Joyce Wheeler: The Life of a Star

Exploding star

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

The first computers transformed the way research is done. One of the very first computers, EDSAC*, contributed to the work of three Nobel prize winners: in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. Astronomer, Joyce Wheeler was an early researcher to make use of the potential of computers to aid the study of other subjects in this way. She was a Cambridge PhD student in 1954 investigating the nuclear reactions that keep stars burning. This involved doing lots of calculations to work out the changing behaviour and composition of the star.

Exploding star
Star image by Dieter from Pixabay

Joyce had seen EDSAC on a visit to the university before starting her PhD, and learnt to program it from its basic programming manual so that she could get it to do the calculations she needed. She would program by day and let EDSAC number crunch using her programs every Friday night, leaving her to work on the results in the morning, and then start the programming for the following week’s run. EDSAC not only allowed her to do calculations accurately that would otherwise have been impossible, it also meant she could run calculations over and over, tweaking what was done, refining the accuracy of the results, and checking the equations quickly with sample numbers. As a result EDSAC helped her to estimate the age of stars.

*Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator

EDSAC Monitoring Desk, image from Wikipedia

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and also appears on page 17 of Issue 23 of the CS4FN magazine, The Women are (still) Here. You can download a free copy of the magazine as a PDF below, along with all of our other free material.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

The Devil is in the Detail: Lessons from Animal Welfare? (Temple Grandin)

Several cows poking their heads through railings to look at the camera.

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Several cows poking their heads through railings to look at the camera.
Cows image by -Rita-👩‍🍳 und 📷 mit ❤ from Pixabay

What can Computer Scientists learn from a remarkable woman and the improvements she made to animal welfare and the meat processing industry?

Temple Grandin is an animal scientist – an animal welfare specialist and a remarkable innovator on top. She has extraordinary abilities that allow her to understand animals in ways others can’t. As a result her work has reduced the suffering of countless farm animals. She has designed equipment, for example, to restrain animals. It makes it easier to give them shots because, in contrast to the equipment it replaces, it does not discomfort the animals as they enter. By being able to see the detail that an animal perceives she is able to design to overcome the problems. Paradoxically perhaps for someone who cares so much about animals, she works with slaughter houses – Meat Processing factories like those of McDonalds.

Her aim, given people do eat meat, is to ensure the animals are treated humanely throughout the process of rearing an animal until its death. Her work has been close to miraculous in the changes she has brought about to ensure that farm animals do not suffer. She is good for business too. If cattle are spooked by something as they enter the processing factory (also known as a ‘plant’), whether by the glint of metal or a deep shadow, the plant’s efficiency drops. Fewer animals are processed per hour and that is a big problem for managers.

As a result of her work she has turned round plants, both in welfare terms and in terms of rescuing plants that might otherwise have been shut down. Suddenly plants she audits are treating their livestock humanely.

See the Bigger Picture

Where do Temple’s extraordinary abilities come from? In fact she was originally labelled as being mentally disabled. She is actually autistic. As a result her brain doesn’t quite work the way most people’s do. Autistic people as a result of these brain differences often have difficulties socialising with others. They can find it very hard to understand the nuances of human-human communication that the rest of us take for granted. This is in part because autistic people perceive the world differently. A non-autistic person misses vast amounts of the detail in front of their eyes. Instead just a bigger picture of what they are seeing is passed to their conscious selves. An autistic person doesn’t have that sub-conscious ability to filter out detail, but instead perceives every small thing all at once. That is why autistics can sometimes be overcome by their surroundings, finding the world too much to cope with. They think in terms of a series of pictures full of detail, not abstractly in words.

Temple Grandin argues that that is what makes her special when it comes to understanding farm animals. In some ways they see the world very much like she does. Just as a cow does, she notices the shadows and the glint of metal, the bright patch on the floor from the overhead lights or the jacket laid over the fence that is spooking it. The plant managers and animal handlers don’t even register them never mind see them as a problem.

Who ya gonna call?

Because of this ability to quickly spot the problems everyone else has missed, Temple gained a reputation for being the person to call when a problem seemed intractable. She has also turned it into a career as an animal welfare auditor, checking processing plants to ensure their standards are sufficiently high. This is where she has helped force through the biggest improvements, and it all boils down to checklists.

