Saturday, August 31, 2013

McCloskey "The Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" (also Lynn Conway)

Eastern Economic Journal 28, Winter 2002 by Deirdre McCloskey. (For an interesting parallel, see Lynn Conway, who is one of famous names in VLSI (very large systems integration, on a chip) with collaborator Carver Mead (of Caltech). McCloskey is a distinguished economic historian, Chicago School, and has recently done a series of  books on the rise of bourgeois values and economic development.

I will quote her main point, leaving out her italics:

"The only correct procedure for assessing scholarship in hiring or promotion is for the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from the outside."

I would add that it might be useful to have a designated devil's advocate (much as there is a designated driver).

My new book does not take this point of view, but had I read McCloskey when I was putting it together, I would have featured her argument.

Personality and Words in Social Media

Go to this link to get the whole story.

People are happier if they are about 50, at say 37 deg latitude and it is Monday.

I am not a tough teacher, but...

I am not a tough teacher. My courses are not exhausting in their workloads, I almost never give exams, and never feel compelled to grade on some sort of "curve." My grading is a matter of the excellence (or not) of the work, and that is almost always apparent and not subtle.

I am trying to teach people how to think about something, or how to do some craft with sufficient skill so that they can do interesting work. You might have to become acquainted with a literature, and learn to read it. The mastery is never a matter of being rigorous. It's a matter of can you do it well enough.

I try to teach people how to read a book (you try to figure out what's going on by reading the beginning, the end, the chapter beginnings) and how to take on a substantial project (write yourself notes about what you might do, and then one day just start on it). So the reading or the paper or the project need not be overwhelming. The trick in each case is to learn how to go back to your work and make it better, to reread to check your understanding of a book, ...

Trained in the natural sciences, it was a matter of doing the problem sets and trying to understand what was going on. And some courses were demanding. But I don't recall any that were exhausting or impossible to understand. Actually, I recall taking a first year graduate algebra course, as a junior, doing poorly, and realizing later that I did not know how to study mathematics or how to get help--so this course was beyond me, but I think it was in part that I did not know how to study, in part my mathematical imagination was too demanding of concreteness. And in my early undergraduate years, I did have some quite exhausting reading assignments, but I did not realize they were exhausting, nor did I realize how to read political theory or social theory or even novels and literature when you were reading for a course.

My point here is that whatever it was, my experience was never that courses were tough, per se. I seemed always to have missed the supposedly tough teachers--or perhaps their reputations were unearned?

Surely there are subjects which are difficult for some fraction of students, typically mathematical parts of social science, or subtle reading of texts, or mastery of a foreign language, or following a complex argument in theory or philosophy. My feeling is that these courses could do a much better job of giving away the secret handshakes, telling people what is going on in the formalism, in the text's argument, in the language or argument. And some of the time a course is difficult since you do not have the right background and prerequisites--and the instructor could make things better for you.

Soon after I received my PhD I discovered that what was most interesting about what I could do in a classroom or in a discussion with a student was to think out loud (even if that thinking was already written down in my lecture notes) and in response to a student. Watching me think through a problem was the best teaching I could offer. Since I could readily be encouraged to follow my nose (actually, going off topic), by a student's second question or something that came to mind, my meandering and high-jumping was part of the exhibition. That is, my lecturing was a matter of watching me think and watching me link up apparently disparate topics.

Now this all might be a vanity, an excuse for a lack of didactic focus. I do know how to teach physics and be didactic. But for what I teach, didactic would seem to be missing the point.


Friday, August 30, 2013

The Tragedy of the Tenured Less-Published PhD

If you want to get a PhD to have one, read no further.

But if you want to get a PhD, so that you can participate in the community of research and teaching, it's tragic when people have comparatively little published work to show for themselves after say ten years. Lots of dissertation work is never published. This would not be a problem, at all, if the scholar purused a career that led to many publications in a different direction. But if little ensues, there is a sense that people have failed. Now, you could use your talents for consulting firms, you could become a teacher at a non-research institution, you could be the Whore of Mensa (from a Woody Allen story, where you charge for conversations about esoteric subjects, and surely your dissertation work is esoteric). You could start a business that makes use of your doctoral training, whether it be writing formulaic romances or a consumer product or ...

I don't know the percentage of tenurings at research-oriented  institutions that then lead to a career that is not research-productive, but surely it is more than 10% at most institutions.

You don't want to be a second-rate person at a research university, unless you have a designated teaching appointment and focus on your teaching, and you are comfortable with being looked down upon (more likely, imagine you are being looked down up) by your research-productive colleagues.

And for most scholars, to have stopped publishing in your 40s or 50s does not feel good, although there are some scholars who make such a success early in their careers, it's unlikely they will even come close later--or they may feel that they have to take another such monumental research problem and it does not work out again and again.

You could become an administrator and be very effective at that, and be admired for that. But don't forget that you won't be admired as a scholar unless you laid a golden egg early in your career, and even then, "What have they done lately?" will haunt you.

None of this applies at most institutions.  But if you are at an institution that has high expectations, or aspires to such, and they put lots of emphasis on research, grants, publication, and external visibility and measures such a citations, h-indexes, etc etc.--you don't want to be there if you are not doing what they want. I am not sure fraction of all such institutions are of this sort (and some of them are four-year colleges of great reknown)--but it is perhaps something like 5-10% of all 4 year or more higher education institutions.

