A very Kafkaesque 130th birthday anniversary!

In case you haven’t looked at today’s Google Doodle yet, July 3rd marks the 130th birthday anniversary of novelist Franz Kafka. Kafka is the subject of a major three-part biography by Reiner Stach and translated by Shelley Frisch, the first two of which are just out this month from our fair Press (KAFKA: The Years of Insight and KAFKA: The Decisive Years, for those not already in the know).

In the commercial publishing world,  Peter Mendelsund came up with some stellar cover overhauls for many of Kafka’s works for Schocken Books, a division of Random House, including “The Trial,” “Amerika,” and “The Castle.” Here’s a fun birthday video they released for the anniversary, as part of what graphic artist Neil Gower aptly calls the “Tour de Franz“:

The birthday coverage has also been picked up by Michael Cavna of Washington Post‘s Comic Riffs blog, Mashable, PC Magazine, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star, among others. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, Katherine Jacobsen identifies a great quote from British poet W. H. Auden on the brilliant German-language writer:

Kafka is important because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, so in that spirit, happy birthday, Dr. Kafka!

UCLA Today: How professors can get publicity for their scholarly books

Michael Chwe -- UCLA Department of Political ScienceMichael Chwe is an assistant professor in the political science department. His recent book, “Jane Austen, Game Theorist,” has received widespread attention, but it wasn’t by accident. Here he shares his recipe for getting media attention for a book about something interesting, though obscure.

Most people believe that Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement by refusing to give up her seat. But as a game theorist who studies social movements, I know this story is only partly true: after Mrs. Parks’s arrest on Dec. 1, 1955, the veteran activist Jo Ann Gibson Robinson mimeographed 52,500 leaflets announcing a boycott four days later. If any single action started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was the printing of these leaflets.

Mobilizing people to action doesn’t just happen: it takes extensive planning and effort. So when I geared up to publish my second scholarly book, “Jane Austen, Game Theorist”, I vowed to deploy ideas from social movement theory to help publicize it. I figured I could use all the help I could get; my first book, “Rational Ritual,” never cracked an Amazon ranking higher than #42,000. In the heady week after “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” came out, for a few hours it went past #200. It has received much more attention than anyone expected.

Here’s what I did and why.

When it comes to marketing your book, get ready to spend lots of time and effort, full-time for weeks. It is not unreasonable to schedule your teaching responsibilities around it. You will be spending lots of time and energy doing what all social movement organizers do: talking, writing and discussing, trying to get the message out.

Almost all social movements rely on a single tight organizing team that communicates daily. When you publish your book, your obvious team members are the publicity people at your press and your university. Get to know them early, several months before the publication date, and take their advice.

Planning is essential. A very effective Civil Rights Movement tactic was the sit-in, in which black students sat at segregated lunch counters, causing the lunch counters to shut down and creating economic havoc. In the two months after the Feb. 1, 1960 sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins had occurred in 69 cities. Many at the time saw this rapid spread as a spontaneous occurrence, like a dam breaking after decades of pent-up frustration, but it was actually the result of extensive planning and nonviolent protest training.

Similarly, the publicists who helped me worked well in advance to get coverage to appear immediately after my publication date. They worked with several outlets at once, and thus news of my book seemed to break spontaneously, giving the impression of a groundswell of support, which turned into a real groundswell of support.

Relationships are key: activate existing ones and make new ones. In the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, one of the main factors determining whether a given volunteer actually showed up was that person’s personal relationships. The sociologist Doug McAdam found that people who had friends who participated were more likely to participate than people who did not.

You will be surprised at how many people will want to buy your book solely because they know you (from college, kindergarten, conferences, etc.) and want to share in your success. This will gratify you immensely. Get on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and renew these relationships. You have many circles of friends whom you might expect to be uninterested (your gym acquaintances, your PTA friends, your college alumni association) but whom would be delighted to know about your book.

As you promote your book, you initiate new relationships, with interested readers, journalists, bloggers and so on. Take these relationships seriously and make an effort to maintain them. A reporter who wrote about my first book back in 2002 kindly tweeted about my second book to her several thousand followers. Every friend or acquaintance that you have or create has a potential “multiplier effect” of hundreds or thousands. A graduate student who likes your book might not be an “opinion leader” but might tell you about relevant listservs and blogs.

The main stroke of good fortune for my book was that a New York Times reporter, Jennifer Schuessler, wrote a very thoughtful and fun story about it. During my interview with her, I felt that I got to know her a little bit, and I will definitely let her know about my next book.

After the New York Times story came out, I did my best to be active on Twitter, even directing people to bookstores that still had copies, and I “followed” every person who tweeted about the story. Not everyone follows you back, but now I have around 500 followers who have expressed interest in the book, which is great.

