Twofish's Blog

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 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.

August 18, 2006

Astrophysics and business – Challenging Harvard

Filed under: academia, university of phoenix — twofish @ 10:35 am

People have asked what use is an astrophysics degree in business. Astrophysics is partly about dealing with big numbers and asking “how big”? Business is about dealing with big numbers and asking “how big”?

Let me share with you some numbers. The total revenue for Harvard in 2005 was $4B, MIT was $2B, University of Phoenix is $2B. Total asset value for Harvard is about $26B, for MIT is about $8B, for University of Phoenix it is about $1B.

Also in terms of the commercial world these are very small numbers. Microsoft made $50B in revenue, and it is not a particularly large company. Walmarts revenue in 2005 was $288B
Some other numbers. The amount of money that Wikimedia has in the bank is about $500,000, which is also about the amount of money it took to start Olin College. Also if you take a look at how long it took to building Walmart or Microsoft, you see about 20-30 years.
If you look at the numbers, then “challenging Harvard” is far from an unreasonable prospect.

The other thing about University of Phoenix is that it is reaching saturation and something has got to change. The rates of growth are no longer as high as they were before, and the share price has plummetted in the last few months. The trouble is that UoP is saturating its markets, and for it to continue to make its shareholders happy, its going to have to do something new and different. One thing that it *could* do is to start teaching brain surgeons and astrophysicists.

Before you start laughing, and say “that’s silly”, “show me the numbers”. How much does it cost to start a medical school or a finance a telescope? (I don’t know about the former, but the answer to the latter is that Keck costs $100M). So if UoP has the money, then what is the limitation?  Lack of a viable business plan?  OK, if anyone really cared I could spend a week trying to come up with a business plan to see if I could come up with something that would make investing $10M in a telescope a profitable position for UoP.  I’m pretty sure that starting a medical school *would* be financially feasible, and at that point it becomes a bureaucratic/political problem.

You see the point I’m making. The good thing about a physics degree is that it forces you to get to the numbers, and ask questions.  “What *would* it take to challenge Harvard?”  If you start thinking like a physicist, you start pulling numbers and trying to make some sense out of them.  If you don’t have the ability to work with numbers, then it leads you susceptible to being influenced by marketing which says that it just can’t happen because we say it can’t happen.

July 28, 2006

Why I’m thinking all these thoughts right now……

Filed under: academia, china, university of phoenix — twofish @ 6:16 am

The reason I’m thinking through issues of family, academia, Chinese history is that I’m trying to figure out what I should be doing now.  I want X.  Why do I want X?  Well, my parents wanted X.  My parents are gone now and I have the freedom not to want X, so I need to figure out why my parents wanted X.  Maybe their parents wanted X.  What gave their parents the idea that they wanted X?  And before you know it I end up in the lower Yangtze valley in 1750 talking to a philosopher named Dai Zhen who came up with all of these ideas that guide my life.  I don’t think my parents mentioned Dai Zhen explicitly and I have no reason to think that they knew explicitly who he was, but when ask the question, what do I believe and why do I believe what I believe, I tend up in the same room as him.

(And you thought it was weird when I start talking about things that happened at MIT fifteen years ago.  In turns out that what happened at MIT fifteen years ago and all of the personal jealousies I’m feeling now are part of a longer story that goes back to 1680, and the consolidation of the Qing dynasty power over southern China and runs forward until about 2080.  The reason I ended up at MIT as an undergraduate in 1987 was that it was then in the middle of an “educational reform” movement to create scholars which were versed in both the sciences and the humanities.  The reason that is important is that the distinction between science and the humanities (or for that matter between “school,” “family,” and “work” is a “Western” one that makes no sense in Dai Zhen’s world, nor in my world.)  (Something else just clicked…..  So *that’s* why I’m so fascinated by Opus Dei.)

One problem in thinking though these issues is this.  Family is sacred, so thinking about family is easy.  Job is not sacred.  In my world, I have very strong moral obligations to my wife and kids, so I don’t have to think about that at all.  I’m trying to figure out what moral obligations I have and don’t have to my employer and my coworkers.

July 26, 2006

Becoming a Ph.D.

Communication is difficult when you are talking to people with different backgrounds.

For example, what does being a Ph.D. mean?  People aren’t Ph.D.’s assume that it’s just a like a masters or undergraduate degree, where you go through the factory assembly line and come out at the other end with a piece of paper that gets you some money and prizes.

But that’s not the case.  You don’t *get* a Ph.D., you *become* a Ph.D.  If you have a Ph.D., it’s not a statement about a piece of paper or certification, it’s a statement about who you are, what you have seen, and how you look at the world.  The certification really doesn’t matter much.  My degree is almost useless as a ticket for money and prizes, but it is a statement about who I am and what I’ve seen.  If you want to erase my degree, go ahead, I don’t think it matters that much.

