Through the looking glass

The image of Seattle being refracted through m...

The image of Seattle being refracted through myopic glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some inventions are so mundane that we barely give them a second thought. They just do their job well and everyone takes them for granted. There is one such invention that I rely on every day of my conscious life. Like the majority of the population, I wear spectacles. Without them – I’m lost. I can fumble my way around, especially if I’m familiar with the terrain, but ask me to read anything and I’m sunk.

Nowadays of course, the lenses are fashioned from lightweight plastic, but it wasn’t always the case. When I started wearing glasses at the tender age of 2, they really were made of glass. In those days, optical technology was nowhere near so advanced, so the lenses were thick and heavy. No matter, I have always been grateful for the invention of glass.

Without glass, homes would have no windows and be very draughty and cold. There would be no TVs if there were no screens. Nor would there be any tablets, mobile phones or laptops. There would be limits on how fast cars without windscreens could comfortably travel. Aeroplanes would not be able to fly so high or so fast and there would be no such thing as a skyscraper.

Thanks to volcanic activity, glass occurs naturally but not in a particularly workable form. Stone age man managed to use bits of glass as cutting tools, but that was about as far as it went. Man made glass was in full swing in the late Bronze Age, but commonly only used for beads or drinking vessels. It wasn’t until medieval times that man started to make glass window panes.

The building of Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton for the great exhibition of 1850 in London marked the first real use of glass as a fundamental construction material. During the industrial revolution, glass manufacture became increasingly mechanised and refined and the material became ubiquitous.

Optic fibres have been spun since Roman times, but it was only in the late 18th century that the Chappe Brothers from France invented an optical telegraph system. Others experimented with the optical fibres using them for everything from illuminating body cavities to central lighting for the home. Fast forward to today and fibre optic cable forms the very bedrock of the World Wide Web.

Scientists in Turkey have even invented a form of spray on glass although the invention has been taken to market by a German company. It is a form of silicone dioxide which can create a flexible and even breathable layer. The substance, when applied, is 500 times thinner than a human hair. It is environmentally friendly, food safe and is quickly finding applications in just about every field of human endeavour.

So the next time you look at a screen, a skyscraper or drive your car or take a flight – be thankful for the material that makes it all possible.

Advertisements

Shields up!

NCC-1701-B

NCC-1701-B (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In almost every Star Trek episode or film, you can count on a number of things. Someone will say “beam me up”, the crew will face some kind of moral dilemma and someone in a red shirt gets it. The other thing that happens regularly is that the Starship Enterprise will get involved in some kind of tussle. The Captain issues the command “Shields up!” and we will see the pretty little display panel showing the nice safe force fields around the ship.

Once that happens, you know that although the crew might get tossed around a bit, some minor pyrotechnics will go off under a control panel and one of the officers will give dire warnings that the shields are failing. But hey – there’s another half an hour to run, so nothing too bad is going to happen. The shields are a good thing. They keep all that horrible nastiness away from the ship and the Star Trek universe seems to have more than its fair share of horrible nastiness.

As a technologist, I have to deal with shields of a different kind. In my career, the “tussles” I get involved with are much more mundane and still there are many who feel the need to resort to a force field. The command words in this case are “I’m not technical”. Don’t even bother trying to explain any of that technology nonsense to me, because I’m not technical. They wear those words like a suit of armour.

The problem is, that the very same person wearing those shields typically want to know why it’s going to take so long to get that new bit of functionality or to get their problem fixed. Whenever faced with this situation, unwise words gallop to the front of my brain. “Sorry – it takes us a long time to find the spell components to cast the spell to fix that particular problem” or “Sorry – but the fix-it fairies only work on Fridays”. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to catch them before they escape.

Once during a presentation, a guy in the front row put up his hand and asked me to clarify something I had just illustrated. After a short exchange to understand where the guy was coming from, I tried rephrasing my point in simpler language. He still didn’t get it, so I tried to make it simpler and gave an analogy. Still no luck, so I kept on simplifying until I just ran out of levels and then conscious of wasting the rest of the audience’s time, I told him it was magic, an answer which he accepted with good grace.

OK, so the gap between that guy’s knowledge and the subject matter of the presentation was too great to be bridged in the limited time we had available, but at least the guy was game. He wanted to understand and for that, he gets a lot of points in my book. So if you are one of the people equipped with the “I’m not technical” shields, just hold off hitting the button – take a chance. You might be amazed how technical you really are.

Window replacement

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Microsoft has always been an adaptable beast, constantly reinventing itself to adapt to whatever technology landscape is the current order of the day. Sometimes they are slow to adapt, such as when Bill Gates initially dismissed the internet, but they are quick to catch up.

This week, 18 years after the fanfare of Windows 95, comes the launch of Windows 8. Back in 1995, Take That and Blur were fighting for the number 1 spot in the charts. Sweden, Austria and Finland had just joined the European Union and Netscape had just gone public.

