Archive for the 'Reflection' Category

Hoping for Grace

October 3, 2017

Awful things happened this week. Awful things happen every week and most we (for various values of “we”) don’t know about.

But I go back to Obama’s elegy for those killed in Charleston:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. (Applause.) Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)

Amazing grace. Amazing grace.

Of course, Zoe’s song keeps it in my mind:

Obama said,

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — (applause) — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

This is a pretty general notice of grace in religious traditions. I don’t believe in God, so grace cannot be a favor of any god or divinity. But I do use a variant of the concept, though a bit more related to “graceful”. Grace is a way of being and acting that has a rightness that’s only partly aesthetic. When we act with grace we bring together the beautiful and the sublime such that it feels like a gift…effortless and beyond effort.

Grace is something we can give each other, but it’s not built brick by brick (though it might emerge from small efforts).

I keep looking for it in all things.

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Living in End Times

August 15, 2017

Climate change is scary. The sixth extinction is scary. Trump, North Korea, and nukes are scary.

Hans Rosling would do great presentations about how things are getting better. And in many ways they are.

And yet.

People have thought they lived in the end times throughout human history. Sometimes just a few. Sometimes large parts of a society. We can easily fixate on the negative.

And yet…the end times happen once. That they have not happened is not proof of future performance.

In the 20th century, we acquired the capability to destroy the world in less than a day. Real end times became possible.

Catastrophic ecological change is slower moving, but we seem to be hitting a rapid phase with multiple possible tipping points.

Of course, it’s not over until it’s over, but given the demonstrated capacity of our existing institutions to handle complex phenomena, it’s hard to be confident.

People who falsely believed that the world was ending were still living with that believe. Many of them lived out their lives so we know it’s possible to survive the stress of “knowing” you are living in the end times.

It seems to be a skill we need to culture.

Countering (Massive Numbers of) Lies Doesn’t Work

January 25, 2017

Lies are dangerous in a number of ways. Putting aside that there are lots of situations where a false belief leads to very bad action (e.g., believing homeopathy is an effective cancer treatment leads to forgoing treatment that would have saved one’s life or mitigated suffering). They are also dangerous because people with bad agendas tend to resort to lying because they can’t win on the merits. And they don’t just resort to a bit of deception, or even clever deception. It turns out that wholesale, massive, shameless, easily rebutted lies are pretty effective, at least for something.

Consider the decades long attack on the EU:

But Britain has a long and well-observed tradition of fabricating facts about Europe—so much so that the European Commission (EC) set up a website to debunk these lies in the early 1990s. Try our interactive quiz below and see if you can spot the myths.

Since then the EC has responded to over 400 myths published by the British media. These range from the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned). Some are seemingly the result of wilful misunderstandings.

Sadly, for all the commission’s hard work, it is unlikely to be heard. The average rebuttal is read about 1,000 times. The Daily Mail’s website, by contrast, garners 225m visitors each month.

And, of course, the Leave campaign, itself, was almost wholly lie based. Remain made some (economic) predictions that were falsified (and that needs to be understood), but it didn’t traffic in wholesale lies, to my knowledge.

Similarly, we have a decades long campaign, almost entirely easily-debunked-lie based, against Hillary Clinton. Just take claims about her honesty (esp. next to Trump). Robert Mann produced a very interesting graph of Polifact’s fact checking of a selection of politicians:

It isn’t even close! HRC is one of the most honest politicians (in terms of telling falsehoods) and Trump is one of the most dishonest.

Yet, when I was debating folks on Democratic leaning blogs, I had people saying that Clinton was a pathological liar. When presented with this chart, they stuck to their guns. (Note, they didn’t think Obama was a liar.)

You can quibble with the methodology (see Mann’s blog post for a discussion), but Polifact’s fact checker tries to be evenhanded. One should be at least a little struck by this evidence.

But correction often just doesn’t work, backfires, or isn’t effective in changing attitudes and behavior. For example,

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Or consider Emily Thorson’s concept of belief echoes:

However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction–even when it is fully believed–does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects,which I call “belief echoes,” are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking.

Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes, on the other hand, are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views

We see this in the various formulations of the Clinton Rules.

One major harm of such mechanisms is that it opens up a line of defense for very bad people, e.g., Trump, to wit, that there are “Trump rules” and the bad things pointed out about him are fake. They aren’t, but why trust a gullible media about it?

