Sunday, December 23, 2007

On holiday

We head off at about 6am tomorrow to spend Christmas with my parents, followed by skiing in Colorado for 6 days, followed by a couple more days with my sisters in London; back home about Jan 4th. Unlikely to log on to the internet for the duration.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nick Clegg to lead the Liberal Democrats

As expected, but by a narrower margin than anticipated, Nick Clegg edged out Chris Huhne for the leadership of the Lib Dems. Clegg got my vote, but realistically, the difference between the two candidates was extremely nuanced, and I ended up voting for the one who was less likely to be accused by the press of being "too old", which as I admitted to someone at the departmental Christmas dinner today, is a crap reason for voting for someone.

Motivated by a ghoulish fascination for the gruesome, I head over to the BBC news website's Have your say section on the result of this leadership election. I really ought to quit looking at the BBC website's "have your say" section — I have read somewhere that it is bad for one's mental health to keep company with people who gripe and whinge the whole time, and that phenomenon could easily apply to the practice of reading their comments. The general thrust of most of the comments was predictable: who cares, the lib dems are useless etc. The same people who complain daily about the present government are utterly incapable of supporting or suggesting any alternative. Much as I like the BBC news website, the "have your say" section really does reflect badly on it. These contributors, with their apathy and cynicism, are the deadliest poison to the democratic process.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Architecture of the Absurd

I have just read Architecturew of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art by John Silber. The author is a former president of Boston University who himself oversaw a substantial building program during his time there.

The book is a critique of flamboyant gimmickry in many modern buildings, that causes the building in question to be disfunctional, and is claimed by the author to be the outcome of egotistical architects managing to browbeat gullible clients who are spending other peoples' money. (It is claimed that absurdism is over-represented in buildings put up by universities and cultural organisations.) The Stata Center at MIT is claimed to be a leading example of absurdism, and from reading about it, and looking at the pictures, I tend to think I would not like to work there.

The book is most enjoyable to read; it does not take long to read, being short and with plenty of nice high-quality illustrations. It is refreshing because of its iconoclastic aspect -- various high-profile buildings and the celebrity architects who designed them, are strongly criticised. In my opinion, it could go further than it does in that respect -- the author remains respectful of certain famous buildings that fulfil his own conditions for condemnation, such as the Sydney Opera House (massive cost over-runs) and Fallingwater (required major remedial work to keep it from becoming falling-concrete).

Silber's theory is that absurdism is the result of architectural egotism, as I mentioned above, and I will round off this entry by proposing a rival theory. The sort of absurdism he highlights in the book is really an act of desperation brought about the unutterable tediousness and monotonous nature of Modern architecture. No-one likes modern buildings - that is why we take our holidays in places like Paris and Barcelona, and not in Basingstoke, Milton Keynes, or Stevenage. In designing a building in the Modern style, there is virtually no scope for self-expression. (To see why, just notice that you can look at a typical modern building for a minute, and then sketch an accurate likeness of it from memory. Yes, it will look like most other modern buildings, that's sort of the problem.)

So, what's an architect to do, if a design is to be a creative outlet? You're not allowed to use more than one kind of window, and the design you're allowed to use is itself not interesting. No cornices, pilasters, or any kind of ornamentation is allowed; that would not be very modern, would it? Elaborate brickwork, or the creative use of natural materials, is frowned upon. What's left, if there is excess money to be spent, is to go for some sort of bizarre, grotesque shape: the sort of thing that the above book will identify as absurdism. The only way out of this mess, I would suggest, is that we have to extract ourselves from the aesthetic and spiritual dead-end that is modern architecture.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Google meeting

I was invited to a the Google EMEA faculty summit in February, which I have to decline (for reasons beyond the scope of this entry) with some regret. This meeting is in Zurich in mid-February, and they seem to have invited quite a lot of academics to find out about opportunities to get involved with Google's work in Europe. (EMEA is short for Europe, Middle East and Africa.) Mike W is going so I can find out about the meeting from him. It seems relevant to mention that they offered to pay travel expenses.

