Monday, December 13, 2010

Another critique of tuition fees

The problem with the Internet is that for nearly all topics, something is available out there that does a better job than one own's efforts could achieve. This new post at the excellent Exquisite Life blog does a great job of the criticizing the dire state of higher education policy in the UK, and should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to engage with the associated debate. The main focus of the article is on the failure of the tuition fees to fix the fiscal problems that supposedly motivated them, and it also explains the flaws in the arguments that the fees regime is more “progressive” than the current one.

The Campaign for the Public University (which I also found out about via the Exquisite Life blog) has a collection of articles and resources on the topic.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Game-theoretic board games

'Tis the season (almost) to sit around the fire playing board games and pretending to enjoy it. I recommend two board games, namely Poleconomy and Apocalypse, that I played a few times when I was a student; these came up in a conversation recently due to having some interesting game-theoretic content. I gave a talk at Microsoft Research (Cambridge) on Thursday, and Yoram Bachrach told me about the ripoff game, which has been played by human volunteers for cash prizes. Each individual game takes about one minute and works as follows. Each player is allocated a number, a fraction in the range [0,1] which is his “weight”. A subset of the players can form a winning team if their weights add up to at least 1. However, the winning team has not won the round until they have agreed on how to share the prize (worth 1 pound). For this purpose, each player gets to control another number in the range [0,1], which is the fraction of the prize that he requests from the winning team. And, the team does not win (and share the prize) until those fractions add up to at most 1. Apparently, the players sit in the same room but interact via computers, so the negotiation is somewhat stylized. Anyway, it turns out that Shapley value is quite a good predictor of the winnings associated with weights (although, there is variation from round to round, and some players are better at the game than others). A computational agent was implemented, which computed its Shapley value and then added 10%, and it performed well in competition.

This reminded me of an aspect of Poleconomy, a board game that simulates the interactions of politicians who happen to occupy corporate directorships “on the side”. (The game was developed in the early '80s.) From time to time, an “election” takes place, in which the players cast dice to determine the number of “votes” they obtain, and a Government may be formed by any subset of players who happen to have received a majority of the votes between them. There is some advantage to being in Government, so the immediate outcome of an election is a flurry of mental arithmetic and bargaining amongst the players to identify and agree upon a winning subset.

In Apocalypse, a player's move consists of a sequence of attacks. In each attack, the player chooses a number of units with which to attack another player, a whole number in the range 1...6, which is identified by placing a standard die with the chosen number uppermost underneath a cup; the player being attacked tries to guess the number. If the attacked player guesses correctly, that is the number of units that are lost by the attacking player; otherwise, the attacked player loses a single unit (and the attacking player gains a nuclear weapon, or part thereof, so there is an incentive to make lots of attacks.) Thus, each attack is a kind of generalized matching pennies, where the probability of choosing a smaller number is clearly larger than the probability of choosing a larger number, but all probabilities are positive.

Are there any other board games out there with interesting game-theoretic aspects?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


In the Guardian, Stephan Collini imagines an alternative world where the British government is proposing to withdraw all financial support for the teaching of sciences, as opposed to humanities. Meanwhile, a recent flurry of email on the CPHC mailing list1 addresses the status of Computer Science as a STEM field. (That's “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”.) The background being that these STEM subjects are the ones that in fact benefit from favoritism2 from Government due to their economic importance.

In more detail, STEM subjects will continue to receive a fee premium from Government. CS is STEM, right? Well, maybe not, if STEM is a shorthand for “HEFCE band A or B”; CS narrowly misses out on band B, as a result of reductions in the cost of computing facilities. The Browne review hints that “priority programmes” are primarily bands A and B, with a bit of representation from band C.

The email was about lobbying for recognition as a STEM subject, or alternatively, as “strategically important and vulnerable (SIV)”. Quoting UUK report Changes in student choices and graduate employment
The strategically important and vulnerable (SIV) subjects are chemistry, engineering, mathematics, physics and some area studies, quantitative social science and modern foreign languages (HEFCE, 2010a). They are considered so in relation to the anticipated demands of the economy rather than the exercise of student choice.

While CS is not sufficiently “vulnerable” to classify as SIV, one email argued that computer programming in particular should maybe qualify, and gave some anecdotal evidence of a decline of computer programming in schools in the UK, blamed it on the teaching of ICT in schools, and contrasted it with a relatively high interest in programming in India. ICT, as currently taught here, tends to evade the interesting technical challenges and is an example of the bad driving out the good.

One lesson we should learn: if we really care about our STEM status, it's not just a matter of lobbying to retain that recognition. It's a matter of ensuring that the intellectual content justifies the claims. We need to keep both programming and rigorous mathematics right at the heart of CS.

1Council of Professors and Heads of Computing. I sometime consider getting myself demoted so that I don't have to be on the mailing list.

2Relative, not absolute!