Saturday, March 22, 2014

How Sexism Persists In Philosophy Departments

If you say something controversial about a subject, and the facts are complex, and supported by detailed and subtle chains of reasoning, you should expect a calm, rational response from someone who disagrees with you. But on the other hand, if you say something controversial that's totally obvious, supported by common sense and easily-verifiable, indisputable facts, you should expect a hysterical, panicked, angry response. The easier it is to argue for a claim, the more emotional the response from those who insist on disagreeing with it. The explanation for this strange behavior is pretty clear. If there's no available rational response, and no facts that can be mustered in favor of one's position, then the only available option is an angry outburst, combined with total hysteria and personal attacks.

The only way to avoid defending one's obviously false position by having a temper tantrum is by lowering one's standards of evidence so far that you need to dig a hole in order to find them. Then, if you're willing to advance a seemingly rational argument that you'd be ashamed to put forward in a different context, you can avoid screaming your head off like a crazed zealot.

Long, long ago, when I was a tenured philosophy professor (about three months ago), I got used to these jaw-dropping displays of intellectual hypocrisy and double-standards. You could expect them at any faculty meeting, on virtually any subject. But no subject would bring out an otherwise intelligent person's split personality more reliably than the issue of sexism.

The math, as Sally Haslanger clearly explains in her New York Times piece, is indisputable. I won't even bother getting into it here. Women are alarmingly underrepresented in philosophy departments (and I'm not even thinking here about people who aren't white -- that situation is even worse). On the face of it, the imbalance would point to some sort of systemic bias against women. Without knowing anything else about the status of women in philosophy, one would at least suspect that discrimination is playing a part in causing this imbalance.

But just as statisticians are the most highly qualified people for contriving misleading statistics, philosophers are eminently qualified to come up with misleading arguments against conclusions that are uncomfortable. And like any other human beings, philosophers are fully capable of astonishing feats of intellectual hypocrisy. Consider this example, which I have heard many times, from people who are otherwise highly intelligent. When asked to explain why there's such an imbalance between men and women in philosophy, they offer the following explanation. "Philosophy has a kind of rough-and-tumble environment of intellectual debate and confrontation. Disputes are quite pointed, and there's a lot of conflict. Women are typically averse to this sort of environment, which is why there are so few women in philosophy."

There's so much wrong with this pseudo-explanation that it's difficult to know where to begin. But the howler is that it seeks to deflect accusations of sexism by invoking highly sexist stereotypes! It would be like a mathematician explaining that most mathematicians are men because mathematics requires logical reasoning and women are naturally averse to fields that require logic. But although it's so obviously sexist, this is the sort of argument that one comes to expect when discussions of sexism arise among groups of philosophers.

I'm sure that almost anyone who's spent more than a few years in academic philosophy can come up with plenty of examples of incredibly ignorant and sexist statements made by philosophers without any trace of irony or self-reflection. For example, I've personally been told by the previous chair of my department that the reason my wife's undergraduate classes (she is also a faculty member in the Philosophy Department) have such excellent attendance and high evaluations is because she's attractive. And let me emphasize that this is an intelligent man saying this, who (I assume) sincerely believes that sexism is wrong.

What must happen in the mind of an intelligent, liberal, highly-educated professional philosopher in order for such a stupid and offensive comment to come out of his mouth? First of all, there must be an assumption that the explanation for her classes being so successful can't possibly be that she's an excellent teacher -- there simply must be some other dynamic at work, presumably because she's a woman and couldn't possibly be a competent professional. The "true" explanation must have something to do with the fact that she's a woman and therefore has some advantage that men don't possess. This can only be that she's attractive. But we still have some distance to go before it's possible to advance this ignorant explanation. You don't have to be a psychologist or an expert in human sexuality to realize that it's kind of nutty to suppose that twenty year-old men are attending a lecture taught by a forty year-old woman because they enjoy looking at her, even if she is attractive. So it's necessary to temporarily make oneself incredibly stupid in order to overlook this obvious fact. Only then is it possible to "explain" her excellent teaching record by citing her attractiveness.

If you offer the most simple and easily verifiable observations about differential treatment of women, you can expect violent opposition. Here's one example I witnessed in a faculty meeting. Our department had recently had several job candidates to campus for interviews and to give talks. Some were brought to campus on Wednesdays and others on Fridays. Because of our teaching schedules, most faculty couldn't participate fully on Wednesdays, but we could all participate on Fridays. This had the effect of making it advantageous for a candidate to be brought in on a Friday. It was pointed out that every male candidate was brought to campus on a Friday, and every female candidate was brought to campus on a Wednesday. The person who pointed this out was at pains to emphasize that she had no suspicion that this was done on purpose; she was just flagging the issue as something that we should be aware of in the future. The facts could have been checked in a few seconds by looking at a calendar, schedule of talks, or email. But nobody did -- instead, the person who pointed this out was immediately attacked and told that she was wrong and that she was being "ridiculous". Of course, she brought up a schedule on her laptop and demonstrated that she was right. But that took almost a full minute to accomplish, and by then, her point had been angrily dismissed.