Let people know something exciting is happening. In my 2001 book “Rational Ritual,” I discuss how a political rebellion is what game theorists call a “coordination problem”: a situation in which a person’s motivation for participating increases when other people participate. I am much more likely to join a protest of 10,000 people than a protest of 10. Buying a book is the same: a person is more likely to buy a book if she thinks lots of others are buying it and talking about it.

Thus when you market your book, do anything you can to let potential readers know that there are lots of other potential readers. I set up my own web page for my book, which includes all news stories and blog posts about the book, so people can see how many others are talking about it. If people tweet about your book, retweet. I periodically Google my book title to see which blogs and news outlets might be discussing it, and if possible I leave a comment referring them to my web page.

Make it as easy as possible for people to get interested. In 1965, the economist Mancur Olson recommended that to solve the “free-rider problem,” organizers should offer potential participants “selective incentives.” Any protest organizer who offers free food and music to make a protest more attractive is aware of this logic.

The equivalent of free food for a reporter is anything that makes writing her story easier. Your publicity professionals will create a press release, which is essentially a story pre-written for reporters. Some will post this press release verbatim, and some will modify it slightly and put their name on the byline.

In other words, everyone is busy, so make it easier for people to help you. Try to respond as quickly as possible to inquiries; the time scale of reporters is at least ten times faster than that of academics.

One “selective incentive” that I really like is offering signed bookplates to anyone who wants one for their copy of the book. It is a fun way to get to know your readers, and its personal and analog quality is a welcome respite from the daily digital torrent.

Engage in every way possible. The Civil Rights Movement had its spirituals, and the Gdansk shipyard in 1980 had its poetry. Successful social movements involve people in as many ways as possible, with words, dance, song, poetry, food and so forth. To promote my book, I made a Youtube video because I wanted to engage people with images as well as words.

I also got involved with my book’s cover. I wanted the book to feel fun and light, even whimsical, so I emailed the comic artist Sonny Liew and asked him to do the cover. This was money very well spent — Sonny’s fantastic illustration conveys the spirit of my book perfectly. One colleague called it the best academic book cover she has ever seen.

If your book were a meal, what would it taste like? The more ways you can think about the book, the more ways readers can relate to it. I am not above releasing “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” songs, recipes, and cat pictures.

Finally, start thinking like a 20-year-old. Social movements are usually a young person’s game, with older, more established people carted in after most of the work has been done. According to Alabama State College professor B. J. Simms, 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., having arrived in Montgomery just one year earlier, was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (the organization created to run the bus boycott) because no older leader wanted to take the blame in case it failed.

So to promote your book, do all of the crazy things 20-year-olds do, like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Youtube and Imgur. Like a 20-year-old, be willing to drop everything you are doing at a moment’s notice to respond to an inquiry. Be opportunistic, follow every lead and network like hell. Tweet like a maniac — you’ll know you are getting through when people (in this case, Stephanie Hershinow at Rutgers) respond with tweets like “WE GET IT! JANE AUSTEN WAS A GAME THEORIST! FINE! WHATEVER! YOU WIN!!!!”

Jane Austen, Game Theorist
Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young ChweGame theory–the study of how people make choices while interacting with others–is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today. But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory’s core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago. Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors. With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

Although game theory’s mathematical development began in the Cold War 1950s, Chwe finds that game theory has earlier subversive historical roots in Austen’s novels and in “folk game theory” traditions, including African American folktales. Chwe makes the case that these literary forebears are game theory’s true scientific predecessors. He considers how Austen in particular analyzed “cluelessness”–the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking–and how her sharp observations apply to a variety of situations, including U.S. military blunders in Iraq and Vietnam.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist brings together the study of literature and social science in an original and surprising way.

Review:

Jane Austen, Game Theorist . . . is more than the larky scholarly equivalent of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’. . . Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself: a kind of Empire-waisted version of the mathematician and cold war thinker John von Neumann, ruthlessly breaking down the stratagems of 18th-century social warfare.”–Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

“This is such a fabulous book–carefully written, thoughtful and insightful . . .”–Guardian.co.uk’s Grrl Scientist blog

“”Michael Chwe shows that Jane Austen is a strategic analyst–a game theorist whose characters exercise strategic thinking. Game theorists usually study war, business, crime and punishment, diplomacy, politics, and one-upmanship. Jane Austen studies social advancement, romantic relationships, and even gamesmanship. Game theorists will enjoy this venture into unfamiliar territory, while Jane Austen fans will enjoy being illuminated about their favorite author’s strategic acumen–and learn a little game theory besides.””–Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics

