Thursday, March 29, 2007

Finally, a Flickr account

Already a year ago I created a free account on the well reputed photo web site Flickr. But I had not used it at all; instead I had made a few photoalbums on other sites: I used the Picasa/Google album, and I created on Yahoo a few folders. But both of these tools have their problems: the upload process is quite cumbersome and slow. When I wanted to share recently my pictures from Salerno on Picasa, I ran into the problem of the limited disc space. I was surprised because my first trys in uploading pictures actually reduced the size and compressed them into a still acceptable quality. But since my upgrade to Mircosoft IE 7, the advanced resizing upload did not work anymore... and so my pictures were uploaded in full size, each about 2MB large. Naturally, the available 250MB filled up, and I could not share all the pics from the recent trip to Salerno.

When recently Kevin had his pictures on Flickr, I decided to also begin posting. And here is my Flickr Photo Site, currently only with the pictures I took from Salerno, Amalfi Coast, Napoli, and Pompeii. Of course I quickly reached the limits of the free account - only my first 200 pictures could be seen. So I decided to buy now a one-year subscription, and have the full benefits of Flickr. I will let you know when more has been uploaded.


In many technical systems, redundancy helps to ensure safety. For example in airplanes, many systems are designed in a redundant way, so that if one fails, the other one is still there. But in the UK employment sector, redundandy has another meaning: getting fired from the job. This is just one of the euphemism used here... There is also the term "management of change" which by its meaning should be something positive: reacting to new situations, improving things. But here in the UK it is the technical term of the official negotiations between an employer and its Union-member employees. So with the "management of change process", the redundancies are being handled, usually by offering employees an incentive to early retirement, similar to severance packages in the US.

Monday, March 26, 2007

24/7 Availability of Academics

An interesting article appeared in this weekend's Times Higher Education Supplement, describing changes in UK Higher Education Institutions towards a more corporate way of doing things.

I have noticed that already a long time ago, that especially at Leeds Met there is a very "corporate air". But while many seem to object to this, I actually like it - this overall attitude is what made me join Leeds Met and move to the UK. The attitude during the job interview was very professional, very business-oriented. And since I had worked in a corporate research environment for more than 9 years, this did not seem strange to me at all. I also agree with the 24/7 culture (24 h a day, 7 days a week) - as an academic I need to be always available for students and staff.

But I see a danger in how this culture is about to be implemented: requiring presence in the office is not the way to achieve this culture. Nowadays there are other ways, for example mobile phones and broadband home internet to achieve this availability. It is important that academics have the freedom to move about when they decide they need to. It is their role and responsibility, and the limitation of this responsibility into a more supervised approach is dangerous to academic freedom. In such a climate, no academic excellence can be achieved, because being constantly disturbed by phone calls, visits in the office, and emails does not allow a concentrated work on research activities.

There were more articles in that edition of the Times Higher Supplement from last weekend about this issue, in which also specifically Leeds Met is mentioned. Again the same thing here: there is of course no problem with striving for excellence, and people who receive their pay from the university have the obligation to do their very best. This is no different in any other employment. But I am reluctant to accept a "shared identity": a university with its academic freedom can have a much more powerful voice if its members and employees speak as free individuals, with their own mind. A strength of the academic community is that within it there can be different viewpoints - and the free uninhibited discussion of issues is what leads to excellence.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lost - and Found

After all the bad news about criminal activity in England and the UK, here something positive:

On this Saturday, 24.March, we had been in Skipton ("Gateway to the Yorkshire Dales")for a visit. As we walked up a hill behind Skipton Castle, I suddenly noticed that my GPS receiver which I almost always carry with me, was no longer in my pocket - it must have fallen out on the way up somewhere. Now this was the 2nd time that I lost this device: after I had bought it in fall 2003, I had taken it to a trip in Germany, to record all the travelled tracks. After boarding the flight back, making myself comfortable in the seat, I suddenly had noticed that the GPS was gone - I had left it in the rental car. Back in California, I called the rental company, and yes, they had found it. But it was somewho very difficult to send it back - because they would have to pay custom fees... after a few weeks of back and forth debating, my brother finally just drove to the airport and picked it up himself. At my next visit, he then gave it back to me.

