VSJ – Feb 2004

Notice Board

The IAP Annual Symposium is at Trinity House, Tower Hill, London on 18 March. Tickets are £70 per delegate (members) and £100 (non-members). Contact the Office on 020 8 5672118 for reservations. See Work in Progress for detailed information about the presentations.

Legal IT London is at the Business Design Centre, Islington between 11 and 12 February. Contact

Cordial Events Ltd on 01491 575522 or fax 01491 575544 for details.

[Got an activity or event coming up? Email eo@iap.org.uk with the details.]


Sounding Board

Robin Jones has some thoughts on usability he’d like to share.

The Dell sales rep asked, ‘Do you want a modem installed in your notebook?’ ‘No’, I said, listening to the siren voices in my head murmuring, ‘You don’t really need it and you can save some money.’

That was four years ago. Now, of course, I do need one. Not a problem, I thought. I’ll get a USB modem and then it’s available as a lash-up when necessary (an event that occurs at two-day intervals on current experience).

I read the ‘manual’, a poorly printed A3 sheet of paper with instructions in seven languages, none of them English. Unless you count ‘Don’t reboot the computer system when the USB modem is correctly by plug into your USB Port of Computer.’ as English, that is.

Not that I was particularly concerned about that; I was simply looking for the folder at which to point the ‘Add New Hardware’ wizard for the driver files. I found it, gave the wizard the information and went away to do other chores. When I returned 20 minutes later, Windows was aimlessly thrashing around the CDROM. So I ferreted about looking for likely candidates. After a couple of abortive attempts, I found the right directory and the modem installed itself without further hassle.

Two days later, I added a USB hub. Windows noticed and dealt with it fine. Then it denied all knowledge of the modem and insisted I re-install it. No problem this time, of course. Except that the modem is suddenly much less stable and disconnects itself randomly. Removing the hub makes no difference.

When I have time, I’ll uninstall everything and start from scratch. But I shouldn’t have to. I’ve spent – wasted – several hours installing a piece of hardware whose selling point is that it’s Plug-and -Play. That’s at least £100 worth of anybody’s time – three times the cost of the modem! For the non-technical user (at whom, if memory serves, USB was primarily aimed) such experiences just confirm that IT is a black art and that computers and all their works are simply not fit for purpose. If this sort of thing happened when Joe Public bought a new pair of headphones for his Walkman he would simply return them and say he wanted a pair that worked. Now that is Plug-and-Play.

Like it or not, computers are now consumer items. And Microsoft, at least, apparently likes it or it wouldn’t have developed Windows XP Media Centre Edition. So it is time manufacturers and retailers took the same responsibilities they would accept without question for televisions, refrigerators, phones and all the other goods that are displayed not ten yards from the latest computing kit. And if that means higher prices because staff would need more and better training, well, I could live with that. Could you?

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]


Members’ News:

Nominations for the Council of the IAP

The Institution is a democratic body governed by a Council elected by and from its members. Five members of the 15-strong Council retire in rotation each year. Nominations for the 2004 election, accompanied by the nominee’s manifesto (in electronic form and not exceeding 150 words, please) must be received at the Institution Office by 21 February. Contact the Office (020 8 5672118 or admin@iap.org.uk) for further details or an informal discussion if you are interested in playing your part in the governance of the Institution.

[Don’t forget to email eo@iap.org.uk with items of news about you or your company.]

Work in Progress

This month, we’re giving over this section to a preview of the Annual Symposium (see Notice Board above). As usual, the speakers are experts in their fields and their chosen topics fascinating and current, as you’ll see from the résumés below. Trinity House is a beautiful venue, as the photograph suggests, but it isn’t huge. So make your reservations fast!


Computing Comes of Age

Richard Allen MP is the Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Information Technology. He speaks and writes regularly on a broad range of technology related subjects and takes a particular interest in the development of e-democracy and e-government. He is active in several All-Party groups including the Internet Group, the Latin America Group, the Columbia Group and the Modernisation Group.

The thrust of Richard’s presentation will be that IT is no longer a marginal interest but touches all aspects of our lives. Surveys show that virtually every young person is now an Internet user. Success or failure of public services is directly linked to their ability to implement IT solutions and it is inconceivable that any significant modern business could operate without IT.

Yet IT skills and expertise remain the domain of a small group. Most users have little understanding of how the technology works and many of those responsible for implementing IT programmes are equally ignorant. As IT becomes ubiquitous we need to ensure better public understanding of this technology. It would be very unhealthy for society to ‘leave it to the techies’.

