Saturday, 21 June 2008

Nano no-nos

Vice Chancellor: As you know gentlemen the government has launched a new initiative in nano-technology, which one of my fellow vice chancellors has dubbed "mega-bucks for nano-metres". So, I asked our Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Business Development, Professor Robin Banks, to develop a strategic plan to exploit this opportunity. Professor Banks has conducted a skills audit throughout the university and canvased the opinions of some of our leading academics. Professor Banks...
Pro-Vice Chancellor: Thankyou Vice-Chancellor. As you indicated I have made fact-finding visits to a number of research groups and my first visit was to the world-leading "non-linear optics" group of Professor Len Scleaner. My initial impression that they were enthusiastic and told me about some of the innovative wave shaping techniques they are using to develop wave guides for optronic devices. They are making materials with negative refractive indicies apparently.
At this point a distant memory of "O"-level physics kicks in as I struggle to remember the definition of refractive index. I wonder if I should make a fool of myself by asking the obvious question? Nothing to lose I suppose the academics generally treat me like a fool anyway.
Registrar:Professor Banks I was just wondering if negative refractive index means that light somehow goes backwards out of the medium?
PVC:Well actually that is a good question! I am sure they did explain it, and suffice it to say that it was all very complicated and technical, as your would expect from advanced research. They have proposed a project which they dubbed Funcaster University Centre for Kinetic Krypton Nano Optical Wave Shaping. Sounds like just the thing!
VC:Very good, what did the other departments offer?
PVC:Well Vice Chancellor, the Mathematics Department were less cooperative.
As he spoke I saw him dust some chalk off his sleeve disdainfully. I make a mental note to check with the audio-visual unit to see if the Mathemafia have smuggled blackboards and chalk back in to their building.
PVC:I noticed that they specialized in something called Micro-local analysis.
VC:And what does that involve?
PVC:Well Professor Tikemov explained to me that it involved something called "cymbal calculus on the cotangled byundle" but to be honest I am none the wiser. When I asked if he could explain it simply he started explaining something called "vile quantisation" but I'm not sure what he had against "quantisation". Anyway I wondered if micro-local analysis might conceivably be re-branded as nano-local analysis.
VC:And what did they think?
PVC:They called me a "nano-brained nit-wit" Vice Chancellor.
(Sounds to me like they just about got the measure of him. Oops I hope I didn't say that out loud)
VC:Well at least we can count on the Physicists to be helpful. Typical of those mathematicians. Who else did you talk to?
PVC:Well the x-ray physicists have a kind of x-ray scanner that can go down to a tenth of a micrometre. They wondered if they could get away with calling it "nano-tomography" even though it can only resolve a hundred nanometres.
VC:Well the more nanometers the better, I say! That sounds very positive. Anything else?
PVC:Well an unusual one Vice Chancellor. The Fine Art Department wanted to make the world smallest sculpture using the latest nano-fabrication techniques. They said something about "Angels dancing on the end of a carbon nano-tube"
VC:Sounds very innovative. Have to make sure they talk up the technological aspect. Can't have it look like they are doing art for art's sake! Right. Sounds to me like we have a front runner with those optics boys. Now what we need is a really snappy acronym.

Monday, 9 June 2008

No Associate Professors please, we're British.

From now on, Smethers, we will use American names!
Like "Chuck" and "Dwain" Vice Chancellor?
No, no Smeders, like "Assistant Professor" and "Associate Professor" for a start instead of Lecturer and Reader. Using the US nomenclature will give us an edge in the global educational marketplace.
But Vice Chancellor, every tenured academic from our senor lecturer upwards would actually called a full professor in the US. It would be a demotion for our Readers.
Well there have to be some sacrifices in the name of progress! And the Departments, we will call them Schools. The Business Studies Department has always fancied itself as "Funcaster Business School", like at Harvard. Terms will be termed "quarters" and the academic staff will be referred to as "the Faculty".
And you Vice Chancellor, will you change your title?
The VC puffed out his chest and rose to his full height.
I shall be addressed as "Mister President"!
I make a mental note to check discretely with his secretary, to see if he has taken his medication today.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Lexicographic satisfaction

