Archive for February, 2012

Personal chairs

[link] Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

So if we believe that students learn best by interacting in the classroom, why don’t university teaching rooms have these chairs?

Why I’ll be avoiding Pinterest

[link] Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

At last: someone twigs it.

A woman named Kristen decided to look into the legality of Pinterest. After all, she’s a lawyer with a passion for photography.

What she found scared her so much, she shut down her Pinterest boards entirely.

Kristen’s investigation began after she saw photographers complaining about copyright violations on Facebook. She wondered why Facebook could get in trouble for copyright violation and Pinterest couldn’t.

She browsed Pinterest’s Terms of Use section. In it she found Pinterest’s members are solely responsible for what they pin and repin. They must have explicit permission from the owner to post everything.

Those Fabulous Confabs

[link] Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Lovely Benjamin Wallace piece sending up the contemporary craze for high-minded talkfests.

The appeal is complex. For would-be world-savers enthralled by “the power of ideas,” these conferences are a stand-in for “a time when governments did shit, like put people on the moon,” per one curator. For even die-hard technologists, interacting via disembodied avatars gets old, and occasional 3-D mingling is refreshing. For a certain prosperous tier of the citizenry, the conferences serve as a higher-brow Learning Annex. But most simply, these events are about establishing and reinforcing new hierarchies. In a culture where social rank is ever more fluid, an entrepreneur who overnight goes from sleeping under his desk to IPO-ing into a billionaire needs a way to express his new status, stat. “We don’t have castles and noble titles, so how do you indicate you’re part of the elite?” as Andrew Zolli, PopTech’s executive director, puts it.

Thus the rise of a cohort of speakers and attendees who migrate along the same elite social-intellectual trade routes. Throw in Sundance and SXSW and Burning Man, and you get what Michael Hirschorn has called “the clusterfuckoisie,” tweeting at each other as they shuttle between events. This is so exactly the sort of thing that David Brooks lives to break down into one of his fictive comic-sociological characters that, in his latest book, The Social Animal, he describes Davos parties as “rings of interesting and insecure people desperately seeking entry into the realm of the placid and self-satisfied.” But Brooks is himself a leading citizen of the realm, having spoken at TED and, regularly, the Aspen Ideas Festival. For public intellectuals with books and brands to promote, the new conferences are force multipliers, unpaid gigs that offer intangible yields. “Obviously it’s not the money,” Brooks says. “For me, it’s the chance to get out of my political-pundit circle and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. There are psychic rewards.”

Hmmm… Is it significant, I wonder, that in last year’s The Muppets movie, Scooter is updated to be a Google employee and TED attendee?

Climate change scepticism debunked

[link] Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Nice piece by William Nordhaus in the New York Review of Books.

One of the difficulties I found in examining the views of climate skeptics is that they are scattered widely in blogs, talks, and pamphlets. Then, I saw an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal of January 27, 2012, by a group of sixteen scientists, entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”

This is useful because it contains many of the standard criticisms in a succinct statement. The basic message of the article is that the globe is not warming, that dissident voices are being suppressed, and that delaying policies to slow climate change for fifty years will have no serious economic or environment consequences.

My response is primarily designed to correct their misleading description of my own research; but it also is directed more broadly at their attempt to discredit scientists and scientific research on climate change.

I have identified six key issues that are raised in the article, and I provide commentary about their substance and accuracy. They are:

• Is the planet in fact warming?

• Are human influences an important contributor to warming?

• Is carbon dioxide a pollutant?

• Are we seeing a regime of fear for skeptical climate scientists?

• Are the views of mainstream climate scientists driven primarily by the desire for financial gain?

• Is it true that more carbon dioxide and additional warming will be beneficial?

Nordhaus takes each of these in turn — and takes it apart. A really useful, synoptic piece.

