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Computing and Communications: Research groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 29 Jan 2019, 08:33

On 10 January 2019 I went to my first ever Research Fiesta that was held by the School of Computing and Communications! I’m still not exactly sure what a research fiesta is, but what I attended was a fun event.

This is the first of a two part series of blog posts about two key parts of the event. This post is a quick summary of all the research groups that exist within the school (including the one that I’m affiliated with). It has been compiled from a series of short five minute presentations that were made by the group conveners. The second post shares some key messages from a panel discussion that was about research and research funding.

Introducing the research groups

All central and regional academics (lecturers and staff tutors) can join a research group which aligns with their research interests. Looking towards the future, where the terms of associate lecturer terms and conditions may change, there may become a point where ALs may also able to become affiliated with research groups in some way (this is a hope and a reflection that is above and beyond my pay grade).

In some respects, research groups in universities come and go depending on the academics that are employed within an institution and institutional and school strategic priorities. What follows is the current configuration of the groups. If you look back on this post after, say, a decade or so, things might look very different.

SEAD: Software Engineering And Design

The SEAD group, the Software Engineering and Design research group isn’t just about researching software that runs in a computer; it also studies how software engineering relates to real world applications. The domains of application that the groups have studied has included: policing, health care, aviation, and sustainability (farming). These external domains of application are becoming increasing more important. An aim of the school is to have more PhD students.

This wider focus reflects the orientation of the school, in the sense that it is about studying and teaching about the connections between computing and people (as far as I understand it).

TERG: Technology and Education Research Group

TERG, the Technology and Education Research Group (group blog) is a large group; it has around 30 members and a third of the group are staff tutors. The focus of the group is to study the use of technology for learning and teaching. It is closely link to another research group called CALRG which is within another faculty, known as the Computers and Learning Research Group (group blog) and has hosted a number of STEM scholarship research projects that have been funded by eSTEeM, the OU centre for STEM pedagogy. TERG has recently run a number of events, including writing away days (for research publications) and workshops about methods and theories.

AI and NLP group

This group covers the subjects of artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing and also aspects of music computing. There is a movement towards an increasing amount of focus on ‘deep learning’. 

NeXt Generation Multimedia Technologies

XGMT (research group website) was formed in 2005. If I’ve got this right, XGMT has got a connection with a number of OU modules, including TM255 Communication and Information Technologies. Some of the areas of research image processing and mobile communications.

Interaction Design Research Group

Interaction design is primarily about how to design usable software systems and devices. Members of this group have got a strong connection with the module TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience and key areas of research include: digital health and wellbeing, animal computer interaction, designing future interfaces (which means looking at physical interfaces and haptic devices – devices that rely on our sense of touch), and music computing. Recent activities has included submitting research to the CHI series of conferences, and also participating in public outreach events.

Critical Information studies

The aim of this group is to interrogate and to understand the notion of information from critical perspectives. There is an important emphasis on the analysis of power, the application of ethics and the consideration of politics. Subject areas and topics that connect to this theme include artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. A critical question that the group address could be, for example, whether algorithms and the data that they use can inadvertently produce prejudice that is reflected in the data that those algorithms consume. Members of this group have contributed to both undergraduate and postgraduate modules. The group has recently run a successful conference and aims to increase their outreach activity.

Reflections

It was really helpful to hear about the different groups. A thought that immediately came to mind was: I have interests that span these different areas. 

Although I’m a member of TERG, my postgraduate research was more closely aligned to the work that goes on within the SEAD group. My own personal research (and teaching) journey took me off in the direction of interaction design which, of course, has its own group. The point here is that there are many connections and links between these different groups.

There is another link that is really important, and that is the link between the groups and the undergraduate and postgraduate modules. Research carried out within these groups can (and should) directly feed into the design, development and updating of modules that are created by academics within the school.

An important question to ask is: what was the biggest lesson that I learnt from all this? My answer would be: an increased awareness of the breadth of research that is taking place within the school. By knowing about these group and the research that takes place within them I have a more direct understanding of who might be able to help me if I had a question about, for instance, what topics are important in a subject area. In a discipline such as computing, where so much is subject to continual change, understanding who to go to is really important.

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AL development event: researching Computing and IT pedagogy

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

This blog has been prepared from a set of notes made during an AL development event on 18 June 2016 which took place at the Open University offices in Camden.

Opening remarks

The session kicked off with a ‘state of the union’ address. One of the big changes that associate lecturers were told about was the merger between two faculties: the Maths Computing and Technology faculty and the Science faculty, to create the STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Maths faculty. One of the reasons cited for this change is that the new faculty will have more independence in terms of how it is able to manage its structures and finances.

There, are, however some interesting differences. The science faculty doesn’t have any face to face tutorials for second and third level modules, whereas MCT does. Another point that I’ve noted down is that science makes more use of formative assessments. I’ve made some notes about what this means, but I won’t go into it here (since I might get some of the details wrong!)

In terms of Computing and IT, there are three new level three modules (which have now started), and two level one modules that are currently being written. These two modules occupy the space where TU100 My Digital Life used to sit. Key issues that needed to be addressed included: clear study overload for students, and issues regarding the transition between levels 1 and 2, especially when it comes to computer programming.

Retention and progression

The topic of retention and progression regularly comes up. The OU faces particular challenges regarding retention and progression due to its open access policy. In response to these challenges (amongst others, of course) the new faculty has created a new role called ‘head of student success’. I personally hold the view that associate lecturers and the student-tutor relationship is the single most important thing in terms of student success, and the new ‘head of student success’ needs to know something about what happens in the life of an associate lecturer to make any impact. Like I say, this is just an opinion (but one that is very valid).

I’ve also made a note that there was some mention of the subject of ‘learning analytics’. This is the study of ‘knowing how, when and where students are clicking’ when they visit the university websites. The idea is that clever algorithms might be able to tell members of the student support teams to give students a ring to have a chat about their studies before things get too difficult. Call me old fashioned: algorithms are all very well and have their uses but when it comes to education, people and personal knowledge matter a whole lot more (and I’ve spent much of my life studying computing and IT systems).

I’ve also made the following note (but I’m not quite sure what point I was trying to make): ‘students first’ means the importance of feedback and feedforward in response to exams, i.e. ‘why did I get a particular score?’ I think I meant: ‘one of the real things that can make a difference to students is the quality of feedback; personalised feedback can (obviously) guide effective learning’.

Group tuition policy session

The university has introduced something called the group tuition policy. There are some obvious issues with it, and I think it is (by and large) a pretty good idea. It has a couple of really simple principles, such as ‘for each face to face event, there should be an online alternative’ and ‘students can attend all learning events that are available in a cluster (of tutor groups). A cluster can be made up of anything between 4 and 10 tutor groups.

I’ve made a note of some really good points that were made during this session. One tutor asked, ‘will there be 100 people turning up when we have a really big cluster?’ Experience now tells us that OU Live tutorials don’t ever get that big, but they can become fairly big. I have heard that for some sessions over forty students have logged into a single learning event. (When I have run a national revision tutorial for a module that had over 320 students, I never had more than 30 students). An interesting point was about the use of microphones: students rarely use them.

One tutor asked the question: ‘will students be able to access learning events from all clusters?’ This isn’t something that I have managed to get a definitive answer about, but I have heard the new term ‘students from alien clusters’.

Another tutor asked about OU Live rooms. We now know that students will have access to up to three different OU Live rooms, and it will be down to the module tuition strategy to say more about how they should be used. In many cases there will be a national OU Live room which the module team could use to deliver lectures. There will be a cluster wide room which will be shared by all tutors who are working in a cluster. Finally, tutors will still have access to their own OU Live room, which can be used for additional support sessions, or tutorials that are for a whole tutor group.

I’ve made a note that there was some discussion about how timetables were set. My own approach has been to use a shared wiki document that is hosted on the university virtual learning environment. The dates and times on the wiki are then transferred to a booking spreadsheet which is passed onto AL services. Something else I’ve set us is a ‘cluster forum’, which is used to communicate will all tutors who are a part of a cluster.

The final discussions were about the learning event management system. The LEM, as it is known, is used to allow students to book onto learning events. One of the features of the LEM is that it will allow tutors to send messages to all the students who have registered for learning events (perhaps to send them some information that could be useful before a tutorial).

Researching Computing and IT Pedagogy

This afternoon session was designed to highlight that the university is currently funding STEM pedagogy through its eSTEeM research project, and to emphasise its importance to tutors. A key point is that tutors are important, since they are those that are closest to students.
One note I made was: ‘what do our students find most difficult?’ One answer is writing, and one module that was singled out was T215. A point was that perhaps there could be more teaching by example: students could be given an example of a good essay and a poorly written essay to show how they were different. 

Another interesting point was: when should the subject of writing (in terms of essay and TMA writing) be introduced to students? One thought was: maybe before the start of first level modules? There is something called a programming bootcamp (Learning Innovation website) that helps students to get to grips with the ideas of computer programming; perhaps there might be a writing bootcamp? Another important issue is the importance of basic numeracy, which is something that the first level Computing and IT modules try to address.

The final note I made was about other resources that tutors could draw upon to help students. The university has its Skills for Study website, resources from the library website and the developing good academic practice website which covers issues such as plagiarism and referencing.

AL contract negotiations update

The final part of the event was about potential changes to the associate lecturer teaching contract. The university and the union have been negotiating the terms for a new contract which should, hopefully, offer associate lecturers more stability and security. Rather than being contracted to a particular module which has a certain life tutors will be given a fractional post where they may be required to undertake a range of other duties, such as monitoring, moderating forums, exam marking, critical reading, and so on. This change in the contract will represent, in my opinion, a fundamental change in how the university operates.

I understand that there has been a university project that has been looking at how to plan and organise workload for these fractional posts. This said, at the time of writing, negotiations are currently stalled due to issues that are connected with the implementation of the group tuition policy.

Final remarks

A lot was covered in quite a short period of time. From my perspective, one of the key outcomes was a renewed sense that we need to collectively conduct some research into why students don’t attend tutorials when they are offered. The more students who attend tutorials (or learning events), the more fun, dynamic and interesting the tutorials will become. As soon as I’ve finished my current pedagogy project (which is about how best to observe teaching and learning practice), the question of tutorial attendance is something that I’m definitely going to pursue, with help from tutors (of course). We need this important piece of research to get more of an insight into issues that surround retention and progression.

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OU e-learning Community – Considering Accessibility

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 4 May 2014, 17:36

On April 23, I visited the Open University campus to attend an event to share lessons about how the university can support students who have disabilities. The event, which took place within a group called the ‘e-learning community’ had two parts to it: one part was about sharing of research findings, and the other part was about the sharing of practice.

This blog aims to summarise (albeit briefly) the four presentations that were made during the day.  It’s intended for a couple of audiences: colleagues within the university, students who might be taking the H810 accessible online learning (OU website) module that I tutor, and anyone else who is remotely interested.

Like many of these blogs, these event summaries are written (pretty roughly) from notes that I made during the sessions.  (This is a disclaimer to say that there might be mistakes and I’m likely to have missed some bits).

Academic attainment among students with disabilities in distance education

Professor John Richardson, from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology gave the first presentation of the day.  John does quantitative research (amongst a whole load of other things), and he began by staying that there is an increase in knowledge about our understanding of the attainment of students who have disabilities, but the knowledge is fragmented.  John made a really important point, which was that it is patent nonsense to consider all disabled students as a single group; everyone is different, and academic performance (or attainment) is influenced by a rich combination of variables.  These include age, gender, socio-economic status, prior qualifications (and a whole bunch of others too).

When we look at qualitative data, it’s important to define what we’re talking about.  One of the terms that John clearly defined was the phrase ‘a good degree’.  This, I understand, was considered to be a first or an upper second class honours degree.  John also mentioned something that is unique about the OU; that it awards degree classifications by applying an algorithm that uses scores from all the modules that contribute towards a particular degree (whereas in other institutions, the classification comes from decisions made by an examination board).

We were given some interesting stats.  In 2009 there were 196,405 registered students, of which 6.8% of students declared a disability.  The most commonly disclosed disability was pain and fatigue, followed by dyslexia.  Out of all disabled students, 55% of students declared a multiple disability.

In 2012 the situation was a little different. In 2012 there were 175,000 registered students, of which 12% (21,000) students declared (or disclosed) a disability.  John said that perhaps this increase might be an artifact of statistics, but it remains a fact.  He also made the point (raised by Martyn Cooper, a later speaker on the day) that this number of students represents the size of an average European university.  From these statements I personally concluded that supporting students with disabilities was an activity that the university needs to (quite obviously) take very seriously.

If I’ve got this right John’s research drew upon a 2009 data set from the OU.  There were some interesting findings.  When controlling for other effects (such as socio-economic class, prior qualification and so on), students who had declared pain and fatigue and autistic spectrum disorders exhibited greater levels of gaining good degrees that non-disabled students.  Conversely, students who had disclosed dyslexia, specific learning disabilities or multiple disabilities gained a lower percentage of good degrees when compared with non-disabled students.

I’ve made a note of a couple of interesting conclusions.  To improve completion rates, it is a good idea to somehow think about how we can more readily support students who have disclosed mental health difficulties and mobility impairments.  To improve degree levels, we need to put our focus on students who have disclosed dyslexia and specific learning disabilities.  One take away thought relates to the university’s reliance on text (which is a subject that crops up in a later presentation).

Quantitative research can only tell us so much; it can tell us that an artifact exists, but we need to use other approaches to figure out the finer detail.  Qualitative research, however, can provide detail, but the challenge with qualitative approaches lies with the extent to which findings and observations can be generalised.  My understanding was that we need both to clearly create a rich picture of how the university supports students with disabilities. 

Specific learning differences, module development and success

The second presentation was a double act by Sarah Heiser (a colleague from the London region), and Jane Swindells, who works in the disability advisor service.  Jane introduced the session by saying that it was less about research and more about sharing a practitioner perspective.  I always like these kind of sessions since I find it easy to connect with the materials and I can often pick up some useful tips that you can use within your own teaching.

