Category Archives: technology

Great scientists don’t need maths, apparently.

Seriously. This from a professor emeritus in Harvard.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case.

An outlier, in other words.

I have problems with this piece, not least because in discussions about mathematical ability most people are not so worried about the lack of access to seriously high level mathematics, but the basic stuff that a) makes it easier to survive modern life without being ripped off and b) makes it easier to find higher paying jobs. But this guy is talking about the higher level stuff required to support leaps forward in science, not the every day sort of stuff.

Extreme cases are not generally applicable and if he is such a great scientist, regardless of what his field of study, he should be aware of this.


The rush to apps…

A little while ago, I noticed that if I tried to open a link to a major property website in Ireland, it insisted on sending me to an unknown protocol and demanded that I used its app.

The website in question has a website. It may not be completely pretty on a mobile browser, but you know, sometimes I am in a hurry. And when I am opening a link from an email either in an email application which has a local browser or from web readable email in something like Chrome or Safari, I expect the link to open. I don’t expect to be told the browser doesn’t recognise the protocol and I don’t expect to be told that the company has an app and then be redirected to the app store to get it.

I expect the page to open.

I realise there has been some serious bandwagoning around app development – but the problem is this. We’re moving to web based applications via a browser on desktops – slowly – but we’re getting there. To quote that nice Mr Randall Munro, at XKCD:


But we seem to be moving in the other direction on mobile. I don’t want 100 applications on my phone. I don’t need an app for every individual company whose website I wish to browse. Already, at least one company that I can think of (but won’t name) has an app which doesn’t even include the key functionality I need from that company. And they are still pushing me to use their app.

This is not stepping forward. It’s stepping backwards. If this is the future, I really, really don’t want it.

I have a browser for a reason.  I expect to be able to browse data on the web in it. I expect not to need a proprietary application per company to get at their online store front.

I know you’ve got an app for that but

…it doesn’t do what I want it to do.

This rush to put out apps for mobile devices is completely futile if your app has less functionality than your website does. And continually insisting on tell me about your app which is crippled compared to your website is a futile exercise if you want to win my heart and mind. I’ve downloaded your app. It’s functionally useless for why I want to visit your website. If I visit your website from a mobile device, serve me the link I clicked on and stop giving me a page that says your app exists and I should download it. I ALREADY HAVE AND IT DOESN’T DO WHAT I NEED IT TO DO.

Have you got that? I click on a link in my email to a page on your website and I can’t get to it because you’ve blocked it with a demand to download your app.






There is no point in having a mobile app for the sake of having a mobile app.

My way or the high way.


Alexandra Samuel wrote a piece on notetaking. It was quite breathtaking. It opened as follows:

I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.

It caused what might best be described as a shitstorm, and seems to have topped out at 304 comments, the overwhelming majority of which were not in favour of the piece. She then wrote a piece about the reaction here where again, the majority of comments gently pointed out that a look in the mirror to remove the plank from her eye might be in order before criticising much of what was said to her.

I have a lot of problems with the piece, the key one being, anyone who meets other people with that sort of attitude; the attitude that her way with her digital gadgets and toys was better than anyone else’s way of organising aide memoires. The simple truth is, it probably isn’t. Certainly, it’s not straight forward that all the digital productive tools in the world make you more productive. What – in my experience – tends to make you more productive is not feeling you have to justify every single little way of doing things.

I own a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. The laptop runs Windows, the rest is iOS. I also have a lot of notebooks not because they make me less productive but because they cause me to be more productive. Basic day to day list? It’s faster to write it down and tick it off. Mindmapping? Quicker to pull out software. Reflecting on life in general? I’ve kept a journal since I was 19 years old. There’s something inherently more valuable about it than files which go missing and get corrupt.

There is a common view that previous generations before us will have left more of a footprint via their books and their monuments than we will. We may generally produce a huge amount more information than the generations before us, but we do not do very much to retain it. Already, data saved in the 1950s and 1960s is getting harder and impossible to retrieve because we just don’t have the technology. Our technology cycles are changing and information is dying, in some respects, faster than it did 100 years ago.

Important things to me, my life, and my feelings, go in notebooks.

What worried me most about the whole piece was not so much the massively condescending piece as it was published originally although I really do have to say that it came across as childish and condescending, but the overwhelming lack of understanding why she might not be right. This came across in her replies to comments across the piece. For example, she really doesn’t get that a lot of companies for legal and regulatory reasons just are not allowed to use services like Evernote. It’s not a question of a manager being an old fogey that she can write to and point out the errors of their ways so that a bunch of people wind up with laptops and iPads.

