Monthly Archives: September 2011

“These aren’t the drives you’re looking for…”

Earlier tonight I saw this video of two floppy disk drives performing The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme):

While this has been done before, it is a lovely piece of hardware hacking by Silent, using an Atmel ATMega microcontroller to change the frequency of the stepper motor in the floppy disk drive.

I think this would be a great piece of kit for a GCSE/A-Level Computing class to play around with!

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Where are the Cross-Party Groups for science and technology?

The National Assembly for Wales is the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people: it makes laws for Wales and holds the Welsh Government to account. Alongside the day-to-day Assembly business of plenary meetings, Committees and the legislative process, there exists a number of Cross-Party Groups.

A Cross-Party Group is not a formal Assembly grouping (and hence is not bound by any of the Assembly’s Standing Orders) but may be set up by Assembly Members in respect of any subject area relevant to the Assembly. A group must include Members from three political parties represented within the Assembly. Like All-Party Groups in Westminster, they have no formal role in policy development, but they indicate an area or a topic that is of importance to the Assembly or to Wales in general.

During the Third Assembly (2007-2011), there were two Cross-Party Groups in which I held a professional interest:

  • Cross-Party Group on Science & Technology: To bring together Assembly Members and others with an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Wales, with the aim of raising awareness amongst AMs of important developments in STEM, both technological and educational; and how policy issues impact upon these areas.
  • Cross-Party Digital Group: To promote the use of digital and information technology in Wales.

The existence of these two Cross-Party Groups was a hugely positive step by the Assembly, recognising the importance of the STEM agenda and of digital technologies to Wales. However, looking at the Cross-Party Groups that have been registered in this Fourth Assembly, there are no groups that solely focus on any of these crucial areas. While the creation of a Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales in 2010, along with the Science Advisory Council for Wales, are both significant steps forward, there are no legislative Committees that clearly have science within their remit. This is a concern.

The Welsh Government have repeatedly highlighted the importance of the Digital Economy/ICT sector, identified as one of the priority sectors for economic renewal. The significance of the cross-government Delivering a Digital Wales framework is also clear: a wide-ranging strategy to reflect the importance digital technologies now play in our lives, touching upon virtually every strand of public and private sector activity. The strategic importance of the provision of STEM subjects was firmly underlined with the publication of the Enterprise and Learning Committee‘s The STEM Agenda report in January 2011. Furthermore, the imminent publication of Science for Wales: A Strategic Agenda for Science in Wales by the Chief Scientific Advisor (of which I have been part of the stakeholder consultation), further reinforces the importance of science to Wales, from both an economic and educational perspective.

This is an open call to all Assembly Members (though specifically Huw Lewis AM and Bethan Jenkins AM due to their previous involvement in the two Cross-Party Groups named above): please form a new Cross-Party Group to focus on these key areas. It is imperative that the Assembly continues to recognise and highlight the importance of science and technology to Wales, as well as engaging with the wider Welsh science community. I would happily work with this new Cross-Party Group to further advance the STEM and digital agenda in Wales.

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I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

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SuperLab: Future Chips

Yesterday I travelled up to the University of Bradford for the British Science Festival, one of Europe’s largest science festivals. Each year the Festival travels to a different UK location, with over 250 events, activities, exhibitions and trips taking place over a week to showcase the latest in science, technology and engineering. The theme for the 2011 Festival is “Exploring new worlds“. The British Science Festival is also the culmination of my British Science Association Media Fellowship, after working with BBC Wales (predominantly BBC Radio Wales) for the past six weeks. I will be reporting from the Festival’s press centre throughout the week.

However, I am also here for SuperLab, a joint initiative between the National Higher Education STEM Programme and the British Science Association. The National HE STEM Programme supports higher education institutions in the exploration of new approaches to recruiting students and delivering programmes of study within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines; I have previously worked with the Welsh HE STEM “spoke” based at Swansea University.

SuperLab consists of a poster-based campaign focusing on the wide range of in-store STEM applications in a modern supermarket, for example, the physics behind barcode scanners. It was originally planned to coincide with National Science and Engineering Week 2012 (every March, NSEW showcases how the sciences and engineering relate to our everyday lives and helps to inspire the next generation of scientists), but was reorganised to be part of this year’s Festival, as part of the Science in Action exhibition.

