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This Week in Tech

Smartphones in schools

Last year France did exactly this. The UK is thinking of doing the same. There are schools in South Africa where this is policy. It's a global topic of debate and contention.

Here's what a whole lot of other people have to say on the matter.

Links for this week...

That's it for this week...

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Smooth Skullcaps Exhales - pure genius!

GPS. It lets us know where we are on the surface of our huge and amazing planet. Software allows us to combine our position with digitised maps and routing algorithms to find how to get to a specified destination. Our location can even be used to draw up lists of shops / attractions / faculties nearby to us, so that even if we are new to an area we can easily know what destinations are around us.

But, it is never quite so easy to let people know where we are. Sure we can share a location - if we are online and using the same app. Reading out lattitude and longitude co-ordinates to tell someone where we are is tedious - and often inaccurate. What is needed is an easy-to-communicate global standard method for communicating a location on the planet.

Enter "What Three Words". This amazing startup has divided the entire globe into a grid of 3m x 3m squares. Each grid has been given a name made up of three words. 26 Languages are supported (including isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans). These words are easy to remember, easy to communicate and can be typed directly into a mobile app or online browser map to find the location they represent.

It's a unique idea, well worth pushing as a global standard. It has tremendous potential for businesses and customers to quickly and accurately communicate location. In the UK emergency services are adopting it as a standard and it is rapidly garnering support in many other places (including here in SA).

The app (Android and iOS) is free - and so is access to the online map in a browser.

What if the company fails? What happens to your ability to convert locations into words and vice-versa? To quote from the site:


If we, what3words ltd, are ever unable to maintain the what3words technology or make arrangements for it to be maintained by a third-party (with that third-party being willing to make this same commitment), then we will release our source code into the public domain. We will do this in such a way and with suitable licences and documentation to ensure that any and all users of what3words, whether they are individuals, businesses, charitable organisations, aid agencies, governments or anyone else can continue to rely on the what3words system.

Reassuring.

I'd really recommend installing the app, using it and telling as many other people about it as possible.

And the article's headline? That's one of my favourite places to camp.

Digital Trends article.




GauGAN - the AI Artist

A short while ago I wrote about 'This Person Is Not Real' - an AI project that created realistic human faces from scratch. nVidia is experimenting with an app that can turn MS Paint style sketches into realistic looking photographic images. The app is not generally available, relies on computers with AI CPUs (Tensor chips) and so is not something that you can rush out and try.

Some of the resulting images can look like bad uses of the cut, paste and clone stamp tools in Photoshop, but that even this much is possible is pretty amazing.

But the video is cool in a kinda awesome, breathtaking way. Well worth showing your learners.


Google- The serial App, product and Services killer.

I am a voracious reader of news. That's why I write this blog. I manage this by using RSS - and for a long time I relied on Google Reader as my go-to RSS reading tool. Seven years after creating it Google summarily cancelled Reader.

I also enjoy taking (and editing) photos. One of the best plugins tool suites for image editing is called the NIK Suite, of which Viveza is my favourite tool. Google bought the tool in 2012. It dropped prices drastically (from $500 to $130) and then, in 2016, started to give the suite away for free. In 2017 they decided to kill the NIK product line. Luckily Dx0 (a photography software company) bought the brand from them and has continued development.

The list of Apps and Services that have died at the hands of Google is long - and does not include examples such as the NIK photographic plugins (because they were bought out and so did not die). Many of these were not created by Google. They were bought; they had loyal, enthusiastic users who watched their favourite tools languish and die at the hands of a mindless behemoth that consumed them, used them up and excreted them on the dungheap of history.

How long is this list, you ask? Just take a look at KilledByGoogle.

Does that seem like the behaviour of a responsible digital citizen to you?

Talking of irresponsible: Facebook strikes again.

It might be a really good idea to change your Facebook or Instagram password. And anyother password that is the same as your Facebook password (you naughty user you!).

Why? Because it turns out that Facebook kept hundreds of millions of user's data stored on locally accessible computers in plain text (i.e. unencrypted format). That means any Facebook employee (or person with access to the data) could look up the password of almost any Facebook user.

Since 2012.

Liklihood that someone actually looked up your password: Low. Change it anyway, to be safe. And think about just how irresponsible Facebook is when it comes to valuing / protecting your data and your privacy.

Malvertising vs Adware

CSO Online explains (includes a brief explanation of the use of steganography).

Fabian Fights Back - against Ransomware

Great read from the BBC.

Pay by Face

Not sure I'm ready for this. Apparently the Chinese are.

Follow up on Boeing 737 Max 8

Popular Science on software as part of aircraft design.ExtremeTech on how safety features that could have prevented the crashes were 'optional' (expensive) extras. CNN on how pilots with experience on other 737 models were 'trained' on the 737 Max 8 (with no reference to the new MCAS system in the course materials).

Profits over lives. Not looking good for Boeing.

Flat Earth?

