Archive for September, 2011

Feeding on fractals (and Fibonacci)

September 22, 2011

A few weeks ago I bought a cauliflower at the Alexandra Palace farmers’ market: not just any cauliflower, but a distinctive green one known as a Romanesco.  Naturally, given the need to cook an unusual vegetable, I turned the web: after all, the various suppliers of organic vegetable boxes who operate in London cater for a clientele who can Google any vegetable that they find in their box, and find a range of recipes.

So I was surprised to find that the Romanesco cauliflower is as notable for its mathematics as for its nutritional property.  First my search thew up this delightful image from a Cambridge physics professor , who had painted a Romenesco cauliflower to draw attention to the naturally occuring spiral patterns in it.  Then I found this piece about fractals on the supermarket shelf (the site’s name, Fourmilab, is a pun based on the French word for an ant).  And finally I came across this one, which relates the shape and symmetry of the vegetable to Fibonacci numbers.

I’m not sure what to conclude from this, except perhaps that the Internet is a better tool if you want to count the florets on a vegetable than if you want to eat it

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HP in difficulties

September 22, 2011

In the light of previous observations about the smartphone market, I’m not surprised that Hewlett Packard (HP) dropped the phone and tablet computing products that it had inherited from Palm over the summer.  It’s a pity, because Palm always had excellent products, but they didn’t have any presence in the market for phones

However there were a few related happenings which I didn’t expect:

  • For a very short time HP’s about to be discontinued products were flying off the shelves, though at ridiculously cheap prices – the lesson being that you can sell almost anything if it’s cheap enough and you can put a SIM card into it
  • Blackberry, which looked like a business that does understand Smartphone, has seen its fortunes decline.  It’s tempting to blame this on its seamless, but rapid, move from providing business tools to selling the teenagers’ favourite, but in fact the older, more business-focused, products seem to be the ones that are not selling well
  • HP’s chief executive, Leo Apotheker, looks to be in a precarious position after less than a year in the job.

Before HP, Leo Apotheker was at SAP, a business that became incredibly successful through supplying back-office systems to many organisations, including the one that I work for, but which has never sought to create glossy consumer products or desirable virtual spaces.  In this context, his intention to move HP away from sector such as supply of PCs makes some sense, but I fear that he might have fallen into the trap of defining a business by what it doesn’t do, and not by what it does.

Moreover, SAP and Apple’s phone business have more in common than might at first be apparent.  Both have created a business model around a standard, widely used and recognisable, product, which allows for many other businesses, oftne small ones, to come in and offer related products and services.  For SAP these are consultants and participants in the developer network; for Apple they are the suppliers of apps and accessories.

On industrial design and alphabetic keyboards

September 22, 2011

The train journey to Bristol may have changed a lot since Brunel’s time, but the trains themselves are still of a classic design of the 1970s.  Kenneth Grange, the British industrial designer responsible for the way that they looked, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum.  As well as trains, he designed parking meters (now a rare sight in London),  taxis, the most recent versions of the Anglepoise light, and even some of the Kodak Instamatic cameras which would have introduced a generation to photography.  Interviewed in the Observer, he mentioned that because he divides his time between London and Devon, he gets to ride on one of his own designs regularly, which must provide quite some job satisfaction.  It’s nice to see some attention being given to industrial design, given its importance to the objects that we use all the time.

One of the artefacts in the exhibition is a Reuters keyboard from around 1973, and it’s notable, to a modern eye because the keys are arranged in alphabetical order.  Many computer terminals of that period did have QWERTY keyboards, which after all had been around for decades on typewriters.  But this boxy terminal wasn’t intended either for secretaries or for hardened technical computer types, so it was created on the assumption that its users would probably not be familiar with using a QWERTY keyboard.  So putting the keys in alphabetical order was a logical thing to do, and, by all accounts not an unusual choice at the time.

One of the giants of usability, Donald Norman, whose design of everyday things is a wonderful  read if your imagination is captured by the details which make everyday objects easy, or difficult, or frustrating, to use, looked at alphabetic keyboards way back in 1981, and concluded that the QWERTY keyboard remained as good as any.  Norman’s original paper is worth reading, not least because it looks as though it was originally picked out on a mechanical typewriter, and given how familiar the QWERTY keyboard as a pop-up on a touch screen has become, his conclusions have been proved right.

