Thursday, December 22, 2011

a couple of articles

Reach for the cyanide pills! From the hallow’d pages of the Times Higher comes the shock horror news that one in four new undergraduate courses attracts no students. This is portrayed as some sort of colossal waste of money; universities should have figured out in advance whether there will be a market for their new courses, before they set them up. Unsurprisingly, the study was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Can one imagine an attitude like that in Silicon Valley? If it had, the likes of Google or Facebook would never have seen the light of day. It is fun to imagine HEFCE as venture capitalists saying: “I’m sorry Mr Page, but the business failure rate for this kind of web site is in excess of 25%”.

From madness to sanity. I recommend Universities Under Attack by Keith Thomas, who was president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford way back when I was a student there. Read it! Read it and weep, but read it nonetheless. By way of contrast with the other article I mention, he recalls
a time when the ‘new’ universities of the 1960s were devising novel syllabuses, constructed with an eye to the intellectual excitement they generated.
Also, the article is not just hand-wringing: he proposes action that the academic community could take in response to the current malaise.

Monday, December 05, 2011

pensions strike

Considering whether the UCU should have joined the general strike last week over public-sector pensions, there’s a weak argument in favour and two stronger arguments against.

In favour: while it’s true that universities have undergone creeping privatisation over the past few decades (and in a technical sense, never were public-sector in the first place), this process has not been welcomed by most people who have anything to do with universities, most of whom have a public-service ethic. Unfortunately we’ve all been dragged kicking and screaming into a social contract we never signed up for. Under these circumstances, the strike looked like an opportunity to show that we believe in the public-service ethic.

The case against: We’re not in the public sector and more importantly, neither is our pension scheme. The above clip from a Guardian web page shows UCU placards in defence of better public-sector pensions. Indeed, I saw a few such placards in the flesh last Thursday. The point of using a clip from the Guardian rather than just taking a photo, is that it indicates that the UCU is managing to put about the incorrect message that the universities’ pension scheme (the USS) is a public sector scheme.

The other reason — more important to me — is the inter-generational contract. Fundamentally, a pension is a legal claim to the fruits of someone else’s labour, namely the next generations’. Consider this article in the Guardian, which reports the surprising finding that
When asked to select which generation's needs should take priority in terms of sharing the Earth's resources, the majority of people (64%) say that "all future generations" should take priority rather than "my children's generation" (13%), "my generation" (13%) or "my grandchildren's generation" (7%).

At least, that’s what we said in response to an opinion poll, along with general agreement that Government policy is too biased towards short-term gratification. But, when push comes to shove, it seems that we go on strike to stitch up a better-paid retirement at the expense of the next generation, who have just been lumbered with unprecedented tuition fees, and a poor job market, and a worsening housing shortage. The “ intergenerational theft” narrative is easy to criticise, but it makes as much sense as the “bankers crashed the economy and made off with ill-gotten gains” narrative. This article at the Intergenerational Foundation describes the problem very effectively. Maybe I’m sensitive to it because, in this story, I’m one of the villains.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

new PhD

Congratulations to my soon-to-be-ex PhD student Neelam Gohar, who passed her PhD viva today. Neelam came here from Pakistan with a government scholarship, and has a teaching position at a university there. Her thesis studies the properties of sequences of tactical or manipulative changes of vote, in the context of voting systems where each agent maintains a declared preference amongst the alternatives, and may change their declared preferences in response to those of the other voters.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Work to rule your HEI

A flurry of stickers on the university’s car-park entry barriers carry the slogan “Hands off our pensions”, a current campaign by the UCU. This has resulted in an action called a work-to-rule. When I first heard the phrase, I thought “rule” was a verb, and you were supposed to parse it like “play to win”, but it actually refers to the practice of doing the minimum work stipulated in one’s contract of employment, which is a tricky notion in the context of academic life. I’m not sure it’ll do the pension scheme any good, but it has the interesting side-effect of shedding light on the general ‘academic experience’, the way diverse academics perceive the job. This page has links to some press coverage, including one to this article in the Guardian, which (along with the readers’ comments) provides insights into the way academics manage their time, and the pressures they’re under, attitudes to research (do you do it because it’s part of the job description, or because you can’t stop yourself doing it?), and whether we perceive ourselves to be working for a specific university, or for a research community. That raises the question of whether it makes any sense to take any form of industrial action.

The article also highlighted the grey area between work, and stuff that’s vaguely related to work but isn’t, talking of which... On Friday I read this panel discussion on the future of universities, also in the Guardian, of particular interest since Lance Fortnow was one of the panelists. Does reading that stuff constitute work? You can make the case that if you know what the future holds, you’ll serve your own institution better. Then again, you might just conclude you should get a job at Google. Anyway, the introduction to the panel discussion read:
The way universities deliver learning, see their role in society and fund their activities is changing fast. But what will HEIs look like in 2020? Join our live chat Friday 11 November
Anyway, to be honest, the discussion was a bit of a disappointment. I guess the warning lay in that usage of “HEI” (that’s ‘higher education institution’.) I’ve never seen an interesting passage of text that contains the abbreviation HEI. Just as slang and colloquial words serve the purpose of flagging up informality, “HEI” connotes a dreary managerialism. More seriously, I think the problem with the discussion is that it focused on the impact of political trends on universities, rather than the more interesting economic ones (e.g. the globalized academic job market, and whether China and India will produce more prospective students, or recruit more academic staff), and it also missed out on the even more interesting technological trends, such as whether the internet will take over from traditional teaching methods like lectures.

Monday, October 24, 2011

notes from FOCS

There’s a table with free copies of the proceedings of FOCS 2010 and FOCS 2001, but there are not so many takers, seemingly. FOCS 2010 is a muddy green colour, and are the last paper proceedings — the proceedings of FOCS this year come on USB sticks, not paper, saving me the weight on the return trip, and also cutting down the cost of producing the proceedings to about $1,000, as mentioned during the business meeting. I believe that it’s the privilege of the local organizers to choose the colour of the proceedings, but I don’t know if the lime-green colour of the USB follows that tradition.

The conference had 236 registrations of which 82 were students. The number is similar to recent years. 85 papers were accepted out of 283 submissions. The Machtey award was awarded jointly, likewise the best paper award. (Really, we should maintain some central web page with a list of who won them; for the former there’s the wikipedia page, but at the time of writing it has not been updated for 2011. For the latter, when I googled for “FOCS best paper 2011” I got pointed to this blog post of Claire Mathieu of 1st April 2011, which featured prominently in Rafi Ostrovsky’s overview talk at the business meeting, but does not identify the relevant papers.) The business meeting featured an extensive discussion of how the conference should adapt to better serve the community: the format hasn’t changed much over the years, meanwhile things like arxiv have taken over some of the functions of conferences. The desired state of affairs is that lots of people would attend even if they don’t have papers there. Maybe next time we should have poster sessions, open problem sessions, that sort of thing. (Maybe the proceedings will be supplied in a shared Dropbox folder, USB sticks are getting a bit passé...)

