Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What makes a good plan?

Having spent quite a bit of last weekend having to write a research plan, I've gone back to the question of “what makes a good plan?”. I think there are two principles that identify the best plans … I wonder how well mine measures up?
  • You should be able to summarise it on the back of a postcard, or in a 30 second soundbite. That probably means that there are three or four key points, rather than thirteen or fourteen, or even thirty or forty.
  • The real decisions in the plan are those whose negation would be a sensible choice. So, saying that we choose to do the best possible research, or that we aim to publish in the highest quality journals, are pretty much content free … what plan would aim not to do those things?
So, how would I summarise the research plan in three points?
  • Aim to increase research funding by 30% over three years … a modest aim, but one where we could perfectly well fail if we didn't work to achieve it.
  • Set up a formal industrial panel … in the last decade or so we've dealt with industrial input on an ad hoc basis (apart from the Kent IT Clinic advisory group) … it's time to try to get more synergy with a group of stakeholders: industrialists, educators and alumni.
  • Make sure that we have enough space to house researchers, equipment and so on … this is a real problem at our Medway campus, and will harm our research unless we're able to get the space. [This is plan as negotiating tool I suppose.]
What about the negation test? Well - sadly - I've failed that a few times: “highest quality venues”, “widest possible dissemination”, etc, but at least there are some places, and particularly those mentioned in the three points above, where we're making a definite commitment to doing something rather than something else. Whether or not we're ultimately successful is something I can come back to in 2015 …

Friday, December 7, 2012

Links to make you think, part 2

In my first post on this blog I posted a list of links to twitter posts for the People and Computers course, chosen to give a context to studying computer science.

Here's the second (and final) collection of tweets, in chronological order:

Sixth week

Seventh week

Eighth week

Ninth week

Tenth week

Eleventh week

Functional Programming in 2012

This was first written for josetteorama as publicity for CUFP 2012. but I thought I would share it on here as well …

Functional programming ideas have been around longer than computers: Church’s lambda-calculus was invented in the 1930s as a way of describing computations as functions around the same time that Turing was describing what an idealised (human) “computer” could do through Turing machines. The idea of using functions as the primary means of computing fed straight into Lisp and its (LAMBDA …), ideas of procedures in Algol68, but settled into what people now call functional languages in the late 1980s, with the definition of ML, Haskell and Erlang.

Erlang – which is really a language for high-concurrency, fault-tolerant, robust systems – is based on functional ideas because it’s so much easier to write concurrent systems when every assignment is a single assignment (check out Single Assignment C too). Haskell and ML (and also OCaml, SML, …) are general purpose languages where types do much of the heavy lifting for you: types are inferred from what you write, and if you have got a program that type checks then you’ve ironed out a whole class of errors before running a single instruction.

As I’ve said, these languages were first defined more than twenty years ago, so what are the modern functional programming languages? One answer is Java, and other mainstream languages, which are taking on more and more functional features. Using immutable data is inherited from the functional world, as were Java generics. Coming soon are closures – yes, that’s right, LAMBDA in Java! So you can do functional programming in Java (and O’Reilly have recently published Functional Programming for Java Developers: Tools for Better Concurrency, Abstraction, and Agility).

But what if you want to try the real thing? A first choice is F#, which puts a functional language into the .NET framework as a first-class citizen, with internationalization, intellisense, and full integration with C# and the .NET libraries. One of the ways of getting started with F# is to use it to explore some of the library APIs, executing calls interactively. Extending Java to give a fuller functional language, as well as Erlang-style concurrency, is Scala. From Scala too, there’s access to the Java libraries, as well as execution on the JVM. Finally, it’s worth taking a look at Haskell, which is functional first, but which provides controlled access to concurrency, IO, exceptions and a wealth of open source libraries.
But, why bother, you might say? One reason is sheer curiosity: you’ll find out what all the fuss is about, and see where ideas like map-reduce come naturally out of the programming style. It also give you a different way of attacking problems: even if you’re going to be programming in Java, then a functional style might well give you a different tool to solve the problem at hand.

Another reason is to get a job (really!). How are functional languages getting used? Erlang and Scala support high-throughput message handling and web systems, and are the “secret weapon” behind applications supporting Facebook, Amazon and other systems. Haskell gets used in building domain-specific languages in security, crypto and increasingly in the financial sector, where F# is getting traction too. You’ll see a steady stream of jobs calling for Erlang, Haskell, Scala, F#, as well as for people who are happy using one of these languages and C, or Java or whatever, because functional languages often come in as a solution to part of a problem, rather than solving the whole thing.

Added December 2012: Another sign of functional programming getting traction is Simon Marlow, one of the "two Simons" supporting GHC, moving to Facebook in the new year …

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tracking our time

The end of a busy week … one of the weeks I've had to record for the TRAC exercise that all English universities go through. When we do this we record all that we have done over the week, categorising things as teaching, teaching prep, funded research, admin etc. Although this is apparently an exercise in transparency, it's not what it seems. We record actual hours (61 in total this week: OK, that's more than usual, it's been a busy one), and then our activities are reported as percentages, deemed to come out of a 37.5 hour week.

It's no wonder the consequences of analysing these data are perverse: instead of concluding that we cross-subsidise our research from our teaching funding based on normalised data, the fact is that we do our research in the time above the 37.5 hours … free overtime, in other words. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy this job, and it's a privilege to do many of the things that academics do,  but the TRAC exercise does a disservice to what we do.

Ok, so what did I actually do this week?

  • Announcing the winners of the BCS/CPHC Distinguished Dissertation award for 2012 at the Royal Society, and then hearing a wonderful Needham Lecture from Dino Distefano of QMUL. We had 22 submissions to this award (from among the 100s of PhDs awarded in CS in the UK each year) and it was a hard job to pick the three we chose: we weren't looking just for first-class academic work, but also having it reported in a way that it can command the widest possible audience.
  • Preparing lectures for our new first year course: one on professionalism, and another collection of case studies to discuss in tomorrow's session. Also, I do a talk on the “Disappearing Computer” to the University's Global Skills award for postgrad students, and it needed revising.
  • Spending a day interviewing for a new research position on the PROWESS project.
  • Finalised the school's submission for the pilot of the upcoming Research Evaluation Framework: Kent is piloting the process a year ahead of the actual exercise, and the deadline was noon on the 30th. 
  • Worked with colleagues on our upcoming BCS Accreditation visit.
  • Had our first interviews of students for next year. Fascinating discussions with both of them, so I do hope that they choose to come to Kent …
  • Worked with Huiqing Li, my colleague and research collaborator, on our next steps for research projects, as well as the undergraduate project group we're working with. 
  • Gave feedback on one of my colleague's research grant applications … it's looking very strong, and so he'll be submitting it soon. Two more to look at tomorrow, too.