The Null Device


Have you ever wondered where all the money from European nationals' VAT goes? Well, some of it is spent on buying up surplus wine and distilling it into fuel and disinfectant, to prevent a glut that would drive wine prices down and paralyse the roadways of Europe with roadblocks of indignant French winemakers:

The Commission's announcement that it would spend €131 million to distil 430 million bottles of French wine and 371 million bottles of Italian wine into fuel was met with protests by French wine growers, who demanded that European taxpayers should buy 1.1 billion bottles of their produce.

(Quake in terror at that fearsome sense of entitlement. C'est tres formidable!)

Such "crisis distillations" are becoming increasingly common, with the commission spending about €500 million last year turning wine into petrol, and viticulturists now producing wine knowing that it will never be drunk. Nearly a quarter of all Spanish wine now ends up being used for industrial purposes.
Much of the problem comes down to competition from wines from places like Australia and Chile, which are produced using more modern, mechanised techniques and are consequently cheaper and more consistent in quality. (Apparently, making wine in France is 50 times more labour-intensive than doing so in Australia.) The French winemakers are, understandably, having trouble competing with this, which faces them with a choice: make sacrifices and ruthlessly streamline to better compete or whine and demand that the government protects them. Of course, in fine dirigiste tradition, they chose the latter. Good thing that the former eastern-bloc nations have joined the EU, expanding its tax base to pay for all that wine.

(I wonder how much the price of oil would have to rise for turning surplus wine into fuel to become economically viable as a replacement.)

corruption eu france the european wine lake 0

YouTube video of the day: a kitten climbs onto a MacBook, inadvertently triggers FrontRow (the media-player application), starts pouncing on the flying icons, and eventually starts iTunes.

(via Gizmodo) cats mac video youtube 0

US forces and Iraqi authorities have announced that bloodthirsty hostage-beheading/civilian-massacring "holy man" Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead, having been killed in an air strike yesterday:

The head of US-led forces in Iraq, General George Casey, said Zarqawi was killed at 1815 on Wednesday, in an air strike against an "isolated safe house... approximately 8km (five miles) north of Baquba".
Apparently the US$25m reward for information leading to his whereabouts bore fruit, leading the US Air Force to his location; his remains were subsequently identified by fingerprint and facial recognition, so presumably he won't reappear in a video taunting the Zionist-Crusader-Infidels and promising new waves of blood-curdling atrocities for the glory of God. Of course, that's not saying that others won't now start jockeying to take his place.

I wonder what will happen to his persona after death; will he become iconified into a sort of Middle Eastern Che Guevara (his brutal reputation may not be an obstacle, now that he's safely dead; after all, Che himself was a murderous totalitarian thug in life, and not the mellow hippie rock-star sex-god most people might imagine, and even Stalin has his fans now), reviled, or forgotten. On the BBC News forum, there is a lot of rejoicing, most particularly from self-identified Iraqis.

And oil prices have fallen on the news, as markets anticipate the possibility of less violence in the region.

abu musab al-zarqawi al-qaeda che guevara terrorism 0

Optical illusion of the day:

Just stare at the dot for 30 seconds. Then, without moving your eyes, move the mouse over the image. It will look like it's in color until you move your eyes.
It does too, it looks like a colour photograph, but snaps back into black and white as soon as you move your eyes, clearing the afterimage from your vision.

(via MindHacks) optical illusions 2

Details have emerged of the One Laptop Per Child machine; that's the cute little green orange laptop designed to be given to children in the developing world, costing US$100 per unit. It has some rather nifty technological and design innovations, specifically tailored for its purpose:

It's got bunny ears - antennae for the 802.11s wireless radios, which are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. The screen in the current prototype is a conventional LCD screen - the screen in the production devices will be roughly the same size, probably slightly larger than the 7.5" screen in the prototype, but will be based around a technique that doesn't require white fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the IEEE article concern the screen, as it's one of the most expensive and power-hungry components of the machine.) The keyboard is about 60% of the size of a conventional keyboard and has calculator-style keys.
The one feature missing from the prototype I saw - the crank. It's been clear - even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early laptop prototype - that a power-generating crank attached to the machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has been focused on power consumption, helped me understand why.
The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some serious magic. When the machine is not in active use, it can act as a mesh node, helping maintain a connectivity cloud over a village or school while drawing only 0.5 watts - the wireless subsystem (a Marvell chip with 100kb of RAM) operates independently of the main processor and can forward packets with the CPU shut down. The machine draws a similar amount of power in ebook mode, using a black and white display. The display IC has a substantial frame buffer - this means it can store a black and white image and display it without any assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save power.
For those wanting one as a toy/a second laptop/a travelling computer, you can't buy one. Though that's probably just as well, as you'd probably find it somewhat disappointing to actually use, unless you're a child. For one, there's the tiny keyboard, the low memory capacity and CPU power, and the rather unbusinesslike orange colour that would get one laughed out of deathmatch parties.

The OLPC is designed to be subversively hackable. The hardware is designed for modifiability (whilst the circuit board will come lightly populated, there are spaces where memory, add-ons and extra ports can be added, and one of the design considerations is wide pitch, to make it easier to repair, modify or cannibalise dead machines to make working ones). Also, the built-in software, which runs on Linux, ships with full development tools and extensively uses the ideas of open-source and wiki content:

For expert users who want to develop on the system, the laptop will ship with gcc, gtk, and the other stuff you need to build and distribute software. In addition, the software will include three development environments: Python, Javascript and Logowiki.
Logowiki, from what I've seen of it, is amazingly cool. It starts from a collection of wiki pages, like Wikipedia, and treats pages as computational objects. This means that the Wikipedia page on Logo would run Logo, letting you try out functions and move the turtle around. This opens up some amazing possibilities - wiki pages about physics that include programmable models that help you understand acceleration or momentum, for instance. And, indeed, you can come onto logowiki and play with little programs that build spirals or calculate Pi.
The wiki concept isn't just a neat hack; it's also a meta-level end-run of sorts around any censorious or repressive tendencies the governments which buy and populate these machines may have:
Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another reason - they're part of the subversive strategy behind the machine. The OLPC team won't have control over what content is loaded onto the laptop in different countries - that's the decision of individual education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how kids interact with schoolbooks.
So if the Taliban or Kim Jong Il want to buy a few containers of machines and cripple them to make them incapable of being used in blasphemous or ideologically impure ways, they're better off licensing Microsoft's alternative system, which takes a more managed approach to freedom and creative play. Perhaps the DRM systems in MS's solution (which, I'm sure, will be nicely prettified to teach children how to be well-behaved citizens of the global marketplace) can also be used to prevent play from veering off in blasphemous or seditious directions.

(via worldchanging) education olpc society tech 2