Monday, 16 October 2017

Friday, 6 October 2017

Really good university funding policy

What would you think of a university funding policy that resulted in "increased funding per head, rising enrolments, and a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students" and "increasing quality, quantity, and equity in higher education". Sounds good, doesn't it?

There is in fact such a policy. It's the introduction of tuition fees in England. Worth bearing that in mind the next time you read a Stefan Collini tear-jerker in the LRB. Roll back that policy at your peril?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Seven links, all worth a read

1. Woody Allen is very lazy.

2. This is the story of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un. Fascinating and sad - perhaps too implausible to be a film.

3. This is an article by someone with Asperger's talking about neurodiversity. "Aspies don’t mince their words. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks this is a sign of low empathy and he is not alone. Baron-Cohen thinks “empathizing is about effortlessly putting yourself into another’s shoes, sensitively negotiating an interaction with another person so as not to hurt or offend them in any way, caring about another’s feelings.” Baron-Cohen is one of the pioneers in the field of autism research. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that what Aspies have is a failure of introspection, not empathy. // Aspies have a blunt style of speech, because they mean well. [...] Neurotypicals always think it’s about them. Tell them social media is not good for children, and they will say, “Don’t tell me how to raise my child.” Tell them intelligence is heritable, and they assume you just called them stupid. Tell them you disagree, and they think you just don’t like them. Tell them the gender salary gap is not because of patriarchy, and they will remove you from their Facebook friend list. Why do neurotypicals make a torture rack for themselves, and us, with their poor self-esteem? And they still think we don’t have empathy."

4. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Dr Johnson asked. This article is a well-judged attempt to answer that question.

5. Ross Douthat gives Hugh Hefner both barrels.

6. "Soon an intelligent terrorist with a cruise missile and some off-the-shelf kit will be able to sink [an aircraft] carrier using their iPhone ... [Our leaders] should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive." The ever-readable Dominic Cummings, of course. The headline is "Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space": that covers most of it, although there is more Bismarck in it than you would guess from that. Oh, and also: "When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top 20."

7. Are you scared about software? If not, you should be. "The stakes keep rising, but programmers aren’t stepping up—they haven’t developed the chops required to handle increasingly complex problems. “In the 15th century,” he said, “people used to build cathedrals without knowing calculus, and nowadays I don’t think you’d allow anyone to build a cathedral without knowing calculus. And I would hope that after some suitably long period of time, people won’t be allowed to write programs if they don’t understand these simple things.”"

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Foreign funding of Facebook ads

You might have seen something about Russian organisations paying for advertising on Facebook in relation to the US elections last year. Hugo Rifkind, for one, thinks that this kind of thing is worrying.

Other than thinking that paying for political advertising is rather less worrying than various other ways countries have gone about trying to obtain their foreign policy objectives (wars, exploding cigars, etc), I am not sure what I think about it.

But I am sure that some people who are thinking about it are getting it completely wrong. I was struck by the reference to the Irish abortion referendum. Here is more from Gavin Sheridan:

Hmm. Is the real worry here that your mother and father - what are talking about? 50, 60, 70- somethings? - will be swayed by "anti-choice" ads on Facebook paid for by Russia? I don't think so. Russia had the highest number of abortions per woman of child-bearing age in the world in 2010, according to the UN. Meanwhile, George Soros is known to be funding pro-choice (let's be civil about this - the two sides go by 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life') campaigns in Ireland.

I am pretty sure that Facebook ads during the Irish abortion referendum are going to be (a) aimed at younger demographics than "your parents" (i.e. at the people who are actually influenced by what they see on Facebook), (b) pro-choice and (c) often funded by foreigners (i.e. non-Irish people) pursuing their own agendas.

If you are on Facebook and come across a well-made, heart-string-tugging viral video about (say) a teenage girl in difficult circumstances, you may be on the receiving end of foreign propaganda. How you feel about that fact should not depend on how you feel about the message in the video.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The liberal case for Brexit

You are a liberal.

Here is what you see when you look are some recent European parliamentary election results. This is the percentage of the vote won by the major party in that country that you would call "populist" (or perhaps something even ruder).

