Category Archives: technology

Things every house should own

I was reading a fascinating article on Ars Technica the other day – mostly to be honest, I read these things because I am intrigued to see what the comments will be like – if I am honest. Anyway, the article concerned the hacking of an emergency notification system in Dallas Fort Worth. Here’s a link to it.

As it happens, the comments were the usual mix of rank ignorant and rank knowledgeable and a scale of non-rankness in between. One of the key questions from the “we recognise we are ignorant” is why the area still used this kind of alert system – basically sirens given that the technology existed for things like cell phone warnings and this is where it got interesting.

Dallas Fort Worth is in Tornado Alley and so the alert system actually gets used, and often at short notice. And the reason it continues to be used is that a) it works and b) it is reliable. There is already a lot of experience to demonstrate that in emergency situations, cell networks are not reliable (although landlines are tending to stand up to disaster a bit better). Well, this system is reliable as long as no one tries to hack it but that’s a wider moral discussion. The point is, cellphones are often switched off, on silent, in the room downstairs, or whatever other excuse you are having yourself. In the context of the onset of a tornado that’s never going to be enough.

A couple of things struck me about the conversation – one was the usual tendency of people who live somewhere with gigabit fibre to assume that everyone has gigabit fibre, and similarly, the tendency  of people to assume modern might always be better than old tech. Sometimes and often times it isn’t. Anyway, another point which popped up almost in passing in the comments was identifying other sources of information in the event of an emergency. A siren is one thing to tell you hunker down, avoid, escape to high or low ground, or whichever is appropriate for your situation (CF earthquake drills in Japan as another example). Someone mentioned that they would always have a battery operated radio in the house just in case power was taken out.

This caused me to pause and think. I have a torch in the house at all times, and it has a place where it lives. I’ve always felt that you should always have a functional torch in the house and that’s why there were 4 in the last house. But if I lost electricity, I have maybe mobile phone for up to 24 hours if it was fully charged when I lost electricity and provided I switch off cellular data. I live in a temperate area and normally, you’d expect that I might be out of electricity for a relatively short time.

It’s just lots of people have found out the hard way that this might not be a completely safe assumption.

So I added a battery operated radio to the shopping list and found a small Sony for 25E in a local electrical shop. I need to get some batteries for it because of course it’s a different size to the set of batteries I have here already.

You can wander around Youtube and find all sorts of survival kits, squeezed into tiny Altoids boxes if you want to be really creative. But in the context of living in a city with no desire to go off-grid, as it were, possibly your shopping list should include a torch, a radio, spare batteries for both and a few litres of water at the very least. And at that, I’d like to think we’d be able to see the biggest problems coming from a long way off.

Leaving it to the engineers

It is possible that this belongs on my other site but…Fine.

I think this was caused by a tweet linked to a comment made at the SCIC21 interpreter training conference during the week. It is an annual conference involving the interpreting service of the European Commission and the universities which run courses that supply the interpreter pipeline. The comment, which I now cannot find, grosso modo, amounted to highlighting the risk in allowing the engineers to be in charge of the future of the language industry. In other words, Google.

EDA: and the tweet is here from Marcin Feder:

C. Tiayon – do not leave languages in the hands of engineers, a reference to Google, etc.

(quick thanks to Alexander Drechsel who found it for me)

I have a background in artificial intelligence and machine learning and as part of getting it, I did a machine learning course where the lecturer confidently asserted that translation as a problem had now been solved by applying statistical methods. This basically means, loads of data and learning from that. There are well known issues with this; it tends to be good, as in better than what went before, but anyone who has seen both Google Translate and Bing Translate in action would really be admitting that it’s still not great. In many cases it’s terrible. Twitter’s language recognition engine is a bit hit or miss too which makes its translations hilariously absent. One of the things which annoyed me in general when I did my CompSci masters was the extraordinary tolerance computer scientists have for faults in things which are not necessarily computer science. Woe betide you if you don’t comply with someone’s pet programming style peeve (usually in the area of variable names) but a 60% success rate in whatever the code is trying to do, like, translate something from French to English is tolerable. The computer end of business they are shockingly fussy about, the business end of business, less so. Human interpreters and human translators are still far, far better than computers in terms of transferring meaning from one language to another. This is because meaning is not all verbal and computers are not good at nuance.

So we keep hearing how great computers are at something or other – lately it has been GO – or diagnosing some illness or other. I have doubts about the last one because often that’s a question of judgement rather than straight binary… – Anyway we keep hearing how great computers are at some task but when you drill down, it is because monumental assumptions and allowances have been made. You can read, for example, that Duolingo is better than college courses for learning languages and that this is scientifically proven. The relevant study had a 75% drop out rate. That means 75% of people who started learning a language to in a programme to measure the effectiveness of Duolingo dropped out before the end of the study.

This is not just true for languages but in general, if computer science or technology is getting involved in your industry, it is worth paying careful attention to what they consider to be adequate performance. It may well  be significantly less than is considered adequate in general in your industry and you will want to know the rationale for that.

Amazon Driven by Data

Possibly this belongs on my datablog and I might write it up there later (or I might not).

The New York Times has published a piece on working conditions in Amazon. It does not make for comfortable reading and certainly does not paint Amazon as a company which I would want to work for. But I did want to pick up on one comment in it.

“Amazon is driven by data,” said Ms. Pearce, who now runs her own Seattle software company, which is well stocked with ex-Amazonians.

That comment about driven by data is something that worries me. Sure, data is very sexy at the moment in the tech but data in itself can be meaningless and what matters is the information you can derive from it. But the information you look for is generally skewed by humans who decide what questions they want to ask of that data. Data isn’t the answer and how it is queried is not benign or completely rationally independent.

The average tenure in Amazon, apparently, is one year. You can argue that this might be as a result of a toxic culture. You can argue that Jeff Bezos is a genius. But to my uncertain knowledge, Amazon does not turn a profit and I think, has never turned a profit. We have an ongoing assumption that this is somehow okay, that it’s a new paradigm, and times have changed. With an average tenure of a year, you have a company which cannot possibly have stability in output quality, and you have a company whose knowledge base never develops.

Amazon’s search is atrocious and its recommender system has deteriorated badly in my experience. A hypothesis for why that might be is that they appear to have rapid staff turnover and by definition, limited continuity.

Many of the datapoints in Amazon’s evaluation system appear not to be datapoints at all. They are entries in the AnyTime Feedback Tool:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly.

Anyone who implements a tool like this either a) expects it to get gamed and considers that a value or b) doesn’t expect it to get gamed in a high octane organisation is naive at best and making decisions on potentially faulty data. Either way, they are unlikely to wind up with the best staff. Such organisations, however, can only operate on the comfort blanket of never admitting this.

Amazon can call itself a data driven organisation, and if it wants to measure everything down to the nth degree, they should be bright enough to know the limitations of what they are doing. Going by the content of the NYT’s article, they probably aren’t.

Automated newsfeeds

One of the things I liked about Facebook over Google News (and in practical terms, there are few enough of those) is that I could set the newsfeed up to deliver me stuff from a lot of different language sources. Google assumes monolinguality; it’s constantly offering me tips for searching for English results only and for someone who is multilingual and interested in what’s happening in the communities of her other languages kens, it’s a bit frustrating.

However, as an advantage, it really is waning and the reason for that is the famous Algorithm. Now, in simple terms, algorithm is just just a method for achieving some result. The result which Facebook allegedly wants is for me to have the most relevant material turning up in my feed as that enhances engagement, and engagement is a handy asset for getting money out of advertisers.

Whatever way it works, it’s serving me a lot of drivel I don’t want, particularly on the news front, to the extent that shortly, I’m going to unlike pretty much all the news sources. I’m sick of them. I get pages of Royal Weddings, pages of Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner, pages of entertainment rubbish that I really don’t care about, don’t want to see, and can’t switch off without switching off news altogether. Note to twitter: do not mess with the time driven method by which you serve me content.

Facebook is a time sink. Today, it’s been highly negative. There has been a preponderance of news stories that annoy me, and drivel that, if I’m truly honest, I don’t want to read, but still wind up reading. Much of it is repetitive with the same stories coming from several different sources, and the occasional marginal different angle. A lot of what turns up serves to make me feel inadequate too as there’s the stuff that tells you what you need to do to have a good career, what vegetables you should eat to get healthy sleep, the ten, fifteen or a million habits of Steve Jobs.

I loved computers and technology but I realised last night that possibly the two highest profile tech companies in the world, namely Facebook and Google, make money from advertising. You can spend all the money you like developing a better newsfeed selector but it’s not going to make the world much better. The tech industry often solves the wrong problems.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the things that made me happy about the internet 20 odd years ago when my life got Netscape Navigator. It was the pretty things. The things that made me happy. The things that opened the world to me, and opened the possibilities.

It wasn’t a constant feed of news that I couldn’t directly influence myself. I haven’t worked out what to do to make FB give me politics not celebrity rubbish from the Guardian. And so, the news orgs are going to have to go and just maybe, FB will no longer become a pit of stuff that irritates me.

Neolithic monuments in Ireland

Newgrange is one of the highest profile historic sites which we have in the country and when most people talk about going to Newgrange, they mean they want to see this one.

When I go to Newgrange, I always go to Knowth as well. Yes, you can actually go into the passage in Newgrange, and yes, it’s extremely well done but it’s always very busy.

Knowth is generally much quieter and, on occasion, no matter how busy Newgrange might be, you might have the site at Knowth more or less to yourself. There’s a lot to be said for this.

Knowth is bigger than Newgrange, but it does not look anywhere near as perfect. It hasn’t been restored (or reconstructed) in the same way as Newgrange was, and some different decisions have been made about the site. A key one is the question of the quartz stone. At Newgrange, this was built up as a wall. At Knowth, the view was taken that it was probably a terrace around the entrances. I’ve mixed feelings. Certainly Newgrange looks more complete but….

That aside, the reason I would still favour Knowth over Newgrange is the art. Knowth has significantly more external art than Newgrange and it is stunning.

Yes, the entry stone for Newgrange is iconic:


but then, there’s this:


and this:

20150415_160718I find what’s around the base of Knowth simply to be on a scale which is borderline unimaginable at Newgrange.

I didn’t have time to go to Dowth yet and it’s not included amongst the options you can get to from Bru na Boinne. However, if you are interested in neolithic art in Ireland in that area, I would strongly recommend Knowth as a seriously underrated site. It is wonderful. You can actually look down the passageway although access down it is not permitted to the public and you can see some public access work done on the eastern end. You can also walk to the top of it and the view from it is quite impressive.

I find the whole idea of pre-history in Ireland fascinating. If you go to the National Museum on Kildare Street, you’ll find examples of 3 and 4 thousand year old jewellery which contains carvings not dissimilar to some of the carvings on these stones and it’s extraordinarily beautiful. I really do wonder about the societies that were able to access the gold, shape it, carve it. It seems to me those societies, however on a smaller scale than is currently on the case, must have been extremely sophisticated, particularly with respect to their ability to use tools to achieve tasks which would probably challenge us today.




Random new info

I occasionally edit pages on Wikipedia which involves a certain amount of research. Today I was updating a page on a rail accident and linked to research I did with that, I spent some time on the page of the European Rail Agency. The link above captured my interest.

Today, there are more than twenty signalling and speed control systems operating at the same time in Europe. The Thalys train sets, in particular, linking Paris and Brussels, have to be equipped with seven different signalling and speed control systems and radio communication variants.

I used to travel on the Thalys from Brussels to Paris the odd time, some years ago.

Seven. Seven. Seven different signalling and speed control systems and radio communication variants.

I know Thalys now travels between France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands but even so, you’d have to wonder how in that framework, they manage to need seven different signalling systems.

Deutsches Museum

On an island in the middle of the River Isar in Munich is one of the greatest museums in the world. I can say that advisedly. The Deutsches Museum on Museum Island is overwhelming.

It is one of the earliest museums of science and technology in the world, and, I am told, if you were to walk every exhibit, you would walk more than 17km.

In truth, what happens is you walk into the first section, which is full of boats and model boats, you get knocked backwards, and never really recover. They have a terrific aviation section. They have an amazing aeronautical section. They have a mindblowing collection of clocks and weights and balances. They have every sort of textile weaving system. Every sort of printing press that you can imagine. Every sort of ceramic you can imagine. A terrific model railway. A terrific collection of keyboard instruments.

They have holograms.

Most importantly, they have 2 Enigma and one Lorenz cipher machine, plus a bunch of other cipher machines. And an IBM 360 with a punch card reader. Every sort of adding machine and calculus machine or analogue calculator that you can imagine.

The entry fee is eight euro fifty. It is worth every cent and you will come out a complete wreck having not seen everything.

3D printing people

Via twitter and the Guardian, I arrive at this today.

For those who want not to sully their browing history,, a former popstar, but now Chief Creative Officer of a 3D printing company called 3D Systems, has suggested that:

“Eventually 3D printing will print people,” said “I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m just saying what’s fact based on plausible growth in technology.”

“Unfortunately that is the reality, but at the same time it pushes humanity to have to adhere to new responsibilities,” he said. “So new morals, new laws and new codes are going to have to be implemented. Humans – as great as we are – are pretty irresponsible. Ask the planet. Ask the environment.”

I’m just saying what’s fact based on plausible growth in technology.

So, here’s a quick primer: we can already 3D print human forms. We’ve been doing it for years with modelling clay, stone, metal, you name it. Even if you used a 3D printer to print a human form with a high level of exactness, all you will wind up with is a statue.

It does not matter how far 3D printing technology improves in’s lifetime, the fact remains that 3D printing on its own will print at most a highly detailed statue. What should be concerned about, if he’s getting worried about stuff on the moral plain is artificial intelligence. And that debate is already happening. is looking at the wrong technology in terms of ethical concerns. Unfortunately, someone in De Zeen and someone else in the Guardian gave him the platform to come across as being completely dumb about this.

Artificial intelligence does not need a human avatar to cause problems (assuming it gets to the point that it can). And while I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk’s concerns at present, the point is, building a statue is of zero concern. Building a creative thinking machine on the other hand is a bit more concerning from ethical points of view. But if you ask any AI specialist, they will tell you we’re a good way away from that right now too.

In the meantime, I have to wonder how someone who makes comments like the above gets a job. If I can possibly help it, I will never have any dealing with the company that hired in a high profile role that allows him to mouth off like this.

Journeys in language

Amongst the many things I don’t currently own, or at least, did not own up to a very recent point in time, was an English dictionary. This was a bit of a lack in my life; I own a two volume Finnish dictionary set, two German dictionaries (although one of them I don’t really need as it’s been superceded by the other one) and a recent-ish edition of the large Collins Robert in French. Somewhere at my parents place is a 20 year old anniversary edition Wahrig and a Petit Robert also around 20 years old. I haven’t been able to find them of late so no idea where they are hiding; they may have gotten lost in one of my own personal house moves.

Mostly, when I find myself wanting to look up a word, I turn to one of the online dictionaries. The experience tends to leave me somewhat dissatisfied. The online interfaces for dictionaries (in my limited experience) tend to be less than welcoming, and they do not tend to set off the random exploration a print dictionary does. It had occurred to me that a good English dictionary, preferably more or less matching my large bilingual French and German ones for the purposes of shelf esthetics would be a good purchase. I had Christmas vouchers.

And Easons in Swords had something of interest.

Buying dictionaries is a hassle these days. Mostly, if you find dictionaries, you find what I call school dictionaries. They are about 5 inches by 7 and they lack the gravitas of a big dictionary. Dictionaries are serious reference works. They should be heavy and big and not blending into the rest of the books on your bookshelf. I have not wanted a very concise dictionary – but something a little more austere. What I now own is a copy of Collins Dictionary of the English Language, The Language Lover’s Dictionary. It is a beautiful looking wordbook. It includes more than 200 essays on language and beside me, the book has fallen open on A Brief History of Literature, part 1.

Next to it is a page containing definitions of words starting with the letter B. New to me today is the word bascule. This, apparently, is a drawbridge that operates by a counterbalanced weight.

On page 361, there is a brief essay on the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It falls next to a page of mostly hyphenated words starting with the word “half”. I know all of them.

Falling open on page 593, we encounter a page of Words from Shakespeare, part 14. How can you not love such a book? Page 825 has an extraordinary asset. It is part 8 of the list of three letter words acceptable in a game of Scrabble. This tells you something very useful: it is that there are a lot of three letter words you do not know. But the Scrabble game on your mobile phone certainly does, and it uses them to beat you.

Page 409 has an essay on West Country Dialect. For those of us who do not live in the United Kingdom, this is the area around Somerset, and moving south and southwest through Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Wiltshire. Page 425 covers Yiddish English. This is a mere taste of the range of language related essays to be found in this dictionary and they are all listed at the front of the dictionary for anyone who may care to dip in and out of the pearls to be found in its depths.

In addition, there is a brief overview of the background of each letter in the English alphabet and various uses of them aside from as building blocks for spelling words. This book, in many respects, is more than just a dictionary…it is a journey through the English language taken from many starting points.

The edition I have is the 2010 edition. I am mightily pleased with it.


Living in the Future

Last Saturday, Youtube celebrated its 10th birthday. We’ll skip the whole Valentine’s Day and move swiftly onwards to what Youtube means to me.

Youtube is the future writ large. Right now, if I want, I can watch pretty much any figure skating competitive performance from about the last 30 years by means of a simple search on Youtube. I watched the 1988 Olympic figure skating championships through a haze of static. If you told me when I was 15 years old that less than 30 years later, I’d be able to watch all that stuff, on demand, pretty much for free, I’d have looked at you as though you were completely made. At the time, Ireland had all of 2 official channels and okay, so there was multichannel of a sort…

The idea you could sit in front of a screen and choose what you wanted to watch rather than what the controller of RTE One was up for, well that was the stuff of dreams. It Is Never Going To Happen.

It did.

It’s not just the figure skating of course. It’s all the concerts of classical music, the videos by bands that you can watch ANY TIME YOU LIKE and not just between 7.30 and 8 on a Thursday evening, when Top of the Pops was on. It’s all the stuff that I’d never heard about much like Jon Stewart and John Oliver. Seriously, can we have John Oliver over here please? I watched Neil Finn and Paul Kelly live from Sydney Opera House early one morning. Live from Sydney, in a dining room in Dublin.

And it’s not just all those 1980s pop bands I’d forgotten, or bits of Bosco and Fortycoats. Or classic clips from various talk shows. Or clips out of Dara O’Briain shows.

Youtube is full of educational stuff. A lot of the Khan stuff turned up there first; there are any number of university lectures up there. People sit in their dining rooms and write and present Photoshop tutorials. SOmeone in Spain carefully put together three “how to do bobbin lace” videos. If there is a craft you want to try, someone, somewhere, has made a video showing you how to get started. You want to write programming code? What language? Someone’s done it.

You want to see a review of someone unpacking a new gadget? Name your gadget. Someone somewhere has made a video of the box opening of whatever your favourite newest mobile phone is. You want to learn how to draw or paint? Take your choice. There must be a million trillion art videos on Youtube. You want to see a review of some other product like, oh various different types of fountain pens or water colour paints? Someone has done it. You want to see a cute video of a 4 year old singing the song from Frozen? Every single parent of a 4 year old has made it available on youtube.

You want to see planes doing weird landings in high winds? Youtube. You want to see the sheet music of an obscure piano concerto while someone plays the recording? Youtube.

You want to see what it’s like to surf the tube of a wave? Youtube.

You want a first person experience down a high ski jump? Youtube.

You want to see classic 1980s ads involving frying eggs on a rock if you only had a rock? Youtube.

Youtube is the sort of future I never imagined and it’s hear. It’s amazing. When I talk about the future, I remember that thanks to Youtube, I’m living in the sort of future I couldn’t conceive 30 years ago.