Older blog entries for danstowell (starting at number 4)

Four Alls Inn, Higham

The Four Alls Inn, the pub in Higham where I grew up, has just re-opened with a bit more of a focus on food than before. So I thought it worth giving the food a bit of a write-up.

Photo of the Four Alls
Photo CC-BY-SA Neil Clifton

The photo above doesn't show it since the refurbishment but it does show the original sign that illustrates what the "Four Alls" actually means (see closeup here). The original sign is preserved of course for historic interest.

Inside, they've got some tasteful new upholstery and carpet, but of course it's still a fairly small place with about 7 tables in the main area (apparently it's sometimes been difficult to get a table booking - everyone's been trying it since the relaunch). They've still got decent local ale on tap (Moorhouse's Pride of Pendle, recommended) and an open fire.

Of course I had to try the black pudding starter. A single slice of black pudding but perfectly done and served with a poached egg and some delicious mustard mash. The mustard mash was excellent, and the poached egg was cooked just right (though it had cooled a bit by the time it got to me).

(My dad thought one slice of black pud wasn't enough, but in combination with the mustard mash and the egg I think it's the right balance. If there's one thing that a food place can do to disappoint me, it's cock up the black pudding starter! So I'm glad to report they've done a good job with it...)

For main course, I was definitely tempted by the butternut and ricotta ravioli but one of my sisters ordered that, so instead I had the steak and ale pie, and snaffled a taste of the ravioli. The pie was great, really tender meat; and the ravioli was also lovely - the pasta perhaps a little thick, and perhaps swimming in a bit much sauce, but the filling was very nicely flavoured, and overall my sis said it was lovely. My other sister had the cheese and onion pie and grandma had the chicken, both of which were apparently good.

For afters, the sticky toffee pudding was fine, as it should be; and the cheesecake was "alright" apparently (not very strongly flavoured - not always a bad thing IMHO, but then I didn't actually sample the cheesecake).

Everyone in this area knows that the Fence Gate just down the road has claimed a massive slice of the gastropub territory round here. (And justifiably so, it has some really good food.) So it's nice to report that the Four Alls has good food worth the mention. There's no reason that all pubs should be gastropubs, of course, but the Four Alls was having trouble staying open as it was, so it'd be good to see it develop in this slightly different direction. Since there's a whole new set of commuter-village houses being built next door to it, it seems like a canny move. Oh and just so you know, they've still got the pool table in the little room.

Syndicated 2011-12-28 12:34:35 (Updated 2011-12-28 12:41:22) from Dan Stowell

The Impact agenda, and public engagement

I was at a meeting recently, going through research proposal documents, and I realised that the previous government's "impact agenda" might be having an unintended effect on public engagement:

One of the things that has happened in research in the past few years is that the government now demands that we now have to state what kind of "impact" our research will have. Now, the problem is that impact is notoriously and demonstrably unpredictable - we don't know if we're going to discover anything world-changing, until we actually try it, and even then we might not realise the impact for decades - but the previous government wanted to try and pin it down somehow.

So every proposal now (in the UK) has to have a two-page "Pathways to Impact" summary. If you're doing applied research it's pretty easy - you say things like "We're going to study the resilience of welded grommets under pressure, which means the grommet industry will produce more reliable grommets and there will be fewer grommet-related fatalities." In you're doing theoretical or basic research, in principle you still have a story to tell: you say something like "Our research will lead to a greater understanding of the number five, which is widely used in the natural sciences, industry and the financial sector. Future researchers will be able to build on these theoretical advances to develop new techniques for counting grommets or whatever."

So, in theory every research project has something they can say about this. (And they don't have to fill up the two pages, if they don't have much to say.) But that's not what happens.

Here's a very rough transcript of a conversation that went on in the meeting:

P: "Your proposal is good, Q, but there's not really anything about impact. The reviewers will have to rate you on impact so you need to say something here."

Q: "Oh blooming heck, but it's basic research, you can't really say what the impact is. I suppose I'll have to stick a schools talk in or something?"

R: "I know a couple of schools, I can arrange for you to do a talk, put that in."

Q: "Yeah OK."