The computing landscape was very different back then. Pretty much every desktop in the world ran Windows, so Microsoft found a ready supply of customers eager to upgrade from the limitations of Windows 3.x up to the ultra modern Windows 95 with its plug and play, 32 bit support and long filenames. Although, even the ultra modern Windows 95 didn’t even come with a web browser. You had to download the “plus” pack in order to get the fledgling Internet explorer. Thus began the browser wars that led to the downfall of Netscape.

The mood of the launch was very different for Windows 95. Microsoft was very much a company in the ascendancy. They dominated the desktop with Windows and Office and there was absolutely no doubt that the new version of Windows would be a success. They chose “Start Me Up” from the Rolling Stones as a theme tune for the launch campaign as a reference to the brand new start button that nestled in the bottom left of the screen. Wisely, they recorded a new rendition where they removed the words “you make a grown man cry“.

Windows 95 was a runaway success with 1 million copies selling in the first 4 days, 40 million in the first 12 months. Microsoft will be hoping for similar commercial success with the new version of Windows. But the competitive landscape is very different. Windows 8 is not just a desktop operating system, it is also aimed at the very crowded tablet market. It’s quite a battlefield with Android and iOS holding the high ground. Also – Windows 95 was a big step forward from Windows 3.x. Windows 8 comes after a very capable Windows 7 which had little to fault.

Windows 8 has been publicly denounced by Tim Cook, the Apple CEO as an unholy union not unlike a toaster combined with a fridge. Apple have approached the market with separate operating systems for tablet and desktop and see any operating system that tries to cater to both platforms as a compromise too far.

With the cash cows of Windows and Office looking decidedly venerable, Microsoft need Windows 8 to be successful and the move to a completely new paradigm is brave (even though the old look and feel is still there if you need it). I think they deserve plaudits for that bravery and there is a good chance that just like the ribbon toolbar that came with Office 2007, people will get used to it and come to love it.

Either way – Windows 8 is a landmark event in computing history.

How free should free speech be?

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON'T HELP FREE SPEECH ...

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON’T HELP FREE SPEECH – NARA – 515409 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To say that law enforcement agencies are struggling with how to cope with the direction that technology has taken in the last decade is an understatement. Back when life was simple and there was no social networking and most people were still using landlines, policing was much simpler. If you wanted to be libellous, you needed to print something in a newspaper or a book. If you wanted to organise a heist or a riot or some terrorist activity, you probably had to do it in person.

Celebrities who are concerned about their reputations have been resorting to age-old legal machinery to protect their reputations which in the modern-day and age is just not up to the job. An injunction granted in a court of law in one country has little or no jurisdiction in another. So you may not be able to name the latest dubious liaison by a premiership footballer, but someone from another country can. It can then be retweeted by someone else and so it goes on until it’s trending and everyone knows.

I happen to think that free speech is one of our most important rights, but people can say and put into bits and bytes some pretty vile rhetoric. The authorities walk a knife-edge between overreacting and contravening the sacred right of free speech and allowing such vitriol to go unpunished. The Crown Prosecution Service has recently decided against prosecuting a man for a homophobic tweet he made about divers Tom Daly and Pete Waterfield, but the fact that they considered prosecution shows how seriously they are taking it.

Then there was the infamous case of Paul Chambers who faced a fine of just under £3000 and a criminal record for his joke tweet about blowing up Robin Hood airport in January 2010 following flight delays. I’m sure the sense of relief he felt when the court overturned the conviction on appeal was palpable but again – it shows the sense of gravity with which these actions are considered.

There is a need for consistency. A man who recently posted a message on Facebook suggesting that all soldiers should die and go to hell after 6 British soldiers died in Afghanistan got off scott free. Another man who posted vile comments on his Facebook page about the missing girl, April Jones, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail. Both comments were despicable, but why was one sent to jail and the other allowed to go free?

The legislation being applied to social media was never designed for the purpose and it is time for a free and fair debate about what is and is not OK to say and print and for new purpose-built legislation to deal with today’s technology. I don’t envy the lawmakers their task though, what a minefield.

The bare naked truth

shower out

shower out (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The chances are that unless you are in a certain industry, the list of people you would be happy to be naked with has shrunk over time. I can think of precisely one – my partner. Under certain circumstances, I might allow others to see me naked, such as my physician. If you have been a naughty boy (or girl) you might be required to strip by law enforcement officers. But by and large, the situation is under your control.

If my personal situation were different, I might add people to the list. Kylie maybe, or the girl from Sky News perhaps but the point is it is entirely up to me.

