Friday, January 31, 2014

Play games and help scientists

Do you enjoy playing games and solving puzzles? Do you feel guilty that perhaps you're wasting too much time on silly games. Here's a solution where you can play games and be produced at the same time. Zooniverse uses the time, problem solving skills and excellent pattern recognition abilities of thousands of people to solve real scientific problems disguised as fun games. They state that:  "Zooniverse began with a single project, Galaxy Zoo, which was launched in July 2007. The Galaxy Zoo team had expected a fairly quiet life, but were overwhelmed and overawed by the response to the project. Once they'd recovered from their server buckling under the strain, they set about planning the future! Galaxy Zoo was important because not only was it incredibly popular, but it produced many unique scientific results, ranging from individual, serendipitous discoveries to those using classifications that depend on the input of everyone who's visited the site. This commitment to producing real research - so that you know that we're not wasting your time - is at the heart of everything we do."
    Zooniverse now has about 20 different projects online that you can get involved with - so why not give something back with that free time and energy you have.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Blogging and web automation - #IFTTT

For several years now I've been using a web automation service called "If This Then That ( This streamlines my blogging process and makes me much more productive. Let me explain; IFTTT allows you to set up trigger events across a range of web services that you commonly use: Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, various blogging platforms, Evernote, Instagram and many more (check out all the "channels" IFTTT supports). When a new event is detected by IFTTT it can generate an action in one of its supported channels. Data from the triggering event can be used in the resulting action. For example, a new Gmail with a particular keyword in the subject line might cause a blog post to be created in WordPress with the text from the mail's message.
Here's how I use IFTTT when I blog. First, where do I get stories that I may want to blog about from? These can come from my Twitter feed (I follow a lot of techies), Google+ (ditto), CurateMe - a news aggregation service that sends me an email every morning with stories on computer science and A.I., Flipboard, which I read on my iPad and iPhone and the WWW in general. If I'm reading on my computer then I'll clip an interesting article using Evernote's WebClipper browser extension. If I'm reading on my iPad or iPhone then I'll send the article to Pocket. Now IFTTT kicks in. 
    When it detects a new Evernote note (tagged with the term "blog") or a new Pocket item (also tagged "blog") it automatically creates a draft post on The Universal Machine blog in Blogger. I may also manually decide to "flick" an interesting Flipboard story to my Universal Machine Flipboard magazine (currently Flipboard isn't supported by IFTTT). Ok, so now I'll have several draft blog posts in Blogger. I will then (maybe the following day) go into Blogger and look at the drafts. One of them I'll decide will be the day's post. This I will edit as necessary and publish.
Blogger then automatically generates a Google+ post about my new blog post and now IFTTT really does some heavy lifting. Blogging is pointless if nobody knows about new posts; so, IFTTT tweets the title and URL of the new blog post to my followers. It also posts to the Universal Machine's Facebook page. IFTTT then copies the post to another Blogger blog I run for my work on computer science. IFTTT updates my LinkedIn status with the new post and copies the post to four other blogging services: Delicious, Storify, Tumblr and WordPress just because it can. All of this is done automatically, with no input or effort from me, once I click "publish" in Blogger.
   So there you have it, my blogging process considerably enhanced by using IFTTT. If your web automation needs are more sophisticated then Zapier may be for you. It supports about 250 different web services and the event triggers and resulting actions are more sophisticated and detailed than IFTTT. However, it is not a free service. Read a comparison of automating web actions with the two apps: IFTTT and Zapier here. I highly recommend you check out web automation services to help you become more productive.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy birthday #Macintosh!

Some days it takes a while to find what tech story to blog about, but not today. The iconic Apple Macintosh is 30 years old. If we want to push the birthday metaphor, we could say the cute little Mac is now all grown up with children of its own and holds down a serious job. Needless to say, the news is full of Mac stories today. The Guardian is running a great picture story - Thirty years of the Apple Macintosh – in pictures. However, in the interest of balance I'd also recommend you read Jerry Pournelle's article Why the Original Mac Just Didn’t Cut It. It's true the original Mac was woefully underpowered to handle that revolutionary operating system and interface. Waiting 5 mins for a program to save was not unusual, and anyone who tried to copy a floppy disc on the early Mac will never forget the experience and probably still suffers from a form of geeky post traumatic shock. Nonetheless, we love the Mac, it was a breakthrough.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Your smartphone replaces the roomful of equipment

John-Michael Bond for has written that "Smartphones are expensive, even with the subsidies your mobile carrier provides. But if you add up all the tools you now carry around in your pocket instead of having to toss in your backpack while you travel, the savings are pretty remarkable." A recent post from the Buffalo, NY blog Trending Buffalo finally puts a price and perspective on how much tech we're actually carrying.
Writer Steve Cichon found and uploaded a Radio Shack ad circular from 1991 and, with the exception of 15" speakers and a radar detector, there was literally nothing found on the circular that your smartphone couldn't easily do. Thanks to the box in your pocket you've got a weather radio, AM/FM radio, headphones, calculator, video games, camcorder, cellular phone, Speed-Dial, voice mail, and tape recorder on you at all times.
Adding it all up Cichon discovered buying all of that gear would set you back $3,054.82 in 1991. Adjusted for inflation that's around $5,100 in modern dollars. You can see the circular ad below. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sweet solution? Google tests smart contact lens for diabetics

