Friday, October 30, 2015

Neighborhood Effects, Ecological Causation, vs. Individuals a primary... in Sampson, The Great American City

 I have been reading Sampson's Great American City. The big theme in the book is "neighborhood effects," or ecological causation. He provides a very nice account of individual choice, suggesting as do many of the economic sociologists, that the individual and their choice-profile is emergent (not his term) from the neighborhood. Terms of art include social causality, spatial logic, self-selection bias (individual selection is a neighborhood effect), structural vs. individual. He is sensible and thoughtful, and surely worth a read for any doctoral student in any field in our School. Chapter 15 provides a summary of his argument in this arena.

It may be useful to keep in mind that at least in modern quantum field theory, individuals are emergent. Namely, quantum fields are primary (even if you "see" individual particles in those Feynman diagrams), and the appearance of discrete individuals is an emergent phenomena. Put different, and here Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes is particularly nice, as the universe cooled down from the Big Bang, the various individual particles we now see emerged, much as the orderly crystalline structure of ice emerges as you cool down water. In the Big Bang, where time is measured in terms of the exponent of the time after the Big Bang (10^seconds), where t is a negative number (for most of what interests Weinberg, and goes as high at maybe +2 in his book, but see next paragraph) and is that time, the earlier times are too hot for individuals to emerge and be comparatively stable objects. 

As for time, that t in that last paragraph, it takes some time, say when t is about +16 or 17, that is, billions of years, for the stars to form, supernovae to explode, the heavy elements to form. The universe is something like 13.8 billion years old, I believe, and so t is now about 17+.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Asking Questions at Presentations. Answering Questions.

There are many reasons for the questions that are asked at presentations, at meetings, seminars, or peer reviews. The questioner may be drawing attention to their own work or the work of others, there may be some deep problems in the work, one might be curious about further details or implications, ...  What's crucial is that the questions be pointed, clear, and relevant.  If the speaker cannot answer the question, for whatever reason, make sure you meet afterwards.

In answering the question, be brief, and usually it makes sense to restate the question first. If you don't have an answer, ask to speak to the questioner later. 

In general, your colleagues resent you if you take too long, seem to be hunting for the point at issue, or are off base. If you do this often, you will get a reputation you probably do not want. Never say that you are ignorant or out of the field or make excuses--ask the question! I've rarely seen questions that are "stupid," in the sense that everyone knows this--usually half the audience wished they had asked that question.

You will do better as a presenter if in the first thing you say is the main point of the talk. Whatever you would put in the conclusion, usually works better up front. With audiences that are likely to interrupt frequently, it is fine to say the main point up front, and if the questions are too frequent, toask for ten minutes to present before you take further questions.

One kind of question is often very helpful, an epitome. Something like, "Let me know if I have understood your talk. Namely, you are saying that [flying dogs use aerodynamic principles understood by Bernoulli]." Obviously fill in the appropriate summary. This should not go on for five minutes, but be maybe one sentence more.

By the way, these skills are not easy to master, and many never master them. They're simple to say, but hard to adhere to, or even just keep in mind. Most of us teach and we expect an audience, albeit these days in cyberspace. No one has to listen to your talk, or stay, or even be patient, at scholarly presentations. Walking out, doing email, etc is always possible. To hold people's attention, or at least have their attention often enough, is an achievement.

PS: There is an essay by Paul Meehl, in his Psychodiagnosis, about why he does not attend case conferences. Meehl is the source of the MMPI, and more generally of asking "clinical or statistical judgment."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Deans and Departmental Chairs

Universities are composed of "schools," and those school are composed of departments. Deans head schools, chairs head departments. And deans report to a provost, chairs to deans. Deans may have major external responsibilities--the university campaign, arrangements with other institutions, representing the university to various constituencies. They are in this sense contributing directly to the president's agenda. Other universities may have deans who are more internally focussed.

Department chairs are there to strengthen their departments and strengthen ties with other university departments and elsewhere. They must tend to faculty who are not performing up to their potential, mentor junior faculty, encourage grants and fellowships, and ideally they are in the business of pushing their department to much greater strength. That may involve systematic hires, focusing, and strategic plans over the next five or so years, sometimes dragging their colleagues along. Student numbers are crucial, but there is an offset if the grants are numerous and flush with overhead. 

