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December 12 2013

Four short links: 12 December 2013

  1. iBeacons — Bluetooth LE enabling tighter coupling of physical world with digital. I’m enamoured with the interaction possibilities: The latest Apple TV software brought a fantastically clever workaround. You just tap your iPhone to the Apple TV itself, and it passes your Wi-Fi and iTunes credentials over and sets everything up instantaneously.
  2. Better and Better Keyboards (Jesse Vincent) — It suffered from the same problem as every other 3D-printed keyboard I’d made to date – When I showed it to someone, they got really excited about the fact that I had a 3D printer. In contrast, whenever I showed someone one of the layered acrylic prototype keyboards I’d built, they got excited about the keyboard.
  3. — open source modular web service for dataset storage and retrieval.
  4. state.jsOpen source JavaScript state machine supporting most UML 2 features.

December 10 2013

The public front of the free software campaign: part I

At a recent meeting of the MIT Open Source Planning Tools Group, I had the pleasure of hosting Zak Rogoff — campaigns manager at the Free Software Foundation — for an open-ended discussion on the potential for free and open tools for urban planners, community development organizations, and citizen activists. The conversation ranged over broad terrain in an “exploratory mode,” perhaps uncovering more questions than answers, but we did succeed in identifying some of the more common software (and other) tools needed by planners, designers, developers, and advocates, and shared some thoughts on the current state of FOSS options and their relative levels of adoption.

Included were the usual suspects — LibreOffice for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; QGIS and OpenStreetMap for mapping; and (my favorite) R for statistical analysis — but we began to explore other areas as well, trying to get a sense of what more advanced tools (and data) planners use for, say, regional economic forecasts, climate change modeling, or real-time transportation management. (Since the event took place in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at MIT, we mostly centered on planning-related tasks, but we also touched on some tangential non-planning needs of public agencies, and the potential for FOSS solutions there: assessor’s databases, 911 systems, library catalogs, educational software, health care exchanges, and so on.)

Importantly, we agreed from the start that to deliver on the promise of free software, planners must also secure free and open data — and free, fair, and open standards: without access to data — the raw material of the act of planning — our tools become useless, full of empty promise.

Emerging from the discussion, moreover, was a realization of what seemed to be a natural fit between the philosophy of the free and open source software movement and the overall goals of government and nonprofit planning groups, most notably along the following lines:

  • The ideal (and requirement) of thrift: Despite what you might hear on the street, most government agencies do not exist to waste taxpayer money; in fact, even well-funded agencies generally do not have enough funds to meet all the demands we place on them, and budgets are typically stretched pretty thin. On the “community” side, we see similar budgetary constraints for planners and advocates working in NGOs and community-based organizations, where every dollar that goes into purchasing (or upgrading) proprietary software, subscribing to private datasets, and renewing licenses means one less dollar to spend on program activities on the ground. Added to this, ever since the Progressive Era, governments have been required by law to seek the lowest-cost option when spending the public’s money, and we have created an entire bureaucracy of regulations, procurement procedures, and oversight authorities to enforce these requirements. (Yes, yes, I know: the same people who complain about government waste often want to eliminate “red tape” like this…)  When FOSS options meet the specifications of government contracts, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be in fact required under these procurement standards; of course, they often fail to meet the one part of the procurement specification that names a particular program; in essence, such practices “rig” bids in favor of proprietary software.  (One future avenue worth exploring might be to argue for performance-based bid specifications in government procurement.)
  • The concomitant goal of empowerment: Beyond simply saving money, planning and development organizations often want to actually do something; they exist to protect what we have (breathable air and clean drinking water, historic and cultural resources, property values), fix what is broken (vacant lots and buildings, outmoded and failing infrastructure, unsafe neighborhoods), and develop what we need (affordable housing, healthy food networks, good jobs, effective public services). Importantly, as part of the process, planners generally seek to empower the communities they are working in (at least since the 1970s); to extend-by-paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the process is the purpose,” and there is little point in working “in the public interest” while simultaneously robbing that same public of its voice, its community power, and its rights of democratic participation. So, where’s the tie-in to FOSS? The key here is to avoid the problem Marx diagnosed as “alienation of the workers from the means of production.” (Recent world events notwithstanding, Marx was still sometimes correct, and he really put his finger on it with this one.) When software code is provided in a free and open format, users and coders can become partners in the development cycle; better still, “open-source” can also become “open-ended,” as different groups are empowered to modify and enhance the programs they use. Without permanent, reliable, affordable — and, some would argue, customizable — access to tools and data, planners and citizens (the “workers,” in this case) become alienated from the means of producing plans for their future.
  • The value of transparency and openness: A third area of philosophical alignment between free software and public planners relates to the importance both groups place on transparency. To some extent — at least in the context of government planners — this aspect seems to combine elements of the previous two: just as government agencies are required under procurement laws to be cost-conscious, they are required under public records and open meeting laws to be transparent. Similarly, in the same way that community empowerment requires access to the tools of planning, it also requires access to the information of planning: in order for democratic participation to be meaningful, the public must have access to information about what decisions are being made, when, by whom, and why (based on what rationale?). Transparency — not just the privilege of “being informed,” but rather the right to examine and audit all the files — is the only way to ensure this access. In short, even if it is not free, we expect our government to be open source.
  • The virtuous efficiency of cooperation and sharing: With a few misguided exceptions (for example, when engaging in “tragedy of the commons” battles over shared resources, or manipulated into “race-to-the-bottom” regional bidding wars to attract sports teams or industrial development), governments and community-based organizations generally do not exist in the same competitive environment as private companies. If one agency or neighborhood develops a new tool or has a smart idea to solve a persistent problem, there is no harm — and much benefit — to sharing it with other places. In this way, the natural inclination of public and non-profit agencies bears a striking resemblance to the share-and-share-alike ethos of open source software developers. (The crucial difference being that, often, government and community-based agencies are too busy actually working “in the trenches” to develop networks for shared learning and knowledge transfer, but the interest is certainly there.)