This is not meant to be comfortable. What it means is that you need to find another pond in which your strengths are valued. Tenure, if you take it to be a barrier to changing your work, is a sure road to death.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lev Landau on High Quality Work.

Lev D. Landau was a distinguished physicist of the USSR, died in 1962, who led a great school of theoretical physicists. Here is one of his colleagues...
Landau thought there was a lot of stupidity  out there (in science and life) and not much intelligence. One aphorism  thus went as follows: “Why are singers stupid? It’s a different  principle of selection.” Here’s another, a good fit for the present day:  People who hear of some extraordinary phenomenon start proposing  to explain it with improbable hypotheses. First consider the simplest  explanation: that it’s all nonsense.  Finally – and with great relevance for today – Landau believed  that a leader in science absolutely has to have his own generally  accepted scientific results. Only then does he have the moral right  to lead people and set problems before them (and, I’ll now note, to  give recommendations to the political administration). Landau used  to say:  No scientific career can be based on decency alone – this will  inevitably lead to a lack of both science and decency.”  One wants to expand on these words now: No scientific career can  be based solely on organizational skills without like consequences.
B. Ioffe, pp. 25-26
Under the Spell of Landau
When Theoretical Physics was Shaping Destinies
edited by Mikhail Shifman (University of Minnesota, USA)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Psychopathology in Academic Life + La Devoradora (an opera)

I refer to academic life, since I want to focus on the university, rather than the more isolated scholar or scientist.

Universities are big enough, and porous enough, so that they accommodate many people who are "difficult." Some may be Aspberger's Syndrome, the currently popular confessional of the academy. There are alcoholics, drug addicts, OCD, depressives, and sometimes psychotics. The latter is often a tragic story of enormous promise and achievement, but then they are too ill to do their work. Some of these "difficult" people respond well to therapy and medication, others much less so.

There are as well sociopaths (Wikipedia "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. There may be an impoverished moral sense or conscience and a history of crime, legal problems, impulsive and aggressive behaviour") and psychopaths (Wikipedia "personality trait or disorder characterised partly by enduring antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, and poor ).")

And many insecure or manipulative or dangerous people (who are dangerous for whatever reason). In general, you may well end up being in the focus of their obsessions and anxieties, just because you happen to have done something--more or less how you get drenched in a rainstorm because you happen to be someplace. Such people may well be unstable, psychologically needy of attention, temporarily or permanently. They may well have strengths, valuable skills, but that does not make them less dangerous. If you are lucky they will send you a note in the middle of the night resigning their jobs. Immediately send a note to the effect that you regret their decision but must accept it, and you will initiate their separation from your institution immediately.

You need to treat these people clinically, trying not to feed their anxieties, although that may well prove impossible. Never assume they are normal, even if they appear to be. See below.

And try to avoid putting these people in contact with clients, students, or others--you cannot rely on them.    


It is useful and helpful to refer some to the university health or therapy offices, but sometimes they are in positions where that just won't happen. They may act out in astonishing ways, they may be liars and manipulators, they may organize trouble for whomever they happen to focus their anxieties upon.

Now you have to protect yourself. Usually, it is best to very politely be Teflon for them, their shenanigans having nothing to do with you. Never respond to their emails, and if they want to talk with you, after five minutes announce a pressing engagement. They are unlikely to take your kind counsel, perhaps saying that they know you are against them. It's not nice, but probably they will have to hit rock bottom, offending some powerful person (or creating liabilities for the institution) who will have the authority to do something.


Imagine an opera: La Devoradora (The Devourer), an opera in one act, by Kockadoodle Do, a Japanese composer.

       [The homonymic reference to Dora The Explorer is intentional, and reflects Kockadoodle Do's fascination with girls of great competence facing danger. But now the Dora figure [see below on Dora in Freud, and on Devora in the Hebrew Bible] in effect becomes her opposite, "Swiper,  bipedalanthropomorphic masked thieving fox" (Wikipedia). The opera directly engages the audience (much as in Dora) but now they are deceived into helping La Devoradora, the broken fourth wall  inverting traditional theater's audience that was more involved with socializing with each other than what was happening on stage. Rather than Dora finding her goal and singing "We Did It!", La Devoradora "finds" a goal she accepts but does not search for. The parallels to Don Giovanni are deliberate.]

The premier performance stars Ezio Peni, as Panini, who sings loud and slightly off key (as required by the music!), and Ms. Nana Ntrebki who sings beautifully, under her breath and with a forked tongue, again as in the libretto and music. We are incredulous watching and hearing La Devoradora's machinations to defrock Panini. For by his mere being, Panini challenges La Devoradora's claim to be the best interior desecrator in all of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and in the Avenues of Art and Design. The three-star operatic moment is when La Devoradora arises from her zombie state and takes over Panini’s soul ("Il Authoritorio," sung majestically by Ntrebki). Panini then sings, “Going to Wash That Woman Right Out of My Hair”--echoing the melody of the song from South Pacific, but of course off key and with a frightening thumping bass. The great anti-climax follows, when La Devoradora falls into a pit of her own making, and sinks below (much as does the Don in Mozart's Don Giovanni). The rest of the characters, especially Panini, joyfully join holy orders, resolving to be better people, as they sing "We Did It!", so bringing the audience back to their early television experience of Dora the Explorer. We see at the end, a chorus of interior desecrators wondering what has happened to Panini and to La Devoradora.

