Jean Bacon interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 16th September 2008
Macfarlane (Alan)
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Jean Bacon interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 16th September 20081 (Full Text)

  1. 0:09:07 Born in Stocksbridge in the Pennines in 1942; lived in a village outside the town up a hill until I was six, so started hill walking as soon as I was able to walk; still take walking holidays in mountains, looking for flowers; grandparents died before I was born or when I was very young; working class background, one grandfather a stone quarryman and the other a steel worker; father worked in the steel works all his working life; he was very quiet and self-contained; he didn't drink having witnessed the effects on his father; a Methodist; mother also very quiet; tragic that she was never able to work; she is now ninety-one and is very bright and could have done so much given the chance; she loved school but both parents had left school at fourteen; they did Gilbert and Sullivan operas with a local group and there were chapel events; I am the only child; my mother was quiet possibly because of my father; since his death she has done much more socially in the chapel.
  2. 4:14:07 First school was Green Moor Primary School where there were two classes, infant and junior; I left before the junior class; remember the teacher, Miss Henson; think she was a supply teacher and she was very kind; remember being far more advanced in mathematics when I went to the big school in Stocksbridge, so must have been taught something; I think I liked sums as I was always asking for them before I was six; also liked drawing and picking flowers, and combination has been part of my life ever since; at Stocksbridge I took the 11+ a year early, and went to Penistone Grammar School at age ten; they had an accelerated programme so that the A stream got to the sixth form a year earlier than the rest so I was there at fourteen; had taken 'O' levels before that; I always put maths as my top subject but also spent time in the art room; there was also an excellent sixth form library which I used to educate myself; nowadays I would be the sort of person who did double maths, English and art, but at that time you had to do arts or sciences, so I did double maths and physics; there were good teachers - Mr Stone who did physics, Mr Whitehouse then Mr Senior who did maths; there was a stern headmaster when I first went there, Mr Bowman, and his wife did the maths classes for the scholarship pupils; it was a mixed grammar school; we still have reunions and my particular year meets every couple of years even now; there are some academics amongst us and lots of interesting people; I think Oxbridge scholarships were always thought a possibility, other than university it was teacher training college; I didn't try for Oxbridge but got a scholarship to Royal Holloway, London University and went there in 1960 at the age of 17 after three years in the sixth form.
  3. 8:37:12 At school I hated sport and have never been terribly musical although I enjoy listening to it; Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert are among my favourites; music has never affected my mathematics; think I am an English and art person rather than a scientist deep down; do think that the way music communicates emotion is strange and is similar to the way in which colours convey mood - all in the same domain; when at school was counter-suggestible so did question faith; for a long time it made me anti-dogma and anti-church; I did not have my son baptized as I did not think it should be imposed on him; I regret this now as he wishes that I had just done it so that he did not have to decide; I don't go to church regularly but like going into churches because I love old buildings; had an exhibition in Blythborough Church and sat there for a fortnight, and loved it; I am not an atheist but cannot believe in the religious significance placed on the human race; what I take from religion is the inter-personal relations; not really sympathetic with Dawkins’ view about proof.
  4. 14:27:10 Went to Royal Holloway to study mathematics; with hindsight I should have gone to a mixed college in the centre of London; having been at a robust, mixed, northern grammar school, a women's college twenty miles from London diminished my enjoyment; the work was alright; I painted a lot – the grounds were beautiful; I had come across computing and computers through vacation jobs and it was mentioned at school, but there was no opportunity for any statistics or computing in the course; it was very much classical mathematics; I did not want to stay on and do an MSc or PhD at that stage; I did vacation jobs between 1960-63 at United Steels in Sheffield, Stafford Beer was doing work study there and they were very much into cybernetics; they may have used the University computer or were about to get one, but they sent me on a course at Sheffield University for a couple of days; found it very easy to do assembly level programming; found it intriguing and encouraged me to go to the National Physical Laboratory for my first job.
