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: 15 March 2016

Four short links: 15 March 2016

Car Hackers Handbook, Exoskeleton Regulation, Pythonic Spreadsheet, and AI Myths

  1. The 2016 Car Hacker’s Handbook (Amazon) — will give you a deeper understanding of the computer systems and embedded software in modern vehicles. It begins by examining vulnerabilities and providing detailed explanations of communications over the CAN bus and between devices and systems. (via BoingBoing)
  2. More Exoskeletons Seeking FDA ApprovalThe international group of exoskeleton providers with various FDA or CE certifications is growing and currently includes: Ekso in the US; Cyberdyne in the EU and Japan; ExoAtlet from Russia; and Israel’s ReWalk. Other providers are in the process of getting approvals or developing commercial versions of their products. My eye was caught by how global the list of exoskeleton companies is.
  3. Dirigible Spreadsheet — open source spreadsheet that’s not just written in Python, it exposes and IS python. See also Harry Percival talking about it.
  4. Everything You Know About AI Is Wrong (Gizmodo) — an interesting run-through of myths and claims about AI. I’m not ready to consider all of these “busted,” but they are some nice starters-for-ten in your next pub argument about whether the Matrix is coming.
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Four short links: 14 March 2016

Four short links: 14 March 2016

Measure What Matters, Broken Laws, Password Recovery Questions, and 3D Object Tracking

  1. What Thomas Hardy Taught MeIn educational research, perhaps the greatest danger lies in thinking “that which I cannot measure is not real.” The disruption fetishists have amplified this danger, now evincing the attitude “teaching that cannot be said to lead to the immediate acquisition of rote, mechanical skills has no value.” But absolutely every aspect of my educational journey — as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher — demonstrates the folly of this approach to learning. (via Dan Meyer)
  2. Why Anti-Money Laundering Laws and Poorly Designed Copyright Laws Are Similar and Should be Revised (Joi Ito) — Just like with the Internet, weaknesses in networks like the blockchain propagate to countries and regions where privacy risks to users could cause significant risks to human rights workers, journalists, or anyone who questions authority. The conversation on creating new AML and KYC laws for new financial systems like bitcoin and blockchain needs to be a global one.
  3. Secrets, Lies, and Account Recovery: Lessons from the Use of Personal Knowledge Questions at Google — Adrian Colyer summarizes a paper from Google. Using a crowdsourcing service, the authors asked 1,000 users to answer the ‘Favourite Food’ and ‘Father’s middle name’ questions. This took less than a day and cost $100. […] Using a single guess, it turns out, you have a 19.7% chance of guessing an English-speaking users’ answer to the favourite food.
  4. Clever MEMS 3D Object Tracking — early Oculus engineer has invented a nifty way to track a tagged object in 3D space. Worth reading for the description of how it works.
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Four short links: 11 March 2016

Four short links: 11 March 2016

Deep-Learning Catan, Scala Tutorials, Legal Services, and Shiny Echo

  1. Strategic Dialogue Management via Deep Reinforcement Learning (Adrian Colyer) — a neural network learns to play Settlers of Catan. Is nothing sacred?
  2. scala school — Twitter’s instructional material for coming up to speed on scala.
  3. Robin Hood Fellowship — fellowship to use technology to increase access to legal services for New Yorkers. Stuff that matters.
  4. The Echo From Amazon Brims With Groundbreaking Promise (NY Times) — A bit more than a year after its release, the Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility. The longer I use it, the more regularly it inspires the same sense of promise I felt when I used the first iPhone — a sense this machine is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future.
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Four short links: 10 March 2016

Four short links: 10 March 2016

Cognitivist and Behaviourist AI, Math and Social Computing, A/B Testing Stats, and Rat Cyborgs are Smarter