Johnny Levi conducts the Barclay's Center Brooklyn orchestra, featuring Brooklyn Nets players, Lubavitchers from Coney Island Avenue and Eastern Parkway, and children from neighborhood families in the Barclay's Chorus (who, of course, know Dora and Dora the Explorer very well).

As for Dora, here is Wikipedia on Freud on Dora:
Through the analysis, Freud interprets Ida's hysteria as a manifestation of her jealousy toward the relationship between Frau K and her father, combined with the mixed feelings of Herr K's sexual approach to her.[15] Although Freud was disappointed with the initial results of the case, he considered it important, as it raised his awareness of the phenomenon of transference, on which he blamed his seeming failures in the case.
Freud gave her the name 'Dora', and he describes in detail in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life what his unconscious motivations for choosing such a name might have been. His sister's nursemaid had to give up her real name, Rosa, when she accepted the job because Freud's sister was also named Rosa—she took the name 'Dora' instead. Thus, when Freud needed a name for someone who could not keep her real name (this time, in order to preserve his patient's anonymity), Dora was the name that occurred to him.[16]

And on Devora (bee in Hebrew) Judges 4-5, again Wiki:
Deborah (HebrewדְבוֹרָהModern ‹See Tfd›Dvora Tiberian ‹See Tfd›Dəḇôrā ; "Bee", Arabicدبورة Daborah) was a prophetess of the God of the Israelites, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel, counselor, warrior, and the wife of Lapidoth according to the Book of Judges chapters 4 and 5.
The only female judge mentioned in the Bible, Deborah led a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera, the narrative is recounted in chapter 4.
Judges chapter 5 g

Friday, August 23, 2013


Sometimes as a writer and a blogger, it's easy to convince yourself that no one cares. No one really cares what you have to say.  I have been convincing myself for a while that people don't really care what's going on in my life, so don't bother writing. And on top of that, I planned to take a little blog break because I just dropped my daughter off at college 3 days ago and I thought I was too raw and numb to write. But then an unassuming reader said, "Or you could just WRITE."

So I thought to myself, ya, I guess I could. Even though my head is foggy, my emotions are raw and my feelings are numb--is that possible at the same time?!
Plus I can choose to ignore the voices that are saying, "No one cares what you have to say."

It happened. I dropped my girl off at college. At a town two hours from here. My husband and I both. He did all the heavy lifting with Madelynn, and I stayed put in the dorm and started unpacking, I couldn't do the 3 flights of stairs. A cute Frat boy did stop along the way and helped them out though, boy he had impeccable manners. Whoa.
Here is my girl in her dorm-she's in the Volans House! Represent!

Tuesday, that was the day we dropped her off, was the oddest day in history for me. It didn't feel real, because up close and personal, my life was changing forever as I knew it. I felt I had to walk away from my life. From her. So much of my identity in ways. This girl I have kept safe--who am I kidding, I haven't kept her safe the whole 18 years, see, I've been lacking faith lately. But really, leaving her out of my care--is not easy. I know, right, where is my faith? I have been wondering that too.

Coffee break!

To say that this will be an adjustment is an understatement. So much is different around her already and it's only been a few days! I could make a list, but I think that would make me feel worse.
I mean I went from being a single mom for 7 years to being married was an adjustment, but I still had my girl. Now I need to learn to live life, without her. No this isn't a death, but let me tell ya, it sure feels like one. I feel like I'm in mourning and I'm super sad. I've had fatigue for 2 days, and horrible headaches. Today is the first day I don't feel like I'm drowning.

I thought I was good at handling change too, I mean I am practically a pro. But I guess when it comes to my kid, I'm not. And I'm scared. Scared of all that is out there waiting for her and scared she'll make some poor choices. That's a novel thought, making a poor choice, like I've never done that?

You realize so much as a parent. Every day, every week, every month we can grow if we just step out in faith. We don't have to be crushed or consumed by the reality of what is going on in our lives with our kids. And that stands true for all parents. We can gain new perspective and have faith in the process, we can have faith that God is bigger than any of this. And if we trust in Him, no not everything will be perfect or no that doesn't mean our kids are protected from every problem or issue, it just means that we know God is at work in their lives, and He is for His people, He is making it all good, no matter how bad it all might seem. We count on this. And in this world, what else, who else, can you truly count on?

We are all feeling a little lost around here.

My daughter and I both have a lot of adjusting to do, we'll get there. All is new to her, all is new to me. I have to support, and encourage her new life without me. Gosh the analogy of the bird leaving the nest is so cliche' but so very true. My husband reminded me of that the other day. And it helps put things into perspective, because she just can not stay in this nest anymore, she needs to get out of it and fly on her own. And I refuse to get in her way. It's her time to spread her wings, and as they say, and soar.


