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Faculty and students at UC Davis, and in a lot of other places, are outraged at the campus police who pepper-sprayed a group of students who were peacefully sitting down.

In their official response, the campus police said that the police officer in question felt “encircled and threatened” by the students, which reminds me of a classic South Park episode.

The context at UC Davis was that Chancellor Katehi had allowed “Occupy UC Davis” students to camp overnight on campus (which is ordinarily forbidden) for one night, but then sent them a message the following day that they were to disband, and she sent the police to enforce the decision. At Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau had similarly sent the police to disband an occupation, resulting in beat poets.

I can’t understand the rationale for these decisions. I don’t say “I don’t understand” as a passive-aggressive way of meaning “I disagree;” I genuinely don’t get what is going on. Chancellors are smart people, former professors, who are politically savvy and who care very much about students, or at least care very much about their relationship with the students. What could be so wrong with some students camping on campus that makes it, on balance, a rational decision to disband those camps with violence? Is it the Regents who are strongly against occupations? Is there a worry that an occupation would be unpopular with state officials, at a time when the California state budget has again a multi-billion shortfall that will require further budget cuts?

Edited to add: Another interesting question is why the police uses violence against peaceful protesters. After all, high-ranking police officials are themselves smart and politically savvy people, and such strategies are bad PR but also bad policing. Next time the campus police is called to diffuse a tense situation on campus, their presence will actually add to the tension. This interesting article by Alexis Madrigal (thanks to Sanjay Hukku for directing me to it) traces a change of police strategies to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

[Oded Goldreich has written an essay on the relative influence of "intellectual" versus "operational" goals in motivating our work, and on how this balance has changed in the past thirty years. In this guest post he tells us a bit about his methodology, his conclusions, and the changes he would like to see. -- L.T.]

The purpose of this post is to call your attention to my essay “On the status of intellectual values in TOC”, which is available from the web-page
www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/on-toc-val.html

Before providing a brief outline of this essay, let me clarify a few issues.
First, the term “values” is adopted from Sociology, where it is defined as the set of beliefs of a society (regarding what is correct, good, and/or desirable). By “intellectual values” I mean a specific type of values; that is, those that advocate curiosity, study, and understanding. In particular, I believe that the TOC community holds (and should hold) both intellectual values and instrumental values. The issue at hand is the balance between them. Second, I am talking about intellectual values, not about intellectual activities; that is, I’m talking about what exists in the background. Third, I am talking about the TOC community as a social group, not about individuals who are members in that group; that is, I’m talking about the sociology of TOC. And last, my intention is to call for corrective actions, not to complain on the current state of affairs.

In the essay I study the status of intellectual values in the TOC community during the last three decades. Specifically, analyzing the motivational parts of papers that appeared in several STOC proceedings, I found evidence to my feeling that the importance attributed to intellectual values has declined in the last decade (or so). The said evidence is conditioned on a number of assumptions, which are spelled out in the essay.

I then discuss three theories that may be used to explain the decline of intellectual values in TOC (or rather three phenomena that may cause this decline). This discussion may be of interest also to readers that are unconvinced by my thesis and/or my empirical study, because it indicates potential dangers that loom over TOC.

The most intrinsically oriented theory asserts that intellectual values play a bigger role in the early stages of the development of a field, a stage which is marked by many works of explorative nature. In the essay I explain why I do not believe in this theory in general, and point out that it fails to explain the specific data that I gathered. Instead, I suggest to seek the causes elsewhere, specifically, in sociology. Two sociological theories seem most applicable here:
The first refers to the dynamics of the field (i.e., TOC) itself, while the second refers to the effect of society at large.

The first sociological theory asserts that as a field become more successful
(or, actually, is considered so from the outside), the competition within the field intensifies, and this creates pressures towards “objective” measures of accomplishment that can be reviewed from the outside. Such measures are typically oblivious of intellectual contents. Thus, under the reign of (externally monitored) competition, intellectual values decline.

