December Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • AD 1-500 graves in agricultural Sweden often contain resin caulking from cylindrical bark containers. This material consists of birch-bark tar and beeswax, and is apparently completely inedible to microbes. Undisturbed caulking forms a tennis racquet: a ring inside the base of the container and a handle covering the seam in the cylinder’s side. The caulking makes a detailed cast of the vessel wall. Below is an unusually wide and fine example of the side seam, from an otherwise poorly furnished cremation pit at the severely damaged Lustigkrog cemetery, Edsberg parish, Närke province (SHM 13308).
  • I learned about UK “public right of way” the hard way. It means “not illegal path”. Not “firm dry hiking trail”. Ended up mud-spattered up to my thighs.
  • Hey UK folks, is Johnson counting on being able to blame your coming calamities on the EU, or does he realise that he is likely to soon be monumentally impopular even among the brexiter demographic?
  • Movie: Nothing Like a Dame (2018). Four legendary English actresses talk about their professional lives. Grade: OK.
  • Space fans everywhere: enthusiastic about the annual Geminid meteor shower coinciding with a new moon and a dark sky. Stockholm: under unbroken cloud cover for three solid weeks. /-:
  • The members of my space detective role-playing group are so smart that not only do they disregard red herrings, they regularly come up with ways of getting information that allow them to bypass much of the way the scenario designers have intended them to travel to the denouement. 😃
  • Cycling home from town in the dark, I stop at the gas station to buy milk. Exiting, I realise that I’ve been shining my headlamp on the cashier when paying. Felt a little inconsiderate.
  • William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novels appeared c. 34 years ago. The big video game craze right now is like people in 1986 going nuts over scifi from 1952, such as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man.
  • “Academia is a pyramid scheme: Each biomedical professor trains an average of six doctoral students across her career, but only 16 percent of the students get tenure-track positions.” / Ed Yong
  • Famously, the official language of the EU is Bad English. The official language should arguably be from one of the member states. So it’ll soon be time to switch to Bad Irish English.
  • A fine Scandy expression: Det är ingen ko på isen, “No cow is on the ice”, it’s not a matter of pressing concern.
Resin caulking from the Lustigkrog cemetery

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

15 thoughts on “December Pieces Of My Mind #2”

  1. Famous quote by 6’2″ tennis player Maria Sharapova, known among other things for not being great at moving around the court, describing herself playing on a clay court, where you have to slide into the strokes because your shoes won’t grip the surface: “I’m like a cow on ice.” With time she improved enough to win the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments and the only one played on clay.

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  2. “Academia is a pyramid scheme: Each biomedical professor trains an average of six doctoral students across her career, but only 16 percent of the students get tenure-track positions.”

    True, but trivial. The problem is with people who don’t realize this, but then one could argue that that automatically disqualifies them from academia. Obviously, academic positions cannot increase exponentially for any significant length of time, so there are two possibilities: keep it like it is now, with only a small percentage—and even only a small percentage of those who want to—getting permanent jobs in academia, or train fewer. I favour the second solution, which would also allow people to get permanent jobs earlier in their career. As it is, too many people are spending their most productive years wondering where the next job will be.

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    1. I’m pretty sure many of the biomed PhDs who don’t get tenure track jobs in academia get well-paid jobs in pharma etc., where their training is useful. In the humanities, however, this is not true. Humanities PhDs retrain to become poorly paid archivists and librarians.

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      1. In natural science, it depends on the field, and on the time.

        Old joke:

        Physicist: I would like to apply for a job.

        Taxi boss: What are your classifications?

        Physicist: A master’s degree in physics.

        Taxi boss: Sorry, all my drivers have at least a doctorate.

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      2. Of course, if you want to earn money, you don’t go into humanities in the first place. But if you go into it because of interest, why not get a doctorate? At best, one could argue that state universities shouldn’t squander resources and over-produce. But what about private universities?

