The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.
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8:36am on Thursday, 23rd March, 2017:
I saw this on a rack of blinds in a Do-It-All store:
I think DIY store operatives and gamers may attribute a different meaning to the word "troll".
2:47pm on Wednesday, 22nd March, 2017:
There were only five students present at the final CE217 class this year. I think this may be related to the the fact that the class runs 10am-1pm and the deadline for the CE217 assignment is noon.
3:54pm on Tuesday, 21st March, 2017:
It was the final CE217 lecture of the term today, so I flicked the switches in LTB3 to see what they did.
They turned on the lights nearest the projector screen.
Clearly, this is just a secondary purpose designed to throw people off the scent. The real effect of the switches will have been felt elsewhere. I expect it'll be on the TV news tonight.
7:52pm on Monday, 20th March, 2017:
It was Final-Year Project Open Day today, when programs that have worked fine for the past two months suddenly fail to run and posters develop spelling errors that they didn't have when they were sent off for printing.
There are so many student projects that I only look at the ones to do with games or artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, I started at 2pm and when I next checked the time it was 5 minutes short of the event's close at 5pm. I'd figured it was maybe 4pm, so time had really flown by. Fortunately (because I had to mark their posters), I'd managed to see all my supervisees by then. There were still some others I'd wanted to see that I missed, though. There was even a room I didn't get to go into, which I didn't realise until afterwards. Another room was one I'd only visited once before in my entire university career: it has an electrified floor (for robots) so you can normally only go in if they have carpets down or you're wearing rubber shoes.
As always, there was a very wide range of projects. Happily, this year we only had one Sudoku-solver and no ants-nest simulators. Some of the projects on display were astoundingly good — one of my supervisees was offered a job on the strength of hers. There were games of professional-looking quality (almost all of which had an author who wished they'd had more time to "do a proper job"). Most of the other efforts were strong, too, sometimes to the evident surprise of the person who wrote them.
Some, of course, were absolute shockers, written by someone who either couldn't program or didn't want to work. There weren't so many of those this year, though (perhaps because a third of their cohort failed the first year). I find it slightly annoying that students who have spent a quarter as much time doing something an eighth as good as other students will nevertheless get more than half as many marks as them. I think we mark on a logarithmic scale.
Three of the projects involved recreating classic games (Bomberman, Pac-Man and Doom). They were sufficiently accurate that I was as hopeless at them as I was at the originals.
I even got swag! A rubber duck. The student's web site is based on his initials, jpbd.uk, and ends in "duk", hence the duck. I'm so glad his surname didn't start with an F.
4:49pm on Sunday, 19th March, 2017:
From today's Sunday Times culture supplement:
No, Nixon isn't "the only child of divorced parents". Millions of people are the children of divorced parents. She's "an only child of divorced parents".
Hmm, I think I may have spent too much time in meetings with computational linguists.
4:15pm on Sunday, 19th March, 2017:
I'd be more believing of Facebook's commitment to ending fake news if they didn't put sponsored ads like this one in my stream.
12:50pm on Saturday, 18th March, 2017:
This bronze statue has appeared in Colchester:
I don't know what it's supposed to be saying, but it makes a change to see one painted up like they used to do in Roman times.
Apparently, there's another one nearby of a man holding a cup, but I didn't see that one. Not that it matters: if I want to see a man holding a cup, I can just grab a cup and look in a mirror.
3:53pm on Friday, 17th March, 2017:
It's the birthday of one of my daughters coming up, so this morning I wrapped up her presents.
If there are any manufacturers of women's clothing reading, could you spare a thought for people who might buy them as gifts and have to wrap them up? Or are you in league with people who sell boxes and tissue paper, and deliberately make garments with awkward shapes and bunchy bits so they can't be wrapped stand-alone.
I don't even know what some of these things are, come to that. Maybe they're not clothes at all but some kind of weapon or agricultural implement.
6:08pm on Thursday, 16th March, 2017:
I'm standing in a queue for sandwiches behind a woman who is currently being served.
Woman: I'll have the tuna and mayonnaise please.
Server: What accent is that?
Woman: It's s Scottish accent.
Server: That's the most trusted accent in Britain according to a poll by Virgin media.
