Links: Freshman composition, MPAA idiocy, peer-review problems in medicine, photography and / in love, The Rent is Too Damn High (the book)

Q Tonic Water* Anna sent this to me and suggested that I could use it; I replied that I “Definitely [could]. It’s startlingly, amazingly accurate, as if one had painted targets on deer, making them easier to hunt, commando style, with a compound bow and a rag tied around one’s head.”

* Further MPAA idiocy: “Teenagers will be barred from watching a documentary about what teenagers actually say and do to one another.

* Israel nixes solar energy for Palestinians.

* Megan McArdle notes that A lot of residents make up peer-reviewed research papers. She says, “The higher the stakes, the greater the incentives to cheat. Still, these sorts of errors are many multiples of the percentage I would have expected, even with the most generous interpretation of how the mistakes were made.”

I would actually draw a different conclusion: random, bureaucratically-imposed hoops on professions lead to the fulfillment of those hoops via any means necessary. A lot of residencies want or require their residents to have a “research project” because having residents do “research projects” looks good for the residency. A lot of residents are sick of school, tired all the time, and just want to go out and get a real job. The need for a random community doc to have done a “research project” in grad school is, at best, unclear.

If you impose hoops that are very different than the market tests you face post-hoop, don’t be surprised if people try to circumvent the hoop.

* Photography: All My Exes Live in Print (SFW), about Mark Helfrich’s book Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends.

* What an awesome office! Uncomfortable chairs, though.

* Good legal news: Fifth Amendment Right Against Self Incrimination Protects Against Being Forced to Decrypt Hard Drive Contents.

* “Shame Is Not the Solution” for improving teachers. On the other hand, I suspect some of the districts who want to make teaching evaluations and test scores public are doing so out of desperation, or because they can’t build the kind of sophisticated evaluation systems Gates mentions. (For another discussion of this issue, see LA Times Ranks Teachers from Marginal Revolution.)

* Interested in style? See Chic Little Devil.

* Twilight of the Lecture: The trend toward “active learning” may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years. I’ve independently realized some, though not all, of these ideas.

* Apple didn’t revolutionize power supplies; new transistors did.

* The Rent Is Too Damn High Now Available for Preorder.

* One of my students mentioned “Santorum” (link slightly NSFW; no pictures, fortunately, and see also here) in office hours, causing me to laugh uncontrollably until he mentioned that he meant the politician, not the substance; in the context, it was ambiguous.

The life of the artist: The Salterton Trilogy edition

“Every old hand tells every novice that a life in music is a dog’s life. It’s not really true. If you’re a musician that’s all there is to it; there’s no real life for you apart from it.”

—Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy. Replace “music” with any other art, including writing, and the idea holds.

Life: The peripatetic existence and The Sun Also Rises edition

“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”

—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Links: The death of safe sex?, hypocrites in many forms, law school, Nikon, birth rates and female conscientiousness, liberal arts, and more

* “The Death of Safe Sex“? (The question mark is mine).

* Law schools increasingly look like scams; see here for more.

* The Cowboy and the Welfare State, concerning “an area of Minnesota where people inveigh against the welfare state, despite being inextricably tied to it.” Filed under: hypocrisy.

* The War on Cameras, which actually concerns whether police are accountable to the public or to no one, a la The Wire.

* My Last Day: Le Bernardin’s Pastry Chef Reflects on 8 Long Years.

* How Nikon is killing camera repair.

* For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage. This quote from the article: “Ms. Strader said her boyfriend was so dependent that she had to buy his cigarettes. Marrying him never entered her mind” reminds me of Bryan Caplan’s post “Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families,” where he says, “even when [the authors] are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit. After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.”

* When to be meek.

* Skills and the liberal arts.

* The Real Defense Budget.

* James Fallows on tricks of the interview trade. I want to find an excerpt but the piece has too many to choose one.

* Mag Lights are still made in the USA.

* “A school suspended a teacher for using the racial epithet in an educational context. Now he’s suing his district. Why is this considered hate speech?” The school’s reaction here is inane; you can’t teach books like Huck Finn without using the word “nigger” (for that matter, it would be hard to discuss, say, the lyrics of Jay-Z—or community cohesion and The Wire—without using it). Racially derogatory terms can’t be magically excised from the language, and to pretend they don’t exist is to ignore a vital avenue of discussion.

