Archive for October, 2009

Chocolate and creativity

October 29, 2009

Roger Neill, who is director of City University’s new creativity centre, has blogged at about his contribution to confectionary.  That’s intriguing, because chocolate brands in particular are very durable.  When I was in my teens I enjoyed eating Crunchie bars (and I still do occasionally): confirms something that I’d always understood, that Crunchie was introduced in the 1920s, but I’d never realised either that it was based on an earlier Australian chocolate bar, or that it had a reference in one of Enid Bagnold’s stories.  I wonder how which products being launched today will be around in a recognisable form in another eighty years.

A statistic that I never knew

October 29, 2009

According to , Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) is the most popular web browser globally right now (if you want to know exactly how this conclusion was reached, you can follow a link within Jack Schofield’s Guardian piece to the Net Applications site where the methodology is explained).  Admittedly this is a slight anomaly, since the number of users of  IE7 is declining rapidly as people upgrade to IE8, whereas use of IE6 is declining much more slowlybecause anybody still on IE6 will have particular reasons not to upgrade.  Significantly, quite a few Cass staff computers are still on IE6, not because of anything to do with internal resources, but because of compatibility issues with Datastream, which is an important resource for finance researchers in particular.

Happy birthday Internet

October 23, 2009

The Guardian has published an interesting feature on the 40th brithday  – according to some calculations – of the Internet.  Oliver Burkeman (who also deserves credit for meticulously distinguishing the Internet as a whole from the web) observes in

It was a crucial idiosyncracy of the Arpanet that its funding came from the American defence establishment – but that the millions ended up on university campuses, with researchers who embraced an anti-establishment ethic, and who in many cases were committedly leftwing; one computer scientist took great pleasure in wearing an anti-Vietnam badge to a briefing at the Pentagon.

This is a really interesting, and often overlooked point, that I’ve sometimes mentioned in teaching, though I’ve deliberately avoided using references to the political left and right.  It’s an interesting paradox that ARPANET was a tool of officialdom, and yet designed by a bunch of rebels, and I do think that you can still see something of that paradox in today’s Internet, where almost anybody can put up a web page, but governments and big companies also have a considerable presence

Academic attire

October 23, 2009 raises the interesting question of what university lecturers should wear in second life.  Since I’m employed on  a strangely archaic basis where I’m only expected to teach in the first life, perhaps I should be relieved that this isn’t more relevant to me

Working dads and venom

October 22, 2009

As a working Dad myself, I was interested to read the Guardian piece at , but also rather struck by the sheer venom directed at parents by some of the commenters-is-free…  It’s a reminder that the sort of discussion that’s made possible by Web 2 can be (to put it politely) rather robust

Should I or shouldn’t I

October 22, 2009

A few weeks ago I blogged about three equipment failures in a short time.  Since then two of the three failures have been repaired, thanks to a plumber and an optician, but getting my laptop to work properly is proving elusive, and I think I need a new laptop.  Which begs the question of whether I should go for Windows 7.  Or is it too new and untried, and should I stick with Windows Vista or even XP?  Or should I move away from the idea of using Windows at all on a laptop?

Invention for beginners

October 20, 2009

In a rash moment, and in the interest of parental involvement, I volunteered to do a short talk for year 4 at my children’s school, about innovators in computing over the years.  Although I teach people aged 18 and over as part of my job, I found the prospect of teaching 8-9 year olds quite daunting: fortunately I had a very enthusiastic and attentive audience.  My approach was to take a series of inventions and innovations which were British to some extent (not out of any sense of patriotism – the brief for this session was to do something to do with the UK), and then ask the children to work in groups and come up with their own ideas.  So the innovations and inventions that I chose were:

  • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace: the difference engine in the 19th century
  • Alan Turing: the Colossus and wartime codebreaking (one boy in the class picked up on this and asked whether the Germans had used machines to put messages into code)
  • The LEO computer, supporting Lyons cafés and bakeries in the 1950s
  • Packet switching and the scrapbook system at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, paving the way for the Internet
  • Tim Berners-Lee, and the development of the world-wide web at CERN
  • Jonathan Ive, and Apple products from the first i-mac onwards.

And the children came up with some brilliant ideas.  Several of them wanted to build time machines – which prompted a discussion of how people like Babbage and Turing had stuck with things which might have seemed technically impossible when they first started looking at them.  But there were also really interesting ideas about innovations which depended on attention to detail, and thoughts about usability, like the waterproof glow-in-the-dark touch-screen computer (maybe I’ve already said too much about this one and I’ll see it copied by an entrepreneur), or the neat  lightweight £350 laptop.   It was a really interesting, and encouraging, experience.

Yet more for the computer history geeks

October 15, 2009

Just to add (in the light of earlier posts) that I much enjoyed the collection of Sinclair nostalgia on the Telegraph’s blog at

Another for the computer history geeks

October 15, 2009

A decade or more before Clive Sinclair and his rivals were working on home computers, some other British inventors were developing technological ideas which are an integral part of the computers and networks that we use today.  Donald Davies and Derek Barber were among the pioneers of ‘packet switching’, the technique where information is divided up into ‘packets’ to be routed over a network, and one of the innovations that made the Internet possible.  In contrast to Sinclair’s flambouyant entrepreneurship, they were the most unassuming of pioneers – after all their role was essentially as scientific civil servants with the NPL (National Physical Laboratory) in Teddington, west London.  At there’s a transcript of an interview with Davies and Barber from the 1990s (when widespread use of the web was just starting) which raises some points that I found interesting.  One is how much collaboration there was between the different pioneers of this technology in Britain, France, and the US; another is how important the ‘scrapbook’ system used internally within the NPL was, in developing switchingtechnology that was eventually very widely used.

One for the computer history geeks

October 12, 2009

Micro Men was an entertaining drama broadcast on BBC4 last week, based around the real story of the rivalry between the eccentric British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, and Chris Curry, who once worked for him and went on to found Acorn Computers.  It’s set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when home computers were in their infancy and many people (including, to judge from the programme) Clive Sinclair himself, doubted whether they would ever achieve widespread use.

The portrayal of Sinclair is unflattering: he is shown as short-tempered even to the extent of getting into a brawl in the pub with Curry: presumably to establish the period when it’s set, the music playing in the background is Say, Say, Say, recorded by Paul McCartney and an ambitious young Michael Jackson in 1983.  Oh – and I wonder whether Sinclair really smoked constantly, as he does in the programme.

You can still watch the programme on i-player for a few days,