Saturday, 28 May 2011

Reprint: Recent Artificial Intelligence Developments with CODIL, 1976

Firbush News, No 6. pp 26-30, July 1976
Recent [Artificial Intelligence] developments with CODIL
C.F. Reynolds, Department of Computer Science, Brunel University, England, U.K.
CODIL (1, 2) is a computer language designed for the non-mathematically orientated user with open-ended real-life information processing problems. Every attempt has been made to minimise mathematical sophistication of the basic language framework, and to find a processing algorithm and storage strategy simple enough to seem "obvious" to the proposed users. In achieving this goal many of the generally accepted features of computer languages - in particular the distinction between program and data - were abandoned as being too sophisticated. The resulting interpreter works by comparing strings of items and the basic algorithm is simple enough to be described on the back of an envelope.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Watch This Space

I am currently reassessing the CODIL research in terms of modern research and plan to post an important new paper in June - significantly updating the earlier An Evolutionary Approach to Artificial Intelligence.

Because much of the earlier research may be difficult to locate I am posting the text of selected earlier papers over the next two or three days - followed by an introduction which shows how the papers are related.

Reprint: Knowledge Bases for Historians, 1988

CATH88 Computers and Teaching in the Humanities, 1988
Knowledge Bases for Historians
Chris Reynolds,
CODIL Language Systems:

Reprint: Moving IT to the Classroom 1990

Making Learning Systems Work, edited by Diana Eastcott, Bob Farmer and Brian Lantz, pp226-239 
Aspects of Educational and Training Technology Volume XXIII, Kogan Page, 1990
Moving information technology research from 
the laboratory to the classroom
Chris F Reynolds, CODIL Language Systems Ltd, Tring,
Hertfordshire, UK

Artificial intelligence and expert systems ideas are beginning to spill out of the laboratory but the first offerings tend to require powerful computers and sophisticated users. What is required is a reinterpretation of the basic ideas in a usable form for use in teaching environments. This paper discusses the steps needed to move new ideas from the computer laboratory to the classroom, using the MicroCODIL package as an example.

Reprint: Historical Knowledge Bases, 1988

 From Computer and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology 1988, edited by S. P. Q. Rahtz, BAR International Series 446(ii) 1988
 CODIL as a knowledge base system for handling historical information
Chris F. Reynolds

Reprint: Human Factors in Systems Design, 1987

Published in People and Computers III, Edited by D. Diaper & R. Winder, British Computer Society, 1987
 Human Factors in Systems Design: A Case Study
Christopher Finch Reynolds
Department of Computer Science, Brunei University, Uxbridge, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom.

MicroCODIL is a teaching package which also acts as a test bed for human factors research in the CODIL project. This paper shows how human factors can be considered at all levels of systems design, starting with the way that poorly structured information is represented and processed, through the provision of diagnostic windows, to the use of colour to syntax check lazy input. The need to minimize the effects on the user of the limitations of low cost hardware is also considered.

Reprint: Colour in Language Syntax Analysis,1987

The Use of Colour in Language Syntax Analysis
Department of Computer Science, BruneI University, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, U.K.
SUMMARY: The use of colour to reflect the syntax of typed-in language statements can make a language processor much more user-friendly. This paper shows how colour has been used in MicroCODIL and suggests ways in which the approach could be applied to other systems.
KEY WORDS:   Colour   Language Syntax   MicroCODIL   User Friendly Systems

Reprint: Medical System 1986

Knowledge Representation in Medicine and Clinical Behavioural Science
by L.J. Kohout & W. Bandler
Abacus Press, 1986
pages 183-191
Christopher F. Reynolds
Department of Computer Science
Brunei University
Uxbridge UBS 3PH England

Reprint: Information Processing Concepts, 1985

Eighth Annual Microprocessor Workshop on Microprocessor Applications, Leed, 1985, pages 1-11
A Microcomputer Package for demonstrating Information Processing Concepts
C. F. Reynolds
Department of Computer Science Brunel University Uxbridge, Middlesex
One of the problems of the typical school microcomputer is that the most accessible language is BASIC. Unfortunately this language is not suitable for demonstrating modern information processing concepts. This paper describes a package, called MicroCODIL, which has been developed for the BBC Microcomputer. This is based on the main frame CODIL system which has been used for a range of teaching and "knowledge base" applications. The flexibility of the approach is demonstrated through two applications. The first involves a-level Chemistry while the second shows how invoicing can be done on an individual contract basis.

