Week 27

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Of Bats and Cats

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It seems that the recent “Inceptionism” blog post by Google Research shining a light on the hidden layers of a convolutional neural network (CNN) and how they were used to generate phantasmagoric pictures has really hit a chord right around the world:

Prepare to never sleep again, because last week, Google made its “inceptionism” algorithm available to the public, and the nightmarish images are cropping up everywhere.

Google also released an iPython notebook that details how to drive a standard Python scientific stack and the Caffe deep learning framework to produce these images.  Other developers have built upon that starting point and there’s now even a Docker image containing everything you need.  Additionally, Adrian Rosebrock of PyImageSearch fame has wrapped the contents of the notebook into a Python module he calls bat-country.

The notes developed here capture every step needed to generate dream images of your own using bat-country starting from a vanilla Linux Mint 17.2 install in VirtualBox.  It turned out to involve several more steps than originally anticipated and it would be useful to convert to a Dockerfile as a next step.  Anyhow, once set up, the following script generates the scarycat image below from the input normalcat image:

from batcountry import BatCountry
import numpy as np
from PIL import Image

inputimage = "normalcat.jpg"
bc = BatCountry("caffe/models/bvlc_googlenet")
image = bc.dream(np.float32(Image.open(inputimage)))
result = Image.fromarray(np.uint8(image))
print("Finished processing %s" % inputimage)



Inceptionism may be very current but the basic underlying neural network topology it leverages has been known about for decades – what’s changed is the extent of compute power that can be applied to the problem and advances in algorithm development.   This old but good resource courtesy of AI Junkie offers a very approachable explanation of how a neural net works from first principles.  It includes sample C++ code for evolving a neural net to solve Minesweeper.  Essentially there are three elements involved:

  • Artificial neuron modelled in terms of inputs Xi and weights Wi
  • Sigmoid approximation for the overall activation of the output
  • Layers of such artificial neurons in feedforward arrangement

Manufacturers and devices

It can charge your cell phone and other battery-enabled devices on the go using something that is already abundantly flowing all around us – radio waves.

  • This blog post from David Wood explains the growing importance of secure software updates.  Wood focusses on Redbend’s architecture for cybersecurity which has developed from their origins as a leading provider of mobile phone FOTA update mechanisms.  A key observation is that the system architecture of such a solution, if designed right, has broad applicability.  It’s a lesson that Redbend are fully exploiting right now in respect of adjacent verticals:

The full benefit of taking an architectural approach to secure software updates – as opposed to trying to fashion security on top of fundamentally insecure components – is that the same architecture is capable of re-use in different domains. It’s therefore no surprise that Redbend software management solutions are available, not only for connected cars, but also for wearable computers, connected homes, and machine-to-machine (M2M) devices.

Secure Car

  • Matti Makkonen, sometimes referred to as the Finnish ‘father of SMS’ passed away aged 63.   He remained reluctant to take credit for his efforts 30 years ago, an invention that is still used by billions daily and for which he never even filed a patent:

Makkonen pitched the original idea for SMS in 1984, while working as a civil servant, over a pizza at a telecoms conference in Copenhagen.

  • This cnx-software link provides some technical background on an IP camera SoC capable of recording 1080p video called the 813x.  The chip has been developed by a Chinese vendor called Grain Media and it is possible to make a “sub $10 IP camera board” from this solution.  This collapsing cost dynamic is helping to drive the price of IP camera products ever lower.

GM8138/GM8138S Block Diagram (Click to Enlarge)

Apps and Services

YPlan gives you one, and just one, thing to do tonight. People are attacking crowdsourced universal scale with constraint, curation and personal preference. … I always thought the most useful part of Flipboard is not any of the formatting or design but the built-in directory of sites. If you want to see 15 sites about basketball, or typography, or hats or makeup, where would you find such a list?  …  you don’t get that from Facebook or Google.


In the age of sterile, algorithmic automation, Apple has launched a high-profile, global radio station—Beats 1—powered by humans with personalities, led by former BBC jock Zane Lowe. … It is broadcast 24 hours a day, with real people picking songs, introducing them, and conducting interviews. Everyone around the globe hears the same thing at the same time—a rarity for internet-based media, which is rarely experienced in sync.

  • Apple Music also appears to be striking a chord with artists from Taylor Swift to Thom Yorke of Radiohead who has been highly critical of Spotify in the past:

Yorke’s solo albums are available on Apple Music, even though he’s pulled them from Spotify, Rdio, and other streaming services. Radiohead’s In Rainbows as well as Yorke’s album with Atoms for Peace are also streaming through Apple, despite being pulled elsewhere.

