Saturday, September 23, 2017

My ambivalence to anonymous blog comments

Although this blog has a wide readership one thing it struggles with is to attract many comments, and particularly much back and forth discussion. Sometimes people tell me that this is just because it is not provocative or controversial enough.

A while ago I changed the settings to allow anonymous comments and this has led to an increase in comments which is encouraging. However, I do have some ambivalence about this. 

Ideally, any comment and opinion should be judged on the merits of its content not based on who is giving it. We should beware of arguments from authority. On the other hand, that is not the way most of us think and act. We do give some weight to the author. For example, an anonymous commenter says "I am a physicist and I am a climate change skeptic" it does not have the same weight as the opinion of a respected physicist who has relevant expertise.

I am also concerned that people are not willing to take the risk of being publically identified with their views. This does not just reflect on the commenter but also reflects poorly on the scientific and academic community. Why are people so hesitant? Is the community so intolerant of controversial views? 
Here I should say I am very sympathetic to some peoples nervousness. At least twice, I suggested to younger colleagues who did not have permanent jobs that they delete specific comments they made on the blog that were critical of the "establishment".

I welcome discussion.

Nevertheless, please don't let my ambivalence stop you making comments.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An ode to long service leave

Australia has many unique things besides kangaroos and koalas. Long service leave (LSL) is a generous and egalitarian feature of the "welfare" state. After ten years working for the same employer [or the same sector such as government universities] an employee is granted three months fully paid vacation. (The exact terms and conditions vary slightly between states and employers). LSL is available to all full-time employees, regardless of whether they are janitor or CEO. This is in addition to four (plus) weeks of annual leave and for faculty in addition to "sabbaticals" [called Special Studies Program in my university]. If an employee resigns any unused balance is "cashed out".

University faculty work hard and some are workaholics. Many don't even take their allotted annual vacation, let alone LSL. Balances carry over each year and so some faculty have large balances. The "accountants" (who basically run the university) don't like this because LSL is a "liability" on their spreadsheets. If all of the faculty with large balances resigned at the same time the university would have to "cash" them out and there would be no money available to hire replacements for several months. Who would do the teaching, research, and admin? The university would grind to a halt....
However, this is pretty silly because the likelihood of massive simultaneous resignations of this particular group is extremely unlikely. When an individual does resign one can always wait a while to rehire and others absorb their "workload". Furthermore, this is likely to happen anyway, because replacing people, particularly senior ones, takes a while anyway.

Nevertheless, because the accountants rule, faculty are put under pressure to take LSL and recreation leave (vacation) if they have large balances. Specifically at UQ, when a staff member has a balance of more than 15 weeks of LSL they can be "directed" to take leave to reduce their balance. In fact, we now receive emails from the Executive Dean telling us that in our annual appraisal (performance review) we have to discuss the issue and come up with a written plan of how we will reduce our leave balance. On one level this is fine. However, on another level, this just reflects skewed priorities. We do not get explicit instructions and reminders (and threats) to discuss and plan how to engage better with students, set more challenging assessment, focus on research quality rather than quantity, be critical about metrics, ...

So what do people do with their LSL?
Is it actually in the best interests of the university for people to take it?

Here are some specific examples I am aware of.

1. Keep going to your office and doing research but no teaching or admin. The problem is that legally the university does not want this as they don't have liability insurance for you while on campus.

2. Treat it as a sabbatical and visit another institution. The problem is that you are on vacation as far as the university is concerned and so cannot use grant money for travel.

3. Have a long vacation and come back refreshed and motivated.

4. Have a great vacation and decide to retire early.

5. Spend the time looking for a new job. During this time many things and important decisions are left in limbo, before the employee eventually leaves.

Although most of these options may be good for the employee, they may not be the best thing for the employer. Thus, in the bigger scheme of things, forcing people to take LSL is debatable.
There is more to an institution than spreadsheets....

Having said all this I should say that I am really enjoying my LSL. The picture below is from a kayak trip in the San Juan Islands, near my mother-in-law's house, which also features sunsets such as above.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The rise of BS in science and academia

I never thought I would write a blog post with such a word in it.

In today’s Seattle Times there is an editorial about fake news and an opinion piece, How to fine-tune your BS meter, by Jevin West.
At the University of Washington, West and Carl Bergstrom, have started a course entitled, Calling BS: Data reasoning for the digital age.
West states:
Our philosophy is that you don’t need a Ph.D. in statistics or computer science to call BS on the vast majority of data bullshit. If you think clearly about what might be wrong with the data someone is using and what might be wrong about the interpretation of their results, you’ll catch a huge fraction of the bullshit without ever going into the mathematical details.  
Unfortunately, this applies to science as much as to Fake News. On his blog, Peter Woit discusses the rise of Fake Physics.
Science is in trouble when the word I most often hear associated with the name of a particular Ivy League science Professor is BS. Furthermore, in many contexts, I hear people dismiss specific papers,
particularly that appear in luxury journals, as “just BS”.

A good question is what criteria should we use to distinguish between uncritical enthusiasm, marketing, hype, and BS?

