Sunday, January 31, 2010

Electing the New Pope

[I wrote this blog posting last spring, but never got around to posting it]

Each of the constituent colleges of Oxford is run by its own governing body, which consists of the “fellows” of the college, meaning essentially the tenured faculty, and a few others (about 40 in total for our college). In fact, in some legal respect which I don’t really understand, the governing body actually owns the college and is completely responsible for everything that happens there. (L’etat c’est nous!) While the head of each college (called the Master, the Principal, the Warden, or whatever, depending on which college you are talking about) is the figure head, and frequently runs the college on a day-to-day basis, the vote of the governing body is the final word on any issue. The phrase “Primus inter pares” (first among equals) is frequently used to refer to the position of the head with respect to the governing body.

These "heads of house” can come from almost any walk of life. Their similarity is that they are all extremely accomplished intellectuals of some sort. Pembroke College Cambridge right now has the ex-head of MI6 (Cue James Bond music).

Dame Fiona Caldicott, the principal of Somerville college Oxford since 1996, is retiring this summer. As such, it is the duty of the governing body of the college to elect a new principal. This process is extremely complicated, with various arcane rules and regulations, which struck me as being similar, perhaps, to electing a new pope. (And Somerville is one of the younger colleges, I’m sure there are some completely insane rules at the 800 year old colleges).

The head of the search committee, Professor Fiona Stafford (yes, many people in this country are named Fiona), did a marvelous job. Some joked that if we couldn’t agree on a candidate we would all agree to draft Professor Stafford. While she had no particular extra power per-se, it was her job to create a process that would satisfy the governing body.

Fiona (Stafford) worked with a headhunting company to target some candidates. I read through the full book of candidate applications (a hundred perhaps) and many of them, on paper, looked spectacular. I am probably forbidden from saying too much about who these people were, but they were pretty impressive.

Eventually the list was narrowed down to about seven frontrunners who were all interviewed. From there, three finalists were selected. Each of these finalists met informally with a fraction of the governing body personally in small groups in the days leading up to the final interview.

To those who do not know the Oxford system, the final interview might seem a bit bizarre, but in fact it is quite similar to the way hiring is done for almost all positions here: The committee (the governing body) sits, in full academic gowns, around a large table. The candidate comes into the room, speaks for twenty minutes, then the committee fires questions at the candidate. The whole thing is over in about an hour. (This is not too dissimilar from the way I was hired).

Once all three finalists were interviewed, the governing body needed to come to a consensus. Like electing a new pope, the governing body was essentially trapped until it came to a conclusion, and white smoke rose from the chimneys. I was psychologically prepared for a very long night. What was surprising to me was how quickly the opinions converged. (Perhaps we are more of one mind than the college of cardinals?). The first thing we did was to go around the table with everyone saying whatever they wanted to say about the candidates. After everyone spoke a straw-poll was taken and one of candidates was already strongly in the lead. A few of the more opinionated members gave impassioned speeches explaining their positions, and a second poll was taken. At the end of the second poll, the majority opinion was extremely close to unanimous. We had decided in advance that we would need a 2/3 majority, but in the end we were essentially without dissent.

And so in just a few hours, the governing body announced that they had tentatively found their candidate. Within a few weeks (after some details were attended to) we announced that the next Principal of Somerville college would be Alice Prochaska.
Friday, January 29, 2010


SCR stands for “Senior Common Room”. The usage of this acronym confused me for quite some time. SCR refers not only to the actual room itself, but also to all the people who have access to said room – I.e., the “grown-ups” in our college --- fellows, lecturers, tutors, postdocs, and so forth. Similarly, JCR is “Junior Common Room,” meaning the undergrads, and MCR is “Middle Common Room”, meaning grad students. There are also actual rooms known as the JCR and MCR as well (although they are not as posh as the SCR).

Sometimes the use of this nomenclature for both the room and the group of people gets a bit confusing. The SCR eats at high table. (Note that I did not say “the members of the SCR eat”, but rather “the SCR eats” which makes it sound like the room itself is eating at high table, sounds a bit silly until you get used to it). On normal days, the MCR does not eat at high table, but for formal Hall dinner, the MCR joins the SCR at high table and after dinner both the SCR and the MCR go to the SCR.
Sunday, January 24, 2010


The nice thing about the formal hall "High Table" dinners is that they are a relaxed many-hour affair, with several courses, a great deal of wine, all in the company of scholars.

