Thursday, 12 December 2013

hei hei 4.605x

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
William Faulkner

And so, one more edX course is finished: A Global History of Architecture: Part 1. I do hope there will be Part 2 at some point.

I registered for 4.605x quite by accident. My mind was already set on doing different course this Fall, but since it was not on until mid-October, I decided to check what else is on offer. As 4.605x was starting in mid-September, I thought I can give it a try. (A mental note to myself: don’t do two edX courses at a time.)

No regrets, and many pleasant surprises. The course had everything one can expect from the name, viz. “architecture”, “history” and “global”, and much more: anthropology, geology, geography, ecology, religion, philosophy, economy, politics...

Monday, 25 November 2013

the importance of knowing the rules

From The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith:
The public office to which she was admitted had that typical look and smell of government offices. The furniture, such as it was, was completely functional-straight-backed chairs and simple two-drawer desks.
This clerk was not bright, and people like that could show a remarkable tenacity when it came to rules. Because they could not distinguish between meritorious and unmeritorious requests, they could refuse to budge from the letter of the regulations. And there would be no point in trying to reason with them. The best tactic was to undermine their certainty as to the rule. If they could be persuaded that the rule was otherwise, then it might be possible to get somewhere. But it would be a delicate task.
“Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules. I am sure that this is the case. But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of rule 25. This rule is really rule 24(b), subsection (i). That is the rule that you are thinking of. That is the rule which says that no names of pensioners must be revealed, but which does not say anything about addresses. The rule which deals with addresses is rule 18, which has now been cancelled.”

The clerk shifted on his feet. He felt uneasy now and was not sure what to make of this assertive woman with her rule numbers. Did rules have numbers? Nobody had told him about them, but it was quite possible, he supposed.

“How do you know about these rules?” he asked. “Who told you?”

“Have you not read the Government Gazette?” asked Mma Ramotswe. “The rules are usually printed out in the Gazette, for everybody to see. Everybody is allowed to see the rules, as they are there for the protection of the public, Rra. That is important.”

The clerk said nothing. He was biting his lip now, and Mma Ramotswe saw him throw a quick glance over his shoulder.

“Of course,” she pressed on, “if you are too junior to deal with these matters, then I would be very happy to deal with a more senior person. Perhaps there is somebody in the back office who is senior enough to understand these rules.”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed, and Mma Ramotswe knew at that moment that her judgement had been correct: if he called somebody else, he would lose face.

“I am quite senior enough,” he said haughtily. “And what you say about the rules is quite correct. I was just waiting to see if you knew. It is very good that you did. If only more members of the public knew about these rules then our job would be easier.”

“You are doing your job very well, Rra,” said Mma Ramotswe. “I am glad that I found you and not some junior person who would know nothing about the rules.”

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

we fetishize the national boundary

From the lecture 10 of the MITx course 4.605x, A Global History of Architecture, by Professor Mark Jarzombek (Fall 2013):
One thing you can get from this course is why all the maps in your book are wrong, except in our book. So this is not right. I mean, it’s not wrong, just completely useless. I mean, who really cares if the Qin was here or there or there — the point is, what do we learn from maps? What can maps tell us about connections and connectivity? It’s not about national boundaries. In our modern world we’re obsessed. We fetishize the national boundary, because of certain tropes of international law. This was not necessarily the case in the earlier time. Yes, boundaries were important. But to do history is not about the history of the nation, national boundaries. History is about certain connections and how countries or nations rise and fall, or certain dynamics that go across region and across time.
So the Shang had five capitals. And as they got power, they moved the capital to particular places. And then as they lost power, they moved the capital to another place. And of course, with that huge populations had to move with them. Because all the bureaucrats and all the whole regime — it’s like saying, when Bush became president, the capital would move then to Texas. So you would have to build the capital, and then thousands and thousands of people would have to go down to Texas. And then comes another president and will have to build a new capital in Arkansas or Nevada or wherever. We’d be continuously building capitals and reusing them. And then of course, when Obama came in, he would burn Bush’s capital down. And then build a new one in Chicago. And then everyone would have to move up to Chicago.

