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Clay Shirkey on Collapsing Societies, Institutions and Business Models (… and how about universities?)

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Clay Shirkey in a much-commented upon post addressing collapsing business models, institutions and societies (this post has been around a while). Read the whole post – it seems very relevant to the way all sorts of instutions are actively resisting the call of the future at present. Universities in general seem resistant to this sort of institutional collapse, as they have survived for so long (but will particular universities be able to resist such institutional collapse, given the host of pressures that are building?). To re-write the financial watchdog warning: perhaps past survival of a university is no guarantee of future survival!

A quote:

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

 

Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Strategic Plan 2010-2016

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Blogging has been light recently because of the usual term-time stuff. However, we have launched our Institute of Neuroscience Strategic Plan (also available via google docs).

See here for the Trinity press release and TCIN Strategic Plan Nov 2010 Final for the summary presentation pdf.

The graphics are fantastic, and the plan itself is short and sweet.

A quote:

Our animating ethos rests on the belief that major and fundamental research problems are best solved by combining research strengths across disciplines and levels of analysis.

Combining our strengths in this way will allow us to deliver major scientific discoveries of great consequence for human health, welfare and knowledge.

Table of Contents:

  1. Why Explore the Brain? [Our short, simple answer: ‘Understanding the structure and functions of our brains brings us a good way along the path of understanding ourselves as humans. Progress in understanding the nervous system materially benefits human health, welfare and knowledge.‘]
  2. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Mission
  3. Transformative Neuroscience
  4. Context
  5. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Today
  6. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Tomorrow
  7. Research Focus 1: Synapses, Cognition and Behaviour
  8. Research Focus 2: Neuropsychiatry and Neurodevelopmental Disorders
  9. Research Focus 3: Neurodegeneration, Neuroprotection and Neuroplasticity
  10. Platform Technologies: Imaging and Neural Engineering
  11. Innovation
  12. Education
  13. Contribution to Society and Outreach
  14. Future Opportunities
  15. Measuring Impact: Hard and Soft Metrics
  16. Final Thoughts

Read it!

Industry-academic interactions

October 8, 2010 1 comment

Here’s disturbing story from the UK (reg req):

IS INDUSTRY WALKING AWAY FROM ACADEMIA?

Recession-hit companies scale back university liaison offices

Universities could find it more difficult to find industry research partners as hi-tech companies look to scale back or close their academic liaison departments in the wake of the financial crisis.

And a quote:

The defence technology company QinetiQ, spun out of the government’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 2001, has closed its central academic liaison department. And within the past few months, the mobile telecoms company Vodaphone has moved its academic cooperation work into a single office in Germany. Previously, academic liaison was handled by a team scattered across different countries including Germany, the UK and Spain.

This has to be a concern if it is generally true: the idea that industry-academic partnerships are a good thing is reasonable on the face of it, but if industry decides it’s not interested, then what…?

A previous post here gives a very different perspective on how such interactions might actually evolve.

 

US school ranking names no winners: Nature News

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

US school ranking names no winners : Nature News.

A non-ranking ranking system for Graduate education in the USA.

A quote:

Graduate programmes are assessed and measured, but stale data could reduce impact of long-awaited report.

Which US chemistry department is the biggest? As of autumn 2005, the University of California, Berkeley, had a whopping 406 graduate students. That must be some departmental picnic. Which ecology programme takes the longest? The median time to complete a PhD degree in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Tulane University in Louisiana is 8.5 years. Which genetics programme has the highest average number of citations per faculty publication? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge dominates, with a knockout 10.08. Which physics programme is the best? A new report that supplies all of the other answers doesn’t make the call.

Released on 28 September, the long-awaited National Academies study on US PhD programmes, A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States (see go.nature.com/tqvokc), is notable for not ranking programmes in 1-2-3 order. But it aims to offer comparisons that are detailed enough both to help students determine where to apply and to help job-seekers judge offers. The findings could also guide spending by administrators at a state or school level — whether by lavishing funds on standout programmes or by spending money to improve less-successful ones.

