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Posts Tagged: Technology

“Foolproof, and incapable of error”

Saturday 21st January 2012

Whilst I was thinking about and writing the previous post, a couple of extra things came to mind which I couldn’t really fit into the post. So I thought I might as well do a follow-up with a couple of extra observations. I did intend to write this earlier, but partly I was busy (more on that in a following post) and mostly I just didn’t get around to it.

1) The previous post was not so much about aeroplanes, but more about interfaces in general. Be that with machinery like a plane, or a device like a phone, or even infrastructure or services. And it struck me that one of the few organisations that consistently manages to create things with great interfaces is Apple. Not so much with their computers (I’m really not a big fan of MacOS, probably because I’m more used to Windows), but their iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are really good examples of things which simplify tasks through good interface design.

It strikes me that if the computing business ever starts to go slack (!), Apple could do a good business out of consultancy; imagine if they applied their UI design skills to things other than making iPhones and iPads. This isn’t as daft as it sounds; some ex-Apple employees recently set up a business to make a better thermostat. That’s a specific example of someone applying the Apple approach to interfaces to a different type of product, and I’m sure there are other things which would benefit from the same approach.

2) For some reason, I also started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (spoilers follow. Although, it’s a 40-odd year old book/film, so I guess most people at least vaguely know the plot. If you don’t, then go read the book and watch the film. They’re classics). The first – obvious – point is that a lot of the interfaces in that film do appear to tend towards simplicity. There’s loads of little things: the video phone booth that Dr Floyd uses near the start of the film, the tablets that Bowman and Poole use on Discovery, all the spaceship status screens look like they’re intended to be simple, and of course there’s HAL9000

On the topic of HAL, it occurred that his demise is pretty relevant too. HAL was programmed to help the crew, to convey information to them about Discovery and about the status of the mission. But before the crew left Earth the parameters of the mission were changed; this was secret, and the crew were not to be told until Discovery reached Jupiter. As the central computer, HAL knew the real purpose of the mission, but was not allowed to tell the crew. He was being asked to hide information, to lie. This ran counter to HAL’s programming – he was designed to give information, not to hide it – and because of that conflict he perceived there to be a problem. Which he then set out to rectify…

The point is, HAL failed because the people who defined his tasks for the mission did so incorrectly. The computer carried out its tasks as it saw best, but those tasks were in conflict with each other. And so the failure of the mission was the result of misuse of the computer. Now obviously the details in this and in the example in the previous post are very different, but in general, it’s the same fault: the computers behaved exactly as they were asked, the error arose from the way people were trying to use them.

And, really, how clever is that? That 40 years ago, people were thinking about how we’ll be using these ultra-sophisticated computers, and were (in a very broad sense) predicting some of the problems that we’re starting to see. Just makes me realise how great a job Clarke (and Kubrick, I think) did in writing that story, and how many ideas they’ve managed to pack into it. I’ve read the book many times already, but I really need to re-watch the film.

Posted In: GeekMoviesTechnology Tagged: | No Comments

iLog

Thursday 28th April 2011

I’m a little late to the party on this, but there’s been lots of coverage lately about iPhones “tracking” people. The original script that was released to look at this data was Mac-only, and at the time I couldn’t be bothered to hack it to work with Windows machines, so I couldn’t look at my own records. Happily though, other people have done it instead, so I’ve been able to have a look at the data from my own iPhone.

The above image shows every data point in the database, since I first got my iPhone last year. And from that, it looks like there’s some quite detailed data there. Certainly, from memory, the above map doesn’t seem to be lacking anything (although even at that level, I can see some anomalies, places I haven’t visited).

There are obvious concerns that arise from the concept of your phone logging everywhere you go. Clearly, from the data you can get a rough idea of someone’s movements. Each of those data points has a date and time associated with it, so from that you could build up a rough idea of where in the country I was on a given date. But can you tell more than that?

This all seems to come from WiFi and phone masts, so I assume that the most accurate information (in terms of location and time) would be in places with the most WiFi hotspots and phone masts. You can see from the image above that I’ve visited London in the last year. I went there for a day last August, so I thought I’d look to see how accurate the log is.

Now, London probably has the highest concentration of phone masts and hotspots in the country, so I assumed that the “tracking” data would be pretty accurate. In fact, it’s quite mixed. Right off the bat, there are two clumps of data points in areas that I didn’t visit (around South Kensington, and around Shoreditch). Additionally, there’s quite a spread of data points on the top-left of the map. If you look closely, they vaguely (very vaguely) track the train line that I used to travel in and out of London; and in fact the timings do coincide with those journeys.

