Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's official - Alan #Turing is pardoned!!!

Great news to almost end the year on. Here's the official press release announcing a pardon for Alan Turing under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which came into effect today.

By Jamie Grierson, Press Association Home Affairs Correspondent

Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous
royal pardon for a 61-year-old conviction for homosexual activity. Dr
Turing, who was pivotal in breaking the Enigma code, arguably shortening
the Second World War by at least two years, was chemically castrated
following his conviction in 1952.

His conviction for "gross indecency" led to the removal of his security
clearance and meant he was no longer able to work for Government
Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) where he had continued to work
following service at Bletchley Park during the war.

Dr Turing, who died aged 41 in 1954 and is often described as the father
of modern computing, has been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative
of Mercy by the Queen following a request from Justice Secretary Chris
Grayling. "Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind,"
Mr Grayling said.

"His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second
World War where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end
the war and save thousands of lives.

"His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual
activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and
which has now been repealed.

"Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic
contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from
the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man."

Dr Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest recorded a verdict of
suicide, although his mother and others maintained his death was

There has been a long campaign to clear the mathematician's name,
including a well-supported e- petition and private member's bill, along
with support from leading scientists such as Sir Stephen Hawking.

The pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy will come into effect
today. The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a
pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for civilians convicted in
England and Wales.

A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the
offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested
interest such as a family member. But on this occasion a pardon has been
issued without either requirement being met.

In September 2009, then-prime minister Gordon Brown apologised to Dr
Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual after a petition calling for
such a move.

An e-petiton - titled "Grant a pardon to Alan Turing" - received 37,404
signatures when it closed in November last year. The request was declined
by Lord McNally on the grounds that Dr Turing was properly convicted of

what at the time was a criminal offence.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ELSIE hiding in Dunedin

Last week I was in Dunedin and visited the Otago Settlers Museum. Hidden amongst exhibits about Dunedin's pioneer settlers, at the farthest reaches of the museum, behind the old motor vehicles was a collection of computers, including the rare ELSIE computer, which used to be used for drawing Bonus Bond winners. You never know what you'll find in a museum.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New Zealand Computer Museum

This is exciting news. Plans are underway to establish a New Zealand Computer Museum in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter down by the waterfront. The organisers have the support of major patrons and organisations such as Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), The Institute of IT Professionals (formerly the New Zealand Computer Society) and Auckland University Computer Science Department. You can find out more information and support this project via their crowd-funding campaign and their Facebook page

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Strandbeest - kinetic sculptures

My colleague Bob Doran put me onto this; nothing to do with computing but it certainly is fasinating. Theo Jansen's Strandbeests are wind powered sculptures that use biologically inspired mechanisms to move. Watch the video below to see the remarkable strandbeests.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Earn college credits whilst working for Facebook

Facebook has announced that it is partnering with US university computer science departments to provide open source projects for students to work on. The students will earn credits whilst working on projects suggested by Facebook engineers. CompSci students who are interested in participating can visit Facebook’s Open Academy Program page. Of course you'll have to persuade your professors to join the program for you to earn credit.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

#Apple's wise maps decision

A year ago Apple was taking a lot of criticism for its decision to kick Google Maps of the iOS platform. I in a post titled "Apple's mapocalypse" took a different view - for competitive reasons Apple had to develop its own mapping and location services. It now seems that Apple (and I) were right; the Guardian in an article titled "Apple maps: how Google lost when everyone thought it had won" shows that a year on Google has lost tens of millions of Google Map users to Apple in the US alone.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Computer history on display at Auckland University

The Institute of IT Professionals blog features the (re)-opening of the  NZ Computer Timeline last Thursday 7 November. In an extended photo essay the blog post not only features the new timeline but other works of art and historical exhibits from through out the Computer Science Department's computing history displays. If you're in Auckland you're welcome to drop in and tour the displays.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rock paper scissors robot wins every time!

Watch the video below of the Japanese Ishikawa Oku Laboratory's Janken robot winning at rock-paper-scissors 100% of the time. Technically it's cheating as it uses high-speed recognition and reaction to operate its hand-like machinery, which takes one millisecond to recognise what shape the human hand is making.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Facebook to use Artificial Intelligence

Another Facebook story this week; Australian Business Insider reports that Facebook is aplanning to use AI and voice recognition to provide search. Mark Zuckerberg is reported as saying "In September, we formed the Facebook AI Group to do world-class artificial intelligence research using all the knowledge that people have shared on Facebook. The goal here is to use new approaches in AI to help make sense of all the content that people share so we can generate new insights about the world to answer people’s questions." Personally I don't believe Facebook will ever be a serious player in the search area since despite the massive number of posts it archives the content is just too random to be really useful.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Kids see Facebook like adults see LinkedIn

This interesting article on TechCrunch explains the appeal of services like SnapChat to teenagers. It's really quite simple, social media savvy teens are wary of leaving a permanent record of their opinions and behaviour on sites like Facebook, just as we adults seek to present our best side to professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Bill Gurley, of SnapChat, explains why ephemeral messaging is on the rise: For kids, the Internet is increasingly becoming a place that you can’t share, that you can’t have fun, that you can’t socialize in the way you want to. I think that’s really the essence of Snapchat. It’s a platform where they can communicate and have fun without any anxiety about the permanence. You hear about kids not getting jobs because of what’s on their Facebook page.” So far from being merely a service for sexting, SnapChat allows youngsters the freedom to be young.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Would you like ultra ultra fast broadband?

