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George Smiley on the bus

From A Murder of Quality:

He enjoyed the bus. The conductor was a very surly man with a great deal to say about the bus company, and why it lost money. Gently encouraged by Smiley, he expanded wonderfully so that by the time they arrived at Sturminster he had transformed the Directors of the Dorset and General Traction Company in to a herd of Gadarene swine charging into the abyss of voluntary bankruptcy.

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Tim Hunt, women on Twitter, and more academic precarity

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Blame University College, London for firing Tim Hunt, not the female scientists who riffed on him.

Most of us have heard of the Tim Hunt mishegosse. For those not in the know, it goes something like this: Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who had an honorary affiliation at University College London and who, depending to whom one listens, either let his sexist flag fly or ‘was joking’ and made a rather ridiculous statement when recorded and in front of an audience. The quote, from the Guardian, goes like this:

Scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, according to a Nobel laureate, who said the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised.

Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who admitted that he has a reputation for being a “chauvinist”, said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Hunt said he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.

The 72-year-old, who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, made the remarks when addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists.

His comments were tweeted by Connie St Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University, London, and was attending the conference. She commented: “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”

He subsequently apologized, and the apology isn’t much better, actually–it’s far too woolly and you get the sense that he’s still genuinely puzzled about how it’s not very wise to note that women cause trouble in labs, and oh, it’s just true that you fall in love in the lab. You can hear the apology here in audio. DR. HUNT PLEASE STOP TALKING I BEG YOU.

Note: it’s possible to work with women without falling in love with them. It’s even possible for homosexual males to be in science, and to fall in love with each other, or not fall in love with each other. And, um. Other stuff. Good Lord. This was joke? Has he never talked to the media before? He has a Nobel Prize! How can that be? Ack.

Now this is were is gets even woollier. Twitter got involved, of course. The response, I felt, was rather light-hearted, with scientists posting photos of themselves in the lab, snarking about how they haven’t cried that day or had anybody fall in love, noting that lab suits and the like are hardly the stuff of glamour or SyFy movie scenes where one (male) scientist looks at another scientist, pulls off her glasses, while her hair tumbles over her shoulders, and exclaims “Miss Howard, you’re beautiful!” in shock and surprise, even though Miss Howard is clearly beautiful the whole time because she’s a 21 year-old actress with breast implants that some costume department has put glasses on instead of somebody who actually holds two PhDs in difficult fields.

Some of these were quite clever.

There was the typical reaction-o-sphere, and it’s really hard to tell whether his comments were just an ill-considered joke or, as a joke, part of his inability to deal with people well, particularly women. This later piece, in the Guardian, makes Hunt out to be a victim of the internet meanies. The first Guardian story, you’ll note, mentions that even prior to his comments, Hunt had a rep for misogyny. Now, I don’t know where the rep came from, and that’s important. But in the Guardian story, a number of his female students and colleagues over the years spoke up for him, and that’s says a lot to me anyway.

Because now, of course, are going to come the sad, sad stories of how those internet meanies forced University College, London to force Hunt to resign. Soon this will be all the feminists’ fault. However, let’s get real: UCL over-reacted. It’s not Twitter or female scientists’ fault, or the internet meanies. On Twitter, a conversation occurred mocking the original statement, which deserved to be mocked.

It became a moment where–OMG OMG–female scientist used social media to speak for themselves, represent themselves, and talk about their jobs for a bit. We can’t conflate that as meanness or with the yapping journalists outside the Hunts’ door (Why, for heaven’s sakes? What is interesting about this after the initial comments? Leave them alone!)

So who is at fault? Tim Hunt’s wife, an immunologist, hits the nail on the head:

His wife, Professor Mary Collins, one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, is similarly indignant. She believes that University College London – where both scientists had posts – has acted in “an utterly unacceptable” way in pressuring both researchers and in failing to support their causes.

Certainly the speed of the dispatch of Hunt – who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology for his work on cell division – from his various academic posts is startling. In many cases this was done without him even being asked for his version of events, he says. The story shows, if nothing else, that the world of science can be every bit as brutal as that of politics.

