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 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 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".