The Case of Norm versus Criterion

Peter Coles making perfect sense, yet again. This time he highlights the clear superiority of the Leaving Certificate system over A-levels (which I similarly lauded here: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/moriarty-physicists-punctuation-communication/ )

In the Dark

I saw a news item last night that revealed the grade boundaries for some of this year’s A-level examinations in the United Kingdom. Among the surprises were that for one board an A-grade in Mathematics corresponded to a mark of 55% and an A-grade in Physics was 59%. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find these results a bit disturbing.

The explanation given for these figures is basically that there’s a new style of A-level examination this year and the boundaries were adjusted so as not to penalize the current set of students with respect to previous years. In other words, students did much worse than expected on the new examinations so the grade boundaries were lowered.

Most assessments of academic performance such as A-levels can be classified into two broad types: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced. In the former performance is measured relative to defined goals, whereas in…

View original post 671 more words

If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

The very best of luck to all those students who are getting their A-level results as I write this. It’s been a while since I reblogged the post below, but I’ve received a number of emails from students over the years who said that it helped them put things in perspective when they didn’t get the results they wanted so I hope you don’t mind another repost on results day.

I formally finished my five years stint as undergraduate admissions tutor this week, handing over the reins to my much more capable colleague Meghan Gray. I’ll blog about my thoughts and perspectives on the admissions systems in due course, but one key observation is worth highlighting today: even over the relatively short five year period of the admissions tutor role there has been a sharp increase in the number of students who had significant anxiety and stress-related extenuating circumstances. As the following post highlights, even in the worst possible case of failing as disastrously as I did, there was still a way forward…


 

Symptoms Of The Universe

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not…

View original post 943 more words

La Tristesse Durera (Sigh To A Scream)*

Just a few short lines on today’s post from the always-worth-reading And Then There’s Physics… ATTP’s exasperation is clear from the title of his post: “Sigh. You should, of course, read the entire piece but the lines that particularly resonated with me, following my own recent cri de coeur on the subject of online factions, were these:

Unfortunately, I think this is becoming all too common. My impression is that we’re now in a position where people who probably mostly agree about the issues, are in conflict over details that probably don’t really matter.

I really do wish it were possible to have these nuanced discussions without it turning contentious; that it were possible to have a discussion where maybe people didn’t end agreeing, but still learned something.

sigh, indeed.

*With all due credit to Mr. James Dean Bradfield and colleagues.

Online Othering: The Other Side

One opportunity I bitterly regret passing up last year was the offer to contribute a chapter (with Mark Carrigan) to this engrossing and influential book…

OnlineOthering_cover.png

The blurb for Online Othering reads as follows:

This book explores the discrimination encountered and propagated by individuals in online environments. The editors develop the concept of ‘online othering’ as a tool through which to analyse and make sense of the myriad toxic and harmful behaviours which are being created through, or perpetuated via, the use of communication-technologies such as the internet, social media, and ‘the internet of things’. The book problematises the dichotomy assumed between real and virtual spaces by exploring the construction of online abuse, victims’ experiences, resistance to online othering, and the policing of interpersonal cyber-crime. The relationship between various socio-political institutions and experiences of online hate speech are also explored.

I thoroughly recommend you get hold of a copy, by hook or by crook. (I am also delighted that one of the editors of Online Othering, Dr. Karen Lumsden, took up an Assistant Professor in Criminology position here at the University of Nottingham at the start of the week. Welcome to Nottingham, Karen!)

Mark and I had planned to submit a chapter on the “SJW vs anti-SJW” culture wars but we were both swamped with other commitments at the time and just couldn’t deliver. A year on, however, and after reading Online Othering in its entirety on a recent flight to the US, I think I’d take a slightly different, and somewhat less strident, tack if I were writing a chapter for the book right now. There’s a whole other side to othering that I’d like to explore.

The term “othering” is helpfully defined by Karen and her co-author/co-editor Dr. Emily Harmer in Chapter 1 as follows,

The practices and processes through which the ‘outsider’ is constructed are encapsulated via the notion of ‘othering’. According to Lister, othering is a ‘process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between “us” and “them” – between the more and the less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained’ [Lister, R. (2004). Poverty. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 101]. It involves constructions of the self or ‘in-group’, and the other or ‘out-group’, through identification of what the former has and what the latter lacks in relation to the former [Brons, L. (2015). Othering, an analysis. Transcience, 6(1), 69 90]. It is the means of defining into existence a group perceived to be ‘inferior’ [Schwalbe, M., et al. (2000). Generic processes in reproduction of inequality: An interactionist analysis. Social Forces, 79(2), 419–452.]

