Where the money is…

Mathematical finance as an accessory to crime

Not long after I finished my PhD in probability theory, a significant fraction of the field was devoured by the financial mathematics moloch. Particularly in Europe, probability theory positions disappeared, to be replaced by openings in financial mathematics, which either went unfilled or cycled among a very few senior researchers and a few quick-change opportunists (and, gradually, their fledgeling academic progeny).

Everyone felt they had to get in on the action, and of course there was a certain amount of positive feedback. When many jobs chase few graduates, it generates huge demand among students for training in such a demonstrably burgeoning field. Obviously, the academic feedback was limited by the fact that most of the eager young ‘uns were seeking employment in banks, not in academia — but the banks were hiring as well. Anyway, just about 10 years ago, a Dutch colleague asked me if I might be interested in joining his own institute’s planned financial mathematics group, for which they were proposing to create TEN new positions. My reply was that finance did not interest me as a topic of research, but I added that there was something unseemly — bordering on unethical — in mathematicians’ headlong chase after banking lucre. The current generation of mathematicians is the trustee of a vast and powerful system of analysis, whose creators were supported, honoured, and financed by public institutions. What is it but a crime, when we abscond with the fruits of this scholarship, and sell it off (cheaply) to banks, who will use it to extract billions of dollars from financial markets? Continue reading “Where the money is…”

An Omnibus named Perdition

christian_bus Atheist-Bus

The famous atheist buses have come to Oxford. What do they mean — other than that the redoubtable Richard Dawkins has found a new venue for self-promotion? I have already commented on the peculiar place — or, at least, what seems peculiar to someone who has generally lived in basically secular, non-theocratic countries — of religion in the public sphere of the UK, which appears to outweigh by far its importance in the private sphere (but maybe that’s just Oxford). It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Anglican atheists would crave public acknowledgement of their private obsessions. The public forum par excellence is the public bus. The Christians are already there, and the atheists now have their gospel plastered on the side, saying “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (Or is it “no God”? Hard to say, given the typography…) For those craving more detail, there is a url for Dawkins’s website. (Which, interestingly, when I checked it just now, featured a large photograph of the man himself, next to the slogan “The Enemies of Reason”. He seems to be selling DVDs, which perhaps reveal whether he is numbered among the enemies, or the enemies of the enemies. I’ve heard he once had ambitions to be a scientist, which explains a lot, when you think about it.) Continue reading “An Omnibus named Perdition”

In praise of the National Health Scapegoat

All over the world babies are babies, and birth is birth, but having a baby in Oxford is certainly quite a different experience than having a baby in California. The comparison is mostly favourable to Oxford, in our experience. The prime directive of the NHS (which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary) is borrowed from Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

The NHS is a great success by any definition. When you factor in the constitutional niggardliness of the British taxpayers and Her Majesty’s government — leading the UK to spend per capita on healthcare substantially less than half what the US spends, and much less than any major industrialised country except Japan — it seems a veritable miracle of efficient socialism. Whereas health research in the US is dominated by the profit motive, producing marginally improved drugs at breathtakingly higher prices*, the NHS has a brilliant record of pioneering cost-effective healthcare solutions, which may be individually trivial, even slightly absurd, but which together add up to systematic and measurable improvements in public health. (For example, this scheme to prevent complications due to chronic lung disease by providing patients with automated telephone warnings of impending cold snaps. Or something as simple as reducing infections by requiring doctors and nurses to wear short sleeves.) Continue reading “In praise of the National Health Scapegoat”

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map

National identity theft

“Now a new king arose over Egypt… He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase… Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built cities… for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” (Exodus 1:8-12)

