The Stomach of the Beast

November 14, 2008

You probably think that Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”. However, an inside source has explained to me that their true underlying philosophy is “No employee shall be more than 150 feet from food”. Seriously. Last night I saw the astonishing evidence for myself, and verified that this policy has been rigorously implemented.

Ex-AstroGridder John Taylor was stolen from us by Google some while back. He works at Google Pittsburgh under Andrew Moore, but is currently on a two week stint at Mountain View. He invited my family for dinner at the Google Campus. So last night me, girlfriend, and two out of four progeny trooped up to Charleston Road and spent several hours eating, playing volleyball, scribbling on whiteboards, touring round various wacky work areas, and admiring Stan the T-Rex. There are many different cafes with various catering styles, and snack stations at strategic intervals. At one of these there was actually a vending machine that required money, but this was only because it contained the unhealthiest snacks. The price is calculated per gram of unsaturated fat. Before you conclude that nobody at Google does any work, I should point out that at 7p.m. there were plenty of folk carrying their dinner trays back to their offices … Guess the system works.

They do also seem keen on democracy or at the very least its appearance. As we walked through building 42 on the way to John’s temporary station, there was a ring of small shared offices around the open plan area. John pointed at one of these. It had four names on the door. One of these was Vint Cerf. Yes. Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet. Desk in pokey shared office. Vint Cerf. Vint Cerf. A little further along the same row another office had just one name : Eric Schmidt. Yes folks, Google CEO. Office the size of two broom cupboards side by side. Random location. Wow. Is this just for show ? Really, he has an underground suite with a tank of pirnahas, a direct tunnel to the Lear jet, and a red phone labelled “White House” ??? John didn’t know.

John also gave me a demo of the pilot of the product from his 20% project. It worked. And it was dead cool. But I can’t tell you or I would have to kill you.

C-day Plus One

July 3, 2008

Here I am in the very thick of the madding crowd : Heathrow Terminal Three, en route to San Francisco. Yesterday STFC Council met and finally sealed the fates of various projects (*). The outcome is described in a pdf file you can get here. STFC folk will brave up to the crowd and explain it all at the Town Meeting on July 8th … but there ain’t really any surprises, so not sure how that will go. For me, its a mixed story; the approach to UKIRT/UKIDSS is much saner than before; the WFAU/CASU stuff is peripheral, outside the core work, and shouldn’t really have been in the review at all; and AstroGrid as expected is sacrificed. The previous two days I have been running the twice yearly AstroGrid Consortium Meeting, and we have planning how to “gift wrap” our product as professionally as we can, on the assumption that our early closure would indeed be announced. The referee’s decision is final; no barricades will be manned or TV crews invited; but if I hear that there are no cuts, only “unfulfilled aspirations”, I will spit. E-science fans may note that the long term situation is much more complex; the Astronet facility roadmap strongly recommends continued investment in the VO, and the international drive in this direction is undiminished; all we have done is relinquish the UK lead in this area. Hey, you can’t have everything. No really, you can’t. Probably we have just displaced the cost of dealing with the global data management infrastructure elsewhere. Watch this space.

So whither STFC ? They seem to be doing a Geoffrey Boycott, sticking doggedly at the wicket and adding a run or so every few minues. The Select Committee report was vicious, with many truths but also unecessary personal attacks on KOM. The Government response seemed to be a stubborn and patronising denial of all the points … but … you will note that there is now an organisational review of STFC underway. Is this a deflection, or a lining up for the firing squad ? Time will tell.

You have only until July 9th to make your input to the review

Meanwhile, lets look on the bright side ….

  • PPAN did make SOME changes
  • DIUS is looking hard at whether STFC is the right structure
  • MoonLite is being opened up to very public scrutiny
  • Advisory Panels are being re-invented
  • The competent ex-PPARC bureaucracy is re-asserting itself

* posted next day, stateside

Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

June 16, 2008

So the advisory panel reports have been released ; PPAN has responded; and Science Board has endorsed PPAN’s pronouncements. The final word is with Council on July 1st. The rankings have been nicely analysed by Stuart over at The Astronomy Blog. So where are we now ?

