Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011 Plan 28 Media Coverage

As I did for 2010 I'll be keeping an archive of all news stories about Plan 28 in a blog post.

September 21, 2011
The Register: Boffins step closer to steam-powered Babbage computer
BBC: Babbage Analytical Engine designs to be digitised
Geeks Are Sexy: Steam-powered computer gets digital boost
BCS: Science Museum agrees to digitise Charles Babbage's sketches
Thinq: Babbage's notes to be digitised for all

September 22, 2011

Forbes: Building a New Computer Based on 19th Century Plans
ZDNet UK: Babbage's steampunk computer takes step toward reality
ITPro: The Science Museum in London to Help Team Build Charles Babbage Mechanical Computer
RedOrbit: Science Museum To Digitize Babbage’s Analytical Engine
Manufacturing Digital: Steam-powered Babbage computer could be built
Top News New Zealand: John Graham-Cumming’s Plan 28 to be supported by London’s Science Museum

September 23, 2011

Computer Business Report: London Science Museum to digitise Babbage Analytical Engine designs: report

September 24, 2011

iProgrammer: Babbage archive digitized

September 25, 2011

Geek With laptop: Work Begins on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine

September 26, 2011

eWeek Europe: Steam Computer Builders Scan Babbage’s Notes

September 27, 2011
BBC Radio 4 PM: Interview

September 28, 2011

Bottom Line: Building Babbage's Protocomputer

October 3, 2011

CBC Spark: Full Interview: John Graham-Cumming on Building Babbage’s Computer

October 4, 2011

BBC Outriders: Emotional, historical and creative (about 11m in).

November 8, 2011

New York Times: It Started Digital Wheels Turning and A Before-Its-Time Machine
The Bulletin: Building a computer from way, way back
The Verge: Work properly begins on the Babbage Analytical Engine
newser: Researchers to Build Computer Designed in 1830s
Business Insider: Surprise! Your Desktop Is Based On 180-Year-Old Technology
Boing Boing: Researchers to build Babbage Analytical Engine
Tecca: Researchers begin attempt to recreate 180-year-old computer design

November 9, 2011

ITProPortal: British Researchers to Build Charles Babbage's 'Supercomputer'
The Takeaway: Researchers Try to Build 19th Century Computer

November 10, 2011

Daily Mail: Did Charles Babbage invent the programmable computer in the 1830s?
Engadget: Researchers begin work on Babbage Analytical Engine, hope to compute like it's 1837
PC Magazine: British Researchers Set Out to Build Charles Babbage's Steam Computer
Time: Who really invented the computer?
Science 2.0: Millions Of Dollars To Build A Computer From The 1830s? Yes, Please
pnosker: Researchers plan to build Charles Babbage’s “programmable computer” based on blue prints from the 1830s

November 11, 2011

BBC World Service: interview with John Graham-Cumming on World Update at 1000.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A program waits

Sitting in The Science Museum alongside all the other pieces of Babbagery is something that many people will probably overlook, but which has great significance. It's this:

A pair of stacks of punched cards containing data and a program put together by Charles Babbage. This program has been waiting over 150 years to be executed because the Analytical Engine that would run it was never built.

Just a few more years and the program will be executable.

The data describes a polynomial and the program a method of solving it. More detail about it will come through the research that Doron Swade is undertaking as part of Plan 28

Image Credit: Flickr user lorentey

Letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education (and response)

Date: September 5, 2011
Subject: The importance of computer programming in education
To: [email protected]

Michael,

I'm writing to introduce you to an important project that directly affects two areas that the government is keen to be active in: education and the promotion of science and technology.

You will no doubt have read that Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently criticized the British educational system for failing to teach computing correctly and "throwing away your great computer heritage" [1] by squandering the lead we had starting with Alan Turing all the way through the wonderful BBC Computer Literacy Project in the 1980s. The BBC project inspired a generation of British computer programmers [2] and in turn generated one of the most successful computer chip companies in the world, ARM, which is based in Cambridge. If you have a smartphone in your pocket then it's likely got an ARM chip inside it running it.

We desperately need to get back to a situation where British children are learning how computers work and not just how to use them. A generation of users will do nothing to help British industry, nor realize the government's dream of East London Tech City. As the writer Douglas Rushkoff puts it: Program or be Programmed [3].