Three Books (or Two plus a Second Edition) in Three Years

I plotted the year of when my books appeared, but started the chart with when I entered college (Columbia) and and then when I received my PhD (in physics). [See below. I have also included fellowships and grants for research time.] One year two books appeared, and I have "three" books in a row recently (two new ones plus a second edition), with a promised fourth (also a second edition) coming up. Since two of these are second editions, I counted them as 0.8 books, and the promised book is 1/2 of 0.8. So one of the three books in the topic of the post is a second edition. Four of the books are about mathematical modeling, four are about theory of planning and design, and the most recent reflects years of service on our university's promotion and tenure committee

It took seven or eight years to find a publisher for my first book, the second was a product of a research grant (with some of its chapters already in journals, but not most). The third took a while to find a publisher and includes one or two published chapters but most were not previously published. The fourth and fifth happened to appear the same year; one was written three years earlier, the other was something I did on the side for perhaps six or seven years. The 2000 book was driven by an article I published in 1973, and included subsequent work mostly unpublished, and it took forever to find a publisher. The next book was also written on the side, and after some frustration I did find a publisher but I had to give them camera-ready copy, as is done nowadays in mathematics and similar LaTex fields. The 2011 book again took a while to find a publisher. The next book was a second edition, and the publisher was quite happy to do it since the first edition sold reasonably well. The newest book was taken on the by the same publisher. In prospect is a contracted second edition of the 2003  book, and they are quite happy to do a second edition. In further prospect, and not on the chart is a book I wrote in 1979!, and I have yet to find a publisher (maybe it is not worth pressing any longer); and, another book that demands color printing and I have been shopping for a publisher for seven years. I am not sure there are any more books in prospect.

The hiatus between the first and second book reflected the fact that I did all the research for the second after the first appeared, and I had not found a publisher (still not) of the book drafted in 1979. The second hiatus again reflected years of research in a new field.


With the sun coming out more often than in recent summers, the tourism industry in North Wales must be feeling more optimistic than in previous years. 

However, is it doing enough to attract the new growth sectors in tourism globally? 

For example, a recent report from the UN World Tourism Organisation showed that visitors from China have become the biggest global source of tourism income in 2012, spending £67 billion whilst travelling abroad. This is 40 per cent higher than in 2011 and well ahead of both the Germans and Americans. With a growing middle class, a strong exchange rate and the lifting of travel restrictions, this trend is set to continue. 

However, it would seem that the UK tourism sector may miss out on this bonanza. According to the Tourism Alliance, the number of Chinese visitors was only 179,000 in 2012, an increase of only 20 per cent and well short of the target of 201,000. This means that the aim of attracting half a million Chinese visitors to the UK by 2015 is likely to fall short by around 200,000. Indeed, if we compare the UK performance to that of other European nations, this is a worrying trend. 

For example, France now receives almost eight times more visitors from China than the UK. Tourism specialists have suggested that the high costs of Air Passenger Duty and visas have been factors in disincentiving overseas tourists from coming to the UK. Indeed, in order to gain competitive advantage, the Spanish Government is now considering facilitating visa formalities for Chinese visitors to attract more in the future. 

Yet, the question is whether we are doing as much as other countries to attract this growing market to our shores? 

For example, the Australian tourism authority has established a network of dedicated travel agents in thirteen of China’s major cities, all of whom have had specialist training to sell Australia to potential Chinese tourists. There are also greater efforts being made within Australia to increase Chinese language and cultural awareness with tourism providers across the country.  
In the USA, organisations such as Attract China help to market and promote destinations by helping tourist businesses to build an online presence that understands and embraces the Chinese lifestyle. However, Wales could be in a prime position to take advantage of this visitor boom from China for a number of reasons. 

First of all, the Chinese have a very high appreciation of British culture and history, all of which are in abundance in Wales if marketed properly. In addition, outdoor pursuits such as hiking, camping and walking are favoured by many Chinese tourists, which should make North Wales a major attraction if marketed properly. The Chinese are also keen on shopping and bring home a lot of high quality souvenirs for relatives and friends when they travel abroad, thus adding value to all visits that they make. And for a Welsh tourism industry that is dependent on a period from April to September for its main income generation period, the peculiarities of the Chinese holiday regulations means that the two periods that are most favoured for travel are October and February. 

In addition, they normally take a fortnight off for travel as compared to the one week favoured by American tourists. Given this, you can just imagine what a boost this could give to the Welsh tourism industry at a time of the year when our hotels and B&Bs are largely empty. 

Therefore, the boom in Chinese visitors globally is something that Wales cannot ignore and it should not be beyond the imagination of those marketing our nation as a destination to link the dragons of China and Wales and thus bring a real bonanza to our tourism industry at a time when it needs it the most.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Email Flames: Wait Forever

It is well known that email encourages people to write incendiary or insulting or idiotic messages, expressing sentiments they would never express if they thought a second time. If you receive such email, put it aside. If the email has been broadcast, surely put it aside.

Most of the time, you will want to save the message, never respond, and if asked if you read it say it must have been lost in the Inbox and have them send it again. They won't.

If you feel compelled to respond, think twice. And in any case, never respond immediately--wait a week.  But if in the end you respond, respond in an unemotional manner, stick to facts, never argue. It won't stop the flamer but it may help.

I have found that this sort of email comes out of insecurity, anxiety, and an inflated sense of importance. There is little you can do about those sources. If things continue, you hope the source will self-immolate, so to speak.

