Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why iPad Magazines Are Failing

Mike Elgan writes an interesting article on Why iPad magazines are failing that concentrates on the price of the iPad editions wrt the newsstand and subscription pricing that I agree with. However, I think Mike is overlooking the big game changer in apps like Flipboard. I increasingly go straight to that if I want the magazine experience – Flipboard is free, it has a funky layout, photos, embedded video and constantly changing content drawn from all over the web. If I could only have one magazine app on the iPad it would be Flipboard, not Wired or Esquire or GQ regardless of their price point.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Universal Tools

I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard an archeology piece on stone hand axes and the archeologist said that the hand axe was a universal tool to Stone Age man. My ears pricked up when I heard this and he went on to say that Paleolithic society couldn't function without the hand axe. Moreover, the extra productivity that the axe provided society was what allowed them some time other than that spent hunter-gathering. This downtime they used to develop their culture, art, language, customs, and may have been what gave some the time to consider domesticating animals and planting crops rather than hunter-gathering.
   This fascinated me and I started to think if there may be other universal tools apart from the hand axe and the computer.  After some though I think the wheel is a universal tool. I'm not just thinking of the vehicle wheel here, but really the whole axle and rotating wheel concept. Thus, you have the potter's wheel, the spinning wheel, the water wheel, the millstone, the cogwheel (and hence all sorts of machinery) and more recently the flywheel, and turbine.
    From the archeology radio show the features of universality are that the tool be multi-functional, which the wheel fits, and that society can't function without the tool. So let's consider say the Victorian era without the wheel. There would be no trains or horse drawn carts and carriages. No delivery system really except for canal boats. There would be no industry, no textiles, no mining, no farming, no machinery of any sort. No clocks, no newspapers to report that the shops were running out of food  and no way even to grind corn. Society would come to a complete standstill without the wheel. 
    So yes, the wheel is a universal tool. I've rewritten  my introduction to include this material.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

iPad 2.0 - they're missing the point

There are lots of articles around at the moment about what the next version of the iPad may look like. There's no doubt that Apple stole such a lead on its competitors that almost a year later few strong competitors to the iPad exist, so a next-gen version may increase Apple's dominance of this sector. This is also I suppose of interest to people thinking of an iPad as a Christmas purchase -  should they hold-off and wait for the new version.

However, I think most of the commentators are totally missing the point (here's a typical iPad 2.0 article). We all know what the new version of the iPad will be (broadly speaking), but the hardware is much less than half the story. So let's get the iPad 2.0 out of the way:
  • it will have a front facing camera to support FaceTime (if you look carefully at the top centre of your iPad you'll see a small hole already exists for a camera),
  • it wont have a back facing camera (everyone who has an iPad probably has a digital camera already),
  • it will be the same size, but perhaps lighter and with even better battery life,
  • there will not be a 7" screen version
  • it may have a faster processor and more RAM
  • it will not have a retina display (there's not enough processing power in the iPad for that many pixels on a 10" screen)
  • it will not have more than 64GB storage
  • it will run iOS 5.0
Really all the hardware points are just obvious. But the last two items need explanation.  The iPad will not need more that 64GB of storage because iOS 5.0 will be seamlessly integrated with Apple's cloud services (iTunes-in-the-cloud and other cloud storage systems).

My prediction is that with iOS 5.0 users of iOS devices will store and access all their music, photos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, ebooks, and data files in the cloud. The local storage on your devices will just be used as a local cache for frequently and recently used data. Your entire music library and everything else will permanently live on Apple's cloud. Hence you'll never need more than 64GB or local storage.

Apple are about to open their massive data center in North Carolina and all the smart money is that this will be used for iTunes-in-the-cloud. So basically stop worrying about the iPad 2.0, the really interesting innovations will be iOS 5.0 and iTunes.

A previous blog post of mine talks more on this and how it will reduce online piracy

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hello Blog

Hello Blog, it's been a while! Well it has hasn't it. However, exams are over now and marked and I have the final exam board meeting this afternoon. Then the last task for the year is to fill out the forms for my annual performance review, attend the department Christmas party and then that's really it for work of 2010. Since I'm on Research & Study Leave (i.e., sabbatical) in 2011 there really will be no excuse to finish the book now.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

No more hard drives or DVDs

As predicted Apple's plans for the future are starting to influence the computer hardware manufacturers. As Apple moves away from using hard-drives to flash storage (e.g., the new MacBook Air has no hard drive), manufacturers of hard drives are recording a 20% fall in demand. Apple is also ditching the DVD for USB flash drives for its operating system.
Why is this important? Well remember that Apple were the first PC manufacturer to ditch the floppy drive. Where they lead the rest of the industry follows. Now not only does removing hard and optical drives increase battery life and reliability (no moving parts), but it is a step towards the future.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

All quiet on the blog...