I think it is commendable that Google is trying to reach out to the academic community in this way. A question I find vexing is: Why aren't more companies doing likewise? In particular, in Europe. In Computer Science we are often told that we ought to develop industrial collaborations, and quite frankly, for me the missing ingredient is any kind of expression of interest from industry itself. I suspect the problem is especially acute in the UK, and that in this country there is, in industry, a dismissive attitude towards academics' research. By contrast, the USA seems to be the best country to academics to find industrial collaborators. It is no coincidence, I suggest, that the USA is home to all the really major companies related to computing and the internet. And now it would appear, while we sit around waiting for a British company to show some interest, we have to wait until an American one crosses the pond and tries to reach out to us.

Sure, there exists industrial collaboration over here. At a meeting at my own department I was talking to someone from BT who was somehow involved with a research project in which Liverpool takes part. What I could glean from him, before our conversation was interrupted, is that at BT they don't get paid for time spent on academic partnerships, and I got the impression there is little or no organisational infrastructure that supports academic liaison. I don't think they have mechanisms for financing academic research either, and I don't know of any British or European companies that are noticeably better.

I really wish I knew how to improve this situation and move towards the American success story. I don't claim that we academics are entirely blameless, but I also think that our skills are too frequently overlooked.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

RAE bashing

Now that the RAE submissions have been completed (end of last week) there has been a crop of articles in the Times Higher celebrating the RAE's demise. The latest one in today's issue argued that the RAE era coincided with a drop-off in the rate at which Nobel prizes have been awarded to UK academics. This coincidence is attributed (not very convincingly, I thought) to the idea that the RAE stifles creativity.

My department and many others have made a big effort to submit a strong RAE return, and that effort was not just about portraying the department to best advantage, but also about building strong research groups and a great environment. Despite the genuine problems with the RAE, this still looks to me like a more constructive approach that just complaining about it.

Finally, the RAE will be replaced by some other form of assessment, details of which are still rather unclear, but as I mentioned in an earlier post are likely to involve "bibliometrics". I am sure that in a few years time, when we are feeling oppressed and persecuted by its successor, we will look back at the RAE with fond nostalgia.

added 13.12.07: Another article in the same issue of the Times Higher points out This paper a narrative critique of the RAE, which was itself submitted to the RAE.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The pursuit of citations

I was at a meeting of the department's Research Committee on Monday where the main topic was what should be done to raise the number of PhD students here. But other topics came up more briefly. Now that the RAE submissions are in, it was mentioned that subsequently, "bibliometrics" would be used to gauge the quality of a researcher's contributions, specifically citations of their papers.

As for any attempts to measure a researcher's success, it is possible (nay, easy) to criticise citation counts, but I don't propose to do so right now. As it happens, at Dagstuhl I was discussing with colleagues (Artur and Berthold) how it is that some papers get cited more than others. At Monday's meeting, womeone commented that the most important way to get your papers cited is to publish them in highly-respected journals. That's worthwhile, but there are other mechanisms.

  • The most important thing to do is to work in a sub-field that is growing. If the community is losing interest in a research topic, you should drop it also. I reckon that all other things being equal, the expected number of citations a paper picks up is exponential in the growth rate of the research field, a theory that has the nice feature that expected citations is non-negative. Note: it is not important that the sub-field be big; it must just be growing.

  • Tell a colleague directly "please cite my paper", or, less usefully, "you should have cited my paper". I have occasionally received such a request.

  • Write with plenty of co-authors — they may help to publicise the paper by giving talks about it.

  • Put the right keywords in the title, or failing that, the abstract, so that it shows up when people search for those keywords.

Here's what not to do: notice that some mediocre papers seem to get cited all the time for no good reason --- somehow they become a sort of virus that infects a body of literature. (Compare with the dreaded "signature virus" that was popular in the Usenet during the early 90s.) There is no point in trying to pursue this phenomenon, because it is completely random.

