July 3, 2013

Manchester Digital and Higher Education in 2013

xkcd good code

Writing good code is often harder than it looks via Randall Munroe at xkcd.com

Manchester Digital is the independent trade association for the thriving digital sector in the North West of England. Last night they held their AGM and elections for new members of their council. I was encouraged to stand for election, and alongside 19 other candidates, had to give a two-minute  “manifesto” in a hustinglightning-talk format. Here’s roughly what I said, from the perspective of software, hardware and developers, with some added links and a bit more polish:

The success of Manchester’s Digital economy is dependent on educating, recruiting and training a pool of talented developers to work in the region. As identified in the Manchester Digital skills audit, developers are often the hardest roles to fill, as many graduates and potential employees are drawn to other high-tech hubs like London, Silicon Fen and Silicon Valley, California for employment.

Addressing this issue is an important for Manchester Digital and requires closer collaboration between Higher education, Secondary education and employers. As a tutor at the University of Manchester, with responsibility for managing internships for students in Computer Science I am in a strong position to enable more collaboration between educators and employers. As a council member I would do this in four ways:

  1. Encouraging students to consider employment in Manchester as their first job, by promoting internships and graduate vacancies with local organisations alongside traditional graduate programmes at larger multinational companies
  2. Listening to what employers in Manchester want so that students can be better prepared for the workplace, while balancing the competing needs of training and education.
  3. Challenging local employers to raise their game to compete with larger employers and attract graduates to work for their organisations
  4. Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers by extending current work with schools and supporting undergraduate students doing outreach work involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). For example: through the STEMnet ambassador programme, Code Club, Animation FestivalTeenTech and related work.

These are key activities that will enable the continued success of Manchester’s Digital Economy and I ask Manchester Digital members to vote for me if they agree. Thank you!

Whatever the outcome, the AGM & hustings were great fun and it was good to catchup with old friends and meet some new people too. Hope to see some of you again the Manchester Digital BBQ on 11th July…

March 15, 2013

Creating with the Raspberry Pi vs. Consuming Apple Pie at the Manchester Raspberry Jamboree


Thirteen year old Amy Mather aka @MiniGirlGeek steals the show at Manchester Raspberry Jam 2013

Last Saturday, the first ever Raspberry Jamboree rolled into town, organised by the unstoppable force of nature that is Alan O’Donohoe (aka @teknoteacher). The jamboree looked at the educational value of the Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer) one year on from its launch on the the 29th February 2012. Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the things that happened in the main room, aka ‘Jamboree Central’. The workshops and other events have been covered by Jason Barnett @boeeerb.

A key feature of the Raspberry Pi foundation (and the Jamboree) was neatly summed up by Paul Beech (aka @guru) who compared the Raspberry Pi to various Apple iThings. Paul’s view is that when it comes to computing, Apple gives you a “sandy beach, sunbed and cocktail” to passively consume digital content with while the Raspberry Pi gives you a “desert, knife and a bottle” to actively create new things (see his tweet below).

Consuming Apple Pie on a sandy beach, with a sunbed and a cocktail

Engineering evangelist Rob Bishop used Apple Inc. to illustrate what the Raspberry Pi is about in his talk ‘one year on‘. Rob pointed out that a huge amount of effort at Apple Inc. is put into making Computing invisible and seamless. This is great if you’re consuming content on your iPad or iPhone, and what many users want – easy to use, with all the nasty internal gubbins tucked away, out of sight. This is tasty Californian Apple Pie, which many of consume in large amounts.

However, invisible computing is a problem for education, because it is difficult to demonstrate the Wonders of Computer Science (Brian Cox’s next TV series) with a device like the iPad.  Many of the internals of modern devices are completely inaccessible, and it’s non-trivial for budding young engineers to build anything very interesting with it particularly quickly.

