Richie Havens

I have just discovered that Richie Havens has died at the age of 72. He was famous for being the opening performer at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. I was aware of this, but didn’t really follow much of his later career. I have, however, seen his Woodstock performance and found it incredibly powerful. I thought I would post it below in case some have never seen it.


Why Milt Friedman’s Ideas Don’t Work

This is very interesting. I’ve been looking for an explanation of the merits (or not) of Milton Friedman’s libertarian economic model. Maybe I’m biased, but this seems to be a really clear explanation of why a pure libertarian society cannot work in the way that right-wing free-market ideologues think it should.

Think Left

Why Milt Friedman’s Ideas Don’t Work

Published on Feb 9, 2013

Thom Hartmann shares why Milton Friedman’s Libertarian/ Conservative economic theories are a failure.

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Global wealth inequality

I wanted to post this short video about global wealth inequality. I haven’t checked if what is said in the video is correct, but I have no reason to suspect that it isn’t. Some remarkable statistics. In the world, the top 1% have 43% of all the wealth and the top 20% have 94% of all the wealth. I won’t describe anymore, but it’s well worth a watch. My personal opinion, though, is that we have to be careful of confusing wealth inequality with income inequality. I’m not suggesting that wealth inequality isn’t a problem, but I think we have the ability – on reasonably short timescales – to address income inequality more easily than wealth inequality (although this may only be true locally). Reducing income inequality should, however, act – over time – to reduce wealth inequality anyway.

A new REF algorithm

In a previous post (REF prediction) I looked up the h-indices and the citations per publication for all Physics and Astronomy departments included in RAE2008. I ranked them in terms of their h-index, in terms of their citations per publication, and as average of these two. It looked alright but I did comment that one could produce something more sophisticated. At the time I did worry that using just the h-index would disadvantage smaller departments, but I couldn’t really think of what else to do and it was just a very basic exercise.

Deevy Bishop has, however, suggested an alternative way of ranking the departments. This is to basically relate the income they get with their h-index. For example, in RAE2008 each department was ranked according to what fraction of their papers were 4*, 3*, 2*, 1* and U. The amount of funding they received (although I think it technically went to the university, rather than to the department) was then scaled according to N(0.1×2* + 0.3×3* + 0.7×4*) where N was the number of FTEs submitted. This data can all be downloaded from the RAE2008 website. Deevy Bishop did an analysis for psychology and discovered that the level of funding from RAE2008 correlated extremely well the department’s h-index. What was slightly concerning was that the correlation was even stronger if one also included whether or not a department was represented on the RAE2008 panel.

I’ve now done the same analysis for Physics and Astronomy. I’ve added various figures and text to my REF prediction post, but thought it worth making it more prominent by adding it to a new post. The figure showing RAE2008 funding plotted against h-index is below. According to my quick calculation, the correlation is 0.9. I haven’t considered how this changes if you include whether or not a department was represented on the RAE2008 panel. The funding formula for REF2014 might possibly be N(0.1×3* + 0.9×4*). I’ve redone the figure below to see what the impact would have been if this formula had been used instead of the RAE2008 formula. It’s very similar and – if you’re interested – it’s included at the bottom of my REF prediction post. It does seem that if all we want to know is how to distribute the money, relating it to a department’s h-index seems to work quite well (or at least it would have worked well if used for RAE2008). I’m not quite sure how easy it would be to produce an actual league table though. Given that the REF2014 formula may depend almost entirely on the fraction of 4*, one could simply divide the h-index by the number of FTEs to get a league table ranking, but I haven’t had a chance to see if this produces anything reasonable or not. Of course, noone really trusts league tables anyway, so it may be a good thing if we don’t bother producing one.

A plot of h-index against the RAE2008 funding formula - N(0.1x2* + 0.3*3* + 0.7*4*).

A plot of h-index against the RAE2008 funding formula – N(0.1×2* + 0.3×3* + 0.7×4*).

REF again!

