I went to a conference in Limerick…

I went to a conference in Limerick

To hear about matters academic

There were talks about dancing

And songs quite entrancing

But writing it up is no pic-er-nic!

I’m now on my way back from the ICTM Conference at the University of Limerick, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only academic who should know better to have committed the experience to five-line verse, proving in the process that we really ought to stick to what we know about.  (It’s irresistible, somehow.)  Limerick is an interesting and attractive city, and well worth a visit.  The university is on a large and very scenic campus at the edge of the city.  The campus straddles the river Shannon, and includes several substantial bridges, including the ‘bridge of life’ – a winding footbridge whose end can’t be seen from its beginning.  It’s functional and philosophical at the same time.

Bridge of Life

Part of the Bridge of Life at the University of Limerick

My real reason for being in Limerick was to present a paper as part of a panel with two colleagues from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; Margaret Walker and Gordon Smith.  Our panel was called “Imagined Borders and Unexpected Intersections:  Exploring Musical Legacies in Three Communities”.  Margaret and Gordon reported on work they have been doing on various aspects of multicultural music-making in Kingston, Ontario and in Nova Scotia.  You can find more information about their work here and here.  My presentation summarised my Ph.D work on dance bands in Chester and North Wales, and outlining my future research plans, relating to 3D virtual reality presentation of historical information.

As well as taking part in the panel presentation, I also attended other talks on (for instance) the physics of Spanish bagpipes, computer-based movement analysis of Tango Argentino, and the transmission of music traditions in Uganda, and made contacts with people working in related fields all over the world.  All of these gave me ideas and sources which I expect will be useful in my own work in future.  Travelling to an overseas conference is hard work (even once you’ve been accepted, and found funding), but very worthwhile.



Searching for the VR Ballroom

It’s been a very busy 12 months or so since my last posting.  As well as all the usual teaching activities, I’ve been involved with the launch of the Digital Humanities Research Centre here at Chester.  I’m working on a couple of funding proposals with colleagues in the DHRC, of which more later (we hope!), and have at last started to find a more definite post-Ph.D. direction for my own research activities, in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Computer Science.  Digital Humanities is definitely starting to look like my natural research home, even though it has been a long and winding road to get there, so my first presentation for the CS department seminar series was on how I came to be ‘The Accidental Digital Humanist‘.

I’m currently deep into this summer’s research activities.  I’ll be presenting a paper at the ICTM World Conference at Limerick in July, and have just had a poster paper accepted for the Cyberworlds 2017 International Conference at Chester in September.  Both of them refer to initial work on a virtual reality reconstruction of one of the River Park Ballroom, which was an important music venue in Chester in the mid-20th century, but was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by an office building.  My colleague Lee Beever has used images, data and music from my dance bands research to create an initial 3D impression of the ballroom.  It’s very early days, and the reconstruction lacks colour and animation at the moment; these are things which in different ways will take more time, money and effort than we have had available so far to add, but the ability to see (and hear) the ballroom from different angles is already there.  I’m looking forward to doing more work on this in the future.

Just Imagine…Imaginary Numbers in the Real World


'Just Imagine' fridge magnet

The ‘Just Imagine…’ fridge magnet, complete with sinusoid, key constants, and a very confused looking sheep. The connections were revealed in the course of the day’s workshop. © University of Chester, 2016

Back in the depths of last winter, I started investigating ways that I might bring together some of my colleagues in Performing Arts – the department where I did my Ph.D. – and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, where I teach.  It took a while, but the idea is now starting to bear fruit.  We began with a workshop for A-level maths and science students on Imaginary Numbers, which took place at Thornton Science Park a couple of weeks ago.

We welcomed about 20 students and their teachers from local schools for a full day of varied activities on the theme of Imaginary Numbers.  This included the sort of thing you might expect at Thornton Science Park , including a session in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering lab looking at the relationship between sinusoidal waves, complex numbers, and sound.  (The TWSU DIY Synth proved to be particularly popular there!)  The thing which really made the day different, and I believe also really helped to make it both enjoyable and engaging, was the contribution in the morning from Ed Morris and Phil Goss, two University of Chester graduates who now run a theatre company called 2Engage.  They do a lot of educational theatre work, and I believed they could help us to present the challenging topic of complex numbers in a less threatening way, and also give students a perspective they might not get elsewhere.

