Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

Bloggers, mind control and the death of newspapers (the Internet imagined in 1965)

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Calder invites us to have a giggle, but really it’s not a bad list at all, and compared with the (cough) ‘futurists’ who have come and gone since, Calder and the participants did a good job. Alvin Toffler was repackaging these ideas, particularly mass amateurisation, many years later. As are thousands of Web 2.0 consultants today.

Read more at The Register

Best reader comment here.

Whatever happened to the email app?

Monday, March 8th, 2010
Musings on the state of email clients. Which might have something to do with the state of email…

Is the email program dead? Did the whole world just migrate away from Hotmail over to Facebook when we weren’t looking? Does anyone else care?

Weirdly, the answer seems to be yes, yes, and no. Email has never gone away, and its advantages are unique: but the email client seems to be going the way of the Gopher.

Which is a bit odd when you consider how useful it still is. Nobody knows your email address unless you tell them, and messages are private by default. These are still the internet’s universal protocols for private communication, something Web 2.0 types only grudgingly admit exists.
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To the Moon – with extreme engineering

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Lunar Orbiter

Apollo space program as a triumph of power and industrial might. The superpowers’ space programs were, of course, political and chauvinistic, designed to showcase national wealth. But there’s a better way of looking at the program, Dennis Wingo reminded me recently. Masses of money helped put man on the Moon of course, but the Moon program is really a tale of engineering improvisation and human organisation.

Space expert and entrepreneur Dennis Wingo put the first webserver – an Apple Mac – in orbit, for just $7m, and has helped piece together a lot of historical material that NASA didn’t appreciate at the time – and forgot about, or wiped. There is one piece of kit in particular that encapsulates two stories: NASA’s negligence, and the quite amazing improvisation of the engineers. It’s the Lunar Orbiter, which mapped the moon’s surface prior to manned descent. Wingo painstakingly recovered and restored much of the imagery it took.

To give us an idea of how much Apollo owed to seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, it’s worth remembering that the story of the Orbiter begins in 1961 – the year of the first human orbit of the Earth by Yuri Gagarin. The space pioneers were seeing a high death rate from test subjects – dogs (the USSR) and chimps (the USA), the latter proving to be a duff move – the chimps panicked in the claustrophobic conditions.

The US program lagged far behind the Soviets’, and NASA’s early attempts to keep up had become a national joke. The Ranger had been the first project to photograph the moon, with the modest ambition of crashing a probe onto the surface. But of the first six Rangers, two failed to leave the Earth’s orbit, one failed en route, two missed the Moon completely, and although the sixth reached the target, its cameras failed.

Yet by 1964, much of the technology that eventually put man on the Moon had been already designed and built. The colossal Apollo expenditures were on the physical implementation of the program, including the many test flights. By 1965, the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was already being prepared as a long-term shelter and accommodation unit. And as Wingo points out, it was really down to 400 engineers – a fraction of what Google devotes to inserting advertisements into web pages – being given the freedom to put Heath Robinson designs into practice.

The Lunar Orbiter astonishes even today. It had to take pictures, scan and develop the film on board, and broadcast it successfully back to earth. Naturally, the orbiter had to provide its own power, orient itself without intervention from ground control, and maintain precise temperature conditions and air pressure for the film processing, and protect itself from solar radiation and cosmic rays – all within severe size and weight constraints. This was far beyond the capabilities of the newest spy satellites, which back then returned the film to earth in a canister, retrieved by a specially kitted-out plane. The Orbiter challenge was the Apollo challenge in miniature.
…Read more at The Register

Rescuing Nokia's Ovi: a plan

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Ovi means door in Finnish

It must be frustrating to sketch out a long-term technology roadmap in great depth, and see it come to fruition… only to goof on your own execution. But to do so repeatedly – as Nokia has – points to something seriously wrong.

Nokia spent more than a decade preparing for Tuesday this week, when it finally launched its own worldwide, all-phones application store. It correctly anticipated a software market for smartphones back in the mid-1990s, when it was choosing the technology to fulfill this vision.

That was just one of the bets that came good. Leafing through old copies of WiReD magazine from the dot.com era, filled with gushing praise for Enron, Global Crossing, and er, Zippies, I was struck by the quality of the foresight in a cover feature about Nokia. (Have a look for yourself.) WAP didn’t work out, but I was struck by particularly Leningrad Cowboy Mato Valtonen’s assessment that “mobile is the Internet with billing built in”.

