Happy 25th Birthday World Wide Web!

March 12 was the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, otherwise known simply as the Web, a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet. On that day in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist and engineer at CERN, wrote a proposal to his administrators for developing an effective communication system to be used by the organization’s members.

He eventually realized the wider applications of this concept, and teamed up with Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau in 1990 to further refine the concept of a hypertext system that would “link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will”. Hypertext is simply text displayed on a computer with references to other text via “hyperlinks”. Berners-Lee finished the first website in December of that year, which you can still see here (for information on the first image ever uploaded, which was a GIF, click here). 

It’s amazing how far it’s come since that humble page , and where the web will be another 25 years from now. Berners-Lee actually shares his thoughts on the future of the Internet in general here and I recommend you give it a read.

Note that despite being used interchangeably, the Internet and the Web are two distinct things: the former is a massive networking infrastructure that connects millions of computers together globally — a network of networks, so to speak. Information that travels over the Internet does so via a variety of languages known as protocols.

The Web, on the other hand, is a way of accessing that information using the HTTP protocol, which is one of only many languages used in the Internet to transmit data. Email, for example, relies on the SMTP protocol, and therefore isn’t technically part of the Web.

Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call

It goes without saying that our form of communication is changing: according to Nielsen, the both the number of mobile phone calls and their length is dropping every year; in 2005, they averaged three minutes in length, dropping to almost half of that as of 2013.

Needless to say, this development has caused a lot of apprehension and concern — particularly older generations — who fret about the decline in social skills, friendships, and overall quality of life as people become isolated. But is this really the case? Is the changing of our medium of communication necessarily mean a decline in the quality or value of communication?

Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine presents a rarely-seen, somewhat positive view of this change: it’s not necessarily good nor bad, but simply is.

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.

Consider: If I suddenly decide I want to dial you up, I have no way of knowing whether you’re busy, and you have no idea why I’m calling. We have to open Schrödinger’s box every time, having a conversation to figure out whether it’s OK to have a conversation. Plus, voice calls are emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it’s so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one. (We apparently find voicemail even more excruciating: Studies show that more than a fifth of all voice messages are never listened to.)

The telephone, in other words, doesn’t provide any information about status, so we are constantly interrupting one another. The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously. (Plus, we can spend more time thinking about what we want to say.) For all the hue and cry about becoming an “always on” society, we’re actually moving away from the demand that everyone be available immediately.

In fact, the newfangled media that’s currently supplanting the phone call might be the only thing that helps preserve it. Most people I know coordinate important calls in advance using email, text messaging, or chat (r u busy?). An unscheduled call that rings on my phone fails the conversational Turing test: It’s almost certainly junk, so I ignore it. (Unless it’s you, Mom!)

What do you think of this assessment? Are the rise of “n

Iran’s Surena 2 Robot

Surena II

The Sorena 2 Robot, which was designed by engineers at University of Tehran and unveiled in 2010. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has ranked it among the five most prominent robots in the world in terms of performance and advancement.

 

Convenience vs. Freedom

The right to privacy has been one of the defining issues of the modern world, especially since the advent of the internet, which has facilitated the vast and rapid exchange of information — often beyond our own apparent individual control. The Babbage technology column in The Economist highlights one of the complex dynamics of this issue: the trade off between the convenience that the web brings — many in the form of free services from social media to search — and the need to give up a certain measure of privacy as payment of a sort.

It has been said many times, but the fact remains that anything users share over the internet will inevitably be bought and sold and, sooner or later, used against them in some way. That is the price people tacitly accept for the convenience of using popular web services free of charge.

The corollary, of course, is that if individuals are not paying for some online product, they are the product. And collecting information about the product (users) enhances its value for the service’s actual customers (advertisers, corporate clients and government agencies) who pay the bills. That is how the business model works. Those who do not like it can choose not to use such free services and find paid alternatives instead that promise greater privacy. Though limited, they do exist.

Granted, the internet is an inherent social force that’s driven by networks and trends, so most people tend to gravitate to services that most other people are already using. So seeking out alternatives is easier said than done, since those that do so will likely find themselves alone or out of the loop.