  5. 17:17:19 At Royal Holloway there were some very good lecturers; Professor McCrae was a relativity specialist, and I did that option, but there was nothing that made me want to carry on with it; I then went to the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington; I was in Mathematics Division and came across the people who had worked with Alan Turing after the war; people like Jim Wilkinson were still there, and they had worked with Turing on the design of the Pilot ACE; when I was there, the manufactured version, the ACE, was what was being used and the English Electric DEUCE, so companies had started building computers; the ACE was in a huge room with huge numbers of racks of delay lines; the Pilot ACE is now in the Science Museum, but the ACE that people were using to do numerical analysis and machine translation, you booked time on it and sat at the console, looked at the green lights and tried to debug your program, a very primitive way of operating; input was probably by paper tape but I went on a course to learn to use both tape and cards; the programming language was Assembler; it was horrific as the instructions were going round a delay line and took a different amount of time depending on whether they were additions or multiplications, and you had to put the next instruction just after this instruction finished; at that time had no idea where all this was going but did become evident that computers would be used for other than scientific purposes; during wartime, the Colossus computer was used for code breaking; interestingly, Alan Turing couldn't admit that he knew about that as it was still secret, so when he went to build the Pilot ACE after the war they believed it would be difficult to engineer and that nobody knew how to do it; the people who had been at Bletchley Park did know but they couldn't say; they did it but it was difficult to convince people without revealing what they knew; think that Turing is a colossal figure in computing because of his contribution to the theoretical side but also to the engineering and design side as well; he was reputedly a difficult person and left NPL and went to Manchester; the Turing test is to tell whether a computer or a person is interacting in a blind interrogation; Chris Evans at the NPL later did work on medical diagnosis by computer to see whether it was possible to automate the process; my job there was writing programs for numerical analysis; the computer memory at that time was tiny; the ACE had 7000 vacuum tubes; the technology had to go through core store subsequent to delay lines, then transistors; think it is when chip development started and transistors were used was when Moore's Law kicked in; transistors came in about fifty years ago; the IEEE Computer Society timeline of computing goes back to pre-War computers and shows when all innovations, such as transistors, were first used; EDSAC was developed by Maurice Wilkes; the way I saw it from the NPL, there were three British computing projects in progress; there was the Pilot ACE, ACE and DEUCE at NPL; there was then Turing's next attempt at Manchester 'Baby', and EDSAC at Cambridge; these three were all operating in the late 1940's; it was an exciting thing to be working on and all three projects were contributing; there was a lot going on in America at the same time at about the same level.
  6. 27:12:04 Stayed at NPL for only a little over a year; I met my first husband, Mike Bacon, and married in 1964; we had the two job problem; he moved to Dollis Hill where he was working in the Bletchley Park subject area; I had to find a job and went to GEC Hirst Research Centre so that we could live and work in that area; I was doing aerial design so got a job as a mathematician; I was working on frequency modulation and such things; where I got back into computing at GEC was using the London University Atlas between 1964 and 1968, another very interesting computer; at that time there were very few machines which was why I was using it; I enjoyed using the Atlas and later went on to teach about its architecture and met some of the people who had designed it, including David Howarth and Frank Sumner; by 1968 was thinking about the two body plus child problem, so went into lecturing, firstly at Watford Technical College; at that time we used the Elliott 803 machine at Hatfield Polytechnic; I did a masters in computer science at Hatfield part-time and then got a job there; Hatfield was early into computing and had a big national presence in it; I was teaching machine architecture, using a lot of Assembler; Hatfield was just about to get the DEC System-10 timesharing system so I taught that; part of my masters at Hatfield was about the DEC10 machine code and when I went to lecture there I was teaching the architecture and programming at that level; by then it was obvious that computers were developing very fast but were still mainframe; one was having to acquire new skills all the time; it is difficult to remember before you had a computer on your desk, how you got computer time, how you queued up for it; suddenly things got so much easier; Hatfield was a very good place to be with many good people; those that taught me became colleagues; Roger Sharp was Head of Department and Gordon Bull, very dynamic and forward looking, John Lewis, very competent and aware of academic politics, all very good people; it was not a huge department though there was a lot of pressure to expand after I left in 1985.
  7. 33:48:02 I was never part of the drinking culture that was evident among computer scientists although I encourage my students to talk together and discuss work; I tend to work very hard then relax by painting; at Hatfield we had the mainframe then were early into buying minis; the first one was built in Stevenage; then we went on to the Motorola 68000 as a teaching machine, so had many of them in the labs; the potential for them being joined up prompted my PhD; in the 1970's we started having local area networks (which Andy Hopper talked about); going back - at the NPL in the mid 1960's they invented packet switching - Donald Davies - and interacted with people in the States who were building the Arpanet which became the Internet, so the NPL has been a very influential place over the years.
