Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Week in review: behind

22nd - 28th April

How to write a literature review workshop on Monday.

Got hold of Amateur Media book (2012) in the NLS, and started reading it.  Got in trouble for having a pen instead of a pencil to take notes.  Oops. N00b mistake.

Did more GeoLit related stuff than PhD stuff.  Must try harder.  (Got a funding application in and went to a tech start-up panel / networking event that was great).

Fiddled with my lit review outline a bit, but didn't really accomplish much.  Officially behind schedule for finishing by the end of the month (was I ever on schedule?).  MUST TRY HARDER.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Starting up in IT panel discussion

I had an amazing evening at the Starting up in IT panel discussion, followed by Innis & Gunn beer tasting on Thursday evening.  It was held in the shiny MMS Quartermile One offices.  (When I'm rich, I want a flat on Quartermile.  A turret-y one, not a glass one.  Or maybe both).

I felt chronically under-dressed when I arrived - a majority were suited - but everyone was really friendly and forthcoming with advice.

Anyway, speaking of being rich.  There were lots of interesting business-wise people to talk to at this event, including CEO of Skyscanner Gareth Williams, and Craig Anderson of Pentech Ventures.  Plus lawyers specialising in things like IP, employment, company formation, from MMS.  The panel discussion was enlightening; I'll go through some highlights raw notes...


  • Skyscanner - 2 mil from Scottish Equity Partners 2007.
  • Getting funding isn't a goal or validation.
  • Best way to get funding is not to need it.
  • Scottish Enterprise: match funding.
  • Give as much as you get. Confide in investor.

Getting wise

  • Don't pitch too early. Build traction first.
  • Prove potential marketshare one way or another.
  • Preparing business plan is productive.  Converting to a vision to a plan when you get funding.
  • Subscribe to investment bloggers.
  • Networkiiiing. Find someone to champion you to an investor.
  • Gareth: As many people are delusional as have a key insight. How to know which you are yourself?


  • Do you need employees or contractors? Casual employees in between.
  • Consultant / contractors own IP for work they do. Unless contract says otherwise.  Employees don't, employer owns it.

I heard about some really interesting ventures, too, like Identity Artworks which looks like they're making a huge difference to young people, and have really inspiring stories to tell.  Plus ShareIn, soon launching an equity crowdfunding platform. Veeerrry interesting...

The panel was followed by beer tasting hosted by Innis & Gunn.  I don't drink, but I would have sipped along to be sociable.  However, it turned out the beer wasn't vegetarian (filtered through isinglass).  This, at least, meant more for everyone else on my table.  MMS had come up with a written seating plan, by the way, that separated people who had arrived together.  Forced networking!  Excellent.

This served as great chance for Steve and I to independently practice our GeoLit elevator pitching, and I think we'd got it down to perfection by the end of the evening.  Extremely encouragingly, we were consistently met with enthusiasm and responses like "that's an amazing idea!".  We left pretty buzzing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

[Notes] How to write a literature review workshop

Just notes!

Workshop by Dr Mimo Caenepeel on Monday 22nd April.

'Critical' does not mean you have to pass judgement, or say why it's good or bad.
Not taking things at face value.

Started with freewriting about what has particularly influenced / inspired our own research.  Five minutes, not allowed to stop or edit, don't worry about quality of writing, not for anyone else to read.  A good way to get ideas out of your head and start to organise your thoughts without censoring or constraining yourself.

How many pages will a review usually take up in a thesis?  My policy is to write what needs to be written and stop when you're done.  But apparently 20 to 30, sometimes more, is normal in sciences.

There's no consistent / right answer to 'how many publications to review'.  For some people it's in the tens, for some the hundreds.

Think about how to integrate literature review into the thesis.  You're unlikely to have a chapter that is just 'literature review' and no mention of the background reading elsewhere.

Good qualities for a lit review?
- Coherence (avoid fragmentation)
- Structure, clarity.
- Proof of novelty - purposeful.

A review can often be considered as an indicator of the quality of the rest of the research - demonstrating scholarship.

A good place to start:
1. Write your research question, formulated as a question.
2. Write up to five research areas that are relevant to your research question.
3. Note some related issues/areas that will not be considered in your review.

Think about balance of content.
1. Three studies influential in your field (I couldn't answer this, I clearly need to read more).
2. Two significan older contributions.
3. Five recent sources.
4. Two sources that have strongly influenced your thinking.

You don't need to consider all papers in the same level of detail.  Decide which papers are more important / useful than others.

For some papers (important ones) you should work through these questions in the same way every time you read something (this is 'SQ3R'):
1. Survey: What is the gist of the article? Skim the title, abstract, introduction, conclusion and section headings. What stands out?
2. Question: Which aspects of the research are particularly relevant for your review? Articulate some relevant questions the article might address.
3. Read: Read through the text more slowly and in more detail and highlight key points / key words.  Identify connections with other material you have read.
4. Recall: Divide the text into manageable chunks and summarise each chunk in a sentence.
5. Review: To what extent has the text answered the questions you formulated earlier?

Critical reading (these seem like really useful questions to work through whilst reading papers):
1. What is the author's central argument or main point, ie. what does the author want you, the reader, to accept?
2. What conclusions does the author reach?
3. What evidence does the author put foward in support of his or her conclusions?
4. Do you think the evidence is strong enough to support the arguments and conclusions, ie. is the evidence relevant and far-reaching enough?
5. Does the author make any unstated assumptions about shared beliefs with readers?
6. Can these assumptions be challenged?
7. Could the text's scientific, cultural or historical context have an effect on the author's assumptions, the content and the way it has been presented?