I know that I have an earlier post on this topic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Paraphrasing the current advertising campaign for Denmark’s most famous beer, if Carlsberg made studies of entrepreneurs, they would have created the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM).

Established in 1999, GEM is the most comprehensive longitudinal study of entrepreneurship ever undertaken.

Last year, more than 198,000 adults in 69 economies took part in the GEM survey, which represented an estimated 74 percent of the world’s population and 87 percent of its GDP.

As with every GEM report, it is packed full of relevant and interesting statistics that should provide guidance to policymakers in supporting female entrepreneurship around the World.
The most striking fact is the scale of women in enterprise – the study estimates that 224 million women were starting or running businesses in those countries which took part in the GEM study in 2012.

Not all of these are one-woman bands - half of the businesses surveyed currently employ people in their businesses with an estimated 12 million planning to grow their ventures by at least six employees over the next five years.

Despite this enormous impact, entrepreneurial activity remains higher amongst men in most countries of the World, suggesting that more could and should be done to support more women into enterprise and, as a consequence, boost employment and prosperity.

One of the key factors identified in the report to get higher rates of female participation in self-employment is obvious, namely raising the awareness of entrepreneurship amongst women.

Not surprisingly, the research suggested that there tended to be higher rates of female entrepreneurship where women believed there were good opportunities for starting businesses, and where they had confidence, ability and spirit for this activity. In this respect, entrepreneurial role models can play a critical role in demonstrating success and in encouraging more women to follow in their footsteps.

However, a key constraint in female entrepreneurship seems to be the reluctance of women to move from an intention to become an entrepreneur to actually starting a business.

Whilst many indicate an intention to become their own boss, the research indicates that a far lower number than expected are translating this into the creation of a new business. More worrying still is that for those women who do start businesses do not stay long enough as owner-managers with many discontinuing operations before the venture matures.

Much of this could be down to the lack of business support available to female entrepreneurs in many countries. In fact, other studies have suggested that developing more women as mentors to business could be a positive step forward in addressing this issue, especially given that mentoring is seen as a key way of supporting startups to grow.

This lack of growth may also be due to the sector in which women start their businesses, with over half of female-owned firms being located in consumer services and there is some concern expressed by the authors as to why well-educated female entrepreneurs are running low potential businesses, especially in developed countries.

This is partly explained by the fact that whilst women entrepreneurs have higher levels of educational attainment than their male counterparts, they feel less likely to believe in their own capabilities to run a business successfully.

Again, this suggests that there is an enormous untapped potential in developing high growth businesses by female entrepreneurs and that there needs to be more training and focus on this area in the future.

This has significant implications for policymaking. If women have lower aspirations for growing their enterprises, then given the increasing focus on supporting growth firms amongst policymakers in order to get the most return for taxpayers’ support of business, there is a high likelihood that backing female business may fall off the economic development agenda. Given this, there needs to be a greater focus on how women can be supported to develop growing businesses.

Yet despite these concerns, it is clear that entrepreneurship is a viable career choice for an increasing number of women around the World.

Indeed, starting your own business it is becoming increasingly popular amongst young women in many countries around the World. Perhaps this is where policymakers should be focusing their efforts – on that slice of society where there is a growing appreciation of the potential of enterprise driven by both business and personal values.

Therefore, despite some progress during the last few years, we have yet to fully realise the full global potential of female entrepreneurship either in starting a business or, more importantly growing a successful venture. Certainly, there is far more that governments around the World can do to ensure we get more women to become involved in entrepreneurial activity, and as result, stimulate greater economic prosperity and jobs in their local communities.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Road to Pi

You can express pi as a sum of terms: A power of 16 x [a sum of 4 fractions)], each a function of k, k=0... that is, a sum of terms, each of which is a scaling factor times a fraction.

The first term is 3.1333, and very shortly (by k=4) you are well past 3.14159 in accuracy. In fact this formula,  in octal, produces the digits of pi way out without needing to know all the previous terms. Current issue (as of 8/2013) of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and it is called a BPP formula.

What I like about this sort of formula is that it is easy to program on a calculator and you get the advantages of sophisticated analysis. You are participating in what is called "experimental mathematics." BPP comes from the PSLQ algorithm.

There are many other series that express pi, the usual ones being something like arctan 1= pi/4, and you use the series for the arctan.  But here, to get a certain accuracy, you need to add up all the relevant terms up to some k

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rhetoric for Presidents/Deans Vs. for Faculty

"a committee to develop a detailed curriculum proposal to be presented to faculty ...for an ultimate and final vote.  The committee will ... setting out to determine strategic goals and program competencies, designing learning experiences that inspire creativity and enhance knowledge in critical domains to catapult already accomplished professionals into expanded capacity to serve communities of practice and address global challenges." [my italics, my source here is left out deliberately]*

Here are the key terms:
an ultimate and final vote
setting out to determine 
strategic goals
program competencies
designing learning experiences 
inspire creativity
enhance knowledge 
critical domains
expanded capacity 
to serve communities of practice
address global challenges

This quote is ideal for presidents and deans, but it won't work for your faculty colleagues since they are immediately skeptical of the use of ideas in good currency (another such term, due to D. Schon), and they know that votes are neither ultimate nor final, at least until the provost and deans go along.  

