A broad-ranging talk with James Burke

As part of promoting a new Connections series on Curiosity Stream launching on Nov. 9, I got the chance to interview historian of science and technology, science communicator, and series host James Burke:

The more interview-intensive part begins at 3:10.

Life in an inhospitable future

Because you’re going to need shelter — and people don’t give their homes away. They barricade themselves in.

So, sooner or later, exhausted and desperate, you may have to make the decision to give up and die — or, to make somebody else give up and die because they won’t accept you in their home voluntarily.

And what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?

From episode 1 of James Burke’s 1978 TV series “Connections”, entitled: “The Trigger Effect“.

Eton’s Pop society

We knew that Gibson and Longden planned to put me up for Pop. The suspense grew heavy, our voices languished. Pop elections took hours, for the same boy could be put up and blackballed seven or eight times, a caucus of voters keeping out everybody till their favourite got in. Only the necessity of lunch ended these ordeals. Suddenly there was a noise of footsteps thudding up the wooden staircase of the tower. The door burst open, and about twenty Pops, many of whom had never spoken to me before, with bright coloured waistcoats, rolled umbrellas, buttonholes, braid, and “spongebag” trousers, came reeling in, like the college of cardinals arriving to congratulate some pious old freak whom fate had elevated to the throne of St. Peter. They made a great noise, shouting and slapping me on the back in the elation of their gesture, and Charles drifted away. I had got in on the first round, being put up by Knebworth, but after they had left only the small of Balkan Sobranie and Honey and Flowers remained to prove it was not a dream.

At that time Pop were the rulers of Eton, fawned on by masters, and the helpless Sixth Form. Such was their prestige that some boys who failed to get in never recovered; one was rumoured to have procured his sister for the influential members. Besides privilege—for they could beat anyone, fag any lower boy, walk arm-in-arm, wear pretty clothes, sit in their own club, and get away with minor breaches of discipline, they also possessed executive power, which their members tasted, often for the only time in their lives. To elect a boy without a colour, and a Colleger too, was a departure for them; it made them feel that they appreciated intellectual worth, and could not be accused of athleticism; they felt like the Viceroy after entertaining Gandhi. The rest of the school could not understand that a boy could be elected because he was amusing; if I got in without a colour it must be because I was a “bitch”; yet by Eton standards I was too unattractive to be a “bitch”—unless my very ugliness provided, for the jaded appetites of the Eton Society, the final attraction!

When I went to chapel I was conscious of eyes being upon me; some were masters, cold and censorious, they believed the worst; others were friendly and admiring. Those of the older boys were incredulous, but the younger ones stared hardest, for they could be beaten for not knowing all the Pops by sight, and mine was a mug they must learn by heart. Everybody congratulated me. The only person not to was Denis. He himself had been co-opted in as future Captain of the School, and could not believe that my election to such an anti-intellectual and reactionary body could give me pleasure. I thought that it was because he was envious, since he had been elected ex officio. My intravenous injection of success had begun to take.

Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. London; Routledge. 1938. p. 302–3

Limits of ChatGPT

With the world discussing AI that writes, a recent post from Bret Devereaux at A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry offers a useful corrective, both about how present-day large language models like GPT-3 and ChatGPT are far less intelligent and capable than naive users assume, and how they pose less of a challenge than feared to writing.

I would say the key point to take away is remembering that these systems are just a blender that mixes and matches words based on probability. They cannot understand the simplest thing, and so their output will never be authoritative or credible without manual human checking. As mix-and-matchers they can also never be original — only capable of emulating what is common in what they have already seen.

Two sectors excluded from the job search

Looking for some temporary stability, the chance to get back to secure paycheques for the first time since I left the federal government in 2012, and the ability to repair the countless things that have been worn down and damaged during the PhD — I am casting a net wide for jobs I can start at soon.

Based on my own experiences and discussions with others, however, I am excluding two fields which might seem among the most obvious for me: the academic precariat and the environmental NGO precariat. I know plenty of people caught up in the low pay, overwork, and stress of postdoc positions, lecturing, adjunct professorships, and similar. The common theme seems to be coldhearted skinflint employers, intolerable working conditions, and jobs where you spend half your time fundraising for the grants to pay your own salary. I feel much the same about the eNGO sector, which is even more poorly paid and insecure, even more a game of always working to win the grant to pay your salary for the next month of grant applications, and a social culture that broadly demands ideological conformity to a theory of change and set of objectives that I do not see as very likely to produce the public policy wins sought. (Believing this, or at least pointing it out, tends to risk making one unemployable in the sector.)

I feel like the common pattern in both the junior academic and the eNGO world is to demand that employees give more than they can sustainably, provide them less material and moral support than they need to keep going long term, and then condemn them for insufficient loyalty when this combination pushes them out into other employment. I suspect I can get more done on the environmental file by getting a decent job that provides genuine time off and working as a volunteer for groups that seem to have a sound strategy.