True, it has been quiet. The thing is I'm back to lecturing and I've had a bad cold the last week. Fortunately I didn't need to cancel any lectures, even though on two days I just came directly from home to give the lecture and returned straight back afterwards. So there hasn't been much time for writing or blogging. My lectures end next week so then I should be able to get back into the swing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How Apple Will Stop Piracy

You heard it here first so please spread the word.
Apple is going to virtually eliminate the piracy (e.g., illegal file sharing) of music, movies, TV shows and e-books in the next few years. There are several inter-related developments at Apple that have made me reach this conclusion:
  1. A few weeks ago Steve Jobs unveiled the new Apple TV device. Now previous incarnations of Apple TV have not been very popular and even Jobs called it a "hobby". What is different about the new Apple TV from other DVR devices is that it has no file storage (i.e., no hard drive or solid state drive and no ability to connect a hard drive (via USB or Firewire). Movies or TV shows that you watch via the Apple TV must be streamed as rentals. 
  2. Apple is about to commission a huge new data centre in North Carolina. Now industry watchers don't know what Apple plans to do with this massive data centre. But all agree that it's much too big to be just for MobileMe, Apple's cloud storage and synchronisation service. Such a big investment means Apple has big plans for us.
  3. The iPad is often touted as the ideal computer for technophobes - the elderly in particular, and sales figures do show that elderly buy it. But to use the iPad you have to have another computer (Mac or PC) to sync it with using iTunes. If you buy an iPad and don't own (or have access to) another computer it's useless, you can't even get it registered to turn it on without connecting to iTunes. So the iPad can't be used as someone's only computer at the moment.
  4. The iPad's (and for that matter the iPhone's and iPod's) file system is locked down. That means you can't directly browse the file system to locate a locally stored music or movie file. Now lots of geeks criticise Apple for this and they jailbreak their devices so they can access the file system directly. However, for the majority of users this makes the devices easier to use. You don't need to know or even care where files are located. The apps that use them know where they are. 
So how do these things fit together? Well I think Apple's data centre is for "iTunes-in-the-cloud". If you can sync to iTunes-in-the-cloud then you won't need any other computer, so the iPad then truly become a great device for technophobes or people with no other computer. But you'll also be able to access your entire iTunes library from the cloud - all your music, movies, TV shows and e-books. Then Apple TV becomes the only device you'll need in your living room (apart from a TV). Moreover, your iPad and iPhone and iPods will also have access to all your media and data from anywhere on the planet, and with no need for local file storage these devices can become smaller, lighter and cheaper with longer battery life.
So how does this stop piracy? Well piracy happens because it is so easy to copy computer files. Anyone can easily rip a CD or DVD and give the resulting files to a friend or they can share them on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. But consider the situation in five years time when everyone is using iTunes-in-the-cloud. Everyone will be streaming their media and there will be no local copies of the files to be copied or file-shared. Piracy suddenly becomes very difficult for most people. Now obviously if something can be heard or seen it can be copied, but copying in this future becomes much more difficult and time consuming - as does playing back the copy if you only own an iPad or an Apple TV. Remember these devices have file systems that are closed to users so even if you know there is a movie file on your iPad you can't copy it and give it to somebody else.
Moreover, if this move to cloud storage and streaming is coupled with reasonably priced "all you can eat" deals for movie rentals, music and even e-books, then the incentive for piracy is further reduced. For example NetFlix offers unlimited streaming movies now for $8.99 a month and NetFlix is (not coincidentally) available via the Apple TV.
Further, there's no reason to assume that iTunes-in-the-cloud will just be limited to Apple devices, after all iTunes already runs on Windows, but it will appear first on Apple devices and my bet is it will be released with iOS 5.0 next year, when the big data centre is up and running.
Thus, Apple (almost) stops piracy and becomes the darling of the movie/music & publishing businesses.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

AI's Time Has Arrived

I just finished an interesting article in Business Week's special report on Artificial Intelligence. I have to say I totally agree with Gary Morgenthaler that AI's time has come. It's not that AI ever failed it just never really delivered. This was mostly because the hardware was too expensive. I remember when I started in AI back in the mid 1980s seeing expert systems for car fault diagnosis. These were a great idea but they never delivered because they ran on expensive Sun SPARC workstations and you couldn't imagine any neighborhood garages buying a SPARC station or your mechanic using UNIX. Now though we have processing power to spare and we can even build the diagnostic system into the car's on-board systems. 

