Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Administered Uncertainty

We have this university online environment we are compelled to use for classes.

Now, we got burned by this environment in the quantitative methods course a couple of years ago, in a way that caused huge amounts of additional work, primarily for L Magee. And so we have been much more cautious in how we use it in this course. Nevertheless. We have once again gotten caught overestimating its capacities.

Our mission: letting 260 students allocate themselves to one of 11 sessions that will be held next week with the liaison librarian.

Conveniently, there is something in the environment that looks useful for such a purpose. Wonderful. Let’s use that. And so we dutifully set up the list of library sessions, and tell the students to register themselves.

Now, everything will be fine, so long as the students actually make a note of the session for which they registered. But these are undergraduate students. They will not make a note. Which means that they will descend on us after the lecture and tutes next week, asking us what they registered for. No problem, we think – we just extract the data about the registrations from the database.


as it turns out…

we can only extract either:

heisenberg gamma ray microscope – information about the number of indeterminate students who have booked into some specific library session;


– information about particular students have registered for some indeterminate library session.

In other words, there is no actual way to know that some particular student, has registered for some specific library session.

We can know about individual students, or individual sessions – but not both at the same time.

It’s like… the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Library Sessions.

Now L Magee tells me that he can write some code that will function a bit like those devices they use in Star Trek to allow the transporters to work: a Heisenberg Compensator for our library registration system… So that we may simultaneously know where both students and sessions are.

My question is: Do you think this will cause the library to implode?

One response to “Administered Uncertainty

  1. L Magee August 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Belated coda to this dilemma: the exciting “code” was the inclusion of a question in the survey asking students for their student number. Notwithstanding they had entered this to access the system in the first place. To turn from Heisenberg to Godel: we now have both a consistent and complete set of student/session registrations. Some complex transformations were also required to reconfigure these relationships however: the download format presents the student and session times in an admirably normalised (if practically unhelpful) state.

    As a side note, current theory on the business model of the company behind the “university online environment” is that the image buttons it uses to submit (and confirm, and re-confirm) actions are surreptitiously tied to Google Ads – adding immeasurably to the company’s shareholder value with every “click-through”, at some modest expense to the system’s usability.

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