  • Quite what Steve Jobs would have made of the impact of artist power upon technology corporations is interesting to speculate on given he famously saw his ultimate creation sitting at the junction of “technology and the liberal arts”.   Perhaps the trailer for the highly anticipated film of his life provides the most appropriate insight:

“Musicians play their instruments.  I play the orchestra.”


  • Microsoft Edge is the rebranded Spartan browser developed from the ground up for Windows 10.  By initial accounts it sounds like it could be a real contender as default browser on future Windows-based hardware:



Baidu also said it would launch a “Membership Plus” strategy for the group-buying service, akin to Groupon Inc, letting merchants using Nuomi build their own marketing platforms to “increase user retention rates and consumption frequency”.

  • It’s another sign of a huge consumer tilt towards online retail in Asia which is driving all the big players in region to invest heavily to ensure they don’t miss out on the eCommerce gold rush.

Wearables and the Internet of Things

  • Andrew Fentem’s FlickPixel digital organic display screens are a brilliant physical instantiation of the Internet of Things.   They are literally comprised of inanimate decorative objects (things) which act as mechanical pixels – actuators only fractions of a millimetre thick can create enough magnetic field to flip the pixel. These actuators that can take their input from code (Internet).   The mechanical pixels can be made of almost any material you like and the whole display frame has a light and natural quality that really does earn the ‘organic’ soubriquet.  It’s the kind of multi-disciplinary mixture of craft and technology that the great John Ruskin would no doubt have approved of.


  • The Internet of Things will create vast new wealth for winners but they may not be those that create or sell the devices. According to this thought-provoking VisionMobile piece, IoT devices will eventually trend to zero cost and be used to enable complementary business models from the unlikeliest sources.  In order to understand the potential you need to understand how it might be used by a company like HR insurance unicorn Zenefits:

just like in the mobile industry, most IoT devices will eventually be offered at cost, if not below cost, so beware of newcomers to your industry bearing gifts.

Ericsson industry & society slide

  • Number 34 in Google’s “100 Days of Google Dev” YouTube series offers a glimpse into “Web Bluetooth” will work at the JavaScript API level.  Web Bluetooth support will allow a Chrome extension to directly access local Bluetooth functionality.  It’s positioned as a key part of Google’s Physical Web initiative which was highlighted here last year.

physical web app

Data Visualisation

  • Good introduction to interactive data visualization using D3 and JavaScript by Ritchie King a “visual journalist” who uses it daily to tell stories with data.  It is an incredibly powerful tool but not particularly easy to use which has led to various attempts to build simplification layers on top of D3 typically using Python.

  • matplotlib is easier to use for simple non-interactive graph visualisations.  DataJoy have provided a handy resource page with descriptions and working code for a variety of matplotlib visualisations.  They mostly just work.  The following Python code generates the graph shown below it:
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

labels = 'Frogs', 'Hogs', 'Dogs', 'Logs'
sizes = [15, 30, 45, 10]
colors = ['yellowgreen', 'mediumpurple', 'lightskyblue', 'lightcoral']
explode = (0, 0.1, 0, 0) # wedge offset proportions
plt.pie(sizes, # data
 explode=explode, # offset parameters 
 labels=labels, # slice labels
 colors=colors, # array of colours
 autopct='%1.1f%%', # values inside the wedges
 shadow=True, # enable shadow
 startangle=70 # starting angle

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Most of our AI research is focused on understanding the meaning of what people share. … For example, if you take a photo that has a friend in it, then we should make sure that friend sees it. If you take a photo of a dog or write a post about politics, we should understand that so we can show that post and help you connect to people who like dogs and politics. … In order to do this really well, our goal is to build AI systems that are better than humans at our primary senses: vision, listening, etc.

Cylindrical tails may be much more popular in the animal kingdom, but the seahorse’s bizarre square-prism tail has far better mechanical properties.

This Little Seahorse Will Teach Us How To Build Better Robots

Cloud Computing

Amazon namechecked a number of other existing AWS customers in India, including Hike, ZEDO, Freshdesk, Inmobi, Capillary Technologies, HackerEarth, Getit, Future Group, Manipal Global Education, Apeejay Stya and Svran Group.

AppDynamics made a name for itself in a field called “application performance monitoring.” [APM] It watches extremely large and complicated software apps to give companies feedback on how those apps are behaving. They use AppDynamics to fix problems and to gain insight into what their customers are doing with their apps.

  • This Register post on what we need to do to train the next generation of data center workers offers some clear clues as to why the likes of AppDynamics are thriving:

This means that the focus of the support effort within the average organisation is much more on the application. Instead of buying servers we are running up virtual instances in the cloud, and this means we now have to worry far less about how server hardware works and far more about how the applications perform, and how to troubleshoot them and optimise their performance.