At my university, one department was propelled forward by a deliberate narrowing of focus and the hiring world-class faculty, and keeping hiring if some leave. There have been recurrent attempts to push forward another mainline department, but they have not had the kind of success they would have liked. I know of one department that was well known to be weak, and the dean hired a chair who exhibited the capacity to make big changes (as that person had done elsewhere). (I don't know if that proved successful.} When a department or school is internally problematic, and perhaps an externally hired dean did not work out, and so the Provost and President may appoint a dean or professor from elsewhere in the university to get the unit in shape. 

Ideally a dean does not get many problems from the chairs and surely not from the faculty. Chairs should solve faculty problems, and a dean should only hear from chairs when the dean can make a distinct difference. Every school has problematic units and, hopefully, stellar units. One department might be moved or combined with another because they were quite expensive in terms of students taught and weak external grant-getting. New schools may be formed by combining schools if those schools and their departments were small and riven with turmoil--especially if external constituencies suggest that the combined units would present a more unified and stronger image. You never want to go to the Provost to complain--rather you want to go to the administration building with a plan to bring in a slew of scholars who bring enormous prestige and lots of externally funded research. 

These are the facts of many universities' bureaucratic life. (Smaller universities with stellar faculty may well be managed more intimately, but this is comparatively rare.) By the way, ideally you will have a department chair who works with the faculty to propose a plan of action that is doable and will have a transformative effect on the department. (Transformative here is not ala Rumsfeld at Defense, but rather in terms of quality, reputation, and budget. Better a dean be presented with a surfeit of realistic opportunities than with defenses of boundaries and current quality. It is a dean's job to find the resources for departmental plans that are undeniably terrific. Of course, the dean recruits chairs to help him lasso those resources, and the provost and president and institutional advancement will help, but in the end, the dean (and the senior administrators if needed) are the resource resourcers. Ideally, you have a faculty that bring in prestige and resources just by their doing their work, and then the dean and President can find even further resources.

I believe that the reputation of a department is in the end a function of the reputations of its faculty, its concentrations in particular areas, placement of doctoral students,, etc. I know nothing about the reputations of schools and universities.

Monday, October 12, 2015

People who publish do it all, and can be as innovative as anyone...

The article below appeared in Inside Higher Education. I am quite skeptical of the lessons drawn from this work. Surely, there are quite innovative and risk-taking scientists, but it is not clear to me that they publish sufficiently so much less than their more conservative colleagues. It could be that some apparently conservative scientists might be more innovative if they had less pressure to publish and get grants. And it may be that really great work is precluded by someone who is doing lots of little work. But I doubt it being systemically significant. People who publish do it all, in general.

As for Peter Higgs--There is a bunch of people who had similar ideas (for which they got the Nobel when he did if they were still alive, or did not get it but were generally doing the same stuff). Although we talk about the Higgs particle, actually it was independently suggested by two other papers (a pair of people, and a triplet as I recall).

It's not that you don't need time to think and reflect. But I doubt that thinking and reflection and invention and innovation is much prevented by the need to publish, publicize, get grants, etc.  I am sure there are individual exceptions, but that does not prove much.

I am not criticizing the work of the sociologists. I could not judge it. But there is romantic claptrap here. My thoughts come from reading promotion/tenure files promising a future star although we now see low productivity. Again, some cases are worthy of a risk, but in general NO


