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.