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.