lördag 29 september 2012

Children's (magazine) reading habits

Are comics and children's magazines a gateway to "healthy reading habits"?

In the project course I teach right now, "Future of Media", we work with the theme of magazines this year; "The future of magazines" / "Magazines of the future". Right when the course started, all students had to write a short (400-1000 words) essay about their personal relationship to magazines.

I noticed that most students' first magazines were comics (Donald Duck, Bamse). While reading comics as a child did not guarantee that my students would continue to read magazines later in their lives, I still think that not having a subscription of your own as a child makes the threshold of subscribing and reading magazines later in life higher. I haven't done a detailed analysis of my students' essays, but still, certain patterns emerge after having read all 60 of them and this is one pattern that I observed.

And so I have decided to fund a magazine subscription for each of my two children. While I think the price of a subscription is pretty high, what I have come to realize is that that price is not just the cost for the physical product and the service of getting it sent directly to your mailbox, but also an investment that might affect my children's (future) reading habits. That is an important insight because while the latest issue of comics magazine Bamse costs 30 SEK and you can buy them 2nd hand for 3 or 5 (?) SEK, you thus pay for more than just the content when you subscribe to it (and the price per issue falls towards 20 SEK). I can easily have a cup of coffee and pay more than 20 SEK without blinking...

I know I am repeating myself, but something I haven't thought about before is that there is a difference between subscribing to a comics magazine (and getting 20 issues in the mailbox spread out over the course of a year) compared to buying 20 inexpensive second-hand issues of the same magazine once per year. Is there a price tag for the joy and excitement (as described by some of my students) of finding the latest issue of a (comics) magazine in the mailbox? The periodicity (one new issue every 3rd week) also means that my children will be reminded regularly about the joys of reading.

And so my youngest will get a subscription for Bamse and the older will get a subscription for Kamratposten. I will try to convince my brother to give them these as Christmas presents and to renew the subscriptions every year. He too likes to read so it shouldn't be too difficult.

måndag 24 september 2012


I was at the 3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity last week. This blog post will treat the concept of "degrowth" and I will follow it up with a blog post more specifically about my impressions from the conference a little later.

"Degrowth" - what is that about? Right now - but not before I went to the conference - I checked out the Wikipedia page where they describe degrowth as "a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas". I think that pretty well describes the impression I got from the conference. A neat way to get familiarized with the degrowth ideas is to check out a nice online magazine I just found called "Degrowth Magazine". Recent articles that seem really interesting are for example:
- Argentina's collapse and the grassroots of resilience
- How New England can change the world (about regional/local currencies)
There is even a Degrowthpedia around!

I went to the third international conference on degrowth, and the previous two were held in Paris (2008) and in Barcelona (2010). With Italy hosting the third conference, this pretty much covers the countries where degrowth has its strongest hold; France - décroissance, Italy - decrescita and Spain - decrecimiento. Apparently there is even a political degrowth party in France (and elsewhere?). A large majority of the conference participants (90%) came from Europe and my guess is that perhaps almost half came from Italy. While it was a scientific conference and most participants were researchers, there were also many activists, representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and from political parties (mainly European Greens) there.

The basic degrowth tenet is that economic growth is not possible (any more). Economic growth uses up resources and produces waste and pollution, and there are just so many resources around to use up on this finite planet of ours - and we are currently reaching the limits of what the Earth can give us. Which limit you see as the "ultimate limiter" is matter of personal choice, but I do believe the top two bets at the conference were energy/oil and/or our financial and economic system. The second tenet is a corollary to the idea of economic growth not being possible, and that is that economic growth not being desirable (even had it been possible). A French activist-academic I talked to said that "even had it [further/infinite economic growth] been possible, it would still be absurd".

The reasoning goes something like this: we neither seem to manage increased material affluence in such a way as to lift up the really poor people on the Earth from their poverty, nor to make the (relatively) rich people happier - perhaps (perhaps) with the exception of the very most affluent people on Earth. Further economic growth does not seem to bring any further happiness even the middle class in relatively affluent countries (US, Europe) - but we could increase happiness with another kind of society - a society that does not worship Mammon, growth and profits, but rather puts other activities and values higher than crass material wealth. The idea is thus that 1) we have to do it [leave the growth-based paradigm behind us] and 2) it is desirable to do it.

