Rare events

May 31st, 2015 No comments

Yesterday was an unusually busy day, but different from most unusually busy days of the last 15 years, because it was mostly fun. I took my younger son to the opening game of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (NZ vs Ukraine). Despite obvious inadequacies in the logistical planning at the venue, it was a great occasion. Soon after making it home by bus, I went with my wife to NZ Opera’s production of La Cenerentola. Having not been together to such an event for 15 years, we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Categories: Fun Tags:

The sad story of OJAC

April 11th, 2015 No comments

This is a short post to explain that I have resigned from all duties with Online Journal of Analytic Combinatorics. After 2.5 years during which I (among other activities) converted the journal’s online presence from PDFs on a Google site to an Open Journal Systems installation, kept proper archives of peer review, recruited several new editors, convinced LOCKSS to archive the journal, ensured that it was indexed by Zentralblatt, Scopus and Thomson Reuters, and processed several papers from submission to publication, I was given an ultimatum by the other three managing editors who wanted me to step down from the role. This occurred at the same time as an approach by Springer, which I was not given any details of. Of course I am very unlikely to agree to any deal with such a company, given my beliefs about the importance of open access and control of scientific literature by the research community.

Differences in style and expectations are inevitable in such an enterprise. I did become frustrated with what I saw as extreme lack of commitment by two of the other three managing editors. I can see that reasonable people can differ on such issues, and that my personal style might offend some. What is very irritating is having to work closely with people whose non-performance affects my reputation. What I find inexcusable is those same people using differences of style as an excuse to stage a clumsy coup with obvious ulterior motives.

Anyway, I don’t have much hope for the future of the journal, but I might be wrong. I have moved on to other pursuits. I am now an academic editor of PeerJ Computer Science, for example.

Categories: Professional Tags:

A vain attempt to recapture lost youth

January 12th, 2015 No comments

At short notice I decided to enter the 2015 NZ Rapid Chess Championship, lured by the location and presence of foreign grandmasters. My first competitive games for over 27 years were a very mixed bag, as might be expected. I had problems playing at that speed (approximately 30 minutes per game per player). I ran out of energy on the second day, and the last game was one of the worst I have ever played. But there were enough positives to allow me not to rule out a repeat. It was strange to be playing sub-teenagers and realizing that I look really, really, old to them.

Results can be found here.

Categories: Fun Tags:

Some of my encounters with Iranian culture

December 4th, 2014 No comments

On 30 November I gave a short presentation at an event called “I for Iran – a celebration of Iranian culture”. I was asked to discuss my encounters with Iranian culture as an outsider. Here are the speech notes and the accompanying slides.

For those wanting to learn Farsi online, I suggest easypersian.com as a good place to start.

Categories: Fun Tags:

Market failure in the research world

November 26th, 2014 No comments

Russell Brown has graciously allowed me to use the Speaker column at Public Address to try to reach a different audience when writing on the topic of journal prices.

Categories: Opinion, Professional Tags:

Election 2014: scorecards

September 17th, 2014 No comments

I believe that systematic use of scorecards (report cards) by NGOs is helpful for voters. I haven’t found many used in the NZ context. By simple Google searches and personal knowledge I have found the following. Maybe more will come this week.

It is also useful to have the policies available without being told what to think about them.

  • A summary of parties’ policies on various issues at interest.co.nz
  • The NZ Herald has a comparison of several parties’ “major” policies
Categories: Opinion Tags:

Election 2014: research funding

September 5th, 2014 No comments

This election, increasingly annoyed by the research funding situation, I decided to become (almost) a single-issue voter, and concentrate on what parties want to do to improve NZ’s chronic underfunding of science and research. My feeling after many election campaigns is that New Zealand just doesn’t value these things as much as other countries. However this may be unfair – we have had a more democratic system than many other countries, public goods are known to be underfunded if left to individuals, and more successful countries like USA have tended to fund research by stealth (under the Department of “Defense”) rather than make a strong case to the voters, or by fiat (e.g. Singapore). In any case, it is clear that as a country we have under-invested for decades, and that our relative slide in living standards is largely owing to a productivity problem which can (only) be fixed by increasing investment. Paul Callaghan (someone for whose work I have great respect, but I don’t use titles like “Sir” on principle) and Shaun Hendy (now my colleague at University of Auckland) have made this case at length in recent years, for example in books such as Wool to Weta and  Get Off the Grass. If you believe that “growing the national cake” is important, then this is a critical political issue.

