Archive for April, 2007

Taking tea with e-assessment strategists

April 26, 2007

I spent yesterday in central London at a joint meeting between JISC and the Higher Education Academy. The aim of the event was to explore ways in which the two bodies, who both have responsibilities for differing aspects of Higher Education, could collaborate strategically. The discussions focused on e-assessment: the process of using more automated and computer-based methods for measuring student attainment, progress and testing. Of interest to me were the debates around the use of new technologies in these areas and in particular discussion of the potential for Web 2.0 and social software.

This throws up interesting issues, for example, if a class works together on a wiki about a subject, how can the marks be divided up fairly? One speaker pointed out that different subjects have different views on the use and uptake of automated assessment, explaining that, for example, Philosophy lecturers have not, to date, seen the benefit of using such methods as they rely so heavily on the essay as a form of assessment. Other speakers took up this theme and argued that although this was an issue it was at least partly because too many academics see e-assessment as being all about the use of what is called in the jargon MCQ (or ‘multiple choice’ to you and I).

The venue for the event was the magnificent, neo-classical, One Great George Street, just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament (although stone throwing is not actually allowed, for obvious reasons). The venue is partly home to the Institute of Civil Engineers and they had laid on a reasonable lunch including roast vegetable frittatas and chocolate fudge cake. However, I was most impressed by an exquisite range of herbal teas from the Mighty Tea Leaf Company which came in an interesting range of flavours and each in a large muslin pouch (rather than a mere paper bag) which contributed to an enhanced brew. As far as I can see from their website they are not fair traded, so I won’t be able to justify buying them, but if you ever come across them at functions or tea shops I can recommend the green tea.

I have to say that I was rather surprised and pleased to find such attention to tea detail at the Institute of Civil Engineers, as, generally speaking, civil engineers are not renown for their appreciation of fine tea. Is this a sign of changing times?

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John Backus

April 20, 2007

It’s not often that a computer scientist makes the obituary column of national newspapers. So it’s interesting that the death of John Backus, the inventor of the Fortran programming language, made it into the Guardian and New York Times recently.

Anyone who is old enough to remember struggling through scientific programming classes using Fortran 77, will perhaps recall cursing the inventor of a language more orientated to the days of the punch card. However, Backus should be remembered for introducing the basic concept that machines could be programmed using English-like notation rather than an impenetrable stream of numeric codes (as was the case at the time in the early 1950s). The first version of the Formula translation (Fortran) language appeared in 1957 and the British Computer Society recently celebrated its jubilee. It’s still going strong, indeed work is under way on Fortran 2008.

Backus’s work led onto a plethora of other high-level languages such as Pascal and Java. This brings to mind the infamous real programmers don’t use Pascal letter which first appeared in Datamation magazine in 1983. This was a tongue in cheek computer science version of the ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ phenomenon. In a time when there was a concern amongst some that computer languages were becoming a bit, well, easy, this was a hacker’s attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. It included lines like: ‘Real Programmers aren’t afraid to use GOTOs’ and ‘Real Programmers don’t need comments– the code is obvious’.

The letter also contains the immortal line:
‘Real programmers arrive at work [just] in time for lunch’.

Computer Science Writer of the Year

April 19, 2007

On Friday I had a rather exciting email from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. For those unfamiliar with the EPSRC, it is one of the seven government-funded bodies that coordinate research and allocate grants to UK universities. Apparently, I have been awarded their Computer Science Writer of the Year prize for a piece I wrote on new developments in computing that help people suffering from dementia.

Obviously, I’m very pleased about this award but, so far, there has been no mention of a prize-giving lunch.

Starter for ten: what would a post-Google search engine look like?

April 16, 2007

Bamber Gascoigne, the original presenter of University Challenge, is back in the news this weekend. Since 1994, when he turned down the opportunity to present the new series of the quiz show, Bamber has been working on a history-based search engine. All has finally been revealed, and Timesearch has just been released.

The tool is an aggregator, and it allows users to collate information from various sources (Google, Wikipedia etc.) by selecting various search criteria: geographical location, date etc. I’ve not had chance to play with it at length but there does seem to be a large number of potential options.

The tool is billed on their website as an “early example of the post-Google generation of online search tools, capable of being more finely tuned to the individual needs of the user.” This may be the beginning of a new trend, as people look for more focused ways of finding information. And who better to trust with building the next generation of Web search engines than the man who knew the answers to all of University Challenge’s ‘starter for ten’ questions?

Did Morse invent the mobile phone?

April 5, 2007

iPods, mobile phones and blackberries are all symbols of our modern era. Or are they? Not according to the Museum of Lost Interaction, a collection of recently found technologies from the earlier part of last century. The museum, which is based at the University of Dundee, features artefact classics like the 1952 Zenith Radio Hat (a combined trilby and walking cane) and the 1900 Richophone, a multi-player role playing game based on a series of hotel telephone booths. My favourite is the mobile Morse Code device.

At first I thought this was an elaborate April Fool, but it turns out to be genuine archaeological work of staff and students in the computing and design departments at the University. Or is it?

Happy Easter.

What cost, software innovation?

April 4, 2007

Much fun has been had of late by the anti-Microsoft brigade as the new $9 billion Windows operating system release, Vista, has hit the desktops. There have been concerns about the cost of the UK licence, worries about the general uptake within the business community and reports of incompatibilities with software drivers.

A particular point that is being raised a great deal is that Vista requires some serious ‘beef’ when it comes to hardware. Many users will need to upgrade. Indeed, environmental campaigners have raised the amount of potentially unnecessary dumping of old computers (old as in last year’s) as an issue.