The Costs of Publish or Perish

October 12, 2015


Colleen Flaherty | Inside Higher Ed
Oct. 25, 2013 -- Inside Higher Ed's 2013 Survey of College and University Human Resources Officers explored the views of chief human resources officers on wellness ...
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Shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013, Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, said he doubted he would have gotten a job, not to mention tenure, in today’s academic system. The professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh said he simply wouldn’t have been “productive” enough, with academe’s premium on publication metrics. Conversely, said Higgs, working in today’s academic system probably wouldn’t have afforded him the opportunity to identify how subatomic material requires mass.
“It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964,” he told The Guardian.
The statement resonated with many academic scientists running the funding-collaboration-publication treadmill. But while the negative consequences of the “publish or perish” paradigm, such as innovation costs and decreased attention to teaching and mentoring, are widely acknowledged, there’s been scant data to back them up. So a new study suggesting that publication pressures on scientists lead to more traditional, more likely to be published papers, at the expense of scientific breakthroughs, stands out.
“Pursuing innovation is a gamble, without enough payoff, on average, to justify the risk,” the study says. “Nevertheless, science benefits when individuals overcome the dispositions that orient them toward established islands of knowledge … in the expanding ocean of possible topics.”
The study, called “Tradition and Innovation in Scientists’ Research Strategies,” is in the current American Sociological Review. To begin, Jacob B. Foster, lead author and professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, and his co-authors created a database of more than 6.4 million biomedical and chemistry publications from 1934 to 2008.
They used chemical annotations from the National Library of Medicine to build a computer-modeled network of knowledge, and looked for chemicals that were linked, showing up in the same paper. They then sorted the links into two broad categories: those that built on past knowledge and those that were truly innovative, adding connections to the network.
The researchers looked at how many of each type of link appeared in a given year, and made inferences about scientists’ disposition to pursue tradition over innovation. This link classification allowed Foster and his team to classify papers to determine, via various regression analyses, whether papers with more innovative strategies were more frequently cited.
Finally, they built a database linking winners of some 137 major scholarly awards to their publications, to compare the mixture of links used by scientists with major achievement to the publication pool more generally.
Essentially, Foster and his co-authors created a map of which individual publications built on existing discoveries or created new connections. Then they correlated each of the research strategies to two different kinds of recognition -- citations and major awards.
Perhaps unsurprising, the work of prize-winning scientists involved significantly more innovation than the overall pool. And more than 60 percent of publications generally had no new connections, building on traditional research alone.
Foster and his co-authors, James Evans, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and Andrey Rzhetsky, a professor of medicine and human genetics at Chicago, argue that researchers who focus on answering established questions are more likely to see their work published. But while researchers who pursue riskier academic work may not be published as frequently, if published, their work receives more citations.
Foster said in an email interview that what makes his study “distinctive is the scale.”
“We were able to study this tension at scale because of several intersecting trends: increasing availability of computer-readable information about science and scientific publications, increasing computer power, and the development of network-driven techniques for representing and analyzing knowledge,” he said. “It is this last development that allowed us to operationalize tradition and innovation in a reasonable way for large-scale analysis.”
The authors recommend various ways that colleges and universities can promote more innovation, such as not linking job security to productivity, in terms of easy metrics. They say that such a strategy, once proved successful at Bell Labs, where scientists could work on project for a year without being evaluated.
Other ideas include awarding research grants to researchers, not specific research proposals, or trying funding to a proposal’s inherent innovation.
Some universities have begun supporting riskier research goals, in the form of grand challenges-oriented research, and the National Institutes of Health and various private organizations have experimented with ways to support innovative research. But publication pressures persist. Foster said he was nonetheless “optimistic” about change.
Academe should resist “the temptation to outsource judgment of quality to easily countable quantities,” he said. “Top universities emphasize that they are not interested in counting publications or citations -- that colleagues ‘read the work’ when evaluating a case.”
Scholars approaching any milestone, from searching for a first job to going up for tenure, can feel “pulled toward something safe and decipherable,” Foster said. “At least they'll have the publications, right? And that's more what I hope we can keep in mind: the importance of creating and protecting space (or rather, time) to take real risks. That's what tenure is supposed to do, which is one of the reasons that attacks on the tenure system are so worrisome. It's a shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive trade-off.”
Of course, sometimes sticking with more traditional research has its value -- as a recent, massive study suggesting that most psychology study results cannot be successfully replicated indicates.
The lead author of that study, Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, said he wasn’t familiar enough with Foster’s paper to critique its methodology, but said it sounded “intriguing.” In any case, he said, “innovation and accumulation are not mutually exclusive.”
“Innovation occurs when expectations are violated,” Nosek said. “Replication is actually a great way to spur innovation because, when replications are successful, they increase confidence and generalizability of existing claims, and when they are not successful, they spur innovation to try to understand why different results were observed.”
Foster said he agreed that building on existing knowledge was essential to science, but that he was interested in how much innovation should be mixed in -- what he called a "division of labor."
"Too much innovation, and science would be incoherent," he said. "Too much tradition, and it would slow to a crawl."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Making Your Work Stronger

My criterion for A work is that it be Excellent, as the University requires. If it is so strong, I will be glad to show it to my colleagues and they will be impressed.

As I indicated in class, the usual counsel on making your work stronger is not so specific:
--the website should be easy to understand, and the flow of materials should make sense;
--you can navigate the site easily;

--the essay should be thoughtful and indicate you appreciate the issues; it should be nicely written;
--in the case of the SketchUp model, the structures should have enough detail so that they do the work of giving you a sense of what the block is like, the video should be fluid and likely it is a walk-through with no stuff that gets in the way (transitions that make no sense, for example). Simple and clear design of a website almost always works. Is the font you use large enough, no spelling errors, captions on images and videos? [Obviously this is for a specific assignment, but the general tone should be helpful.]

