Science: Really not just for scientists.

The public’s unwillingness to learn basic scientific concepts and scientists’ inability to communicate those concepts lead the public to reject promising research (such as genetic modification), ignore serious problems (such as global warming) and embrace dangerous nonsense (such as anti-vaccination rhetoric).

— Proposition from the Ph.D. thesis of Dr Wynand Winterbach, via Francois Malan on Facebook.

(This important message was brought to you by cpbotha.net, trawling facebook for interesting tidbits so you don’t have to!)

Schloss Dagstuhl: Computer Scientist Heaven

Somewhere in a remote but picturesque location in southern Germany, there’s a special castle called Schloss Dagstuhl. Every week, the castle fills up with a smallish group of Exceptionally Privileged Computer Scientists, who can only go there Because They Have Been Invited. Every week hosts a different field; In my case this was the Scientific Visualization seminar, one of the oldest participating groups. Everything has been setup just so to guarantee a perfect computer sciencey week for all guests. Because I’ve already been boring too many people with this story in person, I thought it prudent to write it up. Let’s hope it’s not a first (and second!) rule of Fight Club situation, in which case posting frequency over here might drop quite drastically.

Schloss Dagstuhl, picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

To begin with, the meals are exquisite, three times a day, every day. As we all know, the path to a computer scientist’s heart is through buying them new gadgets, but feeding them well is a great backup plan. Another very nice touch is the fact that seating is deliberately randomised, meaning that your introvert self is forced to sit at the table with a different group of guests during each lunch and dinner, in turn meaning that even if you try otherwise, you will probably get to have a good conversation with every one of the fifty attendees.

In the case of our seminar, the working day consists of presentations in blocks of three or four, followed by a longer block of discussion on all the preceding presentations, panel style. Attendees were all asked not just to give a standard scientific presentation, but to discuss open problems and future challenges in their respective sub-fields. I (and many others, judging by the aggregated post-meeting feedback) really enjoyed this format. The presentations made one think, and the discussion blocks were long enough to really get into the details. You can check out abstracts and slides on the seminar website.

After a full day of quite intensive discussion, there were breakout sessions during which four subgroups started working on the various chapters of a new Springer book that should appear sometime early in next year. The book will deal with multi-field, uncertainty, biomedical and scalable visualization, and it has the makings of being a keeper.

The other extremely important magic bit about this castle is the abundance of real coffee machines (ones that grind coffee beans for every cup), snack corners and, uhm, beer fridges. You can’t really go anywhere, as you’re in the middle of nowhere, so after dinner the conversations tend to continue till late in the night, conversant stamina enhanced by said coffee and beer facilities. Evil science plans were made, good old-fashioned deep conversations were had and the early next morning consequences were flatly ignored. I haven’t laughed quite so much in a long time, but that part of the programme prefers, and has the right, to remain completely silent.

If you ever get the invitation, don’t hesitate for a second to accept: You shall return an exhausted but terribly happy computer nerd.

An indecent proposal. [Weekly Head Voices #31]

Dear readers,

I would like to introduce you to my new friend:

Pretty Leifheit kitchen timer, ideal for the Pomodoro Technique. Also the first time I use the macro setting on my Canon. Doh.

It is old-fashioned and mechanical. It makes an extremely comforting ticking sound, and then after the 25 minutes of focus-time are over, starts ringing. The ticking is not too loud, and not too soft. The ringing is just the right length. You don’t take my word for it, as I’ve made you a short movie clip:

Comforting, no?

In spite of a number of deadlines having been successfully met, I’m still in the lamentable situation where every second counts, so I’m going back to bullet mode for the rest of this post:

  • The FNSF and I managed to finish that Indecent Research Proposal and submit it at 11:57 on Wedensday, 3 minutes before the Deadline for Indecent Proposals at the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO). We almost missed the deadline due to the extremely primitive web-submission system in use there. If you happen to be invited to review this proposal, please approve it. You Can Trust Us. :)
  • The real-time collaboration functionality in the new Google Docs was a life-saver during the writing of this proposal. Being able to see FNSF’s cursor move and edits happen in real-time was really great for coordinating. Now if they could only improve: 1) The styling possibilities (there are none at the moment, so you have to manually change typesetting if you don’t agree with their default style) and 2) The PDF export (it inserted page-breaks within tables and generally screwed up. Eventually I exported to MS Word, fixed typesetting and page-breaks there, then exported to PDF); then I would be happy.
  • On Friday I had one of the most hectic oral defences of my life. There’s a high probability I’ll have to try again in a year or two’s time. Or never. I’ll keep you posted. Or not.
  • Partly due to the events of Friday, but also to continuous general self-reflection (read: voices in my head that never sleep), I will gradually revise my publication strategy in the coming years. Bottom-line: I have to focus more on generalising until our applications start looking like pure theory. :)
  • I’m slowly learning how to say no. It’s hard, but at least there is some professional help available:

In a few weeks, I hope to have the time to write you a proper post. Until that glorious occasion, I’ll do my best to keep you up to date with these healthy and low-fat WHV light editions!

Weekly Head Voices #12: Ceci n’est pas une bibliothèque.

