Will it be possible to keep data secret in the future?

At the moment there is an interesting discussion in Germany: should the state buy data (leaked out of a Swiss bank) that give details on people who have not paid their taxes in Germany. I will not add to the political discussion on that as there have been many arguments – some interesting and others funny. I am only amused about a small party that is very much against it. But one has to be fair – this is after all an indicator that democracy works 😉 parties represent the interests of their voters…

I think on a more general scale this incident and similar current cases could be an indicator of a future where everything that is on (electronic) file is likely to become public, given that there is an interest. One hundred years ago it was pretty difficult to steal or copy a few thousand data sets. You would have needed access to the archives for many nights and copying would have taken days. 30 years ago it would have been still hard – e.g. copying stacks of paper on a Xerox or using several large magnetic disks. Over recent years it has become much easier – a memory card is fairly small and a digital camera to copy documents is in many current mobile phones. It seems that if someone has rightful access to data (at a certain point in time) it may proof very hard to keep them from making a copy – may it be by copying the data digitally or by capturing electronically what they see. And hiding a SD-card is much more trivial than a car load of paper.

And as we know technology is progressing – perhaps we will get laws that restrict how small the physical size of a memory device can be 😉 And there is always a party who will lobby for it…

What did you do last Weekend: Soldering a radio kit and trying out a Sony Walkman

What did I do with Vivien the last weekends? We soldered a radio receiver kit (retro style) and it worked – there are still plenty of stations on the air all over Europe. Nowadays you have to make quite some effort to find interesting electronic kits – besides the radio we got a candle light simulator (it is an LED controlled by a PIC microcontroller that imitates a realistic flickering candle in the form factor a small candle).

Do you remember the Sony walkman? It was at the time quite a revolution – looking at it now it looks a bit bulky. The BBC4 program „electric dreams“ featuring a fast-forward through technologies from the time I was born till now was very entertaining and it brought back a lot of memories … ups getting old 🙁

New Power Plug in the Street – charging your e-car

Why would I write a post about a power plug? Perhaps in some years this may be so common that we do not know when the first appeared 😉 And here is my reference point for Essen, Germany.
There is a German news article about these chargeing points – there are 22 in Essen and they started sometime back in Berlin (where they plan to have 500 by the end of the year).

It looks very much like an ordinary power plug and I have not figured out how it really works – e.g. How to pay? How to reserve that parking in front of it? How to make sure that nobody unplugs may car and used my energy to drive a huge stereo? We will probably see how it works over the next months. I will add a new post when I actually see a car recharging there.

new post on the topic:
http://albrecht-schmidt.blogspot.com/2009/08/update-on-e-cars.html

Printed Yearbook – will they be replaced? Facebook with time-machine?

On the trip to Potsdam two young women sat opposite us – discussion one-by-one the pages in the yearbook of their school. The yearbook was from a school in Berlin was from 2009 and printed in highest quality – quite professional. Their discussion had a lot of forward references (what will become of people – and how they see and present themselves now). Looking back 10, 20 or 30 years after leaving school these images and texts are very interesting… There is a real value in paper that cannot be altered – here new technologies (facebook and alike) that evolve with the people are less entertaining.

Is there already a website like archive.org for social networks? An interesting feature in such sites could be a time machine. E.g. you can put in the date and you get the page as it was on that date (e.g. what friends did she have then, what music did she like, etc.) – would guess this is to come – I can hear the privacy worries already…

Mechanical Computing, Beauty of Calculating Machines

Instead of covering the history of calculating machines in the DSD lecture, we took the train and went to the Arithmeum in Bonn to the see the artefacts live and to play with some of them.
We started with early means for counting and record keeping. The tokens and early writings did not use numbers as abstract concepts, rather as representatives of concrete objects – this is very inspiring, especially from a tangible interaction point of view. The knots, as used in south America, show impressively how the tools for calculation have to fit the context people live in. Interestingly all these artefacts highliht how the ability to calculate and store information is related to the ability to do trade – quite a good motivation for the setup we have in Essen business studies and computer science within one faculty.
I was again impressed by the ingenuity by the early inventers of calculating tools and machines. There is an interesting separation between calculating tools and machines – the first ones require the user to take care of the carry and the second do it by themselves. We tried out replicas of Napier’s calculating tool and Schickard’s calculating machine.
The beauty and the mechanical precision required of those early machines is impressive. These prototypes (most of them took years and massive funds to be built complete) can teach us something for research today. These inventors had visions and the will to get it implemented, even without a clear application or business model in mind. They were excited by the creating of systems than can do things, machines could not do before. From the professions of the inventors (e.g. Philipp Matthäus Hahn was a clergyman)  it becomes apparent that at these times some considered religion and calculation as closely related – which to mondern understanding is very very alien.

Seeing the Hollerith machine that was used for the US census more than 100 years ago can teach you a lot about data processing. Punch cards, electrical reading and electrical counters (using mainly relays) were the basis for this technology. Looking at the labels on the counters showed that the US has a long tradition in collecting data that is after some time is not seen as political correct 😉
Having learned binary calculations during the DSD course it was nice to see a machine that did binary additions, using small steel balls and gravity. On each place (1,2,4,8, …) there is space for one ball. If a second one comes to this place one moves up to the next place (carry) and one is discarded. This is implemented with very simple mechanics and the working prototype (recently build) is based on designs of Schickard (but he never built – if I am correct).
Moving on with binary systems and finally to silicon, we got to see the Busicom 141 – a desk calculator that uses the Intel 4004. It is impressive to see that this is not even 40 years ago – starting with 2300 transistors and 180kHz. 
you can find the full set of photos at: http://foto.ubisys.org/dsd0809/

