Saturday, March 31, 2012

#Anonymous will shut down the Internet this Saturday

Well, that's what the media are claiming. Members of the hacktivist collective, known as Anonymous, will shut down the Internet this Saturday, in Operation Global Blackout, by attacking the Domain Name Servers (DNS) servers that run the Internet. When you type into your browser the DNS servers translate this into an numeric IP address, like, which is the actual physical address of the web server you want to reach. Every computer on the Internet has an IP address, including the one you are reading this on. But, you'd struggle to remember these numbers, so the DNS servers translate, from easy to remember domain names, to hard to remember IP addresses. For example, is actually,
   DNS servers are organized into a hierarchy. At the top there are 13 root servers. These contain the master database of all the world's IP addresses and domain names. Below these are tiers of increasingly more local DNS servers that contain copies of the root server databases, right down to DNS servers in you local ISP, to which your computer is connected. Anonymous will not be targeting the root servers, these are very secure, but will be attempting to take down DNS servers in local ISPs and regional telcos that control the backbone of the Internet. Will they succeed? A professional computer security friend of mine says, "...they will be at least partially successfully. Lots of old unpatched top level DNS servers out there."
   You can learn more about the shadowy world of hackers in chapter 12 "Digital Underworld" of The Universal Machine

Friday, March 30, 2012

What's in a name - #Apple's #Siri

Siri on an iPhone 4S
I saw several articles yesterday, like this one, claiming that Apple's intelligent agent Siri is named after a Norwegian goddess and that Steve Jobs didn't like the name. Frankly I don't believe Siri is named after a Norwegian goddess. This seems like post-justification. Siri was a company, which Apple purchased, that was spun out of Stanford Research International, commonly known as SRI, which sounds a lot like "Siri" to me. The new company Siri Inc. called its product "Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface" or Siri. The history is all explained here in an earlier post on this blog. Wikipedia makes no mention of Siri being named after a Norwegian goddess and there doesn't even seem to be a Norwegian goddess called Siri. Sigrid is a Scandinavian female name, for which Siri is a diminutive, and it does mean victory, wisdom and beautiful according to Wikipedia, but there's no mention of a goddess.
    Personally, I'll continue to believe that Siri derives from SRI, which at least is supported by historical fact. I have no opinion on whether or not Steve Jobs liked the name. Incidentally I asked Siri the origin of its name and it was evasive and refused to answer.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Machine that Changed the World - documentary

I've come across a really great documentary series from 1992 about the history of computing. I hadn't seen this before I wrote my book, but I wish I had! It almost perfectly follows the structure of my book - at least up to the mid 1990s.
   The Machine That Changed the World was a five episode documentary about the history of computing, produced by WGBH Boston and the BBC. It aired in 1992 and was released on VHS but is long out of print and the only remaining copies are old tapes floating around school libraries or in the homes of fans who copied the original shows as they aired.
   The show is remarkably accurate and corrects most of the myths surrounding the history and development of the computer. One of the series sponsors was the Association for Computing Machinery, who I guess ensured correctness. So far the only error I've spotted is claiming ENIAC as the first electronic programmable computer in 1946. As we all know, Colossus was actually the first computer and was working in 1943. Colossus however, was top secret and it has only been recently that the history has been corrected.
   There's lots of footage I've never seen before and many interviews with the people involved. I highly recommend this. I've indexed this excellent series on The Universal Machine's YouTube channel (it's filed under "Computer History"). You can watch the first episode here.

In praise of Mies van der Rohe

Google Doodle for Mies van der Rohe
I'm a big fan of modern architecture and it doesn't get much better than Mies van der Rohe who was born on March 27 1886. Isn't that remarkable; the icon of modern architecture was born 126 years ago! His modern buildings are now historic. The Google doodle appropriately honored him yesterday.
    I'm always surprised by people who say "I don't like modern architecture." It seems to me a bit like saying "I don't like bread." Sure you might not like one particular building, but there's so much variety; like bread, try a different flavor and you might find something you like. I don't want to live in a world where all the buildings look the same, I like being surprised, sometime horrified, but I don't want to be bored. I love the simplicity and lightness of Mies van der Rohe's buildings - he famously said "less is more," which clearly shows in his architecture.
Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#Turing and his Times - at Bletchley Park

