Archive for March, 2011

Data information knowledge census

March 31, 2011

Today’s entry in Michael Blastland’s series on data presentation for the BBC is inspired by the recent census.   It’s nice to see some rational discussion of the problems associated with incomplete and possibly inaccurate data, especially as I recall at least one instance, after an earlier census, of a tabloid journalist discovering that statisticians do need to extrapolate from incomplete results, and writing a headline along the lines of ‘census people invent households’.  And because census data is released after 100 years, the 1911 census is now available online, with a very 21st century ‘freemium’ model where you can do simple searches (such as who lived in a particular town with a particular surname) for nothing, but need to buy credits to get at the full data.

Talking of data, this makes nine posts on my blog during March.  Not my most prolific blogging month but I’ve been busy with work – and with filling in my census form online.


Would we be blogging without him?

March 31, 2011

Paul Baran, who, as an engineer working for the Rand corporation in America, was one of the pioneers of the data networks that developed into the Internet, died recently.  There are different stories about the development of this technology in Britain and the US, and the (British) obituarist writing in the Guardian is careful to position Baran as one of two pioneers who came up with similar ideas concurrently.  The other pioneer was Donald Davies, and it is correctly pointed out that Davies was working in the high-tech centre of Teddington, and that he is usually credited with the invention of the term ‘packet-switching’.  Apparently Davies and Baran came up with rather similar ideas quite independently, and in different countries, but at about the same time.

This pattern, suggesting that when technology reaches a certain level, several people simultaneously will come up with similar ways to exploit it, has been replicated elsewhere.  One notable example, recorded by Simon Singh in the Code Book, also covered British and American scientists coming up with similar ideas at the same time – he discovered a close overlap between work carried out by American cryptographers on public key encryption (the technology that you use every time you use a secure website) and work being done in secret at GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Visualising Boris bikes

March 31, 2011

City University held a research half-day earlier this week around themes to do with transport and the environment.  Given that I’m interested in how understanding transport in a place helps us to understand its geography, and also in how data was presented, I was fascinated to hear about the work of Jo Wood, who has been working on different ways to visualise the patterns of use of the ‘Boris bikes’ now available for hire in London.  This paper covers some of the same material, and gives an indication of quite how much can be learned about cycling and commuting patterns from the system.  It’s also interesting to hear about the qualitative differences between this and the longer-established Velib scheme in Paris, partly reflecting that Parisians are more likely to live in central locations and less likely to use bikes as part of their commute.

But also noteworthy was that I was sitting next to Andrew Tuson, of the Centre for Information Leadership, who was not only holding an iPad 2 but was tweeting about the talk from it.

Harvard referencing pitfalls

March 22, 2011

Like many univerrsity students, the ones who I teach are asked to include referencing, so that we can see what sources have been used.  We recommend the Harvard referencing system where a reference to a particular source in the text is indicated by the surname of the author, and the year of publication, and there’s a compete list of references including titles etc at the end of the document.  Incidentally there are quite a few variations of the Harvard system around; my recommendation to students would be to stick with one variation and to be consistent.

There are a few common mistakes that many students make when using the Harvard system – so as a quick cautionary reference, here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Don’t put footnotes with details of your references in them.  The Harvard approach is based around just one complete list of references, which you would put as endnotes at the end of your essay.  Putting these references in more than one place just introduces duplication of information and the risk of incostencies between the same information in different places.
  2. Don’t put authors’ initials into the citations in the text.  The citation should be marked by just the surname (or the name of the publication of website if no author’s name is available) of the author and the date.  You do put authors’ initials in the references listed at the end of the document
  3. Don’t make spelling mistakes in the names of authors who you cite.  Especially when the author is somebody who teaches you and might have a part in marking your work
  4. Don’t mix different styles of referencing within one document.  Even if you can think of perfectly legitimate reasons to use one method in your introduction, and another method in the text that follows, please don’t because it will look to a marker as though the work might have plagiarised.

Incidentally, the paper on Jazz that’s linked from my ‘cadenza learning’ post does include both footnotes and endnotes.  It’s an excellent paper but I don’t recommend any students reading it to follow its style of referencing.   In general, and especially in anything to do with the social sciences Unless you are Garrison Keillor, it’s a good idea to keep footnotes to a mimimum anyway

Innovation, adaptation, and James Watt

March 22, 2011

Prompted by the recreation of James Watt’s workshop at the science museum, there is an enjoyable audio slideshow from the BBC about Watt’s life and career. As a pioneer of the steam engine, Watt is usually regarded as one of the key figures in the industrial revolution, and the audio slideshow appropriately includes the popular image of him experimenting with a kettle as a precocious child. But there are some other interesting points which might cement Watt’s relevance to the inventors of today. Steam was already an established source of power: Watt’s contribution was to develop the steam engine into a reliable product that, to use modern terminology, could be termed an industry standard. In terms of the consideration of innovators and adaptors, Watt could claim to be a skilled adaptor as much as an innovator. And it was all made possible, particularly through funding, by the contribution of Matthew Boulton, whose range of interests, and determination to put new ideas into practice, would today have led him to be described as a serial entrepreneur

Standards, satisfaction, or success

March 17, 2011

There’s an interesting piece by an anonymous lecturer in today’s Times Higher, about the standards applied to university lecturing.  I was particularly struck by the anecdote (near the end) contrasting an entertaining lecturer, who had dodgy subject knowledge, with a dull but meticulous and academically sound lecturer.  This is an example of something that interests me, that in many fields, and particularly in education, satisfaction isn’t the same thing as a successful outcome.  The lectures and seminars from which students emerge happy aren’t necessarily the same as those where students learn something that’s useful in the long term.  Ideally, of course, lecturers should be able to provide both, but maybe in course design we need to be quite explicit that certain elements are there to hold students’ attention and interest, and some are there to provide useful long-term learning outcomes.

Crowdsourcing and pyjamas

March 8, 2011

This piece from the BBC has some nice example of virtual work, along with discussions of crowdsourcing, cloud computing, working from home, vitual office, and even generational issues.

Emotional support on Facebook

March 8, 2011

This news story appeared yesterday about Facebook working with Samaritans to provide support for people who might be depressed or suicidal and are using Facebook.

Samaritans were started in the 1950s by the wonderfully eccentric Chad Varah (he’s the one with the clerical collar and the Bakelite phone in their ‘about’ page) as a phone helpline, and I’d always regarded the introduction of their email service forty years later as one of the signs of the Internet entering the mainstream.  The connection with Facebook is a logical next step – in fact it’s focused on raising an alert if one Facebook user is worried about the emotional well-being of another.  This is nothing new in principle (Samaritans have always invited people to contact them if they are worried about a friend) but none the worse for that.

Mr Googleberg

March 1, 2011

A cautionary tale for students comes from Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German politician who, having been discovered plagiarising parts of his PhD, not only renounced his doctorate but has now resigned from his ministerial post. Among several unkind nicknames given to him by the German media, he has been referred to as Googleberg.

My German is well below GCSE standard so I’m not remotely qualified to read the PhD thesis in question, but nevertheless I’m taken with the way that Der Spiegel has made elements of the document available on the web, along with sources, so that you can see the offending passages. Slide the vertical bar to see both the sources and the Guttenberg PhD thesis, and select the different sources from the list on the left