This review of Alex Pentland’s Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science was published in the December 2014 issue of Physics World – which can be accessed here if you sign up for free!
Alex “Sandy” Pentland is a computer scientist with an impressive academic record and an even more impressive history of translating academic outputs into business and consultancy. To say he has entrepreneurial flair would seem to be an understatement; his previous book was a bestseller, and his career is sprinkled liberally with consultancies and spin-outs from his research group. His career defies easy categorization, but he calls the work that he does on network analysis and computational social science “social physics”. In his latest book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science he outlines his vision of a discipline that has a history of infighting and intellectual land-grabbing.
“My problem is that I’ve been persecuted by an integer”
With this, George Miller, like a Franz Kafka of cognitive psychology, launched one of the most influential papers in the field. Miller’s persecutor was the number seven – which, in test after test of absolute judgement, appeared as approximately the number of categories people could tell apart.
GPS bike tracks visualisation in Madrid (work in progress) – Martin Zaltz Austwick and Gustavo Romanillos (c) 2014
I’ve written in the past (and here) about how difficult I’ve found it to get my hands on a book about visualisation that’s a real page turner – this must be a problem that greater minds than I have struggled with for at least a century or two, but I find the writing about design I see curiously unsatisfying. Like travel writing, I’d rather be doing the thing than reading about it. Which is as fine a way as any to learn, but a bit solipsistic.
Critique of Knowledge Production etched into sustainable bamboo
In this guest post by anthropologist Charlotte Johnson, she discusses her perspectives on the PICKs project (published earlier this month in Sustainability: The Journal of Record and available open source).
When asked to ‘map all the research related to cities and resources at UCL’ my first thought was ‘eek’, and not just due to the overwhelming size of the task (UCL has a research body of over 4000 people). But from a critical perspective mapping can be an act of epistemic violence – what gets put on the map and why, who gets to decide on the parameters? For me, a map is an object fraught with imperial overtones not to mention the hubris in attempting to comprehensively represent an ever-shifting landscape.
The MRes group visualisation projects are complete, and as predicted, rather impressive. This year the theme was “The Active City”, and students took this and ran with it in a variety of ways, whether viewing the activity of mobility-impaired users of the London Underground network, exploring the Thames as a driver of development and cultural activity, or looking at the cultural life of the city through museums and blue plaques.
PICKS-SUST: UCL sustainability research on the theme “Empowerment and Inequality”
I’m apparently now in the Sustainability field (which is rather exciting): the first paper with my name on it was published in Sustainability: The Journal of Record this month. Anthropologist Charlotte Johnson is first author (I’m the second, and final, author), so that makes me partly sustainable, I suppose. It’s called PICKS: Exploring Post-Disciplinary Knowledge in a University’s Urban Sustainability Research Landscape but it’s really much friendlier than the title suggests. And it’s open access, so you can go ahead and read it (nb: this page plays more nicely with Zotero bookmarks).
June is an exciting time in CASA, as our MRes students will be turning in their group visualisation projects, which never fail to dazzle and impress. Our students learn from Andy Hudson-Smith’s 3D skills, Adam Dennett’s GIS know-how, and my Processing datavis chops (such as they are), so the resulting projects are like a giant datavis mecha with all of our powers combined, and the students’ own experience and imagination spicing up the mix (and frequently going well beyond what we’ve taught them).
We won’t see their final projects until next week, but I already have some glimpses of the work they’ve done in response to the various small briefs* they had throughout the term. I thought I would show a few of these off in anticipation of the main event…