Universities Are Not Well Run

I read the news today, oh boy:

Students planning legal action against University of Manchester for lost teaching time during strikes

It’s understood that during talks between the student union and Manchester University, one suggestion has been that graduation fees – of £35 – could be waived in compensation for lost teaching time.

Remember that the people who were on strike are getting their pay docked. That is, the university feels that if we do not supply what they are paying us for then we don’t get paid on a pro rata and proportionate basis.y rough and low bally estimate is that students pay £50/day.

Now, to be fair, it’s complex. We didn’t shut down the whole university. But even then, it’s a bad look.

And nominal fee isn’t the whole story…it’s what’s been agreed upon for that fee.

Given that this whole thing was utterly unnecessary because the precipitating event was absurd, evil, and based on lies by the universities, they should step up.

But perhaps they are hard up?

Latest figures show increases in universities’ income, surpluses and reserves

UK universities’ income increased by £915m (2.7%) between 2015/16 and 2016/17, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). During that time they made a surplus of £2.3bn and now have total reserves of £44.27bn.

The data also revealed an increase in capital expenditure, but that the proportion of money spent on staff had not improved. Compared to seven years ago, the percentage of expenditure spent on staff has fallen by 3.35%, but the percentage spent on capital expenditure has shot up by 34.9% over that period.

UCU said the figures made a mockery of universities’ claims that staff were a top priority. Staff in universities have seen their pay fall by around 20% since 2009,

So no. They just don’t care about spending money on staff.

I know that in some circles having shrinking staff salaries in a labor intensive industry would be thought to be good management. But those circles suck. They don’t care about the labour force.

And then there’s this lovely bit:

On Wednesday 25 April Senate endorsed the Faculty Leadership Team’s recommendation regarding a change to the School structure in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Senate endorsed the proposal to reduce the number of Schools, from nine to two and name the new Schools the School of Engineering and the School of Natural Sciences.  In addition, the paper submitted to Senate included the following recommendations which did not require formal endorsement:

• the retention of the current School disciplines in ‘Departments’

• the formation of a Faculty Teaching College and a Faculty Research College.

Yes, a reshuffle that essentially is one part renaming and one part adding an extra level of management is a bold response to the many challenges we face! This makes me really confident that our senior leadership team is trying to acquire managerial cred for their next job…er…solve the tough problems…er…help US solve the tough problems of teaching and research in these troubled times.

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A Bad Paper about Federalism

Whoof. “Federalism and the End of Obamacare” has been sitting in a tab since this summer. Time to read it!

Let’s start with the abstract:

Federalism has become a watchword in the acrimonious debate over a possible replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Missing from that debate, however, is a theoretically grounded and empirically informed understanding of how best to allocate power between the federal government and the states.

Well…maybe? I’d like to see some evidence that that understanding is necessary…or missing…or desirable. Do we need to know how to “best” allocate power between federal government and the states? Best in what sense?

For health reform, the conventional arguments in favor of a national solution have little resonance: federal intervention will not avoid a race to the bottom, prevent externalities, or protect minority groups from state discrimination.

Well…preventing insurance selling across state lines helps with a race to the bottom. And health care was already significantly nationalised cf Medicare, Medicaid, and, you know, the employer health care deduction.

Instead, federal action is necessary to overcome the states’ fiscal limitations: their inability to deficit-spend and the constraints that federal law places on their taxing authority.

I think this is sorta reasonable. Enough on the abstract…it makes me a bit wary, but not despondent.

At the core of our federal system is the principle that the states should take the lead unless there is a need for national action.

No. This is tendentious. I’m not even sure what “take the lead” should mean. The core of federalism, if anything, is  that there is a division of power between the federal government and the states and this division is inherent. That is, it’s not a modifiable “gift” from one to the other. The UK government is not a federal system: the UK parliament is supreme and devolution of power is voluntary and revokable. Parliament could claw back all the power devolved to Scotland by mere majority vote.