In contrast, the Raspberry Pi can be challenging to setup, just getting the Operating System up and running isn’t always straightforward. However, there’s a ton of interesting stuff you can build with it: Nifty robotics, bionic bird boxes, musical hackery, twittering chickens, live train departure boards, internet radiossinging jelly babies and loads of other pideas. Try doing that with your iPad…

Creating with Raspberry Pi in the desert, using a knife and a bottle

Most of the jamboree focussed not on Apple but on the things that can be created with Raspberry Pi: the What and Why and When And How and Where and Who with keynotes from Steve Furber [1] and talks and panel sessions from:

A highlight of the jamboree was the closing keynote given by the thirteen year old Mini Girl Geek on what she’s been doing with her Raspberry Pi. MiniGirlGeek (aka Amy Mather pictured above) stole the show with her demo implementations of Conway’s Game of Life in Python. [update: see video below]

What’s interesting is that Conway’s Game of Life is used as an exercise for first year undergraduates in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. So it’s great to see teenagers mastering the “knife” of Raspberry Pi, and reminds us that Raspberry Pi is no “sunbed and cocktail” but with a little patience, ambition and talent there’s plenty to capture the imagination of young people about Computing.


  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report

February 4, 2013

On becoming a STEMnet ambassador: What, why and how?

A piece of raspberry pie

Creative Commons licensed picture of a DayGlo Raspberry Pi by @kevinv033 on Flickr

STEMNet is an organisation in the UK which creates opportunities to inspire young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Recently, along with about 15 PhD students from the CDT in Manchester, I became an STEM Ambassador. This post briefly describes what STEMNet is all about, why you would want to get involved and how you can do so.

What is STEMNet?

STEMnet is a network of volunteers (STEM ambassadors) who help schools and teachers by providing extra support in the classroom to teach topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teachers can ask the network for all kinds of help, it might be, for example:

  • role models to do a Day in the Life of… session (e.g. Astronaut, Star Gazer, Genetic Engineer, Roboticist etc)
  • help with a Raspberry Pi workshop
  • support running a Science club
  • demonstrations of interesting technology that might not normally be available in school
  • et cetera

Ambassadors (who have been vetted by the DBS) respond to teacher requests or propose their own ideas. Ambassadors commit to doing at least one education or outreach event per year, and often end of doing more. Interesting and varied learning experiences usually follow.

Why you should get involved

There are plenty of reasons to get involved in STEMnet:

  • It can be great fun working with young people.
  • The world would probably be a BetterPlace™ if we had more scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. STEMNet is working towards achieving this important goal.
  • Schools and teachers need all the help they can get in the classroom, teaching is a challenging but important job.
  • If you think you’re a nifty communicator, there’s nothing quite like a classroom full of teenagers (or younger) for testing your theory.
  • Join an active and diverse network of around 30,000 ambassadors across the UK

How to get involved

Contact your friendly local STEMnet co-ordinator if you would like to become a STEM Ambassador. For Greater Manchester, that’s the good folk based at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI): Daniel O’Connell and Donna Johnson (featured in the video below).

We’ve got some exciting new projects planned via STEMNet, in addition to what’s already going on at cs.manchester.ac.uk/schools. Watch this space!

June 15, 2012

Alan Turing Centenary Conference, 22nd-25th June 2012

Alan Turing by Michael Dales

The Alan Turing statue at Bletchley Park. Creative commons licensed picture via Michael Dales on Flickr

Next weekend, a bunch of very distinguished computer scientists will rock up at the magnificent Manchester Town Hall for the Turing Centenary Conference in order to analyse the development of Computer ScienceArtificial Intelligence and Alan Turing’s legacy [1].

There’s an impressive and stellar speaker line-up including:

Tickets are not cheap at £450 for four days, but you can sign up for free public lectures by Jack Copeland on Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age and Roger Penrose on the problem of modelling a mathematical mind. Alternatively, if you can lend some time, the conference organisers are looking for volunteers to help out in return for a free conference pass. Contact Vicki Chamberlin for details if you’re interested.


