Cosmo Guessr?

May 31, 2013

I got hooked on GeoGuessr over the last few days. Apparently its the latest Internet Craze so I don’t feel so special, but I do feel a bit of a junkie. Its hard to stop. The idea is v.simple. They show you a Google Streetview image of some random place in the world. You can roam around somewhat with the usual arrows, looking at the vegetation, hunting for street signs, etc. Then you guess where you are by plonking a pin on the world map. The closer you get the more points you score.

The closest I’ve been is 62km, somewhere in Poland. Generally on a five-go game I am averaging about ten thousand points, corresponding to about 2000km out on average. I usually get the right continent… I do NOT search for things on the real Google. I decided that is cheating, although my kidz don’t agree. Sigh… the look-it-up generation.

My main conclusion is most of the world is scrub, and the rest looks vaguely like Kazakhstan.

So who is up for making CosmoGuessr? It would be easy to knock up using the Google API. Or perhaps Jonathan Fay could add it to World Wide Telescope. Actually this is likely to be the most boring game ever, because of the Cosmological Principle. Everywhere looks the same on average. Bunch of random galaxies. You would at least spot when you were at low galactic latitude I suppose, by seeing all those pesky stars. In fact maybe to work it has to be GalactoGuessr, confined to the Milky Way. Even then, could be a bit dull. If you happen to land bang on the Eagle Nebula or whatever you’d be in there, but otherwise… It would basically boil down to estimating (l, b) from star density. Or am I wrong?

Meanwhile, you can play with billion stars on our zoomable Milky Way from UKIDSS and VISTA data. Still an unofficial feature of our archives at the moment, but I am sure we will realise it sometime… While I am plugging (relatively) new stuff, check out the UKIDSS coverage maps. You can browse them in Aladin. Many thanks to our CDS chums for pushing this through the IVOA. (Hope you like the new look web pages btw). Anyway, enough VO-ish meanderings.


Call Off Christmas

May 20, 2013

Some interesting “MOOCs will change everything” stuff on the webby-media today. Although I blogged about this a short while ago, I am tempted to have another go. But while I think about this, here is something much sillier.

The Royal Institution have decided to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures”. No really. If you give a lecture at Christmas, and advertise it as a Christmas Lecture, you may be breaking the law. Here is their official statement, and here is a blog post by Ian Gent explaining why it is a very bad idea, as well as an unjustified one. Those of who follow Mike Merrifield on Twitter will know that he is particularly miffed, being already booked to give a series of Christmas Lectures this year… The official statement includes an email address if you’d like to discuss this with the RI…

Well. We understand why they are doing it I suppose. But yea verily, it is an silly idea. Here is Alan Rickman in his classic impersonation of a stressed out RI Director :


Holiday Harper

May 6, 2013

Just over a year back i wrote a post glue-ing together video-music clips from four ages of Joni Mitchell. There is a strange feeling of resolution tracing the history of creative artists – musicians, actors, writers – whose lives have paralleled your own, maybe ten years ahead. Because I can’t quite work out whether I am on holiday or not, I will start the morning with another hippy music arc-of-life trip. Here is another singer-songwriter who has intrigued, moved, and baffled me in almost equal measure over four decades : Roy Harper. Many will know him as that bloke what Zeppelin wrote a song for, or the geezer what sang on that Pink Floyd number. A smaller number of dedicated fans see him as one of the key hippy bards of the sixties. At that time I still preferred childish pursuits like cricket in the park. I turned onto him in the early seventies in my undergraduate days. My copy of Stormcock is worn paper thin.

Here is the brash young man, on a mystery recording that may or may not have in Sweden in 1969, singing Hells Angels. He looks scarily like I did in 1973 when I first heard him – long fair hair, scruffy beard, friendly but sarcastic. (Free speech ! One each !)

In 1971 Harper produced something quite unique on Stormcock – four extended and meandering pieces with striking but baffling lyrics. (I never know what time of day it is, on my battlefield of ideas.) At the same time he is still writing simpler but beautiful songs, soaked in memory and vibrations of lost opportunity. Here he is in 1974, a smooth and mature performer on the safe-as-milk Beeb Two show The Old Grey Whistle Test, singing Commune :

Through the later seventies and eighties Harper split into two halves, writing rock songs, but also even more songs awash with nostalgia and the passage of time, like When An Old Cricketer Leases The Crease. Meanwhile, he is still performing the extra-ordinary work from Stormcock. Here is the middle aged artist on an Australian TV show in 1986, performing One Man Rock and Roll Band on semi-electric guitar. It has evolved into something somehow fluid and phantasmagorical :

Finally here is Roy in his seventies, playing on Later with Jools Holland in 2011. I have chosen his performance of Another Day, a famous song from the the 1970 album Flat Baroque and Berserk. (Younger folk will know the cover version by This Mortal Coil). I think of this song as the hippy version of To His Coy Mistress. (Oh really my dear / I can’t see what we fear / Sat here with ourselves in between us.) It is very moving to hear an old man singing such a song from his youth. What was, and what could have been.

I am aware that all the songs I have chosen were written in a short window of time, given Roy’s five decade writing career. But they were the nicest video clips, and show the man evolving if not the songs.

Hats Off To Harper.


End of the University Part II/III : online education

May 1, 2013

Oh dear. Everybody knows you should never write Paper I unless you really are going to do Papers II, III etc. Posterity looks unkindly on failed pomposity. Back in November I wrote End of the University : Part I which was about the Browne report and a naive approach to “student choice”. I think perhaps I can count The Big REF Gamble as Part II – lots of us are investing for success, hiring new staff before the REF, but we can’t all win. These are both examples of market disruption, which may force a re-structuring. You may have various opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

So what about good old disruptive technology? The music business got turned upside down by the internet and file sharing, and the book business is likewise in turmoil. The disruptive technology here is the ease of copying. The reaction of entrenched commercial interests was the development of digital restrictions management. Whatever you think of that, the market structures are re-forming, and we need to get used to the idea that we don’t own works of art, we rent them – or if you like, we pay for performances. Of course the logic that follows is that payment for performance should go straight to the artist – who needs the middleman?

So can the same thing happen to education? They key thing here is not ease of copying but economy of scale. Hundreds of years ago we invented lectures so we could teach 150 students at a time instead of 5. Now we can do thousands at a time. My own university has started its own experimentation with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). My colleague Charles Cockell ran a five week course in Astrobiology. Forty-one thousand students registered, and five thousand survived the whole course. I am toying with another course idea myself, along with the boundlessly energetic Dr H. Well this is very exciting of course, but you start to wonder why anybody would pay nine thousand sponduliks for a university degree from the University of West Somerset when they can sit on their sofa and take courses from Harvard…

One answer is assessment and another is feedback, and the whole business of giving credit. Marking exams has not gotten any more efficient, and likewise the provision of individual feedback. Multiple Choice Quizzes are good, but not enough. If somebody can solve this problem, things will really change. This recent Guardian article reports the debate in California about whether MOOCs will allow private providers to move into education.

Meanwhile, it could well be that content delivery and assessment will decouple. Oh what interesting times.