62 thoughts on “Bloodsport: Kant

      • I’ve never agreed with this because stripped of its substantive content, it just doesn’t make sense. Who fights so vigorously about so very little, more than they would about a very lot? And if someone does, what is it in particular about them that makes them do so?

        My view is that academics fight so fiercely because so much is at stake–namely, worldview, our grasp on how we understand the world, and the threat that we might be fundamentally wrong, which shakes our being to the core. In that, it’s really not so different from nationalist politics, or any other identity politics, but we know how fiercely people fight about that.

        One could argue that identity politics is actually a very small thing, and in my ideal world I’d agree. But then, what are we without some kind of identity? The fact that we fight over stupid identities doesn’t mean identity itself is an unimportant thing. Identity may, in fact, be nearly everything to the human individual.

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      • The stakes are small, nonetheless. It’s been my observation most people’s political opinions and worldviews are shaped by the injustices they’ve personally encountered. Scar tissue builds up. Broken bones do knit but let the barometric pressure change, the old ache returns with a vengeance.

        Consider our own quarrels. This stuff matters to us, for us, the positions we take are the result of a lifetime, two lifetimes, considered. As you say, identity. The injustices I’ve seen has led me to my own conclusions, you to yours. For us, the stakes could not be higher.

        But the stakes are indeed very small in the larger scope of things. Were we seen as others see us, it would be mostly annoying bickering. That which passes, passes like clouds. The truth of our convictions is only as true as what we’ve seen and done. Oh be kind, said Plato, for everyone you will ever meet is fighting a hard battle.

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      • I take it to mean that they’ve already got jobs for life, and the only promotions are to positions like department chair that are more trouble than they’re worth. So the fights over offices and parking spaces turn into blood feuds.

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      • You might be right. Still, I’m pretty well-disposed to the spirit of the Kissinger quip at this point in my life. And I suspect that Kissinger was probably one of the more viscious academic politicos, when he wasn’t out trying to conquer the world and flattering megalomaniacal presidents.

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      • Kissinger was an academic who moved into an arena where the stakes, by comparison, were huge – carpet bombings and napalm strikes and flooding rice fields and whatnot. His decisions, tho, presumably were supported by evidence and argument, tho, just like an academic view is. So maybe the only distinction is that academic decisions are small by the very definition of the word “academic” whereas decisions to use military power to resolve political disputes, or issues revolving around power more generally, are by definition large.

        I mean, he’s also the guy who said that power is a great aphrodisiac.

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      • I always took the stakes as being things like fighting over who gets to be department chair and lead what committee or journal. Not the actual ideals and ideas and worldview. Also there is the fact that a lot of academic journals and conferences seem to really only be followed by academics and select students.

        Though having the small and right audience can be better than a large and disengaged audience.

        I love the academic light and the seminar table but it is a closed world in many ways and there is some truth to the Ivory Tower and being disconnected or sheltered a bit from reality. This is what is great and not-so great about university life wrapped into one. Some of my best memories are from walking from one class to another in undergrad on a very beautiful campus. There is a part of me that would like to be part of that world forever but largely because it does feel safe once you get tenure. You might not make money but unless you really fuck up, you probably have a good deal of security.

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      • So I went to this little conference last night. Some guy’s talking about how to clean up Crappy Code.

        This guy was clueless. Literally every dumb thing it’s possible to say about how to fix code, he found cause to say. Actually said he’d been sacked from his last job. Finally, filled with contempt and bile, I raised my hand.

        “It is the hallmark of the idiot that he encounters working code and declares it to be Crappy. Nobody sits down to write crap. Plenty of code looks ugly — because the reader didn’t write it. Ugly code is inevitably the result of bitter compromises. Reformat it, comment it, look at the changes in the version control system, write a test for it — and get on with doing what you’ve been tasked to do, which is usually the smallest possible fix.”

        There’s my problem with academia in a nutshell. This moron actually said code doesn’t need commenting. Runs coding seminars. I would pay not to go to this guy’s seminar.

