Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

I wish I had a computer like they do in the movies

Jurassic Park (film)

Jurassic Park (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Depictions of technology in films and TV always make me either cringe or laugh out loud. Either they are so completely antiquated in their depiction or they exhibit properties so advanced that we can only dream of being able to do the same thing. I do feel sorry for the film directors because an awful lot of technology is fairly dull to look at. If you have a whole scene that revolves around your protagonist doing stuff on a computer, it’s going to look very dull indeed unless you spice it up somehow.

Sometimes the film makers do this by making the machine’s display ridiculously frenetic or by making the machine make noises. Often, they go completely over the top and exaggerate what today’s computers are capable of. How many times have you seen a computer which scrolls the characters onto the screen one at a time with a beep accompanying every letter? What about when a particularly grainy satellite image appears and someone says “enhance” and the machine crunches away, the pixels sharpen, the image zooms in and suddenly we can read the exact brand of cigarettes the bad guys smokes.

If someone wants to hack into a system in real life, they spend a long time cracking the defences of the target network. They might use social engineering techniques to unlock an initial chink in the armour. They might perform exacting research into who set up the security. They probably network with other individuals to share ideas. In short, it takes a fair amount of time and what appears on the screen is boring, mundane text. It’s not particularly cinematographic so I guess you can forgive the film makers for trying to jazz things up, but bars slamming shut across the screen or skull and crossbones appearing with some cheesy phrase seem faintly ridiculous.

Here are some of my favourite films and some of their technological howlers;

1. Superman IIIRichard Pryor steals the pence from every transaction in his bank’s computer system. This one touches my heart, probably because I work for a banking software company. He manages to hack into the system by typing the command “OVERRIDE ALL SECURITY”.

2. Independence Day – Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith fly into a really advanced alien spaceship and kill it with a virus. Really? I would have thought that such an advanced civilization might have come across that kind of threat before and don’t get me started on how Jeff Goldblum’s kit could just be plugged in – maybe the U in USB really is universal.

3. Jurassic Park – when our heroes discover that the whole computer system has been hacked by the resident nerdy programmer and locked up as tight as the velociraptor should have been, the young girl taps a few keys on the keyboard before uttering those immortal words “This is Unix, I know this”. She then proceeds to unlock everything in the blink of an eye.

4. Weird Science – two teenage kids create a beautiful woman in their bedrooms using their computer, a modem and a pair of bras on their heads. We have just about got 3D printing, let alone creating anything as complex as a woman!

I look forward to the day when our computers catch up with the movies.


Tap, tap, tap. It looks like you’re writing a blog post…

Clippit asking if the user needs help

Clippit asking if the user needs help (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t stand technology that thinks it’s smarter than me especially when some bright spark thinks it makes my life easier. There can’t be too many fans of IVR systems where you phone up and get told to press 1 for this and 2 for that. But I prefer them to the automated systems that say something like “Tell me what you want to do today” and wait for a response. I usually reply “To speak to a human being”.

There is a lot of complexity in the modern world and it’s very difficult to cater for every kind of user. People don’t read manuals any more. In fact, many products ship with little or no documentation whatsoever. How then do they help people to climb the learning curve? The best way is to make things intuitive in the first place. In software, consistency with convention goes a long way. If that fails, there’s always the online help.

I don’t know about you, but the help is that last resort. Unless it’s really well written, the chances are that after bumbling around for a while, the answer to whatever question you have will prove elusive. The basic design of help systems hasn’t fundamentally changed over time, but one day, a company called Microsoft dared to innovate.

I was at a conference. There was a buzz in the air. Everyone could sense that some big announcement was on the way. As the speaker took the stand, a hush descended over the crowd. Without saying a word, he fired up his machine, launched a program and started typing. An animated paper clip in the corner of the screen bounced around with eyes following the cursor. After a moment or so, the animated paper clip tapped on the screen before sticking up a speech bubble “It looks like you’re typing a letter. Would you like some help?”

