Sunday, May 24, 2009

What's Up With Wojo? (Spring 2009)

Exams are over, and I passed. My major trips, presentations, and essays are all behind me. For the next four months, I can work on my research, travel for fun, and explore new projects and ideas. It's a much calmer time, though throngs of tourists visit Oxford and space in the library is harder to find. Life is different than it was several months ago, so it's time for an update and an overview.

Dissertation and Research

My academic work is the main focus of my life until September. Data mining cabinet networks, politica bloggers, and organizational affiliations... If you had to tag my life in this area, it would include three big ones: "Social Networks Analysis", "Machine Learning", and "Mathematical Modelling". I'll post on these topics in a number of blog posts over time.

Politics and International Development

For the first time in a number of years, I find myself without a concrete plan or opportunity to do field work for Five Minutes to Midnight or related organizations. In my defense, I need to spend more time at Oxford, but it's an odd feeling to not have any major plans in this area. As such, I've decided to do more writing on politics, human rights, international development, and technology. If I can't travel and do work abroad, I'll at least keep up to date with developments, and share a few opinions.

So far, I'm hoping to write articles on cyber war, anonymity, network neutrality, and technology-related human rights. Not as much international development as I'd like, but I'm open to suggestions and ideas.

Art and Culture

Now that I have more time to explore England and places further away, I will definitely do so. More plays, museums, events, and so on. No concerete plans yet, but they're coming!

That's all for now... A much more relaxed Wojo, that's for sure.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Political Blog Networks and the U.S. Presidential Election

I had the great fortune of giving a talk at the Nuffield Networks seminar series today, and the talk was titled "Political Blog Networks and the US Presidential Election". It was meant as an overview of some of the work I did at the IBM TJ Watson Research Center last year, though also went into new work I'm doing in sentiment analysis and complex networks. Overall, I'm quite pleased with the talk. It allowed me to find a focus for some of the work I've been doing over the last few weeks. Below is a brief list of some of the important points I wanted to raise during this talk.

Machine Learning is Important for Social Science

I think the most exciting part of my presentation, though also a part that was quite low-key, is the potential that machine learning holds for social science research. Labeling blog posts by hand is useful, but fairly intense and sometimes expensive. Tools like Amazon's Mechanical Turk provide a cheap alternative for labeling, but even this method if not scalable to two million or more blog posts.

I will not argue that machine learning can be the saviour of such social research, but rather that if it is used intelligently and correctly, it can help elucidate some of the trends within massive social systems (such as the blogosphere). By no means is this the death knell for human labels or qualitative research. Instead, I see the two working hand-in-hand.

Forget Word Vectors... Use Graph Theory

The subtitle is a bit strong, and maybe a little sensationalist. No, we shouldn't be avoiding word frequencies, multinomial distributions, or natural language processing... Keep these wonderful things, but also include the graph structure behind the blog posts and other data sets you are using! I remember writing a bit about some potential tools before, and still think it is quite important.

On a related point, predicting edges between nodes, while much harder (in my opinion) than predicting sentiment of a specific blog post, is still worth trying. There's a great paper that will be presented at the upcoming International Conference on Machine Learning, and it is worth reading.

Accuracy is Dead! Long Live Accuracy!

One of the biggest challenges in terms of this type of approach is how difficult it is to actually make predictions, and more importantly, how to validate models that predict rare events. When you're predicting hyperlinks between bloggers, you can have a model with 99% accuracy by simply saying that every blogger will not hyperlink to anyone. Accurate? Yes. Useless? Definitely.

Unfortunately, it's a bit difficult to justify the use of inaccurate machine learning models for social science research. That being said, I'm confident some creative and interesting solutions exist to this problem.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Great Books for Mathematical Modelling

I realize it has been over a month since I last posted, and for this I apologize. The reason is simple: I had to write my final exams. Aside from a few evenings spent with friends, I pretty much studied every day in April, after which I spent a week with my parents and then a week in Switzerland. Now it's time to return to my pre-exam life, which is hectic in a very different way.

Fortunately, I have my exam results and they went well. I feel like the last two months have been the months of learning and understanding various tools in mathematical modeling, and there are certain books I simply wouldn't be able to live without. If you are interested in some of the technical aspects of mathematical modelling or are thinking of studying for the formal M.Sc. at Oxford, make sure you keep these books in mind.

