The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'tech'

2016/9/9

So the Apple Event revealed what everybody feared: the headphone socket is dead. The connector is being removed from future iPhones, because “courage”. In its stead, Apple will start shipping wired headphones with their proprietary Lightning connector, and (for the time being, at least) adaptors for your existing headphones (which just became “legacy” headphones). The adapters are as you'd expect: a longish cable with a socket on one end, just cumbersome enough to encourage you to dump yesteryear's technology and get with the programme; they also prevent you from charging your phone whilst using the headphone socket, but there's a $40 double adapter from Belkin you can buy that will let you do this. Meanwhile, William Gibson has noted that, soon, his early cyberpunk novels may sound slightly more anachronistic, with the phrase “jacked in” having a ring of almost Victorian archaism.

It is not clear how long the headphone socket has a future on Apple's other product lines; it'll be interesting to see whether the iPad (which is not as constrained for space) retains it. (They could argue that losing the socket would make it more likely to survive poolside spills, and if that fails, fall back to “because we said so, that's why”.) The MacBook series might retain headphone sockets for longer (even Apple's stripped-down new MacBook has two ports: the headphone port and a USB-C port for everything else), though perhaps its days are numbered even there.

For those with older iPhones missing out on this new development there are Apple Plugs to stop up those unsightly old-fashioned headphone sockets; whereas, if you want a phone that has a proper headphone socket, you can always switch to Android. (Correction: if you want a phone that has a proper headphone socket and don't particularly care about audio performance, you can switch to Android.)

(Another theory about Apple's antipathy to analogue audio connections has to do with DRM; that, in order to do deals with all-powerful record labels, demanding more end-to-end control over their precious intellectual property, Apple are moving to do what the recording industry had failed to achieve before: to close the analogue hole, making possible restricted audio formats which not only cannot be made into perfect digital copies, but can't be played into anything producing a clean analogue audio signal. Tim Cook has dismissed this rumour as a “conspiracy theory”, and said that Apple have no such plans. If there's any truth in such a theory, there would have to be several telltale indicators. For such a system to work, firstly Apple's system would have to distinguish between secure audio devices (presumably the sealed end-to-end digital headphones) and insecure ones (which include Apple's headphone adapter). Secondly, the licensing specification for Apple's Lightning technology when applied to headphones would have to specify that there cannot be a tappable signal path between the Lightning circuitry which decodes (and presumably decrypts) and the speaker drivers that convert it into sound. The headphones would have to be designed to literally fail to decode an audio signal if dismantled or tampered with, so that a pirate couldn't tap the voltages going to the speaker drivers. If the specification goes into such details, then perhaps it's time to worry.

The other announcement was that, as well as the proprietary Lightning wired headphones, Apple are selling a new set of wireless headphones named the AirBuds, which are probably more interesting than what they sound like. They charge by induction in a special container, fit in the ear, and connect to iPhones (or other devices) by Bluetooth, along with a proprietary Apple pairing protocol. They also contain microphones (for voice calling) and accelerometers, and have a few subtle features, like the ability to call up Siri on a connected phone by tapping the earpiece. The technology powering them is a new Apple chip named the W1, whose exact capabilities and specifications are unknown.

At the moment, the AirBuds are superficially uninteresting; they're essentially a nicely-designed, semi-proprietary Bluetooth headset. However, they are a trojan horse for something potentially more interesting. With their array of sensors (microphones and accelerometers) and signal processing and communications capabilities, they are clearly not a simple audio converter (like the chip in the Lightning cable on Apple's new wired headphones) but a small wearable computer running some kind of firmware; sort of like an Apple Watch for the ears. Both the hardware and the firmware are at the very first version, and so are limited in scope, but the potential's there. It's quite likely that a firmware upgrade at some point may add more functions, and a hardware revision may expand its capabilities even further. By version 3, AirBuds may be running something named airOS, with a third-party app store; there will be apps that run entirely on a set of earphones. One can imagine early standalone apps being things from talking clocks and ambient music/sound generators to self-contained versions of Zombies, Run!; if the AirBuds end up getting other capabilities, such as GPS, of course, the possibilities expand considerably. And then there is the possibility that they may eventually have their own mobile data connection, independent of a tethered iPhone; the main bottleneck is the requirement for a SIM card, and Apple have been pushing for the SIM card's replacement with a data-based credential of some sort, something that would allow far smaller devices to connect to phone networks. Perhaps eventually, the pocket-sized iPhone itself could end up going the way of the PalmPilot, replaced by a body-area network of ear- and wrist-based devices, communicating with each other by Bluetooth and sharing a mobile data plan.

apple drm iphone tech 0

2016/8/18

This week I was at The Conference in Malmö; here are a few of the things I learned:

  • People are moving away from social media (like Facebook/Twitter) in favour of 1-to-1 messaging apps (and group apps) like WhatsApp and Slack. This is partly due to messaging being more immediate, and partly due to social concerns such as privacy and the need to be able to engage differently with different people one knows (i.e., your coworkers don't need to see your family photos). In some places, there are businesses which run entirely on messaging platforms: gyms whose only point of contact is a phone number linked to WhatsApp, and property transactions in which the legal documents include screenshots of banking app transfer screens.
  • Minecraft is teaching kids a lot of useful skills, from digital logic (building machines using redstone gates) and computational/design thinking, to social skills from self-organising build teams to designing and enforcing social contracts to protect from griefers. A big part of its success is because it is not a top-down product handed down from the authorities, like, say, Scratch or Swift Playgrounds, but something the kids can do whilst out of sight of grown-ups (much like the Commodore 64 back in the day).
  • There is a lot happening with generative art. The most familiar form, describing a space of potential outputs parametrically and searching the parameter space by one means or another, is common enough, and appears in settings from art installations to web apps Twitter bots. Now, advances in neural networks and deep learning are making an impact. Style transfer (think apps like Prisma, the photo-styling app for mobile phones, but also software for cleaning up rough sketches or colourising black-and-white images) has the potential to democratise or commodify (depending on whom you ask) artistic style. Meanwhile, deep learning with multiple media can produce synaesthetic examples, like the following output of a network trained on the text of romance novels and subsequently fed an image of a sumo match:
  • Smart cities, digitised to the millimetre with LIDAR, surveilled by drone, and managed by app, promise an end to the long nightmare of politics. Now a city can be run from above by impartial, objective algorithms—Plato's Philosopher King rendered in code. Everything in its right place, every space accounted for, all inhabitants managed with the efficiency of an Amazon warehouse, and all the dogs in the city are walked by drone. Until feral ravers disrupt the city's fiducial architecture (the patterned markers which guide the drones), conceal themselves from its managerial gaze with dazzle make-up and asymmetric haircuts, hijack the self-driving taxis and party in the spaces the machine does not see.
  • Then again, one objective true point of view is a myth. The Jesuits found this out when, in an attempt to Christianise China, they tried to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of European-style one-point perspective over the aerial perspective used in Chinese art (which they saw as backward and inferior, for its ignorance of the point of view).
  • The term “Perspective Collision” describes what happens when designed objects inadvertently reveal their designers' limited perspectives. Examples include camera film not showing dark-skinned people properly, or air conditioning in buildings being optimised for men. This is related to the Malkovich Bias, the idea that everybody uses technology the same way one does.
  • Animal-free animal products are starting to appear. There now exist genetically engineered yeasts which, when fed with sugar, produce egg albumen and bovine casein, i.e., egg white and cow's milk. These are identical to the real products on a molecular level, and can be used for all the things real egg white/milk can be used for (as opposed to current animal-product substitutes, which tend to be specific to various uses). Actual animal-free meat is taking a little longer (growing more than thin layers of meat requires some form of structural scaffolding to feed the cells). This is known as cellular agriculture, and, once it matures, will work a lot like brewing: artisans/craftspeople managing a technical process.
  • Stereotypical images used to represent the idea of “young people”: cartoon figures with shaggy/spiky hair and horizontally striped shirts; strobing photographs of wild-looking rock concerts.
  • National Geographic, famous in popular culture for publishing photos of bare-breasted “exotic” non-Western women (something it has been doing since the 19th century), published its first photo of a bare-breasted white woman in 2016
There are videos here; I'll be watching the sessions I missed.

art culture generative art ideas minecraft social software tech 0

2015/8/18

There is an article in The Quietus (written by Pipettes svengali turned avant-garde impresario Bobby Barry, no less) about the recent revival of analogue modular synthesizers. You know; the room-sized hulking behemoths, last seen on stage some time around the mid-1970s being operated by becaped prog-rock virtuosos and soon to be displaced by Minimoogs, then the wave of compact non-modular keyboards from Japan, and finally laptops. Well, now there is a new wave of modular synthesizers. Unlike the modulars of old, the components are standardised (based around a standard named Eurorack), strictly analogue (at least in how they interface with each other), and selling like hotcakes:

Carlo Krug from Schneider’s Buero reckons that the last few years have seen a three- or four-fold increase in the amount of manufacturers bringing out Eurorack modules. One poster on the Muff Wiggler forum, where various correspondents have been trying to put together a timeline of Eurorack history, suggested that the number has risen so sharply in recent years that, “in 2045 the curve will go completely vertical. The modules will start making themselves.”

Other than being more compact, the Eurorack wave is not your grandfather's Moog in other ways. Advancements in technology have made it easier to develop more complicated modules, meaning that those not wedded to a Moogian subtractive-synthesis purism are free to go wild with all kinds of hitherto unimaginable modules:

Even back in the 60s, there was already a division opening up between the so-called ‘East Coast’ approach to synthesis, epitomised by Moog, and the ‘West Coast’ school of inventors like Donald Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin. The former tends to be based on ‘subtractive synthesis’, where ... (t)hings tend to have one function and one output and it’s largely eared towards being played with a keyboard. Buchla and Serge did things differently. They made synths controlled by touch pads and joysticks with weird and wonderful modules bearing named like ‘Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator’ or ‘Source Of Uncertainty’. Such machines have always been crazy expensive but, according to Lynch, new manufacturers like Make Noise and Wiard are “making the Buchla end of things more available now.”

In fact, there's probably no reason why the modules would have to remain analogue internally; one could conceivably fit in, say, an Arduino-based sequencer, or if one was sufficiently perverted, a Raspberry Pi running a Pd patch or something.

