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Jeez, I’m beginning to have some sympathy for all those people tangled up in the Epstein mess — that man inveigled himself into the New York science scene rather deeply, and I was tangentially involved with another character who was the recipient of Epstein’s beneficence. John Brockman was my agent, too. I published in a few of his annual question books, he got me a good advance on The Happy Atheist, I met him a few times in his office, he was always professional and cordial. He is a terrific agent. But also…
John is also the president, founder, and chief impresario of the Edge Foundation, which has earned a stellar reputation as an eclectic platform for conversations that involve scientists, artists, and technologists. There is more than one Edge Foundation, though: There is the one meant for public consumption, with its “annual question”—e.g. “What are you optimistic about?”—answered by famous intellectuals and thinkers; and one meant for private consumption by members of Brockman’s elite network. The former exists primarily online. The latter has a vibrant real-life component, with sumptuous dinners, exclusive conferences, and quite a bit of travel on private jets—it functions as an elaborate massage of the ego (and, apparently, much else) for the rich, the smart, and the powerful.
Over the course of my research into the history of digital culture, I’ve got to know quite a lot about John’s role in shaping the digital—and especially the intellectual—world that we live in. I’ve examined and scanned many of his letters in the archives of famous men (and they are mostly men), such as Marshall McLuhan, Stewart Brand, and Gregory Bateson. He is no mere literary agent; he is a true “organic intellectual” of the digital revolution, shaping trends rather than responding to them. Would the MIT Media Lab, TED Conferences, and Wired have the clout and the intellectual orientation that they have now without the extensive network cultivated by Brockman over decades? I, for one, very much doubt it.
Lately, John has been in the news for other reasons, namely because of his troubling connections to Jeffrey Epstein, the so-called financier who reportedly hanged himself earlier this month while facing federal charges of sex-trafficking. Epstein participated in the Edge Foundation’s annual questions, and attended its “billionaires’ dinners.” Brockman may also be the reason why so many prominent academics—from Steven Pinker to Daniel Dennett—have found themselves answering awkward questions about their associations with Epstein; they are clients of Brockman’s. Marvin Minsky, the prominent MIT scientist who surfaced as one of Epstein’s island buddies? A client of Brockman’s. Joi Ito, the director of the elite research facility MIT Media Lab, who has recently acknowledged extensive ties to Epstein? Also, a client of Brockman’s.
I was briefly part of the “public consumption” side (my alienation from his good buddy Richard Dawkins explains the “brief” part, I think), but was never invited to those “billionaire’s dinners”. Darn. I probably missed out on a chance to be photographed with Epstein.
Brockman and Epstein were deeply entangled, though.
A close analysis of Edge Foundation’s (publicly available) financial statements suggests that, between 2001 and 2015, it has received $638,000 from Epstein’s various foundations. In many of those years, Epstein was Edge’s sole donor. Yet, how many of Edge’s contributors—let alone readers—knew Epstein played so large a role in the organization?
At least one author is now distancing himself from the Brockman agency.
Yet, I am ready to pull the plug on my association with Brockman’s agency—and would encourage other authors to consider doing the same—until and unless he clarifies the relationship between him, the Edge Foundation, and Epstein. If such an explanation is not forthcoming, many of us will have to decide whether we would like to be part of this odd intellectual club located on the dubious continuum between the seminar room and a sex-trafficking ring.
Excessive networking, it appears, devours its own. Brockman is already many months too late to what he should have done much earlier: close down the Edge Foundation, publicly repent, retire, and turn Brockman Inc. into yet another banal literary agency. The kind where authors do not have to mingle with billionaires at fancy dinners or worry about walking in on Prince Andrew getting his foot massage. The un-network.
Well, to me it was always another “banal literary agency”, just a very good one.
Wait, what? Games can make you rethink how you look at the world? I never thought about this before, but the structure of Dungeons & Dragons implies a fallen world, in which people are picking through the debris of a collapsed civilization. It suggests that gangs of murder hobos looting the wreckage is a perfectly normal, ordinary way to see your culture.
In a nutshell, the argument is that—independent of campaign setting—the rules of AD&D imply the game takes place in the wake of some unspecified, civilization-ending cataclysm.
For what it’s worth, classic sword and sorcery fiction tends to make this same assumption. Conan’s Hyborian Age is perhaps the most famous, taking place thousands of years after “the oceans drank Atlantis.” Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique tales are more properly classified as Dying Earth stories, but the effect is the same: the last vestiges of humanity cling to superstition and sorcery on the Earth’s last remaining continent. Not to mention The Dying Earth itself, where technology and magic are both remnants of long dead empires, and are completely indistinguishable from one another.
