Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Where is an industry consortium when you need one? More manufacturers promising autonomous vehicles

Besides Google, others are working hard at self-driving vehicles. Nissan has big plans:

The car maker promised to have "revolutionary," commercially viable self-driving technology in multiple vehicles within seven years.
"Nissan Motor Company's willingness to question conventional thinking and to drive progress — is what sets us apart," CEO Carlos Ghosn said in a statement.
He pointed to a 2007 pledge in which he said that by 2010 Nissan would mass market a zero-emission vehicle, adding that today, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric vehicle in history.
"Now I am committing to be ready to introduce a new ground-breaking technology, Autonomous Drive, by 2020, and we are on track to realize it," Ghosn said.

Of course, in these pages we have reported on Google's efforts, even as far back as 2010 information was flowing:

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside. The work of these and other engineers on the team is on display in the National Museum of American History.

A consortium of all these great minds would make headway. In the 1990s, there was some impulse towards this, but it stalled. There was efforts like this. Here's an excerpt, reporting on "progress:"

The National Automated Highway System Research Program was begun in 1992 in response to a legislative mandate for the development of an auto- mated highway system prototype and test track by 1997. To assist it in carrying out this mandate, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) created the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC) in 1994, enlisting the participation of nine leading organizations from academe and the motor vehicle, highway, electronics, and communications industries. Envisioning a fully automated, “hands-off, feet-off” system that would greatly enhance highway safety and capacity, DOT charged NAHSC with staging a public demonstration of automation concepts and technologies within 3 years. The demonstration, held in San Diego, California, in August 1997, fulfilled this mandate. DOT also charged NAHSC with specifying a pre- ferred automated highway system for future development and deployment. This goal was to be accomplished within 7 years.
Three years into the program, DOT asked the Transportation Research Board to convene an independent study committee to review the overall vision and mission of the National Automated Highway System Research Program, as well as the findings, performance, and future role of NAHSC. During the course of the committee’s 71⁄2-month assessment, DOT withdrew financial support from NAHSC. This decision apparently was driven by a de- sire on the part of the DOT to shift its priorities to encouraging adoption of nearer-term, safety-oriented technologies; it was hastened by a shortfall in research funds caused when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Effi- ciency Act expired in late 1997 and was extended temporarily by Congress. After critically examining the vision, mission, and approach of the National Automated Highway System Research Program in general, the study com- mittee concurs with this decision.

Time will tell if Nissan and Google can succeed where others failed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Web apps - ubiquitous, but second-hand step-child of software. Will that be true forever?

Here's some good stuff from over at ZDNet:

Jo Rabin, who's leading the push by web standards body W3C to get web app performance up to scratch, is optimistic web apps will eventually be the default choice for building the majority of commercial and business apps, while the article weighs up just how much web technologies need to be improved before this could happen.

Here at Bluedog we know web applications are definitely the foundation of world-class software.

Jo Rabin believes native apps are generally first to gain access to new platform-specific hardware features — such as navigating using a phone's GPS and accelerometer or taking pictures with a phone's camera. According to Rabin, if a particular hardware feature becomes popular, standards to implement that feature in the browser will always follow. Work is taking place within W3C to standardise APIs for web technologies to access many of the features found on modern smartphones. Ongoing work this year includes setting out a system-level API to allow a web app to manage a device's contacts book, a messaging API for sending and receiving SMS and MMS, new mechanisms for capturing photos and recordings, new event triggers that could handle mouse, pen and touch inputs, a new push API to allow web apps to receive messages in the background, new media queries for responsive web design, an API for exchanging information using NFC and precise control over resource loading times in a web document.

Since the mid-nineies. the design and implementation of dynamic web-based applications has captured the interest of software developers and customers alike. With a multi-tier architecture, we've seen the evolution of scripting languages, SQL databases to back them up, and XML as a means to simplify data. Developers today are adept at session handling, working with non-desktop browser clients (such as mobiles). Architected correctly, web apps implement web services and other service-oriented concepts to achieve scalability and security. This results in huge usability gains in the web context.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cryptography -- not as secure as we thought

An M.I.T. article looks at how encryption as we know it is less secure than we assume:

Information theory — the discipline that gave us digital communication and data compression — also put cryptography on a secure mathematical foundation. Unfortunately, as a group of researchers at MIT and the National University of Ireland (NUI) at Maynooth, demonstrated in a paper presented at the recent International Symposium on Information Theory, that assumption is false.

