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I actually wrote my master's thesis (I'm one of the last North American PhD's to even do a master's degree first) using this imaginary time quantum gravity stuff of Hawking's. But only kind of; I was doing a particular kind of problem for which imaginary time is a standard technique when gravity isn't involved. Doing it with gravity is actually a major extra leap, but in my particular context it didn't seem quite so arbitrary. Hawking's version is whole-hog, this-is-how-it-should-be. That makes other people raise eyebrows. As far as I know, it has no good answer to why time normally seems quite different from space. And that's kind of a big thing, not to be able to answer.

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Based on the fact that this topic has over 1.5 million views, everyone's answer should be "What have you been reading recently?"

The topic is dead! Long live the topic!   —Alorael, who will throw in The Ringmaster's Daughter, a relatively normal and therefore still quite unusual novel by Jostein Gaarder. Unlike Sophie's Wor

It was in one of the introductions for a book. Part of the problem was he had a few children and was trying to save for their future educations.   The figure I've seen is that a basic paper back

I'm one of the last North American PhD's to even do a master's degree first

 

Fascinating. I presume you study physics or something very science-y? Because it is still very much the norm in my field (history) to get one's M.A. and then a Ph.D.

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Master's degrees have been obsolete in North American in science for nearly 20 years, and I think that holds for social sciences, too. Basically any field that gets funding to pay graduate students for research. Often people formally enroll in a Master's program, but then just transfer into PhD once they've done their coursework, and never do the Master's thesis.

 

The problem with the Master's degree is that to go from just-finished-coursework to a publishable research article in one year is a real stretch. One article a year is not a bad speed even for a post-doc in my field, and the Master's student is starting from zero with the current literature. They're probably not even yet capable of just picking up a current article and understanding it. So if I want to do actual research with a Master's student, I normally expect that it will be slightly more work for me than to just do it all myself, because I won't be able to count on the student doing a single darn thing independently, and I'll have to take time to explain things to them. Skipping the Master's phase, apart from coursework, cuts out the time-consuming step of writing a thesis that normally doesn't contribute to research. It lets the student just get on with learning their trade, maybe get their name on a paper for a little bit of work on it in their first year and otherwise working up to being lead author on an article after maybe two or three years.

 

The humanities are different because normally the only way they have of paying students is for teaching assistance. And humanities departments usually have a lot of small seminar courses that they have to offer, with a lot of student papers to grade, so on the one hand they need a lot of grad student TAs, but on the other hand they can afford to keep paying them for years on end, because research grants are for a limited time but teaching goes on forever. It normally takes several more years to complete a doctorate in the humanities than it does in science, so you might as well break that up into two degrees. (Since there's so little research funding, the 'post-doc' phase is missing from the humanities' career path, and people can expect to apply for faculty positions as soon as they have their degree. The total training time is about equal to the sciences, but it's usually much more poorly paid.)

 

Humanities research is also normally directed much more towards full books rather than short articles. Writing long documents is an important skill of the trade, and that's quite a thing to learn in itself; a 'junior' thesis is a good first step towards the big dissertation.

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Masters being required before you go for a PhD is also common at my university, though I'm told it's a Canadian thing, and less common in the States and even less so in the UK.

 

Actually, they're still required in the UK too, as far as I'm aware. Certainly all the PhD courses I'm interested in require an MA first.

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I forgot to answer Triumph: I'm in physics. I finished grad school in Canada late last century, did some post-docs in Europe and the US, and now I'm a professor in Germany. The same is true of my wife, in linguistics, except that she was a tenured professor while we were in the US, instead of a post-doc. And I know people who've hacked some way through the academic jungle in the humanities. So on the one hand, between first and second hand, I probably have a broader experience of higher education than most people; but on the other hand what this has taught me is that academia is really diverse. I've only seen some of it, and I may well be quite clueless about the parts I haven't seen.

 

What field are you in, Nikki?

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I actually wrote my master's thesis (I'm one of the last North American PhD's to even do a master's degree first) using this imaginary time quantum gravity stuff of Hawking's. But only kind of; I was doing a particular kind of problem for which imaginary time is a standard technique when gravity isn't involved. Doing it with gravity is actually a major extra leap, but in my particular context it didn't seem quite so arbitrary. Hawking's version is whole-hog, this-is-how-it-should-be. That makes other people raise eyebrows. As far as I know, it has no good answer to why time normally seems quite different from space. And that's kind of a big thing, not to be able to answer.

