Category Archives: University

Academia ain’t what it used to be

Malcolm Gaskill has a poignant, observant and very nicely-written piece in the London Review of Books, entitled “On Leaving Academia”.

In​ May, I gave up my academic career after 27 years. A voluntary severance scheme had been announced in December, and I dithered about it until the pandemic enforced focus on a fuzzy dilemma. Already far from the sunlit uplands, universities would now, it seemed, descend into a dark tunnel. I swallowed hard, expressed an interest, hesitated, and then declared my intention to leave…

There are many parts of this that resonate with my experience, though my involvement with academia in recent years has been much shallower than his. I am also intrigued about the ways in which Covid is suddenly shaking up the methods of teaching that have been the norm for decades, if not centuries. Some good things will come out of this, I’m sure. But I also share much of his yearning for the past.

Three responses went through my brain in quick succession:

The first was that the ongoing success of universities now will depend chiefly on hiring lots of young, eager academics, primarily because they don’t know how good things used to be.

The second was that the bureaucrats who oversee universities should note one important thing here: this is not the dusty nostalgia of an old gent in his seventies coming to the end of his career. Gaskill is 53.

But my final thought was of a little phrase in a book of poetry and trivia from my childhood. It simply had the title “The Good Old Days”:

These ARE the Good Old Days. Just wait and see.

Thanks to John for the link.

Equipment for recording lectures

One of the big challenges facing lecturers in the University here is that, for at least the next term and probably the whole academic year, all of the lectures need to be recorded. Most of the small-group teaching, practical sessions, and so forth will be going ahead — with extensive Covid-prevention measures in place — but there’s no way we can pack big lecture halls full of people in the way we’ve become accustomed to over the last few centuries, so lectures will all be delivered online this year.

One aspect of my University job recently has been to find and evaluate some of the kit people might want to use for recording, either at home, or in the meeting rooms in the department that we’re equipping for this purpose. (At home, the sitting room has been converted into a recording studio for the 21 lectures Rose needs to get on disk!)

I’ve been making videos of some of my tests and experiments, mostly for internal use, but some of them might be helpful to others. If you should be considering purchasing a USB desk-standing microphone, for example, you might be interested in one of my recordings from yesterday:

I’ve been gathering some of these into a YouTube playlist as well:

Recording Equipment for Lockdown Lectures

I’ll add more there in due course, so do subscribe to my channel if it might be of interest.

A quarter-century of coffee pots…

The Dutch RTL News programme did a short piece last week on the fact that the webcam was now about 25 years old.

They interviewed me for just a few minutes, after, ironically, having to spend about 45 mins getting their Skype working.

If, like me, you don’t speak any Dutch, you can hear me at about 0:16 and 1:24, and, in between the two, see some pictures of a much younger me!

Computerphile

Sean Riley creates the Computerphile YouTube channel, which has clocked up nearly a million subscribers, and produces some great stuff, especially for the geeks among us.

I had fun talking to him about the early days of the Trojan Room Coffee Pot.

A quarter-century on…

On Friday, I was interviewed by phone for the Dublin-based Moncrieff radio show on the Newstalk network.

A fun, light-hearted 10-minute phone discussion about the origins of the webcam on what, I realised, must be very close to its 25th anniversary.

‘New’ is the new ‘thorough’

This essay by Stephen R. Barley is a very nicely written commentary on the changing motivations of academic journals and institutions, and the effect it has on the disciplines they represent. Recommended for anyone involved in academic research, whether or not you’re in his particular field.

I rarely receive any comments these days on my findings, my data, or my analysis. In fact, I am usually complimented on these before being told why the paper can’t be published as is. Instead, the vast majority of comments focus on the theoretical or substantive frame of the story I want to tell. The logic of such comments boils down to this: “You say your paper is about X, but I think it is really about Y.”

Thanks to Paul Dourish for the link.

News from the Lab

Some of you may know that, alongside my normal consultancy business, I spend one day a week in the University Computer Lab for a change of scene. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, working on Frank Stajano’s Pico project, which is trying to create a better replacement for passwords, as the normal way to authenticate yourself to digital systems.

One of my roles in the project has been cameraman/video editor. Last year we produced the original video describing the project:

and just last month we did an update, which describes in more detail how the current phone-based prototype works underneath.

It’s been a fun couple of years – as well as the videos, we’ve produced a lot of code, we’ve written some papers and some blog posts, given some talks, and had quite a lot of fun at times.

laughing-burglar

But I felt it was time for a change, so I’ve recently moved to a new project, which is in the so-called Rainbow group – somewhat nostalgic for me, because it’s where I did my Ph.D. about 20 years ago.

In this group, we’re looking at how we can improve the ways cars communicate with drivers, and, while the only web page about the project is somewhat limited at present, no doubt this will change over time…

Should be fun… more info in due course.

Investing in your education?

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.

economist-degree-return

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.

Canadian Coffee

Another radio interview about the good ol’ coffee pot – this time with CBC.

You can find it here.

It was done over Skype, and is heavily edited, but it mostly makes sense! Just about 4 mins long.

A Project Observed

Robin McKie has written a nice piece about our Pico project in the Observer.

The article is here.

And here’s our introductory video, if you’re interested and didn’t see it a few months back.

Don’t look a gift job in the mouth

There’s a wonderful-sounding position offered on one of the University mailing lists:

Equine Ambulatory Veterinarian (Maternity Cover)

I expect they’re looking for someone who specialises in a horse’s gait. Or someone who rides around in a horse ambulance?

But perhaps not. It’s much more satisfying to think that the University of Cambridge has always traditionally employed a walking midwife for horses, perhaps one of a small team of pedestrian veterinary specialists, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to apply for one of these exclusive posts.

Password pain

Regular readers will know that one of the things I’m currently working on is the Pico project, which is trying to find a long-term replacement for passwords.

I learned an interesting statistic yesterday from Angela Sasse: we recently passed the point at which more passwords are entered on mobile devices than on traditional computers, and that, on average, entering a password on a mobile device takes three times as long as on a laptop or PC.

This would seem to confirm our belief that the need for Pico, or something like it, will become more and more apparent over time.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser