Category Archives: Nerdy ruminations

The reassembler

James May – Captain Slow, the butt of many Top Gear jokes about nerds and pedants – has a fantastic little show called The Reassembler, where he takes some product that has been taken apart into little pieces, and puts it together again. It works surprisingly well, especially when he goes off on tangents about corporate history, kids waiting for their birthdays to come, and whether something is a bolt or a screw.

Slow television, nerd style.

Here is one example, you can find others on Youtube:

Singularity redux

From Danny Hillis: The Pattern on the Stone, which I am currently reading hunting for simple explanations of technological things:

Because computers can do some things that seem very much like human thinking, people often worry that they are threatening our unique position as rational beings, and there are some who seek reassurance in mathematical proofs of the limits of computers. There have been analogous controversies in human history. It was once considered important that the Earth be at the center of the universe, and our imagined position at the center was emblematic of our worth. The discovery that we occupied no central position – that  our planet was just one of a number of planets in orbit around the Sun – was deeply disturbing to many people at the time, and the philosophical implications of astronomy became a topic of heated debate. A similar controversy arose over evolutionary theory, which also appeared as a threat to humankind’s uniqueness. At the root of these earlier philosophical rises was a misplaced judgment of the source of human worth. I am convinced that most of the current philosophical discussions about the limits of computers are based on a similar misjudgment.

And that, I think, is one way to think about the future and intelligence, natural and artificial. Works for me, for now. No idea, of course, whether this still is Danny’s position, but I rather think it is.

Friday futuristic reading

I am not a big fan of science fiction – way too many people in tights staring at big screens – but I do like the more intellectual variety where the author tries to say something about today’s world, often by taking a single aspect of it and expanding it. So here is a short list of technology-based short stories, freely available on the interwebs, a bit of reading for anyone who feel they live in a world where the technology is taking over more and more:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is the classic on what happens when we make ourselves totally dependent on mediating technology. Something to think about when you surf and Skype from your home office. Written in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick details a future with self-organizing weapon systems, a future where the drones take over. Written during the Cold War, but in a time where warfare is increasingly remote and apparently bloodless there is reason to think about how to enforce the “laws of robotics“.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson, the only sci-fi writer I read regularly (though much of what he writes is historic techno fiction, perhaps fantasy, and not sci-fi per se). It is about what happens if technology becomes self-aware.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written, but I like the idea: What happens in a society where we are no longer allowed to block advertising, where AdBlock Plus is theft.

There is another short story I would have liked to include, but i can’t remember the title or author. I think it was about a society where everything is designed with planned obsolescence, where a man is trying to smuggle home an artisanal (and hence, sustainable) wooden bench, but has issues with various products, including the gift wrap, which decays rapidly once it has reached its “best before” time stamp…

And with that, back to something more work-related. Have a great weekend!

The Facebook method of dealing with complexity

Computer systems used to be weak, so we had to make their world simple and standardized. They now can handle almost endless complexity—but we still need to understand how to make the world simple, so we don’t risk burdening the majority of users with the needless complexity of the few. One way of doing this is to adopt Facebook’s approach of “Yes, No and It’s Complicated.”

Read the rest of the essay at ACM Ubiquity’s blog.

An oratory masterclass

“We no longer think the world will be saved by politics and rock’n roll. We now believe it will be saved by the life of mind.” “…playing gracefully with ideas.”

Watch this. If nothing else, study Stephen Fry’s technique.

Unfortunately, I own a lawnmover. Oh well.

(There is a Q&A session as well, available as separate videos.)

R – the swiss army knife of the data scientist

R LogoThe video below, a talk by John D. Cook (via Flowingdata), is a very nice intro to R for the someone who wants to be a data scientist and have some notion or experience of programming. I have been beginning to look at R, but need a specific project to analyze in order to get into it. When learning a programming language (or any powerful tool, for that matter) it is important to get under the skin of it, to understand it to the point where you don’t look up the function or whatever in the manual because you intuitively know what it would be named, since you think like the developers. (I can’t claim any knowledge like that, except perhaps for IFPS (a defunct financial programming language), REXX (macro language for IBM mainframes), and Minitab (statistical package, rather marginalized now). Learning something to that level requires time and, most importantly, a need. We’ll see.

But it helps to have someone explain things, so I guess watching this video is not a waste of time. It wasn’t for me, anyway. And R certainly is the thing to learn, in this Big Data (whatever that may mean) world. (Though, as is said here, it was never designed for huge data sets. But huge data sets need models to work, and you build those on small data sets…)

The Double from toy to tool

There is a lot of writing about how computers (in this case, referred to as “robots”) will take over the role of the teacher (as well as many other jobs) these days. I have my own robot, from Double Robotics, and it is gradually becoming a tool rather than a toy – and it allows me to extend my reach, rather than automate my job. Granted, so far it has mainly been used for experiments and demonstrations (below, a picture from a meeting of an ICT industry organisation in Norway) but better access and a few technology upgrades have made it much more reliable and gradually into something that is useful rather than just fun.

The practical issues with the Double have been numerous, but have largely been solved. Here they are:

  • The Double required a lot of manual intervention before I could use it – specifically, it was in my office, and the department administrator would have to unlock my office and unplug it to let it out. This was solved by acquiring a docking station and positioning the Double out in the public area of my department (next to the mailboxes, as it happens.) I was worried that someone would make away with it (or steal the iPad) but both are password protected and besides, the department requires an ID card to get in. This has also meant that other department members can use the Double – one colleague has severe allergies and has to go to his mountain cabin for several weeks in the spring every year, he used the Double to attend seminars.
  • The speaker and microphone did not work well. Out of the box, the Double uses the speaker and mike from the iPad. The speaker was too weak, and the iPad microphone picks up too much noise as well as conversations all around rather than what is in front of you. Initially, I solved the speaker problem by using a Bluetooth speaker, but it was on a separate charger and did not work very well. Double Robotics came up with an Audio Kit upgrade which largely has solved the problem – I can now generate enough clear sound that I can use the Double for lecturing, and the directional mike filters out some of the noise and ambient conversations to make communication much more natural.
  • Thirdly, the iPad will sometimes go offline because of interruptions, chiefly because of software updates. This means it will not be able to set up a connection, and needs a manual restart. This was fixed by running the Double app in a Guided Access mode (found under Settings>General>Accessibility>Guided Access), a way of setting the iPad to only run one app only, uninterrupted by software upgrades, messages and other distractions.
  • Fourth, the sound sometimes disappears on the iPad altogether. This may actually be a physical problem (it has been banged about a bit, and the metal part behind the sound buttons is a weak spot), but was fixed by allowing the physical sound controls to be run in Guided Access mode, and then asking whoever I was talking to to turn up the sound if necessary.
  • Fifth and last, the wi-fi connection drops for about 30 seconds every time I go from one wireless router to the next, which happens all the time in our large office building. I solved this by using the cell connection instead. It still has dead spots some places in the building (despite our telecom vendor, NetCom, being headquartered very close to us) but I am beginning to know where they are. It is also solvable by setting up a VLAN, something that requires cooperation from the IT department and which I haven’t gotten around to quite yet.

All in all, I am beginning to find the Double a useful tool. Next time I am invited to speak on TV, I’ll consider sending it down to the studio in a taxi, just to see the reaction. Like many digital solutions, true productivity does not come until everything is digital – for instance, i wanted to use the Double for an early meeting with students last week, but found I couldn’t do it because the door to the department would be locked and there was no way I could unlock it remotely. So I ended up going in for the FTF meeting anyway, even if it was the only thing I needed to be in the office for that day.

A second observation is that the Double elicits all kinds of thoughtful (and less thoughtful) comments from grown-ups, mainly along the lines of how surprisingly natural this is but how traditional face to face is better, alienation etc. etc. The younger element takes to it naturally – my cousin’s eight year old daughter, seeing her Dad in the Double, responded with a “Hi Dad” as the most natural thing in the world.

And thirdly – one obvious use of the Double would be to ship it to wherever I am supposed to be, so I can give a talk remotely. I gave a talk in Bordeaux two days ago. Bordeaux is complicated to get to from Oslo, and the trip ended up taking three days. I could have sent the Double, but a) I think my physical presence helped the talk, and b) the Double has a large lithium-ion battery, and you can’t ship those on airplanes. Consequently, the Double is a tool for making me stay in place while moving about, rather than the other way around.