These words, central to our recent Passover celebration, came to mind while I was thinking about the British immigration policies. I can’t figure out whether the UK is the most xenophobic country I’ve ever lived in, or whether it just acts like it. On the one hand, the UK has a well-deserved reputation as a sanctuary for the persecuted and would-be persecutors temporarily out of office. On the other hand, UK politicians, who (one presumes) know better, seem to cheer themselves up when they’re feeling blue by attacking immigrants, either directly or (more commonly) by insinuation. The same is true for pillars of society like the BBC. Immigrants are corroding the fabric of society, hence the need for ever-mounting restrictions. They are unleashing a crime wave on peace-loving Britons (at about the same rate per capita as the native hoodlums, but at least you understand what a British thug is screaming while he kicks your head in, or at least, you could if he weren’t so drunk). (Who trusts pointy-headed statistics anyway?) And, worst of all, after they’ve sneaked in here with their legal chicanery, following their perverse urges to clean our toilets and mop up bodily fluids in NHS hospitals, they’re breeding. That’s right, the same Polish nurses who are keeping the NHS maternity wards from dissolving into a mass of MAR, are now bringing those wards to the point of collapse by having babies themselves.* And there’s nothing we can do about it! Or so one would have thought…
Continue reading “National identity theft”

The agony and the equity

There was a time when the British, like their American and Canadian counterparts, believed in promoting equality. Now, all anyone cares about is equity. Housing equity. The UK, like the US, is entirely in the grip of the house-price inflationists. One of the most extreme examples is a recent BBC report, which reads like an investigation of satanic cults and their strange and twisted morality, but is actually about young workers who have not been able to afford to buy their own homes, and who, deep in their poverty-depraved hearts, wish secretly for… a decline in housing prices. Horreur! One “frustrated young professional” is quoted saying “I can’t wait for the crash. Bring it on… People talk about the crisis in the property market. But the real crisis is that so many people can’t afford a home of their own.” Terribly immature, the article suggests, as it goes on to quote a more mature voice, a 29-year-old teacher who “is old enough to remember the repossessions and negative equity that followed the crash in the early 1990s.” Even this otherwise reasonable person is being driven to vile wishes for a housing Armegeddon. “‘Morally, I feel bad about wanting it because I know people will end up on the street,’ she says. But unable to find anywhere affordable on her £30,000-a-year wage packet, she admits that doom-and-gloom headlines are giving her hope.”

Continue reading “The agony and the equity”

The established church

One of the most seemingly archaic features of modern Britain — and the one that outsiders may be least prepared for — is the “established church”.  Formal secularism takes many forms, in the US, Canada, France, Turkey; but one does get used to thinking of religion as no proper business of the state. Not in the UK, where the Queen is Defender of the Faith, and the Prime Minister had to wait until he had left office before he could comfortably change his religious affiliation. The highest position in society that anyone can aspire to who does not happen to be the first-born of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — I mean, the House of Windsor — is to marry the first-born of this famous princely family, and a Catholic maiden, however virginal, may not aspire to this august status. (My impression is that current law currently restricts the spousal position to members of one sex as well, and the constitutional status of a same-sex civil partner of the heir to the throne is, so far as I can tell, still unresolved.) Apparently Jews, Muslims, and Wiccans are not formally excluded, though the tabloid press might raise a fuss if the next queen hosted witches’ sabbaths on a regular basis at Buckingham Palace. Balmoral might be another matter…

Punch cartoon: Shows the struggle between Anglicans and Dissenters for control over education, while the needs of the children are ignored.

The most practical consequence of this establishment is that a large fraction of the state-funded schools (called “maintained schools”) are actually subsidiaries of the Church of England. The state provides most of the money, and the church gets impressionable children to proselytise at will. In some parts of the country these schools are selective and people get themselves and/or their children baptised to get them in; in Oxford, the C of E snapped up most of the good school sites long ago, and we’d have to travel far from home to find a non-church primary school. Not that that would do any good, given that daily Christian worship is required by law in all state schools. (To be precise, the communal worship must be “mainly of a broadly Christian character”, “which accord a special status to Jesus Christ”) There are literally no secular state-funded schools in the UK. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you do it in school, rather than in, say, a church or other such inappropriate institution.

