A busy week

September 30, 2016

I realise I haven’t posted for ages, so I thought I’d write about this week. It’s week 3 of semester at Stirling University, but this week wasn’t busy for teaching (at least, not compared to the previous two weeks). Instead, I gave a seminar on spike coding for sound in Edinburgh University on Wednesday in the MusicA series, went to a meeting about Neuroscience Technology (representing the proposed new Neuroinformatics Special Interest Group of the British Neuroscience Association) on Thursday and Friday morning, near Heathrow, and am now sitting on a train back home from Glasgow, having been to a  new theme leaders in SICSA, at Glasgow University. (I’m now co-theme leader in Artificial Intelligence).

So what’s next? I think a nice quiet week-end is called for, but I don’t really expect to get one. But then, as they say here, “you’re a lang time deid!”. And now my train’s nearly at Dunblane, so I’d better sign off from here. I will try to be a more regular blogger!

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After the Brexit vote: the hangover

June 24, 2016

Well here we are, 24 June 2016, after a very close vote to leave the EU. And a very different picture here in Scotland where over 60% voted to stay, putting Scotland in the expected company of Northern Ireland, and the unexpected company of London. I am a staunch believer in the EU, so I’m not at all happy about this.

It seems to me that a populist wave is riding high in  politics in many places, from Putin In Russia, to the rise of Trump in the USA, and now this vote. It seems to have been carried primarily by the English (note for non-UK readers: the UK consist of England, with the majority of the population, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), for reasons that seem strange to me, but then I’m biassed. Am I right in thinking it’s  a harking back to halcyon days of yore, with warm beer, skittles in the pub and summer days, or is that too simplistic? It’s hard to see the economic arguments (I can see the car industry shrinking, and the markets for goods made here getting much smaller), and while I can see some arguments (fishing, for example, particularly in Scotland has not been well served but the EU), the arguments about freedom, and unelected representatives leave me cold. Actually, they sound very much like the arguments used in the Scottish referendum a little while ago.

So what now? I suppose we just have to grin (perhaps girn) and bear it. I fear the unintended consequences, like the destabilisation of the Ireland/Norther Ireland situation, like the almost immediately proposed second Scottish referendum, like the uncertainty over who fees and arraignments there may be for EU students coming to UK (and in particular Scottish) Universities. Not forgetting the situation of the very large numbers of expatriate Britons in the EU, and non-British EU nationals in the UK.  I see lots of instability coming up: what a bloody mess, all because the Conservative party was worried about the UK Independence party stealing their clothes. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle…

Of public lectures

April 16, 2016

Last Thursday, I gave a public lecture entitled The incredible shrinking computer: computer hardware from relays to 14 nanometre transistors, part of a series of public lectures in my Department. This series has been running for a few years now, and this was the third time I’d contributed. In 2014, I did one on sound, Hear here: from the ear to the brain, and in 2013 one on artificial intelligence, Artificial Intelligence: is it finally arriving?

These lectures attract an audience of between about 40 and 60, depending on whether it’s nice night, what else is going on, and so on. And it’s actually a lot of work creating these lectures (for example, for the one I just did, I managed to borrow old computer components, and that’s quite apart from the research of putting together something rather better than my average student lecture, with more and better images, for example). So now I (and I suspect, my co-presenters) are interested in where else we might present these talks. Yes, we understand that each talk will need more work, to make it just right for the particular audience, but even then, we’re interested in other possibilities for presenting these again.

I should add that the talks are well received by their audiences, and that the audiences we have had range in age from about 12 upwards – a long way upwards! Is anyone listening out there in www-land? Any suggestions?

(I have two ideas in mind: one is science festivals, and the other is secondary (i.e. high) schools: I just need to get out there and organise them.)

Dark energy and the accelerating expanding Universe

March 31, 2016

Last night there was a Horizon programme on BBC entitled “The Mystery of Dark Energy”. In essence, it was about the discovery that not only was the Universe expanding, but it was doing so at an accelerating rate, as (at least initially) discovered using a particular type of supernova whose brightness is characteristic. They (more or less) laid down a challenge to think up reasons why this might be the case.

