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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Universities and knowledge

**I’ve moved my blog to, this post can be found here**

The Higher Education White Paper is published today, in common with all other commentators in this area I have not read it either. One thing which seems to have attracted comment is the idea that there should be a market in higher education. The academics don’t seem to approve.

But knowledge doesn’t belong to universities. Universities provide qualifications, accreditation, and they provide personalised teaching.

For many students, such as myself 20 years ago, a university education was a given: it was the middle class way of easing myself out of the parental home and the gateway to the career I have now – first as an academic and now as an industrial research scientist. It was available to a relatively small fraction of the population. Things have changed now, increasingly university is seen as the gateway to most careers. Students do not go to university for the love of knowledge, they go because they must to get the careers they want. Pragmatically many careers do not require three years of post-18 education but we are manoeuvring ourselves in to a position where we say they must.

Students will no doubt see themselves in a market – even before this white paper they were being asked to commit significant future income in paying for three years of education, they are foregoing three years of paying work for the promise of a better future. If I were a student I’d be a bit peeved that the university sector were not at least showing willing in making that burden lighter.

Universities don’t give us knowledge – that’s down to us as individuals to hunt out, universities give us the tools to do that and the bit of paper that says we can do that.

Book review: Map of a Nation

**I’ve moved my blog to , this post can be found here**

ordnance"Map of a Nation" by Rachel Hewitt is the story of the Ordnance Survey from its conception following the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland in 1745 to the completion of the First Series maps in 1870. As such it interlinks heavily with previous posts I have made concerning the French meridian survey, Maskelyne's measurements of the weight of the earth at Schiehallion, Joseph Banks at the Royal Society, William Smith's geological map of Britain and Gerard Mercator.

The core of the Ordnance Survey's work was the Triangulation Survey, the construction of a set of triangles across the landscape made by observing the angles between landmarks (or triangulation points) ultimately converted to distances. This process had been invented in the 16th century, however it had been slow to catch on since it was slow and required specialist equipment and knowledge. Chromatic abberration in telescopes was also a factor - if your target is surrounded with multi-colour shadows - which one do you pick to measure? The triangles are large, up to tens of miles along a side, so within these triangles the Interior Survey was made which details the actual features on the ground - tied down by the overarching Triangulation Survey.

A second component of this survey is the baseline measurement - a precise measurement of the length of one side of one triangle made, to put it crudely, by placing rulers end to end over a straight between the terminal triangulation points.

The Triangulation Survey is in contrast to "route" or "transverse" surveys which measure distances along roads by means of a surveyor's wheel, note significant points along the roadside. There is scope for errors in location to propagate. Some idea of the problem can be gained from this 1734 map showing an overlay of six "pre-triangulation" maps of Scotland, the coastline is all over the place – with discrepancies of 20 miles or so in places.

The motivation for the Ordnance Survey mapping is complex. Its origins were with David Watson in the poorly mapped Scotland of the early part of the 18th century, and the Board of Ordnance – a branch of the military concerned with logistics. There was also a degree of competition with the French, who had completed their triangulation survey for the Carte de Cassini and were in the process of conducting the meridian survey to define the metre. The survey of England and Wales was completed after the Irish Triangulation and after the Great Trigonometric Survey of India - both the result of more pressing military and administrative needs. As the survey developed in England more and more uses were found for it. Indeed late in the process the Poor Law Commission were demanding maps of even higher resolution than those the Ordnance Survey initially proved, in order to provide better sanitation in cities.

The Survey captured popular imagination, the measurements of the baseline at Hounslow Heath were a popular attraction. This quantitative surveying was also in the spirit of the Enlightenment. There was significant involvement of the Royal Society via its president, Joseph Banks, and reports on progress were regularly published through the Society. Over the years after the foundation of the Ordnance Survey in 1791 accurate surveying for canals and railways was to become very important. In the period before the founding of the Ordnance Survey surveying was a skill, related to mathematics, which a gentleman was supposed to possess and perhaps apply to establishing the contents of his estate.

Borda's repeating circle, used in the French meridian survey to measure angles, found its counterpart in Jesse Ramsden's "Great Theodolite", a delicate instrument 3 feet across and weighing 200lbs. The interaction with the French through the surveying of Britain is intriguing. Prior to the French Revolution a joint triangulation survey had been conducted to establish exactly the distance between the Paris and Greenwich meridians, with the two instruments pitted against each other. There was only a 7 foot discrepancy in the 26 miles the two teams measured by triangulation between Dover and Calais. In 1817, less than two years after the Battle of Waterloo a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Biot, was in the Shetlands with an English survey team extending the meridian measurements in the United Kingdom.

