Archive for January, 2010

Cloud computing: homogeneity or usability?

There’s no denying that cloud computing looks like a phenomena that’s set to grow and grow. The idea of a centralized work (and media) pool that can be dipped into – wherever you are, whatever device you happen to be using – offers real benefits for modern computer users. People these days aren’t tied to one computer. It’s perfectly common to have a main computer or laptop, a netbook, a smartphone; all capable of streaming media, editing documents, posting tweets and blog content. So, the idea of being able to access your music collection, files, and even software, from anywhere are obvious – and that’s the basis of cloud computing.

People are already using this kind of technology, some without even realising it. Take Spotify, a massive, centralized music library. Or YouTube/Vimeo/iPlayer, a source for the bulk of all the video you might ever need to watch. Google Docs (and, soon, Microsoft Office Live), with its streamlined word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation software now means that all your computer needs to allow you to be productive is a web browser. It’s easy to take these advances for granted, but they are, without doubt, the future of the way we use computers.

Charles Leadbeater wrote a persuasive article last week expounding on the need for an open, democratic cloud. Forget the monopolies, he seems to suggest; away begone with hegemonies that may take over cloud computing: “we do not want a digital sky dominated by standardised clouds branded Google and Apple” he says. Instead, according to Leadbeater, we should open up the clouds, make them public, open and shared. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Open source coding and software is a good idea. Letting users be intergral to their experience can work (Wikipedia, anyone?).

As anyone who has ever used Linux will know, though, open source developments are full of problems. Sure, they’re (normally) perfectly usable, make you feel good about yourself (if you’re of a certain geek persuasion), and let you tailor a system to your needs better. But they go wrong and are sometimes, at a very basic level, deeply incompatible with each other. I’m a supporter of open source platforms, but I see their limitations, too, and the truth is that, for certain applications, standardized systems win out. It’s not that they necessarily  do stuff better, but that they work together, seamlessly. That’s just not true of many open source systems. Integration will be a major factor in helping improve productivity, and in turn making the most of the cloud, so it’s not something we can afford to ignore.

The simple truth is, it would be fantastic if cloud computing was purely democratic. But, I want more than democracy: I want systems that will work together, and work together well. If to achieve that I have to put up with some market domination by Apple or Google? So be it.

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David Nutt and the ‘truth’ about drugs

Master coiner of the controversial soundbite Professor David Nutt came to Imperial last night, to talk about science policy advice, how we view drugs in our society and vilification at the hands of Horse and Hound.

He was interviewed by our Science Communication Group’s own Stephen Webster, in a packed lecture theatre gathered by the University’s Political Philosophy Society. As you’d expect from the media image he’s portrayed he was remarkably robust about his sacking from the government’s drugs advisory board.

In fact he’s so unfazed and even energised he’s setting up a new body, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs with some money from a hedge-fund donor. This he says will “focus on the science” and tell “the truth about drugs”, ideals he clearly feels are missing from the government at the moment. Speaking about his experience with ministers he quoted one as commenting that they only wanted “evidence which backs up our policies”.

This ‘truth’ will be an assessment of the harms of each substance. As well as comparing them against each other, he plans to judge them against other risks in society, following on from his famous assertion that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding, or ‘equasy’ as he calls it. He’s got a very good point in this comparison. Notions of illegal drugs as ‘bad’ or ‘very dangerous’ are so embedded in our culture it’s difficult to see their harms clearly, and comparing them to socially-acceptable activities such as mountain climbing and riding is a great way of portraying, and allowing people to grasp, the risks.

But useful as his relations of legal drugs, illegal drugs and sporting activities are for understanding risk, do they mean that we should be banning horse riding and legalising ecstasy? I don’t think so. Stephen pointed out in his questioning that this comparison’s great for simplifying the science. But that’s the thing, it simplifies only the science. Even this was only the science the committee examined – the personal harms to health, dependency, and social harms such as those caused by intoxication and health-care costs; as we have evidence for now. Not the social, physical or mental benefits of these activities or substances, or criminal implications of downgrading, upgrading or legalising a drug, but the science of harm.

And this is supposedly why we have politicians and where they step in, to take this hotpot of factors, weigh them up and turn them into policy.

David Nutt has stirred some very important questions to do with the relationship between science advice and policy, especially regarding the transparency of decision making. His experience of the government has left him highly critical of how this relationship works, and he claims drug classification not entirely based on the evidence of harms “distorts” this evidence. Ministers have a right to reject scientific advice if they want to, and if they do I think it’s important the public get to hear why. However ruling over scientific advice in favour of other factors isn’t distorting it, and this advice isn’t the ‘truth’ or be-all and end-all for how we deal with drugs in society.

Upstream engagement of blue skies research: is it possible?

Last week I was at a seminar lead by Dr Jack Stilgoe (Senior Policy Advisor to the Royal Society, formerly at the think tank Demos; the most recent profile I can find is here, or check twitter), based around the idea of upstream engagement of science. This isn’t a new idea by any means, but it’s one that’s taking time to pervade the world of science communication and policy. It’s based around the idea that dialogic communication between a communicator and a public can allow for improved understanding in both parties, but also goes one step further;  ‘by opening up innovation processes at an early stage […] we ensure that science contributes to the common good’ (See-through Science). Essentially, communicating ‘upstream’ lets the public ask questions – and shape answers – about important aspects of science: ‘Who owns it? Who benefits from it? To what purposes will it be directed?’ (again, See-through Science).

All well and good; it sounds like, and is, a great idea. Harriet, who was at the seminar with me, asked Jack Stilgoe whether upstream engagement could exist with blue skies research. Damn it, that throws a spanner in the works. How can you communicate upstream about science which – for all intents and purposes – has no tangible real-worlds application? Moreover, if scientists don’t know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, how does the public stand a hope in hell of having an intelligent conversation with them about it?

