O'Really?

December 20, 2018

Dry January: Can you switch off all your social media for a month? #DigitalDetox

socialmedia

Dry January: can you abstain from toxins like alcohol and social media for a month?

Here in the UK, there is an annual tradition known as¬†Dry January. It’s pretty simple, in the wake of all the festive indulgence (ūüćĽ), around 4 million people voluntarily abstain from alcohol for the month of January. Why? Because they can save money, sleep better, lose weight [1] and even raise money for charity in the process. If you haven’t tried it yet, Dry January is an enlightening (and enlivening) challenge.

But dry January needn’t just stop at alcohol. Other toxic social lubricants are also available. Have you ever wondered what life would be like without the distraction of social media? Ever tried going without? Go dry by switching off all your social media for a month – just to see what happens. Is social media as toxic as alcohol? Could going cold turkey (ūü¶É) for a month be beneficial to your health and those around you? Switch it all off, meaning:

  • No LinkedIn
  • No Facebook
  • No WhatsApp
  • No Instagram
  • No Twitter
  • No Blogging
  • No “voluntary panopticon
  • No [insert your favourite social media here]. How far you take it will depend on how you choose to define social media…

Abstention requires a bit of planning and preparation, but if you tell your friends now, you could experiment with switching off all your social media for the month of January. Will you be able to handle the Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) [2]? Will your quality of life improve?

The idea of digital detox has been around a while and there are several ways of doing it. You can either go the whole hog like Jaron Lanier and just delete everything [3]. If that’s too drastic for you, try using blockers or timers set to zero minutes. Since the most toxic forms of social media are typically found on smartphones,¬†there’s a few options for detoxing:

Abstaining from alcohol can be beneficial for your physical and mental health. [2] Abstaining from social media could probably help too. Why not give it a whirl and see for yourself?

As this is last (and first!) post here for 2018, have yourselves a happy winterval and a healthy new year in 2019.

References

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_of_missing_out
    2. De Visser, R.O., Robinson, E. & Bond, R., (2016) Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during ‚ÄúDry January‚ÄĚ and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology, 35(3), pp.281‚Äď289. DOI:10.1037/hea0000297
    3. Lanier, Jaron (2018) Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Bodley Head, ISBN: 978-1847925398 jaronlanier.com/tenarguments.html

 

March 15, 2013

Creating with the Raspberry Pi vs. Consuming Apple Pie at the Manchester Raspberry Jamboree

MiniGirlGeek

Thirteen year old Amy Mather aka @MiniGirlGeek steals the show at Manchester Raspberry Jam 2013

Last Saturday, the first ever¬†Raspberry Jamboree rolled into town,¬†organised by the unstoppable force of nature that is Alan O’Donohoe (aka @teknoteacher). The jamboree looked at the educational value of the Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer)¬†one year on from its launch on the the 29th February 2012.¬†Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the things that happened in the main room, aka ‘Jamboree Central’. The workshops and other events have been covered by¬†Jason Barnett @boeeerb.

A key feature of the Raspberry Pi foundation (and the Jamboree) was neatly summed up by Paul Beech (aka @guru)¬†who compared the Raspberry Pi to various Apple iThings. Paul’s view is that when it comes to computing, Apple gives you a “sandy beach, sunbed and cocktail” to passively consume digital content with while the Raspberry Pi gives you a “desert, knife and a bottle” to actively create new things (see his tweet below).

Consuming Apple Pie on a sandy beach, with a sunbed and a cocktail

Engineering evangelist Rob Bishop¬†used Apple Inc. to illustrate what the Raspberry Pi is about in his talk ‘one year on‘. Rob pointed out that a huge amount of effort at Apple Inc. is put into making Computing invisible and seamless. This is great if you’re consuming content on your iPad or iPhone, and what many users want – easy to use, with all the nasty internal gubbins tucked away, out of sight. This is tasty Californian Apple Pie, which many of consume in large amounts.

However, invisible computing is a problem for education, because it is difficult to demonstrate the Wonders of Computer Science (Brian Cox’s next TV series) with a device like the iPad. ¬†Many of the internals of modern devices are completely inaccessible, and it’s non-trivial for budding young engineers to build anything very interesting with it particularly quickly.

