Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some stories about Alan Turing

So, here are a few Turing stories of my own. The first from Robin Gandy, who supervised by DPhil, and who, in turn, was Turing's PhD student. Robin had a wealth of stories about Turing, many of which made their way into Andrew Hodges' book – Hodges was a postgrad in Oxford with Penrose around the beginning of the 80s. Perhaps most poignant [quoting from Mike Yates' obituary of Robin]  was when asked about Turing's motives if he really did commit suicide, Gandy would become quite heated: “Some things are too deep and private and should not be pried into.” Sara Turing, Alan's mother, certainly always maintained that his death was an accident.

Her biography of Alan was republished in the centenary year by Cambridge University Press, and that also has only remembered stories of his youth and adulthood. The most striking thing for me was the postscript written by his brother John, on their upbringing, which was not untypical for the English upper middle classes in the early years of the century. Two quotes
  • When Alan was two “rightly or wrongly, [my father] decided that he and my mother should return alone to India, leaving both children with foster parents in England” … “it was certainly a shock for me, even at the age of five” but “it was accepted procedure” (and he goes on to compare it with Kipling's horrendous experience, noting that at least they “escaped” that).
  • The real bombshell, though, is schooling. John says, without an ounce of irony or indeed anger “I take credit for persuading my parents to send [Alan] to Sherborne instead of Marlborough, which all but crushed me and would certainly have crushed him”.
A final anecdote. In our previous house, a near neighbour was a retired canon from Canterbury Cathedral, Donald Eperson, who wrote puzzles for the Mathematical Gazette, and who had been a schoolteacher before being ordained. Not any teacher, though, he's taught Alan at Sherborne, and indeed is mentioned in the Hodges biography. He remembered Alan, and I lent him the book – unfortunately, references to his naiveté rather upset him, and I was sorry for unsettling him. 

It's certainly a great thing that Turing has become almost a household name, and that his memory has been rescued for generations to come as one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century. It's also a great thing that he was pardoned for his conviction for being gay … but surely something that should apply to everyone who was treated so shamefully?


Gandy obituary

Sara Turing bio of Alan

Memoir of Donald Eperson (look for "Music and Mathematics")

The Imitation Game – telling a good story about Alan Turing

So, what to make of The Imitation Game, the film based on the life of Alan Turing?

Well, first of all it tells a good story. Some of the key messages about codebreaking are there:

  • Knowing something about the content – particularly stylised beginnings or endings – make it easier to break the code.  
  • The paradox of the codebreaker: you can't betray that by changing your behaviour too much, or the coders will change their setup … something card players surely recognise.
  • The Bletchley crowd were a mixed bunch: classicists rubbed shoulders with mathematicians and debs.
But it's clearly telling a story in the sense of lying too, and that's a frustration. Maybe it must to move the plot along, but some of the changes seem wilful and so out of character:
  • Part of the extraordinary nature of Bletchley was its scale: in the film it's shrunk to something like a "Famous Five" adventure: Turing and his small crew have the idea for the machine, build it (no Tommy Flowers), and then take the decision about not being able to reveal that the code has been cracked; that just doesn't make historical sense, but I guess keeps the plot moving;
  • An anecdote about the scale of the place: a couple who were in the forces during WW2 were recently visiting Bletchley, and half way round the husband confesses to his wife that he'd worked there during the war – because of the secrecy surrounding the whole operation, he'd been sworn to secrecy – only for her to admit to working there too; perfectly possible
  • More egregious is the sub-plot about Cairncross, and suggesting that Turing had in some way colluded with him – no historical evidence for this at all.
  • Worst of all, I think, was the conceit of Turing's "home computer" Christopher. No evidence for  that at all.
So, it's a good story, well acted and put together, but it tells too many stories to be completely satisfactory. Check out the biography by Andrew Hodges for a comprehensive and erudite view of Turing's life.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Advice on going to your first conference

I was asked for advice from someone going to his first conference … in this case CodeMesh in London. Here are my thoughts … any comments or other advice?

Strategy … what are you aiming to find out from the conference: some very general impressions about what is going on with functional innovation, something focussed on a particular language or languages, or on particular technologies? Depending on this is …

Plan … CodeMesh has 4 parallel tracks (a real hassle) but it's well worth making sure that you have a plan for what you most want to hear, reflecting your strategy. You should be able to move between individual talks, but that can sometimes be tricky because of synchronisation between different rooms, as well as the distances between rooms. If that's tricky, then you can always change at session breaks.

