Illustrious company

Yesterday, I saw this quote from the blurb for Jamie Bartlett’s new book The Dark Net:

Beyond the familiar online world that most of us inhabit — a world of Google, Hotmail, Facebook and Amazon — lies a vast and often hidden network of sites, communities and cultures where freedom is pushed to its limits, and where people can be anyone, or do anything, they want. A world that is as creative and complex as it is dangerous and disturbing. A world that is much closer than you think.

The dark net is an underworld that stretches from popular social media sites to the most secretive corners of the encrypted web. It is a world that frequently appears in newspaper headlines, but one that is little understood, and rarely explored. The Dark Net is a revelatory examination of the internet today, and of its most innovative and dangerous subcultures: trolls and pornographers, drug dealers and hackers, political extremists and computer scientists, Bitcoin programmers and self-harmers, libertarians and vigilantes.

Based on extensive first-hand experience, exclusive interviews and shocking documentary evidence, The Dark Net offers a startling glimpse of human nature under the conditions of freedom and anonymity, and shines a light on an enigmatic and ever-changing world.

Computer science: an innovative and dangerous subculture indeed!

(N.B. I have not read this book)

1994 Web Flashback


Remember, this is pre-IE 1.0, viewed with (Mosaic) Netscape or Opera (well, or Lynx — see the web browser timeline).

…and it’s still alive and kicking!

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Simon Jenkins on computer science

In a polemic in The Guardian today, Simon Jenkins argues for a(nother) shake up of the UK’s education system, with less focus on STEM and computer science in particular.

This kind of misinformed ranting on the utilitarian view of STEM and why the UK should focus on being a service industry appears to be his CiF modus operandi — see a similar post from February on mathematics education. In particular, he displays a profound misunderstanding of the difference between digital skills/competencies and the rigorous academic discipline of computer science, as well as a lack of awareness of the profound changes to computing education in England from September for all pupils from age five onwards. He also doesn’t appear to be aware of the increasing demands from pretty much every industrial sector for high-value digital skills (both user and creator skills); see the recently published interim report from the UK Digital Skills Taskforce: Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World. As for the perceived high unemployment rates for computer science graduates? Well, this isn’t the full picture and is also discussed in detail in the Taskforce report.

While it is tempting to deconstruct and refute his article line by line, I will just link to an excellent response from Chris Mairs, Chief Scientists at Metaswitch Networks and Chair of the UK Forum for Computing Education.

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Generating primes in LaTeX

Inspired by a recent discussion on the wonders of \LaTeX, I started thinking about how easy it would be to generate prime numbers in \LaTeX. Well, unsurprisingly, it was presented as an example by Knuth using trial division in The TeXbook (download) in 1984:


\newif\ifprime \newif\ifunknown % boolean variables
\newcount\n \newcount\p \newcount\d \newcount\a % integer variables
\def\primes#1{2,~3% assume that #1 is at least 3
\n=#1 \advance\n by-2 % n more to go
\p=5 % odd primes starting with p
\loop\ifnum\n>0 \printifprime\advance\p by2 \repeat}
\def\printp{, % we will invoke \printp if p is prime
\ifnum\n=1 and~\fi % ‘and’ precedes the last value
\number\p \advance\n by -1 }
\def\printifprime{\testprimality \ifprime\printp\fi}
\def\testprimality{{\d=3 \global\primetrue
\loop\trialdivision \ifunknown\advance\d by2 \repeat}}
\def\trialdivision{\a=\p \divide\a by\d
\ifnum\a>\d \unknowntrue\else\unknownfalse\fi
\multiply\a by\d
\ifnum\a=\p \global\primefalse\unknownfalse\fi}


% usage
The first 100 prime numbers are:~\primes{100}


You can also do it by sieving; check out the examples in my GitHub repo.