Now I want to emphasise, this was not the end of the conversation. But I'm in favour of public engagement - perhaps a little more imagination is needed than just some generic schools talk, but it's interesting to see that this criterion is pushing people towards that little bit more public engagement.

Also: this is not a particularly unusual approach to filling in those impact pages. Impact is not supposed to be the tail that wags the dog, research excellence is supposed to be the number one criterion. But there are two whole pages which we have to use to say something about impact. And we know that the reviewers have got to read those pages, and rate us in terms of how strong or weak our pathways to impact are.

As I've said, impact is unpredictable. So what can you write, to make a reviewer say, "Yep, that's credible"? Your biggest impact might be to invent a whole new type of science, or to change the way we all think about the universe, but that won't happen for decades and it depends on a whole vague network of people taking your research and running with it. Can you talk about that? You could do, and that might be the truth about the likely impact of the research. But we know we'll get a bigger tick if we have something demonstrable that we can actually propose to do - even if it's not really connected with the research's biggest likely impact on society. A schools talk is a good thing to do, but is it the biggest impact your research will have on society in general? I hope not!

So, it happens quite often that people conflate public engagement with impact. A schools talk is not impact. An article in a newspaper is not impact. They might be tools that help spread research out of the university into the wider world, and they might faciliate impact, but they're not really the point of the hurdle that the government set for us.

Unfortunately, in science - unlike in politics - we formally review each others' work, and we can't hide behind wooly generalities. The strange thing is that regarding impact, the wooly generalities are the truth.

Syndicated 2011-11-22 13:59:00 (Updated 2011-11-22 14:06:07) from Dan Stowell

Baked leeks with lardons and feta

A lovely warming autumn dish. You'll need a casserole dish big enough that the leeks (chopped into a couple of pieces each) can all sit flat. Serves two as a main course (or 3--4 as a side).

  • 3 medium leeks
  • 80g lardons (or you can probably use any bacon, preferably thick and cut into cubes with scissors)
  • 1 pt (300ml) milk
  • small amount of feta cheese (60--100g?)
  • 40g plain flour
  • 40g margarine (or butter)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Melt the marge, half each in two separate pans. One of them will be for making the white sauce. Put the lardons into the other one, on a low heat, just so they warm up and fry a tiny bit and flavour the marge.

Wash the leeks and prepare them for your casserole dish. Chop them into two or three pieces, as needed, and tile them into the bottom of the casserole dish so they form a single layer.

In the other pan, on a medium heat, start to make the white sauce. Sprinkle about half of the flour into the pan, and whisk it until smooth. The lardons in the other pan should have had a few minutes to warm up - turn the heat off for them, and pour the juices from the pan into the one where you're making the sauce. The idea is to get some of the bacony flavour into the sauce.

Put the lardons to one side. Put the rest of the flour into the sauce pan, and whisk again until smooth. Now continue to cook this "roux" for a couple of minutes, so the flour is cooked, then gradually add the milk (with whisking) and continue to cook for another couple of minutes.

Now assemble. You've already got the leeks in the bottom of the casserole dish; sprinkle the lardons over them, then gently pour the sauce evenly over. Finally crumble the feta on top. Cook in the preheated oven for about 40--45 minutes, until nicely browned on top. Serve with salad.

Syndicated 2011-11-13 08:07:57 from Dan Stowell

Roast pumpkin and aubergine spaghetti

This is a nice way to use pumpkin, a spicy and warming pumpkin pasta dish. These quantities serve 2; takes about 45 minutes in total, with some spare time in the middle.

  • 1/2 a pumpkin
  • 1 medium orange chilli
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • Plenty of olive oil
  • 1/2 an aubergine
  • 2 tomatoes
  • Spaghetti

Put the oven on hot, about 210--220 C. Peel and deseed the pumpkin, and slice it into slices about 1/2 cm thick and 4 or 5 cm long - no need to be exact, but we want thinnish pieces. Chop the chilli up into rings too.

In a roasting tin, put a good glug of olive oil, then the pumpkin and chilli. Sprinkle over the paprika and turmeric, then toss to mix. Put this in the oven and let it roast for about 40 minutes, preparing the aubergine and pasta in the mean time.

