Digital photography and the age of narcissism

April 6, 2014

The Metropolitan Police are to replace safety cameras with Japanese tourists. The Commissioner said “There’s already a Japanese tourist taking a picture on every street in London, sometimes more than one. They’re low-maintenance, polite, reliable and already there. From thespoof.com in 2007

This satirical piece reflects a widely held stereotype about Japanese tourists. However, I would argue that we are all Japanese now. In the digital era we are all photographers. It’s all a far cry from the mid 1820s when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first permanent photograph. It certainly wasn’t point and shoot; the exposure time was about 8 hours! For many years photography was the preserve of the wealthy. The kit was very expensive, and unless you could afford to have a darkroom in your house, you had to pay for printing. It was Kodak that did much to popularise photography, making it affordable for the masses. But it has been the digital revolution that really has really transformed our behaviour. Kodak, which did so much to democratise the taking of pictures, was a victim of the creative destruction that capitalism is wont to wreak, although reports of its death are greatly exaggerated – bankruptcy is not the same as disappearance.

Nowadays there is virtually no cost to taking thousands of pictures. Before when film was expensive and it to be developed people would be more selective. You wouldn’t take a picture of a plate of meatballs. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I remember my wife complaining on our honeymoon in Thailand that I was taking more photos of the food than of her!

The digital revolution then has led to a massive increase in the number of photos we take. We hear those factoids like 10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months or that there are 10,000 times as many photographs on Facebook as there are in the US Library of Congress.

What are the effects of this frenetic activity? We now take so many photos that we probably never see most of them again. I do get the impression that some people are more interested in taking the photograph than actually living the experience. I don’t see the point of taking a picture of a work of art. There are even studies that those who take pictures of them actually remember less of what they saw. Sometimes it feels that if the event isn’t captured on camera, it hasn’t taken place.

The digital revolution has given us a number of new words. One obvious example is the use of photoshop as a verb meaning to alter a digital image with Photoshop or another image-editing software designed to distort reality often for deliberately deceptive purposes. The camera never lies has become a meaningless expression. In the past airbrushing photographs was something done by governments. Now though it has become available for the masses.

Adobe are none too pleased about this development and issued a press release a few years ago:

The Photoshop trademark must never be used as a common verb or as a noun. The Photoshop trademark should always be capitalized and should never be used in possessive form or as a slang term. It should be used as an adjective to describe the product and should never be used in abbreviated form. The following examples illustrate these rules:

Trademarks are not verbs.

Correct: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.

Incorrect: The image was photoshopped.

Trademarks are not nouns.

Correct: The image pokes fun at the Senator.

Incorrect: The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator.

Trademarks must never be used as slang terms.

Correct: Those who use Adobe® Photoshop® software to manipulate images as a hobby see their work as an art form.

Incorrect: A photoshopper sees his hobby as an art form.

Incorrect: My hobby is photoshopping.

But there is another word which totally captures the zeitgeist of the era of digital photography. I have a feature in my blog where I make a selection of neologisms from the Wordspy website. In February last year I featured selfie. I had no idea what would happen with the word. Last year it was the OED’s word of the year. Events like Nelson Mandela’s funeral and this year’s Oscars have catapulted it into public consciousness. It has even come into Spanish. According to Wordspy the first citation back to 2002. And in 2010 the term ugly selfie, a deliberately unattractive photographic self-portrait, was coined.

The selfie has become the symbol of the age of digital narcissism. The media used to about taking people into fictional worlds, often of the rich and famous. Then it all changed. In the 1990s we got reality television, which showed “ordinary” people on 24 hours a day. But with social media we can now all broadcast our lives. Of course most social media users are not narcissistic. However, there is no doubt that it is a golden age to be a narcissist. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London characterised our age thus:

Yet, social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts: the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media use is. Indeed, scientific studies have shown that the number of status updates, attractive selfies, check-ins, followers and friends, are all positively correlated with narcissism, as is the tendency to accept invites from strangers, particularly when they are attractive. The reason for these correlations is that narcissistic individuals are much more likely to use social media to portray a desirable, albeit unrealistic, self-image, accumulate virtual friends and broadcast their life to an audience. Klout* is a better measure of narcissism than of social reach.”

So this is my quick tour of the world of digital photography. What conclusions have I come to? As I said I am generally positive about this brave new world. It’s great that photography is not restricted to the well-off. And is it so bad that we are the protagonists of Life: The Movie? Having said that, I do think that it is a revolution that has passed me by. I don’t have a camera and my mobile doesn’t take photos. Maybe it’s a reaction against the ubiquity of photography. But I do have a blog, and so I’m all in favour of allowing people to express themselves in the way they choose.

