Two years after my visit to Oxford (see chapter: Hi-Tech Tourist on the European Information Highway), I returned to the UK. My first high technology trip had been an afterthought, for what started as a holiday. This time the trip was paid for by the ACS and I prepared thoroughly, with on-line research, equipment, Internet access and invitations to dinner.
This travelogue started out as a request for suggestions as to what and who to see in the UK, developed while there and on my return (Worthington, 1996). Of course it was much easier to organise a trip on-line as the Internet had matured in two years. In addition, as President of the ACS invited to the UK by my British counterpart, I had access to more than an ordinary tourist would.
There were still difficulties, such as my Australian Internet provider accidentally sending 3,500 e-mail error messages to me in the UK. In addition, I had to stand in the middle of a cold Cambridge road at 2am to talk to Australia on my mobile telephone. In a twist of fate normally reserved for fiction, the brother of the friend I visited in Oxford, was studying at Cambridge (both are surgeons).
From 12 to 27 November 1996 I travelled to Windsor and Cambridge in the UK. The main reason was an invitation to a meeting on the Internet publishing and professional licensing issues by the British Computer Society to the ACS and others. Also there was the opportunity to visit IT researchers. More generally, I had been addressing various issues to do with on-line publishing and wanted to collect my thoughts on the issue and perhaps set them down for presentation. Cambridge, as a city of learning, appeared the ideal place to do this.
This is a combined travelogue and report on the meetings. The usual split between personal holiday snaps and dry official reports is to me uninteresting and artificial. One conclusion from my trip is that the personal aspect is important to IT and lacking from the general approach in Australia.
The paper work for meetings proved useful to get into the country. I was asked by UK customs (very politely) about all my computer gear. Producing an invitation from the British Computer Society (patron: His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh) and a list of appointments with important people in Cambridge satisfied them I was not some sort of computer importer.
The first problem was to get my GSM mobile telephone to work, so I could send some live reports (see chapter: Hot Air Balloon over Canberra). I had paid Telstra $500 for GSM roaming in the UK. As soon as I turned the telephone on, it located the local carrier, registered and was useable. However if anyone called me I had to pay the international rate to have the call forwarded from Australia to the UK (even if the caller was in the UK). Also UK callers would get confused about ringing Australia to talk to someone in the UK and might resent paying international rates to do it.
British Airways rent telephones by the day from their holiday desk at Heathrow, but they do not rent just SIM cards to go in telephones (and I did not want to carry around two telephones). Hertz rent SIM cards but were all out (book your SIM card in advance).
To avoid large telephone bills I set the telephone to send all incoming calls to the answering service, which would then forward them by SMS (the GSM text message service). Telstra told me that their SMS system was incompatible with the UK system, but it worked fine.
Giving up on the telephone for the moment, I caught a taxi to Windsor. If it is not six in the morning (as it was) and you are not delirious from 16 hours in a plane (as I was), then take a bus, not a taxi (35 UK pounds) from Heathrow to Windsor.
Many people in Australia told me to take my long underwear and rain-coat, as it would be cold and wet in the UK. It turned out to be cold all the time and wet some of the time, but quite comfortable. The first few days in the UK's autumn were similar to the coldest days of Canberra's winter: single digit temperatures, but with a clear blue sky and little wind. As long as you are in the sun and out of the wind it is very comfortable. The sky is not quite as blue as Canberra or the sun as strong. The wet days were okay as long as you are dressed in several layers and have a waterproof coat. The long underwear is not a good idea (unless you are walking cross-country) as UK buildings are well heated and you would have to undress each time you went indoors. The rumours of unpleasant weather were useful in keeping tourists away; it was very quiet wherever I went (except for Saturday mornings).
The center of Windsor is dominated by Windsor Castle, which is in such good condition it looks like it was just built. The town below has a pedestrian mall with useful shops as well as the usual tourist traps.
The conference was at the Sir Christopher Wren's House Hotel. This is in fact a block of houses converted to a hotel, with winding passages between. It overlooks the River Thames and the view across to Eaton was magical.
While an historic place, Windsor is part of the twentieth century. Across the road from the hotel was a telephone shop. I had a demo of the new Nokia telephone with built in pocket organiser. In addition, I was asked if Network Computers would become commodity items subsidised like mobile telephones by service providers (an extremely insightful comment). I rented a UK SIM card (local telephone number) for my GSM telephone. The SIM card (the size of a postage stamp) arrived by courier the next day, in a shoe-box sized box. I used the box as a illustration for the need for changes in procedures to the first meeting.
