Thursday, January 28, 2010

New MSc course

We have started advertising our new MSc degree course in Computation and Game Theory. (I am hoping it will not confused with computer games; the summary below should help.) Here are details on the department's web site. Here is the link on the university's web site for applying to join the course.

The following is a 100-word summary that should appear in findamasters:
Success stories of the Internet giants like Google have generated great interest in new techniques for e-commerce. New career opportunities are emerging that exploit the rapidly expanding research area in the intersection of economics and computer science. These arise both in research and commercial development. The MSc in Computation and Game Theory program aims at providing students with a broad understanding of current issues and gaining specialist qualification in this field. The program covers a number of foundational theoretical areas, including cutting edge modules such as algorithmic mechanism design, and covering modern applications such as Google's sponsored search auctions.
This is of course the general topic of the Economics and Computation Research Group.

Piotr Krysta is the main contact for details.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tories to review HEFCE's plans on impact

Following on from my earlier post, the latest email in the series is entitled REF campaign update - some good news. Apart from the title of this post, also - see below - scientists are being invited to submit feedback on this to the Science and Technology Select Committee.

REF campaign update:

I wanted to write to you to update you with some good news, showing that our lobbying and the publicity we have generated over the ‘impact’ campaign is having an effect. Please see below:

Tories call for REF to be shelved:

David Willetts announced last week that if elected, the Tories would shelve HEFCE’s plans on impact until the completion of a two year review. The shadow minister for higher education, David Willetts, said he would delay proposals that would force 25% of future research to be assessed on 'economic impacts' by two years in order to listen to the concerns of the academic community. The news comes just a week after a UCU poll of top professors revealed that over a third (35%) would consider pursuing their academic career abroad if the plans were introduced. Read more here: This is a measure of the pressure we are building up on political parties and HEFCE and a testament to your support, so thank you again.

Calling all scientists! – Science and Technology Committee calls inquiry on funding and ‘impact’

Following UCU lobbying, the Science and Technology Select Committee has announced an inquiry into Science funding and one aspect the committee will be particularly interested in is the proposals for ‘impact’. The Committee is interested in “what evidence there is on the feasibility or effectiveness of estimating the economic impact of research, both from a historical perspective (for QR funding) and looking to the future (for Research Council grants)”. If you are a researcher in the sciences, this is your chance to speak directly to the politicians by making an individual or group submission.

How to send a submission:
  • Focus on the feasibility of an impact measure in your field – can you measure impact over the short term? What would it do to pure science and basic research?
  • Keep your submission to a maximum of 3000 words and put it in Word format (no later than 2003) and number your paragraphs
  • The deadline for submissions is 27 January so time is short.
  • Don’t leave it to others! With the disappearance of a committee that specifically represents universities it’s harder than ever for the academic voice to be heard. Volume of responses will be important. If you have something to say, now’s the time to say it!

Please send your submissions by e-mail to and marked "Research funding cuts" and please send a copy to us too at An additional paper copy should be sent to: The Clerk, Science and Technology Committee House of Commons, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA.

You can read full details of the Inquiry’s remit here:

Best wishes


Jonathan White

Deputy Head of Campaigns


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Surds and the pursuit of happiness

My son Arthur mentioned that he had learned about surds in maths, so we asked him what one was. The definition I vaguely recalled from my school days was that a surd is an irrational number, but of course that's not the whole story, since it would seem that not every irrational number is a surd. Arthur did not know an exact definition, and it would seem that no-one else has tried very hard to pin it down precisely. Higher GCSE Mathematics for Edexcel by Alan Smith, p492, states:
Some quantities in mathematics can only be written exactly using a square root symbol.

For example, if x2=5, then the exact value of x is √5 (or -√5).

Quantities like these, written using roots, are called surds.

Based on discussions and exercises on the following pages, it appears that a number like 1+√2 is a "surd expression" rather than just a surd, but neither was it ruled out as being a legitimate surd. The book gave no hint about whether, for example, the cube (as opposed to square) root of 2 is a surd.

Other sources are similarly imprecise. Wikipedia indicates that a surd in an N-th root (presumably, an N-th root of a positive integer, where N is also a positive integer). It says here that
An unresolved root, especially one using the radical symbol, is often referred to as a surd.

Based on the usage of the word in that web page (which also explains its origin) it looks like it's supposed to be a (real-valued) positive integer root of a positive integer.

This web page states the most restrictive definition: "A surd is a square root which cannot be reduced to a whole number." Presumably they mean: a square root of a positive integer, and not a number like √(9/4) = 3/2. Wiktionary says: "An irrational number, especially one expressed using the √ symbol." (which would appear to allow 1+√2).

