Monthly Archives: April 2011

Location, location, location

The widelyreported furore over location tracking in smartphones (first with the iPhone, then with the Android platform) has yet again highlighted the apparent contradiction between certain people’s constant need to publicise what they are doing and where they are doing it, whilst also maintaining the absolute right to privacy throughout.

I find this rather strange. Perhaps being a technology geek, I am very much aware of the technical infrastructure (and constant stream of personal data) required to support the services that we use every day. I therefore make a conscious and informed choice when I allow these services to access my information or publish my location. In fact, I am happy to publish my iPhone location data below, as I am aware of the perceived risks:

Tom Crick's iPhone data -- I've been a busy boy

But with Apple today finally breaking radio silence and clarifying how and why they are storing the geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data, it all boils down to this: it’s a bug.

Hmmmmm. Being a computer scientist, I have written a fair amount of buggy code in my time, but it is rare when it prompts the question “feature or bug?“. Normally, I would ascribe things like this to cock-up before conspiracy, but it is seems more likely to be about potential revenue generation rather than anything more sinister such as government tracking (as I would question the value of timestamped location data from inaccurate cell tower data).

I think that being able to access my own data is pretty cool, but the collection process should be more explicit and transparent to all types of users: clearly explained and not buried in the 15,200 word iTunes terms and conditions. You should also be able to easily purge the data and it should (at the very least) be encrypted/hashed. You can encrypt your iPhone backup, but this option is not enabled by default.

So, does Apple apologising for forgetting to set an expiry on your data that it collects resolve the issue? Not really. This is a worrying trend from companies such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, et al., who are acting as if personal data is a resource that can be harvested at will. Of course you are free to not use their products or services, but it is vital for this data collection to be open and explicitly opt-in. After recent events, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple receive a number of Subject Access Requests over the coming weeks in the UK. A positive outcome from all of this would be a wider public debate on the storage and use of personal data.

FYI: your smartphone already knows more about you then you may think.

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Feynman Problem-Solving Algorithm

When I am doing research, I often think of the Feynman Problem-Solving Algorithm, supposedly coined in jest by another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, about Richard Feynman‘s innate problem-solving ability:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think very hard.
  3. Write down the answer.

Feynman was renowned for his ability to develop innovative and creative solutions to hugely complex problems, without being able to give much insight into how this process worked. Nevertheless, the algorithm itself is much more helpful than I thought on first reading. I occasionally overlook how important it is to define and bound a problem and think about it in abstract terms before attempting to construct a solution. In fact, I try to instil this problem-solving ability in my students when I teach introductory programming, as they all rush head-first into writing code before actually thinking about the problem they are trying to solve.

Richard Feynman

I’m off to find a pen and some paper…

(Feynman was also known for frequently changing his mind during this problem-solving process; when he worked on the Manhattan Project, colleagues remarked that only when Feynman said something was true on three consecutive occasions, you could count on it.)

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Romanes eunt domus

Latin has popped up a fair bit recently, with even the Guardian Higher Education chastising me for suggesting a Latin phrase they thought was Greek! But still the best example of Latin that has permeated mainstream culture is the following from Monty Python‘s Life of Brian:

[Brian is writing graffiti on the palace wall. The Centurion catches him in the act]
Centurion: What’s this, then? “Romanes eunt domus”? People called Romanes, they go, the house?
Brian: It says, “Romans go home. “
Centurion: No it doesn’t! What’s the Latin for “Roman”? Come on, come on!
Brian: Er, “Romanus”!
Centurion: Vocative plural of “Romanus” is?
Brian: Er, er, “Romani”!
Centurion: [Writes “Romani” over Brian’s graffiti] “Eunt”? What is “eunt”? Conjugate the verb, “to go”!
Brian: Er, “Ire”. Er, “eo”, “is”, “it”, “imus”, “itis”, “eunt”.
Centurion: So, “eunt” is…?
Brian: Third person plural present indicative, “they go”.
Centurion: But, “Romans, go home” is an order. So you must use…?
[He twists Brian’s ear]
Brian: Aaagh! The imperative!
Centurion: Which is…?
Brian: Aaaagh! Er, er, “i”!
Centurion: How many Romans?
Brian: Aaaaagh! Plural, plural, er, “ite”!
Centurion: [Writes “ite”] “Domus”? Nominative? “Go home” is motion towards, isn’t it?
Brian: Dative!
[the Centurion holds a sword to his throat]
Brian: Aaagh! Not the dative, not the dative! Er, er, accusative, “Domum”!
Centurion: But “Domus” takes the locative, which is…?
Brian: Er, “Domum”!
Centurion: [Writes “Domum”] Understand? Now, write it out a hundred times.
Brian: Yes sir. Thank you, sir. Hail Caesar, sir.
Centurion: Hail Caesar! And if it’s not done by sunrise, I’ll cut your balls off.

One of the best scenes in the film (and thanks to Mark Clarkson for reminding me); I still regret choosing German rather than Latin at school…

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2011 Science Communication Conference

I was very pleased to hear last week that I had been offered a bursary to attend the 2011 Science Communication Conference, an annual two-day event organised by the British Science Association.

The Science Communication Conference is the largest in the UK, addressing the key issues facing science communicators and bringing together people involved in public engagement. This tends to be a diverse group of people from a wide range of backgrounds, including science centres, charities, universities, press offices and policy-makers.

This year’s theme is online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, as well as an interactive social media workshop. Some of the speakers include Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radform on his career and experience as former science editor of The Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I am looking forward to meeting (in real life!) a number of science communicators who I regularly interact with on Twitter, as well as blogging throughout the conference. As an academic, I’ve found social media an immensely valuable resource for my research, though especially in supporting my science communication and public engagement activities. The relevance of this year’s theme is clear, highlighting how pervasive and powerful online media can be; I’m also very keen to hear Simon Singh discuss the latest proposed reforms to the libel laws in the UK.

The 2011 Science Communication Conference will be held on 25th-26th May at King’s Place, King’s Cross, London and you can register online.


How to forecast average tuition fees

With the BBC today surmising that at least two-thirds of universities in England want to charge £9,000 a year for some or all courses, the recent media frenzy has clearly not considered the skewed distribution of universities that have actually announced their fees levels.

As William Cullerne Bown’s excellent Exquisite Life blog post highlights, lots of universities in the Russell Group have declared at £9,000, whereas lots of universities in the harder-pressed Million+ have not.

Drawing an average for the entire sector by relying on a simple arithmetical average of the fees declared is inherently flawed and only suitable for eye-catching newspaper headlines. I recommend reading the rest of his post; it’s reassuring to see data points plotted on a graph and some actual analysis with regards to where the average will eventually sit.

But this raises the question of whether an average tuition fee value is even a worthwhile metric to consider, unless you normalise for a number of different variables, for example an institution’s size. Furthermore, from my perspective, this is all rather moot, as the future of tuition fees for higher education in Wales is somewhat more complicated.

UPDATE 2011-04-20: Confirmed today by the Office for Fair Access, (via the Times Higher) that for the 2011-2012 academic year, 139 institutions (consisting of 122 higher education institutions and 17 further education institutions) had submitted draft access agreements by the deadline.

Surely this has blown away the idea that £6k would be the norm and charging up to £9k would only be in “exceptional circumstances”.

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“Today, there is no news”

On this day in 1930 (Good Friday, 18th April 1930), during what should have been the 6:30pm radio news bulletin, the BBC presenter announced:

Good evening. Today is Good Friday….there is no news.

Piano music was then played instead of the current affairs update for a couple of minutes, before normal scheduling resumed. Rather than the BBC judging that nothing newsworthy had actually happened, the official story is slightly more mundane. However, I sometimes wish that this declaration would happen today, rather than some of the non-news that is shown…especially on breakfast news programmes.

