Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nokia and Microsoft, charging elephant or beached whale?

The announced collaboration between Microsoft and Nokia could become a troubled relationship. Both Nokia chief Stephen Elop and Microsoft's president of mobile Andy Lees have been telling the world that the new collaboration is good for all concerned but the market has reacted sceptically, with Nokia's stocks diving consistently for the past few days. What makes the marriage a rocky one is the fact that both Nokia and Microsoft are coming up from behind. Sure, Nokia has the largest market share worldwide if all mobile phones are counted. However when it comes to smartphones the numbers are quite different. And pretty soon, nearly all phones will be smartphones.

Miniaturisation and faster, cheaper processors are cropping up making smartphone functionality no longer a top of the range feature only. Android will be the choice for most manufacturers because it is easier to adapt to watered down versions for the lower end smartphones. It is cheap and well established by now. Windows phone 7 is still a long way behind when it comes to stability, features and developer proficiency in writing software for it.

At least the link with Nokia will give developers a reasonable expectation of volume when it comes to the Windows Phone 7 platform but if the platform fails to perform its duties in the field, both Nokia and Microsoft will look more like a beached whale than a charging elephant. And Microsoft's track record in making reliable mobile operating systems is not something to boast about.

Monday, February 14, 2011

David Cameron's high horse

David Cameron, the British prime minister, held a speech recently in which he claimed multiculturalism in the UK had failed. He indicated that the government had to take a closer look at groups promoting Islamist extremism. Such groups should be spurned by ministers and groups promoting extremism in universities and prisons should be denied public funding and barred from spreading their message.

This speech has been quoted and misquoted, pulled out of context and attacked over these last weeks and labelled as right wing. Which in a sense it is. On the other hand, if - and I stress it is an if - extremist groups receive public funding while they do not respect things like democracy, racial equality, gender equality and freedom of religion, sexuality and opinion, that is not right in a free country like Britain or any of the other free countries in Europe.

But does the fact that these groups exist and that they receive public funding mean that multiculturalism has failed? I think not. I think it means the government has failed. Multiculturalism is alive and kicking. Ever been to an Indian restaurant? Aren't there many European people practising Yoga or Tai Chi? Anyone eat at a MacDonalds lately? We tend to forget that many of the things we now take for granted due to their having been around a long time have been imported from abroad.

The problem I have with David Cameron's speech is its focus on one particular group of people. And I hear this attack more and more often lately all over Europe. Yes one should guard against our freedoms being taken away. But never forget that with the assimilation of other cultures we enrich our own. So it is very dangerous to say multiculturalism has failed, it plays into the hands of those that say we should close the borders and forego all efforts at dialogue. And lets face it: does Cameron have such a high horse to sit on? If every foreigner should be forced to behave like UK citizens, a good many of them would be out on big city streets after hours, drunk out of their minds, shouting inane nonsense and showing off various parts of their anatomy. Yep, that's a culture to be proud of.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wikipedia for robots

Robots have become an essential tool in manufacturing and slowly but surely they are becoming part of our households as well. The vacuum cleaning robot is available in any self respecting house hold appliances store, robotic pets are a reality and children (and adults!) learn to program robots with their Lego Mindstorms sets.

But it seems that the production of robots is still somewhat of a case by case affair. Every robot is made for one purpose and in many cases its programming is a case of reinventing the wheel. A group of European scientists have plans to change this. They are setting up RoboEarth. RoboEarth is essentially a database of knowledge about real world situations that robots can use to quickly adapt to changing environments. This will help the field of robotics to advance much faster. If I understand it correctly, RoboEarth will function as a collective memory for robots. It's not yet a hive mind but it's getting there.

The stuff of classic science fiction is getting more and more real every day. The phrase "I for one welcome our new robotic overlords" may be slightly premature but robots capable of learning to interact with new environments from robot-wikipedia is compelling stuff. No matter how you define intelligence, knowledge is an intrinsic part of autonomous operation. An animal can survive autonomously because of the knowledge it has about its environment. Allowing robots to tap into a fount of information about a multitude of environments is another step in the direction of creating autonomous artificial creatures that can operate outside their designated environment. The robots of Asimov may become an everyday reality. It may be a while yet, but they seem less a figment of the great science fiction writer's imagination than they used to be.

More on RoboEarth in this BBC news article.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Before porn sites there was the Bible

How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
  my love, with your delights!
7 Your stature is like that of the palm,
  and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
  I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
  the fragrance of your breath like apples,
9 and your mouth like the best wine.

Song of Solomon 7:6 (new international version 2010)

Two new books by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan try to find out what the Bible really has to say about sex. As an atheist I thought I’d have a quick look into the subject myself. And boy, I was not disappointed. There is no need whatsoever to hide the Hustler in your Bible at Sunday service. It’s all there already!

