11 December 2013

Now playing...

Iannis Xenakis, "Keren" on Phlegra et al, 2007.

01 December 2013

Sue Bamford web site

I have, at intervals, several times made mention here of my admiration for the work of Dublin artist Sue Bamford and have, since her exhibition last December, spent many hours lost in examples of her work on the walls of my home.
She has, as I write this, a weekend "at home" exhibition. She also, I'm delighted to say, has a new stand-alone web site (separate, that is, from her Facebook page) carrying galleries of her work.
One of the galleries is given over to the landscapes which I love so much – including, I'm quietly chuffed to see, Estuary in winter which I was lucky enough to buy in her December 2012 show.
Another contains, amongst other drawings, examples (here, here and here) from the sequence of drawings which I mentioned (see "Drawing from the hip") back in January, which so strongly call out to the observational photographer in me: her Dubliners sequence of street drawings from a personal James Joyce project, each framed in the wing mirror of her car.

30 November 2013

To the Crabmobile!

We blog writers all, at some time (or times) hit fallow spells when we write little for a greater or shorter length of time. I'm in one of them, recently. And we all have our excuses (as Jim Putnam says: “excuses are like elbows: everyone has a couple”).
Nobody, however, but nobody, worries about it more, or has more genuinely watertight reason, than Dr C: a man of deep morals, developed conscience, and commitment to his patients – especially those who are children. There are few bloggers for whom I feel the admiration, respect and affection which I have developed over the years for Dr C ... nor from whom I so vehemently refuse remorseful apologies for silence – which is always down to overwork on behalf of others.
In Dr C's coastal community, crabbing is an important component of local industry. One of the stratagems which he uses to put his youngest patients at ease is to ask them to make  drawings of crabs – some of which delightful results he posts on his blog. He also organises the wonderful annual Big Crab Contest for pupils at a local school.
All of which is background to a postal packet which I received this week. Inside was the wonderful crab mobile shown in the photograph here, accompanied by no explanation apart from a sheet from a yellow legal pad carrying (so typical of Dr C) ... an apology for silence.
I suspect that its workmanship may originate in that same local school as the Big Crab Contest. Whether it does or not, I love and treasure it; it has, as you can see, pride of place where it can be found by the morning sun.

24 November 2013

Chance conjunction of the day

The conjunction came from a song lyric and a book fragment, within not very minutes of each other.
The song lyric came first; it was playing as I worked on the text of an article about statistical testing:
She was physically forgotten,
Then she slipped into my pocket
With my car keys.
She said “You've taken me for granted
Because I pleased you...”1
I was hungry so, when the track finished, paused the player and put aside the article for a while to get a bite to eat. Filling the gastric gap with a sandwich from my right hand, I picked up the book with my left to give my mind a brief change of scene as well. The book was an old favourite (in fact, I find that I already referenced this same line from it, earlier this year ... I'm getting repetitive) which is, to embroider the conjunction (or to suggest that am stuck in a particular past), very close to being coeval with the song:
There’s a photograph of an olive tree among the stones on my desk; when Luise left she wrote on the back of it: “I trusted you with the idea of me and you lost it”.2
It's so easy to take someone for granted and lose the idea of them ... not just a significant other, but oneself and (the thought that occurred to me in this case) those friends more removed as well.

  1. Paul Simon, "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes" on Graceland, 1986
  2. Russell Hoban, The Medusa Frequency Ch.3. 1987, London: Cape. ISBN 0224024647

21 November 2013

Now playing...

Tanita Tikaram, Ancient heart.