I think it’s fair to say the plan worked.  Between us we designed a couple of comic sketches, with associated activities, designed to put complex numbers into historical perspective, and also give a background to the two common notations for complex numbers (i.e., polar and cartesian).  Students found themselves wearing sheep masks for the former, and directing one another around masking-tape grids on the floor for the latter.  They also laughed quite a lot – fortunately in more or less the places where we’d hoped they would – and took home a custom-made fridge magnet each, to remind them of both the day and the principles we’d worked on understanding together.  Feedback for the day was excellent from all concerned, and I’m really looking forward to doing more sessions along similar lines in the future.  In the meantime, I heartily recommend 2Engage to anyone out there looking for educational theatre, and certainly not just on scientific topics.  They did an excellent job.

Freeze, Fight, Flight, or Thought: Why Zombies Make Great Maths Teachers

The Zombie plague is spreading – and it’s a good thing

This morning’s visit to the departmental post boxes was unusually rewarding, as mine had a zombie in it.  Well, to be accurate, it had a zombie in it again.  It’s only a couple of weeks since I picked up my copy of Mathematical Modelling of Zombies (which is excellent, by the way).  I was expecting that, as I’d ordered it, but this morning’s zombie delivery was a pleasant surprise, and it came printed on the front cover of May’s edition of the Institute of Physics monthly magazine, Physics World.  The brain-munching monster in question was evidently trying to claw its way in (or possibly out) through some sort of frosted glass panel, while simultaneously advertising an article on ‘Zombie physics – When statistical analysis meets the undead’.


An image from ‘Zombie-town USA’ by Alex Alemi & Matt Bierbaum.  The interactive version is at mattbierbaum.github.io/zombies-usa . Alemi & Bierbaum’s paper on the model is available at arxiv.org/pdf/1503.01104v3.pdf

All the usual suspects are there, including the Patient Zero of mathematical and academic zombie infection, Robert Smith?.  This story focused on the work of Alex Alemi and Matt Bierbaum, a couple of Cornell University graduate students who decided to apply some specialised techniques of statistical modelling from (among other places) condensed matter physics to the spread of a zombie contagion.  Obviously I was happy to see my favourite pop culture ghouls in the hallowed pages of Physics World, in addition to all the other odd places they popped up recently (‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies‘ and ‘Braaaiiinnnsss!: From Academics to Zombies‘ being a couple of my recent favourites).  But it set me wondering – again – what it is about zombies that makes them simultaneously unlikely and perfect as topics of academic discussion, and in so many different fields?

Meeting the audience where they are

I think this might be a clue:-

“Zombies, despite their insatiable thirst for brains, have an undeniable appeal to a wide audience …  They’ve also become a great way to showcase the statistical and mathematical tools of epidemiology. … They lure in the curious … [&] are an accessible way to talk mathematically about the spread of infectious disease.”

Ornes, Stephen. (2016). Zombie physics. Physics World, May 2016

As Smith? himself says, adding zombies to the mix helps to engage audiences who wouldn’t usually take an interest in anything that smacked too much of mathematics: “Now we’ve got people reading math papers with equations in them – people who would never normally read such a thing. … You add zombies, and suddenly it’s interesting.”

So it’s partly a matter of familiarity.  The popularity of stories such World War Z and The Walking Dead means that the first impression given by an article with a title like “Zombie Physics” is likely to be something along the lines of “Zombies?  I like zombies!  So have these physicists made a real zombie then?  Must find out…”  A title like “Statistical mechanics applied to infectious disease transmission” on the other hand, has more of a niche appeal, mainly to those who already know what statistical mechanics is, why it might have applications to disease, and (perhaps most importantly) feel confident that they’ll be able to wade through an article with ‘statistics’ in the title without developing acute anxiety, hives, and three or four extra limbs in the process.

