Blog comments

In the month and a half since I opened this blog, I’ve had 258 spam comments and 5 real ones… so I’ve installed anti-spam measures (specifically Akismet). It’s caught 100 new spams since last week, and no real comments, so I’ve decided that life’s too short to check the spam queue. If you post a comment and it doesn’t appear within a day or so, it’s probably just that it got stuck in the spam queue so drop me an email and I’ll sort it out. You can mail me on blogstuff at

The London Hopper Colloquium

I went to the London Hopper Colloquium on Tuesday. It’s a one-day event for women PhD students organised by QMUL & Women@CL, sponsored by IBM and with a lot of BCS support. I’m probably an unbiased reporter as I was an invited speaker this time (my first ever invited talk, whoo!) but I thought it’d be good to post about it so here goes.

There were 60-70 women there, mostly PhD students, doing research in computing. Many of these had entered the poster contest, which as a judge I found awesome. It was so hard to judge. There were posters on such a wide range of topics (Logic programming, networking, medical imaging for cancer, interface design, business systems, cognitive models of language, understanding equations, computational modelling of the vision of the honeybee, project management, the conflict between telecoms and internet industries, … ). The standard was brilliant. It was such a positive experience to see so many clever women doing great computing research, all at the cutting edge of their fields.

The speakers were me talking about behaviour modelling and CCTV, Nobuko Yoshida from Imperial talking about modelling interactions in computer networks, and Holly Cummins of IBM talking about garbage collection (in java – and nobody made any jokes about tidying up being women’s work). The panel session at the end of the day had some fascinating discussions on how to handle difficult questions when you’re giving a talk, and how to balance children with an academic career, and imposter syndrome (I bought that one up after the recent BCSWomen discussion).

And the lunch had some reeaally great cakes.

All round, a fine day out, (and I think my talk went OK! :-)

How I got into computing

Inspired by Wendy Tan White’s post about how she got into tech, this is my story:

At school I was keen on maths and science, and had a great maths teacher (Miss Lolley – truly inspirational). I was (and still am) also a big reader – both my parents have been English teachers at some point in their careers and they transmitted their love of literature early on and it’s stuck. William Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced me to the idea of artificial intelligence and I knew pretty much straight away that building clever systems was what I wanted to do.

And so when it came to university applications I went for courses in AI or cognitive science. At the interview days for AI courses I was the only woman, but at the interview for cognitive science (AI, psychology and philosophy) there were a few of us. I’d not done any computing at school other than word processing in my typing classes, I’d only ever programmed on the spectrum for fun, and the lads at these open days claimed they knew an awful lot. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now but they did put me off. I also rather liked the idea of keeping up the psychology from my A-levels and studying a bit of philosophy: if you’re going to try and build artificial intelligence there’s a good argument that understanding natural intelligence can help. So I went for the cognitive science course.

After the BSc, I did a masters in philosophy concentrating on the philosophy of AI, and then some years later managed to land myself a PhD place doing computer vision. I think building programs that can see and interpret images and video is one of most interesting sub-fields of AI, and that’s what I do now. It’s not just programming and inventing (although that’s the core of it), you also have to write up your work & publish, and do talks, so there is a fair bit of variety.

Good things about my job:

  • I do interesting work – if it’s not new it’s not research!
  • I sometimes get to play with cool toys (cameras and stuff)
  • I work with a whole bunch of nice clever people.
  • I get to do a lot of travel (going to conferences, giving talks).
  • It’s truly international (in my lab there are about 35 people and more than 15 nationalities, and hey, I’m about to move to France myself).
  • It’s flexible – working from home is easy, hours are up to you within reason.

I’d like to be a lecturer, eventually, as I really enjoy teaching. And I’d like a permanent contract (working on 3 year postdoc contracts is OK but it’d be nice not to be always looking for the next one). But these things should both be within reach after the next postdoc, so it’s all good.

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium

The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium was last week. This is a one-day event for women students of computing, and it’s open to students from across the UK. I’ll do a full report for the BCS website shortly, but I wanted to get a few ideas down quickly and to put out a request to attendees for more photos!

It was an amazing day for me – it’s so great to see an event come together and for all the effort to pay off. The posters were fantastic and the enthusiasm of the student presenters was contagious – and after all is said and done it’s the students that make the day.