Why professors don't bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

Why professors don’t bother

When I was an undergrad, I noticed that professors were often reluctant to deeply engage with students; when I got students of my own, I realized why and wrote “How to get your Professors’ Attention — along with Coaching or Mentoring” to explain it. Since then, I’ve noticed one other facet of this general phenomenon: when I do engage, or spend a lot of time offering advice or guidance, students often ignore it—making me feel like I wasted my time. Paul Graham’s footnote in A Word to the Resourceful catalyzed this realization for me:

My feeling with the bad groups [of tech startup founders from Y Combinator] is that coming into office hours, they’ve already decided what they’re going to do and everything I say is being put through an internal process in their heads, which either desperately tries to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decision or just outright dismisses it and creates a rationalization for doing so. They may not even be conscious of this process but that’s what I think is happening when you say something to bad groups and they have that glazed over look. I don’t think it’s confusion or lack of understanding per se, it’s this internal process at work.

This happens with students too. A few weeks ago a former student wrote to me about career choices and whether she should major in biochem or English; she started with biochem but struggled in classes (which isn’t at all unusual in science classes). A friend majored in biochem major, so together we wrote a thorough response that turned into an essay called “How to think about science, becoming a scientist, and life” that should go up soon. After spending a couple hours detailing an array of issues, we sent the e-mail, and I got back a response saying. . . she’s going to go to law school and “become a judge.”

So all of the considered reasoning and description and discussion was merely “put through an internal process in” her head. (She’s not the only student to have done this, but she’s merely the most recent example.) Reading her response was painful because she has no ability to understand what being a lawyer or judge is actually like and no ability to project what she’s going to feel like or want in a couple of years, let alone ten, let alone twenty. She’s not alone in this: most people can’t anticipate what they’ll want in the future, and most of us can’t even remember what we were like in the past; we tend to imagine ourselves always having been more or less as we are now. That’s one of Daniel Gilbert’s remarkable insights in Stumbling on Happiness.

Now, I might be overwrought about this, and I might be wrong; one commenter said:

I’m not saying your student didn’t have a pre-filter as you describe. On the other hand, you may have been just one source of advice for your student. Asking for advice doesn’t mean that taking it is always the best course, it’s information to be weighed against all other advice and information.

This is certainly true, but I have’t gotten the sense that most students are doing this. My sense is that most are trying “to munge what I’ve said into something that conforms with their decisions,” or they just “outright dismiss it and create a rationalization for doing so.” The worst part isn’t even that they’re doing so: the worst part is that they’re probably not even aware they’re doing it.

(Observing this phenomenon also makes me wonder about how much I listened when I was an undergrad or just out of college; I may have been no better than the student I’m describing above.)

There’s a second reason why I suspect professors don’t bother and build intellectual moats, and it relates to “25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore;” someone in a Hacker News thread about it said, “Turns out mild loathing towards users isn’t unique to software.”

I suspect that, in retailing, 95% of the customers are fine, but that last 5% take up a disproportionate amount of time and mental energy, whether because they’re clueless or morons or mean or whatever. That’s how I think jaded teachers / professors develop: most students are okay, but that small percentage of “story” students create all kinds of artificial barriers and special exceptions and so on that make the teacher / professor not real pleasant. (I won’t defend the exact percentage of 95 and 5 in teaching, but I will say that the vast majority of students are okay and thus not terribly memorable, while the bad ones or the jerks are entirely too easy to recall.)

One jerk makes a vastly larger impression than twenty nice students, customers, or waiters. The jerk sticks in your mind as an example, and the more you build defenses against the jerk, the worse you’re going to react to the average, reasonable student, customer, or waiter, because you’re calibrating your defaults to dealing with the tiny minority who are jerks or irrational or irrationally demanding, when you should try to ignore those experiences with the jerk minority. If you don’t, you’re going to be overly brusque or defensive, corroding the quality of your teaching, selling, or life. The rules you make to deal with the jerks also apply to the normal, pleasant students or customers. Paul Graham discusses this at the scale of companies in The Other Half of “Artists Ship”:

The gradual accumulation of checks in an organization is a kind of learning, based on disasters that have happened to it or others like it. After giving a contract to a supplier who goes bankrupt and fails to deliver, for example, a company might require all suppliers to prove they’re solvent before submitting bids.

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

Over time, business and government accretes rules that are designed to prevent mistakes, but those rules themselves can eventually become so onerous that they stifle legitimately good ideas. As professors or other people with power and knowledge begin building defenses based on the 5%, a lot of the 95% are harmed too—which is unfortunate. I’m also not sure there’s anything that can be done about this at the institutional level, because the incentives point to the value of building a moat. But by reminding individuals of the cost of the moat, and implicitly telling students how to get over it, perhaps a few people will have a better overall experience.

EDIT: Here’s Graham on funding startups: “The reason we want to fund the most successful founders is that they’re the most fun to work with. It’s exhausting trying to pep up founders who aren’t really cut out for startups, whereas talking to the best founders is net energizing.” Replace “founder” with “student” and “startup” with your field, and the same thing applies. So if you’re a student, you want to at least look, and ideally be, energetic and resourceful.

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