Archive for January, 2011

Enforcing ‘fairness’ through reverse discrimination for Universities

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Recently there has been again a lot of media attention on Simon Hughes’ comments that universities should increase the proportion of their intake from state schools to reflect the proportion of pupils in the secondary school education system going to state and private schools.
While I accept it is really important for universities to make a particular effort to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who would thrive at university do go to university and go to the university which will stretch them the most. I also hold that each and every person who universities fail in this regard is being really badly let down. I think that it is correct that universities should be considering the quality of the teaching that pupils received when considering admissions as if someone managed to do the same amount with less then they have achieved more even if their grades are identical.

I am however going to say something which is possibly controversial – we are never under any sane system going to end up with representative proportions of people across all sectors of society and all types of school going to university and in particular to the best universities. We shouldn’t even try for that as it fundamentally isn’t going to work. What we should be aiming for is what the proportions would be if universities were doing their job perfectly – which would probably be significantly more representative than is currently the case. However it would not be and should not be completely representative.

Why? [Begin controversy] There are genetic factors which impact on the ability of students to thrive at university. If someone’s parents went to University then probabilistically they are more likely to have those factors. HOWEVER this does not mean that people whose parents didn’t go to university didn’t have those factors as not everyone wants to or should go to university even if they could. Additionally as humans we are not limited by our genes we may have natural tendencies towards certain things but with enough effort most of these things can be overcome. My argument is not that people whose parents didn’t go to university shouldn’t go – simply that you are not going to get a representative split there is going to be some natural bias and if we are making our assessments correctly we shouldn’t be upset about this. Of course universities should, can and are making an additional effort to reach those whose parents didn’t go to university as they are less likely to know that they can and should.[End controversy]

Additionally it is not the place of universities to make up for all the failings of all the previous educational establishments that students have previously been to – they make a great effort to do so and have great successes but if the Government really wants to make progress on making university education more representative of the population as a whole it really needs to look very hard at other areas first.

The differences in achievement between people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people from privileged backgrounds (like for example me) appears really quite early on in a child’s education and so the additional effort needs to be being put in there – in primary and secondary schools. Additionally people from privileged backgrounds are likely to be able to put time into learning the right kind of parenting methods and into implementing them that would increase the probability of their children going to university. This is not to say that other kinds of parenting are worse university is not that important in the grander scheme of things and there are far more important things for parents to focus on imparting to their children.

However parenting is hard (yes I find the idea slightly scary) and if there are things which can be taught which do help then they should be taught to those who want to learn them – people only get one childhood and it is important to get it right.

So in summary yes we should be doing better than we are but there are limits to how well we can do (and these limits are very hard to calculate and as limits can only be tended towards). It is unhelpful to say “lets just do reverse discrimination and hope this causes the private school system to collapse in a heap” that doesn’t solve the problem of differences in the quality of education provided by different schools it just gives middle class people even more angst about choosing schools for their little darlings. It causes sillyness like children going to state schools to increase their chances of getting into a good university but actually being taught by private tutors “off the record” which just make inequality harder to measure without actually solving this.

Again please bear with the fact that this won’t actually communicate what I want it to and is eminently capable of being misunderstood. Sorry. However I hope you can see through that to what I really mean.

(Yes as a Guardian reading lefty who went to two different private schools for my secondary education there is some ‘guilt’ that I have been given a better start in life than most people and so all I have had to do is make the effort to tuck in to the plate placed in front of me rather than having to go and fill the plate first. I do try and make an effort to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds through various different mechanisms – but that doesn’t stop my private sixth form school from asking me back to help their pupils but then they gave me a scholarship so I owe them something as well.)

On paying attention – or optimising ordinary things

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Sometimes it seems to me that many people go through life with their eyes only half open. I suspect this might be because that other half is paying attention to things which I don’t[0].
I think this might be something which helps with and is strengthened by Computer Science. A continual paying attention – observing how things are and why they are that way. Then working out how to optimise – to do things better. A continual[1] desire to improve things which doesn’t stop just because what I am doing or considering is an ordinary thing that billions of people do every day without really thinking. By thinking we can actually do better.
I will illustrate this (poorly) with two trivial examples.

Emptying Dishwashers

Now it might seem that this task is incredibly simple and requires very little thought at all and to an extent that is true. However actually there are significant advantages to emptying the bottom tray first.
Why? Consider that when removing items from a dishwasher we want to maximise dryness. We don’t want wet crockery in the cupboards. Also consider that dishwashers don’t completely dry things – water tends to linger in depressions. This water can be dislodged and drip off if the item it is on is moved. Hence if we empty the top tray first then water will drop off onto items on the bottom tray just when you want them to be dry.
You probably hadn’t thought about that before. Perhaps you think me silly for mentioning it and perhaps I am.

