Thursday, May 31, 2012

Julian #Assange loses extradition appeal

Assange on the cover of Time
The Guardian reports that UK Supreme Court judges have ruled 5 to 2 that Julian Assange should be extradited from the UK to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. However, since the judges were not unanimous and because the judgement depends on an interpretation of an arcane point of law with regard to Britain's international treaty responsibilities they have given Assange two weeks to lodge an appeal. It seems that this saga is not over yet.
    Assange is of course most famous for his website WikiLeaks, but you may not know that he used to be a hacker going by the pseudonym Mendax. Assange contributed to an excellent book titled, Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, which provides an excellent insight into the secretive world of hacking. You can buy the book on Amazon, but in true hacker spirit it's freely available to download online.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

North Shore Times - Woz cover

We made the cover of The North Shore Times, a local Auckland newspaper. That's Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the centre with me to the right - the photograph was taken on the top of Mt. Victoria in Devonport. The article quotes Woz as saying Devonport was, "the most beautiful place for a Segway tour."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In praise of... Benjamin Franklin

I've just finished a biography called, "The First American - The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" by H.W. Brands, which I really enjoyed. Being English I didn't get much information about Franklin at school, other than the (dangerous) experiment with the kite and lightening and that he had some involvement with the American war of independence and the constitution. So I was really surprised to discover what a truly remarkable man Franklin was. His accomplishments were considerable: entrepreneur, writer, satirist, scientist, philosopher, inventor, civil servant, diplomat...the list is impressive. Brands' book is excellent, easy to read and very informative, but for the highlights Wikipedia has an extensive entry. Franklin has now become one of my heroes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

CSIRAC: Australia’s first computer

CSIRAC on display at the Melbourne Museum
This piece of early computing history is close to home (relatively speaking). I was surprised recently to learn that Australian scientists developed their own computer in 1949, the CSIR Mark 1 (later called CSIRAC, the CSIR Automatic Computer). To put this date into perspective the American ENIAC was operational in 1946 and the Manchester  Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or "Baby" was operational in 1948, whilst Cambridge's EDSAC wasn't working until 1949. So this makes the Australian machine one of only four computers in the world in 1949.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

#Turing and his Times (lecture)

The National Museum of Computing has made available an excellent video of a recent lecture called Turing and his Times, which was given at Bletchley Park  on the 26 April 2012 to mark the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing. The lecture features the first public showing of a video commissioned by the National Physical Laboratory of the recollections of two of Turing's colleagues, plus a talk by computer historian Prof Simon Lavington on Turing and his Contemporaries, and  simulation of the Pilot ACE computer by TNMOC trustee Kevin Murrell.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Alan #Turing and the Artificial Brain (video)

A video recording of the my lecture Alan Turing and the Artificial Brain - The Development of Artificial Intelligence can now be watched online. It required some processing to improve the sound quality. My lecture was the last in the University of Auckland's Department of Computer Science 2012 Gibbons Memorial Lecture Series. As part of the Alan Turing Year all of this years lectures were about different aspects of Turing's work: Turing machines and the halting problem, Turing's WWII code-breaking work, his practical achievements in early computing and of course machine intelligence. Details of the entire Gibbon's lecture series are here.
    What is remarkable is that we could have continued this lecture series and had another on Turing's application of mathematics to biology, or a lecture on his pioneering computer chess publication and subsequent program. It seems his achievements were almost endless.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Computer Science for Fun - Alan #Turing

Paul Curzon, Peter McOwan and Jonathan Black of the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science of Queen Mary, University of London have created a magazine website for children that shows that computer science is fun, called CS4FN. It's currently featuring  an issue on Alan Turing in honor of his centenary. In addition to the website a pdf version is available and they will provide printed copies for schools. This is a very worthwhile exercise. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Google funds computer teachers in UK

Recently Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, criticized the lack of computer science teaching in schools and now they have decided to put their money where there mouth is and help fund computing teaching. The BBC reports that Eric Schmidt has said money will be provided to buy "teaching aids, such as Raspberry Pi's or Arduino starter kits". He added that without investment in the subject, the UK risked "losing a generation" of scientists and  would be "throwing away [its] great computing heritage.Google will team up with education charity Teach First to put "exceptional" graduates on a six-week training programme before deploying them to schools where they'll teach computing classes.
    Wouldn't it be great if the other giants of Silicon Valley, such as Apple and Facebook, also decided to invest in computer science education - ultimately it could be to their benefit.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New biography about Grace Hopper