Be it in the City where computer feats from the mundane (in Microsoft Excel) to the magnificent (in custom written programs) are the foundation for modern banking, or be it in any other job where real computer literacy is needed (how many times have you or your family had trouble 'programming'---in the sense of making the most of---one of your devices?) We live in a world where understanding computers means we can maximize their use, not be mere users of someone else's tools.

The future benefits are huge. There's currently a popular e-petition going round asking that programming be taught from Year 5 so that it sits alongside literacy and numeracy [4]. I fully support that idea.

But to program, British kids needs a computer, and there's a wonderful volunteer run project that has modern echoes of the BBC Micro project called Raspberry Pi [5]. Based in Cambridge it is close to completion and will be offering a fully fledged computer with advanced modern capabilities based on a British ARM chip that will sell for something like £20. This machine could be the foundation for another generation of computer geniuses like those that were fostered in the 1980s.

This is an area where government can help. The project does not need money, but it does need the sort of wind in its sails that government can provide. If the current government were to back the idea of real computer literacy (and not messing around in Microsoft Word) we could help Britain back to its rightful place. Be it with Raspberry Pi computers in schools, or with some other hardware, we need to get back on top. If we want a British Apple, Microsoft or Facebook, we need the coders. All three of those companies were started by people who knew how to code, not simply use.

I hope to have convinced you of the importance of the idea of teaching kids to code, and, if you could spare the time, I would be happy to meet with you at your convenience to develop further these ideas.

Best wishes,
John.
And the response:
From: [email protected]
Subject: Case Reference 2011/0063770

Dear Mr Graham

Thank you for your email of 15 September, addressed to the Secretary of State, about the importance of computer programming and education. I hope you are able to appreciate the Secretary of State for Education receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.

The Department is always interested in receiving information aimed at improving the educational experience of children, and I can see how your idea could support schools. However, the role of this Department is limited to setting the policy framework of the National Curriculum of what is taught in terms of content, attainment targets and how performance is assessed and reported. Therefore, we do not endorse, fund or promote specific resources or activities for use in schools.

We leave such decisions for teachers themselves to make, as we believe they are best placed to recognise the needs and abilities of their pupils. With this in mind, you may wish to contact schools directly with your suggestion, or Local Authorities (LAs).

Details of LAs can be found on the following website:

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Dl1/Directories/Localcouncils/index.htm

Contact details for all schools can be found at:

www.edubase.gov.uk

Once again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely

Sandra Duggan
Public Communications Unit
www.education.gov.uk
Firstly, they spell my name incorrectly, then they seem to have totally missed the point and only focus on the Raspberry Pi project that I mentioned. Then they suggest that I might like to contact every single local authority and school in the country.

What a pitiful lack of vision on the part of the government.

Update on September 27, 2011

I replied back to the department saying that they'd misunderstood what I was talking about and they gave a more helpful reply:
From: [email protected]
Subject: Case Reference 2011/0065994

Dear Mr Graham-Cumming


Thank you for your further email dated 26 September about the importance of computer programming in the National Curriculum.
We are currently undertaking a review of the National Curriculum. Full details about the review, including its remit and organisation can be viewed at:

www.education.gov.uk/nationalcurriculum


We have set out a phased timetable for the National Curriculum review. In phase one, we will design new Programmes of Study for those subjects – English, mathematics, science and physical education. The new Programmes of Study for these subjects will be made available to schools in autumn 2012 for first teaching in September 2013.

Meanwhile, we will also consider which of the other subjects that currently form the National Curriculum, including ICT, should be part of the National Curriculum in the future and, if so, at which stages in a child’s education.

The second phase of the review, starting in early 2012, will produce Programmes of Study for those other subjects remaining within the National Curriculum. These new Programmes of Study will be made available to schools in autumn 2013 for first teaching in 2014.

Until the new National Curriculum is introduced, maintained schools are legally required to continue to follow the current National Curriculum for primary and secondary schools. It is up to schools and teachers to decide what type of topics and activities they offer their students in lessons and how best to manage their classes as they are best placed to recognise the individual learning needs of their pupils.