 

He actually lost me completely at this point (at least with the rest of the simplified explanations, I could mostly picture something), when speaking of the universe having singularities "in real time" but not "in imaginary time". I thought he might be talking about real and imaginary components of a complex value for time, but that didn't seem to make any sense either. I haven't taken any physics, of course. Do "real", "imaginary" and "singularity" mean roughly the same as they do in mathematics?

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...what this has taught me is that academia is really diverse. I've only seen some of it, and I may well be quite clueless about the parts I haven't seen.

 

I find the variations in academia fascinating. Just the different programs I've been in / looked at closely have an interesting of similarities and differences, and then when I hear how things are different in other fields... I like education, and I like hearing about different ways of doing it and pondering the possibilities. (Oh, going back to the earlier topic, the vast majority of history programs, to the best of knowledge, still do M.A.-then-Ph.D., but I've seen a couple that offered an undergrad-straight-to-Ph.D. route). Overall, at least in history, it's disappointing how much similarity of worldview and temperament there is among faculty. Lots of variance in topical expertise, mind you, but not such diversity in perspective as one would wish. That makes the occasional atypical professor all the more stimulating to learn from. On the the other hand, while there are plenty of similarities in the format of grad school, there are also all sorts of interesting differences from one institution or department to another, in terms of what is expected of students, the status of grad students within a department, etc. There are differences getting published in different fields, differences in how comprehensive exams work, etc.

 

Speaking of which, SoT, are they phasing out (or have they already done away with?) comprehensive exams over in Europe? My department is ditching them in favor of having students construct a portfolio, and I've heard of other history departments doing the same thing. I presume the sciences have, or at least had, something like comps.

 

 

Edit:

To be less off topic, I'll toss out A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson. It's a doorstopper of an American history book. It's not actually a textbook, but I'm using it as the main text for my course. It's well-written. Also, Johnson is British, which means he comes at American history from a sort of outsider perspective one rarely gets in American history books. It makes for some really thought-provoking descriptions and commentary, and helps make the book worthwhile to read. It's not perfect, by any means, but I feel good recommending it.

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Do "real", "imaginary" and "singularity" mean roughly the same as they do in mathematics?

Yeah, they're supposed to be exactly the same. The issue here is that replacing time with an imaginary number really changes the equations and their solutions, because time is not just a dependent variable in general relatiivity. In some cases the switch makes the equations less singular, but the question is whether that's just wishful thinking.

 

In the 'flat spacetime' of pure special relativity, you have to think about a 'pseudo-Euclidean' geometry, where time differences show up with a weird minus sign in the Pythagorean theorem. Euclidean geometry is where if you have two points whose separations along two perpendicular axes are x and y, then the distance s between the two points is given by s^2 = x^2 + y^2. And that's still true in special relativity for spatial separations; but if now one of the two axes is time rather than space, then you have to use s^2 = x^2 - (ct)^2, where c is the speed of light.

 

That's weird, but it's not too weird, because in special relativity time itself is still fixed. It's only how people describe time that may change, depending on reference frame. So time will so to speak hold still while you mess around with it. One way of messing around that can be useful for some calculations is to 'analytically continue' time, and consider time paths in the complex plane instead of just the real line. Some quantities are guaranteed to remain the same when you do this, but sometimes it's easier to calculate those quantities by taking a roundabout path in complex time. It's just a mathematical trick for calculating things.

 

As a mathematical trick it's easy to see that if you rotate t into the complex plane, so that it becomes iz/c for some real z, then you can make x^2 - (ct)^2 into x^2 + z^2, which looks more like good old-fashioned Pythagoras. So you can sometimes try to calculate some things in relativity with complex time, just as a mathematical trick; and the trick can sometimes even be used to make time look just like space, if you want.

 

Where Hawking kind of lost me was in extending this trick into general relativity, where the geometry of spacetime isn't just a fixed stage on which things are happening: now it's the play. Changing time to imaginary really changes things. It was never clear to me that those changes were right.

