Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Royal Society Web Science

September 28, 2010

I’ve just spent the last couple of days at the Royal Society Web Science discussion meeting which I felt was a very special event for the following reasons.  Web Science (the internet/www as an object of scientific study) is emerging as a new interdisciplinary field of activity with collaborators from both science and the humanities.  This cross over of ideas from many different disciplines (physics, mathematics, computer science, politics, philosophy, sociology) could prove fruitful, and indeed there were speakers at the event from all these disciplines. All of the speakers were very good indeed, some excellent, and all with high calibre backgrounds and good credentials; people who have obviously paid their dues with years of hard work and good research.

Some common themes, ideas mentioned by more than one speaker were as follows. More than one person mentioned Frigyes Karinthy and the 6 degrees of separation concept. Another theme was the value to researchers of having at their disposal unprecedentedly vast amounts of rich data, the “digital traces” (Kleinberg) of all of our interactions on the web. With this kind of data sociologists and other students of humanity have the ability to examine human behaviour, and may be able to prove and disprove theories by empirical studies at a scale not possible before.  Another common theme was the value of the internet and the web. The value of maintaining the structure of the internet and ensuring its security and scalability and the value of keeping the web democratic and open.

The presentations should be available to view from


Reviews at

August 23, 2008

I’ve decided to put my reviews of things on the splendid See my latest review of Roy’s Quality Ices which is well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity of Ulverston in Cumbria.

Madame Butterfly

May 3, 2008

I’ve been feeling quite fed up the last couple of months and looking through the Metro yesterday morning I discovered that Madam Butterfly was on at the Alexandra Theatre that very night. Great, something different from my usual routine, so on the spur of the moment I rang a friend who said she’d come with me, booked tickets for us and we were set for the evening.

It was the Ellen Kent production of Madam Butterfly with the Ukrainian National Opera that we went to see, and we got the £21 mid range tickets and were sat right up in the gods. But this was a good thing as it gave us a great overview of what was going on on stage as well as the fantastic scenery and settings. I’ve seen Madam Butterfly years ago with the opera sung in English, however, this was sung in the original Italian and I was surprised and pleased to see that it was subtitled. I know roughly the story, but it’s good to be able to understand the details of the plot and what the singers are actually on about. Subtitles were displayed right at the top of the stage on a board which looked like the sort of board you see at New St Station to give you the train times. I’ve only been twice to the opera (both times Madam Butterfly), and I don’t know if subtitling a performance like this is the done thing, but I think it’s a splendid idea which should encourage more people like me to come to the opera as they will understand what’s going on, though I can imagine some venues being too snotty to do it.

The previous version of Madam Butterfly that I’ve seen was an excellent production and sung in English (and a good translation as far as I could judge), however, the music and singing in last night’s performance moved me far more. My friend Maria thinks, and I tend to agree, that this is because the opera is meant to be sung in Italian, and when sung in English you’re hearing it in a language that it was not originally designed for, no matter how good the translation is. As the music and language are intertwined perhaps this is why I found the Italian version more engaging.

The role of Madam Butterfly was superbly performed by a young Korean soprano, Elena Dee, in her first professional role. I got the impression reading the review in the Metro that Ellen Kent, whose production it was, doesn’t like overweight opera singers and won’t employ them no matter how good their voices are. However, my friend Maria reckons that opera is one of the performing arts where looks, age and body shape don’t matter; only the voice matters. I tend to disagree when opera is a viewing spectacle and Elena Dee, being young and good looking, really looked the part of Madam Butterfly, played a wonderful tragic heroine and had the most gorgeous voice. The tenor, Andriy Perfilov, playing Lieutenant Pinkerton was excellent and being young, handsome and fit really suited for the role.

I’ve heard several versions of the famous aria at the beginning of the second act, and Elena Dee’s that we heard last night was absolutely gorgeous. However, I’m going to be really picky now and say that Maria and I agreed that her voice tended to lose its power in the lower registers – the best versions of Madam Butterfly that I’ve heard have a warmth and power and vibrancy in the lower notes which to me really packs an emotional punch, but she’s a young singer and certainly has a beautiful voice and I’m sure this will come in time.

There was tremendous applause for her at the end of the show and tremendous applause, as well as some boos and hisses, for Andriy Perfilov in his role as the cad Pinkerton.

The audience were the usual middle aged couples but also a surprising, to me, number of young people dressed up for the evening (well young women to be exact as I don’t think Madam Butterfly would normally attract groups of young men on a night out).

I’ve never been to the Alexandra Theatre before and the seats we were sat in were quite good as they were at the corner of the grand circle – not right at the top, but with a wall behind us so that we could lean forward without annoying anyone behind.

It was a wonderful evening and I’ll certainly go and see another Ellen Kent production if I get the chance.

La La La Human Steps

February 10, 2008

Last Tuesday, on the recommendation of a friend, we went to see the dance company La La La Human Steps at the Hippodrome. The production was called Amjad and though I don’t pretend to entirely understand the concept behind it (partly because I was too mean to buy a programme) it did seem to have a Swan Lake theme with the music sounding reminiscent of it in places.

