Archive for Ada Lovelace

poems that solve puzzles [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by xi'an

Upon request, I received this book from Oxford University Press for review. Poems that Solve Puzzles is a nice title and its cover is quite to my linking (for once!). The author is Chris Bleakley, Head of the School of Computer Science at UCD.

“This book is for people that know algorithms are important, but have no idea what they are.”

These is the first sentence of the book and hence I am clearly falling outside the intended audience. When I asked OUP for a review copy, I was more thinking in terms of Robert Sedgewick’s Algorithms, whose first edition still sits on my shelves and which I read from first to last page when it appeared [and was part of my wife’s booklist]. This was (and is) indeed a fantastic book to learn how to build and optimise algorithms and I gain a lot from it (despite remaining a poor programmer!).

Back to poems, this one reads much more like an history of computer science for newbies than a deep entry into the “science of algorithms”, with imho too little on the algorithms themselves and their connections with computer languages and too much emphasis on the pomp and circumstances of computer science (like so-and-so got the ACM A.M. Turing Award in 19… and  retired in 19…). Beside the antique algorithms for finding primes, approximating π, and computing the (fast) Fourier transform (incl. John Tukey), the story moves quickly to the difference engine of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then to Turing’s machine, and artificial intelligence with the first checkers codes, which already included some learning aspects. Some sections on the ENIAC, John von Neumann and Stan Ulam, with the invention of Monte Carlo methods (but no word on MCMC). A bit of complexity theory (P versus NP) and then Internet, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix… Finishing with neural networks (then and now), the unavoidable AlphaGo, and the incoming cryptocurrencies and quantum computers. All this makes for pleasant (if unsurprising) reading and could possibly captivate a young reader for whom computers are more than a gaming console or a more senior reader who so far stayed wary and away of computers. But I would have enjoyed much more a low-tech discussion on the construction, validation and optimisation of algorithms, namely a much soft(ware) version, as it would have made it much more distinct from the existing offer on the history of computer science.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version of it will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE.]

the Frankenstein chronicles

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by xi'an

Over a lazy weekend, I watched the TV series The Frankenstein Chronicles, which I found quite remarkable (if definitely Gothic and possibly too gory for some!). Connections with celebrities of (roughly) the time abound: While Mary Shelley makes an appearance in the first season of the series, not only as the writer of the famous novel (already famous in the novel as well) but also as a participant to a deadly experiment that would succeed in the novel (and eventually in the series), Charles Dickens is a constant witness to the unraveling of scary events as Boz the journalist, somewhat running after the facts, William Blake dies in one of the early episodes after painting a series of tarot like cards that eventually explains it all, Ada Lovelace works on the robotic dual of Frankenstein, Robert Peel creates the first police force (which will be called the Bobbies after him!), John Snow’s uncovering of the cholera source as the pump of Broad Street is reinvented with more nefarious reasons, and possibly others. Besides these historical landmarks (!), the story revolves around the corpse trafficking that fed medical schools and plots for many a novel. The (true) Anatomy Act is about to pass to regulate body supply for anatomical purposes and ensues a debate on the end of God that permeates mostly the first season and just a little bit the second season, which is more about State versus Church… The series is not without shortcomings, in particular a rather disconnected plot (which has the appeal of being unpredictable of jumping from one genre to the next) and a repeated proneness of the main character to being a scapegoat, but the reconstitution of London at the time is definitely impressive (although I cannot vouch for its authenticity!). Only the last episode of Season 2 feels a bit short when delivering, by too conveniently tying up all loose threads.

Suffrage Science awards in maths and computing

Posted in pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by xi'an

On October 11, at Bletchley Park, the Suffrage Science awards in mathematics and computer sciences were awarded for the first time to 12 senior female researchers. Among whom three statisticians, Professor Christl Donnelly from Imperial College London, my colleague at Warwick, Jane Hutton, and my friend and co-author, Sylvia Richardson, from MRC, Cambridge University. This initiative was started by the Medical Research Council in 2011 by Suffrage Science awards for life sciences, followed in 2013 by one for engineering and physics, and this year for maths and computing. The name of the award aims to connect with the Suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, which were particularly active in Britain. One peculiar aspect of this award is that the recipients are given pieces of jewellery, created for each field, pieces that they will themselves give two years later to a new recipient of their choice, and so on in an infinite regress! (Which suggests a related puzzle, namely to figure out how many years it should take until all female scientists have received the award. But since the number increases as the square of the number of years, this is not going to happen unless the field proves particularly hostile to women scientists!) This jewellery award also relates to the history of the Suffragette movement since the WPSU commissioned their own jewellery awards. A clever additional touch was that the awards were delivered on Ada Lovelace Day, October 11.