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The WWW of 18th Century London

A new website, London Lives, has been created by researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK. 240,000 pages of manuscripts from between 1690 and 1800, from hospitals, courts, local governments and parishes have been digitized and made available online – that’s half the size of the world-wide web in 1996.

What’s new here though is that the documents have been cross-linked so that you can track individual people’s lives across the different institutions of 18th century London, building up a picture of London life in the period much as you might while browsing the web or reading people’s Twitter updates today.

It’s a refreshingly different way to examine the past, and reminds us the value of open data and what we get from having a cross-linked web of public data sources today.

Read more at Futurity.org or browse London Lives directly.


Mashable has a look at how social networks are the tool of choice for divorce lawyers.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says 81 percent of its members have used or faced evidence plucked from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites, including YouTube and LinkedIn, over the last five years.

It’s not just compromising pictures that are being used: sometimes, the evidence is nasty–parents tugging at their children’s social graphs to try and pull children away from their alienated spouse. With Overshare the word of the year in 2008, it’s no surprise that all that disclosure is catching up with us.

Colt firearm from SZuppo on Flickr

September, 2014 was unusually cold for Boston. The chill from the Charles drifted in through an open window and slid across the floor of the one-bedroom apartment. Special Agent Ross took in the mess of books, records, and DVDs scattered around the room, framing the dead body of Janet Somers.

Back at the office, he started filing in the forms of the homicide report, detailing the execution-style killing—one shot to the back of the head—and signs of struggle. He’d barely had time to fetch a fresh cup of coffee when the PDA on his hip started buzzing. “Ross.” he answered curtly, annoyed by yet another interruption in what was already looking like a long day.

“This is Mike Lynch. I work for the U.S. Marshals,” explained the caller. “You filed the homicide report on Janet Somers, right?”

“Sure. You knew her?” asked Ross.

“Detective Ross, I work in Witness Protection. It’s not that I knew her, so much as I tried to make the world forget her. Based on what happened today, it sounds like I failed,” said Lynch.

“Yeah, it looked like a professional job: one shot to the back of the head at close range. What’s up?” asked Ross.

“I need you to tell me what music Janet listened to,” Lynch replied.

Ross scowled at the thought of spending hours in Janet’s frosty apartment. “Oh, come on. She’s dead. What difference does that make?”

“Listen, we’ve had six other killings this week. Same M.O. I need your help here.” replied Lynch.

And I thought I was having a bad week, muttered Ross under his breath.  “All these victims were under your protection?”

“Nope, none of them were,” said Lynch. “But the other six victims were all women in their mid-thirties, like Janet. They were all killed, execution-style, late at night, just as Janet was. And most importantly, all six of them liked the same music.

Ross took a sip of coffee and furrowed his brow. “I don’t get it,” he said, “what does their music have to do with it? You don’t shoot people for bad taste.”

“Listen, Ross,” growled Lynch, clearly annoyed. “If Janet liked the same music as the other six, then that means the killer’s using wishlists, iTunes, Last.fm and other online services to find people we’ve spent years working to hide.” The Marshal paused, letting it sink in. “We can change their faces, their cities, their jobs — but we can’t stop them listening to shitty music. And that might just get them killed.”

The US Witness Protection Program has hidden nearly 20,000 people since it was launched in the 1970s. So far, nobody in its custody has been harmed, despite Hollywood’s love of this plot device. Witnesses change their names, their appearance, and even their jobs — anything to hide their past. But can we hide who we really are?

Read more »


Augmented reality is getting a lot of attention in the media, but is often misunderstood. It’s only when you see examples that it really makes sense. This video demonstrates an impressive new application of the concept at the Wimbledon tennis championship in the UK.

With IBM’s new Seer 2010 app for iPhones and Androids you can simply point your phone at a court and get live video of the match being played there – effectively you can see through walls. You can also use the app to find food and drink stands or even get a live video view of the taxi queues.

