If the light is on, they can hear (and now see) you

hello-barbie-matel-from-guardianFollowing Samsung’s warning that its television sets can listen into your conversations1, and Barbie’s, even more scary, doll that listens to children in their homes and broadcasts this to the internet2, the latest ‘advances’ make it possible to be seen even when the curtains are closed and you thought you were private.

For many years it has been possible for security services, or for that matter sophisticated industrial espionage, to pick up sounds based on incandescent light bulbs.

The technology itself is not that complicated, vibrations in the room are transmitted to the filament, which minutely changes its electrical characteristics. The only complication is extracting the high-frequency signal from the power line.

040426-N-7949W-007However, this is a fairly normal challenge for high-end listening devices. Years ago when I was working with submarine designers at Slingsby, we were using the magnetic signature of power running through undersea cables to detect where they were for repair. The magnetic signatures were up to 10,000 times weaker than the ‘noise’ from the Earth’s own magnetic field, but we were able to detect the cables with pin-point accuracy3. Military technology for this is far more advanced.

The main problem is the raw computational power needed to process the mass of data coming from even a single lightbulb, but that has never been a barrier for GCHQ or the NSA, and indeed, with cheap RaspberryPi-based super-computers, now not far from the hobbyist’s budget4.

Using the fact that each lightbulb reacts slightly differently to sound, means that it is, in principle, possible to not only listen into conversations, but work out which house and room they come from by simply adding listening equipment at a neighbourhood sub-station.

The benefits of this to security services are obvious. Whereas planting bugs involves access to a building, and all other techniques involve at least some level of targeting, lightbulb-based monitoring could simply be installed, for example, in a neighbourhood known for extremist views and programmed to listen for key words such as ‘explosive’.

For a while, it seemed that the increasing popularity of LED lightbulbs might end this. This is not because LEDs do not have an electrical response to vibrations, but because of the 12V step down transformers between the light and the mains.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to listen into someone in their home, from obvious bugs to laser-beams bounced of glass (you can even get plans to build one of your own at Instructables), or even, as MIT researchers recently demonstrated at SIGGRAPH, picking up the images of vibrations on video of a glass of water, a crisp packet, and even the leaves of a potted plant5. However, these are all much more active and involve having an explicit suspect.

Similarly blanket internet and telephone monitoring have applications, as was used for a period to track Osama bin Laden’s movements6, but net-savvy terrorists and criminals are able to use encryption or bypass the net entirely by exchanging USB sticks.

However, while the transformer attenuates the acoustic back-signal from LEDs, this only takes more sensitive listening equipment and more computation, a lot easier than a vibrating pot-plant on video!

So you might just think to turn up the radio, or talk in a whisper. Of course, as you’ve guessed by now, and, as with all these surveillance techniques, simply yet more computation.

Once the barriers of LEDs are overcome, they hold another surprise. Every LED not only emits light, but acts as a tiny, albeit inefficient, light detector (there’s even an Arduino project to use this principle).   The output of this is a small change in DC current, which is hard to localise, but ambient sound vibrations act as a modulator, allowing, again in principle, both remote detection and localisation of light.

220px-60_LED_3W_Spot_Light_eq_25WIf you have several LEDs, they can be used to make a rudimentary camera7. Each LED lightbulb uses a small array of LEDs to create a bright enough light. So, this effectively becomes a very-low-resolution video camera, a bit like a fly’s compound eye.

While each image is of very low quality, any movement, either of the light itself (hanging pendant lights are especially good), or of objects in the room, can improve the image. This is rather like the principle we used in FireFly display8, where text mapped onto a very low-resolution LED pixel display is unreadable when stationary, but absolutely clear when moving.

pix-11  pix-21
pix-12  pix-22
LEDs produce multiple very-low-resolution image views due to small vibrations and movement9.

Sufficient images and processing can recover an image.

So far MI5 has not commented on whether it uses, or plans to use this technology itself, nor whether it has benefited from information gathered using it by other agencies. Of course its usual response is to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ such things, so without another Edward Snowden, we will probably never know.

So, next time you sit with a coffee in your living room, be careful what you do, the light is watching you.

  1. Not in front of the telly: Warning over ‘listening’ TV. BBC News, 9 Feb 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31296188[back]
  2. Privacy fears over ‘smart’ Barbie that can listen to your kids. Samuel Gibbs, The Guardian, 13 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/smart-barbie-that-can-listen-to-your-kids-privacy-fears-mattel[back]
  3. “Three DSP tricks”, Alan Dix, 1998. https://alandix.com/academic/papers/DSP99/DSP99-full.html[back]
  4. “Raspberry Pi at Southampton: Steps to make a Raspberry Pi Supercomputer”, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~sjc/raspberrypi/[back]
  5. A. Davis, M. Rubinstein, N. Wadhwa, G. Mysore, F. Durand and W. Freeman (2014). The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video. ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proc. SIGGRAPH), 33(4):79:1–79:10 http://people.csail.mit.edu/mrub/VisualMic/[back]
  6. Tracking Use of Bin Laden’s Satellite Phone, all Street Journal, Evan Perez, Wall Street Journal, 28th May, 2008. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/05/28/tracking-use-of-bin-ladens-satellite-phone/[back]
  7. Blinkenlight, LED Camera. http://blog.blinkenlight.net/experiments/measurements/led-camera/[back]
  8. Angie Chandler, Joe Finney, Carl Lewis, and Alan Dix. 2009. Toward emergent technology for blended public displays. In Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous computing (UbiComp ’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 101-104. DOI=10.1145/1620545.1620562[back]
  9. Note using simulated images; getting some real ones may be my next Tiree Tech Wave project.[back]

Statistics and individuals

Ramesh Ramloll recently posted on Facebook about two apparently contradictory news reports on vitamin D, one entitled “Recommendation for vitamin D intake was miscalculated, is far too low, experts say” and the other  “High levels of vitamin D is suspected of increasing mortality rates“.

While specifically about diet and vitamin D intake, there seems to be a number of lessons from this: about communication of science (Ramesh’s original reason for posting this), widespread statistical ignorance amongst scientists (amongst others), and the fact that individuals are not averages.

Ramesh remarked:

Science reporting is broken, or science itself is broken … the masses are like deer in headlights when contradictory recommendations through titles like these appear in the mass media, one week or so apart.

I know that rickets is currently on the increase in the UK, due partly to poverty and poor diets leading to low dietary vitamin D intake, and due partly to fear of harmful UV and skin cancer leading to under-exposure of the skin to sunlight, our natural means of vitamin D production.  So these issues are very important, and as Ramesh points out, clarity in reporting is crucial.

Looking at the two articles, the ‘too low’ article came from North America, the ‘too much’ article, although reported in AAAS ‘EurekaAlert!’ news, originated in University of Copenhagen, so I thought that maybe the difference is that health conscious Danes are simply overdosing.

However, even as a scientist, making sense of the reports is complicated by the fact that they talk in different units.  The ‘too low’ one is about dietary intake of vitamin D measured in ‘IU/day’, and the Danish ‘too much’ report discusses blood levels in ‘nanomol per litre’.  Wow that makes things easy!

Furthermore the Danish study (based on 247,574 Danes, real public health ‘big data’) showed the difference between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, was a factor of two, 50 vs 100 nanomol/litre.  It suggests, Goldilocks fashion, that 70 nanomol/liter is ‘just right’.  Note however, the ‘EurekaAlert!’ news article does NOT quantify the relative risks of over and under dosing, which does make a big difference to the way they should be read as practical advice, and does not give a link to the source article to find out (this is the AAAS!).

Digging a little deeper into the “too low” news report, it is based on an academic article in the journal ‘Nutrients’,A Statistical Error in the Estimation of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin D“, which is re-assessing the amount of dietary vitamin D to achieve the same 50 nanomol/litre level used as the ‘low’ level by the Danish researchers.  The Nutrients article is based not on a new study, but a re-examination of the original meta-study that gave rise to the (US and Canadian) Institute of Medicines current recommendations.   The new article points out that the original analysis confused study averages and individual levels, a pretty basic statistical mistake.

nutrients-06-04472-g001-1024  nutrients-06-04472-g002-1024

 Graphs from “A Statistical Error in the Estimation of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin D“. LHS is study averages, RHS taking not account variation within studies.

A few things I took from this:

1)  The level of statistical ignorance amongst those making major decisions (in this case at the Institute of Medicine) is frightening. This is part of a wider issue of innumeracy, which I’ve seen in business/economic news reporting on the BBC, reporting of opinion polls in the Times, academic publishing and reviewing in HCI, and the list goes on.  This is an issue that has worried me for some time (see “Cult of Ignorance“, “Basic Numeracy“).

2) Just how spread the data is for the studies. I guess this is because individual differences and random environmental factors are so great.  This really brings home the importance of replication, which is so hard to get funded or published in many areas of academia, not least in HCI where individual differences and variations within studies are also very high.  But it also emphasises the importance of making sure data is published in such a way that meta-analysis to compare and combine individual studies is possible.

3) Individual difference are large.  Based on the revised suggested limits for dietary vitamin D, designed to bring at least 39/40 people over the recommended blood lower limit of 50 nanomol/litre, half of people would end up with blood levels higher than four or five times that lower limit, that is more than twice as high as the level the other study says leads to deleterious over-consumption levels.  This really brings home that diet and metabolism vary such a lot between people and we need to start to understand individual variations for health advice, not simply averages.  This is difficult, as illustrated by the spread of studies in the ‘too low’ article, but may become possible as more mass data, as used by the Danish study, becomes available.

In short:

individuals matter in statistics


statistics matter for individuals





It started with a run … from a conversation at Tiree Tech Wave to an award-winning project

Spring has definitely come to Tiree and in the sunshine I took my second run of the year. On Soroby beach I met someone else out running and we chatted as we ran. It reminded me of another run two years ago …

It was spring of 2013 and a busy Tiree Tech Wave with the launch of Frasan on the Saturday evening. A group had come from the Catalyst project in Lancaster, including Maria Ferrario and she had mentioned running when she arrived, so I said I’d do a run with her. Only later did I discover that her level of running was somewhat daunting, competing in marathons with times that made me wonder if I’d survive the outing.