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Today’s “University View” column in the Western Mail

This is the short article I wrote for the University View column in today’s Western Mail:

Technology is arguably the biggest lever on our lives, affecting everything from the way we communicate, do business, shop, travel, access information and are entertained. Our dependence on digital infrastructure is increasing all the time; from the demand for high-bandwidth Internet connectivity through to the devices we carry in our pockets. We truly live in a computational world, glued together by software.

But the real question is: do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? “Choose the former,” writes author Douglas Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilisation. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make”; in essence: program or be programmed.

So why do we have an seemingly antiquated perspective of technology education, primarily focusing on developing increasingly transient IT user skills, rather than equipping young people with a deeper understanding of how technology works, on how to solve problems with technology, on programming and computational thinking skills? Why are we not developing a generation of digital creators, empowered to make, break and manipulate their digital world, rather than a generation who are becoming consumers of technology?

This is a question I have been asking repeatedly over the past couple of years. Last year I co-chaired the Welsh Government’s review of the ICT curriculum, in light of significant reform across the rest of the UK. From September, there will be a new compulsory subject called Computing replacing ICT in England from aged five onwards, focusing on computer science, programming and computational thinking: “A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.” Precisely so.

We are currently in the midst of a significant review of education in Wales, asking fundamental questions about what education should achieve for young people. Alongside this we have long term policy evolving around skills, identifying the types of skills we require to create a healthy and prosperous society that is economically secure but also agile and adaptable to changing industries and sectors. While I recognise it is important that we take stock of where we are in Wales and identify the most appropriate solutions to some of our educational problems, it seems bizarre that we are delaying on what appears to be a no-brainer: making digital skills and computing education a core part of our curriculum. It is not a question of rushing into solutions, or copying other countries — this is about creating aspirations for our young people, developing future-proof skills and global competitiveness. I am baffled that we still have to justify why they should be core for all. We should turn the question around: can anyone justify why we shouldn’t make computing a core part of the curriculum?

Ultimately it comes down to what we want a future Wales to look like. Do we want to be a knowledge economy, leveraging our culture and being innovative and creative with technology? The Welsh Government have identified a number of priority sectors for economic renewal, alongside significant investment in our science and engineering research base, as well as recognising the broader societal and economic importance of e-infrastructure, connectivity and digital inclusion. All of these are predicated on having a country and citizenry with high-value digital and computational skills. It currently remains to be seen if we can deliver a digital Wales.

(N.B. text published in the print copy of the paper may differ slightly due to copy-editing)

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Department of Dirty

Ever thought the Internet was just too big? Want to help clean up online filth? Welcome to the Department of Dirty. Watch the Department stop one man try to get one over us with his ‘spotted dick’ recipe. The Department of Dirty is working with Internet and mobile companies to stop the dirty Internet. We need you to help us take a stand against blogs, charities and education websites, many of which are thankfully blocked by filters.

(more seriously, please support the work of the Open Rights Group, which exists to preserve and promote your rights in the digital age)

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Come and do a (fully-funded) PhD with me

Fancy doing a PhD with me at Cardiff Metropolitan University? I have a fully-funded studentship (for UK/EU students) starting in September, in collaboration with HP in Bristol:

Scaling Superoptimisation for Enterprise Applications

Our world is increasingly dependent on the effectiveness and performance of software. Tools and methodologies for creating useful software artefacts have been around for many years, but the scalability of these systems for solving challenging real world problems are — in many important cases — poor. While there are numerous socio-technical issues associated with developing large software systems, there is a significant opportunity to address the optimisation of software in a strategic, adaptable and platform-independent way.

Superoptimisation is an approach to optimising code by aiming for optimality from the outset, rather than as the aggregation of heuristics that are neither intended nor guaranteed to give provable optimality. Building on previous work by Crick et al., this research project will further develop the theoretical foundations of superoptimisation, as well as developing a scalable toolchain for superoptimising enterprise-level industrial software applications. This research project is a collaboration between Cardiff Metropolitan University and Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Bristol; HP is a leading technology company that operates in more than 170 countries around the world, providing infrastructure and business offerings that span from handheld devices to some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

Applicants must have an excellent first degree in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electronics or a related discipline, with interests/experience in compilers, optimisation, logic programming, satisfiability modulo theories and mathematical foundations.