The accuracy achieved in the survey was impressive, only one baseline measurement is absolutely required to convert the angular distances in the triangulation survey into distances but typically other baselines are measured as a check. The primary baseline for the Triangulation Survey was measured at Hounslow Heath, a second baseline measured at Romney Marsh showed a discrepancy of only 4.5 inches in 28532.92 feet, a further baseline measured at Lough Foyle, in Northern Ireland found a discrepancy of less than 5 inches in 41,640.8873 feet.

The leaders of the Ordnance Survey were somewhat prone to distraction by the terrain they surveyed across, William Roy, for example, wrote on the Roman antiquities of Scotland. Whilst Thomas Colby started on a rather large survey of the life and history of Ireland. Alongside these real distractions were the more practical problems of the naming of places: toponymy, particularly difficult in Wales and Ireland where the surveyors did not share the language of the natives.

Overall a fine book containing a blend of the characters involved in the process, the context of the time, the technical details and an obvious passion for maps.


In writing this blog post I came across some interesting resources:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Weekly Rage

**I have now moved my blog to, please adjust your links accordingly. This post can be found here**

Every week I listen to the Sunday programme on Radio 4, largely through inertia. Most weeks it manages to wind me up. I was a bit worried that I may be repeating myself here, so regular is the rage that I thought I must have written about it before. It turns out I have, but on a different topic.

The specific cause of my ire this week is the Church of England, the Equalities act and the inadmissibility of gay bishops. Forced by the Equality Act 2010 the Church has sought legal advice on how it should treat its gay clergy, it turns out they think that they may be obliged to accept gay bishops but that they can demand that they are celibate. You can read the BBC report here.

Why should this concern me, as a British atheist? Several reasons:

  • the Church of England is an established church, it takes (unelected) part in our legislation through the Lords Spiritual, it has a special position in teaching our children;
  • the Church of England claims moral authority, it specifically claims that it’s views on morality are superior to mine because they are faith-based. See the Bishop of Oxford’s comments this week on the Today programme;
  • I am ethnically Christian and English, so their position reflects badly on me;
  • the church’s position puts us all on shaky ground when we argue against inequality in other communities.

The Church could take a principled position that any group should be able to follow it’s faith: that the BNP should be allowed to exclude non-Caucasians from their number, for example. It could take the principled position that it should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, without exemptions. It choses to do neither of these things, it choses instead to lobby for exemptions from the law and work out the minimum they can get away with in complying with that watered-down law.

What is the Church trying to tell us through this position? That the gays are OK, but not for them and not for positions of power?

Can you imagine a company, such as the one that I work for, demanding of it’s employee’s that they not only reveal their sexual orientation but also their sexual activity and if they confessed to the wrong sort of sexual activity they should be denied promotion?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

“Ridiculously long vacations”?

Lord Adonis, former education minister, is reported here as saying universities should:

…just abandoning these ridiculously long vacations … That only really makes sense as far as I can see if you want to travel the world or you need to get a job…

This is to misunderstand what happens during the long university vacation – the teaching staff, who are also research staff are getting on with doing research or, more painfully, trying to get funding for research. His point is not entirely without merit: universities have a distinctly schizophrenic attitude to teaching. If, as I have, you have applied for a number of lectureship positions you will learn that the time in interview dedicated to discussing your teaching experience, aspirations and ideas is approaching zero. Status in a university department depends largely on your research achievements, not your teaching achievements. This means there is scope in the market for universities that make teaching their priority, rather than research.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information



**I’m now blogging at, please adjust your links – this post can be found here**

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward R. Tufte is a classic in the field of data graphics which I’ve been meaning to read for a while, largely because the useful presentation of data in graphic form is a core requirement for a scientist who works with experimental data. This is both for ones own edification, helping to explore data, and also to communicate with an audience.

There’s been something of a resurgence in quantitative data graphics recently with the Gapminder project led by Hans Gosling, and the work of David McCandless and Nathan Yau at FlowingData.


The book itself is quite short but beautifully produced. It starts with a little history on the “data graphic”, by “data graphic” Tufte specifically means a drawing that is intended to transmit data about quantitative information in contrast to a diagram which might be used to illustrate a method or facilitate a calculation. On this definition data graphics developed surprisingly late, during the 18th century. Tufte cites in particular work by William Playfair, who was an engineer and political economist who is credited with the invention of line chart, bar chart and pie chart which he used to illustrate economic data. There appears to have been a fitful appearance of what might have been a data graphic in the 10th century but to be honest it more has the air of a schematic diagram.

