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Govt report on implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report into the implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research. The report is accompanied by a set of conclusions and recommendations.

By the way: the implications of Brexit (if indeed the UK ends up going through with it! So much is uncertain, even now) are massive and widespread. Science and engineering are only one of the many big issues that need to be considered. But as a UK sci/eng researcher I have good reasons to pay attention to this side of things! It's not about how much money I get. It's about whether the UK will be maintaining its attractive leading edge in research, as I said before the vote.

There are some really sound recommendations in there. Recommendation #4 is good: the Government should articulate a "genuinely comprehensive strategy for communicating its messages of ongoing support for science and research in the context of its plans for leaving the EU and the negotiations to follow." Why is this important? Because the Brexit vote itself send a message round the world about what kind of place Britain was, to existing and potential researchers. On top of that, really unfortunate messages were sent when certain government ministers talked casually about whether or not EU nationals would be allowed to stay in the country. So the Government has some work to do, to make sure the researchers of the future - currently planning to apply for PhDs, choosing courses/locations, and looking at global politics with eyebrows raised - understand that we want to work with them and we plan to treat them honourably.

This goes hand-in-hand with recommendation #6 and #7: mobility is crucial for research, and it'd be shooting ourselves in the foot to forget that. The Government's choice of negotiating position is going to make a massive difference here: how will they balance freedom-of-movement (though it's not my own wish to reduce it, a Brexit would be rather hollow if it didn't do so) against the access to market/finance which they seem to be expending the most energy worrying about? But in order for UK research to flourish, researchers from other countries - both present and future - need to know that they're welcome here and not threatened by uncertainty.


Frankly, though, I'm still left with the feeling "Why the hell are we still going through with this stupid idea?" I respect the outcome of the referendum but it expressed the nation's preferences, not any actual plan - and the elephant in the room is that any actual specific choice of Brexit is going to be one that the majority of people think is stupid and unjust - both the ones who voted for it as well as the ones who voted against it.


Read the recommendations in full - they are sensible.

Monday 21st November 2016 | politics | Permalink / Comment

Butternut squash toad-in-the-hole

This is a good hearty Sunday lunch for a vegetarian. One thing I'm missing as I increase my vegetarian-ness is something that's a proper centrepiece for a Sunday roast - those "nut roast" things which are fairly common are OK but I don't think I've had one that could outshine the roast potatoes on a plate. Anyway toad to the rescue. Of course you can do toad-in-the-hole with veggy sausages, but this here is great and not pretending to be anything it isn't!

Serves 2. Takes about 90 minutes in total, including a lot of oven-time where you can do other things.

I recommend you serve this with onion and red wine gravy (takes about 30 mins in a gentle pan), and have some raspberry vinegar available to sprinkle on the pud.

Untitled
  • 1/2 a butternut squash (easiest to use the top half for this one)
  • 75 ml milk
  • 75 ml water
  • 65 g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp mustard
  • 1 egg

With a whisk or a fork, mix the milk, water and egg. Whisk the flour in, beating out any lumps. Now let this batter stand for a little while, e.g. 15 minutes, though it can easily rest for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 210 C.

Peel the squash and cut it into big thick fingers, like oversized chunky chips. (This is easiest if you're using the top of the squash and not the lower half with the seeds.)

Brush a roasting tray with oil (olive or vegetable) and then spread the squash pieces out on it. Drizzle over some more oil then roast the squash in the oven for about 40 minutes. They're going to get a bit more cooking after this, so they don't need to be "done" - they need to be at the point where they're just starting to soften and to get some darkening caramelisation at the edges.

While the squash is roasting, prepare the roasting tin in which you'll cook the toad. This needs to be at least 1 inch deep. Put a good glug of vegetable oil in, and then put this in the oven alongside the other stuff, so the tin and the oil can pre-heat to a good hot heat.

Take the squash out of the oven. If you leave them out a couple of minutes, they'll cool a bit so they're easier to handle in the next step.