  • Good discussion on Hacker News discussing the business case for using Docker contains this headline benefits summary from one respondent with experience from both sides of the fence:
    • maintain consistent dev/test/prod environments
    • use less resources than hardware virtualization
    • free up the time your team spends on dev to ops handoffs
    • improve your app I/O performance compared to running in a hardware virtualization based virtual machine guest
  • Calling an enterprise framework “unicorn” is a great idea and one wonders why it hasn’t already happened.  Paul Johnston’s post makes a claim for homesteading that part of the noosphere.  It also contains some good insights into the ITIL vs. DevOps culture.

Software Engineering

  • The article contains a good example of how powerful a development aid PyGame Zero will be for Python teachers and children alike bearing in mind the difficulty of working with Python’s default TkInter framework:


  • REST/JSON best practices for developers:


  • Another fun Quora trollworthy question requesting examples of the unglamourous side of professional programming that aspiring software engineers may not be aware of contains the expected assortment of gems including this one:

If something is described as “enterprise-grade” or “enterprise-scale” or generally described as though “enterprise” is a positive appellation, it’s worse than trash and you’re going to suffer for it.  I’m sorry.

  • Great FirstRound post on how Agile approaches can be misused and end up being used to micromanage engineering workload rather than supporting rapid creation of valuable software.  A key part of the remedy is to focus on the need for autonomy, self-organisation and cross-business collaboration within the agile team:

While Agile did educate a generation of software developers on the importance of experimentation and customer feedback, it failed to change the old, centralized, command-and-control system of management which remains a large part of the problem. Even with Agile, disempowered engineers working with too little context still ended up taking too long to create products customers don’t even want, resulting in dissatisfied customers, disengaged engineers, and frustrated managers.


  • NYT commentary on the growing trend to keep tech startups private rather than IPO early:

Silicon Valley’s sudden distaste for the I.P.O. — rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks — may be the single most important psychological shift underlying the current tech boom. Staying private affords start-up executives the luxury of not worrying what outsiders think and helps them avoid the quarterly earnings treadmill.

Unlike the first wave of late 1990s (Internet companies that targeted higher-income consumers who could afford expensive computers), today’s startups can quickly reach billions of middle-income consumers who only need a simple smartphone and low-cost data plan to get online.


  • An HBR contributor asks whether hosted sites like LinkedIn and Medium are “killing” professional blogging.  It is admittedly a lot more effort to support an independent publishing platform but there are key benefits particularly for those who blog regularly. They would be better advised to continue with their personal efforts and cross-link to LinkedIn when they want to promote particular posts:

the value of blogging goes beyond the way it can help us build a professional reputation or clear personal brand: it’s also a tremendous tool for personal expression, and for the kind of exploratory writing and thinking that can help people discover new interests, new relationships and even new careers.

Work and Culture

  • Something that some humans are very good at but machines arguably less so is a tolerance for ambiguity and a degree of healthy skepticism.  This bracing LinkedIn post makes it clear why these are vital attributes for running a startup.  It also explains why an ability to constantly learn and adapt through a “growth mindset” is equally important as a key enabler for being comfortable with uncertainty.  Among other good points made in the article is that being successful in a world of machine learning robots requires you to excel at tasks you weren’t asked to do not just the ones you were:

As artificial intelligence increasingly makes many jobs obsolete, success in the future will belong to those able to tolerate ambiguity in their work. Too many recent graduates, however, approach their job descriptions the way they did a syllabus in college—as a recipe for winning in a career. They want concrete, well-defined tasks, as if they were preparing for an exam in college. “Excelling at any job is about doing the things you weren’t asked to do,” said Mary Egan, founder of Gathered Table, a Seattle-based start-up and former senior vice president for strategy and corporate development at Starbucks. “This generation is not as comfortable with figuring out what to do.”

If these companies can create self-driving cars and bring Internet to the entire world, it’s not that hard to hire more than one black woman per year

  • This BrainPickings article on John Ruskin highlights his role in promoting the dignity of human craftmanship and natural imperfection over the perfection of machine manufacturing.  His views still retain a validity for society today some 150 years later:

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two.


  • The Greek referendum and aftermath loomed large over the week.  Mashable tried to analyse why everyone is so angry, whether Greece is doomed and just how big a problem a Greek default would represent to the global economy.  They also provided this amazing graphic illustrating how the Greek standard of living has collapsed to 1970’s levels over the last few years:

Roser data

It is quite doubtful … that Greece will be able to restore its status as a full member of the euro zone. Indeed, without very skillful crisis management, it is at high risk of becoming a failed state. Rather than just stand by, Europe needs to ensure that Greece’s exit from the 19-member euro zone doesn’t also result in its dissociation from the larger European Union. This could involve special membership in an association agreement, for example.

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