  1. Chouard, T. (2012). Turing at 100: Legacy of a universal mind Nature, 482 (7386), 455-455 DOI: 10.1038/482455a see also nature.com/turing

May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.


  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

May 16, 2012

Blue Moon hypothesis tested in Large Football Collider (LFC)

The Manchester Derby 2007. What a difference five years makes

“This is how it feels to be City, this is how it feels to be small, this is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all.”  [1,3]

If you are not interested in Football Science, look away now. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

There is a controversial idea in football that money buys trophies, also known as Mancini’s Blue Moon hypothesis.

Two rival Universities have led the way in testing this idea, The University of Old Trafford and the The University of Eastlands, both in Manchester. One institute is led by a Scot, Professor Ferguson the other by an Italian, Professor Mancini. Both Universities have assembled teams of elite researchers including Doctor Vidic (PhD, University of Spartak Moscow) and Doctor Kompany (PhD, University of Hamburger) in their respective labs to carry out the necessary experiments.

Professor Mancini’s research laboratory have recently produced some intriguing experimental results by winning the 2012 Premier League title with generous funding from the Mansour Research Council (MRC) [2] (not to be confused with the Medical Research Council). The MRC has invested significantly more funding than rival bodies like the Glazer Research Council (GRC) not be be confused with the Global Research Council, which has opened up exciting new research opportunities in applied football science.

Some leading football scientists say Mancini’s Blue Moon hypothesis has been proven beyond all doubt; money does buy you trophies. Other scientists say that is it too early to tell, these results are inconclusive and more research is needed. Professor Ferguson insists that other factors besides money are significant in winning trophies.

Experimentalists will resume their research when the Large Football Collider (LFC) is switched back on in August 2012 after its annual summer shutdown. Is Mancini’s hypothesis proven or not? Tune in next season …


  1. Inspiral Carpets (1990) This Is How It Feels to be Lonely, This Is How It Feels to be Small Mute records
  2. The Premier League Research Council (PLRC) funds research into basic and applied football science in collaboration with the Mansour Research Council and many others. These football science councils have a larger fund than all the other traditional scientific research councils combined (EPSRC, BBSRC, NERCMRC, STFC and PPARC etc).

April 25, 2012

Bicycle sharing with a twist: Brompton Dock launches at UK railway stations

Brompton, Brompton, Straight Outta Brompton. New Brompton dock launches in in Manchester.

Bicycle sharing is becoming increasingly popular in cities around the world. London has Boris Bikes, Paris has Vélo Liberté: Vélib’ and New York should soon have thousands of new Bixi-bikes this summer. There are scores of public cycle hire schemes in other cities. With the health benefits of cycling well documented [1] and with the potential reduction of traffic congestion which blight many of our cities, it’s not difficult to see why sharing schemes are gaining popularity.

An interesting new cycle sharing scheme launched in the UK last month, Brompton Dock, which hires out Brompton folding bicycles from railway stations around the UK. By the end of 2012 there will be 17 of these docks around the country. The twist (or fold) with Brompton Dock is that these bikes neatly fold away into secure lockers and also under your office desk or in a cupboard at home. Here are some quick thoughts from a trial spin earlier this month:

Brompton Dock Pros Brompton Dock Cons
They are beautifully designed and built bicycles, folding is very simple and ingenious (once you’ve worked it out). The bikes have high quality components (hub dynamo), shimano gears etc Quality comes at a price and Brompton bikes aren’t cheap. Although hiring is cheap (see below), you’re liable to a ~£700 replacement charge if it gets stolen. Ouch!
You can take this bike anywhere (train, office, cupboard, boot of your car etc). Handy if you live in a flat with no outdoor cycle storage. No lock provided to secure the bike. You can just fold it away but this isn’t handy if you’re just popping into the shop. It’s probably not a great idea to lock it up for long because these expensive bikes will be a target for theft.
Bromptons have a pretty sturdy construction, which is just as well because hire bikes have to take a fair amount of abuse. Bromptons are quite heavy, weighing around 12 kilos. You’ll notice the weight when you try to carry the bike with one hand onto a train. On the road, they’re not as zippy as a lighter machine and the small wheels give a different handling to larger wheeled bikes.
Brompton dock is a nation-wide scheme which allows you to hire from one city and drop off in a completely different one, something you can’t do with Boris Bikes. Most cities have only one or just a small handful of these docks so city-wide hop-on, hop-off is more limited than other cycle sharing schemes
No luggage carrying equipment comes as standard, there is no pannier rack to put things on.
Secure lockers mean that vandalism will be less of an issue than with other schemes. The lockers have a very nifty keyless system where you send a text message and receive a unique code to release a bike (once you’ve registered)
Comes with a pump, neatly tucked away on the frame. A minor point, but I found the pump can fall off easily and be tricky to get back on.
A great way of “try-before-you-buy” a Brompton of your own. Prices look reasonable to me and there are a wide range of pricing options starting from just one week hire and membership for a mere ten quid. You might be reluctant to return it to the dock, and may even want to buy one of your own!

Personally I think Brompton Dock is a great idea and it will be interesting to see how successful it is. If Brompton Dock, and  other bicycle sharing schemes, get more people out of cars and onto bicycles and trains then it can only be a good thing. Try for yourself, you can hire one from a UK station near you in 2012.

(Disclaimer, I’m not being paid by Brompton Dock or Brompton Bicycles to write this review, but they did give me a free T-shirt for being their first (!) customer).


  1. Kremers, S., de Bruijn, G., Visscher, T., Deeg, D., Thomése, G., Visser, M., van Mechelen, W., & Brug, J. (2012). Associations between Safety from Crime, Cycling, and Obesity in a Dutch Elderly Population: Results from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-6 DOI: 10.1155/2012/127857

April 2, 2012

Open Data Manchester: Twenty Four Hour Data People

Sean Ryder at the Hacienda by Tangerine Dream on flickr

Sean Ryder, the original twenty-four hour Manchester party person of the Happy Mondays, spins the discs at the Wickerman festival in 2008. Creative commons licensed image via Tangerine Dream on flickr.com

According to Francis Maude, Open Data is the raw material for “next industrial revolution”. Now you should obviously take everything politicians say with a large pinch of salt (especially Maude) but despite the political hyperbole, when it comes to data he is onto something.

According to wikipedia, which is considerably more reliable than politicians, Open Data is:

“the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.”

Open Data is slowly having an impact in the world of science [1] and also in wider society. Initiatives like data.gov in the U.S. and data.gov.uk in England, also known as e-government or government 2.0, have put huge amounts of data in the public domain and there is plenty more data in the pipeline. All of this data makes novel applications possible, like cycling injury maps showing accident black spots, and many others just like it.

To discuss the current status of Open Data in Greater Manchester there were two events last week:

  1. The Open Data Manchester meetup “24 hour data people” [2] at the the Manchester Digital Laboratory (“madlab”), which recently made BBC headlines with the DIY bio project
  2. The Discover Open Data event at the Cornerhouse cinema
Here is a brief and incomplete summary of what went on at these events:


November 30, 2011

Scientific research reveals the best* curry house in Manchester!

This and ThatCurryology, the branch of science that deals with curry, is an established discipline with a long and distinguished history. The myriad ingredients of curry, such as curcumin (in turmeric), capsaicin (in chilli pepper), cumin, coriander and many others have been a topic of considerable scientific research [1,2,3,4,5].

Like many large British cities, Manchester is blessed with a large population of people from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All this means there is a bewildering array restaurants and eateries serving delicious curry, and Mancunians are spoilt for choice when it comes to spicy food.

Visitors to, and residents of the city often ask:

“Where can I get the best curry in Manchester?”

After more than fifteen years of extensive and exhaustive scientific research in restaurants around Manchester I’m pleased to report on what, in my humble opinion, is the best* curry house….