Well, I’m not (at least officially) a physicist (though I am a member of the American Institute of Physics through my membership of the the Acoustic Society of America). But I like a challenge. So here goes…

Much is made of the fact that matter bends spacetime, resulting in gravity. And presumably energy also bends spacetime (though the effect is generally small), because of the well-known relationship between energy and matter. In addition, electromagnetic radiation travels at the speed of light, faster than matter can possibly travel. A great deal of energy has been radiated over the duration of the Universe, and is still being radiated. But where is this energy now (in the sense of: where is the wavefront of the energy from long ago?). Clearly, we see from Earth the radiation from a cone of visibility of this energy, but surely most of the energy that has ever been radiated is now travelling (at the speed of light) towards the outer edge of the Universe (aside: I might suggest that the outer edge of the Universe is actually defined by where the energy has reached, combining energy and space in some way, but this may be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.) So as time goes by, more energy tends to be at the very outermost edges of the Universe, and the bending of space caused by this concentration of energy causes the matter in the Universe to accelerate outwards.

Now, this may be (i) obvious and/or (ii) wrong. And I don’t have the capability (or the time, though even if I had the time, I still doubt whether I’d have the capability!) to put this into equations. But I think it’s comprehensible, and it might be nice to know why it’s wrong…

Ne’erday 2016

January 1, 2016

Today is New Year’s Day (known here as Ne’erday), a public holiday in Scotland. Virtually everything is closed, and it’s a time to meet up with old friends and relations.

I’ve lost my voice, almost certainly virally, but with luck and care, I’ll be better soon. So I thought it time to gather together a few thoughts.

Firstly, I’ve come to realise just how much I usually talk. Particularly with friends and family visiting, not being able to talk – or only being able to talk a little made me realise how much I do talk. I should listen more.

Secondly, being a little unwell made me able to read the books I’ve been reading through impossibly slowly, and some of those I’d been given for Christmas. Henning Mankell’s “A Treacherous Paradise” is a wonderful recreation of what Africa must have been like to a white person in the early 1900’s. Now I’m reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain“, a recreation in the late 1990’s of a much earlier travelogue by Moschos (The spiritual meadow). This includes a great deal about early Eastern Christianity, particularly in the time around the foundation of Islam: it puts quite a number of issues into perspective, not least the huge differences between the many forms of Christianity practised there at that time, and modern Western Christianity. It puts a very different context into the issues of today. I should read more.

To close let me share a thought I had as I bought a newspaper in the only open shop in the town. Imagine if we had militant fundamentalist Scots whose religion forbade the opening of shops on the Ne’erday holiday – would there have been a crowd of kilted hairy Scotsmen (and women in plaids too) demonstrating against the shop being open, and threatening prospective customers with their sgian dubh’s?

The power of music

December 6, 2015

On Thursday, I went to hear the Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing in the City Hall, Glasgow. They played three pieces, but the one that made the strong impression on me was Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, composed between 1908 and 1909, but as powerful today as ever it was. It’s a long piece, a setting of some Chinese poems by Mahler, in which a contralto (Anna Larsson) and a tenor (Andrew Staples) sang against a whole orchestra. The programme notes included the texts of the poems in German and English: though I do have some German, having the text in both languages strengthened the effect. The programme notes say “…it is in fact a deeply felt farewell to life and the joy of life”, and one might imagine that one would leave the auditorium saddened by it.

But in fact, it made me re-evaluate where I am in my life: I’ve a couple of years before retirement, and (unlike Mahler) I seem to be in good health. I’ve just had a major grant proposal, to maintain the UK’s membership of the INCF, and to strengthen Neuroinformatics in the UK turned down by the Medical Research Council, and I’ve been thinking about ways forward. Mostly I was thinking about working on early auditory processing for robots and for hearing aids, about moving towards a position as an emeritus professor, and about playing more music.

But this made me think: “If not now when?”.

If Mahler could produce such a masterwork when everything was was on a downward spiral for him, why should I move quietly into retirement, or be hurt by the rejection of this proposal. Surely the answer is to think hard about what it is that I can do now, with more than 35 years as an academic, with more than 30 years experience of working at the boundaries between computing, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. What can I do now that will take this work forward, that will use the experience that I have, that will take advantage of what I now can do?

And I think I know the answer to that: to try to bring together the different strands of Neuro research: Neuroscience (of its various forms), Neuroinformatics (as defined by INCF), Neuromorphic systems (of all the different types), in particular.