Most people always want the Internet to go faster. Currently you might be able to get residential broadband at around 10 to 70Mbps depending on where you live. NASA has just tested an Internet connection of 622Mbps over a distance of 239,000 miles. They're not using fibre. They fired a laser at a satellite orbiting the moon. Watch the video below to find out more.

Monday, October 21, 2013

IBM unveils computer fed by 'electronic blood'You've probably heard o

You've probably heard of Moore's Law that has predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. The problem is that we are nearing the physical limits of our ability to miniaturise these circuits. Our current solution is to stack chips to make multi-chip cores. The problem with this is cooling the chips, which tend to get very hot. The BBC reports that IBM are developing a novel approach in which a fluid of vanadium is used to both power the chip and cool it simultaneously. The advantage of this is that the design doesn't need two separate circuits, one for power and the other for cooling. This IBM scientists state is inspired by the brain where our blood provides both energy to the brain and cooling, resulting in a very efficient system.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

ConceptNet — a practical commonsense reasoning tool-kit

Computers are quite good now at dealing with specifics: you can ask Siri "how far is it to the moon?" and it will reply "about 376,000 kilometers," but computers still struggle with common sense knowledge. For example, if someone says, "I want some chips right now," humans will often interpret "chips" as meaning potato chips. But "chips" may easily confuse a computer system. Are we talking about potato chips? Computer chips? Wood chips? Poker Chips? To solve this type of problem researchers at MIT's Media Lab have developed ConceptNet, which they describe as: " a freely available common sense knowledge base and natural-language-processing tool-kit which supports many practical textual-reasoning tasks over real-world documents including topic-gisting, analogy-making, and other context oriented inferences. The knowledge base is a semantic network presently consisting of over 1.6 million assertions of common sense knowledge encompassing the spatial, physical, social, temporal, and psychological aspects of everyday life. ConceptNet is generated automatically from the 700 000 sentences of the Open Mind Common Sense Project — a World Wide Web based collaboration with over 14,000 authors."
   ConceptNet recently took an intelligence test and scored about the same as a 4 year old child, but since then its knowledge-base has increased ten fold. Are computers that can really understand what we say almost with us? ConceptNet is an open source project, with a Python implementation and a API that anyone can use to add computational common sense to their own project.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Computer Science contributes to Nobel Prize win

Michael Levitt,  of Stanford University; Martin Karplus of Strasbourg University; and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California have been awarded the Nobel Prize for  chemistry. However the researchers themselves acknowledge that their breakthroughs in modeling proteins couldn't have been done without recent advances in computing. In an article by the BBC Michael Levitt said this success was due in large part to the spectacular performance of modern computing: "I've told people that the silent partner in this prize is the incredible development in computer power. When we started this, no-one had any clue that computers were going to become so powerful; no-one knew about Moore's Law. This incredible increase in computer power has taken everybody by surprise, and I think this is one of the reasons why our field has become so important. And it's just going to get bigger and bigger."
[This post was suggested by Mark Wilson]

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The first home video game console

The first home video game console wasn't the Atari Pong. A reader of The Universal Machine pointed out the Magnavox Odyssey to me, which was released in August 1972 a full three years before Atari. In fact Pong was based on a ping-pong game that shipped with the Odyssey. Sales of the Odyssey were poor caused by bad marketing and many customers mistaken belief that the console would only work with Magnavox television sets. When Atari subsequently released Pong Magnovox successfully sued them (and many other imitators) for patent infringement. So we now know what the first video game console was but what was the first video game? This is a complex issue that Wikipedia devotes a whole entry to.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Big Data and the America's Cup

With the America's Cup still very much in the news an article in today's New Zealand Herald highlights the role that ex University of Auckland students played in the success of Oracle Team USA and in the development of Emirate's Team New Zealand's boats. In particular the Engineering Faculty's Yacht Research Unit has played a key role in the Kiwi's success since 1987 and we can expect it to do so in the future.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Computer science wins the 34th America's Cup

