Wednesday, March 30, 2005

RFID used for good?

Jordan Ginsberg over at BME has an interview with Amal Graafstra in his column Present Tense. Amal has recently had an RFID chip implanted under the skin of his left hand. The interview makes interesting reading...

CREDIT: Amal Graafstra
The prototype of an RFID operated door latch

I think anyone that has read this blog for any length of time would agree, saying that I'm not a big fan of RFID technology is probably a bit of an understatement, and yet what Amal is doing is interesting. His arguments against biometrics and for RFID aren't something I've heard before. So before we all start shouting "Burn Him!" we should probably take time to think about what he's trying to accomplish...

...then of course we'll burn him anyway.

Update: Slashdot has just picked up the story...

When Alpha Geeks disagree...

In his latest essay Paul Graham is predicting the "Return of the Mac". But recently I've seen a couple of posts from people who've been there and are now thinking about switching back or moving away from the Mac platform...

Like Paul I've seen the growth in the number of Macs at conferences like OSCON. So when Brad finally persuaded people that he really, really, needed a Mac and I finally got to play with one properly, I was convinced. I managed to extort one out of the management at the first opportunity, and haven't looked back...

While the hardware is nice enough, what I was after was Mac OS X. The phrase you hear most often from a new Mac user when asked by a Windows, or even Linux, using colleague how they got onto the conference wireless network is "I don't know, it just worked". Actually you hear that a lot from Mac users, and after using Mac OS X for a while now, I agree. Generally it just works.

Of course the good thing is underneath the pretty eye candy Mac OS X is BSD Unix. When it stops just working you can actually lift the hood and fix things, unlike Windows, where if things stop working there is very little you can do except reinstall, or Linux, which despite UI improvements usually comes without the hood in the first place.

It surprises me to hear that some alpha geeks might be switching back. Although I do understand some of their complaints about Safari, iCal and I'm hoping that forthcoming Tiger release will fix most (all?) of the problems. But if not, well, nothing's perfect...

Update: The Unofficial Apple Weblog has also picked up Paul's piece.

Update: They've also now picked up Tim Bray's post about switching away from the Mac platform.

Update: Tim Bray has written a post in response to the interesting feedback that his orginal post, about switching away from the Mac, generated.

"Stinky" the ROV

Wired News (via Engadget) is carrying a story about the Carl Hayden Community High School Robotics Club who last year competed, and won, the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center's national ROV Competition in Santa Barbara against a number of college teams, including the favourites from MIT.

CREDIT: Livia Corona/Wired News
The Robotics Club with their underwater ROV "Stinky"

You should read this story, not just for the robotics, but also if you've seen one too many student just not get it and you've started to loose faith in the future.

There is also a scholarship fund, established by the Phoenix Union High School District, to send the team members, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda, and Oscar Vazquez, to college. If anyone deserves to go to college, to be given the chance, these guys do...

Update: This story has been picked up by both Slashdot and the traditional media in the guise of the Washington Post.

Return to flight

The painful process of return to flight continues for NASA with the rollout yesterday of the space shuttle Discovery from the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center.

Rollout at 01:29 EST for the orbiter Discovery from bay 3 of the Orbiter Processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center beginning its transfer to the Vehicle Assembly Building where it will be attached to the redesigned external tank and its two solid rocket boosters.

On Monday the 4th of April Discovery will begin its eight hour journey to the launch pad to meet the May launch date for STS-114.

Update: Slashdot has picked up the story...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

RFID by any other name...

It looks like the US Department of Homeland Security has woken up to the privacy implications of embedding RFID chips into US passports. According to Wired News it has decided to call them something else instead, because after all, that will obviously solve the problems presented by unencrypted RFID tags...

Update: Wired is carrying another article about the Department of Homeland Security's attempt to embed RFID chips into US passports. It seems like a lot of people aren't very happy about it, funny that...

Crypto in Python for Series 60

Matt Croydon has reported that he's managed to get both Blowfish and pyDES working out of the box under Python for Series 60. Although he also mentioned that both are very slow compared to a native implementations, they should be fast enough if you're looking for crypto options for your Python applications. Good news!