The new modules (and the synths one builds from them) also cost less than their distant predecessors, with the falling cost of electronics, at least in monetary terms, though they're still not cheap; simple modules might cost around £60, with more complicated ones going for hundreds, and the cost has a way of building up as one buys enough to build a viable synthesizer. A more pressing constraint, however, may be space (especially in cities like London, where the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market is aggressively adjusting the amount of space available to ordinary people ever downwards, and where the London Modular shop is reportedly doing a roaring trade). A modular synthesizer, by its nature, takes up space (physical space, the old-fashioned kind; measured in square metres, not megabytes).

In the Berlin of recent years, with its cheap, spacious squats in the hollowed-out ex-Communist east and abundant low-cost slack, one could conceive of taking up a hobby of playing with modular synthesizers, and keeping at it long enough to make some minimal techno which looks as impressive as it sounds. In white-hot oligarchical London, one does wonder who is buying all these Eurorack modules. I wonder if their profligate bulk does not make themselves a status symbol in and of themselves, making them attractive to a certain type of young finance alpha-predator seeking to demonstrate to his Tinder conquests that (a) despite working at Goldman, he is still a bohemian creative spirit at heart, and, more subtly, (b) that working at Goldman enables him to afford the living space in which all those blinkenlights can be set up, tastefully overlooking the city skyline. Or perhaps an older target market; with middle-aged executive types who spent their youths necking Es at raves buying them, in the way that one might have once bought that expensive, beautiful-sounding electric guitar one was fated to never have the time to actually learn to play. (It has been commented that, these days, the modular synthesizer is the Harley-Davidson of electronic music, more showpiece than workhorse.) One or two may end up in the foyers of creative marketing agencies, or perhaps at some point Foxtons or someone similar will buy a job lot and array them in their offices, as part of a campaign about how, you know, edgy and creative and hip London is. In any case, I wonder what proportion of the modular synthesizers sold in London will actually end up being played for any non-trivial amount of time.

london music synthesisers tech 0

2014/9/29

There's a piece in The Economist on the challenges of translating technological terms into minority languages, particularly ones whose speakers have lived traditional agricultural/fishing lifestyles until very recently, where the vocabulary tends to be more concrete and specific, and finding local words for new technical concepts requires some uses of poetic metaphor:

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.
Of course, the other alternative would be just to use loanwords from English (or some other common vehicular language), possibly adapting them to the grammar of the language, which apparently ends up happening informally a lot of the time.

(via MeFi) language tech 0

2013/11/1

What happens when computers get cheap enough to be effectively disposable? Well, criminals start embedding penetration servers into dumb electrical goods like irons and kettles. The low-powered machines (which could consist of an exotic embedded OS running on something tiny, though these days, it could just as easily be a Linux distribution running on an ARM or MIPS system-on-a-chip, kitted out with standard Linux hax0r tools) then attempt to connect to any machines within range by WiFi or Bluetooth, find security holes and take them over. Which is the sort of thing you'd expect first-tier intelligence agencies to attempt to try on high-value targets, but it now seems to be in the hands of ordinary criminals.

crime gibson's law hacks russia tech 1

2013/10/30

The Cynictrain Manifesto, an updating of the techno-boosterist Cluetrain Manifesto fourteen years on:

1. Markets are conversations in much the same way as the school bully picking on the disabled queer kid is friendship.
5. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. But NSA wiretapping subverts hyperlinks, so we’ve got that covered.
7. The community of discourse is the market. And if a particular community of discourse doesn’t like being the market, we’ll fucking well make them into a market.
8. We’re all down with conversation and social and community. Until we make enough money that we can delete your wedding photos, get Google stock and fuck off to a private island.
14. The people who invented a service to drive rich people around San Francisco in a Mercedes should be the people who decide on global transport policy.
30. The new growth market in our industry is casual game apps. We’ve built numerous companies on pinching the pocket money of particularly stupid kids. At least apps don’t contain sugar.

(via davidgerard) cyberculture dot-com boom humour neoliberalism online tech 0

2013/10/1

Jeroen of Spritesmods (who previously built a miniature arcade machine out of a Raspberry Pi) has an interesting piece on the possibilities of hacking the controllers in hard drives; most hard drives these days contain embedded ARM-based systems, often with reasonably powerful processors. (One WD hard drive had two ARM Feroceon cores, similar to ones used in network-attached storage appliances.) It is possible to reprogram the firmware in hard drive controllers, which has a number of defensive, offensive and other applications, from silently patching system files to insert exploits to detecting attempts at drive imaging (such as by police, customs officials or spies) and returning corrupted or falsified data. (I wonder whether algorithmically generating a FAT32 filesystem, empty except for one file named GOATSE.JPG, would be feasible within the memory footprint.) Also, given that broken hard drives with perfectly functional controllers are literally free (they're legally electronic waste that costs money to dispose of correctly), they could possibly serve as a source of free microcontrollers for various projects, such as hobby robots or circuit-bent musical instruments (assuming that one figures out how to make them control things other than hard drives).

hacks nifty security tech 0

2013/9/25

Apparently Thailand these days is full of homeless European/American blokes; mostly middle-aged, and often alcoholic, they spend their time drinking and sleeping rough on beaches, which is considerably less idyllic than the big-rock-candy-mountain image the description evokes:

Steve, who declined to give his surname over fears that his long-expired visa could land him in jail, said he has spent two years sleeping rough on Jomtien Beach, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok. “I’ve gone 14 days without food before. I lived off just tea and coffee,” he told The Independent. After his marriage of 33 years ended seven years ago, Steve began regular visits to Thailand before setting up permanently in Pattaya, a seaside resort with a sleazy reputation close to Jomtien. “I’m a bit of a sexaholic,” he says, also admitting a fondness for alcohol.
Paul Garrigan, a long-time Thai resident, isn’t surprised by the growing problem of homeless and stranded Westerners. The 44-year-old spent five years “drinking himself to death” in Thailand before giving up alcohol in 2006 and writing a book called Dead Drunk about his ordeal and the expats who have fallen on hard times in the country. He told The Independent: “I’d been living in Saudi Arabia where I worked a nurse but I’ve been an alcoholic since my teens and, after a holiday to Thailand in 2001, I decided I may as well drink myself to death on a beautiful island in Thailand. Like many people I taught English at a school but spent much of my time on islands such as Ko Samui where I could start drinking early in the morning at not be judged.
Meanwhile in the US, some homeless people are apparently surviving on Bitcoin; spending their days in public libraries earning the coins by doing vaguely sketchy online work (watching videos to bump up YouTube counters is mentioned; perhaps armies of the destitute to solve CAPTCHAs, artisanally hand-spam blog comments or otherwise laboriously defeat anti-bot countermeasures could make economic sense in today's climate too) and then cashing out through gift card services. Meanwhile, homelessness charities are embracing Bitcoin:
Meanwhile, Sean’s Outpost has opened something it calls BitHOC, the Bitcoin Homeless Outreach Center, a 1200-square-foot facility that doubles as a storage space and homeless shelter. The lease – and some of the food it houses — is paid in bitcoins through a service called Coinbase. For gas and other supplies, Sean’s Outpost taps Gyft, the giftcard app Jesse Angle and his friends use to purchase pizza.
(I suspect that the photo of the homeless man “mining Bitcoins” on the park bench on his laptop is mislabelled; wouldn't all the easily minable Bitcoins have been tapped out, with the computational power required to mine any further Bitcoins essentially amount to already having thousands of dollars of high-end graphics cards lying around and using them to heat your house, rather than something one could do with an old battery-operated laptop on a park bench?)

bitcoin economics gibson's law homelessness society tech thailand usa 5

2013/9/20

Edward C++hands, or an essay by Bartosz Milewski on why C++ is harmful to progress:

I’ve been looking for a good analogy of what programming in C++ feels like and I remembered this 1990 Tim Burton movie, Edward Scissorhands.
Having scissors for hands in not all that bad. Edward has many talents: he can, for instance, create stunning dog hairdos.
I often have these kinds of thoughts after attending C++ conferences: this time it was Going Native 2013. The previous year, the excitement was all about the shiny new C++11 Standard. This year it was more of a reality check. Don’t get me wrong — there were many stunning dog hairdos on display (I mean C++ code that was elegant and simple) but the bulk of the conference was about how to avoid mutilation and how to deliver first aid in case of accidental amputation.
The gist of the article is that, because of backward compatibility requirements with C (also known as “high-level assembly language”), C++ is a deathtrap, with numerous potential pitfalls and even more schemes to mitigate them, each with its own flaws and shortcomings:
The C++ lore is that you should avoid naked pointers, avoid arrays, avoid delete. So the remedy for the lameness of malloc is operator new, which is also broken because it returns a dangerous pointer and pointers are bad. We all know (and have scars on our faces to prove it) that you should use the Standard Library containers and smart pointers whenever possible. Oh, and use value semantics for passing things around. No wait! Value semantics comes with a performance penalty because of excessive copying. So what about shared_ptr and vectors of shared_ptr? But that adds the overhead of reference counting! No, here’s a new idea: move semantics and rvalue references.
Milewski's solution is to move to a functional language like Haskell, or if you can't, write your C++ code as if it were in Haskell:
Of course, you might recognize all these pro-concurrency and parallelism features as functional programming — immutability and pure functions in particular. At the risk of sounding repetitive: Haskell is way ahead of the curve with respect to parallelism, including GPU programming. That was the reason I so easily converted to Haskell after years of evangelizing good programming practices in C++. Every programmer who’s serious about concurrency and parallelism should learn enough Haskell to understand how it deals with it. There is an excellent book by Simon Marlow, Parallel and Concurrent Programming in Haskell. After you read it, you will either start using functional techniques in your C++ programming, or realize what an impedance mismatch there is between parallel programming and an imperative language, and you will switch to Haskell.

c++ functional programming programming programming languages tech 1

2013/9/15

For what it's worth, I have written an article about the technical details of the Australian senate preference visualisation I built a few weeks ago. (TL;DR: Python/BeautifulSoup for data scraping/crunching; JavaScript/D3 for the visualisation.)

elsewhere self-promotion tech 0

2013/7/18

Nine Traits of the Veteran UNIX Admin, a quasi-humorous list of grizzled-neckbeard stereotypes:

1: We don't use sudo
2: We use vi, not emacs, and definitely not pico or nano
9: Rebooting is almost never an option
And in reply, Nine traits of a modern UNIX admin (first draft), by Justin Dugger, illustrating how things have changed in the age of cheap virtualisation and git everywhere:
1. Sudo is mandatory. Not because we make mistakes but because it's easier to audit. And because you shouldn't need to poke around as root, since you have a functioning configuration management tool.
2. Vim, emacs, Eclipse, it's all fine, because your job involves making changes to a git repository from your local workstation and pushing to configuration management.
9. When in doubt, reformat. Servers should be cattle, not pets. They don't have special names, and when one gets sick, you take it out back and shoot it!
(I agree with the vi thing, and still use it for things which are too small to fire up SublimeText for. Or which have to be done through a ssh connection or text console. There is often a terminal running vi open on my MacBook.)

