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Essay of the Week: Me and the Internet

Dec 14, 2000

y first essay is on the Internet, as it is possibly one of the most important developments that has occurred in the history of mankind. So why is the Internet so important to me? Well there are many reasons:


SSI - Small Scale Integration
MSI - Medium Scale Integration
LSI - Large Scale Intergration
VLSI - Very Large Scale Integration

Some terms

The Internet is being developed all the time, and I am luckily enough to be in a position that I can influence its evolution (even in a small way). This might seem obvious, but I missed some of the other recent breakthroughs. In my time I have seen the electronics industry moving from just a few transistors on a chip to millions of them on an area the size of your thumb. Just think I was not even born when the first transistor first popped its head above its circuit board (well, of course, the circuit board happened later, but it makes a great metaphor), and I was just a child when Fairchild Semiconductor first put a few transistors onto a single piece of silicon. Then I missed the SSI, MSI, LSI, and VLSI phase, because I was still learning, from school to college. After I left school I went into Electrical Engineering, and I learnt all about DC motors and 3-phase supplies. I remember learning about transistors with their three pins: the collector, the base and the emitter. It seemed to me, at the time, that you needed superior intelligence to understand all their graphs and connections. I think it was the voltage between the collector and emitter on the x-axis, and the current in the collector on the y-axis, and then there were graphs of the voltage between the base and the emitter, of course. All very confusing, and that was just for an npn transistor, when it came to a pnp transistor, all the graphs went negative, or so I think they did.

I will always remember the electronics teacher who first taught me semiconductor theory. He wore a white lab coat, and for eight of the 10 weeks he taught us electronic valve theory, and for the last two weeks he taught us, under great reluctance, the theory of the transistor. To be honest his heart wasn't really in it, as he really didn't see the future for these tiny little plastic devices. The transistor, in his option, could never really measure up to the mighty valve (I forget why, but I think it was related to its power handling, and its linearity). Where is he now? Retired, probably, or running a valve production factory. For those formulative years, I don't think I ever met anyone who really understood these tiny plastic devices (and often I think that there are few who really do understand them now). Later I even wrote a book which tried to show how it is possible to understand electronics, and silicon design, without having to revert to complex mathematics (see image on the right-hand side). In the next few weeks, I intend to write an essay on electronics, and the way that it is taught, so watch this space!

I could see then, from 1977 to 1981, that the future wasn't electrical engineering (my father and my father's father had both been electricians, so it seemed a natural move for me). For me it was electronics, so off I went to do a degree in electronics. Computing, at the time, seemed like it was too big a jump, as it was all to do with big mainframe computers which performed a silent magic, of whom were operated on by strange people in white lab coats. So, luckily for me, as I started studying for a degree, the PC was just starting to takeoff, and I remember admiring the Apple II's and the IBM PC's in the lab. From then on, I knew the future was computing. It has since blossomed as a subject, and now encapsulates not just computer programming and computer systems, but now includes networking, the Internet, databases, human/computer interaction, multimedia, the World Wide Web, E-commerce, Digital TV/Radio, and so on. It's amazing to be involved in an area that is forever changing and spawning new disciplines, each of which are more exciting that the last (or maybe that's just my option, which it is).


Computing power users to perform many functions that, in the past, would have taken many people and lots of time to achieve. For example last year I helped organise a conference. It would have been almost impossible if I did not have e-mails, databases, spreadsheets and mailing lists. With e-mail I was able to get everyone who submitted a paper to send it to me in an electronic form. Then using a database I archived all the papers, then created lists of reviewers with their paper reference. Next I simply e-mailed the papers out to the reviewers, and got them to fill-in a form which they e-mailed back. I simply archived the reviews and then cut and pasted their rating into a spreadsheet which then give me an instant rating on the paper. After it was a simple task to e-mail on the congratulations, and the considerations out to everyone who had submitted a paper. From acceptance list I created an e-mail list with all the successful authors, and then kept them up-to-date with any changes (typically on the WWW page I had setup) and all the details of the conference. No-one in the world could ever complain that they were not kept up-to-date, as I e-mailed everyone almost on a daily basis. Some conference delegates where getting e-mails requesting whether the needed special presentation aids, or the sights of Edinburgh, or even average temperatures for the time of year. All this would have required a whole team of people, from administrators to typists, but these days, with e-mail and the Internet, it can all be done with one or two people. I must admit that Microsoft Outlook helped a lot as I was able to quickly search through whole batches of email messages search for any keywords (such as ECBS or IEEE), so that I did not miss any important e-mails. In the end the conference was a great success as everyone knew where the were going, and what they were doing.