In contrast, the Raspberry Pi can be challenging to setup,¬†just getting the Operating System up and running isn’t always straightforward. However, there’s a ton of interesting stuff you can build with it: Nifty robotics, bionic bird boxes, musical hackery, twittering chickens, live train departure boards, internet radios,¬†singing jelly babies¬†and loads of other pideas. Try doing that with your iPad…

Creating with Raspberry Pi in the desert, using a knife and a bottle

Most of the jamboree focussed not on Apple but on the things that can be created with Raspberry Pi: the What and Why and When And How and Where and Who with keynotes from Steve Furber [1] and talks and panel sessions from:

A highlight of the jamboree was the closing keynote given by the¬†thirteen year old Mini Girl Geek¬†on what she’s been doing with her Raspberry Pi. MiniGirlGeek (aka Amy Mather pictured above) stole the show with her demo implementations of Conway’s Game of Life in Python. [update: see video below]

What’s interesting is that Conway’s Game of Life is used as an exercise for first year undergraduates in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. So it’s great to see teenagers mastering the “knife” of Raspberry Pi, and reminds us that Raspberry Pi is no “sunbed and cocktail” but with a little patience, ambition and talent there’s plenty to capture the imagination of young people about Computing.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report

December 14, 2012

Born Digital, Born Mobile or Born Slippy?

Born Digital

Born Digital? Mobile, mobile, mobile! Creative Commons licensed image via Youth and Media

Thoughtworks¬†is an Information Technology consultancy which started in Chicago and now has offices all over the world.¬†This year they’ve been running some interesting events called Quarterly Briefings which discuss topical technology, with the help of some case studies.

So for example, back in October some Google Guys ‘n’ Girls looked at Big Data. Following on from this, last Wednesday tackled the emotive issue of mobile with¬†Move Over Desktop, Mobile is here! looking at agile software development using the¬†mobile part of LastMinute.com¬†as a example.

These events are fun, good for networking, handy for keeping abreast of what’s happening – all lubricated with free food and drink – what’s not to like?

Two of the speakers, John Crosby (LastMinute.com) and Renee Hawkins (Thoughtworks.com), offered lots of food for thought, more than I can document here. However, three things stuck in my head:

  • Renee pointed out¬†twenty-somethings often have the best ideas, innovation comes from¬†Generation Y. Senior staff, decision makers and leaders in many organisations are often baby boomers or Generation-Xers. When they think of software applications, they often think of web first, then mobile. The current generation of undergraduates and graduates from our Universities were born after the invention of the web. They aren’t just born digital [1,2], they’re born mobile too, iPhones and Androids aren’t new – they’re just normal. Desktops and web-applications are old school to them, its tablets and mobile smartphones where all the action is – that’s what many of them are now growing up with. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Generation Y often have good ideas in science & technology.
  • Renee also talked about doing agile vs. being agile:¬†many organisations claim to be doing agile software development: they have the stand-up daily scrum meetings, kanban boards covered in post-it notes and practice¬†pair-programming but they’re often just ticking the boxes – they’re not actually able to deploy software quickly. They look agile, but really they are doing agile, not actually being agile.
  • John quoted Googler Eric Schmidt¬†on mobile first from a few years ago, who said something like organisations should put their best software developers on mobile projects. Schmidt said this a while back, and many people at the time thought, ‚ÄúHmmm, yeah maybe‚ÄĚ. The current trajectory of mobile technology is proving Schmidt right…[3] despite the strange Android Engagement Paradox.

So when it comes to software applications, are you born digital, born mobile¬†or born slippy? The latter¬†drink too much¬†and are usually Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers…

…and if you’re interested in¬†attending similar events to the above in your area keep an eye on¬†join.thoughtworks.com/events¬†and¬†thoughtworks.com/radar.

References

  1. John Palfrey and Urs Gassey (2008) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (ISBN:0465018564) Basic Books
  2. Sean McLane (2012). What Is It With These Kids? – A Generational Insight into Student Workers and Customers SIGUCCS’12 DOI: 10.1145/2382456.2382481
  3. Mary Meeker (2012) Internet Trends @ Stanford, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

May 3, 2012

Need to re-invent the Web (badly)? There’s an App for that!

The Mobile App Trap

The App Trap: Why have just one Web App when you can have hundreds of mobile Apps? A selection of popular Android apps from Google Play, also available for iPad and iPhone from the Apple App Store

I love the convenience of mobile applications but hate the way they re-invent the wheel and are killing the Web. What can be done about it?