Also referenced are the data maps of Charles Joseph Minard, the example below shows the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in it’s 1812 Russian campaign. The tan line shows the army’s advance on Moscow, it’s width proportional to the number of men remaining. The black line shows their retreat from Moscow. Along the bottom is a graph showing the temperature of the cold Russian winter at dates along their return.

800px-MinardInterestingly adding data to maps happened before the advent of the more conventional x-y plot, for example in Edmund Halley’s map of 1686 showing trade winds and monsoons.

Next up is “graphic integrity”: how graphics can be deceptive, this effect is measured using a Lie Factor: the size of the effect shown in graphic divided by the size of the effect in data. Particularly heroic diagrams achieve Lie Factors as large as 59.4. Tufte attributes much of this not to malice but to the division of labour in a news office where graphic designers rather than the owners and explainers of the data are responsible for the design of graphics and tend to go for the aesthetically pleasing designs rather than quantitatively accurate design.


Tufte then introduces his core rules, based around the idea of data-ink – that proportion of the ink on a page which is concerned directly with showing quantitative data:

  • Above all else show the data
  • Maximize the data-ink ratio
  • Erase non-data-ink
  • Erase redundant date-ink
  • Revise and edit.

A result of this is that some of the elements of graph which you might consider essential, such as the plot axes, are cast aside and replaced by alternatives. For example the dash-dot plot where instead of solid axes dashes are used which show a 1-D projection of the data:


Or the range-frame plot where the axes are truncated at the limits of the data, actually to be fully Tufte the axes labels would be made at the ends of the data range, not to some rounded figure:


Both of these are examples are from Adam Hupp’s etframe library for Python. Another route to making Tufte-approved data graphics is by using the Protovis library which was designed very specifically with Tufte’s ideas in mind.

Tufte describes non-data-ink as “chartjunk”, several things attract his ire – in particular the moirĂ© effect achieved by patterns of closely spaced lines used for filling areas, neither is he fond of gridlines except of the lightest sort. He doesn’t hold with colour or patterning in graphics, preferring shades of grey throughout. His argument against colour is that there is no “natural” sequence of colours which link to quantitative values.

What’s striking is that the styles recommended by Tufte are difficult to achieve with standard Office software, and even for the more advanced graphing software I use the results he seeks are not the out-of-the-box defaults and take a fair bit of arcane fiddling to reach.  Not only this, some of his advice contradicts the instructions of learned journals on the production of graphics.

Two further introductions I liked were Chernoff faces which use the human ability to discriminate faces to load a graph with meaning, and sparklines - tiny inline graphics showing how a variable varies in time without any of the usual graphing accoutrements: - in this case one I borrowed from Joe Gregorio’s BitWorking.

In the end Tufte has given me some interesting ideas on how to present data, in practice I fear his style is a little too austere for my taste.There’s a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal:

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

I suspect the same is true of data graphics.


Mrs SomeBeans has been referring to Tufte as Tufty, who UK readers of a certain age will remember well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Choosing to die

Terry Pratchett was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and has made a programme, Choosing to die, about his enquiries into assisted suicide. It's pretty difficult viewing: Pratchett visits the widow of a Belgian writer who, like him, had Alzheimer's disease and had chosen to end his life. He visits a former taxidriver in a hospice with motor neuron disease, who had chosen not to die. The bulk of the programme is spent with two men who went to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where they were helped to die. Andrew, only a couple of years older than me, with multiple sclerosis and Peter, born in 1939, with motor neuron disease. The death of Peter is shown in full. It's not this that is my abiding memory though, that will be of the courage and dignity of the wife and mother of these two dying men. Neither woman wants their loved one to go.

The striking thing for me was how both men appeared to be heading off to Switzerland before their time, for fear of not being able to go when they felt they had to. The current legislation seems to be wilfully sadistic, obliging early death for those that chose whilst holding out the threat of prosecution to the family.

The Swiss are allowed to be helped to die at home, whilst foreigners go to die in a small blue apartment in an industrial estate. Incongruously the shallow steps to the front door are protected by black and yellow safety tape: because if you're going to die you don't want to fall over and crack your head open. This seems a great pity since in the background you could see the snow clad Swiss Alps, a glorious place to die.

A number of members of my close family have died over the last ten years. I don't think we're an unusual family, we've discussed assisted dying, often in the aftermath of a death. My paternal grandparents both died in their nineties in retirement homes, very much reduced from their previous vigorous selves, moving gradually to death. My maternal grandparents both died at home, quite suddenly. My stepfather died at home in a hospital bed, cared for by my mum with the support of nurses. He'd known he was going to die since cancer stopped him eating a couple of months earlier. Mum is the bravest person I know.