Tick that box

Checking that lists of guidelines are being adhered to is a common way to audit quality in many areas of life. Checklists are used in a computer science context as checks for usability (for example that a new version of some application is easy to use) and accessibility (could a blind person, or for that matter someone who was autistic, successfully use a website say). Checklists tend to be very long. After all it must be the case that the more you are checking, the higher the quality of the result, mustn’t it? Surprisingly that turns out not always to be true! That is why Temple Grandin has been so successful. Rather than have a checklist with hundreds of things to check she boiled her own set of questions to ask down to just 10.

Traditional animal welfare audits have checklist questions such as “Is the flooring slippery?” and “Is the electric prod used as little as possible?”. Even apart from the number to work through this kind of checklist can be very hard to follow, not least due to the vagueness.


Temple’s checklist includes questions like: “Do all animals remain unconscious after being stunned?”, “Do no more than 3% of animals vocalise during handling or stunning?” (a “Moo” in this situation means “Ouch”) They are precise, with little room for dispute – it isn’t left to the inspectors judgement. That also means everyone knows the target they are working towards. The fact that there are only 10 also means it is easy for everyone involved to know them all well. Perhaps most importantly they do not focus on the state of the factory, or the way things are done. Instead, they focus on the end results – that animals are humanely treated. The point is that one item covers a multitude of sins that could be causing it. If too many animals are crying out in pain then you have to fix ALL the causes, even if it is something new that no-one thought of putting on a checklist before.

Temple’s 10 point approach to checklists can apply to more than just animal welfare of course. The principles behind it could just as well apply to other areas like usability and accessibility of websites.

Some usability evaluation techniques do follow similar principles. Cognitive Walkthrough, a method of auditing that systems are easy to use on first encounter, has some of the features of this kind of approach. The original version involved a longish set of questions that an expert was to ask him/herself about a system under evaluation. After early trials the developers of the method Cathleen Wharton, John Rieman, Clayton Lewis and Peter Polson quickly realised this wasn’t very practical and replaced it by a 4 question version. It has since then even been replaced by a 3-question walkthrough. One of the questions, to be asked of each step in achieving a task, is: “Will a user know what to try and do at this point?” This has some of the flavour of the Grandin approach – it is about the end result not about some specific thing going wrong.

Let’s look at accessibility. Currently, where web designers think about it at all (UK law requires them to) the long checklist approach tends to be followed. Typical items to check are things like “Ensure that all information conveyed with colour is also available without colour”. Automatic systems are often used to do audits. That is good in one sense as the criteria have then to be very precise for a mere computer to make the decision. On the other hand it encourages items in the checklist to just be things a computer can check. It also encourages the long list of fine detail approach that Temple rejected. Worse, it also can lead to people conforming to the checklist without deeply understanding what the point actually is. A classic example is a web designer adding as the last item on a web page “If you are partially sighted click here”. As far as an automatic checker is concerned they may have done everything right – even providing alternative facilities that are clearly available (if you can see them). A partially sighted person however would only get to that instruction on the screen after they have struggled through the rest of the page. The designer got the right idea but missed the point.

Temple Grandin’s approach would suggest instead having checklists that ask about the outcomes of using the page: “Do 97% of partially-sighted people successfully complete their objective in using the site?” for example. That is why “user testing” is so important, at least as one of the evaluation approaches you follow. User testing involves people from a wide variety of backgrounds actually trying using your prototype software or web pages before they are released. It allows you to focus on the big picture. Of course if you are trying to ensure a web page is accessible your users must include people with different kinds of disabilities.

The Big Picture

One of Temple Grandin’s main messages is that the big advantage that arises as a result of her autism is that she thinks in concrete pictures not in abstract words. Whilst thinking verbally is good in some situations it seems to make us treat small things as though they were just as important as the big issues.

So whatever you are doing, whether looking after animals or designing accessible websites, don’t get lost in the detail. Focus on the point of it all.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website. You might also like to read I’m feeling Moo-dy today.

This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

100,000 frames – quick draw: how computers help animators create

Film projector with film strip on a coloured rainbow background, from Pixabay

Ben Stephenson of the University of Calgary gives us a guide to the basics of animation.

Film projector with film strip on a coloured rainbow background, from Pixabay
Film projector and film strip image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Animation isn’t a new field – artists have been creating animations for over a hundred years. While the technology used to create those animations has changed immensely during that time, modern computer generated imagery continues to employ some of the same techniques that were used to create the first animations.

