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

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

Duncan Marlor

2014


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.

5/5. Finished 28 February 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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

Adrienne Rich

1979


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.

4/5. Finished 21 February 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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.