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The bots of F8

Tuesday, 12 April, 2016 0 Comments

Facebook’s F8 developer conference takes place today and tomorrow in San Francisco, and while Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t revealed what he’ll be revealing during the two-day event, there’s been a lot of buzz around bots. Specifically, chatbots within Facebook Messenger. At last year’s F8, Facebook presented its Messenger service, which gives developers access to a platform with more than 900 million users and the word on the street is that today we’ll see Facebook launch new APIs to bring chatbots into Messenger.

Bots are being touted as the new apps and Facebook’s anticipated move is designed to make up on ground lost to Telegram, Kik, WeChat and Slack. They’re all racing ahead with bot research. Google is rumoured to be working on a messaging-based chat bot and Microsoft, which is still recovering from the Tay meltdown, is incorporating the AI technology via Skype in the shape of video bots. Future slogan: “There’s a bot for that!”


How Rembrandt is this?

Monday, 11 April, 2016 0 Comments

Combine the resources of ING Group, Microsoft, the Rembrandthuis, the Mauritshuis and the Delft University of Technology and you get, well, lots of things, but in this particular case the result is The Next Rembrandt.

“We examined the entire collection of Rembrandt’s work, studying the contents of his paintings pixel by pixel. To get this data, we analyzed a broad range of materials like high resolution 3D scans and digital files, which were upscaled by deep learning algorithms to maximize resolution and quality. This extensive database was then used as the foundation for creating The Next Rembrandt.”

Ron Augustus, Microsoft Services Directeur Nederland

Doubters will, no doubt, say that Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn could paint thousands of variations of his subjects and that the program which “painted” The Next Rembrandt is limited in its creative ability. True, but IBM’s Watson and Google’s AlphaGO were greeted with scepticism, initially. Data is not to be laughed at anymore, and it can be, in the case of The Next Rembrandt, rather beautiful.

The Next Rembrandt


Strong structures, solid foundations

Sunday, 10 April, 2016 0 Comments

“We depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need — but are at constant risk of forgetting what we need — within.” Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

The tower


#IoTDay today and the glass is filling

Saturday, 9 April, 2016 0 Comments

It’s the fifth annual Internet of Things Day today. In a much-quoted report about the IoT issued in November last year, the Gartner research firm predicted that “6.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. In 2016, 5.5 million new things will get connected every day.”

These are astonishing numbers and they reinforce the notion that the internet is ubiquitous. Blake Snow considers the implications of this in The Atlantic in a piece titled What Would a World Without Internet Look Like? He quotes the academic Clay Shirky, who thinks that it’s futile now to separate the net from everyday life: “the Internet has become our civilization,” says Shirky.

This is a philosophy that would be endorsed by Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Two years ago, in a post on Medium, he looked at innovation from the viewpoints of 1984 and 2044, and concluded: “Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud.”

Glass There is, however, a different take on the IoT and it was expressed, also in 2014, by Bruce Sterling, the science fiction author, in “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things.” This long-form composition was in the style of his 2005 book Shaping Things. For Sterling, the IoT is an ominous social transformation: omnipresent automation via digital surveillance enabled by wireless broadband. Snippet:

“So, let’s imagine that the reader has a smartphone in one hand, as most people in the Twenty-Teens most definitely tend to. In the other hand, the reader has some ‘Thing’. Let’s say it’s the handle of his old-fashioned domestic vacuum cleaner, which is a relic of yesterday’s standard consumer economy.

As he cheerfully vacuums his home carpet while also checking his Facebook prompts, because the chore of vacuuming is really boring, the reader naturally thinks: ‘Why are these two objects in my two hands living in such separate worlds? In my left hand I have my wonderfully advanced phone with Facebook — that’s the ‘internet’. But in my right hand I have this noisy, old-fashioned, ineffective, analogue ‘thing’! For my own convenience as a customer and consumer, why can’t the ‘internet’ and this ‘thing’ be combined?”

And then it turns pessimistic. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a Happy #IoTDay! 🙂


Swineherd of the brass pig

Friday, 8 April, 2016 0 Comments

etymology: A swineherd is a person who looks after pigs, but the more popular term today is “pig farmer”. The word “swineherd” is a compound of swine + herd and comes from the Late Old English swȳnhyrde, from Old English swȳn (‘swine, pig’) + Old English hierde (‘herd, herder’).

Swineherd is a poem by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who was educated in Cork and Oxford and is now a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. Along with Leland Bardwell and Pearse Hutchinson, she founded Cyphers, a fine literary magazine.

Swineherd

When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.

I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

The brass pig


Amoris Laetitia backgrounder

Friday, 8 April, 2016 0 Comments

Pope Francis to make key marriage pronouncement” is how the BBC puts it in the run up to today’s publication of Amoris Laetitia, the Apostolic Exhortation about Catholic teaching on the family. The text, rumoured to be 250-pages long and divided into 300 points, will be presented by Cardinals Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, and Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, at a press conference in Rome. Scheduled to begin at 11:30 Central European Time, the event will be broadcast live via the Vatican’s Television Centre.

Where did the BBC gets its headline? The document has been surrounded by secrecy, with no leaks to the media before its presentation. This makes Amoris Laetitia unusual, seeing that Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was published by the Italian magazine l’Espresso three days ahead of the official presentation.

