Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity

Prue Shaw


There aren't many books or poems that need (or deserve) another book to explain them, but Dante's Commedia is one, and this is an excellent guide.

Reading Dante isn't the usual guide book, though. Instead of following the structure of the poem, it picks out a few themes (love, power, the use of language) and traces them through the complete hierarchy of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Along the way it provides a vital guide to the social and political context of 14th century Italy and some sights in Florence to see and relate to Dante's time. Linking to one of my other great loves, it's also full of illuminated letters and images used in the various editions of Commedia (although sady not in colour). For someone like me who reads Dante in translation, it both highlights the effects that only come through in the original, and acts as a spur to learn Italian if for no other reason than to enjoy Dante more.

One other thing that I think I should note is the physicality of the book itself. It's beautifully presented, with deckle-edged (unevenly torn) pages, and typeset very sympathetically. Altogether a delight to read, although often quite intense.

Finished on Sat, 11 Apr 2015 09:20:16 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

PhD studentships in St Andrews

The School of Computer Science has a number of fully-funded PhD scholarships available.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone interested in working on complex systems, complex networks, sensor networks, or situation recognition. You can find more details about what I'm interested in here. I'm particularly interested in people wanting to cross disciplines somewhat, into applications in environmental science, medicine, or the digital humanities.

The full advertisement is here. Deadline for applications 31 March 2015.

Shackleton's Whisky: The extraordinary story of an heroic explorer and twenty-five cases of unique MacKinlay's Old Scotch

Neville Peat


Two biographies for the price of one! – of an heroic adventurer and a classic whisky.

The book is in two parts. The first is the history of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition of 1907. Peat manages to convey the emptiness of the Antarctic and the struggles and successes of the expedition. He does an excellent job of combining the adventure, the science, and the hardship that the away team underwent – and indeed those that happened on the long trip from England to Antarctica via New Zealand.

The second part is the story of the whisky's temporary recovery back to the distillery to be tasted, tested, and re-created by blending modern whiskies. Anyone with any interest in whisky will find this fascinating, both the processes involved and the taste of the resulting dram. The very idea that it's possible to re-create an old Scotch so faithfully is quite remarkable, and I'm very tempted by a bottle.

The link between the two parts is a little tenuous in places, not least because Shackleton, as a teetotaller, studiously avoided talking about the drinking habits of the expedition in his books, so Peat is reduced to pointing out what isn't mentioned. That's hardly his fault, and it's a limitation that doesn't really reduce the pace of the story or the centrality that century-old whisky has for Antarctic exploration's human side.

Finished on Mon, 09 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn


I have to admit I saw the film before reading the book: and the book's better. It's not a book to read if your relationship is in any way shaky.

It's a close-run thing, but it's definitely better for the story to have the direct feed into the characters' innermost thoughts. Both the protagonists are well and deeply drawn. It's a depressing story, of course, the tale of a marriage doomed by stress and indifference, before being "saved" – if by saved you mean the husband being trapped into acquiescence with his wife's ideal. The sting in the tail, of course, is that he's not entirely unhappy with this outcome, as it makes him in some senses a better man: he's passed through anger and confusion and come to an understanding with his admittedly psychopathic wife.

Finished on Sun, 08 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

PhD Studentships at University College Cork

There are PhD positions open at University College Cork in the area of video processing.

PhD Studentships at University College Cork in Ireland

Closing Date for Applications: None, positions will remain open until filled. Applications will be reviewed at as soon as they are received.

Project: An Internet Infrastructure for Video Streaming Optimisation (iVID)

The Mobile and Internet Systems Laboratory (MISL) in the Department of Computer Science at UCC is an internationally recognised research centre focused on innovative networking research. iVID is a new research project funded by Science Foundation Ireland to investigate the use of software defined networking (SDN) techniques to optimise the delivery of streaming video. A team of 5 project researchers will work on iVID, including 3 Ph.D. students. The project will involve collaboration with AT&T, EMC and the University of California Riverside.

Applications are invited for fixed-term studentships (annual value of €18K, plus fees) from suitably qualified candidates who wish to undertake a PhD within the Department of Computer Science. Applicants should have a Masters degree in computer science or a closely related discipline, although applications from truly exceptional students with a bachelor's degree will be considered. Ideally, applicants will have some project experience in the areas of video streaming, software defined networks, or more generally network protocols. Applicants must have strong mathematical ability and an interest in systems programming and experimental computer science. Applicants must demonstrate good inter-personal skills, and a high standard of spoken and written English. The positions are open to applicants of any nationality.

How to apply: Applications by email to Mary Noonan and must include "PhD Studentship iVID" in the subject line. Applications must include, in PDF format only:

  1. 1300 word personal statement explaining your interest in the project and networking research;
  2. full CV;
  3. copy of transcript(s) showing names of all courses taken and grades achieved; and
  4. summaries of projects (BSc/MSC), internships and relevant work experience completed.

For more information on MISL and the Department of Computer Science, please see the links below.

Fatal Fortnight: Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality in 1914

Duncan Marlor


The story of Parliament during the run-up to the First World War isn't well-known: certainly significantly less has been written about it than about the run-up to the Second. So this book is an interesting addition to the literature.

Marlor presents a view "from the bottom", in the sense that he's concerned with the actions of backbench MPs trying to keep Britain neutral. The book is therefore good to compare against The Guns of August which looks at the same events more from the view of the protagonists. It's driven largely by diaries and letters, and uses them unsparingly as comparisons against the "official" history promulgated by The Times and other newspapers of the fortnight's events.