More at the NAS and the rest of this report via the link at top.

A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say – gimpyblog’s posterous

September 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say – gimpyblog’s posterous.

Another nice follow-up to the post below from Chris Dillow on the forthcoming cuts to the UK science budget.

[blogpost reproduced in full]

A rather odd thing for Vince Cable to say

Forget for one moment the fall out of Vince Cable’s speech on science funding.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/08/vincent-cable-science-budget-cutsForget the fact the government has ignored the recommendations of last parliaments Science & Technology committee.
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/335/33504…

Forget the fact that a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State with a remit for science has utterly reneged on Liberal Democrat commitments to science that were made to the electorate.
http://blog.sciencecampaign.org.uk/?page_id=1094

Forget even the fact that the Secretary of State does not appear to understand the criteria used for assessing the research that his department is responsible for.
http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/unravelling-cable/

Forget all this.  For it is not the most weird thing about the speech.
http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=415357&NewsAreaID=2

This is:

Superstition and irrational prejudice about the natural world are rarely far from the surface and scientists help inoculate society against them – a far from risk-free task as Simon Singh and others have discovered.

Is Cable saying scientists are inherently more rational and less prejudiced than other members of society? This would be contentious.  Or does he mean that science can provide rational reasons for events and occurrences once attributed to supernatural forces and that evidence undermines prejudice.  This would be true, but you only have too look at the public’s understanding of genetic modification, climate change or immigration to see that in practice throwing facts in somebody’s face is not always the most efficacious way of changing their mind.

And what has Simon Singh got to do with anything?  He was sued by a bunch of quacks whose reputation now lies in tatters.  This was a terrible abuse of libel law and it needs to be reformed, but this is not the remit of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills.  Perhaps Cable was worried that libel law can stifle science based criticisms?  It can, but I suspect that focussing science on fields that generate short term profit against all the evidence may in fact represent a far greater threat.

Did Cable really think that a poorly conceived nod to skeptical activism and libel reform would sweeten the bitter taste this renunciation of his party’s purported principles has left in the mouths of most scientists?

Stumbling and Mumbling: The pretence of knowledge

September 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Stumbling and Mumbling: The pretence of knowledge.

Chris Dillow makes a very important set of points regarding scientific research in the post reproduced below. We occasionally hear similar gibberish here, as in the phrase ‘research to retail’, which apart from the shared consonants is devoid of meaning but has the happy property of short-circuiting your synapses, and prevents thinking about the actual progress of research findings to the market. The problem here of course is that of not knowing what you don’t know.

Post reproduced in full:

One of the more unpleasant aspects of the New Labour government was its anti-Hayekian pretence that central government could acquire knowledge which, in fact, is unobtainable. The coalition has inherited this boneheaded idea.
Take Vince Cable’s recent speech:

There is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.
The problem here is that it is impossible to predict what research will be commercially useful. History is full of examples of businessmen and scientists – let alone politicians – utterly failing to anticipate commercial uses, for example:

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable”
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.”
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
The notion that government can cut only “useless” science funding is an egregious pretence to know things that cannot be known. Instead, such cuts operate much as financial constraints for business operate: they diminish the ecology upon which natural selection operates.
The only reason I hesitate to call Cable a witless imbecile is that I doubt that he actually believes what he says.
Speaking of witless imbeciles brings me seamlessly to Gideon Osborne. He says:

People who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.
“But people who think it’s a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits – that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end.
Now, leave aside the hypocrisy of the heir to a multi-million fortune whining about folk getting something for nothing. Leave aside the fact that there’s little point encouraging people to find work if there’s none to be had. And leave aside the fact that the unemployed are, on average, significantly unhappier than those in work.
Even if we ignore all this, there’s still a problem here. It is, practically speaking, almost impossible for the state to distinguish between the “vulnerable” and the “workshy”. A more intrusive benefits system will bear heavily upon those with poor mental health, low IQ and poor social skills, whilst “scroungers” will continue to game the system.  The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor might seem clear to bar-room bigots. But it is almost impossible to apply it to millions of individual people, except by creating a bureaucracy so large as to offset any savings on benefits.
Osborne is doing just what Cable and New Labour did. He’s assuming the state can know things which in fact it cannot.
Good Hayekians should be sceptical of what Osborne and Cable are claiming. Sadly, though, I suspect that  the majority of people who claim to admire Hayek are wedded more to class war than to Hayek’s actual ideas.