Being a Ph.D. affects all of my relationships.  It affected who I married, and what my children are like.  I can’t separate my “work life” or my “school life” from my “personal life.”  As you can see, being a Ph.D. affects my feeling toward other people, and it’s part of my marriage.  My wife is a Ph.D. candidate in early childhood education.  An essential part of our marriage involves professional collaboration and respect.  I learn about educational theory from her.  She uses me as a peer briefer to look over her data.  We’ve created more together than children, we’ve created some new insights as to how the world works.  (See next year when her dissertation comes out.)  The professional collaboration I have with my wife is part of our love, it’s part of our marriage, it’s part of how we are, and it’s something that people on the outside of academia don’t quite understand.

Let me give you an example of how bizarre my world might seem to someone who isn’t living in it.  Right now I’m studying the dynamics of volatility smiles.  I’m getting any grades or certifications from this.  I’m not taking any formal courses.  I’m just reading and learning.  Now the stuff I’m reading is also stuff that MFE’s can read, but suppose some were to tell me that the obstensible purpose for what I’m reading is “useless.”  In other words, someone tells me that I’m destined not to have a job on Wall Street.

I….  wouldn’t…. care……

If it turns out that it is *impossible* for me to make any money on what I’m studying.  I’d still study it about as hard.  Because it is interesting.  It’s cool math.  It challenges my mind.  It makes me a better person when I understand how foreign exchange volatility smiles work.  And in my life, the important thing isn’t destination, it’s the journey.  When I think I understand something, my first reaction is to go and find something new that I don’t understand.  When I seem to have mastered a skill, I go and find something I’m incompetent at.
None of that has anything to do with whether or not I become a quant or not, and it’s really hard to explain to headhunters and HR people.

Protected: Now or never….

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Discussion question

Filed under: academia, quantitative finance, university of phoenix — twofish @ 5:46 am

I find it interesting and a little disturbing that there is so much interest about the University of Phoenix.

Let me ask a question.  Suppose that someone were to tell you that the MBA from UoP would have *no benefit* to your career.   You won’t make any more money, and you won’t get any new positions.  Would you still do it?

I studied astrophysics for seven years.  It became pretty obvious very quickly that I wasn’t going to get a traditional academic position, and it’s quite likely that I may never get an academic position.  So what?   I’d still do it because learning new stuff is *fun* and it made me a better human being.

Same with quantitative finance.  I’m learning it partly because I’m interested in getting a Wall Street job, but if some oracle told me that I’d never get a Wall Street job because of what I’m learning, I’d still learn it anyway, because again it is *cool* math and it makes me a better person.

July 25, 2006

Protected: And The Devil Will Cometh

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July 23, 2006

Protected: What a sick and perverted world we live in

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Chinese history and massive degree overproduction

One thing that has helped me figure out what to do has been to read about the massive degree overproduction that happened in the mid-19th century in China. Since the Tang dynasty, the route to power was through the scholar-bureaucrat examinations.

In the early 19th century, you had about a century of peace and economic prosperity. You also had efforts by the Qing dynasty government to promote education and scholarship (which was motivated in large part to make the basis of power non-ethnic). The result of this was that it was more and more affordable for a family to afford to train a child to pass the scholar-bureaucrat examinations.

The result, which mirrors what has happened with Physics Ph.D.’s and what I think is going to happen with University of Phoenix MBA’s was a massive overproduction of people who were passing the examinations. They had spent huge resources getting a paper that they thought was the ticket to wealth and power, and found themselves in line with everyone else that had the same dream.

What this resulted in were a large number of people who were “scholars-in-waiting” who had gotten their degree and waiting for a government post to open up which didn’t happen because there weren’t government jobs. What I do know is that they ended up being tutors, starting businesses, and in the end leading a revolution that brought down the system. They were also the butt of jokes, with a popular stereotype being the poor scholar looking for a degree,

What I don’t know is how these people *felt* and I’m sure that there is a 19th century equivalent of a blog that would be useful to me. What I also don’t know is the connection between this story and the huge fraction of MIT that is Chinese-American. I know that there is a connection, but I wonder what it is.

One thing that *is* interesting is how the overproduction influenced the content of the test. The scholar bureaucratic tests of the 19th century were mostly about classical literature and philosophy and unlike the tests of earlier dynasties, did not have much in the way of “practical adminstrative knowledge.” This was intentional. In debating whether to change the test, the Qing dynasty concluded that if they changed the test, then they would have all of these degree holders with “useless knowledge” since administrative knowledge is useless if you are not an administrator. On the other hand, if you make the test about classic literature, then you have lots of people with knowledge of Chinese cultural heritage in their heads which they could spread around even if they didn’t get the government job.

Discussion question: (UoP students might get the joke)
1)  Assume University of Phoenix is massively successful and that every single person that wants one in the United States goes through the program and gets an UoP MBA and the skills associated with it.

What happens?

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