Now, the GPS again was lost. I headed immediately back the way where we had come up, looking left and right where it could have been on the ground. But no trace of it. I looked at oncoming people, to see if they had found something, but no, their hands were empty, except with their own mobile phones. At the end of the path, where it diverted into two, a group of four people was walking through the fence door, turning away from the path. One woman looked back, and asked if I was looking for something that I had lost...

They had found the thing on the ground, and had picked it up to bring it to the next police station. What a nice surprise!

So I had my GPS device back - the old Garmin GPS 76S had now gone lost twice.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pleasant Evening Events

Two events on Wednesday evening: First there was Prof. Paul Gately's inaugural lecture. He gave a lively talk about his work on fighting child obesity - quite interesting how his camp concept helps to reduce the weight of children. His work reaches back many years and had quite a high public profile in the media. I think he is the only professor at Leeds Met who is younger than me (he is 36 years old).
But I could not stay on for the further festivities after his talk, as we had another small-scale event: the fare-well dinner for my colleague Prof. William Latham, who has been "Running Stream Professor of Creative Technology" at our faculty just a few months before I joined. Together with Dean Cath Orange, Graham Orange, Salam Strudwick, him, and myself, we had dinner at The Olive Tree restaurant in Headingley. A nice evening - we had good food and lots of laughter.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Robbery in the Kirkstall Brewery!

Now I know why the crooks of Leeds want to steal cars like mine: to commit other crimes. This happened last night, from Sunday to Monday - at my former accommodation Kirkstall Brewery. Some guys stole a Jeep Cherokee, drove it into the reception of the Brewery, and stole the free-standing ATM machine from the lobby. Here are the official details, and here is the BBC report. If I would have still lived there in the Tower Flat, I could have witnessed the ongoing commotion - and it would even be possible for those robbers to walk up into my flat...

I am starting to wonder what it is with the city of Leeds, with this region. Never have I lived in an area where so much criminality is happening. Something is wrong here in this society. The people I know are all very decent folks. But I must surrounded be a large criminal undercurrent. Sometimes I meet this "undercurrent", walking on the streets, looking for trouble, up to no good. But the British society has somehow the tendency to "look the other way", to keep calm and quiet, to be politically correct. It would probably be considered to be an offense, if I would call those criminals here "... (censored by myself)" - which they are indeed. But the British society is very keen on not offending anyone. I see this on TV in the news where there is such a display on political correctness, and always there is someone who is offended by the remarks of someone else. It seems that society here has given up on the decent side. In many places in Leeds I see signs "thieves are operating in this area". It seems that these signs have been put up to legitimise the thieves, to tell that it is the victims' fault if they get mugged or robbed ("you have been warned!"). What I have not seen here are signs that are common in the US: "No trespassing here - or you will get shot!" While in general I do not approve this attitude, I sometimes really miss those signs...

British prisons are full. As recently published studies have shown, the British youth is "the worst" in Europe, both in their own experience which they have while growing up here, and in the view and reputation they have in the eyes of other Europeans. What is going wrong here in Britain?

You can tell that I am getting more and more upset about the situation here...

Trouble at Leeds University...

Today I learned about a controversy which had erupted at "the other" university in Leeds: Leeds University. A speaker from Germany had been invited to give a talk, but then he got uninvited again, for fear of protests regarding his controversial presentation which was titled "Hitler's Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East". The Yorkshire Post described the story, and many bloggers have picked it up, e.g. Beer and Sandwich, Engage.

Leeds University posted an official reply to the accusation of censorship.

More on this can be found by searching Google or Google News.

I wonder how such a dispute would have been dealt with at our university... I would hope that it would have been done in a more open way, protecting free speech.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Again snow in Leeds

A could front moved in over the weekend, strong winds (gales) made the trees shake. And there was a bit of snow flurry coming down. Too little snow to stay.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Car broken in - again.

