Life online

Putting your life online – recording and organising all of your emails, conversations and other life events on a computer to serve as a supplemental memory system. This isn’t a particularly new concept, but it is likely to be the first decent implementation. Very interesting stuff – I wonder how it’ll affect kids growing up with it.

School

I was feeling a bit bored this evening* and decided to have a look at my old school website. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had been updated recently, and what’s more, it had some inspectorate reports online. Before the website was created I’m not convinced that it would’ve been easy to get hold of them.

It’s quite amusing reading, the report. Ever since I started at Birkenhead School I’ve been less than impressed with its IT facilities and the head computer teacher had to endure regular ribbings from me about the inferiority of Acorn computers compared to PCs. Anyway, when I was about 16 or 17 the school finally bit the bullet and set up a proper IT centre full of respectably specced PCs. However, I don’t think they really were used properly, apart from the time when I set up a 32 player network game of Quake for some activity day (ah, good days).

But I knew that the report wouldn’t like the school’s IT facilities – the teachers are just too old fashioned, which is not entirely a bad thing, of course, but it doesn’t do computers much good. Some choice quotations from the report:

“Some very competent, if not often very exciting, written work was seen and good practical skills were in evidence in science, DT and art.”

“When appropriate, the system of computer generated reports should continue to be extended to cover other year groups in the school.”

That one is particularly funny. While I was at school there was a rumour circulating about the head computer teacher, who was said to compose all of his reports from a set database of good, average or bad sentences, so all he’d have to do is to look at their mark and press a few buttons to write an ‘original’ report. I can only conclude that this practice has been adopted by all teachers now, perhaps by integrating the marks database…

I have to add that there was no real evidence for this rumour, but then that wouldn’t make it much fun any more.

“One Year 13 work file was quite outstanding, containing a wall poster on bacteria morphology, a Gold Crest award, various Cambridge entrance tests and Olympiad past papers, and a Daily Telegraph Science Writer Finalist certificate for good measure.”

Good to see that someone is carrying on the flame for wringing money out of the Science Writer competition (although I hope they’re not talking about my old workfile there).

“Recruiting a large number of pupils, CCF [Combined Cadet Force] is purposeful and well supported by school staff and military personnel.”

I guess they didn’t see all the afternoons which involved us waiting around outside in the rain for hours then.

Spiritng Neal Stephenson Away

Yesterday was a busy day for me; it began with meeting a friend from London, and then a talk by the ever-elusive Neal Stephenson. We progressed on to a spot of Laserquest, had dinner, and finished with watching ‘Spirited Away’. Since there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I’m making this a ‘massive’ entry.

Meeting up with Lal (the aforementioned London friend) went quite well until we were ensnared by the siren call of Waterstones. Lal, bedazzled by their 3 for 2 offers, proceeded to buy Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both by Neal Stephenson, in addition to the copy of Cryptonomicon that he’d brought with him. I volunteered to buy the books for him in case there was a student discount, but apparently Waterstones have stopped doing that sort of thing (probably because of people like me).

A hundred metres further down the road, we ducked into Galloway and Porter, my favourite seconds bookstore. Galloway and Porter has an almost universal effect on heavy readers of any genre; they’ll walk in, and exclaim that this didn’t look like a second-hand bookstore, because everything was in good condition. Then they’ll find several books that they’ve bought within the last year being sold significantly cheaper than what they paid. Once that stage has passed, they’ll proceed to a Terminator-like state, they methodically scan the titles of every single book present to see if they are worth buying for �1 or �2 – this usually requires quite a bit of mental rejigging, since you’re used to paying at least �6 for a book. In book calculus, does this mean that a book one-third the quality of a book you would buy for �6 be worth paying �2 for, or is book quality perhaps a logarithmic scale? Such questions keep the best thinkers of Cambridge awake at nights…

After we left Galloway and Porter, Lal dropped his bags off in my room, and we went out to meet Rich, who’d be joining us for the Neal Stephenson lecture. We found Rich on the Trinity backs (the ‘back’ of Trinity College, next to the river, also confusingly called the ‘backs’) and went to the lecture.

