Sorry to bug you: Grace Hopper

by Peter W McOwan and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(from the archive)

Close up head on of a flying butterfly or moth

In the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and crew continue their battle with the machines that have enslaved the human race in the virtual reality of the Matrix. To find the Oracle, who can explain what’s going on (which, given the twisty plot in the Matrix films, is always a good idea), Trinity needs to break into a power station and switch off some power nodes so the others can enter the secret floor. The computer terminal displays that she is disabling 27 power nodes, numbers 21 to 48. Unfortunately, that’s actually 28 nodes, not 27! A computer that can’t count and shows the wrong message!

Sadly, there are far too many programs with mistakes in them. These mistakes are known as bugs because back in 1945 Grace Hopper, one of the female pioneers of computer science, found an error caused by a moth trapped between the points at Relay 70, Panel F, of the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator being tested at Harvard University. She removed the moth, and attached it to her test logbook, writing ‘First actual case of bug being found’, and so popularised the term ‘debugging’ for testing and fixing a computer program.

Grace Hopper is famous for more than just the word ‘bug’ though. She was one of the most influential of the early computer pioneers, responsible for perhaps the most significant idea in helping programmers to write large, bug-free programs.

As a Lieutenant in the US Navy reserves, having volunteered after Pearl Harbor, Grace was one of three of the first programmers of Harvard’s IBM Mark I computer. It was the first fully automatic programmed computer.

She didn’t just program those early computers though, she came up with innovations in the way computers were programmed. The programs for those early computers all had to be made up of so-called ‘machine instructions’. These are the simplest operations the computer can do: such as to add two numbers, move data from a place in memory to a register (a place where arithmetic can be done in a subsequent operation), jump to a different instruction in the program, and so on.

Programming in such basic instructions is a bit like giving someone directions to the station but having to tell them exactly where to put their foot for every step. Grace’s idea was that you could write programs in a language closer to human language where each instruction in this high-level language stood for lots of the machine instructions – equivalent to giving the major turns in those directions rather than every step.

The ultimate result was COBOL: the first widely used high-level programming language. At a stroke her ideas made programming much easier to do and much less error-prone. Big programs were now a possibility.

For this idea of high-level languages to work though you needed a way to convert a program written in a high-level language like COBOL into those machine instructions that a computer can actually do. It can’t fill in the gaps on its own! Grace had the answer – the ‘compiler’. It is just another computer program, but one that does a specialist task: the conversion. Grace wrote the first ever compiler, for a language called A-O, as well as the first COBOL compiler. The business computing revolution was up and running.

High-level languages like COBOL have allowed far larger programs to be written than is possible in machine-code, and so ultimately the expansion of computers into every part of our lives. Of course even high-level programs can still contain mistakes, so programmers still need to spend most of their time testing and debugging. As the Oracle would no doubt say, “Check for moths, Trinity, check for moths”.

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1, and through EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin. 

The first computer music

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(updated from the archive)

Robot with horn
Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

The first recorded music by a computer program was the result of a flamboyant flourish added on the end of a program that played draughts in the early 1950s. It played God Save the King.

The first computers were developed towards the end of the second world war to do the number crunching needed to break the German codes. After the War several groups set about manufacturing computers around the world: including three in the UK. This was still a time when computers filled whole rooms and it was widely believed that a whole country would only need a few. The uses envisioned tended to be to do lots of number crunching.

A small group of people could see that they could be much more fun than that, with one being school teacher Christopher Strachey. When he was introduced to the Pilot ACE computer on a visit to the National Physical Laboratories, in his spare time he set about writing a program that could play against humans at draughts. Unfortunately, the computer didn’t have enough memory for his program.

He knew Alan Turing, one of those war time pioneers, when they were both at university before the War. He luckily heard that Turing, now working at the University of Manchester, was working on the new Feranti Mark I computer which would have more memory, so wrote to him to see if he could get to play with it. Turing invited him to visit and on the second visit, having had a chance to write a version of the program for the new machine, he was given the chance to try to get his draughts program to work on the Mark I. He was left to get on with it that evening.

He astonished everyone the next morning by having the program working and ready to demonstrate. He had worked through the night to debug it. Not only that, as it finished running, to everyone’s surprise, the computer played the National Anthem, God Save the King. As Frank Cooper, one of those there at the time said: “We were all agog to know how this had been done.” Strachey’s reputation as one of the first wizard programmers was sealed.

The reason it was possible to play sounds on the computer at all, was nothing to do with music. A special command called ‘Hoot’ had been included in the set of instructions programmers could use (called the ‘order’ code at the time) when programming the Mark I computer. The computer was connected to a loud speaker and Hoot was used to signal things like the end of the program – alerting the operators. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to anyone there but Strachey that it was everything you needed to create the first computer music.