It’s a great example of how augmented reality is already here today and making itself useful. You can read more here.


You are what you click

We all love our devices — a properly configured laptop, a familiar game controller, or a mouse that fits just so, are extensions of ourselves.

As it turns out, that may be more than mere metaphor.

A recent piece in Wired studied the way our brains work with computer mice–and what happens when those mice don’t work properly. When the mouse was responsive, our brains treated it as an extension of ourselves; when it malfunctioned, we became consciously aware of it and treated as an external “thing.”


One of the problems with virtual reality is navigating it: How do you make it feel like you’re walking around? Short of jacking into the spinal cord, Matrix-style, this has always stymied interface designers.

Popsci is reporting that a hotel in Vegas will soon offer immersive VR built on the Virtusphere, a human-sized hamster ball that calculates position from sphere rotation–like being inside a giant trackball. 360 Virtual Ventures is commercializing the technology for installations like the one at the Excalibur.

Here’s a video showing the device in action:

Dim lights

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Dr Alexandra BowyerWhen we heard about the world’s first synthetic lifeform, we realized we needed a science expert to help us explore and share the real significance of the news. So we’re very pleased to introduce our first guest blogger, Alexandra Ruaux (wife of regular contributor Alexander Bowyer). Alexandra has a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Southampton, UK and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Biotechnology Research Institute in Montréal, where she spends most of her days growing and isolating bacterial proteins to determine their molecular structure. She has published several journal papers and contributed structures to the Protein Data Bank.


Synthia is the first living organism on the planet to have a computer for a parent. From just four bottles of chemicals (the basic components of DNA; Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine) Dr. Craig Venter and his research group at the J. Craig Venter Institute synthesised the entire genome of a bacterial cell. They used a known genetic code as a recipe and transplanted it into a different cell, effectively causing it to ‘change’ species. What does this mean for mankind? Are we about to have the magic of life reduced to just 4 chemicals? Will terrorists be able to synthesise terrible bio-weapons? Can we now design cells that do whatever we want?
Read more »


iPads at Breakfast (picture from the source article at NYTimes.com)

This article in the New York Times looks at a typical “connected” family’s life, and how the constant pull of e-mail, Twitter and Facebook has interfered with their business and family lives. Here’s an example:

Recently,[Mrs Campbell] was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

Is technology diminishing the amount of empathy and the quality of contact we have with each other? As an expert quoted in the article says, “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other. It shows how much you care.”

The more challenging question of course, is what we can do about this. I’m guessing abandoning technology is not really an option!

Read the full article at NYTimes.com.


How Apple knows what you like

This MIT technology review explains how the iTunes Genius feature works, parsing millions of iTunes users’ libraries to generate suggestions and recommendations. One of the observations: we’re not unique and special snowflakes. No matter how individual you think you are, you’re part of a large online group.

Discovering the hidden or “latent” factors in your data set is a handy way to reduce the size of the problem that you have to compute, and it works because humans are predictable: people who like Emo music are sad, and sad people also like the soundtracks to movie versions of vampire novels that are about yearning, etc. You might think of it as the mathematical expression of a stereotype–only it works.

Recommendation engines are notoriously difficult to get right, as the Netflix Prize proved.


Open social data is a Wild West for many companies, with Google, Facebook, and dozens of social monitoring tools rushing to map our relationships and lives before legislation catches up with them. But by mapping data captured across open Wifi while taking Street View maps, Google may have triggered our legislative immune system.

Australian joins German police in investigating the privacy breach (which is nothing new — war-driving is a common practice; it’s just been hard to prosecute people for it.) Australia seems an unlikely defender of surfers’ rights, since it’s busy blocking Internet access; by contrast, Germany’s enforcing safe surfing by its citizens, making Wifi passwords mandatory — which would have prevented the Google breach. This is also the first step in making Wifi owners accountable for everything that crosses their network.

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