I first thought of writing a post on this subject when I encountered this video clip from CNN.
I thought, “Wow! Who is this commentator?” Maybe I should have known, but I learned that Fareek Zakaria has quite a following, a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard, and is rightly viewed as a serious commentator, regardless of whether you agree with his political leanings.
The commentary is based on a number one New York Times bestseller, On BS  by Harry Frankfurt, a distinguished Princeton philosopher.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Debating emergence and reductionism

As part of a TV documentary, Why are we here? produced by Ard Louis and David Malone there is a nice series of interviews where emergence is discussed by George Ellis, Peter Atkins, and Denis Noble.
I can't seem to embed the interviews here and so have put in links to short clips.

George Ellis discusses the difference between weak and strong emergence and his attitude to each.

In separate clips, Denis Noble discusses emergence  and reductionism in biology.

Peter Atkins, a hardcore reductionist, IMHO does not seem to seriously engage with the issue.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Did Schrodinger's cat explore Tolkien's garden?

In 1935 Schrodinger wrote his famous paper (with the cat) introducing the term entanglement, in response to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper published earlier that year.

When Schrodinger wrote the paper he was living in a house on Northmoor Road, Oxford. This was the same house where Schrodinger learned he had been awarded the Nobel Prize.

I recently learned some fascinating historical trivia.
Schrodinger was a neighbour of J.R.R. Tolkien, who during that time was finishing up work on The Hobbit.

It would be nice to see this landmark honoured, such as the one on Tolkien's house. However, it seems Schrodinger's house does not meet the criteria of Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, because he lived there for three years, less than the required minimum of five years.

Another option would be a plaque of the Institute of Physics, such as this one.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The most important concept in economics is emergence

This is not based on the hubris of a condensed matter physicist, but rather the claim of three economists in an Econtalk podcast,  where Don Boudreaux, Michael Munger, and Russ Roberts discuss Emergent Order. For example, Boudreaux states
the notion of spontaneous order is indeed the most profound, single most profound insight of good economics. It remains the insight that is most elusive to the general public. Sadly, it remains an insight that is elusive to a lot of professional economists these days.
The discussion centres around Robert's poem, "Its a wonderful loaf", the website for which has an animation of the poem and a nice list of related resources. The key idea is that free markets lead to an emergent order of prices, division of labour, and matching of supply and demand. This order is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that guides the economy. It is actually "bottom up", not top down. Many of the ideas discussed are those originating with F. A. Hayek, in the context of not just economics but also in social and political philosophy. A summary I found helpful of Hayek's ideas is in a recent paper by Paul Lewis.

There is some disagreement between the three participants about whether the relevant terminology is "spontaneous order", "emergent order", or "self-organising system", but I did not find that particularly  insightful.

One weakness of the discussion is that the three economists all have libertarian sympathies [i.e. they believe less regulation of markets the better] and there is an undercurrent in the discussion that this is justified by an emergent perspective. However, there are some really good comments on the podcast blog that eloquently argue against this and discuss the complexity of finding the right balance between free markets and government regulation. The comments are worth reading.

I thank my economist son for bringing the podcast to my attention and listening to it with me.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Managing my mental health

I have received positive feedback about previous posts about mental health and so I share some recent experiences in the hope it may be helpful to some.

I have had three significant times where my mental health deteriorated to the point I could not function “normally”. The first was during my Ph.D and the second about 15 years ago. The most recent experience was roughly six months ago. Here are a few things I learnt [or re-learnt] from this last experience.

The decline is often gradual and not perceived or denied.
It is like the proverbial frog in boiling water. It does not notice how the temperature is increasing and never jumps out.

The longer you wait to address the issue the slower the recovery.
Don't think things will get better on their own.

Mental illness is irrational.
That's the point. When I now think about some of the thoughts and perceptions that seemed “real” and “true” to me 6-12 months ago it is sad and bizarre.

Relapse is not uncommon.
If you have had previous incidents and recovered don't think it will never happen again.

There is high causal density. Diverse circumstances and stresses, whether work, family, social, or relational, may all contribute to varying degrees. Hence, the most effective solutions and treatments are likely to be multi-faceted.

Professional help.
Get it sooner than later.
Don’t self-diagnose.
Getting help also relieves the burden on family and friends.

Aside: In Australia (which is blessed with a reasonable national health scheme) a GP doctor can prescribe a mental health treatment plan which entitles the patient to subsidised sessions with a psychologist or psychiatrist.
[Mind you due to bureaucratic errors it took several phone calls and two visits to the Medicare office before the paperwork was actually processed properly…].

I went to see the same psychologist who I saw 15 years ago. This was helpful because she knew my history and issues. Also, I trusted her and knew she could help. I think one simple but significant value of these visits is the accountability to be making changes and addressing issues.

It does not work for everyone. Some people have bad side effects.
There is a debate about whether antidepressants are over-prescribed. Medication should not be a substitute for talking therapies and lifestyle changes. However, medication sure works for me! After several years without, I went back on a small dose of an antidepressant. I still find it amazing the difference it makes. Just a little fine tuning of the brain chemistry....

Some of these meditation exercises may seem like New Age mumbo jumbo. However, when I did them 15 years ago, I learnt for the first time in my life to control my thoughts.
Again, going back to them really helped.

You will get better.
When you are physically ill, whether from flu or surgery, life can seem pretty bleak and it is hard to remember what normal was, and you may wonder whether you will ever get better. It is the same with mental illness. With appropriate treatment, healing usually does occur. But hope and patience are key.