Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In praise of... Oscar Niemeyer


Back in March I wrote a blog post about the architect Mies van der Rohe - this blog is (mostly) about computing, yet that post is the 4th most viewed post on this blog. I really don't know why, perhaps geeks like modern architecture. So I figured I'd give another giant of modernist architecture some praise - Oscar Niemeyer
    A few years ago I was invited to lecture in Brazil and as part of the trip went to the capital Brasilia - their purpose built capital city, in the middle of nowhere, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The entire city was designed to look like a plane from the air; with Parliament where the cockpit is, government ministries down the fuselage and residential areas in the wings. Although much of the original design ethos has been lost to infill development the set piece buildings in the heart of the city are wonderful examples of modernist architecture. It was thrilling to see so many beautiful buildings in one space. Oscar Niemeyer passed away in June aged 104.

Monday, December 24, 2012

NORAD tracks #Santa (RAF shoots him down)

Since 1955 the North American Aerospace Defence Command NORAD has been tracking Santa as he, his sled and reindeer, deliver presents to all the good children in the world on the night of Christmas Eve.

Britain however, is not a member of NORAD and does not track Santa...

BBC Breaking News: RAF Says "Sorry, We Shot Down Santa" 06:15 25/12/12

A Senior RAF spokesperson has just made this announcement: Air Commodore Jack Ripper said, "It is with deep regret that I must inform the nation that at 02:15 hours we confirmed that the RAF had shot down Father Christmas as he crossed the Scottish border."
   he continued  "Two Tornado F3s of No. 111 Squadron were scrambled from RAF Leuchars in Fife Scotland to intercept the unidentified intruder but were too slow. Satellite data indicated the intruder had originated from somewhere in the  Arctic Polar Sea, actually from near the North Pole. It was concluded that it was likely an intercontinental ballistic missile launched from a nuclear submarine. The intruder was subsequently shot down by a surface to air missile. We can confirm there are no survivors, though Blitzen is unaccounted for."
   A Ministry of Defense spokesperson has confirmed the incident and added that, "The Army will ensure that every child in the UK receives a toy this Christmas. Though for logistical reasons children will have to visit regional distribution centres to collect their toy." So far the Prime Minister has been unavailable for comment.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Universal Machine Kindle Edition - a perfect Christmas gift

Buy on Amazon

The Kindle edition of the Universal Machine is out in time for Christmas. It would make the perfect Christmas gift for that relative whom you never know what to buy. Anyone with any interest in computers will love to receive this - honest. Don't just take my word for it, here are what some reviewers have said:
    The Universal Machine is a great way to get a real feel for where the machines that are at the centre of so many of our lives came from. 4 stars - PopularScience.co.uk
    There is something in here for anyone who has the vaguest interest in a history of computers including the internet, some of the major pioneers and some of the companies that have risen (and in some cases, fallen) along the way.  8/10 - British Computer Society
     It's accessible and readable even to non-geeky types, written as it is in an easy-going and engaging style. At the same time, it's also an enjoyable read for hard-core techies: you'll almost certainly keep running into computers and engineers you haven't heard of before - a fascinating history of computers and computer scientists - NakedSecurity
  I really enjoyed this book. It's very informative, well written and very easy to read. I look at my computer now in a whole new light. 5 stars - Amazon review

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

IBM predict computers will have all 5 senses in 5 years

IBM has made a prediction that in just 5 years cognitive computers will be able to see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Bernard Meyerson, Chief Innovation Officer at IBM says, "This year, we focused the IBM Next 5 in 5, our 2012 forecast of inventions that will change your world in the next five years, on how computers will mimic the senses:
Touch:        You will be able to reach out and touch through your phone
Sight:          A pixel will be worth a thousand words
Hearing:     Computers will hear what matters
Taste:          Digital taste buds will help you to eat healthier
Smell:          Computers will have a sense of smell"
   It's all described in this video below.

Incidentally, I've always been puzzled by the "5 senses" as I've always thought I have 6 senses - motion being the 6th. The awareness of being up or down, accelerating or decelerating  moving forwards, left or right. To me that's a "sense," distinct from the other 5, but just as useful.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Big Data for small business

Big Data has been the IT buzz word for 2012 and I've blogged about it before. It would be easy to think that Big Data was the sole preserve of mega companies like Google and Amazon, but an article in the Washington Post called How Main Street will fight big business with ‘big data’ shows how small local businesses, by sgharing their data, can gain significant benefits.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stephen Hawking supports pardon for Alan #Turing

The Alan Turing Year brought this to my attention last night - a group of senior British establishment figures, including Professor Hawking, have written a letter to the Telegraph newspaper in support of a pardon for Alan Turing. I can't find the letter online so here is a full transcript:

Pardon for Alan Turing
SIR - We write in support of a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era. He led the team of Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which most historians agree shortened the Second World War. Yet successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being homosexual, which led to his suicide, aged 41.
    We urge the British Prime Minister to forgive this British hero, to whom we owe so much as a nation, and whose pioneering contribution to computer sciences remains relevant even to this day. To those who seek to block attempts to secure a pardon with the argument that this would set a precedent, we would answer that Turing's achievements are sui generis. It is time his reputation was unblemished.

