Investing in your education?

March 15th, 2015

This chart appeared in a recent Economist blog post – I think it’s nicely done. It’s based on a study of U.S. university graduates, and the amount they earn over an extended period. The X-axis is a measure of the quality of the institution: roughly speaking, how easy it is to gain admission.


This shows some interesting things – at first glance. First, that Engineers, Computer Scientists and Mathematicians earn more than other fields, which seems only right and natural to me – and second, that the institution at which you study makes very little difference to your final earnings, which seems a bit less plausible.

But then I read the article more carefully. What this is actually plotting on the Y axis is the rate of return on your investment in the degree. If you had put the cost of your education into a savings account and left it for 20 years, what would the equivalent interest rate be? A rather mercenary way of thinking about education, perhaps, but intriguing nonetheless. If you’re studying business, maths or sciences, it’s an exceedingly good investment. If you prefer an arts subject, then you should – and probably will – find other ways of assessing the value of your education.

Now, in the States, a degree at Harvard, MIT or Stanford will cost you much more than one at Fred Bloggs College, and you will earn correspondingly more as a result of graduating, to the extent that the annualised return is roughly equivalent.

But it would be fascinating to see the same analysis done at British universities, where, for local and EU students at least, the tuition rates are capped and are the same at most institutions. (British students whining about their fees at our top universities should remember that they could easily be paying three times as much in America.) So I imagine the returns here would be rather higher, and the slope rather more pronounced.

Latte to go

March 13th, 2015

In Cambridge, there is nothing that cannot be bicyclized…


A nice cheery guy runs it, too. He told me that when he first got the bike, he had an hour’s cycle ride to his parking place. I can’t imagine it’s exactly lightweight… that’s a proper espresso machine, and I think the thing on the back carrier is a fridge.

Gun stats

March 5th, 2015

Gun-related homicides in the U.S. run at approximately 10,000 per year.

It’s a big country, but that was higher than I expected. For comparison, it’s about 40 times the per-capita rate in the UK.

What surprised me more was that annual gun-related suicides are nearly twice that. Which seems like a really big number.

Interestingly, per-capita suicides in the US are only about 10% higher than here. But half of them involve guns.

Apologies for the grim reading, but I thought the numbers were interesting.

In the land of the red dragon

March 2nd, 2015


Just back from a weekend in Snowdonia with my brother, niece and nephew, which was wonderful, despite the Welsh weather trying to throw its worst at us. It really is a very pretty place.


We had gone there planning to climb Snowdon, but we didn’t quite make it to the summit. Though almost no snow was visible from our starting point, as we approached the cloud base we met people with crampons turning back because they didn’t have ice axes, and since we had nothing very pointy or spiky at all, we decided to save the peak for another day. But this was better than we had expected, since the forecast had predicted heavy rain most of the weekend. It was a wonderful walk.


On Sunday we took a more lowland route, through the old Dinorwig slate quarry.


Despite some really dramatically inclement weather at various times over the weekend – rain, sleet, hail, and wind so strong it was almost impossible to walk into it – we somehow managed to be inside for almost all of the bad bits and outside during the intermissions!


I don’t know Wales nearly as well as I would like, and I left with a strong desire to go back again soon. Perhaps in the summer.

Not as secure as it SIMs

February 21st, 2015

simIf you knew, or cared, anything about the way your mobile phone communicates with the mobile network, you may have believed that your calls were secure and private, at least as far as the core of your provider’s network. They should be, too, if you’re on a 3G or 4G network: the SIM in your phone includes encryption keys known only to it and the mobile provider, and these are used to encode the voice and text traffic so that anyone snooping on the radio signal, or on the backhaul network between the base station and the provider’s headquarters, would not be able to make head or tail of the stream of bytes flowing by. To do so on any scale would need vast amounts of computing power.

However, if this article in The Intercept, The Great SIM Heist, is correct, the NSA and GCHQ have a much better approach. To quote the article:

Adi Shamir famously asserted: “Cryptography is typically bypassed, not penetrated.” In other words, it is much easier (and sneakier) to open a locked door when you have the key than it is to break down the door using brute force.

So that’s what they allegedly did, according to the latest revelations from Ed Snowden: they hacked into the networks of the SIM card manufacturers, most notably Gemalto, the largest in this field and a supplier to 450 mobile providers around the world, and just stole copies of the keys before they were shipped to the mobile providers. They focused on the activities of employees who used email encryption and those exploring more secure methods of file transfer, since they were more likely to have valuable information to hide.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about these thoroughly illegal activities is that the companies and individuals targeted were not in any way assumed to be engaged in illicit activities. They were innocents going about their daily business, but they just had information that was of potential use to the authorities.

Snowden’s information is from 2009/10, so it is to be presumed that this has been going on for some time. Meanwhile, this is what it did to poor old Gemalto’s stock price when the news came out a couple of days ago:


Recovering the Dove Type

February 9th, 2015


Here’s a very pleasing article by Rachael Steven about Robert Green’s quest to recreate a lost classic.

One for each hand?

February 6th, 2015

About two years ago, I pointed out that iPhones were being born faster than people.

Updated stats from the latest episode of MacBreak Weekly: new iPhones are now being sold at more than twice the global human birth rate.

They can’t keep this up indefinitely!

Design spec

February 5th, 2015

A fundamental design requirement of bath taps, it seems to me (though I’ve never seen it formally specified anywhere) is that they should be controllable with the toes.

Bishop’s Rock

February 3rd, 2015

At a dinner last week, I was sitting opposite a bishop – a most genial fellow, who was telling us about the accommodation that one could expect at Sandringham, and the rather lower level of comfort available at most ecclesiastical gatherings.

He talked particularly about the challenges they had finding good lodgings for all the single bishops. In fact, the phrase, "all the single bishops" came up so often that I was transported into a momentary daydream, where a room full of bishops danced to a Beyoncé beat. "All the single bishops, all the single bishops". The purple robes glowed bright as they twisted and spun, and as the beat reached its peak, they all reached out their right hands to the archbishop at the centre of the circle. "If you like it then you should have put a ring on it…"