Well it wasn't the result we wanted but today we finally learned what won the America's Cup - it was computer science. No I don't mean Oracle (though of course Oracle Team USA did win). I mean Oracle's Speed Augmentation System (SAS). This is an automated computer controlled fly-by-wire system that adjusts Oracle's hydrofoils automatically. Team New Zealand's hydrofoils are adjusted manually by a crew member. Apparently Boeing helped OTUSA with the technology, which is essentially the same as the fly-by-wire systems that continually adjust the flight surfaces of modern aircraft. This explains the remarkable speed gains that OTUSA have shown in the last 10 days, effectively locking the Kiwi's out of the cup. The SAS just gives OTUSA a more stable foiling platform and stability equals speed. So far other that what the TV commentators have been saying I've been unable to find any details of the system online, but I'll keep looking. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Simpsons - a cartoon for mathletes

The Guardian reports that the popular long-running TV cartoon series the Simpsons is written by and for math geeks. Apparently hidden within many episodes are references to obscure (and not so obscure) mathematical expressions, formulae and facts including: Fermat's last theorem, perfect numbers, a narcissistic number, a Mersenne prime (all shown in the picture to the right), Euler's identity, a googolplex, the mass of the Higgs boson, appearances by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, numerous jokes about π and of course the all important geometry of doughnuts. And you thought it was just a kids show.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mitsuku chat bot wins AI's Loebner contest

The BBC has reported that a chat bot called Mitsuku, originally designed for a music website, has won the annual AI Loebner contest. The annual Loebner contest is really a Turing test, where chat bots have to convince human judges that they are human. Briton Steve Worswick, who wrote Mitsuku, won $4,000 meaning the judges found it to be the best chat bot entered. Mitsuku did not win the $100,000 Grand Prize meaning it hadn't convinced the judges it was human. Why not give Mitsuku a try yourself and you can be the judge.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Computer History Timeline Redesigned

[By Bob Doran] The timeline in the corridor into the Computer Science building at the University of Auckland was demolished along with the corridor itself in order to form a new plaza between the Science buildings. It has now been re-installed at the north of the plaza. We took the opportunity to correct and extend the timeline by another decade. It has been completely redesigned as well to fit the new space.
It was difficult to choose the main developments of the last 10 years because there have been so many. We selected “events” concerning, flat screens, flash memories, information on-line, the human genome, electronic commerce, disk and server farms and “the cloud.” For technology we note the arrival of the Terabyte disk and the 1Gbit RAM  chips. Peculiar to New Zealand are the  high-speed research network (KAREN) and NeSI (the New Zealand eScience infrastructure) and as a general time-stamp we note the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Do drop by and have a look.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What the web looked like wayback

It's easy to forget now that when the World Wide Web got started some of today's mega-brands were garage startups running on a shoestring. Today startups get millions from venture capital and employ teams of graphic designers, PR consultants and hit the ground all slick and professional. It wasn't always that way (as this article shows). You can use the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine to check out how your favourite website used to look - my favourite is the White House's website, which looks like Chelsea Clinton designed it for a school project back in 2000. Joking aside though, the Wayback Machine by archiving websites is serving a very valuable historical function that will allow future generations to see how things used to look.
[This post was suggested by my colleague Bob Doran]

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The PC boom is over

Back in April 2010 ,when Steve Jobs launched the iPad, he declared that we were now living in a "post-PC era." Many pundits disagreed and didn't see the point of the tablet - too big to be truly mobile, like a smartphone, and too hard to write on, like a netbook or laptop. Well, The Guardian reports research company IDC as finding that the PC market will never regain its 2011 peak and "it says that total shipments will fall by 9.7% compared to 2012, and will continue to drift down at least until 2017." A separate report shows that large screen smartphones, or "phablets," are particularly popular in the Asia/Pacific region exceeding the sales of tablets and laptops combined. It seems that, at least for personal use, Jobs was sort of right.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

University of Waikato launches MOOC

The University of Waikato's Department of Computer Science has launched New Zealand's first MOOC (Massively Open Online Course). The free online course, Data Mining with Weka, was an obvious choice given the fact the data mining software Weka is used worldwide both to teach data mining and to build data mining applications. The course is taught by short video lectures followed by practical exercises, resulting in assessments and (if passed) a "Certificate of Completion" from the University of Waikato. The course starts September 9th. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DARPA Wants To Build A Computer That Mimics The Human Brain

The US military's research funding agency DARPA wants to build a computer that would be based on the neocortex, that part of the human brain involved in higher functions like motor control, language, sensory activity and thought processes - in essence they want to build a "Cortical Processor." They believe that a cortical processor would be very good at detecting patterns in noisy data in much the same way that we always see faces in random stuff like potato chips or tree bark. DARPA's synthetic brain would be able to analyse satellite images and find things of military interest. Read more about this project on PopSci.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Stop Multitasking! It's Distracting Me (And You)

I came across an interesting article yesterday called Stop Multitasking! It's Distracting Me (And You) about students in lecture theaters using their laptops, tablets and smartphones. As a lecturer myself I'm quite used to seeing many students in the class with their laptops open or more recently tablets. Of course I assume they're looking at my lecture notes, paying close attention to my fascinating lecture and making notes themselves. In reality I know many are on Facebook, Googling, tweeting, looking at YouTube and doing a myriad of other activities. This article cites studies that show that these students are not only reducing what they learn about the topic of the lecture, but they are also reducing the learning of those behind them who are distracted by the ever changing content on their screens. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. So if you want to "multitask" in a lecture please sit on the back row so as to not reduce the GPA of the rest of the class.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Your Gmail isn't private!