“The Other” is subsequently placed in the context of Simone de Beauvoir‘s “The Second Sex”,

 [Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. [De Beauvoir, S. (1976 [1949]). The Second Sex. Paris: Gallimard.]

but de Beauvoir herself substanitally broadened that definition later (p.52) in The Second Sex

No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself … [T]o the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.

“Online Othering: Exploring Digital Discrimination and Violence on the Web” focuses on othering perpetrated by a variety of right-leaning and (far-)right wing, reactionary, and conservative groups, viz. the alt-right, Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs), anti-feminists, anti-trans-rights pundits, white nationalists/supermacists, and anti-social-justice warriors. The title of Chapter 4 tells you all you need to know about the extent of the sickening online abuse* discussed in the book: ‘ “I Want to Kill You in Front of Your Children” Is Not a Threat. It’s an Expression of a Desire’: Discourses of Online Abuse, Trolling and Violence on r/MensRights’

As outlined in the excerpts from the book above, however, “othering” is a much broader concept and involves social settings where those outside our “tribe” can be identified and discriminated against. Some who would traditionally describe themselves as “of the left” (or at least left-leaning) are more than capable of online othering, even when it is entirely counter-productive and ultimately slows progress in furthering diversity and equality.  At best, there’s an exceptionally irksome tendency towards holier-than-thou “purity testing” (and the associated “People’s Front of Judea” in-fighting and backbiting); at worst, others are demonised and/or cast out simply because they’re not sufficiently well-aligned with the values of our tribe. Most depressingly, even when “The Other” recognises and admits to their mistakes, this is not enough. They still have to be avoided like the plague.

Here’s a topical example of what I have in mind:

Great, one might think. A careful and nuanced admission from an ideological opponent that his political party is enabling white supremacy; a clear attack on Trump from behind enemy lines. What could be better? Isn’t this to be loudly applauded? Shouldn’t Senator McCollister receive plaudits from “our side” for calling out the far-from-covert racism of Mr. Trump and his allies?

Scroll down that thread and you’ll find those who are indeed willing to give credit where it’s due, who get beyond the tribalism, and who realise that if we want to make real progress then we have to be willing to accept that those with whom we have political, religious, and/or ideological differences are not invariably evil incarnate.

But then you also find those who will never see Senator McCollister (and, indeed, all Republicans) as anything other than The Other…

This type of ideological puritanism is both bloody exhausting and worse than useless. What does it get us, other than a few more “likes” or “retweets” from similarly-minded members of our tribe? To make real progress, and as Dave Fowler expressed so well in a previous post, occasionally we need to break the rules of the game and step outside the conventions of our tribe.

I’m writing this post from Castleblaney in Co. Monaghan, where I’m on holiday with my son, and which is very close to where I grew up in the seventies and eighties — a time of H-blocks, hunger strikes, Bobby Sands fervour, and regular bombings in the North and the mainland. Monaghan is a border county and also rather Republican — albeit in a rather different sense than for our US cousins — in its outlook. The Northern Ireland peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, did not come about by one side othering the other; those deeply polarised, sectarian divisions were not bridged by the type of tribal mentality that underpins modern online political (and apolitical) debate. It was instead a triumph of compromise, and of recognising the humanity of The Other.


* As the editors deftly point out in their introduction, the offline and the online are, of course, not disconnected, orthogonal spheres of activity: “Moreover, despite the inclusion of the term ‘online ’, we, like others, believe it is important to acknowledge that these behaviours do not occur in a ‘virtual vacuum’—they are part and parcel of everyday life and have real consequences in what some have chosen to call the ‘real’ (versus the ‘virtual’) world. We must throw out the well-worn dichotomies of ‘online versus offline’, and ‘virtual world’ versus ‘real world’, and instead acknowledge the interconnected and fluid nature of our everyday use of information and communication technologies.”

Old-School Physics

As I’ve suggested previously (https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/when-i-were-a-lad/ ), I get rather irritated by that especially tiresome brand of yapping on the theme of how “back in my day…” everything was so very much tougher and that “snowflake students these days” don’t know they’re born. The usual irksome, evidence-free claim is that syllabi and exams have been dumbed down to the point where it takes no intellectual effort at all to do well.

I’m reblogging Peter Coles’ post as a rather powerful rebuttal to that type of reactionary whining. “…they’re not too different from what you might find in the examinations for the early stages of contemporary physics programmes.”

In the Dark

The recent circulation to his staff of daft (and in some cases erroneous) rules to be used when writing documents has led to much hilarity on the media we call social. Among the obvious errors are that the correct abbreviation for `Member of Parliament’ is `MP’ not ‘M.P.’ and that `full stop’ is actually two words (not `fullstop’). On top of those his insistence that civil servants use Imperial units for everything actually may be unlawful as the official system of units for the United Kingdom is the metric system.