Reprint: Electronic Journals, 1983

7th International Online Information Meeting, pp 111-.118,  1983


C.F. Reynolds, BruneI University, UK

Keywords: Interactive Papers, Electronic Journals, Computer Aided Learning, Authoring Systems, User Friendly Systems.

Abstract: In connection with the British Library funded electronic journal, "Computer Human Factors", a fully  interactive paper was written involving a number of experimental features. The "CHF" paper describes a teaching package used to introduce undergraduates to computers.Readers of the paper are provided with a number of general tools - for instance they can locate texts containing given words or write on-line notes for their own use, or to send to the author. In addition the paper contains a number of appendices in which a high degree of interaction is possible. For instance the reader can actively run the student coursework with whatever input he chooses. Interactive tutorial texts  and support statistics are available (in some cases the figures are produced by searching a data base online). The reference list allows the reader access to abstracts or short commentaries where this would be helpful - and for one key reference the whole paper has been represented in interactive form as an appendix.

Reprint: Designing for the Pragmatic User, 1974

Proceedings, The European Computing Congress, pp 991-1006, 1974

Designing an interactive language for the pragmatic user
Department of Computer Science Brunel University, Uxbridge.
The act of programming involves the precise definition and subsequent implementation of an abstract model of an application. However a very large number of people see the world in concrete rather than abstract terms. Any data processing problem that such a pragmatic user might wish to carry out for himself is almost certainly poorly defined (in programming terms) and is often open-ended. Even if the problem were well defined the user would normally be unable to map it into a suitable abstract model without considerable professional help. For these reasons conventional programming languages are totally inapplicable for this class of user.
    This paper shows how, by dramatically discarding those aspects of language design that involve abstraction, it is possible to define a language system that is both extremely simple yet general enough to handle poorly defined and open ended problems. Details are given of the implementation of the CODIL language.

Reprint: Evolutionary Approach to AI, 1973

Proceedings of Datafair 73, pp 314-320, 1973

Department of Computer Science
Brunel University
In attempting to design a computer system which models human intelligence the following factors have to be taken into consideration:
  1. Intelligence must have evolved in simple steps.
  2. The delocalized nature of intelligence suggests a large number of comparatively simple processing units working together rather than a single massive program.
  3. Once a minimum information processing capability has developed further progress in intelligence is more likely to be due to learning new techniques rather than the much slower process of evolving new mechanisms.
  4. Natural language is, in evolutionary terms, very recent and is more likely to be the result of intelligence rather than its cause. The brain's internal "assembly language" is more likely to be expressed in visual rather than oral terms.
This paper discusses how work on the CODIL language throws light on the above factors. In particular analogies are drawn between the decision making unit of the CODIL interpreter and the simple processing units, and the CODIL associative/virtual memories and the brain's short/long term memories. The significance of the difference :ill syntax structure between CODIL and natural languages is also discussed. The paper ends with suggestions for further research.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Reprint: Local History in the Classroom, 1988

Computers in the History Classroon
Allan Martin & Frances Blow, 1988
A Flexible Approach to Local History Data Bases in the Classroom
Chris F Reynolds
CODIL Language Systems

ABSTRACT: Database packages are used in schools to handle information from well structured historical records, such as census returns or church registers. While such databases can be used for some interesting projects, they present a very narrow view of historical sources. This paper describes the more flexible approach possible using MicroCODIL. The main historical example involves a study of the farms and farmers of the parish of Sandridge, Herts, during the 19th century. Computer files have been prepared from a wide variety of sources, including land tax, poll books, maps, school records, trade directories, census returns, parish registers, wills, a newspaper article, etc. These have been merged into a single data base which allows rapid access to biographies of the farmers, and histories of the farms.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Are We Trapped by our Training?