“Jane Austen’s novels provide wonderful examples of strategic thinking in the lives of ordinary people. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, Michael Chwe brilliantly brings out these strategies, and Austen’s intuitive game-theoretic analysis of these situations and actions. This book will transform the way you read literature.”–Avinash Dixit, coauthor of The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life

“Whether you’re an intelligent strategic thinker or a clueless bureaucrat, this book will teach and delight you. The merger of game theory and Jane Austen, with extended examples from African American folklore and U.S. foreign policy, provides the best study I know of motive and cluelessness. Michael Chwe, a rare breed of political scientist, has raised the game of two disciplines. This is a genuinely interdisciplinary work that avoids the reductionism of much game theory and the provincialism of many Austen admirers.”–Regenia Gagnier, author of The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society

“It would be useful for everyone to understand a little bit more about strategic thinking. Jane Austen seems not only to get this, but to explore it obsessively. Looking at Austen and other works, this persuasive book shows that the game theory in historical sources is not inherently opposed to humanistic thinking, but embedded within it.”–Laura J. Rosenthal, University of Maryland

Can whistleblowing ever be justified? — Edward Snowden exposes NSA’s confidential surveillance program and is said to be hiding in Hong Kong

The National Security Agency (NSA)National Security Agency (NSA) has a secret program that allows the commission to gain access to user information stored by big-name internet organizations. Some of the most recognizable companies include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Skype.

29-year-old Edward Snowden, a mid-level IT worker contracted by the NSA, leaked top-secret NSA documentation about PRISM. PRISM tracks user information such as photos, content of e-mails, live chat, videos, and login alerts. Snowden is said to be hiding out in Hong Kong. All companies involved have allegedly denied allowing NSA to gain direct access to their databases. It is currently up for debate as to whether or not Snowden is a hero to the public or someone that acted recklessly, endangering the safety of all Americans.

PRISM is reported to have been authorized and enforced in 2007. President George Bush passed PRISM along with other changes to the US surveillance rules. President Barack Obama renewed the edict last year.

KQED Forum: Edward Snowden

The Guardian via Getty Images — Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

KQED Forum with Michael Krasny is a live call-in program that presents wide-ranging discussions of local, state, national and international issues, as well as in-depth interviews. On Tuesday, June 11, Krasny posted a session that includes political science expert and author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, Rahul Sagar. Sagar is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University within the Department of Politics. Sagar has taken a firm stance that Snowden was “misguided” and his choice to leak information was ill-considered. He feels that Snowden has acted inappropriately by taking the law into his own hands. By exposing this information, Sagar believes Snowden acted wrongfully from a legal standpoint and should have pursued a safer avenue if he wanted his discovery to be revealed.

To hear more about PRISM and Sagar’s viewpoint on whistleblowing, listen to Krasny’s segment on the NSA leak:

View this recording on the KQED Forum webpage: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201306110900

Secrets and Leaks:
The Dilemma of State Secrecy

Rahul Sagar

Rahul Sagar -- Princeton U: Assistant Professor, Department of PoliticsRahul Sagar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His primary research interests are the field of political theory and include topics in ancient and modern political theory including executive power, moderation, tyranny, and political realism.

Sagar’s first book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, is set to be released in October 2013. Sagar examines the complex relationships among executive power, national security, and secrecy. State secrecy is vital for national security, but it can also be used to conceal wrongdoing. How then can we ensure that this power is used responsibly? Typically, the onus is put on lawmakers and judges, who are expected to oversee the executive. Yet because these actors lack access to the relevant information and the ability to determine the harm likely to be caused by its disclosure, they often defer to the executive’s claims about the need for secrecy. As a result, potential abuses are more often exposed by unauthorized disclosures published in the press.

But should such disclosures, which violate the law, be condoned? Drawing on several cases, Rahul Sagar argues that though whistle-blowing can be morally justified, the fear of retaliation usually prompts officials to act anonymously–that is, to “leak” information. As a result, it becomes difficult for the public to discern when an unauthorized disclosure is intended to further partisan interests. Because such disclosures are the only credible means of checking the executive, Sagar writes, they must be tolerated. However, the public should treat such disclosures skeptically and subject irresponsible journalism to concerted criticism.

Marc Strassman interviews Tom Boellstorff about “Coming of Age in Second Life” and gets answers about the virtual world concept

Tom Boellstorff, author of Coming of Age in Second Life, discusses virtual worlds and brings to light how indispensably informative they are in teaching us how the physical social world works. Second Life is an online virtual world (launched in June 2003) where users can interact with each other using avatars, which are virtual representations of oneself. Avatars are highly customizable. Anything can be changed – from one’s skin tone or hairstyle down to their eye color or weight. Miniscule details can be altered for the more particular users, allowing one to change even the most personal virtual articles of clothing, such as undergarments.