Friday, 13 September 2013

important scholarly considerations

From Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith:

It was the lowest form of work in the academic hierarchy, made all the more difficult by the tendency of Professor Vogelsang to publish papers based almost entirely on von Iglefeld’s work, but under the Vogelsang name and with no mention made of von Igelfeld’s contribution. In one case — which eventually prompted von Igelfeld to protest (in the gentlest, most indirect terms) — Vogelsang took a paper which von Igelfeld asked him to read and immediately published it under his own name. So brazen was this conduct that von Igelfeld felt moved to draw his superior’s attention to the fact that he had been hoping to submit the paper to a learned journal himself.

‘I can’t see why you are objecting,’ said Vogelsang haughtily. ‘The paper will achieve a far wider readership under my name than under the name of an unknown. Surely these scholarly considerations are more important than mere personal vanity?’

As he often did, Vogelsang had managed to shift the grounds of argument to make von Igelfeld feel guilty for making a perfectly reasonable point. It was a technique which von Igelfeld had himself used on many occasions, but which he was to perfect in the year of his assistantship with Professor Vogelsang.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

keep doing science in spite of Spain

From the open letter by astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martín to the Spanish prime minister, published in El País on 19 August 2013 (the English version published in The Guardian 28 August 2013):

Afortunadamente España lidera la cruzada de las homologaciones. Fuera de nuestras fronteras cualquier título original vale, un verdadero escándalo.
Por el mismo conducto le envío las 700 páginas de certificados y documentos que tenía preparados para el día en que se convocara una plaza con mi perfil, algo que nunca ocurrió. Es la documentación requerida para acreditar la veracidad de mi currículum. Recopilar esa documentación fue una labor de investigación tremendamente gratificante. Sepa usted que en los muchos trabajos que he solicitado fuera de España la documentación requerida es algo más escueta, aproximadamente de 10 páginas: un plan de trabajo y un breve currículum, que no hay que justificar porque la comunidad científica opera con un código de honor. Si quiere un día se lo explico.
También le devuelvo la carta que la Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología tuvo el detalle de enviarme hace unas semanas a mi antigua dirección en la Universidad de Princeton. El objetivo de dicha misiva es realzar la “marca España” con un programa denominado “Ciencia Española en el Exterior”. Sepa usted que me trasladé a España hace cinco años y cuando emigre próximamente la ciencia que haga ya no será española, ni será gracias a España; seguiré haciendo ciencia a pesar de España.
Por último, y a cambio de todos estos documentos que le devuelvo, le pido tan sólo una cosa: devuélvame usted mi dignidad como investigadora, y en el mismo envío, si no le es mucha molestia, devuélvasela a toda la comunidad de investigadores en España, y no se olvide de los de humanidades.
We’re fortunate that Spain leads the crusade for academic degree validations — beyond our borders any academic degree from a reputable university is valid, a real scandal.
I am also sending you the 700 pages of certificates and documents requested to certify the veracity of my curriculum vitae, which, due to the hiring freeze, I will no longer need. Collecting all this documentation was a tremendously satisfying research project. You should know that, with the many jobs that I have applied for outside Spain, the requested documentation is slightly briefer, approximately 10 pages: a research plan and a short curriculum vitae that does not need to be backed up with certificates, because the research community operates on an honour code (I am happy to explain this principle to you if you wish).
I’m also returning the letter that the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) thoughtfully sent to my old email address at Princeton a few weeks ago. The goal of this missive was to promote the brand of Spain with a programme called “Spanish Science Abroad”. Please let them know that I moved back to Spain five years ago — and when I emigrate shortly, the science I will do will no longer be Spanish, nor thanks to Spain; rather I will keep doing science in spite of Spain.
Finally, in exchange for all these documents I’m giving you back, I make just one request: please give me back my dignity as a researcher. At the same time, if it is not too inconvenient, please give that dignity back to everyone in the research community in Spain, and please do not forget those in the Humanities.