The availability of processing power really is the key, but as Gary's piece points out, you combine that with access to all the world's data and knowledge and you make it all mobile, 24x7, then you really have a game changer. We are all going to become very familiar and even reliant on AI in the decade to come.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The History of the Apple Mac

I found an entire website devoted to the history of the Apple Mac
It has lots of great articles, photos and videos. Several of the articles cut through a lot of the myth and rumour that surround or cloud the early days of Apple.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Old Computers

I came across this great website whilst I was researching background on early PCs. It has a great museum of old computers and lots of interesting links, interviews with pioneers and all sorts of fascinating stuff for people with an interest in this sort of thing.   

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How's the book coming along Ian?

Is a common question I get asked, and I often avoid a precise answer: "oh, slowly", might be a common reply.
Currently I'm working on content for what may be Chapter 6, which centres on the early developments in Silicon Valley, the Stanford Research Institute and Doug Englebart, Xerox PARC and leading on to the Homebrew Computer Club, Wozniac, Jobs and Apple.
Now there is a lot of stuff that could go into this chapter. I have one book on Xerox PARC that is 450 pages long! So obviously deciding what goes in and what doesn't is a major headache. What I realised the other day is that I don't need to make these decisions all at once. If I now lay down the main structure and flow of the chapter I can at a later date (probably next year) reread all my sources and at that time decide what details and anecdotes to add to my chapter. That should even by quite fun.

On a separate issue I was reading a book called the Physics of Star Trek last night and I wondered if perhaps my book should have lots of small bite sized chapters or sections rather than a small number of long traditional 30ish page chapters. It might make the book easier to digest. If you have opinions one way or the other let me know.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Theme Song for the Blog

I've found a theme song (well actually a whole CD) for the blog. At the weekend I stumbled across a piece of music by Jóhann Jóhannson  called "IBM 1401, A User's Manual". Somewhat unusually, it's music inspired by a computer that first shipped in 1959. If you're a fan of some modern classical music and ambient electronica then you may like it (think Michael Nyman and Brian Eno).

The IBM 1401
Don't worry I'm not going to make the music play each time the blog loads, first I hate music that plays when a web page loads, it's rude and second, I don't have the copyright to play the music.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Totally off message

No really this post is totally off message, it has nothing to do with computers whatsoever.
It's about bread baking.
I've been baking bread for years and consider my self quite good. I don't need a bread machine and do all the proving and kneading and shaping stuff. I have my tried and trusted recipes and methods and consider myself quite knowledgeable about bread baking. So I came across this book called Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day and tried it's technique ..... WOW, totally amazing!!!

The basic idea is that you make a wetter than usual bread dough with the usual salt, yeast, flour and water, which you mix together with a spoon. You don't knead it at all, you leave it to prove for a few hours and then bung it in the fridge until the next day. Then you pull off a ball of dough, shape it into a loaf let it rise for a bit and bang it into a hot oven and presto, a perfect loaf with a crispy crust and fluffy crumb.

You leave the remaining dough in the fridge and each day you can pull of another chunk and bake a fresh loaf. The authors claim you can do this for two weeks if you start with a big enough bowl of dough. What is remarkable about this is that the conventional wisdom is that if you don't knead your bread you don't get gluten formation and your bread will not rise properly. Yet this technique really works. I'm a convert, highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

iPad: Consumption vs. Creation

So I've had the iPad over a week now and have observed how I (& others) use it. It is definitely a content consumption device rather than a content creation device. I can answer emails on it and I'm writing this blog post on it with no problem - I quite like its virtual keyboard. But, 99% of what I use it for is consumption. I've finished two books on the iBook reader and enjoyed them. I've used the iBook reader for PDFs of academic papers just fine as well. The zinio magazine app is great and magazines are really readable. Movies & TV shows & TED talks are great on it along with social media apps like TweetDeck.