Perhaps something as excruciatingly excellent as this:

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High Performance Computing Wales

HPC Wales logo

In July 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government announced the funding of High Performance Computing Wales (HPC Wales), a £40m major infrastructure project to provide an advanced supercomputing facility in Wales. It was first announced by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in December 2009; the project survived the change of government but lost £4m funding. The project is funded from the following sources:

  • £19m from ERDF and ESF European funds channelled through WEFO
  • £10m from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
  • £4m from collaborating institutions
  • £5m from the Welsh Assembly Government/HEFCW
  • £2m private sector and research income

The £40m investment will cover infrastructure development, equipment, software research, management and operational costs over the first five years to 2015, after which HPC Wales will become self-supporting and sustainable.

HPC Wales consists of three elements:

  • World-class HPC capacity: the purchase of large-scale super computing technology to complement existing facilities in Swansea and Cardiff with high-speed links to satellite spokes in the five major research universities in Wales. The network will link to business innovation centres and research centres in Wales and globally.
  • HPC Institute: this will deliver advanced research, focused on strategic partnerships in both academic and private sector, with priority given to research with direct economic impacts and benefits.
  • HPC Academy: the sustainability of the Research Institute will depend upon the ability to develop technical research skills and a pipeline of talent i.e. capability. The Academy will develop HPC skills training and will be open to researchers in Welsh SMEs and researchers in universities working collaboratively with businesses.

The main hubs for HPC Wales will be in Cardiff and Swansea, linked to spokes at Aberystwyth, Bangor and Glamorgan Universities, University of Wales Alliance Universities (including UWIC) and the Technium business innovation centres around Wales.

Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Assembly Government’s deputy minister for science, innovation and skills, said at the project announcement:

The scale of the project is ambitious and will reach all four corners of Wales. It will speed up innovation from research carried out in Welsh Universities through to commercial-market ready products. It will also have a major impact on high-level skills development and training and put Wales right up there as an international player in the world of computational research.

Fujitsu were named as successful bidder for HPC Wales in March 2011 (I had the pleasure of attending the official award of contract down at the National Assembly in Cardiff), with the aim of being fully operational before the end of 2011. One of the main differences between HPC Wales and other HPC facilities in the UK (including the National Grid Service, the UK academic computing research infrastructure) is that it is not just purely focused towards academic research. Due to its funding sources (particularly the European funding), the project has a focus of kickstarting the use of HPC in industry in Wales. The aim is to have a major impact on the economy, on business competitiveness, on innovation, skills development and job creation.

I am very excited about HPC Wales (and not just because it will eventually deliver 190 teraflop performance); the distributed nature and scale of the project, plus the open access to business, makes it unique in its scale, nature and ambition. I will be involved in HPC Wales on a number of levels: as a researcher who consumes significant computational resources; but also at a strategic level for how it can provide an infrastructure for attracting high-value R&D to Wales and facilitating collaboration between Welsh higher education institutions and industry. It should play a key role in WAG‘s Economic Renewal Programme, as well as being crucial infrastructure for Delivering a Digital Wales, its wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching virtually every strand of public and private sector activity.

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External examiners: “the guardians of higher education”

This week heralded the publication of the Review of External Examining Arrangements in Universities and Colleges in the UK, a cross-sector analysis by Universities UK (chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch), the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. The purpose of the review was as follows:

For Universities UK and GuildHE to review external examining arrangements in the UK in order to consider and recommend what improvements need to be made to ensure that they effectively support the comparability of academic standards and are robust enough to meet future challenges.

