Tech books for Christmas: Food for thought

Despite the come-hitherness of the title Robot Sex, a couple of these ‘I-need-a-gift-for-a-geek’ books are the sort where you may want to be out of town when the recipient calls you, depressed, with their feedback. But they’re all worth it.

The Chinese Typewriter: A History • by Thomas S. Mullaney • MIT Press • 485 pages • ISBN: 978-0-262-03636-8 • $34.95/£27.95

The most fun of the lot is Thomas S Mullaney’s The Chinese Typewriter: A History.

It’s easy to forget that the ubiquitous single-shift typewriter keyboard, designed specifically for our relatively simple 26-letter alphabet and limited use of capital letters (2.5 percent to five percent of text), had competitors when it was originally designed. A typewriter for the Chinese language, which has some 47,000 characters but no alphabet or syllabic structure, seemed so absurd in 1900 that people published cartoons lampooning the idea (which Mullaney reprints).

Reading Mullaney sends you looking for more details of those typewriter designs not taken.

On a Lambert keyboard, pushing a button on a dial swivelled the right letter into place. Double-keyboard machines separated upper and lower case into two tiers, like an organ — and turned out to be almost perfect for the much larger Siamese alphabet.

The engineers behind the shift-keyboard monoculture proved adaptable in many ways, making adaptations for right-to-left writing (Arabic and Hebrew), accents, and much larger alphabets. Chinese, however, inspired a technology-first attitude that is with us still, as manufacturers like Olivetti and Remington advertised that their modern technology was wonderful, but that Chinese was ancient, unsuited for serious thought, and needed to adapt.

And yet the Chinese went on to invent the first — analog — version of what we now call predictive text when typewriter engineers sought to make the machines more efficient. Along the way, different designs adopted very different paradigms: one attempted to break up Chinese characters into reusable components; another had a system of myriad rollers and a master key that could create up to 90,000 characters (although was never commercially produced).

Mullaney’s main point is worth remembering: in a monoculture, other options collapse out of view and we lose the ability to imagine alternative approaches.

There’s an insufficiently appreciated rule that every subject sounds more interesting with the word ‘forensic’ inserted in front of it. ‘Forensic’ turned anthropology into a detective career, a clutch of bestselling crime novels, and the 12-season TV series Bones for Kathy Reichs.

Just as that discipline studied the marks left on bones to detect crime, so forensic architecture uses changes in the built landscape to understand what happened to the humans in and around them. The Forensic Architecture Group, led by principal investigator Eyal Weizman, is based at Goldsmiths, University of London. Now, Weizman has written the copiously illustrated book Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability to describe their work for a wider audience.

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability • by Eyal Weizman • Zone Books • 368 pages • ISBN: 9781935408864 • $39.95/£32.95

The closest analog to the group’s work is probably Patrick Ball’s efforts with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which turns personal testimony and other data streams into scientifically rigorous statistics that show who did what to whom. Weizman’s group analyzes the common elements of buildings and other structures, their representations, and data about them to produce evidence about what happened that they then present to international courts, truth commissions, tribunals, and other forums.

The first section of the book explains what forensic architecture is, and the evolution and practice of the methods the group uses. The second part is a case worked out in detail: the reconstruction of two related deadly incidents that took place in Palestine in 2014. The group’s work is exhilarating for anyone who appreciates the creative leap it takes to develop a new set of investigative tools with such rigour.

Enemies Known and Unknown: Targeted Killings in America’s Transnational War • by Jack McDonald • Hurst • 318 pages • ISBN: 978-1-84904-644-2 • £17.99

The targeted killings Jack McDonald (Kings College London) studies in Enemies Known and Unknown are the result of a profound change in the way war is waged.

While this is not overtly a technology book, many of the challenges to international law that McDonald teases out are the result of a mix of social and technology trends. War has traditionally meant physical violence between nations; but ‘wars’ on poverty, drugs, and terrorism are transnational fights between ideologies, not geographies. US actions are McDonald’s focus here, but as he warns, what one nation does, others may copy.

Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin: From Money That We Understand to Money That Understands Us • By David Birch • London Publishing Partnership • 264 pages • ISBN: 978-1-907994-65-4 • £22.41

Technology, David Birch writes in Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin, has long enabled new forms of money: coins could not exist before smelting, nor bank notes before printing.

Today’s hottest speculative asset, bitcoin, required cheap enough computing power to perform cryptographic calculations. Birch has argued previously that the future of money is identity. In this book, he predicts that governments will cease to be the sole issuers of money, that instead money will be issued by all kinds of communities. Brixton pounds, Ithaca hours, frequent flyer miles, Amazon gift cards, World of Warcraft gold… all of these are currencies of value to their users. The only currency Birch wants dead is cash.

The future of money, he writes, began in 1971, when US President Richard Nixon dumped the gold standard. Today, every country’s money is fiat currency, not tethered to physical assets. Therefore, he argues, what’s the difference between ningis and Yap stone disks? Your mobile phone will negotiate the currency and amount on your behalf, and you don’t have to know anything. It’s all just numbers in cyberspace, right? Agree with him or not, his book is thought-provoking.

Robot Sex • Edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur • MIT Press • 328 pages • ISBN: 9780262036689 • $40/£32.95

Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications is not going to inspire any Daily Mail headlines. Instead, the essays selected by editors John Danaher and Neil McArthur consider the implication of sex with robots.

For the purposes of these authors, ‘sex robot’ is defined as: humanoid, human-like in movement and behaviour, and possessed of some degree of artificial intelligence. The definition does its intended job, which is to raise questions worth discussing.

Many of the questions are familiar: whether love is possible between a human and a robot, a redressed way to ask whether an AI can achieve consciousness. Others are familiar from previous similar debates about pornography — for example, whether humans with robot sex partners become less tolerant of the foibles of human ones.

The conclusion of the chapter on whether it’s justifiable to campaign against sex robots is given away by the presence of the Future of Humanity Institute’s Anders Sandberg among the co-authors, who has never met a non-killer robot he didn’t like: it concludes the harm is speculative and vague, and stopping the robots is likely to be ineffective. And, inevitably, someone — Twente University’s Litska Strikwerda — has to ask about the legal and moral implications of child sex robots. To answer that, Strikwerda reviews prior controversies about entirely computer-generated sexual abuse images: these are illegal in most countries, and Strikwerda concludes that child sex robots will have to be also.

The point of this book is to tease out the distinguishing characteristics of robots so we’re ready when it’s time to develop laws about them. For now, it’s speculation. Roxxxy, which was presented at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in 2010 as the world’s first sex robot, and which is referenced in this book, is not known to be in commercial production, even though the manufacturer’s website offers it for a shade under $10,000.

Read more book reviews

Smartphone portrait mode shootout: Eight phones starting at $200 challenge the $1,000 Apple iPhone X

Portrait mode shooting is heavily promoted by Apple in the newest iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X devices, but there are other dual camera smartphones (and one single lens phone) that also have this capability. In 2014, HTC introduced the One M8 that had a second lens designed to capture depth of field data for interesting bokeh effects.

The 10 best smartphones of 2017

Apple and Google recently announced new 2017 phones, but even these phones can’t surpass Samsung’s latest Galaxy Note 8.

Read More

Over the last several weeks I spent time with eight new smartphones that support portrait mode photography, ranging in price from $280 to $1,000. The phones include the Honor 7X, Moto X4, Essential Phone, OnePlus 5T, Huaweit Mate 10 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Google Pixel 2 XL, and Apple iPhone X.

All of these phones support bokeh effects through the rear cameras with four of the eight supporting portrait mode shots from the front-facing camera for selfies with bokeh. The Apple iPhone X, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, Honor 7X, and Google Pixel 2XL shoot portrait mode selfies with a single front camera.

