Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Google "crisis map" for Hurricane #Sandy

Hurricane Sandy looks like it will be the most closely watched storm in history. Google has set us a "crisis map" for Hurricane Sandy to help people who may be in its path. The map features various overlays including: the storm's predicted path, wind speeds, predicted storm surge, public alerts, evacuation routes, refuge centres and more. Of course as the power goes down across the North Eastern seaboard of the US WiFi and broadband will be lost as well. Cell phone towers can work for a time on battery power, so 3G may still be available, but I'd recommend getting any digital information you may require sooner rather than later - the Internet isn't storm proof.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The future of communications

Another piece of history brought to my attention by Bob Doran. This one features the British Post Office (GPO) in 1969 looking ahead to the future of telecommunications in the 1990s including: video phone calls, document sharing, online banking and access to other computing services. Unfortunately, the GPO is still envisaging using circuit switching with its wasteful dedicated end-to-end communications and complex exchanges and not the much more efficient packet switching that underpins the Internet.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

BBB2 to reshow #Turing #Bletchley Park documentary

This Sunday (Oct 28 8:00pm) BBC2 is giving us another chance to see its excellent Timewatch programme  "Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes", giving overdue recognition to the brilliance of Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. The BBC says the documentary "reveals the secret story behind one of the greatest intellectual feats of World War II, a feat that gave birth to the digital age. In 1943, a 24-year-old maths student and a GPO engineer combined to hack into Hitler's personal super-code machine - not Enigma but an even tougher system, which he called his 'secrets writer'.
   If you thought that Bletchley Park was just about Alan Turing, Enigma and U Boats you're in for a pleasant surprise!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kodak's first digital camera - 1975

In the week that Apple released the new iPad Mini and Microsoft released Windows 8 and its Surface tablet my colleague Bob Doran pointed me back to the future - 1975 to be precise. Steve Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, invented  the digital camera in December 1975. In a Kodak blog post written in 2007, before Kodak went bankrupt, Sasson explains how it was constructed: "It had a lens that we took from a used parts bin from the Super 8 movie camera production line downstairs from our little lab on the second floor in Bldg 4. On the side of our portable contraption, we shoehorned in a portable digital cassette instrumentation recorder. Add to that 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a highly temperamental new type of CCD imaging area array, an a/d converter implementation stolen from a digital voltmeter application, several dozen digital and analog circuits all wired together on approximately half a dozen circuit boards, and you have our interpretation of what a portable all electronic still camera might look like."
   We all become mesmerized by the new and the shiny but this reminds us that being first or being an established powerful company doesn't inevitably result in long term success. Sasson ends his post with, "The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future. - how did Kodak get it so wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

iPad Mini - was Steve Jobs wrong?

The unveiling of the iPad Mini with its 7.9-inch display has many pundits referring to Steve Job's talking about the wisdom of making a tablet with a screen smaller than the iPad's 10-inch display (for example this article in the Register). It's true that the iPad Mini is a "gap filler" aimed in particular at the Amazon Kindle Fire market. Apple seem to have reasoned, "why shouldn't we make a mini tablet? We make iPod's and MacBooks in all sort of different sizes and specs."
    Yes, it makes no sense logically - if I want a device that fits in my pocket I've got an iPhone; if I want a device that fits in my bag I've got an iPad. Why would I want something in between? But it seems some people do want a device this size and Apple aren't about to gift this market segment to Amazon and Google. I expect the iPad Mini will sell well, despite being technically underwhelming. It will certainly appeal to people who are already committed to the Apple ecosystem, and will make a good eBook reader being about the size of a small paperback.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Van Gogh Meets Alan #Turing

Google developers present a video that showcases projects they have been working on that merge art and technology - where Van Gogh meets Alan Turing.

