Recommended reads #85


In 10 years, Harvey Mudd (an exclusive STEM-focused college in the LA area, one of the Claremont Colleges) went from 15% women students to having a majority of women. Here’s how they did it.

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists” Or, what happens when a trained physicist takes crackpots (and their money) seriously.

Some universities are using a program that tracks student keystrokes in an attempt to catch plagiarizing students.

DA Henderson, a hero of science, died this week. He is, arguably, the reason we don’t have smallpox anymore, and I wish I knew his story before he left us.

Statistical training in grad school doesn’t train ecologists for the work we need to do.

Now can buy your own replica (technically, a reproduction) of the Voynich Manuscript for $8000. Not familiar with the Voynich Manuscript? Then you’re in for a treat.

Catherine Hulshof has great reasons for eliminating the GRE requirement.

Listen to the sound of my voice.” Assuming you like this, you might want to find everything else from Kelly Baker.

I was unaware of this before now: children who experience abuse and trauma are far more likely to have significant health problems as adults. This is the first major study about this, I think, from almost 20 years ago, but others have follows in its wake. There was a TED talk about this a couple years ago, which I haven’t watched.

How to make a real commitment to diversity.

On safe spaces and segregation in universities. (I put a thing up on Facebook about the University of Chicago “safe space” thing, in which the Dean of Students said he wasn’t going to have any of that.)

The first intentional relocation of a vertebrate because of climate change.

NPR is getting rid of online comments on its site. Once you look at their explanation and the statistics, it’s hard to argue against this move. Only a teeny tiny fraction of their listenership is commenting, and it’s also a very nonrandom subset that is commenting a lot. Those guys should just get their own chat room or something instead of taking up real estate on every NPR story. (I am not planning to get rid of comments, but low fraction of commenters happens here too. I think the comments are of high value, but it’s a minuscule number of people relative to the entire readership, and if the comments are not reflective of the readership, then that might not be good. I don’t want to shut down discussion, but more interesting discussions about Small Pond posts happen on social media far more than in the comments themselves. Commenting on blogs has dropped across the board. The medium has evolved. So, I don’t know what to do with this. If you have thoughts on how to modify/remove, or not, the comments, feel free to, um, leave a comment.)

You know those baby simulators they give to high school students to dissuade them from making real babies? It turns out that they have the opposite effect. Teenagers are more likely to have real babies if they are required to take care of fake babies. I get it. After some quality baby time (and I guess maybe ever more so after fake baby time?) wouldn’t you want to have one? I mean, babies, man. Who doesn’t love babies? Okay, some people don’t. But clearly the people assigned the fake babies for school feel differently.

The National Labor Relations Board changed course and now says that grad students in private universities can unionize. Grad students in public universities have had this right for a while — the grad students in my university system unionized in 2006. This is another good reason to be a grad student in a more progressive part of the country, so that you won’t have to suffer under “right to work” laws as a grad student.

A recent post on Memoirs of a SLACer was about the genre of tenure denial stories. Notable is the extremely detailed narrative from Jennifer Diascro six years after the events in she describes. Diascro gave up a tenured position for a new one, only to not get tenure. It’s a lengthy story and I haven’t read it all, but it does look like compelling reading. Here it is on her site in reverse chronological order. I imagine you’d want to start with the post at the bottom and work your way up. She provided copies of the key documents that were involved in the process, too. Tenure denial is more common than most people think — perhaps one in twenty tenure-track faculty at non-prestigious universities are denied tenure, and assuredly more leave their position before getting denied. Talking about it is important, especially for those who find themselves in such a position.

How “voluntourism” helps rich high school students get into prestigious universities, while really doing nothing for the people they’re purporting to help. Meanwhile, I’m just learning about what JK Rowling’s Lumos Foundation does – work to help reunite families that have been broken apart by “orphanages” designed to benefit the voluntourism industry.

The University of Kentucky is suing is own student newspaper. Why? Because they did the job the University is supposed to be doing — protecting members of the community by releasing information about a sexually harassing professor while the university continues to try to bury the story. Meanwhile, entomologist James Harwood was allowed to quit his job in secrecy and seek a position elsewhere keeping the finding of his sexual misconduct under wraps.