Yes, well, if you have ever read Bruno Latour, you won’t spend a lot of time being surprised that scientists are human beings and all (the last sentence), but yeah: administrators at University College, London wet their pants and forced him out instead of protecting an asset and working with him. Somebody at the university should have helped the man with his apology, which was a shitshow.

The man has a Nobel-freaking-prize. The fact that they are so worried about their public image that they are willing to flush him because of bad press is the problem, not the fact that women in science used social media to break the silence that often surrounds them. Female representation in science is dismal, and university environments in general are often awful for women in general and for women in science in particular, but many brilliant women persist and make contributions to labs every day.

Letting that story be told, without institutional over-reaction and vilification of one guy, could have been an important moment. But now it will turn into another sad tale of Political Correctness!! Gone wild!! Instead of what it should have been: yet another instance of administrators worried about press and brand reputation more than than messy work of public dialogue and deliberation.

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College degrees are not commodities, but…

Hunter Rawlings III was the president of the University of Iowa while I was an undergraduate there. He subsequently left to go run Cornell, and i strongly suspect that he was a good university president; I have no idea. I scarcely knew what a president was for back in those days. Certainly his WASPy patrician aspect and height didn’t hurt him any in the “cutting-the-right-figure-for-leadership” department. And I’ve always enjoyed his public lectures; I believe he is a classicist.

Thus I read with some interest his op-ed in the Washington Post: College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. What truly makes an education valuable: the effort the student puts into it. He has a great deal that is wise:

A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television

Again, there is much wisdom to this, and my only real quibble is that this thinking should also apply to K-12. Teachers are not solely responsible for learning; students are not solely responsible for learning; parents are not solely responsible for learning; all three of them have a role to play, and if any of them slack, the learning is very likely to suffer. There are bad teachers; there are bad students; and there are lousy parents. A great, motivated student can, indeed, overcome bad teachers and misguided parents. A great teacher can help motivate a disaffected student, or can help shore up poor parenting.

Thus I’d agree with Rawlings here. Going to college and refusing to do any work and then blaming college because you didn’t learn much is a little like me buying a gym membership, never going, and then complaining that I am still fat. But I joined the gym! I should be thin for all that money I paid!

I am usually among the first to say that I don’t think MOOCs are going to replace college or K-12 because I don’t think “mass” has anything to do with how people learn. Education should be, as Adam Gropnik rather preciously points out in reminiscences about La Hune in Paris, sentimental as well as didactic. It’s about being with, intellectually and materially, people who are taking time to worry about the same topics as you are. It’s about coffee shops and a beer and strolls across a quad and sitting under a fig tree reading a book with others stroll by on the quad. We spend entirely enough time clinking on computers rather than living a real life.

Frankly, I am so grateful that I grew up before the “Moocs will get you an education from your computer” phase started because I could just see my parents, for whom money was a definite object, telling me that I had to get a crap job in my home town and live in my room for an online college “because it’s cheaper.” Now my parents sacrificed for me to go to college, and I am very grateful (it doesn’t sound like it, but I am), but one of the most valuable things about going away to college was falling under the influence of educated people, rather than remaining a child of uneducated people in their midst and subject to their directions every day. Everything my parents wanted for me happened–a good job, a secure life– and it happened explicitly because I became part of a world that wasn’t theirs.

Moving away from home to go to college is a good thing for people who want more than the same places they grew up and the same people they grew up with. (If you don’t, no problem!)

But…it’s also now a cripplingly expensive thing for families to take on. And they have to think about what they are getting out of it. It’s only practical, and failing to think about that is neither pragmatic or just.

State governments have systematically stepped away from funding higher education, as the consensus around education and everything else has died. At the risk of making yet another culture war argument, the right gets a lot of the blame for undermining higher ed (deservedly so), but the left has done its fair share, blaming universities for being bastions of privilege, making it a whipping boy for failing to solve poverty, etc. That stepping away from funding, regardless of whether it significantly explains the rise in tuition costs, is at least a symbol of the idea that many people just don’t believe that college is important to public life. And that’s an issue, too, and I don’t think we recapture the idea that college is important by making esoteric arguments about making better citizens. We need better answers.

