Category Archives: Academia in General

A Random Walk around Mediocrity

Lawrence M. Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia and Citizendium, has published an article which explains perfectly why I don’t usually bother contributing to Wikipedia (p. 64):

Over the long term, the quality of a given Wikipedia article will do a random walk around the highest level of quality permitted by the most persistent and aggressive people who follow an article.


The difficulty, as many disaffected Wikipedians have discovered, is that there are far too many articles persistently “managed” by aggressive individuals who will simply not let it improve in certain respects. In disputes, these persons tend to drive off more knowledgeable people, thereby keeping the quality of articles low.

Yep, that’s it. I’ve seen this phenomenon play out several times. Someone who is factually and demonstrably wrong but passionate about a Wikipedia page will edit out anything which does not correspond to his incorrect views. There have been very many times I decided to not correct Wikipedia pages because I just do not have the luxury of wasting time. If I knew the improvements I make would not be undone by someone who obviously does not know what he is talking about, I would spend time editing because the time thus spent would not be wasted. I’m just not interested in spending precious time writing thoughtfully about a subject to then have some random guy who thinks he knows better mess it up or delete it entirely. Wikipedia apologists will say that it is always possible to discuss the edit in the Talk page. True, but that does not solve the problem. It makes it worse because it means trying to convince someone who has given up on critical thinking that his opinion is incorrect. This means wasting even more time. So I’ll leave it to other people to participate in the random walk. My view on the topic can be summarized as:

Editing Wikipedia is a waste of time.

You have to take that statement in context. It means that the time I could spend on Wikipedia is better spent elsewhere. There is always something to write elsewhere or something to read or some software to improve or something else I can do with my time which will be more fruitful than engaging in a futile edit war with some ill-informed guy.

Mythical Underdogs and the Role of Peer Reviewing

Michael White over on the Scientific Blogging Site posted an article in which he exposes the largely mythical nature of the narrative of the scientific underdog repressed by an entrenched scientific establishment. I urge people to read his article but if you are too pressed for time, I’ll quote White on what that narrative precisely consists of. I am quoting White but keep in mind the context: White is critical of this narrative.

The narrative goes like this:

1. The famous, brilliant scientist So-and-so hypothesized that X was true.

2. X, forever after, became dogma among scientists, simply by virtue of the brilliance and fame of Dr. So-and-so.

3. This dogmatic assent continues unchallenged until an intrepid, underdog scientist comes forward with a dramatic new theory, completely overturning X, in spite of sustained, hostile opposition by the dogmatic scientific establishment.

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Buddhism comp passed!

I’ve gotten word from Karen Lang that she and Paul Groner rated my Buddhism comprehensive exam with an “enthusiastic pass”. (Those exams are not graded with letters: either you pass or you fail.) Yay!

I’m working on my Hinduism comprehensive now.

And then the methodology comprehensive.

And then the dissertation proposal.

And then 9 months of research abroad… probably Taiwan.

And then writing the dissertation and defending.

And then back in the workforce.

Book publishers still do not understand the digital medium!

Hubert Guillaud noted in a post titled Perplexité des éditeurs face au numérique that a study reports that book publishers still do not know how to handle the digital revolution. (The actual study is a pdf file.) I will here quote two passages of the study and offer my reaction.

By and large, professors aren’t interested in using digital textbooks. Thus, for digital content to be significant in the college marketplace, it will require “a profound change in way professors teach”. (pp. 9-10)

The opinion expressed in the first sentence is most likely correct but the conclusion does not follow. Professors are a relatively minor part of the equation here. There are much more important factors at play so let me imitate the quote above to express where I think the problem really is. “By and large, students are not interested in using digital textbooks in arcane formats, delivered in ways that impede fair use or that are overpriced. Thus, for digital content to be significant in the college marketplace, it will require a profound change in the way digital content is made available.” The fact is that for any given textbook, if there were an acceptable digital edition of the textbook beside a paper edition, many students would select the digital edition. The publisher just needs to make an acceptable digital edition available. It does not matter whether the professor likes digital editions or not. But for the vast majority of textbooks I have had to buy, the situation boils down to this:

  • In the vast majority of cases, there is just no digital edition.
  • Or if there is a digital edition, it comes with unacceptable DRM. This is no joke. I’ve seen digital books which did not allow cut and paste or printing pages or some other nonsense.
  • Or the digital edition comes in an arcane format. Again, I’m talking from experience. Some digital books available through our library at UVA are just not readable in any Unix-based OS because the company publishing them has chosen a proprietary format for which readers are only available for Windows (and perhaps Mac OS). When I’m paying for such book, I do not want to take a chance on a format which might lose all support because the one single company promoting it goes belly up.
  • Or the price is unacceptable. Users are not idiots. If a paper book costs $20, I understand that part of that price goes to the printer who prints the copy I am buying, part goes to the shipping company who moves the book to the retailer and part of it goes to the retailer. There’s no way the PDF of the same book should cost $20. In this day and age, if a publishing company cannot market their digital edition of books with substantial savings over the print version then they just do not know how to publish.