Although this is Alan Turing's year we shouldn't forget the many other remarkable people who have contributed to the development of our universal machines. None are more remarkable than Grace Hopper who was a pioneering programmer. She developed the first high-level programming language, which went on to form the basis of Cobol, and also therefore the first compiler.
    A new biography called Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt Beyer has recently been published and is reviewed in the Guardian - it sounds like a great read.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inventions That Changed the World: The Computer

If you want a light hearted, but informative introduction, to the history of computing then  Inventions That Changed The World, hosted by Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, is the show for you. The series tells the stories behind some of the most significant inventions which have helped shape the world we live in today.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Segwaying with Steve #Wozniak

Ian & Woz
A couple of months ago I went on a Segway tour, which I really enjoyed. I then learnt that Apple's co-founder, Steve Wozniak, was due in Auckland for a speaking event - unfortunately though the tickets are very expensive. I recalled that "Woz" is a very keen Segway rider; the Segway Polo world championship is called the Woz Challenge Cup after him, so I thought why not invite Woz to go Segwaying whilst he's in Auckland. I contacted the lady who runs Magic Broomstick Tours in Devonport, gave her Woz's agent's email address and suggested she invite him. She did, and he accepted! So yesterday we spent a couple of hours together on a tour of historic Devonport. The sun shone, the harbour sparkled, the views were spectacular and once again riding a Segway was great fun. Woz said that he "always feels good after a Segway ride," I have to say I agree.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Welcome to #Monmouthpedia

Monmouth bridge & gatehouse
Wikipedia, on its blog, has unveiled the first Wikipedia town - the historic town of Monmouth. Over 1,000 QR codes have been placed on every landmark, building, and business, enabling residents or visitors with a smartphone to call up information about that location in 25 languages. Wikipedia reports that, "Because of Monmouth’s efforts to provide free wi-fi ... the town is likely the only place where a visitor can tour in Hungarian, Hindi, Indonesian, Welsh, or numerous other Wikipedia languages using QR codes."
   Why was Monmouth chosen for this project? Perhaps because it has a lot of history: King Henry V was born there, there's a Norman castle built in 1067 and a rare 13th Century bridge and gatehouse.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said, in a report in the Independent, that "he was excited about the project. Bringing a whole town to life on Wikipedia is something new and is a testament to the forward-thinking people of Monmouth ... I'm looking forward to seeing other towns and cities doing the same thing."  Is it a coincidence that Monmouth is in Wales?

Friday, May 18, 2012

New #iPad: The #Porsche 911 of Tablets?

Some blog posts have surprising longevity; back in February I considered if the iPhone could be considered like the Porsche 911 - namely a design classic. New Tablets News has just published an article in which they draw upon this idea to ask, "New iPad: The Porsche 911 of Tablets?" The article is an interesting read comparing the design philosophies of Ferdinand A. Porsche, the designer of the 911, and Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive. I think it's clear that these two men share a similar design ethos that is clearly reflected in their iconic designs. As Ferdinand A Porsche said, "A product that is coherent in form requires no embellishment. It is enhanced by the purity of its form." I think both Jonathan Ive and the late Steve Jobs would agree with that!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alan #Turing and the Artificial Brain - public lecture

Alan Turing 1912 - 1954
I am giving a free public lecture as part of the Alan Turing Year this evening called: Alan Turing and the Artificial Brain - The Development of Artificial Intelligence. The lecture will focus on the history and future of AI and obviously Turing's contribution to the discipline. 
   If you cannot attend the lecture in person it will be streamed live online and will be available on demand after the event. More details including timing and venue here.