Brunel triple bill

September 22, 2011

This summer I’ve taken the opportunity to have a number of days out around London with my family.  One of the most successful was a trip to Bristol, focused around two pieces of work by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  One, the SS Great Britain, was an innovative 19th century steamship, combining a screw propellor with an iron hull.  Like many technically ambitious projects since, its commercial success initially didn’t quite match its novelty.  But the ship did have a long life in service, in later years ironically as a sailing ship, before being abandoned in the Falkland Islands and finally salvaged and towed back to Bristol in 1970.  The other, the magnificant Clifton Suspension Bridge, occupies a beautiful setting over the Avon Gorge, and is another triumph of 19th century engineering.

And the third element in the triple bill?  My train ride to Bristol also owed much to Isambard Brunel, who had been the engineer responsible for the Great Western Railway running from London to Bristol.  There are parallels between the railway innovators of Victorian times and Internet entrepreneurs in the first few years of the 21st century: in both cases there were challenges introduced by rapidly evolving technology, and entrepreneurs varied in their views on what business opportunities were most likely to succeed.

The Brunels were an engineering family, and while Isambard is the best known, his father Marc Brunel was also ambitious: the Thames Tunnel was his greatest achievement.  I do wonder what ideas were discussed over breakfast in the Brunel household – whether there was talk of the finer points of engineering maths, or whether father and son bounced around ideas about what new projects they might work on, and how they might extend the limits of the technology available to them.  And I do think that their experience still retains a lot of relevance to management of innovative ideas.

These phones were made for walking

September 15, 2011

One item that caught my eye over the summer was this reference to the use of movement, when somebody is walking, to generate electricity for their phone.  It’s not fundamentally a new idea; in fact the principle is similar to that of the self-winding watch, which first entered production nearly 90 years ago although it has largely been superseded by electronic mechanisms.  Still, anything which helps extend the time that modern mobile phones can keep going on one charge would be useful

Who hid the taskbar?

September 15, 2011

Microsoft has released a developer preview of its next version of Windows.  To me, as a hardened Windows user, the most striking thing is that the preview screen shots include a prominent start button, but it’s not at the end of a taskbar as you’d expect in Windows (at least in anything from Windows 95 onwards: I’m old enough to remember before Windows had a taskbar).  Look a bit more closely at the screen shot and there is a bar at the bottom, but it’s a horizontal scroll bar and not a taskbar.

However this Computerworld piece explains all: you can get a Windows desktop that looks quite familiar, but it’s really just another app for those of us who like doing things that way.  It’ll be interesting to see how widely it’s used in practice: will a lot of Windows users prefer to stick with what they’re used to, or will the desktop become the preserve of a few specialist users?

A new kind of distributed system

September 15, 2011

An interesting example of the trend towards distributing computing power among many different devices is a proposed new radio telescope, called the square kilometre array.  Two possible sites are being considered: one in South Africa  and one in Australia.  The Guardian has a nice graphic showing how the South African location would work.  While the numerous individual units that comprise the array are much more complex and specialised than anything you’d see in your local personal computing shop, the principle still applies that it makes sense to use a lot of devices linked together.  It’s significant that the decision on the location will have  a lot to do with the economic geography of the area.

Radio  astronomy is about understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe, which perhaps makes it as ‘pure’ as science can get.  While the square kilometre array will be implemented somewhere in the southern hemisphere, its project development office is in Manchester and associated with the long-established Jodrell Bank centre.  While the square kilometre array will be sited in a huge sparsely populated area to minimise radio interference, Sir Bernard Lovell and his colleagues, who built the Jodrell Bank observatory in the 1950, looked for a relatively empty swathe of Cheshire countryside for the same reason.  Their rivalry with scientists working in Cambridge, in similar areas of research, is sometimes cited as an example of how competition in research can be beneficial.  Today, visitors to Jodrell Bank are asked to switch their mobile phones off to ensure radio silence.  The Lovell telescope remains unusual (possibly unique) in being both a grade 1 listed building and a scientific instrument in active use.