I attended the tutorial talks on Saturday: I liked Kirk Pruhs on “Green Computing Algorithmics”: you want to save energy expended during computation; unfortunately there’s unlikely to be a very distinctive theory in which energy joins time and space as a resource you try to minimize; since computation can be made reversible there is no thermodynamic reason to lower-bound energy requirements; a “big-O” theory of energy would treat it like computation time. On the other hand, there’s still a “mother lode” of algorithmic problems relating to architecture-dependent scenarios.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Project Waterloo

I tried playing Microsoft Research’s Project Waterloo on Facebook; details are here, see also here. It’s a Colonel Blotto game: each player (there are 2) has 100 soldiers that he uses to attack 5 hills1, and you capture any hill if you attack it with more troops than your opponent. In each round you divide your soldiers between the hills, doing your best to guess how the opponent is dividing his, and you win the round if you capture 3 or more hills. Quoting the MSRC site:
The game is complex from a game-theoretic perspective, involves randomized strategies, and can be approached by reasoning about the opponent's reasoning. We have also found it to be fun, engaging, and slightly addictive. It is thus a great test case for studying actual strategic behaviour of people on Facebook.

I’m wondering whether it’s meant to be straightforward to devise an optimal strategy... it’s a zero-sum game, the catch is, there’s a large number of pure strategies — but do you have to mix over a large number of pure strategies (to guarantee to break even over time)? Maybe there’s a set of 5 good numbers (e.g. 34,26,21,15,4) that work if you allocate them at random to the hills; those suggested numbers look like a good bet against opponents who split their troops about equally amongst 3,4 or 5 hills.

Next I start thinking up ideas for improvement, usually after losing a round... how about a multi-round variant, in which the surviving troops get to defend the hills they captured? In a subsequent round, a defender would cancel out (say) three attackers, and you are allowed to send additional troops to a hill you already captured, in which case, you have to cancel them out with opponent’s attackers, and if any survive, they add to the defenders of that hill. It looks like eventually, all hills will end up with so many defenders that further attacks should be futile, but there is no guarantee of how long it will take to reach that state.

1“Hill” comes from the Gross and Wagner paper linked-to in the Wikipedia page. More abstractly they are sometimes called battlefields or sites.

Monday, September 26, 2011

more on tuition fees

What should we make of Labour’s newly-announced policy on tuition fees (BBC news article, Guardian article)? If we’re meant to be grateful that they’re less than the current fees, then all I can say is, if this is game theory, I find it extremely depressing. I recommend (most of) the comments that Guardian readers appended to the Guardian article linked-to above.

The fee cut is said to “fully-costed”: it is paid for with some sort of graduate tax on high-earning graduates, and a raise in tax on banks. In which case, they should explain why the following measures quoted from this article, are completely uncosted:
His [Ed Balls] five-point growth plan includes:

  • Repeating the bank bonus tax - and using "the money to build 25,000 affordable homes and guarantee a job for 100,000 young people"

  • Bringing forward long-term investment projects, such as schools, roads and transport, to create jobs

  • Reversing January's "damaging" VAT rise now for a temporary period

  • Immediate one-year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvements, repairs and maintenance

  • One-year national insurance tax break "for every small firm which takes on extra workers, using the money left over from the government's failed national insurance rebate for new businesses"

How come all the above goodies don’t have to be paid for by some other revenue-raising measures? They simply can’t have it both ways.

On a happier note, this article argues that by cutting tuition fees, you reduce CPI inflation, which in turn reduces the amount the state needs to pay to pensioners and welfare claimants. To the extent that maybe a cut in tuition fees automatically pays for itself!

(Added 28.9.11:) Meanwhile, we have an alternative white paper produced by a campaign led by senior academics... but where has the UCU gone — why are they not joining in? Now that Labour want fees nearly as high as the Tories, can we expect the UCU’s opposition to fade away?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Planning travel is a time-sink

To get started on a happy note, here is a picture of me at the Xerox Research Centre Europe (XRCE), Grenoble, last week. Many thanks to Onno Zoeter, Guillaume Bouchard, Chris Dance and Shengbo Guo for excellent hospitality and stimulating discussions.

When taking any trip, booking the flights etc takes a significant amount of time. It was a particularly big problem while planning my trip to FOCS. FOCS is in Palm Springs, a place which I had heard of already since it gets a mention in I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew. Too many decisions, is the problem. The narrator of IHTIGTSS wouldn’t sympathize, but he never had to ponder the relative merits of a more direct flight versus a longer trip by shuttle bus, or what are the best arrival/departure times. He never had to make any bookings, either. Endlessly refining searches on kayak, you know that a great itinerary is out there, if only you could find it.

I was reminded of this talk by Kevin Leyton-Brown, who also (via Google+) drew my attention to decision fatigue. The talk was about a model of economic decision making in which the agents incur a cost for assessing the value they attach for some outcome. It makes sense that one should indeed incur a cost for evaluating one’s own valuations. Decision fatigue means what you think it means.

On a related topic, I learned that I’m not allowed to charge any kind of seat upgrade to the research grant that pays for this trip; even some kind of “premium economy” is off-limits, never mind business class. In light of the above, maybe I should be glad to have my choices limited, but it’s a worrying restriction; if economy class travel continues to deteriorate in quality, that will become quite a big deterrent to attending conferences overseas.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Easychair never forgets!

When I log on to Easychair and select “My conferences” it returns a list of thirteen conferences (going back to 2007) with which I’ve been involved with in various capacities. If you were chair, you get to see everything that was submitted, and what the reviews were. A PC member can see all submitted papers, and discussions on the papers he/she was assigned. For some conferences, it seems like a PC member can in fact see the reviews of all papers; I guess it depends on what settings were originally chosen by the chair. Thus, if you submit a flakey paper to a conference that used easychair, and you got a well-deserved rejection, it remains possible for various people to log on subsequently and roar with laughter as they review your ineptitude.

Actually I quite like easychair; I even like the fact that it’s possible to dig up some vaguely-recalled paper that you reviewed in the past. But it may be a matter of concern to some people. It seems like the chair(s) of a conference/workshop can delete any submissions to that meeting, but I don’t see an obvious facility for cleanly closing the book on discussions that have served their purpose. My question: does anyone think it’s a problem that all those rejected papers and discussions continue to be available, year after year?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Disappearing money

This post relates to a minor gripe about academic life, and since it has not arisen for me very recently, now is a good time to air it. While money always tends to disappear, there’s a certain kind of money that disappears automatically, much like the leprechaun gold in Harry Potter. By way of example, some time ago I had some cash, or rather my employer owned the cash on my behalf, and it was available to be spent on business travel or equipment. Then one day my employer said: you must spend it all by such and such a date, after which you lose the money1. So, I bought a laptop that I didn’t really need, and underused it subsequently. The result of slapping a use-by date on the money was that it was used less effectively.

