Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who says Universities aren't forward thinking?

Our local hospitality operation has recently put in place an automated booking system, which allows grant holders to request and approve catering for meetings, etc. This is great, as it avoids (in principle) orders going missing, and so far it seems to have worked well.

Each request is assigned a "ticket number", and I noticed that the system designers appear to have learned the lessons of the Millennium Bug, and allowed plenty of room for new requests. The order I approved today, for example, is request number


which, assuming there were 720 previous requests since the system began, allows for 1,000,000,000,000 unique requests (that's a trillion).

Even if we assume a million requests a day, 365 days a year, we've still got over 2,700 years before the system runs out of space.

By which time we might have introduced some variety into the menu.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Weeknote #37

These weeknotes are turning into monthnotes, but I shall persevere...

Lots to report, starting with a trip down south at the end of April to visit the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. This is a joint venture between the Universities of West of England and Bristol; I was in touch with the Director, Chris Melhuish a few years ago in relation to some ant work, but I'd never before had the chance to visit. One of their most high-profile projects is the EcoBot, an energetically autonomous robot that uses microbial fuel cells, and the meeting was semi-related to that. I was there at the invitation of Ioannis Ieropoulos, who met our post-doc Angel and forged a connection between our respective groups. The meeting went very well, and there will definitely be much to discuss in the coming months.

The beginning of May saw a number of COBRA project members in Budapest, for the European Commission FP7 FET11 conference. We organized a special session on "biological and chemical IT", which was well attended. We're currently drafting a summary paper for the forthcoming open-access meeting proceedings. The next COBRA event will be another special session, this time at the European Conference for Artificial Life, held in Paris this August.

This month has also seen a lot of activity on the DIYbio front, with the initial "swabfest" (taking samples from Manchester bus stops in order to ascertain the level of bacterial contamination) closely followed by a session at the hugely-influential FutureEverything conference in Manchester. We showed a couple of movies during the presentation, and these will hopefully be made available shortly, as well as footage of the event as a whole.

I'm very excited by the announcement of a new volume of fiction, to which I've made a small contribution. Litmus is edited by Ra Page at Comma Press, and has the subtitle "Short Stories from Modern Science". From the blurb: "This anthology draws out and distills science’s love of narrative from a wide range of scientific disciplines, weaving theory into very human stories, and delving into the humanity of theorists and experimenters as they stood on the brink of momentous discoveries: from Joseph Swan’s original light-bulb moment to the uncovering of ‘mirror neurons’ lighting up empathy zones in the human brain; from Einstein's revelation on a Bern tram, to Pavlov’s identification of personality types thanks to a freak flood in his St Petersburg lab.

Each story has been written in close consultation with scientists and historians and is accompanied by a specially written afterword, expanding on the science for the general reader."

Our story was written by the BAFTA-nominated novelist and scriptwriter Jane Rogers, and it focusses on an often overlooked aspect of the work of Alan Turing; his studies of morphogenesis.

The only other big bit of news is that I've accepted an invitation to coordinate the computer science research activities of our School, in preparation for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. I'll be responsible for our return in the Computer Science and Informatics Unit of Assessment; we did pretty well last time around, in 2008, so the pressure's on.

In terms of papers, today Angel and I submitted a revised journal version of our population-based oscillator paper, and last week we submitted an abstract to the ECAL workshop (on a different, but related subject). I'm also working on a BACTOCOM technical paper, as well as a short paper on a fun topic (a proof of the NP-completeness of a game I've studied in the past).