Added 10.12.07: Submit the paper to a journal editor who is likely to be interested in it, familiar with the topic and hence likely to send it to referees who will also be interested.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How copyright suppresses knowledge

On the web, I find a review of an interesting-looking book on cake-cutting algorithms. The review cites The Computation of Fixed Points and Applications by M.J. Todd (Lect notes in Economics and Math Systems; Springer-Verlag, NY 1976). Now, that in turn looks like a book I should be interested in, BUT, it's not online, and it's not in the library.

Well, I could request it by inter-library loan, but that's too much hassle for a book that may or may not turn out to be useful. Maybe I can buy it using money from a research grant, but even if a copy can be readily bought, will it be worth it, even if there's plenty of money in the grant? (And, that's also hassle.)

No-one really expects to make a profit selling this book right now, do they? (Maybe 30 years ago, you'd be ripping someone off if you copied it illegally.) But, copyright law, and in particular the absurdly long duration of copyright, prevents anyone from putting the book online. The result is that I probably won't ever read it, and the book will effectively vanish, at least for another 60 years, or thereabouts, when it may get to enter the public domain.

Of course, the above is just a specific instance of a general problem that recurs time and time again. Not just in a professional context either -- there are lots of miscellaneous books I've headr of and wanted to look at, which are not profiting anyone as intellectual property. If I write a book, I would want it to enter the public domain after about 10 years after publication.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Current state of my to-do list

Gray is stuff I have started on...

Update COMSOC flyer

dept web pp, update links to PhD study pp

research group web pp, add newphotos

chase missing amazon order

missing order for laptop

3rd year project design demos

read draft of approx NE paper

get P to attend one of my lectures

discuss networks funding with L

ask X to write letter on behalf of my grant application

read A's thesis chapter

review paper for STOC

reveiw paper for GEB

Make web page on Dagstuhl talk

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Buy Nothing Day

This evening I find out that today was Buy nothing day; too late since I already went to Tesco. It's a shame, I would have been happy to participate.

I get my ballot paper for the Lib Dem leadership contest, and vote for Nick Clegg. The differences betweeen the two candidates are really rather nuanced; this is a rather marginal choice.

talks; return home

I return home yesterday, with a four-hour delay to my flight.

Let me mention 2 other good talks. Uri Zwick gave another nice one yesterday on a recent result he co-authored (on a deterministic sub-exponential algorithm for parity games). The hallmark of a great talk is to strip away the layers of definitions and notation that are needed for a precise paper, and to get to the heart of the fundamental idea, and make it look simple. It is hard to do this with one's own work; we do not like to make our own work look simple. I also liked Ronald Peeters' talk on homotopy methods on equilibrium computation - again, a simple idea: you want to compute an equilibrium of a game, so you start out with a game for which you know the equilibria (having the same number of players and strategies) and you gradually move all the numbers that define that game, towards the numbers that define the game of interest. As you do so, try to keep track of one of the equilibria, which are themselves moving continuously as this process goes on. Apparently the Lemke-Howson algorithms can be thought of as this kind of process, which gives me a new way of thinking about the L-H algorithm.

One thing this workshop has done for me is, give me an impression of the interesting and varied ways that people have tried to implement algorithms for computing Nash equilibria in practice - my own work has just been on the analysis of algorithms in the abstract.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I give a one-hour introduction to the complexity class PPAD. Mostly done on the blackboard but using the laptop to show some nice depictions of Sperner's lemma. A nice talk today was by Martin Hoefer on pricing edges in a graph for buyers who want to obtain spanning trees; it started out with examples that explained the scenario very nicely. Another talk I liked was Uri Zwick (on Monday) on introduction to parity games and related games; it was very informative.