A colleague of a colleague (OK, this is like “friend of a friend” but never mind) had to urgently find a PhD student to fill a place he or she had; due to time pressure the CoaC would accept even a weak candidate. More time would presumably let the CoaC find a stronger candidate. Funding agencies impose onerous time constraints on grants — researchers rush to spend against grants that are about to expire, or make suboptimal hiring choices due to time limits.

This is not to argue that funds should be held by researchers on a completely open-ended basis. Presumably such funds were awarded at a time when there was evidence that the researcher would use them effectively, and the longer you wait, the less certainty there is that the usage will be effective. But there is scope for discussion about the length of deadlines, which would probably result in longer deadlines. Better yet would be an acknowledgement that these kind of deadlines result in an unnecessary all-or-nothing situation, where there is scope instead for a smooth transition between one extreme and the other. An institution could tax unspent money at some fixed rate, if inflation is not depreciating it fast enough. How about using Chiemgauer notes... see this recent article in the FT, or from this web page:
The "Chiemgauer" currency (named for the Bavarian region of Chiemgau) is the most successful to date. The project was started by Christian Gelleri, a Waldorf school teacher, and six of his students in Bavaria in 2002. The regional currency's annual turnover climbed to an impressive €1.5 million ($2 million) last year. About 90,000 Chiemgauers are currently in circulation. Unlike the Urstromtalers, they can be converted back into euro for a fee. "Our currency circulates three times more rapidly than the euro," says Gelleri. But in order to achieve this, the system puts pressures on currency holders to spend: The Chiemgauer loses two percent of its value every three months and has to be "topped up" by purchasing a coupon.

The idea for a so-called "depreciative currency" was pioneered by Silvio Gesell, a German merchant and social reformer. Gesell witnessed a serious economic crisis in Argentina at the end of the 19th century. He explained it in terms of excessive hoarding and insufficient monetary circulation. His solution was to make money perishable like other commodities -- bank notes, he believed, should "rust."

There’s an analogy with the way we impose deadlines on students to hand on coursework. There are two ways to penalise students who are late, both of which I have experienced. One of them is to give them zero credit if they miss the deadline. The other way to penalise at the rate of (say) 5% per day of lateness. Of course, the first of these leads to tedious disputes about whether a coursework submission should be deemed to be handed in on time. Under the second regime, if a student is slightly late and has a weak excuse, he takes the 5% penalty and hopefully notes that the way to be sure to make a deadline is to get the work done some time in advance, without getting pushed into making excuses in order to avoid wasting the work he wanted to turn in.

1Of course, it doesn’t really vanish; it reverts to the employer/funder, which hopefully puts it to some good use. But there’s a widespread —and rather regrettable— attitude that it vanishes entirely.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Staying connected

I did not write any email during a vacation over the last 10 days. I occasionally checked my inbox for messages of the reply-to-this-or-you’re-fired variety, and so watched the inbox backlog build up, with the same kind of gruesome fascination with which I watched the stock market. Is this failure to reply to emails in violation of a social convention? Plenty of academic colleagues seem to send email while on holiday, but I reckon it’s a behaviour that’s fairly specific to academics.

In support of answering emails while on vacation, is the notion that you let the world know that you’re a virtuous workaholic, and (by being online at all hours) a truly modern academic. In opposition, there’s the point that we end up cultivating the expectation that we answer emails promptly, without in fact gaining any credit for workaholism. Email gets in the way of deep thought. I know one distinguished academic — now retired — who insists that he got all his best ideas while holed up in his vacation retreat, since it had no telephone. Also, while the post-vacation hangover is no doubt painful, email is most efficiently dealt with in batch mode rather that on-line. Indeed, some of the problems that were emailed to me had fixed themselves before I had time to assist (some feedback forms were lost, then found, for example), and some of the documents colleagues sent me got superseded by later versions that were re-sent a few days later. Finally, by ignoring your inbox you take a valiant last stand against the fate of being a truly modern academic.

(added later:) Recent article on “worliday” — not sure the word will catch on though.

Friday, August 05, 2011


I went along to some talks at ICEC 2011 here at Liverpool, including an interesting invited talk by Robert May on Stability and Complexity in Banking Ecosystems, along with some others in the general area of agent-based computational economics (ACE). A lot of this research is experimental: you set up a virtual marketplace along with traders who compete in it, then “The modeler then steps back to observe the development of the system over time without further intervention” (to quote the wikipedia page).

Of course, current economic problems serve to motivate this topic a great deal and perhaps will cause it to attract a bigger share of research funds, over the next few years. Robert May's talk reported on some experiments involving models of interbank lending aimed at predicting the spread of bank failures, along with some basic (by the standards of most theory people, I would guess) calculations of how the probability of systemic failure is affected by the extent to which banks diversify their assets. Another talk that I went to, compared two markets in which traders bought and sold a single good: one version was a centralised market in which a single price was maintained, while the other version worked by bringing together pairs of traders at random, and a trade would go ahead if the trader with higher value, could afford to buy from the other one. The latter version does not perform “price discovery” so effectively, since trades can take place at the same time at different prices, but there’s apparently a sense in which it’s more stable. Also, incompetant traders get “weeded out” in the decentralised version since they get ripped off, while in the centralised version they can free-ride on the wisdom of the crowd, due to the single current price. You may or may not consider that to be a good thing. The trading strategies were produced by some kind of evolutionary algorithm in which the poorly-performing ones get eliminated while the good ones prevail (and maybe get mutated, I can’t remember).

I would conjecture that there is scope for the theory community to contribute to this research area, somewhat by analogy to Ingo Wegener’s work on genetic programming: genetic and evolutionary algorithms was purely experimental, and he and co-workers contributed the first proofs of performance guarantees for some of these. Such a contribution could help to guide experimental design in computational economics, or address concerns about the realism of the models used in simulations.

Here is a video of an earlier similar talk by Robert May.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A laundry list of observations about blogs

The following have been building up over some time.

  • If you read blogs but wouldn’t want to write one, you may still want to consider making a “passive” blog that contains the ones you read, since it’s great to automatically get a list of them ranked by how recently they were last posted to.

  • If you want to kill yourself and make it look like you are still alive, simply write up a few blog posts and use the “post options” to cause them to be published at whatever times you like in the future, that way you continue to blog from beyond the grave.