Some interesting posts recently about the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). An interesting post by Dave Fernig called In Defence of REF. This post does make some valid points. REF, and previous RAEs, may well have encouraged more sensible hiring practices in which the quality of the applicant is taken more seriously than maybe it was in the distant past. Two comments I would make are that it I still think that teaching ability is still not taken seriously enough and, in my field at least, many places have adopted a very risky hiring strategy that – I hope – doesn’t come back to bite us in 5 years time. Dave Fernig also seems to feel that the panel, in his field, can distinguish between excellent, good and mediocre papers. This may well be true in his field, but I don’t think it is for my field (physics).

Peter Coles, who writes the Telescoper blog, has written a new post called Counting for the REF. I won’t say much about this post as you can read it for yourself, but I agree with much of what is said. Maybe the most concerning comment in the post was the suggestion that the weighting – when determing the funding distribution – would be 9 for 4* papers and 1 for 3* papers. Essentially, most of the funding would be determined by 4* paper and a very small amount would be associated with 3* papers. Fundamentally I think this is unfortunate as it gives very little credit to some very good papers and absolutely no credit to what might be quite good papers (there is no funding associated with 2*).

There is a more fundamental concern that is associated with what is discussed in Peter Coles’s post. In a recent post (Some more REF thoughts) I pointed out that in Physics fewer than 10% of all papers get more than 10 citations per year. The claim is that two members of the REF panel will read and assess each paper. However, as pointed out by others, this would require each panel member to read 2 papers per day for a year. Consequently, it is impossible for them to give these papers as much scrutiny as they would be given if they were being properly peer-reviewed. There is an expectation that metrics (citations for example) will play an important role in deciding how to rate the papers. How could you do this? You could set a threshold and say, for example, that since most papers get fewer than 10 citations a year that 4* papers will be those that receive more than 10 citations a year. The problem that I have (ignoring that citations are not necessarily a good indicator of quality) is that this would then be a very small fraction (about 5%) of all published papers. The distribution of REF funding would then be being determined by a minority of the work published since 2008. This means that small variations can have a big impact on how the money is distributed. One could imagine that just a few papers being judged 3* instead of 4* could have a massive impact on how much money a department gets (I accept that the money doesn’t actually go to the department, but you probably know what I mean).

Alternatively, if you want to avoid small variations having a big impact you would need 4* papers to make up a reasonable fraction of the assessed papers (maybe 10 – 20%). The problem here is that you’re now getting down to papers that are only collecting a few (5-10) citations per year, so where do you draw the boundary. Is 3 per year too few, but 5 a year okay. You could argue that these are just being used to to guide the assessment and that the panels’ reading of the paper will allow a distinction to be drawn between 4* and 3* papers. This doesn’t, however, change the fact that the panel members have to read a massive number of papers. It feels more like combining two completely flawed processes and hoping that what pops out the other side is okay.

I suggested in an earlier post (REF prediction) that, given the diverse nature of a typical academic department or university, that this might be an appropriate time to simply consider using some kind of metric. I did a quick analysis of all 42 physics departments’s h-indices and saw a reasonable correlation between their h-index and how they did in RAE2008. I noticed today that Deevy Bishop, who writes a blog called BishopBlog, has made a similar suggestion and carried out the same kind of analysis for psychology. Her analysis seems quite similar to mine and suggested that this would be An alternative to REF2014.

Anyway, it’s quite good to see others writing about REF2104 (whether for or against). I think it is a very important issue and I’m just disappointed that it is probably too late to make any changes that would make the REF2014 process simpler and more likely to produce a reasonable ranking.

Income inequality in the USA – A Bill Moyers Essay

Since today is Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, it seem appropriate to post this video, by Bill Moyers, about income inequality. Bill Moyers is an American TV host and commentator and this is what he is calling an essay on The United States of Inequality. I appreciate that this is about the US, but much of what is said – in my opinion – applies equally to the UK. It focuses primarily on Silicon Valley where there is apparently a huge – and growing – income divide. What I found interesting is that they included a number of senior business executives who seemed well aware of this issue and were more than willing to acknowledge that this is a big and growing problem. If business executives acknowledge the problem and accept that it is growing, it seems to me that this implies that we can’t rely on businesses to solve it alone. Their obligation is to their shareholders and investors, and maybe to their customers. They obviously have to treat their employees in a manner that is consistent with good labour practice, but they’re not obliged to pay them more than they need to and they’re not obliged to create jobs if they can get what they want more cheaply (and efficiently?) elsewhere. We need, in my opinion, labour policies that aim to address unemployment and income inequality as well as take into account best value for investors and shareholders. I accept that it is not easy, but I would hope that many would agree that the future stability of the UK economy may well depend on how we address the issue of rising income (and wealth) inequality.