Woman: Yes, I've heard that before.
Server: Do you know what the least trusted accent is?
Server: It's an Essex accent - my accent.
Woman: I've heard that too.
(At this point the woman has been served and turns to leave. She smiles politely at me).
Me: I don't trust you.
Woman: Why not? We've only just met.
Me: I'm from Yorkshire. We don't trust anybody.
6:52pm on Wednesday, 15th March, 2017:
We had an "educational away day" at the university today. I suppose that technically it was an away day, as it was in a building a whole 20 metres from the one in which I work. Well, away part-day anyway, as it ran from 2pm to 5pm.
One of the main purposes of the away day was to think of ways to increase retention. Some 40% of our first-year students don't make it to the second year on their first attempt (and some 30% don't make it on subsequent attempts either). It looks as if early identification of struggling students promises to cut that down to 20% this year, but we really want them all to get into the second year. It's not influenced at all by the observation that if they do make it through, we can extract another £9,000 from them before they fail.
Anyway, before the meeting we were required to read a document of case studies from other universities that identified ways to increase student retention. I, it seems, was the only member of staff foolish enough actually to read this document, the others having decided they could probably wing it. Even the person who required us to read it hadn't much recollection of what was in it, so we didn't discuss it at all.
The thing is, all the ways that the document listed to increase retention among new students were straight out of the MMO newbie-retention handbook. A place where people can hang out between teaching events and make friends? Check. Organised groups led by experienced students that you can join? Check. A communication channel for students just like you? Check. A method of finding other people who are interested in the same things you are? Check. Fun tasks for people with different skills working together ? Check. Easy challenges with small rewards to get you into the swing of things? Check.
About the only suggestion that didn't map onto MMOs involved luring students to eventys with the promise of cake. That might work with students from other disciplines, but it wouldn't work for games students because none of them would believe it.
4:58pm on Tuesday, 14th March, 2017:
Today, my mother gave me a list of all the people she wants me to contact in the event of her death.
Blimey, it goes on for four pages! I hope she's not planning on dying soon, it'll cost me a fortune in stamps and telephone calls.
4:52pm on Monday, 13th March, 2017:
There are some parts of the new student centre at the university beneath which you shouldn't walk.
3:55pm on Sunday, 12th March, 2017:
While looking through an old carrier bag, I encountered an ancient, very used, paper tissue.
I don't know what won the battle of the germs on it, but I hope I've already had what it brings because otherwise I'm in serious trouble. I've probably been exposed to an otherwise lethal dose of it.
On the bright side, there's a chance that the raging armies of bacteria won't have been able to develope a resistance to antibiotics, so I may be able to survive if given sufficient pills the size of cashew nuts and daily thigh injections.
3:10pm on Saturday, 11th March, 2017:
From this week's Essex County Standard:
Hmm, well if Hilly Fields in Colchester wasn't reserved for sexual encounters before, it is now.
10:00pm on Friday, 10th March, 2017:
Today, the investigators (yes, that's what we're called) of the IGGI Doctoral Training Centre descended on Goldsmiths University of London to decide who of the 21 shortlisted applicants would form our cohort 4 in September. This means that somewhere between ten and thirteen will be happy when the email confirming their success arrives next week; the rest will be gutted.
So, IGGI stands for "Intelligent Games, Games Intelligence", and apparently it's the largest games-and-AI research group in the world. It offers full studentships and a stipend, meaning you don't pay any fees and you're given a living allowance (something like £15,500 a year, I don't know the exact figure). Because of this, it's heavily oversubscribed. The 21 candidates we interviewed today were the ones who made it through local interviewing processes at each of the three universities involved (York, Goldsmiths and Essex). As in previous years, this meant that every one of them was suitable for the programme; our job was to decide which candidates were the strongest.
The word "strongest" there suggests that it should be fairly straightforward to rank the candidates, but it's not at all. They have strengths in multiple dimensions. Some have academic publications, some have MScs or MAs, some have lecturing jobs, some have already started PhDs; some have heavy-duty programming skills, some do game jams every weekend, some have worked in the games industry; some are eloquent, some bubble with enthusiasm, some have nerves of steel, some can think fast on their feet, some are wildly industrious. Some are the finished article, some are all potential.