It doesn't replace my laptop for what it is good for (content creation) but it has for consumption on the sofa or at a café table.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Mother of All Demos

The complete video of Doug Englebart's famous live demo of SRI's Online System, the first computer mouse, a graphical interface, file sharing and dynamic file links and even video conferencing from December 1968 is available online here. This demo has become so famous in computer history it's often called "the mother of all demos". It really would have seemed like science fiction in 1968 when most computer users were submitted batch process jobs via punch cards to mainframe computers and waiting hours or days for a print out of their results.

Monday, August 2, 2010

First thoughts on iPad

So I've had the iPad for a few days now and my first thoughts are: I love it, but it will not replace my laptop except, when I travel. The last point requires some explanation because isn't a laptop a portable computer? Well, yes but the iPad is just so light and well portable and since I can do almost everything on it, why would I want a heavy, bulky laptop weighing me down when I'm travelling. You should know though that I'm a fanatically light traveller. I never check luggage and can do a month overseas with less than 7kg of carry-on luggage. The iPad will be fantastic for traveling.
I'm enjoying the iBook reader, it's a very nice experience for reading ePub books and is also very good for pdfs. This latter ability will be very useful for reading academic papers on the move and other technical works.
An outstanding app for me that shows the true power and brilliance of the iPad's interface is, perhaps surprisingly, a backgammon app. Why, because for the first time I see a backgammon game on a computer that looks, feels and plays just like a real board. There is absolutely nothing on screen other than the board. You move the pieces with your fingers, not a mouse or cursor. It's so believable I forget that I'm using a computer. This is a wonderful experience. I'll probably never own a real backgammon set again, the iPad is better, you can play against a computer and stop and return to a game later on.
I think it's this "forgetting you're using a computer" feeling that is what is so special about the iPad.
I'm still waiting for my case to arrive which has limited the use of the iPad at breakfast for example; hard to eat and hold and navigate the iPad all at the same time, but once the case arrives it will lets me stand the iPad up in a variety of angles and I'll remove my laptop from the breakfast table. and read the newspaper with it. Finally, a very honourable mention to the New Zealand Herald. An excellent newspaper app, well done, I think it's one of the best media apps out there.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Back from my trip

Well it's been awhile. I promised to blog from overseas, but of course I was too busy. I had a very good trip taking in two conferences, AAAI in Atlanta and ICCBR in Alessandria Italy. You can see photos from the Italian part of the trip some of which are really beautiful. We went on a conference day-trip to Stresa on one of the northern lakes and took a ferry ride to visit several islands - really lovely.

Once I returned I obviously had to clear a backlog of tasks from my desk and then yesterday my iPad arrived. They are finally on sale in NZ. Of course that wiped out any chance of working yesterday. I have to say I'm loving the iPad. More comments and thoughts on it will follow I'm sure.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Overseas for 2 weeks

I'm away to some conferences for 2 weeks but may still blog occasionally via email.

It was the most beautiful day in Auckland yesterday (photo attached).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Busy Times

Not much action on the book recently. My excuses are:
  • had to mark exams and process results (for 4 courses) for the semester end
  • been reviewing conference papers and 2 chapters of a new AI text book
  • been reading a PhD thesis for an oral exam tomorrow, and
  • finally generally clearing my desk for a 2 week trip to Atlanta and Italy
See, that doesn't sound so bad when I write it all down. The conference in Atlanta is AAAI-2010, this is the main AI conference this year. At the conference we'll learn the results of my PhD student's poker bot that is competing in the 2010 international computer poker competition. The conference in Italy is much smaller and just about case-based reasoning, my main research speciality (ICCBR 2010).
This trip I'm going to be totally reliant on my iPhone as I'm not taking a laptop. I'll have access to many of my files via Apple's MobileMe and will be able of course to get my email and follow Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook and LinkedIn all from the phone. Fortunately the conferences will have free WiFi access and hopefully my hotels will as well so I wont be needing to use any/much 3G data - the roaming charges are very expensive.
I'm planning to use Ping! to txt message with my wife and Skype to talk via WiFi.
I can also post to this blog via email and send photos from my iPhone so there will be some activity whilst I'm away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Getting Published - Catch 22

It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation. Most publishers will not accept "unsolicited manuscripts" and only accept manuscripts recommended by literary agents. Most agents agents don't seem to accept authors who haven't been published before. See the catch?
Now fortunately I have been published before, but if you haven't getting your first publication must be really daunting. I'm lucky that my editor from my previous publisher (who is not the right publisher for this project) is going to point me in the direction of some contacts she has. I'm also doing some footwork myself.
Interestingly all the publishers and agents' websites say (often in bold) "we do not accept unsolicited children's fiction". I guess that's the Harry Potter effect, they must be buried under mountains of paper for the next wizard franchise.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

John Cleese, a dead fish & a Compaq computer

I stumbled across this video on YouTube of an advert from the 1980s featuring John Cleese comparing a Compaq 2 computer to a dead fish. It appears that he did a whole series of TV adverts for Compaq in the mid 1980's.