(via MeFi) tech text editors unix vi 7

2013/4/18

In Iceland almost everyone is, to some extent, related to everyone else. Iceland also shares with its neighbours in Scandinavia fairly liberated and casual attitudes to sex. The downside of this is the possibility of inadvertently going home from a Reykjavík bar with a cousin, not to mention the prospect of running into exes and former one-night stands at family gatherings in the future. But fear not, because now there's an app for that:

An online registry, Íslendingabók ('The Book of Icelanders') holds information about the families of about 720,000 individuals who were born in Iceland at some point in time. Today, the population in Iceland is just about 320,000. The database can be found on islendingabok.is and everyone registered in the database has free access to it.
Three engineers made an app for the 'Íslendingabók' database. People can now easily, and on the go, look up how they are related to other Icelanders. And a precious feature, using the bump technology, allows people that meet to just bump their phones together, to instantly see if they are too related to take things any further. The engineers' slogan for this feature was: "Bump the app before you bump in bed".
The app is Android-only, and only works if you're an Icelandic citizen or registered resident with access to the database.

gibson's law iceland sex tech 2

2013/4/11

The street finds its own uses for things: Burglars are now starting to use cheap, concealable surveillance cameras for staking out properties.

"This one has already been camouflaged," said detective Ben Singleton, holding what looks like a piece of bark that would go unnoticed in most yards. It's actually a video camera not much bigger than a matchbox, and it's activated by a motion detector. Such cameras turned up in March planted outside several upscale homes in Dalworthington Gardens.
The detective said it turned out to be surveillance for a long-running, sophisticated burglary scheme. But at first, police feared it might even be a kidnapping plot to take a wealthy person captive.

(via Schneier) crime gibson's law security tech 1

2013/4/10

Meanwhile in Australia, the right-wing opposition (and, at this point, almost inevitably the next government come September) has launched its alternative to the Labor government's National Broadband Network policy. It's an improvement on their previous policy (“rip it out, fill in the trenches and let the free market provide”), but nonetheless still falls well short. While Labor's network would bring high-speed fibre-optic connections straight to the home, giving 100 megabits per second (increasing to gigabit speeds), the Coalition's cut-rate plan would extend fibre only to boxes on the kerb, relying on a largely deteriorating copper infrastructure for the “last mile”, topping out at a theoretical 25 megabits per second (though that would be in ideal conditions; as with ADSL, distance from the node and cable condition would affect this). It would achieve this at about 2/3 of the cost of the all-fibre NBN. Or, the Pareto Principle: You're Doing It Wrong.

And while 25Mbps is an improvement on what we have now, and good enough for the sorts of things people do today (watching videos, shopping online, playing games), to say it will be good enough betrays a lack of imagination, or a deliberate narrowing of horizons that is all too familiar in Australian politics. Australia has always been the lucky country, borne at first on the sheep's back and now on Chinese demand for iron ore, which has led to a sclerotic apathy in terms of any sort of forward planning, in particular infrastructure and development. Combined with the stultifying conservatism of the Australian Right from Howard onwards, with its quasi-edenic visions of the conformistic white-picket-fenced utopia of the golden age of Menzies, the implicit message is clear: we are not Korea or Finland. We don't have a Nokia or a Samsung. We're a simple country. Our place in the world is to dig stuff up, put it on big ships and send it to China, and then to go home and relax in front of our big-screen TVs with a tinny of VB. That is all. It's a comfortable life, but we shouldn't get ideas beyond our station. All we need from the internet is to be able to shop online, pay the odd bill and download last week's episode of Jersey Shore a bit faster, and two rusty tin cans and a length of barbed wire fence is good enough for that. Well, that coupled with the sort of facile, nihilistically short-sighted anti-government rhetoric (infrastructure investment is “waste”; you can't prove it's not, so there) that the Abbott government-in-waiting has been borrowing from the US Tea Party.

The Coalition's policy has been roundly criticised by experts and mocked online as “fraudband”. However, all that means zip to the average outer-suburban swinging voters who get 100% of their information from the Murdoch press, right-wing shock jocks and/or 30-minute TV news programmes which are mostly sport, celebrity gossip and wacky human-interest stories, and who actually decide elections. So it looks like Australia, a country which coined the term “tyranny of distance” and was an early adopter of everything from telegraphy to mobile phones, will be stuck behind, paying off a 20th-century system and living much as the generation before them did, just because the bogans hate Julia Gillard.

australia infrastructure internet politics stupidity tech tories 1

2013/4/7

The next thing after the study of human-computer interaction might be feline-computer interaction. Now there are iPad games and painting apps ostensibly designed specifically for cats, and hackathons to develop apps for cats, and now, on the first of April, HCI guru Jakob Nielsen has published a study into Essential Design Principles for Felines. The study found that Fitts' Law holds for cats as it does for humans, but that apps for cats require larger tap targets, should respond to swiping and use blinking and animation copiously, and should have a pause mode triggered by the user lying on the tablet. Unsurprisingly, the game Fruit Ninja performed fairly well with feline users.

While it is possible to write apps for existing tablets optimised for feline users, I suspect that human-oriented tablet hardware may be somewhat suboptimal for them. Certainly sound systems designed for humans (whose hearing range extends to barely above 20kHz when young, and deteriorates with age) would sound muffled to an animal whose hearing range goes well into the ultrasonic (apparently up to 75kHz). Designing a screen for a cat's eyes would probably result in a very different device than one for humans (though, since humans have to develop and debug them, there would have to be some overlap). Needless to say, scratchproofing would also be a consideration. Also, it remains to be determined whether there is any way of allowing a cat to select different apps (or different activities) from a device, or indeed whether a non-tool-using animal such as a cat could conceive of a tablet as being anything other than a random phenomenon it reacts to.

cats design hci tech 0

2013/2/2

In a play for the wallets of synth fetishists and authenticity-hungry hipsters, Korg have released a new edition of their MS-20 analogue synth. The MS-20 Mini is slightly smaller, has a USB MIDI interface and uses 3.5mm plugs for its patch leads rather than 6.5mm ones, but otherwise is identical to the 1978 MS-20, with the exception of a slightly cleaner voltage-controlled amplifier. It follows a number of software recreations (including an iPad app named iMS-20 and various softsynth plug-ins for use in music software).

Actual vintage synth geek Tom Ellard (of 1980s industrial electropop band Severed Heads) is less than impressed, precisely because of its authenticity:

There was a time slightly after the dinosaurs that I owned a small wall of KORG. There was two MS20′s, an MS50, a SQ10 and a billion of those short patch cables. And you know, it was pretty grand for 1980 something. For 2013, it’s… well… gee what a nice watch, does it tell the time?
But here we go again with a reissue of Old and Safe for the New Conservatives. Already been asked if I am going to buy a new midget MS20. I bought a MiniNova instead – maybe I made the wrong choice. Let’s be scientific about this:
Patch Management
MiniNova: there’s four banks of 256 patches which can be sorted into categories and saved back to a patch librarian over a USB connection.
KORG MS20: photocopy pages from the manual and draw the approximate positions of the knobs with a pencil.
Advantage: KORG for being legendary and analogue.
I keep reading the articles and hearing the talk and wondering if people use this stuff for making music. Or does it go next to the “Christmas Tree”? You know, that elaborate, expensive modular system that people build to look fantastic but sounds like a Roland preset that goes bwooooouuuw?

authenticity korg music retro synthesisers tech 1

2013/1/31

An interesting article on the genesis of the Roland TR-808, and how Roland's famous line of drum machines owes its existence to an American musician and circuit-bending pioneer named Don Lewis:

Raised with a rich gospel tradition in Dayton, he brought his myriad musical talents to San Francisco in the ‘60s, where he was a staple in nightclubs. His one-man-band became known for its wild array of electronic instrumentation, which was still a novelty in those days — a small truckload of synthesizers and early rhythm boxes accompanied Don’s richly-vocoded tenor to make a sound no one had heard but everyone liked.
Don had been hired by the Hammond organ company to demo its products on the show floor. He was using an Ace Tone rhythm box (which was distributed by Hammond at the time) as his percussion section. "I had modified my Ace Tone to death, changed all the rhythms because none of them fit my style of playing. I also wired it through the expression pedal of the Hammond, so I could get [percussion] accents, which no one was doing then. After the show this man from Japan came up and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘that looks like my rhythm unit but it doesn’t sound like my rhythm unit! How did you do that?’" It was Ikutaro Kakehashi, the president of Ace Tone.
Kakehashi went on to found Roland Corporation, capitalising on Lewis' suggestion for a rhythm box with modifiable rhythms (or, what later became known as a drum machine), and hiring Lewis as an engineer, to work on projects including the CR-68 and, eventually, the TR-808.
On a visit to Roland’s Tokyo offices in the late ‘70s, Don was working with chief engineer Tadao Kikumoto. "That day he had a bread board of an 808 and was showing me what was going on inside — he sort of bumped up against the breadboard and spilled some tea in there and all of a sudden he turned it on and got this pssh sound — it took them months to figure out how to reproduce it, but that ended up being the crash cymbal in the 808. There was nothing else like it. Nobody could touch it."
The article also describes Lewis' homemade Live Electronic Orchestra, the complex of ancient synthesizers and other circuits which Lewis played live back in the 1960s, and which has been restored for a special performance at the NAMM music trade fair:
It’s a one-off work of art, a kind of who’s who of vintage synthesizers networked to one another through connection standards the industry has long forgotten but Don is still fluent in. A series of hand-built buffer boards and timing modules allow an Arp Pro Soloist to talk to a Promars Computronic and a Roland Jupiter-4. The Hammond expression pedal can control a variety of parameters for any of the sounds coming through the Boss KM-6A mixer, whose channels Don built a remote control panel for right into the body of the three-stage organ. It’s basically a 1977 copy of Ableton Live that weighs two tons, doesn’t have a EULA, and does a heart-melting rendition of "Amazing Grace."

don lewis hacks history music synthesisers tech tr-808 0

2012/12/11

The latest in extreme burrito delivery systems: the Burrito Bomber, an Arduino-powered drone which will drop a burrito on a parachute to your GPS coordinates:

It works like this:
  1. You connect to the Burrito Bomber web-app and order a burrito. Your smartphone sends your current location to our server, which generates a waypoint file compatible with the drone's autopilot.
  2. We upload the waypoint file to the drone and load your burrito in to our custom made Burrito Delivery Tube.
  3. The drone flies to your location and releases the Burrito Delivery Tube. The burrito parachutes down to you, the drone flies itself home, and you enjoy your carne asada.
A bit like the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel, only the authors have actually built it. The only reason for it not being operational (other than questions of whether it'd be economical compared to traditional burrito delivery methods) is because it's not yet legal to commercially operate drone aircraft in the United States.