Designer of office computer dies

The Lyons Electronic Office
Many people mistakenly assume that the first computer used for business purposes must have been deployed in the US. But, actually it was a computer called the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO for short. It was developed by the British company J. Lyons and Co. to automate much of their clerical work. Lyons wasn't an engineering firm or an aerospace company, instead it baked cakes and pastries and ran a nationwide franchise of tea shops - very English.
    One of the designers of LEO has died, aged 89, and there is an informative obituary in the Guardian newspaper. The story of how a company that ran tea shops decided to build their own computer in 1947 and ended up creating one of Britain's first computing companies is a fascinating one, which is described in chapter 5 "Computers and Big Business" of The Universal Machine. This promotional film describes how Leo was built and operated.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sherborne Formula - the making of Alan #Turing

The current edition of the Sherborne School magazine Vivat! features an excellent 12 page article about Alan Turing's experience at Sherborne written by the school's archivist Rachel Hassal. The article covers Turing's complete time at the Dorset public school (note that in England "public" schools are exclusive private schools) to when he left for Kings College Cambridge.
   It includes many details of his time there and in particular describes the influence a physics teacher, Henry Gervis, and a mathematics teacher, Ben Davis, had on him. Interestingly Ben Davis was the only teacher then at Sherborne who had a PhD. The article features many photos of Turing I've not seen before and gives an excellent account of his school days. You can download a pdf scan (14Mb) of the article from The Universal Machine's website:
Turing (front row far left), aged 13, at Westcott House Sherborne, 1926

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#Turing's practical firsts - in London

Brian Carpenter
Last week Emeritus Professor Bob Doran gave a public lecture in Auckland called Alan Turing and the Computing Engine - Turing's achievements in practical computing. This Thursday Professor Brian Carpenter, the lecture's co-author, will give the same lecture at the London Science Museum. The lecture starts at 14:30. More information can be found at the Computer Conservation Society's website.
    If you can't get to London you can watch Bob Doran's version of the lecture online here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

#Turing test to be webcast live from #Bletchley Park

To celebrate Alan Turing's centenary the 2012 Loebner Prize will be held at Bletchley Park this week on Tuesday 15 May. The competition where human judges have to decide if chat bots have passed the Turing test will be webcast live between 13:00 and 17:00 GMT. The webcast URl is
    Further information about the prize can be found on the Loebner website.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

IBM celebrates the 15th anniversary of Deep Blue's victory

Kasparov vs. Deep Blue
15 years ago IBM's Deep Blue beat world champion chess player Garry Kasparov in a famous victory for artificial intelligence. Chess had long been a challenge for machine intelligence - Charles Babbage toyed with the idea when he was designing his Anlytical Engine and Alan Turing wrote a chess playing program, though he never actually ran it.  Then Dietrich Prinz and Alan Turing wrote the world's first computer chess program in 1952 for the Ferranti Mark I computer in England. It could play reasonable chess but was nowhere near Grand Master level, that would require much more computing power than was available in the 1950s.
    IBM have made a video that marks the anniversary and discusses the developments from Deep Blue.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

#Turing's practical firsts

Thursday evening I attended a fascinating lecture given by Emeritus Professor Bob Doran titled Alan Turing and the Computing Engine - Turing's achievements in practical computing. The lecture referred to original documents written by Alan Turing in the late 1940's whilst he was designing the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) and to later documents whilst he was working with the Manchester Mark 1. This lecture really puts to death the myth that Turing was just a theoretician and had no practical influence on the development of early computers. The lecture also seeks to explain why Turing's many practical firsts were not recognised by the early computing pioneers. You can watch a video of the lecture online, or if you are in Cambridge in the middle of June you can see Professor Brian Carpenter (the lecture's co-author) present the lecture at Turing's birthday party at King's College Cambridge - ACE 2012.
   One slide from the lecture shows the many practical computing firsts that Turing can claim - he was obviously much more than just a theoretician!

Friday, May 11, 2012

In praise of... Shakespeare

Last night I went to see William Shakespeare's  A Midsummer Night's Dream by the Auckland Theatre Company at the University of Auckland's Maidment Theatre. It was a very enjoyable production - you can read a full review here. There really is something quite wonderful about being in an audience that laughs at jokes that were written over 400 years ago. Despite our computers and the Internet and satellites and all the changes in society, humour shows that essentially we are still the same people.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Making transistors in a vacuum - Moore's Law