As it happens, I don’t think that laptops and iPads enhance listening. My experience is that people who are typing are not processing information at all. I’m a very fast typist – I typically averaged 120wpm in English in my admin days. Alone of all my colleagues, I could type from live dictation. This means that as fast as you spoke, I typed. And as a special trick, I could type in English what you said to me in French.

For a good typist, the iPad keyboard is basically unworkable. Typing things puts a constraint on how you describe unstructured data. Most meetings consist of unstructured data; they consist of brainstorming, problem solving.

Being honest, were I to walk into a meeting with someone like Alexandra, weighed down by her laptop and her iPad, I’d wonder if she really had any interest in the meeting at all. Oh it’s not because I think she’ll be checking her email or her twitter or her Facebook while I’m describing whatever problem we are here to resolve. It’s because I know that people who are typing are not absorbing. This is why, perhaps, Alexandra needs the crutch of search and retrieval of her digital tools. People who remember more get more done.

I think Alexandra, in stating that you don’t have to remember things because it’s all in Evernote, has missed that minor detail.

I should note she has a book on Evernote as a tool available at the moment.


So what would be an elite technology company then?

About a week ago, I had a discussion on twitter about this article.

Facebook is not an elite company

(from the San Francisco Chronicle)

The list is a short one. Usually, it includes Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and (debatably) Microsoft.

This is the interesting quote.

Different things are essential to different people. So I’d argue that in the grand scheme of things, I’d be severely discommoded without Microsoft and Google but life without Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, provided at least one bookshop was still open, would probably be   well more than survivable.

For me, when we have conversations like this, I don’t like to see sentences like this, however:

For the sake of this scenario, we’re not talking about behind-the-scene all-stars like Nvidia, IBM and Intel, but the companies that people interact with every day.

The simple truth is people interact with IBM, Nvidia and Intel every day of their lives, but the crucial difference is they often don’t know it. In my view, if you took IBM away, you really wouldn’t have much left. You’d potentially have a banking system and aviation system in serious crisis. Pretending they are excluded just because people don’t load stuff up in a browser is missing the point if we’re trying to identify the elite companies; the ones we cannot do without. To some extent, there are replacements for every single product and producer on the list the article was willing to look at, but it’s not anywhere near so straightforward for the second list, the list we don’t want to talk about. The justification for including Amazon has nothing to do with its retail arm and everything to do with the fact that a lot of other sites are hosted on their AWS, for example, something which an awful lot of people don’t know. This puts them in the same box as the IBM systems underpinning the banks and many of the airlines. It’s what you don’t deal with on a day to day basis which is most critical. And that’s what makes the elite companies elite.

An open letter to Twitter


Thanks for the promoted tweet from eToro. I seem to see them regularly.

I understand that you have a business. From my point of view, promoted tweets are little more than ads, or marketing junk. I’d like to be able to switch off promoted tweets from eToro. I’m just not interested.

I get the need to monetise your product. Google manages to ship me reasonably relevant advertising in my Gmail. YOu get a lot more information out me so….why do I get ads for Apple Stock?

I read a piece Hilary Mason wrote the other day about interview questions for data science questions. She said she’d ask what, based on your knowledge of’s data, you would do that they are not doing.

Well I don’t know for to be honest. I don’t use the service quite enough to comment. However, where Twitter is concerned, I’d do a better job on contextualising the inline advertising. Take me. It’s clear from the accounts I follow, the links I follow, the posts I make, even my description that I have certain specialised interests….photography. Surf. Kitesurf. Computer related stuff. Travel.

Nowhere in my account is any evidence that I am interested in eToro’s services. But I wouldn’t object to more relevant tasting promoted tweets, so how about it? Are you working in that area at all?







Where do you want to volunteer today.

I had a long conversation with someone about volunteering the other day, someone who has spent a good deal of working life outside Ireland. Specifically he was talking about volunteering time to help local schools with tech knowledge transfer and training. In addition to that, someone sent me this this morning via twitter and it got me thinking about how it can be done rather than the barriers that tend to block it. Obviously there are elements of that last one that are irrelevant to kids outside America because we’ve different ways of doing things but some of the general comments about approaching problems of this nature and how girls tend not to push themselves are not yet history.

I did, at some point during my college years volunteer to help students in disadvantaged areas with some tuition for state exams but I don’t know, given the change in legislation and the need for background vetting whether programs like this still exist. I also like a lot what James Whelton has done with CoderDojo, and things like the Mathsjam movement.

I’m also aware that there is a lot of concern about maths teaching in secondary schools, the perception of maths as hard, as somewhere we’re poorly performing and from past personal experience, the lack of support, sometimes, for girls doing maths. I had a great, great maths teacher at secondary school – I gather he’s a head teacher somewhere now. But he had one hell of a battle and argument to try and keep girls from dropping out of the higher level maths courses.