Those examples are fairly blatant. Anyone who doesn't have a stake in the outcome of those disputes could see through the stupidity and hypocrisy immediately. A more subtle dynamic happens when statistics are brought into the debate. Philosophers are trained to question evidence, and that includes statistical evidence. So when confronted with statistics that support an uncomfortable conclusion, philosophers are well-prepared to respond. For example it's possible that it's merely a coincidence that women are so dramatically under-represented in academic philosophy. This would be an astounding coincidence, but it's possible, just as it's possible that I could get struck by a meteorite in the next ten minutes. The mere possibility that the statistics could be misleading is enough for a trained academic philosopher to dismiss them outright. But dismissing these statistics and deliberately overlooking the obvious explanation for them (namely, that there's systematic bias against women) is yet another feat of intellectual hypocrisy. To take only one example, the safety of the medications that we take is supported by statistical evidence that's often weaker than the evidence of bias in academic philosophy. But we don't apply outrageous evidential standards to our medical care, even though our lives depend on it. Defenders of the status quo in academic philosophy are comforted by the fact that we can't trace out the exact mechanisms by which this bias might operate. But they are not equally skeptical of (e.g.) the harmful effects of smoking, even though the exact mechanisms aren't fully understood.

Of course, when the statistics are not overwhelming, the responses are even more predictable. For example, in my former department, exactly three women have gone up for tenure over the past few decades. Two of them were denied tenure at the department level. No men were ever denied tenure, despite the fact that the vast majority of faculty have been men, and that some of those men had abysmal research and teaching records. The only reasonable evaluation of such statistics is that although they don't prove the existence of sexist double-standards in the tenure process, they do justify a deeper investigation. And if it turns out that other facts point in the same direction, then we need to take the issue seriously, perhaps by reviewing the standards that were applied in each case. But in this environment, it's not possible to evaluate the totality of evidence. Instead, each piece of evidence is isolated from every other piece of evidence and then dismissed because no isolated, single piece of evidence is ever enough to decisively establish beyond any doubt that there's systematic bias against women. It is impossible to support a claim of discrimination by considering all available evidence because the defenders of the status quo have preemptively dismissed every single piece of evidence taken in isolation, and then had the audacity to claim that it's no use to consider the total weight of all the evidence. This is like dismissing a series of scientific experiments that all independently point to the same conclusion, simply because no single experiment is sufficient on its own. In any other context, this defense would rightly be held up to ridicule. But not when the issue is sexism, and not among a group of intelligent, highly-educated philosophers.

How does bias against women persist in philosophy departments? Take a group of fallible human beings with a natural tendency toward hypocrisy and intellectual double-standards, then add highly specialized analytical training. Put those people in a male-dominated profession in which career advancement is dependent on the whims of one's colleagues, and the results are predictable.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Higher Education Death Spiral

One reason (among many) why I left my tenured position as a Professor of Philosophy is that I began to feel very strongly that the value of the education I was providing my students was deteriorating rapidly. Of course, I aways tried -- with mixed success -- to give my students the best education I could. But I kept having the sensation of trying to swim upstream in a current that was dragging me backwards.

Critiques of higher education in the United States are nothing new. We all know that funding is awful and getting worse, that public universities are becoming more like corporations, and that there's an ongoing assault on faculty rights and the institution of tenure -- an assault that bears an uncanny resemblance to union-busting techniques.

I believe that these critiques are all depressingly accurate. But they miss the underlying dynamic that's at the root of all these problems. It's a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, which we might as well call the Higher Education Death Spiral. It's accelerating and driving higher education in the United States into the ground. In short, the Death Spiral is caused by two facts. The first fact is that the intrinsic value of a university education is going down; the second is that the extrinsic value of a university education is going up. Those facts have conspired to create a market failure that's dragging down the quality of higher education.

There are basically two reasons for getting a university education. The first is that it has intrinsic value. Increasing the breadth and depth of your knowledge, being exposed to new ideas and to people whose ideas and values are different from yours, and so on all have the potential to make us better people and improve the quality of our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. The second reason is that a university education has tremendous extrinsic value. It helps you get a good job, increases your expected lifetime earnings, and so on. Both of these are very good things, and each of them is an excellent reason to go to college.

