Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Making an Arse of Myself in Wellington (Stephen Fry)

A few days ago the multi-faceted Stephen Fry caused a storm on the Twitter-verse and beyond by criticising New Zealand's poor broadband, which living in New Zealand I, naturally, commented on. Fry is in NZ filming for The Hobbit movie and obviously has some time on his hands since he has just posted a very long blog post commenting on the fracas and defending his use of Twitter. In it he starts from an incident he tweeted about involving Qantas in Dubai and proceeds to discuss, why, how, when, where and what he will tweet and under what circumstances he'll retweet. We should all remember that he has almost 4 million followers, so his twitter stream must look like Niagra Falls. Remember this is one man tweeting not a corporate communications department's social media team.
    Fry concludes the piece by saying some very nice things about New Zealand:

"NZ rocks…

My 23 year old godson sent me this, just today, direct quote. Unaltered by one syllable.

'I imagine you might be in New Zealand right now, is that right? Hobbiting? I hope that that’s all going well and that it’s nice being out there. From the three weeks I spent in New Zealand on my gap year I do remember thinking that I had never, and would never be again, be in a more stunning place in my life. So I hope that’s the case for you too.'

Those are the words of a privileged, intelligent, talented, charming and well-travelled Englishman. There is so much to love here, so much for Kiwis to be proud of.

This is the country that produced Ernest Rutherford, the man who split the atom and Edmund Hillary the man who first stood on the peak of Mount Everest. This is the first democracy to give women the vote.  Despite the sheep jokes this is as sophisticated, progressive and forward looking a nation-state as exists in the world, its population of a mere four million or so punching hugely above their weight in almost every field of endeavour."

    Nice words, which I'm sure he means, NZ is a very easy place to love, which is why I'm here. He still thinks our broadband sucks though and contrasts NZs Internet plans to Sweden's digital roadmap that aims for Sweden to lead this revolution, not be following the pack.


Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker - trailer online

Last November I commented on the drama-documentary Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker, which had aired on UK Channel 4 TV, but which was not available to view outside the UK. The film's website now has a trailer online and plans for its international distribution and an educational outreach programme. Full details including how you can support this project are on their website:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Google is test driving (legally) in Nevada

I wrote sometime ago about the Nevada state legislature which was passing a law to enable self-driving cars to operate legally on Nevada roads. Up until now Google has been testing its fleet of driverless cars "quazi-legally" in California. Quazi-legally in the sense that the cars contain a person who is notionally in control, even if the computer is actually driving. Mashable now reports that Google will test drive legally in Nevada, thanks to its law change and that several other states are enacting similar legislation.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The BBC moves into the future

The BBC has launched a new website called "Future" ( where it will showcase everything about the future from the worlds of science, health and technology. It's fairly popular in tone and easily accessible but already looks like it already carries some interesting stories and information. One piece that jumped out at me is called, "Why we should all learn to hack," which puts forward the sensible idea that everyone needs to have some understanding of how to program or risk exclusion of worse, exploitation, in an increasingly digital world.  If you are looking for a well curated site featuring the latest developments and glimpses of the future this looks like a good place to check out.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The first computer chess program

Last week I was asked to include some information on Dietrich Prinz in my Department's Computer History Displays. Prinz was a colleague of Alan Turing's and he wrote the world's first computer chess program in 1952 for the Ferranti Mark I computer in England.

    As Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot recall in their excellent web article "Alan Turing the father of modern computing:"
   "Both during and after the war Turing experimented with machine routines for playing chess: in the absence of a computer, the machine's behaviour was simulated by hand, using paper and pencil. In 1948 Turing and David Champernowne, the mathematical economist, constructed the loose system of rules dubbed the 'Turochamp'. Champernowne reported that his wife, a beginner at chess, took on the Turochamp and lost. Turing began to program the Turochamp for the Manchester Ferranti Mark I but unfortunately never completed the task. He later published a classic early article on chess programming."
   In 1950 Claude Shannon's published a paper called "Programming a Computer for Playing Chess" and a couple of years later Prinz's chess program was operational. Chess playing machines therefore have a long history, from the fraudulent Mechanical Turk through IBM's Deep Blue to today's invincible Houdinibut the true pioneers were these men in the 1940s and 50s who wrote the first game AI programs.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Special Issue on Alan Turing in Nature

The prestigious science publication Nature has just published a special issue celebrating Alan Turing. In its introduction they say:
   "Alan Turing, born a century ago this year, is best known for his wartime code-breaking and for inventing the 'Turing machine' – the concept at the heart of every computer today. But his legacy extends much further: he founded the field of artificial intelligence, proposed a theory of biological pattern formation and speculated about the limits of computation in physics. In this collection of features and opinion pieces, Nature celebrates the mind that, in a handful of papers over a tragically short lifetime, shaped many of the hottest fields in science today."
   There are many excellent articles in the special issue, which I can highly recommend, by Turing experts including: Andrew Hodges, George Dyson and Barry Cooper. There's also a short science-fiction story Ghost in the Machine that rounds the special issue off.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (documentary)