Another way of choosing is to go to the talk that you know least about. If you go to the one you know most about, that talk will probably spend 80% or more of its time telling you things that you already know. Of course, it needs to be one you're interested in …

Networking … a lot of what happens during the conference is outside the sessions, so do make sure that you make the most of the coffee / tea / meal breaks, and the evening sessions. Speakers are always happy to chat, so you can engage with them outside sessions, or follow up from any questions you ask in a session (scary, but a way of getting noticed). You can always email speakers, introducing yourself, and ask a question, if you do not feel comfortable asking a question after a talk.

Find an introducer, and have them introduce you to some people. If you are going with your PhD supervisor or another colleague or friend who has been there before, they should do the introductions.

Presenting your ideas … you're going to meet people who'll ask what you're working on and you want to interest them and move the conversation along, not stumble over how to explain what you're doing. So, have a 30 second elevator pitch ready.

Talk … OK, you may not feel ready for this, but if you had something specific and interesting to say you can often give a 5 minute "lightning talk" at meetings like CodeMesh. That get you and your work noticed, and people are usually very generous in listening and supporting speakers with less experience.

Learn … if you can get to the tutorials then you can learn a whole lot at these. There are some excellent tutorialists at CodeMesh this year.

Social Media … increasingly there is a whole virtual side to conferences, so track the twitter feed and other online stuff, and contribute yourself too.

Branch out … if you're there with your buddies, don't just stick with them, but aim to meet new people too, particularly at any of the conference social events. Even a casual conversation a couple of times over a couple of conferences lays a foundation for a deeper professional relationship, especially with peers.

Refreshments … there's always free (well, paid for in the registration price) coffee/tea etc. at the breaks and lunch in the middle of the day, but at quite a lot of conferences there's breakfast too, so it's worth getting along in time for that.

Afterwards you can follow up with people you have met by email or social media. You can also catch up on presentations which you missed by watching the video if the conference talks are recorded. Personally, I find that despite my best intentions, it's very unusual for me to find the time to do this.

Particularly for big conferences, it's best to pick and chose which talks to attend rather than sitting in on everything, otherwise you'll get burned out in the first couple of days. “I'd also advise listening to the speakers rather than sitting on your laptop/phone - personally I'd ban such devices from talks!” Also, keep away from alpha male superstars and their groupies … focus on the people who give presentations that fire you with enthusiasm, and those that take your presentation seriously.

Finally, have fun soaking up all the new ideas and meeting all the interesting people behind them.

Updates … thanks to Scott Fritchie, Andy Gill, Kathy Gray, Graham Hutton, Stefan Kahrs, Greg Michaelson, Neil Mitchell and Gem Stapleton for their comments and suggestions.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Reading Robert Macfarlane by the internet

There's an old fashioned pleasure to reading on a wet August afternoon. Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways takes you – in imagination – out into the wilder (or indeed not so wild) parts of Britain. What increases the pleasure and depth of the experience is reading with the internet by your side. With the internet we get so much further …

First, the maps – Ordnance Survey if you have paid for them, or Google maps if not. Walking along the Broomway in (or rather off) Essex takes you to that footpath along the sands, right next to the "DANGER AREA" signs. In the Hebrides, we can find the islands on Google maps – and satellite view - unnamed, but unmistakable from his descriptions. And then to wikipedia to see what gannets look like and read about the peculiar anatomy that sustains their deep dives into  the ocean, making the story of the gannet that pierced the hull of the boat but kept it plugged entirely believable.

And then onto Harris itself. Trying to negotiate the walk he makes – again we have topography and named lakes, but no hill names – but hills cast shadows on the satellite picture, and photographs culled from somewhere (even street view was here) show the picture from the ground. Then we can look at Steve Dilworth's art and read about what Iain Sinclair says about him.


Cloud Refactoring

A draft review of “Cloud refactoring: automated transitioning to cloud-based services” by Young-Woo Kwon and Eli Tilevich, from Automated Software Engineering, (2014) 21:345–372, DOI 10.1007/s10515-013-0136-9; to appear in Computing Reviews.