Happily, Maria modified her pace to reflect my abilities, and we took a short run from the Rural Centre to Chocolates and Charms (good to have a destination), indirectly via Soroby Beach, where I ran today.

Running across the sand we talked about smart grids, and the need to synchronise energy use with renewable supply, and from the conversation the seeds of an idea grew.


I started my walk round Wales almost immediately after (with the small matter of my daughter’s wedding in between), but Maria went back to Lancaster and talked to Adrian Friday, who put together a project proposal (with the occasional, very slow email interchange when I could get Internet connections). Towards the end of the summer we heard we had been short-listed and I joined Adrian via Skype for an interview in July.

… and we were successful 🙂

The OnSupply project was born.

OnSupply was a sub-project of the Lancaster Catalyst project. The wider Catalyst project’s aims were to understand better the processes by which advanced technology could be used by communities. OnSupply was the main activity for nine-months of the last year of Catalyst.

OnSupply itself was focused on how people can better understand the availability of renewable energy. Our current model of energy production assumes electricity is always available ‘on demand’ and the power generation companies’ job is to provide it when wanted. However, renewable energy does not come when we want it, but when the wind blows, the tides run and the sun shines. That is in the future we need to shift to a model where energy is used when it is available, ‘on supply’ rather than ‘on demand’.

The Lancaster team, led by Adrian consisted of four full time researchers, Will, Steve, Peter, and of course, Maria, and the other project partners were Tiree Tech Wave, the Tiree Development Trust, Goldsmiths University, and Rory Gianni, an independent developer based in Scotland specialising in environmental issues.

The choice of Tiree was of course partly because of Tiree Tech Wave and my presence here, but also because of Tilly, the Tiree community wind turbine, and the slightly parlous state of the electricity cable between Tiree and the mainland. In many ways the island is just like being on the mainland, you flick the switch and electricity is there. While Tilly can provide nearly a megawatt at full capacity, this simply feeds into the grid, just like the wind farms you see over many hillsides.

However, there is also an extent to which we, as an island population, are more sensitised to issues of electricity and renewable energy.


First is the presence of Tilly, which can be seen from much of the island; while the power goes into the grid, when she turns this generates income, which funds various island projects and groups.

But, the same wind that drives Tilly (incidentally the most productive land-based turbine in the UK), shakes power lines, and at its wildest causes shorts and breakages. The fragile power reduces the lifetime of the sophisticated wireless routers, which provide broadband to half the island, and damages fridge compressors.

Furthermore, the aging sea-cable (now happily replaced) frequently broke so that island power was provided for months at a time from backup diesel generator. As well as filling the ferry with oil tankers, the generator cannot cope with the fluctuating power from Tilly, and so for months she is braked, meaning no electricity and so no money.

So, in some ways, a community perfect for investigating issues of awareness of energy production, sensitised enough that it will be easier to see impact, but similar enough to those on the mainland that lessons learnt can be transferred.

wirlygigThe project itself proceeded through a number of workshops and iterative stages, with prototypes designed to provoke discussions and engagement. My favourites were machines that delivered brightly coloured ping-pong balls as part of a game to explore energy uses, and wonderful self-assembly kits for the children, incorporating a wind and solar energy gauge.

The project culminated in a display at the Tiree Agricultural Show.

While OnSupply finished last summer, the reporting continues and a few weeks ago a paper about the project, to be presented at the CHI’2015 conference in South Korea in April, was given a best paper award at the CHI’2015 conference.

… and all this from a run on the beach.


toys for Tech Wave – MicroView

I’m always on the lookout for interesting things to add to the Tiree Tech Wave boxes to join Arduinos, Pis, conductive fabric, Lilypad, Lego Technic, etc., and I had  chance to play with a new bit of kit at Christmas ready for the next TTW in March.

Last year I saw a Kickstarter campaign for MicroView by GeekAmmo, tiny ‘chip-sized’ Arduinos with a built in OLED display.  So I ordered a ‘Learning Kit’ for Tiree Tech Wave, which includes two MicroViews and various components for starter projects.

Initially, the MicroView was ahead of schedule and I hoped they would arrive in time for TTW 8 last October, but they hit a snag in the summer.  The MicroViews are manufactured by Sparkfun who are very experienced in the maker space, but the production volume was larger than they were previously used to and a fault (missing boot loader) was missed by the test regime, leading to several thousands of faulty units being delivered.

Things go wrong and it was impressive to see the way both GeekAmmo and Sparkfun responded to the fault, analysed their quality processes and, particularly important, keeping everyone informed.

So, no MicroViews for TTW8, but they arrived before Christmas, and so one afternoon over Christmas I had a play 🙂

DSC09196 DSC09200

When you power up the MicroView (I used a USB from the computer as power source, but it can be battery powered also) the OLED screen first of all shows a welcome and then takes you through a mini tutorial, connecting up jumpers on the breadboard, and culminating with a flashing LED.  It is amazing that you can do a full tutorial, even a starter one, on a 64×48 OLED!

Although it is possible to program the MicroView from a download IDE, the online tutorials suggest using codebender.cc, which allows you to program the Micriview ‘from the cloud’ and share code (sketches).