  8. 36:54:23 I got my PhD in 1981 and I got interested in connecting computers together; I was just using serial lines as simple connections but was aware of the developments in Cambridge with the Cambridge Ring, and in the States with Ethernet; instead of the packet switching wide area networks that were slow and unreliable at that time there was a move towards local area networks; Cambridge was very much connected with work in America; Roger Needham went to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), later DEC, regularly over the summer and had great friends there working in computing where they exchanged ideas; Xerox PARC was well ahead with Ethernet-based systems; they put a work station on everyone's desk although no one could afford it at that time, just to see what would happen; this spawned the Alto computer, then the Dandelion and the Daybreak, but there were problems as they did not exploit them commercially; Apple very much arose out of Xerox PARC research; PARC were starting to develop good human interfaces (GUIs) - the mouse, icons - so the research background was evolving at Xerox PARC; [Steve Jobs did not work at PARC. After visiting there he was convinced that GUIs were the way forward and went on to create the Lisa.]; my PhD was on distributed systems, so looking at the operating system kernel and how you include communication, and how you had processes running on distributed components interacting with each other; so looking at the potential of not only one program on one machine, but where you had more than one machine how you got the components to interact; my supervisor was Adrian Stokes who had a PhD in computer science and was teaching at Hatfield at the time; he now works in the National Health Service; I got a part-time PhD in three years; a lot of the work was project supervision as well so I could get code written by project students; I moved up from lecturer, to senior lecturer to principal lecturer at Hatfield; it seems a huge teaching load when you consider lecturing separated from supervision at Cambridge; I had a teaching load of 15 hours a week which included splitting the group you lectured to into several tutorials, having them do case studies on operating systems; I did enjoy teaching after initial nervousness and did so for over twenty years, then I started to concentrate on research; at Hatfield I was lecturing to a group of about ten to fifteen for tutorials but when I came here I was lecturing to 80-120 people whom I wouldn't see again unless they were in my College and I was supervising them; felt more detached from the students when lecturing.
  9. 43:46:08 When I came here I was very ignorant about Cambridge as I wasn't here as an undergraduate; Roger Needham suggested that I might go to Newnham where I became an Unofficial Fellow, but I also directed studies for New Hall and Lucy Cavendish; over the years I realized there were very few women students in computer science, and very few of them in the women’s colleges; in the end there were no students at all at Newnham so I moved to Pembroke to direct studies; in 1997 I moved to Jesus as a Fellow; I have always taught computing, not mathematics; I enjoy supervising and still do it; I do still lecture although it is a bit of an ordeal; I do a lot of external professional service and committees; are you being asked as a token woman or do they really want you there is a thought, but those I have done I felt that I was there in my own right; in College I was quite old when I went there so tended to be put on appeals committees, for example; quite enjoy these; we all grumble about box ticking and process which has expanded over the years.
  10. 47:07:21 I got my PhD in 1981; I got a research grant at a time when not many people were aware of how to get grants; I started to go to workshops at the Science and Engineering Research Council where everyone working in distributed computing came together; good for me as Hatfield was very much orientated on teaching; it gave me the confidence to think of moving on; I applied for jobs at both Cambridge and University College, London, and got both; then I had to decide whether commuting from Watford to London or Cambridge was easier; decided to come to Cambridge as I had always rather regretted not coming here as an undergraduate; I had met Cambridge people throughout my career - at NPL, GEC; Jim Wilkinson at NPL was at Trinity, and I kept coming across brilliant mathematicians from Cambridge which made me realize what a good place it was rather than just a place for public school children which I had not really understood when I was at school; I had not met similarly brilliant Oxford mathematicians so Cambridge began to feel special; at school I did feel it would be difficult to fit in but also I had been in the sixth form long enough and didn't want to spend a fourth year to take the Cambridge scholarship; when I came here I did not feel uncomfortable at all and that places like King's had had student from northern grammar schools for years; at the last school reunion someone mentioned that when interviewing for languages at Oxford, she felt the other students were much better prepared than she was; it may be that mathematics and computing are different; on colleges - I ended up at Jesus where the Master was David Crighton, then Robert Mair, both mathematicians/engineers; I overlapped a little with Colin Renfrew.
