an end to tinkering? are iPhones the problem

Thanks to @aquigley for tweeting about the article “Why the iPhone could be bad news for computer science“.  The article quotes Robert Harle from the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge worrying that the iPhone (and other closed platforms) are eroding the ability to ‘tinker’ with computers and so destroying the will amongst the young to understand the underlying technology.

I too have worried about the demise of interest not just in computers, but in science and technology in general.  Also, the way Apple exercise almost draconian control over the platform is well documented (even rejecting an eBook application for fear it could be used to read the Karma Sutra!).

However, is the problem the closedness of the platform?  On the iPhone and other smartphones, it is the apps that catch imagination and these are ‘open’ in the sense that it is possible to programme your own.  Sure Apple charge for the privilege (why – the income surely can’t be major!), but it is free in education.  So what matters, app development, is open … but boy is it hard to get started on the iPhone and many platforms.

It is not the coding itself, but the hoops you need to go through to get anything running, with multiple levels of ritual incantations.  First you need to create a Certificate signing request to get Development certificate and a Provisioning profile based on your Device ID … sorry did I lose you, surely not you haven’t even written a line of code yet, for that you really need to understand the nib file … ooops I’ve lost the web page where I read how to do that, wait while I search the Apple Developer site …

Whatever happened to:

10 print "hello world"

This is not just the iPhone, try building your first Facebook app, … or if you are into open standards X Windows!

Nigel Davies said his 7 year old is just starting to code using Scratch. I recall Harold Thimbleby‘s son, now an award winning Mac developer similarly starting  using Hypercard.

If we would like a generation of children enthused by Facebook and the iPhone, to become the next generation of computer scientists, then we need to give them tools to get started as painless and fun as these.

Last days in Rome

Five weeks in Rome seemed like a long time, but with a week mainly in Milan and Trento and the coming week in India, in fact just three full weeks and they have flown by.

I had imagined long evenings reading philosophy of the physical world, and weekend afternoons under the shade of a tree on the Palatine Hill, but it didn’t quite work out like that.

Of the ‘work’ books I brought to Rome (and borrowed here), I have only read Gibson’s “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception“, Goodman’s “Languages of Art” and Noe’s “Action in Perception“; and of the ‘fun’ books only Tamara Pierce’s  The Healing in the Vine. I have flights back and forth to India next week, so may manage a bit more then, but mainly overnight, so I fear most of my bookshelf will return to the UK unread 🙁

One of the reasons is evident on a table in my office. Normally at home when I finish something the paper from it ‘goes away’ somewhere, but here as I have read something or finished with printouts I have been laying them out on an empty table in case I wanted to refer to them again. So the table is now covered, smothered, in the results of three weeks normal academic work. I am amazed, if not aghast, at the volume. The entire table between 50 and 500 sheets thick in paper, I’d guess somewhere between one and two thousand sheets of paper printed, read and to be discarded. I mentioned climate change in last post and, boy, it looks like one academic can wipe out most of the Amazon and drown the South Pacific single-handed.

I have printed out a bit more than I normally would as I knew I couldn’t print things during the evenings at the apartment and so tended to do so ‘just in case’ before heading out of the office.  So normally some of this would have been dealt with purely electronically, but nevertheless, the volume is frightening. And I don’t think this was a particularly unusual three weeks in terms of volume.

So what is here?

On the one side there is input: there is a PhD thesis, twenty of or so papers reviewed or meta-reviewed during the period, several papers given to me by people to read while here, one EPSRC grant proposal I reviewed, and a few piles of papers I was referring to in things I was producing during the period. On the output side during the three weeks two grant proposals have been submitted, one other needed extra work and a STREP is in process of preparation for the autumn, two journal papers, a book chapter, an article for Interfaces, some work on other papers, and a few internal reports for discussions about future work. Other things never saw paper: a couple of long blog posts (5000 words between them), three job references, innumerable emails, and the preparation for 33 hours of masters and PhD teaching and two other talks.

Although I often feel busy seeing all that paper makes it tangible and does shock me somewhat. But I know this is relatively normal; Aaron Quigley‘s twitter feed is exhausting just to read!

So, did I see much of Rome …

Well on one Sunday, with Manuela, Francesco and his daughter I visited the annual open-air art exhibition of the 100 painters in Via Margutta (between Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo). One of the artists was, Paul Van den Nieuwenhof, a friend of Manuela and Francesco from whom they had recently bought a still life (apples). Paul’s real passion is more avant-garde installations, but the still lives are mainly focused on the Italian market where modern art is not so popular. Looking at his more traditional paintings I was impressed again by the way an expert oil painter creates light from pigment: shapes and solids seem more the medium and the pure light the message.

Another Sunday I took lunch in a pizzeria on the Trastevere (my favourite place for both pizza and bread), and took a meandering path there nearly as far as St Angelo and sauntering along the Tiber … but mainly because I took the wrong road out of Largo di Torre Argentina. In the middle of Argentina is a large exposed ruin, and I was told (but by whom I have forgotten!) that this was where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Incidentally, while in Milan (which I will write about separately sometime) I learnt that in Julius Caesar’s time it would have been pronounced Kaiser as in German today, the softer ‘c’ came later.

Apart from that I am ashamed to say no art galleries or exhibitions, and my main view of Rome has been the area between Termini station, the Department, and my appartment, ‘Al Colosseo’, a lovely location within sight (just) of the Collosseum (see below).

However, most mornings I have taken a run down past the Colloseum as far as Circo Massimo and one or more laps of that. It is a popular spot for morning runners, although I prefer it best when I get there a little earlier. Not to avoid the others, but because from about 7am when the sun starts to rise it gets so hot. The most interesting end of Circo Massimo is currently boarded off as they do works there and in the last 2 weeks the far end has turned into a mini-stadium for Beach Soccer, I assume to coincide with the UEFA football next week.

