If you want bad advice, ask a London taxi driver


Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association in London, quoted in the Guardian on the prospect of driverless buses in the capital:

“We don’t have a a lot of confidence in anything that comes out of TfL [Transport for London], to be honest, and the fact that they’re suggesting it means it’s almost certainly likely not to happen.

“Who knows with technology, but some of the simplest things, they still can’t do. The best example is voice recognituion technology.

“If you’ve got it on your car… it’s rubbish. If you’ve got it on your phone, it’s probably worse. They’re all crap, aren’t they? None of them work, and they can’t even get that right. And they expect people to get into driverless cars?”

Where do you begin with this?

Firstly, we should note that the Mayor’s office ran a million miles away from the suggestion – in their own paper – that at some point between now and 2050 driverless buses will be on London’s streets. To make it worse they – plainly less than truthfully – tried to claim that references in their own paper to driverless vehicles were a reference to tube trains.

The disappointing thing is that instead of actually once again pioneering a public transport technology – London gave the world underground railways and once had the world’s most admired bus network too – London’s public admisitrators are not willing to lead.

Before anyone on the left says “what about the jobs”, my reply is “what about them?” Is not the left meant to be about freeing human creativity from the realm of necessity? The issue is the distribution of the opportunities freed by the removal of the need to drive buses – it cannot be about preserving relatively low-skilled jobs that are no longer required.

As for Steve McNamara, I am amused by the fact he thinks speech recognition is the “simplest thing”. Should we reply that¬† three billion years of evolution produced only one species that can speak so it can’t be that simple? Or perhaps ask McNamara how many languages he can speak given that speech recognition is so simple?

In fact, my guess would be that speech recognition is probably many more times more difficult, computationally speaking, than driving a bus. However the risk of human injury means that speech recognition software is socially more acceptible than driverless vehicles – for now. But I don’t expect that to last.

Two years in the gym


parkrun logo
parkrun logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, running in the regular 5km “Parkrun” in Finsbury Park (just around the corner) I picked up a (rather sore) thigh strain – so it feels like an odd time to write a piece about how great it is to exercise – but I want to write this piece because I feel I have something important to say.

Two years ago this week, on a foreign assignment, I decided to fill some of the time on a quiet afternoon by going to the hotel gym. I discovered I quite liked it, and kept going back. By the time I got back to the UK, some weeks later, I decided I had to join a gym.

I had been in gyms before – in my mid-20s I worked above – quite literally – Camden council’s “Oasis” gym in Covent Garden and used to go to classes there quite regularly with my work colleague Darra Singh (now a partner at Ernst and Young, having been a senior civil servant). But Darra got a new job, the first on his well-deserved rise, my employers moved office and I stopped going. More than that – I started putting on weight.

But even then I found a way of losing it. My employers’ new offices were in Camden Town and I usually got the bus back home. But one winter’s evening the typical London thing happened – there was a little bit of snow and the public transport system fell into chaos. So I walked the four miles back home. And I liked it, so I kept doing it. By the time the weather got better I was walking back over longer, more challenging routes – up Dartmouth Park Hill to Highgate, or even up Swain’s Lane – and I was both fit and (very) thin.

But then I got another job – my dream job, really – working for the Labour Party. Hours were long, stress was high but it was great fun. But the weight came back on. And it never really went off again. In fact it really kept going back on.

By 2011, many jobs later, I was weighing in at 99 kilos, pretty seriously obese with a BMI of over 33. And fitness was pretty poor – I still liked walking and would regularly walk several miles at a stretch, but if I stopped that for a while then I had to push myself to get back into it. More than that – though I wasn’t fully conscious of doing this at the time – I avoided long or steep staircases and in lots of other ways, reinforced my poor lifestyle.

Today, I am still overweight, but at 79 kilos and a BMI of 26 – 27, it is a lot better. I am pretty fit – I managed that 5k – which involves twice climbing a steep hill – in 25 minutes and 34 seconds, not a personal best, but not awful either. I still have far too big a paunch on the stomach but it is (slowly) reducing: I actually have a “six pack”, it is just that it is floating on top of a lot of subcutaneous fat!