Once again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely

Val Shiels
Public Communications Unit
www.education.gov.uk



As part of our commitment to improving the service we provide to our customers, we are interested in hearing your views and would welcome your comments via our website at www.education.gov.uk/pcusurvey

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0065994. To contact the Department for Education, please visit www.education.gov.uk/contactus


The original of this email was scanned for viruses by the Government Secure Intranet virus scanning service supplied by Cable&Wireless Worldwide in partnership with MessageLabs. (CCTM Certificate Number 2009/09/0052.) On leaving the GSi this email was certified virus free.
Communications via the GSi may be automatically logged, monitored and/or recorded for legal purposes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lovelace's Leap

There's a great deal said about Ada, Countess of Lovelace that I find misguided. And, worse, the real intellectual triumph of Lovelace is overlooked by most people. She took a great leap in thinking about computers that Charles Babbage seems to have either completely overlooked or to have missed entirely.

Lovelace realized that even though a computer was, at its heart, a mathematical machine, it wasn't restricted to doing mathematics. She realized that a computer could be used to process other types of 'information' by having numbers represent anything else. She realized that a computer could handle text, or music, or practically anything.

That's Lovelace's Leap.

Speaking to the BBC about his book The Information, author James Gleick says:
She understood even better than Babbage did what the potential of this machinery was. Babbage was always thinking in terms of just numbers. Ada thought it might not just be numbers. You could have words or music or anything that could be expressed in the form of symbols and these machines could operate on them.
Writing in Computer Resurrection Issue 53, Doron Swade says:
It was Lovelace who appears to have made the essential transition in understanding. Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as a sophisticated programmable computing machine capable of executing any sequence of arithmetical operations under program control, but still operating only on number. Ada saw the potential of computational machines to manipulate symbols of which number was but one example. She speculates that if the rules of harmony and composition were appropriately represented then the Analytical Engine “might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”. She also wrote of the machine operating on numbers directly representing entities other than quantity “as if they were letters or any other general symbols” and that it might produce outputs in notational form. Nowhere, at least in his published writings, does Babbage write in this way nor does he speculate about his machines in any context other than mathematical.

In this Ada saw what none of her contemporaries, Babbage included, appear to have seen. Ascribing this essential and historic understanding to her is not a backwards projection from our own age. She is explicit. This is Ada, banging the table, saying it is this that is significant and revolutionary about automatic computation. So Lovelace is rightly celebrated but not for the reasons commonly cited.
The quotations there are taken from the notes attached, by Lovelace, to Sketch of the Analytical Engine published in 1842.

She states:
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.
and then
Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies, imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly. It might develope three sets of results simultaneously, viz. symbolic results (as already alluded to in Notes A. and B.), numerical results (its chief and primary object); and algebraical results in literal notation. This latter however has not been deemed a necessary or desirable addition to its powers, partly because the necessary arrangements for effecting it would increase the complexity and extent of the mechanism to a degree that would not be commensurate with the advantages, where the main object of the invention is to translate into numerical language general formulæ of analysis already known to us, or whose laws of formation are known to us. But it would be a mistake to suppose that because its results are given in the notation of a more restricted science, its processes are therefore restricted to those of that science.
What Lovelace appears to be referring to is the type of machines we all have today. Underneath the hood only numbers abound, but numbers can be used to represent almost anything and computation on numbers gives us word processors, streaming video, MP3 players and more.

Calling Lovelace the first programmer has always seemed a bit silly because surely Babbage would have written some programs for his machine. But recognizing her for "Lovelace's Leap" seems far more realistic.

Why be the first programmer when you could be the prophet of the information age?

I can't stand 'chuggers'

In the UK there's a form of fundraising for charities that places people on busy streets and has them approach people asking for money. These people are called 'chuggers' (a contraction of charity and mugger). There's an association called the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association that regulates these folks.

On their web site they have a section called Do you object to chuggers? with a collection of questions and answers. I find one particularly galling because it gets at the heart of the matter in precisely the annoying and slightly aggressive manner in which chuggers operate.

It's People have a right to walk down the street without being asked to give to charity.

It begins:
Sorry if we sound a bit blunt, but, do they, actually? We frequently hear versions of this argument, with people saying they have a right to go about their daily business without being approached by a ‘chugger’.

