School for teenage codebreakers to open in Bletchley Park

Who can resist things that land on the intersection of history and geekiness? From the Guardian: School for teenage codebreakers to open in Bletchley Park.

Its first operatives famously cracked coded messages encrypted by the Nazis, hastening the end of the second world war.

Now Bletchley Park is planning a new school for the next generation of codebreakers in order to plug a huge skills gap in what is fast emerging as the biggest security threat to 21st-century Britain. [continue]

Names that break computer systems

This delights me. From the Beeb: The names that break computer systems.

Jennifer Null’s husband had warned her before they got married that taking his name could lead to occasional frustrations in everyday life. She knew the sort of thing to expect – his family joked about it now and again, after all. And sure enough, right after the wedding, problems began.

“We moved almost immediately after we got married so it came up practically as soon as I changed my name, buying plane tickets,” she says. When Jennifer Null tries to buy a plane ticket, she gets an error message on most websites. The site will say she has left the surname field blank and ask her to try again.

Instead, she has to call the airline company by phone to book a ticket – but that’s not the end of the process.

“I’ve been asked why I’m calling and when I try to explain the situation, I’ve been told, ‘there’s no way that’s true’,” she says.

But to any programmer, it’s painfully easy to see why “Null” could cause problems for software interacting with a database. This is because the word ‘null’ can be produced by a system to indicate an empty name field. Now and again, system administrators have to try and fix the problem for people who are actually named “Null” – but the issue is rare and sometimes surprisingly difficult to solve. [continue]

Apple’s Tim Cook on privacy

Apple has risen substantially in my estimation lately. Look at these articles from the Guardian:

And now this, from the Verge: Tim Cook: Silicon Valley’s most successful companies are selling you out.

Hurrah, Tim.

(I still use Linux, though.)

Visit China’s Forbidden City — as a virtual eunuch

From Reuters: Visit China’s Forbidden City — as a virtual eunuch.

Culture fans thousands of miles from Beijing can now visit its famous Forbidden City, through a three dimensional recreation of the vast palace that also allows them to dress up as an imperial eunuch and meet a courtesan.

One of the jewels in China’s cultural crown, the sprawling complex in the heart of the capital already gets tens of thousands of real-life visitors each day.

But now online tourists can also watch the Qing dynasty emperor feast at dinner, train fighting crickets and feed them with blood-fattened mosquitoes, or practice archery with the help of a courtesan.

At the virtual palace, unveiled on Friday, they can also [continue]

Interested? Off to The Forbidden City website, then, where you can download the Virtual Forbidden City for Windows, Mac, or Linux.

Jhai PC: low-cost computer links villages to the web

From csmonitor.com: Jhai PC: Low-cost computer links villages to the Web.

In the small Hmong village of Phonsavad in Laos, three hours upriver from the nearest road, the Jhai PC is a portal to another world. Built to withstand monsoon rains and extreme temperatures and linked to the Web by satellite, the tough computer brings villagers weather reports, current prices for their rice crops and weavings, and contact with relatives living abroad.

It comes with a communications suite that both literate and illiterate villagers can use and will eventually host a videoconference kit for checkups with doctors. The computer costs about $200 and can charge its battery from a generator powered by pedaling a stationary bike.

All of this would seem to put it in the company of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Intel Classmate, and other high-profile, low-cost PCs targeting the developing world.

But the Jhai PC is the product of a relatively small nonprofit in San Francisco, the Jhai Foundation, and a friendship between Jhai founder Lee Thorn and computer engineer Lee Felsenstein.

What sets their Jhai PC project apart – and has quietly garnered interest from 65 countries – is that it expects something in return: financial sustainability.

"There are tens of thousands of dead computers in rural villages all over the world," says Mr. Thorn. "The real problem of sustainability is how do people make money off this [technology] so they stay interested in it for a long time. Otherwise it’s just some white guy’s dream." [continue]

One dead computer

Last week my laptop said "ahem, I am feeling quite ill. Look at the problems I’m having! I might even die soon." And what do you know? On Saturday day the poor thing did die. I miss it. It was such a light and responsive machine.

