Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Towards an anti-reductionalist software culture

Interesting short article from Jaron Lanier.
A description of my particular utopian thinking will have to wait for another month's column, but I believe the most beautiful possibilities come from treating people as mysterious wells of meaning and using technology to find new ways to connect people to each other.

Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, if not the pioneer, has frequently blasted the way software deisgn has developed, and in this article particularly chides mechanistic assumptions, that simply because the internet is coming to have a huge amount of information / computing power behind it, it will inherently outperform human mental activity at some stage.

Such arrogant attitudes can lead to software in some cases performing worse - one of his previous bugbears was a feature of Microsoft Word (sometimes wrongly) making assumptions about what you want, a feature that in a previous article he reckoned an engineer there told him couldn't be turned off. Often in such cases, simpler tools become preferable.

We all want to see a new generation of software come along, but it will need to work with humans, rather than trying to replace us.
The genuinely radical ideas in computer science come when people work honestly within the boundaries of what we don't know.

Monday, November 27, 2006

CSP technology

The most interesting possibility to sort out all the world's energy problems - Concentrated Solar Power.
Two German scientists, Dr Gerhard Knies and Dr Franz Trieb, calculate that covering just 0.5% of the world's hot deserts with a technology called concentrated solar power (CSP) would provide the world's entire electricity needs, with the technology also providing desalinated water to desert regions as a valuable byproduct, as well as air conditioning for nearby cities.

As well as the above advantages, it releases no carbon and plants can be grown in the relatively shaded areas under the mirrors, taking up otherwise useless land.

Wiki's article shows several different designs.

The technology's certainly not new, but where's the political will to move towards this highly advantageous energy generation? There's a recognition that fossil fuels are dangerous and running out. There's equally plenty of goodwill toward the nuclear industry in the UK government despite its many drawbacks - uneconomic, waste-producing and dependent on 'conventional' generation for backup. There's even a certain amount of support for windfarms though it appears rather lukewarm in the face of protest from well-heeled nimby's.

Yet you'd never know CSP even existed.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

My desktop

Courtesy of the BBC.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Two recents items of rather bad news on the net. Firstly, spam is on the rise again but now the senders are often victims themselves, from home PC's that have been infected by trojans that then use the machines as 'zombies', sending out e-mails at the behest of a remote controller - story. Most people will have noticed a huge increase in dross supposedly giving stock tips on the sly, "pump n' dump" operations. Typically the owners of a dodgy small listed business will pay a spamming operation to send out this blatantly obvious rubbish in the hope of engineering a price rise.

A couple of days ago this paedophile got jailed for 10 years for blackmailing young girls by a similar exploit, using a trojan to take remote control over their PC's, a harrowing experience for the victims. However, attempts to make out the perpetrator as a criminal genius don't wash, this is script kiddie level stuff. In fact, Windows XP even runs a service to make remote control of the desktop relatively easily.

While most people find Windows a very easy OS to use, I think it's actually a very difficult one to run securely. The usual pro-Microsoft claim is that malware writers target Windows purely because of its ubiquity; this article from the Register exposes the falsity of this claim.

Like some people I still use Windows because several applications I use heavily are only available under it. If you are going to stick with Windows, at least beef up your security with internet software form other vendors:
  • the worst culprit IMHO is Outlook / Outlook Express, use Thunderbird instead, or better still a webmail service like googlemail.
  • Internet Explorer contains some awful security holes. Firefox or Opera are vastly superior. If you insist on using IE, at least go into the security options and disallow ActiveX controls completely; very few sites use them and they're a real security hazard.
  • get a firewall. Unfortunately the one I use, Sygate Personal Firewall, is no longer free. The one that comes with XP is very poor indeed and has no user controls to let you bar specific services or sites.
It isn't just about safeguarding yourself, it's also doing your bit for the rest of the online community and not becoming a tool of the spammers and other villains.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Teenage kicks

Seems the UK's youth are the worst behaved in Europe.
As the new IPPR report puts it: "Commentators fear that British youth is on the verge of mental breakdown, at risk from anti-social behaviour, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse. ... Today's parents are richer than ever before and young people have access to an extraordinary range of activities and opportunities undreamt of even a generation ago... And yet the mental well-being of our adolescents is among the worst in Europe: one in 10 teenage girls has self-harmed. Child obesity is increasing.

Story. Where is the problem coming from? It's probably complex but one sentence in the report stood out for me:
Our youngsters are more consumerist in their outlook than the Americans
See the "Crime, insanity and a nice new pair of trainers" post in the June 2006 archive of this blog.