Friday, November 30, 2012

Auckland Museum solves mapping mystery

Detail from a 1908 chart showing Sandy Island
in the Coral Sea
There's been a lot of talk about the accuracy of maps recently, particularly with regard to Apple's iOS Maps application. In fact Richard Williamson, the guy in charge of the Apple Maps team, recently lost his job. Perhaps he can take some comfort from the fact that maps always contain errors and that cartography, even in the age of satellites, is not always an exact science.
    Recently a story surfaced (no pun intended) about the mysterious disappearance of Sandy Island in the South Pacific. The 26 km long island in the Coral Sea is clearly shown in charts dating back to the 1700s and is shown on Google Earth as a mysterious black lozenge. This year some Australian scientists set out to visit Sandy Island only to find open ocean.
   Auckland Museum has now solved the mystery by studying its archived charts. One of these shows that Sandy Island was discovered by the ship Velocity in 1876. But there is a note on the chart which warns: “Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.”  So it seems that maps always contain errors - perhaps Richard Williamson has a case for unfair dismissal from Apple.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The tech behind the #Hobbit

Yesterday it was rather hard to avoid The Hobbit's premiere in Wellington - but as computer scientists we're much more interested in the technology than in the red carpet. Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's FX company isn't camera shy but I've only been able to find this description of the infrastructure they deploy to make movies like LOTR, King Kong, Avatar and now The Hobbit. Adam Shand, former lead of Weta Digital’s infrastructure team describes Weta Digital's data centre using 35,000 CPU cores in its "renderwall" and 3,000TB of storage. The distributed Weta campus buildings are "connected with a minimum of redundant 10Gbps connections with 40Gbps EtherChannel trunks in any situation in which storage and the renderwall needed to talk to each other." A full description including architecture diagrams is provided by Shand in this NetApp blog post. Since this describes the infrastructure used for Avatar I guess Weta Digital will be more powerful today. In the video below Paul Gunn, of Weta Digital, describes their technology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk

There's been a spate of articles  (like this one) recently about the potential risks and ethics of lethal AIs - drones that can acquire targets autonomously and robots, like the Terminator, hunting down and killing people. Whilst I've blogged about this before I was surprised to suddenly see the web alive with speculation and comment. I think I've tracked down the source; a new Cambridge University research centre called "The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk." 
    The CSER is co-founded by Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, astrophysicist professor Martin Rees and Skype's co-founder Jaan Tallinn. Prof Price says, "It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology. He adds that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of "machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don't include us".

Friday, November 23, 2012

95 year old woman honoured for working with #Turing - radio interview

Ursula Frost
Ursula Frost, a 95 year old Auckland woman, who worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during WWII has finally received the honour she so richly deserves. Fluent in French and Greek she was recruited to work for M18 at Bletchley in 1940 when she was just 23. She recalls that Turing was a "'very nice chap."
   Today Jonathan Coleman, MP for Northcote in Auckland, presented her with a special badge honouring her services. Ursula was also interviewed for Radio New Zealand's National Programme. We should not forget that thousands of people worked at Bletchley, under total secrecy, and most passed away without ever receiving any acknowledgement for their vital work. It's lovely to see Ursula Frost given the recognition she so richly deserves.

The world's oldest working computer

Let's get this clear before we start - the headline says "the world's oldest working computer," not "the world's first computer." The oldest working computer is The Harwell Dekatron, later called the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell (WITCH). It was first powered up in 1951. Over the last three years, the WITCH has been restored  by The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where  it’s now on display . It's been powered up and is working its way through some of its original 1950s programs.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Zealand's first computer programmer

An ICT1201
My colleague Bob Doran, a keen computing historian, has written this blog post.