What are you really up to? Is this quote meant to have specific content, or is it meant to  be flag-waving (a good thing, but it won't work for faculty).  See below under * for a translation that might do a bit better.

The deep problem is that when we initiate programs we tend to describe them in apocalyptic and chiliastic terms. But someone is bound to ask, Where's the beef?, and for a recipe that one might follow (and not something that is well beyond Julia Child).

Similarly, of late my colleagues seem to be skeptical of terms like "transformational", and they wonder what is the "interdisciplinarity" that has concrete meaning in their areas of concern. "Student centered learning" and "learning styles" are interesting notions, but they always thought they were being student centered. It's not that my colleagues are deaf to transcendent goals; they see these in football and other athletic endeavors. They are willing to engage in such talk in fund-raising, but most donors are quite smart and not at all deceived by grandiose language--although it may serve their interests to be so seen. But they do know where's the beef.

*I believe the following conveys the sense: The proposal will be discussed and voted upon by the faculty, and the dean and university committee will have the final say. The proposal will focus on skills and policy areas that reflect our faculty’s unique strengths; describe the basic courses, courses meant to teach you how to learn even more--so that you can develop your ideas about advancing practice in your profession (while grounding those ideas in the scholarly literature).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Plagiarism's Repeat Offenders: Three Strikes or Two?

There is surely overlap, but I thought it better to just put together all the recent posts about plagiarism, and they are to be found a few postings earlier than this one. I worried that I was obsessed by this, but the university people who are concerned about plagiarism assure me that I am OK--it hurts the university and the student (their degree could be rescinded) if their work is discovered to be copied. That so many are unaware of the rules of the game is striking.

I have discovered that you are best off having the university experts take over for students who do not hear the message. Not to penalize the students, but to make sure they do not become repeat offenders. In effect there is a three-strikes rule, but it may well be only be two strikes.

Earlier this year, after the end of the semester, I received the following note:

"I've received numerous emails from students about your correspondences to them regarding their final exam papers being filtered through Turn-it-In [Turnitin]after the semester has ended and final course grades submitted. Some students are very upset, even frightened.  

I know your intention is to raise the bar on student writing.
Some students will seek you out to mentor them.  Others want to go on with their summer.
Please stop emailing students in your classes now that the semester is over.  
Let them feel free to contact you."

I would think that the students should be upset or frightened if they plagiarized, and reassured if they had not. 

That I discovered the plagiarism after the grades were submitted does not free students from the concern of the University Judicial Committee. And the rules are that I consult with students about such discoveries on the way to reporting the problem, which it would seem to be mandatory. In effect this note was telling me to violate university policy. (By the way, I was not about raising the bar on student writing, nor about mentoring. It was about plagiarism.) And the students have no option about communicating with me about this sort of problem. So I take this note to be a form deliberate obstruction of university rules and procedures.  I ignored the note, by the way.

IN GENERAL, SUCH NOTES, AND RANTS, TOO, ARE BEST TREATED AS PRE-TRASH: READ ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE THEM AS SUCH AND TRASH. Otherwise the sender is setting themselves up for university trouble, and one's goal is to "include me out."

But never assume it will stop...

I understand you have reported several of our students to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for plagiarism.

After your Spring 2013 courses ended, after you submitted final semester grades to the registrar, you ran papers through Turn-it-In.

On 6/18/13, you then sent this email to all students:
I will be sending Turnitin Originality Scores to you in the next week. Higher scores mean more similarity with other sources. (I was advised not to send you any more messages this summer. Think of this as a message from your oncologist six months after having had a "clean" bill of health post-surgery and chemo, now with the six month MRI. There are now cancers throughout your body. Miraculously, you can now excise them with a simple pill. I figured you'd want to know immediately.)

I will not be changing grades or going to the university committee. This is what they call a teachable moment. Be grateful for it.

What began as a teachable moment has become an ongoing drama. You did submit formal complaints to the university Student Judicial Affairs Committee.

In addition, today, you sent yet another email blast announcing to all students that you filed complaints against some students with Student Judicial Affairs. To that end, I have receive panic phone calls and multiple concerns. You’ve left my office yet again with cleaning up chaos and confusion.
Please stop all your email blasts to  students from this point on and moving forward.

Thank you,
Actually, after a while I did consult the University Judicial Affairs people, and they took over. So in this sense, I changed my mind. But it turns out to be mandatory to report plagiarism...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Given the increased interest in local shopping, which was discussed in yesterday's Daily Post column, I thought I would revisit an article I wrote back in December 2005 for the same newspaper.

It specifically examined how an Irish supermarket, Superquinn, encouraged greater purchasing of goods and services in Ireland through developing a new type of loyalty card.

Could it work here in Wales?

Well, as far as I can tell, something like this has never been tried in the UK but I am sure that one of the supermarkets could trial this for a period to see if consumers can be encouraged to buy local.

"When I lived in Dublin during the mid 1990s, I was astounded, on visiting my first Irish supermarket, to find that Irish goods were being promoted above and beyond the call of any retailer’s duty. 

Perhaps this was because I had been fortunate enough to visit a ‘Superquinn’s’ outlet, which has a superb record of promoting Irish produce. 

For example, everything sold in the shop – from food to toilet paper to clothes – that was produced in Ireland was highlighted with a Shamrock logo on the shelf front. This makes it far easier for customers to identify Irish products, which is a major complaint within many other stores. 