It’s all about the brains

This is where the real brains enter the story.  A lot of people get a bit twitchy about maths and science, to say the least.  The subject names themselves can induce fear.  This is bad in at least two ways; no sensible animal – humans included – keeps returning to places or things which have caused it pain or fear.  Evolutionary responses to threats with millions of years of development behind them kick in, and bad experiences with maths and science can put people off of having anything to do those subjects in future; the ‘flight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  But if flight isn’t possible, and the scary topic proves unavoidable, a different threat response might take over, such as staying very still and hoping it all just goes away.  I did my share of rabbit-in-the-headlights impersonations while staring fixedly at physics problem sheets in the mid-1980s, so I know the feeling very well.  But whether the threat response is avoidance, shutdown or anger, it’s bad news for anyone who actually needs to learn stuff involving logic, because the part of the brain that deals with physical threats tends to take control at the expense of the part of the brain that does cool rational thought.

This is where zombies come in really, really useful.  Zombies are familiar.  Zombies are predictable.  Everyone can understand how zombies work: human gets bitten – human dies – human is reanimated as a zombie – new zombie shambles off in search of other humans to bite – and so it goes on.  Nothing difficult about that.  Some zombies are even funny.  You can talk about zombies with your mates, and be reasonably certain that they know what you’re talking about, and that they’re laughing with you, rather than at you.  All of these factors help to keep the freeze, fight or flight response at bay.  OK, so there’s a equation on the page, and equations are bit scary, but this one is surrounded by the shuffling, groaning, flesh-eating undead, so it must be OK, right?

That’s my theory, anyhow.

Hold on a moment….  I just need to find out what that funny scratching noise is on the window.. …. ….. …………..


Posted May 6, 2016 by HVS in Mathematics, Memes, Physics, STEM & STEAM, Zombies

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Arduino Days II – The Return of the Solder


I first dabbled in Arduino-based electronics last Spring, and had a lot of fun doing my first soldering in years putting together an Arduino Gamer kit.  My regular work (and Ph.D.) then took over for a few months, but then a few things conspired to get me back on the physical computing path.  A programming course I took last summer used traffic lights as the basis of all its examples, and I realised the potential of this apparently simple idea to be extended into very complex but still educationally useful examples.  Later in the year, I found out that there were a number of batches of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis and similar kits around the faculty, most of which weren’t being used at the time.  I also had some conversations with researchers from other departments about using small microprocessors such as the Arduino for tasks such as air quality monitoring.  (There is a ready-made kit for this purpose called the Air Quality Egg.  I want one!)  So, before Christmas, I got a group of like-minded people from around the faculty together to start to think of ways to make use of the kits we already had, but weren’t making much use of.  One of the outcomes was a plan to produce a set of Arduino-powered traffic lights for the CompSci Conference – an internal conference held each year in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chester, where I work.

The conference took place today, and my DIY traffic lights got to strut their stuff in among many far more erudite presentations on games design and advanced subtitling techniques; a slightly intimidating experience in some ways, but useful nonetheless; I’ve learned (or re-learned) a tremendous amount about electronics and microprocessors, and also about programming for the Arduino, and the advantages and limitations it has as a hardware platform.  (My colleague Andrew Muncey created three programs of increasing complexity for the demonstration.)  I’ve also made a large number of contacts around the faculty and the university – from Electrical & Electronic Engineering to teacher education – and we have plans afoot to use Arduinos and similar kits in STEM outreach sessions for schools and college students both at Thornton Science Park and elsewhere.  Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the traffic control room at Cheshire West and Chester council, to learn how traffic control systems function in the wild.  This was a fascinating experience in itself, and I’m sure will form the basis for good collaborations in the future.


Pruning Infinity

Although it can seem like a straitjacket at times, one of the positive things about being deep into a major project like a Ph.D. thesis is that it forces you to focus – and the further you get into the process, the more you have to put interesting but irrelevant new ideas to one side, and concentrate on the job in hand.  