Why am I writing this? Just to show off? OK, I admit I am a little proud of what I have achieved, especially because I have essentially done it by exercise and not through a dieting regime (I eat more healthy now but I am not dieting). But that is not the main reason I am putting this down – instead I want to offer hope and inspiration to others – if I can do it, so can you.

My father died of heart disease when he was 44. For a long time I regarded that as some sort of likely measure of my own lifespan. By 2010 – when I passed it -I began to understand that it need not be that. At the same time, I went back to education, studying for the MSc at Birkbeck and realising that, actually, I wasn’t past it after all.

What was really stopping me was a mental block – nothing physical. Breaking through that because I was bored one afternoon did not feel like much at the time, but it has literally changed my life.

The Art of Scratch, Code Club and the ICT curriculum


Scratch Project

Regular readers will know I have something of a small obsession with Conway’s Game of Life – the classic “game for no players” based on cellular automata, and so, naturally enough, when I decided that I really had to write my own Scratch program from, err, scratch to sharpen up my skills for teaching children via Code Club, that is what I chose to write – the (not very sophisticated) results can be seen above.

My first conclusion is that Scratch is a truly awful tool for most programming tasks. I know it is not meant to be a general programming tool, but I quickly discovered that it is hobbled even when it comes to doing those things that one assumes, at first glance, it is set up to do – like drawing on the screen. Scratch actually has very, very limited functionality/expressive power when it comes to drawing graphics – being only able to handle pre-provided sprites (as first class objects) and using a pen which marks out one pixel at a time – thus one cannot (at least easily) find a way to draw anything beyond dots and lines on the screen in response to events.

If you run the above program using the Flash player provided by the Scratch site you will probably see one of the big downsides of that as outlines of the old crosses are left on the screen (the Java player does not have this problem but it is very slow in comparison).

From a teaching point of view I also find Scratch’s message-based system less helpful than an imperative GOSUB like approach: the children I work with, after many weeks, are still struggling with the idea that messages should drive actions (probably we should blame their instructor!) – I know this event-based style is more common in the real world, but I think teaching the idea of problem decomposition via subroutines or functions is probably more important educationally.

Yesterday I went to the first London Hackntalk and gave an impromptu (and so unprepared) and brief talk on my thoughts about teaching children to program – my experience with Code Club makes me rather less starry-eyed about mass programming education. There were a few responses from the audience which suggested I had not really got my point – that we would struggle to fully replace an ICT curriculum based on usage skills with one based on programming – as the audience continually suggested ways to get motivated and engaged kids into programming (rather than make it a mass participation thing), but one point that was made by a member of the audience was very acute – given what our children see computers do in games that cost many millions to develop, how realistic is it to expect all or many of them to put lots of effort into toy programs that chug out the sort of graphics you can see above? I think that is a really difficult issue we have to consider when overhauling the curriculum and I am not sure the enthusiasts of radical change (of which I was and still am one) have thought it through fully.

(I did also encourage them to be Code Club instructors and was a bit disappointed to see that I appeared to be the only one – we urgently need to teach more programming and so these problems of the early days of the overhaul should not obscure the need for change.)

Raspberry Jam in London


Coming a bit late to this, but if you are a teacher (it seems tickets for 11 – 16 year olds have all gone) and have a Raspberry Pi and can get into London tomorrow (3 January) then this looks interesting…

‘Pizza and Pi’ Raspberry Pi Raspberry Jam meetup for 11-16s in London

Thursday, 3 January 2013 from 13:30 to 16:00 (GMT)

London, United Kingdom

Tickets from here

More art graduate ignorance from Katharine Birbalsingh?


Katharine Birbalsingh
Image by mrjorgen via Flickr

Unlike many members of the Labour Party I am pretty relaxed about the government’s “Free Schools” policy: generally speaking I think it is a distraction from the central issue of improving standards and outcomes and that the party should see it as such.

But I am also worried when I see signs of public money being given to ignorant people to spend on crank theories of education – and that is what I fear may be happening with Katharine Birbalsingh‘s proposal for the “Michaela community school“.