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup & RoboCup

There's been almost a viral posting about RoboCup doing the rounds since obviously the World Cup is under way and the slightly lesser know RoboCup 2010 competition is under way in Singapore.
The article, which originated in the Guardian,  refers to Prof. Manuela Veloso as "he". Manuela who has been very influential in Robocup for years though is a lady. The cynical may of course think "oh of course, the reporter assumes all computer science Professors must be male". Hopefully not from a liberal newspaper like the Guardian.
Unfortunately all the reposts, blogs reports and tweets of this continue to spread the error.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Writer's block

And I thought that the gap between lectures and exams would give me some time to get back to the book. Boy was I wrong, even less done than usual, thanks to spending some time programming the Nao robot & taking it on school visits.
So I'll have some exam marking to do for the next few days and then semester break.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kids love robots

I guess all children love robots. I took our new Nao robot to Ponsonby Primary School today (my wife is a school teacher there). The children loved it, and some were very observant and asked some very insightful questions. They particularly liked it when he fell over, tried to get up, fell over again and then finally made it back onto his feet - they all cheered then and were really emphasising with it.
A video clip of it is here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

We Live in Public

I watched a documentary last night called "We Live in Public" about dot com and social networking pioneer Josh Harris. I highly recommend it. Wow what a weird ride. It won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was also shown at SXSW Film Festival. I have to say I thought he was a bit harsh to his mother.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Steve Jobs - On whether tablets will replace the PC

Steve Jobs - On whether tablets will replace PCs: he Compares them to vehicles..."When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that's what you needed on the farms. But cars eventually became more prevalent as people moved to cities. PCs will be like trucks...they are still going to be around, but there is a transformation coming, and it will make some people uneasy. Is it the iPad? Who knows? Will it be next year or five years from now?"

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last Week of Lectures...

...and we have that glorious window between the end of lectures and exam marking. So I should be able to get some writing done for a few weeks.
Still loosing time with the new Nao robot. I've just put in a bid to Faculty to purchase three more so we can have a RoboCup team. That would be cool, the students would love it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Silicon Valley

Back to work - starting with why Silicon Valley is where it is? Is it an accident that it is in Northern California in the southern bay area of San Francisco, near Stanford University? But why there and not Boston or anywhere else?
It turns out that it is partly because of the US Navy and a radio shore station located in the vicinity for communication with the Pacific fleet. Back when radio was the cutting edge of technology lots of geeks were attracted to the area to work with and for the Navy. This resulted in a cluster of high tech companies and employees.
It also turns out that a visionary at Stanford University (Frederick Terman) encouraged the creation of an industrial park after WW II and found venture capital for start-ups. One small company that emerged from this incubator was Hewlett Packard.
Silicon Valley was no accident.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why no progress on the book?

I know sad isn't it. But on the bright-side lectures are drawing to a close, I've finished writing my exam papers and my classes aren't too large, so marking will not be a huge drag. Then there's the semester break so I should be able to get back to some productive work on the book.
In the meantime I'm gathering information and working things out in my head. When it's ready I'll be ready to write it down - that's how my mind works, it processes in the background and then lets me know when it's ready deliver. I learnt along time ago to trust it and let it take all the time it needs.

I came across a excert from Bill Bryson's new book in the Guardian yesterday. I have to say I didn't think it was up to his usual standard, not very informative and not as entertaining as his usual writing style. This encouraged me.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Facebook Like...towards social search

Ian Witten's lecture last week commented that web search, like Google, was akin to asking an oracle to give you an opinion on what the best web pages were that would satisfy your query. Most users are not aware of how Google ranks pages (we assume its benign and to our benefit)  and must therefore trust Google's rankings. Ian argued that what we would often prefer is to get search results from trusted friends or colleagues. This is called crowd sourcing or social search.
Facebook is moving in this direction with its "Like" button that is now appearing all over the web. The idea is that over time we'll start to use Facebook to satisfy web searches based on what our social network has expressed as their "likes". It will be interesting to see how this pans out over the next few years.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Realistic Books