  11. 53:00:07 When I came to Cambridge I was still working on distributed systems and operating systems at the lower level, and rather less as the years went by; I had a project in filing systems which might have distributed components; multimedia was just beginning with related processing and storage issue; we had realized that the software must communicate so the source of any communication was always a software component; then we got to a stage where we were monitoring the environment where unpredictable things happen; this has moved on to sensors monitoring the environment, medical sensors monitoring people's health, traffic monitoring; we have moved to the paradigm where the events are coming from outside the computer system and we have got to respond to them, so it is what is called an asynchronous paradigm instead of just components interacting; a different thread that my group has worked on is access control; we have worked with medics on how you specify who should see what data; the special thing about health care data is that its sensitivity persists for a lifetime or longer; for cancer records, they are not just confidential for a day but indefinitely; you have to worry about how it is encrypted, whether it gets transferred in the encrypted form, and how long the keys are going to be secure; maybe you don't even send all the data outside where it lives; you must know which records relate to the same person but not allow anyone to see who that person is outside the one place where the records are held; on the recent scandals over lost data - we have always known that the highest bandwidth way of transferring data was on a disc, now a memory stick, but both these and laptops are vulnerable to human error or theft; there is no way of preventing this as it is a human problem; it is very scary the amount of data that is being collected on us and there can be no assurances that it can be held securely as the human element is the weakness; I suppose that all the material must be encrypted and not allowed to go onto laptops in any other form; the recent cases were human error but industrial espionage is all too easy.
  12. 58:24:07 Roger Needham was head of department when I came to Cambridge, and he and his wife Karen were very kind when I first came; Karen's main work was in natural language processing and information retrieval, which came into its own when the web was invented in the early 1990's; I had not associated Cambridge with information retrieval before I came; [In the interview here I say that the main work I was aware of in IR before coming to Cambridge was a book by Salton from Cranfield. This is wrong. Cyril Cleverdon worked on the Cranfield collection, Gerard Salton was Professor of Computer Science at Cornell, developed the SMART IR system and wrote Automatic Information Organization and Retrieval in 1968];
  13. Keith van Rijsbergen's probabilistic approach to information retrieval is important, as is Martin Porter's work, but it is not my area; I did work with one natural language MPhil student as we did need to know how to express who should access health records, and we did work with Steve Pullman using discourse diagrams and first order logic to generate code from pseudo-natural language; Maurice Wilkes was Roger's predecessor; he is extremely courteous and has always been nice to me, a good organizer and a brilliant lecturer; he started the Diploma here, which was the first Computing course in the world; he has just given the final set of diploma certificates out; it is a pity that it has finished but the Government wanted Masters training programmes rather than conversion courses, but our Diploma course has converted so many wonderful mathematicians, physicists and scientists of all kinds to computing that it has done an enormous service; five years ago we lost the twenty odd studentships and the course has declined since then; Wilkes was a pioneer but he has kept going and is still lecturing; David Wheeler was the same, very nice and supportive, a brilliant mathematician; Andy Hopper is a brilliant head of department, full of energy and inventiveness; out of his research group has come location technology including such things as active badges which can monitor where you are; we have interacted with clinical and biomedical computing but not much with spin-off companies; I have never come across problems of conflict of interest; we make our software developed from research grants available on our web site to people who want to use it.
  14. 1:09:17:00 Ken Moody and I work on the same research projects; he was interested in databases but also in distributed systems, so there was an overlap in interests; over the years we have got research grants together and our interests coincided rather more as time went by; he is a good theoretician so can give the theory courses; he has kept up maths and always does the maths exam papers before they are given to students; we got together as much through me trying to find nature reserves when I came to Cambridge as through the overlap in research interests; I also needed somewhere to paint, and King's had a studio; I have always tried to find time to paint, and when I came to Cambridge I found that King's had an art teacher cum artist in residence; I worked with Hermione Holmes then Rose Rands; at that stage I had never had exhibitions but Rose encouraged me; I had something to really work for; think that it is a great idea and gives you confidence; Ken has always been interested in photography; he now photographs flowers because of my interest in them; the reed bed project over the last three years has been a joint project; we had moved to Suffolk near the coast where there are reed beds which are wonderful throughout the year; I asked him to photograph them and he did so all through 2005 and I started the painting project after that.
  15. 1:14:12:12 Have another two years before official retirement; I have a new research grant starting in October and have two new PhD students which is a three year commitment; I very much enjoy research; it has been such a privilege to work with bright young academics as post docs and young lecturers and I think I would miss that terribly; I have supervised thirty-seven PhD's in all; I always worry about them but I think that getting jobs for them is not a problem; one of the exciting things that is happening at the moment is the fact that a single computer is a multiprocessor; I have always worked in concurrency control, and this is coming into its own because instead of working with a single processor per computer with memory you are now going to always have multiple computer processors, and you need to exploit that; the concurrency issue may mean that they are interfering with each other's data; this is a problem that has to be solved; in Suffolk we have no television or internet, just lots of music and walking.


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