In the News Archive

How Doug Engelbart pulled off the Mother of all Demos

Doug Engelbart was the first to actually build a computer that might seem familiar to us, today. He came to Silicon Valley after a stint in the Navy as a radar technician during World War II. Engelbart was, in his own estimation, a "naive drifter", but something about the Valley inspired him to think big. Engelbart's idea was that computers of the future should be optimized for human needs - communication and collaboration. Computers, he reasoned, should have keyboards and screens instead of punch cards and printouts. They should augment rather than replace the human intellect. And so he pulled a team together and built a working prototype: the oN‑Line System. Unlike earlier efforts, the NLS wasn't a military supercalculator. It was a general‑purpose tool designed to help knowledge workers perform better and faster, and that was a controversial idea. Letting non-engineers interact directly with a computer was seen as harebrained, utopian - subversive, even. And then people saw the demo.

Engelbart is one of the greatest visionaries of this industry.

International System of Units overhauled in historic vote

Today, in a landmark decision, representatives from 60 countries voted to redefine the International System of Units (SI), changing the world's definition of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole, for ever.

The decision, made at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, which is organised by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), means that all SI units will now be defined in terms of constants that describe the natural world. This will assure the future stability of the SI and open the opportunity for the use of new technologies, including quantum technologies, to implement the definitions.

The metric system - or, as it is known today, the International System of Units (SI) - is an amazing achievement of mankind. Save for a few archaic holdouts who still measure things by sheep intestines and cow brains, the entire world has standardized on this system, so that regardless of where you are, things innately make sense.

The lost art of steam heating

While this is not a story about computing, it is a story about technology, and a very fascinating technology at that. Sure, steam heating systems may not sound particularly exciting, but trust me - you'd be wrong.

Back in 2016, The New Yorker ran a short story about a presentation by Dan Holohan.

Dan Holohan, a tall, bespectacled man, took the floor. Through such books as "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" and "We Got Steam Heat! A Homeowner's Guide to Peaceful Coexistence", as well as the Web site HeatingHelp.com, Holohan has built a community among those who work on and live with the nineteenth-century heating technology that is still common, if not commonly understood, in New York and in other older cities across the country.

It turns out a version of this presentation, held at the Central Park Arsenal for The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York (what a magnificent name!), is available on YouTube, and let me tell you - like you right now, I didn't think this subject could be even remotely interesting. As it turns out, though, ancient steam heating systems are an absolutely fascinating subject and kind of a neat piece of engineering. Did you know, for instance, that the 102 floors of the Empire State Building are heated with only one and a half pounds of steam pressure?

Holohan is clearly a man proud of his knowledge and trade, and his excitement about this arcane subject is palpable. I highly suggest taking 50 minutes out of your day to watch his presentation.

US 2018 midterm elections: all you need to know

Election Day is today, November 6th, in the United States, and the 2018 midterm elections are likely going to be some of the most contentious elections in recent history. While President Donald Trump isn't up for reelection yet, the House of Representatives and Senate are in play for both parties, along with gubernatorial races, attorney general elections, and marijuana legalization initiatives in four different states.

It's a lot to take in, but the internet is here to help. Here’s everything you need to get ready for the big day, complete with registration information, polling locations, ride-sharing deals, and more.

To our American readers - get out there and vote.

Wisconsin’s $4.1 billion Foxconn boondoggle

It was supposed to be a big win for the state of Wisconsin: Foxconn was going to build a massive LCD factory in the state, raking in a massive state subsidy. Fast-forward a few years, and little seems to have come of the deal.

But what seemed so simple on a napkin has turned out to be far more complicated and messy in real life. As the size of the subsidy has steadily increased to a jaw-dropping $4.1 billion, Foxconn has repeatedly changed what it plans to do, raising doubts about the number of jobs it will create. Instead of the promised Generation 10.5 plant, Foxconn now says it will build a much smaller Gen 6 plant, which would require one-third of the promised investment, although the company insists it will eventually hit the $10 billion investment target. And instead of a factory of workers building panels for 75-inch TVs, Foxconn executives now say the goal is to build "ecosystem" of buzzwords called "AI 8K+5G" with most of the manufacturing done by robots.

Polls now show most Wisconsin voters don't believe the subsidy will pay off for taxpayers, and Walker didn't even mention the deal in a November 2017 speech announcing his run for re-election. He now trails in that re-election bid against a less-than-electric Democratic candidate, the bland state superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers.