Frankly, I think it's obvious that universities are doing a worse job providing intrinsic value to students. Unfortunately, there are powerful emotional reasons why it's difficult to acknowledge this fact. When I was a professor, I once said in an offhand way that our students were getting a worse education than they did ten years ago. To be perfectly honest, I thought this was so obvious that it probably wasn't worth saying at all. After all, the facts are irrefutable. Class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, students are increasingly taught by overworked, underpaid adjunct, non-tenure track faculty and graduate students, facilities are crumbling, and so on. Obviously, these facts will cause the quality of education to go down. But what I didn't realize when I made this comment is that it would elicit a fiercely defensive reaction. It's very difficult to say such a thing to a faculty member without coming across as criticizing him or her. Classes are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty, and so any critique of educational quality comes across as a personal criticism of those faculty. Naturally, they are often offended by any suggestion that the quality of their courses might be going down.

Nonetheless, I think the conclusion is unavoidable. In fact, it would be a miracle if those factors didn't hurt the quality of students' education. It would take a unified, herculean effort on the part of faculty and administration to overcome the problems that universities currently face. For example, at my former university -- the University of Missouri -- resources are so scarce that the library recently lost millions of dollars' worth of books to mold, and a university-owned apartment building suffered a collapse that tragically killed a firefighter (there was no fire -- the firefighter was there because a tenant noticed the structural degradation that caused the collapse). Those are symptoms of a lack of long-term thinking combined with scarcity of resources. And those deficits have conspired to damage educational quality throughout the university. Can it really be surprising that education has suffered in such an environment? (By the way, if you're concerned about the University of Missouri's athletic facilities, don't be. They're better than ever.)

Ironically, the same economy that has wrecked so much havoc in the university has also made a university education more extrinsically valuable than ever. Although college graduates do have an uphill battle to find a good job, their non-college educated counterparts have it much, much worse. In determining the extrinsic value of an education, the appropriate comparison isn't between education now and education ten years ago; rather, it's between the prospects now of a college-educated person and the prospects now of someone who has no college education. The difference is so dramatic that there's no reason for me to get into it here. More than ever, you need a college education in order to succeed in the economy.

This pair of facts is the cause of the Higher Education Death Spiral. It's a strange and unusual dynamic that I wish got more attention. Normally, as the quality of something goes down, and the price goes up, we don't expect the demand to increase. For example, suppose you prefer a particular brand of shoes. But you notice that the brand's quality has suffered -- the shoes have holes in them and are made out of lousy material. And you also notice that the price has doubled. The last thing you'd do is buy more of these shoes. But that's exactly what's happening with higher education all over the United States: quality is down, price is up, and demand is higher than ever!

But that's not the whole story of the Higher Education Death Spiral. The increased demand for a college education has the effect of masking the underlying cause of the Death Spiral by providing just enough revenue for the university to squeak by, but not nearly enough revenue to address the university's real problems. Universities are now addicted to increased enrollment at the cost of long-term planning that might increase the intrinsic quality of education. And like any drug addict, they'll make irrational sacrifices in order to get their next hit.

There's a tremendous irony in the current situation. A university education's value is increasingly economic -- the overriding reason to go to college is to succeed in the job market, and that's how educational quality is judged. But those who make the most crass economic arguments for how public resources are to be allocated, and who believe that it's perfectly appropriate to turn universities into credential mills to enable students to get jobs, are blind to the fact that we're in the grip of a textbook market failure. Market pressures have led to a situation in which resources are allocated inefficiently, and everyone would be better off if resources were spent not on buying short-term increases in enrollment, but on long-term investments that would actually increase the real quality of a university education. But the market won't let this happen. Hence, the Higher Education Death Spiral.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Asshole or Douchebag? A Very Important And Rigorous Study

In a world filled with unpleasant people, it's important to understand exactly what kind of unpleasant person you're dealing with. Sure, your co-worker, boss, rival, neighbor, or even your close friend may be some kind of jerk. But is he or she merely a jerk, or do they rise to the level of asshole or douchebag? Do they engage in "total asshole behavior", or is it more appropriate to think of their behavior as "douchebaggery"?

Obviously, assholes and douchebags are closely related. But they are not the same. Consider two kinds of behavior that unlucky people witness on a regular basis at work:

The first totally hypothetical person, who we will call "Mr. A", is a bully who enjoys power. He demeans his subordinates, he readily lies about people in order to misrepresent their abilities and accomplishments, and he seems to have no moral sense. He will do whatever it takes to climb the ladder at work, and he uses other people as means to that end. Mr. A is fairly predictable this way, and very few people trust him.

The second totally hypothetical person, who will will call "Mr. D", is also a bully. However, unlike Mr. A, he is more discriminating in choosing those he will lie about and demean. To those he does not dislike, he can seem quite friendly and even affable. But he can be extremely vicious to a select group of people. Unlike Mr. A, his selection of targets is more complex. He is sometimes perfectly decent and even generous to people who have no power; but sometimes he is quite vicious. Different people have vastly different opinions about Mr. D.