So that’s why nobody is getting any work done…

[link] Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Source

If you want reproducible science, the software needs to be open source

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

An increasing proportion of scientific research is data-intensive, and analysing torrents of data requires software, much (if not most) of which is custom-written by researchers to meet their needs. What that means is that computer code has become the equivalent of lab apparatus for some kinds of science. But scientific method requires that the relevant disciplinary community should be able to reproduce an experiment. That means that the custom-written software should also be made available in an accessible form. But often it isn’t — which is why it’s good new to learn of a Nature Editorial arguing that it should. ArsTechnica has a useful piece about this issue. Excerpt:

Modern scientific and engineering research relies heavily on computer programs, which analyze experimental data and run simulations. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a scientific paper (outside of pure theory) that didn’t involve code in some way. Unfortunately, most code written for research remains closed, even if the code itself is the subject of a published scientific paper. According to an editorial in Nature, this hinders reproducibility, a fundamental principle of the scientific method.

Reproducibility refers to the ability to repeat some work and obtain similar results. It is especially important when the results are unexpected or appear to defy accepted theories (for example, the recent faster-than-light neutrinos). Scientific papers include detailed descriptions of experimental methods—sometimes down to the specific equipment used—so that others can independently verify results and build upon the work.

Reproducibility becomes more difficult when results rely on software. The authors of the editorial argue that, unless research code is open sourced, reproducing results on different software/hardware configurations is impossible. The lack of access to the code also keeps independent researchers from checking minor portions of programs (such as sets of equations) against their own work.

The Idea Factory

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Nobody who writes about the history of computing can ignore Bell Labs, that astonishing institution in New Jersey that created so much of the technology we nowadays take for granted. An interesting essay in the NYT has brought it back into focus for me because I’m fascinated by the problem of how to manage creative people in such a way that their creativity is liberated, not stifled, by the organisation that funds them. (Many years ago I co-authored a paper on the subject with Bob Taylor — the guy who funded the ARPAnet and later ran the Computer Systems Lab at Xerox PARC during the time when its researchers invented most of the computing technology we use today. The title of our essay was “Zen and the Art of Research Management” and it was published in December 2003 in a volume of essays dedicated to Roger Needham.)

The NYT article is by Jon Gertner, who is the author of a forthcoming book on Bell Labs entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It’s on my wish list.

At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Probably Mr. Kelly’s name does not ring a bell. Born in rural Missouri to a working-class family and then educated as a physicist at the University of Chicago, he went on to join the research corps at AT&T. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr. Kelly was employed at Bell Labs, rising from researcher to chairman of the board. In 1950, he traveled around Europe, delivering a presentation that explained to audiences how his laboratory worked.

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

ONE element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another. Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings…

Cracking the penal code

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Fascinating story in the Economist about the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Goldman Sachs programmer, who was convicted in December 2010 of stealing code tied to Goldman’s lucrative high-speed proprietary-trading operations for use by a new employer.

On February 16th, after he had spent nearly a year in prison, three judges in a federal appeals court unanimously reversed his conviction in a hearing that lasted just a single morning. Their written opinion is now eagerly awaited.

Mr Aleynikov admitted to taking code with him on his way out of Goldman, but argued successfully that this did not constitute a crime, or, to be more specific, a federal crime. He benefited from the help of a thorough lawyer, who adroitly knocked down two key claims. Because the computer trading system was not licensed or offered for sale, claimed Kevin Marino, the defendant’s lawyer, it was not a product to be bought or sold for interstate commerce, a key provision for a federal case. Because computer coding constitutes intangible intellectual property, Mr Marino said, it did not qualify under the goods, wares or merchandise components that are protected under the corporate-espionage act.

The judges quickly accepted these arguments. It is possible that lesser charges could be brought in a state court by a different prosecutor. But as it stands, the ruling raises questions about what sort of legal protection financial firms enjoy for technical knowledge that has become as important as capital or clients and that sits with a few highly mobile employees. The banks may have no choice but to inspire loyalty in their programmers so they don’t leave in the first place.

Changing one’s mind

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

I’ve just finished Adam Sisman’s magnificent biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper. It seems to me to be a model of its kind – knowledgeable, properly referenced, sympathetic without being sycophantic and extremely readable. And it caused me to revise my opinion of its subject. I’ve always been interested by Trevor-Roper, partly because I’ve been fascinated by history since I was a kid (it was a toss-up whether I would read history or engineering when I first went to university) and by historians (some of my best friends are practitioners of that craft). But I was particularly intrigued by T-R because of his literary style — which was waspish and mischievous to a degree rare even among historians. (Reading their observations of one another’s failings always reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s observation that “the only virtue schoolboys demand from one another is humility”.)

