O'Really?

April 1, 2014

The Serene Scientists Serenity Prayer via Jon Butterworth

banksy church

The Church of Banksy

Whatever your religous preferences, the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr captures a certain wisdom about life in general. So it is good to see that physicist Jon Butterworth at UCL has adapted it [1] for scientists:

“Give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be understood,

Data to investigate the things which can be understood,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Amen!

References

  1. Jon Butterworth (2014) Giles Fraser says scientists are replacing theologians. Some thoughts on that The Gruaniad, 2014-03-31

March 4, 2014

CoderDojo, CodingDojo or CodeJo?

CC-BY licensed picture of a Hacker Dojo by Mitch Altman.

A dojo (or a dōjō) is an event where people train to perform a given task. So for example, software engineers organise code dojos to hone their skills in making software. The term has become widely adopted, so much so, that you’ll often find many flavours of dojo in your local area. In Manchester, there are at least three variants and these often get confused, usually by me. So here’s a quick explanation of what the different dojos do and how they are different.

CoderDojo: @coderdojo & @mcrcoderdojo etc

CoderDojo.com is an open source, volunteer led, global movement of free coding clubs for young people. You’ll find Coder Dojos all over the world, the Manchester Coder Dojo meets once a month in The Sharp Project, and like many coder dojos is very popular and frequently over-subscribed.

CodingDojo: @uomcodingdojo & @codingdojodotco

A group of students at the University of Manchester organise a Coding Dojo @uomcodingdojo see fb.com/uomcodingdojo. They practise problems in TopCoder and other puzzles [1-5] in order to compete in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. They do this because it’s fun, improves their skill and prepares them for the kind’s of problems that are commonly found in a Coding Interviews  - a variant of the infamous Microsoft / Amazon / Google / Apple / Facebook / Twitter interviews. [6,7]

(The Manchester Coding Dojo are nothing to do with codingdojo.com  an outfit in Seattle and Silly Valley who claim to “teach you programming in 2 weeks” see @codingdojodotco.)

Codejo: @manc_codejo

The Manchester Codejo is monthly coding meetup in Manchester, where developers improve their skills by performing Katas - exercises designed to improve coding ability through repetition. So at their last meeting for example, Gemma Cameron @ruby_gem recently ran a Codejo session on the Class-responsibility-collaboration card at manchester.techhub.com.

In other words…

So @coderdojo ≠ @uomcodingdojo ≠ @manc_codejo ≠ @McrCoderDojo etc. Hope this clears up some confusion…

References

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dining Philosophers
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight queens puzzle
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower of Hanoi
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travelling salesman problem
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two Generals’ problem
  6. McDowell, Gayle Laakman (2011) Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions Career Cup ISBN:098478280X
  7. Poundstone, William (2013) Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? Fiendish Puzzles And Impossible Interview Questions From The World’s Top Companies Oneworld Publications ISBN:1851689559

December 13, 2013

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Podcast, now on BBC Radio 4

ISIHAC

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also unavailable on Samsung Android devices.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (ISIHAC) is a superbly funny comedy show broadcast by the BBC since 1972 and currently airing it’s sixtieth (yes 60th!) series. Unlike many other BBC programmes, ISIHAC is mysteriously unavailable as a podcast, which makes it difficult to listen to offline. Why is this? Professor Google doesn’t give a definitive answer and the BBC aren’t saying much about it either. So in the spirit of public broadcasting, this post poses the question, where’s the podcast? Currently there are a two theories floating around on the interwebs:

  • The podcast was destroyed by the lovely Samantha when she exceeded her bandwidth after … [insert smutty innuendo here]
  • There is no podcast because Random Entertainment Ltd, the company behind ISIHAC, make a tidy profit from ISIHAC merchandise (mostly CDs, audiobooks, Uxbridge English Dictionary etc). This makes enough money for Graeme Garden and Jon Naismith to have a lifetime supply of Swanee whistles and Kazoos funded by tax-payers money. Consequently, the BBC don’t have the rights to podcast it or something, probably…

If all you want is an ISIHAC MP3 of the broadcast that can be listened to offline at your leisure, then the lack of a podcast is frustrating. Of course, there various workarounds and hacks to roll your own using using get_iplayer, a digital recorderXBMC or similar but this will be a lot of unnecessary hassle for most listeners. None of this seems to be in the spirit of public  broadcasting and there’s a bigger (unanswered?) question about how the BBC decides what to podcast (and what not to).

