Showing posts with label computing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label computing. Show all posts

21 October 2011

SOCIETY - Goodbye Facebook

Goodbye Facebook? Yes, I'm leaving, it was good to know you but I'm moving on. I'm tired of the constant changes. I have the feeling Facebook doesn't listen to its users as much as it should. The frantic response to Google+ was the last straw.

I won't be reading material on Facebook regularly from now on - follow me instead on Google+. You don't need to be logged in to read my public updates.

My Google+ pageI'll continue posting blog articles to my Facebook wall for the time being, but nothing else.

If you choose to sign up to G+ yourself you will be able to respond to my updates just as you have on Facebook.

I've been happily using Google+ almost from its launch in the summer. I like just more or less everything about it, especially its clean, uncluttered appearance. The only drawback is that so few of my friends are on G+ but I've decided to lead the way by closing down Facebook sooner rather than later.

So remember -  Visit Google+ to read most of my stuff even if you're not on G+ yourself.
Set up a G+ account if you want to respond to me. Or stick to good old email if you want to say something to me but don't wish to join G+.

05 October 2011

TECHNOLOGY - LibreOffice

If you use or need an office suite, it's worth considering LibreOffice. There are a number of reasons for this and some of them may surprise you.

LibreOffice in use
Microsoft Office (MS Office) undoubtedly remains the most widely used office suite today. I say 'most widely used' rather than 'most popular' because so many people have criticisms of it. The most unpopular feature is probably 'The Ribbon' that provides access to the multitude of commands and features.

Other major criticisms are the sheer bulk of the program code, the considerable purchase cost, slow loading and performance, cost of upgrading to newer versions, and the licencing terms.

What are the alternatives? There are some other commercial offerings but these still have some of the same issues and do cost money, albeit it often less than the price of MS Office.

But you may not realise there are two free alternatives with a comprehensive range of features. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both freely downloadable, you can give copies away to friends, families and colleagues (this is legal and encouraged), there are versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux (LibreOffice comes as standard with Ubuntu and many other versions of Linux).

OpenOffice and LibreOffice have a common history but LibreOffice is beginning to look like the front runner. Check out Google's list of review articles on LibreOffice.

I strongly urge you to give LibreOffice a try. It's free, so what have you got to lose? It contains everything you need - word processor, spreadsheet, business presentation, graphics, maths editor, and database. All are built to professional standards, can load and save in a range of file types (including MS Office formats), can save PDFs, are regularly updated and upgrades are, of course, free. If you need more information, take a peek at the manuals and user guides (you might like to start with the introduction).

11 May 2011

TECHNOLOGY - Chromebook is coming!

Chromebook? What's that?!! It's Google's plan to replace operating systems with a device that does nothing but browse the web. It's a simple machine that runs the Chrome browser without a fully-fledged operating system and without any other applications. It's the ultimate in cloud computing.

The ChromebookThe Chromebook will start quickly when switched on, it needs no data backup because everything is stored in the cloud. No virus scanner is required. It never needs upgrades, security updates or anything like that; it will simply update itself when needed. This will make it extremely easy to manage and use - for example, if you lose your Chromebook you can simply buy a new one, log in, and all your documents, photos, music and other data will be just as you left it.

And just how will you create a document or edit a photo with no word processor or image software? You will use applications in the cloud. There are already perfectly adequate word processors, spreadsheets, presentation packages, email clients and much more - all using web pages for user interaction. Google Docs and Google Mail are good examples. The range of applications is growing and their capability is improving all the time. All the standard office productivity tools are readily available.

For several years I have been steadily using more and more in the way of web applications and cloud storage. I like working this way and I'm keen to get my hands on a Chromebook. The internet is almost universally available in the UK now, particularly in towns and cities so there are few places where a Chromebook would be unusable.

For the detail on Chromebook read Google's announcement and Information Week's news article. Or you can just view Google's promotional video below...

Comment - Running applications on remote servers has been a long term goal in the world of computing. From the 1980s mainframe or minicomputer displaying its output on a remote terminal, via client/server X-windows systems and Citrix servers running Windows applications remotely, to the web and cloud computing, and now the Chromebook.

In the past these systems have never quite made the big time despite the great advantages they offer IT managers in the business world. Will the Chromebook become the success that Google craves? It's hard to say.

Google has had previous good ideas but results have been mixed. Chrome and Android have done very well, Wave and OpenSocial have not. Chromebook could really fly but first it must convince ordinary non-tech users of the advantages. Since many users already spend more time browsing the web than they do working with other applications, and since web applications are already popular (especially email and social networking), there's a very good chance of success.

Time will tell.


27 September 2010

Can decentralised control work?

Most businesses and other large organisations (government, church, military, education, medical) are based on a hierarchical command and control structure of some kind. In government, even though leaders may be selected democratically, during their term of office they work as a hierarchical structure with a prime minister or president granted overall authority.

A temperate forestIs the hierarchical model appropriate for all projects and organisations? Are there workable alternatives?

One alternative that has been demonstrated to work (and work well) is an organic approach. This is based on the way living organisms grow, flourish, and reproduce. It also depends on grasping the nettle of death and decay - this is an essential part of the process, anything that is no longer working must be discarded and recycled.