I can buy into these two tenets, but I do believe some people are attracted to degrowth without understanding the first tenet, i.e. they think that if we only could reorganize (revolutionize?) our societies, all human ills would go away. If only the money was more equitably shared, and if only we weren't in the thrall of greedy bankers and capitalists, all would be well. There is even a term, "happy degrowth" that is contrasted both with "unhappy growth" and (unhappy) "negative growth". There is apparently an Italian movement of kinds called "decrescita felice" (Italian Wikipedia page).

I talked to a guy from the (marginal) Greek Green party and he contrasted "negative growth" (what they have in Greece today) with "degrowth" - a conscious retreat and a reordering of society away from a growth- and money-fixated system, and towards a supposedly more equitable and happy state of affairs. Personally, I don't believe in "happy" degrowth. I think degrowth for the most part is unhappy,  like going to detox when you are an addict. Probably not pleasurable, but still necessary. We are all addicted to many aspects of our high-energy lifestyles, and phasing out even the most wasteful activities (like flying to a conference about degrowth in Italy, or luxury/conspicuous consumption) will be painful, perhaps even traumatic - but still necessary and even unavoidable during the coming decades of non-existent or negative growth.

While I personally don't think that our current economic system works very well, I do believe we would still face some Serious Challenges (tenet 1 above) even if we could implement more equitable social and economic systems. Since I am always drawn to tensions, contradictions and conflicts, I can thus identify a couple of issues that could potentially split the degrowth movement, but my impression is that the conference represents the honeymoon phase where everyone puts all differences aside (or sweep them under the carpet). The conferences was a big umbrella that houses everyone.

Despite differences in opinions, there are many overlaps between different degrowth "strands", and the emphasis of the conference was on the consensus rather than on the differences of opinion. That's probably a sensible strategy, but I personally think that some of the views being propagated at the conference basically are very naive, i.e. "if we could only do X, then all the problems in the world could be solved". X in the previous sentence = (radical) social action and a total rewiring of "the system" - with everything that that implies. But even people with whom I disagree on some fundamental level can on the other hand do great things when they tackle practical problems and explore alternatives to the current system.

Another significant difference I could find at the conference was between the perspectives of "affluent northerners" versus "the poor south". There were a couple of plenary talks by people who talked about concepts such as "Buen Vivir", or represented popular movements in less affluent countries (South America seems to be a hotspot in this respect) like the "Via Campesina" social movement.

That's my (current) conclusions as to the concept of "degrowth" - I'll get back with more information about the conference shortly.

söndag 23 september 2012

How should student project groups be put together?

Our media technology engineering students work on several project courses throughout their education, or work with smaller projects within "ordinary" courses. Should they be able to choose who to work together with or should the teacher decide (perhaps thorough throwing dice or some other method)? I will use my current project course, Future of Media, and describe how the procedure for choosing groups will work this year and why I have changed it since last year.

Last year, there was a kind of "marketplace" for choosing topics and forming groups. Students had information about possible topics around which groups would be formed beforehand (but limited information about the practical procedure of how the groups would be formed). At The Event (directly following a lecture in the course), each topic had been printed on a large sheet and each student has a big (1st hand choice) and a small (2nd hand choice) post-it note on which he (or she) wrote his name. Students could thus choose a specific topic they wanted to work with and/or they coordinate their choices with other persons they wanted to work with. My experience is unfortunately that choosing to work with your friends trumps choosing to work on a specific topic that interests you nine times out of ten. Furthermore, students sometimes put together a daisy chain of post-it notes signifying that "us five friends want to work together". The implicit message in such a daisy chain is for others to not bother and to stay away. I don't like that.

I guess an argument could be made for allowing students to choose to work with their best friends. It obviously represents a bigger effort to work with people you don't know that well. If you've managed to become a member of a stable group that works together smoothly, then why change a winning concept? As a teacher, my experience after having managed this particular course for the better part of a decade is that I don't really see that groups of friends working together produce better results. They might do it if it's a group of high-performing and ambitions students, but a group of friends might equally well drag each down to the minimum level necessary to "get by". It is also possible that friends all too quickly decide upon and zoom in on a specific solution, whereas more diversity in the groups instead can lead to broader experiences being represented - and more and better discussions (which I believe would indicate better results).