So Jon Naismith, Graeme Garden and anyone at the BBC, if you’re reading this, please can ISIHAC be made available as an MP3 via a podcast? Much obliged.

December 10, 2013

Manchester or Mamchester? You’re twistin’ my melon mam!

Filed under: tom-foolery — Duncan Hull @ 6:14 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Manchester Town Hall

Manchester Town Hall by Richard Hopkins, creative commons licensed picture via Flickr

The term Manchester is a misnomer, mutated from it’s original form. The name Mamchester might be more appropriate, but only if the pedants get their way.

The Man in Manchester is misleading and has little to do with Manhood or Masculinity. Instead, the word is thought to come from the name given to city by the romans of “Mamucium”, meaning breast-shaped hill. Somewhere down the line Mamucium morphed into Manchester and the Mam became a Man. That’s mam, not man, as in Mammary or as the Miserable Mancunian Morrissey put it,

Let me get my hands on your mammary glands.”

So don’t be a boob, remember the Man in Manchester is a Mam. Mamchester, you talk so hip, you’re twistin my melon man

September 13, 2013

The extraordinary residents of Twitter Lane

Twitter Lane, Waddington, Lancashire

Tweeting down Twitter Lane, Waddington, Lancashire

While passing through the beautiful Forest of Bowland the other day, I chanced upon a remarkable place known as Twitter Lane in the village of Waddington, Lancashire. Twitter Lane is an interesting place because of the people you find there and they way they behave [1]. For example, the residents of Twitter Lane are characterised by:

  • Open-ness: residents share all sorts of information without anyone who will listen, from the banal to the profound, from the libellous to the incriminating, from the funny to the informative. All humanity is there, the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Serfdom: most of the residents on twitter lane are serfs who rent their property much like tenant farmers or sharecroppers. The rent they pay to their landlords is not a financial one, but an informational one. Residents volunteer numerous personal details: IP addresses, mobile phone numbers and address books in return for a place to stay. Some people are calling it digital serfdom.
  • Short attention-span: although a friendly and open bunch, the residents of Twitter Lane have very short … where was I … ah yes, short attention spans and communicate in even shorter messages. Residents are typically obsessed with news, celebrities and sport. They are well supplied with the very latest real-time information on all of these things and more. However, sometimes the cacophony on Twitter Lane means it feels like everyone is talking, but few are listening.

So, Twitter Lane is an extraordinary place, with a large and a burgeoning population. Two important questions currently hang over it, how much is it worth and how many more people are going to want to live there on a long-term basis?

References

  1. Rappa M., Jones P., Freire J., Chakrabarti S., Kwak H., Lee C., Park H. & Moon S. (2010). What is Twitter, a social network or a news media?, WWW ’10 Proceedings of the 19th international conference on World Wide Web conference, 591-600. DOI:

August 7, 2013

A sweet taste of beekeeping with @Grow4ItChorlton in Chorlton-cum-Honey

busy bee

Mosaic of a busy mancunian bee in Manchester Town Hall

Down in deepest, darkest Chorlton-cum-Hardy [1] the good people of Grow for it Chorlton have been running a series of taster sessions on beekeeping (a.k.a. apiculture). Here are some notes from one of these sessions held last weekend and some info on where to find out more if you’re interested.