Click here to learn more about Second Life from the official website

A screenshot from the official Second Life website. Click the image above to learn more about the Second Life virtual world.

Second Life immerses the user in, quite literally, an entire virtual second life. Parallel to our physical world, this virtual world allows users to hold jobs, create families, own pets, and participate in recreational activities. Relationships are formed, hearts are broken, and soap opera-esque dramas are frequent. Many similar games exist – open “sandbox” environments where the users are free to roam and explore without a set path. What sets Second Life apart from many other kindred virtual worlds is the seemingly endless options.

Users are free to create, direct, and change their destinies as they wish. There is not set goal or endpoint; This world has no set monetary amount to save towards. There’s no plateau of employment or CEO position to covet in hopes of finishing the game. That’s right – there’s no end credits in this game, regardless of what you accomplish. Inhabitants just live life day-to-day, much like we do.

There is an ongoing dispute as to whether or not Second Life actually classifies as a video game or falls under the simulation category. Tom Boellstorff has other concerns. His book is about how these virtual worlds change our perception of the self and how we interact with others in different, yet eerily similar social platforms. To learn more about Second Life and other virtual worlds, watch Marc Strassman’s interview with Tom Boellstorff below:

If the above embedded video does not work or you prefer to watch this interview on YouTube’s website, click this link: http://youtu.be/1XkZMXtDEWM

Coming of Age in Second Life:
An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human
Review

Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff“If you thought a virtual world like Second Life was a smorgasbord of experimental gender swaps, nerd types engaging in kinky sex or entrepreneurs cashing in on real world money making possibilities, think again. . . .Could Boellstorff be right that we’re all virtual humans anyway, viewing the world as we do through the prism of culture?”–New Scientist

“Boellstorff applies the methods and theories of his field to a virtual world accessible only through a computer screen….[He] spent two years participating in Second Life and reports back as the trained observer that he is. We read about a fascinating, and to many of us mystifying, world. How do people make actual money in this virtual society? (They do.) How do they make friends with other avatars? The reader unfamiliar with such sites learns a lot–not least, all sorts of cool jargon…Worth the hurdles its scholarly bent imposes.”–Michelle Press, Scientific American

“Boellstorff’s book is full of fascinating vignettes recounting the blossomings of friendships and romances in the virtual world, and musing fruitfully on questions of creative identity and novel problems of etiquette.”–Steven Poole, Guardian

“Where many of his colleagues insist on making a mystery of things that are straightforward (so to neglect mysteries real and pressing), Boellstorff is a likeable, generous, accessible voice. . . . This book, once it gets down to it, does truly offer a detailed and deeply interesting investigation of Second Life.”–Grant McCracken, Times Higher Education

 

Posting Remorse: Deleting isn’t Permanent on the Internet

The internet is great for sharing. But what happens when you are done with sharing?  The internet isn’t a chalkboard that you can write on and erase at your leisure. Once something is out there in the internet, it will more or less be there forever.

Take such simple things as posting a picture on Facebook to share with your friends. It may be a goofy picture of you and your college buddies but in a few years, that photo seems tasteless and may make you look bad for whatever reason. So, you delete it. Problem solved. However, your picture still lingers on the internet though you may not be able to see it and it can always be dug up to haunt you.

Anthony Weiner was just a regular old politician before his scandal leaked. Now a simple Google search defines him as a sexual deviant with his humiliation dubbed Weinergate. He may bounce back from his shame but the power of the internet will make it hard to forget what he’s done.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Bill Keller discusses why the ability to permanently delete information off the internet is a measure that needs to be taken. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger discusses this idea in depth in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. The ability to forget allows people to move forward in life. Though he does not say that history should be forgotten (like Weinergate), there are certain pieces of information about individuals that should be allowed to be forgotten, such as news stories about convictions that were eventually resolved but did not have any subsequent media coverage discussing their innocence. Mayer-Schönberger proposes expiration dates on information that may help fix this problem among other ideas that may help make internet posting remorse a thing of the past.

Delete looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well. Potentially humiliating content on Facebook is enshrined in cyberspace for future employers to see. Google remembers everything we’ve searched for and when. The digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all.

In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.

Delete was awarded prizes in 2010 for its focus on media ecology and science and technology politics from the Media Ecology Association and American Political Science Association respectively.

PUP books on College

Students at the college that I attend know that it’s truly spring when high school seniors visit campus in flocks- no, in army sized battalions- for Accepted Students Day. Yesterday my college’s campus was filled to the rim with high schoolers and their parents, and for those students choosing to go to college, soon they will have to decide which colleges they will be attending in fall 2013.