Monday, 8 July 2013

how not to ask for financial support

From Ansel Adams at 100 by John Szarkowski:
A small part of Adams’ correspondence is devoted to trying to persuade his rich friends that his work needed and deserved support. He was, alas, not good at writing the kind of letter that might have gotten results. In 1952 Adams wrote a seven-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter to his friends George and Betty Marshall which I believe is an appeal for financial help. I am, however, not sure; and it is possible that the Marshalls were not sure, either. Adams did get a little support from his friend[s] <...> But such help never gave Adams what he needed, and it is not clear that Adams ever told any of his friends or potential supporters, in one hundred words or less, precisely what it was that he did need. Perhaps he was not sure.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

adios, CopyrightX

To my great surprise, my review of 3.091x course became the most popular post of all time on this blog. That is to say, more than 365 pageviews. I know, it’s peanuts, but then I never expected this blog to be much visited in the first place. Let’s see if my 100th post (!) will be a hit.

HLS1x Copyright, aka CopyrightX, was the second edX course I took. Apart from the fact that these are both edX courses, there is very little in common between CopyrightX and 3.091x. I intend to continue with edX next academic year and look forward to surprises. Yet I dare to suggest that there is very little in common between CopyrightX and any other edX course.

To start with, one cannot simply, single-clickingly (is there such a word?) register for CopyrightX, like for any old edX course. No sir, you have to apply. This year class was limited to 500 participants. Mmm, I thought, intriguing. I just had to apply and see what happens next.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

the book has no future

In his recent article in Chemistry International [1], Peter Atkins wrote:

The book has no future. Most of us who have been brought up surrounded by the tactile pleasure of paper books (p-books) have a sentimental attachment to them, relishing their feel, enjoying being curled up with them in their friendly presence, responding perhaps subconsciously to their smell, enjoying their instant access, finding it easy to browse, serendipitously opening a page and lighting on an enjoyable enlightenment. For those like us in this respect, there will always be paper books, just as there are vintage cars for enthusiasts. The rest of the world, however, will have moved on.
With all respect to the author of the classic Physical Chemistry textbook — the Russian translation of which I was using in my university days — I disagree. The printed book existed for hundreds of years and it will take more than advent of cheap e-book readers to make p-book extinct. It was predicted that compact discs will kill vinyl, then that DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD will kill CDs, and that mp3 downloads will render all of the above obsolete. Today very few people remember what DVD-Audio or SACD was all about, while vinyl sales are on the rise. (The only SACD I have is 30th Anniversary Edition of Dark Side of the Moon which I bought ten years ago and never had a chance to listen in all its 5.1 surround glory.)

If anything has no future, it is the traditional publishing model. The big publishing houses missed their many chances to make any meaningful contribution to e-books. Now, the main focus of Atkins’s article is on textbooks. He seems to be either unaware of the Open Access movement, or simply ignores it. He mentions some “wikitexts” but, amazingly, never names either Wikipedia, Wikibooks or Wikisource. Too bad. With all the wealth of free educational information on the Web, one must be mad to buy e-textbooks. In the meantime, the authors increasingly move to self-publishing. Who needs the middlemen?

Interestingly, in his earlier article on the same topic [2], Professor Atkins explained exactly why p-books will stay with us:

A p-book is a beautiful thing. It smells good when new, it generally looks good, and it has the virtue of serendipity, for casual browsing can bring the browser to an unexpected viewpoint. The approximate location of knowledge in books can be remembered, or at least half-remembered, for years. Books are life’s companions, and even the sight of a volume on a shelf can remind one of a special moment. But, most important of all, a p-book is “always on.” A book can be opened at a whim and immediately offers its contents to its reader. Books can be read in the brightest sunlight, on the balmiest beach, at almost any angle, in even the most bizarre bodily posture, for hours on end, even while one’s airplane is landing and taking off.
Printed matter is self-sufficient. You don’t need any device to read it. If hacker attacks destroy all Amazon Cloud services, or a hurricane plunges the cities into darkness, the books will still be there. If there are problems with sat nav reception or you forgot to charge the mobile phone, the map still can help. And so on.