Bee Science

With the ongoing mystery about the decline of bee populations [2,3] and controversial pesticide bans [4], there’s been a surge of interest in bees and beekeeping. If you’re thinking about starting a hive, here’s some things you’ll need to consider:

  • Beekeeping can be very rewarding. Remind yourself how fascinating the biology of bees is: dronesworkers, queens and swarms - you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
  • It’s a real buzz breaking the propolis seal on a hive full of ~60,000 bees and having a look inside, you can’t beat hands-on experience – handling bees was the highlight of the taster session.
  • Apiculture  takes lots of time, in peak season you’ll need to be inspecting hives at least once a week for any potential problems, such as the emergence of new queen cells or pests & diseases like Nosema and Varroa mites.
  • Beekeeping can be a substantial financial commitment too, depending on how resourceful you are. There’s a lot of kit you need, see thorne.co.ukbees-online.co.uk or beekeeping.co.uk for some examples of what you can buy and how much it costs.
  • One of the biggest threats to bees is irresponsible bee-keepers! If bees aren’t looked after hygienically, diseases can be spread to the  larger population. You don’t need a license (yet) to keep bees, but it’s a good idea to register hive(s) with DEFRA’s BeeBase (not to be confused with BeeBase.org) [5].

For such a tiny insect with even smaller brain, bees are surprisingly good at maths and computation. For example, bees use sophisticated vectors [6] to tell members of the hive where the food is during their famous waggle dance. Also, honeycomb is hexagonal because this is the shape that makes optimal use of beeswax - covering the maximum area using a minimum of material.

If you’re interested getting your hands on some bees in South Manchester, contact Loucas Athienites, Nancy Green or Erica Gardner at Nam-Bee-Pam-Bee Beekeepers, Chorlton based at Grow for It, Chorlton - their next (most excellent!) beekeeping session is due to run in late August 2013. Manchester & District Beekeepers Assocation (MDBKA), part of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), run a longer two-day course at Heaton Park (and elsewhere) which is essential if you going to take things further. [7]

References

  1. Yes, as you might expect, Chorlton-cum-Hardy suffers from the Scunthorpe problem
  2. Bill Turnbull et al (2013) What’s Killing Our Bees? A BBC Horizon Special featuring Rothamsted and BBSRC
  3. Charlotte Stoddart (2012). The buzz about pesticides: Common pesticides affect bumblebee foraging Nature DOI:10.1038/nature.2012.11626
  4. Daniel Cressey (2013). Europe debates risk to bees: Proposed pesticide ban gathers scientific support as some experts call for more field studies Nature DOI: 10.1038/496408a
  5. Munoz-Torres MC, Reese JT, Childers CP, Bennett AK, Sundaram JP, Childs KL, Anzola JM, Milshina N, & Elsik CG (2011). Hymenoptera Genome Database: integrated community resources for insect species of the order Hymenoptera. Nucleic Acids Research, 39 (Database issue) PMID: 21071397
  6. Rossel S, & Wehner R (1982). The bee’s map of the e-vector pattern in the sky. PNAS, 79 (14), 4451-5 PMID: 16593211
  7. Ted Hooper (2010) Guide to Bees & Honey (updated): The World’s Best Selling Guide to Beekeeping Northern Bee Books, ISBN:1904846513

July 3, 2013

Manchester Digital and Higher Education in 2013

xkcd good code

Writing good code is often harder than it looks via Randall Munroe at xkcd.com

Manchester Digital is the independent trade association for the thriving digital sector in the North West of England. Last night they held their AGM and elections for new members of their council. I was encouraged to stand for election, and alongside 19 other candidates, had to give a two-minute  “manifesto” in a hustinglightning-talk format. Here’s roughly what I said, from the perspective of software, hardware and developers, with some added links and a bit more polish:

The success of Manchester’s Digital economy is dependent on educating, recruiting and training a pool of talented developers to work in the region. As identified in the Manchester Digital skills audit, developers are often the hardest roles to fill, as many graduates and potential employees are drawn to other high-tech hubs like London, Silicon Fen and Silicon Valley, California for employment.

