Category: Technology

Hour of Code 2015 is Coming. Please Sign Up!

hour-of-code-logoThe 2015 Hour of Code (HOC) is scheduled for the week of Dec. 7, which coincides with National Computer Science Week. (Who knew, right?)

Last year, I volunteered to help with HOC at my granddaughter’s elementary school and although I probably bit off more than I could chew, it was a tremendously exciting and rewarding experience. We got some great local media coverage to raise awareness of the importance of programming in the world and, equally importantly, we exposed more than 125 kids to the actual art and process of coding.

This is one of the best thought-out and supported events of any kind I’ve ever become engaged with. The looks on the faces of those kids as they discovered how to approach and solve a problem, the shouts of joy and triumph when their little programs ran, and the look of confidence and gratitude on the faces of the teachers and the principal were among the greatest rewards I’ve ever experienced.

More than 100,000,000 kids in 40 countries have been exposed to the Joy of Programming during the time HOC has been operating. But it really is an all-volunteer effort.

I encourage and urge you to consider volunteering even a single hour to HOC this year. More than 7,000 teachers have already signed up asking for some support during the project and as we get closer to the date, more and more teachers will do so. There are HOC programs and projects for all levels of K-12 education and the pre-packaged materials are really, really excellent.

Please consider joining me to support HOC this year. Just click this link and look over the program. Decide where you can be of most help, where you can derive the greatest joy and happiness.

The kids will appreciate you. The teachers will be effusive in their thanks. And  you’ll know you’ve done a Good Thing!

So-Called “Expert” Offers Thin Advice on “Language” of RoR

A post on entrepreneur.com caught my attention yesterday. In it, self-described “expert” Mikal E. Belicove advises startup managers and tech execs that when it comes to Web application development, the ‘safest’ programming ‘language’ choice is Ruby on Rails.

This self-styled “expert’ either doesn’t know the difference between a language and a framework or thinks his readers are too stupid to know the difference. He singles out only RoR as the “safest” Web application programming “language” because of its support for rapid design and its large community.

Strangely enough, he leaves out JavaScript and PHP, which appear to have larger communities and which have been established longer. And he ignores Python, which is not only well-established Aside from persistent performance issues, Ruby as a language is often viewed with suspicion in corporate IT shops because of its bastardized design and its effort to be all things to all coders. RoR is a perfectly fine Web app framework but to declare it simplistically to be the safest bet for a startup is far too simplistic.

It’s always hard to know from these kinds of brief bullet-point pieces whether the named author is too inexperienced or flip to offer a real answer or whether the site’s editor imposed severe length restrictions. In any case, it’s unfortunate that someone with so little apparent depth and who is described not as a programmer but as a “market positioning, social media, and management consultant specializing in website usability and business blogging” even gets asked the question. (By the way, he is listed as the author of only one book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook”. Nuff said.)

I wonder how many companies will screw up their choice of platform based on advice like this.

Did Amazon Just Shoot Itself in the Foot?

amazon_logoAmazon.com has announced its online store will no longer carry Google Play and Apple TV streaming TV devices. These devices not only compete directly with Amazon’s Fire TV product line, they are also not very usable with Amazon Prime Video and related products.

I’m sure the head honchos at Amazon think this is a great move. It will make it harder for their customers to buy competing and non-compliant products from their store. But I suspect they will be forced to reverse this policy soon. Not only does it smack (further) of their clear intent to become a mega-monopoly (never a good business strategy; see Microsoft) but what will happen when (not if) Apple yanks Amazon’s apps from its iTunes store?

This morning, I got an email from Amazon touting new features in their Prime Music offering. I’m not a big user of music but I thought I’d check it out. Tap, tap, tap and I had their app downloaded and installed via the iTunes store. But if Apple decides to give the Amazon world of apps the same shabby treatment Amazon is now giving Apple’s TV product, I won’t be able (or willing) to install them on my iPhone, iPad or Macs.

Which will ultimately determine who needs whose customers more.

I predict Amazon.com will be seen to have overplayed its hand here.

 

Google and Algebra and…the Bible?

 

I know Google can solve math problems. But I was tinkering with Wolfram Alpha the other day, with an eye to comparing it with Google Search and I ran across something very interesting…and a bit troubling. Wolfram Alpha (WA) is very good at data-retrieval, which is different from search in some important ways. But it is also capable of solving not just arithmetical problems but algebraic equations as well. In fact, WA bills itself as a Computational Knowledge Engine.

