Monday, January 29, 2007

Reflections at Leeds Met

In the past few years, Leeds Metropolitan University has established a nice tradition of daily reflections, found on the right bar on the Leeds Met web site. Here, our Vice Chancellor Simon Lee provides a daily insight into events and is thinking, and there are reflections by staff members from all faculties about international matters (every time we go on a university-related travel abroad, we are supposed to submit a reflection here - there are a few by myself there), research matters, assessment/teaching/learning, sports activities, and ethics. Quite a universe of thoughts which is spanned open here by these reflections which reflect the wide range of opinions, thoughts, and activities going on at our university.

I quite like these reflections and read them every day - they are a valuable source of information on what is going on. Have not seen any other uni doing this...

The Leeds Met StudentWiki!

Last Wednesday, a few video tapings were made for the launch of the Student Wiki, a new portal for student interaction in the Web 2.0 sense. Among others, I too was asked to make a few statements about this Wiki, and the recorded video would be streamed and highlighted at the official launch ceremony next week, on 6. February.

Since I did not really had thought much about it, and since my mind was full of thoughts about a reaearch proposal that I was about to submit - about cameras on a geo-centric web interface - I stumbled something about using cameras ... hope it all makes sense in the final cut of the podcast!

But well done, Dave Griffin - he is the main architect of this portal, and cudos to his achievement here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Annie Hall" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

During the holidays, and also later on, there were nice movies on TV. I watched a few of my favorites, and even I had seen them before, it always is a pleasure to watch them again, after a few years, with a new take, discovering some new details that I may have missed before.

One of these classic movies is "Annie Hall" by Woody Allen (see description on IMDB or on Wikipedia. This movie is truly Allen's masterpiece. With an innovative way of telling the story (it begins from the end, with flashbacks, talking into the camera) which seems to be so natural and "human". A story about a relationship, in which one partner grows (Diane Keaton) while the other one remains the same (Woody Allen). The Oscars for this movie are well deserved, and I consider Woody Allen to be among the greatest moviemakers of our time, right on par with Robert Altman who died this past December.

The other movie I watched is "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Another relationship film, in which a "glamour girl" (Audrey Hepburn) is looking for a rich guy to marry. Of course, in the end the real love wins, contrary to real life. A movie worth watching, and be it just for the iconic description of the feeling of the 1960s.

There is a link between these two movies: Truman Capote wrote the novel "Breakfast at Tiffany's", and appeared (without credits) very briefly as a look-alike of himself in "Annie Hall".

Music "Renditions" - and Torture

Here is something that I wanted to post in this blog already a few months ago - but as I wanted to post it, my computer crashed... and I then never had the time to post this again. But now I have a bit time, and so here it is:

Those people with a "web presence" (like me, for example) who have webpages and get referenced, often show a bit vanity: it makes us feel nice when a Google search with our name (jargon: "ego-surfing") brings up some meaningful results. But of course there is a reason other than plain vanity: I am just curious who else links to me, and I want to ensure that all the info out there is correct. So once in a while, I do this "ego-surfing" (I recommend you try this too with your name!), and among other things, I found that besides me there is another Reinhold Behringer (in Munich), and there is a bicycle store owned my someone with my name.

Some of you may know that I have an interest in classical music on synthesizers: in the last 10 years I created a few "MIDI files" for orchestral works, which could be played on a synthesizer. In our little online group which was around at that time ("Classical Music Makers"), we decided to use the name "rendition" for these type of MIDI works: this should indicate that a MIDI file would not just have notes in it like a score, but also have some interpretative additions, trying to create a pleasing performance. So a few months ago I searched for my name plus the term "rendition" - sometimes there were comments to those renditions, and I was curious to read them.

So I did the Google search for these terms, and at first did not find much new. But then I saw the headline "Marc Cooper » Blog Archive » Redefining Torture", and somewhere in the description a reference to me and my music: someone obviously found my music so horrible that it could be used as a torture instrument! I was now very curious to read that article. Ok, that served me right - exposing my little attempts at creating music just revealed my lack of talent, and it would probably have been better not to publish the music.

As I read the article, I realised that the term torture was not really in reference to my music (I was relieved!), but that the blog was in general about "renditions" and how that term has gotten a new meaning, relating to "extraordinary renditions" and the US foreign policy. A lady with name Eleanore Kjellberg had posted there an interesting post, mentioning my music as a positive example of renditions. Thank you, Miss Kjellberg! I tried to find her email address to send her a friendly relpy - after all one must take care about the fan base! But I could not find her... so if you, Miss Eleanore Kjellberg, happen to read this, please accept my thanks for your nice comments!