No, it does’t fit nicely into a research council proposal, but instead crosses three UK councils, MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC. Instead of the giant projects beloved of the EU (the Human Brain Project), of the US (the BRAIN initiative), let’s start something that brings together the different areas of research so that each can learn from the other. My experience shows me that, by and large, these different communities don’t talk to each other much at all. More can be gained by simply getting these communities to talk to each other, to share not only their data and analytical techniques, but their ideas, and their ways of thinking than by creating a big new UK brain research project.

And that’s my plan: to try to organise (and get funded, because without funding its hard even to hold meetings) a network that includes all of these communities, and gets them to work together towards both understanding the brain, and developing engineering from it, prosthetics and synthetic brain-like systems as well.

Where to start from? Probably a little quiet discussion and emailing of a number of selected individuals, followed by some sort of manifesto, to gather together a group big enough to build a proposal, followed by a proposal. And soon. If not now, when?

 

 

Computational Thinking

December 2, 2015

There’s been quite a lot of material on computational thinking as part of the Computing curriculum over the last few years, and I’ve been teaching some of it to the 1st year students at Stirling University for a number of years. A recent post in the British Computer Society magazine website on Computational thinking set me looking back through what I wrote about this area, in preparation for giving this part of our 1st year course. What we did was to teach some Java programming, and then put in two lectures on this area: we reckoned that trying to teach computational thinking without exposure to programming first would mean that the students would have no context. Re-reading my article made me decide to put it online So here it is: Two Lectures on Computational Thinking: a brief essay, as written in October 2012.

It’s as relevant now as it was then – indeed, I gave essentially the same two lectures just two weeks ago as part of the CSCU9A1 module at Stirling. The lectures themselves are hidden: if anyone’s interested, I can supply them – though they essentially follow the essay above.

Some tracks on SoundCloud

May 24, 2015

I hav started (just) to record a little of myself playing on SoundCloud. Not much there yet, but at least I know how to do it. I have a little 2-channel USB M-Audio sampler (that I bought years ago in LA!), and an AKG microphone for recording my nice new Kawai K200 Piano. And I also have my Roland Electronic piano, but i haven’t tried recording it yet (no good excuse: I’ll do it soon). What to put up there? A good mixture, I think: so far there’s a Scottish tune, and a short (and not terribly good) rendition of Monk’s Well you needn’t. But there’ll be more before long! Wonder if anyone will listen to them?

Playing at the Kinbuck Beer Festival

April 25, 2015

Just back from playing piano (electric) at the Kinbuck Beer Festival. Kinbuck is a small village just north of here, and they hold an annual beer festival, which I’ve played at before. But this time I played solo piano for about 50 minutes. A beer festival audience is not one given to subtlety, so I played a mix of old blues numbers and fast standards, with lots of bass and decoration. They seemed to like it! Maybe I’ll get another gig or two from it…though I can play with bit of subtlety as well.

I have just discovered Rumi…

April 10, 2015

I read a review of something that mentioned Rumi, and I recalled that he was a 13th century mystic poet, whose name  I had heard of somewhere, but knew nothing at all about. And I recalled that 13th century Persia  was a very cultivated and civilised place, with a history much longer than Dunblane in Scotland, where I’m writing this.

So I ordered the book that was mentioned, and eventually it arrived. It’s been sitting winking at me for most of the week, as I’ve struggled with marking assignments (or, enjoyed playing jazz…). And so this evening, tired out, and after a little wine, I finally opened it.

The effect was electric.

I read the poem “Sexual urgency, what a woman’s laughter can do, and the nature of true virility”. I had to read it aloud.  I thought through the images. I read it again, and saw more layers of images.

Finally I thought: I’ll write a blog about this, but before I do, I’ll look for “I have just discovered Rumi” on Google. There was only 10 results, but I knew I was not alone. I looked for the tile of the poem I named, and I found many copies of it. I was definitely not alone.

I haven’t read any more yet, but this was a teaching story by a Sufi master, set to delicate verse I suspect in Persian, and set to very effective verse in Coleman Bark’s translation. It made me think of Idries Shah’s books that I read nearly forty years ago, and that led me to reading teaching stories from the cultures, for there are many in other religions.

I shall come back for more.