It all seemed so promising. So how did everything go so bad so quickly?

The jobs supposedly created through this deal would cost the state government over 300,000 dollar per job - which is an absolutely terrible investment. In order to get there, Foxconn received special exemptions from environmental rules and regulations, raising concerns about pollution.

Also, but unrelated, boondoggle is a great word.

Father of web says tech giants may have to be split up

Silicon Valley technology giants such as Facebook and Google have grown so dominant they may need to be broken up, unless challengers or changes in taste reduce their clout, the inventor of the World Wide Web told Reuters.

The digital revolution has spawned a handful of U.S.-based technology companies since the 1990s that now have a combined financial and cultural power greater than most sovereign states.

Tim Berners-Lee, a London-born computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, said he was disappointed with the current state of the internet, following scandals over the abuse of personal data and the use of social media to spread hate.

I couldn't agree with him more - but I'd like to expand this beyond just the online or technology sector. In all kinds of sectors there are companies that are far too large and rich, and thus powerful, to continue to exist unabated. We've broken up powerful companies before, but the odds of it ever happening again seem slim - companies have been very successful at fostering an anti-government atmosphere in which corporations are seen as idols to be worshipped rather than potentially harmful entities that need to be kept in check.

Jeff Hawkins is finally ready to explain his brain research

Ever since selling Handspring to Palm in the early 2000s, Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm Pilot and founder of Palm, has been working on his true passion: neuroscience and trying to understand how the brain works. Teaming up with several neuroscientists and some former Palm people, his company Numenta, entirely funded by Hawkins himself, is now ready to show its research to the world.

Mr. Hawkins says that before the world can build artificial intelligence, it must explain human intelligence so it can create machines that genuinely work like the brain. "You do not have to emulate the entire brain," he said. "But you do have to understand how the brain works and emulate the important parts."

Now, after more than a decade of quiet work at Numenta, he thinks he and a handful of researchers working with him are well on their way to cracking the problem. On Monday, at a conference in the Netherlands, he is expected to unveil their latest research, which he says explains the inner workings of cortical columns, a basic building block of brain function.

Numenta's research is apparently so complex that Alphabet's artificial intelligence research company, DeepMind, told him they simply didn't understand it. If this work, which I think is detailed in this scientific paper published over the weekend (but don't quote me on it - it might be another paper altogether), is indeed the breakthrough neuroscience has been waiting for, it could have enormous consequences, not just for neuroscience and biology, but also for artificial intelligence and its applications in the world of computing.

I'm very curious to see if this research holds up to scientific scrutiny and peer review, because even the smallest of steps towards understanding how the brain works would be a massive scientific breakthrough.

Lego wants to completely remake its toy bricks

At the heart of this town lies a building that is a veritable temple to the area’s most famous creation, the humble Lego brick. It is filled with complex creations, from a 50-foot tree to a collection of multicolored dinosaurs, all of them built with a product that has barely changed in more than 50 years.

A short walk away in its research lab, though, Lego is trying to refashion the product it is best known for: It wants to eliminate its dependence on petroleum-based plastics, and build its toys entirely from plant-based or recycled materials by 2030.

That's one heck of a materials science challenge.

Apple and Google face growing revolt over app store ‘tax’

A backlash against the app stores of Apple Inc. and Google is gaining steam, with a growing number of companies saying the tech giants are collecting too high a tax for connecting consumers to developers’ wares.

Netflix Inc. and video game makers Epic Games Inc. and Valve Corp. are among companies that have recently tried to bypass the app stores or complained about the cost of the tolls Apple and Google charge.

Grumbling about app store economics isn't new. But the number of complaints, combined with new ways of reaching users, regulatory scrutiny and competitive pressure are threatening to undermine what have become digital goldmines for Apple and Google.

The end result will be special deals for major players, further destroying the last few vestiges of smaller indie developers that somehow have managed to survive until now.

South Korea moving to tax Google, Apple, Amazon

The South Korean government is planning on taxing Google, Apple, Amazon, and other major international technology companies for the sales they generate inside the country.

The government will move quickly to impose taxes on Google, Apple, Amazon and other global IT companies. This follows policymakers and lawmakers paying greater attention to growing criticism that the firms earn billions of dollars in sales here annually but pay no taxes. Naver, Kakao and other domestic companies have been complaining for years about "an uneven playing field," arguing their foreign rivals should pay corporate income tax on the revenue they generate in Korea.