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Novels set or around trains or public transit

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite Agatha Christies, the 4:50 from Paddington. It really is a fully imagined novel, with all sorts of lively characters, including the eyewitness, Mrs. McGillicuddy, and the wonderfully, refreshingly competent Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy is a particularly wonderful character because everybody around her falls in love with her, and to my best recollection, Christie never describes Lucy’s physically at all. She just gets shit done and possesses both tact and a sparkling intelligence.

One best bit from the 4:50 from Paddington has the redoubtable Miss Marple getting on trains, looking at train schedules, and cadging some maps to do a geographic analysis of sorts to find the probable

This got me thinking about novels that have an important train aspect to them. There’s obviously Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on A Train . And, of course, more Christie: Murder on the Orient Express. Speaking of the Orient Express, there’s Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love.

I can’t think of any more. Suggestions?


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Planners and policy professionals should be more than retweeters and forwarders

Rather routinely, technophiles in my field come and out triumphantly announce that essays are over! reading is over! plans are over! It’s all video, now! It’s all this! There’s a New Thing!

Only new things strike me as being a lot like old things, and while planning is about new things, and future imaginaries, it’s also about existing modalities of communication. For the first decade of the web, all I heard were predictions about how digital technologies were going to be “end of reading” or the “end of something or other.” But given what the web is and how it functions, writing is more important now than ever. Sure, video matters, but all those comments below the YouTube video are also about written communications, and it’s very clear who can write effectively and who can’t in this domain, and there are advantages to being in the former.

Clearly, images are important, but they have always been important; the difference now is the ability of many more people, not just painters or architects, who can share images. I do not mean to downplay the social and cultural shifts such changes bring. I just note that it is easy to overstate those changes and much harder to really understand what those changes mean for skills, let alone predicting the death of one thing and the flourishing of another. I’m all for digital literacy here, but I’d note that literacy is still literacy.

To wit, I personally think that most technological changes happen as a function of our existing modes of thinking and communicating. There’s a technology, and many of us just use to make things we are already doing easier than we did them before. And gradually, over time, innovators think of new applications that catch on because of those fill a gap. (Just armchair theorizing here.)

I’m observing, now, the many videos of police brutality to black residents surfacing on the web. Those are powerful. They are more powerful still when combined with the comments from black Twitter and Te-Nehisi Coates’ commentary. (Read this one, too, about Kalief Browder, and the abuse of his rights to due process.)

I’ve noted in my research that learning to communicate effectively on social media is important to planning and planning agencies, and I think it’s no less important to public administrators and policy folks. But don’t forget the role of Coates in the evolving social discussion: while he is on Twitter (and he’s very good with that medium), his blog posts strike me as being both very important and a powerful means of persuasion. And those blog posts? They are digital versions of the traditional argumentative essay that people are always telling me is “over.”

So what should we be teaching in planning and policy school? I personally want to teach students to be capable of Coates’ level of thinking, speaking and writing. There’s no technological substitute for quality thinking or communicating, no matter which medium. Otherwise I think we are training students to be consumers and followers—the retweeters and the followers in the digital world–rather than the creators.

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Le Carre riffing on men, cars, and humility

I’ve been rereading much of the George Smiley corpus this summer and I happened upon this riff on men in cars from Le Carre’s first book, Call for the Dead:

Mendel drove very well, with a kind of schoolma’amish pedantry that Smiley would have found comic. The Weybridge road was packed with traffic as usual. Mendel hated motorists. Give a man a car of his own and he leaves humility and common sense behind him in the garage. He didn’t care who it was–he’d seen bishops in purple doing seventy in a built-up area, frightening pedestrians out of their wits.