Later, I distribute some flyers for COMSOC-2008. I play some pool and ping-pong.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stackelberg schedule

I give my talk on the price of Stackelberg leadership in network games (joint woirk with Pattarawit Polpinit). As the last speaker of the session I am in the unhappy position of Stackelberg follower, in that previous talks can overrun but I am cut off by the dinner bell. That's a nice analogy with the outcome of Stackelberg leadership in the context of Cournot competition, but not one that I had time to dwell on! I was also asked to give a general introduction talk to the complexity class PPAD, which I will do on Thurday morning.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I am once again at Dagstuhl for a workshop on Equilibrium Computation. Tomorrow I give my talk on the Stackelberg version of a well-known network-sharing game (joint with Pattarawit Polpinit; it is part of his PhD work).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Spiked online

I recently found the web site Spiked-online, sort of an online newletter, with social-comment articles having a libertarian bias (but it's actually a UK web site!) Despite strongly disagreeing with some of their stuff (notably the critiques of environmentalism) I found it to be quite a refreshing read. Indeed, the anti-environmentalism articles had some quite valid attacks on the less intellectually regorous aspects of environmentalism, or which there are many... I will read on.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

another project...

I enter into research discussions with Patrick Briest, Piotr Krysta and Heiner Ackermann, who is visiting from Aachen (an increasingly well-worn trail between there and Liverpool!). Best-response dynamics in splittable-flow network games.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Local Economy

The picture is of a poster outside building works on the Engineering building adjacent to the Victoria Building. "Shouldn't the region's health be in as good a shape as the region's economy?" goes the slogan. (The smoker on the right is advertising lung cancer research at the university.) I'm not clear that the region's economy is in such great shape, but it raises the interesting question of what exactly does it mean to have a strong regional economy? It is wrong to suppose that it is caused by money being spent locally being used to help local businesses. Due to the high rates of tax, there is not much local circulation of money. A better guess is that a strong regional economy is one that attracts companies to build head offices there, and also major public-sector organisations. These big corporate offices provide the sort of high-quality jobs that enable a city to gain a good place on the league tables. Talking of which...

here is a recent league table made by an environmental outfit called Forum for the Future, which concludes Liverpool performs poorly environmentally. This is misleading, and some of the comments that have been submitted to their web site explain why. The league table uses affluence and educational achievement of local people as one indicator of "sustainability", and since Liverpool is not very affluent, it loses out, for no good reason. What this and similar league tables ignore, is that Liverpool is very competitive as a place to live --- if you nevertheless happen to be affluent and well-educated! Furthermore, I guess I'd rather be poor in Liverpool, than be poor in Richmond, or Knightsbridge.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Kate and family visit during the weekend; we take a wlk with them but don't go very far, it's mainly a time to catch up on news and for the children to play. This is their first visit to us since we moved. On Sunday we went to Llandudno and Great Orme, a nice place to take visitors to who are with us for a longer time.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Relevant and Revelant Science

Listening to a program on Radio 4 on the way back home (I think it was Material World) one of the items was about work on predicting the support a candidate in an election can get based on his or her appearance. You extract a few features from their face, such as size of nose, plus others that hopefully capture the notion of a good-looking "commanding" appearance, and see how they correlate with election wins. (The feature extraction is probably the main technical challenge here.)

This is the kind of science that gets a lot of media coverage, but is really good science? It seems like a big majority of the scientific research that garners the press coverage is a kind of collective navel-gazing, studies of ourselves and how we behave. Results that purport to forecast an individual's life achievements based on early life events and his appearance --- it's questionable whether you really want to know some of the stuff that comes out. Any study that correlates sexual behaviour with some other feature or activity of our lives is sure to be hot news.

In support of this kind of work, it certainly looks more relevant to people's everyday lives. In contrast to my own research, for example. I wish people were as interested in the stars as they are in their own backyards, but I guess I can't make that happen.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Carbon footprint calculator

I visit the WWF carbon footprint calculator, and after confessing to a multitude of sins, I get this feedback:

You're living as if we had 2.96 planets to support us. Although you are below the UK average, we obviously only have the one!

Your top new eco-tips...

  • Food: Buy more seasonal food

    Did you know: Although we could meet over 70% of our eating needs from food grown in the UK, we import more than half of the food we consume. Buying locally-grown, seasonal food would mean we could reduce our food miles, use less packaging to preserve fresh produce, and not least help us reconnect with the annual patterns of seasonal produce.

