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22 July 2011

Last Flight of the Space Shuttle

On reflection every engineering project has a beginning and an end; an era in space and time. Sooner or later technology is replaced by a superior version, or becomes hopelessly outdated by changes in society. The internal combustion engine will eventually go this way.

Groundbreaking engineering projects can also find themselves relegated to museum pieces due to financial implications, public ambivalence and political manoeuvring. The revolutionary, and still unmatched, Concorde met its fate in just such circumstances.

On 21st July 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA's Cape Canaveral runway in Florida. It marked the end of the Space Shuttle programme, the touchdown messages being particularly poignant. Just as with Concorde, without an obvious Shuttle replacement we've tumbled into an indeterminate period of history. One where the usual inexorable flow of advancement and innovation has folded in on itself. It's as if we are suddenly trapped inside a strangely out-of-sequence time bubble.

NASA's plan is that the private sector will eventually pierce this time bubble. It could be decades before we'll know if they made the right decision.

14 July 2011

Technology for Health and Fitness

Can technology help you stay healthy? Yes it can. As I discuss in my five page Technology for Health and Fitness feature article.

As published in Micro Mart magazine issue 1166.

Topics discussed include:

- diets and exercise software (such as DailyBurn)
- running apps, gadgets and hi-tech shoes (such as Runkeeper Pro and Adidas miCoach)
- cycle gadgets and ultra hi-tech bikes (such as Beru's Factor 001)
- gym personal trainer apps (such as Smaltek's GymGoal)
- game console titles (such as Your Shape: Fitness Evolved)
- expedition tested body-mounted sensors (from Toumaz)
- relaxation/sleep monitors (the Emwave Personal Stress Reliever and Zeo Sleep Analyser)

Here are a couple of extracts:

In recent times the UK has witnessed a huge surge in public participation in local and national running events. Regardless of whether you're a beginner or veteran runner, looking to stay upright at a local 3km fun run or compete in a marathon, technology can help.

It doesn't have to be expensive or overcomplicated to provide a benefit. Something as simple as a mechanical pedometer and watch will provide some feedback of the distance travelled and effort exerted. But let's consider some more advanced options.

Own a smartphone? Many have GPS functionality and, with an appropriate app, it's a simple matter to record distance travelled and time taken. Subsequent analysis will show the peaks and troughs of your running pace and average speed. The key to a well loved app for runners is simplicity.

Take the iPhone, Android and Windows Phone 7 app Runkeeper Pro for example. Just starting off? Just tap the Start Activity button. Want an in-run update? One tap displays distance, time and average pace. Need some motivational music? Runkeeper Pro's built-in playlist selection means no app switching antics. And at the end of the run just hit Save Activity to upload the run, for subsequent analysis or community sharing.

The smartphone-less runner has plenty of options too. Consider the Adidas miCoach Pacer bundled with a heart-rate monitor and stride sensor. In constant real-time communication with the sensors it delivers audible feedback and guidance based on previously entered goals. It hold up to 32 hours of run data, which can be USB-synced to a PC or Mac. The downside? Well, it takes a while to get to grips with software and enter your target settings.

Gadget weight and unobtrusiveness is a major consideration for runners. So, maybe the Nike + iPod system is superior solution. Pick up your special pair of Nike running shoes - with a dedicated insole sensor pocket - and connect the wireless receiver to your iPod/iPhone, and your ready. Every step of the run can be tracked, with a real-time commentary on your time, distance, pace and calories burned.

Is all this talk of exercise, training routines and general physical exertion leaving you a little breathless? Let's investigate another, equally important area of wellbeing - relaxation.

As all great athletes know, the ability to drop into a calm, focussed mental state before, sometimes even during, a physical performance is one of the secrets of their success. Yet assessing levels of inner calm and relaxation is quite difficult. You might feel relaxed, but how relaxed? And how much more can be achieved?

The portable Emwave Personal Stress Reliever might provide some answers. Using a combination of colourful LEDs and audio feedback, it aims to indicate a healthy balance of heart and brian activity. Symptoms of stress and emotional duress are picked up from a thumb or ear sensor.

Of course, you'll also need a good night's sleep. And there's a gadget for that too.

The Zeo sits by the bedside and communicates with a wireless headband - which contains a Zeo SoftWave sensor. In the morning it synchronises the alarm with an appropriate sleep cycle point.

Either gaze at Zeo's display, or upload the data to a PC to view the captured sleep pattern analysis. If your deep, light and REM sleep balance isn't what it should be, there's coaching and tips available via the website. And yes, it syncs with DailyBurn.

Read more analysis posts.

7 July 2011

Technology for Law Enforcement

Inside my six page Technology for Law Enforcement feature article I uncover the increasing importance of technology in gathering evidence, solving crimes and preventing terrorist attacks.

As published in Micro Mart magazine issue 1165.

Some of the many technology-dependent areas I discuss are:
- social data trails
- video surveillance and car registration plate tracking
- facial tracking technology
- Eigenface facial recognition technology
- video surveillance
- operational data storage
- data mining software
- patterns and trends
- data visualisation
- geo-spatial information mapping

In the process I examine the benefits of various software products and services, such as Link Explorer and Indexer from Xanalys, Analyst's Notebook from i2 , ArcGIS from Esri, Google Maps and Microsoft Bing Maps.

Heres a couple of extracts from the article:

Retrieving information of interest from large data repositories is, rather aptly, referred to as data mining. Successful data mining is dependent on a set of carefully defined search criteria, accurately represented in well constructed data queries. Badly formed queries could result in investigations following inappropriate leads - very expensive in terms of time, manpower and financial resources.

Unfortunately, achieving this goal across the myriad of data repositories, often requires far more database knowledge and technical skills than is available to an investigation team. And yet it's only this team who know what queries are relevant to their lines of enquiry.