Now, obviously, it’s one vision of whywe have federalism is that lots of things are better handled at the state level yadda yadda. The federal government is free to, with its own power, to act more nationally (a la Medicare) or devolve some to the states (a la Medicaid). The latter is definitely more in the spirit of “laboratories of democracy” vision of how US federalism should be. But that’s not a direct aspect of US federalism.

Federalism is said to foster political participation, to enable experimentation, and, especially, to allow states to tailor their laws to better suit the preferences of their citizens.

And screw other states or exclude large swaths of its citizens from political participation. Plus, when we look at states like California…c’mon. It’s huge. If it is “tailoring” so to can the federal government.

Purely as a strategic matter, the emphasis on federal law needs some defense. By way of comparison, consider same-sex marriage. When Massachusetts eliminated its prohibition on same-sex marriage in 2003, advocates did not turn immediately to the Supreme Court. They built the groundwork for a national strategy by winning in state courts and state ballot boxes.

Oh come on! You have to work a case up to the Supreme Court. And Lawrence v. Texas was in 2003. But also, you had Bush in the White House thus strong White House opposition. As this time line shows, there was a lot of legal activity, some of which made it to the Supreme Court. The fight over DOMA was federal!

My point is that this throwaway line presents the fact that there was a 12 year gap between the 2003 MA decision and the 2015 Obergefell decision as if it was a deliberate choice by activists with a suggestion that they were motivated by “federalism” concerns.

Aside from this almost certainly being false (there was no monolith, people were primarily motivated by tactical and strategic considerations, to a first approximation, all advocates of gay marriage would have been fine with a federal solution as early as possible.

And really, is it federalism if the states startsomething but then the feds (e.g., the Supreme Court) imposes it uniformly? What variance is possible then? How are we tailoring things to the local populations.

In any case, marriage is weird because marriage was traditionally something managed by the states. You get your marriage license from a state, hence going to different states to avoid annoying regulations in your home state. Federal involvement primarily is: All states must recognize all marriages from other states and the federal government makes uniform policies on all the diversely regulated marriages.

My point is that this is a shitty example, with shitty backup, presented in a shitty way. This is NOT what I want from someone purporting to give a careful theoretical and empirical analysis of federalism.

Given that I’m not professionally obliged in anyway to read this, I’m going to stop. Maybe there’s gold later on, but with this much upfront  garbage, I’m out.

Software Gripes: Scrivener and ConcertWindow (and WordPress)

I think I need regular “features” i.e., columns of a particular type or theme, to keep the blogging going, so here’s a new one near and dear to my hard: ranting about software problems (I’ll through in other system gripes but the most common is software).

Scrivener

I want to love Scrivener. It certainly is enticing, if a bit complex. I’m trying to use it as a course materials (lectures, quizzes, etc.) management and editing tool. People certainly seem to have had some success with it as such. I think it could also be handy for paper or book writing and esp. grant writing. Grants have VERY complex and finicky structure which Scrivener’s “break it into bits” and “annotate and organise” and “hey, templates all the way down” approach looks to be quite good.

But there’s a fundamental problem: The whole Scrivener model is “compiling” the project into a single final document. Really. Uhm…that’s bonkers. Even if your final output is conceptually a single book, you very well may want the “out of Scrivener” view to be split up in multiple files. (Think Website with a separate HTML page per Chapter. Or just Website.)  For courses, I don’t want one output to contain it all, I want lots of documents (syllabus, references, slides broken out by day or by lecture, quizzes, lab sheets, etc.) Scrivener HAS THAT STRUCTURE, but, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t like to spit it out. You can “export” the file structure, and maybe that will turn out to be good enough. (I only figured that out today.) But I want some of the structure to be flattened! E.g., if I make a Lecture which has separate subdocuments as “slides”, for some workflows they should be combined! But the whole Lecture shouldn’t be combined with all the other lectures. (Except for the global print version.)