Oh and I even redesign the conference logo so that it was a big more colourful (click on the graphic on the right-hand side to see the animated version of the conference logo).

I also design an animated version (if you click on it you should get the animated GIF version). The graphics were hardly earth-shattering, but they didn't cost a penny (apart from my time, which was much less than an hour).


The thing I really like about the WWW is that I can publish material within minutes, where it would normally take me many months, if not years, to publish in the normal way. I think that there will always be a need for traditional book publishing, as it is a totally natural way to learn, as opposed to reading material from a screen, but both methods have their usage.


Every so often something happens in technology that makes you change the way that you think about something. There's too responses to this, either you go with the flow, and learn the new techniques, or you say 'Forget it. I'm happy with where I am, and this new thing just isn't as good as all these other things'. It happened when Pascal and C came along and challenged FORTRAN. Many old FORTRAN programmers said 'You can do everything that you can do in C in FORTRAN, so why change?' Well where are the FORTRAN programmers now? It's amazing to think about how things have changed in computing. About ten years ago I was writing simple Pascal programs which did a few simple calculations, and would take no more than 64KB of memory (for both the code and the data). The computers were simple 8MHz 8086-based PCs which, if you were lucky, had a 10MB hard-disk. Then C came along, and then C++, and then Visual Basic, and then Java, and so on. We had been taught to think in functions and modules, and now we were told to think in terms of events and objects.

In education I think you either use the Internet as a tool, or you'll loose out eventually, as the consumers (the learners) will demand material to be transported or presented over it. It is a time of great opportunities, but it is also a time of change, and you can either be involved in it, or someone will eventually come along and enforce the material. What is so great about the WWW? I was trained as an engineer, and the use of colour, in any way, was always disdained. If we used coloured pens for any of our drawings, the tutor would immediately put a large red mark through it, and say something like: 'colour is not required'. On the WWW, colour is important as the human eye will very quickly tire if it does not like the layout of a page or a site. The think I have found when accessing WWW pages, is that consistency and content are the most important things. It does no good have a nice fancy home page, when the rest of the site is a jumble of old and new pages, and there's nothing that can hide a lack of content. With a book you can quickly flick through the book, and can often tell its quality. On a WWW site, it is often difficult to see what's below. The other thing that was lacking in engineering is the lack of creativity involved. As an engineer you often take other peoples ideas, and then ask them about what they want, and how they want it, and you just create exactly what they want.






Small Scale Integration (1960 - I was minus one at the time). Placing a few transistors on a single piece of silicon.

Logic gates, op-amps, and linear applications


Medium Scate Integration (1966 - England win the World Cup, and I was five year old at he time). This was between 100 and 1000 transistors on an IC.

Registers, filters, and so on.


Large Scale Integration (1970 - I was nine at the time). More than 1000 transistors.

8-bit microprocessors, 64kbit ROMs and RAMs, Analogue-to-Digital convertors.


Very Large Scale Integration (1975 - A teenager). More that 100,000 transistors on an IC.

16-bit/32-bit microprocessors, 256 kbit RAMs.

Note: Well they didn't really know where to go after Very Large Scale Integration, so, after much de-bating about what came after very large, they went for ultra large with ULSI (Ultra Large Scale Integration - which is between 500,000 and 10,000,000 transistors), and then they struggled again with the next size up, so they opted for gigantic with GSI (Gigantic Scale Integration - which is over 10,000,000 transistors). Who knows the next step? Maybe UBSI (Unbelievably Big Scale Integration), or YWBHLI (You Wouldn't Believe How Large the Integration is). If any does ever use these terms in the future, you know where you heard them first, and the copyright case will follow very quickly after that.