The hard work of hand drawing

During the early days of animation, moving images were created by rapidly showing a sequence of still images. Each still image, referred to as a frame, was hand drawn by an artist. By making small changes in each new frame, characters were created that appeared to be walking, jumping and talking, or doing anything else that the artist could imagine.

In order for the animation to appear smooth, the frames need to be displayed quickly – typically at around 24 frames each second. This means that one minute of animation required artists to draw over 1400 frames. That means that the first feature-length animated film, a 70-minute Argentinean film called The Apostle, required over 100,000 frames to create.

Creating a 90-minute movie, the typical feature length for most animated films, took almost 130,000 hand drawn frames. Despite these daunting numbers, many feature length animated movies have been created using hand-drawn images.

Drawing with data

Today, many animations are created with the assistance of computers. Rather than simply drawing thousands of images of one character using a computer drawing program, artists can create one mathematical model to represent that character, from which all of his or her appearances in individual frames are generated. Artists manipulate the model, changing things like the position of the character’s limbs (so that the character can be made to walk, run or jump) and aspects of the character’s face (so that it can talk and express emotions). Furthermore, since the models only exist as data on a computer they aren’t confined by the physical realities that people are. As such, artists also have the flexibility to do physically impossible things such as shrinking, bending or stretching parts of a character. Remember Elastigirl, the stretchy mum in The Incredibles? All made of maths.

Once all of the mathematical models have been positioned correctly, the computer is used to generate an image of the models from a specific angle. Just like the hand-drawn frames of the past, this computer- generated image becomes one frame in the movie. Then the mathematical models representing the characters are modified slightly, and another frame is generated. This process is repeated to generate all of the frames for the movie.

The more things change

You might have noticed that, despite the use of computers, the process of generating and displaying the animation remains remarkably similar to the process used to create the first animations over 100 years ago. The animation still consists of a collection of still images. The illusion of smooth movement is still achieved by rapidly displaying a sequence of frames, where each frame in the sequence differs only slightly from the previous one.

The key difference is simply that now the images may be generated by a computer, saving artists from hand drawing over 100,000 copies of the same character. Hand-drawn animation is still alive in the films of Studio Ghibli and Disney’s recent The Princess and the Frog, but we wonder if the animators of hand-drawn features might be tempted to look over at their fellow artists who use computers and shake an envious fist. A cramped fist, too, probably.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and also appears on page 3 of issue 11 of the CS4FN magazine “Computer animation proudly presents…” which you can download as a free PDF along with all of our other free material at our CS4FN downloads site.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Understanding matters of the heart – creating accurate computer models of human organs

Colourful depiction of a human heart

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Ada Lovelace, the ‘first programmer’ thought the possibilities of computer science might cover a far wider breadth than anyone else of her time. For example, she mused that one day we might be able to create mathematical models of the human nervous system, essentially describing how electrical signals move around the body. University of Oxford’s Blanca Rodriguez is interested in matters of the heart. She’s a bioengineer creating accurate computer models of human organs.

How do you model a heart? Well you first have to create a 3D model of its structure. You start with MRI scans. They give you a series of pictures of slices through the heart. To turn that into a 3D model takes some serious computer science: image processing that works out, from the pictures, what is tissue and what isn’t. Next you do something called mesh generation. That involves breaking up the model into smaller parts. What you get is more than just a picture of the surface of the organ but an accurate model of its internal structure.

So far so good, but it’s still just the structure. The heart is a working, beating thing not just a sculpture. To understand it you need to see how it works. Blanca and her team are interested in simulating the electrical activity in the heart – how electrical pulses move through it. To do this they create models of the way individual cells propagate an electrical system. Once you have this you can combine it with the model of the heart’s structure to give one of how it works. You essentially have a lot of equations. Solving the equations gives a simulation of how electrical signals propagate from cell to cell.

The models Blanca’s team have created are based on a healthy rabbit heart. Now they have it they can simulate it working and see if it corresponds to the results from lab experiments. If it does then that suggests their understanding of how cells work together is correct. When the results don’t match, then that is still good as it gives new questions to research. It would mean something about their initial understanding was wrong, so would drive new work to fix the problem and so the models.