Next is assembling the toad. It has to be done quickly! So that everything's hot in the hot tin. Quickly get the hot tin from the oven, pour the batter into it, then place the squash pieces one-by-one into the middle of the batter with a bit of space between them - and immediately return this to the hot oven and shut the door. This then cooks for 20-25 minutes until the batter is risen and crusty, the squash is nicely cooked and getting a nice roast colour.

If you have more pieces of squash than you can accommodate in the tin, simply put them back on the roasting tray and continue to roast them. You can serve them alongside.

Sunday 6th November 2016 | recipes | Permalink / Comment

Vegetarian food in Paris

While in Paris briefly (on my way somewhere else), I decided to go only to vegetarian restaurants. This helps to narrow down the list!

The curiously-named Sense.eat is an Italian veggy restaurant right in the centre of town, just a touch south of the river. Friendly and efficient atmosphere, and lots of really nice flavours. It was a good sign when they served a little starting-taste of creamed sweet potato garnished with wafer-thin slices of yellow beetroot - delicious flavour, expertly done. Then, for my starter, I had a puree of... well I don't really know how to translate what I had, but let's say a puree of some sort of pea, with courgette flowers, topped with fried kale and pumpkin seeds. It tasted ace.

For the main course I went for the fancy-sounding tofu crusted with quinoa, served with a big mushroom and a mushroomy broth. The tofu was fine, but to be honest not really more than the sum of its parts. The mushroom and the broth tasted really deeply though. You can't tell from a photo whether it's just a mushroom or something more, but rest assured it was really flavourful:

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Later the same day I ate in Brasserie Lola. The fun thing about Brasserie Lola is that it's vegan but they basically keep that a secret - you can't tell from outside, in fact you can't really tell from the menu unless you peer really closely and wonder why the cheeseburger involves "seitan".

I had said cheeseburger and chips, and it's good. I also had a nice starter of leeks in vinaigrette. The sorbet I had for afters was a bit marred by being covered in cream (wtf?) but never mind. The place is nice and has a good feel to it, classic French brasserie style.

I've got to give credit to happycow.net for helping me find both these places.

Sunday 30th October 2016 | food | Permalink / Comment

Vegetarian armoury: things you might need

I've been cooking more and more vegetarian food this year. It's better for the climate and why not. You don't have to give anything up, in my opinion - you don't ned to go full veggy, just go in that direction.

So, to mark World Vegetarian Day here are my secrets, as a meat-eater, for how I'm cooking vegetarian for myself and not going hungry or getting bored. It's not really a glamorous list. The point is everyday eating. These are things that I didn't always have in the past but are now really handy go-to things to have in the cupboard:

  • Halloumi - lasts ages in the fridge. It's a classic veggie standby but the main reason I've added it is I've worked out a few different recipes with it - it's not just a one-trick pony. Most veggies will tell you "just grill it and eat it, it's lovely" but you need to have a few options. One unusual but easy and good is griddled halloumi+carrot+orange - a trick I got from the "River Cottage Fruit" cookbook - those three flavours go together great as a fast warm salad.
  • Black beans - a tin of black beans is really handy. A full flavour, and versatile. My top tip is my "black bean chorizo": Drain & mash 1 tin black beans, marinate with red wine, paprika, fennel, crushed garlic, salt&pepper. Then keep that in a sealed box in the fridge - it lasts for weeks and weeks and you can add a dab to stews or whatever to add a deep developed flavour that sometimes is missing from veggy life. Other things you can do with black beans include putting them in a wrap/taco, using them in stews, salads, you get the idea.
  • Puy lentils (ready-cooked and vacuum packed) - a pack lasts for ever in the cupboard, can be an emergency meal in itself, and is a great ingredient for a roast tomato lasagne, or a stew. The roast tomato lasagne is a great recipe in Take One Veg by Georgina Fuggle.
  • Chickpeas - kinda obvious, but: chickpeas are (a) handy for curries or tagines, (b) can be whizzed up for a nice fresh hummus at the drop of a hat, and as a bonus trick, (c) the water from a tin of chickpeas can be used for those bonkers vegan meringues.
  • Spinach - lasts ages in the fridge, and versatile - it can be salad, or cooked, or put into curries etc.
  • Cauliflower/broccoli - in British cookery, the tradition is to have these as just a veg on the side of your meat dish. But a cauliflower or a broccoli can totally be the centrepiece of lots of good veggie main courses. Cauliflower cheese is an obvious one. Roasted cauli/broccoli makes a good basis for a warm salad like this one. This year has also seen lots of recipes for "cauliflower couscous" or "cauliflower pesto" in which you put a cauliflower in a blender. Not my favourite thing to do with a cauli, I'll admit, but at least it's showing its adaptability.
  • Nuts! I've now got an old ice-cream tub full of different types of nuts. peanuts (plain), almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, etc etc. again, they last forever, they add protein and sweetness and variety, and yeah loads of recipes.