Cave Lions in Chauvet Cave
Last night I watched Werner Herzog's documentary film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which I really enjoyed. It's about the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which was discovered in 1994. The cave contains remarkable rock paintings dating back 30 to 40,000 years, making them the oldest art ever discovered. The documentary is unusual in that it takes a very relaxed approach unlike a National Geographic style doco with detailed descriptions and interviews. Here the archaeologists and scientists seem unscripted and more subjective and personal than usual. The cave and it's beautiful drawings are often left to speak for themselves.
    The drawings are simply stunning - animals are perfectly captured with strong, clear lines, and bold shading. But these aren't simple representations, the animals are fluid, moving, and alive. If you were told these came from the sketch book of a master like Leonardo or Picasso you wouldn't be surprised. However, you are surprised, even awestruck, because we know they were painted by a succession of talented artists over 30,000 years ago. At the end of the film a large section is devoted to the camera simply moving around the cave and focusing on different paintings in stunning detail.
    Highly recommended viewing, though I'm not sure the very final scene with the albino crocodiles really worked.

Alan Turing for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth

The Fourth Plinth
The Fourth Plinth is an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London. It was originally intended to carry an equestrian statue but stood empty for 150 years. Towards the end of the 20th Century a commission was formed of the great and the good to consider what stature should grace the plinth. In the meantime it was decided some temporary works of art could be exhibited there. The commission then eventually decided the plinth should continue to showcase temporary sculptures in the future and the Lord Mayor's Fourth Plinth Programme was born. When I was in London last year a giant ship in a bottle was on the plinth; fitting since Admiral Nelson stands on top of the column.
   I'm now calling for a statue of Alan Turing to be on the plinth, hopefully permanently. What better way to honour the father of the modern computer, the man who Winston Churchill said single-handedly did more than anyone else to end WWII, and who pioneered the discipline of artificial intelligence. You can agree or disagree by answering this poll.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How do leopards get their spots?

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Alan Turing the father of the modern computer, WWII code-breaker and pioneer of artificial intelligence. You may therefore be surprised to learn that he was also a groundbreaking biologist.
   Researchers at King’s College London found the interaction between two morphogens control how mice get ridge patterns in their mouths, exactly as Alan Turing predicted in  his 1952 paper The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis. Turing proposed that animals’ stripes and spots are caused by the interaction of a pair of chemicals,  he called "morphogens." One of the chemicals, he suggested, triggered cell activity, while the other reduced it. The way in which they interact dictated where cells grew, creating the patterns on the fur of animals.
    It seems Turing's genius had no limits.

Digital embarressment (follow up)

Here's a follow up to the previous post I found in a link off Stephen Fry's blogMariam Shembari has some sensible things to say in a blog post, including:

 "Over the past year I’ve been to many conferences on that very topic [the digital economy]  – a major event at the University of Auckland Business School, a digital conference run by MSN, a program hosted by Google…

Want to know what all these events had in common?

None of them had wifi.

Someone please explain how you can attend a conference for digital professionals about the growth of New Zealand’s international economy AND NOT HAVE THE FUCKING INTERNET."

Apologies for her expletive and the shouting but Mariam has a point. NZ has been talking about growing the knowledge economy for over a decade now, but doesn't seem to realise that high-speed affordable broadband is essential to this. The current Government's plan is to roll out fibre nationwide and... wait for it ...  " it aims to have the service reaching 75 per cent of New Zealand in the next 10 years".
   So let's examine that statement. Firstly it says "aims to," not "guarantees to," or "will ensure that," or any other firm commitment - it's a wishy washy "aim." Even if their aim is true 25% of the population will not have ultra-fast broadband! Then there's the "10 years" part, which is really worrying. 10 years is like a lifetime in Internet time. Can you imagine what the Internet will be like in 10 years time? I doubt the people planning this can and so once again we'll be left with an outdated, expensive service.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stephen Fry thinks we are "a digital embarrassment"

Stephen Fry, the actor, comedian, author, blogger, tech guru and friend of the late Steve Jobs, is in New Zealand filming for Peter Jackson's Hobbit movie. Yesterday he was tweeting furiously about how crappy NZ's broadband speeds are and created a bit of media storm.
    "[New Zealand] has probably the worst broadband I've ever encountered. Turns itself off, slows to a crawl. Pathetic," he tweeted, followed by: "Yes, kiwi land is remote, but if Avatar can be made here and [NZ] wants to keep its rep for being the loveable, easy-going, outdoorsy yet tech savvy place it is, then pressure @telecomNZ into offering better packages ..." and,  "Come on New Zealand. You're world champions at rugby & filmmaking. Pressure the providers to stop [NZ] being a digital embarrassment,"
   First some background to this story. Apparently Stephen Fry was staying in someone's house and was trying to upload some video and he reached the owner's data cap, which is why the connection crawled to stop, so the owner wouldn't get a hefty bill. No idea what the owner's monthly data cap is but I know many people who have data caps around 10 GB a month - honestly! My monthly data cap is 120 GB and I'm consider an "elite" customer, a power user. Not only our NZ's data caps ludicrously small, which was the first problem Stephen Fry encountered, but our speeds our slow as well. Here's a speed test I just did.