Richard Allen became the Liberal Democrat MP for Sheffield Hallam in May 1997. He is well equipped to talk about computing matters. He has an MSc in Computer Technology and spent several years developing IT systems to support primary health care in the NHS.

Concurrency for All

Concurrency plays a fundamental role in the natural world but in computing applications it is often a mere add-on, a special magic that increases the responsiveness of systems or distributes the work to many machines. Except that the magic often fails, leaving systems either totally without response or hopelessly corrupted. That’s why concurrency tends to be ignored – it’s ‘hard’ or ‘advanced’. It’s only to be contemplated when no other choice is left.

Professor Peter Welch will dissent from such views, presenting modern bindings of Hoare’s elegant and modular CSP algebra to Java (JCSP) and the new occam-M language, which allows concurrency to be restored to its natural role as a key engineering idea. Concurrency should be central to system design and implementation, something to be used every day without fear. It should simplify maintenance, increasing system robustness, scalability and performance. Peter will show examples from a range of application areas, including real-time systems, Web services and the large scale modelling of biological mechanisms.

As Professor of Parallel Computing at the University of Kent at Canterbury, Peter Welch is an enthusiastic speaker on this topic. His doctoral research was on semantic models for the lambda-calculus, one of the key mathematical theories supporting functional programming. For the past 20 years his main area of research and teaching has been the field of concurrency and parallel computing. His contributions to developments in the field have included a CSP model of Java thread synchronisation (enabling formal verification of Java multithreaded code) and CSP-based design rules for process network hierarchies. His main work lies in the development of tools supporting these rules and in the design and compilation of parallel languages.

Web Sites that Work

The Institution knows from experience how difficult it can be to create a Web site that lives up to expectations and does what it is supposed to. But consider the 8.6 million people in the UK with a disability. How much more difficult is it for them? If Web designers do not consider them they may be breaking the law and are certainly ignoring a significant source of potential customers and revenue.  8.6 million is close to 15% of the population and they may all be able to do their shopping via the Internet. But can they access your Web site? Julie Howell is Digital Policy Development Officer at the RNIB. She will explain how a blind person surfs the Web, what companies and Web designers can do to make their sites more accessible and why you should care about it.

Julie joined RNIB, the largest UK charity for people with disabilities, in 1994 and became the charity’s first Web site editor in 1997. In 1999 she moved to the Public Policy Department where she established RNIB’s Campaign for Good Web Design. Last year, she was appointed Digital Policy Development Officer, a role that aims to ensure information products and services published on digital platforms are both accessible and useable. She has advised Tesco, the BBC and the British Bankers’ Association, among others. She has represented RNIB on Government and other public sector bodies.

Investment for Innovation

Ken Abraham MIAP, is a member of the IAP Council. He has run an IT company in Scotland for fifteen years. Because it serves a remote customer base, it has devised innovative business models that make use of developing technologies. To support this work, Ken has participated in a wide range of EU funded R & D projects, resulting in the creation of a new commercialisation and research institute for the ICT industry in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. PICT Innovation Ltd identifies and supports ‘stalled’ ICT projects and creates new commercially sustainable companies and products.

Ken says that the pilot programme successfully established with PICT could now be extended to other parts of the UK. There is money available, from Government, the EU and elsewhere. The problem has been that, for both sides, potential recipients do not know where to look for support or how to present a claim. These are areas that Ken will illuminate for us.

Email – Can You Afford the Risk?

We are all aware of the embarrassing private emails that have leaked into the public domain, then been gleefully plastered over every front page. As another of our presenters Steven Jenkins will show, email is so insecure that it is amazing anything remains private at all. Since 1999 Steven has been with SafeMessage, the leading Secure Messaging and Digital Rights Management system, which provides high level encryption and controls that can achieve secure document distribution.

Steven will explain how email can be compromised from both inside and outside an organisation. He will outline the weaknesses of the email system and show how easily it can be intercepted using basic spying (packet sniffing) software. The real costs of email leaks, and of the litigation arising from its misuse, are much higher than is generally realised. But they can be minimised by taking reasonable precautions to secure communications.

Regular attendees at the Symposium will know that this is one of the rare occasions when IAP President Jim Bates opens his wallet to the public. At the close of formal proceedings members will be invited to inspect his collection of rare and vintage coins laid out on the bar of the nearby Pitcher and Piano public house. We hope to see you there.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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