For informal enquiries, send me an email: (but please apply via FindAPhD or here).

Deadline for applications: Friday 22 August.

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Paper submitted to WSSSPE2: “Can I Implement Your Algorithm?”: A Model for Reproducible Research Software

Yesterday, me, Ben Hall and Samin Ishtiaq (both Microsoft Research Cambridge) submitted a paper to WSSSPE2, the 2nd Workshop on Sustainable Software for Science: Practice and Experiences to be held in conjunction with SC14 in New Orleans in November. As per the aims of the workshop: progress in scientific research is dependent on the quality and accessibility of software at all levels and it is critical to address challenges related to the development, deployment and maintenance of reusable software as well as education around software practices.

As discussed in our paper, we feel this multitude of research software engineering problems are not just manifest in computer science, but also across the computational science and engineering domains (particularly with regards to benchmarking and availability of code). We highlight a number of recommendations to address these issues, as well as proposing a new open platform for scientific software development. You can download our arXiv pre-print; the abstract is as follows:

The reproduction and replication of novel scientific results has become a major issue for a number of disciplines. In computer science and related disciplines such as systems biology, the issues closely revolve around the ability to implement novel algorithms and approaches. Taking an approach from the literature and applying it in a new codebase frequently requires local knowledge missing from the published manuscripts and project websites. Alongside this issue, benchmarking, and the development of fair, and widely available benchmark sets present another barrier. In this paper, we outline several suggestions to address these issues, driven by specific examples from a range of scientific domains. Finally, based on these suggestions, we propose a new open platform for scientific software development which effectively isolates specific dependencies from the individual researcher and their workstation and allows faster, more powerful sharing of the results of scientific software engineering.

(see GitHub repo)

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Paper in ACM TOCE: “Restart: The Resurgence of Computer Science in UK Schools”

Further to the previous CAS papers, Neil Brown (University of Kent), Sue Sentance (formerly Anglia Ruskin University, now CAS), Simon Humphreys (CAS/BCS) and I have had a paper accepted into ACM Transactions on Computing Education: Restart: The Resurgence of Computer Science in UK Schools, part of a Special Issue on Computing Education in (K-12) Schools.

The paper will soon be available to download for free via the ACM Author-ize service (or you can download our pre-print); the abstract is as follows:

Computer science in UK schools is undergoing a remarkable transformation. While the changes are not consistent across each of the four devolved nations of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), there are developments in each that are moving the subject to become mandatory for all pupils from age 5 onwards. In this article, we detail how computer science declined in the UK, and the developments that led to its revitalisation: a mixture of industry and interest group lobbying, with a particular focus on the value of the subject to all school pupils, not just those who would study it at degree level. This rapid growth in the subject is not without issues, however: there remain significant forthcoming challenges with its delivery, especially surrounding the issue of training sufficient numbers of teachers. We describe a national network of teaching excellence which is being set up to combat this problem, and look at the other challenges that lie ahead.

(see Publications)

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Paper at HCII 2014: “Changing Faces: Identifying Complex Behavioural Profiles”

In June, my colleague Giles Oatley presented a joint paper entitled: Changing Faces: Identifying Complex Behavioural Profiles at HCII 2014, the 16th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction in Crete.

If you do not have institutional access to SpringerLink, especially the Lecture Notes in Computer Science series, you can download our pre-print. The abstract is as follows:

There has been significant interest in the identification and profiling of insider threats, attracting high-profile policy focus and strategic research funding from governments and funding bodies. Recent examples attracting worldwide attention include the cases of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and the US authorities. The challenges with profiling an individual across a range of activities is that their data footprint will legitimately vary significantly based on time and/or location. The insider threat problem is thus a specific instance of the more general problem of profiling complex behaviours. In this paper, we discuss our preliminary research models relating to profiling complex behaviours and present a set of experiments related to changing roles as viewed through large scale social network datasets, such as Twitter. We employ psycholinguistic metrics in this work, considering changing roles from the standpoint of a trait-based personality theory. We also present further representations, including an alternative psychological theory (not trait-based), and established techniques for crime modelling, spatio-temporal and graph/network, to investigate within a wider reasoning framework.