    I live in central Auckland and these speeds are considered good by NZ standards. Bloody incredible if you live out in the country side. Compare this to many US ISPs whose budget services start at 45Mbps and go up to 200Mbps. But then there is also the cost. Orcon, one of NZs better ISPs offers, 30GB a month for $62 (US), that's considered quite a good deal in NZ. A typical US ISP offers unlimited data for around $45 a month at much faster speeds. Tesco, a UK supermarket, offers unlimited data at 20GB for $3.96 (US) a month. What I wouldn't give for that deal! Well what I wouldn't have to give is obviously what I'm being forced to pay now.
    Okay, NZ is a small country (4 million + population) and so bigger countries where people are packed closer together have economies of scale; but I still don't see why people living in the urban centres of NZ aren't getting a much better deal in terms of speed, data caps and price. I'm afraid Stephen Fry is correct New Zealand is a digital embarrassment. 

   BTW: I highly recommend Stephen Fry's blog.

The end of the desktop metaphor

Over the weekend I came across a couple of interesting articles that lead to an intriguing possible future. The first was that Apple sold more iOS devices (156 million) in 2011 than it sold Macs (122 million) in 28 years of their existence. Note that 2011 was the most successful year in the Macs entire history. So the basic point here is that very many more people are using iOS than are using OS X. Here's graph from Mashable that visualises this.

Apple Mac GUI
   So, the next article which resonates was in Gizmodo, which makes the point that the user experience of using iOS apps is very different to using programs on OS X. Basically, iOS doesn't use the desktop metaphor, which Xerox PARC first developed and Apple made popular with the Macintosh in 1984. You may not have thought about the desktop metaphor but it still reigns supreme on Macs, Windows and Linux. Think of a desk on which you have pieces of paper and reports you're working on along with some tools like a calculator, diary and calendar. As you move from one task to another the focus of attention switches from say a report to the calculator to the calendar. All are in sight but you only work in one at any given moment - this is the desktop metaphor. With iOS we give up managing where the files we are working on physically reside and allow the app to manage that itself, just as most of us gave up thinking about where our music is filed and allow iTunes to handle that.
   For the personal user I think this is an advantage, it will certainly help my mother. However, I am skeptical that it will work for the professional user handling, for example, dozens of similar documents but for different accounts or the programmer working on different projects. Being able to partition life into "Project B" and "Client X" is a tidy and natural process, which the desktop metaphor with its filing system accommodates well, hence its longevity.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Apple OS X 10.7.3 Fail

Any regular reader of this blog knows that I'm a bit of a an Apple fanboy. On Friday I finally got round to installing the new update to OSX Lion 10.7.3. I'd already installed it on the MacMini we use in the lounge as a media centre and on my MacBook Pro without any issues so I wasn't expecting any trouble. The update had been out for a couple of weeks and had temporarily been removed to fix some bugs, mostly installations that stalled . So, with some confidence I started the install on my main work MacMini without much concern.
    All went well the machine rebooted and I was asked for a couple of keychain password permissions - a little unusual but this was a large OS upgrade so I still wasn't troubled. Then when I opened Chrome there was no Internet connection, so I opened Network Preferences.
Weird, my IP address was something like whereas my home network runs on 10.1.1.x. So I renewed my DHCP lease and every time I got a different 169.254.x.x address. Then I noticed the subnet mask was incorrect instead of I then manually assigned the machine an IP address, subnet mask, router IP,  and DNS and assigned the machine's Mac address to the manual IP address in the router. All seemed fine the router's DHCP table showed the MacMini was connected and the router could ping it and  the MacMini could ping the router and other machines on the network. But, still no internet. I was baffled - how could the MacMini have all the network settings correctly assigned, be able to ping and respond to pings without being able to connect to the Internet. Time for sleep.
   In the morning I went to Twitter and found several people had the same problem and one guy, Ralph Rottmann, had a solution. It seemed that the 10.7.3 update had messed up the firewall's permissions so it was rejecting all traffic apart from pings. Why this didn't occur on my two other Macs, but did on my main work horse, which is deliberately kept quite vanilla, I have no idea. I overwrote the authorization system configuration file with the same file from one of my working Macs, rebooted and bingo all back to normal!
   The upgrade cost me an afternoon of lost work and several frustrating hours. I'm very surprised that such a major "bug" could slip out of Cupertino, surely many developers using the pre-public release encountered this, so why didn't Apple fix it?

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Ultimate Steve Jobs (video) Collection

If you're still hurting from the passing last year of Steve Jobs and you just can't get enough of those keynote presentations then Scott Hurff has the perfect website for you. The Ultimate Steve Jobs Collection contains interviews, keynotes, and other videos featuring Apple’s late co-founder. There are over 100 YouTube videos from the early days of NeXT to the famous Standford commencement speech, and of course many Apple Keynotes.