See Ridley, D. The Literature Review: A step-by-step guide for students.  Sage Study Skills Series. Sage Publications, 2011 (2008).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Week in review: small events

15th - 21st April

Tuesday: meeting with Ewan, thesis workshop.
Friday: Social Informatics Cluster (non-adoption of technology solutions in healthcare); Ontologies with a View (nothing of import discussed, delicious soup in bread bowls from Union of Genius soup cafe).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

[Notes] 'How to write a thesis' workshop

Just notes from a three-hour workshop about how to write an Informatics thesis, on the 16th of April.

State contributions (to knowledge) explicitly.  Intro, conclusions; each chapter should have some (probably not all) contributions discussed.  Be obvious; use headings.

Knowledge - background:

  • justify choices
  • explain methods
  • acknowledge alternatives
  • evaluate

Evidence, well-reasoned arguments, acknowledge limitations.

Clear openings for future work.  Be clear where they are.

Make it reproduceable.

Short / concise.  Examiners like short theses.

Introduce what's interesting and important.

When outline thesis, look at structure of main argument, not of document.

Background material must have point.  Only include as much detail as you need to make point.
Points, eg:

  • Explain method you use.
  • Novelty of your approach. Similarities with existing work.
  • Justify choices (evaluate other work).
  • Don't tear down others' work. 'Build on'.
  • Cite examiners, they've probably published something relevant.. (but not for the sake of it).

Then we had five minutes to write down what our PhDs are about and what we have already found out.  I wrote:

How do the futures of the Semantic Web and amateur digital content creation fit together?
Can Semantic Web tools and technologies be used to enhance collaborative creative partnerships and encourage fruitful outputs?

There are knowledge sharing systems and collaborative tools for scientific fields and in education, but nothing for creative artsy things.

Attitudes towards data sharing and privacy amongst content creators are in flux.  There are lots of projects and energy around open data and decentralised social networks that allow data to become portable and not tied to one platform.  One of TBL's visions for the Semantic Web is the dissolution of data silos and 'walled' applications that disadvantage the user, and as such the promotion of the 'ownership' of a user's data by the user themselves, rather than the software or organisation that uses the data.

There are lots of reasons people make content.  There are lots of reasons people don't make content (who could / would like to).

[Notes resume]
Use backreferences; don't repeat yourself.

Info / advice
Style: Toward Clarity & Grace (book)
The Craft of Research (book)

When to start writing thesis?

  • Do you already have papers?  Slot them into a thesis template asap.
  • Maybe a year beforehand.  Slower pace is better.

Don't assume appendices will be read.  More for extra info if needed by people trying to reproduce your work (not your examiners).

Too many direct quotes look like you don't understand and are avoiding explaining yourself.

Keep copies of web resources and cite access dates in case they change / disappear.
Figures might be copyright if you just copy them from papers, even if you cite them.  Remake them, and put 'adapted from' as citation.


  • Depends on your supervisor.  Discuss.  Student might be able to suggest someone to examine.
  • Maybe a balance between internal and external knowledge.
  • Won't be someone junior, even if they're considered an expert in the field.
  • Helpful if supervisor knows how that person will behave in viva.  Might be a good reason to avoid someone you think would be perfect from their background.
  • Conflict of interest regulations.  You can know them personally though.  External can't have been affiliated with UoE in the last three years, or substantially involved in your research (like co-authoring a paper).  No ex-supervisors, from any university.

No grading system (ie no different levels of passed PhD).  Might be external prizes if you want extra recognition.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Week in review: upcatching

8th - 14th April

Wednesday: returned from brief sojourn at my mum's; TechMeetup.
Thursday: 2nd UK Ontology Networks Workshop (link to notes to follow).
Friday: missed Social Computing seminar as (I found out later) they changed rooms after I got there (8 minutes late, still not the latest).
The rest: rewrote my literature review outline (still not happy, but need to stop agonising over it as it still doesn't contain anything substantial).  Read a largely irrelevant paper about cultural computing (notes may or may not follow).  Discovered a book I want and have asked the University Library to get.  Only the first page of the chapter I want is available to preview (I've made enquiries to the author of the chapter, too).  Started reading Socially Mediated Publicness: An Introduction by danah boyd; notes will follow.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Moderating Edinburgh Freegle

I'm now officially a volunteer moderator for the Edinburgh Freegle group.

I love Freegle (/Freecycle) and have used it for years.  I've got rid of stuff I didn't need and given a loving home to many unwanted things.  Things I love about Freegle are:

  • Saving items from landfill.  The environment says thanks!
  • Getting stuff for free.  My bank balance says thanks!
  • Giving stuff away.  Other peoples' bank balances say thanks!
  • Knowing there's a network of like-minded, environmentally conscious people out there, and every now and again getting to briefly meet them.
  • Seeing more of the city!  Unless it's outrageously far or outrageously raining, I always walk to pick something up.  I've seen a dozen parts of Edinburgh I would never have explored otherwise, and discovered a multitude of cute little independent shops that I would have remained disappointingly ignorant of.
Possessions I have gained thanks to Freelge include:
  • An under counter freezer.
  • A futon mattress.
  • Clothes.
  • An electric citrus juicer.
  • Ten empty tins for transporting cakes and stuff.
  • A yoga mat.
  • Duvet covers and throws.
  • A kneeling chair.
When I met the other moderators a couple of weeks ago to become officially trained in the process, I had no idea how much goes on behind the scenes.  Well, I had some idea, but actually there's loads more.  Edward Hibbert is behind it all.

At it's core, Freegle still runs on Yahoo Groups.  This means it's possible to interact with it through email alone.  Thus, moderation takes place through the Yahoo Groups interface, but hugely enhanced thanks to Edward's moderator Firefox plugin.  (It means I have to moderate using Firefox or suffer the consequences, but it's not so bad.  One day maybe we/I'll port it to a Chrome extension).

However, there's also a super high tech front-end at  Check it out.  The web interface helps people get their subject lines correct and keeps track of various user stats.  It detects where people are posting from from the subject line and plots it on a handy map; it categorises posts by picking out keywords from the subject line too, and usually gets it right.