Oxford admissions

One of the genuinely unique features of Oxbridge is the admissions procedure. To judge by the news reporting, there is no issue in education that interests the British as much as admission to the “Ancient Universities”. The only countries with comparable concerns (that I am aware of) are the US, France, and Japan. I know almost nothing about Japanese university admissions. France, famously, has a parallel system of Grandes Écoles of fairly modern (mostly post-Revolution) vintage, while the traditional universities are completely unselective in admissions, though of course some courses ruthlessly prune students through mid-course exams. The Grandes Écoles are a broad pallette of fairly small and specialised institutions, relying on special preparatory classes and rigid admissions exams. While the ENS in Paris as the primus inter pares for academic subjects, the specialisation means that aspiring business or political or civil-engineering leaders have their own, equally exclusive institutions.

An American trying to understand the significance of Oxbridge admissions should imagine the frenzy over Ivy League and comparable universities, reduced to two elite universities, of which students are permitted to apply to only one. For all the frenzy in the US over getting children into Harvard, it is well understood that there are fine gradations of quality and prestige, and at least half a dozen institutions whose diplomas will do you exactly as much good in climbing the socioeconomic ladder, as well as several dozen more that will count you among the elite.

The UK is blessed with a large number of truly excellent universities, world-class in research and truly dedicated to teaching their students. But why should anyone care how brilliant your instructors were (unless you are one of the small minority who go on to a research career, and even then, only if the brilliant instructor has worked closely enough with you to be able to make a meaningful recommendation, and that brilliant instructor is one of that small subset who are not only brilliant themselves, but capable and willing to recognise brilliance in others)? University admissions in a stratified educational system is as much about exclusion as education. The “return” that universities provide to most of their undergraduates, from the coarse economic perspective, is largely conditioned on exclusivity. It’s rather like a hyper-expensive resort that provides reasonable comfort, but offers above all the opportunity to be secluded with other phenomenally wealthy vacationers. The price becomes part of the service, rather than being a trade-off. Universities don’t exclude by wealth primarily (particularly not in the UK), but by academic performance. There is a widespread perception that a certain amount of academic brilliance is the right qualification for many of the most desireable jobs in the modern economy, enough to make a place among the academic elite seem immensely desireable. Bankers pay £20,000 a year or more to send their children to “independent schools” (or “public schools”), the primary measure of whose success (it would be unfair to say it is their overriding educational goal) is the number of students they place in Oxford and Cambridge.

The universities could probably do more to exclude the striving sons and daughters of the haute-bourgeois, in favour of the enthusiastic poor or not-so-poor scholars, but then society at large would stop caring about us, and would stop supporting us in the style to which we have become accustomed. On the other hand, if the moneyed classes were too  It’s a delicate balance, which recurs in many aspects of the university. For instance, there is considerable pressure to put business people onto boards of universities, to align the universities more closely with business interests. But of course, if the business community knew how to achieve their interests in selection, training, and research, they wouldn’t be mucking about with universities at all. They want to bend the universities more to their interests, but too much capitalist gleichschaltung leaves universities like the internal research departments that they already have too much of. Academics are a bit like yeast, going about our own metabolic processes, whose effluvium (in this case intellectually sharp employees, leaders, and future captains of industry — no offense intended) turns out to be of great value to others, for reasons that we tiny yeast cells can no more than dimly recognise, while we are mainly striving to reproduce ourselves (in the academic sense, by seducing the rare brilliant student into a life of cogitation). As a machine for selecting and training the upper class, universities seem obviously inefficient, since they are intentionally pursuing quite different goals. Like the brewer’s yeast, though, academics work cheap (by the standards of private industry); furthermore, the system is entrenched and well tested, and the rigour with which academics enforce intellectual standards and is far enough superior (or, at least, complementary) to the soft-soap appraisals of business and government to compensate for the frequent disjunctions and not infrequent contradictions between them. Even if universities were supposed to serve no other purposes than those of business, for business leaders to streamline the university in their own image would be like trying to augment honey production by steam-cleaning the beehive.

