Monthly Archives: March 2012

Seriously cool robot

These two robots, developed by Boston Dynamics, are Youtooobing:

I can imagine this one (called the Sand Flea) being used by the military and police for sending in cameras and other spy equipment in an urban landscape. The Big Dog (below) is something I really could use when I am gardening – a container on its back, and a voice interface so I could tell it to go empty itself in the compost bin when it is full of garden refuse.

The dangerously bloodless war

War is not what it used to be. Both the implicit trends and explicit strategy has gone from large-army movements – the invasion of Iraq may be the last large-scale invasion we will see for quite a while – to smaller-unit conflict management and “surgical” actions, such as the raid on Osama bin Laden. This is partially a result of technological evolution (advanced weapons demand much training, making conscripted soldiers, who become civilians just as they have learned how to operate them), partially a change in warfare – more and more conflicts are asymmetric, with urban or rural guerillas facing a traditional military force, hiding among the civilians and forcing the regular army to either be ruthless or to win hearts and minds.

In both cases, war is expensive for the decision-makers. Today’s young men do not have four brothers and face a career of back-breaking work on the family farm or in a factory or mine – prospects that might make a military career, however the peril, look interesting. With less than two children per woman being the average in European countries, parents (and to a certain extent society, through education) have way to much invested in each individual to squander them on unnecessary and unimportant actions.

This might change: New weapons such as remote-controlled and even automatic drones with pilots sitting halfway around the world, out of harms way, means that the price for war (both in money and lives, of soldiers as well as innocent bystanders) has been significantly reduced. So far, this form of remote warfare has been an American forte, but the weapons are becoming available for smaller countries, first in NATO, then in other countries. I predict that Norway, for one, will scale back its very expensive and politically complicated purchase of advanced, manned F-35 fighters and instead see if more of their needs can be met with the cheaper drones – a disruptive innovation in more than one sense.

This evolution is slightly worrying, for a number of reasons: First, the lower cost of war may make military solutions more tempting to politicians – bloodless or not. Second (and in the longer term more scary) automated weapons can, like all automatic systems, malfunction in unpredictable ways and you can even envision them turning against you, as has happened with anti-aircraft missiles. You really don’t want rogue drones with malicious intent out there, whether it is inserted by hackers or come about through unintended systems interactions. Third, the low price and standard components of the weapon systems may mean that they, in time, will be available not just to large nations, but also to the guerillas and terrorists they were invented to confront. Imagine a home-made drone with cheap technology as the new Kalashnikov – solid, simple and able to make up in numbers what it lacks in sophistication.

I don’t know if remote weapons need a solid infrastructure of communications technology, in particular networks (satellites, cellphone networks, wi-fi) or if they can be controlled with direct radio transmission. There is quite a lot of data that needs to go across, in close to real time – but given the falling cost and increasing range of of digital wireless communication, it is not too hard to imagine that these weapons could be cheap, perhaps even built from standard parts by insurgents themselves, both for spying and for weapons delivery.

Small and cheap has a tendency to carry the day, and enemies learn from each other. Let’s just hope that Steven Pinker is right – and avoid thinking too much on the suppressive possibilities of autonomous weapon systems.

Original and cover–complementary, not competitive

This is the original version of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know:

The video is elegant, sexy and interesting. How to improve it? Well, here is a cover version by a homegrown little band called Walk off the Earth:

I actually like this version of the song better – even without the video. But they are both great. And there you have it – the beauty of art, evolving where people take what others have done and put their own spin on it. Brilliant.

Incidentally, the reason I found these videos is entirely due to my youngest daughter. Just so you don’t think I have the first idea about music. Or anything else.

Computing’s cathedral history

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer – and, specifically, the role of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in it. Their “IAS machine” was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM’s early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I continue to be amazed at how far ahead some of the thinkers were – Alan Turing discussed multiprocessor and evolutionary approaches to artificial intelligence in 1946, for example.

On a side note, I was pleased to see that a number of Norwegian academics, mostly within meteorology, played an important part in the development and use of the IAS computer. Nils Aall Baricelli, an Italian-Norwegian, was someone I previously had not heard of, one of those thinkers who is way ahead of his time and (perhaps because he was independently wealthy and led a somewhat nomadic academic existence, hence may have been considered something of a dilettante, though Dyson certainly don’t see him as such and credits him with the ability to see a possible way from programmed computer to independently learning mechanism (and, perhaps at some point, organism).

The book is a bit uneven – partly standard history, partly relatively deep computer science discussions (some of them certainly over my head), and partly – with no warning – brilliant leaps of extrapolating visioneering into both what computers have meant for us as a species and what they might mean in the future. It also shows some of the power struggles that take place in academics, and the important role IAS played in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

All in all, an excellent history of the early days of computing – a more recent history than many are aware of. As George Dyson says in his Ted lecture (below) in 2003: “If these people hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It was an idea whose time had come.” That may be true, but it takes nothing away from the tremendous achievements of the early pioneers.

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Reflections on teaching case teaching

On Friday and Saturday I had one of the most intense teaching experiences of my life – the Participant-Centered Learning seminar at the Harvard Business School. This two-day seminar, with about 50 students from more than 30 institutions, is an introduction into case teaching – but for the course leaders, it is an exercise in meta-thinking.

When you teach a case, you need monitor processes, in real time, on at least two levels: The case problem itself (and cases can be complicated, you need to know them well); and your own performance as a teacher – are you reaching your teaching objectives, and is the way you lead the discussion furthering them. Practice helps, but like with all things new, leading discussions takes a lot of thinking until it gradually becomes a habit and is done more by in central nervous system that the front cortex.

Teaching about case teaching, on the other hand, introduces many new levels. Not only do you have students who are watching your every step – i.e., how you teach, not to look for airtime opportunities – but the aim of the course it to use case teaching techniques to illustrate the teaching techniques that would deal with the problems outlined in the underlying case. (Adding to that, of course, as any good teacher should monitor him- or herself for ways you can make the teaching better the next time.)

At the end of the course, I felt as if I had just finished a long car drive in a car where the gears and pedals had been switched around, every direction decision and subsequent execution requiring copious amounts of conscious processing. Reputedly, the brain consumes 20-24% of the body’s energy, and I certainly felt that way when I got home, barely able to do anything more than sack out in front of the computer with a glass of good red wine and a few old Top Gear episodes.

That being said, however, the whole experience was also extremely invigorating. The students were interested, energetic, and from admirably diverse backgrounds, from US elite institutions through low-cost regional online educators to universities in China, Turkey and Denmark. It was also interesting to have the full resources of a Harvard case classroom at my disposal – in particular, having ample blackboards (9, as a matter of fact,) old-fashioned but so much better in every way, including sightlines. Having a great room changes how you teach – though I will have learn how to exploit the room better, especially the boards, should there be a next time.

But all in all, a most enjoyable experience. As I have previously written, I think good discussion teaching is a source of differentiation and competitive advantage for both teachers and institutions. I stand by that view, all the more so for my experience this weekend.

Boston perks

IMAG0492One of the joys of living in Boston is the seafood, which is deliciously and not too expensively (at least by Norwegian standards) available lots of places.

This picture is from today’s dinner with the MIT CISR team, shot by my eminent colleague Martin Mocker, and, I think, accurately conveys the splendor of the “lobster bake” and my appreciation of it. A “lobster bake” is a traditional New England lobster dinner with a delicious cup of “clam chowdah” as an appetizer and a plate of littlenecks, clams, chorizo (to give the sweet seafood a little contrast), corn on the cob and, of course, a medium-sized lobster.

Note – Legal is no longer available at terminal C! Your best bet is probably to eat somewhere outside the airport… This picture is from the Legal Seafood in Kendall Square – but the most convenient location for lobster, for me at least, is the Legal Seafood restaurant in terminal C at Logan airport. Since the flights to Europe normally leave at 8-8:30 pm, my preferred way to fly is was to check in early, walk over to Terminal C, and feast on inexpensive seafood and decent local beer or a dry white wine. This frees you from the need to eat airline food and puts you in a calm and collected and rather sleepy frame of mind before taking off.

Highly recommended!

Tips and tricks swap meet

Today I hosted a brown bag lunch with researchers from BI’s Technology Strategy group and MIT CISR. The objective was to get to know each other, but every meeting needs a topic, so I asked people to bring their computers and share a few smart things, useful web sites and other things they have discovered, that people wouldn’t know about.

Here is a list of some of the smart tricks and tools people came up with:

  • If you need to edit a large document in Word, create a table of contents, place it at the beginning of the document – and jump to the right chapter or subsection by control-clicking on the TOC. (Alternatively, use the document map feature, see this blog post.)
  • Pressing . (period) while in presentation mode in Powerpoint will give you a black screen, pressing the same key again gives you the slide back. Useful for making people listen to you rather than read the slide.
  • A tablet computer is useful for presentations: Draw on slides, use Windows Journal to sketch out diagrams and drawings – which you can then PDF and make available to students.
  • This article explains how to get rid of New York Times cookies with a bookmarklet.
  • Google Reader (since discontinued, use Newsblur instead) lets you read RSS feeds quickly and easily.
  • Clearly from Evernote is a great tool for reading webpages – removes unnecessary clutter and lets you save the page to Evernote.
  • Think-Cell is a great tool for creating charts in Powerpoint, faster and simpler and more good-looking than standard Excel.
  • Whenisgood.net is great for finding possible meeting times.
  • The Meeting Planner from timeanddate.com is useful.
  • If this then that lets you automate certain web tasks by monitoring information streams and taking action based on their results.
  • Hipmunk is great for finding flights quickly, has a great graphical display.
  • In Word, under the File/Open or File/Recent menu choice, there are little pushpin symbols that, if pushed, will make sure the document stays visible in the list.
    Very useful for keeping the position of frequently used documents that are stored in SharePoint without having to go through a lengthy access procedure.

The fun thing with a little meeting like this is that everyone comes away with at least one or two things they hadn’t thought about – which is more than you can say for most meetings.