Thatcher’s funeral

So, Margaret Thatcher’s funeral is tomorrow and although I object strongly to the changes that Margaret Thatcher oversaw while Prime Minister, I can’t bring myself to celebrate the death of an old lady. I don’t, however, particularly object to others doing so. I agree with something I heard on the radio which was that we should, ideally, be making a distinction between protesting against Thatcherism and celebrating the death of an old lady. What I do disagree with is the decision to give Margaret Thatcher a Ceremonial Funeral with Full Military Honours which, as far as I can tell, is essentially a State Funeral in all but name. Amazingly, I agree with Peter Oborne in the Telegraph who writes that This is a State Funeral, and that’s a Mistake.

Essentially the UK is a parliamentary democracy with a Head-of-State (the Queen) and a Prime Minister who is an elected Member of Parliament who also happens to be leader of the dominant party in parliament. This then allows this person to form a government and to run the country. Simply being Prime Minister should not guarantee a state funeral (I appreciate that Margaret Thatcher’s isn’t, technically, but let’s accept that it essentially is). We do not need to respect this individual or hold them in high esteem. They are simply a politician who is also the leader of a party that essentially won an election. State funerals should be for heads of state and others who are genuinely held in high esteem by a significant majority of the population (or at least that’s who I think they should be for).

According to what I can find on Wikipedia, there have only been 12 non-royal state funerals since 1586 and this would be the first non-Royal Ceremonial Funeral since 1953. Those getting state funerals in the past does include some Prime Ministers, Churchill being the last to get a state funeral when he died in 1965. I don’t think it is fundamentally wrong to give a state funeral to someone who has been Prime Minister, but it should be the exception rather than the rule. So, what makes Margaret Thatcher’s premiership exceptional. She was the first woman Prime Minister, but I suspect that many would argue that she did little to promote the equality of woman in the workplace. I certainly feel that she was an exceptionally strong and motivated person who succeeded despite the obstacles that she faced, rather than someone who paved the way for others in the future. She led the country during the Falklands war, so maybe that’s enough but I’m not really convinced.

Essentially I think that a state funeral should be to honour and pay respects to someone who was generally regarded positively and regarded as having been, in some sense, exceptional. It shouldn’t be simply because they were the first female Prime Minister, or because they happened to be Prime Minister during a war, and certainly not because some core of the dominant party in Westminster happens to revere them. This feels more like we’re being told “you will pay your last respects whether you like it or not”, rather than something that genuinely reflects the feelings of a majority of the population. Maybe history will look kindly on Margaret Thatcher and those who strongly oppose what she did while in power, will be judged to have been wrong. Maybe she will be regarded, in the future, as one of the best Prime Ministers. That, to me, isn’t really the point. It is clear that the country, today, is heavily divided regarding Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and to decide to give her a state funeral despite this seems unfortunate. It seems as though the Tory party hardliners are quite happy to thumb their noses at all of those who feel that they have suffered due to the policies introduced by Thatcher. I had always assumed that despite different views on how best to run a country, most in government would like to do things that bring us together, rather than divide us further. It seems to me that deciding on a state funeral for Margaret Thatcher is a funny way of doing this.

I also think it makes it much harder to criticise those who protest at the funeral. If there had been a private funeral for family and friends to pay their last respects, I would regard protests as unacceptable. We should allow a private individual to be laid to rest in peace. Given that this is essentially a state funeral paid for with taxpayers money, I see no reason why protests aren’t entirely valid. Part of me hopes that the government doesn’t live to regret this decision, but another part hopes that this is a turning point where people start to recognise the true motives of those in power and start to do something about it.