There's definitely more to write about here, but I'm going to save that for another time.

Meanwhile, if you're not part of your local Freegle or Freecycle group, change that!  Check out to find yours.  It's an easy and amazingly beneficial way to help the environment and interact with your local community.

Food For Jenny: A whole Saturday

For breakfast I had Tesco's own brand bran flakes, with soya milk.

HAHA that's a lie.  I had a cupcake.  Orange sponge with a square of dark chocolate in the middle.

Homemade, so it doesn't count.

Lunch was Linda McCartney sausages in my Mum's 'miracle bread' rolls that I brought back from home a couple of days ago.  They have soya flour, and linseeds, and all sorts of stuff.  Also in there was 'fresh' (actually week-old) spinach, ketchup, tabasco sauce, hummus and a pinch of magic BBQ spice mix.  And bancha hojicha (a Japanese green tea).

Then I made my own bread.  It wasn't altogether successful. 

Over the course of the afternoon I drank a cold bottled concoction calling itself jasmine tea from the Chinese supermarket (because whenever I go into a Chinese supermarket I have to try a new weird drink).

Dinner, then, was a sort of chilli bean stew, because I thought that would go well with the weird bread...

[Soak and boil dried kidney beans; skip this part for canned ones, and chuck them in whenever].

Boileth a quarter of a swede and large chunks of new potatoes with the kidney beans, until everything is soft.


Half an onion, two cloves of garlic, a courgette, a red pepper, broad beans (frozen), a handful of tomatos and a handful of mushrooms into the wok to fry until they looked mostly cooked.  Plus pinches of: Vegeta (which is a particularly good vegetable stock you'll find in an Eastern European supermarket); cajun spice mix; chilli powder; piri piri spice mix; garam masala and mixed herbs, and let sizzle for a while longer.  Then Quorn mince and a tin of chopped tomatoes, a good mix, and simmer for an indeterminate amount of time (or until the other pan of boiling things is done).

Combine two pans of boiling/simmering things (ideally into largest pan).

Eat with bread and/or rice and/or a spoon.

Follow with more cupcakes and tea.

My First Bread

Could have been better.

I based it on this bread recipe, but amended according to my mother's advice.

Thus, I made a batter with 1/3 of the flour (strong white bread flour; 6oz), all of the yeast (one 7g packet) and all of the water (415ml) and the oil (30ml), and left that covered in the airing cupboard for an hour where it bubbled away merrily.

Next I mixed in the rest of the flour (12oz) and some salt and a handful of sunflour seeds, poppyseeds and pumpkin seeds.  Contrary to what my mother promised, it was very sticky.  I stirred vigorously and kept adding flour until I could cope with it, and kneading began.  I kneaded for fifteen minutes, having discovered that sometimes punching instead of regular kneading is much more enjoyable.

I turned it into six balls and one long bit, and arranged them on a tray and in an ad-hoc loaf tin, and they went back in the airing cupboard for about two and a half hours (I went out).  I covered them, as instructed, and that was where things started to go wrong..

The bits that didn't get stuck to the tinfoil rose great.  But the bits that stuck pretty much didn't get to rise.  They rose outwards loads, but upwards was constrained.  Rubbish.

I baked them anyway (30 minutes, 220 degress celcius).

Tastes great, textures is okay, appearance is disappointing.  Next time I won't cover them quite so securely while they're rising.  Far more holey than I was anticipating too; I'm not sure if under- or over-kneading causes this.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

2nd UK Ontology Networks Workshop

The UK Ontology Networks Workshop took place over one day in the Informatics Forum.

There was a mix of people there; some talks were way over my head and very technical, and some talks were by people who confessed they had had to look up "ontology" that morning.  And things in between.

Lazy writeup, but following are notes as I scribbled them:

John Callahan

US navy research.
Focused information integration.
Human intervention to keep predictive part on track. Tweaking.

Alan Bundy

Interaction of representation and reasoning.
Changing world so agents must evolve. How to automate? What would trigger a need for change:
how to diagnose which?
Interested in language and perception change.
Unsorted first order logic algorithm called Reformation. Based on standard unification algorithm.
Allows blocking and unblocking unification.

Phil Barker
Cetis (JISC funded)
learning resource metadata initiative.
Big names behind
= ontology + syntax
Big and growing ontology.
Dumbed down for people.
LRMI adds to it. W3C go through it. It's creeping, how much do the big names actually care about stuff that's added?
don't know how Google uses it.
People should consider using it for more sophisticated search and disambiguation.

Gill Hamilton

Doing more with library metadata. Learnt from OKFN. Had to convince people in charge.
Dublin core, didn't like; not specific enough. Instead RDF > OWL. "We know best how to structure our data"

Hardest was convincing marketing people that there was no commercial value. Metadata is advert to actual resource.

Enrico Motta

Traditionally top down approach. So now so many people interacting with semantic structures, so should involve users.
Recognise there isn't a unique or best way of doing things.
Initial study included modeling task with binary relations.

Patterns that are more or less intuitive. 4D least, 3D+1 most.
N-ary most widely used by experts.

Relationship between reasoning power and intuitiveness of writing? More creativity needed for simpler ones. (Not really sure what he's saying)

Email him for copy of study.

Chris Mellish

Ontology authoring is hard. Better ways to do it.

Controlled language input (mature tech); responsive reasoning (also mature, information as you're editing); understanding the process (beginning to understand more).

users don't know what they're doing. What if questions.  Many answers, what is relevant? Depends on context.

Authoring as dialogue.
Todo list.

Useable in the same ways as protégé.

Peter Winstanley

UN classification schemes.
Various vocabularies.
Allow development of cross mapping between government administrations.

Mostly internal currently. Moves to bring externalizing data into the 21st century.