We don’t want to come across as being flippant and dismissive, but we really think the basis of this whole argument requires closer examination. Where does this ‘right’ come from?
See, there's the sort of pushy handling you'd expect from an organization that encourages people to bother people in the middle of the street while they are going about their private business.

Here's the core of the argument:
It’s a free country and people have a right go about their business. However, no-one suggests that people have a right to walk down their high street without being approached by a paper vendor, a Big Issue seller, a market researcher or even a charity cash collector, because these people also have a right to go about their business. So why is there are perceived right not to be asked to give to charity by an F2F fundraiser?
OK, so let's break those down.

Charity cash collectors (and here I'm thinking of the people who sell poppies for Remembrance, the Salvation Army with their buckets, and people who stand around collecting for Children in Need) do not, in my experience, call out to people in the street, stand in the way of the flow of people, or directly approach and ask people to stop and talk to them. They do stand around and shake their buckets of coins, or sing, or otherwise attract attention to themselves in a manner that is easily ignored. This is also true of people who sell The Big Issue. They tend to stand around and call out that they have The Big Issue. Comparing chuggers and these two groups is disrespectful of the way in which charity cash collectors and Big Issue sellers operate.

I work in central London and so I see paper vendors and free sheet distributors everyday. They do not call out to people and ask them to stop. They are either standing calling out that they have a paper, or are holding out copies for people to take. Not at all the same thing as a chugger standing in the middle of the High St. asking people to stop.

The one group that is close to the chugger is the market researcher and if they were anything like as prevalent as chuggers then I'd object to them also.

Lastly, whether they have the 'right' to do it or not doesn't mean that I shouldn't also have the right to object to being stopped and bothered in this manner.

After reading all the questions and answers the web site asks Do you still object to chuggers? and finishes with:
You might not like being asked to give by a ‘chugger’. But at least 600,000 people a year have no objection at all.
I'm going to assume that they mean 600,000 people gave to chuggers in a year. That's not the same as no objection at all. They might well have been upset about being approached but feel unable to refuse.

Let's get real about chuggers. They're a pain, and whether there's a 'right' to behave in that manner or not I'd be happy to see them off our streets. The only reason they get away with their presence and behaviour is that they are asking people to give to good causes.

Now imagine a situation where some other group was allowed to harrass people in this manner. Can you imagine it being OK for a political party to stop people continuously to talk about its policies? How about a particular church that wants you to hear its message? What about a major corporation that wants to tell you about its products?

"Hey, how you doing? Do you have a minute of your time so that I can tell you about the new Apple iPhone 5?"

That wouldn't be acceptable.

But the real reason I dislike chuggers is that they interrupt me, and when I am walking down the street alone I am thinking. The noises of the street and pavement are background and I am able to allow my mind to wander. The chuggers break that by addressing me directly, or by forcing me to realize they are there and avoid them.

So, the chugger cost to me is intellectual.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tufte Kitten Kill Count

A little blog I've been working on launched today. It's called Tufte Kitten Kill Count and it's for everyone who dislikes PowerPoint.

It's a sort of Fail Blog dedicated to the sort of atrocious slideware that employees around the world are forced to endure in company meetings, at tradeshows, and pretty much everywhere.

If you've come across awful PowerPoint please send it to me for possible inclusion and I'll award your slide one to five dead kittens.

And remember, friends, every time you make a PowerPoint Edward Tufte kills a kitten.

Plan 28: Analytical Engine project gets underway

Exactly one year ago today on this blog I proposed that Charles Babbage's unbuilt Analytical Engine (the first real computer) should be built and be built in Britain. Over the last year I have been working with Doron Swade (who was responsible for the construction of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2) to put in place a project to actually build the Analytical Engine. The project is known as Plan 28.

This has required building relationships with a number of bodies. I recently announced that the project had been accepted into the portfolio of projects handled by the Computer Conservation Society. They will provide expert advice as needed.

The other vital body to work with is The Science Museum in London. Doron and I have been working with The Science Museum team at many levels to ensure that the project is known about and that we would be able to get access to Babbage's plans and notebooks to perform the vital academic study of the Analytical Engine as Babbage imagined it. The first step to doing that research was to digitize the entire Babbage archive. Digitization greatly facilitates research as these precious documents can be viewed conveniently from around the world.