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Maxentius’ head, an update, and Billy Budd–my gosh, Billy Budd

So wonderful friend David Levinson forwarded my query about Maxentius’s head to an actual classicist, who had an answer:

Most likely North Africa was nominally under Maxentius’s control up to Milvian Bridge.  The deterrant of seeing his head would discourage any partisan and any usurper from trying to break Africa away from Constantine.   It does not matter if Constantine does not know the person’s name yet – it is any potential usurper.  Also the head proves Maxentius is dead as long as it is partly recognizable.  A boat trip might take only 4 days to get to the biggest port city where the word spreads.   One need not bring the head everywhere.

I’m very glad of that.

Guys, Melville. What the hell? I really hated Hawthorne in high school, and thus I chalked up all early American writers as “bleh” for years and years, and I had so many people tell me that Moby Dick was an awful reading experience that I just didn’t do it. Last year, I loaded Moby up on the iPad, and spent a month reading it in absolute bliss. What a glorious book. I even loved the technical details about whaling.

As usual with an author whom I love at first read, I looked at the rest of Melville’s corpus with a raised eyebrow. When I have had such a wonderful reading experience, it is very likely that the author’s other work will disappoint in some way. There is, thus, a push-pull: you love the author, so you seek him out, but you don’t want that first taste spoiled, and thus you also procrastinate.

I finally got around to reading Billy Budd this past week. I am just as devastated as I was at the end of Moby Dick, with Ishmael holding onto Queequig’s coffin. Billy! Vere! Oh my heavens.

I think I am going to use the novella in my justice class next time out.

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Why did Constantine send Maxentius’ head to north Africa?

I have been reading about Constantine. Mostly, I’ve been reading John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium: The Early Centuries for the prose. A wonderful writer. I’m a Roman nerd so as I was reading along, I really wasn’t paying close attention to Norwich’s discussion of the battle of Milvian Bridge–for Rome nerds, it’s pretty standard fare. Nerds know the intrigues, but for non-nerds, some short background: Maxentius contested Constantine’s ascension to the purple. It did not end well for Maxentius.

This bit caught my eye:

Among the last was the usurper’s himself, whose body was later found washed up on the bank. His severed head, stuck on a lance, was carried aloft before Constantine as he entered Rome in triumph the following day. Later it was sent on to North Africa as a warning.

You have to feel for the courier who wound up having to schlepp that baby to north Africa, don’t you? Bound to be a rather niffy endeavor. The battle took place I believe in October, if I remember my reading properly. Milvian Bridge is still there, so they only had to go 10 miles to Rome to go head-brandish there.

The average temperature is 82 degrees F in south Italy during October, according the various travel websites I perused. I’m pretty sure back then they didn’t have any Tupperware. Maybe a clay pot with a seal on the top, but a severed head sealed away in a clay pot isn’t going to impress anybody. You can’t walk around and say to people to take you on your word, you have the severed head of a pretender to the purple in this here clay pot so don’t get any ideas about challenging Constantine. One would have to brandish the actual head, wouldn’t one? And one wonders how recognizable Maxentius would be after all that travel in 80 degree weather.

And, notably, whom was the deterrent supposed to be for? I know of nobody there in north Africa who was a particularly worrisome rival; I don’t think Maxentius would have had any power base there (unless I am confused) as I thought he was from the areas in what are now Serbia and Bulgaria.

Anybody know?

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LaCour’s mess v. Zissner on finding his writing voice in his 50s

William Zissner’s book, On Writing Well, was important to me when I was just starting out as an academic. I still send it to my younger colleagues if they are struggling with writing. If there is a kinder, clearer book on learning to edit your own work, I’ve yet to find it.

Mr. Zissner passed recently. Here is his obit from the NYT. This bit made me smile:

In an autobiography, “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” (2004), Mr. Zinsser said he did not find his writer’s voice until he was in his 50s, when he wrote “On Writing Well.” He had hoped to be perceived as “the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist,” he said, but realized that his most basic desire was to be a helpful instructor, “to pass along what I knew.”

