Wednesday, 5 August 2015

On droning

Your correspondent + aerial shot of house, both taken by drone
There's been a surge in concern about drones. Stories about drones spying on people, about them having the potential to bomb you, shoot you or deliver you a package. As with most media hysteria, there's an element of truth, but only an element. As ever, it all comes down to the responsibility of the pilot / driver, just like horses, cars, boats and any other vehicles that require 'handling' to prevent grievous injury or death.

Radio-controlled (RC) aircraft have been around for decades, even in the consumer/hobbyist arena, and, yes, even with cameras. So why the fuss now?

Because it's easy

In days of yore, you'd have to visit a hobby shop, know what you're buying, build the kit, test it and take it down to the nearest field for a spin. With any luck you'd learn to fly it without too many crashes. Then you might spend the same amount as you spent on the plane fitting a camera that would beam fuzzy video down to a recorder (VCR or camcorder). You might even have a screen or goggles to view the footage while you're flying.

Then smart phones happened. Nearly every smart phone has a gyroscope, a compass and a GPS chip in it. It also has a lithium-polymer battery to keep it running all day. With billions of smart phones now on the planet these technologies have become amazingly cheap - hobbyist cheap. Put that kit in a RC aircraft and you have gyroscopically stabilised flight, location awareness and sufficient power to weight ratio to keep a 1kg aircraft in the air for 20 minutes. Slap a GoPro camera on the bottom and you have an easy to fly drone that collects video or photo footage.

It wasn't long before the likes of Parrot and DJI started packaging these for the consumer market, and making them smart phone app compatible. So anyone with a smart phone and a thousand bucks could buy and fly one.

Because of the military... and media

Roughly at the same time as smart phones arrived, military drones became the mainstream weapon of choice for delivering ordinance to targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea of flying robots fighting wars was as appealing to scaremongering journalists as it was to scifi fans. The fact that these drones were piloted by people, many of whom suffered as much post-traumatic stress as personnel on the ground, was rarely reported. Robots, like Roomba and self-driving cars were on the way.

The Reality

A DJI drone costs about $1000. This is not a have-a-go sum, it's for serious hobbyists or professionals. Like a photographer who buys a DSLR, rather than a small point & shoot camera. Similarly, there is a learning curve too. So this is not like buying a new TV - it requires investment of time as well as money.

The flight time for a typical consumer drone is 20 minutes. Range is 1-2km (roughly a mile). It can carry maybe 1lb, although pro hex- or octocopters can go up to 5lb. The heavier the payload, the shorter the flight time. Does that describe something that could deliver packages to you? Me neither.

Some of these drones support basic autonomy: you can pre-program a route and it will fly it. However, they lack the sensors to detect obstacles, so you'd have to ensure that the route is clear. Many of them have GPS restrictions built-in (eg. avoiding airports) as well as range restrictions: so if it goes out of range of your controller, it automatically flies back to you.

Could you use them to fly over to your neighbour's bedroom window and spy on them? Possibly, but they are neither silent nor invisible, so you'd still be better off with a good vantage point and a decent zoom lens, like an old-school pervert.

Could you fly a drone into an aircraft while it is taking off or landing, or deliver a small bomb remotely? Yes, but you could arguably do that with any RC aircraft, and nobody has since they were invented. None of the new technology I have mentioned would make it easier. Carbombs do not justify banning cars.

Any of the evil uses described by the media could be accomplished (arguably more effectively) without a drone. But flying robots make good copy.


Perhaps the importance of a new technology is the degree to which its capabilities are exaggerated. As well as producing arresting photo- and cinematography, drones are being used for great scientific endeavours: like the archaeologist in Peru who is 3D mapping thousands of ancient ruins that are at risk.

There's no doubt that, like any vehicle, drone use should be licensed, but let's address the facts about the capabilities and not the hysteria.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Earth: powered by the sun

Living on a warm, sunny island it's easy to imagine the benefits of solar energy. The perpetual, oppressive heat, the perennial use of sunglasses and the constant fight against the prolific jungle that passes for gardening in these parts are all reminders of the incredible power of the sun.

But what about colder latitudes? And how efficient is it? I hear that it's not very efficient.

I watched Elon Musk's announcement of Tesla's Power Wall because somebody on Twitter said it was the 'best keynote in the last 10 years'. As a presenter, Musk is no Steve Jobs, but the content was astonishing. One infographic really caught my eye: the square mileage of solar panels required to power the entire USA. After Googling around I found a global version:-
All our energy needs could be met by filling in those tiny squares. Of course it's not as easy as that, but when you consider the astounding feats of engineering we are capable of, like a set of man-made islands made to look like the globe, and you couple that with the impact of fossil fuels on the real globe, the fact that the solution amounts to pixel sized squares on a global map seems absurd.
But the real kicker is that the actual deployment can be much more flexible: rooftops of solar cells. And those marvellous Tesla Power Wall batteries.