Pet Shop Boys inspired by Alan #Turing

The Pet Shop Boys write on their blog Pet Texts that, "We will be performing a concert with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Salford, Greater Manchester, on December 6th. As well as a selection of old and new songs, we'll be premiering part of a piece we have been writing inspired by the British scientist, mathematician and code-breaker, Alan Turing. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2." Not sure if the concert will be broadcast live, but I'll try to let you know.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day

Lady Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated last week and as usual was organised and co-ordinated by Finding Ada - "Celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths." If you don't know who Ada Lovelace is and why we might be celebrating her I suggest you find out from: "Who was Ada?"
    The Guardian has also just published a good story about the "forgotten women of science," But, as women struggle for the right to be educated in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan perhaps we should remember just how difficult it was, just over a century ago, for any woman to get an education. Kate Edger in 1877 was the first woman in New Zealand, and the British Empire, to receive a Bachelor's degree from the University of New Zealand! Kate Edger is honoured at Auckland University by having the Information Commons building named after her.
The Kate Edger Information Commons

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Massive security breach at NZ ministry

Well we have an IT story from New Zealand that is front page news. On the 14th October kiwi blogger, Keith Ng, posted a piece titled: MSD's Leaky Servers. Read his post for his full story, but the basic gist of it is that by using Work and Income's public information kiosks he was able to access every server within the Ministry of Social Development simply by using the Open File dialog of MS Office. Once inside a server information was stored as plain unencrypted documents ranging from information about claimants, fraud investigations, court cases, invoices, and most alarmingly, information about children under the care of Child,Youth & Family.
    In many ways this isn't a security breach as it seems there was no security present to breach - Keith Ng isn't a hacker.
   Let's start from the bottom up; computer kiosks shouldn't allow access to any of the computer's underlying setup. They certainly shouldn't be connected to the entire ministry's network. Kiosks shouldn't have USB ports, which apparently these machines do. Nobody, apart from the sysadmin, should have access to the entire organisation's network. It seems any MSD employ can access any document. It seems that data isn't stored in a database, so there is no information gathered on when documents have been accessed and by whom. Moreover sensitive information, including passwords aren't encrypted.
   Finally, to make matters worse, Ministry chief executive, Brendan Boyle, has said the ministry received a report from Dimension Data in April last year identifying "flaws" in its system - obviously no action was taken! Perhaps the government is implementing an "open information" policy but has forgotten to tell us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Quantum computing wins a Nobel

There is no Nobel Prize for computing so it was good to hear last week that Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”  Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker, puts their groundbreaking research into perspective in an interesting article called, "Quantum Computing Wins a Nobel." If you're not sure what Quantum Computing is and what impact it is expected to have this is a good place to start - be prepared to be confused though quantum physics is baffling. As physicist Niels Bohr said, "If anybody says he can think about quantum physics without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them."
[Note: the highest award in computer science is the ACM Turing Award, named in honour of Alan Turing]

Friday, October 12, 2012

A robot runs faster than Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world but he couldn't outrun Boston Dynamics' Cheetah Robot. The YouTube video below clocks the Cheetah at 28.3 mph 0.5 mph quicker than Bolt's fastest. Obviously this is only a prototype by Boston Dynamics plans to be testing a fully autonomous Cheetah in 2013.
   So what's the application for this technology? Boston Dynamics has been working for the US military and their DARPA programme developing robots to support combat troops. BigDog is essentially a pack horse that can carry equipment across rough terrain. PETMAN is an anthropomorphic robot for testing chemical protection clothing. PETMAN's range of motions are weirdly creepy and it falls right into the uncanny valley.
    Thanks to my friend, and author, Nas Hedron for pointing me in the direction of Cheetah - please check out his new novel, "Luck and Death at the Edge of the World" that stars an AI who channels Alan Turing.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Can a robot cook?