The results of my first effort are on the left above 🙂

Can you think of any projects for two tiny Ardunos?  Come to Tiree Tech Wave in March and have a go!



A week in Athens

Last week I visited Athens again to give keynote “Long-Term Engagement” at Usability And Accessibility Days 2014.  The rest of the event was in Greek, so I got excused to wander across to see the exhibition of contemporary icons by Helena Krystalli in the adjoining room.

The talks included vignettes about Walking Wales, Tiree Tech Wave and other technology projects on Tiree, the InConcert musicology data project, and Talis software for learning analytics.  the linking theme was the different time frames for engagement and key properties/heuristics at each level including ‘desire and disaster‘, matching cost–benefit, and ‘Micawber management’.


As well as the talk I got to see old friends in Athens, many of whom I’d not seen for five years since my last visit for the 2009 SIGCHI Greece event when I was talking about ‘Touching Technology‘.  Despite the years it seemed like just yesterday when we’d last talked together.

Although there was some evidence of change (Angela who I stayed with now has two daughters instead of one), much was the same (George’s house is still waiting to get its central, hearing working).

However, when I was in the research office the day after the talk I decided that Athens definitely is in stasis when I am not there.  We were sitting talking and I happened to look up at the board and saw writing there.  It was a little obscure, and intriguing, but as I examined it I realised t was in fact my own handwriting, written there 5 years ago during a discussion in the same office.



To be fair there was some additional evidence of change beside Angela’s child; the new Acropolis Museum has opened, a wonderful building of glass and steel built to display the many treasures found by archaeologists, and most especially the whole of the upper floor laid out to recreate the frieze around the top of the Pantheon.  There are some gaps, but much of the sculpture is either there, or, where the original is elsewhere, in plaster cast.

The plaster cast sections all say where they come from, except the vast majority simply say ‘BM’ … it took a few before this sunk in, the British Museum … the Elgin Marbles – too sore a point even to write the words in full.  Indeed the whole museum is partly a statement to show just how much is in London not Athens, and also that Greece is now quite capable of preserving them.

It is a complex question undoubtedly much more would be missing, eroded or damaged if Elgin had not shipped them to Britain in the 19th century, and clearly not every work originating in a country should be returned … I imagine all the obelisks around Rome being sent back to Egypt!   However, seeing the museum and vast proportion saying ‘BM’ brings home that this is not simply a small amount elsewhere, but a large proportion, and in many ways the ‘best bits’.

There is also something different about the iconic monuments of any nation: it is as if parts of the Tower of Pisa were in Germany or London Bridge in Arizona …

To take our minds off such heady matters Angela and her family took me swimming in a volcano.  Christmas music playing in the background while bathing in water at 22° C.


Tech Wave is coming

The eighth Tiree Tech Wave is just over two weeks away.  We have some participants coming from GRAND NCE Canada’s Digital Media Research Network as well as those closer to home including the Code for Europe Fellows working in Nesta’s Open Data Scotland project.

There will be the normal open agenda, and also a few special activities.  Jacqui Bennet has  a little friendly competition planned and Steve Foreshaw from Lancaster will run a workshop on using low-cost 3D scanners, which we hope to then use to scan some of the lug boats around the island in collaboration with the Tiree Maritime Trust.

FabLab Cardiff are bringing a sort of mini-FabLab-in-a-van.  During the Tech Wave they will be making things themselves, including re-installing the Tiree touchable in a glorious new enclosure. They will also run some short tutorial/workshops on using some of the equipment for TTW attendees and Tiree locals.

FabLab Cardiff Cubify Sense 3D scanner Tiree Maritime Trust - lug boat in action

Although time is getting tight, I am hoping we might also have a couple of MicroViews, a miniature Arduino with built in OLED display.  I ordered a Learning Kit through their Kickstarter campaign with two MicroViews (Blinking Eyes), so looking forward to some winking teddy bears 🙂   After being ahead of schedule, they had a slight production problem with their second batch, and TTW is in the third batch, so keeping fingers crossed, but, if not this time, certainly at the spring 2015 TTW.



running and talking

September saw two events on Tiree; both exciting but each very different: at the beginning of the month the first Tiree Ultramarathon organised by Will Wright our very own Tiree superhero and towards the end ‘Re-Thinking Architecturally‘, a workshop of the European Network of Excellence on Internet Science organised by Clare Hooper from Southampton University.    I was lucky enough to take part in both.

In addition, in a few weeks time (23-27 Oct) there will be the eighth Tiree Tech Wave, which will include participants from Canada, Scotland, Wales and England (but no-one from Ireland yet).  As well as the usual unstructured serendipity, we will have some tutorial workshops of 3D scanning, 3D printing and laser cutting … but more about that in another post.

The Tiree Ultra

photo Rhoda Meek

I should first emphasise that I did not run all of the 35 mile ultra-marathon course around the coast of Tiree, but did about 50:50, walk/run.  I’d never done anything remotely like this before.  The longest I’d run was the Tiree half marathon back in May and the longest I’d walked during the Wales walk was a 29 mile day (although I did that over more than 12 hours).  I had as a schoolboy once done a 34 mile day hike up into the coal valleys above Cardiff, and one of the spurs to sign up for the Ultra was to beat my 17 year old self!