An important point is that dyslexia has a number of aspects and is an umbrella term for a broader set of conditions.  It can impact on different cognitive processes, such as the use of working memory, speed of information processing, time management, co-ordination and automaticity of operations.  It can also affect how information is received and decoded. 

On-line or electronic materials offer dyslexic learners a wealth of advantages; materials can be accessed through assistive technologies, and users can personalise how content is received or consumed.  An important point that I would add is that the effectiveness of digital resources depends on the user being aware of the possibilities that it gives.  Developing a comprehensive awareness of the strategies of use (to help with teaching and learning) is something that takes time and effort.

Sarah spoke about a project where she has been drawing out practice experience from associate lecturers through what I understand to be a series of on-line sessions (I hope I’ve understood this correctly).  Important themes to include challenges that accompany accuracy, text completion, following instructions, time, and the importance of offering reassurance.

I’ve made a note of the term ‘overlearning’.  When I had to take exams I would repeat and repeat the things I had to learn, until I was sick of them.  (This is a strategy that I continue to use to this day!)

One point that I found especially interesting relates to the use of OU live recordings.   If a tutor records a session, a student who may have dyslexia can go over them time and time again, choosing to pick up sections of learning at a time and a pace that suits them.  This depends on two points: the first is the availability of the resource (tutors making recordings), and students being aware that they exist and know how they can access them.

Towards the end of the session, Sarah mentioned a tool called Language Open Resources on-line, or LORO for short.  LORO allows tutors to share (and discover) different teaching resources.  I was impressed with LORO, in the sense that you can enter a module code and find resources that tutors might (potentially) be able to use within their tutorial sessions.

SeGA guidance: document accessibility/accessible methods and other symbolic languages

The third presentation of the day was from Martyn Cooper, from the Institute of Educational Technology.  Martyn works as a Senior Research fellow, and he has been involved with a university project called SeGA, known as Securing Greater Accessibility.  A part of the project has been to write guidance documents that can help module teams and module accessibility specialists.  An important point is that each module should have a designed person who is responsible for helping to address accessibility issues within its production.  (But, it should also be argued that all members of a module team should be involved too).

The documents are intended to provide up to date guidance (or, distilled expertise) to promote consistency across learning resources. The challenge with writing such guidance is that when we look at some accessibility issues, the detail can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.

The guidance covers a number of important subjects, such as how to make Word documents, PDFs, and pages that are delivered through the virtual learning environment as accessible as possible.  Echoing the previous talk, Martyn made the point that electronic documents have inherent advantages for people who have disabilities – the digital content can be manipulated and rendered in different ways.

Important points to bear in mind include the effective use of ALT texts (texts that describe images), the use of scalable images (for people who have visual impairments), effective design of tables, use of web links, headings and fonts.  An important point was made that it’s important to do ‘semantic tagging’, i.e. design a document using tags that describe its structure (so it becomes navigable), and deal with its graphical presentation separately.

I noted down an interesting point about Microsoft Word.  Martyn said that it is (generally speaking) a very accessible format, partly due to its ubiquity and the way that it can be used with assistive technologies, such as screen readers.

Martyn also addressed the issue about how to deal with accessibility of mathematics and other symbolic notations.  A notation system or language can help ideas to be comprehended and manipulated.  An important point was that in some disciplines, mastery of a notation system can represent an important learning objective.  During Martyn’s talk, I remembered a lecture that I attended a few months back (blog) about a notation scheme to describe juggling.  I also remember that a good notation can facilitate the discovery of new ideas (and the efficient representation of existing ones).

One of the challenges is how to take a notation scheme, which might have inherently visual and spatial properties and convert it into a linear format that conveys similar concepts to users of assistive technologies, such as screen readers.  Martyn mentioned a number of mark-up languages that can be used to represent familiar notations: MathML and ChemML (Wikipedia) are two good examples.  The current challenge is these notations are not supported in a consistent way across different internet browsers.  Music can be represented using something called music braille (but it is also a fact that only a relatively small percentage of visually impaired people use braille languages), or MIDI code.

A personal reflection is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to accessibility.  Notation is a difficult issue to grapple with, and it relies on users making effective use of assistive technologies.  It’s also important to be mindful that AT, in itself, can be a barrier all of its own.  Before one can master a notation, one may well have to master a set of tools.

The question and answer session at the end of Martyn’s talk was also interesting.  An important point was raised that it’s important to embed accessibility into the module production process.  We shouldn’t ‘retrofit’ accessibility – we should be thinking about it from the outset.

Supporting visually impaired students in studying mathematics

The final presentation of the day was by my colleague Hilary Holmes, who is a maths staff tutor.  A comment that I’ve made (in my notebook) at the start of Hilary’s presentation is that the accessibility of maths is a challenging problem.  Students who are considering studying mathematics are told (or should be told) from the outset that maths is an inherently visual subject (which is advice that, I understand, is available in the accessibility guide for some modules).

Key issues include how to describe the notation (which can be inherently two dimensional), how to describe graphs and diagrams, how to present maths on web pages, and how to offer effective and useful guidance to staff and tutors.

First level modules make good use of printed books.  Printed books, of course, present fundamental accessibility challenges, so one solution to the notation (and book accessibility) issue is to use something called a DAISY book, which is a navigable audio book.  DAISY books can be created with either synthesised voices, or recorded human voices.  The university has the ability to record (in some cases) DAISY books through a special recording facility, which used to be a part of disabled student services.  One of the problems of ‘speaking’ mathematical notation is that ambiguities can quickly become apparent, but human readers are more able to interpret expressions and add pauses and use different tones to help convey different meanings.

Another approach is to use some software called AMIS (AMIS project home), which is an abbreviation for Adaptive Multimedia Information System. AMIS appears to be DAISY reader software, but it also displays text.

Diagrams present their own unique challenges.  Solutions might be to describe a diagram, or to create tactile diagrams, but tactile diagrams are limited in terms of what they can express.  Hilary subjected us all to a phenomenally complicated audio description which was utterly baffling, and then showed us a complex 3D plot of a series of equations and challenged us with the question, ‘how do you go about describing this?’  I’ve made a note of the following question in my note book: ‘what do you have to do to get at the learning?’

Another approach to tackle the challenge of diagrams is to use something called sonic diagrams.  A tool called MathTrax (MathTrax website) allows users to enter in mathematical expressions and have them converted into a sound.  The pitch and character of a note change in accordance with values that are plotted on a graph.  Two important points are: firstly, in some instances, users might need to draw upon the skills of non-medical helpers, and secondly (as mentioned earlier), these tools can take time to master and use.

A final point that I’ve noted down is the importance of offering tutors support.  In some situations, tutors might be unsure what is meant by the phrase ‘reasonable adjustment’, and what they might be able to do in terms of helping to prepare resources for students (perhaps with help from the wider university).  Different students, of course, will always have very different needs, and it is these differences that we need to be mindful of.

It was really interesting to hear that Hilary has been involved with something called a ‘programme accessibility guide’.  This is a guide about the accessibility of a series of modules, not just a single module.  This addresses the problem of students starting one module and then discovering that there are some fundamental accessibility challenges on later modules.  This is certainly something that would be useful in ICT and computing modules, but an immediate challenge lies with how best to keep such a guide up to date.

Reflections

It was a useful event, especially in terms of being exposed to a range of rather different perspectives and issues (not to mention research approaches).  The presentations went into sufficient detail that really started to highlight the fundamental difficulties that learners can come up against.  I think, for me, the overriding theme was about how best to accommodate differences.  A related thought is that if we offer different types of resources (for all students), there might well be a necessity to share and explain how different types of electronic resources and documents can be used in different ways (and in different situations).

The Languages Open Resources Online website was recently mentioned in a regional development conference I attended a month or two back.  Sarah’s session got me thinking: I wondered whether it could be possible to create something similar for the Maths Computing and Technology faculty, or perhaps, specifically for computing and ICT modules (which is my discipline).  Sharing happens within modules, but it’s all pretty informal – but there might be something said for raising the visibility of the work that individual tutors do.   One random through is that it could be called: TOMORO, with the first three letters being an abbreviation for: Technology Or Mathematics. There are certainly many discussions to be had. 

 

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Gresham College Lecture: Notations, Patterns and New Discoveries (Juggling!)

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On a dark winter’s evening on 23 January 2014, I discovered a new part of London I had never been to before.  Dr Colin Wright gave a talk entitled ‘notations, patterns and new discoveries’ at the Museum of London.   The subject was intriguing in a number of different ways.  Firstly, it was all about the mathematics of juggling (which represented a combination of ideas that I had never come across before).  Secondly, it was about notations.

 The reason why I was ‘hooked’ by the notation part of the title is because my home discipline is computer science.  Computers are programmed using notation systems (programming languages), and when I was doing some research into software maintenance and object-oriented programming I discovered a series of fascinating papers that was about something called the ‘cognitive dimensions of notations’.  Roughly put, these were all about how we can efficiently work with (and think about) different types of notation system.

In its broadest sense, a notation is an abstraction or a representation.  It allows us to write stuff down.  Juggling (like dance) is an activity that is dynamic, almost ethereal; it exists and time and space, and then it can disappear or stop in an instant.  Notation allows us to write down or describe the transitory.  Computer programming languages allow us to describe sets of invisible instructions and sequences of calculations that exist nowhere except within digital circuits.  When we’re able to write things down, it turns out that we can more easily reason about what we’ve described, and make new discoveries too.

It took between eight and ten minutes to figure out how to get into the Museum of London.  It sits in the middle of a roundabout that I’ve passed a number of times before.  Eventually, I was ushered into a huge cavernous lecture theatre, which clearly suggested that this was going to be quite ‘an event’.  I was not to be disappointed.

Within minutes of the start of the lecture, we heard names of famous mathematicians: Gauss and Liebniz.  One view was that ‘truths (or proofs) should come from notions rather than notations’.  Colin, however, had a different view, that there is interplay between notions (or ideas) and notations.

During the lecture, I made a note of the following sentence: a notation represents a ‘specialist terminology allows rapid and accurate communication’, and then moved onto ask the question, ‘how can we describe a juggling pattern?’  This led to the creation of an abstraction that could then describe the movement of juggling balls. 

Whilst I was listening, I thought, ‘this is exactly what computer programmers do; we create one form of notation (a computer program), using another form of notation (a computer language) – the computer program is our abstraction of a problem that we’re trying to solve’.  Colin introduced us to juggling terms (or high level abstractions), such as the ‘shower’, ‘cascade’ and ‘mill’s mess’.  This led towards the more intellectually demanding domain of ‘theoretical juggling’ (with impossible number of balls).

 My words can’t really do the lecture justice.  I should add that it is one of those lectures that you would learn stuff by listening to it more than once.  Thankfully, for those who are interested, it was recorded, and it available on-line (Gresham College)

Whilst I was witnesses all these great tricks, one thought crossed my mind, which was, ‘how much time did you have to spend to figure out all this stuff and to learn all these juggling tricks?!  Surely there was something better you could have done with your time!’ (Admittedly, I write this partially in jest and with jealousy, since I can’t catch and I fear that doing ‘a cascade’ with three balls is, for me, a theoretical impossibility). 

It was a question that was implicitly answered by considering the importance of pure mathematics.  Doing and exploring stuff only because it is intellectually interesting may potentially lead to a real world practical use – the thing is that you don’t know what it might be and what new discoveries might emerge.  (A good example of this is number theory leading to the practical application of cryptography, which is used whenever we buy stuff over the internet). 

All in all, great fun.  Recommended.

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Gresham College: A history of computing in three parts

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 15 Oct 2019, 15:47

After a week and a half of continual exam and assignment marking, I was relieved to finally be able to turn my attention to other matters (and get out of my house).  I had an idle question: I wondered whether there were any professors or lecturers in London who shared an interest in the history of computing or technology.  Rather than trawling through university web pages (which was the first idea that crossed my mind), I decided to ask the internet, searching for the words, ‘history computing lecturer London’.

One name was clearly at the top of the list, but it was something else a bit lower down the search result that immediately attracted my attention.  It was a series of lectures entitled, ‘a history of computing in three parts’.  My first reactions were, ‘it’s probably too late’ and, ‘you’ve probably got to pay a lot of money to go along to this gig’.  All this computer history stuff that I’m interested in has to be folded into my day job which means that that it’s easier to justify time but a whole lot harder to justify expenses.

After reading the paragraph that described the event, I cast my eye back to the heading.  I realised that the date of the lecture was TODAY!  The very same day I had done my Google search, Thursday 31 October!  After a few more clicks I discovered that the event was also FREE!  Behold, it was a miracle!  I looked at my calendar; the lecture started at four in the afternoon and provided that I managed to sort out some admin stuff and have a meeting with a colleague, I would probably have enough time.

The only fly in the ointment was that it was all booked up; there were no tickets remaining.  Who knew that the history of computers was such a popular subject?  No matter.  I was looking reasonably smart – I would try to talk my way in.

Lecture 1: Pictures of computers

After a few false starts I managed to find my way to a place called Gresham College (website); navigating my way out of Chancery Lane tube proved to be quite tricky. It is only in retrospect that I realised that this was one of those places in London that I really ought to have known about.  I just know that people who I speak to about this event will chuckle, slap their thigh and say, ‘oh yes, Gresham College...’ and then will look at me as if I’m some kind of idiot if I said that I had visited there ‘by accident’.

I strode purposefully down a long alleyway and was confronted by a smartly dressed gentleman who obviously had an important role to play.  I began my attack: ‘I’m, erm, here for the lecture…’, and was swiftly gestured towards a flight of stairs without a word.   I felt deflated!  I was expecting to fight my way into the lecture!  I soon found myself in an anti-chamber filled with men (and women) in anoraks looking at a projector screen and noisily settled down to what was the first lecture by Martin Campbell-Kelly.

