Why do we still manually change the clocks?

March 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm (odds) (, , )

As I took part in the usual twice yearly ritual this morning of “find the clock I’ve forgotten to change”, I noticed that the video was still on BST from October … And it got me thinking about how long it will be before changing clocks is a thing of the past. Not because someone finally convinces enough of a majority that we should abandon the concept, but more because all of our clocks will automatically update themselves.

Already, many smartphones, computers and tablets update themselves, either from time synchronisation over the Internet or by built-in knowledge of time zones and daylight savings formulae from around the world.

Many TVs and set top boxes will get a time signal over the air, as will digital radios. GPS is used for time setting a lot these days too and you’ve been able to get clocks that can receive the time signal (is it still from Rugby?) for ages.

So all we need now are radio/network connected ovens and microwaves, smartphones have already replaced wristwatches for many, that just leaves those cheap wall clocks that take a single AA battery.

So when you can buy cheap kids clocks in the 99p stores that auto update, I’ll know we reached the point where people will just wake up one day in March wondering why they are still feeling tired, not noticing that the clocks changed without their knowledge. And similarly there will be that odd day in October where people apparently wake up a hour early for no specific reason.

All that will be really needed then is for children’s body clocks to auto synchronise too and the transformation will be complete.


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Can computers write poetry?

March 27, 2013 at 9:43 pm (art, computers, interesting, internet) (, , , )

Working and being fascinated by computers and the Internet, I regularly come across interesting applications where someone has taken technology and done something quite unexpected with it.

But every now and again I happen upon something even more unexpected – a side effect of technology in action that is both quite unanticipated and extraordinary.  The website Google Poetics is one such site.

If you use Google, I’m sure you’ve seen how it anticipates what you wish to search for.  It is at times an interesting barometer for what the world is thinking about a topic.  I remember a very topical time when typing ‘how to quit’ had ‘how to quit facebook’ right at the top.  Probably after some Facebook update that was annoying people at the time.  Today it has how to quit … smoking; smoking weed; your job; drinking.  I don’t think this is personalised to me!

Now Google works very hard to anticipate everyone’s needs all as part of their mission to ‘return one search result – the one you want’.

But I doubt that even the engineers at Google anticipated that sometimes it will return a set of results that strikes a chord with people and actually means something quite profound.  That is what Google Poetics is collecting – examples of poetry made from the accidental (or at least, algorithmic) collisions from millions of people searching using Google.

Here are some of my favourites so far.

Would you like me to

  • Would you like me to be the cat
  • Would you like me to seduce you
  • Would you like me to
  • Would you like me to rephrase the question

We are not p

  • We are not permanent we’re temporary
  • We are not pilgrims
  • We are not pirates we are fishermen
  • We are not promised tomorrow

As I turn

  • As I turn the pages
  • As I turn away
  • As I turn up the collar on my favourite winter coat
  • As I turn my back on you

Sometimes I p

  • Sometimes I pretend to be normal
  • Sometimes I pretend
  • Sometimes I pretend I’m a carrot
  • Sometimes I put my hands in the air

The examples above bought to you courtesy of @GooglePoetics.  I could lose quite some time reading some of these.  And all as a consequence of the Google algorithms (far to) honestly regurgitating the behaviours of millions with some quite profound results.

And another interesting property of these poems, is that they are changing and not always the same for all readers. Try it yourself – type the titles into Google and see what you get back for you.  It will depend on your location, your search history, what everyone else has searched for recently and hundreds of other ‘small signals’ that combine within the walls of Google HQ to give you what it thinks you want.  Imagine attempting to design a system from scratch that could do this.  Talk about an emergent property!

Try it – its not quite as easy as I looks, and it can sometimes be dominated by song lyrics.  But every now and again you might find a gem.  If you do, make sure Google Poetics get to know about it.

Here is one of mine.

She is missing

  • She is missing
  • She is missing you
  • She’s a freak never missin a beat
  • She is missing me

Can computers write poetry?  I think this is proof that they can, albeit as an unintended consequence of something quite different.