  • The great thing about blogs, in contrast with Facebook, Google+ etc is the simplicity of the contract between writer and reader: anyone can read your stuff without having to sign up in any sense. There are no nasty surprises in privacy settings. It’s true that Google+ allows you to declare some of your ramblings to be public, but that’s not the same somehow.

  • Putting together a blog post is quite a satisfying work of craftmanship1; I couldn’t get the same feel from using Twitter, although I see there may be an interesting challenge to packing some observation into 140 characters.

  • Studying one’s pageview statistics can get rather addictive if you’re not careful. Blogger lets you pull up very detailed charts showing pageview history, which web sites, countries etc produced the pageviews, etc.

  • When I set up my Google+ account, it integrated in my picasaweb photos, which turns out to mean the pictures that I have in the past used to illustrate blog posts. Along with other stuff I had forgotten about (like some stuff on Google docs), all of which I found a bit spooky.

1this post being something of an exception

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Conferences becoming like journals?

A recent post (on spotting bugs in papers) at Claire Mathieu's blog reminded me of something a colleague told me recently: he noted that conferences are requiring more mathematical rigour from submitted papers, than they used to (say, about 10 years ago). Where previously we could get away with “proof (sketch)” there is now a stronger expectation that the whole thing will be written down, either in an appendix or on Arxiv. If we make a mistake we now face rejection; no longer do we just try to convey the general idea, but it’s required that the details be done correctly. My own limited experience agrees with the theory that this is a trend, but I am mainly just passing on hearsay. (Let me know if you think this is indeed a trend.)

This all seems fine, and yet... I have concerns. The main one is the risk that conferences threaten to usurp the traditional role of journals, in purporting to showcase papers that are guaranteed to be correct. The traditional life cycle of a paper envisages a conference version that publicizes the idea, which results in the author(s) receiving feedback on the paper, that may inform or contribute to a subsequent journal version, whose main purpose is to be correct, in some cases setting the record straight if there are bugs in the conference version. If we’re going to insist on correct conference papers, it raises the question of whether the guarantee is as strong as it is for journal versions. If so, there is no point in the journal paper.

Should we mind if a few conference papers are buggy? I’m not sure that’s such a big problem. If the paper attracts interest it will receive sufficient scrutiny to detect errors, and furthermore will be submitted for journal publication (as warranted by the interest it attracts). Thus, a buggy paper will either get exposed, or else no-one will read it. Moreover, is it even desirable that our literature should be entirely pure — is there not room for the human factor to obtrude? There is mild entertainment to be obtained from the occasional reminder that a paper may have been driven by over-enthusiasm on the part of its authors, and it can be reassuring to see that even our more esteemed colleagues sometimes get things wrong.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Higher education white paper

Wikipedia tells us that a white paper is “an authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem”. Some of us might say that Students at the Heart of the System poses a challenge to that definition. I don’t have time to read it, but I did take a look since the various article in the press are not very informative. There’s an executive summary of sorts here, but it’s a bit one-sided.

At the beginning of the white paper, we read:
Higher Education is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so this is a White Paper for England. [...] All facts, figures, policies and actions refer to England only, except where stated otherwise. “National” should be taken to mean England-wide except where the context indicates otherwise.
(I feel a twinge at this. Maybe we should not care about national identity, but when it comes to Higher Education, England always gets the thin end of the wedge.)

My interest was in the way student numbers are to be managed. The discussion of this topic was done with reference to the current system under which universities get quotas of students. The quota system is portrayed by its critics as providing universities with a captive customer base, relieving them of the need to compete, and disallowing any kind of market to guide student recruitment. That is not quite fair; back when I was at Warwick, for a while Computer Science was getting far more prospective students than we could take, and we (the university) applied to HEFCE and got the quota increased. But, admittedly it was slow, and I think it was a collective university quota that was raised; it was left to the university to expand the department and I have no idea how much attention HEFCE paid to that process. Naively, if you’re in a system where “the funds follow the students” it looks like popular institutions would be able to expand to meet demand, and unpopular ones would contract, all of their own accord.

If I’ve got the right general idea, that principle is to be applied to students who get AAB or better at A level (see paragraph 4.19 of the paper. There are about 65,000 such students (out of a total national annual cohort of about 480,000). Student quotas get scaled down to cover the remaining 415,000 places, and presumably if your fraction of AAB students is below average, you lose out, and if it’s above average you could expand. But there are plenty of unanswered questions, and paragraph 4.12 notes that “the sector” is being consulted on the details. (So, some of the vagueness in reports on this document stem from lack of conclusions it has, in some respects.)

Some forecasts: much wrangling about who should count as a high-achieving student: AAB at A level does not address the “widening access” agenda: students with non-traditional qualifications lose out. Since some A levels are considered better than others, there will be discussion about whether A level grades should be deemed to be the same, or not. A potential boost for General Studies if they’re all deemed the same. With regard to a further 20,000 places to be assigned to institutions that charge less than £7,500 on average, after various discounts: an unexpectedly high number of institutions could claim eligibility for those. That is because the rush to charge £9,000 was partly based on the understanding that the effective fee will always be less, together with the fact that £7,500 is needed to break even. So, places that announce £9,000 may often just be expecting to get £7,500.

This article in the Times Higher provides a robust criticism of the white paper. Here’s a quote:
The intention to place teaching on a par with research is laudable, but this cosmetic fix short-changes everyone. A document that has been touted as putting students in the "driving seat" sounds good in theory, but there is a reason why young drivers pay high insurance premiums: they have a high risk of coming unstuck because they lack experience of the road ahead.
A contrasting article at the Adam Smith institute blog points out that Adam Smith went to study at Oxford and was dismayed that the professors were not being incentivized to teach. He approved of the system at Glasgow, under which he taught, and was paid, in some sense, directly by the students. But this seems to be an argument against “putting students in the driving seat” — if Adam Smith got it wrong, why should today’s students do any better?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Prepayments on student tuition fees

There is pleasure (but not much) to be had from the spectacle of a Government department caught up in a web of its own contradictions. The Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is currently consulting on whether there should be a scheme for early repayment of tuition fees, and what should the rules be.

Recall that the current plan is that interest on student loans is to be charged at Retail Price Index plus 3%. BIS say:
We are committed to the progressive nature of the repayment mechanism. It is therefore important that those on the highest incomes after graduation are not able unfairly to buy themselves out of this progressive mechanism by paying off their loans early. That is why we are consulting on potential early repayment mechanisms – similar to those paid by people who pre-pay their mortgages.
This quote is an admission that the Government is rubbing its hands at the prospect of lots of lovely interest being paid on their loans, and don’t want to let people pay them off early. The word “progressive” has been hijacked to refer to a scheme for keeping us all in debt for as long as possible. (Should people who can buy houses without mortgages be prohibited from “unfairly” buying them without incurred interest payments?)