(see Publications)

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Call for Papers: Recomputability 2014

I am co-chairing Recomputability 2014, the first workshop to focus explicitly on recomputability and reproducibility in the context of utility and cloud computing and is open to all members of the cloud, big data, grid, cluster computing and open science communities. Recomputability 2014 is an affiliated workshop of the 7th IEEE/ACM International Conference on Utility and Cloud Computing (UCC 2014), to be held in London in December 2014.

Recomputability 2014 will provide an interdisciplinary forum for academic and industrial researchers, practitioners and developers to discuss challenges, ideas, policy and practical experience in reproducibility, recomputation, reusability and reliability across utility and cloud computing. It will provide an opportunity to share and showcase best practice, as well as to provide a platform to further develop policy, initiatives and practical techniques for researchers in this domain. Participation by early career researchers is strongly encouraged.

Proposed topics of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • infrastructure, tools and environments for recomputabilty and reproducibility in the cloud;
  • recomputability for virtual machines;
  • virtual machines as self-contained research objects or demonstrators;
  • describing and cataloging cloud setups;
  • the role of community/open access experimental frameworks and repositories for virtual machines and data, their operation and sustainability;
  • validation and verification of experimental results by the community;
  • sharing and publication issues;
  • recommending policy changes for recomputability and reproducibility;
  • improving education and training: best practice, novel uses, case studies;
  • encouraging industry’s role in recomputability and reproducibility.

Please see the full call for papers; deadline for submissions (online via EasyChair) is 10 August 2014 17 August 2014.

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Guardian University Guide 2015: Computer Science and Information Systems

I’ve been blogging about the various university league tables for computer science for over two years now…and I’m not entirely sure whether this is actually useful beyond collecting them in one place. There are a multitude of UK and international university rankings, each of which have varying methodologies and weightings. It remains to be seen what they each contribute or how they differ, or what analysis you could make that could not be done by looking at raw HEFCE/UCAS data. From here onwards I will most likely continue to publish the three main UK league tables top 10 for computer science, as well as the rankings for Welsh institutions, but with minimal commentary.

So, today saw the publication of the Guardian University Guide 2015; check out the top 10 of the (renamed) Computer Science and Information Systems category (see all 2014 tables):

Ranking 2014
1. University of St Andrews (24th)
2. Imperial College London (3rd)
3. University of Oxford (-)
4. University of Bristol (5th)
5. University of Cambridge (8th)
6. University of Edinburgh (22nd)
7. UCL (9th)
8. University of Southampton (5th)
9. University of Surrey (17th)
10. University of Bristol (4th)
(full table,methodology)

And the rankings for Welsh institutions:

Ranking 2014
27. Cardiff University (28th)
54. Swansea University (29th)
74. Aberystwyth University (58th)
84. Glyndŵr University (99th)
89. University of South Wales (-)
92. Cardiff Metropolitan University (88th)
94. Bangor University (73rd)

(N.B. no data was available for the University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

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Review of Assessment and the National Curriculum in Wales

On 12 March 2014, Huw Lewis, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills, announced the appointment of Professor Graham Donaldson to lead a wide ranging review of assessment and curriculum arrangements in Wales. Since his appointment in March, he has been engaged in initial, one-to-one discussions with stakeholders (including me as one of the chairs of the ICT Steering Group) and has visited a wide range of schools across Wales.