Most writers and scholars have their work reviewed along the way by their colleagues and co-workers. It's almost impossible to see what's wrong, but when someone points it out, you realize that it is obvious. So you may want to show your site to your classmates or friends and listen to their reactions.

All of this means that if you want work to be strong, you have to start early enough so you can make it better, have time to look it over with a bit of distance, and if you get stuck you can get help.

Once you have done this, then it is time to ask your instructor for help. Why? Because then you have done your best and so your instructor or TA can help you. Of course, minor problems ought to be brought up immediately.

I believe one of the side problems here is that in most courses you have to study for tests, or if you have a paper due you do not have to show intermediate drafts (perhaps this has changed?). You are not taught the craft of doing work, although you well know all of this if you play a musical instrument, are fluent in a sport, etc.

I hope this is helpful. In my own work, making it better is an iterative process. A book is not just written, but it is drafted, redrafted, read by a friend or colleague and you get advice, redrafted..., edited, sent to a publisher who then sends it to referees, who then tell you how to make it better and acceptable and so you rewrite, edit, and submit. At that point, if you are  lucky a copy editor gets hold of the manuscript and makes the text much better. Your tenth book project is better than your first, but not enough to avoid most of these steps.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Restoration Risk-Taking by Irredentists, Russia, China, .... Terrorism, Insurgency, US/Israel,..;.

I am reading a book, Putinism by Laqueur, that gives me a more historically grounded sense of Russia. My feeling is that whatever the professed ideology of a country, there is lots of continuity in changes of regime or power.

Laqueur constantly returns to Russian history of the last 150 years, as well as current writing and arguments within Russia. He would say it is more of the same, albeit with different seasoning. There is a Greater Russia, and also a Russia that included the USSR and its near neighbors (Poland,...).

My reading of Th. Delpech on Nuclear Policy, re China, was illuminating for another reason--a sense of China's historical sense of itself, and its sense of a Greater China (that includes various territories that no longer are part of PRC, often a matter of language or culture, but not always).

In each case, the desire to return to greatness, to restoration of lost territories and prestige, is a dominant theme. Of course, there are present issues, and limits of budget and capability, but the restoration of a past, perhaps an imagined past, is the idee fixe

Perhaps this applies to many nations--but for the moment I can focus on Russia and China. (By the way, there is always the theme of Rise and Decline, whether of themselves or of their Adversaries (or Allies).)

So when we try to develop defense policy for the US (and those restoration themes are still present these days in the US, even if there is a sense of hegemony), we must understand that our "adversaries" and their actions are informed by what might be called extraordinary expectations. Hence, risks that might well seem foolish or imprudent, might well make sense given those expectations (given that they are seriously entertained by those adversaries, with no sense of extraordinary other than "rightful"). 

There is a new book out on Hitler's Germany that suggests that Hitler was much influenced by his sense that Germany needed land to grow the food the nation would need (he did not much believe in agricultural science, it seems), and then the author suggests that such issues might influence China as well.

These sorts of considerations will influence our sense of what adversaries might be tempted to do, what makes sense to them, and so we might anticipate how they think.

I have been reading about the Irgun etc in the mid-40s, in Hoffman’s new book on Israel, and also about the years 70-125 CE when the Jews revolted against the Romans, if not revolt then insurgency. The older story says it won’t work, the newer one is about how terrorism succeeded.

 The American Revolution was as irritating and distracting to the British as was the Palestine Mandate, and they dumped both since they had larger concerns, the first being a world war (France…), the second being economically and militarily weakened by WWII.
Keep in mind that revolution (and insurgency, and even terrorism)  is the founding event, at least in memory, of the US, Russia, France, China,...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Other Academic Survival Guidance: Kelsky, Toth (Ms. Mentor)

Kelsky's The Professor is In is concrete and specific and step by step from graduate student to perhaps tenure. It's quite inexpensive on, at least right now.

Emily Toth's Ms. Mentor... book, the more recent one, is filled with good sensible advice, advice that boils down to: no acting out, always be pleasant and accommodating, and if your job is ruining you life it's ok to leave academia (but realize what you are doing).