Take the growth of a forest as an example. A tree starts its life from a small seed and it has a pattern of growth, maturity, seed release, and death. The forest consists of many trees of a variety of kinds along with other plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. All of these follow their own particular patterns of growth and reproduction and together they form an interacting ecological web that maintains itself rather well. Not only that, species will move in or decrease as climatic and other conditions change. And over periods of tens of thousands of years and upwards the species that make up the forest may evolve and fill new or unused niches that become available. Not only is the forest self-maintaining, it's also self-adapting in the long term.

Can organisations be maintained and adapted in the same way? Yes they can.

Let's take the computer operating system Ubuntu as an example. Most of us think of Microsoft Windows when we think of an operating system, or perhaps Apple's OS X. But there are many others. One of these is Linux, and Ubuntu is just one flavour of Linux.

A recent TechRadar article outlines how Ubuntu is built and managed. The Ubuntu website is the public face of the organisation where you can download your own copy (free of charge) or learn much more about what the system offers.

Compare and contrast this approach with Microsoft's proprietary and traditional business model for Windows.

The organic approach is as old as the universe itself. It works. If it didn't, we wouldn't be here.

I began by listing various kinds of organisation - business, government, church, military, education, medical. It would be easy to extend the list. The table below provides some examples of each along with generalised properties of such organisations. In practice, of course, extreme examples are rare, normally organisations fall somewhere in the continuum between hierarchical and organic and this is certainly true for the examples below. Even the most structured organisation allows (even demands) a degree of original thinking and initiative from staff; even the most organic and democratic organisation has basic rules governing behaviour.





Traditional high street
Village fair
Sole traders


Absolute monarchy

Liberal democracy


Roman Catholic

House church
Simple church


Regular army

Al Qaeda



Life experience
Parent/child interaction


Government service  

Private care


Command based
Leader decides
Top down structure

Do your best
Individual decides

So always remember that there is not just one way of doing things. There are two extremes with a whole range of possibilities between them. If you are creating or running any kind of organisation or activity, be open minded and choose the approach that will best suit your objectives.

24 February 2010

USA thinks open source is piracy!

Now here is a very strange thing. It seems that the USA considers Canada to be guilty of a sort of intellectual property theft, Free Software Foundation emblemor if not exactly theft then at least some sort of underhanded anti-competitive practice.

The argument seems to be that if I write a piece of useful software and decide to give it away instead of selling it, I somehow undermine free enterprise. So things like Linux, Wikipedia, Media Monkey, the Gimp, Microsoft Bing, Google Maps, and thousands of other items used daily by millions of people are undermining free enterprise.

No. I must have misunderstood. Surely?

Well, take a look for yourself.
What is going on here? I mean - really? It will all be sorted out quite quickly once the Office of the United States Trade Representative thinks it through more carefully, right?

I thought the USA stood on the side of freedom. So if I write some software, or a book, I can give it away if I choose to do so. And if I want to use free software written by someone else I may do that too. How would that 'undermine intellectual property rights'?

I must have missed something...

Has the GNU project missed it too? Is Linux in the wrong? And Ubuntu? What about Open Office? Scribd? Wikipedia?

Has anyone told the Free Software Foundation?

30 December 2009

Church of Two (CO2)

At the House2House Conference in Dallas in September, John White demonstrated Church of Two (CO2). Sharing an experienceWe all had a chance to try an aspect of it for ourselves, there and then. I was immediately convinced of the value of CO2 itself and of its constituent parts, SASHET and VIRKLER. Read more about CO2, SASHET, and VIRKLER on the CO2 Flyer.

In early December I began CO2 with a house church friend, Sean. After the first week we were clear that we very much wanted to continue, and after three weeks we both agree that our relationship with one another and our relationships with the Lord are deepening noticeably.

Because we can't meet face-to-face every day we decided to use Google Wave as our primary CO2 channel and I can tell you it works very well indeed. It's much better for this purpose than email. We create a new wave each day and we use clickable links to connect the days together, with an overall index to keep things organised. If we both happen to be online at the same time we can each see the other typing right on the screen. And when we're online at different times we can both add comments and make additions. Google Wave is a bit like email, instant messaging, and a wiki all rolled into one - but better than any of them alone.

Our experiences are similar to those reported by others commenting on 'Stories from the Revolution'. I had expected CO2 to be good, but it was trying it out for myself over a period of days that really convinced me. It's sometimes been difficult to keep going on a daily basis, but it is so worth the effort. My advice - don't give up, keep on keeping on and you will benefit.

Even if you don't have a partner for CO2, I would recommend doing the VIRKLER and SASHET exercises on your own each day. You will still see some useful benefit. But working in pairs or small groups will amplify the value greatly.

VIRKLER (particularly the hearing and journaling aspects) has deepened my awareness of the Lord's constant presence in my life.

SASHET has brought us closer to one another in mutual understanding, respect and trust.

As we pray with and for one another in the light of hearing the Lord's direction to each of us, I'm fully convinced we'll be led into church life and sharing the gospel in ways we could hardly have imagined at first.

In mid December I shared the idea of CO2 with the Christian Union at work and this is likely to lead to at least one more pair. Then this morning I did a first CO2 session with Paul, a friend from a different local gathering, and we'll try it for a week. I also expect to demonstrate CO2 to a group of friends some miles further west. And finally there's an opportunity opening up to begin sharing CO2 with a friend in the USA.