We're not talking about government spy agencies looking at your Gmail here. Last week in a court case Google revealed that Gmail users have no "reasonable expectation" that their communications are confidential. The media reports all expressed shock and horror at this revelation, but I'm left wondering why? Perhaps it's a age issue. I first started using email in the mid 1980s when I was a student. I could send emails to friends on campus and to other universities via a network called JANET. There were frequently problems with the delivery and reception or mails and you got used to emailing the institution's Postmaster for help.  Their address was always postmaster@institution.ac.uk. The Postmaster would dig through their mail server and find lost mails, resend them, or forward them to correct addresses. This habit of contacting the Postmaster continued right into the 90s when email became more widespread. Knowing that there were people in the middle of the email process who managed the system made you realise that email wasn't confidential - it was never intended to be.
   I use Gmail and I've always accepted that there would be people working for Google who had a legitimate right to access the mail servers and if necessary my email. I don't expect them to make a habit of reading my emails, but somebody could. Similarly people working for Flickr can view my photos, even if they are marked private. Employees at DropBox may also need to access my files. I'm puzzled why people don't understand this - the Internet isn't private. People have to manage it and this means they have access to your stuff. That's just how it works.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How machines think

Well, not like us. But that doesn't really matter if they can still give good results. This entertaining video from the New Scientist shows one way that machines can think using probabilistic reasoning.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

#Blackberry calling it quits...

1st generation iPhone and a Blackberry
The Canadian smartphone company Blackberry, formerly known as Research in Motion, is calling it quits; or in their words, "We believe that now is the right time to explore strategic alternatives." Those "strategic alternatives" will include sale, break-up and perhaps closure. Remarkably Blackberry's market share has collapsed from close to 50% in the US in 2009 to less than 3% today. There's probably no coming back from that. So what crushed Blackberry? The answer is obvious - the iPhone released in 2007.
   Blackberry believed that their loyal business customers would stay with them, because of its secure messaging and push email functionality. President Obama was even an avid user. They believed that many people preferred a real (if small) keyboard to the iPhone's virtual one. They were wrong and they responded by eventually releasing Blackberries without a real keyboard and updating their operating system to support apps. But they'd missed the point. As I've mentioned several times before it's not about the technology, it's about the services the device offers. The iPhone is a platform that offers users access to music, their photos, games, books, the web and which now increasingly integrates with their other computers, TV and the cloud. Quite simply the Blackberry doesn't - at least not nearly as well. Amazon understand this, hence the Kindle and their Prime service. Companies in 2013 that focus on the technology at the expense of services will fail.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ambient computing via Estimote beacons

Our smartphones can locate us to within meters enabling all kinds of location based services; except they can't as soon as we enter a building - all those potentially useful services stop as soon as we enter the building that may be able to actually provide us useful stuff. Estimote plans to fix this by creating low cost, low power, Bluetooth beacons  to provide personalized micro-location based notifications and actions when an aware app enters your venue or interacts with your products. Three beacons and the developers kit will retail for just $99. The Estimote Beacon, which the call a 'mote', broadcasts tiny radio signals around itself, like a very small lighthouse. Smartphones that are in range are able to 'hear' these signals and estimate their location very precisely, as well as communicate with the beacon to exchange data and information. This potentially will open up a whole new range of location based services, where most of us actually shop, eat and entertain ourselves - indoors.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Amazon - "this is day 1 for the Internet"

The shock purchase of the Washington Post news paper by Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos caught everyone by surprise, even journalists at the Washington Post! The Washington Post has been owned by the Graham family for decades and they've maintained the Post's editorial independence and indirectly been responsible for some of the US's best journalism; such as the infamous Watergate scandal. many pundits have been quick to see this is the death of a venerable institution but I'm not so sure. Amazon has a strong interest in digital media - it has started producing its own TV content, and it distributes music and movies, as well as books and magazines via the its Kindle platform. Would you be more likely to buy a Kindle if the Washington Post came bundled with it? Some people certainly would. The Post lost $50 million last year, and despite Amazon's vast turnover it barely turned a profit. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this newspaper.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Would you eat a Google burger?