Peter Murray-Rust

Fight for your Ontologies.
Ontologies in physical sciences. Chemists don't want ontologies. They'll sue you.
Crystallography uses 'dictionary'. Written in CIF. 20 years to build CIF.

Compare physical sciences to government.

Every program author writes dictionaries that work for them. When different parties agree, promote to communal dictionary. Provide conventions to help disagreements.

Show a company can do it as opposed to a rabbiting academic ..

Jeff Pan

Tractable ontological stream reasoning.
Need to be more efficient, scaleable, as things change. Inputs from web.

Dealing with complexities: approximate owl2.
Dealing with frequent updates: to-add stream and to-do delete stream. Truth maintenance. Evaluation criteria.

Trowl.EU can use with protégé, also supports jena.

Edoardo Pignotti

Semantic web tech to support Interdisciplinary research.
ourSpaces VRE
Provenance crucial.
OPM prov ontology.

Deployed since 2009, 180 users. Comprehensive ontologies but people unwilling to provide metadata.
paper! Edwards et al. ourSpaces.

Tom Grahame (BBC) @tfgrahame

Content arrangement on BBC sport by tagging, automatic to free up editors to write.
LD API so systems don't need to know about each other.
Growing from simple rdfxml to more complex ontology.
Can ask much more general and much more detailed questions about sport.

Mapping incoming data is outsourced.
Lots of errors, sometimes system alerts, sometimes manual.

Working on opening the data. Maybe a dump, but licensing issues.

Ewan Klein

Mining old texts for commodities, adding place and time and putting in structured database.
Transcriptions of customs import records.

Skos for synonyms.
Dbp concepts.

Why? Want to query.

Tools? Python script.

Janice Watson

Harnessing clinical terminologies and classifications for healthcare improvements.

Bob Barr

Geographical addressing.
Addressing and address geocoding is important and broad. Not always postal, but this not addressed (punlol) in ontologies.
Different contexts change meaning of address (for delivering, you only care about postbox; property sale whole building).
Loads of things to address. Loads of reasons why.
Work held up as national address file is owned by royal mail and might be sold!

Fiona McNeill

Run time extraction of data. Failure driven. Looking at extraction of specific information.
Emergency response. Lots of data, timely sharing of data required.
From domestic level to humanitarian disasters.
How can it be automated?
Multilayered incompatibility.

Richard Gunn

Towards an intelligent information industry.

Elena Simperl (Soton, sociam)

Crowdsourcing ontology engineering.

CSrc: Brabham 2008.

Distribute task into smaller atomic units.

Humans validating results that are automatically detected as not accurate.
What are the costs? What resources?

Games with a purpose. Like quizzes.
Micropayments or vouchers.
MTurk. CrowdFlower.
Paper about useage of microtask crowdsourcing.  ISWC 2012.

Claudia Paglieri

Ontologies in ehealth.

Enrico Motta - Rexplore
Klink algorithm mines relations between research topics.
Use this!  Nope, it's not public.   Uees MS Academic research.

Peter Murray-Rust

Content mining expands regular text mining.
Focus on academic stuff.
Chemical Tagger. Takes chemistry jargon and annotated it, knows actions, conditions, molecules etc.. NLP. Uses ontologies and contributes to ontologies.
In chemistry,  no need to put everything in rdf because there are already lots of formalisms.
Proper cool PDF to sensible format conversion. Amy the kangaroo. Looking for collaborators.

Yuan Ren

Ontology authoring in whatif project.

Reasoning with protégé and trowl .

Tractable reasoning. Trowl v fast.

Notes from conversations / breakout discussions:

BBC use owlm triplestore  .
Store all their datasets in svn. But they have reads and writes to the live triplestore all the time.

Lots of people saying minimise owl use because of unpredictable output.

Versioning ontologies (available in owl2) in case third parties change stuff you use. You're dependent on their software engineering practices. Only good if they're ahead of the game.

IRIs, Arabic characters in ontologies!
Semantic heavy, maybe make a decision to abstract away to ids and make heavier use of labels.

Difference between importing and using someone else's.

There's no (practically useful) software that lets you reason over stuff you haven't imported? (over HTTP?)

Build ontology from reality (data), don't start with no data.


Problems with dbpedia URIs changing or disappearing.

Hard to visualize massive graphs. Relational, tabular much easier to understand.

Monday, April 08, 2013

GemuCon (and making a living from YouTube)

GemuCon, a first-time gaming convention, wasn't normally the sort of event I'd go to.  Especially not with the £35 ticket price tag.

But it was being organised by one of my friends from my undergraduate, so I agreed to do the website (violating my no-more-freelance-work policy), and having botched together a custom registration system (scope creep) I was drafted in as 'Registrations Officer' on the committee, too.  Since I was in Nottingham on the 4th for the Lovelace Colloquium anyway, I had no excuse not to go.

It was a good job I did, as the checking-people-off-who-arrive system was web based, and the hotel wifi was not playing ball from the outset.  We'd thought of that of course, and brought backup wifi dongles.  Neither of which could get signal.  So half an hour before registration opened I was writing a script to export the database into a nicely formatted spreadsheet (sounds simple; wasn't; ask if you're curious) so that we had more than one machine (I had the database locally on my laptop) we could register over 700 people with.  Then it was literally non-stop.

The other reason I was there was to morally support my good friend TomSka, who was attending as a guest because he is Internet Famous.

So my time was split between hanging out in the Operations Room (mostly) to help confused con-goers with things like registration, lost property, picking up merchandise, finding the stairs, getting free cupcakes; making myself useful by running up and down ten flights of stairs on errands (until I discovered the service elevator; two 6-man lifts between 800 people hadn't been so accessible); and hanging out with Tom and Matt.

On Saturday I helped him on his merch stall (we sold everything but all of the wristbands and all of the keyrings and earrings).

During the quiet times when there were other big events on, and thus no customers, I had to make my own fun.