The stuff in the middle seems to be more accurate. I had an interview that day at the Royal Academy of Engineering office, which is near to St James’ Park; there are a clump of points around that area, because I got there early and so walked around the park for a little while. I also walked upto the British Museum from there, and as you can see there’s a big trail in that general direction. During the day, I also spent some time in Hyde Park (time to kill…), so I find it quite interesting that there’s very little in that general area.

Now, looking at the data, I think it’d be pretty hard to work out exactly where I went, without already knowing it beforehand. Many of the data points have the same timestamp (I assume the phone fetches a bunch at the same time), and as you can see there are more than a few in places that I didn’t actually visit.

To expand on this, here’s a similar map showing a visit to Cardiff, last month.

In this case, I’d driven down to Cardiff to pick up my younger brother, and was there for about half an hour. The exact journey I took was West along Eastern Avenue (near the top of the map), south-east down Whitchurch Road and Crwys Road, and then onto the street my brother lives on; and then the same route in reverse about half an hour later. Looking at the data from my iPhone, it’s pretty much impossible to tell precisely where I went.

I’m not saying this data couldn’t be useful. It can paint a broad picture of where someone has been, and if that formed part of a larger investigation into the person then that information could be invaluable. But to gain access to this requires access to the phone, or the computer it syncs with, which isn’t always possible. And, as I say, it’s only a very broad picture. Looking at all of the data from my phone, there is no way that you could even work out where I live, for instance. If someone got hold of my phone and took this information from it, then it’d be fairly useless to them.

When details about this first surfaced, I was a little unnerved about it. However, having looked at it and seen the level of inaccuracy, I think that much of the negative publicity that Apple has received has been a little over egged. It’s a minor concern, especially given that mobile phone networks already record locational information as part of their service (and I’d bet it’s a fair deal more accurate than what’s stored on the iPhone). It’s a minor (and interesting!) mistake, which Apple are now fixing.

Posted In: Technology Tagged: | 2 Comments

iPhone 4

Wednesday 14th July 2010

To be honest, I was fairly sure that I probably wouldn’t get an iPhone 4 on release day. I know that stock was really scarce (and indeed still is), and I really couldn’t be bothered with getting up uber-early in order to go queue outside a shop for one. But I thought it was still worth going to the shops at 9 o’clock, just to see. It’s not as if I had anything better to do!

Sure enough, the first couple of shops I visited had about 5 each, and they were sold by the time I got to them. But one of the sales assistants tipped me off that the local Best Buy (!) had a decent number in stock, so I went down there. There were about 20 people queueing outside the entrance, so I thought “why not? Can’t take too long” and joined the line. And about 5 minutes later, an employee walked the queue to ask us what version we wanted, and to put our names on the list to allocate us phones. Yay!

I was somewhat wrong about it not taking long though. It was taking an age for the sales people to process each order, so I still had an age to wait. I really didn’t think I’d be there for more than an hour, but in fact I ended up spending 2 or so hours in the queue, then another three quarters of an hour with the sales assistant actually buying the damn thing. Because of course, there were 4 assistants dealing with iPhone sales, and each sale was taking ages because O2 was initially taking ages to sort out upgrades and the like.

Anyway, 3 and a half hours after I set out to get one, I returned home with a shiny new iPhone. I’ve had it a few weeks now, so I’ve had a decent amount of time now to get used to it.

The phone I traded in to get this was an iPhone 3G. I’d had that for a while and I really liked it, but this is definitely a massive step ahead. The software is obviously mostly similar because it uses the same OS. That said, there are obviously new features to iOS 4 and some of those aren’t available to the 3G. Multitasking is the most obvious thing, and it works really well on the iPhone 4. I know it’s taken ages to come to the iPhone in comparison to other platforms, but one of the things I like about the iPhone platform is that once Apple implement a new feature, it works really well. The implementation on the iPhone may not be “real” multitasking, but it works well for the way most people use their phones, and that’s the main thing. For instance the new version of Spotify for iOS 4 is excellent, and runs really well in the background without noticeably slowing things down.

Also, this iPhone is much quicker than my 3G. For instance, I always found that the Spotify app would take forever to load on the 3G, and is pretty clunky to use too. On the new iPhone it opens pretty much immediately, and is extremely responsive when you navigate around the app. The camera is also much better. The 3G camera was ok, it was usable for most things (indeed, the picture in the header of this page was taken with my old iPhone), but it was always a bit hit and miss as to whether the pictures would be any good. The new camera is much better in this respect; even low-light pictures are pretty good. Oh, and it records 720p video, which looks pretty snazzy.

I’ve not tried FaceTime yet because I don’t know anyone else with one of these phones, but I’m pretty keen to give it a go.

