The Ascent of Man

Jacob Bronowski (1973)

Often described as one of the classics of our times, this is a book of essays charting the various stages in the author’s conception of the intellectual evolution of humanity. In a sense it should be compared to Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke’s history of art: a personal selection of important events.

Bronowski’s is a selection few would argue with, but he adds interest through his own personal acquaintanceship with some of the characters involved: Einstein, Born, and (most interestingly) von Neumann. His take on early history had probably been overtaken by some of modern anthropology, but his analysis of the industrial revolution is fascinating, as is his central thesis that the main agent of progress is simply the desire of the craftsman to improve his craft, beyond any real pressure for improvement coming from outside.

3/5. Finished Sunday 5 January, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

Frank Dikötter (2013)

Not an easy read, but a compelling overview of the Chinese revolution and the ways in which the Communists seized power. It focuses almost entirely on the Chinese perspective where it might have been interesting to have some foreign perspectives as well; in a similar vein, a more in-depth coverage of the impact of the Korean war might have made the relationship with the outside world more clear. Or perhaps that’s partially the point: the revolution cut China off from the world to the extent that there was no relationship of any great degree.

What comes across most strongly is the wasted lives, the ways in which the Communist party was willing to ignore (if not destroy) the talents of its people for reasons of pure ideology — something the Cambodians were to do, altogether more violently, a few decades later. It’s a tribute to the resilience of the Chinese people that the country has managed to survive the experience and re-engage with the world again, but the scars are sure to linger for many years to come.

4/5. Finished Monday 9 December, 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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 (2012)

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.

5/5. Finished Monday 2 December, 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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.