Blogging

The third reincarnation of this blog has been going for two months! It was two months ago that I relaunched the blog using WordPress and since then there have been 75 posts on this blog (and slightly more depressingly 10,592 spam comments).

I think blogging is certainly a very rewarding experience, especially so when you write the posts which come more from your experience. A post I made earlier this month on the dilemmas of presenting climate change got linked to from some climate change skeptic websites and certainly received some very interesting comments. Certainly most of us don’t bother finding out both sides of a story before forming an opinion: and blog comments can be very insightful to a blog author in helping them to see both sides of a story.

One dilemma I’ve experienced when blogging is writing about something which is outside the strict confines of the blog. The expressed topic of this blog is science, technology and the internet but occasionally I have written about the environment, economics and politics. Journalists and bloggers always write for a target audience: the readers of their blog. For this blog, my primary audience consists of people interested in technology and web development so diversifying outside of this topic risks losing regular readers. But at the same time, I feel a blog is a personal space to express your thoughts and views: one advantage of blogs is that we’re not limited by story briefs, word counts and what we must write about.

Thanks for reading the blog over the past months and please keep reading! If you’ve got a blog of your own, leave me a note with the URL! And I’d really like to hear your thoughts and feedback on the blog.

Apple Software Update: Software Distribution

I previously wrote about how Apple pushed Safari out as an update to iTunes and why this was wrong. Of course, this caused some problems for network administrators:

Because of the way Apple had configured the update, anyone who clicked OK automatically installed the company’s Web browser. Most users thought that Safari was simply a component of the Apple software they’d already installed, Wilson said.

“This is not good; this is a security risk,” he said. “We’re a bank.”

Wilson said it has taken him the better part of a week to remove Safari from his network and prevent it from being reinstalled.

To try and appease the critics, Apple has added a new pane to it’s Software Updates marking New Software separately. Many people have welcomed this move but there are still major issues. Firstly, new software is still checked automatically. For the vast majority of people who do not have the time to worry about something like a security update, they will still end up with software they didn’t want.

Secondly: the fact that Apple has added a new pane showing all New Software indicates to me that Apple plans to use this as a software distribution channel. That indicates to me that the release of Safari through Software Update isn’t a one-off: it’s a new software distribution channel for Apple.

Users of Apple Software: iTunes, Safari and Quicktime should expect to see additional unwanted applications from Apple appearing on their computer soon.

Evolving the perfect website through natural selection

The Daily Telegraph covers an experiment to breed the perfect web page design through Darwinian natural selection.

Matthew Hockenberry and Ernesto Arroyo of Creative Synthesis, a non-profit organisation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have created evolutionary software that alters colours, fonts and hyperlinks of pages in response to what seems to grab the attention of the people who click on the site.

Evolutionary algorithms have in the past been used to design aircraft wings and boat hulls. Because there are so many competiting and contributing factors to how well a certain design works, a human designer won’t find that optimum design which works the best. The idea of using an evolutionary algorithm is you start off with thousands of random and different designs. Each design then undergoes a form of natural selection – for aircraft wings, each design would be loaded into a computer model. The best designs are then “breeded” together to create the next generation of aircraft wings. This process is repeated thousands of times to produce an optimum wing.

The software treated each feature as a “gene” that was randomly changed as a page was refreshed.

After evaluating what seemed to work, it killed the genes associated with lower scoring features – say the link in an Arial font that was being ignored – and replaced them with those from higher scoring ones say, Helvetica.

Evolutionary algorithms are certainly a useful addition to the toolbox of engineers. There are of course limitations. Creationists sometimes argue “what use is half an eye?” as a refute to Darwinian natural selection. In this example, half an eye is still better than no eye at all: you might be able to see but you won’t get a sharp picture.

But at least you won’t walk into a wall. But say… why haven’t humans evolved wheels? “What use is half a wheel?” is a good question, and there isn’t a use for half a wheel. If any organism did evolve half a wheel, it would be selected against and therefore natural selection would never lead to a whole wheel.

I think this illustrates well why evolutionary algorithms can never be the end all; we’ll still need human input and design. But it’s great as a way to refine a design.

Read the experiment write up at Creative Synthesis and have a look at the end result.

Conversation Trends on Facebook – Facebook Lexicon

Facebook has just released Facebook Lexicon which visualises conversation trends on Facebook.

Lexicon is a tool to follow language trends across Facebook. Specifically, Lexicon looks at the usage of words and phrases on profile, group and event Walls. For example, you can enter “love, hate” (without quotations) to compare the usage of these two words on Facebook Walls. You may enter up to five terms, where each term can be a word or two-word phrase consisting of letters and numbers.

This could be a really interesting way of doing some market research. So I gave it a spin:

Next President of the United States

Who are people raving about the most? John McCain, Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? According to Facebook, Obama is well in the lead. Theres a fair amount of discussion about John McCain too, even though he isn’t involved in any primaries and he will be the republican candidate. Presumably the peaks in the graph correspond to primaries.