To mark the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC)  is hosting an open meeting "Turing and his Times" on 26 April 2012 at 5pm at Bletchley Park, where Turing worked as a codebreaker during World War II. The TNMOC event is the second of three Turing-themed events linking three of the top computing museums in the world.
   Turing and his Times will feature a talk by computer historian Prof Simon Lavington on Turing and his Contemporaries, a simulation of the Pilot ACE computer by TNMOC trustee Kevin Murrell, and the first formal public showing of a video commissioned by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) of the recollections of two of Turing's colleagues. The event will be chaired by highly respected journalist, commentator and technology critic, Bill Thompson.
   Simon Lavington is author of the new book "Turing and his Contemporaries", will trace Alan Turing’s ideas from 1945 onwards and his imaginative but difficult interactions with his computing colleagues in the period leading to his tragic death in 1954. At the end of 1945 Alan Turing produced one of the earliest detailed specifications for a universal stored-program computer when he was working at NPL. It was confidently expected that NPL would build the world’s first modern computer, but things did not go according to plan. By 1948 Turing had resigned from NPL and by 1949 innovative computers designed by others had burst into life at the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester.
   Kevin Murrell will demonstrate a simulation of the Pilot ACE, the computer developed by Turing and his team at NPL in the late 1940s. Operating an accurate representation of the front of the Pilot ACE, he will  demonstrate how complex and quick it was compared to other early computers.
   There will also be the first formal public showing of a ten-minute video made by Harriet Vickers and commissioned by NPL featuring vintage and very recent footage of Tom Vickers and Mike Woodger recalling their time working with Turing at NPL.
   Tickets for the TNMOC Turing and his Times event are priced at £10 each (plus £1 booking fee) are available at  A ticket includes entry to TNMOC from 1pm on the afternoon the event. The event itself will be in the Bletchley Park Mansion from 5pm - 6.30pm and followed by networking in the bar area.
   Early visitors to the Turing and his Times event will be able to see a display about Turing and the Pilot ACE at TNMOC in Block H at Bletchley Park, Brian Aldous, TNMOC volunteer Archivist and former NPL employee, has compiled a display about Turing which includes a copy of Turing's 78-page Pilot ACE proposal to NPL, the original NPL patent for acoustic delay lines and some examples of the use of the Pilot ACE .
   Bletchley Park Trust's Turing display will also be viewable during its normal opening hours at the additional cost of a Bletchley Park entrance fee.
   This sounds like a great event, sadly I live in New Zealand, which is about as far away as I could be. If you go let me know what happened.

You could earn a $100,000+ as a hacker!

As chapter 12 "Digital Underworld" of The Universal Machine explains, hackers come in three varieties: white hat hackers, these are the good guys who are employed by organisations to find vulnerabilities in their systems and software; black hat hackers, the bad guys who attempt to find vulnerabilities and exploit them for their own nefarious purposes; and grey hat hackers, who are not employed by companies to find vulnerabilities, but will sell the exploits for a fee. You could think of them like freelance white hats, who are not on a contract, but get a finders fee.
    As a fascinating article in Forbes explains there is now a growing international market in zero-day exploits. When a hacker finds a security vulnerability in a piece of software, Internet Explorer for example, and a means of using that vulnerability, it's called an exploit. If the manufacturer of the software doesn't know of the exploit it's called a zero-day exploit (i.e. no days have passed since it's known about and presumably patched). Zero-day exploits are inherently valuable since bad people can do bad things with them and a company if it's aware of the exploit can patch the vulnerability before it's used and not receive bad PR. Here's a price list for zero-day exploits, from the Forbes article.
iOS exploits are the most valuable because of Apple's reputation for security, but conversely Mac OS X exploits are relatively cheap compared to Windows because fewer people use OS X, so an exploit might not be as useful. The Forbes article is well worth reading as it gives you an insight into the secretive and lucrative world of the hackers. Perhaps you should consider a new career?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mathematics in the movies

Thanks to Eduardo Z√°rate (@eduzarate) who tweeted this wonderful resource, curated by Oliver Knill at Harvard University. It's a catalog of around 140 clips from movies about mathematics ranging from the recent Oscar nominated Moneyball ,to cult classics like Run Lola Run and even comic oldies like Abbott and Costello: In the Navy.
   I can see this being very useful for illustrating points in lectures. If mathematics isn't your thing I've curated a smaller collection of clips about the history and future of computing (plus some miscellaneous fun stuff) on The Universal Machine's YouTube channel.

Monday, March 26, 2012

In praise of... #Segways

Segway on North Head, Devonport
Today my lovely wife took me on a Segway tour, for my birthday, at Devonport in Auckland, NZ. I've always been interested in them since their launch, but have never had a ride on one before. We went with Magic Broomstick Tours and had just five minutes of instructions, from Pauline our tour guide. They're really intuitive to ride, and if you relax, you become quite confident very quickly. They're extremely maneuverable and can cope with grass as well as pavements and roads.
   After the training was complete it was off on a guided tour of historic Devonport, along the waterfront, up to the top of North Head, an extinct volcanic cone and old military fort, to admire the panoramic views. Then back down the volcano and through the historic village back to the ferry building.
   Neither of us wanted to give our Segways back when the tour was over and we'll be taking our next visitors to Auckland on this trip. A Segway is now firmly on my "want one" list - great birthday gift!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

#LinkedIn group for Alan #Turing

Did you know there is a LinkedIn group for people with an interest in Alan Turing? If you're a member of LinkedIn simply login and search for "Alan Turing." Membership is open to all and once you've joined you can network with people who share your interest.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

#Apple is the most valuable company in the world

With Apple's stock price making news headlines as it punches through the $600 mark, making it easily the largest company in the world by market capitalisation, at some $565 billion and with it's CEO deciding what to do with the $100 billion it has in the bank, it's perhaps time to recall the companies beginnings in a garage in Silicon Valley.
   The free sample chapter of The Universal Machine, "The Computer Gets Personal," can be downloaded in pdf, epub (for iBooks) and mobi (for Kindle) and describes Apple's early years from the Apple I to the Macintosh and includes a biography of Steve Wozniak, the college drop out, who along with his friend Steve Jobs made all this possible.