NEXT ESSAY: Electronics is boring?. The answer is NO.


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My Top subjects that I would most like to teach:
Networking/ Distributed Systems
Well I teach this one anyway, and it's nice teaching a subject which is relevant to many students, no matter their course of study.
History of the PC
I find the history of the PC fascinating, as it involved real people who were as creative of any of the great artists of our time. The greats included Steve Job, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Clive Sinclair, Michael Dell, and so on. It's a shame how little technology student get to know about the history of their subject, as history can show us good example on how to make better decisions.
WWW page design
I do not currently teach WWW design, and its not related to my research, but I find it intreging, especially in the way that it is evolving.I would love to teach the actual principles about how the page was layed-out, and how to highlight key areas, and so on. I would not like to present the actual implement, such as HTML, Java, ASP, and so on. These could be used in practical sessions.
This relates to my research, and I really think that we're entering a new age, where the computer will disappear and will start to be embedded in things, and that computing will become mobile, where technologies such as wireless communications will replace our existing copper wires. I'm currently investigating Blue Tooth technology, and hope to incorporate it into some of my lectures, next year.
Technical writing
I've learnt the whole process of writing, without anyone really teaching me. I remember at school it was all about stories, and comprehension, but when you get into work you find its all about making clear presentation, and writing reports. I learnt everything that I know about grammar from Bill Gates; well actually it was the grammar checker in Word. It was here that it told me that I was using a boring passive verb, whereas I could simply swap round the sentence and make it much more interesting (using a passive verb, instead).
Making Technical Presentations
I've given a lot of technical presentations in my time, and I know how important it can be. Some lecturers, though, provide poor role models, and will stand-up and go into great detail of a subject, which actually hide the main principles being taught. The worst case of this is when a lecturer stands up and basically dictates to the students from their notes. This is a total waste of time. I'm a great believer in stating aims, using simple diagrams to show important principles.
Digital Audio and Video Principles
The whole audio and video industry is changing, from analogue to digital, but in many courses you would never know. I would love to lecture on the principles of MP-3 and MPEG compression, and then show various effects. Unfortunately to teach this properly would require a great investment in hi-fi and video equipment.
The Future?
Often we are constrained at looking at the future, with what we know now. We often struggle to think ahead more than 5 or 10 years. I would love to give a lecture on what might happen in 10, 20 and even 30 years in the future, and how it would build on our current technological information. To do this properly you've really got to forget about taking what we have now, and then making it faster or smaller, but to forget about what we have now, and think of the basic problem, and find better ways to solve it.
Timed Practicals
Timed practicals are the most difficult assessment that you can ever do, but they are character building, and are often one of the best techniques for testing real skills (such as design, fault finding, and so on). One practical would be to totally build a WAN from a number of components (bridges, hubs, routers, switches, and so on), cables, computers, and so on. There would be no standard implementation and the students could implement it however they wanted. Scary! There's nothing better than seeing a group working together as a team, and thinking logically.
Creativity in computing. It's amazing for a practical subject such as Computing that creativity is not part of the syllabus, especially in how to integrate technology with artist design. When was the last time a lecturer asked you to design a WWW page that caused the user to stay for more than a certain time?
History of the Internet
While this is not quite as exciting as the history of the PC, it is important to identify the key decisions that were made on the development of one of the most important creations in history: The Internet. In 20 or 30 years time people will look back and think how quaint or little Internet was, and they'll he able to see how WWW pages changed, and how new applications have been added to the Internet, and so on, and so on.
Digital graphics design
Well, I'm not very good at this, and I'd love to learn some of the tricks-of-the-trade. One of the best ways to learn a new subject is to teach it to a class. I understand the technology behind graphics content, and its integration into media packages, but I really need some lessons on how to design properly (such as the usage of color, layout, and so on).


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