Of course, some have no postgraduate experience, some can't program for toffee and some are so nervous it's amazing they can say anything. They'll compensate that in other ways, of course. No-one's perfect (apart from me, obviously).
The way the successful candidates are chosen is as follows. We have three interview panels, populated with one investigator from each university. One of these will be a senior investigator and another will be an industry liaison person (I fall into that category). Each panel considers seven candidates in 40-minute sessions: 30 minutes of interview then ten minutes of discussion. 30 minutes of interview isn't as long as we'd like, but if you have to see 21 candidates in a single day, that's how it goes. All candidates are asked the same basic questions, but the depth will vary. For example, a candidate with little research experience could expect to be quizzed regarding what they think a PhD entails in more detail than someone who has an MSc, whereas a candidate with a vague or over-ambitious research proposal could expect to be challenged on the particulars of their plans.
Candidates are rated out of ten by each panel member: 10 or 9 is a shoo-in; 8 or 7 is almost certainly a yes; 6 or 5 is borderline; 4 or less is almost certainly a no. After all interviews have concluded, the members of all three panels get together and our respective marks are entered into a spreadsheet.
This is when the arguments start.
It varies each year, but perhaps five to eight candidates will average 7 marks or more. We'll take these in turn, checking that no-one thinks a particular candidate's marks aren't a true reflection of their abilities; if all goes well, we out them onto the provisional accept list. It's very rare that anyone who gets 7 or more is objected to by anyone, but it can happen.
Some four to six candidates will average below 5. We go through these seeing if anyone thinks the marks are unfair. Usually, someone will, and it may be that a candidate is moved up into the borderline zone for reconsideration. In general, though, it's not going to happen because to score this low a candidate usually has some kind of issue (say, too narrow a research focus in an area peripheral to IGGI's remit). We may encourage the candidate to reapply the following year, though, if this isn't their second application already.
We're then left with the borderline cases. We iterate through them, discussing their proposals, asking the panel members who interviewed them what they think, asking people who interviewed them locally what they think, and basically trying to establish an ordering. We don't take into account which university a candidates applied to: this is all entirely candidate-centric, not institution-centric. Sometimes, candidates interviewed by one panel may be adjudged weaker than those interviewed by another panel even if they had the higher marks; it's much less common for candidates interviewed by the same panel to switch places, but it does happen. This is the most time-consuming part of the meeting, because all the candidates have pros and cons, with the pros invariably outweighing the cons. We'll gradually move individual candidates in this group to the provisional accept list. Normally, we'll be left with three to five whom we'd like to take, but we can't take them all.
At this point, we look at candidates on the provisional accept list and decide where their funding is coming from. There are some exceptions, but in general we can take eight candidates from the UK (or EU if they've been in the UK for three years — which those who did undergraduate degrees here will have done), plus one candidate per university from the EU who hasn't been in the UK for three years, plus one candidate from outside the EU. Normally, we'll be able to find funding solutions for all the people on the provisional accept list, but it's not always possible (particularly if there are two international candidates on it); if that's the case, we have another round of discussion to make sure that the candidate we have ranked higher really is the better one, and give them preference. When it comes to the borderline candidates, we see what funding options we have left and apply them. This means that choice of university could now become a factor, because there may still be a non-UK EU grant available for one university but not for another.
In theory, this is also the one point where we can use external factors to break ties. If one of our industry advisor companies has expressed an interest in an applicant''s research proposal, we can use that as a decider. We're also allowed to take the overall gender, minority and disability balance (hmm, maybe age too?) into account here if we otherwise can't separate individuals. I don't think we've had to do that yet, but it remains an option.
After this exercise, we have a final read-through to make sure that all the interviewers accept the list of people to whom we'll be offering places. Candidates who were on the provisional accept list but not the final accept list are treated as reserves (and may well get in, because we'll usually do have someone who's offered a place but then decides not to take it up). It's possible that candidates who were borderline and then rejected could have a reserve slot, too.
Thus, life-altering futures are determined.
Acceptance letters are prepared over the next few days and the successful candidates informed. I can't tell you how many made it, because that would make their agony of waiting worse.
I can tell you that Goldsmiths do better sandwiches than we do at Essex.
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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (email@example.com).