Tagged: Google

Mini review: “Coders: Who They Are, What They Think and How They Are Changing Our World” by Clive Thompson (audiobook edition)

This book is a must read if you are considering becoming a coder – and also if you work with them. The first half or so of the book goes into detail about how most people get into writing software (formal education or being self taught), the nature of the job (what they do all day), possible career paths and the personality characteristics found in many coders – both good and bad. It looks at the different types of people coming into the industry, the misleading myths that have built up, the particular challenges for women and the realistic outlook if you are looking for a mid-career job change – coming in from a different industry. Very interesting, and not something that I recall seeing dealt with in such detail elsewhere.

The remainder of the book examines the tech scene in more general terms – a look at the early days of computing and how people got into computers in previous decades, the decline in the proportion of women in the profession over time, the rise of AI and machine learning, the social problems (little predicted at the beginning but now very much in evidence) that arise with becoming a massive scale platform and how the venture capital industry determines how companies have to behave.

There is a bit of repetition as things that are mentioned briefly in the first part are dealt with in more depth in the second, but the author does a good-enough job at bringing things back to how these things are relevant to coders. The final chapter on “blue collar” coders is particularly good, so the book finishes on a high. It should give people thinking about going into this field some things to consider, which can only be a good thing.

The narration of the audiobook is interesting – often the soul of these technology / business books is sucked out of them by a narrator who talks in some “default-American” tone, unremarkable and uninspiring. At first I thought that this was going to be yet another example, but the performance is more nuanced – it feels like it is the author reading their own text but it is more professional. He gets the tone just right.

Humans Need Not Apply…

This great video explains who is at threat from automation in the workplace.  Watch it and, like me, try to think what you can do about it…

See also:

• Spare Cycles: Article: Better Than Human (Wired)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (audiobook version)

• Spare Cycles: Mini Review: Race Against The Machine

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future

• Spare Cycles: Article: Migrant Workers in China Face Competition from Robots (Technology Review)

• BuzzMachine.com: The jobless future

• Douglas Rushkoff : Are Jobs Obsolete?

• Wired: Raging Bulls: How Wall Street Got Addicted to Light-Speed Trading

Google Chromecast: First Impressions


These are my first impressions of the Google Chromecast.  A bit of context before I start – I’m primarily an iPhone user running iOS 7 and that is what I’m using to control the Chromecast.

I’m in the UK and I’ve been looking for a reliable way to watch the BBC iPlayer on my old-ish TV.  In the past I have linked up a laptop which was not a very good experience and have even tried using the Blu-ray player which said it would work but was an abject failure.  Both required a long network cable to go from the router to the TV via the length of the living room floor – not good.

£30 for a good wireless solution to this problem did not seem unreasonable given the length of time I’ve actually wanted this to work (can’t miss the results show of Strictly Come Dancing).  I knew that the Chromecast wasn’t advertised to work with many services, but the BBC and YouTube was good enough for me.

My TV had a spare HDMI port but no USB ports which means that the Chromecast has to be powered using the plug adapter supplied (the unit can be powered via a USB port if you have one).

The first problem I had was that I needed to find it’s MAC address so that I could add it to my router so that it could get access to the wireless network.  This was not marked on the box that the Chromecast came in, was not on the unit itself and was not shown in the PC application you download that configures it.  I downloaded the iPhone app and found it in there.

Once the Chromecast had permission to get on to the wireless network I ran through the various steps of the PC application.  There were a couple of things I found dubious about the setup:

– It asks you for the password to join the wireless network but has a button beside the password field and when you click this it actually fills in the password for you – is the unit interrogating the router for the information?.  If so this makes me a bit uneasy.

– There is a point where it says that your computer (ie the PC that you are setting things up on, which in my case was using a wireless internet connection) will lose it’s internet connection for a short period.  I happened to notice on my iPhone that a second wireless network appeared for that time.  Does the Chromecast have the ability to broadcast as a wireless hotspot when it wants to?

It’s a little unsettling that the Chromecast, now a full commercial product, appears to be cutting some corners in the setup procedure just to improve ease of use.

So, how well does it work?

It still has some rough edges and it is difficult to say if this just happens to me but when I switch the TV to the HDMI channel that it is plugged into I often have to wait a minute or so whilst the TV alternates between a black screen and a fuzzy screen.  I think this is happening because the Chromecast is in a sleep state and this is caused by it waking up.  It is not that the unit is not plugged in properly as once the Chromecast interface appears on the screen there is no more of this.