The consensus in the family appears to be for assisted dying but I think we all know privately that as the law stands now it will not happen. We will be left to face what lingering or sudden deaths nature serves up to us, in the knowledge that modern medicine has got so much better at keeping us alive but not necessarily living.

This is one of the few places where my atheism collides with the established church: any time the right to die is discussed it appears to be a Christian or one of the Lords Spiritual who is called upon to make the case against: often citing the idea that my life is a gift from God, and that I have no right to dispose of it. Clearly for an atheist this is an argument discarded in a moment.

I may die in an accident tomorrow. I may hang on to the absolute end waiting to see what is over the the next ridge. Or maybe, when I am old and have had enough, I'll want to go at a time and place of my choosing.

How I choose to die is none of your business - I won't presume to choose for you.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How do I setup my own website?

A post in the style of random notes today: I’ve been making a new website for The Inelegant Gardener – there’s a teaser here, I’ve done this before for the Chester Liberal Democrats. I thought it might be handy to provide a compact description of the process as a reminder to me and a warning to others…

The steps are as follows:

  1. Getting a domain name
  2. Finding a web host
  3. Making your website
  4. Going live

1. Getting a domain name

The domain name is the www bit. You can put your domain name registration with your web host but conventional wisdom is that it’s better to separate the two. I chose based on a twitter recommendation. Once you’ve chosen your domain name, you get access to a simple control panel which can be used to redirect your domain name to another site (such as this one), set up e-mail redirection and so forth. Mine gives me access to DNS Settings but I left these alone. When the time comes you’ll need to set the names servers to those provided by your web host.

2. Finding a web host

A web host is where your website will live. In the end I settled with EvoHosting for a few of reasons: they have live status updates for their servers, they have a twitter account and mentions of evohosting on twitter do not reveal any frustrated users, a search for the term “evohosting is crap” reveals no worrying hits in Google! They’re also reassuring slightly more expensive than the cheapest hosting solutions which seem to suffer from the “X is crap” syndrome. I selected a scheme that allows me to host several sites.

3. Making your website

You can make a website using Wordpress – the blogging software. Building a website is a question of managing content – and for a small site Wordpress does this nicely and is free. You don’t have to be blogging to use it – you can just make a set of static pages. I understand that for bigger sites Joomla is good. Wordpress is a combination of a PHP application talking to a SQL database. I found a passing familiarity with SQL databases quite handy, not so much to write queries but just to know the basics of accounts and tables.

Wordpress handles the mechanics of your website, what goes where, posting and making pages whilst the “theme” determines appearance. I’ve used the Atahualpa theme for my two websites so far – it’s pretty flexible, although if you want to put anything top-right in the logo area I’d find a good reason not to - I’ve spent days trying to do it to my satisfaction! For debugging your own website and snooping into others the developer tools available on all major browsers are very handy. I use Google Chrome, for which the Window Resizer and MeasureIt extensions are useful. Window Resizer allows you to test your site at different screen sizes, and MeasureIt measures the size in pixels of screen elements.

I’ve found Paint .NET useful for wrangling images, it’s either the old Windows Paint program on steroids or a very limited Photoshop.

For my efforts I have created the website locally, on my own PC, before transferring it to web hosting. I’m not sure if this is standard practice but it seemed a better idea than potentially thrashing around in public as you learnt to build your website. To do this I installed xampplite, this gives my PC web serving capabilities and provides everything needed to run Wordpress –except Wordpress which you need to download separately.

Wordpress can be extended by plugins, and I’ve found I can achieve most the functionality I’ve wanted by searching out the appropriate plugin. Here are a few I’m using:

  1. Contact Form 7 – to create forms
  2. Drop cap shortcode – to easily add drop caps (big letters) to posts and pages.
  3. Dynamic Widgets – to put different widgets on different pages
  4. NextGEN Gallery – more advanced photo gallery software
  5. Simple Page Ordering – allows you to shuffle the order pages appear in your static menus, which is a bit tricky in basic Wordpress
  6. WP-dtree – a dynamic tree structure for showing the blog archive, as found in Blogger.
  7. WP Maintenance Mode – for hiding your site whilst you’re fiddling with it!
  8. Wordpress Mobile Pack – a switcher for making your blog more readable if someone arrives using a mobile browser

Since Wordpress is a very heavily used platform there’s a lot of help around, you identify Wordpress sites by looking in the site footer, or viewing the page source (Wordpress sites tend to have references to files starting “wp-“)

4. Going live

I must admit I find the process of moving a site from my own machine to a web server the most complicated bit of the process – you can see the instructions on the Wordpress site here. The basic idea is to change the base URL for your website to the target address then copy the pages (zipped them all up before upload) and the database (using phpmyadmin import/export) of the Wordpress installation to the web host. If you want to keep your local copy running then you need to take a copy before changing the base URL and load it back up once you’ve done moving. Things that caught me out this time: I had to use MySQL to create a database into which to import the database, and it wasn’t enough to create a user, I also needed to attach it to the appropriate account, and I had to save the settings on the permalinks for pages to show up. Finally, I also had some typed links in my website, which needed manually adjusting (although you can do this automatically in MySQL).