La La La Human Steps

I’ve seen Swan Lake but this was a modern piece and incorporated more acrobatic movements. All the dancers, male and female, looked very muscular and there was an interesting mixture of body types and heights (unlike the few classical ballets I’ve seen the dancers varied in height from quite short to very tall). It was impressive to see the skill and athleticism of some of the moves. At a couple of points, when the male dancers were on stage, one of them looked as if he were doing a pirouette, but horizontally in the air! (Apparently this is the barrel move and it’s certainly impressive to watch simply for the skill and sheer physical courage that it must involve). All the dancers seemed to have superb control where every gesture from posture to fingertips seemed to have meaning.

The music was quite mournful and was played live by a group of four musicians (grand piano, cello and two violins). There was good use of lighting (rather cold lighting) which seemed to catch the movements of the dancers very well (at first I thought the dancers had finger extensions as their swan like gestures were so graceful, but I think that this was the light emphasising the hand movements).

The piece was long – it started at 7.30 pm and continued until 9.15 pm with no interval and yet I didn’t get bored or restless.

I felt that the audience was unusual for a ballet in that it consisted of a good mixture of ages; along with well heeled retired people who, I imagine, have the time and money to attend ballets, there were people our age as well as a lot of youngsters cheering and whistling loudly at the end which made me feel I must be attending something cool 🙂

Programming Collective Intelligence

December 30, 2007

It’s easy to get so involved in your day to day work that you don’t find the time to read around the wider areas of your profession (or at least I find this to be the case). Because of this, one of my colleagues suggested that we have a “geek book club” where we read articles and books that are related to software development, and through this I’ve encountered books such as Object Thinking and Pragmatic Programmer that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of. For holiday reading over Christmas one of my colleagues suggested that we read Programming Collective Intelligence.

Programming Collective Intelligence
Programming Collective Intelligence by Toby Segaran

This is a book about machine learning and AI in relation to developing Web 2.0 applications so there are chapters about search engines, spam filtering and making recommendations a la Amazon. These chapters I haven’t read but, as I’d implemented a genetic algorithm at university, what I immediately did was to skip to chapter 11 entitled Evolving Intelligence which is about Genetic Programming.

Genetic Programming is a term I’d not heard of before but it is, apparently, an offshoot of Genetic Algorithms. The difference, as I understand it, is that Genetic Algorithms start with an initial population of data structures which represent the answers to a problem. These data structures are amended using the evolutionary concepts of crossover and mutation and a fitness function which chooses the fittest structures (answers) to go on to the next generation. However, as the author explains, Genetic Programming evolves the algorithm itself, not just the parameters or results of an algorithm. In Segaran’s example the algorithm is modelled as a parse tree, which is the way in which programs are often first broken down by a compiler or an interpreter. This tree representation of the algorithm is then subject to crossover and mutation to evolve “better” programs as defined by the fitness function.

This kind of programming, the author tells us, has been used in fields such as optics, gaming, evolving scientific inventions such as antennas for NASA, designing a concert hall shape that gives the best acoustics etc. Though this is only one chapter in a book it goes further than the basics, for example, it touches on how you can provide the algorithm with memory and the algorithmic population with shared memory to help it learn longer term strategies, and points you in the direction of implementing this. I was most impressed and wished that I’d had this book to hand when first learning about the subject. I’ve only read chapter 11 and a bit of chapter 5 but these have already given me a good overview of the subject of genetic algorithms/programming, refreshed my memory on stuff I’ve already learned, taught me new things as well as helped me brush up on the python language. If these chapters are anything to go by then the entire book is well worth reading.

The Singing Ringing Tree

December 30, 2007

I was delighted to receive, as a Christmas present from a friend, a copy of The Singing Ringing Tree which I remember watching as a very little girl – maybe around 5 or even younger.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The blurb on the DVD describes it as a fairy tale that “haunted a generation” and it must have made an impression on me because although I was only very little when I watched it I still have vivid memories of it. Watching it as an adult I can see why. For a start it’s in technicolour with glorious and strange scenery which reminds me of watching the Wizard of Oz, though of course the settings are on a smaller scale. The soundtrack is very evocative, especially in the scary bits. The acting is good for that sort of thing – the sort of theatrical, unsubtle acting which works well on stage and the costumes are good, for example, when the prince gets turned into a bear they were clever enough not to have a bear mask but to have hairs glued onto his face so you could still see the pathos in his features (as my friend put it he doesn’t look like Bungle out of Rainbow which would have been really rubbish).

I chose to watch it with the English voice over, just as I watched it as a little kid. This is a narrator telling the story Jackanory style in line with the visuals. I don’t know in how many countries this was shown, but I can see how it could have wide appeal as the visuals and acting are compelling enough, and with a narrator telling the story in their own language it would work for children anywhere. There is one thing I misremember … instead of hearing the actors’ voices in the background (it was a German production and the actors speak in German) I remember a constant burbling in the background of what sounded like another narration in Czech or something? … this of course added to the overall weirdness … perhaps this is a false memory but the friend who gave it to me says that he remembers the same.

The wicked dwarf is very scary indeed and I am surprised that it didn’t scare me as a little kid. When he’s thwarting the prince and princess you can hear his cackling laughter as his face pops up out of a cloud, or out of the side of a tree, or out of the ground like an evil teletubby.