I joined the lecture at the point where people were being shown coloured photos of office equipment and pictures of steel filing cabinets.  The context was that computers are machines that allow us to process ever increasing amounts of data (and there’s a whole history of manual record keeping that we can easily overlook).  We were then told something about the history of the Rand Corporation followed by parts of the history of the computer company IBM.

On the subject of IBM, he mentioned someone called Eliot Noyes (Wikipedia).  Noyes was for IBM as Jonathan Ive (Wikipedia) is for Apple (if you’re into industrial design).  Martin mentioned that mainframe computers had a particular look; for a time there was a particular ‘design zeitgeist’.  I’ve made notes that Noyes used to look over catalogues from the Italian company Olivetti, and not only designed computers, but entire rooms.  We were shown photographs of various mock-ups. 

The creation of physical prototypes reminded me of some themes that are mentioned in a couple of design modules, either Design Essentials or Design for Engineers.  Martin also made reference to designer Norman Bel Geddes (Wikipedia).  He also showed us a whole host of other pictures of big machines, notably the ICL 2900 (Wikipedia) used in the Bankers’ Automated Clearing System (BACS).  (I have to confess being dragged into the depth of the Wikipedia page about that particular ICL computer.  Should I confess to such level of geekiness?  Probably not!)

Martin’s talk wasn’t really what I had expected but I found it pretty interesting (and it was a shame I missed the first quarter of it).  I was surprised by the detail that he provided about manual filing systems but I was also encouraged by the inclusion of information about designers.  The visual and industrial design aspect is an important part of computing history too.  Thinking back, one of my first computers had a very different aesthetic to the machines that I use today.  Function and fashion, combined with the wider perception of devices and machines are perspectives that are inexplicably linked.

After the lecture, it later dawned on me that I’ve actually read one of Martin’s books, ‘Computer: a history of the information machine’ which he co-authored with William Aspray.  It’s a pretty good read.  It covers a range of different strands; the pre-history, early electronic machines (such as the UNIVAC, which he touched on in his talk), before moving onto the emergence of the internet and software.  It’s tough to do everything but he has a good old go at it.

Lecture 2: Turing and his work

The second lecture of the day was by Professor Jonathan Bowen (website).  Jonathan talked about the life and work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia) and mentioned Alan Hodges’s scholarly biography, ‘the enigma of intelligence’. 

Jonathan spoke about three key areas of Turing’s work: his work that relates to the fundamentals of computer science, philosophical work relating to artificial intelligence and his later work on morphogenesis (which now has strong connections to the field of bioinformatics).  He mentioned his birth place, spoke about his PhD research which took place at Princeton University (with Alonzo Church being his doctoral supervisor), and also spoke about his work at Bletchley Park.  Other aspects of his life were touched on, such as his work in the National Physical Laboratory (NLP) in Teddington and his movement to the University of Manchester.  During his time in the NPL, he worked on the design of a computer which then became the Pilot Ace (Wikipedia).  When he was at Manchester, he was familiar with the Manchester Mark I computer (the world’s first stored program computer, and don’t let any American tell you otherwise).

What I liked about Jonathan’s talk was its breadth.  He covered many different aspects of Turing life in a very short space of time.  He also spoke of the ambiguity regarding his death, echoing what Hodges had written in his biography of Turing

At the end of his talk, we were directed to a set of web links that might be of interest to some.  Last year was the centenary of Turing’s birth, and there is a commemorative website that contains a whole host of different resources to celebrate this.  There is also a site that is maintained by his biographer, Alan Hodges (turing.org.uk).  Interestingly, we were also directed to an on-line archive of documents which can be accessed by computer scientists, historians or anyone else who might be interested.

Lecture 3: The grand narrative of the history of computing

The headline act of the night was Doron Swade.  I know of Doron’s work from the Science Museum where he headed up a project to construct a working version of Charles Babbage’s design for his Difference Engine number 2.  Babbage (for those who don’t know of him) is a Victorian inventor and raconteur whose lifelong quest was to build and design mechanical calculating machines.  During his life, he had a battle with his engineer, had the challenge of securing money for his ideas, travelled around Italy and hosted some famous parties (and did a whole lot more).

The title of Doran’s lecture was an intriguing and demanding one.  Could there really be a grand narrative about the history of computing?  If so, what elements or ingredients might it contain?  Doron told us that the history of computing is an emerging field and then posed a similar question: ‘what strings [the different] pieces together?’  He also reassured us that there was a clear narrative that appears to be emerging.

The narrative begins with methods for accounting and number systems, i.e. mechanisms to keep track of number.  We could consider the pre-history to comprise of artefacts such as tally sticks or physical devices that can be used to ‘relieve or replace mental calculation’.  This led to the emergence of mechanisms that used moving parts, such as an abacus and a slide rule.  The next ‘chapter’ would comprise of devices that embodied algorithms; their mechanisms carried out sequences or steps of calculations.  Here we have the work of Babbage and links to Hollerith (who was mentioned by Campbell-Kelly).

Doron then presented us with a challenge.  If we represent history in this way there is an implicit suggestion that there is a clear deterministic path from the past through to the present.  If I understand the point correctly, any narrative (or description of the past) is always going to be flawed, since there is so much more going on.  There could be situations in which nothing much happens.  A really interesting thought that Doron introduced was the idea of a ‘stored program’ being met with puzzlement and confusion, but this is an idea that distinctly defines what a computer is today.  (I haven’t made a word for word note of what Doron said, but this is something that has certainly stuck in my mind).

Another interesting point is that a serial narrative naturally excludes the parallel.  There is also an issue of reflexivity (to nick a posh word that I learnt from the social sciences); there is a relationship between history making machines and machines making history.  Linearity, it is argued, does a disservice.  One way to get over the challenge of linearity is to draw upon the stories of people.  These thoughts reminded me of a talk by Tilly Blyth, current keeper of technologies at the science museum, about the forthcoming ‘information age’ gallery.  Tilly also emphasised the importance of personal narratives and also cautioned about viewing history as a deterministic process.

One of the highlights of Doran’s talk was his ‘river diagram’ of the ‘history of computing’ (my ‘quotes’ at this point, since I don’t think I made a note of a ‘heading’).  Obviously, a picture is much better, but I’ll have a go at describing it succinctly. 

In essence, the grand narrative comprises of a bunch of different threads.  One thread that runs through it all is the history of calculation.  There is another thread about the history of communication.  In the middle, these threads are linked by ‘tributaries’ which relate to the subjects of automatic computation and information management.  These lead to another (current) thread of study which is entitled ‘electronic information age’.  I also made a note of a fabulous turn of phrase.  The current electronic information age emerged from the ‘fusion chamber of solid state physics’. Another bit of the diagram relates to different ways in which calculation or computation could be realised: mechanical, electromechanical or electronic. 

I also made a quick note of what were considered to be the core ideas in computing: mechanical processes, digital logic, algorithms, systems architecture, software and universality (I’m not sure what this means, though) and the internal stored program.  A narrative, it was argued, comes from a splicing together of different threads.

Returning to Babbage, Doran said that ‘[he] burst out of nowhere and confounds us with schemes that are unprecedented’; proposing mechanical calculating machines the size of rooms.  Doran also spoke about Ada Lovelace’s description of Babbage’s designs of his Analytical Engine, a machine that embodies many of the core ideas that are used in computing today: ‘a fetch execute cycle, transfer of memory form the processor, programmable, automatic execution, separation of program and memory’.

Doran ends with a question: ‘to what extent did this [Babbage’s work] influence modern computing?’  The answer is, ‘probably, not very much…’ (my quotes this time, rather than Doran’s), since many of Babbage’s discoveries and inventions were rediscovered and re-implemented as computing devices were realised in different forms, moving from the mechanical to the electrical.  Doran argued that perhaps because there is so much congruence between the different approaches, the ideas that have been rediscovered and re-implemented may well be really important and fundamental to the subject of computation.  To paraphrase from Doran’s book, Babbage isn’t so much a ‘great grandfather’ of computing, more of a ‘great uncle’.

Reflections

For me, Doron’s talk tied together aspects of the earlier talks.  Martin spoke about the history of information management and touched upon the electromechanical world of computing.  By describing the work of Turing, Jonathan spoke about and connected to the history of automatic computation.  One of the challenges that I’ve been grappling with is that there is so much history that is fundamentally interesting.  I’m interested in learning more, but it remains difficult to know which parts of a bigger picture to focus on. 

What I personally got from the day was a confirmation that my interest in related subjects such as communication technologies and the use, development and deployment of software (and algorithms) do indeed form an important piece of a ‘grand narrative’ in the history of computing and information technology.  Whilst I instinctively knew this to be true, Doran’s river diagram, for me, drew together different influences and connections in a very clear and obvious way.

Before heading home, I grabbed a brochure that had the title, ‘free public lectures’, vowing that I would have a good look  though it to see what else was going on.  After saying a few goodbyes to people I left the basement room and walked up a flight of stairs.  In the intervening hours, it had become dark; time had passed and I hadn’t really noticed.  When I reached the street I reached into by inside pocket for my smartphone to see if I had any messages.  A light was flashing.  I didn’t have any messages but I had a few alerts.  A theoretical Turing machine rendered into a physical device was alerting me to a comedy night that was to take place later on that week.  This was also a gentle reminder about how subtly technology had become entwined with my life.  Was I reliant on this little device?  That was a whole other question.

When I was heading home I asked myself, ‘how come I never knew this Gresham college place existed?’  Perhaps it is only one of those places that you hear about if you’re ‘in the know’.  London, for me, is gradually revealing some of its secrets.

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Ada Lovelace Day: City University London, 15 October 2013

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:42

After a day of meetings and problem solving, I wandered down to the basement where my scooter was parked.  I had a rough idea of the route I had to follow; I needed to head south from Camden town, navigate around Kings Cross and onto the Pentonville Road and then pick up the A1 at Angel, and then try to find my way south.  Thanks to Google Streetview I had geekily rehersed some of the trickier intersections – but I still ended up going the wrong way.

The reason for my Tuesday evening visit to the City University was to attend an event that was a part of a wider programme of events called the Ada Lovelace day (Finding Ada).  A website describes it as: ‘an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)’.  Okay, so I’m not a woman, but I’m fundamentally interested in two related subjects: the availability and accessibility of education to everyone, and the history of computing – so, it seemed a pretty cool event to go down and support.

Panel discussion

The event kicked off with a panel discussion.  The panel was introduced by Connie St Louis from City University.  The panel was a great mix of discussants from different sectors: the university sector, commercial sector and public sector.  Each discussant had a different story as to why they found science, technology or computing a fascinating subject.  

Whilst the subject of ‘coding’ (or the creating of computer programs) took central stage, quite a lot of the discussion it was great to hear about photonic research (from Arti Agrawal) and Prim Smith’s journey from programmer through to senior manager.  I particularly liked her description about how software can play a very important role in the provision of services to the public sector.   Vikki Read, from Unruly media, said that ‘it was important to give everyone the opportunity [to code]’.

Coding demo

After the introductions and initial questions came to an end we were given a taste of what ‘coding’ actually was.  In reality, this meant that we were shown what a ‘for loop’ looked like in a language called M-script which is used in something called Matlab.  For those who don’t know anything about Matlab, it’s a very complicated piece of software (I’m not going to say much more than this!)  It’s something that is used by engineering professionals to tackle some really tough engineering problems. 

For me, there were two things that didn’t work quite so well in this section: if you’re going to introduce what coding was all about Matlab wouldn’t have been my personal choice, and secondly, the coding demo was carried out by a man (which didn’t really seem to be in keeping with the day).  This said, we did get to see what M-script code looked like.

Doing a livecoding demo that is compelling and engaging is always going to be tough.  You’ve got to provide effective and efficient instructions that, in effect, are very understandable that do something that is interesting.   It’s not an easy task, and coders (in my humble opinion) only get into ‘the zone’ of coding (to appreciate the beauty and elegance of software) after a lot of hard work.

The Matlab demo was followed by a video presentation (YouTube) from code.org (website) which opened with the quote, ‘everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer... because it teaches you how to think’ (which, I think, is a good point).  I remember a quote from the video which goes something like, ‘software is about humanity’.  By writing code and considering abstractions (and how best to describe problems and situations to a computer), we need to reflect about our problems.  We also perpetually interact and work with software, whether we choose to or not.  It could even be argued that although software and programming has its foundations in mathematics and sciences, it is a subject that requires a huge amount of creativity.

One of the panel members later made the point that to be a scientist requires you to apply and use a huge amount of imagination.  The same, of course, can be said about software.

Question and answer session

The question and answer session was quite short and I haven’t taken too many notes during this part of the evening.  One of the questions asked was, ‘how difficult is coding?’  This one is difficult to answer easily since it depends on a number of different factors: the language, the problem that you’re trying to solve, and the level of motivation that you might have to solve it.  One other point that I do remember is a story about how one of the members of the panel gained her first job as an energy manager.  The short version of her answer was: it doesn’t hurt to be direct.

Reflections

This event was all about outreach and its objective was to inform and inspire, and this is something that is very tough to do in an hour.

Lovelace is a beguiling figure.  Her story is one that is fascinating.  It is also fascinating because of not necessarily what is known about her, but also what is disputed.  You don’t have to dig too far into her story to read about rumours of horse racing, gambling, debts and family jewels.  This said, she was certainly way ahead of her time (as were Babbage’s attempts to build a computing machine), when she wrote about the way that machines could weave patterns with numbers.   Babbage is certainly indebted to her when she translated (and added to) Menabrea’s description of his idea of the analytical engine.

During this event I was expecting there to be stronger voices that more directly call for more women in science, technology and engineering subjects.  I can remember a distinct gender disparity from my own undergraduate days when I studied computer science and I can clearly see that this is continuing today when I drop into computing and engineering tutorials (but less so in design tutorials) to give our tutors a bit of moral support.  I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that I don’t really understand the reasons why this should be the case.