Lord Currie of Marlyebone
Lord Grade of Yarmouth
Lord Faulkner of Worcester
Lord Rees of Ludlow (Astronomer Royal)
Lord Sharkey
Lord Smith of Finsbury
Baroness Trumington
Sir Timothy Gowers (Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Cambridge University)

Dr Douglas Gurr (Chairman, Science Museum Group)
Professor Stephen Hawking
Sir Paul Nurse (President, The Royal Society)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Worried about the Mayan apocalypse?

NASA isn't. In fact they're so sure that the world will not end on December 21, as some claim was predicted by the ancient Mayans, that they've published, ten days earl,y their December 22nd 2012 ScienceCast video explaining why the world didn't end the day before. Of course if they're wrong they wont have to wipe egg of their face.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Google Doodle for Ada Lovelace

Google have honoured Lady Ada Lovelace with a Google Doodle on her 197th birthday. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a big fan of this remarkable lady. She was a collaborator of the Victorian mathematician Charles Babbage: translating an Italian paper on his inventions into English (and adding copious notes of her own), and writing the first algorithm for Babbage's Analytical Engine. As a consequence she is often referred to as the "first computer programmer."

Friday, December 7, 2012

He dreamed of machines - The Pet Shop Boys perform new #Turing work

The Pet Shop Boys on their blog write, "Last night's concert with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra was a wonderful experience for us. The orchestra played with such luxurious power and conviction, conducted by Dominic Wheeler, and the Manchester Chamber Choir brought ethereal beauty to, for instance, "Miracles" and "He dreamed of machines" (from our new piece about Alan Turing)... "He dreamed of machines" had a pale beauty. Many thanks to everyone at the BBC, Parlophone and our management and tour personnel for making it happen."
   The concert was broadcast live on BCC Radio 2 and is available to stream for seven days from BBC Radio 2's website. The Turing piece is about an hour into the concert. The Pet Shop Boys say that the full piece will be about all of Turing's life and will be a narrated work. In the song they sing about, "The Universal Machine, it would a machine to do everything!"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

NZ premiere of Codebreaker - #Turing movie

Just a reminder that tomorrow (Thu Dec 6) is the NZ premiere of Codebreaker, the new drama-documentary movie about Alan Turing. The movie screening is free, with free refreshments before hand.
Venue: OGG B4 (260-073), Owen G Glen Building, University of Auckland (see map below)
Time: screening at 6:00pm, refreshements from 5:30pm
The movie is 81 minutes long and there is public parking in the basement of the Owen G Glen Building.

View Larger Map

Monday, December 3, 2012

Peter Norvig - has the best job in the word

In a recent interview in the Guardian Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, say he has "the best job in the world." In the interview he talks about the future of Artificial Intelligence, mapping, personal computer, and Google's plans for the future. He's extremely well qualified to talk about AI since he co-authored the standard AI text book. If you've taken an AI course, including mine, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach is the recommended text. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Auckland Museum solves mapping mystery

Detail from a 1908 chart showing Sandy Island
in the Coral Sea
There's been a lot of talk about the accuracy of maps recently, particularly with regard to Apple's iOS Maps application. In fact Richard Williamson, the guy in charge of the Apple Maps team, recently lost his job. Perhaps he can take some comfort from the fact that maps always contain errors and that cartography, even in the age of satellites, is not always an exact science.
    Recently a story surfaced (no pun intended) about the mysterious disappearance of Sandy Island in the South Pacific. The 26 km long island in the Coral Sea is clearly shown in charts dating back to the 1700s and is shown on Google Earth as a mysterious black lozenge. This year some Australian scientists set out to visit Sandy Island only to find open ocean.
   Auckland Museum has now solved the mystery by studying its archived charts. One of these shows that Sandy Island was discovered by the ship Velocity in 1876. But there is a note on the chart which warns: “Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.”  So it seems that maps always contain errors - perhaps Richard Williamson has a case for unfair dismissal from Apple.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The tech behind the #Hobbit