  • Travel: Walk instead of using other modes of transport

  • Home: Turn down the heating in rooms which you are not using

  • Stuff: Avoid over-packaged products

Actually, I was surprised to be below average. But, none of the questions that I was asked related to how many children I have. This comes at a time when we are told (in today's BBC news web site) that the UK's population will reach 65 million by 2016, and in a recent article will reach 75 million by 2051.

This raises the obvious question: Why exactly bother with all these other carbon-saving measures? If there is no end in sight to population growth, the only logical conclusion is the environment is destined for catastrophe whatever we do. There's no point in aiming for some target level of carbon emission, if that target will have to reduced by X percent in order to take into account a population increase of X percent! I might also make the obvious point regarding seasonal food (above) that population increase in the UK makes it impossible to buy food that is either local or seasonal. (Eventually, it makes it hard to buy food at all...)

Perhaps the carbon footprint calculator should ask you how many kids you have, and if it's more than two, it should say: Sorry, you are living as if we have an infinite number of planets to support us...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why I am a Liberal Democrat

In the wake of England's rugby team losing the Rugby world cup final, one commentator compared Britain's battling sportsmen to the Liberal Democrats, forever chasing after that elusive breakthrough, and still endlessly losing. A common refrain from cynical voters is that there is no point in voting Liberal Democrat, because they "can't win", are "at best, an irrelevance" etc. I remind myself why I keep the faith, and the comparison with sport is a good starting-point.

  • According to the theory that you should not support the Lib Dems since they can't win, every football fan in the country should support Manchester United. As things are, however, there are still those who continue to support teams like Derby and Middlesborough, and football is much the better-off for that.

  • Three-party politics is better than two-party politics, because it is more in the interests of parties to emphasise their own advantages, and not to indulge in negative compaigning by emphasising their opponents' weaknesses. This because if you attack an opponent in a multi-party system, all the non-attacked parties benefit, not just you. So it's better to promote your own virtues instead. A glance at US politics will confirm this criticism of two-party politics.

  • Oh, and by the way, the Lib Dems still have the best policies, of course.

As the Lib Dem leadership contest gets under way, the signs are promising that it go much more smoothly than the last one, and the party will be able to get on with the job of making British politics interesting, and encouraging positive campaigning. Oh yes, and winning elections, of course.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stackelberg schedule

I give my talk on the price of Stackelberg leadership in network games (joint woirk with Pattarawit Polpinit). As the last speaker of the session I am in the unhappy position of Stackelberg follower, in that previous talks can overrun but I am cut off by the dinner bell. That's a nice analogy with the outcome of Stackelberg leadership in the context of Cournot competition, but not one that I had time to dwell on! I was also asked to give a general introduction talk to the complexity class PPAD, which I will do on Thurday morning.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Approx Nash

Spent the past week and a half trying to get improved approximation bounds for Nash equilibrium, in polynomial time. We have some worthwhile (but weak) new result for the multiplayer case; for the 2-player case (of more general interest) we haven't improved on previous results, only found alternative ways to get them. (Joint with Heiko Roeglin who is visiting me, and Patrick Briest.)

Monday, October 08, 2007


I give a lecture (number 4 in the series). I add some stuff to a potential AAMAS submission with Mike, Leslie and Edith. I do some work with Leslie, Patrick Briest, and my visitor Heiko Roeglin. We are still working on approximate Nash equilibria in games of more than 2 players. Progress is rather incremental.

I should really be working on research grant proposals, specifically the one with Artur Czumaj and others.