To me, computing is not just cool, it is very cool.  In what other subject can you invent infinitely complex, interactive and unique universes out of nothing but numbers?  Not only is software the stuff of pure thought, but it is also a way to solve real-world problems (some of which were hinted at by one of the panel members).

Not only did I get lost getting to the City University, I also got lost trying to leave the building. After a couple of false starts, I finally made it to the exit and out into the cool autumn air.  Minutes later, I had fired up the scooters engine and practically oblivious to the fact that deep inside the machine was some software (in my scooter’s engine management system) that was helping to propel me on my journey home.

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Google: celebrating the UK's computing heritage

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:37

On 1 July I attended an event at one of Google's offices in London to celebrate the UK's computing heritage.   The event was in five parts.  The first was a panel discussion about the very early days of the internet. This was followed by the screening of a short film, a presentation by Tilly Blyth about the Science Museum, some information about the national computing museum and the reconstruction of a computer called EDSAC, followed by a closing Q&A session.

I was immediately struck by the names of some of the speakers; people who were and continue to be fundamental pioneers of the internet.  During the event I made quite a few notes, only to later discover that the parts of the evening had been recorded and made available on YouTube.  So, if you're interested, do go and visit the links that are featured in this quick blog.  They're certainly worth a look.

The history of the internet

The first session, a panel discussion, comprised of Roger Scantlebury and Peter Wilkinson, from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Peter Kirstein (Wikipedia) from UCL, University of London, and Vint Cerf (Wikipedia) from Google.    You can view this really interesting discussion by going to the video recording on YouTube.

For sake of completeness, however, I'm also going to leave you with some of my edited notes which more or less reflect the bits that piqued my interest.  There were occasions where that I became so engrossed in the discussions that I forgot to take notes!  So they are, by necessity, very course and incomplete.  I recommend the video over than my notes.

 As soon as the discussion started, I started to remember stuff that I had read in various histories of the internet.  Donald Davies, who worked at NPL initiated a project that had intended to be national in scope - in some ways, similar to the Arpanet.    NPL has played an important role in the history of computing (and the internet).  Alan Turing moved to NPL to work on the ACE computer (Wikipedia), after spending time at Bletchley Park and working on voice scrambling systems.  This led to the development of the English Electric DEUCE computer (Wikipedia).

As an aside, I was really interested to learn that the NPL chose to make use of a Honeywell DPP-516  (Wikipedia) as the basis for some of their networking designs.  This happens to be the same machine that was used as an Internet Message Processor (Wikipedia) in the Arpanet project.  (It also turns out that the contractor that developed the IMP, BBN, visited NPL - interesting stuff!)

Peter Kirstein spoke about how he and how UCL became involved.  Politics, of course, proved to be a fundamental issue.  ARPANet was connected to a seismic array based in Norway called NORSAR which could be used to detect soviet nuclear tests.  Vint Cerf made some really interesting points - that the challenges were mostly bureaucratic ones rather than about technology.  Getting people to communicate is harder.  Like I said: the video is better than my notes!

LEO: Lyons Electronic Office

I've known of the LEO computer for a very long time, but it isn't a machine that I know too much about.  Google has sponsored the making of a film to celebrate the the LEO computer (YouTube), which is certainly.  I was very surprised to see a number of the participants in the film in the audience.  The underlined how recent this history is, and how phenomenally quickly technology continues to move.

Science Museum: Information age gallery

Tilly Blyth, from the Science Museum, London, spoke about the development of a new 'information age' gallery.  The aim of the gallery is to celebrate last two hundred years of communication and information technologies (I hope I've got this right!)  Tilly described its narrative approach; the museum has chosen twenty one different stories.  (I've made a note of a four)

The first is an exhibit of the last manual telephone exchange that was used in the country.  This physical artefact has the power to not only convey changes in technology but also the changes in work practices.  Another exhibit relates to the LEO computer, which I'm sure will be both interesting and enchanting in equal measure.

Some current technologies have their own interesting histories.  There's also going to be an exhibit about the global positioning system.  Commerce and information can now be more readily connected to physical locations.  I was reminded of these new apps where you can hail a taxi by pressing a button on your phone.

The final teaser was a mention of an exhibit that related to how technology was consumed and used in developing countries, such as Cameroon.  We can so easily get wrapped up in our own worldview that we can easily forget that information and communications technology has a global impact.  We were told that the museum was working with an anthropologist with a view to trying to understand how devices are used in different cultures.

I've taken a note of the phrase, 'stories of contrast'.  I'm looking forward to its opening.

EDSAC Reconstruction

David Hartley, the director of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park spoke about the history of the museum.  David spoke about significant machines, such as the Harwell Dekatron computer and the Colossus reconstruction. He also touched upon the role of the British Computer Conservation Society emphasising its importance by saying that 'there is nothing so boring as a dead computer'.  David also mentioned that there were parallel cultures to the museum; one that related to the more traditional role of a museum and one that related to machine reconstruction (and preservation).

The second film of the day was entitled EDSAC - A cultural shift in computing (YouTube).  This video described a project to rebuild a historic computer.  It's certainly worth a look if you're interested.

Closing session

The opening question, to Vint, was 'did you have the notion that the internet would change the world?  What were you trying to achieve in those days?'  Vint spoke about a range of different things, and mentioned Douglas Englebart's mother of all demos  (YouTube) and other influences.   Vint also speaks about IPv6, space travel, the history of TCP/IP and ubiquitous computing.  The question and answer session has also been recorded (YouTube).   Some really great questions!

Reflections

One thing that struck me was how many people attended the event.  I was amazed!  Another thought is that it really did feel like a celebration.  I was also amazed to see some of the people who featured in the films that were screened sitting in the audience.  This reminded me of how close we are to our own history, and also how we are all wrapped up in it too. 

When we're in the middle of change we can't easily see the rate that it is happening.  Events such as this one helps us to step back and realise how far we've come in such a phenomenally short time.  A really good point was that whilst the technology is, in its own right, pretty interesting - it's the human structures and the politics that have to be negotiated to really allow things to be work.  Arguably, these represent the tougher challenges.

We have a reflexive relationship with technology.  We make technology by working with people.  When we've made something, technology has a potential to change us too.  An implicit challenge that each of us face is to understand and acknowledging the extent of these changes.

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Making the history of computing relevant : Day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:37

Session: Putting the history of computing into different contexts

The voice of the meachine: Tom Lean

Tom Lean from the British Library kicked off the second day with a presentation about a project that he is currently working on: An oral history of British Science (blog).  An important part of this project is about the history of computing.  A part of Tom’s role is to travel around the country to interview different people.  Each interview takes between 10-15 hours in length.  They are biographical; people are encouraged to talk about themselves, their environment, tools and procedures.

This lifestory approach to interviewing allows us to get a sense of the person themselves, their mannerisms and how they sound.  It allows us to have a more direct connection with the subject and those people who played a part in its development.  The longer interviews are edited down to highlights, which will then be made available through the British Library History of Science project website. I understand that researchers will be able to gain access to the entire interviews.

Tom gave us a taste of the interviews by showing us a clip of Ray Bird taking about the HEC1 computer (YouTube).  (For the interested, there’s also an Oral History of British Science YouTube channel).  The second clip was an interview of Mary Lee Berners-Lee (Wikipedia) who spoke about ‘what’s fun about programming’.

All in all, a great talk and a great initiative.  As an aside, I remember discovering another archive of oral histories of computing (University of Minnesota), which have been collected by the Babbage Institute.  Different interviews by different people (and institutions) are likely to explore and expose different issues.  Both archives are invaluable to present and future researchers.

Telling the long and beautiful (hi)story of automation: Marie d’Udekem-Gevers

Marie took us on a tour of devices that relate to the history of computing, offering us a slightly different perspective.   Computing can also be understood in terms of mechanisms, mechanisation and automation, which eventually takes us towards data processing.  We can also think of the history of computing in terms of generations, but there is also an important pre-history that we need to be aware of too. 

When we think of the pre-history of computing we might also consider mechanical and water clocks, the development of the Jacquard Loom (Wikipedia).   There is also the work of Pascal (who was mentioned earlier) and Babbage (whose trial machines are exhibited within the Science Museum).  Marie introduced a simple distinction: internal versus external representations (and memory).

The difference between the two is that we can easily (and obviously) see external representations (of information), captured within cards, or as notches on a rotating wheel.  Modern computers, of course, make use of hidden internal representations.  The difference between internal and external connects to the notion of the immediately understandable and tangible versus the hidden and abstract nature of software.  This connects to a wider (and later) debate about what we can gain by exhibiting the more recent generation of computing devices.

Competing histories of the internet: Christopher Leslie

Christopher Leslie (PPY homepage) teaches the history of the internet technology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York.  During his talk, Christopher mentioned a couple of books – one that I have read, and another one that I had never heard of before.  The first is called, ‘where wizards stay up late’ by Hafner and Lyon.  The second was called ‘NERDS: a brief history of the internet’.  (There are, of course, a number of other books about the history of the internet, such as one called ‘A brief history of the future’ by a former Open University colleague). 

A couple of comments that Chris made echoed some that had been made during the previous day; that it is very easy to take a determinist view of the history of technology; that developments occur gradually and in a number of determined steps.  When it comes to the history of the internet, there have been a number of different systems and innovations, emerging from different countries and locations. One interesting note that I made was the development occurs through a series of transitions, that technology is moved from one context to another.

Chris mentioned the work of Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, and an important Association of Computing Machinery conference in 1967 where two people who had never met each other presented very similar ideas.  In fact, I’m read that the word ‘packet’ (as in the phrase ‘internet packet’) comes from Davies’s work, whereas the protocols that make the internet work come from the work in the US (of course, I’m impossibly simplifying a whole swathe of really important history and technical stuff here!)  Chris also mentioned the French network Cyclades (Wikipedia) which has also influenced the development of ‘the internet’.

I’ve also made a note of his point that the connections between people and communities are really important.  Although defence funding was necessarily important, it is the connections between people and a culture of openness that exists within an academic community that helps developments to occur.  Another really important point that I’ve made a note of is that we ‘need to fight determinism in the classroom!’  I totally agree. 

My ‘take away point’ from Christopher’s presentation was that things are a whole lot more complex than they really are; there isn’t one history – there are many.

Session: Games

I was initially surprised to see a session on games in this conference, but the reasons why (and the importance of its inclusion) soon became apparent.  This session resonated a lot with me, since I was once an avid player of games during the ‘cassette era’!  There is also an increasing awareness that is a whole history that relates to the use of computers in entertainment.

Games and gaming can also represent compelling museum exhibits; they can be potentially used to draw people in to other exhibits.  This is why this session also has the subtitle ‘games – and it’s potential as a Trojan horse’. 

The popular memory archive: Helen Stuckey

Helen Stuckey, who travelled all the way from Australia, talked about a project that was all about collecting and exhibiting player culture from the 1980s.  I never knew this, but apparently there was quite a unique gaming culture in Australia and many games were developed locally due to import restrictions. 

The popular memory archive is a web portal.  Gaming isn’t just restricted to the games as artefacts; there is a wider and richer picture of use and consumption that is important too.  The portal allows visitors to save or record player memories.  In the 1980s games were often the first way that people came into contact with computers (this was certainly my own experience).  I have my own memories of walking to a newsagent and agonising over which game to buy with my own pocket money.  This walk, and the action of loading the game into my Atari computer in my cramped bedroom could be considered as a part of my biography.

Other aspects of computing history include the history of production and the role of hobbies.  Helen showed us a logo of the ‘Melbourne House’ software company, which certainly remember from my teenage years.  At the time, it had never occurred to me that this was an Australian company.

One of the challenges lies with choosing what artefacts and issues to focus on.  Out of a potential 900 titles, 50 game titles were chosen.  Some of the themes that I’ve noted include businesses, rise of the bedroom coder, legal issues, and the role of the collector.

Fan sites, such as Hall of Light (a database of Commodore Amiga games) and Word of Spectrum also have an important role to play in terms of documenting history.  (I started to look into both of these sites, and quickly found hours of my life had disappeared!)

I found the idea of a web-based resource really interesting.  Just as we have citizen science projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, I can see that there is scope for participative, or citizen history sites.  When there are so many memories and products and experiences out there, crowdsourcing is undoubtedly a powerful approach.  I’m enthusiastic about old games, and after a quick search around on the web following Helen’s presentation, I can clearly see that I’m not alone.

Introduction of computer and video games in museums: Tiia Naskali

Tiia’s presentation was about a physical exhibition rather than a virtual one.  Tiia spoke about gaming from the Finnish perspective and the hobbyist era between 1980 and 1990.  (On reflection, this is an incredibly short period of time in which a whole lot happened). 

Connecting to some of the points that Helen mentioned, Tiia made the point that games are a part of life histories. They are important within popular culture and the work of that period can be shared and appreciated by a newer generations.

What struck me as really interesting was Tiia’s summary of different game exhibitions that had taken place across the world.  One of the most prominent was Game On which apparently began at the Barbican, London. 

Gaming exhibitions still will continue to have resonance today.  On the month of this conference, the latest generation of games consoles are receiving a lot of attention: the Xbox One (Wikipedia) and the Playstation 4 (Wikipedia).

This session led to questions relating to the challenges regarding digital preservation, i.e. whether we should be considering how to preserve digital worlds.  For those who are interested in this project, more information can be found by visiting a project website that also contains a link to a final report. Other points raised during the question and answer session related to the authenticity of gaming experience and the potential societal impact of the use of games, which is, of course, the subject of on-going research.

Session: The importance and challenges of working installations

Computer Conservation Society – Its story and experience: Roger Johnson

Roger Johnson introduced the Computer Conservation Society (society website).  It wasn’t an organisation that I had heard of before, but I’m so glad that I heard about it.  The society was the brain child of Doron Swade (Wikipedia), former curator of the science museum (who has written a cracking book about the trials and tribulations of building Babbage’s Difference Engine no 2).

The society is a joint venture with the Science Museum and the British Computer Society and currently has approximately 800 members.  It has a number of guiding principles.  Firstly, membership is open to all, and it is free.  It doesn’t own computers but has, instead, close links to museums.  It also has a small rescue fund.  This can be used to help preserve historically significant machines that might be at risk of being disposed. 

