A Life in Research


The Later Period - Computer Science

In my experience there is a fundamental difference between the Particle-Physics (PP) and Computer-Science (CS) research as I have explained in Appendix C.  However, in CS, my focus of research activity was the Data and Knowledge Engineering (DAKE) area, which includes databases, distributed databases, and coopering knowledge bases systems, latter as extension of distributed database technology in the field of agents, using what is called the Engineering Paradigm (or the database approach) as against the AI paradigm. This has applications in distributed information systems, internet-based supply-chain management and agent-based manufacturing systems.  I have applied the idea of the agent paradigm in peer to peer data and knowledge sharing systems (P2P/DAKS), with a particular interest in automatic and dynamic integration of peer ontologies.

 As for publications, I have published over 100 substantial research papers, and have also written many books in Computer Science [see the Appendix G on the Publication list]. Here below are my research and associated activities presented in three subsections:

  • Activities in the Database Area

  • Activities in Cooperating Knowledge Based Systems

  • Miscellaneous Activities

  • Followed by the Appendices


Activities in the Database Area 

My major national contributions to databases fall into four areas:

  • Promotion of database teaching in UK universities

  • Writing the first undergraduate text book on databases in the UK

  • Creation of a database research community in the UK

  • My personal contribution to database research


1   Promotion of Database Teaching in the UK

 I used to run annually Systems Analysis Teachers Conferences for the Scottish Universities and former Polytechnics (now Universities), in which local industries requiring systems analysts also participated. Later I turned it into UK Database Teachers Conferences, in which most major Universities (including Imperial College, London School of Economics and the University of Manchester) participated, the conference being held in different institutions in different years. At that time, most Universities (and Polytechnics) did not have any undergraduate degree course on databases. Therefore these conferences were very useful, not only in motivating the teachers, but also providing them with likely course contents (syllabus), exam questions, text books, case studies, etc.  


2, Writing the First Undergraduate Text Book

 In 1975, I gave in the UK, the first full-length undergraduate degree course on databases based on some notes that I had produced from bits of material that I could gather, as there were no text books on databases at that time. Later when I showed those notes to Macmillans, they offered me a contract to write a book based on those notes. It took me several years to gather enough material to produce a reasonable manuscript.  Macmillans took two years to publish it in 1980, by which time Chris Date of IBM (later a close friend) published his book in the USA. Thus my book became the first in the UK, but second in the world.  I used to get embarrassed when some people (who knew of Chris Date’s book) would praise my book in his presence at conference dinners.  However, my book was translated into many languages, including Chinese, Spanish, Dutch and Italian.  The Chinese translation was illegal as it was done without my permission. I was told about it by Chinese students when I visited China in 1984 as a World-Bank Fellow (mentioned earlier), and also later by Chinese students who came to study under my supervision at Keele.  So instead of me getting any royalty, the University of Keele got postgraduate fees from Chinese students who came to Keele because they read my book in Chinese.


3. Creation of a Database Research Community in the UK


I created a database research group at Aberdeen in 1977 (see below), but I soon realised that my solo research group would not survive without the support of a flourishing database research community in the UK.  So, in order to stimulate database research in the UK, I decided, following the success of my earlier database teachers conferences, to hold an international conference in Aberdeen on database research. Despite local and non-local opposition from some vested interests, I was unexpectedly successful, as every major database figures in the USA and Europe I wrote to consented to attend. The conference, called International Conference on Databases (ICOD), was highly successful and hugely oversubscribed. Originally planned for 60 delegates, it was later extended to 120 delegates (the seating capacity for the conference dinner in the Drumtochty Castle  in Scotland – the home of the King of Norway during the Second World War), and then further extended to 160 delegates, with an additional dinner venue. We turned down many delegates, who were upset. I particularly refused to allow two white persons from South Africa (SA) to register, even after I was requested to admit them by the ICL, a sponsor of the conference, and the largest computer manufacturer in the UK at that time and an investor in SA.  If I could not share the same hotel with them in SA, I was not going to permit them to appear in my conference    that was my line of thought at that time.

 In addition, there was an important database user (not researcher) in another Department in my University, whom I originally invited to be a member of the Organising Committee. Not only he declined my invitation to be a member, but instead he demanded that he should be the Chairman in place of me and that I should work under him. When I dismissed his preposterous demand, he complained to the University that I would be bringing shame to the good name of Aberdeen University by holding this conference and therefore I should be stopped. But by then, unknown to him, I already got permission from the Dean of Science who was very enthusiastic about the conference. After my great success, his boss telephoned me to accept him as my invited guest in place of the boss in the big reception.  I refused and told the boss that he could attend the conference and hence the reception as a delegate (but not as my invited guest) by paying the reduced fee that I had laid out for the Aberdeen University employees.  As I expected he did not take up the offer.  I would have invited him if he had apologised to me for his abominable conduct, but he did not.  Instead he was, as far as I was aware, still trying to find faults with the conference. Perhaps it was what one might call a case of racialism. However, these days in my old age, I sometimes wonder if he had ever reflected upon and regretted his conduct.