Corporate taxation has basically been a well-orchestrated sham of loopholes over loopholes put in place through corruption (under the euphemism of "lobbying") that has gone on so long that most - if not all - multinationals pay little to effectively zero taxes, while smaller, local companies and individuals pay their full taxes. This clearly has to end - if my own small translation company has to pay - say - 20% in taxes over the revenue it generates, so should Apple, Google, and whomever else over the revenue they generate here.

This house of cards has to come tumbling down.

A spectre is haunting unicode

In 1978 Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established the encoding that would later be known as JIS X 0208, which still serves as an important reference for all Japanese encodings. However, after the JIS standard was released people noticed something strange - several of the added characters had no obvious sources, and nobody could tell what they meant or how they should be pronounced. Nobody was sure where they came from. These are what came to be known as the ghost characters.

Fascinating story.

Isn’t it time we declared our independence from bloatware?

So you've just bought the best Windows laptop, you've gritted your teeth through Cortana's obnoxiously cheery setup narration, and the above screenshot is the Start menu you're presented with. Exactly how special do you feel as you watch the tiles animating and blinking at you like a slots machine? I'll tell you how I felt as I was getting to grips with the Huawei MateBook X Pro for the first time: perplexed. Perplexed that this level of bloatware infestation is still a thing in 2018, especially on a computer costing $1,499 and running an OS called Windows 10 "Pro". Why are we still tolerating this?

Before anyone assumes that this is just a rant against and about Windows, I'll happily include Apple's iOS and some varieties of Google's Android in my scorn. The blight of undesired software and prompts is all around us. If I buy an iPhone, Apple pins the Apple Watch app on my home screen, whether I have the compatible watch or not. Or if I go to Apple's nemesis, Samsung forces its Bixby assistant into everything I do with a Galaxy S.

The Windows bloatware in particular irks me, since Windows is not a free or pre-installed operating system you just kind of get for free; I purchased my Windows license and have an Office 365 subscription, and yet, I, too, got this bloatware nonsense when I installed Windows 10. I removed all of it right away, but to me, it's inexcusable.

Economists: we aren’t prepared for the fallout from automation

Are we focusing too much on analyzing exactly how many jobs could be destroyed by the coming wave of automation, and not enough on how to actually fix the problem? That's one conclusion in a new paper on the potential affects of robotics and AI on global labor markets from US think tank, the Center for Global Development (CGD).

The paper's authors, Lukas Schlogl and Andy Sumner, say it's impossible to know exactly how many jobs will be destroyed or disrupted by new technology. But, they add, it's fairly certain there's going to be significant effects - especially in developing economies, where the labor market is skewed towards work that require the sort of routine, manual labor that's so susceptible to automation. Think unskilled jobs in factories or agriculture.

As earlier studies have also suggested, Schlogl and Sumner think the affects of automation on these and other nations is not likely to be mass unemployment, but the stagnation of wages and polarization of the labor market. In other words, there will still be work for most people, but it'll be increasingly low-paid and unstable; without benefits such as paid vacation, health insurance, or pensions. On the other end of the employment spectrum, meanwhile, there will continue to be a small number of rich and super-rich individuals who reap the benefits of increased in productivity created by technology.

Whether masses of people become unemployable or are forced to accept increasingly crappier and lower-paying jobs, while a rich few get ever richer, the end result will be massive social upheaval. We're already seeing the consequences of mass inequality in many countries in the world, and it isn't pretty. Expect things to get worse.

Much worse.

The life and death of teletext, and what happened next

That, so the story goes, was the remit given to BBC engineers in the late 1960s: find a way to transmit a printable page of text so that the corporation’s transmitters weren't simply left to idle overnight. Their efforts would eventually give rise to an iconic medium that would span five decades, become the basis for a global standard and - perhaps most importantly - let you check the lottery numbers on Sunday morning. (Well, you never knew.)

As is so often the case when a revolutionary technology's lingering just over the horizon, it's difficult to know precisely where the tale of teletext truly begins. Engineers at several different corporations were already experimenting with ways of transmitting text remotely, each with different goals in mind. The Post Office, who at that time were responsible for the telephone system, naturally wanted to use their infrastructure to boost the number of phone owners across the country. Boffins back at the BBC, meanwhile, had begun investigating ways to provide subtitled television programmes for the deaf.

Teletext (or Teletekst in Dutch) is still active here, and lots of people have the smartphone app for Teletekst installed as well. Fascinating technology that I used all the time when I was younger.

