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.