I went to a lecture after work on Wednesday this week by a prominent New Zealand computer scientist, Ian Witten. The lecture was very interesting on the subject of web search engines and their limitations. Instead of using a conventional PowerPoint presentation his lecture notes were displayed in the form of a book complete with turning pages. I discovered that this was created using an online system called Realistic Books.
If you upload a pdf (I'm not sure if it handles other formats) it creates an online e-Book from your document, complete with the page turn effects. You can also download a zip file of your book to put on your website or just run of your computer. The system uses Flash to animate it.
I've turned my sample Chapter 2 into a Realistic Book if you want to see the effect.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The iPad After One Month

Well the iPad has been out for over a month now and the Apple-fans and Apple-haters can reflect on what has actually happened.
It certainly hasn't been a flop, over a million units sold in less than a month. So I think we can assume it's not going to fail. Moreover, these are just US sales, since the international release has been delayed because of the demand. Given that the US is still struggling out of recession and money is tight, I'd imagine Apple are quite pleased with these figures.

Apple's design seems to have been as thorough as ever, very few problems have been reported. Some people have had WiFi reception issues, but these seem as much due to the wireless network's settings as the iPad itself.  A very few people have reported over heating and there has been misunderstanding concerning slow charging via USB when connected to a laptop rather than the docking station. None of these issues seem significant.

On the plus side the battery life seems better then stated by Apple, and consider how often that is the case (never). Several games (e.g., Scrabble) are excellent on the iPad and as more and more apps roll out we can still only imagine how useful it will be in the future. Most users find watching movies, TV shows and reading magazines on the iPad a pleasure and the iBook reader is easy to use and not a strain on the eyes (I'd imagine Kindle have had a few interesting meetings this month).

So I'd score the result after a month:

Apple: 1 - Nay-Sayers: 0

[The iPad still isn't available in NZ, but I have touched one]

Friday, April 30, 2010

QR Codes

You may have started to see codes like these appearing everywhere, you certainly will if you live in Japan. Called QR codes they are 2-D barcodes designed to be easy to scan. Many modern camera phones have readers that scan the QR code and automatically take you to the website that the code is linked to (there are several iPhone apps that do this).

These codes can be put on billboards, in magazines, on products, anywhere, enabling people to quickly obtain information about the thing tagged with the code, using the browser in their phone.

The QR code above is the one that points to this blog. I think I'll get a T-shirt printed with the code on it.

You can generate your own QR codes using the
QR-Code Generator.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Alan Turing Marathon - London Olympics 2012

The idea of commemorating the centenary of Alan Turing's birth by naming the marathon at the London Olympics in 2012 "The Alan Turing Marathon", isn't such a daft idea after all.
John Graham-Cummingwho led the succesful campaign last year to have the British PM offer an apology for the way Alan Turing was treated by authorities, is now trying achieve this new goal.
Turns out that Turing was not just a brilliant mathematician and the father of computing but a strong marathon runner - 2 hours 46 minutes seems like an excellent time for a marathon.
John Graham-Cumming can be contacted via his blog

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Hardest Chapter

Perhaps the hardest chapter is always the one that you're currently working on. However, the chapter on the innovations coming out of Northern California in the 60s and 70s is challenging me. There's just so much material and so many people involved. Compare this to the chapter on the Analytical Engine where there was really only Charles Babbage and little bit of Ada Lovelace.

However, I think a way through is emerging. I'm currently planing to concentrate on three people:

  • Doug Engelbart - the inventor of the mouse and heavily involved in the development of networking and the GUI
  • Alan Kay - the inventor of object-oriented programming and the Dynabook (the precursor of the iPad)
  • Steve Wozniak - co-founder of Apple and designer of the Apple I & II

I'll also concentrate on three institutions: SRI, Xerox PARC, and the Homebrew Computer Club.

I know that this will cause some to howl "what about so and so" and "what about such and such" but it has to be done.

Nao Robot Video

I've taken a video of a welcome routine I've programmed into the Nao robot. The manufacturers tell me that this is the first Nao in New Zealand!

I've not had the time to do anything with it so far this week. A whole bunch of administrivia has occupied my time (same goes for the book sadly).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Did Steve Jobs Steal The iPad? Genius Inventor Alan Kay Reveals All

Another "iPad is the Dynabook" article but it does have some interesting insights from Alan Kay towards it's end.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I. Robot

Well pretty much as predicted no work on the book has happened this week. The Nao has eaten up all my time left over from writing a research grant application, reviewing conference papers and marking assignments.