College is undoubtedly the best time of your life. There will never be another time when you have limited responsibilities and, for the most part, total freedom. PUP has some great reads on what college is like now and what it could be like in the future. Here’s a list of some college related reading from PUP!

1. College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco- For so many, the point of college is to get a degree so that you can get a job. While this is the attitude held by many today, this is not what college was initially designed to achieve.

As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience–an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers–is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.

In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In arguing for what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.

In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.

2. Higher Education in the Digital Age by William G. Bowen- While Delbanco looks at what college used to be like in the past, William Bowen discusses what higher education looks like today in the digital age and where technology may lead us for the future.

Two of the most visible and important trends in higher education today are its exploding costs and the rapid expansion of online learning. Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability? In this short and incisive book, William G. Bowen, one of the foremost experts on the intersection of education and economics, explains why, despite his earlier skepticism, he now believes technology has the potential to help rein in costs without negatively affecting student learning. As a former president of Princeton University, an economist, and author of many books on education, including the acclaimed bestseller The Shape of the River, Bowen speaks with unique expertise on the subject.

Surveying the dizzying array of new technology-based teaching and learning initiatives, including the highly publicized emergence of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), Bowen argues that such technologies could transform traditional higher education–allowing it at last to curb rising costs by increasing productivity, while preserving quality and protecting core values. But the challenges, which are organizational and philosophical as much as technological, are daunting. They include providing hard evidence of whether online education is cost-effective in various settings, rethinking the governance and decision-making structures of higher education, and developing customizable technological platforms. Yet, Bowen remains optimistic that the potential payoff is great.

3. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More by Derek Bok- Are we actually learning what we should be learning in college? Bok explores the challenges that academic institutions face in trying to help students accomplish more.

Drawing on a large body of empirical evidence, former Harvard President Derek Bok examines how much progress college students actually make toward widely accepted goals of undergraduate education. His conclusions are sobering. Although most students make gains in many important respects, they improve much less than they should in such important areas as writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, and moral reasoning. Large majorities of college seniors do not feel that they have made substantial progress in speaking a foreign language, acquiring cultural and aesthetic interests, or learning what they need to know to become active and informed citizens. Overall, despite their vastly increased resources, more powerful technology, and hundreds of new courses, colleges cannot be confident that students are learning more than they did fifty years ago.

Looking further, Bok finds that many important college courses are left to the least experienced teachers and that most professors continue to teach in ways that have proven to be less effective than other available methods. In reviewing their educational programs, however, faculties typically ignore this evidence. Instead, they spend most of their time discussing what courses to require, although the lasting impact of college will almost certainly depend much more on how the courses are taught.

In his final chapter, Bok describes the changes that faculties and academic leaders can make to help students accomplish more. Without ignoring the contributions that America’s colleges have made, Bok delivers a powerful critique–one that educators will ignore at their peril.

4. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherson- I think everyone has had that one professor who told you to look to your left and to your right, and that only one of you would make it out alive from that class. Today less than 60% of students in American universities graduate. Why does this happen?

The United States has long been a model for accessible, affordable education, as exemplified by the country’s public universities. And yet less than 60 percent of the students entering American universities today are graduating. Why is this happening, and what can be done? Crossing the Finish Line provides the most detailed exploration ever of college completion at America’s public universities. This groundbreaking book sheds light on such serious issues as dropout rates linked to race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Probing graduation rates at twenty-one flagship public universities and four statewide systems of public higher education, the authors focus on the progress of students in the entering class of 1999–from entry to graduation, transfer, or withdrawal. They examine the effects of parental education, family income, race and gender, high school grades, test scores, financial aid, and characteristics of universities attended (especially their selectivity). The conclusions are compelling: minority students and students from poor families have markedly lower graduation rates–and take longer to earn degrees–even when other variables are taken into account. Noting the strong performance of transfer students and the effects of financial constraints on student retention, the authors call for improved transfer and financial aid policies, and suggest ways of improving the sorting processes that match students to institutions.

(Harlem) Shaking Up Italo Calvino

Our anxiously awaited Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, masterfully translated by Martin McLaughlin and with an introduction by the inimitable Michael Wood, is still forthcoming. But in the meantime, writer João Chiodini has created a quirky little Harlem Shake-meme video featuring some of Calvino’s greatest hits. (The video features Portuguese editions, but you get the idea.)

Don’t forget to check out one of the letters from the Calvino collection in the latest issue of Harper’s.

Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla to tour college bookstores

W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, will tour the Northeast with a Tesla Coil in hand, visiting college bookstores at Johns Hopkins, U. Penn, Dartmouth, and Harvard during the first week of May.

j9941[1] Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla’s private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an “idealist” inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.For details on the events, please visit the following links: 

 

 

[This post was originally published on February 4, 2013]

A brief Q&A with Lance Fortnow, author of THE GOLDEN TICKET: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible

GA Tech portraits/headshot/group pics of the science and technology department.In April we will publish The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible by Lance Fortnow. This is the clearest possible explanation of P, NP available. Fortnow, a leading computer scientist, covers the history of the problem and how various mathematicians have attempted to solve it. He probes which areas of research seem most promising and explains what would happen if it ever were solved (spoiler alert: we could solve problems and do medical research super fast, but we’d also lose all encryption, privacy, and banking would be a disaster). But, don’t start living off the grid just yet. Ultimately he argues that we are far more likely to solve for P /= NP than we are to solve P=NP.

 

He recently sat down with PUP and answered a few questions about P,NP and the book.

 


 

PUP: Why did you write this book?

Fortnow: I wrote a survey article on the P/NP problem for a computing trade magazine, Communications of the ACM, that quickly became the most downloaded article in that magazine’s history. Clearly there was great interest in the P/NP question and there is no popular science book focused on P/NP or many on any computer science topic at all, so I took the survey I wrote as a template and started writing.

PUP: Ok, let’s start with the basics, what is P/NP?

Fortnow: The P/NP problem is best described by an example question: Are there 1000 people on Facebook whom are all friends with each other? Even if you worked for Facebook and had access to all its data, answering this question naively would require checking more possibilities than any computer, now or in the future, could possibly do. The P/NP question asks whether there is some very clever algorithm that can answer this problem and others like it.

PUP: What is the history of this problem? When was it first formulated and by who?

Fortnow: The development of the P/NP problem has two histories, in North America and in Russia with researchers separated by the Cold War in the early 70′s. In North America the problem developed in a rather conventional way, first defined by Steve Cook, a young professor, at the University of Toronto in 1971 as he looked at ways to connect logic and computation. A year later, Richard Karp of the University of California at Berkeley made the P/NP problem famous by tying it into a number of well-studied combinatorial problems. In Russia, progress was slowed by strong politics in their mathematical community, but eventually a young student, Leonid Levin, discovered the P/NP problem by looking at the difficulty of computer search. I devote a chapter of the book to the history and personalities leading up to the development of the P/NP problem on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

PUP: Why does it matter?

Fortnow: It matters because if P=NP it would make a large number of difficult computational tasks immediately easy to solve and it would transform our lives beyond measure: we’d cure major diseases, make accurate predictions of weather, get near prefect translation, and much more. The computer could find solutions to virtually any question we could ask of it.

PUP: It really sounds like the “golden ticket” of your book’s title. But in the book, you also talk about some of the less positive outcomes to solving this problem. Can you describe those too?

Fortnow: We’d have a near complete loss of privacy as P=NP would allow anyone to reverse engineer any attempts to hide your activities. Also if P=NP virtually any job could be automated potentially leading to large-scale unemployment.

PUP: What makes it so difficult to solve?

Fortnow: If P is not NP as most computer scientists believe, to show this requires that there is no algorithm out of an infinite number of possible clever algorithms, to solve a problem like the Facebook question above. It’s very difficult, though hopefully not impossible, to show that no algorithm exists.

PUP: So, scientists are also trying to disprove P/NP? Why is that also important and do you think this is more likely than solving P=NP?

Fortnow: Either P=NP or not, there exists one algorithm that solves most of the computational problems we care about or no such algorithm. Understanding which is the case will help us understand the best modes of attack on difficult computational problems. Because we don’t expect the world to be so clean, with one algorithm that solves everything, the common belief of computer scientists is that P and NP are not equal.

PUP: Have there been any near solutions–people who thought they had a solution, but ultimately didn’t? etc.

Fortnow: The P/NP problem has a $1,000,000 bounty for a solution offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute, so many people discover “solutions” they believe are correct but are usually flawed at a fundamental level. In 2010, HP researcher Vinay Deolalikar sent around a transcript that caused some initial hopes, but after an extensive discussion, was also found to have fundamental flaws. That experience was recounted by an article in the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/XXeWAk).

PUP: What would solving P/NP mean for the world?

Fortnow: Showing P=NP would greatly transform the world as I mentioned before. Showing P and NP are not the same would be an amazing mathematical result but wouldn’t have quite the dramatic effect on society. The power of the P/NP question doesn’t really come from whether or not we find a solution. Rather P/NP tells us what’s possible. Even if P and NP are different, the problems we can imagine solving if P=NP are often still solvable, it will just cause us considerably more effort instead of a single magic bullet.

PUP: What are the most promising areas of research on P/NP right now?