What can we expect? The focus will be on the “many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care.” In other words, partners living together before marriage, communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and homosexual unions vs. heterosexual marriage, to name just three areas of contested cohabitation that are facts of 21st century life. The Guardian has already pre-empted liberal disappointment: “Pope Francis to dismay reformists with ‘modern families’ document.” Francis wouldn’t be Francis, however, if he didn’t have a surprise or two up the sleeve of the papal cassock.


Merle Haggard

Thursday, 7 April, 2016 1 Comment

The fiercely independent country music singer Merle Haggard died yesterday in California, surrounded by friends and family. He was 79 and yesterday was his birthday. When he was 21, Haggard was sent to San Quentin State Prison following a burglary attempt. While imprisoned, he saw Johnny Cash perform for the inmates and upon his release in 1960 he determined to turn his life around, which he did.

“Now, as far as my body development, I’m two different people. My right side is more developed than my left side. That’s an occupational hazard. My chiropractor said to me, ‘You look like you had a hard life. Like you lifted lots.’ Well, no, but I have played the fiddle some. Hell, if a fella could get good dope anymore, he’d learn to play the fiddle left-handed and build up the other one-half of his body.”

Ornery by Bryan diSalvatore, The New Yorker, 12 February 1990

Merle Haggard


WhatsApp: privacy vs. transparency

Wednesday, 6 April, 2016 1 Comment

“We live in a world where more of our data is digitized than ever before. Every day we see stories about sensitive records being improperly accessed or stolen. And if nothing is done, more of people’s digital information and communication will be vulnerable to attack in the years to come. Fortunately, end-to-end encryption protects us from these vulnerabilities.”

So say WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton in their latest blog post, which is about their decision to protect messages between WhatsApp users with an end-to-end encryption protocol so that third parties and WhatsApp cannot read them, meaning that the messages can only be decrypted by the recipient.

In light of the Panama Papers exposé, the debate about privacy vs. transparency has reached a new level. Would Mossack Fonseca have profited from end-to-end encryption of communications between their officers and clients? Public opinion suggests that the massive leak of the Panamanian law firm’s data is a civic benefit and that transparency is the greater good. Jan Koum and Brian Acton, however, are now promising that the end-to-end encryption protocol they’re deploying will make it impossible for “third parties” (police, journalists, etc.) to access chats, group chats, images, videos, voice messages and files on their platform. Given this, will it be possible for people to have a consistent position on privacy vs. transparency? Can both co-exist?

Update: privacy vs. transparency: Meet the ‘Drone Vigilante’ Who Spies on Sex Workers.


We need to talk about the smart home

Tuesday, 5 April, 2016 0 Comments

The “smart home” is a bit like the “paperless office.” Lots of promise, but the prospect remains untidy. The smart home landscape is cluttered with multiple standards and inelegant solutions, but some big names are determined to bring order to the household hub: Alphabet is making its bid with Nest and Samsung has acquired SmartThings.

For smaller smart home players like Wink, the encroachment of Apple and Alphabet is ominous. Wink launched in 2014 with a strategy tethering several competing standards, but the future turned grim when its parent, Quirky, the ambitious incubator, went broke last year. Flex came to the rescue, however, and Wink now claims to have 1.3 million devices on its network. Given all this turmoil, it’s not surprising Wink has a sense of humour as this clip, with its nod to fears of a robotic future, shows.


comma.ai

Monday, 4 April, 2016 0 Comments

Given its name, one might think that a business titled “comma.ai” is working on a venture that combines punctuation and artificial intelligence. And the story gets more curious when one learns that it’s hiring “Competitors:”

Competitors: People who have done well at math competitions(USAMO, PUTNAM), competition programming(ACM, USACO, codejam, topcoder), science fairs(ISEF, STS), or capture the flag(DEFCON, secuinside, GITS). Those competitions don’t just select for ability, they also select for quickness. We are in a very competitive space.

comma The company slogan is “ghostriding for the masses”, which might be an obscure reference to punctuation, but it’s a nod to transport, in fact, because the brains behind this is George Hotz, a brilliant hacker, who has built his own self-driving car. He’s now forming a team of machine learning experts specializing in hardware, software and data, and Andreessen Horowitz announced today that it is leading a $3.1 million investment in Comma.ai.

Interestingly, it was on this day in 1994 that Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark founded Netscape. Eight years later, it was acquired by AOL in a deal valued at $4.2 billion. Back then, it was all about the web. Today, the key words are mobile, data and AI. On 21 February, the startups investor Chris Dixon wrote a post on Medium titled “What’s Next in Computing?” Snippet:

“I tend to think we are on the cusp of not one but multiple new eras. The ‘peace dividend of the smartphone war’created a Cambrian explosion of new devices, and developments in software, especially AI, will make those devices smart and useful.”

Comma. Punctuation, is? interesting!


LinkedIn: Dowland, Hamlet, Shakespeare

Sunday, 3 April, 2016 0 Comments

The early life of John Dowland is a mystery. It has been claimed that he was born in Dublin, but no evidence has ever been found either for this or for the assertion that he was born in Westminster. What is without dispute, however, is that he worked as a lutenist at the court of Christian IV of Denmark in 1598. Thus, the link between John Dowland, the greatest instrumentalist of the English Renaissance, Hamlet, the greatest English play, and William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright ever, was established.

Dowland wrote Tarleton’s Resurrection in homage to Richard Tarleton, a 16th-century actor, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite stand-up comedian, especially for his performance of impromptu doggerel, an early form of rap. It has been suggested that Tarleton is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s soliloquy in honour of Yorick, the deceased court jester, in Hamlet: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” (Act 5, Sc. 1).