Archive for the 'academia' Category

Confidence in astrophysics

[by JSC5]

This paragraph from an essay by Dennis Overbye on discoveries in astrophysics really blew me away:

“Call it the two-sigma blues. Two-sigma is mathematical jargon for a measurement or discovery of some kind that sticks up high enough above the random noise  to be interesting but not high enough to really mean anything conclusive. For the record, the criterion for a genuine discovery is known as five-sigma, suggesting there is less than one chance in roughly 3 million that it is wrong. Two sigma, leaving a 2.5 percent chance of being wrong, is just high enough to jangle the nerves.”

If you think back to your first statistics class, you’ll remember a bunch of ways for testing an observation for significance, and I’ll bet you $10 you used the 95% confidence level for just about everything you did in that class. It’s become the default level for significance in most social sciences. Run the regression, and if p<.05, bam, you’re done. Call it significant and move on.

Then along comes a hard science like astrophysics that puts everyone else to shame. These guys run right past .05  without looking back, at .025 their nerves start “jangling”, but it’s not until 3.33 x 10^-7 that they’re ready to go ahead and say, “Excuse me, sir, but I think I have a genuine discovery on my hands.” Meanwhile the economics/poly sci grad student next door has run 1000 new regressions and ‘discovered’ a bunch of things that turn out not to be quite right but still get published with frightening frequency.

And that’s why people trust astrophysicists.

The kids aren’t all right: plagiarism(!) edition

[by JSC5]

Another day, another curmudgeonly story about “kids these days”. Today’s complaint comes from the New York Times, which goes out of its way to blame plagiarism among college students on everything except the obvious culprit.

The article starts off on a prejudicial – if hilarious – anecdote:

At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.

Now, on a first reading, I figured this paragraph was trying to tell me that DePaul students aren’t the brightest of bulbs if they can’t see the big text color tool at the top of the Microsoft Word window. On a second reading, however, my Old Codger radar went off. This is more than just a funny story about a lone idiot and his lack of a moral compass; this sets the stage for how the author wants the reader to interpret the entire rest of the article. What explains plagiarism in college these days, the author asks? Why, the decrepit morals of the young, of course! The author even has anecdotes to prove it!

Then we get this gem of an explanation:

Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution. “This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don’t have the same gravity,” said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. “When you’re sitting at your computer, it’s the same machine you’ve downloaded music with, possibly illegally.”

On a first reading, I figured this was a story of a 31-year-old undergraduate misfit committing social suicide on the front page of the New York Times while engaging in some pop psychology. But no, this is supposed to be another piece of “data” on young people’s attitudes towards plagiarism, with the conclusion that kids these days just lack the moral compass of their forebearers when it comes to serious things like media and intelectual property.

Then the story brings in the academic set to try their hand:

“Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. …  Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

This one’s harder for me to dismiss as just the lazy observations of a single student. Ms. Blum is a professor, after all — an anthropologist at Notre Dame. What I find hard to stomache, however, is the offhanded way in which Ms. Blum asserts that today’s media content is more pastiche-driven than previous generations. While I love a good mash up as much as the next guy, I’m not crazy enough to believe that Kanye invented sampling or that Family Guy invented allusions. I’m pretty sure that most creative works going back to antiquity have drawn on pre-existing works.

Finally, the article brings in the favorite boogey man of the Old Codger: the internet and its deliterious effect on the morals of our youth:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Yeah, it’s possible to believe that cultural creations accessed via the internet have no author, just like it’s possible to believe that Star Wars really did take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The difference is that we usually give moral actors who are not “kids these days” (like Star Wars fans) the benefit of the doubt and treat them like normal humans with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs similar to our own. The rules for “kids these days” are different, however. Lazy writers get to trash them at will.