    BTW: Scot Hurff is a co-founder of the Chill video sharing website, which seems like a very well implemented idea and worth checking out anyway.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Praise of Graffiti...

Jesus Just Google It, by Component
...or is it street art, urban art or what ever people call it today - but what ever, it enriches my neighborhood. I'm not talking about the mindless scribbles of young vandals but proper graffiti. We have an artist in my suburb, Grey Lynn, who goes by the pseudonym "Component." He's been stenciling and pasting up his art for a long time now and the more I look the more I find.
   It started for me when I won a competition and got to choose a piece of art to hang in my home for a year. I chose a painting by Component called "Queenie Rocks the Party," and it hung in my hallway looking cool for a year. I then realised by coincidence I owned a T-shirt with a Component graphic on the front and then I started noticing his work appearing around my neighbourhood. I'm sure it was always there, but I'd just learnt to pay attention.
Queenie Rocks the Party
   Recently a wonderful portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary appeared on the side of a local wine shop. "Sir Ed" was the first man to climb Everest and is the most famous New Zealander ever - he's iconic and Component's portrait is fantastic.
    Component has a website, maintains a Flickr gallery, and is a member of the Cut Collective. Keep up the work, you make my neighborhood a richer place.
Sir Ed, by Component

The Turing Centenary and Dicken's bi-centenary

Charles Dickens
Alan Turing was born on June 23 1912 and commemorations are planned all over the world, but 2012 is the bi-centenary of another (and let's be honest) better know Englishman - Charles Dickens. He was born in Portsmouth on February 7 1812. My favourite Dicken's story is probably Great Expectations although Oliver Twist would run it a close second. I realised whilst watching the BBC's new adaptation of Great Expectations that its been ages since I read any Dickens. So, this year I plan to read some Dickens and to go for books I've not read before. I've just started Our Mutual Friend.
    These two websites are promoting all the events and activities taking place globally to commemorate these two great men:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why is the iPhone like a Porsche 911?

No, it's not because they are both design classics. Well, in a way it is. To the right you can see a vintage Porsche 911 and below a more modern one. As any car enthusiast knows the basic shape of the 911 hasn't changed much since it was launched in 1963. The same will be true over the next few years for the iPhone and the iPad. The basic form will not change.
   People who expect a radically new iPhone 5 this year or a smaller screened iPad just don't understand Apple - it would be like Porsche producing a totally new look 911 or Coke producing a new recipe - we all know how that innovation worked out.
   With the tech media and Apple watchers starting to report rumours of both the new iPhone and iPad here are my predictions, which I will come back to after the respective unveilings so you'll know if I was correct or way off mark.
    For the iPad 3 it will have basically the same form factor, but may be slightly slimmer and have a smaller bevel around the screen. Front and rear facing cameras will be beefed up and there may be a flash. Faster processor and longer battery life, but no more RAM we're supposed to be use iCloud now. The display will be higher resolution but not the retinal display of the iPhone. The iPad won't have enough processing grunt to drive a large display of that quality. Siri will be available on the iPad 3 and it will support 4G.
   For the iPhone 5 no real change. Same form factor, same screen, perhaps a 10 mega pixel camera, faster processor, longer battery life and it will support 4G. But that's it. If you're expecting a whole new amazing iPhone you'll be disappointed. So like the 911 the design remains the same but what's under the hood gets improved.

In Praise of Long Reads

There's been a lot in the media recently about how the Internet has reduced our attention spans and altered our memory. In fact these views have become so commonplace that you'd be forgiven for thinking we were all becoming mindless idiots, with the attention spans of goldfish, unable to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet.
    Well, whilst all this has been going on, in parallel, and totally contrary to this meme, has been the spread of the curation of long form articles on the Web. Long form basically means an article usually at least 2,000 words long or about 8 pages. Think of them like in depth magazine pieces you might read in the New Yorker, The Atlantic or a newspaper's weekend supplement. I've found over the last year I've been reading an increasing number of these, usually on my iPad. So I thought I'd take a moment to share some links I use, which you may find useful.

  • Longreads - the best long form stories on the web, is an excellent curated list. updated daily
  • The Long Good Read - handpicked articles updated twice daily and indexed by. category
  • Give Me Something to Read - just like the above, you're getting the idea now.
Indeed, long reads seem to be becoming so popular that magazines, like The Atlantic and Mojo, are now using it as an index tag for their own content. In conjunction with any long read I usually use the excellent Instapaper app on my iPad (there's a web version as well), which is great for stripping away the original tricksy web formatting and presenting your long read as simple text, on a plain background, in a clear readable font. Instapaper is great on the iPad; you can load it up with pre-downloaded content for when you're travelling or you can settle down at home in your comfy chair with a drink and some background music for a good long read. Bliss!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I love you more than my iPhone (Valentine's card)

This card says it all, can you imagine being loved more than your partner's iPhone!  True love.
    Mashable has a collection of Valentine's Day cards for geeks in love, including a different version of this card.
    On a more serious note, a recent study showed that people actually do seem to "love" their iPhones and show similar brain reactions as the religious do to religious icons. My advice if you are taking that special someone out tonight is turn you phone to silent and stare into her eyes not into your phone's screen.

