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Outer space … and the peaceful use thereof

I am sure more than enough blogs today will be denoted to the date 12-12-12, and the significance of this date in numerology, the Mayan calender and who knows what other esoteric contexts.

So, let me rather discuss another event celebrated today – on this day back in 1959, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs set up it’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, also known as COPUOS.

Space - a big topic for an UN subcommittee.(© All Rights Reserved)
Space – a big topic for an UN subcommittee.
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The mandate of COPUOS is “to review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, to devise programmes in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space.”

While this may seem a bit ‘out there’ to most of us earth-bound human beings, it is quite an interesting concept, and I guess in a way nice that there is at least some body responsible for keeping human extraterrestrial activities in check – we all know what silly things us humans can do with new things and domains that we don’t yet fully comprehend, and where we don’t quite understand the potential consequences of our actions.

The idea for the committee came up shortly after the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1958, right at the time when human interest (among both the scientific community and the general public) in outer space started seriously picking up, and about a decade before the first moon landing. Starting with 24 members, the committee has since grown to 71 members, making it one of the largest committees in the UN. Personally, the mind boggles when I look at the member list – you have to ask yourself what some of these countries could possibly contribute to the discussion on outer space. But then again, it is surprising what some countries spend their national budgets on…

Actually, thinking about it, perhaps it’s not strange that COPUOS is such a big committee. Space is, after all, a pretty big topic.  In the words of Douglas Adams: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Celebrating International Shareware Day

Today is a day to celebrate thousands of computer programmers frantically coding away at their latest killer app, who end up essentially giving it away in the hope that someone will show enough appreciation to pay them for it – today, the second Saturday of December, is International Shareware Day.

Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.(© All Rights Reserved)
Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Unlike open source software, ‘shareware’ is a proprietary software model – the author retains ownership of the programme and the code, and often scaled down versions of commercial software applications are released as shareware. While you can use the software without paying, the idea is that if you find it useful, you should pay, or upgrade to the full, non-free version of the software. Some shareware are also only made available for a limited trial period, after which users are expected to pay to continue using it.

Another concept closely related to shareware is ‘freeware’, where the software is made available for free without an expectation of payment, except perhaps for donations to the author.

The first piece of software called ‘freeware’ was PC-Talk, a telecommunications programme created by Andrew Fleugelman in 1982, while the term ‘shareware’ was first used with the programme PC-Write (a word processing tool), released by Bob Wallace in early 1983. So in a way this year effectively represents the 30th anniversary of freeware/shareware.

Very few shareware and freeware downloads are ever paid for, meaning that the chances of sustaining yourself on shareware income remains fairly slim. This is sad, because this mode of software production has resulted in some wonderful software tools being made available to users around the globe – virus protection software, all kinds of computer utilities, and much more. Lack of financial returns also means that many shareware and freeware projects are abandoned, not updated or not supported.

International Shareware Day was created to remind shareware users about the value they have gained through their use of these programmes. And to perhaps inspire them, in the spirit of the upcoming festive season, to send off a few payments to the authors of their favourite shareware apps.

It may not happen, but it’s worth a try…

It’s World Computer Literacy Day

A couple of days ago I commented on Computer Security Day. Today we’re back to computers, but this time the issue is way more fundamental – today is World Computer Literacy Day.

Celebrated for the first time in 2001 in India, the day has since expanded to an international initiative. Computer literacy relates to the ability to comfortably use computers and related information and communications technologies (ICTs). Some of the key issues impacting computer literacy include basic access to ICT, and the ability to use these technologies in your own language.

Promoting computer literacy and connectivity in the developing world is critical in creating economic opportunities for all.(© All Rights Reserved)
Promoting computer literacy and connectivity in the developing world is critical in creating economic opportunities for all.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of those who are not privileged enough to have access to computers, Irish charity organisation Camara Education has launched a challenge to those of us for whom ICT is a part of everyday life, to go without technology for 24 hours. Through this initiative, known as ‘Techfast’, they hope to highlight the digital divide that still exists in the world today.