Refactoring is the process of changing how a program works without changing what it does, but even before the term was coined, it was practised by programmers as "program restructuring" from the early 1950s. Refactoring itself came to prominence with work by Opdyke, Griswold and Johnson in the early 1990s and was popularised by Fowler's 1999 book. Refactoring is done to improve code for a range of reasons: to make it conform to coding standards, to make it easier to read, or to prepare the code for modification or enhancement.

Whatever the case, refactorings of large code bases can be infeasible without automated – or semi-automated – tools, and many IDEs incorporate refactorings for a variety of languages, although it is perhaps most developed in the IDEs for the Java language, including IntelliJ and Eclipse. Refactoring "in the small" is the preserve of the developer, and may be done as a part of his or her day to day development process; larger-scale refactoring is often anticipated, but perhaps harder to justify as part of an aggressive release cycle, unless, of course, there is some concrete gain to be made. What better example could there be of this than migrating an existing system to the cloud?

Taking a system and moving it to the cloud must be the right thing to do: it provides scalability, resilience, and also fits the zeitgeist. However, as the authors make very clear, it is not without difficulties. It is important to preserve functionality – the system should not change what it does – but also it should maintain non-functional properties like efficiency (e.g. latency and throughput) and questions of resilience are more acute in a distributed/cloud setting. In common with many other refactoring tool builders, the authors propose a two-pronged approach to the problem: first, they give an analysis to provide recommendations of how systems might be refactored and then they develop a tool to implement the refactorings identified. Their first phase combines static clustering analysis with runtime profiling to identify potential services which can be migrated, and their second implements refactorings that make this change, through introducing the appropriate interfaces and proxies and at the same time adding fault-handling facilities to deal with the additional risks introduced by moving to a more distributed application platform.

These refactorings are included in Eclipse and available through its standard refactoring workflow, and the work is demonstrated through two small examples and a larger case study performed for GE Research. One of the key questions faced by designers of a cloud refactoring tool and their users alike is how much of the refactoring workflow should be automated. In discussing a number of examples the authors say that "we selected appropriate classes for the reason of the performance, call-by-reference, and meaning of features", thus making clear the role for the domain-aware engineer in the process. It would have been interesting to have heard more about the view of the developers of the software about the results of the analysis: were the services identified meaningful to them? would they have structured things somewhat differently from the analyses of the tool?

In summary, this paper makes a clear and well-described contribution to what is a fast moving field: Google Scholar, for example, gives over 1000 references matching the keywords "cloud" and "refactor", and this number can only be set to grow as migrating cloud proves to be more of a challenge than its advocates suggest.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

In honour of Robert Wyatt

Picture the scene … you're having an evening in the pub, with the usual music in the background: guitars, 4-4 bass beat, when suddenly it changes: it's a song with more complicated rhythms and  dissonant notes. What is more, it's sung in a lugubrious style by someone who sounds like a real person, rather than an identikit American drawl. The singer is Robert Wyatt, our honorary graduand today, and picking music to catch your attention like this has come to be called "Wyatting" in his honour.

Canterbury is know historically for the cathedral, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but for those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, it was also the home of the Cantebury scene – musicians whose careers started out in the city in the late 60s. The scene may have been no more that a group of boys whose families had eclectic record collections … record collections that included 20C classical – Hindemith but “nothing German … not long after the war” – and jazz – Max Roach and John Coltrane, perhaps – but those boys went on – jointly and separately – to be a key part of the creative explosion that was the 1960s, and Robert was there at its centre.

Right from the start, Robert was one of a very select group – others are Justin Bieber, Dave Clark, Karen Carpenter, Levon Helm and Ringo Starr – of singing drummers. As he tells it, drumming was something you could do while listening to a Max Roach record, and what's more you could get started by drumming with rolled up newspapers. You could also sing along, too, and teach yourself to be a musician. All of this meant that at school – the Simon Langton Boys School, here in Canterbury – Robert was rather left behind, and instead he became one of the Wilde Flowers, who played in Canterbury and further afield for a couple of years. That is “Wilde” with an “e”, in honour of Oscar – an example of the wordplay that “lets words collide” running through all Robert’s work.