Let me lay down what I think ought to be a fairly simple explanation for plagiarism:

  1. Kids today are no different from my slightly older generation, or their parents’ generation, or Shakespear’s generation. We’re all the same idiots and fuck-ups, geniuses and successes.
  2. Things like Wikipedia, YouTube, and the internet in general don’t erode our values to the point that people start commonly believing that “this information is just out there for anyone to take”. Please treat the younger generations as competent moral agents (see point #1)
  3. Instead, the internet reduces access and plagiarism costs. Copying someone else’s words no longer involves clickety-clacking them from a book to your typewriter or Apple II. Now you can Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V it (or use an entirely different and unintuitive keystroke, for my Apple folks out there). When costs fall, consumption tends to rise. In this case, ‘consumption’ is plagiarism.

Now, this explanation is boring compared with the sexy NYT article talking about the moral failings of the youth caused by “the Internet” (always capitalized, like Towne, Shoppe, or any Noun from ye olde Book of random Capitalizations). But it seems far more plausible, and has the added benefit of not treating the current youngest generation as a bunch of uniquely-monstruous idiots.

Don’t get me wrong: plagiarism is a terrible thing. But the fix seems to be pretty easy. The only way students could think they’ll get away with copying and pasting Wikipedia entries without attribution is if their teachers are in the habit of accepting long entries of text including information, analysis, and theories that the student clearly was not born knowing. Start treating shitty writing that doesn’t reference its information like it deserves — by giving it a failing grade — and you’ll be well on your way to fixing plagiarism. One can’t help but wonder how awful the teachers are if their students think that merely copying and pasting Wikipedia articles would get them anything but a swift kick in the ass and a big fat goose egg on the top of the paper — even if the actual plagiarism is never caught.

Skills and meta-skills

One issue that always amazes people is why so many Ivy Leaguers go into investment banking and consulting. I’ve talked in the past about risk-aversion and choice overload as some causes for these questionable career choices, but recently I’ve started thinking about another culprit, the very idea of a liberal arts education. Let me explain.

The idea of a liberal arts education is that it teaches us to learn. We don’t learn specific skills, but rather meta-skills that allow us to learn any other skills later in life should we need them. If it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, then it’s even better to teach him how develop new methods of procuring food. As far as education goes, liberal arts, done effectively, is about as good as it gets, and after hearing their virtues extolled throughout our education, it’s understandable that we hold these meta-skills in high regard.

Continue reading ‘Skills and meta-skills’

The advantages of an elite education

I really enjoyed reading William Deresiewicz’s recent essay, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education [h/t to Kris]. I encourage you all to read his piece and think about it. First, let me outline where he and I agree on two points: 1) that elite education discourages risk taking, and 2) that it threatens to distort our perception of the worth of other human beings. Then I’ll mention the many points on which we differ.

First, Deresiewicz is right to worry that an elite education pushes its recipient away from risk-taking and towards comfort and security. As he argues:

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich […] but it takes away the chance not to be. […] How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

[…]

Students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.

I think that neatly captures the thinking of many graduating seniors I knew, at least at Harvard. It’s actually rather difficult to ignore the constant social pressure to go into banking or consulting and earn a steady, good salary. It’s tough to think more broadly about your real goals, and take some risks, when everyone around you is doing the opposite. This absolutely is a disadvantage of an elite education. Point to Deresiewicz.

Secondly, Deresiewicz says that “an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth” as ” ‘Better at X’ becomes simply ‘better’ ” in some larger, metaphysical sense. This is definitely something I’ve tried to be conscious about and guard against, but I can see it creeping up every now and then in my own thinking and in that of my former classmates. But I would like to point out that petty parochialism is a universal human trait. A New Yorker’s snobbery is insufferable; so, too, is a Texan’s. I think everyone tends to value most highly those traits they themselves possess, and to give those traits privileged status in judging the overall human worth of others. It’s a nasty way of treating other human beings, and we should all work to limit these inborn tendencies. Certainly elite universities could do more counteract elite snobbery. But so, too, could most other institutions in this world. Still, point Deresiewicz.