Friday, March 23, 2012

In praise of... John Cooper Clarke

Last night I went to see legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, whom I hadn't seen perform for well over 25 years. There was a time when it seemed that every band's "Special Guest" in support was John Cooper Clark - he was cheap and simple to stage; all he needed was a microphone. Speeding on amphetamine he delivered observational and witty poems with the finesse of a machine gun in a thick Mancunian accent. A rail thin stick figure in a tight black suit, black shades and spiky black hair - a typical set might last twenty minutes, during which time you wondered how he found time to breathe.
   Last night he was older, but still dressed the same, and now he takes the time to talk. He's become the headline act and his show is part stand-up comedy, part rambling raconteur and part punk poet. He delivered some new poems reading from handmade books of verse and still had time for standards like "Attack of the 50 foot woman".  He riffed about growing old in the new "Things Are Gonna Get Worse" ("Make that hearse reverse nurse") and came to the finale with the dystopian "Beasley Street," which describes a society in total collapse after Thatcher's assault on the the North. He followed this with an update in the same meter called "Beasley Boulevard," which describes the same place after gentrification.

Low-slung shady basement gaffs
Rooms of empty sound
Strip ribbon casements
With venetians halfway down
The Hocksten fin
With a nervous trim
And a fragrant disregard
It's an urban splash-art ghetto gym
Beasley Boulevard

An excellent night out.

Alan #Turing - Legacy for Computing and Humanity

Events are taking place to commemorate Turing's centenary all over the world, even in Brazil. The Universidade Federal Do Rio Grande Do Sol (UFRGS) has put on an excellent looking exhibition called Alan Turing - Legacy for Computing and Humanity, which includes a physical exhibition, lectures, videos, a video competition and a code-breaking competition.
   I visited UFRGS several years ago to teach part of an MSC course and had a great time. So if you are in the vicinity of southern Brazil why not check out this Turing exhibition - of course you can always visit it online.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

New e-petition - #Turing on the £10 note

Charles Darwin on the £10 note
Another e-petition has been started to honour Alan Turing. This time it's to place him on the £10 banknote.  At present the following people are on British banknotes: Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Fry (a prison reformer), John Houblon (1st Governor of the Bank of England), Adam Smith (the economist), Matthew Boulton and James Watt (engineers). and of course the Queen. Previously, Sir Isaac Newton, the Duke of WellingtonFlorence NightingaleWilliam ShakespeareSir Christopher Wren, George Stephenson, Charles Dickens, and Michael Faraday have been on the banknotes.
   Certainly Alan Turing would sit comfortably amongst Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, Dickens and Faraday. So I support the idea, though I'd like Darwin to still remain - he's another hero of mine.
    The petition says, "Alan Turing is a national hero. His contribution to computer science, and hence to the life of the nation and the world, is incalculable. The ripple-effect of his theories on modern life continues to grow, and may never stop."
    Sign the e-petition here (open to UK citizens and residents).

There are two other e-petitions concerning Alan Turing open at the moment. A petition to have his conviction pardoned and a petition to erect a statue to him on the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.

#Turing's halting problem - as a poem

In 1936 Alan Turing proved that the halting problem is undecidable over Turing Machines. What does this mean to you? Basically it's not possible to determine in advance if any computer program will actually stop and not run for ever. Now I've not express that very eloquently, so I'll hand over to Professor Geoffrey Pullum who's written a rather elegant poem about the halting problem.


by Geoffrey K Pullum

A proof that the Halting Problem is undecidable

No general procedure for bug checks succeeds.
Now, I won’t just assert that, I’ll show where it leads: 
I will prove that although you might work till you drop, 
you cannot tell if computation will stop.

For imagine we have a procedure called P 
that for specified input permits you to see
whether specified source code, with all of its faults,
defines a routine that eventually halts.

You feed in your program, with suitable data, 
and P gets to work, and a little while later 
(in finite compute time) correctly infers
whether infinite looping behavior occurs.

If there will be no looping, then P prints out ‘Good.’
That means work on this input will halt, as it should.
But if it detects an unstoppable loop,
then P reports ‘Bad!’ — which means you’re in the soup.

Well, the truth is that P cannot possibly be, 
because if you wrote it and gave it to me, 
I could use it to set up a logical bind 
that would shatter your reason and scramble your mind.

Here’s the trick that I’ll use — and it’s simple to do. 
I’ll define a procedure, which I will call Q,
that will use P’s predictions of halting success 
to stir up a terrible logical mess.

For a specified program, say A, one supplies,
the first step of this program called Q I devise
is to find out from P what’s the right thing to say
of the looping behavior of A run on A.

If P’s answer is ‘Bad!’, Q will suddenly stop. 
But otherwise, Q will go back to the top, 
and start off again, looping endlessly back, 
till the universe dies and turns frozen and black.

And this program called Q wouldn’t stay on the shelf; 
I would ask it to forecast its run on itself.
When it reads its own source code, just what will it do? 
What’s the looping behavior of Q run on Q?

If P warns of infinite loops, Q will quit; 
yet P is supposed to speak truly of it! 
And if Q’s going to quit, then P should say ‘Good.’
Which makes Q start to loop! (P denied that it would.)