I am pleased to be able to say that The Science Museum agreed that digitization was vital and undertook this project. The work on digitization started on Monday, September 12 and early in October Doron and I will have access to the digitized versions of Babbage's plans and notebooks for study. This great first step on Plan 28 is, finally, underway. We are very, very grateful to The Science Museum and all we have worked with there for their support and for having undertaken this vital work that will benefit not only Plan 28 but all those who wish to study Charles Babbage's work wherever they are.

In the initial stages, The Science Museum is making the digitizations available directly to Doron and me for study. Subsequently, in 2012, they will be made available publicly for research purposes and they will make their own announcement of full public availability. Today, The Science Museum doesn't have the resources to immediately make them available to the general public; I know there are many readers who would love to access these documents across the web but the museum needs just a little more time before they can cope with a flood of enquiries. Babbage's writings have waited over a century, just a little more patience is needed before they are generally available. Babbage's technical archive was bequeathed to his son, Henry Prevost, who donated it to The Science Museum. It is a tribute to generations of Science Museum archivists and curators that the archive is intact, listed and physically accessible.

It's hard for me to express what it means for Plan 28 and for the world at large that the museum has taken this step and is digitizing the Babbage archive. Notebooks, letters, and plans that have been carefully preserved by the museum will see the light of day using technology that Babbage caught just a glimpse of when thinking up the Analytical Engine.

I will post another update shortly on progress in registering "Plan 28" as a charity in the UK and let people know when they will be able to make donations.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Netflix and the innovator's dilemma

This morning comes the news that Netflix' DVD rental business is to be called Qwikster and that Netflix itself will continue on as the streaming company only.

There's much hand wringing going on, but it seems to me that what's taking place is recognition of a classic innovator's dilemma. Netflix' DVD business was being disrupted by something new, "worse", and rapidly growing: streaming.

In the innovator's dilemma theory, companies have difficulty making good use of their innovations because they are locked into a 'value chain' that is optimized for their existing business. At the same time the new business may be targeting a different market segment which they are ill equipped to handle or the new innovation may be 'worse' (i.e. it's performance may appear to not be as good as the existing products; the classic example is smaller, but lower capacity, disk drives).

Netflix' streaming offering is 'worse' than it's DVD service because of selection. The company has a much smaller catalog of available titles and thus streaming, while providing immediacy, has trouble competing with DVD rentals. But streaming is destined to grow quickly.

Secondly, Netflix' value chain around DVD rentals is optimized for two things: the physical handling of DVDs and the contracts with Hollywood. It's not obvious that the contracts for physical DVD rental are going to be anything like those for streaming. Thus the streaming business has a totally different value chain from DVD rental.

If the two companies were one then there would be a problem of allocating revenue to different parts of the business. Does the DVD rental business get most of your subscription because it's larger? Or does the streaming business because it's going to grow quickly and needs the investment?

So, to me, the splitting of the company into two parts makes total sense. Totally different companies with different value chains can be built up, and, one day, one may buy the other.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"14-year-olds to learn computer programming, Science Minister reveals"

That's the headline of this story which reveals a pilot program in secondary schools run with the assistance of IBM, Google, Capgemini, Microsoft and Cisco to get 14 year olds programming.

At the end of the article there's a short bit with your truly saying that kids should start way earlier than that:
John Graham-Cumming, a programmer who is campaigning for coding to be taught to primary school children, welcomed the pilot. “Children first need to learn to be literate, then they need to learn to be numerate and finally they need to learn to be ‘algorithm-ate’,” he said.

However, he added that ideally children would be introduced to computer programming at the age of 9 or 10. “We know that the core ideas can be learnt by little kids. If you taught reading really late people would form the view that it’s really hard and it’s the same for programming. If you don’t show children what it is they’ll develop the view that it’s hard, or even worse, dull by the time they’ve reached GCSE,” said Dr Graham-Cumming.