I've got to grips with the Nao's programming language which is quite easy to use and have been playing with its sensors. Voice recognition is a bit hit and miss but the two video cameras on it work very well. For example it can now turn around until it sees a know mark and then walk towards that point - small steps but important ones. The basic idea is to build up a collection of basic routines, like turn around or walk ahead and then combine these into more complex behaviours.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Got the robot working

Well I got the Nao robot connected via WiFi, I had to use a spare WiFi router I have and open a port through the firewall (couldn't do that of course on the WiFi at work).

I've also now programmed a welcome routine that shows of the robot's movements, and voice recognition. It's balance is very good, mostly, though it has fallen over a couple of times. It goes down with quite a bang as it's quite heavy and nearly 2 feet high.

I've also got it to count how many faces it can see in front of it which works reasonably well.  I'll try to put some video up of it (can you post video on this blog?)
In the meantime Aldebaran have some videos on their website (scroll down) and there are some on YouTube (search for Nao robot). Needless to say no book writing has happened so far this week.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Robot Hall of Fame

I just came across the Robot Hall of Fame whilst looking for resources for my new robot. Interesting idea both fictional robots and real robots have been inducted into it.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Work not Play

Well sort of. If you've been following my tweets you'll have seen that I took delivery of a Nao robot.

These are made by a French company  Aldebaran Robotics  and are state-of-the-art pieces of robot kit (at $25,000 NZD they ought to be).

Mine announces it self as "Nao robot # 607" when it is switched on. I spent most of the day installing software, charging its battery (it doesn't come fully charged like an iPhone or iPad), and getting it connected via ethernet and failing to connect via WiFi.

That will be tomorrow's task and then I have to get it to do something useful. I suspect that my productivity for stuff other than this robot will be rather low this week!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Illustrated History of Computers

I've found a good illustrated history of computers online. It's very good on the early (pre-digital) computers but only goes up to the birth of the personal computer. So for most people the most interesting part of the history is missing.

The Origins of Punch Cards

Just found a great photograph of a Jacquard Loom used for weaving complex patterns in cloth. The program for the pattern was stored in punch cards that were adopted by Charles Babbage as the input mechanism for the Analytical Engine.
Punch cards are still used by some knitting machines, but no longer by computers.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Computing History Museum

Whilst on the subject of museums the Computer History Museum has an excellent website and appears to currently have an exhibition featuring Babbage's Difference Engine, the subject of Chapter 2 of my book.

I haven't physically visited the museum (it's in Mountain View, California), but I will do next time I'm in the SF area, it looks very interesting. The website also looks like it will be another good source of reference material for my book.

Computing History Displays

Since this is directly relevant to my book project I should mention the excellent display/museum of computing history that is housed where I work in the Dept. of Computer Science at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (click here for the display website).

Along one wall of the long entrance way to the Dept. is a timeline of computing from pre-1950's to the present day.
It's quite common to see students and visitors taking the time to study this timeline.

Then on the elevator foyer of each floor are themed displays of computing hardware. The highlight of these is probably the University's complete IBM 1620 mainframe computer, which was installed at the University in 1963.
If you are ever in Auckland and have an interest in computing history feel free to drop in for a look (click here for a Google Map).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time to do some work

It's Tuesday and the University is closed today (mid-semester break) so I can get some work done on the book.

With the iPad being so much in the news this weekend and some techies commenting that it's the  Dyanbook made real I'm going to get some material together on Alan Kay, it's inventor.

 Alan Kay is one of the legendary ex-employees of Xerox PARC credited with helping invent the GUI, object-oriented programming and the tablet computer or eBook (i.e., the Dynabook).

The best book I've come across on the subject of Xerox PARC is:
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik

Running over 400 pages it's very comprehensive, but probably only for the devoted. My task is to distil this book down into few pages that summarise the highlights of Xerox's remarkable influence on modern computing. Alan Kay's contribution I guess will have to occupy no more than a few paragraphs! This isn't going to be easy.

His home page is at though it doesn't look like it's maintained by him. I do like this quote though:

"Don't worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn't violate too many of Newton's Laws!"

This would make a good quote for the start of the chapter.

There's also a page at Viewpoints Research Institute where Alan was a founder

Here I discover that in addition to being a brilliant computer scientist it seems that Alan was also a professional jazz guitarist. Gosh don't you love these multi-talented people? My wife says that a lot of very bright people are also talented musicians, seems like she's right in this case.