While there is a representative portrait mode image from each of the eight candidates in my embedded image gallery and in the text below, make sure to visit my Flickr album for full resolution images comparing these eight phones and the portrait shots from the rear and front-facing camera.

Smartphones with portrait mode support

Honor 7X: The Honor 7X just launched last week and is rather stunning for just $200. It has an aluminum unibody design with rear dual cameras. One camera is 16 megapixels while the other is only 2 megapixels, used primarily for gathering data for the depth effects.

Huawei has been working with dual cameras for a couple of years and providing advanced functionality. The first dual camera phones I tested from Huawei had a wide aperture mode where you could actually adjust the level of blur and even the focal point after the image was already captured. A wide aperture mode button is still present and sometimes you will get better bokeh effects using this mode.

However, there is now a dedicated portrait-mode button as well. In addition to this mode button, on the bottom left you wil find buttons for bokeh and beauty levels. With Honor you can tweak the image in the viewfinder before capturing it in a number of ways.

Amazingly, the Honor 7X is also one of the four phones that supports front-facing camera portraits. The same portrait, bokeh, and beauty buttons are present in the interface and a single 8 megapixel camera is used to capture these portraits.

Moto X4: Motorola has had dual cameras on a few of the high end phones, but is now putting dual rear cameras on its mid-range devices. 12 megapixel and 8 megapixel cameras are found on the back of this $280 smartphone.

In order to enable portrait mode on the Moto X4, tap the three dot menu button in the lower right and then select depth enabled from the list of shooting options. There is a slider on the display to adjust the amount of background blur, with results shown in real time on the viewfinder.

While Motorola has dual cameras to capture photos with depth effects, it also has advanced software. Tap the edit button and then select the depth editor to choose selective focus, selective black and white, and replace background options. It’s cool to have monochrome photos with just select layers in color. The ability to move the focus around and also replace the background is fun too.

Essential Phone: Essential promised regular software updates and one app that has been updated several times is the camera. We saw the price of the Essential Phone drop to $499, making it a fantastic deal for a solid Android phone and the camera is getting better.

One of the recent updates brought portrait mode support to this dual camera device. The Essential Phone has dual rear 13 megapixel cameras, one RGB and one mono, similar to the way Huawei sets up its dual rear cameras.

The Essential camera app feels like an iPhone app with simple swipe actions to switch modes. The camera defaults to auto with one swipe from right to left launching portrait mode. You can use the timer in this mode too, but otherwise just tap on the shutter button to capture a portrait photo.

OnePlus 5T: OnePlus changed its dual camera setup in the $499 OnePlus 5T compared to the OnePlus 5 and one integrated features is portrait mode. The camera launches in auto photo mode so a swipe from right to left switches into portrait mode.

The box around the words depth effect turns green when conditions are acceptable for portrait mode. Other warnings include prompts for more light. There is also a button to enhance the look of people, primarily through skin smoothing and brightness adjustments.

Huawei Mate 10 Pro: The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has one of the most powerful dual rear camera configurations with a 20 megapixel monochrome lens and a 12 megapixel RGB lens. It also has an 8 megapixel front-facing camera. The Mate 10 Pro is priced at €799, with a likely US release in early 2018.

The Mate 10 Pro cameras work together the majority of the time with the second monochrome lens providing contrast and detail to make your color photos even sharper. This second lens also works with the primary lens in wide aperture mode to provide you with variable depth of field photos. After a photo is captured with the wide aperture button enabled, you can selectively choose your focal point and even create photos with different focal points since all the data has been captured by both cameras.

In addition to wide aperture mode, been around now for a couple years, we have a dedicated portrait mode button with lower right buttons for bokeh and beauty just like the Honor 7X.

In addition, the Mate 10 Pro supports portrait mode photos with the front-facing camera. This is done through software thanks to its single 8 megapixel front shooter.

