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New beginnings!

I’m going to kickstart this blog. Famous last words, eh? It has somewhat fallen by the wayside during the write up of my PhD (at least publicly, I blogged my progress in private posts to help keep me on track quite a lot in the last year or two), which is a shame because some interesting things have happened and would make for quite good blog posts: I finished my PhD, I ran my first marathon and I emigrated to Canada. Each of these will be topics of blog posts over the coming months.

At the moment I have a little bit of time. I left my job at the University of Southampton, because the commute from Calgary would have been a bit challenging, so now that I have landed and settled I am spending my days applying for software development and computer science teaching roles, and in between working on projects (such as #procjam, tail.run, parkrun New Year’s double finder and more!) and writing blog posts.

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New Year’s Day 2016 parkrun double finder

I’m rather excited that I’ve had a few requests for this year’s double finder already 🙂 I’ve been super busy at work which is why I haven’t run it yet, but now I have and here’s the current list of doubles you might be able to do on 1st January 2016!

Click for parkrun double finder NYD 2016

Please check that the double you wish to do is actually possible, before setting out:

  • Check the Christmas Compendium to ensure the times are what you think they are, and that the event is on (the organisers may make changes after I’ve published this).
  • Check both events’ Facebook pages and Twitter feed in case they’ve had to cancel or change plans due to weather or other circumstances.
  • Check directions and driving/cycling/running/public transport times to ensure it is actually feasible (the double finder is fairly permissive, so it may pick up some doubles that are only possible if you run a 5km World Record).

If you have any feedback, such as really liking it, or that there is a mistake of some sort, then please let me know either in the comments below or on my Twitter.

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an adventure story laden with geek references and an eclectic mix of characters, in which our unsuspecting hero picks up a night shift at a bookstore, through which he meets a few odd customers who lead him to discover an ancient secret society and a code-breaking puzzle that promises the answer to eternal life.

There is an intentional contrasting of the old-and-paper-based versus the new-and-technology-based. This is mostly framed from the perspective of the young, tech-savvy protagonist, so presents the paper-proponents as antiquated Luddites. There is the odd occasion that paper triumphs and the technology geniuses are proven fallible, but you can definitely detect the author’s bias 🙂

I found some of the references to technology to be a bit awkward and simplistic. I was also a bit put off by the huge amount of fawning over Google, without mention of nearly any of the other technology companies located in the Silicon Valley setting. This book is close to challenging The Internship in terms of most gratuitous use of Google in a story; luckily the rest of the book is good enough to excuse this, which is not the case with the aforementioned film!

Overall, this is very well written and a compelling enough mystery to make you want to read just a bit more. The story of infiltrating a secret society with the aim of eternal life is less than original, but the framing within the modern era and the slightly unexpected resolution gives Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore enough freshness to make it an enjoyable read.

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“Stardust” by Neil Gaiman

StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stardust is a fantasy adventure coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who travels into the mystical land beyond the wall to fetch a fallen star for the woman he loves.

This story is short and concise, but still conveys an epic adventure across many lands and many encounters. While we mostly follow the main character, Tristran Thorn, the doings of three other main antagonists (as well as a few others) are woven into the story.

Of course, this book has been made into a Hollywood movie, which I saw long before reading this, so a comparison is worthwhile. I was surprised by how closely the movie had followed the plot of the book. There were a couple of sections that the film omitted, though were no great loss. I did prefer the movie’s tretment of the lightning ship, but I’m undecided whether I liked the book’s technicality-resolved ending over the film’s action-packed finale.

A great story, but I think I would recommend the movie’s telling of it, as it has a little more meat in the right places.

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“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson takes us on yet another adventure trough an area of society that we may only vaguely have heard of and has us forming strong opinions and then opposing ones within hours!

The Psychopath Test follows a very similar format to Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats: the general subject is introduced through a mystery, a character is introduced that will be referred back to at various points throughout the book, the entire area is explored through Therouxian interviews and well-researched profiles, a diversion into something that doesn’t feel like it entirely fits in this book, before concluding that, after all that, maybe we’ve been thinking too hard about finding an absolute answer and the reality is a bit greyer than we’d like to think.

Despite that rather cynical portrayal of Ronson’s style, this book is a very good read, perhaps my favourite of the three. Ronson’s writing has matured significantly and the narrative flows almost entirely unhindered in this outing. I was most surprised at the conclusion this book built to, and it was a shame that the pharmaceutical-and-lobbyist angle wasn’t given more space. Maybe he’s saving that for another book?