I have decided to return to the research I abandoned 20 years ago, in order to reassess it in the light of recent developments. Currently I am going through boxes of research papers stored in my garage. Today I came across one which is very relevant to the theme of this blog - and is also relevant to the decision I made to abandon the research. In many ways the paper is still very relevant - and if writing it today I might well also point to much Artificial Intelligence where advances in the last 20 years are due more to the availability of increased computer power than to a better understanding of human intelligence.

The paper is Are We Trapped by our Training?  which I presented at the conference Information Technology for Training and Education held at the University of Queensland in 1991. The paper reviews the way that learning one programming language can act as a blinkering effect in learning a new programming language - and in particular the ways in which a knowledge of conventional programming, and conventional programming systems, make it hard for people to relax and use the flexibility that CODIL offered.
For example one experienced COBOL programmer decided to learn CODIL (MicroCODIL's main frame predecessor) and set out to implement a simple application in both CODIL and COBOL. After a short time he reported that it was so easy in CODIL that he wouldn't bother to do it in COBOL. On examining his working package I observed with surprise that he had tried to use CODIL as if it were a COBOL interpreter which did not require a predefined data division. When I explained that virtually all his "code" was redundant because CODIL would would carry out many of the operations automatically he threw up his hands in utter disbelief. 
To put it simply I had identified a real problem. The more someone has been brain-washed by learning to program a computer the harder it is for them to approach a problem without first trying to map it into algorithmic form. The fact that computers were turning up everywhere - including in the schools, suggested that the real task was not the technology of producing a fully operational CODIL system - that was comparatively easy. But to be successful the system would need to be compatible with existing computer systems and data bases (which represent a very significant investment).  - and there would have to be a major unlearning exercise. We all know that the QWERTY keyboard continued because it was too expensive in human skills investment to change. I felt I faced an even bigger barrier in trying to take CODIL forward, and challenge what is by now trillions of dollars investment in relevant existing computer technology. I looked at the number of years I had devoted to the research, my mental stage after the death of my daughter, and what still needed to be done, and decided that enough was enough.

The full text of the paper (with a few typographical errors corrected) is directly available in the right hand column of this blog. Currently other papers are being prepared for online access and once this has been done links will be added to this paper.

Rural Relaxation: In Tring Park

Cattle in the Lime Avenue at Tring Park
The Photographers set out for their walk
Approaching the Monument
In order to keep fit I like to get out into the local countryside several times each week and last week I visited Tring Park with two different groups of the Tring U3A. 

Resurrecting the Software - 3

A temporary setback. I "upgraded" my BBC Computer to make it easier to transfer the files to a PC - and the nearly 30 year old system has decided not to co-operate. I suspect that the stresses involved in opening up the box and rerouting the power leads has lead to a connection fault somewhere on the circuit board - possibly linked to the video output. I am sure it is repairable - but not by me!

To avoid delays I am acquiring a reconditioned system and my first task will be to go through the 100 or so old floppies to decide what will need transferring before I try and do anything clever! I will then have a clear idea which files from which floppy discs I need to transfer. I therefore don't expect to start work on getting the software to run on a PC with a BBC BASIC emulator until sometime in June. 

In the meantime I have decided to make more of the key publications available online and am scanning half a dozen or so old papers for uploading - with direct links between the reference lists. In particular the papers already available describe how it works in technical terms, while the additional papers will look at applications and how they appear to the user.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

How green is that phone in your pocket?

As a fellow of the British Computer Society I get the members magazine, IT Now, and was delighted to see that the May issue concentrates on environmental costs of computing. It raises many issues I was not aware of and in discussing possible waste it points out that there is approximately 117kWh of embodied energy in a generic mobile phone but over 1,483 kWh in a modern Blackberry. Due to the way mobile phone contracts work many people upgrade a phone every 12, 18 or 24 months. That's a lot of waste. According to the US-EPA Americans alone discard 125 million phones a year producing 65,000 tons of waste. See how the Australians tackle the problem,

Monday, 16 May 2011

A Semantic Basis of Human Language?