After a bit of scrambling I’m using one of my husband’s old laptops. It weighs more than an obese cat and it won’t do wireless, but will tide me over until my new laptop arrives.

New laptop? Oh yes. It’s a Dell machine, running Ubuntu Linux. I love the idea of getting a laptop that comes with Linux right from the start. (No annoying Microsoft tax.)

If I don’t blog much over the next week or so, you can assume it’s because — due to lack of wifi — I can’t sit out on the porch while blogging. If you see the usual amount of new content here, you can assume that the temporary machine is pleasant enough to use, and that I don’t mind hanging out in my office upstairs so much after all.

Web-based personal organizers

I used to use a Palm Pilot to organize my life, and that worked perfectly for years. But the new Palm Pilots aren’t for me, so that’s out. Now I’m looking for a replacement system.

There are a number of interesting web-based personal organizers, and I’m thinking of trying one of those. I like David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, so I’d prefer a site that supports the GTD approach. Here are some possibilities I’m considering:

Do any of you use these sites, or something similar? If so, I’d love to hear what you think of them. Which do you think is the best of the lot?

Bacteria-run computer solves math puzzle

From discovery.com: Bacteria-Run Computer Solves Math Puzzle.

A new living computer, bred from E. coli bacteria instead of stamped from silica, has for the first time successfully solved a classic mathematical puzzle known as the Burnt Pancake Problem.

While this bacteria-based computer is more proof of concept than practical, a living computer might one day solve complex mathematical problems faster than silicon supercomputers.

"The computing potential of DNA far exceeds that of any other material," said Karmella Haynes, a researcher at Davidson University and lead study author. "If we figure out how to increase that capacity in a practical manner we will have much more computing power." [continue]

Asus to embed Linux into all motherboards

Happy geek news from zdnet.co.uk: Asus to embed Linux into all motherboards.

Asus is to embed a lightweight, instant-on version of Linux called "Splashtop" into all its motherboards, following good feedback from customers.

On Wednesday, DeviceVM, the company behind the distribution, said the hardware manufacturer would be putting Splashtop — which Asus calls "Express Gate" — into a million motherboards a month. Splashtop includes a Firefox-derived browser and the Skype internet-telephony application.

Splashtop is described by DeviceVM as a "secure web-surfing environment", and is embedded on motherboards so that it can be booted within seconds, as an alternative to booting up a full operating system. It first appeared on high-end Asus motherboards in October 2007 and has since been put onto the more mainstream M3 series, but, according to Joe Hsieh, general manager of Asus’ motherboard business unit, it will now be extended to the entire range. [continue]

Summary for non-geeks: more Linux out there in the world! I like Linux, so this kind of news makes me happy.

Victorian ‘supercomputer’ is reborn

Good heavens. Somebody’s gone and built a Difference Engine No 2, the computer Charles Babbage designed 160 years ago. The Beeb reports: Victorian ‘supercomputer’ is reborn.

The reason the machine is so highly regarded is because it is seen as the first attempt at automated computing and viewed as something of a missing link in technology history.

Designed by the 19th Century computer pioneer Charles Babbage, the Difference Engine No 2 is a piece of Victorian technology meant to compute mathematical expressions called polynomials and return results to more than 31 digits, knocking the socks off your souped up pocket calculator.

Added to that it has a printer which stamps the results of its calculations on paper and on a plaster tray.

"You can stand in front of this monster of a machine as a Victorian would have done and still have the sense of wonder a Victorian would have had at that time," marvels Mr Swade. [continue]

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Kids’ response to the XO laptop

Michael Tiemann gave his 8-year-old daughter an XO laptop for Christmas, and blogs about how that’s working out: Risks–and rewards–of XO laptop.