Perhaps the fact that most people have (thus far) chosen to use the services that mine their data says something about what we value more, or about how unconcerning the whole process ultimately seems. Indeed, it’s pretty much become a given that that is how the internet works:

Along with other internet companies, Google mines the data it collects from users for two purposes. One is to improve the user experience, making its various online services more personal, useful and rewarding for the individual—and thereby increasing their popularity. The other purpose is to provide better targeted information for advertisers.

Like other firms offering free services, Google makes its living out of matching the right kind of advertising to the specific interests of its individual users. To do so, it needs to know their likes and purchases as well as their identifiers and demographics, including name, sex, age, address, current location and income bracket.

If truth be told, no-one needs to eavesdrop to discover such things. People willingly volunteer all manner of facts about themselves when registering or subscribing to various online services. Scraping such information off social networks and combining it with data drawn from sites for searching, shopping, downloading, streaming or whatever lets social marketers infer all they need to know about most individuals.

That is fine for the vast majority of internet users, who are happy to trade a measure of privacy for the convenience of using popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. That such convenience comes free of charge makes the trade an even better deal. But where to draw the line?

There’s already growing concern about whether we’ve gone too far in willingly giving up our information to internet companies (and whether those firms themselves have been crossing the line). But at the article notes, most of what we share is already public knowledge: the stuff we want to buy, the movies we like, the personal views we hold, etc. Isn’t it unreasonable to expect companies that are offering a free service to not, at the very least, utilize this innocuous data to sustain their operations? (After all, there are overhead costs to cover).  Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated:

It is one thing to reveal personal preferences such as favourite films, TV shows, dishes, books or music tracks. However, most people (though not all) stop short of blurting out more intimate details about their private lives. Even so, all those innocuous bits of self-revelation can be pieced together, jig-saw fashion, by intelligent algorithms. Throw in the digital paper-trails stashed in Google searches and Amazon purchases, and things can begin to get a little scary.

Babbage’s teenage daughter, for instance, uses his Amazon account and credit card to buy everything from romantic novels to cosmetics and underwear. As a result, he gets bombarded by e-mails recommending other female items he might like to purchase. Anyone leaning over his shoulder could easily label him a pervert or worse.

So is the onus on companies to refrain — or be legally forced to refrain — from prying into our more personal tastes and habits? Or is this once again a small price to pay for the convenience that such “personalized” services offer? Maybe we’re the ones that need to take action, as the Babbage columnist feels.

But with the convenience of using free online services, even those offered by major brands, comes the responsibility to be personally vigilant, to watch out for oneself—and to be willing to pay for services that offer higher levels of security, freedom from advertising, or simply a better quality of service all round. One of Babbage’s colleagues says he would happily pay for Twitter if it provided proper analytics. He would pay for Facebook, too, if it did not compress his photographs so much.

Ultimately, though, Babbage is more concerned about identity theft than with Google selling his likes and dislikes to advertisers. This is one of the fastest growing white-collar crimes around, with an identity being stolen somewhere at least once every four seconds (see “Your life in their hands”, March 23rd 2007). The average cost of restoring a stolen identity is reckoned to be $8,000, and victims spend typically 600 hours dealing with the nightmare—plus many years more restoring their good name and credit record.

Personally, I side with Babbage in that I see little conceivable harm in the mining of already-public or innocuous data, but do feel that the potential for identity theft is a growing and real threat, one made easier by all the data flowing around on the web. And what about private messages or email? What would happen if someone were to hack into our Facebook, Google, or smartphone accounts and expose our personal conversations? Are we to just avoid such exchanges on the web?

And will our tacit acceptance of this arrangement lead to a blurring of what’s public and private? As people become more willing and able to share more about themselves online, do we risk undermining our own sense of personal space? Maybe it doesn’t even matter and we’re happy to share these things; after all, humans have always been keen on self-expression, and the rate of doing so has always increased alongside advances in media (consider the then-unprecedented outflow of opinions and data once the printing press was invented).

Anyway, what are your thoughts?

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Africa’s Futuristic “New Cities”

Africa rarely comes to mind as a hub for technological and infrastructural innovation (on the contrary, it seems that most people I know forget it even has modern cities to begin with).  

But despite its immense social, economic, and political challenges, the increasingly vibrant continent is brimming with potential and economic growth — and therefore optimism. Hence some of these ambitious urban plans, some of which rival science fiction in their sleekness and engineering brilliance.