Ruth Engleback must be close to the earliest computer programmer surviving in NZ. Now in her 80th year, she immigrated to NZ in August 1962 with her husband and two children (four more were born in NZ.) She lives on Albany hill on a 10-acre block where the family has been since 1965.
   Ruth (nee Thomson) was one of first group of four trainee woman programmers
hired by BTM in 1954. She stayed with the company until July 1959 just
before the birth of their first child. The group of trainees were from various
backgrounds; her’s was running all facets of a building-company office – the
others had degrees or tab-machine experience. Among other projects she
developed the code for the Middlesex City Council payroll who had 3,000 (?)
employees. Her job title was “Installation Officer” and involved systems analysis,
programme writing and machine testing at Stevenage.
   In Auckland she was approached by Motor Specialties towards the end of 1963
to help set-up their ICT1201 system. She thinks that MotorSpecs learned of
her because of a contact made by her husband who went goldmining in the
Coromandel with Reg Middleton. At Motorspecs she worked with Warwick
Johnson (son of MS owner?) getting the system operating. She stayed for about
a year. She later went back to MS in 1979 when they had an ICL1902T – her
daughter Lucy also worked for MS. MS replaced their ICL equipment with IBM
when Bruce Rankin became head of the department.
   She is certain that the MotorSpecs’ 1201 was second hand and came from the
NZ treasury. She also recalls hearing that NZ had bought a 1201 when she was
working for BTM in England. She thinks that the Motorspecs 1201 was replaced
by a 1300 in 1964-65 and the 1201 was given to ATI. She gave a course to ATI
staff on programming the 1201. She thinks that ATI passed on the computer to
   Programming of the 1201 was done at the machine language level. When
writing programs they did write the opcodes in mnemonics but had to hand-
translate them to binary. The 1201 was an optimally-programmed machine –
each instruction had the address of the next so the programmer had to arrange
the instructions on the (drum) memory to ensure that there were no large inter-
instruction delays. Setting up the 1201 for a task also involved wiring plug-
boards of an attached tabulator to route data appropriately. Because the memory
of the 1201 was so small, most tasks involved punch card dataprocessing
techniques with sorted decks of cards?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Narwhals, Orcas and the US elections

What do whales have to do with the recent US Elections? No, neither candidate campaigned on a pro or anti-whaling ticket. If you read this fascinating long read by the Altlantic's Alexis Madrigal called "When the Nerds Go Marching In," you'll learn all about the people and the technology that helped Obama win reelection. It turns out that Obama had put together a dream team of nerds and geeks to run his campaign tech that Romney just couldn't match. This is a great example of how computer science is changing the world in ways you wouldn't expect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Are you a geek or a nerd?

The terms "geek" and "nerd" have undergone a transformation in their use since they were used by the cool kids at school to abuse the brainiacs. The BBC has recently published an article asking, "Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?" The article explores the changing use of and attitudes to geeks and nerds, but perhaps its over analytical. Simply it's hard to look down on geeks and nerds when they've amongst the wealthiest and most innovative people on the planet: Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Peter Theil, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg...
    Incidentally, Dr. Seuss invented the word "nerd" to describe one of the creatures in the 1950 book "If I Ran the Zoo." A "geek," it turns out, used to be a performer at carnivals who did outrageous stunts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New Zealand premiere of CODEBREAKER movie

This is exciting news. I've been in communication with Patrick Sammon the Executive Producer of the acclaimed drama documentary CODEBREAKER, about the life of Alan Turing. I can now announce that we have arranged a "special screening" of CODEBREAKER - the first time its been shown in NZ.

Thursday 6 December 2012 6.00pm
Location:  University of Auckland
Owen G Glenn Building B4 (260-073)

Refreshments 5.30pm before the movie, location tbc
FREE Entry

A new drama documentary about the heroic life, tragic death, and lasting legacy of Alan Turing. Turing set in motion the digital revolution and his World War II codebreaking helped turn the tide of war.  He is one of the 20th century's most important scientists, yet few people have heard his name, know his story, or understand his legacy. 
    CODEBREAKER tells the story of this maverick British genius who was crucial to founding three new fields of science as well as breaking the Nazis' naval Enigma code during World War II.  Historians credit his codebreaking with helping to shorten the war by two years and saving millions of lives.  As the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing envisioned our digital world long before anyone else.
   Turing’s visionary brilliance was overshadowed by his conviction for "gross indecency" with another man in 1952.  He was forced to undergo so-called “organo-therapy” (chemical castration) to “change” his sexual orientation.  In despair, Turing committed suicide in 1954.  He was only 41 years old.
  Instead of being celebrated, Turing's achievements were largely forgotten.  CODEBREAKER rediscovers the extraordinary life and ideas of the man who many scientists perceive today as the digital Darwin, a scientific great on a par with Einstein and Newton. 
   This film broadcast on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in November of 2011, attracting 1.5 million viewers and receiving good reviews.  The Times described the film as “…an overdue and thoroughly honourable telling of this dreadful story.”  Another critic pronounced it as “awe-inspring.”  The Sunday Times called it “powerful” and “imaginative.” 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Would you buy an ebook reader for $15?