Once the models have been validated in this way – shown it is an accurate description of the way a rabbit’s heart works – they can use them to explore things you just can’t do with experiments – exploring what happens when changes are made to the structure of the virtual heart or how drugs change the way it works, for example. That can lead to new drugs.

They can also use it to explore how the human heart works. For example, early work has looked at the heart’s response to an electric shock. Essentially the heart reboots! That’s why when someone’s heart stops in hospital, the emergency team give it a big electric shock to get it going again. The model predicts in detail what actually happens to the heart when that is done. One of the surprising things is it suggests that how well an electric shock works depends on the particular structure of the person’s heart! That might mean treatment could be more effective if tailored for the person.

Computer modelling is changing the way science is done. It doesn’t replace experiments. Instead clinical work, modelling and experiments combine to give us a much deeper understanding of the way the world, and that includes our own hearts, work.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can be found on p16 of issue 20 of the CS4FN magazine, a free PDF copy of which can be downloaded by clicking the picture or link below, along with all of our free-to-download booklets and magazines.

Logo for CRY: Cardiac Risk in the Young

The charity Cardiac Risk in the Young raises awareness of cardiac electrical rhythm abnormalities and supports testing (electrocardiograms and echocardiograms) for all young people aged 14-35.

This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

The Dark History of Algorithms

Colourful graphic equaliser cartoon, representing frequencies

Zin Derfoufi, a Computer Science student at Queen Mary, delves into some of the dark secrets of algorithms past.

Algorithms are used throughout modern life for the benefit of mankind whether as instructions in special programs to help disabled people, computer instructions in the cars we drive or the specific steps in any calculation. The technologies that they are employed in have helped save lives and also make our world more comfortable to live it. However, beneath all this lies a deep, dark, secret history of algorithms plagued with schemes, lies and deceit.

Algorithms have played a critical role in some of History’s worst and most brutal plots even causing the downfall and rise of nations and monarchs. Ever since humans have been sent on secret missions, plotted to overthrow rulers or tried to keep the secrets of a civilisation unknown, nations and civilisations have been using encrypted messages and so have used algorithms. Such messages aim to carry sensitive information recorded in such a way that it can only make sense to the sender and recipient whilst appearing to be gibberish to anyone else. There are a whole variety of encryption methods that can be used and many people have created new ones for their own use: a risky business unless you are very good at it.

One example is the ‘Caesar Cipher’ which is named after Julius Caesar who used it to send secret messages to his generals. The algorithm was one where each letter was replaced by the third letter down in the alphabet so A became D, B became E, etc. Of course, it means that the recipient must know of the algorithm (sequence to use) to regenerate the original letters of the text otherwise it would be useless. That is why a simple algorithm of “Move on 3 places in the alphabet” was used. It is an algorithm that is easy for the general to remember. With a plain English text there are around 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different distinct arrangements of letters that could have been used! With that many possibilities it sounds secure. As you can imagine, this would cause any ambitious codebreaker many sleepless nights and even make them go bonkers!!! It became so futile to try and break the code that people began to think such messages were divine!

But then something significant happened. In the 9th Century a Muslim, Arabic Scholar changed the face of cryptography forever. His name was Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi -better known to the West as Alkindous. Born in Kufa (Iraq) he went to study in the famous Dar al-Hikmah (house of wisdom) found in Baghdad- the centre for learning in its time which produced the likes of Al-Khwarzimi, the father of algebra – from whose name the word algorithm originates; the three Bana Musa Brothers; and many more scholars who have shaped the fields of engineering, mathematics, physics, medicine, astrology, philosophy and every other major field of learning in some shape or form.

Al-Kindi introduced the technique of code breaking that was later to be known as ‘frequency analysis’ in his book entitled: ‘A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages’. He said in his book:

“One way to solve an encrypted message, if we know its language, is to find a different plaintext of the same language long enough to fill one sheet or so, and then we count the occurrences of each letter. We call the most frequently occurring letter the ‘first’, the next most occurring one the ‘second’, the following most occurring the ‘third’, and so on, until we account for all the different letters in the plaintext sample.

“Then we look at the cipher text we want to solve and we also classify its symbols. We find the most occurring symbol and change it to the form of the ‘first’ letter of the plaintext sample, the next most common symbol is changed to the form of the ‘second’ letter, and so on, until we account for all symbols of the cryptogram we want to solve”.