I've known about people choosing to believe that the earth is flat for a while. What I have not known is the craziness of the world that these people inhabit. Ars Technica has an article that sums up the content of 'Behind the Curve' - a documentary screening on Netflix, Amazon and Google Play. Not really tech or IT related, but the article is worth reading and the documentary worth watching.

Other Links:


That's it for this week.

Comments

Beware of bugs - software quality matters more than you think.

Software. The encoding of human thought and problem solving into steps that a brainless machine, unthinking can follow - and follow blindly and unquestioningly.

29 October 2018. Indonesian airline Lion Air had a plane crash 12 minutes after takeoff. 189 people die. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8. 10 March 2019. An Ethiopian airlines flight crashes shortly after takeoff. 159 people die. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 Max 8.

The 737 Max 8 is a new variation on an old design series. Changes in the physical design of the aircraft (including increasing the size and weight of the engines and moving the engines forward and higher on the wing) result in an aerodynamic tendency for the aircraft to 'nose up'. This can cause the aircraft to 'stall' - a condition where the wings lose all lift and the aircraft literally drops from the sky.

To prevent this 'nose up' tendency a new software system was created to help prevent stalls. The system takes input from two Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors as well as other aircraft sensors (airspeed, flaps, throttle, etc). If the system 'thinks' the aircraft might be about to stall, it automatically (without warning the pilot) pushes the aircraft nose down, preventing the stall. This system is meant to prevent the aircraft stalling (and crashing) when the aircraft is under manual pilot control and operating in tight turns or at low speeds. For information, it is called the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System).

If it senses a too high angle of attack, the MCAS immediately takes control of the aircraft and pushes the nose down. The pilot is not notified This is awesome if the aircraft is actually about to stall. It will prevent a crash and save lives. If the aircraft is not about to stall and the sensor is faulty then what this does is put the aircraft into a dive - and causes a crash.

Pilots were not informed about the MCAS system, it was not documented in the manuals and pilots received no training on the system.

The consequence - when the sensors malfunction, the MCAS takes over. Untrained pilots end up fighting a plane that wants to nose down for no apparent reason. The normal controls to fight this - the yoke - are ineffective. The result: Tragedy. Death.

Boeing 737 Max 8 planes are grounded until Boeing releases a software fix in the next few weeks.

The fact is, getting software as bug free as possible matters.

I have often seen learners struggle and struggle to write a program - and stop the first time they get it to run successfully.

It is our responsibility to make our learners aware of the consequences of buggy software. The cost in millions of dollars to the economy of failed software. The potential for disaster, death, injury, bankruptcy and job losses when software goes bad... We have to install in them the awareness that a developers job goes way beyond simply getting the program to run. They have to test that it handles user errors gracefully. They need to test it with all kinds of incorrect and problematic input. They have to anticipate what they user can do wrong.

Their programs need to be resilient - or the consequences could be dire!

The videos below can be shown as some examples of consequences of software errors. The one titled 'Software disasters' is mainly interesting for the facts and figures at the start - the remainder is likely to put your learners to sleep due to the presentation style.


Other consequences of software errors:


Something worth spending a lesson on maybe - showing the videos, talking about consequences and responsibilities - and possibly integrating with things such as trace tables for algorithms or testing of software for major projects.

Hope it's useful!

Comments

The USB confusion continues - and other stories...

The USB standard is a bit of an unholy mess. USB 3 is called USB 3.1 Gen 1. The actual, faster USB 3.1 is called USB 3.1 Gen 2. USB C is actually a cable connector and port and has nothing to do with the actual data speed and capabilities of the port which can range from USB 2 through both USB 3.1 Generations 1 & 2 to the super fast Thunderbolt 3 standard. Consumers are faced with the tedious task of figuring out just what type of connections and data speeds their computer's ports and cables support (if you would like more information and examples of the USB standards and cables, you can find it in the Hardware, Connections section of my online Grd 10 IT theory textbook at Learning Opportunities).

Someone needs to do something sensible to clear this up - just like the WiFi people did with WiFi by changing the names to WiFi 1 - 5 (the current WiFi AC standard). The next WiFi standard will be called WiFi 6. No more strange names to remember. The fastest WiFi will have the highest version number. Compatibility will be easy to check.

Well done those guys. Give yourselves a Bells...

The USB lot on the other hand should be ashamed of themselves.

There's a new, faster USB standard coming out this year. It will be called USB 3.2. All good and well.

BUT

The silly &*##$@^ have decided that USB 3.1 will no longer exist - everything moves up to become USB 3.2. The fastest USB will therefore be USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 - and will be capable of 20 Gbps. USB 3.1 Gen 1 becomes USB 3.2 Gen 1 - and so on.

In 2020 / 2021 USB 4 will make it onto the scene and will finally bring USB up to the speed and capabilities of Thunderbolt 3.

Undersea cables - just how miraculous are they?