If the recent furore about Princess Kate’s topless photos appearing in the press and the outrage over Prince Harry‘s drunken naked romp in Las Vegas is anything to go by, it is a big deal to the Royal Family too. Although somehow I suspect that William and Kate were more angry than Harry. Privacy is important to people and breeches of privacy can be very upsetting.

Some cultures are much more private than others. Muslim women who choose to wear hijabs and burkas do so for a reason, they wish to conceal their bodies from those that they do not wish to see it. Quite what they make of Western TV with flesh just about everywhere is beyond me. In other cultures, women quite happily walk round topless. If the rumours are true about the Swedes – they spend their lives getting naked together in saunas and hot tubs. But in this country, we don’t.

So why when you go to the swimming pool or the gym are there usually communal changing rooms and communal showers? Assuming I wish to avail myself of the facilities – I have to get naked with complete strangers, something I just wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. I know that the people in the shower are probably not remotely interested in my fine specimen of a body, but that’s not the point.

If I designed the facilities, I would have private cubicles, with underfloor heating. You would hand your clothes through a hatch to a waiting valet who would take them away and warm them ready for your return. The showers would be hot and would have nice adjustable shower heads.

And best of all – your privacy would be maintained at all times (unless of course you drag Kylie into your cubicle).

Conference season

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day

Beck at Yahoo! Hack Day (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Sometimes, it feels like I spend my life at conferences, either as an attendee, a speaker or maybe even just for some meetings with people who happen to be there. By and large, they are very well organised and it’s rare that I feel that the time I spend there has been wasted.

A few weeks ago, I had a free pass to a two-day conference down in London. The venue was local, the subject matter should have been of interest; cloud, SOA, mobile and REST and the price was certainly agreeable, so why did I only attend day 1?

Firstly, the venue itself didn’t endear itself to me. Although South Kensington is technically in London, it is hardly well-connected. Secondly, the conference took place in Imperial College London which is a sprawling university campus. Not only that, but the signage telling you where you needed to go was pretty poor. Even then, assuming you actually found the right room, there was a really good chance that the agenda had been changed without notice and you were in the wrong place.

Even if you found the right room, the breakout sessions were only about 45 minutes, so the speaker had just enough time to introduce himself and the subject before wrapping up. The sessions were either too superficial for the familiar or over the head of the novice.

All was not lost though. Over lunch, myself and a colleague bumped into Richard Johnson, the American founder of hotjobs.com, in a local pub. His presence was completely coincidental and had nothing to do with the conference. He told us the story of how he remortgaged his house, his business, his dog and his wife to come up with the princely sum of $4m which he blew on a 30 second advert during the Super Bowl.

His was the first dot-com to do so and Yahoo! acquired the company shortly afterwards. Eventually, Yahoo disposed of the operation and it formed the foundation for monster.com which is one of the biggest internet recruitment companies around.

So although the conference itself had lost its sheen, the trip was not totally wasted. I probably learned more during the half hour chat with Richard (who was a total gent) than I was ever going to learn in the odd 45 minute breakout session.

So in a roundabout way – that conference was worthwhile (even though it wasn’t).

Maisie saves the sky

Sunshine

Sunshine (Photo credit: Jong Soo(Peter) Lee)

The sky was hazy so Maisie felt lazy and drifted off to sleep.
But she dreamed and she schemed and so it seemed her sleep was not that deep.
Her mind it whirred, it stirred and it purred trying to find a clue,
as to why the sky so high had taken such a particular hue.

A bumble bee in a tree decreed that the change was here to stay.
A butterfly gave a cry and a sigh that it sometimes went this way.
A snake in the grass was fast to pass that the change was no good thing.
In order to arrange a change in the range, someone will need to sing.

To fix what’s wrong, we need a song before long, but which is the proper tune?
If we delay, I say we’ll pay and we’re going to need the right song soon!
Maisie, less lazy went crazy wracking her brain in order to choose.
Each song was wrong but before long came along the right song with no time to lose.

Maisie began and she sang, her voice rang with just the proper tone.
The bumble bee hummed, the butterfly strummed, the snake felt numbed, Maisie was not alone.
With a flick of her head, look Maisie said! The sky less red, our singing has saved the sky.
The sky is now blue, the proper hue, and Maisie-Lou bid her friends goodbye.

Number 1 or number 2?

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Os...

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica Nederlands: Oud-Romeins openbaar toilet Français : Latrines romaines à Ostie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are some things in life that I feel demand solitude. So when I learned that Romans built their toilets as social gathering places where men would sit side by side in long rows casually chewing the fat whilst their bowels did their best to dispose of the very same, it made my toes curl.

You can learn a lot about a society from the nature of their human waste disposal facilities. The British, for example, seem to have a higher urinal to cubicle ratio than any other nation I have visited and I’ve travelled around a bit. I assume it’s because of the relatively high national consumption of beer, but other countries with similar rates seem to get by with far fewer urinals.