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Are they phasing out (or have they already done away with?) comprehensive exams over in Europe? My department is ditching them in favor of having students construct a portfolio, and I've heard of other history departments doing the same thing. I presume the sciences have, or at least had, something like comps.

 

Germany has never had such a thing as comprehensive exams, and the modern PhD was a German invention of the 19th century. The German doctorate is just a thesis, period, and as far as I know that's how it has always been. I'm afraid I don't know much about other countries in Europe. I believe the Netherlands and Switzerland and Scandinavia are broadly similar to Germany. France is probably quite different, but I wouldn't know: the French system is virtually closed. Hardly any non-French people go into it, and hardly any French people leave it. So French science is certainly strong, but French higher education is a black box to me. I see its results but have no idea how they're produced. Italy and Spain seem to have a few excellent groups and people, but those that I know seem not to want to talk about their systems as such. My impression is that they are somehow very dysfunctional, but I can't say just how.

 

In North America programs vary widely. Some places have comprehensive-like exams, but sometimes they are early in the PhD program (often called 'preliminary exams') and sometimes late. Other places have other requirements instead of the exams, like big essays or book reports or something. I remember feeling that comprehensive exams were a good thing because they ensured that everybody who successfully made it away with a doctoral title would at least have a basic grasp of undergraduate topics. On the other hand I admit that written exams are an artificial task with little relation to any real undertaking, so it's rather silly to make them a necessary step towards getting a degree. Probably the best approach, as I see it now, is to have something like a comprehensive, but grade it very leniently, so that you're really only checking basic understanding, and not how fast the person can scribble under pressure.

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What field are you in, Nikki?

 

English. Perhaps that's why I'll have to do an M.A. before my Ph.D; English (even English Literature) is so diverse and generic-y that an extra year or two is required by most people to actually find something they're interested in and to pursue it. I've got eight weeks of my B.A left, and have finally realised that my particular interest lies in poststructuralist theory and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, but even that is far too wide a scope to produce anything of any real academic merit.

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Yeah, that sounds pretty broad. 19th and 20th century means "almost all of literature" and poststructuralism is probably not so far short of "almost all of criticism". Taking several years to figure out how you can really contribute is probably smart — if you can afford the time.

 

Precisely. I mean, going from everything I've studied towards what I have is a massive narrowing down already. The M.A. aims to narrow down that, and then the Ph.D is really specialized.

 

Actually, now that I think on it, this is just a continuation of schooling in the UK more generally - pre-16, you study everything. 16-18, you're expected to narrow it down into four or five disciplines or subjects, and then again into just one subject for your undergraduate degree.

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Yeah, UK education narrows the fastest of the systems I know. I'm not sure it compensates enough by getting deeper faster, too, or if that would really be a compensation, anyway. Presumably the assumption is that you can pick up a broad but shallow education by yourself, just be reading Wikipedia or something, so you may as well go narrow for your formal training. That's maybe not a bad idea, if people actually do it.

 

For all the limitations of North American education, you can stay quite broad until quite late. A typical bachelor's degree with honors (so four years, and the normal prerequisite for graduate school) is about forty semester-long courses, and only about half of those are normally in one subject.

 

The main point of the PhD is that you're not just learning stuff that other people already know any more. You're supposed to be exploring entirely new territory yourself, and telling the rest of the world about it. So in a sense that's finally the point of all the specialization: you pick a narrow enough topic that you can literally become the greatest expert in the world on it within a few years.

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This seems relevant.

 

And to contribute a little, although not on the original topic: I'm in my second year undergraduate in the States. I've really enjoyed some of the core requirement classes. It's really nice to expand my horizons beyond the scope of grade school. I'm better able to understand and appreciate things from other disciplines.

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That's a good graphic; that's about what it's like.

 

Oh, maybe not entirely. If you can keep some sort of perspective, enough to not start imagining that you know everything because you know your one thing, you can maybe transfer a kind of meta-knowledge from your tiny specialty to almost everything. You know what it's like to understand something, and you know even better what it's like to not understand something but kid yourself that you do. So you can maybe recognize those things when you read something even well outside of your own field. It won't be the material that you know, but the person understanding it (or not) will be a mind operating much like your own.

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This thread is, in fact, the most recent thing I have read, but that's not terribly profound.