On what basis are some individuals judged “worthy” of an Oxford education? The obvious answer is, those who are most talented, and have the most potential to learn and achieve notable scholarship, in their chosen fields. But why? There is some feeling that the brightest students will make the best use of an excellent education. And yet, this is far from the usual principles for allocating scarce resources. We do not insist that the finest automobiles go to the best drivers, nor do we insist on providing top-notch kitchen utensils to good chefs. (There is some effort to match exceptional music instruments to exceptional musicians, though.) When the market solution is rejected, it is typically for egalitarian reasons. But on an egalitarian basis, one might argue for providing the best post-secondary education to the most ignorant students, to balance things out. For an alternative justification, we might jump to the argument that the education at an elite university differs not in quality but in kind. This is especially true in the UK, where Oxford and Cambridge rely largely on the tutorial system. By leaving students very much to their own devices, but providing close contact and frequent interaction with leading senior scholars, this puts a premium on students’ ability to organise and motivate their studies, and to ask probing questions. For someone incapable of this (or simply uninterested), a place at Oxford would not be a gift. Then there is the problem of competition and mutual assistance among fellow students: Clearly students all benefit from a certain amount of stratification by ability, simply to allow lectures to be targetted at a common pace.

Oxbridge discrimination, elite schools, and the Sutton Trust report

The public is clearly of two minds. It is opposed to “elitism” on principle, but wants to be respected in the world for its elites. There seems to be less hostility than in the US toward pointy-headed academics, but they want class distinctions to be erased in the allocation of resources. As long as genius blows whereThe fact that well-heeled parents are buying not only a posh accent with their school fees, but sharper minds, genuinely better prepared for a top university, cuts uncomfortably across these lines. To put it bluntly, while everyone could benefit from an Oxford degree, not everyone would benefit from an Oxford education. This discrepancy is what drives the headlines, though, since one feels that the valuable Oxford degrees, being partly funded by the taxpayers, should be spread around more broadly. In particular, there is the sense, expressed in articles such as this one, that  This article describes the Sutton Trust report, which found that out of about 3700 schools in the UK, there are 100 — 78 of them private — which provides Oxbridge with about 1/3 of their matriculants. What does that mean? It sounds to many like an indictment of the fairness of the admissions process. Some schools are receiving more than their “fair share” of Oxbridge places. Or are they? In principle, this pattern could be explained if the 100 top schools had twenty times as many pupils as the rest, on average. Of course, they do not, but the idea does not seem so absurd when we replace “pupils” by “highly motivated pupils with highly motivated families”. Wealth is a factor, that is, but so is the importance placed upon education. Furthermore, as long as there is a perception that elite schools are the necessary springboard to Oxbridge, those families who yearn for Oxbridge will, if at all possible, scrape together the money to send their little ones to an independent school. The less motivated — perhaps because they do not care about education, perhaps because they find Oxbridge pretensions insufferable — will be less well prepared for Oxbridge (though perhaps better prepared for something else), and may not even apply. Indeed, if we look at application statistics, we see that the state school pupils are drastically underrepresented among the Oxford applicants as well. Only 57.5% of Oxford applicants in 2005-7 came from state schools. Those who did apply did fairly well, as we see that 53.2% of the places went to applicants from state schools. (Worcester received only 46.4% of its applications from state schools, but 48.7% of those accepted were from this group.)

