The Importance of Being Linux

9 Nov, 2017

Linux is a free operating system that broadly denotes a family of free and open-source software operating system distributions. We interviewed bitjam web developer Jakub to provide a useful guide to the Linux operating system, it’s affect on IoT and why it’s a system that’s not going anywhere fast.

In layman’s terms, can you explain what Linux is?
Linux is another operating system, just like Windows and Mac OS, but it’s completely free. It’s actually closer to Mac OS as they both are from the UNIX family. Most operating systems are built from certain components so you can interact with it in a graphical way, such as using the browser or office suite.

These components are:
Kernel: the operating system’s heart that controls everything
Desktop environment: it renders all of the elements that you are used to, such as graphical windows and their controls (for example close, minimise, maximise buttons, etc)

Why is Linux such a major operating system?
Many people would say it’s because it’s free. As much as this is true, there are some other factors to its popularity. Linux architecture is built in such a way that it is very easy to make it minimal, and easy to scale to satisfy many different needs. Security is very strong in Linux as too.

Combine all those and you have the perfect package for a server. Each website that you visit every day needs a server. Free, strong security and scalability allow Linux to serve more than 90% of all websites on the planet. This is unlikely to ever change.

Why is it important to understand Linux as an OS?
It’s important for different reasons depending on your profession or merely personal preference. For me – a web developer – being able to understand the system makes it easier to deploy websites and also make them more secure, and efficient. For other people one such reason could be privacy. With the recent Windows 10 release there were a lot of privacy concerns that Microsoft collects various data from you without notifying you about it. There are options to disable some of them, but it has been proven that you cannot disable all data collection, which can concern some people.

What are the benefits of using Linux?
Linux is free to download and use. Because of it’s architecture it’s very easy to customise it and fit to your needs. You can change how your system looks visually, meaning that you can change your theme, icon style, cursor style. Almost anything! Those things are not easily achieved on Windows or Mac, especially not for free.

Linux does not collect your personal data without your knowledge. Because Linux is built by many different communities there are no single entities like Microsoft or Apple that could make use of you as the consumer. Be it data collection or forcing you to use your PC, not in the way you want to but how they want you to.

What are the challenges?
GAMING GAMING GAMING. Although it’s much much better than it was 5 years ago gaming is still challenging on Linux. There are some big titles available on Linux, but there are 2 fundamental problems:

Firstly, graphic drivers. Companies like NVIDIA or AMD don’t support Linux drivers with the same attention as Windows or Mac. Because of this reason, game producers do not put enough effort into Linux development as it causes them additional problems that are not worth getting into. This is slowly changing with the efforts of companies like Steam though.

Another challenge for many people could be the lack of MS Office or Adobe products support on Linux. There are alternatives available but people in many cases don’t like the change or additional learning curve.

How did Linux influence the explosion of “Internet of Things?”
As mentioned above there several factors that make it the perfect system for IoT:

Low system resource requirements
Minimal image
It’s free

Low system requirements make it the perfect system to drive IoT devices. In many cases they are small devices with restricted processing speed, memory and data capacity. For example, you could install a perfectly functional Linux system that would only take less than 400MB disk space (because IoT devices in most cases will not need a graphic environment), whereas if you were to install Windows you would need a fair few gigabytes, not to mention the processing power and memory required. Security is another added benefit as the product is instantly more secure straight out of the box, an important factor as there is so much networking between devices in the IoT world.

The fact that Linux is also free encourages developers to tinker with the devices without breaking the law as they don’t need to possess any kind of licences, so in theory, anybody (from their bedroom) can contribute to IoT.

Can you give examples of where Linux is present in public sector technology such as healthcare?
A few examples include Cancer Research, BBC, Keele University, bmj.com and healthsites.co.uk. Surprisingly the NHS website is on a Windows server. This is perhaps due to the fact that back when the NHS website was created Windows was more popular in the UK. Moving such a large site as NHS to Linux would be a VERY expensive and long process, however there are some early developments currently underway that are working to change the digital practice of medicine by making improvements to sharing information and learning.

What does the future look like for Linux?
Linux is not going anywhere. I see Linux crashing Windows and Mac in the future, but perhaps not during my lifetime! If Microsoft won’t change their strategies Linux will dominate in the server space forever. If it comes down to general computer usage, Linux is always the prefered choice, especially among developers like myself.