If you’re a fan of Ronson’s previous books, definitely pick this up. If you’ve not read any of them, start with this. His persona and interview style is reminiscent of Louis Theroux, so the book is subtly entertaining throughout, and everything else he writes is thoroughly researched and well explained. Go read it!

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“The Men Who Stare at Goats” by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a broad examination of the US use of New Age-inspired approaches to warfare, right from its post-Vietnam, 1960s-Californian roots through to it’s influence on techniques used in the War on Terror.

Ronson continues his investigations into events and reported activities that regularly get swept under the conspiracy theory carpet. Somehow Ronson presents a side of the argument that seems to give these theories credence, though I expect it’s more a matter of Ronson being unsure himself and reporting what he discovers. Unfortunately, there is rarely any hard evidence, merely stories told by people who claim to have been there.

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the history of New Age techniques is presented by a mix between descriptions of what happened (largely sourced from other books) and interviews with people who served in the US Army special forces when these techniques were experimented with. There are a few side stories that fit into the narrative, as the ideas leaked out to other governmental agencies and even a few civilians who exploited opportunities to train people in these techniques.

This book is a fascinating, but slightly troubling look at the US approach to defence. While you could dismiss it as little more than rumour and hearsay, it would be worrying to not question why when seemingly presented with an approach to more peaceful encounters with enemy forces the only thing that stuck was how to torture prisoners in more creative ways. Worth reading.

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“Them: Adventures with Extremists” by Jon Ronson

Them: Adventures with ExtremistsThem: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Them is Jon Ronson’s exploration of the groups of the world that believe that there is some form of shadowy cabal that secretly runs the world. These are the folks that most would dismiss as crazy, paranoid conspiracy theorists, but Ronson gives them a voice and it makes for fascinating reading.

Ronson’s style is a little disjointed, sometimes jumping to recount a story that is not entirely clearly connected to the previous. Thematically though it largely hangs together to form a coherent story. The emphasis is on the existence of the Bilderberg group, but we also get introduced to rival Klan leaders, a British Muslim funding war overseas, David Icke and Dr Ian Paisley. Amazingly, Ronson bases his writing on interviews or adventures with all of these, rather than second hand reporting, which makes the book all the more compelling.

I think Ronson could have tied things together a little better, and perhaps better made the point I think he was aiming for: lots of groups with radically opposed ideologies think there’s a self-appointed secret world power, suggesting that if they perhaps put aside their differences and worked together they might find evidence to convince the rest of the world. However, I think he also touches on the reality that the activities that these groups perceive as secretive manipulation are actually just glimpses of the political equivalent of the extra-curricular activities those in any other profession would partake in. This is best demonstrated in the grand finale when Ronson attempts to infiltrate and view the owl-burning ceremony that takes place at Bohemian Grove.

Them is definitely a set of interesting stories, that will make you consider the workings of global politics and business from a slightly different perspective. The narrative could flow a little better, but it is written well enough for this not to be jarring. If conspiracy theories intrigue you at all, you will enjoy reading Them.

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Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult story to decipher, but I think that was thematically intentional. Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel that purports to be about the fire bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, but very rarely addresses the issue directly. It skirts around this kernel through the mechanic of the protagonist becoming “unstuck in time”: in essence, his mind wanders to reliving events that have already happened or are yet to happen. Combine this with a sprinkling of alien abduction and you’ve got a story that leaps from the sombre to the surreal in a matter of sentences.

It is the context of this non-linear narrative that explains the lack of cohesion; in trying to tell the story of the Dresden fire bombing, the narrator tells us about everything else. This approach, I am fairly certain, is intended to mimic the conversational style, and perhaps even thought processes, of individuals that lived through and participated in such attrocities. It may even be reflective of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affliction little recognised until many years after the great conflicts of the 20th Century.

As a novel, Slaughterhouse-Five read very quickly. This made it felt short, but there was no lack of story here. The language used is very short and quite simple (in the most part). In fact at one point I read a section of conversation out loud and I couldn’t help but feel it sounded like I was reading a children’s book (though maybe that’s the only time I practice reading books out loud!) This is not a criticism, just an observation as to why I read it so quickly. It perhaps also represents the everyday man that was sent to war, deliberately contrasting them with the highly educated and verbose politicians who decided to send them?

While Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t move me as deeply as perhaps it should have, it is very readable and gives excellent insight into the darkest side of a war that many of us are too many generations away from to know about. I expect I’ll read it again at some point, to better understand it.

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Research grants yield Twitter followers?