Moore's Law, named after Gordon Moore the co-founder of Intel, states that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This allows our computers to get faster and faster whilst costing us less. We've enjoyed the benefits of this phenomena since the integrated circuit was invented in the 1950's. However, recently we've started to run up against the physical limitations of miniaturizing these circuits. Put simply you can't continue to miniaturize for ever as eventually you come down to circuits the size of atoms.
    Wired reports that a company, called Applied Materials in Santa Clara California (aka Silicon Valley), has perfected a technique for creating transistors  that are "22 nanometers wide, as opposed to the current standard of about 45 nanometers." So it seems that Moore's Law may be safe for a few more years yet. You can read about the entire process in the Wired article.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Alan #Turing and the Computing Engine (lecture)

The Pilot ACE 
Most of us are now familiar with Alan Turing's accomplishments: laying the theoretical foundations of computer science, cracking the WWII Enigma codes, and theorising about machine intelligence. Yet most of us  also probably think that Turing was just that, a theoretician. On Thursday a free public lecture by Professors Bob Doran and Brian Carpenter will show that assumption is wrong. Turing could be intensely practical and was intimately involved with the design of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) immediately after WWII. Drawing on their 1977 paper, "The other Turing machine" (The Computer Journal 20 (3): 269-279) and more recently revealed documents, Doran and Carpenter will show the influence that Turing continues to have on modern computers and they "will look into the circumstances of how and why he was so long marginalized in the accepted history of practical computing."
    The lecture commences with refreshments at 5.30pm Thursday May 10, 2012, in the Conference Centre of The University of Auckland. If you cannot attend in person you can watch live streaming video or watch on demand after the event. Full details here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Building an artificial brain

There seems to be a recent resurgence of interest in AI and its grand vision of building an artificial brain. Two articles I came across in the last few days both describe potential ways this might be achieved. How will we build an artificial brain discusses both the knowledge-based software only approach and the whole brain emulation approach and puts a time frame of 50 to 100 years to success. Quest for the connectome in the Guardian concentrates on whole brain emulation and likens the attempt to reverse engineer the brain to great scientific endeavors like the human genome project.
    There is no doubt that reverse engineering the brain would be a mammoth task, but it would also have benefits for neuroscience research as well as possibly allowing us to emulate the brain. I will be giving a public lecture on Thursday May 17 titled "Alan Turing and the artificial brain" where I will discuss some of these issues. They are also discussed in the final two chapters of The Universal Machine.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Julian #Assange on the #Simpsons

Julian Assange on the Simpsons
Last night the 500th episode of the Simpsons aired on New Zealand TV - yes I know it was shown months ago in the US, but New Zealand is a long way away and obviously those electrons took some time to make the journey. One of the episodes special guests was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
   He's of course most famous for his website WikiLeaks but you may not know that he used to be a hacker going by the pseudoname Mendax. Assange contributed to an excellent book titled, Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, which provides an excellent insight into the secretive world of hacking. You can buy the book on Amazon, but in true hacker spirit it's freely available to download online.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ian Watson's radio interview about Alan #Turing

Inside the radio studio
I was just interviewed by Kim Hill for New Zealand's National Radio's Saturday programme. The interview covers a range of material from my new book The Universal Machine. The interview covers the history of computing starting with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, but focuses on Turing. The interview ranges across Turing's contributions to theory of computation, his WWII code-breaking work, the development of early post-war computers, the Turing test for machine intelligence. His subsequent conviction for gross indecency and suicide are also discussed.
    You can listen to the interview in the player below and other formats are available to stream or download from Radio New Zealand's website.

Friday, May 4, 2012

#Apple - 1944 and it's war!

Steve Jobs as "The Chief"
"1944" is a 9 minute long, broadcast quality, in-house riff on the now iconic "1984" Macintosh TV ad that caused a sensation during that year's Super Bowl. Set as a WWII story of good vs. IBM, and rumored to have cost $50,000, it was designed to fire up Apple's sales force at a 1984 meeting in Hawaii. Craig Elliott, who worked at Apple from 1985 to 1996, posted the video to his Facebook page, from where it went viral.
    The video shows "the fighting 32nd" preparing to invade IBM's territory to liberate the zombie-like POWs chained to their IBM computers by deploying "the most powerful weapon on earth - an idea whose time has come." The observant amongst you will notice that "The Chief" is Steve Jobs and that Bill "General" Gates is fighting on Apple's side. There's also a very amusing piece of dialog where they allude to their glorious past victories: the Apple I, the Apple II and its variants, but not the commercially unsuccessful Apple III, quote: "We don't talk about 3."

