Software is not only taking a shot at writing essays but also grading them and providing instant feedback on student work in progress, analysis that is well beyond grading multiple-choice quizzes. These programs still need to work out some bugs (a clever student can game them with coherent-sounding nonsense), but they are much further along than we had been expecting five or ten years ago.
That’s from Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.
A surprisingly large number of papers and books in the humanities, as well as grant proposals, are filled with “coherent-sounding nonsense,” and at least in humanities papers I’ve read a lot of incoherent-sounding nonsense (which may help explain declining enrollment in humanities majors). The market for coherent-sounding nonsense is surprisingly robust.
EDIT: Relatedly, much later Cowen writes of the way that in economics “Newly minted PhD candidates are extremely proficient with data, but a lot of them don’t have much microeconomic intuition. [. . . ] Overall, the profession is producing more first-rate empiricists than before, yet theory hasn’t progressed much in twenty years or more. Theory is increasingly ignored” (225). If one could make a similar statement about English the field was a whole would be better. In some ways, perhaps one can: the growth of MFA programs and undergrad writing classes is some in sense the move from a theory of literature to the practice of it.
Like many people with such businesses, some friends with a design consulting business say they’re getting jerked around by potential clients, they’re worried about offending potential clients, and most importantly they’re discovering that the lessons they’ve taken from school and every day life are wrong or at least not optimal. So I described my own experiences as a consultant and how that taught me about reality and money.
A lot of people—including me—are told from an early age to be polite, take turns, be considerate of other people’s feelings, etc. This is good advice in many but not all circumstances. In the business / consultant worlds it often leads other people to take advantage of you. Consultants need one very important skill: they need to figure out who is going to give them money and who isn’t, and they need to do so relatively quickly. Clients will often press to get as much free stuff—often in the form of time and opinions—as they can. They lose nothing by dallying and often gain stuff. Consultants need to learn the killer instinct necessary to know when to stop and say “send me a contract and check or don’t call me until you want to.”
“Talk is cheap” is a cliché for a reason: it doesn’t mean anything. Any talk that’s not a billable hour should be leading, rapidly, to a billable hour. At some point—a point sooner than most novices realize—it’s time to pay or go away. Money talks (and it isn’t cheap): I’ve been on numerous calls about “collaborations” and what not, when the real thing happens is through subcontracts. Show me the money, or it doesn’t exist.
Someone who wants to hire you knows relatively quickly whether they want to hire you. Anything other than “yes” means “no.” “Maybe” means no. That’s a hard thing for many of us to accept. My parents founded Seliger + Associates 20 years ago and they certainly had to learn such lessons the hard way; a lot of potential clients will dangle work that never arrives and waste a lot of valuable time and energy in the process. That means consultants have to get to “no.”
Getting to “no” is actually quite useful and a big improvement over a nebulous maybe.
Drawing a clear line can actually turn some “maybes” in “yeses.” Clients will respect you more if you eventually stop negotiating or talking unless they pay up. Because of the issues described in the paragraphs above, anyone experienced learns when to stop talking and say “money or nothing.” That means continuing to flirt without cash in hand is also a signal of being inexperienced. The line between being brusque and being direct is thin but when it doubt err on the side of directness rather than meekness.
Directness can actually be a kind of politeness. “Professional courtesy” has an adjective before “courtesy” because it’s different from regular courtesy; professional courtesy is there to indicate that there is a different way of being courteous than the conventional way, and one aspect of professional courtesy is there to avoid time wasting people.
That being said, it can be worth exploring new ventures even when those new ventures aren’t immediately remunerative. But money and contracts separate exploration from reality.
These lessons aren’t only applicable to consultant. They apply to almost any form of business and for that matter in dating: if she says “I like you but not in that way,” she means no. I think men tend to learn this faster then women do.
My friends are women, and from what I’ve observed guys in their teens have to learn to approach women and risk rejection if they’re going to get anywhere, and a lot of women wait for guys to approach them. Consequently guys who want to get anywhere have to get used to rejection in a way a lot of women don’t, and that socialization is probably part of the reason why women like Sheryl Sandberg write books like Lean In. Men figure out relatively early that they have to lean in—or suffer. Like a lot of guys I spent time suffering. I also learned, however, that with women too anything other than “yes” means “no” and that I should move on quickly. Sticking around to beg and plead only worsens the situation.
Disengagement is underrated. In many endeavors one important ingredient in success is fire and motion.
Decoded suffers in comparison to Cryptonomicon, a novel whose explanations of cryptography are brilliant. Both novels, interestingly and perhaps significantly, start with the parents or grandparents of the nominally central characters. There are comments about the nature of stories:
It all happened so long ago that everyone who saw her suffer and die is now dead themselves, but the story of the terrible agony that she endured has been passed down from one generation to the next, as the tale of an appalling battle might have been.
How much are we to trust stories “passed down from one generation to the next?” Maybe only as little as we are to trust that cryptographic protocols have been properly implemented. The woman giving birth in this passage was part of a rich clan that, like most rich clans, can’t maintain its structure over time, since, “very few of the young people who had left were interested in returning to carry on the family business.” The family doesn’t get enmeshed in the new government, either, at least until the “hero,” Rong Jinzhen, comes along.
I’m looking for some evocative quote to give a sense of the writing, but it feels flat and there is very little dialogue. Perhaps I’m missing something as Tyler Cowen finds its compelling.