The solution? Ensure investigators can construct their own queries by investing in intuitive, graphically rich software data mining tools.

As you'd expect all the big database players possess comprehensive data mining tools. Oracle have developed a specialised Data Miner (ODM) product, supplied as an optional add-on. Microsoft incorporate data mining capability as part of their SQL Server Analysis Services.

Yet, by necessity these are general purpose products. Out-of-the-box they aren't as intuitive to use a many users would like. Tailoring them to an investigator's needs requires considerable customisation and configuration effort, which in turn demands high levels of technical knowledge and expertise.

However, there are alternatives. Alternatives that have been developed by software companies specialising in the law enforcement and investigative arena. Alternatives that aim to speak the same language as an investigator.

One such product is Link Explorer from UK-based Xanalys. Data mining queries are built using icons representing investigation-specific object classifications, such as people, locations, vehicles, locations, phone numbers, weapons, and time periods. Relationships are defined by graphically joining any number of these investigation-specific objects together. Finally, specific attributes constraints can be defined, for example only phone numbers that start '020'.

Using this combination of icons, graphical joins and custom constraints, it's a simple matter to construct the previously mentioned 'males between the ages of 20 and 40, who have an address in London's NW2 area and own a blue car'.

Another UK company with a long association with law enforcement organisations is i2, who also provide similar capabilities as part of their sizeable collection of analytical products.

As you might imagine in a busy investigation office, new items of information, connections, leads and human intuitions occur all the time. The beauty of these intuitive, interactive interfaces is they encourage the rapid generation of case-specific data mining queries.

When new pieces of intelligence come to light, such as a witness account of grey hair, or a change of detail such as a white car, the queries can be rapidly changed. They also enable speculative theories or 'hunches' to be quickly ascertained - for example possible associations with a particular person.

Though there's a case for all kinds of advanced software to help with information analysis, it's the 1.5kg of grey matter that sits between our ears, that's the most effective weapon in piecing together the pieces of a puzzle.

Textual documents, spreadsheets and paper-based reports have their uses, but aren't well suited to uncovering relationships, trends and highlighting coincidences. Instead, consider the traditional incident board covered with names, notes, photographs and interconnecting lines.

Such a board certainly makes a great visual prop for your TV murder mystery programme. But it also embodies a visual representation of easily digestible and mentally stimulating information. Just a single board can encapsulate an amazingly complex story, represented by an assemblage of interlinked people, events, locations, vehicles, items, times, and much more.

Imagine creating an electronic version of the incident board by displaying the output from all those investigation-specific data mining queries. A virtual board that could be any size, with zoom and scale control. Where the click of a mouse could reveal detailed data stored against the image or icon. Where the graphical layout and style could be instantly switched, to better highlight relationship strengths or sequences of time-based events.

There are a number of law enforcement focussed products that do just this. The previously mentioned Link Explorer from Xanalys and Analyst's Notebook from i2, render virtual incident boards in a variety of user-definable formats, layouts and styles. For anyone used to dealing with paper-based reporting systems of simple charts, the manner in which these tools bring the information to life and engage their grey matter can be a revelation.

As displays get ever bigger and cheaper, realistically sized virtual incident boards become more attainable. Many exhibit touch interfaces, encouraging interactive involvement from all team members. We're not quite able to achieve the gesture-based data manipulation scenario, as famously envisioned in the Minority Report film, but, with technologies like Microsoft Kinect it's actually possible to create a very good approximation of the concept.

Read more analysis posts.

6 July 2011

Over The Hill And Round The Bend by Richard Guise

Conceived during a kitchen top moment with a map and some string, this 567 miles (913 km) bicycle journey encompasses the most Easterly, Northerly, Westerly and Southerly points of Wales. Despite frequent visits to Welsh soil, and a few years living within its boundaries, Richard saw this concept as an ideal opportunity to glimpse the real Wales.

Astride his trusty bike, Tetley, this compass point inspired trip was undertaken in a leisurely 20 days, including a rest day. The book's gentle paced narrative unfolds in a logical chapter-per-day format, ambling along in perfect synchrony with his cycling pace. It's a pace that, along with Richard's acute eye for detail, captures an authentic portrayal of the Welsh countryside, its towns, people and, of course, weather.

Bounding with wit and enthusiasm the narrative unveils an ever changing landscape, characters from the dour to the highly colourful, tiny hamlets, urban sprawls and various tourist attractions. The route incorporated just about every type of road and track, including many sections of National Cycle Network (NCN) routes.

On the way there were a few surprises. Only the most Easterly point, in Monmouthshire, could be reached without leaving the saddle, the others requiring a final stretch on foot. And only the most Southerly point offered any signage indicating a compass point extreme had been reached.

Food and drink play a significant part in the story. Whether it be a hostel, pub, restaurant, cafe, National Milk Bar, takeaway shop or roadside van, his innumerable stops for sustenance reveal a particular penchant for cakes and confectionary of all kinds.

Many of the towns on route are given a unique rating by the support crew, namely his wife. Rather cleverly this rating revolves around the car parking fees required to explore the town. From a not-much-to-see one coin town, to plenty-of-interest three coin one.

Entertainment abounds throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed the 'absurdly simple history of Wales' using ten Richard-defined phases. It's such an easy-to-grasp orientation, I wonder why all historical introductions don't use this approach. Even after the last chapter the fun continues with a summary of the '10 laws of cycling', a reality-based gradient categorisation and a Douglas Adams inspired "Meanings of Liff' list of Welsh words.

All in all Richard's book is a wonderfully entertaining way to explore many of the little known byways of Wales, right from the comfort of your armchair. No rain. No wind. No hills. Effortless really.