The sun was shining bright this morning. Bad wether was announced for later, so we decided to use the Saturday and enjoy the good weather for a short trip to somewhere around Leeds. As I came to the car, I immediately saw the crushed glass on the ground... the left (passenger) side door window had been smashed. No other damage, nothing was stolen from the inside of the car, but this time I would be left with a repair bill.

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"... And I thought that I had taken sufficient precautions, with my camera mounted well in sight. But I had not installed the capture completely - I only had set up the system to record a few single images, and so I saw a picture of the car before the damage, and one after the damage. Whoever did this, was there actually in the morning, using early daylight...
I should have parked the car inside the driveway, but when I tried it last time, the car bottom touched the ground because of the steep slope.

Well, I now reconfigured the video system to actually capture video sequences.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Photographs by Kevin McCarthy

This Saturday I met with Kevin and his family (Pat, Laura, and Luke) in the pub The Beulah, which is not very far from where I live. I had not seen them in quite a while, so it was great to catch up over a few beers.

I must note that Kevin was the first person I knew in Leeds, after I had my job interview and before I actually moved to Leeds: he had posted a set of great phorographs of Leeds on various web sites, and I had searched for Leeds pictures, to see how it looks here.

Just recently he posted new pictures on his Flickr site - these are quite excellent photographs.

Here are are a few of Kevin's pictures which I saw first 2 years ago.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dispute: Ethics vs. Research

As I mentioned here recently, our Leeds Metropolitan University has the nice tradition (well, at least since a few months) to post weekly ethics reflections on the web site. I often read them with interest, as they provide some background on current issues.

Recently there had been a reflection by a Leeds Met researcher who had decided not to accept research funding for a specific project because she had ethical concerns: she was not sure that the research would provide beneficial results.

This got me thinking about what I would do in such a situation. And, judging from the situation described in this exactly 200 words (as each of those reflections) essay, I concluded that I would have accepted the funding, out of curiosity, to really study the effect and make a well informed judgement about the topic of this particular research. Since the company who provided the research funding, was interested in this topic, then why not do the research? Obviously they did not have an answer to this research question yet, otherwise they would not be willing to pay money. And it is always interesting to extend the human knowledge - that is what research is about.

I was then quite surprised to read a reply to this reflection, in which another researcher expressed the same view as the original author: not to accept research funding if there are ethical concerns. I thought that I should write a reply myself, otherwise this would just be a mutual admiration society regarding ethics questions. And I decided to formulate my reply in a bit controversial terms: I wanted to get the point across that research is the extension of human knowledge, and that with this goal in mind, there should be no limit to the topic of research activities. Ethics principles can be derived from research activities, so research is above ethics. Of course I accept that the methodology of research is guided by ethics, but the topic of research must not be limited by ethics concerns. So I submitted my reply.

In the meantime, another researcher had posted a reply, somewhat representing my view. And a week later, my own reflection came online.

It remained relatively quiet - then some of my colleagues started talking to me about what a "dreadful" reflection I had posted...

Ok, I should probably not have used the example of the atomic bomb...

Here is some explaining and clarification of my viewpoint which I was not able to squeeze into those 200 words, as I just wanted to make a (provocative) point in that reflection:
I do not think that developing the atomic bomb was good. It was a devastating desaster for humanity.
What I meant in my reflection was: the research for finding out what keeps the atoms together was absolutely justified: to research the mechanisms, the amount of energy, the physical principles and natural forces that act between the neutrons, protons, electrons, needed to be researched. Experiments need to be conducted, to get quantitative data.
Not these experiments and research activities, but the actual development of this bomb should have been limited by the ethical concerns.

The main problem is: whatever scientists explore and research on, can be and will be used for military purposes. If one does not approve this, one has to completely stop all research and technology development. But even if most scientists would stop working on such things, there would always be someone who would continue... so the world does not become a better place anyway.