CO2 is not an end in itself. It is, however, a really useful framework for hearing from the Lord and at the same time developing broader and deeper relationships between individuals. In this way it stimulates spiritual growth and can act as both a building block for church and a platform for sharing the gospel. What a versatile tool!

Note: For a more recent update on CO2 see my article at 'All About Jesus'.

09 December 2009

Linked Data - queryable, extensive, public data

Tim Berners-Lee has done it again. This time it's not about hyperlinked text but about queryable data. In many ways this can be seen as the public domain, social software equivalent of Stephen Wolfram's proprietary system, WolframAlpha.

It's not hard to see that open will win out over proprietary once again.

Take a look at ReadWriteWeb's post on this topic. It's an excellent roundup. They recommend starting with Tim Berners-Lees's breathless presentation at TED, so do I. I've embedded it below for convenience. Then take a look at the DBpedia website to see how you can use the material for yourself. An online paper presents the technical aspects.

17 October 2009

Testing Google Wave

I had an invitation from Google to join their Wave preview, and very nice it is too. I invited the limited number of friends I'm allowed and started waving with them, Google Waveand we did a lot of the instant messaging things that I imagine most people will begin with.

But then I wondered how Wave would work in 'email' mode. The text that follows is copied straight from the Google Wave interface and pasted here. It explains some interesting thoughts that came to me as I wrote my first extended item in Wave.

Note: The 'wave address' in the footer won't work with Wave. It's just represented as an email address. I have no idea how Google will arrange mail to wave connections. But I'm confident that Google has already thought this through, at least in principle.

Using Wave like email - 9:25 am

Hi everyone,

This is my first attempt at using Wave in an email-like fashion. So far we've done quite a bit of instant-message-style waving, but I have a sense that the email approach will feel very different.

Thinking about it all while making the morning cuppa for me and Donna I could see that 'email' would be different (some of my best ideas pop into my head in embryo form at the kitchen sink or weeding the garden or emptying the cat's litter tray).

For one thing it answers a question we'd already pondered. Why have Google given us addresses, why not use @gmail? Well, I think the answer may simply be that if Wave did have IMAP, SMTP and POP extensions, the new addresses would allow outsiders to email us and the mail would appear in our inboxes as a blip (albeit a large one like the one I'm typing now). And we could send a long blip to a non-Wave address and have it delivered via the SMTP extension. This makes a lot of sense to me. I hope they enable it quite soon, it would make it possible for a user to move entirely from email to Wave.

What other thoughts occur to you guys about the email 'mode'. I think the entire approach of wave is very clever, that a single system can be used in so many different ways. A real breakthrough. And it is probably going to be one of those disruptive innovations that we'll all take for granted in the end. A real brainwave on Google's part to make it both open and extensible and to offer their own client and server code free to everyone to run on their own hardware as well.

One other observation. When I created this wave I just closed the box that lets you select contacts for the wave. So I'm alone in this blip as I type it. When it's finished I'll drag in the contacts I want to send it to. That makes it feel even more email-like.

And I used the first blip as the title with this large, second one as the body. It works well like this.

What do you guys think?


PS - For fun I cut and pasted my email footer below. Then I added my wave address and made my mail address into a link. It seems so 'normal' like that. And anyone could add a wave address to a real email footer so wavers could click it. Excellent.

PPS - I just found a typo and fixed it - and then added this PPS. You can't do THAT in email!

'Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.' - Winston Churchill (

Chris Jefferies (St Neots, UK)

26 June 2009

Friendfeed as a personal hub

Spyros Heniadis, writing on his blog about Facebook and Twitter, makes some very good points as he compares and contrasts the value these two giants have for him. FriendfeedHe finds Facebook less than totally appealing, and he finds Twitter much more useful that it might appear at first sight. (And Twitter's raging success must have some basis other than sheer fadness.)

I agree with Spyros, I have a lot of friends (real ones almost entirely) on Facebook but I don't spend nearly enough time there to keep up with all the stuff they post. And the Facebook applications mostly drive me mad with their inane and persistent in-your-faceness. I always click the 'Ignore this request' button with a slightly guilty feeling of having 'jilted' someone I care about.

And I agree with his remarks about Twitter too. It took me a long, long time to understand it, but now that I do I'm beginning to appreciate it. I also use Friendfeed - a lot. If you want to see how, just visit my stream.

You'll notice it contains posts from Twitter, Delicious, Moblog and many more. All of them are added automatically whenever I post to those sites. And when I write an item on my blog Friendfeed picks that up and adds it for me too along with all those other sources. And I can fill in my 'status' on Friendfeed just as I would on Facebook or Twitter. All the output from Friendfeed can appear in Facebook, Twitter, and anywhere else I like without me lifting a finger or striking a key. I love it!

It's well worth a try. Like Twitter it's really simple and very easy to use.

13 May 2009

The Internet Protocol

Did you know that your connection to the internet is dying on its feet? Honestly, it really is! Diagram of part of the internetAnd the consequences are simply horrendous. 'The Internet Protocol' sounds like a film title, but it's the name of an important underlying mechanism that is the foundation of email, web browsing, and much, much more.

