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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for December, 2012

Multiscale Modelling (1)

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Multiscale modelling is a really interesting scientific challenge that is important in a number of areas. Basically, the issue is how to create models of systems where activities and interactions at a large number of different (temporal and/or spatial) activities happen at the same time. Due to computational costs and complexity constraints we cannot just model everything at the smallest level; yet, sometimes, small details matter.

I wonder if there is a role for some kind of machine learning here? This is a very vague thought, but I wonder if somehow we can use learning to abstract simple models from more detailed models, and use those simple models as proxies for the more detailed model, with the option to drop back into the detailed model when and only when it is specifically needed?

On Being the Right Size (1)

Monday, December 31st, 2012

It is a source of ongoing frustration, torn cuffs and dropped soup-bowls that I am exactly the right height, right down to the nearest inch, so that when I am walking between rooms my rolled-up shirt cuffs are at exactly the same height as doorhandles.

What Happens when Nothing Happens?

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

More times than I’d like to think, when I talk to someone in a call centre, or fill out an online form, nothing happens. For example, a few weeks ago I had a perfectly clear and polite conversation with a call centre person from O2 about increasing my phone data allowance. They explained very clearly what the options were, and what the costs were, I chose one, they confirmed when it would start, and then…nothing happened!

This isn’t snark. I’m just interested to know what happens within the business logic of the organisation that leads from this seemingly clear conversation to no actual action. Do these requests get lost immediately after the request has been made, e.g. the person makes some notes and then gets another call and loses the notes, or the context of the notes, when they get a chance to return to them? Surely large organisations can’t be relying on such a half-arsed system?

Do requests get added to some kind of queue or ticket based system to be actioned elsewhere in the organisation, and then somehow time out after a while, or get put in a permanent holding position whilst more urgent queries are dealt with? Or, are the requests that I am making too unreasonable or complex, so that the company policy is to make sympathetic noises to the customer and then just ignore them once they have got them off the phone? I can imagine that this might occasionally be the case, but surely not for a request like the one above, which must be one of the simplest piece of business logic for organisation to execute.

Or, are there people in the organisation who are just being lazy and ticking off a lot of their work without actually doing it, like my schoolfriend who, for months on end, got all of the advantages of having a paper round without any of the actual work by systematically collecting a bag of papers every morning, then setting fire to them in a ditch in the local park?

This strikes me as something that would be almost impossible to research, and indeed very difficult even for companies to discover the cause of internally. Yet, this must be a massive issue; I would reckon that around 20% of interactions of this kind have resulted in the agreed action not happening. What can organisations do about this?

Immanence in Improvisation

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Went to an interesting talk by George Tzanetakis earlier in the week at the DMRN meeting at Queen Mary. He was discussing how systems such as the Kinect could be used to extend the performance of an acoustic instrument by adding gesture recognition to control the electronic post-processing of a sound. Also saw a performance by Imogen Heap a few weeks ago along similar lines.

This got me thinking about how we explore sound in improvisation. I do a lot of “free improvisation” using the bassoon, and an interesting aspect of this is how I explore transformations of the current sound whilst playing, without actually making sound. One aspect of this is what we might term immanence, that is, the feeling of a new sound “on the lips” before it is actually made. My approach to free improv is primarily textural, finding musical textures that fit alongside other improvisers in the group, which provide a new direction for the music, or which set out a radically new direction for the developing improvisation. By moving a key on the instrument, or adjusting pressure on the reed, I can start to feel when a sound is about to “break” into another sound, and get some sense of what that sound is likely to be—whether it is going to be a rougher sound, or whether it is about to break out into a pure, high harmonic, or whatever.

This sense of immanence is largely absent from interfaces for electronic instruments. Whilst many kinds of playing surfaces and unusual interfaces exist, they offer little back to the player in terms of pre-aural feedback about what sound-quality they are likely to move into if they move in a particular direction in the sound-space of the system generating the sound. Creating such interfaces, and thinking about how to provide such immanence, would make an interesting research project.

Scam (1)

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Interesting scam attempt on the tube t’other day. Someone came up close to me as I was entering the gates, briefly flashed open a wallet revealing the sort of “police officer” badge that you can buy from Toys’R’Us, and said “Can I follow you through? I’m a police officer so I get free travel anyway.”

Viva (1)

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

An overseas colleague who is examining a PhD in the UK for the first time asked me for some advice on the viva. I thought that this would be worth sharing—some is specific to the Kent system, but generally it is generic. Enjoy.

You need to fill out a preliminary report form before the viva.

On the day of the viva we will meet and briefly discuss the structure of the viva and our general impressions before we ask the candidate in. The viva sometimes begins with a short overview presentation by the candidate. I am generally in favour of this, as it puts the candidate at ease.

There is then a decent length of time (usually around two-three hours) of questions from the external and internal examiners, often starting with some general questions, then drilling down into very specific detail (very specific questions along the lines of “on page XX, you said…can you explain why…” are usual). Typically this is structured by going chapter-by-chapter through the thesis. The question session often ends with a couple of general questions and an opportunity for the candidate to tell us about anything that they feel we have missed.

It is usually just the three people (internal and external examiners and candidate) in a room. If the candidate and examiners want it, the supervisor can attend, but I would advise against this, it seems offputting to the candidate. There is also an option for an “independent observer” to be present which wouldn’t normally be used unless there are no internal examiners.

There is, despite what you might have seen in films set in Oxford in the 1930s, no need to dress up like Henry VIII or carry a ceremonial sword. The candidate will probably wear a tie which is shocking after seeing them in T-shirt and jeans for the last four years.

At the end of the questioning the candidate is sent to pace up and down anxiously out the room or go out of the building and smoke an unfeasible number of cigarettes whilst the internal and external examiner make a decision, there-and-then. The nine different options that we have are listed in Part B of the aforementioned form. A brief guide to these options:

Option 1: Pass with no corrections. Very rare. Examiners like to ask for at least a few corrections to show that they have read the thesis.

Options 2 and 3: Minor corrections of two different lengths. Probably the most common outcome. Both of these basically indicate to the candidate that the thesis is basically fine. The first one is for minor points (e.g. grammar/spelling, redrawing graphs and diagrams, putting in some references, adding a few explanatory sentences here and there; the second option is if the corrections are more substantial but the basic argument of the thesis is clear and sound.

Option 4: Resubmission after a year. A not-uncommon option, means that the examiners are as yet unconvinced that there is a PhD in this work but that there is a reasonable chance that something could be gotten out of it with a decent amount of work. This is the worst result that should be given the first time round – we should, unless the thesis is a complete travesty, always give the candidate a second chance.

Options 5a and 5b: retake oral exam and/or take a written exam. To the best of my knowledge, these have never been used in the history of the universe/university.

Options 6, 7, 8. Various levels of failure or fallback awards. Shouldn’t be chosen this time round but would be options for a candidate who has been offered option 4 and has failed to get the thesis up to the level required.

We then fill out this form and call the candidate and supervisor back into the room and tell them the result. There is a detailed report to be filled out then, which we should ideally do there-and-then or could do by email a little later if you have to dash away. This should ideally set out precisely what we expect in the way of corrections (obviously, in the case of a resubmission where the original thesis was weak, this might not be so easy).

The Revolution will be Computerised (1)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

I wonder how long things like “competence in IT and familiarity with a computerised environment” are going to continue to be listed as job requirements (and this for a lectureship post in Computer Science, natch). Surely, “computerised” is the default now and the odd, specific skill that you might be looking for on odd occasions is familiarity with the opposite? And, for that matter, how long information systems type courses are going to use the case study of a paper-based system being “computerised”.