None of this is big news, especially not to anyone who's already a vegetarian. But if you're a meat eater, try getting these things in stock, and adding a couple more recipes to your inventory.

There are a couple of things not included in that list above. I'm too impatient to spend a lot of time with tofu (I don't see why I should spend ages marinating tofu to add some flavour to it, when I could just fry some halloumi or some paneer instead), though I love tofu in a thai green curry. Avocados are great but they don't last long, they're expensive, and although people do various weird things with avocados (like make cakes from them), I usually find the best thing to do with an avocado is just to eat it!

Sunday 2nd October 2016 | food | 1 Comment

Some papers seen at MLSP 2016

MLSP 2016 - i.e. the IEEE International Workshop on Machine Learning for Signal Processing - was a great, well-organised workshop, held last week on Italy's Amalfi coast. (Yes, lovely place to go for work - if only I'd had some spare time for sightseeing on the side! Anyway.)

Here are a few of the papers that caught my interest:

  • Approximate State-Space Gaussian Processes Via Spectral Transformation by Toni Karvonen and Simo Särkkä. This is an important contribution to the current work on Gaussian processes and in particular on running efficient Gaussian process inference. It builds on other work from the Särkkä lab converting Gaussian processes to state-space models, which often involves a (mild) approximation. This paper introduces some new methods in that vein, with proofs, and in fact the paper includes various ways to approximate a GP. A veritable mathematical toolkit. It seems the Taylor expansion (the most immediately comprehensible IMHO) is not the best.

Actually, there was substantial work involving Gaussian processes at MLSP. Is it a growth area? Well, if the use of GPs can be made more scalable (as in the above paper) then yes, it certainly should be. They are a very flexible and general tool, and nicely Bayesian too. Richard Turner's keynote about Gaussian processes was a beautiful introduction - he manages to make GPs extremely understandable. If you get a chance to see him speak on them then do.

  • Localizing Users And Items From Paired Comparisons by O'Shaughnessy and Davenport. This is a nicely conceived addition to the literature on recommendation algorithms, and with good demonstrations of how the approach is robust to issues such as incoherent paired comparisons.
  • "Data Privacy Protection By Kernel Subspace Projection And Generalized Eigenvalue Decomposition" by Diamantaras and Kung. Privacy-preserving computing is an important area for current research. It's made obvious when we see how much a large company like Facebook or Tesco can infer about its users. Here, the authors treat privacy as a classification task - i.e. the data to be kept private is some kind of discrete label - and they apply an LDA-like method: maximise the scatter between the target classes for the "allowed" task, while minimising the scatter between the private classes. (I raised an issue with their "Privacy Index", noting that the desired accuracy for the private task was not in fact zero but ignorance. I'd presume that a metric based on mutual information would be a nice alternative.)
  • "Scale and shift invariant time/frequency representation using auditory statistics: application to rhythm description" by Marchand and Peeters. They use the "Scale Transform", a class of Mellin transform. Equivalent to exponentially time-warping a signal then weighting by an exponential window. Since it's not shift-invariant you don't want to apply it directly to audio, but to e.g. autocorrelation. From there, they argue you get a good featureset for characterising musical rhythm.
  • Score-Matching Estimators For Continuous-Time Point-Process Regression Models by Sahani, Bohner and Meyer - good to see this. I've been using point process models to analyse bird communication and so I'm interested in efficient ways to do such analysis, which commonly seem to come from the computational neuroscience literature at the moment. Notable that this approach doesn't require any time discretisation, so could be useful. The functions analysed need to be differentiable, so to work with impulsive time series they actually convolve/correlate them with basis functions; feels like a minor hack but there you go.