The Guardian reports that diabetics could in future avoid painful pinprick blood glucose tests using a smart contact lens being developed at Google which measures glucose levels in tears.
A prototype shown off by the company uses an embedded miniaturised glucose sensor and wireless chip in a contact lens to measure glucose in tears as often as once every second.
That would make monitoring glucose levels - an essential task for diabetics, who are at risk of heightened or lowered blood-sugar levels - faster, easier and less painful because it would remove the need to break the skin and measure blood glucose levels directly.
Diabetes, caused by a deficiency of the sugar-regulating hormone insulin, affects around 5% of people in developed nations. It is a leading cause of kidney failure, blindness and amputations if insufficiently treated.
French scientists discovered that tears carry measurable levels of glucose in the 1930s, but it has taken decades to find a way to exploit that to create a non-invasive test. A team at the University of Michigan showed off a sensor which tested tears in November 2011, and were even then one of a number pursuing the idea. Microsoft Research, then collaborating with Babak Parviz - at the time a professor at University of Washington - unveiled a prototype of the glucose-measuring contact lens in 2011.
Since then Parviz has moved to join Google's experimental X Lab, for which this is its latest product. "We're testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second," said Brian Otis and Parviz, co-founders of the project which they started at the University of Washington, in a joint blog post. "We're also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we're exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds."
Google is currently talking to the US Food and Drugs Administration, which regulates drugs and medical applications, about selling it as a medical device, and seeking partners among medical experts to bring a smart contact lens and apps to market.
"We've always said that we'd seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation is declaring that the world is 'losing the battle' against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot," Otis and Parviz said of Google X labs, which also developed Google's self-driving cars and Google Glass, the company's smart glasses. I wonder if Google's long term interest in contact lenses may be as an extension to the Google Glass project?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Douglas Adams' last post on his online forum was about excitement over Mac OS X

by John-Michael Bond 
Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was famous for his love of technology. In his personal life and works alike ran a deep appreciation for science and its effect on society. In the posthumous collection The Salmon of Doubt, Adams famously summed up his view of how humankind deals with the introduction of new tech:
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
Adam's interest in technology lasted beyond the age of 35, until his death in 2001 of a heart attack at the age of 49. Given his love of technology, it's fitting that Adam's last post on his message board revolved around his excitement over installing a ground breaking piece of software; Mac OS X.
On April 25, 2001 a formerly Mac hating user asked Adams about his thoughts on the newly released operating system. The user had seen a demo that inspired him to buy his first Mac, but wanted the opinion of a long time Mac fan like Adams.
In keeping his enthusiasm for technology, Adams provided a giddy response:
I was going to wait till the summer to install it, but I succumbed and installed it last week. It takes a little getting used to, old habits are hard to reform, and it's not quite finished (what software ever is), and much of the software that's out to run on it is Beta.
I think it's brilliant. I've fallen completely in love with it. And the promise of what's to come once people start developing in Cocoa is awesome...
What strikes me most about his response is that even while installing a software that was by his own admission still a long way from being finished, Adams could only think about the future. He didn't talk about the bugs or problems, all he saw was the promise of what was to come. Even when chatting with fans on his message board, Adams promoted the same love of technology and thirst for the future that drove so many of his books.
It's fitting that his final word to fans was a positive view of a still-developing technology.
Thanks to Reddit user danwin for finding this post and posting about it on the Apple Reddit forum .

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Precision Dynamics Discovery Shed

In the Sydney northern beaches suburb of Mona Vale is located Bob Moran’s Discovery Shed.  Bob graciously picked me up from the Manly ferry and I spent a full afternoon looking around and chatting with the man himself. He used to have a business called “Precision Dynamics” that designed and constructed packaging machinery.  He was an engineer in possession of the appropriate equipment to pursue his own interest in the history of machinery. When he retired he made his company’s building into the Discovery Shed private museum and workshop. This is available for viewing by appointment and also provides facilities and space for others to become members and pursue their own passions.
A number of years ago Bob became enthralled with Charles Babbage’s computing machines as elucidated by the work of the late Allan Bromley of the University of Sydney. Bob is replicating Charles Babbage’s, working, small portion of Difference Engine No.1, as built by Joseph Clement in 1832, to as accurate a detail as possible, using modern techniques, from bronze and iron, similar to the original now in the Science Museum London. This replica is expected to work just as the original machine does. 
This is now on gleaming display and nearing completion, here is Bob with his creation:

To demonstrate that complete reconstruction (to the point where the project was abandoned) of the entire Difference Engine is possible using Babbage’s 1833 drawings, Bob has built a full-scale mock-up of the machine including much of the driving and printing mechanism. He has also captured Babbage’s 1833 engineering drawings in modern CAD form. Here is the mock-up (about 3.5 metres tall).

