A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Patent spot

You may or may not know that this week is WiFi week in the UK. You may also have wondered how commercial WiFi hot spot operators force you to their login page. Well Nomadix have patented their implementation, which is licensed by many operators.
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Friday, January 23, 2004

From LEO to Leonardo

One Sunday evening, one of the few I was at home, I watched London�s Home Movies (17:30 ITV1), and there it was: LEO, or Lyons Electronic Office, the first ever business computer, listed as such and accredited by the Guinness World Records. Earlier the same day I was browsing through the New Yorker issue currently on sale, and read about a collaboration between Stan Winston, the creator of all animatronics and special effects in films like Terminator, A.I., Jurassic Park, and Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, who is an MIT post doctoral fellow in socially intelligent humanoid robots. The result of the collaboration is going to be Leonardo, a creature that will be able to respond to humans with appropriate emotions according to what is being told to it. So, there you have it, technology that is evolving, and from the shorter name and huge size to the longer name and tiny size; Leonardo is only a mid size puppet that looks like a gremlin (only cuter).

While LEO was an 8 k machine that filled rooms, and could do basic arithmetic on punch cards, Dr. Breazeal is building the software that, according to her will make the robot not to capture human emotions but have �the pragmatic side � communicating with others and behaving more intelligently. If robots are going to have emotions, they�re going to have robot emotions.�

Have we gone full circle then? Are machine emotions possible? I could suggest further reading, but I choose to keep this light at the moment, and propose, instead of the nightmare world of �personalised advertisements� of the Minority Report, the more subtle, and a lot more �human� robots in Spielberg�s A.I. �

PS Ironically, the New Yorker website does not have issue archive, so the story is not available on line (not even for subscribers); ITV have deleted the reference to London�s Home Movies� I deeply regret the ephemeral nature of much of today�s online world� I will happily provide whoever is interested with a photocopy of the New Yorker article.

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Blame Game
Online gaming and code breaking

There are two stories that appeared recently, one in the Independent (16 Jan. 2004) and one today on the BBC. The Independent is talking about the ousting of a user from Sims, because he was publishing an online journal that was talking about "news" of the online community. Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor who is doing research in online communities was considered a threat from Electronic Arts who own the game and was thrown out as the news in his newspaper were reflecting the anarchic state of the game, which was bad publicity for attracting new users.

Today it was revealed that "Half Life's" (perhaps the most advanced video game to date) release, was again postoponed because someone stole a big chunk of the code and put it on the internet. The FBI are apparently involved in resolving this crime.

There are far too many things that happen online and, to me, are scary in the sense that too many people take them seriously. Code theft of course is a crime plain and simple, but after you read the Independent article on the Sims and the BBC Article about half life, I would like to ask you:

Would you agree or disagree with me that the only thing that has changed since the middle ages is the technology with which power and fantasies are played out? Is there not a new elite in society, those who have the "electronic" political power (as in the Sims), or those who have the "technical" expertise (like the Half Life code thieves), that rule what is increasingly to many closer to heart than real life? Or are these simulation worlds online real life repackaged?

In the middle ages, nobility had games where they used servants or slaves so it would be ok to kill them. Now we use pixels... we kill the pixels or we steal the pixels, but there is no refinement in our tastes and culture... or is there?


Link to the Independent article
Link to the BBC Story
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Friday, January 16, 2004

New Years Resolution

Go green and clean up your information pollution (from Jakob Nielsen).
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Sunday, January 11, 2004

Improve your handwriting

The traditional way of improving poor handwriting is to use a fountain pen as this slows down the rate at which one writes. The ability to create a font in your own hand is a pretty good way too.
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Sunday, January 04, 2004


We had a meeting of all our technology team recently and one item which came up was that of Smartcards. In particular, Oystercard, which is the card being used to handle payments on London Underground and London Buses. A few things came up. First that this was a similar technology to the Octopus card that has been in use in Hong King for a number of years and whose use has been extended to non-transport areas (a good summary is here). Secondly that Smartcard didn't seem particlularly appropriate for what we thought was not a very smart technology. On this latter point, Smartcard is, in fact an ISO standard that describes physical parameters and how data on the card is encrypted. Also, it is pretty smart. With the Oystercard system, journey details are relayed back to a central database - when this happens depends on the reader/writer. At fixed ticket gates (on the London Underground, for example), this happens immediately. With mobile reader/writers (on buses, for example), this happens when a data transfer occurs. Additionally, the pre-pay part of Oyster is pretty smart. If, for example, you load your Oystercard with some cash (in addition to your normal annual travelcard, say) the cost of journeys outside your normal validity will be deducted when you exit the system. And because data is stored centrally if you lose your travelcard you won't lose your money.
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