Most of the world's computing devices are using version four of this protocol (IPv4). Its replacement, IPv6, was introduced more than a decade ago to provide a huge increase in the number of available addresses and a raft of improved functions including assured service quality, security, and more.

What does it all mean? - You might like to read what Carl Bialik of 'The Wall Street Journal' has to say on the subject. Hint, read the comments as well, some of them are illuminating.

Carl writes...
The increasingly crowded Internet [is] running out of Internet Protocol addresses, used to identify computers and Web sites on the network.

He quotes industry experts as saying...
The chaos that follows is difficult to predict. (Tony Hain - IPv6 Forum)

Individual users may not be able to view websites and communicate with certain Internet destinations - Corporations may not be able to communicate with certain critical government resources, clients, and potential customers - Governments may lose the ability to see and communicate with the 'whole Internet' - Citizens may not be able to access government information online (John Curran - American Registry for Internet Numbers)

And readers comment...
Internet technology was one of the last areas that the U.S. was a leader in, and that has now disappeared. (Lawrence Hughes - InfoWeapons)

There is the potential for big disruptions unless more enterprises and the public sector begin migrating. (Jennifer Geisler - Cisco)

The Wikipedia article on IPv6 explains that it was selected as the successor to IPv4 in 1998, and takeup at the end of 2008 was estimated as follows - Russia 0.76%, France 0.65%, Ukraine 0.64%, Norway 0.49%, United States 0.45%. Asia leads in terms of absolute deployed numbers, but the relative penetration was smaller (e.g., China 0.24%).

IPv4 addresses are expected to finally run out in 2010, or possibly 2011. We have very little time.

There is no excuse for the slow rollout, IPv6 is available on all major operating systems in use in commercial, business, and home consumer environments. IPv6 networking gear has been increasingly available for many years.

How will this affect the end user? - At worst, large chunks of the internet will be unreachable. It will be as if those countries and companies don't exist.

However, it's likely that losses of connectivity will begin slowly and then accelerate. This might increase the sense of urgency as customers begin complaining to their service providers.

Sections of the internet where IPv6 is not yet supported will become islands of poor and incomplete service and will be increasingly isolated and unusable. IPv4 is likely to wither away, but it may take a long time to disappear completely.

With less than 1% of the network already converted and less than two years remaining before we start to see a real impact, anyone who can influence the rate of IPv6 uptake should begin lobbying hard right away.

Further sources of information
  • - the official home page for the new protocol.
  • The IPv6 Portal - lots of useful information
  • The IPv4 Address Report - generated daily with the latest details of IPv4 address availability
  • The Choice - a 2007 document by Jordi Palet examining ways of alleviating the dearth of IPv4 addresses (PDF)

05 May 2009

Are you an edgling?

Stowe Boyd is a computing/internet/techie guru. He's the kind of guy who tweets from conference sessions every few seconds Stowe Boydand he's almost always worth following. He has his ear firmly on society's sounding board, and he picks up and comments on the most subtle of vibrations.

Back in 2006 he wrote a blog post highlighting the way that influence in modern society is moving from 'centroids' to 'edglings'. You might like to consider which term best describes you.

What he wrote about industry, government, and society is equally true for the church. It's uncanny. We think 'house church' is unrelated to developments in society generally, but it's just part of a much wider trend. House church folks are 'edglings' par excellence.

Stowe Boyd - Stowe is what Wolfgang Simson would rightly call a prophet. He may or may not be a believer, but he is a man who sees core issues. He recognises the difference between the day-to-day view of the majority and unborn megatrends that are bubbling beneath the surface. He knows they will burst out soon and surprise everybody. How does a prophet know these things? Prophets don't know in some mysterious way, they are sensitive to tiny vibrations that others miss, subtleties of heart, mind, spirit. When they speak of these things they often go unheard, they are commonly rejected as fools, interfering busybodies, or enemies of the state.

Here are some quotes from Stowe's 2006 post, see how they mesh with the recent growth of house churches worldwide.

Personally, I favor the term Edgling because I want to move away from media metaphors, and use economic or sociological ones. This is not about who is "producing content" and who is "consuming" it: which is the basic paradigm of media thinking. Instead, it is about control moving from the central, large, mass-market organizations -- which includes media companies, but also other large organizations, like government, religious organizations, and so on -- out to the individuals -- we, the people -- at the edge.

As power moves from the center to the edge the "Centroids" -- those that hold with the centralized power of an industrial era -- will scream about all the negatives that they perceive in the out-of-control future that threatens the basis of their worldview. But the Edglings will find it liberating to get out of the stranglehold on information, communication, and the marketplace that centralized organizations attempt to impose.

Centroid or edgling? - Does that ring any bells? Take a look at Stowe's list of characteristics...

Work and PoliticsTop-down, authoritarianBottom-up, egalitarian
Point-of-ViewObjective, ImpartialSubjective, Partial
FamilyNuclearPost-nuclear networks
Political scopeNationalismRegionalism
EnvironmentExploitative, UnsustainableRestorative, Sustainable
SpiritualityCentralized, Dogmatic, Outside of NatureDecentralized, Enigmatic, Nature based

George Barna - You might like to compare this with George Barna's comments in his book 'Revolution'. Here's an extract from p 13-14...

