Monday, August 30, 2010

Weeknote #16 (w/e 29/8/10)

I've been on holiday since returning from Artificial Life 12 in Denmark, so there's not much to report. On Wednesday we have our new batch of Ph.D. students joining the Group, and on Thursday I'm off to Brussels for an FP7 contract negotiation meeting.

On a family note, my wife's busy organising a big symposium, and it's our daughter's last week at nursery before she starts school (sniff...)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Weeknote #15 (w/e 22/8/10)

Lots happening this week, and I've spent most of it at the 12th international conference on artificial life, in Odense, Denmark. I first discovered the field in 1992, when I chose it as the subject of my honours project at University. Steven Levy's wonderful book got me started, and my little creation, titled BugWorld, attracted a moderate amount of attention. I'd have probably gone off into computer security, had I not discovered alife, so I think I owe the field a lot, and it was a surprise to me that this year's conference was the first Artificial Life that I'd attended.

I heard so many great talks that it would be unfair to single out any in particular, but I would point out that MIT Press have made the published proceedings freely available. This is great news.

Actually, I will highlight one talk in particular, in which I should declare an interest. My Spanish friend and colleague, Angel Goni-Moreno, gave a nice presentation based on a version of this paper, and we got some useful feedback.

The conference was great, and brilliantly organised. I was, however, disappointed to learn that this sign referred, not to the creche, but to the language center.

On a related note, I'm delighted to be able to confirm the first two panelists for our Manchester Science Festival event, Artificial Life: Promises and Pitfalls, to be held on October 26th. They are Professor Ron Weiss, from the USA, and Dr Maureen O'Malley, from the UK. We're delighted to have them, and look forward to being able to announce further panelists very soon.

Back in May I contributed to a panel on New Creativity at the marvellous Future Everything conference in Manchester. The video of the panel is now available online, although eagle-eyed viewers could be forgiven for thinking that I only own one shirt.

A recent draft paper I've submitted with Pete was picked up by the MIT Technology Review physics blog. The paper describes a new approach to quantifying levels of crush within crowds, using information theory. The coverage is fairly spot-on, and we're thinking about how to eliminate false positives. I think one of the commentators was a little naughty, though, in not declaring his distinct bias when criticising us for not considering human factors. The problem we address is not that of "why does crush form?", but, rather, "can we automatically detect it when it does form?" While a consideration of human factors may well make a simulation more "realistic", it doesn't address the central issue.

(By the way, Ben, your website could do with an overhaul.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Weeknote #14 (w/e 15/8/10)

The big news this week centred on rumours of a resolution to the "P=NP?" question. Although this issue might seem, at first, to be of purely theoretical interest, it has immense "real-world" significance. As one of the Millennium Problems, it also carries a million dollar bounty, although no serious mathematician would ever admit to being motivated by the money....

(Simpsons still taken from the Treehouse of Horror VI episode.)

Others are far more qualified to discuss the details of the proof than I'll ever be, but I do I feel able to comment on some of the ludicrous media coverage surrounding the story. A prime example is here, where the BBC uses the headline "Million dollar maths puzzle sparks row". Ok, maybe the journalist who wrote the piece didn't actually choose the headline, but phrasing the normal operation of science in terms of "But maths experts have weighed in to point out flaws in his proof" isn't particularly useful (or, indeed, helpful). The whole point of publishing a proof is to expose it to scrutiny. In discussing the story, Richard Lipton quotes the renowned mathematician Yuri Manin as saying that

"A proof only becomes a proof after the social act of accepting it as a proof."

In other news, I appear to have annoyed Diane Abbott MP (or, at least, one of her team) by commenting on her remark that the other candidates for the Labour leadership appear to be "geeky young men in suits".

When the original remark was highlighted in a subsequent BBC news story, I tweeted a question to her, which very quickly provoked a denial. I'm automatically offended by the implication that "geek" is somehow perjorative, but Alex Ross does a nice job of explaining a rather more fundamental objection to Abbot's attitude towards the other candidates.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Weeknote #13 (w/e 8/8/10)

This week saw the announcement, by the Royal Society, of a study into the issues surrounding (and implications of) the rapidly falling (plummetting) number of students choosing to study computer science and ICT.

According to Steve Furber, "what is taught at school is at a fairly basic level, and those who already have an interest in computing are already way ahead of that in what they’ve done at home. What schools are presenting as ICT as an academic subject is very mundane compared with what students know they can do."

This, I think is the central problem, and I personally believe that it's caused by the coupling of computer science and ICT.

I have a long-standing collaboration with Professor Dave Hodgson, a very well-respected microbiologist. When another (nameless) collaborator from computer science used to refer to Dave as "our chemist", Dave would get his own back by referring to us as "the IT guys". As the renowned theoretician Edsger Dijkstra once said, "computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."

The point is that computer science is about abstraction, the study and application of algorithms, problem-solving, and deepening our fundamental understanding of information processing (in all its forms). ICT, on the other hand, is concerned with the use and application of pre-existing software for the solution of well-defined tasks (eg. build a database, plan a budget, design a poster).

With ICT skills now almost mandatory for many spheres of work, it's clear that this subject should be part of the core curriculum at secondary level. However, if we are to encourage the next generation of computer scientists, they need to be able to develop their own particular skills and interests, which (as Furber indicates) are often far beyond the current subject matter.

My proposal is this: We need to separate ICT from computer science, and offer them as different subjects. Edited: 9/8/10, 14:40.

I recently blogged on this subject, and my post was followed by a nice related article in the Times Higher.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Weeknote #12 (w/e 1/7/10)

The past week has been mostly spent on writing up/editing half-finished papers. I'm currently working with Pete on an extended journal version of our recent crush prediction work, an article with Naomi on approaches to developing inter-disciplinary research, a paper with Chinese collaborators on ant colony optimization for layout problems, and a review article on bacterial pattern formation. Our recent paper on the Zen Puzzle Garden game has also sparked some interest, and I'm currently drafting a follow-up paper in collaboration with Joseph White (the game's creator) and Robin Houston, who worked on his Ph.D. up the road.

I also spent an enjoyable couple of hours with Cat Rushmore at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), recording a conversation for their oral histories collection.