Welcome to the latest edition of the Weekly Head Voices, in which I briefly touch upon the, to my mind, mention-worthy events that took place within my field of observation during week 5 of the year 2010, and with which I too finally have an excuse to (ab)use the famous words of Magritte for my dubious ends. :)

WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAMME FOR THE FOLLOWING IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT:

I’m officially not supposed to talk about this until the next edition of the Weekly Head Voices, but it’s too big and too cool to keep quiet about until then.  Google has just released Buzz, their location-based status / media updating system, and it’s fantastically cool.  I’ve just posted my first Buzz via Google Maps 4.0 on my E71 (I think I’m the third buzz in Delft EVAR).  Don’t know what Buzz is? Check this YouTube clip:

YOU WILL NOW BE RETURNED TO YOUR NORMAL PROGRAMMING.

The reason for the title of this post is my Saturday visit to DOK, Delft’s unique library concept. It’s not really a library, but more of a fantastic place of gathering that coincidentally contains thousands of books, CDs, DVDs and, err, a coffee shop! They even have a number of sonic chairs that one can make use of to listen to music via the mounted Macs. This Saturday, live music by one of the artists who exhibited at the DOK.  I made you a short snippet:

As even this short edition should end on a philosophical note, I’d like to conclude with an interesting discussion I had on whether the type of research we do in (medical) visualisation can be considered to be science. Very strictly speaking, the scientific method consists of observation, hypothesis forming and finally experimentation to prove or disprove the hypothesis. A large body of visualisation work is concerned with making stuff that solves hard problems, i.e. formulative research as opposed to the more traditional evaluative research. Although the question of whether making stuff that solves hard problems constitutes science is a complex discussion that deserves a whole year of blog posts, I am going to conclude with one possible and simple take on situation:

By taking this constructive approach we are, besides actually solving problems (a neat by-product, no?), discovering how to create effective visual representations of complex phenomena hidden in even more complex data. By doing this, we are in fact observing the supremely complex system consisting of the whole pipeline from data acquisition to insight, all the while experimenting with parameters (in the widest possible sense of the world) and thus confirming or disproving hypotheses concerning the nature of the pipeline and its various components. Together, these hypotheses make up the model that governs the effective extraction of insight from data via the human visual system.

Weekly Head Voices #11: iCalmDown.

My Tall Philosophical Neighbour (henceforth TPN) blogged today about the iCalmDown, which, as you know, is the latest Apple product released with perhaps a tad too much fanfare this past week. Yes, I do realise that I’m most privileged to have a tall neighbour who’s both philosophical and manages to blog with more regularity than many. In any case, in a cut-and-dried case of keepin’ up with the Joneses, or the TBN in this case, you are now holding in your hands the eleventh edition of the Weekly Head Voices, documenting a selection of events taking place in week 4 of 2010. Please let me know if you’re reading this on your iCalmDown!

SuSE engineers consider this dog to be "quite pretty" and also "so cute and cuddly".

First I have to get some negative emotions off my chest: I’m currently test-driving the TU Delft’s new standard SuSE Enterprise Linux Edition (SLED) 11 image at work. After two days of using the system and documenting my experiences, I had to switch back to my usual Ubuntu desktop, as my eyes had started bleeding profusely. The SLED desktop takes the concept of “ugly” to places even it feels very dirty having ever visited. Okay, so I might be ever so slightly exaggerating, but there really is almost no comparison with a modern Ubuntu system!

During this past week my productivity has again made the transition from reactive to proactive. This is a usual phenomenon after any long vacation, but it sure is a nice feeling being able to start on things long before they become urgent. It gives me some room to strategise and think about the Big Picture. In the same vein, I (once again) realised that I should spend mornings on the creative and heavier-weight items on my todo list, and reserve the afternoons for meetings (which definitely require creativity, but of a different kind) and more routine tasks. For the past months I have followed the policy of scheduling meetings in the afternoons as far as possible, so my mornings are reserved for tasks that require a few hours contiguously. Luxury!

At the start of an evening with two friends (in line with my anonymisation policy, let’s call them Science Entrepreneur Friend, or SEF, and Extremely Clever Yet Very Social Scientist Friend, or ECYVSSF) that ended with me having so much fun that I managed to get caught on the infamous Dutch nachtnet (trains that take party-goers home at ungodly hours), SEF pointed out that my “to learn and to create” snippet of the previous post reminded him of something of Wilhelm von Humboldt. After some searching I found the relevant quote:

To inquire and to create;—these are the grand centres around which all human pursuits revolve, or at least to these objects do they all more or less directly refer. Before inquiry can fathom the very essence of things, or penetrate to the limits of reason, it presupposes, in addition to profundity, a rich diversity and genial warmth of soul—the harmonious exertion of all the human faculties combined.

Thank you SEF !

This same evening was characterised by, besides too many Pelgrim Trippels (a strong beer brewed in Rotterdam), much heated discussion on the interaction between science, that is how we attain and disseminate new knowledge about the reality around us, and academia, that is the interesting ecosphere where science mostly takes place, where scientists work in strange and strict hierarchical castes, and the focus on science can easily be lost due to the practicalities and politics of academia.

For all its faults, it is exactly this strange system that makes it possible for me to work closely together with a number of exceptionally bright people, an energising activity that is arguably very much in the spirit of inquiry and of creativity.

On that positive note, have a brilliant week everyone!