Friday, 22 October 2010

I need a Hiwi

Where have all my subjects gone?
Where are the public goods?
I need a uniform variable
To calculate the odds

Isn’t there a white knight to program in zTree
Late at night at the MPI I dream of what I need

I need a Hiwi
I’m holding on for a Hiwi ‘til the treatment is right
He’s gotta be pale
And he’s gotta have specs
And just run the code once more tonight
I need a Hiwi
I’m holding on for a Hiwi till the screens all look tight
He’s gotta be thin
And to mainline caffeine

Cos he’s gotta be working all night

Somewhere after midnight
At the ESI group, floor 3,
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s a random match for me

Testing and retesting, drinking coffee by the mug
It’s gonna take a superman to get this code debugged!

I need a Hiwi
I’m holding on for a Hiwi ‘til the treatment is right
He’s gotta be pale
And he’s gotta have specs
And his skin should be whiter than white
I need a Hiwi
I’m holding on for a Hiwi cos my pilot was shite
He’s gotta be thin
And he’s gotta stay in,
Yeah, he mustn't go out in sunlight

Up by the server in the Galerie lab
Out where the lightning splits ORSEE
I could swear there is someone out there
Watching me
Through the wind and the chill and the rain
And the flood and the storm
I can feel his approach
Like the subjects at the door
(Like the subjects at the door)
(Like the subjects at the door)

I need a Hiwi...

With apologies to Bonnie Tyler, and love and respect to the Hilfswissenschaftler of ESI Group.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Defending Nick Clegg

More on education, following on from a Facebook discussion. Most people around me think that the tuition fees increase is a betrayal of Lib Dem ideals. Well, it sure wasn't in their manifesto... but more broadly, I disagree.

The biggest argument against tuition fees is that they will discourage poor people from going to university. I can't prove this won't happen, but it really has to be a psychological argument. Whether you are poor or rich, if you will get cheap loans to go to university, and have the capacity to do so, it is an insanely good deal, at £7000 a year or at £3000 a year. On average, the increase in your income will pay for itself many times over. So the story has to be: people will be scared off by the sheer amount of debt, and the uncertainty involved. That could be true. People are not perfectly rational calculators, and large debts can be frightening (except to all those geniuses in the City). However, it seems less likely to be a permanent effect. When people get used to the idea of large student loans, and when they see others using them, they will no longer seem so frightening. In particular, the US, which funded university via loans, had a high proportion of people going to college long before most of Europe did. That suggests that loans do not have to scare people off. (My friend Luke made the point that US education was boosted by the free university places given to WWII and Vietnam vets. It is an interesting story. The original GI bill put 8 million people through college. But it seems more likely to provide a kickstart than to have sustained high US college enrolment over the whole postwar period.)

What if you are poor but want to do something idealistic rather than making pots of extra money from your university education? You might then be put off, and either skip university or choose a money-making career. This would be unfair to you, and would also deprive the UK of the benefits of people who do idealistic but low-paid jobs like teaching or social work.

Well, it has to be a very idealistic job for it still not to benefit you to go to university. I am an academic, which is quite idealistic... oh go on, it is. But I will still earn much, much more over my lifetime than if I hadn't gone to university. (Back of the envelope calculation: half a million more.) That holds also for Luke, who is a teacher, or Kemal, who works in a development organization. If you are planning to be Mother Teresa, then yes, you could be put off by debt. But most people do not volunteer all their lives.

There are too few people from poor backgrounds going to university. But what causes this? My hunch is that it is that many people know they would not get accepted at a university, and/or would not be able to benefit from it. For example, you will not get much from university if you cannot write an undergraduate essay. Unfortunately, many 18-year-olds can't. Perhaps some of this is down to natural inequalities in intelligence. But surely a lot of it is down to problems in the education system before university. If you have not been well taught at school, then you won't get a university place. In fact, even in the golden days of free education, the educational inequalities existed (see Figure 3 on page 6). And a study of the original introduction of tuition fees suggests: "much of the impact from social class on university attendance actually occurs well before entry into HE."

If so, then the best way to get equal access to university is to improve the quality of pre-university education, especially for the poorest. That seems to be the idea behind the pupil premium. The Lib Dems will probably get slaughtered over the tuition fees increase. That's a shame, because Nick Clegg is trying to do the right thing.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

3. The Eastern Pamir

In the East it's high up and harder to breathe. The country turns from green to absolute desert. There is not much vegetation. Little marmots occasionally run for the cover of their holes. Before they dive in they pause and look around – apparently this behaviour is instinctive, so this is how you can shoot them.
Our first night was in a yurt. These are big tents made of wood and covered in felt, warmed by stoves which seem to come from the 19th century and which are fed by yak and cow dung. There's a hole in the middle of the roof for the chimney: in the day this also lets light in but at night it's covered. A lot of the yurts we saw had solar panels attached, made, like most things in Tajikistan, in China, and providing enough electricity to power a TV and DVD. (Conversation of one nomadic, yak-herding yurt owner: “What do you think of Avatar? I haven't seen it yet.”)

When we arrived at the yurt, the owner's wife was milking a yak, so I asked if I could have a go. It is harder than it looks. The myth that yak milk is pink is untrue. (Maybe it's pink if you go higher in the mountains.) At night I went out to see the stars. Last time I saw the Milky Way properly, I was 18 and in India. I slept well in yurts: it feels nice to be close to the ground.

Next day we arrived in Murghab, a tiny market town of bare white walls. The Kyrgyz' tall white felt hats add to the atmosphere. We spent a lot of time casting roles for a Tajikistan spaghetti Western. Our driver Omur lived here, so we stayed with him.

We headed out to trek next morning. Losing the path on the way up to a pass, we scrambled up the mountainside. The climb was physically easy but the air was so thin – we were at about 4700 m – that we had to stop and catch our breath every minute. The mountain got steeper and steeper, with shale breaking off in our hands. Looking down became unpleasant. When we made it to the top I was as pale as a ghost. This was the time I felt most scared on the journey. We ate biscuits, drank Iranian fruit juice and admired the indescribably magnificent view over the next valley.

Over the next days we headed North to the border and said goodbye to Alessia and Davide. They were great travelling companions. On hearing that he would be sleeping in a yurt, Davide had remarked that he would need a yak to stay warm, to which Alessia replied with the immortal words
“I don't need a yak. I have Davide.”
This inspired the writing of a Yak Song, celebrating the tender bond between a woman and her yak. One recording is still extant.

To make up numbers we picked up Daragh, an Irish guy who had been teaching in China for a year. He spoke Uighur (and hence other Turkic languages like Kyrgyz). We headed South again, stayed one more night in a yurt, and then made our way back to Khorog.

In Khorog we tried to get a plane back to Dushanbe. It was heavily oversubscribed (you just turn up and queue, there are no bookings). At one point our fixer said he would try and get us a lift on the army helicopter. Arianna turned pale but was eventually persuaded that this would ROCK. Alas, the army didn't want to take non-nationals for fear of questions from the KGB. (Yes, Tajikistan still has its own KGB.) Instead, we stayed one more night at a homestay. This was a fabulous place run by a family who were reminiscent of Giles' cartoons. They wore something turquoise, colour-coordinating with the apartment. The grandmother ruled the roost and cooked fabulous meals. There was an aunt who was constantly fighting with the uncle; a downtrodden sister who swept up; and the granddaughter, a schoolgirl in Dushanbe, who told us “all my friends are so Emo! [mimes wrist-cutting]”. Youth culture is truly universal.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

I left Germany!

I had a really happy two years in Jena. The people there are an incredibly nice and warm-hearted bunch. The MPI is a great research environment. I will miss you all!