(via jwz) burritos drones gibson's law hacks tech 0

2012/12/1

This is awesome for more than one reason: The BBC's R&D department has posted a web page recreating various vintage Radiophonic Workshop effects using the Web Audio API, complete with source code and descriptions, both of the historical equipment used and the modern recreation.

audio awesome bbc javascript music radiophonic tech web audio 0

2012/11/29

Meet Nakamatsu Yoshiro, also known as Dr. NakaMats, the veteran Japanese inventor with 3,377 patents to his name and a stream of inventions dating back to 1952, when he invented an early type of floppy disk. Nakamatsu's floppy disk (a wood veneer disc designed to replace punched cards) was not immediately successful, and neither was the digital watch he invented a few years later, though both ideas found their place decades later. (IBM actually licensed Nakamatsu's patents for the floppy disk in 1969, despite having come up with it independently.) Nakamatsu followed these up with a steady stream of inventions; a few have been enormously successful, funding both his elaborate residence (a high-rise building shaped like a floppy disk) in Tokyo and his more out-there inventions:

Among his other creations (he will earnestly tell you) are the CD, the DVD, the fax machine, the taxi meter, the digital watch, the karaoke machine, CinemaScope, spring-loaded shoes, fuel-cell-powered boots, an invisible “B-bust bra,” a water-powered engine, the world’s tiniest air conditioner, a self-defense wig that can be swung at an attacker, a pillow that prevents drivers from nodding off behind the wheel, an automated version of the popular Japanese game pachinko, a musical golf putter that pings when the ball is struck properly, a perpetual motion machine that runs on heat and cosmic energy and...much, much more, much of which has never made it out of the multiplex of his mind.
Dr. NakaMats is 84, though expects to live (and keep inventing) for another 60 years; he puts this down to his carefully controlled lifestyle regimen, which includes limiting sleep to only six hours a night, eating a special low-calorie diet (including a supplement, naturally, of his own invention, Dr. NakaMats' Rebody 55), as well as going on long underwater swims to starve his brain of oxygen, allowing inspiration to strike.

Dr. NakaMats is not without his detractors; some point out exaggerations in his claims (for example, the taxi meter, which he claims to have invented was patented in the US before he was born, and his claims to a perpetual motion machine, if taken at face value, are not compatible with the second law of thermodynamics). And none other than Kawakami Kenji, the founder of the absurdist (and militantly noncommercial) invention praxis of chindogu, has criticised Nakamatsu for his focus on money and self-glorification:

“Real inventions open our hearts and minds, enrich our lives, bring us closer together,” says countryman Kenji Kawakami, the anarchic founder of chindogu—intentionally silly and impractical creations that are not useful, patented or for sale. “Dr. NakaMats is all about money and fame and ego.”

(via MeFi) chindogu creativity eccentrics ideas japan tech 0

2012/11/24

The conservative theocracy of Saudi Arabia is embracing modern technology on its own terms; it has just implemented a tracking system for women, whereby, whenever a woman travels abroad through a Saudi airport or border crossing, her male guardian (and all women in Saudi Arabia, being perpetual minors in law, have those) is informed by text message.

“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or border
So far, the system is just tied into fixed borders, but once the principle that the men who have custody of a woman are entitled to know her whereabouts is accepted, the potential for expansion is huge. For example, the mobile phone network in Saudi Arabia could be configured to store each subscriber's sex and, if they're female, a link to her male guardian, and to allow him to get her phone's location at any moment. (I heard once that the Saudi mobile phone network is already configured to segregate subscribers by gender and disallow women from placing calls to men outside of a short list, though don't have confirmation of this factoid.) Think of it like Apple's “Find My iPhone” feature, only for your wives. But why stop there? Why not a daring programme of IT streamlining, giving male guardians real-time access to any data generated by about the women in their custody, from credit card purchases (with perhaps even an option for the custodian to approve or decline a transaction) to telephone and SMS logs of whom they're communicating with. When one is committed to using modern technology to mediaeval ends, the sky's the limit.

Technology is, however, helping to undermine traditional strictures in other places in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, here is an interview with a Saudi atheist, speaking under the pseudonym Jabir, who says that, with services like Facebook and Twitter, the few closeted atheists in the severely religious country are discovering that there are others who think like them:

“I was shocked to meet older people in their forties and fifties who been hiding their atheism for decades. They said that only recently with the young generation in their twenties had they found other people who think like them and were able to find social group that they can talk and debate about their ideas in.” Jabir politely demurs when asked about the backgrounds of these people; confidentiality and secrecy run deep in the Saudi Arabian atheism milieu.
Yet, it may also, as the political system reacts to these new conditions, be a time of tightening and ever greater social and religious restrictions. The nightmare situation for Jabir is that when the relatively reform-minded King Abdullah dies it will bring about a new monarch who will let the religious police and certain segments of the Saudi community start an aggressive witch-hunt for ‘non-believers’.
Meanwhile, in nearby Qatar, censors are going through Winnie The Pooh picture books and blacking out Piglet, because pigs are unclean in Islam.

atheism censorship gender islam qatar saudi arabia tech theocracy totalitarianism 2

2012/7/21

Coding Horror has a list of new coding jargon; pithy or apposite terms coined to describe things which, for better or worse, recur in programming:

Yoda Conditions: Using if(constant == variable) instead of if(variable == constant), like if(4 == foo). Because it's like saying "if blue is the sky" or "if tall is the man".
A Duck: A feature added for no other reason than to draw management attention and be removed, thus avoiding unnecessary changes in other aspects of the product.
(This pattern recurs in other industries; it's known to illustrators as a “hairy arm”.)
Stringly Typed: A riff on strongly typed. Used to describe an implementation that needlessly relies on strings when programmer & refactor friendly options are available.
Baklava code: Code with too many layers... While thin layers are fine for a pastry, thin software layers don’t add much value, especially when you have many such layers piled on each other. Each layer has to be pushed onto your mental stack as you dive into the code. Furthermore, the layers of phyllo dough are permeable, allowing the honey to soak through. But software abstractions are best when they don’t leak. When you pile layer on top of layer in software, the layers are bound to leak.
Smurf Naming Convention: When almost every class has the same prefix. IE, when a user clicks on the button, a SmurfAccountView passes a SmurfAccountDTO to the SmurfAccountController. The SmurfID is used to fetch a SmurfOrderHistory which is passed to the SmurfHistoryMatch before forwarding to either SmurfHistoryReviewView or SmurfHistoryReportingView. If a SmurfErrorEvent occurs it is logged by SmurfErrorLogger to ${app}/smurf/log/smurf/smurflog.log

programming stupidity tech 0

2012/3/24

One of the dividends of the melting of Arctic ice is on its way; this summer, three flotillas of icebreakers and cable-laying ships will begin laying submarine cables crossing the Arctic, from London to Tokyo. The cables, which will go through Canada's Arctic Archipelago and skirt the Russian north coast, will cost between $600m and $1.5 billion each and will reduce the latency between London and Tokyo (a link which now goes either through the Indian Ocean or the long way around, through North America) by 30%, shaving 60 milliseconds off; which translates to up to $25 million per millisecond saved.

As important as network links are in today's hyperconnected world, the fact that some three or so billion dollars (a sum which could buy a lot of other things, from providing millions of people with clean water to patching up bridges and power plants) was easily found for a 60-millisecond speed increase is mostly to do with being massively useful for high-frequency algorithmic trading. Objectively, it makes no difference whether a transaction between London and Tokyo takes 170 or 230 milliseconds to take place—though whether the transaction gets in before or after the rest of the market is the difference between profit and loss. Already, a significant part of the global financial system resembles a game of Core Wars played with real money; large amounts of wealth are conjured into being in finance houses by wartrading bots created from GPUs and FPGAs by extremely well-renumerated geeks, and many of the brightest minds of our age are eschewing the vows of poverty which go with the academic life or the modest salaries promised by pure science and medical research and instead going into creating the bots that will outcompete the current generation of bots. As such, there's all the money in the world for faster network links between global financial centres, and the Arctic link should tide the traders of London and Tokyo over until someone opens a finance house on Novaya Zemlya or in the Canadian arctic and beats both sides to the punch. After all, 299,792,458 metres per second is not just a good idea; it is about as iron-clad a law as there is.

The article suggests that, while algorithmic trading will benefit from the link, it will also be open to general traffic. Though, since the reduced latency is a competitive advantage worth countless millions, I wonder whether civilian access to the cable will be specially configured to slow packets down by a few milliseconds.