He said IT and programming were different skills. “IT is such a dull-sounding subject that conjures up helping someone out because their printer doesn’t work. It’s terrible that in the public’s mind programming is the same thing, because actually it’s like painting or writing in that it’s creating something new. Microsoft, Apple and Facebook were all started by people who knew how to programme.”
And, had I known about the company involvement, I'd be also wondering aloud why we are relying on American firms to help educate our children when we have perfectly good software companies in the UK.

Campaigning is rather a strong word for what I'm doing, but I am supporting this initiative.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dawkins' Stupid People

In a recent Newsnight interview Richard Dawkins had the following exchange with the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman:
Paxman: Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?

Dawkins: I do actually, yes. I really do. I mean, I care that children are being misled by those stupid people.
This is where I have a really hard time with Dawkins. Instead of replying that those people aren't 'stupid', but simply 'misguided' he went with the 'stupid' moniker. Unfortunately, in The God Delusion Dawkins makes the point that religion is inherited from parents. Thus most people who are religious got that way because their parents taught them about religion. This doesn't make them stupid. You might say incorrect, or indoctrinated, you might even say dangerous, but that doesn't make them stupid.

Stupid is a really strong word. I know a talented programmer called Jonathan Zdziarski who is clearly not stupid (I met him through the anti-spam world) but who holds strong beliefs about Christianity including the creation story. I find those beliefs difficult to reconcile with evidence in the world, but he doesn't.

I've also met many other religious people in the computer industry. Just recently I reviewed a technical book which began with the author thanking Jesus for inspiration and his very existence. Difficult for me to understand, but the book was good and the author clearly not stupid.

Historically, many scientists have been religious. The most striking example is Michael Faraday. Clearly, not a stupid man.

Calling people stupid doesn't help progress an argument, it just makes the person that uses the word look pompous and overbearing. It just sounds like school playground level name calling.

Dawkins should have retorted that he didn't think 'those people' are 'stupid' and qualified his thinking. But I suspect that he actually does think they are stupid and it's that judgemental tone that annoys me most whenever I accidentally hear him speak.

PS Silly me, I had forgotten to add Donald Knuth to my list of examples.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Pie Chart Challenge

I contend that the pie chart should never be used. I've blogged about this before and I think the main contender for a replacement is the sausage. But there are still doubters :-) (Not everyone agrees)

The main problems with pie charts are:

1. It is difficult for humans to compare areas. So the area of the pie slices is hard to compare.

2. It is difficult for humans to compare angles. So the angle of the pie slices is similarly hard to compare.

3. Humans are much better at comparing lengths.

Amusingly, 1 and 2 above were exploited by Steve Jobs in a presentation:

On Hacker News yesterday I was challenged thusly:
Re: the claim that groups of pie charts are especially awful, I have a counterexample. How would you express this more clearly without a series of pie charts?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Support_For_Direct_Popular_Vote.png
The charts in question look like this:

I responded with:

Which I contend is better because: it's easy to make a visual comparison between support across the different parties, and it's easy to see which parties are closest to the 50% majority threshold (or even the 66% super-majority threshold).

And, so, I give you the Pie Chart Challenge. If you truly believe that a pie chart is best then send me the chart (and its underlying data) and I will attempt to recraft it as a different, more descriptive and easier to comprehend, chart of my choosing.

If I fail (i.e. I believe that the sent pie chart is the best way to show the data), then I'll... eat humble pie.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Three Slide Rule

Back in 2003, I was one of the people who spoke at the first MIT Spam Conference. One of the other speakers was Paul Graham. At the time I didn't really know who he was, other than the fact that he had written A Plan for Spam which used similar techniques to my own POPFile email processor. But I only remember two talks from the conference: Paul Graham's and another by Matthew Prince.

The striking thing about these two presentations was that they didn't (or hardly) used any slides at all. Paul Graham simply stood there and read the text from Better Bayesian Filtering and Matthew Prince used extremely simple slides that mostly had headlines on them; at one point he showed a graph illustrating the ineffectiveness of anti-spam laws. It's interesting that I remember both these talks because I'm convinced that the lack of slides made my brain work in a different manner that enabled me to absorb what was being said.

The other great thing about that conference was that presentations were limited to 20 minutes including questions and that rule was rigorously enforced. Some presenters did their best to flash up as many fact filled slides as possible, but Graham and Prince did something different: they used their time well. Graham and Prince made me concentrate on their words and themselves; I remember both.

