Friday, April 27, 2007

The Heroine Den: Part 2

I've decided to resurrect this series of posts on the unsung heroines of science and tech (if one post so far can be constituted a series) despite the fact that I know it will be Troll-bait.

Aminollah Sabzevari from UBC is hero of the day for his piece in Science Creative Quarterly on the heroines of medical physics. Women are less unsung in Med Phys than they are in other domains (with the exception perhaps of the shoddy seeming treatment of Roaslind Franklyn). But my Auntie in Law (AiL) is a med phys who gets to shop for Linear Accelerators and the like. This post is in part a tribute to Auntie Rosemary - she rocks.

In honour of my AiL, and with thanks to Aminollah Sabzevari, todays Heroines are Marie Curie, Harriet Brooks, and Rosalind Franklin.

I'd also like to add another x-ray crystallography pioneer and Nobel Laureate Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin to the list.

Eppur si muove...[1]


[1] "Nevertheless, it moves..." statement ascribed to Galileo (by legend) after his forced retraction of heliocentrism.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

WOOT! I believe the young people say.

I succumbed to temptation and bought an iPod nano and one of those Nike+ doohickeys at the end of last month. Two days later I entered my first challenge. Ten days later I had dreadful shinsplints. Now (and with only minor leg pain) I'm back and stronger than ever:

I've never come third in anything sporty before! I used to walk round at the back of the cross country with the smokers and a chip butty. I'm feeling a wee bit pleased. Ahhh, but for 300 m I could be second. I'm almost tempted to strap the trainers on again right now...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dancing on the ceiling

Yay! The paper is in, the registration is confirmed and I'm going to GECCO! And as it's at UCL I get to go to a top conference without carbon angst - I can just go home to the hubby for a week.

Being run by those protestant-work-ethicy Americans, the conference runs for five days that include a Saturday and a Sunday. But how better to spend a sunny July weekend than in a tutorial on Evolutionary Multiobjective Optimization. And I'm about 85% serious when I say that.

The paper's only a late breaker - 8 pages on whether Evolutionary Multiobjective Optimization can help our robot intelligently plan experiments (spoiler alert: it can). But the cleverness of the paper is as nothing to the financial hoops I've jumped through to get this funded: half off for volunteering to help out (thank you local organiser and Publicity Chair Peter Bentley), got a further discount for registering to join SIGEVO, and got the rest funded as a staff development course. Amazingly it ticks all the boxes as a staff development course as there are tutorials and a careers workshop (well, job shop). So I get to save precious grant money for conferences my PI would rather I attend. As yet I've failed to ascertain what these might be, but I bet they won't be as carbon neutral as this one.

But can I let you in to a secret? Publishing the paper is a plus, the tutorials are a major draw and the job shop: what can I say, I'm a fixed term post-doc. But what is the main attraction? I get to be all groupie/stalkie over my favourite evolutionary biologist (no, not that one) Steve Jones. The gala event will be a Question Time style debate between Profs Jones, Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert. There was space on the registration form to record the question I would like to ask, but sadly I couldn't think of one[1]. Questions on religion were discouraged - possibly because of the strong similarities between the views of all three participants. Should be a fascinating evening nevertheless.

Steve Jones' talk at the Royal Society.

[1] Or at least not one I'd be prepared to utter out loud in the Natural History Museum! I am, after all, a married lady...

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sudden onset of respect for Katie Melua

About 13 minutes in (although the rest of the video is well worth a watch):

Take a look at the Simon Singh article in the Guardian that sparked the "rewrite".

I'd be much more likely to buy the revised version - especially if a sinoanthropovelecipedologist can give us a passably accurate number (with p-values) of bicycles in Beijing.

Video from TED.

Friday, April 20, 2007

~bleak U ~serious

This week has been short of cheerful posts. So, from Jessica Hagy's Indexed series:

Widgets available here.

It thinks with its brain now

Jeff Hawkins is one of those jaw dropping people who seem to have an amazing capacity to make things happen. He's the pioneer behind "pen based computing" and the Palm and Handspring companies.

More recently he's used his money and inventiveness to found the Redwood Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, based at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at Berkeley. From this, along with long term collaborator Donna Dubinsky, he's spun off a company called Numenta.

Why the business update? Well, Hawkins is of the view that current research in AI will never succeed in emulating "holistic" human intelligence. In that he's right. In the AI community, we're very good at solving particular problems (such as how to win at chess) and developing particular techniques (like the neural net or genetic algorithm). We have computers that are a lot smarter than computers "ought" to be - this area of research is known as "weak AI". We're also pretty good at using some of these intelligent modes of computing to better understand living intelligences, like human perception for instance.

Strong AI - making a computer that thinks like a human - has been a dirty word for some time now. The reins on this area of research were tugged in pretty sharply at the onset of the AI winter and have never been slackened since.

Hawkins may be about to change all that with his model of Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM). The details of his group's work can be found here and [PDF] here.

