Interlude (on Miserable at Best)

Interlude (on Miserable at Best)
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Last December, I wrote a short piano Interlude on Mayday Parade’s “Miserable at Best“.

The composition was inspired by two girls in my music class, who insisted on performing a rendition of this song before almost every lesson. They were very surprised to arrive to a lesson one day and hear it already being played, albeit in a very different form to how they normally perform it.

Sheet music is available here.

Young Rewired State 2013

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For the past week, hundreds of young people around the UK have been gradually reducing their sleeping hours, subjecting themselves to education, enduring intense discussions, and increasing their stress levels. But the most important part? They loved every second of it.

Since 2009, Young Rewired State have hosted an annual, week-long programming event. It started out as a small affair, with just 50 young people attending the first affair; now it is much larger, with hundreds attending and many prestigious judges. I was lucky enough to attend both this year and last year, which were hosted at The Custard Factory in Birmingham. After an impressive turnout last year, however, it was decided that new nighttime accommodation was required. Millenium Point stepped up to the plate, offering a greatly increased space for sleeping.

This was both a blessing and a curse, however. Sadly, power points were at something of a premium, since there were very many programmers and very few sockets. This fact, though, did contribute to an increased average sleeping time compared to last year as laptops slowly ran out of charge during the small hours – surely a good thing? Despite the single hiccup, the weekend was mostly very well organised. Meal times were processed incredibly quickly and the heats didn’t overrun by more than ten minutes.

From Monday to Thursday, us teenagers were distributed at almost 40 centres around the country, furiously hacking away at open data, ably led by volunteers. On Friday, hundreds of us all jumped onto trains, in order to convene in Birmingham. We spend the rest of the day listening to talks by a wide array of talented and interesting people, being entertained by music, eating pizza, making friends, reuniting with people from last year, and (of course) hacking.

The judging took place on Saturday, and the grand finale took place on Sunday, judged by great people, including Conrad Wolfram, creator of Wolfram Alpha (the clue is in the name) and Aral Balkan. I was particularly moved by Aral, whose enthusiasm and pleasantness radiated. He was always available to help with technical problems, always attentive, always instructive, and always inspiring – yet still not afraid to speak his mind. I very much look forward to seeing him on the panel next year, if that is on the cards!

All in all, YRS was a really great event, and I will definitely be attending next year. I very much encourage anybody sitting on the fence about going next year to take the plunge and go for it. Onwards and upwards!

Christmas in July

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Jonathan Coulton has been one of my favourite artists ever since the first time I played Portal. Sadly, that makes me one of the fans who missed the weekly releases in 2006, although to my credit I was only 9 at the time! I went to see him live some time last year, but since then, I have sadly neglected him.

It was no surprise, then, that I missed the release of “One Christmas at a Time” last year. John Roderick (of “Nemeses” fame) again teamed up with Jonathan Coulton to craft this album, consisting of 9 original songs and a reimagining of “Christmas is Interesting”. The story goes that Roderick and Coulton set out to record an album of Christmas song covers, but having grown dissatisfied with the current standards and their difficulty to relate to, decided to write their own songs instead. It’s a great tale, whether you believe it or not.

The album includes a song about That Present You Wanted More Than Any But Didn’t Get (“2600″), That Awkward Relative (“Uncle John”) and others – classics which we will surely relate to for years. This album also demonstrates JoCo’s continued move towards more sentimental songs (something I believe that was first evidenced proper with “Redshirt”) with “The Week Between” – a spine-tinglingly gentle song about the week between Christmas and New Year. If you’re still not convinced, two of the songs are available for free at Paste.

For more information about One Christmas at a Time, visit Jonathan Coulton’s website. For now, I’ll be enjoying a rather late Christmas celebration with the fitting “Christmas in July”.