Even if we accepted the soundness of the statistical inference — some schools are unfairly (or, at least, unreasonably) advantaged in placing their graduates in elite universities — the logical conclusion is being twisted to a political agenda. Consider that we believe ourselves to have strong empirical evidence for the proposition:
1) Graduates of elite universities are more likely to get good jobs and be economically successful in their lives.
The socially conscious concludes that therefore
2) We need to widen access to this important Oxbridge benefit.
We are then confronted with strong empirical evidence for the proposition:
3) Graduates of elite schools are more likely to be admitted to elite universities, and be economically successful in their lives.
The same pattern of reasoning then would lead us to
4) We need to widen access to this important elite school benefit.
One might widen access by helping more children from a variety of backgrounds to be able to afford to attend the best schools. Or, one might widen access by improving the education provided in the state schools, copying the methods and the funding levels of the independent schools. But no, that is not feasible. You see, that would demand higher taxes, and the British public does not believe in being taxed the way other Europeans are. But then, it is hard to see why, if they believe that the wealthy should be allowed by right to keep the money they earn, they are surprised when the wealthy want to use the money to buy something valuable, like a good education. And yet, this is not the conclusion drawn by some newspaper columnists and government ministers. (with some notable exceptions such as this journalist and this anodyne ministerial comment)

The report clouds the issue by multiplying the meaningless statistics: Quite promininent is the information that “The proportion of university entrants going to Oxbridge from the top performing 30 independent schools was nearly twice that of the top performing 30 grammar schools — despite having very similar average A-level scores.” That sounds rather damning, unless you know that  Oxford is choosing only from the students who have the maximum possible score of three A grades in their A-level exams. These comprise fully 10% of all school leavers, while less than 1% will be able to find a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Thus, comparing average A-level grades would not be expected necessarily to have much relevance in predicting Oxbridge acceptance rates. It is rather as though one were to infer invidious discrimination from observing that the Royal Philharmonic was far more likely to hire graduates of a leading conservatory than university graduates in music pedagogy, despite the fact that both groups on average had learned to play the same number of scales.

While the UK gives students only one shot at the “elite”, at the very least the message of rejection is somewhat limited by the admissions criteria. Whereas UK universities seek out the students most capable for the particular course of study that they aspire to study, US universities nourish the fiction that they evaluate the whole person. So when Harvard or Yale or Stanford rejects you, it is not just your academic qualifications that they are judging inadequate. It is your life.

My own experience as a student going through the US university admissions mill certainly colours my experience. Being quite naive about the process, I applied only to four universities: Harvard, MIT, Yale, and Johns Hopkins (the last only because my brother was there). I had admissions interviews at the first two, and was accepted at the last two. As someone who has gone on to be a quite competent research mathematician, I find the rejection by MIT back then particularly telling. I was a top student in high school, winning a fair share of local and national prizes in mathematics. I have gone on to become a fairly successful research mathematician. And yet I was rejected by MIT, which is focused almost entirely on natural sciences, and accepted by Yale, with much broader interests and a football team to squeeze in. Why? I can only guess that, as a shy and introverted, math-obsessed and relatively young school pupil, I did not perform very well in an interview that had almost no academic content.

Discrimination, Legacies, and Development Cases

US universities are rather infamous for the many different ways they discriminate for or against certain applicants. The most notorious are the legacies — preference for childre, or occasionally other relatives, of alumni — and the “development cases”, a euphemism for children of the great and the good, whose patronage may be expected. For an excellent discussion of the open scandals of US university admissions, see Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission. Oxford explicitly rejects the principle of considering family connections as a factor in admissions.

I was interested to notice that even stuffy, old, rich Trinity College rejected Euan Blair, son of the Prime Minister, despite the fact that the warden (head of the college) is himself a notoriously wealthy and nonacademic alumnus of the college, and apparently a friend of the Blair family. Given the public attention that his case received, it’s easy to suppose that they were making a show of scrupulousness in admissions, but even then, it is notable that they felt it to be important to show that they would not play favourites with the son of a prime minister. Certainly US universities feel no compunctions about competing for the children of the wealthy, famous, and powerful, vaulting them ahead of more conventionally qualified applicants. Blair would hardly have been a disastrous student here: He did receive a conditional acceptance, but failed to make the required A-level grades — apparently his school predicted two A’s and a B, and he in fact received a C in French — and went on to study ancient history successfully at Bristol. (It is hardly a unique case. A classics tutor in Worcester told me of having rejected the son of a wealthy alumnus who they had ranked sixth among their applicants, when there were only five places. )