“We thought we’d establish that the basic premise that everyone was using was fair and reasonable,” says Ken Duffy, one of the researchers at NUI. “And it turns out that it’s not.” On both papers, Duffy is joined by his student Mark Christiansen; Muriel Médard, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT; and her student Flávio du Pin Calmon.

The problem, Médard explains, is that information-theoretic analyses of secure systems have generally used the wrong notion of entropy. But in cryptography, the real concern isn’t with the average case but with the worst case. A codebreaker needs only one reliable correlation between the encrypted and unencrypted versions of a file in order to begin to deduce further correlations. In the years since Shannon’s paper, information theorists have developed other notions of entropy, some of which give greater weight to improbable outcomes. Those, it turns out, offer a more accurate picture of the problem of codebreaking.

Read more here…

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Apple - Not the Patent Troll You Think

This article at Apple Insider provides an excellent summary of the history of Apple and its attempts to protect its intellectual property. And, by the way, the folks at Cupertino did not steal from Xerox.

The closest thing in the history of computing to a Prometheus myth is the late 1979 visit to Xerox PARC by a group of Apple engineers and executives led by Steve Jobs. According to early reports, it was on this visit that Jobs discovered the mouse, windows, icons, and other technologies that had been developed at PARC. These wonders had been locked away at PARC by a staff that didn't understand the revolutionary potential of what they had created. Jobs, in contrast, was immediately converted to the religion of the graphical user interface, and ordered them copied by Apple, starting down the track that would eventually yield the Lisa and "insanely great" Macintosh. The Apple engineers-- that band of brothers, that bunch of pirates-- stole the fire of the gods, and gave it to the people.

It's a good story. Unfortunately, it's also wrong in almost every way a story can be wrong. There are problems with chronology and timing. The testimony of a number of key figures at Apple suggests that the visit was not the revelation early accounts made it out to be. But the story also carries deeper assumptions about Apple, Xerox PARC, computer science in the late 1970s, and even the nature of invention and innovation that deserve to be examined and challenged.

So when innovators try to protect their hard work, thieving brigands should beware.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Emulate the Dutch for Healthy Citizens, Higher Quality of Life

Cycling in the Netherlands is extremely popular -- for a long time, except for a brief period post-war. The BBC has an interesting look at why bicycles are so popular in the Netherlands. This method of transport (and source of recreation) accounts for 27% all trips nationwide, and up to 59% of all trips in Dutch cities; so says Yes Magazine.

What can other countries adopt to help citizens become more fit, lower domestic reliance on petrol, and reduce congestion and pollution? In many countries bicycles, as a means of transportation, are largely ignored. Those who use bicycles to get around are often required to choose between uncomfortable, unsafe routes that go directly to their destination, or indirect, roundabout routes that provide better safety.

It seems in the Netherlands, the government is adept at providing direct, well-marked routes for bicyclists. This makes it easy to avoid busy, arterial roads with high speed traffic. This is a worthwhile step planners can take increase the number of people bicycling in DC, Dublin or elsewhere. Routes that are more direct for bicyclists provide further incentives for people to leave the car at home.

Luckily, if you want to visit European countries that are bicycle freiendly, Google has the tools you need -- especially now that they have added bike routes to many maps. Google has worked with partner organizations to map out the best and up-to-date bike routes and has added hundreds of miles of bike paths through Google Mapmaker.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How Do You Ticket a Driverless Car?

Over at New Scientist, an interesting discussion of the legalities of robot cars. Such vehicles, like the Google Car, use a variety of onboard sensors - and, in some cases, stored maps or communications from other vehicles - to assist or even replace human drivers under specific conditions. And they have the potential to adapt to changes in existing infrastructure rather than requiring it to alter for them.

Infrastructure, however, is more than just roads, pavements, signs and signals. In a broad sense, it also includes the laws that govern motor vehicles: driver licensing requirements, rules of the road and principles of product liability, to name but a few. One major question remains though. Will tomorrow's cars and trucks have to adapt to today's legal infrastructure, or will that infrastructure adapt to them?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snowden's Leaks -- Bad News for the Cloud?

According to Business Insider, Edward Snowden's leaking of National Security Agency (NSA) programs has signaled the end of the so-called "Cloud Bubble".

But was there ever a bubble to begin with? BI cites IBM's own admissions,

IBM used the word 14 times during its earnings call in July. “Cloud computing,” “cloud offerings,” “cloud infrastructure,” it was all there. Revenues from the cloud jumped 70% during the first half, IBM bragged – to cover up an ugly tidbit: overall revenues fell 3.3%, and revenues at its US hardware division, Systems and Technology group, plunged 12%.