He also programmed it to play Baa Baa Black Sheep and went on to write a more general program that would allow any tune to be played. When a BBC Live Broadcast Unit visited the University in 1951 to see the computer for Children’s Hour the Mark I gave the first ever broadcast performance of computer music, playing Strachey’s music: the UK National Anthem, Baa Baa Black Sheep and also In the Mood.

While this was the first recorded computer music it is likely that Strachey was beaten to creating the first actual programmed computer music by a team in Australia who had similar ideas and did a similar thing probably slightly earlier. They used the equivalent hoot on the CSIRAC computer developed there by Trevor Pearcey and programmed by Geoff Hill. Both teams were years ahead of anyone else and it was a long time before anyone took the idea of computer music seriously.

Strachey went on to be a leading figure in the design of programming languages, responsible for many of the key advances that have led to programmers being able to write the vast and complex programs of today.

The recording made of the performance has recently been rediscovered and restored so you can now listen to the performance yourself:

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This blog is funded by UKRI, through grant EP/W033615/1.

The paranoid program

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

One of the greatest characters in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, science fiction radio series, books and film was Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin wasn’t actually paranoid though. Rather, he was very, very depressed. This was because as he often noted he had ‘a brain the size of a planet’ but was constantly given trivial and uninteresting jobs to do. Marvin was fiction. One of the first real computer programs to be able to converse with humans, PARRY, did aim to behave in a paranoid way, however.

PARRY was in part inspired by the earlier ELIZA program. Both were early attempts to write what we would now call chatbots: programs that could have conversations with humans. This area of Natural Language Processing is now a major research area. Modern chatbot programs rely on machine learning to learn rules from real conversations that tell them what to say in different situations. Early programs relied on hand written rules by the programmer. ELIZA, written by Joseph Weizenbaum, was the most successful early program to do this and fooled people into thinking they were conversing with a human. One set of rules, called DOCTOR, that ELIZA could use, allowed it to behave like a therapist of the kind popular at the time who just echoed back things their patient said. Weizenbaum’s aim was not actually to fool people, as such, but to show how trivial human-computer conversation was, and that with a relatively simple approach where the program looked for trigger words and used them to choose pre-programmed responses could lead to realistic appearing conversation.

PARRY was more serious in its aim. It was written by, Kenneth Colby, in the early 1970s. He was a psychiatrist at Stanford. He was trying to simulate the behaviour of person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. It involves symptoms including the person believing that others have hostile intentions towards them. Innocent things other people say are seen as being hostile even when there was no such intention.

PARRY was based on a simple model of how those with the condition were thought to behave. Writing programs that simulate something being studied is one of the ways computer science has added to the way we do science. If you fully understand a phenomena, and have embodied that understanding in a model that describes it, then you should be able to write a program that simulates that phenomena. Once you have written a program then you can test it against reality to see if it does behave the same way. If there are differences then this suggests the model and so your understanding is not yet fully accurate. The model needs improving to deal with the differences. PARRY was an attempt to do this in the area of psychiatry. Schizophrenia is not in itself well-defined: there is no objective test to diagnose it. Psychiatrists come to a conclusion about it just by observing patients, based on their experience. Could a program display convincing behaviours?

It was tested by doing a variation of the Turing Test: Alan Turing’s suggestion of a way to tell if a program could be considered intelligent or not. He suggested having humans and programs chat to a panel of judges via a computer interface. If the judges cannot accurately tell them apart then he suggested you should accept the programs as intelligent. With PARRY rather than testing whether the program was intelligent, the aim was to find out if it could be distinguished from real people with the condition. A series of psychiatrists were therefore allowed to chat with a series of runs of the program as well as with actual people diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. All conversations were through a computer. The psychiatrists were not told in advance which were which. Other psychiatrists were later allowed to read the transcripts of those conversations. All were asked to pick out the people and the programs. The result was they could only correctly tell which was a human and which was PARRY about half the time. As that was about as good as tossing a coin to decide it suggests the model of behaviour was convincing.

As ELIZA was simulating a mental health doctor and PARRY a patient someone had the idea of letting them talk to each other. ELIZA (as the DOCTOR) was given the chance to chat with PARRY several times. You can read one of the conversations between them here. Do they seem believably human? Personally, I think PARRY comes across more convincingly human-like, paranoid or not!