Looking back at my own presentations I see how I've used PowerPoint to ill effect over and again. I've come to loath PowerPoint (and any other presentation software) more than pie charts because I've seen it abused (and it typically is abused) over and again (in the past I ranted that It's as if Charlie and Lola is the high point of our education).

Here's why:

1. People jump to use PowerPoint before they think. I've seen many a presenter start by typing ideas (half-formed and ill-informed) into PowerPoint and then 'crafting' (yes, that's the word they use) to form a story. This doesn't work. If you want to make a good presentation you need, above all, to step away from PowerPoint and think about what you are going to say. You might, then, be tempted to use presentation software to get that message across, but you don't have to.

2. People use slides as a measure of success. I've seen presentations outlined in PowerPoint and then filled in. The measure of a good presentation turns out to be the completeness of the slides and the number of slides, not the content itself. I've seen people be content with a slide when its content was poor because it was necessary to have a slide on a particular topic.

3. People focus on pictures and not words. Sometimes pictures are great, Matthew Prince's graph showing that anti-spam laws were inversely correlated with spam volume was impactful because it was about the only slide he used, but mostly pictures are a distraction.

If I were CEO of a company I'd enforce a three slide rule. If you are going to make a presentation you are allowed three slides (any more needs CEO approval) and so you need to spend your time thinking about what goes onto those slides.

Above all, what presenters need to do is write. The folks at 37 Signals make a point to hire good writers. If you write your presentation first, as prose, you'll then be able to clearly see what needs illustrating. If you start illustrating then everything will look like the same presentation you've seen a thousand times.

If you hear someone say "I'll put some slides together", the correct response is "No, write a text document that says what you want to say". Only once you know precisely what you want to say should you illustrate it. Otherwise, it's like writing the introduction to a book before you've written the book.

The Disconnected Bedroom

A long time ago I banished most electronics from my bedroom as a way of getting a good night's sleep. There's no TV there (what started out as no TV in the bedroom ended up as no TV at all), there are no computers and no cell phones. There is a hard telephone line that only a very few people know the number for (the sort of people who would hide me) and if it rings I want to be woken up.

The dearth of pixels also means a dearth of backlit screens and the disruption caused by their light that confuses the body into thinking it's day time. The lack of connected devices also means that I'm not tempted to just check my email one more time (or check it in the middle of the night) and since my phone has a calendar and other functionality in it there are all sorts of alerts that could wake me up. The phone is sent away to another room for the night to recharge in silent mode. There's no computer so that I don't work in the same place I sleep and therefore delay going to bed.

But there is one recent electronic device: my Amazon Kindle.

The Kindle makes the grade for three reasons: it won't ever alert me to anything (and the day Amazon adds some sort of alerting that I can't reliably disable it gets banished also), it is not backlit (I can read it in bed just as I would a book and as my eyes start to droop there's no bright light to keep me awake) and there's no colour (the lack of bright colour prevents reading from being an exciting experience that might keep me awake: any excitement has to come from the words).

I wake up using an alarm clock that is electronic but it has just one function: waking me up.

I would allow my cell phone back into the bedroom (to use it as a clock and alarm clock) if, alongside "airplane mode", it had "bedroom mode".

Bedroom Mode would disable all data connectivity and dropping out of Bedroom Mode would require me to wait 10 minutes (a sort of time lock that prevents me from checking my mail or Twitter in the middle of the night). Bedroom Mode would also completely silence the phone (no alerts, no vibration, no waking up the screen when an SMS arrives). And finally Bedroom Mode would allow a small number of selected phone numbers to get through to me in an emergency.

Anyone want to write a Bedroom Mode app for Android (I doubt it's possible on iPhone because of restrictions on what an app can do)? I might even switch phones for that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Teach our kids to code

There's a very worthy petition entitled Teach our kids to code on the DirectGov web site. It's asking that children be taught to program starting in Year 5 (that's children roughly 9 or 10 years old). I fully support that idea because I think that 'programming thinking' is an important skill that needs to be taught. Children first need to learn to be literate, then they need to learn to be numerate and finally they need to learn to be 'algorithmate' (yes, I just made that word up).