Look at these subject rankings from "The Good University Guide" Smethers. They are appalling! In half these subjects we are ranked worse than Funcaster City University."
The vice chancellor almost spat out the name of the former polytechnic.
"Oh I don't know Vice Chancellor, we are not doing so badly in Accounting and Finance, and look here at Biology, and Chemistry as well. "
"But look at this, Snethers, for Sociology we are right at the bottom just below the University of Barnstaple. I didn't even know they had a university in Barnstaple. How can it be? Our research rating and UCAS points are much better than these places. I need an explanation Snedders!"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, it seems to me that difference is mainly in the student satisfaction survey. It is where we loose out. I have been looking in to this and I think I have found the explanation."
"Well Smether out with it!"
I open my brief case and pull out a file of graphs printed in bold primary colours I had prepared in anticipation of this meeting.
"As you see Vice Chancellor there is a wide variation in our "student satisfaction survey" results ranging from "really quite happy" to "monumentally unhappy" and even some threatening legal action. And this varies with subject."
"Well we must analyze what the the best departments are doing and then instigate a staff development and training programme to disseminate best practice..."
"Actually Vice Chancellor", I interrupt, "I think it it much simpler than that if you will allow me to continue?"
"Go on then Smeddling.."
"Well I plotted the student satisfaction scores against various other key performance indicators, staff to student ratio, spend per student, value added, employment prospects, but I didn't find any significant correlation until I came to this one"
"That seems to be nearly a straight line, Snethers, but what is on the horizontal axis?"
"I just sorted them alphabetically Vice Chancellor"
"You mean to tell me that student satisfaction depends only on the name of the subject! Are you telling me that if we changed the subject, like 'Sociology' to 'Applied Sociology" or Psychology to 'Clinical Psychology' they would do better?"
"Well yes, they would improve relative to the others. Veterinary Science is doing especially badly. Perhaps they could specialize in Aardvark Studies?""
"Don't be facetious Snithling! What is the underlying cause?"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, it did take me a while to unearth the underlying cause of the lexicographically correlated satisfaction. It comes down to timetabling. Do you remember how we used to do the tome tabling?"
"Yes Snoddlers, there was that woman with the horn-rimmed glasses used to do it. What was her name...?"
"Her name was Mrs Tibbling, Vice Chancellor, and she used to do a remarkably good job. She really was very clever."
"So what became of her?"
"Well, Vice Chancellor, she took advantage of your very generous, Financial Inducement for Voluntary Early Retirement and Severance scheme. You approved her application yourself. She took her two-years-salary-in-advance and emigrated to Rotorua in New Zealand. She sent you a post card of the thermal springs if you remember."
So remind me. How do we do the timetabling now?
"Well our software procurement team recommended that we purchase a license for a program called "TimetableWizard". They assured us it would do the job. Mrs Tibbling had left detailed notes of all the constraints she used, you know that the film studies lectures need a big screen, the sociology students need rooms where they can break up in to small groups and discuss things, the maths lectures asked for blackboards (now superseded of course by clean modern electronic boards!). So we fed these in to the TimetableWizard and waited for him to wave his magic wand"
"So what happened?"
"Well it first said that there was no solution. So we relaxed the constraints a bit and eventually we got a timetable just in time for the new term. The problem was that the software works through each of the subjects in alphabetical order. So Accounting get all their lectures close together and clustered neatly together, by the time you get to Maths in the middle of the alphabet the students are mildly inconveniences with lectures right at the beginning and end of the day. By Sociology the students have to rollerblade around campus and have lectures at 9 and 5 four days a week, and by the time you get to Veterinary Science they were dashing from one side of campus to the other like the proverbial Calliphora vomitoria."
The Vice Chancellor looked at me quizzically. "Blue-bottomed fly, Vice Chancellor".
"Could we get Mrs Tiddling back?"
"No Vice Chancellor, don't you remember the FIVERS scheme specifically bared the former employee from working for this University for ten years?"

About Me

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Adam Upwrite is Professor of Creative Accounting at the University of Middle England. His Registrar's Diary is about a fictional registrar and an equally fictional English university.