Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7...
Estonian national costumes: 5. Muhu 6. Karja 7. Tõstamaa 8. Pärnu-Jaagupi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

TALLINN, Estonia – The centuries-old city center here looks quaintly antique, with cobbled streets lined by medieval buildings at nearly every turn. But the people have fully embraced the digital world, enthusiastically adopting public and private online services.

Estonians, using national identity card embedded with a microchip, gain access to some 4,000 services, including banking, business registration and even fishing licenses. They review medical records on smartphones. Almost everyone files taxes on the web within minutes, and about a third of voters now cast their ballots online.

While Europe and the United States debate the role of technology in people’s daily lives, Estonia has welcomed it as a fact of life, shooting away concerns about data privacy. In the last 23 years, Estonia, a Baltic country, has transformed from being a member of the Soviet bloc to one of the most connected countries, using technology built primarily within its borders.

The rest of the world has taken notice. The country’s former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, is the new European Commission vice president in charge of Europe’s digital future. “I know from personal experience that paperless government can work,” he said.

With a population of 1.3 million, Estonia faces fewer challenges than bigger countries like Britain and the United States when introducing online services. The transformation has been made on a small budget. The country spends about 50 million euros a year on information technology.

Its decision to go digital also has been driven by the fact that, at independence, it had few financial resources and a small population to jump-start its economy.

Local policy makers soon realized that they could not offer Western-style services without using new technology that could keep costs to a minimum.

Estonia relies on a government-run technology infrastructure, called X-Road that links public and private databases into the country’s digital services. All personal information is kept on separate servers and behind distinct security walls of government agencies, but the system allows the state and businesses like banks to share data when individuals give consent.

Estonians say the online services are more secure and more convenient than traditional methods of dealing with the government.

“Digital services have changed our lives,” said Taavi Roivas, who recently succeeded Mr. Ansip as prime minister.

About 98 percent of Estonians file their income taxes online, taking about five minutes, said Marek Helm, who leads Estonia’s tax and customs authority. That has increased overall tax compliance, cut his agency’s staff in half, and made tax refunds possible within a week.

There were some problems. Estonia’s online medical portal routinely crashed after digital prescriptions were introduced in 2010 because retirees kept signing into the system to renew their medication on the day they all received their pensions. And some local politicians have alleged fraud in online voting.

But the country now wants to take its digital services global by signing up people living outside Europe for so-called “e-residencies “that would give them access to Estonia’s public and private online services.

The upside, Estonians say, is convenience. “I can’t imagine doing things the old-fashioned way,” said Priit Heinla, 27, a project manager for an energy company who uses digital signatures. “You don’t have to sign a mountain of paperwork. It’s just one signature and you’re done.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014

20 Slovak korún coin from 1939 - obverse
20 Slovak korún coin from 1939 - obverse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
20 Slovak korún coin from 1941 - reverse
20 Slovak korún coin from 1941 - reverse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a year-old article, but its relevance is still in the present age, and in the age to come. Here is my take on matters such as this: In pacifying the godless, God is removed. And He is always a gentleman who doesn't force Himself into people's lives.
Read on...


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Late last year, the National Bank of Slovakia announced that the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, had ordered it to remove halos and crosses from its commemorative euro coins due to be minted this summer.

The coins, designed by a local artist, were intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands but have instead become tokens of the faith’s retreat from contemporary Europe. They featured two evangelizing Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius, and violated European diversity rules that ban any tilt toward a single faith.

At a time when Europe needs solidarity and a unified sense of purpose, religion has become yet another source of discord. It divides mostly secular Western Europe from profoundly religious nations in the east and those in between both in geography and in faith, like Slovakia.

The European Commission is under attack from all sides, denounced by atheists for even mild engagement with religion and by nationalist Christian fundamentalists as an agent of Satan.

Asked about such criticism, Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission official who reaches out to both religious and secular groups, smiled and said,” I can assure you that the European Commission is not the Antichrist.”

Europe is suffused with Christianity. Even the European Union’s flag-a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background-drew upon from an image of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars.

Throughout its modern history, however, the “European project” has sought to avoid religion and the unruly passions it can stir.

Ms. Von Schnurbein dismissed accusations of an anti-Christian agenda. “We deal with people of faith and also people of no faith,” she said.

The department that ordered Slovakia to redesign its coins said it had no real problem with halos and crosses, but demanded that they be deleted in the interest of “religious diversity” because of complaints from countries like France and Greece.

Several of the union’s most senior figures are Catholic. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has told supporters that “we don’t have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity.”

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe slowed the secular tide somewhat as the European Union began to admit new and sometimes deeply religious countries like Poland, Romania, and Croatia, a largely Catholic country of 4.4 million and the latest to be admitted.

The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, which reformed the original two treaties on which the European Union was founded, skipped any reference to Christianity and instead paid tribute to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” It mandated dialogue with religious groups. But it also ordered equal treatment for “philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” which include groups whose principal philosophy is hostility to organized religion.