But as much as I agree with Deresiewicz’s critique thus far, I have to disagree with him on a number of other issues.

First, Deresiewicz complains about the permissive, entitled culture at elite universities:

Students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

This anecdote is intended to instill a feeling of resentment towards those nasty Ivy League people who don’t have to deal with such supposed real world things like hard deadlines. One “disadvantage of an elite education”, therefore, is that elite students grow up in an entitled atmosphere. But shouldn’t we be viewing this the other way around? Not having second chances, when they’re reasonable, sucks! Getting a ‘D’ instead of an ‘A’, just because you’re an hour late turning in the term paper, sucks! It’s not like that extra hour riding the bus gave Ms. Works For Tips To Pay For School an actual advantage over other students. Hers should not be the normal human experience!

The same goes for other advantages of elite universities that Deresiewicz holds out as problems: the plentiful grants for research, travel, writing, and the arts; the “platoon of advisors and tutors”. Isn’t the real lesson here that elite institutions are a little more humane, that the elite lifestyle Deresiewicz mocks may actually be a better lifestyle, and that instead of fostering resentment of it, we should instead work to make non-elite schools and non-elite lifestyles more humane as well? Just because gramps walked 30 miles to school every day (barefoot, in the snow, and uphill both ways) doesn’t mean he’s right to criticize lazy, bus-spoiled kids these days.

Second, Deresiewicz complains that an elite education “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.” He illustrates with an anecdote about he had trouble talking to a plumber that came to his house. But isn’t difficulty communicating with others a common human trait? How well do Christians talk to and understand Muslims? How well do liberal, feminist women tend to talk with women in burqas? Or vice verse? When was the last time you saw a riveting conversation between a west coast granola dude with dreds and a suburban soccer mom? Let me be the first to agree that the average social IQ among Harvard undergraduates is far, far lower than the US population average. There ain’t no awkward like Harvard party awkward, cuz the Harvard party awkward don’t stop. True, these people have trouble relating to other people just like themselves, much less Joe the Plumber. But is that a result of their elite education? Are elite students really that different from the mechanic who doesn’t know how to talk to the local community college professor? Probably not. Failure to communicate is a failure common to all sorts of different identities. And it operates in both directions.

Perhaps Deresiewicz’s least compelling argument is that an elite education is “profoundly anti-intellectual.” He says of elite students:

The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. […] Elite education is little more than a] glorified form of vocational training.

This couldn’t be farther from my own experience. Nor does it jive with the popular sentiment of academia as an Ivory Tower. The people I knew in college generally had no idea what careers they wanted to pursue. They could more easily be criticized of aimless, academic wandering than of over-specialization or parochial, vocational interests. These were students more in the  mold of the Renaissance Man than the pre-professional. It was extremely painful watching my fellow classmates go through the agony of specialization and making choices that closed off any opportunity whatsoever. Sure, there were the few who showed up the first day freshman year and, not having actually read anything about the place earlier, got mad that ‘business’ was not a possible major. But those were the outliers (it’s a big, diverse school). Most people I knew loved abstract ideas … probably to a fault. The whole thing about pressure to go into banking and consulting after graduation? That happens suddenly in the last year, partially as a direct result of the liberal-artsiness of our liberal arts education.

Finally, I have to take some exception with Deresiewicz for intimating that the diversity at elite universities is somehow false diversity that shouldn’t be recognized as such. Deresiewicz quips, “Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals.” That’s funny, and there is something to that. It was the greatest culture shock of my life showing up freshman year and watching a large group of my classmates gossiping about having come from this or that prestigious private prep school.