On Sunday I live-tweeted Tom and Matt's panel "How to YouTube".

This generated a small amount of controversy, as people who have never had to live off advertising revenue often hate people who live off advertising revenue even if it means they have found a way to survive by doing something they love, and can provide what they create to the world for free.

Frankly I'm just excited that we do live in a world where young creatives can be their own boss, make a living from doing what they love, and where the only hoops they have to jump through to do so are getting better at their craft.  Whilst the advertising-centric revenue model may be outdated and may be despised by a good number of people, it's working for YouTubers at the moment and I haven't seen a better alternative present itself.  Not everyone, particularly consumers of amateur media, can afford to pay for content they consume; accessing content for free empowers consumers too because their entertainment choices are not controlled by the same person who controls their finances (and thus probably most other aspects of their lives).  I'm also fairly convinced that if the advertising revenue model falls flat in the future, amateur content creators will be much faster to recover and adapt than traditional media industries would.

The other great thing about this business model - for YouTubers at least - is that many/most don't start out with financial motivations.  After a while they realise thier hobby is giving pleasure to increasing numbers of people, so they carry on, and suddenly a side-effect is that they're making money as well, at no cost to their audience.  (This may change as YouTubing is acknowledged as a career choice).

Maybe naive or overly idealistic, but I don't believe anyone should be stuck doing a job they hate.  It's a very, very long term goal for society, but the ultimate utopia is a world in which everybody is motivated and empowered to develop skills they enjoy or knowledge they're passionate about, and to put their abilities to some use that can sustain an acceptable standard of living for themselves and their family.  Technology plays a crucial role in this (for a start, all the jobs nobody wants to do will be automated).

Anyway, Tom and Matt's panel was full of sound advice for digital creatives just starting out, though the current landscape is a very different one from when they began their YouTube journeys (for example: no YouTube).

Though I didn't experience much of it myself, GemuCon had all sorts going on.  There were a few rooms packed full of video game consoles (for people to entertain themselves at leisure, as well as scheduled tournaments with cash prizes), a room of tabletop games, merch dealers and artists galore, various panels with the various guests, a talent show, a cosplay masquerade, and parties all night every night.  Now, I don't like parties, but even I couldn't resist hanging around at a rave for a bit when the music was Pokemon theme remixes, or the Zelda soundtrack.  Et cetera.

The most impressive thing about this wee convention (and 700-odd people is wee, compared with similar more established cons) is the air of friendliness and solidarity that seemed to be ever-present.  Granted not everyone could have been happy at every moment, and there was definitely douchebaggery from time to time, but in general there was a unification of nerds; an unspoken understanding between the stereotypically socially awkward that allowed people to come out of their shells and enjoy themselves in a way that they might normally suffer abuse for, thanks the the common background provided by video game and Internet culture.  This is somewhat tongue in cheek, but... hopefully you know what I mean.

I made a few new friends, too.

If you're thusly inclined, check out 'official' photos (here and here) and videos (here) from Team Neko.

And if you visit the new GemuCon holding page, don't forget to Konami Code.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Week in review: con{ference|vention}

1st - 7th April

On Monday and Tuesday I'd blocked out 'PhD' time on my calendar, but what was I doing?  I do make a point of updating my calendar with hindsight so it doesn't contain lies.  I must have done something.

On Wednesday I jetted off to exciting Newark, then on Thursday I was in Nottingham for the Lovelace Colloquium (and had a fabulous time).  Friday to Sunday saw me running around in circles for GemuCon.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Inspiring and empowering: The Lovelace Colloquium, Nottingham 2013

In 2008 I was in my first year of university, and the second ever Lovelace Colloquium was held in Leeds. I was encouraged to attend by Professor Cornelia Boldyreff and then-PhD student, now-Dr, Beth Massey. Doing so may have changed my life.

At my first Lovelace, I was introduced to the very concepts of conferences, mentors and (importantly) networking. The event was, and has been ever since, a forum for thought-provoking technical talks, inspiring motivational speeches and stimulating discussions about technology-related disciplines, careers, and womens' role within this world. To attend Lovelace is to be surrounded by extraordinary and excited minds; undergraduates at the top of their game, and successful academics and industry professionals to advise and mentor. Having now been along as an attendee, a poster competition entrant and for the past two years as a judge, the conference has provided perfect annual milestones to mark my own academic progression and personal development. I have met so many wonderful people and made so many important connections thanks to this event that I genuinely think I would be in a different place today, perhaps as a different person, had I never been. I can trace back directly or indirectly to one or other Lovelace Colloquium many of the opportunities I have had to develop academically (poster presenting, inspiring conversations), professionally (networked my way to a Google internship) and personally (overcoming low self-confidence, understanding imposter syndrome and conquering public speaking).

This year's, hosted by the School of Computer Science at Nottingham University, has been no different.

For the first time ever I arrived with time to spare before registration, and got to know some of the other helpers and attendees. I was put in charge of organising posters, directed towards a room containing lots of large fuzzy blue boards, divided up the space based on the number expected in each category (First Year, Second Year, Final Year, and taught Masters) and cheerfully handed out drawing pins to entrants as they arrived.

At 10 the crowd who had gathered in a lecture theatre were welcomed by the superhuman Dr Hannah Dee, and the first round of talks began.

Instantly relevant (to me), Natasha Alechina discussed work on logic in ontologies. The use of logic can help with debugging when creating new ontologies by detecting inconsistencies (eg. fallasies, contradictions) or incoherance (eg. empty sets). The method they use is to compute a minimal set from a big graph in which nodes are statements, and they keep track of where all the statements are derived from. It was "surprisingly fast" when tested with 1600 large random ontologies, compared to state of the art methods to compute minimal sets.

Logic is also useful in ontology matching, for example Ordnance Survey vocabularies versus Open Street Map. Logic helps the process by finding what might need to be changed or removed, but human intervention is needed to make the final call.