But what the new generation think? My children love their PCs, Wii and MP3 players. I asked them today what they prefer, e-book or p-book. And the answer is: the real thing.

  1. Atkins, P. (2013) The future of the book. Chemistry International 35, 3—6.
  2. Atkins, P. (2009) Beyond the book. Chemistry International 31, 9—11.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

hand wash

Last night I put this, presumably, hand-wash only jumper into a washing machine. On a hand wash cycle, cold water. The machine stopped in the middle of the cycle because the filter was blocked. I left it overnight. This morning, I took the filter out (a minor flood followed). It looked as if someone was trying to stuff a felt hat into it and partially succeeded. The rest of the hat is all over the drum. Mopped the floor. Decided to repeat the rinse. The machine stopped in the middle of the cycle. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor. Took the dripping jumper out to the garden. Washed my hands from fluff. Cleaned more serious fluff from the washer’s drum. Run the rinse. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor. Cleaned some further fluff from the drum. Run the rinse. Checked the jumper. My, this hand wash involves a lot of hand washing. Took the filter out. Mopped the floor.

This reminded me of my early or, indeed, my later days (and nights) in “biocomputing”, now known as “bioinformatics”. True, the machine does something, eventually, but cleaning the mess is left up to you.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

it’s nonsense to look for a solution if it already exists

Мы сидели, подперев головы, и предавались самоуничижению, когда в зал заглянул Федор Симеонович. Насколько я понял, ему не терпелось узнать мое мнение о составленной им программе.
— Программа! — желчно усмехнувшись, произнес Хунта. — Я не видел твоей программы, Теодор, но я уверен, что она гениальна по сравнению с этим... — Он с отвращением подал двумя пальцами Федору Симеоновичу листок со своей задачей. — Полюбуйся, вот образец убожества и ничтожества.
— Г-голубчики, — сказал Федор Симеонович озадаченно, разобравшись в почерках. — Это же п-проблема Бен Б-бецалеля. К-калиостро же доказал, что она н-не имеет р-решения.
— Мы сами знаем, что она не имеет решения, — сказал Хунта, немедленно ощетиниваясь. — Мы хотим знать, как ее решать.
— К-как-то ты странно рассуждаешь, К-кристо... К-как же искать решение, к-когда его нет? Б-бессмыслица какая-то...
— Извини, Теодор, но это ты очень странно рассуждаешь. Бессмыслица — искать решение, если оно и так есть. Речь идет о том, как поступать с задачей, которая решения не имеет. Это глубоко принципиальный вопрос, который, как я вижу, тебе, прикладнику, к сожалению, не доступен. По-видимому, я напрасно начал с тобой беседовать на эту тему.
Аркадий и Борис Стругацкие, Понедельник начинается в субботу

So we sat, propping up our heads and abandoning ourselves to mutual devaluation, when Feodor Simeonovich looked in. As near as I could make out, he was impatient to hear my opinion of his program.
“Program!” exclaimed Junta, smiling biliously. “I haven’t seen your program, Feodor, but I am sure that it is a work of genius in comparison to this— ” He handed Feodor Simeonovich the sheet with the problem, holding it in ginger disgust between two fingers. “Regard this exemplar of mental poverty and vapidity.”
“B-but, my dear f-fellows,” said Feodor Simeonovich, having diligently deciphered the handwriting. “This is B-Ben B-Beczalel’s problem! Didn’t C-Cagliostro prove th-that it had no s-solution?”
“We know that it has no solution, too,” said Junta, bristling immediately. “But we wish to learn how to solve it.”
“H-how strangely you r-reason, C-Cristo... H-how can you look for a solution, where it d-does not exist? It’s s-some sort of n-nonsense.”
“Excuse me, Feodor, but it’s you who are reasoning strangely. It’s nonsense to look for a solution if it already exists. We are talking about how to deal with a problem that has no solution. This is a question of profound principle, which, I can see, is not within your scope, since you are an applications type. Apparently I started this conversation with you for nothing.”
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Begins on Saturday (translated by Leonid Renen)

Friday, 29 March 2013

both and neither academic or artistic

I wish somebody offered me a job just like that, after a short email exchange.