There was a nervous ripple of applause. The speaker announced that the paper clip’s name was Clippy, the office assistant and it represented a revolution in online help. He went on to show us the different faces that Clippy could take. Apparently, we could add Clippy to our own applications as there was a rich API. We could even create our own avatars. The man predicted that one day, all software would have a Clippy to proactively help to educate users in how to use the program.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had to check the date to see if it was April the 1st. But it obviously wasn’t a joke. You could see that they had invested a significant number of man years. The avatars were nicely drawn and animated. Proactivity takes some engineering, so someone, somewhere really believed  that this was the future.

I couldn’t see it. It was too intrusive, too twee, far too annoying. It seems the general public agreed as after universal derision, the Office Assistant was quietly dropped. It’s a shame, because there was a germ of a good idea in there somewhere.


Where’s the technology I want at CES?

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Veg...

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas Nevada in January 2010 (cc) David Berkowitz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My technology needs are simple. I want my phone to check the weather half an hour before I get up. If there’s likely to be frost, it will communicate with a gizmo in my car that will not only defrost the windows, but it will warm up the seats and the steering wheel for me. My heating should also be given a little boost so that downstairs is nice and toasty. Five minutes before I get up, I want it to switch the kettle on downstairs. I want it to gradually bring the lights up in the room so that I wake up gently.

My tablet should automatically download today’s copy of the Times rather than dumbly waiting for me to fire it up and press the button. My phone should check my diary to see whether I have any appointments in London. If so, it should check that the trains and tubes are running OK. If for any reason I need to deviate from my normal route it should be ready for me by the time I look at my phone. I want my phone to check the balance on my Oyster card, If it’s running low, it should automatically top it up. The TV should switch on and automatically turn to my favourite news channel.

If it’s dark and I walk into a room, the lights should automatically come on. If a room is empty for any length of time, the lights should switch off. If any bulbs are blown, and we are running low on replacements, something will magically buy some best value ones from eBay. I should be able to watch or read any media on any visual device in the house. My wife and I should be able to start watching something on the TV and half way through independently watch the remainder on our mobile phones.

The fridge should have a touchscreen that shows the contents in order of sell by dates together with suggestions for recipes. There will be buttons next door to everything so that we can add them to the next order from the supermarket. The cooker will be told what temperature to warm the oven up to and how long the dish needs. The microwave should be clever enough to work out what’s inside it and set the timer accordingly.

The car should go and fill itself up with fuel. As it sits there most of the time not doing anything, it should also automatically check all those annoying comparison sites and renew my insurance and my tax disc. The car should also book itself in for a service, preferably on a day I’m taking the train into London.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Everything connected up intelligently. The frustrating thing is that much of this technology is here today. The reason I can’t do all these things is because consumer technology is so disjointed. You might be able to get some of these things individually, but making then all work together is either ridiculously expensive, difficult or both.

So what do I think we’ll see at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? Higher resolution TVs, flexible phones and a sea of tablets.

How free should free speech be?


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 wisdom of crowds

NXNEi - Day 2 -

NXNEi – Day 2 – (Photo credit: Jason Hargrove)

The idea of a collection of people chipping in to raise enough money to make something happen is not a new one. Charities have relied on the concept for years, as have mutuals or building societies. The earliest documented such endeavour is Ketley’s Building Society which grew out of the inns, taverns and coffeehouses of 18th century Birmingham.

The funds in that case were for building houses, but similar societies cropped up to pay out money in the case of misfortune such as bereavement or loss of limbs at sea. The members paid a small subscription hoping against hope that they would never need of the society’s services. Many famous modern insurance companies can trace their roots back to such humble origins.

Mention crowd funding to most people and they will not think of charities, building societies or insurance companies. They will immediately think of crowd funding websites. Just as Amazon and eBay have revolutionised selling over the internet, so have and have taken crowd funding to a whole new level.

