Friday, 29 February 2008

ECOOP PC meeting

I'm just back from two very exhausting days as part of the ECOOP PC that met on Thursday/Friday at Imperial College, London.

It was a very exciting but tiring couple of days. In the end we're going to have a great conference - we've accepted a really good selection of papers.

The process was very thorough - some papers were discussed for over 45 (heated) minutes! Jan did a wonderful job making sure that everyone who wanted to had a say. Moreover, we discussed many, many, many papers. We really needed two full days of arguing! (I had the good fortune of sitting between Kathleen Fisher and Doug Lea - so it was never dull!)

So, come to Cyprus in July! There's not only going to be a great programme, but you should definitely buy Jan a beer.

PS: MacBook Air count amongst the PC: 2

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Hurrah for physical PC meetings!

Environmentally friendly they are not, but there are advantages to physical PC meetings. Thursday and Friday is the PC meeting for ECOOP 2008. (I'm also on the PC.) By the good fortunate of being close to London, I managed to persuade William Cook to visit MSRC. It's been a fascinating three days - thanks for coming William!

In addition we have had Kathleen Fisher, Bob Gruber and Erez Petrank visit and give great talks. Yesterday, James Noble popped by and on Monday, Robbie Findler will visit and give a talk.

It pays to be close to Imperial!

(I'm looking forward to the ECOOP PC meeting - I'll post my impressions...)

MacBook Air

Matthew came to my office on Monday and broke an important rule: Former PhD students are never allowed to have better laptops than their supervisors!

Yes, Matt brought his MacBook Air with 64G SSD. Here it is on my desk next to my less sexy Dell desktop:

My impression: It's gorgeous! What impressed me is not the weight, indeed my trusty Dell X1 is lighter, but the fact that it feels like a serious laptop. It's not plastic, it doesn't flex and I don't need to sharpen my fingers to use it.
It's beautifully designed. I take the criticism that one USB socket is a limit. I'm not so sure about the non-removable battery issue. I swapped in the heavier battery in my X1 when I got it, and I've never swapped it out. At least for me, the fixed battery wouldn't be a problem.
I'm still not happy that Matt has one and I don't though :-)

Monday, 25 February 2008

Othello @ Donmar Warehouse

Thanks to my wonderful brother, Mateja and I went to see the last performance of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse. This production has been highly praised ("An Othello for our times" - The Guardian), but even this didn't prepare me for the show!

This was the most amazing show I have ever seen. There was nothing to fault. From the lighting to the sound to the music to the minor characters, it was suberb. However, above all Chiwetel Ejiofor totally commanded the stage. His power was awesome, and yet he gave the part great subtlety. The scenes with Ewan McGregor (Iago) in the second half were particularly wonderful. I'm sure people will speak of this Othello in years to come.

There have been some criticisms of Ewan's performance - essentially that it was too weak and not sinister enough. However, I think they miss the point - I think Ewan was trying to give the audience some reason for *why* Iago was trusted so utterly by both Othello and Emilia. Were he such a cartoon villian surely someone would be suspicious.

At the end of the performance there was a notable pause before the standing ovation - people were so shocked. A woman a few seats away from me was in tears. Even afterwards, we found it quite hard to talk after the show. To be exposed to that much emotion and tragedy takes it out on you! It's amazing to think that this play was written four hundred and five years ago - but I'm sure this sort of performance was what Shakespeare had in mind (or, perhaps, even better that what he had in mind).

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Photosynth video

You've got to watch this cool demo of Photosynth and other cool graphics apps from Microsoft: here!

[Thanks to Nick for the link.]

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Ted Nelson in Cambridge

Ted Nelson - the inventor of the term hypertext, amongst other terms - was in Cambridge today giving a seminar at the University Computer Laboratory.

I enjoyed his talk. It was deliberately provocative, and perhaps not even Ted believed all of it. But definitely worth hearing and thinking about.

Ted's main point was that most modern computer systems (both the OS and the applications) today are essentially the same as was defined in the 1970s on UNIX. That time (the birth of UNIX) represented a moment (perhaps the only one we'll have) to break free of certain concepts. He discussed paper - and how it is a constraining medium for information - look at all the funny notation that copy editors and others have for denoting meta-information. Look at the problems people had in versioning paper documents. None of this is easy with paper and we knew these problems. So in 1970 we had an opportunity to re-invent the document. But we didn't. We still essentially imitate the paper format. [And lots of other weird restrictions - why is a document a single file?] As Ted put it: WYSIWYG is just propoganda for paper simulation. (Or better: doing this is the equivalent of taking a 747, ripping off the wings, crippling the engine and using it as a bus). As HTML contains embedded markup (and only one-way links), Ted classifies it as an "unmitigated disaster"!

He demonstrated the Xanadu Space application, which tries to offer a fresh look at documents. It looked quite nice, although not terribly novel (I've see similar apps for photo management for example).

He also described design in computer applications by considering the representation of time. We tend to show it using a circle for the hours and a table for the calendar. He pointed out that we should really unify these views and represent time as a spiral. He also made the following point, which is really quite beautiful:
The aim of any user interface is mental clarity

He wrapped up his talk by discussing very briefly his generalization of data structures: hyperthogonal cell constructions. This was quite nice, although I didn't agree with all of his criticisms of relational databases. First of all, Codd's vision was relations, not tables. Second, whilst we accept that tables are an artifical construction they allow us to build expressive query languages and execute them (very) efficiently. It's a trade off. Ted didn't mention any programmatic querying of his data structures - but I'd be interested to see if there was anything plausible here.

Anyhow, a fun talk.

For the interested: An entry on Ted on wikipedia is here.

Monday, 4 February 2008


Microsoft Research has just announced a new research lab: Microsoft Research North East, to be based in the other Cambridge. Good luck to Jennifer and Christian!