Books I read recently

State of the Union and A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy, and the first 100 pages of And When Did You Last See Your Father by Blake Morrison. The first 2 are sort of best-selling page-turners with a strong "brand identity". Of them, State of the Union is definitely better, the author constructs a chilling nightmare scenario and sets you thinking about the nature and effects of defamation. (the characters were a bit black-and-white though, especially the bad guys!) For some reason I found Blake Morrison's book a whole lot less interesting after I realised it was a true story, not fiction. It doesn't always work that way round, I remember in the early 80s finding The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole less interesting when I found out that it was fiction.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I am at dagstuhl seminar on randomness in the design and analysis of algorithms. Arrived on Sunday, it finishes on Friday. Meanwhile, it's week 1 of university term; will have some catching-up to do when I return.

Friday, September 14, 2007


I agree to help organise a workshop on "computational social choice" to take place next year - this will be a successor to COMSOC 2006 held in Amsterdam last year.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Reviewing research proposals

I just declined to review an EPSRC proposal that I was invited to review. I feel guilty about this because it's important to do this job reasonably frequently, in order to pay for the similar tasks I incur by submitting proposals.

I declined on grounds that my research expertise was not relevant. Which was the case, really. Of course, I perused the proposal to come to that conclusion. It looked like quite a strong proposal that would be stronger than most other ones in that research area. I've heard that the research area in question has already gotten lots of funding recently (can't verify that of course) which makes me think it questionable to support this proposal, although you can't have your recommendation be influenced on those grounds. Neither are you supposed to be influenced by the price of the research project (!!) for example the salary of the investigator(s) can be seen but should be ignored. Likewise whether they ask for one postdoc or three, the theory is that if they ask for three and they propose enough work, and propose to spend onough time supervising them, you should not mind the large number of competing proposals that will be denied funding of that one gets funded. Of course, reviewers are only human and these factors influence our decision.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

back to routine

The boys return to school (Isaac yesterday, Arthur today), I return to work; find myself swamped by backlog of tasks. Got bogged down processing a PhD application that did not really deserve the time it received. Agreed to help a colleague interview candidates for a postdoc position (by telephone or skype, next Monday). Agreed with MJW to participate in a research proposal, and with LG to meet up with a visitor he has next month (this is re a grant of his that where I am co-investigator, so it seems necessary). I feel like I am agreeing to things at a faster rate than I get them done.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Friends of the Earth

Yesterday we went on walk over Bristley Ridge in Snowdonia, very impressive. Today Greg and family returned from side trip to friend in Durham.

While doing some work in front garden, I am visited by two canvassers from Friends of the Earth, who want me to join up to show support for some campaign to force companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. They are both about 20, wearing matching FoE T-shirts. While they were telling me about the campaign, I also saw 2 other similar activists working the other side of the street. I did not join up on the spot, but my main thought is, thank goodness there are still some people their age who are into this kind of stuff.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Greg and his family come to visit for a few days. I am now "on holiday", trying not to think about work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I spoke too soon

In a previous post, I mentioned the demolition of a nearby building that was in progress, and assumed that it was being completely demolished. This turns out to be partly true; they left behind the lower levels, and - this seems unusual - started rebuilding the upper levels.

I tend to suspect the new building will look almost as bad as the one it replaces. At least, I don't like the look of the overhanging section at the right.

The last picture shows progress on a new building of Liverpool John Moores University, across the street. Incidentally, in order to move these pictures around to the right places in the post, it seems necessary to cut and paste the relevant bits of HTML code.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Path to Confusion

Right, I'm taking a brief ill-deserved break from writing up reviews of WINE submissions to write this down.

When you take a hike on unfamiliar territory with the aid of a map, and you get lost, this is not something that happens suddenly. Uncertainty creeps in concerning one's geographical location, the facts are twisted to support an ailing theory, maybe the visibility worsens, and one is reluctant ever to backtrack. At some stage, one is reduced to a very crude strategy like "go uphill whenever possible" in the hope of finding a landmark.