Hence the business update. I get my jollies from evolutionary computation and logic programming, so this is not my area. From the (very) little I do know about neurally inspired computing, this doesn't look like "neural nets 2.0". But I don't know: is this old news, a pipe dream, or the shot in the arm that brings "hard AI" back to life?

If I read something like this from any other entrepreneur I'd be cynical as all getout. On Hawkins' past form however, I'm downgrading that to merely sceptical. With an option on secretly hoping to be convinced.

And if all that was just too dry for a Friday - take a look at this "tutorial" on neural architecture:

(Spotted on Mind Hacks

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blaming the victim

[UPDATE 13:50 BST: The post below was written before the Metro changed their awful headline. It seems to have happened about an hour ago, judging from the comments on Feministe. I'm glad. I just wish that the bigotry behind it was as easily redacted]

I wasn't going to blog on the incomprehensible murders at Virginia Tech, or at least not yet. In a week or so I planned to review the posts on the various academic blogs that I look at [1]. After all, what do academics manufacture, if not understanding? Maybe between them all they could explain why what had happened, happened. But my hand has been tipped by two emails I received today.

I know that 1,000 times this number of people are killed in the US by guns each year. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy. How many of those deaths would still have occurred, had the gun not been readily available? I suspect it's much fewer. I honestly don't know.

Why do I personally find these thirty-some deaths so shocking? Because they happened on a university campus. I still have a naive hope that university campuses are places that young people go to discover life, widen their boundaries, and learn responsibility. When it turns out that all is not well in the Ivory Tower, it feels like the carriage I'm in just gave a sickening lurch.

I am incensed, if there is any truth to the reports, that the teachers of the young man responsible were ignored when they voiced their concerns.

The reason I'm blogging now is this: I received, one after the other, two emails that dealt with the aftermath of the incident. The first one was a press roundup, that covered how the shooting had been dealt with in the British media. Our tabloids have a penchant for the scarlet lady, the vile temptress, the fallen woman [2]. It seems they've found another one. The most nauseating of their endless, masturbatory speculation seems to have fixated on the young woman who was the first victim. Headlines include this from the Metro - a paper so bad they give it away for free:

Face of the Girl who Lead to Massacre

I'm physically shaking as I type this. I am so damn angry. This is but one headline, typical of the tabloid press today, particularly those owned by the D**ly M*il. The sneering implication behind all of them is that this "vibrant girl with an engaging personality" had brought this horror down on all the victims, by rejecting the romantic/sexual advances of the murderer. This is the overwhelming message spun by the our gutter press in the UK.

I'm appalled. I'm ashamed.

On to the second email. It was left to a (male) cartoonist to describe, so insightfully, the feeling of many young women on campus:
(Image copyright Jorge Cham.)

I remember my own undergrad days with more clarity now. I was lucky - I've always been defensive and prickly. Those female friends of mine who made the mistake of being "vibrant girls with engaging personalities" ended up in some awful situations. I know at least one victim of rape, and two who had to endure months of terrifying and sometimes violent stalking. I'm reminded too of the Ecole Polytechnique gynocyde [3] in 1989. I'm forced to confront the fact that my naive view of the halcyon days of campus life are far removed from the truth for many students. Blaming the victims is sick.

[1] There is a useful roundup already on Cognitive Daily.

[2] q.v the current treatment of Heather Mills-McCartney, and Princess Di, pre-sainthood.

[3] "[The gunman] asked the women whether they knew why they were there, and when one student replied “no,” he answered: 'I am fighting feminism... You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.' Lépine then opened fire on the students from left to right, killing six and wounding three others." From Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Inventing temperature - a plug

Prof. Hasok Chang, a colleague from the Evidence Science project, won the 2006 Lakatos Award in Philosophy of Science for his book Inventing Temperature. If you're in London tomorrow (the 18th April) and can make it to the LSE in time, be sure to catch his talk. It promises to be extremely interesting.

Code of Conduct

Plenty of interesting fodder in the carnival (see post below), particularly in the light of the recent attention paid to the egregious posts - including those inciting sexually violent acts - on Kathy Sierra's Creating Passionate Users blog.

For my £0.02 (that's like what - $0.04 US at current exchange rates?) in the light of what's happened to Sierra and others, I appreciate where Tim O'Reilly's Code of Blogging Conduct (CoBC) is coming from. Briefly - there are 7 Principles O'Reilly suggests:

1. Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog.

2. Label your tolerance level for abusive comments.

3. Consider eliminating anonymous comments.

4. Ignore the trolls.

5. Take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so.

6. If you know someone who is behaving badly, tell them so.

7. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.

The notion of a Code of Conduct always raises the hackles of a woolly liberal like me. There's an instinctual belief that those trying to dictate acceptable behaviour will dictate the terms in such a way that it benefits them alone. But I think O'Reilly's done a sterling job here, though I'm not sure whether I'd call this a code of conduct. As you'd expect from O'Reilly they are a clear, interesting and useful set of how to's that will help make blogging more fruitful for those who choose to adopt them.

