Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In praise of... #Olympics, the NeXTcube & Steve #Jobs

I just criticized Danny Boyle for missing the golden opportunity of including Alan Turing in the Olympic opening ceremony. However, he deserves praise for the accuracy with which Sir Tim Berners-Lee was presented. As the loop above shows Berners-Lee is using a NeXTcube computer, just like the one on which he famously programmed the world's first web server at CERN. 
    The NeXTcube was in 1990 a powerful workstation created by NeXT  Inc., the company that Steve Jobs formed in 1985 after he was forced out of Apple. The NeXTcube featured an object-oriented operating system called NeXTSTEP, which unlike the hardware, was highly influential. In fact Jobs was brought back into Apple when it acquired NeXT for the operating system, which is still at the core of OS X and iOS. All this history is described in more detail in several chapters in The Universal Machine.

Alan #Turing & the #Olympics - a missed opportunity

What a missed opportunity. Alan Turing's legacy could have been placed central stage in front of a global audience of more than a billion people during the Olympics opening ceremony at the weekend. Sure Tim Berners-Lee was named for inventing the web, but he couldn't have done it without Turing's invention of the computer. Had Danny Boyle, the opening ceremony's director, asked Sir Berners-Lee, who's famously modest, I'm sure he'd have wanted Turing to get the recognition and not himself.
   There's even a direct Olympic connection with Turing who tried out for the British Olympic team in 1948, the last time the games were held in London. His best marathon time was 2 hours 46 minutes, that was competitive in 1948 and is still a very respectable time. A genius scientist, codebreaker and athlete, what's not to celebrate!

Monday, July 30, 2012

#Facebook faces twin threats

Last week Facebook announced an operating loss of $157m (USD) from April to June and it's share price fell 12% at $23.71 - remember Facebook shares were priced at $38 when it listed in May. This was widely reported in the media, for example by the BBC. That report, and may others, blames Facebook's troubles on its long standing problem of "mobile monetisation." Basically that means it's difficult to place adverts on the small screens of mobile devices. As people increasingly use their smartphones to check their Facebook they don't see as may adverts as they do on the larger screens of PCs; hence Facebook is getting less revenue.
   However, Facebook also faces another more existential threat that constantly lurks in the shadows. What if, one day in the future, a new cooler social media app is invented and all the cool kids and hipsters abandon Facebook for this new phenomena, leaving Facebook a realm that only their grandparents still visit. As we know the web is a constant well spring of innovation. Facebook was once the new kid on the block and remember what it did to MySpace. Facebook can meet this challenge by using its bank balance to buy up innovators like Instagram, but that only works if they want to sell. Facebook itself famously refused to be bought out by many suitors over the years.  I'm not saying this will happen, but it could. One thing we've learnt about the web is that the future is hard to foresee.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The art of finding inspiration in #Turing

A Royal Society blog post by Cheryl Field called "The art of of finding inspiration" features an art work called "Fellows of the Royal Society: John Maynard Smith, Richard Feynman & Alan Turing." The artist says that "this imposing portrait is wrought from tens of thousands of hand-mounted and tinted, scintillating metallic discs, shimmering gently in a breeze generated by a host of computer fans." Read more about the inspiration behind this art work on the Royal Society blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Computer Journal - Special Focus on the Centenary of Alan #Turing

The British Computer Society has recently published Volume 55 Issue 7 of The Computer Journal which features a collections of articles with a "Special Focus on the Centenary of Alan Turing." The journal can be accessed for free online.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#Apple doesn't understand the cloud