The topic for my research poster was the microprocessor, entitled “Future Chips“, somewhat subverting the original SuperLab theme. Nevertheless, I would assert that the invention of the microprocessor has had the greatest overall impact on our lives and development — I wanted to try and highlight to a wide audience how reliant we are on the all-pervasive microprocessor (especially its multitude of applications), as well as the ubiquitous nature of technology. In doing this, I wanted to get four main themes across:

  • Swimming in a Sea of Silicon: highlighting our reliance on microprocessors;
  • Limitations of Moore’s Law: how we are hitting the limits of existing architectural models and fabrication technologies;
  • The Future is Multi-Core: the move away from a single high-speed processor to a multi-core methodology — a single computing component with numerous independent processors;
  • The Challenge: Power Efficiency: in our increasingly connected digital world, improving the energy efficiency and power consumption of the billions of devices is paramount.

SuperLab wordle

So, with thanks to the superb work from the professional designers (especially considering some of my inane scribblings), here it is:

SuperLab: Future Chips

For further reading…

If you are interested, here are the references to the research that is (briefly) mentioned in my SuperLab poster (or contact me):

I’m also involved in HiPEAC, the European Network of Excellence on High Performance and Embedded Architecture and Compilation, funded under the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The aim of HiPEAC is to steer and increase European research in the area of high performance and embedded computing systems and stimulate cooperation between academia and industry; for more information about HiPEAC, check out its research and activities.

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Sunday afternoons

I agree with Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged (who has unlucky to have immortality inadvertently thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch and pair of rubber bands) regarding Sunday afternoons :

It was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

Chapter 1, Life, the Universe and Everything, HHGTTG

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A week at the Science Café

As part of my 2011 British Science Association Media Fellowship at BBC Wales (see other posts). I spent a week in Wrexham working on Science Café (@BBCScienceCafe), BBC Radio Wales’ flagship weekly science and technology programme presented by Adam Walton. It aims to explore the science and technology stories making the headlines and reveal the latest Welsh scientific research; in this way it differentiates from BBC Click by focusing more on science and scientists rather than consumer technology.

Science Café is based at the new BBC North East Wales site at the Centre for the Creative Industries, Glyndŵr University. I spent a week working with Jeremy Grange and Alan Daulby, two excellent BBC producers, discussing ideas for future Science Café programmes.

BBC in Wrexham

I had initially planned on pitching programme ideas to raise the perception of computer science research, as well as the importance of computing education and the wider societal impact of technology. However, an idea quickly developed around a “Desert Island Discs for scientists”, to understand what inspired researchers in Wales to become scientists. This very quickly evolved into a programme that was recorded on Thursday 18th August and broadcast on Tuesday 23rd August; I was joined on the programme by two other scientists based in Wales:

  • An astronomer, Dr Edward Gomez, who is Education Director for Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope Network in Cardiff University.
  • Dr Anna Croft, a bio-chemist at Bangor University looking at biological interactions and reaction mechanisms.

The 30 minute programme was based around a panel discussion, with each of us describing our main influences and inspiration as scientists, especially what first hooked us as children. My childhood influences possibly adhered to the geek stereotype (although, geek chic is now rather fashionable): the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (passim on this blog), Star Trek (predominantly TNG), Doctor Who, the BBC Micro and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, as well as a couple of inspiring science and maths teachers at my secondary school in Oxford (particularly Steve Drywood, who sadly passed away a few years ago). The scientists who I felt had inspired or influenced me over my formative years were Richard Feynman, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking (although due to the editing, I only mentioned Professor Steve Furber, who is best known for his work at Acorn, where he was one of the designers of the BBC Micro). We finished with some future gazing, describing our own research and its possible wider impact on society. I did notice some of my idiosyncrasies, particularly a penchant for saying “kind of” when I start to ramble on. However, it was very well edited by Alan, squeezing the best bits of the c.45 minute discussion into the programme.

Overall, a big thanks to Jeremy and Alan for making me feel welcome in Wrexham (especially in the quiet week after the 2011 National Eisteddfod of Wales!) and I look forward to working with Science Café in the future. Keep an eye out for future programmes on logic and computing education…

The “Inspiration” Science Café programme is now available on iPlayer!
(UPDATE: unfortunately the programme is only available on iPlayer for seven days after being broadcast…but I do have my own personal copy if you are desperate to listen to it.)

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