Sunday, February 27, 2011

RIP Duke Snider (1926-2011)

Hall of Famer and Dodger great Duke Snider died today.

Now listen to Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, and feel nostalgic. (Plus it's a superb song anyway!)

"Smooth Criminal" with Cellos!

Here is a rendition of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" with cellos! Wow, this is awesome!

(Tip of the hat to Jimmy Lin.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Play Ball!

I am listening to the first Dodgers Spring Training game of the year! We're playing the Giants.

Vin Scully isn't announcing yet --- he doesn't announce much in during Spring Training --- so I am listening to Giants broadcasters Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper, who are (a) excellent and (b) much better than Charlie Steiner (who is announcing for the Dodgers today).

Meeting the Local Member of Parliament

Today, at a buffet lunch in Somerville, I got a chance to talk to Nicola Blackwood, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Oxford West and Abingdon. (She was a doctoral student at Somerville in 2005 but suspended her studies and hasn't come back.) I had promised the day before that I would be civil, and I actually had no problems holding myself to that promise.

She is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, which concerns itself with "the expenditure, administration and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies". This entails, among other things, discussion of things like visas and the census. The former is why it was important that I try to get a chance to talk to her, as one student who should have been a frosh at Somerville this year had his visa denied and thus couldn't come this year. (We're hoping he can start here in fall 2011.) Additionally, we have several other students from China who are worried about potential visa changes that might force them to go back to China immediately if they can't find a job here when they graduate.

And, admittedly, I dropped a small hint about what the methods I study could do with things like census data. (I focused on my international students, however, as I want to do my best to try to ensure that they're treated fairly and properly.) Of course, after Nicola deplored the poor quality of immigration data and the need to have accurate census data, my response was basically to promise to list my religion as "Jedi" on the census (which only yesterday had arrived on my proverbial doorstep). She reacted to that with amusement.

I think Nicola's main reaction to me was a combination of amusement and bemusement, though I think I got my point across. And I plan to take advantage of the direct line if there are any future issues with my students' visas. She seems like a very nice person, but I figure that most politicians are charismatic (it's pretty much necessary to have a political career) and it's hard to tell what they actually think, so I'm going to reserve my judgement.

Nicola also gave a talk, after which (unsurprisingly) there were lots of questions from the audience. One of the questions came from one of my international students (because of the whole visa business), and I am very proud of her for speaking her mind.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Pass Through a Door

Here is a flow chart that explains the proper way to pass through a door. Amen!

(Tip of the cap to Louis Wang.)

If The Poster Fits...

This demotivational poster fits me too well (except for the spelling error).

Oh, and this poster is pretty damn funny.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The 26-year Losing Streak is Over!

The Caltech men's basketball team has won its first conference game in 26 years, breaking a 310-game losing streak!

Of course, the world has changed quite a lot since our last victory.

(Tip of the cap to Vincent Kong and Greg Fricke for this article, and a tip of the cap to numerous Techers and one non-Techer for the news itself. I linked to a story that Greg Fricke posted.)

Update (2/25/11): Here is an article posted on Caltech's website about the victory. And the Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote an absolutely brilliant comment in his article: "The partying continued long into the night, with players failing to return to their homework after a weeknight game for the first time in many years."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is Wisconsin Next?

I'm just asking.

Consequences of Ambidexterity?

An interesting new study suggests that ambidextrous people are easier to manipulate than right-handers. That's really neat!

(Tip of the hat to Louis Wang.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Small-World Network OF LUST

Mariano Begerisse Díaz, one of my former Masters students, calls the bottom picture The Small-World Network OF LUST. (Technically, he wrote "of", but one really needs to write "OF" to get the correct effort, so I've taken the liberty to change that.) I am certainly amused by it, but I'm not actually convinced that it's better than Geoff West's Power Law OF DOOM.

(Tip of the cap to Mariano.)

Teaching Networks to High School Students

Yesterday Somerville had its "Study Day", in which high school students from several schools came to Somerville to visit Somerville, meet some students (who gave them tours of both Somerville and, briefly, other parts of Oxford), learn some general things about Somerville with 'global' presentations, and have a 1.5 hour session with one of a few Somerville Tutors who volunteered to help out. I helped out, as did one of our first-year mathematics students, which is essential because the perspectives and insights of our current students are absolutely crucial to any endeavor like this

I was one of the faculty volunteers, and I gave a presentation about the mathematics of networks and then I talked about studying mathematics at Somerville and Oxford (and gave a preview of some of the curriculum changes in applied mathematics that are currently under discussion; these are currently slated to start in Fall 2012, though first we need to decide exactly what they are). I had 17 students in my room, and apparently my mathematics presentation was among the more popular choices of the students who wanted to visit us. (We obviously didn't have room to accommodate everybody who wanted to come.) The abstract that I wrote to be circulated to the selected high schools---and I don't know how they were selected---was the following:

MATHEMATICS: What do Financial Markets and Facebook have in Common?

This session will introduce you to the sheer joy of applied mathematics, and it will also tell you about the mathematics course at Oxford. Changes are brewing in our mathematics course, and here is your early chance to find out what some of them are. If you are considering studying mathematics at university, then this is the session for you! We'll discuss some modern ideas from an area of mathematics called "network science" that can be used to help understand everything from how Facebook works to how financial markets (don't) work. And then we'll talk about possibly mundane but certainly important stuff like the mathematics degrees at Oxford and how you can get involved in research at an early stage. The only requirement for this session is excitement about mathematics and its applications.


This abstract was what was used to advertise mathematics, and I like to think that my experience communicating with the media helped me to write a good abstract.

After the students were chosen, I asked them to read The Physics of Networks by Mark Newman. (I later stressed that the 'physics' of networks and 'mathematics' of networks are, in my view, interchangeable.)

I checked with the students who attended, and they confirmed that Newman's article was at the right level for them, and I think their having read that article as background made the whole presentation easier.

I needed to show lots of fancy, pretty pictures, so I prepared a powerpoint presentation, but I want to stress that this was guidance for our discussion. I asked the students to speak up early and often, because I don't think that my droning on would be the best way to do this. One can't tell this always tell this purely from the posted slides, so I am happy to comment further about that aspect of things. But it is crucial to make sure that one is actually having a discussion with the students, even if one is using slides to facilitate this discussion. One conscious decision I made was not to bother with the references and acknowledgements for results, figures, etc. I am normally a stickler about such things, but I felt in this case that it would be intimidating and actively detract from what I was trying to do---which was to be as accessible as possible and just open the students up to the excitement of the subject and the fact that they could get into it really quickly. (And I hereby apologize to my colleagues for this, but doing the usual thing would in my opinion have massively hindered the students' experience in this case.)

I also wanted to mention that purposely gave an illustration of how networks can be represented in terms of matrices because the students had had some exposure to matrices before. I wanted to relate this active fascinating field to mathematics they have seen in their high school classes. I also wanted to relate it to their personal experiences with social networks such as Facebook. It is this last aspect that makes it easier to explain networks to high school students (and more general lay audiences, for that matter!) than is the case for most active research areas in mathematics.

One thing that I made a point to stress was that undergraduate researchers have been intimately important to my work in this area, that they are really only a couple of years to be able to contribute to such research efforts, and that such opportunities awaited them in Oxford and Somerville. I made a point to show them what one of my current Somerville students is doing and also made a point to show them a really exciting (though admittedly preliminary) result that she showed me just last week. The point of showing the result from last week was to illustrate that mathematics isn't static---knowledge changes, and it can do so very quickly---and also what we want to do to really get somewhere with the preliminary result. I think that this message isn't given even close to often enough. We're not merely teaching or doing research on a body of knowledge that was handed down to us by the luminaries from yesteryear, but we're constantly discovering new things, obtaining more refined understanding and insights on even very old ideas, etc. Sure, there are a lot of mundane subjects to learn that are well-established, but there are lots of new ideas and applications to be found even in traditional subjects like linear algebra.