[Thanks to my friend Duncan Campbell for bringing this to my attention]

Alan #Turing: the Enigma - interview with Andrew Hodges

IEEE Spectrum has put online a recent interview with mathematician and author Andrew Hodges. As you may know he wrote, back in the 1980s, the definitive biography of Alan Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma, which focused on his mathematical achievements, his WWII code breaking and his gay lifestyle. I first read the book when I was a CS grad student and I have to say it wasn't an easy read - some sections require a mathematical background and it's long and very detailed. Also, although it's been a long time since I read it, I recall it had a strong gay rights thread running through the narrative. This resonated well in the mid-80s, since gay liberation was a hot political topic. Over 25 years later, with societies' views on homosexuality greatly altered (for the better), I'm not sure how those sections of the book will read now. We are all appalled at how Turing was treated by society in the 1950s, but we (mostly) do not share those views now. I would recommend this book to people who already know Turing's life story and want more detail. However, I can't comment on the new "Centenary Edition, which I assume contains some new material and revisions.
    You can listen to the interview with Andrew Hodges by clicking the player below.

[Disclaimer - Hodges and I are both on the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee]

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Applying the "Computational Lens"

A colleague has brought to my attention an announcement of the Simons Foundation making a  $60 million grant to establish the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at U.C. Berkeley. The institute will host an interdisciplinary array of scientists exploring the mathematical foundations of computer science to attack problems in fields as diverse as health care, astrophysics, genetics and economics; underscoring the growing influence of computer science on the physical and social sciences.
   An article in the New York Times says that, "Part science and part engineering, computer science has long been viewed warily by scientists in other disciplines. But that is changing, not only because the computer has become the standard scientific instrument but also because “computational thinking” offers new ways to analyze the vast amounts of data now accessible to scientists. This new approach — what researchers call the “algorithmic” or “computational” lens — is transforming science in much the way the microscope and telescope did. When computer scientists train their sights on other disciplines, said Christos H. Papadimitriou, a Berkeley computer scientist who will help manage the institute, “truths come out that wouldn’t have come out otherwise.
   I recently watched a BBC documentary called "The Joy of Stats," by the enthusiastic Professor Hans Rosling. This documentary shows that the application of computer science and statistics to the massive amounts of data available to us today can transform our understanding of the world and it resonated well with the the New York Times article. You can watch the BBC doco on the BBC iPlayer (if you're in the UK) and it is on YouTube.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In praise of... Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The Writer
Pierre Jaquet-Droz was a Swiss born watch and automata maker who died in 1790. His automata are machines of exquisite beauty and ingenuity; one The Writer had over 6,000 components. Wikipedia states that, "Some consider these devices to be the oldest examples of the computer. The Writer has an input device to set tabs that form a programmable memory, 40 cams that represents the read only program, and a quill pen for output. The work of Pierre Jaquet-Droz predates that of Charles Babbage by decades." If you've seen the excellent recent movie Hugo you'll have a good idea what this machine can do. 
    Of course course no scientist, or natural philosopher as they were then called, would have taken these machine seriously, as they were mere amusements for the wealthy. Yet, we can assume that Charles Babbage would have been intrigued, and even he considered building fairground automata that played games for a time.
    The following video is one of a series that showcases the remarkable work of Pierre Jaquet-Droz.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Grace Hopper on Letterman! (video)

Grace Hopper & UNIVAC
I just came across this wonderful video clip of Rear Admiral (retired) Grace Hopper on the Letterman show. Who is she you ask? Grace Hopper is one of the most famous women in the history of computing. She programmed the Harvard Mark 1 during WWII. She discovered the first computer bug, literally a moth that had got caught in a relay. She programmed the UNIVAC after the war and developed the first high-level programming language, FLOW-MATIC, which was the basis for COBOL. As a necessity she also had to invent the first compiler to translate FLOW-MATIC code into machine code. Semi-retired she consulted for many computing companies and she has a US naval destroyer named in her honor. A truly remarkable woman.

The cost of knowledge - 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article about the growing boycott of Elsevier by academics. Today there was a piece on the National Radio's Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan about this same issue. To listen to the piece use the player below. I was a bit disappointed that it didn't mention the boycott that over 10,000 academics have now joined, though it did raise some other interesting issues.