No matter how P might perform, Q will scoop it: 
Q uses P’s output to make P look stupid.
Whatever P says, it cannot predict Q: 
P is right when it’s wrong, and is false when it’s true!

I’ve created a paradox, neat as can be —
and simply by using your putative P. 
When you posited P you stepped into a snare; 
Your assumption has led you right into my lair.

So where can this argument possibly go? 
I don’t have to tell you; I’m sure you must know. 
A reductio: There cannot possibly be 
a procedure that acts like the mythical P.

You can never find general mechanical means
for predicting the acts of computing machines; 
it’s something that cannot be done. So we users 
must find our own bugs. Our computers are losers!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Scientists use #Lego #robots for research (#Turing Machine)

It's true, Lego Mindstorm robots are not just expensive toys, they can be used by scientists for research, as this piece in the Guardian shows.  To prove the point here is a functional Turing Machine made entirely from Lego - all it's missing is the infinite tape, which would obviously require all the Lego in the world and then some.

The #Olympic Torch will meet #Turing twice

Alan Turing running
The Olympic Torch will meet Alan Turing twice as it relays around Britain this summer. First on Saturday 23rd June when it goes through Manchester city centre and passes Turing's statue on Sackville St. and then on Monday 9th of July when it will visit Bletchley Park where Turing led a team of code-breakers in cracking the Nazi Enigma codes.
   This is very fitting since not only is it the centenary of Turing's birth but he was also an Olympic class long distance runner with a best time of 2 hours 46 minutes for the marathon. He even tried out for a place in Britains' Olympic team in 1948 when Britain last hosted the Olympics.  He only came fifth in the trials, it's believed because he was carrying an injury. It was even suggested that the London Olympic Marathon be called the Alan Turing Marathon in his honour, which I thought was a great idea.
   Isn't it interesting to consider that Turing had an outstanding mind in an outstanding body - clearly an example of mens sana in corpore sano.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What links #Prometheus with #Apple ?

If you're a science-fiction fan you'll be eagerly awaiting Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which is released on June 7, and is a prequel to his classic Alien movie. Fans have responded very excitedly to the new trailer that was released at the weekend. Ridley Scott has a great track record in making dark and broody sci-fi with Blade Runner being a cult classic for many, and one of my favorite films. Both it and Alien, of course feature AI's that can be helpful and menacing.
   Ridley Scott has another claim to fame which is of much more relevance to The Universal Machine, and indeed he features in the free sample chapter I made available at the weekend. Ridley Scott directed the successful 1984 Macintosh commercial, which only aired once during that year's Super Bowl. Even so as it says in my book, "In 1999 TV Guide rated it the 'Number One Greatest Commercial of All Time' and in 2007 it became the 'Best Super Bowl Spot,' in the games’ 40-year history."  So that is what links Prometheus with Apple.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Who should play #Turing, #DiCaprio or...

Alan Turing
Cinema media sources are reporting that successful British director J. Blakeson is in talks to direct Graham Moore's Imitation Game for Warner Bros. Topping last year's "The Black List" of unmade scripts, the story tells the true story of our hero, the English mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing. The script has received a  lot of attention from some big name actors including Leonardo DiCaprio, who obviously has a track record in playing similar period character parts. If DiCaprio declines Michael Fassbender is also being proposed as a possible lead.
   Either way it would be great to see a high profile movie raise the public's awareness of Turing - and his story has everything: genius, a world war, top secret intelligence work, vital codebreaking, the invention of the modern computer, artificial intelligence, sex, persecution, a tragic death, and finally a humbled and grateful nation. I'd pay to see that film!

#Microsoft can convert your voice into another language

The Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy
Microsoft Research have revealed software that can take your spoken voice and translate it into a voice in a different language. In a online demonstration Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s Chief Research Officer, says a long sentence in English, and  it;s translated into Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin complete with Rashid's original intonation.
   This obviously raises the potential that one day soon you'll be able to talk to someone on your smartphone in English and they will hear your voice in Mandarin, and vice versa. You can watch the demo here (jump ahead to 12 mins if you just want to see the speech translations demo).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

New sample chapter of The Universal Machine

I've uploaded a new sample chapter from The Universal Machine for you to read for free. Chapter 7 "The Computer Gets Personal" is about the development of the first personal computers and describes the founding of Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft and it includes biographies of Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates. It's available in pdf, epub and mobi formats. Click on the "Sample Chapter" tab near the top of this page to download.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Judea Pearl awarded ACM #Turing Award

Prof. Judea Pearl
Ah it's nice to see an academic from my community, Artificial Intelligence, be awarded the ACM Turing Award. Judea Pearl, who's a professor at UCLA, has been awarded computing's Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on probabilistic reasoning and Bayesian inferencing. If you don't have any idea what that means, don't worry, you're almost certainly using a Bayesian SPAM filter to protect your email inbox anyway.
   I saw Judea Pearl give a talk at IJCAI-99 in Stockholm, where he was awarded the 1999 IJCAI Award for Research Excellence; so he's long been held in very high regard amongst AI researchers. We were all shocked then in 2002 to hear that his son, Daniel Pearl a journalist working for the Wall St. Journal, had been kidnapped and executed by militants in Pakistan. Subsequently Judea Pearl founded the Daniel Pearl Foundation to "promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications." Part of the $250,000 prize money that comes with the Turing Award will go to the foundation.
  Judea Pearl is a deserving recipient of the Turing Award.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The #Turing Festival Edinburgh