Numerical Mathematics (1): focusing on all topics related to actually implementing theoretical mathematical ideas in a computer. The numerical linear algebra section (specifically, solving linear systems) is the best and clearest I've read in a while.

Finite Element Methods and Fast Iterative Solvers: with Applications in Incompressible Fluid Dynamics (1): impressive and complicated name for an impressive and complicated area of research. Yes, there's a whole course on this in the M.Sc., though we only really get through the first chapter of the book!

Applied Partial Differential Equations (1): focuses on getting you to solve PDEs. Really, that's all I can say... Though I'm convinced that there's an inverse relationship between the number of words used to describe a mathematical problem and the number of things you have to do to actually do it!

Boundary Value Problems of Mathematical Physics (1): a great introduction to how one can use distributions to solve various problems. Think of it as generalizing and abstracting how you actually integrate or solve differential equations.

So to those books and authors thereof, thank you!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Virtualization on Mac OS X -- Wow!

I've written about this before, but wanted to share some more thoughts about my current laptop setup, and why I absolutely love it.

First and foremost, I am a Linux geek. It took me a while to be converted, and I still remember the early days... Walking around with my laptop and an external hard drive with Fedora Core.

I eventually started using Ubuntu as my main OS, and did so until this past June, when I bought a Mac. I tried to get Ubuntu running, but the amount of time I had to invest to get all the drivers working was a bit much, and I decided to use OS X. I miss Ubuntu, and use it as much as I can. Now that I'm working on my research again, Ubuntu is becoming more and more prevalent in my life.

And this is where VMWare Fusion enters. I run OS X, enjoy Ubuntu immensely, and also got on the beta testing wagon for Windows 7...

So here's what I do when I need to run multiple OSes. I enter full screen mode in VMWare Fusion, and have six desktops running in OS X. In full screen mode, I have either Ubuntu or Windows 7 (sometimes, but rarely, both). Even when I'm using Ubuntu or Windows, I still have the ability to switch between Desktops in OS X. This means I can be in full screen mode on any one of my OSes, and simply switch out of them using the standard Mac commands. I end up with four Mac spaces, an Ubuntu space, and a Windows 7 space... All easily accessible with a simple key press.

Talk about multiple Desktops in Mac... Now if only I had the multiple computer monitors I used back in Canada!

To make things even more wonderful, VMWare Fusion allows you to share folders between the various operating systems. So now when I do my research, I can actually modify the same files, documents, and presentations in any of the operating systems. How sweet is that?

This is such an awesome feature, and I just can't write enough about it. For anyone who enjoys working in multiple operating systems, I really recommend trying this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why I'm Giving Up on IMs

Instant Messengers (IMs) are wonderful software products... I've been on ICQ, MSN, AIM, and a number of other incarnations since elementary school, forced to use them at various companies and organizations, and still have a few accounts. However, I'm deciding to bring it all to an end... At least temporarily, though we'll see how it goes.

The idea behind technology is convenience, and passive information is wonderful -- I can log into Twitter, Google Reader, Blogspot, e-mail, and Facebook whenever I want. Furthermore, these services are passive -- I am not interrupted when working if I am logged into any of them (at least with my current settings). IMs are different. They run in the background and people can contact me whenever I'm on, whenever they want. This has become far from convenient, as I try to memorize theorems or write essays.

So it's time to say goodbye to the instant messenger. If you need me, you can still find me on G-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and of course, this blog.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Inspiration #12: Remix Culture

Thru You is a website with seven songs and videos that were created by clipping numerous YouTube videos. This is one of the most impressive art / new media project I've come across, and it's really worth watching and listening to. Video 8 provides an overview of how this was done.

(I also really like the website design!)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Inspiration #11: Wearable Computing

While it still has a far way to go, some of the ideas focusing on wearable computing are really, really cool. This TED Talk is a perfect example of some of the potential, and I'm excited to see what will be available in the coming year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Inspiration #10: Tokyo! (The Movie)

This is an absolutely awesome trailer, and I can't wait to see the movie on DVD in a few months. Aside from being very original (it seems!) and set in one of my favourite cities in the world, the text in the trailer makes me extremely happy: "Do we shape cities? Or do cities shape us?"