With my usual level of preparation it came to the beginning of August and I realised I’d not run at all, nor even taken a walk longer than to the beach and back, since the half-marathon in May.  Just before the event I found a couple of sites with training schedules for marathons, all of them were several months long and the ‘beginner’ level was “runs 15-25 miles  a week regularly” … what about zero miles a week?  Anyway my lengthy one month training schedule consisted mainly of short (2.5 mile) beach runs with the occasional 7.5 mile run to Hynish and towards the end a run of 8.5 miles along part of the route of the Ultra round the base of Ben Hynish.  I was aware I’d not done any really substantial runs and so, rather foolishly, on the Wednesday 4 days before the event I ran (and walked!) 21 miles around part of the route on the east end of the island and down to Hynish and back.  A good last run before the event, but one I should have done a week earlier.

Somehow or other, despite my foolish training schedule, I managed to get round without any serious injury.  My main problem was eating, or rather failing to eat. I found I could only mange food during walking stages, and then just a small amount of Kendal Mint Cake and few bananas, I guess overall I managed to burn around 4000 calories, but ate less than 1000, which really made the legs start to tire as I got to the latter parts of the course.  I’ve already entered for the 2015 Tiree Ultra next September (half the places are already gone and entries have only been open a week), but I will have to work out how to eat better before then.  Crucially I got round the course … and not even last.  The serious contenders managed times not much more than 4 1/2 hours whilst I got round in just over 8:20, but I was simply happy to get to the end.

Although it was further and faster than any day walking last year, it was in many ways a lot easier than the Wales walk.  About 2/3 of the way round the Tiree course my right ankle and calf started to stiffen, which was where I’d had Achilles ankle problems a couple of years ago.  Although I did try to ease a little I was not terribly worried; the worst would be that I’d be hobbling for a month or so after the run.  In contrast, last year I knew that I would be walking again the next day, and the next,and the one after that; with each ache I worried whether it would be the injury that did not get better, and stopped the walk. And, despite the worry of this, I had also learnt quite how resilient the body is, that most pains and strains did get better, albeit slowly, despite unrelenting exercise.

I was also reminded very much of the walk when I finished.  I took off my running shoes and socks, the latter sodden from beach and bog, and filled with fine layer of sand.  The soles of my feet, which had been subjected to 35 miles of damp sandpaper, felt like I was walking on coals and I hobbled about between van and Ceadhar where they laid on a post-walk pizza and party.  It was just like that so many days last year, I would get to where I was staying, ease off my boots, put on sandals, and then hobble out in search of food, wondering if I would get as far as the closest pub or cafe, let alone walk again the next day.

Re-thinking Architecturally

The Internet Science workshop was equally enjoyable, but a little less physically challenging!  It brought together economists, architects, lawyers, policy advisors, and some with more technical background from as far afield as Umea in northern Sweden. It was lovely being able to attend a technology workshop on Tiree that I hadn’t organised 🙂

Clare had been to one of the Tiree Tech Waves, and then, when she was organising a workshop for the European Network of Excellence on Internet Science, she thought of Tiree.  The logistics were not without problems, but after the event I’ve been getting together with the Tiree Trust to make an information pack for future organisers to make the process easier.  So if if you would like to organise an event on Tiree, get in touch!

The participants all seemed utterly taken with the venue, several brave souls even swimming in the mornings off the Hynish pier, in the words of one of the participants on the way back after the event “I’d rather be in Tiree!”.  Another said:

one great consequence of the week in Tiree was a kind of intellectual regeneration that let me set aside the stresses of the coming academic year and…think openly a bit.”
Alison Powell (London School of Economics)

In fact this is precisely the feedback I get from many who have been to Tiree Tech Wave.  It is hard to capture in words the way the open horizon and being at the wild-edge opens up the mind, especially when meeting with others equally committed to exploring new ideas freely and openly.

One of the memorable moments from the week was a debate of internet freedom and regulation.  We started off half on one side half the other and then part way through we all had to swop sides.  I can’t believe how passionate I got about both sides of the argument … and I managed to wheel in my school English teacher as authority on benevolent dictatorship1.

photo Parag Deshpande

photo Rory at Balevullin


While two very different events, a common story was the wonderful welcome of the people of Tiree.  During the Ulta-marathon, at every way-station there was a glorious array of tray bakes, chocolates, pre-sliced fruit, and above all smiling faces.  This was great for me seeing faces I knew, but clearly very special for the participants who came from afar being greeted as if they too were friends.  For the Re-thinking Architecturally workshop many people made it a success: the wonderful team at the Hynish Centre, especially Lesley who kept on smiling despite a seven hour wait for participants whose travel was disrupted, everyone at Ceadhar, Ring n Ride, and at the airport re-arranging travel across Europe when the Thursday plane was cancelled.

  1. I wrote what I thought to be a masterful mock O’level essay that asserted that Macbeth was actually a good king taking a ‘he made the trains run on time’ argument — my English teacher, Miss Griffiths, was not impressed.[back]

big brother Is watching … but doing it so, so badly

I followed a link to an article on Forbes’ web site1.  After a few moments the computer fan started to spin like a merry-go-round and the page, and the browser in general became virtually unresponsive.