Wandering the halls of academe, and reading my inbox, I get the impression most people are saying “why did we bother ? PPAN has changed almost nothing.”. I think this is a mistake for several reasons.

(1) Some things have changed. UKIRT went up a notch, and LT went down a notch – although the ground based advisory panel wanted a larger movement. PPAN took the theory panel idea of splitting HPC operations into strands so some of it could be funded. XMM went up a notch and SWIFT went down a notch, but is still high.

Of course I am being a big brave boy because AstroGrid and CASU/WFAU are still in the pits, and UKIDSS is still at risk, so thats ten years of my life down the toilet. Hey Ho.

(2) The advisory panel reports are excellent – really good pieces of analysis, accurate, well considered and argued. And the level of discussion from PPAN, while still not extensive, is much much more than the brief, vague and almost insulting “feedback” we had before. It engages with the arguments, and sometimes but not always concedes points. Its just all much healthier.

(3) Advisory panel members (including myself, on the space panel) had insisted that our reports be made public. But STFC had not committed to make the PPAN and PALS responses public. But they have done so, and this is a huge advance.

Because of history, and because of the cuts, the commmunity is still not going to be happy. But its a vast improvement. If we’d had these kind of detailed panel reports before the original PPAN deliberations, everybody would have been onside. The result might have been different. Or it might have been just the same. But the referee’s decision would have been accepted.

(This reminds me of a story by Borges, about a literary critic who immerses himself so deeply in Don Quixote that he is able to spontaneously recreate it word by word. But when he has, it is. of course, not the same book …)

So is the result scientifically wise and sound ? Well of course you can’t expect me to be unbiased on UKIRT, AstroGrid, and WFAU/CASU, so I won’t try. Standing back and looking at the big picture, many things are just clearly correct, but there is a tendency to fund the future by cutting the present – i.e. things like XMM and UKIDSS producing results NOW. This is kinda brave but foolish.

Postscript When I googled “reasons to be cheerful”, although Ian Dury did of course come up first, entry number three was a blog by a woman obsessed with ukeleles and knitting. Isn’t the Internet wonderful ?

Its the Economy Stupid

March 10, 2008

Patience dear reader. The Clinton reference is explained at the end.

I haven’t posted for a few days. I have been visiting ESO, participating in an internal review they were having of their Virtual Observatory Systems (VOS) Department. This was a very interesting event : some hard bitten VO sceptics were converted. Of course as well as telling them how good our ESO chums were, I slipped in a quick demo of AstroGrid’s VO Desktop… sorry Paolo, couldn’t resist it. Meanwhile, like many other UK astronomers, I have been manning the barricades and joining about six telecons a minute trying to plot our rescue plans. On the plane home, somewhat exhausted, I was re-reading The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (pretentious ? moi ?)…

Now thou hast but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually !
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That UKIRT may repent and save its soul !

For UKIRT, read MERLIN, AstroGrid, WFAU, etc. Mephistopheles cometh.

The community consultation is an interesting exercise. After being heavily criticised for not consulting the community, STFC has thrown things wide open for comment. Every postgrad in the land can vent her spleen. Of course “community consultation” is normally a euphemism for “allow the big profs to lobby”, so STFC may claim this is a real community consultation. As a Head of Department I know that the job is more like being King John than Louis Quinze if you know what I mean. How do you avoid being at the mercy of the squabbling barons ? Well of course, you appeal directly to the yeomen and peasants, and they become your power base. Hmm. Thinks. Maybe should change metaphor from mediaeval Europe to ancient Rome. Who are the People’s Tribunes ?