Tonight it will be another pizza evening and I am promised it will be at a place that specialises in Roman-style pizzas and those lovely deep fried vegetables. Italy is about sun and ruins, about design and expensive cars and the Vatican and bureaucracy, … but above all it is about food and friends.

web ephemera and web privacy

Yesterday I was twittering about a web page I’d visited on the BBC1 and the tweet also became my Facebook status2.  Yanni commented on it, not because of the content of the link, but because he noticed the ‘’ url was very compact.  Thinking about this has some interesting implications for privacy/security and the kind of things you might to use different url shortening schemes for, but also led me to develop an interesting time-wasting application ‘LuckyDip‘ (well if ‘develop’ is the right word as it was just 20-30 mins hacking!).

I used the ‘’ shortening because it was one of three schemes offered by twirl, the twitter client I use.  I hadn’t actually noticed that it was significantly shorter than the others or indeed tinyurl, which is what I might have thought of using without twirl’s interface.

Here is the url of this blog <> shortened by and three other services:


The link is small for two reasons:

  1. ‘’ is about as short as you can get with a domain name!
  2. the ‘key’ bit after the domain is only four characters as opposed to 5 (snurl) or 6 (twurl, tinyurl)

The former is just clever domain choice, hard to get something short at all, let alone short and meaningful3.

The latter however is as a result of a design choice at  The urls are allocated sequentially, the ‘key’ bit (7OtF) is simply an encoding of the sequence number that was allocated.  In contrast tinyurl seems to do some sort of hash either of the address or maybe of a sequence number.

The side effect of this is that if you simply type in a random key (below the last allocated sequence number) for an url it will be a valid url.  In contrast, the space of tinyurl is bigger, so ‘in principle’ only about one in a hundred keys will represent real pages … now I say ‘in principle’ because experimenting with tinyurl I find every six character seqeunce I type as a key gets me to a valid page … so maybe they do some sort of ‘closest’ match.

Whatever url shortening scheme you use by their nature the shorter url will be less redundant than a full url – more ‘random’ permutations will represent meaningful items.  This is a natural result of any ‘language’, the more concise you are the less redundant the language.

At a practical level this means that if you use a shortened url, it is more likely that someone  typing in a random (or tinyurl) key will come across your page than if they just type a random url.  Occasionally I upload large files I want to share to semi-private urls, ones that are publicly available, but not linked from anywhere.  Because they are not linked they cannot be found through search engines and because urls are long it would be highly unlikely that someone typing randomly (or mistyping) would find them.

If however, I use url shortening to tell someone about it, suddenly my semi-private url becomes a little less private!

Now of course this only matters if people are randomly typing in urls … and why would they do such a thing?

Well a random url on the web is not very interesting in general, there are 100s of millions and most turn out to be poor product or hotel listing sites.  However, people are only likely to share interesting urls … so random choices of shortened urls are actually a lot more interesting than random web pages.

So, just for Yanni, I spent a quick 1/2 hour4 and made a web page/app ‘LuckyDip‘.  This randomly chooses a new page from every 20 seconds – try it!

successive pages from LuckyDip

Some of the pages are in languages I can’t read, occasionally you get a broken link, and the ones that are readable, are … well … random … but oddly compelling.  They are not the permanently interesting pages you choose to bookmark for later, but the odd page you want to send to someone … often trivia, news items, even (given is in a twitter client) the odd tweet page on the twitter site.  These are not like the top 20 sites ever, but the ephemera of the web – things that someone at some point thought worth sharing, like overhearing the odd raised voice during a conversation in a train carriage.

Some of the pages shown are map pages, including ones with addresses on … it feels odd, voyeuristic, web curtain twitching – except you don’t know the person, the reason for the address; so maybe more like sitting watching people go by in a crowded town centre, a child cries, lovers kiss, someone’s newspaper blows away in the wind … random moments from unknown lives.

In fact most things we regard as private are not private from everyone.  It is easy to see privacy like an onion skin with the inner sanctum, then those further away, and then complete strangers – the further away someone is from ‘the secret’ the more private something is.  This is certainly the classic model in military security.  However, think further and there are many things you would be perfectly happy for a complete stranger to know, but maybe not those a little closer, your work colleagues, your commercial competitors.  The onion sort of reverses, apart from those that you explicitly want to know, in fact the further out of the onion, the safer it is.  Of course this can go wrong sometimes, as Peter Mandleson found out chatting to a stranger in a taverna (see BBC blog).

So I think LuckyDip is not too great a threat to the web’s privacy … but do watch out what you share with short urls … maybe the world needs a url lengthening service too …

And as a postscript … last night I was trying out the different shortening schemes available from twirl, and accidentally hit return, which created a tweet with the ‘test’ short url in it.  Happily you can delete tweets, and so I thought I had eradicated the blunder unless any twitter followers happened to be watching at that exact moment … but I forgot that my twitter feed also goes to my Facebook status and that deleting the tweet on twitter did not remove the status, so overnight the slip was my Facebook status and at least one person noticed.

On the web nothing stays secret long, and if anything is out there, it is there for ever … and will come back to hant you someday.

  1. This is the tweet “Just saw Sad state of the world is that it took me several paragraphs before I realised it was a joke.”[back]
  2. I managed to link them up some time ago, but cannot find again the link on twitter that enabled this, so would be stuck if I wanted to stop it![back]
  3. anyone out there registering Bangaldeshi domains … if ‘is’ is available!![back]
  4. yea it should ave been less, but I had to look up how to access frames in javascript, etc.[back]