Twofish's Blog

February 28, 2007


Filed under: academia, china, iraq — twofish @ 6:03 pm 

Moments of calm

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 8:31 am

I’ve written a number of incendiary articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education forum lately.  Whenever, I post one of those articles, I’m quite nervous for the some reasons that most people are nervous when they say something in public.  The fear of course is the fear of public humiliation, loss of respect, and most curiously for me the fear of being alone.  One of the important things in academic education is to learn how to manage and cope with these fears.  Fear is a good thing sometimes, it keeps you from doing stupid things, but the goal of education is to learn how to manage this, and realize when fear is good and when fear is bad.  That’s something you don’t learn from reading books.  That’s something you just have to do.

Right now, I’m upset, I’m unhappy, I’m bitter, I’m angry, and I’m frightened.  That’s actually not a bad combination because I’m taking all of those very powerful feelings, and actually doing something useful with them, and so I’m not frustrated to any great degree.  Since I can effectively direct all of these things outside of me, things are working relatively well.  If I’m in a situation where I can’t direct these emotions to something constructive, they become destructive, and it is a very, very bad situation.

One mistake that people seem to make is to try to separate  “good feelings” from “bad feelings.”  In reality, the mix is strangely complex.  One thing that I found in writing my situation comedy pilot is that humor comes from pain.  I came up with something that I thought was very funny, but I had to cut open a vein to get the humor.

Why law professors write such wishy-washy articles

Filed under: academia, law — twofish @ 8:12 am

One thing that I find frustrating on reading articles by law professors, is that they seem wishy-washy.  One thing one can X is true, but on the other hand Y is true, and then maybe Z is true.  When I get through one of the articles, I think to myself, yes I’ve seen that you’ve read a lot of books, but what’s your point.  There doesn’t seem to be one.

But it finally occurred to me that that has to do with the role of the law professor in the system of law.  Law professors aren’t supposed to come to a point, that’s for judges and advocates to do.  An advocate comes up with an argument that makes his client look like an angel, and his opponents look like a the spawn of Satan.  The judge evaluates these claims and comes up with a decision.  The law professor looks at all of this and records it.  His job (unlike that of a physics professor) isn’t to come to a conclusion or even to argue a position, that’s for judges and advocates to do.  That’s very different from what a physics or economics professor does, and also very different from what an engineer does.

So this is why I get a different feeling when I read a legal document or a court decision.  A well drafted legal document is a work of art, as well as a work of engineering.  A well written argument stirs the blood.  But an article by a law professor in a law journal, wishy-washy articles with no conclusions.

Notes on “Institutions, Financial Development, and Corporate Investment: Evidence from An Implied Return on Capital in China”

Filed under: austrian economics, china, finance — twofish @ 4:30 am

This is another one of a long line of papers purporting to show that state-owned enterprises are more inefficient than other forms and therefore the Chinese financial system is vastly misallocating capital.

Like other such papers, it has a number of methodological flaws:

1) It doesn’t correct for the differences between state-owned enterprises and non-state owned firms.  The big one is that money losing SOE’s are responsible for a great deal of social welfare spending.  If you remove those social obligations from SOE’s, it might make the firm more efficient, but someone else needs to pick up the tab.

2) The other problem is that China has a huge number of tiny SOE’s which don’t make that much money in contrast to a small number of huge SOE’s which do.  The result of this is that if you do a factors analysis, you pick up the huge number of tiny SOE’s which are losing money, but I suspect that if you weight things by industry size, you’ll find that the bulk of bank loans are no longer going to these small SOE’s.

3) Finally, something that is consistent in these studies is that “mixed” or “collective” enterprises do as well as “private” ones.  This makes no sense if you believe that the cause of inefficiency is state ownership, but it makes perfect sense if you assume that there is some “cherry picking” going on.  Basically, any SOE which isn’t hopeless is going to find investors, and not be an SOE.

One thing that I’d like to do at some point is to dig into the NBS data, and write a paper on this.  The trouble is that I’m already booked to write three papers, and part of the reason I’ve limited myself to three papers this year is so that I don’t try to write ten.

This has some relationship to my affinity to Austrian economics.  Austrians look at numbers with a lot of skepticism and focus on the idea that we don’t really know that much about economics.  This sort of skepticism about quantitative data, I find refreshing among economics.  In the literature trying to analyze quantitative performance of Chinese firms, I’ve rarely found that the author goes in and questions the numbers and the meaning of the numbers.

Shanghai stocks

Filed under: china, finance — twofish @ 3:52 am


The curious thing is that none of the Western media so far mentioned the big reason why I think that Shanghai took a big one day hit and that was that is had been closed for one week for Chinese New Year.  When people came back, they took profits.

February 27, 2007

Freedom and slavery in academia

A post I made to the Chronicle of Higher Education forum,34595.0.html

I don’t think that is true. What is necessary is for departments to tell students “NO YOU WILL NOT BE A PROFESSOR IF YOU GRADUATE HERE!!!!!” There will be some hit in enrollment, but I think you’ll find a lot of people who still want to get into the system.

The reason this has been liberating for me is that I’ve found that not expecting to get an academic position has saved me a lot of guilt, which has released enough energy to do “useful things.”

The other thing that not expecting to get an academic position has allowed me to do is to be much louder and less afraid of bring up controversial ideas. As long as you have hope of getting a position in the system, that gives people power over you. You are afraid of rocking the boat too much or complaining too much because you are (justifiably) afraid of what the tenure committee is going to think.

