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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.

Monday, 13 December 2010

How to run a department

Actually the only way to learn how to do it is to... well...do it. I made a few mistakes myself in my brief sojourns as well as managing to do a few things that I felt were worthwhile. Hindsight is always 20/20 but I find these bullet points by Mark Harrison on the business of running a department to be the nearest one can get to wisdom on the matter.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Of beads and bad eggs

The Glass Bead Game is one of the books I bought at the end of my first year at university. The long hot Summer stretched ahead, I read the first few pages, couldn't get into it and picked up The Tin Drum instead. And  ever since, Hesse's magnum opus has followed me around, cover fading, pages turning slightly brown waiting to be rediscovered. This September I packed it along with a small selection of other long  novels that have for  years sat on my bookshelves and brought them to Germany. 
My plan was a simple one. First, only bring very long novels. Second, bring novels that I wouldn't normally have time to read or have in the past failed to get through. Third, by failing to bring any short, tempting, lightweight fiction force myself to read my neglected classics. By and large this has worked. If I want to read any fiction at all the only options I have to hand are Mann, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, Grossman etc or take to reading German Krimis. Much as I like detective fiction, the conscious effort required to read it in another language would take away a lot of the pleasure, so I'm forced back  to my classics.
So far my strategy is working. I found I actually enjoyed The Glass Bead Game. It's true that  not much happens in it but the story of Knecht's struggle to reconcile the life of the mind with the impulse to act in the world meant something to me at nearly 50 which it couldn't possibly have done to me at 18. Maybe books should come with recommendations as to the right phase in life to read them in.  I remember reading On the Road in my late 20s and thinking that I was already too old to be wasting my time with that sort of stuff. Even worse was a brief moment of enthusiasm for John Buchan in my early 30s!
After finishing Hesse I then picked up Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Serendipity, for this is also a tale about idealistic compromise leading to tragedy.  The book isn't flawless, but it is very very good. The blurb on the back claims that it is the greatest American political novel. It may well be that, but it is also one of the best novels I've read in any category. Warren belongs up there in the American Pantheon with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. The strange thing is that until a  couple of  years ago I had never heard of him. And one calls oneself educated...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Instrumental voodoo

Instrumental variables can, on the relatively rare occasions when they are compelling, be a powerful trick to keep up your sleeve. What I find strange though is how often undeniably clever people lose their grip on common sense when they decide to instrument. 
Here is a link to a short article reporting a cross-national macro-level study which purports to show  that private schooling produces better academic results not only for those that buy it but for those left in the state system. Of course private schooling is highly selective and all sorts of unmeasured and possibly unmeasurable traits are correlated with it. Light-bulb moment, let's instrument. 
The instrument chosen by the authors is the % of Catholics in the state's population in 1900. The argument is that the Catholic church was/is the main provider of non-state education. So following the standard instrumenting story we are invited to believe that % Catholics in 1900 (interacted with an indicator of whether Catholicism was the state religion) is related to average PISA test marks round about now, through and only through its effect on the proportion enrolled in private schools. 
I have no idea whether this makes sense for most of the countries included in the study, but it strikes me as absurd in the case of Great Britain. Since at least 1902 most Catholic schools  (at least those that were of relevance to the majority of the population) were to a large degree maintained by the state and subject to the same regulatory regime. In other words they were not in any very meaningful sense private schools. Maybe the main results still come out if you drop GB, but there are times when I have a lot of sympathy for the generalized scepticism of the institutional comparativists about the wide and shallow approach. 
It's never bad to invest a little time learning something about the cases you chuck into your regressions. Of course that might mean  publishing less (and knowing more) and we wouldn't want that would we?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Yesterday's Bamberg talk

I gave a talk yesterday to the Diplomanden und Doktorandenkolloqium run by Hans-Peter Blossfeld. It was partly about what I have been doing since I arrived in Bamberg  in September. For anyone who is interested in the slides, here they are.