Woz scores 3G iPad, says it’s “better than I ever imagined”

And whilst on the subject of legendary computer people Steve Wozniak has got an iPad.

Alan Kay on the iPhone and the iPad, sorta | Edible Apple

Well we'll have to see if the iPad is a huge success and if Alan Kay's prediction is correct. In it's first weekend it outsold the original iPhone!

It seems that Cyc is following me on twitter (cyc-ai), which in some ways is kind of cool because Cyc is this famous AI project dating back 20 years or more.

They have a blog  so you can check out what they're doing.

However, it's also rather irritating because they send out really meaningless tweets like:

RT @cyc_ai: @driwatson A military post is a type of post.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing

And just to show some balance here's an anti-iPad story

Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either) - Boing Boing

Actually quite a good piece. I disagree with his analysis of the death of the CD-ROM, really it was the web and the advantages that dynamic information had over static information that killed the CD-ROM.

I also have worries though about Apple's DRM. I do think that the ability to buy a book and then give it to a friend is an important feature that a real book has. Not being able to move books from one platform to another will also probably stop me buying many iBooks. Of course if the iPad is soooooo great that may not bother me.

[Incidentally, Apple haven't even announced a tentative release date for the iPad in NZ yet]

The iPad was Invented 38 years ago | ConceivablyTech

Once I started looking of course there would be pieces about the Dynabook being the ancestor for the iPad. This one is particularly good.

The iPad was Invented 38 years ago | ConceivablyTech

Apple's first tablet designs 1989

Dynabook – The iPad From 20 Years Ago | -:- Technological News Portal

This is quite an interesting article showing the design of a tablet computer back in 1989.

(did I mention that this blog in addition to the book will also feature musings on all things tech)

Dynabook - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

It's hard to miss but this Easter weekend is the launch day of the iPad (in the US). Back in 1972 Alan Kay from the famous Xerox Parc, wrote about a small tablet computer he called the Dynabook.

Dynabook - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Is the iPad the Dynabook made real?

The Writing Process

So let's look at how I've been writing my book so far. Basically I work chapter by chapter but not necessarily in linear (1, 2, 3...) order. In fact I don't complete a chapter before going to another (I'm not very methodical).

So far I've completed a good draft of Chapter 2 which is about Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine in Victorian times. I'll try to find a way of linking to or uploading this chapter so you have a good piece of material to read.

I research my material be reading books and web sources that I then collate and summarise - I'm trying to write a book that is fun and easy to read and most of the books that provide the source material are way too long and dull.

With this blog I now plan to put the rough notes of my research into the blog and use those as the basis for each chapter. Currently I'm using Google Docs to hold all my notes and chapter drafts. I like the sense of security it gives me of having my work in the cloud (I also export copies to my work and home computers).

A Brief History of the Computer - Photo Essays - TIME

This is another photo essay from Time magazine and this time directly relevant to the subject of this blog.

A Brief History of the Computer - Photo Essays - TIME

However, I was surprised to see the photos miss out on the Xerox Star (and it's GUI), and the Macintosh.

TIME's Steve Jobs Covers - Photo Essays - TIME

TIME's Steve Jobs Covers - Photo Essays - TIME

This is not the first time Steve Jobs has graced the cover of Time magazine. Here's a photo gallery of Time's covers of him.

(note: I'm experimenting with ways of uploading things to the blog).


Welcome to the blog of the writing of the Universal Tool

I've been writing a book, on and off, for several years now. The book is intended to be a popular science book about the history of computers. I'm a computer scientist by profession and so I've long had an interest in this subject.

The idea of this blog is to encourage me to keep working on the book by being able to share both the process of writing it and elements from it with who ever decides to follow the blog of just drop by.

Computers you see are not like other tools that we've invented. Think of wheel and axle for example. This invention let man build carts and wagons and so more easily move heavy loads around. Thousands of years later, although we now have engines instead of horses the basic use of the invention hasn't changed. Now think of the computer. They were first used to crack military codes and design H-bombs, and then to do the payroll for large companies, but now we use them to communicate with friends, play (and compose) music, design buildings, create virtual worlds, make movies, this list is endless and constantly growing. You see the computer fundamentally does not crack codes or write blogs, a computer manipulates symbols and it can perform any task that can be represented by symbols. In this sense, in the words of Alan Turing, a computer is a "universal machine".