Friday, May 23, 2008

Liverpool Algorithms Day

The department has just hosted the Liverpool Algorithms Day (LAD'08). The main highlight was Leslie's inaugural lecture; there were also another 7 talks, each of half an hour.

I estimate that the event attracted about 50 participants from outside the university. An important feature of the meeting is that it is short enough that attending is not too big an imposition; it seems quite a successful formula. Previous LADs were held in 2003 and 1999; also we had a Warwick Algorithms Day 2 or 3 years ago. Informal discussions indicated that it would be good to have such an event every year.

It seems that most people failed to appreciate the logo (shown above), which is of my own design. OK, most people recognised the Liverpool football outfit. Someone (Alan Gibbons(?)) asked when it was put on display at the start of the meeting: "Who's the little chap at the top right-hand side?". I waited for half-a-dozen people to pipe up: "It's a lad of course! as in the lad came to the door at night. Refers to the meeting's acronym!"... but answer came there none. I guess I was right not to pursue a career in advertising.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Case against discrimination based on socio-economic background

An article that appeared today on the BBC news web site, is provocatively entitled Working classes 'have lower IQs'. It's about a paper by evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce Charlton claiming that one reason why the children of the affluent are more likely to go to university is because they deserve to (to put it crudely); they are smarter. It look like the paper was first highlighted in today's Times Higher, less provocatively titled Elite institutions' class bias simply reflects 'meritocracy'. It has also already also been featured in various other mainstream newspaper websites (e.g. The Guardian and The Telegraph). Note that the Times Higher has a link to Charlton's article in full (in Word format).

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether it's true that richer kids are smarter. For my part, I am delighted that the government has been put on the defensive over this issue. This is the first challenge I have seen to the government's article of faith that universities are behaving badly by not packing in large numbers of working-class students. Lest we forget, this is the same government that introduced top-up tuition fees, and which still refuses to ackowledge their impact on the attractiveness of higher education, to people on low incomes. Of course, Charlton is going to get a barrage of flak for his article, some of which can be found in the comments section attached to the report in the Scotsman, for example.

Just to be ultra-topical, Labour's protestations of meritocracy do not chime well with their campaign in today's Crewe and Nantwich by-election --- as critiqued here, they are fighting a class war against the wealthy Tory candidate Edward Timpson. Their own candidate is the daughter of the deceased former MP Gwyneth Dunwoody (whose death is lamented by many, including myself). Fielding her daughter as candidate does not look very meritocratic to me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


It has gone quiet today; some CTAG colleagues are at this meeting at Dagstuhl, while most of the agents group is at AAMAS 2008. I am co-author of one of the AAMAS papers (my first paper to appear at AAMAS). Countering the "gone quiet" aspect, Leszek is doing a great job, with visitors Robert Elsässer, Petra Berenbrink and Jurek Czyzowicz.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Rejection (not mine, luckily)

Today's Times Higher calls attention to the youtube movie Rejection, whose author David Scott reflects on having his grant application turned down. Having received nearly 500 views so far (and a mention on the front page of the Times Higher), maybe that's some sort of consolation prize.

Since my recent grant application could easily get the same treatment in a few weeks, I was rather hoping for a good rant; instead, his remarks were rather measured and circumspect. He discusses his own experience in detail, including the means by which he was notified, but does not offer any solutions. The resulting tedium is relieved by Scott's engaging manner, and the (anonymous) cameraman's overenthusiastic use of the zoom lens.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A surfeit of reading

Reading material in my notional in-tray includes undergraduate project write-ups, drafts of thesis chapters or preliminary results from PhD students, a conference submission that I agreed to sub-referee, and some older papers that I should cite as background work in new papers. Also a journal paper and a conference paper that I working on, with co-authors. It does not currently include journal papers that need referee reports (hooray) or grant applications in need of referee reports (double hooray).

Now, I ought to happily lap up at least some of the above material, but I reckon that I am not a reader by nature, despite my job title. Or at any rate, not the perfect academic. When I actively work on a problem, it gives me the incentive to read up on the ideas and techniques that have been applied to it in the past. Contrary to the "natural" order of things, for me, study does not come before research.

Some thought on different types of reading material: journal paper submissions to review are rarely interesting because they are yesterday's news; conference submissions have the advantage of being new material being released for the first time. Textbooks - I have tried to read these, and never get very far. Reading textbooks feels like too much a passive activity, plus, they've got the "yesterday's news" problem. Research proposals may be interesting, if only for all the wrong reasons. You get to find out the authors' salaries, which is one of the many things that is wrong with the process of evaluating grant applications. Trashy novels - by far the best bet.

Friday, May 02, 2008

GAMES 2008

I am going to attend the Third World Congress of the Game Theory Society, which takes place on the 13th-17th July, 2008 in Chicago. I will add more details at that time.