Monday, 30 September 2013

a new lie

Another day, another cold call from some scammer.  But with a new (to me) wrinkle.
Phone rings, is answered.
Them: “We have money for you from PPI insurance.”
Us: “Have you heard of the Telephone Preference Service?”
Them: carried on with their script.
Us: “Who are you?”
Them: unintelligible mumble.
Us: “Please give me the name of your company, and their registered address.”
Them: “I can’t do that, it’s against the Data Protection Act.”
I bet you never knew the Data Protection Act said that!  (Hint: it doesn’t.)  Honestly, it just beggars belief.

Sunday, 29 September 2013


(via JR Raphael)

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pushing the boundary

Here's one for all the starting, and finishing, PhD students.

What Exactly Is a Doctorate?

(via Pharyngula)

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autumn colour

We've had a few days of glorious sunshine, and the garden is displaying gorgeous autumnal colours, even before the leaves start to turn.

Unidentified fungus.  Not as spectacular as the one in Taormina, but still lovely.
Sedum in sunlight and in shadow
Jasmine and vine scrambling together up the garage wall

Saturday, 28 September 2013

chartjunk lives!

After an excellent talk on visualising data yesterday, a colleague and I were chatting about Tufte, and bemoaning the chartjunk infesting many publications nowadays.  Being academics, we of course discussed giving some lectures on data visualisation.

Later, she sent me the two examples below, in order that I could share her exasperation. (Exasperation is not the word I would have chosen, though.)

I merely cringed at the first, but literally lol’d at the second, in stunned disbelief.

WTF!?  (And what do you mean “normalized”? to 360°?)

Really?  What were you thinking?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

inside out

I don't know whether to be amazed, or freaked!

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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

all the easy giants were dead

Why designing hardware is no longer fun.
The point is that flying in airplanes used to be fun, but now
it resembles a dystopian bin-packing problem in which humans,
carry-on luggage, and five dollar peanut bags compete for real estate
while crying children materialize from the ether and make obscure
demands in unintelligible, Wookie-like languages while you fantasize
about who you won’t be helping when the oxygen masks descend.
 (Via Danny Yee’s blog)

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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

shutting off the comments

Comments can be bad for science.
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

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Sunday, 22 September 2013

Saturday, 21 September 2013

95 percent confident that you're wrong

Be careful of statistical significance!
Ah, some scientists would say, maybe you can’t conclude anything with certainty. But with only a 5 percent chance of observing the data if there’s no effect, there’s a 95 percent chance of an effect—you can be 95 percent confident that your result is real. The problem is, that reasoning is 100 percent incorrect. For one thing, the 5 percent chance of a fluke is calculated by assuming there is no effect. If there actually is an effect, the calculation is no longer valid. Besides that, such a conclusion exemplifies a logical fallacy called “transposing the conditional.”
(via  Charlotte Bouckaert)

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Friday, 20 September 2013

sequestering carbon, several books at a time IX

Two different sets of orders arrived this week, so a big catch:

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

any way you quantize

Is string theory right?
Is it just fantasy?
Caught in the Landscape
Out of touch with reality?
Compactified on S5 or T*S3
Space is a pure void
Why should it be stringy?
Because its quantum not classical
Non renormalizable
Any way you quantize
You encounter infinity
You see...

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Monday, 16 September 2013


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Sunday, 15 September 2013

one space or two?

One space or two after a full stop?  Many would have us believe two spaces is WRONG, and was introduced due to eeeevil typewriters, and we should return to the One Right Way. Heraclitean River delves into the history: it always was two spaces, until the eeeevil publishers and their Linotype machines demanded something simpler, and rewrote history!

Use one, use two, as you see fit – but do be consistent!

sequestering carbon, several books at a time VIII

I’ve been away, so three weeks’ worth in one go.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

October the First is Too Late

It’s turned chilly all of a sudden.  With maximum temperatures of 14°C today, and forecast for the next few days, I cracked, and the central heating is now on.  Goodbye summer.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Thursday, 12 September 2013

a novel statistical significance test

Graphical inference for infovis

Can you spot which of the six plots is made from a real dataset and
not simulated under the null hypothesis of spatial independence?
(via Adam Nellis)

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bye, bye, heliopause

Voyager probe 'leaves Solar System'

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Monday, 9 September 2013

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Do left-handed people really die young?

As a lefty (but not a boxer!), that's a relief...

And an excellent explanation of how the statistics were wrong.
Their mistake was that they only looked at the dead

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Friday, 6 September 2013

a week in Taormina

I’ve had a glorious week in Taormina, Sicily, at the European Conference on Artificial Life (ECAL).  Great weather (apart from a rain storm on Monday), superb food, and a marvelously stimulating, thought-provoking set of keynotes and presentations.  My head is buzzing with all the stuff I’ve been hearing about.

a complex fungus, spotted
halfway down one staircase
The town, the gardens, and the scenery were excellent, too.  The town is built on the side of a mountain, which makes for an interesting geography.  On the Monday morning, the hotel provided a map to help us find our way to the conference venue. Unfortunately the map had a tenuous relationship with reality. The geography mostly comprises a parallel bunch of roads running along contours, linked by an amazing array of staircases, of all widths and types.  The hotel map didn’t distinguish these, and everything from a main street to a three foot wide staircase had the same representation.  I got a better map, and navigation became rather easier.