I’m not going to claim to be able to answer this; far from it, as there are people far better read than I who would no doubt toil over finding an answer. As I see it, though, there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, the lack of understanding in both parties could be seen as a leveller, as everyone involved comes to the table with a similar level of understanding and preconception about what will happen in the future – roughly none. We might even stretch this to suggest that, unlike the upstream engagement that has gone before, this is it in its purest form, allowing the public to actually shape the future of the technologies brought about by blue skies research. Certainly, we’ve seen in the past that engagement that comes too late doesn’t really help anyone (see GM Nation), so maybe this is exactly the scenario in which it can help.

Alternatively, there’s a school of thought that suggests that dialogue without understanding – be it in one or both of the parties – struggles to ever be truly meaningful (van der Sanden). Essentially, it’s difficult to have a conversation with someone that knows nothing about the topic; it’s even harder to have a conversation if neither person knows anything about the topic. This has, to some extent, been the case in discussion between scientists and the public around nanotechnology. Though some people have some fanciful ideas about what direction nanotech will take us in, nobody’s sure and, as a result, it’s been difficult to have a convincing dialogue about it.

I hope that the first suggestion is accurate, that upstream engagement with blue skies research could foster better understanding – and policy-shaping – than examples we’ve seen in the past. In truth, though, I suspect the sheer uncertainty muddies the picture so much that constructive engagement is difficult, if not impossible. Maybe we need to hold tight, if just for a short while, before communicating upstream about emerging science.

Oxford University blacklists Spotify

The University of Oxford have banned the use of Spotify, as it has slowed down their web services for academic researchers.

The university has blocked the use of the music-streaming program on computers used on its internal network, according to an article in The Cherwell, one of the University’s student newspapers. This ban will affect students that live in University accommodation who rely on the once high-speed connection, the cost of which is included in their rent payments.

It seems the news has caused somewhat of a stir among students. An unnamed music student said “I use it loads. It’s the most comprehensive collection of classical music in one place.” Elsewhere, the student pressed has deemed it “discrimination against music lovers”. It’s not the first piece of software to be banned by the University: peer-to-peer file sharing is banned, as are Skype and RPGs such as World of Warcraft.

Oxford University Computing Services are yet to formally make any comment about the situation, however, a spokesperson for the University did say “The university provides free internet access for students because it’s an educational resource. If they want to use it recreationally as well that’s no problem unless it uses so much bandwidth that it slows the network down. I’m sure the students would like it if they could have Spotify back but they are getting a free service so they must accept some restrictions.”

Though thousands of students using Spotify will undoutedly slow things down rather, it seems strange that other streaming services, such as BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4oD, are still allowed to function. It is also currently unknown how paying subscribers to the Spotify Premium service – which costs £10 per month – will be affected.

The Ri: losing direction to find a new one?

On Friday 8th January, it was announced that Susan Greenfield had ‘left’ the Royal Institution. It’s sad, but to fully understand the mess that the Ri is in requires some muck-raking, and that in turn means thinking about what Greenfield has done. During her time as director of the Ri, she came under fire for a host of reasons, most notable amongst them her direction of the Ri itself and a number of ill-advised commentaries in the media. Ben Goldacre – hardly Susan’s biggest fan – has often written about her media activity, and summarizes his thoughts here, but the thrust of his argument is that she’s a scaremonger, happy to gloss over scientific method for the sake of a story. Her claims about the effects of cannabis and social networking , for example, were not only incendiary, but also relied on results from unpublished work.

During her spell as director at he Ri, she sidelined research for the sake of media appearance. The Ri, self proclaimed as ‘the oldest independent research body in the world’, had the bulk of its research programme scrapped by Greenfield, and now largely relies on UCL for facilities and lab-space. Sadly, its science communication division has hardly expanded to fill the void left by research; in fact, as far as I can tell, its communication remains largely school-based.

The crowning glory of her direction of the Ri, though, was a £22m project to recreate its Abermale Street building as – for all I can see – a science-themed event space in the heart of London. A shame, then, that the work went significantly over budget, was severely delayed, and has left the Ri on its knees; last year’s financial summary makes for pretty grim reading. Champion among the re-design was to be the new restaurant Time & Space. The result? A universal panning by critics.

It seems to me that this institution is no longer focused on research, nor communication, but providing expensive drinks to a clientèle that doesn’t exist. The types that would want to hang out in a science-themed event space (science communicators, skeptics, general-purpose geeks) can’t afford to eat and drink there; those that can afford have better taste.

Now Greenfield has been shipped out, what remains for one of the most revered scientific bodies in the world? The news that Greenfield plans to sue the Ri, based on allegations of sexual discrimination, certainly adds to the headache. As Martin Robbins writes, the Ri can’t really afford lengthy legal disputes, and Greenfield could cripple it for good.

More important than the whole Greenfield debacle, though, is what the Ri plans to do for itself in the future. For one moment, assume that the  Ri is left standing after this whole affair. What then? It seems too late to rescue its research activity, as lab space has been ripped out and, besides, it would requires a large funding investment that the Ri can little afford.

In the redesign of Abermale Street, they have produced a space that celebrates science, and now, more than ever, they should use this to their advantage. There is no reason that the Ri cannot become the science communication hub that this re-design was supposed to make it. Instead of throwing money at the problem, though, it needs to find a direction, an angle, on its communication, beyond its current school-based work. Undoubtedly it needs to embrace the digital age, but there’s so much more it can do.There are also plenty of people willing to help out such a treasured institution in its time of need, and the Ri could do worse than utilize the pool of up-and-coming science communicators based around London.

Just think how many talented, enthusiastic sci-commers could be employed using Greenfield’s salary, and what they could do.