Mr. A is simply an asshole. He is greedy, selfish, and at least somewhat sadistic. He is simple and predictable. He may be decent enough to a select few (usually those who can give him something he wants), but those people are in the minority. Mr. D, however, is more complicated. He may be a douchebag; but whether he qualifies as a douchebag depends on his motivations and how he chooses his targets.

We can illustrate the qualifications for the title of "douchebag" by considering a colleague I once had the misfortune of working with. He was notoriously unproductive and at least mildly neurotic. The work he did produce was unoriginal and repetitious. And whatever success he had was due to his network of friends who were far more generous than he ever was. Of course, by itself, being ineffectual doesn't qualify you as a douchebag. But he had a nasty habit of attacking people who were more productive than he was. He would spread extremely nasty rumors about them, especially attacking their productivity and the quality of their work. Of course, he preferred attacking people who were powerless, but he'd occasionally get worked up enough to go after people who were not. And it should go without saying that this always took the form of a rumor-mongering whispering campaign.

As in this specific case, a douchebag is motivated by self-loathing, and the asshole-like behavior of the douchebag is mainly aimed at people who are better than him with respect to the qualities that he hates in himself. Needless to say, this requires a willingness to engage in some very hypocritical behavior, but that does not deter the douchebag in the slightest. Hypocrisy and self-loathing are at the core of douchebaggery.

This goes a long way toward explaining some of the other differences between assholes and douchebags:

  1. Douchebags are less overt than assholes. This is because they tend to be at least a little neurotic, and they're at least somewhat aware of their hypocrisy. They take a greater risk than assholes, because their behavior could backfire and cause people to recognize the douchebag's inadequacies. Thus, they are typically sneakier and "slimier" than their asshole cousins.
  2. An asshole's behavior usually has a specific goal: the acquisition of power, money or advancement. The only exception is when assholes are motivated purely by sadism. Douchebaggery, however, isn't directed at those goals. Douchebags are douchebags because it makes them feel better about themselves, even if it is ultimately self-destructive.
  3. These traits conspire to elevate the asshole in any organization, but to keep the douchebag relatively marginalized. Even a high-functioning douchebag is limited by their own neuroses. Thus, you're more likely to find assholes at the top of an organization, and more likely to encounter douchebags somewhere in the middle. Middle managers are more likely to be douchebags, and executives are more likely to be assholes.

It bothers me when people conflate assholes and douchebags, because there are so many important differences between them. And if we don't carefully distinguish between them, it becomes more difficult to defend against them. Treating a douchebag like an ordinary asshole will be counterproductive, and vice-versa. We'll never rid the world of assholes and douchebags, but if we can recognize them more quickly, we'll be better able to marginalize them and mitigate some of the damage they do.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Care and Feeding of Young Nerds

You may be responsible for the care and feeding of a young nerd. Maybe you're a parent and you are beginning to suspect that your child is developing into a nerd, or maybe you're a teacher, or even just an adult who is around young, impressionable nerds. If so, you are probably aware that your nerd has a lot of potential. But unfortunately, they are very sensitive, delicate creatures. You'll want your nerd to grow and develop into an intelligent, successful, eccentric adult while minimizing their lifetime cost in psychological therapy.

Young Nerds Often Feel Powerless

Nerds are often (but not always) socially awkward, and they usually feel lost in a large crowd of non-nerds. Non-nerds seem to behave in ways that are incomprehensible to nerds, especially when they are young. At bottom, nerds know that they're intelligent, which makes the behavior of non-nerds even more distressing. The fact that young nerds are unable to explain why the rest of the world behaves in such irrational ways makes them feel even more lost, and can even lead to a diminished sense of self-worth. They feel adrift most of the time, and this makes them feel very insecure.

For example, nerds don't understand why everyone else cheers for the sports team from their country, city, or town. It seems arbitrary -- why cheer for one team rather than another? Why are you happy and proud when your team wins? It wasn't you who scored the goal or the touchdown, so why do you care?

Thus, when nerds are expected to behave this way, they feel like there's some kind of big joke that they're not in on. They can't force themselves to blend into the crowd, and this causes a lot of stress for a young nerd. Being an outcast in so many situations makes them feel helpless. And this feeling of helplessness can cause a lot of psychological distress.

Powerful Nerds In Fiction

I am now forty-one years old, and I'm proud to be a total nerd. So I was once a young, vulnerable nerd. When I was young, like many nerds, I gravitated toward science fiction. It's not a coincidence that nerds often enjoy science fiction. It's because science fiction provides a large number of role models that appeal to nerds, because they provide a rough idea of how to take a person's most nerdy qualities and transform them into a powerful sense of mastery. And even the tiniest possibility that a nerd's quirks might be something positive is a powerful message to a young nerd. Such a message goes a long way toward alleviating some of the psychological distress.