You may have seen news reports recently of the first hamburger made from synthetic meat grown in a laboratory. It turns out that Google co-founder Sergey Brin financed this research. Watch the video below to find out why.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bob Doran at the Computer History Museum

Our very own Bob Doran has made the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California. He gave a lunchtime lecture titled The Totalisator – An Algorithm That Led to an Industry. The lecture accompanied Bob's donation of a totaliser adder to the museum. The adder, now one of only two in the museum, is a post-World War II unit, ca. 1947 and came from the totaliser at Manawatu Racing Club’s racetrack in Awapuni/Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

#Turing wont be on the new £10 note

So the Bank of England has decided that Jane Austen will grace the next issue of the £10 note. I, and many others, really wanted Alan Turing to be on the note, My wife is thrilled and although I'd have preferred Turing I'm not upset enough to send death and rape threats to Austen's supporters via Twitter. How can anyone be so angry about this? Twitter was very slow to respond, and this should be a wake up call to all social media. Abusive messages shouldn't be tolerated on any media. British police are now investigating the threats and have made an arrest.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Robots get the best restaurant tables

Thanks to Mark Wilson for bringing this quirky story to my attention. The BBC reports that in Silicon Valley an online war has broken out between bots snapping up restaurant reservations. "The use of bots has made it almost impossible to get good tables at some of the most popular Valley eateries." And I thought that getting a good table meant knowing the maitre d' well.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Shchukarev's forgotten logical thinking machine

I'd never heard of Professor Shchukarev and his "logical thinking machine," a device able to mechanically make simple logical conclusions based on input assumptions, until I was asked to advice The Moscow Polytechnic Museum on its new computing exhibition. The logical thinking machine was an improvement on the "logic piano" devised by the English logician William Stanley Jevons. On Saturday, April 19 1912, in the big auditorium of the Polytechnical Museum, Professor Shchukarev gave a public lecture on the topic of “Cognition and thinking.” The lecture included the demonstration of his logical thinking machine, "a device that can reproduce mechanically the human thought process, i.e. to deduce conclusions based on given assumptions. The machine was first built by the mathematician Jevons and improved by the author of the lecture. The machine shows its results in plain word form." The machine was lost during the chaos of World War One and the Russian Revolution. You can find a full history of this remarkable machine here.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Game Development Boot Camp - Auckland

If you're a student in Auckland with an interest in game programming, you might want to attend the free Microsoft Game Development Boot Camp that is being held this weekend at The University of Auckland. There are prizes to be won! Full details of when and where can be found on the Bootcamp's website.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quantum computing explained

You've probably heard of quantum computing, but like most of us you probably don't have the slightest idea what it is. The famous physicist Niels Bohr once 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." Radio New Zealand interviewed science writer John Gribbin who did an excellent job explaining what quantum computing is and how it may change computation for ever. Gribbin's new book Computing with Quantum Cats: From Colossus to Qubits looks like a great read.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Computer Chess at the International Film Festival

The International Film Festival, now running in Auckland, prides itself in having a movie to suit every taste. There's even one for the geeks amongst us Computer Chess described as a "stubbornly, gloriously retro saga set at an early-1980s computer-chess tournament (with a few ventures into the freaky couples-therapy seminar being held at the same hotel). The technology is dated, both on and off-screen, as hulking machines with names like ‘Tsar 3.0’ and ‘Logic Fortress’ battle for nerdly supremacy as a cameraman, wielding the vintage cameras that were actually used to film the feature, observes. Tiny dramas highlighting the deeply human elements lurking amid all that computer code emerge along the way. Though the Poindexters (and the grainy cinematography) are authentically old-school, the humor is wry and awkwardly dry – very 21st century."
    The movie is showing today (Monday) and tomorrow - check the festival's website for times and tickets.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Alan #Turing to be given posthumous pardon

!!!!! Great news !!!!! It's not a done deal yet, but The Guardian reports that the UK Government indicates its support for a backbench bill to pardon the mathematician and father of computer science who took his own life after his prosecution for gross indecency. Congratulations to everyone who signed the ePetition, those who lobbied their MP's, and principally Lord Sharkey who brought the private members bill - Sharkey said: "As I think everybody knows, he was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later. The government know that Turing was a hero and a very great man. They acknowledge that he was cruelly treated. They must have seen the esteem in which he is held here and around the world."
   Oscar Wilde next.
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Friday, July 19, 2013

IP - "Intellectual" or "Internet" Property

The New Zealand Herald has reported an interesting story that sheds light on the ongoing modern struggle that established copyright and intellectual property laws have with the Internet and the digital distribution of content that may affect you. Do you use the wonderful free media player VLC? I certainly do - it's installed on all four of the computers I regularly use and it is (IMHO) the best video player available. If VLC can't play that file, nothing will. But US media giant HBO has  sent a takedown notice to Google, listing VLC amongst other infringing content they want the search giant to remove from its search results.
   This seems bizarre, VLC isn't infringing anyone's copyright or intellectual property, moreover as open source software nobody could be profiting even if it were. It's as if some lawyer wanted to confiscate your spectacles or contact lens to stop you watching a pirated movie. Has HBO gone mad? Apparently not, it appears that VLC is guilty by association since it often turns up mentioned online around pirated content. HBO's robo-lawyers automatically issue take-down notices and Google is supposed to automatically respond. Fortunately in this case Google has ignored HBO's request. VLC has been tainted by the company it keeps; pirates use VLC therefore VLC must be stopped. VLC runs on computers, perhaps that should be their next target!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Five-Year-Olds to Learn Programming and Algorithms