OK. Most of us know that the international internet depends on undersea fibre optic cables that connect the continents. There are thousands of miles of physical cable - and nearly 400 individual cables lying in the ocean depths of our globe.

But if you are anything like me it is hard to conceive of just how a whole country's internet traffic can be squeezed into travelling over a single cable. I mean, just put too many people on your LAN or WiFi network or into the same cellular tower footprint (like at a sports stadium) and watch your data speed drop to a speed that a drunken, cripple snail could outrun on a bad day.

So how do they do it? Well, by tweaking the way that light is used to encode data. Popular Science has an article that explains, in depth, just how this is done in a new cable laid between Spain and the USA.

This cable contains 8 pairs of fibre optic cables. Fibre optic cables come in pairs because data can only travel one way in a single fibre optic strand - so you need one to send and one to receive.

If you are the TLDR; kind of person (Too Long, Didn't Read), the takeaway from the article is that the new technology means that 1 fibre optic strand in this new cable is capable of transmitting data at a rate of 4.6 Million HD movies a second (25.2 terabits a second).

That's how they do it! That's how miraculous these cables are!

Facebook moderator - a job straight from the lowest, deepest, darkest, hottest pit of hell.

People are weird. They have strange ideas of what is wrong and right. They also have a tendency to try to share disturbing, inappropriate, hateful things on social media sites.

Social media companies tend to have an over-arching view that they are 'platforms' not 'publishers'. The difference between the two is that if they are a 'platform' they can not be hold legally accountable for what their users post on the site. Despite this, the social media companies are also under a tremendous amount of social pressure to make sure that the content on display does not offend the majority of their users (after all they do not want users to leave the site).

So, content that is reported as being offensive or detected as being problematic in other ways has to be run through human screeners who have to check the content against multi-page lists of what the site regards as acceptable or not. They then have to either reject the content or allow it to remain on the site.

You need to read this article from The Verge.

It is astonishing how little they pay these guys, considering how awful the job is....

Pencils Vs Keyboards

Daniel Lemire has written an interesting piece about how education stubbornly sticks to pen / pencil and paper as opposed to embracing the keyboard. An interesting and thought provoking piece.

The Piracy Problem

Poor quality. Bad sound. Over compression. Incomplete files. Mislabelled files. Incomplete downloadsWrong language. Subtitles. People moving around in front of the camera filming the screen. And so much more...

Generally speaking, Piracy is a sub-par media experience which usually is the culmination of a frustrating, time consuming process of scouring torrent and other sites to find and download the media you are looking for.

So why does it persist?

Enforced, unnatural scarcity and excessively high prices.

I have been a pirate. The reason in the past was that there was simply no legitimate means to get the media I wished to consume. I was willing to pay, but no one would take my money. I firmly believed (and still do) that the piracy problem which media companies wail and moan and gnash their teeth about is a direct consequence of their own policies and behaviours.

Most people prefer to pay a reasonable fee and have reliable, hassle free access to a quality media experience if at all possible.

Over the years, research has proven two things: piracy increases sales of (some) media and piracy is on the decrease thanks to services such as the iTunes store, Netflix, Amazon, etc - where those services are available that is.

HBO's Game of Thrones is the most pirated media in the world - but it is also hard to obtain. HBO is only available in limited regions. DVDs are only available on delayed release long after the broadcast schedule - and not everywhere around the world (I lived in Kenya for 4 years, there was NO legitimate source of DVDs anywhere). iTunes may be available in SA but does not offer the option to purchase TV series.

Blockbuster movies actually do suffer as a result of piracy. We live in a connected world. A buzz worthy movie released on a staggered global schedule must expect that people won't wait - they want to join the conversation, and if piracy is the only way to do so.... That's why the biggest blockbusters have a same day global release. But not all places have cinemas and cinema prices are exorbitant (especially in countries with low per capita income levels). Other avenues (DVD / TV broadcast) are delayed 6 - 9 months. If other, legitimate, non time-delayed avenues were available I'm sure that the piracy problem would decrease even more!

One for the IT teachers - we are all teaching programming wrong!

Bret Victor's interactive article on the topic. A must read. I wish the tool in his article existed! A very thought provoking and interesting read with a lot of ideas worth considering.

This person does not exist

In case you missed it, AI software can now generate portrait images of people that look completely realistic - except that the people in the image never ever existed.

Take a look at thispersondoesnotexist.com. The site does tell you not to panic... The creator explains why he did it... Less successful is the AI trying to create cats (refresh to get a new image).

Girls get Tech

The question of girls and tech and increasing their involvement is a perennial one. Something I as sure we all have wrestled with. There are no easy solutions. The Girl Scouts of America have some interesting research on the topic - well worth a read.

Our bright tech education future - according to SONA

Tablets. Ebooks. 6 Years.

So many questions....

Can I use that picture?

Maybe the infographic on this page can help answer the question. Buy it, print it and put it up in your classroom!

That's it for this week...

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