Digging deeper into the consultation document, we get:
These mechanisms would need to ensure that graduates on modest incomes who strive to pay off their loans early through regular payments are not penalised. For example, a five per cent levy might be charged on additional repayments each year over a specified amount such as £1,000 or £3,000. Alternatively, those on higher incomes (e.g. over £60,000) who made an additional repayment could be required to pay a five per cent levy on this sum.

Further down, they admit that there’s a case in favour of allowing early repayments, in that “It allows graduates on modest incomes to pay off their loans early.” Here they flat-out contradict themselves by admitting that people should actually be encouraged to pay their debts. Provided, that is, you’re on a “modest income” — if someone who could actually afford to repay tries to do so, well, that would just not be cricket.

I could go on, but there’s no need to; for anyone who wants to read further criticism there are some good responses on the web site; I recommend the comment by Tim Leunig.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

hat tricks

Among many things the internet has been blamed for, is the phenomenon of people only ever reading stuff that they agree with, and thereby reinforcing their opinions without having them challenged. By analogy, do we spend too much time hanging out with our familiar research communities? At the 23rd British Combinatorial Conference, to which I was invited to give a talk, I now have to struggle to come to terms with research on topics that have obvious computational questions, but where it’s other questions that get considered.

One talk was on a topic that is, at a stretch, vaguely game-theoretic: “Hat problem on a graph” by Marcin Krzywkowski relates to a kind of puzzle described here1, in particular the 3 hat problem. Three players are fitted with hats, each hat may be either red or blue, the colour chosen uniformly at random. Of course, you can see the other players’ hats but not your own. Each player may (simultaneously) make a guess as to his own hat colour, or else abstain from guessing. They win if at least one player makes a correct guess and no player makes an incorrect guess. For this 3-player case there is a simple guessing scheme whereby their win probability is 3/4. As hinted in this version of the puzzle, if the players can flip coins, there is a randomized scheme that lets them win with probability 3/4 even if the hats are allocated by an adversary — but the adversary should not be able to eavesdrop on their coin-flipping before they get fitted with the hats. (A question: suppose the adversary can eavesdrop on them beforehand but then they can flip coins after the hats have been fitted. The players can win with probability 1/2 by delegating one of them to guess at random. I don’t think they can do better and would guess there should be a nice proof that even works for any number of players, but haven’t figured one out.)

Back to the paper — suppose there are n players and suppose that there are some restrictions on which players can see each others’ hats. It is natural to represent this with a graph on the players, in which a player can see only his neighbours, so that the basic hat problem would assume the complete graph. Then, one can ask how well the players can do for various kinds of graph. If I recall correctly, the players can win with probability 1/2 if the graph is a path; other kinds of graph are also considered.

1I thank Sophie Huczynska for drawing my attention to this web site.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Computer games as a lens on higher education policy

Trying out the Facebook app "global warfare", it seems that a player can equip his town with various facilities, one of which is a university. Of course, my own biases being how they are, I promptly acquire one and proceed to spend all my resources on upgrading it (which is not something that usually happens in real life, but computer games are there to allow players to indulge their fantasies). Anyway, given a university, a player can then click on "research" and select from a list of topics to devote one's (virtual) academic efforts. Unfortunately, "computational complexity" was not on the list. Instead, I settled for "drilling", which when completed, causes your oil production to increase by 10%. This helps to make sense of the various calls for proposals that emanate from EPSRC; I have a vivid vision of our political leaders clicking on topics like "construction" or "military science" in an effort to obtain a quick reward. Maybe next time I will select "espionage" which could perhaps lead to cryptography, and thence to computational complexity.

Monday, June 06, 2011


Taking a break from marking exam scripts, I am intrigued by this new story about the New College for the Humanities,, reported at the BBC: Academics launch £18,000 college in London, the Guardian: Richard Dawkins heads line-up at private £18,000-a-year university (with howls of dismay in the comments), discussed at Mary Beard's blog here (with some skepticism that I share), and see this new post at the Exquisite Life blog for some more sensible skepticism: “rushed and half-baked”.

I first spotted the story yesterday in a headline in the Sunday Times while at the supermarket, a clue that while this story has sprouted legs, it is not going to go the distance. Surely we should have had some preliminary reports in the Times Higher ages ago (they now highlight it: Top names, top whack: new humanities-focused institution to charge £18K fees".) A new venture of this nature is something that will be interesting to watch; I am not dismayed like the UCU (Launch of new private arts and humanities college is proof government is entrenching 'inequality'), but....

Various things don’t quite compute. For one thing, the numbers. 18k per student isn’t enough to bring in all these top academics, at least not with the sort of commitment from them that might be imagined by an uninformed reader. The USA has better options. Plus, the people who invested in this venture will want some return on investment. The name of the web site seems... poorly considered. “nchum” will get pronounced “en-chum”... also, why use the .org suffix as opposed to .edu, or Over at the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson is still enthusiastic:
The trouble with Britain today, he [A C Grayling, the new master of nchum] said, was that we simply didn’t have enough elite university provision – and especially not in the humanities subjects, where teaching budgets are under such pressure.
But, that’s got more to do with the definition of “elite” — the whole point of elite provision is that there shouldn’t be enough of it. If you create more elite provision, you end up killing the thing you love.

All right, back to the marking.

(Added 7.6.11: this article raises the above financial concern in more detail. This critique of the "money-grubbing dons" has attracted over 500 comments but doesn't address the concern about viability.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Watching one’s own talks on video

For readers who don't get beyond the first sentence, the take-home message is that it’s a great idea to watch videos of your own talks, for the purpose of improving your style and presentation.

The papers we write are very restricted in format. Indeed, a paper is pretty much determined by the result you’ve obtained. You get to name the variables, but that’s about it. Thereafter, you follow the well-worn path of introduction, model, results, and conclusions.

Contrast that with the activity of giving a talk on the work. Do you make jokes? Do you dress up? How much technical detail do you include? Do you compromise on accuracy for the purpose of conveying the intuition? Do you include cute animations in your slides? Do you stand primly to one side of the screen, or do you prefer to pace around? Do you sound informal and chatty, or grand and authoritative? Do you memorize any key passages? Decisions, decisions!

And, there are no right answers to the above questions; the answer depends on who you (and the audience) are, and what you’re talking about. Different approaches work for different people. And here’s where watching oneself on video can help.