Activity for you to do…

If you can program, why not have a go at writing your own chatbot. If you can’t writing a simple chatbot is quite a good project to use to learn as long as you start simple with fixed conversations. As you make it more complex, it can, like ELIZA and PARRY, be based on looking for keywords in the things the other person types, together with template responses as well as some fixed starter questions, also used to change the subject. It is easier if you stick to a single area of interest (make it football mad, for example): “What’s your favourite team?” … “Liverpool” … “I like Liverpool because of Klopp, but I support Arsenal.” …”What do you think of Arsenal?” …

Alternatively, perhaps you could write a chatbot to bring Marvin to life, depressed about everything he is asked to do, if that is not too depressingly simple, should you have a brain the size of a planet.

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

How does Santa do it?

Fast yuletide algorithms to visit all those chimneys in time

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Lots of Santas in a line
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay 

How does Santa do it? How does he visit all those children, all those chimneys, in just one night? My theory is he combines a special Scandinavian super-power with some computational wizardry.

There are about 2 billion children in the world and Santa visits them all. Clearly he has magic (flying reindeer remember) to help him do it but what kind of magic (beyond the reindeer)? And is it all about magic? Some have suggested he stops time, or moves through other dimensions, others that he just travels at an amazingly fast speed (Speedy Gonzales or The Flash style). Perhaps though he uses computer science too (though by that I don’t mean computer technology, just the power of computation).

The problem can be thought of as a computational one. The task is to visit, let’s say a billion homes (assuming an average of 2 children per household), as fast as possible. The standard solution assumes Santa visits them one at a time in order. This is what is called a linear algorithm and linear algorithms are slow. If there are n pieces of data to process (here, chimneys to descend) then we write this as having efficiency O(n). This way of writing about efficiency is called Big-O notation. O(n) just means as n increases the amount of work increases proportionately. Double the number of children and you double the workload for Santa. Currently the population doubles every 60 or 70 years or so, so clearly Santa needs to think in this way or he will eventually fail keep up, whatever magic he uses.

Perhaps, Santa uses teams of Elves as in the film Arthur Christmas, so that at each location he can deliver say presents to 1000 homes at once (though then it is the 1000 Elf helpers doing the delivering not Santa which goes against all current wisdom that Santa does it himself). It would speed things up apparently enormously to 1000 times faster. However, in computational terms that barely makes a difference. It is still a linear order of efficiency: it is still O(n) as the work still goes up proportionately with n. Double the population and Santa is in trouble still as his one night workload doubles too. O(2n) and O(1000n) both simplify to mean exactly the same as O(n). Computationally it makes little difference, and if their algorithms are to solve big problems computer scientists have to think in terms of dealing with data doubling, doubling and doubling again, just like Santa has had to over the centuries.

Divide and Conquer problem solving

When a computer scientist has a problem like this to solve, one of the first tools to reach for is called Divide and Conquer problem solving. It is a way of inventing lightening fast algorithms, that barely increase in work needed as the size of the problem doubles. The secret is to find a way to convert the problem into one that is half the size of the original, but (and this is key) that is otherwise exactly the same problem. If it is the same problem (just smaller) then that means you can solve those resulting smaller problems in the same way. You keep splitting the problem until the problems are so small they are trivial. That turns out to be a massively fast way to get a job done. It does not have to be computers doing the divide and conquer: I’ve used the approach for sorting piles of hundreds and hundreds of exam scripts into sorted order quickly, for example.

My theory is that divide and conquer is what Santa does, though it requires a particular superhero power too to work in his context, but then he is magical, so why not. How do I think it works? I think Santa is capable of duplicating himself. There is a precedent for this in the superhero world. Norse god Loki is able to copy himself to get out of scrapes, and since Santa is from the same part of the world it seems likely he could have a similar power.

If he copied himself twice then one of him could do the Northern Hemisphere and the other the Southern hemisphere. The problem has been split into an identical problem (delivering presents to lots of children) but that is half the size for each Santa (each has only half the world so half as many children to cover). That would allow him to cover the world twice as fast. However that is really no different to getting a couple of Elves to do the work. It is still O(n) in terms of the efficiency the work is done. As the population doubles he quickly ends up back in the same situation as before: too much work for each Santa. Likewise if he made a fixed number of 1000 copies of himself it would be similar to having 1000 Elves doing the deliveries. The work still increases proportional to the number of deliveries. Double the population and you still double the time it takes.

Double Santa and double again (and keep doubling)

So Santa needs to do better than that if he is to keep up with the population explosion. But divide and conquer doesn’t say halve the problem once, it says solve the new problem in the same way. So each new Santa has to copy themselves too! As they are identical copies to the original surely they can do that as easily as the first one could. Those new Santas have to do the same, and so on. They all split again and again until each has a simple problem to solve that they can just do. That might be having a single village to cover, or perhaps a single house. At that point the copying can stop and the job of delivering presents actually done. Each drops down a chimney and leaves the presents. (Now you can see how he manages to eat all those mince pies too!)