After a day to get over the jet lag (its about 20 hours and 16,000 km from Sydney to London), the Electronic Operations Exchange meeting commenced (Worthington, 1996b). I was familiar with the European and UK people from my previous visit to the UK and from the IFIP meeting in Canberra.
Each national body gave an overview of its organisation and view of the issues. It became very clear very quickly how much we had in common (I jokingly suggested we could have one standard presentation for all societies) and that the ACS was in relatively good shape compared to its peers.
The main issue for the meeting was how computer societies could work together in using the Internet. It quickly emerged that the ``hidden agenda'' was that some societies were having considerable difficulty coping with the challenge, particularly those with large paper publishing activities. The ACS was not in such a bad position as we have been using the Internet for some time, have confronted the issues and do not rely on paper publishing for a significant proportion of our revenue.
One issue that started to emerge for me was the problem of adapting the Internet to language and cultural differences. The German and Japanese delegates kept reminding the US, British and Australians that everyone in the world does not speak English as their native language. At one point I even had to have something from the ACM President translated from US English to Australian (he asked if the white paper could be completed by fall 1997).
As a person from a multi-cultural society, I appeared to be more attuned to this issue than my fellow English speakers. The issue of cultural differences is one I raised following my last visit to the UK in 1994. It also came up later in Cambridge. There may be an opportunity for Australia to contribute in this area, thereby improving the usability of global networks, improving the world and perhaps making some money as well.
After the meeting, I jumped on a train, then across London on two tube lines and to Cambridge from Liverpool Street Station. Soon we were out of the city and into picture postcard countryside.
The train arrived on time in Cambridge and I was met by Melville da Cruz, from Kings College. The center of Cambridge is a university town, like Oxford. Businesses are interspersed with the imposing walls of colleges. There are students on bicycles everywhere and winding streets.
Cambridge is overflowing with high brow culture. My host was interspersing lower cranial operations with teaching students at Kings and violin practice. This appears to be the way things are in this town.
I went to a performance of Handel's Messiah in King's College Chapel by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir. Not being a musical expert this did not sound any better than one in the Canberra School of Music, but the building was imposing. In addition, I went to a performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 7 by the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra at the West Road Concert Hall. This is the location for the music faculty and is a small, modern, less imposing building than the old stone colleges.
First up I visited Andy Hopper at the Olivetti Research Laboratory (aka The Olivetti & Oracle Research Laboratory). ORL is located in a very plain brick building wedged in next to a very ostentatious business school. Andy does not have the typical office of a director of an organisation. He has about five video cameras, a dozen microphones, five workstations and assorted sensors. These are all hooked via an ATM network to each other, the rest of the building and the Cambridge Computer Lab.
Also they have an experimental pen based tablet; it looks like a laptop computer with the keyboard removed. Unlike units on the market, this one is not designed for stand-alone processing. It depends on an ATM network to deliver one or more data streams from servers elsewhere on the network. This might be described as the minimalist approach to the network computer (or the x-terminal taken to extremes). It differs from what Sun and Oracle have been promoting, in that no user processing is done in the unit. Consequently it needs a faster connection, but requires less configuration.
This is an interesting research idea, but does not look like a marketable product, at least for some time. It's sort of the TV set of the Internet, giving a nice picture but is useless if no one is broadcasting.
To connect the tablets ORL are working on wireless ATM. This would be used first in offices to replace LAN cabling and then outside, as a super cellular network. Getting ATM to work wireless is a heroic task. ATM was designed to take advantage of low error rate optical fibre cables. Wireless can have a high error rate. It appears that they are building essentially an enthernet type layer underneath (remember ethernet was derived from a radio data network).
What I found most impressive about ORL was not the gadgets, but the people. They have an enthusiasm for the work. Over a sandwich at the coffee shop near by I complained that ORL did not have a decent doorbell. Why not bolt one of the tablets next to the door and make a high-tech doorbell? I could almost see the cogs starting to turn.
ORL is not there as part of the University; it is there to produce research so the owners can make money. The problem of getting an established company, such as Olivetti or Oracle, to take the new ideas to market is solved by spinning off new companies to develop the ideas. The researchers may go with the work and have a profit share.