Next up, Jemma Chambers turned out to be a brilliant speaker and surely inspired everyone in the room by telling us how she'd made the most of a career in technology over the past decade. She was in her last week as a CISCO business development manager, about to move to a similar role at Virgin Media.

She started with some statistics:

  • 51% of gamers are girls, but only 6% of those who make games are female.
  • 21% of jobs in technology overall are held by women.
  • Companies with women in their management report a 34% return on investment over companies with only males.
  • 20% of C-level (CEO, CTO, CIO, etc) leaders worldswide are female.

(Disclaimer: I may have botched the context of those stats slightly, my notes aren't very clear. But you get the idea. Also she didn't say where these stats are from).

Jemma did a year-in-industry during her degree, programming for Oracle. She was bored out of her mind coding (I'm sure some people in the audience sympathised, but probably a minority) and thus learnt what job she didn't want to do when she graduated. Instead, she joined an accounts management graduate program at CISCO, had some doubts but stuck it out, rocked hard in sales and climbed the ladder through hard work and force of will, despite various sexist or ageist behaviour directed her way. A key point here is whatever you end up doing, do it well; being successful wherever you end up opens doors to what you really want to do, if you're not already there. Especially in the big tech companies like CISCO, where moving between jobs internally is facilitated and even encouraged.

On a related note, Jemma talked a bit about the flexibility of CISCO (and other similar companies). Working hours, for example, are yours to choose so long as you get the job done. Similarly she's had no problem negotiating maternity leave, and eighteen months after the birth of her son she's working three days a week (and still feels guilty about dropping him with the babysitter).

Naturally she mentioned a few (legitimate) generalisations about women in the workplace (nothing I haven't heard before, but this is my fifth Lovelace) and followed them up with some solid advice. Women seem to attribute success to outside forces like luck, or kindness of others, where men attribute success to themselves. It's much easier to move forward if you remind yourself that you worked hard for this and deserve it.

Successful men are more likely to be percieved as likeable than successful women, who are often construed as bitches. Ignore what other people think, and don't let yourself get walked on to try and make friends. At the same time, don't let this stereotype go to your head; remember to support other women in the workplace rather than being competitive.

Women and men have different leadership styles (generally) as well as other strengths and weaknesses of their own, and it's a combination of the two that really make a successful team, not more of one than the other.

Jemma recommends reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

She also discussed the various merits of networking (of which I am happy to attest there are many!) and how to source mentors in the tech community.

This talk was a fantastic one to start the day with, especially to prompt any in the audience who might otherwise have not done so, to talk to everybody. Jemma's enthusiastic speaking style will have kept everyone engaged, too, even those still waking up.

Dr Julie Greensmith filled us in on her journey from a pharmacy undergraduate through to her current work on artificial immune systems. These are algorithms inspired by human immune systems; robust, decentralized, adaptive and tolerant. They work by knowing what is normal instead of what isn't, which is particularly useful if you don't know what attack is going to come next. Their early work, though excellent, was based on a rudimentary computer scientist understanding of how immune systems work; these days they have a more interdisciplinary team with biologists to improve things even further.

Gillian Arnold, who is exceptionally well known and officially recognised as An Inspiring Woman, was filling in for a speaker who couldn't make it. She talked through the best career moments of various people she knew, which ranged from getting software into the hands of the public to promotions and financial incentives. She also talked through a few of the stereotypical problems women have in the a male-dominated workplace, but most of what she could have said had been covered by Jemma. A pro tip for getting attention at meetings if you're being talked over is to bang the table.

Dr Hannah Dee gave us a technical talk about her current research, as well as a little background on how she got where she is. She is much happier as a lecturer as opposed to a post doc, as she gets to direct her own research areas, and isn't constrained within fields she's not totally comfortable (like surveillance). So now she's interested in time and change in nature, doing things like laser scanning and time lapsing plants to find out new things that are particularly hard to find out. Some really interesting stuff about camera hacking with the Canon development kit, which lets you write programs in Lua or BASIC, and provides the sorts of menu options you'd usually only find on a really expensive camera.

Milena Nikolic is an engineer at Google London who has worked on Google's mobile sites, integrating results from mobile app stores into search results and the Android Market / Play Store. She says she has undergone a "journey of scale", and loves shipping projects that make a real difference and are used by real people. She answered lots of questions about working at Google. As with Jemma's experience at CISCO, hours are flexible at Google, and there are no strict iterative phases for development, but projects have their own cycles. She doesn't spend as much time coding as she'd like, but this varies depending on the stage a project is in, too.

Then someone asked "why are girls scared of coding?" and a lively discussion ensued. For some reason I didn't take notes, but things I can remember that were suggested include:

  • Girls are more hesitant about diving in, or scared of breaking things. To progress with programming, you've gotta just keep trying and failing.
  • Girls are more emotionally affected if their code does fail. Guys just shrug it off and try something out. (I personally have never felt like this).
  • Girls are less likely to be exposed to programming or programming-like activities at an early age, so by the time they come across computer science they may see it as boring, too mathsy or not creative. I suspect that had I not got interested in making websites aged ten, it might have passed me by during high school, and I would have ended up doing chemistry or French at university.

There were more; I'll add them if I remember.

In between these fantastic talks were coffee, lunch and networking breaks and of course, poster judging. I teamed up with Milena Radenkovic to assess the second years, and after three quarters of an hour of lunch, plus a 'last minute' extra half-hour before the decision had to be made (thus I missed the panel discussion), we had narrowed it down to five... It was hard. Seriously. We discussed the poster content, presentation, practicality of the ideas, whether the student was showing a project they were personally involved with or intending to do (this holds weight with me) and how well the student explained their ideas in person. They were all brilliant on all counts. We negotiated splitting the second place prize in two, but still had to choose three out of our final five.