Why is this important you ask? Well, external examiners play a key role in safeguarding academic standards and quality assurance and are “the guardians of the public purse and of the reputation of UK higher education”, according to the 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education. While it is important for one’s academic reputation and development to be an external examiner, questions arise about a perceived lack of respect accorded to some external examiners in terms of financial burdens, high workloads and disparity in rewards across institutions. Furthermore, a 2005 report from the HEA entitled The Future for External Examining and the Higher Education Academy noted that payments to external examiners had “remained unchanged for years” and that “external examiners argue passionately that the fees do not reflect their status as ‘guardians of UK higher education’ ”. There are numerous tales of disparity between the rhetoric and examples of practice, with a 2009 NUS report, External Examiners: Their Role in UK Higher Education, acknowledging that different institutions pay contrasting rates, with “£375 a day cited at one university and £200 a day at another”.

Why am I interested in this? Well, I have recently been appointed as external examiner for the Computing and Multimedia Technology undergraduate degree portfolio at Middlesex University, so I am interested how the recommendations from the Universities UK report will be adopted. I’m not particularly fussed about the remuneration (this certainly isn’t a rant about wanting more money), more about the importance accorded to the role itself. Being an external examiner is a crucial part of maintaining the integrity of the UK higher education system, so the responsibilities and workload required to do the job properly have to be accounted for and fully appreciated.

(Thanks to James Derounian, National Teaching Fellow at the University of Gloucestershire, for his recent Times Higher Education article on this subject: Used and Abused?)



Today’s page 3 headline in The Times:

Japan radiation leak may be worse than Chernobyl

A worrying headline indeed, especially with all of the associated implications of dropping the C-word, mainly due to the re-categorisation of the incident from Level 5 to Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

However, on closer inspection of the actual article, specifically the Q&A section further down, the headline does not quite ring true:

Does this mean that Fukushima is as serious an accident as Chernobyl?
No. The INES scale is not finely graded, so Level 7 incidents can vary widely in severity. Chernobyl remains a far more serious accident. To date, the amount of radioactive material released at Fukushima has been a tenth of that released into the atmosphere at Chernobyl and confined to a much smaller area.

Hmmmm, that’s slightly disingenuous; maybe they should have just published this xkcd comic:


UPDATE: check out the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update Log by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

UPDATE: Quote by Hiroshi Horiike, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at Osaka University, in Time magazine (25th April 2011) regarding the increase in severity level of the crisis to the maximum of seven:

We should not consider the two incidents as the same…Fukushima is not a Chernobyl.

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Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

A few weeks ago I was invited to write a blog post for the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE), discussing science policy issues relating to the impending devolved elections in Wales. Since I now have my own blog, I thought I would repost it here and keep an eye on any science policy developments over the next month or so in the lead up to the elections on 5th May:

CaSE logo

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales?

In December 2010, the Welsh Assembly Government outlined a framework for Delivering a Digital Wales, a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The WAG Economic Renewal Programme further reinforced the importance of ICT/Digital Economy as one of the six priority sectors for economic renewal.

Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, Lesley Griffiths said at the Digital Wales launch:

The growth of our economy and the well-being of our citizens are now inexorably linked to advances in technology. We must be prepared to respond quickly to new opportunities and challenges that rapid technological change will continue to bring.

While substantial inroads in developing the infrastructure for a digital economy in Wales have been made, there is still a long way to go. A third of the adult population in Wales do not use the Internet, less than 40% of Welsh SMEs actually sell online and one in six Welsh employers consider the IT skills of their employees insufficient.

Large-scale ICT infrastructure improvements, including the roll-out of superfast broadband across parts of Wales, the funding of High Performance Computing Wales and even Improving Care through ICT for Health in Wales, have created a strong platform to support the proposed Digital Wales plan, but what about the strategic development of the required technically-skilled workforce? Emphasis has been placed on broadening and deepening the skills base in Wales, but is this being done in the right areas?

Understanding Computing

The strategic importance of the provision of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and careers and their contribution to the UK economy has been frequently discussed, but there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding with where Computing and related disciplines sit within the STEM portfolio. Furthermore, there are a number of questions about how Computing is taught in schools across the UK; in essence, it isn’t. As in England, most schools in Wales teach ICT (Information & Communication Technology) rather than Computing. Unfortunately, ICT invariably consists solely of teaching how to use office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets. This is creating a generation of technology consumers (the “PowerPoint generation”), who do not have any deep comprehension of the technologies they are using beyond a superficial application-focused understanding. Futhermore, it is disengaging students who mistakenly believe that this is what Computing as a discipline (or potential career) is actually about.