Further reasons for not letting students freely choose who to work with is:
- It's unrealistic to be able to choose exactly who you want to work with in a project. You are supposed to be able to work with "anyone" (many different kinds of people) in future jobs.
- We have a majority of Swedish students in the course, but no less than a third are international students. In general, I think it's a good idea to make it possible for international students to meet Swedish students and vice versa. Several international students have also explicitly mentioned that they look forward to working with Swedish students in this course and making new friends. Not encouraging this is thus a missed opportunity in several respects - and what's the point of studying abroad if you don't make any local friends? I'd like to do my part and increase the chances that international students are happy about their studies at KTH and their stay in Sweden.
- Meeting new people is an opportunity to make new friends and tap into new networks. I think that is to be encouraged on a general basis - also among Swedish students.
- When choosing freely, students with extensive networks prior to the course will have an advantage compared to those who knew fewer other students and thus have smaller or non-existing networks to rely on. Not being able to choose freely is thus a way of making the playing field a little more even.

On the other hand, I don't like the idea of randomly dividing students into groups, since the project is a pretty major one; students will work together for more than two months and each groups should together put many hundreds of hours into these project. Not being able to choose what or who you want to work with would suck. What I would like to do is thus to increase the chance of groups being formed based on interests in different topics rather than primarily (or exclusively) based on pre-existing friendship ties.

After this list of pros and cons, this is thus how the project groups will be put together this year:
- Student will get to see a long list of possible project topics (same as last year) after our brainstorming seminars (a collective process that sorts out the good project ideas from the bad).
- Student will make a 1st, a 2nd and even a backup 3rd choice of topics they would like to work with in the project phase.
- I will put the groups together and try to figure out ways of making as many students as possible as happy as possible. Hopefully everyone will be allocated a group based on their 1st or 2nd hand choice.

If a project group can only have X number of members (last year it was 5-6) and X+3 students choose that group as their 1st hand choice, I will basically throw a dice to determine which students will make it into the group and which won't. I thus introduce an element of randomness and chance into the process. If you negotiate, prepare and coordinate your choices with friends you want to work with beforehand, there is a high chance you will work together with some of your friends, but there is little chance of forming a group only consisting of your friends. The fact that a student won't be able to choose to be part of pure "friendship-groups" will hopefully also increase the likelihood that people will aim for working with topics they are truly interested in rather than subordinating their own interests to their friends' wishes.

While I think this way of choosing groups sounds good in theory, I don't know in detail how I will go about to put the groups together so as to make as many students as possible as happy as possible. I might need a good way of representing and visualizing students' choices (I have to think a little about that). This whole thing for sure means more work for me, but I think and I hope it is worth it.

See this blog post (published 10 days later) for musings about how to handle students' varying levels of ambition, time spent on projects and grades in project courses.

lördag 15 september 2012

My price tag

I wrote a blog post two weeks ago about my efforts applying for research grants during this past spring. To summarize:
- I worked on five different applications and four were finished (handed in) during the spring.
- These applications represented two different brand new ideas that we started to work on around a year ago (in two different constellations of people).
- I estimated that I had roughly spent between 200 and 300 hours working on these applications during the previous academic year.
- This far, I have nothing to show for it. Three out of four applications have been rejected. I'll know about the fourth application in a month or so.

The competition for research grants is fierce. It is perhaps to be expected that a majority of the applications will be rejected. But the fact that three of my applications were rejected and we got no motivation or explanation at all leaves a sour aftertaste after having put so much time into this endeavor. It is difficult to rework and improve an application when you have no idea if you were close to the pot of money or if you were miles away from it. Does another round with the same ideas (reworked, updated applications) represent a real chance at getting a research grant, or does it only represent "throwing good money (or rather throwing good time) after bad"? Were my applications fundamentally sane (but there wasn't enough money to go around), or were they screened out in the very first round (and if so, for what reason)?

I would never get away with asking my students to do something that represented many dozens of hours of work and then leave them with a "pass" or a "fail" and no feedback or motivation whatsoever (not even a grade). But it is apparently all right for research grant agencies to treat applicants that way... The situation is more than just a little Kafkaesque... A fitting quote from a book I recently read:

"what we have is [...] winners and losers at the end of a series of tests which were largely invisible, barely specified, poorly supervised and far from stable."

Two of the four applications where handed in to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, RJ. Out of 899 applications that were handed in, 107 were selected for the second round, and about half or those were expected to get research grants. All in all, it now seems that 43, or a little under 5% of the applications got funding (list of granted projects here).