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* From Wikipedia: Klout is a website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank its users according to online social influence via the “Klout Score”, which is a numerical value between 1 and 100. In determining the user score, Klout measures the size of a user’s social media network and correlates the content created to measure how other users interact with that content Klout launched in 2008


Planet Container: How modern shipping transformed our world

January 19, 2014

But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it?  Who cares about the man who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms?  How ironic that the more ships have grown in size, the less space they now take up in our imagination. Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George

On June 14th last year a ship was named at the Daewoo shipyard in Okpo, South Korea. As far as I know there were no royals there, but the launch of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is an important landmark in shipping history. Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla, the youngest daughter of the late Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the Danish shipping magnate after whom the ship was named, did the honours:

As you sail the waters of the world, may your journeys be smooth and your tasks successful. May you bring happiness to your crew, may you be a safe haven for all who board you and may you bring pride and prosperity to all. I wish you Godspeed!”

What is so special about this vessel? The ship which has the largest cargo capacity in of any ship yet constructed, is the longest ship in service worldwide as of 2013. It is 399 metres long and can carry up to 18,270 containers. It’s not just about size though. The ship is characterised for its energy efficiency and environmental performance. Its maximum speed of 23 knots reduces her fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20% compared to the previous most efficient cargo vessel. Maersk are planning to phase in 20 identical vessels over the next couple of years. During normal operations, she will be manned by a crew of just 19.

container ships

We have, of course, been shipping goods for millennia. But what has been taking place in the last half century is on a totally unprecedented scale. And we have one invention to thank for that. Malcolm McLean, a visionary trucking executive, developed the first container specification in 1955. He went on to found Sea-Land Service, whose SS Ideal X, a converted World War II oil tanker, would become the first commercially successful container ship. During her first voyage on April 26, 1956 the Ideal X carried 58 containers from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Port of Houston, Texas. After five days it arrived in Texas, where 58 trucks were waiting to be loaded with the containers. Modern container shipping had been born. The patent was “given” to the world for free in order to increase adoption. In recognition for his massive contribution to world shipping McLean was named “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

The standard container is a box that is 8ft wide by 8ft tall by 20ft or 40ft long. They are generally made of 2mm thick corrugated steel, but other materials like aluminium, fibreglass or plywood can also be used. The external corners are designed for easy stacking and lifting, using a standardised twist-lock mechanism. What’s more they are multi-modal; they can be transported from a ship to a truck to a train. It seems such a simple idea. Yet it would soon revolutionise the global supply chain.

How are goods transported these days? Cargo that used to arrive in assorted cartons, crates, bales, barrels or bags now comes in factory sealed containers. It is impossible to tell what is in each unit. The only clue is the ID number, which is used to track the progress of its contents around the world. The design of the ships is also different. Gone are all the individual hatches, holds and dividers of the traditional general cargo vessel. Nowadays, the hull of a typical container ship is like a huge warehouse divided into cells by vertical guide rails. It is here where the containers are stored. Every single cargo, be it t-shirts, laptops or plastic ducks, can be handled by exactly the same cranes. Algorithms and computer systems help plan the most efficient and practical storage schemes. All this means the ships can get in and out of port quickly.

As well as reducing the time it takes to ship goods around the world, containerization has slashed the cost of shipping, making it practically free. This has been one of the principal motors of international trade. This is the frictionless world economists like to talk about. Before the container you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn’t really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your profits would be eaten up by transport costs

The logistics of the shipping industry are staggering. 90% of everything we wear, eat and consume is carried by ships, many of them container ships like the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live. It is estimated that there were more than 530 million containers in the world in 2010. Such is the precision of the tracking system that a two-week voyage can be timed for arrival with an accuracy of less than a quarter of an hour. This has been a boon for guaranteed delivery and just in time manufacturing. Raw materials arrive in sealed containers less than an hour before they are needed in the production process. And such is the efficiency as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense to send Scottish salmon to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It is containerisation that explains the fact that 90% of flip flops are made in China. Indeed it is the Asian superpower which has benefitted from this revolution. It is impossible to understand China’s role as the world’s workshop without the shipping container. It should be no surprise to discover where the busiest container port in the world is located – ShanghaiChina handles 29,069,000 containers annually.

This revolution has not been all plain sailing. Not until 1961 did the International Standards Organisation finalise global standards for containers. Ports, railways and shippers baulked at the cost of developing the ports and railway infrastructure needed to handle container ships and for the movement of containers on land by rail and road. Trade unions were worried about massive job loss among port and dock workers at ports, as containers were sure to eliminate several manual jobs of cargo handling at ports. Their fears have been confirmed.