The aubergine needs to be cut into pieces of similar size and shape to the pumpkin. The tomatoes, leave them whole but cut out the stalky bit. Halfway through the pumpkin's cooking time, add the aubergine, another glug of olive oil, toss briefly to mix, and sit the tomatoes in the middle somewhere, then put it all back in the oven.

Cook the spaghetti according to the packet instructions (e.g. boil for 15 minutes). Drain it, and get the other stuff out of the oven. In the pan that you used for the pasta (or a new pan), put the two roasted tomatoes and bash them with a serving spoon so they fall apart and become a nice lumpy paste. Add the pasta to them and mix. Then add the other roast vegetables, and mix all together, but gently this time so you don't mush the veg.

Serve with some parmesan perhaps.

Syndicated 2011-10-30 15:14:49 from Dan Stowell

ISMIR 2011: the year of bigness

I'm blogging from the ISMIR 2011 conference, about music information retrieval. One of the interesting trends is how a lot of people are focusing on how to scale things up, to handle millions of audio files (or users, or scores) rather than just hundreds or thousands. Why? Well, in real-world applications it's often important: big music services like Spotify and iTunes have about 15 million tracks, Facebook has millions of users, etc. In ISMIR one of the stars of the show is the Million Song Dataset, just released, which should help many many researchers to develop and test on a big scale. Here I'm going to note some of the talks/posters I've seen with interesting approaches to scalability:

Brian McFee described a simple tweak to the kd-tree data structure called "spill tree" which improves approximate search. Basically, when you split the data in two you allow some of the data points to spill over and fall on both sides. Simple but apparently effective.

Dominik Schnitzer introduced a nice way to smooth out a search space and reduce the problem of hub-ness. One way to do it could be to use a minimum spanning tree, for example, but that involes a whole-dataset analysis so it might not scale well. In Dominik's approach, for each data point X you find an estimate of what he calls "mutual proximity": randomly sample 100 data points from your dataset and measure their distance to X, then fit a gaussian to those distances. Then to find the "mutual proximity" between two data points X and Y, you just evaluate X's gaussian at Y's location to get a kind of "probability of being a near neighbour". He also makes this a symmetric measure by combining the X->Y measure with the Y->X measure, but I'd imagine you don't always need to do that, depending on your purpose. The end result is a distance measure that pretty much eliminates hubs.

Shazam's music recognition algorithm, described in this 2006 paper, is one of the commercial success stories of scalable audio MIR. Sebastien Fenet tweaked it to be robust to pitch-shifting, essentially by using a log-frequency spectrogram and using delta-log-frequency rather than frequency in the fingerprints.

A small note from the presentation of the Million Song Dataset: apparently if you want a good online linear-predictor than is fast for large data, try out Vowpal Wabbit.

Also, Thierry mentioned that he was a fan of using Amazon's cloud storage/processing - if you store data with Amazon you can run MapReduce jobs over it easily, apparently. Mark Levy of last.fm is also a fan of MapReduce, having done a lot of work using Hadoop (Yahoo's implementation of MapReduce) for big data-crunching jobs.

Mikael Henaff presented a technique for learning a sparse spectrum-derived feature set, similar in spirit to KSVD. The thing I found interesting was how he then made a fast way of decomposing a new signal (once you've derived your feature basis from some training data). Ordinarily you'd have to do an optimisation - the dictionary is overcomplete so it can't be done as easily as an orthogonal transform. But you don't want to do that on a lot of data. Instead, he first trains a nonlinear projection which approximates that decomposition (it's a matrix rotation followed by a shrinkage nonlinearity, really simple mathematically). So you have to train that, but then when you want to analyse new data there's no optimisation needed, you just apply the simple transform.

There's been plenty of interesting stuff here at ISMIR that isn't about bigness, and it was good of Douglas Eck (of Google) to emphasise that there are still lots of interesting and important problems in MIR that don't need scalability and don't even benefit from it. But there are interesting developments in this area, hence this note.

Syndicated 2011-10-27 23:06:26 (Updated 2011-10-28 12:58:43) from Dan Stowell

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