Fortnow: Very few. There is an interesting approach using an area of mathematics called algebraic geometry spearheaded by Ketan Mulmuley of the University of Chicago. But several people doubt this approach will work and even Mulmuley believes his program could settle P/NP, it would likely take well over a century.

PUP: What do you hope people take away from your book?

Fortnow: I hope people come to understand the importance of the P/NP problem and more generally come to realize that computer science is about tackling major computational challenges and not just about programming a computer.

 

bookjacket

The Golden Ticket
P, NP, and the Search for the Impossible

Lance Fortnow

Princeton University Press Director Peter Dougherty Speaks at the Lunch and Salon Hosted by the Association of American University Presses at the Princeton Club of New York

November 29, 2012: Peter Dougherty and several other press directors discuss the accomplishments of University Presses and the future direction of books at the salon gathering entitled “What’s Next for Publishing? Rethinking the University Press.” Dougherty answwered questions from a group of journalists spectating at the event:

Several comments picked up on ideas from Dougherty’s July 23 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The Global University Press.” As he wrote: “University presses can become an even larger and more influential force in the global theater of ideas by capitalizing on two converging trends: the growth of global scholarship and the expansion of digital communications networks.” Though university presses reach a smaller audience of readers, in difficult economic times and rapid technological change, they remain committed to their authors and, as Jordan said, will pursue the “new digital reader” and “champion the spirit of innovation.”

 
Click here to read the rest of the article on the official Publishers Weekly website: Panel Debates The Future of University Presses

 
Peter J. Dougherty was appointed Director of Princeton University Press at the March 2005 meeting of the Press’ board of trustees. “We sought an individual of broad editorial vision and were fortunate that the field of candidates was rich in such talents. Happily, however, we found Walter Lippincott’s successor right here at Princeton,” said W. Drake McFeely, chair of the Press’ board.

“Peter Dougherty has been instrumental in the Press’ success over the past 13 years,” he continued. “More than that, his 33 years of experience in publishing affords him a clear vision of how to build on Walter’s great achievements. I am delighted that he has agreed to lead the Press into its second century.”

McFeely, president and chair of W.W. Norton in New York, co-chaired the search committee with Princeton University Provost Christopher Eisgruber, who added, “Peter Dougherty will be a great leader for the Princeton University Press. He has distinguished himself as a brilliant editor of books about economics, and his list of authors and titles in that field is the envy of every other university press.

Read more about Princeton University Press Director, Peter Dougherty: Official Princeton University Press Website

More on the (Overblown?) Trouble With Campaign Advertising from John McGinnis

From our Elections and Technology blogger John O. McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology, a further response to the many objections that people have to our our current campaign finance system. In last week’s post he discussed the various informational benefits to widespread campaign advertising. But does permissive advertising empower special interests? What about the potential for a lack of disclosure of expenditures? Read his follow-up here:


In my last post, I argued that spending substantial money for campaign advertisements is necessary to inform inattentive voters and that these advertisements can improve as the information about the results of policies improves through  the new technology described in my forthcoming book.

Opponents of freewheeling campaign advertisements by politicians and their supporters have raised three thoughtful concerns about the expenditures needed to support such a flood of communications.  First, many have worried about the lack of disclosure of such contributions and expenditures.  They are right to do so.  All campaign contributions and expenditures should be posted immediately and transparently on the internet so that the public can see who is supporting whom.   With new mechanisms of aggregating information, opponents can highlight the connections between contributions to a candidate by special interests and the special interest programs that he supports. Intriguingly, as I discuss in my book, there is some suggestion that special interest spending on campaigns is less effective than other spending. Better disclosure should make it still less influential.

But one still might be worried that a permissive advertising regime will empower special interests, because they will be the most capable of supporting politicians.  Of course, special interests cannot be defined as any interest with which one disagrees.  Special interests are best understood as groups that can use special mechanisms provided by the government to aggregate money for their narrow goals.  Labor unions and for-profit corporations are examples. The corporate and union form permits these organizations to use people’s funds without their express agreement for political purposes.

Nevertheless, the concern expressed by President Obama and others about for-profit corporation spending is overblown. Corporations are forbidden from giving to candidates directly and despite the recent Supreme Court decision permitting independent expenditures by corporations, for-profit companies do not spend much money for independent expenditures on and behalf of candidates. Presumably, they do not want to alienate possible customers and employees.

The vast majority of corporate spending on campaigns is by non-profits. Non-profit corporations- so-call SuperPACs– generally represent like-minded individuals banding together to expressly pursue some social vision though political speech.  They are not presumptively special interests any more than are politicians themselves.  Like advertisements by politicians, advertisements directed by groups of citizens can provide valuable information about candidates and the policies they support. They have the additional advantage that they sometimes inject information into the campaign that neither candidate would provide.

