Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Daft league table

Today's topic of lunchtime conversation was this league table, the Halifax-Times Higher Education quality-of-life index, which appeared in the Times Higher about two weeks ago. It purports to compare the "quality of life" amongst the different higher education institutions in the UK.

Which is not a bad idea, in and of itself. Indeed, lifestyle factors played a part in our decision to move from Warwick to Liverpool in 2006. You get the coastal location, grammar schools, proximity to Snowdonia, that sort of stuff. Here's the catch: according to the league table, we seem to have made an appalling howler! We seem to have plunged from 16th place to 109th place (which is pretty close to the bottom, almost as bad as Manchester).

In contrast to the geographical area around Warwick, it would seem that Liverpool suffers from a relatively low level of owner-occupancy (although I myself was never required to live in rented accommodation), a lower pass rate amongst school pupils of GCSEs (although, we academics, crafty devils that we are, might be expected to avoid the weaker schools, or failing that, our kids might actually have the smarts to do well despite the performance of their peers), and a higher amount of road traffic (well, it's a city, isn't it). Advantages mentioned in the above paragraph did not enter into the equation.

As I say, studying the general attractiveness of different universities in the context of the "bigger picture" seems to be a worthwhile endeavour. But, unless such a study is carried out with rigour, discipline and a willingness to question one's own approach, it ends up being completely pointless. Although, if it causes people to lose faith in league tables generally, that may be a useful side effect.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Talk at Warwick

Yesterday I went to the Dept of Computer Science at Warwick to give this talk (not sure how long that link will last but there it is) on recent work on computing approximating Nash equilibria. This is my first trip to Warwick since leaving a year and a half ago. Looking at the list of talks in previous weeks, they have a nice line-up of speakers. I meet a number of former colleagues, who are in the middle of student project presentations this week.

I see the Warwick digital lab under construction; this looks like it might be some sort of opportunity for the CS dept to get involved, but I did not discover any plans for that, from people I talked to. I reckon they ought to get involved, but I did detect a moderate perception of it as threat rather than opportunity.

I finish the day by dropping in on Alun Wyburn-Powell, and having a chat with him and Diana.

The 2 other guests at the B&B are a music examininer, and a former student from Warwick CS, who had sat through some of my lectures but who didn't seem to hold it against me, and is now working for a company started by Mike Rudgeyard (like me, a former Warwick CS lecturer).

Return train trip is disrupted by high winds (never noticed them myself) which mean that I have to change trains 3 times, but in the event the total delay wasn't too bad.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A random rant about global warming

I'm sure someone else has made the following point, probably more articulately than this, but I just haven't seen it yet...

So, there are people like myself, who believe that glocal warming is a genuine problem that we should do something about, and there are two kinds of opposing view: some people disbelieve in glocal warming entirely, and there are others who say that glocal warming is not man-made; it's natural, caused by sun-spots or something like that, so there is no point us trying to deal with it. And it's that latter viewpoint that strikes me as completely unworthy of respect, for the following reason:

By way of analogy, suppose I find a lump on my skin, and say "Yaah! I think I've got cancer!". The glocal-worming deniers are like someone who says: "ignore it, it's probably something benign". But the ones who dismiss global warming as being a natural phenomenon, are like someone who says "Well, cancer is natural, people often die of it, so stop complaining. Don't bother with a doctor and don't bother to change your lifestyle.". That is, their attitude is completely defeatist. Maybe we have the ability to save our lives, but those people simply don't want to use that ability.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

School allocation

Here is an article about the dreaded moment when you find out about your kids' secondary school allocation. Isaac passed the eleven plus so gets offered a place at Calday Grange Grammar School. The article I linked to is mainly about the majority of schools outside the grammar-school system, but it's still a nervous moment to check that you obtained the intended result.

How best to allocate schools to children, in the presence of their (or usually, their parents') preferences? I don't have an strong opinion, although lots of people have theirs. The way German kids get into gymnasiums (equiv of grammar schools), which is done by agreement between parents and primary school teachers, seems good, if you can restrain the excessive demand (which I gather is something of a problem).

(added later:) Many criticisms of the current system seem shrill, for example this one, an editorial in the Daily Mail. Certain pupils are said to be "condemned to third rate comprehensives... a life-sentence to underacheievement", also note that lottery-type systems have "scattered middle-class pupils far and wide, breaking down the critical mass of talent on which our best schools depend to serve pupils from every background." (this what lotteries do, and it's the entire point of them. I don't know whether talent has a "critical mass" effect, although disruptive behaviour in schools probably does have such an effect.) The article seems to be in favour of the grammar school system, but doesn't quite say so.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Product endorsement

We all know, of course, that game boy cartridges are washable. They can go through the washer and tumble-drier, and are still usable. When it comes to mobile phones, by contrast, the Sony Ericsson W800i cannot even be safely taken out in a rainstorm without suffering catastrophic water damage. A few months ago, when I sent in Arthur's Sony W800i for warranty repair/service, they refused to help me, citing "water ingress contamination" or some such phrase.

It would seem like an experiment not worth attempting, to take an alternative brand of mobile phone, of unspecified water resistance, and subject it to the same test that game boy cartridges have successfully undergone. But, to the true scientist, there is no experiment not worth attempting, and Isaac's LG phone, LG KG220 has just survived it! The screen was a bit fogged after rescue from the drier, but a couple of days later, and we just made a call from it!