With a view to inducting my sons into the family trade, I thought that it would be a worthwhile mathematical exercise to discuss what should be the right definition. (The definition itself will not be interesting mathematically, but the pursuit of one is of great value; by analogy, the chap who coined the phrase "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" clearly figured out that pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself, was the point.) It's a topic that touches on all sorts of issues, such as which if any, of the alternative definitions are equivalent, and why. More fundamentally, it addresses the issue of what constitutes a genuine mathematical definition, as opposed to some general guidelines on usage. Finally, the alternative definitions will have various different merits, such as being a set of numbers that is closed under addition. In the event the discussions did not get very far, but looks like a good one to have in high school math lessons.

(added later: Mark Jerrum pointed out this link on mathematical terminology; in the case of surds, it contains more historical detail than wikipedia's page.)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

UCU takes the gloves off?

This post follows on from two previous posts quoting email updates on the UCUs campaign against the proposed ways that UK academic research will be measured in the REF. Again I quote the entire thing below - it has some useful links and it is noteworthy in highlighting the risk of a renewed brain drain if the proposals go ahead.

One thing you learn from the study of bargaining and negotiation from a computational perspective, is that to make the case for a particular price, you need to appeal to the marketplace. In selling a house, it is no good to say to a buyer "you should pay me more because my house is worth more than your offer". You must say "you should pay me more because some other potential buyer would pay me more". Likewise, I believe that if a researcher is threatened with financial and reputational penalties if he refuses to bend to the Government's agenda, he is possibly mistaken to focus on explaining that pure research is valuable. Rather he should say "There are other buyers out there for the services I prefer to sell".

Dear colleagues,

UCU poll shows one third of professors considering leaving the country if impact pushed through:

I am just emailing to update you on recent progress in UCU’s campaign against HEFCE’s ‘impact’ proposals. The REF campaign hit the press in a big way today as three of the broadsheets feature a UCU poll showing that more than one third of professors would consider pursuing their academic careers abroad if HEFCE’s impact proposals are pushed through. One in five professors polled also said they knew someone already considering leaving. You can read more about the poll in a double page spread in the Independent:

You can also read it in the Times and the Telegraph:

The revelation that the impact agenda could trigger a brain drain in UK academia should give pause to the funding council and the government, providing yet more evidence of the danger posed by these proposals.

But are they listening? Peter Mandelson’s recent HEFCE grant letter, besides announcing swingeing cuts to the unit of resource, appeared to pre-empt the results of the REF consultation, committing the government firmly to the impact agenda. Lord Mandelson wrote to HEFCE: "On research, securing greater economic and social impact will be important over the next year. I want you to continue to develop proposals for the Research Excellence Framework, following the consultation that ended on 16 December. These should provide significant incentives to enhance the economic and social impact of research."

The press attention to our poll shows that the enormous opposition to the impact proposals is finding public expression. Our task now is to turn this into pressure at a political level.

The foundation of this campaign has been the support shown by you and your colleagues in signing the 18,000 strong petition. If we are to raise the pressure on the government we will need your support again and will shortly be writing to tell you how you can help us put pressure on your MP. Watch this space.

Thank you again for your support,

Best wishes

Jonathan White

Deputy Head of Campaigns, UCU

Friday, January 01, 2010

contributing to Wikipedia

What Wikipedia really needs, it occurred to me recently, is an article about the complexity class PPP. Not everyone will agree with that assessment; some people reckon that what Wikipedia really needs is to get rid of its liberal bias. For myself, I gave up waiting for the article on PPP to appear, made a account at Wikipedia, negotiated the rather unconventional syntax you use to edit articles, and wrote the above-linked-to page (that is, the first one, not the second one). Then I added links from the articles on PPAD and PPP (disambiguation). Then I wrote an article about the complexity class PPA, which as the whole world needs to know, is another denizen of the terra incognita that lies between PPAD and FNP. And if you think there's anything wrong with any of those articles, don't come hassling me about it, go and edit the pages yourself! It's not like they belong to me.

Then I contributed fifty quid to Wikipedia, after repeatedly seeing all those fundraising appeals from its founder Jimmy Wales.

Then I added most of the content on the current version of the page on the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Like the fundraising appeals, the REF is a bit hard to ignore, at least for UK academics. If you don't know what it is, consider yourself fortunate. If you want to know, follow the above link, it's as good a starting-point as any, in my unbiased opinion.

Happy new year, by the way.