The second sociological theory refers to the effect of the Zeitgeist on any activity that takes place in society (including scientific research). Specifically, the claim here is that intellectual values are in decline in the Western society for more than one hundred years, and that the decline has become more and more drastic with time.

Although my real objective is to advocate a restoration of the intellectual values in TOC, I believe it is helpful to study the past as well as the forces that might have affected it and may affect the future. In particular, the claim that things were different in the past provides some evidence that they may be reversed in the future. I admit that opposing the social forces that cause the decline of intellectual values is far from being easy. But I think that such an opposition is possible, especially since the TOC community is relatively small (which facilitates the creation of solidarity and the effecting of change). If the TOC community is determined to change its culture, then no outsider can prevent this. The outsiders will have to adapt to what the TOC community values; they have no choice (i.e., there is no alternative TOC community). It is only up to us!

In order to avoid claims of being too lofty, I provide a few concrete suggestions for the defense and promotion of intellectual values in TOC. These suggestions refer to actions that individuals can take, but they will be effective only if these individual actions will become sufficiently common.

  • Let the intellectual values guide you in your own research and in your interaction with other researchers.
  • When presenting a scientific work, provide an explicit account of the (current) motivation for this work.
  • When serving on either a PC or a hiring/promotion committee, try to steer the committee towards taking decisions on the basis of a real understanding of the contents of the work being considered rather than on the basis of some superficial “objective-looking” measures.
  • Object to the dominance of vulgar competition wherever it emerges.

Indeed, individual actions may be much more effective if they are socially coordinated. Thus, it may be useful to make these actions a topic of social discussion, to form groups that are committed to promote them, to create forums that promote them, etc.

A final note: Due mainly to technical reasons, I expect not to be able to participate in possible discussion that may evolve in this blog. Thus, if you wish to communicate with me regarding these issues, please write me directly (via email). (I will not object if you later post our correspondance.)

Oded Goldreich

I thought that Wilma De Angelis’s cover of Bad Romance was the definitive one, but the honor has to go this one:

A couple of notes:

  • Among other things, I love the lucite string instruments, and the white sofa briefly seen around 1:25;
  • Why is Bad Romance transliterated as 罗曼死 in Chinese, which means dead Roman?
  • There is a whole blog devoted to this performance.

From a 1977 interview with the late theoretical physicist Sidney Coleman.

Coleman: Teaching is unpleasant work. No question about it. It has its rewards. One feels happy about having a job well done. Washing the dishes, waxing the floors (things I also do on a regular basis since I’m a bachelor) have their rewards. I am pleased when I have done a good job waxing the floor and I’ve taken an enormous pile of dirty dishes and reduced them to sparkling clean ones. On the other hand, if I didn’t have to, I would never engage in waxing the floors, although I’m good at it. I’m also good at teaching; I’m considered very good at teaching, both by myself and others. And I’m also terrifically good at washing dishes, in fact. On the other hand, I certainly would never make a bunch of dirty dishes just for the joy of washing them and I would not teach a course just for the joy of teaching a course. (…) if someone were to suddenly say to me, look you can sit in this office and talk and do physics with the same people, everything would be the same except you would never have to teach a course and never have to see a graduate student, and we’ll halve your salary — I’d leap at the offer.

Sopka: So I guess really you would be happier with the format of an institute of theoretical physics? Rather than a teaching institution like a university?

Coleman: Well no. That makes it too abstract. Because that means, would you like to have a position at, say, the Institute for Advanced Studies? And then all sorts of other things would enter the picture. Like you’d have to live in Princeton which is truly an awful experience. (…) It’s a terrible place. Dullest place in the world. No I wouldn’t say that, but certainly the dullest place at which decent science or decent scholarship is done in the world today. The only advantage to Princeton is that it’s close to Princeton Junction.

The whole interview is worth reading. (Via not even wrong)

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