Arthur C. Clarke

How does one even begin to summarise the life and achievements of a man like Arthur C. Clarke, who sadly died at his home in Sri Lanka yesterday. Clarke wasn’t just a writer of science fiction he was a visionary whose creative ideas did often materialise in the real world years after he first envisaged or described them. I always remember being fascinated with how he first came up with the idea  of geo-synchronous communication satellites in 1945, which became a reality twenty years later after he first posited the notion. He was ahead of his time, and in many ways I can’t help but think we are still struggling to catch up with his visions of the future.

I read much of his works in my early teens and I recall vividly just how profound and effect his writings had on me. It was easy to loose oneself in the kinds of future he envisaged. He understood technology, he understood how embracing it could shape our future … but he often reflected on what it would be like to live without it …

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

Shakespeare once wrote that the death was the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. I’ve always believed that the future is like that too, Clarke helped us all to see that with his wondrous visions of what he felt was our desire to live in a world that is shaped by our demands and need for a better future.

I genuinely feel sad … I know how much his works impacted my life and much of my thoughts about the kind of world I want to live in, he didn’t write science fiction, he showed us a future and now it’s up to us to make it a reality.

Once upon a school

TED Talks are often described as being inspirational, and they are. Nothing epitomises this quality more than this talk by Dave Eggers, in which he challenges the entire TED community to personally, creatively engage with local public schools. He talks about his 826 Valencia tutoring center which has been the inspiration for many similar initiatives around the world – a volunteer driven wildly creative writing labs. Dave is an energetic and passionate speaker, full of humour and an infectious enthusiasm and it’s hard not to be totally overwhelmed as you listen to him.

He has set up a web site called Once Upon a School where he asks people share their volunteering and teaching stories. To appreciate just how well received Dave’s initiatives have been, and how much they are helping pupils around the world …. Time Magazine once wrote this about Dave:

“Many writers, having written a first best-seller, might see it as a nice way to start a career. He started a movement instead.”

Tim Berners-Lee rejects net tracking

Read this interview yesterday on the BBC News Site, in which Sir Tim Berners-Lee voices his concern about the practice of tracking activity on the internet รขโ‚ฌโ€ with particular reference to Phorm, a Company that leading internet service providers are planning to use, which tracks users web activity in order to create personalised advertise. Tim explains some of the dangers of this …

“I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they’ve figured I’m looking at those books,”

and elaborates on this by explaining that as an individual his data and his web history belongs to him …

“It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.”

Privacy concerns are never going to go away. The problem though is that most users don’t understand privacy and more often than not social networking sites, like Facebook, have tried to take advantage of this. As was the case recently when Facebook tried to introduce Beacon, another ad system which leveraged users activity. Facebook was subsequently forced to provide a mechanism for users to opt out of this after some pretty damning coverage in the media.

I think it’s a good thing that Tim has made his views public, perhaps others will now stop and reconsider some of their actions … you can watch the interview below




Down the blue night the unending columns press
In noiseless tumult, break and wave and flow,
Now tread the far South, or lift rounds of snow
Up to the white moon's hidden loveliness.
Some pause in their grave wandering comradeless,
And turn with profound gesture vague and slow,
As who would pray good for the world, but know
Their benediction empty as they bless.
They say that the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

               -- by Rupert Brooke

Teaching kids to code

Really interesting talk, that demonstrates Greenfoot a development environment designed to make it easy for novices to learn programming in Java.

The students at high school levels might not be as commited to programming and we have tried to create an interesting program that should engage the student. In order to do this, we acknowledge that students has different opinions on what might be interesting. Hence, we sought to create a flexible environment that could be customised for the specific group of students. Furthermore, in the design of greenfoot we considered the different learning styles of students.

I’m not sure if I agree entirely with this approach but I do welcome anything that helps engage students. On reflection though the top down pedagogical approach to teaching and learning that Greenfoot encourages is something I am in favour of.