I’ve had personal experience of this. I used to comment a lot on LGM. One commenter with a propensity for persistently saying very silly things (about, e.g., statistics, causality, politics, and even the law (they are a lawyer)) got to a point where they couldn’t stand my repeated refutations (including pointing out how they’d been refuted before). They embarked on a pretty systematic campaign to lie about me, primarily about my mental health and that I was “stalking” them, on the verge of a breakdown, that they were frightened of me, that I had no sex life or other kind of life, that I spent large period of times looking things up on them (stalking!), etc. These were transparent lies and obvious gaslighting. No one took them directly seriously, but they did have effects. People would see an exchange and assume that there was some fault on my part (however mild). This would pop up elsewhere, in other comments.  Some of these people were more sympathetic to a gaslighting liar than they had any right to be.

So, pretty exemplary behavior and a sterling reputation vs. transparent lies and extremely bizarre slanders and…well, I’m the one not commenting any more. It worked, in a way. (Trump winning had an effect too. It’s not solely due to this bad behavior.)

Given sufficient shamelessness and no structural counter (e.g., moderation) and no big effort on my part (e.g., an active campaign), there’s little penalty for such lying and it advances their noxious cause.

These examples can be multiplied easily (anti-vaccine, pro-tobacco, climate change denial campaigns come to mind).

It’s very difficult to deal with. We need to.

Update:

How severe is the problem? I just saw a report on a survey using Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowd photos:

For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.

But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.

The article discusses the idea of “expressive responding”:

Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?

To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).

Expressive responding is yet another form of lying with potentially far reaching consequences.

Epistemic humility and existential dread

November 25, 2016

Health

I’ve been under the weather for months. Fatigue, light headedness, limb tingling, coughing, phlegm…all in different mixes. I date it to February which makes it about 10 months.

Some of this is “standard” for me. I’m immuno-strange both due to my arthritis and my arthritis meds (or so we believe). But this period has been noticeably worse. The past few weeks have been particularly annoying as the “cough/flu” symptoms have been particularly continuous (i.e., runny nose and productive cough and just so tired).

Back in February, we thought it was just some bacterial infections. My sweetie had a respiratory one (confirmed by culture) and we both had some antibiotics (two rounds for me!). There seemed close correlations between the medication and (some) improvement of the symptoms, which is some sort of indicator.

But then I didn’t get any better. And I didn’t get better. And still no. And so on.

We went through a battery of tests. We ruled out diabetes (which I was scared of having for a few weeks while waiting for the results). We also ruled out thyroid problems and B vitamin deficiency. We did a lung xray (it was clear). We did a testicle ultrasound (it was clear).

After a battery of tests we concluded that I was perfectly healthy except for all the crap I was experiencing. These could be partly stress related so I’m on a beta blocker. That’s helpful, but the symptoms have persisted through two months of beta blockers. One might have thought that the regulation of stress the beta blockers bring would have mitigated the symptoms to some degree, but no. The past few weeks testify otherwise.

At the end of all this I’m left in the following state: I don’t know what’s going on; I feel like crap; but I’m probably not going to die or have a severe hospitalisation or anything like that. I do have to figure out how to function, but it’s not the first time I’ve had some long term, debilitating, mysterious condition I had to cope with.

Epistemically, I’m at a loss. No one has any ideas or interest in pursuing further investigations (including me, at this point). Existentially, I’m pretty calm. I don’t feel any acute dread, but my ennui levels are high.

Politics

Trump won the presidential election. Unlike Brexit, I’m hard pressed to think that there will be any way out of it. The Brexit vote was  disaster, but it wasn’t the event itself. The referendum is advisory and didn’t present a specific deal. We have some further legal groundwork which supports the need for more consideration. There are people who are determined to make it happen come hell or high water and the loser opposition continues to be loser (the Labour leadership should be ashamed of itself). But it’s not wholly unreasonable to hope for the longshot.

The Trump adminstration and, thus, unified Republican government is coming. There’s no reasonable hope here. The electoral college is not going to install Clinton. There will not be an overturning recount. There’s not a shadow of a chance. Trump is the next president and the next Congress is Republican and the vacant Supreme Court seat will be filled by them (shameful though that may be procedurally).

I don’t know the precise mix of bad things coming, just that there are lots of bad things coming. Unlike in George W. Bush’s first term, there isn’t a big foreign policy idee fixe a la Iraq. But we have Ryan and the Assault on Medicare (as well as the ACA) to look forward to. Governance (i.e., the basic execution of governmental functions) is likely to be very bad, i.e., Michael Brown FEMA bad is going to look pretty good. We have a dangerous tendency toward personal profit and favoritism that goes well beyond mere incompetence.

