Thursday, March 27, 2014

Apps to Get Your Kids Coding on the iPad

I've blogged before about the importance of teaching children to code rather than just using computers. The iPad Insight blog has recently published an article that showcases iPad apps that will help your kids learn to code in enjoyable and fun ways. Since iPads are so popular with children this could be a very good to way to introduce them to coding. I'd expect that some of these apps are also available for Android tablets.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Huffington Post reported last week that: "It's All Over: Robots Are Now Writing News Stories, And Doing A Good JobWhen an earthquake hit the Los Angeles area Monday morning at 6:25 AM, the Los Angeles Times had their story published in about three minutes. It was the first media outlet to report on the breaking news. How, you ask? It used a robot." However, there's nothing new about the automatic generation of narratives from data. Kris Hammond, in his blog, predicted that 90% of news will be computer generated in 15 years, and that was 4 years ago. Kris has even created a business out of this called Narrative Science. You can watch a short video about one of their products below.

Quill Engage by Narrative Science from Katy DeLeon on Vimeo.

Friday, March 21, 2014

This day in history... the first tweet

On March 21 2006 Jack Dorsey sent the very first tweet. Like many tweets not especially informative and presumable Jack didn't have many, if any, followers. Twitter was opened to the public that July and had it’s first major success at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in 2007, shortly after it had been made into a company. And the rest< as they say, is history. You can follow me and this blog @driwatson

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee didn't expect kittens to take over the web

You may have noticed that it's the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has naturally been receiving quite a lot of media attention. At an Ask Me Anything event for Reddit last week Tim Berners-Lee was asked the following question:

Q: "What was one of the things you never thought the internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the internet?"
"Porn," several Redditors prompted.
Tim Berners-Lee replied: "Kittens."

And it's true that the Web, and YouTube in particular, have been taken over by cats: kittens, small cats, big cats, LOLcats, Grumpy Cats. So I can't really end this blog post without a cat photo can I.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Home automation

I like gadgets, it kinda comes with the job. I've always been fascinated by home automation systems but also recognised that firstly, they were very expensive, and secondly were almost instantly obsolete. Until very recently home automation systems would require lots of complex wiring throughout the house, clunky control panels and bulky remotes and, to be honest, rather like bling but for houses. The fact that any system would become obsolete so fast was a particular problem, since a house is built to last for generations. However, this is changing with the advent of wireless systems and I've decided to take the plunge. I'll be reporting on what I install and the experience as the system progresses.
The first purchase is a Piper from Black Sumac. This is essentially a security camera with extra functionality. Its fish eye video camera can be activated by its built in motion sensor or microphone. It's controlled via an iPhone or Android app and I can watch its live video feed on my iPhone from anywhere. Different security levels can be set depending on whether we're just asleep in the front of the house, at work or away on a holiday. Security alerts can be sent to our phones and to a trusted circle of friends who may be asked to check on the property. Piper uses an open source wireless protocol, called Z-Wave, that can control light switches, thermostats, door and window sensors, door locks, and other devices. Rules can be created to trigger various actions; for example, if a door sensor reports that it has been opened, Piper can sound its 120db siren, turn on the lights and start recording video to the cloud. Alternatively, if the room's temperature falls below a threshold a thermostat can be activated. Piper monitors outdoor and indoor temperatures, humidity, light levels, and ambient sound levels. Piper was easy to install and set up and has operated faultlessly for a couple of weeks without any reboots. It is though very much a work in progress, with some important functionality not available yet, such as downloading video clips from the cloud. It also currently interacts with a very limited range of Z-Wave products. The makers of Piper however say that lots more functionality and interoperability is in the pipeline.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble

I don't often blog about academia, but my colleague, Mark Wilson, has brought this fascinating blog article, called The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble to my attention. It basically makes the case that academic science is in trouble because the skills it requires are either very much in demand by industry and commerce (i.e, the ability to analyse big data) and that the skills required to create scientific software to do just this are not well rewarded inside academia. I encourage you to read the article yourself.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The world's largest photo service just made its pictures free to use

