John D Cook published a great article on automation recently. He discusses the commonly-held idea that the primary reason to automate things is to save time. As anyone who’s actually gone through this process will tell you, this strategy can often backfire and John points to a comic from the ever-wonderful xkcd that illustrates this perfectly.
John suggests that another reason to automate is to save mental energy rather than time and I completely agree! This is a great reason to automate. When you are under pressure to complete a task that has to be done right first time, being able to simply push the big red button and KNOW that it will work is worth a great deal.
Automation as knowledge storage and transfer
Another use of automation is as a way to store and transfer the knowledge of how to get things done.
I work with a huge array of technologies, spending a large part of my working day poring through manuals, documentation, textbooks and google searches figuring out how to do some task, foo. By the end of the project, I’ll be an expert at doing foo but I know that this expertise won’t last. I’ll soon be moving onto the next project, the next set of technologies and my hard-won knowledge will leak from my brain-cache as quickly as it was filled.
I often find that the fastest way to distill my knowledge of how to do something is to write a script that automates it. It’s often more concise and quicker to write than documentation and is usually useful to me and possibly others. It also serves as a great launching point for relearning the material if ever I revisit this particular set of technologies and tasks.
Automate to improve your processes
Having an automated script also allows others to easily reproduce what I have done. You want what I have? Run this thing and it’s yours. A favour from me to you!
Initially, this looks and feels like an act of pure altruism. I put in a large amount of hard work and someone else benefits. In my experience, however, payback always comes my way when those who use my work give me feedback on how to do it better.
Some numbers have something to say. Take the following, rather huge number, for example:
This number wants to tell you ‘Happy Holidays’, it just needs a little code to help it out. In Maple, this code is:
n := 18532529104068264480353131238404133659515101876112780772576330806424607039523076495646885634139967048751461005248758632306757568791464282975763655513845614593843019187655175699232981800640177552230121901623724542589154403221854439086181827152684585874764890938291566599716051702867105827305295569713835061785617174899049034655848488352249531058730460687733248824488684969031964141214711866905054239875930383262767247976845232997188307342087743859641917976242185446451606034726912968063437466250120212904972794971185874579656679344857677824: modnew := proc (x, y) options operator, arrow; x-y*floor(x/y) end proc: tupper := piecewise(1/2 < floor(modnew(floor((1/17)*y)*2^(-17*floor(x)-modnew(floor(y), 17)), 2)), 0, 1): points := [seq([seq(tupper(x, y), y = n+16 .. n, -1)], x = 105 .. 0, -1)]: plots:-listdensityplot(points, scaling = constrained, view = [0 .. 106, 0 .. 17], style = patchnogrid, size = [800, 800]);
The result is the following plot
Thanks to Samir for this one!
The mathematics is based on a generalisation of Tupper’s self-referential formula.
There’s more than one way to send a message with an equation, however. Here’s an image of one I discovered a few years ago — The equation that says Hi
Way back in 2008, I wrote a few blog posts about using mathematical software to generate christmas cards:
- Mathematical Christmas Cards – Walking Randomly Christmas Challenge
- A MATLAB Christmas card
- Christmas geetings – SAGE style
I’ve started moving the code from these to a github repository. If you’ve never contributed to an open source project before and want some practice using git or github, feel free to write some code for a christmas message along similar lines and submit a Pull Request.
Back in October, I wrote about the Open Data Science events we’ve starting running at the University of Sheffield. These evening events, held at Sheffield’s The Hide are attended by researchers, students and the occasional random who have an interest in data science (collectively referred to as Data Hipsters by some).
At their core, these events are just an excuse for researchers from many disciplines to get together and explore common interests in an informal way and they’ve been a great success.
This month, we’ve gone big and not just in the ‘big data’ sense. We have two free data science events:
- The Data Hide is an evening session 5 – 7pm on December 15th – Tickets at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-data-hide-tickets-19895024554
- The big one, Data @ Sheffield is on December 16th and is an all day event