Friday, April 30, 2010

QR Codes

You may have started to see codes like these appearing everywhere, you certainly will if you live in Japan. Called QR codes they are 2-D barcodes designed to be easy to scan. Many modern camera phones have readers that scan the QR code and automatically take you to the website that the code is linked to (there are several iPhone apps that do this).

These codes can be put on billboards, in magazines, on products, anywhere, enabling people to quickly obtain information about the thing tagged with the code, using the browser in their phone.

The QR code above is the one that points to this blog. I think I'll get a T-shirt printed with the code on it.

You can generate your own QR codes using the
QR-Code Generator.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Alan Turing Marathon - London Olympics 2012

The idea of commemorating the centenary of Alan Turing's birth by naming the marathon at the London Olympics in 2012 "The Alan Turing Marathon", isn't such a daft idea after all.
John Graham-Cummingwho led the succesful campaign last year to have the British PM offer an apology for the way Alan Turing was treated by authorities, is now trying achieve this new goal.
Turns out that Turing was not just a brilliant mathematician and the father of computing but a strong marathon runner - 2 hours 46 minutes seems like an excellent time for a marathon.
John Graham-Cumming can be contacted via his blog

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Hardest Chapter

Perhaps the hardest chapter is always the one that you're currently working on. However, the chapter on the innovations coming out of Northern California in the 60s and 70s is challenging me. There's just so much material and so many people involved. Compare this to the chapter on the Analytical Engine where there was really only Charles Babbage and little bit of Ada Lovelace.

However, I think a way through is emerging. I'm currently planing to concentrate on three people:

  • Doug Engelbart - the inventor of the mouse and heavily involved in the development of networking and the GUI
  • Alan Kay - the inventor of object-oriented programming and the Dynabook (the precursor of the iPad)
  • Steve Wozniak - co-founder of Apple and designer of the Apple I & II

I'll also concentrate on three institutions: SRI, Xerox PARC, and the Homebrew Computer Club.

I know that this will cause some to howl "what about so and so" and "what about such and such" but it has to be done.

Nao Robot Video

I've taken a video of a welcome routine I've programmed into the Nao robot. The manufacturers tell me that this is the first Nao in New Zealand!

I've not had the time to do anything with it so far this week. A whole bunch of administrivia has occupied my time (same goes for the book sadly).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Did Steve Jobs Steal The iPad? Genius Inventor Alan Kay Reveals All

Another "iPad is the Dynabook" article but it does have some interesting insights from Alan Kay towards it's end.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I. Robot

Well pretty much as predicted no work on the book has happened this week. The Nao has eaten up all my time left over from writing a research grant application, reviewing conference papers and marking assignments.

I've got to grips with the Nao's programming language which is quite easy to use and have been playing with its sensors. Voice recognition is a bit hit and miss but the two video cameras on it work very well. For example it can now turn around until it sees a know mark and then walk towards that point - small steps but important ones. The basic idea is to build up a collection of basic routines, like turn around or walk ahead and then combine these into more complex behaviours.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Got the robot working

Well I got the Nao robot connected via WiFi, I had to use a spare WiFi router I have and open a port through the firewall (couldn't do that of course on the WiFi at work).

I've also now programmed a welcome routine that shows of the robot's movements, and voice recognition. It's balance is very good, mostly, though it has fallen over a couple of times. It goes down with quite a bang as it's quite heavy and nearly 2 feet high.

I've also got it to count how many faces it can see in front of it which works reasonably well.  I'll try to put some video up of it (can you post video on this blog?)
In the meantime Aldebaran have some videos on their website (scroll down) and there are some on YouTube (search for Nao robot). Needless to say no book writing has happened so far this week.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Robot Hall of Fame

I just came across the Robot Hall of Fame whilst looking for resources for my new robot. Interesting idea both fictional robots and real robots have been inducted into it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Work not Play

Well sort of. If you've been following my tweets you'll have seen that I took delivery of a Nao robot.

These are made by a French company  Aldebaran Robotics  and are state-of-the-art pieces of robot kit (at $25,000 NZD they ought to be).

Mine announces it self as "Nao robot # 607" when it is switched on. I spent most of the day installing software, charging its battery (it doesn't come fully charged like an iPhone or iPad), and getting it connected via ethernet and failing to connect via WiFi.

That will be tomorrow's task and then I have to get it to do something useful. I suspect that my productivity for stuff other than this robot will be rather low this week!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Illustrated History of Computers

I've found a good illustrated history of computers online. It's very good on the early (pre-digital) computers but only goes up to the birth of the personal computer. So for most people the most interesting part of the history is missing.

The Origins of Punch Cards

Just found a great photograph of a Jacquard Loom used for weaving complex patterns in cloth. The program for the pattern was stored in punch cards that were adopted by Charles Babbage as the input mechanism for the Analytical Engine.
Punch cards are still used by some knitting machines, but no longer by computers.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Computing History Museum

Whilst on the subject of museums the Computer History Museum has an excellent website and appears to currently have an exhibition featuring Babbage's Difference Engine, the subject of Chapter 2 of my book.

I haven't physically visited the museum (it's in Mountain View, California), but I will do next time I'm in the SF area, it looks very interesting. The website also looks like it will be another good source of reference material for my book.

Computing History Displays

Since this is directly relevant to my book project I should mention the excellent display/museum of computing history that is housed where I work in the Dept. of Computer Science at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (click here for the display website).

Along one wall of the long entrance way to the Dept. is a timeline of computing from pre-1950's to the present day.
It's quite common to see students and visitors taking the time to study this timeline.