It takes the sheen off a product that I’m otherwise very happy with.

Both the BBC iPlayer and YouTube apps work without problems and so far the image quality on screen is good and there have been no interruptions in playback, although I’ve been playing with the device when the BBC iPlayer service is not busy.

One pleasant surprise is that I discovered that my favourite podcasting app on the iPhone – Downcast – supports the Chromecast.  The Cast icon just appeared in the app when it recognised the device was on.  It worked perfectly.  I could even stream high quality video via Downcast as well as audio that had been downloaded.  I was very pleased.

Playing some more, I installed Plex media server on my PC laptop and installed the app on my phone.  It worked well enough but I discovered that the Chromecast would not play music files encoded as Apple Lossless format.  The Plex app itself would play them but the ‘Cast refused.  This may be a really specific case, but it affects me.

Once you start getting used to using the Chromecast and having that functionality you start to want it in more apps.  This is specific to iOS devices as Android is a lot more open as to what can be done.  This is not the device’s fault but I hope that the Chromecast catches on enough that more app developers include the ability to send content to the device.  I now have an app that lets me show my phone’s pictures and videos on the TV which would be another main use.

I listen to a lot of audio rather than watch TV or video and I cannot yet find a decent iOS media player app that supports Casting.  I have a workaround which involves opening audio files in Downcast and Casting from there.  More about that another time.

Overall, I am pleased with the Chromecast.  It is definitely worth the money and has worked well so far.


“Mr Cerf” – Vint Cerf talks to Leo Laporte on Triangulation

I love listening to Vint Cerf talk – he is the type of representative that the technology industry needs more of.  Several years back now I had the chance to attend a lunchtime Q and A session with him  and I liked the level of thought he put into his responses.  So I was very pleased when two recent interviews with him came up…

Getting a Google Play gift card to work – you need a Google Wallet account

Shortly after getting the Motorola Moto G, I wanted to install apps.  Free apps were no problem.  Go to the Play store, log in with my Google account, hit install and a few minutes later they appear on my phone.  I like it.  It works.

I didn’t want to put my card details into Google Play so I bought a gift card.  The code errored  when I tried to redeem it so I went back to the shop, got a new card and watched them authenticate the card.  I still had the same problem with the second card.  Something was definitely up.

It is possible to report a problem to Google – you have to take a picture of the back of the card and the proof of purchase.  There was a quick response saying that I had to have a Google Wallet account.  I didn’t have one.  When I thought about an iTunes account for my iPhone it makes sense that you need an account to be able to top it up.

But wait.  There are a couple of issues here:

– there is no mention anywhere (in the Play store either in a browser, on the phone or on the gift card itself) that said a Google Wallet account is necessary.  I’d barely heard of Google Wallet before

– it turned out to be a lot more work than should be necessary to get this sorted (in my particular case).

Here’s the story…

I log into the Play store with my normal Google account.  I log into my phone with the same account.  It would seem that with that one account I have full control over the phone.  In theory it should be “One account.  All of Google.”  But no.   You are told to go to the Play store to redeem the gift card. No mention of Google Wallet, nowhere to sign up for an account.

I was given the URL to sign up for Google Wallet by Google support.  Then a bigger snag as I do not have a @gmail.com email address.  I use Google Apps for my domain. I did not have Google Wallet turned on for my account – it gave me the following:

We are sorry, but you do not have access to this service. Please contact your domain administrator for access.”

As an administrator, I tried to find the option to turn on Wallet, but seemingly I only had access to a couple of extra services, neither of which was Wallet.  In the end I had to click on one of my users in my admin Control Panel, click a down arrow to show more services, navigate down a long list of other Google products until I find Wallet and then I had to turn it on for all users (not just one) and wait up to 24 hours before it was activated on the account.

Then it was possible to sign up for Google Wallet.

I didn’t have to put in any card details, the gift card was accepted, the credit added to the account and my first paid-for app installed. Next time none of these extra steps will be necessary, and I guess that if you have a regular @gmail.com address then you won’t have any of these issues.  It’s all part of the Android and Google learning curve I suppose – the reason I wanted to get an Android phone in the first place.

Still, it was a pain-in-the-backside process.  I hope I don’t come across this type of process again for a while.

Motorola Moto G: First impressions


First of all a bit of context – I’m an iPhone 5 user, running iOS 7 and am very pleased with it.  I’ve been wanting to find out more about Android and when the Moto G came along with more or less a vanilla version of the system for £160, I thought it was worth the money to try it out.  I put in a 3 sim, topped up with £10 credit and off I went…

This is a bit of a flow of consciousness, with the points in no particular order.  It is also a comment on Android itself as this is my first real experience of it.