The NZ Association of Scientists has made a submission (to which I made an infinitesimal contribution) to the National Statement of Science Investment feedback process, which sums up very well the problems with the current government’s policies. So much time in recent years has been wasted rebranding and reorganizing, losing institutional memory in the process ignoring the real problem: not enough money. Every new initiative seems to be funded by killing an old one, and this zero-sum attitude appears to be entrenched.

A very perceptive colleague in my department sent me the following:

… rather than attempting to become more like the “average” OECD nation with respect to R&D, I think it’s most likely National (and perhaps also Labour) will continue to (try to) emulate Ireland’s performance, i.e. to continue to run a lean/mean R&D machine with very little governmental funding.

I’m picking on Ireland because of a presentation I attended yesterday (http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/events/world-science-week-new-zealand/research-impact-its-meaning-and-assessment/) — the presenter from Ireland (Prof Ferguson) dropped some hints that suggest, to me, that folks in MBIE have been paying close attention to his story.

Ireland runs in the bottom-half of the EU pack for governmental R&D expenditure (only about 0.5% of its GDP!), but ranks near the top of that league for R&D impact on national economy (as measured by the EC).
NZ gov’t also spends about 0.5% of GDP on R&D, i.e. we’re running neck-and-neck with Ireland, suggesting that our government “merely” has to make our country more closely resemble Ireland in a few other ways before we’ll also enjoy a top-of-league economic payback on R&D expenditure. …

The NZAS also asked political parties some good questions  about their R&D policies. Not all the parties have responded. None of those that have responded are making the kind of commitment that I think is essential: double the Marsden Fund, for example. You can see the questions and answers here and make up your mind.

Governments worldwide apparently see research as an engine of economic growth (which perhaps it is) ignoring the less tangible benefits to be gained from intellectual growth.  A major side-effect of adopting the research mentality is better decision-making. Roughly speaking, my feeling is that businesses and government should try to learn how to run themselves more like the worldwide scientific/research enterprise, instead of trying to make it conform to their models. This involves (in theory) some well-known practices that still seem not very well used in wider society: avoidance of hierarchy (no authorities, only experts); recognition of human cognitive fallibility and processes devised to ameliorate it, such as methodologies for assessing evidence; using the wisdom of crowds to aggregate information; continuous improvement and a humble recognition that the “final” answer has probably not been obtained. Much current political practice seems to use the opposite of each of these practices.

If we allow the further degradation of our decision-making capability, other policies, no matter how good they may seem, will not be implemented properly. So, I will base my vote to a large extent on policies on research and tertiary education, with some serious attention to ethics and trust.


Categories: Opinion Tags:

Election 2014: ethical standards

September 5th, 2014 No comments

Media coverage of the election campaign so far has been dominated by allegations and revelations of unsavoury behaviour by various politicians and hangers-on.

The recent revelations by Nicky Hager  were shocking to me. I don’t believe that “everyone is doing it”, as some commentators and political actors claim; the sooner the people involved are flushed out of the system, the better. However, unless we do something to change the practice of politics, it is likely to happen again (with more secrecy, making it even more damaging).

Several commentators have called for more focus on policy, and less on people. In general, I agree with this. However, maybe this is misguided (I also suspect that in many cases it is self-serving, because “their” side is on the receiving end for once). Trust and ethical issues are certainly important in politics, and one can even argue that they are increasingly important, as more and more government decisions are made in a less than transparent way, and become technically difficult and hard for voters to understand. No amount of policy discussion will be useful if those charged with making major decisions on our behalf have ethical standards as low as have been revealed recently.

Debates about ethics in politics are often hijacked by spurious arguments about aspects of morality that are largely irrelevant. The Len Brown saga showed that politicians can behave poorly in their “private” lives. However salacious media coverage of his affair failed to follow up some important questions. Some small irregularities involving free hotel rooms were all that came out of the weeks (months?) of coverage. Despite complaining to the NZ Herald, I never saw any satisfactory investigative journalism or commentary on what I saw as a key issue: a candidate for local government with a recent conviction for dishonesty was put forward by her party without disclosing her past to the voters, and the media didn’t find out until after she became (in)famous for other reasons. As someone who voted for her, I feel completely taken advantage of.

