Funded PhD positions available

The School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews has around eight  fully-funded PhD positions available. I'd welcome applicants interested in sensor networks, complex systems, and data science.

We welcome students from a wide range of countries, our only major requirements being that you're excited by the idea of research and are able to conduct a complex programme within a small, friendly, and supportive environment.

In my case, I'm interested in hearing from potential students with interests in the following areas:

  • Sensor networks, especially deploying sensors into the environment;
  • Complex system modelling, trying to model phenomena that operate on a range of scales; and
  • Data science, particularly for how we collect, categorise, and work with large scientific datasets.
An early conversation by skype or email could be followed by a formal application, the details of which are available here.

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction

Nate Silver


An essential book for anyone concerned with "big data" or any aspect of science of forecasting. Silver casts an experienced (and somewhat jaundiced) eye over a range of commonly-encountered forecasts, including politics (his own main area), poker, finance, and climate change. In each area he manages both to convince that forecasts can be made to good effect -- and to demolish many of the current practices one finds in these areas. On the way he discusses Bayesian statistics, the psychology of a good forecaster (be a "fox," not a "hedgehog"), how to spot bias, and gives some critical advice that would be of useful to anyone looking to apply such techniques. Should be required reading for all science PhD students.

Finished on Mon, 02 Dec 2013 12:24:53 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition 2013/14: call for submissions

The 2013/14 CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition is now open for submissions.

Closing date Tuesday 1 April 2014. Further details can be found below and on the web at

The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC), in conjunction with BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, annually selects for publication the best British PhD/DPhil dissertations in computer science.

The scheme aims to make more visible the significant contribution made by Britain - in particular by post-graduate students - to computer science. Publication also serves to provide a model for future students.

The selection panel on behalf of BCS/CPHC consists of experienced computer scientists, not more than one from any institution, each normally serving on the panel for three years. The panel members for this year are: Russell Beale (Birmingham), Simon Dobson (St Andrews, chair), Michael Fisher (Liverpool), Joemon Jose (Glasgow), Steve Pettifer (Manchester), Iain Phillips (Loughborough), and Perdita Stevens (Edinburgh).

Any dissertation is eligible which is submitted for a doctorate in the British Isles in what is commonly understood as Computer Science. (Theses which are basically in some other discipline but which make use, even very extensive use, of computing will not be regarded as eligible.) However, there is a limit of THREE dissertations per year per university, and one per research group within any university. To be considered, a dissertation should:

  • make a noteworthy contribution to the subject;
  • reach a high standard of exposition;
  • place its results clearly in the context of computer science as a whole; and
  • enable a computer scientist with significantly different interests to grasp its essentials.
It is reasonable to submit a thesis to the scheme if it has all of the above qualities in good measure, and if it is comparable in standard with the top 10% of dissertations in the subject. Long dissertations are not encouraged; if the main text is more than 80,000 words, there should be good justification.

The dissertation should be submitted electronically (as a PDF file) by the author's examiners, or by the Head of Department with the examiner's advice. The submitted version of the dissertation must be the final version after any required corrections have been made. The competition period for the 2014 competition is for theses accepted from 1 January 2013 until the closing date of 1 April 2014. A dissertation cannot be submitted to the competition more than once.

The dissertation should be accompanied by a written nomination comprising the following information:

  • a justification, of about 300 words, by one of the examiners - preferably the external - explaining the dissertation's claim to distinction (against the criteria listed above);
  • the name of the primary supervisor and the research group within the university to which the student was primarily affiliated;
  • an assurance that within the competition period the examiners have recommended to the author's institution that the doctorate should be awarded;
  • the names and contact details of three suggested reviewers who are not in the same Department as the nominated thesis and who are independent of the supervision and examining of the thesis; and
  • an indication should be given if the dissertation is being considered for publication elsewhere.

The nominated reviewers must have confirmed that they are willing to provide a review. In addition the author's written agreement that their thesis may be considered for the Distinguished Dissertation competition should be emailed by the author to

Submissions should be made on-line via

The first author name submitted should be that of the thesis author; the individual submitting the nomination should list themselves as the second author. The title and abstract should be those of the thesis being nominated. The first file uploaded should be the 300 word nomination; the thesis document should be uploaded as an attachment.

If any problems are experienced, or you have any questions, please email for assistance.

The deadline for submission is 1 April 2014.

Graduation address: "Every success is everybody's success"

I was honoured to be asked to give the graduation address at this year's St Andrews Day ceremony. The speech is below.