Business Insider's Wolf Richter continues,

“Cloud computing you can trust,” is the motto on IBM’s Cloud site. Notwithstanding Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s unhampered access to data stored in the cloud. And it’s serious business: IBM blew $2 billion in July to acquire Softlayer Technologies, which it praised as “the world’s largest privately held cloud computing infrastructure company.” Whatever that means.

The cloud is also the big hope for another revenue-challenged high-tech hero, Oracle. Its cloud revenues were up 50%, screamed the headline on its earnings release for the fourth quarter, ended May 31, though overall revenues stagnated. In the prior quarter, revenues had dropped 1%, instead of rising, with hardware sales being an outright disaster. At the time, Oracle’s fearless leaders ridiculously blamed thousands of “new reps” for their “lack of urgency.” But the global cloud is where the action is for them.

Facebook, Amazon (its AWS hosts a number of big cloud-based websites, such as Netflix), Microsoft, Google... just about all tech companies, online retailers, social media companies, app makers, every company with online storage products, spreadsheets, calendars, collaboration tools, online data back-ups, photo-sharing sites, and what not, they’re all playing in the cloud. You log into a website to access software and your own data – that’s the cloud. In terms of hardware, it’s data centers and fiber-optic links. Thousands of them. Everywhere. Big Data takes place in the cloud. And the cloud is where the NSA goes to pick through everyone’s data.

Will government surveillance of so much private data cause a re-think of this model? I'm not sure. But I am skeptical there ever was anything besides normal growth for all things cloud. The internet itself *is* the Cloud -- from time immemorial the internet has been depicted as a cloud in architectural diagram, after all. With cloud architecture, servers and client apps can’t do everything. They are the engines for the software in between -- middleware -- that is the end reason the Cloud exists. Since the beginnings of the internet, the goal, IMHO, has been to break down the barriers between end users and the functionality they seek (be it computational power, data, or true information). And application hosting was the first step. For example, Bluedog's first offering was a version of our venerable product, Workbench, running as separate instances, connected to SAP R3 deployments -- the application service provider (ASP) model. But scaling and support for many customers made this approach untenable in the long run. The cloud aspect was there -- access complex software over the internet. But, as the architect of Workbench, I saw the need for a more balanced and flexible approach -- on that would allow much greater scalability when compared to the ASP model. Under my direction, the Bluedog team sought to support end users with direct access to a web-based applications running in a single stack -- all users and their data in one application. This cloud model enabled our customers to gain use of social collaboration tools without having to overhaul their entire infrastructure.
The scalability aspect of the cloud apply to more than just the multiple users, single database model – if the solutions in the cloud are structured correctly. Sometimes an organization will need to ramp up as future needs expand. Sometimes operations contract, entailing the dialing back of resource expenditures. In either case, change is much easier when using the cloud as the platform.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cycling Innovation - Dutch Style

At BBC, read how a team of Dutch designers is pioneering technology to make winter journeys even safer for and more attractive to cyclists.

Reflective crystals make lines in the road more visible in poor light, while other roads are getting underground heating.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Star Trek replicator, now...

Proponents of 3D printing say it has the potential to alter radically a number of industries. Peter Marsh, FT manufacturing editor, talks to one such supporter - Abe Reichental of US-based 3D Systems - to find out how it works and if it really is a 'disruptive technology' -- from the Financial Times.

Privacy in the post-PRISM Age

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has given her backing to proposed European privacy regulations and demanded that US firms should meet German privacy rules. Merkel's stance comes as US firms lobby against strict EU privacy proposals — but also follows revelations from Edward Snowden through German newspaper Der Spiegel, that the German authorities are helping the NSA spy on German citizens.

Update: NPR reports Germany canceled a Cold War-era surveillance pact with the United States and Britain on Friday in response to revelations by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden about those countries' alleged electronic eavesdropping operations.

Is Your Organization, well, Huggable?

The Japanese have a way with cute -- think Hello Kitty cute. Culturally, that works not just appealing to children, but as an overall marketing/communications strategy. Think about how Japan has leveraged brand characters, such as the cat. This has not been seen much outside of Muffy in the Netherlands or the Simpsons -- extending a character from the non-brand cultural space, turning it into an artifact that simultaneously signifies and does not signify a brand.

But does "cute" work elsewhere?