Govt must avoid cuts in education spend – US tech giants (via Ninth Level Ireland)

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Govt must avoid cuts in education spend – US tech giants “Ireland’s Government must resist any temptation to make cuts in education spending if it wants to develop the smart economy, the American Chamber of Commerce has warned. It says Ireland is producing a higher standard of graduates and this must be sustained …” (more) [John Kennedy, Silicon Republic, 8 September] … Read More

via Ninth Level Ireland

Sergey Brin’s Search for a Parkinson’s Cure

July 7, 2010 1 comment

Sergey Brin’s Search for a Parkinson’s Cure.

Several evenings a week, after a day’s work at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, Sergey Brin drives up the road to a local pool. There, he changes into swim trunks, steps out on a 3-meter springboard, looks at the water below, and dives.

Brin is competent at all four types of springboard diving—forward, back, reverse, and inward. Recently, he’s been working on his twists, which have been something of a struggle. But overall, he’s not bad; in 2006 he competed in the master’s division world championships. (He’s quick to point out he placed sixth out of six in his event.)

The diving is the sort of challenge that Brin, who has also dabbled in yoga, gymnastics, and acrobatics, is drawn to: equal parts physical and mental exertion. “The dive itself is brief but intense,” he says. “You push off really hard and then have to twist right away. It does get your heart rate going.”

There’s another benefit as well: With every dive, Brin gains a little bit of leverage—leverage against a risk, looming somewhere out there, that someday he may develop the neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease. Buried deep within each cell in Brin’s body—in a gene called LRRK2, which sits on the 12th chromosome—is a genetic mutation that has been associated with higher rates of Parkinson’s.

The Irish Economy » Blog Archive » The OECD Innovation Strategy

The Irish Economy » Blog Archive » The OECD Innovation Strategy.

(Complete repost)

The OECD Innovation Strategy

This post was written by Iulia Siedschlag

The OECD Innovation Strategy brings together the results of a three-year analysis of innovation and innovation policies.

The Executive Summary of the analytical study can be found here and the Key Findings here. A Compendium of Indicators to measure innovation and monitor the implementation of the strategy can be found here.

An Expert Advisory Group including experts nominated by the governments of member states and other selected governments has provided advice and feedback on the project. As far as I can see in this Expert Advisory Group Ireland is not represented.

Tags:

The Economist on the human genome: Biology 2.0

http://www.economist.com/node/16349358.

A quote:

It seems quite likely that future historians of science will divide biology into the pre- and post-genomic eras.

In one way, post-genomic biology—biology 2.0, if you like—has finally killed the idea of vitalism, the persistent belief that to explain how living things work, something more is needed than just an understanding of their physics and chemistry. True, no biologist has really believed in vitalism for more than a century. Nevertheless, the promise of genomics, that the parts list of a cell and, by extension, of a living organism, is finite and cataloguable, leaves no room for ghosts in the machine.

Viewed another way, though, biology 2.0 is actually neo-vitalistic. No one thinks that a computer is anything more than the sum of its continually changing physical states, yet those states can be abstracted into concepts and processed by a branch of learning that has come to be known as information science, independently of the shifting pattern of electrical charges inside the computer’s processor.

So it is with the new biology. The chemicals in a cell are the hardware. The information encoded in the DNA is the preloaded software. The interactions between the cellular chemicals are like the constantly changing states of processing and memory chips. Though understanding the genome has proved more complicated than expected, no discovery made so far suggests anything other than that all the information needed to make a cell is squirreled away in the DNA. Yet the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.