The Americans build industrial strength toilets. According to many surveys and studies, Americans on average are more obese than any other nation, so it stands to reason that they consume more and therefore expel more than other people around the world. So I suppose it makes sense that their toilets are somewhat more robust, but they are epic in scale. I’m sure that I could have flushed the bed down the toilet in some of the American hotels I’ve stayed in. It doesn’t matter what’s in the pan – hit the flush and it disappears.

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in Fran...

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in France, at a motorway service station somewhere near Toulouse. This one is surprisingly clean, usually they are filthy. I love holidaying in France but I hate their toilets. Français : Prise par moi lors de vacances en France sur une air d’autoroute pres de Toulouse. Celle-ci est étonnamment propre, d’habitude elle sont sales. J’adore passer mes vacances en France mais je deteste leurs toilettes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French seem to have an indifferent attitude to toilets. Bare minimalism seems to be the order of the day – sometimes literally. I remember going to a restaurant in Tours and visiting the facilities. In front of me was a porcelain moulding with two foot plates. Between them was a hole. On the wall was a faded sign that showed which way you needed to squat depending on what you had in mind. There was no door. There weren’t even fixings for a door so there had obviously never been a door.

The Germans are efficient and believe in quality. Maybe that’s why they build inspection pans into their toilets. Whatever you’ve produced is held up for you to examine to make sure it’s satisfactory before hitting the flush and consigning it to oblivion.

I’ve been to Poland a few times, mostly to Warsaw, but once – I went to Katowice. Unlike Warsaw, no-one spoke English. They have a cryptic alphabet, so I couldn’t even take a guess at what was on the menu. Unwilling to be accidentally poisoned – I gesticulated wildly and spoke loudly unit they found someone who spoke English, the washer-up. Unfortunately, the only word he seemed to know was “please”. He did well though. I asked for a toasted cheese sandwich. Out came a platter full of salad with 2 bits of toast and a lump of cheese.

When I came to go to the toilet – I was baffled. One had a circle and the other a triangle. There was no other clue as to which was which, so I took a guess. I had a 50:50 chance. I don’t know who was more surprised – me or the Polish lady I bumped into!

Artificial intelligence?

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) - How...

IBM Watson (Jeopardy at Carnegie Mellon) – How I saved humanity! (Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

People remember Alan Turing  for many different reasons. He was a British mathematician who worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War 2. He also went on to become one of the pioneers of computing along with Max Newman. In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of homosexuality. He accepted treatment with female hormones (or chemical castration) rather than go to prison and 2 years later committed suicide. In short, he was a genius who became a victim of his time. Were he born today, no-one would bat an eyelid at his homosexuality.

One of the his legacies is the Turing test. A machine could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable from a human in conversation. He suggested that it would be better to come up with a learning machine (like a child’s mind) that could be taught and not something that simulates an adult mind. There is some debate as to whether a machine has ever really passed this test. I can think of a few humans who would struggle too.

Whenever I’ve seen any proffered example of artificial intelligence, I could not help but be disappointed. Today, however, I attended a very interesting session on IBM’s Watson semantic supercomputer. As supercomputers go, its $3m cost and 4TB of storage are pretty modest. Built on standard hardware and software, it resembles Turing’s child-like mind that can be taught. Indeed, before it can answer any sensible questions in a  particular domain, it needs to be fed with information. Lots of it. Even that’s not enough, Watson needs to do further research on everything it reads.

English: IBM's Watson computer, Yorktown Heigh...

English: IBM’s Watson computer, Yorktown Heights, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once loaded up with information, Watson is ready for questions. The first step in being able to answer any question is to parse it into the component elements. From this, Watson can determine the type of question being asked and what sort of answer is expected. It then generates many different permutations of the question to give the greatest chance of coming up with the right answer. For each interpretation of the question, Watson searches (in parallel) its knowledge base to see what answers it can find, coming up with as many as possible.

For each of the possible answers, Watson goes on the hunt for evidence, both for and against. Based on this evidence, obviously incorrect answers are discarded and the remainder scored based on the quality and reliability of the evidence. Finally, Watson uses the experience it as gained in the past in answering similar questions to gauge the value of the different types of evidence and comes up with a final confidence rating for each answer and ranks them accordingly. The process is very similar to that used by Doctor Gregory House in the hit TV program. You write-up all the possible answers and cross them out as the evidence goes against them.

The first outing for Watson was to win the TV quiz game Jeopardy against two former champions. IBM admit that this was little more than a bit of fun and a publicity exercise. Watson is now being geared up for much more serious applications such as medical research and diagnosis support. The applications for such technology are legion and the team freely admit that there are far more valid use cases than they have the time to exploit right now.

For the first time in my life, I am genuinely inspired by an example of artificial intelligence and I will follow Watson’s progress with interest.