History and Future of Computing and Interaction

Today I was teaching my class on user interface engineering and we covered a selected history of HCI and looked at the same time at a potential future. We discussed how user interface evolved and where UI revolutions have happed. To my question „What is the ultimate user interface?“ I got three very interesting answers (1) a keyboard, (2) mind reading, and (3) a system that anticipates what I want. 
With regard to history in HCI one of my favorite texts is the PhD dissertation of Ivan Sutherland [1]. The work described was done in 1960-1963 when the idea of personal computing was very far from main stream. Even just browsing some of the pages gives an impression of the impact the work had…
For future user interfaces we talked about brain computer interfaces (BCI) and how they very much differ from the idea of mind reading. I came across a game controller – Mindlink – developed by Atari (1984) and that was never released [2]. It was drawing on the notion of linking to the mind but in fact it only measured muscle activity above the eye brows and apparently did not perform very well. However there is a new round coming up for such devices, see [3] for a critical article on consumer BCI.
On the fun side I found a number of older videos that look at future technology predictions- see the videos for yourself:
http://www.paleofuture.com one is a site that has an amazing (and largely funny) selection of predictions. There is a more serious – but nevertheless – very entertaining article on predictions for computing and ICT by Friedemann Mattern: Hundert Jahre Zukunft – Visionen zum Computer- und Informationszeitalter (hundred years future – predictions of the computing and information age) [4].
[1] Sutherland’s Ph.D. Thesis, Sketchpad, A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System. 1963 http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-574.pdf
[3] Emmet Cole. Direct Brain-to-Game Interface Worries Scientists. Wired. 09.05.07. http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2007/09/bci_games
[4] Friedemann Mattern.Hundert Jahre Zukunft – Visionen zum Computer- und Informationszeitalter. Die Informatisierung des Alltags – Leben in smarten Umgebungen, Springer Verlag 2007. http://www.vs.inf.ethz.ch/publ/papers/mattern2007-zukunft.pdf

Trip to North Korea

[see the whole set of photos from tour to North Korea]

From Gwangju we took the bus shortly after midnight to go for a trip to North Korea. The students did a great job in organizing ISUVR and the trip. It was great to have again some time to talk to Yoosoo Oh, who was a visiting researcher in Munich in our group.

When entering North Korea there are many rules, including that you are not allowed to take cameras with tele-lenses over 160mm (so I had to take only the 50mm lens) and you must not bring mobile phones and mp3 players with you. Currently cameras, phones and MP3 players are visible with the human eye and to detect in an x-ray. But it does not take much imagination to see in a few years extremely small devices that are close to impossible to spot. I wonder how this will change such security precautions and whether or not I will in 10 years still possible to isolate a country from access to information. I doubt it…

The sightseeing was magnificent – see the photos of the tour for yourself. We went onto the Kaesong tour (see http://www.ikaesong.com/ – in Korea only) It is hard to tell how much of the real North Korea we really saw. And the photos only reflect a positive selection of motives (leaving out soldiers, people in town, ordinary buildings, etc. as it is explicitly forbidden to take photos of those). I was really surprise when leaving the country they check ALL the pictures you took (in my case it took a little longer as it was 350 photos).

The towns and villages are completely different from what I have seen so far. No cars (besides police/emergency services/army/tourist busses) – but many people in the street walking or cycling. There were some buses in a yard but I have not seen public transport in operation. It seemed the convoy of 14 tourist buses is an attraction to the local people…

I have learned that the first metal movable type is from Korea – about 200 years before Gutenberg. Such a metal type is exhibited in North Korea and in the display is a magnifying glass in front of the letter – pretty hard to take a picture of…

Teaching in primary school, digital photography, civilization

I had a day off an was as “teaching assistant” on a school trip with the kids my wife is teaching. The trip went to a museum village (Wackershofen), which tries to preserve and communicate how people lived about 100 years ago.

On side observation was that in digital photography the limiting factor is now not anymore the memory space but the batteries in the camera. This has changed over the last 2 years – there children still selected which pictures they have to delete – now that is no issue anymore. This shows that some of the trends in pervasive computing (in this case unlimited memory) is already there…

In a project we converted manually flax into threads and theoretically into linen fabric. Some years ago I was involved in doing a similar project – with a focus on the multimedia docummentation – also with a primary school. We learned that it took a person one winter to make one piece of garment. Putting this into perspective we see an interesting trend of devaluation of physical object (cloth are one example, but applies also to high tech goods such as MP3 players) due to advances in engineering. This devaluation of physical goods led to a higher standard of living and consequently to a higher life expectancy. I wonder how further advances – especially in digital engineering will affect the quality of life…

Visit to the Arithmeum in Bonn

For people who already arrive on Sunday, the day before the conference, we organised some museum visits: Arithmeum, Haus der Geschichte, Deutsches Museum, and Art Gallery. I only had time to see the Arithmeum (http://www.arithmeum.uni-bonn.de/) which was pretty impressive. Hiroshi Ishii (the keynote speaker of the conference) and Brygg Ullmer (last years conference co-chair) joined us, too.

It was unexpected how close the displayed artefacts are to our current research on tangible interaction. We had a very good guided tour by Nina Mertens, who gave us an interesting overview from counting tokens to calculation machines. Some of the exhibit we could even try out our selves.

I found the aspect of aesthetics in some of the calculation aids and machines quite fascinating. Especially the fact that some were so precious that they were not really used for calculating but more for showing off is a concept that is amazing. Similarly interesting was one artefact that was mainly built as a proof that calculation can be automated.