Simply put, without the collapse of some ancient civilization (or several), the landscape wouldn’t be littered with ruins for the characters to go dungeon-diving in. But that assumption can hardly be called unique to AD&D. Later editions still feature plenty of ruined temples, lost cities, and dungeon delves, even if they are significantly less lethal than the old school variety.
I never noticed! I wonder if this might be a relic of a medieval way of thinking, where Europeans saw themselves living in the ruins of fallen Rome, and it was normal to live surrounded by bridges and aqueducts and statuary built in the past.
We Americans don’t have that — instead we have a history of belittling the constructions of our predecessors. Cahokia must have been built by wandering Hebrews, don’t you know, because Indians couldn’t possibly have accomplished anything. We have our own biases, though, and another game reveals that.
Would you believe Minecraft mechanics encourage colonialism? Also it’s another game where your ‘wilderness’ is sprinkled with dungeons and temples and lootable structures. This video explains the perfidious possibilities in a sandbox game.
I’ve played a bit of Minecraft, and I hadn’t thought of exploiting the villagers before, but I knew of the mechanics. The latest edition has some other curious additions: there are pillagers who will raid you or nearby villages, which lets you play the role of protector and patron, killing the bad NPCs and saving the good NPCs. It’s an interesting evolution of a game that once was kind of the digital equivalent of building ships in a bottle, or cultivating bonsai. It’s not a game unless there’s an opportunity for violence!
(Note: I am not saying D&D and Minecraft need to be policed for their violence, but only that it might be a good idea to be conscious of how the rules can create a bias towards certain behaviors.)
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
I am standing high on one of the pillars of silence – the massive stone towers where the Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to the vultures – looking down on the desert city of Yazd in the heart of the Iranian plateau. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been; Yazd’s mud-brick walls offer secret passages at every twisting turn and, like all Iranian cities, its beating heart is the bazaar. I walk through its magnificent cool brick-vaulted colonnades, unchanged since Marco Polo, who followed the Silk Road this way too.
Over six weeks filming in Iran for a BBC documentary series about the history and culture of the Persians, from Shiraz in the south-west to Mashhad in the north-east, the bazaar was always calling me back. It epitomises Persian identity: proud of its history but always absorbing the new into its own traditions.
Part of the appeal is the “slow” consumption idea. Thinking, touching, talking to the seller and deciding why you need the thing. In Isfahan the Safavid Shah built a grand covered bazaar around a massive public green. Traditional crafts such as leatherware, carpets and miniature painting thrive here. I watch one metalsmith at work creating delicately patterned samovars and lamps, a skill passed down still by master to teenage apprentice.
In Shiraz, city of poets and roses, vendors weigh out dried rosebuds, purple-blue borage petals, and spice mixes from layered contour-line piles of ground cumin, turmeric and cinnamon. But ubiquitous, too, are wildly coloured extruded snacks in foil packets, tacky plastic toys and some kitsch carpets with images of baroque Western paintings. The bazaar sells everything people want to buy. Including washing machines, fridges and TVs.
Then there are the clothes. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, who wrote about the tyranny of consumerism for the American housewife, would have nodded knowingly at the fabric stalls selling 50 kinds of black chador material. But I hadn’t anticipated the sheer boldness of bazaar displays. In a nation with a legal dress code for women, I walk in my headscarf past aisles packed with sexy feathered and buckled underwear, wondering, “Who will buy?”
Fashion fills the arcades too. Everywhere I see Iranians old and young taking selfies to post on Instagram like their counterparts anywhere else in the world.
I had to buy pyjamas for a sequence we were filming about the Persian origin of the word – it’s from the words for leg garment and the clothing allowance given to imperial soldiers. The shop I chose had a lovely selection of pure cotton patterned pyjama bottoms, laid over the counter in a delicate overlapping rainbow of colours. Sourced in Bangladesh, the shopkeeper told me – a mother running the stall with her daughter, I guessed. The fun was in choosing from the lace-trimmed camisoles in toning colours to make your own set. Why did the experience fill me with such delight?
At the heart was the social connection of it all. When the heat of the day declines, the bazaars come alive again in the evening with all generations finding their own places to go. Iran has its super-fancy malls – the Palladium in North Tehran has a definite Beverly Hills vibe – but they are the exception. I can’t help but compare Iran favourably to what’s corrupted India’s bazaar culture, which saw extreme Western-style consumption, including malls and fast-food brands, flood the nation’s cities in the early 2000s, with little regulation around construction and pollution, and the consequent health crises, including obesity.