Awesome Photos - all (CC) and HD (plus more)

So I came across Trey Ratcliff on Google+ (I'm not, alone well over 1,000,000 people have him in their circles). He's a photographer and blogger. His blog Stuck In Customs is interesting if you enjoy travel photography and there some outstanding photos there, which are all under a Creative Commons licence (CC) and are free for you to download for non commercial use. They're full HD and not watermarked. It's a great resource if you want new wallpaper or a photo to brighten up a presentation. There's a great set of photos from New Zealand, where I live.
   He gave a talk at Google last year in which he expressed his view that "the Internet will discover you." By which I think he means that if you constantly do good interesting stuff (photos, music, blogs, art...) and make it freely available on the Internet word will spread and people will come - in his case lots of people. He also makes the point, which I've heard elsewhere, that it's important to reach out beyond your normal audience and your peers. For example, if I constantly blog about Alan Turing, everyone, apart from Alan Turing enthusiasts, will tune out. So I should blog about food, dogs, photography and other things sometimes to encourage people with wider interests in. This seems sensible.
    You can watch his talk to Google here:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Richard Feynman on the Scientific Method (video)

I came across this video (via Jason Nunnelley on Google+) of the famous US physicist giving a public lecture on the scientific method. It's very good and needs no explanation from me.

Intuition and Ingenuity: An Art Exhibition in Celebration of the Life of Alan Turing

Portrait of Alan Turing by Paul the Robot,
built by artist Patrick Tresset
A touring art exhibition in celebration of the life of Alan Turing called “Intuition and Ingenuity” is now showing as as part of the Kinetica Artfair at 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS. It will then be showing at the Lighthouse during the Brighton Science Festival and later at venues around the country.

    "2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the greatest minds Britain has produced. Between inventing the digital computer and helping to decode the German Enigma machine, to founding the science of artificial intelligence, the world today would have been a very different place without his ideas.
    His work on morphogenesis (what makes organisms grow in particular shapes) and the now famous “Turing Test” for machine intelligence have captured the imagination of artists for decades.
This exhibition, which takes its name from Turing’s own writing, brings together a number of important artists, from digital art pioneers to emerging contemporary artists, including Roman Verostko, boredomresearch, Patrick Tresset, Anna Dumitriu and Alex May.
Worth a visit if you are in the vicinity, there are some fascinating looking pieces in the Kinetica Artfair (preview here).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sponsor a valve on Colossus

Colossus was the world's first stored program electronic computer, built during WWII and use to crack the German High Command's Lorenz code. This code was much more complicated than the Enigma code, which Alan Turing cracked using a machine he designed called the Bombe.
   Tommy Flowers, a Post Office engineer designed Colossus, which was a physical instantiation of Turing's Universal Machine. By the end of the war 10 Colossi were in use at Bletchley Park. Enthusiasts have built a replica,  which has 2,500 valves some of which date to the 1940s. You can see the Colossus at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and now you can sponsor a valve; £10 is the minimum amount. The Universal Machine has just sponsored a valve, so why not get involved as well - what a great way of being involved with a piece of computing history!
    This is the sponsorship URL:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

R.I.P. ‘Laney,’ The Dog Who Inspired BigDog

Wired reports that "Laney," the dog, has died aged 12. She was owned by Dr. Alan Rudolph a biologist who was inspired by nature to build robots that mimicked animals. Whilst out walking in the woods one day with Laney he realised that a robot that moved like a dog would be a great all terrain vehicle. From this Boston Dynamics' BigDog project was born to build a robot capable of carrying equipment and supplies for the infantry.

Social Media and the Arab Spring

A lot has been written about the role that social media (Twitter and Facebook) and YouTube may have played in the Arab Spring. With some of claiming that these communication tools were the essential levers that overthrew so many regimes last year. Others claim that their role was minimal and that the digerati are deluding themselves that their new toys have some real worth or purpose - they should go back to tweeting about the quality of their local laté. The truth lies somewhere in between, as this article in The National makes clear and as does this blog.
    The initial role of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube of spreading the news of atrocity and outrage from Iran to Syria is undeniable, but regimes in all of the countries were quick to shutdown mobile phone networks and the Internet as they saw fit. Stories that Twitter was used to command and control people during protests are certainly wishful thinking. One aspect that should not be overlooked though is the role that satellite phones have played.
    Once the exclusive toys of the wealthy, $1,000 now buys one and expatriate Syrians, living in London, Paris or the US, can send them in to relatives inside Syria. Using these rebels can upload video to YouTube even if the Syrian regime has shut down the Internet. As a consequence video footage appears daily documenting the horrific events all across the country; for example the Souria2011archives Channel on YouTube (WARNING, explicit 18+ disturbing violence). Dictators can no longer hide their crimes from the rest of the world behind a propaganda wall which they control. 
This is discussed in chapter 11, Web 2.0 of the The Universal Machine.
    I hope that the tragic events in Syria can be brought to a quick and peaceful end and that anyone guilty of atrocities there can be brought to justice. If YouTube can help this process, so much the better.