That means that 20 out of 21 applications drew a blank, and 1 in 21 drew a winning ticket. The odds are tough, to say the least. If, say, altogether 100 hours were spent on writing up each of those 899 applications, that would add up to 90 000 hours, or 50 man-years! We spent a lot more than 100 hours on each of the two applications I was involved in because they represented brand new ideas, but perhaps many of the applications are just reworked versions of the previous year's many rejects? Still, even slashing the time in half (50 hours per application) adds up to quite a few man-years. It is definitely worth thinking about the decreasing (individual, societal) returns of increasing the competition for the same amount of funds even further. Is this what we want researchers to spend their time on - writing up unsuccessful research grant applications - or do we want them to spend that time (50 man-years? more? less?) on actually doing the research? Do also note that a considerable amount of time (and money) is tied up in reviewing the applications and in other administrative tasks (keeping track of funds, following up on the results of the research grants - "getting value for money" etc.). The overheads are thus considerable.

My final application was handed in to Vetenskapsrådet, VR (The Swedish Research Council). They have some basic information about last year's call (2011) on their homepage. Out of 825 applications, 125 were granted funds (15% or almost 1 in 7). The average application was awarded around 3.250.000 SEK (for a 3 year long project). Everything else being equal, the chances of getting money from VR are obviously much higher than RJ.

So what are the "costs" of the 200-300 hours I spent writing research grant applications last spring? In one way, the costs are zero. Writing research grant applications is something researchers to a large extent do in their free time (as a "hobby"), so the costs for my employer, to say nothing of the costs for the grant agency or society are invisible. Writing research grant applications thus merges with other "unpaid work" in the home (cooking food, washing, cleaning, taking care of children or ailing parents). Some people steal office supplies from their employers - perhaps many wanna-be researchers steal time from their employers, writing grant applications when they are actually supposed to be doing other things? That would then mean that there are costs (in terms of decreased quality of their output at work) that are being bourn by others than the individual researcher(s) themselves.

Not happy with that kind of accounting, I tried to find another way to reason about, and put a price tag on the 200-300 hours I spent on writing research grant applications. I looked up the official statistics to find figures for the average salary of an assistant professor (in the natural sciences or technology). I then checked out official Swedish tax rates.

Basically, someone in my position is paid 150 SEK/hour (after taxes) in Sweden. When I apply for research grants, I however have to "charge" the grant agency a lot more for my time. Like any other consultant (or plumber or carpenter for that matter), I have to charge a lot more for my time than what I myself get paid. First I have to add around 67% in personal taxes (ending up with the take-home salary before taxes). Any employer furthermore has to pay general payroll taxes, adding at least another 50% and KTH furthermore adds another 60% or so to cover its internal costs (rent for my room and for lecture halls, electricity, administrative personnel, investments etc.). For reasons that I don't understand, the actual hourly rate I have to charge a research grant agency is still considerably higher so I presume the payroll taxes are even higher than 50% and that KTH overheads are higher than 60% because my time - when I apply for research grants - costs more than 700 SEK/hour!

Multiplying 700 SEK/hour with 200-300 hours adds up to something like 150 - 200 000 SEK. This number is of course not a real "cost", but it should perhaps be kept in mind and deducted from the research grant itself should I get one. The average VR grant (3.25 million SEK) is equivalent to 4 500 hours at 700+ SEK/hour. How many of those hours have already been spent reading up, thinking through and writing the application itself? How should the hours spent on unsuccessful applications be accounted for (or shouldn't they - isn't it customary for "losers" to pay the costs for putting together unsuccessful research grant or job applications, for bank bailouts etc.)?

The 700+ SEK/hour rate is a huge number. Remember, "I" (i.e. the average salary for someone doing my job) personally get to lay my hands on less than a quarter of that money when I get my monthly salary. The rest (75-80%) basically represents the costs of societal complexity - the costs of getting the whole gargantuan machinery of modern welfare society to run. If I could instead charge half, say 350 SEK for my time, it is easy to understand that more research could be done for the same amount of money, but there would also be less money around for paying salaries to the administrative personnel at the university, and less money for paying the salaries to civil servants and public employes (nurses, kindergarten staff, politicians, taxi services for the disabled etc.). Or less money to pay for the salaries of assistant professors and other university employees for that matter... (at this point, it is easy to have your head spinning).