I've been invited to speak at The Turing Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. I have to say I'm quite excited as the event looks like it will be a lot of fun and very interesting. I'm giving a public lecture in Auckland as part of my computer science department's celebrations of Turing's centenary, on Turing and Artificial Intelligence. At the Turing Festival I'll be able to reprise this lecture, which is always good as it will be better the second time.
    Of course The Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe Festival, which combined are the world's largest cultural festival will be in full swing then, so Edinburgh will be an exciting place to visit. I have family in Edinburgh as well so I'll be able to catch up with them. You can see a summary of last year's Turing Festival in the video below.

Highlights from the Turing Festival 2011 from Interactive Scotland 

The joy of discovery with an encyclopedia and an #iPad

Discover for the iPad
Since Encyclopedia Britannica announced yesterday that it was stopping its print version after 244 years the news media I read online have been full of comments like this one:
   “Not surprising but still very sad. I always loved going through the copies we own and see what page I will find something I would have never thought existed. It was always a bit of an adventure to say the least."
   Everyone seems to assume that the pleasure of randomly coming across an article in Britannica cannot be replicated with Wikipedia, but it can. There's a lovely iPad app called Discover by Cooliris that is designed to encourage just this sort of random discovery. When Discover is launched, it displays a front page featuring a random Wikipedia topic in a friendly magazine style. If that topic doesn't interest, shake the iPad and a new topic is displayed. Clicking a topic brings up more details and related content. If you're want to search for something specific all of Wikipedia is available to you. It's a great app that encourages exactly the sort of chance encounters with fascinating stuff so many of us remember enjoying as kids on a rainy day.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

#Turing Test fail!

This is an amusing video from the Cornell University Creative Machine Lab of two AI chat bots talking to each other. Cleverbot, which is the chat bot that both AI avatars are using, won the 2011 Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence; the annual Turing Test competition for chat bots. It's worth pointing out though that Cleverbot was judged the best bot in competition, but it did not win the Grand Prix of $100,000 for convincing the judges it was human. You can find out how this chat bot duel, more "AI a AI" than "mano a mano", was implemented on the Creative Machine Lab's website. They also have some very cool other demos.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Encyclopedia Britannica halts print publication after 244 years

This is a big news story - 244 years is a long time by anyone's measure. Wikipedia, and let's be honest it's what has replaced the Britannica, was founded in 2001. So, just over a decade later it's major competitor stops its iconic print volumes to concentrate on digital. Good luck with that. Why would anyone pay for access to an encyclopedia when Wikipedia is free, has more items (way more) and covers them in greater depth?
   Oh, you say because Wikipedia is full of errors, whereas those guys at Britannica are paid to get everything right. You're going to be disappointed then to learn that there are lots of errors in Britannica and moreover once they are identified fixing them is hard - impossible if you own a print version. Wikipedia has an entry called, “Errors in the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia that lists some notable “mistakes and omissions.” The Wikipedia entry says:
    “These examples can serve as useful reminders of the fact that no encyclopedia can ever expect to be perfectly error-free (which is sometimes forgotten, especially when Wikipedia is compared to traditional encyclopedias), and as an illustration of the advantages of an editorial process where anybody can correct an error at any time.
    Wikipedia and its rise over Britannica features in Chapter 11 "Web 2.0" of The Universal Machine.

Could your blog make you a millionaire?

Pete Cashmore
It is possible - The Guardian reports that Time Warner's CNN "is in talks to take over the tech blog Mashable for $200 million," making its founder, Pete Cashmore, many millions. Cashmore founded Mashable in his Scottish bedroom in 2005. This isn't the first time this has happened; closer to my home the tech blog ReadWriteWeb, which was started by Richard MacManus in New Zealand in 2003, was taken over last year by Say Media.
   How can you repeat this trick? It seems straightforward, create a really good blog with lots of great up to the minute content, attract millions of followers, syndicate your posts to traditional media and wait for a purchaser with deep pockets. So now you know how, what are you waiting for? 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

#TopGear's James May opening the #Turing exhibition (video)

Here is some video of the opening ceremony of the new Life and Works of Alan Turing exhibition at Bletchley Park. BBC Top Gear presenter James May does the the ribbon cutting and says rather enthusiastically the all the exhibits at Bletchley help people, "understand the very fundamental building blocks of computer science." I couldn't put that better myself.