Yesterday it was rather hard to avoid The Hobbit's premiere in Wellington - but as computer scientists we're much more interested in the technology than in the red carpet. Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's FX company isn't camera shy but I've only been able to find this description of the infrastructure they deploy to make movies like LOTR, King Kong, Avatar and now The Hobbit. Adam Shand, former lead of Weta Digital’s infrastructure team describes Weta Digital's data centre using 35,000 CPU cores in its "renderwall" and 3,000TB of storage. The distributed Weta campus buildings are "connected with a minimum of redundant 10Gbps connections with 40Gbps EtherChannel trunks in any situation in which storage and the renderwall needed to talk to each other." A full description including architecture diagrams is provided by Shand in this NetApp blog post. Since this describes the infrastructure used for Avatar I guess Weta Digital will be more powerful today. In the video below Paul Gunn, of Weta Digital, describes their technology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk

There's been a spate of articles  (like this one) recently about the potential risks and ethics of lethal AIs - drones that can acquire targets autonomously and robots, like the Terminator, hunting down and killing people. Whilst I've blogged about this before I was surprised to suddenly see the web alive with speculation and comment. I think I've tracked down the source; a new Cambridge University research centre called "The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk." 
    The CSER is co-founded by Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, astrophysicist professor Martin Rees and Skype's co-founder Jaan Tallinn. Prof Price says, "It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology. He adds that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of "machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don't include us".

Friday, November 23, 2012

95 year old woman honoured for working with #Turing - radio interview

Ursula Frost
Ursula Frost, a 95 year old Auckland woman, who worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during WWII has finally received the honour she so richly deserves. Fluent in French and Greek she was recruited to work for M18 at Bletchley in 1940 when she was just 23. She recalls that Turing was a "'very nice chap."
   Today Jonathan Coleman, MP for Northcote in Auckland, presented her with a special badge honouring her services. Ursula was also interviewed for Radio New Zealand's National Programme. We should not forget that thousands of people worked at Bletchley, under total secrecy, and most passed away without ever receiving any acknowledgement for their vital work. It's lovely to see Ursula Frost given the recognition she so richly deserves.

The world's oldest working computer

Let's get this clear before we start - the headline says "the world's oldest working computer," not "the world's first computer." The oldest working computer is The Harwell Dekatron, later called the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell (WITCH). It was first powered up in 1951. Over the last three years, the WITCH has been restored  by The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where  it’s now on display . It's been powered up and is working its way through some of its original 1950s programs.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

New Zealand's first computer programmer


An ICT1201
My colleague Bob Doran, a keen computing historian, has written this blog post.

Ruth Engleback must be close to the earliest computer programmer surviving in NZ. Now in her 80th year, she immigrated to NZ in August 1962 with her husband and two children (four more were born in NZ.) She lives on Albany hill on a 10-acre block where the family has been since 1965.
   Ruth (nee Thomson) was one of first group of four trainee woman programmers
hired by BTM in 1954. She stayed with the company until July 1959 just
before the birth of their first child. The group of trainees were from various
backgrounds; her’s was running all facets of a building-company office – the
others had degrees or tab-machine experience. Among other projects she
developed the code for the Middlesex City Council payroll who had 3,000 (?)
employees. Her job title was “Installation Officer” and involved systems analysis,
programme writing and machine testing at Stevenage.
   In Auckland she was approached by Motor Specialties towards the end of 1963
to help set-up their ICT1201 system. She thinks that MotorSpecs learned of
her because of a contact made by her husband who went goldmining in the
Coromandel with Reg Middleton. At Motorspecs she worked with Warwick
Johnson (son of MS owner?) getting the system operating. She stayed for about
a year. She later went back to MS in 1979 when they had an ICL1902T – her
daughter Lucy also worked for MS. MS replaced their ICL equipment with IBM
when Bruce Rankin became head of the department.
   She is certain that the MotorSpecs’ 1201 was second hand and came from the
NZ treasury. She also recalls hearing that NZ had bought a 1201 when she was
working for BTM in England. She thinks that the Motorspecs 1201 was replaced
by a 1300 in 1964-65 and the 1201 was given to ATI. She gave a course to ATI
staff on programming the 1201. She thinks that ATI passed on the computer to
MOTAT.
   Programming of the 1201 was done at the machine language level. When
writing programs they did write the opcodes in mnemonics but had to hand-
translate them to binary. The 1201 was an optimally-programmed machine –
each instruction had the address of the next so the programmer had to arrange
the instructions on the (drum) memory to ensure that there were no large inter-
instruction delays. Setting up the 1201 for a task also involved wiring plug-
boards of an attached tabulator to route data appropriately. Because the memory
of the 1201 was so small, most tasks involved punch card dataprocessing
techniques with sorted decks of cards?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Narwhals, Orcas and the US elections

What do whales have to do with the recent US Elections? No, neither candidate campaigned on a pro or anti-whaling ticket. If you read this fascinating long read by the Altlantic's Alexis Madrigal called "When the Nerds Go Marching In," you'll learn all about the people and the technology that helped Obama win reelection. It turns out that Obama had put together a dream team of nerds and geeks to run his campaign tech that Romney just couldn't match. This is a great example of how computer science is changing the world in ways you wouldn't expect.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Are you a geek or a nerd?

