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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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