Being connected always and everywhere, it is easy to forget that the global digital village we are part of really isn’t that global at all, with ICT and computer literacy very much concentrated in developed countries. While we get treated to high speed, low cost Internet, the developing world continues to lag further and further behind.

There are positive examples in the developing world where the digital divide is actively being addressed. While countries like Ethiopia and Zambia still have less than 2% of the population connected to the Internet, the situation in Kenya, for example, looks very different – from 2009 to 2010 the percentage of Internet users have increased from 10% to 26%. A massive digital boom indeed, and one which is reported to also be providing an economic boost to the country.

While I often wonder whether 24/7 connectivity is a blessing or a curse, the fact of the matter is that, to participate in the global economy, connectivity and computer literacy is of paramount importance.

While you’re comfortably browsing through your blog roll on your high-speed internet connection, spare a thought on World Computer Literacy Day for those who are not as technologically privileged.

Keeping your digital belongings secure on Computer Security Day

Today, 30 November, is Computer Security Day. The day, started in 1988, was initiated to raise awareness about computer security issues and to remind people to protect their computers and digital information.

I have to admit that I am no expert on this, but I do know that the subject is more or less as big as you care to make it – from ensuring that you have basic virus or mallware protection in place, all the way to going to great lengths to ensure that your ‘digital footprint’ is as small as possible, out of fear of online personality theft or some similarly sinister conspiracy theory. I definitely lean somewhat towards the relaxed side of the scale – I guess simply maintaining a blog and having a Facebook presence is already enough to have the extreme paranoids running screaming to the hills.

Do what you can to keep your precious data safe and secure.
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Whatever your level of computer security awareness, there are some basic things we should all do – doing fairly regular backups, keeping your computer environment physically safe (locked up when you’re not around), clean and free of excess dust, pet hair etc, using unique, and non-obvious, passwords for your different online accounts, and not opening suspect emails or visiting dubious websites. (Sorry, but you didn’t win that million dollar lottery that you cannot remember entering, and that pastor trying to share his fortunes with you is not real either.)

Of course these days computer security no longer only applies to your home computer and/or laptop, but digital tablets and smart phones as well. In this age of being always connected and always online, I guess we should spend more time thinking about the topic than we typically do.

And perhaps Computer Security Day is just the day to get get us off our behinds and kick us into action.

One-click shopping on Cyber Monday

A few days ago I chatted about the virtues of cutting back on buying and spending – an approach that was promoted on Buy Nothing Day, last Friday. The reason for Buy Nothing Day being celebrated this time of year is that we are in the middle of one of the craziest shopping periods of the year – in the US and Canada in particular, Thanksgiving weekend is a time that puts big smiles on retailers’ faces.

Today is no exception, as we celebrate a day of shopping frenzy that has come to be known as Cyber Monday – one of the top online shopping days in the US, and many other parts of the world.

Online shopping – makes parting with your money easier than ever before.
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As reported in the New York Times in 2005, “The name Cyber Monday grew out of the observation that millions of otherwise productive working Americans, fresh off a Thanksgiving weekend of window shopping, were returning to high-speed Internet connections at work Monday and buying what they liked.” Besides the explanation given by the NYT, the fact is also that this is the time of year – one month before Christmas – when retailers seriously step up their relentless barrage of sales and promotions, reaching fever pitch towards the second half of December.

The term Cyber Monday was first coined in 2005 by online shopping community Shop.org, based on research from the previous year, during which they noticed that the period after Thanksgiving showed a clear spike in online shopping. Since 2010 the day has consistently counted as one of the $1+ billion online shopping days in the US. The day has become so popular with online shoppers the world over that many employers are actively curbing their employees’ non-work related online activities on this day.