Principles 1, 2 and 3 are suggestions for good editorial practice, and the way they're implemented will vary from blog to blog. O'Reilly hat tips Kaylea Hascall for the notion of a set of Creative Commons type badges that will let readers know what "flavour" of comment you'll allow. Me - ad hominem attack are a nono; I'm relaxed about profanity; but absolutely no tales of some 16 year old babysitter killed by an axe wielding maniac or similar that conclude "if you don't post this comment to 15 other blogs you will die a horrible death". If someone can make me a succinct badge that conveys that I'll be eternally grateful!

Principles one and two kind of run together for me. If you have an editorial policy on your blog regarding the comments you'll allow then this should be made explicit. There's no point hoping that someone who's recently turned on to your blog will "get" the culture you're fostering. An explicit declaration of what will and won't be posted saves the blogger from a lot of whining from deleted posters whose amour propre has been damaged, and saves would be posters a lot of time and energy, if they know a priori what doesn't fly on your site.

Principle 3 has caused a bit of a ruckus in the blogging community. There are many (such as the fab NHS Blog Doctor) who can't divulge their identities for professional reasons, and others who can't or won't for personal reasons. However, I think that there are gradations of anonymity - there are those who know me in the "big room with the blue ceiling" that I wouldn't dream of giving my phone number to for example. A consistent online identity - even if it's nothing more than a username - is at least "fair dealing" when it comes to tying together a picture of who says what. I like Slashdot's default guest handle of "anonymous coward" - it's hard to upbraid someone about their behaviour if you can't see a pattern of behaviour emerging. For the purposes of a useful CoC, anonymity must allow you to retain as much privacy about your real life identity as you would retain in talking in any location where you might be overheard. Those posters who don't use a consistent identity - whether posting as "anonymous coward" or using endless sock puppets - should be taken about as seriously as a phonecall from a Mr "Haywood Djablomé".

I find 4 very hard - I think most serious bloggers, particularly the scientists and engineers, all do at some level. At the bottom is a difficulty in recognising some of the less obvious trolls. This is a result of my perplexity in not understanding how someone can be engaging in a discussion in anything less than a spirit of openness and goodwill. Thankfully I've never been high profile enough to have truly bothersome trolling. Maybe the Scientiae carnival will change all that...

5 and 7 will be ignored by trolls, but are at least good reminders for those of us who maybe just get a little het up sometimes. I know I prefer delivering the bad news about someone's diminished intellectual stature and personal effectiveness ("you're a jackass") in private than in public.

Number 6, read in conjunction with number 5, suggests that bad behaviour be tackled offline. One of the problems I've encountered in other forums is that trolls use this propensity for the "good citizens" to address the troll privately to divide and rule. The complainant is left with the impression that they're the only one that finds the behaviour to be out of line. It's only when the members of the forum can name the behaviour as being unacceptable in public that they realise they're not the only one having a problem with the troll in question. There needs to be some sort of corollary to 5 - when private communication fails, we have a right or perhaps a duty to calmly and dispassionately name the poor behaviour in public.

So I've been won over. The Code of Conduct looks reasonable and useful. It will only be noticed by the "good citizens" - but if nothing else it will empower us to name bad behaviour. The Internet is a public place - but so is the bus stop. You're having a edifying, enlightning or entertaining conversation, waiting for the bus. Some idiots keep barging in to make threats, or derailing the conversation with loud yelling. Not only that, they do so in disguise. You'd be happy to call the behaviour unacceptable. Don't settle for less online.

I've been Carnivalled!

The latest Scientae carnival has just been compiled at See Jane Compute. Big thank you to Jane, the editor. I've never had anything I felt was worth submitting in the past (though the video for Dog Police came close - someone out there must know how that freak of nature came about). This issue ciovered the topic of spring cleaning (or taking out the trash) - so I posted my rather bleak entry on my time as a lecturer (roughly equivalent to a US assistant professor I believe).

Long story short - I'm listed among such paragons as Post Doc Ergo Propter Doc, Pandagon and, currently top of my RSS feeds, Female Science Professor.

Hope to see some new faces around over the next few days. Welcome to Auntie Em's - help yourself to a cookie!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Nowhere to run to baby - nowhere to Hyde!

I'm sorry - I've become one of those annoying people who badger people for money: and I don't even have the decency to hang 'round the high street with a puffa jacket and a clipboard in order to do so. To the right you'll see a fancy-schmancy widget that will allow you to sponsor me to drag my sorry carcass 'round Hyde Park this autumn. Given that, in the aftermath of a 3km run, I currently have shin splints that would have caused Torquemada to exclaim "Oh I say, steady on", this is a bigger ask than it sounds!

Anyways - the money's going to Cancer Research UK - which is enough to put the shin splints into perspective. So cough up what you can and I'll try not to cough up before the finish line.

EDIT: No need to be as generous as David has been - now I know what it's worth to have me out of the flat!