Now, Stephenson’s lecture was the second of a weekly six-part lecture series, and the first lecture was by George Dyson, which I wrote about earlier. I think only about ten students turned up to that talk, meaning that we were outnumbered by the dozen or so fellows present. I assumed that this would be the same for Stephenson’s lecture – granted, Stephenson is a world-famous bestselling science fiction author, but Trinity had done (perhaps deliberately) such a poor job of publicising the talks that I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was wrong – someone on the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (of which I am not a member) had posted a note about Stephenson’s talk to their mailing list. As a result, the place was full by the time we got there. Not wanting to sit at the back of the room, we grabbed a few chairs and proceeded right to the front, along with a few glasses of wine for good measure.

Stephenson was looking particularly (and some might say, unusually) respectable, what with the nice suit and the neatly tied ponytail. When the room had become sufficiently packed, the lecture series organiser introduced Stephenson’s talk, on ‘Newton/Leibniz’ and Stephenson warned us about the length and esoteric nature of his lecture. If we wanted to leave, we were told, he wouldn’t be offended.

Neal Stephenson looking respectable after the lecture

I didn’t take notes for the lecture, so I won’t be able to go into detail about its content.

Stephenson started off by giving us a quick overview of the Newton/Leibniz controversy; these two people developed calculus seemingly independently in the 17th century, and sparked off a huge argument about who developed it first. The short answer is that Newton was first, and the long answer would include how Leibniz also contributed much to our use of calculus today, including the integral and differential notation.

But that’s not what Stephenson wanted to talk about – that story has been dealt with by many scientific historians. Instead, he took us on a typically Stephenson-like meandering of thoughts and facts relating to why this argument developed in the first place, what the historical context was, and the personalities of Newton and Leibniz.

As I said, I’m not prepared to go into detail because I’d inevitably make a dreadful hash of it. Suffice to say that Stephenson had done his homework, plus that of many others, and that if I could find any fault with his lecture, it was that he spent perhaps a little too much time reading directly from 17th century texts.

If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’d expect his lecture to have some wonderful and bizarre tangents in them that defied all imagination. You wouldn’t be disappointed. For several minutes he talked about how some scholar (John Wilkins) tried to create a new language using only a few thousand words that he deemed essential; he placed these words into a matrix, and people would refer to them by their co-ordinates within the matrix. In the course of creating this language (and the book about it) he had to compose the world’s most comprehensive list of organisms at that time.

This posed a problem; he was implicitly casting doubt on the veracity of Noah’s Ark by saying that there were so many animals in the world, and this was not a good idea at all in the religious climate of the time. So Wilkins decided to go and explain exactly how, with the use of diagrams, all of these animals would fit into Noah’s Ark. Wilkins listed a number of tricks he could have used to do this, namely the ‘six cubits equals one cubit’ trick, and the ‘all animals were vegetarians before the Ark’ trick, and then delcared that he didn’t want to use any of them.

It appeared that Wilkins succeeded, although he did have to fit about 1800 sheep into the Ark as food for all the carnivores.

Naturally, I completely forget why Stephenson got onto this, although there’s a strong possibility that a good explanation simply does not exist – you just can’t be sure with Stephenson. Another of his short tangents involved comparing the Jedi Knights to the Knights Templar, which I think you’ll agree is much more straightforward.

Anyway, the rest of the lecture swirled around alchemy, myths of secret societies, universal libraries, theories of the nature of the universe, monads, and other such things. Thus it is not surprising that Stephenson overran his alloted time by an impressive 30 minutes. Due to this, there were only two questions asked. The first was whether Stephenson considered himself a dualist or a materialist; Stephenson replied saying that much of the materialist argument is based on the brain being a Turing machine, which he is not so sure about, and so he’s a skeptic.

The second question, asked by myself, addressed what I believed to be the burning issue of the night:

“Can you tell us about your next book?” I said. After the room burst into laughter, I added, in an effort to appear on-topic, “Is it related to what you’ve been talking about this evening?”

I already knew a little about his next book, but it’s always fun asking. Stephenson told us that it would be set in the 17th century, which was a great time because it had all these mathematical and cryptographical shenanigans going on (which was the subject of his lecture), plus it also had real life pirates, plenty of swashbuckling, and swordfights galore. What more could you ask for? The book will also visit people such as Newton, Leibniz, the Royal Society in London, and I imagine the royal intrigue going on at the time.

