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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Where does the word robot come from?

A rare example of a Czech word ('robota') entering English:

robot was introduced to the public by the Czech interwar writer Karel ńĆapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in 1920. The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people called robots, though they are closer to the modern ideas of androids, creatures who can be mistaken for humans. They can plainly think for themselves, though they seem happy to serve. At issue is whether the robots are being exploited and the consequences of their treatment. source
Kathleen Richardson points out in this BBC broadcast that our notions about robots are fanciful - they are generally clumsy, ineffective machines.

So robots are not going to rule the world any time soon. But are they going to challenging for the Marathon Gold Medal at the next Olympics? On this evidence, perhaps not:

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Japanese Androids Train for First Ever Robot Marathon

What is Moore's law?

In 1965  Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel,  observed that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. Moore predicted that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future source
Computers are getting faster and (relatively) cheaper with each passing year. The phones we carry in our pockets are far more powerful than the ones that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

We are now approaching half a century of the integrated circuit. Fascinating discussion about the accelerating pace of change in BBC In Business Podcast - Race Against the Machine (March 30).

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Friday, 15 August 2014

What's a humble brag? Why has it entered the Oxford English Dictionary?

“I am well aware that I am the 'umblest person going,” said Uriah Heep, modestly from David Copperfield

Humble-bragging is the art of boasting while expressing your modesty in the manner of the Dickens character.  Tim Parks recently gave this example from William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“I feel this award was not made to me as a man,” he begins with apparent humility, seemingly denying personal prowess and heading off, as Faulkner always did, the all-too-evident relations between his stories and his biography, “but to my work, a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit.” 

All the attention must be on the work, but as a manifestation of saintly human endeavour. Whose? Faulkner’s of course.

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Thursday, 14 August 2014

What is mission creep? Where does the phrase come from?

Mission creep is when an original plan or objective is progressively widened by events on the ground.

Significantly the phrase has military origin

Originating in Somalia in 1993, the modern term “mission creep” became part of official U.S. Army vocabulary a decade later. Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations and Support Operations (February 2003) acknowledges two types of mission creep. The first occurs when “the unit receives shifting guidance or a change in mission for which the unit is not properly configured or resourced.” Lewis and Clark

In other words limited objective you start with expands to the point where it is no longer clear. 

Mission creep has also been used to describe non-military matters - financial regulation for example.

The Dictionary of Military Terms

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

Most confusing tech terms?

Even technology fans can struggle with 'geek-speak'. Here are twelve particularly confusing terms.
Apps - now used almost exclusively to describe mobile computing software. There are applications on your computer but apps on your phone or tablet - Photoshop (the application) on your iMac but Photoshop (the app) on your iPhone. 

Big Data -  the scale of the information now available is beyond the human capacity to analyse it. Step forward highly powered computers which can 'uncover hidden patterns, unknown correlations and other useful information' -  see here

Bitcoin - the most popular 'virtual' currency - see here

BYOD - Bring your own technology - see here

Cloud based/the cloud - stored online rather than on your computer. Increasingly vast amounts of data are stored by services such as Google Drive, iCloud and Dropbox. For the advantages/disadvantages of storing material this way see here.

MOOC - A MOOC is an online course with open enrolment and no fees - see here

Ping -
to send a packet to a computer and wait for its return (Packet Internet Groper). For those outside of IT that doesn't help much.

In practical terms to ping is to notify a website(s) that you have updated your site with new material. This is usually done automatically - via Twitter, Facebook etc.

SEO - search engine optimisation. SEO is the art of making your web page easier to find by the 'spiders' which crawl the web looking to recognise images and content visitors will be interested in. 

Each page has a ranking depending on the search term - the aim is to get as close to the top of the page as possible.

Showrooming - where customers use shops to investigate products they will buy online - see here.

Spoof - in general English this means to parody in an affectionate way - the Airplane films being a good example. In current IT usage the word has darker connotations - to spoof a password or user ID is to falsify, usually with the intention to defraud.

SSD - A solid state device.
An SSD is lighter and more reliable than traditional hard drive

In human English means that it does not have a hard drive with moveable parts - the Apple Air is a good example. SSDs are lighter and - in theory - less prone to crashes and the dreaded 'hard drive down'

Third and fourth generation access to bandwidth - or broadcasting capacity. In practical terms this means
3G - fast internet connection for mobile phones now slowed down by weight of traffic
4G - much faster connection.
Solution: everyone moves to 4G? Only problem is that access to networks is in the end controlled by national governments. In the UK this means that licences are finally becoming available - but at a very high price. So 4G will slowly become available but cost more than 3G.

And when that network slows down - bring on 5G.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

What is the origin of the word feminist?

The feminists (excuse this neologism) say .... all the evil rises from the fact that we will not allow that woman is the equal of man.  Alexandre Dumas (fils) 1873

The author of The Three Musketeers is credited with coining the word in French, with a translation of his work by G Vandenhoff introducing the English version. Interestingly, Dumas was not a sympathiser with the emerging campaign for women's rights. Even by the standards of his time he had a particularly patrician view of life "as a battle between the woman and the man."  

He was very censorius about prostitution, for example, blaming the prevalence of prostitutes in Paris for the fall of the city to the Prussians in 1870. This did not prevent him from calling on their services from time to time - presumably in the interests of research

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How did The Beatles help teach the world English?

The Beatles were very influential in the spread of English as the world's lingua franca.

They also helped 'democratise' the English language - see here. In the UK they cheerfully challenged the dominance of a clipped, upper-class approach to English known as received pronunciation (RP). Unapologetic about their Liverpool (Scouse) accents and use of slang, they immediately struck a chord with restless young people. 

The effect was even more dramatic in the USA, where Americans delighted in mysterious British words and pop culture references. 

The Beatles opened up English, breaking down the idea that there was one 'correct' form of the language - spoken by the Queen and guarded by the BBC.

But how did they help teach English?

The Beatles did not set out to teach English - but their lyrics are a a valuable resource for ESOL teachers. Abbey Road, for example, contains over 90% of the 2000 words 'considered to be of the greatest 'general service' to learners of English'. 

Why were The Beatles so effective in communicating the language?

Their early experience of teaching in a foreign language environment (Hamburg) may have played a role. But I think that age and cultural attitude were the crucial elements. The Beatles spoke to and for the younger generation. And for the first time that younger generation was shaping popular culture.

How The Beatles changed the English language
The Beatles Teaching Teaching Pack
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