Many thanks to my colleague Clark Thomborson for bringing this article to my attention. V3.co.uk reports that five-year-olds are to learn programming and algorithms in a major computing curriculum shake-up. "The United Kingdom's Department for Education (DfE) recently overhauled the country's computing curriculum, removing the teaching of software basics such as Microsoft Word and adding programming and algorithm teaching for children as young as five years old. The new curriculum will be mandatory starting in September 2014, and spans the breadth of all four key stages, beginning when a child first enters school at age five through age 16. Students will be taught to understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions. "We are introducing a tougher, more rigorous national curriculum," says Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove. "For the first time children will be learning to program computers. It will raise standards across the board--and allow our children to compete in the global race." The British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering wrote the original draft of the new curriculum and DfE revised it. Students will be expected to create and debug simple programs by the end of key stage one, and they will be taught how to understand computer networks by key stage two."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Imagine yourself a winner

The New Zealand Herald has featured a story on one of our computer science students, Jacky Zhen (centre left), who has has developed the software for a smartphone application designed to prevent sunburn for Microsoft's Imagine Cup. Jacky is currently studying for an MSc in Game AI using neuroevolution for micromanagement in the real-time strategy game Starcraft: Brood War.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alan Turing: His Work and Impact

Nature has published  an amusing short pre-review of the book "Alan Turing: His Work and Impact", edited by S. Barry Cooper and Jan van Leeuwen it reads as follows:

The new testament of computer science has come, 101 years after the birth of founding prophet Alan Turing. It took 70 renowned evangelists from all walks of science and philosophy to put the polymath's words in context and dissect his living impact on pure maths, physics, biology, engineering, banking, metaphysics and beyond. How big is the incomputable universe? Can digital machines think? Do daisies emerge from pure chemistry? If your soul craves answers to such questions, this is your new bible.

The 944 page book presents Turing’s most significant original works along with commentaries from scholarly leaders in the field. Written for a larger audience, it provides a unique insight into the text, context and significance of Turing's impact on mathematics, computing, morphogenesis, philosophy, and to the wider scientific world. The book includes two commentaries co-authored by members of our department. A commentary by C. S. Calude (UoA), L. Staiger (Halle U.) and M. Stay (UoA and Google) presents a complexity-theoretic analysis of non-ending computations that are responsible for Turing arguably most important theorem: no algorithm can distinguish in finite time between halting and non-halting computations. Another commentary by A. A. Abbott (UoA),  C. S. Calude (UoA), K. Svozil (TU Vienna) discusses the controversial issue of oracle-based hypercomputation, i.e. a Turing computation accessing a finite, but unbounded, part of an incomputable set. A Turing computation powered with a quantum random oracle is theoretically capable of breaking the Turing barrier, but is this capability practical?
   Even if this book didn't contain two commentaries by colleagues from my department and wasn't edited by a fellow member of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee i'd still highly recommend it - I can't wait to read it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Douglas C. Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, dies

The New York Times has reported that a true pioneer of computing has died, Doug Englebart, who is credited with inventing the computer mouse and the graphical user interface that we still all use to this day has died aged 88. In the 1960s he had a vision of computers that could be networked together and used intuitively by pointing and clicking at icons on a screen. On December 9 1968, Doug Engelbart and his group of 17 researchers from the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The presentation has become a legend and is now called "The Mother of All Demos" - the public presentation was a session in the of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface. These breakthrough ideas were subsequently taken up by Xerox at their Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and then commercialised by Apple with the Mac.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How algorithms rule the world

The Guardian newspaper today is leading with a story called "How algorithms rule the world," partially motivated by the ongoing NSA security leaks, it shows how it's not just the security services who trawl through vast amounts of our data to find interesting patterns.  From dating websites and financial trading floors, through to online retailing and internet searches, healthcare planning and even music production - algorithms are becoming a vital part of our daily lives. It's an interesting article - recommended.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The history of early computing (in pictures)

Here's a lovely set of pictures of early computing machines from ancient times to 1981 - from the abacus to the IBM personal computer, courtesy of io9. Some of these will be familiar to you, but you're bound to see some new machines.
The Chinese Abacus 'Suan Pan'

Monday, June 24, 2013

Is your data safe in the cloud?