It’s easy to be sentimental as an outsider about traditional bazaar shopping, which is undoubtedly time-consuming. But the epidemic of anxiety and loneliness in the West does seem to have a real link to the isolating impact of online consumerism. Iran has its own social and social-media problems – few people are rich, child obesity is noticeable; its theocratic leadership has so far resisted efforts by many ordinary Iranians to loosen the restrictions on their daily lives – but the strong binding sense of life is built around daily public interactions and family bonds, which contrasts strongly with the time-poor frenzy of the average Western city-dweller’s existence.
Back in Britain my local department store had announced it was finally closing after 106 years, the latest casualty of a national epidemic on the high street. People were coming in to commiserate with the staff. Returning from Iran, I wondered if what we are mourning is what they’ve never lost.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
Marcus Du Sautoy is a mathematician and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His latest book is “The Creativity Code: How AI is Learning to Write Paint and Think ” (4th Estate).
Your new book, about artificial intelligence, asks what it means to be creative. Is there a single answer?
The definition I took is from the philosopher Margaret Boden. She says a creative act isn’t just something new – it should also be surprising and make us see our environment in a new way, and it should be valuable too. Creativity is also tied down to consciousness. I often wonder if human consciousness and creativity started to emerge at the same time. The psychologist Carl Rodgers talks about creativity as a need to express our inner world: where we behave less like machines and more like conscious beings with a desire to assert our free will. So you will never see this definition of creativity in a machine, until there is intention and an inner world that feels the need to be shared with others.
You write that we all run on something you call “the human code”. What is this?
It’s an algorithm working on the information that we receive through our senses and through the neuronal activity – a complex processor developed over millions of years of evolution. While many believe artistic expression is something mysterious, I try to illustrate that it does have a rationale, even though it may be articulating mysterious things beneath our conscious worlds.
In the last couple of years, there has been a sea change in the world of artificial intelligence (AI) where we are getting a new, bottom-up kind of code. Machine learning means that you don’t know what the code is going to do in advance. That is much closer to how our own human code emerged. The challenge can be summarised by thinking hard about two questions. How quickly can this artificial code achieve something comparable to what we are doing? And is AI just exposure to data or something much more than that? Code learning is not new. What is new is a massive increase in processing power. Digital landscapes are now developed enough so that AI has a place to learn, play, develop, and become something independent of the original code.
The mathematician Alan Turing was a pioneer of AI. What was his most important contribution?
In the past, machines were created to carry out specific tasks, like telling the time, for example, or cracking the code [to intercept Nazi communications during the Second World War] in Bletchley Park. But they could not do much else. Turing hit upon the idea that there was what he called a universal machine. And that it was better to create a machine that you could programme to do different tasks. He essentially asked how much we can capture that general intelligence in code and in a machine.
Famously, Turing had his own test for determining whether a computer is capable of thinking like a human being. You argue for a new version – the “Lovelace test”, named after the 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace. What is it?
It looks at how the code produced by the original coder is starting to become autonomous. With machine learning we are seeing that code is beginning to change, mutate and become something new.
What implications could this have for society?
Already we are seeing instances where the code is making decisions about, say, job or mortgage applications. But we often don’t understand why the code is making those decisions exactly. It’s like the subconscious: if you opened up the human brain you wouldn’t be able to understand why it comes to all of these decisions. Similarly, we are seeing the same complexity within code, which is no longer amoral or value-free.
What role does our ability to gather uprecedented amounts of data, thanks to new technology, play in this?
Previously we had a code that could learn, but it really didn’t have a rich environment which it could learn from. One of the great breakthroughs of machine learning is having a lot of data from which it can learn. Data is the key to the process of machine learning.
Machines still seem unable to master language.
Code does run into problems with the written word. It has problems in producing long-term narrative structures. When a human differentiates between words, their brain is tapping into a huge bank of knowledge. A computer, conversely, does not have this complete picture of language. Children, for example, need very little language before they can start speaking.
Therefore it may not be possible for a machine to achieve the level of language that humans can. Much of this comes down to an evolutionary process that has built up a code in our brains for language. That is impossible to fast-track in a machine.
You write that art is an expression of free will. If so, will art created by a computer always need some human assistance?