“Dine Stoke”: A Q&A with Alan Barrett

4 Oct, 2017

As part of this weekend’s ACAVA Studios: Spode Works open studios event, and our contribution to the Stoke for UK City of Culture bid, we’ll be showcasing ANNA, a learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect. To create ANNA, we needed to feed text input into the system to “train” her to produce the poetry, so we enlisted the help of Stokie actor, storyteller, writer and poet Alan Barrett to provide the content to give ANNA authenticity. Here we have a Q&A with the man himself about the history of dialect, the importance of retaining traditional Potteries “speak” and the relevancy of it to the SOT 2021 City of Culture bid.


The Potteries dialect is a very distinct one!  Can you give us a little background about it?

Most of the dialect stems from local idiosyncrasies, as it does across the world. What one area calls a stew, another calls a hotpot, or in our case, a lobby. Add that to the increased industrialisation of the 18th and particularly 19th centuries, where new jobs and technologies brought in new words, to a largely uneducated population and they made up their own pronunciations for ease of use and learning. I suspect this is not unique to our city.

However, we do have several unique words. How many areas have a “jigger” or “jollier” as both job and equipment? The word “sneyped”, or “sneeped”, depending on how you prefer to spell it, is almost onomatopoeic. I have no idea of its origins, but I can tell you I learned it very early in my life. Some phrases are distinctly geographical; for instance “up ‘anley” is clearly because Hanley is on a hill, whereas “dine Stoke” is because Stoke is on the valley floor.

Dialect and accent are usually regional, and Stoke-on-Trent is no exception, but we’re a half way stage for the roads intersecting north and south, as well as east and west. This means we’ve evolved a unique dialect without much outside influence. It’s almost impossible to copy the dialect if you’re not local.

We’re also an area with traditionally manual labour, which means the dialect gets passed around very quickly. Outsiders coming in for work adapted to fit in. If you add to that, the canal users and their slang, it becomes so much easier to understand how different dialects evolve. It’s a definitively working class dialect, with a distinct lack of “h”. As with many others, it’s the vowel sounds that determine its eventual outcome.

When the pottery industry was in its infancy, many people still spoke with biblical reference, thee, thou, shalt etc. This is not unique to us, but much of it has remained. “Dust ‘ear?” probably began as “Dooest thou hear?” and “Coss do eet?” from “Canst thou do it?” As I’ve travelled the country, working as an actor, I haven’t found the same level of biblical  referenced pronunciation retained. It does cause me to consider that we have closer links to “olde Englishe” than most regions. That might just be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s worth condering.

There’s also a modicum of preferred brevity about regional accents and dialects, taking the spoken language down to its simplest form. This applies nationally, but we seem to have mastered linguistic brevity to degree level!

We have also given a word to the English lexicon. It’s not a great word, but it says everything you need to know about it – “pothole”, a hole dug from a flattened road of clay. The resultant clay used to make pots.

Why do you think that it’s culturally important to retain local dialect?
It’s absolutely imperative to keep all regional dialects, no matter where they are in the country. It’s a positive reflection on the community, helps to establish and retain links to our cultural heritage and history and – speaking personally now – I loathe the TV speak and imposed accent of the “trendies”. It is unique, and we have far too much that demands we are all the same.

I know what I sound like when I’m just talking socially, but I do make an effort when conversing with strangers. I’m happy to do both, not to fit in, but simply out of courtesy. We’re all much happier conversing with friends and family because we don’t have to make the effort to speak with perfect diction.

We should be proud of our heritage and that includes the dialect. We must not be bullied or made to feel somehow lacking simply because we don’t have RP as a standard. The dialect also reflects the culture of evolving industries, and though the words may change because of new and different jobs, the way we pronounce them should not.

How did you become involved in the development of ANNA? 

I am a storyteller, and one of my characters is Toby Jugg, a Victorian kiln placer brought forward 150 years by Dr. Who to tell people what life was like on a potbank in 1868. He uses old terms, and “spakes wi’ a pott’ry dylikt”. Carl contacted me and asked me to help out.

Anything that preserves what we’re rapidly losing, or potentially losing, is something I want to be involved with.

I love language with all its nuances, especially English. People forget, it’s essentially a hybrid tongue, made up of many influences. The original Brit language is likely a mix of Welsh and Cornish. The Romans pushed the Brits back westwards and couldn’t be bothered to follow them over the Welsh mountains or the Cornish moors. As well as Latin from the Romans, we also have Gaelic from Scotland, along with Anglo-Saxon, Jute, Danish, Norse, which includes Norwegian and Swedish, and other linguistic influences they brought with them from other places they conquered. Add to this the local and regional dialects and accents and you can see where what we now call “English”, is actually not “local” to the island at all!