  1. Crossword-Solving Neural NetworksHill describes recent progress in learning-based AI systems in terms of behaviourism and cognitivism: two movements in psychology that effect how one views learning and education. Behaviourism, as the name implies, looks at behaviour without looking at what the brain and neurons are doing, while cognitivism looks at the mental processes that underlie behaviour. Deep learning systems like the one built by Hill and his colleagues reflect a cognitivist approach, but for a system to have something approaching human intelligence, it would have to have a little of both. “Our system can’t go too far beyond the dictionary data on which it was trained, but the ways in which it can are interesting, and make it a surprisingly robust question and answer system – and quite good at solving crossword puzzles,” said Hill. While it was not built with the purpose of solving crossword puzzles, the researchers found that it actually performed better than commercially-available products that are specifically engineered for the task.
  2. Mathematical Foundations for Social Computing (PDF) — collection of pointers to existing research in social computing and some open challenges for work to be done. Consider situations where a highly structured decision must be made. Some examples are making budgets, assigning water resources, and setting tax rates. […] One promising candidate is “Knapsack Voting.” […] This captures most budgeting processes — the set of chosen budget items must fit under a spending limit, while maximizing societal value. Goel et al. prove that asking users to compare projects in terms of “value for money” or asking them to choose an entire budget results in provably better properties than using the more traditional approaches of approval or rank-choice voting.
  3. Power, Minimal Detectable Effect, and Bucket Size Estimation in A/B Tests (Twitter) — This post describes how Twitter’s A/B testing framework, DDG, addresses one of the most common questions we hear from experimenters, product managers, and engineers: how many users do we need to sample in order to run an informative experiment?
  4. Intelligence-Augmented Rat Cyborgs in Maze Solving (PLoS) — We compare the performance of maze solving by computer, by individual rats, and by computer-aided rats (i.e. rat cyborgs). They were asked to find their way from a constant entrance to a constant exit in 14 diverse mazes. Performance of maze solving was measured by steps, coverage rates, and time spent. The experimental results with six rats and their intelligence-augmented rat cyborgs show that rat cyborgs have the best performance in escaping from mazes. These results provide a proof-of-principle demonstration for cyborg intelligence. In addition, our novel cyborg intelligent system (rat cyborg) has great potential in various applications, such as search and rescue in complex terrains.
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Four short links: 9 March 2016

Four short links: 9 March 2016

Surveillance Capitalism, Spark in Jupyter, Spoofing Fingerprints, and Distributing SSH Keys

  1. The Secrets of Surveillance CapitalismThe assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests. […] First, the push for more users and more channels, services, devices, places, and spaces is imperative for access to an ever-expanding range of behavioral surplus. Users are the human nature-al resource that provides this free raw material. Second, the application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science for continuous algorithmic improvement constitutes an immensely expensive, sophisticated, and exclusive 21st century “means of production.” Third, the new manufacturing process converts behavioral surplus into prediction products designed to predict behavior now and soon. Fourth, these prediction products are sold into a new kind of meta-market that trades exclusively in future behavior. The better (more predictive) the product, the lower the risks for buyers, and the greater the volume of sales. Surveillance capitalism’s profits derive primarily, if not entirely, from such markets for future behavior. (via Simon St Laurent)
  2. Thunder — Spark-driven analysis from Jupyter notebooks (open source).
  3. Hacking Mobile Phones Using 2D-Printed Fingerprints (PDF) — equipment costs less than $450, and all you need is a photo of the fingerprint. (like those of government employees stolen en masse last year)
  4. SSHKeyDistribut0r (Github) — A tool to automate key distribution with user authorization […] for sysop teams.
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Four short links: 8 March 2016

Four short links: 8 March 2016

Neural Nets on Encrypted Data, IoT VR Prototype, Group Chat Considered Harmful, and Haptic Hardware

  1. Neutral Nets on Encrypted Data (Paper a Day) — By using a technique known as homohorphic encryption, it’s possible to perform operations on encrypted data, producing an encrypted result, and then decrypt the result to give back the desired answer. By combining homohorphic encryption with a specially designed neural network that can operate within the constraints of the operations supported, the authors of CryptoNet are able to build an end-to-end system whereby a client can encrypt their data, send it to a cloud service that makes a prediction based on that data – all the while having no idea what the data means, or what the output prediction means – and return an encrypted prediction to the client, which can then decrypt it to recover the prediction. As well as making this possible, another significant challenge the authors had to overcome was making it practical, as homohorphic encryption can be expensive.
  2. VR for IoT Prototype (YouTube) — a VR prototype created for displaying sensor data and video streaming in real time from IoT sensors/camera devices designed for rail or the transportation industry.
  3. Is Group Chat Making You Sweat? (Jason Fried) — all excellent points. Our attention and focus are the scarce and precious resources of the 21st century.
  4. How Devices Provide Haptic Feedback — good intro to what’s happening in your hardware.
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Four short links: 7 March 2016

Four short links: 7 March 2016

Trajectory Data Mining, Manipulating Search Rankings, Open Source Data Exploration, and a Linter for Prose.

  1. Trajectory Data Mining: An Overview (Paper a Day) — This is the data created by a moving object, as a sequence of locations, often with uncertainty around the exact location at each point. This could be GPS trajectories created by people or vehicles, spatial trajectories obtained via cell phone tower IDs and corresponding transmission times, the moving trajectories of animals (e.g. birds) fitted with trackers, or even data concerning natural phenomena such as hurricanes and ocean currents. It turns out, there’s a lot to learn about working with such data!
  2. Search Engine Manipulation Effect (PNAS) — Internet search rankings have a significant impact on consumer choices, mainly because users trust and choose higher-ranked results more than lower-ranked results. Given the apparent power of search rankings, we asked whether they could be manipulated to alter the preferences of undecided voters in democratic elections. They could. Read the article for their methodology. (via Aeon)
  3. Keshif — open source interactive data explorer.
  4. proselint — analyse text for sins of usage and abusage.
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Four short links: 4 March 2016