This last point about price needs elaboration. Book publishers are infected with the same mentality afflicting the entertainment industry. They think that whatever profits they have made in the past are representative of the natural order of things. High profits and their continual increase is just the way the universe is ordered. Or it is a god-given right or something just as essential. The reality however is that how profitable an industry is changes along with cultural change. Publishers have to realize that maybe, just maybe, the publishing industry is destined to become much less profitable than it once was. By trying to protect their historical profits with restrictions like DRM, they are in fact making their product much less appealing that it would otherwise be and they are hurting their bottom line. And yet, the study reports:

In terms of the use of file format, one publisher candidly declared: “As long as the DRM (digital rights management for security) is good, we go into it.” (p. 10)

In other words, that publisher does not care about whether the format benefits the customer as long as it provides restrictions that will allow the publisher to sleep at night. Is it possible to be more anti-customer? Is it?

Now, go back to the first quote about professors above and reread it. Now consider that I am one of those future professors that the publishing industry is counting on. My interest is in the free flow of information but their interest is creating obstacles to justify their existence and the fees they impose on people who want access to information. Consider also that my opinion is not a marginal one but is shared by other future professors and by young professors who have just joined academia. If publishers think that they are marketing their digital goods correctly and that problems with iron themselves out once customer mentalities change in their favor, they are headed towards oblivion.

Reactions to the AAP’s FUD: the danger of alienation

A few days ago, I finally posted my belated reaction to the AAP’s position on a possible government mandate to make all articles published from publicly funded research freely available to the general public. I was not aware at the time but some reactions to the AAP’s position had already been published when I wrote my post. I was informed of that fact by a post on Slashdot. Of note is the open letter by Rockefeller University Press. They are a member organization of the AAP but they clearly distance themselves from the FUD being spread by the AAP. (This is a good example of the general caution we should apply in interpreting the pronouncements of umbrella associations that purport to speak for their members. Such associations can go rogue and misrepresent what their members really want. Or, and this is probably the case here, they represent the views only of their most powerful members.)

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Proof that the AAP is in league with the RIAA and the MPAA

Just after posting yesterday about how the AAP uses dubious rhetoric to try to preserve its current power and revenue in the domain of scholarly publishing, I learned of a new alliance dedicated to corrupting public policy in favor of copyright holders called the Copyright Alliance. I examined their list of members. What do I find in the list?

Motion Picture Association of America

Association of American Publishers

Recording Industry Association of America

There’s the proof that the AAP is in league with the RIAA and the MPAA.

And now, for some FUD from the AAP

[This is a post I wrote a long time ago but left in draft form for way too long.]

Look up the term FUD on Wikipedia if you are unfamiliar with it and then come back to this article. According to an article in the online version of Nature, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) has hired a “pit bull of public relations” to counter the rise of free information. From the article:

Now, Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available.

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PHYS 732: Particle physics and theories of personality


Everybody is familiar with the usual bouts of anxiety that manifest themselves as dreams (or perhaps, nightmares) of academic disaster. Although dreaming of going to class naked seems to be popular, that never happened to me, whether in dreams or for real. However, numerous times I’ve dreamed of finding at the end of a semester that I was registered to a class without my knowledge. Or that there’s an exam coming and I’m learning about it just 2 seconds before exam time. Or that I’ve been going to the wrong class all semester long. But nothing like the dream I had last night.

I guess new academic roles bring on new possibilities for disaster. At any rate, last night I dreamed that I had been selected for being a TA for a class called “Particle physics and theories of personality.” Good gods! In my dream, my Religious Studies teachers were assuring me that it was in my best interest to teach that class. Of course, to top it off, I had learned about it just 2 seconds before the first class. I felt I was a terrible choice for teaching anyone anything about particle physics. I was also skeptical as to the rationale for making particle physics and theories of personality the subject matter of a single class. Sounds like one of those flashy course titles that end up disappointing.

As for why I had that dream, that’s just the usual anxiety about making sure that I’m at the level I need to be to perform the tasks I need to perform as a graduate student. Luckily, I don’t have such dreams too often.

Fanciful interpretations

I’ve been thinking about how academics often produce fanciful interpretations of artistic works. As I was trying to fashion a patently absurd example, I came up with this:

Alien is really a movie about immigration. Forget the monsters, the gore, the fear. It’s all about the trials and tribulations of a misunderstood alien looking for acceptance in an unforgiving world.

Someday, I’ll post an in-depth analysis.

The fear of writing critical reviews

Professor Tamanaha posted an interesting blog entry in which he admits having become a coward: he no longer wants to write negative reviews of books.

Tamanaha seems to have made his mind up, but I am still deliberating what my own stance is going to be. I always tell my students that their grades does not represent their worth as persons but the message rarely seems to register. Critical comments meant to point out ways to improve are taken as personal attacks. A similar kind of problematic occurs in relationships with colleagues and those standing higher in the academic hierarchy (yes, they also make mistakes sometimes).

Contrarily to what some of the comments on Prof. Tamanaha suggest, this problem is not only present in academia. I’ve had experience in the technological sector and my wife manages an IT group. It’s been our experience that this kind of fear of providing critical comments is also quite present there.