Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-03-30

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Remembering my old teacher on Ada Lovelace Day

This blog post has been written to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology”. You can find more blog posts at the Ada Lovelace Day Collection.

Martin Belam has a much more thorough and better-written explanation of why Karen was important on his blog.

Karen Spärck Jones

The Diploma in Computer Science, originally the Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing, was the world’s first full-year taught qualification in the newly emerging discipline of computing when the Cambridge University’s Mathematical Laboratory, home of the EDSAC stored program digital computer, introduced it in 1953.

At the time EDSAC was being used by mathematicians, engineers and even biochemists to carry out ground-breaking work that required more computational power than even a legion of dedicated graduate students could provide, and it was felt appropriate to offer formal training in the principles of programming as well as the specifics of writing code for the valve-based monster that occupied most of a large room in the centre of Cambridge.

The Diploma is no more, having fallen victim to the reshaping of post-graduate qualifications that has taken place over the last few years, and was conferred for the last time in 2008, but when I arrived to begin the course in the autumn of 1983 it was thriving, a space in which those in possession of maths ‘A’ level (or equivalent) and a first degree could be inducted into the arcana of the computing world.

We covered databases with Ken Moody, graphics with Neil Wiseman, programming languages with Martin Richards, artificial intelligence with Bill Clocksin, operating systems with Roger Needham – and information science and natural language processing with Karen Spärck Jones who is the woman in technology I’d like to draw to your attention on Ada Lovelace Day.

My first degree was in philosophy and psychology, so I had a natural affinity with the material she covered, and I was impressed from the very start by her ability to convey these complex topics to a disparate bunch of beginners drawn from many disciplines.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Karen and Roger Needham were married, two lives dedicated to the academic discipline of computer science and to pushing forward the capabilities of digital technologies. Her work on information retrieval underpins modern search engines, while the field of natural language processing owes much to her research in the area.

I also didn’t know that she too had read philosophy at Cambridge before moving into computing, or that she had worked at the Cambridge Language Research Unit with Margaret Masterman, a student of Wittgenstein’s, but these shared intellectual roots may explain something of her importance to me as a teacher in that formative year.

I completed the Diploma and went to work for a small software house in Cambridge, writing as a freelance for various publications. Eventually I was writing for The Guardian and working for PIPEX, one of the UK’s first ISPs, and in the mid ‘90s the two tracks came together when I set up The Guardian’s New Media Lab, making use of my computing skills and my journalistic background as managing editor, chief programmer and systems administrator for the first Guardian website.  She continued her academic work, and was eventually given a personal chair as Professor of Computers and Information.

Our paths crossed from time to time over the years, including the occasions when I was working in the library at the Computer Lab and at the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of EDSAC which she organised in 1999, and we would say hello but I was not in her circle of friends. She was sometimes around when I visited Wolfson College, where she was a Fellow, to hang out with my fellow hack John Naughton, so we’d share a few words. I saw Roger more often in my capacity as a journalist and friend of the labs – you never get Cambridge’s claws out entirely.

Karen died of cancer two years ago, and I was privileged to be asked to write her obituary for The Times. I had written Roger’s in 2003, so it seemed fitting.  Writing the obituary of someone who has inspired you is hard, because there’s always the danger that your sentiment will lead you to overstate the significance of their achievement.  With Karen Spärck Jones there was no danger of that.

In 2007 she was the first woman to be awarded the Lovelace Medal by the British Computer Society, so it seems appropriate that I should write about her on Ada Lovelace Day.

Karen Spärck Jones, computer scientist, was born on August 26, 1935. She died of cancer on April 4, 2007, aged 71. You can read her obituary in The Times, and if you find yourself at Wolfson College, Cambridge, you can browse through her personal library on the shelves in the Karen Spärck Jones room, just beside the porter’s lodge.

This is an ALD09post for Ada Lovelace Day. Find out more at:

So say we all!

[This should be up on the BBC News website soon]

There is a famous and hilarious episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, the BBC sitcom from the 1970’s, in which our eponymous Geordies, Bob and Terry, spend an anxious day trying to avoid hearing the result of a crucial football match because they will be watching it later that night on Match of the Day.

It was one of my mum’s favourites, partly I suspect because she came from Hebburn and had grown up among men who resembled the Likely Lads in many ways, my dad among them.

Despite many mishaps and near-misses all goes well until just before they are about to settle down in front of the TV, but the ending is both funnier and less predictable than you might expect, as it usually was in this fine old British comedy, so I won’t give it away here.

I thought of Terry and Bob this weekend, since I found myself avoiding Facebook and other social network sites, refraining from reading much email and staying far away from any of the many manifestations of Twitter for fear that someone would give me even the smallest hint of the denouement of Battlestar Galactica, which has just come to an end after seventy-three episodes and numerous webisodes and extras.

Continue reading “So say we all!”