An important thing to remember is that that is not the end of it. The world is now full of Santas. Before the night is over and the job done, each Santa has to merge back with the one they split from, recursively all the way back to the original Santa. Otherwise come Christmas Day we wouldn’t be able to move for Santas. Better leave 30 minutes for that at the end!

Does this make a big difference? Well, yes (as long as all the copying can be done quickly and there is an organised way to split up the world). It makes a massive difference. The key is in thinking about how often the Santas double in number, so how often the problem is halved in size.

We start with 1 Santa who duplicates to 2, but now both can duplicate to 4, then to 8, 16, and after only 5 splittings there are already 32 Santas, then 64, 128, 256, 512 Santas, and after only 10 splittings we have over a 1000 Santas (1024 to be precise). As we saw that isn’t enough so they keep splitting. Following the same pattern, after 20 splittings we have over a million Santas to do the job. After only 30 rounds of splittings we have a billion Santas, so each can deal with a single family: a trivial problem for each.

So if a Santa can duplicate himself (along with the sleigh and reindeer) in a minute or so (Loki does it in a fraction of a second so probably this is a massive over-estimate and Santa can too), we have enough Santas to do the job in about half an hour, leaving each plenty of time to do the delivery to their destination. The splitting can also be done on the way so each Santa travels only as far as needed. Importantly this splitting process is NOT linear. It is O(log2 n) rather than O(n) and log2 n is massively smaller than n for large n. It means if we double the population of households to visit due to population explosion, the number of rounds of splitting does not need to double, the Santas just have to do one more round of splitting to cover it. The calculation log2 n (the logarithm to base 2 of n) is just a mathematicians way of saying how many times you can halve the number n before you get to 1 (or equivalently how many times you double from 1 before you get up to n). 1024 can be halved 10 times so (log2 1024) is 10. A billion can be halved about 30 times so (log2 1 billion) is about 30. Instead of a billion pieces of work we do only 30 for the splitting. Double the chimneys to 2 billion and you need only one more for a total of 31 splittings.

In computer terms divide and conquer algorithms involve methods (ie functions / procedures) calling themselves multiple times. Each call of the method, works on eg half the problem. So a method to sort data might first divide the data in half. One half is passed to one new call (copy) of the same method to sort in the same way, the other half is passed to the other call (copy). They do the same calling more copies to work on half of their part of the data, until eventually each has only one piece of data to sort (which is trivial). Work then has to be done merging the sorted halves back into sorted wholes. A billion pieces of data are sorted in only 30 rounds of recursive splitting. Double to 2 billion pieces of data and you need just 1 more round of splitting to get the sorting done.

Living in a simulation

If this mechanism for Santa to do deliveries all still seems improbable then consider that for all we know the reality of our universe may actually be a simulation (Matrix-like) in some other-dimensional computer. If so we are each just software in that simulation, each of us a method executing to make decisions about what we do in our virtual world. If that is the nature of reality, then Santa is also just a (special yuletide) software routine, and his duplicating feat is just a method calling itself recursively (as with the sort algorithm). Then the whole Christmas delivery done this way is just a simple divide and conquer algorithm running in a computer…

Given the other ways suggested for Santa to do his Christmas miracle seem even more improbable, that suggests to me that the existence of Santa provides strong evidence that we are all just software in a simulation. Not that that would make our reality, or Christmas, any less special.

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

Freddie Figgers – the abandoned baby who became a runaway telecom tech star

by Jo Brodie and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

As a baby, born in the US in 1989, Freddie Figgers was abandoned by his biological parents but he was brought up with love and kindness by two much older adoptive parents who kindled his early enthusiasm for fixing things and inspired his work in smart health. He now runs the first Black-owned telecommunications company in the US.

Freddie Figgers in 2016

When Freddie was 9 his father bought him an old (broken) computer from a charity shop to play around with. He’d previously enjoyed tinkering with his father’s collection of radios and alarm clocks and when he opened up the computer could see which of its components and soldering links were broken. He spotted that he could replace these with the same kinds of components from one of his dad’s old radios and, after several attempts, soon his computer was working again – Freddie was hooked, and he started to learn how to code.

When he was 12 he attended an after-school club and set to work fixing the school’s broken computers. His skill impressed the club’s leader, who also happened to be the local Mayor, and soon Freddie was being paid several dollars an hour to repair even more computers for the Mayor’s office (in the city of Quincy, Florida) and her staff. A few years later Quincy needed a new system to ensure that everyone’s water pressure was correct. A company offered to create software to monitor the water pressure gauges and said it would cost 600,000 dollars. Freddie, now 15 and still working with the Mayor, offered to create a low-cost program of his own and he saved the city thousands in doing so.