The latter exhortation has caused a particular outcry among people under the age of about 50 (who have never been taught Imperial units), and especially scientists (who understand the obvious superiority of the SI system).

Anyway, all this reminded me that many years ago when at Cardiff there came into my possession a book of very old school and university…

View original post 181 more words

Rules of Engagement

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow physics enthusiast, David Domminney Fowler, previously published at http://www.frontbenchpolitics.co.uk. (Dave’s personal website is http://www.daviddomminney.com/ ). What Dave says below resonates very strongly with me, and as the “rules of engagement” problem is something I’ve thought about a great deal over the last while, I was keen to re-blog his post here at “Symptoms…”

Dave and I have enjoyed the occasional ever-so-brief discussion on the central theme of his post, and I would say our views are very closely aligned. (Indeed, I think the only very minor point on which Dave and I are perhaps not in complete agreement is with regard to the intellectual clout and substance, or lack thereof, of a certain JB Peterson.) The game theory parallel outlined by Dave below is a compelling argument.

Over to you, Dave…


I’ve been struggling for a while now with a question.

How is it that seemingly intelligent, and in some cases extremely intelligent people, seem to draw wildly different conclusions and disagree to the point of being illogical?

For example, take Steve Bannon, Stephen Fry, Ezra Kline, Nigel Farage, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Eric & Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, Bill Maher, the list could go on.

They have many differences of opinion on a range of topics, which is to be expected, but why is this to be expected?

Why is it that Steve Bannon and Stephen Fry, both of which are extremely intelligent can disagree about so much when they no doubt have a lot of the same data to draw their conclusions from?

How can Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, two of the world’s leading public intellectuals disagree on so many fundamental issues, even on the nature of truth?

I think some of this can be explained by thinking about games.

Take chess for example. A player wins when the other player either gets checkmated or resigns.

They are the rules.

If one player doesn’t agree that they are in checkmate then they haven’t accepted the rules.

Now with chess that’s easy to argue as there are set rules, but when you are talking about the complexity of 7 billion people all trying to construct society with only the laws of physics as a boundary things aren’t quite so simple.

There are no physical rules, well no man made physical rules.

People then tend to act based on the rules they think are appropriate, they dream up, or they’re too scared to break.

This is where game theory comes in, or at least the origins of it.

Game theory was originally a study focused on zero sum games, written by mathematician John Nash. You may have heard of him, he had a film made about him called “A Beautiful Mind”. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Anyway, a zero sum game is basically one that means if one side gains a few points, the other side lose a few. Every win or loss is a cost or benefit to the opponents.

Imagine a mile long beach. There are 2 drink sellers that have an informal agreement to sell to half the beach each, so they each set up a quarter of a mile from an end.

On day two, one edges slightly closer to the centre. This creates an advantage as one seller covers more beach than the other.

So on day 3 the other also edges to the centre, but predicting that this was a likely reaction they both end up edging closer to the centre.

How many days do you think it will take before they are both back to back in the centre?

This position is called the “Nash Equilibrium”. Neither side has an advantageous move.

A non zero sum game is something where all participants end up receiving a benefit, like a well written trade agreement or falling in love.

Imagine a world where things are so complex that you have 7 billion people with 7 billion different ideas on what the rules of the game are.

Imagine a world where some people are seeing situations as zero sum games and others are not.

I think that is partly why we have so much confusion and seemingly contradictory ideas coming from some of the finest minds.

At this point one has to take into consideration individual skill sets. Everybody looks at problems with their own lenses focused using their experiences.

It’s not surprising that Elon Musk sees the world as potentially a computer simulation, from his perspective there is evidence everywhere, but that’s because he sees things through a computing, engineering and physics lens.

It’s also not surprising that people without any significant science or maths training tend to see the world in a much more analogue and in some cases romantic way.

Using Steve Bannon as an example. Love him or hate him or in-between, he’s an incredibly clever guy.

If you don’t know who he is, he’s by many considered the real brain behind the Trump movement and many other nationalist movements around the world.

Let’s look at his main careers pre Trump.

He was a military man, then worked for Goldman Sachs before co founding media company, Breitbart News.

In the military most things are zero sum games. If one side wins the other loses. Yes this is an over simplification but in general it’s true.

Anyone that has degrees in economics or business studies game theory. It’s essential for all modern day bankers, and he holds masters degrees in these areas.

Media is also mostly a zero sum game. Time spent reading the Guardian or watching CNN is time not spent reading the Times or watching FOX.

So it’s no wonder that Bannon views everything through the lens of his zero sum game training, it’s probably his best skill.

Unfortunately this sometimes leads very clever people to inaccurately draw conclusions because they mistake a non zero sum game for a zero sum game.