The lecture organiser helpfully added that the book would be called ‘Quicksilver’. Stephenson then added that his publicist would have killed him for not mentioning the name of the book, and that it was coming out in August.

Most people left after that and maybe a dozen people hovered around the front of the room evidently wanting to talk to Stephenson, probably for book signings – but none of them wanting to be first. I didn’t really want to go first, because I thought I might talk to him for a while and it wasn’t fair to keep other people waiting. However, this didn’t seem to work so after Stephenson told the President of the Science Fiction Society that he, alas, could not present a talk to them because he was leaving tomorrow, Lal and I had a brief chat with him about his website, which screams ‘Don’t talk to me’ to all visitors, and his time in Europe visiting Versailles.

“Was that for research?” asked Lal.

“Yeah, for ‘research’,” replied Stephenson, with audible quotation marks, and then went on to talk about how authors get to have lots of fun researching things.

There was a bit of a chat about doing publicity for new books, and I executed a shameful segue by saying, “Well, if you want to get back into practice for signing books, why not start now?” as I whipped out my copy of Cryptonomicon. He agreed, in good grace, and wrote a little message at the front:

“To Adrian. Thank you for staying awake through my talk, Neal S.”

Lal also had his three books signed, although he didn’t get a message. We later theorised that this was probably because he didn’t manage to stay awake through the talk.

I did ask Stephenson whether he was doing anything that night, in an unlikely effort to get him to come out with us, but unfortunately he suspected that plans had already been made for him by Trinity College; undoubtedly true, although we berated ourselves afterwards for not having pretended to be the ‘Trinity College Welcoming Committee’ and kidnapping him.

I’m going to skip over Laserquest now, since this account has already gotten too long and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway. Neither will I talk about dinner, which we had at a nice Italian restaurant with another of my friends, Zizhen; instead I’m going to talk about the film ‘Spirited Away’ that we saw afterwards.

Spirited Away‘ is Japan’s most successful film ever, and could be superficially described as a children’s anime fantasy. Its producer, Hayao Miyazaki, commands such respect among the Japanese that they look forward to his new films with the same kind of expectation (if not more) that we have for the next Harry Potter book.

You might think, as a friend of mine confessed, that you don’t want to watch a cartoon movie. Maybe you really don’t. But if you miss ‘Spirited Away’, which should be released in the UK next year, you’ll be missing one of the most magnificent and wonderful films ever made. It has meticulously crafted and beautiful artwork along with a sensitive score; and of course, the story is enchanting; it’s about a young girl who has to save her parents and make her way in a strange and fantastic world.

What I loved about Spirited Away was the way in which they really utilised the power of animation. Several scenes were literally breathtaking, and unlike the identical Disney movies we’ve had in recent years, Miyazaki didn’t simply use animals – he created all sorts of strange creatures that morphed and shapeshifted.

When I left the cinema (actually, it was a college film society, but anyway) I saw that everyone was smiling. It was one of those movies that really delighted you; it wasn’t what I’d simply call a feel-good movie, and it was darker than most Disney movies, although certainly not as dark as Miyazaki’s other great work, ‘Princess Mononoke‘. The story and setting was much more adventurous than most movies these days as well, with a rich universe that had some excellent concepts that progress far further than the ‘dwarfs and elves’ that seem to characterise most other fantasy movies.

I intend to buy the score of the movie, and also the DVD when it is released – it’s just one of those movies that I really have to own.

And that’s about it for me, I’m not going to write any more now since I have to leave for the lab and do some programming. I might add some stuff later though.

Kurzweilwatch

Interesting to see that Ray Kurzweil (so-called AI pioneer) is still using his same old Ramona demonstration at conferences nearly two years on from when I first saw it. Come on Ray – it wasn’t that good the first time round, and it certainly isn’t now.

The BA Festival of Science

Thanks to a generous grant from Trinity College at Cambridge University, I was able to attend the full week-long British Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Festival of Science in Leicester this year, from September 9th to 13th. Curiously enough, no-one uses the acronym BAAS while in America they do use AAAS – instead we simply call it the ‘British Association’ which no doubt causes some confusion.