It's easy to illustrate this with an example. When I was about ten years old, I stumbled across the cult television show, "Doctor Who". I did not know what the heck this was all about. It is a terribly confusing experience for a young, impressionable nerd. For those who aren't familiar with Doctor Who, it's a British television show that's been on the air for about fifty years. The title character -- who is known only as "The Doctor" -- is a time traveling human-like alien who travels all over space and time doing heroic things. The Doctor is the perfect example of a Hero Nerd. He virtually never resorts to violence, and he doesn't have any physically imposing characteristics. The Doctor has no obvious powers at all; he's not a traditional superhero. The source of his power is simply that he's much smarter and knows much more than anyone else around him. He does have some nifty gadgets, but they're harmless little tools.

The Doctor has great appeal to nerds for lots of reasons. First, he is an example of how to take nerd-like characteristics and turn them to one's own advantage. The tendency to be overly analytical, for example, is a deficit in the real world. But it saves The Doctor (and many planets) over and over again. Second, he is shamelessly eccentric and clueless about normal conventions. His clothes are usually outlandish, but The Doctor seems to think that (for example) having a sprig of celery on one's lapel, or wearing a twenty foot-long striped scarf is a reasonable fashion choice. And he's genuinely surprised when people imply that he's odd. Third, The Doctor is uncomfortable around most people. He has deliberately left his own planet because he didn't fit in, so (like any nerd) he feels like an outcast. Although he does seem to have sentimental feelings toward his planet, he usually can't bear the thought of going there. Lastly, The Doctor -- despite being awkward around most people -- does get lonely. He prefers to travel with people, but usually with just one person at a time. And he's quite picky about who he takes with him. This resonates with nerds because that's how they feel. Despite being awkward around people and sometimes behaving like they don't need anyone, nerds do get lonely. But their preferred way of being social is to have a very small number of close friends. No wonder The Doctor is such a popular figure among nerds of all ages.

Nerds Need A Path

Science fiction characters like The Doctor suggest to young nerds that there may be a way for them to actually benefit from the personality quirks that usually end up causing them to feel awkward and lost. But of course, they need more than a fictional character in order to chart a path through the terrible experiences of youth.

There is no shortcut to empowering a young nerd. They need to actually develop a skill or talent that genuinely gives them power, and not merely the illusion of it. To be powerful is to have the ability to do something that most people can't do. And so, if you want to help your nerd, you might try to expose him or her to activities that would not normally be appealing to non-nerds. For example, in my own case, I was lucky enough to have a fourth-grade teacher who started a computer club at school. For me, fourth grade was in 1981, so the vast majority of people had never used a computer. But to my surprise, I realized quickly that I was pretty good at these things (and at that time, using a computer meant programming -- commercial software was almost non-existent). This was very appealing. For literally the first time, I found something I was good at; and programming a computer had the additional bonus that virtually nobody else could do it at all. If you think that this isn't a genuine sense of power, just consider all the young nerds my age who went on to make fortunes and change the world because they understood computers long before the rest of the world was aware of them.

Of course, there's nothing special about computers. A powerful skill could be almost anything, so long as your young nerd enjoys it, and most people aren't any good at it. It could be art, music, chess, math, building things, or whatever else happens to be available. One thing that's nice about being a young nerd now (as opposed to being one in the 1980's) is that you can get information so easily. I would have done anything to have had access to (say) Wikipedia for an hour in the 1980's. We used to be severely limited by the lack of available information; but that limitation is a thing of the past. Eccentric hobbies nowadays are cheap to fund, and easy to learn about. This is good news for young nerds.

Basically, caring for nerds comes down to a few simple guidelines. First, find a way to suggest that the characteristics that make them feel helpless and awkward can be turned to their advantage. Second, expose them to activities that are examples of how their unique skills might confer unique abilities that most people won't understand. If your nerd can make it through the awful experience of youth, they will turn into an adult nerd; and then they'll realize the truth, which is that nerds rule the world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Losing a great dog

My dog -- a very handsome Great Dane -- died today; he was nearly eleven years old. His name was Alexander (the Great Dane). Alexander was happy and healthy until the end, and then suddenly deteriorated. He was euthanized today at home, in bed.
Alexander the Great Dane was an unusually cute puppy

I grew up with dogs, but never really considered myself a "dog person" until after I was married. My wife is definitely a dog person. In fact, one of the reasons I admire her so much is because she cares so much about animals. You can't tell anything about a person's character by how they treat people with power. You really learn about them by seeing how they treat the powerless. And animals are totally powerless. We can abuse them or neglect them, and there really aren't any consequences for us. People who are kind to animals are kind because they care about the animal's welfare. The care that we show to animals is, in a way, the purest form of caring because it's the most altruistic.