        I’ve yet to meet any graduate of a Computer Science course who can step into a project without some weeks of un-teaching. Seen from my perspective, its as if somehow academia is at war with the real world. None of these kids have any concept of how to operate in a team context. All these idiotic buzzwords, none of them can write an explanation of anything. Clueless around users. But they sure do have ideas about what’s Crap and what Isn’t.

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      • BP, yes indeedy. Trivial example that I think backs the point up: my wife used to be manager of a pretty successful medical practice that happened to have a really unorganized records room. Part of the reason it’s unorganized is due to various vagaries in billing procedures. Some of it’s due to decision made at start up about how to keep records. Some of it’s do to space limitations. Now, she’s been in the business for 25 years or so, and knows what records are for, how they’re variously stored, why they’re necessary, all that. She’s been around this stuff.

        So some “smart guy” – a husband of one of the owners who’s got a PhD in a completely unrelated field – shows up and tells her – like he’s been known to do about lots of other things – she’s doing it wrong. That she needs to clean up the records room. She looks at him with a bit of disdain and says “if you want to come down here and clean up our records room, I won’t get in your way.” Shut him right up.

        It’s academic!

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      • I once went to a conference, and a guy who’d been out of academia and in private industry for a couple decades ate a slimy slug on a bet. Just goes to show that people outside of academia will do anything for a buck.

        This story is as true as at least one other told in this thread. And the lesson as generalizable.

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      • During WW1, a new and terrible weapon, the submarine, was terrorising the oceans. Will Rogers the comedian got on stage and said he knew how to solve the problem. He would raise the temperature of the North Atlantic to the boiling point and the submarines would surface like so many dead sardines. He said he had no idea how he’d boil the ocean but that didn’t trouble him in the least.

        Those were details. Mere details. He was an Idea Man, himself.

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      • Ate a slug, you say? On a bet? Now if that hapless gastropod had been served on a cracker at the Philosophy Department Christmas Party, it would be consumed with relish, or at least a bit of horseradish, as long as the Department Chair’s wife had made the canapes.

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      • Chris, Since I left academia haven’t eaten more slimey bugs, but I have had to eat my own words more often since I continue to think (dammitall!) my academic training imbues my views about the real world with a Special Value.

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      • In grad school, my advisor was fond of saying “ideas are cheap.” His point was that anyone can come up with ideas, but it takes work to flesh them out, test them, and then put them on display for everyone to see and comment on. Now, this may not be a sentiment to which every academic consciously adheres, but given the way that academia works, it’s one that they all realize is true implicitly, or at least that they will all realize is true when up for tenure.

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      • Nobody sits down to write crap, but lots of people sit down to write code without thinking about making it reliable, maintainable, testable, and extensible, and that it needs to cover all the corner cases and produce useful errors when it fails. And the result, even if it works at the moment, is crap.

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      • given the way that academia works, it’s one that they all realize is true implicitly, or at least that they will all realize is true when up for tenure.

        Given the way that academics work, perhaps, like Galileo, they should be made to drop their ideas from atop the Ivory Tower, allow them to reach terminal velocity and see how they survive impact. But such a testing strategy would require climbing down all those stairs, so they go on cranking the Idea Machine, dropping these poor kids with a CS degree out the aforementioned window — and I get to watch them decelerate — rapidly — upon contact with the Real World.

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      • ,

        In my experience (explicitly limited to my experience) academics don’t fight over department chairmanships and journal editorships. They lobby and finagle for them, perhaps, but mostly don’t fight for them (because they’re huge time-sucking pains in the ass with little reward) unless it’s a battle for the “soul” of the department or journal. The big fights, to me, are essentially ideological–about ideas, truth, not simply political ideology. For example Stephen Jay Gould’s vicious attacks and nasty treatment of Edward O. Wilson was all about Gould’s perception that Wilson’s sociobiological theories were a) bad scientific ideas and b) politically evil. (He was wrong on both counts, but actual correctness/incorrectness is irrelevant.)

