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 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.