This illustrates the fact that no invention is all positive. There is no doubt that working on a container ship is a hard life. In this container age the majority of the sailors are from countries like the Philippines. But compared to what they could earn in their own countries the salaries are probably not so bad. The anonymity of the container has made it the vehicle of choice for smuggling narcotics, tobacco and even humans. We cannot overlook the ecological impact. It is estimated that between 2,000 & 10,000 containers a year fall off ships and are lost at sea. In 1992 a container with 28,800 Bath Toys fell into the Pacific Ocean. This incident was chronicled by Donovan Hohn in his 2011 book Moby Duck:

From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colourful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic shell from the cardboard back. There, in seas almost four miles deep, more than five hundred miles south of Attu Island at the western tip of the Aleutian tail, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of the insular Alaskan city of Sitka, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.

There are other ecological costs. I have heard that the carbon footprint is similar to that of the airline industry. What is less known is the acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. This can be a huge problem for whales, which survive by communicating with sound. Some humpback whales now have 10% of their acoustic range.

I realise that that there are problems, but I think on the whole the container has made the world a better place. I find this miracle of modern logistics truly amazing. Trade is a force for good. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty thanks to global trade. I am sure that ships in the future will be more ecological. So, I think we should all raise a glass to Malcolm McLean, one of the unsung heroes of our modern globalised world.


A couple of shipping videos

January 19, 2014

The world biggest container ship:

Container shipping the world in a box:


An extremely brief history of wearable technology

November 17, 2013

In 1975 Pulsar, a division of the Hamilton Watch Company, launched the first calculator watch. The Time Computer Calculator 901 had a numeric keypad and function keys on the face and could add, divide, multiply and subtract. If you were looking to push the boat out, the 902 model also offered percentages. The first 100 were made from solid gold and cost about $4000. Soon other brands entered the market. On the cover of the Police’s single Wrapped Around Your Finger, you can see Sting with a black plastic Casio calculator watch. In Back to the Future Marty McFly also sported one. And more recently, in the final series of Breaking Bad, Walter White bought himself one as a birthday treat. It has to be said, though, that these calculator watches never really caught on. They were always held back by the size of the buttons, which you needed a toothpick to press. But some modern technological developments could change all that.

Today I’m going to be looking at wearable technology. Its proponents want to interweave technology into everyday life, making technology ubiquitous and interaction seamless. Scores of companies are currently experimenting with embedding sensors and micro-computers into the things we wear. At the moment this technology is in its infancy, but according to a study by ABI Research due to the relative ease of compatibility with smartphones and other electronic devices, the wearable technologies market will be worth half a billion dollars by 2018.

This is all part of the evolution of the computer. We began with those computers that used to fill a big air conditioned room and which inspired IBM’s Thomas Watson to claim that there would be enough demand for five in the whole world. Then came the standard desktop computer. Now we have a plethora of mobile devices. Wearable computing is just the next stage. At the moment the two most important commercial applications are for fitness and health; they are excellent at monitoring. There are a lot of challenges with this technology, in terms of durability, washability and cost. Once these issues have been sorted out, this technology will move into other areas such as tourism, transport and lifestyle. Now I’m going to look at four products that are currently being tested:

The NAVIGATE Jacket

The NAVIGATE Jacket uses integrated LED lighting and haptic (relating to or based on the sense of touch) feedback to help wearers find their destination. It comes with an app which stores relevant destinations and uploads the directions to the jacket which then gives turn by turn directions. The wearer sees the instructions on the sleeves of their jacket, with lights indicating the distance to the next turn and the current stage of the journey. Vibrations in the shoulders alert the user when to turn and in which direction.

Google glass

Google Glass is a 50-gram wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display which displays information in a smartphone-like hands-free format and which can communicate with the Internet via natural language voice commands. A touchpad located on the side enables users to control the device by swiping through a timeline-like interface displayed on the screen. Sliding backward shows current events, such as weather, and sliding forward shows past events, such as phone calls, photos etc. This is Google’s vision for a mass-market ubiquitous computer. According to the product website with it you can:

Say “take a picture” to take a picture.

Record what you see. Hands-free.

Share what you see. Live.

Listen to your favourite songs from Google Play Music.

See directions right in front of you.

Speak to send a message.

Ask whatever’s on your mind.

Have your voice translated.

Indeed, it will even answer you without you having to ask. Sergey Brin has a dream:

My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all, you would just have information come to you…

It is not yet on sale, but in June this year Pedro Guillen, Chief of Trauma Service of Clínica CEMTRO of Madrid, became the first doctor in the world to broadcast an operation through the use of Google Glass.