Whilst away on a break thinking about writing this I happened to catch part of “The Boss Baby”, a movie that summed up game theory and the dangers of perceiving non zero sum games as zero sum games.

It’s a kids film but it’s lesson is no less accurate. The Boss Baby tries to argue that there is a finite amount of parental love and if more things (like puppies) need love they’ll be less for the children. Obviously it ends well with the lesson not to misidentify such games. A great lesson for kids.

If you think that for your nation, to do well, others have to do less well, then you probably see such things as a zero sum game.

If you think that for your nation to succeed every nation has to succeed and we can all improve our standards of living by working as a team, then you probably don’t see things as a zero sum game.

If you see all global and national power and influence structures as a combined force, a hidden hand steering the world without revealing their true identity then you probably see a lot of zero sum games.

So next time you are in an argument or debate with someone that vehemently oppose what you are saying, yet you know they are indeed a rational and intelligent person and you question how they cannot see what you see, think about it in terms of rule differences.

Do you know the rules of the game?

Do they?

Are there set rules?

Is it a zero sum game?

What are the consequences of misidentifying the rules?

My personal opinion is whatever debate we engage in, the rules are fluid and it’s very easy to be disorientated by the complexity. This is why sometimes different voices with different outcomes are important to create balance, as no one group or person can calculate their position based on every rule, but a collection of people lensing problems through their own skill sets can be a great thing.

Where this goes wrong is when an influential person or group misidentifies the game, either through their own lens bias or for personal gain, then they influence others to see their rules as the game and ignore the possibility of other better fitting rule sets.

Do games become different depending on the lenses of the participants? I’m sure they do.

Life is not chess, there are no set rules, it’s possible for one person to hail an individual as a hero and another to see the same person as evil.

Let’s spend less time thinking opponents are crazy and more time discussing how they reached their rules of the game.

“And now behold a feast befitting famine…”

When it comes to thrash, death, grindcore, and the heavier end of the spectrum, I tend to like my metal crunchy, guttural, and driven by huge sludgy riffs. There is nothing that gets my pulse racing more than a massive riff propelled by pummelling double bass drums, with vocals dredged up from the Seven Circles [1]. If the lyrics have a social conscience and/or political bent, all the better.

So when Chris Morley, a final year PhD student researcher here in the School of Physics & Astronomy — and fellow metal fan, accomplished musician, and quantum technologist — sent me a link to the new song he’s recorded with Beyond Grace, I was, let’s say, just a tad enthusiastic about the track.

Strap yourselves in. I’ll see you again in 4 mins and 56 seconds…

I f**king love that track. [2] There aren’t too many other bands (metal or otherwise), with the notable exception of Napalm Death [3], who would write a song that lambasts the breathtakingly simplistic fantasy of trickle-down economics. (And kick off by sampling Obama’s critique of that fantasy.)

As Beyond Grace themselves explain over at MetalSucks,

In The Arabian Nights there’s a story where a beggar is taken in by a rich man and served an imaginary meal and, after playing along with the illusion, is ultimately rewarded with a life of luxury and opulence.

“Of course, in the real world, this isn’t what happens. We wait and we wait, but nothing changes. We’re just told to do more with less, to keep our mouths shut, even as those upstream do their best to dam the river so that all that reaches us is the merest trickle of the wealth they’ve hoarded.”

And not only do Beyond Grace raise awareness, they put their money where their collective mouth is. They’re donating all the proceeds from the single to local food banks. You can purchase the track here, for however much or little you would like to donate. Go get it now. As MetalSucks put it, “killer music, killer ethos.” ‘Nuff said.

OK, are you ready? Growl like you’ve never growled before. Everyone. On 4.

1, 2, 3, fouuuuuuurggghhhhh…

AND NOW BEHOLD A FEAST BEFITTING FAMINE


[1] On other occasions, Abba, Zappa, or just about anything in between — except, of course, the aural enema that is country – are what I need for my musical fix. (And, if you, like me, have ever idly wondered what Abba-influenced death metallers might sound like …

A big thank you to my friend, and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, Adam Sweetman, for introducing me to the majesty of The Night Flight Orchestra.

[2] Back in the days when I used to waste a lot of time “debating” pointlessly online, aggrieved anti-social-justice warriors often whined at me about “self-censoring” expletives in this way. (I kid you not. They really are exceptionally fragile individuals.) Let’s just say that it’s my homage to Kerrang! magazine, which I read voraciously as a teenager. I also think that partially “redacting” the word like that actually strengthens, rather than lessens, the written impact of the expletive.

[3] As I said to Chris, I hear echoes of Barney and the boys in “Barmecide Feast”.