Reading a badly-written paper is similar. The problem papers are not weak papers that one can reject with reasonable confidence, they are papers that may be significant, but can't be understood. And it starts out all innocently - a symbol is introduced whose meaning is not specified precisely, so you form a hypothesis about its meaning and try to continue. Terminology may be used in a non-standard way - you think you know what is being said, but something else entirely is intended. This is a problem in particular when the authors are not really in one's own community, authors who usually write papers for conferences you have not attended. Another problem is the usage of a technique that is attributed to a pre-existing paper, for which various properties or performance guarantees are being claimed. How seriously can I take these claims? At some stage, you realise you have no understanding what you are reading. The time has come to go right back to the very first point where the meaning was not made 100% clear, and write up a query on that as part of the review. Then try to do the same at the second point of uncertainty, although that second query would ideally be informed by the answer to the first query.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Change to email

A colleague announces that we will shortly close down the departmental email service and start using the university one. Probably that spells the end of my practice of routinely using pine to read my email (when doing it remotely, I ssh to our department machines, type "TERM=vt200" and read using this purely text-based interface. I switched to pine from Berkeley mail as a result of the usage of attachments becoming commonplace; pine can just about cope with those. Web mail, or programs like Outlook or Thunderbird, don't really add more functionality (colours and fonts don't count as functionality) and are much slower (those colours, fonts and graphics take time to re-display every time you delete an email or move to a new page). I guess I'll just have to get used to it.

Monday, August 06, 2007


I phone John Lewis to reschedule a furniture delivery. I am only partially successful. I log on to the Elsevier website to fill in a "journal publication agreement" related to a recently-accepted paper. I try to find Thelma to hand in a delivery note that came with some software I ordered, and ask her about how to pay for an air ticket for a research visitor. She is not in her office, but the light's on. Should I move on to the next item that's suggested by the headers in my in-box? (There's something from Vladimir about PhD admissions.) Trouble is, if I read that, I'll forget about the air ticket question. Therein lies the key problem with the "inbox zero" concept that Christoph told me about - you can't complete these tasks in order and then delete the associated emails. While I'm pondering this, I take a look at some rubbish article on the BBC news website, which somehow reminds me that I am supposed to be finding out about go-karting for when Greg and his family visit. Hmm, probably the "inbox zero" idea assumes you maintain a to-do list other than your inbox. I peep cautiously at my inbox through half-closed eyes. Someone has sent me a review of a WINE submission that I had asked them for — We must be thankful for small mercies. That reminds me, it's time to pester two other reviewers for their reviews, before it gets too late...

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Our friend Jamie Andrews visits (yesterday and today), before heading down to London for a meeting of the program committee of some conference. For that conference not only does the PC have to meet physically, but each paper is assigned a "lead discussant" from amongst the members of the PC.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

new web page(?)

I spend most of the day working on some notes on computing approximate Nash equilibria, and what is known about this topic. These notes are in html, the idea being that they can later be put up as a sort of public information web site. I reckon that if this is done well, it could attract quite a lot of readers; it may have potential to be developed into an online textbook of sorts. I like the idea of being able to make every usage of a symbol link to the point where that symbol was introduced (how many times have I wished that some textbook could do that!)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Resit exam

I finish making a resit exam for the course that I teach; one of those tasks that seems to come up at an inconvenient time, but I completed it before the deadline. There's a slight change in priorities in making a resit exam, in comparison with a standard one -- usually there's a bias towards making questions that are "easy to mark" (do not give the examinees the opportunity to get bogged down in mounds of hard-to-check detail). For a resit paper, I try to give them the opportunity to get enough marks to pass (so long as they deserve to of course!), and with few people taking it I am less averse to mounds of detail. I should forbear to give any technical details of how this impacts on the questions I come up with.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More papers to review

I am a member of the program committee of
the 2007 workshop in
Internet and Network Economics
; following the paper submission deadline on the 13th, I have received a list of 15 papers to review. This followed a "bidding phase" - it looks like most of the papers I was given are ones that I said I preferred, evidence that our commmunity can put theory into practice, perhaps?