During Roger’s talk, I made a note of the phrase, ‘today is tomorrow’s history’.  Given that there is so much that is going on at the moment a challenge lies with understanding what should be captured. 

For those who are interested, the CCS also has its own newsletter, called Resurrection (CCS website).

Museums – what they can and should be doing : Charles Lindsey

Peter Onion, who works on the Elliott 803 (Wikipedia) at the National Museum of Computing (and probably does a whole range of other things too!) temporarily stepped in for Charles Lindsey (who was able to attend the question and answer session).

Peter, using Charles’s words spoke about the objectives of a museum.  Two objectives are to inform the public and to help serious researchers.  Peter argued that perhaps there is a third, which is to preserve (and to develop) the skills necessary for the maintenance and operation of the objects and to preserve the perspective of those who created them.

One really interesting (and important) point is that museums are about history, not fashion.  One question was whether computing history ended in 1980?  This echoed an earlier point that some modern computers can appear to be visually uninteresting; their mystery and complexity is hidden within integrated circuits.  Working (historic) machines have the potential to add and expose depth and may be able to more directly expose the details that make things work.   There is also the question of what stories we may tell, questions about what issues earlier engineers (and maintainers) may have faced, methods they used and tools they applied.

History, nostalgia and software: David Holdsworth

We all know that hardware without software is useless.  A laptop without an operating system or application software becomes a pointless and immutable mix of plastic, glass and electronics.   Software is the stuff of computing (you might almost call software its ‘oxygen’), but so much of it is lost.  One of the most obvious reasons is that software is inherently invisible, and increasingly so.  This raises the important question of how to go about preserving (and also potentially exhibiting) software.

David showed us an interesting couple of web pages; an implementation of the Algol-60 programming language (Wikipedia) for a KDF9 computer (Wikipedia) demonstration through a web page.  Those who know something about the history of programming languages, Algol is a really important language.  Think of it as a latin of programming languages; it’s not used much these days but you can see strong echoes of its design in programming languages of today, such as Java.  (Being more of a software guy than a hardware guy, I felt that more might have been said about the history of languages).

The fact that we can write programs using an old language through a web page is really cool.  Such an approach allows us to sample the past and get a feeling for how things used to work.  David argued (or I have noted down) that we should ideally be able to browse and analyse source text, see software working and sample user experience.  I agree with him.

When it comes to digital preservation, David made the point that we need to read the original media and save it to new media, to keep a byte stream and create software to manipulate and work with these byte stream.  Not only is the software important, but so is the documentation too.  One way to deal with the documentation challenge is to scan existing manuals.  Documentation, however, can be flawed and incomplete.  The best representation of how a machine worked is an emulator.  A well written emulator becomes a description of how hardware operates.

On the subject of emulators and software, I asked myself a thought experiment of ‘what kind of exhibit would I create if I wanted to present something about the history of software?’  Some random thoughts include: the presentation of a command-line interface (echoing the use of a teletype), followed by the use of DEC terminals.  This would then be followed with a hands-on emulation of a Xerox Alto, followed by another emulation of an Apple Lisa (perhaps even an actual machine).  This could then be followed with a really early version of Windows, and then concluding with a touch screen tablet interface (running either iOS or Android).  All these presentations got me thinking!

The Teenage Baby: Chris Burton

I visited the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI website) when I was looking around Manchester before choosing to study Computer Science there as an undergraduate.  Chris’s presentation has underlined that a repeat visit there is now long overdue.

Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), also known as the Manchester Baby (Wiki pedia)was designed by Williams, Kilburn and Tootill and is considered to be the first stored program computer in the world.  Chris gave a description of a programme to reconstruct a replica of this very first machine.

The reconstruction was completed in 1998.  Chris told a fascinating story of the role the machine had played within the museum.  It was a story of movement and construction, of relocation and restarting.  The SSEM has now been in operation for fifteen years and it is important to remember that the original machine only ran for only three.

Chris emphasised the very important role of volunteers.  A volunteer can act as a guide, introducing the different aspects of the machine to visitors.  Chris told us of a story of a volunteer who held aloft a Williams tube and said, ‘this is what a flash drive looks like in 1948... and it only holds a millionth of a gigabyte’, raising curiosity and grounding the past in the technology of the present.

Physical reconstructions not only embody history, but also they represent and echo some of the processes that occurred as a part of the development of a machine.  By creating the past, we can not only develop skills, but we can uncover challenges that the early designers and users faced.

Session: Reconstruction stories

Reconstruction of Konrad Zuse’s Z3 : Horst Zuse

One of the truths in the history of computing is that there were a number of parallel developments happening around the world at the same time.  In Britain there was the work at Bletchley Park, in the United States there was the work at University of Pennsylvania, and in Germany, there was the work of Konrad Zuse.

Horst Zuse, who made a presentation at this conference, is Konrad’s eldest son.  I have known about Zuse’s work for a long time, and heard that his very early machines were destroyed in World War II.  What I didn’t know was the extent of Zuse’s creativity and innovation.  His early machines, the Z1, 2 and 3 used binary floating point numbers.  Z3 can be considered to be one of the first functional programmable computers in the world. One of the differences between the Z3 and other early machines it made use of electromechanical relays.  Z3 apparently used two and a half thousand  of the them, with six hundred being used for the calculating unit.

In 2008 Horst proposed building a new version, or a reconstruction of the Z3.  The new machine could be used to teach the principles of computing (addressing the same issue that the computing devices of today are more difficult to understand).  This reconstruction, however, was to make use of modern telecommunication relays, but this doesn’t discount the challenge of creating such a machine.

Horst talked about the delivery of the relays, the racks in which they were housed, the construction of memory and some of the challenges regarding the input devices (if I remember correctly).  It was initially located in the Technical museum, Berlin, to accompany the Z1 reconstruction that took place between 1987 and 1989.  It’s final destination is likely to be the Konrad-zuse-museum in Hunfield (museum website).  The museum looks like a cool place to visit!

There were two surprises in store for me.  The first was that Zuse created a binary calculating engine whilst independently rediscovering some of the principles that had been previously discovered by George Boole.  Secondly, during the question and answer session, a delegate asked about something called Plankalkül (Wikipedia).  I had never heard of this before.  In essence, Zuse proposed the design of a programming language decades before it became practically possible.

EDSAC Replica Project : David Hartley

Every ‘first’ is qualified.  Zuse’s machine is considered to be the first programmable computer, the Manchester Baby could considered to be the first solid state computer, whereas EDSAC (Wikipedia) is considered to be the first computer that went into regular service with a specific intention of solving problems for its users.  I didn’t know this, but EDSAC is also attributed to have helped three Nobel Prize winners.

The EDSAC reconstruction (project  website) started in 2010, following a conversation with a co-founder of ARM (which designs the processors that are used in smartphones and a whole host of other devices).  The project aims to have a working machine by 2015.  As well as creating a machine, corollary objectives include the desire to create a new archive of related materials and resources and, importantly, to create expertise.  These objects connect nicely to points that Peter Onion made when he was talking about the role of museums; that the very act of rebuilding (or preservation) actively enables past skills, tools and techniques to be rediscovered (and new approaches to be reapplied).

The machine is to be housed at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.  It’s interesting that there will be two early machines with very different memory technologies: the use of a cathode ray tube, and mercury delay lines.  I understand that there is a connection with the Dollis Hill research centre somewhere along the way, but I don’t (yet) fully understand the details just yet.  This just underlines the point that there’s always lots more reading to do.

For those who are interested, there’s a YouTube clip about the EDSAC replica project.

The Harwell Dekatron Computer :  Kevin Murrell

The Dekatron computer, or WITCH (as it is affectionately known), strikes me as a bit of an odd ball – but a very interesting one!  It was designed for (or as a part of) the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, Oxfordshire.  Kevin told us that it was relay controlled, but it has an electronic arithmetic and logic unit (the bit that does all the calculations).  It also makes use of something called Dekatron valves which serves as its memory.

After spending life at Harwell, it was then moved to Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (which then later became a university).  Because of its move and role in education, it remains, perhaps the oldest original working computer in the world.

More information about this interesting machine can be found though the following YouTube video: The reboot of the Harwell Dekatron/WITCH computer.  The Computer Conservation Society also have a page about the WITCH (CCS website)

Capturing, restoring and presenting IRIS : Ben Trethowan

IRIS is an abbreviation for Independent Radar Investigation System.  Its role was to collect radar signals to record movements of aircraft.  Should there have ever been a mid-air collision the data collected by IRIS could have been used to provide key evidence for any investigation.  IRIS was said to have been built in the 1970s and ran until 2008 where it was decommissioned, which is an astonishing length of time for a single system.

Ben gave us some information about the technology.  IRIS was based on a DEC PDP11 that had been heavily customised.  Apparently the operating system had been customised too.  When it comes to computer conservation, the march of time can have an impact.  One of the challenges that Ben faced was regarding magnetic tapes.  Over time, oxidisation can occur, which means that the metal layer that is used to store all the data was starting to separate from the plastic layer.  An important part of IRIS was the use of high capacity data cartridges.  These too had started to degrade.  Rubber parts used as a part of the tape drives (or the cartridges) were beginning to perish.

As far as I can remember it, the previous owners of IRIS contacted the computer history museum and asked if they would like it.  Ben then got involved with the project to move the machine to Bletchley Park, working very closely with the donor organisation.  In doing so, he gained a thorough understanding of the role of the machine and the context in which it was used.

What struck me about Ben’s presentation was that he presented what amounted to a ‘good practice’ guide for computer conservation.  Ben’s talk was very clear; it was very interesting to hear all about the ‘other stuff’ that technical curators or ‘machine keepers’ need to consider or take account of.  Whilst a machine is interesting in its own right, understanding the context of use and the sharing of hard won expertise is invaluable in terms understanding how a machine works, its design and its broader organisational and cultural significance.

I’ve made a note (during Ben’s talk) that a good relationship with a donor organisation is important.   It also struck me that good computer conservation isn’t just about dealing with the computer and its software.  A computer forms a part of relationships between groups of people.  As soon as a computer moves from its original context to a new one it can easily become disembodied.  Understanding the human structures as well as the technical structures strikes me as a dimension that museums always need to be mindful of.

Reflections

The conference ended with a short panel session.    I have to confess to being pretty mentally tired at the end of the two days and I didn't take in as much at this point as I would have liked!  This said, the conference was just the right length; a third day would have been too much for me!

This part of the blog is a set of random reflections - nothing too controversial; just a set of thoughts on what struck me the themes were.  I’m sure that different people would have come away with a different set of themes based on their own personal interests.

One of the key themes of the conference was (perhaps unsurprisingly) the role of museums in the history of computing.  There are some fundamental challenges regarding preservation when many aspects of computing (and computer use) are intangible.  There is also a question of which stories to present and how we might present them, and how to we make what is sometimes abstract become visible to try to make it understandable.  One approach, of course, is to use guides or interpreters to try to inspire visitors and help them to understand abstract ideas and principles.  Grounding the role of machines in terms of their application or their wider social context also strikes me as being very important too.

Reconstruction of old computers featured heavily and this was a surprise (but in retrospect, this was more due to my own unfamiliarity of what was happening in this sector than anything else).  Reconstruction is a process where the actions both generates and reaffirms knowledge.  It also strikes me that it is a fabulous way to go about conducting research into some of the early designs and sharing expertise.

Another theme relates to the role of history and its relevance.  A number of speakers say that the history of technology or computing isn’t taught a great deal.  Computer history certainly wasn’t taught on my undergraduate degree and this is a shame.   I was also struck by the assertion that subjects such as computing are viewed as ‘ahistorical’.  This said, you scratch the surface and there’s a whole host of rich, deep and fascinating stories. 

It also was a real delight to inadvertently discover that those that had a connection with the actual history of computing were able to come along to the conference.  What also struck me was a sense of community, especially amongst those who have an involvement with the Computer Conservation Society.

A final work on what I got (personally) got out of the conference.  One of my research interests relates to how ‘place’ played a role in the development of computing, i.e. what happened and where.  I also hope to travel to different places where these innovations have taken place.  This, for me, will be a catalyst for adventure and learning.  In fact, I’ve already taken a couple of journeys and hope to do many more in the coming years.

One thing that I’ve realised is that there is so much history on my doorstep.  During the conference I was chatting to a former colleague who I was amazed to discover had a direct and immediate connection with a computer called LEO (Wikipedia), which was arguably the world’s first commercial computer.  (There was the UNIVAC in America, but I would have to travel quite a way to visit the places where it was created).  I know hardly anything about the LEO.  I feel that a whole new journey of discovery is just about to begin.

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Making the history of computing relevant : Day 1

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Ever since I was a kid I've been interested in the history of computers.  When I was aged ten or eleven I would try to buy an issue of a pretty serious hobbyist magazine using my pocket money every two weeks.  Each issue was a part of a series that would make two really heavy books.  (I couldn't afford to buy very many of the issues, of course... I didn't have enough pocket money!)

In these magazines I remember seeing these old black and white pictures of a machine called ENIAC and reading about very early computers such as the Manchester Baby and the work of Zuse in Berlin, Germany.   These old pictures and articles have always stuck in my mind.  The past, to me, was interesting.  It was, in some way, another world that was there to be be explored.

This is the first of a series of two blog posts of a conference I recently attended at the Science Museum, London, on the subject of the history of computing between 17 and 18 June 2013.  More information about this conference is available through the conference website where you can find copies of the papers and presentations.  Google have also posted a page about the conference on their Google Europe blog.

My attendance at the conference occurred as a result of a random chat with one of the organisers about an old computer company called Elliott which once had its headquarters not too far from where I live.  This sounds like a random conversation - and it certainly was!  But I'm very glad it happened.