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World Book Day Diminished Reality

March 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm (books, computers, kids) (, )

I hope all of you with children have gone out and got your free World Book Day books.  World Book Day is great – I really like to see anything that encourages people to buy books – not that we need any more in our house!  This year they come with something a little extra – you can download the world book day ‘Books Alive’ app (iOS and Android) and when you point your device at the book you get neat things happening.

Or maybe not so neat.  The technology is called augmented reality and it has great promise, but I’m afraid the World Book Day app is a bit of a gimmick.  For the four books we have, they only recognise the front page and then just play a video.  For one of the books, the author reads the story, which is nice, but for the others its the author saying a little about the book.  But it’s really not implemented very well – if you wiggle and it loses the book for a moment it resets.  This makes the whole experience a little like trying to watch YouTube through a wired network connection that passes through a shaky hand game – one jiggle and the video resets and starts again

And I have to say that the same thing could have been achieved a lot more reliably by using a simple QR code that links to an online video that then just plays.

This is a real wasted opportunity.  We could have had a short loop of Alfie and Annie Rose playing whilst sitting on the cover of our book.  We could have had Horrid Henry saying ‘nah nah ne nah nah’ at an appropriate page.  We could have had a scene from the Diamond Brothers or an animated Tom Gates cartoon.

Alas what we have is some cool technology that has been used to pointlessly replace the capabilities of existing technology.  For many this will be their first exposure to the world of augmented reality and most will see this and consider it far more trouble than it’s worth and in this instance I have to agree with them.  This example hasn’t provided any augmentation of the real world.  It’s just added a pointless frustration to it.  It’s a real shame.  I actually think it has detracted from the experience, by raising expectations and then disappointing.

Is there a lesson here?  Well I’d say don’t use a technology because you want to seem trendy or cool or because others are using it.  You have to use a technology because it adds something of value.  This could have added a lot.  In the end I think it took away.

The only saving grace for this one is that the kids got fed up with the tech and then settled down to read the book instead.  Maybe that was the real purpose of the technology all along?  A secret ploy to send mobile and e-book readers back to the written, paper, word?  I could live with that – I still like my books.  But I hate to say technology wasted and hate even more giving a promising technology a large exposure to a new audience and then not showing it off well.

Maybe in a few years we’ll all be wearing Google Glasses and the whole thing will just be part of the background noise of everyday life.  But for me, today, this really didn’t work out too well.  A real shame.


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Who’s Computer is it Anyway?

March 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm (computers, internet, security) (, , , , , )

I’ve been having ‘fun’ recently.  A friend had a laptop that was provided under the, now defunct, UK Government Home Access scheme.  This scheme provided a laptop to people in order to help get them into computers and online, and I believe the whole thing was set up Becta?

Anyway, these laptops came from certain suppliers – Comet and Misco were involved I believe – and had an ‘out of the box’ secure setup with anti-malware, parental controls and so on all pre-installed and pre-configured.  All well and good.  Until the scheme goes defunct and the computers are out of warranty and the suppliers no longer want to know.  In fact I think even Becta is no more?

So, here we have a computer with parent and child accounts and a special account to set it all up.  The Internet filter is protected by a password as is the special account.  I assume this was some kind of protection against ‘government scheme free computers used for surfing porn’ headline in the future.  All well and good, but the subscriptions to these services have now lapsed.  So they are blocking sensible websites, updating the machine is really getting problematical and my friend has reached the point where quite honestly she is ready just to chuck the whole lot in the bin.  Can I do anything about it?

Well I can’t stand seeing a decent PC go to waste and don’t mind a bit of a challenge.  At the end of the day I’m sure the Internet can provide.  If I can’t rescue their installation then Ubuntu or similar beckons, but as I don’t want to be administering this PC for ever and she is a non-technical user, I’ll see if I can unclutter her Windows 7 installation first.

Searching for default admin passwords gives some ideas but none of them work.  So permissions is finally solved with a bootable Knoppix CD and chntpw.  I now have an Adminstrator account, so to start tidying it all up.

Well the main hurdle is the Net Intelligence filter software.  Removal is password protected from main and safe mode.  There are some instructions on the Internet though, so taking a copy of the excellent autoruns tool from Mark Russinovich’s SysInternals suite, I set about finding all the references that make it start on boot.  But it sure clung on for dear life and put up quite a fight!