So basically to decrypt a message all we have to do is find out how frequent each letter is in each (both in the sample and in the encrypted message – the original language) and match the two. Obviously common sense and a degree of judgement has to be used where letters have a similar degree of frequency. Although it was a lengthy process it certainly was the most efficient of its time and, most importantly, the most effective.

Colourful graphic equaliser cartoon, representing frequencies
Frequencies image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Since decryption became possible, many plots were foiled changing the course of history. An example of this was how Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, plotted along with loyal Catholics to overthrow her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, and establish a Catholic country. The details of the plots carried through encrypted messages were intercepted and decoded and on Saturday 15 October 1586 Mary was on trial for treason. Her life had depended on whether one of her letters could be decrypted or not. In the end, she was found guilty and publicly beheaded for high treason. Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, knew of Al-Kindi’s approach.

A more recent example of cryptography, cryptanalysis and espionage was its use throughout World War I to decipher messages intercepted from enemies. The British managed to decipher a message sent by Arthur Zimmermann, the then German Foreign Minister, to the Mexicans calling for an alliance between them and the Japanese to make sure America stayed out of the war, attacking them if they did interfere. Once the British showed this to the Americans, President Woodrow Wilson took his nation to war. Just imagine what the world may have been like if America hadn’t joined.

Today encryption is a major part of our lives in the form of Internet security and banking. Learn the art and science of encryption and decryption and who knows, maybe some day you might succeed in devising a new uncrackable cipher or crack an existing banking one! Either way would be a path to riches! So if you thought that algorithms were a bore … it just got a whole lot more interesting.

Further Reading

“Al Kindi: The Origins of Cryptology: The Arab Contributions” by Ibrahim A. Al-Kadi
Muslim Heritage: Al-Kindi, Cryptography, Code Breaking and Ciphers

“The code book: the Science of secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum cryptography” by Simon Singh, especially Chapter one ‘The cipher of Queen Mary of Scots’

The Zimmermann Telegram
Wikipedia: Arthur_Zimmermann

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website, and on page 8 in Issue 6 of the magazine which you can download below along with all of our free material.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Cognitive crash dummies

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

The world is heading for catastrophe. We’re hooked on power hungry devices: our mobile phones and iPods, our Playstations and laptops. Wherever you turn people are using gadgets, and those gadgets are guzzling energy – energy that we desperately need to save. We are all doomed, doomed…unless of course a hero rides in on a white charger to save us from ourselves.

Don’t worry, the cognitive crash dummies are coming!

Actually the saviours may be people like professor of human-computer interaction, Bonnie John, and her then grad student, Annie Lu Luo: people who design cognitive crash dummies. When working at Carnegie Mellon University it was their job to figure out ways for deciding how well gadgets are designed.

If you’re designing a bridge you don’t want to have to build it before finding out if it stays up in an earthquake. If you’re designing a car, you don’t want to find out it isn’t safe by having people die in crashes. Engineers use models – sometimes physical ones, sometimes mathematical ones – that show in advance what will happen. How big an earthquake can the bridge cope with? The mathematical model tells you. How slow must the car go to avoid killing the baby in the back? A crash test dummy will show you.

Even when safety isn’t the issue, engineers want models that can predict how well their designs perform. So what about designers of computer gadgets? Do they have any models to do predictions with? As it happens, they do. Their models are called ‘human behavioural models’, but think of them as ‘cognitive crash dummies’. They are mathematical models of the way people behave, and the idea is you can use them to predict how easy computer interfaces are to use.

There are lots of different kind of human behavioural model. One such ‘cognitive crash dummies’ is called ‘GOMS’. When designers want to predict which of a few suggested interfaces will be the quickest to use, they can use GOMS to do it.

Send in the GOMS

Suppose you are designing a new phone interface. There are loads of little decisions you’ll have to make that affect how easy the phone is to use. You can fit a certain number of buttons on the phone or touch screen, but what should you make the buttons do? How big should they be? Should you use gestures? You can use menus, but how many levels of menus should a user have to navigate before they actually get to the thing they are trying to do? More to the point, with the different variations you have thought up, how quickly will the person be able to do things like send a text message or reply to a missed call? These are questions GOMS answers.

