Ada Lovelace Day blog post

Estimated reading time 2–3 minutes

This post is off-topic, but I signed up to pick your tech heroine and then publish your blog post any time on Tuesday 24th March 2009 in commemoration of Ada Lovelace.

I thought long and hard about which of the many brilliant and inspirational women I should write about. Ada Lovelace is clearly getting plenty of coverage. I expect Amazing Grace Hopper is another popular choice. I almost chose the tragic tale of Hypatia. I ponder her fate when confronted with people who lecture me on faith and morality.

However, my choice is unusual and personal in that it is a woman about whom I really know very little. Dr Elizabeth Alexander trained as a geologist and went on to become one of the world’s first female radio astronomers. Educated at Cambridge at a time when women were not allowed to be full members of the university (that didn’t happen until 1947!), she nevertheless received a first class degree and went on to obtain a PhD. She married and moved to Singapore where she worked as a geologist until escaping to New Zealand just before Singapore fell to the Japanese. It was in New Zealand that she undertook her pioneering work on radar, which was crucial to the war effort. She received little recognition as her work was top secret for obvious reasons. I would have liked to have met her (she died before I was born) but nevertheless she has served as an inspiration to me throughout my life, reminding me that female intelligence persists despite all the hardships and obstacles the world throws in our way and for all the fame and glory heaped upon the – usually male – characters that steal the limelight, we should always remember the quiet dedication of the “invisible” women working behind the scenes.

There is a short article about her in

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science

and a more detailed paper:
Dr Elizabeth Alexander: First Female Radio Astronomer .

She was also my grandmother.


Controlled Vocabulary

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A reading list from “David Riecks founded as a resource to help others learn how best to build controlled vocabulary lists, thesauri, and keyword hierarchies for describing images in databases. He has been involved in many recent standards initiatives as well as being a featured speaker at industry events such as PhotoPlus Expo, the Microsoft Pro Photo Summit, and the first and second International PhotoMetadata Conferences.”

Taxonomy to be banned

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The FT reports that the Local Government Association has banned use of the word “taxonomy” in public documents! “Other words recommended for omission from public documents include “benchmarking”, “place shaping” and “taxonomy”.”

I know the General Public think it’s all about stuffed animals, but to classify taxonomy with “beaconicity” and “coterminious” just adds insult to injury!

A Sketch Towards a Taxonomy of Meta-Desserts

Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Thanks to Mark for unearthing this hilarious post on desserts that reference other desserts from
Raspberry Debacle. To give you a flavour (no pun intended) the post describes the “classificatory difficulties” of organising desserts. “What are the fundamental dessert types, the metaphorical atoms of dessert, or “dessertoms”? A brownie is very “stable”, which is to say it can be combined with many different desserts while still remaining delicious — but surely it isn’t a fundamental dessert type: a brownie is basically just a sulky teenage cake. A crepe, on the other hand, probably is a fundamental dessert type, but it’s a relatively unstable one — it won’t taste good if you put it on a cookie….

Clearly this is a topic that requires for further discussion:

a rigorously defined vocabulary;
extensive research to discover the fundamental dessert types;
some sort of consistency in what “applying dessert type A to dessert type B” actually entails; and
Lots of little pictures on graph paper.”


Social media taxonomy

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It seems that everyone’s social networks are getting out of hand and the heart of the web 2.0 world now needs a bit of old fashioned tidying up. From hierarchies of “friends” to classic categorisations by topic, it’s time to start applying good old taxonomical principles to your social media:

Information visualisation

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

I heard a talk by Ben Shneiderman about information visualisation yesterday for the Cambridge Usability Professionals Group. (It was ironic that I had a “locational usability” problem and was almost late, having made the novice error of trying to find Microsoft Research in the William Gates Building – which is indeed named after Microsoft’s Bill Gates foundation – but Microsoft Research in Cambridge was set up by Roger Needham, so it is in his building!)

The talk itself was very easy to follow with lively demonstrations of a number of visualisation tools. Shneiderman was very careful to point out that you need to have a good question and good data to get good results from information visualisation, and that it is no panacea, but when it works, it is fantastically powerful. One of the key strengths is that it makes it easy to spot outliers or anomalies in huge masses of data, particularly when there is a general underlying correlation. It is almost impossible to detect trends in a big spreadsheet full or numbers, but convert that into a visual form and the trends leap out. This means that you can see at a glance things like which companies’ stocks are rising when all the others are falling. Of course, graphs are nothing new, but the range of analytical tools that are now available mean you can quickly pick out things like spikes and shapes in your data in a way that would have been painstaking previously. There are also very important applications in medical research and diagnosis, as the ability to track which order certain events happen, helps researchers establish whether one condition causes another and could even be used to generate personal health alerts.

I liked the smart-money style treemaps (although the choice of red-green can’t be great for anyone who is colourblind), but I found the marumushi newsmap fun but not much more informative than traditional newspapers, mainly because the newsmap crams in more words than I can take in. Newspapers are really pretty good at writing headlines that work, and you can usually see at a glance what today’s top story is anyway – it’s the one in big letters at the top! However, if you need an aggregation of global news for international comparison, the newsmap does give you quick access to a lot of international sources all together.**

One of the great pleasures of these events is getting to talk to other people who are there and I met a fascinating researcher who had been monitoring importance of stories by keyword frequency, showing that when something happens you get a burst of news activity around the relevant keywords, a ripple effect, and then it dies away. By looking at those patterns you can produce a measure of the impact of different events.

**Update: Rayogram gives you images of actual newspaper front pages, with some options for sorting.
Creative Review – interesting post on tube maps.