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-03-22

  • Heading out for a relatively quiet & pressure free day – #diigitalplanet done without me this week as they are at #sxsw while I have a life! #
  • @sleepydog happy birthday to you, too! [See how Twitter has replaced Facebook as the space for this?] #
  • @Suw always put ‘read to do list’ at top of to do list, do that first, tick it off, feel better… in reply to Suw #
  • Been reflecting on @cshirky’s essay on newspapers and I think we ask what journalism is for: #
  • @hairydalek thanks – rebooted! in reply to hairydalek #
  • Just declared Bloglines bankruptcy and marked all as read in my feeds. It was the only way. #
  • @spraveenitpro it feels good! in reply to spraveenitpro #
  • @rooreynolds say hello to @cshirky from me! in reply to rooreynolds #
  • Been such a lovely evening with @mattkelland and @bluemaiya. wecanhazbooze! #
  • @Whatleydude the nice people who rip them as torrents do that for you, don’t you find.. another reason the legit channels fail customers! in reply to Whatleydude #
  • Bit of rushing around this morning, afternoon doing Film Festival planning at the Picturehouse and coffee with @kiwanja. Works for me. #
  • Breakfast with the boy at ‘Skivers’, our local cafe, after a successful interview for VIth form (him, not me!) #
  • @davidjs_uk I’d be proud to be patron of 🙂 in reply to davidjs_uk #
  • Good time at the Picturehouse, now off to BBC Cambs to record a short piece on behavioural ads for tomorrow’s Media Show. #
  • RT @amonck: My two cents on Clay Shirky and newspapers #
  • @darrenwaters there’s never enough to say about it surely? 🙂 in reply to darrenwaters #
  • @jjn1 I’ll see your MP3 and raise you a video of James Boyle at the RSA – 🙂 in reply to jjn1 #
  • Home and uploading videos for a project I worked on last month. So dull my brain may explode. #
  • Waking up to begin the day – unlike the #sxsw brits who all seem to have partied and crashed… #
  • I dreamed about a film festival with @sizemore & @documentally, and ended up actually planning this year’s Cambridge Festival. Thanks, guys! #
  • Swinging by @cambsartphouse, then off to @WysingArtsCentr for lunch and plotting. #
  • Fun at Wysing, now off to town – maybe the @cambsartsphouse again! #
  • Home, fish&chips, beer, season 1 of IT Crowd. Me and the boy are content. #
  • @sunildvr Deep Blue in Sawston… was Jack’s, still pretty good. in reply to sunildvr #
  • Pleased that @O2UKOfficial managed to sort me out with 02 – will be staying with them for a while longer. Nice to see they are listening. #
  • Early start tomorrow so will call it a day. Or night. #
  • Onto the 0645 and off to London. Sans coffee, sans wits, sans everything. #
  • @dgwbirch good luck- hope my post on the topic gives you hope that *journalism* might survive the end of newspapers! in reply to dgwbirch #
  • Off to British library for coffee and book plotting. #
  • Lunch at St Pancras. No passport so can’t nip over to Paris. Shame. #
  • Betjeman Arms -lovely spot. #
  • @DCEFrance Lunch was nice, but would have rather been eating brie and baguette in paris, it’s true… another time! in reply to DCEFrance #
  • Completely unable to focus on anything this afternoon – early start, sunshine and I’m useless for the whole day. Hey ho. #
  • Upstairs at the Three Kings in Clerkenwell for openDemocracy event. Canhazbeer. #
  • Heading home. Tired. #
  • Waiting for 2115 at KX as the 2152 gets in only 3 mins earlier! Fun time talking database state with openDemocracy crew. #
  • @rohan_london do you trust your social network to tell you whether Dr Atomic is good, though? in reply to rohan_london #
  • Another day in London, recording #digitalplanet in advance as @garethm is away next week, then back for birthday supper with my daughter 🙂 #
  • @davidjwbailey we’ll have to find another excuse for a drink, and soon. in reply to davidjwbailey #
  • @emilybell I’m trying to be surprised by news that bankers are deceitful and underhand…:-) in reply to emilybell #
  • @Documentally is that ‘arrived at tuttle’ or ‘feel compelled to tuttle’:-) in reply to Documentally #
  • Speeding to Kings X and thence to Studio S6 (thanks for headsup @garethm) for early #digitalplanet recording. Don’t start without me… #
  • @samdownie tragically I am otherwise engaged so can’t make the tweetup… try @garethm! in reply to samdownie #
  • Evening draws on and I’m out to birthday supper with my girl… no doubt there will be maudlin tweets later. #
  • @jonhansen It’s my daughter’s 18th… far more important than *my*birthday… will pass on good wishes! in reply to jonhansen #
  • @BrightMeadow I’ll help. Complete BSG moratorium needed or else! in reply to BrightMeadow #
  • Lovely evening, now time to crash. #
  • @avantgame with you in the desperate need to avoid BSG spoilers. Can’t believe that its over, but it’s been a great journey. So say we all. in reply to avantgame #
  • Closing Twhirl until I’ve seen BSG E20. It’s been a long journey and I’m not risking anyspoilers! See you on the other side, ‘verse. #
  • about to watch the final episode of BSG. Silence please – but will be back in the fray tomorrow. #
  • BSG is done. And so am I. No spoilers but I am content. #
  • @emilybell agree that there are things that need ‘journalism’ more now than ever,and we need structures to deliver them. Need to create them in reply to emilybell #
  • Off to bed and to ponder the nature of things. #
  • @stephenfry just heard the rainforest appeal, which was eloquent & compelling -money on the way, you persuasive man! in reply to stephenfry #
  • Another sunny day here; another reason to feel hopeful. in reply to Joscelyn #
  • @LesleySmith happy to discuss BSG away from those who might be distressed by spoilers, but I think all was wrapped up that needed to be. in reply to LesleySmith #
  • @parkylondon might be: @kashaziz Emirates airliner evacuated at Londons Gatwick Airport after report of suspicious device on board in reply to parkylondon #
  • @berbank I donated online via Firefox and didn’t get an error… interesting. in reply to berbank #
  • Back from town and time to do some housework and chivvy the boy about GCSE coursework/revision. The fun of it. #
  • More birthday champagne for the girl #
  • @smagdali provided for me. Not at home but can email link later in reply to smagdali #
  • @derots the ASCII art was made by – nice and easy! in reply to derots #
  • Home, and writing. Still pondering BSG and feeling it was a good as I thought it was. May now have to begin watching from the start again. #
  • @flipperville there will be no BSG spoilers from me, by the gods, but I assure you the final episode delivers. in reply to flipperville #
  • @sam_burnett never miss it… in reply to sam_burnett #
  • @Intellagirl ““[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it” – any help? in reply to Intellagirl #
  • @steiny if you can get out to Sawston you’re welcome here – have to drive back in to Cam at 0800 tomorrow am… in reply to steiny #

