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This Week in Tech

Ownership and the digital age

DRM. Digital Rights Management. The mortal enemy of the honest, paying consumer.

Bill Gates: “DRM .... causes too much pain for legitmate buyers”

I have long been a fan of digital media. The idea of being able to access any one of the thousands of songs in my large music library made me an early adopter of the mp3 format - even if it meant ripping hundreds of CDs and naming thousands of tracks. When ebooks made their first appearance I invested heavily. When movies and TV shows became available digitally I quickly transitioned from my large DVD library to the more convenient digital file format. It still bows my mind that wherever I go I can have my entire music library and book library and audiobook library with me - along with any films or TV episodes that I am currently watching (or want to watch in the near future).

What I am saying is that I have embraced digital media since the 1990’s and have seen various digital media platforms come and go. I have always tried to purchase my digital media from legitimate sources. I have often suffered for doing this instead of simply pirating the content.

Because of, you guessed it, DRM.

DRM is a serious topic this week because Microsoft has just closed its online bookstore. And it will be removing access to all the books that customers have bought over the years.

Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers' libraries

At least this time they are giving their customers refunds. A long time ago Microsoft was at the forefront of the whole move to ebooks with a PC based app called ‘Microsoft Reader’. It had a book store and its own, proprietary DRM file format with the .lit extension. I bought many books there. Eventually Microsoft shut down the store and cancelled the app. I was left with a library of books that I had bought and could (and still can) no longer officially read (there are ways around this - thanks Calibre!).

This moves us on to the real topic - in this age of digital media, what do you really own?

Here are some perspectives worth reading...

Black Hole Photo

You have probably seen the image of a black hole captured this week - the first one ever! How about talking about IT’s role in capturing the image?

  • First it was only possible to create the image by linking radio telescopes across the globe in a network to create one massive telescope with a ‘lens / dish’ that is The size of the earth. The telescopes were synchronized using atomic clocks. The telescopes captured the data in April 2017. Yet we are only seeing the image now - because of the time taken to process the data, wreck it and write papers about it.
  • Next is the matter of data - there were over 5 petabytes of it. It took 3 days to capture the radio data - with each telescope capturing around 350 terabytes of data per day. There is no way that this data could be transferred using a network - so it was stored on physical hard drives and flown to a central point for processing. Physically speaking, tons of hard drives were used!!!
  • Finally there is the processing. This is a good case for showing what supercomputers can do (and are used for). As powerful as these machines are, it took two of them to process the data - and that process (including refining the software) took a year to complete!
  • XKCD puts the size of the black hole in perspective


Links for the week:

That’s it for this week

Comments

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

It's not the screen, it's the content...

So we are IT / CAT teachers. By definition we encourage the use of screens and tech. How ambivalent does that make us feel when countless headlines from the media scream out reminders that 'screen time' is bad for kids and should controlled / limited / eradicated completely? I know that I have felt the inner conflict at times. Surely so many pundits and experts can't be wrong? Is what I am doing actually bad for the children under my care?

(Here are some examples of the dire 'screen time is the apocalypse and is turning our kids brains to mush' warnings out there: New York Times "I am convinced the devil lives in our phones." and here (Oct 2018); Business Insider; Quartz; The Guardian; IOL; and many, many, many more.)

To add to this I want to / have taken things a step further. I believe that an online, interactive textbook is a better tool for our learners than a traditional textbook - and I have gone ahead and "put my money where my mouth is" to create just such a thing (check it out at LearningOpportuinities.co.za).

And yet I still have this nagging question inside me about whether I am only making things worse....

But, here's the thing. Deep inside me I know that this hysteria about screen time is wrong. Screen time is not the problem. It's how the screen is used and what is on the screen that are the cores of the problem.

Screen time is often used as a nanny / pacifier (dummy) by adults too busy and caught up in their own lives to become involved with their children on a meaningful level. The screen keeps the kids quiet and out of your hair for hours at a time. It's a miracle of modern technology! Give it to the kids and they go away and don't bother you.

The screen time most known and feared by concerned adults (parents, teachers, researchers and especially sensationalist media) is the passive, vegetative watching of meaningless video (YouTube), hours of gaming and other isolating, unproductive activities (which to my thinking should include use of social media).

Screens, especially the small screens we carry around with us all the time - smartphones and tablets) are technological incarnations of the Dr Jeckyl / Mr Hyde (free ebook here at Gutenberg.org) dichotomy. They are not all bad (and not all good). They can be used for reading (as an avid ebook reader since before the advent of the iPhone and tablet I can and do sing the praises of the wonder of a library in my pocket). Not all videos are bad (there are many useful tutorial videos on YouTube as well as the mindless gunk). Some games are really great (if you have not tried - and made your learners play - Human Resource Machine then you need to stop reading this article now and do so; it's a great way to understand how a CPU works!).

So what do we do when confronted by people telling us that screen time is bad?

My response is to ask how the screen is being used.

Is the kid given a screen and expected to go away, shut up and keep themselves busy in an unsupervised way? Yes. That kind of screen time is bad.

Do you spend meaningful time with kids doing all sorts of activities (including outdoors activities, chores, sports, games and screen time) and so naturally keep a balance in their lives? Do you share screen time with them, discuss what is on the screen - and make sure that the things available on their screen are not all mindless drek? Do you encourage the use of the screen to discover, explore and create new things? Do you encourage and foster independence and self reliance by showing how the screen can be used to find solutions to problems?