I spent roughly half the time discussing networks with the students and roughly half the time discussing Oxford and Somerville mathematics with the students. (We occasionally forayed into the differences between the mathematics and physics or engineering degrees, as some students are also deciding not just where they want to apply but also what specific major they would like to have.)

In deciding on one Oxford College versus another, the thing I stressed was that the students should judge the people with whom they would be working (namely, people like me). More than anything else, what Somerville or any other College has to offer is its people. I refuse to toe the company line and say that Somerville is automatically better. That would be stupid and would contradict my true beliefs (as some of you know, there are some things here that are causing me significant displeasure, to put it mildly). Students should decide for themselves whether or not they want to work with me---I hope so, because I think that I'm a damn fine educator and that I have things to offer on both the teaching and research sides that very few others can offer---but the point is that I think that this is the main decision. Prospective Somerville mathematicians should decide for themselves whether they want to work closely with my colleagues and me. The official literature seems to stress the importance of things like our library, and I think that is seriously misguided. The other Colleges have libraries too, and I'm sure that they're all fine libraries. A College's greatest strength is its people---the ones who will frame your College experience more than anything else ever will---and any College that advertises itself differently is doing it wrong. I know that I'm biased, but in mathematics and allied subjects, I think that Somerville has excellent people (including both faculty and students).

Incidentally, the student response seems to have been extremely positive. The students were engaged and they thanked me warmly at the end of the presentation. One student has already e-mailed me for more information about networks. (I gave the students my e-mail address because I figured they'd have more questions later, and I wanted to be able to answer them.) I can't say if Somerville or Oxford will get any additional applications from prospective mathematics students as a result of the presentation and related efforts, but there are 17 high school students who I feel are more excited about mathematics and its applications than they were before I talked to them. And that counts for a lot.

(By the way, this isn't my first time speaking to high school students about my research. When I do this, I always make it a point to show them some of the stuff my undergrads have done and are currently doing. It's really important to show them the research efforts of somebody who was in their position not that long ago.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Caltech SausageFest

Caltech has made it official: They're going to have a SausageFest.

Funny, I thought that they've been having one for years.

"Evolution Made Us All"

There is a wonderful new video on YouTube called Evolution Made Us All.

(Tip of the cap to ChaosBook.)

Overheard in Today's Tutorials

‎Me: "We've got 15 minutes left. What should we do? I could let you leave early or we could start another problem from the next sheet."

One of my students: "You could have a 15-minute digression."

(The second comment came right after one of the other students suggested we discuss another of the problems on the new sheet.)

Sometimes I love my students...

Man Versus Machine: Who will lose on Jeopardy (baby)?

Oh, I am really looking forward to this: Just like the famous chess match between Man and Machine from many years ago, there is going to be a computer contestant on Jeopardy this week. The two humans are the most successful contestants in the show's history. The Jeopardy-playing computer, named Watson, was decided at IBM. The game show also discusses Watson on its web page.

I haven't actually read the two web pages yet --- I'm going to dinner soon and I'm trying to write this quickly --- but this sounds sweet!

(Tip of the cap to Tim Chartier.)

Update (2/17/11): The machine won.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator

This Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator is hilarious!

(Tip of the cap to Mariano Beguerisse Díaz.)

Preparing for Valentine's Day

On Facebook, the Cornell Alumni Association posted a quiz [as their status] asking "What are your favorite love songs?"

Perhaps my answer of "Hold Your Head Up High (And Blow Your Brains Out)" by The Bloodhound Gang was not the most appropriate answer in the world?

I guess my second choice would be "Black Celebration". :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Facebook100 Data Set

I am proud to finally be able to announce the public debut of the Facebook100 data set, which includes the complete set of people and friendships from the Facebook networks of 100 different colleges and universities from a single snapshot from September 2005. (It also has limited demographic data---in anonynmized form, obviously.)