The iwatch

2013 was going to be the year of the smartwatch. Both Sony, with Sony Smartwatch 2, and Samsung and their Galaxy Gear smartwatch, have already launched their products. They are both designed as companion devices to smartphones. Now we are waiting for Apple to make its move. We still don’t know what Apple’s iWatch will look like, nor what it will do. It is rumoured that it will act as a central control hub for your entire home including heating and cooling, lights, sound systems, home theatre etc. Is Apple after control of our home’s electrical appliances?

Fundawear

In this blog I have already done a couple of posts on sex and technology in which I have looked at both sex robots and vibrators. So there was no way I was going to miss out on Fundawear, which is Durex’s first incursion into the area of connected devices. These undergarments have touch actuators in them which give haptic feedback. You put on special underwear that connects to a smartphone app. You can control the vibrations yourself with a smartphone as a remote, or they can be controlled by your partner’s device. This could be the perfect gift for couples in long-distance relationships. However, the thought of someone hacking into the system doesn’t bear thinking about.

All these devices do raise questions about distraction. You will often see me out and about in Madrid with my headphones and MP3 player. I will be listening to some course about the Inca civilisation or Greek philosophy. But these devices take distraction to a whole new level. We will have to regulate their use especially when it comes to dangerous activities like driving. We are demanding all these amazing functionalities, but we may need legislation that protects us from ourselves.

I don’t know whether you are convinced by these inventions. The medical applications do seem quite exciting. But, on the whole, I’m not particularly impressed. Then again I do have a strange attitude to technology I have so far resisted the temptations of the smartphone and I actually prefer a desktop to a laptop and the myriad portable devices that have emerged in the last few years. Give an e-book over a tablet any day of the week. Really we all need to decide what the right technological mix is for us. I am no Luddite – I just want to pick and choose the technology that is right for me.


Wearable technology : the videos

November 17, 2013

Google glass

Fundawear


When all else fails, read the instructions

May 19, 2013

Captain Rumpelstoss: But… how will I learn to fly, Herr Colonel?

Colonel Manfred von Holstein: The way we do everything in the German army: from the book of instructions.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

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The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient analogue computer with a series of 37 interlocking dials that was used to calculate astronomical positions. It was crafted with the precision and complexity of a Swiss clock, but it was actually made in 150 BC. Such craftsmanship would not be seen for another 1,000 years. Recovered in 1900, from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, the mechanism had initially baffled scientists, who had no idea what it was used for. They tried reverse engineering it. Fortunately they were helped by script etched on the Antikythera mechanism’s wooden housing. This could be considered the world’s first instruction manual. Deciphering it must have been a complex task, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from these experts. But today’s manuals also present a massive challenge. Modern-day instructionese sometimes feels like Ancient Greek to me. Trying to understand it is one of life’s more frustrating experiences. Indeed for some it can lead to read rage. Today I will be looking at instruction manuals and why they can be so exasperating.

Why are instruction manuals so hard to understand? There are linguistic challenges. Languages deal with and describe reality but this is so complex that any individual attempt to represent it comes up against an important obstacle – actions are, by their very nature, indescribable in words. We can only ever approximate reality.

A typical manual will include instructions for the setup, normal usage, programming maintenance and troubleshooting of your device. In the past manuals would include detailed repair information. However, with the increase in products’ complexity and functions, this information has been disappearing. The fact is that many devices are so cheap it’s just not worth repairing them.

We need to analyse the manufacturers and their products. Many companies seem to assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother explaining them. I think many of the problems originate in the design. Good design of the products and the user interface is not prioritised. They have lots of engineers, but few or no human factors designers. Designs seem to be feature-oriented rather than task-oriented. The attitude is one of adding more and more features rather than trying to think what the customer will want to do with the device. I have noticed this with DVD players, especially the cheap ones. They tend to have lots of buttons making them really hard to use. On the other I have a Phillips which has fewer buttons. I am not a big Apple fan, but they do make many of their interfaces intuitive. A really well designed product wouldn’t need an instruction manual.

The quality of documentation can also leave a lot to be desired. Many manufacturers do not hire enough technical writers. To save money they will create a single manual for all international markets. So you end a massive booklet, but only a few of those pages are in your language. They will also use one manual for many different models, which can make it more difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. They want to keep these manuals as compact as possible and so the type-size of the text is a problem for those of us who are in our late 40s.