I copied the url, closed the browser tab (Firefox) and pasted the link into Chrome, as Chrome is often billed for its stability and resilience to badly behaving web pages.  After a  few moments the same thing happened, roaring fan, and, when I peeked at the Activity Monitor, Chrome was eating more than a core worth of the machine’s CPU.

I dug a little deeper and peeked at the web inspector.  Network activity was haywire hundreds and hundreds of downloads, most were small, some just a  few hundred bytes, others a few Kb, but loads of them.  I watched mesmerised.  Eventually it began to level off after about 10 minutes when the total number of downloads was nearing 1700 and 8Mb total download.


It is clear that the majority of these are ‘beacons’, ‘web bugs’, ‘trackers’, tiny single pixel images used by various advertising, trend analysis and web analytics companies.  The early beacons were simple gifs, so would download once and simply tell the company what page you were on, and hence using this to tune future advertising, etc.

However, rather than simply images that download once, clearly many of the current beacons are small scripts that then go on to download larger scripts.  The scripts they download then periodically poll back to the server.  Not only can they tell their originating server that you visited the page, but also how long you stayed there.  The last url on the screenshot above is one of these report backs rather than the initial download; notice it telling the server what the url of the current page is.

Some years ago I recall seeing a graphic showing how many of these beacons common ‘quality’ sites contained – note this is Forbes.  I recall several had between one and two hundred on a single page.  I’m not sure the actual count here as each beacon seems to create very many hits, but certainly enough to create 1700 downloads in 10 minutes.  The chief culprits, in terms of volume, seemed to be two companies I’d not heard of before SimpleReach2 and Realtime3, but I also saw Google, Doubleclick and others.

While I was not surprised that these existed, the sheer volume of activity did shock me, consuming more bandwidth than the original web page – no wonder your data allowance disappears so fast on a mobile!

In addition the size of the JavaScript downloads suggests that there are doing more than merely report “page active”, I’m guessing tracking scroll location, mouse movement, hover time … enough to eat a whole core of CPU.

I left the browser window and when I returned, around an hour later, the activity had slowed down, and only a couple of the sites were still actively polling.  The total bandwidth had climbed another 700Kb, so around 10Kb/minute – again think about mobile data allowance, this is a web page that is just sitting there.

When I peeked at the activity monitor Chrome had three highly active processes, between them consuming 2 cores worth of CPU!  Again all on a web page that is just sitting there.  Not only are these web beacons spying on your every move, but they are badly written to boot, costuming vast amounts of CPU when there is nothing happening.

I tried to scroll the page and then, surprise, surprise:

So, I will avoid links to Forbes in future, not because I respect my privacy; I already know I am tracked and tracked; who needed Snowdon to tell you that?  I won’t go because the beacons make the site unusable.

I’m guessing this is partly because the network here on Tiree is slow.  It does not take 10 minutes to download 8Mb, but the vast numbers of small requests interact badly with the network characteristics.  However, this is merely exposing what would otherwise be hidden: the vast ratio between useful web page and tracking software, and just how badly written the latter is.

Come on Forbes, if you are going to allow spies to pay to use your web site, at least ask them to employ some competent coders.

  1. The page I was after was this one, but I’d guess any news page would be the same. http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardbehar/2014/08/21/the-media-intifada-bad-math-ugly-truths-about-new-york-times-in-israel-hamas-war/[back]
  2. http://www.simplereach.com/[back]
  3. http://www.realtime.co/[back]

A sleepless night; do you have a b**ping mobile phone?

There are many reasons to swear at your mobile phone.  I’ll talk about just one.

I have just had a sleepless night.

I was staying in an Oban hotel and needed to get up at 5:45am for the Tiree ferry.  I went to bed early, but not too early, intending to get a good night’s sleep before the early start.  But I seemed to spend the entre night tossing and turning.  In fact there will have been moments of sleep in between, but it felt like I was always wide awake, not even drowsy.

It was only in the morning that i realised the reason, one I should have thought of the night before.

My phone is a beeper.

Maybe you have never had one, but if you have you know exactly what I mean.

I have two phones, an iPhone (which I will return to later) and a Samsung ACE Android.  I usually use the alarm on the iPhone, but last night, knowing it was important I did not oversleep, I set the alarm on both.  Maybe it was just late and after a three week trip away from home, simply tired, but I forgot …

… my Android phone is a beeper.

Maybe all Androids are, or maybe all Androids with a particular version of the operating system, or maybe just the Samsung ACE, but certainly mine is.  It is why I normally have it switched off at night.

Is your phone?

At random moments, without rhyme or reason it just beeps: little chirrups, very jolly sounding, but often utterly incomprehensible.  Some I understand: a message has arrived, the power has been connected, it is fully charged and wants to be disconnected.  But other times, I hear the beep, look at the phone, and there is no apparent explanation.

Of course in the night the beeps wake you up, but as they are short, you don’t realise why yo are awoken.  I should have remembered, It is not the first time I have had a beeping phone.