I would be very interested in learning if something has been written about "the political economy of research" today compared to 20 - 50 - 100 years ago? On the one hand, there are lots of more researchers around today than 50 years ago. But might it not be the case that despite living in an age of affluence, less research is being done today? Or perhaps more research is being performed in absolute numbers, but less research per person (i.e. each researchers spends less time on research and more time teaching and performing administrative tasks of various kinds - including tasks that create little concrete output, like spending very large amounts of time figuring out whether to hire person X, Y or Z as a professor)? And what about the actual effects of the money being poured into research? Are the returns of money being spent on research decreasing in physics, medicine and energy research - as Swedish blogger Flute suggests?

I recently quoted E. F. Schumacher who in his book "Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered" (1974) wrote that "The richer the society, the more impossible it becomes to do worthwhile things without immediate pay-off". A corollary could perhaps be that "the more complex the society, the more impossible it becomes to do worthwhile things". Complexity costs, and those costs cannibalizes whatever it is you really wanted to do in the first place ("worthwhile things").

Having qualified personnel at research grant agencies sift through hundreds of applications, weighing and measuring them up against each other and against the latest round of fickle political, economic and strategic goals brings its own costs. Having 20 out of every 21 applications fail also brings its own costs (at least for the applicants). Perhaps it would be easier to just give every wanna-be researcher the means to spend 25% of his/her time doing research, and then evaluating the results of that research rather than evaluating the ability to write seductive texts about the wonderful benefits of future, not-yet-performed (and most often never-to-be-performed) research? All in all, I think that something needs to be rethought in terms of how research is funded (or not funded) today.

For a more general take on the larger picture of how hard economic times might affect research and higher education (over the coming decades), see "Peak oil, 'Big Education' and 'Big Science'" that I wrote two years ago (originally written in Swedish in July 2010).

söndag 9 september 2012

Buying books

I feel like a kid in a candy store because I just ordered a big batch of books. No less than 18 books as a matter of fact. This will for sure keep me busy at least until next summer. Which books did I buy? You'll find out as soon as I read them and write about them here...

As a rule, I don't order more books than I read, but I do of course already have a buffer of unread books at home. Come next summer, chances are I will have read a majority of the books I just ordered, but with other, previously-bought but not-yet-read books added to the mix.

I recently decided to up my book-reading pace slightly. From reading (at least) 25 pages per weekday, I have now also added the goal of also reading 25 additional pages during the weekend, i.e. increasing my reading pace from a minimum of 125 to 150 pages per week. Keeping this promise will mean that I'll read 20% more books per month (quarter, year).

I try to uphold this habit of reading some every day no matter the workload and it really is quite simple. I reserve the time on my daily subway commute to only reading books. A "heavy" book (complex, theoretical, large pages = many words per page) means perhaps 15 pages read during the commute, a "light" book could mean 25 pages read on the daily commute. I thus need to spend an extra half hour in the evening reading the "heavy" book in order to reach my daily performance goals.

Having these performance goals also means that I can keep track of my pace and also project and predict the future. I just need to add the number of pages of the books I just ordered and divide by 150 to know how many weeks it will take to read these books. It's good to be reminded now and then of the fact that all humans are mortal. It's equally good to be reminded of the fact that I will only read 20 or tops 25 books next year, and so is this new books I heard about really one of those selected few?

A scary aspect is that I can count not only how many books I read during the last year and estimate how many books I will read next year, but I can also figure out more or less how many books I would be able to read during the rest of my career as a gainfully employed university professor with my current pace. This will invariably be a pretty small number compared to all the books that are published and all the books I would like to read. All in all, I still really like the added "temporal", "computable" dimension that has been added with these reading habits of mine.

Other aspects not discussed here are environmental aspects of buying and reading (paper or digital) books, as well as economic aspects. I do however think that reading academic literature is a pretty inexpensive hobby (expenditures/hour) - as long as you don't habitually order more books than you read.

torsdag 6 september 2012

Books I've read lately

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I have some more catching up to do - I read the three books below before the summer (≈ April) - but I'm slowly catching up! From now on I will link all book titles to Adlibris instead of Amazon since that's where I buy them for the most part.

E. F. Schumacher's "Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered" (1974) is a classic and has been reprinted at least half a dozen times. Although some parts (references, some perspectives) are dated, rooted as they are in a 60's and 70's discourse, the book is still on the whole very pertinent and I'll prove that with some "subversive" quotes by this clearheaded thinker who is not satisfied with that with which "everyone" agrees ("it's common knowledge that...", "we all know that...").

On pollution:
"the changes of the last twenty-five years, both in the quantity and in the quality of man's industrial processes, have produced [...] a situation resulting not from our failures but from what we though were our greatest successes."