The computer lab is down the road from ORL on top of a whale skeleton (its mixed in with the Zoology Department). As the Computer Lab Home Page says ``Cambridge has a lot of beautiful buildings, but this is not one of them''. On Tuesday I met Professor Robin Milner, Head of Department and he gave an overview of the lab.
In the afternoon I attended the first of three seminars by the Lab's Security Group, on ``The Gabidulin Cryptosystem'', by Keith Gibson, Birkbeck College, London. It was not a good start as this one was mostly mathematics that I did not understand.
On Wednesday I visited ARM Ltd. at Cherry Hinton, (about 3 miles south of the city centre, just on the city boundary). ARM design the processors for the Apple Newton and other gadgets, such as mobile telephones. They describe themselves as an Intellectual Property company. They do not make chips, but licence the designs to silicon foundries.
As well as designing the usual tools for writing software to run on the processors, ARM are producing software tools to help people use their processor designs as part of a larger chip. They are also producing software equivalents of devices such MPEG decoders and modems to run on the processors.
They gave me an interesting overview of the process and of the way Economic Community research projects (which they are involved in) work.
The most interesting comment was about working in partnership with another company successfully because, ``they were our sort of people''. Again there was a spirit of enthusiasm, which was more impressive for me than the hi-tech toys.
Lunch this time was at a local pub that serves traditional ale and Thai curry. Some ORL people were at the next table (this is a small town and for the rest of the visit I kept running into people I met somewhere else).
My talk on Encryption & Electronic Commerce in Australia, Friday to the Security Group was not a great success. This might be because it is usually their general discussion time I was gate crashing. On the other hand, they were busy cracking the security on bank credit cards. Anyway the ale in the Eagle public house in Bene't Street afterwards was okay.
The following Monday I met Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, Chair of the University IT Committee. A discussion of IT research issues took place over lunch at ``high table'' in Trinity College. This was my second high table meal (following dinner at Kings) and was not as intimidating as I expected. I suppose I felt a bit like someone from a republic confronted by royalty: fascinated by the ceremony, delighted to be part of the proceedings, but a little uncomfortable with the non-egalitarian nature of it all.
The last seminar I attended was a bit of a ``busman's holiday'' back at the Computer Security Group on ``Information Warfare and Infosec - Future Challenges'', by David Ferbrache, Defence Research Agency, UK Ministry of Defence, Malvern. This covered many of issues of interest to the Australian Department of Defence.
Was it worth spending thousands of dollars of ACS member's money to fly to the UK, two weeks of my holiday and hundreds of dollars for a micro-sabbatical? I think so. E-mail is useful but less so than meeting people. The IT professionals I met shared the same concerns and were addressing similar issues as in Australia. We do not lack in technical ability. What I think Cambridge might be able to teach us is the importance of having a social setting conducive to co-operative work by people. This is not about expensive buildings or equipment...
...and that's the message I gave them at the Information Systems Driving Radical Change conference the next week. This was followed by a Cocktail Party and dinner for the ACS's 30th anniversary. It was quite a contrast to the UK to be standing outdoors at 7pm looking at the Sydney skyline from the National Maritime Museum.
In practice, the GSM telephone did not turn out to be that useful. I only got about six calls (two were wrong numbers about insurance on a car). Vodaphone reception in Cambridge was not reliable and I could not get data calls to work at all on that network. Cellnet was more reliable and the data service worked well (even from a bus).
What is needed to make international roaming useful is a system that takes into account the human factors of long distance communication and does not just transmit calls over longer distances. When overseas I would like to have calls from Australia answered in Australia and SMS message sent, but calls from the country I am in sent through. This could be built into the telephone system or implemented more crudely by allowing SMS messages to be forwarded to a temporary number in the other country.
- Compare the design of the web version of this document and the original (Worthington, 1996). Which changes are due to development of web standards and which to increased experience of the web designer?
- What can you find out from open source (that is on-line) information about the places and people mentioned in this travelogue?
- Worthington, T. (1996) Windsor and Cambridge, UK - Cambridge live from a Double Decker Bus, URL
- Worthington, T. (1996) Electronic Operations in the ACS - Presentation for the Electronic Operations Exchange Meeting, November 1996, URL
- Worthington, T. (1998) Overview, Whole-of-Australian-Government Search Architecture, 28 January 1998, URL
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Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999.