Moreover, Superquinn’s have a policy of using only Irish products in the fresh food areas and runs many promotions that are specifically focused on increasing awareness of Irish ranges, such as an “Irish speciality food festival” and extra bonus points on your loyalty card for buying Irish goods. 

And if that is not enough, just to let you know how much you are supporting the local economy, the receipt you receive at the checkout prints an “*” beside every Irish product purchased and, the sum at the end of each till receipt is divided into the total basket spend and the total spent on Irish products. 

Of course, the Irish have a long history of targeting the sale of home products within their own market. For example, Guaranteed Irish Ltd – an independent non-profit company - has its brand placed on Irish goods as diverse as children's books, bags of sugar and even software packages.

The focus on promoting Irish goods seems to be making a difference. For example, recent research has shown that whilst value remains the key priority for shoppers in Ireland, almost 40 per cent of them would pay up to 10 per cent more for Irish goods, so there is scope for supermarkets to promote Irish goods and benefit from this in terms of price.

To date, no similar campaigns have been run in within any Welsh supermarkets, even though I have raised the issue with the ‘big four’ during the last decade. Certainly, the promotion of Welsh produce within many of our supermarkets and shops is woefully inadequate, especially given that we are a manufacturing nation. 

Perhaps there are ‘state aid’ issues around the Assembly promoting Welsh goods in the same way that the Irish Guarantee scheme was stopped by the European Commission. Nevertheless, there is nothing stopping our economic policymakers from opening a dialogue with some of the major stores in to promote Welsh goods in a more constructive way. 

Indeed, the challenge is to ensure that, like the Irish, we have a symbol identifying Welsh produce (such as a red dragon symbol) and that we know exactly how much we spend on Welsh goods at the end of every shop. 

After all, if we give the Welsh consumer more information about the source of their purchases, we may well see more Welsh goods being bought in our shops with considerable spin-off for our economy."

Trying to Understand Stuff

In the weeks just before the Fall semester, I have been trying to understand some mathematics in order to revise my book Doing Mathematics (2003). But what I am trying to understand is highly technical in the case of what are called "large cardinals" (essentially numbers much bigger than the size of the set of the integers, aleph-nought--a countable infinity--for these are uncountable infinities, such as the size of the interval 0,1 of the real line).  In the years since the mid-60s, this field of set theory has flourished, its results important but not at all easily mastered (at least by me).

I am also trying to understand the relationship between the Yang-Baxter Equations (and commuting transfer matrices), YBE,  the Bethe Ansatz, BA, and Hopf algebras, HA--in statistical mechanics and other realms. The YBE come up naturally in the solution to a model of a ferromagnet. The BA says that when you have many particles interacting with each other, you can treat the situation as a suitable sum of two-body interactions. (The consistency conditions for this to work is related to the YBE, I believe). I am not sure how the HA play a role, but they are ways of expressing the YBE I believe. I have no intuition of just what makes a HA special.

Moreover, I am not sure that my exposition of a crucial analogy in chapter 5 is really right.

I will work it out, time will help. But what's interesting for me is that when I am ready, as I now am, I become willing to work hard to figure things out, or at least to make a serious guess as to what is going on.

Time disappears when I am working, although a daily nap or two is needed to clear the mind.

It is time like these where I wished I really had a much deeper training in mathematics, training deep enough so that I had some useful intuitions about what is going on.


For those who have been following this column for the last decade, you will know how passionate I am about promoting the concept of local shopping, especially within North Wales where our high streets have been badly affected in recent years by the development of out of town centres.

That is why I loved a recent article that described how a major American corporation was going on the road to promote local shopping to support the economy.

Senior executives from the accountancy software company Sage, which sells mainly to small and medium-sized businesses, are traversing the USA in a large bus to educate consumers as to how important it is to shop and buy services from local businesses.

And whilst this is not entirely altruistic, it is a refreshing change to see a large business actually going out of its way to support local firms.

Indeed, some of the facts produced by Sage on the impact of local purchasing should open the eyes of politicians and policymakers who have, to date, been lukewarm about properly promoting this concept within Wales.

For example, local retailers return up to 68 percent of their revenue to the local economy in the form of locally purchased wages, goods, services, profits and donations whereas larger businesses spend only 43 percent locally.

And local business owners lead by example.

In the USA, entrepreneurs support other local businesses with 70 per cent purchasing goods and services for their businesses locally and 83 per cent shopping locally for their personal requirements.

Perhaps the most fascinating fact come from a study from San Francisco, where it was estimated that switching just ten per cent of spending away from high street chains to local businesses would generate $192 million (or £124 million) in additional economic activity and 1,300 new jobs.

Why Buy Local Infographic

To some extent, it is disappointing that it has taken a large business to raise awareness of what entrepreneurs up and down high streets across Wales have known for years, namely that shopping at small local businesses boosts the economy.

Nevertheless, this should be a wake-up call not only for those who manage our economies in Westminster and Cardiff Bay but to each and every one of us who bemoan the loss of shops along the high street but who hardly think twice before popping down to our local supermarket to buy most of our food and supplies.

Yes, we all do it and make excuses that it is difficult to find the time to shop locally given the convenience of out of town shopping centres.