On "using up" renewable and non-renewable resources:
"the modern industrial system [...] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. [...] If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilisation; but if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself".

On the iron grip of economic thinking in society:
"if economic thinking pervades the whole of society, even simple non-econoimic values like beauty, health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be 'economic'". Fast forward to 2012, nature is today oftentimes treated as "valuable" only if we can put a large price tag on the "ecosystem services" it provides us (i.e. it has no value in itself except for the value it provides humanity).

On denying the possibility of scenarios we prefer not to think too much about:
"As nothing can be proved about the future - not even about the relatively short-term future of the next thirty years - it is always possible to dismiss even the most threatening problems with the suggestion that something will turn up."

The book mostly treats issues in the intersection of ecology ("natural capital") and economics, but Schumacher doesn't shy away from tackling a plethora of hard questions head-on, like how to "disarm" greed and envy in society, on the pathology of measuring progress in terms of (increased) GNP/GDP, on how to restore dignity at/in work, on the structural problems of large-scale aid programs to "raise" poor countries to western levels of affluence, and on how instead to really eradicate poverty in the world. I'll end with a couple of well-formulated Schumacherisms:

"The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs."

"The richer the society, the more impossible it becomes to do worthwhile things without immediate pay-off."

Two years ago I read John Michael Greer's "The long descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age" (2008). It was very good and I thus recently read his "The ecotechnic future: Envisioning a post-peak world" (2009). He has already published yet another book, "The wealth of nature: Economics as if survival matters" (2011) that I expect I will buy and read in due time. Do note the subtitle of the last book. It of course harkens back to Schumacher's book (above) of which Greer is a fan (and one of the reasons I read these two books back-to-back). Greer has in fact written many books, almost two per year during the last 10 years - but most of them are of little interest to me. A title like "Atlantis: Ancient legacy, hidden prophecy" would probably have interested me when I was 12, but that's a long time ago.

But Greer is a great writer and "storyteller" and it is a pleasure to read his thoughtful books despite the terse message he delivers. Greer doesn't have final chapters about how "we are approaching the limits". In "The ecotechnic future", all cards are on the table and the first chapter is called "Beyond the limits". 

If the forest is on fire, opportunistic species (invasive weeds and other fast-growing "R-selected species") will in the aftermath quickly move in and establish themselves. This will ready the ground for latercomers who will eventually smother the firstcomers. "If nothing interferes with the process, the [land] will pass through as many as a dozen distinct stages before it finally settles down as an old growth forest a few centuries in the future". "K-selected species [instead and as apart from R-selected species] grow slowly, take years to reach maturity and endure for centuries if undisturbed". 

In Greer's opinion, modern industrial society is R-selected and "can best be described as a scheme for turning resources into pollution as fast as possible". Greer's basic idea around which he structures the book, is that when our current abundance of energy and natural resources soon will start to dry up (or become increasingly expensive), our society will also pass though a number of stages in its "decline" to a lower level of energy and resource use (a K-selected, mature, stable society). We'll loose much of our high-tech on he way, as "'advanced technology' and 'extravagant energy use' have been for all practical purposes synonyms" for more than a hundred years. in fact, Greer proposes that our society will pass through a number of stages on the "downslope"; from 1) modern industrial society to 2) "scarcity industrialism" to 3) "salvage society" and finally (hopefully) to an "ecotechnic society".

I have basically summarized the first two chapters, and the rest of the book outlines how this process could unfold. Greer is very well-read (and especially inspired by ecology and history), and he is very convincing even if much of what he writes about in this book naturally comes with a big disclaimer since he not only writes about the future (which by definition is unknown), but also about a future that is disruptive/not an extrapolation in relation to what we have experienced during the last 100+ years. This is a great book and I highly recommend it. Those with a tight budget can instead read his blog. Many of the ideas from his books are "prototyped" on the blog a year or two in advance in his weekly (long) blogposts. An old favorite of mine treated the topic of "harnessing hippogriffs", i.e. how to get the best out of a hippogriff - the splendid mythical creature that is the offspring of a gryphon and a mare. Hippogriffs would be a great way to get around but for one small problem - they doesn't exist! Entertaining thoughts of how to best harness hippogriffs are thus just as fruitful as some of the high-tech energy pipe dreams that gets thrown around in the debate today (e.g. carbon capture and storage (CCS), algae, biofuels, hydrogen, breeder reactors, fusion reactors, large-scale renewables etc.).