The terms "geek" and "nerd" have undergone a transformation in their use since they were used by the cool kids at school to abuse the brainiacs. The BBC has recently published an article asking, "Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?" The article explores the changing use of and attitudes to geeks and nerds, but perhaps its over analytical. Simply it's hard to look down on geeks and nerds when they've amongst the wealthiest and most innovative people on the planet: Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Peter Theil, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg...
    Incidentally, Dr. Seuss invented the word "nerd" to describe one of the creatures in the 1950 book "If I Ran the Zoo." A "geek," it turns out, used to be a performer at carnivals who did outrageous stunts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New Zealand premiere of CODEBREAKER movie

This is exciting news. I've been in communication with Patrick Sammon the Executive Producer of the acclaimed drama documentary CODEBREAKER, about the life of Alan Turing. I can now announce that we have arranged a "special screening" of CODEBREAKER - the first time its been shown in NZ.

Thursday 6 December 2012 6.00pm
Location:  University of Auckland
Owen G Glenn Building B4 (260-073)

Refreshments 5.30pm before the movie, location tbc
FREE Entry

A new drama documentary about the heroic life, tragic death, and lasting legacy of Alan Turing. Turing set in motion the digital revolution and his World War II codebreaking helped turn the tide of war.  He is one of the 20th century's most important scientists, yet few people have heard his name, know his story, or understand his legacy. 
    CODEBREAKER tells the story of this maverick British genius who was crucial to founding three new fields of science as well as breaking the Nazis' naval Enigma code during World War II.  Historians credit his codebreaking with helping to shorten the war by two years and saving millions of lives.  As the founding father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing envisioned our digital world long before anyone else.
   Turing’s visionary brilliance was overshadowed by his conviction for "gross indecency" with another man in 1952.  He was forced to undergo so-called “organo-therapy” (chemical castration) to “change” his sexual orientation.  In despair, Turing committed suicide in 1954.  He was only 41 years old.
  Instead of being celebrated, Turing's achievements were largely forgotten.  CODEBREAKER rediscovers the extraordinary life and ideas of the man who many scientists perceive today as the digital Darwin, a scientific great on a par with Einstein and Newton. 
   This film broadcast on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in November of 2011, attracting 1.5 million viewers and receiving good reviews.  The Times described the film as “…an overdue and thoroughly honourable telling of this dreadful story.”  Another critic pronounced it as “awe-inspring.”  The Sunday Times called it “powerful” and “imaginative.” 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Would you buy an ebook reader for $15?

The ebook reader market is about to get a whole lot more competitive. A German company is about to release an ebook reader called the 'txtr beagle that will sell for around $15.00. The Guardian has recently done a review of the beagle and you can visit the company's website and register your interest. It's a little smaller and lighter than a Kindle (but much cheaper), runs for a year on 2 AAA batteries, but can only store 5 books at a time - how many books do you read at once?
   There is one catch though. You'll not actually be able to buy a beagle in a store. It will only be available as an add-on or sweetener to your mobile phone contract. However, it does show that there may be a market for virtually free ebook readers in the future. After all Amazon makes a profit from the books they sell, not the Kindles you read them on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

#Turing for Christmas


As Christmas approaches perhaps you want to Turing theme your Christmas gifts. A new childrens book, by Paul Morris, has a Turing connection: "Time Traveller Danny and the Codebreaker."  The book, which is part of the Time Traveller Kids series for 7 to 12 year olds, tells the story of Danny who goes back in time and meets Alan Turing.  Paul carried out background research for the book using the archives at Sherborne School where Alan was a student from 1926 to 1931.  Paul also has a family connection with Turing because his father, then a clerk in a Manchester firm of solicitors, witnessed the signing of Turing’s will in February 1954.
    Thanks to The Alan Turing Year for this information.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Bombe called “Auckland”

My colleague Bob Doran has recently returned from a trip to England where he visited Bletchley Park. He writes: I finally got to visit the displays at Bletchley Park. The biggest thrill was seeing the bombe replica in operation. Here it is being explained to a tour group:
Actually, it wasn’t working correctly but you could still get some idea of the noise that it made:

But the biggest surprise was learning that there was a bombe named Auckland. This is described with the text:
They had the actual sign for the Dunedin machine (this has been digitally enhanced): 
All in all, an interesting experience to recommend.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

It's time to talk politics

With the US Presidential elections only a couple of days away it's time to talk politics. I'm not going to endorse either candidate, though if you know me at all you'll know whom I prefer. I live in New Zealand and obviously can't vote in US elections, but nonetheless the outcome will effect me, just as it will effect the entire world. The hactivist group Anonymous has recently released a video saying that they are watching Karl Rove, previously a senior advisor to George W. Bush, and will release any information that suggests he is trying to steal the election for the Republican party. Remember the "hanging chads" in the 2000 Presidential election that Al Gore lost by just a few hundred votes. Some commentators and bloggers are claiming that the right wing is calling the election "too close to call" to soften people up for a surprise win by Romney when they rig the ballot.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Did Alan #Turing interrogate Konrad Zuse in Göttingen in 1947?