 The North-Holland (the publisher) sent me all their publications (books and journals) on databases and distributed databases (a considerable collection at the time) for me to display them at the conference and later to keep them. We had no such books at Aberdeen University. I read them all before the conference and became very knowledgeable in many areas of database research and therefore I could speak on database research at the conference with some confidence.  As for this conference, the famous paper of Pat Selinger (of IBM San Jose) often quoted as the seminal work on distributed databases was presented at this conference, among many other great papers.  As Selinger was incapacitated, her paper was delivered by Jim Gray, the future ACM Touring Award winner and the Vice President of Microsoft. Don Chamberlin presented his seminal paper on SQL, Charles Bachman (the father of Databases) introduced his new ideas, in what he called Role Model, and so on. Chris Date was there too, along with top European Database scientists.  All of them became good friends of mine later.  Two years later, through Chris Date, I also became a friend of Dr E. F. Codd [usually called Ted Codd], the father of the Relational Model, when we spent some days together in Mexico City.

 The conference dinner at the Drumtochty Castle went down supremely well. The guests were welcomed with full Scottish honour by a bagpipe band, and entertained by the scary Drumtochty ghost during and after the dinner. I warned the guests beforehand that like any self-respecting ancient castle worth its name, the Drumtochty also had its own resident ghost, and in its case a very potent one, which was known to grab and hide away guests who strayed too far away at late evenings. I further warned that if anyone of them was thus grabbed, he/she would certainly miss the last coach to Aberdeen. This led to many after dinner hilarious ghost-hunting parties into the dungeon and other remote parts of the Castle to encounter the ghost, where they faced many ghostly tricks, including some laser ones, as carefully arranged in advance with the Drumtochty staff.  Perhaps not unsurprisingly the two nations on the extreme    the French having too many ancient castles, and the Americans having none – made the most out of the ghost-hunting.  It was a great fun.

 At the concluding session of the conference, delegates after delegates rose to speak praising all aspects of the conference, from the fabulous dinner at the Castle, to the great quality of the papers presented and the follow-up discussions, including of course the planning and organisations of the sessions. They congratulated me ecstatically with a long applause. On the way to the Drumtochty Castle, our three coaches had to stop in heavy rain on a tricky hill top which delayed our arrival at the Castle by half-an hour, just the time needed by the Castle as the dinner arrangements were running late.  The last one to speak at this concluding session was a US delegate who stood up and said: “I am an ex-army man. I would say that every aspect of this conference was well-planned, well-organised and well-delivered. And hence I cannot believe that the stoppage at hill-top on the way to the Castle was not meticulously planned, by Dr Deen just to give us a view of the Scottish Highland in rain”. At this, everyone burst out clapping, and then he added: “Thank you for giving us such a wonderful conference”.  That was the end, after which everyone said goodbye to everyone else.  However the important point was that everyone was happy.

 By the way that US speaker was a major sponsor of this conference [from the US Army Funds for Conferences], and he continued to contribute generously to my later conferences. I should perhaps mention here that I never attended, let alone got involved in the organisation of, any conferences before.  I studied published conference proceedings of other conferences which gave me some ideas of what to do.

 After this conference, I became well-known as the Dr Deen of Aberdeen, or simply the Deen of Aberdeen, a name that stuck with me for some time even after I joined Keele. I used to ask many questions in database conferences that I attended subsequently. I did not realise for a long time that people appreciated my questions as being very pertinent, until some people told me so. I remember I was once in a research centre (CRAI) in south Italy for two weeks, where they had a conference. For some reasons I could not attend one session, but after the session, several of the presenters told me that they missed my presence during their presentations, adding that a session was not quite a session until I had asked some questions. Baffled I said why so? Then they explained “you ask very deep questions which are very helpful in understanding the core issues both by the presenters and the audience”. I was surprised, but subsequently some other people also told me similar things, and sometimes thanked me for my questions. If you are confused as to why a presenter would welcome critical questions, here is the reason.  A purpose of presenting a paper in a research conference is to seek critical comments so that the paper can be improved and eventually published in a reputable journal.  As for my own comments, here is the truth.  I am slow in understanding things, particularly complex things, during the presentation of a paper. I understand better only later when I have read a paper several times.  So during a presentation, I used to concentrate on ascertaining and understanding the core issues (and their significance) in the research paper presented, ignoring the fluff such as the mathematics and other elaborations. Therefore my questions usually struck home on those core issues. I remember in 1991 in Kyoto and in 1999 in Kokura (Japan) I became very famous because I had asked what they called very interesting questions, to very famous key speakers in those international conferences, full of American and European delegates.  This was an odd experience for me, as I did not like the idea of becoming famous by asking questions to important people. However, the truth remains that I have a slow mind, but the lesson is that sometimes even a slow mind can become a useful mind.  

[A personal comment, some years later I saw Charles Bachman on a plane on the way to a database conference at Charleston, South Carolina. I spent a lot of time chatting with him, not only on the plane but also later at the conference itself. At that time the Relational model rose to its great height, eclipsing Bachman’s model completely. So he was no longer an active force and was treated at this conference like an old burnt-out oak tree, nobody cared to go near him. I do not know how he felt, but I was very sad to see how this old giant was treated. In South Asia, where I come from, he would always be revered as a great pioneer, but not in the utility-driven cut-throat West].   

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