(via jwz) capitalism finance geography internet tech 2

2012/2/19

Some good news for people (well, Britons mostly) who like good design. You may remember Min-Kyu Choi's prototype of a folding electric mains plug compatible with both Britain's ruggedly oversized power sockets and its conservative electrical safety standards, which briefly made the news back in 2009:

Well, after some two and a half years, Choi's design (with some modifications) is finally making it onto the market, at least for certain values of "making it" and "market". Known as The Mu, the plug will be available as a folding USB charger, which will be sold for £25 at the Design Museum in London (i.e., this is currently for design enthusiasts only). As for being able to charge your ultra-light laptop with a plug that doesn't look anachronistic next to it, that's still some way off.

(via alecm) bs1363 design industrial design tech uk 0

2012/2/7

An excellent answer to the eternal question of why software development task estimations are inevitably off by a factor of 2 or 3, even if one compensates for this in advance:

Let's take a hike on the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles to visit our friends in Newport Beach... The line is about 400 miles long, we can walk 4 miles per hour for 10 hours per day, so we'll be there in 10 days. We call our friends and book dinner for next Sunday night, when we will roll in triumphantly at 6 p.m. They can't wait!
We get up early the next day giddy with the excitement of fresh adventure. We strap on our backpacks, whip out our map, and plan our first day. We look at the map. Uh oh... Wow, there are a million little twists and turns on this coast. A 40-mile day will barely get us past Half Moon Bay. This trip is at least 500, not 400 miles. We call our friends and push back dinner til Tuesday. It is best to be realistic. They are disappointed, but they are looking forward to seeing us. And 12 days from SF to LA still is not bad.
Man, this is slow going! Sand, water, stairs, creeks, angry sea lions! We are walking at most 2 miles per hour, half as fast as we wanted. We can either start walking 20 hours per day, or we can push our friends out another week. OK, let's split the difference: we'll walk 12 hours per day and push our friends out til the following weekend. We call them and delay dinner until the following Sunday. They are a little peeved but say OK, we'll see you then.
...and so forth.

it sod's law tech 0

2012/2/1

Long-time video-game enthusiast Charlie Brooker visits Japan, comes away slightly disappointed that how much the rest of the world has caught up, and the gadgetland of Akihabara is no longer as much of a novelty:

I'd been looking forward to browsing the shelves for zany gadgets, but the reality was slightly disappointing. Smartphone apps have replaced many of the charmingly pointless Japanese gizmos that used to be pop up on late-90s travel shows. More significantly, the west has become overtly tech-obsessed too. At home, we're routinely battered over the head with so many miraculous widgets, a sort of amazement fatigue has set in. So while in Japan you can easily stumble across a remote-control tissue box or a battery-operated planetarium for your bathroom (by which I mean a waterproof Saturn-shaped orb that floats in the bath and projects the entire visible universe onto the ceiling), the sense of surrounding novelty has diminished. It's less "WTF", more "yeah, that figures". Touring the electronic shops is still an entertainment in itself: I was merely surprised to discover I didn't actually want to buy anything.

charlie brooker culture japan tech 0

2011/12/31

A few random odds and ends which, for one reason or another, didn't make it into blog posts in 2011:

  • Artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy died this year; though before he did, he wrote up a piece on the sustainability of progress. The gist of it is that he contended that progress is both sustainable and desirable, for at least the next billion years, with resource limitations being largely illusory.
  • As China's economy grows, dishonest entrepreneurs are coming up with increasingly novel and bizarre ways of adulterating food:
    In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year. Farmers in eastern Jiangsu province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had exploded "like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone in hopes of increasing their size.
    Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg for one-quarter the price of a real one.
  • The street finds its own uses for things, and places develop local specialisations and industries: the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlcea has become a global centre of expertise in online scams, with industries arising to bilk the world's endless supply of marks, and to keep the successful scammers in luxury goods:
    The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts—leather accessories, Italian fashions—serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
    It’s not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York’s fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. “To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location,” says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. “There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection.”
  • Monty Python's Terry Jones says that The Life Of Brian could not be made now, as it would be too risky in today's climate of an increasingly strident religiosity exercising its right to take offense:
    The 69-year-old said: "I took the view it wasn't blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we'd think twice about making it now."
  • The Torygraph's Charles Moore: I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right:
    And when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.
  • The sketchbooks of Susan Kare, the artist who designed the icons, bitmaps and fonts for the original Macintosh, and went on to an illustrious career as a pixel artist (Microsoft hired her to do the Windows 3.x icons, and some years ago, Facebook hired her to design the virtual "gifts" you could buy for friends.) The sketchbooks show her original Macintosh icons, which were drawn by hand on graph paper (because, of course, they didn't have GUI tools for making icons back then).
  • How To Steal Like An Artist: advice for those who wish to do creative work.
  • The street finds its own uses for things (2): with the rise of the Arduino board (a low-cost, hackable microcontroller usable for basically anything electronic you might want to program), anyone can now make their own self-piloting drone aircraft out of a radio-controlled plane. And it isn't actually illegal in itself (at least in the US; YMMV).
  • An answer to the question of why U2 are so popular.

apple art china creativity crime design fraud monty python pixel art politics religion romania science society susan kare tech u2 0

2011/11/30

After allegations emerged of brutal working practices at online game company Zynga (who, as well as considering the idea of work-life balance to be tantamount to disloyalty, recently have been forcing some employees to give up stock options), venture capital douchelord Michael Arrington posted a defence of long working hours and nonexistent work-life balance in the software industry as part of the Silicon Valley way, extensively quoting Jamie Zawinski's Netscape diaries to back up his point. But then, jwz turned around and tore it to pieces.

He's trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don't do that, you're a pussy. He's using my words to try and back up that thesis. I hate this, because it's not true, and it's disingenuous. What is true is that for a VC's business model to work, it's necessary for you to give up your life in order for him to become richer.
So if your goal is to enrich the Arringtons of the world while maybe, if you win the lottery, scooping some of the groundscore that they overlooked, then by all means, bust your ass while the bankers and speculators cheer you on.Instead of that, I recommend that you do what you love because you love doing it. If that means long hours, fantastic. If that means leaving the office by 6pm every day for your underwater basket-weaving class, also fantastic.
Touché.

business capitalism evil it jwz scams tech work-life balance zynga 0

2011/11/10

Writing in the Pinboard blog, Maciej Ceglowski tears apart the concept "social graph", saying that it is neither social nor a graph, but a sort of pseudoscience invented by socially-challenged geeks and now peddled by hucksters out to monetise you and your relationships:

Last week Forbes even went to the extent of calling the social graph an exploitable resource comprarable to crude oil, with riches to those who figure out how to mine it and refine it. I think this is a fascinating metaphor. If the social graph is crude oil, doesn't that make our friends and colleagues the little animals that get crushed and buried underground?
The first part of his argument has to do with the inadequacy of the "social graph" model for representing all the nuances of human social relationships in the real world; the many gradations of friendship and acquaintance, the ways relationships change and evolve, making a mockery of nailed-down static representations; the way that describing a relationship can change it in some cases, and various issues of privacy and multi-faceted identity, things which exist trivially in the real world, even if they're in violation of the Zuckerberg Doctrine.
One big sticking point is privacy. Do I really want to find out that my pastor and I share the same dominatrix? If not, then who is going to be in charge of maintaining all the access control lists for every node and edge so that some information is not shared? You can either have a decentralized, communally owned social graph (like Fitzpatrick envisioned) or good privacy controls, but not the two together.
This obsession with modeling has led us into a social version of the Uncanny Valley, that weird phenomenon from computer graphics where the more faithfully you try to represent something human, the creepier it becomes. As the model becomes more expressive, we really start to notice the places where it fails.
You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong. Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender. Our industry abounds in people for whom social interaction has always been more of a puzzle to be reverse-engineered than a good time to be had, and the result is these vaguely Martian protocols.
Of course, whilst the idea of the social graph may not be good for modelling real-life social interactions with naturalistic fidelity, it has been a boon for targeting advertising; the illusion of social fulfilment is enough to keep people clicking and volunteering information about themselves. From the advertisers' point of view, the fish not only jump right into the boat, they fillet themselves in mid-air and bring their own wedges of lemon:
Imagine the U.S. Census as conducted by direct marketers - that's the social graph. Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.
There is some good news, though: while general-purpose social web sites with the ambition of mediating (and monetising) the entirety of human social interaction may fail creepily as they approach their goal, special-purpose online communities can thrive in their niches:
The funny thing is, no one's really hiding the secret of how to make awesome online communities. Give people something cool to do and a way to talk to each other, moderate a little bit, and your job is done. Games like Eve Online or WoW have developed entire economies on top of what's basically a message board. MetaFilter, Reddit, LiveJournal and SA all started with a couple of buttons and a textfield and have produced some fascinating subcultures. And maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long - image, timestamp, text. Now tell me one bit of original culture that's ever come out of Facebook.
I wonder whether there is a dichotomy there between sites and networks; would a special-interest site that used, say, Facebook's social graph as a means of identifying users (rather than having its own system of accounts, usernames, profiles, and optionally friendship/trust edges) be infected by the Zuckerbergian malaise?

marketing psychology social software society tech 2

2011/10/24

And more on the subject of Siri; while the technology is available only on Apple's iOS platform (and currently only on the latest and greatest iPhone), an Android software company have taken it upon themselves to make their own version, in an 8-hour hackathon. It's named Iris (see what they did there?), and it sort of works:

Me: Remind me at 9pm to go and buy milk
It Recognised: remindme at 9 pm to go in hawaii
It Replied: I have two pets.
Me: Where is siberia
Replied: Wherever you make it I guess
Q: Where can I get a recipe for cheesecake?
A: En la esquina, con minifalda.
("In the corner, wearing a miniskirt.")
If one views this as a competitor to Siri, it falls well short (even without the bizarre voice-recognition results, it doesn't seem to contain the sort of evolving model of the user, their relationships and preferences, and the current context that makes a system like Siri work), though one could hardly expect this from an 8-hour hacking session. (If one views it as a publicity stunt to promote Dexetra's other apps, it'll probably be far more successful.) However, as a surrealist tool for injecting chaos into the lives of those who use it, it looks to be far superior, escaping the shackles of bourgeois practicality that constrain Apple's more polished product. Iris looks to be a virtual assistant André Breton could love.

ai android apple culture fake siri surrealism tech 0

Apple's latest iPhone, the 4S, comes with a feature named Siri, an intelligent agent (based on technology from a US military AI research programme) which answers spoken questions in natural English, using web services, the current environment and a constantly evolving profile of the user and their preferences to make sense of ambiguous queries like "will I need an umbrella tomorrow?", and speaks the results back to the user—in a female voice in the US and Australia, but a male one in the UK. Apple haven't explained the reasons for the difference, but there are theories:

Jeremy Wagstaff, who runs technology consultancy Loose Wire Organisation, says: "Americans speak loudly and clearly and are usually in a hurry, so it makes sense for them to have a female voice because it has the pitch and range. British people mumble and obey authority, so they need someone authoritative." Which, apparently, still means male.
There's more historical context here (which talks about disembodied machine voices having been female for a long time, since telephone operators* and WW2-era navigation systems, female voices being used in railway station announcement systems because their higher frequencies carry better against the train noise, evil computers in films being presented as male, and BMW having to recall a female-voiced navigation system in the 1990s because of complaints from German men who refused to take direction from a woman).

