Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Advice to a First Year Me

The first, and I think most important, thing that you need to know is that research is *hard*. Really, really hard. You've done an undergraduate degree already, and that probably wasn't hard. You probably sat in lectures following everything the lecturer said, and the longest you've ever been stuck on an exercise is probably measured in minutes, or at worst hours.

Research is not like that. You will spend months thinking about things and getting nowhere. You may think you've understood that, but read it again, and try to actually understand what it means, I do literally mean months, and I do literally mean nowhere.

Your progress will come in fits and starts, and the fits and starts will be separated by long periods of nothing. Months of nothing is hard work emotionally. Almost everyone I know who has done a PhD in maths has complained at some point about the long periods of nothing. This even includes those people who I actually have managed to give this advice to before they started, and it even includes myself, after having given out this advice. You will be depressed because you don't feel like you're achieving anything. Don't worry, this is normal!

The following is approximately a graph of my perceived progress so far in my PhD thesis. the time axis doesn't have a scale, but it is roughly linear, and spans 3 years. Note that the flat bits really are genuinely flat and, if I'm perfectly honest, the spikes probably aren't quite spiky enough.

Note that I'm *not* saying that the time spent doing nothing is literally wasted. Obviously you need to check which ways of proving something don't work before you can find the ones that do, and, perhaps more subtly, there are so many hidden connections buried in mathematics that any time at all spent reading any mathematics is quite likely to turn out to be useful to you one day (I'll have an example of this in another post I'm preparing for later in the week). But it sure doesn't feel like that when you're going through the periods of nothing.

You are now hitting your limits. You are going to be doing something that is genuinely hard work. This is going to feel like hard work. Be ready for it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Report: To reduce immigration, you have to prevent people coming into the country

The Migration Advisory Committee reported today, after having been tasked to determine:
at what levels should limits on Tier 1 and Tier 2 of the Points Based
System be set for their first full year of operation in 2011/12, in order to contribute to achieving the Government’s aim of reducing net migration to an annual level of tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament, and taking into account social and public service impacts as well as economic impacts?
Oddly enough, they seem to have decided that if we want to reduce the number of foreigners coming into the country, we need to reduce the number of foreigners coming into the country.

They weren't, of course, tasked to try and find out if reducing the number of foreigners coming into the country was a good idea. Mostly because it obviously isn't. Even if you are willing to ignore the benefits to the immigrants themselves. I mean, even David Cameron could work that out.

I've read the first twenty pages or so of the report, and some of the relevant data. I have a few comments below the fold. But just remember, this report was commissioned in order to decide how to reduce immigration. They decided it should be done by reducing immigration. They were not asked to decide whether reducing immigration is a good idea, mostly because they wouldn't have been able to pretend that it was.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

University is not about learning

With a generous hat tip to Robin Hanson for the title, and to just about every blog on the planet for the link, I'm going to quote the following paragraph from this article, from a man who writes other people's assignments for a living:
I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.
Now, let's say university actually was about learning, let's say the reason that people got degrees was because they came out with useful skills at the end of them and let's say that unversity grades were  good measure of people's skill at the subjects in which they get their degrees. Is it really likely that any one person could be good at all of those things? Good enough to get a high-level - graduate level, in fact - degree in all of those things?

No, university, like all places where people get educational labels, is a signalling game (I think Paul Graham is probably more accurate on what school is about). I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and might finally get round to it soon, but I just thought this quote was too much to pass up.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

This blog post is not self-referential

This sentence would like you to read the list of self-referential sentences which you can find here. This sentence would like to acknowledge that it was stolen from the aforementioned list of sentences, except it wasn't, so it can't. This one wasn't either. Exactly one of the final two sentences in this paragraph were stolen from that article. Thit sentence is not self-referential, because 'thit' is not a word.

If this sentence is false, then so is the Riemann Hypothesis. This sentence really likes that last one. The next sentence is false. The previous sentence is true. This is the sentence which asks "Were either of those previous two sentences self-referential?". This is the sentence after the previous one. I thought about writing this sentence, but then decided not to. Is this sentence self-referential? Is this one? This? ...?

This sentence is about the story "This is the title of this story, which is also found several times in the story itself", by David Moser. This one isn't about the David Moser story mentioned in the previous sentence. This sentence contains a hidden review of the aforementioned story. That last sentence didn't do what it said, but this one does, it's funny.

All self-referential sentences are just silly, including this one.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Turing Test

Randall Munroe seems to be under the impression that building spam bots which could fool a Turing Test would be cool because then you'd get fewer annoying comments on blogs. I can't help but feel that there might be some slightly more serious implications...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Rounding to the nearest penny

Just seen this (linked from Marginal Revolution). A doughnut shop in the US is getting rid of pennies - and intends to round their customers' orders to the nearest penny (rather than taking the, presumably more popular route, of always rounding up). The bizarre part about this story is... why on Earth wouldn't they just change their prices so that they were all integer multiples of $0.05 in the first place?

Why aren't all journals open access?

Here is the way the current system of academic publishing works, as far as I can tell: universities employ researchers who do original research, and produce journal papers; universities employ researchers who do peer-review, and make sure journal papers are up to standard; journals employ editors, who put the content together, and organise the referees; universities pay large amounts of money to journals in order to be allowed to read the articles.

Now, as you can see all of the money in the system comes from the universities. Universities pay the wages of the researchers and the reviewers directly, and they pay the wages of the editors indirectly (through journal subscriptions). So, here's an idea; why don't the universities club together to buy the journals, employ the editors directly, and publish all the content for free?

Note that buying the journals doesn't cost the universities (as a group) anything in the long-run, as the entire current value of the journal companies comes from the amount of money they expect to be paid in journal subscriptions by universities in the future. And there's no need for the journals to charge "submission fees", as those were all being paid by the universities in the first place: they can just come out of the communal pot.

So far as I can see, there is literally no downside to this - assuming coordination can be achieved, you have the same universities paying the same amount of money to the same people to produce the same articles, but the articles are now all available open-access. I admit that "assuming coordination can be achieved" is a fairly hefty assumption, but given the massive upsides, why isn't anyone at least suggesting this sort of approach?

There seems to be a general trend towards open-access publishing anyway, which is a Good Thing, but I don't undestand why this model isn't a strict Pareto improvement on the current system.