Getty Images is the worlds largest image database with millions of images, all watermarked. These represent over a hundred years of photography, from FDR on the campaign trail to last weeks Oscars, all stamped with  transparent square placard reminding you that you don't own the rights. If you want Getty to take off the watermark, until now, you had to pay for it. Getty Images, in a rare act of digital common sense, have realised that so many of its images are online in the public space accessible via a Google image search. So, providing you register, you can simply embed one of their images in your web page (like you would for a YouTube clip) and you can now legally use their image, along with a label that indicates its source. It's very refreshing to see a company be so pragmatic about digital rights. Rather then employing teams of people to issue take down notices and legal threats they've made it easy for everyone to use their wonderful images. So here's a lovely photo of the beautiful Auckland waterfront at night curtsy of Getty Images. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Inbox zero - progress report

Back in January I blogged about the recurring Internet meme of achieving and maintaining Inbox Zero. I thought a couple of months later it would be useful to update you on my progress and what effect it's had on my productivity. Using the technique described in my blog post I archived all of the mail in my inbox older than a couple of months. I was an early adopter of Gmail and had tens of thousands of emails in my inbox; hey, you never ever had to delete them, right! I then laboriously went through the remaining emails, deleting or archiving those I could, and actioning the ones I couldn't until my inbox was empty - yes, this did take a few hours.
   Using an app on my iPhone and iPad, called Mailbox, I've found it easy and enjoyable to stay at Inbox Zero. First let's look at why Mailbox helps me maintain an empty inbox. With just a simple swipe and a click and can easily defer an email if I don't want to reply to it straight away. The defer actions (seen on the right) are reasonably self explanatory. What Mailbox does is moves emails from your inbox into folders that depending on your choice ensures that the mail will reappear in your inbox at the designated time and date.
   I'll use one of those irritating work emails that arrive in your inbox at 5:30pm on Friday afternoon to show what happens. The mail in question perhaps requires some thought or information obtained from work systems. I wont be able to physically deal with it until Monday anyway. So I defer the mail to "Next Week". Mailbox then  removes that email from my inbox and it will appear first thing Monday morning for me to action. Mail can also be easily deleted, archived and directed to specific folders (labels in Gmail) with simple gestures.
   Why then is this so helpful? Consider that friday afternoon work mail. Previously it would have been sitting in my inbox all weekend, nagging at me. Constantly reminding me it needed dealing to all weekend. Now I can totally forget about, relaxed in the certainty it will reappear next week when I can actually do something about it. This form of positive deferment is really very liberating. I action mail when I need to and defer those that I can to an appropriate time in the future: a few hours later, tomorrow, next week, in a month, a specific date, or someday (a deferment for mails that might be fun or interesting to deal with but have no priority). Maintaining inbox zero has, I think, made me more relaxed and productive.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

20 Resources for Teaching Kids How to Program & Code

Educators now admit that the past decades of ITC teaching were flawed. Teaching kids to use MS Word or PowerPoint is not empowering them to join the IT revolution. Current thinking is that everyone should know how to code (at least the fundamentals). This will help everyone understand that computer programs aren't something magical, that only a select few can create, but a tool anyone can use. To this end more and more ways of teaching kids to code are being created. This article lists "20 Resources for Teaching Kids How to Program & Code".

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Return of the ZX Spectrum

Esquire reports that the iconic ZX Spectrum may be about to have a comeback. For a brief moment in the 1980s, Britain was a technology superpower, with the iconic ZX Spectrum earning Sir Clive Sinclair his ‘Sir’ and turning Britain into a fizzing hub of game-creation. OK I didn't actually own a ZX Spectrum back then, but two of my best friends did, and we spent many hours programming games into the ZX. The ZX wasn't just for gaming though; one of my friend's wrote a program to check if the bank was charging the correct interest and fees on his father's bank account - it wasn't. This retro ZX Spectrum is now on my "want-it" list.