Blair Bolles blog Babel's Dawn has just posted "More Evidence against Grammatical Universals" in which he continues the arguments about whether the human brain evolved with in-built rules for language grammar. In particular he quotes the letter "Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universal" recently published in Nature by Michael Dunn, Simon J. GreenhillStephen C. Levinson and Russell D. Gray, which carries out a statistical examination of word order in a large number of languages.

As the CODIL language is based on semantic associations rather than syntax the research is encouraging me to think about the possible features of CODIL which could be considered to model human thinking. As a result I posted the following comment to Blair's blog:
Thank you for bringing the letter in Nature Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universal to my attention as the findings are very relevant to my own re-examination of my earlier work on CODIL in terms of its relationship with evolution of human intelligence and language.

CODIL was designed as a language for communicating between humans and a proposed  electronic information processing system with (in stored program computer terms) a very unconventional architecture. The key point was that the language was symmetrical - the language used by the human was to be directly interpreted by the hardware, which could tell the human what it was doing, and why, in the same language. A computer simulation test program was tested on a variety of applications and the approach was shown to be feasible for handling open ended information processing tasks where human action is essential and it was difficult or impossible to pre-define the problem in a conventional algorithmic manner. The approach was unsuitable for problems involving comparatively simple algorithms involving large arrays of numbers and no dynamic human interaction - i.e. for applications far removed from the information skills needed by pre-civilisation human beings.

At the time the work was perhaps too concerned with the computer aspects of the task and aspects relating to human linguistics were never explored, and it is only now, in retirement, that I have started to look as this aspect of the research.

The CODIL language was little more than a list of set names (which would be the human user's words) and partitions of sets (equivalent to saying a "House" is a "Building" or that the "Date" was after "1900"). These "items" were held as lists of lists within an associatively addressed memory. There was a very simple but highly recursive processing routine, called the "Decision Making Unit" which compared the "current item" with an active list of items called "The Facts" which was meant to model human short term memory.

The relevance is that the system was based of a very strongly semantic model of the task, with an virtually complete absence of syntax. The only syntax rule used by the Decision Making Unit was that the last item of a list was true if all the preceding items in the list were true in the context defined by the Facts. Meaning was conveyed by the choice of the set names. For instance a marriage might be described as "EVENT = MARRIAGE; BRIDE = JANE; GROOM = JOHN" which could be interpreted by a human as "John married Jane" while the information processor could recognise Jane as a "PERSON" because the recusrive structure allowed synonyms to be recognised.

In fact this comment highlights the point that one area of research which was not examined prior to the unfortunate abandonment of the CODIL research was to see how the CODIL language could be used to generate natural language sentences. Obviously different natural languages would need different "interpreters" to convert the underlying semantic model into statements which conformed to different word order rules, etc. However if it can be done there is no need to invoke any significant evolutionary advances in the brain to progress from a semantic to a syntax based language - as the advance could be explained by learning.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Are Infants born for learning?

On The Thoughtful Animal blog I found a most interesting assessment of work on Pedagogy by the Hungarian psychologists Gergely and Csibra, and posted the following comment:

I found this most interesting, although as I did not retain my academic affiliations on retiring I was unable to access the paper by Csibra and Gergely. When I was trying to develop a language for communicating between humans and a novel “white box” information processing system many years ago I was too tied up with the technology. For various reasons the research was abandoned but recently I have been looking at my old ideas and am finding that my research probably had more in common with ideas on the evolution of communication in humans than with conventional algorithmic computing. 
I very much like the idea that human communication is an evolutionary adaptation designed to aid in the transmission of generic knowledge between individuals.  My approach was basically to devise a language to name objects and relate them together in a semantic framework. The processor was a routine which matched objects with a “short term memory” of current object descriptions, in a way that involved the recursive scanning of sets, and partitions of sets.
The relevance is that if you describe objects as members of a hierarchy of sets, what you are actually doing is to make generalisations. It would seem that move from specific knowledge of individual items to generic knowledge is related to the ability to classify the objects into named sets. Such a step is important for efficient communication between generations, and essential for the development of language. 
I will definitely be considering the idea expressed here as part of the reassessment om my earlier research.