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      • Noted and that makes sense. I suppose the smallness is from the the outsider’s prospective especially in the more arts and humanities departments over stuff like new lit theory, what to teach and when but as you note it is very important for the people involved because they love their subjects and see it as being about how to be and interpret our world.

        Part of me still wishes and wonders about what my PhD life would have been like.

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      • Seen from my perspective, its as if somehow academia is at war with the real world. None of these kids have any concept of how to operate in a team context.

        Survey after survey of CEOs shows one of the things they want students to get out of college is the ability to work in groups. Yet most college assignments are assigned as individual projects because we want to be able to evaluate each individual–did Joe learn [whatever he was supposed to learn]?

        Business departments tend to be different. Being at least a little bit more in tune with the business world (for varying values of “a little bit more”), they regularly assign group projects. But they tend to be groups of 4 or so, which are relatively easy to manage.

        I wonder if what’s needed is experience in much larger groups? 8, 12, 20, 40 person classes working as a group on a project? I’ve recently pondered the idea of having one of my classes that is usually 6-12 students have a whole-class group project.

        The trick, though, is how we effectively get everyone in those groups to participate, knowing that the larger the group the more difficult the coordination problems are, and the more free riders you’re likely to have? And if someone slides through college having been involved in umpteen group projects, always having been the free rider, the quiet one, etc., but passes their courses because they do the rest well, will businesses actually see any difference?

        How do we effectively structure large-group projects so they really force students to gain the group experience you and other businesspeople are looking for?

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      • I would think, after four years and umpty-ump dollars expended upon obtaining a degree in Computer Science, that such people would know how to Cook and Eat the Slug or at least be aware of the existence of slugs. Alas for the world and its inhabitants, that such people are turned loose upon projects which cost money to develop, for corporations which must also make money.

        I don’t ask for seasoned professionals. I ask only for professionals. Being a pro only means you’re getting paid for it. I’m capable of scraping these kids up from the courtyard where they’ve been dropped by the Wizards of the Ivory Tower and I’ve done a lot of it over time. I’m good at it. Most of them are grateful enough and all of them are horrified by how little they learned of any practical value in school. These are good kids, most of them, great GPAs, perfectly capable of picking up the needful.

        But I would expect more of institutions of higher learning than what I’m seeing. Kids coming out of these two year technical schools are better equipped than most of what I’m seeing coming out of four year CS degree schools — mostly because the professors at these community colleges are still coding in the real world.

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      • The trick, though, is how we effectively get everyone in those groups to participate, knowing that the larger the group the more difficult the coordination problems are, and the more free riders you’re likely to have?

        The answer is not Groups but Mentoring. All leadership is by example. There is no other kind.

        I’d recommend the following guidelines to anyone, especially Social Infrastructure. Though the world is moving to Open Source, these rules are equally true for proprietary, closed-source solutions.

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      • James,
        There’s always the “build a video game” or “build an OS” style of ‘working in groups’ — where if everyone isn’t pulling their own weight, you all fail.

        Businessmen say they want people who can “work in groups” but I’m not certain they even know what they mean.
        Possibilities:
        1) Knowing how to not be an arrogant prick 24/7, pissing off everyone around you.
        2) Knowing how to delegate.
        3) Knowing when to ask for higher level expertise.
        4) Knowing how to dummy up someone else’s widget

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      • : Heh. I’ve often said I could teach a chimpanzee to code. I can’t teach him to respect users or cooperate with others or take direction. That’s what kindergarten is for. Take this up with Kazzy, he’s the guy who’s sposta be teaching such things.

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      • I suppose the smallness is from the the outsider’s prospective

        Yeah, I suppose that’s inevitably so. Corporate execs fight for corner offices, because they’re really fighting for status. To me the idea of being “senior executive vice president” over “executive vice president,” or “executive vice president” over “vice president” doesn’t compute. Of course I’m the guy who once insisted on calling myself a night receptionist instead of my official title of “Evening Switchboard Operator.” And I don’t really give a damn that in a couple years my title will change from Associate Professor to Full Professor…I only care about the extra money that goes with it! In fact I once got snarked at by an internal research grants committee because I hadn’t updated the boilerplate part of my internal grant proposals from “Assistant Prof” to “Associate Prof.” My response was, “Why do you fucking care? Is my proposal good enough to be funded or not?”

