My husband and I are both graduates of Computer Science at St Andrews. Because of this we received invitations to go to a day celebrating Internet founding father Dr Vint Cerf who is to get an honorary degree this week from the university. The day had a large number of talks running from about 10am through to about 8pm at night. Because of my MS-like illness I couldn’t attend the whole thing, and we ended up having to choose between the morning session and the evening to drop. In the end we decided to come for the afternoon and evening sessions. I would have to use my wheelchair to last the day, but the venue is good on accessibility grounds, and I was given a university guest parking permit, which would allow us to park in a disabled space directly opposite the venue.
We got to St Andrews about 1pm. There was a slight hitch getting our visitor parking permit, because the front door to Computer Science wasn’t staffed, and the secretaries we tried phoning were all at lunch. But eventually it was sorted, we got parked, unloaded the wheelchair, and wheeled into the venue. We were even in time to grab a sandwich or two from what was left of lunch before the talks started at 1.30pm.
The first afternoon speaker, Julie McCann, was excellent, talking about embedded systems. She covered a lot in 45-50 minutes, in a lively and interesting talk. This was followed by 10 minutes of questions, before a brief comfort break.
I had to go to the toilet an *awful* lot due to my MS-like illness, which was a problem. We usually left while questions were ongoing, so I could beat any queues. But I lost count of how many times I had to go. On the plus we were at the back of the lecture theatre, with an easy way out, in a space left for a wheelchair user. And one of the students helping was very attentive at helping us get through the lecture theatre doors, both out and in. But it was a menace! But we just got on with things. At least I was able to go, and was comfortable.
The 2.40pm talk with Lars Eggert had to be somewhat curtailed for time – he had perhaps put together too many slides for the time available. But he gave a good potted history of the Internet, which I enjoyed. I was at university as a computer science student in the early 1990s, and am a little vague about earlier Internet history, so always appreciate a recap.
4.10-5.10 was a panel with all the speakers and chairs of the day, all sitting together on the stage, taking questions. I asked the second question, which was answered by four of the panel, for ten minutes or so in total. I was curious to know what difference it makes to be researching a subject – the Internet – which is in many ways ubiquitous now, and well-known to the public, who have a perception of it, and thus resulting expectations. That’s different from just about any other earlier aspect of computing history, and I wondered what the implications are for how academic research in the field is conducted. The answers from the panel were diverse and insightful, and there were many other interesting questions asked. I think this might have been my favourite “talk” that we attended, because it was so wide-ranging in its scope, and fascinating.
5.10-5.30 was another break. I’d just settled with my husband, when I spotted my former PhD supervisor come in. So I wheeled over and said hi. I had to leave a full-time funded Computer Science PhD at St Andrews in 1996, after struggling for two years with worsening ill health, after my progressive MS-like illness struck at just 22, just as I was starting the PhD. On the plus after leaving St Andrews I later retrained as an academic historian, picking up three more degrees, including PhD. But it was hard to leave St Andrews. So it meant a lot to chat to my former supervisor. I also filled him in on what my husband – who did complete a Computer Science PhD at St Andrews – was doing work-wise.
Then on to the evening session. 5.30-6.30 with Jon Crowcroft was fun, perhaps a little rambling in places, at times skipping too much over some of the really intriguing bits, which could be frustrating. But it was entertaining, and enthusiastic, and we really did feel as though he was a real hacker, albeit an academic one, who’d seen a lot over the years.
Then it was Vint Cerf at 6.40. He talked about the problems of preserving data and software in a digital age, which echoed many of my views. He also proposed a technical solution, though it raised a lot of questions in terms of whether there would be the political will or economic support for it. I would have liked to have followed this up in questions, but Vint was having some trouble hearing the questioners, and with me at the back, even with microphone, it might have been difficult practically. As it was there were plenty of interesting questions asked. He received very generous applause at the end, and a birthday cake (it’s his birthday today) from Fisher & Donaldson. Plus we all sang happy birthday to him.
The room was packed. It is a big lecture theatre, in the new medical building, and most seats were taken. It was a very impressive turnout, and the audience seemed to be enjoying things a lot, and were engaging a lot in the Q&A sessions, which were very lively and interesting. As well as my PhD supervisor we caught up with various other friends and lecturers at Computer Science, and had a great time. I wish we could have attended all the talks, but we had to make a tough choice. As it was I think it was a very worthwhile visit.