I watched the video of my talk at the iAGT workshop mentioned in the previous post (and also here :-). And —this is the key point— various mistakes in the delivery of which I was blissfully unaware were suddenly exposed to the harsh light of day as a result. I then tracked down a video of a talk I gave at Microsoft Research (Cambridge) a few months ago, just for the purpose of gathering more data. The only previous time I watched myself give a talk was at a training session on lecturing quite a while ago, where a group of us had to give short fragments of undergraduate lectures, that were recorded and played back. At the time, the equipment was cumbersome and analogue, so you did not get to study your performance at leisure, at a later date. Also, it’s worth taking in a video lasting half an hour or so, to see if your style changes over time.

As it gets more common to record talks, you hopefully get more chances to do this. If not, maybe you should get a colleague to record one of your undergraduate lectures, or any other similar technical presentation.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

iAGT workshop, May 22nd-26th

I just returned from the workshop on Innovations on Algorithmic Game Theory at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. This blog post is to warmly thank the organisers, Noam Nisan and Michal Feldman and the student “volunteers” (that phrase with its inverted commas appeared on their offical T-shirts, along with a picture of a chess pawn). (Noam himself has not so far mentioned it at his blog; I guess that being too busy would be a valid excuse.) Anyway, it was a great meeting, indeed at a time when there is much to complain about academic life, a reminder of why I went into this business (ie, you get to meet up with interesting people and exchange interesting ideas). Later I’ll hopefully get around to discussing in more detail some topics that came up. There are videos of the talks and panel discussion here (and here is the link to presentations 21-37).

Saturday, April 30, 2011


In the unlikely event that someone reading this hasn't already read it at Noam’s blog, I was also asked to publicize them, so here goes. Publicizing them here may, at least, help to boost their rank in Google searches, which is especially worthwhile for WINE.

Giuseppe Persiano asked me to post a reminder that the submission deadline is coming up (May 9th) for SAGT 2011, the 4th international Symposium on Algorithmic Game Theory (meeting in Amalfi, Italy, Oct. 17-19). Edith Elkind asked me to advertise WINE 2011, the 7th Workshop on Internet and Network Economics (submission date July 31st; meeting in Singapore, Dec. 11-14).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

AV referendum: it's the results, stupid!

Winston Churchill said "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." But, that observation has had little impact on the debate about which voting system to support in the forthcoming referendum. That is to say, there is much discussion about which voting system better represents the will of the people, or would give us strong versus weak governments, or would make our MPs work harder. But those us who support AV should address the possibility that the present voting system may, despite the objections, actually produce good outcomes. Where "good outcomes" does not mean strong governments or representative governments, rather it means social welfare.

At the risk of coming on like David Cameron, my general impression is that the current system has let us down. Right now, being a citizen of the UK makes me feel like a shareholder of a company that is underperforming, and I'm watching its price steadily go down. My sense is that we're getting things wrong where other countries are getting them right. This is not the place to review examples in detail— in contrast to David Cameron I'll simply test out this claim by taking a look at the obvious evidence: our performance in quality-of life rankings. The results do not reflect well on the status quo!

2007: down 2 places to 17th; 2010: down 5 places to 25th; 2009: quality of life poor relative to other EU countries 2009: child poverty: European league table: The UK came 24th, well below countries of similar affluence (despite 10 years of a Govt that supposedly tried to improve it!) 2008: Zut! France leapfrogs UK in economic table

What we are seeing here is not just poor performance, but poor and worsening performance. So you can't just blame the weather! The obvious culprit is bad public policy. AV offers a genuine change to the system by which the electorate gets to influence public policy. The time has come to vote for Churchill, not Cameron.

(Added 6.5.11: OK I admit it, the reason why Britain is declining is that we just have a lower average IQ than most other places.)

(Added 6.6.11: UK slipping down the global rankings, Centre for Policy Studies warns.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Alternative Vote referendum

To see why you should vote in favour of the move to Alternative Voting on the 5th of May, look no further than the contorted arguments of its opponents. Here is David Cameron on the topic:
Too often debates about AV are less like political arguments, and more like scientific discussions, where people get lost in a language of proportionality and preferences, probabilities and possibilities.

Of course, some of these things are important. But for me, politics shouldn't be some mind-bending exercise. It's about what you feel in your gut – about the values you hold dear and the beliefs you instinctively have. And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong.

To think that we (the academic community) once had him eating out of our hands, studying for a degree on Philosophy, Politics and Economics. And what a colossal failure of education that the above is DC's take on social choice theory. Not that Oxford PPE is very strong on social choice theory; I took a look the course information page; it's a nicely-designed web site, but I think you'd be lucky to graduate with a knowledge of Condorcet's theorem. And I would like to know if anything could possibly more central to PPE.

(Added 23.4.11: This article in the Guardian contains what is for me the first sighting of the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem in a national newspaper. This blog post by Tim Gowers proves that by voting yes, I am in good company!)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Incentivizing reviewers to make sincere predictions

I'm not sure that there's a research problem to be derived from the following discussion, but it was fun to write. Our main finding is that two reviewers are better than one, on the grounds that they can be incentivized to provide accurate forecasts of the acceptability of a paper by a program committee that is arbitrarily unlikely to read it.

We regard the reviewer’s review as a forecast of whether the paper will be accepted, rather than an input to the decision. This has the advantage that the reviewer is not required to make a value judgment on the paper; a forecast is just a guess as to whether the paper will be accepted. The obvious problem is that if the forecast gets used to help with the decision, it is at risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

We model the paper selection process as follows. Any paper has an associated quantity p∈ [0,1] that represents the probability with which it ought to be accepted, and furthermore, this value is revealed to a careful reader. In an ideal world, the PC passes the paper to a reviewer, who reads it and reports this number p to the PC, and the PC proceeds to accept the paper with probability p. (We assume that the PC has access to an unlimited source of randomness, which appears to be a realistic assumption.)

Suppose now that a reviewer knows in advance that his review will be ignored by the program committee, who will instead read the paper and accept it with the correct probability. In that case, if the reviewer reports probability p, he/she should be given a reward of log(p) if the paper is accepted, and log(1-p) if it is rejected. (These quantities are negative, but we do not claim that reviewing papers is rewarding.) These rewards incentivize the reviewer to report the correct probability.

Now, suppose when the PC has received the review (the number p), they then read the paper with some probability r. If they read the paper, they accept with the correct probability, and if they don’t read it, they accept with probability p. The problem is that if r is very small, and the reviewer finds that the paper should be accepted with probability about 1/2, the above rewards tempt him to go to extremes and report (say) 0⋅01 or 0⋅99. Important note: the reward should depend only on the review (the reported p) and the (binary) acceptance decision, since you don’t want to reveal any secret discussions to the reviewer. So the PC doesn't have the option to read the paper with some small probability and punish him if they then find he lied.