A Box of Old Bones

Last year I qualified for free roof insulation under a government scheme and that meant taking everything out of the attic so the workmen could put down a thick layer of fibre glass. As a result the spare bedroom is now full of boxes which hole things connected to my past interests. One box contained a few old bones, some old colour slides and other reminders of my younger days and really brought back some old memories.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Unthinking Machines - MIT identifies where AI has gone wrong

A few days ago MIT's Technology Review, under the title Unthinking Machines reported a panel discussion in which Some of the founders and leading lights in the fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science gave a harsh assessment last night of the lack of progress in AI over the last few decades. The panellists called for “a return to the style of research that marked the early years of the field, one driven more by curiosity rather than narrow applications”. Marvin Minsky reported that "The answer is that there was a lot of progress in the 1960s and 1970s. Then something went wrong.” Barbara Partee said "Really knowing semantics is a prerequisite for anything to be called intelligence” while Noam Chomsky derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behaviour that mimics something in the world, but who don't try to understand the meaning of that behaviour. Sydney Brenner agreed that researchers in both artificial intelligence and neuroscience might be getting overwhelmed with surface details rather than seeking the bigger questions underneath..

I find the final observation interesting because the danger of being overwhelmed with surface detail was the reason why the CODIL language started. in 1966. I was faced by a major sales accounting system (250,000 customers. 5,000 products, etc.) and many problems because the existing system worked in a way that the sales staff could not understand, often did not do exactly what was intended, and was slow to change to meet novel sales opportunities and threats.

I could have easily got bogged down with the complexities of individual customers and products – but instead decided to stand back and look at the “wood”. What was really needed was a system that allowed the marketing division to be in control of selling any goods to any customers. My proposed solution was a symmetrical invoicing language where the sales staff could tell the computer what they wanted it to do, and where the could could use the same language to tell the sales staff what it was doing for them. The language needed to be simple to learn, flexible, and efficient to implement, and not overwhelm the sales staff with irrelevant detail. Having previously worked with very complex manual information processing systems, and being new to computing, I never thought that anyone would think that this was difficult – so I went ahead and came up with a language, which in retrospect was a model of how the sales staff thought about the way sales contracts worked.

Only a couple of months later I changed job and found myself as the ideas man in a small team to assess the future large commercial system market. I found that there were many large computer users, in business, industry and in universities, with many different applications, which had similar problems. Rather than become overwhelmed by the detail of all these additional information processing tasks I decided to back off even further to get a wider view of the whole forest. 

The result was CODIL – a Context Dependent Information Language designed for a white box processor, allowing human operators and a specially designed “decision making unit” to work in symbiosis in areas where the inherent need to predefine an algorithm for the application limited the conventional stored program computer approach. The interesting thing was that the further I retreated from detailed applicatuions the clearer the way forward became - and perhaps the closer I came to modelling human though processes..

The starting point was semantics. The basic building block was the “item” and in an “ideal system” every item was self-defining (a vital feature of any white box system) and was either a set, or a partition of a set. The definition was fully recursive (sets could be nested in any way to any depth the user wanted) and any item was meaningful as passive data, as a conditional test, or as a “command”. The meaning of an item depended on the context of other items that were linked to it. Processing centred round the Facts – a model of human short term memory – and all addressing was associative (i.e. by the names of sets). The basic processor is a very simple and very highly recursive algorithm, which could almost certainly be remapped as a network of even simpler (single cell?) processors, and any intelligence shown by the working system results from the the way the user uses CODIL to build the knowledge base.

The basic approach was shown to work, including a wide rangew of test applications including many of the artificial intelligence applications being considered by others in the 1970. Unfortunately the research was axed over 20 years ago because it was too unconventional to get funding through the conventional computer science peer review routes. (See elsewhere on this blog for details of how CODIL worked, application tested, publications, and history).

