The Speed of Social Networks

Old News - canon rebel t2i

Old News – canon rebel t2i (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Once upon a time news travelled at the speed of the fastest runner, as the story of the battle of Marathon demonstrated, with the information being eventually wheezed out to a gathered crowd.  Later news from abroad depended on the speed of a ship and the reliability of the wind.  Eventually many people received news by newspapers or weekly newsreels.  Even with the advent of Wire Services one thing still delayed the news – the need to get reporters and photographers to where the witnesses are.

Now though this has all changed.  News services monitor Twitter and anyone with a modern smartphone and decent data connection can be an on-the-spot reporter.  The recent Russian meteorite was not only one of the most well recorded in history, with the wealth of dashcam footage available rapidly on YouTube and the like but it was also very quickly reported on via the internet.  The BBC’s Horizon programme described the possible chain of events surrounding the future collapse of La Cumbre Vieja on La Palma, an event that could cause an Atlantic-wide mega-tsunami.  One aspect was the way the news of the event would be transmitted – within moments of the collapse beginning there would inevitably be a torrent of Tweets and photos on Twitter and Facebook.

The near instantaneous sharing of news worldwide is an unexpected side effect of services that are regarded generally as just a way to let your friends know, instantaneously, what you had for breakfast.  In the future governments as well as the news agencies will be watching out for keywords in public tweets and Facebook posts to gain early notifications that something serious is happening, from natural disasters to man-made tragedies.  This early warning can enable emergency plans to be activated sooner, and more lives be saved.

News has changed forever, from the speed of sail to the speed of light.

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Thinking In Computer

BBC Key Pins

BBC Key Pins (Photo credit: barnoid)

In recent years computer makers have strived to make interfaces more “user friendly” but they have in fact been trying to hide the workings behind the facade.  With this change has also come a change in learning as the emphasis has been on teaching the use of the software, the assumption being that skills in spreadsheets and wordprocessing, email etc being the valuable skills.

As a report by the BBC shows software is now part of the architecture of modern life and as with spoken languages understanding the underlying concepts is important, as they put it, being able to write in computer (creating) as well as reading it (by using it).  In order to be able to innovate you need to be able to fit concepts into the the way computers work and to do this you need to understand more than the vocabulary of the language.

The misunderstanding of how computers work is often the reason for many people’s frustration with things that don’t work as they expect them to no matter how hard developers try to simplify things.  As the article says our world is ‘computer assisted’ and the more we live with computers and their innate complexity the more people should understand how they work in the same way that some knowledge of how a car works can make someone a better driver and less likely to exceed the limits of what it can do.

[BBC]

Keep Calm and Carry British Tech

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the United Kingdom reading “Keep Calm and Carry On”, created during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device?  Where were the creators of that based?  Silicone Valley?  Shenzhen?

More than likely they were based in the UK.

Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science…  in the world.

Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents.  Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.

Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM.  Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs.  We had no idea.

Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires…  You get the idea.

The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies.  In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology.  However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands.  As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.

Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.

[Also BBC News]

21st Century Hobbies & British Pi

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at Tr...

English: Extract from Raspberry Pi board at TransferSummit 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been said that having a hobby is a particularly British thing, when I was younger I used to spend evenings listening to REM albums while building model aircraft – many of which still linger in my mum and dad’s attic along with my old school books.

In the past some people have collected stamps, cheese labels and even old street lamps (which looked more like street theft in the BBC documentary on hobbies I’ve just watched while thinking about the subject of this post).  All these activities though gave people ways to enjoy their leisure time and as we reached the end of the twentieth century technology was playing its part in hobbies whether it was in building kit computers, programming home computers or playing video games whose graphics required a kind of leap of imagination that would be unthinkable to today’s Call of Duty playing generation of gamers.

Hobbies were something to be wanted, something to share and talk about.  Today though many of us grown-ups at least don’t have hobbies possibly because of the vast array of distractions from TV and the internet (and yes I’m aware of the irony.) 

Ooh, QI’s on the telly, er, be back in a bit…

I have heard people saying that their hobby is buying and selling things on Ebay, others that when they’re not watching TV or down the pub they’re on Bingo or Poker sites so the prospect of making money is a major driver rather than the satisfaction of making something or completing a collection.

One area that had been fading but is now bounding back is computing as a hobby – and typically it’s a British invention that is leading the charge.  Raspberry Pi began as an attempt to reverse the decline in the numbers of students going to Cambridge to read computer science which had once been the domain of many hobbyist programmers.  A group at Cambridge identified that something had changed in the way young people used computers; they were being taught word and excel in ICT lessons at school (when I was at school I was taught about mainframes) and at home they used games consoles and PCs rather than the ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s of the eighties where part of the enjoyment was typing in your own programs.

What was needed was a modern Speccy – a low-cost computer that could boot Linux and be programmed to do whatever you wanted.  The computer was designed and even before it went on sale its low-cost and versatility sparked the buried creative juices in hobbyists across the country and it has sold fantastically well and is soon to be Made in Britain too.  The foundation set up to develop the computer has also had enquiries from developing countries where such devices can provide access to technology previously unavailable.

The little one-board computer will be finding its way into a myriad of homebuilt projects in the years to come as well as its original use in encouraging the next generation of British tech engineering pioneers.

[Raspberry Pi 2.0  Gizmodo UK]  [Raspberry Pi Games Platform BBC News]