 

In many science PhD programs in the US there are "qualifying exams" or "quals" that often take place at the end of your first or second year, generally when you make the transition from classes to full-time research. You have to pass the exam in order to continue on in the program; once you've qualified you're considered a PhD candidate, and you just have to produce a thesis to graduate with a doctorate. Of course it's slightly more complicated than that, though; programs try to weed out the unqualified early, so if you fail you retake the quals at no penalty, or even just the section you failed. In some schools it's even an expectation, so that quals are an inherently multi-step process. And the thesis is the justification for graduation, but in practice you don't want to graduate without a two to four published papers, depending on how good the papers are and how good the journals that published them are, because those are your real qualifications for a post-doctoral position or real job later.

 

—Alorael, who has begun more Iain M Banks. At some point he'll probably have to try some non-M books as well, but The Culture holds endless fascination for him. It's an interstellar civilization of Mary Sue that's still worth reading about.

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Yes, but not terribly. As long as the ink isn't transparent you just need a relatively opaque piece of paper to put behind the page you're reading and it'll work out. A little more laborious, but hardly unworkable.

 

—Alorael, who agrees that books are better when they're awesome, but that's very subjective. There are some great books that are very hard to read. And there are books that aren't awesome but are easy enough to read that they're good enough. Books that are totally lacking in awesome and difficult to read are generally a waste of your time, though. And they're wasting more time because of how hard it is getting through them!

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Jus tfinished reading Jhon Grisham's "The Rainmaker" which emphasizes exactly why private insurance companies cannot be trusted.

And his "The Firm" which will make me wonder next time anyone offers me .

 

Another thing that popped up in Rainmaker was the name of one of the lawyers, which was Joshua Stone Leyman (sp?), which reminded me of amother place where I heard that name, and after several weeks of head racking it finally hit me it was from the TV series "the west wing" (minus the Stone) where I guess the producers/writers decided to borrow that name for the US deputy chief of staff.

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I personally found the Culture novels to get a bit... perverse as the series progressed. My suspicion is that the increasingly graphic violence, increasingly cartoonish writing, and increasing decadence of the Culture itself reflected Banks running out of ideas for that universe.

 

(But please don't let that dissuade you from forming your own opinion.)

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I personally found the Culture novels to get a bit... perverse as the series progressed. My suspicion is that the increasingly graphic violence, increasingly cartoonish writing, and increasing decadence of the Culture itself reflected Banks running out of ideas for that universe.

 

i can understand forming this impression if your first introduction to the series was something like The Player of Games, which was pretty tame by Banks' standards, but nah, the series was always a little bit that way.

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His name is Josh Lyman in the show, actually, and he's named for a minor character in Doonesbury who predates The Rainmaker.

 

—Alorael, who still has some Banks to go. He's thinking that maybe Culture novels are best in small infusions, not in bulk.

 

Cool, so I guess they both borrowed from the same source :)

 

-What is Banks's full name?

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(Banks also writes without the 'M', though I think that is only for more mainstream books. The 'M' is there on the cover of all his SF works)

 

wrote. banks wrote without the m :(

 

but yeah he wrote under two slightly different names on purpose so that his Culture novels wouldn't get him pigeonholed as ~an SF writer~

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Alternately, so the hard-core sci-fi crowd wouldn't mistakenly read his mainstream literary novels and be really annoyed.

 

—Alorael, who can only hope that Banks got to go to the afterlife he didn't believe in and it was like the Culture, which also doesn't exactly have an afterlife. At least not one that's not bring-your-own.

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So I'm about 30 pages from the end of Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile, and it's not quite like anything I've ever read before. I'm going to try and find other texts by her:watching Hiroshima mon Amour is first on my list.

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Redemption Ark (Alastair Reynolds) -> surprisingly uncomfortable reading. Most of the characters have a closet full of skeletons, and all of them have the kind of small inconsistencies that plague real human beings. Personally I think that's rather awesome.

 

Real World Haskell -> because I have too much spare time right now, and functional programming is supposed to be cool. I'll see if I can hack it, so to speak.

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this weeks main texts are Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, plus a re-reading of some Ginsberg.

 

i read Howl a while ago, and then again last semester. and i'm still not sure that i have anything more to say about it now than i did when i first read it at around 18.