This particular bit struck me as very touching as I have been reflecting on the allegations surrounding Mike LaCour. It’s clear that he falsified what he did in the study. That’s it. The “hero’s journey, celebrity, man-against-the-odds” narratives of the other young guy, Broockman, who exposed the problems illustrates exactly why young scholars (and older ones) like LaCour become tempted to do what LaCour did: now Broockman is the junior celeb, coming out on top. It comes through in that article: to be at Stanford! So young! Oh my!

LaCour lied to get his dissertation into Science because he was responding to the academy’s obsession with clever young things.

Craft honed over the long haul, such as Zissner’s voice at age 50, is booooooooring. Experiments like the one LaCour described, take years, years that nobody wants to give you in graduate school (“How long, exactly, did it take you to finish?” and “Are you finished yet?”) or later. Work that has depth takes time, and nobody is supposed to need time. Hurry up, be a star! What’s taking you so long, again? This other guy here, he’s a star already! What are you doing? There are no long-term investment in young scholars even though they spend a long time investing themselves.

I’m not trying to make excuses for LaCour; I am, however, not willing to pile on the schadenfreude of gawking at his wrongdoing and pretending to be mystified— utterly mystified!—at how somebody could do what he did. I get it. The incentives in the academy are not to seek and craft knowledge, particularly for somebody like LaCour who craves status, earned or unearned. (Either fortunately or unfortunately for me, if I were interested in status, I sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten a PhD in urban planning, so falsifying findings wouldn’t help me much there, so the temptation, even if understandable, doesn’t hold much power over me. Now, ice cream and cigarettes, those are another story when it comes to temptation.)

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My electric pencil sharpener has died, and I am sad

I have always wanted to be a fountain pen user, and I do sometimes manage to pull off a morning’s writing session with one of the lovely fountain pens my husband has gifted me over the years. But mostly, boringly, I write with a pencil. For some reason, I can’t leave mistakes well enough alone, and I must erase, and the crossing out of ink gets on my nerves.

So pencil it is.

I’ve been reading Mary Norris’ lovely “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” and in it, she describes pencil luxury at The New Yorker:

In the old days at the The New Yorker, when your pencil point got dull, you just tossed it aside and picked up a new one. There was an office boy who around in the morning with a trey of freshly sharpened wooden pencils. And they were nice long ones–no stubs. The boy held out his tray of pencils, and you scooped up a quiver of them. It sounds like something out of a dream! Even then I think I knew that the office boy and his tray of pencils would go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

ciiiiiii! A handful of long, sharp pencils. Heaven.

My pencil sharpener, alas, has died, and I am sad. This pencil sharpener was obtained in September 2000, at the Office Depot on Wilshire. I remember it because when I joined UCLA as a graduate student, they tucked me into an office that I shared with Marty Wachs’ notes and archival material from the first Red Line subway controversies, and I chirpily said to my advisors that they ought to equip our little grad school offices with a pencil sharpener. This was my first lesson in “you’re not a respected consultant anymore, who can demand such lavish things as pencil sharpeners, but a lowly graduate student, who will wind up digging into your own not-very-well-renumerated pocket for such fancies.” I was met with rolling eyes, like somehow, the professors who lived in beautiful homes in Westwood and West LA would become destitute if, out of their grant money, they yielded to such a lavish request. “Who uses pencils anymore?” One graduate student asked, making light of my quest.

So I got on a bus and went to the Office Depot and bought the cheapest one I could find, a little Panasonic Auto-Stop, shown here.

Electric pencil sharpener Google Search

This little fellow was not a particularly good pencil sharpener. It and I often had vivid disagreements about when, precisely, it should stop sharpening. If you slothfully forgot to remove the shavings, and they accumulated past a certain height in the little see-through holder, you would have wrest the holder out, scattering shavings and graphite everywhere. Those moments were particularly trying.

Insubordinate soldier though he was, my little pencil sharpener saw me through my dissertation, 31 papers, 7 op-eds, and a little less than half a book. Fifteen years later–where does the time go–he’s left me. It’s been coming for a few months. His little motor could only muster a weak “wuh huh” at the end, and today I decided to call it.

And I am sad. Goodbye, friend.

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