But when you've got animals in your life, and you care for them, there are definitely rewards. After a while, the animal starts to care about you, in whatever way is appropriate for that animal. Horses, for example, are naturally fearful. But if you care for your horse well enough, he or she will gradually come to trust you. They'll go places with you that they'd naturally want to run away from. It's a very satisfying experience when a big, beautiful creature like a horse decides that you're worth trusting.

Dogs are different, of course. They're more disposed to a relationship with humans, which is why we find it so easy to love them. Unlike a horse or cat, a dog will often be willing to take the first step in a relationship -- your dog may decide to give you a chance even when you haven't done anything to earn it.
Alexander with his favorite human

A lot of people mistakenly think that their dog is the best dog in the world. But Alexander was actually the best dog in the world. When he was really young, my wife started taking him to work with her. She is a professor and would take him to her office, or to class with her while she taught. They were almost never apart, and Alexander had a really great life. He got to go with her everywhere, and he was always around people who admired him. And my wife was, of course, his favorite person in the whole world.

If you haven't gotten to know a Great Dane, you're missing out. Danes have a well-deserved reputation as the "gentle giants". They are strong and powerful, but very soft-hearted. Danes are sensitive, and you can hurt their feelings by looking at them the wrong way. Although they like people, they will often form a very strong bond to a specific person, and gradually become almost totally uninterested in anyone else. When a Dane has decided that you are theirs, you have a friend for life. And a bodyguard. God help anyone who acts harshly toward someone who is friends with a Great Dane. When that happens, they can go from "gentle giant" to "vicious attack dog" in no time flat. When that happens, you are quickly reminded that this is a gigantic, and potentially deadly animal.
Alexander with a friend
That was definitely the case with Alexander and my wife. By the time he was older, his world consisted of my wife, and he was occasionally aware of me in a distant sort of way. To call Alexander "loyal" does not do justice to the deep care that he obviously felt for his favorite person. Once, my wife was parked in a dimly-lit parking lot and someone ran up to the car and put his arm in the window. That lasted for about half a second, because Alexander (who was asleep at the time) immediately had this poor guy's arm in his mouth. Alexander, feeling particularly generous, let him run away. This sort of thing happened more than once. I never, ever worried about my wife's safety when I was away. I sincerely hoped that nobody would bother my wife, because Alexander was certainly capable of killing anyone who did. If I ever learned that someone attacked my wife, my first question would be, "Did he survive?".

But in his nearly eleven years, he was in "attack mode" for a grand total of about ten seconds (and only when it was the right thing to do -- he had really good judgment about people). The rest of the time, he was a good friend and partner. The only thing he really cared about was being a part of my wife's daily routine. He was a solid citizen at several different universities, and quickly established a routine that the students loved. He'd come to class carrying his blanket with him. He'd lie down on the blanket in front of the class, and then roll up the blanket to carry it back to his office. Naturally, he had his own couch, which he would sometimes share.

Well-mannered dogs have a civilizing effect, and Alexander's presence would immediately warm up a room. A curious fact about Great Danes is how gently people usually treat them. I think that their combination of huge size and soft, quiet personality brings out a kinder side of people. With a few exceptions, people would pet him very gently, and they'd usually talk to him quietly. Students who were nervous would be put at ease by Alexander. And a lot of people over the years have told us that although they're usually scared of dogs, they didn't feel scared of Alexander, despite his enormous size.

Great Danes don't usually start off as very empathic, caring animals. They gradually learn about humans, and how to read their emotions. Until they're at least a year old, they're usually oblivious if someone around them is upset, or sad, or angry. But Alexander was unusually empathic from the time he was very young. We'd always comment on how "clued-in" he was. He knew if someone was upset -- especially my wife. It was totally impossible for her to hide her feelings from him. By the time he was older, he'd get very upset if she was sad or nervous. In fact, he was so sympathetic that she would sometimes try to avoid him if she was sad. Despite his idyllic life and the fact that he definitely had nothing to complain about, he really seemed to suffer if he thought she was sad.

When you have a Great Dane, you know that it's likely that they won't be around as long as some other dogs. And if you're lucky enough to have a really great guy like Alexander in your life, this is especially salient. Some animals just crawl right into your heart. Alexander was that kind of dog. He just insisted on being a part of your life, and he showed more caring and empathy than almost any human being is capable. Alexander was a good friend, and we'll miss him a lot.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

All The Names In Wikipedia

As a small experiment, I decided to download the complete text of Wikipedia and extract all the names of people mentioned in the pages (using the excellent LingPipe program, plus some customized scripts of my own). After a little cleaning up of the results, I could make a big table showing every time two names occurred within the same Wikipedia article.

The result is big. There are hundreds of thousands of names in Wikipedia that are mentioned more than just once or twice. But with this data in hand, the question is whether we can extract any useful information from it. A quick "sanity check" is to visualize the relations between the names, and see if there's an obvious structure, or whether the result looks like a big, random mess.