This ties into the question of why humans produce works of art, write music, novels, and create paintings. The answer essentially comes down to the challenge at the heart of consciousness: it is very difficult to know what your experience of the world is like. When I talk about pain, is that anything like your pain? We play these games that try to match up these words and these experiences. Art is a powerful way to match up our conscious worlds. AI is a fantastic tool for us as humans to extend our creativity. But machine creativity will only happen when it has a similar desire to express what it is like to be a machine.
Why do you write that mathematics is a survival mechanism for the human species?
Mathematics is the science of patterns. And that has been a very powerful tool to be able to understand our environment and make predictions for the future, which enable us to plan effectively for our own survival. This links in with the idea of consciousness, because consciousness gives us the ability to mentally time travel. Mathematics allows us to study patterns in the past which we can then look at and say: this is the direction it is going to go in the future.
How could this be applicable to, say, politics?
Climate change is a great example of the use of mathematics to realise an existential threat that faces our species. It’s all about trying to understand data to look into the future. Without the use of mathematics we would have no chance of surviving this climate crisis.
Do you think there will ever be a time when machines become conscious?
I believe there is no reason why machines one day could not become conscious. That idea of consciousness is going to be different to ours. Already we are facing a very challenging future, where machines are starting to make decisions that impact on society and we don’t understand those decisions. So, for example, does a driverless car decide to kill the five passengers on the pavement, or kill the person in the passenger seat? Or take the issue of AI weapons. We need to understand the AI as it begins to make decisions that affect us. And we need the AI to understand us too. What you are beginning to see is an empathetic AI, which understands what it means to be human.
The timescale is the key thing here. Maybe the brain had to go through this huge evolutionary process to achieve consciousness and you cannot simply fast-track that. But there isn’t an extra mysterious component to the soul or anything like that. There is nothing we don’t understand on a material level that makes up our own consciousness.
So if consciousness can be understood entirely through the material world, what’s the best way to describe it?
Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach asks an important question: why a system might have a sense of itself. And he uses this thing in mathematics called Gödel’s incompleteness theorem: an equation consists of numbers, but these numbers can also be code for statements about mathematics. So you get this self reference going on, where an equation can talk about itself. Hofstadter uses this as a simple model for what the brain is doing: that the brain is somehow using two different levels of coding in order to be able to encode thoughts about itself. We are beginning to see how a machine might be able to encode thoughts about itself. So the machine isn’t quite conscious yet, but it is on its way to consciousness.
How much do algorithms, like the ones you mentioned that make decisions about mortgage applications, already control our daily lives?
These things are very subtle. Data is now playing a similar role to that which labour played in the industrial revolution: it is something given away very cheaply to make huge profits.
We need to know how these algorithms are working, what value they have and whom they benefit. If we have these tools and knowledge we will be less manipulated and ultimately have more control over our lives.
Is there a dangerous relationship between capitalism, consumerism and AI?
There is huge hype around AI that is comparable to the dot com boom. There is a lot of dishonesty. So we really need to think about whether this application of AI is genuinely exciting, creating new things, or whether it’s just companies trying to get people to buy products.
There’s a lot of doom and gloom at the moment – it doesn’t sound like you share it.
We should see AI as a powerful collaborative tool: thinking about this in terms of the future of humanity, but also about the future of AI. There is far too much fear around this subject.
The summer 2019 issue of New Humanist is on sale now! Subscribe here for as little as £10 a year.
The social industry was invented to capture social life and turn it to profit – and, writes Richard Seymour, we are all slaving away as its unpaid “digital serfs”.
The lure is that we can write whatever we like to anyone we like: friends, celebrities, jihadists, porn stars, politicians. We can find friends, build careers, pursue political agendas. But in the new economy of writing, we are no more in control than the Luddites were in control of the machines they smashed. We have access only on condition that we work, by feeding the machine with data about ourselves. The more we engage, the better it knows us, and the more accurately it can goad us into engaging more. Everything we see in our feeds is a somatic barrage of information designed to keep us working.
Fighting for the future
Asteroid mining, synthetic meat, surrogacy – a slew of radical thinkers envisage brave new worlds. But, asks Niki Seth-Smith, can we get there?
Traditionally, it is left-wing and radical anti-establishment thinkers who have taken it upon themselves to imagine new worlds and utopias in turbulent times. Yet the shelves look surprisingly bare when it comes to how we might harness our current advances in technology to pursue the betterment of all humankind. What optimism there is often seems to come from the top down – from the tech billionaires and internet giants. Three books out this year buck the trend by proposing radically new approaches and ways of thinking in order to shape our future.