What I hope to do with these blog posts is to (briefly) summarise each the presentations (this is something that I do for myself from time to time, to help me to remember what happened).  One disclaimer is that I'll be picking up on the things that I personally found of interest, and I obviously can't do justice to every excellent presentation.

This said, I do hope to provide some links to some of the resources that some of the speakers mentioned, which I hope will be useful to fellow delegates, researchers and students alike.  A final disclaimer is that I'm only going to mention the names of the presenters who gave each talk (even though there were many other contributors) and that there's also a strong possibility that I may well inadvertently misrepresent or misunderstand things.  If I have done this (and you find this blog), then please do correct me by making a comment below.

Opening

The event was opened by Tilly Blythe, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum, Arthur Tatnall, chair of the IFIP (IFIP website) WP9.7 History of Computing group, and Lynette Webb from Google.  Tilly spoke about some of the objectives that relate both to the conference and to the Science Museum.  These include the need to understand the audience and attract their attention, the use of compelling and engaging stories and the importance of objects that can inspire awe and wonder.

Session: The importance of storytelling in museums

Exhibiting the on-line world: Marc Weber

The first formal presentation of the day was by Marc Weber, who did a great job.  One point that I've made a note of is that it is very easy to overlook the fact that technology has a rich and detailed history.  There is always a back story.

Marc introduced us all to the idea of a hierarchy of exhibitability.  I immediately grasped what he meant: some items (or ideas) can be immediately understood and appreciated, whereas others can be difficult to present and grasp.  Exhibits can range from the personal and visual to exhibits that aim to present abstract ideas.  A lot of computing can be, by its nature, pretty abstract.  One way to get over this is to present concepts and ideas using computer screens - but could we do better than presenting information on large glowing rectangles?  How could we exhibit networking, for example?

One approach is to display physical artefacts, such as an original Interface Message Processor (Wikipedia) alongside current devices such as Cisco routers.  The challenge of exposing and exhibiting the internet to visitor 'is like trying to display the wind'.  The question about creating an exhibit about the internet reminds me of how everything (in terms of ideas, as well as devices) is connected.  To understand the history of computing we also need to understand the history of other aspects of technology, such as the history of telecommunications, for instance.

Narrative in the History of Computing: Tilly Blyth

I can remember the first time I visited the Science Museum computing gallery.  There was an actor who played the role of Charles Babbage.  He actor walked up to me and started to enthusiastically talk about his work.  Since I was then a shy twelve year old, I was having none of it - I just wanted to look at the exhibits; I was mildly traumatised by the actor's enthusiasm and he left demoralised.  Not quite an indelible scar, but an interesting memory that reflects one really interest approach that museums can take to make their collections come alive.

Tilly spoke (amongst lots of other things) about different approaches to exhibitions.   One of the problems with the chronological approach, presenting a gradual (and natural) progression from the past to the present, is that it suggests a degree of inevitability, or technological determinism.  A challenge with this approach is that this doesn't take into account the wider social issues and circumstances that brought about technological innovation and development.  Another point is that innovation happens in fits and starts, and there are many dead ends.  It's also the case that people remember stories, and one way to help with this is that the stories of people are important.

Tilly also spoke about the current exhibition about Alan Turing that celebrates his contributions and life, whilst also exhibiting a number of related artefacts.  This story telling or biographical approach strikes me as one that is understandable and compelling.

I didn't know about this, but there is going to be a new Information Age gallery.  (You can learn more about this through Tilly's blog). The gallery will expose, examine and celebrate, subjects through the eyes of those that were affected.  It will cover key communication technologies such as cable, broadcast, satellite, web and cell (radio) technology.  According to my roughly scribbled notes, it will feature something about the first communications cable that went across the Atlantic and will feature oral histories and video presentations.

At the centre of the exhibition will be something called the Rugby Tuning coil which was once used for transmission of very low frequency signals to submarines.  Such an object can connect to important subjects such as information theory and transmission.  After seeing a photograph of the coil I can assert that it is a striking and arresting object.  It appears to be one of those artefacts that is beautiful in not only its physical construction, but also in the sense that its design embodies the principles of technology that it utilities.

I've made a note that Tilly mentioned that there will be a series of stories.  There will be stories about the first information machines, such as Tommy Flowers and his role developing the Collosus, and the development of the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) which is considered to be the first commercial computer in the world.    I understand that there will be something about the birth of computer networks.  A third story relates to the global information space, and a fourth is about computers for users (and being a tutor on a human-computer interaction module, this is a subject close to my heart).

Tilly's talk emphasised that narratives can connect places, ideas and artefacts, through people.  When it comes to exhibitions and artefacts, a key objective is to creating resonance and wonder.  I, for one, am looking forward to visiting the new gallery when it is opened.

Making history relevant through education and experience: Arthur Tatnall

I seem to remember that Arthur began with some questions: 'why should we be interested?  What questions comes to mind when se see an old mainframe? What can we do to make artefacts relevant and important?  What difference did it make to people's lives at the time?'  These are all great questions.

Linking back to an earlier presentation, there are (of course), a number of different streams that are important, such as mathematics, technologies for automation and control, technologies for information processing, communication technologies.  Interestingly,  Arthur mentioned something called Actor-network theory (Wikipedia).  This was a theory that I hadn't heard of before, and having an interest in the social sciences, this is something that I'll be certainly taking the time to look at.  In essence, the theory seems to be about the interaction between people and things.

Arthur also introduces some really important issues, such as, how do we preserve software?  (This is a question which crops up a number of different times throughout this conference).  There is, of course, the question of how we might convey the importance and relevance of software to visitors.  One approach might be to make use of guides to make the exhibits come alive (as long as they don't scare away any of the visitors, of course!)

Session: Key collections and the future plans

Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum: Jochen Viehoff

I never knew this, but apparently the Heinz Nixdorf computer museum is one of the largest of its kind in the world.  We were told that the museum has a total of one and a half thousand objects.  These range from very early mechanical calculating machines, such as those designed by Pascal and Liebnitz and also include objects that relate to the early history of telecommunications and telegraphy, such as an early machine by Samuel Morse.

Exhibits include a reconstruction of a Hollerith machine (Wikipedia) (which is an important part of the story of the IBM computer company) and different mechanical constructions and representations of the theoretically important Turing machine (Wikipedia).

By the end of the presentation I felt that this was one museum that I would certainly like to visit.  The challenge (as emphasised by Jochen) is that it might be quite difficult to find as we were told that the town of Paderborn, where the museum is situated, is not easy to get to.  (I was later told that he was exaggerating!)

Computers' Collection at the Polytechnic Museum: Marina Smolevitskaya

I never knew that there were so many museums that were collecting computing related artefacts!  During one of the breaks, I later found out that there was a completely new computer museum opening in Cambridge (I look forward to learning more).  Marina, however, briefly talked about her work at the Polytechnical Museum (Wikipedia), Moscow, Russia.  The computing collection was founded in the 1960s and now consists of 800 objects and 2000 documents.

Session: Expanding the audience for computing history

The Case of Computing: Gauthier van den Hove

Students who learn mathematics and computing don't (it was stated) tend to learn much history.  This said, there are some exceptions - there are courses in the history of mathematics, and there are some lecturers (some of them who came to this conference) who teach the history of computing.

Gauthier drew our attention to the differences between historical disciplines, such as the humanities (where history plays an important and central role), and ahistorical disciplines, which could be considered as more technical subjects.  I'm not so sure whether things are as clear cut as this, but I understand the point that is being made.  I've also noted down that Gauthier says that one of the dangers is anachronism.  For example, it is very easy to view the past through the glasses or spectacles of the present; we can very readily take for granted what we know.  (This connects to the earlier points about technological determinism and that it is difficult to see the rich histories underpinning the technologies that we use on a day to day basis).

There are two really nice quotes that I've made a note of.  These are:  'one of the main tasks of a historian is to identify the main facts to help us to remember the past' and, 'the past is a source of inspiration for the present'.   Another thought regarding the role of a historian is that their role is about identifying stories too, and that everyone is situated within a unique historical context.  When we consider the past, we need to consider the present too (and the relationship that we have with it).

The Mundaneum: Delphine Jenart

Delphine Jenart introduced something that I had never heard of before: the Mundaneum (Wikipedia).    In some ways, the Mundaneum, which is strongly connected to the subject of documentation science, can be associated with more recent ideas, such as Vannevar Bush's famous article As we may think (Wikipedia).

The take away points that I took from Delphine's presentation was the importance of press coverage and exposure, which connects with the thought that there are many different ways to connect with a wider audience and emphasise relevance.  More information about this can be uncovered by visiting the Mundaneum website.

Resurrecting Ukraine's computing heritage: Lynette Webb and Marina Tarasova

I was about half way through my doctoral research in the late 1990s when I stumbled across a paper in the Communications of ACM (perhaps the most prestigious computing journal there is) that had absolutely nothing at all to do with my research.  It was a paper that really grabbed my attention.  It was all about the design and development of computers in the Soviet era.

One of the challenges that I faced as a research student was that there were so many different things that I found interesting.  I spent a day or so reading and re-reading the paper before deciding that I had better put this to one side and get on with my main research before I got carried away - but this reminded me of my long-running interest in the old and the historical.  The paper presented a perspective and a social history that was very different to the one that I had read about in the computer magazines that I used to buy as a school kid.  I remembered all these things during Lynette and Marina's presentation.

Lynette talked about the connection with Google, and how this led to interviews and newspaper articles.  Some important points (in terms of exposing a computing related subject to the media) included the use of stories, anecdotes, anniversaries, photos and videos - all help to create a compelling and interesting picture.  Also, for those who are interested, there's a website entitled History of Computing in Ukraine. It's pretty interactive and contains some cracking pictures.

Session: Spotlight on research projects

The Konrad Zuse internet archive project: Christian Burchard

Christian Burchard introduced the Konrad Zuse internet archive project.  Not only did Christian talk about the archive (and how researchers might use to explore and study documents), but he also told us about a number of other resources exhibits and resources.   He also mentioned the reconstruction of the Z1 machine and associated on-line resources, such as a way to view the different components of the machine, and a demonstration of how it works.

As an aside, I understand that the Science Museum is hoping to make their archive of Babbage documents available to anyone who might be interested.

The Monads project: Chris Avram

Innovation and developments in early computing occurred at many different places at the same time.  Universities played a significant role in shaping and developing early digital hardware and software.  It is, perhaps, little surprise that universities have become unexpected custodians of machine of the past.

Chris Avram spoke of the preservation of computing at Monash University,Australia, and treated us to a number of interesting anecdotes regarding the use of punched cards and paper clips.  He also introduced us to the Monads computer, which was developed in collaboration with partners in Germany.  This went some way to reminding me that each institution has its own technical history which needs to be cared for.

Session: Integrating history with computer science education

Using old computers for teaching computer science: Giocanni Cignoni

There is a very compelling argument that some old things are simpler and are therefore easier to understand.  Old computers and technology opens up a range of different opportunities when it comes to teaching.  Instead of being impossibly miniaturised, circuits that do essential things are exposed, allowing ideas and principles to be potentially more readily understood.

Giocanni told us about early Italian computers.  Just as each university has its own history, there is also a wider history that connects with and related to individual countries (and groups of countries).  Another aspect to computing education is that simulations of early systems can expose the detail about how they could be operated.  Giocanni told us about the HMR project (pdf copy of presentation).  A simulator could be used to emphasise the difficulties, but also enable the fundamentals and the inherent complexity of devices to become more tangible.

Is there a future in the Past: Chris Monk

Chris is learning co-ordinator at the national museum of computing at Bletchley Park, which isn't too far from the Open University campus.  Visitors from schools are very welcome to visit the museum.  Not only can visitors be fascinated by the various galleries and exhibits, but Chris also runs 'learning to program' or coding sessions on a cluster of BBC Model B (Wikipedia) computers.  I visited this learning space a couple of years ago, and it reminded me of a couple of classrooms in my old school.

Chris commented that some learners can become very enthusiastic about the programming activities and even go as far ask asking where they might be able to buy one of these old computers.  In such cases, students are directed to more modern resources, such as emulators.  A quick internet search (I couldn't resist...) reveals a wealth of resources.

The museum has seen an increase in visitor numbers in recent years.  An interesting point to note is that there is an apparent (and significant) gender imbalance, with boys outnumbering girls to a ratio of 30:1.  During Chris's talk, I've also made a note of a site (or a project) called Young Rewired State that aims to inspire the next generation of coders and developers.

In some respects, old machines or devices reflect the times in which they were built and used.  Chris asked the interesting question, which is: 'will the word computer still exist in ten years?', when devices are disappearing into our clothes and into our environment.

Apparently, computing pioneer Grace Hopper once said, 'computing without a past is just a subject, not  a science'.  A thought (or point) emerging from this session is that it is incredibly easy to get thoroughly absorbed into the here and now.

Bringing relevance to computing courses through history: John Impagliazzo

I've made the following notes during John's talk: history broadens outlook, it helps us to look beyond the machine and can help us to think critically.  History helps to make the discipline mature, yet it's only done on the fringe.  In which faculty should a historian of computing or technology sit?  Should it sit within the history or the computing department?

John also mentions the importance of corporate history.  Whilst a lot of the very early developments took place within universities (or organisations that are closely connected to universities in one way or another), more recent developments have obviously and undeniably taken place in the industrial sector.  An example of this might be the history of Control Data Corporation (Wikipedia).  (As a brief aside, John also mentioned the Charles Babbage Institute, which is a centre for the history of information technology at the University of Minnesota).

I've also made the note of the following question:  'are teachers of technology conversant with the history of the technology that they teach?'  His point is that we're much more able to remember a story than a logical argument (or a bunch of abstract ideas).  Knowing a bit of history is good for the teachers, which means that it's good for our students too.

Adapting, rather than re-inventing the wheel: Martha Crosby

The final presentation of the day was by Martha Crosby, who had travelled to the conference from the University of Hawaii, a university that has its own unique place in the history of computing and digital communications.  If you're interested in this aspect of computing history, the detail about ALOHANet (Wikipedia) is pretty interesting - it was something that kept me occupied as an undergrad.