To do a GOMS prediction you first think up a task you want to know about – sending a text message perhaps. You then write a list of all the steps that are needed to do it. Not just the button presses, but hand movements from one button to another, thinking time, time for the machine to react, and so on. In GOMS, your imaginary user already knows how to do the task, so you don’t have to worry about spending time fiddling around or making mistakes. That means that once you’ve listed all your separate actions GOMS can work out how long the task will take just by adding up the times for all the separate actions. Those basic times have been worked out from lots and lots of experiments on a wide range of devices. The have shown, on average, how long it takes to press a button and how long users are likely to think about it first.

GOMS in 60 seconds?

GOMS has been around since the 1980s, but wasn’t being used much by industrial designers. The problem is that it is very frustrating and time-consuming to work out all those steps for all the different tasks for a new gadget. Bonnie John’s team developed a tool called CogTool to help. You make a mock-up of your phone design in it, and tell it which buttons to press to do each task. CogTool then worked out where the other actions, like hand movements and thinking time, are needed and makes predictions.

Bonnie John came up with an easier way to figure out how much human time and effort a new design uses, but what about the device itself? How about predicting which interface design uses less energy? That is where Annie Lu Luo, came in. She had the great idea that you could take a GOMS list of actions and instead of linking actions to times you could work out how much energy the device uses for each action instead. By using GOMS together with a tool like CogTools, a designer can find out whether their design is the most energy efficient too.

So it turns out you don’t need a white knight to help your battery usage, just Annie Lu Luo and her version of GOMS. Mobile phone makers saw the benefit of course. That’s why Annie walked straight into a great job on finishing university.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and appears on pages 12 and 13 of issue 9 (‘Programmed to save the world‘) of the CS4FN magazine, which you can download (free) here along with all of our other free material.

See also the concept of ‘digital twins’ in this article from our Christmas Advent Calendar: Pairs: mittens, gloves, pair programming, magic tricks.

Related Magazine …

This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, born 14 January 1967

Kimberly Bryant from Black Girls Code pictured at the SXSW conference in 2016,
Kimberly Bryant in 2016, credit

Kimberly Bryant was born on 14 January 1967 in Memphis, Tennessee and was enthusiastic about maths and science in school, describing herself as a ‘nerdy girl’. She was awarded a scholarship to study Engineering at university but while there she switched to Electrical Engineering with Computer Science and Maths. During her career she has worked in several industries including pharmaceutical, biotechnology and energy.

She is most known though for founding Black Girls Code. In 2011 her daughter wanted to learn computer programming but nearly all the students on the nearest courses were boys and there were hardly any African American students enrolled. Kimberly didn’t want her daughter to feel isolated (as she herself had felt) so she created Black Girls Code (BGC) to provide after-school and summer school coding lessons for African American girls. BGC has a goal of teaching one million Black girls to code by 2040 and every year thousands of girls learn coding with their peers.

She has received recognition for her work and was given the Jefferson Award for Community Service for the support she offered to girls in her local community, and in 2013 Business Insider included her on its list of The 25 Most Influential African-Americans in Technology. When Barack Obama was the US President the White House website honoured her as one of its eleven Champions of Change in Tech Inclusion – Americans who are “doing extraordinary things to expand technology opportunities for young learners – especially minorities, women and girls, and others from communities historically underserved or underrepresented in tech fields.”

More on …

This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Bringing people closer when they’re far away

This article was written a few years ago, before the Covid pandemic led to many more of us keeping in touch from a distance…

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Photo shows two children playing with a tin-can telephone, which lets them talk to each other at a distance. Picture credit Jerry Loick KONZI and Wikipedia. Original photograph can be found here.

Living far away from the person you love is tough. You spend every day missing their presence. The Internet can help, and many couples in long-distance relationships use video chat to see more of each other. It’s not the same as being right there with someone else, but couples find ways to get as much connection as they can out of their video chats. Some researchers in Canada, at the University of Calgary and Simon Fraser University, interviewed couples in long-distance relationships to find out how they use video chat to stay connected.

Nice to see you

The first thing that the researchers found is perhaps what you might expect. Couples use video chat when it’s important to see each other. You can text little messages like ‘I love you’ to each other, or send longer stories in an email, and that’s fine. But seeing someone’s face when they’re talking to you feels much more emotionally close. One member of a couple said, “The voice is not enough. The relationship is so physical and visual. It’s not just about hearing and talking.” Others reported that seeing each other’s face helped them know what the other person was feeling. For one person, just seeing his partner’s face when she was feeling worn out helped him understand her state of mind. In other relationships, seeing one another helped avoid misunderstandings that come from trying to interpret tone of voice. Plus, having video helped couples show off new haircuts or clothes, or give each other tours of their surroundings.