I still can’t actually physically uninstall it, well using appwiz.cpl anyway – I might head straight to the disk, but it no longer appears to run, so fingers crossed that is no more.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about who actually owns our devices these days.  Taking the obvious reply of ‘a hacker?’ out for a moment, so assuming we aren’t compromised by someone nefarious, how compromised are we by a third party company or organisation who, in reality, we don’t really know anything about.  There are lots of people who’d like to own your device – your communications provider, your device manufacturer, the people who wrote the operating system, the people who own the tools you use, your bank, those who own the online services you use … the list is endless (anyone remember the Sony rootkit saga?).

In this case the organisation set up the machine with a whole host of locked-in services and tools that ceased to work properly once their default 1 year was up.  Most PCs ship with something similar, although the difference with this scheme was that it wasn’t easy to turn them off.  So they were given a PC, but then not given a PC …

But what about your games console?  Your mobile?  Your TV?  Your Car? Do you actually really own any of that technology yourself?  Not really.  Not anymore.

I’m ready a good book at the moment (albeit slowly – I don’t seem to find much time to finish it) – Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet’.  He has a lot to say on the subject of how the Internet came to be and how a generative network (the openess of the Internet) and generative platform (a generic PC) led to the current situation of tools, services and uses that no-one could have imagined when these basic building blocks of networks and computers were originally being designed.

However, we are on the cusp of a problem looming.  In the interests of ownership, control or simply a desire for something shiny that ‘just works’ we are willing to sacrifice some of the key technological principles that gave us what we have today.  I’ve just seen part of the problems such things can cause in trying to untangle the mess left behind by the well-intentioned, but now defunct, scheme that brought that laptop to my door.

If that is a sign of things to come, then the future does not bode well on the current trajectory.  We’ll probably get away with it while our interests are aligned enough with the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and so on (notice I say ‘enough’ – they aren’t really aligned – these are companies seeking to make money from us all naturally).  But once those interest diverge, we’ll all be a bit stuck.

Open systems are definately our best hope, but they can’t really compete with ‘shiny’.



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Drayton SCR and RF 2 fault finding

March 6, 2013 at 5:57 pm (house) (, , , , , )

We’ve been having some issues with our central heating.  A couple of weeks ago it stopped coming on completely.

A bit of debugging seemed to be showing that the thermostat had stopped asking the heating to come on.  Sure enough, when I bypassed the thermostat by adding a loop wire back into our boiler (as per the manufacturers default ‘as delivered’ state) I was able to control the heating manually, so I knew the boiler was fine.  So what to do about the thermostat?

Well I could go out and buy a new radio thermostat for £100-150, but thought I must be able to do better.  We have a Drayton SCR receiver and a RF 2 controller unit.  It all looked like it was working.  The green light came on when the override was pressed, but the heating wasn’t triggered.  I could also see the red light flashing when the controller was asking for the heating to trigger – but still no signal to the boiler.

Eventually, after trying the ‘learning’ mode and commissioning sequence as per the manual, manufacturers troubleshooting guide, and general Internet wisdom, I eventually found a site that said that the SCR units can develop a fault over time where the large capacitor on the circuit board degrades and can’t maintain the voltage required to actually switch the boiler.  That sounded promising so I found a replacement capacitor on eBay for £4, waited and when it arrived got my soldering iron out.

That did the trick!  All working perfectly then for around two weeks.  Then I had a different problem.  This time the red alarm led was always on.  Again I went through the commissioning sequence but no luck.  I reset the controller as per Internet comments – removing battery draws, etc, still no good.  I tried new batteries too, but still no good.

Then I found a note that the last hand battery drawer was the display and the right hand drawer was the transmission circuits.  So as the display was all fine, I wondered if there could be a fault with the radio side.  The contacts looked a bit dirty, so I got the polish and a cotton bug out and gave them a clean.  That did it!  Even though official fault finding seemed to say the unit would be faulty, it was just dirty contacts in the battery drawer.

So, with a bit of logic, Internet support and willingness to think the problem through, our heating is all fine again now and so far (fingers crossed) I’ve not had to spent £100 plus to replace a thermostat that has otherwise worked fine for around 10 years.



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