“The managers responsible for putting together the Ovi Store should be put on Nokia’s naughty step – and left there for the Finnish winter”

And so Nokia has been encouraging users to download applications for users. My ancient 6310i wants me to download applications. Every Nokia since has wanted me to, too. Seven years ago, the first Series 60 phone (the 7650) put the Apps client on the top level menu, next to Contacts and Messaging.

The problem is today, it’s Apple and BlackBerry who have the thriving third party smartphone software markets. For six months, punters have been bombarded with iPhone ads showing what you can do with third-party apps. And yes, it’s like Palm all over again, but they’re very effective. So if Apple’s store is the model, then what on earth is Ovi?
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Technorati knocks itself out. Again

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Technorati, the comically inept search engine, has redesigned itself again – knocking itself out in the process.

The site was down when bloggers checked in yesterday.

More importantly, the latest redesign is a tacit admission that it’s given up on its original mission – indexing the world’s weblogs. Technorati now claims to present “zillions of photos, videos, blogs and more”, and rather apologetically adds the rejoinder: “Some of them have to be good.

No. Why?

In practice, Technorati now returns only a tiny number of blogs – and prefers to offer thumbnails of digital images already tagged with a keyword. A technical challenge that does not exactly require the algorithmic prowess of a Donald Knuth.

Technorati, the comically inept search engine, has redesigned itself again – knocking itself out in the process.

The site was down when bloggers checked in yesterday.

More importantly, the latest redesign is a tacit admission that it’s given up on its original mission – indexing the world’s weblogs. Technorati now claims to present “zillions of photos, videos, blogs and more”, and rather apologetically adds the rejoinder: “Some of them have to be good.”

No. Why?

In practice, Technorati now returns only a tiny number of blogs – and prefers to offer thumbnails of digital images already tagged with a keyword. A technical challenge that does not exactly require the algorithmic prowess of a Donald Knuth.

So what was always a lousy blog search tool is now little more than a lousy image search tool – this is not going to worry Yahoo! or Google.

Call it a strategic retreat. The site has fought heroically to stem the Rise of the Machines, exemplified by tools like this, but lost. Who would have guessed?

Well, not the journalist pals of founder Dave Sifry, and A-list bloggers who gave Technorati oodles of back-scratching press when it launched in 2003. Hacks were as keen as Sifry to evangelise blogging, and instantly conferred guru status on him; here was a man with the numbers that mattered! Reports were invariably too kind to mention that Technorati rarely worked well, and often didn’t work at all.

The moral of the story is hard to miss. Maybe ideological evangelism and engineering don’t really mix. Evangelism and honest reporting certainly don’t.

One Laptop Per Child: it's a con, says former exec

Friday, May 16th, 2008

The former security director of the One Laptop Per Child non-profit has blasted the project for losing sight of its goals, accusing chairman Nicholas Negroponte of deceiving the public. It’s all about shipping kit, says Ivan Krstić in an incendiary essay.

“I quit when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was never part of the mission. The mission was, in his mind, always getting as many laptops as possible out there; to say anything about learning would be presumptuous, and so he doesn’t want OLPC to have a software team, a hardware team, or a deployment team going forward,” writes Krstić.

“Nicholas’ new OLPC is dropping those pesky education goals from the mission and turning itself into a 50-person nonprofit laptop manufacturer, competing with Lenovo, Dell, Apple, Asus, HP and Intel on their home turf, and by using the one strategy we know doesn’t work.”

Ouch.

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Widget-fiddling at Nokia

Monday, April 16th, 2007

When one looks at the prime assets of the Nokia of five years ago, it’s alarming to see how many have been discarded. At the turn of the decade, the Finnish giant boasted a formidable reputation for reliability, security and ease of use. Now it’s thrown all three out of the window, with security being the last to go.

The diminishing reliability of these devices isn’t unique to Nokia, and it may be a consequence of having so many products, in so many markets, all at once. But engineers deep in Nokia we’ve spoken with describe how they grew weary at being conditioned only to fix a proportion of bugs. It offends an engineer’s pride to release a flawed product, but this became a way of life. There was simply too much to do.

As for usability, the company which pioneered an interface that helped popularize the digital mobile phone – NaviKey™ – now falls far behind much of the competition. With feature phones, Nokia’s interface has failed to evolve with the tactile and graceful interface of Sony Ericsson, for example.