Adaptive Algorithms for Online Optimisation


The online learning framework captures a wide variety of learning problems. The setting is as follows – in each round, we have to choose a point from some fixed convex domain. Then, we are presented a convex loss function, according to which we incur a loss. The loss over T rounds is simply the sum of all the losses. The aim of most online learning algorithm is to minimize *regret* : the difference of the algorithm’s loss and the loss of the best fixed decision in hindsight. Unfortunately, in situations where the loss function may vary a lot, the regret is not a good measure of performance. We define *adaptive regret*, a notion that is a much better measure of how well our algorithm is adapting to the changing loss functions. We provide a procedure that converts any standard low-regret algorithm to one that provides low adaptive regret. We use an interesting mix of techniques, and use streaming ideas to make our algorithm efficient. This technique can be applied in many scenarios, such as portfolio management, online shortest paths, and the tree update problem, to name a few.

Pretty interesting tech talk, I found the notion of minimising regret quite interesting, but only really because I have heard of this before, but never experienced a real world implementation of this. I first heard of the significance of regret in learning from Alan who captured this vividly in an essay he wrote called The Adaptive Significance of Regret which he wrote back in 2005. In fact he even showed me some PHP code he wrote that modelled regret, which at the time I remember finding somewhat amusing … but right now it it feels far more significant. – a resounding success!

As I write this I am physically shattered from yesterday! But the physical pain is a small price to pay in support of what is a worthy cause, and what was a wonderful day. Here’s a quick account of the day.

For me the day started at aroud 5am, Richard was going to pick me up fairly early so we could meet up with Rob, Izzy, Alex and Phil and help set things up at the Airport. After I got showered and dressed, I had to sort out some more formal clothes for the evening, after the walk we were all going to be at the Arden Hotel for an auction to raise more money for the Charity, but I had to take a change of clothes with me since we weren’t going to have time to come home. Got all that sorted and SMS’s Rich asking him if he wanted me to make breakfast and so he popped over and had breakfast with me and we left for the airport just after 7am.

When we reached the old Elmdon Terminal at Birmingham Airport, Alex met us there with a Car parking pass that Rob had arranged for us. We all met up and Rich and I carried the stretchers into the terminal, where members of the armed forces had already begun to congregate. Even though it was fairly early and quite chilly everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and looking forward to the day.

When we all got into the lounge area we relaxed a little as we waited for everyone else to arrive, this included other members of the armed forces, police, fire service and officials from the airport. When pretty much everyone had arrived the airport staff ran through the process for getting the various “teams” of plane pullers out onto the runway, where flybe had provided a Plane for us to Pull.

Those individuals pulling the plane had to be escorted in small groups, to have their photos taken and special passes made up, and assigned to a member of airport staff who would stay with them whilst they were on the tarmac pulling the plane. Whilst this might sound overly complex, and it was, the various security procedures had to be observed and adhered to, consequently it did take a while before the Plane Pullers were out there. Richard, myself, Alex and Izzy all stayed in the terminal and took photographs from there. We also put on our cool T-shirts for the day which everyone marching ( who was not in uniform ) wore.

Izzy, Richard, me, Alex

The group pulling the plane were comprised of representatives from each of the various divisions of the armed forces as well as the police and fire service.

We watched and cheered on as the guys and girls pulled the plane – it was an impressive sight. After they had successfully pulled the plane, the airport and armed services laid on a special treat, everyone who had been out on the tarmac was escorted over for a tour of a massive Military C-17.

Pulling the plane!

After the tour of the C-17 the walk began, symbolically, as a stretcher bearing a “patient” was carried off the C-17 by members of each of the divisions represented on the day. As the stretcher was carried out of the airport the rest of us joined in the march behind it, and off we went. Me armed with Camera, snapping away at everything!

The “patient”, Private A. Houghton, carried on the stretcher.

At this point its probably important to point out the extent to which we were supported on the day. First and foremost the Airport Police Service, which Rob is an Inspector in and was chiefly responsible for organising the day, ensured that through out the day the marchers had a police escort as well as refreshments during what turned out to be quite a grueling experience for many of us. Along with the Police, West Midlands Travel provided a bus for the day that followed us in case anyone needed a rest or further refreshments, this was a wonderful gesture on their part and was appreciated by all – especially when the electronic sign on the front was changed to say “Pulling Together”, and thats really what the day was about.

Our Police Escort!

The Pulling Together Bus!

