Monday, November 29, 2010


The STACS program committee meeting has ended. We have a couple of days to digest the results before they get sent out to authors. The way in which the committee virtual meeting was run was an impressive case of efficiency. We were given internal deadlines that we were actually supposed to respect, with no slack. That was stressful!

The life of a professor is very much driven by deadlines. The next item: recommendation letters that need to be written and sent out, many of them before December 1. A few days later, several referee reports are due. Then, wrapping up the semester's courses and deciding on final grades. Some of the intervals in between will be filled by attempts to bring my mailbox under control.

So much of our lives is occupied by evaluations. It is rather striking considering that that is neither teaching nor research proper.

Friday, November 5, 2010


When I voted in the village in France where I used to live, we did it the old-fashioned way: go in an isolated space whose privacy is protected by curtains, put a paper ballotin a small envelope, and drop it in the glass bin. On several occasions I volunteered to help count.

That Sunday evening (voting in France is always on Sundays), the volunteers gather, and we form 3 tables of four actors. The other people present are just watching the counting as it happens, to help guarantee its integrity.

The chair of the meeting unlocks the glass bin and envelopes are gathered in packets of one hundred. Our table gets a few of those packets. For each envelope, I open it, take out the bulletin and pass it to the person across the table from me. He looks at the name written on the ballot and reads it aloud. The two other persons, who each have a sheet of paper, record the vote. After each packet, they compare their tally and we check that the total sum is correct.

It's a mesmerizing procedure. Extremely easy, but we have to stay focused. By myself, I would perhaps make one or two mistakes in the 600 votes that my table counts. With the four of us controlling the process (plus onlookers), the rare mistakes get noticed right away. Everyone is focused: we're all conscious of the importance of the act. Democracy in action! I am also fascinated by the tallies, trying to predict who will win, looking for patterns and trying to explain them. Overall, voting is so much more satisfying in France. In the morning, we vote, and in the evening, we watch the votes being counted, knowing that ours is one of them even though we don't know which one it is. The results are gathered with the other voting places in town, and the tallies are posted at the city hall. They are then aggregated with results from other towns, and posted at the regional center. They are then further aggregated to sum to the national numbers. A beautiful hierarchical tree!