Nat Torkington

Nat has chaired the O'Reilly Open Source Convention and other O'Reilly conferences for over a decade. He ran the first web server in New Zealand, co-wrote the best-selling Perl Cookbook, and was one of the founding Radar bloggers. He lives in New Zealand and consults in the Asia-Pacific region.

Four short links: 17 March 2015

Four short links: 17 March 2015

Open Source Personal Assistant, Flintstoning Robots, Year of Personal Assistants, and Infrastructure Curiosity

  1. Sirius — UMich open source “intelligent Personal Assistant” (aka Siri, Cortana, Google Now, etc.). Text recognition, image recognition, query processing components. They hope it’ll be a focal point for research in the area, the way that open source operating systems have focused university research.
  2. MIT DragonBot Evolving to Teach Kids (IEEE Spectrum) — they’re moving from “Wizard of Oz” (humans-behind-the-scenes) control to autonomous operation. Lovely example of Flintstoning in a robotics context.
  3. Personal Assistants Coming (Robohub) — 2015 is the year physical products will be coming to market and available for experimentation and testing. Pepper ships in the summer in Japan, JIBO ships preorders in Q3, as does Cubic in the fall and EmoSpark in the summer. […]The key to the outcome of this race is whether a general purpose AI will be able to steer people through their digital world, or whether users would rather navigate to applications that are specialists (such as American Airlines or Dominos Pizza).
  4. Incuriosity Killed the Infrastructurebeing actively curious about “fishy” things will lead to a more stable and happy infrastructure.
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Four short links: 16 March 2015

Four short links: 16 March 2015

Turing and Bechdel, Women in Leadership, Coding Messaging, and VR Affordance

  1. Ex Machine: When Turing Meets the Bechdel TestThe Bechdel Test is useful for more than examining gender representation. It can be our Turing Test for creating believable alien or artificial life forms. If you look at our filmic or cultural representations of the other or alien, then you have to be struck by the singular nature of them all. From Frankenstein to Big Hero 6, do they have any reality without the central human characters? No, they are alone. Even Alien is alone. At least in Frankenstein, it is the utter aloneness of the new form that is the whole story. Films that have pushed the envelope are few. And doing a quick mental check, one was left feeling empathy for the ‘others’ in only a couple, like Westworld, BladeRunner, and Planet of the Apes, and the books of writers like Brin and Cherryh.
  2. Women in Business: The Path to Leadership (PDF) — Grant Thornton International Business Report on women in senior roles, operational and governance. Ends with some sound recommendations (via Rowan Simpson).
  3. Adventures in Messaging Queues — extremely readable tale of developing a custom piece of distributed infrastructure.
  4. Valve’s SteamVRWhat these two experiences shared was an overpowering sense of intimacy with the virtual space. This is brought home again and again in the demos, and its impact is profound. The smallness of the space you can move around – 15 feet square – is almost a virtue in this respect, because it focuses you on your immediate surroundings in a way the vast majority of video games don’t, and which has much more in common with real life.
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Four short links: 13 March 2015

Four short links: 13 March 2015

Sad Sysadminning, Data Workflow, Ambiguous "Database," and Creepy Barbie

  1. The Sad State of Sysadmin in the Age of Containers (Erich Schubert) — a Grumpy Old Man rant, but solid. And since nobody is still able to compile things from scratch, everybody just downloads precompiled binaries from random websites. Often without any authentication or signature.
  2. Pinball — Pinterest open-sourced their data workflow manager.
  3. Disambiguating Databases (ACM) — The scope of the term database is vast. Technically speaking, anything that stores data for later retrieval is a database. Even by that broad definition, there is functionality that is common to most databases. This article enumerates those features at a high level. The intent is to provide readers with a toolset with which they might evaluate databases on their relative merits.
  4. Hello Barbie — I just can’t imagine a business not wanting to mine and repurpose the streams of audio data coming into their servers. “You listen to Katy Perry a lot. So do I! You have a birthday coming up. Have you told your parents about the Katy Perry brand official action figurines from Mattel? Kids love ‘em, and demo data and representative testing indicates you will, too!” Or just offer a subscription service where parents can listen in on what their kids say when they play in the other room with their friends. Or identify product mentions and cross-market offline. Or …
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Four short links: 12 March 2015