Apple recently shut down it's MobileMe services, including iDisk, replacing them with iCloud. But, iCloud doesn't replace all of the functionality of iDisk; in particular iCloud will only store and sync files made with Apple's productivity tools: Keynote, Pages and Numbers. iDisk would sync any filetype within an iDisk. If you used iDisk as the drive within which all your documents, photos, etc. were stored you could sync any file across all your computers. Since, like many people, I have to use MS Office for work iCloud is basically useless for document syncing.
   So when the shutdown of MobileMe was announced last year I went looking for a replacement. Many people recommended DropBox, which Steve Jobs famously described as, "a feature, not a product." However, after some research I chose the less well known SugarSync. After almost a year, I'm very happy with the product. SugarSync will sync files in any selected folders (and nested subfolders) across multiple computers. Dropbox and iDrive make you designate a single folder within which all files to be synced must live. SugarSync also keeps a copy of the last five versions of each file in the cloud so you can easily retrieve accidentally deleted files or roll back to a pervious version. It has a music player for stored music files and special features for photos. There are iOS and Android apps that work very well providing read only access to all files on the move. If you share files with other people they can download them from SugarSync without having to join SugarSync or use any third party software.
   SugarSync is actually much better than iDisk was, for a comparable price. An article in The Register claims that Apple, unlike Google and Amazon, really doesn't understand the cloud because managing massive amounts of data isn't where its roots lie. They might be right, because in my experience MobileMe, iDisk and now iCloud really don't quite deliver the usual Apple experience.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A view of the future - 2045

Sometimes this blog looks at possible futures for computing and they don't get much more radical than this. The 2045 Strategic Social Initiative is planning to create avatars into which we'll transfer our consciousnesses enabling us to become "neo-humans." SmartPlanet features an article on this called, How artificial intelligence will shape our lives and you can watch a big budget trailer for the project below.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Something squirrelly ... Is it HTML or an image?

I found this on webmonkey As they say, Squirrel is a single file that renders as both HTML and a JPEG image. It’s a webpage. It’s an image. It’s Squirrelly. the HTML contains an img element that points to … itself - recursion. Check out the source code of this page to see. Oh and as somebody points out - actually it's a chipmunk.
Click here!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

#Turing as a Philosopher of Imitation

Over the last month there has been a deluge of blog posts and op-ed columns about Alan Turing. Most have trod the same path; mathematical genius, codebreaker, computer engineer, long distance runner, AI pioneer, eccentric, biologist, homosexual, convict and tragic victim of an uncaring society. However, Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, writing for the Atlantic has come up with a fresh perspective. His article called, The Great Pretender: Turing as a Philosopher of Imitation, argues that "If we look at Alan Turing's legacy through [Marshall] McLuhan's lens, a pattern emerges: that of feigning, of deception and interchangeability. If we had to summarize Turing's diverse work and influence, both intentional and inadvertent, we might say he is an engineer of pretenses, as much as a philosopher of them." This is an interesting perspective - highly recommended

Friday, July 20, 2012

Competition - Win a special viewing of the new Colossus Gallery

Colossus at TNMOC
Back in February I sponsored a valve on the Colossus computer rebuild at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park, which I blogged about then. This week I received an invitation to a special viewing of the new Colossus Gallery at TNMOC, but living in Auckland, New Zealand I regrettably can't attend.

    However, the TNMOC has graciously agreed to let me offer this invitation to a lucky reader of my blog. The special viewing will be on an early evening in the first week of September. There will also be an opportunity to see around the rest of TNMOC then and earlier that afternoon.
    To win all you need to do is be the first person to tell me who the designer of the Colossus computer was. Please leave your answer in the comments of this post along with your contact details, these will not appear on this blog.
    You can still sponsor a valve on Colossus, and I highly recommend a visit to TNMOC, and of course Bletchley Park is absolutely fascinating.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Crash Course in Online Piracy

File sharing, piracy, copyright and intellectual property continue to be issues that interest both the public, politicians and rights holders. As we move increasingly into the digital domain addressing these issues correctly is becoming more urgent. I was contacted a couple of days ago by somebody who asked me to share the following info-graphic with you, which does a good job of providing a background to this subject.