08 November 2013

Too big for its boots

In a delightful way, from a writing perspective, my last few data analysis topics have first synergised with one another and then led naturally on to the consideration of Big Data.
What exactly is "big data"? The answer, it should come as no particular surprise to hear, is "it depends". As a broad, rough and ready definition, it means data in sufficient volume, complexity and velocity to present practical problems in storage, management, curation and analysis within a reasonable time scale. In other words, data which becomes, or at least threatens to become in a specific context, too dense, too rapidly acquired and too various to handle. Clearly, specific contexts will vary from case to case and over time (technology continuously upgrades our ability to manage data as well as generating it in greater volume) but broadly speaking the gap remains – and seems likely to remain in the immediate future. The poster boys and girls of big data, in this respect, are the likes of genomics, social research, astronomy and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) whose unmanaged gross sensor output would be around fifty zettabytes per day.
There are other thorny issues besides the technicalities of computing. Some of them concern research ethics: to what extent, for example, is it justifiable to use big data gathered for other purposes (for example, from health, telecommunications, credit card usage or social networking) in ways to which the subjects did not give consent? Janet Currie (to mention only one recent example amongst many) suggests a stark tightrope with her "Big data vs big brother" consideration of large scale pædiatric studies. Others are more of concern to statisticians like me: there is a tendency for the sheer density of data available to obscure the idea of a representative sample– and a billion unbalanced data points can actually give much less reliable results than thirty well selected ones.
Conversely, however, big data can also be defined in terms not of problems but of opportunity. Big data approaches open up the opportunity to explore very small but crucial effects. They can be used to validate (or otherwise) smaller and more focussed data collection, as for instance in Ansolabehere and Hersh’s study [1] of survey misreporting. As technology gives us expanding data capture capabilities at ever finer levels of resolution, all areas of scientific endeavour are becoming increasingly data intensive. That means (in principle, at least) knowing the nature of our studies in greater detail than statisticians of my generation could ever have dreamed. A while back, to look at the smaller end of the scale, I mentioned [2] the example of an automated entomological field study régime simultaneously sampling two thousand variables at a resolution of several hundred cases per second. That’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, in LHC territory but it’s big enough data to make significant call on a one terabyte portable hard drive. It’s also a goldmine opportunity for small team or even individual study of phenomena which would not long ago have been beyond the reach of even the largest government funded programme: big data has revolutionised small science.
There is, in any case, no going back; big data is here to stay – and to grow ever bigger, because it can. Like all progress, it’s a double edged sword and the trick as always is to manage the obstacles in ways which deliver the prize. [more]

[1] Ansolabehere, S. and E. Hersh, Validation: "What Big Data Reveal About Survey Misreporting and the Real Electorate". Political Analysis, 2012. 20(4): p. 437-459.

[2] Grant, F., "Retrieving data day queries", in Scientific Computing World. 2013, Europa Science: Cambridge. p. 10-12..

27 October 2013

The white and the red

It's that time of year again, when my discussions with those (including myself) who ask why I wear a white poppy are enriched by comments left on my post a couple of years ago.
If anyone is interested, and wasn't here at the time, that post is, to some extent, followed up in another post a couple of days later.
This year, though, the decision to wear a white wrestles with another, more agonised decision: my preious to support foreign military action in Libya [audit trail here, here, and here]. Which brings me up against Ray Girvan's reservation (and, for that matter, my own) about the practicality of pacifism. But ideals are always impractical, and always run up against both reality on one side and other, not always compatible, ideals on the other. We have to weave the best path we can between Scylla and Charybdis.
For the moment, at least, my path continues (Libya notwithstanding) to approximate the white poppy route.
Syria is a much murkier case than Libya. In Libya, there was a clear case to argue; the potential to alleviate loss of innocent life, on balance, could be made (if not conclusively); in Syria, it is much harder to see how that algebra might play out. Undeniable mass slaughter and suffering now, in the case of inaction, is not balanced by any clearly perceivable reduction if any ralistic action is taken. Which, ironically, makes the white poppy less problematic, for the time being ... but doesn't make me feel any cleaner.