Then on the elevator foyer of each floor are themed displays of computing hardware. The highlight of these is probably the University's complete IBM 1620 mainframe computer, which was installed at the University in 1963.
If you are ever in Auckland and have an interest in computing history feel free to drop in for a look (click here for a Google Map).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time to do some work

It's Tuesday and the University is closed today (mid-semester break) so I can get some work done on the book.

With the iPad being so much in the news this weekend and some techies commenting that it's the  Dyanbook made real I'm going to get some material together on Alan Kay, it's inventor.

 Alan Kay is one of the legendary ex-employees of Xerox PARC credited with helping invent the GUI, object-oriented programming and the tablet computer or eBook (i.e., the Dynabook).

The best book I've come across on the subject of Xerox PARC is:
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik

Running over 400 pages it's very comprehensive, but probably only for the devoted. My task is to distil this book down into few pages that summarise the highlights of Xerox's remarkable influence on modern computing. Alan Kay's contribution I guess will have to occupy no more than a few paragraphs! This isn't going to be easy.

His home page is at though it doesn't look like it's maintained by him. I do like this quote though:

"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn't violate too many of Newton's Laws!"

This would make a good quote for the start of the chapter.

There's also a page at Viewpoints Research Institute where Alan was a founder

Here I discover that in addition to being a brilliant computer scientist it seems that Alan was also a professional jazz guitarist. Gosh don't you love these multi-talented people? My wife says that a lot of very bright people are also talented musicians, seems like she's right in this case.

Woz scores 3G iPad, says it’s “better than I ever imagined”

And whilst on the subject of legendary computer people Steve Wozniak has got an iPad.

Alan Kay on the iPhone and the iPad, sorta | Edible Apple

Well we'll have to see if the iPad is a huge success and if Alan Kay's prediction is correct. In it's first weekend it outsold the original iPhone!

It seems that Cyc is following me on twitter (cyc-ai), which in some ways is kind of cool because Cyc is this famous AI project dating back 20 years or more.

They have a blog  so you can check out what they're doing.

However, it's also rather irritating because they send out really meaningless tweets like:

RT @cyc_ai: @driwatson A military post is a type of post.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing

And just to show some balance here's an anti-iPad story

Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing

Actually quite a good piece. I disagree with his analysis of the death of the CD-ROM, really it was the web and the advantages that dynamic information had over static information that killed the CD-ROM.

I also have worries though about Apple's DRM. I do think that the ability to buy a book and then give it to a friend is an important feature that a real book has. Not being able to move books from one platform to another will also probably stop me buying many iBooks. Of course if the iPad is soooooo great that may not bother me.

[Incidentally, Apple haven't even announced a tentative release date for the iPad in NZ yet]

The iPad was Invented 38 years ago | ConceivablyTech

Once I started looking of course there would be pieces about the Dynabook being the ancestor for the iPad. This one is particularly good.

The iPad was Invented 38 years ago | ConceivablyTech

Apple's first tablet designs 1989

Dynabook – The iPad From 20 Years Ago | -:- Technological News Portal

This is quite an interesting article showing the design of a tablet computer back in 1989.

(did I mention that this blog in addition to the book will also feature musings on all things tech)

Dynabook - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It's hard to miss but this Easter weekend is the launch day of the iPad (in the US). Back in 1972 Alan Kay from the famous Xerox Parc, wrote about a small tablet computer he called the Dynabook.

Dynabook - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Is the iPad the Dynabook made real?

The Writing Process

So let's look at how I've been writing my book so far. Basically I work chapter by chapter but not necessarily in linear (1, 2, 3...) order. In fact I don't complete a chapter before going to another (I'm not very methodical).

So far I've completed a good draft of Chapter 2 which is about Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine in Victorian times. I'll try to find a way of linking to or uploading this chapter so you have a good piece of material to read.

I research my material be reading books and web sources that I then collate and summarise - I'm trying to write a book that is fun and easy to read and most of the books that provide the source material are way too long and dull.

With this blog I now plan to put the rough notes of my research into the blog and use those as the basis for each chapter. Currently I'm using Google Docs to hold all my notes and chapter drafts. I like the sense of security it gives me of having my work in the cloud (I also export copies to my work and home computers).

A Brief History of the Computer - Photo Essays - TIME

This is another photo essay from Time magazine and this time directly relevant to the subject of this blog.

A Brief History of the Computer - Photo Essays - TIME

However, I was surprised to see the photos miss out on the Xerox Star (and it's GUI), and the Macintosh.

TIME's Steve Jobs Covers - Photo Essays - TIME

TIME's Steve Jobs Covers - Photo Essays - TIME

This is not the first time Steve Jobs has graced the cover of Time magazine. Here's a photo gallery of Time's covers of him.

(note: I'm experimenting with ways of uploading things to the blog).


Welcome to the blog of the writing of the Universal Tool

I've been writing a book, on and off, for several years now. The book is intended to be a popular science book about the history of computers. I'm a computer scientist by profession and so I've long had an interest in this subject.

The idea of this blog is to encourage me to keep working on the book by being able to share both the process of writing it and elements from it with who ever decides to follow the blog of just drop by.

Computers you see are not like other tools that we've invented. Think of wheel and axle for example. This invention let man build carts and wagons and so more easily move heavy loads around. Thousands of years later, although we now have engines instead of horses the basic use of the invention hasn't changed. Now think of the computer. They were first used to crack military codes and design H-bombs, and then to do the payroll for large companies, but now we use them to communicate with friends, play (and compose) music, design buildings, create virtual worlds, make movies, this list is endless and constantly growing. You see the computer fundamentally does not crack codes or write blogs, a computer manipulates symbols and it can perform any task that can be represented by symbols. In this sense, in the words of Alan Turing, a computer is a "universal machine".