Well, anyhoo… you can’t have failed to notice that STFC is not exactly an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and in fact tends somewhat to the dirigiste. (Not inconsistent with populism of course…) There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is the personal management instinct of senior STFC staff. The second is the nature of STFC and its appointed mission. It is not the embodiment of the scientific community, channelling upwards to government; it is an arm of government, whose aim is to improve the performance of UK PLC. Keith keeps telling us this but we don’t listen. Its the economy stupid.

Some scientists are gung ho for Knowledge Transfer. Others are nervous and distressed, worrying that the purity and independence of academic science is being destroyed. These fears are growing as the commercial pressure builds on the teaching side too. According to the FT, a confidential DIUS report plans a new business focus on teaching. The FT article is here and a related Guardian leader is here.

The worries that commercial engagement will destroy academic science are a bit daft. They do both perfectly well in the USA. Galileo flogged his inventions as fast as he uncovered the secret laws of Nature. And the although the current government is even more insistent on economic relevance than before, notice that unlike governments in the 80s and 90s, they want to pay us extra to help industry. Up here in Schottish-land we don’t want less of this Science and Innovation stuff, we want more please.

Of course thats me talking as Head of Physics rather than Andy the Astronomer. How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ? Answer-1 is that we don’t have to. The Government does recognise the intrinsic value of pure science. But how do you put the correct number on that value ? Same budget as AHRC ?? Answer-2 is that we should re-define KT as “economic impact”. Or put another way, our Knowledge Transfer is people not widgets. This is all going to be vairy important in the Wakeham Review.

Meanwhile keep repeating these two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

STFC review : bloodbath starts now …

March 3, 2008

STFC just announced the rankings in its infamous “Programmatic Review”. I have several favourites down in the dungeons, and on Friday at 5:21 p.m. got my “Dear John” letter. This was “in advance” of the Town Meeting being held today in London. Despite my personal interests, I am not at that meeting, even though I am in London today. Thats because I have been attending the Critical Service Review for AstroGrid. We concluded that everything looks on target for our planned public release of the software at the NAM in Belfast on March 31st. You will love it, trust me. Our attendees from the STFC Oversight Committee and from our own Science Advisory Group were really impressed. Putting that together with the known fact that the material used by the Programmatic Reviewers was eighteen months out of date, I am confident sense will prevail in our case. Honest.

But of course the other reason I am not at the Town Meeting is that it is bound to be horribly bad tempered – people will be queuing up to shout at anybody with an STFC badge on. My guess is that it won’t be the most productive of meetings.

Dinner at Hogwarts

January 22, 2008

Sometimes life converges, crosses, and then spreads, like peaking waves in a choppy sea.

Yesterday I went to Oxford. I had been invited to give a seminar about AstroGrid at the Oxford e-Research Centre. This felt weird. The software is in a good state, and will be released in April, but the staff on my project don’t know if they will get paid this month; our expected grant announcement is on hold because of all the STFC problems. That stream of thought continued as I crossed Keble Road to Astrophysics, to meet Roger Davies, who like myself is entangled in all the astro-politics. We asked each other if there was any news of the Select Committee hearings..

Roger had invited me to Dinner (capital D) at Christchuch College. This was extraordinary, in the painfully beautiful but privileged Oxford manner; ancient quadrangle, sonorous bell, flapping gowns, glass of sherry in wood panelled room. Then into the Great Hall to sit at top table next to the Dean, three feet above theGreat Hall at Christchurch, aka Hogwarts massed ranks of Christchurch students, seventeenth century portraits staring down from every wall. “Wow” says I to Roger, “this is so Harry Potter”. “Yes of course” says Roger, “this is where it was filmed…”.

Back to sherry land, more Oxford banter. Roger and I trying to avoid talking about STFC politics, as we have done it to death. In comes a tall, bright, and cheerful young chap. “Have you met Chris Lintott ?” says Roger. “No” says I, “but I feel I should have done – we read each others blogs…”

My blog, my science, my politics, my children’s fantasy worlds collided in that moment. But then the clock struck nine and I had to leave before missing my train.