Decode/Recode: Celebrate 100 Years of Alan Turing

The University of Salford in Manchester, UK is planning a global multimedia event to celebrate Turing's centenary and the opening of their new MediaCity building.
"Decode/Recode: Celebrate 100 Years of Alan Turing: We invite you to collaborate in a globally networked interactive event to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, as part of the official opening of the University of Salford building at MediaCity on 23rd March 2012. As part of this significant event we will be connecting for 24 hours with 24 partners worldwide for a live digital media jam."
   It sounds like it will be fascinating event.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Follow the Universal Machine on Posterous (if you prefer)

The Universal Machine blog is also now available on Posterous. If you already use that blogging tool or prefer it, you can follow the Universal Machine there. The URL is New content will appear here first and then minutes later on Posterous and Tumblr. If you're wondering how I find the time to copy content from one blog to another, the answer is I don't. It's all automated using a wonderful online tool call, which stands for "if this then that." It also updates Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn when I post here - very useful.
Screenshot from The Universal Machine on Posterous


I just came across this conference, which will be held at Stanford University on Sept 5 2012.

Challenging Turing 2012: New Perspectives on Computation "is an academic research event, with the usual peer review, aimed at celebrating Alan Turing's inquiry in the spirit of that inquiry: by the rigorous and systematic analysis of computational paradigms, their logical foundation for their own sake and their ability to characterize or reproduce behaviors in the world, including intelligent behavior.
    We seek to reignite the inquiry, clarify the Challenges that Turing addressed, how Turing would view contemporary interpretations of computation, and hope to stimulate and, perhaps, make further progress. Therefore, the nature of computation is a central theme of the conference."

This sounds interesting if you are planning to be in California in Sept this year. Information about all the events being held to commemorate Turing's centenary can be found at The Alan Turing Year official website. version of this blog

Flipboard on the iPad
My favourite app on my iPad is Flipboard, which is a social media aggregator that gathers articles from people I follow on Twitter, my Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections and other media sources I tell it to use. All of this is presented in the form of a personalised magazine you can browse through to drop in and out of stories. I love it and would almost agree with some who say that Flipboard is worth buying an iPad for alone.
   Yesterday I came across which does the same sort of thing for a standard web browser allowing you to curate your own web newspaper from people and organisations you follow on Twitter. It's not as cool looking as Flipboard and it only updates at most twice a day, whilst Flipboard updates on demand. However, a big advantage is that you can "publish" you newspaper so anyone can see it. I've therefore created a newspaper version of The Universal Machine, which aggregates topics from some of the sources I use to write this blog. I typically choose one or two topics a day to blog about so if you read/follow the version of The Universal Machine you'll get much more information.
Screen shot of the Universal Machine on

The future is almost here...

Chapter 13, Machines of Loving Grace, of The Universal Machine begins like this:
    "As you open your eyes, your bedroom ceiling flicks into life as a huge viewing screen. You can see the morning’s news headlines, a weather report for the day and the view down your street, as if through a window - it’s sunny. A local morning radio station starts playing. You scan the news headlines, and can read more details or watch video, just by wishing it to be so.
   After a few minutes you get up and walk into the bathroom; the sound from the radio moves with you, though there are no visible speakers. As you enter the bathroom you start to think about your day ahead. A wall in the bathroom shimmers and your daily planner appears on it, along with your To Do list."
    The chapter is about the future and it opens describing how the way you'll interact with technology in the near future will be different from now - we call it ubiquitous computing. I recently came across a promotional video from the US glass company Corning, they make the Gorilla Glass used on iPhones and iPads; the script of their video is remarkably like the opening of my chapter.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blade Runner sequel in preparation

Movie industry sources are abuzz with rumors that Ridley Scott is in preparation to make a sequel to his 1982 cult sci-fi classic Blade Runner. In fact for one day the Guardian was reporting that Harrison Ford was "in talks" to reprise his role as Deckard. The following day the Guardian retracted that report, but still insists Scott is looking for a story for the Blade Runner sequel.
   Of course at the moment we're eagerly awaiting Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi with Prometheus, a film "set in the same universe" as Alien, his cult 1979 space-horror. Prometheus, which stars Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and opens in June.
As exciting as Prometheus looks, and I'm excited, a new Blade Runner could be awesome - Alien was a very cool movie, but Blade Runner was much cooler (IMHO).

Two questions for you? [answer in the comments of this post and you could win a free copy of The Universal Machine]

 -1. Was Deckard human or a replicant? Please explain your answer.
 -2. What is Ridley Scott's connection with Apple Computers?

Will you drive your car in 10 years time?