I don't mean is it safe from government spies? I think we can assume after the NSA revelations that governments can access your data whenever they want.  I mean will it always be there for you to access? What if the cloud storage company you use goes bust, or what if a legal fight closes them down. Are you certain you'll be able to gain access to your data? You read all the small print on the terms and conditions before you clicked "Accept" didn't you? The Guardian reports that Kim Dotcom, in a series of angry tweets,  has claimed that internet-hosting company LeaseWeb has wiped data from 630 servers that were used by his online storage service, Megaupload. One tweet said "Millions of personal #Megaupload files, petabytes of pictures, backups, personal & business property forever destroyed by #Leaseweb." Clearly there will be many ex-Megaupload users who will have irretrievably lost data that was important to them.
    With more and more of us being encouraged to store our data in the cloud it's perhaps inevitable that a cloud storage provider will go belly up in the future taking people's personal data with them. I think the industry needs some form of code of conduct or legal assurance that people's data will remain accessible for a time after a company's collapse. Of course the NSA probably has a copy - perhaps they have a valid role after all!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buy The Universal Machine for $3.96

I rarely shamelessly plug my book, but two events in the last week mean that there has never been a better time to buy your own copy or to buy one as a gift. First, Amazon has discounted its price down to a remarkable $3.96 (that's $10 cheaper than the Kindle edition). If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber you'll get free shipping on that! Second, Library Picks Reviews, an Amazon Top 500 Reviewer, has just given The Universal Machine a wonderful 5 star review. I'm going to quote their review in full.

Passes the Zuse Test... June 10, 2013
Any book on computing history that misses Zuse-- the 1938 inventor of Tron, the Matrix, The 13th Floor, Avatar... and many other world views that posit the universe running inside a big computer-- hasn't done it's homework.
   Although the two page (80-82) summary on Zuse isn't long, it is accurate and detailed. I mean, who else would try to build a 30,000 part computer in a barn in Nazi occupied Germany? Not many figured out the genius of this man, from computing to cellular automata, but Siemens obviously did (they bought him out before he passed on in 1995).
Does anyone know how this fine book can be under $5 with free Prime shipping at nearly 400 packed pages? I know, I've got to be dreaming -- somebody unplug the link.
   Wow, even at text prices it's worth it, here, it's a steal! It is "Dover" priced yet contains CURRENT information-- the "history" goes back to the Middle Ages, but brings us right up to everything from dedicated embedded to universal multis and beyond. NOT a dry read-- fun, carries the reader along, and if you've got a few years behind you as I do, will elicit a smile at where we've been as well as where we're going. After all, there really was no web in 1985, so many people alive today saw nearly the entire evolution of the modern computer age!
   In that context, it's great to see the "seeds" going way back, as well as Tron and the Matrix. Zuse's first machine was perfect and correct, but didn't work because the milling and machining sciences were not developed enough for the precision required. (We know this because it WAS later built just to see, and worked!). Like the guy who wrote "I, Pencil" (no, not robot) to show that it takes thousands of brilliant technologies to make a pencil, we take a LOT for granted in what we see today in computing. This awesome book adds back the wonder.
   Highly recommended even as a plane trip or late night substitute for your favorite novelist. Some of the info really is eye opening, as in, "Did you know that..." with your friends on Facebook.
   Library Picks reviews only for the benefit of Amazon shoppers and has nothing to do with Amazon, the authors, manufacturers or publishers of the items we review. We always buy the items we review for the sake of objectivity, and although we search for gems, are not shy about trashing an item if it's a waste of time or money for Amazon shoppers. If the reviewer identifies herself, her job or her field, it is only as a point of reference to help you gauge the background and any biases.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Google project Loon over New Zealand

I'm not quite sure why Google chose to test its new X Project, called Project Loon, in New Zealand - but the view is stunning. The idea sounds crazy - WiFi carried by high altitude ballons to provide Internet access to remote areas of the planet - perhaps "loon" is short for "loony." But crazy or not the idea is being tested in the South Island of New Zealand near Lake Tekapo. The ballons fly twice as high as commercial jets and can even be steered a little by increasing or decreasing their altitude to move them into different wind patterns. The idea is to provide constant coverage to remote parts of Africa and Asia without the need for expensive and hard to install and maintain ground infrastructure. Google is looking for "pilot testers" in New Zealand so if you're interested in testing Loon you can sign up hereNeedless to say the media reporting this story couldn't resist a few sheep jokes. No hobbits were mentioned though.

Project Loon from Google - Balloon-powered Internet from Trey Ratcliff on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Video games made real

If you watched the Apple WWDC Keynote last week you'll have seen a live demo by robotics company Anki. Their "aim is to bring artificial intelligence (AI) into people’s everyday lives." Their demo, which didn't go entirely without a hitch (anyone who's ever given a live demo knows that feeling), was a new take on the classic game of slot cars. Only this wasn't a video game played on an iPhone or iPad, but a real racing game on a track on the floor with real little cars.
    The track was simply unrolled on the floor and the cars placed on it. They communicated by Bluetooth to an iPhone, however the cars are not driven by the iPhone but are rather given strategic commands. Watch the video below which explains it all - I can see Anki Drive being a popular Christmas gift. It also clearly demonstrates the great advances in recent years in sensor technology, algorithms and processing speeds.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Bill Tutte Memorial Fund