Four short links: 4 March 2016

Snapchat's Business, Tracking Voters, Testing for Discriminatory Associations, and Assessing Impact

  1. How Snapchat Built a Business by Confusing Olds (Bloomberg) — Advertisers don’t have a lot of good options to reach under-30s. The audiences of CBS, NBC, and ABC are, on average, in their 50s. Cable networks such as CNN and Fox News have it worse, with median viewerships near or past Social Security age. MTV’s median viewers are in their early 20s, but ratings have dropped in recent years. Marketers are understandably anxious, and Spiegel and his deputies have capitalized on those anxieties brilliantly by charging hundreds of thousands of dollars when Snapchat introduces an ad product.
  2. Tracking VotersOn the night of the Iowa caucus, Dstillery flagged all the [ad network-mediated ad] auctions that took place on phones in latitudes and longitudes near caucus locations. It wound up spotting 16,000 devices on caucus night, as those people had granted location privileges to the apps or devices that served them ads. It captured those mobile ID’s and then looked up the characteristics associated with those IDs in order to make observations about the kind of people that went to Republican caucus locations (young parents) versus Democrat caucus locations. It drilled down further (e.g., ‘people who like NASCAR voted for Trump and Clinton’) by looking at which candidate won at a particular caucus location.
  3. Discovering Unwarranted Associations in Data-Driven Applications with the FairTest Testing Toolkit (arXiv) — We describe FairTest, a testing toolkit that detects unwarranted associations between an algorithm’s outputs (e.g., prices or labels) and user subpopulations, including sensitive groups (e.g., defined by race or gender). FairTest reports statistically significant associations to programmers as association bugs, ranked by their strength and likelihood of being unintentional, rather than necessary effects. See also slides from PrivacyCon. Source code not yet released.
  4. Inferring Causal Impact Using Bayesian Structural Time-Series Models (Adrian Colyer) — understanding the impact of an intervention by building a predictive model of what would have happened without the intervention, then diffing reality to that model.
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Four short links: 3 March 2016

Four short links: 3 March 2016

Tagging People, Maintenance Anti-Pattern, Insourced Brains, and Chat UI

  1. Human Traffickers Using RFID Chips (NPR) — It turns out this 20-something woman was being pimped out by her boyfriend, forced to sell herself for sex and hand him the money. “It was a small glass capsule with a little almost like a circuit board inside of it,” he said. “It’s an RFID chip. It’s used to tag cats and dogs. And someone had tagged her like an animal, like she was somebody’s pet that they owned.”
  2. Software Maintenance is an Anti-PatternGovernments often use two anti-patterns when sustaining software: equating the “first release” with “complete” and moving to reduce sustaining staff too early; and how a reduction of staff is managed when a reduction in budget is appropriate.
  3. Cloud Latency and Autonomous Robots (Ars Technica) — “Accessing a cloud computer takes too long. The half-second time delay is too noticeable to a human,” says Ishiguro, an award-winning roboticist at Osaka University in Japan. “In real life, you never wait half a second for someone to respond. People answer much quicker than that.” Tech moves in cycles, from distributed to centralized and back again. As with mobile phones, the question becomes, “what is the right location for this functionality?” It’s folly to imagine everything belongs in the same place.
  4. Chat as UI (Alistair Croll) — The surface area of the interface is almost untestable. The UI is the log file. Every user interaction is also a survey. Chat is a great interface for the Internet of Things. It remains to be seen how many deep and meaningfuls I want to have with my fridge.
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Four short links: 2 March 2016

Four short links: 2 March 2016

Sensing Cognitive Load, Boring is Good, Replicating SQLite, and Intro to Autonomous Robots

  1. An Adaptive Learning Interface that Adjusts Task Difficulty based on Brain State (PDF) — using blood flow to measure cognitive load, this tool releases new lessons to you when you’re ready for them. The system measures blood flow using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Increased activation in an area of the brain results in increased levels of oxyhemoglobin. These changes can be measured by emitting frequencies of near-infrared light around 3 cm deep into the brain tissue and measuring the light attenuation caused by levels of oxyhemoglobin. I think we all want a widget on our computer that says “your brain is full, go offline to recover,” if only to validate naptime.
  2. Deploying SoftwareYour deploys should be as boring, straightforward, and stress-free as possible. cf Maciej Ceglowski’s “if you find it interesting, it doesn’t belong in production.”
  3. Replicating SQLite Using Raftrqlite is written in Go and uses Raft to achieve consensus across all the instances of the SQLite databases. rqlite ensures that every change made to the database is made to a quorum of SQLite files, or none at all.
  4. An Introduction to Autonomous RobotsAn open textbook focusing on computational principles of autonomous robots. CC-NC-ND and for sale via Amazon.
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