I’m in love with the mobile Web

I’ve been smitten with the Web since first venturing out on the information superhighway back in the nineties. This love affair is taken to a new level with the advent of the mobile Web. As an incurable information junkie, having access to news is on the move is great. Using location based services like Google Maps is fantastic, on foot, bike or in the car. I love nerdily scanning barcodes to read Amazon book reviews while browsing the shelves in bookshops, much to Tim Waterstone’s annoyance. And it can be great to have wikipedia in your pocket¬†to settle arguments down the pub.

I hate the mobile Web too

But there’s a big problem with all this appy clappy mobile fun, it’s killing the Web through fragmentation, both for producers and consumers of information. Let me explain.

One of the great things about the Web is that you there is one app to rule them all; a ‚Äúkiller app‚Ä̬†called a Web browser. There are several flavours, but they all basically do the same thing using similar technology: they let you surf the Web. One software application (a browser), gives you access to an almost infinite number of¬†Web applications. Wonderfully simple, wonderfully powerful – we’ve got so used to it we sometimes take it for granted.

Now compare this to the mobile Web where each page you visit on a mobile suggests that you download an app to read it. Where there used to be just one application, now there are thousands of glorified ‚Äúme too‚ÄĚ Web browsers apps many of which have re-invented the Web, badly.

Consider the applications in the table below and illustrated on the right. They are all accessible from a Web browser on one of the ‚Äúfour screens¬†‚ÄĚ: ¬†desktop, mobile, tablet and smart-TV:

Native mobile app Purpose Web app
Amazon mobile Online retailer Amazon.com
BBC News mobile News and propaganda news.bbc.co.uk
The Economist mobile More news and propaganda economist.com
eBay mobile online garage sale ebay.com
Flickr mobile photo sharing flickr.com
Guardian mobile Even more news and propaganda guardian.co.uk
Google Reader mobile Feed reader reader.google.com
Google Maps mobile Maps and navigation maps.google.com
MetOffice mobile UK Weather metoffice.gov.uk
PostOffice mobile Postcode / Address finder royalmail.com/postcode-finder
Google Search mobile Search engine google.com
Google Translate mobile Language translator translate.google.com
Twitter mobile Entertaining time-wasting application twitter.com
Wikipedia mobile Encyclopædia en.wikipedia.org/wiki
WordPress mobile Blogging tool wordpress.com
YouTube mobile Videos youtube.com

As you can see, users are encouraged to download, install, understand and maintain sixteen different apps to enjoy this small part of the mobile Web. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s bucket-loads more apps like this in Google Play and the App Store. As a user, you could just use a mobile Web browser on your phone, but you’ll be discouraged from doing so. We’ll return to this later.

Producers and consumers both suffer

As well as being a pain for users who have to manage hundreds of apps on their phones and tablets, the pain is magnified for producers of data too. Instead of designing, building and maintaining one Web application to work across a range of different screens (a challenging but not impossible task), many have chosen to develop lots of different apps. Take twitter for example, in addition to the desktop and Web apps, twitter currently makes no fewer than five different applications just for tablets and phones:

    1. twitter.com/download/ipad (for iPad)
    2. twitter.com/download/blackberry (for Blackberry)
    3. twitter.com/download/wp7 (for Windows phones)
    4. twitter.com/download/android (for Android)
    5. twitter.com/download/iphone (for iPhones)

So a challenging task of delivering content onto a range of different devices has now been transformed into an almost impossible task of building and managing many different apps. It’s not just Twitter, Inc. that chooses to play this game.¬†Potentially any company or organisation putting data on the mobile Web might consider doing this by employing an army of android, blackberry, iPhone and windows developers on top of the existing Web developers already on the payroll. That’s good news for software engineers, but bad news for the organisations that have to pay them. Managing all this complexity isn’t cheap.

Not Appy: How do we get out of this mess?