The Bill Tutte Memorial Fund has been established to provide a lasting memorial to the man who was almost single handedly responsible for the "greatest intellectual feat of World War II." If you're thinking but wasn't it Alan Turing who cracked the German Enigma code then you really need to learn about Bill Tutte. I'm not going to give you his full story (if you want that read The Universal Machine), but the short story is he worked out the internal logic of the German High Command's Lorenz machine, an encryption device much more complex than Enigma, without ever having seen what a Lorenz machine looked like.
   Working at Bletchley Park, his breakthrough was put into practice by Tommy Flowers and resulted in the world's first computer, Colossus. It's widely believed that the Soviets captured several Lorenz machines as they invaded Germany and believing them invulnerable continued to use them into the 1960s, unaware that the British could crack them. This resulted in so much secrecy surrounding Lorenz, Tutte, Flowers and Colossus that even after Turing and Enigma had become part of popular history they remained unknown.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Just because you're paranoid...

With the news full of stories of the massive digital surveillance of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Apple and other companies' servers by the US NSA and of shadowy spy systems, with names like Prism and Echelon, perhaps we should all be a little more paranoid. Jacob Appelbaum, a key developer of Tor, gave a keynote speech at 29C3 (29th Chaos Communication Congress) last year. Yes, he seemed a bit paranoid, but with hindsight, not so much. [Only the intro to the video is in German]

Monday, June 10, 2013

In praise of ... Melody Gardot

Okay, I admit I have a weakness for beautiful female singers and the current focus of my admiration is Melody Gardot. The American Jazz/Blues/Latin singer has a simply wonderful voice, over which she has perfect control. I saw her a couple of years ago at a vineyard concert, on the same bill with Madeleine Peyroux and Diana Krall, and she was wonderful. No single song can do her justice but the track below will give you a good feel for her talent.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Is 3D printing the future of baking?

The sculpture in the photo isn't made from ceramic or plastic but sugar laid down layer by layer with a 3D printer!  3D printing has been hailed as a breakthrough technology enabling rapid design prototyping, the efficient manufacture of bespoke products and a delight for hobbyists in the maker movement. Rolls Royce have even announced they are planning to print aircraft engines. These high-tech applications are just what we might expect from a new technology. But I never thought bakers might start 3D printing. A Californian start-up, called The Sugar Lab, is a micro-design firm for custom 3D printed sugar. You must check out their gallery to see the wonderful things they can do with sugar. I predict this will be huge in upmarket restaurants and for wedding cakes - coming to a plate near you...

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The certainty of uncertainty

With a report yesterday highlighting how many government IT systems are fundamentally insecure it's perhaps a good time to reconsider just how safe that "anonymous" data organisations are keeping on you is. An interesting article in the Guardian shows how we shouldn't trust organisations who state that they will only keep "anonymised"  data (i.e., all identifying information is removed) or "pseudonymised" data (i.e., all identifiers are replaced with pseudonyms). It turns out that if you can match features in two data sets, one of which has been anonymised and one of which hasn't, it's typically very easy to reveal the true identities of the anonymised data.
   Consider this example from a few months ago; the UK police revealed that an 83 year old male Australian entertainer living in the UK was "helping them with their enquiries into sexual offenses." Now the police had followed standard practice in protecting the identity of the man and their press release was anonymous. Except for the obvious fact that Rolf Harris was the only 83 year old male Australian entertainer living in the UK and thus it took the lazy-web about 2 seconds to figure that out. Obviously this is an extreme example but you see the principle. Next time an organisation tells you "it only keeps anonymous data" think again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lifeblogging with Memoto

The Google Glass headset has created some controversy recently with regard to privacy because users can take photos (and video) without those around them knowing. However, Glass at least has the benefit that it is very obvious when someone is wearing them. Enter a new Swedish invention called Memoto, a small wearable camera that takes a photo automatically every 30 seconds.
   The camera is inside the little orange lozenge the man in the photo is wearing around his neck - did you recognise that as a camera? Intended for "lifeblogging" Memoto connects with an app on your smartphone to organise a whole day's photo stream into an easily searchable timeline. Although there's no mention of video capability it is fairly obvious that video would be possible as well. Whilst we might all learn to recognise people wearing Memoto it is quite obvious that these little cameras would be very easy to camouflage and conceal should somebody want to. Soon we may have to assume that somebody is filming us all the time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The latest victims of the digital revolution...

...are staff photographers. The Chicago Sun-Times, the Windy City's leading newspaper, has laid off all its 28 photographers. Reporters for the newspaper are being trained in how to use their iPhones to take better photographs and freelance photographers will also be used according to the Chicago Tribune. Among those laid off was Pulitzer Prize winning Sun-Times photographer John H. White, who won his Pulitzer for feature photography in 1982. The Chicago Sun-Times plans to use more video in future for its online newspaper. I imagine that this news will horrify those seeking a professional career in news photography where I assume it must be already hard to find a job. However, some publications still value excellent photography  for example, the Guardian features a selection of the best images from around the world every day.

Update: A couple of days after this post NZ National Radio interviewed John H, White. You can listen to the interview below.