He was soon offered other contracts and used the money coming in to set up his own computing business. He heard about an insurance company in another US city whose offices had been badly damaged by a tornado and lost all of their customers’ records. That gave him the idea to set up a cloud computing service (which means that the data are stored in different places and if one is damaged the data can easily be recovered from the others).

His father, now quite elderly, had dementia and regularly wandered off and got lost. Freddie found an ingenious way to help him by rigging up one of his dad’s shoes with a GPS detector and two-way communication connected to his computer – he could talk to his dad through the shoe! If his dad was missing Freddie could talk to him, find out where he was and go and get him. Freddie later sold his shoe tracker for over 2 million dollars.

Living in a rural area he knew that mobile phone coverage and access to the internet was not as good as in larger cities. Big telecommunications companies are not keen to invest their money and equipment in areas with much smaller populations so instead Freddie decided to set up his own. It took him quite a few applications to the FCC (the US’ Federal Communications Commission who regulate internet and phone providers) but eventually, at 21, he was both the youngest and the first Black person in the US to own a telecoms company.

Most telecoms companies just provide a network service but his company also creates affordable smart phones which have ‘multi-user profiles’ (meaning that phones can be shared by several people in a family, each with their own profile). The death of his mother’s uncle, from a diabetic coma, also inspired him to create a networked blood glucose (sugar) meter that can link up wirelessly to any mobile phone. This not only lets someone share their blood glucose measurements with their healthcare team, but also with close family members who can help keep them safe while their glucose levels are too high.

Freddie has created many tools to help people in different ways through his work in health and communications – he’s even helping the next generation too. He’s also created a ‘Hidden Figgers’ scholarship to encourage young people in the US to take up tech careers, so perhaps we’ll see a few more fantastic folk like Freddie Figgers in the future.

This article was originally published on our sister website at Teaching London Computing (which has lots of free resources for computing teachers). It hasn’t yet been published in an issue of CS4FN but you can download all of our free magazines here.

See more in ‘Celebrating Diversity in Computing

We have free posters to download and some information about the different people who’ve helped make modern computing what it is today.

Screenshot showing the vibrant blue posters on the left and the muted sepia-toned posters on the right

Or click here: Celebrating diversity in computing

Further reading

See also

A ‘shoe tech’ device for people who have no sense of that direction – read about it in ‘Follow that Shoe’ on the last page of the wearable technology issue of CS4FN (‘Technology Worn Out (And About)’, issue 25).

Right to Repair – a European movement to make it easier for people to repair their devices, or even just change the battery in a smartphone themselves. See also the London-based Restart Project which is arguing for the same in the UK.

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

The heart of an Arabic programming language

A colourful repeating geometric pattern

‘Hello World’, in Arabic

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

So far almost all computer languages have been written in English, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Computers don’t care. Computer scientist Ramsey Nasser developed the first programming language that uses Arabic script. His computer language is called قلب. In English, it’s pronounced “Qalb”, after the Arabic word for heart. As long as a computer understands what to do with the instructions it’s given, they can be in any form, from numbers to letters to images.

A version of this article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy also appears on page 2 of Issue 16 of the magazine (see Related magazines below).

You can also download PDF copies of all of our free magazines.

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

Escape from Egypt

The humble escape character

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Egyptian hieroglyphs from Luxor
Hieroglyphs at Luxor. Image by Alexander Paukner from Pixabay 

The escape character is a rather small and humble thing, often ignored, easily misunderstood but vital in programming languages. It is used simply to say symbols that follow should be treated differently. The n in \n is no longer just an n but a newline character, for example. It is the escape character \ that makes the change. The escape character has a long history dating back to at least Ancient Egypt and probably earlier.

The Ancient Egyptians famously used a language of pictures to write: hieroglyphs. How to read the language was lost for thousands of years, and it proved to be fiendishly difficult to decipher. The key to doing this turned out to be the Rosetta Stone, discovered when Napoleon invaded Egypt. It contained the same text in three different languages: the Hieroglyphic script, Greek and also an Egyptian script called Demotic.

A whole series of scholars ultimately contributed, but the final decipherment was done by Jean-François Champollion. Part of the difficulty in decipherment, even with a Greek translation of the Rosetta Stone text available, was because it wasn’t, as commonly thought, just a language where symbolic pictures represented words (a picture of the sun, meaning sun, for example). Instead, it combined several different systems of writing but using the same symbols. Those symbols could be read in different ways. The first way was as alphabetic letters that stood for consonants (like b, d and p in our alphabet). Words could be spelled out in this alphabet. The second was phonetically where symbols could stand for groups of such sounds. Finally, the picture could stand not for a sound but for a meaning. A picture of a duck could mean a particular sound or it could mean a duck!