…the real fun began after we started to explore the XO’s games. I told her to open Pippy and we played the "guess the number" game. In Pippy, the source code appears on the top half of the screen, and the interaction window (where you enter your name and guess the number) appears on the bottom half. She played the game three times, averaging about 7 guesses per try, and then said "I want to play another game." I suggested she try playing a different game by modifying the parameters to guess a number between 1 and 1,000,000, instead of between 1 and 100. She looked at me with wide eyes. I explained that on the top was a program, the program of the game, and that if she changed a single number in two places, she could change the game itself. She went from a look of "no way" to a look of "OK! What are we waiting for!" in about 200 milliseconds. She started to enter a million, decided that was just a little too large, and changed it to 1,000. She hit "run" and sure enough, the prompt asked for a guess between 1 and 1,000. She looked at me excitedly. I told her to guess, and after 11 guesses, she got it. She looked at me again, somewhat amazed. I told her she had just programmed the computer. I might as well have told her we were going to spend a week in Cinderella’s castle — she jumped up, shrieked, and yelled "HEY MOMMY! GUESS WHAT!? I JUST PROGRAMMED THE COMPUTER!"

Needless to say there was much excitement. She tried other modifications, including a version of the game she could win every time on the first try. She got her syntax errors, run-time errors, all the other scrapes and bruises one gets on the way to learning how to program, but she was excited, elated, and became confident! The little scorekeeper in me said:

Negraponte: 1, Doubt: 0.

[continue]

Meanwhile, physorg has an article about how kids are doing with the XO laptops in Peru.

A child’s view of the $100 laptop

This story makes me happy. From the BBC: A child’s view of the $100 laptop.

In late November I returned from Nigeria with a sample of the XO laptop.

The computer, made by the One Laptop per Child charity, is a robust little machine designed to entertain and educate children while allowing them to learn by themselves.

I knew there was only one person who could review it for me.

Enter Rufus Cellan-Jones. He is nine, has far more experience of games consoles than computers, and has strong views on most matters.

"Looks fun," was his only comment when I handed over the small, green and white laptop, explaining that he was the only child in Britain to have one. [continue]

I ordered one of the XO laptops a while ago; hope mine gets here soon.

XO laptops, available at last!

A recent New York Times article gives a good introduction: Laptop with a mission.

In November, you’ll be able to buy a new laptop that’s spillproof, rainproof, dustproof and drop-proof. It’s fanless, it’s silent and it weighs 3.2 pounds. One battery charge will power six hours of heavy activity, or 24 hours of reading. The laptop has a built-in video camera, microphone, memory-card slot, graphics tablet, game-pad controllers and a screen that rotates into a tablet configuration.

The computer, if you hadn’t already guessed, is the fabled "$100 laptop" that’s been igniting hype and controversy for three years. It’s an effort by One Laptop Per Child (laptop.org) to develop a very low-cost, high-potential, extremely rugged computer for the two billion educationally underserved children in poor countries.

The concept: if a machine is designed smartly enough, without the bloat of standard laptops, and sold in large enough quantities, the price can be brought way, way down. Maybe not down to $100, as O.L.P.C. originally hoped, but low enough for developing countries to afford millions of them — one per child. [continue]

(You’ll need a password if you want to read the rest of the article.)

Sounds interesting, yes? I love that the XO computer runs the Linux operating system, includes free software, and is reputed to be durable and easy to use.

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Jesuits say take word of God to Second Life

From Reuters: Jesuits say take word of God to Second Life.

Catholic missionaries have always trekked to dangerous parts of the Earth to spread the word of God — now they are being encouraged to go into the virtual realm of Second Life to save virtual souls.

In an article in Rome-based Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, academic Antonio Spadaro urged fellow Catholics not to be scared of entering the virtual world which may be fertile ground for new converts wishing to better themselves.

"It’s not possible to close our eyes to this phenomenon or rush to judge it," Spadaro said. "Instead it needs to be understood … the best way to understand it is to enter it." [continue]

(Jesuits aren’t the only ones planning to use Second Life for real-world purposes. The Vancouver Police are using Second Life as a recruiting tool.)

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Spyware with a badge: policeware

From Ars Technica: The tricky issue of spyware with a badge: meet ‘policeware’.

It’s well known that organizations with nefarious and often criminal goals support and distribute malware and spyware that allows them to snoop on and/or manipulate people’s computers. However, what is less well-known is that some of the people behind spyware are ostensibly the "good guys"—law enforcement officers who install the software on suspects’ computers to assist them with their investigations.