Given 2 reviewers, we can exploit their professional rivalry to make them tell the truth, by carefully aggregating their forecasts into a single probability, as follows. A basic requirement for a reward scheme is that if a reviewer has obtained value p from a paper, and the other reviewer is truthfully reporting that value p, then the remaining reviewer should also have the incentive to do likewise. Suppose we use the logarithmic rewards above, and the PC uses the average of the 2 reported probabilities, to decide on the paper. The following problem arises: suppose it's a great paper and p=0⋅999. A reviewer might be tempted to report (say) p=0⋅5, since that way, the PC will use a probability of about 0⋅75 to accept the paper, exposing the other reviewer to a big risk of a large penalty. The assumption here is that a reviewer aims to get a higher reward than the other one (his professional rival); the reward being some sort of credit or esteem rather than money.

Let q be the other reviewer's probability, and we seek a function f(p,q) that should be used by the PC as probability to accept the paper; we have noted that (p+q)/2 is not a good choice of f, in conjunction with the logarithmic rewards.

The reviewer’s utility u(p) is his expected reward minus his opponent’s expected reward:

u(p) = f(p,q)(logp-logq)+(1-f(p,q))(log(1-p)-log(1-q))

We now notice that the above must be identically zero, since it should not incentivize the reviewer to change his mind if q is incorrect, but it should not incentivize him not to change his mind if q is correct. Setting the above to zero tells us the function f should be


It just remains for the PC to read the paper with any probability ε>0, and in the event that they read it, accept with the correct probability. If they read the paper, the reviewers are incentivized to tell the truth, and if they don’t, (and use the above f) the reviewers have no incentive to lie, so overall their incentive will indeed be to tell the truth.

(Added 6.6.11: at the iAGT workshop, I heard about 2 papers that relate (so now, an answer to the first comment below). Only valuable experts can be valued by Moshe Babaioff, Liad Blumrosen, Nicolas S. Lambert and Omer Reingold, about contracts that will be accepted by self-proclaimed experts, provided that they really do have expert knowledge (and will be declined by a rational charlatan). And, Tight Bounds for Strategyproof Classiļ¬cation by Reshef Meir,
Shaull Almagor, Assaf Michaely and Jeff Rosenschein, about learning classifiers where the class labels of data have been provided by agents who may try to lie about the labels. The latter paper is closer to the “self-fulfilling prophesy” situation described above.)

(Added 22.8.11: This article on “decision fatigue” suggests another reason why it may be better to ask people to try to predict the outcome than to influence it (assuming you believe it puts less strain on someone to make a prediction than to make a decision. It does sometime stress me out a bit to make an accept/reject recommendation for a paper.))

Thursday, March 03, 2011

game theory/tuition fees

(found some of the following links from a facebook post) this link to an attempt to write down a game that expresses the setting of tuition fees. In the comments, this link to a speech by David Willetts "The ideas that are changing politics" (dated 20.2.08, so now a couple of years ago) in which he is enthusiastic about game theory (follow the link to PDF of the speech at the bottom of the page). This new article “What are David Willetts' options for limiting spending on student loans?” is worth reading by anyone who would like to keep track of this issue. The previous article gives the text of a speech on universities made by Willetts; the speech mentions game theory, and so too does one of the annotations that have been inserted. Here’s a quote from the speech:
Of course, academics approach these issues with great sophistication, and I have been warned that we face a dilemma from game theory in which the incentives for individual institutions are different from the interests of the sector as a whole. But it's not the dilemma in its classic form, because this is not a one-off. You need to think of subsequent years – not just in terms of funding levels but also the challenges you will face from new competitors if you come in at such a high fee level. And you also need to think of the collective interests of students.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

IIT student seeks internship at your esteemed institute

A question: has anyone taken on one of these prospective interns? (And if so, how was it?) Most of them would clearly be hopeless, but there are some that look like they might be OK. The trouble is, there's some kind of economic principle at work here, that says that in a market that's flooded with bad eggs, the good eggs cannot be sold. In this case, what happens in that we end up deleting all these emails without reading them.

One such email that I bothered to read yesterday was typical: it claims to have read the recipient's work in detail, then goes on to profess an interest in a range of topics none of which related to anything I know about. I suppose that email was sent off indiscriminately to a large number of academics, and you might be fooled if, by chance, you have the same research interests as the ones mentioned.

I'm vaguely disturbed by the way these emails produce a kind of stereotype of these students; eventually you cease to regard them as individuals. I'm curious as to why it is Indian Institutes of Technology that produce them, and no other countries seem to do so. (I could not find much from a brief perusal of the web. Here is a related earlier discussion.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Academia and the deterioration of jobs

A recent article in the New York Review of Books, The Grim Threat to British Universities makes interesting reading since it discusses a UK problem from a US perspective. It highlights the key difference between the British and American systems, namely the vulnerability of the British one to central control and manipulation, and seeks to draw lessons that could be learned within the American one. It blames certain US business schools for generating the managerialist ideas that have subsequently beset British universities. It goes on, via a critique of research assessment, to study the growth (in the USA) in use of short-term, untenured faculty to provide teaching.

Some thoughts on the article:

It makes a mistake that is common to most polemics against the decline in academic working conditions, namely that the author has not tried to place himself in the position of his adversary, and consider how it looks to the opposition. Consider the following quote:
The growth of the contingent academic workforce brings the labor economics of the call center and the Wal-Mart store to higher education. With these contingent academics, few of whom have firm contracts, managers now have at their disposal a flexible, low-cost workforce that can be hired and fired at will, that can be made to work longer or shorter hours as the market dictates, and that is in a poor position to demand higher pay.

The problem with this observation is that the situation it describes looks pretty good to anyone whose job is not university teaching. Taken out of context, it could pass for high praise for the trend that it criticizes. I can't see call-centre workers, or most other people, losing much sleep abut the problem being highlighted. Furthermore, many jobs and professions have suffered from debasement over the past few decades. I have heard from a flight attendant about how the growth of low-cost airlines has led to poorer working conditions, poorer safety training, and more disagreeable passengers. And, a general background story of the past few decades, both in the USA and Europe, is the decline of the steady, well-paid, blue-collar job.

In the presence of a working public who have their on-the-job performance being measured and assessed in various onerous ways, it is pretty hard to rail against research assessment. And that does not mean we should not criticize excessive performance monitoring and managerialism, but let's not do it in the name of “scholarship”, and expect to be taken seriously. The following cri-de-coeur quoted from the article is not helpful:
The bureaucratization of scholarship in the humanities is simply spirit-crushing. I may prepare an article on extremism, my research area, for publication in a learned journal, and my RAE line manager focuses immediately on the influence of the journal, the number of citations of my text, the amount of pages written, or the journal’s publisher. Interference by these academic managers is pervasive and creeping. Whether my article is any good, or advances scholarship in the field, are quickly becoming secondary issues. All this may add to academic “productivity,” but is it worth selling our collective soul for?