Reading my dissertation, step by step

Step #1: Learn a bit of the context and background to climate change politics

I know throwing a whole PhD thesis at someone gives them a lot to handle, especially if it is written in an unfamiliar academic style. Nonetheless, I took pains all through my PhD process to come up with a product which would be comprehensible and meaningful to the community of climate activists.

Several posts down the line, we will come to the “meta question” which motivates the chapter about the ethics of what ought to be done. As someone new to the document and/or climate change policy, I would start by looking at what I considered important explanatory text but which my committee directed I should remove from an over-long document:

Structural Barriers to Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change

Basically, why is solving climate change a hard problem? We have governments that do an OK-to-decent job at most things, so why are they uniquely bad at caring for the climate long-term when its integrity is damaged by the use of fossil fuels? This first document explores that question in detail, and elaborates upon why old solutions aren’t working for this problem.

After a PhD

I am not depressed, but I definitely feel a lot of what this video from Andy Stapleton discusses:

I have certainly experienced the odd stutter-step ending of the program, which never brings a single day or moment when you are really done. There is such a moment, but it is mundane, private, and undramatic — probably the last time you make a formatting correction for the unknown administrator who reviews your dissertation for conformity to writing standards like which page numbers in the front matter are Roman numerals. That creates an odd sense of the thing being unfinished, even when there is nothing left to do.

The points about needing to prove yourself in the job market after finishing, as well as anxiety about whether a PhD was necessary, are also familiar from my recent thinking.

I wouldn’t say the video provides any useful and non-obvious advice, but reading within the broad category of writing by current and recent PhD students actually has immense psychological value by demonstrating the reality of shared experience and shared struggle, engaging about all the things we didn’t known when we began and (even more juicily and importantly) all the things your university will lie to you about to keep their business model going. A post by Bret Devereaux is a fine example of the genre, and was discussed here before.

Resisting fossil fuel recruitment at universities

A tactic that has developed in parallel to campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns has been activists resisting on-campus recruitment by fossil fuel corporations. With an industry that needs to be rapidly phased out to avoid climatic catastrophe, it doesn’t make sense to be training new people to join.

The UK eNGO People & Planet has a fossil free careers campaign. Birkbeck, University of London has banned fossil fuel firms from its career service. This month, three other UK universities did the same.

UN secretary general António Guterres recently said: “My message to you is simple: don’t work for climate wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”

AI that writes

Several recent articles have described text-generating AIs like GPT3 and ChatGPT:

I have been hearing for a while that the best/only way to deal with the enormous problem of plagiarism in university essays is to have more in-class exam essays and fewer take-home essays.

With huge classes and so many people admitted without strong English skills, it is already virtually impossible to tell the difference between students struggling to write anything cogent and some kind of automatic translation or re-working of someone else’s work. It’s already impossible to tell when students have bought essays, except maybe in the unlikely case that they only cheat on one and the person grading notices how it compares to the others. Even then, U of T only punishes people when they confess and I have never seen a serious penalty. If we continue as we are now, I expect that a decent fraction of papers will be AI-written within a few years. (Sooner and worse if the university adopts AI grading!)

Considering student coaching

To further develop the student coaching idea:

It would be student-driven, not curriculum-driven. The starting point would be who they are, why they’re at university, and what they aspire to do in the medium- and long-term. That’s the basis for helping them find worthwhile extracurriculars and networks, as well as thinking about course planning and major selection from a holistic perspective.

I would work for the student, not the university. As a TA I have spent many hours with students one-on-one reviewing their written work either before or after submission and grading. This has all been essentially unpaid, as I didn’t have so many hours of student contact in my TA contract. I enjoyed doing it though because it felt like the only time when I was really teaching. Up in front of a tutorial I am doing am improv act, trying to weave together my prepared material with the organic discussion of the students willing to talk. One-on-one we can take our time and establish that the student is really following along. It becomes possible to see if they can repeat back the salient idea to you.

As a TA, I was chiefly paid for grading and administrative hours like keeping track of attendance. Neither is an activity that much serves to educate. They are part of the university’s sorting function rather than its residual educational capabilities. Switching sides to serve rather than sort the students is appealing.

All the student support they get at U of T is a bit like going to an emergency room doctor. Their only priority is to deal with the narrow issue in front of them, because they have no long-term relationship to any patient’s health and need to triage patients by degree of need. This student coaching service would be like a family doctor, reminding you of things it will be important to to before you’ve missed a deadline and it’s not possible, and when to get started in researching each batch of papers.

Personally, rather than pedagogically, I see great appeal in employment where I need to maintain clients but not to report to any bosses.