 

on the other hand, i'm really enjoying Lot 49.

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I just finished a book. A most ridiculous book. It was difficult, it was dense, it resisted any attempts to read it at all. It didn't talk down to, or pander to the whims of its readers or its characters. Much like the main protagonist, for much of the novel the reader spends their time with their head up their Maas (it took me almost forever to pronounce Oedipa's full name properly). But this is precisely why it's brilliant. The humour is heavy, black and viscous. The plot is as absurd as it is sinister as it is utterly bewildering as it is smart. The characters are hilarious (literally, in one instance), but in a way that is almost as absurd as the situations they find themselves in - a personal highlight was Baby Igor's hairspray bombing. This is a text that treats its readers as adults, and why should everything be easily understandable, or explainable anyway? Like Oedipa, by the end of I was merely content to sit and await the Crying of Lot 49.

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I just re-read the Lone Wolf books. They were my original introduction to fantasy literature at about age 5, and they're now free online at Project Aon . Freakin' awesome.

 

Have you ever read Legends of Lone Wolf? if you haven't you must find them. They're novelisations of the first five books - beginning before Flight from the Dark, with Vonotar deciding to go rogue, through the slaughter of the Kai, and on through Lone Wolf's trip to Kalte to bring Vonotar back. Mostly they're told through 3 character POVs - Lone Wolf, Banedon and a goddess named Alyss, who's a fragment of Ishir. Alyss was so popular that they added her to the gameplay series near the end of the Grand Master series.

 

Legends of Lone Wolf has been out of print for years, but might be possible to find with some research. Though I have to say, if I could get copies of them again I'd never part with them; they're all fantastic novels, some of the most memorable fantasy writing I've ever encountered.

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I just finished ... the Crying of Lot 49.

 

The middle of that post was also dense but intriguing, but I have snipped it because nobody's going to read it again quoted so soon, and in order to ask:

Does all the stuff I snipped add up to being fun to read? I ask because I'm just not in the market right now for fiction as arduous self-education. I already have all the challenging intellectual projects that I can handle.

 

What does it mean to not "pander to the whims of readers"? Letting Little Nell die? Or being hard to understand? There must be millions of grumpily self-published authors who proudly say that they refuse to pander to readers, and all that means is that they've written bad books. What's the difference between Pynchon's non-pandering, and badness?

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What makes something "fun to read" is obviously subjective. I think that fiction should be at least a little challenging and engaging, and that novels should be, well, somewhat novel. That's not to say that I don't enjoy reading books that aren't intellectually stimulating though - sometimes that's fine, but ultimately texts like that leave no real imprint on my mind or my life. I have fun with both kinds of books, but one whilst one kind stops for me when I reach the end, the other is only just beginning.

 

Your second point is trickier, and I think I need to answer properly, when I have more time, rather than on my iPhone during a break at work. I'll edit it in later.

 

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Have you ever read Legends of Lone Wolf? if you haven't you must find them. They're novelisations of the first five books - beginning before Flight from the Dark, with Vonotar deciding to go rogue, through the slaughter of the Kai, and on through Lone Wolf's trip to Kalte to bring Vonotar back. Mostly they're told through 3 character POVs - Lone Wolf, Banedon and a goddess named Alyss, who's a fragment of Ishir. Alyss was so popular that they added her to the gameplay series near the end of the Grand Master series.

 

Legends of Lone Wolf has been out of print for years, but might be possible to find with some research. Though I have to say, if I could get copies of them again I'd never part with them; they're all fantastic novels, some of the most memorable fantasy writing I've ever encountered.

I managed to read the first one. It was pretty great. I was a big fan of Alyss when she showed up in the Grand Master series, if I remember correctly.

 

Project Aon has most of the Lone Wolf material at this point, but the Legends of Lone Wolf series was written by someone else and isn't up, so you'd actually have to find the out-of-print books themselves, and that's hard.

 

But man, Project Aon is great. I need to go back through those books at one point. I played through whatever they had up a few years ago, but they've posted nearly everything by now. Project Aon is up there with ScummVM as a "OH MY GOD THEY ACTUALLY DID THAT THAT'S SO AWESOME" kind of project.

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