The mysterious disappearance of a #Turing Award winner

Jim Grey at the helm of Tenacious
The Turing Award is computer science's most prestigious honor - the Nobel Prize for computing if you like. Consequently its winners are high-profile people who don't usually vanish. Jim Grey, who was awarded  the Turing Award in 1998 "for seminal contributions to database and transaction processing research and technical leadership in system implementation," is the exception to this rule. He disappeared without a trace on January 28, 2007, aged 63.
   He was sailing his 40' yacht Tenacious, single-handed from San Francisco on a day trip to the nearby Farallon Islands, to scatter the ashes of his recently departed mother. At 10:30 am he called his wife and a few minutes later left a voice mail message for his daughter. At 11:50 am, his smartphone synched with Microsoft's email server for the final time, pinging a cell tower south of San Francisco. The was the last contact with him.
   Despite a massive search that mobilized his wealthy and powerful friends and colleagues in the tech community; including Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison and Jeff Bezos. No trace of him or his yacht have ever been found. Satellites were rerouted to scan the ocean, computer models were created to model the likely position of the yacht but all efforts were in vain.
    There are various hypotheses to explain his disappearance:

  • He fell overboard - but he'd promised his wife he was wearing a safety harness and if so the yacht would have been found later.
  • His yacht was run down by a large commercial vessel in the busy approaches to SF harbor - but there was no wreckage and his EPIRB emergency beacon should have been activated on contact with water.
  • His yacht was holed by submerged logs or another obstruction, like a semi-submerged shipping container - again wreckage should have been found and the beacon activated
  • He was depressed following his mother's death and deliberately scuttled the yacht with himself on board - this might explain the lack of wreckage and the fact the beacon wasn't activated; but his family say he was perfectly happy and content.
  • He sailed off into the sunset and is living on some South Pacific island somewhere - again his family say this would be completely out of character for him and his yacht has never been seen anywhere since.
  • Aliens abducted him and the yacht - there is no evidence aliens actually exist, but if they do and can cross interstellar space they probably figured out how to build large databases (Jim's speciality) a long time ago.
  • Apple kidnapped him so he'd stop working for Microsoft - this does seem extreme even for Steve Jobs.
There's a very good article in Wired about this mystery. I hope for his family's sake that there is a resolution soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is it ethical to kill an intelligent machine?

An intriguiging video called "Kara" by the game studio Quantic Dream encourages us to consider the ethics of artificial intelligence. Would it be moral to destroy (kill) a conscious, self-aware entity. even if we had created it? Increasingly society is assigning rights to non-humans, for example encouraging animals to be treated humanely. Will we soon be extending similar rights to robots?
   Science-fiction has addressed these themes in the past, perhaps most notably with the termination of HAL in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and with the robot boy David in Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence.
   So watch this video and ask yourself the question, "would you pull the plug on a robot that was begging for it's life?"

Final book cover design - #Turing's poison #apple

The final book cover of the Universal Machine is in. The new cover design slightly reworks the previous one which was voted the best by a majority of my friends who saw four alternatives. At the top is a passport photo of Alan Turing, signifying that the reader will go on a journey with him through the history and future of computing. The new design replaces the green apple with a red one, which is a reference to the poison apple with which Alan Turing committed suicide. His means of suicide was itself a reference to the poison apple in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was Turing's favorite movie.
The apple with a bite out is of course a reference to the Apple logo, since Apple, Woz and Steve Jobs feature in the book occupying almost two chapters. In an interview Steve Jobs said the logo "isn't [a reference to Turing], but I wish it were!" The serif font of the book's title is also a reference to the clean simple sans serif font that Apple use. The background field of the cover, which is quite faint, is a circuit diagram of a computer chip.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

2 new ways to follow the Universal Machine

There are now two new ways you can follow the Universal Machine online. The first is a new YouTube channel I curate called (not surprisingly) the Universal Machine. It features videos from this blog about the history and future of computing; divided into two playlists with the same names. I like this new YouTube design, it makes it very easy to create a channel and populate it with a single click whilst you watch any YouTube video. Over the next few days I'll be adding all the videos I've blogged about to it and then in future adding new videos to the channel.
   The other social media outlet I've migrated to is Pinterest, really just to see what all the fuss is about. So there's now a Universal Machine board on Pinterest that will feature pins from things I'm blogging about. I have to say I'm not really sure what all the fuss is about with Pinterest, it's been one of the fastest growing social media sites ever. Though, like YouTube's new system, it is very easy to pin something (a couple of clicks) to your Pinterest board and I have to say in just a few days I've received a good deal of traffic.
  Finally, don't forget that there is a twice daily edition of The Universal Machine, which features news and stories about Alan Turing, computing and the future.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Did Roger Fidler invent the #iPad in 1994?

Roger Fidler with the iPad and his tablet 
An interesting video has surfaced on YouTube that shows Roger Fidler, University of Missouri program director for digital publishing, talking about a device for digital newspapers that looks very similar to the iPad. Moreover, you'll see in the video that many of the features of Fidler's tablet are very similar to the iPad and features of the Safari browser and magazine apps.
   Samsung, who is in patent infringement litigation with Apple, is claiming that since Filbert's tablet was in the public domain in 1994 Apple can't have patented the idea. However, before we all rush off and call Steve Jobs a conman and a plagiarist, we should appreciate that Fidler's tablet was only an idea, he never built them.
Alan Kay with the Dynabook
   If we want to find the real inventor of the iPad then Alan Kay of Xerox PARC can probably lay claim to having first invented the idea with his Dynabook in 1972, a small portable tablet with an intuitive GUI. However, like Fidler's tablet, the Dynabook remained just an idea until Apple built it and called it the iPad.
(skip in about 4 mins to see the tablet)

Friday, March 9, 2012

#Turing's ACE computer (video)

Thanks to Michel Ruiz Tejeida @miruizt for finding this old video about the making of the Pilot ACE computer, which was a prototype build for the ACE designed by Alan Turing. This really puts to rest any arguments that Turing was "just a theoretician," as he left the National Physical Laboratory for Manchester University out of frustration with the slowness of the build of his design. The Pilot ACE was completed in May 1950 and used 800 vacuum tubes, and mercury delay lines for its main memory. Over the next 4 years it was improved and eventually a commercial version called DUECE was sold by the English Electric Company.
    This video was made in 1982 and contains recollections from the development team at NPL  on the construction of the Pilot ACE. The narrators are Dr. J Wilkinson and Mr. M Woodger.