In the light of the MIT comments quoted about perhaps it is time for the research to be restarted, ideally by someone much younger than me. It might be best to re-examine the approach from the starting point of linguistics and the evolution of language and intelligence. My own experience in trying to get blue sky research funding when working in a Computer Science department which had no prior record of successful research is to painful to be repeated.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Have you a question about CODIL?

This blog is growing - and new information relating to CODIL and MicroCODIL will be appearing over the coming weeks. In the meantime I will be happy to answer any quesions or receive any comments, as this will allow me to develop the areas of most interest to visitors. For instance if you want to see a specific paper which is not available on line I may be able to post in if asked.


Communication languages and Intelligence

  I have just posted the follow comment on Babel's Dawn - a blog about the development of Language.

You write
When you think how much computational effort is required to support a machine playing chess or Jeopardy, you realize that it will be some time before even sophisticated ape interactions can be simulated, let alone plausible human conversations. Even so, these small efforts encourage a thought. Language is the keystone that brings cooperation and understanding together.
There is an assumption underlying chess playing programs,  Jeopardy, and your comments about them, that you are certain that the stored program computer architecture form a suitable starting point for understanding the role of language cooperation and understanding.
     Perhaps we should remember the words of the Irish yokel, who, when asked by a stranger the way to Balimoney thought for a moment and responded "If I was going to Balimoney I wouldn't start from here."
    The whole stored program computer philosophy resolves around the concept of a task which can be precisely predefined as a global model, and written as an algorithm. I am sure you will agree that both chess playing systems - and the programs in your ipod depend on the role of "intelligent designers". and both relate to activities which have no relevance to the origins on language on the African plains.
    Forty five years ago I was a naive newcomer to the computer world, having been very much involved in complex manual information processing activities. I was asked to familiarise myself with a vast sales accounting system (say 250,000 customers varying from private households to the U.S. Air Force, and say 5,000 different products aimed at about a dozen different markets). All the time there were new customers, contract changes, and old customers dropped out, which the products and sales promotions were changing to meet the real world market. Any solution needed to be simple enough to be able to process tens ot thousands of transaction a day on late 1960s computers. No knowing any better I used my knowledge of mentally working in non-computerised information systems to come up with a "simple" solution, modelling how I thought the sales staff modelled the problems in their heads.
    The starting point was "language." Sales staff needed to be in active control of the system and they could only control it if they fully understood what the computer was doing for them. What was needed was a contracts language which was simple but flexible enough to cover any reasonable contract - and - most importantly, was symmetrical. The sales staff would use the language to tell the computer what they wanted it to do, and the computer could tell then, IN THE SAME LANGUAGE, what it was doing for them.
    The reaction to my suggestion was - "That's research" - sales staff are not clever enough to tell the computer what they want it to do - they need very clever people such as programmers and systems analysts (the priesthood of computing!) to act as intermediaries.
    Shortly afterwards I became the ideas man on a future planning team of an innovative computer company. Within a few months John Pinkerton and David Caminer (the pioneers of UK comuting who built the Leo computers)  rushed me into research to look at the design of a revolutionary new type of  information processing "white box" system which generalised the contract processing language to handle a very wide range of open-ended problems. The elements of the system were sets and partitions of sets, used recursively, to allow any level of nesting. Processing was by a very simple "decision making routine" which had a small window on the knowledge base (equivalent to human short term memory). The approach takes  incomplete, fuzzy  and missing information in its stride, and for many tasks results were obtained by the decision making routine without anything that looked a bit like a task specific program.
    So why haven't you heard of CODIL, which was the name of the symmetrical information language.. It's a sad story which I describe on my blog, Trapped by the Box, but basically, exceptional claims need exceptional proof, which in turn needs exceptional funding to provide. The problem was that funding is provided by an establishment who knows that the stored program computer must be the only possible way forward (look how much money and careers depend on the technology) and where by now all the population under retirement age will have been taught (brain washed?) at school that writing programs is the way forward.
    At a deeper philosophical level, there is another difficulty. Humans are the most intelligent animals we know, and so there is a danger that we put ourselves at the centre of the "intelligence universe" in the same way that our ancestors put the earth at the centre of the physical universe. As we are "so clever" the mechanism that makes us intelligent must "of course" be very sophisticated and hard to find - and so all simple solutions must be rejected.
    In fact all my research does is to move the focus of"intelligence" from the processing algorithms (which are very simple) to the communication language - with the concept of recursion (which can easily be mapped onto a network model) playing an important part. In as far as one can identify "intelligence" it is in the way that statements in the communication language interact with each other. Of particular interest the Decision Making Unit algorithm is probably simple enough to be looked at in evolutionary terms. The approach also suggests that intelligence as we see it, and distinguish it from other animals, is a result of the development of an effective communication language.
    Having abandoned the research many years ago (following a family suicide and the failure to get research grants) I recently decide to look online to see what had happened in the intervening years. In case anyone is interested I am in the process of setting up a blog, Trapped by the Box, which discusses the research, and includes information on publications and a working demonstration system.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Resurrecting the Software - 2

