The art of academic conferences

Having just spent the last few days at an academic conference in Seattle, I am once again reminded how bizarre such things are. Tonight, however, I ran across a nearly perfect description of one of the more bizarre aspects of such get-togethers: post-paper question and answer sessions.

“Colleagues stand at a microphone in the middle of the aisle and, using the polite code phrases of science, ask the presenter if he has considered the possibility that his head has unaccountably become entangled in his ass.”

The above text is from a Wired article about the proposed new Cable Science Network (C-Span for scientists), but the snippet originally comes from Brian Alexander’s book, “Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion”.

Making professors obsolete

It is highly likely that one day soon professors, at least at the entry level, are made increasingly obsolete by technology. The folks at Marginal Revolution approvingly cite an article in the Washington Post that makes this point:

Every year… there are thousands of college professors who twice or three times a week offer what is largely the same basic lecture course in a subject like molecular biology or Shakespeare comedies. A few of these professors offer the kind of brilliant lectures that fill auditoriums and provide the kind of educational experience that students remember all their lives. Many of the rest offer something that ranges from mediocre to awful….why don’t we identify these extraordinary lecturers, put their lectures on CDs, and sell them to universities that could supplement them with faculty-led tutorials or discussions?

All fair points, but I disagree with Marginal Revolution’s conclusion. They argue that the result within ten years will be a winner-take-all superstar market with high wages for a few, and lousy wages for most faculty. They wish. More likely is lousy wages for almost all junior faculty, given the essential commodity that they are delivering at the 101 level. Sure, some senior faculty will make tons of money, but that is already happening at major U.S. schools where prominent faculty are flipping schools for $300K a year and more.

Dot-com: cyclical; Digitisation: secular

Nice piece in today’s Financial Times linking together a number of disparate happenings, like Amazon’s new full-text database, but all with a common cause:

People tend to confuse the secular trend [digitisation] with the cyclical phenomenon of the dotcom bubble,” says Gary Hamel, an author and consultant on corporate strategy. “It is clear to me that the secular trend remains intact.”

For evidence, look at the business pages. Digital discomfort is widespread: in Kodak’s cathartic decision to focus its resources on digital imaging; in the record industry’s attempts to regain control through the courts of digital music distribution; in the challenge posed to telecommunications companies by internet-based telephony; in the collision of consumer electronics companies such as Sony and Matsushita with the big names of personal computing – Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and Apple.

Insider trading on Survivor

Fifteen people from Vancouver, British Columbia, placed disproportionate bets on Survivor-winner Sandra even before the first episode aired. As a result, BetWWTS.com ended betting on Survivor back in September, thinking that something was up and they stood to lose a great deal of money. They ended up losing $40,000 on the mere $5,000 in bets they took in before shutting down wagering on Survivor.

Granted, no-one knew that Sandra had won until this Sunday when the jury’s decision was announced. But they could have known that Sandra was one of the final two, and bet accordingly. Clearly someone at CBS was leaking, and it was someone with a connection to the Vancouver area.

All of this shows why allowing betting on activities that are merely secret, as opposed to not yet complete, is rarely a good idea. There are too many opportunities for opportunists to get greedy and place some wagers — and that is certainly worth remembering in this age of unlimited online betting markets.

“Are we shooting people, or what?”

Life in Iraq continues to be more and more like outtakes from the movie “Three Kings”. The latest example comes from a Reuters story containing an interview with troops from the brigade that captured Saddam. They were surprised at how easily nabbing Saddam went, to the point that one gunner was unhappy at the absence of gun-play:

“My gunner said: ‘Is that it? No shooting?”‘ said Capt. Desmond Bailey, a commander of troops that encircled Saddam.

“He’s the best gunner in the troop, so he was a bit disappointed.”


Shades of that great back-and-forth from “Three Kings”:

Troy Barlow: Are we shooting?

Soldier: What?

Troy Barlow: Are we shooting people or what?

Soldier: Are we shooting?

Troy Barlow: That’s what I’m asking you!

Soldier: What’s the answer?

Troy Barlow: I don’t know the answer! That’s what I’m trying to find out!

Minimax, and the economics of “Survivor”

The hit television show Survivor finished last night as improbably as it was through its recent “Pearl Island” run. Lill, a Boy Scout troop leader, seemingly gave away a million dollars.

