New fun and new names

If you’ve nothing else to do over the Easter break – well, it’s a break here in the UK – then can I suggest checking out some things I’m currently involved with:

The Songs of Imagination and Digitisation project, at, where I’m helping manage work to build an illuminated book for the digital age, to be published by if:book with support from Arts Council England.  My bit is ‘Blake’s Netbook’, a tool through which writers and poets can talk through the online voice of William Blake, as at

The new website for Writer’s Centre Norwich, the institution formerly known as the New Writing Partnership. I’m on the board of this fine organisation and have been helping them with their digital strategy. The new site is an interim one, hosted on WordPress, but worth a visit.

The Journalism Department at City University, London, where I have recently been appointed an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow – no pay, no desk, no money, but a position I am proud to hold in a department whose reputation continues to grow.

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:

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”


I’m lucky enough to be in Geneva today at the simply wonderful Lift09, where I’ve met lots of great people – old and new friends – and been stimulated, entertained and surprised.

I gave a short talk at lunchtime, and the video is here.  It was intended as a provocation – my own ‘Modest Proposal’, as someone said – so don’t hold me to all of it…

You can see all of the videos too.

Why we need to stop the data retention proposals

I’ve just had this article posted on the Index on Censorship site

..we need to stand up against the plans because even if the current proposals can be justified as a proportionate measure –– and remember that only details of sender and receiver are being stored, not the content of the messages themselves –– mission creep is inevitable.
Powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which we were told were needed to investigate serious crime and catch terrorists have been used to determine whether parents are really living in the catchment area of a popular school, something that is not actually illegal under the act as passed.

Read the whole piece, and it’s worth looking at Mike Butcher’s rant too.

Facebook foolishness

I like Facebook, and I use it a lot, but I don’t trust random applications that ask for access to my profile data or want to be able to post on my Wall, so I don’t add them even when people I like ask me to do so – I’ll settle for the few apps (like Causes and 30Boxes) that are useful to me.

But it gets a bit silly…

Current requests
Current requests

Home Life

We had a visit from Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC technology correspondent, yesterday – they wanted to film my home network setup for an internal BBC presentation and talk to me and the boy about the future of television.

Rory also blogged it and even made a short video

As a BBC veteran, I’m obviously not the best person to take a completely impartial view on the importance of Project Canvas.That’s the plan outlined on Thursday by the BBC, ITV, and BT to co-operate on a common platform for IPTV – or, as an ITV statement put it rather more usefully, to “bring broadband and television together in one box”. There are plenty of obstacles to be cleared – regulatory rows, technical teething troubles, standards snafus – before we start plugging a set-top box into our broadband and watching the iPlayer and other online video offerings on our televisions rather than on a computer.

But I think that this is an exciting development that could be an important step on the road to the connected home that technology gurus have been promising us for so long. Just one question – by the time the rough sketch of Canvas becomes the full picture, won’t millions already be choosing different ways to pipe web content around their homes?

By chance, as Thursday’s announcement was being made, I was in a house that is already wired for the future. We were filming at the home of Bill Thompson, top technology pundit and columnist on this site, as part of a report on the way we may all consume the media five years from now.

And I even managed to make it into the iPlayer day coverage 🙂

Grimpen Mire

A while back I wrote a column about cloud computing in which I noted that the physical location our online services still matters, and commented that:

In the real world national borders, commercial rivalries and political imperatives all come into play, turning the cloud into a miasma as heavy with menace as the fog over the Grimpen Mire that concealed the Hound of the Baskervilles in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story.

Nick Carr coined the phrase ‘miasma computing‘ in response (and I wish I’d thought of it first!), and at GikIII recently the excellent Miranda Mowbray presented ‘The Fog over the Grimpen Mire: Cloud Computing and the Law‘, which organiser Andres Guadamuz called ‘a virtuoso remix of Sherlock Holmes and cloud computing’ that was ‘both endearingly performed and absolutely spot on.’

I’m sorry I missed it, but her slides are here

Is Privacy Dead?

I’m in the bar at FACT in Liverpool having just had an excellent time debating privacy with Jeffrey Rosen, Jonathan Sawday and Sonia Livingstone, expertly chaired by Philip Dodd. It’s part of Radio 3’s Free Thinking festival and will be broadcast on Monday’s Night Waves on Radio 3.

FACT is a fabulous building, and there’s  a real buzz in the atmosphere. And since there’s free wifi I’ve been Qiking:


Of course, it’s all a great breach of privacy… 🙂