At the first attempt the BBC Master Computer started up and all the floppy discs examined so far appear to be readable after over 20 years. In addition the MicroCODIL software is working. The above picture shows the equivalent of a "memory dump" of one of the demonstration files in the standard viewing window - which allows the user to look inside the "white box". There is therefore no problem in showing that the CODIL approach to processing information actually works.

The immediate task is to transfer at least some of the files to my PC and test the software under BBC Basic for Windows. The basic "CODIL" routines should be relatively straightforward but the package uses a number of tricks, and assembler code routines, for memory management and input-output, including special arrangements for differences between different BBC Computer models. Some initial tests suggest that while the screen images will be much clearer, and much larger applications, using more facilities, would be available, there is no easy way of converting the 40 character wide by 25 lines high teletext display to make full use of modern displays.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Travelling Boxes and Preserving Nature

In recent years there have been many protests about the plan to build a high speed railway line out of London, cutting through the Chiltern Hills not very far from where I live. Groups such as the Chiltern Countryside Group are protesting at the need to destroy beautiful countryside and important wild life habitats should be destroyed so that people can save a few minutes by travelling in railway carriages on a brand new railway to the Midland.

Clearing a way for travelling boxes
I have been walking rural footpaths near Tring for over 45 years, including the footpath behind the temporary wooden fence on the left of the picture. For most of these years the area between the path and the hedge on the right was a wilderness of hedgerow type trees and shrubs, full of birds nesting in the summer and feeding off the natural larder of berries in the winter. 

Most days I take a rural walk and today  the area has been cleared and the builders were at work - and I have yet to see a word of protest in the local paper.

Are Your Research Records ready for the Future

Having posted the message about my first stages in trying to resurrect a program on 25 year year old software I was reminded of an article that I wrote for the New Scientist in 1990 - at the time the material was being stored away in case it would every be needed again.

Forum: Just for the record - Chris Reynolds reckons we are storing up problems for historians

AT LAST. The formal invitation has arrived. I am to spend a year in Australia working with computer systems to help to keep track of the greenhouse effect. But there is only two months to get ready! I look around my office and shudder at the sight. More than 100 feet of books, magazines and folders meet my eyes - together with four filing cabinets and a six-foot high pile of computer listings. I contemplate the bulging garage, and marvel at the volume of the records I have amassed during 30 years of research, mostly in a university environment.
I clearly cannot take it all with me - but I really ought to get it into some kind of order before I leave. But where shall I start? My files of studies of local history should be relatively simple to sort out, so they could be a good place to begin. Within minutes I find I have been distracted into reading the notes I made nearly 15 years ago from great great-uncle Robert's archives, fortuitously saved from destruction by being deposited in a county records office. His account of his grandfather's involvement in the bribery scandal of the 1802 Aylesbury election is great fun.
Suddenly I regain my sanity. I cannot read everything as I go. At this rate it will take me at least five years to tidy up . . . I hurriedly stop reading and resume the task in hand, this time on the materials relating to my computer research.
A length of paper tape beckons and I try to work out what it was once used for. It could be the program I wrote in 1971 to run on that horribly primitive timesharing service whose name I have forgotten. Or perhaps it came from that unsuccessful attempt to use the Modular 1 computer in 1976?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Resurrecting the Software - 1

