Friday, July 26, 2019

Myth and Magic in Senior Academic Promotion Processes

of course, the origins are lost in a dim past of Mesopotamia, with the ritual sacrifices and rites of the Ur god of wisdom, Bloki, often drawn with his glance akimbo, holding the chisel with which he will inscribe the third review on the hierophant's forehead.

There is certainly no truth in the scurrilous rumour that there is any sexual element to the procedure, nor is there a cat called Taboo (at least, not any more).

But there is a room, above a vortex.

There are boiled sweets.

And there are huge cauldrons full of scalding black liquid.

That is all I can say, as I have been sworn to secrecy, although perhaps I will confirm that all numbers are forbidden in the room, being instead replaced with the bouquet of fine wines, and discernment between the merely vernacular, and the supernacular is an essential skill amongst the cabal.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

new dimensions in ethical dilemmas

We've been working on mapping science progress, and collaborations, geo-location of research contributions, and the rise (and fall) of institutions (labs etc) over 50 years of bibliometric data.
This is easy as we;re all so eager to be seen to publish that the meta-data about our work is all freely available through plenty of online databases and can be extracted in a very small number of accepted standard formats for magic processing - so we started here with a basic 5 year set of data (we've also looked at the Turing institute's publication data over the last 3 years, and now we're working on all of sigcomm's half a century of data. it would be easy to do more subjects and also more analyses.
First of two we're just adding is mentioned above, which is to look at the trajectory of research labs. So most people will be aware that Bell Labs is no longer the thing of beauty it once was. Nor is Xerox PARC. And some labs simply disappeared due to their corporate hq discorporating (Sun Microsystems, Digital Equipment Corporation) or losing the plot (HP?).

So we can see his effect over time. We can use the data + other information, to train algorithms to predict the demise of labs too (in the same way this Euro S&P paper from oxford built an algorithm for mergers and treaties out of airplane tracking datasets and external news reports.

We can also see geographic variation in success at research outputs.

But we can go further - a second thing we can add is gender data, inferred from names (or by using data from web lookup of author name + institution or other public sources. And this could be useful for combating bias.

However, what happens when we start to relate overall trends of institutions to the arrival (or departure) of particular researchers? This could be turned into a recruitment (or promotion or dismissal) tool. That could be quite a bad thing (given there are natural reasons why there's variation in peoples' output or influence on colleagues output, which can vary over time, and are probably going to result in short termism killing more long term strategic type thinking).

what to do?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

dream time

Before he died, Uncle James wrote me this lovely letter. He wasn't really my uncle, he was just this rare thing, an old friend of my mother's who was also my friend. He lived in a rundown old cottage in the middle of nowhere somewhere near Brecon. He had been a quite well known british classical composer of that odd kind of post-vaughan-williams type of music, never as radical as Schoenberg or as out-and-out crazy as Boulez or Stockhausen, or as trendy and minimal as Steve Reich.

James was worried that his 40 year-old digital clock was dreaming. While it hadn't told the time properly for two decades, he kept it as the only form of electronic technology he had ever (before he retired) found useful.

For most of the 1990s, it had remained completely blank, but then suddenly, one morning he noticed that it was showing some strange symbols that could be read as a word. He got out his welsh dictionary and discovered that indeed, bwrw was a common term for rain. Unsurprising, he thought. but then a digital clock that predicted the weather, no matter how predictable, was (like the proverbial poor chess playing dog) surprising.

However, the next day, the clock read ffliw. And James promptly sneezed and was laid up for two weeks, until he recovered. Feeling much better, he decided to cheer himself up and his wife Mary, by writing a spring tune. The clock ticked,  and read duw. He had just been thinking of something inspired by religion.

James wrote to me, because, as he explained, I was the only person he knew who might be able to explain how a 1970s digital clock, probably made in China, was suddenly behaving like one of the cleverest AIs in the world.  I was lost for words. It was very sad that he had discovered an emergent being that, while locked in such an unprepossessing box, was expressive and helpful. I did not want to tell anyone about this at the Turing Institute, as they would descend on James lovey cottage with their logic analyzers and Turing tests, and would no doubt kill the goose that was laying such golden eggs.

Not long after this, James died, and Mary moved to Cornwall and threw out all his memorabilia, so maybe the clock is in some landfill somewhere. But maybe it is still dreaming on someone's bedside table, offering hints in a timely way on how their day may go. An accidental oracle from the orient.