It's obvious to most people that illiteracy and innumeracy are problems to be tackled at school, but it's not obvious that we are now living in a world where logical and algorithmic thinking are very, very important.

Recently, Eric Schmidt (one-time CEO of Google) criticized Britain for throwing away our great computing heritage:
Schmidt said the country that invented the computer was "throwing away your great computer heritage" by failing to teach programming in schools. "I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn't even taught as standard in UK schools," he said. "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made."
We really do need to teach children logical thinking (since such logic underlies programming) and algorithmic thinking (the breaking down into a finite sequence of steps the solution to a problem). What we don't need is to teach a specific language. Any language will do.

Back in the 1980s Britain made great strides (and inspired a generation of programmers, of which I am one), with the BBC Computer Literacy Project project. This project wasn't about using Word or a web browser (the current focus of IT in schooling), but about how computers work, and how to make them do what you want. Making computers do what you want is fundamental and goes beyond just programming (for example, creating a Smart List of songs in iTunes requires the sort of boolean logic thinking that children could easily be taught).

Recently, there's a volunteer project called Raspberry Pi that has echoes of the BBC Micro project without any government backing. And schools could be teaching LOGO or Scratch or using Processing. And if the school can't afford even the cheapest computers, get kids programming on paper. That's how I started.

The current government is promoting an area in East London as East London Tech City: a hub for startups based around an area that has recently seen many small hitech firms choose to locate there. As part of the initiative the government has laid out plans to help start ups through changes in IP law and visas. One additional thing the government can do is ensure that there's a supply of 'algorithmate' people who can actually start and run these companies in years to come.

The petition itself is marred by a rather confused statement of its aims which seem to cover teaching children to code and doing something about the gender gap in IT. Nevertheless, I think it's important to sign it if you are British. We can't go on allowing our children to see themselves as users and not programmers.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Speed cameras: thin end of the surveillance society wedge

I hate speed cameras. I hate them because I never speed and thus if I were to get caught (I did once get caught in France) it will be because I am unintentionally speeding. The problem is that while speed cameras may deter habitual speeders and reduce accidents they have a terrible effect on people like me. I have gone from careful about my speed to obsessed.

The other problem is that speed cameras are a thin end of a dangerous wedge into a world of always on surveillance where minor transgressions are not overlooked. You may not be able to trust a special like an old time copper, but you can certainly trust a speed camera to nab you if your for a moment transgress while its beady eye is trained upon you.

If what we want is to prevent speeding we should have GPS enforced speed limiters in cars that would prevent dangerous speed. That would have the desired effect without surveillance and without any need for me to worry about my speed.

Of course, people will object to that one some sort of bogus freedom grounds that their car is being limited. All the while they'll accept the creeping privacy invasion that speed cameras represent.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A legal opinion on Paul Graham's Patent Pledge

I asked a real patent attorney in Silicon Valley for a legal opinion on the Patent Pledge. Specifically, I wanted to know if a company that signed up for the pledge would be harming itself in the future when it came to defending or prosecuting its patents. Here's the response.
Further to my email below, you asked about the “Patent Pledge” statement, and whether it would weaken their patent position. My short answer is “No.”
 
Under U.S. law, such a statement on its own (not part of a legally binding contract) would be primarily a public relations endeavor. It would not be binding on the entity making the statement, and the entity would be free to change its position at any time and assert patents as it sees fit. The statement also would have no legal effect on the enforceability and validity of the patents the entity owns. Also, the statement would have no effect on the entity’s ability to aggressively file patent applications.
 
I think there is definitely “bad” behavior by patent trolls, but it gets murky. What constitutes a troll? By way of example, what if company X had done the R&D, been the first to conceive and file a patent application on the idea, announce it at a technical conference, but then decide to not implement the patented feature in its current business model? Does X become a “troll” at that point? Should anyone be allowed to use the idea without paying X royalties, when they are directly copying X’s ideas? Maybe that is not what the author intended, but it is an effect of a rule like the author proposes. I think such a law would need to have a lot of conditions and exceptions, and it would be difficult to word-smith since it attempts to regulate patents more in terms of moral behavior, which is subjective in the eyes of the beholder.