Drying after showers

This might seem even stranger but it is something that even sensible people regularly get wrong.
Here again we wish to maximise dryness both of the person and the room. The situation we wish to avoid is that of a vast puddle stretching across the floor and drying only very slowly resulting in damp problems and wet feet/clothes.
Avoiding this is quite simple – dry in the shower where it is warmer and any drips can go down the plughole. To do this it is necessary to put one’s towel within easy reach of the shower before getting in it. It isn’t really possible to dry below the knees like this and so at the point placing the towel on the floor and then standing on it solves the problem.

Trivia? Yes. OCD? Possibly (certainly my mentioning this has previously resulted in chants of “OCD! OCD! OCD!”) but I am not responsible for the large puddle on the floor. ;-)

Unfortunately this appears to be rather poorly written and probably doesn’t covey what I want it to (it was originally written while half asleep on a train) sorry. But I think I will publish it anyway – hopefully you can enjoy laughing at how silly I am if nothing else.

(Yes Julia this counts as wittering on ;-)

[0]: For example optimising the value for money when shopping to a greater extent than I do through paying more attention.
[1]: At least continual at the limit not perhaps in reality ;-)

Having sensible discussions

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Recently I have been thinking quite a lot about how people who have different points of view on a particular issue can have a proper discussion about that issue. So often we don’t actually engage with each other or even really try to but instead go from the position “I know I am right and the other person is wrong” to the position “I know I am right and the other person is wrong because of X, Y and Z” but at the same time something similar is happening for the other person for possibly different Xs Ys and Zs.

In reality people don’t generally hold views which they consider to be wrong and don’t do things that they think are evil (at least not and then support them afterwards – I regularly do things that I think are wrong). So in a sensible discussion what we want to find out is what the underlying facts, assumptions and beliefs are and what the relative importance of each of those things. Then hopefully it will be possible to see how these fit together to form a worldview in which the opposite point of view is in fact the correct view.

Unfortunately this is frequently rather difficult partly because it is all to easy to reject things outright and so not actually examine these underlying issues and partly because all these things tend to be interconnected in a rather complex manner. So it may be necessary to talk about a very wide range of underlying issues which are all mutually dependant resulting in it taking a rather long time. Very few people will be prepared to put in that kind of time and even with those who are it is still difficult as there are fundamental restrictions on the number of hours in a day.

Recently I have been having sensible discussions with some of my Christian friends who are inclined to the ‘right’ while I myself generally consider myself inclined towards the ‘left’. In this situation it is possible to have really quite interesting discussions by virtue of the fact that we both already agree on a wide range of very important issues and have worldviews which are on a deep level very close indeed. At the same time outward political views can end up at opposite ends of the spectrum. It is also rather helpful that we already love each other a lot and so it is easier not to get angry or to consider them a bad person because of views that I might find objectionable because I already know that since they love all the people who are affected by implementations of policy based on those views they must have good reasons for them.

In this I have found that it is surprising how big a difference in policy subtle differences in the priority given to different underlying good principles can have. Having had the whole of Christmas to allow these thoughts to mature in the absence of such discussion I appear to have lost my recollection of good examples of this and since some of these thoughts stretch back to April or earlier that is not completely surprising.

So in summary: If both sides in a discussion are willing to put real effort into having a sensible discussion and looking carefully at the underlying issues then it is possible to get rather more out of if than one might expect. (This is also far more interesting than discussing the weather etc. and I should put more effort into making it happen).

Relatedly I had a ‘fairly’ sensible discussion about religion on #cl (It didn’t descend to a flamewar though IRC isn’t really a good place for going into detail on complex issues) this must be some kind of miracle. :-)

dh_installdocs –link-doc when using jh_installjavadoc

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

This post exists to stop people (possibly including myself) spending hours being thoroughly confused as to why

dh_installdocs --link-doc=package
is not working. In fact it probably is working but your package-doc.javadoc probably looks something like:


rather than like:

docs/api /usr/share/doc/package/api

and hence jh_installjavadoc is correctly creating the /usr/share/doc/package-doc/ directory when really you didn’t want that to happen and so dh_installdocs –link-doc silently ignores your instruction as it doesn’t make sense in context.

Relatedly I have ‘finished’ packaging JEval for Debian partly using the instructions on packaging java packages using git. It just needs some further testing and to be uploaded and sponsored.
(I am packaging the dependencies of my Part II Project)