So I thought I’d see if Google could also deal with simple algebraic equations..

Spoiler alert: as far as I can tell, it can’t.

I typed in a completely arbitrary algebraic expression and Google brought up search results for sites and documents that contained that sequence and similar ones. Not much help there.

So just to refresh my mind on what Google does with calculations, I entered this arbitrary expression:

43+12/9-14

The usual calculator image with the answer (30.333333…) appeared as the first result. But I allowed my eye to scan below that expected outcome and was startled to find as the very next result, a reference to the Bible: “Matthew, chapter 12” from the site of the  United States Conference of Bishops.

WTF?

I wondered what portion of the search term generated that result.

So I trimmed the search term to 43+12/9. Now the posts following the calculator result were engineering-like entries dealing with connectivity and other esoterica.

43+12/ led to…ready?  No math result, of course, but the first entry was to Isaiah 43:12!

WTF, again?

Same result if I omit the slash, but in that case, I get the calculator result, too.

It turned out that the only way to get the original citation to Matthew without the full original search term was to trim it to 43+12/9-1.

I spent way too much time on this but it was really fascinating. I cannot easily decode the reasons that some of those mathematical formulas produce Biblical citations when entered in the Google Search bar. I’d love to understand it, though.

Any ideas?

Google Using Dominance of Search to Impose Its Tech Biases

I was a bit disconcerted this week to learn that Google is apparently using its position as the only indispensable source of search engine results to cram Web design techniques down the throats of developers. Even though the techniques they want to push are good ideas and even though designers who don’t follow them could be argued to be causing the Web to be less homogeneous than we might like, Google has no right to use adherence to these “standards” as criteria for search engine rankings.

IN the past couple of weeks, it has become clear that Google is beginning to force two ideas on Web designers by penalizing their otherwise-valid search rankings if they fail to adhere to them. These ideas are:

  • inclusion of a mobile-only design
  • use of the https secure Web protocol

According to reports, Google has decided that any site which doesn’t provide a mobile-specific version or refuses to use https for the secure transfer of data should be denied the search ranking its content would otherwise entitle it to. This puts Google’s prejudices about technology preferences ahead of user satisfaction with search results, which used to be the search engine company’s primary — perhaps sole — criterion.

The Google experts have announced that they’ve been running tests to determine whether the use of https protocol is helpful in search results. They’ve decided that it does, so they’ve begun imposing the presence of the https: protocol as a “ranking signal.” Right now, they say, their use of the signal is lightweight and quite small in terms of impact, but they warn, “we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.”

In April, Google announced it was instituting a “mobile-friendly” search signal as well. Google said this is expanding on its mobile ranking demotion algorithm, which it started using in 2013. This new approach will apparently only be used in mobile searches (though there are no guarantees it will stay that way, of course). There is some slight justification for this weighting of search results. If I’m searching on a mobile device, I’ll probably find results that are designed for that device format more usable and returning usable results is within Google’s charter.

Call me old-fashioned but I think Google has the right to write algorithms and impose rules that will return search results that are relevant and useful to their search engine users and nothing more.

The European Union recently filed a suit against Google for using its search-engine dominance to give primary search result ranking to their own products at the expense of competing companies’ offerings. That’s just dishonest. But I maintain that attempting to impose their idea about how the Web should work on any Web designer interested in driving traffic to his or her site — and that includes a substantial number of us — is only slightly less egregious. If they continue to outgrow their britches, they may find Web developers rebelling against their attempt to be the final arbiter of all Web design strategies and techniques.

FWIW, there are apparently at least 200 criteria Google applies to search results to determine which should alter basic rankings. Brian Dean has compiled what he says is a complete list of them here. Be prepared to be quite surprised by some of them.

 

iPhone Charging Cord Stop Working? Try Giving it a Massage. Seriously.

My lovely wife CJ, who is in many ways even odder than I am, told me recently that when one of the 3 million or so iPhone charging cables we have bought over the last two years stopped working (as virtually all of them have after periods of service ranging from a few hours to a few months), she tried something weird, almost unconsciously. She began to pass the cable through her fingers, massaging it lightly as it made its way through. Almost like she was straightening out kinks, but it had no visible kinks.

When she plugged her phone back into that cord, it immediately began charging again. Say what?

Mind you, this cord was legally dead. It was bleedin’ demised. In fact, it was pining for the fjords. We had tried all our usual tricks (and believe me, we have a bunch of them!) to no effect.