What struck me when I read up about Cyber Monday, is how new online shopping really still is (less than 20 years ago, the concept was still largely non-existent) yet how entrenched it has become as part of our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without amazon.com, without ebay, without itunes. It is estimated that by 2015 the online shopping industry will be worth a whopping $279 billion in the US and €134 billion in Europe.

If you’re into shopping, and looking for a bargain, today may be just the day for you to go trawling the online shopping sites. Just don’t complain when you end up buying a whole bunch of extra stuff you never planned on, pushing your budget into a state of emergency. Retailers are ruthless in their quest to make the poor consumer part with his money, and the online sector is, if possible, even more so. The most dangerous part of online shopping is that you never physically part with your money – its just a click here and a click there, and suddenly your bank balance looks a lot less healthy.

I still maintain that the best thing to do during the two months between mid-November and mid-January is to stay as far away from the shops as you can, and to rather spend time being creative – homemade gifts and goods are so much more special than yet another shop-bought special offer.

You may indeed get some real specials this time of year, but I can guarantee that you will also spend a lot more than you planned…

Location, location, location (and time) – it’s GIS Day

November 14th is GIS Day, an annual event focusing attention on the field of Geographic Information Systems, its use and potential to impact on our lives.

GIS Day started in 1999 to create an opportunity for people to learn about geography and to discover and explore the benefits of GIS.

Spatially mapping your data enables you to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.
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So what exactly is GIS? According to Esri, one of the leading international developers and vendors in the field of GIS, “A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.”

Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology.”

Spatially visualising information has many benefits. GIS enables us to map where things are and in what quantities and densities they are distributed. Modern GIS tools also allow us to map and visualise changes in these quantities over time. By seeing how various fields of data are dispersed geographically, and how they are changing, it is often possible to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.

This in turn leads to better decision making and improved communication.

GIS is a pervasive supporting technology throughout all aspects of modern society, with applications in business (banking, retail, etc), law enforcement, health, transportation, environmental systems, conservation, agriculture, forestry, mining, telecommunications, utilities management, research and education.

Capturing spatio-temporal location is key to GIS.
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A GIS can typically employ and integrate data from a huge range of sources, as long as it has some key through which to relate it to the other data in the system. This key is spatio-temporal location – you need to know the location and time represented by the data. To map climate change, for example, you would include information on temperature and rainfall. But just having a list of temperatures and rainfall figures means nothing – to make it useful, you need some indicator of where and when each value was measured.

By promoting an understanding of this simple basic concept – that you massively increase the value and usefulness of any set of data by recording and including the spatio-temporal location of each data item – time and money spent on data collecting efforts can be leveraged so much more effectively.

Are you involved in data collection? Know someone who is? Even if space and time appear unimportant, record it anyway. Who knows – you may just discover something no-one’s thought of before…

My dream of a single power plug on World Standards Day

World Standards Day is celebrated internationally each year on 14 October.

The idea of this day is to remind people of the importance of standards, and to honour the efforts of all those involved in the development and maintenance of various standards within the different standards organisations such as the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Development of standards is a detailed, precise and often thankless job, that is usually done on a voluntary basis. And unless you run into a situation where your life is complicated as a result of a lack of standardisation, you may very likely not even be aware of the important roles standards and interoperability play in our daily lives.

The theme of this year’s World Standards Day is “Less waste, better results – Standards increase efficiency.” As explained by the World Standards Cooperation (WSC), international standards help to harmonize manufacturing and other processes across the globe, which allow components etc from different manufacturers to ‘fit together like pieces in a puzzle’. Standards support interoperability and compatibility and facilitate market access to new products. And all this do indeed contribute to a more efficient and less wasteful world.