Birbalsingh, a French and philosphy graduate, who left her previous teaching job after she named, and displayed photographs of, individual pupils at her school in a speech attacking the education system at Conservative Party conference in 2010, has decreed that the secondary school will not teach ICT as it is merely a “skill”. Apparently the ability to read or speak Mandarin or Latin are more than mere skills though, because they are to be offered (I have nothing against either language and have a Latin ‘O’ level myself – I just think only an arts graduate would see understanding computation as merely skill – and presumably for the lower orders – and an ability to speak a language as something else.)

Of course, as I have repeatedly stated here, the current ICT curriculum in England is a mess and does teach people very little. But given that a “free school” can set its own curriculum then it borders on the moronic to dismiss computing in this way. It is little more than a week ago that Michael Gove, the education secretary, was getting carried away on flights of fancy about what teachers could do with the freedom to set their own ICT curriculum: now he is about to give large sums of precious public money to someone who would appear, from where I am standing, not to have the slightest clue about the importance of computing and computation.

Her school, says Birbalsingh, will place an emphasis on maths, so maybe that will offer some hope. After all, as Turing and Church showed, maths – at least at the level taught in our schools and somewhat beyond – and computing are different sides of the same coin. But it would appear Birbalsingh does not grasp this basic insight.

Birbalsingh’s judgement is obviously suspect in any case – how many people would be shocked, as she obviously was, when their employer was unhappy about an employee attacking them on live national television? But I fear her differentiation between computing and worthwhile subjects also shows her to be ignorant.

Reflections on the riots: part two


In the aftermath of the riots a very dangerous, and very silly, idea, has been endorsed from all sorts of people who should (or perhaps should not) know better: namely that we should “switch off” parts of the internet in moments of such social crisis.

How this is to be achieved, short of a nuclear strike on US data centres and a new anti-satellite weapons system is not clear: in fact the obvious conclusion is that those who have dreamt up this policy either are short of clues as to how networks work, companies make money or people use the internet. Either that or they are proposing to shut down all wired and wireless communications and are willing to live with the leaks to those with access to satellites.

I don’t know. And the point is I don’t think they do either. But what I do know is that this all sounds deeply worrying. Or at least it would be if I really thought the government were likely to act on it.

It is, of course, the way of British policy makers to float radical ideas such as this and then back-off when they start to consider the practicalities – I do not think we are on the slippery slope to dictatorship, rather in the “Something Must Be Done” phase.

Reflections on the riots: part one


AddRoundKey operation for AES
Image via Wikipedia

This is a blog about computing (along with some maths and science) – and not about politics, and having disciplined myself to stick to that for the last nine months, I intend to keep it that way, even as I write about the biggest political event of the year.

But I will allow myself two short political observations: firstly, that disrespect for the law and contempt for order are not new things in London. If you read Albion’s Fatal Tree you will see that there have long been many in the capital who have made their at least part of their livelihoods from criminality and who celebrated their fellows. Pretending that recent events represent some terrible breakdown in ancient respect for authority is ahistorical.

And, before people start to say it is the fault of rap music or other “alien” influences, do they remember this? Perhaps the Fast Show is the real cause of the disorder?

So, that over, what is the science point? Well, it was consistently reported during last week’s disturbances that the looters were sharing their intelligence through BlackBerry smart phones, specifically through “BlackBerry Messenger” (BBM). Given that the UK has one of the most sophisticated signals intelligence set-ups in the world at GCHQ, the fact that the police were clearly left in the halfpenny seats by the looters suggests to me that nobody there has yet proved that P=NP or developed an algorithm to crack the one way functions used to¬† encrypt the BBMs.

According to Wikipedia Blackberry encrypt everything with “Advanced Encryption Standard” (AES). A brute force attack on this would, on average, require 2^{255} attempts (for the 256 bit encryption), so that is not a practical option (eg the universe is very roughly 4^{17} seconds old).

Now, it could be that the US government has cracked this thing and just refuses to tell even its closest ally (I dare say the name Kim Philby is still spat out in various places), but my guess is that AES is safe, for now.

As I have said before that is probably a pity: while a world where P=NP would be one where internet commerce was broken, it would also be one with many compensatory benefits.