In principle, this is easy to do. We generate a graph, where each node is a name, and we draw a line between two nodes if the two names occur on the same page. But in practice, that's not very useful, for at least two reasons. First, there are too many connections that aren't informative -- just because two names occur on the same page doesn't mean that there's a useful or interesting connection between them. For example, two famous people who happened to have been born in the same town aren't really related to each other in any meaningful or interesting way. The second issue is that with so many connections, it's just way beyond the capacity of my little laptop to graph the whole thing.

So when are two names related in an interesting or significant way? If two names are genuinely related, then will probably be many connection between them. If their connection is only spurious, then there may be only one or two connections between them. For instance, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are mentioned together in a variety of different contexts; you can get from an article that mentions Bill to an article that mentions Hillary in a variety of different ways. To put this more precisely, imagine that you are given a Wikipedia page that mentions Bill Clinton. That page will have several links on it. Now suppose that you click on one of those links at random, and keep clicking at random for a while. There's a pretty good chance that you'll end up on a page that mentions Hillary Clinton. There's also a chance that you'll end up on a page that mentions Bugs Bunny, but that's far less likely. Generally, someone has a stronger connection to Bill Clinton if there are lots of quick paths you can take to their page from a page mentioning Bill Clinton.

Of course, that would be a very tedious exercise. But that's what computers are for -- doing tedious work over and over again. So I set the computer to randomly click around on Wikipedia (actually a downloaded copy of it) billions of times, calculating which pairs of names have the strongest connections. For the technically inclined, I computed the mean commute time between pairs of vertices on the co-occurrence graph.

The resulting table is much smaller and easier to deal with. But it's still too big to visualize the whole thing. So I decided to pick one name that was interesting, and visualize all the names that were within a few degrees of separation from that name. I picked Miles Davis as my starting point, because he's my favorite musician, and because he's had a vast influence on music. Here's the visualization:

In this diagram, each dot represents a name, and each line represents a significant connection between two names. As you can see, some of the names tend to cluster together. The computer (using the Gephi program) has colored those "communities" the same. I've also set it to make the nodes larger if they have stronger connections to the rest of the graph (using the PageRank algorithm).

Miles Davis is one of the nodes in this graph. Zooming in, we can see him in the middle of this section:

Of course, simply  having a cool picture doesn't mean that it actually conveys any meaningful information. We have to judge that for ourselves. When we look into these names, the results are interesting. Philip Harper, for example, is the node closest to Miles Davis. But he isn't mentioned on Miles Davis's page, nor is Miles Davis mentioned on his. But Harper, like Miles Davis, is a jazz trumpeter. He played with the Jazz Messengers, which suggests that there are lots of indirect links between the two of them. Someone with better knowledge of jazz would be able to tell more from this graph, but from what I can tell, it certainly looks like it makes sense and conveys a lot of accurate information about the relationships among these names.

Of course, what I've shown here is way, way less than one tenth of one percent of the entire Wikipedia graph, which is just too much to plot at once. But all the data is there, and could be queried along lots of different dimensions, for a wide variety of purposes.

Personally, I think that extracting useful information from the vast amounts of text online is the Next Big Thing. What I've got here is just one brief excursion into a tiny fraction of Wikipedia, which is just an even tinier part of the internet. And if one nerd with a laptop can do this in a few hours, the possible applications of this sort of approach are enormous.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hope For Academics Who Want Out

In various posts (and god-knows how many conversations), I've complained about the sorry state of academia, how it lets down our students, and how it abuses faculty -- including tenured and tenure-track faculty, not to mention the absolutely criminal way that it treats adjunct faculty. Now that I've finally left my tenured position, I realize that my complaints were not nearly severe enough.

Although I'm certainly not a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, it's fair to ask anyone who holds these opinions why, if it's so bad, do the vast majority of faculty stay in their jobs? Things can't be that bad if the number of academics who quit is so low.

Basically, it comes down to brainwashing. The way that you keep anyone in an abusive relationship is by undermining their self-confidence. Make them feel dependent, and give them the impression that they don't have any other options. As bad as it might be, make them think that they're lucky to be in their current situation, and make them fearful of what will happen if they leave. I mean it when I say that this is exactly what has happened to academics all over.

Furthermore, it's very easy to make academics feel this way, beginning with graduate students and going all the way up the academic ladder to tenured faculty. Anyone who has devoted years of their life to becoming an expert in their chosen field has necessarily specialized. They've devoted a large amount of time to learning a very narrow subject in great detail. They have deliberately sacrificed breadth for depth. By itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing -- after all, we need specialists. But there's a psychological side-effect of all this narrow specialization. It is all too-easy to believe that when you've become an expert in one small subject area, that you're useless for anything else. You may have started out as an intelligent, intellectually curious human being; but after a few years of specialized training and an obsessive lifestyle, you can easily wind up feeling like a small cog that fits only into one particular machine.