Konza – Kenya

Dubbed as “Africa’s Silicon Savannah,” Konza Techno City is the Kenyan government’s flagship mega project designed to foster the growth of the country’s technology industry.

The multi-billion dollar city, located on a 5,000-acre plot of land some 60 kilometers southeast of the capital Nairobi, aims to create nearly 100,000 jobs by 2030.

It will feature a central business district, a university campus, urban parks and housing to accommodate some 185,000 people.

Appolonia, King City — Ghana

Designed by Rendeavour, the urban development branch of Moscow-based Renaissance Group, Appolonia and King City will be located in Greater Accra and Western Ghana respectively.

The mixed-use satellite cites are expected to accommodate more than 160,000 residents on land developed for housing properties, retail and commercial centers, as well as schools, healthcare and other social amenities.

Rendeavour says that all baseline studies, master plans and detailed designs have been completed and approved, while basic infrastructure work in Appolonia is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2013.

Eko Atlantic — Nigeria

Eko Atlantic is a multi-billion dollar residential and business development that will be located on Victoria Island in Lagos, along its upmarket Bar Beach coastline.

Read this: Lagos of the future

The ambitious project is being built on 10 square kilometers of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean.

Eko Atlantic is expected to provide upscale accommodation for 250,000 people and employment opportunities for a further 150,000.

Tatu City – Kenya

Also being developed by Rendeavour, Tatu City will span 1,035 hectares of land some 15 kilometers from Nairobi.

It is designed to create a new decentralized urban center to the north of the bustling Kenyan capital.

Construction work began last May and the whole project is projected to be completed in 10 phases by 2022. When finalized, the mixed-use satellite city is expected to be home to 77,000 residents.

La Cite du Fleuve – Democratic Republic of Congo

La Cite du Fleuve is a luxurious housing project planned for two islands on the Congo River in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of Africa’s fastest growing cities.

Developer Hawkwood Properties plans to reclaim about 375 hectares of sandbanks and swamps to build thousands of riverside villas, offices and shopping centers over the next 10 years.

It says that more than 20 hectares of land have already been reclaimed.

Hope City — Ghana

Hope City is a $10 billion high-tech hub that will be built outside Accra, aiming to turn Ghana into a major ICT player.

The planned hub, which is hoped will house 25,000 residents and create jobs for 50,000 people, will be made up of six towers of different dimensions, including a 75-story, 270 meter-high building that is expected to be the highest in Africa.

Ghanaian company RLG Communications is financing 30% of the project, while the remainder will be funded by a wide array of investors and through a stock-buying scheme. Its sustainable facilities will include an assembly plant for various tech products, business offices, an IT university and a hospital, as well as restaurants, theaters and sports centers.

Kigali — Rwanda

The capital and biggest city of Rwanda has launched an ambitious urban development plan to transform itself into the “center of urban excellence in Africa.” The bold and radical 2020 Kigali Conceptual Master Plan includes all the hallmarks of a regional hub for business, trade and tourism. It envisages Singapore-like commercial and shopping districts boasting glass-box skyscrapers and modern hotels, as well as green-themed parks and entertainment facilities.

Of course, given the many issues these nations face, there is still plenty of understandable skepticism:

Critics warn that many of these new developments will only serve a tiny elite, exacerbating an already deep divide between the haves and have-nots.

“They are essentially designed for people with money,” says Vanessa Watson, professor of city planning at the University of Cape Town. She describes many of the plans as unsustainable “urban fantasies” that ignore the reality of African cities, where most people are still poor and live informally.

“What many of these new cities are doing will result in the exclusion and the forced removal of those kind of informal areas, which quite often are on well-located land,” says Watson. In some cases, entire settlements have been relocated and large plots of land have been cleared to make way for the proposed projects.

Critics also bemoan a lack of adequate research to gauge the impact of some new developments on the local environment and economies.

They point out the “ghost town” of Kilamba in Angola, a grandiose project often labeled as a white elephant. Built afresh outside the capital Luanda, Kilamba was designed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people but remains largely empty due to its expensive housing and unfavorable location.

I can still dream at least. 

Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

A List of Chinese Inventions

It’s a shame that so few people in the West realize the innumerable contributions that Chinese civilization has made to humanity. It’s astounding how far ahead the Chinese were in just about every area of knowledge. Note that each of these were independently developed by the Chinese, even if some were also used or invented elsewhere.