Any movie that focuses on Tokyo, seems to be absurdly creative, and makes me think of Jane Jacobs is a total win.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Inspiration #9: Economist Technology Quarterly

This week's Economist is a wonderful issue, containing their Technology Quarterly. I always make sure to read these quarterlies, as it's always a good reminder of what's happening in business technology, and what trends seem to be grabbing the imaginations of business types. I also read Seed's "Universe in 2009" (science predictions / trends), but feel that the Tech Quarterly has some really concrete ideas about what's to come.

Though I say everyone should read both!

There are three articles that really spoke to me, and I think everyone in computing should read. First, Model Behaviour, which looks at how mathematical modeling can be used in predicting how crowds will react to situations like fires or earthquakes. Very cool, especially because the mathematical technologies they're using are very different from the "classical" modeling paradigm. This might make little difference to end-users, but to myself, this is a huge change and one that really makes me happy -- humans are not continuous functions akin to liquids, but rather discrete agents with limited worldviews and seemingly random tendencies. Thank you, Massive Software!

Additionally, a review of some cool computer vision applications is given in Machines That Can See. If you've ever worked in a fast food chain, let me know how you feel about the idea of a computer analyzing whether you smile enough. I'm a bit skeptical.

And the final article is one about Brewster Kahle. Again, a wonderful overview of the entrepreneur and activist. Anyone with an interest in the Internet should check it out, if they haven't heard of him before.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Inspiration #7: Seed Magazine

The latest issue of Seed Magazine has a sign on the front: "Science can fix this." Furthermore, the magazine's tag line is "Science is culture."

When I was visiting San Francisco, one of my friends said that my views on global problems, the supposed energy crisis, and other major challenges is that of a "technologist". The more I think about it, the more I think he's right. The world, humanity, and our existence is complex, and science helps us understand who we are, and why we are here. Science is beautiful, and as technology becomes more ubiquitous and pervasive, science affects our daily lives in a larger and more significant way. Science is culture, and just maybe, science can fix this.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Inspiration #6: Imperfect Corporations

mashable recently posted two great articles, exploring the imperfections of Google and Facebook. To be fair, there's much more to the stories than that, but together, they serve to remind readers that while such massive companies have already created products that essentially serve a majority of users (well, this is certainly true in North America), they are not perfect. There's a number of ways that one can still get an edge on them.

Inpsiring? Certainly -- startups, have a chance! And what a complement to Inspiration #5!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Inspiration #5: Agile Development and Hackathons

I was reading about Cloudspace's agile development model for software and it got me really excited. It reminds me of hackathons I've heard about in Toronto, New York City, and elsewhere. The idea of agile development, code sprints, hackathons, and related topics is focused on producing results (i.e. prototypes or software tools) within a short period, such as 24 hours or a week.

Why is this inspiring? Two reasons. First, the idea of "hacking" is very cool. I'm not talking about breaking into computers or computer security, which is what the media often focus on, but rather groups of people interested in technology and trying new things with it. Being with a core group of people for a day or two, solidly working and programming to develop a new product or service, is pretty exciting.

Furthermore, developing those new products and services in such a short period of time is a testament to how far technology has come. It's exciting to see how fast new ideas can be developed into actual products, and it makes me curious about what's to come.

Note: click on image for credits.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Inspiration #4: Man on Wire

Sometimes, audacity and ambition go hand-in-hand.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Inspiration #3: Microsoft's Vision for 2019

This video was recently posted on some of the social media sites I visit...

<a href="" target="_new" title="Future Vision Montage">Video: Future Vision Montage</a>

According to another blogger, this was presented by Stephen Elop at the Wharton Business Technology Conference.

... and what a vision! A lot of the technology being envisioned isn't that creative, and some of it is downright cliche, but I will admit that it's beautiful and exciting to see how things might change. A great set of concepts to think about for a day.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Inspiration #2: New Media and International Development

I had a wonderful meeting the other day with a number of Oxford friends, where we spent time discussing our interests in new media (blogs, journalism, the Internet, etc.) and international development and politics. The meeting was, above all, refreshing -- it served to remind us why we do the work we do, and what it means to us. Some of us were meeting each other for the first time, and presenting our work and explaining why we're passionate about it was extremely important.

Sometimes, as we work extremely hard on a specific detail of a major project, the reasons for the passion we have become lost. Taking a few hours once in a while to explain to someone why you care so much about a certain topic is often useful, and (as I saw today!) can increase your productivity.