By combining the reach of the internet with the viral effect of social media, crowd funding websites are ruthlessly efficient funding models. If your target audience likes your pitch, you will probably get funded. If your target audience looks at your pitch and gives a collective “meh!” then your funding deadline will pass with nary a whimper. Successful projects tend to snowball as stretch goals are reached adding more and more swag to the booty on offer.

I recently took part in funding this kick-starter project which went on to become the third most successful ever. It is fast becoming a poster child for the kind of innovation that crowd funding can unlock for successful pitchers. In this particular case, the pitch was for plastic miniatures (used for war-games or table top games). The original funding target for this project was $30k. They went on to raise about $3.5m

The upfront costs in making tooling for plastic miniatures is ruinously expensive. The ongoing unit costs per miniature are very low. Funded traditionally, it makes for a risky business because you never know how many units you will sell and whether you will cover your initial outlay. Crowd funding is perfect because if there is no interest for your product, you find out without spending a fortune. If you are lucky, you will end up with a runaway success.

I believe that crowd funding could offer a much more efficient mechanism for companies to build the right products. Using the same kind of mechanism, product managers could design pitches for new products. Salesmen (or maybe even customers) could commit to delivering a certain sales target. If the project reaches the profitability target, it gets funded.

There is even scope for the project to work in reverse with the consumers designing the pitch and when enough people say “I’d like one too” – a company takes up the mission of delivering the product.

Stop polishing nose cones!

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1 (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Working on a “nice to have” feature when there are more important requirements to fulfil is a crime. It becomes a heinous crime when it happens in a resource constrained environment. And yet – I see it all the time. If you ever find yourself working on a nice to have feature – stop, and ask yourself “is this the most urgent problem that needs solving?”

We have a special term for such work which, according to my trusted sources, originated in the IBM lab’s. We call it “polishing nose cones“.

Imagine if you will, a factory building rockets. The man in charge runs a tight ship and he organises his factory into departments. The engine department takes care of the bottom of the rocket, the propellant and coolant department takes care of the mid-section of the rocket and the nose cone department takes care of the very top of the rocket.

The guys down at the business end of the rocket, the engine department, have their work cut out. They have to develop the rocket engine (or more correctly the rocket motor) which involves some tricky engineering. The engine guys have to come up with a rocket motor that will get the vessel into space without running out of fuel and without blowing the rocket into smithereens. Their work takes a long time.

The coolant and propellant guys also have a mountain to climb. They have their specifications from the engine guys and they are pretty demanding. Some how, they have to provide enough coolant to stop the engine consuming the rocket in a ball of flame, but enough fuel to make sure that the rocket can make it to orbit. Not only that, but they have to operate within strict weight criteria.

The nose cone guys have the easiest job of all. All they need to do is manufacture the pointy end. Sure they have weight constraints, but their only job is to make something aesthetically pleasing. So the nose cone guys finish long before the coolant and propellant guys and the engine guys still have a ton of work to do.

So do they go and help the other guys – no – because they are in the nose cone department. Once they have finished the essentials, they start on the “nice to haves”. They start polishing their nose cone.

If I ran the factory, I would get away from the department idea and create a resource pool. All the engineers would constantly be picking up the most important tasks on whatever part of the rocket. OK – so maybe my nose cone wouldn’t look quite as good – but I bet my rocket would be ready for launch first.

I’m obsessed by statistics!

Blog Machine

Blog Machine (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

My wife thinks I’m crackers, but I am glued to the stats that get produced from the two blogging platforms I use. When I post something, I want to know that someone has read it. Not just that – I want to know that they have enjoyed reading it. Not just that – I want to know that my readership is increasing and not declining. A neutral observer might say I am obsessed.

As a blogging platform, WordPress provides excellent stats. The way that they have used game mechanics in the blogging dashboard is first class, and I feel that they must share some of the responsibility for my obsession.

There is a little tiny notifications icon in the top right hand corner. When your blog achieves something, that beautiful little icon slowly starts to glow, and almost in perfect time, I start to smile with it.

