An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net and technology news
by Alan Lenton
So here we are in Facebook IPO week, so I thought I’d give you my take on it...
Question: Why is Facebook going public?
Answer: They couldn’t figure out the privacy settings, either.
Definitely not original, but I thought you would all appreciate it! Incidentally, looking at the first day’s trading, I have the feeling there might well be a lot of people out of pocket over this IPO in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, if you bet your shirt on Facebook, you can cheer yourself up reading Winding Down, which isn’t planning an IPO - purely because Wall Street hasn’t got the capacity to handle it, you understand...
I guess most of my readers have heard of TCP/IP, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. It’s the network protocol that is used to carry messages in the Internet. It’s a pretty robust affair, and it doesn’t really care what the transmission medium is. In the past it’s been used on such diverse mediums as pigeon post, bongo drums, and fiber optics.
The latest unusual medium is a set of xylophones, played by human participants. Of course, xylophone transmission is not exactly broadband. At 15 minutes to transmit a single packet it works out at about one baud. And that’s assuming the player doesn’t make any mistakes! If they do, then the whole packet has to be re-transmitted. This obviously happened a lot, because one of the conclusions of the research was that “Humans are really terrible interfaces...” Yes, that I can believe. However the experiment did show just how flexible the protocol is in the real world.
The EU has now started enforcing its crazy cookie law. There really should be a law about legislators only being allowed to legislate on things they know about. Basically, the anti-cookie law says that you’ve not only got to tell anyone who uses your site all about the cookies you are using, but you must persuade them to agree to the cookies before you let them on to the site. If you want to see the sort of insanity this leads to, take a look at the URL, which is the explanation of cookies on the British Telecom website.
Do you see commercial adverts when you visit Wikipedia? You do? Bad news - Wikipedia don’t have ads, they rely on donations. If you’re seeing ads on Wikipedia, your computer has been infected with malware similar to that used by the Flashback Trojan that infected 600,000 Macs earlier this year. So, if you are seeing ads on Wikipedia, it’s time to sort out your anti-virus software.
The Education Archive has a wonderful film from the 1960s called “1999 AD”. Wonderful in a sort of wincing sense, since it is a prediction of what life will be like in 1999. It’s 25 minutes long, so you need to make some time to watch the whole thing. Personally I loved the way all the computers had flashing lights (I think modern day computer manufacturers could take this idea on board). I was especially fascinated by the fact that the main house computer had rows of switches on the front, presumably for loading the boot strap program in binary! Let this be a warning to all would be futurists about their fallibility...
Good news for people like me who live near the sea, but bad news for the global warming doomsayers. Figures were being bandied around suggesting that we were in for a global sea rise of up to seven meters because of melting Greenland glaciers. Now research published in ‘Science’ indicates otherwise. You can read the paper, but the bottom line is that if the glaciers continue to gain speed at the present rate, they may cause a rise of up to four inches by the year 2100. There’s a bit of difference between seven meters and four inches!
Computer interfaces to humans are horrible. But some are worse than others. Most of the time it doesn’t make any difference except making the device much more difficult to use. The issue is made worse by the fact that interfaces are often used by the software makers to try and tie you into their software. The idea here is that it will cost a lot of effort (and possibly money) to change to new software with a different interface, forcing you to stay with their somewhat less than optimal grunge.
Of course, software isn’t the only thing with non-standard interfaces. Take something as long standing and as well understood as the controls of a car. I’ve been driving for over 30 years and if I’d been given a dollar every time I got into a different car, drove off, and switched the windscreen wipers on as darkness fell, I’d be a millionaire by now. And it can be worse than that. The first time I got into the driver’s seat in a car in the US, I couldn’t figure out how it worked. It never occurred to me the handbrake would be a pedal on the floor. And as for the gear stick - there didn’t seem to be one - not even an automatic thingie for setting it to park/forwards/reverse. It was embarrassing, I had to go back to the hire company office and ask for someone to show me where the controls were (on the steering column, it turned out). And that was before I even started driving it - especially as Americans drive on the wrong side of the road!
However, there is a limit to the damage you can do with most bad interfaces. Not so with commercial systems-control software, and Cracked.com has a piece about just this issue. It looks at six disasters that were caused by poorly designed software interfaces. The disasters covered are big ones - the USS Vincennes shooting down an airliner, Three Mile Island, the Air Inter Flight 148 crash, The Herald of Free Enterprise, the Kegworth Air Disaster, and, finally, the Space Shuttle Columbia. Take a look - it makes sobering reading.
I spotted an article in The Register about flying cars. It seems the idea is rapidly becoming more than just a concept. The German university KIT’s MyCopter project is well on the way to providing a functional machine. The problem though is more to do with driver training and traffic management.
I know everyone thinks of coming up to a jam and taking off to fly over it, but do you really think they’ll allow that? Think of ten, twenty, maybe a hundred people all trying to do that at once. No, what will happen is that if these things ever take off (so to speak) the government will impose traffic lanes, just like with airliners, for safety reasons, you understand. And what will happen then? Then you will find yourself hovering in a queue, waiting to get onto the clockwise air-lane of the beltway...
This isn’t really techie, but since the shenanigans going on with the Euro will, given the connected nature of the world economy, affect everyone, I thought I would draw your attention to an article from Stratfor about the French. It’s not huge, but it’s one of the first articles I’ve ever read that really provides an analysis of what the French strategy is all about. I recommend taking a look at it. Oh, and if you don’t believe that the Euro crisis will affect the US, how do you explain the fact that the amount of money flowing into New York from Greece, Italy, and Spain has now eclipsed the previous top sources of cash, Arab and Russian?
I’ve just been looking at a really fascinating new piece of work. It’s called ChronoZoom. It’s still in beta test, but perfectly usable. It’s one of the most slick history of the Universe tools I’ve ever seen. Not just a time line, it allows you to zoom in and see text, diagrams, and videos explaining what was happening at that particular time. Highly recommended.
I’ve mentioned the Raspberry Pi project before. It seems supplies are coming through the pipeline, albeit slowly. There are still 300,000 buyers in the queue which is a pretty substantial backlog. There is a new batch of 75,000 computers in the pipeline, due to be released in July/August, but even that is only going to supply a quarter of the current outstanding orders. Everyone involved has been absolutely staggered by the demand, which wasn’t expected to be anything like this.
It obviously hits the spot. I think I’d better order mine soon, if I want it before Xmas!
In the meantime maybe you should build yourself a Tesla gun. This geeky device, designed and built by one Rob Flickenger produces electrical discharges of some 20,000 volts and 2,000 amps. It would probably make a good fly zapper. The device looks a little amateurish, but I’m sure that could be overcome by someone with a steampunk design ability, thus turning it into a worthy toy for a geek.
Scanner: Other stories
Etcher brings Etch A Sketch to the iPad
The world’s hottest social network isn’t Facebook
Do major urban subway networks evolve along similar patterns?
Note: I include this as a classic piece of research which states the obvious!
Earliest Mayan astronomical calendar unearthed in Guatemala ruins
Stonehenge had lecture hall acoustic
Thanks to readers Andrew, Barb, Fi, and to Slashdot's daily newsletter for drawing my attention to material used in this issue.
Please send suggestions for stories to email@example.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Spamato spam filter...
20 May 2012
Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.
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