Student Assessment - and Marking Scheme

Time goes by fast, and there is a lot to write. But I do not have much time anymore for writing things down here: lots of work at the Uni, and at home the usual routine with shopping and house-related work on weekends instead of travelling.

At the Uni, the fall semester has ended. Student assessment is not quite easy: over time the assessor has to apply a common standard and cannot get influenced - the same standards need to be applied to all students. When I assess written homework, I go through the whole pile of submissions twice: the 2nd time is to ensure that I have applied consistent standards to everyone. But it is more difficult to keep this consistency in the individual examination. Last week, when the students of one course were assessed by all of us tutors, a few students had submitted some not so great works - so when I saw something decent, then I was quite enthusiastic and gave high marks. However, as the moderation process started (comparison of all student's grades, of marks given by all tutors, to ensure consistency), it turned out that I had given a few marks too high. I am not really sorry about this - after all, I think that marks should be encouraging to the student, and I do not like this marking scheme that we have to use here, in which no student ever gets a 100%, because no work is ever perfect. But I feel sorry for the few students whose work initially had a higher mark, and now gets a lower one.

Just for information to those who are not familiar with the marking scheme employed here: students' work is graded between 0% and 100%. In order to get a "pass", the mark must be at least 40%. 40%-50% is a "3rd grade" mark, 50%-60% a "2.2", 60%-70% a "2.1", and above 70% there is a "1st". This is a highly non-linear scale, and I find it difficult to determine an exact translation of what the student did into these percentages. I can quite easily determine "by feeling", in which category a student work fits. And so does every other tutor: the whole grading is done "by feeling". If I try to add up points and translate the students' work directly into precentages, then there are some big discrepancies:
- from a bare "pass" to a "1st", the step is just 75%. What I mean: the student has 40% for a pass, and for a "1st", (s)he just needs to add 3/4 of that work to get the highest possible grade category. This is somewhat not intuitive. And if the students puts much more effort in, the grade remains the same: a "1st". In order to remove this distinction, the marking schemes have often "stretched" this regime between 40% and 70%: suddenly there is not a linear correlation between the students work and the mark, but the marking category is given in weird worldy descriptions. And in the "1st" caegory, 75% is the most given mark. To me this means that the student just fulfilled 3/4 of what was asked, but got a 1st! This is not logical. And therefore, the tutors never give high 1st marks: even if the student fulfilled everything, (s)he just gets what the tutor feels would be appropriate. 75% for everything is fine, 80% for excellent ingeniuity, 90% for outstanding - can be used in real world production, and 100% never. This sounds a bit unfair to students...

I prefer a directly quantifyable marking scheme: the student would collect points for each question / criterion, and the sum of all the points would translate into a percentage. 100% would then be the mark which would given to the students when everything was correct and was there in the assignment. Of course, this would mean that the "1st" would have to be redifined: 100%-90% would be a "1st", as is in the US an "A".

I wonder if this marking scheme is customary at all UK universities. If so, then I think something has to change drastically, as this current scheme is unfair to the student and introduces a lot of "variability" by the tutor marking, since the non-linearity between student points and marking percentage grade prevents from establishing a reproducable marking scheme.

Something for those responsible for student education to think about.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Late afternoon in Northern England's Countryside, north of Leeds, near Harewood.

Blooming bushes - in January! It has not yet been below freezing point, but tonight is the first time below 0 C. The rain stopped - before it could turn into snow.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Living in the UK: NHS and BBC

There are two institutions in the UK with which everyone living here comes in contact sooner or later. Both of these institutions symbolise something that can be either called "big government" or "quality through solidarity", depending where one stands. These institutions are the National Health Service (NHS) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Both are often in the news and a constant source of discussions.

This is especially true for the NHS. It was founded in 1947, and it provides free health care to everyone in the UK. This is financed by taxes - the NHS is a big budget item every year in the country's budget. In principle, this is a great idea: everybody can receive health care, independent of their income. For somebody who has lived in the US, with its dismal non-existent healthcare system, this is quite something remarkable. But in practise there are big problems: the care for patients here in the UK seems to be somewhat substandard. Last year I had one encounter with the NHS, when I got a flu and decided to try them out. First, one needs to be registered. So I made an appointment for visiting the GP (General Practicioneer) in my neighborhood. I could not choose my GP freely - instead, I have to select from a few "surgeries" around my place of living. This is the first thing that bothered me. What if I wanted to go to a "good" doctor, about whom I might have heard, and who was recommended? I would not be allowed to go there...