Google Pixel 2 XL: The Google Pixel 2 XL, $849 and $949, is the only phone in this list of eight with a single rear camera. Google is able to provide rear camera portraits, as well as portrait selfies through the front-facing camera through its ability to develop advanced software algorithms.

The rear camera is a 12.2 megapixel camera with OIS while the front-facing camera is 8 megapixels.

Tap the left menu button and then choose portrait mode. Options within the camera app include flash, lighting conditions, grid, and face retouching. All of these same options and the same interface exist in portrait mode through the front-facing camera.

Unlike all of the dual camera smartphones, you will not see a live preview of your portrait image while shooting with the camera. Since Google uses software to make this happen, the photo is adjusted after you capture the image. The cool thing is that you can view and use either the full image or the one with bokeh effects added to the image.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8: Samsung installed a dual camera in the Galaxy Note 8 and one of the main functions of this setup is Live Focus. Live Focus gives the user the ability to dynamically adjust the background blur in the viewfinder. In addition, you can adjust the background blur after the fact while also even viewing the full view of the captured image when dual focus is enabled. There is no dedicated portrait button or facial improvement functionality in the software.

Samsung has some of the highest end lenses in its rear dual camera setup and I found you can capture decent close-up images with bokeh effects just through the regular lens, without the aid of Live Focus mode. One of these Lego bokeh effects is contained in my Flickr gallery.

Apple iPhone X: Apple provides its users with a very basic camera interface, similar to what Google provides with its Pixel phones. Portrait mode is one swipe from right to left away from the default auto photo mode.

Apple stands out from all others with five lighting mode options on the iPhone X. These include natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light, and stage light mono. Stage light and stage light mono remove the entire background level and make it black while attempting to capture the person in the foreground.

These same five portrait modes are available on the mono front facing camera as well, which again means the iPhone X has the most capable of all of these portrait mode cameras. While there is only a single camera on the front, Apple calls it True Depth and it uses various IR and dot sensors to measure depth for pretty impressive portrait selfies.

Which did I prefer?

While optics are important, the software algorithms on smartphones are even more vital to success with portrait mode. The optics are limited by lens size and space available in phones, but as we have seen companies like Google are able to provide portrait functionality with a single camera lens. Apple, Huawei, and Google also use front-facing cameras and sensors to add bokeh effects to selfies.

While low cost smartphone are very capable and can help you do most things, the camera quality is one of the biggest differentiators between flagship smartphones, mid-tier phones, and the least expensive phones. We see in the portrait gallery that the Honor 7X and Moto X4 are easily the worst at portrait mode shots. The mid-tier phones, including the Essential Phone and OnePlus 5T, actually do very well and just have less options than the flagships.

The Google Pixel 2 XL produced my favorite portrait shots, followed closely by the iPhone X. The Galaxy Note 8, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and OnePlus 5T produced good results in most shots with Huawei sometimes blowing out things with too much light. The Essential Phone was decent too. The Honor 7X and Moto X4 had backgrounds that were not that blurry and also some areas that were out of focus with missing detail.

When it comes to front-facing camera selfies, the Google Pixel 2 XL and iPhone X were the clear winners with the iPhone X adding a bit too much yellow tint for me.

Overall, it is quite impressive that compact smartphone cameras can provide bokeh effects today. They are not going to beat any DSLR, but for social networks and quick sharing most of these are acceptable. I expect we will see a dedicated portrait button in the next Samsung Galaxy and even more work from Apple and Google in the future.

Wacom Bamboo Folio, First Take: From paper to cloud

Wacom’s Bamboo Folio is part of a product range the company calls ‘smartpads’. The idea is that you can write directly onto paper, and whatever you produce is converted into digital content and shared to the cloud automatically. So, that fantastic business idea, those outline plans for your new kitchen, or the design for a product that will change the world…all are noted down once, and once only. The back of an envelope no longer cuts the mustard for this kind of thing.

