Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chimpanzee Lotteries

As we know by now, anything that varies depending upon where you live is a 'postcode lottery'. The term is generally used to condemn regional differences in healthcare provision or other services. I think that this is unfortunate as it tends to give lotteries a bad name.

One problem is that there is no real lottery here, or at least not one between already existing people. This relates to a second problem, that those who criticise these inequalities do not usually go on to notice that simply be born in the UK with a National Health Service, rather than in, say, Ethiopia is also morally arbitrary.

Anyway, I didn't want to embark on another lottery rant; my reason for posting is to note that chimpanzees are now subject to postcode lotteries, even though they don't even have postcode...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Medals and Lexical Ordering

Those familiar with Rawls's political philosophy will no doubt be familiar with the notion of lexical (or lexographical) ordering, the standard example of which is dictionary alphabetisation. Football league tables offer another example, usually with points scored lexically prior to goal difference, which is in turn lexically prior to goals scored.

I thought it worth noting that the Olympic medals table offers another fine example. For some particularly clear examples:
South Korea (13/8/7) comes 5th, ahead of Germany (11/19/14).
Kazakhstan (7/1/5) comes 12th, ahead of Netherlands (6/6/8).
North Korea (4/0/2) comes 20th, ahead of Spain (3/10/4).
Norway (2/1/1) comes 35th, ahead of Canada (1/5/12).
And, just to show that silver medals carry some weight, Australia (7/16/12) comes 10th, ahead of Japan (7/14/17).

It's a further question, of course, whether this lexical ordering is justified. Does one gold medal really outweigh any number of silvers?

I'm told by Canadian friends that Canadian reporting switched from using the lexical ordering to reporting the total number of medals, a measure on which Canada (36th) came ahead of Hungary (9th, with 8/4/5). This doesn't seem right either, since it counts a gold as being as good as (but no better than) a bronze.

Perhaps a better ordering would be one giving differential weight to different medals, but this (unlike either lexical ordering or equality) requires us to specify how much better gold is than bronze. If we were to say gold = 3 points, silver = 2 points, bronze = 1 point then we would get one result; but we'd get a quite different table if we said gold = 5 points, silver = 3 points, bronze = 1 point. (If that's not clear, compare two countries with the profiles (1/0/0) and (0/2/0) under each of these schemes.)

p.s. This is based on the table after the immediate conclusion of the games. Apparently the medal standings won't be absolutely final until 2020! (Maybe even longer: see update here.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Exam Results and University Entry

Two Scottish universities (St Andrews and Robert Gordon) have apparently been guilty of leaking exam results to some of their incoming students ahead of their official publication. (These are presumably Scottish Highers, but the same principles apply to A-Levels.)

What stands out to me is the fact that universities have these results so far ahead of the candidates themselves. I see that there's need for universities to be able to process offers before clearing, but I don't see why candidates should be kept in the dark.

What we have at the moment amounts to this (random dates):
4th - universities get results
11th - candidates get results
11th - clearing begins
I would have thought a much better system would be like this:
4th - universities get results
4th - candidates get results
11th - clearing begins

In other words, universities can still have the same amount of time to process grades, finalize offers, and work out how many clearing places they have, but candidates should know where they stand during this period. Those who've missed their grades will have an agonising wait for clearing to begin, but at least they'll know their grades and have time to think over and consider options, rather than having to make important decisions immediately after receiving disappointing exam results.