Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Wire: Interview with Nick Gibbins

Nick Gibbins is put under the virtual spotlight to answer a few questions via email.

What are you doing now?

I'm studying for a Masters in Knowledge Based Systems at Edinburgh University's Department of Artificial Intelligence.

...and what where you doing before?

Before this academic year I was a software engineer working for Nokia Telecommunications in Cambridge on a variety of network management products.

Why the jump from the networkie side of a telecoms company to doing a masters degree?

Mainly for financial reasons, I think. Also, after a few years in sprawling development efforts, further study and research starts to look like an attractive alternative.

What Web browsers do you use, and why?

At the moment I'm using Netscape 3.0 under sufferance; most pages now require browsers which support all the latest 'cool' features. I work almost exclusively on UNIX, and have used everything from lynx and emacs-www to chimera and arena in the past.

In terms of network access, staff attitude to on-line resources etc., what are the main differences you have discovered between commerce and academic life?

Academia seems to have a much more open attitude to network access while commerce seems to view online resources with a certain amount of skepticism. This is probably healthy; although there may be useful information on the Web, it may not be worth expending the time taken to find it.

What was your reaction to the Web when you encountered it for the first time (and when was this)?

I first used the Web in '93, and had already been using gopher quite extensively before that. It seemed like a fairly natural step forward, although I certainly didn't envisage it taking off in the way it has.

How significant an impact do you think that mobile code, such as Java applets, will have on the development of the Web as an information resource?

Mobile code has some potential for making information retrieval from the Web a slightly easier prospect by distributing search tasks amongst a number of autonomous agents.

Unfortunately, Java will probably not be the best choice of language in which to write these agents. The Telescript language used by General Magic, Motorola et al has many possibilities, but it is a proprietary language.

My own preference would be for agents implemented in an AOP (Agent Oriented Programming) language, and inter-agent communications using KQML (the Knowledge Query Manipulation Language developed as part of the ARPA Knowledge Sharing Effort).

Javascript - what's the point? Is there one?

I don't think that there is one. Aside from the portability issues, it struck me as a very kludgey way to accomplish relatively little.

Security. Different universities have different approaches to attacks from outsiders, using devices such as firewalls to keep unwelcome intruders out. How serious should universities take the threat of such attacks?

The threat is a serious one, and should not be ignored. Firewalling is a rather severe solution, since it can affect the ability of local users to access the network, and will affect the legitimate accessibility of local information.

Of course, if the security of individual network services (email, ftp, gopher, web) cannot be guaranteed, firewalling may be the only option.

eLib - how do you perceive the effectiveness of the eLib programme to the UK HE sector to date, and how effective do you think it will be overall? Even if the eLib is not effective in the short term, I think it will still be important in a broader context since much of the research is relevant outside the UK HE sector.

Pornography. Much has been made, often hysterically, in the mass media, about pornography on the Internet, especially on the Web and Usenet. What steps should or could academic institutions take to prevent students from choking up the networks by accessing such material.

The steps taken so far are mainly forms of blanket prohibition (removal of the alt.* USENET hierarchy, for instance), which just encourages people to go further afield and doesn't reduce network congestion.

The alternative is to allow or deny access on the basis of a rating system such as PICS. This seems to be a better solution, but raises other questions; should you deny access to all unacceptable-rated material, or only allow access to acceptable-rated material? How should you deal with unrated material? Whose ratings do you trust?

Given the complexity of these issues, I think that academic institutions should concentrate on user education for the present.

In your Minotaur article [1], you referred to Hyper-G in passing; why do you think this never took off in a big way, despite being in existence over a number of years?

My guess would be that by the time Hyper-G really came to prominence, the Web was already well established as _the_ internet hypertext system. The development of Hyper-G seems to have been more controlled than the anarchic beginnings of the Web. This has made Hyper-G a more sophisticated and coherent system, at the expense of losing out on the early virus-like growth of the Web.

Would you, or have you, ordered stuff over the Internet using your credit card (if not, why not)?

I've only made a single credit card purchase over the Internet. Although it wasn't made via a secure server, I don't consider that to be a great risk due to the sheer quantity of other traffic. Besides which, you probably have as great a chance of falling victim to credit card fraud when you pay for a meal in a restaurant.

You are stranded on a desert island. You have a computer with a solar power source, satellite link and copy of your favourite Web browser, as well as back issues of Ariadne and your girlfriends Sainsburys loyalty card. Nothing else was saved when your ship went down. What do you do?

Delete the Web browser and get down to finishing off some of the spare time programming projects that I've left unfinished over the past five years. The Web is fine and dandy, but it can be a bit of a timewaster.

Finally, to finish - name one thing you hope will change, or emerge, in the Networking world in 1997.

I'm not sure if I can narrow it down to one thing. As an interoperable set of technologies, I'd like to see XML and dsssl-o capable browsers on a Web which used HyTime addressing over IPv6 with widely available cryptography. Failing that, a good web browser which isn't Netscape or MS Internet Explorer.


[1], Gibbins, N., Sideline, Ariadne, Issue 6,

Author Details

Nick Gibbins is a masters student in the Department of AI at Edinburgh University.
Email: nichg@dai.ed.ac.uk
Personal Web Page: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/6526/