Anyway, the BA Festival of Science is a week long event that can’t really be described as a conference as it doesn’t have a particularly focused nature aside from being about ‘science’ – and even that isn’t accurate, since there were plenty of lectures given outside the traditional remit of science, such as economics and philosophy. The lecture schedule consists of several parallel tracks that tend to last from half a day to a day covering distinct topics, for example, ‘Life and Space’ or ‘Radioactive waste – can we manage it?’ In addition to the lectures were debates and workshops.

This year there was quite a spread of topics such that on some days I had a very hard time trying to decide which to attend; in retrospect I think I managed a decent spread.

I originally intended to write up some of my notes made during the Festival as a series of pieces in the ‘Middling’ weblog, until I realised that I simply didn’t have the patience for that. So this article will attempt to string together my thoughts on some of the more interesting lectures I attended.

Visualisation using sound
Professor Stephen Brewster, University of Glasgow

This was a fairly interesting lecture summarising the work Brewster’s group has been doing with the MultiVis project. What they’re trying to do is to give blind people access to data visualisations, such as tables, graphs, bar charts and so on. Current methods include screen readers, speech synthesis and braille; these have the (perhaps) obvious problems of presenting data in a serial manner that is consequently slow and can overload short term memory, thus preventing quick comparisions between different pieces of data.

A good example of this is how blind people would access a table.

10 10 10 10 10 10
10 10 10 10 10 10
10 10 10 10 20 20
10 10 10 10 20 30

To access the table, item by item speech browsing would probably be used, so you can imagine a computer voice reading from left to right, ‘Ten, ten, ten, ten, ten…’ etc. This has the serious problem of being extremely slow, and currently there is no way for a blind person to get an overview of this table and importantly, be told that the interesting information is in the bottom right hand corner.

The solution? Multimodal visualisation, and in this case, sonification – that is, the use of sound other than speech. Sonification offers fast and continuous access to data that can nicely complement speech. Prof. Brewster demonstrated a sound graph, on which the y-axis is pitch and the x-axis time, so for the line y=x you would hear a note rising in pitch linearly. This worked quite well for a sine wave as well.

Multiple graphs can be compared using stereo, and an interesting result is that the intersection between graphs can be identified when the pitch of the two lines is identical. So, imagining that you are trying to examine multiple graphs, you might use parallel sonification of all graphs in order to find intersections and overall trends, and serial sonification in order to find, say, the maximum and minimum for a particular graph.

3D sound also offers possibilities for the presentation of multiple graphs; different graphs could be presented from different angles through headphones. Continuing this further, soundscapes would allow users to control access to graphs simply by moving the orientation of their head. Access by multiple users is possible, so you could have one person guiding another through the soundscape.

Such sonification aids can also be used together with tactile stimuli such as raised line graphs; by placing sensors on a user’s fingertips and connecting them to a computer, users could naturally explore a physical graph while a ‘touch melody’ would indicate (for example) the horizontal or vertical distance between their two fingers. External memory aids could be built in by allowing users to place ‘beacons’ on graphs, perhaps by tapping their fingers – as the user moves away from the beacon, the beacon sound diminishes.

Of course, sonification can also be used for sighted people.

I don’t doubt that these concepts have been explored before, but this presentation was the first I’ve encountered that has dealt with them in such a comprehensive manner and also produced practical demonstrations.

Information foraging and the ecology of the World Wide Web
Dr. Will Reader, Cardiff University

This was perhaps the most interesting Internet related lecture at the Festival of Science; I was impressed by the way Dr. Reader drew upon previous research, which is something that I think many web pundits forget to do. My notes:

Some background: information foraging occurs because people have a limited time budget in which to find answers. According to a recent survey, 31.6% of people would use the Internet to find the answer to any given question – this is the largest percentage held by any single information resource on the survey. However, if you collect together all the people who would use other people as an information resource in order to answer their question (i.e. not only friends and family, but also teachers, librarians, etc) then the humans still win.

H. A. Simone once said something along the lines of ‘Information requires attention, hence a wealth of information results in a poverty of attention. What is then needed is a way to utilise attention in the most optimal manner.’

To use a traditional metaphor, you could call humans ‘informavores’ (eaters of information). When humans read in search of an answer, we are trying to maximise the value of information we receive over the cost of the interaction.