        Maybe I’m just weird that way. Certainly not all academics, even two-bit ones like me, see things that way.

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      • The answer is not Groups but Mentoring. All leadership is by example.

        Well, that identifies a big part of the problem. Academia, by and large, selects for people who are not good at working with others. Most people earn their PhD by shutting themselves away and working by themselves for long hours to complete the research and writing for their dissertation. A very large proportion of us cannot lead by example, because effective group work simply is not in our skill set.

        That kind of fundamental problem is very hard to tackle. Much easier to adopt Kim’s idea of collective responsibility (like the army, eh?). Whether it works or not (and I’m not qualified to say, but it might be worth a try), it’s at least something that can be tried.

        I’m not in any way mocking or even slightly disagreeing with you. I’m in perfect agreement about leadership being by example–I’ve paid enough attention and seen enough positive and negative examples to be 100% confident about that. I’m just saying, very seriously, that the process of earning a PhD results in a disproportionate number of people who are far more suited to solitary work than collective work.

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      • “Working in groups” — in the business world, translated:

        “Be able to work with idiots. Be able to work FOR idiots. Do what the boss means, not what the boss says.”.

        Seriously, work in groups? I’ve “worked in groups” my whole working life, and it all boils down to experience in basically those things.

        “Be able to work in groups” is basically business speak for “Don’t get us in the middle of a harassment lawsuit, don’t be a jerk, deal with the jerks without flipping out, and do your job and listen to your boss”.

        College can’t prepare you for that. Business school — or, say, degrees in project management and such can lay foundations to LEAD groups. But “working” in one? That’s just a polite way of saying “Colleges need to convince kids to shut up, sit down, and do what they’re told” with a side order of “Yeah, sometimes your coworker is a jerk and sometimes you’re the jerk. That’s working life”.

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      • Corporate execs fight for corner offices, because they’re really fighting for status.

        Those corner offices are going out of fashion. Increasingly, the fight isn’t for status but control of mind share.

        I used to have a nice office, years ago, back in the Dot Com Days. Got tired of having coders trooping in and out of it. Got even more tired of the deferential attitude, as if I was any better than they were. Moved out into the coding pen, a big C-shaped open area. Make it easier to roll my chair around, get a good look at what was happening. I certainly wasn’t the best coder on that team, not then I wasn’t. I was just one of the Employees.

        The higher the monkey climbs, the better you can see his ass. The Corner Office has a great view — straight down.

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      • Like some vast orbit of a comet, Kant once said “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Computer Science really is a science. But it’s built from the crooked timber of living, breathing people.

        Here’s the deal. CS and Academia have this much in common: they’re both yanked about from pillar to post by every passing fad. But some things remain true, the grain of that wood can be truly seen in the masters of any craft. If science is theory, craft is its application. The apprentice does improve upon his master as he comes to his own terms of the craft.

        It has been the signal joy of my life to watch coders I’ve mentored go on to productive, meaningful lives as coders. For I was brought into the craft by men (and women, one such data analyst changed my life forever back before there really were SQL databases) — crooked timber they were but sound timber. I am the product of greater people than myself.

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      • James,
        What I was throwing out has been tried: in CMU’s Systems course.
        Of course, that’s one course that basically eats your entire semester,
        and half the people still fail.
        It’s really high stress, and not everyone signs up for a second try.

        I’d have trouble coming up with how to extend this to other fields,
        actually (well, the sciences are easy…). I mean, how do you get
        a big enough problem (and separable enough to work in a group period)
        in economics (or worse, history)?

        (Personally, I might suggest building an RPG. that’ll give
        enough freedom to come up with multiple societies/countries, and structure
        the trade networks in an interesting fashion. Be a bitch to grade, though).

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