Chancellor, Principal, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen:

Graduations are a celebration of hard work and success. And the efforts you've all made to be sitting here today certainly deserve to be celebrated: whatever your course of study, you've shown the determination, dedication, intelligence, creativity, and drive to succeed.

But being asked to give this graduation address got me thinking about the nature of success, and I'd like to share a thought with you: that success is not something we can readily ascribe to anyone individually. Rather, it's a jigsaw that assembles itself from the actions of those people you meet and by whom you are influenced. Indeed, when you get right down to it, every success is everybody's success.

To see what I mean by this, think about how much had to go right for your studies to take place. You had to be born and brought up in a way that made you emotionally able to leave home and thrive on your own, possibly mastering a different language and culture, to become a rounded individual with the skills needed to take on a university such as this. This is no mean feat on the parts of yourselves and your parents, as I hope you appreciate; not to mention your earlier teachers, friends, neighbours, and all the other people who influenced you down the years. When you came to St Andrews, I'm sure you discovered that learning and research don't occur in a vacuum. Most of you will have worked as part of a team, either in a lab or a seminar, where you came together to do something that perhaps none of you could have done individually. If you think back, I'm sure you can remember plenty of things said or done that have contributed directly to your being here today.

We can cast the net wider. The university is clean, secure, and well-managed, thanks to the efforts of porters, cleaners, secretaries, administrators, and a host of others -- efforts that tend to be hidden away and are easily forgotten, but that contribute to your studies at least as much as the efforts of your lecturers. The lights are on, the labs and seminar rooms are warm (more or less). There are coal miners in eastern Poland whom we will never meet, and who will never know to what they contributed -- but without them the wheels would not have turned, the lights would not have burned, and none of the functions that we perform in this university would have been possible. So every success that happens here is their success too.

And of course we should look through time as well as space. With this graduation we're coming to the end of celebrating the 600th anniversary of the University of St Andrews. Think what has happened over those six hundred years to get us here! All the discovery and learning, all the patient, careful scholarship down through the years, slowly building knowledge, slowly building the reputation of this University, and of Scotland, as a place to come to learn and to teach and to do research -- sparkling at this graduation today before ricocheting off into the future. Any successes any of us have here owe a debt to those who have come before us, who made this (frankly very unlikely) place possible.

If there's any substance to these musings, then it's this: success isn't the singular, individual thing that we sometimes like to think it is; but nor is it an atomised, isolated thing occurring outside a particular place in space and time and the flow of humanity. The modern world tends to focus on measurement, and the corollary that anything that can't be easily measured either didn't happen at all or at least can be safely ignored. But a moment's reflection will convince you that this is nonsense: the successes we're celebrating today have been guided and driven by influences that we would struggle to identify and certainly couldn't quantify in any meaningful way, but without which we would not all be sitting here.

This has some quite profound implications. It means that whatever you all do from today, whatever successes you enjoy in the years to come, are of real importance, no matter how small they may appear to you. Your research project may not give rise to the next Google: but it might be read by someone, who writes a thesis, that's read by someone else, that gives another person an idea, that someone else uses to change the world for the better. We'll never know the exact details of this process -- we'll certainly never measure it or report it -- but lack of public credit doesn't equate to lack of value, and that's something that can help keep us all motivated and generous with our time and our ideas.

So as well as celebrating your own individual successes today, I hope you'll also celebrate the contributions you've made to the successes of others through friendship, collaboration, advice, mutual support, tutoring -- or just simply being here. Every success really is everybody's success. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the day.

(And in keeping with this spirit, I'd like to thank Al Dearle, Steve Linton, Linda Rafferty, and Lisa Dow, for their comments that made this speech so much better than when I first wrote it. The official press release version is on the university web site.)

Catastrophe: Europe Goes To War 1914

Max Hastings


Exactly the sort of balanced and readable account one would expect from Max Hastings, this book covers the first four months of the war on the basis that this period established the themes that remained essentially unchanged until the breakdown of 1918.

Hastings makes the familiar argument that the Western Front was the key to the whole war, with the other fronts being sideshows. But he makes the less familiar (to me anyway) argument that the deadlock was largely inevitable -- the result of macro-economic forces and the evolution of defensive military hardware -- rather than due in any significant way to failures in generalship on either side. This isn't to excuse the poor leadership, nor to minimise the consequences of the stubbornness and lack of imagination or empathy that went with it, but simply to say that the war had to be fought largely as it was, with few viable alternatives.

It's great to see Hastings acknowledge his debt to Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which to my mind remains the greatest summary of this period despite its low standing amongst professional historians. This book runs it a close second, though.