I was fascinated to learn that international swimming competitions intentionally reduced the number of significant digits used for clocking races. Why? Because if they measured more accurately, it would be amplify the unfair edge that some swimmers might get, cause by variance in the length of the lanes in the pools, which can off by just a little bit, and vary with conditions. While we’re on the topic Olympic swimming, here’s some seriously interesting math showing how the pools in the Rio Olympics had some lanes that were faster than others, which is clearly anomalous from other international meets (aside from Barcelona 2013).

Here’s a fascinating — and gorgeous — visualization of the movement of vertebrates in North America in response to climate change.

Mother Jones funded a major investigation into the abuses that happen in the private prison industry, which resulted in a huge story that wielded a great deal of influence. Perhaps it was important in the Federal government’s decision to stop contracting with private prisons. Here is a piece by Mother Jones explaining the economics of this investigation, and how they spent a ton of money on it but aren’t getting nearly any revenue back from it. The future of journalism is weird.

How to avoid unconscious bias in your classroom.

Here’s a profile of Justin Schmidt in the New York Times. You might know of him from the Schmidt Pain Index.

I’m finishing up Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong? and I think it’s moderately fascinating. He tries to look at the present as if it was the past, to tackle a mostly untackleable question. You know how we look back on history — say, hundreds of years in the past — and we see how thinkers were just wrong about fundamental things, compared to what we know now. In which ways are we collectively deluding ourselves in the present just like our ancestors did back then? What things that are widely accepted now will seem silly or be forgotten in the future? He interviews a bunch of interesting people towards this end, including Richard Linklater, Brian Greene, Kathryn Schultz, and David Byrne. (In one chapter, he speculates which band will be the one that rock music is remembered by, 500 years from now. His most educated guess? Journey. It sounds crazy but his argument, which can’t be disproven for a few centuries of course, is a pretty good one.)

While on Klosterman, it’s been years, but I remember his short novel Downtown Owl as mighty good. One indicator of this, I think, is that I still think about it one in a while.

Doctors weren’t sure what kind of person I would be when I woke up. Even after I woke up, doctors and professionals have tried to keep my expectations low. I will never forget when one medical professional sat me down and said, ‘Sweetheart, you’ll never be as good as you were.’ I am proud to say that I am better than I ever I was.”

PhD students might benefit from having a science communication expert on their dissertation committee.

WikiLeaks sucks, and this is why.

I Went on a Weeklong Cruise For Conspiracy Theorists. It Ended Poorly.

Here’s a story about how The City University of Hong Kong switched to a “discovery-based” undergraduate curriculum which emphasized novel research.

The president of Marist College sounds rather silly in his rationalization for sending his basketball team to play in North Carolina, whereas so many other reasonable organizations have joined a boycott because of a transphobic state law.

guide to online resources for teaching and learning in higher education – this list is humanities-centric, but lots of it is relevant for everybody.

Do you know where Kiribati is? The nation soon may just no longer exist – just eliminated from the map. No lines will be redrawn, it’s just that the land will disappear. An Olympic wrestler has given us a chance to learn about the story and murky future of Kiribati.

Inside a 700 year old tattoo shop.

An important paper just came out that explains how researchers studying diversification in STEM need to up their game with more sophisticated approaches to analyzing their data if we are going to develop and validate approaches that actually work.

Colleges actually are hiring more women and minority faculty than they have been – as contingent instructorsThis is not how diversification works.

Sociologists are thinking long and carefully about how to include communication with the public as a component of academic job performance.

Malcolm Gladwell was in top pseudoscientific form when he took at shot at Bowdoin College as elitist and unconcerned about its (relatively small number of) low-income students. Which isn’t really borne out by the evidence, Bowdoin says. It’s cute how Bowdoin is so proud of it’s 15% first-generation college student population, like how USC is so proud of its 20% rate. Anyway, Gladwell is a hack, he knows he’s a hack, and his swipe at Bowdoin not only lacked substance, but also was misrepresentative.

On getting rid of deadlines for assignments:

I reworked my lateness policy. Now every student in my courses can elect to take a two-day grace period on any paper — no questions asked. If, at the end of that period, they are still having trouble completing the assignment, they must meet with me in person to go over an outline of their ideas and set a schedule for getting the paper done.