In chapter 13, Machines of Loving Grace, in The Universal Machine I spend some time discussing driverless cars, which I believe will be commonplace within 10 years.  I use the example of driverless cars because the car is such an important part of our culture, indeed, its almost iconic. The idea that a robot, because that is what the cars will be, could drive safely on our busy congested, and very dangerous roads, seems like science-fiction to many. Yet, as Google has proved by driving hundreds of thousands of kilometres around the Bay Area, the problem is basically solved. All that is required now is the the car manufacturers agree standards and start mass-producing the necessary equipment and for legislatures to enact the necessary laws.
    Wired Magazine has just published an excellent article called Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here, which covers all of the issues involved. I encourage you to read it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Outcry over Govt rejection of Alan Turing Pardon

Alan Turing age 5
Yesterday I blogged the news that the UK Justice Minister had rejection a motion to consider a pardon for Alan Turing. As the news has crossed the globe and tweeters and bloggers have taken it in, there has been a considerable outcry from around the world at what seems like an attempt by the UK government to preempt a debate on the issue. The UK Guardian newspaper today carries a good article on the subject, which quotes American mathematician Dennis Hejhal deploring the government's use of precedent to defend the decision. 

"I see that the House of Lords rejected the
pardon Feb 6 on what are formal grounds.

If law is X on date D, and you knowingly
break law X on date D, then you cannot be
pardoned (no matter how wrong or flawed
law X is).

The real reason is OBVIOUS. they do not
want thousands of old men saying pardon us
too. I hope there is an appropriate hullabaloo
in the UK."

The use of logic in this way echoes how Turing himself thought about his conviction. In a letter to a friend after his conviction he wrote that people would now think:

"Turing believes machines think,
Turing lies with men,
Therefore machines do not think."

 So it seems that Turing maintained a sense of humour about the way he was being treated and the effect it would have on his legacy. The Turing Century blog makes the point that the infamous pirate Blackbeard amongst other criminals have received pardons so why not Turing?

Google's Head Up Display Goggles

In chapter 14 "Machines of Loving Grace" in The Universal Tool I introduce readers to the concept of ubiquitous computing and how in the near future, although computers will become even more important in our lives, they will effectively disappear into the fabric of our lives. Quite literally they will become part of what we wear and what we move through.
   Soon we will not be carrying a smartphone but its functionality will be incorporated into out glasses. Google are already working on this as this article in 9to5 Google describes. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

UK Government rejects pardon request for Alan Turing

The BBC has just reported that the Justice Minister, Lord McNally, has dismissed a motion in the House of Lords to consider granting a pardon to Alan Turing for his conviction for gross indecency. "A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence," he said.
   An e-petition that UK residents can sign, calling for a pardon for Alan Turing, currently has over 23,000 signatures. The e-petition closes on 23/11/12, so you can still sign it and perhaps encourage the Govt to listen.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bob Marley's birthday is a public holiday in New Zealand

View over Nine Mile, Jamaica.
Bob Marley's birth place and mausoleum 
Its true, Feb 6 is a public holiday in New Zealand. Bob Marley was born on Feb 6 1945 and reggae is very popular down in these Pacific islands, so naturally we'd make it a public holiday! 
   Actually Feb 6 is also the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British Crown in 1840 - so the holiday is really Waitangi Day. However, being a holiday in the Kiwi summer there is always a BBQ and reggae playing in honor of Bob.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Are you selling technology or services? pt.2

Back in 2011 when Amazon launched the Kindle Fire I wrote a piece called "Are you selling technology or services?" which put forward the idea that Amazon had finally realised what makes Apple so successful. Apple doesn't sell just technology (iPods, Macs, iPads) but increasingly it provides services to consumers via iTunes, the App Store and iBook Store. People buy an iPad to use apps, iTunes, and read iBooks.
    Jeff Bezos of Amazon realised this some time ago and virtually gives Kindles away so people can buy Kindle books from Amazon. The Kindle Fire ramps this up by providing access to video and movies as well. Sure, the Fire is a crappy piece of hardware compared to an iPad, but consumers don't care! The Fire is cheap and they can read Kindle books and get other media as well on their Fire.
   To prove the point that consumers aren't really interested in the hardware anymore Sony have just announced they expect to loose $2.85 billion for the current year. Sure there are mitigating factors; a strong Yen, floods in Thailand disrupting supply, competition from Apple, but think about it. Sony makes gorgeous gear; their laptops are cutting edge both in terms of spec and design, their TV's are cool, they make great cameras, and they invented portable music devices, the Playstation is a good gaming console. But what don't they have? Great services.
   Without services all tech companies will struggle in the future and the problem with services is that consumers are very picky about locking in. iTunes doesn't force you to use iPods and Macs, it's just easier. Amazon doesn't force you to use a Kindle to read Kindle books, you can read them via the Kindle app on an iPad, but the Kindle is easier. Therefore tech companies can't just say, we'll start a music store and rent movies and people will buy our stuff. Nokia's Music Store for example has never had the take up that iTunes has because people are rightly worried what will happen to their music when they change handsets.
    It will be interesting to see how LG, Samsung and the other big players react over the next few years. Delivering seamless easy to use services is much harder than making gadgets.

