Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Computer Science Interests Me

Today was a special day celebrating computer science as part of the university's 800th anniversary, and I've been working a ton recently so I took the time to go to a few events. I got a great view of the past, present, and future in a strange way. The morning showcased a hydraulic computer built in the late 40's to model the UK economy: The MONIAC, or Philips Hydraulic Computer, which uses water tanks, pumps, and valves to model the flow of money. It was a truly amazing machine, and of 14 built, only one is still in operation, and we got a personal demo from the Cambridge professor who restored it to working order and showed us how it works. It was inspiring mostly for the imagination that went into it, literally built from leftover parts from WWII bombers. This was the past of CS, unlimited opportunities and creativity to assemble something new. Next we saw a demo of quantum computing research in Cambridge, right next door to our lab in the Physics department. The above machine is a 2-qubit machine which had to run at 4K (unfathomably cold) to work, and doesn't work yet. Quantum computing is the (very distant) future of computing, when we may be able to perform computations impossible today in strange sci-fi looking devices like this. Most of our research group remain skeptics though.

Finally, we had a fantastic talk by Bill Thompson, a former computer programmer turned writing called "The 10 Cultures Problem," a tribute to CP Snow's "The 2 cultures problem." The title itself demonstrated the problem: computer scientists can see that 10 is 2 in binary so the titles are the same. Snow feared in the 50's that a divide between engineers and non-engineers would alter society, Thompson is afraid of that with computer scientists today, and I've agreed for years. Too much of life is shaped by computers now-people use them dozens of times a day in ways they don't realize. Without understanding the basics of computer programming, this all seems like magic, and we're headed to a world with some who understand the magic and some who don't.

Monday, May 25, 2009

When You Know You're a Grad Student...

It's been a rough few weeks finishing up the biggest paper I've worked on yet, here's a shot of me in the office over the weekend working all day and night to finish up. The paper is a 45-page article for an economics conference about privacy in social networks. I'm proud of the paper and the work put it in, but mostly just appreciating the little aspects of dedication that this lifestyle requires. Saturday night in the lab my dinner was a can of chili and a sack of potatoes. I had to make do, microwaving the potatoes and eating them with a spoon. You know what though, they tasted just fine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Media Blitz

So we ran a little experiment this past month about how long photos stay up on social networking sites. I posted the results on my group's research blog, turns out many sites don't delete photos after a month. Moderately interesting from a technical perspective, but given the involvement of privacy fears and social networks it blossomed into a huge news story that I wasn't fully expecting. I ended up spending much of the day responding to phone calls and giving interviews with journalists. Good articles were written up by BBC, Sky News, and The Guardian (more sensationalist versions appeared on some less well-known media outlets). I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland to discuss the matter. But the real highlight was doing a TV interview on Sky TV, the main satellite TV provider in the UK. They droveThe camera man was quite nice and we spent some time setting the shot up in the computer lab. Like all interviews, it felt brutally short and I wasn't sure on what level to be explaining things, but hopefully I got the message across. Unfortunately the interview was only for satellite subscribers so I don't have the video. But I have a picture of me in the truck:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Churchill Conference on Everything

Every year the Churchill MCR (grad students group) puts on a "Conference on Everything" for students to demo their work. I was fortunate to be selected to speak and I gave a talk entitled "Internet Censorship and Resistance." It was fun and rewarding because I think this is a major human rights issue that gets ignored because it has the word "Internet" so people don't think it's serious. I tried to make a case that free access to information is crucial in a free society and the Internet is increasingly the only forum that matters. I think the talk went well, I got a good response and many questions afterwards. Other talks were fascinating too, on everything from flying robots to mathematics education. Made me appreciate being at a university which is strong in many areas.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Where it All Started

Today was a special treat at the Computer Laboratory, the 60th anniversary of the first program on the EDSAC. By most reasonable definitions, this machine was the first computer in the way we think of them today. It was developed and built at Cambridge by Sir Maurice Wilkes, who at age 95 returned to the Lab today to give a short speech commemorating the machine. It's worth a read on Wikipedia about the machine and the man, which have needless to say proved incredibly influential to the world as we know it today. Makes me wonder how I'll look back on my own research in 2070, which is a good thing to be wondering some times.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Côte d'Azur

Just returned from 4 great days in the South of France. The weather was fantastic, not too hot to walk around all day, but just warm enough that the mist from this waterfall was pretty nice.
Jess was my fearless travel partner. We spent Saturday in Nice, taking in the views from the Colline du Chateau here. We also saw the modern art museum, took a swim, and of course, enjoyed some of the best bread I've ever seen. Nice seemed to be just short of "in full swing though," as our hostel rate demonstrated the official start of high tourist season is next week.
Sunday we made it to Monaco. I've passed through twice before but this was the most time I got to spend in Monaco, and we made the most of it. We saw the famous Jardins Exotiques, an amazing collection of cactuses and other bizarre plants in the cliffs, took a tour of the royal palace, and visited the world-class aquarium. We also had time to walk largely from one side of the country to the other and take in the mega-yachts and expensive cars outside the casino.Finally, Monday and Tuesday I attended an EU-sponsored workshop on computer security in St. Jean-Cap Ferrat, a resort town between Monaco and Nice. I gave a talk about why security for social networks is hard, slides are available over on my research page. It was a nice workshop, as seen above the location was a major attraction and it had a pretty relaxed feel to it, though people generally took the event seriously.