Friday, February 29, 2008

Road works

The end is finally in sight for the raod works outside my office. It's just about been turned into a paved pedestrianised area. I'm a bit sceptical about the concept, but let's hope for the best.

This blog is the sort of thing I could easily waste hours reading if I had the time. (For some reason, it got reported on the BBC and in major newspapers, which is how I heard about it.)

Friday, February 22, 2008


Congratulations to my former PhD student Nick Palmer, who just rang me up to let me know that he successfully defended his PhD thesis after a one-and-a-half hour viva at Warwick. Thanks must go to Artur Czumaj (internal examiner) and Martin Anthony (external examiner).

Submitting referee's report

This is sort of a follow-up to a recent post about refereeing journal papers. I just submitted a referee report for a paper submitted to Elsevier's Games and Economic Behavior journal. Now, I initially just emailed it to the editor, and he asked me to upload it via their website. Doing that, I found that they keep track of a previous report I submitted for GEB a year or so earlier. The significance of this is that referees can actually build up some sort of track record of their contributions, which is kept on a centralised database. This has the potential for researchers to gain some sort of credit for their refereeing work, which as mentioned in my previous post, is currently missing. As a result, the slightly tedious process of uploading a review via a website, suddenly makes a whole lot more sense to me. I would even go so far as to say that it helps to justify having large numbers of journals under the control of a single publisher (such as Elsevier), if they can ultimately allow reports for submissions to other Elsevier journals to share the same database as GEB, for example. (The context for that observation is the common complaint that profit-making publishers are increasingly an obstacle to the effective dissemination of research results, rather than as assistance.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New memory stick

I manage to impress my colleagues by acquiring a 32 gigabyte memory stick, a substantial upgrade from it's 512 megabyte precessor, bought about 3 years ago. They both look more or less identical, see picture.

The old and the new

The new one contains one million times as much memory as the first computer I ever used, a BBC micro. If there's one thing that gives you faith in Progress with a capital P, it's the exponentially-increasing amounts of computer memory one can buy, in conjunction with increasingly convenient and robust formats. I am guessing that in a year or two, no new laptops will have hard drives, it will all be solid-state and much more compact.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An Odious Organisation

For a few weeks I have been receiving spam email from an organisation based in London called "The LifeLeague", an extremist anti-abortion organisation that also opposes various other things such as stem-cell research, and is not too fond of homosexuals either. (As an aside, they also call themselves an anti-spam organisation, but I cannot agree with this claim, since I have tried unsuccessfully to get off their mailing list. Although, unusually for spammers, their emails have an address and phone numbers.)

Mostly I delete their emails without looking beyond the subject line, but I did take a look at today's effort, which included the following:

IVF Linked to Infertility

Britain is facing an infertility timebomb because the increasing use of IVF means that couples with inherited fertility problems are able to have children and pass the condition on to the next generation.

The LifeLeague says: These latest findings only serve to back up what we as pro-lifers have been saying for so long. IVF - as well as being immoral - is medically dangerous too. Thanks to IVF, vulnerable, desperate, childless couples are being exploited.

The Telegraph 15.02.08 Click here for more information.

Let's ignore for now the fact that this hysterical alarmism about fertility decline flies in the face of every available shred of evidence. What's most noteworthy about this comment is the conclusions that it entails, once we follow this logic to its conclusion. Because, if people with poor fertility pose a theat to the gene pool, the same presumably holds for all sorts of other undesirables, such as diabetics, the chronically obese, and maybe even the short-sighted. I suppose, if the LifeLeague were to have it's way with all these substandard human beings, it might eventually nullify the need for stem-cell research, thus helping to achieve one of their objectives.

The Nazis were the most notorious for outlawing abortion, homosexuality and the genetically inferior. Lest we forget, their intellectual heirs are not lurking in the closet; they are still openly campaigning in our streets and cities.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Refereeing journal papers, and saving the planet

The following similarity occurred to me yesterday, while I was trying to save the planet. "Saving the planet" seems to refer to an assortment of unsatisfying activities, which in my case consisted of attaching an address label to a spent printer cartridge (courtesy of HP Planet Partners) and sending it back to HP. The post office turned out to be closed by the time I reached it. 'Twould have been easier by far to discard the cartridge in the dustbin, like an unwanted and embarrassing corpse. As it is, I still have it.

Now, all these kind of minor environment-saving measures have one thing in common, which is that they do the individual no good at all; quite the contrary, they involve you in some amount of expense and inconvenience. It's remarkable that anyone bothers, but they're motivated by some sort of moral pressure that's hard to ignore. This brings me neatly to the topic of refereeing research papers, especially journal submissions. The motivation for this activity (yes, I'm in the middle of doing one at the moment) is entirely moral, again. You incur these tasks by submitting papers, so you ought to perform such tasks. Trouble is, there's no pay-off. Allegedly you get some respect from the editor, but this doesn't seem to translate into any kind of concrete advancement.

The reason why journal papers are worse than conference papers to referee, is firstly, that they are more work --- you really are supposed to check them in detail. Also, they are yesterday's news; the conference version usually came out about a year previously. Luckily, the one I'm in the middle of is well-written and on a topic that is highly relevant to my research, so I can't complain about it too much.

(added later:) I guess the reason why I find this interesting, is that it contradicts a standard premise of game theory, namely, rational behaviour (i.e. selfish behaviour). No doubt people have tried to model this kind of "irrational" behaviour, but I don't know how well that has worked.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Oh go on, just one more...

I agree to join the program committee of WINE 2008. Right now I am bidding for papers as member of the PC of ACM-EC 2008. Also I am PC co-chair of the COMSOC workshop.

In computer science in particular, we use this sort of activity as evidence that one is a respected member of the research community in question. (Another standard example is being a journal editor.) Most computer scientists seem to list their current (and often previous) PC work on their web pages. Publications get less prominence.

With regard to the title of this post, I suspect there is a tendancy to overdo it, that is, accept too many of these invitations.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The History Man

I'm a bit of a sucker for campus noevls, even though I don't really believe that "campus novel" is a meaningful literary genre. I belated finished reading The History Man yesterday, after having previously read this review in the guardian.

The book's wikipedia entry attests to its significance, although it's not a very good overview; David Lodge's view is more to the point. I guess one way to interpret the book, probably not the right way, is as a lesson in why, over the past 30 years, universities have had to comply with externally-set standards, why teaching quality has been put on a more and more formal basis, and why we all started to frown on sexual harrassment. (Of course, it's nearly always a mistake to write a novel with the objective of teaching the reader a lesson, which is why I say this is the wrong way to interpret the book. But it may help some readers come to terms with the way it deals with a thoroughly unpleasant man, who fails to get his come-uppance.)