I wish to offer you a job.

It is a peculiar response to your request for more information, I realize, but I ask you to consider my proposal with an open mind.

I know a degree about you from my formal inquiries (I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t risk error). And your response encouraged me to conclude that you’re exactly the person I’m looking for.

My needs are uncomplicated. I wish to employ a bright, able-bodied person with the right kind of eye to help me locate some very specific art works.

You fit those requirements admirably, and I’m inclined to believe that you are at a stage in your career where you need an extra challenge.
The job I’m offering you will require resourcefulness, imagination, willingness to travel, plus a deep love of artifact. The salary would be substantially higher than the one you receive at present.
I don’t think I’ve misjudged your potential for change.
Professional researchers are all well and good, but this is a task that requires a subtle sensibility that is both and neither academic or artistic.
Nick Bantock, The Venetian’s Wife ; highlighter mine

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

jealousies and rivalries

From Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith:
Isabel did not like her desk to get too cluttered, but that did not mean that it was uncluttered. In fact, most of the time there were too many papers on it, usually manuscripts that had to be sent off for peer assessment. She was not sure about the term peer assessment, even if it was the widely accepted term for a crucial stage in the publishing of journal articles. Sometimes the expression amounted to exactly that: equals looked dispassionately at papers by equals and gave their view. But Isabel had discovered that this did not always happen, and papers were consigned into the hands of their authors’ friends or enemies. This was unwitting; it was impossible for anybody to keep track of the jealousies and rivalries that riddled academia, and Isabel had to hope that she could spot the concealed agendas that lay behind outright antagonism or, more often, and more subtly, veiled antagonism: ‘an interesting piece, perhaps interesting enough to attract a ripple of attention.’ Philosophers could be nasty, she reflected, and moral philosophers the nastiest of all.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

so long, 3.091x

Hooray, I just downloaded a pdf file certifying that I

successfully completed 3.091x: Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, a course of study offered by MITx, an online learning initiative of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology through edX”.
Frankly I don’t understand why it took 17 days to generate the certificate but hey, it was a free course and I wasn’t in a hurry.

I took this course hoping to refresh or possibly fill some gaps in my university chemistry, and also because it was one of the inaugural courses offered by edX. I expected it to be both challenging and fun. It was challenging all right. But it could do with a little bit more fun.

For the benefit of future students, here are my personal impressions of the course.

Friday, 4 January 2013

forever foreign

In the preface to his novel NO, Carl Djerassi wrote:
A striking phenomenon of the contemporary science scene is the remarkable Asianization of the American research laboratory: Asians now represent in certain disciplines, such as chemistry or engineering, the majority of graduate students in many American universities. In many of these institutions, more than half the postdoctoral fellows (the most exploited but also most productive sector of the research establishment) have received the bulk of their college or university education in Asia.
NO was published in 1998. You’d think that since then the said postdocs moved up to professorial positions across American academia and have taken, well, most of them. Wrong! As Lilian Gomory Wu and Wei Jing write in their recent Nature article:
Across all sectors, Asians in US STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers are not reaching leadership positions at the same rate as white people, or even as members of other underrepresented groups. In academia, just 42% of Asian men are tenured, compared with 58% of white men, 49% of black men and 50% of Hispanic men. Just 21% of Asian women in academia are tenured, the lowest proportion for any ethnicity or gender. They are also least likely to be promoted to full professor.
But why? The authors argue that
east Asians’ humble demeanour could cause them to describe the implications of their research in modest terms, which might bring them lower ratings from reviewers.
On the other hand,
a work group of the US government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that Asians are often perceived as ‘forever foreign’, which can affect how others assess their ability to communicate, their competence and, more importantly, their trustworthiness.
It’s all good to be hardworking, patient, family oriented and so on, but if you don’t sex up your research, you don’t get promoted. And don’t get trusted either.