I wish I knew a bit more CSS, my current technique for fine tuning appearance involves a lot of rather ignorant typing, a bit more knowledge of good graphic design wouldn’t go amiss either!

This is the way I did it – I’d be interested in any suggestions for improvements.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The New College of the Humanities

AC Grayling is fronting the formation of a new private institution, The New College of the Humanities (NCH) providing degree level education, based in London and charging £18k per year. The degrees will be awarded by the University of London, under an existing scheme, the University of London International Programmes, the NCH simply being a new supplier.

The New College of Humanities is heading for the prestige market with its headline fees of £18k per year, a list of celebrity professors, a Bloomsbury location and a staff to student ratio of 1:10. It's clear from the supporting material that the celebrity professors will not be providing all of the teaching. The novelty here is that the NCH will be a private institution. The University of Buckingham has been plugging away quietly for the last 30 years or so as the UK's only private university, it is now getting increasing company. Buckingham has achieved very good student approval ratings, and has been innovative in the way it delivers degrees, managing to offer degree courses at around £18k, so it's going for a different unique selling point.

Returning to the NCH: as usual for stories involving universities in the UK, a comparison to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must be made by commentators in the press (here and here, for example). These should be ignored as fatuous and ill-conceived - there's much more to universities in the UK than Oxford and Cambridge.

I've been rather bemused by the reaction to NCH on twitter by the people I follow, they generally have the character of "How dare a private university be created". This is bizarre to me, the thesis that some big names should endow an institution with prestige is wobbly, however opposing the idea that people should be free to decide how to spend their money on how they attain their degree seems to me rather illiberal. To cover some of the points thrown around:
  1. It's not a research university. Much is made of the research / teaching link, in my experience Russell Group universities recruit lecturers on the basis of research potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can't help thinking that if I'd spent more time learning and doing teaching I'd be better at teaching. 
  2. It'll be like Jamie's University, a reference to Jamie's School where celebrities were sent to teach some of our more difficult pupils with hilarious consequences. In a way we already operate this system when we recruit our top-flight researchers to teach.
  3. The professoriate are not ethnically or gender diverse. Well neither are our current institutions!
  4. It teaches to the University of London syllabus, which is unsurprising since that who's awarding the degree! 
  5. It's narrowly parasitic, in the sense that it is taking advantage of the University of London's "public" facilities for free. This is contradicted by statements by both the University of London and the NCH, it will pay for facilities it uses.
  6. It's broadly parasitic. This seems to be based on the idea that people trained with public money should only serve public institutions. Not sure where this puts people trained abroad, coming to the UK, or even worse those trained here and emigrating or myself - trained by public funds and working in a private company. It does sound like indentured slavery to me. I don't buy the idea that the UK is short of people capable of teaching at degree level.
  7. They professoriate are doing it for money. Take a look at professorial salaries in the current institutions - £80k a year is not at all bad, they're already doing it for money. 
  8. It only teaches humanities, no science. My experience is that outside the Oxbridge college system the intermingling of disciplines in universities is poor, particularly across the great divide.
  9. A GP in the neighbourhood offers complementary medicine.
  10. It's straightforward evil because private money is involved. 
There is still a "to do" list for NCH:
  • they need to finalise their relationship with University of London;
  • they need to fill a large part of the teaching roster; 
  • they need to demonstrate the £18k per year price point will attract sufficient students to be economically viable;
I also see it having little wider significance to the teaching of humanities in the UK.

I must admit I quite like the idea of teaching degree level science to students at a 1:10 staff to student ratio without having to worry about all that grant application stuff - when do we get the New College of Science?

In summary, the NCH is a novel proposition based on a premise whose value is to be established - it's ultimately about how other people wish to spend their money and, in the absence of any obvious harm to others, they should be left to get on with it. We should be welcoming new ideas in providing degree level education: like this initiative, the Open University and the University of Buckingham, not trying to put them down at birth.

Some background on Cambridge Colleges, teaching and tuition fees by me.