Expert Says Don’t Teach Kids to Code

I was a little surprised to see a news report about Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at OECD — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Paris, Schleicher thinks that teaching kids to code is a waste of time. In particular, he seems to think that by the time a child today grows up, coding will be obsolete.

I can’t help but think that he might be a little confused. Coding isn’t going away anytime soon. It could, of course, become an even deeper specialty, and thus less generally applicable. But the comments he’s made seem to imply that soon we will just tell smart computers what we want and they will just do that. Somewhat like computers work on Star Trek.

What is more likely is that most people will be able to find specific applications that can do what they want without traditional coding. But someone still has to write something for the foreseeable future. What’s more, if you’ve ever tried to tease requirements out of an end user, you know that you can’t just blurt out anything you want to a computer and expect it to make sense. It isn’t the computer’s fault. People — especially untrained people — don’t always make sense or communicate unambiguously.

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What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy

“Don’t Be Evil” was the mantra of Google from years before even Gmail was created. While certainly less vague than their replacement slogan “Do the Right Thing”, there has been a lot of criticism directed at Google over the past decade and a half for repeatedly being at odds with one of their key values. It seems as though they took this criticism to heart (or found it easier to make money without the slogan), and subsequently dropped it in 2018. Nothing at Google changed, though, as the company has continued with several practices which at best could be considered shady.

The latest was the inclusion of an undisclosed microphone in parts of their smart home system, the Nest Guard. This is a member of the Nest family of products — it is not the thermostat itself, but a base station for a set of home security hardware you can install yourself. The real issue is that this base station was never billed as being voice activated. If you’re someone who has actively avoided installing “always-listening” style devices in your home, it’s infuriating to learn there is hardware out that have microphones in them but no mention of that in the marketing of the product. Continue reading “What Hardware Lies Beneath? Companies Swear They Never Meant to Violate Your Privacy”

Bell Labs, Skunk Works, and the Crowd Sourcing of Innovation

I’ve noticed that we hear a lot less from corporate research labs than we used to. They still exist, though. Sure, Bell Labs is owned by Nokia and there is still some hot research at IBM even though they quit publication of the fabled IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin in 1998. But today innovation is more likely to come from a small company attracting venture capital than from an established company investing in research. Why is that? And should it be that way?

The Way We Were

There was a time when every big company had a significant research and development arm. Perhaps the most famous of these was Bell Labs. Although some inventions are inevitably disputed, Bell Labs can claim radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, Unix, C, and C++ among other innovations. They also scored a total of nine Nobel prizes.

Bell Labs had one big advantage: for many years it was part of a highly profitable monopoly, so perhaps the drive to make money right away was less than at other labs. Also, I think, times were different and businesses often had the ability to look past the next quarter.

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Alexa, Remind Me Of The First Time Your Product Category Failed

For the last few years, the Last Great Hope™ of the consumer electronics industry has been voice assistants. Alexas and Echos and Google Homes and Facebook Portals are all the rage. Over one hundred million Alexa devices have been sold, an impressive feat given that there are only about 120 Million households in the United States, and a similar number in Europe. Look to your left, look to your right, one of you lives in a house with an Internet connected voice assistant.

2018 saw a huge explosion of Internet connected voice assistants, in sometimes bizarre form factors. There’s a voice controlled microwave, which is great if you’ve ever wanted to defrost a chicken through the Internet. You can get hardware for developing your own voice assistant device. 2019 will be even bigger. Facebook is heavily advertising the Facebook Portal. If you haven’t yet deleted your Facebook account, you can put the Facebook Portal on your kitchen counter and make video calls with your family and friends through Facebook Messenger. With the Google Home Hub and a Nest doorbell camera, you too can be just like Stu Pickles from Rugrats.

This is not the first time the world has been enamored with Internet-connected assistants. This is not the first time the consumer electronics industry put all their hope into one product category. This has happened before, and all those devices failed spectacularly. These were the Internet appliances released between 1999 and 2001: the last great hurrah of the dot-com boom. They were dumb then, and they’re dumb now.

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Why is Continuous Glucose Monitoring So Hard?

Everyone starts their day with a routine, and like most people these days, mine starts by checking my phone. But where most people look for the weather update, local traffic, or even check Twitter or Facebook, I use my phone to peer an inch inside my daughter’s abdomen. There, a tiny electrochemical sensor continuously samples the fluid between her cells, measuring the concentration of glucose so that we can control the amount of insulin she’s receiving through her insulin pump.

Type 1 diabetes is a nasty disease, usually sprung on the victim early in life and making every day a series of medical procedures – calculating the correct amount of insulin to use for each morsel of food consumed, dealing with the inevitable high and low blood glucose readings, and pinprick after pinprick to test the blood. Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) has been a godsend to us and millions of diabetic families, as it gives us the freedom to let our kids be kids and go on sleepovers and have one more slice of pizza without turning it into a major project. Plus, good control of blood glucose means less chance of the dire consequences of diabetes later in life, like blindness, heart disease, and amputations. And I have to say I think it’s pretty neat that I have telemetry on my child; we like to call her our “cyborg kid.”

But for all the benefits of CGM, it’s not without its downsides. It’s wickedly expensive in terms of consumables and electronics, it requires an invasive procedure to place sensors, and even in this age of tiny electronics, it’s still comparatively bulky. It seems like we should be a lot further along with the technology than we are, but as it turns out, CGM is actually pretty hard to do, and there are some pretty solid reasons why the technology seems stuck.

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Planned Obsolescence Isn’t A Thing, But It Is Your Fault

The common belief is that big companies are out to get the little people by making products that break after a short period, or with substantially new features or accessories that make previous models obsolete, requiring the user to purchase a new model. This conspiracy theory isn’t true; there’s a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and it was caused by the consumers, not the manufacturers.

When we buy the hottest, shiniest, smallest, and cheapest new thing we join the wave of consumer demand that is the cause of what often gets labelled as “Planned Obsolescence”. In truth, we’re all to blame for the signals our buying habits send to manufacturers. Dig in and get your flamewar fingers fired up.

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Ask Hackaday: Managing Inspiration

For most of us, hacking is a hobby, something to pass a few idle hours and satisfy our need to create. Precious few of us get to live the dream of being paid to tinker; most of us need some kind of day job to pay the bills and support our hacking habits. This necessarily creates an essential conflict, rooted in the fact that we all only have 24 hours to spread around every day: I need to spend my time working so I can afford to hack, but the time I spend working to earn money eats away at my hacking time. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

From that primary conflict emerges another one. Hacking is a hugely creative process, and while the artist or the author might not see it that way, it’s true nonetheless. Unless we’re straight-up copying someone else’s work, either because they’ve already solved the same problem we’re working on and we just need to get it done, or perhaps we’re just learning a new skill and want to stick to the script, chances are pretty good that we’re hitting the creative juices hard when we build something new. And that requires something perhaps even more limiting than time: inspiration. How you manage inspiration in large part dictates how productive you are in your creative pursuits.

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