Ok, “export” at least lets me write my own custom compiler. But then why do I have to deal with the “project” structure and explicitly set “export”? Why can’t a project just be a directory/file structure in the file system. In other words, why “export”? That adds a really painful step to the process. It makes synching harder, etc.

Additionally, Scrivener has some simple WYSIWIG formatting (bold, italic, tables, lists, etc.) It also has export to MultiMarkdown. This all seems extremely promising for downstream processing: Write using the GUI, explore to Markdown, then run tools that parse and manipulate the Markdown to generate the final versions.

Oh, silly me! All Scrivener does is compile snippets written in MultiMarkdown to other formats (HTML or PDF via LaTeX)! You have to write the Markdown.

Well that sucks. It’s not like Scrivener is a word class Markdown editor with syntax checking etc. The key formatting features it supports in the GUI are eminently Markdownable, so why not export to it? Indeed, for things like Tables, having a reasonable GUI is much much nicer than hacking Markdown syntax directly. Sigh.

Finally, they have this cork board view. Before 2.7, it defaulted to a cork textured background and index card looking cards. Very skeuomorphic, but in a good way. It took you out of the UI and forced a cognitive mode shift. 2.7 it defaulted to a “flat” interface that was 1) bland and 2) merged it visually with every other view.

Sigh. But wait! You can tweak it back. But now, in my preferred Index Card style, they stuck a pushpin.

screenshot_03Why, why, why, why?! It doesn’t read; it doesn’t help; it forces a “vertical” orientation (I actually viewed them as piles before). This little tumour does exactly nothing positive. It serves no visual-informatics purpose and, indeed, distracts. It’s centred, bright, and in line with meaningful information. This is skeuomorphic madness, where the designer slavishly emulates the real world object without thinking about the design. Pushpins are not a useful information part of the design…they are there to hold the cards in place. If you lay the cork board flat, you don’t need them.

“But Bijan,” you say, “the cork only exists to have pins pushed in! Isn’t that the same problem?”

No, gentle reader, while the cork in the real object is there functionally to be stuck with pins, it has several user interface functions: 1) visual mode switching; it’s a very strong cue about the difference in working style; it provides an information cue, 2) it supports the illusion without affecting other information per se, and 3) it is high contrast yet not obtrusive. The main problem with skuomorphism is that people take it too far. The idea shouldn’t be to exactly replicate the real world object, but to design an interface that works. Flat interfaces general suck because they generally designed that chrome should be indistinguishable from content (or not be perceptible at all) and content should have few sub distinguishing features. (Microsoft’s Metro interface is something of an exception.)

ConcertWindow

Zoe tried to do a ConcertWindow concert last Sunday. There were numerous technical hassles, but we managed to struggle through most of them and have a reasonable concert which most viewers could see most of. One cool feature is that you can get the full recording of the stream and the website lets you post a one song snippet of the recording on their website. This was exactly what we wanted to promote the new album (in progress).

We do not have such a recording.

The reason we do not have one is that they have a “feature” that is supposed to help you debug your streaming. For a given concert slot, you can set up a “test” session which will not be exposed to anyone except your testers and can happen at other times than your scheduled slot. This sounded sensible, but there were a few problems:

  1. It doesn’t work from the iOS app, which is how were were going to broadcast the concert. Grr. But ok, we can at least test the basic setup via the browser version.
  2. Testing via the browser version just doesn’t help very much. You still need to test via the iOS app. A lot. So we were scheduling test concerts all over the place. That was better in someways, since that’s what exposed that the “Pay what you want” option is really “Pay what you want as long as it is at least $1”. Grr.
  3. When you go to look at your video, the prepend “for your reference” all the test video you did. What? Why? Who wants that? Who wants that in their concert recording? Shouldn’t you just save that as a separate file, if at all? Weird.
  4. Oh, and if you tested in your browser, but recorded from iOS, you now have a video that is half test video and half corrupted nothing. That’s right, the “test” mode can corrupt your concert recording. So we have no video of the concert, whatsoever.
  5. In the FAQ for “Preparing for the show” they have “How can I sound check before the show?” which says

    Choose if you’re going to broadcast with Web, iOS, or RTMP, then switch to “Test” mode and start broadcasting. No one will be able to see it on your channel. Click the “Test URL” link below the broadcaster and you’ll be able to see your test stream in real time. You can also send this link to a friend.

