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Brownies get updated badge for computing

18 Nov 2013

Brownies learning how to code

Social media? There's a badge for that.

Twenty-three years after Girlguiding introduced its computing badge for Brownies, the organisation has given it somewhat of a reboot, with the introduction of some slightly more modern-use cases.

Where previous tasks included "turn on a computer", you will instead see "writing a set of instructions for a movable robot". And where a child would have been told to "use a word processor", they'll now have to carry out a survey on a topic with the additional challenge of "presenting results in a spreadsheet or graph".

Social media also gets a nod, with Brownies learning how to send messages safely as well as understanding the age restrictions in place on some sites. In addition, girls will be taught to better understand their "digital footprints", something that is becoming ever more important as early social media adopters look back at their first forays on Facebook with regret.

The new mini computing curriculum put in place for Brownies was dreamed up by TalkTalk, and while it doesn't break an awful lot of new ground, it's great to see one of the UK's most revered institutes bringing itself into the modern age.

Furthermore, with computing and other technical subjects being dominated by men, Girlguiding chief executive Julie Bentley says she hopes this will go some way towards restoring the balance. "Our research shows that many girls dismiss entire industries – such as science, technology, engineering and maths-based [STEM] careers. This resource inspires girls to think of a career in a STEM industry as a varied and rewarding option for them."

Although we do wonder whether this may be a more familiar way of earning badges for the youth of today:

An artist's impression of the new Brownie computing badge

By V3's Michael Passingham, who never could join the Brownies

Conservative party erases the past with website speech wipe

13 Nov 2013

Politicians love to bang on about being “open”, “transparent” and “accountable” for their actions. These words, in essence, mean nothing, but somehow give that warm and fuzzy feeling that they’re honourable chaps and chapesses.

Of course, though, often these words are later ignored as the politican in question backtracks, flip-flops or U-turns on what they previously said, leaving themselves in a horribly contorted mess of contradictions.

Having speeches available online is one surefire way of running into this mess, as it makes it easy for some meddlesome man or woman from the press to check what you previously said on a subject and ask why you’ve changed your tune.

One way around this would be to simply erase all of your speeches from the web so no-one could ever check what you'd promised, claimed or opined. It sounds like the sort of thing the mad despotic ruler of a totalitarian state would do. Or the Conservative party.

Yes, the Tory party has removed every speech given by its members from over the last decade, with only speeches from 2013 now archived on its site, according to Computer Weekly.

The folks in the party really don't want those old speeches found, as they've even made it impossible for archive services to find the old speeches thanks to some nifty blocking code. Odd. We asked the Conservative party why it had done this, but hadn't heard a peep by the time of publication.

While accessing past speeches given by the Tories is a rare desire, it is a worrying state of affairs as it will make it a lot harder to check what has been said, and undermines previous claims by David Cameron and his cohorts that the government wants to be open and transparent.

Speaking at a Google conference in 2006, Cameron said: "You've begun the process of democratising the world's information. Democratising is the right word to use because by making more information available to more people, you're giving them more power. The power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power – whether it's government, big business or the traditional media."

How, pray, Mr Cameron, does one hold government to account when everything you and your chums have ever said over the past decade has been removed from the web?

Firefox is 9 years old this weekend

08 Nov 2013

Mozilla is celebrating the 9th birthday of its Firefox browser this weekend with the release of a blog detailing the "nine gifts we've given the web over the past year".

However, we prefer to celebrate Firefox as the browser that broke Microsoft's stranglehold on web access for the Windows market, even if it seems to have lost its way of late and been overtaken in the innovation stakes by Google's Chrome.

Mozilla Firefox on a tablet PC

Firefox was born out of the wreckage of Netscape, the browser developer whose Navigator app was eventually killed off by Microsoft's practice of bundling Internet Explorer free with Windows.

Once Netscape was no more, Microsoft saw little reason to bother too much with browser development, and five whole years elapsed between the release of IE6 in 2001 and its successor, IE7 in 2006.

The Firefox project went through several versions before the official version 1.0 was released on 9 November 2004. It almost immediately took off and started to eat into Microsoft's dominance of the Windows browser market, as can be seen by this historical listing of browser statistics.

Eventually, Firefox overtook Internet Explorer, but the open source browser has itself faced competition from a newcomer in the shape of Google's Chrome. With a more rapid development cycle, Chrome has now grown in popularity to account for about half of browser usage on Windows PCs worldwide, pushing Firefox into second place.

However, it is Mozilla and Firefox who are largely to thank for injecting a spot of competition into the browser market and jarring Microsoft out of its complacency to start addressing some of the major flaws in its own browser.

Happy birthday Firefox.

Fujitsu CTO sees the lighter side of Internet of Things security concerns

06 Nov 2013

Dr Joseph Reger of Fujitsu brandishes a smart light bulb

MUNICH: Afraid of the dark? Perhaps you should be afraid of the lights. That's the twisted future envisioned by light bulb-wielding Fujitsu chief technology officer Joseph Reger.