While it is a fair amount of work to review these papers, even when using some sub-reviewers, one does at least get credit for being on the program committee, in sharp contrast to (anonymously) reviewing journal submissions, or sub-reviewing conference submissions. For this reason, there is never any shortage of takers for this particular kind of task.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Open problems wiki

From the computational complexity blog I find out about a new web site where you can upload, discuss and view open problems in mathematics. At present there is just one problem filed under theoretical computer science. (It's not the obvious one either. As it happens it's one that's related to my own research topic, namely the computational complexity of EQUAL SUBSETS, which is a total search problem, in common with the search for Nash equilibrium. In giving talks in the past, I have used EQUAL SUBSETS to explain what is meant by a total search problem.)

I like open problems. To me, anything that's been described as an open problem, becomes an exciting challenge. Most papers in theoretical computer science, including most papers that I have written, do not solve open problems - they just solve problems that have been invented by one of the co-authors. I believe there should be a greater emphasis on the solution of recognised open problems as being a sign of high quality of a mathematical paper. I admit, there's always going to be a bit of subjectivity in judging this measure of quality - you have the problem of deciding whether an "open problem" has really been stated (it's easy to state them implicitly, as opposed to explicitly, in papers). Also, there's the issue of recognition of partial solutions, and to what extent they pave the way to complete solutions.

Regarding the web site itself, this is something that may just catch on, and then again, may fail to do so, as discussed in the complexity blog. It requires a "critical mass" of contributions in order to gain enough recognition. The design of the web site seems nice. The importance of open problems gets rated on a 4-point scale; it's not clear to me how that is chosen - a good web site of this nature should have some clever mechanism so that members of the community can vote on that issue.

Monday, July 09, 2007

PhD admissions

I few weeks ago I agreed to take on the task of PhD admissions tutor. At this point, having been briefed by my predecessor Vladimir Sazonov and received a batch of application forms, it starts to look like an onerous task, but I reckon it's an important one, and I suspect I can improve the way our PhD applications get dealt with. (For starters, the web pages have room for improvement.)

So I get started on the application forms. I reject a couple, forward one to a colleague, ask another colleague what he knows of an applicant who seems to have contacted him previously, and realise it's time to take a look at a web site that supposedly tells you the significance of assorted foreign qualifications. (The PhD applications sem to come from all over the world, and the phrase "comparing apples with oranges" doesn't do them justice.) By coincidence, someone comes by from the university's international office to ask me about an application to this dept that comes from Saudi Arabia, for which some official from their ministry of education thinks it urgent that we make a decision. For that one, the topic looked more relevant to the management school.

Friday, July 06, 2007


I attend Liverpool University's graduation this morning (sorry, no photos), in the humble capacity of member of the academic procession. This morning's honorary graduand, Professor Akhbar Ahmed, is highly topical! From the web page linked to above:

Professor Ahmed is recognised as an influential figure in the promotion of inter-faith dialogues worldwide who has acted as adviser to HRH The Prince of Wales and President George W. Bush on Islamic issues. He currently holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair in Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C. and his book, Journeys into Islam: the Crisis of Globalisation, has been widely acclaimed by leading political and religious figures globally. A distinguished anthropologist and filmmaker, he has previously served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UK.

His speech, on the need for inter-faith dialogue to replace conflict, was pitched squarely at the young graduating members of the audience, and was perhaps rather simplistic; the conclusion, in a reference to Liverpool's history, was All you need is love.

I do not attend this afternoon's ceremony, in which the honorary graduand is Sir Terry Leahy, boss of Tesco; presumably his speech was different in both style and substance. This morning was the one where all the computer science (and related degree) students were graduating.

I did not attend any graduation ceremonies while I was working at Warwick University. At the time I was deeply unhappy about the way government was treating universities in the UK and saw graduation ceremonies as a signal that nothing has changed in the academic world during the past 100 years, and everything's just fine. Indeed, I'm not entirely happy with the funding situation today, although that situation has improved somewhat, and the path few years can be seen as a painful transition to a fee-paying system. Now, I feel like it would have been interesting to attend one or two of the Warwick ceremonies, to see how they compared.

After the university ceremony, I attend a departmental reception for students graduating from our department. I used to attend the equivalent ones at Warwick.