The ebook reader market is about to get a whole lot more competitive. A German company is about to release an ebook reader called the 'txtr beagle that will sell for around $15.00. The Guardian has recently done a review of the beagle and you can visit the company's website and register your interest. It's a little smaller and lighter than a Kindle (but much cheaper), runs for a year on 2 AAA batteries, but can only store 5 books at a time - how many books do you read at once?
   There is one catch though. You'll not actually be able to buy a beagle in a store. It will only be available as an add-on or sweetener to your mobile phone contract. However, it does show that there may be a market for virtually free ebook readers in the future. After all Amazon makes a profit from the books they sell, not the Kindles you read them on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

#Turing for Christmas

As Christmas approaches perhaps you want to Turing theme your Christmas gifts. A new childrens book, by Paul Morris, has a Turing connection: "Time Traveller Danny and the Codebreaker."  The book, which is part of the Time Traveller Kids series for 7 to 12 year olds, tells the story of Danny who goes back in time and meets Alan Turing.  Paul carried out background research for the book using the archives at Sherborne School where Alan was a student from 1926 to 1931.  Paul also has a family connection with Turing because his father, then a clerk in a Manchester firm of solicitors, witnessed the signing of Turing’s will in February 1954.
    Thanks to The Alan Turing Year for this information.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Bombe called “Auckland”

My colleague Bob Doran has recently returned from a trip to England where he visited Bletchley Park. He writes: I finally got to visit the displays at Bletchley Park. The biggest thrill was seeing the bombe replica in operation. Here it is being explained to a tour group:
Actually, it wasn’t working correctly but you could still get some idea of the noise that it made:

But the biggest surprise was learning that there was a bombe named Auckland. This is described with the text:
They had the actual sign for the Dunedin machine (this has been digitally enhanced): 
All in all, an interesting experience to recommend.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

It's time to talk politics

With the US Presidential elections only a couple of days away it's time to talk politics. I'm not going to endorse either candidate, though if you know me at all you'll know whom I prefer. I live in New Zealand and obviously can't vote in US elections, but nonetheless the outcome will effect me, just as it will effect the entire world. The hactivist group Anonymous has recently released a video saying that they are watching Karl Rove, previously a senior advisor to George W. Bush, and will release any information that suggests he is trying to steal the election for the Republican party. Remember the "hanging chads" in the 2000 Presidential election that Al Gore lost by just a few hundred votes. Some commentators and bloggers are claiming that the right wing is calling the election "too close to call" to soften people up for a surprise win by Romney when they rig the ballot.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Did Alan #Turing interrogate Konrad Zuse in Göttingen in 1947?

Konrad Zuse
I picked up this story on Twitter from @AlanTuringYear - basically Heinz Billing, of the Max Planck Institute for Physics wrote in his memoirs that  a group of British scientists from the National Physical Laboratory in London interrogated German scientists after WWII. Thus, Alan Turing, who was one of the British scientists ,would have met the German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse. Evidence for and against this meeting is described by Herbert Bruderer, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, in a paper called Did Alan Turing interrogate Konrad Zuse in Göttingen in 1947? 
   If they did meet it would have been fascinating for both men. Zuse had independently invented a digital computer, the Z1, in Nazi Germany and after the war he founded a computer company that was eventually bought by Siemens. He also wrote a book, Computing Space, that presents the idea that the universe may actually be a digital construct running in the memory of a grid of computers.
    You can find out more about this remarkable man in The Universal Machine.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In praise of... "The Information" by James Gleick

I recently read a popular science book called "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood" by James Gleick. The book is basically a biography of Claude Shannon and is about information theory. It covers, what is quite a challenging subject, in a very approachable way; giving examples from African talking drums to modern digital communication. Other people also feature such as: Robert Caudrey, the compiler of the first English dictionary; Samuel Morse, the inventor of the eponymous code, and people more familiar to this blog, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and of course Alan Turing.
   I really enjoyed this book - 5 stars.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

#Turing proved right by sunflowers

When Alan Turing looked at some sunflowers in his garden in Manchester he thought he saw a pattern he recognised in the spiral of seeds in the flowers' heads - the Fibonacci sequencewhere each number is the sum of the previous two. Turing died before he could test his theory. As part of the celebrations around Turing's centenary hundreds of volunteers grew sunflowers as part of a project led by Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Data from 557 sunflowers from seven countries was collected for the Turing's Sunflowers project. It showed 82% of the flowers conformed to the mathematical Fibonacci sequence.
    The BBC reports that Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist, said: "It's the most comprehensive information we have so far on Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers and we have proved what Alan Turing observed when he looked at a few sunflowers in his own garden in Wilmslow. Now we need to work together with biologists to understand the wider implications of different number patterns for plant growth."