Martha took us on a very quick tour of various milestones, whilst making the point that history adds to your toolbox in terms.  She touched on history of IBM, the development of the Harvard Mark 1, the ENIAC computer, the work by Zuse, and the Altair (one of the first personal computers).  Interestingly, Martha also touched upon the subject of programming languages, which has its own history that hasn't been discussed as much.

I've taken a note of a great quotation, which goes: 'the history of computing is the history of human kind's creativity and ingenuity which is why we should hold onto it forever' which I believe might have been attributed to Jason Scott (Blog).    (Searching the source of this quote led me to this very interesting software archive (Archive.org) - which also seems to be a repository of software).

A final point is that ideas in computing are very often adaptations of ideas that already exist.  Understanding the trajectory of their development and combination is one way to understand the present.

Evening event: Alan Turing's Life and Legacy

By the end of first day, my head was beginning to ache, big time.  It was a full on day, which took everyone to the pre-history of computing and back.  We even (briefly) went back as far as 100 BC, before returning (close) to the present day to the origins of the personal computer and the internet.

After an hours break, we found ourselves exploring a gallery in the Science Museum about the life of Alan Turing.  There were exhibits that I had never seen before, such as the ACE Computer (Wikipedia). 

 

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Journey: Westminster to Walworth

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:39

A number of months ago I wrote a blog about buying a smartphone (I know what you're thinking: this sounds pretty boring!)  The blog ended on a question: 'where did this device come from?'  The device I'm referring to is, of course, a computer.  Such a simple question can be answered in very different ways and one way to answer it is to think about the people who played an important role in either thinking about or creating one.

This is a follow up blog post about a trip to a part of London that I had never been to visit before, but one that I have known about for quite some time.  My quest was simple: to seek out the birthplace of someone who is known as the 'great uncle' of computing.  There are, of course, many other stories and journeys that can be connected to the one that follows, and I hope that this is going to one more in a very long series of blog posts.

A journey in reverse

April has been a month of contrasts.  The first few months were absolutely freezing, but this day was enticing.  It was a day that I couldn't resist exploring a bit of my own city; taking a journey that I had been threatening to make ever since winter had descended with certainty.  I exited Westminster underground station and looked skyward, through glorious morning sunshine, quickly finding Big Ben and the houses of parliament.  In some respects, it seemed like an appropriate starting point, since government had played an important role in the life of Charles Babbage, a Victorian gentleman, mathematician, engineer and (if we can stretch it this far) raconteur.  Babbage is famous for proposing and partially designing mechanical calculating engines that echo aspects of the inner workings of today's modern day computers.

The purpose of this blog isn't so much to talk about Babbage (although he is the reason why I am writing in the first place), but more to record the trip.  When it comes to Babbage I've got numerous books and notes and read and re-read, and I think it'll take time to understand the fine detail and significance of his inventions.  In some respects, this is a journey of contextualising, or understanding.

'Excuse me, sir... we want to take a photo...', said a voice behind me.  I peered into my smartphone, thumbing at a googlemap, trying to figure out where I was.  A few paces away, the tourist had gained her view of the London Eye, and I was off, gingerly taking my first steps towards a new (albeit modest) adventure.

Within five or six minutes of walking, I had pieced another part of London together in my head.  My knowledge of the city is fragmented across three dimensions; distant childhood memories, an improving knowledge of the underground map, and a misunderstood knowledge of the monopoly board.  I recognised streets that I have previously travelled through whilst riding on my motorbike towards my office, traversing them in a different direction.  I soon knew where I was heading: I was going towards the Elephant.

Within ten minutes, I found myself at the Elephant and Castle, a bustling inner city area serviced by the Bakerloo and Northern underground lines, a train station that heads north to Kentish Town, and bus routes I had never heard of.  Remembering a series of photographs that had featured in the London Evening Standard newspaper a couple of days before, I decided to try to find a scene that I remembered.  I dived into some walkways and emerged at a train platform that overlooked one of the most notorious housing estates of the 1960s: the Heygate estate.  I know next to nothing about architecture but I do know that they Heygate was one of a number of brutalist housing estates that were built between the 60's and 70's.  Whilst on one hand there is a certain elegance and simplicity in its structures, on the other hand the structures are inhuman, stark and impersonal.  The impersonal nature was amplified since all the windows I could see were boarded up with steel shutters.  These, I thought, looking from the outside, were places to live in.  These flats didn't look like homes, and I'm sure I would have felt the same if I had visited when they were fully occupied.

I accessed the rail platform through the shopping centre.  Built in the 1960's, the shopping centre was showing its age.  In comparison to bright and airy modern malls the Elephant's shopping centre was slightly claustrophobic.  Chain stores were the exception rather than the rule, which was something I liked.  On the second floor, I decided that a well deserved up of tea was overdue, so I popped into a relatively new Polish café I had visited once before.  It's functional manner, i.e. you had to clean your own table, seemed to be entirely in keeping with the Elephant's very functional shopping centre.  I approved.

After a few false starts, I walked past the Strata (Wikipedia) tower block, around a gentle curve in the road and onto the Walworth Road.  Within five or so minutes I had found what I had been looking for; a simple blue plaque commemorating the birth of Babbage, the 'grandfather of the computer', situated on the corner of Larcom Street.  Walking down Larcom Street I discovered another blue plaque, this time commemorating the birth of Micheal Faraday and his work on electromagnetism.  Both plaques were on the side of what is now a clinic.

I took a couple of minutes to do some more exploring.  I really liked Larcom Street.  It offered a slight bend, and then revealed a quiet tree-lined road, filled with bay fronted three level Victorian terrace houses.  The hustle and bustle of Walworth Road disappeared into the background.  Cars parked aside, it felt as if I had stumbled into an oasis of history; a time warp.  Modernity came into view again when I arrived at the end of the street.  I saw modern flats on my right, recently constructed, and there was some building work going on, diggers gouging the ground in preparation for foundations.

Ten minutes later, I was back on the Walworth Road, astonished by its busyness and the single row of shops that seemed to go on and on and on.  With Larcom Street behind me, I caught sight of fast food establishments and the wonderfully eclectic East Street market which dates back, in one form or another, to the 1880s (as another blue plaque testified).  Stall holders had just about got everything ready for the day's trading by the time I had arrived.  I also accidentally found another blue plaque which celebrated the birth of another famous resident; Charlie Chapin.

My journey home took a bit of time.  Walking back to the Elephant, I passed by a fire damaged museum, and then found a bus stop on the New Kent Road - the direction of home.  This wasn't a big or exciting adventure, but it was one that was fun and has made me slightly more aware of my own city.  Moving forwards, what I've got to do is continue with my reading about Babbage and take at least three more journeys.

The next one (about Babbage) will be to the town house where he not only dreamt of mechanical computers, but also built parts of them too.  Then there's a trip to Greenwich, which relates to a key vector of inspiration that caused Babbage to start his life long quest to make a mechanical computer, and then a visit to South Kensington, where the remnants of his computing devices are currently housed.

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Mathematics, Breaking Tunny and the First Computers

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 May 2017, 12:11

Pciture of the Colossus computer

One of my interests is the history of computing. This blog post aims to summarise a seminar that as given by Malcolm MacCallum, University of London, held at the Open University on 30 October 2012.  Malcolm used to be the director of the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, Bristol.  Malcolm began by saying something about the institute, its history and its research.

This blog complements an earlier blog that I wrote to summarise a lecture that was given at City University.  This earlier lecture was entitled Breaking Enigma and the legacy of Alan Turing in Code Breaking and took place back in April 2012, and was one of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing's birth.  Malcolm's talk was similar in some respects but had different focus: there was more of an emphasis on the story that led to the development of what could be arguably one of the world's first computers.

I'm not going to say much about the historical background that is obviously connected with this post, since a lot of this can be uncovered by visiting the various links that I've given (if you're interested).  Instead, I'm going to rush ahead and introduce a swathe of names, terms and concepts all of which connect with the aim of Malcolm's seminar.

Codes, Cyphers and People

In some respects the story of the Enigma code, which took place at the Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park, is one that gains a lot of the historical limelight.  It is easy to conflate the breaking of the Enigma code (Wikipedia), the Tunny code (Wikipedia) and the work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia).  When it comes to the creating of 'the first computer' (quotes intentional), the story of the breaking of the Tunny code is arguably more important. 

The Tunny code is a code generated by a device called the Lorenz cypher machine.  The machine combined transmission, encryption and decryption.  The Enigma code was very different.  Messages encrypted using Enigma were transmitted by hand in morse code.

I'm not going to describe much of the machines since I've never seen a real one, and cryptography isn't my specialism.  Malcolm informed us that each machine had 12 wheels (or rotors).  Each wheel had a set of cams that were set to either 1 or 0.  These wheel settings were changed every week or month (just to make things difficult).  As each character is transmitted, the wheels rotate (as far as I know) and an electrical circuit is created through each rotor to create an encrypted character.  The opposite happens when you decrypt: you put in an encrypted character one side and a plain text (decrypted) character magically comes out the other side.

For everything to work, the rotors for both the encrypting and decrypting machines have to have the same starting point (as otherwise everything will be gibberish).  These starting points were transmitted in unencrypted plain text at the start of a transmission

Through wireless intercept stations it was possible to capture the signals that the Lorenz cypher machines were transmitting.  The codebreakers at Bletchley Park were then faced with the challenge of figuring out the structure and design of a machine that they had never seen.  It sounds like an impossible challenge to figure out how many rotors and wheels it used, how many states the rotors had, and what these states were.

I'll be the first to admit that the fine detail of how this was done pretty much escapes me (and, besides, I understand that some of the activities performed at Bletchley Park remains classified).  What I'm really interested in is the people who played an important role in designing the physical hardware that helped with the decryption of the Tunny codes.

Depths and machines

Malcolm hinted at how the codebreakers managed to begin to gain an insight into how the Lorenz machine (and code) worked.  He mentioned (and I noted) the use of depths (Wikipedia), which is where two or more messages were sent using the same key (or machine setting).  Another note that I made was something called a Saltman break, which is mentioned in a book I'll reference below (which is one of those books which is certainly on my 'to read' list).

Malcolm mentioned two different sections of Bletchley Park: the Testery (named after Ralph Tester), and the Newmanry (named after Max Newman).  Another character that was mentioned was Bill Tutte who applied statistical methods (again, the detail of which is totally beyond me and this presentation) to the problem of wheel setting discovery.

It was realised that key aspects of code breaking could be mechanised.  Whilst Turing helped to devise the Bombe (Wikipedia) equipment that was used with the decryption of the Enigma code, another machine called the Heath Robinson (Wikipedia) was built.

One of the difficulties with the Heath Robinson was its speed. It made use of electromechanical relays which were slow, restricting the code breaking effort. A new approach was considered: the creation of a calculating machine that made use of thermionic valves (a precursor to the transistor).  Valves were perceived to be unreliable but it was realised that if they were continually powered up they were not stressed.

Colossus

Tommy Flowers (Wikipedia) engineered and designed a computer called Colossus (Wikipedia), drawing experience gained working at the Dollis Hill Post Office research station in North London.  

Although Colossus has elements of a modern computer it could be perhaps best described as a 'special purpose cryptographic device'.  It was not programmable in the same way that a modern computer has become (this is a development that comes later), but its programs could be altered; perhaps by changing its circuitry (I don't yet know how this would work).  It did, however, made use of familiar concepts such as interrupts, it synchronised its operation by a clock-pulse, stored data in memory, used shift registers and did some parallel processing.  Flowers also apparently introduced the term 'arithmetic and logic unit'.

Colossus was first used to break a message on 5 February 1944.  A rather different valve based calculator, the ENIAC (Wikipedia), built by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, was used two years later.

Final points

Malcolm told us that ten Collosi were built (I might have spelt that wrong, but what I do know is that Collosus-es certainly isn't the right spelling!), with the last one being dismantled in 1960.  A total of twenty seven thousand messages were collected, of which thirteen thousand messages were decrypted.  Malcolm also said that Flowers was 'grossly under rewarded' for his imaginative and innovative work on Colossus.  I totally agree.

Research into the Colossus was carried out by Brian Randell from the Univerisity of Newcastle in the 1970s.  A general report on the Tunny code was only recently released in 2000.  Other sources of information that Malcolm mentioned was a book about the Colossus by Jack Copeland (Wikipedia)  (which is certainly on my 'to read' list), and a biography of Alan Turing by Andew Hodges (Wikipedia).

Malcom's talk reminded me of how much computing history is, quite literally, on our doorstep.  I regularly pass Bletchley on the way to the Open University campus at Milton Keynes.  There are, of course, so many other places that are close by that have played an important role in the history of computing.  Although I've already been twice to Bletchley Park, I'm definitely going to go again and take a longer look at the various exhibits.

(Picture: Wikipedia)

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Journey: Introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:41

It was a glorious September day; a day that echoed many of the best summer days that made the London Olympics so special for Londoners.  It was a day that I knew was going to change my life in a small but significant way - it was the day that I finally got around to changing my old fashioned (or 'classic') mobile telephone into one of those new fangled Smartphones.

'Why did it take you so long?  You work in technology?!', I could hear some of my friends and colleagues exclaiming. 'I was expecting you to be one of those who would jump at a chance to play with new stuff...'  The most obvious reason I can give as to why it took me so long is one that is immediately the most cynical: I've been around long enough to appreciate that early stuff doesn't always work as intended.   I decided to 'hang back' to see how the technology environment changes.  Plus, I was perfectly happy to muddle through with my simple yet elegant mobile phone which efficiently supported its primary purpose, which was to make and receive telephone calls.

I jumped on a red London bus and checked my text messages on my classic phone for the last time (there were none), and settled down to enjoy the ride of around four stops to Lewisham town centre, a bustling part of South East London.  I knew exactly where I was going -  to a shop entitled 'The Carphone Warehouse' (which sounds a bit anomalous, since it was neither a warehouse and I don't know anyone who has a dedicated car phone any more).

