06 October 2009

Exactly Half

Extra chunky abstract internet link sausages today! That's largely because the easily digestible ones are getting a bit rancid, due to Life intervening between the sausages and your delicious platter. It's also because, as your dog would tell you when chewing on used facial tissue, it's better with chunks.

  • Here's a shocking chunk: A well-reasoned piece on what faces the publishing industry. From an insider. At the Huffington Post (which does contain well-reasoned articles, in a minority... which is, I suppose, a half-compliment, because the noticeability of such pieces at HuffPo is much less than the noticeability of such pieces in the MSM). It's really a semiironic, reflexive comment on the article itself: Just as the foundation for a long-term successful publisher is going to be its backlist, the foundation for a long-term successful news-and-comment organization is going to be its reputation — based on the equivalent of its backlist. Snide implications concerning the idiocy of allowing beancounters to control editorial policy are purely intentional.
  • In some more-than-moderately interesting and reflexive irony: C.P. Snow couldn't count, either. This being approximately the anniversary of his notorious "two cultures" speech, The Times notes:

    Leavis was right: C. P. Snow was not a great intellect, or a great novelist. But you do not have to be either to say something that is true: and Snow did say something which was true, in his Rede lecture of 50 years ago, entitled The Two Cultures. There is something wrong with a civilisation, he said, where knowledge is so compartmentalised that people can count as highly educated and yet be wholly ignorant of huge swaths of what other highly educated people know. How could scientists not read Shakespeare? How could literary people never have heard of the second law of thermodynamics?

    The problem with this statement, though — which is an all-too-accurate representation of Snow's lecture (yes, I have read the published version) — is that it undercounts the number of subcultures in the competition... by a factor of two. Instead, what we've got is a conflict among four cultures, each of which is almost entirely ignorant of the other three:

    • Waldegrave's article, from Snow's perspective, accurately criticizes the literati for "never hav[ing] heard of the second law of thermodynamics." My proposed solution to this is the one silently adopted by my undergraduate institution three decades ago: Everybody must take at least one, core, considered-sufficient-for-majors class in the natural sciences... and the university did not offer math courses below calculus for undergraduate credit (even the basic statistics class required at least concurrent registration in the "slow and careful" introductory calculus course). That's not to say that universities shouldn't ever offer lower-level classes; they just shouldn't count toward graduation, even for art majors.
    • Waldegrave's article, from Snow's perspective, accurately criticizes science nerds for "not read[ing] Shakespeare." Again, my proposed solution is one of greater rigor in the terrifying undergraduate distribution requirements. Survey courses are all well and good; they provide necessary introductions to fields for those who haven't had the opportunity to study in an area previously (what high school really provides an adequate introduction to political science?); but they shouldn't count toward graduation, or at least only count when combined with a follow-on course in greater depth. No more 100-level American history classes, please! Knowing when Shay's Rebellion occurred is one thing; understanding that Shay's Rebellion was a matter of context and fundamental disagreements on the very nature of society is what's important, and a 100-level course doesn't get there.
    • Snow never did understand that there was a third element of equivalent "conflict" within even the rarified atmosphere of the British university system: The social sciences, which have tried in the years since Snow's lecture to import something resembling math and science into areas that had been traditionally treated as the domain of the literati. Depending upon one's perspective, that importation either created a new chimera, or failed utterly; one cannot, however, argue that it did not at least reify a difference in methods of thought so great in degree that it has become — and arguably was when Snow gave his lecture — a difference in kind. Even in the 1950s, both the thinking and the research in economics, politics, sociology and psychology, and even law were moving away from a strict, Battle of the Booksish struggle between old and new authority toward numerical methods. Today, it's even more extensive: Hardin's seminal article "The Tragedy of the Commons" (leaving aside its ultimate incorrectness) would probably not be publishable today (or at least not in a journal of equivalent prestige) without extensive statistical and/or mathematical derivations and appendices... except, perhaps, in a mathematics-hostile forum as an editorial.
    • Last, and far from least, there's a class-based distinction perhaps best epitomized by a distinction in vocabulary. In the US, an "engineer" is a well-educated university graduate with at least a strong grounding in the basic sciences; in the UK, an "engineer" may be anyone who deals with an "engine"... such as Archibald Tuttle, Heating Engineer. Snow was culturally blind to this distinction. And, in a bit of irony that both b-school and engineering undergraduates don't recognize, it's the same issue: the struggle between new theory and analysis on the one tentacle and immediate, profitable application of existing theory and analysis on the other tentacle. This really is a fourth cultural divide, even within the contemporary university: Engineering and business faculty (and, I suppose, such specialized crossbreeds as "agricultural sciences" and "communications" and "leisure and recreation"... and "education," ironically enough) against the rest. If you need proof that this is relevant, consider the recent experiences of one of the newest Nobel Prize winners.1
  • I suppose I'm saying that Snow was twice as right as he thought he was. Or, perhaps, only half as right as he should have been. Either way, it's a bit of an embarrassment to pretend that half-right is good enough half a century later.

  • Mark Kleiman (Political Science, UCLA) is on a roll: And it certainly relates to sausages and what goes into them. One item he posted Sunday concerns the contents of your burgers, with some bonus historical context. And the rest of his blog is usually of interest, too.

    But that's only half the story. As an exercise for the student, consider Kleiman's discussion of "agency capture" of the Department of Agriculture regarding both the Register of Copyright and the antitrust divisions of the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, and how that relates to both the Google Book Search litigation and copyright reform in general.

  1. Sorry about the secondary source that breaches a paywall, but the actual text is quite important... and the primary source's theory of why it owns the copyright is unlawful and unethical, which is an interesting contrast with the article itself. Consider this a bit of civil disobedience.