Monday, December 29, 2008


Xmas has been and gone and I think we survived pretty much unscathed. I have a new coat and scarf and a snazzy Brain Training little game thingy (which nevertheless tells me my brain is aged and atrophied...) and the girls have all sorts of bits and pieces, most of which we have now found homes for.

But we made the big mistake of venturing out into town today. I don't know if anyone was spending any money (sorry, Gordon, but we aren't doing our bit do haul the UK out of its hole) but people were certainly out in numbers, mostly just to get in each other's way. Perhaps they had by now become sick of annoying their family members at home and had decided they absolutely had to get out. So they all congregate in town to annoy each other. We at least managed to get the lovely people in the Early Learning Centre to take back a malfunctioning (pink...) CD player but otherwise the trip was a bit of a dead loss. Shopping with kids is at best a hit and miss affair, unless you want just to shop for things in shops that are kid-approved. But today it was absolutely horrendous. I was very glad to get home and collapse into a sofa. (And I also was able to have a first go at Lego Batman... Lots of fun.)

Perhaps the week between Xmas and New Year is just designed to persuade us all that it won't be so bad to get back to work.

Just the panto to negotiate now and then the January pool...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

RAE 2008

Some good news today from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. The full details of the procedure and the results are available here and there is a handy pdf of the headline news from the THE here. But here are the rankings for the subjects I'm most interested in. The results here show a weighted average score (from 0 to 4) for a given assessment unit (subject) by institution. Very good news for the Cambridge Faculty of Classics. The Cambridge ancient philosophers were included in the Classics submission since that is where we hold our lectureships.

Here is the GPA ranking for Classsics, ancient history, Byzantine and modern Greek studies:

Cambridge 3.15

Oxford 3.05

UCL 2.95

King’s College 2.85

Durham 2.85

Warwick 2.85

Exeter 2.80

Manchester 2.70

Bristol 2.70

St Andrews 2.70

Birmingham 2.60

Here is the ranking for Philosophy.

Good news for the Cambridge Department of the History and Philosophy of Science.

UCL 3.15

St Andrews 3.15

King’s College 3.05

Sheffield 3.05

Reading 3.05

Cambridge A: History and philosophy of science 2.95

LSE 2.95

Oxford 2.95

Stirling 2.95

Bristol 2.90

Essex 2.90

Birkbeck 2.85

Cambridge B: Philosophy 2.85

Nottingham 2.80

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reason and childhood

Every so often I attempt to explain to my kids what I do all day. This tends not to go very well. This evening I attempted to introduce R to some interesting paradoxes. She was telling me how if someone says 'I am telling the truth' this is good evidence for the fact that they are lying. Shrewd, I thought, but then I also took the opportunity to ask her whether someone who says 'I am lying' is telling the truth or not. She would have none of this and just told me I was being silly.

So I tried to persuade her of the powers of reason by explaining how I could prove she cannot cross the room. Then I gave her a version of Zeno's dichotomy paradox. Again, the answer was that I was just being silly (she was getting quite cross with me by now) and that she would prove me wrong as soon as she got out of the bath by crossing the room easily. Such an empiricist, my daughter...

What should I conclude from this? Yes, I suppose she was right that I was being silly. BIt is certainly not clear that doing more philosophy would allow R to have a better reaction to puzzles of this sort. Her current attitude is probably, all things considered, the right sort of thing to say. If that's right, I wondered if trying to persuade anyone to do anything other than dismiss this kind of thing is really a good idea... I really need the vacation to come soon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

That's your opinion

There's an interesting article in this week's THE about 'student-centred' learning, punctuated with some nice grumpy comments from Alan Ryan. Read the article here, but for a flavour of Ryan's take on things:
"Opinions can be all right, but students aren't here to learn opinions, they are here to learn how things are," he says. "In the past I have looked at a student's work and said, 'All you have done is copied this out', and hey've replied, 'Oh, did you want my opinion?'

"Well, the answer to that is, 'No, I don't want your opinion; what I want to know is if these are proper arguments, whether Plato was right about this - I couldn't give a bugger about your opinion; who could care less?'

"All this stuff about opinions - bloody hell, who wants opinions in physics, for example? The real thing is how you assess whether people know anything, and if they aren't obliged to write coherent prose and so on, then what evidence is there that they do? The answer, I am afraid, is not much."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Grumpy Christmas

Term has just finished and we have a good few days of undergraduate admissions interviews ahead of us. These are hard work and involve some difficult decisions. It's a serious business and so it has to be done properly. I also have some supervisions hanging over from term and two MPhil students in the last throes of their first assessed essay and then a PhD to examine.

So I'm not in the mood for Christmas at all. But when you have young kids it all seems to start very early and positively demand your interest and excitement. Sigh. So this afternoon is the great-if-you-are-6 Fitzwilliam college children's Christmas party. This is an excellent institution, I hasten to add, but I can't help thinking it would be better if we could wait to have it some time in February when there's not so much else going on.

Then there are the eye-achingly sweet but dreadful Christmas 'performances' at school (a play -- the amusingly named propaganda-vehicle 'Rock around the Flock' -- and a concert) and the increasingly frequent rehearsals for the ballet school production. I'm sure these will all be terribly lovely and camcordered with much affection by parents but I just don't enjoy them. I know I should , probably, and I like it that they matter so much to the kids (though I am not sure I like the fact they give over most of this half-term in rehearsals) but I just don't. So there. I'm a bad un-Chrismassy person but there's really not much I can do about it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Chasing the tortoise

Today I received news of this year's 'Eleatica' conference, to be held 15-18 Jan. in Ascea. The main lectures are being given by Jonathan Barnes (on Zeno) and more details can be found here. The accompanying letter also announced the inauguration of a ZENO prize 'devoted to the portrayal unsing computer graphics of Zeno pursuing the tortoise'. So if you have any talents in that direction, off you go. Of course, in order to write all the code for the programme, you need first to write half the code. And before you write half the code, you need first to finish writing a quarter... I can see it might not be easy to give this prize away.

Here's an animated attempt:

The other announcement is that the honorary citizenship of Elea will be awarded to a distinguished scholar. Can you think of any suitable modern Eleatics?