The phone in general is well built.  The screen looks good.  In use, things are fast and responsive.

Although the Moto G is not too big, it does make the iPhone feel small.

Why do I have to take the whole back of the phone off just to put in the SIM?  The backs or the body of the phone must be getting damaged by people because the process for removing the back is mentioned twice in the few papers in the box and there is also a video to show you how.

When you start up the phone for the first time, it looks for a wifi network straight away. This can be awkward as I need the phone’s wifi address to be able to add it to my router before it can get on the internet, and I can’t get this without the phone letting me further than the first couple of steps in the setup process.  Finally I found the details written – in very small type – on the box.

The micro USB power cable supplied looks like it is going in at an angle when you plug it in to charge the phone.  It is very tight (although this may improve with time) and the connection looks very fragile.  I’d never had to think about this with the Apple Lightning connector, maybe a little with the original 30-pin adapter.  I didn’t move it when the back cover came off and the cover went back on cleanly again.  A more svelte Amazon micro USB charging cable that came with a Kindle works well – a lot more re-assuring.

On a 16gb phone, there is just under 12gb available when you start up the phone.  Reasonable enough.  Glad I didn’t go for the 8gb model.

I do like the integration with your Google account – how you can be in the Play store, hit Install for an app and then shortly after it appears on your phone.  Also I like the Android Device Manager that can locate your device on a map.  It can ring the phone and lock / erase the handset.

I’m impressed by the speed of Google Maps and the accuracy of the voice search – it feels very smooth and fast.  I like dictating on my iPhone, so it is natural for me although I am self-conscious when I do it.  This is a good glimpse into the near future, I’m sure.  I’d say that Google voice search is better than Siri on iPhone.  I can dictate to Google in Spanish as well as in English, whereas Siri is English only.  On iPhone I have to use Dragon Dictate to do Spanish.

A niggle that won’t go away – there are some fancy background wallpapers included in the phone but I find that they are too “busy” when you have app icons on top.  The icons become obscured.  Why not have plain coloured wallpaper too?  In the end I got a solid black background by doing a Google image search.  Android looks amateurish compared to iOS7 (although iOS6 looks old hat against it too) but you get used to it, so it’s not a big deal in every day use.  It gives you a whole lot of information about applications that is just not necessary for the average user.

Something that is not an Android fault, but rather a Google-imposed limitation and is an issue for me: you can’t have Google Authenticator (for 2-factor authentication into Gmail) set up on two handsets at the same time.  This is a problem if I want to take the Moto G around with me as my only phone, which is a shame. This might sound like an edge-case usage, but in fact this is now what is demanded by my employer to be able to access email via a desktop browser so I need that functionality.  Currently it is set up on the iPhone.

One area where I’ve been really impressed is with typing.  I’ve never been very good at typing on a phone.  Being slightly bigger than the iPhone helps the Moto G in this regard, but the main difference is in the intelligence of the keyboard.


That’s what I thought at first.  I saw that the Google Keyboard from Android 4.4 (the very latest version of Android as I write – the Moto G is on v 4.3)  had been released into the Play store so that it can be installed on earlier versions of the operating system, so I did.  I really liked the way that it would suggest words to you – it could be pretty good at predicting what you might want to say next.  There was one drawback though – it would not do it for you in the Chrome / Google Now search bars.  I would have thought that it would be particularly useful there.  Then I discovered Swiftkey, a paid-for keyboard you can install.  Coming from the world of iOS it seems really strange (and a little dangerous?) to be able to do this.  Still, Swiftkey has the same word prediction feature as the Google keyboard, but it is even better and it is available everywhere.  It is also very easy to use keyboards in more than one language (in my case English and Spanish): you can simply slide between them using the Space bar.  Having set up more than one language, if you choose the dictation button it is simple to flip between languages to dictate in. Typing in iOS seems archaic and slow now I’ve experienced this. I can’t see Apple changing something as fundamental as the keyboard.  I know that my use of dictation will only increase, but this may hasten it still further.

It is not enough to make me change platforms, but it was certainly unexpected.  For the first time I can see a new way of doing things and to not have that on my current platform of choice is going to be frustrating at times.  Changing your keyboard is a niche thing to do – it would not even occur to most people and to pay for a keyboard is even more rare, I’m sure – but here it has made a huge difference.