I want to show you what our research has uncovered regarding a growing sub-nation of people, already well over 20 million strong, who are what we call Revolutionaries ... They have no use for churches that play religious games ... worship services that drone on without the presence of God ... ministries that compromise ... people in ministry ... who seek popularity ... man-made monuments ... accredited degrees.

There's a fresh wind blowing through the church as also through society. People sense that it's time to move on, to change the rules, to move from organisations with centralised authority to organic groups at the periphery, where the edglings are living and meeting in a fresh, new way.

It's no longer about organisations, it's about an organism that is alive and can reproduce in a natural way.

28 April 2009

Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha is about to hit the streets (or at any rate, a computer screen near you). The Wolfram Alpha query screenCreated by Stephen Wolfram and his company, Wolfram Research, it will look superficially like a search engine but is fundamentally different in nature.

Like a search engine it comes with a text entry box where you can type in a query, like a search engine it goes away and thinks and then spits out results on a webpage. But what goes on behind the scenes and the nature of the returned webpage couldn't be more different.

Wolfram Alpha depends on two earlier developments from the same stable. Mathematica is software that enables mathematical manipulations to be entered, processed, and displayed on a computer, while NKS (which stands for 'A New Kind of Science') is an alternative to the normal tools used by scientists to model the way the universe works.

Using both of these innovative tools, Wolfram Alpha takes a free text query, decides what the user wants to know, looks up the relevant information in its enormous collection, processes the information to create an answer to the original query, and builds a webpage on the fly to display the response. The webpage may include text, images, graphs and charts etc. The end result is a tailored report that might have been written by an expert. Indeed, in many ways Wolfram Alpha is an expert!

Steven Wolfram is an extraordinary person. He is, frankly, a genius - one of a handful of truly great minds in our own time. He looks at things in new ways and comes up with fresh insights, testing them, proving them, and then publishing them. Here, in his own words, is how he's spent his life so far.

Major periods in my work have been:

• 1974-1980: particle physics and cosmology

• 1979-1981: developing SMP computer algebra system

• 1981-1986: cellular automata etc.

• 1986-1991: intensive Mathematica development

• 1991-2001: writing the book, 'A New Kind of Science'

(Wolfram Research, Inc. was founded in 1987; Mathematica 1.0 was released June 23, 1988; the company and successive versions of Mathematica continue to be major parts of my life.)

You can see right away that he is not a man in a hurry. He is not afraid to spend five years or more on a single project. Learn more about his background and work from Wikipedia.

Not everyone agrees with Wolfram's work on NKS, a range of reactions are included in the Wikipedia article on the book.

In the end, 'wait and see' may be the best advice for both Wolfram Alpha and NKS. As far as Alpha is concerned, we'll all get a chance to try it and draw our own conclusions when it's released. Hopefully that will be next month (May 2009).

Meanwhile you can watch video of Stephen Wolfram demonstrating the new technology at Harvard on 28th April.

For news about the new tool, take a look at the Wolfram Alpha Blog which will be updated regularly with further announcements and background information.

17 December 2008

The Antikythera Mechanism

The heavily corroded remains of an intricate and strange looking mechanism were found in 1901 in a Mediterranean shipwreck. The calendar dial of the deviceSixty years later after painstaking cleaning and study, it emerged that the device was a mechanical analogue computer for predicting the movements of the sun and moon in the sky. Various replicas have been built based on the known features of the mechanism.

The Antikythera mechanism makes it abundantly clear that the Greeks were advanced, not only in their scientific knowledge, but also in their mechanical technology. Reports from ancient writers like the Roman author, Cicero, describe mechanisms such as Antikythera. But until the corroded remains were recovered and studied these written accounts seemed fanciful. Surely the ancient world had nothing this advanced?

More recent studies have used high resolution X-ray tomography, and better reconstructions have become possible.

One of the later reconstructions can be seen working in the video below. If you view the video from You Tube you can switch to a higher resolution.

The X-ray tomography data has opened up a new window into the workings of the device. But it has also enabled historians to read a considerable amount of Greek text from the metal surfaces. This text consists partly of labels on the various scales and displays the mechanism used to present the positions of planets, calendar dates and so forth. The remainder of the text is a guide on how to use the device.

A great deal can be learned from the inscribed text. The names of the months varied from place to place in the ancient Greek world and this means we can determine its place of manufacture or intended use to be the central Mediterranean, not as originally supposed the eastern Aegean.

A longer and more technical video is presented on the Nature website (select the high resolution version and watch it in full-screen for the best view). There are also links to the Nature paper by Freeth, Jones, Steele, and Bitsakis, and a Nature news story (though there's a fee for the full text of these).

Wikipedia's article on the mechanism provides more detail for the average reader and has an excellent list of references, links, and suggested additional reading. One of the links is an article from New Scientist giving a good deal of background.


28 November 2008

Look, no connection!

You are in a remote African village, in the middle of Antarctica, on a small Scottish island miles from the nearest town. You have no mains power, no internet connection, no phone connection - not even mobile coverage. SolarNetOne serverYou need to provide full internet and Wi-Fi services to hundreds of people.

How can it be done? Read on!

One solution is SolarNetOne, designed and built specifically for the purpose.