Four short links: 12 March 2015

Billion Node Graphs, Asynchronous Systems, Deep Learning Hardware, and Vision Resources

  1. Mining Billion Node Graphs: Patterns and Scalable Algorithms (PDF) — slides from a CMU academic’s talk at C-BIG 2012.
  2. There Is No NowOne of the most important results in the theory of distributed systems is an impossibility result, showing one of the limits of the ability to build systems that work in a world where things can fail. This is generally referred to as the FLP result, named for its authors, Fischer, Lynch, and Paterson. Their work, which won the 2001 Dijkstra Prize for the most influential paper in distributed computing, showed conclusively that some computational problems that are achievable in a “synchronous” model in which hosts have identical or shared clocks are impossible under a weaker, asynchronous system model.
  3. Deep Learning Hardware GuideOne of the worst things you can do when building a deep learning system is to waste money on hardware that is unnecessary. Here I will guide you step by step through the hardware you will need for a cheap high performance system.
  4. Awesome Computer Vision — curated list of computer vision resources.
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Four short links: 11 March 2015

Four short links: 11 March 2015

Working Manager, Open Source Server Chassis, Data Context, and Coevolved Design & Users

  1. As a Working Manager (Ian Bicking) — I look forward to every new entry in Ian’s diary, and this one didn’t disappoint. But I’m a working manager. Is now the right time to investigate that odd log message I’m seeing, or to think about who I should talk to about product opportunities? There’s no metric to compare the priority of two tasks that are so far apart. If I am going to find time to do development I am a bit worried I have two options: (1) Keep doing programming after hours; (2) Start dropping some balls as a manager.
  2. Introducing Yosemite (Facebook) — a modular chassis that contains high-powered system-on-a-chip (SoC) processor cards.
  3. The Joyless World of Data-Driven StartupsThere is so much invisible, fluid context wrapped around a data point that we are usually unable to fully comprehend exactly what that data represents or means. We often think we know, but we rarely do. But we really WANT it to mean something, because using data in our work is scientific. It’s not our decision that was wrong — we used the data that was available. Data is the ultimate scapegoat.
  4. History of the Urban Dashboardthe dashboard and its user had to evolve in response to one another. The increasing complexity of the flight dashboard necessitated advanced training for pilots — particularly through new flight simulators — and new research on cockpit design.
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Four short links: 10 March 2015

Four short links: 10 March 2015

Robot Swarms, Media Hacking, Inside-Out Databases, and Quantified Medical Self

  1. Surgical Micro-Robot SwarmsA swarm of medical microrobots. Start with cm sized robots. These already exist in the form of pillbots and I reference the work of Paolo Dario’s lab in this direction. Then get 10 times smaller to mm sized robots. Here we’re at the limit of making robots with conventional mechatronics. The almost successful I-SWARM project prototyped remarkable robots measuring 4 x 4 x 3mm. But now shrink by another 3 orders of magnitude to microbots, measured in micrometers. This is how small robots would have to be in order to swim through and access (most of) the vascular system. Here we are far beyond conventional materials and electronics, but amazingly work is going on to control bacteria. In the example I give from the lab of Sylvain Martel, swarms of magnetotactic bacteria are steered by an external magnetic field and, interestingly, tracked in an MRI scanner.
  2. Media Hacking — interesting discussion of the techniques used to spread disinformation through social media, often using bots to surface/promote a message.
  3. Turning the Database Inside Out with Apache Samzareplication, secondary indexing, caching, and materialized views as a way of getting into distributed stream processing.
  4. Apple Research Kit — Apple positioning their mobile personal biodata tools with medical legitimacy, presumably as a way to distance themselves from the stereotypical quantified selfer. I’m reminded of the gym chain owner who told me, about the Nike+, “yeah, maybe 5% of my clients will want this. The rest go to the gym so they can eat and drink what they want.”
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Four short links: 9 March 2015

Four short links: 9 March 2015

Shareable Audio, Designing Robot Relationships, Machine Learning for Programming, and Geospatial Databases