You get the feeling that many of the writers did not have the product to hand when preparing the manual. However I wouldn’t want the actual designers writing the manuals. They are too close to their creations and tend to make assumptions about what the users will know.

And when it comes to texts originally written in another tongue the problems multiply. Products can now be made all over the world and the meaning can be lost in translation. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker. In instructions this is especially problematic. As precision is so important poor language can make it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant. Do they consumer test new instructions?

We are also partly to blame. We can be lazy. I often think that life is too short to wade through these manuals – they are not exactly compelling reading. If I can get by, I tend to avoid the instructions at all costs. It also depends on our motivation. When I am interested in something, I will make that extra effort. I suppose the people in tech support will come at this from a different perspective. Indeed they have an acronym RTFM, which stands for “Read The Fucking Manual”. There is even a website, http://www.readthefuckingmanual.com, where they dish out some practical advice:

If you believe that you may be one of those who, for some strange reason cannot get your product to work, then this is the site for you. Each time you experience a problem installing or using a product, please come to this site to read the following advice, and what do you know… IT’S FREE OF CHARGE! And another thing… It may even work!:

READ THE F***ING MANUAL!

If you follow this advice, probability is that up to 8 times out of 10, you can solve your own problem right there and then, without any hassle and frustration, and without having to call the manufacturer. The manufacturer will tell you to RTFM anyway!

I think that today many product manuals are generally much better than they were in the past I particularly like the quickstart guides, which are so useful for getting quickly accustomed to the basic operations of the product. But there is still room for improvement. It would be nice if companies stuck with simpler designs. I remember a Sony Television I used to have. It had a reversible remote control – one side was for dummies with just the most common buttons, while the other was for the more sophisticated users. The internet is a wonderful tool if you have a problem with a product that the manual can’t solve. You can search the company’s website and look online for solutions from other users of the item that’s giving you trouble. Those how-to videos are especially useful. I like the amateur stuff. It is written by people like us who understand our difficulties. Maybe there really is light at the end of this particular technological tunnel.


A couple of videos

May 19, 2013

Here is a classic ad for the Sony Betamax:

And then we have this Norweigan sketch:


Will Bitcoin make the world go round?

May 4, 2013

The Bitcoin tribe is still a small one, and consists mainly of computer geeks, drug-dealers, gold bugs and libertarians. From the Economist Apr 13th 2013

Bitcoin is the beginning of something great: a currency without a government, something necessary and imperative. But I am not familiar with the specific product to assert whether it is the best potential setup. And we need a long time to establish confidence. I only talk from skin-in-the-game. If I had money in Bitcoin, I would have reported it. But I don’t yet. I am waiting to understand it better, not with my brain, but with my experienceNassim Nicholas Taleb

Money is:

1. A unit of account

2. A store of value

3. A medium of exchange

Right now, Bitcoin is none of those things (in any serious sense).  From a tweet

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A couple of years ago I heard An EconTalk podcast about a new electronic currency called Bitcoin. To be honest I found it all rather baffling and didn’t really think much about it until recently. However the Cypriot banking crisis has put Bitcoin in vogue. On Saturday March 16th Nicos Anastasiades, the Cypriot President announced a rescue strategy for the country’s banks that involved confiscating money directly from every single bank account in the country. The following Monday, the price of the Bitcoin rose from $45 to $55 on the major exchanges, and by Wednesday it had reached $65 dollars. There does seem to be a link between the events on the Mediterranean island and the performance of Bitcoin. In Spain the number of Google searches for Bitcoin has been increasing. Although the plan for Cyprus was eventually modified, the interest for Bitcoin remains. I was just looking at the exchange rate online one Bitcoin is now worth nearly 117 dollars. Has its time come?

Bitcoin is virtual currency that was introduced on January 3rd 2009. It is a cryptocurrency, a type of digital currency that is based on cryptography, making it difficult to counterfeit. Bitcoin is not the only virtual currency around – gamers on Second Life, a virtual world, pay with Linden Dollars. Their emergence shows that the creation of money is not, nor has ever been, a government monopoly. I have always found money and its creation one of the most challenging areas in the study of economics. Anything people come to view as money can serve some of money’s functions without any governmental authorisation. The classic example is the use of cigarettes in prisons as a medium of exchange.

Paper currencies have been accepted as money even when they no longer had government backing. When the first Gulf War concluded in 1991, dinars that had been withdrawn by the government of Saddam Hussein were used in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. They became known as “Swiss dinars” because they were printed with plates from Switzerland. Curiously, this illicit currency was soon worth far more than the government-backed dinars that Saddam was printing like there was no tomorrow. Swiss dinars would serve as northern Iraq’s fiat money for some ten years until a new national currency was brought in.