On 16 May 2014, Professor Donaldson launched a call for evidence through which he seeks to generate debate and gather information that will form a key part of the evidence base for his review’s recommendations:

We all understand the importance of education for the future of our children and young people, and for Wales both socially and economically. Schools provide the fundamental building blocks of that future and it is therefore essential that the education they provide is as relevant, challenging and rewarding as possible. There is much to be proud of in Welsh education and we must build on these strengths. At the same time, we must also identify and address areas which can and should be improved. That is why the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, has asked me to carry out a fundamental review of the national curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales.

It is vital that I’m informed by the views of as many people in Wales as possible: teachers, academics, parents/carers, businesses, the wider community and, vitally, young people themselves. Everyone has a stake in the future and I want to be sure that all of your views are taken into account as I form my recommendations.

I therefore urge you to share your views with me and to encourage as many others as possible to do the same.

This is an crucial opportunity to shape the future of education in Wales; while government consultations often receive a paltry number of responses, a review of this magnitude deserves a significant response from all stakeholders. This is also an opportunity to reaffirm the recommendations of last September’s ICT review.

I thus urge all interested parties in Wales to submit a response to this consultation; the deadline for responses to the call for evidence is 30 June 16 July 2014.

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The personal cost of applying for research grants

For many academics, this article is a no-brainer. Research grant proposals take huge amounts of time to put together, with low success rates (e.g. EPSRC). It’s a huge cost:

The pressure to win high-status funding means that researchers go to extraordinary lengths to prepare their proposals, often sacrificing family time and personal relationships. During our research into the stressful process of applying for research grants, one researcher, typical of many, said, “My family hates my profession. Not just my partner and children, but my parents and siblings. The insecurity despite the crushing hours is a soul-destroying combination that is not sustainable.”


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Send us your reckons

After moaning about the use of uninformed vox pops on this morning’s BBC Breakfast on banning the use of calculators in maths tests in England, I was reminded of this excellent That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch:

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The Complete University Guide 2015: Computer Science

Today saw the publication of The Complete University Guide 2015, signalling the start of the UK university ranking season.

Comparing against the 2014 university league tables — especially last year’s Guide — there has been some movement, with two new entrants in the top 10 UK institutions for Computer Science:

Ranking 2014
1. University of Cambridge (1st)
2. Imperial College London (2nd)
3. University of Oxford (3rd)
4. University of St Andrews (15th)
5. Durham University (14th)
6. University College London (8th)
7. University of Birmingham (16th)
8. University of Bristol (5th)
9. University of Exeter (6th)
10. University of Glasgow (4th)
(full table)


As always, the rankings for Welsh institutions in Computer Science were of particular interest to me; Cardiff University retained the top spot, with a broadly similar performance to last year (albeit with some movement down the table for the top three):

Ranking 2014
31. Cardiff University (27th)
39. Swansea University (32nd)
46. Aberystwyth University (35th)
64. Glyndŵr University (93rd)
67. University of South Wales (-)
70. Bangor University (58th)
89. Cardiff Metropolitan University (89th)

N.B. no data was available for the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

The Complete University Guide’s methodology for the subject league tables are based on four measures: Student Satisfaction, Research Assessment, Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects. To qualify for inclusion in a subject table, a university has to have data for at least two of the four measures; a blank in the Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects columns is not a zero score but rather denotes that no valid data were available.

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Simon Peyton Jones on Teaching Creative Computer Science

An excellent TEDx talk by Simon Peyton Jones, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and Chair of Computing At School, on why we should teach computer science at school.

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Relics of Technology

© Jim Golden 2014

© Jim Golden 2014

The seeds for the Relics of Technology project started when I found a brick cell phone at a thrift store in rural Oregon. Since finding it, similar bits and pieces of old technology and media kept grabbing my attention. The fascination was equal parts nostalgia for the forms, and curiosity as to what had become of them. One thing led to another and I was on the hunt for groups of media and key pieces of technology, most of which have now been downsized to fit in the palm of our hand. These photos are reminders that progress has a price and our efforts have an expiration date.

Jim Golden

Check out Jim’s Relics of Technology project; you can also purchase prints of his work.

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