Scary stuff.

We learned some stuff in this election, perhaps. Campaigns don’t seem to matter very much. Fundamentals based models did ok (but that’s sort of boring; the Republican won and most predicted a Republican win). Disentangling the causal picture is going to be tricky and take a while (to the degree that we can do so at all), but I think it’s fair to say that, absent some internal campaign data that dramatically shows otherwise, advertising and ground game are not big movers. Clinton’s campaign was far ahead on both of these and it didn’t do the job.

The result wasn’t “impossible” given the polling…just unlikely. The fact that Clinton has a huge popular vote win is rather surprising (FiveThirtyEight consistently gave very low probabilities (≈1%-5%) to this outcome).

It goes back to what I was saying all along: If you are the nominee of one of the two major parties, you can win. Polarization  and voting identity makes this fairly inevitable. The big issue is whether the elite interventions (esp. by the FBI and media follow up on email non-scandals) against Clinton were decisive or just noise.

With both the Brexit vote and the US election, there was reason to believe that the better outcome was coming. I’m trying not to feel too broken about that.

The outcomes are bad enough, but the knowledge failures (even if not strictly failures, due to hedging) are adding a level of additional pain. I strive to be epistemically humble. I’m well aware of the vast panoply of cognitive biases. Furthermore, I’m acutely aware of my own (specific) limitations.

And yet.

Core to my identity is being a knower, however humble, fragmentary, and fallible. “Know” has many shades of meaning and many of them are under assault in the world we are making (even if against our will). I don’t want to know the bad stuff if only because my individual capacity to resist is so limited. People with with positions and platforms a thousand times larger than mind have nearly zero ability to even mitigate these bad things.

Being a witness to disaster is terrible. Not as terrible as being the target of that disaster, but terrible enough.

Connecting

In both cases, we have complex phenomena that resist successful manipulation. There’s a sense that if we just knew the right levers to pull, we could fix things. For health issues, that almost surely is the case. With enough knowledge about the whole of my body, we should be able to alter how it works to fit a desired profile. That level of knowledge and control is far beyond us now, but it seems a bit more possible.

With the political world, it’s less obvious to me. Perhaps we’ll have a wave election in 2018 that sweeps in a Democratic congress, but this is very hard to ensure…maybe impossible. It might still happen, but it’s hard to see what we can do to further it. (Well, other than the bad things happening…but even bad things don’t seem to motivate people in the right way, i.e., against the real causes.)

It is bewildering.

Scott Eric Kaufman (SEK), RIP

November 25, 2016

It’s worth your time to delve into SEK’s writings. So much is amazingly funny, I mean laugh laugh laugh funny.

I’m fond of his visual rhetoric work but more in conception than in execution. I would have liked to take his class because he clearly had a well articulated analytical framework that enhanced his understanding and enjoyment of visual expression. I got the fact of that from his writing but never managed to internalize or adapt it from those writing.

He should have had an academic position where he had the support to develop and disseminate this work.

Much loss is challenging to deal with, even distant or indirect loss. Attenuated relationships become proxies for close ones, or perhaps resonate with the close ones.

There are no holes in our lives. Every waking moment is as encountered after a death as before. But before, the possibilities of that person — of future deed and encounters — infuse those moments with bright, happy colours. After, those imagined, no-longer-possibilities blight our experiences.

Of course, you can transcend the blight. Things that are over can inform different things to come.

Thinking of all my dead people, near and far.

Update:

Well, more of an addendum. I wrote the above on my Facebook wall and republishing here made me think more about the academic life.

For a long time I didn’t have a PhD or even an academic position. I settled in one form of precarious academic existence (there are lots of such forms!), but was, thanks to Jim Hendler and Ian Horrocks, able to get out of that precariousness into a fairly secure academic existence and even (thanks to Jeff Horty) accumulate the associated credentials and promotions (thanks to Uli Sattler).

Obviously, being an academic is not the only worthy form of existence and academic precariousness is only one sort that workers everywhere feel. I obviously think it’s a valuable form of existence and I wish we, as a society, would make it available to a wider set of people. Similarly, we should be striving to reduce all people’s precariousness or at least reduce the consequences. Things like Universal Basic Income would produce a less precarious world for nearly everyone.

Universities are (still) rich and powerful institutions. Instead of pushing further into modes of organization that exacerbate inequality and precariousness inside and outside their walls, we should be bold and strive for better ways of being.