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Worming our way out of trouble

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website for your delectation and delight]

The Conficker worm will be active again on April 1st, according to an analysis of its most recent variant, Conficker.C, by the net security firm CA.

This malicious piece of software, also known as Downup, Downadup and Kido, spreads among computers running most variants of the Windows operating system and turns them into nodes on a multi-million member ‘botnet’ of zombie computers that can be controlled remotely by the worm’s as yet unidentified authors.

Since it first appeared last October it has apparently infected over fifteen million computers around the internet, though even that number is no more than an educated guess because the worm works very hard to disguise its presence on a PC.
Conficker spreads through a security vulnerability in the Windows Server Service that allows a carefully written program to persuade the attacked computer to run malicious code instead of the Microsoft-written software.

Continue reading “Worming our way out of trouble”

What I’ve tweeted on 2009-03-17

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Take Two Steps Back: A Society Gets the Journalism it Deserves

[This is a response in part to Clay Shirky’s recent essay, Newspapers and Thinking the UnthinkableUpdate: Jemimah Knigh has a lovely meditation on the past and future of papers on her blog.]

When printing with movable type was introduced to Europe by Gutenberg and refined by Caxton it began a revolution that encompassed the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and laid the ground work for the current transformation being driven by science-based technologies, a transformation that is increasingly predicated on technology-based science as we benefit from one of those virtuous circles that occasionally catapults our species into an unexpected future.

For the past half-millennium printed books and their offspring, pamphlets and newspapers and magazines, have done the heavy lifting in the trade in ideas, spreading new theories and doctrines and ideologies around, and even offering their services to religion, mysticism and the anti-scientists who would undo all that western culture has achieved.

Analogue electronic media, in the form of television and radio, managed to complement print for a century or so although their role in the formation of ideologies and the distribution of ideas was clearly subsidiary to that of print. Televison and radio news still largely takes its agenda from that set by the print media, and the fact that we still remark on those few significant cultural highlights that are native to the broadcast world, like The Sopranos or ER, shows their failure to displace the printed text and the performed playscript in the broader cultural field.

Continue reading “Take Two Steps Back: A Society Gets the Journalism it Deserves”

What I’ve tweeted on 2009-03-16

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What I’ve tweeted on 2009-03-15

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Tomorrow’s Culture, Today

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website, and follow the debate on the Pixel Palace site]

I had one of the strangest experiences of my online life last Friday evening in the bar of the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, and while I’m still not sure what it means I enjoyed it, in a odd sort of way.

It came at the end of a conference on the future of cinemas and other artistic venues in a digital world, while we were enjoying a DJ set from Captain Buck Rogers. The music we were listening to was being streamed live into the virtual world of Second Life, and being played out in replica of the renowned Baltic Mill gallery, situated on a newly-opened virtual Tyneside island developed by a local company, Vector 76.

Avatars from around the world were dancing to the music we could hear, while we watched them projected onto the wall of the cinema bar, so I got out my laptop, logged in to Second Life and made my way to the virtual Baltic, where I joined in the dancing.

I could see my avatar moving around on the screen of my computer, but I was also clearly visible among the crowd projected onto the wall, dancing like every teenager’s embarrassing dad in cyberspace while drinking a deliciously cold beer in the real world.

Continue reading “Tomorrow’s Culture, Today”