While I didn't make it to PyCon, I'm probably going to be attending OSCON again this year, and hopefully there will be some mobile related goodness. After all, wouldn't OSCON be the perfect place for Nokia to release the long rumoured Perl for Series 60...?

Update: Matt has just posted an update talking about his experiences getting Bram Cohen's working under Python for Series 60.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Behind the Red Shed

Slashdot has picked up a really good interview with Jonathan Rentzsch carried on DrunkenBlog. Unfortunately the entire output of the Slashdot commentary seems to have descended into a debate about the meaning of the words hacker and cracker due to the unfortunate choice of article headline...

Python for Series 60 at PyCon

Those of you interested in Python for Series 60 might want to have a look at Matt Croydon's write up of Eric Smart & Jukka Laurila's talk last week at Pycon 2005.

One codebase to rule them all

Joe Beda has some interesting things to say about the Google twenty percent rule. Worth a read, if only because looks behind the scenes at Google are rare and far between...

A transparent meme

Unless you've been a asleep for the last week or so you'll not have missed it, a transparent meme is sweeping the blogosphere, everyone is talking about it, and like all memes its vert hard to try and pin down where you first heard about it...

What am I talking about? Obviously you've been living under a rock, and should go have a look at the Flickr transparent screens pool immediately.

My favourite so far...

Like most illusions the secret behind it isn't as interesting as the effect, but for those of you who really need to know, Link Right 2 has provided a How To document that explains everything.

No hiding place?

Unlike the States, where they're seen as a hot topic, CCTV systems are pretty much a lost battle for privacy advocates here in the UK following widespread adoption in the early 90's. However recently I've started to come across CCTV cameras that do automatic number plate recognition, especially in petrol stations where they've presumably been deployed to try and prevent people driving away without paying for their petrol.

I didn't think too much about this, because if you live in the UK and you're out in public, you pretty much have to count on having at least one camera pointing at you these days more or less all the time. What I hadn't realised was that the government intends to roll out these cameras nationally and that they're being connected up to central databases which could lead to police armed response units being dispatched over small database errors. Not a pleasant thought.

While accuracy is supposedly improving, so those small database errors hopefully won't be too common, this yet another stone in the path towards a society I don't really want to live in...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Pizza is a food group

There are caffeinated beverages and then there is pizza. These two basic food groups fuel the software industry as nothing else does. As a programmer I'm therefore vitally interested in any new developments in the areas of either caffeine or pizza technology.

While you have to wonder whether pizza cooked on the move is a viable business plan, you've also got to give the guy credit, it's such a cool idea...

My language is better than yours...

The so called "scripting languages" are often disparaged as toys by programmers used to using lower level languages such as C or Fortran. However Lynn Greiner has just published an interview in Microsoft's DevSource that should go some way to combating this myth where she pitches questions to a number of the luminaries from the scripting world: Damian Conway for Perl, Rohan Pall representing PHP, Ruby evangelist Dave Thomas, Jeff Hobbs for Tcl and Guido van Rossum the author of Python

Lynn's interview with the great and the good is an interesting piece, but it didn't produce anything that I'd really disagree with, although as someone who develops a great deal of software in Perl I guess I might be classed as being just a bit biased.

However considering the people being interviewed weren't aware of the other's answers it's perhaps surprising that this diverse group is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Science by decree

New Scientist is reporting that the fate of the Hubble Space Telescope may be arbitrarily decided by the US Congress rather than on any sort of rational basis, such as an actual cost benefit analysis based on the scientific returns of a servicing mission. Do I think this is a good thing? No, funnily enough I do not...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

13 things that do not make sense

New Scientist has an excellent article talking about scientific results that just don't make sense based on our current understanding of how the Universe works...

People outside science usually see it as a graceful progression, steadily moving from new discovery to new discovery. They rarely see the internal debates, the wrong turns, and the dead ends. Paradigm shifts in the physical sciences are rare, and once digested down into the text books they often appear in hindsight to be obvious evolutionary steps whose time had come. In most cases they aren't, the last great shifts in the way we think about physics was the arrival of general relativity and quantum mechanics, and the debates about interpretation of those are still ongoing today.

The really interesting thing about doing science is realising one day that you've figured something out and that you know something, no matter how small, that no one else on the planet knows. Of course you immediately spoil it because the the first thing you do is tell someone, and they usually disagree with your interpretation of things...