I actually found this restriction quite useful, as it helped me to concentrate my efforts on producing tangible results, rather than being constantly distracted by the latest novel idea to pop up in my Twitter feed. I have what have politely been referred to as ‘a very broad range of interests’, (a.k.a., a butterfly mind), and now that my Ph.D. is complete, the temptation to overcompensate for all that focus and discipline by trying to investigate everything I come across, simultaneously, is quite large. Given infinite time and resources, I would already have started research projects on knitting carbon fibre, visualising vocal cords, teaching maths and programming through dance, and the social history of pollution – and those are just for starters. I would also be learning R, Python, FORTRAN & Smalltalk, along with Chinese, French, German and Spanish, and ballroom dancing.  That’s tonight’s list, anyhow. It’ll be different tomorrow.

In a way, this is good news. I rarely have a problem coming up with lists of things I would like to know more about, or do better. I am perpetually curious and I enjoy learning. The tricky bit is finding a way of applying that curiosity to things my employer is willing and able to pay me to do. That means topics which have funding available, and topics which fit into departmental or institutional priorities. It also means focusing on things I’m actually reasonably good at. That immediately shortens the list: the number of things that I’m both good at and interested in, which also overlap with my faculty’s research strategy, is actually quite small.  I know this, because ever since last summer I’ve been pursuing what was effectively a small-scale research project to work out what my next research project(s) will be. As far as I know right now, knitting carbon fibre and dancing wave functions haven’t made the cut. 

Maybe next year…?

Posted January 3, 2016 by HVS in Research

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Three letters, ten years, and a new red robe   Leave a comment

SmileWheeeeee-heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!    🙂

Yep, that’s right; I’m now officially Dr. Southall.  The letter from Liverpool University arrived last week.  My office door is already adorned with a new name plate, and I’ve changed my work e-mail signature to include the all-important extra three letters.  Well, OK, they aren’t really that important in the big scheme of things, but they represent a lot of work and a pretty big achievement for me, so I’m having fun doing the updates.

Part-time degrees always take a long time, and part-time Ph.Ds even more so; getting a Ph.D isn’t a quick process even when it’s done full-time.  Since I started working on mine, I’ve got married, moved house twice, moved office four times, and changed job (within the same institution) twice – all while working full-time on my ‘day job’.  Put that way, maybe it’s not so surprising that it’s taken the thick end of a decade, although it does sometimes feel as though I must have been slacking somewhere along the way to let it take that long.  Truth be told, I did continue to do some music and quite a lot of walking, but I doubt if I would have stayed sufficiently sane and healthy to keep going otherwise.

So, for anyone who’s thinking about setting out on the part-time Ph.D (plus full-time job) path, what’s it like?  What does it involve?

The first thing to say is that every Ph.D is unique, and so is every Ph.D student.  The things I found hard might be a doddle for someone else, and vice versa.  But in case it helps, here’s a rough chronology of how things went for me:-