Non-standardised power supplies must be one of the most frustrating headaches facing anyone endeavouring to travel internationally.
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I guess as someone who has travelled to a few countries, and who has lived in more than one country, I personally find one of the most frustrating examples of non-standardisation being the absurd range of different electrical plug and socket standards in different countries. Having to replace plugs, buy various country-specific adapters, or replace power cables, is an excellent example where a lack of standards leads to less efficiency and more waste. How this disparity came about I have no idea. And why, in this day and age, have things not progressed to a single standard (at least among countries working on a similar voltage and current rating) makes even less sense. Surely it cannot be that difficult – just go for the most pervasive standard, or better still, choose the one that actually works best, and go with that?

So, like Martin Luther King of old, I also have a dream. It is not a very big dream, but it is a dream that can, in its own small way, change the world. On this World Standards Day my dream is to travel the world with a single, universal power plug that fits the sockets of all countries across the globe. Is that too much to ask? 🙂

Techies Day and the growing need for skilled high-tech workers

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a ‘techie’ is defined as “a person who is very knowledgeable or enthusiastic about technology and especially high technology”. And today, I am told, is Techies Day, launched in 1999 by Techies.com. Yes indeed, when no-one else bothered to create a day for appreciating the techies, they just did what any good techie would do and created it themselves. Gotta love a techie!

All jokes aside, this is the day to take some time to acknowledge and appreciate all the ways in which your life is made easier thanks to a baffling array of techies – the guys and gals who keeps the telecommunications systems communicating; who ensure the computing systems keep computing; who keep our ever increasing collection of digital devices up and running; who enable the blogging platforms to keep on supporting the 433,743 bloggers, 1,058,607 new posts, 1,283,513 comments, and 246,669,831 words posted every day (and that’s just on our favourite platform).

Take time today to show some love and appreciation for the techies in your life.
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Internationally there’s an ever growing demand for qualified technology workers, and a growing recognition of the need for initiatives aimed at drawing more bright young people into technology domains. In a ComputerWeekly report from April this year, the lack of IT talent is described as a ‘global issue’ by recruitment group Hays, who has pinpointed IT as “one of the top ‘hard skills’ in demand” in their list of top ten skills that are globally lacking. The article further points out that, while international outsourcing is still a popular option for many companies to address their shortages, there is a trend to rather try to attract the skills to develop projects in-house.

The situation is no different down here in New Zealand. As reported in the NZ Herald, Minister of Economic Development Steven Joyce , while addressing the Nethui Internet Conference, said “There is a worldwide shortage of ICT skills currently and it’s not getting any better and New Zealand is part of that. One of the challenges for all of us, particularly those of you who are evangelists for the digital revolution, is actually to get schools, people, students, families to get more focused on ICT careers because there is a danger that the focus on the skills, that will be required, lags [behind] the opportunities.”

The ICT domain keeps expanding, requiring more and more techies to keep it up and running.
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So, the next time you interact with a techie and he/she looks a tad stressed, have some sympathy – they’re probably overstretched and can do with some appreciation. Too often these days we consider the IT systems and connectivity supporting our lives a right and not a privelege, and we get righteously peeved off when things go wrong and take it out on the first line of support we hit.

Today, instead of fighting, show some love for the techies in your life.

Happy Techies Day, everyone.

Google – 14 years of searching and so much more.

Search giant Google turns 14 today. Quite incredible, isn’t it? I still remember so clearly when Google first arrived on the scene like a breath of fresh air in the late 90’s – simple, clean, effective.

Special Google doodle for the company’s 14th birthday.

With the search engine trend at the time being to desperately try and be all things to all people (the dreaded ‘one-stop portal syndrome’), Google was startling in its simplicity. Going completely against the portal trend, it presented a simple search engine that was nothing but a search engine. And people flocked to it in droves, so much so that Google completely changed the search landscape, becoming so ubiquitous that ‘googling something’ became part of everyday speak.

Of course it wasn’t all that simple – Google was brilliantly designed, and it’s search engine quite frankly took Internet searching to a new level. Where conventional search engines used search term counts to rang results, Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the innovative idea of calculating a page’s relevance by the number of pages (and the importance of these pages) that linked back to the original page. This approach, called ‘PageRank’, proved much more effective in providing relevant and useful search results.