Part of the reason it took so long to decipher the language was that it was assumed that all the symbols were pictures of the things they represented. It was only when eventually scholars started to treat some as though they represented sounds that progress was made. Even more progress was made when it was realised the same symbol meant different things and might be read in a different way, even in the same phrase.

However, if the same symbol meant different things in different places of a passage, how on earth could even Egyptian readers tell? How might you indicate a particular group of characters had a special meaning?

A cartouche for Cleopatra
A cartouche for Cleopatra (from Wikipedia)

One way the Egyptians used specifically for names is called a cartouche: they enclosed the sequence of symbols that represented a name in an oval-like box, like the one shown for Cleopatra. This was one of the first keys to unlocking the language as the name of pharaoh Ptolemy appeared several times in the Greek of the Rosetta Stone. Once someone had the idea that the cartouches might be names, the symbols used to spell out Ptolemy a letter at a time could be guessed at.

The Egyptian hieroglyph for aleph (an egyptian eagle)
The Egyptian hieroglyph for aleph

Putting things in boxes works for a pictorial language, but it isn’t so convenient as a more general way of indicating different uses of particular symbols or sequences of them. The Ancient Egyptians therefore had a much simpler way too. The normal reading of a symbol was as a sound. A symbol that was to be treated as a picture of the word it represented was followed by a line (so despite all the assumptions of the translators and the general perception of them, a hieroglyph as picture is treated as the exception not the norm!)

The Egyptian hieroglyph for an Egyptian eagle (an Egyptian eagle followed by a line).
The Egyptian hieroglyph for the Egyptian Eagle

For example, the hieroglyph that is a picture of the Egyptian eagle stands for a single consonant sound, aleph. We would pronounce it ‘ah’ and it can be seen in the cartouche for Cleopatra that sounds out her name. However, add the line after the picture of the eagle (as shown) and it just means what it looks like: the Egyptian eagle.

Cartouches actually included the line at the end too indicating in itself their special meaning, as can be seen on the Cleopatra cartouche above

The Egyptian line hieroglyph is what we would now call an escape character: its purpose is to say that the symbol it is paired with is not treated normally, but in a special way.

Computer Scientists use escape characters in a variety of ways in programming languages as well as in scripting languages like HTML. Different languages use a different symbol as the escape character, though \ is popular (and very reminiscent of the Egyptian line!). One place escapes are used is to represent special characters in strings (sequences of characters like words or sentences) so they can be manipulated or printed. If I want my program to print a word like “not” then I must pass an appropriate string to the print command. I just put the three characters in quotation marks to show I mean the characters n then o then t. Simple.

However, the string “\no\t” does not similarly mean five characters \, n, o, \ and t. It still represents three characters, but this time \n, o and \t. \ is an escape character saying that the n and the t symbols that follow it are not really representing the n or t characters but instead stand for a newline (\n : which jumps to the next line) and a tab character (\t : which adds some space). “\no\t” therefore means newline o tab.

This begs the question what if you actually want to print a \ character! If you try to use it as it is, it just turns what comes after it into something else and disappears. The solution is simple. You escape it by preceding it with a \. \\ means a single \ character! So “n\\t” means n followed by an actual \ character followed by a t. The normal meaning of \ is to escape what follows. Its special meaning when it is escaped is just to be a normal character! Other characters’s meanings are inverted like this too, where the more natural meaning is the one you only get with an escape character. For example what if you want a program to print a quotation so use quotation marks. But quotation marks are used to show you are starting and ending a String. They already have another meaning. So if you want a string consisting of the five characters “, n, o, t and ” you might try to write “”not”” but that doesn’t work as the initial “” already makes a string, just one with no characters in it. The string has ended before you got to the n. Escape characters to the rescue. You need ” to mean something other than its “normal” meeting of starting or ending a string so just escape it inside the string and write “\”not\””.

Once you get used to it, escaping characters is actually very simple, but is easy to find confusing when first learning to program. It is not surprising those trying to decipher hieroglyphs struggled so much as escapes were only one of the problems they had to contend with.

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

Christopher Strachey and the secret of being a Wizard Debugger

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(from the archive)

Code with BUG cross hairs over one area and rest faded out
Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Elite computer programmers are often called wizards, and one of the first wizards was Christopher Strachey, who went on to be a pioneer of the development of programming languages. The first program he wrote was an Artificial Intelligence program to play draughts: more complicated (and fun) than the programs others were writing at the time. He was not only renowned as a programmer, but also as being amazingly good at debugging – getting them actually to work. On a visit to Alan Turing in Manchester he was given the chance to get his programs working on the Ferranti Mark I computer there. He did so very quickly working through the night to get them working, and even making one play God Save the King on the hooter. He immediately gained a reputation as being a “perfect” programmer. So what was his secret?