There is a strange mystery at the heart of Bitcoin. Who is John Galt? In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that was the question. With the cryptocurrency we have a new question: Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? Bitcoin’s creator was a hacker(s) going under the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. From now on I will refer to him in the singular. Nakamoto no longer seems to be actively involved in the project but at the beginning he was behind much of the innovation. In 2008 he posted Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System on the internet, the foundational text of this virtual currency.

There have been a number of journalists seeking to unmask Nakamoto. The New Yorker named Michael Clear, a graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin, who is knowledgeable about economics, cryptography and peer-to-peer networks. Nakamoto’s. He is allegedly said to have said this to a journalist: “I’m not [Nakamoto], but even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.”

Fast Company’s investigation brought up circumstantial evidence that indicated a link between an encryption patent application filed by Neal King, Vladimir Oksman and Charles Bry. CNBC’s Rick Santelli says that many believe that it is Grigory Perelman, the eccentric Russian mathematician, who famously turned down the million-dollar Millennium Prize 4 he had won for resolving the Poincaré conjecture. Business Insider believes that it is “a small group of quants from New York or London, who are all experienced software developers. Whatever the truth may be, Nakamoto does not appear to be actively involved in the project. In April 2011, he told a Bitcoin contributor he had “moved on to other things.”

Gavin Andresen, the Chief Scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation, has described it as an attempt to bring back a decentralized currency of the people. It is not administered by a single authority and the currency is not subject to inflationary moves by a central bank. It enables instant peer-to-peer transactions all around the world, bypassing banks altogether. Unlike our beloved banks, there are low or zero processing fees. As it is stateless it is hard to tax, freeze or trace this money.

Bitcoin fluctuates like any other currency – its value is determined by supply and demand in the market. One Bitcoin can be divided to eight decimal places. 50 Bitcoins are created every 10 minutes. As such, this currency behaves much like gold and other precious metals. With Bitcoin, miners use special software to solve mathematical problems and are issued a certain number of Bitcoins in exchange. This is how one Bitcoin one website describes the system:

“Mining is an important and integral part of Bitcoin that ensures fairness while keeping the Bitcoin network stable, safe and secure.” The idea is to mimic digging gold out of the ground. In the beginning you find a lot, but then you work harder and harder, and go farther and farther, less and less to find. The rate of growth will gradually be scaled down, with a final limit of 21 million Bitcoins.

There are a number of problems that I can see with this cryptocurency. The number of people who accept Bitcoins for products or services is fairly small. It is growing every day as the system becomes more popular, but getting enough people to trust it is complicated. They are in a catch-22 situation. Merchants don’t want to accept Bitcoins till more people are using them, and people don’t want to use Bitcoins until more merchants and other people are accepting them.

The currency has been criticised as a tool of speculators and money-laundering.  Could it be another Ponzi scheme or a speculative bubble, like the mania for tulip bulbs in 17th Century Holland? There are also important security issues with the ever-present danger of hacking. I am suspicious of central government. There are many examples of governments debasing their currency or deliberately provoking inflation. However, are the alternatives going to turn out worse? I am not sure I would want to trust in the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto,

According to philosopher John Gray Bitcoin represents a kind of cyber-anarchism.   Its proponents hope that internet will help them free themselves from government. Bitcoin’s users put their faith in the laws of mathematics. However, a virtual currency will never be able to escape the dangers of the real world. It is not difficult to envisage a number of negative scenarios. Bitcoin may crash and burn, be replaced by rival virtual currencies or be banned by governments because it is actually doing too well. For Gray, the freedom Bitcoin promises is illusory – the dream of finding some kind of technofix that can shelter us from power and crime and protect us from each other.

Having said that, I think that it is a worthy experiment. Anything that challenges the banks is a good thing. We do need new forms of money for the 21st century. However, I don’t think I’ll be putting my millions in there just yet. I can’t really get my head around it. I tend to be a late adopter with a lot of technologies. Indeed, I have never used PayPal. But I will be following this experiment closely. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.


Anything you Khan do: how a former hedge fund trader is trying to transform education

April 21, 2013

In 2004 Salman Khan, then a senior hedge fund analyst, began remotely tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics. Word got round and other relatives and friends sought his help too. Realizing that it would be more efficient to distribute the tutorials on YouTube, he created an account there in November 2006. The videos proved to be extremely popular and the organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2008. A year later Khan quit the day job to focus exclusively on developing Khan Academy full-time. Its goal is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” Students can make use of their 4,000 video tutorials, as well as interactive challenges, and assessments.  It can be used by both individual students or in the classroom and the system provides you with personalized data about how you are doing and which areas you are struggling in.