So today, I had a cord that had been working fine for about a month suddenly decide to go on strike. I thought, “What the heck?” and began running it through my fingers.

Lo and behold, it is working fine again.

I have no explanation for this. I can’t find anything on the Web about it. It may not work for you (i.e., YMMV – your mileage may vary). But I’m a happier camper now than I was a half hour ago.

Top 10 Emerging Technology List Offers a Surprise or Two

The prestigious World Economic Forum has released its current list of the top 10 trending technologies that it thinks will have the greatest impact on civilization and economics in coming decades. For the most part, the list is fairly predictable to anyone who has been paying attention to news developments. But it does contain a surprise or two even for us tech news junkies.

I’ll leave it to you to read the whole story and the full list at the link above if you’re interested. I’d just like to offer a few brief comments on some of those that I found either surprising or most interesting.

The idea of “sense and avoid” drones is scary and feels like a net negative. The idea of self-flying unmanned aircraft buzzing around the air freely is not only a solution in search of a problem, it is a disaster waiting to happen. Intel apparently demonstrated a “multicopter” that uses a very powerful miniaturized camera and motion detection system. They flew it around on a stage where it successfully avoided running into people I can only hope were paid a lot of money to try to get in its way.This one just seems like bad tech to me.

Two of the technologies were particularly interesting for their implications for health care, which is one of the next huge industries. (Yeah, even more huge than it already is!) Digitizing your genome and letting you carry it with you on a USB drive and then bringing to bear extremely precise genetic engineering technology to interpret and alter appropriately? The stuff of the science fiction of my youth! The precise ability to alter single genes using focused technology rather than bacteria promises to make these processes more efficient and safer.

The most exciting tech I read about in the piece was something I’d barely heard of: neuromorphic technology. This involves the creation and design of chips that map more closely to the ways the human brain is organized to process and store information. From the article: “[N]euromorphic chips can be more energy efficient and powerful, combining data-storage and data-processing components into the same interconnected modules. In this sense, the system copies the networked neurons that, in their billions, make up the human brain.” I can see applying neural net technology to neuromorphic chips to create enormous leaps and breakthroughs in computer processing as well as in exploring and understanding the human brain.

What an exciting time to be alive!

Unofficially, Net Neutrality Scores Huge Win

While it’s not yet official public policy, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s op-ed piece in Wired signals the strongest possible government support for Internet neutrality. It has advocates of the Open Net jumping and dancing and shouting with glee. If my knees weren’t so bad, I’d join them!

Wheeler, who had earlier indicated strongly that he was leaning against full support for Net neutrality and even favored some restrictions on the long-sought policy, planted both feet firmly on the side of President Obama and advocates in his piece. He said he would bring the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, which means it will be treated as other public utilities in the same space.

That sounds the death knell for cable companies, phone companies and other major ISPs who wanted the right to provide multiple tiers of service based on who was willing to pay for priority access. In essence, it was a pay-to-play strategy that would ultimately make it all but impossible for smaller content providers to deliver their products and services over speed-restricted Internet connections while the Big Guys got their content sped through on wider pipes.

I have soured on President Obama as a Chief Executive in the past couple of years but this one goes squarely to his credit. He did the Right Thing and that pushed his appointed chairman to the right side of the regulatory decision-making.

It’s the harbinger of a grand day for the Internet!

Microsoft Shifting Away from PCs to Entertainment Focus in New Big Way?

Microsoft made two fairly mind-blowing announcements today at an event in its home town of Redmond, WA:

First, it announced it will be giving away Windows 10 later this year. Huh?

Second, it announced that, around that same time, it will begin shipping HoloLens, a competing entry in the emerging field of 3D holographic virtual reality gear.

Presumably there will be clear connections between the new Windows and HoloLens development which could move the OS closer to the entertainment boxes that make up an increasing share of Microsoft’s revenue and market clout.

I’ll get to the 3D stuff in a moment. But first…

WTF? MICROSOFT IS GIVING AWAY WINDOWS!!??

Time was, Windows was the primary revenue source for the Redmond behemoth. Turns out, that’s not so true any more. And this move makes it even less true.

The company recently changed the way it reports revenue to make it all but impossible either to find out how much revenue each product line generates or to compare new results with past years. I consider that kind of obfuscation to have one purpose: to allow them to be sneaky. Which I guess is one of the Corporate America Bill of Rights or some such. So I had to piece through this article on ZD-Net to figure out that MS gets the biggest chunk of its income from licensing to businesses and consumers, most of which comes from Windows operating system and related products (like Windows Server) and Office.