It uses a solar panel and battery system to provide a reliable long-term source of energy, and a low-power server using a satellite connection to access the internet. Internet cafe service is based on a client server system as this reduces the power requirements, and Wi-Fi coverage over a two mile radius is included so anyone with their own computing system and power supply can connect to the internet very simply.

SolarNetOne really is a complete solution.

Zee M kane writes...
SolarNetOne is a collaborative effort spanning several continents, organizations, and technical disciplines. The goal of the effort is to develop a feasible, sustainable solution to bring the internet to places that have no connectivity, no phone service and no electricity.

Developed by Florida based GNUveau, the system is a solar-powered Internet “hub” (running Ubuntu GNU/Linux). The terminals includes access to web browsing, email, voip, office, multimedia, software development and web development tools as well as 15,000 other applications. Wifi coverage spans a 2-mile radius, with no fuel costs, no polluting emissions and a long lifespan of up to 20 years with proper maintenance. The entire system, in fact, operates on about the same amount of power as a 100-watt light bulb, GNUveau says.

It's not the most elegant approach in terms of appearance, but much more significantly it's robust and readily maintainable and consumes only 100 W of power. The entire system can be delivered in a single small van (if there are adequate roads). The small bulk means delivery by small aircraft or boat would also be possible.

The guy behind all this is Scott Johnson. Well done Scott, you get my vote! This is real, practical help to people who need it. Katsina State University in Nigeria is already benefitting. Hopefully many more installations will follow.

For more information take a look at the following resources.

12 September 2008

Too many social networks!

There are too many social networking sites out there, each one different, many with interesting content.

Each one requires me to enter my profile details again, has a different menu structure, unique facilities, and specialist functions. We need something better.

Let me explain. For a while now I've been a member of Facebook (which I like and use regularly) and MySpace (which I don't like and rarely visit now). I'm also a member of various mailing lists and several specialist social networking sites, mostly to do with church.

For each one of these systems I have to enter my profile details all over again, but in a slightly different way. I have to learn a new and different way of working, a new set of menus and functions.

I was prompted to post this blog item when a friend emailed me details of a community building tool (Oikos) and asked me what I think about it.

There's a real problem here - it will be resolved eventually for sure, but meanwhile it will make life harder and harder for us all. The problem is that there are so many of these systems and the number is increasing dramatically all the time. There are even sites that offer 'roll your own' facilities (like Ning, and Oikos). I need more systems like I need a hole in the head!

What do we really need? - We need one system that lets us put in our user profile once, and then party with as many subgroups as we choose. In my case that might be a general organic church group, a local area christian group involving believers from every background and opinion, an astronomy group, a techie web software group, a history group, a group for my workmates, a photography group, and perhaps half a dozen others.

Facebook can do that already. And in a different way, so can Ning. We'll come back to Facebook and Ning later.

I predict that in the short term groups will proliferate, and they'll proliferate until people become heartily fed up with accessing so many. From then on a few will grow larger and larger at the expense of the smaller ones. The few are already growing in size, but we're still in the proliferation stage with new social networking sites coming on line daily - perhaps thousands of them daily, certainly hundreds.

One approach might be an agreed system for syndicating profiles around different systems. That would certainly help, but the navigation and feel of the systems would still be different and we'd have to learn our way around each one. There is at least one standard out there already and some systems are supporting it.

So - back to Facebook and Ning. Both systems offer a solution but they do it in very different ways.

The Facebook model - here we see an overall system that lets you join, select friends, and also select groups.

In practice most users will have a circle of friends composed of work colleagues, family, college friends, large or small geographical groups (my town, my state, my street - whatever), and people who share a common interest.

Many users will join groups on specific interests (I'm a member of several local groups, church groups, astronomy groups and so forth). These will include some Facebook friends but also many Facebook 'strangers'. The shared interest will normally be enough to keep the group buzz going, the conversations and shared resources will always be of interest providing they remain on topic.

All the groups work in the same way, use the same navigation, and have the same sort of arrangement on the page. As a user I can navigate very easily from a group to a friend's page, to my messages, to a group on another topic, all pretty much seamlessly and without having to login to a different website or learn a new style of operation. Joining a new group is not a big deal.

This is good!

The Ning model - Here the emphasis is on the groups, not on the friends. Using Ning, you or I can roll our own social networking site and invite interested parties to join up. We can run our own 'Facebook'.

At first sight this merely makes the proliferation of online social networks even more severe, it's easier than ever to create a new one!

But Ning has a real advantage here, if you sign up to several Ning-based systems your personal profile is shared between them. What's more, they all work in the same way. They may look a little different (colour, graphics, and to some extent layout), but they all share structure, navigation, and features. Ning sites are like Lego models, they look different but they're made of the same kind of parts. If you know how Lego works you'll have no problem recognising a Lego construction, using it, or altering it.

This is good too!

Ning or Facebook? - Which is best? In the end they're pretty similar. Ning is Facebook groups. Facebook groups are Ning social networks. If Ning added a feature to let you choose and interact with specific people outside the social networks it would be just like Facebook. And if Facebook allowed you to access a group as a separate website it would be just like Ning.