Evan Selinger and Evelyn Kim, writing in The Atlantic, ask "Can a robot learn to cook?" They illustrate their article with The Jetsons robot maid Rosey and ask if it could ever acquire the tacit knowledge required to know if chicken was cooked properly. Well in fact there has been a Computer Cooking Competition (CCC) taking place for five years now where the competitors have to devise menus from restricted lists of ingredients. The CCC started out as a bit of fun within the case-based reasoning community but has now grown into something much more serious.
    "The goal of the CCC is attract new people (e.g., students) to work with AI technologies such as case-based reasoning, semantic technologies, search, and information extraction. Cooking is fun, particularly when using a computer to design the menu. And the contest will attract public interest. Since everybody knows something about cooking, people will be curious about how well a computer can cook."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

WebPlatform Docs - share your knowledge and learn

Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Nokia, Adobe, HP, Opera Software and the Mozilla Foundation (usually rivals) have come together with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and Tim Berners-Lee to collaborate on the development of HTML5 and create WebPlatform Docs.  The purpose, as described in its blog is: "For years, web developers have had to rely on multiple sites to help them learn web programming or design, each with one piece of the puzzle. Great sites appear, covering one or two subjects, but too often fail to keep up with the rapid pace of changes to the web platform. This may have been good enough when the web was just simple HTML, basic CSS, and maybe a little JavaScript, but that was a long time ago. Today's web is more than just documents, it's applications and multimedia, and it's changing at a breakneck pace."
    If you're a web developer you can create an account and share your experience and learn from others. It will be interesting to see how this compares in the future to StackExchange which already has several programming & web development Q&A forums.

AI - Apple's next killer product

Eric Jackson in a post in Forbes makes the case that Artificial Intelligence "will be the horsepower that bridges the gulf" between our expectations of what apps can do and their current performance. He argues that Apple has "the time, the right AI people, data and money" to make this happen. I would argue that Google is in a similar position; after all Google's Director of Research, Peter Norvig, co-authored the standard AI teaching text (AI: A Modern Approach), and Google has both data and money.
    Despite this though I don't agree with Jackson's thesis. When AI works it becomes invisible, people are unaware of it, therefore it will not be the "next killer product." AI may well make the next generation of smart devices work better but most users will be unaware of it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The “Lost” Steve Jobs Speech from 1983

A few days ago a "lost" speech by Steve Jobs to the  International Design Conference in Aspen in 1983 has surfaced and was posted online. This was a year before the launch of the Macintosh - Jobs refers to its predecessor, the Lisa, several times. The speech and the Q&A that follows is remarkable. If you had any doubts, or were one of the people who subscribe to the view that Jobs was just a good salesman and a deal maker, then this will change your mind. His intellect, knowledge and passion for computing comes over with force.

    Some of his predictions for the future are uncannily precise. I particularly liked his opinion that in a few years people will be spending more time interacting with personal computers than in their cars. This is the reason why computers need to be well designed (both hardware and software) since we'll spend so much time looking at them and interacting with them. Does this explain Apple's obsession with design?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity

This morning Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme on National Radio featured an interview with New Zealand-born physicist Sean Gourley. A significant part of the interview concerned his work on Big Data and his start-up Quid. I was at a conference a few weeks ago and Big Data was very much the main buzz word. McKinsey and Company recently published a report called Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity. So if you're unsure what Big Data is and how it may effect you or how you can use it McKinsey's report is available in .pdf, .mobi and .epub formats.
   You can listen to the radio interview below, or visit Radio New Zealand's website for audio formats. Thanks to my colleague Mark Wilson for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Brad Ideas - Crazy ideas, inventions, essays...

I mentioned an article just the other day by Brad Templeton on possible design changes to cars that might take place when they're driverless. Well it turns out there are lots of interesting articles on his blog Brad Ideas - take a look, highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Driverless cars would reshape automobiles and the transit system

I've blogged about Google's driverless cars before but my colleague, Bob Doran, pointed me towards this interesting article in the Atlantic: Driverless cars would reshape automobiles and the transit system. The gist of it is that being autonomous will change our relationship with the car, which will consequently change in form and function to match. The Atlantic article is itself a summary of a more detailed piece by Brad Templeton called New design factors for Robot Cars.