  • 2005 : I realised that I had an idea for a research study, access to data, and a potential supervisor.  (Actually the last of these to fall into place was the supervisor; I’d had a bad experience, supervision-wise, with my M.Sc. dissertation, so I was very, very careful about finding a supervisor for my Ph.D.  Fortunately, I was also lucky, and that side of my Ph.D has worked out very well.)  I started to put together ideas for how the project would work, and find out about the application process operated.  I knew I was fortunate in that my employer was willing to pay my tuition fees.  What I didn’t know at the time was just how many years of tuition fees were going to be required!  Oh, and during 2005 I moved house, and also changed my job, moving temporarily from my academic department to a role organising short professional training courses.
  • 2006 : In 2006, I moved house again.  I also filled in a Ph.D application form, got the relevant signatures from managers and referees, and produced a 10,000-word proposal document.  This led to an interview in around September 2006.  I was accepted onto the course, to start in January 2007.
  • 2007 – 2010 : In a way, the background work for my research goes back years before I even started thinking about a Ph.D, but 2007 was the year when I started organising interviews, and trying to work out what literature I needed to review, in earnest.  2007 was also the year in which I got married, so it was a pretty busy and exciting time.  Over the next couple of years I collected 30 interviews, scanned in a couple of hundred photographs, arranged for recordings to be transcribed, and generally got on with the day job.  It was an enjoyable phase in many ways, but I was still very uncertain what angle I was going to take to discuss the large volume of data I was collecting.  Attending and presenting at several conferences did help with this process; there’s nothing like knowing you’re going to have to explain your work to other people to force you to decide what you think it means!
  • 2011-2012 : During this period, life got in the way quite substantially.  At the start of 2011 I was still seconded to the training unit outside my academic department, but half-way through the year it was announced that my home department was to be ‘downsized’.  Like everyone else involved, I had to go through a process of justifying my continued employment.  This took several months, and was very stressful.  Once the process was over, I moved back into the department permanently.  That first year back was also stressful, because of knock-on effects from the recent redundancies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, progress on my Ph.D slowed down a lot at this point.  However, I did complete the transcription and coding of interview data, and passed fairly smoothly through the process of upgrading from M.Phil to Ph.D study.  I also presented talks or posters at several more conferences.
  • 2013-2014 : There were a whole series of ‘false summits’ at this point, where I thought I was very close to being ready to submit my thesis, but it turned out that I wasn’t.  In the end there was a bit of a mad dash to get everything finished and handed in before my registration deadline at the end of December, 2013.  Everything went quiet for a while.  In March 2014 I had my first viva, which resulted in a long list of modifications and an extra year to do them in.  If life had been busy before, it now got very busy indeed…  Coincidentally, summer 2014 was also the year in which my department was transferred wholesale into a brand new faculty, on a brand new site.  By the end of 2014, I was a bit of a gibbering wreck.
  • Q1 to Q3 2015 : The gibbering continued well into 2015.  I handed in my modified thesis in March, and things went quiet again – on the thesis front, at least.  They were anything but quiet at work!  Then, just as teaching drew to a close, it was time for my second viva, which was a much more relaxed and happy affair than the first one.  The committee chair hummed and whistled all the way down the corridor to the meeting room, the viva started with the announcement that I had passed my Ph.D, and the rest of the viva was therefore more in the nature of a discussion than an examination.  Phew!    ….  However, that was not the end of the story.  Although no further ‘modifications’ were required, there were some ‘corrections’ to do.  Most were in the nature of ‘changing the line spacing from double to 1.5 lines’, and other such cosmetic issues, but somehow some actual extra work snuck in there as well.  I was beginning to despair of ever actually finishing the thing!  However, there was no time to dwell on the matter, because back in the day job there was a mountain of marking to do.  Once I’d done that, I got on with the thesis corrections.  Then I went on holiday, did a programming course, finished the corrections, and handed in yet another printed copy.
  • Q4 2015 : At last!!!!!  The internal examiner approved my corrections (plus a few corrections to the corrections), and in October I was instructed to get four hard bound copies made.  I must admit I hadn’t realised quite how expensive these were going to be; that’s £200 I’ll not be seeing again.  It was worth it though.  The final versions were satisfyingly heavy and really quite lovely to look at.  Or maybe they just look beautiful to me, because they’re mine?  Whatever – I like them!  Back I went to the graduate school office once again, to hand in the hard bound copies, and yet again, everything went quiet.  I had several more weeks to wait before the awards board at Liverpool sat to formally approve the award of my degree.  That board sat in late November, and I received my formal notification last week.  My certificate will apparently arrive some time later in December, and I’ll graduate at the Chester ceremony next spring.


So, that’s it, in a nutshell.  My journey to becoming a ‘Dr’, and earning the right to wear a scarlet robe instead of a black one.  There has certainly been a lot of hard intellectual work, a lot of writing, and a lot of editing, but the other thing that it’s required is a lot of persistence.  If there’s a single factor that’s necessary to succeed as a part-time Ph.D student, I’m guessing that might be it.  But that’s just my story.  Your mileage may very well differ…

Posted December 6, 2015 by HVS in Chester, Liverpool, Thesis

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