I think that this is why the tenure process is so stressful. The level of fear that accompanies the tenure and promotion process is as severe as it is because by the time we've reached that point in our careers, we've become terrified of the possibility of being thrown in our useless and dependent state into the wilderness. Losing a job is stressful for virtually anyone. But for an academic who's devoted more than a decade of their life in the pursuit of career success, the prospect of getting tossed onto the street is especially terrifying.

Furthermore, I suspect that there's another psychological trap that we lay for ourselves. Surely, we'd be crazy to devote such such a huge portion of our lives to our academic careers unless there were something really uniquely wonderful about an academic career. And to be sure, there are some pretty neat benefits to being an academic. But the enormous, gargantuan opportunity costs associated with graduate school and the uncertainties of the academic job market, not to mention the very real possibility of getting kicked out after the tenure review process, could only be justified by the possibility of have an incredible career at the end of that process. And it's fair to ask ourselves the question, "Is it really that great, or have I just convinced myself that it's so great in order to justify the sacrifices I've made?" It's clear what my opinion is: the vast majority of academics have deluded themselves. I know I did.

If you're an academic, and you're reading this, then you're at some stage of the academic brainwashing process. If you're early in your career, there may be hope for you. But if you're already established, you probably think I'm crazy. You think that nobody could possibly be taking advantage of you; that all's right with the academic world; that there's nothing unethical about training the next generation of faculty the way you have been; that the problems you experience in the university are at least as bad outside it; and that all your sacrifices have been worth it.

But for the rest of you who may have a shred of sanity left, there's some good news. If you feel that you'd be useless in any environment other than academia, you're wrong. And if you think that any other existence outside of academia would be awful, you're also wrong.

Over the past few years, I've looked over the resumes of perhaps a dozen graduate students or recent PhDs who were applying for positions outside the ivory tower (sometimes as an insurance policy against the academic job market, sometimes because they were making the leap into the private sector). Without a single exception, those resumes were dripping with self-loathing. Highly intelligent, well-educated, incredibly hard-working people who would be invaluable colleagues couldn't even bring themselves to write down their own skills, training, and accomplishments on a resume. People with tremendous expertise and deep skills in valuable (and practical) areas wouldn't even mention those facts to prospective employers. On further examination, it inevitably turns out that it didn't even occur to them that they possessed those skills. Here, I'm talking about people with top-flight analytic skills, excellent writers, highly effective researchers, great teachers, and generally, people who could come into any difficult area and become experts extremely quickly. These are people who any sane person would love to have as a colleague; and the sad part is that they've internalized such a low opinion of themselves that they don't realize what they've got to offer.

But what do they have to offer? There's an irony here. Academics, in my experience, seem to have a curiously out-of-touch view about who is likely to succeed in the "real world". For example, they think that people with highly specialized skills in a technical field are very likely to succeed and get snatched up by a high-paying, prestigious employer. In other words, they think that their main problem is that they've specialized in the wrong field. If they had only specialized in, say, developing web applications for mobile phones, they'd be able to get a great job in the private sector.

This is, at best, a half-truth. To be sure, someone who is an expert in (e.g.) developing web applications for mobile phones will probably be able to get a job. But those aren't the people who are in really high demand, and they're not the most successful people out there. If we just confine ourselves to thinking about the tech industry (which we shouldn't, but it's what I know the most about), it's the generalists who are in the highest demand.

The reason is simple, and it's something we all know already. The world is changing too quickly for people with specialized skill sets. In the past decade, I've seen the most valuable technology skills turn over completely at least a half-dozen times. But what's even more important is that the set of problems that are being addressed by government and industry have changed dramatically, and are continuing to change more quickly every day. To take one small example, the concept of data-mining was almost unknown a few years ago. Now, "data scientist" is the hot job. Not only is this a job that didn't exist a few years ago, but it requires a set of skills that also didn't exist (or at least, weren't well-defined), to attack a set of problems that were impossible to even articulate before, say, 2006.

Now ask yourself who you would want to hire in order to work in this world: someone who has tremendous expertise in today's technologies, or someone who is a skilled communicator with excellent analytic skills and the ability to learn difficult topics rapidly? Sure, the first person might be able to hit the ground running more quickly. But any intelligent person would prefer the latter type of person, even if they need a little more runway to get up to speed initially.

This is the great irony. Our graduate schools are creating thousands upon thousands of highly trained people who possess exactly the skills that we need. But it's also inculcating them with such low self-esteem and a totally delusional picture of academic life that they become unwilling to put those skills to use.

The good news in all this is that it is at least possible to throw off those negative attitudes and make a real contribution. But it'll take a lot of consciousness raising, combined with competent psychological therapy and the right cocktail of medications.