In 1966 Robert helped to form Soft Machine, with David Allen (from Herne Bay, and introduced to Roger as “someone else who has grown their hair long”), Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge. Soft Machine never managed to break through to the rock or pop mainstream, but were hugely influential, first for their gentle English surrealism, and later for their cool, stripped down, fusion jazz rock. They cut their teeth – and sharpened up their act – playing support to Jimi Hendrix in a long 1968 tour of the USA. Robert observes: when you're in front of 5,000 young Texans waiting to hear Hendrix, you don't mess about; … it also helps if you don't have a guitarist in the band! This tour brought them American success, which was mirrored on the continent, where their jazz style found a sympathetic ear. In the UK, they became the first rock group to play at the Proms.

Soft Machine broke up, reformed to make their landmark ”Third” album 2LPs with four side-long pieces. and finally Robert left them for good. He formed a larger group – Matching Mole – a bilingual pun on “machine molle” / soft machine (groan!) but not long after that in an accidental fall from a window in 1973 he received injuries that have meant that he now uses a wheelchair. This took him – in his words – into just another way to be, and it meant that he had time to slow down and think about how to sing. His first record after that – Rock Bottom – sets the pattern for his work since: slow songs, striking tunes and rhythms, usually based on keyboard melodies. A reworking of the Neil Diamond song I'm a Believer – first sung by the Monkees – gave him his first hit, but that is only one side of his work: he's a great musical collaborator, and played with a huge range of people through the 1970s and 80s, from free jazzers like Carla Bley to avant gardists and more traditional rock stars, often with a political message. His most remembered song from that time is his version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding: an elegiac meditation on the Falklands War and its effect on the parts of the county that had been hit hardest by the Thatcher government's policies.

Looking back over Robert's musical career – which started at around the same time as the University of Kent, and shares its 50th anniversary – it is hard to think of more than a handful of musicians who have been able to keep their music as vital and original as it was when they began. His recent work has seen collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet - also honorary Kent graduates - Brian Eno and a re-recording of a set of songs by the electronica group Hot Chip. 

Recognition for his work has come in many forms: he has been a guest editor of Radio 4's Today programme, he is an honorary doctor of the university of Liège, and he is a petit fils ubu from the collège de pataphisique. Locally, he is celebrated in a life-size stencil by the street artist Stewey in Canterbury's Dover Street, on the site of the Beehive club where he played at the start of his career. 

In its turn, the University of Kent would like to record its appreciation of Robert's work. For his musical achievements and influence over the last fifty years, most honourable deputy vice-chancellor, to you and to the whole university I present Robert Wyatt to be admitted to the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

[Text of the oration for Robert Wyatt's honorary degree award, Canterbury, 18-7-14].

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fifteen facts about EPSRC

Thanks very much to Alex Hulkes for his visit and presentation about EPSRC in general and their ICT programmes in particular. Here are fifteen things that I learned.
  1. EPSRC has about £2.5bn worth of live projects at any time.
  2. “We have to do applied research …” because it is part of EPSRC's Royal Charter.
  3. Terminology: EPSRC has two kinds of theme: “capabilities” correspond to specific research areas, while “challenges” are cross-cutting themes like energy or global uncertainty.
  4. Terminology (2): for EPSRC “interdisciplinary” means belonging to more than one of their research areas.
  5. 75% of PGR funding is DTP plus CASE, and so not subject to particular shaping or direction.
  6. Pathways to impact: either say how you will achieve impact, or say that it doesn’t make sense for your research to have impact (at this point). 
  7. It’s good if you can say how your research project fits in with what EPSRC are currently funding, as long as it’s not a straight duplication of work that’s already funded.
  8. Developing leaders (fellowships): while it’s important to have a good research project, that’s a necessary rather than a sufficient condition: you need to be able to convince that you are a research leader.
  9. These schemes are less popular than earlier fellowships schemes, perhaps because of the difficulty of getting evidence of leadership potential down on paper.
  10. In ICT, EPSRC wants to keep developing and encouraging new research areas. It also wants greater collaboration with other areas
  11. It’s also keen to get ambitious proposals: of the funding for responsive – rather than directed – research, some 50% of the cash is in longer/larger grants.
  12. Proposals will get at least 3 reviews for panel.
  13. There's no correlation between the number of reviewers and the success/failure of the proposal.
  14. The PI response is important: the factual response has an effect when (and only when!) you can provide evidence that shows that an objection doesn't hold.
  15. Success rates (at least for ICT) are constant across areas set to grow/stay constant/ shrink. On the other hand the “grow” area has received more applications.