Addressing this issue is an important for Manchester Digital and requires closer collaboration between Higher education, Secondary education and employers. As a tutor at the University of Manchester, with responsibility for managing internships for students in Computer Science I am in a strong position to enable more collaboration between educators and employers. As a council member I would do this in four ways:

  1. Encouraging students to consider employment in Manchester as their first job, by promoting internships and graduate vacancies with local organisations alongside traditional graduate programmes at larger multinational companies
  2. Listening to what employers in Manchester want so that students can be better prepared for the workplace, while balancing the competing needs of training and education.
  3. Challenging local employers to raise their game to compete with larger employers and attract graduates to work for their organisations
  4. Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers by extending current work with schools and supporting undergraduate students doing outreach work involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). For example: through the STEMnet ambassador programme, Code Club, Animation FestivalTeenTech and related work.

These are key activities that will enable the continued success of Manchester’s Digital Economy and I ask Manchester Digital members to vote for me if they agree. Thank you!

Whatever the outcome, the AGM & hustings were great fun and it was good to catchup with old friends and meet some new people too. Hope to see some of you again the Manchester Digital BBQ on 11th July…

July 1, 2013

New music? No thanks, we’re stuck in the fifties / sixties / seventies / eighties / nineties / noughties

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass by bhikku

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass via bhikku on Flickr.

If you’ve filled your boots with the wall-to-wall glastonbury festival coverage, you might find it curious that many people have little or no interest in new music, choosing instead to listen to the artists they liked in their formative years and loyally sticking with them for life. John Peel put it another way:

People do find it curious that a chap of my age* likes the things that I like but I do honestly feel that it’s one of those situations where everyone’s out of step except our John, because in any other area of human activity – theatre, literature or something like that, you’re not supposed to live eternally in the past, you know, you’re supposed to take an interest in what’s happening now and what’s going happening next and this really all that I do, it seems to be a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.

*John Peel was a spritely 50 years of age at the time of the interview where he said that in 1990 [1]. Isn’t it curious that, as Peel said, new music is largely considered to be the exclusive domain of “younger people”, while new theatre, new technology, new art, new science and new anything-else is not? Wonder why that is?

References


  1. Desert Island Discs Archive, Find a castaway (1940 – date)

June 18, 2013

Peter Suber’s Open Access book is now freely available under an open-access license

Peter Suber's Open Access book

Open Access by Peter Suber is now open access

If you never got around to buying Peter Suber’s book about Open Access (OA) publishing [1] “for busy people”, you might be pleased to learn that it’s now freely available under an open-access license.

One year after being published in dead-tree format, you can now get the whole digital book for free. There’s not much point writing yet another review of it [1], see Peter’s extensive collection of reviews at cyber.law.harvard.edu. The book succinctly covers:

  1. What Is Open Access? (and what it is not)
  2. Motivation: OA as solving problems and seizing opportunities
  3. Varieties: Green and Gold, Gratis versus libre 
  4. Policies: Funding mandates (NIH, Wellcome Trust etc)
  5. Scope: Pre-prints and post-prints
  6. Copyright: … or Copyfight?
  7. Economics: Who pays the bills? Publication fees, toll-access paywalls and “author pays”
  8. Casualties: “OA doesn’t threaten publishing; it only threatens existing publishers who do not adapt”
  9. Future: Where next?
  10. Self-Help: DIY publishing

Open Access for MACHINES!

A lot of the (often heated) debate about Open Access misses an important point about open access being for machines as well as humans, or as Suber puts in Chapter 5 on Scope:

We also want access for machines. I don’t mean the futuristic altruism in which kindly humans want to help curious machines answer their own questions. I mean something more selfish. We’re well into the era in which serious research is mediated by sophisticated software. If our machines don’t have access, then we don’t have access. Moreover, if we can’t get access for our machines, then we lose a momentous opportunity to enhance access with processing.