Finished on Thu, 21 Nov 2013 04:06:48 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney


I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Heaney's first volume of poems all relate to his growing-up in the country. Lots of the allusions are to an Ireland that still exists, untouched by the progress, boom, and bust of recent years, recognisably "country".

The most famous poem in this volume is "Mid-term break", describing Heaney's returning home to the funeral of his younger brother, once again perfectly recognisable as an Irish country removal and wake in a way that wouldn't be familiar elsewhere. Although I must say that my own favourite is "Storm on the Island" that describes how a storms comes over an empty West-of-Ireland landscape:

We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

Sentiments I recognise in myself at every storm I sit out.

Finished on Sat, 16 Nov 2013 11:06:59 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

Too many numbers

I've never really noticed before how over-indexed even common documents are.

Maybe it's just that we've become more sensitive to these things recently, but when I recently renewed my car's tax disc (for non-UK readers: the document that shows your car is legally on the road) that I realised exactly how much numeric information appears on the document:


There's some "expected" information that really has to appear: names, addresses, car registration numbers, fee, and the like (which I've blurred). But the real action is on the counterfoil -- a document you don't have to keep, are never asked to produce, and will basically never be seen by anyone again.

Let's start with the long sequence of numbers (1)  at the top left. Two groups of these numbers are repeated bottom right as (3) and (4); three groups are distinct and don't appear anywhere else. There's a long issue number for this document bottom-left (2). At the bottom right, (6) also appears on the disc itself as (8) -- in fact the only number  that makes it onto the tax disc itself, although there's also a barcode in the centre.

As if this wasn't enough, and despite all the numbers being printed in what is clearly a machine-readable font, there are two QR code. In the interests of science I scanned them both. (6) repeats (5) (and therefore (8)), but (7) was too small to scan with a cellphone QR code reader: it's visibly different to (6), though.

So this is eight distinct pieces of information, in the main all dutifully recorded only to be discarded when one detaches the tax disc from the counterfoil to fit it. What is it all? Since we don't have ID numbers in the UK, none of the numbers relate to me directly. I can understand a single registration number for the tax disc -- although even that's a bit redundant when you can query the tax status of a vehicle online to check whether the disc is genuine or not -- but the rest mystifies me, as does the use of three machine-readable formats on one document.

I'm not worried about the volume of information per se, as it's being discarded and -- more especially -- it doesn't seem to relate to me or my identity in any way, but I am curious as to why it all appears in the first place and what purpose any of it serves.

Strange Landscape: Journey Through the Middle Ages

Christopher Frayling


A fascinating dive into the structure of the Middle Ages, a period often regarded as a uniformly dark cipher. Fraying focuses on four topics: the origins of Gothic architecture; the evolution of the idea of heresy; the conflict between church and reason; and the cosmology of Dante's The Divine Comedy. If these choices seem eclectic, they're both carefully chosen and intricately related to the complete story of the period.

Most fascinating for me was the description of the arguments between Peter Abelard, the man who almost singlehandedly put the University of Paris on the map, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, about the place of reason and inspiration in religion. They were both what we would now regard as religious men, but their radically different views on religion's place and relationship to thought cut the the heart of many modern debates as well. Similarly, the chapter on Dante simplifies and structures what can otherwise be a difficult book to access.

The theme that runs through the book is the similarities that appear between the Middle Ages and the modern world, best captured by Umberto Eco in saying that we have never really left Middle Ages behind. Certainly a book like this makes much more clear the intellectual debt we still owe to the period, as well as how many of the questions raised then remain live even now.

Finished on Fri, 01 Nov 2013 09:59:17 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War

Thomas Weber


This is a great addition to the biographical literature on Adolf Hitler that attempts to shed light on one of the least understood periods of his life, the First World War. While this is commonly felt to have been one of the most formative periods of Hitler's life, the author makes a reasonably convincing case that most of what is claimed about the period is actually an invention of Nazi or anti-Nazi propaganda. I say "reasonably convincing" in that the record is so incomplete as to make any conclusive determinations problematic, but the author had integrated the writings, diaries, and histories of Hitler's brothers in arms -- some previously unexplored -- to make a very useful contribution to our understanding.

The book is a repetitive at a small scale and could have benefited from better copy-editing.

Finished on Tue, 29 Oct 2013 11:48:46 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The closed cycle of MOOCs

Are the international rankings indirectly fuelling the rise of MOOCs? And is there a positive feedback cycle at work?