However good the blogging stats are on WordPress, they are not perfect. I find that sometimes I get a like when the number of page hits doesn’t go up. Sometimes, the counters get out of sync’ but no matter, they are still a useful barometer of activity on your blog.

When I get a follower, my heart soars – someone has subscribed to my random musings – I must be doing something right. When I get a “Like” on one of my posts, I cannot help but smile. When I post something and nothing happens, I descend into misery. But then that little notification icon glows slowly into life and I am bouncing off the walls again – such is the bipolar life of a blogger.

I find that I am not the best judge of my writing. Some of the work that I am most proud of has fewer “Likes” than some of the work that I’m maybe less proud of. But whichever way you cut it, all feedback is good. When people take the time to comment on one of my posts, I love to see their perspective. Somehow I haven’t managed to inspire the level of engagement of some of the blogs I admire, but any comments are a start.

I find that being part of the blogging community myself has changed my behaviour when reading other people’s blogs. Where I read a blog now, I look for some way to give the author feedback. I know how much it means to them to know that someone is out there and they care about what they are reading. I would urge you to do the same.

If you read some good work – congratulate the author. If you disagree with what you read, comment and argue your point. If you don’t like what you read, give feedback (but please be gentle).

Whatever you do – don’t play possum.

Wouldn’t we be better off without computers?

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP,...

Panellists Peter Hitchens, Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, Rt Hon Theresa May, Baroness (Shirley) Williams of Crosby, and Benjamin Zephaniah, join host David Dimbleby for Question Time, filmed in Westminster Hall for the first time on 3 November 2011 (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

I love watching Prime Ministers questions or Question Time on the BBC, but by far the best debating chamber has always been the local hostelry. Last night, the motion brought by my right honourable friend Sidney of Norfolk was that the world would be a better place without computers. The motion was seconded by my right honourable friend Martin of Lockers. Not only that, but a recent comment on one of my blog posts raises the same motion.

So are they right or wrong?

Technology can be bewildering for many people. For people who do understand technology, the challenge is finding common ground on which to base an explanation. I was once at a conference where I was explaining how a new product worked. A member of the audience looked puzzled and asked me to clarify something I had just said. Taking a mental step backwards and thinking for a moment, I rephrased what I had just said in simpler terms and tried to build his understanding. He still looked puzzled, so I tried to make things simpler. After several iterations, he was none the wiser and I had run out of ways that I could explain the same thing.

So I told him that it worked by magic. With that, acceptance bloomed over his face and we moved on. This lack of common ground leads to suspicion, wariness and a general reluctance on the part of most people to learn. Technologists are guilty too. It’s all too tempting to just grab the mouse and fix whatever needs fixing in a fraction of the time it would take to describe the process.

None of this helps in my defence of the motion, but let me try and justify the existence of computers.

Firstly, without computers, the banking system would collapse (even with computers it might still collapse if Angela Merkel has her way). Any wealth that is held in any kind of account anywhere would disappear overnight. Trade and commerce would have to fall back to barter and the goods being bartered would very soon become very basic. Any currency or plastic cards might as well be discarded. Mobile phones would become little more than paperweights and cars would become roadside ornaments.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Energy would become a problem. Refineries would shut down as would oil terminals and power stations. Pharmaceuticals would soon dry up and before long, the only treatment that doctors and hospitals could supply would be sympathy.

Telecommunications would break down which would render the world ungovernable. Distribution networks would disappear, shops would empty and we would quickly revert to hunter-gathering status.

Automated systems providing water and sewerage would break down which would mean that clean water would be very hard to find. Disease would take hold and spread rapidly.  Society would collapse into small tribes. There would be no law other than that enforced by local tribal leaders.

All this sounds rather extreme and like anything, technology can be used for good or ill. Without computers, there would be no nuclear weapons and the world’s carbon footprint would be slashed at a stroke. A large percentage of the population would no longer be baffled by remote controls and mobile phones.

Of course the most powerful argument is that without computers, the right honourable Sidney of Norfolk could not read this – although I doubt he’d agree.