Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our news graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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Bitcoin: Future or Fad?

First year BSc Economics student Lydia Evans provides a recap of an event organized by Birkbeck’s Economics + Finance Society, at which Financial Times journalist Isabella Kaminska discussed the future of Bitcoin.

What does Bitcoin mean to you?

To some, it epitomises the promise of the free market ­-  perhaps even, if one ‘mined’ it early enough, a path to becoming a millionaire. To others, it is reminiscent of Tulip Mania or the South Sea Bubble. The valuation graphs are eerily similar both in curve and timeline.

The Financial Times (FT) was started to help investors make informed decisions. Many were often victims of the Penny press. It was most germane to listen to what the FT’s Isabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) thinks about the most popular cryptocurrency and its underlying technology, Blockchain.

Kaminska thinks that Bitcoin has been good for engaging previously uninterested parties in banking and finance. The evolution of its ecosystem also highlights the importance of harnessing the ever-expanding abilities of technology. This is as far as Bitcoin can be considered ‘on the money’.

She said that most of us have had a form of digital currency for ages, ever since we first signed up to a bank; the very basic concept of Bitcoin is not, therefore, a new one. However, unlike the technological advancement in traditional banks, she believes that Bitcoin might take us backwards.

We have no idea as to the actual asset structure or as to where it is being invested. But if capital has to be reinvested to create value, where is Bitcoin being invested?  Similarly, although Bitcoin appears to promise a dissolution of typical dealer/broker relationships, they are still very much in place.

Details regarding any potential intermediary from an established, regulated institution are readily available. There is rarely transparency when it comes to those associated with a Bitcoin Exchange. Kaminska’s research into the companies that sell and process Bitcoin showed that the vetting process is astoundingly lax.

Another claim is that it is free and easy. Kaminska thinks Bitcoin is still not user-friendly for the general public. The increasing costs could even lead to it becoming a luxury lifestyle product. Maybe, she jokingly suggested, one that could be featured in magazines such as ‘How to Spend It’.

Regulation will be the catalyst of all its future developments. It could even dismantle key principles of the whole project. This leads to a crucial question: Does Bitcoin serve a purpose or is it a solution looking for a purpose?

Perhaps Blockchain offers a solution. It has provided a means to mass collaboration that is hard, if not impossible, to get with traditional banks. But this depends upon who is collaborating and for what reasons. Due diligence is not an option in this very closed world – you are only as strong as the weakest member.

Kaminska opines that volatility undermines a currency’s usefulness. This can be demonstrated by examining any chart documenting the cryptocurrency’s history. She sees Bitcoin as a utopia for those disillusioned by, or unwilling to participate with, the mainstream banking system. Utopia is rarely what it seems.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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Understanding data analytics at BICOD

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD).

Award of Best Research Student paper prize to Alexandru Bogatu, by Alastair Green of Neo Technology

From 10-12 July, Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems played host to a wealth of insightful research discussion at the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD). Birkbeck has a long-standing association with BICOD since its inception in the 1980s, with three generations of Computer Science researchers at Birkbeck having contributed to its legacy.

In her opening address, Professor Alex Poulovassilis, Deputy Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics & Informatics, and General Chair of this year’s BICOD, highlighted Birkbeck’s long-standing contributions to the conference. She gave special thanks to this year’s Keynote speakers and those delegates who had travelled from abroad for the occasion. The last time Birkbeck hosted the conference in 1997 it was still known as the British National Conference on Databases (BNCOD) but this name was changed in 2015 to reflect the aim of the conference to be a platform for research discussion both nationally and internationally: “The geographical and thematic scope of this year’s papers and the interest from all over the world serves to demonstrate the conference’s continuing success.”

The theme of this year’s BICOD was Data Analytics, and the programme kicked off with a Keynote talk from Dr Tim Furche, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Oxford and Co-Founder of Wrapidity Ltd. Tim stressed the importance of translating research in AI and Machine Learning into practically applicable technology – in the case of his company, in the large-scale extraction of useful data from websites.

Short presentations by the four students vying for the best PhD paper prize followed. The judges commended the quality of the competition and praised the investigation and presentation of all the students. The winner, Alex Bogatu, collected his prize from the sponsor Neo Technology.

Further conference sessions over the course of the event comprised of two more Keynotes, from Professor Elena Baralis and Dr Sihem Amer-Yahia; two Tutorials, from Professor Leopoldo Bertossi and Dr Vasiliki Kalavri; and further research paper presentations, with subjects ranging from Data Exploration, Multidimensional Data and Graph Data Querying.

Keynote Speaker Professor Elena Baralis

On the final morning of the conference, there was also a unique chance to enjoy a joint session between BICOD and the International Joint Conference on Rules and Reasoning (RuleML + RR), which followed the BICOD conference at Birkbeck. The leading international joint conference in the field of rule-based reasoning, RuleML + RR brought a number of new delegate perspectives to the audience, as well as a focus on theoretical advances, novel technologies and innovative applications for rules and reasoning.

The BiCOD team would like to thank the conference sponsors for their generous support: Neo Technology, ONS, Palgrave Macmillan and The Information Lab.

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