Monday, November 21, 2011

Taking an iPad on the road to a conference

Over the last three weeks I have gone to two conferences in two cities at two large ``conference center'' hotels --- long days, lots of meetings, lots of restaurants, a little down-time. I have had my iPad (with the ZAGGmate keyboard) with me almost all the time. It has become an extension of my arm. Here is how I have used it:

  • Reading my morning newspaper: I read both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times every morning. When I get up in the morning, while I’m getting ready, I start the 1-2 minute process of downloading the day’s issues of both. Once that is done, then I have them locally available so I don’t have to worry about the quality or speed of connection when I read them.
  • DropBox: This application/tool has multiplied the usefulness of this iPad by enabling easy access to lots of files. Many application developers have used this as a means to access files not stored on the iPad. Since it is also easy to access these files from both of my other Macs, this is the central storage depot in which I put all of the files that I am currently working on.
  • Writing: I am a devoted user of LaTeX for my text processing needs. I use the app PlainText as my text editor for TXT, HTML, and TEX files. This app integrates quite seamlessly with DropBox so I can work on just about any of my current tasks at any time. I use this app a high percentage of the time that I am producing text on the iPad.
  • Reading books: I have books both in iBooks and Kindle. Both are perfectly acceptable reader applications on the iPad. It’s hard to read on the iPad while outside but I don’t want to do that very often, so it’s not a big deal.
  • Reading magazines: On the iPad I read BusinessWeek, The New Yorker, Golf Digest, Wired, and The Economist. The reading experience is phenomenal — easy navigation throughout the magazines, bright text and photos, integrated video, and the ability to carry lots of old issues easily. These used to be stand-alone applications but they are now integrated into the iPad’s Newsstand platform. The transition was seamless.
  • Internet activities: Connecting to the Internet on all the different routers at the different hotels and restaurants were easy. Both of my hotels had AT&T WiFi hot spots so I didn’t have to pay for fast access. Further, when I couldn’t get a WiFi connection (at a few restaurants), the wireless connection was invaluable.
  • Make a presentation: While I didn’t make a presentation at these conferences, it is easy enough (with a dongle) to connect the iPad to a projector.

As you might have perceived, the iPad has become nearly indispensable to me in remaining productive wherever I am, and (almost) whatever I am doing. I have stopped carrying my MacBook Pro with me when I am on the road.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The last binary day until 2100

As we all are aware, today is a “binary” day: 11/11/11 (or, as they write in Europe, 11/11/11; ahem). Bad Astronomy has a great post concerning this date and why all of us dorks awesome folks think today is cool. As the author points out, “It’s the last binary number this year, and in fact we can’t get another date that looks like a binary number until 01/01/00, or January 1, 2100! That’s the first day of the last year of the 21st century. It’s a long wait.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The future of textbooks

When reading the New York Times article “Are cookbooks obsolete?” by Julia Moskin, I had a vision of a possible future of textbooks. Ms. Moskin describes recently-released tablet apps — such as Baking with Dorie and Jamie Oliver’s 20-Minute Meals — and how they are replacing, for some users, the tried-and-true traditional cookbook.

These applications not only have the benefit of the usability that tablets offer, “apps can come to the rescue with features like technique videos, embedded glossaries and social media links.” To me, as nice as these features sound, this still sounded somewhat “traditional,” at least for a Web- or computer-based cookbook. Where these apps have taken it to the next step is in the alternative ways of presenting recipes (the raison d'ĂȘtre of the cookbook, so this is vital):

“Users can choose from four different ways of seeing each recipe. For novice cooks, a step-by-step view presents each recipe step in full screen, with a video of Ms. Greenspan doing what the text says (creaming butter and sugar together, for example, for her All-in-One Holiday Bundt Cake). Mr. Huntley also developed CulinView, a nonverbal way for a more confident cook to follow a recipe. After ingredients are measured and the oven heated, the rest of the process is shown in a flow chart, illustrated with bright images of mixers, whisks, ovens and ingredients. With arrows and color-coding, it sketches out the process for the more confident cook who already knows how to cream butter and sugar, say, but needs to be reminded what to do with the chopped apple and grated fresh ginger. SpinView puts the whole recipe on one page, with the option of scrolling through the steps. Finally, for the traditionalists, there is the Cookbook view, formatted in the old-fashioned way.”

That is a nice reconceptualization of what it means to present a recipe to the reader — think about how different readers differ, and create different views that are customized for the pertinent strengths of those readers. I think these cookbooks provide clear pointers to the future of textbooks; however, it is probably the case that the concept of “class” might have to be changed as well. For a future post...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Observations from the AAAI Complex Adaptive Systems Fall Symposium

For the last three days I have been at the AAAI Complex Adaptive Systems Fall Symposium at the Westin Hotel in Alexandria, VA. This has been a normal CAS get-together because the attendees are from a wide variety of fields — business, philosophy, computer scientists, biologists, and all types of social scientists. Our symposium has been held alongside other AI-related symposia on decision making under uncertainty, understanding how to represent common understanding, deploying robots in dangerous environments, and others.