No-one writes complex code right first time, and programming teams spend more time testing programs than writing them in the first place to try and find all the bugs – possibly obscure situations where the program doesn’t do what the person wanted. A big part of the skill of programming is to be able to think logically and so be able to work through what the program actually does do, not just what it should do.

So what was Strachey’s secret that made him so good at debugging? When someone came to him with code that didn’t work, but they couldn’t work out why, he would start by asking them to explain how the program worked to him. As they talked, he would sit back, close his eyes and think about something completely different: a Beethoven symphony perhaps. Was this some secret way to tap his own creativity? Well no. What would happen is as the person explained the program to him they would invariable stop at some point and say something like: “Oh. Wait a minute…” and realise their mistake. By getting them to explain he was making them work through in detail how the program worked. Strachey’s reputation would be enhanced yet again.

There is a lesson here for anyone wishing to be a good programmer. Spending time explaining your program is also a good way to find problems. It is also an important part of learning to program, and ultimately becoming a wizard.

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This blog is funded by UKRI, through grant EP/W033615/1.

Knitters and Coders: separated at birth?

People often say that computers are all around us, but you could still escape your phone and iPod and go out to the park, far away from the nearest circuit board if you wanted to. It’s a lot more difficult to get away from the clutches of computation itself though. For one thing, you’d have to leave your clothes at home. Queen Mary Electronic Engineer Karen Shoop tells us about the code hidden in knitting, and what might happen when computers learn to read it.

Boy with wool hat and jumper on snowy day

If you’re wearing something knitted look closely at it (if it’s a sunny day then put this article away till it gets colder). Notice how the two sides don’t look the same: some parts look like a raised ‘v’ and others like a wave pattern. These are made by the two knitting stitches: knit and purl. With knit you stick the needle through and then behind the knitting; with purl you stick the needle in the other direction, starting behind the knitting and then pointing at the knitter. Expert knitters know that there’s more to knitting than just these two stitches, but we’ll stick to knit and purl. As these stitches are combined, the wool is transformed from a series of waves or ‘v’s into a range of patterns: stretchy stripes (ribs), raised speckles (moss), knots and ropes (cable). It all depends on the number of purls and knits, how they are placed next to each other and how often things are repeated.

Knitters get very proficient at reading knitting patterns, which are just varying combinations of k (knits) and p (purls). So the simplest pattern of all, knitting a square, would look something like:

’30k (30 knit stitches), finish the line, then repeat this 20 times’.

A rib would look like: ‘5k, 5p, then repeat this [a certain number of times], then repeat the line [another number of times]’

To a computer scientist or electronic engineer all this looks rather like computer code or, to be precise, like the way of describing a pattern as a computer program.

How your jumper is like coding

So look again at your knitted hat/jumper/cardi and follow the pattern, seeing how it changes horizontally and vertically. Just as knitters give instructions for this in their knitting pattern, coders do the same when writing computer programs. Specifically programmers use things called regular expressions. They are just a standard way to describe patterns. For example a regular expression might be used to describe what an email address should look like (specifying rules such as that it has one ‘@’ character in the middle of other characters, no full-stops/periods immediately before the @ and so on), what a phone number looks like (digits/numbers, no letters, possibly brackets or hyphens) and now what a knitting pattern looks like (lots of ks and ps). Regular expressions use a special notation to precisely describe what must be included, what might possibly be included, what cannot be, and how many times things should be repeated. If you were going to teach a computer how to read knitting patterns, a regular expression would be just what you need.

Knitting a regular expression

Let’s look at how to write a knitting pattern as a regular expression. Let’s take moss or seed stitch as our example. It repeats a “knit one purl one” pattern for one line. The next line then repeats a “purl one knit one” pattern, so that every knit stitch has a purl beneath it and vice versa. These two lines are repeated for as long as is necessary. How might we write that both concisely and precisely so there is no room for doubt?

In knitting notation (assuming an even number of stitches) it looks like: Row 1: *k1, p1; rep from * Rows 2: *p1, k1; rep from * or Row 1: (K1, P1) rep to end Row 2: (P1, K1) rep to end Repeat these 2 rows for length desired.

piles of woollen clothes

All this is fine … if it’s being read by a human, but to write experimental knitting software the knitting notation we have to use a notation a computer can easily follow: regular expressions fit the bill. Computers do not understand the words we used in our explanation above: words like ‘row’, ‘repeat’, ‘rep’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘end’, ‘length’ and ‘desired’, for example. We could either write a program that makes sense of what it all means for the computer, or we could just write knitting patterns for computers in a language they can already do something with: regular expressions. If we wanted to convert from human knitting patterns to regular expressions we would then write a program called a compiler (see Smart translation) that just did the translation.

