Nov 262017

The NCAA season starts with sleaze and scandal, observes columnist George Will, who goes on to observe just how much cash is associated with collegiate sports. Enough, apparently, that some of the taller hogs at the trough went past bad taste and into violations of the law. At least that is what we see in the FBI investigation on several campuses and the indictments for corruption.

Campus leaders have a business interest in looking the other way, since there’s a pretty penny to be made by (pardon the analogy) playing the game. [Best quote from the linked article refers to a case of yesteryear: “At the University of Washington, Don James resigned as head [football] coach after failing to notice that his quarterback owned three cars.”]

So far no suggestion that investigators are looking at Maryland yet.

 Posted by at 3:38 pm on November 26, 2017
Nov 232017

How business bullshit took over is required reading for students who would like preparation to make meaningful contributions to the world rather than serve in the cycle of production, distribution and consumption of bullshit.

The article will tell you where the cartoon Dilbert came from, and goes on to explain how ideas that may be weak on their merits can be plumped up for sale by wrapping them in novel language, slathering on generous portions of hucksterism and blending in a pinch of mysticism (or just plain elitism for the agnostics among us.)

Most of what the author treats involves industry as a whole, but his points apply equally well in the education industry. And indeed, much of what we do on campus involves performing tasks that both feed and result from the ‘culture of bullshit’ – tasks that, when objectively portrayed, can’t be firmly connected with core missions which might have inspired a university system in the first place. We measure ourselves with elastic yardsticks that reward make-work yet often don’t stand up well as predictors of students’ success, generation of knowledge that others usefully apply in science, or development of products (or services) that capture markets.

Preference for an elastic yardstick is understandable. Our campus lacks accountability so mostly we have freedom to define our own success criteria. Why not make the yardstick fit what we do rather than what we aspire to do? It sure is easier to sell students “experiences” rather than prepare them to perform hard tasks. Doing the latter would get them – and us – out of our comfort zones. Ewww … that makes for tough teaching reviews and a rockier time promoting like-thinking friends.

And look what happens to heretics who try to pierce the language barrier and figure out what practices generate intrinsic (instead of virtual) value? There’s always one who politely points out how the Emperor has no clothes, and then it gets ugly. The masses quickly recognize the importance of going along to get along. Keep your head down and keep the system going.

Speaking as one of the heretics, I hope students take a lesson from the linked article. Get past the educational leet speak, push yourself out of the linguistic comfort zone we build in our majors and learn how to tell when you’re getting served content of genuine value instead of a big cup of tasty, well, you know.

 Posted by at 7:59 am on November 23, 2017
Nov 142017

Two recent articles add to the list of materials that students in my lab should ponder.

The first deals with limitations of statistics in science, or at least, limitations in our understanding and application of statistics. This is an on-going topic for our data scientists to track.

A NYT article on NSA Shadow Brokers is especially worthy of your consideration, since so many of our present projects involve analysis and prediction of security-related properties.

To see how the above two readings are modestly related to one another, think about what data are used to predict opportunities to penetrate a site, what data predict potential intrusions over time, and what data are used to track uses of exfiltrated materials. Then … think about whether the science behind each is equally-well developed or applied. What limits someone performing those activities and how would scientists offer that person stronger tools? There are some great research activities lurking in the answer to that question.

 Posted by at 7:54 am on November 14, 2017
Nov 142017

A Cambridge University physical sciences professor had his moment of fame after being caught advocating hard work. And at expense of a social life, no less!

How dare he!

Fortunately (judging from the article) his campus leadership rallied around students and reassured them that “balance”, booze and convivial behavior are still encouraged. Meanwhile, College Park shows its mettle in promoting such temperaments, so now that we’re a Big Ten school and offer booze at big events, we may soon offer napping pods in the library. Take that, Cambridge!

 Posted by at 7:34 am on November 14, 2017
Nov 062017

I often talk with my students about bias when we are conducting a research project. Usually this discussion launches with me getting on a soap box to throw around words like old school methods and sound experimental design (also met with small eye rolls they think I don’t notice.) My extended rant will cover a lot about how to conduct risk reduction exercises, which after a fashion resemble agile development methods except in hacking our insights instead of code. Overall we’re pretty interested in knowing how to make good engineering decisions on use of our time; we want the greatest illumination for least cost on each step along the way as we converge to results.