The Muddling of the Mental and the Physical

September 4, 2016

Nature also teaches me, through these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I (a thinking thing) am not merely in my body as a sailor is in a ship. Rather, I am closely joined to it—intermingled with it, so to speak—so that it and I form a unit. If this were not so, I wouldn’t feel pain when the body was hurt but would perceive the damage in an intellectual way, like a sailor seeing that his ship needs repairs. And when the body needed food or drink I would intellectually understand this fact instead of (as I do) having confused sensations of hunger and thirst. These sensations are confused mental events that arise from the union—the intermingling, as it were—of the mind with the body. Descartes, Meditation 6

Descartes is, of course, the arch-dualist. Mind and body are different substances with entirely different natures and can exist independently. Human beings, on the other hand, are not just their minds (even though the mind is the ego who’s existence we know first, and best). The things that teach us that we form a kind of unit — pain, hunger, thirst, etc. — are perceptions of the body which differ from how experience the rest of the world.

I was thinking about this because I’ve been feeling like crap for months now. Clearly there is a strong physical element, but equally so, there’s a strong mental component. They go back and forth in a complex dynamic but it’s not always clear which is which or even if they are fully separable. If I dry heave, it could be pure anxiety, a stomach virus, or a side effect of medication (perhaps for anxiety).

The most striking (for me) example in my personal history was the interaction between my inner ear issues and social anxiety. When I was a teen-ager, I developed an inner ear disorder that ranged from subtle to extremely overt (i.e., spinning for three days at a shot). But effect of the subtle variant was that in noisy environment with a fair bit of motion, my ability to distinguish my movement and other objects movement was diminished. (Think of being on a smooth and slow moving train when it just starts up and you’ve been distracted.) This can make you feel very uneasy and off balance and…anxious.

This inflected my experience of social gatherings…dances, parties, etc. When this got really going I would feel unsettled and uncomfortable and usually seek a quiet berth (kitchen, outside, or…not there). Part of this was undoubtably due to this inner ear phenomenon, but I had no idea that it even existed. So I interpreted this mostly physiological reaction as being a dislike of parties or part of my social anxiety. Which didn’t help the anxiety at all. On the contrary.

We know that many physical illness tend to have certain mental co-morbidities. Being sick sucks, so depression isn’t uncommon.

Our Cartesian unity…the fact that we are a big muddle of a complex system…makes life difficult. Our parts don’t swap easily.

Cosmopolis lost

June 29, 2016

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

The EU is not heaven, nor a severed UK hell, but we have, indeed, sacrificed a favourable place and position for the sake of pride, for want of a better word. The fact that the chains that bound us were not chains at all and were of our own making and continual renewal doesn’t matter. At a deep level, the UK was offended, and that offence had a price.

We haven’t fallen from paradise, but we have left the larger cosmopolis (a nation of many peoples) and  probably have broken our smaller one. We rejected blending with many peoples, however around the edges and the majority demands that we pull back at whatever the cost. The many flares of overt xenophobic racism before and especially right after the decision are worrisome. We’re heading into difficult times: Our economy will shrink. The clowns that pretend to be leaders will try to wiggle out of the worst consequences. But such wriggling may well be met by revulsion and revolt. Once things break a little, the risk of catastrophic failure goes up.

I hope we can salvage some measures of sanity, dignity, and kindness. In my most optimistic moments, I imagine we can stay cosmopolitan, either by staying in the EU (though there are prices to be paid there) or staying sane somewhat outside it (with different prices).

Even that is just gripping tightly to the facade of a society. Increasing economic inequality is probably at the heart of matters. I’d long been wondering why various peoples around the world didn’t rise up harder after the Great Recession wherein there was so much unnecessary suffering and loss. Wherein the people most responsible paid almost not price at all, or even flourished, smug and condescending in their undeserved riches. Something will give, and it won’t be nice, or rational, or effective.

We on the left might think this is fertile ground for a new leftist politics where social and economic justice can be furthered.

We would be wrong.

The propaganda and political ironworks that dominate our societies do not wholly prevent outcomes that the rich elites favour (at least, not those that most favour), but they aren’t channeled against root causes. Austerity is popular in the UK populace. Blame is directed toward mirages and the people who suffer are those living there.

While personal failures are not the sole cause of this crises, the petty politicking of Cameron, Johnson, and various lesser figures in the Conservative Party have let the fires out while Corbyn, the Labour Party Members, and the Labour MPs Just Fall Down.

In the end, stuff will happen. We will muddle to a new normal. I don’t think the issues that motivated the Great Breaking are going to be anything but worsened by it and now we have new ones. Half the populace is alienated, perhaps enraged, by the other half.