So I’m looking at the possibility of setting up maths clubs not unlike the coderdojo idea but with some mad cross between mathsjam for kids, purely on a voluntary basis, or possibly going out as a speaker to secondary schools and colleges be it under the auspices of some sort of future planning/careers talks (do we still even do these) or some sort of maths talks and I really, really need to know what I need to know what from a legal standpoint…


Data science

The last few weeks have been pretty busy on the assignment front as there were three in total due in the last couple of weeks, two maths and one statistics so I am really only catching on up on things here.

I started studying mathematics and statistics for a couple of reasons; (i) I liked mathematics a lot as a kid, but when push came to shoved aged 17, languages got higher up the priority list and (ii) the amount of data in the world is increasing; the number of people equipped to interpret it however doesn’t seem to be increasing. Also increasing are the number of people creating information graphics and data visualisations.

Some people are very good at this. The New York Times, for example, do sterling work in this area, as does the Office for National Statistics in the UK.

Some are not so good in interpreting underlying data. I’ve seen one absolutely beautifully drawn graphic that purported to display the strength of FaceBook in the social media world which compared FaceBook pageloads with Flickr image uploads. A fairer comparison would be pageloads for both sites. And this is a very simple criticism.

In other words, without a reasonable grounding in data analysis, it probably isn’t guaranteed that good datagraphics are going to appear.

Big Data is a buzzword which is turning up in my newsfeeds increasingly often. I’m not always sure what people understand by it but it is definitely flavour of the month and so we turn to this report from Silicon Republic on the subject of support for data science courses.

I am of the opinion that STEM (not sure I like that term for science, technology and maths courses but it has its uses) is definitely something worth investing in the future. However, like a lot of things, important and all as it is, it isn’t often adequately rewarded economically. Here, there are debates about how much people working in universities get paid; typically in the UK, funding for research is falling, and a lot of privately funded research is moving out of the UK, or its validity is being criticised purely on the grounds of the commercial nature of its funding (see pharmaceutical research as an example here – it is difficult to make any conclusion without some accusation of bias). In certain respects, research into options for the future is between a rock and a hard place.

EMC are best known to me for data storage. It’s interesting to see one of their senior guys talking about the importance of data science and I’d be interested to know if it’s coming from their interest in providing storage for large, nay massive quantities of data, or whether they also have some interest in how that information is organised. Obviously the big name in terms of how information is organised is Google. I will be interested to see if UCC do actually put a data science course together.

In the meantime, I have another 3-4 years of my own maths/stats to go and no doubt, the industry will change a bit again in that time.


Bottling Silicon Valley

One of our TDs took himself off to Silicon Valley a while back to see what was special about the place and more to the point, could we create something similar here in Ireland. In a way, it was a laudable objective, and you can read the article he wrote subsequent to the trip here.

I honestly believe that collective will would allow something special to be created here; but that will isn’t something you’d find in SIlicon Valley. There are a couple of things which make the Valley special – I’m not necessarily going to go into this in detail but the following are obvious advantages:

  • proximity to high quality education
  • infrastructure
  • access to finance

There are a couple of other small items as well such as greater tolerance of business failure, and faster recovery from said business failure.

Eoghan Murphy didn’t really talk about these in detail except the business failure side of things; he concentrated on solutions that involved importing people, via programs of paying people’s salaries, for example.

I’m not sure this is the way to look at things. We need to teach people to have ideas, and the faith that they can carry them through. Ireland is appalling at this; I suspect, in part, because of the social judgmentalism which I think the Catholic Church gifted us. How we judge people’s success is depressing. It’s not often because they have created something special, but only because they went to the right schools, or, made money and talk to the right people.

In my view, the ecosystem which is Silicon Valley, or some functional equivalent, might be better grown here if we look at two key things:

  • education system
  • how we fund start ups.

We do neither particularly well. If you look at both Facebook (which I don’t like) and Google, both of them grew out college projects to some extent. In the early days of Google (and if you have not read In the Plex by Steven Levy you should), they got huge support from Stanford University. It’s the sort of support that not one university here could do because they don’t really have the money.

Via a ridiculous job creation scheme, the government appropriated money from pension funds to do something about our unemployment. If we want to create something innovative and special here, Job Bridge was not where we should have put the money; and nor is it in “trying to create Silicon Valley”.

We have some useful advantages here. We have the wherewithal to build decent data centres. We have the wherewithal to teach people to exploit them. That is where I’d like to see that money going; into the future and not just the present.