The speakers – Gillian, Cornelia, Jools, Eileen, and Karen – were all fantastic. The BCS President Alan Pollard came up to lend his support (and judge the poster contest) and I think his presence was also really appreciated; the students went away knowing that they were valued by the BCS and not just its women:-)

Other blogs on the day:

  • Christine Burns has produced a fantastic podcast on the day, as part of her “Just plain sense” equality and diversity podcast series. I’m blown away by how cool this is, and she managed to get the audio captured and edited and up within a day of the event. If you haven’t listened yet, do! Christine also captured a lot of video of speakers – you can find that linked from a page on her blog here.
  • Eileen Brown from Microsoft speaks about her day – as one of our prestigious speakers it’s great to see her blogging about the day as well as contributing
  • Kate Ho from Edinburgh Uni who was one of the many people who stayed at “Hotel Dee” (i.e. in my spare room:) before or after the event.

If you’ve got a blog or a set of photos or anything else on the day, please drop me an email so I can add your stuff to my list! And if you’ve got any decent photos, let me know, particularly if you don’t mind my using them on official publicity stuff.
Here are a few of my better snaps from the afternoon:
gillian arnold & one of the poster contest entrants
Maria Lena frm Bath Uni & Gemma Warnock from Aberdeen Uni discussing Gemma's prizewinning poster
Penny Broadhurst from Open Uni next to her prizewining poster
Beth Massey of Lincoln, Nuhzah Gooda Sahib from Queen Mary (winner), and Alan Pollard

plans and places and stuff

grenoble, from t'hill

I had an interview last week and they liked me and I liked them, so soon, I hope, I’ll be living in Grenoble (I’ve not seen anything in writing yet, but they seem very trustworthy).

It’s all a bit mental, really – but I figure that if the right research job for me can’t be found in Leeds (where I have a husband and a house and some cats and a garden with some apple and pear and cherry trees and etc. etc.) then I might as well live somewhere interesting. It’s going to take the cherry trees 4 years before they produce any fruit anyway. And I’ve always wanted to live abroad. And most of the time I’ve wanted to live abroad I’ve wanted to live in France or some other francophone country. So there’s a sense in which this is the culmination of many years’ plans… even if it’s going to be a bit of an arse because my husband and house and cats and trees etc. etc. are in a different country.

The picture at the top is an autostitch of the view from the Bastille, a mountain fort that overlooks the city; it’s glorious. The town is just stunning, the people I’ll be working with seem fab, the project is interesting and hey, sometimes you’ve got to just jump at an opportunity, right?

Ada Lovelace day: Sue Black

I met Sue Black for the first time on 9 February 2006. I’d entered the poster contest at the BCSWomen Grace Hopper Colloquium for women PhD students, and Sue introduced the day and judged the poster contest. It was my first women-in-computing event and to be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect. Working in computer vision I am quite used to being the only woman in the room at conferences and so on, which is odd, but you adapt. Would an all-women techy event be different? Geeky? Bitchy? Competitive?

It turned out that all-women techy events are none of the above. It was supportive, friendly and chatty, with much less of the competitive edge I’d come to expect from conferences. There’s much less willy-waving – presumably because there aren’t any willies to wave. At that day I met several women who I now count as friends (and who could have been the subject of this Ada Lovelace day post – Karen Petrie and Reena Pau in particular), and as a direct result of that day I’ve joined BCSWomen, become an activist, and now run a one-day event for undergrads along similar lines, the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium.

But of all the people I met that day Sue Black inspired me the most and continues to do so, so here you go:

As a mature student studying for her PhD at South Bank university Sue decided that there was a need for a women in computing group in the UK, and in 2001 BCSWomen was formed. It’s centered around an e-group on Yahoogroups, and now has around 1000 members. The group does all sorts of useful things to support women in computing – CV advice, mentoring, one-day events for particular groups, face-to-face networking meetings, research, journalism, talks in schools… and it was all started, supported and driven by Sue.

She’s a software engineer who does serious research into serious technical issues, too – she’s published around 30 peer-reviewed conference and journal articles on software engineering methodology and testing. She didn’t do it the easy way either, but as a mature student with kids, doing her undergrad and PhD at South Bank, visiting Kings College University, getting a lecturing position back at South Bank… And she’s now (less than a decade out of her PhD) head of Department at Westminster. Talk about a meteoric rise!

Last year Sue decided to scale back the BCSWomen activity (she is now head of Department, after all) and to concentrate on her other main passion – saving Bletchley Park. As the home of the UK codebreaking effort during the war, Bletchley was the birthplace of British computing, and really needs to be preserved for the nation. Thanks to Sue’s efforts in publicity and fundraising there have been some major grant successes, articles in the national press, and a real groundswell of support for Bletchley. The battle is far from over, but the outlook for this centre of national importance is improving almost daily, and that’s got a lot to do with Sue.

If you want to follow Sue, she’s on Twitter as @Dr_Black and she’s got a webpage at and a Bletchley focussed blog at I’d recommend it – she’s got great energy and enthusiasm, and is one of those rare people who can really get things done.