The existence of "policeware" is not well-known, but the US government has used this sort of software before. In 2001, federal agents obtained permission from a judge to enter a suspect’s home and install keylogging software on his computer. The rationale for this unusual mode of investigation was to get around encryption software such as PGP and the web e-mail service, Hushmail, that the suspect was using. More recently, FBI agents used a virus to bust a bomb threat hoaxer.

So, given the fact that federal investigators and possibly other law enforcement personnel are using spyware to monitor suspect’s computers, what happens when said suspects run antispyware programs? [continue]

Microsoft patents the mother of all adware systems

From Ars Technica: Microsoft patents the mother of all adware systems.

It’s such a tremendously bad idea that it’s almost bound to succeed. Microsoft has filed another patent, this one for an "advertising framework" that uses "context data" from your hard drive to show you advertisements and "apportion and credit advertising revenue" to ad suppliers in real time. Yes, Redmond wants to own the patent on the mother of all adware.

The application, filed in 2006, describes a multi-faceted, robust ad-delivering system that lives on a "user computer, whether it’s part of the OS, an application or integrated within applications."

"Applications, tools, or utilities may use an application program interface to report context data tags such as key words or other information that may be used to target advertisements," says the filing. "The advertising framework may host several components for receiving and processing the context data, refining the data, requesting advertisements from an advertising supplier, for receiving and forwarding advertisements to a display client for presentation, and for providing data back to the advertising supplier."

The adware framework would leave almost no data untouched in its quest to sell you stuff. It would inspect "user document files, user e-mail files, user music files, downloaded podcasts, computer settings, computer status messages (e.g., a low memory status or low printer ink)," and more. How could we have been so blind as to not see the marketing value in computer status messages? [continue]

How utterly annoying.

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The Face of the $100 Laptop

From Business Week: The Face of the $100 Laptop.

The so-called $100 laptop that’s being designed for school children in developing nations is known for its bright green and white plastic shell, its power-generating hand crank, and for Nicholas Negroponte, the technology futurist who dreamed it up and who tirelessly promotes it everywhere from Bangkok to Brasilia. What has not received much attention is the graphical user interface — the software that will be the face of the machine for the millions of children who will own it. In fact, the user interface, called Sugar, may turn out to be one of the more innovative aspects of a project that has already made breakthroughs in mesh networking and battery charging since Negroponte unveiled the concept two years ago.

Sugar offers a brand new approach to computing. Ever since the first Apple Macintosh was launched in 1984, the user interfaces of personal computers have been designed based on the same visual metaphor: the desktop. Sugar tosses out all of that like so much tattered baggage. Instead, an icon representing the individual occupies the center of the screen; "zoom" out like a telephoto lens and you see the user in relation to friends, and finally to all of the people in the village who are also on the network.

It’s the first complete rethinking of the computer user interface in more than 30 years. "We’re building something that’s right for the audience," says Chris Blizzard, the engineering project leader for Sugar. "We don’t just take what’s already there and say it’s good enough. You can do better." [continue]

Developing nations to test new $150 laptops

From Reuters: Developing nations to test new $150 laptops.

From Brazil to Pakistan, some of the world’s poorest children will peer across the digital divide this month — reading electronic books, shooting digital video, creating music and chatting with classmates online.

Founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology academics, the non-profit "One Laptop per Child" project will roll out nearly 2,500 of its $150-laptops to eight nations in February.

The experiment is a prelude to mass production of the kid-friendly, lime-green-and-white laptops scheduled to begin in July, when five million will be built.

Its technological triumphs include a hand crank to charge its battery, a keyboard that switches between languages, a digital video camera, wireless connectivity and Linux open-source operating software tailored for remote regions.

The project’s operators say the price should fall to $100 apiece next year, when they hope to produce 50 million of the so-called "XO" machines, before dipping below $100 by 2010 when they aim to reach 150 million of the world’s poorest children. [continue]

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Action video games sharpen vision

From the University of Rochester: Action Video Games Sharpen Vision 20 Percent.

Video games that contain high levels of action, such as Unreal Tournament, can actually improve your vision.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that people who played action video games for a few hours a day over the course of a month improved by about 20 percent in their ability to identify letters presented in clutter—a visual acuity test similar to ones used in regular ophthalmology clinics.

In essence, playing video game improves your bottom line on a standard eye chart. [continue]