The bad thing about the formal hall "High Table" dinners is that they are a relaxed many-hour affair, with several courses, a great deal of wine, all in the company of scholars.

The truth is that they would be a lot more fun

(a) if I were not so busy these days that several hours seems insanely long for a meal, and...

(b) if I got to choose which scholars I sit next to at dinner (the seating chart is sometimes a very pleasant surprise, and sometimes a cause for groans).

So I thought to myself "there must be an efficient new-yorker way to handle formal high table dinner". And indeed there is.

After the meal is finished in the great hall, the Principal bangs her gavel, all the students stand, and the high table files out to the senior common room, where the after dinner drinks (including nice port), chocolates, coffee, tea, fruit, and whatnot are served. (We do not have snuff like the folks at All Souls though). People linger in the senior common room making conversation , and working on the digestifs -- crucially, there is no seating plan for dessert, so you can talk to whomever you please.

My new york way to handle high table?: Skip the dinner and crash dessert.

I'm not sure that this is actually against the rules, but it is certainly something that no one else seems to do. But why should it be against the rules? I mean, the college has no objection to feeding me dinner with dessert. Why should they object if I decline on the dinner and go straight for the chocolates and port? Despite my insistence that it is all on the up-and-up, I admit that I do not make it all that public that I've become a crasher --- in fact, I tend to hide in the corner of the senior common room far from the principal -- as she is really the only one of sufficient gravitas that I would feel ashamed of myself trying to argue to her that "Well, it may be that it is "just not done" here, but since i dont' see why it is "just not done", I'm just gonna do it anyway".

The number 1

First let me apologize to my readership for not having posted much recently.

Last december I spoke to one avid reader (yes, there is at least one person who claims to be an avid reader of my blog) who says he keeps reading it in hopes of actually learning something about science, but ends up learning about which airport I'm stuck in.

OK, so here is something cool that is sort of about science. It is known as Benford's law, and roughly it can be summarized by the statement:

Most numbers start with a small digit. About 30% of numbers start with the digit 1. Only about 5% of numbers start with the digit 9.

Huh? Yeah, this one drove me nuts in grad school, because it really depends on what you mean by "Most numbers". But here is a test just to prove the point. Write down a bunch of "random numbers" that you generate by looking at meaningful quantities (and this is important -- the numbers have to mean something, otherwise it doesn't work).

What is your housenumber in your address?
What page is the nearest book open to?
What day of the month is your birthday?
How many dollars (pounds, euros etc) are in your wallet?
How many miles do you drive to work?
How many books do you have in your house?

The chances that the answers to any of these questions start with the digit 1 are extremely high. The chance that any of them start with the digit 9 are very low.

Lets take as an example, day of the month for your birthday. Most months have about 30 days. Choosing a random number from 1 to 30, there are 11 numbers that start with the digit 1, and only one number that begins with the digit 9.

How about a random page in a book. Well if the book has exactly 9 pages, then all digits are equally probable. But if the book has 20 pages, then there is more than a 50% chance that the first digit of a random page begins with the digit 1. (and only 1 out of 20 begin with the digit 9). In fact, only if the book has 9, 99, or 999 will a random page be equally likely to start with the digit 1 as with the digit 9. Since very few books just happen to be exactly this long, 1 is always more likely than 9.

Of course you can cook up questions that do not follow this law: How many hands do you have? How many people does it take to tango? ... but for numbers that are "sufficiently" random, the law is very good.

Now for two final questions:

What year were you born?
What month of the year is it now?
Thursday, January 7, 2010

LHC or Bell

An interesting post discussing the importance of "the old Bell Labs" and comparing the value it gave society in comparison to the LHC. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of the LHC. I'm just also in favor of the old Bell Labs as well.

Hat tip to Gerit Quealy for pointing this link out to me.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Web Page

After a year at Oxford, I finally figured out how to edit my Oxford web page so it looks fairly decent. I'm not sure if I am brave enough to put a link on that page to this blog though. Any thoughts from the peanut gallery?