The emergence of Massively Open On-line Courseware or MOOCs is being hailed as a disruptive moment in education, similar to the revolution that overtook the music industry. By unbundling modules from degree programmes and the universities who deliver them, the promise is to allow more personalised, varied, accessible, and (most importantly) cheaper education.

It's easy to see how MOOCs benefit some students in some disciplines. Students living in remote places, from the developing world to the rural US (or rural Ireland, for that matter) can access courses from leading universities they would otherwise not be able to, or want to, attend physically. Students with disabilities, or those with significant work, family, or care commitments can more easily stitch education into their lives, freed from the constraints of structured and time-bounded degree programme. Modules available either free or at massively reduced cost will certainly broaden access and reduce the real or perceived elitism of the top institutions.

I think there are some serious caveats with the techno-utopian vision that's being propagated, not least the suitability of MOOCs for many subjects and the way that much of the innovation is more about control than about openness -- and these are topics I intend to return to. But for this post I want to focus on a narrower hypothesis: is there a positive feedback cycle in the economics of students and rankings driving at least some of the push towards MOOCs from some institutions?

What got me thinking about this is the release of the latest QS World Ranking of Universities. These are influential sources that (I can say from personal experience) influence students' (and their parents') choices about which university to attend. This is simply a fact: one can argue that position in a research-based league table will have only a moderate influence on an undergraduate's university experience and later employability, but that's doesn't stop people considering the them important. Indeed, it is such an important factor that many universities publicly make being in the top 200, top 100, or even top 5 an institutional strategic goal that influences all their decisions. (For full disclosure, St Andrews comes comfortably in the top 100 universities in the world in this ranking, and doesn't use ranking position as an element of its strategy. It's nice for us to be highly ranked, but this is a consequence of our activities not a determiner of them.)

Rising up to the top of the tables is expensive, and I suspect that it gets exponentially more expensive to climb higher the higher up one is. The top-ranked institutions are amongst the richest in the world: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the like all have enormous economic power alongside their obvious and uncontested academic excellence. They are also major players in the MOOC space.

At first blush, this seems counter-intuitive. MOOCs are about cost reduction and breaking the power of traditional providers: why would the top universities be involved in this, when it seems at least possible that such a move will cannibalise their bricks-and-mortar students? It's likely they don't see this as a real threat, since they're over-subscribed by several orders of magnitude more students than they can possibly accommodate. It's also possible that they see MOOCs as a branding exercise rather than one of education, raising their profile at essentially no significant cost.

However, a more economic driver also occurs to me, at least when one moves down out of the elite stratosphere. Many institutions want to move up the league tables, which often involves going shopping for star academics: people whose research excellence enhances the reputation of their employers. As an institution gets more highly ranked, the quality of academic they need to have any impact on their position also increases, and as star academics are generally more expensive, improving ranking involves increased expenditure at each step. Increasing staff cost is therefore a consequence of a strategic decision to climb the rankings.

These stars and their research infrastructure have to be paid for, and in many systems these costs more or less trickle-down to student fees. Education inflation is running well ahead of general price inflation in the US (see for example this article from 2012), and a large chunk of this comes from academic salaries. (Admittedly an even larger chunk comes from increased administration.)  The problem is that this inflation sets up a countervailing pressure, as students look at the costs of their education in terms of accrued student debt and contrast it against expected lifetime earnings -- and in some cases decide it's not a sufficiently valuable proposition. Physical institutions can't simply grow their numbers, since students attending a university have overhead costs: they have to be accommodated nearby at a price they can afford to pay, if nothing else. The pressure therefore builds up to reduce student costs while keeping the size of the student body roughly constant.

This is where MOOCs might come in. Star academics have celebrity that can be leveraged by getting them to develop MOOC courses that can be sold worldwide. Even a trickle of income (from up-front registration or charges for certification) provides a revenue stream that can be used to reduce the costs for traditional students. MOOC development is sometimes seen as cost-free (since the staff are in place already), and so the revenue feels like money for nothing. But as MOOCs become more popular, institutions require more MOOCs, and more star academics to make them, and hence more revenue to pay for these individuals and their research, and so more MOOCs: a feedback loop that might actually become self-sustaining, a bubble in MOOC provision driven by a desire for increased international rank with a stable bricks-and-mortar student body.

Any such bubble will be an issue for universities of less exalted status, since the provision of free courses from elite institutions looks set to change how students seek out knowledge, despite the fact that not everyone is an autodidact who can learn by themselves. It's still not clear what impact MOOCs will have on education in its broadest sense, and there are certainly many positive aspects that we're interested in exploring ourselves. A self-fulfilling bubble is however not something we should be indifferent to.