UKMT Maths Summer Camp

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Throughout the summer holidays, the UK Maths Trust runs a series of summer schools which aim to teach young adults a little more about maths than they learn at school. Most of them are based in the UK, but a select few are hosted abroad, including a particularly revered one in Hungary. Typically, they last 5 days to a week, and about 40 students attend. They are invitation-only, and invitations are offered to those who perform well in a series of tests in the earlier months of the year. These tests range from the relatively straight forward – hour long multiple choice exams – to the intense – gruelling 3 1/2 hour exams where the goal is to provide solid proofs of up to 6 challenging problems.

I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the summer schools this year, although sadly one of the less high profile ones. To qualify for mine, you “only” had to do well on one of the hour long papers. My week was to be hosted at a school in Leeds, attended by 40 students, 6 seniors (students who had attended a summer school previously and were tasked with looking after a group) and about 8 very talented staff members. Thankfully, the school was only half an hour away from my house, but since the initial tests are open to anybody studying in the UK, most people travelled from further afield, including some from Ireland and Wales. Im glad they did – it really would have been a shame to see somebody miss out on such a great week.

I am pleased to report that of the 50-some people I met, there was not one that I didn’t like. I really did discover the definition of “like-minded” – there was not one person who wasn’t enthralled by the amazing maths we were doing, and not one person who was there to ruin the week for the rest of us. The seniors were particularly helpful. All of them were very talented at maths, but above all you could tell that they absolutely loved the experience. They had all been before, and they loved it so much, they wanted to come back! That in itself is a testament to the week.

Each day was chockered with maths. 3 hours in the morning, followed by 3 hours after lunch, and if that wasn’t enough, there was invariably a maths-related activity in the evening (with the exception if the one day we went bowling, to almost unanimous failure). The topics covered were diverse: mind-bending descriptions of shapes defying what we believed previously (2D spheres, anyone?), sweat-inducing cyclotomic polynomials, and ultra-efficient sight-seeing.

But I’m not here to discuss the maths. A bunch of great teachers can always put together a week of hard maths, but what struck me most was the unity of everyone involved. We spent the week sleeping at the school with a roommate, and I didn’t hear a single instance of negativity. Mealtimes were always good too – most of the time, the staff would sit with the attendants, even though they had their own table. This opened up room for great discussion, clarification, joking, and more, even outside of lessons. The whole week was inspiring, and while I intend to study Computer Science at university, I will certainly be keeping Maths going for the enjoyment and for the hope of being invited to a similar week again.

I might have given an overly academic perspective so far. Don’t get me wrong, of course the week was gruelling, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of down time too. I previously mentioned bowling, which offered a great release after a day of intense hard work. However, if the week has taught me anything, it’s that mathematicians make almost invariably bad bowlers. On the penultimate day, a “mathemusical extravaganza” was hosted, with a name I can’t help but think stolen from Vi Hart. Despite the obvious performances of violinists and pianists, a few acts shone. Notably, a balloon twister who rendered the audience dead of laughter, and a heartwarming parody of Gangam Style by the seniors (not-so-cleverly titled “MathsCamp Style”).

Besides all the official activities, a few other themes throughout the week recurred, especially the frequent games of “Mafia” and “Psychiatrist”, the former of which I hear is a regular at maths camps. These games, while thought-provoking, are most importantly extremely enjoyable, and allowed the whole group to bond and get together. They were also mostly organised by the seniors, who were going beyond the normal course of duty to make sure that we had a great week.

If you couldn’t already tell, I have had a fantastic week, and I am immensely grateful to all who made it so. I have been motivated to further increase my lust for mathematical knowledges and I’m sure everybody else who attended had been too. I have met friends this week that I will never forget, and who I hope that I will remain in contact with for the rest of my life. I would urge anyone who has been invited to a week to go, even if it is awkward to arrange, or a long way to travel. You will not regret it.

I can only hope that I am privileged enough to be invited to another week next year.

Meteor: What’s in a name?

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I’m a big fan of Meteor, the javascript framework which allows you to create realtime apps with astonishing ease.. I’ve been using it a good couple of months now, and it really has been a pleasure. In fact, I hope that in the future I’ll be able to share some of my experience with Meteor. At first, Meteor was known as Skybreak, but only 50 days later, Skybreak was renamed Meteor. Why the change?