Science is a ongoing debate, a living culture, but outsiders rarely see it that way. Hopefully this article will go some way to alleviating that. Scientists rarely find observations that confirm theories interesting, important perhaps, but not interesting. The ones that excites us are those observations that contradict our current world view, they mean we've got something wrong, and there are still things left to discover. To us, it doesn't just mean job security, it means that the Universe is still an interesting place to live.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Hell freezes over...

AppleInsider is reporting that Apple may be developing a two button mouse. I'm off shopping to invest in a very warm jacket, I'll need it with all the ice and snow that's going to be around as hell freezes over. If true, this is a major departure for Apple which hints at serious changes inside the company and to their corporate culture.

Apple's recent departures from their own human interface guidelines has caused many arguments, and I'm sure such a major break with tradition will start people arguing over whether its a good idea or not for years to come. Maybe I should get that jacket lined with asbestos just in case the flame wars get a bit out of hand...


It's almost as if someone at Google was reading my blog, no sooner did I mention that it's actually getting hard to navigate around Google than they've started to do something about it. I guess it's a meme thing?

The new GoogleX user interface

The Google Blog has a post talking about the new Google Labs project by Chikai Ohazama called GoogleX. Users of Mac OS X may find themselves with a sense of déjà vu...

Update: Amidst rumours of legal action from Apple the Register is reporting the sudden disappearance of GoogleX from the Google Labs pages.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A building in a bag

While it's not the sort of thing I normally talk about here I saw the building in a bag and just thought, "what an amazing idea". Wired has more details for those of you who are interested...

CREDIT: William Crawford and Peter Brewin
A building in a bag is a sack of cement-impregnated fabric. To erect the structure you simply add water to the bag and inflate it with air. Twelve hours later the structure is dried out and ready for use.

Update: Slashdot has now picked up the story...

A bluetooth iPod at last?

Don't get your hopes up, unfortunately Apple hasn't just announce the long rumoured BluePod. Instead AirLogic has announced a bluetooth dongle for your iPod. It's a step in the right direction I guess...

Monday, March 14, 2005

Annotated Google Maps

Engadget has an excellent HOW-TO on annotating Google maps, although unfortunately the entire thing really isn't as useful as it looks as it uses the Greasemonkey Firefox extension to do some of heavy lifting. However people are already working with Google Maps in standalone mode which, along with other interesting hacks, replicates a lot of the functionality. Although probably not in ways Google is going to be particularly pleased about...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

More Symbian virus problems

There has been a lot of coverage both in the Blogosphere and in the main stream press over the recent spate virus outbreaks for the Symbian smart phone operating system. I've talked about this topic before, and still agree with New Scientist and Graham Cluley from Sophos who says "You are about as likely to get hit by a falling piano as you are to get a virus on your mobile phone", however recent developments may mean that falling piano's are becoming slightly more common than they used to be...

Over the last couple of weeks the number of viruses found in the wild for the Symbian operating system has grown sharply. As well as Commwarrior, the first to be able to spread via MMS, the Dampig-A and Lasco-A trojans have also appeared. Considering the few known viruses for the platform the appearance of three new strains in such a short time period must be viewed as a cause for concern.

While anti-virus software is starting to appear for the Symbian platform I think it's likely to have little impact in the short term, there are simply too many mobile phones in the hands of too many people who simply view them as just that, phones, rather than small computers that can be used (amongst other things) to talk to people.

I'd like to predict that mobile phone viruses will never reach the stage that they become the same sort of problem that they have on the Windows platform, but depressingly, I think it'll actually turn out to be worse. The mobile platforms are wide open when it comes to security, and there is money to be made by the unscrupulous few, and money to be lost by the technically illiterate. The first black-hat with a decent self-replicating code for Symbian could make a lot of money, so long as they were willing to steal it from the unknowing masses.

April fools?

Engadget is predicting an April 1st release of Mac OS X Tiger, with boxes appearing in stores by April 15th. There have been a lot of signs lately that Mac OS X 10.4 may be indeed be due to ship, but surely both the 1st and the 15th are Fridays and Apple almost always releases it's products on a Tuesday..?