Music, Movies, Programs & Piracy

Created by: OnlineGraduatePrograms.com

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In praise of... Woody Guthrie

This year is the centenary of Woody Guthrie's birth and he's been quite prominent in the media. Last night I watched a documentary about his life and they showed this photo, which I found very striking. It's a photo of a rebellious rock star before rock 'n roll rebels were invented.
   Taken in 1943 during WWII, when Guthrie was a merchant sailor, it shows a hand painted slogan on his guitar. It instantly reminded me of the Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League campaigns of my youth in the 1970s and 80s.
   It turns out that the slogan was originally painted on planes in the Spanish civil war. However, Guthrie's use of the slogan has inspired many musicians. Joe Strummer of the Clash would have been proud to stand beside Guthrie I think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Alan #Turing Centenary Conference 2012 - videos

Alan Turing's centenary may be passed but it doesn't mean that there isn't still a lot of Turing related activity happening. Over his centenary weekend the Alan Turing Centenary Conference 2012 was held in Manchester, England. Videos from the conference are now available to watch online and they include some very famous speakers: Gary Kasparov, Roger Penrose, Vint Cerf, Rodney Brooks and many others. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The People Behind Computing - Hackers (#epochtimes)

I was interviewed a few weeks ago for The Epoch Times, which has resulted in a piece they've published called The Universal Machine’ Author Describes the People Behind Computing. The interview centered on the hacker ethos and how it binds so many of the great pioneers and inventors of computing together - from Charles Babbage to Mark Zuckerberg. This basically summarizes the central theme of chapter 12 "Digital Underworld" of The Universal Machine.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reading Stephen #Hawking's mind

In chapter 13 "Machines of Loving Grace" of The Universal Machine I describe a device, called the Emotiv EPOC headset, that enables you to control your computer using just your thoughts. The New Scientist now reports that the famous physicist Stephen Hawking is trialling a similar device to control his famous speech synthesizer. Currently, Hawking has been controlling his computer using small muscle movements in his cheek, but as his motor neurone disease progresses he may lose even this slight muscular control. However, he will not lose control of his mind, hence the new approach. The era when we control our computers by thought is approaching.
   On a different subject, here's a question for you? What do Charles Babbage, the grandfather of the computer, and Stephen Hawking have in common? Answer in the comments below and one correct winner will receive a free copy of The Universal Machine.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses (doco)

Once again the BBC's flagship science documentary series has come up with another stunner! Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses explores, using some archive Horizon footage and new material, how our five senses work. What becomes clear is that we are not passive observers of our environment, but that our brains actively interpret and construct the reality we perceive.
    Several fascinating experiments are conducted on us the viewers; one means you may never trust eye witness testimony again and another makes you question exactly what you're hearing. The relevance of this to computing is that if we are to make robots that can see and hear it means they may need to actively interpret the data their sensors receive if they are to behave like us. Watch the two clips below and test your own perception.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Alan #Turing: His Mind, His Life - video pt.1

Cara Santa Maria of The Huffington Post has posted an interesting video about Turing. It doesn't tell us Turingophiles anything we didn't already know about the man, but it is interesting for the opinions of some very famous computer scientists it interviews - including: Frances Allen, Charles Bachman, Vint Cerf, Wendy Hall, William Newman, Christos Papadimitriou and Judea Pearl. Part 2 of the video will be posted later this week.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Intelligent Socially Aware Automated Communications (ISAAC)

Company network technicians often have a worried look. They spend a lot of their day firefighting, fixing problems and trying to calm other employees who can't work at all if their network is down. So, "imagine if your network could speak directly to you – in your terms, in your language? Imagine if your network could securely communicate issues and alerts to you over your favourite social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Salesforce.com Chatter? Imagine that anyone on your IT staff could proactively manage and control your IT infrastructure in real-time – anytime, anywhere?" Forbes recently ran an article called, Social Machines: How This Company is Using Artificial Intelligence to Create Social Intelligence, which describes just such a system.
   The article is worth reading as it seems to herald a new form of corporate network that will perhaps ease the burden on network techs. The video below shows a demonstration of ISAAC.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alan #Turing suicide - the debate continues...