My collaborators and I had released the Facebook5 data set (containing the complete networks for 5 institutions) a couple of years ago when we submitted our first paper on Facebook networks, and we were hoping to quickly finish the sequel paper and release the data for the other 95 institutions, but unfortunately the research and associated paper has taken about 2 years longer than we had anticipated. That's par for the course in science.

Anyway, the paper, called Social Structure of Facebook Networks, is finally on the arXiv preprint server. And that means we have finally released the data as well. Enjoy!

Update (3:36 pm): I have taken the data down temporarily to fix a bug. I hope to repost it very soon. As usual, how long it takes depends on how much time various teaching and admin duties take, etc.

Update (10:21 pm): I have fixed the bug, so the data is back up! What a way to spend a Friday night, but (as most of you know) I have a very severe case of OCD.

Update (2/12/11): I don't know for sure, but I wonder if the data set we released is the second largest social network data set to be released publicly (except for the Netflix data)? Anyway, with 100 parallel data sets that arose from ostensibly the same mechanism, this data will be great for testing new methods, etc., so I hope that its public availability will advance science fruitfully. And, ideally, it will also help us to learn more about the social structure of universities. (Our paper only scratches the surface of what one can do with this data.)

Update (2/16/11): I had a very good discussion with the Facebook Data Team last night. Per their request, I have taken down the data, and I will be working with them to eventually post a version of the data set with which both they and I are happy. I can't say exactly when this will occur, but I am very excited about working with them (both to have a good resolution to recent adventures and also on research projects themselves).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bounds and Vision

My book review in Science just came out! I reviewed book about scientific visualization.

Perhaps my favorite sentence is the following: "I also got to read fascinating tidbits about scientific heroes such as Derek John de Solla Price, who studied preferential attachment before it was invented."

The especially awesome thing is that the paper at which I am poking fun was also published in Science

Oh, and for the second time, the title of my paper includes a reference to Bowie.

Bring on the hate mail. :)

On This Day in 1355...

On this day in 1355, Oxford experienced one of the most violent riots in its history.

History hasn't recorded this, but I assume that this was in reality just an early celebration of my birthday, which occurred exactly 621 years later. (Not that this is an egocentric perspective or anything...) Nostradamus, eat your heart out!

And you thought that 10 Feb was meant to be a day of tranquility... That shows what you know!

(Tip of the cap to Dave Fallon.)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

4th Annual Oxford University SIAM Student Chapter Conference

Today is the 4th annual SIAM Student Chapter Conference.

Today is going to be very long (especially given the work I'll need to do after the conference is over and the additional stuff besides the conference going on during the day), but there will be a bunch of nice things as well.

Hopefully I'll be alert enough tomorrow to finish off that paper on Facebook networks...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Top Secret Rosies

Here is a cool article on CNN.com about the "Top Secret Rosies", who played a crucial role in the history of computers. (Here the word "computers" refers both to machines and to humans who do computation.)

It's alive!!!

The 4th time is the charm! I now have a working 50'' hi-def 1080p plasma tv. For the win!

(I still need to set things up a bit, but it should be pretty easy. The only part that looks like it will be a bit tricky is the audio connection with my laptop.)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Facebook Visualization Challenge

Our Facebook data was recently used for a data visualization challenge at a workshop, and the participants at that workshop did a better job of visualizing our data than we did.

Of course, we're not visualization experts, and we don't even play ones on TV. I very much appreciate scientific visualization, however! (I'll have more to say about that in a few days when a certain book review that I wrote officially comes out.) The purpose of our visualization mentioned in the blog post was to motivate the quantitative methods that we developed in the paper. (The purpose of the paper was to develop those methods.)

The author of the blog post to which I've linked wrote "it's rumored that the authors had access to 100". Well, those rumors are true, and we might be releasing the data from the other 95 universities as early as next week. :) Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the paper (to appear in SIAM Review) in which we analyze the "Facebook5" data set (the name appears to have stuck, so I suppose we should have been more clever!) can be found here.