Of course, this is an often overlooked reason to be worried about the wealth-differential between colleges

Mathematics admissions at Worcester College

I presume that mathematics admissions are similar in most of the colleges, although the mechanics surely differ between those colleges with large numbers of applicants, and those with only a few. For some years now Worcester College has received the largest number of applications for mathematics and connected subjects, and in fact, the largest number of applications overall. Consequently, we had to interview from early morning to late evening on two consecutive days. Each applicant was interviewed twice, once on a sheet of questions that they had already seen, once on unseen questions. As I mentioned above, the school grades were all at the maximum. They had taken a mathematics exam specifically for Oxford admission, which has some influence on decisions.

In the end, I was quite impressed with how much one could see in a half-hour interview to distinguish the student with a superficial test-taking expertise from the student with the seeds of real mathematical vision and sharp problem-solving intelligence. At the same time, there are obvious dangers. The interview is extremely convincing, because it is something you have seen with your own eyes, and it does tend to wipe out all other considerations — particularly since, as I have remarked, the school system fails to provide the exceptional pupils with very many possibilities to differentiate themselves from the mass of merely adequate contemporaries. And while the interviews seem to be a very good tool for finding the prospective students likely to thrive in the tutorial system, it is hard to escape the suspicion that there are the rare young people whose minds are profound but not necessarily quick, who would benefit greatly from this university, and contribute greatly as well, who never manage to show their true mettle in a half-hour interview. We give two interviews, and then a third if there is disagreement, but it’s clear that a real genius might be missed.

On the other hand, I think that the interviews (at least as applied in mathematics) are well crafted to avoid the obvious inequities that concern many people. In discussions of admissions I never heard anyone suggest any criterion for admission other than mathematical ability, or rather, mathematical potential. Peripheral factors — in particular, quality of a candidate’s school, or national origin and language difficulties — were discussed only to the extent that they would help in translating the ability shown in the interview into potential. The principle, of course, is that the seed that sprouted well on stony ground has more potential than the seed that has already shown what it can do in rich loam. A candidate who seemed exceptionally nervous, or who was struggling a bit with conversational English, might deserve another look if his or her performance at the interview seemed otherwise not quite at the level of another without these handicaps. In the end, though, as sedulous as we tried to be in adjusting our expectations for the obvious distortions of personality and background, there is no question that a bright young person would be best served by the training of an excellent school, which would allow his or her ability to be directly demonstrated in the interview, rather than relying on the hit or miss possibility of some interviewer descrying great potential as through a glass darkly.

It might seem that students should calculate to apply to the less popular colleges, to compete against a weaker field. The advantage to be gained from such a strategy is marginal, though, and it could be counterproductive. There is a pretty thorough system for making sure that colleges with too many excellent applicants pass some on to the colleges with too few. My own impression is that there were a few rejected applicants, but not a large number, who probably ought to have found a place somewhere in the university had resources been unlimited.

Data and security

Security in the UK

Crime statistics in the UK are a mixed lot. On the one hand, the overall levels of crime victimisation are fairly similar to those in the US, Canada, and Western Europe, a bit on the high end overall. Homicide rates, on the other hand, despite recent well-publicised drops in the US, are still drastically lower (by a factor of about 3) in the UK and most of Western Europe (and Canada). Presumably this is attributable, at least in part, to the smaller number of guns. Gun murders in the UK are the lowest in the world, as a proportion of population, about a factor of 20 lower than in the US. (This does not directly contradict the “only outlaws will have guns” NRA rhetoric, if we generalise from a recent report in the NY Times, explaining that the classic random-mugging-murder is now extremely rare in New York, leaving mainly revenge killings and turf wars between drug gangs, and kinds of intimate crimes that are the meat of crime fiction. Gun bans, presumbly, have relatively little impact on the former — and the RMMs — but quite a lot on the jealous spouse and Double Indemnity types of crimes.)