Khan Academy is just one example of the educational resources available online. I have been interested in online learning for a number of years now. Here are a few examples of what you can find out there:

Open Yale This is one of my favourites. You have video, audio and even the mid-term and final exams. The lectures come with the transcript, No course credit, degree, or certificate is available, but it’s a great way to capture a bit of the flavour of this prestigious Ivy League institution. Here is a selection of some of the courses:

Death

Financial Markets

Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics

Fundamentals of Physics

Game Theory

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Introduction to Political Philosophy

Introduction to Psychology

Listening to Music

The American Novel Since 1945

The Great Courses This company was founded by Thomas M. Rollins, began life as The Teaching Company in 1990. Videos got Rollins, who graduated from Harvard Law School, out of a tight jam when he was a student. He had skipped a number of classes and was facing a difficult exam on the federal rules of evidence. In desperation he sat through ten hours of videotaped lectures by Professor Irving Younger. The lectures were, in his words, “outrageously insightful, funny, and thorough“. He describes it as one of his best experiences as a student. What’s more he got an A. He had initially intended to create a government program to produce tapes for the public, but was unable to do so because of legal restrictions. After leaving his job as Chief Counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources, he went looking for top professors to create courses for sale to the public. The Great Courses offers hundreds of courses in such areas as economics, literature, fine arts, music, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and the social sciences. There are more than 500 available via CD, DVD and Internet download.

Their current top ten shows the enormous range of what they offer:

  1. The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
  2. The Science of Natural Healing
  3. Physiology and Fitness
  4. Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
  5. Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works
  6. Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time
  7. Introduction to Nanotechnology: The New Science of Small
  8. Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works
  9. Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul
  10. Writing Creative Nonfiction

Coursera This educational technology company was founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in October 2011. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other areas. Each course includes short video lectures on different topics and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. Coursera is able to cut costs by having students grade their peers’ homework and employing statistical methods to validate the assessment.

Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups – grow fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists and even two universities have invested more than $22-million but even Coursera seems unsure how it will monetise its courses. Daphne Koller explained the rationale:

Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow“. Possible solutions include:

  1. having companies sponsor courses
  2. offering certification
  3. the sale of information to potential employers

_____

 These online courses offer the possibility for great teachers to leverage their talent. This is just like what happened to singers when new technologies meant that records could be sold or concerts broadcast. Lecturers who could only be seen by those actually in their class can now be enjoyed by people all over the world.

The great advantage is the flexibility; you are not bound by timetables or location. You can listen to a lecture on MP3 or watch it on a smartphone. This is perfect for me. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to online learning. I like to flit from one topic to another. I don’t really want to do an exam – for me it’s just a bit of fun. But there are other models. What Coursera offers is much more like a traditional college class. Students have to do around ten hours of study per week. They can watch the videos any time you want during the week, but they have to finish your assignments by the end of the week. The advantage of this is that everyone is working on the same thing at the same time; if they then want to go onto a discussion forum, they can get immediate help from one of your peers.

Many of the courses, such as Open Yale involve just a lecturer standing up in front of a group of people. That is what inspired Thomas Rollins. I love this format. Listening to an engaging professor talking about a subject that he is passionate about is a guilty pleasure for me. However, some people argue that this is a bad use of this medium. Salman Khan has been critical of the lecture format. He sees it as relic from the past. 200 years ago there was no alternative – but now we have so many technological possibilities. I can see what Khan is getting at. Filming someone teaching is not visually compelling. The great insight of what Khan does is that you listen to the voice, you don’t watch the professor. The material you see on the screen is what engages you visually, not the teacher’s face, mouth, gestures etc. Khan has another criticism of a lot of the material online. He thinks that people can pay attention for ten or twenty minutes. Then they start to zone out. That’s why they have micro lectures, which last less than 20 minutes

For us the availability of this material has meant that we haven’t had to pay for a private tutor for our son. How many tutors would be happy to go over the same point twenty times? That is the beauty of video – it enables you to go at your own pace, pausing whenever necessary and reviewing the material as many times as you want.

What about the classroom? Khan Academy materials can be used for class teaching. Flip teaching is one of the key concepts. This involves students watching the videos on their own, and then coming together to discuss them. A teacher can spend more time interacting with and tutoring students instead of lecturing. In the classroom pupils can then try to apply this knowledge by solving problems and doing project-based learning with lots of peer-to-peer learning.