Eventually we settled on Carys Williams (quantum cryptography; University of Bath) for the first prize, and Heidi Howard (routers that pay their way; University of Cambridge) and Jo Dowdall (smart tickets; University of Dundee) for joint second place.

I only wish I'd had time to look at the rest of the posters!

I finished off the day by joining other attendees for dinner, which was all round brilliant, and resulted in a late night.

See other fantastic blog posts...

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Not taming Blogger after all

Change of plan.  Trying to run the whole thing with Blogger templates did not result in a happy time.  So the main site pulls and manipulates the Blogger RSS feed, with Simple Pie making that easy.

I then simplified the actual Blogger template and made it match and stuff.  The general intention now is that individual posts and comments will be viewed, if necessary, via Blogger, in a kind of archive-y way, but the content organised as I see fit exists on the main site as the primary port of call.

But my goodness does Blogger automatically add some crap into its templates.  I delete stuff and it comes right back.  Pointless classes, and divs, and general unnecessary bulky markup.  I give up with trying to strip all that out.

By the way, the source code for the site is here.  Share and share alike, yada.

Resonate new media festival

Resonate, held between the 21st and 23rd of March in Belgrade, Serbia, is "...a platform for networking, information, knowledge sharing and education. It brings together distinguished, world class artists with an opportunity of participating in a forward-looking debate on the position of technology in art and culture." (from the website).

Before I left, I suggested I might return with the following:

  • Information about creative processes for digital artworks.
  • Anything to do with open data or decentralized social networking movements.
  • Potential case studies or people to work with.

I largely failed on all three counts.

I was thrown from the outset by the apparent poor organisation of the event. Not to mention a complete lack of free food. But the main problem was that well over one thousand people had tickets, but on the first day the main lecture room could hold a few hundred at best. Seating consisted of a handful of sofas and armchairs and valuable floor space was occupied by altogether too many stylish coffee tables. For everyone not lucky enough to be among the first ten in the room it was aching backs and/or pins and needles all round. This situation improved slightly after the first day, when two more tracks opened in slightly bigger rooms, but there was still nowhere near enough space. People were bursting out all doors, so switching tracks ever wasn't an option. There were also several long delays or postponements. A few were weather related, but too many (ie more than none) were organisational; lack of projector in main room, etc.

That aside, I was aware that an event labelled 'festival' wasn't going to be right at the conference end of the party<->conference scale, but I was surprised at just how much party it was. A party with thousands of people, where everybody knew someone else but me. This made it particularly difficult to interact. You might expect the opposite. Indeed, I suspect that for most people this was the perfect environment to make new friends, start collaborations etc.  I'm (usually) great at networking. I'm never great at social situations involving large crowds, a bar and loud music. I tried. But I couldn't catch anyone's eye, there was never a moment to start a conversation. The most interaction I had over three days was being elbowed out of the way by people who felt more entitled to see what was going on than me.

I might have fared better if...

...I had succeeded in getting a place at one of the workshops.  Places were very limited, but it was explained that all workshops were open for anyone to listen in on even if you couldn't participate directly.  Had I taken part in one, it would have been a lot easier to talk to some specific people.  I went along to attempt to listen in, however, to find all of the workshops (twenty or so) consisted of people grouped around tables, together in the same giant hall.  The actual participants were craning their necks, straining to hear their workshop instructor over the general clamour of the event, so it was impossible for bystanders to be involved at all.  Plus, only a couple of the workshops had (handwritten) signs indicating which they were, so there was also no way of tracking down the ones I was particularly interested in.

...I had been to any of the performances or night club tours that started about about 9pm each day and ran until the early hours of the morning.  The performances, as far as I could tell, were electronic music sets, held in night clubs or similar venues.  I don't do night clubs, and I was knackered by 7pm anyway, so that was a no go.  Having said that, it probably wouldn't have been easier to meet new people over very loud music in a place where everyone was getting drunk, so maybe I didn't miss out.

Now I've explained that, I will write a bit about the talks I did manage to get in to, which were generally interesting and of good quality.  (The itinerary I sketched out for myself beforehand differed greatly from what I actually achieved because of crowd/small room issues mentioned previously).

These aren't the only things I went to, but the only ones I took notes or tweeted about.

Marcin Ignac, talking about Data Art, showed some really cool things he's done with Plask and WebGL, including 3D data visualisations, hacking with fonts, and realtime installations like a 3D visualisation of global energy market transactions.  Plask and WebGL are capable of a lot, just in the browser.  He also mentioned basil.js, which is "a library that brings scripting and automation into layout and makes computational and generative design possible from within InDesign" (cite) which looks useful for artists wanting to get into coding.

Mike Tucker ("Unity as a Tool for Non-Games") suggested that Unity fills the creative gap recently vacated by Flash.  He started out as a Flash guy, but isn't sad or bitter about Flash's demise, and understands that it's time to move on.  His current WIP is an app to explore an abstract visual and audio landscape using the device's gyroscope.  The audio is 'physically' located in a virtual 3D world, and changes as you navigate around by moving the device in space.

Julia Laub told us about her Generative Design book, that she worked on as part of her thesis project.  She defined (with a diagram) generative design as creating choices, then making choices, rather than controlling a visual output.  She created a visualisation of Wikipedia pages that presents as a self-optimising network - as you interact with the diagram to expand the information you want to see, it rearranges itself for optimal viewing.  Her book looks amazing, and getting my hands on a copy is on my things-to-do list.

Dmitry Morozov ("An Autonomous Synthesis") showed some great circuit bent installations and sound projects; check out

Signal | Noise (oops, I didn't take down the names of the actual guys) ("Datatainment") talked about gamification of data collection.  People like "digital navel gazing"; they derive satisfaction from their own data, and comparing themselves to others.  They mentioned a "top secret" client project for which they're aiming to "quantify everything people do"... intriguing...

