A Tale of Tenure, Alien, and #Finger
A short story. Excerpt from my book Fredric.
In a realm of science and merit, a professor once received tenure. Whereupon she began to think — an action, I might add, which had garnered her the prized academic station.
“Do I really need all that I possess?” she said out loud, for why should she not speak her mind. After all, she had tenure.
“No,” she immediately replied respectfully. One need always converse respectfully with oneself, is what one’s mother has always said. “My ears are of no use anymore, for I no longer need to listen to colleagues or students.” And so she divested herself of the useless appendages forthwith. Hadn’t she always had her ears to the ground, anyway?
“My legs? I need not leave my office ever again.” And rid herself of the two she did, feeling she now had a leg up on her colleagues.
“Eyes? Hah, I’ve seen it all. Out with them. Nose? This place reeks of my accomplishments, and the smell has become irksome. Mouth? Hmm … I still need to give lectures, but I’ll have my grad students deliver those.”
Facing the mirror, she stared at the smooth contours of her new face(less), wondering how she could be staring at the smooth contours of her new face(less) sans optics.
Piece by piece her needs and body were reduced to the bare essentials until she was left solely with a single digit of her right hand.
I will not let life slip through my finger, she thought to herself with verve. And so the tenured professor proceeded to live her life blithely, merrily pointing herself at everyone and taking care to be in every pie.
It is at this juncture in our story that we must consider an alien starship or a visit from my future self. As every word henceforth is written by my future self we shall content ourselves with the alien starship.
Which happened to land on the lawn in front of the tenured professor’s office. Amidst the usual ruckus of assorted military personnel, pundits, and hashtaggers, a whooshing sound was heard (for alien starships always whoosh) and out stepped the alien.
Shaped as a cylinder with a keratin-like substance at its top, the hashtaggers immediately hashtagged #AlienFinger.
An eerie silence descended upon the crowd. The tension in the air was palpable. Everyone was crossing their fingers, hoping #AlienFinger would be Rebel — not Empire, Federation — not Romulan, Kal El — not Zod, Ellen Ripley — not Alien, et cetera, ceteris paribus, ad infinitum.
And then the alien spoke in plain English with a fine BBC accent. Which surprised nobody, because it has always been incumbent upon aliens to speak the lingua franca of the inhabitants of a ball of mud circling an insignificant orb of fire.
“For aeons” — it actually said aeons, not eons — “we have been observing your little ball of mud circling an insignificant orb of fire.”
One military personnel spat on the ground as if in contempt, but it later turned out to be nothing but simple disdain.
An eerie silence descended upon the crowd, which bothered them all since this was the second eerie silence, and no one likes to waste eerie silences.
“We have waited for you to show signs of what you refer to as intelligence,” continued #AlienFinger. “We call it the Maturing Test.”
“Who’s ‘we’”? someone shouted in the crowd. Many other someones looked at Jean-Luc (for that was his name of course) scornfully or mournfully, expecting the alien to lay a finger on him — but the digit was unperturbed.
“We are the Butterfingers,” it said. “We boldly go where no one has gone before.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Jean-Luc, performing to perfection his part in this little tale.
The hashtaggers reacted immediately with a change of hash.
#ButterFinger took this in its stride as it strode over to the tenured professor’s office. It rapped gently on the door.
“Go away, I have tenure,” shouted the professor.
“I come in peace,” said #ButterFinger emphatically.
“Who cares? I come in pieces,” responded the professor. She had just been sipping her fourth or fifth mug of coffee, as befitted her rank, and finding it very hard to nap. On top of that, her nail was bothering her.
“I can do your nail,” said the alien emphatically. Apparently, alien life forms were emphatic.
The professor rushed to the door, tore it open, and began poking #ButterFinger unabashedly.
“You can actually do that?” she shouted, flexing her knuckles excitedly, to and fro.
Towering above her, like a middle finger over a pinky, the alien bowed its nail. “Of course.”
The professor invited it into her office posthaste and offered it a cup of tea because one does not offer an alien a cup of coffee. As the world watched, posted, hashtagged, tweeted, chatted, and texted, the two fingers sipped and held a most interesting conversation to which none of us was privy.
After three, five, or perhaps seven hours (hard to tell, but unquestionably a prime number), the professor asked, “When you landed you said, ‘what you refer to as intelligence’. What do you call it?”
“Doing your nail, of course,” replied the alien.
The professor smiled. “Will you do mine now?”
“Gladly,” replied the alien.
As one hashtagger hashed, #IThinkThisIsTheBeginningOfABeautifulFriendship.
Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
-- Daniel Kahneman, Winner of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2002)
If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.
The most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest, a new computer model of wealth creation confirms.