Konrad Zuse
I picked up this story on Twitter from @AlanTuringYear - basically Heinz Billing, of the Max Planck Institute for Physics wrote in his memoirs that  a group of British scientists from the National Physical Laboratory in London interrogated German scientists after WWII. Thus, Alan Turing, who was one of the British scientists ,would have met the German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse. Evidence for and against this meeting is described by Herbert Bruderer, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, in a paper called Did Alan Turing interrogate Konrad Zuse in Göttingen in 1947? 
   If they did meet it would have been fascinating for both men. Zuse had independently invented a digital computer, the Z1, in Nazi Germany and after the war he founded a computer company that was eventually bought by Siemens. He also wrote a book, Computing Space, that presents the idea that the universe may actually be a digital construct running in the memory of a grid of computers.
    You can find out more about this remarkable man in The Universal Machine.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In praise of... "The Information" by James Gleick



I recently read a popular science book called "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood" by James Gleick. The book is basically a biography of Claude Shannon and is about information theory. It covers, what is quite a challenging subject, in a very approachable way; giving examples from African talking drums to modern digital communication. Other people also feature such as: Robert Caudrey, the compiler of the first English dictionary; Samuel Morse, the inventor of the eponymous code, and people more familiar to this blog, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and of course Alan Turing.
   I really enjoyed this book - 5 stars.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

#Turing proved right by sunflowers


When Alan Turing looked at some sunflowers in his garden in Manchester he thought he saw a pattern he recognised in the spiral of seeds in the flowers' heads - the Fibonacci sequencewhere each number is the sum of the previous two. Turing died before he could test his theory. As part of the celebrations around Turing's centenary hundreds of volunteers grew sunflowers as part of a project led by Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Data from 557 sunflowers from seven countries was collected for the Turing's Sunflowers project. It showed 82% of the flowers conformed to the mathematical Fibonacci sequence.
    The BBC reports that Professor Jonathan Swinton, a computational biologist, said: "It's the most comprehensive information we have so far on Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers and we have proved what Alan Turing observed when he looked at a few sunflowers in his own garden in Wilmslow. Now we need to work together with biologists to understand the wider implications of different number patterns for plant growth."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Google "crisis map" for Hurricane #Sandy

Hurricane Sandy looks like it will be the most closely watched storm in history. Google has set us a "crisis map" for Hurricane Sandy to help people who may be in its path. The map features various overlays including: the storm's predicted path, wind speeds, predicted storm surge, public alerts, evacuation routes, refuge centres and more. Of course as the power goes down across the North Eastern seaboard of the US WiFi and broadband will be lost as well. Cell phone towers can work for a time on battery power, so 3G may still be available, but I'd recommend getting any digital information you may require sooner rather than later - the Internet isn't storm proof.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The future of communications

Another piece of history brought to my attention by Bob Doran. This one features the British Post Office (GPO) in 1969 looking ahead to the future of telecommunications in the 1990s including: video phone calls, document sharing, online banking and access to other computing services. Unfortunately, the GPO is still envisaging using circuit switching with its wasteful dedicated end-to-end communications and complex exchanges and not the much more efficient packet switching that underpins the Internet.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

BBB2 to reshow #Turing #Bletchley Park documentary

This Sunday (Oct 28 8:00pm) BBC2 is giving us another chance to see its excellent Timewatch programme  "Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes", giving overdue recognition to the brilliance of Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers. The BBC says the documentary "reveals the secret story behind one of the greatest intellectual feats of World War II, a feat that gave birth to the digital age. In 1943, a 24-year-old maths student and a GPO engineer combined to hack into Hitler's personal super-code machine - not Enigma but an even tougher system, which he called his 'secrets writer'.
   If you thought that Bletchley Park was just about Alan Turing, Enigma and U Boats you're in for a pleasant surprise!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kodak's first digital camera - 1975

