Month: February 2014

Smart machines

violinMy enthusiasm for the concert we went to some weeks ago is only just beginning to fade [see Rhapsody in Blue posted on 5th February, 2014].  I have one of Michel Camilo’s pieces still going around in head [listen here].  On the subject of playing the piano, people are trying to build robots that can play the piano using rubbery fingers although they have had more success with a robot that can play a violin [see this Youtube clip].

These robots might be clunky or primitive compared to a maestro like Michel Camilo, but nevertheless smart machines are coming.  Professor Noriko Arai is developing a computer, called Todai-Kun, that could ace college entrance exams.  She hopes that by 2021 Todai-Kun will pass the entrance exam for Tokyo University, which is the top university in Japan.  It is tough for graduates to find jobs at the moment, so imagine what it will be like if computers are as smart as graduates!

Mechanisation destroyed jobs on the farm, robots have replaced assembly-line workers and now smart computers are going to replace white collar workers.  In the future, if you want a well-paid job you are likely to need niche skills that involve a combination of creativity, innovation, problem-solving and leadership.  I am probably biased but that sounds like a professional engineer.

In the same context, David Brooks has suggested that, what he calls the ’emotive traits’ will be required for success, i.e. a voracious lust of understanding, an enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist and an empathetic sensitivity for what will attract attention, which with the exception of the last one also sound like the attributes of a professional engineer.

I have used the violin playing robot as the focus for a 5E lesson plan on the Kinematics of Rigid bodies in 3-dimensions see: 5EplanNoD10_Kinematics_of_rigid_bodies_in_3D .  Not quite an ‘Everyday Example’ but one with which many students can connect.


Floods: an everyday example

floodingI wrote this post before going to the concert at the Philharmonic Hall which inspired the post on February 5th [Rhapsody in Blue].  So, this post is not quite as timely as planned originally but it is still raining frequently here and the Somerset levels remain flooded.

Since before Christmas news bulletins in the US and UK have been dominated by reports of extreme weather events.  Earlier this month the sea on the south coast of the England swept away a substantial length of the main railway line between London and the South-West of the country.  Large areas of the south of the UK have been flooded by storms that rolled across the Atlantic having first caused disruption in North America.  There seems to be plenty of everyday evidence from these events that our climate is changing and this appears to have been confirmed by the Chief Scientist at the UK Metrological Office.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.  The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.’  They go on to say ‘It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-twentieth century’.  Despite these assertions, our governments have been unable to make significant progress towards limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.  The delegations from most of the developed countries walked out of talks at the Warsaw climate conference last November, followed by representatives from the Green groups and NGOs the next day.  As a consequence, Kofi Annan [Climate crisis: Who will act? in International NYT  November 25, 2013] has called for a global grass-roots movement to tackle climate change and its consequences.  We need to act as individuals whenever we can to reduce global warming and mitigate its impact both directly in our personal and professional lives and indirectly by lobbying our political and industrial/commercial leaders.

In the UK, politicians and the media are beginning to talk about the need for engineers to protect us against flooding and some engineers are responding by highlighting that the cost will be very high and that if climate change continues then we will have consider abandoning some areas.

At a simpler level, those us working in the classroom can use the flooded roads and overwhelmed drainage systems to create topical, and perhaps increasingly everyday, examples focused on flow in drainage ditches, gutters etc., as in the lesson plan below.


See also the Everyday Examples page on this blog for more lesson plans and more background on Everyday Examples.

Mining data

Random winter scene: Old Mission Point Light, MI, USA

Random winter scene:
Old Mission Point Light, MI, USA

Last week I went to a one-day conference in London on High Performance Computer and Big Data.  We were talking about computers with 96,000 processors and datasets in the exascale, which means the number of pieces of data they contain is one with eighteen noughts after it.  We were just across the street from the Houses of Parliament and David Willetts, the UK Minister of Universities and Science, addressed us and told us that ‘future scientific advances are dependent on our ability to accumulate and analyse big data’.  For the industrialists amongst us the slogan from the Director of the UK’s biggest computer was ‘to compute is to out compete’.

Suzy Moat and Tobias Preis of Warwick Business School made a great presentation about the link between online behaviour and economic decision making around the globe.  They have found that the frequency terms such as ‘debt’, ‘stocks’ and ‘portfolio’ are predictors of subsequent stock market movement.  They performed some of their research by mining data available from Google Trends – if you have never visited this bit of Google’s domain then I recommend a visit, its interesting at all sorts of levels.

Another Google data-miner is Seth Stephens-Davidowitz who has revealed that American parents want their boys to be smart and their girls skinny.  Parents are two and half times more likely to ask Google ‘Is my son gifted?’ than ‘Is my daughter gifted?’ despite the fact that in American schools girls are 11 percent more likely to be in gifted programs.  And conversely, parents are twice as likely to ask ‘Is my daughter overweight?’ than ‘Is my son overweight?’ even though roughly equal proportions of girls and boys are overweight in the USA.  In his article in the NYT, Seth concludes by asking ‘How would girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned about their bodies and twice as intrigued about their minds?’

Perhaps, one answer is that they would be more likely to opt for what are perceived at school as the hard subjects, i.e. mathematics and physics.  See my earlier post entitled ‘Chemical Imbalance’ on October 2nd, 2013, in which I bemoaned the low proportion of girls taking A-level Physics at school.  As professional engineers and university teachers many of us are working hard to redress the gender imbalance in engineering but now I wonder if we are have identified a new handicap, i.e. parents are undermining their daughters’ confidence to enter the ‘problem-solving’ professions.


Seth Stephens-Davidovitz, ‘Is my son a genius?’ in the International New York Times on Monday 20th January, 2014.

Pries, T., Moat, H.S., Stanley, H.E., 2013, Quantifying trading behaviour in financial markets using Google Trends, Scientific Reports 3, 1684. www.nature.come/strep/2013/130425/srep01684/pdf/srep01684.

Rhapsody in Blue

118-1841_IMGLast Saturday we went to a fantastic concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.  It featured the pianist Michel Camilo playing the UK premier of one of his own compositions, Piano Concert No. 2 ‘Tenerife’ and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.  He was fabulous – there are a couple clips on YouTube of him playing Rhapsody in Blue so you can some idea of what we experienced on Saturday evening.  I cannot play the piano and so his virtuosity was all the more impressive to me.  The applause at the end was ecstatic and followed by an even more spectacular encore, Caribe.

As we applauded for what seemed like a couple of minutes, I was reminded of an example that I had worked through in class last term for my first year undergraduate course in Thermodynamics.  The worked example is attached and involves estimating the temperature rise in palms of your hands as a consequence of vigorously clapping during which kinetic energy is converted into internal energy in the flesh of your palms and causes the temperature rise, ignoring the energy converted into sound.  The emphasis was on estimating by creating a model using a set of identified assumptions and, once we had an answer, I discussed the influence of those assumptions and introduced the idea of sensitivity analysis – this is not included in the worked example attached.

For twenty enthusiastic claps we found a temperature rise of a quarter of a degree Celsius, which we would probably notice since the hairless skin on the palm at the base of thumb is sensitive to changes as small as a twentieth of a degree, according to Dr Lynette Jones of MIT [doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.7955].