Also, I was very pleased that Pablo A Alvarado Duran presented his work on Gaussian processes for music audio modelling - his first publication as part of his PhD with me!

Sunday 18th September 2016 | science | Permalink / Comment

Some papers seen at InterSpeech 2016

InterSpeech 2016 was a very interesting conference. I have been to InterSpeech before, yes - but I'm not a speech-recognition person so it's not my "home" conference. I was there specifically for the birds/animals special session (organised by Naomi Harte and Peter Jancovic), but it was also a great opportunity to check in on what's going on in speech technology research.

Here's a note of some of the interesting papers I saw. I'll start with some of the birds/animals papers:

That's not all the bird/animal papers, sorry, just the ones I have comments about.

And now a sampling of the other papers that caught my interest:

  • Retrieval of Textual Song Lyrics from Sung Inputs by Anna Kruspe. Nice to see work on aligning song lyrics against audio recordings - it's something that the field of MIR is in need of. The example application here is if you sing a few words, can a system retrieve the right song audio from a karaoke database?
  • The auditory representation of speech sounds in human motor cortex - this journal article has some of the amazing findings presented by Eddie Chang in his fantastic keynote speech, discovering the way phonemes are organised in our brains, both for production and perception.
  • Today's Most Frequently Used F0 Estimation Methods, and Their Accuracy in Estimating Male and Female Pitch in Clean Speech by Sofia Strömbergsson. This survey is a great service for the community. The general conclusion is that Praat's pitch detection is really among the best off-the-shelf recommendations (for speech analysis, here - the evaluation hasn't been done for non-human sounds!).
  • Supervised Learning of Acoustic Models in a Zero Resource Setting to Improve DPGMM Clustering by Heck et al - "zero-resource" speech analysis is interesting to me because it could be relevant for bird sounds. "Zero resource" means analysing languages for which we have no corpora or other helpful data available - all we have is audio recordings. (Sounds familiar?) In this paper the authors used some adaptation techniques to improve a method introduced last year based on unsupervised nonparametric clustering.
  • Speech reductions cause a de-weighting of secondary acoustic cues by Varnet et al: a study of some niche aspects of human listening. Through tests of people listening to speech examples in noise they found that people's use of secondary cues - i.e. clues that help to distinguish one phoneme from another, which clues are embedded elsewhere in the word than the phoneme itself - changes according to the nature of the stimulus. Yet more evidence that perception is an active, context-sensitive process etc.

One thing you won't realise from my own notes is that InterSpeech was heavily dominated by deep learning. Convolutional neural nets (ConvNets), recurrent neural nets (RNNs), they were everywhere. Lots of discussion about connectionist temporal classification (CTC) - some people say it's the best, some people say it requires too much data to train properly, some people say they have other tricks so they can get away without it. It will be interesting to see how that discussion evolves. However, many of the other deep-learning based papers were much of a muchness: lots of people use a ConvNet or an RNN and, as we all know, in many cases they can get good results. They apply these to many tasks in speech technology. However, in many cases there was application without a whole lot of insight. That's the way the state of the art is at the moment, I guess. Therefore, many of my most interesting moments at InterSpeech were deep-learning-less :) see above.

(Also, I had to miss the final day, to catch my return flight. Wish I'd been able to go to the VAD and Audio Events session, for example.)

Another aspect of speech technology is the emphasis on public data challenges - there are lots of them! Speech recognition, speaker recognition, language recognition, distant speech recognition, zero-resource speech recognition, de-reverberation... Some of these have been running for years and the dedication of the organisers is worth praising. Useful to check in on how these things are organised, as we develop similar initiatives in general and natural sound scene analysis.

Sunday 18th September 2016 | science | Permalink / Comment
The Lancashire accent in pop music (Friday 2nd September 2016)
I bumped into the Iron Curtain (Monday 1st August 2016)
Food in the Bavarian Forest (Sunday 31st July 2016)
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