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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

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.

5/5. Finished 02 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.

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

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.

4/5. Finished 21 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)