What’s the response from Microsoft? Well, Andrew Herbert, speaking at last week’s jubilee event (see previous blog entries) made an interesting point. He said that new software and operating systems are planned so that they can still be in distribution in six or so years’ time and that system designers are forced to think carefully about what future hardware will be capable of. This is why new operating systems are often quite ‘clunky’ when first released: they are pushing the technical limits of current PCs (processor, memory etc.) with the knowledge that Moore’s Law (of ever-increasing computer power) will be able to deliver the goods in a few months’ or years’ time.

I’m sure this is scientifically and technically true and it’s a view that fits with the history of the personal computer. But I think it raises a question. After thirty years should the computer industry continue to prioritise software innovation over making use of previous generations of hardware? This is perhaps particularly true as more and more applications are performed as services over the Web. This sets operating systems designers a challenge: can they design more backwards-compatible systems that work really well on new kit but are still adequate on older machines?

Hexadecimal Beer

April 3, 2007

On a lighter note I should just mention the lunch at the Leeds University Jubilee and give credit to the caterers. The starter and main courses were very good, but the real praise has to be reserved for the dessert, a rather fine crème brûlée. Apart from the fact that crème brûlée is a favourite of mine this was a truly magnificent specimen. It was accompanied by a tangy rhubarb compote sitting in its own little chocolate basket, three shortbread biscuits and a six-inch, white chocolate straw. Obviously there was some debate on my table as to the exact etiquette surrounding the use of a chocolate straw at a formal lunch, but, since the Vidal Pinot Noir 2005 had been flowing liberally during the previous two courses, we decided to forego any unnecessary concern over formalities and either tucked or sucked in.

Computer scientists can be a competitive lot in their own little way, and the department was not to be outdone by some of Gordon Lucifer 0×32 beerRamsey’s little helpers. In the late afternoon we were offered a free (yes – for once free as in beer, not as in software) bar and lavish buffet. The good burghers of Leeds had stumped up for the brewing of an exclusive range of real ales, created by Elland Brewery, which had been named after the different departmental mainframe computers: Eldon, Lucifer, Amdahl and KDF-9. They also provided take-home bottles of the premium beer, Lucifer 0x32 (see photo). Each bottle had a unique identifier from the hexadecimal numbering system (mine was 0xC5 of 0x3FF). I could’ve wept tears of joy into my wispy beard (if I still had one)…

Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, gets his revenge

April 2, 2007

At Leeds on Friday (see yesterday’s entry for more background) the main keynote speech was delivered by Dr Andrew Herbert, Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, who was a student at Leeds in the early 1970s. His talk was entitled, “Why everything I learned at Leeds in 1972 is no longer true” and he declared it to be, in part, an opportunity to have his revenge on his lecturers of thirty years ago. Continuing this blog’s interest in all things lunch oriented, Andrew noted that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and that in this case, given the thirty-five year wait, it was “glacial”.

His main point was that there have been enormous technological changes and much of what was being taught in the ’70s was focused on “overcoming the limitation of the machine” e.g. speed of processor, size of memory, poor quality displays, use of punch cards etc. Some of Dr Herbert’s points were more obvious, for example: the day of the stand-alone computer is over, we live in the age of the networked computer. Secondly, software is much more complex than it used to be: testing code by simple ‘desk’ review (people who work in publishing can equate this to being a bit like proofreading) is no longer sufficient. Also, we need new ways of organising and visualising the large amounts of information on our systems – hierarchical file systems have had their day.

Other things were more complex. For example, the questions affecting Artificial Intelligence research have changed – the issue now is how far are we prepared to put our faith in computer algorithms that demonstrate ‘intelligence’. What if computers can’t explain WHY they’ve made a decision?

He also made the point that we are still in the process of defining the subject of computer science and there is a need to make it clear to people today that there is a definite discipline of computing and it is not just a group of techies playing around with gadgets. He said: “we have some way to go in persuading other disciplines that we have a theoretical underpinning”. This was very interesting to me as I feel quite strongly that we need to keep the ‘science’ in computer science. And when I say that, I mean we need to keep hold of the importance of ideas and the spirit of exploration and investigation, rather than turning into a purely vocational course of study.

Mike Wells and the JANET April Fool

April 1, 2007

I was up in Leeds on Friday, helping to celebrate 50 years of computing at my old university. The keynote speech was delivered by Dr. Andrew Herbert, a Leeds alumnus (1975), and now Director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge (UK). He mentioned one of his lecturers, Mike Wells, and his views on networks. Back in the early 1970s Mike was adamant that stand-alone computers would not be stand-alone for much longer. Apparently, during one of his lectures, Dr Wells had revealed: “there’s this thing called ARPANET in the United States which could be interesting”. ARPANET was, of course, the forerunner of the Internet.

In another of Friday’s talks, Dave Holdsworth, an ex-member of staff, gave a talk on the history of computing at the university. He mentioned that by the mid seventies a diverse and pretty incoherent collection of networks had sprung up between self-selecting groups of universities and research agencies. In 1975, Professor Wells was instrumental in producing what has become known as the Well’s Report which led to the creation of the JANET (Joint Academic NETwork). This backbone network successfully linked the growing jumble of university inter-networks into one powerful national system. This was pioneering work in those days, and, as I have already outlined in an earlier blog entry about Tom Loosemore, provided a skeleton for the vision of the later development of the public Internet in the UK.

Professor Mike Wells was therefore not only a lecturer with an early grip on the importance of linking computers together, but was also a leading figure both in the university computing service and on the national networking scene. As the JANET was formally launched 23 years ago, on 1st April 1984, it also seems fair to say that he probably also had a rather wry sense of humour.