I had imagined, the ideas seemed rather more obvious. Of course, the book would have had detailed examples and cases. But for the moment, these 2500 words do not look so promising. I have said what I wanted to say, and perhaps no more should be said.

I won't know until a few days from now when I reread what I have written, fix it up a bit, and share with a few people who are more expert in the field than I am.

If it fizzles, I will be grateful that I have discovered this well before I have put in much more time and effort. Of course, one is disappointed, but at least the air is cleared.

We'll see.