With that in mind, a nice read about bias is The Trouble With Scientists. This reminds us that while there are the things we want to know, we need discipline to ensure we’re not just cherry picking data to support a conclusion we already want to reach; we need discipline to force ourselves to look coldly at what we don’t know. These go hand in hand.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm on November 6, 2017
Nov 062017

Keeping up with the many projects on campus at the moment is still taxing, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to keep an eye out for others’ content worthy of our study. And some exceptionally thoughtful writing about campus speech is found over at Vox in a pair of articles.

Robert Post offers There is no 1st Amendment right to speak on a college campus while Erwin Chemerinsky asserts Hate speech is protected free speech, even on college campuses – obviously messages in opposition to one another, and very timely for what’s happening on many campuses.

An aggressive piece over at Spectator looks past discussion about the basis for speech on campus to the (flawed) practices: Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, by commentator Mark Pulliam.

 Posted by at 3:23 pm on November 6, 2017
Sep 282017

This campus recently adopted a Web Accessibility Policy, which earlier today Provost Mary Ann Rankin reminded us of by means of a memo to campus administrators. Soon “all university Web pages used for academic and business purposes must be compliant with applicable state and federal regulations, specifically, Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.”

The essence of her memo was to alert campus stakeholders to this and offer guidance on how to move forward, for which one of the helpful links given is to a campus Web Accessibility page whose sole apparent purpose is to then offer the reader a chance to click through to another campus Web Accessibility page.

Awkwardly, and as of the point I blog this morning, neither of the pages to which Provost Rankin refers us for 504, 508 and ADA compliance is actually 504, 508 or ADA compliant, at least according to freely available web tools which one can use for checking. (There are also broken links – that’s business as usual for the Provost site – and W3C compliance problems.)

We always appreciate how leadership offers us teaching examples for our students.

 Posted by at 10:01 am on September 28, 2017
Sep 182017

More catch up as I transfer choice material from my tablet at home …

More people all the time look nervously at the effect Google has in their markets, wondering what might happen if the behemoth turns to the dark side. A journalist talks of how his profession has been transformed by Google, for example. The company enabled entirely new business processes for these writers … and now almost exclusively controls what writers can draw from it. Others go further, pointing out how the company has bullied others in order to have its way.

[You need not look very far these days to find many more examples emerging. The informal motto for Google was “don’t be evil.” We knew from the start that the moment a company feels compelled to assure you it is not evil, the more of the underworld has been on its minds.]

And finally we offer a very nice article about the specifics by which technology companies gain control. It is through leveraging intellectual property that (according to the author, with whom we concur) we are experiencing a modern sort of feudalism, in which don’t necessarily own much property, rather, we must ask for permission and hope the corporate owners has a benign eye upon our requests.

 Posted by at 5:58 pm on September 18, 2017
Sep 182017

A roll up of some recent articles we hope you have already found to your morning browsing sessions …

The Assault on Free Speech (sorry about the pay wall at WSJ) points out the irony that public pressure caused China to walk back its censure of many academic materials which might have proven embarrassing to the state, yet at the same time US academics are championing censorship by purging campuses of opportunity for open and scholarly speech on hard topics. (On my campus there are generally no hard feelings in speech because leadership is careful who they invite to speak in the first place.)

The Atlantic weighs in with debate about the role of universities in fostering a commitment to the open exchange of ideas, and a NY Times article similarly advocates for some genuine diversity of views on behalf of our students.

Sometimes the problems on a campus are not just ones of leadership cherry picking who gets to speak but also of indulging in bad science in order to reach conclusions they sought based on prejudice. (“We’ll see it when we know it” science is not science.)

An article with subtitle the roots of the current campus madness talks of the costs of quashing discussion and our failure to teach scholarly debate. It closes with a quote that by itself makes following the link worth your while: “If you teach students to be warriors against all power asymmetries, don’t be surprised when they turn on their professors and administrators. This is what happens when you separate facts from values, empiricism from morality, science from the humanities.” Indeed.

 Posted by at 5:34 pm on September 18, 2017
Sep 072017

As alerted to us at Slashdot, Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris went to the popular CS50 programming course to beg students please don’t cheat. This comes hard on the heels of a course change in order to suggest that students should consider attending class. A year at Harvard now costs north of $70,000.

Taken together, these offer a new definition of the word pathetic.

 Posted by at 8:48 pm on September 7, 2017