The surgery I went looked quite run-down (actually it fell victim this summer to arson), with shabby furniture. The employees seemed to make the best of it, being friendly, with a good upbeat attitude. But they could not mask the general feeling of being in a government-run institution in which they could not really make a difference.

When I went to my appointment, I had thought that I could get a visit of the GP too. But now, the visit was only for the registration. For seeing a doctor I would have to come again some other day, because they are not available in the afternoon. Now that sucks....

I decided at that time not to make that 2nd visit. It would actually not be an appointment, but just a walk-in - with the "great" prospect of waiting for a few hours. Making an appointment is not possible. Well, this is typical for government-run institutions - no service for the customer.

So instead I tried the cost-reduction-version of NHS: the NHS Direct. I could phone in, describe my symptoms to a nurse, then get advice on what to do. She told me to buy some medication from the "chemist" (pharmacy) which I did.

Ok, this worked out ok, I got healthy again. But what if something more serious would happen? I do not dare to think about that. Waiting time at hospitals for non-emergency operations is many months. When wanting to see a specialist, I would have to get a referal from my GP - what if he/she does not give me that referal? There have been cases when - through cost cutting efforts - referals are not given or are delayed.

Also, recently in the news were more and more cases where the NHS declined to pay for the medication of seriously sick people (e.g. for a cancer drug) - the "Beckhams" even had to chip in and pay for the medication of a young boy who is chronically ill.

On the other side, the wages of NHS employees have dramatically risen over the past 3 years: the annual GP salary moved from about 80k pound to almost 120k (see article), with top salaries around 250k. I think this is top of the world - not even in the US they earn that much.

So something is deeply wrong here - but what to do and how to fix the NHS?

The other British flagship of government-provided service is the BBC. Of course, the situation here is a bit different: the BBC provides actually a state-of-the-art service, with some of the best TV programming in the world. It has high-quality content, and top technology. Yes, they also finance Augmented Reality research! But what is the price for this?

Everyone who owns a TV, has to register and pay an annual fee of 131.50 pound per year, that is $250. Quite an amount. And the whole sum goes to the BBC - none of the other broadcasters (ITV, Channel4, ...) gets a piece of this. I wonder if this is justifyable...

The amount is quite large, and I would commit an offence if I would not pay. This is, in my view, quite an unfair government subsidy to one single company. What, if I would decide not to watch BBC anymore? Why would I have to pay for it? Actually, the same system is implemented in Germany... but at least there, two independent TV companies (ARD and ZDF) get the benefits of this fee which is currently a bit over 200 Euro per year (which comes to the same amount as here in the UK).

The benefit of this fee is of course that the BBC TV and radio programs are free of advertisement - quite a relief. But this guaranteed income has the danger of bloating the BBC - why would anyone in BBC management try to safe money and be lean and efficient, when the funding is "extracted" from viewers with the help of government authority? It would somehow be better it users had a choice: they could decide if they want to pay for it or not - as a pay TV, like the satellite TV Sky. Of course, there would be the obvious complaint coming from the BBC: "We would then be underfunded.". My reply would be: "You do not seem to trust in your own programming, that it can attract enough people to watch it."

But then again, when I scan through the 4 BBC TV programs, listen in the car to BBC Radio 4, get my latest news updates on the BBC website, or watch such jewels as the TV series Little Britain, I think that my money is actually well spent.

Of course, Channel 4 demonstrated more than 10 years ago, that also without such guaranteed income a high quality TV program could be produced - Father Ted (also on Wikipedia. Just check on YouTube for video sequences from this hilarious series, and you know what I mean.

Long live the British humour!!!

Winter Storms

Yesterday a major storm moved over England, with wind gales up to 99 mph. A few walls fell down here and there, a few trees blocked the road. Lorries (for US readers: trucks) fell on their side. A couple of people were killed.

Here in the Cottage we were already used to the winds - the trees had been blowing in the trees already since a few weeks, almost non-stop. But now there are many branches lying on the road, torn down from the strong wind gusts.