#Virus brings down US computer network (video)

It's okay you can relax, this happened in 1988. A friend unearthed this classic TV news story on YouTube and it's really worth a look for the lovely way the TV treats the story complete with clips from old computer games and scary movies.
   I assume from the date they are referring to the Morris worm which was released by Cornell grad student, Robert Morris, in November 1988. He claimed he simply wanted to estimate the number of nodes on the ARPANET, which was the worm's intended function. However, the fact that he released the worm on MIT's network to hide its origins rather contradicts his claims. He was caught and prosecuted under the then brand new US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was sentenced to three years probation, 400 hours of community service, and fined $10,000.
   All of this, and more, features in Chapter 12 Digital Underworld of The Universal Machine.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

#iPad 3 what you didn't get (right)

Last month I made some predictions about the new iPad 3, and I promised to revisit them after its launch so you could judge if I was correct, or way off mark. Here's what I predicted back in February (in italics) with what the iPad 3 actually has delivered today.

  • the iPad 3 it will have basically the same form factor, but may be slightly slimmer and have a smaller bevel around the screen - the iPad 3 case is slightly more tapered but basically it's the same form factor. The 7" iPad that some were predicting is no where to be seen. So I was correct (notice I said "may be slightly slimmer").
  • Front and rear facing cameras will be beefed up and there may be a flash - the  rear camera is now at 5MP, so I got that right and it shoots HD video. No flash and I don't have any information on the front facing camera. So I was correct (mostly).
  • Faster processor and longer battery life, but no more RAM we're supposed to be using iCloud now - well I'm certainly right here, the iPad 3 now packs the A5X chip! 64GB is still the max RAM, however the battery life remains the same. I'm sure the batteries have been improved, but they've now got to power that new chip, the new connectivity and the new screen. So I was correct here.
  • the display will be higher resolution but not the retina display of the iPhone - now, despite what Apple are saying the new iPad 3 does not have a retina display. Apple and Wikipedia define a retina display as: "a display of approximately 300 ppi at a distance of 12 inches (305 mm) from one's eye, or 57 arcseconds per pixel is the maximum amount of detail that the human retina can perceive." The iPad 3  has 264 ppi, which is certainly very HD but not as good as the retina display of the iPhone 4. So I was correct there.
  • Siri will be available on the iPad 3 and it will support 4G - the iPad 3 supports dictation but it's not clear if Siri will be built in (which is a puzzle) and of course it has 4G connectivity. So mostly correct here as we're still not sure about Siri.
So, to conclude I'm not at all embarrassed, in fact I wonder what these tech pundits get paid for since all their wilder speculation about 7" iPads, haptic feedback, 3D displays, were all way off mark. As I said back in February the iPad and the iPhone are now like the Porsche 911, the design remains basically the same whilst the internals improve. In contrast here is a typical article today exclaiming "The iPad 3 what we didn't get."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Alan #Turing exhibition opens at Bletchley Park

Sir John Dermot Turing with
Alan's statue at Bletchley Park
Sir John Dermot Turing, Alan's nephew, has opened a new exhibition at the British WWII codebreaking base Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing worked, in absolute secrecy during the war. Here Turing and thousands of colleagues cracked the German Naval Enigma code, cracked the more complex German High Command's Lorenz code and in so doing developed the worlds first stored program digital computer, Colossus.
   The new exhibition builds on Bletchley's recent purchase of some of Turing's papers assisted by Google and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, who collaborated to secure funding of more than £300,000 for the papers. Turing's family have also loaned some of his personal items to the exhibition, which are on display for the first time; including his teddy bear, Porgy, his watch and sporting trophies. His nephew, Sir John Dermot Turing, said "it was important for the family that his human side was shown, as well as his mathematical achievements. What this exhibition does is bring together the very few remaining personal artefacts so that you can try and build up a bit more of a human life story to go along with the maths and the codebreaking."
   I visited Bletchley Park last year and found the place fascinating. This new exhibition can only improve what was already a great day out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

#Apple is a "content experience" company

Another interesting article about possible future directions for Apple, this time from Cult of Mac called, Why Your Next Car will Have an Apple iDash by Mike Elgan. Whilst you may or may not be very interested in what Apple may want to do with your car's dash board, there is an important idea in this article; Mike observes that:
    "Apple doesn’t see itself as a generic consumer electronics company, as most outside people see it.