In the week that Apple released the new iPad Mini and Microsoft released Windows 8 and its Surface tablet my colleague Bob Doran pointed me back to the future - 1975 to be precise. Steve Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, invented  the digital camera in December 1975. In a Kodak blog post written in 2007, before Kodak went bankrupt, Sasson explains how it was constructed: "It had a lens that we took from a used parts bin from the Super 8 movie camera production line downstairs from our little lab on the second floor in Bldg 4. On the side of our portable contraption, we shoehorned in a portable digital cassette instrumentation recorder. Add to that 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a highly temperamental new type of CCD imaging area array, an a/d converter implementation stolen from a digital voltmeter application, several dozen digital and analog circuits all wired together on approximately half a dozen circuit boards, and you have our interpretation of what a portable all electronic still camera might look like."
   We all become mesmerized by the new and the shiny but this reminds us that being first or being an established powerful company doesn't inevitably result in long term success. Sasson ends his post with, "The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future. - how did Kodak get it so wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

iPad Mini - was Steve Jobs wrong?

The unveiling of the iPad Mini with its 7.9-inch display has many pundits referring to Steve Job's talking about the wisdom of making a tablet with a screen smaller than the iPad's 10-inch display (for example this article in the Register). It's true that the iPad Mini is a "gap filler" aimed in particular at the Amazon Kindle Fire market. Apple seem to have reasoned, "why shouldn't we make a mini tablet? We make iPod's and MacBooks in all sort of different sizes and specs."
    Yes, it makes no sense logically - if I want a device that fits in my pocket I've got an iPhone; if I want a device that fits in my bag I've got an iPad. Why would I want something in between? But it seems some people do want a device this size and Apple aren't about to gift this market segment to Amazon and Google. I expect the iPad Mini will sell well, despite being technically underwhelming. It will certainly appeal to people who are already committed to the Apple ecosystem, and will make a good eBook reader being about the size of a small paperback.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Van Gogh Meets Alan #Turing

Google developers present a video that showcases projects they have been working on that merge art and technology - where Van Gogh meets Alan Turing.

Pet Shop Boys inspired by Alan #Turing

The Pet Shop Boys write on their blog Pet Texts that, "We will be performing a concert with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Salford, Greater Manchester, on December 6th. As well as a selection of old and new songs, we'll be premiering part of a piece we have been writing inspired by the British scientist, mathematician and code-breaker, Alan Turing. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2." Not sure if the concert will be broadcast live, but I'll try to let you know.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day

Lady Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace Day was celebrated last week and as usual was organised and co-ordinated by Finding Ada - "Celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths." If you don't know who Ada Lovelace is and why we might be celebrating her I suggest you find out from: "Who was Ada?"
    The Guardian has also just published a good story about the "forgotten women of science," But, as women struggle for the right to be educated in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan perhaps we should remember just how difficult it was, just over a century ago, for any woman to get an education. Kate Edger in 1877 was the first woman in New Zealand, and the British Empire, to receive a Bachelor's degree from the University of New Zealand! Kate Edger is honoured at Auckland University by having the Information Commons building named after her.
The Kate Edger Information Commons

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Massive security breach at NZ ministry

Well we have an IT story from New Zealand that is front page news. On the 14th October kiwi blogger, Keith Ng, posted a piece titled: MSD's Leaky Servers. Read his post for his full story, but the basic gist of it is that by using Work and Income's public information kiosks he was able to access every server within the Ministry of Social Development simply by using the Open File dialog of MS Office. Once inside a server information was stored as plain unencrypted documents ranging from information about claimants, fraud investigations, court cases, invoices, and most alarmingly, information about children under the care of Child,Youth & Family.
    In many ways this isn't a security breach as it seems there was no security present to breach - Keith Ng isn't a hacker.
   Let's start from the bottom up; computer kiosks shouldn't allow access to any of the computer's underlying setup. They certainly shouldn't be connected to the entire ministry's network. Kiosks shouldn't have USB ports, which apparently these machines do. Nobody, apart from the sysadmin, should have access to the entire organisation's network. It seems any MSD employ can access any document. It seems that data isn't stored in a database, so there is no information gathered on when documents have been accessed and by whom. Moreover sensitive information, including passwords aren't encrypted.
   Finally, to make matters worse, Ministry chief executive, Brendan Boyle, has said the ministry received a report from Dimension Data in April last year identifying "flaws" in its system - obviously no action was taken! Perhaps the government is implementing an "open information" policy but has forgotten to tell us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Quantum computing wins a Nobel

There is no Nobel Prize for computing so it was good to hear last week that Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”  Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker, puts their groundbreaking research into perspective in an interesting article called, "Quantum Computing Wins a Nobel." If you're not sure what Quantum Computing is and what impact it is expected to have this is a good place to start - be prepared to be confused though quantum physics is baffling. As physicist Niels Bohr 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."
[Note: the highest award in computer science is the ACM Turing Award, named in honour of Alan Turing]


