Monthly Archives: November, 2006

Keep those presses rolling…

Some good press coverage this week for some projects close to my heart:

A few dollars more…

Tom Coates points out that we’re getting pretty close to two US dollars to the pound again. Better buy Christmas presents from rather than from….


Guitar fretwork


I’m just moving Status-Q to a new server. If you can see this, it’s working!

The Status-Q server is now actually a virtual one, based on the Xen virtualisation system. I had about 18 web domains on the old server, and I wanted a bit more flexibility in how they’re managed, so I’m gradually migrating them onto a set of virtual servers on the new machine, which will make it easier, for example, to upgrade key bits of software without endangering all the sites at once.

Please let me know if you notice any problems…

Open Source database frontend

These days, most databases use a web browser as a frontend and something like Ruby on Rails or Django to link the web to the database. But if you’re on Linux and looking for a desktop equivalent to Microsoft Access, Knoda is a good place to start.


I was in London today for the Westminster eForum on ‘VoIP and the future of fixed line telephony’. This brought home some of the difficult issues that the regulators and the security services have to deal with.

I was impressed, actually… I came away with the feeling that those concerned – at least as represented at the forum – were thoughtful, capable and understood the issues much better than I had expected. There was discussion, for example, of the need to ensure that the ‘999’ emergency services would be available to anybody picking up something that looked like a phone when a member of their household had a heart attack. But was there a better way to do this than excessive regulation, which would stifle innovation? They had some good ideas.

An interesting statistic I learned today: Every day in the UK there are 12,000 emergency calls which are ‘silent’ – there’s nobody at the other end. Generally, these come from phones in people’s pockets where the ‘9’ key has accidentally been pressed repeatedly. It has been as high as 25,000 and they were really starting to clog up the system until measures were put in place which allowed these to be detected and sidetracked fairly quickly.

As I walked back past the Houses of Parliament there was a wonderful sun on the buiildings against a dark sky, and I managed to get this photo before the rain started…

Palace of Westminster / Houses of Parliament

New Popular Edition Maps

This is a great idea… readers in England please help out…

Postcodes are very handy things, for a whole variety of reasons. The databases which map them onto geographical coordinates are expensive, though – no use for those trying to put together something as a hobby or on a limited budget. Been there, done that.

So this site is trying to build the database as a community project, and they’re doing rather well. Give them a hand – it won’t take a minute. You just find a place a place you know on the map, click on it and enter the postcode – that’s it.

Of course, in this country, map data is even more expensive than postcode data, so they’re using out-of-copyright maps from the 1940s, which adds a certain charm…

Thanks to Tom Coates for the link

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

One of the great skills in Computer Science, and part of what makes it fun, is knowing when you need to create a highly sophisticated general-purpose algorithm and when you can get away with a much simpler one, perhaps by manipulating the problem domain so that you have an easier problem to solve.

This was part of the genius of the PalmPilot team: they realised that if you modified the letters people used for handwriting slightly, they became much easier to recognise, and so Graffiti was born. Actually, in this case, I suspect, the real credit goes to whomever it was who got the idea past the business and marketing guys. Can you imagine the conversation?

“We’ve got this really cool device, and all that the customers will need to do is learn a new alphabet before they can use it. It’s really not very different from the ABC they’ve been using from the age of four…” The VCs must have just loved that idea!

In computer vision, this simplification of the problem domain is particularly relevant because the algorithms can get very complicated very quickly, and complexity can require a lot more processing power and, often, result in less reliability in the real world.

So I was particularly impressed by the TAFFI (Thumb And ForeFinger Interface) developed by Andy Wilson at Microsoft Research in Redmond. He’s come up with a great way to avoid the need for complex hand-tracking algorithms. Have a look:

You can read more about it in his paper from the UIST conference: Robust Computer Vision-Based Detection of Pinching for One and Two-Handed Gesture Input.

Social dining

Lots of activity on our bird feeder this morning:

One Distraction Per Child?

Duncan Goldie-Scot pointed me at John C. Dvorak’s article: The $100 Laptop: What went wrong? Anyone familiar with JCD will recognise that the dismissive past tense for a project that is just warming up is simply part of his normal marketing style. He raises some good questions, though…

…I myself have moaned about the details of this One Laptop Per Child scheme as folly or idealistic. The basic argument is that with $100 you could almost feed a village for a year, so why waste that sum on a laptop? What are they thinking?

But Zachary has a more profound point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” he says. “The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.”

To summarize, there are only so many hours in the day, and we should not be wasting them on this kind of na├»ve feel-good showboating. Let’s face it: These high-tech gems are a laughable addition to a mud hut.

Classic Dvorak. (I’m very skeptical, in passing, about $100 being enough to feed a village for a year. I read a report on OLPC recently which said that average governmental spending in the countries concerned is around $200/head, so $100 spread over the laptop’s expected 5-year life sounds much more reasonable.)

However, I also don’t buy his larger argument, for various reasons.

The first is that different people are inspired to make the world a better place in different ways, and resources, innovation and people can’t be shuffled from project to project in quite such a simple fashion – inspiration is not subject to the rules of double-entry bookkeeping. Besides, this is an old story: In the seventies the big argument was that we shouldn’t be making weapons when there were people needing ploughshares. Today, people like me probably shouldn’t pay a premium for organic food when there are others going hungry in Africa. These are both true, but they are pie-in-the-sky arguments because nothing is that simple in reality. If my hotel decided not to have such a nice carpet in its lobby, would that mean that there were fewer homeless people on the streets? Of course not. And if the OLPC project weren’t there it doesn’t mean that the resources that RedHat, say, are putting into it would automatically be diverted to water purification.

The second is that it can be rather too easy for the wealthy part of the world to decide the priorities for the less wealthy part. Perhaps the best example that I’ve come across in my work is the spread of mobile phones. Did you know that over a third of the world’s population have a mobile phone now? The number is growing by more than a million users per day, and it will be less than five years before half the world have cellphones. “Why on earth”, we might have asked ten years ago, “would somebody in an African village with a poor water and electricity supply want a mobile phone?” But that’s because we take for granted things like the ability to travel, or the reliability of postal services, and forget that the simple ability to transmit and receive information over a distance is incredibly empowering. Mobile phones are transforming millions of lives. We don’t know exactly how people around the world would use a PC if they had access to one, but it is one of mankind’s most sophisticated and flexible tools, and I don’t think it’s our place to deny it to others.

I have many questions about OLPC, some of which we’re trying to address at Ndiyo. I doubt that it will succeed on the scale that its founders hope. And I think there’s a good argument that, for example, Dean Kamen’s latest initiative around water purification and electricity generation is rather more important than both projects.

But I have huge admiration for people who dream a big impossible dream and work hard to make it a reality. Give me the option of a world with more well-intentioned visionaries, or a world with more armchair cynics, and I know which one I’d choose!

Lasse Gjertsen

Lasse Gjertsen claims that he can play neither drums nor piano. But, boy, can he edit a video!


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