This is all pretty much peripheral though, because in my opinion there is one thing which really sets this phone apart from anything else: the screen. It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that it’s pretty much the best screen I’ve seen in any device. I can’t see the individual pixels unless I hold the phone about a 20mm from my face, so everything is incredibly smooth. Reading on the old phone used to tire my eyes after a while, but this is much more readable because the text is so much smoother. Oh, and it’s brilliant for watching videos on. HD videos from YouTube look really, really nice. In fact the other day I did a comparison with a 3GS, both showing the same video from YouTube, and it was surprising how much clearer the new phone is. Honestly, this thing has to be seen to be believed.

I would love an iPad with this screen… (but that’s probably quite a way away)

I also think that the phone looks absolutely gorgeous. Photos don’t do this thing justice, I reckon. It’s pretty understated, but quite classy. That said, it’s also pretty badly designed.

Mobile phones are portable. In the real world, they get exposed to a pretty hard life, and in fact it’s more than likely that the typical phone will be dropped several times over its lifetime. So good phone design would look good in 12 months time as it does when it’s new. It should be able to weather the inevitable scrapes and knocks. Glass screens are pretty unavoidable on phones like this, but this has a glass back too. You don’t need me to tell you that glass shatters, so this phone is pretty damn fragile. That’s bad design.

But there’s another problem, and this one is amazing. The aerials for the iPhone have been placed on the outside edge, in order to save space and move them outside the case. Good thinking? No. There’s a point on the bottom-left corner of the phone, which if touched causes the network signal to be severely attenuated. You can literally place your finger on this spot and watch the phone signal decrease. If you hold the phone naturally, it’s easy to inadvertently touch this part of the aerial and have this effect. There’s no excuse for this, it’s just really poor design, and could have been easily sidestepped by applying a transparent coating to the aerial.

Steve Jobs’ response of “just don’t hold it like that” is really unhelpful as well…

Anyway. These problems are mostly solved by a case, which is something I would get anyway (and that doesn’t in any way excuse Apple for shockingly poor design, it just means that it doesn’t affect me massively). So I really like the new iPhone. Unless you’re still tied into a contract for a while, I think it’s an absolute no-brainer for current iPhone users to upgrade. Especially if you’re still using a 3G (or earlier)… Obviously if you don’t like the general iPhone model then this isn’t going to do anything for you, but lots of people just want a smartphone that’s powerful yet really easy to use, and the iPhone 4 does that brilliantly.

As long as you don’t hold it wrong.

Posted In: Technology Tagged: | 24 Comments

Silly Library

Thursday 1st October 2009

While I had my year out, the engineering library at uni was done up. It’s very nice, and one thing they’ve introduced is a self-service thing, for borrowing and returning books. All the books have RFID tags, so you put them on a shelf and it identifies them. You swipe your uni card to id yourself, and all is done. Snazzy.

The thing I don’t get though is that the thing reads a barcode on the card, and like all barcodes it can take a few attempts. Our uni id cards (which double as library cards) have RFID, so why use the barcode, especially as the thing has an RFID reader anyway? Seems daft.

But I’m nitpicking, it’s a fairly good use of technology.

Posted In: EngineeringRantTechnology Tagged: | 7 Comments

I’m Not There

Saturday 21st February 2009

As ever, I’ve been meaning to write something here for a while. But, I started work again a few weeks ago. Which is enough reason on it’s own for the gap, but because of a snafu of some sort with the site I was gonna work on in Cardiff, I’m working at Brize Norton. Staying in a hotel nearby during the week, then driving back home for weekends. So fairly busy, and fairly tiring…

Work’s very good. I’ve mostly been helping the engineer with surveying, which is good. Fairly pleasant too when the weather’s as mild as it has been the last few days. I’ve been trying to work out whether I prefer consultancy or contracting. To start with I was leaning towards consultancy, but I’m enoying work more and more now, so I think I’m starting to lean the other way. Which is good, because apart from anything else it’s much easier for me to stick where I am (providing they offer to sponsor me after my placement year).

So basically, life’s good :)

In other news, I downloaded the Spotify beta last week. Holy crap, it’s good. Apart from not having a few artists (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zep), it’s very comprehensive. The sound quality is pretty good, and the streaming is really quick. The only niggle I have with it is that it’s easy enough to find something if you know what artist/album/song you want to listen to, but if you just want to browse and see what takes your fancy, there’s no way to do that. Thats not a dealbreaker though, and I’m really considering paying the subscription. I’m gonna see if I keep using it as my main music player first though.

Posted In: EngineeringGeekMusicTechnology Tagged: | 9 Comments