There's also a piece in the Atlantic about why many electronic devices designed to assist have female voices. It looks predominantly at systems in the US, and concludes that, in America at least, female voices are perceived to go better with the role of assistant—competent, level-headed, and unthreateningly loyal. Or, in other words, everybody wants to be Don Draper.

Which doesn't answer the question of why (according to Apple's in-house cultural anthropologists, anyway) British users feel more comfortable with male-voiced virtual assistants. Could it be the lack of the famous 100-watt smiles of the American service industry (as per the US psychologist who categorised British smiles as grimaces of acquiescence)? An ingrained sense of social hierarchy and/or traditional acceptance of class privilege which makes authoritative male voices more acceptable in Britain? (I wonder whether refined-sounding male British voices would be popular with American users; after all, I imagine that quite a few people wouldn't mind their virtual assistant to have a British butler persona.) Or perhaps the residual trauma of Thatcherism makes female voices with any hint of authority a hard sell in Britain? And why does Australia get the female voice option by default? Is Australia more "American" than "British" in this sense? Or is the preference for male voices some peculiarly British anomaly among the English-speaking nations?

* If I recall correctly, the very first telephone operators in the late 19th century were boys, of the same background who would have been employed in clerical tasks. They tended to horse around and play pranks too much, though, so they were replaced with female operators after a few years. Throughout living memory, the typical telephone operator (where those still existed) has been a woman.

ai apple culture gender siri tech 3

2011/10/17

Google engineer Steve Yegge wrote a rant on Google's institutional shortcomings with platforms and APIs (capsule summary: it doesn't get them), and, in particular, why it falls short of Facebook. The rant was intended for internal consumption at Google, but got shared to the whole world by accident (or perhaps, conspiracy theorists suggest, deliberately); here it is:

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don't get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: "So is it the Stalker API?" She got all glum and said "Yeah." I mean, I was joking, but no... the only API call we offer is to get someone's stream. So I guess the joke was on me.
Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that's not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone. Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.
After you've marveled at the platform offerings of Microsoft and Amazon, and Facebook I guess (I didn't look because I didn't want to get too depressed), head over to developers.google.com and browse a little. Pretty big difference, eh? It's like what your fifth-grade nephew might mock up if he were doing an assignment to demonstrate what a big powerful platform company might be building if all they had, resource-wise, was one fifth grader.

google rants tech 0

2011/10/14

The London Review of Books looks at various books recently published about Google, an essay on Google's data-collecting and machine-learning operations; it appears that a lot of the services Google provide are

In 2007, Google told the New York Times that it was now using more than 200 signals in its ranking algorithm, and the number must now be higher. What every one of those signals is and how they are weighted is Google’s most precious trade secret, but the most useful signal of all is the least predictable: the behaviour of the person who types their query into the search box. A click on the third result counts as a vote that it ought to come higher. A ‘long click’ – when you select one of the results and don’t come back – is a stronger vote. To test a new version of its algorithm, Google releases it to a small subset of its users and measures its effectiveness through the pattern of their clicks: more happy surfers and it’s just got cleverer. We teach it while we think it’s teaching us. Levy tells the story of a new recruit with a long managerial background who asked Google’s senior vice-president of engineering, Alan Eustace, what systems Google had in place to improve its products. ‘He expected to hear about quality assurance teams and focus groups’ – the sort of set-up he was used to. ‘Instead Eustace explained that Google’s brain was like a baby’s, an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up.’ Like a baby, Google uses what it hears to learn about the workings of human language. The large number of people who search for ‘pictures of dogs’ and also ‘pictures of puppies’ tells Google that ‘puppy’ and ‘dog’ mean similar things, yet it also knows that people searching for ‘hot dogs’ get cross if they’re given instructions for ‘boiling puppies’. If Google misunderstands you, and delivers the wrong results, the fact that you’ll go back and rephrase your query, explaining what you mean, will help it get it right next time. Every search for information is itself a piece of information Google can learn from.
By 2007, Google knew enough about the structure of queries to be able to release a US-only directory inquiry service called GOOG-411. You dialled 1-800-4664-411 and spoke your question to the robot operator, which parsed it and spoke you back the top eight results, while offering to connect your call. It was free, nifty and widely used, especially because – unprecedentedly for a company that had never spent much on marketing – Google chose to promote it on billboards across California and New York State. People thought it was weird that Google was paying to advertise a product it couldn’t possibly make money from, but by then Google had become known for doing weird and pleasing things. ... What was it getting with GOOG-411? It soon became clear that what it was getting were demands for pizza spoken in every accent in the continental United States, along with questions about plumbers in Detroit and countless variations on the pronunciations of ‘Schenectady’, ‘Okefenokee’ and ‘Boca Raton’. GOOG-411, a Google researcher later wrote, was a phoneme-gathering operation, a way of improving voice recognition technology through massive data collection. Three years later, the service was dropped, but by then Google had launched its Android operating system and had released into the wild an improved search-by-voice service that didn’t require a phone call.
One takeaway from the article is that, while it may be said that "if you don't know what the product is, you are the product", Google don't really give that much personal information to advertisers, or even allow advertisers to target ads very precisely (as they can, for example, on Facebook). Google collect a wealth of information, though the bulk of it remains in the machine:
It isn’t possible, using Google’s tools, to target an ad to 32-year-old single heterosexual men living in London who work at Goldman Sachs and like skiing, especially at Courchevel. You can do exactly that using Facebook, but the options Google gives advertisers are, by comparison, limited: the closest it gets is to allow them to target display ads to people who may be interested in the category of ‘skiing and snowboarding’ – and advertisers were always able to do that anyway by buying space in Ski & Snowboard magazine. The rest of the time, Google decides the placement of ads itself, using its proprietary algorithms to display them wherever it knows they will get the most clicks. The advertisers are left out of the loop.

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Dennis M. Ritchie (better known, as many of the ancients were, by his UNIX login, in this case, dmr) has reportedly passed away in Murray Hill, New Jersey, after a long illness. Ritchie was, of course, co-inventor (with Brian Kernighan) of the C programming language (in which a huge proportion of the world's software is written, and which influenced a lot of other languages, from direct descendants like C++ and Objective C to every language which uses C-like syntax), and co-creator (with Ken Thompson) of the UNIX operating system (originally started as a personal project, and now the architectural template for everything from the internet server which is sending you this web page to, quite probably, your mobile phone). Ritchie's influence on the technologies on which our world is built is huge.

c dmr obituary rip tech unix 0

2011/10/6

Steve Jobs has passed away today, shortly after resigning from the post of CEO of Apple due to failing health. Jobs had battled pancreatic cancer, and had received a liver transplant, a combination which didn't do much for his odds. He was 56.

It's hard to overestimate Jobs' influence on the world; the timeline of his life is liberally scattered with world-changing achievements. The Apple II helped popularise home computing, and was responsible for a lot of people learning to program. The Mac popularised graphical interfaces. (It was neither the first GUI—that was Xerox PARC's Alto prototype—nor the most popular one—that was Microsoft's Windows, which to no small extent imitated the Mac—though it was the one which popularised the concept.) After Jobs was ousted from Apple, his next project, NeXT, was daring and beautiful, though commercially unsuccessful; however, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did create what became the World-Wide Web on one. Years later, Apple's reinvigorated Macintosh line, infused with the technical DNA of NeXT, helped to break Microsoft's stranglehold over computer standards and the leaden years of stagnation that had ensued. Meanwhile, the iPod—also not the first MP3 player by a long shot—displaced the Sony Walkman as the iconic personal audio player, and iTunes forced the hand of the recording industry. The iPhone, meanwhile, transformed mobile phones, both in industrial design (one only has to compare early Android prototypes, with their square screens and BlackBerry-esque QWERTY keypads, to the plethora of touchscreen phones which followed) and the degree of control phone carriers had over phones (which, before the iPhone, were routinely locked down to do only what the carrier saw as profitable to let its users do) and the availability of mobile internet access (which, once again, followed a walled-garden model, preserving the carrier oligopolists' profits, again at the price of stagnation). Then came along the iPad, succeeding spectacularly where tablet-shaped computers had failed for decades. And, outside of that, Jobs helmed Pixar, which produced computer-animated feature films which were not only massively popular and technologically innovative but critically acclaimed. It beggars belief to think of one human being as having had that much impact on the world, over and over again; had he had a few more decades of life, there would doubtlessly have been more.