18 October 2013

The kindness of strangers

In my teens, I spent a fair amount of time hiking a sparsely populated semi-arid island landscape. Agriculture, here, was a peasant economy marginally above subsistence, herds of sheep and goats scattered across sparse hillsides around tiny, isolated villages.
We would pass through these villages, stopping in their cafés for coffee or cola. Sometimes we were welcomed, surrounded by curious villagers eager for news of the outside world beyond the immediate horizon. In those, the distinctions between us (British, French, German, USAmerican) were incomprehensible; we were all, collectively and simply, “English”. In other villages we saw nobody but the café proprietor; young people in dusty khaki walking clothes and boots, carrying rucsacs, bore too much resemblance to soldiers and were best avoided on a general precautionary principle.
In the empty, rocky, soaring spaces between villages, we gradually learned never to ask directions from a local inhabitant.
When, at a fork in the unmapped and barely visible path, we asked a wandering goatherd something like “Which is the way to Melou?”, we always got a long and detailed set of directions richly supplemented by story and gesture. Alas, our genially helpful informant had (as we eventually realised) never heard of Melou, still less did he know how to get there, but didn't like to say so. This was not dishonesty; it was, on the contrary, a cultural reluctance to disappoint, a refusal to deny travellers what they requested. We would, in the early days before we understood this, often follow the instructions we were given. Trekking many kilometres of hard country in the wrong direction, before map and compass eventually convinced us of our error, we would eventually arrive in Melou tired and several hours late.
Curiously, I've now discovered a similar phenomenon in the urban landscape of England's home counties.
Coming out of a Hilton hotel at nine in the morning, I stopped at reception to ask where I could catch a bus into town. (At this point I can hear Julie Heyward, with her low opinion of buses, chortling already.) The reception manager didn't hesitate: he pointed confidently out of the door and said “go out of the hotel gate, sir, and turn left. At the junction turn left again and you'll see the bus stop”.
Outside the hotel gates I turned left; and left again at the junction. I was on a busy six lane dual carriageway, with no sign of a bus stop as far as the eye could see. Undeterred, I started walking.
As I walked, a woman emerged from an underpass, talking on her cellphone. I asked about bus stops. She paused, muttered “Hang on, Mum” into the phone, pointed back into the underpass, and said “Through there and follow the path, it's by the garage”.
On the other side of the underpass the promised path headed in the direction of town, which was encouraging. I walked for about a quarter of an hour, without seeing either a bus stop or a garage, until I met a dog walker coming the other way. To my question he replied, pointing on down the slope in the direction I was walking, “Turn left at the bottom, and just follow the path”.
At the bottom of the slope was a fork in the path. I turned left. Ten minutes walking brought me to a garage, which rekindled hope, but there was no bus stop near by. I went into the garage, where the assistant greeted my enquiry with a blank expression and the puzzled words “Bus stop?” Fair enough; she didn't know, and didn't pretend to. She disappeared briefly and returned with her manager who pointed out of the door and instructed me that I should “cross the road, turn right, keep going, you can't miss it”.
Across the road, having turned right and kept going for some time, I could no longer see the garage behind me and still hadn't found a bus stop ahead. Nor, it occurred to me, had any buses passed me.
Open clearway gradually gave way to houses, goods yards, small industrial premises. About an hour after leaving the hotel, I finally found a bus stop; the timetables inside suggested that every bus which stopped here would take me into town, so I stood and waited. Less than five minutes later, a bus arrived.
The driver gave me a very strange look, when I asked for the town centre, but took my money and issued me with a ticket. The reason for his reaction became clear when, before I'd even had time to sit down, we turned a corner and pulled into a bus station. I had arrived, having walked the whole way and then bought a ticket for the last fifty metres or so.
At the end of the day, I made my way back to the bus station. I discovered the right bus service, boarded it, purchased a ticket as far as the Hilton. Starting Google Maps on my phone, I carefully watched both the landscape outside the bus window and the little dot which showed my position as it crept between town centre and hotel. The route never touched the dual carriageway along which I had been directed by the reception manager; it followed smaller roads through residential estates. It never came within five hundred metres of the garage, nor of the underpass and the path beyond.
When I got off, I discovered that the bus stop was behind the hotel, not out of the gates at all ... starting from the gates, I would have had to turn right, right, and right again (not left and left), away from the junction (not towards and through it).
I stopped at reception and explained all of this to the reception manager. He smiled, spread his hands, shrugged expressively, and said “I don't know, sir; I never catch the bus”

04 October 2013


“It frequently happens ... — and this is one of the charms of photography — that the operator himself discovers on examination, perhaps long afterwards, that he has depicted many things he had no notion of at the time.”
[William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature. 1844–1846, London: Longman, Brown, Green.]

03 October 2013

Now playing...

Woody Guthrie, This land is your land.