Friday, October 12, 2012

A robot runs faster than Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world but he couldn't outrun Boston Dynamics' Cheetah Robot. The YouTube video below clocks the Cheetah at 28.3 mph 0.5 mph quicker than Bolt's fastest. Obviously this is only a prototype by Boston Dynamics plans to be testing a fully autonomous Cheetah in 2013.
   So what's the application for this technology? Boston Dynamics has been working for the US military and their DARPA programme developing robots to support combat troops. BigDog is essentially a pack horse that can carry equipment across rough terrain. PETMAN is an anthropomorphic robot for testing chemical protection clothing. PETMAN's range of motions are weirdly creepy and it falls right into the uncanny valley.
    Thanks to my friend, and author, Nas Hedron for pointing me in the direction of Cheetah - please check out his new novel, "Luck and Death at the Edge of the World" that stars an AI who channels Alan Turing.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Can a robot cook?

Evan Selinger and Evelyn Kim, writing in The Atlantic, ask "Can a robot learn to cook?" They illustrate their article with The Jetsons robot maid Rosey and ask if it could ever acquire the tacit knowledge required to know if chicken was cooked properly. Well in fact there has been a Computer Cooking Competition (CCC) taking place for five years now where the competitors have to devise menus from restricted lists of ingredients. The CCC started out as a bit of fun within the case-based reasoning community but has now grown into something much more serious.
    "The goal of the CCC is attract new people (e.g., students) to work with AI technologies such as case-based reasoning, semantic technologies, search, and information extraction. Cooking is fun, particularly when using a computer to design the menu. And the contest will attract public interest. Since everybody knows something about cooking, people will be curious about how well a computer can cook."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

WebPlatform Docs - share your knowledge and learn


Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Nokia, Adobe, HP, Opera Software and the Mozilla Foundation (usually rivals) have come together with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and Tim Berners-Lee to collaborate on the development of HTML5 and create WebPlatform Docs.  The purpose, as described in its blog is: "For years, web developers have had to rely on multiple sites to help them learn web programming or design, each with one piece of the puzzle. Great sites appear, covering one or two subjects, but too often fail to keep up with the rapid pace of changes to the web platform. This may have been good enough when the web was just simple HTML, basic CSS, and maybe a little JavaScript, but that was a long time ago. Today's web is more than just documents, it's applications and multimedia, and it's changing at a breakneck pace."
    If you're a web developer you can create an account and share your experience and learn from others. It will be interesting to see how this compares in the future to StackExchange which already has several programming & web development Q&A forums.

AI - Apple's next killer product

Eric Jackson in a post in Forbes makes the case that Artificial Intelligence "will be the horsepower that bridges the gulf" between our expectations of what apps can do and their current performance. He argues that Apple has "the time, the right AI people, data and money" to make this happen. I would argue that Google is in a similar position; after all Google's Director of Research, Peter Norvig, co-authored the standard AI teaching text (AI: A Modern Approach), and Google has both data and money.
    Despite this though I don't agree with Jackson's thesis. When AI works it becomes invisible, people are unaware of it, therefore it will not be the "next killer product." AI may well make the next generation of smart devices work better but most users will be unaware of it.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The “Lost” Steve Jobs Speech from 1983

A few days ago a "lost" speech by Steve Jobs to the  International Design Conference in Aspen in 1983 has surfaced and was posted online. This was a year before the launch of the Macintosh - Jobs refers to its predecessor, the Lisa, several times. The speech and the Q&A that follows is remarkable. If you had any doubts, or were one of the people who subscribe to the view that Jobs was just a good salesman and a deal maker, then this will change your mind. His intellect, knowledge and passion for computing comes over with force.

    Some of his predictions for the future are uncannily precise. I particularly liked his opinion that in a few years people will be spending more time interacting with personal computers than in their cars. This is the reason why computers need to be well designed (both hardware and software) since we'll spend so much time looking at them and interacting with them. Does this explain Apple's obsession with design?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity

This morning Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme on National Radio featured an interview with New Zealand-born physicist Sean Gourley. A significant part of the interview concerned his work on Big Data and his start-up Quid. I was at a conference a few weeks ago and Big Data was very much the main buzz word. McKinsey and Company recently published a report called Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity. So if you're unsure what Big Data is and how it may effect you or how you can use it McKinsey's report is available in .pdf, .mobi and .epub formats.
   You can listen to the radio interview below, or visit Radio New Zealand's website for audio formats. Thanks to my colleague Mark Wilson for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Brad Ideas - Crazy ideas, inventions, essays...