The two systems emphasise slightly different aspects but could so easily grow to be much more alike. One underlying difference is that you don't need to be a Ning member to join a Ning-built social network. Anyone with internet access can join in. But not everyone is on Facebook, not everyone wants to join Facebook. So a Facebook group is inaccessible to a whole section of the internet community. From an individual's perspective this may not appear to be a problem, but for someone planning to build a social network it may be a serious issue.

Which of the two will win out? It's much too early to say. Both have grown very fast indeed and show no sign of stopping. Both make it easy to set up a social space for a specific purpose. There are plenty of other systems and organisations out there, Yahoo, Google, or Microsoft in particular could muscle in on the act very quickly if they chose to stake a claim.

What does the future hold? - Here's my best guess.
  • In the short term, more proliferation but with continuing market share going to Facebook and to a lesser degree Ning. Facebook has, I think, more mass-market appeal than Ning.
  • In three years time expect to see more and more of the small players fall by the wayside, while Facebook, Ning, and one or more of Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft clean up.
  • Long term, expect two or three dominant players to emerge. One will take 75% to 95% of the share, one or two others will fight over the rest.
  • Expect the unexpected. There might be a major corporate takeover or two. One of the smaller players might come out with something innovative and grow from less than 1% share to become the major force in this space.
  • A major open source contribution is likely. This has happened in other areas of computing with Linux, Apache, Open Office, MediaWiki, and the GIMP.

There will be a shakeout, that much is certain. It will make life easier for everyone but at the same time restrict our choices. We've seen the same process with operating systems, word processors, spreadsheets, web browsers and more. History repeats itself. The end result is always one major player and a small number of niche alternatives.

29 August 2008

Making the most of blogs

It's really good to know you're here, reading the Scilla Blog - thanks for dropping by. The Technorati logo and menuMaybe you read many blogs, maybe you read only a few or even just this one. But however many you read, there are useful ways of coping more effectively with the 'blogosphere' - the rich world of blogging. It's a very rich world - if you know how to mine it for gold.

Today we'll take a look at finding specific information using a tool called Technorati. Surfing around from blog to blog at random is interesting for a while, but suppose you want to check out what bloggers are writing about fire ants, or your home town, or a famous author, or a place you intend to visit on holiday? Many of you will use Technorati and other tools already, but if not - read on.

Technorati is a website providing search functions tailored specifically for blogs. It's easy to use and it's very flexible. As an example, check this search result for posts on organic church. There are several things to note about this.

The search looks complicated ("house church" OR "organic church") NOT China NOT Chinese NOT cell. It's not as hard as it appears, we'll unravel it in a moment but for now notice that it's made up of several search terms joined together. Now look at the results, hopefully all of them will be about house church. Each item is a blog post. They come from many different blogs, and are posted by a host of different people. They're presented with the latest posts at the top.

You can scroll down and read any that catch your eye.

Understanding the search - Lets look at this search in more detail. We'll start at the beginning.

"house church" - This is in double quotes which simply tells Technorati to treat it as a phrase, not two separate words. If we searched for house church we'd find all the posts that mentioned 'house' and all those that mentioned 'church', try it in Technorati and see for yourself! "organic church" works the same way, we're looking for the phrase, not the separate words.

OR - This is an operator, when Technorati sees it is acts on it in a particular way. OR finds blog posts that contain either this or that, in our example posts will be included if they contain the phrase 'house church' or the phrase 'organic church' (or both). I've added brackets to make it clear this part of the search belongs together, both for our benefit and for Technorati's.

NOT China - This tells Technorati to leave out any hits containing the word 'China'. Why are we doing this? It's because, in China, 'house church' doesn't mean church in a home, it mainly refers to churches that are not government approved. We've done the same with 'Chinese' and 'cell' as these terms remove some more posts we didn't want to include.

Creating a search - The next step is to understand how to create our own search. Maybe we want to know about Siamese cats in California. Who's posted about that recently?

Try a search for 'cat' - over 340 000 hits when I tried it.

Now search for "Siamese cat". - just 900 or so results this time. That's better.

And finally, try a search for "Siamese cat" AND California - now we're only seeing 29 hits.

You should be getting the idea now. Decide what you want to read about and build yourself a search to find relevant blogs. Happy reading!

Read more on searching Technorati from

22 July 2008

MIT's Simile

MIT stands for 'Massachusetts Institute of Technology', right? That's widely known.

But what does Simile stand for? If you don't already know you will never guess, it stands for 'Semantic Interoperability of Metadata and Information in unLike Environments'.

Sooo... why exactly am I interested in this? It has something to do with my day job.

A portion of that day job is hunting for useful technology for the web development team I'm part of, we create intranet websites for Unilever. The thing is, MIT's Simile project 'seeks to enhance inter-operability among digital assets' and is 'fully committed to the open source principles of software distribution and open development'. To put this another way, they develop some very cool applications that work together and they release them for use and adaptation by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose.

The application that first caught my eye is called 'Timeline' and it is amazing. The code is stored on MIT's servers so there's nothing to install and download. The data is stored locally as an XML file. If you're not a techie person and you're still following along, just take a look at a couple of their example timelines, one on religions, the other on dinosaurs. They are so cool. Just drag them sideways with the mouse.