    In the FAQ for  “After the show” they have “My archived video file has errors and/or the recording is corrupted” (it’s on the SECOND PAGE of this FAQ)

    This can sometimes happen if you broadcasted to the same show via multiple devices (iOS + laptop) or in different frame rates / formats.

    To avoid this happening, be sure to broadcast to each show using only one device and one video/audio format.

    If you do broadcast using multiple devices or formats, the live stream will work totally fine, but the archived recording may be corrupted.

    So, the advice they give before hand can corrupt your recording because they have a feature (prepending test video) which is completely worthless. And their own help leads you there.

Message to the ConcertWindow programmers who did this: Never corrupt important data. Never. Ever. Especially don’t corrupt real data with test data. I mean…come on. Shame

Message to the ConcerWindow documentation writers who did this: If there is a risk of data corruption…DON’T RECOMMEND ACTIONS THAT RAISE THAT RISK. Oh, and WARN PEOPLE ABOUT THE RISK AND HOW TO MITIGATE IT before they might do the action that destroys their data.

You should be profoundly ashamed of yourselves.

While we’re talking documentation nonsense, let’s consider this gem:

At Concert Window, we give the artist a full private copy of their show, for free. You can use it for any non-commercial use, including uploading it to YouTube. 

The video files are in .mp4 format, which is playable with most major video players including VLC and can be imported into iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

Sometimes, due to errors during broadcast or other reasons, the video files may be corrupted or unplayable. In that case we’re sorry but there’s nothing we can do. This is part of why we offer video archives as a free service.

In addition to downloading your full show recording, you can also create a short highlight video. Here’s an article with more details: How to create a highlight video

*Artists are not allowed to sell their show videos due to copyright restrictions.

First, note the “or other reasons” for corruption…like BEING MISLED BY THE DOCUMENTATION TO HIT A DESIGN BUG WHICH IS KNOWN TO CORRUPT YOUR CONCERT. Maybe you should fix that.

Second, note the nonsense of the highlight blocks. Zoe owns the copyright for the songs she played and the performance. The terms of service explicitly SAYS that she owns the copyright.

(BTW, the terms of service are absurd and horrible. I’ll break that out in another post.)

WordPress

Current gripe: Adding a category doesn’t put the new category under the parent one you’ve selected.

Also, I want to have categories be more meaningful. I’m currently inserting two key categories into my post title (see current post’s title): Music Monday and Software Gripe. This is wrong. I’m polluting my title with Metadata about my post in order to get the visual effect I want. Boo!

MLK day-after irony

Of course, the UK doesn’t celebrate MLK day (which was yesterday) so I was at work. Boo! C’mon UK! As the 51st state, you should get with the program!! Or programme, even!

My MLK library is scattered across two continents with a big chunk in Swarthmore, so I decided to get an ebook copy of my favourite of his books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? It’s a great great book and a useful antidote to Teddy Bear Having Dream MLK that some people will throw at you (universal basic income? it’s in there!). The title alone is worth contemplated: It does feel often that the (good) answer to the threat of chaos is community. But community is extremely difficult to achieve in most societies esp. with big legacy hatreds. The question of avoiding chaos is a fundamental question of political science and a lot of the answers aren’t good.

In any case, Amazon (boo!) does have it as a Kindle book. It’s not super cheap, and I wish someone would pay the MLK estate to make all his books public domain. Or they would just free some up. I want more people to read these.