  1. Four Types of Audio That People Share (Nieman Lab) — Audio Explainers, Whoa! Sounds, Storytellers, and Snappy Reviews, the results of experiments with NPR stations.
  2. Designing the Human-Robot Relationship (O’Reilly) — We can use those same principles [Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics] and look for implications of robots serving our higher ordered needs, as we move from serving needs related to convenience or performance to actually supporting our decision making to emerging technologies, moving from being able to do anything or be magic in terms of the user interface to being more human in the user interface.
  3. Machine Learning for General Programming — Peter Norvig talk. What more do you need to know?
  4. Why Are Geospatial Databases So Hard To Build?Algorithms in computer science, with rare exception, leverage properties unique to one-dimensional scalar data models. In other words, data types you can abstractly represent as an integer. Even when scalar data types are multidimensional, they can often be mapped to one dimension. This works well, as the majority of [what] data people care about can be represented with scalar types. If your data model is inherently non-scalar, you enter an algorithm wasteland in the computer science literature.
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Four short links: 6 March 2015

Four short links: 6 March 2015

Design Fiction, 3D License, Web Funding, and API Magic

  1. Matt Jones: Practical Design Fiction (Vimeo) — the log scale of experience! Fantastic hour-long recap of the BERG thinking that he’s continued at the Google Creative Lab in NYC. (via Matt Jones)
  2. 3dPL — public license for 3d objects. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Google Contributor — when the web’s biggest advertiser tries alternative ways to fund web content, I’m interested.
  4. Templaran HTTP proxy that provides advanced features to help you make better use of and tame HTTP APIs. Timeouts, caching, metrics, request collapsing, …
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Four short links: 5 March 2015

Four short links: 5 March 2015

Web Grain, Cognition and Computation, New Smart Watch, and Assessing Accuracy

  1. The Web’s Grain (Frank Chimero) — What would happen if we stopped treating the web like a blank canvas to paint on, and instead like a material to build with?
  2. Bruce Sterling on Convergence of Humans and MachinesI like to use the terms “cognition” and “computation”. Cognition is something that happens in brains, physical, biological brains. Computation is a thing that happens with software strings on electronic tracks that are inscribed out of silicon and put on fibre board. They are not the same thing, and saying that makes the same mistake as in earlier times, when people said that human thought was like a steam engine.
  3. Smart Pocket Watch — I love to see people trying different design experiences. This is beautiful. And built on Firefox OS!
  4. Knowledge-Based Trust (PDF) — Google research paper on how to assess factual accuracy of web page content. It was bad enough when Google incentivised people to make content-free pages. Next there’ll be a reward for scamming bogus facts into Google’s facts database.
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Four short links: 4 March 2015

Four short links: 4 March 2015

Go Microservices, Watch Experience, Multithreading Bugs, and Spooks Ahoy

  1. Microservices in Go — tale of rewriting a Ruby monolith as Go microservices. Interesting, though being delivered at Gophercon India suggests the ending is probably not unhappy.
  2. Watch & Wear (John Cross Neumann) — Android watch as predictor of the value and experience of an Apple Watch. I believe this is the true sweet spot for meaningful wearable experiences. Information that matters to you in the moment, but requires no intervention. Wear actually does this extremely well through Google Now. Traffic, Time to Home, Reminders, Friend’s Birthdays, and Travel Information all work beautifully. […] After some real experience with Wear, I think what is more important is to consider what Apple Watch is missing: Google Services. Google Services are a big component of what can make wearing a tiny screen on your wrist meaningful and personal. I wouldn’t be surprised after the initial wave of apps through the app store if Google Now ends up being the killer app for Apple Watch.
  3. Solving 11 Likely Problems In Your Multithreaded Code (Joe Duffy) — a good breakdown of concurrency problems, including lower-level ones than high-level languages expose. But beware. If you try this [accessing variables with synchronisation] on a misaligned memory location, or a location that isn’t naturally sized, you can encounter a read or write tearing. Tearing occurs because reading or writing such locations actually involves multiple physical memory operations. Concurrent updates can happen in between these, potentially causing the resultant value to be some blend of the before and after values.
  4. Obama Sharply Criticizes China’s Plans for New Technology Rules (Reuters) — In an interview with Reuters, Obama said he was concerned about Beijing’s plans for a far-reaching counterterrorism law that would require technology firms to hand over encryption keys, the passcodes that help protect data, and install security “backdoors” in their systems to give Chinese authorities surveillance access. Goose sauce is NOT gander sauce! NOT! Mmm, delicious spook sauce.
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