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I have been listening to music through Spotify, the ad-supported streaming music service. On the application home page this recommends “Artists you may like”. This morning I turned on and it had a fairly eclectic mix – Motörhead, Marilyn Manson, Faster Pussycat, Pantera,… Wham! and George Michael. I presume this ‘personalised’ list is based on what I have been listening to – so what have I been listening to?! I think I listened to a Rage Against the Machine album a few weeks ago but I’ve certainly not been listening to any 80s disco pop. Usually I have noticed this list filled with 50s rock. I think that one of the first artists I searched for on Spotify was Buddy Holly and, although I don’t listen to a lot from that era I presumed the “Artists you may like” algorithm was relying too much on initial conditions. When I think about yesterday I seem to remember listening to a lot of Blur. So we have a glimpse at the algorithm:

1950s rock ‘n’ roll + Blur = Marilyn Manson and Wham!

Not convinced, hmm? It does make me wonder how these algorithms work. I know Amazon does a similar process when you buy something: “People who bought the items in your basket also bought”. This, it seems to me, often offers items very similar to the one I have bought. For example, “Customers who bought this monitor also bought these other three monitors”, i.e. “Customers who bought this device also bought this other device which performs exactly the same function”. Amazon also has a “customers who looked at this item also looked at” which is very useful and often points to competing devices, but once you have chosen one it seems to me Amazon should be trying to tempt you with different products not ones that solve the same problem as the one you have just bought. I suppose some people may purchase lots of similar equipment for, say, a company but I would say it is unlikely that the average user, having bought one device, would want to buy another that performs the same function (particularly before the first one has arrived).

In this forum post, user Oscar Rylin suggests the “Artists you may like” is based on what people who listen to what you listen to also listen to. So it may be that the raw data – user behaviour – is erratic and the predictions are in turn. Still, there are 6 slots for artists I may like and four are metal and two are disco. It seems if it couldn’t make its mind up reliably all the slots should be likely to be distinct from each other as well as from my listening history. Also on that forum post is some suggestion that Spotify is just advertising arbitrarily. However it is in Spotify’s interest to get you discovering music you like so that you keep listening for longer and hear more adverts. So making poor or irrelevant suggestions is bad for business.

This business of better algorithm design is a fairly hot topic these days with Web 2.0 user generated content. I remember that in the podcast episode 28 I pointed to an article in the Guardian, “Go figure … why mathematicians rule the internet,” on such algorithms. I know Chris Budd will tell you this sort of problem is the boom area of applied mathematics in the 21st Century, and did so in podcast episode 26.

So I have a blog (redux)

Back in the first post on this blog, I suggested the purpose of this blog is to “keep track of where I go and highlight any interesting tidbits I pick up along the way”. As time has gone on my use of the blog has expanded to include aspects of my other work, in maths education.

Basically I do two activities:

  • For the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and just for fun, I work in maths promotion or popular mathematics and also maths careers. I try to get people interested in maths and where it could take them. This activity includes the Travels in a Mathematical World podcast.
  • For my PhD (currently suspended), part time lecturing at Nottingham Trent University and my employment with the University of Nottingham I work in mathematics teaching and learning and particularly teaching & learning mathematics with technology.

It seems to me that there is likely to be an audience who are interested in both but equally there are likely to be people interested in one or the other. I have generally tried to keep the education stuff off this blog but haven’t always been able to resist. Just recently my job title at Nottingham was improved to the slightly buzzwordy “Technology Enhanced Learning Officer”.

So I have now decided a schism is in order. I have created a seperate blog, “Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning” to hold the education stuff. This blog, Travels in a Mathematical World, will relate to my activities:

I have also recently updated my website peterrowlett.net to be a portal to everything I do online.

This blog post is written as a companion to the post on Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning, “So I have another blog“.

E-Learning in Mathematical Subjects online videos

I spent some time yesterday remaking the E-Learning in Mathematical Subjects (ELMS) website, which has had an extended period of downtime since my previous webhost deleted my server without warning. ELMS is a research seminar series at Nottingham Trent University which I set up with Dr. David Fairhurst in 2005 and the website contains videos of seminars. ELMS aims to appeal to a wider range of subject areas and allow discussion on issues in mathematical e-learning that are shared over a range of diverse disciplines. There are currently 11 videos of seminars online on topics including e-assessment, disability and accessibility, podcasting, electronic voting (audience response) systems, VLEs, GeoGebra & interactive whiteboards and more in the pipeline.

I took the redevelopment opportunity to add some new features such as an improved RSS feed, AddThis boxes, short URLs for video pages and video embedding code, as well as some backend changes to make the site easier to run behind the scenes. Consequently I am now able to embed the video of my ELMS talk in this blog. (I have embedded this half size due to the limitations of this blog layout, so you might prefer to view full size).