The overriding impression is one of the impotence of Parliament in the face of pre-existing commitments that had been made but never publicised, as well as an ability to exploit the ambiguities of treaties to justify an already-decided policy. It rapidly becomes clear that the "debates" on Britain's war conduct were simply window-dressing with no potential to influence events – although it has to be admitted that the rebels were unwilling to go all the way to opposing the supply motions that provided funds for the war. Things haven't changed all that much, and there's lots to commend in this book as a filter through which to view more contemporary events.

Finished on Sat, 28 Feb 2015 04:05:33 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich


I was brought to this book through one of the essays in it, Claiming an education, that talks about the need for students (and especially women students) to actively claim their educations rather than passively receive them. I still think this is the most powerful element of this collection, but there's lots more to engage the reader.

It's not an easy collection for a man to read, not least because of the sense of powerlessness it evokes – which is ironic, given that many of the essays are replete with the power of patriarchy and men's dominance of women. But there's a powerlessness too, a sense that, as a man, there's no redemption, no way to help or bridge the gap, no way to avoid being an obstacle that women must struggle against despite your own individual actions and intentions.

Some of the essays are nearly fifty years old, but they're aged well, and the issues they address are still very much alive. In many ways they've broadened beyond being purely women's issues. It's easy to read in many of them a rage that any powerless group might feel against any establishment. In some ways Rich's arguments are occasionally almost weakened by their feminism, in that many men in powerless roles would identify with the feelings she examines. But they give a powerful insight into a feminist perspective on life and education (important for me as an academic), even to elements one might like to think were purely objective.

Some of these perspective don't translate well to me, for example the notion of women (especially gay women) often having no sense of real identity because they haven't been realistically represented in literature – the idea being that a gay woman would have no literary role models against which to judge her own feelings and value. As a science-inclined young boy, there were very few good scientist role models in literature either: plenty of "mad scientists", "evil scientists", and even overly dedicated and over-rational scientists, but none who did what it is we actually do as scientists. I'm not convinced that this literary lack did much to impact my sense of identity, I can accept that better models might help to make people's choices more comprehensible to those around them.

Finished on Sat, 21 Feb 2015 10:05:58 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Complex networks, complex processes

I'm writing a book on my sabbatical. Or trying to, anyway. So I thought I'd publicise the fact so people can hassle me to keep at it.

I've been working on complex systems for a couple of years, especially on complex networks: things like the way people move through a road and rail network, or how diseases spread through social networks. It's a bit of a change from my previous work on sensor data interpretation, although not as much as you might think: I'm wondering whether we could combine sensing and simulation, to use sensors to confirm predictions or to drive and condition further simulations.

Getting into this area has been -- and is -- a head-wreck. It's both highly mathematical and highly computational. I understand the computing; the maths, not so much. Many computer scientists would have the same reaction, but conversely, so would many mathematicians: the maths would be familiar, the computing a challenge. So effectively in order to make progress you have to climb two learning curves simultaneously: some unusual and challenging mathematics about stochastic processes, simulated using cluster or cloud computing which poses a lot of challenges even for someone used to programming.

This is made harder by the research literature, though, which tends towards sparse mathematical descriptions, which is frustrating at two levels: the computing is probably interesting (to people like me), and it's hard to re-create the results when the computational approach underlying the graphs and results is unclear.

So with this in mind, and because I've never done it before, I've decided to write a textbook: Complex networks, complex processes. (No, I'm not very imaginative when it comes to titles...) The idea is to link the maths to the code, providing everything a research would need to get started with the maths and the computing. Since this is likely to be a book with, shall we say, limited circulation, I've decided not to bother with a publisher and instead make it completely open. You can look at the current state on the web here, download the sources, copy and run the code, or anything needed to get started.

It's a work in progress and it's not very usual to advertise books before they're in a fit state to be read, but I suppose that's just a part of open science: make the process visible, warts and all. It also means I'll hopefully get comments and encouragement to keep at it when it starts to fall by the wayside of other things I have to do. The goal is to get the majority done while I'm on research leave (until September), and comments on style, content, and progress will be most welcome.

Fully-funded PhD scholarship available

I have a fully-funded PhD scholarship available, tenable from September 2015, to work on data science in medicine.

University of St Andrews

School of Computer Science School of Medicine

Funded PhD studentship

The Schools of Computer Science and Medicine are looking to recruit a talented student to work on improving clinical trials of tuberculosis and other conditions using computational techniques.

TB and related conditions are extremely costly in human and financial terms, and trials of new drugs and therapies are complicated by difficult environmental conditions and other factors. Improvements to the trials process will potentially translate directly into improved interventions, and so will help save lives.

We seek to apply data-driven techniques to the design, analysis, and management of such trials. These techniques might include complex networks, computational epidemiology, machine learning, Bayesian analysis, and other cutting-edge approaches to data analytics. The ideal candidate will have an interest in data science applied to medical and biological problems, and an enthusiasm for working as part of a challenging multi-disciplinary project within St Andrews' new Institute for Data-Intensive Research (IDIR).

The studentship will be held jointly between the two Schools, with supervisors from Computer Science (Prof Simon Dobson, Dr Tom Kelsey) and Medicine (Prof Stephen Gillespie, Dr Ruth Bowness).  We offer a stimulating and supportive environment within a small and intimate university in a beautiful setting.

The scholarship is fully funded to cover tuition fees and stipend for a registration period normally expected to be three-and-a-half years.

Informal inquiries can be made in the first instance to Prof Simon Dobson. Applications will be considered until mid-March.