Update: The rumours have now spread to Slashdot.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Google and commitment issues

Google is notorious for having commitment issues about its software, and for whatever reason they're loathed to take it out of beta. However the Google Blog has just announced that a much improved Google Desktop Search has finally left beta and the clutches of the Google Labs.

There are a lot of improvements, but the one which might initially be overlooked is porbably the most important. Google is offering an API for developers, and John Battelle has a good post in his blog which talks about some of the implications of exposing an API for Desktop Search to Windows developers.

Slashdot also carried the story, but the gathered hordes didn't seem to "get it" and the only discussion seemed to be lots of mumbling about privacy issues.

Of course I'm waiting for Apple Spotlight, but if rumours are to believed it shouldn't be long now...

Transparent weather?

Yet more features from those clever people at Google, they've just added a weather: operator to their search box. However it's interesting that in preference to introducing a new "Google Weather" service, they've instead overloaded the search box functionality in a similar manner as they did when they introduced the movie: operator.

While integrating these features into their search page means a less cluttered interface for them, the downside to this strategy is that, to use the feature, you need to know it's there. Most people don't really know how to use a search engine, especially all the functionality hidden inside Google. I astonished someone the other day, who really should have known better, by using the Google calculator to do some unit conversion. The calculator has been around for a long time, and most casual users don't know about it. That's not an encouraging sign...

Wireless mesh?

Slashdot is reporting on the announcement by Intel of the new 802.11s standard for wireless mesh networking. Looking at some of the comments I'm not sure a lot of people understand the conceptual ideas behind mesh networking which sort of surprised me, perhaps I've been working with agents too long, but it seems obvious to me...

Update: Engadget also has an article about 802.11s.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Dispatch War Rocket Ajax...

Listening to Eric Schmidt's talk got me thinking about rich web applications and thin client architectures. To help me think about these things I was of course using Google, after all doesn't everyone? While searching I ran across a good basic introduction to Ajax, and how it allows you to build web applications like Google Maps. I also found some basic examples of how to use XMLHttpRequest objects...

Part of the collective

One of the things I continually go on about when I talk about agent architectures is the possibilites opened up by the appearance of emerging complexity in even relatively simple systems.

CREDIT: IAS Laboratory/UWE
A U-Bot, used to investigate emergent behaviour

So I was really interested to see a good article about this topic on the BBC News site today talking about the work done by Chris Melhuish and the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Lab at the University of the West of England on U-Bots and their investigations into emergent building behaviour based on algorithms replicating ant and termite behaviour.

Schmidt on Google

After stumbing over the video of Jeff Dean's talk about Google, I started to look round to see if I could find anything else. I almost immediately found a copy of a talk by Urs Hölzle, given back in 2002 at the University of Washington, about the software and hardware infrastructure behind the Linux clusters at Google.

Eric Schmidt talking at Stanford's School of Business

However thanks to a link from Search Engine Watch I also came across a video of Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, talking about Google to the Stanford Graduate School of Business last April. It's less technical than Jeff or Urs' talk, but since Eric's talk was given in spring last year, it's interesting to see how some of the developments that Google have come up with over the last year are hinted at during his presentation.

For instance at one point Eric says ""We're trying to make Google a place where people live online", considering Google's recent movement away from "just" being a search engine, to providing rich web applications like Google Maps. This is interesting, and make me more willing to believe some of the wilder rumours the possible future for Google itself...

Perhaps one day you'll log on, check your GMail, grab the route to your meeting using Google Maps then check when you're favourite programme is going to be broadcast using Google Video and set a reminder for Google to record it for you using the Google video player, a rich web application which hosts the content remotely, streaming it to your desktop on demand.

Then you start up your Google word processor and spreadsheet applications, both rich web applications which bill you via micropayments when you use them, safe in the knowledge that all your data is stored in remotely and you don't have top worry about local backups or loosing your data. It looks like thin clients are back with a vengeance.

Maybe Google is the next Microsoft, maybe we should be scared...

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Another peek at Google

After the look behind the scenes at Google on Monday, Slashdot has just pointed me towards another article which discusses how Google goes about building its distributed index. Interesting stuff...