The results have been amazing. Since changing my policy, I’ve seen higher-quality work, less anxiety, and fewer cases of burnout. Most of my students do take the grace period occasionally throughout the semester, but the great majority complete their assignments by the end of the two days. And when students are having serious difficulties, there is a support system in place to integrate them back into the classroom.

Some really important senior scientists think we need to change how scientists receive credit and rewards for their work. Thanks for that. We never would have thought of this without you, guys.

I’m definitely heading to the cinema in January:

Have a great weekend.

10 thoughts on “Recommended reads #85

  1. Lots of interesting reads this week.

    Re: blog comment sections dying, yep. As you say, arguably they never really took off in the first place except for a small and non-representative minority of readers. Certainly, it’s only a tiny fraction of Dynamic Ecology’s readers who ever comment, and an even tinier fraction who do so more than once or twice.

    I’m thankful Dynamic Ecology’s comment section isn’t dying; it’s more or less holding steady. That comments on our posts haven’t been migrating onto social media presumably reflects the fact that I’m not on social media (neither is Brian; Meg is). Though there could be other reasons too; maybe we’re just lucky. And of course our comment section might die in future. I sometimes wonder/worry about how long we could possibly resist the general trend toward comment section death.

  2. A weird, silly thought, after reading about the physicist who consults for crackpots (great read, btw), Harvey Mudd improving its gender balance in computer science and physics, and a piece at fivethirtyeight on the improved gender balance (and success) of the US Math Olympiad team:

    What happens to the number and gender balance of crackpots in physics and mathematics as the gender balance of those fields and allied fields (computer science, engineering) improves? Maybe nothing, which if so would suggest that propensity to crackpottery is gendered for some reason having nothing to do with the gender balance of the field. Or maybe as the field’s gender balance improves you start seeing female crackpots?

    Anyway, am now curious if any mathematicians will now start consulting for crackpots. They’re certainly out there; lots of mathematical crackpots used to submit crazy “proofs” of Fermat’s Last Theorem, before Andrew Wiles proved it for real.

    Am also curious if the same approach would work for crackpot biologists, although I think they’re rarer than crackpots in mathematics or physics (?) I’m thinking for instance of that forensic scientist who thinks she has genetic evidence of Bigfoot (aside: aha! a woman crackpot! They exist!)

  3. Jeremy, I dare not suggest I know your own blog better than yourself, but I think the comments from your site have migrated (or, perhaps, expanded to) social media. I number of the posts have a more substantial discussion associated with them on twitter (often not tagging @DynamicEcology). When it’s a detailed post about ecological theory from you, or statistics from Brian, then I think the comments on the post are where the meat of the discussion is. But when it comes to stuff like (say) CV formatting or life balance & parenting, then I suspect the discussion on social media is typically more substantial than on the post itself.

    I tossed the idea out there (on social media) about getting rid of comments on every post, but setting up a separate page on the site for a ‘forum’ for ongoing discussion, which could have a place where people can converse about related topics without having to pin their thoughts specifically to the post. But that would create a whole chat-room community that would be just as narrow in its appeal and utility. So since I don’t know what to do, I’m just not changing anything.

  4. I question the premise of Prof. Prescod-Weinstein’s piece, that the solution to problems of diversity and access in higher ed is for all the individuals in it to stop being so racist. I mean, sure, people should be less racist. But for me, a real commitment to diversity would require a hard look at the way the overall system is structured. It’s understandable: I don’t know Prof. P-W personally but people at her level tend to be pretty invested in their own eliteness, and a meritocracy that has delivered them to the top must be doing something right. They don’t object to the academic caste system itself, only that people sometimes get put into the wrong caste.

  5. “Jeremy, I dare not suggest I know your own blog better than yourself, but I think the comments from your site have migrated (or, perhaps, expanded to) social media. I number of the posts have a more substantial discussion associated with them on twitter (often not tagging @DynamicEcology). When it’s a detailed post about ecological theory from you, or statistics from Brian, then I think the comments on the post are where the meat of the discussion is. But when it comes to stuff like (say) CV formatting or life balance & parenting, then I suspect the discussion on social media is typically more substantial than on the post itself.”