Conventional wisdom dictates that some of the finest curries can be found on the curry mile, a mile long strip of neon and spice in Rusholme, South Manchester. While Rusholme curries are good, you’ll find it hard to beat This and That Indian Cafe on Soap Street, Shudehill, Manchester M4 1EW. Tucked away in a humble side street, this place really is a hidden gem. What makes it so good?

  • Excellent value for money (see menu), a crucial factor in these economically challenging times
  • No nonsense service from friendly staff (see picture above)
  • There is a charm to This and That which comes from being hidden down a dodgy looking side street, off the beaten track. Somehow, if it were in a more obvious location, it wouldn’t be quite as appealing.
  • Delicious curry (omnomnom) gorge yourself on gorgeous gargantuan ghee dishes
  • A diverse clientele, you’ll rub shoulders with anyone and everyone from elite BBC hacks like Justin Rowlatt, policemen, taxi drivers and Joe the sparky from the local building site, who are all regulars.

What more could you ask for from a curry house?


  1. Parthasarathy, V. A., Chempakam, B., and Zachariah, T. J. (2008). Chemistry of Spices (Cabi), ISBN:1845934059. Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International , first edition.
  2. Bettaieb, I., Bourgou, S., Wannes, W., Hamrouni, I., Limam, F., & Marzouk, B. (2010). Essential Oils, Phenolics, and Antioxidant Activities of Different Parts of Cumin (Cuminum cyminum L.) Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 58 (19), 10410-10418 DOI: 10.1021/jf102248j
  3. Silva, F., Ferreira, S., Queiroz, J., & Domingues, F. (2011). Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.) essential oil: its antibacterial activity and mode of action evaluated by flow cytometry Journal of Medical Microbiology, 60 (10), 1479-1486 DOI: 10.1099/jmm.0.034157-0
  4. Ringman JM, Frautschy SA, Cole GM, Masterman DL, & Cummings JL (2005). A potential role of the curry spice curcumin in Alzheimer’s disease. Current Alzheimer research, 2 (2), 131-6 PMID: 15974909
  5. Bode, A., & Dong, Z. (2011). The Two Faces of Capsaicin Cancer Research, 71 (8), 2809-2814 DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-3756

*Your Mileage May Vary

May 21, 2010

myExperiment: The Videos

myExperiment is a research project that is exploring models, techniques and infrastructure for sharing digital items associated with  research , especially scientific workflows. The project is funded by the Joint Information Standards Committee (JISC) as part of a series of projects building Virtual Research Environments (VRE’s) and is run by Dave De Roure and Carole Goble at the Universities of Southampton and Manchester in the UK.

Last year, JISC made some professional videos describing the project. Needless to say, the videos were much more fun to make than the accompanying papers [1,2,3] and a probably more informative too. The best way of linking the research papers to the videos on youtube is to blog about them, so here they are. The first video (below) talks about the project generally:

The second video (below) discusses the data used in tackling African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) in cattle.

The videos include interviews with Carole Goble, Dave De Roure, Paul Fisher, Andy Brass and yours truly.


  1. David De Roure, Carole Goble, & Robert Stevens (2007). Designing the myExperiment Virtual Research Environment for the Social Sharing of Workflows IEEE International Conference on e-Science and Grid Computing, 603-610 DOI: 10.1109/E-SCIENCE.2007.29
  2. David De Roure, Carole Goble, Jiten Bhagat, Don Cruickshank, Antoon Goderis, Danius Michaelides, & David Newman (2008). myExperiment: Defining the Social Virtual Research Environment IEEE Fourth International Conference on eScience, 2008. eScience ’08., 182-189 DOI: 10.1109/eScience.2008.86
  3. Goble, C., Bhagat, J., Aleksejevs, S., Cruickshank, D., Michaelides, D., Newman, D., Borkum, M., Bechhofer, S., Roos, M., Li, P., & De Roure, D. (2010). myExperiment: a repository and social network for the sharing of bioinformatics workflows Nucleic Acids Research DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkq429
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