WIRED has a list of tributes to Jobs from various luminaries, as well as an eulogy by Steven Levy. Meanwhile, there are tributes from xkcd and The Laugh-Out-Loud Cats.

apple obituary rip steve jobs tech 2

2011/7/16

Google+ technical lead Joseph Smarr answers questions about Google's new social site, its development, and planned features:

Will users be able to create hierarchies of circles (circles made from multiple circles)?
There are definitely good use cases for this, but we worry about the complexity it would introduce. This might be a great "power-user" feature to build using our APIs (once they're ready, heh).
What were the most difficult specific technical challenges you faced?
Trading off consistency vs. availability is always challenging, and even more so in social applications where your actions affect other users, often in other data centers. For instance, adding/removing someone from a circle impacts (among other things): which posts they can see, the counts of people on your (and their) profile, suggestions (for potentially many people), and so on. Clearly some of these changes need to happen immediately/ASAP, whereas others could be a bit stale and that's ok. Picking the right trade-offs so our systems are fast and robust but users rarely notice any problems was (and continues to be) challenging, and in some cases required some very clever tricks in the backends.

google google plus social software tech 0

2011/6/23

A few interesting links I've seen recently:

  • BBC Four recently aired a fascinating documentary titled The Joy Of Easy Listening, charting the history of easy-listening/light music from the 1950s onward. It's viewable on YouTube here.
  • Digital artist Joshua Nimoy worked on some of the visuals for Disney's Tron Legacy film, and describes how they were done, from the physics of fireworks simulations and the algorithms behind various clusters of digital-looking lines to authentic-looking UNIX command-line shots for a hacking scene. (The fact that we've gone from "UPLOAD VIRUS Y/N" screens and random equations/6502 machine code/cyber-Japanese glyphs to nmap(1) being seen as too much of a hacking-scene cliché suggests that computer literacy in the movie-viewing public has increased dramatically over the past few years.)
  • IBM's Executive Briefing Center in Rome looks like something out of a scifi film:
  • In epic feats of computing: the latest work by prolific technical genius Fabrice Bellard is a JavaScript-based PC emulator that's powerful enough to boot Linux. I repeat: it runs (a slightly cut-down, though fully native) Linux on a Pentium-class PC it simulates in your web browser, in JavaScript. Meanwhile, a high-school student named Jack Eisenman has designed and built his own 8-bit computer, including the CPU, from simple logic chips. The machine runs a machine code of Eisenman's own devising and can display graphics on a TV screen; Eisenman provides some games for it and full schematics, as well as a JavaScript-based emulator for those whose soldering skills aren't up to building their own.
  • Quite possibly the most awesomel wedding invitation in the history of wedding invitations would have to be Karen Sandler and Mike Tarantino's, a card which unfolds into a paper record player that plays a song recorded by the happy (and creative) couple. There are more details here.

awesome culture design film javascript lounge music retrocomputing tech 0

2011/5/2

I am currently visiting Sweden for a few days; consequently, I now have a Swedish mobile phone number.

I have no plans to actually move to Sweden, and no current plans to return (though it's not unlikely that I will at some point), and so the +46 number I have will most probably sit idle, the SIM card in a drawer next to the German card I bought in Berlin last year (unlike that one, though, this card can be topped without having a local bank account in the country in question, making it more likely that I'll reuse it). But at the moment, the SIM card is in my iPhone, providing me with access to maps and similar services on demand, and my British SIM card is in my second phone (a Palm Treo 650, a piece of mid-oughts executive power-tech that looks ridiculously clunky these days and probably will be considered retro one of these decades).

The reason I went to the somewhat absurd extent of investing 99 Kr (almost exactly £9.90) in a foreign telephone number I will use for a few days is because of the unusable state of data roaming in 2011. While, in the EU at least, roaming charges on phone calls and text messages have come down, data still remains prohibitively expensive, with the foolhardy user who enables data roaming on their smartphone likely to drain their prepaid credit in minutes or, if on contract, be on the hook for thousands of pounds.

Things have improved slightly, though not enough to make using a smartphone abroad with one's own SIM card remotely economical, except for the super-rich and those with the deepest of expense accounts. For example, Vodafone (my UK carrier) now offers either 5Mb or 25Mb (depending on the country) of data abroad for £2 a day, with subsequent use being charged at £1 per megabyte. I tried using this when in Paris a few days ago, and found, to my chagrin, that the quota evaporated within ten minutes of idle time. Presumably Vodafone's offer is intended for users of something other than modern smartphones. Not quite sure what: perhaps those social-network featurephones marketed to teenagers with limited allowances?

I suspect that this has less to do with smartphones sucking up vast quantities of data and more to do with the way roaming data being metered being incompatible with the way smartphones use data. I imagine that what is happening is that, for billing purposes, one megabyte is one megabyte or part thereof, and the clock stops whenever the phone stops sending or receiving data for a period of time and/or when the phone connects to a different server. Which was probably fair enough a few years ago, when the much simpler phones did one thing at a time, and internet access on phones was an afterthought, a special mode added on after the fact. Today's smartphones, however, are entirely different beasts, being effectively UNIX-based computers designed to be permanently connected to the internet, and constantly sending and receiving small quantities of data, from notifications to location hints. Because this data is sent as internet packets, a premium-priced service on top of the mobile phone network, the partial megabytes soon stack up, and so does the bill.

With smartphones, we're living in The Future, but only in our home countries. There, we can pull down maps, check email, upload photos to the web, and even, particularly ironically, get spoken text translated into other languages. Elsewhere, we're still in the mid-2000s, forced to rely on pre-cached data and scrounge for open wireless access points (themselves an increasing scarcity, due to the three apocalyptic horsemen of terrorism, paedophilia and copyright infringement). Of course, one can, for a tenner, buy a new SIM card, and then freely use the same networks one would otherwise be paying through the nose for, at the cost of losing access to one's phone number for the duration. Which, all in all, is an absurd situation, and The Future won't officially arrive until this is resolved.

mobile phones personal rant tech travel 9

2011/2/12

Proof that we're now almost* living in the future: the new mobile Google Translate app, which runs on your iPhone and does speech recognition, translation and speech synthesis (provided you have a data connection, of course). So you can say a phrase into it in your language and have speak a translation into various languages, with even more supported as text only.

* Now all we need is mobile data roaming that doesn't cost extortionate amounts (after all, this is the sort of thing most useful abroad), and we will be living in the future.

awesome google iphone language tech 1

2010/12/14

What do you get when a plane flies immediately beneath a satellite camera while it's taking a picture? This:

Which suggests that the cameras in question take four separate monochromatic exposures (with blue, green and red filters, and unfiltered for intensity), and composite them together to get a higher-resolution image of the earth (or at least the parts of it which aren't moving at speed at high altitudes).

photos tech 0

2010/11/29

After a gaming PC sent to a competition winner arrived in pieces, Popular Mechanics magazine decided to investigate the conditions endured by parcels shipped across the US. They built data-logging devices for recording shocks, placed them into parcels, shipped them with various carriers, and examined the data recorded to see how many times they were dropped and what forces they were subjected to. One result from the trials: packages marked "FRAGILE" were subjected to more abuse than unmarked packages, as if out of spite:

One disheartening result was that our package received more abuse when marked "Fragile" or "This Side Up." The carriers flipped the package more, and it registered above-average acceleration spikes during trips for which we requested careful treatment.
Given how battery-operated data-loggers are cheap these days, why aren't such investigations being conducted routinely? One would think that between government trade-regulation bodies, consumers' rights organisations and the shipping companies themselves, there'd be a lot of call for someone to be sending statistically significant quantities of anonymous G-shock loggers regularly through the post and publishing or otherwise acting on the results.

tech 3

2010/10/15

A team in Germany has developed software which can edit objects out of live video in real time. Termed, catchily, "Diminished Reality", the software works a bit like Photoshop's content-aware fill, but is able to track, and eliminate, objects in moving video. The team from the Technische Universität Ilmenau are planning to release an Android port, so you too can be Stalin.

Perhaps even more interesting is software from the Max Planck Institute which can alter the body shapes of actors in video. The software contains data obtained from 3D scans of 120 naked people of different body types, apparently using a machine-learning algorithm, to form a 3D body model with a number of controllable attributes, such as height, muscularity and waist girth. The system can pick out human figures in video (in some conditions, anyway), map them to the model, adjust it, and then rerender the video with the adjusted model. The team have demonstrated this with a clip from the old TV series Baywatch, in which the male lead is given Conan The Barbarian-style musculature.

The article gives a number of potential applications for such technologies:

The technology has obvious applications in films like Raging Bull, for which Robert de Niro put on 27 kilograms in two months to portray his character. "The actor wouldn't need to go to all that trouble," says Theobalt. It could also be a cost-saver for advertising companies. Because standards of beauty vary across cultures, it is the norm to shoot several adverts for a single product. With the new software, firms could make one film and tweak the model's dimensions to suit different countries.
The possibilities don't, of course, stop there. In the market-driven entertainment ecosystem, film and TV companies are competing for the attention (and money and/or eyeballs to sell to advertisers) of a public, a large segment of which is captivated by spectacle. With improved special-effects technology comes "awesomeness inflation", where yesterday's blockbusters look boring compared to the latest; so anything that can capture the eyeballs of the sensation-hungry, compulsively channel-surfing consumer (whom William Gibson memorably described as "something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote") could give a film studio or TV network the edge; that extra average five seconds before the viewer changes the channel which, aggregated over an audience of hundreds of millions, means a lot of ad revenue.

It's perhaps obvious that film studios will use the software as another computer effect, making their actors more cartoonishly exaggerated, more punchily extreme, with taller, more ruggedly muscular action heroes, more exaggerated comic short/fat/skinny guys, leading ladies/love interests whose waists could not physically support their breasts, and so on. Eventually the public will get used to this, and the old films with realistically physiqued (by Hollywood standards) actors will look as shabbily unattractive as those films from the 70s they're always remaking because the pace's too slow, the scenes look crappy (didn't the ancients even know about orange and teal colour grading?) and there aren't enough awesome explosions and sex scenes. If the software's cheap enough (as it will eventually be), though, they won't even need to remake things: imagine, for example, a channel that shows reruns of popular old series, "digitally remastered for extra awesomeness". And so, every year, the stars in yesteryear's classic serials become that bit more like animated action figures and/or anime schoolgirls, culminating in a 8-foot, musclebound Jack Bauer who can shoot laser beams from his eyes. (The remastering process would also quicken the pace, by speeding up scenes and cutting out pauses, which would both hold the audience's attention for longer and leave more time for ad breaks.) Meanwhile, Criterion sell box sets of the original, unretouched versions in tasteful packaging; these become a highbrow affectation, a signifier of refined taste, and end up featured on Stuff White People Like.