At the high end, the story is far worse. The S60 UI initially provided Nokia with a clever bridge to the future, but it looks pedantic and cumbersome besides Motorola’s MotoRizr 8, let alone Apple’s iPhone. Nokia answers the perennial S60 user’s question, “Why so many clicks?” by adding extra hardware buttons, such as the slow and inflexible “Multimedia” key. S60 is incredibly poorly written in parts, but Samsung has demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be sluggish, by using its own chip to speed up its first European S60 phone. Yet Nokia has ensured most of its smartphone users have a substandard experience, by starving the devices of sufficient memory or fast enough processors.

It doesn’t augur well that the company’s skill at exploiting the emerging markets owes little to its recent R&D work: it’s succeeded with low cost models in China by dusting off older, more reliable, and easier-to-use technologies. In other words, it’s living off past glories, rather than looking to the future.

In fact, Nokia now appears to quite relish the complexity of its devices. Quite bizarrely, a company which had no need for an inferiority complex appears to have acquired one.
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Tim Berners-Lee says some really stupid things, then goes mad

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

In which the Greatest Living Briton says some very silly things, and then loses his temper

So there we were. In a room devoted to Engineering, the man voted the Greatest Living Briton had exploded in front of me.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, co-inventor of the World Wide Web, was at Southampton University to deliver an inaugural lecture for School of Electronics and Computer Science, and promote his latest initiative.

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The Emperor's New AI

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

“It looks like you’re trying to have a conversation with a computer – can I help?
In the early 1970s, no science show was complete without predictions of HAL-like intelligent autonomous computers by the turn of the century.

The Japanese, fearing their industrial base would collapse without a response to this omniscient technology, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their own AI project, called Fifth Generation. They may as well have buried the money in the Pacific Ocean. Two decades later there are no intelligent robots, and “intelligent” computers are a pipe-dream.

(It was an academic coup for MIT’s Professor Marvin Minsky, a fixture on the AI slots. Minsky’s own preferred, linguistics-based approach to AI, symbolic AI, triumphed in the grants lotteries over an approach which preferred to investigate and mimic the neural functions of the brain. Minsky’s non-stop publicity campaign helped ensure his AI lab at MIT was well-rewarded while neural networks starved.)

For the past week reports have again confidently predicted intelligent computers are just around the corner. Rollo Carpenter, whose chatbot Joan won an annual AI prize for creating software that most resembles a human, predicts that computers will pass the ‘Turing Test’ by 2016. In this test, computer software fools a human interrogator by passing off as a human.

(You can spot the flaw already: to sound human isn’t a sign of intelligence. And what a pity it is that Turing is remembered more for his muddle-headed metaphysics than for his landmark work in building computational machines. It’s a bit like lauding Einstein for opposition to the theory of plate tectonics, rather than his work on relativity, or remembering Newton for his alchemy, not his theory of gravity).

But let’s have a look. A moment’s glance at the conversation of Joan, or George, is enough to show us there is no intelligence here.
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Are Google's glory days behind it? – Colly Myers

Friday, August 25th, 2006
Colly’s prognosis was sound. In December 2008, Google announced its intention to make “social search” a significant factor in its search results – the end of the hegemony of the algorithm.
“It’s a well known aspect of man and machine systems. Complex systems with no control fall over. Every example of it you can think of falls apart. With databases, data that isn’t pruned becomes overgrown. Entropy sets in when complexity gets out of control.

“A lot of the search engines’ index is junk, and although they have a lot of clever people, they can’t prune it manually. And they have a lot of powerful technology too, but they just can’t stop it.

“We’re looking at the prospect of the end of the growth of search.”

Answers service AQA is two years old this summer, and finds itself in the happy position of not only being profitable, but something of a social phenomenon in its home country.

A book based on the service, The End Of The Question Mark is due to be published in October, drawing the questions Britons ask, and the answers AQA gives them. Not bad for a company that still has only nine full time employees.

What AQA allows you to do is text in a question and receive an answer for a quid. This might strike US readers as expensive: it’s nearly two dollars (or four days of the San Francisco Chronicle) for a few lines of text at today’s exchange rate. But Britons love texting, and arguing, and AQA’s combination of canny marketing and the quirky charm of AQA’s answers have proved to be a hit.

But where AQA particularly interests us is how its success poses a challenge to a lot of the Californian-inspired orthodoxy about search engines, and Silicon Valley’s latest hype of fetishising “amateur” content.

These are strange times indeed when an AOL web executive must defend his decision to pay former volunteers real money for their labours. Actually pay them – so they can help feed their families? The horror of it!

Founder Colly Myers had plenty to say on this, in typically no-nonsense style, when we caught up with him recently.
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