I believe it is important to study all natural phenomena and try to uncover their secrets - this is what scientists are for. And if the truth being discovered means that there is a danger of abuse, it is up to these scientists to warn about it, to create awareness and to work on mechanisms for preventing such abuse.

The world today is in a similar situation as before the atomic bomb: we are developing intelligent systems with our computer algorithms and autonomous capabilities which have the potential for creating great harm - and the "Hiroshima of the Information Science" is still about to happen sometime. But I do not think that research and development of such systems should be stopped - but it should be guided into useful and productive products and outcomes. One example of such ethically guided activities is the RoboEthics consortium, with the goal to ensure that robotic systems will not harm humans - or the environment of humans.

So much about the atomic bomb dispute.

Another thought of mine is that I believe, uncovering the truth is above everything. In the past centuries, ethics has changed significantly, thanks to the scientific discoveries with the freedom of enlightenment. The limits which previous ethics systems imposed on research ("the earth is the centre of the universe") had been overcome and enabled our current technological status. I do not want to loose this - if current ethics places a limit on what research can focus on, then we are in danger of again letting ideology and prejudice rule. Maybe there are things which we do not even know about yet, forces between the elementary particles which could be put to use, solving our energy problems. Maybe research can solve some of the unanswered questions regarding human life. There are plenty of answers waiting to be uncovered.

I received a reply from Cathy, the author of the original reflection. She pointed out to me that this proposed research actually would have to be done on humans, with possible side effects, and this was one of the reasons for her concerns.
Here I agreed with her: research methods must not be harmful to humans. And if by the research methodology, harm is caused, then of course this research method needs to be abandoned, and a different path to answering the original research question needs to be found. So I agree: ethics should guide the research methodology.

There will be more discussions on this. Several researchers have submitted replies which will be posted on the Leeds Met website. I will list the links, once they become available.

And in summer, at the INN Faculty Research Conference, I have been asked to be in a panel, discussion ethics and research and representing my viewpoint.


Here is a link to all the daily reflections - I created a frame web page for these. Needs to be resized to at least 1600 x 1200, to be readable.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

University Committees

Being employed at a professor at a university means not only doing research and teaching students, but also participating at the university governance. This is usually done by being a member in committees, and I am a member of several of such:

a) the Faculty Research Awards Sub-Committee (FRASC) is responsible for the post-graduate awards (MSc, PhD) in our faculty. In the meetings, the attending members of the committee decide on issues regarding degree awards, applications, and dismissals. The committee meets regularly once a month, and each meeting can last from 1 - 2 hours.

b) the Faculty Research Committee (FRC) is a more informal meeting of the professors of our faculty. Officially we did not have this committee until recently, but since the promotion of research is an important issue, we also meet once a month to report about activities regarding bids and results.

c) the Faculty Board is the main governing board of the faculty. Since September I have been appointed to be a member of this board, representing "research". This board is huge - there are about 30 members in it. They report on the activities and issues from the various sub-committees, and the meeting usually takes 3 hours.

Lately I had all three of these meetings within a short timespan: Thursday the FRASC meeting, Monday the Faculty Board meeting, and Tuesday the Faculty Research meeting. This takes time, in addition to the regularly scheduled activities... but it is very interesting to sit in them and listen, to learn about the university mechanism, and to actually participate and contribute.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lunar Eclipse

Saturday night a lunar eclipse occured. There was no cloud cover, and the eclipse was well visible here from Leeds. Unfortunately, the tele zoom on my camera was not strong enough to capture the event...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Re-Opening of Leeds Met Headingley Library

On Thursday evening, a special event was held to celebrate the re-furbishing of the Headingley library. Guest speaker Peter Hoare gave a talk about the historic relevance of libraries in the UK. He was intoruced by Professor Alistair Black from Innovation North (see picture). A tour through the library was organised to see the newwly refurbished rooms. One feature of the new installation is an RFID-based electronic book checkout - it was mentioned that his is only the 2nd installation of such a system in the UK.