A short story. Excerpt from my book Fredric.
Twenty-one minutes and thirty-two seconds.
Professor Artie Mensch viewed the remaining time shown in large, bold numerals on the iWall and then he turned to his young colleague. “You know, this whole system is only ten years old.”
“Is it now?” said Dr. Tommy Bing. “Well, ten years ago I was still an undergraduate.”
“Ah, youth,” sighed Artie smilingly.
“We’ll know soon enough whether we’ve nailed that grant,” said Tommy apprehensively. This was his third year as an untenured Assistant Professor and he’d yet to secure a grant. This year he’d teamed up with Artie, who as a tenured Full Professor was able to view things with far more serenity.
Eighteen minutes and seventeen seconds.
“So why did they change the system?” asked Tommy after a moment. He knew the answer, of course, but Artie loved to explain things, and Tommy felt that hearing him was better than anxiously counting the seconds.
“Well,” began Artie cheerily, “the National Science Foundation was founded in 1950, just a few years after World War 2, to administer grants in science and engineering. At first, things moved along nicely, grants were submitted, handled in a timely manner, and decisions were then issued. But, as the years went by, the system got bogged down. The number of grant applications grew by leaps and bounds, and so, accordingly, the NSF too had to grow. Obviously, the budget for grants increased — though far less than we scientists would wish for.” Artie chuckled as Tommy nodded. He knew all this but hearing his older colleague’s voice helped pass the time.
Thirteen minutes and forty-one seconds.
Artie went on. “But, more ominously, so did the administrative budget grow. The NSF needed more and more staff to handle the explosive number of grants submitted. I think at its peak there were about four thousand full-time employees at the NSF. They actually had plans for constructing yet another giant building — the third — to house them all!”
Tommy was silently watching the iWall. Nine minutes and eighteen seconds.
“And that’s just the money spent by the NSF itself to administer the grants,” said Artie forcefully. “Compound that with the work done by the reviewers. I mean, these were professors and researchers who had a full schedule as it was, and yet were still asked to take the time to review proposals. Billions were lost because of wasted reviewers’ time alone.”
“But the worst part,” added Artie emphatically, “as far as I’m concerned, was not the obscene amount of money spent — wasted! — no, the worst part was how people felt.”
At that Tommy perked up. There was nothing new about the history lesson so far, but the part about people’s feelings was unknown to him.
“You see, Tommy, scientists who submitted grants — and I can attest to this personally, mind you — often felt that the results were totally unfair. Sometimes it was obvious the reviewer hadn’t really taken the time to read through the proposal. Even worse, often a reviewer would write a scathing review just because he hated the author or perhaps because he simply had little respect for the author’s domain.”
“Humans.” Artie sighed and raised his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “Power corrupts and all that. You know, I once submitted a grant with Chuck Adams over at Geology about using cloud computing to study the effects of global warming in the southern hemisphere. You know what this one reviewer wrote?”
Tommy shook his head. Five minutes and forty-one seconds.
“He wrote — and I remember it verbatim to this day: ‘The authors are advised to remove their heads from the cloud they inhabit and descend back to earth’. Can you believe that?”
Tommy smiled, actually forgetting for a moment the seconds ticking away.
Artie laughed boisterously and waved his hand. “Water under the bridge. Anyway, the whole thing had become a humongous, unfair, and hideous mess. And we’re supposed to be scientists — I mean, we’re the smart guys, right?”
“Yup,” said Tommy, echoing Artie’s words. “We’re the smart guys.”
“Then,” said Artie, “along came Dr. Sangria. As soon as he was appointed Director of the NSF he set up a team to examine the unfortunate situation and come up with solutions. Of course, being a committee and all, they failed miserably.”
“Of course,” repeated Tommy, only half listening by now.
“Luckily, Dr. Sangria was saved by his son. Well, lucky for all of us, I guess.”
“His son?” asked Tommy, his interest once again piqued. Two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
“Yeah, not many people know this part — everybody thinks Dr. Sangria came up with the idea on his own. But I met him a few years ago and he told me the whole story. Seems he and his boy were at a baseball game, which was going badly for their team when the boy blurted out, ‘they might as well save money on an umpire and use a coin toss instead’. And that remark changed the course of science. Well, at least that of science funding.”
The countdown disappeared and was replaced by an announcement: The National Science Foundation wishes to thank all the dedicated researchers who submitted grant applications. The lottery has now finished. To learn whether you have won a grant please click here.
Time and Again
A short story by Moshe Sipper
The thing I hated most was when people told me I wasn’t to blame, because, after all, I was only seven years old when the 'unpleasantness' began.
(This story appeared in the journal Nature, 6 December 2012)