Bob also was fascinated by the Australian Julius totalisators and has preserved a portion of one of the machines in near-operating order:

If that were not enough, Bob has on display his comprehensive collection of early typewriters and mechanical calculating machines. This includes many choice pieces, including examples of Otto Steiger’s multipliers of the 1890s.

And there is much more. The Shed also houses sewing machines, a gyroscopic compass, gunfire control computers, phonographs and a pedal-powered dentist drill. There are also modern computers, a PDP-7 (on which Unix was developed) and a working PDP-8.
So. If you are a computing history aficionado, no visit to Sydney should be without a visit to the Discovery Shed. Bob Moran can be contacted at
[Posted by Bob Doran]

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Take command of your email

A common New Year's resolution many of us made this year is "to once and for all take control of my email" and perhaps even attain the email nirvana of an empty Inbox. Problem is we made the same resolution last year, and the year before and nothing changed. So if you made that resolution, and if you use Gmail, here are some tips. Getting an empty Inbox is particularly hard in Gmail since it encourages you to never delete an email, guaranteeing that your account storage will never max out. This encourages people to leave messages in the Inbox even though they've been dealt with. Soon dozens, then hundreds and eventually tens of thousands of emails stack up dating back to the first day you started using Gmail. Gmail seems to only let you select mails a screen at a time, so deleting or archiving them becomes a tedious chore never completed.
   There is a solution. You can reasonably assume that emails more than a few months old probably no longer need your attention. There is a way to bulk delete or archive all emails in Gmail before a certain date. Follow these instructions from PC World - you can decide on the date, but archiving the emails rather than deleting them is advisable since they are still searchable by Gmail.
    Okay, you've now got a few dozen to a few hundred emails in your inbox and there's no choice but to manually go through them. You'll find most can be be quickly archived leaving a small subset that still require your attention. Also, whilst you're doing this every time you delete a mail ask yourself "Is this a mail I always delete without reading"; a newsletter from a gym you no longer attend or an online store you once used perhaps. Take the time to unsubscribe before you delete; this will save you time in the long run. Ruthlessly unsubscribe yourself from mailing lists you are no longer interested in or never joined in the first place.
   Now you've got your inbox down to just a handful of emails and nirvana is in sight. It is now time to change your relationship with your email so you control it. A colleague, Barry Smyth, recently published on his blog A 10-Step Plan for Productive Email. I recommend adopting most of these steps as appropriate to you. Good luck, and I hope you reach email nirvana.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Even my dog has wearable tech!

Many of the IT pundits have been saying that 2014 will be the year of wearable tech, computers and gadgets (for example this news story on CES 2014). For once they may not be wrong. My wife got a Jawbone Up wristband for Xmas, with which she monitors her exercise, sleep patterns and calories - she loves it. She was already using a pedometer on her iPhone so this just adds to the experience. However, the youngest member of our family also has wearable tech. Toby, our 5 year old cavoodle, has a Whistle, a small disc he wears on his collar. It does pretty much the same as his owners Up wristband, logging his daily exercise and sleep patterns. What is potentially useful about the app is that it compares Toby's data with dogs of a similar breed and age also using Whistle. This will be useful to ensure Toby isn't over exercised; a problem for some small dogs with active owners. It will also potentially be of use when we next have a house-sitter when we go on holiday since we can remotely track Toby's activity to ensure the dog walker is doing their job.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

30th anniversary of the Macintosh

January 24th will be the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Macintosh and an event to celebrate is being planned by the Computer History Museum and Macworld. It will be held at the Flint Center in Cupertino, CA. where the original launch by Steve Jobs was held. Many of the team responsible for the design of the Mac will be there and all proceeds will go to charity. More information and tickets here. I remember using a Mac in the late 80s (to make diagrams for my PhD thesis) and I find it amazing how far the technology has come but in some ways it has changed. The original Macintosh's DNA is still there in my MacBook Pro.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Powerhouse Museum's totalisator

Posted by Bob Doran: I was recently at the Powerhouse Museum to study some archives. The Principal Science curator, Matthew Connell, graciously took the time to drive me to the museum’s storage facility in North Sydney to look at some totalisator items.  More on those later. For now, note that the Powerhouse Museum has the best display on computing history in this hemisphere – well worth a visit. This  includes exhibits on the totalisator. Matthew describes one of his favourite items in this video from the ABC.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The robots are coming

Happy 2014! I'm back after a holiday in Rarotonga, Xmas with the family, New Year with friends and a break from blogging. So where to begin? A round up of tech events in 2013, predictions for 2014 or something else? This thoughtful essay in The Guardian titled "The robots are coming. Will they bring wealth or a divided society?" caught my eye. There is no doubt that we're approaching a watershed where the cost and effectiveness of robots will make their use widespread. This will undoubtedly have an impact on employment; but will it cause mass unemployment and a more divided society or result in economic development and benefits for all? The answer really lies in society's hands. We have to make the decision - what sort of world do we want?