Germany (September 2017)                AfD: 13% – 3rd place
France (June 2017)                              FN: 13% (first round) (and 21% in first round of presidential election) – 2nd place
Netherlands (March 2017)                  PVV: 13% –2nd place
Denmark (June 2015)                          Danish People's Party: 21% – 2nd place
United Kingdom (May 2015)             UKIP: 13% – 3rd place
Finland (April 2015)                           Finns Party: 18% – 2nd place
Sweden (September 2014)                  Sweden Democrats: 13% – 3rd place

Here we have the big rich successful countries of northern Europe displaying pretty similar voting patterns. There are differences between the countries, but let’s forget about them for the moment. (But perhaps note how those dour, respectable, liberal Scandinavians are even keener on the populists that those living further south: the Sweden Democrats are up at 20%+ in polls for their 2018 election.) Equally, I am not going to go into a discussion of the differences between these parties: you treat all these parties as well beyond the pale. (Although in fairness to UKIP, please note that there are many important differences.)

So these results worry you. If you are of the nervy, melodramatic type over-represented in the news media, you might even see echoes of the 1930s. If you are just keen on virtue-signalling your disapproval of the deplorables who vote for these parties then that’s fine. But you are the sort of person who wants to make things better. What is to be done?

Then you see this result:

United Kingdom (June 2017)     UKIP: 2% – 5th place

Perhaps, you might think to yourself, the UK has done something to lance the boil of this horrible right-wing populism. Well, it has. It had a referendum on Brexit, voted for Brexit, and that destroyed the leadership, hopes, credibility and support of UKIP. And it turns out that there is no constituency for any other sort of populism.

Here’s a modest suggestion for you. Life is about trade-offs. You can’t have it all. At least entertain the possibility that Brexit (or Nexit, or Frexit, or ...) is the price you have to pay, in a rich northern European country, for having a political system 98% occupied by mainstream political parties – for dispelling the shades of the 1930s. Isn't that what the evidence shows you? Maybe you should just grin and bear it: some things are more important than the joys of the customs union and the jurisprudence of the CJEU.

(Or have I made the liberal case for allowing populism? Perhaps the price you are prepared to pay for having the EU is to be constantly goading increasingly large numbers of your compatriots into supporting fringe parties run by, at best, weirdos. Please say it ain’t so.) 

Monday, 25 September 2017

British vs US universities

In the US:

"At Harvard ... three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”"


"Once an unhappy student emailed me after a mediocre performance and said, after receiving a B-, “I always get A’s. This is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten. What’s your problem?”"

Meanwhile in the UK:

"A huge adjustment was also just getting accustomed to how classes in the UK were structured in general. When I read that my entire grade for my courses depended on the final, I was terrified. I'm so used to the American system, where there's plenty of homework and participation points – literally you get points just for showing up – to cushion your grade. Needless to say, I actually had to work my ass off and study like hell for all of my finals."

But I was most pleased with this one of the many, largely positive, comments from overseas students at British universities:

"What shocked me most about being in a British uni is just how much people love walking. It's not the walking itself that was particularly shocking, but the fact that even on nights out, when the club is 30 minutes away and it's the dead middle of winter, most people would rather trek up the hills of Bristol rather than get a cab back quickly and safely. In Jakarta people get cabs everywhere, and my friends who go to uni in the US tell me that Uber is their first, not last, option of transport on a night out. And I would understand if it's a price thing, but between a few friends in one cab it usually ends up being the same cost as an extra pint – and British people seem to have absolutely no qualms about spending a fortune on alcohol."

It's all about priorities, isn't it?

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Three entertaining or interesting links

1. This is a great story. The headline is "The Week My Husband Left And My House Was Burgled I Secured A Grant To Begin The Project That Became BRCA1", but there is even more to it than that.

2. Sorority entry consultants. Crazy, and also a little bit sad. "Grant often starts workshops asking the crowd who’s spoken to their best friend today. “Nine out of ten girls will raise their hands,” she says. “Then I ask who’s spoken to them in person.” Crickets. As a result, says Grant, conversational nuances are getting lost. “Families don’t eat dinner at the same time,” she says. “The social niceties you need to have mastered are gone. ..." Brooke Howard, a consultant at the Midwest-based Go Greek Girl, says she spends hours helping girls learn how to have conversations they just don’t know how to have anymore." I earlier linked to a story about how you can pay vast sums of money to be taught how to talk to your children; it seems you pay slightly smaller sums of money to be taught how to talk to your friends. That, and how to get into one of these houses.

3. Somewhat longer, here is John Lanchester arguing Against Civilisation. "Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial." It seems that modern scholarship tells us that there was once a time when humans lived happy and egalitarian lives in a world of abundance, but we made a horrible mistake - which seems to be bound up with acquiring knowledge (in the form of writing) - and ever since then we have been condemned to hard labour. The story sounds familiar, but doesn't a snake come into it somewhere?