The trains had stopped for a day, since yesterday morning. Otherwise, road traffic for me is running smooth as usual.


Here is a soundfile (MP3, 128 kbps, 18 sec., 290 kB) from the storm (either click on the link, or richt-click and "Save As"), recorded with in-ear microphones just outside the Parkside Cottage. The trees were bending in the hissing wind.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Car Break-in

This past Monday night, 11 pm, a knock on our door. Who could that be? It is a stormy, rainy night, who would visit us that late in the evening? It is Tommy, one of the neighbors, walking his dog. His raincoat is dripping wet from the constant soaking rain, and now the wind picks up again. He was wondering if I accidentally left my car door open - he noticed it as he was passing by on the road. I put on a coat and walk out with him. What I see there: the upper part of the driver-side door of the Ford Granada is open, letting rain dripping onto the driver's seat. But the lower part of the door is actually closed! How could that happen?

Immediately it is clear what had happened: someone had bent the upper door segment open, to enter the car. I open the door - it is unlocked, although I had left it locked. The interior light does not switch on. Battery empty? No, whoever was in the car, had taken precautions to switch that light off, so as not to be seen. I turn it on, it works. The car inside is a mess - more than the usual mess when I drive it: the glove compartment is open, all the cables and stuff I had inside, is spread on the seat. The inside wall under the steering wheel is ripped open - obviously someone had tried to get access to the electric wires, to start the car. I turn the key to start the car - the instrumentation lights go on, but the engine does not get cranked, just silence. Well, this is the immobiliser. It had happened to me last year when the battery had been completely drained - the car could not be started for one hour. That means, the wannabe-thief had been here just one hour ago!

I call the police in Pudsey. They come around midnight. Take down the details. Nothing else they can do. Fortunately this is just a cheap car. I am somehow not very upset about the mechanical damage - I think I can fix that, just bending back the door. But I am upset that whoever that was, operated just 10 m away from me, as I was sitting in our living room on the sofa. Maybe he even peeked into the window, saw all those boxes and "gadgets": the TV on the wall, those PC displays, etc. - not a very comforting thought!

Next day, Tuesday, I cancel my morning meetings at the Uni - have to wait for the police forensic expert. When he comes to the house around 11am, he tells me that due to the rain he cannot do anything - no fingerprints are preserved on the door surface. And on those riffled plastic surfaces inside on the dashboard, it is impossible to get any finger prints.

So now I can try to bend back the door and put the stuff in the car back in place. It is harder than I thought to bend the door. The thief must have used a metal tool. I can narrow the gap, but in the rain I am not able to do much. So I fill the gap with bubble wrap and plastic foil, and take the Suzuki for driving to work. Of course, the battery of the Suzuki is empty. Why? No idea - no light was on. Just the radio on standby, or the clock. Or some leak current somewhere... Anyway, the voltage is down to 1V, and I use my portable starter battery to jumpstart the car. Runs fine, gets recharged during my ride, and starts fine when I drive back.

Before going to the Uni, I decide to stop at Maplin, the UK version of something like Frys or Conrad Elektronik: I have to update my video surveillance system. I get two more cameras and a USB box for 4 video inputs. In the evening, I setup the cameras and connect them - now I have 24h surveillance around the Cottage. The software performs motion recognition and saves a video file, anytime when motion is detected. I also can upload it to a web server.

Now on weekend, I did some fine-tuning of the camera positions. Next time anyone tries something funny, I will have it on video!

What is it here in the UK with the crime? Half a year ago, my bicycle was stolen, from a "locked" room in the Kirkstall Brewery student dorms! Never before had a bicycle been stolen from me, not in Germany, not in the US, not in France during a bike tour in 1995. But here in the UK, just a few months after I bought it, somebody else decided to claim ownership of this bike.

And now this break-in into my car! Again, never ever before had someone tried to open any of my cars or rental cars. In Ebersberg (Germany, near Munich) I had my car parked on the street every night for 6 years. In Thousand Oaks (US), my vehicles were often parked out on the street overnight. Nobody stole anything, ever. Only once, a group of "pranksters" in Thousand Oaks had smashed a window of the car - and they smashed every car on the road that night. But no break-in for the sake of stealing something.

Well, I guess it is a plain fact that in the UK there is more criminal activity. The question remains unanswered: why is this so? Has it always been so? Is unemployement the reason? Who in his right mind would want to steal a car worth 350 British Pound?