While getting tough on lawbreakers, the hapless government of Gordon Brown is now having to answer for its own role in aiding and abetting identity theft. Supposedly a “junior official” of Customs and Revenue copied the entire database of families receiving the state Child Benefit (7.5 million families, comprising about 25 million individuals), including names, addresses onto compact disks, and sent them by unrecorded internal post to the National Audit Office. They did not turn up at the other end. As they say, it’s an ill will indeed that blows no good. Until this blunder sprawled over all the newspaper headlines, I had no idea that there was a Child Benefit, a monthly payment to parents (or anyone else raising a child) worth about £80 a month for families with one child. (It’s funny that we got caught out on this, because we were irked to discover, shortly before we left Canada, that we’d missed out on applying for a similar benefit there. For some reason governments don’t go out of their way to inform new immigrants of these things.) Anyone moving to the UK should be aware of this: official information is available here. My understanding, though, is that it’s generally only available for Europeans (which I’m not, but the rest of the family are).

If you wanted to contrive a damaging political scandal, without anyone really getting hurt, it would be hard to better this one. All the ingredients are there: Incompetence, money, long-term uncertainty, vast number of potential victims, new technology (making everyone particularly uneasy), and, most important, children. Furthermore, there are reports that

  1. The Audit Office requested an anonymised version of the database, but C&R refused, claiming it would be too costly. (Oops.)
  2. C&R suggested the auditors come visit them to peek at the database. Too much trouble, they said. (Oops again.)

Why are they e-mailing CDs anyway? Anyone with even a tiny bit of technological literacy could have used SSH to transfer the files over the Internet, and saved them the price of a stamp.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling (I can’t escape the feeling that there are names you meet at the top levels in politics here that would simply provoke too many giggles in the US or Canada) whose head might be expected to roll, explained that it really wasn’t his fault. In an inversion of the Eichmann defense, he explained that he just makes the rules. “There are rules that mean you can’t download this info and stick it in the post… In asking ourselves what has gone wrong here the rules appear to have been breached with catastrophic results.” Sounds reasonable. It’s not his fault if someone doesn’t follow the rules. This reminds me a bit of the reaction of the day-care teacher in Berkeley who instructed me, after my then two-year-old daughter ran out of the school unnoticed (fortunately I was still right outside the building when she came out), “You need to tell her that she’s not allowed to do that.” She did not return to that daycare centre. Yes, the “junior official” ought not to have flouted the rules; but it should not be a matter of rules. The junior official should not have access to an extremely sensitive database, that he can download onto two CDs and send throught the mail. Once he can do that, he might just as well copy the database onto two other CDs and sell them to criminals. Who is to say that another junior official did not do that?

Of course, Mr Darling could reasonably protest that he only just took over the ministry a few months ago. The blame must really fall to his predecessor in the office, who put the database system into place over the past year. It’s a hard argument to make, though, since his predecessor is now the prime minister.

Transportation in and around Oxford

Bicycling in Oxford

Oxford has the reputation of being the UK bicyclist’s utopia, and the Oxford City Council has the reputation of being extremely hostile to automobiles. One can see where that impression might come from, but it is sobering to note that the end effect is hardly different from that seen in communities where the ostensible priorities are reversed. Some believe that there is a secret transportation plan, carefully laid out in 1968, aiming to intensify the contradictions in the transportation dialectic  Be that as it may, for present generations bicycling through the city centre is difficult and dangerous at most times of day or night. There are bicycle paths that cross over automobile lanes, paths that run for 100m beside a busy road and then simply stop, and no lack of automobilists for whom passing a bicycle has a pavlovian urgency, even when the bicyclist has signalled a turn, even when the car itself is just about to brake to turn off the road. Outside the city centre, there are some very useful bicycle paths, some fairly elaborate. And on a larger scale there is the UK national cycle network, now over 10,000 miles in length, which we have yet to explore.

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