Hanging out on video

The couples in the study didn’t use video chat just to have conversations. They also used it in a more casual way: to hang out with each other while they went about their lives. Their video connections might stay open for hours at a time while they did chores, worked, read, ate or played games. Long silences might pass. Couples might not even be visible to each other all the time. But each partner would, every once in a while, check back at the video screen to see what the other was up to. This kind of hanging out helped couples feel the presence of the other person, even if they weren’t having a conversation. One participant said of her partner, “At home, a lot of times at night, he likes to put on his PJs and turn out all the lights and sit there with a snack and, you know, watch TV… As long as you can see the form of somebody that’s a nice thing. I think it’s just the comfort of knowing that they’re there.”

Some couples felt connected by doing the same things together in different places. They shared evenings together in living rooms far away from each other, watching the same thing on television or even getting the same movie to watch and starting it at the same time. Some couples had dinner dates where they ordered the same kind of takeaway and ate it with each other through their video connection.

Designing to connect

This might not sound like research about human-computer interaction. It’s about the deepest kind of human interaction. But good computer design can help couples feel as connected as possible. The researchers also wanted to find out how they could help couples make their video chats better. Designers of the future might think about how to make gadgets that make video chat easier to do while getting on with other chores. It’s difficult to talk, film yourself, cook and move through the house all at the same time. What’s more, today’s gadgets aren’t really built to go everywhere in the house. Putting a laptop in a kitchen or propping one up in a bed doesn’t always work so well. The designers of operating systems need to work out how to do other stuff at the same time as video. If couples want to have a video chat connection open for hours, sometimes they might need to browse the web or write a text message at the same time. And what about couples who like to fall asleep next to one another? They might need night-vision cameras so they can see their partner without disturbing their sleep.

We’re probably going to have more long- distance relationships in the future. Easy, cheap travel makes it easier to move to faraway places. You can go to university abroad, and join a company with offices on every continent. It’s an awfully good thing that technology is making it easier to stay connected with the people who are important too. Video chat is not nearly as good as feeling your lover’s touch, but when you really miss someone, even watching them do chores helps.

This article was originally published on CS4FN and can also be found on pages 4 and 5 of CS4FN Issue 15, Does your computer understand you?, which you can download as a PDF. All of our free material can be downloaded here:

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Gary Starkweather (b 9 Jan 1938) invented the laser printer and colour management

Gary Starkweather (9 January 1938 – 26 December 2019) invented and developed the first laser printer. In the late 1960s he was an engineer, with a background in optics, working in the US for the Xerox company (famous for their photocopiers) and came up with the idea of using a laser beam to transfer the image to the photocopier (so that it could make lots of copies), speeding up the process of printing documents.

Printer image by David Dunmore from Pixabay

You can hear what a modern laser printer sounds like by clicking on the link below…

…and there’s a video of him talking about the ‘Eureka moment’ of his invention here.

Laser printers are found in offices worldwide – you may even have one at home.

Colour wheel image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

He also invented colour management which is a way of ensuring that a shade of blue colour on your computer’s or phone’s screen looks the same on a TV screen or when printed out. Different devices have different display colours so ‘red’ on one device might not be the same as ‘red’ on another. Colour management is something that happens in devices behind the scenes and which translates the colour instruction from one device to produce the closest match on another. There is an International Color Consortium (ICC) which helps different device manufacturers ensure that colour is “seamless between devices and documents”.

Starkweather also received an Academy Award (also known as an Oscar) for Technical Achievement in 1994, for the work he’d done in colour film scanning. That involves taking a strip of film and converting it digitally so it can be edited on a computer.

Also on this day, in 2007, the first Apple iPhone was announced (though not available until June that year)… and all iPhones use colour management!

Pepper’s Ghost: an 1860s illusion used in ‘head-up displays’

Three cute cartoon-styled plastic ghosts reflecting on a black glass panel. They are waving their arms and looking more scared than scary.