In conclusion, this is a very good phone for the money.  I’m still learning, and I’m sure that there will more surprises and frustrations along the way, but I could live with this as my regular phone.  I wasn’t expecting to say that.

Review: Big Data – A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think

The bottom line first: if you are interested in a broad and non technical introduction to the subject of “Big Data” then you should read this book. It is short and highlights a number of points (some that aren’t necessarily clear from reading elsewhere.)

Point 1:

Importantly in the first chapter it says that to be practising “big data” projects you do not have to be dealing with millions of data points. There may be a lot less but the issue is that you should be working will all the data that is available to you rather than just a sample. With all the data, it is possible to analyze it in different ways. With just a sample you will likely be limited to what you can discover after the sample has been taken. The authors discuss the very first article I read about this subject, Wired’s The End of Theory. It’s very interesting to read how the article is now regarded.

Point 2:

People may have to get used to the data revealing what is happening without actually revealing why it is happening. In some areas we will have to let go somewhat of the (natural) desire to understand the reasons behind the results.

Point 3:

The authors deal with the subject of data getting “messier” (becoming more imprecise) as as you increase the amount you are collecting:

However in many new situations that are cropping up today allowing for imprecision – for messiness – may be a positive feature not a shortcoming. It is a tradeoff. In return for relaxing the standards of allowable errors, one can get a hold of much more data. It isn’t just that “more trumps some” but that, in fact, sometimes “more trumps better”.

Because this data set consists of more data points, it offers far greater value that likely offsets its messiness.

Big Data transforms figures into something more probabilistic than precise.

So more trumps less. And sometimes more trumps smarter.

“Simple models and a lot of data trump more elaborate models based on less data.” (quote from Peter Norvig, Google)

… treating data as something imperfect and imprecise lets us make superior forecasts and thus understand out world better

Point 4:

The chapter on “Datafication” of just about everything is a good balance of history and the insights that can be gleamed from today’s social media giants. Location is particularly important:

The point is that these indirect uses of location data have nothing to do with the routine of mobile communications, the purpose for which the information was initially generated. Rather, once location is datafied new uses crop up and new value can be created.

Datafication is only just starting, but now it is under way it will continue, with many benefits:

Once the world has been datafied, the potential uses of the information are basically limited only by one’s ingenuity.

Seeing the world as information, as oceans of data that can be explored at ever greater breadth and depth offers us a perspective on reality that we did not have before.

Point 5:

Another important point is that humans will have to get used to the fact that their opinion is not always the best:

… the biggest impact of big data will be that data-driven decisions are poised to augment or overrule human judgement.

This is likely to mean a change in the requirements needed to do a specific job. The importance of experience will diminish as insight from data can dwarf the experience of one person.

Mathematics and statistics, perhaps with a sprinkle of programming and network science, will be as foundational to the modern workplace as numeracy was a century ago and literacy before that.

… the winners will be found among large and small firms, squeezing out the mass in the middle.

Big data squeezes the middle of an industry, pushing firms to be very large, or small and quick, or dead.

Point 6:

Re-use of data is looked at – old data can be combined with new in different ways to discover or exploit new opportunities.  So what is the value of data? A company may have relatively few assets but a massive company valuation – therefore is the difference between the two the value of the data the company controls? That could mean billions of pounds / dollars / etc.

And finally…

A number of times there were names of sites or companies that led me to put the book down, check out a website or install an app. The chapter called “Implications” is particularly good for that, but it does slow down the reading somewhat. Even when a book is this recent some of the examples are now out-of-date (for example, Decide.com shutting its doors as its staff join ebay). This is a fast moving field.

There is a lot more to this book, impressive given that it is only 200 pages long. I’m glad I read this book – it puts so much into focus.

My first website – now back online…!

come in

A while ago I came across a backup of the files that made up my very first website from 1997, when I was working at CERN.  I had been inspired to learn some HTML for a couple of reasons:

1) I was working at the birthplace of the World Wide Web

2) I had some time to kill on the night shift.

So I fired up Netscape Communicator 4 and started experimenting.  I was very proud of my creation at the time, although to be honest I thought there was a little more of it.

The site has had a couple of homes over the years, from cern.ch to Geocities, but each time the host provider either reclaimed the space or closed down.

Now Google has a way of hosting a (simple) website from Google Drive, which you will have if you have a Google account.  It’s pretty straight forward and perfect for this use case (and free…)

My first website

• Lifehacker:  Host Web Pages on Google Drive