I hope you find this as inspiring as I do. We are living in exciting times for education. I like the fact that there are different models. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I don’t believe that the traditional university will disappear anytime soon. Some of these ideas will prove to be dead ends. But others will help to transform the way we learn. We don’t really know what the best mix is. We are at a very early stage in the application of these technologies, and I can already see massive benefits.  So, I salute you Mr. Khan.


How we saw education of the future

April 21, 2013

I thought it would be a good idea to look at how the future of education was seen in the past. My starting had to be the Paleofuture blog, which features articles, photos  and videos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries predicting how the world would be in the future. Here is what they said about classrooms and schools:

The Public School of Tomorrow (1912)

Our future transportation for the school of tomorrow will be the automobile, interurban railway, mono railway, gyroscope car, overhead cable car, pneumaticair pressure tubes, flying machines and other means of travel, which future geniuses may develop. Distance will be annihilated and many miles will be as one mile today. Population will be denser in our rural districts and there will be a family on every forty acres or less.

Movies Will Replace Textbooks (1922)

Schools have had a longstanding immunity against the introduction of new technologies. In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted that movies would replace textbooks. In 1945 one forecaster imagined radios as common as blackboards in classrooms. In the 1960s, B.F. Skinner predicted that teaching machines and programmed instruction would double the amount of information students could learn in a given time. Filmstrips and other audiovisual aids were fads thirty years ago, and the television, now seen as a supplier of brain candy, once had a sterling reputation as an education machine.

The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)

Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.

The student desk of the future includes a small camera, presumably so that the teacher being projected on a large screen in the front of the class can keep tabs on the little rascals. One thing that fascinates me about computer consoles of the retrofuture is that the QWERTY keyboard is not yet an assumed input device. Each computing device seems tailored to meet the needs of the intended user, as with this learning machine of the futuristic year 1999 and this auto-tutor from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

1968′s Computerized School of the Future

Picture yourself in front of a television screen that has an electronic typewriter built in below it. You put on a set of headphones, and school begins.

“Good morning, John,” a voice says. “Today you’re going to study the verbs ‘sit’ and ‘set.’ Fill in the blank in each sentence with the proper word — ‘sit,’ sat’ or ‘set.’ Are you ready to go?”

 “YES,” you peck out on the typewriter, and class gets under way.

The machine clicks away in front of you. “WHO HAS ____ THE BABY IN THE MUD?” it writes.

You type “SAT.” The machine comes right back: “SET.” You know you’re wrong, and the score confirms it: “SCORE: 00.”

A generation or so from now a truly modern school will have a room, or maybe several rooms, filled with equipment of the type shown on the cover of this issue. Even kindergarten children may be able to work some of the machines—machines such as automatically loading film and slide projectors, stereo tape recorders and record players, and electric typewriters or TV devices tied into a computer.

Customizable instruction seems to be the largest benefit touted by the article when it comes to every child having their own computer terminal:

The major advantage of the computer is that it helps solve the teacher’s biggest problem—individual instruction for every student. In a large class the teacher has to aim at the average level of knowledge and skill, but a computer can work with each child on the concepts and problems with which he needs the most help. A teacher can do this, too, but she often lacks the time required.

Computers combined with other teaching aids will provide schools with new flexibility in teaching. Students will be able to work at their own speeds in several subjects over a period of time. A boy might work all day on a science project, for instance, and complete his unit in that subject before some other children in his class had even begun. But they would be working on other subjects at their own speeds.

Computers are expensive for teaching, and they will not become a major force in education for some time. But apparently they are here to stay. One educational publication predicted that “another generation may well bring many parents who cannot recall classwork without them.” And a computer specialist went even farther. He said, “… I predict that computers will soon play as significant and universal a role in schools as books do today.”

 CNN education in 2025

Looking through my own stuff I also found this piece from a CNN documentary from the year 2000. the piece featured predictions for 2025 from Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard graduate school of education.

There are also no freshman, sophomore, junior or senior classes. Students advance to three levels of learning: not by taking tests or getting grades, but by completing projects.

They can work at their own pace. They can pursue their own interests. They can have contact with people who could be mentors. And I think equally important, they can give. They can help other people.

If we’re lucky is that some will go for 14 and some will go for 10, because you take your formal education as long as it takes to demonstrate that you have the intellectual power that the state, that your community, that your family expects.

People will be able to work more at their home will be able to have contact with other kids elsewhere who have the same kinds of talents and skills they do. They won’t be sort of stuck with the same 30 kids in a classroom for eight or 12 years.

Unless schools prepare us for an information-rich society, then our youngsters simply won’t be prepared for dealing with a world that’s here any day now.

 I thought I’d finish with a couple of contrasting videos:


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