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.