Added to all this, recent government software challenges hint at the potential benefit of a FOSS development model. For example, given the botched rollout of the online health care insurance exchanges (which some have blamed on proprietary software models, and/or the difficulty of building the new public system on top of existing locked private code), groups like FSF have been presented with a “teachable moment” about the virtues of free and open solutions. Of course, given the current track record of adoption (spotty at best), the recognition of these lines of natural alignment begs the question, “Given all this potential and all these shared values, why haven’t more public and non-profit groups embraced free and open software to advance their work?” Our conversation began to address this question in a frank and honest way, enumerating deficiencies in the existing tools and gaps in the adoption pipeline, but quickly pivoted to a more positive framing, suggesting new — and, potentially, quite productive — fronts for the campaign for free and open source software, which I will present in part two. Stay tuned.

Four short links: 10 December 2013

  1. ArangoDBopen-source database with a flexible data model for documents, graphs, and key-values. Build high performance applications using a convenient sql-like query language or JavaScript extensions.
  2. Google’s Seven Robotics Companies (IEEE) — The seven companies are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot. Mr. Rubin said he was pursuing additional acquisitions. Rundown of those seven companies.
  3. Hebel (Github) — GPU-Accelerated Deep Learning Library in Python.
  4. What We Learned Open Sourcing — my eye was caught by the way they offered APIs to closed source code, found and solved performance problems, then open sourced the fixed code.

December 09 2013

Four short links: 9 December 2013

  1. Reform Government Surveillance — hard not to view this as a demarcation dispute. “Ruthlessly collecting every detail of online behaviour is something we do clandestinely for advertising purposes, it shouldn’t be corrupted because of your obsession over national security!”
  2. Brian Abelson — Data Scientist at the New York Times, blogging what he finds. He tackles questions like what makes a news app “successful” and how might we measure it. Found via this engaging interview at the quease-makingly named Content Strategist.
  3. StageXL — Flash-like 2D package for Dart.
  4. BayesDBlets users query the probable implications of their data as easily as a SQL database lets them query the data itself. Using the built-in Bayesian Query Language (BQL), users with no statistics training can solve basic data science problems, such as detecting predictive relationships between variables, inferring missing values, simulating probable observations, and identifying statistically similar database entries. Open source.

December 04 2013

Four short links: 4 December 2013

  1. Skyjack — drone that takes over other drones. Welcome to the Malware of Things.
  2. Bootstrap Worlda curricular module for students ages 12-16, which teaches algebraic and geometric concepts through computer programming. (via Esther Wojicki)
  3. Harvestopen source BSD-licensed toolkit for building web applications for integrating, discovering, and reporting data. Designed for biomedical data first. (via Mozilla Science Lab)
  4. Project ILIAD — crowdsourced antibiotic discovery.