But if we don’t make the effort, what right do we have to complain when another small shop closes down?

More importantly, local shops produce quality products that are rarely found within high street supermarkets.

After spending a few days on the Llŷn Peninsula last week, it was great to find the best wine at Gwin Llŷn in Pwllheli, the most exquisite meat at J&D Povey in Chwilog and the freshest bread at Islyn Bakery in Aberdaron.

I am sure the same is true in towns across North Wales and yet we constantly fail to see the superb products and services that we have literally on our doorsteps because, in our busy lives, it seems easier to spend an hour wandering around a supermarket with a trolley than walking up and down our high streets visiting our local shops.

Yet as Sage as shown, changing our shopping habits could make a real contribution to the economic viability of communities across North Wales.

So the next time you are about to pop down the supermarket, think about whether you could go to a local shop instead and help make a real difference to your local economy.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Clawbacks for Deans? for Chairs? for Faculty?

Clawbacks for Deans? for Chairs? for Faculty?

1. In George Akerlof’s Nobel-prize article, “The Market for Lemons,” he notes that used car buyers will rationally offer less for a car than the dealer would like, believing that the dealer has more information on the vehicle than the buyer, and assuming that negative information is unlikely to be conveyed.

Of course, this also affects the offer for really good used cars. So, the dealer might solve this problem by offering certified used cars with an extended warranty. Or the buyer might leave the used car market and buy a new car (if they can afford one). Similarly, buyers might not tell all the information relevant to their credit history…

2. When a dean (or chair) proposes tenure for one of their faculty, presumably they know more about the faculty member than the university committee or the provost. In effect the dean (and also the chair) is a used car salesman. The letter writers might have been subtly chosen, the weaknesses might not be revealed. And what economists (Kahneman and Tversky) call the “endowment effect” may also apply, where we value what we have in our possession more than if it were offered for sale by someone else.

The university committee and the provost would like to believe that the dean tells them all, that the letter writers are forthcoming, that all participants are committed to the whole university. But human nature being what it is, the provost might want to be sure the university is not getting stuck with a lemon. You can sell that used car that turns out to be a lemon, perhaps for much less than you paid for it. But tenure is for 30 years or so. On the other hand, when really strong candidates come up, both the dean and the provost want to know that.

Moreover, there is evidence that deans can count but do not read. That is, there are studies that numbers of articles are a better predictor of deans' tenure decisions than the quality of the work. So even an honest dean may not be reliable.

3. Faculty tell their chairs and deans their future plans. Given what we know about what people accomplish on their sabbaticals, it is reasonable to suppose that faculty overpromise. The book is almost done, when in fact there are a few draft chapters and outlines at best for the rest. The articles will go out in the next month. The grant should be coming down the line in three months.

Now some faculty actually deliver. They do just what they said they would do--in grant applications, in annual reports, in personal statements at promotion time.

But many faculty overpromise, at best, or they are actually deceptive. Their good intentions dominate their capacity to say where they are in projects.

4. Used car dealers (and deans, chairs, faculty) can avoid some of these problems by building a reputation for honesty and reliability, and for taking charge of their mistakes. At the same time, provosts, deans, and chairs must be willing to hear mixed messages and not immediately say NO, and be willing to consider extraordinary cases. The cream puff on the outside may be just what some buyers want, especially if they are told about the rusting frame and so the price is lowered.

5. Now, deans have limited appointments, usually for 5-10 years. But tenure for the faculty member (who is a lemon) is lifetime. Their colleagues are stuck with them, and if they are not forthcoming with negative opinions at tenure time, at least they suffer the consequences of their acts. But deans do not.

Of course, the university could have a devil’s advocate, providing the strongest negative case for a tenure decision, in effect balancing the dean. It would be much as if you had your mechanic go over the car before you buy it. But, still, it may make sense for deans to face clawbacks for their lack of transparency. It’s hard to know what these might be, since a dean may now be a provost elsewhere, being bamboozled by the deans under them. Still, reputational damage is a strong disincentive, much as rescinding of the doctorate might be a strong disincentive to plagiarism.

6. As for faculty who overpromise, salary raises can be delayed until the promised material arrives. If the faculty member is a tenured associate professor, promotion can be delayed as well. Those who are promising a big book year after year have to be given deadlines.
7. Now, people could go buy a new car, avoiding the used car market. Universities could get a new assistant professor whenever there was any uncertainty about the person coming up for tenure (saying NO to all but the most obviously in good working order--making the tenure track rather more tenuous). Or, they could make tenure decisions further down the line, say at year 10, the car having proven itself as reliable after 50,000 miles, so to speak. Or, you could only hire more senior scholars, for whom information is much more widely shared. The new assistant professor and the two-book scholar are in effect the new cars of the academic marketplace, in one case you don't know if you have a Yugo or a Prius, and in the other you don't know if the well-tested vehicle will continue to perform at a high level, when it will begin to break down (and this does depend on the model).

8. Now you might have a repair shop that takes in lemons and makes them good. You bought a lemon, but rather than getting rid of it, you bring it to the repair shop and they do the best they can without breaking your bank. Provosts should have active programs of faculty improvement, where the lemons are in fact repaired and set on a more fruitful path--although the mechanics here have to be very sophisticated in their people-skills and their technical skills.