The irony came from the Amazon algorithms:

On the page for MLK's book, there's a recommendation for Trent Lott's book "Crises Point".

On the page for MLK’s book, there’s a recommendation for Trent Lott’s book “Crises Point”.

Trent Lott? You’re going to recommend a book by Trent Lott? Ok, coauthored by Tom Daschle (and a ghost writer), but still. None of these schmucks are worth recommending by themselves (much less Yet Another WankerFest About Broken Politics By Third Wayers), much less for their instantly forgotten book.

Sheesh!

Read MLK! Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail if nothing else.

Read the good stuff. Life is too short for the crap.

(I also have Dyson’s April 4, 1968 up on Scribd. I find Dyson worth while but a decidedly mixed bag. It’ll be interesting.)

eBooks Are Much Worse Than They Should Be

I’m a pretty avid reader. I mainline genre fiction (science fiction and fantasy mostly), but adore all sorts of words. I read a lot on line and have so for years. Definitely way too much blogs and comments and mailing lists for my own happiness, but I’m no stranger to reading on a screen. I read novels on my phone and recently have been reading stuff on a new iPad Mini. The Mini really is perfect for my eBook reading needs. I usually read inside or in the shade. The size is right. It’s light and can be selfproping. (My arthritic hands often have trouble with physical books.) I find it easy to read. Strangely, my favorite visual experience is the skeumorphic iBooks from Apple with a slight sepia tone. It’s really comfortable and satisfying. In horizontal mode, it simply crushes the Kindle app for my eyes. I love a fine book and even like the feel of many crappy books, but I’m not mourning the rise of eBooks like I thought I would. However, wow, do they suck far more than they should:

  1. Typos, typos, typos. Yeah, I’m one to complain, but there are a ton of typos in most eBooks. This wouldn’t bother me so much if they would just let me correct them. Why they hell not, oh eBook reader software developers? Why the HELL not? You could just leave it in as an overlay without changing the underlying file. We can put notes, we can highlight, we can zip and zap, but we can’t change the OCRed “!’ll” to “I’ll”.
  2. Organization. Maybe I’m missing something, but all I get from my eBook readers is big flat lists, sometimes arranged in horribly space wasting ways. Frankly, I’m not sure how to delete books from Kindle or iBooks. It sorta sucks that this is hard to figure out. Where are the sweet affordances? (How about time of day or location? Show me the pile of work related reading while I’m at work!)
  3. Purchasing. Holy hell in a handbasket, but all the eBook stores are terrible. Let me pick on Amazon. There is simply no sensible browsing in Amazon and the search rather sucks. Every Amazon page is a monstrosity of chrome and doodads which makes paging through a list of books exceedingly slow and painful. The recommendations are freaking childish (often, for me, “Well, you just browsed this!”). The entry points are ridiculously bad. Yes yes, here are the top 10 or top 100 which you show me every time. If I didn’t buy them the first ten times I came here, what makes you think I’ll buy them now? Where’s the “I never want to see this again on any list you generate for me. I’m not going to buy it. I’m never going to buy it. You are wasting your time with this.” In a bookstore, the front part is usually covered with top sellers (though they cycle out with new stuff much quicker), but I can get past that in secondsOn Amazon, I’m stuck there.
    For that matter, you know the order of books in a series and you know which ones I’ve bought…why not indicate what the next book is in the series? Why not make it obvious which ones I’ve already got? I spend an inordinate amount of time jumping around to web to figure this stuff out.

I have similar problems with iTunes et al. I know people find stuff and spend lots of time in these places, but my experience is a huge turn off. (Why on earth do I have to wade through the foreign translations of books you know I’ve bought to find out that the book I want by that author isn’t available? Screw you!) There are so many simple small things that could be easy, low effort wins that it really makes me sad.