One way of weakening the influence of special interests is to empower individuals to give more than they are now permitted to do so under our campaign finance laws. If individuals could give more, special interest spending would become a smaller percentage of campaign spending. The current $2, 500 ceiling for contributions to candidates in federal elections could be increased by four or even eightfold without any serious danger of corruption so long as contributions are disclosed.

But one might be concerned that the citizens who contribute to candidates and SuperPACs are richer on average than other citizens, thus skewing politics toward the wealthy. This is the most serious concern about permitting private money to finance politics. But we must compare its consequences with the alternatives.  The wealthy have a wide variety of views. In the last election people with incomes over $250,00  a year favored Obama, not McCain, although the former promised to  raise their taxes. This diversity of views flows from the nature of a market economy. New businesses are always arising and with them people who have different backgrounds, material interests and social visions.  Silicon Valley has a fundamentally different culture from Detroit.

Moreover, if one constrains donations by the wealthy to rent the media to propagate their views, insiders who own or who have otherwise more access to the media will then gain disproportionate influence.  Journalists, entertainers, and academics lean much more strongly to one side of the political spectrum than do the wealthy.  And since their work is less variegated than that in the business sector, we are also likely to get less varied perspectives as a result.  In Britain with limitations on campaign expenditures, politicians spend a lot of time currying favor with press barons, like Rupert Murdoch.

The best way to address concern about inequality is to give a tax credit to people of more modest incomes to encourage their contributions to parties or candidates. That program is likely to expand the amount of information in the campaign season rather than contract it, as would restrictions on independent expenditures or more severe limitations on contributions or expenditures. Such tax credits would be a cost to society, but as we gain more and more probative information about policy through putting politics in the domain of computation, it is rational to spend more money to help that information reach voters.  Because the decisions government makes affects us all,  money to help voters make wiser decisions is money well spent.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.

Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

Candidates spend daunting amounts of money getting out their message, with tens of millions invested in campaign advertisements alone. This year, even the Olympics were peppered with political ads, amid questions of whether all this advertising is ethical or even effective. While it’s standard to hear criticism of the money spent on extravagant promotions, John McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy, has some thoughts on the important informational benefits to our current campaign finance system. Read his post here:

 


Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

John McGinnis

 

It’s the campaign season and with it come the perennial complaints that there is too much money spent on politics, particularly on campaign advertisements. I am skeptical about this claim. Just as democracy is said to be the worst system except all the others, so a structure where candidates and groups can spend large sums to make their positions and that of their opponents known is the worse system of campaigning except for all the others.  In particular, it represents the only system we have for getting information about which candidates support which policies to the many voters who do not focus on politics except at election time and even then are hard to reach.

My book argues that democracy should take advantage of the computational revolution to improve information about policy results. Thus, a system of governance that promotes empirical testing of policies, prediction markets, and dispersed media on the internet, like blogs, can all help us better understand the likely consequences of policy and improve political choices. But to make the most difference, this information must get to voters at the election time.  But many voters are inattentive, particularly in a world that offers far more interesting distractions than politics. It is fact that very little money is spent on political advertising compared to advertising for material goods or for entertainment. Political advertisements must be numerous enough to break through a cacophony of nonpolitical information and that volume requires substantial funds to sustain.

Campaigns  and their advertising outreach are still the best way of reaching voters who mostly disregard politics.  Politicians and their supporters have incentives to inform them about the relevant policies and their consequences. To be sure, they will do so in a biased manner, but their opponents have incentives to correct them and they frequently do, running advertisements that show newspaper articles that debunk false claims. Sadly, the alternative to campaign advertisements is not a policy seminar but a beer commercial.

In my book I discuss the evidence that political advertisements make people better informed about candidates’ positions on policy.  Better information about policy consequences will not have much effect on voters if it cannot be connected to candidates’ positions on policies.  Political advertisements also directly address policy consequences, such as the state of the economy and its relation to policy. To be sure, they do so in a very rudimentary way, but these messages can be improved as the knowledge about likely the consequences of policies improve.    If empiricism and prediction markets can better evaluate policy results, political advertisements will focus on them more.  A President will be eager to tout that a market’s prediction that his election will lead to more economic growth than his opponent. A mayor will want to make it known that his school program has improved educational outcomes, according to the best empirical studies.   But campaign spending will still be necessary to convey this information by cutting through the clutter of nonpolitical information.

In my next post, I will address three possible downsides of permitting ample private money to pay for political advertisements—lack of disclosure, spending by special interests, and the excessive influence of the wealthy.

 

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.