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.