Patrolling the floors of the Fujitsu Forum in Germany, Dr Reger explained to onlookers how one of the most innocuous objects in your house could become part of a global attack.

The Internet of Things, perhaps one of the most highly-talked about technologies nobody in the real world actually uses, is expected to take hold within the next decade, and with it will inevitably come cyber threats, as with any new technology. Reger chose to use intelligent light bulbs as an example:

"I'm not concerned about someone hacking into your home and turning off your lights," he said. We at V3 are very concerned about that, for the record. "What I'm talking about is that someone hacking into your home and looking at the usage pattern of your light bulbs and determining whether you're on vacation. And when it might be a good time to break in."

Such concerns have been voiced before with Philips' Hue lightbulb singled out as a cause for concern by security researchers. Reger went further, though, to envision a world of slave lightbulbs run by some sort of domestic super villain.

"If this light bulb is a little bit more intelligent, if they're intelligent enough, you can inject malicious code into the bulb itself if it's not protected properly. What's the problem with that? All of a sudden I have an army of attackers I've just programmed and I can launch a denial of service attack on anybody using billions of soldiers."

We've heard this described before in the form of toaster armies mining the currency Bitcoin - and perhaps the metaphors are getting out of hand - we're sure Reger knows this, and we have to say we enjoyed his demonstration.

The real point here is that we haven't moved on from this novelty, this funny notion of light bulbs stealing your lunch money and laughing at you. In the world of business and industry, machine-to-machine communication is commonplace. That's not to say it isn't serious either - a recent UK government report highlighted the notion of a need for a ramping up of security among connected machines.

So, who to believe? It's very difficult to know exactly how much of a threat these things are, especially because the amount of people with intelligent light bulbs in there home is so low crooks probably couldn't even DDoS your mum's laptop.

Until there's more of this stuff out there, we can't know for sure what possibilities - positive or negative - IoT can offer.

By V3's Michael Passingham, whose army of fridges is coming along nicely

Big business could be the saviour of computing education

04 Nov 2013

An empty classroom with a white board and a number of laptops

As with all ambitious plans, focus on the Department for Education's sweeping IT teaching reform have turned from "what" to "how". There are certainly a lot of loose ends still to be tied up, not least how to actually train teachers to teach computing well.

There is a school of thought that says big businesses can and should help out with this. After all, it's in their interests for there to be more skilled employees to choose from.

MyKindaCrowd, a social enterprise firm, seems to be doing just this. It markets itself as bringing big businesses closer to school pupils through the use of branded educational challenges, many of which result in the cream of the crop of pupils winning placements. The group already works with brands including McDonald's, Tesco and Cisco on other areas of the curriculum.

Will Akerman, managing director of MyKindaCrowd, told V3 that businesses could do more to invest in their future employees if they begin when they are at a younger age. "We're not a lobbying organisation," he began. "Our mission is to connect young people to the world of work." For example, the firm currently works with UK gaming startup Mind Candy to produce a Moshi Monsters coding course, bringing a brand that's recognisable to kids into the classroom in order to teach lessons that have relevance in the wider computing industry.

It's not just about the businesses working within the IT services industry, either: it's every single business that uses computers. We'd hazard a guess that this means most of them. "Every company can take an active part to support. It might be as simple as mentoring teachers to help them get a better understanding of computing in general, or it could be work experience," Akerman said. "There are small actions which can make a difference."

This is particularly pertinent as some of the new computing curriculum's biggest detractors have cited a lack of relevance to "every day" computing. For instance, the Corporate IT Forum told V3 in July it would like to see more focus on skills that will make employees better IT users, not just programmers.

This is where a big business could come in and create a mini-curriculum in the form of challenges that would suit their own needs and find talent early on.

Akerman added that it's not just about finding the best of the best; he claims it's the pupils with the best attitudes who tend to earn work placements and job offers. "There are many jobs where the best candidates aren't those with five A stars or 10 A stars. They've demonstrated that they've got that passion and drive, not that they've got the academic achievement. That they want to further themselves is far more important."

Could we see phrases such as: "This morning's computing lesson is brought to you by the McChicken Sandwich"? It's unlikely, but some forward thinking from the UK's most influential employers could go a long way.

By V3's Michael Passingham, whose IT education was lacklustre at best

Photo blog: Huawei brings Asian cool to Apple-style store

24 Oct 2013

huawei-flagship-store-shenzhen

It's no secret that the further East you go in the world, the bigger the smartphone screens get, and this was blindingly obvious when V3 visited Huawei's flagship store in downtown Shenzhen.

Housed in the Digital World mall on Digital Square, which is, incidentally, halfway up Electric Avenue - where you'll also find shops selling pretty much all the big-name tech brand you can think of - the store puts large-screen phablets such as the Ascend Mate in pride of place as the first thing you see when you walk in.