Mathematics Today August: University Liaison Officer’s Report

Enthusiastic individuals and persistent institutions

Recently, on Twitter no less, I came across the following quote:

“Without individuals, nothing happens; without institutions, nothing survives.”
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

This quote attracts me for two reasons. Firstly, I recently met a young mathematician interested in meeting others with similar academic interests. When I suggested he might want to join a learned society he told me “oh no, the learned societies are just for old people and I don’t want to be part of anything like that.” I consider this a tragic statement. Without being so specific as to identify him, I will say this person was a dynamic, enthusiastic person and precisely the sort of “individual” able to make things “happen”. It is a real shame he didn’t feel the natural step was to align himself with an established “institution” to ensure the fruits of his enthusiasm “survive”.

I do not know how widespread this viewpoint is but I have had others tell me that membership bodies (in general) are going out of fashion. This is sad: in and of itself, that an organisation which does good might not survive; that the enthusiasm of individuals may not be carried forward and amplified by affiliation with an organisation; and, in the case of the IMA, that membership of a professional organisation might decline at a time when individual professional development is increasingly well valued by employers.

We have to do all we can to rout this viewpoint among young mathematicians. If those with enthusiasm and similar outlook and aims to the IMA don’t feel it is worth joining then there is trouble ahead. This is broadly what I am trying to do as ULO, to improve the chances a student has heard of the IMA and some of the benefits of joining before they graduate. I believe that if they understand the benefits it is a natural choice for many to join. I can’t personally see every graduate and every young mathematician in employment so this is where I ask you as a member to evangelise on behalf of the IMA. This is a valuable organisation for mathematicians to be a part of and it benefits from a strong membership. The IMA Younger Members activities are the envy of representatives I have spoken to from professional bodies in other subjects and attendance at the Younger Mathematicians Conference (next in Birmingham in November) is an excellent first step into IMA activities for a graduate just starting their career in mathematics. There is presumably a barrier in communicating this information to the enthusiastic individual I met and others like him. You might find inspiration for your evangelising in the latter half of my careers talk slides, available through www.ima.org.uk/student

The second reason this quote spoke to me is I have met some extraordinary young mathematicians and mathematics students in my time as ULO. The students with the drive to set up or revive a university student mathematics society at the same time as completing their studies are always pleasing to meet. I have rarely seen an organised collective effort to set up such societies; rather such societies owe a debt to the work of enthusiastic individuals. There is a piece in the Student Section from one such person, Mike Ross of Heriot-Watt University, with his tips for others thinking of setting up a university mathematical society.

Of course, the nature of student life means the enthusiast who set up the society will move on very quickly. Usually first year students are not sufficiently well established to set up or run a society until later in the year and final year students have other issues about which to worry (there are exceptions). I know several individuals who have been the driving force behind student societies who are moving on this year. The problem becomes: how do they ensure the continuity of their work?

The successful model is usually to find a group of younger students who are willing to form an organising committee and take this on – forming a persistent “institution”. Sometimes this works and sometimes the enthusiasm decreases in the following year. A model I have seen work well is to involve a postgraduate student or member of staff in the organisation of the society. As they are generally better established and around for longer they can usually provide continuity and drive that a one year student committee might otherwise lack. Societies who manage this transition well can enjoy years of activities that are to the benefit of the students and the whole department. Such societies often include an element of peer support and community spirit which can help a department with issues such as retention. Departments that act to ensure a healthy society able to capture and build on the enthusiasm of individuals are to be commended.

Of course, funding can be an issue and the IMA can help here. University Liaison Grants are available to university societies to support their activities. If you are interested in supporting your students to set up or revive a mathematical society this is an ideal use of a University Liaison Grant. If there is already a society then a grant may help extend their range of activities. An application form which includes some guidance on the types of activity that this money may be applied for is available through the website at www.ima.org.uk/student

Activities May-June 2009

The post-Easter period is an interesting one. A majority of universities have finished or are finishing teaching and the appetite for a careers talk was reduced. However, the student societies are looking for fun activities to take a break from revision for exams. I gave my talk on spin in ball games followed by playing on the Wii at the Universities of Newcastle and Sheffield.

An exception to the semester-based system is the University of York, who were at the start of the third term. I went to York and gave an evening lecture on puzzles to the Mathsoc and opened the Maths Careers Fair with my careers talk and ran a stall (pictured are students “having a go” after my talk). The attendance for the careers talk was so great people were sitting in the aisle and others had to be turned away so I gave a second sitting of my talk for those students. I received positive feedback on my talk from staff and students. Other stallholders at the Careers Fair told me the students came out of my talk with enthusiasm and with a real pragmatism about what they needed to do, qualities the stallholders felt they didn’t usually see in undergraduates. The maths-specific careers fair format is a valuable one that I think works much more effectively for mathematics students than an untargeted fair.