But it was shocking precisely because I had no experience with that world! And as it turns out, neither did many, many of my fellow classmates. When Facebook (back when it was called TheFacebook) first started taking off, one of the biggest ‘groups’ on campus was the classic “I went to a public school, bitch.” I’m not saying that Harvard was a hotbed of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories. But I think that too few people realize that Harvard (and, to my knowledge, several other elite universities) has absolutely top-notch financial aid. Does your family, like the median American family, make less than $60,000 a year? Congratulations! You get to go for free. Make less than something like $150,00 a year? Then you won’t be asked to pay more than 10% of your income. Of course, there are still plenty of barriers out there for economically disadvantaged kids, but financial aid at elite universities like Harvard makes it easier to go there than to go to many state schools, and far, far easier than expensive liberal arts colleges with small endowments.

Might this, like many of these other points I’ve argued, not be yet another advantage of an elite education? I don’t want to issue a blanket defense of elite universities. There’s plenty wrong with them. But let’s not lose sight of what’s right with them.

A final aside that will interest only self-involved people who received elite educations, and bore most others: What’s with idolizing the ‘Ivy League’? I refer everyone to Wikipedia, which says right there in the first sentence: “The Ivy League is an athletic conference.” That’s right, an athletic conference. That’s it. Stanford’s not a member, yet no one would say with a straight face that (for whatever reasons, good or bad) Stanford isn’t an overall better-thought-of and more-prestigious university than Dartmouth or Brown (both of which are in the League). The point is, our actual perceptions of academic quality don’t align very well with the Ivy, non-Ivy distinction. So why do writers keep using ‘Ivy League’ as if it has actual meaning? Probably because it’s a good wedge word that reliably pushes people’s buttons and instills certain feelings in the reader. That’s not a good reason, but it’s the only reason I can think of.

Those damn kids and their high G.P.A.’s

It seems like every year, some segment of the old geezer intelligentsia gets worked up about ‘grade inflation’. This cycle, it’s the TimesEconomix blog that kicks off the hand-wringing, with a new dig at private schools:

G.P.A.’s have risen from a national average of 2.52 in the 1950s to about 3.11 by the middle of the last decade. For the first half of the 20th century, grading at private schools and public schools rose more or less in tandem. But starting in the 1950s,  grading at public and private schools began to diverge. Students at private schools started receiving significantly higher grades than those received by their equally-qualified peers — based on SAT scores and other measures — at public schools.

My hunch is that grade inflation hawks have more in common with old men in rocking chairs yelling at ‘kids these days’ to get off their lawns than they do with, say, actual education policy experts. We’ll start by debunking the traditional inflation argument, and then take a look at the public-private disparity. First, the argument against traditional inflation hawkery:

1. There is nothing metaphysical about grading. Just as there is no inherent, metaphysical value of a dollar, there is no platonic ideal of an ‘A’ or an ‘F’ floating out there in the ether that we here on Earth should be compelled to perceive and imitate. Hence, we should all be very wary of arguments based on average GPAs across varying time periods, as if this information on its own were enough to win the argument. That’s because …

2. The real purpose of grading is to provide useful information. First, grading exists to help tell the student how s/he is doing during the class, so that the student can adjust his/her own study habits, effort, and expectations. Second, grading exists to help others objectively evaluate a student’s mastery of the subject matter, usually in the context of a competitive application for a job, internship, faculty position, or what-have-you. That’s it. If rising GPA’s hinder these two functions, then grade inflation really is a serious problem. If not, then there’s very little reason to take the grumpy old inflation hawks seriously — outside of the camp value of listening to how things were back in the day. And as it turns out …

3. Our current system of grading does, in fact, provide useful information. You can rank people just as easily on a 4-point GPA scale normed at 3.11 as you can on a 4-point GPA scale normed at 2.52. Now, a rising mean GPA certainly could threaten to compress the highest performers on the upper end and inhibit oridnal ranking, but I don’t see much evidence that this is actually happening. There isn’t really any good data on this, but my own experience in college indicated that GPAs even at elite private universities are concentrated heavily around the mean, with plenty of room left over on either end for the high and low performers to distinguish themselves.