Stanislav Zvolensky, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bratislava, said that efforts at European unity are doomed unless the union gives a bigger place to God. “Religion should be the inner strength of the union,” he said.

He does see one encouraging sign: Slovakia’s national bank has decided to stick with its original coin design, and the European Commission has gone along with the plan. The commemorative coins was minted in June – two months later than planned, but with halos and crosses.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, July 6, 2013

English: Microsoft XBOX 360 Kinect Sensor. Vid...
English: Microsoft XBOX 360 Kinect Sensor. Video Kinect: Make live video chats with your Xbox LIVE users under the Standard kinect camera. Video Kinect (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While this article is a year old, there is still the truth and value in it. That's what things of worth - they stand the test of time. And even more so, because many of the things that were mentioned here are looking into the future - things still to come. A year old, but still not outdated.

Read on...


Artificial intelligence is creeping into our lives at a steady pace. Devices and apps can anticipate what we need, sometimes even before we realize it ourselves.

So why shouldn’t they understand our feelings? If emotional reactions were measured, they could be valuable data points for better design and development. Emotional artificial intelligence, also called affective computing, may be on its way.

But should it be? After all, we’re already struggling to cope with the always-on nature of the devices in our lives. Yes, those gadgets would be more efficient if they could respond when we are frustrated, bored or too busy to be interrupted, yet they would also be intrusive in ways we can’t even fathom today.

Companies like affectiva, a start-up spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are working on software that trains computers to recognize human emotions based on their facial expressions and physiological responses. A company called Beyond Verbal, which has just raised close to $3 million in venture financing, is working on a software tool that can analyze speech and, based on the tone of a person’s voice, determine qualities like arrogance or annoyance, or both.

Microsoft recently revealed the Xbox One, the next generation version of its flagship game console, which includes an update of Kinect, its motion-tracking device that lets people control games by moving their hands and bodies. The new Kinect, which goes on sale later this year, includes a higher-definition camera capable of tracking fine skeletal and muscular changes in the body and face .The machine can already detect the physics behind bodily movements, and calculate the force behind a punch or the height of a jump.

In addition, one of the Kinect’s new sensors uses infrared technology to track a player’s heartbeats. That could eventually help the company detect when a player’s pulse is racing during a fitness contest – and from excitement after winning a game. The possibilities for more immersive, interactive play are mind-boggling.

Albert Penello, a senior director of product planning at Microsoft, says the company intends to use that data to give designers insight into how people feel when playing its games – a kind of feedback loop that can help shape future offerings and experiences. He says Microsoft takes privacy very seriously and will require game developers to receive explicit permission from Xbox One owners before using the data. Microsoft says games could even adapt in real time to players’ physical response, amping up the action if they aren’t stimulated enough, or tamping it down if it’s too scary. “We are trying to open up game designers to the mind of the players,” Penello said. “Are you scared or are you laughing?”

Eventually, he said, the technology embedded in the Kinect camera could be used for a broader range of applications, including tracking reactions while someone is looking at ads or shopping online, in the hope of understanding what is or isn’t capturing the person’s interest. (Some companies have experimented with technologies like eye-tracking software to see what parts of commercials draw the most attention from viewers.)

Endless sets of data points can be used to track moods.

Online media companies like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon already have access to real-time consumer sentiment, knowing which chapters, parts of songs, movies and TV shows people love, hate, skip and like to re-watch. Such data were used to engineer the popular online Netflix series “House of Cards,” whose creators had access to data about people’s television viewing habits.

So it is not much of a leap to imagine Kinect-like sensors being used to create new entertainment experiences.

The possibilities go far beyond that. Prerna Gupta, chief product officer at Smule, a development studio that makes mobile games, spoke about the subject at South by Southwest, the conference in Austin, Texas, in March. She called her talk “Apps of the Future: Instagram for Cyborgs,” and gazed far into the future of potential applications.

She says she thinks industries like health care may be revolutionized by emotionally aware technology.

“Tracking how our bodies are responding throughout the day could allow you to tailor your life according to what’s happening to your body throughout the day,” she said. It could allow nutritionist to carefully build meal plans for clients, or for doctors to come up with more efficient medical treatments. Of course, the range of ethical and privacy concerns is enormous.

Clive Thompson, author of a forthcoming book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” says that these exciting possibilities need to be explored very carefully.

He said an insurance company, for example, might want to know its customers’ moods – so it can raise their fees if they show signs of becoming depressed or sick. And employers might want to know when their staff members are bored, so they can give them more work or reprimand them if their attention wanders during an important meeting. He wondered whether we would all become better at masking our emotions if we knew that we were being watched and analyzed.

“We are talking about massive archives of personal data that are really revealing,” Mr. Thompson said. “Not to mention that there is definitely something unsettling about emotion recognition becoming another part of our lives that is archived and scrutinized.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, June 15, 2013