Blackboard Learn 9.x Fail Encore

Last year, our installation of Blackboard could upload grades from a spreadsheet. So you could grade offline! Which is good, because we want to grade off line, esp. programs. But boo! You couldn’t upload feedback so even though the feedback was sitting in a column ready to go, we had to cut and paste it in. BOO!

But then, in spring, a service pack made it possible up load  (and download!) feedback. WOO! This is good! I can grade offline! I can use my tools! I can analyze stuff!

Except I now figure out that if I have multiple question tests, I can’t upload feedback OR MARKS for individuals questions in the test. Which, for something like, oh, I don’t know, a FINAL EXAM is a big deal.

It’s also going to suck for giving feedback. Lots of cutting and pasting in my future.

Software as a service folks of the world, there is a MINIMUM REQUIREMENT on you: Make sure your users can export and import your data. Easily. Very easily. Make it easy, ok? Use freaking XML if you have to. Just make it easy. From day 1. Until day always. For proper bonus points, make sure that simple things can be done simply. But if not that, just make sure we can do it.

Users of SAAS, demand this. DEMAND IT. If they can do it, you should worry.

Another cautionary tale

(Doing some distracting writing before the writing I need, personally, to do.)

This time, I’ve reason to believe the cautionee isn’t a PhD student, but is already graduated. I’ve no definite evidence, but there were some web pages wherein their name is prefixed with “Dr.” which is pretty reasonable.

Yucong Duan posted a message to very old thread that started out unpromising (“I think that there is usually a misunderstanding on the meaning of CWA vs. OWA”…starting with such a broadside puts me, personally, on my guard for kookdom) and descended into what I called “gibberish” (though, in the “nice” way).

Probably the highlight of malpractice was the accusation against me of having been inconsistent and the generalization from the alleged sample of one to my whole corpus. (Note, I totally understand the latter move — I’m sorely tempted to dismiss without reading their publications because I cannot see how someone so confused could produce anything reasonable…but, of course, I can so see: they might be more careful in print, they have helpful coauthors, they might be ok in their own field, etc. Hence, no comment on the rest without reading them. Which is totally not worth my time.) Slightly reformatted for clarity:

Firstly please check piceces of your reply which i have copied as below:

(1)”…My mind reading capabilities failed to detect that you are a student(***)…”

(2)”…you mobilized was used in any standard or reasonable sense. (E.g., “notation”, “CWA”, “OWA”, “semantics”, “ontological”, “negation”). This is characteristic of naive students(***) …”

Can you see the contradiction in your expression?! I am not imagine how many similar cases could be counterred in those more than 100 papers published by you in the past five years?!

Obviously, there’s no even prima facie contradiction (they had to selectively quote to even get as far as they did). I pointed this out (with some snark) and they doubled down.

Doubling down here was clearly a really bad move. While I think that one can make a case against my use of the term “gibberish” (see the discussion on Feminist Philosophers) as being provocative, I will point out that they did not express agitation until I refuted them again and they started not getting as straightforwardly refuted by others. They spiralled into insinuations against me and my competence (e.g., challenging my authority, as if I made a claim to authority to buttress my points; however, I do have pretty good claim to authority on these issues, which makes the whole thing weird).

In the end, as far as I can tell, Yucong Duan left the conversation still not knowing how much they didn’t understand, but largely happy with the result. This was fairly predictable from the start, alas.

Look, I could be a grump or nuts in spite of my expertise or just wrong on some point. It’s good to challenge the basics on occasion. But there’s often important signals in what you might perceive as noise. It’s important to know what criticisms to dismiss, but it’s also important to recognize what criticisms not to dismiss.

That being said, per usual, and per the Feminist Philosophers thread, I have to reflect again on my still. Snark, and bluntness, and teasing can be effective and even fun for all, but obviously have the obvious downsides. I sometimes worry that my clinging to them (however tempered over the years) is like someone clinging to racist or sexist jokes and language. I can hear the similarities, which worry me.