Now, Meteor feels most natural to me, but I can’t help but think that that is simply because I have known Meteor as Meteor for as long as I’ve used it. Skybreak itself is a clever name, although it does lack the certain charm that Meteor has. I suppose that’s just because “meteor” is a real word, whereas “skybreak” is pseudo-real. But is it important? Would Meteor be as successful as it is today, with $11.2 million in funding, if it was still called Skybreak?

Well, sorry to be a spoilsport, but I’m almost certain that it would. The Meteor project is an amazing feat of modern development, and is only going to get better in the coming months and years. I refuse to believe that a venture capitalist would be swayed by such a simple thing as the name.

So who is swayed by the name? Us! Let’s be honest – “Skybreak” is a pretty lame name. I can’t be sure whether or not I would have opened their homepage if they were still called “Skybreak” – but I probably wouldn’t have, at least not so soon. We can’t help it, we are naturally prejudice. Our time is valuable, we must filter the webpages we look at before we even arrive at them. Any page can contain upwards of 200 outbound links, and no human on earth has enough time to read them all.

The truth is, your name is what catches the attention of your users, but that is no guarantee that they’ll stay. What captivates them is what happens in the next 10 seconds, the next minute, the next hour. A name can only get you so far; it’s quality takes you the rest of the way, and Meteor has that down to a tee.

Food for thought.

Yahoo Acquires Summly – Just an expensive PR stunt?

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For the past few years Yahoo’s traffic has slowly but surely been taken away by Google and (sadly) Bing; but this is not without good reason. Although Yahoo has recently updated its homepage, it’s UK version looks as though it has been frozen since 2005, seemingly not bothering to embrace any modern wed design practices or even basic user experience ideas. What are you supposed to do when you hit Yahoo’s homepage? Search? Look at articles? If you look at any modern, successful website it is very clear what you are supposed to do: with Google, you search; with Facebook, you connect; with YouTube, you watch.

It’s no surprise then that lately Yahoo has been trying to rejuvenate it’s image, starting with their American homepage redesign – I only hope that they will transfer this to the UK site soon. Speaking of which, why do they even have separate sites? Are users in America so different to users in the UK that the entire look and feel needs to be different? Sure – the content needs to be changed, but that can be done by the server.

Now, Yahoo has announced that they are acquiring Summly and its team. Without a doubt, the app is beautiful, and would make an excellent direction for Yahoo to go into. But is it really worth the speculated $30 million that Yahoo are paying for it? Of course it isn’t, especially seeing as though Summly only had 1 million downloads before it was pulled from the app store, with a lot of competition.

This sale, however, brought a lot of media attention onto Yahoo, which is of course exactly what they want, and need, right now. They are in a fragile position right now, as users increasingly realise that the services that they provide can be better provided by Google or even Facebook. I suspect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Nick D’Aloisio in the coming months, every time accompanied by some improvement to the Yahoo technologies. Yahoo no longer wants to be the kid sat in the corner of the playground with no friends, it wants to be the cool dude, and they think that D’Aloisio could be their new face.

I find it hard to believe that Summly is being bought purely for it’s function. If Yahoo had really wanted this technology, they could have built it themselves, or bought it for much cheaper from any number of Summly’s competitors. What made Summly stand out? There’s no denying that D’Aloisio is charismatic, well-spoken, and young – which makes him a matter of great interest. D’Aloisio received his first round of venture capitalist funding when he was 15 – does that make him a genius, or is he just well-connected?

D’Aloisio’s parents are undeniably both rich and influential – and I would wager good money that they are a major part of his success so young. Nevertheless, he obviously does have talent: I’m not pretending that you can get as far as he has without some skill. But D’Aloisio’s main charm is his charisma, something that can be clearly seen in his advert. And that, I believe, is why Yahoo bought him. Whatever the reason – I am sure that we will be seeing much more of him – at least until he grows old and we lose interest.