Monday, March 16, 2009

Wiebe Fest 2009

Here at Liverpool Computer Science we just had Wiebe Fest 2009, "A workshop in honour of our friend and colleague Prof. Wiebe Van Der Hoek on the occasion of his 50th birthday". (that is from the front cover of the proceedings). Occasions like this are a wonderful morale-booster, since they remind us about the intrinsic interest of our research topics, that we have some great colleagues, and they distract our attention from all the nonsense that besets the academic world. (This event was arranged as a complete surprise for Wiebe, and I did not have much more notice that he did; my only contribution was to turn up to it about half an hour late. photos.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Senate meeting

I attended my first meeting of Senate at Liverpool University - at the beginning I was introduced by the vice-chancellor, along with about 5 other new members, and this was obviously the main highlight of the meeting.

At Liverpool, Senate is described on the web pages as "a governing body of the university". I was also a member of Senate back at Warwick University - there it is "the supreme academic authority" of the university - and how could anyone possibly refuse the chance to join such an august body? In practice, university senates spend most of their time noting and receiving reports from various academic subcommittees. It's as boring as hell, quite frankly.

Warwick and Liverpool senates differ in the physical format of the meetings. At Warwick, there were about 40 of us sitting around a table, and the vice-chancellor (who chairs the meeting) is flanked by the registrar, the deputy VC and a couple of secretaries. Over here, the format seems to put the VC on the spot - he stands in front of an audience with only a single assistant off to one side, to count the votes. Also, at Liverpool every prof is automatically a member of Senate, so a well-attended meeting can attract 200 people. I am reliably informed that most meetings are less well-attended than this one was.

The most memorable Senate meeting at Warwick that I attended, took place about 10 years ago, and was interrupted by a student demo against tuition fees. The then VC, Sir Brian Follett, had just left so that we could come to some agreement on who would be acting VC when he retired, and while he was out, about 300 students occupied the building. They let it be known that no-one would be allowed to enter or leave until we passed some form of resolution condemning tuition fees, which was the Government's big idea of the time. (Pretty quicky, someone spotted a technical obstacle to complying with this demand, namely the meeting's chairman being unavoidably detained outside.) When we found out what was going on, I remember catching the eye of another young lecturer (this was about 10 years ago remember), and our common reaction was dismay that we were now so old as to be on the receiving end of a student protest - the horror!

These days of course, I accept the onset of middle age with all its associated inconveniences. There were about 300 students outside the Victoria building protesting against the proposal to discontinue 8 of our RAE "units of assessment", up for discussion at Senate. The idea is that we should concentrate on things we are good at, one of which is Computer Science, so I am biased in that regard. This was not the only item of business (it was item 16 on the agenda) but definitely a crowd-puller. The Jack Leggate theatre is a grand surroundings for making impassioned speeches about the ideals of universities, although the accoustics are not great, and also not helped by the demo and nearby road works.

The resulting discussion was interesting, touching on basic issues of the nature and objectives of universities, and the obligations that a university has to its academic staff to insulate them from the real world. Many speeches were made, some of them passionate. I did not speak at the meeting; the following is my thoughts on a few of the points raised.

Point raised: "A Russell group university cannot do without a philosophy department" (one of the "units of assessment" threatened with closure), and related: "A civic university needs to have a philosophy department" ["civic" seems to mean: attracts local students who can't afford to live further afield, so if they want to study philosophy, where are they supposed to go?]. My answer to this is: the worst attitude you can have in an organisation is "my employer can't fire me, I'm indispensable". And w.r.t. civic universities in particular, it is most important that Liverpool University should have higher ambitions that this - it is essential for the regional economy that it continue to have an international scope and outlook.

Point raised: "The RAE results are inaccurate and do not reflect quality of research." My answer: Everyone, at some point, has to accept external scrutiny of the quality of their work. The alternative, allowing someone to always certify the quality of his own work, is patently absurd. And while RAE scores are inaccurate, they are not off by more than about 20%. If your score is terrible you are not great, you are at best mediocre.

Point raised: "All this controversy will deter prospective students". My answer: In the short term, perhaps. In the long term it will be worse if we give the impression we just do not care about research quality, and are afraid to deal with problems.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

some last notes on EWSCS

The British Colloquium for Theoretical Computer Science (BCTCS) is the nearest British event to EWSCS. The main difference is that BCTCS is mainly contributed talks; at EWSCS the 5 mini-courses took up most of the time, with just 8 student presentations. Making the slides for my introduction to computational game theory took more time than I'd anticipated; probably because previous talks I've done on the topic have been research talks with less emphasis on doing a detailed introduction to the background. The format in which lecturers do 4.5 hours of lectures, seems like a good idea, but requires quite a lot of care on the part of lecturers - if you get it wrong the loss is of course bigger than for just a 1-hour talk.

The students who attended EWSCS seemed to be well-prepared and asked plenty of searching questions. The Russian contingent all came from St Petersburg, probably due to its proximity, also this seems to be something of a tradition. At least 2 of them were undergraduates, who has heard about this event due to being in a club for students whose interest in CS goes beyond the content of their degree course - such an organisation must be a good way to find prospective PhD students; probably better than just looking for students who got good marks, which correlates positively but weakly with interest in pursuing further research.

I came home late on Friday, after passing on the opportunity to visit Tallinn's historic centre; that will have to wait until another trip. On the way back to the airport (via the bus station) there is no hint of this tourist attraction - just a gloomy procession of rust-stained, Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, going on for mile after mile. (I did not bother to check that these buildings were Soviet-era; indeed, the phrase is essentially a handy label for all the concrete stumps that to this day, continue to go up in all parts of the world. Le Corbusier has a lot to answer for.)

I thank Helger Lipmaa for inviting me to lecture at EWCSC 2009.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


I just attended CRAPcon 2009, an entertaining event co-located with EWSCS. Details are at the web site. (For completeness, here are links to CRAPcon 2008 and CRAPcon 2007.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Winter school; pre-PhD training

They do winters properly here in Estonia - there's plenty of snow on the ground, and the ice on the lake looks solid enough to walk on, not that I would try it.

There are about 40 students here, mainly from Eastern Europe. They seemed to like my 1st talk, an intro to Nash equilibrium, and asked plenty of questions. Time to dust off my pet peeve, as I confirm that PhD students outside the UK are much better prepared than UK ones. (Helger Lipmaa, one of the local organisers, seems to have spotted this problem earlier on, from back when he worked in the UK.) In Estonia and Latvia, 4 years u/g and 2 years masters is standard. In Sweden it's 3+2, but they leave high school at 19 (a year later than most countries). Russia: 4+2+3 (for u/g, masters and PhD respectively). Bologna agreement is for 3+2+4 in Europe according to Helger. Which of the following will come first to Britain?

  • The euro

  • driving on the right-hand side of the road

  • the Bologna process

...answers on a postcard please. Not sure if the following is true, sounds too good to be true: a UK student can go and take a 2 years Masters degree in Sweden, without paying tuition fees (just personal expenses), and the teaching is in English! A year or 2 ago, I heard a similar claim concerining undergrad study in Denmark. It gives me some new ideas about where to send my kids to university, anyway.