A part of the Digital Wales agenda is focused on equipping people to become digital citizens; one facet of this is educating children so that by the time they become adults they are capable of making a valuable contribution to the digital society and economy. And therein lies the importance and relevance of Computing education; schools should equip every child with the basic understanding of how computers work and with the technological capabilities to take part in a knowledge-based society and economy. By spectacularly failing to do this, there is a serious problem.

Part of this is perhaps to do with terminology: Computing is not just about computers (as per Edsger W. Dijkstra’s famous quote: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”); it embodies deeper computational thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills. In some ways, it is the quintessential STEM subject, involving scientific enquiry, engineering design and mathematical foundations.

Positive Steps

The importance of the creative industries in Wales (including recent funding for West Wales and the Valleys) demonstrates that being able to innovate with technology is a crucial part of the future economic strength of Wales. Not having the skilled workforce or graduates to supply this future demand would be disastrous. However, there are a number of recently announced initiatives that are addressing this lack of strategic focus on Computing education and training.

The announcement in February 2011 of £6m funding over three years for the Technocamps project was a huge step forward; it aims to encourage young people in Wales to follow in the footsteps of successful technologists and entrepreneurs by inspiring them to study Computing-based topics underpinning and aligned with the STEM subjects. Over 2,600 pupils from across the Convergence area of Wales will get the chance to develop their technical skills and gain an insight into the wide range of Computing-related careers open to them.

Technocamps is further supported by the announcement in October 2010 of 13m investment over five years for Software Alliance Wales (SAW), which will boost the growth and competitiveness of the strategically important digital technology sector. One priority of SAW is to increase higher-level ICT skills across all business and industry sectors. Complementary funding was also announced in 2010 for the National Science Academy and STEM Cymru to ensure Wales has a continuous pipeline of people graduating from colleges and universities with the appropriate qualifications and skills.

But there is still significant work to be done; Computing at School (CAS), a membership association formally supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, is actively working in Wales in partnership with the Technocamps project to support and promote the teaching of Computing in Wales and stimulate curriculum change. The widely reported Royal Society review into Computing in Schools, along with its importance and implications for the economic and scientific strength of the UK, is due in November 2011. A national debate on subjects in Wales announced in February 2011 by Leighton Andrews, Deputy Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning, to discuss the future of A-level and vocational subjects in Wales, will hopefully recognise the importance of Computing in supporting future economic growth and enabling a Digital Wales. In England, the Department of Education review of the National Curriculum has restarted a similar debate; Scotland has already included Computing as part of its Curriculum of Excellence. It would be extraordinary if Wales did not do the same.

(A related article has been written by Dr Bill Mitchell, Director of the BCS Academy of Computing, the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline: The Collapse of Computing Education in English Schools)

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2010 ACM Turing Award: Leslie Valiant

Last month, the 2010 ACM Turing Award was awarded to British computer scientist Leslie G. Valiant of Harvard University:

For transformative contributions to the theory of computation, including the theory of probably approximately correct (PAC) learning, the complexity of enumeration and of algebraic computation, and the theory of parallel and distributed computing.

Valiant’s fundamental contributions to the development of computational learning theory (in particular, probably approximately correct learning) brought together machine learning and computational complexity, leading to advances in artificial intelligence as well as in natural language processing, handwriting recognition and computer vision.

Read the full award citation.


(also see: the 2009 recipient, as well as the full chronological listing of awards)

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Hello, World!

I have finally decided to take the plunge and create a work-related blog for my random musings about computer science research, technology, science policy and education.

Let the record show that the blame lies entirely with Alice Bell.

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