Tuesday evening: a view down to the middle road from part way up one of the many staircases...
... and the view up the rest of the staircase.
There was another flight like this to get to the top road, then a shorter flight up to the hotel, then more stairs once inside up to my 4th floor room: I took the lift by this stage.

Evenings were spent in a variety of great restaurants, squeezed into little gap, some even laid out on the staircases.  Eating marvellous Italian food outdoors on a warm summer evening, having stimulating conversations with colleagues, is a great way to end each conference day. There were also wandering bands of musicians, who would play a few tunes, then send a collection jug round.  I’m not sure what the message was supposed to be the evening they played the jug around to the theme from The Godfather...

The walk down from the hotel to the conference each day was through the splendid public gardens.

Wednesday morning : the pagoda
Magnificent displays, from bougainvillea hedges...
... to cacti collections

Although the weather was warm and sunny, the skies were rather hazy at the start.  They cleared enough later in the week to see Etna, the summit obscured not by clouds, but by a faint trickle of smoke:

Thursday: the view at breakfast
Thursday: Taormina by night

A great conference, at a great venue.  Now it’s time to go home to cooler, cloudier England. Next year’s ALife conference is in New York, which will have a somewhat different vibe, I suspect.

Monday, 2 September 2013


One of the projects I’m working on is called TRUCE: Training and Research in Unconventional Computation in Europe. As it says on the TRUCE project website:
Unconventional computation (UCOMP) is an important and emerging area of scientific research, which explores new ways of computing that go beyond the traditional model, as well as quantum- and brain inspired computing. Such alternatives may encompass novel substrates (e.g., DNA, living cells, or mixtures of the two) as well as new paradigms which, for example, support combined information processing and material production (as living systems do). UCOMP researchers draw inspiration from a wide and diverse range of sources, from physics, to chemistry, biology and ecology. The field is growing quickly, and has the potential to revolutionize not only our fundamental understanding of the nature of computing, but the way in which we solve problems, design networks, do industrial fabrication, make drugs or construct buildings.
TRUCE provides an ‘umbrella organisation’ to help coordinate, nurture and develop activities within the UCOMP community in Europe and beyond.
We ran a TRUCE workshop this Monday at ECAL, the European Conference on Artificial Life. Workshops at conferences are often run as mini-conferences themselves, with presented papers and posters. But we wanted to do something different, something ... unconventional.

One issue with unconventional computation is that conventional computers have a 60 year engineering head start. Although researchers can do what are actually amazing things with their slime molds, quantum computers, chemical droplets, bacteria, DNA, optical computers, and what-not, it’s early days yet, and the applications aren’t a patch on a smartphone. What we would like to do is think about what things will be like in about 60 years time in terms of unconventional computing.

So we decided that we should get some scientists together with some speculative fiction authors, and tell narratives of possible futures. We made a call for story ideas a few months back, and got a bunch of submissions. I put one in, too, so that the project could have an “inside view” of the process. The authors looked through the submissions, and each picked out an idea they thought they could weave into a story.

The aim is that each author will write their story set in their chosen scientific background, then the scientist will write an afterword, explaining the science in a bit more detail (or possibly explaining where the author ignored the science to make the story work!) These will all be published by Comma Press some time next year.

There was some preliminary contact between authors and scientists via Skype, then we all met up at the workshop for in-depth discussions. The author-scientist pairs scattered around the conference venue for most of the day, sitting in little coffee-fueled huddles, talking through the story ideas, and the underlying science. One attendee said “that’s the longest I’ve ever talked to someone who isn’t my wife continuously on a single subject!”

In the late afternoon, we all got back together and presented the current status of our ideas. Not all of them turned out to be dystopias, fortunately, but authors tend to want an interesting plot, which usually means things going wrong! But that’s fine: we can give warnings of futures that we don’t want to happen.

So, the authors get some futuristic scientific ideas for their stories. What do the scientists get out of the process? Well, some of my work is with biologists, building simulations of complex systems, which requires me to understand quite a bit of their science, which means I ask a lot of questions. One thing they say is “I like working with computer scientists, because they ask such different questions.” Different questions are good: they make you think about things from different angles, giving a different view on the problem.

And I can now say, I like working with authors, for exactly the same reason.

We’ll be having a second call for ideas soon. So, if you are researching some aspect of unconventional computation, and would like some unconventional discussion of your work, why not submit an idea? The second round won’t get to go to Sicily – sorry! – but you will get all the other spin off benefits.

And for everyone else: look out for the book next year.


Monday: the first day of the European Conference on Artificial Life (ECAL). Sunday was all travel: from home to ECAL‘s location in Taormina, Sicily, by taxi to the station, train to Kings Cross, tube to Victoria, train to Gatwick, shuttle to North terminal, plane to Catania, and taxi to Taormina, about 10 hours travel time.

It was dark on arrival, so my first view from the hotel window was in the morning:

looking out on the cacti
looking down to the hazy sea