Sunday, 29 January 2012

Our debt to the past...

We had a visit to Bletchley Park and the National Museum of Computing (in Block H) during the week and were amazed by the speed at which computing had changed over the years. We were humbled by the early pioneer's work too, without which none of what we're all about would be possible. We had heard of Bletchley because of Alan Turing and the Enigma code breaking during the 2nd World War - that's in a separate museum featuring war related efforts, but the equivalent pioneers of early digital computing, Tommy Flowers and Max Newman, did equally astounding work with Colossus, the first electronic computer, to break the German Lorenz cypher. This was a more complex code than Enigma and would have been impossible to decode by hand.

Front and back views of Colossus

The first Colossus machine used 1800 valves (vacuum tubes) and the Mark II had 2400. Received wisdom at the time was that a machine with so many valves could not be reliable but Flowers countered this by pointing out that valves were used reliably (in the telephone system) simply because the equipment was never switched off. Even now, one of the valves in the Bletchley Colossus is over 40 years old and to minimise the thermal effects of switching the power the machine is powered up and down using a rheostat to change the voltage gradually.

Here's a summary of the different code breaking machines.

If you're into gadgetry from mechanical calculators to Cray super-computers, from valve-based data processing systems to Domesday Reloaded with its state-of-the art touch-table, they are here in working order. And they really do want accessions that represent key points in the transitions of computing - even technical manuals. Do your parents have any staches of stuff in their lofts? Are you second or third generation computing/IT ites? Does your company have the cupboard full of 'things' in the basement?

What business computers looked like 40 years ago

We were there donating some items and we got a comprehensive tour by an ex MOD rocket scientist (really) volunteer. They do corporate events, school visits etc. Why not have a works outing? It's quite accessible from London (UK) as Bletchley Station is about 500 yds from the Park. There's the historic house with cafe, the War Museum, a Toy Museum, the Projected Picture (ie cinema) Trust and American memorial planting in the grounds. Could suit a family outing where you all split and do your own thing to meet for refreshments? Here's what to see at Bletchley.

A bit different from our usual blog but too good to miss. Spread the word!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Interactive prototyping – the faster the better?

You know the problem. Your clients can't visualise the interactivity (functionality) they want nor the look and feel of the application they want. This combination is one of the most common pitfalls that causes projects to drag on and on ...

Time means money, as we understand. The more resources tied up the more the pound signs rack up. The clients won't be happy. We’ve looked at how programming practices have changed to help get the build faster but perhaps we haven't really looked at advances on the visualisation aspects as much. Let's put that right.

Prototyping frameworks and tools can help, depending on what you want to achieve. Tom Russell (4th January 2012), gives some useful pointers and reviews of some of the tools he finds useful for web application building.

Leigh Howells (30th December 2011), A prototype is worth a 10,000 word specification, gives an honest appraisal of his design pain working with tools and the freedom but lengthy process of wireframing. His tool of choice for the moment is Axure that, although expensive, gives him the most features he wants quickly including outputting a written specification document, if that's what's requested.

You haven't long, if you live in Leeds UK, to make it to a review event of three such tools - Mobile First, Balsamiq and Axure - where you can win a copy of each tool. See NUX Leeds: Prototyping with Mobile First, Balsamiq and Axure, 23rd January 2012, 6.30-8.30pm.

Maybe you have your own favourite tool - or not. What's your experience?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Reboot for computing in UK schools

"... bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers ... " is how UK Education Secretary Michael Gove put it. The teaching of ICT in schools has drifted off track from a time when everyone and his mate tried to program a BBC Micro or Sinclair Spectrum in their bedroom and some, like the legendary David Braben and Ian Bell of Elite fame, managed to write a genre-changing game.

Instead of learning how to use a spreadsheet, said Mr Gove, "... we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in University courses and be writing their own Apps for smartphones."

I will admit that I hardly ever get into a classroom these days, but the indication was that computing in schools was no longer about creating software. It was a bit like teaching English without ever writing it. The curriculum document I found didn't even mention programming. Yet, as friends at the National Museum of Computing tell me, schoolkids visiting them really enjoy sitting down at a BBC micro (it is a museum after all) and writing a fun bit of BASIC.

The ghost of Alan Turing (and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace steaming in behind) is usually invoked for occasions such as this. The UK pretty-well invented computing with everyone from universities to the corner tea house embracing the technology at a time when the government felt that five machines would supply all computing needs for the foreseeable future. Now, just as our televisions probably originate in the far east (even if via South Wales) our computer hardware is probably American, the software we run on it either American again or of no-fixed abode, and the social networks we use are also probably American (or if they're any good, get bought up by an American).

OK: so far so promising. I must ask how many brilliant programmers you know were actually taught how to do it? Didn't they teach themselves? But that is missing the point. This initiative should bring new opportunities. Teachers will have "freedom over what and how to teach" and "Universities, businesses and others will have the opportunity to devise new courses and exams" especially GCSEs. The Royal Society has already chipped in recommending that ICT is actually a group of subjects such as computer science and digital literacy. It should be treated as a "rigorous subject" as are maths and physics, and "digital literacy needs to be put on a par with reading and writing" (BBC news story here). This is the result of a report led by Steve Furber, one of the designers of the BBC Micro (it's that machine again) and the man I remember as having invented the ARM computer.

I should also mention that David Braben is one of the people behind the Raspberry Pi $25 computer, which would also fit into this brave new ICT curriculum as it's intended as a kind of latter-day BBC Micro equivalent to teach children how to program. (There's an interesting post on the Raspberry Pi front page about their problems in manufacturing in the UK, including a tax conundrum ... UK government please note ... that duty is payable on components but not an assembled motherboard; hence it's tax-efficient to manufacture overseas.)

So, now is the time for your company, especially if it has links with education, to have some input into the curriculum for the next generation. Influence your local schools and what they teach as ICT. Let us know what you think ... and how you get on. Let us hope that this bodes well for the growth of the UK iMedia industry as much as it does for other branches of the computer tech revolution.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Digital Archiving – who should, and, what to archive?

Happy New Year.

It is timely to address the thorny issue of archiving projects because, as with the other aspects of digital project management, this area has matured and continues to develop in its own right. As developers, we have encouraged you to systematically archive each of your projects to protect yourselves from issues about the project being raised later by your clients, any companies that take them over, or even increasingly in this present economic climate, administration companies.

However, archiving has been a wider society issue for several years with national interests like museums, libraries, universities and governments taking the lead in recognising the importance of harvesting, defining and providing access to the vast online information resources. Software tools for each of these stages have multiplied to the point that now archivists have to understand the differences between them and assess which suits what they need best.
We've realised that perhaps you need to go further with archiving than before. Now you should be seen to recommend that your clients take archiving their own online resources seriously. It is an area that needs defined personnel resource, expertise, a strategic perception and an understanding of the social and legal implications for an organisation. For example, in the Digital Curation Centre’s 2010 report Web Archiving, Alex Ball defines points under the section Motivations for Web Archiving, Page 5, that demonstrate an organisation might need access to their historical online resources for audit, investigation and/or freedom of information obligations. He notes that if a site provides advice or guidance, the precise wording and presentation may be questioned if the guidance is called into question later. This has immediate relevance for any financial clients you have from pension providers to banks. Do your clients expect you to archive because nothing has been stated? Would they perhaps take the opportunity to use that excuse to imply blame on you if they were asked specific questions later? You never know! So better that you are seen to encourage them to take their own archiving seriously, surely. Alex covers many interesting points in a very readable report. It is worth a scan, particularly the Tools Employed section where there's a useful summary of the type of tools and their focus.