A visit from the Prime Minister

It was great to welcome David Cameron, British Prime Minister, officially to open our new Wolfram Centre in Oxfordshire, UK today.

Rather than a traditional plaque unveiling, we went virtual: an iPad button wirelessly firing off a sequence on a nearby TV, the ending "plaque" presenting live data captured at the moment of unveiling--the current weather, FTSE level, star chart and even the PM's age of 16562 days.

More seriously, we talked two topics I believe are key Britain's hi-tech role: making government data truly accessible (to citizens and government(!) alike) and resetting maths education to be computer-based--both more conceptual and more practical.

It's interesting how much the first chimed with the PM's 2010 TED talk about people empowerment in a "post bureaucratic age". It was fun showing how Wolfram|Alpha queries and interactive CDF could serve this agenda (including through Siri), and how the problem-centred approach of computerbasedmath.org might give the UK an opportunity to leapfrog other countries in STEM.

It's clear that the PM is keen to see Britain as a bold new tech and information hub, able to punch above its weight in reshaping the value-chain of knowledge, or what I've described before as the "computational knowledge economy".

In our unusual kind of way, I believe we can contribute unique facets to driving this agenda.

Computer-based math eduation summit

Just a quick posting that we had a terrific first computer-based math education summit at the Royal Institution in London. We made good progress at an early start to charting out a new direction for the world's math students both for formal curricula and for the multitide of other ways that learning takes place.

Over the coming months you'll see topics and modules showcased alongside video of discussions from the conference. We haven't worked out our full plan yet, but for something destined to take a minimum of 10 years, we're thinking it through carefully. Watch this space!

Call me a control freak...

...and many would...but I like my environment to be set-up right. In particular, I'm pretty fussy about being at the right temperature. Yet inadequate control plagues our office and particularly home heating systems, wasting huge amounts of energy and making us uncomfortable into the bargain.

This came up in specing the HVAC system for our new office. Optimising zones v. heat recovery v. control sophistication is pretty complex and more control can be quite costly. Moreover, just modelling each room to answer questions like "will we always be able to get it to 21C within 1 hour" is surprisingly fraught. What outside temperatures to assume? How insulating are the room's walls, floor and ceiling? What are their heat capacities? How many people will be there?

(I can't help noticing this would be a great computerbasedmath.org module. It's exactly the sort of real-life maths question that today's curricula don't equip students well for and for which learning intricacies of hand-calculating won't help you).

Next step: see whether we can get to the system's API and use Mathematica to make a nice interface to it.

For the home, there are an increasing range of retrofit, wireless solutions for traditional wet central heating systems that have only a few years of payback. I've for some time had a Honeywell CM-ZONE and now an EVOHOME I put in. One of the worst marketed piece of tech, it's a pretty nice system that most plumbers don't know about.

It's a new Wolfram Research Europe...

17 years ago, we moved into our current Oxfordshire offices---yup, one year after I started doing non-stop email. Well, today we're moving to a custom built new office just up the road. The site is kind of an interesting place actually--where pioneers in wildlife filming Oxford Scientific Films set-up in 1968. Strangely I had had a school trip there in around 1982 and I'm pretty sure they told us they'd just finished filming a Cadbury's "glass and a half" ad with a then new micro video camera moving along many chocolate bars. None were left by the time we arrived!

Even though this is an exciting, positive move, there's a strangely eerie, reminiscent feeling sitting where I am now at my desk: all my stuff packed up, my monitor, phone and desk, the last to go. I was decidedly young when we moved in; I'm quite a bit creakier now...

And oh has the technology changed. 17 years ago I was equipped with a fine if monochrome NeXTStation computer. I wondered whether I really needed a colour monitor; it seemed unnecessary. And I needed lots of filing and a complex system of trays to manage my paperwork. Clearing up this morning, I realise that I haven't accessed physical files for 3+ years for anything. They're not moving with me.

It was here I was sitting when I first heard about "the world wide web". The keen Mathematica user from CERN on the phone was surprised that I hadn't tried it yet and hadn't understood how much it was going to change the world.

Over the years my desk size has reduced, as has the volume of my monitor and filing cabinets (even my waistline has shrunk, though it's now past its minimum!). Only my screensize has grown.

Time for my computer to get packed now...Off to the next (hopefully also prime) 17 years from Monday--a new era for Wolfram Research Europe Ltd.

Just finishing CDF rollout...

Thought I'd take a quick breather from getting everything ready for our rollout of the Computable Document Format (CDF) technology. Rather than tell you about the tech (just authoring a blog on that for the Wolfram blog), I'm thinking of the process.

And gosh there's lots for the team to think about.

First there's the technology and workflows for it. That's got to be right or all bets are off. Then there are all the websites, their technology, their testing. The press releases, briefings, talks. The blog items, examples and questions. Internal announcements, external announcements.