Christian conservatives have us believe that the Bible is a book of moral guidance from which no deviation is possible. This moral guidance is adhered to especially when it comes to sex. They use the Bible to outlaw homosexuality, adultery, sex before marriage; in short any sex that is not between one man and one woman within the confines of a church ordained marriage.

The problem is that the Bible is full of sexual deviation. How can it not be? It is after all a book written by men (and yes I do mean men as in male humans). Imagine some scholar sitting cross legged in a desert staring at nothing having to come up with yet another text to satisfy the morally questionable whims of the ruler of the day - texts justifying the killing of baby boys (Exodus 1:22) or the ruthless slaying of 10,000 people (Judges 3:29)- you would want your diversions, right? So the holy texts are peppered with racy bits. I imagine the rulers and upper classes all through history relished their scholarly readings to be spiced up by these outpourings of sexual innuendo and licentious daring do’s by the main characters. So a win-win for both scholar and reader.

The Bible, that ancient text is not outdone by modern day porn sites. If it’s niche sex you’re into, it’s in there. Swinging? Abram is sent by his wife Sarai to impregnate her servant Hagar. And Abram gladly complies (Genesis 16:2). Sex with older women? Sarah at 90 has her pleasures with Abraham (Genesis 18). Sex with sisters? Jacob first “went in unto” Leah and later “in unto” Rachel, her sister (Genesis 29:23 and further). Oh and to make it even more kinky for poor Jacob both sisters offer him their servants as well. And guess what? He goes “in unto” them as well (Genesis 30:3 and further).

I could go on and on and on. But frankly, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. If you’re interested there’s much more biblical porn to be found on the Internet to complement the non-biblical variety.

So the Bible is a moral guide book? Great. In that case do as Abram does. Do as Abraham does and do as Jacob does. The Christian conservatives have it all wrong: you can screw around as much as you like whenever you like, the Bible says so. Or maybe, just maybe, here’s a thought: start thinking for yourself for once and try to find North on your moral compass all by yourself. I know it’s hard but it can’t be worse than using the Bible for a guide because to be honest, if you do that you run the risk of becoming rife with STD’s and very, very fatigued.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Desktop, laptop or tablet: which form factor will win?

In the old days, when I was so much younger than today, computers used to be pretty easy to describe. A box, a keyboard and a screen. Often the box and keyboard were one and sometimes some extra boxes were added but the device on your desk was pretty unmistakably a computer.

Today it is different. The computer has thoroughly infiltrated our lives and even the timer chip in a microwave oven has more processing power than those expensive mastodons of my youth. The term computer has become a generic word describing a device that controls a multitude of processing tasks in our daily lives. Even when we narrow it down to the personal computer, the field is varied. Do we mean a desktop computer which still adheres to the classic set-up of box, keyboard and screen? Or do we mean an all-in-one device like the iMac or a laptop? Or is the personal computer a flat slab of electronics nestled behind a screen at which we furiously stab our fingers? At the moment the answer is of course: all of the above.

The question that fascinates me is: what will be the ultimate form of the personal computer? Will we keep having such a varied menagerie of form factors or will one prevail? There is no doubt that for some time to come, the diverse applications of the personal computer will garner diverse preferences in form factor as miniaturization has not come far enough yet to allow one tool for all jobs. Still, like with the car, one day one form factor may rule the roost. In other words: one form factor may be made to work in all area's of personal computing.

The main factor that is going to decide this I believe is the question of interfacing. The interface that is best in tune with our brain will decide which form factor will prevail. And looking at the rapid (not to say rabid) success of the touch interface, I believe the tablet computer has the best cards for becoming the dominant computer in the near future.

The intuitive action of touching something to make something happen is the easiest path our brain can take to accomplish a task. The sooner we can dispense with the extra thought processes of moving a mouse to move a pointer on the screen to click at a certain spot, the better our lazy brain will like it.

Many will say that the tactile experience of mouse and keyboard can never be replaced by a touch interface. But that is the same as saying that handwriting will never be replaced by typing. Or compressed digital music will never replace uncrompressed digital music on CD's. The masses will dictate the production lines and apart from some niche usage, the lesser used method will disappear. And technological development will gravitate towards incorporating as many disciplines into one production line as possible. It's cheaper.

The conclusion I can draw from observing the market and incorporating past industrial developments is that the tablet computer may well become the dominating form factor in all walks of computer life. Another conclusion I can draw is that I may be very wrong about this. After all, even Bill Gates thought that 640K of memory should be enough for anybody*.

* It appears Bill Gates never said this. See comments.