Once I lost that hope, then I become a loose cannon. I can say things like I think the Spelling report on higher education is total garbage, and that I think that the world would be a better place if the AFL-CIO unionized the adjuncts at UoP and graduate students at most universities. I’m not afraid of talking about the internal politics of MIT, UT Austin, UoP, and I seem to be only person around here that signs their real name, because I’m not afraid of any consequences, because there are no consequences.

The dream of future freedom is the chain that academia uses to make people slaves. Once you look at the dream, and say “this is a lie” you lose the hope, but you also lose the chains.

And it is a wonderful feeling..

February 26, 2007

The core principle of MIT

Filed under: massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 4:31 pm

The basic principle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which has guided its behavior from the very beginning is a very simple one.

If you have machines instead of people do the work, you don’t need slaves…….

February 25, 2007

Margaret MacVicar – Requiescat in pace

Filed under: massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 5:16 am

Every now and then you get into a conversation and then a ghost appears.

In 1991, I had some brief conversations with Dean MacVicar about fundamentally changing the structure of undergraduate education at MIT. We just talked briefly, and I was frankly scared of her because she was a dean and I was a senior then, and looking back, I’m not sure she completely trusted me. But what she was thinking about and plotting was far more radical than anything that had been done at the time. She was talking to me in terms of student committees to review curriculum, and through a series of careful questions, I think she had me pegged as a fellow revolutionary.

Tactically, what she was trying to do was to get the departments to accurately describe the number of hours that each class took in the bulletin and to use the Course Evaluation Guide to enforce accuracy. The result of this would have been that MIT would have been far over-hours in science and engineering and far under hours in humanities, which would have gotten the regional accreditators involved. The subtext of this was that the departments at MIT deeply wanted control over the curriculum, and was not about to allow a external dean have any sort of influence on that. Personally, I thought what she was trying was totally crazy and would not work, but I was too afraid to mention that.

However, when I got a letter from Vice-Provost Jay Keyser, the same day I got my rejection letter from MIT graduate school, I let loose a tirade, which I cc’d to Dean MacVicar. One thing that I said was that she was very well meaning, but her attempts at changing the undergraduate education system at MIT was doomed, because the system was too strong and everything that she was working for would in the end come to nothing in the end.

I found out a few weeks later that she had terminal cancer, and we never spoke after that.  I’ve always wondered what she thought about what I wrote.

One of the things that I realized, and which I think Dean MacVicar was begining to realize was that you cannot change things from within the system.  The reason she was talking in terms of getting the regional accreditators to force change at MIT was that I think she had come to the realization that nothing ever was going to happen unless there was some outside force.  One of the limitations that Dean MacVicar had was that she had spent her entire life on the MIT campus, and I don’t think she had that much experience on the outside.

The last thing that she said to me the first time we spoke to each other in her office was, “we are going to lead the revolution, and things are really going to change around here.”

Yes we are, Dean MacVicar.  Yes we are.

More conversations about MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 4:45 am

I think the idea about the Harvard brand and going online is very interesting, but what would be their incentive or motivation for doing this?

Because at some point they will be eaten alive if they don’t, and they will be forced to change or die.  Since being founded in 1636, Harvard has gone through a number of radical institutional changes, and fitting into the online world will be just another one of those changes.

The analogy that is useful is that right now a Harvard education is like a big gas-guzzling car with tail fins, the hottest new thing in 1955, but if you look at it from 1975, it looks old and antiquated.  The markers that define “high class” now will probably look very antiquated to the next generation.

Maybe I’m a bit jaded, but I think Harvard Extension is mostly there b/c they want to make themselves feel that they are doing their bit to let the hoi poloi hobnob with the swells.  It is a fine continuing ed operation, but they could have easily made it much more extensive, opened satellites in the suburbs, etc. etc. if they really wanted to tap into that market.

They don’t really want to tap that market, but I think that they are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into that market.  The Extension School is considered low-class because it doesn’t bring in the money, but I think at some point Harvard is going to face the choice between either massively expanding the Extension School or else ceding that market to someone else and losing institutional relevance.

I don’t have any institutional connection to Harvard, so I don’t know much about the politics.  I do know something about the institutional politics of MIT, and I have a lot of crazy ideas about how MIT’s role in the 21st century, which are largely being ignored.  There are a few visionary professors there that see the future coming, but institutionally, no one is going to do anything fundamentally different unless they are in a “change or die” situation.  But the “change or die” situation will come, and right now I’m trying to get things organized enough so that when the crisis hits, I’ll be one of the few people in the room that has any clue what to do about it.

The big thing that I think that MIT needs is an “Academic Liasion Office” which is modeled after the “Industrial Liasion Office”.

February 23, 2007

Thoughts about MIT in thirty years,32313.0.html
The fact that you need laboratory experience can be solved by having a student do internships in a laboratory. There are a number of social and technological reasons why online haven’t overwhelmed traditional universities yet, but none of them are unsurmountable.

The big thing that Harvard has going for it is marketing and money. Marketing and money are things that you can overcome.

I’ve been thinking about what MIT will be like thirty years from now, and I think that what will happen is that the Institute will focus at research and hands-on teaching, but that the concept of “undergraduate admissions” will be obsolete. Students will be on campus for intensive one month internships and conferences, and a lot of the students on campus will actually be getting coursework from other places.

The other idea is that conferences like the American Astronomical Society will also have informal schools associated with it. You get your degree online, but one of the requirements is that you must attend professional society conferences. Once you get lots of online students in one place, this will serve as an informal school.

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