What is meant by the value of information? The value of a text relies principally on relevance, reliability and the difficulty of understanding. Examining the latter factor in detail, it’s theorised that the amount learned from a text (or any information resource) follows a bell curve when plotted against the overlap between the person’s own knowledge, and the information in the text. So – if there is a very small overlap (i.e. almost everything in the text is new) or a very large overlap (everything in the text is already known), little is learned. When the overlap is middling, the amount learned is high.

Dr. Reader carried out an experiment to test this theory in which subjects were given a limited amount of time to read four texts about the heart (something like 15 to 30 minutes). They then had to write a summary of what they’d learned. The texts varied in difficulty, from an encyclopaedia entry to a medical journal text.

The results of the experiment showed that people were indeed adaptive in choosing which texts to spend the most time reading according to their personal knowledge on the subject; in other words, they read the texts that contained a middling amount of information overlap the most. However, the subjects did act surprisingly in one way – they spent too long reading the easiest text.

Is this a maladaptive strategy? Maybe not – it could be sensible. Given the time pressure the subjects were under, they may have simply been trying to get the ‘easy marks’ by reading the easy text.

It turns out that there are two different access strategies when reading multiple texts on a single subject (or accessing multiple information sources). There’s ‘sampling’ in which subjects choose the best text available. They do this by skim reading all of the texts quickly and then deciding on the best. It sounds easy enough, but it’s very demanding on memory if you have several texts to read. People spontaneously use the sampling strategy only 10% of the time.

The majority strategy is called ‘satisficing’ (yes, that’s the right spelling), the aim of which is to get a text that is ‘good enough’. Simply enough, a person will read the first text, and then move on if they aren’t learning enough.

All of this changes when people are presented with summaries of texts. Now, sampling is the majority strategy. These summaries, or outlines, are judged by people to be reliable clues to the content of the text – an information ‘scent’, if you will.

This begs the question, why don’t people use the first paragraph of a text as an impromptu outline? It’s because the first paragraph is not necessarily representative of the rest of the text; we all know how texts can change rapidly in difficulty, particularly in scientific journals.

Outlines can sometimes be misleading. In a study carried out by Salmoni and Payne (2002), when people use Google for searching, they can sometimes be more successful at saying whether a fact is on a given page if they do not read the two line summary/extract in each link in a search result page. This suggests that the Google extract is not as useful as we might believe.

Another experiment by Dr. Reader confirms what many of us anecdotally know. Subjects were asked to research a subject using the Internet through Google. They were given 30 minutes, and then had to write a summary afterwards. The results:

Mean unique pages viewed: 20.8
Mean page time visit: 47.6 seconds
Mean longest page time visit: 6.43 minutes

This shows that some pages were only visited for a matter of seconds, whereas others were visited by several minutes.

Dr. Reader concluded with a few suggestions for improvements to search engines. They could index the difficulty and the length (in words) of search results, and also the reliability of a page. This is already done in Google via Page Rank (essentially calculated by the number and type of pages linking to the page in question), but Dr. Reader also suggests using annotation software (like the ill-fated Third Voice) and interestingly, education. We should educate Internet users in how to quickly and accurately evaluate the reliability of a page.

All in all, an interesting lecture.

The march of the marketeers: invasive advertising and the Internet
Dr. Ian Brown, University College London

I didn’t learn much from this lecture, but that’s only because I’m very interested in the subject anyway and keep abreast of all the latest developments. However, it was a very comprehensive and up to date lecture, unlike some of the reporting you see in the mass media. One thing that I did find interesting was Dr. Brown’s claim that some digital TV channels have ‘unmeasureably small audiences’.

Since audiences are measured by sampling a few hundred or thousand people who have little monitors attached to their TVs, if no-one in the sample group watches a programme or channel, then as far as the survey company is concerned, no-one in the entire country watched it. Even for supposedly popular programmes such as the Nationwide League Football matches on ITV digital, there were zero viewers in the sample group. This is understandably causing problems with advertisers.

Dr. Brown went on to talk about Tivo and all the rest, but I’m not going to cover that.