It’s not surprising that Waugh came to mind. For one thing, he hated T-R because of his hostility to Catholicism. But Waugh also had the same kind of wickedly sarcastic prose style. Witness his observation when an acquaintance announced in White’s one day that surgeons had operated on Randolph Churchill (an authentic Grade One monster if ever there was one) to remove a tumour that had then been found to be benign. “Ah”, said Waugh, “the wonders of medical science: to have found the only part of Randolph that was not malignant — and to have removed it!.”

T-R shared another characteristic with Waugh in that both combined acute snobbery with assiduous social climbing: they both came from middle-class backgrounds and envied folks with what they regarded as better pedigrees. (When someone once tried to cheer Waugh up by reminding him that one of his ancestors had been ennobled in an act of political patronage, he responded that he would like to have been descended from a “useless peer”.)

Since Waugh was a deeply unpleasant person, I had always assumed that Roper must also have been similarly obnoxious. That impression was reinforced by reading his collected letters to Bernard Berenson, which are often hilarious, but also riddled with revolting sycophancy towards the old fraud.

Adam Sisman’s book has made me revise that impression. He reveals that T-R seems to have had a real gift for friendship, that he could be very loyal, principled and courageous at times and that he was generous with his time and support for his students and protégés. Sisman also illuminates one of the great mysteries of T-R’s life, which is how someone who was so gifted never managed to produce the magnum opus that most people expected of him. The answer seems to be that he allowed himself constantly to be diverted by interesting journalistic projects, most of which stemmed from the fact that, early in his career, he had written a masterly, definitive account of the last days of Hitler. As an academic who has often been similarly distracted by journalism, I rather empathised with that predicament!

The Last Days of Hitler is a wonderful piece of factual journalism, which I would recommend to anyone aspiring to practice that grisly trade. Since most of us never produce anything as good as that, T-R can be forgiven a lot. But in a way the most illuminating part of Sisman’s book comes towards the end, when he deals with T-R’s time as Master of Peterhouse and his catastrophic error of judgement in authenticating the “Hitler diaries”. I know something of his time at Peterhouse, but hadn’t fully realised how courageous and effective he was in dealing with what was, at that time, the nastiest nest of donnish vipers in Oxbridge. No doubt some of Sisman’s chronicle had to be toned down because of the libel laws, so we can look forward to an unexpurgated second edition when the last of the aforementioned vipers has passed to his reward in Hell.

I was unexpectedly moved by the Hitler Diaries fiasco as recounted by Sisman. It was, of course, a catastrophe for T-R, and a mighty boon for all those who had, over the years, had to endure the sharp end of his wit. But what is impressive in retrospect is the courageous way he shouldered the blame and the ridicule — in sharp contrast to Murdoch and his minions who mostly tried to dodge their responsibility for the error. It’s not often that a book makes one change one’s mind. But this one did.

Ole King Coal

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Gloomy news from the Economist.

Feb 25th 2012 | from the print edition

“OUR civilisation”, wrote George Orwell over 70 years ago, “is founded on coal.” Unlike Europe’s, Asia’s still is. In 2010, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a think-tank, coal accounted for just one-fifth of primary energy supply in the OECD countries. But, in the world as a whole, coal accounted for almost half of the increase in energy use from 2000-10. Coal, says Edward Cunningham of Boston University, is experiencing an “historically incredible” resurgence, and may even overtake oil as a fuel by 2025. There is plenty of it and, compared with rival fuels, it is cheap. And often dirty.

Asia has been responsible for over two-thirds of the growth in global energy demand over the past two decades. As, above all, China and India race towards prosperity, they will burn coal in huge volumes. The resulting emissions of carbon dioxide will be among the biggest hurdles in the way of a global agreement on limiting climate change…