  • Battens in sails and cloth
  • Blast furnace
  • Cast iron
  • Tofu, Ramen sushi
  • Qipao, Hanfu (clothing)
  • Chopsticks
  • Crank (drugs)
  • Repeating crossbow
  • Escapement mechanism for clocks
  • Exploding cannonball
  • Fire Arrow
  • Gunpowder
  • Firearm
  • Horse collar
  • Hull compartments/bulkheads
  • Indian ink
  • Kite
  • Land mines
  • Lottery
  • Menus for Song-era restaurants
  • Naval mines
  • Noodles
  • Paper
  • Pendulum (Zhang Heng)
  • Printing (woodblock printing and movable type)
  • Rockets: Fire Arrow, Multistage rocket
  • Rudder
  • Sailing carriage
  • Seismometer (of Zhang Heng)
  • Silk
  • South Pointing Chariot (differential gear, of Ma Jun)
  • Sluice gates
  • Toilet paper
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Trebuchet (traction)
  • Trip hammer
  • Winnowing machine
  • Abacus (first appearance: Mesopotamia, 2400 BC. First certain appearance in China: 12th century AD)
  • Armillary sphere (invented by the Greek Eratosthenes), with the world’s first water-powered armillary sphere by Zhang Heng.
  • Various automata / primitive machines (refer to article on King Mu of Zhou, Mozi, Lu Ban, etc.)
  • Bellows
  • Belt drive
  • Bituminous coke for the iron and steel industry
  • Compass
  • Camera obscura
  • Cardan Suspension
  • The cannon
  • Chain drive
  • Chain pumps
  • Chinese calendar
  • Crossbow
  • Drydock
  • The Flamethrower
  • Flash lock
  • Early explosive grenades
  • Odometer
  • Paddle wheel, for boats
  • Paper money
  • Parachutes
  • Pontoon bridge
  • Porcelain
  • Postal system
  • Pound lock
  • Saw
  • Scissors
  • Steel
  • Suspension bridge
  • Star catalogue
  • Tea
  • Umbrella
  • Vaccination
  • Water clock
  • Waterwheel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Windmill

Find even more contributions here.

Finnish Students Don’t Do Homework Or Take Tests

I’ve spoken at length about Finland’s education system before (here, here, and here) and I believe it deserves all the attention it can get, especially since much of this success is due to policies that are applicable in the US (if not elsewhere) — professionalizing the teaching industry, promoting smaller class sizes in conjunction with more student-to-teacher interaction, and so on. I think the following image breaks it down rather nicely, but if you want more information and sources, visit the hyperlinks above.

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Happy Birthday Ada Lovelace.

Happy birthday to Ada Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron in the UK in 1815, and by some accounts the world’s first computer programmer – before computers even existed.

Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the famous poet Lord Byron, was a mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early mechanical computer developed by Charles Babbage. She helped developed what is considered to be the first algorithm designed to be processed by a machine – what we would today call a computer program.

She even foresaw the potential of computers to perform tasks beyond mere number crunching, centuries before modern computers were developed. While her contributions are contested, she’s still quite an interesting historical character. Do take the chance to read up on her – there’s a great Google Doodle in her honor.

Also, on this day in 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Prizes were presented by the king of Sweden, in accordance with the will of inventor Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. Hat tip to Stepehen Thomas for the reminder.

On This Day…

On this day, November 29, in 1972, American video game company Atari released Pong, one of the first video games to achieve great popularity at both arcades and households. Who would’ve known then what this simple game would eventually lead to (indeed, the American video game industry, including Atari, suffered a devastating crash in 1983).

The humble beginning of what is now one of the world’s largest industries. Who would’ve thought?

 

Oh, and it’s also Liberation Day in Albania, in which the country was liberated from Axis forces in 1944, almost entirely by its domestic resistance movement. Aside from managing to free themselves (thus being one of only two states in Eastern Europe to lie outside the Soviet yoke), Albanians fiercely protected their Jews. The country was perhaps the only one that ended up having *more* Jews after World War II then less.

 

Mother Albania, a concrete statue located at the National Martyrs Cemetery of Albania, honors the nearly 30,000 partisans that died resisting the Axis. The plaque reads: “Glory to the martyrs of the fatherland forever.”