Facebook Lexicon

Applying for University 

This ones quite close to my heart. In the UK, we use a system called UCAS to apply for university. You can apply as early as October 1st with the deadline for Oxbridge candidates being October 15th and January 15th for everybody else. So when did people write their UCAS application statements and submit them?

Facebook Lexicon

According to Facebook, most people did so in October and November. Over Christmas people obviously had better things to do but you can see a huge spike near about the middle of January indicating quite a lot of people obviously left it until the last minute. From February onwards people are still talking about UCAS: this could be people receiving their offers.

E4 Skins Teenage Television Drama 

A popular television show in Britain amongst teenagers is “Skins”. It’s been on TV over the last few weeks, concluding this Monday.

Lexicon

You can see there’s a lot of interest right at the start of the series which gradually dies down. People seemed to lose interest around episode 7 (Effy) but it picked up towards the end. Of course, each of the peaks on the graph is a Monday (the day which Skins is shown on TV) and there is a fair amount of discussion on Tuesday too: possibly from people catching up on Channel 4 on Demand.

Parties and Hangovers 

When do most people go to parties and have their hangovers? Saturday night is a marginally busier night than Friday for parties and hangovers peak on Sunday.

Lexicon

Google Calculator

If you told me a few years ago that I’d be sending simple math calculations to a bunch of supercomputers in Mountain View, California rather than reaching for the calculator next to me on my desk, I’d probably have laughed. I’ve noticed that increasingly I’ve been using Google’s Calculator. Why? There are three reasons:

  1. I’ve got broadband now and it doesn’t take 20 seconds to dial up to the internet. Nor does it cost a thing to be using the internet.
  2. Google will typically answer your query in a fraction of a second.
  3. Firefox is always open and there is an omnipresent Google “search” box.

You might have found yourself doing this too. Type a number into your Firefox Google Search Box and have a look at the autocomplete entries. When I enter the number 1 into this box, I get whole pages full of maths queries.

I wonder: if we’re sending such basic things such as basic maths equations to computers across the world, isn’t it just a matter of time before grid computing takes off and we send all kinds of tasks over the internet?

Teenager orders cabinet instead of cab

This story made me laugh. A girl from London was looking to book a cab (taxi) to Bristol Airport. She called up directory enquiries and asked for Joe Baxi (cockney rhyming slang for taxi). When told there was nobody by that name, she said ‘It ain’t a person, it’s a cab, innit.’ and got connected to a supplier of cabinets.

From Metro: “‘Look love, how hard is it?’ she fumed. ‘All I want is your cheapest cab, innit. I need it for 10am. How much is it?’ The sales adviser told her £180. The tantrum-throwing teenager quickly left her address details before ringing off. The next morning, rather than being picked up by a cab, the young woman had the cabinet dropped off.”

Stargate Continuum

Gateworld has a review of Stargate Continuum, the upcoming Stargate SG-1 film which is released to DVD on July 29th. Gateworld calls it the best Stargate (film or TV show) in years and possibly of all time. Plot according to Wikipedia:

While SG-1 attends the execution of Ba’al, the last of the Goa’uld System Lords, Teal’c and Vala inexplicably disappear into thin air. Carter, Daniel and Mitchell race back to a world where history has been changed: the Stargate program has been erased from the timeline. As they try to convince the authorities what’s happened, a fleet of Goa’uld motherships arrives in orbit, led by Ba’al, his queen, Qetesh (Vala), and his first prime, Teal’c. The remaining SG-1 members must find the Stargate and set things right before the world is enslaved by the Goa’uld.

The upcoming film had a budget of $7 million, will feature Richard Dean Anderson and producers hope it’ll spawn a series of follow-up movies.

  • Season 2 of Heroes starts on BBC Two on Thursday 24th April at 9pm. This will be the first time season 2 has been shown in the UK so we’re all pretty excited!
  • This year’s finale to Torchwood sure was something. It was by far better than the first season and I thought the last episode was very powerful. Digital Spy has a review.
  • Season 4 of Doctor Who just got under way. I was a bit unsure about Donna (Catherine Tate) as a new assistant but I think she’s done a great job so far! Author of “The God Delusion” Richard Dawkins will feature in this series of Doctor Who.

Microsoft Windows Vista will "collapse"

Technology analysts Michael Silver and Neil MacDonald from Gartner said that Windows Vista will collapse unless big changes are made.

Among Microsoft’s problems, the pair said, is Windows’ rapidly-expanding code base, which makes it virtually impossible to quickly craft a new version with meaningful changes. That was proved by Vista, they said, when Microsoft — frustrated by lack of progress during the five-year development effort on the new operating — hit the “reset” button and dropped back to the more stable code of Windows Server 2003 as the foundation of Vista.

“Most users do not understand the benefits of Windows Vista or do not see Vista as being better enough than Windows XP to make incurring the cost and pain of migration worthwhile.”

I’ve said this in the past and I still stand by my statement. I use Windows XP because that is the operating system I’ve used for the last 5 years or so. My installation of XP is perfectly set up to how I use it and hence there is no reason to change.