In Bermuda there's only one road that has water mains. Nearly all domestic water comes from rainwater stored under houses. That's the legacy of the distinctive white lime roofs: primitive filtration. So there's no water bill. Imagine if it was the same for electricity. Whatever you think of the actual product, the Power Wall, as a concept, is an evocative proposal that will disrupt the utility industry.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The quantified self & smart watches

There's a lot of chatter in Tech Land about smart watches, mostly fuelled by the impending launch of the Apple Watch. It will either be another iPhone, disrupting multiple industries at once (for the iPhone it was mobile phones, music players, cameras and palm PCs), or it will join the increasing array of 'smart' watches that adorn geeky and/or healthy wrists only. In an age when hardly anyone under 30 bothers to wear a watch, except as a fashion item, this is quite audacious. They have to justify a watch's existence as a supplement to a more powerful device: your phone. From a brand built on making our tech lives simpler, this teeters dangerously on the brink of "just because it's trendy and we want you to buy more of our stuff".

To get it right they need to offer
a) features that my phone and a simple watch cannot offer, like subtle notifications (tap on the wrist), glance-able info and extra sensors.
b) a battery life that is convenient to regular use. If I have to plug it in every single night, it had better be worth wearing every single day.

From what I've seen so far, I think they're focusing too much on the former and not enough on the latter. They are probably hoping that the former will overwhelm the latter: that the watch and its developer ecosystem will offer such a plethora of features that users won't care about having to plug their watch in every night.

The current smart watch market is
a) people with some interest in 'the quantified self': keeping stats about how many steps they walk, their heart rate, how long they sleep, meals they eat etc.;
b) info-addicts who need to be notified about the slightest twitch in their infosphere, be it a facebook 'like', a google '+1', a retweet or an incoming email.

The trouble is that these are extreme users. Most of us can't be bothered, and therefore won't bother to purchase or at least recharge, if we purchase or are gifted one. Most of us find our phones and tablets to be distracting enough - our little hard-to-control habit that may or may not be good for us. Will Apple try to convince the rest of us that we want yet another gadget to make our lives simpler? Or are they simply following the other gadget heavyweights to plug that gap in their ecosystem?

There are many players in this space, mostly from the 'quantified self' angle. Fitness trackers abound, I guess because if you make a habit of running/gyming every other day then you don't mind the extra habit of recharging your tracker. Some of these use your phone's sensors, in tandem with their own, to provide glance-able stats to your wrist; some are standalone. The former have battery lives of months, whereas the latter last hours. They are all specialist, though: you wouldn't wear them unless you were doing fitness stuff.

The one to watch, for my money, is Pebble. Their watches last at least a week (screen based on e-ink, same as a basic Kindle), and they work equally well with iOS and Android. They are currently Kickstarter-backed, but I bet the likes of Citizen and Casio are watching them closely. A solar-powered Pebble is my current speculative ideal.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A turning point in consumerism?

It may just be me getting older, but Christmas seems to have lost some of its crassness this year. Perhaps the great social media amplifier has exposed it for the cliche that it is ("My friends will think I'm naff if I post another picture of the Christmas tree this year!"), or perhaps it's just social media that has tired of Christmas, and people are opting to get on with actually celebrating the holiday rather than photoing and posting about it.

Either way, it's for the better.  I've always liked the idea of the winter solstice being celebrated for just that: a party in the middle of winter to cheer us all up. You don't have to support a team with trees or candelabras, or buy a ticket, just turn up and spend time with friends & family. Preferably with silly hats, party games and plenty of food & drink. Start your own tradition, with a nod to the family traditions.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Business Prevention Officers

In these tough economic times, one expects some austerity: tightening of belts and loosening of standards for the sake of expediency. Focus on getting results, not sweating the petty things that waste time and effort for little reward.

Alternatively, if you are apparently relatively immune to tough economic conditions, you might take the opposite approach: sweat the details in order to justify a job whose existence, were you to work at optimum efficiency, might become questionable.  Unfortunately, this has a significantly adverse economic impact: you're effectively being subsidised at a time when nobody can afford subsidies. You are a leech, a drain on economic resources, a waste of hard working tax payers' money.

These past 2 days have revealed to me that there are several positions in Barbados government departments that are exactly the above.  People being paid to, in effect, prevent the natural course of commerce and economic efficiency.  People whose removal from those positions would actually benefit the economy, not just in salary burden on the tax payers' purse, but also by increased throughput of business: things would get done faster, the cogs of commerce would turn faster and economic throughput would improve.

It's these people who will eventually bring our economy to its knees, not government policy, or macro-economic mis-management. Just these bureaucrats who believe they are owed a living, a wage, irrespective of the value or damage they contribute to the economy. Who measures them? Who checks that they are doing their job effectively? One could argue it should be their unions: after all, they profess to protect their workers' rights, so why not make an effort to ensure them by proving that union members are useful contributors to the economy of our society? Imagine an ethically responsible union that not only ensures workers don't work late, but also that they don't finish early?