Here is what happened: Lill could select who her fellow contestant would be for the final pair, and either her or that person would win a million dollars depending on the jury’s vote. Her choices were an appealingly direct mother, Sandra, or a young fellow, Jon, who lied extravagantly throughout the game (including about having had his grandmother die in mid-show). The rational decision seemed to be Jon, who had few friends in the jury.

But Lill chose Sandra, and Sandra went on to win $1 million by a 6-1 vote. Some immediately called Lill dumb, pointing out that she should have known Jon, the liar, would have few votes — she should have known she would have beat him at the end (and a subsequent straw vote by the jury seemingly showed that). Yet Lill chose Sandra instead, and got hammered.

Lill’s explanation was an unorthodox application of (conservative) game theory — she wanted to minimize her maximum regret (Minimax). She was so unhappy with the idea of Jon possibly winning that she willingly lowered her own chances of winning by bringing Sandra with her to the final two instead of Jon. Apparently her hypothesized regret from a Jon win was so high, despite that win being a relatively low likelihood , that she was willing to accept the high probability of losing to Sandra.

(As a side note, it is worth wondering whether Jon had a higher likelihood of winning than some thought. The straw vote showed four votes for Lill if she were paired off against Jon. That is a bare one-vote win, not exactly daunting, and certainly something that could have easily shifted in a real vote.)

Poll: Canada’s Prime Minister is … ?

Who is Canada’s current Prime Minister?

a) Jean Chretien

b) Brian Mulroney

c) Paul Martin

d) Pierre Trudeau

For extra bonus points, how long has he been in the position? No cheating or peaking at answers.

Separated at Birth? Hackman and Hussein

When I first saw the picture of Saddam Hussein this morning he looked awfully familiar. There was a little bit of the naked hermit from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, and there was a little of Ted Kaczynski, but there was someone else … and then it came to me. After being pulled out of his hole in the ground, Saddam Hussein is a dead ringer for Gene Hackman’s blind hermit in the classic Mel Brooks comedy, “Young Frankenstein” (1974).

Headline: New Government, new approach!

Only in Canada would it be headline news that a new government will be guided by a new approach. Not only that, new Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin, felt it necessary to expand on the prior fluff:

OTTAWA, Ontario, December 12, 2003 — Prime Minister Paul Martin announced a new Ministry today, committing that it will be guided by a new attitude and new approach in working toward real progress on the priorities that matter most to people.

The problem with most politicians is that they spend too much time worrying about what people currently care about, as opposed to what is going to effect people in the looming future. Doing more of that sort of thing will only make things worse, not better.

Patently mad?

Shades of 1999, patent nattering is everywhere again. The two main pieces that have people talking are David Wessel’s from the WSJ, and Jonathan Krim’s in the Washington Post. Both point to an October FTC report that made blunt recommendations for changes in the U.S. patenting system, like more examiners, more ex post reviews, and so on.

Patent critics don’t buy any of this, arguing, as one fellow does in the WashPost piece, that 20-year protection for software patents is ludicrous given the pace of chance. That is a superficially appealing idea, but it is also largely self-refuting. If a 20-year-old patent still matters, then clearly the pace of technical change in software isn’t all that high. And if it doesn’t matter, then who cares what the patent length is — you’ve already conceded that it is irrelevant.

I think that what such people are really trying to say is that some patent are issued and interpreted over-broadly, and that’s fair. But it’s also not the point he was making at face value, which is that innovation trumps patents. It is a problem, in other words — just not the one critics claims to want solved.

More interesting is a comment on the issue from economist Brad DeLong. He highlights David Wessel’s column, especially the ongoing tussle between Microsoft and Eolas, the holder of an embedded applet patent. And then he goes on to decry the patenting practices of his own employers, the University of California:

“As a University of California professor, I am personally upset that the Regents, the President, and the lawyers of the University of California have forgotten what the purpose of a public university. Even if the Eolas patent had not been granted upon claims of the lack of prior art that appear to be false, the University of California has no business trying to restrict the spread of knowledge and the useful arts”

Universities are becoming increasingly split on this issue, or at least their faculty are. Folks like DeLong believe that public universities have an obligation to put things they create back into the public domain. Orthodox conservatives have no problem with letting people who create things own the rights, even if someone else (at least indirectly) paid for it. Pragmatists point out that a DeLong-ian view ignores the reality of university finances: U.S. universities received almost one billion dollars in licensing income in 2002 — a very large number, and one that funds an awful lot of activities and services.