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London (first published in 2007)

A ghostly illustration including a woman in historic garb, an ornate candlestick, a grand chair and a mirror with grey curtains pulled back.
Ghostly stage image by S. Hermann / F. Richter from Pixabay

When Pepper’s Ghost first appeared on the stage as part of one of Professor Pepper’s shows on Christmas Eve, 1862 it stunned the audiences. This was more than just magic: it was miraculous. It was so amazing that some spiritualists were convinced Pepper had discovered a way of really summoning spirits. A ghostly figure appeared on the stage out of thin air, interacted with the other characters on the stage and then disappeared in an instant. This was no dark seance where ghostly effects happen in a darkened room: who knows what tricks are then being pulled in the dark to cause the effects. Neither was it modern day special effects where it is all done on film or in the virtual world of a computer. This was on a brightly lit stage in front of everyone’s eyes…

Stage setup for Pepper’s Ghost, from Wikipedia

Switch to the modern day and similar ghostly magic is now being used by fighter pilots. Have the military been funding X-files research? Well maybe, but there is nothing supernatural about Pepper’s Ghost. It is just an illusion. The show it first appeared in was a Science show, though it went on to amaze audiences as part of magic shows for years to come, and can still be found, for example in Disney Theme Parks, and onstage to make virtual band Gorillaz come to life.

Today’s “supernatural” often becomes tomorrow’s reality, thanks to technology. With Pepper’s ghost, 19th century magic has in fact become enormously useful 21st century hi-tech. 19th century magicians were more than just showmen, they were inventors, precision engineers and scientists, making use of the latest scientific results, frequently pushing technology forward themselves. People often think of magicians as being secretive, but they were also businessmen, often patenting the inventions behind their tricks, making them available for all to see but also ensuring their rivals could not use them without permission. The magic behind Pepper’s ghost was patented by Henry Dircks, a Liverpudlian engineer, in 1863 as a theatrical effect though it was probably originally invented much earlier – it was described in an Italian book back in 1558 by Baptista Porta.

Through the looking glass

So what was Pepper’s ghost? It’s a cliche to say that “it’s all done with mirrors”, but it is quite amazing what you can do with them if you both understand their physics and are innovative enough to think up extraordinary ways to use old ideas. Pepper’s ghost worked in a completely different way to the normal way mirrors are used in tricks though. It was done using a normal sheet of glass, not a silvered mirror at all. If you have ever looked at your image reflected in a window on a dark night you have seen a weak version of Pepper’s Ghost. The trick was to place a large, spotlessly clean sheet of glass at an angle in front of the stage between the actors and the audience. By using the stage lights in just the right way, it becomes a half mirror. Not only can the stage be seen through the glass, but so can anything placed at the right position off the stage where the glass is pointing. Better still, because of the physics of reflection, the reflected images don’t seem to be on the surface of the glass at all, but the same distance behind as the objects are in front. The actor playing the ghost would perform in a hidden black area so that he or she was the only thing that reflected light from that area. When the ghost was to appear a very strong light was shone on the actor. Suddenly the reflection would appear – and as long as they were standing the right distance from the mirror, they could appear anywhere desired on the stage. To make them disappear in an instant the light was just switched off.

Jump to the 21st century and a similar technique has reappeared. Now the ghosts are instrument panels. A problem with controlling a fighter plane is you don’t have time to look down. You really want the data you need to keep control of your plane wherever you are looking outside the plane. It needs not just to be in the right position on the screen but at the right depth so you don’t need to refocus your eyes. Most importantly you must also be able to see out of the plane in an unrestricted way…You need the Peppers Ghost effect. That is all “Head-up” displays display do, though the precise technology used varies.

C-130J: Co-pilot's head-up display panel
C-130J: Co-pilot’s head-up display panel by Todd Lappin (2004)
C-130J is a large, four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft known as the Super Hercules.

Satnav systems in cars are very dangerous if you have to keep looking down to see where the thing atually means you to turn. “What? This left turn or the next one?” Use a Head-up display and the instructions can hover in front of you, out on the road where your eyes are focussed. Better still you can project a yellow line (say) as though it was on the road, showing you the way off into the distance: Follow the Yellow Brick Road … Oh and wasn’t the Wizard of Oz another great magician who used science and engineering rather than magic dust.

You can make your own Pepper’s Ghost complete with your favourite band appearing live on stage.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and can also be found on page 4 of Issue 5 (you can download a free PDF copy from the panel below). You can also download ALL of our free material here.

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This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Featured image: Cute ghosts image by Alexa from Pixabay