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.