Looking for anything smaller than the Ascend P6, with its 4.7in screen? Forget it: you won't find it here.

big-phones-huawei-store-shenzhen

But, on the other hand, if you're after a place to sit back and watch a bit of telly while testing out an enormous phone's capabilities, then you've come to the right place. Far from the image of fast, cheap, mass-produced tech, it's relaxed and comfortable; there's an LA-style sofa to kick back on while you watch a bit of Chinese MTV.

sofa-and-tv-at-the-huawei-store-shenzhen

Or you can gently swing on the chair in the corner while working your way through a potential new phone's features. You won't find these in an Apple store.

A hanging chair in the Huawei store in Shenzhen

Once you've picked out a device, you might be unsure of its camera quality. But that's OK: take a picture on the phone, then upload it to an enormous screen or try printing a copy to see what its snapper can really do.

huawei-store-shenzhen-camera-testing

Overall, we're pretty impressed by Huawei's flagship store, especially the idea of encouraging people to stick around, relax and have fun while making a decision on what to buy. Just remember not to leave any embarrassing selfies on the big screen.

Photo blog: Inside Huawei's hardware testing centre in Shenzhen, China

22 Oct 2013

SHENZHEN: V3 took a tour of Huawei's Global Compliance Testing Centre, during a media visit to the telecoms firm's Chinese campus in Shenzhen.

This is where the firm tests devices, networking equipment and other hardware against impact, extreme weather and other hazards. A sign outside reads: "Lab quality objective: scientific, honest, accurate, reliable. Serve the design and production departments with whole heart."

The chambers below test devices in extreme high and low temperatures.

huawei-testing-centre-machines

Huawei's Research and Development division employs a staggering 70,000 people worldwide, while there are 140 staff in the Shenzhen campus. The testing lab has been internationally accredited for Electromagnetic compatibility, RF, telecoms, safety and environmental reliability.

inside-huawei-radiation-chamber-2

Above, a worker waits for a device to go through temperature testing.

huawei-walk-in-testing-machine

This walk-in climatic testing chamber reaches temperatures as low as -70C and as high as 95C, as well as humidity of 15 percent relative humidity (RH) 98 percent RH, to ensure devices can withstand harsh environments.

"But, really, if it was that hot, you wouldn't be worried about your phone anymore, because it'd be the end of the world and you'd be dead," quipped Joe Kelly, vice president of international media affairs.

Some of the machines can recreate sandstorms to ensure durability, which is handy to know if you're planning to take your phone to the beach.

inside-a-huawei-testing-chamber

Above is the inside of a temperature and vibration testing chamber. And finally, below is the most exciting: the radiation testing chamber, which tests devices to make sure they are not emitting any unsafe particles. Otherwise, the soundproofed room can be a really good place to practise karaoke.

huawei-radiation-chamber-with-lab-worker

By V3's Clare Vooght, who is pretty clumsy with her phone

Apple iOS 7 and Windows 8 woes prove difficulty of operating system builds

18 Oct 2013

iOS 7 features redesigned applications include Music and Safari

Can anyone make a decent operating system? That’s the question tech lovers around the world appear to be asking as the biggest vendors appear unable to just make a decent platform that's easy to use and nice to look at.

Microsoft – the daddy of the operating system world – has been flailing for a while now to try and entice people to Windows 8. But so far it is failing. While Windows 8.1 is improving some areas, it is unlikely to prove a panacea for all its ills.

In fact, Microsoft could be said to have peaked as far back as 2001 when its beloved XP platform hit the market. Even now, 12 years later, there are those who see no reason to upgrade, even if support is set to end in six months.

Meanwhile Apple, the darling of the tech world, is facing unprecedented levels of criticism for numerous issues that users of its new iOS 7 operating system have found with the platform.

These range from functionality to design and many V3 readers have implored others not to move to the new platform if they haven't done so already. Such criticism of Apple, especially on a design and functionality level, would have been unthinkable a year or so ago.

So what is going on? In some ways it appears firms are trying to be too clever, to be too innovative. At the end of a day an operating system should be the base layer for everything else. It should be easy to use, simple to understand and allow you to run other applications over the top.

With too much focus now given to all-singing systems that can do everything and out-innovate rivals it almost seems as if the firms are forgetting to do any user feedback to find out if stuff just works.

One good example was raised by a V3 reader who noticed this bizarre iOS 7 issue. The phone automatically dims its display brightness when you open the new control panel menu. This means, though, if you’re trying to adjust screen brightness, you can’t accurately gauge the brightness of the screen. It’s almost comic in its failure to work at the most basic level.

Similarly, while one can understand Microsoft may have thought the bold and radical change of Windows 8 may have made them seem, well, bold and radical, someone really should have stepped in and said it was too much.

People never like change, even when it's good for them, so for Microsoft to develop Windows 8 was always going to prove an incredibly disruptive situation. And while the tech world loves the term disrupt for conjuring up the feeling they're changing the world, for most people disruption is a negative that can be done without.


The firm was probably so blinded by the need to innovate and impress that it overlooked the basic notion of KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. A motto that works well in a surprisingly large number of instances. Let's hope Apple has taken it on board for its Mac OS X Mavericks update, due to be unveiled next week.

By V3's Dan Worth, who loves a good operating system

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