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      3. One of my goals with going into the humanities was making a modest living. I always have, but most archaeology graduates cannot achieve this without retraining.

        There is a strong reason not to do a PhD in my discipline: it makes you dramatically less employable. After completing your PhD, you are no longer considered by employers for the rank-and-file digger positions that constitute 95% of archaeology’s labour market.

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      4. Over-qualified to wield a trowel. Is it that, or would they just have to pay you too much for that kind of work? I always get suspicious when people tell other people that they are “over-qualified” for certain jobs – surely that is the concern of the person applying.

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      5. I have been told by two employers that they cannot hire someone with my qualifications as a digger. Also, that they cannot hire me as a manager, because then the diggers already on staff who hope to rise through the ranks would be angry.

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      6. A construction contractor in my area, who has done some work on my house, has a Ph.D. in history, the result of a hobby in Colonial-era music. While working on his Ph.D., he did construction work to pay the bills. Now that he has his degree, he still does construction work because it pays better than any job he could get with his Ph.D.

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  3. A fine Scandy expression: Det är ingen ko på isen, “No cow is on the ice”, it’s not a matter of pressing concern.

    There is a similar expression in German: “die Kuh vom Eis holen”, “to get the cow off of the ice”, when it is a matter of pressing concern.

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  4. Martin, your assumption about biomed PhDs is not well supported. The truth is, there are just far too many of them.

    Two things brought this home to me.

    1. When my daughter was doing her honours year research on human milk, the university research group she was working with had already churned out 51 PhDs, and they had only scratched the surface. Human milk is still far from well understood – either that or there is a lot less about it to understand than people think there is. But then there was the startling discovery that it contains millions of stem cells. No one (yet) knows what those stem cells do. Finding out could churn out another 50 PhDs. But back to the point, what do you do with 51 people with PhDs who know something perhaps not very useful about human milk? They can’t all get well paid jobs with infant formula producers or pharmaceutical companies.

    2. There are now *primary* schools in China which will only employ teachers who have PhDs, in addition to teaching qualifications. To state the obvious, you do not need a PhD in mathematics to teach primary school arithmetic. In reality, you do not need to attend university at all – for that purpose, it might even be better if you don’t. And those teachers are earning lousy salaries, probably barely enough to live on, or not even that.

    My conclusion: the system is broken. People are spending their most productive years trying to get PhDs and then finding that they are unemployable, or can get only fairly menial jobs which pay poorly and have no career progression. And increasingly, if the trend in China is anything to go by, people who do not spend 4 or 5 or more years getting a PhD will find themselves shut out of the system completely. The people who get the well paying jobs do so because they have the right connections. If you don’t have those connections, you could be the smartest and most well qualified person on earth but you will struggle to find a job which pays well enough for you to be able to support yourself. If you are that person, maybe the best thing you can try is to have a bright idea and start your own company, but the rate of failure is high.

    In today’s world, cronyism and corruption rule. Choose your tribe wisely. Meritocracy is not self-perpetuating – those people who have become well off through meritocracy seek for their children to have good futures not by the same meritocratic means, but by connections, endowments and bribery.

    John von Neumann was one of the smartest and most academically productive people ever known. Just some of the fields he contributed to include set theory, ergodic theory, operator theory, measure theory, lattice theory, von Neumann entropy, quantum mutual information, density matrix, von Neumann measurement scheme, quantum logic, game theory, mathematical economics, linear programming, mathematical statistics, fluid dynamics, cellular automata, DNA and the universal constructor. And he was not some disagreeable robot-like hermit – he was perfectly happy engaging in discussion with a 3 year old at that level. In evolutionary terms he was not very successful – he had one child, two grandchildren and died when he was 53. Fisher was a prick, and Newton doesn’t seem to have been particularly personable either; von Neumann was clearly not a prick. But being almost unimaginably smart and a nice guy as well didn’t get him too far.

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