In the rush to get mobile, many seem to have forgotten why the Web is so successful and turned their back on it. We’ve re-invented the wheel and the Web browser. I’m not the first¬†[1]¬†and certainly not the last [2] to notice this.¬†Jonathan Zittrain¬†even predicted it would happen [3,4] with what he calls ‚Äútethered devices‚ÄĚ.¬†One solution to this problem, as suggested at last months International World Wide Web conference in Lyon¬†by some¬†bloke called Tim,¬†is to develop mobile Web apps rather than native mobile apps:

There are lots of examples of this. Sites like trains.im provide train times via a simple Web-based interface, no app required. Many Web sites have  two versions, a desktop one and a mobile one. Wikipedia has a mobile site at en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki, Flickr at m.flickr.com, The Economist at m.economist.com, BBC at m.bbc.co.uk/news and so on. But in many cases these sites are poor cousins of the native mobile apps that software developers have focused their efforts on, diluting their work across multiple apps and platforms.

Maybe it’s too late, maybe I’m suffering from the ‚Äúsuspicious of change‚ÄĚ syndrome described by Douglas Adams like this:

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The mobile Web makes me suspicous because many apps re-invent the wheel. I’ve argued here that it is against the natural order of the Web,¬†we’ve waved goodbye to the good old Web¬†[5] and its the beginning of the end. I really hope not, it would be a tragedy to carry on killing the Web as it’s given us so much and was designed specifically to solve the problems described above. Let’s hope native mobile apps gradually turn out to be alright really.

References

  1. Gary Marshall (2011).¬†Could smartphone apps be taking us back to the days of ‚Äúbest viewed with … ‚ÄĚ?¬†Net Magazine
  2. Jason Pontin (2012).¬†Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps:¬†The future of media on mobile devices isn’t with Apps but with the Web¬†Technology Review
  3. Jonathan Zittrain (2007). Saving the internet. Harvard Business Review, 85 (6) PMID: 17580647
  4. Jonathan Zittrain (2009). The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It Penguin, ISBN:014103159X
  5. Hamish MacKenzie (2012) Web 2.0 Is Over, All Hail the Age of Mobile, Pandodaily

January 2, 2012

Does Android Dream of Electric Sheep?

Androids by etnyk. What are they thinking?

With more than three million Android devices activated on the 24/25th December 2011 [1] and something like 200 million (or more?) Android devices in total, there are nearly enough droids around to build a primitive brain.

With all that processing power out there, I can’t help but wonder, like¬†Philip K. Dick¬†did,¬†Does Android Dream of Electric Sheep? [2,3]

References

  1. Andy Rubin (2011) http://twitter.com/Arubin/status/151918325260226561
  2. Philip K. Dick (1967) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  3. Ridley Scott et al (1982) Blade Runner

April 28, 2011

Are machines taking over the planet?

TastyTalk of machines taking over the planet is the stuff of science fiction but if world domination was just a simple numbers game, some machines have already “taken over” from their human masters.

One machine, the particular brand of computer processor found inside all iPhones and lots of other electronic devices, has been quietly spreading around the globe at a phenomenal rate. There are some interesting statistics on just how many of these processors are out there published in an interview with engineer Steve Furber [1]. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

“Around the end of 2007, the ten-thousand-millionth ARM [Advanced RISC Machine] had been shipped, so there are more ARMs than people on the planet. I believe production is currently running at about 10 million a day. It is projected to rise to about one per person on the planet per year within two or three years”.

Those numbers highlighted in bold (emphasis mine) are completely mind-boggling. As humans, we are outnumbered by just one brand of machine! Of course, they are just lots of “dumb” computer chips with no intelligence. But Furber suspects that:

“there’s more ARM computing power on the planet than everything else ever made put together” [1]

So if you could find a way of using all these processors at once, maybe they’d become magically self-aware in a neural network¬†[2,3,4,5]? Cue ominous Terminator theme tune

References

  1. Jason Fitzpatrick (2011). An interview with Steve Furber Communications of the ACM, 54 (5) DOI: 10.1145/1941487.1941501 (since 2007, numbers have risen to 10 billion in 2008 an another one billion in the first quarter of 2011 alone!)
  2. Steve Furber (2011). Biologically-Inspired Massively-Parallel Architectures: A Reconfigurable Neural Modelling Platform Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 6578 (2) DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-19475-7_2
  3. Steve Furber, & Steve Temple (2008). Studies in Computational Intelligence Computational Intelligence: A Compendium, 115, 763-796 DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-78293-3_18
  4. An estimated one million ARM processors give you about 1% of the capacity of the human brain see the details of the Spiking Neural Network Architecture (SpiNNaker) project
  5. James Cameron, et al (1991) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (T2)

[Creative commons licensed picture of Terminator terror by Tasty by cszar]

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