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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 26 May 2017, 2:42 pm

Knocked the bastard off

In 1962 US President John Kennedy gave a speech to the students at Rice University in Texas and told the world that he was committed to putting a man on the Moon and returning him "safely" by the end of the decade.

"We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance."

If that was true in 1962, it's doubly true in 2017 where the US presidential budget has removed funding for science, research, environmental support and much else besides.

Kennedy pointed out that "most of the scientists the world has ever known are alive and working today" and that "this nation's own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years - a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole".

Tremendous times to be alive and the industry we all work in today is here as a direct result of the drive to put humans into space. Only ten nations in the world have ever been able to launch a rocket that reaches orbital height until this week. And now New Zealand is part of that same select club, thanks to the efforts of Rocket Lab and its founder, Peter Beck (Sir Peter, I warrant, if we move sharpishly).

The most famous lines from Kennedy's speech are often edited for a modern audience but I like the clumsiness of it so I'll leave it for you:

"We choose to go to the Moon… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."

We owe a tremendous debt to the engineers of the Apollo space programme and indeed to the Soviet cosmonauts and to everyone who worked in the space programme for whatever country and for whatever reason. It gave us the ability to lift our eyes to the horizon (and beyond) and believe we could the unthinkable. Sure, the cynical political science student in me knows Kennedy's successors kept that vision going as a distraction from their own woes, but that doesn't matter a jot. The human race made it to the moon and while we're still living in the gap between human explorations, we have lifted our eyes to the skies once again and in a week that has included the Manchester bombings, that's no mean feat at all.

Well done, Peter and the team. You've knocked the bastard off.

NZ Herald - Rocket Lab: We have lift-off! History made as Electron launches successfully from Mahia

TVNZ - 'Literally over the moon'

BBC - New Zealand space launch is first from a private site

Wired - This New Goldilocks Rocket Is Juuust Right for Small Satellites

YouTube - JFK - we chose to go to the Moon (full speech)



The Budget

Speaking of budgets, the minister formerly known as the Minister for All the Things Steven Joyce, now Finance Minister, put up his first budget today and while it was heavy on roading projects there was room in the coffers for some science and technology love.

Minister for Science and Innovation Paul Goldsmith says there will be an additional $81.9 million over four years to support "high-impact, mission-led programmes of science through the Endeavour Fund," which is in addition to the already announced $760 million from last year.

There's also $19.5 million over four years for natural hazards research and $21 million over three years from 2018 dedicated to the Antarctic, which is nice.

"This new investment will strengthen our position as world leaders in natural hazards science and improve New Zealand's international standing as a high-quality R&D destination," says Goldsmith, although I hasten to add our current R&D spend is less than half the OECD average so let's take that standing comment with a grain or two of salt.

The broader tech sector does get a bit more of a boost as well, including:

  • $74.6 million to meet rising demand for Callaghan Innovation's Research and Development Growth Grants.
  • $6 million over three years for the expansion of the Strategic Innovation Partnerships Programme to deliver on its goal of attracting ten multinational companies to undertake R&D activity in New Zealand by 2020.
  • $6.4 million over two years for the New Zealand Business Number initiative to support adoption and implementation across the private sector and government agencies.
  • $5.7 million over two years to help meet the Better Public Services Result 9 target, which aims to improve the experience for business when dealing with government.
  • $4 million rollover funding over two years for the New Zealand Government Partnerships Office.
  • $15 million over four years to support the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's role as the lead space agency.
  • $132.1 million for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment over four years, including:
  • $69.3 million for increased tuition subsidy rates at qualification level three and above, supporting providers to continue to deliver quality skills for industry.
  • $52.5 million for the Performance-Based Research Fund to promote high quality research in tertiary education.
  • $6.8 million to support sustainable growth in the international education sector to strengthen the net benefit to New Zealand and its value to our regions.
  • $3.5 million of reprioritised funding to meet increased demand for workplace-based literacy and numeracy programmes in 2018, giving more people the skills and confidence to engage in the workplace and community.

Although whether that's all new spend or not is a question I leave up to the experts.

In keeping with its approach over the past eight years, this government isn't interested in tax breaks for research and development so there's no sign of movement on that front. However, it's good to see the government putting its money (our money) into the tech sector at Budget time.

Budget 2017 - $40.5m for strategic science investment

Budget 2017 - $81.9m for excellent high impact science

Budget 2017 - Supporting a growing economy through innovation


Manifest Destiny

With a looming election, now only weeks away, it's time to start comparing and contrasting the various parties' positions on key issues, including their view of the tech sector.

With that in mind, the tech sector (well, its 20 largest representative organisations including ITP) have banded together to release the first cut of our "Manifesto for the future of New Zealand" which includes our recommendations on education, the changing world of work, immigration and skills, connectivity anywhere, digital exports, cyber security, research funding for tech, government procurement, open standards, privacy and open policy development. Whew!

The manifesto is "intended to support political parties in the formation of their election manifestos and policies" and given the lack of focus on the sector in the past, any help should be gratefully received.

With our top two export earners (dairying and tourism) attracting flak for being low paid and (in dairying's case) bad for the environment, tech exports coming in at number three should help sharpen the mind of those MPs wanting a nice long tenure in the big house. Hopefully they'll find the Manifesto to their liking come September.

Techblog - Tech sector releases major manifesto ahead of election

NBR - With eye on September election, tech groups release manifesto

CIO - NZ tech industry leaders lobby for the creation of a 'Ministry for the Future'

Stuff - Call for NZ 'Ministry of the Future'

NZ Herald - Tech leaders send manifesto to parliament


Computing pioneer passes away 

I was going to say "Female computing pioneer passes away", however what makes Jean Sammet's contribution to the earlier years of computing significant is not so much that she was a woman, but that she was a true pioneer. 

In fact she used to annoy some of her colleagues a little by saying that - back then - she didn't feel there was much in the way of discrimination against female programmers; basically if you were any good, you were in great need and thus greatly respected (as outlined in this excellent interview for Glamour magazine). But I digress.

Jean was a very capable mathematician in the 1950s when the call went out within her company for a programmer. Nobody quite knew what it was, but she put her hand up to have a crack and with that, her long and successful career as a programmer began.

During her career Jean was the first female President of the ACM (the US-based academic body for computer professionals) in 1974-76, after several years chairing their Special Interest Committee on Symbolic and Algebraic Manipulation.

She was also one of the key people behind the development of COBOL - one of the primary programming languages of its time - and also developed the FORMAC programming language in 1962, based on FORTRAN.

Her contributions have been recognised with a host of awards and honours. As well as being a Fellow of ACM, she received the Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing in 1989, a Computer Pioneer Award from IEEE CS in 2009, and a host of others. More details on her Wikipedia page.

So while she herself might not have put much focus on the fact she was a women, she is nevertheless a fantastic role model for girls looking at getting into computing. It's an oft-overlooked fact that when we look at people like Jean Sammet, Ada Lovelace and many others (for example, those at Bletchley Park), we often have the fairer sex to thank for many of the developments in the early years of computing.

Jean Sammet was 89 and passed away last week, on 20 May 2017.


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