Around the weekend of Turing's centenary Prof. Jack Copeland, a renowned Turing scholar, author and digital archivist raised the notion that Turing's death by cyanide poisoning may have been an accident and that the coroner had insufficient evidence to state it was suicide. Copeland's theory not surprisingly gathered a lot of publicity, including this report by the BBC.
   The Alan Turing Century blog brought to my attention that the makers of the documentary film Codebreaker have carefully refuted Prof. Copeland's arguments point-by-point in a blog post titled: "Turing Committed Suicide: Case Closed."
   Personally, I believe that, tragically, Turing committed suicide. Of course there is a third theory, namely that Turing was murdered by the secret services to prevent him giving secrets to the Russians. A colleague of mine Dr. Gary Tee has claimed that he knows "Turing was murdered," but he's never elaborated on this. Certainly it's easy to imagine a scenario in which paranoid cold-war spooks decide that Turing's death would benefit national security.

Monday, July 9, 2012

High Tech History - blog

I came across the excellent High Tech History blog yesterday via a typically 21st century method. A colleague Santiago Ontañón tweeted (@santiontanon) about a post on the history of computer chess . I didn't actually see his tweet, but it got picked up by Paper.li which posted it into my automatically generated twice daily Universal Machine publication. Paper.li is a very useful service if you have a blog since it gathers a lot of potentially relevant articles in one place; I can quickly scan it and see if there's anything of interest I might want to blog about.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Science can be dull... but it doesn't have to be!

Popular Science, a UK based popular science book review web site, has just published an article I wrote called "Who Invented the Computer?"  There is also a review of The Universal Machine on the web site and a "Four Way Interview" with me. Popular Science is an excellent site if you enjoy popular science books; it includes reviews of books for adults and children categorised by age group.

Friday, July 6, 2012

What can we do with the Higgs Boson?

You'd have had to be living in a complete media blackout to have missed the news over the past couple of days; science was for once headline news. Scientists at CERN, the European atom smashing lab, announced that they had definitely, probably, found the elusive Higgs Boson. Like most people, if you're honest, you're probably wondering exactly what a Higgs Boson is and what does its discovery mean to you.
   Wired has put together an excellent article titled, "What can we do with the Higgs Boson?" that includes pointers to a variety of other articles about this strangely named sub-atomic particle - or is it a field?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A look inside Google's "Driverless Car"

I've blogged about Google's "Driverless Car" before and the technology, and its implications, features in the last chapters of The Universal Machine. A great new video has appeared on YouTube that shows what the Google cars are capable of and looks inside the technology.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Last Tote House

We have, in our computing history displays, some examples of the pre-computer machinery used in totalisator machines that were used at racecourses to keep track of the amount bet on each horse. Totalisators were a very interesting development, started in France in the 1860s – you can read about their history hereIn New Zealand, at every serious race-course (and there were about 60 of them) there was built a “totalisator house” in which to operate the totalisator. In a sense, these “tote houses” were special-purpose self-contained over-sized computers. They would take bets and issue tickets through windows and show the number of bets on each horse on a large display that could be read from a long distance. The operating totalisator was always referred to as the “totalisator machine” despite the fact that all of the work of operating the tote (including the arithmetic) was done by humans, by hand.
The Amberley Tote House - Google Earth
    All of the totalisators were eventually replaced by computer systems and the tote-houses became obsolete. At some courses the tote houses continued to be used for selling tickets and at others they were closed down and left to age gracefully, usually unmaintained. 
    Over the years I have been visiting race courses to see what now remains of the tote houses. I have finally visited the last course on my list at Amberley, north of Christchurch and can now report that 27 of them are still with us, in various states of repair. This one has long been intriguing because, from Google Earth, it looks like a flying saucer. This it what it looks like close up.
The other remaining NZ tote houses can be seen at: http://goo.gl/MCHhT
[posted by Bob Doran]

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Manifest Destiny of Artificial Intelligence

The history of artificial intelligence can be traced back to the earliest days of computer science - to Alan Turing's 1951 paper Computing, Machinery & Intelligence and some would say even further back to the writing's of Ada Countess of Lovelace in the 19th century. Brian Hayes, writing for American Scientist has written a good short history of AI called, The Manifest Destiny of Artificial Intelligence.
[Article provided by Mark Wilson]