Anyway, it's way cool that one of our data sets has now reached the lofty status of benchmark!

And, by the way, the correct spelling of my alma mater is "Caltech". :)

Friday, February 04, 2011

Intelligence at Oxford

Today I am going to talk about intelligence at Oxford---and especially about when it fails.

Let's take the street between Somerville College, which is where I live and often where I work, and Dartington House, where I also occasionally work. This street, called Little Clarendon, has been massively torn up since a couple of weeks before my 14 January return to sunny Oxford in order for piping to be redone. OK, fine. I'm sure that's necessary. And recently, the work was mostly finished on Little Clarendon, and the city of Oxford's fine blue-collar workers had moved on to digging up Woodstock Road, which borders the front entrance to Somerville and which I need to cross (just before crossing the graveyard) to get to the Mathematical Institute, where I also occasionally work.

It was noticed a day or two ago that there didn't seem to be any heating in Dartington House anymore. Now that's odd. As we have found out today, the reason for this turns out to be that the Southern Gas Board (SGB) had disconnected our gas during their work on the pipes below Little Clarendon. Apparently, what happened is that SGB was unaware that gas was supplied to this building (you know, the one next to the street that they were digging up). I suppose that perhaps they thought we keep rats who provide heat to the building by running on their little wheels? The Centre for Mathematical Biology is located on the first floor, after all. Perhaps this is because they weren't aware that the one rat that actually lived in the building was scared away during Rat Watch 2010.

Anyway, we're going to be getting our heating back soon. (And of course we should be thankful that we haven't been having really cold weather as we had in December, or else even bigger problems would be afoot.) Unfortunately, SGB is going to have to rip up the road again to do this.

Reaction: Facepalm.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

New to the Blogroll: Legaltruths

I have added Legaltruths to my blogroll. It's a new blog and is written by a Yale Law School alum who I know.

Moser and Crawford Prizes in Dynamical Systems for 2011

The SIAM Activity Group on Applications of Dynamical Systems has announced the recipients of the Jürgen Moser Lecture prize and J. D. Crawford Prize for 2011.


The Moser Lecture prize is for lifetime achievement in dynamical systems, and the 2011 recipient of this prize is Jim Yorke. This is richly deserved. (Yorke is the one who coined the term "chaos", by the way.)

The Crawford Prize is for recent work in dynamical systems. The winner for 2011 is Eric Vanden-Eijnen. I have heard of him before, but I am essentially unfamiliar with his work, so I can't really make any comments other than to state that he won the prize.

Computational Paleobiology

Aaron Clauset has written a nice blog entry about some really awesome opportunities in computational paleobiology.

Some of these data sets look really cool, so I think I'll add it to my list to have a project involving this kind of stuff at some point. And if I can do some research related to my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, then that would be particularly awesome!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Television Update

The tv Amazon shipped to me was severely broken, so I sent it back. (It's like somebody had been jumping up and down on it. It had a 1.5 foot crack.)

The replacement tv they sent to me was even more severely broken than the first one, so that is slated to get picked up today to be sent back.

Given that both of these televisions were severely broken, Amazon has assumed that something is afoot in their warehouse and won't be sending a replacement. Instead, the order has been cancelled and I am supposed to be refunded once both broken televisions have arrived safely in their nest.

Last night I tried ordering the tv directly from Panasonic. This would cost quite a bit more, but at least it would be shipped properly (and Panasonic has a warehouse just .6 miles away from Somerville) and I'd have a 5-year protection warranty along with it. I decided I'd rather just cough up the extra money and have things set up. Unfortunately, they are out of stock of this model, the replacement for which will be available for me starting only in March. I leave town for 5-6 weeks on March 14th, so it looks like I'll have my television only at the end of April.

I guess my birthday gift to myself is going to have to arrive about 2.5-3 months late.

Update (2/02/11): Oh, screw this. I am trying this again.