Touchdown for Steve Fossett

The 2nd record attempt in Feb. 2006
Take-off on the 8th of Feb. for Steve Fossett
Touch down in Bouremouth on the 10th Feb.

The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer piloted by Steve Fossett has successfully touched down at Salina Airport some 67 hours after the aircraft took off from there on it's round the world flight.

The machine serving the live feed was pretty much saturated with traffic during the decent and landing, but I did manage to capture a few images...

Successful touchdown for Steve Fossett

Global Flyer started decent

I'm currently watching the live stream of the landing. Steve has just called in to Mission Control and reported his estimated time of landing at 13:37 local time (19:37 UTC). It looks likely that he'll be landing on runway 17 at Salina which runs north to south.

Images taken from the chase plane during the decent

Home stretch?

Steve Fossett and the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer has just passed south of Los Angeles after a successful chase plane interception at 13:30 UTC over the west coast. Both the chase plane pilot who reported "true and level flight" for the Global Flyer, and Steve himself, were happy with how the intercept went.

More cockpit images from the NASA/KSC live feed

Apparently the engineering team is now feeling more confident about the chances for success. If all goes to plan Steve should make it back into Salina in Kansas at around 13:50 local time (19:50 UTC).

More on the HTC Universal

Both Orange and Vodaphone have now confirmed details on their plans for the new HTC Universal which I've talked about previously...

Update: I just ordered one, stand by for the review...

Update: My first impressions...

Record attempt continues

Passing Hawaii the decision was made for the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer to continue onwards, at least as far as the west coast of the United States. Significant asssitance from a favourable jet stream has brought fuel consumption down, and if Steve Fossett continues to experience reasonable tailwinds it is possible that he may now make it all the way around the world and land back in Salina Airport in Kansas sometime around midday today local time.

Cockpit image via the NASA/KSC live feed

Update: A successful touch down at Salina for Steve Fossett and the Global Flyer at 13:50 local time (19:50UTC) on Thursday the 3rd of March, some 67 hours after they took from there on the round the world trip.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Global Flyer in trouble

The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, which successfully took off from Salina Airport in Kansas just after midnight on Tuesday, may now be running into difficulties. The BBC is reporting that Steve Fossett is running short of fuel and, rather than risk crossing the Pacific, may be forced to land in Japan.

Update: Steve Fossett has decided to cross the Pacific Ocean at least as far a Hawaii. At this point the situation will be assessed and a decision will be made, either to land in Hawaii, or continue on to the west coast of the United States.

Update: The decision has been made for Steve to continue onwards towards the mainland. Whether he can make it all the way around the world is still an open question, he may be forced to land on the west coast at the first available landing strip on Catalina Island.

Update: A successful touch down at Salina for Steve Fossett and the Global Flyer at 13:50 local time (19:50UTC) on Thursday the 3rd of March, some 67 hours after they took from there on the round the world trip.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Telescope Networks Workshop

I've been volunteered, shanghaied even, and I'm running my first conference. This is sometimes viewed as a coming of age ritual in academia, especially if it involves the editing of voluminous proceedings.

In July this year the Exeter Astrophysics Group and the eSTAR project will be hosting the HTN Workshop in the Southgate Hotel here in Exeter, and for my sins I'm heading up the local organising committee.

So if you're interested in such things as robotic telescope networks and event notification you should be thinking about coming to the cathedral city of Exeter, here in the South West of England, later this year. We'll be talking about robotic telescopes and how to make them talk to each other. Should be fun...

Take off for the Global Flyer

The 2nd record attempt in Feb. 2006
Take-off on the 8th of Feb. for Steve Fossett
Touch down in Bouremouth on the 10th Feb.

I'm currently watching the live feed from the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer which successfully took off, slightly behind schedule, at about 45 minutes past midnight UK time.

Take off for the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer

Take off looked nominal, although I'm now only getting intermittent video without audio, and the tracking page on the Global Flyer site is timing out when I try an update it. I guess I'm not the only one trying to follow the initial stages of the mission...

Update: I beat BBC News to press by 25 minutes with this post, I'm feeling sort of smug about that...

Update: A successful touch down at Salina for Steve Fossett and the Global Flyer at 13:50 local time (19:50UTC) on Thursday the 3rd of March, some 67 hours after they took from there on the round the world trip.