Puzzles at York

I attended and spoke on my activities at the 10th IMA Younger Mathematicians Conference in Oxford which was, as usual, a useful and enjoyable occasion. I spoke at an event on new technologies for maths promotion to the Maths Promoters Network. I gave an introduction to the day and spoke about use of social networking (mostly Twitter) and gave a podcast live recording demo with Matt Parker (which can be heard in episode 31 via www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk). I was joined to speak on social networking (Facebook) by Noel-Ann Bradshaw of the University of Greenwich and on podcasting by Marianne Freiberger of Plus. Also speaking were Zia Rahman of more maths grads and Richard Browne of MEI who both spoke on online videos and DVDs.

I made a visit to Kingston University to meet careers staff and postgraduates and attended the NUMS EGM at University College London. I ran a stall at a postgraduate conference at the University of Surrey. The University is in Guildford where Alan Turing lived as a child and he is honoured by a bronze statue outside the Austin Pearce Building where the conference took place (pictured).

Alan Turing StatueI had my 6-monthly meeting with my steering group in May and am happy to report this went well.

Podcast People 2008/9

The following people have contributed to the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast this year:

Philip Maini (mathematical biology), Noel-Ann Bradshaw (maths history; evolutionary algorithms for finance), Joanna Hartley (public transport modelling), Sarah Shepherd (maths news), Nira Chamberlain (mathematical modelling projects), Neil Goldwasser (dyslexia support and adult numeracy), Adrian Bowyer (his career part 1 & part 2), Terry Lyons (Stochastic Analysis), Paul Shepherd (parametric models for architecture; decimation and subdivision of 3D models), Chris Bailey (maths of conservation and restoration), Jane Wess (maths collection at the Science Museum), Choi-Hong Lai (fluid dynamics), Mike Maher (transport modelling), John Sharp (maths & art), Chris Budd (industrial mathematics), Oliver Jensen (applied mathematics), Matt Parker (maths communication), David Fearn (magnetohydrodynamics), Eugenia Cheng (category theory), Terry Edwards (Chartered Mathematician), David Mitchell (channel coding & mathematicians in engineering) & David Spiegelhalter (statistics & public understanding of risk).

A huge thank you to all of them!

European Postgraduate Fluid Dynamics Conference at Nottingham

Last week I went to the University of Nottingham with an IMA stall for the 3rd European Postgraduate Fluid Dynamics Conference (EPFDC). This is a conference organised by, and aimed at, postgraduate researchers in fluid dynamics and related fields and was partly funded by a grant from the IMA. I attended the final day of this 4 day conference and operated my stall during the poster session and lunch break. I met lots of postgraduate students and a couple of distinguished academics in the field who were presenting keynote talks. I was not feeling on my best form but managed to introduce a few people to the IMA who had not heard of it and sent people away with leaflets. Below are photos from this event: the first from my stall of the poster session and the second of my stall.

European Postgraduate Fluid Dynamics Conference poster session

The behaviour of people at conferences never ceases to amuse me. If I stand by my stall I tend to be fairly lonely but if I go to the other side of the room and watch then people flock to have a look at it. Am I that scary? The other amusing behaviour is taking things from the stall. I watch people sidle up to the stall, look around and quietly slip one of the leaflets into their bag as if they are not supposed to. I wonder why people think I have brought dozens of copies of identical leaflets if not to give them out! Or perhaps people think that taking a leaflet or, worse, a copy of Mathematics Today, might be taken as a binding commitment to some terrible fate, such as joining the IMA!

Podcast: Episode 38 – David Spiegelhalter, Public understanding of risk

These are the show notes for episode 38 of the Travels in a Mathematical World Podcast. 38 is the magic constant in the only possible non-trivial normal magic hexagon. More about 38 from Number Gossip. More about magic hexagons from Wolfram Mathworld.

Before the episode proper, I gave a little ramble on listenership to the podcast and the summer break. I suggested you might like to listen to audio recordings of in depth interviews with esteemed mathematicians used in our members’ publication Mathematics Today. I also asked you to link to www.travelsinamathematicalworld.co.uk from your website or blog and asked you to tell your friends about the podcast and display the poster: poster in A4 format; poster in A5 format.

This week on the podcast we heard from David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk. You can find out more about David’s work from his website. If you’re willing to take the risk that it might be inaccurate, you can read about David on Wikipedia.

The Understanding Uncertainty website by David and his team is well worth a visit. For example, have a look at conditional probability in Screening for disease and dishonesty, different ways of ‘spinning’ the same risk scenario in 2845 ways to spin the Risk and view survival curves and life expectancy in How long are you going to live?

David has written for a column in Plus magazine. See for example articles on the lottery, football premier league, surprises, how long you might live, and the probability that Obama would win the 2008 Presidential election. The concept of a micromort is well worth discovering and David writes about this in the Times.

If you enjoyed this episode the subject of assessing the odds of winning the lottery is covered by Matt Parker in episode 31.

You can find out more about my work with the IMA by following me on Twitter, reading this blog and visiting http://www.ima.org.uk/student/. Join the Facebook page.