Currently there are two Bamboo smartpad products: the Slate, which looks like a clipboard; and the Folio, which takes the clipboard and puts it inside a folder. Both devices come in A4 and A5 sizes. I was sent the Bamboo Folio A5 to take a look at. Here’s a price comparison:

Even the A5 Bamboo Folio is a sizeable piece of kit weighing 460g; the A4 version weighs 810g.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Don’t be fooled about the size of these devices. The Folio A5 turned out to be quite large. It incorporates a pad of paper that’s A5 in size, but the overall folio measures 200mm wide by 257mm by 19 mm deep and weighs 460g. (The A4 Bamboo Folio measures 268mm x 338mm x 19mm and weighs 810g.)

The stylus and paper are both crucial. The paper’s dot-pattern and tech in the stylus liaise to capture what’s being written, and the clipboard sends it to the cloud. So, when the pad is finished, you’ll need another. There are printable templates around, but the folio really needs a pad whose card back sheet slots into a holder to keep it in places. Replacement packs of three 40-page notepads cost £14.99 for A4 and £11.99 for A5. You get one replacement ink cartridge for the stylus, after which they’ll cost you £8.09 for a pack of three.

Setup is a bit of a hassle. First you’ll need to charge the Bamboo Slate Folio via its Micro-USB port, then download the Wacom Inskspace app to an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone — there’s no Windows support. You then run the app and it walks you through making a Bluetooth connection to the device. This didn’t go entirely smoothly for me, and the instructions aren’t great. A ‘tap to confirm pairing’ screen looks like you should be tapping the tablet or handset screen, when in fact it’s the Bamboo Folio power button that needs tapping. Who’d have thought it would be possible to get such simple instructions wrong!

You then need to set up a Wacom ID, tell the app the orientation of your device so that it presents your jottings the right way up (although you can rotate digital documents in the app) and finally decide whether you want to use Inkspace in online or offline mode. This matters a lot, and there’s no on-device help explaining the two options — it’s all online.

Top ZDNET Reviews

Take the online mode choice and your web browser opens. Now you have to log into your Wacom account, or set one up. Going through the setup process earns you 5GB of Inkspace Basic storage. There’s an Inkspace Plus option that provides 50GB of storage, plus more features. Importantly, anyone wanting to convert handwriting to text and export to Word or Google Docs will need the Plus option, which is charged on a monthly subscription after a free three-month trial. It’s not as easy as it should be to compare features on Wacom’s website, and I reverted to doing this on my laptop rather than using a smartphone. Even then, it’s difficult to find the post-trial pricing — online sources suggests it is £3/month.

As with the installation procedure, so using the Bamboo Slate Folio is not without issue. I found it necessary to unpair and repair a few times during different periods of use, because my notes wouldn’t transfer. Anything written or drawn before a repairing is lost, so has to be input to paper again. There was quite a wait between text being transferred and it appearing in the Inkspace app, which is fine, unless you’re waiting for a transfer in order to export or otherwise use the digital version of your creation.

Handwriting conversion was somewhat hit-and-miss in our experience.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Sadly, the handwriting-to-text conversion, which is arguably the key reason for opting for a paid for Inkspace Plus account, is too hit-and-miss to be useful. My handwriting might not be perfect, but I’ve seen other systems make a much better job of turning it into editable text (see above).

In the end, all this left me wondering who would really use the Bamboo Slate Folio enough to justify the expense — which mounts up when you take into account the cost of paper, stylus ink refills and the Inkspace Plus subscription — and factor in the need to carry what’s a fairly chunky piece of kit to house an A5 pad.

After all, direct handwritten input is relatively easy these days on both smartphones and tablets, there are some very good, inexpensive Bluetooth keyboards and tablet keyboard covers for those who want to type regularly; and there are also mobile speech-to-text options. And if drawing is more your thing, there are plenty of apps that save to cloud on Windows as well as Android and iOS platforms. It seems, then, the Bamboo Folio is a solution to a problem that’s solved better in other ways.

Read more reviews