Combined with it’s unofficial slogan “Don’t be evil”, Google’s mission statement has always been “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. And they’ve certainly been effective at that.

Since it’s search engine beginnings, Google has grown to incorporate a huge range of disparate products and applications, including Google Docs, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Translate, Google News, Google Buzz and more.

A significant step in Google’s continued expansion has been the release of it’s Android operating system for mobile devices, which it acquired and subsequently released as an open source project. Andoid has since become one of the dominant mobile platfoms in smartphones, tablets and the like. Another open source initiatives that Google has ventured into is the Google Chrome web browser, followed by the Google Chrome OS, an open source Linux-based operating system.

In 2011 Google launched Google+, their social networking service to compete with Facebook. After 4 weeks of operation, Google+ claimed to have reached 25 million users, and there has been predictions of the service reaching 400 million users by the end of 2012. (Uptake of this service has, however, not been quite up to expectations, with Todd Wasserman from Mashable reporting earlier this year that the amount of time people are spending on Google+ has been constantly decreasing since the end of 2011, and appears negligeable compared to time users still spend on Facebook.)

The past 10 years saw incredible growth and diversification from Google – some people (myself included) feeling that perhaps they’re spreading themselves too wide, again approaching the ‘all things to all people’ trap they so impressively sidestepped when they first appeared. As with any supersize company, they’ve also had their share of criticisms – some valid, some less so – regarding their operations. Throughout all this, however, it has to be said that Google has managed to retain an enviably informal and positive corporate culture, adhering to casual principles such as “you can make money without doing evil”, “you can be serious without a suit” and “work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun”.

In 2004, Google also created a non-profit, philantropic organisation called Google.org, aimed at creating awareness about issues such as climate change, public health and global poverty.

Pretty impressive stuff all around, I have to say.

Happy Birthday, Google – it’s going to be really interesting to see what the next decade holds!

Sign language and the International Week of the Deaf

This week (24-30 September) we celebrate the International Week of the Deaf (IWD). As explained on the website of the American National Association of the Deaf, the aim is “to attract the attention of decision makers, general public, and media to the problems and concerns deaf persons face and make them understand that deaf people have human rights too! So the International Week of the Deaf is all about getting together, feeling united and powerful and showing that unity to the rest of the world.”

In 2012, the theme of IWD is “Sign Bilingualism is a Human Right!” This focuses on the rights of the deaf to have access to information in a form that they can use, and to not be discriminated against because of their disability.

Technology used to teach sign language. This is part of a South African research initiative called the National Accessibility Portal (http://www.napsa.org.za/), which is focused on research activities supporting accessibility for people with various disabilities including the deaf and the blind. In the case of this project, the technologies supporting the deaf are applied to South African sign language, which is closely related to the British, Australian and New Zealand Sign language.
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Did you know that, despite sign language being a non-verbal means of communication, there isn’t a single sign language shared and understood by all users around the world?  (There is an ‘International Sign Language’, but this is typically only used at international Deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf.) Even though sign language is not directly related to, or based on, oral languages, there are various dialects around the world, in some cases very different to one another. British Sign Language and American Sign Language, for example, are very different despite these countries sharing English as a common oral language.  Sign language in the USA and Canada are based on the French sign language family, while the UK, Australia and New Zealand share a language known as British, Australian and New Zealand Sign language (BANZSL).  In addition to these, there are numerous more sign language families, for example Danish Sign Language (including Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish dialects), Japanese Sign Language (including Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean), German sign language, and more.

Reading up on the intricacies and complexities of the different dialects and sign language families only reiterated to me how little I know about the subject. And I suppose it is exactly this ignorance that initiatives like the International Week of the Deaf tries to address.

Can you ‘speak’ sign language? Know anyone who can?