E pluribus unum; ex uno multa.

Après nous le déluge.

But the mind is its own place. Perhaps by thinking and feeling together, we can make a just city from this fractured landscape.

Jo Cox: RIP

June 16, 2016

Jo Cox, member of parliament, was murdered today. She was Labour and a strong Remain champion.

Both sides of the referendum suspended their campaigns for the day.

I never heard of her before today. We don’t have any certain knowledge of the motive behind her murder, thought there’s some reports that her killer was mentally ill and may have shouted “Britain First” (which would suggest Leave sympathies). It’s really too early to draw any firm conclusions about it. It may be political violence, but I really hope not. Regardless, it may be that the campaigns both pull back from some of their more extreme rhetoric (though, obviously, I think the Leave campaign has been worse). That would be some small good salvaged.

She seems to have been a really wonderful person. Her husband’s statement is very moving and measured.

I now know to miss her.

MLK on the ACA (aka Obamacare)

February 16, 2016

A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of a partial victory by which new efforts are powered.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Obviously, this isn’t really about the ACA, but it is applicable as well as applicable to anti-racism, gay rights, feminism, etc.

I do think it might be read as too optimistic. Full victory is rare. Successes may be rolled back. The task can be Sisyphean or feel that way. If full victory is the work of generations, that work can feel futile for a very long time.

(Side note: I went to a meeting in a facility near where I live called the “Luther King House” (there is an associated school). It is, in fact, named after MLK, but I find it amusing that they use “Luther King” instead of “King” or “MLK” or “MLK, Jr.” I’ve never seen the “Luther King” formulation before.)

Academic Freedom, Shared Governance, and HR Policies

January 28, 2016

A core feature of effective academic freedom is devolution: The most academic control should be at the most local level. Thus, individual instructors and researchers are free to chart their own teaching and research. Evaluation is primarily done by those most expert and experienced in an area (i.e., peers), thus promotion or censure should be managed at a very local level. Similarly, organisational decision (e.g., who chairs the department/is head of school) should be a bottom up decision in the normal order. Similarly for hires. Similarly for program structure.

This isn’t to say that there are no reasonable external constraints or default constraints. It’s perfectly reasonable for the university to set the academic calendar, general exam requirements, etc. There should be substantial input from lower levels, but there is value in uniformity in some areas. These areas of uniformity should be very carefully delineated and managed. They are a regrettable necessity, not something to be sought after.

In particularly, we must be very careful about seeking “efficiency”. Efficiency is laudable in a lot of cases. But efficiency from a central perspective can impose costs on and inefficiencies at a local level and the local level is key.

For example, Manchester Computer Science used to have its own Research Office funded and staffed by us. It was relatively large as we generally have a lot of research funding. Everyone liked it because 1) it was very good with great people and 2) it in our building in a central place so you could just pop in if you had a question or issue.

Several years back the next unit up (“Faculty”) decided to reorganise all research offices and share them between Schools. So roughly every two schools gets one research office. We share ours with Math (which is not a horrible fit intellectually) but they got the office in their building. Which isn’t far, but I’ve never been to their office.

So, are there efficiencies? Maybe? I don’t see the bottom line so I don’t know. They added funding so they weren’t trying to save money, but they claimed they wanted better coverage, etc. But I don’t feel that things at that level have gotten better. We got a wonderful local research support officer, but she’s the only one I have any contact with. Things that used to be handled in a minute now can take days and I won’t know why. I’m more alienated from the process in general. Most people I talk with miss the old arrangement (though we’d like to keep the support officer).

This was a decision that was thrust upon us, against our expressed wishes. That alone is a cost. The distancing and alienation is another cost. The efficiencies of propinquity are also lost.

Autonomy and independence are things that require nurturing and a suitable environment to thrive in. Stripping people of decision making power tends to blunt that. People get less used to making decisions or withdraw from various collective activities or both. This degrades a university.

Of course, control, autonomy, and freedom can be abused in all sorts of ways major and minor. I don’t think a school should be free to discriminate on the bases of sex, race, etc. Students need rights that are enforceable against local units. Cronyism is the flip side of collegiality. The tyranny of PhD supervisors and research lab leaders should not be unchecked.

But a university functions best as a confederation not a corporation. Just as we local units should recognise the dangers of unchecked local control, so too the centre should be careful not to degrade and destroy local autonomy unnecessarily. The head of a school should be primarily answerable to the school. To do that, they must be selected by the school. The centre can ratify, but that ratification should be very light touch.