The Hacker Manifesto

Since all the noise in the media about Facebook's IPO and Zuckerberg stating that Facebook follows, "the Hacker Way" and not just profit, it seems like a good time to revisit the Hacker Manfesto. In 1986, when Zuckerberg wasn't even two years old, the underground hacker e-zine, Phrack,  published a short essay called The Conscience of a Hacker, by a hacker named The Mentor who'd just been arrested. It’s now better known as The Hacker Manifesto and it forms the ethical foundation for hacking. I'll show it below in its entirety - make up your own mind (btw: there is a whole chapter on hacking called "Digital Underworld" in The Universal Machine).


The Hacker Manifesto

+++The Mentor+++
Written January 8, 1986

Another one got caught today, it's all over the papers. "Teenager Arrested in Computer Crime Scandal", "Hacker Arrested after Bank Tampering"...

Damn kids. They're all alike.

But did you, in your three-piece psychology and 1950's technobrain, ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker? Did you ever wonder what made him tick, what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?

I am a hacker, enter my world...

Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me...

Damn underachiever. They're all alike.

I'm in junior high or high school. I've listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. "No, Ms. Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head..."

Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike.

I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn't like me... Or feels threatened by me.. Or thinks I'm a smart ass.. Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here...

Damn kid. All he does is play games. They're all alike.

And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is found. "This is it... this is where I belong..." I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all...

Damn kid. Tying up the phone line again. They're all alike...

You bet your ass we're all alike... we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.

This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Steve Jobs Listened To Vinyl At Home

According to a recent interview with legendary rock musician Neil Young, Steve Jobs listened to vinyl at home rather than using iTunes. In an interview at the Dive Into Digital conference in Laguna Niguel, California Young said that the late Apple CEO's preference was just a recognition that current digital formats produce only about "5 percent" of the sound that vinyl records do because the data is so compressed. Young said he and Jobs, who died last October, had been talking about a new format and devices that could equal the sound quality of vinyl. "If [Jobs] had lived long enough he would eventually have come up with such a device." Young also says that digital "piracy is the new radio, that's how music gets around." It's a fascinating interview.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Facebook IPO & the Hacker Way

Mark Zuckerberg
The wait for Facebook's IPO is over - Facebook today confirmed its plans to go public in a deal that could value it at up to $100bn, and Mark Zuckerberg's personal stake at $28bn. However, Mark Zuckerberg is at pains to point out that Facebook doesn't "build services to make money; we make money to build better services...These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits."
   Zuckerberg goes on to say, "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.It's guiding ethos is "the Hacker Way," which in an open letter, published in the Guardian Zuckerberg explains, "is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it's impossible or are content with the status quo."
   What is not clear though is what Facebook's long term future is. It's profits are 1/10 that of Google and in another article in the Guardian Juliette Garside points out that there are clear signs that "Facebook's membership is reaching saturation point in its biggest markets. The number of UK monthly visitors fell 2.2% to 32m from November to December, while US visitors declined 2.1% to 166m, says web measurement firm ComScore. Its worldwide audience is still growing, however, adding 1.4m visitors from November to December, boosted by rapid growth in Brazil and India. The deep level of penetration in small or remote nations like the Falkland Islands (75% of inhabitants are users according to research site Socialbakers) and Iceland (68%) suggests that in some communities Facebook has become not just a pastime but a social service, integrated into the fabric of everyday life. For some users Facebook is the internet."
   Facebook is certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future, and unlike the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s and 2000, at least Facebook is turning a healthy profit before its IPO. It remains to be seen if Facebook is a good investment at $100bn.
    The development of Facebook is described in chapter 11, "Web 2.0," of my book The Universal Machine, whilst the dotcom bubble is the subject of chapter 9 "dotcom."

Company bosses take note, Ken Grenda is the better man

Ken Grenda, flanked by his sons and employees
Well this is really off message for a blog about computing, but I had to post this story.
   A 79 year old Australian company owner, Ken Grenda, recently sold his family business, a Melbourne bus company, for $425 million. What do you think he did then? He and his sons sat down and decided to give all their 1,800 employees a bonus, based on each employee's length of service. If you'd only worked for him a few months you got $1,000, some employees received $35,000, one who'd worked at the firm for over 50 years got $100,000, the average was $8,5000. In total he paid out $16 million.
    Employees woke one morning to find the money, with no warning, deposited in their bank accounts. Most assumed their bank had made a mistake. Needless to say once they learnt the money was theirs they were overjoyed. An unnamed employee told Melbourne's Herald Sun the Grenda family were "just the most amazing bosses!"
    Ken Grenda has a message for other bosses - look after your staff and don't get greedy. "I get totally dismayed when you see the level of salaries some chief executive officers get. I think it's far above what anybody's worth.