    Hmm, interesting. Is this a recent development? When this same question came up a year or so ago, Meg reported that there’s rarely discussion of our posts on social media. And WordPress gives us data on how often our posts are shared on Facebook and how many pageviews we get from Facebook. There are posts of ours that get shared widely on Facebook, resulting in us getting lots of pageviews originating from Facebook. You’re right that they’re often advice posts and Meg’s posts on gender and work-life balance issues. But as best I can tell from the data WordPress provides, those posts are very much the exception; most of our posts (including the majority of our advice posts) don’t get shared on Facebook at all and draw no traffic originating from Facebook. But I know nothing of Facebook–are there ways of sharing posts on Facebook that wouldn’t show up in WordPress’ sharing data or our pageview stats?

    Re: discussion of our posts on Twitter, I do keep an eye on them via searches. My searches find any tweets linking to our posts, not just people who tag @DynamicEcology. My searches rarely turn up any substantive discussion of our posts on Twitter. It’s usually just people sharing the post, sometimes with very brief comments like “thanks for this!” or “this is so important!” Meg’s recent post on CV formatting was an exception as best I can tell, it did spark some substantive discussions on Twitter. Do lots of people discuss our posts on Twitter not only without tagging us, but without any link to the original post?

    Perhaps we’re talking past one another a bit and not actually disagreeing because we’re not being specific enough about exactly how rare discussions of Dynamic Ecology posts are on social media? For instance, even if every post of Meg’s and every advice post of Brian’s gets widely discussed on Facebook, that’s still only a fairly small minority of our posts. Perhaps what’s going on is that there’s lots of discussion of Meg’s and (some of) Brian’s posts on social media, but no discussion of mine! That wouldn’t surprise me, actually. And it would show that people on social media have good taste, since Meg and Brian write good posts at a much higher rate than I do.

    In any case, insofar as there is discussion of our posts on social media, it hasn’t resulted in us getting fewer comments on the blog than we used to. Whether that means social media is or isn’t cannibalizing our comments I guess depends on your point of view. My own suspicion is that most people commenting on our posts on social media wouldn’t comment on the blog instead if the social media option didn’t exist. But obviously, it’s hard to say for sure–that’s a very weird counterfactual. One way to get at this a bit would be to ask people who used to comment on the blog but now no longer do so if they now discuss our posts on social media instead. So, Terry: are you and Jim Bouldin talking about Dynamic Ecology on Facebook instead of commenting? :-)

    • I have dropped off on commenting, like I’ve also dropped off on writing for my own site! I’m down to 1.5 posts per week I think. In Facebook, I don’t really see those conversations or have them.

      That’s a good point – the comments (or the people who make them) on social media aren’t doing them in lieu of doing it on the blog, it’s that those comments wouldn’t happen otherwise. Because putting your comments on a post that live there in (effective) perpetuity is not a small thing on a site that other people who you know are reading.

      In the last several months, I’ve been less likely to read some of my favorite sites before getting to work. But when I get on twitter, I end up discovering what is on Dynamic Ecology, not from a direct post from the bot or from Meg, but from others sharing it, usually with some comments. Which is what’s given me the impression there is commentary there. But often the commentary is limited to sharing the post, with a smallish remark associated with the share. And then sometimes people reply to those. I think it’s quite possible I’m overstating the magnitude of the discussion, and just remembering some of them (like CV formatting this week) that were extensive.

  6. So that’s what’s going on? I thought it was just me. It appears that I have returned to blog in a different world. sigh Oh well. When I was blogging back, maybe, 6 years ago, I had a pretty large group of bloggers that followed each other and regularly commented. It was a great time, lots of debating and thinking, and sharing links and news stories. Alas, has the sun set on blogland? It’s still going on, somewhat, on Tumblr, but is too contrived to use (and impossible to find people), and just too… Well, I tried it… but it made me feel like I had ADHD after a week.

    Anyway, I’m adding ‘But what if we’re wrong?’ to me reading list. Thanks!

  7. I despise Facebook and wish it did not exist, but it was inevitable once the bottom 90% managed to straggle onto the internet.

    There was a displacement effect and even many of the smart people moved to Facebook, where everyone else is.

    I’ll miss the internet 1999-2004 or so, when it was at its peak and it hadn’t yet been dominated by the troglodytes and their favorite site.

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