In a regular expression to give a series of actions we just name them. So kp is the regular expression for one knit stitch followed immediately by one purl. The knitting pattern would then say repeat or rep. In a regular expression we group actions that need to be repeated inside curved brackets, resulting in (kp). To say how many times we need to repeat, curly brackets are used, so kp repeated 10 times looks like this: (kp){10}.

Since the word ‘row’ is not a standard coding word we then use a special character, written, \n, to indicate that a new line (=row) has to start. The full regular expression for the row is then (kp){10}\n. Since the first line was made of kps the following line must be pks, or (pk){10}\n

These two lines have to be repeated a certain number of times themselves, say 20, so they are in turn wrapped up in yet more brackets, producing: ((kp){10}\n(pk){10}\n){20}.

If we want to provide a more general pattern, not fixing the number of kps in a row or the number of rows, the 10 and 20 can be replaced with what are called variables – x and y. They can each stand for any number, so the final regular expression is:


How would you describe a rib as a regular expression (remember, that’s the pattern that looks like stretchy stripes)? The regular expression would be ((kp){x}\n){y}.

Regular expressions end up saying exactly the same thing as the standard knitting patterns, but more precisely so that they cannot be misunderstood. Describing knitting patterns in computer code is only the start, though. We can use this to write code that makes new patterns, to find established ones or to alter patterns, like you’d need to do if you were using thicker wool, for example. An undergraduate student at Queen Mary, Hailun Li, who likes knitting, used her knowledge to write an experimental knitting application that lets users enter their own combination of ps and ks and find out what their pattern looks like. She took her hobby and saw how it related to computing.

Look at your woolly jumper again…it’s full of computation!

– Karen Shoop, Queen Mary University of London, Summer 2014

The ping pong vaccination programming challenge

Vaccination programmes work best when the majority of the population are vaccinated. One way scientists simulate the effects of disease and vaccination programmes is by using computer simulations. But what is a computer simulation?

Lots of multi-coloured ping pong balls

You can visualise what a simulation is with ping pong balls bouncing around a crowd. Imagine having a large room full of people. A virus is represented by a ping pong ball, bouncing from person to person, infecting each person it touches. Each person who is hit by a ping pong ball and not already infected becomes infected. That means they toss that ping pong ball back into the crowd to infect more people, but they also toss an extra one too (and then they sit down: dead). Start with a few ping pong balls. Quickly the virus spreads everywhere and lots of people sit down (die). You have run a physical simulation of how a virus spreads!

Now start again but ‘vaccinate’ 80 per cent of the people first: give them a baseball cap to wear to show who is who. If those people get a ping pong ball, they just destroy it: they infect noone else. Start with the same number of ping pong balls. This time, the virus quickly dies out and only a few people sit down (die). Not only are the vaccinated people protected but they protect many of the un-protected people too who might have died.

Now (if you can program) you can write a program to do the same thing, and so simulate and explore the spread of infection, which is easier perhaps than getting a thousand people to chuck ping pong balls about. Create a grid (an array) of 1000 cells. Each represents a person. They can be infected or not. They can also be vaccinated or not. Start with five random cells (so people marked as infected). Run a series of rounds. After each round, a newly infected cell randomly chooses two others to infect. If not infected already and not vaccinated, then they become newly infected. If already infected or vaccinated, they do not pass the infection on.

You can run lots of different experiments with different conditions. For example, experiment with different proportions of people infected at the start or explore what percentage of people need to be vaccinated for the virus to quickly die out. Is 50 per cent enough? You could also change how many people one person infects, or for how long a person can infect others before dying. Perhaps they each keep causing new infections for three rounds before stopping instead of only one. In what situations does the virus infect lots of people and when does it die out quickly?

What you are doing here is computer modelling or simulating the effects of the virus in different scenarios, and that is essentially how computer scientists make the predictions that governments use to make decisions about lockdowns and mask wearing, if they are “following the science”. Of course, such models are only as good as the data that goes into them, such as how many other people does each person infect. In reality, this is data provided by surveys, experimental studies, and so on.

– Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Spring 2021

Download Issue 27 of the cs4fn magazine on Smart Health here.

This post and issue 27 of the cs4fn magazine have been funded by EPSRC as part of the PAMBAYESIAN project.