These questions direct to a realisation that handling the screen differently can transform what could be bad into something good.

It's about time we protagonists of tech took a stand and said that IT doesn't have to be this way!

This rant is prompted by finally seeing an article "In defence of screen time" on Tech Crunch, reading it and feeling that it does not go far enough.....

This weeks news links:

Tim Cook on privacy - opinion piece for Time magazine.

First, the right to have personal data minimized. Companies should challenge themselves to strip identifying information from customer data or avoid collecting it in the first place. Second, the right to knowledge—to know what data is being collected and why. Third, the right to access. Companies should make it easy for you to access, correct and delete your personal data. And fourth, the right to data security, without which trust is impossible.

...

One of the biggest challenges in protecting privacy is that many of the violations are invisible. For example, you might have bought a product from an online retailer—something most of us have done. But what the retailer doesn’t tell you is that it then turned around and sold or transferred information about your purchase to a “data broker”—a company that exists purely to collect your information, package it and sell it to yet another buyer.

The trail disappears before you even know there is a trail. Right now, all of these secondary markets for your information exist in a shadow economy that’s largely unchecked—out of sight of consumers, regulators and lawmakers.

Let’s be clear: you never signed up for that. We think every user should have the chance to say, “Wait a minute. That’s my information that you’re selling, and I didn’t consent.”

Copyright:

  • Remember the EU articles 11 and 13 from last year? They are still not law (yet). Here's a great article showing their full effect - relating to Miley Cirus's tweet wishing Liam Hemsworth 'Happy Birthday'. A fascinating and complicated scenario.

Social Media:

Hardware:

Virtual reality:

VR seems to be going the way of 3D TVs. You saw a lot of hype about it for a while but are seeing less and less as time goes on. Why?

AI:

That's it for this week. Happy teaching!

Comments

28, 32 and Undersea....

This week Intel announced a new CPU with 28 cores that runs at 5 Ghz. A day later AMD announced a CPU with 32 cores (no speed specified). Both announcements are a clear indication of the direction CPU development is taking for the future. Though no prices were announced these top of the range CPUs are likely to cost around R20 000 or R30 000 (just for the CPU). Maybe one day when I'm all grown up I'll get me one of those....

Microsoft moves under the sea

If you ever need proof that servers are designed not to be accessed directly by humans (but rather only through the network) then look no further than Microsoft's new data centre. It contains only 864 servers but, to save on energy costs it is submerged beneath the ocean off the Scottish shore. The sea keeps it cool without power hungry air conditioning - and it completely powered by renewable energy. Motherboard has the details.

Buyer beware

Just because you see a 'deal' online don't believe that it's all that it's cracked up to be. MyBroadband investigates 'deals' on Takealot and finds that they come up seriously short... Remember always do some research and price comparisons before you click that 'buy' button.

Apple vs the plunderers of privacy

At its WWDC conference keynote held on Monday, Apple announce that its OS and browser (Safari) will take some serious measures to counter the way that you (the user) are tracked online by data vendors such as Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc. There are TWO main prongs to this defence:

  • any site containing Facebook 'like' buttons (or the equivalent from other services) will prompt you to agree to being tracked by these services
  • your digital fingerprint will be minimised so that all people browsing with Safari will look identical

On top of that, law enforcement (and therefore anyone else who can lay their hands on the technology) has been able to 'crack' and log into phones by using a box that connects to the phone by USB cable and brute forces its way through the password. No more. The new version of iOS will allow you to disable USB access if the phone has been inactive for an hour.

Here are some relevant links:

Apple and your digital health

Apple didn't stop with privacy. People have also been complaining that our devices are too addictive and demanding that manufacturers do something about it. Well Apple took these complaints to heart. The new iOS has a feature called Screentime which will allow you to track how much you use your device - in detail. You will be able to see how often you look at your phone or tablet, which apps take up most of your time (precisely measured). More than that, you will be able to set time limits for usage - and even specify these limits by app. So, for example, you can allocate yourself 15 minutes a day for Facebook. The OS will track the time you use (on your phone and tablet together), show you how much tome you have used, how much is left and in the end cut you off (obviously they do allow you to override the cutoff and continue). This could be a shocking eye opener for some of us...

Hacks, cracks and malware

Social media

Hardware

Robots, Drones, etc.

  • See how the drone Time cover was created

Social implications

That's it for this week....

Comments

The shamefaced catchup edition

AWOL. Sorry. Been busy wrestling with a project that I will be very pleased to reveal later in the year. Time and other tasks blurred into the background. That's no excuse for the blog to suffer - after all, the news keeps coming... I come back today shamefaced and contrite and will attempt not to do it again. As the title says, this edition will be largely a catchup - lots of bullets and links for you to explore on your own; little or no commentary from yours truly (you probably prefer it this way). Anyway, enjoy.

Robots and robotics:

Software Design

E-Waste

Social Implications

Privacy

Cybercrime - hacks, cracks, scams, etc.

Network & Internet

Hardware

AI

  • Want to experiment with Deep Learning? Lobe is a tool that makes it easy. Daring Fireball has more
  • Google Duplex - Amazing demo but is it for real?
    • Axios explains why it could all be fake
    • BGR takes it further

Software Bugs

Human error

Medicine

Humour

  • What is Amazon existed in the 80's? Someone created a mockup of a BBS style version of the site.

  • Try to imagine WhatsApp without smartphones....
  • And how about Siri?

Resources

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