In a study by Rebecca Dyer, a graduate student at Yale, showed that people actually are more aggressive when they are confronted with cuteness. In the study, 90 men and women were invited to watch a slide show. Some were shown a funny slide show, others a neutral slide show, and a third group watched a cute slide show. They were instructed to pop bubbles on the bubble wrap, as many or as little as they wanted just as long as they were engaging in some form of motion. The results showed that the group that watched the cute video popped 120 bubbles while those that viewed the funny and neutral slide show only popped 80 and 100 respectively.

The research interprets this “aggressive” behavior as normal, that the cute images make us want to care for the creature (cute puppy, wide-eyed baby). Then, because we can’t, we react in a negative way with aggression. It does not seem Dyer is not suggesting that if we see a cute baby we are going to sock it in the face because we can’t take it home; she is describing a phenomenon that explains why we are so taken by child-like images.

Psychology Today examines a similar affect of cute on the brain. The study concludes that cute babies’ photos elicit a response in our brain that is different than when shown a picture of an adult, whether we are male or female. Cute is cute and it all make us want to take care of the cute thing. Women, the study says, respond more intensely to pictures of their own babies and children.

When making a purchase, many Japanese take a holistic approach to a product and its presentation. Also, they may be more concerned how the purchase will affect their individual and group identities. It is possible a Japanese consumer may want to feel secure about their purchase and seek to minimize uncertainty. An understanding of the social-cultural underpinnings of these strategies will help foreign firms compete in Japan, but may also help other organizations the U.S. and E.U. with breaking down barriers to serve customers better.

Mobile + Cloud = Results for the VA

"Mobile applications themselves will be local to the device, not cloud-based," said Jerry Ambrosh, FirstView's Senior Vice President, Health Solutions. "The Cloud Computing Environment is being used to support the VA's Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution, a Mobile Application Environment (MAE) for development, and an Internal and External App Store."

Mobile app developers will be able to access a cloud-based Veterans Health Administration's benefits system, he added.


More on Autonomous Vehicles -- the Robot Car of the Future Could Kill You

With autonomous vehicles such as the Google Car, there are potential benefits beyond reducing accidents and increasing traffic flow. We know that such cars could save time and fuel through more efficient driving and fewer traffic jams. There would be reduced accidents. And the technology could enable many groups — think, the elderly and handicapped — with the freedom of greater mobility. With BMW, Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and others hard at work on autonomous vehicles, we could see improvement in the environment by reducing greenhouse gases and pollution; and more.

Google’s driver-less cars are street-legal in three states, California, Florida, and Nevada. Eventually automated vehicles might be able to drive better, and more safely than you can -- a robot does not suffer from a drink driving problem, has no distracting texts to read, and has better reflexes.

Such technologies of course can benefit aerial vehicles, such as passenger plans and drones.

But this article in Wired explores some nuances of the ethical implications of robot cars.

On a narrow road, your robotic car detects an imminent head-on crash with a non-robotic vehicle — a school bus full of kids.... Your car, naturally, swerves to avoid the crash, sending it into a ditch or a tree and killing you in the process.

Ethical issues could also manifest as legal and policy choices. For instance, in certifying or licensing an autonomous car as safe for public roads, does it only need to pass the same driving test we’d give to a teenager — or should there be a higher standard, and why?

These kinds of questions will be addressed, by our legislature or by our courts.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Technologists -- like DaVinci -- are as much artists as technicians

It seems every software project relies on a few talented individuals, people who know how to utilize their tools to craft often unique solutions. Leonardo DaVinci may perhaps be the consummate example of artist/engineer, devising incredible artifacts that are engineering marvels, but also artistic wonders.

Deep End's Paul Venezia writes,

You've probably come across colleagues who were extremely skilled at their jobs — system administrators who can bend a zsh shell to their every whim, or developers who can write lengthy functions that compile without a whimper the first time. You've probably also come across colleagues who were extremely talented — who could instantly visualize a new infrastructure addition and sketch it out to extreme detail on a whiteboard while they assembled it in their head, for example, or who could devise a new, elegant UI without breaking a sweat. The truly gifted among us exhibit both of those traits, but most fall into one category or another. There is a difference between skill and talent. Such is true in many vocations, of course, but IT can present a stark contrast between the two.

Paul writes more about the duality of the nature of todays's programmer. Of course, customer objectives can influence this -- if the architect chooses to let the developer decide how to solve a from problem, creativity can flow. If the architect is already dictating specifics of the solution, then it is likely the developer is more craftsman. I'm of two minds on this: take the right approach for the unique situation, but apply repeatable processes to ensure quality.