Stepping off the bus, I immediately found myself amidst a busy crowd.  One of the things that I love about Lewisham is its fabulous market.  I made my way past the fishmongers and hardware stall, and then past the numerous fruit and veg stalls, all of which seemed to be doing a roaring trade.  I then stepped into an air conditioned shopping centre and into the side entrance of the phone shop.  It was like I had entered another world.

After looking at a couple of 'device exhibits', I decided I needed to chat to someone.  It suddenly struck me how busy the shop was.  I joined an orderly queue had formed in front of the cash desk.  I could see that employees were deep in conversation with customers who had expressions that conveyed concentration.  In the background I could hear a woman speaking in what I understood to be a Nigerian accent expressing unhappiness.  'You can ring the shop...', said the shop assistant.  'But I don't have a phone!' came the flabbergasted reply. 'I want to speak to your manager!'

After about ten or fifteen minutes, it was my turn.  I explained to the harassed shop assistant what model of phone I wanted (I had done a bit of research) told her something about my current contract and mobile telecoms provider, and had a couple of questions.  These were about the costs, whether I could keep my telephone number and how long it would take to move from my old phone to the new phone.  I was told that my phone could have a choice of colours, that the sky is (approximately) the limit in terms of how much I wanted to spend on the contract, and that they can't help me today because the 'genius bar' guy who migrates telephone numbers from one phone system to another had fainted and had to go home.

It was at that point that I decided to leave the shop and theoretically return another day when the 'genius man' was around.  When I was about to go, I was given a really useful nugget of information, which was, 'just go around the corner to that other shop - they can change contracts for you, you don't even have to call up, which you would have to do if you came into the shop later'.

The second telephone shop I went into was a lot quieter and less frantic.  I asked my same questions about model, price and time and was given impeccably clear answers.  Everything was straight forward (if not slightly more expensive).  The helpful assistant cancelled my existing phone by pressing a few buttons, seemed unperturbed that my contract address was about two years out of date, and gave me a new contract to sign.  Plus, there were no (visibly) angry customers.

Within twenty minutes, I was in possession of one of the most powerful computing devices I have ever possessed.  I was sent on my merry way whilst carrying my new mobile friend in a branded bag.  It was as if I had just bought a very expensive shirt from an upmarket fashion boutique - this was a world away from the time when I bought my first ever mobile phone in the mid 1990s.

Heading home, I passed three different mobile telephone shops.  Each shop represented a different mobile phone provider.  I always knew that competition between mobile providers was fierce, but the act of walking past so many very similar shops (which can be found pretty much in every big high street) emphasised the vibrancy and visibility of the mobile telecommunications industry.

As I caught the bus back home, I started to think about the device I had just bought.  The short journey to and from Lewisham made me consider the different forces that all contributed towards making a tiny computing device through which you can almost live your entire life.  Through your phone, you can discover your current location and learn about your onward journey, search for businesses that are close by and explore the depths of human knowledge whilst you stand in the street.  You can even hold up your smartphone and the sights that you see annotated with information.  Your smartphone can become (or, so I've heard!) an extension of yourself; like an additional limb or a sense.  The smartphone is, fundamentally, a technological miracle.  These devices make the internet pervasive and information phenomenally accessible.

Whilst considering magic that has emerged from decades of development and continual technological creativity, I asked myself a fundamental question.  This was, 'where has all this come from?'  We can consider a smartphone to be an emergent application of physics, chemistry, electronics, industrial design, engineering and computing and a whole host of other disciplines and subjects too!  My question, however, was a bit more specific.  Since a smartphone is ultimately a very portable and powerful computer. My question is, 'where does the computer come from?'

Such a question doesn't have an easy answer.  In fact, there are many stories which are closely intertwined and interconnected.  The story of the networking is intrinsically connected with the history of computing and computer science.  Just as today's modern smartphones will be carrying out many different tasks (or threads of operation) running at the same time, there are many different threads of innovation that have happened at different times and at different places throughout the world. 

The development of a technology and its application is situated.  By this, I mean, physically situated within a particular place, but also within a particular societal context or environment.  Devices and technologies don't just magically spring into existence.  There is always a rich and complex back story, and this is often one that is fascinating.

Like so many Londoners, I consider myself to be an immigrant to the city.  Whilst wandering its streets I can easily become aware of a richness and a depth of history that can be connected to the simplest and smallest of streets and intersections.  Just scratching the surface of a geographical location can reveal a rich tapestry of stories and characters.  Some of those stories can be connected to the seemingly simple question of, 'where does the computer come from?'

If I consider my new fangled smartphone, I can immediately ask myself a number of corollary questions.  These are: where do the chips that power it come from?  Where are they designed?  Where do they get manufactured?  Where does the software come from?   But before we begin to answer these questions there is a higher level, almost philosophical question which needs to be answered.  This is: 'where does the idea for the modern computer come from?'

This blog post is hopefully one of many which hope to unpick this precise question.  I hope to (gradually) take a series of journeys in space and time, asking seemingly obvious questions which may not have obvious answers.  This may well take me to different parts of the United Kingdom, but there is also an adventurous part of me that wishes to make a number of journeys to different parts of the world.

But before I even consider travelling anywhere outside of London, there are places in London that are really important in the history of the development of the computer, and a good number of them are only a few miles from my house.  Although the next journey will only be a short distance geographically, we will also go back in time to the nineteenth century.  This is a time when computers were people and machines were powered by steam.

My first journey (whilst carrying my smartphone) will be to an ancient part of London called Elephant and Castle.  It's a part of London that is not known for its glamour and culture of innovation and seems a long way from the conception of a modern computer.  Instead, it is a part of the city that is known for its large concrete tower blocks that were considered to be a symbol for modern urban decay.  In fact, the only times I've spent there was riding through the district on my motorbike on the way to somewhere else.

'What has this area got to do with the development of the computer?', I hear you ask.  I'm going to explain all in my next blog post.  And when I've been to Elephant and Castle, we're going to begin to travel further afield.

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Distance Learning for Computing and ICT Workshop

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:47

A Higher Education Academy sponsored distance learning workshop for computing and ICT was held at the Open University on Thursday 20 October 2011.  The workshop addressed a number of different themes.  These included internationalisation and the delivery of modules to different countries, professionalization and industry, models of distance learning, the use of technology and its accessibility.

The day was divided up into a number of different sessions, and I'll do my best to summarise them.  I feel that blogging this event is going to be a little bit different from the previous times I have blogged HEA workshops since this time I was less of an observer and more of a participant.  This said, I'll do my best!

Introduction and keynote

The event was introduced by Professor Hugh Robinson, head of the department of Computing at the Open University.  Hugh briefly spoke about the history of the university and mentioned that Open means that students who enrol to courses do not necessarily have to have any qualifications.  This connected to one of the university's themes: to be open in terms of people, places and ideas.  Distance education enables education to be open in all these respects but it is apparent that due to the changes in the higher education sector, all institutions are to face challenges in the future.

Hugh's opening presentation gave way to Mike Richards keynote presentation about a new computing module entitled TU100, My Digital Life.  Mike described some of the main topic areas of this new module which will for a common entry point to a number of degrees.  This module addresses themes that are rather different to those that used to be on the computing curriculum, mostly due to the changes in technology and what is meant by a 'computer'.

Mike mentioned important subjects such as privacy and security, the notion of ubiquitous computing and what is meant by 'free', connecting to subject of open source software systems.  Mike went on to say that the TU100 module contains some hardware that might once have been known as a 'home experiment kit'.

In the case of TU100 this is in the form of a programmable microcontroller board which can be configured in a way to work with different types of measurements and share the results with other people over the internet.  Furthermore, the microcontroller (and connected software) can be developed using a visual programming language called Sense, which is a version of Scratch, a popular introductory programming environment developed by MIT.

Mike's presentation emphasised that distance education need not only begin and end with a virtual learning environment.  A distance education module can contain a rich set of resources such as video materials and physical equipment that can be used to facilitate both understanding and debate.  Mike emphasised the point that many issues that connect to the increasingly broad discipline of computing (broad because of its impact on so many other areas of human activity) is that some debates do not have right or wrong answers.

One thing is certain: technology has changed so many different aspects of our lives and will continue to do so in ways that we may not be able to expect.  It's my understanding that one of the aims of TU100 is to highlight and uncover different debates and help students to navigate them.  What was very clear is that computing education is so much more than just technology and getting it to do cool stuff.  It's essential to understand and to consider how technology affects so many different aspects of our lives.

Morning session

The first presentation in the morning session was by Quan Dang from London Metropolitan University.  Quan's presentation was entitled, 'blending virtual support into traditional module delivery to enhance student learning'.  Quan emphasised how synchronous tools, such as on-line text chat could be used to create virtual 'drop in' sessions outside of core teaching hours to enable students to gain regarding subjects such as computer programming.  Quan's presentation was very though provoking since it made me ask myself the question, 'what different tools and practices might we potentially adopt (at a distance) to help student get to grips with difficult issues such as debugging'.  Debugging is something (in my humble opinion) that you can best learn by seeing how different people consume elements of the programming tools that are available through development environments.  Getting a feeling of the different strategies that can be applied is something that can only be gained through experience, and technology certainly has the potential to facilitate this.

The following presentation, by Amanda Banks from the University of Manchester, was entitled 'advanced professional education in computer science'.  Amanda spoke at some length about how a tool such as MediaWiki could be used to enable students to create useful materials that could be used with others.  This presentation was also thought provoking: Wiki's can certainly be used within on-line modules to enable to student to generate materials for their own study, but Amanda's presentation made me consider the possibility that wiki-hosted material can be used between different module presentations as a way to facilitate debates about different ideas.

The final presentation was by Philip Scown, from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.  Philip's thought provoking presentation was entitled, 'the unseen university: full-flexible degrees enabled by technology'. Philip argued that technology can potentially allow different models of studying and learning, such as modules which don't have start dates, for instance.  I can't do justice to Philip's talk within this space, so I do encourage you to have a look on the HEA website where I understand that his presentation slides are hosted.

First afternoon session

The afternoon session was started by Mark Ratcliffe, discipline lead for computing at the Higher Education Academy.  Mark outlined the role of the HEA and then went on to describe funding opportunities and the role of a HEA academic associates.  Mark then directed us to the HEA website for more information.

Distance education is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people, and this difference was, in part, highlighted by Mariana Lilley's first presentation of the afternoon that had the title, 'online, tutored e-learning and blended: three modalities for the delivery of distance learning programmes in computer science'.  Mariana's presentation also represented a form of case study of a programme that is presented internationally by the University of Hertfordshire.  It was interesting to hear about the application of different tools, such as Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate), QuestionMark Perception and VitalSource Bookshelf.  This suggested to me the point that distance learning is now facilitated by a mix of different tools and made me question whether we have (collectively) identified best (or most effective) mix.  Institutions have to necessarily explore technology in combination with pedagogic practice, and sharing case studies is certainly one way to understand something about what is successful.

Mariana's presentation was nicely complemented by Paul Sant's (in collaboration with his colleague Malcolm Sant) who was from the University of Bedfordshire.  Paul's presentation was entitled, 'distance learning in higher education - an international case study'.  Paul identified a number of challenges which included, 'how can we ensure that distance students remain engaged? How can we offer support in a way that meets their schedule and requirements?', and 'How can we ensure that the work performed by students meets their potential?'  Paul mentioned tools such as the Blackboard VLE and synchronous tools by Horizon Wimba.  Paul's presentation also helped to expose the subject of partnerships with international institutions.

Second afternoon session

The final session of the day was broadly intended to focus upon the needs of the student from two different perspectives.  Steve Green from the Accessibility Research Centre, Teeside University kicked off this session by describing 'studying accessibility and adaptive technologies using blended learning and widgets'.  Accessibility is an important subject since it enables students to make use of learning resources irrespective of how or where they may be studying (both in terms of their physical and technical environment), but also widens the way in which resources may be consumed, taking into account learners with additional requirements.  Steve described how students create accessible widgets and their evaluation.

Steve's talk reminded me of a question that I was asked not so long ago, which is, given that distance legislation is now an international endeavour and the development of accessibility is supported by equality legislation, where do the boundaries lie in terms of offering support to students?  The answer may depend on the issue of how partnerships are developed and function.

The final presentation of the day, entitled 'finding a foundation for flexibility: learner centred design' was by Andrew Pyper from the University of Hertfordshire.  The underlying theme is that institutions need to understand the needs of their learners to best support them.  Tools such as learner centred design, which is known to the interaction design and human-computer interaction communities, have the potential to create rich pictures which then potential guide the development of both learning experiences and technology alike.

Plenary

Towards the end of the day there was a bit of time to hold an open discussion about some of the different themes that the presentations had exposed.  Many thanks to Amanda, Philip and Andrew for taking part.  Some of the themes that came to my mind were the issues of  tools and technology, internationalisation, industry and employability, and student skills.  Points included that we need to be careful about our assumptions of the technology that students might have.  Another important point is that one way to differentiate between different institutions might be in terms of the technologies that they use (and also how they use it).

We were also reminded about something called the Stanford Machine Learning course, which provoked some debate about 'free' (which relates back to Mike Richard's earlier TU100 presentation), and we were all directed towards the QAA Distance Learning precepts (many thanks to Richard Howley for bringing this to our attention).

Summary

All in all, it was a fun day!  There were loads of questions asked following each of the sessions and much opportunity for talk and debate in between.  I have to confess I was very relieved when the tea, coffees and sandwiches arrived on time, so thanks are extended to the Open University catering group.

It's tough, for me, to say what the highlight of the day was due to the number of very interesting thought provoking presentations.  I certainly feel that there is always an opportunity to learn lessons from each other; it is clearly apparent that there are many different ways to approach distance education.  Whilst there are many differences between institutions, similar issues are often grappled with, such as how to best make use of technology and ensure that students are offered the best possible level of support.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 2 Feb 2012, 12:04)
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