Do you think modern technology is an effective tool for educating a younger generation on the history of their home town?

To be honest, I never gave it a thought until Carl spoke to me about it. I suppose that’s an age thing. However, once I saw his enthusiasm for the project, and he led me through it, (being gentle with the science and tech-speak), I could see its merits.

We live in an increasingly tech savvy world, where I have to ask my grandkids to sort my phone out, so I think it’s sensible and desirable to apply that technology where it’s most beneficial. If that means making an app they can use, rather than watching a documentary, then so be it. I’d still rather they read a book, but I’m pragmatic.

Do you think that the local dialect is important to the promotion of SOT 2021?

Yes. Absolutely! Can you imagine a Birmingham bid without a Brummie accent, a Liverpool bid without a healthy dose of Scouse?

I think we need clarity, and any dialect can lose its appeal if overused external to its origins, but we shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s part of who we are, so whilst it’s good and proper to have the bid written down well, it’s equally important to take the public with us, and that means not ignoring the way we speak. That would be insulting.


See ANNA in action this Saturday 7th October at Bitjam’s studio (number 22) as we put her to the test against artist and painter Fred Phillips to create some ‘Pottr’y’ poetry, in “Fred Against the Machine”. You can find out more about Alan Barrett here at Manic Meanderings.


May Un Mar ANNA

29 Sep, 2017

Yesterday we introduced you to the latest project at Bitjam: ANNA. A learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect, the project has been inspired by the bid for Stoke-on-Trent as the next UK City of Culture. We interviewed Liam Mountford, Senior Developer at Bitjam, about the technical elements of creating artificial intelligence (AI) that is able to independently learn.

Why did you have the idea to create a computerised system that creates poetry and delivers it in a potteries dialect?

The initial idea came about from a discussion between me and Carl. Carl knew I had an interest in machine learning from the work I did for my dissertation, I created a neuro-evolutionary algorithm that was to predict the results of the 2015 general election. I have had a number of discussions about neural networks and similar machine learning and AI algorithms with Carl, where I tended to ramble on about some of the more interesting aspects such as trying to create a Neural Network (NN) that could produce pieces of art. Carl liked the sound of a creative learning machine and formed the idea of using it to create potteries poetry.

From a more technical point of view, how does ANNA actually work?

Once we had our idea we sat down and had a discussion about the possible complexity of the project. A fully fledged bespoke neural network is quite a lot of work so we decided to try to find some existing neural networks to base our work off of. With the help of Jacob we found a Recursive Neural Network (RNN) designed to take text input and after a large number of training cycles we then tried to get ANNA to output some meaningful ‘learned’ poetry.

So, tell us more about neural networks.

In it’s simplest form a NN consists of 3 layers. The input layer accepts various inputs. In theory, as many or as few as you need. Next the hidden layer, this is the heart and soul of a NN and helps to create the correlating links between the various inputs supplied at the input layer. Finally the output layer, is the part of the NN that spits out – hopefully! – some sort of meaningful information. Where a RNN differs is that there is a recursive link between the output and hidden layer, this part is important as it helps the RNN to learn the structure of the language supplied. In turn this means that the particularly interesting part with the RNN is that it is able to learn dialects such as potteries.

How does ANNA learn poetry?

ANNA is a python script based on a simple RNN, we feed in around 200 pages worth of potteries dialect poetry aiming to produce some sort of meaningful poetry. Anna runs through about 500 recursive cycles of the input text per “epoch” of learning for a total of around 30 epochs. An epoch is essentially a single full training cycle.

What were the challenges of this project?

One problem that always rears it’s head is a shortage of data to feed into the RNN. So the next step for us was to source plenty of potteries dialect based poetry from poets past and present. First we tried to source as much poetry as possible from an online source, the main works we used were by Arnold Bennett. We then tried sourcing further poetry from Wilfred Bloor‘s sons Roger & Ian. Wilfred Bloor wrote over 400 Jabez tales in Potteries dialect (the Jabez character is a countryman living in the shadows of industrial Potteries). We also spoke to Alan Barrett, Stoke-born writer, storyteller, poet, and actor. Thanks to the kind contributions of these people we managed to collect plenty of poetry that has been fed into ANNA.

Come and see ANNA in action at the ACAVA Studios: Spode Works open studios event on Saturday 7th / Sunday 8th October from 12pm at Bitjam, studio number 22.