The gospel of Elon Musk, according to his flock

Bijan Stephen, writing about Elon Musk's adoring, unquestioning fans:

Gomez isn't alone. She's one member of a vast, global community of people who revere the 46-year-old entrepreneur with a passion better suited to a megachurch pastor than a tech mogul. With followers like her, Elon Musk - the South African-born multibillionaire known for high-profile, risky investments such as Tesla (electric cars), SpaceX (private space travel), the Boring Company (underground travel), and Neuralink (neurotechnology) - has reaped the benefits of a culture in which fandom dominates nearly everything. While his detractors see him as another out-of-touch, inexpert rich guy who either can't or won't acknowledge the damage he and his companies are doing, to his fans, Musk is a visionary out to save humanity from itself. They gravitate toward his charisma and his intoxicating brew of extreme wealth, a grand vision for society - articulated through his companies, which he has an odd habit of launching with tweets - and an internet-friendly playfulness that sets him apart from the stodgier members of his economic class. Among his more than 22 million followers, all of this inspires a level of righteous devotion rarely glimpsed outside of the replies to a Taylor Swift tweet.

The most vocal of those fans have an impact: they're an army of irregulars waiting to be marshaled via a tweet and sent on the digital warpath against anything Musk decides he doesn't like, the iron fist in Musk's velvet glove. They've become known for haranguing people they believe have crossed him, journalists especially, with relentless fervor. The attacks are standard social media-era fare: free-for-all bombardment across social platforms by people who are not always vitriolic but who nevertheless barrage the perceived enemy with bad-faith questions.

Just to reiterate: this article is about Elon Musk - not somebody else.

AT&T cleared to buy Time Warner

AT&T Inc. was cleared by a judge to take over Time Warner Inc. in an $85 billion deal that will fuel the mobile-phone giant’s evolution into a media powerhouse and could spark a wave of new mergers.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Tuesday rejected the Justice Department’s request for an order blocking the Time Warner acquisition, saying the government failed to make its case that the combination would lead to higher prices for pay-TV subscribers. The judge put no conditions on the deal.

More consolidation in the US tech and media landscape. This doesn't bode well for American internet users and TV/movie fans.

Why is Elon Musk raging at “big media”?

Here's the dynamic that explains Musk's Twitter outburst: Tesla is clearly struggling to reach production levels that will justify its valuation. Musk has no facts with which to counter the media reports, and it is illegal for him to lie about these numbers. (Hype is one thing; lying to investors is another.) His Orwellian solution is to convince Tesla fans that what they are reading is not true. The stakes are high. Tesla's $1 billion-per-quarter burn rate makes it very likely that the company will need to raise a couple billion dollars in the fourth quarter of this year.

Musk literally cannot afford for investors to believe a negative storyline. Only his optimistic, visionary narrative will convince potential investors that Tesla is a good bet, rather than a bubble preparing to pop.

Nothing is more dangerous than criticizing Elon Musk, but the cold and harsh facts laid out in this article are very difficult to argue with, other than appealing to some vague sense of Musk wanting to help the planet or whatever, as if that negates Tesla rapidly running out of money and never meeting expectations or failing to keep its promises. We should all want Tesla to succeed, but the recent outbursts from Musk do not bode well for the future of the company.

Twitter randos who could never afford a Tesla might be easily swayed by Musk's Trumpian "boohoo the press hates me" nonsense, but the kinds of billion dollar investors Tesla needs will see right through it.

The forgotten ’80s home robot trend

The Gemini was the most technically advanced of the personal robots available in 1985, with features that remain impressive today. It not only spoke but took voice commands. It was self-charging, and retained a map of your home for navigation purposes, a feature that was only introduced into the Roomba line in 2015, 13 years and 5 generations after its introduction. It could sing with synthesized piano accompaniment, recite poetry, and connect to early online services like CompuServe.

That's quite amazing.

Europe gets more open-access as university stand-offs spread

Bold efforts to push academic publishing towards an open-access model are gaining steam. Negotiators from libraries and university consortia across Europe are sharing tactics on how to broker new kinds of contracts that could see more articles appear outside paywalls. And inspired by the results of a stand-off in Germany, they increasingly declare that if they don’t like what publishers offer, they will refuse to pay for journal access at all. On 16 May, a Swedish consortium became the latest to say that it wouldn't renew its contract, with publishing giant Elsevier.

A lot of this research in partially or fully tax-funded, and as such, published articles must be freely available to the public. Good development.