In every profession (medicine, teaching, engineering, …) there are ethical standards, which carry severe penalties if broken. I am not sure whether there can be a more prescriptive code of ethics for politicians, for one reason because it is not supposed to be a profession (although at national level it largely is). An alternative to having to trust is to use greater transparency. We should have more information about what our representatives are doing, so as to judge their performance better. However I don’t see how the kind of behaviour that has been revealed recently can be prevented by increasing transparency.

This is why we have the press, the “fourth branch of government”. Recently it has become abundantly clear just how low the NZ mass media have sunk in the area of news and current affairs, and how intellectually weak their reporting is. Without a serious commitment (backed up by real money) to public service broadcasting, it is unlikely to improve. I am really surprised that this is not a bigger election issue. In the short term, issues such as the electoral system, public broadcasting, free speech and even education may not seem the most essential. In the long term, unless they are dealt with properly, everything else degrades because the quality of decision-making goes down. If I am reading the financial statement correctly, Radio NZ and TVNZ receive at most 1/4 of the government funding per capita of the ABC in Australia.

The reaction to a satirical column  by Toby Manhire shocked me. I thought I had some idea of the intellectual level of New Zealanders, or at least those who comment online. The fact that such a large percentage of readers did not recognize the article as satire was extremely depressing. Manhire’s columns are always worth reading, and almost always satirical, so this reaction was really unexpected. New Zealand culture has many very good features, but critical thinking and introspection have never been among them. Without help from high quality journalism, it becomes even more difficult for the public to concentrate on important issues. I must add that the weak tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, acting as the “critic and conscience of society” as universities are supposed to by law, exacerbates the situation.

We need to pay attention to the part of the body above the neck if this country is to thrive.

Categories: Opinion Tags:

Election 2014: overview

September 5th, 2014 No comments

NZ has a general election scheduled for 20 September 2014. While voting in an election is a very small part of democratic participation, it is undeniably important. I have spent substantial research time studying voting methods in general, and have submitted to the Electoral Commission review of MMP in 2012. The shelving of the Commission’s recommendations was disappointing. However I believe that overall New Zealand has a highly performing electoral system, compared to other countries. We should aim to optimize it, but the main problem with democracy lies elsewhere.

I am less confident now  than ever before that representative democracy can fulfil all the expectations we have of it. The rise of internet technology allows us to connect the public with its representatives much more easily than before. Perhaps it is time to think hard about whether our current system of (essentially) delegating a proxy vote is the best possible. I don’t have much insight yet on this topic, so will stick to the current paradigm for now. In other posts, to come soon, I will discuss a few issues related to the current election, from the perspective of a voter and an observer of politics, with no research agenda or claims to special knowledge.

In 2011 Geoffrey Pritchard and I produced an online simulator to predict the outcome of elections under several alternative voting systems under consideration in the referendum on MMP. Since MMP was confirmed by the referendum and no changes have yet been made to its parameters, this tool is of no real use in 2014. It is good to see that there are other online tools that aim to assist voters to make an informed choice. A new one getting a lot of publicity is VoteCompass. I tried it out yesterday, and it seems definitely worth using in order to get an idea of party policies and one’s own political preferences.

In the 2013 local elections, Generation Zero had useful scorecards rating the candidates, based on interviews and email surveys. I recall seeing simpler scorecards that rated party policies in specific areas for previous elections, but haven’t found any this year. A systematic presentation of these would be very helpful. Another idea is to look at voting records of representatives, and performance measures of members of parliament. Something like this is done in USA, by organizations such as the League of Women Voters. In general, if representative democracy is to work well, much more transparency is needed, and it should be as easy to compare candidates as it is to decide on which model of a particular consumer good to buy.

Categories: Opinion Tags:

AEC Sommerschool

August 19th, 2014 No comments

I was invited to give 5 lectures on Analytic Combinatorics in Several Variables at this meeting held at the Research Institute for Symbolic Computation in the small quiet town of Hagenberg. The trip there and back was exhausting, but it was an honour to be invited, and quite stimulating intellectually. I prepared lecture slides, including exercises.

Categories: Professional, Research Tags: