Category Archives: technology

Random new info

http://www.era.europa.eu/Core-Activities/ERTMS/Pages/home.aspx

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, Will.i.am, 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 Will.i.am. “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 Will.i.am’s lifetime, the fact remains that 3D printing on its own will print at most a highly detailed statue. What Will.i.am should be concerned about, if he’s getting worried about stuff on the moral plain is artificial intelligence. And that debate is already happening. Will.i.am 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 Will.i.am 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.

Yes, I own a Raspberry Pi

Many years ago I owned an Atari 1200XL and I wrote some BASIC on it. Not a lot, but enough to prove I could do it. I wasn’t much cop at copy typing games out of Atari XL users or whatever the magazine was, but we got small programmes to run in between the interminable Jet Boot Jack and Fort Apocalypse tournaments.

And this is why I bought a Raspberry Pi. I’d already bought it 10 days ago so it was just a really nice bonus that Wolfram came to an arrangement about Mathematica with the Raspberry Pi Foundation and now I have that two.

I only have the one little Pi at the moment although I have a couple of cards so I can do different things with it. I want to get it working as an internet radio and media station and to that end, OpenElec went on one of the cards today. It works very nicely. I just need to organise the media which is basically small fry if a little time consuming.

I think every child in the country should have a Raspberry Pi in addition to (or instead of) pushing iPads or tablets out to all of them. I’m yet to be convinced by the value of handing them a locked down device with few options to explore.

I have beside me me the Raspberry Pi guide for kids. It’s dead handy because it’s written in straight terms, and allows kids to do all sorts of interesting things, from running Minecraft on it, to building a media server with BBC iPlayer for the television and some basic games programming. With Mathematica now they have access to a terrific knowledge engine as well. For that alone, I really do think every house should have one.

I also think that any one should get one and learn how to configure it. Get the kids bookazine thingie I mentioned above as it’s well written and pretty accessible. Or Raspberry Pi for Dummies – these are also generally clearly written.

The future of the world will be technology driven. A lot of this stuff isn’t that hard and it’s worth ensuring that you are technologically independent as far as possible. This should be a little bit past “switching the damn thing on”. This, in itself is handy but if you get caught with the bug, there is also the possibility of setting up your own video intercom (one of my projects for the paltry amount of spare time I have at the moment), customised doorbells, timers for any number of things. It’s a voyage of exploration.

 

Microsoft/Yahoo…which way is it then?

Yahoo caused some consternation during the week when they announced that come June, all their remote workers would be expected to turn up to work at an office. Microsoft, in Ireland, at the moment, are running a competition about what people would do with the change in their lives if they could work from home.

Yahoo is in a bit of a bind and Microsoft have a cloud based office solution they are looking to sell. But…even so…

20 years ago I sat in a translation technology lecture talking about the Green Dream, and the beauty of being able to work from home because you’re connected to the network. It was in the very early days of the internet and email but the concept was under consideration. If you’re a freelance translator who can at least generate some work – increasingly difficult I believe – this works. But it may not work forever. Meanwhile, all the flexibility that technology related tools are giving us in terms of freedom from an office aren’t actually being used – much – in that way that I can see. Most knowledge based workers are still in some respect tethered to an office and working from home is not a regular feature of life but discretionary. Mostly, when I hear discussions about remote working, I hear the words “but you can’t trust…”

Trust is the issue. How do you trust that people are working if you can’t keep an eye on them? But you can’t really guarantee that unless you literally sit beside them and watch them doing their stuff.

I did a lean workshop a little while ago – and one of the comments I took away from it was the idea that what gets measured gets done. I’ve thought about this a lot, and realised that I don’t really agree with it. Mostly, we’re in the zone of organisational thinking here – how can we effectively get stuff done. A key answer to that question is to make it easy first up. Things that are easy to keep organised stay organised. I sometimes wonder if there is a way to compare which is likely to be more effective – making an organisational process easy versus making it measurable.

I find more people tend towards the measurable than the easy and I wonder why. And this need for measurable presentee-ism, it’s culturally driven. It’s not much good to Microsoft who are trying to sell this alternative lifestyle of distributed, remote work.

Decision-makers need to buy into it, facilitate it and make it easy to get work done. This, I suspect, may need a culture change because the one thing – in my experience in a lot of different places – that gets in the way of getting work done is the processes which many companies implement to measure how that work is getting done.

I think about this a lot lately. The technology allows me to live in west Clare – but industry culture has put all the work in a couple of central areas.

Our politicians talk a lot about the knowledge economy and I’ve always wondered what they exactly mean by that. I’d like a situation where it’s possible for more people to work remotely from parts of Ireland, rather than parts of Eastern Europe. Why do we accept offshoring to foreign countries but don’t necessarily facilitate it to parts of Ireland? This is a company culture thing as well.

We talk a lot about small and medium sized companies but we never talk about freelance individuals so much. I know a few people in that zone. When it gets discussed, what gets brought up is the tax they can avoid. But not the lack of coverage they get from social welfare despite paying quite a lot of money into it.

I’ve often felt that there is an issue in Ireland, and probably across humanity, with a culture of envy. The consumer society is, to some extent, built on it. I’m tired of hearing people tell me “Oh you’re so lucky” for some random thing which was an outcome of some decision or other I made (lately it’s the not having bought a house).

A flip side of it is the need to exert control as and when. This is part of the argument I hear against remote working. How can you control it? Control is a negative function. I’m more in line with looking at the question of how can we implement it and make it work easily. Because the easier it is to do, the more people will be able to to do with it.

Automattic who are responsible for WordPress have a distributed workforce – this I know because I know one person working for them but also because it was flagged in a lot of discussions around the Marissa Meyer decision for Yahoo regarding the pulling of remote working. A lot of offshoring involves distributed work forces. And the issue around measuring productivity in the knowledge economy exist regardless of whether you’re office tethered or not.

I happen to have Microsoft’s current iteration of Office and I like it a lot for various reasons. I recognise that Yahoo has lost its way and needs a reboot. A lot of comments focus on the idea that this might cause attrition and reduce Yahoo’s numbers accordingly. Some have focused on the culture that Meyer may have appreciated in Google.

But I think Microsoft’s way may well be the future, and Yahoo’s the past. Already, a lot of things are getting heavily and broadly distributed. Distributed university has existed for years courtesy of the Open University – and I have to say, electronic access to their journal library really, really rocks. MOOCs are currently big news although I suspect there’s a way to go before monetization is sorted out.

Most people, I believe, want to enjoy their work and flexibility tends to be demanded of them. But flexibility is a two way process. When I was answering Microsoft’s question regarding what I would do with time flexibility if I was able to work from home, I answered that location flexibility matters much, much more to me than time flexibility.

I sometimes thing people might forget that.

 

PDF reading in Windows 8

You know, I quite like the idea of a built in PDF reader coming with Windows 8. Unfortunately, I don’t know who did the testing but there is one absolutely huge problem with it. It will only allow you to read one document at a time.

This renders the application completely and utterly useless to me. It’s pointless to provide software which doesn’t give basic functionality like the ability to have two documents open at the time.

iOS 6 – argghh

I don’t usually bother upgrading the OS on my phone the day it comes out because usually I am too busy. I don’t, however, usually avoid doing it for long but on this occasion, I am going to have to.

Apple have replaced Google Maps with some homefried application of its own. It’s fair to say that according to most of the comments about it yesterday, it probably isn’t very useful.

My most frequently used applications on my phone are the browser, the phone, text messaging and maps. On my iPad it is probably the browser, Chilltrax, Bejewelled and the maps. In real terms, I can’t actually do without the maps. They find me when I am lost. They cover me for everywhere I have tended to need maps. I have been standing lost in the middle of Helsinki finding my way to my hotel using maps on my phone. I have used maps on my iPad to plan journeys in France and check out areas where I dream of buying houses. They regularly help me locate myself in the banditland that is anywhere south of the Liffey. Last night they helped me find Dunsink Observatory.

But it doesn’t sound like I can rely on the same accuracy from the current incarnation of Apple’s maps product so for now, no iOS6.0.