About our gathering I can make several observations:

  • The University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems is the indisputable leader in the study of complex adaptive systems. We probably made up over 20% of the attendees here, though attendees also came from Europe, Canada, Alaska, and much of the eastern U.S. (from Maine to Maryland to Pennsylvania). Even beyond this indication, the strongest signal of this leadership was that Carl Simon delivered the Keynote Address to this symposium.
  • At least for the attendees this weekend, NetLogo remains the dominant tool for agent-based modeling — probably as a result of the strength of the representation of social scientists and their appreciation of NetLogo’s ease of use. I started using this tool many years ago and it continues to serve me well.
  • Another thing I noticed is that it remains the case that articles that use (or are about) this approach are spread widely among many different journals. Further, the top journals in most fields almost uniformly don’t accept submissions that use this approach. Compared with a decade ago, I believe it is true that more, and better, journals accept such research now. At least it’s a start.
  • Finally, it seems that most researchers in the field who are working with CAS simulations that address some type of real world problem are approaching model validation in a relatively informal way. They are generally just letting their customers/clients play with the model in order to gain an understanding of how it responds. Also, if some historical data is available, then the researcher demonstrates to the customer how well the simulation conformed with that historical data. And, again, this is usually done in an interactive situation instead of by providing some type of regression statistics or the like.

It was good to see the breadth of CAS research that is being done — as defined by variety of fields and by the range from purely theoretical to highly applied. I look forward to participating as a presenter and author at my next meeting.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Data-diving for fun and profit

An article in the New York Times this morning — “A site for data scientists to prove their skills and make money” by Claire Cain Miller — got me really excited. She describes Kaggle, a start-up that has recently raised $11 million. Here is its proposition:

“Kaggle...has figured out a way to connect...companies with the mathematicians and scientists who crunch numbers for a living or a hobby. ... Here’s how it works. An organization runs a competition by proposing a riddle it needs answered and offering years of data. Anyone can enter to crunch the data and answer the riddle to win a cash prize.”

That sounds like an amazing opportunity for many of us in academics. One of the most difficult tasks in academy is getting one’s hands on data. And here they are making it available for free! And the prizes aren’t insignificant:

“Currently, a health plan is offering $3 million to someone who can take years of patients’ medical claim data and produce an equation to predict whether patients will be hospitalized in the next year, so doctors can try to intervene beforehand. ... A bank is offering $5000 to someone who can use credit score data to come up with a better way to predict whether someone who receives a loan will enter financial distress in the next two years.”

They also have something called Kaggle In Class. This allows professors to submit competitions that then limit the participant pool to students in the class. In this case “prizes” are Kudos (and, of course, some grade for some assignment).

I signed up while reading the article.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The need for a faster, more capable computing architecture

The article “Big data, speed and the future of computing” in today’s New York Times hit home with my experiences.

The author, Steve Lohr, describes how the design of computers is evolving, and has to evolve further, to meet the needs of today’s demanding applications. I am one of the people pushing the machines to their limits. I have a 2-processor (each a 6-core Xeon 2.66GHz processor) Mac Pro with 4x1TB hard drives (in a RAID-5 setup) and 16GB RAM. That sounds like a lot of power but I recently finished running simulations that took over 10 years of core-processor time and generated over 3GB of data. This data is then fed into a series of programs that analyzes the data, generating a series of reports (with anywhere from 100 to 25,000 pages) and graphs (one of which is displayed here).

It took a long time to run these simulations and generate these reports. While 12 cores in one machine is good, the way the system is configured I could generally only run 12-20 simulations at one time before I ran out of CPU cycles or RAM. The hard disk space is cheap and plentiful but I needed lots more of both processor capacity and RAM — on the order of 10x more. And if you gave me that I would probably ask for 10x more again.

The Von Neumann architecture has served us well for 65 years and counting. It will take the promise of significant improvement for a whole industry to move away from that model because of its remarkable performance; however, the time has come, and the demand is here (at least in some quarters), for the next stage in the computer’s history.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tech skills are needed in advertising

In “Advertising companies fret over a digital talent gap,” in today’s New York Times, Tanzina Vega reports on the difficulty that advertising agencies are having with finding people for “jobs that require hard-core quantitative, mathematical and technical skills”:

“The digital talent gap is driven in part by the enormous amount of user data that ad tech companies are collecting for agencies and marketers — data that is instrumental in directing ads to consumers and analyzing trends. New hires are needed for a variety of tasks, including writing code, creating digital advertisements, Web site development and statistical analysis.”

The training that these companies are looking for is “in areas like interactive design, social media, HTML and coding languages like CSS.” An employee at one advertising agency had a hint for people wanting to get hired: “You have to get very close to technology. You have to get your hands in it.”