Think about the size of the body of literature to which you have access, online and off. Now think realistically about the subset to which you’d have practical access if you couldn’t use search engines, or if search engines couldn’t index the literature you needed.

Information overload didn’t start with the internet. The internet does vastly increase the volume of work to which we have access, but at the same time it vastly increases our ability to find what we need. We zero in on the pieces that deserve our limited time with the aid of powerful software, or more precisely, powerful software with access. Software helps us learn what exists, what’s new, what’s relevant, what others find relevant, and what others are saying about it. Without these tools, we couldn’t cope with information overload. Or we’d have to redefine “coping” as artificially reducing the range of work we are allowed to consider, investigate, read, or retrieve.

It’s refreshing to see someone making these points that are often ignored, forgotten or missed out of the public debate about Open Access. The book is available in various digital flavours including:

References

  1. Suber, Peter. Open Access (MIT Press Essential Knowledge, The MIT Press, 2012). ISBN:0262517639
  2. Clair, Kevin. (2013). Kevin Michael Clair reviews Open Access by Peter Suber The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 39 (1) DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2012.11.017

May 14, 2013

Measuring scientific coverage of @Wikipedia: Fellows of the Wiki Society index 2013

In 2013, 44% of newly elected Fellows of the Royal Society had biography pages on wikipedia.

Earlier this month confusingly-named “Royal Society” announced their new fellows for 2013. The society is made up of (quote):

“…the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Fellows and Foreign Members are elected for life through a peer review process on the basis of excellence in science.”

A quick-and-dirty measure of the scientific coverage of wikipedia is the percentage of these fellows that have a profile on wikipedia at the time of their election to the prestigious Society.  Let’s call it the Fellows of the Wiki Society index (FWSi),  a good score of 100% indicates that wikipedia has excellent coverage of science while 0% indicates the opposite. Last year, that index was 40% because 21 out of 52 fellows were also Fellows of the Wiki Society.

This year the index is slightly better at 44%, with 24 out of 54 fellows having a wiki-biography, see  [1-54]. So as well as more women this year, there’s more wikipedia too, although the difference isn’t particularly big.

If you’d like to improve the content of wikipedia because there’s plenty of good reasons for doing so, why not take a look at the guidelines for biographies of living persons and create or improve a page for one of the people below?

References

  1. Harry Anderson
  2. Judith Armitage
  3. Keith Ball
  4. Michael Bevan
  5. Mervyn Bibb
  6. Stephen R Bloom
  7. Gilles Brassard
  8. Michael Burrows
  9. Jon Crowcroft
  10. Ara Darzi
  11. William Earnshaw
  12. Gerard F Gilmore
  13. Nigel Glover
  14. Raymond E Goldstein
  15. Melvyn Goodale
  16. Martin Green
  17. Gillian Griffiths
  18. Joanna Haigh
  19. Phillip Hawkins
  20. Edith Heard
  21. Gideon Henderson
  22. Guy Lloyd-Jones
  23. Stephen P Long
  24. Nicholas Lydon
  25. Anne Mills
  26. Paul O’Brien
  27. William Richardson
  28. Gareth Roberts
  29. Ronald Rowe
  30. John Savill
  31. Christopher Schofield
  32. Paul M Sharp
  33. Stephen Simpson
  34. Terence Speed
  35. Maria Grazia Spillantini
  36. Douglas W Stephan
  37. Brigitta Stockinger
  38. Alan Turnbull
  39. Jean-Paul Vincent
  40. Andrew Wilkie
  41. Sophie Wilson
  42. Terry Wyatt
  43. Julia Yeomans
  44. Robert Young
  45. Margaret Buckingham
  46. Zhu Chen
  47. John Hutchinson
  48. Eric Kandel
  49. Elliott Lieb
  50. Kyriacos Nicolaou
  51. Randy Schekman
  52. Eli Yablonovitch
  53. Andrew The Duke of York (eh?)
  54. Bill Bryson
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