Windows Vista offers absolutely zero improvement upon XP, certainly in the way that I use my operating system. The only “improvement” I can see is glass transparency which is not only superfluous, but ugly and resource-consuming. And UAC is total disaster. Many friends who have bought new computers with Windows Vista have asked me how to do very simple things such as installing applications which are not UAC-aware.

If I had to lose Windows XP (e.g. if support ended and it became insecure), I would switch to Ubuntu Linux. In fact, I feel Ubuntu is so much more secure and “fun” than Windows and virtually every single application I use is supported by Ubuntu (Microsoft Office being the obvious exception). Arguably, my sunk costs in the form of how I’ve customised my install of Windows XP is the only reason why I continue to use Windows.

As we move towards an interconnected “web 2.0” age, the platforms that matter are not the low-level platforms such as what hardware and operating system we run. The important things are what web browser you run and the web applications that you use.

I’d argue that the three platforms which are the most important to me are Mozilla Firefox, Google and Facebook. And I’m not sure I’d have too much difficulty in finding somebody who would agree with me.

Unexpected Consequences

There’s an article in this week’s New Scientist (12th April 2008, p17) by William Laurance from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute entitled “Expect the unexpected” which I thought was really interesting. He talks about some of the unexpected ways in which we’re damaging the planet.

Take biofuels. Many countries, including the USA, have promoted biofuels as alternatives to using fossil fuels. Why? Because when you grow corn, the plant will “breathe in” carbon dioxide. When you put it into your car and burn it, it’ll release an equal amount of CO2. So biofuels are supposed to be carbon neutral and won’t contribute to climate change.

In order to encourage people to use biofuels, governments have subsidised them. In essence, they tell farmers that they’ll give them an additional amount of money for every gallon of biofuel they produce, on top of the amount of money they sell it for. This encourages farmers to produce biofuel because they can earn more money from it: basic economics.

So what’s been the effect of this? Well, US farmers have switched from growing soya to growing corn. This made soya more scarce and drove up the price of soya across the world. The higher soya prices then acts as an incentive to others to produce soya; you can now make more money by selling soya.

That’s lead to deforestation in the Amazon in order to clear the way for soya production. And the deforestation has lead to forest fires.

In the Amazon, the trees help to generate their own rainfall. Why? Rain falls and the dense vegetation quickly recycles the moisture, returning it to the atmosphere so it’ll rain again. As deforestation continues, less water vapour is recycled. That means less rain in the future: a feedback loop.

Anyway, I won’t repeat the entire contents of the article as Laurance gives many other examples of unexpected consequences of rising demand for wooden furniture, logging and fishing.

It does really make you think about how everything in the world can be linked together in so many ways and all impact upon each another. In some of my own physics research, I found that an increase in global temperature would lead to a greater occurrence of lightning. Effects of lightning? Forest fires may be created and nitric oxides are produced. A significant number of forest fires could reduce CO2 absorption. Nitric oxides are fertilisers: could this lead to better forest growth? Nitric oxides also lead to the production of ozone in the atmosphere which is a greenhouse gas. More greenhouse gases = further global warming. Did anybody expect that?

The fact is there are just so many different interlinked processes going on in the world around us. It reminds me slightly of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis:

The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis that proposes that living and nonliving parts of the earth are a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism. Named after the Greek earth goddess, this hypothesis postulates that all living things have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that promotes life overall.

It’s a controversial theory. Says Lovelock on climate change:

He says the global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, is simply an attempt to appease a self-regulating Earth system.

Professor Lovelock thinks the Earth’s attempts to restore its equilibrium may eliminate civilisation and most humans.

He wants a rapid end to the destruction of natural habitats, which he says are key to planetary climate and chemistry.

Vivaty: 3D Virtual World for Facebook

Vivaty looks like a really interesting application – it’s a 3D social networking application a little like Second Life but plugs in to Facebook:

Grab your photos and videos – any image from the web – and you’re in. Hang out, chat with friends, watch videos, listen to music, and more. Jump from scene to scene with anyone you invite, your Facebook friends are just clicks away. It’s all in the browser, no waiting for big downloads to install. You’ll be saying “your place or mine?” in no time.

The idea is you create an avatar and a your own “scene” where you can hang out. But Vivaty claims to provide a lot more than just providing live chat. For example, you can add a television to your scene to watch YouTube and then invite your friends over to your scene to watch it together.

The problem with many “social web 2.0” websites is that they don’t have access to your social graph and friends list. This is why I think Facebook is an amazing platform for social web apps and why I would instantly switch over to IM which utilises Facebook’s friends list. I have accounts on sites like del.icio.us, Flickr and Youtube but it’s just not the same: most people don’t have accounts on these sites so it’s much harder to share your photos and videos.

I think Vivaty could take off, certainly amongst the Second Life crowd. I’m not sure whether the typical Facebook user would be interested in Vivaty however: Facebook users tend to be college students at the very youngest and tend to be fairly busy people.

Maybe somebody would be interested in beta testing Vivaty but otherwise: one to watch!