We're kind of used to this with Mathematica but we know our audience well. Here we're into uncharted territory, not just for us but for everyone.

In the end, what I will worry about is whether we've explained what we're doing well enough. Will people get CDF's significance? Have we spoken both to people from document and from software backgrounds---they're very different. Have we missed some crucial part of the story, some important nuance because we're so close to it?

Watch this space (literally)...and see "Documents come alive with the power of computation"!

P.S. You'll want CDF Player installed. It's free here.

 

Happy 18th, non-stop email

Yes, I know it's sad, but I have looked at email every single day, regardless of where I was, for 18 years.

Achieving email access everywhere is now pretty easy, but back in the early 90's it wasn't. I used to pride myself on figuring out how to do it on my own computer, carrying adapters, cellphone hook-ups---whatever I needed. I remember rewiring hotel phones in China and often having to plug into reception desk fax machines. But collect email I did.

My psychology is such that I prefer knowing that I'd know, to worrying about not knowing (not to mention enjoying the technical challenge)! Apparently that addiction has gripped most of the population too. Wonder how it changes us?

 

Phew! New Demonstrations site up...

A little tougher than I thought it was going to be to get everything lined up for release.

Our "knowledge app" site demonstrations.wolfram.com was completely redesigned to use the inline Mathematica 8 or free Wolfram Player plug-in rather than having to open a separate window (alongside various other changes).

This apparently small plug-in change makes a big usability difference and by the same token, it changed the site workflow quite a bit. It also required the latest version of Player--just releasing too--and itself quite a feat of engineering.

One of the complexities has been to work through all the cases of different machines, installations and therefore optimal operation. What should the site show if someone has Mathematica 7 (no plug-in capability) installed? Or they're on an iPad (no Player for now on iOS)? Or it's a complex demonstration that takes some time to compute? Each has its own adjusted workflow.

Hopefully, we've ironed out these cases but with the traffic we get, I'm sure we'll find out anywhere we haven't soon. Getting this optimised is a high priority: Demonstrations is one example of much broader interactive publishing plans codenamed CDF.

Amazing: iPhone app got my father a pacemaker

Heart rate.PNG

Last week I had downloaded this heart monitor app, intrigued at how it used a finger placed over a phone's camera to work out your pulse.

My father was visiting so I showed him the app for fun. He's 86 and has had a few issues with walking etc. but that wasn't on my mind. The app read 36bpm--way low (as Wolfram|Alpha confirms). My wife, ophthalmologist Stella Hornby, checked. It really was 36bpm; she was sure he had a heart block. After some effort we pursuaded him to hospital. They confirmed the diagnosis where this morning he had a pacemaker fitted (rather a quick turnaround by the UK NHS, I thought).

This result is all the more amazing as 3 years ago my wife thought my father might have carotid sinus syndrome, and that a pacemaker would be the likely treatment. But on visiting the cardiologist, he couldn't find anything (heart rate was fine while they were measuring it) and so nothing was conclusively diagnosed, and no treatment given.

What an example of the power of interactive apps and the future of self-monitoring!

Why "fair" maths tests aren't fair...

How should one define fairness of testing? There are countless ways to make tests unfair, but achieving fairness surely involves aligning what's being tested with the purpose of the education. And isn't the main purpose of education to give you skills for life?

Yet in the modern US-UK concept of fairness, questions with complete reproducibility of assessment trump questions that more accurately simulate real life but can't always get every marker awarding exactly the same marks.

For example, multiple choice tests can be marked with complete reproducibility, but when in real-life did you last pick from 4 or 5 answers one of which you knew "has to be" right? Rather, questions which need explanation and judgement calls can be much fairer tests of the student's ability at the real-life subject, even if they might garner some subjectivity of marking.

All this was brought up today when I looked at a book which helps testers set tests. Within the narrow confines of how US testing works, it was no doubt very helpful.

But thinking bigger picture, it was deeply frustrating--like castigating a question with "irrelevant information" ie. more than the minimum needed to calculate the answer, because it wasn't solely testing one core ability [doing a manual calculation]. Since when does real life only have exactly the amount of information you need--no more, no less? And isn't sifting information and using what's relevant a crucial, core ability---particularly since the internet?

Something that makes this all worse: today's tests have assumed an importance beyond their capability to judge. And that's had the unfortunate feedback of putting huge emphasis on reproducibility of marking...and therefore questions with definitively right or wrong answers.

Governments, others setting test guidelines, please remember: fairness ≠ reproducibility (and while you're about it, math ≠ calculating (!))

Or as a London cabby put it on not getting a tip "it may be correct but it ain't right".