It seems that too many people want to enforce rules that they don't question (and may not even exist), and too few people want to actually compete in the game.  More refs than players would lead, ultimately, to poorer players.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Speculative photography

This CNET article ( about the future of smartphone photography got me thinking about the potential for abuse such features could herald.

Our sight is still, for most of us, our most trustworthy sense. Or, more accurately, the sense that we tend to put the most trust in. Modern neuroscience seems to enjoy mocking our trust in our eyes, with optical illusions and other tricks that fool the brain's amazing pattern matching systems. There's even a simple trick demonstrated by +Marcus du Sautoy where he asks people to assess the weights of  objects of various sizes and, to a person, they all believe that the largest object is the heaviest, even though it is the lightest. So our eyes are easy to deceive.

What will 50 megapixel phone cameras accomplish that 5 megapixel ones can't? Well, it's not so much the megapixels, as the processing. Making a CMOS that captures 50 megapixels of light is relatively straightforward. The tricky bit is processing that many pixels and writing them to a memory card in a reasonable length of time. That needs a lot of processing fitted into a small phone. You could then do other things with that processing, like adding and removing objects, to a much more convincing degree than ever before.

Perhaps what is currently constrained to Photoshop and other relatively inaccessible tools could become more ubiquitous and easy to use. Perhaps there's a much darker side of ubiquitous photography yet to emerge.

Some excellent maps

While these are pretty fun to explore, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked through these, that I was looking at both the future and the past. While the data is pretty cool, the presentation is so static. Why aren't these Google Maps overlays? Because splicing the two together takes programming skills. And soon either that won't be the case, or programming will be such a ubiquitous skill that such static renderings will be as anachronistic as flat HTML pages of the 1990s. 

So, this is a bookmark for the future. Lets see if its still valid in 2015. 

Friday, 28 June 2013

iPad as laptop replacement: almost, but hamstrung by closed thinking

 I had to get a shuttle to work today, after dropping my truck off at the garage and, since my new laptop is due to arrive today, I decided to just take my iPad with an Apple bluetooth keyboard and its cool Incase Origami case/stand (see pic).

So I started with the usual email sift & dispatch.  Mostly fine until I had to reformat an email  I was forwarding and could not add bullets/numbering. After foraging for a bit I ended up having to use dashes and manual numbers. Mildly irritating because it's not exactly a difficult feature to add.

Next, I was trying to upload a document to a website. While 3rd party apps typically give you a plethora of sharing options, based on whatever apps you have installed (eg. Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync etc.), Safari only gives you access to the camera roll. Maybe Apple designers, in their shaven-headed, dodgy facial-haired wisdom decided that we would only ever want to upload photo to a website. Or maybe that filesystems were too complicated for my childlike, enchanted brain. The only sense of wonder here is the bewilderment that such a simple utility is not included. But then these are the folks who didn't even include copy & paste until the 3rd version of the OS.

So, basically, I have no faith in the utility of an iPad as a productivity tool beyond basic text and drawing. "That's because it's designed for media consumption, Neil!" you may ejaculate, fondling your tablet distractedly. Yes, it is, but my point is that the limitations are self-imposed by iOS designers, not by any hardware limitations. So to exclude key features that would make it a useful productivity tool is design snobbery at worst and oversight at best.

While other Operating System makers try to fundamentally reconcile their desktop and mobile offerings into a seamless user experience (Google with Chrome and Android, Windows with Windows 8, Ubuntu with their upcoming mobile OS), Apple are changing the fixtures with 'flatter' UI designs and features designed to only work with other Apple products.

That's the trouble with walled gardens: you can fence your audience in, but you can also become prone to self-absorption, and you can lose sight of what the people by the walls (on either side) are saying.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Writing ... software

Recently, I've had cause to go back to writing software directly - rather than managing teams doing it. 

Aside from the struggle to readjust my concentration levels away from erratic thoughts (it's like reading a book and solving a puzzle at the same time), I've also had to adjust to the pace of this creative process. It reminds be of those Fast Show sketches parodying Nick Park and the Aardman Studios' claymation "... and then I move it... just a tiny amount... and take a picture... before... moving it just a tiny amount... and taking another picture..." and so on. 

I long for the day when I can write code as second nature, as easily as I write this blog post. It's not the language that's hard: that can be fiddley if you're unfamiliar with it, but not insurmountable. The tricky bit is the mindset: breaking down problems into actionable chunks of code that you can then build and stick together into a coherent program that does what you originally intended. I used to be able to do this easily, and I now see how rusty I've become at it. Hopefully, like riding a bike, it will come back to me, but it's a bit of a slog for now. Still, I'm enjoying the creativity again: it's hardly World of Warcraft (it's actually an appointment booking system in Google Script), but it's a good puzzle.

Anyway, enough distraction. From one creative thread to another I go...