And all the rest…

I’m giving a very skewed view of the Festival here because I only took notes on things that were completely new to me and that I felt would interest people here. Consequently, I didn’t take any notes in the space lectures I went to, even though some of them, such as ‘Living and working in space’ by Dr. Kevin Fong and the lecture given by Sir Martin Rees were excellent. The former was a very entertaining and information lecture about space medicine on long duration space missions, and the latter was all about posthumans and the Fermi Paradox.

I was actually stunned by Sir Martin’s lecture; not because of its content (I read lots of SF, thank you very much) but because it was coming from him – the Astronomer Royal, no less! In the past, such respectable people wouldn’t touch esoteric subjects like posthumans with a bargepole.

Then there was the talk on DNA nanomachines by Dr. Turberfield from Oxford University; I hadn’t quite grasped the possibilities of DNA assembly before that lecture, and neither did I truly understand how DNA computing could be used to solve a variant of the travelling salesman problem, but afterwards I did (in other words, it was a good lecture). Dr. Turberfield also showed a model of his current work in trying to construct a DNA nanomachine motor, which he confesses probably doesn’t have much immediate practical use but certainly is fun.

Most of the lectures I attended were pretty good; some were excellent, of which I’ve only mentioned a few above. If you ever find that the BA Festival is taking place nearby one year (next year it’s in Salford) then it’s probably worth getting hold of a programme and attending for a day or two. You’ll learn a lot.

Orange

It seems there’s bad news for all Orange customers. According to their press release they’ll be scrapping all their old tarriffs at the start of October, and introducing a new set that on the face of it seem significantly more expensive.

I believe the only good news is that current Orange customers can keep their tariffs (i.e. Everyday 50, which is alas absent from the new tariffs) for the time being, although even that is not certain. Check this uk.telecom.mobile thread for more information. I guess it might be time for another mass migration then…

iPod and RSS

Apple, bless their souls, have just started shipping the Windows versions of iPod, along with the update and restore software that allows users to reset their iPods. Since the Apple and PC versions of the iPod are have basically identical hardware, it’s a simple thing to go and download the update/restore software and convert your Mac iPod into Windows one. While you’re ‘allowed’ by Apple to go the reverse way, from Windows to Mac, they don’t support Mac to Windows (no surprises there). In fact, it’s technically illegal because you’d have to pirate the update/restore software. But that’s never stopped people before, and now I have a fully functional Windows iPod!

It’s come not a minute too soon, as otherwise I’d have had to register my Mac emulation software (now uninstalled), which would’ve involved paying money. I doubt Apple are going to be too bothered about people changing their Mac iPods to Windows iPods – the only people who’d bother changing are Windows owners who bought an iPod before the Windows versions were released – and surely they were doing Apple a favour in the first place.

In other news, mssv.net is now fully RSSed up, with feeds for all three weblogs available. You can find the RSS links at the bottom of each column or in the about page, and there are also links in the header to allow autodiscovery. At the moment I’m using Feedreader as my news aggregator, with an eye to moving to Aggie if/when I download the required .NET extensions for XP. You’d have thought that someone would have made an aggregator as good as NewsNetWire (Mac only) for Windows, but no. The best Windows aggregator costs $25. Oh well. I guess I’ll have to wait until someone writes Mozilla extensions for this.

Kurzweil and AI

Hah, I always knew that AI pundit Ray Kurzweil was up to no good, but this article proves it. Kurzweil is fond of making grand – and vague – predictions about the future of AI, but as far as I can see he his only major achievement that could possibly be related to AI is his voice recognition software – and Kurzweil was hardly the only pioneer in that field.

I was present at the unveiling of the Ramona prototype discussed in the article, and I was extremely underwhelmed by it. This lash-up of motion capture, voice recognition and crude AI was supposed to be a breakthrough? That Kurzweil’s estimate of the ‘virtual personality’ market being $5 billion in a mere three years turned out to be completely wrong is sadly no surprise to me now.

On a more general note, I’m glad that the article pointed out that, “absent multiple major revolutions in both computer science and neuroscience, it’s almost certain that the bold AI prognostications of today will be no more accurate than those of the past,” – the assumption that AI progress will continue to roll on ahead just like Moore’s Law exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems involved in artifical and human intelligence.