What you say versus what you think you say

Just put up the transcript of a talk at gave about maths education (similar to my TED talk) at our Technology conference a few weeks ago.

I find it informative to read because I remember saying stuff slightly differently from how I actually did.

I rarely write stuff out word for word for talks. Usually I make headings and fill in in real time. The killer is not having a full text but trying to remember word-for-word what to say...I'm a useless actor.

Manic Monday

It wasn't just my TED talk that got released today but Mathematica 8 and a big redo of our wolfram.com website precipitated by it. Websites are complicated animals these days and including documentation we put up over 10,000 pages. Here's what I emailed around to everyone in our company this morning.

------------------------------

I'm very pleased to say that alongside the release of Mathematica 8, a major revamp of wolfram.com has gone live, including:

- Cleaner homepage that will increasingly represent all Wolfram company activities, not only Mathematica
- Completely revised Mathematica section, including features, customer stories and of course...
-  ...what's new (where for the first time we've added top reasons to upgrade and features by version)
- Different types of video to describe Mathematica, in particular the quick tour and feature spotlights (pop both from pages I linked)
- Solutions page refreshes including major revision of higher-ed and student sites
- Transformed home edition section
- New support center
- And the new, modern navigation style

I hope you like it all, and agree that it puts many, much larger companies to shame!

Please join me in congratulating the many groups that have pulled this together over more than a year--in particular design, tcs, marketing including project management, user experience, web implementation and video productions.

The complexity of satisfaction

We're in the final throes of getting Mathematica 8 out.

It's a massive task. As with each release, it's a far more complex piece of engineering than its predecessor. But so too is our build process, to handle that. Which complexity wins? Is it a more or less fraught process each release? Don't ask me in the next week(!) but I think the release process satisfaction index is improving.

Of course it's not just for Mathematica builds that there are rapidly escalating complexity or expectation competitions. It's a common facet of modern life. Cameras, computer games, smartphones and many other gadgets run this gauntlet. Beating expectations is key to individual satisfaction, though the absolute level of achievement is important to mass adoption of the genre in question.

Key to my satisfaction with products is depth of design: as I discover more, do I like it more or less? Or to put it another way, is the product's satisfaction derivative positive with time? Because I tend persevere with products, I get to the point of sampling this eventual rather than just initial satisfaction; many don't; and to figure it out upfront with complex, modern products is pretty hard.

Am I an Apple or a Droid?

Well, neither I hope...

But I have found the recent experience of picking my new primary smartphone to be as much about subscribing to a philosophy as to deciding on a product. Is it to be locked-down minimalism of Apple or overwhelmingly open Android?

Whichever optimisation one chooses, this much is clear: interface design is now centre-stage. It's the ability to access features rather than the availability of the raw feature itself that's so often the limiting factor to its use.

And almost everyone's tuned in---even a technophile like me. I'm irrationally persistent at getting stuff to work that's more-or-less impossible to work. In the past, I so needed the last ounce of raw capability that I'd grudgingly sacrifice clean design (which I've always cared a great deal about) if needs be. Now I won't. Because if I do, I actually lose the practical functionality. Clean workflows no longer offer better access to power, they themselves increasingly manifest it.

For me, 2010 is the year when design met functionality for smartphones--whether the iPhone's new functionality to match its stupendous design or Android phones like the HTC Desire got the design to leverage and build on high-level underlying functionality.

One more thing. Can you tell who's an Apple and who's a Droid before you see their phone? I'm learning.

 

Computer-based math @ TED

Amazing reaction to my TED talk starting (even though it will be a while before the video's up...and I can see exactly what I did say!).

So many people at the conference telling me they'd been put off traditional maths and would have found what I'm proposing so much better--more interesting and more useful.

Also got asked for any examples of computer-based maths to play with, like I showed.  One source: 6000+ at our Demonstrations site (get the free Player download from it to interact).

Please do continue to leave ideas and comments.

Making "knowledge apps" as easily as charts

Tomorrow we're holding our first Computational Knowledge Summit and in preparation for my opening talk I made this simple knowledge app example so I can demo it live.

With our forthcoming widget-building technology and Wolfram|Alpha API, it was pretty much as simple to make as a chart, yet it's packed-in a vastly higher density of information.

Watch this space!

 

Computing the path to web3.0?

I keep being asked about web3.0, including this week by ITPro.

Well, unsurprisingly, I don't presume to know what will mark out this new integer. But I do think real-time content that's computed and computes will be pretty significant to the web's future development.

Here's where I'm coming from.

Most definitions of web2.0 seem to boil down to "users making the content", often where immediacy is crucial to its significance. But there's also real-time content that's computer generated, where a new answer is made through real-time processing of existing or web2.0 style base content.

Custom, interactive apps made on-the-fly just for you: that's a paradigm shift I'm looking forward to.