I mentioned an article just the other day by Brad Templeton on possible design changes to cars that might take place when they're driverless. Well it turns out there are lots of interesting articles on his blog Brad Ideas - take a look, highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Driverless cars would reshape automobiles and the transit system

I've blogged about Google's driverless cars before but my colleague, Bob Doran, pointed me towards this interesting article in the Atlantic: Driverless cars would reshape automobiles and the transit system. The gist of it is that being autonomous will change our relationship with the car, which will consequently change in form and function to match. The Atlantic article is itself a summary of a more detailed piece by Brad Templeton called New design factors for Robot Cars.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak on Kim Dotcom

With the Kim Dotcom saga (or farce) continuing to lead the the news I was reminded of this Interview Steve Wozniak gave towards the end of July in which he comes out firmly in favour of Dotcom. 

Woz was in the local news again today with a story suggesting he may be planing to move to New Zealand to live.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Men who plan beyond tomorrow

Predicting the future is hard - flying cars, hotels on the moon, that kinda thing. I know, I approached the final two chapters of The Universal Machine, which look at how computing will be in the future, with more trepidation than the historical section of the book. My colleague, Bob Doran, came across this web article that features a series of advertisements by Seagrams Whiskey from the 1940's. Each presents a vision of the future showcasing a particular technology. Some are fanciful, but the wall hung flatscreen TVs in a sports bar are spot on.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Monopoly and the unsolvability of #Turing's Halting Problem

In a guest blog for the Guardian Prof. Barry S. Cooper shows how the game of Monopoly can (in a sense) be used to exploreof Turing's discovery of the " unsolvability of the Halting Problem for the Universal Turing Machine. Turing showed that computers, though very useful, are not that clever. And that most complex problems are actually incomputable."  The blog is an interesting read and includes a link to Bletchley Park's shop where you can pre-order your very own copy of the special issue Turing Monopoly set. Get in quick as only 2,000 have been made and Google have already bought 1,000.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Will the Internet fragment?

Here's an interesting news story called "The Internet in pieces" by Misha Glenny writing for the Guardian. The story tells how Iran has decided to block all access to the global Internet from within Iran and create a giant Iranian intranet. Ostensibly the reason is to protect Iran from cyber attacks like the recent Stuxnet worm. Of course a side effect will be to deny Iranian counter-revolutionaries access to Twitter, Facebook and all forms of external information.  Whilst I can't see this being anything other than harmful to Iranians in the short term the potential for much larger countries, like China, to create their own web that has all the content and services that the vast majority of their population needs is clearly a possibility.
    Chapter 12, Digital Underworld of The Universal Machine has more about Stuxnet and cyberwar.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

#Apple's mapocalypse

Well that's what some journalists are calling it. By a coincidence just a few days ago I blogged about how much effort Google has put into its mapping service. not just effort in terms of satellite imagery and street view, but physical human effort in terms of correcting mistakes and ensuring the overlaid information is correct. Thus, it's no surprise if Apple is finding it hard to hit the ground with a product of similar quality in iOS 6.
    So many people are asking why did Apple remove Google Maps from iOS 6? The answer is simple. Providing location services is so important going into the future that Apple could not abandon this segment of the market to Google. It has to become a major player in mapping and the provision of location sensitive data and services. If that means Apple has to spend a few billion dollars and lag behind Google for a few years it's a price worth paying - mapocalypse now or armageddon latter, that was the choice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#Google backs Alan #Turing #Monopoly game




Interesting ways of commemorating Turing's centenary continue to crop up. A recent strange one is a special Turing edition of the classic board game Monopoly. Chris Matyszczyk reports for CNET that Google has backed the special edition of the game and has bought 1,000 of the 2,000 games made. There is a link to Turing as he used to play the board game at Bletchley Park during WWII on a hand made board that can still be seen at Bletchley.
Interestingly my mother, with whom I'm currently visiting, has just informed me that my great uncle Victor Watson was managing director of Waddington's the British company that manufactured Monopoly outside of the US under licence from its inventors.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Google's Ground Truth




You may not have wondered what is beneath or below or behind a Google map, but this fascinating article in The Atlantic takes you behind the scenes to see how Google compiles its maps. It also gives an insight into the near future when Google, not only indexes all of the information on the Internet, but also indexes all of the text visible in the physical world. Soon you'll be able to search street signs and business names just as if they were websites.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Alan #Turing chirps




At the Turing Festival a few days ago I came across a guy from a company that had an iOS app inspired by Turing's secure speech communication machine, ">Delilah. Towards the end of WWII Turing worked on a device that could encrypt speech, transmit via telephone or radio and decrypt the speech. The device was not ready in time to be used during the war.
The guys at chirp.io have taken this idea and made an iOS app that can take a photo or note on your iPhone, convert it into sound and transmit it audibly to any iPhone nearby running chirp - no wifi, no Bluetooth, just sound