4. Finally, you say ‘inflation’, I say ‘attainment’. It’s a big, bad world out there — bigger and badder than the world was in the comparatively sleepy 1950s. There’s a lot more to learn now than there was then, and the tempo of discovery and invention is only accelerating. As a result, we’ve done a lot of what my mother disparagingly refers to as ‘curricular cram-down’, but what I prefer to think of as ‘learning more’ — especially among top-tier students. It’s now expected that our top-flight students learn intro calculus and stats in high school, along with a hard science and history. What used to be considered ‘college-level’ courses (the AP program) are now seen as prerequisites for admission at the best universities. And it just keeps on going. What used to count as a graduate level seminar in comparative Latin American government is now given to juniors and seniors. It ought to surprise no one, then, that average educational attainment in college may have grown from 2.5 to 3.1 in the last 50 years. Just compare the standard mathematics classes taken by kids at MIT in 1950 and 2010. What some call ‘inflation’ could just as easily be seen as ‘appreciation’.

“That’s all well and good”, you might say, “But what about the disparity in mean GPA between private and public universities? Doesn’t that put the lie to your cute little story, JSC5?”

I’m glad you asked. In a word, no. There are two possible explanations for higher private school GPAs, neither of which should worry us that the sky is falling:

1. Poor study design. The study compares the GPAs of what it calls “equally qualified peers” in public and private universities  based on SAT scores alone. The problem here is that grades in college are awarded based on performance in college classes, while SAT scores come from a test taken in 12th grade that covers information normally covered by upper-track students by the end of 8th grade.  The study’s assumption seems to be that if 2 students scored equally on the SAT, then they should probably score equally in any given class in college. For this to be true, however, we’d have to assume that the SAT truly does measure scholastic aptitude instead of high speed recall and use of 8th grade knowledge. We would also have to assume that there is no difference between the quality of the education at public and private universities that may lead to higher educational attainment among private school students. We’d also have to assume that there are no confounding variables that might legitimately distinguish the student who opted for the private university from the one who went public. All of these assumptions strike me as problematic.

2. Actual grade inflation. But maybe private schools really do inflate GPAs above comparable public school students’ GPAs. Is this the smoking gun that inflation hawks might think? No. Remember that 1) grading is not metaphysical, and 2) grades are supposed to convey information. Let’s drop the issue of resentment for a second and look at practical effects. Everyone knows that grading at different schools is different. Without a rigid national rubric, it has to be. That’s why college admissions committees look at population averages and distributions of grades from different high schools to help them interpret the individual GPA of any given applicant in light of their educational background. Graduate schools do the same when interpreting college GPA. The goal of having grades providing useful information to help construct ordinal rankings can still be met even if some institutions have higher average grades than others. That’s why you employ recruitment professionals with this kind of industry knowledge, and it’s why you do population norming. Certainly private university GPA inflation, if it existed, would make ranking more difficult, but certainly not impossible.

The take-home lesson is that grade inflation is not the slam-dunk case most grade inflation hawks seem to think it is. It’s hard not to conclude that persistent grade inflation hawks are really just angry that kids these days have a higher GPA than they themselves did back in the day.

Top 8 influential books

Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economics blogger at Marginal Revolution, wrote up a list of the top 10 books that had most influenced his thinking, prompting a wave of similar posts from intellectual bloggers across the Internet in the last week. I might as well chime in. The list below isn’t of the best books or authors, but of the books and authors that most influenced my way of thinking and being at crucial times in my life. I’m probably leaving out a couple key books, but here they are, in no particular order, my top 8 most influential books:

  • Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: I read this at a ridiculously young age (2nd or 3rd grade), and though I clearly didn’t understand everything in it at first reading, it still left me obsessed with the all-pervasive cool-ness of the universe. It’s incomprehensibly large, fantastically complicated, and inherently fascinating. What we see in everyday life is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots to learn, so get busy.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Feynman wasn’t just a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he was a constant puzzle-solver, prankster, and amateur enthusiast in dozens of scientific and artistic disciplines. Reading his autobiography early on (5th grade?) really imparted to me the sheer joy of learning and instilled in me the desire to acquire the habits of inquisitiveness. I fell in love with what Feynam shows is a really attractive culture of playful intellectualism. I guess if Hawking showed me how fascinating the world is, Feynman gave me a rough idea of how one can make a socially and personally fulfilling life by investigating it. Taken together, these two books really put curiosity at the center of my emerging identity as a kid.
  • Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game: This one’s a classic for ambitious, smart kids, and I’m almost embarrassed to include it, but I think I have to if I’m being honest with myself. I must have read it some time around 4th to 6th grade. The book really made the archetype of the heroic individual — who uses smarts, hard work, and the help of good friends to do good and important things– attractive to me. That’s ironic, since in the end it turns out that Ender was a pawn of large, amorphous, adult powers beyond his control, his individual greatness wasn’t absolutely essential to victory (see the Bean prequels), and his supposedly heroic work was actually morally dubious. But there you have it.
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: I must have been about 12 when this book came out, and it really had a profound effect on me. The process of understanding why things are they way they are always seemed like a straightforward process, when it came to the physical world. But I had never really been exposed to a rigorous attempt at explaining why things are the way they are in the human world of societies, culture, and so on. Diamond’s work helped set me on a path of thinking a lot more about causes in the human world than I ever had before.
  • Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: These books are really as much about politics as they are about science fiction. As the best sci-fi does, Heinlein’s classics used the sciency part (space travel, future tech, etc) to put humans into new and interesting social contexts in order to investigate how the wide variety of human characters would respond. I learned to imagine a new set of social norms that would be normal in their own societies, and confronted issues I’d never seriously grappled with, like sexual politics and imagining alternative structures to human society: plural marriage, temporary sexual liaisons, age differentials in inter-personal relationships. But beyond this low and local politics, the books also deal with ‘high’ politics in a compelling way that makes it seem much more immediately important and interesting than the newspaper ever does. Heinlein put things like the structure and function of government, self-determination, colonialism, authoritarianism, violence, revolution, and liberty into new literary context.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality: A fascinating combination of epistemological modesty (there is no privileged, objective vantage point or absolute and eternal truth or first principle) and the absolute necessity of making decisions and evaluations, and forging an authentic personal existence. Nietzsche was the first to really get modern angst, and his books (particularly this one) really made me think about and deal with these concepts in a serious way. It’s an interesting addition to the optimism and joy I got from Hawking and Feynman, though not actually all that incompatible. It also lines up nicely with the Ender-inspired image of the heroic individual, I guess.
  • John Irving, The World According to Garp: I think what was so influential about this book (and many other Irving books) for me was its focus on the personal and the quotidian.  Family, friends, and neighbors become the main setting for failure, success, tragedy, and normalcy. The majesty of the universe, the heroic individual, the big questions of life — those are all great (see influential books listed above), but a huge part of what makes life awesome is just the interactions between characters. People talking to people. It’s enough to drive great stories (see Irving, John), and it’s enough to drive real life, too.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: I think Marquez (along with many others, but Marquez stands out to me right now), gave me a needed sense of perspective on the role of the individual and the ambitious life. One thing that makes this book so great is the rolling sense of repetition, stylistically and within the plot itself, in which character traits are transmitted between the generations, and the same ambitions are partially satisfied and partially thwarted time and again. The Buendia family rises to riches and falls and rises again. Illicit passions persist for entire generations, spawn tragedy, suddenly die, and then spring up again in the next. Nothing is new under the sun, and yet places and people continuously change. It’s a story of triumph and tragedy within the context of infinite recursion. I guess one lesson is the power of history (both grand and personal), and the ultimate smallness of any single person, action, or desire. The other big lesson is the appreciation of dark humor.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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