Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I attend a presentation by pro-vice-chancellor Kelvin Everest about progress on Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Liverpool's partnet instsute in China, and the university's big project. From the statistics, and the pictures of the development in which this university forms a small part, you just have to be wowed by the sheer scale and pace of the economic development in China.

I would like to go there, if only for a short time, just to witness and play a small part in this major piece of history, i.e. the economic rise and rise of China. As academics (especially research-active ones), we purposefully cut ourselves off from the general business of "making things happen", but I for one can't pretend to be indifferent!

XJTLU will be a new university, built from scratch and then peopled with staff and students, all within about 10 years, and will be just one of 10 new universities on a 240 square km "business park", really an entire city. People who have been there are awed by the pace of change that you see from visit to visit.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Examinations; invigilation

Today I handed in my exam marks for the module I teach (formal language theory, not that that's relevant to this discussion). Always good to get that task completed. The exam itself was about a week ago. There is scope for debate on whether examinations are more onerous and disagreeable for the examiner, or the examined, and this is the sort of question one considers during the exam itself, while one is invigilating it.

Of course, you usually get to invigilate your own exam, as I did a week ago. The session just involved my own students; there were no other exams being taken at the time, which simplified it a lot. A far cry from the glory days of my invigilation career back at Warwick, when some sessions had about 300 students, taking half-a-dozen different papers between them, all ending at different times. If you had to make an announcement, you needed to repeat it in about 3 different places, although later they installed a PA system.

Examinations, like degree ceremonies, are something of a ritual, and like degree ceremonies, they provide some of us (namely the invigilators) with an excellent opportunity to enter into a pointless and unproductive reverie about the academic process. The instruction is given to begin. The room goes quiet, that is to say, even quiter than it was. As for a degree ceremony, you get the feeling that it is intended to be caught in a time-warp. There should be a battered wooden box on your desk, inked-stained and chalk-dusty, containing miscellaneous things like treasury tags, elastic bands, and anything else that might come in handy. There should be numerous piles of different kinds of answer sheets, dog-eared log table books, and spare scraps of paper. If it's a big session, the senior invigilator will dutifully make handwritten notes on who leaves the room early, and when, and he will direct his underlings to sort out the scripts and escort assorted students when they take toilet breaks. No-one ever wants to be senior invigilator, of course.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

new gadget, with an old technology

I take delivery of a new phone/PDA, an HP iPAQ hw6915. I took care to choose a PDA that has a QWERTY keyboard; not all of them do. Ah, the wonderful QWERTY keyboard, like Dr. Watson, a fixed point in a changing world. People have been predicting its demise for decades, like they have been predicting the demise of newspapers. But it lives on, basically because it's a fundamentally good idea. My old PDA (a Handspring Treo) also had a keyboard (perhaps it still has; but it got stolen last week). Its predecessor, I think, did not. In the late 90's when everyone used Palm Pilot, one of the exciting new gimmicks was the "graffiti" method of text entry. But that idea doesn't seem to have lasted.

For keyboards to disappear, some good alternative would have to arise, and I can't guess what it would be. Speech to text translation is no good, since we don't always want to make a noise while entering our data, or let other people hear about the data. And there's ongoing work on recongising gestures/sign language, which may be useful for some people, but would probably not become mainstream.

(Added 24.1.08.) A useful thing I discovered recently is that when you are filling in an online form, you can use the tab key to jump from box to box. No longer do I have alternate between mouse and keyboard in order to fill in multiple boxes! Makes a good use of the tab key, whose original purpose is by now obsolete.

Friday, January 18, 2008

You know you're writing too many papers when...

...you get some conference submission rejected, and you get a sense of relief that you will not have to write up a proceedings version anytime soon.

They would have needed a camera-ready version by the 9th Feb. Come to think of it, isn't this "camera-ready" concept getting a bit passé? No-one uses cameras any more to print conference proceedings, right?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Holiday reading

Some books I read over the holiday --

Ghost, by Robert Harris. A taut, efficient thriller, just right for a 10-hour flight from London to Denver. The main character is not as vivid and 3d as the blurb makes him out to be. A good book for people who don't like Tony Blair. Dark Rivers of the Heart by Dean Koontz. Started reading it at the condo in Breckenridge. It's too damn long! The political rants I can deal with, there's only about five, and I'm quite a sucker for political rants, even when I profoundly disagree with them. It's just the excessive detail on certain unimportant characters, and the houses they live in, stuff like that. And worst of all, the occasional flare-up of literary affectation. A disappointment after Watchers. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. For me, a bit too arty for a post-apocalypse novel. I can't see why it got pressed-ganged into the service of the environmentalist movement.

Yesterday, I finally got a research proposal submitted, that has taken ages to write. Never mind whether it succeeds, just for the relief of getting it out of the way...