The other applications are good too, if you develop websites many of these may be a perfect way of making your site truly impressive, just by embedding stuff the way you would with Google Maps or You Tube.
  • Timeline - timeline generator, described above.
  • Timeplot - is a similar application but generates time series graphs from the data.
  • Exhibit - displays data as presentation graphics.
  • Gadget - summarises large XML datasets.
  • Welkin - displays data in mathematical graph form.
  • Fresnel - is a developers' tool, a vocabulary.
And there are many other projects and services available, just take a look at the Simile home page.

Quite apart from the effectiveness of the individual offerings and the fact that they are free to use, the Simile project showcases how web components should be designed and built. Congratulations and thanks to MIT and to everyone working on aspects of the Simile project.

19 July 2008


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Why am I interested in astronomy? I think it's because I'm fascinated by the vastness of the Universe and the amazing variety of objects it contains - including, of course, the Earth.

I don't remember when I developed this interest. I do remember being 14 or 15 years old and saving my pocket money to buy 'The Observer's Book of Astronomy' (I still have it), and around the same time I remember watching 'The Sky At Night', a monthly TV program that is one of the longest running series ever. It was (and still is) presented by Patrick Moore whose enthusiasm was intense and exciting. That was in the days when TV was only available in black and white.

I remember being even younger and looking at a nearly total eclipse of the Sun through heavily smoked glass, it was 30th June 1954, just a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Dad wanted me to see the eclipse because there wasn't going to be another like it in the UK until 1999!

I also remember projecting an image of the sun with an old telescope, and drawing the sunspots when there were any to be seen. I used the same telescope at night to look at Jupiter and the four Galilean moons.

The fascination has never left me. The more you learn about distant objects, the more you understand about the structure of the Universe, the more amazing it all seems. When I was a small child space exploration was the stuff of science fiction, but when I was nine the Russians launched Sputnik and space became a real place that could be visited. The world had changed, and so did astronomy.

To me it seems an immense priviledge to have witnessed the beginning of spaceflight and the blossoming of modern astronomy. Astronomy had blossomed once before with the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century, but the flow of new information slowed to a crawl once resolution of the instruments reached the limits imposed by the Earth's shimmering atmosphere. But now we could image and measure from outside the atmosphere and a whole new series of possibilities opened up. I drank it all in.

For me, astronomy is special amongst the sciences. It's special because it reveals how vast and how old the Universe is; it gives a better perspective of our own smallness. So there is a tangible link with my Christian beliefs, astronomy helps me to understand that bringing the Universe into existence was a task requiring unimaginable authority and imagination.

Then there are links with photography because imaging is such an important technique in astronomy. Many astronomical images are breathtakingly beautiful, if you want to enjoy some you can do much worse than visit the 'Astronomy Picture Of The Day' (APOD).

Computing is essential in modern astronomy, and computer simulations of the night sky are interesting and instructive. There are clear links between astronomy and other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and even biology. And there are links with technology too, how would you do astronomy without a spacecraft, a telescope, a camera - it's a long list.

There are powerful links with history and archaeology, astronomy allows dates to be tied to recorded events like solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions. If a Chinese, Egyptian or Sumerian record says there was an eclipse on the 12 day of the eighth month of the third year of so-and-so's reign we may be able to lock the ancient calendar onto a date in our own calendar.

I could continue, but I think you get the idea. We live in an amazing place, so big that this Earth of ours is just a tiny speck. Astronomy shows us how small we truly are. It gives us a sense of proportion. And it's connected with almost everything we are and do.

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18 July 2008

What's the purpose of the Scilla blog?

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Most blogs focus on a particular topic, but this one covers all sorts of topics. One reason for this is that to post enough items to keep a blog interesting takes time. Posting to two or three more focused blogs would take two or three times as much effort, otherwise they would be updated two or three times less often.

I have lots of interests, lots of stuff to share. I want this blog to reflect real life, I want it to be a way for my friends to keep track of what I do and also perhaps an introduction to areas of my life they might know little about.

Do you compartmentalise your life? I do. Not deliberately, but when I'm with scientists we talk science, when I'm with Christians we talk faith, when I'm with photographers we talk about images. It's natural. To help you I've provided a tag cloud at the top of the left hand column, click on topics that interest you and you will only see posts on those topics.

Over the next few days I plan to begin posting brief introductions to each of those topic areas explaining why I'm interested, what it involves, and how it affects my life. These are not going to be technical posts, they'll be light and easy to follow - for anyone. I promise!

Have you ever thought that there must be connections between all the different things you do? If in no other way they are linked because they're all things you enjoy, or else you do them because something else about your life demands it. Either way, there's a link.

I'll try to draw out some of the links I see as I go along. Some are clearly linked, like astronomy and photography, or photography and garden, or transport and environment. But what about garden and persecution?

I plan to work through in alphabetical order so I'll be starting with astronomy and working right through to underground church.

These posts will be interspersed with others. There are bound to be items just waiting to be written on a host of other things.

Watch this space...

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30 June 2008

Robotic snake in the water

A robotic snake? Oh yes, and it's a pretty clever design too. Each segment has it's own built-in logic, the segments communicate and co-operate to produce the necessary movement. The 'snake' is called 'ACM-R5' and can move on land and in water. Take a look at the article 'Amphibious snake-like robot' on Make: as well as a photo and article there's a fascinating video of this thing swimming.


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