My first awareness of beepers was nearly ten years ago.  For a period of nearly two years I had continuous insomnia.  I would go to sleep, but I would wake nearly (in retrospect probably exactly) every hour.  One day I was at a hotel and something else must have woken me and before I fell back to sleep I heard a beep.

I think I had a Sony-Erikson phone at the time, and when it was fully charged it beeped.  If you ignored the beep it would wait an hour and then beep again, and again, and again. In the daytime I had hardly noticed the habit, but in the night it woke me, but of course I had never realised what had woken me, until that moment. The next night I turned off the phone and used a separate alarm clock.  For the first time in two years I slept through the night.

Walk around your house at night: it is now rarely dark, every device has an LED some, continuous, some flashing; indoor light pollution.  Have you, like me, sometimes had to cover a laptop with a T-shirt to stop its flashing keeping you awake?  Less obvious are the various beeps, buzzes, and chirrups.  Some are loud, long and insistent, the ring of a phone, or loud ding of a microwave when ready.  Others are short and sharp, deliberately low-key so as to remind, but not annoy.  In our house the tumble drier gives a small periodic beep to remind you that the programme has finished.

During the day time these are just part of the backdrop of life, indeed if you live in town they may well be drowned by the background drum of distant traffic.

However, if you find yourself unaccountable waking at night, seek out the audio polluters of your home.

Because these reminder sounds are short, you never know what woke you, but like any unexpected sound in the night, they hit your deepest startle responses and leave you suddenly, unaccountably, wide awake.

Of course, the phone knows the time of day – that is why I used it as an alarm – so why not mute the less critical sounds during the night.  And yes, I have tried lots of settings to quieten it, but some, particularly power-related beeps, seem insensitive to my attempts to silence them.  And of course I do not want to silence the potential emergency phone call in the night, just the inconsequential reminders.

Of course, if the phone does insist on beeping at least it could have some sort of notice to say why!

It is not just these notification beeps that can cause problems.  IT systems, and phones in particular, seem remarkably time insensitive.

My first mobile phone was on Orange, supplied by my university when I was an Associate Dean and part of ‘management’.  Orange specially modify their phones, so that, even on early phones, you got visible indications of phone messages.  Furthermore, if someone rang you and left a message while you were on the phone or temporarily out of signal, you would get a call back from the answering service as soon as you were available.

Later, when I had a phone of my own, it was Vodafone.  Vodafone’s answering service on their mobile network appears to be completely separated from the actual phone system.  There is some sort of ‘redirect on busy’ that takes you through to the separate system, but, unlike Orange, it has no way of knowing when you are next available.

Now-a-days it seems to only text you, but, maybe because the service started before text messaging was common, the early versions worked by ringing you back.  However, being unaware of your availability, it simply rang you back at increasing intervals: first of all immediately the message had been left, then a few minutes later, then a slightly longer gap, until eventually it would give up for several hours before trying again.

You can probably already imagine the story.  It was quite common to have long phone conversations with family members late at night, maybe at 10:30 or 11pm for an hour.  During that time someone else would try to ring and leave a message.  The answering service would try to ring, but of course we would still be on the phone, then a minute later, five minutes, ten, twenty minutes, but we were still on the phone.  Eventually it would give up and wait two or three hours.  At 2am when we were fast asleep the phone would ring.  Thinking it was a dire emergency, we would leap out of bed, only to find a short message saying, “sorry to miss you, will try again tomorrow”.

How difficult would it have been to alter these timings at night?

I said I used the iPhone as my normal alarm.  It does make the occasional incomprehensible beep, but usually only just after you have been using it.  I assume these are due to some operation started by your interactions completing, maybe mail arriving, but I can never tell.  Just as on the Android, would it be too much to ask, even if only as a UI guideline, that every audible notification has  a clear visible explanation as well?

However, on the whole it is a silent sleeping partner.

Well, with an exception.

I have iCal connected between phone and laptop and also to my Google mail.  The default import seemed to set both the Google events and events received by email as ICS attachments to have a 10 minute notification.  Although I didn’t necessarily always want this, it was not a big problem.  Except for all-day events.  These are recorded specially on both platforms and iCal certainly knew they were day events.  An example might be that a conference was on.

We now come to what the telecoms industry calls a ‘feature interaction‘ problem.

Although iCal knew it was an ‘all-day’ event, for notification purposes it treated the event as if it was a timed event from midnight to midnight.  So at 11:50pm, the night before the start of an event, a notification (with associated beep!) would sound on the phone.  I rarely go to bed before midnight, so this was not usually a big problem, except when travelling abroad.  In Italy this is at 12:50am, in Greece 1:50am.

When I first noticed the problem, I was back to turning off the phone and using an alarm clock.

I tried to simply turn off the notifications, but here I hit another feature interaction problem …. except here the ‘feature’ that caused it was equally incomprehensible.

When an event comes in via email, iCal regards it as in some way ‘not your own’ and (on the laptop version) you cannot edit it, only delete it.  The event is not live linked, it is merely a copy, so I can understand in some way marking it as edited, but why prevent you from editing it?  For example, if I have had an email notification of a meeting and then a call to say the meeting has moved, I can only delete the original (with its associated notes, distribution list, etc.), and create a new one.