Lucas Werthin ("Design, Tech and Architecture for Large Scale Projection Mapping") showed us the ins and outs of an incredible project he'd worked on.. Described here (with videos).

The onedotzero screening was a compilation of digital animation work from a number of artists.  It was weird and awesome, with some inspiring visuals and music I need to listen to more (inspiring for writing fiction, not for the PhD unfortunately).  Notes I wrote during that suggested I need to listen to the music in Warsnare, and the one with the giant Catzilla in.

Markus Heckmann and Barry Threw ("Building by Doing - Visually guided design in TouchDesigner") described another easy bridge for artists who want to code.  I wrote down "TouchDesigner" in my notes during this talk, but I can't remember why now.  Find out more here.

My favourite talk was by Ivan Poupyrev ("Computing Reality").  I tweeted loads about it, but none of them got sent because the wifi and my phone weren't playing nice or something.  Fortunately I also made a ton of notes.

Ivan describes himself as an 'inventor'; he worked for Sony, and now works for Walt Disney, and he is inventing the future.  He has a great ethic and vision for the world; all about "giving people tools to make the world the way they want it to be."  He envisions a decentralisation of production; large corporations only want to make their part of the world interactive, not the whole world.  So ordinary people must have the technology to use, develop, spread, build on.

In 1999, his team created an augmented reality toolkit, before it's time.  In 2001, they developed a flexible display with is interacted with by bending it and sliding fingers around the back of the screen.  A huge amount of interactions are possible just by bending and flexing in different ways.  In 2004, Sony said "users will never accept a device with no buttons", and all early touchscreen devices also had buttons because of this.  He says the iPhone was the "fall" of the button, proving everyone wrong.  Last year (2012) the Sony PS Vita has touchback interaction, and Samsung have released a flexible display this year (2013) but "nobody cares".

Now, he says, everything has been invented already, the market is saturated with new gadgets.  He sees the future of the technology curve as embedded in people and surroundings: "no question... that it's coming to your body ... going to seep into the environment, disappear into the environment ... seamlessly, invisibly, efficiently" and describes a reality that computes itself, where "the computer doesn't have to exist at all."

Ivan was very expressive about not being any kind of "tree-hugger", but is convinced that we don't need to "make more junk".  So many resources have been used, and the earth can't support another industrial revolution.  Instead, he wants to turn everything that already exists into interactive objects, including humans, animals and plants.  That may sound weird / scary / far-futuristic but guess what... they've already done it.

Flipping interaction on its head, they're all about not changing the environment, but changing you, or your perception of the environment.  Touché is used for 'virtual tactile perception'... they can create a charged field around the human hand so that you feel things differently.  The objects themselves are passive, simple, unchanged.  The person just has to be in contact with the device that creates the field, which can be embedded in an object you're already touching like clothing, a shoe or an umbrella.  Then, with no wires or weird contraptions, the person can touch some object (like a teapot) and as the settings of the field are changed, so the texture of the object appears changed.

With this technology they can also tell who is touching something, or which part of your own body you are touching, because everything has a different electronic resistance.  An example they produced was a touchscreen drawing application that changed the pen colour depending on who was drawing, with no additional information than sensing the fingers on the screen.

Disney has the botannicus interacticus - an interactive plant.  Electrodes in the soil transform any plant into a multi-touch controller!  Gestures around the plant (à la theremin) or touching the plant in different ways, can be mapped to things like sound.  It's possible to have very high precision.  All plants are different, too!  So the same tech applied to different plants will cause different outcomes.  Video.

There's an open source version of Touché for Arduino.

Ivan also played with 3D printing, and sees this as something that will become hugely accessible to the extent that people will start to manufacture most things themselves; or at least, pop down to their local corner shop to get something printed from an existing design.

They've done some experiments with 3D printing transparent objects, and 'light pipes' which direct colours and sizes of light precisely.  They can create interactive displays by projecting light from below or behind objects and piping images onto them.

It's possible now to 3D print a broad variety of sensors.

These things result in interactive objects that respond to you, but all of the electronics are outside of the object, so you can switch one object for another one and have it work the same very easily.

He concluded with:

1. Digitizing what we already have, not making more junk.
2. Sustainability requires augmenting humans and growing your electronics.
3. Distributed manufacturing vs. mass production.

Resulting thoughts and ideas

I got a general feeling of disparity between 'art' and 'real-life', with strong suggestions that it doesn't matter if interactive, technology-powered art installations break, so long as people are compelled to play with them.  That's something I absolutely loved and absolutely hated simultaneously during my MSc in the ECA last year, and still causes internal conflict. (Ie. I understand the value of play and experimentation, but I'm passionate about things being useful and empowering, and it's possible to do both, and it bothers me when people take the easy way out, slap the 'experimental art' label on it and move on to their next solid-outcome-less project).

Despite not actually talking to anyone about what I am doing and how it might in some way link to what they do, I suspect digital artists like these kinds of people might be good use cases for what I'm trying to make.  They collaborate, have varied processes.  And are more likely than amateur YouTubers to be interested in engaging with a new experimental technology.  They could, for example, be incentivised to record their processes and actions over the course of a project, and be rewarded with visualisations of their data, and comparisons with the data of others.  (Actually making the visualisations is out of my remit, but there will be someone who can..).

A thing I should do is analyse blogs, articles, reports, etc about creative digital projects for the vocabulary about their processes.  I thought about this as one of the speakers was just describing step by step the process for one project... but I wasn't listening properly; I only realised in time to have this thought, too late to write it all down.  But there will be loads of documentation already out there that can be harvested.

I always think of my project as something that helps a lot toward connecting with others for collaborating, but a large part can be finding other art/media projects for inspiration.  That kind of pitch would sell it to this kind of audience, at least.

So that's that.  Photos from all the time I wasn't at Resonate are here.