If a flight attendant used the word “flightmanship” the way we use “scholarship”, they would be laughed out of the room. And by the way, I don't know what “good” is being used to mean in the phrase “whether my article is any good”. None of which is to say that we should give up trying to defend our working conditions, only that we should do so using the levels of intellectual rigour that we urge on our own students.

Added 1.3.11: This article is very relevant: it gives a bigger picture to the problem, explaining the general threat to “middle class” jobs in Western countries.

Added 15.3.11: just spotted this review of The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes a book that studies this problem. Rahul Savani pointed me to this new-ish article by Paul Krugman that also considers it. Both of these seem to be about people going to university, expecting it to be their ticket to a middle-class lifestyle, and getting disappointed by the outcome. This new post at the Fortnow/Gasarch blog has relevant links, including the Krugman article, but focuses on the impact of CS/AI on future jobs.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Obscurantist jargon

Nick Cohen takes academics to task for writing sentences like the following
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
The above sentence won the bad writing contest a few years ago. Cohen takes it as evidence of academia’s failure to engage with the public, and deduces that we academics are the architects of our own misfortune through this failure.

My first thought on reading Cohen’s article was: Has he ever seen the stuff that I come up with? Loads of complicated mathematical formulae couched in the definition-theorem-proof style, surely even worse than the above. My only excuse for writing that stuff is that I was not actually trying to impress the wider public, and I never thought the above quoted sentence was pitched at the man in the street, either. Like legalese, some other people are paid to read it and determine whether it's any good, and according the division-of-labour principle advertised on the twenty-pound note, I should get on with my own work and trust them to know what they are doing.

Scrolling through the comments, I found that I’ve already been outed by fellow computer-scientist Ross Anderson who wrote
The same sorts of criticism can be made of much academic writing even in "respectable" disciplines such as mathematics and computer science... Believe me; the median paper has a tiny idea (if any) dressed up in fifteen pages of stuff that looks like mathematics.
Damn. Mind you, I would hope that most mathematics papers would indeed look like mathematics, even if it’s unreadable to most people. And let’s admit that it’s hard to come up with a major idea in every paper.

However, I can’t possibly leave the topic of obscurantist jargon without complaining about cricket commentary. They’re endlessly dropping phrases like “403 for 3 not out” without explaining what those numbers refer to, and whether it represents good news or bad news for the team being discussed. After I left school and people stopped making me play cricket, I assumed that this sort of thing was now someone else’s problem, or alternatively that sooner or later, someone on the radio would have a spare minute or two to explain their jargon to the uninitiated. But it hasn't happened yet.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Professor Fluffy

Professor Fluffy is the officlal name of the mascot shown below.

We are told that universities may only charge the upper limit of £9000 per year in fees, if they commit to “widening access”, but like many aspects of the new fees regime, the details are unclear. It seems natural to consider whether scholarships could be used for this purpose, or alternatively just as way to attract good applicants, and if so, how to design the scholarships.

Yesterday Liverpool University held a kind of open-house session to discuss organisational strategy with staff, with reference to the funding regime. I went over to find out what the thinking is on scholarships; my own observation on the topic is that the university has, for PhD study, just one scholarship that is not restricted to any particular kind of applicant, and despite the fact that this particular scholarship can hardly help much to increase student numbers, it has the effect of attracting applications from ambitious students, who may then be available to pick up alternative PhD studentships.

My thought was that we should consider having one or two undergraduate scholarships based entirely on academic results that made no reference to a student’s background. What I learned, talking to our widening-access expert Tricia Jenkins, is that the idea may not apply so well at the undergraduate level. The difference is that at postgraduate level, the student is deemed to be responsible for his academic track-record, but someone with high-school qualifications is not. This refers to the well-known fact that a student from a poorly-performing school will outperform (at university) a student from a very good school, if they have the same A level grades. Indeed, apparently 3 B's at A level from a weak school is better than 3 A's from a strong school, in this sense. Consequently, if a scholarship is based on academic excellence, it should be biased this way.

The downside is, that such a scholarship could not possibly be used to attract students from good schools, no matter how smart or committed those students were. And, these scholarships would require decision-making about how exactly to design the bias in favour of certain types of applicant (it is not just about schools — should you also give a student credit for having been in foster care for some number of years?)

Anyway, I couldn't get away without learning about Professor Fluffy, who as the picture suggests is sort of a mascot, designed to attract the interest of primary-school children in going to university, based on the observation that by the time they are their teens, you've left it too late. Fluffy was born in Liverpool in 2004. Apparently he (or she) makes more money for the university than any other professor, due to licensing fees — it would appear that Fluffy is quite widespread. By now, Fluffy has a Chinese sister, Professor Long Long. And the plan is that Fluffy (along with other colleagues, tba) will shortly feature in mobile phone apps designed for young children. I don't know the details, presumably not “tap fluffy to hear her complain about the rejection of her last research grant application.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wikipedia hard to edit

Jimmy Wales says Wikipedia too complicated for many ...from the article:
He said a lot of people were "afraid" to contribute to the site by the sometimes complicated code - known as Wiki mark-up - needed to format entries.

"If you click edit and you see some Wiki syntax and some bizarre table structure - a lot of people are literally afraid.

and a good thing too! The last thing Wikipedia needs is to get hacked about by people who are too clueless to figure out a bit of syntax.

(And congrats to Wikipedia on reaching age 10.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

EU research proposals

“Don’t ever agree to serve as coordinator of an EU-funded multi-site research project” is something I have heard many times. The trouble is, if every day on your way to work, you pass a big lever with the words DO NOT PULL written on it, then sooner or later any self-respecting scientist...     Right now we're still in the proposal-writing stage. Communication overhead is the fundamental problem. One's email habits start to resemble nicotine addiction (“He's a 40-a-day man, he'll be off to an early grave”).

One thing I'll note for people who criticise the European Commission for wasting money, is that projects funded by the Research Executive Agency do not, seemingly, provide much opportunity for lining the pockets of the organizations involved. Then there are various audits and monitoring which I plan to worry about nearer the time, ie if we get the grant. And, we need to have industrial partners, and schemes that add value to the Phd studentships that would be supported. I'm starting to believe that it would be a pretty good opportunity for the students.

The upside, implicit in some of the above discussion, is that it's a pretty good exercise in networking. And maybe this sort of thing is easier the second time you do it, than the first. And if it gets funded, the university gets some credit for increased research income. And it might actually result in some good research...

The submission deadline is the 26th. Whatever's wrong with the proposal at that point, fortunately I won't be able to do anything about it afterwards, and will have to move on to other things.