Apple sees itself as a content experience company. High-end devices like iMacs are optimized for the creation of content. And mobile devices are optimized for the consumption of content.
Apple’s approach to everything is that it pursues opportunities to improve the content consumption experience wherever that experience is wanting for millions of users. They do it with integrated hardware, software and services working together to make the experience awesome instead of awful."
    Think about the above statement for a while, mull it over for a bit. Then think about your relationship with any Apple products you've owned; your iPod, your iPhone, your do you see what Mike means? Your experience of using these devices is often joyful and usually so much better than using competitors' devices. You enjoy consuming and creating (where relevant) content on these devices. Apple thinks differently to the rest of the tech industry, its not just a slogan.

[Note you may have noticed that blog post title sometimes have a # in them. This is so that when the post is automatically tweeted after I post it a hash tag will appear in the tweet.]

Monday, March 5, 2012

Will you watch TV with an App?

I've posted about the rumours of the Apple iTV before (e.g. Will Apple own your living room), so I was interested when I came across an article in Business Insider called Apple's TV Dream Revealed, because it adds some interesting flesh to the rumours. Once again with Apple it's not the hardware that's important but the software (think iPhone 4S and Siri). Apple actually can't make a TV set that is technically much better than its competitors, but they will be able to make one that looks very cool, and with Siri and the iPhone acting as a remote, is easy to use. But that's not really the point.
    What this article posits is that Apple may be planning to alter the relationship we have with TV content providers. To date we have consumed TV shows via traditional TV channels funded by advertising and cable/satellite channels funded by subscription and advertising. Both schedule TV shows when they choose and until the advent of the PVR you had to watch your favourite shows when "they" scheduled them. Today many of us time-shift our programs with our PVRs and in my house we rarely watch a show when it's broadcast, mainly so as we can skip the adverts.
   Fast forward a couple of years when Apple has done deals directly with the producers of your favourite TV show: House, Downton Abbey, NCIS, Dr. Who... each is available as a separate App on iOS and therefore the Apple iTV. The Apps will not be free (though some TV Apps may be), but will either provide access to all shows in a series with a single App purchase (something like $4.95) or an in App purchase per episode ($0.99). The Apps will provide extra content, just like the current websites for hit series do; Grey's Anatomy is a typical example, with extra behind the scenes footage, bios of the actors, links to social media and information providing a wealth of added value.
   Now I'm not a TV executive, and I don't know what their funding models are, but I'd be surprised if the producers currently make as much as 66 cents per viewer per episode ($0.99 minus Apple's $0.33 App Store cut). Also this revenue stream will be global and across not just the iTV but all existing iOS devices (i.e., the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad). There are currently around 200 million iOS devices out there - that's quite a market for a hit series to tap into. 
   For you, the consumer, the advantages are that you can watch a series across all your iOS devices, the iTV in the living room, your iPhone on the bus, and your iPad in the hotel. You can watch an episode at your convenience as soon as it is released globally, without having to wait 6 months for it to air in your country and you have access to all the extra series related information. Finally, think about your current relationship with your cable/satellite provider. What are you really getting for your subscription? You're getting a few shows you really want to watch bundled with hundreds of shows you never watch. Is that a good deal for you or would you rather just pay for the shows you like.
   Apple may be about to do to the TV industry what it did to the music industry with iTunes.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

E-petition for #Turing on Fourth Plinth

Last month I posted an idea that putting a statue of Alan Turing on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square would be a very fitting tribute to him. I've just learnt (via Twitter) that an e-petition has been started to encourage the British government to do just this.
    Currently it only has 61 signatures, but it has nearly a year to run. So if you are a UK citizen or resident please sign the e-petition for A Statue for Alan Turing.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Playing with computers - #RaspberryPi

My generation were the first to grow up with computers, in the UK a friend had a ZX Spectrum and we used to gather at his house and we learned to program in BASIC and made our own lunar lander game. Many of us went on to own Commodores, BBC Micros and Amstrads before our school's even had a computer. Over thirty years later, I'm a computer scientist - do you think there may be a connection?
    For a while in the 1980s when "computing" was taught at school it was all about microprocessors, binary, bits and bytes and BASIC. Sure it wasn't for everyone, but many kids went on to have careers in IT. Sometime during the 1990s something changed and educators said that this approach was all wrong and was alienating kids - they didn't need to know any of that technical stuff, but just needed to know how to use software: word processors, PowerPoint, graphics packages. Since the educators decide what gets taught the curriculum changed to ICT and a generation learned to passively use software and not to think they could make their own software.
Raspberry Pi (beta)
    As ever the pendulum is swinging back and many now think the  ICT approach was a mistake - the whole point of computers is that anyone can make them do anything he or she can imagine; they are universal machines. We literally played with computers as children and young adults, learning from our (many) failures. But, we discovered that we could bend this machine to our will and it was empowering - a lesson I don't think any of us forgot.
   In the UK a group of scientists  and developers have created the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation to wind the clock back. They have created the Raspberry Pi, a £22 credit card sized computer that has a smartphone chip, a memory chip, an Ethernet port to connect to the Internet a couple of USB ports and video ports. Plug in a keyboard, mouse and screen, and children can use the Raspberry Pi's open-source software to write their own code.
    Last week the Raspberry Pi was launched and the demand was so great their servers couldn't handle the traffic!