December 03 2013

Four short links: 3 December 2013

  1. SAMOA — Yahoo!’s distributed streaming machine learning (ML) framework that contains a programming abstraction for distributed streaming ML algorithms. (via Introducing SAMOA)
  2. madliban open-source library for scalable in-database analytics. It provides data-parallel implementations of mathematical, statistical and machine-learning methods for structured and unstructured data.
  3. Data Portraits: Connecting People of Opposing Views — Yahoo! Labs research to break the filter bubble. Connect people who disagree on issue X (e.g., abortion) but who agree on issue Y (e.g., Latin American interventionism), and present the differences and similarities visually (they used wordclouds). Our results suggest that organic visualisation may revert the negative effects of providing potentially sensitive content. (via MIT Technology Review)
  4. Disguise Detection — using Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and Python.

November 28 2013

November 25 2013

Four Short Links: 25 November 2013

  1. Drone Journalism“The newspaper was for still images,” said Mr. Whyld, who builds his own drones, “but the Internet is for this.” is the money shot from a NY Times piece (not linked to directly, as is paywalled)
  2. Best UX Patterns for Mobile Web Apps (Luke Wroblewski) — advice from Google Chrome Dev Summit.
  3. You Don’t Know JS (Github) — book in progress, funded by a Kickstarter.
  4. SparkA Chrome app based development environment with a reusable library of GUI widgets.

November 21 2013

Four short links: 21 November 2013

  1. Network Connectivity Optional (Luke Wroblewski) — we need progressive enhancement: assume people are offline, then enhance if they are actually online.
  2. Whoosh fast, featureful full-text indexing and searching library implemented in pure Python
  3. Flanker (GitHub) — open source address and MIME parsing library in Python. (via Mailgun Blog)
  4. Stream Adventure (Github) — interactive exercises to help you understand node streams.

November 15 2013

November 11 2013

Four short links: 12 Nov 2013

  1. Quantitative Reliability of Programs That Execute on Unreliable Hardware (MIT) — As MIT’s press release put it: Rely simply steps through the intermediate representation, folding the probability that each instruction will yield the right answer into an estimation of the overall variability of the program’s output. (via Pete Warden)
  2. AirBNB’s Javascript Style Guide (Github) — A mostly reasonable approach to JavaScript.
  3. Category Theory for Scientists (MIT Courseware) — Scooby snacks for rationalists.
  4. Textblob — Python open source text processing library with sentiment analysis, PoS tagging, term extraction, and more.

Four short links: 11 November 2013

  1. Living Light — 3D printed cephalopods filled with bioluminescent bacteria. PAGING CORY DOCTOROW, YOUR ORGASMATRON HAS ARRIVED. (via Sci Blogs)
  2. Repacking Lego Batteries with a CNC Mill — check out the video. Patrick programmed a CNC machine to drill out the rivets holding the Mindstorms battery pack together. Coding away a repetitive task like this is gorgeous to see at every scale. We don’t have to teach our kids a particular programming language, but they should know how to automate cruft.
  3. My Thoughts on Google+ (YouTube) — when your fans make hatey videos like this one protesting Google putting the pig of Google Plus onto the lipstick that was YouTube, you are Doin’ It Wrong.
  4. Presto: Interacting with Petabytes of Data at Facebooka distributed SQL query engine optimized for ad-hoc analysis at interactive speed. It supports standard ANSI SQL, including complex queries, aggregations, joins, and window functions. For details, see the Facebook post about its launch.

November 05 2013

Four short links: 5 November 2013

  1. Influx DBopen-source, distributed, time series, events, and metrics database with no external dependencies.
  2. Omega (PDF) — ���exible, scalable schedulers for large compute clusters. From Google Research.
  3. GraspJSSearch and replace your JavaScript code based on its structure rather than its text.
  4. Amazon Mines Its Data Trove To Bet on TV’s Next Hit (WSJ) — Amazon produced about 20 pages of data detailing, among other things, how much a pilot was viewed, how many users gave it a 5-star rating and how many shared it with friends.

November 04 2013

Four short links: 4 November 2013

  1. A Game Designer’s Guide to Google Glass (Gamasutra) — nice insight that Glass is shovelware-resistant because input is so different and output so limited. (via Beta Knowledge)
  2. Be Polite, Pertinent, and Pretty (Slideshare) — design principles from Dopplr. (via Matt Jones’s memorial to Dopplr)
  3. Replicant — free software Android. (via Wired)
  4. Femme Fatale Dupes IT Guys at Government Agency (Sophos) — story of how a fake LinkedIn profile for a pretty woman reflects as poorly on security practice as on gender politics.