But the third largest segment (14%) comes from consumer hardware (read “XBox). Until recently, the links between Windows PCs and the XBox have been relatively tenuous and uncommon. But there’s been a trend in the last year or so to start moving those two platforms — along with Windows mobile devices — closer and closer. That strategy, which mimic Apple’s precisely, is obviously smart business.

But MS has always had a problem — which has grown worse in the last two major releases — of getting its users (commercial and consumer) to switch to the new versions of Windows as they were released. There are a lot of good reasons for this which I won’t go into here. Needless to say, by giving away Windows 10, MS will almost certainly see a huge increase in the rate of conversion to the new OS. And given the continuing shift toward more convergence of all three platforms (PCs/enterprise systems, phones and XBox), that bodes well. The free offering is almost certainly a great idea.

(By the way, it’s worth noting that the free release is limited to existing users of the last two versions of Windows (7 & 8). That is a good transition tactic.

HoloLens: Driving a Stake Into Facebook and Friends

Microsoft_HoloLens__pictures__-_CNET_-_Page_3In offering the new VR headset called HoloLens, Microsoft opens a competitive front against Facebook, Samsung and Sony, who have bought heavily into Oculus Rift, a technology company Facebook acquired last year.

On one level, I find their decision not to adopt and further enhance work on the Rift as a bit unfortunate. I’m a huge fan of 3D/VR technologies and although fragmented markets can often lead to more rapid innovation, in this case I’m concerned that the slow-to-emerge demand for this kind of tech on the part of consumers may be further slowed by this competitive stance.

On the other hand, the HoloLens has one key design difference that may cause it to overtake the Rift: it is a see-through lens rather than a blackout lens. This means two things to potential early adopters.

First, it means that VR doesn’t have to be an isolationist experience. The Rift technology is essentially a blackout hood; the user lives inside the holographic projection and experiences only that reality. With HoloLens, it will be possible to engage in what is called Augmented Reality (AR) where 3D objects and VRs are superimposed over the real world image visible through the transparent viewing screen/lens. My guess is that many more people, particularly in the early going, will find that a preferable experience.

Second, it means that developers interested in creating holographic and VR games and entertainments will not be forced to recreate entire backgrounds and universes. They can rely on the user’s surroundings — even if they want or need to control them to some extent (e.g., by having them put up a green-screen or dropcloth backdrop). This should also greatly improve responsiveness and therefore the sense of immersion reality.

(If you want a cool look at HoloLens technology, check out this piece on Wired.com from last fall when the editors got an exclusive first look at it. There are even some cool videos to give you a better feel for what’s in store.)

I’ve been telling my wife for years that the day is coming — and I expect to live to see it — when holographic projection TV will put the characters of movies and TV shows right in our living rooms where we can interact with them, view them from a 360-degree perspective and otherwise more totally integrate them. That combined with AI research suggests a near-term (25-year horizon or less) major shift in the consumer entertainment space that is both promising and frightening. It will be interesting to see what developers and their bosses choose to do with it.

I’m assuming that the HoloLens will require Windows 10 or higher, which may turn out to be one of those category-creators at which Apple has become so adept over the years that drives huge sales volumes in the direction of Redmond.

Meanwhile, Rift technology has a significant head start on HoloLens and the backing of a number of major players. That should make for an interesting couple of years while the technologists and the buyers sort this out.

It’s a fun time to be alive!

I’m Going to do “Hour Of Code” This Year. How About You?

Hour of Code LogoLast year, some 15 million students around the world learned some basics of computer programming in a wildly successful “Hour of Code” experience. This is an amazing program assembled by an eclectic group of technology companies and philanthropists and educational institutions in which people are taught some basic ideas of programming in a single hour at no cost to anyone.

I checked out the program after the fact last  year and was fascinated. This year, I’ve  volunteered to coordinate the program at my granddaughter’s school in Monterey. So every day from Dec. 8-13, I’ll be spending my time in the computer lab at her school, helping students and a few teachers experience the joy of moving past passively using a computer to bossing it around.

This program is exciting, easy to implement, free to everyone, features a lot of celebrity names from technology and entertainment, and has the potential to spark serious interest in our profession. Plus last year, it resulted in more than 10 million girls being introduced to programming.

I hope you’ll consider volunteering to help out with your local school or district in 2014 as the sponsors hope to exceed last year’s enrollment and expose even more kids to the empowerment that is computer programming.