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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Bukowski on writing

I came across this poem by Charles Bukowski which expresses something important about integrity in writing. I wouldn't take it literally as good advice about how to write a scientific book, but there is something about the spirit of the thing that is relevant for aspiring academics. I see too many doctoral students in my discipline who don't really have anything they passionately want to know who then wonder why they struggle to write something that anyone else cares about. If you don't know what you want to know or someone else has to tell you, don't do it. If all you want is 'DPhil (Oxon)' after your name, don't do it...

so you want to be a writer? by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Look what they did to my graph Ma!

This is a follow up to my previous post. Browsing through the Milburn report my eye was drawn to the first graph above apparently based on something from one of my own publications. They have succeeded in creating a great example of how not to present statistical information in graphical form. In fact I have rarely seen so many bad practices represented in one simple figure. Compare it with my original figure below it which appeared in: John H. Goldthorpe and Colin Mills (2008) 'Trends in Intergenerational Class Mobility in Modern Britain: Evidence from National Surveys, 1972-2005', National Institute Economic Review, 5, July, 83-100. See how many foolish errors you can spot. Here is a starter for 10. The points on the lower graph labelled BHPS7 and EUSILC7 are, as is explained in the article, not derived on the same basis as all the other points and therefore comparisons of levels between these and the other points is meaningless.

Fair Access to the Professions

The final report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions chaired by Alan Milburn is released today. I can't pretend I have read all of it but my impression is that it doesn't contain much that is new. It does though reinforce some unhelpful confusions. Pace the report, doing better than your parents because of general economic growth doesn't have any necessary implications for equalizing relative mobility chances and equalizing relative mobility chances does imply - even if politicos don't like it - that the less meritorious sons and daughters of the middle classes are less likely to attain occupational positions as good - in relative terms - as those of their parents. Just because the pie is bigger and therefore everone's slice is bigger in absolute terms doesn't change the fact that some people's slice is twice, three times, four times...bigger than other's. And claiming that equalization of access to desirable positions implies no downward mobility is like pretending that it never rains in Britain during the Summer because you would prefer it to be sunny all the time.

Having said that, the central message of the report is broadly correct. Social background does matter for economic success in ways that are unjust and economically inefficient and whatever progress there has been towards equalizing opportunities in the last 40 years or so has been small compared to the magnitude of the inequality in life chances for children from different social class backgrounds. While the report probably exaggerates (negatively) Britain's comparative position in the world social mobility league it is true that despite our rhetoric we are a middle of the table team. If we were a schoolchild our end of term report would read: 'Could do better if she tried harder'. The report can be read at:
One thing the report makes something of is the lack of good quality survey data on the social class origins of people in the workforce. It then baulks at the cost of collecting data by monitoring recruitment to professional positions. Why not simply add a couple of questions on parental social background to just one of the quarters of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey? Response rates to the QLFS are high, the sample size is large - allowing EO monitoring at quite a detailed level - and the marginal cost of a couple of extra questions must be comparatively small. Some of us have been calling for this for years. Why is nobody in the Cabinet Office listening? If you really want to know the answers then you have to ask the questions.