October 30 2013

Four short links: 30 October 2013

  1. Offline.js — Javascript library so web app developers can gracefully deal with users going offline.
  2. Android Guideslots of info on coding for Android.
  3. Statistics Done Wrong — learn from these failure modes. Not medians or means. Modes.
  4. Streaming, Sketching, and Sufficient Statistics (YouTube) — how to process huge data sets as they stream past your CPU (e.g., those produced by sensors). (via Ben Lorica)

October 29 2013

Four short links: 29 October 2013

  1. Mozilla Web Literacy Standard — things you should be able to do if you’re to be trusted to be on the web unsupervised. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Berg Cloud Platform — hardware (shield), local network, and cloud glue. Caution: magic ahead!
  3. Sharka large-scale data warehouse system for Spark designed to be compatible with Apache Hive. It can execute Hive QL queries up to 100 times faster than Hive without any modification to the existing data or queries. Shark supports Hive’s query language, metastore, serialization formats, and user-defined functions, providing seamless integration with existing Hive deployments and a familiar, more powerful option for new ones. (via Strata)
  4. The Malware of Thingsa technician opening up an iron included in a batch of Chinese imports to find a “spy chip” with what he called “a little microphone”. Its correspondent said the hidden devices were mostly being used to spread viruses, by connecting to any computer within a 200m (656ft) radius which were using unprotected Wi-Fi networks.

October 25 2013

Four short links: 25 October 2013

  1. Seagate Kinetic Storage — In the words of Geoff Arnold: The physical interconnect to the disk drive is now Ethernet. The interface is a simple key-value object oriented access scheme, implemented using Google Protocol Buffers. It supports key-based CRUD (create, read, update and delete); it also implements third-party transfers (“transfer the objects with keys X, Y and Z to the drive with IP address”). Configuration is based on DHCP, and everything can be authenticated and encrypted. The system supports a variety of key schemas to make it easy for various storage services to shard the data across multiple drives.
  2. Masters of Their Universe (Guardian) — well-written and fascinating story of the creation of the Elite game (one founder of which went on to make the Raspberry Pi). The classic action game of the early 1980s – Defender, Pac Man – was set in a perpetual present tense, a sort of arcade Eden in which there were always enemies to zap or gobble, but nothing ever changed apart from the score. By letting the player tool up with better guns, Bell and Braben were introducing a whole new dimension, the dimension of time.
  3. Micropolar (github) — A tiny polar charts library made with D3.js.
  4. Introduction to R (YouTube) — 21 short videos from Google.

October 24 2013

Four short links: 24 October 2013

  1. Visually Programming Arduino — good for little minds.
  2. Rapid Hardware Iteration at Scale (Forbes) — It’s part of the unique way that Xiaomi operates, closely analyzing the user feedback it gets on its smartphones and following the suggestions it likes for the next batch of 100,000 phones. It releases them every Tuesday at noon Beijing time.
  3. Machine Learning of Hierarchical Clustering to Segment 2D and 3D Images (PLoS One) — We propose an active learning approach for performing hierarchical agglomerative segmentation from superpixels. Our method combines multiple features at all scales of the agglomerative process, works for data with an arbitrary number of dimensions, and scales to very large datasets.
  4. Kratuan Open Source client-side analysis framework to create simple yet powerful renditions of data. It allows you to dynamically adjust your view of the data to highlight issues, opportunities and correlations in the data.

October 21 2013

Four short links: 21 October 2013

  1. Google’s Iron Grip on Android (Ars Technica) — While Google will never go the entire way and completely close Android, the company seems to be doing everything it can to give itself leverage over the existing open source project. And the company’s main method here is to bring more and more apps under the closed source “Google” umbrella.
  2. How to Live Without Being Tracked (Fast Company) — this seems appropriate: she assumes that every phone call she makes and every email she sends will be searchable by the general public at some point in the future. Full of surprises, like To identify tires, which can come in handy if they’re recalled, tire manufacturers insert an RFID tag with a unique code that can be read from about 20 feet away by an RFID reader..
  3. method.acComplete 50 challenges. Each challenge is a small, design related task. They cover theory and practice of one specific design subject. Challenges are progressively more difficult, and completing them gives you access to more intricate challenges.
  4. IBM Watson’s Cancer Moonshot (Venture Beat) — IBM is ready to make a big a bet on Watson, as it did in the 1970s when it invested in the emergence of the mainframe. Watson heralds the emergence of “thinking machines,” which learn by doing and already trump today’s knowledge retrieval machines. I for one welcome the opportunity to be a false negative.

October 14 2013

Four short links: 17 October 2013

  1. PencilAn open-source GUI prototyping tool that’s available for ALL platforms.
  2. lmctfyopen source version of Google’s container stack, which provides Linux application containers.
  3. ASCII WWDC — searchable full-text transcriptions of WWDC sessions.
  4. Cryptogeddon — an online infosec wargame.
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