I went to a nice little event on Monday evening, organised by the data.ac.uk guys at the University of Southampton. Effectively the aim was to coerce some people with ideas and people with having skills to build some little tools, applications and visualisations using data gathered about institutions under the .ac.uk second-level domain (largely UK universities, entities related to research or other academic pursuits).

I personally had a really rewarding time for a number of reasons. A handful of our first year undergraduates (from a class I teach called “Space Cadets“) attended, contributed and seemed to enjoy themselves. I also learned about the research topic of one of our new PhD students (Johanna) and was impressed at how pertinent and insightful her topic is, and at how she was using this event as a way to gather preliminary data. I also got to catch up with some friends I haven’t seen for a while, like Marja and Colin. And all this while almost hacking something together!

Full disclosure, we didn’t quite finish what we aimed to do within the time, but I managed to pull it together in the pub afterwards 🙂
Gateway to Research homepage
So what did we do? Well we started off looking at the data on Gateway to Research, as we were going to see if we could link it to news stories on university RSS feeds (do universities publish many stories about their research?). Organically, this evolved into looking at their Twitter feed instead (as the data.ac.uk Observatory already scrapes the Twitter account from homepages). As a simple goal, we wondered if there’s any observable link between number of Twitter followers and number of research grants granted.

By the end of session we’d just about extracted all the relevant data (name of university, Twitter account, followers and number of research grants – 4 bits of data from 4 independent data sources) and displayed it as a list. We were somewhat hampered by my poor decision to attempt this in Javascript, as the Same Origin policy made it impossible to AJAX data from live APIs (why make your data available in JSON then not allow me to access it in Javascript, I say)*. However, a quick rewrite into PHP got us back on track.

As I said, we weren’t quite done, as I wanted to visualise this data somehow, as well as fix a few bugs. In the pub, I tried to make use of the (unfortunately deprecated) Google Image Chart API, but it was capping at some weird values. To resolve this, I outputted the data as CSV and imported into Google Sheets and generated the graph manually (hack events require cutting some corners and thinking on your feet!) This is what we got:

grants vs followers

This is the number of research grants a university has had funded against number of Twitter followers on the first Twitter account on their homepage. It’s on a log scale.

The grants vs followers data in a Google spreadsheet, in case you want to look.

What does it tell us? Well it says that the more successful research universities also have more people listening to them on social media. Is this what we would have guessed anyway? It’s easy to say yes in hindsight, but it’s nice to have some numbers to support it. Of course, I’ve not yet run the correlation to see if this is a significant relationship; that’ll come with a bit more time.

Perhaps more importantly, it has helped us identify some quirks in the data and the nuances of how to handle it. For example, the Observatory will record all Twitter handles referenced on the homepage. If there’s a widget displaying a Twitter feed on the homepage, it will include all accounts @replied and retweeted. It also stores the date of an observation as the name of a property in an object, which are hard to sort, so it’s difficult to get latest observation (clearly this requires a smidgen of preprocessing). We spotted these by delving into a couple of the outliers, and interestingly by cleaning up the data, it moved them closer to the centre of the cluster of points.

To conclude, the event was a great success. I think the 2-hour hack might be the perfect format for exploratory data hacks. It’s demoralising to spend a day or three hacking and have nothing to show for it; spending an hour or three and having a result (even a small one) is massively rewarding. I hope to tidy up this code, check the details of the data (especially what grants GtR includes) and do some stats on it. We’ve observed there’s some link (though no inference about the cause of that link) between research funding and social media popularity of universities. I became a bit more confident in having with data within a time constraint, and had fun doing it!

Resources


* I realise now that what I needed was JSONP. Unfortunately, GtR doesn’t support that anyway. I could have used a JSON proxy (e.g. JSONProxy or written my own in PHP) but I didn’t think of that until the day after the hack! At learning has happened 🙂

New Year’s Day 2015 parkrun double finder

I got a comment on the post about my NYD double finder from last year asking whether I was going to do one for this year. This inspired me to run the code again, and it seems to have worked. There’s now a list of parkrun doubles that are (just about) feasible to do on 1st January 2015:

parkrun double finder NYD 2015

Please be aware that it may be physically impossible or unsafe for you to attempt some of these doubles. A double is included in the list, if the second parkrun is 13 minutes plus a Google-estimated driving time. This means you’d have to run a world record 5km, and hit no traffic on the drive to the next one.

Therefore, please check whether the double you want to do is realistic. Work out roughly how long you think you’ll take to run the first parkrun, then allow time to get your breath back, get barcode scanned, walk to your car and drive safely to the next double.

If this is useful to you, or you think there’s a possible double missing, or you have any other feedback, please comment below. I love to hear back from anyone who makes use of this 🙂