The Q&A: Marcus Du Sautoy
JP O'Malley speaks to the mathematician about artificial intelligence, creativity and algorithms.
There is huge hype around AI that is comparable to the dot com boom. There is a lot of dishonesty. So we really need to think about whether this application of AI is genuinely exciting, creating new things, or whether it’s just companies trying to get people to buy products.
The autumn 2019 issue of New Humanist is on sale now! Subscribe here for as little as £10 a year.
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This article appears in the Witness section of the Autumn 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
It is a strange quirk of the British education system that all schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must provide an act of daily worship of a “broadly Christian character”. This is a legal requirement set out in the 1944 Education Act that persists despite the fact that a majority of students and parents are not practising Christians.
Now, a couple from Oxfordshire are bringing a legal challenge. Lee and Lizanne Harris say their children are being religiously indoctrinated by Christian assemblies at the Burford primary school in Oxfordshire. When they enrolled at the school, it did not have a religious character, but in 2015 it became an academy and joined a Church of England schools trust. In a statement, the Harrises said: ‘When our children go to school they shouldn’t have to participate in Christian prayers, or watch biblical scenes such as the crucifixion being acted out.”
They withdrew their children from the assemblies, but claim that the school did not provide an alternative of equivalent educational worth. In their case, which will be heard at the High Court in November, they argue that the school must provide an inclusive assembly as a meaningful alternative for pupils withdrawn from Christian worship.
They are supported by Humanists UK. Chief executive Andrew Copson said: “Requiring children to participate in religious worship, and then marginalising them if in good conscience they cannot, ignores their right to freedom of religion or belief and is a negation of inclusion.”
This article appears in the Witness section of the Autumn 2019 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
For years now, there has been almost complete consensus among climate scientists that the Earth has warmed significantly since the 1800s and that human behaviour is a key factor. One study, published in 2013, found that 97 per cent of climate scientists agreed with the link between humans and climate change. Yet there continues to be a debate, with some political actors denying climate change altogether. A minority of scientists argue that past weather events – the “Roman Warm Age” (AD 250 to AD 400), which saw unusually warm weather across Europe, and the “Little Ice Age”, which saw temperatures drop from AD 1300 – demonstrate that the world has warmed and cooled many times over the centuries, and that current global warming should be seen in this context.
However, three new research papers, published in Nature and Nature Geoscience, undermine this argument, showing that the speed and extent of current global warming exceed any similar event in the past 2,000 years. The papers examined 700 proxy records of temperature changes over this time period, including tree rings, corals and lake sediments. They determined that none of these prior climate events occurred on a global scale. The researchers did not set out to test whether humans were the chief influence on the current climate, but their findings indicate clearly that this is the case. The new research seems likely to even further strengthen scientific consensus on the connection between human behaviour and climate change.
But even as evidence mounts, scepticism about climate change continues to dominate in places as influential as the US administration. (In November 2018, Trump responded to a report on the potentially devastating effect of climate change on the US economy by saying: “I don’t believe it.”) The continuation of this debate in the face of overwhelming evidence says something about the way we relate to facts and to science. In our Spring 2018 issue,
Peter Salmon explored the legacy of the cultural theorist Bruno Latour, who sought to explore the way that scientific “truths” were established in terms of their social, political and cultural foundation. Salmon writes that, shocked by the scale of climate denial, Latour wondered if he had gone too far: “Citing an op-ed in the New York Times, in which a Republican senator argued that the way to gain public support for climate change denial is to artificially maintain a controversy by continuing to ‘make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue’, Latour notes, ‘I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts.’”
Of course, Latour and his fellow postmodernists cannot be held accountable for climate change denial – indeed, thinking sceptically and questioning the way knowledge are accumulated is essential. But the question of scientific certainty and what it means does seem particularly urgent at this moment. One of the authors of the 2013 study on consensus has suggested that consensus might now be closer to 99 per cent. We must wonder what more it will take for the denial to end.
The paperback version of my book, Shoot For The Moon, is just out and we have made a video to celebrate the magic of the Moon landings. I worked with magician Will Houstoun to tell the Apollo story through the medium of sleight of hand – hope you enjoy it!
My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.
In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.
I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.
After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.
Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
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As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
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Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……
In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.
In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens! We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.
A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.
In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!
We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.
In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).
Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.
Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!
I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!
My new book on how to remember everything is out today!
I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information. It even has a super magic trick built into it.
You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…
Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”
I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?
That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.
The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?
Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
Whether or not Bernie would have won
6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!
Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.