The 14 mile walk was an experience I wont forget in a long time. The troops who marched with us were wonderful people, they were animated, funny, but above all inclusive – they made me feel like they really appreciated what we were doing and that they were proud to be marching with us. I had some wonderful conversations with the troops during the March, and we all had a great deal of fun … largely due to the chaos we were causing on the streets of Birmingham.

onwards we march

…its a god job she does’t weigh a lot ๐Ÿ˜‰

The lads from the RAF

In wanting to collect as much money as we could from drivers and pedestrians you’d often see us along with the troops running into the middle of the road stopping traffic and asking for donations, and whist this did cause a few traffic jams everyone out there seemed to be supportive. We collected a huge amount I think, and much of that was down to the infectious enthusiasm of the troops who were with us who not only marched 14 miles but probably ran twice that distance in and out of traffic collecting money from drivers who wanted to contribute. It really was a sight to behold.

The troops collecting money from drivers and passers by.

During the 14 miles we had two breaks the first was Solihull Fire Station and the second was at Billesely File Station. Refreshment were served to everyone on the march by members of the 6th Solihull Scout Group. We also paused for a little while when we reached Touchwood Shopping center in Solihull, a few of us were allowed inside to collect money.

infectious enthusiam!

Every mile along the march we paused so a different “team” got to carry the stretcher, which gave us a short respite. I have to confess that I was a wreck by the time we finished, my feet were blistered badly because the trainers I wore had started to leak in the rain and this caused a lot of pain but I stubbornly refused to stop … was intent on reaching the end … plus I wasn’t about to have Richard making fun of me … lol

Even the girl scouts helped out

We started the walk at roughly 10:15am, and we reached Selly Oak Hospital at roughly 3pm. Where we were met by The Lord Mayor of Birmingham, along with Commander Murphy from the Navy and Captain Gibbs from the Army. It was a wonderful feeling crossing that finish line with the Lord Mayor and others applauding our efforts. We proceeded into the Social club at the Hospital where everyone got drinks and the Lord Mayor, Captain Gibbs and Commander Murphy all gave speeches thanking us for our efforts. It was a great way to end the walk and the comments that these men made were all very touching.

The Lord Mayor of Birmingham talks to us all

Captain Gibbs addresses us all

Commander Murphy addresses us all

Rob also made a speech thanking the troops for their efforts and telling them that people here at home do support them. Which I think was important for them to hear. I’ve already commented on why I supported this event, and Rob touched on a couple of those reasons during his speech. For me Rob was one of the heroes of the day, this event would not have taken place if it had not been for his efforts in organising it. I personally know how stressful it was for him, and how nervous he had been leading up to the event. Yet, he did a wonderful job right to the end. I can’t praise him enough … I know that many others feel the same way.

Rob makes his speech

Inspector Rob Williams, hero of the day.

After the speeches everyone chatted for half an hour before we caught the bus back to the airport. At this point I was struggling to walk, in fact hobbling is too generous a term for the way I was moving – much to everyones amusement! Rob had invited me and Richard out for a meal before we all had to get to the Arden Hotel for the nights Auction and Disco. Richard and I rushed over to his folks place, where we got showered and changed into our slightly more formal outfits for the evening. We then headed over to Rob’s place and we all went for a bite to eat at a very nice restaurant.

After that we paid a quick visit to Rob’s office where we collected all the items for the nights auction and raffle and headed over to the Arden Hotel. The evening went really well, the auction raised more money and everyone had a great time. The live band were entertaining and I think everyone had a lot of fun.

Rob auctioning off Krusty the Clown

Rob and Alex drawing the raffle

The band entertains us all.

All in all it was an extraordinary day and one that I won’t forget in a hurry. I’d like to thank everyone who took part on the day. I want to say how wonderful it was meeting so many of the troops who marched with us, all of whom were a credit to the uniforms they wear … but most of all they were wonderful human beings.

… finally many thanks to you Rob for your efforts, and for making me feel like my contributions were valued, both before the event and after it.

You can view all the pictures from the day on my flickr account here.

Desert Rose

             Desert Rose

I don't know why I drove down that road
but it sure turned my life around,
And I'm darn glad no one else could see
What it was that I had found.
But out there in the desert
where hardly nothing grows
surviving through the loneliness
there stood a little rose.
I looked upon it with tenderness
as I touched it with Love
I knew it was special
because I felt it from above
Now I often think of that road
and the day it came into my life
The Love I gave has caused a change
For the Rose has become my wife.

                    - By Timothy A. Cook