The final book in this blog post is Richard Schickel's "Intimate strangers: The culture of celebrity in America" (1985). I read the revised edition from 2000, but it was still a disappointment mainly because I had the impression the book would be a book about para-social relationships - the feeling you have of "knowing" a celebrity (politician, musician, actor, sports star) whom you have "met" many times through mass media, but never "in real life". It feels like you know that person, but he or she definitely doesn't know you - as you have never met beyond a one-way mass-media "connection". As to my interest in this topic, please see my master's thesis proposal about "Para-social Facebook relationships".

The first chapter was interesting, discussing for example John W. Hinckley, Jr's attempt to assassinate president Ronald Reagan in 1981. Hinckley's motivation was to impress movie star Jodie Foster to whom he "felt close" (para-socially), but who naturally ignored him (and he felt slighted). The main part of the book contains little social analysis of depth though and more of film critic Schickel's attempt to write with "flair" about the modern American (US) history as seen through the lens of specific celebrities (JFK, Andy Warhol) and with a (US-centric) emphasis on motion pictures and movie stars (Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe). The style of writing felt rambling and introspective to me, opportunistically touching on one topic and next hurling over to something else. I was pretty tired of the book when I finished it. The total absence of references did nothing to raise my opinion about the book. 


söndag 2 september 2012

Writing research grants applications = wasted time?

I spent a lot of time during this past spring writing up research grant applications. I started work on no less than five different applications, but only four made it all the way and were handed in (to three different research grant agencies). The applications covered two quite different ideas, and I worked in two different constellations (two different two- or three-person "teams"). I will use this blog post to summarize what I did during the spring, and will later follow it up with reflections, analysis and some potentially radical conclusions of this "marathon process" of writing applications galore.

I have already written more extensively about this topic in no less than three (long) Swedish-language blog posts on another blog of mine. I have spent large amounts of time at that other blog writing longish analyses for three years before I started this blog (and 28 of the 143 Swedish texts/essays have also been translated into English and can be found on this, yet-another (dormant) blog of mine).

The three recently-published Swedish-language blogs posts summarize my activities during the spring 2012 (busy writing research grant applications and explaining my absence from that blog), the (almost) verbatim text (in Swedish) of one of my applications, "Beyond ecological modernization: Crisis-proofed lifestyles for a sustainable society" and finally an analysis of the costs of the "research grant application circus".

My big "extra-curricular" activity during the spring was thus writing research grant applications. The step from rudimentary idea to finished application is long. Especially if the idea your application revolves around is genuinely new to you and thus represents something that you need to read up on and explore - just in order to write an application and ask for money to do research into the topic in question. The step from finished application to a follow-up, derivate application is much shorter. Two of my four applications were brand new and the other two were derivate applications.

I estimate that the work to develop a brand new idea into a finished application (something I did twice), took between 80-160 hours for each application. More for the application I was responsible for and less for the application where I was co-applicant. Do note that this is the time I spent and you should thus add the time my co-applicant(s) spent to get an estimate of how much time it took to write these applications.  All in all, I estimate that I personally spent between 200 and 300 hours writing these four (or five) applications during the spring. Well, the discussions and the early brainstorming work actually started already half a year earlier, during the autumn a year ago. The time I spent represents hundreds of hours of time that I don't officially have. I can't very well tell my employer that I spent 20 or 30 percent of my workings hours for half a year writing applications. Writing applications is basically something I (and other wanna-be researchers) have to do in my free time. The conclusion is thus that writing research grant applications was my hobby during the spring.

So, was it worth the effort? That depends. On the one hand, the work of developing an idea into a finished application is definitely worth something as you have to think through (several times) what it really is you want to do, how you want to do it, why you want to do it, what you want to get out it if, how it relates to what has already been done by others etc. The process of writing an application forces you to think deeper and it matures your initial rough idea.

So, was it worth the effort? That depends. The literally hundreds of hours spent could have been put to use in many other ways. I could have spent that time reading novels and eating popcorn, or played with my kids, or upped the quality of my work (courses etc.), or watched TV, or taken long walks with my wife, or...

So, was it worth the effort? That depends. Three of the four applications were turned down and the last one is still pending. In straight utilitarian terms, it seems like the time spent (this far) was indeed a bad "investment" (low ROI - Return On Investment).

This was just a sum-up, next I'l dig deeper into the costs - both monetary and others. To be followed...