... the meeting was also timely, as on Friday night, I ran into a very interesting development on Wikileaks.

Whether or not you agree with Wikileaks posting sensitive information online, what is interesting about this is that a military document was decrypted, posted online, and is now being discussed around the web. This is a testament to the power of the Internet nowadays, and where it will lead (politically, socially, etc.) over the next several years is definitely exciting.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Inspiration #1: Ambition

One of the things I'd like to try over the next while is posting things that inspire me. At times it's easy to be lost in the shuffle of life, and it's important to be grounded with ideas and thoughts that really inspire us and help us keep going.

So today is my first post on this topic, and it's simply a link to Ben Casnocha's blog post on Ambition. He provides a book review on the topic, and I think it's a great read... One of the things he discusses is whether ambition is good or bad. Oftentimes, we want to succeed in life (have a great job, make lots of money, etc.), but are also are encouraged to have healthy social lives, families, etc. Yes, the two can go hand-in-hand, but sometimes one must make a choice between a healthy career and a healthy life. In these cases (among others), ambition can be seen as a bad thing.

It's a refreshing post. If you've read Joseph Epstein's book on this, let me know!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Props to Spotify

I just wanted to share the news... I now have a new music player: Spotify!

I've used numerous music services in the past, and still am a big fan of thesixtyone (which is wonderful for finding new music)... However, one of the biggest problems has been listening to music from major labels without actually paying for it. Sure, you can pirate songs, or pay $1/song on iTunes, but there must be a better way!

The great thing about Spotify is that it streams all the songs to you, and acts as a personal radio station. It's ad-supported, though you can pay to have the ads removed. It's very rare that I want to hear a song that they don't have.

... Though Matt and Kim are absent, and things just aren't the same without Mr. Westmore...

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Candy Bling

I was checking the mail the other day and got the most awesome package ever! I wish the photo came out better, but all it says is that it's from Jenika, to Wojciech, and it's a package containing "Candy Bling". Every time I think of the face of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) agent who would see this (assuming one did), make me smile.

Thanks Jenika!

Windows 7 on my MacBook

Every few days for the last 1.5 months, I've been looking around for information on a legitimate Windows 7 beta. A few days ago I got an answer, and have just installed the beta using VMWare Fusion. Now I'm running Windows 7 on my Mac, and it's looking very nice!

I must also say that this was, by far, the easiest Windows installation I've ever done. And don't worry people, I still love Linux most! Yes, even more than OS X.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Reporters Without Borders Campaign

I was browsing the art and design publications at Borders today and ended up getting Archive, because of amazing page. The page was in the "social justice" section of the magazine, and had two photos from a Reporters Without Borders advertising campaign.

Since this was a Spanish campaign, I could only find this link to the photos, and they're a bit small... The RSF campaign tries to promote the dangers associated with journalism by showing the last photographs retrieved from the cameras of photojournalists working in dangerous places. This was really, really powerful stuff.

... Since those are difficult to see, and the small digital size does them little justice, here's a clip of Kevin Sites discussing his work in war zones. Note that this video is graphic, so viewer discretion is advised.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The iPod Touch

A few days ago, I admitted to myself that I won't have an Internet-enabled smart phone in the next few months, and got myself an iPod Touch. I was worried about the purchase -- I like the Blackberry keyboards, and the Touch certainly isn't the iPhone... Luckily, those worries have been laid to rest.

Wired recently wrote that Apple's App Store was one of the best technological innovations of 2008. While I don't know if it would appear in my top ten list, I will admit that the store is a great resource for all Touch and iPhone owners... And it makes spending money way too easy.

Overall, the apps I've been using have been pretty great. DataCase for storing and reading PDFs, Evernote for writing notes, and yes, even Touch Physics for fun. The last of these is probably my favourite, especially when it comes to user interface -- it really takes advantage of the fact that you use your fingers to interface with the hardware, and this makes the game extremely fun. That being said, holding a set of books on the Touch makes it really easy to read on the run or store reference materials, papers, and so on. Kindle move over... The Touch is the best E-book reader I know of.

So what next? Aside from spending more time with Touch Physics and downloading other apps, I'm planning on developing my own. There's so many ideas and opportunities here -- for exploring novel user interfaces and making educational applications -- that I just can't pass this by.

Note: click photo for credits.