At this, the third annual British conference on databases, it appeared that theoretical issues were begining to predominate, perhaps not surprisingly in that Computer Science Departments are so dominant in its organisation This may be no bad thing; there is, so far as I know, no comparable forum in the UK for informal discussion of database research
As is customary, the Proceedings were handed out on the first day, this time in the form of a real book typeset by CUP from authors' machine-readable mss. Lasercomp enthusiasts will be pleased to know that Britain's oldest university press had made a right dog's breakfast of the job; the production schedule did not apparently allow for authorial proof reading.
There were two invited papers, two panel sessions and five sessions of three papers each. The conference began ominously with the first of the invited papers, from the appalling Stephen Todd (IBM) who showed some very nice colour slides of molecules whilst burbling about the database system he had "lashed-up" some years back with PRTV He remarked with an air of surprise that database was "not central to the computational chemist's perceptions" and completely forgot (till prompted by one P Salotti) that database search and pattern matching techniques might be of some use in the business of residue identification The other invited speaker was the legendary R Kowalski (Imperial) whose account of Prolog as a database language was thorough and well-presented if not unfamiliar Todd remarking from the back row that it could all be done in relational algebra, Kowalski riposted that there was more expressive power in Prolog's left earlobe than the whole of relational algebra.
This exchange was alas, about the only sign of intellectual debate during the conference; despite much talk of Controversial Issues, there was little controversy, particularly during the truly awful Panel Sessions These (one on user interfaces, one on teaching methods) could have been an opportunity for stimulating and worthwhile argument if they had been chaired with more enthusiasm or featured more aggressive or opinionated panellists; instead they were uniformly bland, self-satisfied and trite.
The computer scientists did not have it all to themselves: a few mere users did speak up, amongst which Tony Wakefield (Bristol Poly)'s account of the complexities of his IMS training course was the best; this together with G.Loizou (Birkbeck)'s account of the extra software tools needed to support Cullinet's IDMS were potent advertising for ICL's IDMS (which has had all the goodies Loizou's lot have had painstakingly to write for themselves for the last two years)
Most attractive piece of software glimpsed over the horizon was Paul Feldman (Thames Poly)'s automatic diagrammer for conceptual models. Most
currently fashionable theoretical issue was the usefulness (or not) of the triple and the binary model it supported as a universal formalism (Roger Johnson (Birkbeck) and G.Martin (ditto)) Most boring and futile piece of academia was not quite as hotly contended for as usual at these gatherings: the choice lay between Flynn (EAnglia) comparing various unmemorable design methodologies, Thanisch (Greenwich Observatory) on automatic clustering of attributes by means of embedded dependencies and Laender (EAnglia again) on a design tool for the definition of user views of rare inpenetrability.
Best Dressed Presentation was probably Ron Cuff (IBM) on a rather eccentric natural language query processor which allowed the casual user to fill in a menu with bits of vague waffle and then translated the resulting mess into QBE queries Worst Dressed Presentation was undoubtedly Anne Zorner (Sheffield Poly) on the DBAWG's DSDL, which did not get round to its subject matter (the ingenuity with which the proposed DSDL supports dynamic reorganisation of a live database) until the last five minutes.
In the same session, Jon Kerridge (Sheffield Poly again) presented the DBAWG's architecture for a distributed database system and Elizabeth Oxborrow (Kent) presented an outline of progress on the Proteus project, which is a real live (sort of) functional prototype ddbms Again, sparks should have flown, but didn't Proteus certainly deserved more time, but uncharacteristic modesty on the part of the organisers (most of whom participate in it) appears to have inhibited this
Work we have done for P.Gray (Aberdeen) on getting Astrid to work on VME may however give Oxford the entree to this project later this year Informally interest was expressed in our experience with CAPS in various quarters; QMC reported that they had one but hadn't worked out how to plug it in yet and Lancaster that they were thinking of getting one Two ICL people (no other manufacturers were present) apologised for the rotten support we had been getting and blamed RWilmot's axe for it.
The conference was housed in what looked like a converted barracks, but the wine at the conference dinner last until after midnight.