BBC Master Mircocomputer
The easiest way to demonstrate the CODIL approach is to have a working system, and I have just started work on trying to resurrect the MicroCODIL software, that was described over 20 years ago in the reviews,

The first stage has been to set up a working BBC System and I have found my old BBC Master Computer, together with disc drive, monitor and cables. On switching on it has a problem which could be due to the inbuilt battery. This is about 25 years old - and has not been recharged for 20 years or so - and I have purchased a replacement. The keys are sticky - perhaps due to dust - and the whole will be given a good clean when I replace the battery. More seriously I have not yet found the ROM Cartridge which includes the disc operation system.. Hopefully this will turn up and I am planning to have working hardware by the end of May at the latest.

How difficult stage 2 will be depends on whether any of the floppy discs are still readable. If so I should be able to start running the software again as soon as the hardware is ready. If the magnetic image has faded it may be necessary to employ a specialist recovery service to recover as many files as possible from the discs, and if the worst comes to the worst I will have to reconstruct the discs from what may prove to be incomplete listings involving (with the many demonstrations) over 100 files.

Once MicroCODIL is working again on a BBC Master the files will be transferred so that the package can be run under Windows, using BBC Basic for Windows. An assessment still needs to be made as to the amount of work involved. The main routines should be straightforward (apart from a small section written in assembly code)  but the sections involving interaction with the operating environment will not be trivial. Work has already started scanning in the MicroCODIL manual which will help in assessing what needs to be done.

If things go well I may well have MicroCODIL fully operational on the BBC computer by the end of May - and will report on progress.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Problem with Words

Part of what I am trying to do at the moment is to re-assess the work I did on CODIL over 20 years ago in the light of recent advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and the studies in how the brain works, etc. It is clear that one of the big difficulties will be the different ways that words like "intelligence" and "conciousness" are interpreted by different researchers approaching the area from different directions.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Smoking Boxes

The latest edition of New Scientist (30th April) has an opinion piece - Time to Pack It In on the latest moves in Australia to discourage smoking. The proposal is that all cigarettes should be sold in plain boxes with a prominent health warning and the brand name in a smaller standard font - with no logo or distinctive colours whatsoever.

It takes me back to my childhood in the 1940s and 50s. My father owned a tobacconist's shop and as a child I loved helping behind the counter. I took it for granted that as my father had a cough, and virtually all the older regular customers had a cough, it was a fact of life that all old men cough.  I even had what was then diagnosed as "childhood bronchitis" which I still have (re-diagnosed as asthma) and now know could be the result of secondary smoking.

I was never tempted to smoke - and interestingly went to an unconventional boarding school (Dartington Hall) where the pupils made the rules and smoking was allowed - so virtually no one did. There is no fun in having a furtive drag behind the cycle sheds if you are allowed to smoke in class! I can remember only two smoking incidents in four years. On one occasion two girls came into the common room smoking and everyone laughed.

The other time involved the French teacher, who smoked Gaulois (a very pungent tobacco) in class. The pupils asked him to stop - and when he pointed out he was free to do so, a "smoke in" was arranged where everyone came with something to burn, some real cigarettes and some brown string wrapped in paper to look like cigarettes. The stench was dreadful and the teacher never smoked in class again.

A few years later, when the link between smoking and ill-health was clearly established I did a calculation and came to the very approximate answer that, in terms of years lost through smoking, the equivalent of at least one customer a year was ending up in a box to pay my boarding school fees. Since then I have seen several smoking relatives die slow and uncomfortable deaths with emphysema.

Three cheers to the Australians - other countries should follow in the way - and perhaps all shops that sell tobacco should be required to display a sign saying how many deaths per year are caused by their sales.