Some years ago a colleague sent an invite to a regular Thursday meeting.  When the meetings stopped, he sent a cancellation.  iCal associated the two, and so the meeting stayed in my diary, but ‘crossed out’.  Years later my diary still had this regular meeting, but I was worried about deleting it (the only action available), for fear of loosing the old meetings that had actually happened and might have important information attached.

Enough time has passed and I just tried.  Sure enough it did delete all copies of the meeting past and future, with no dialogue to ask or confirm.  Furthermore, (a) the action was not undoable and (b) a few moments later, I got the following error message.

Oh dear!

So far, so bad, but, on the iPhone, iCal not only does not allow you to edit these ‘foreign’ events, but you cannot even delete them.  So, even when I can see that an event will wake me in the middle of the night I cannot get rid of it except from my laptop.

While I still cannot delete these events from the phone, at some stage I have managed to find the right setting so that the notifications do not come in the early morning, so now the iPhone is usable at night.

So let’s summarise design lessons from this:

  1. do treat all notifications with care, are they necessary, when are they likely to be useful
  2. if you deliver an ephemeral sound notification, do make sure there is some visible indicator of what it was about
  3. whether and when you produce notifications, or any behaviour, they should be sensitive to time of day
  4. try to be aware of feature interactions – but I know this is hard
  5. do not create Fascist systems (Apple that includes you) – it is my device and my data.  Surely retain some marker or indication that I have edited things that originated elsewhere, but if it is on my machine I decide what can and cannot be edited or deleted.

That’s all for now; I need to catch up on some sleep …

India and APCHI

I am sitting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Bangelore looking down over the city spreading seemingly endlessly as far as I can see.  Here, out in the suburbs and in the heart of Electronics City, the Hi-Tech enclave, the view is a mix of green trees, concrete offices and small apartment blocks in a pastel palette of lime greens, mauve tinted blues and burnt umber.  There is an absence of yellow and red apart from the girder work of a partly constructed building and airline-warning red and white mobile antennae tower; maybe these are inauspicious colours.  A major highway and the raised highway cut across the view and the airport is presumably far out of site in the afternoon heat haze, it was a near two hour ride away on Wednesday when I arrived in the midst of rush hour, but hoping it is a shorter journey tomorrow morning when I need to catch 6am flight.

I’ve had a wonderful time here seeing many old faces from previous visits to India a few years ago, and also meeting new people.  It was especially great to see Fariza as I hadn’t realised she was going to be here from Malaysia.  It was also wonderful seeing Dhaval and spending time with his family after the end of the conference yesterday, and today reading some of his recent work at ABB on bug reproduction in software maintenance.

Seeing Dhaval’s work and talking to him about it reminded me of the debugging lectures I did some years ago as part of a first year software engineering module.  For many years I have been meaning to extend these to make a small book on debugging.  It is one of those areas, like creativity, where people often feel you either have it or not, or at bets can pick up the skills one time.  However, I feel there is a lot you can explicitly teach about each.

Yesterday was my closing keynote at APCHI 2013.  I’ve put the slides and abstract online and I am working on full notes of the talk.  It felt odd at times talking about some the the issues of rural connectivity and poverty raise by my walk around Wales given the far greater extremes here in India.  However, if anything, this makes the messages for both public policy and design more important.

As I talked both in the keynote and one-to-one with people during the conference, I was constantly returning to some of the ways that in the UK we seem to be throwing away many of the positive advances of the 20th century: the resurgence of rickets and scurvy amongst poor children, the planned privatisation of the Royal Mail, one of the key enablers of the 19th century commercial revolution, and most sad of all the depraved demonisation of the poor that is rife in politics and the media.

There were many interesting papers and posters.  Two demos particularly caught my eye as they represented different aspects of the link between physical and digital worlds, issues that Steve, Devina, Jo and I have been exploring in TouchIT and the Physicality workshop series.  One was a system that augments paper textbooks with electronic resources using a combination of computer vision (to recognise pages in the book) and semantic extraction (for example getting historical timelines from Wikipedia). The other was  a physical ‘drop box’, where you put papers into a slot and then they were copied as images into your DropBox account.  It made me think of the major scan and bin exercise I did a few years ago drastically reducing my piles of old papers.

However, the high spot of the conference for me was Ravi Poovaiah‘s keynote “Designing for the next billion” on Thursday about design for the ‘middle of the pyramid’, those who are out of abject poverty and therefore have access to basic IT and so the design community can do most about.  This does not reduce the needs of those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, for whom basic education and healthcare are the most immediate needs.

In the UK not only are the extremes less, few except the homeless would qualify as ‘bottom of the pyramid’, but also they tend to be more segregated. Here a modern glass fronted international retail chain can sit next to a semi-derilict (to western eyes) motorbike repair shop, with used tyres piled on the pavement.  This said, to my mind, with my aesthetic of decay that is maybe the privilege of those who do not have to live it, the latter is far more engaging.  One of India’s challenges is whether it can move through its economic explosion without the attendant dissolution of local identity, culture and family that is the legacy of the industrial revolution in the UK.