Of course, in this universe, there'd be an epidemic of body-image disorders, with large numbers of deaths from anorexia, steroid overdoses and black-market plastic surgery. At least until physique augmentation ends up as a universal feature of compact cameras and/or Facebook uploading software, and gradually the survivors come to accept that it's OK to look imperfect, as long as you don't do so on film or video.

future hollywood media sadofuturism tech tv video 0

2010/9/30

The latest language added to Google's translation tools: Latin. Or, as the official announcement puts it:

Hoc instrumentum convertendi Latinam rare usurum ut convertat nuntios electronicos vel epigrammata effigierum YouTubis intellegamus. Multi autem vetusti libri de philosophia, de physicis et de mathematica lingua Latina scripti sunt. Libri enim vero multi milia in Libris Googlis sunt qui praeclaros locos Latinos habent.
Convertere instrumentis computatoriis ex Latina difficile est et intellegamus grammatica nostra non sine culpa esse. Autem Latina singularis est quia plurimi libri lingua Latina iampridem scripti erant et pauci novi posthac erunt. Multi in alias linguas conversi sunt et his conversis utamur ut nostra instrumenta convertendi edoceamus. Cum hoc instrumentum facile convertat libros similes his ex quibus edidicit, nostra virtus convertendi libros celebratos (ut Commentarios de Bello Gallico Caesaris) iam bona est.
In other words, while Latin is a dead language, and few if any people are going to send emails (or nuntios electronicos, as the Romans would have called them), the translator is useful because of the vast number of books wholly or partly in Latin. And, while there is little new Latin text to train the engine on, there is a huge repository of existing Latin texts and translations, of varying antiquity, many of which Google have digitised. Which works quite adequately for translating the sorts of things likely to have been written in Latin.

Sadly, the same can't be said for Google's English-to-Latin translation; at the moment, for a lot of inputs, it seems to do little more than change the order of the words around, getting stumped on words like, say, "translate" and "Latin".

google language latin tech 3

2010/9/24

Design consultancy IDEO have posted a video presenting three concepts for the future of electronic books. The concepts are: "Nelson", a critical reader intended for politically and culturally influential books, which charts the influence of points within books, links to debates and discussions arising from them presents links validating or repudiating supporting facts and presents books mentioning and mentioned by a book; "Coupland", an enterprise-oriented social reader, which allows books to be recommended within an enterprise, and "Alice", an entertainment-oriented reader which relies on ebooks branching out from the stream-of-linear-text model that they inherited from paper books; by participating in various games, you can unlock hidden chapters of a book.

books design ideo social software tech 0

2010/9/12

According to Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit (a website who publish repair instructions for gadgets), Apple are using patented screws to make it illegal to change the batteries in their laptops, unless you're an authorised Apple service centre, of course:

They've got this 5 point bit on the MacBook Pro battery now. Torx has a patent on the shape of that bit, and makes it illegal to import without a service license. It's absolutely preposterous; the battery is one of the easiest components to replace in that machine, just about as easy as RAM. They're using lawyers to prevent people from making their computers last longer than 3-400 battery cycles
I wonder if Apple is trying to get to a leasing model with computers, where you have to send it back to them every year or two and pay them $129
That's the problem with Apple; they have a monopoly on OSX machines, and thus can do things like this, because that's what the market will bear. (Sure, you can do things in Ubuntu, as long as you don't need to run any commercial software. Which locks out anyone who, for example, uses softsynths or commercial Photoshop plugins. Or you can downgrade to Windows, and put up with the constant struggle against spyware and viruses and the vastly inferior user experience, not to mention Microsoft's even more shady history.) Apple have (it seems) also used intellectual-property law to prevent anyone from making chargers interoperable with their MagSafe connectors; to this day, it's impossible to get electricity into a recent MacBook from any source other than an AC source through an Apple adaptor. There are no third-party adaptors for MacBooks, nor external batteries of the sort that Windows road warriors have been able to buy at airports for decades. If you wish to power one from, say, a car battery, you're faced with converting the electricity into 110V/220V AC and then converting it back to whatever your MacBook gets, because that's how Steve wills it.

apple evil skulduggery tech 0

2010/8/31

The latest casualty of the rise of the internet and digital media: the print edition of the (full) Oxford English Dictionary; it comes in 20 volumes, weighs a third of a tonne, costs US$1,165 and, unsurprisingly, isn't selling very well, given that OED provides all its content in a subscription-based web service. As of next year, there may not be a paper edition at all.

history internet media tech 0

2010/8/28

Movies that would have been ruined by Facebook (or, more specifically, whose premises fall apart if their characters are on Facebook):

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2010/8/15

This week in lawsuits: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. claims that it owns Skype's brand name, or at least the first three letters of it, and threatens to block Skype from trading under that name in the EU; the EU has agreed with News Corp., though Switzerland and Turkey (neither of which are in the EU) have sided with Skype. Perhaps we'll see another Gmail/Googlemail-style situation, in which case Skype chooses some other, more awkward-looking, moniker to trade under in the EU?

Meanwhile, after having digested Sun, Oracle are wasting no time in drawing a line under its open-source-friendly days; not only have they killed OpenSolaris (an issue which could affect dozens of people worldwide) but now they're suing Google for using Java intellectual property in Android, demanding hefty damages and the destruction of all Java-based Google code, i.e., the annihilation of the Android platform. (Of course, they could let it slide for a few billion dollars.) Google contend that the lawsuit is baseless, while Java architect and Sun co-founder James Gosling weighs in:

Oracle finally filed a patent lawsuit against Google. Not a big surprise. During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle. Filing patent suits was never in Sun's genetic code. Alas...
If Oracle are successful, they could stand to screw anyone who has ever used Java out of sizeable sums, whilst hastening Java's death as a platform of any credibility. (Unless this is thrown out of court with prejudice, I can see developers deserting Java hastily before Oracle's beady gaze descends upon them.)

business google intellectual property java murdoch oracle sun tech 4

2010/7/31

A big list of useful shell commands for OSX. Some of these are generic UNIX shell tricks, but many are OSX-specific and quite useful; to wit, a few examples:

# Copy output of command to clipboard
grep 'search term' largeFile.txt | pbcopy

# display a Quick Look preview of a file; ctrl+C to kill
qlmanage -p photo.jpg

# converting an aiff file to 160kbps AAC:
afconvert track.aiff -o track.m4a -q 127 -b 160000 -f 'm4af' -d 'aac '

howto osx tech tips unix 0

2010/7/3

13-year-old Hibiki Kono built a machine allowing him to climb walls; the rig consists of a backpack with two small vacuum cleaners strapped to it, suction pads attached to the nozzles; the pull seems to be strong enough to allow him to climb as high as the power cord lets him. (Meanwhile, some commenters here claim that Kono merely copied somebody else's design without improving or modifying it.)

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2010/7/1

The latest compact camera from Samsung, until now a brand more associated with cheap consumer units, looks interesting. The Samsung EX1 seems to be targetted at the niche at the top end of the compact market currently held by Panasonic's DMC-LX3; it has the solid metal body and large image sensor (1/1.7", with only 10 megapixels), and trumps the LX3 by having a f/1.8 lens (to the LX3's f/2.0, to say nothing of Canon's G11, the lowly f/2.8 aperture of whose lens borders on insulting), a fold-out screen (just like the PowerShot G series had back when it was good, only this one's AMOLED). It doesn't have the LX3's range of manual controls (the aspect-ratio and focus mode switches on the lens barrel), and appears to have fewer aspect ratio options, but the quality is said to outperform the LX3.

camera gadgets photography tech 3

The Mayor of London is now talking about wiring the entire city, including the Tube, for wireless internet. Of course, it's unlikely to be free, as once mentioned; for one, it'll cost a fair bit, and also, with the Digital Economy Act, it's likely that proof of identity (or at least a credit card) will be required for copyright-enforcement purposes.

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2010/6/28

In 2001, a chap by the name of Aaron Ardiri wrote a port of Lemmings to the PalmOS PDA platform. Now, he has given himself 36 hours to port it to two modern mobile platforms, the iPhone and Palm webOS, with OSX and Windows desktop ports for good measure. Ardiri posted his progress, and interim OSX binaries, to a liveblog here; it seems to be down, but there's a long, scroll-like screenshot of the whole thing here. It's quite interesting, in its descriptions of how coding practices have changed as platforms have become less cramped, and of the process of adapting 2001-vintage PalmOS code to larger (mostly UNIX-based) systems.

Ardiri is considering adding another port to Android; I imagine this would involve some means of translating ancient, low-level C code into Java (or else a C compiler that produces Dalvik bytecode). If he's just dealing in C-based platforms, he could add Nokia's various platforms and (from what I hear) Samsung's new "Bada" OS, though whether there'd be much reason to bother is an open question.

iphone lemmings osx palm palmos programming retrocomputing software tech webos 0

2010/6/18

The age of vector graphics on the web is drawing closer; Raphaël is a JavaScript library which gives you a portable way of drawing vector graphics, not only on all modern browsers but, amazingly enough, on Internet Explorer from version 6 upwards. (It uses SVG on modern browsers and VML on Microsoft's ones.) Anyway, Raphaël code looks like:


var paper = Raphael(10, 50, 320, 200);
var c = paper.circle(50, 50, 40);
c.attr({fill: "#000", stroke: "none"});
c.node.onclick = function() {
    c.attr("fill", "red");
});
It also handles images, text, and paths (using the SVG path notation). And here is a set of free icons, all implemented as path strings for use in Raphaël; they look fairly neat and modern, though, being single path objects, are monochrome. Being paths, though, they scale seamlessly.

So how soon can you use this in your web sites? Well, it runs with most of the web browsers in use these days, though needs a 55Kb (20Kb gzipped) JavaScript file. You'll probably need to host this file yourself, neither Google nor Yahoo! seem to have added it to their public CDN systems yet (though perhaps it's only a matter of time).

graphics javascript nifty svg tech web 0

2010/6/16

Some good news from London: Transport For London, who run the city's public transport networks, have announced that they will be opening access to all their data by the end of June. The data will include station locations, bus routes and timetable information, and will be free from restrictions for commercial or noncommercial use.

The data will be hosted at the London DataStore, a site set up to give the public access to data from public-sector organisations serving London. A few sets are already up, as well as a beta API which returns the locations of Tube trains heading for a specific station. Which could probably be worked into a mobile app to tell you when to start walking to the station. If they had something like this giving the positions and estimated arrival times of buses (whose travel times are considerably more chaotic than those of trains, and which often run less frequently, especially at night), that would be even more useful. (Some approximation of this facility exists in the LED displays, which are installed at some bus stops and sometimes are operational; a XML feed and a mobile web app would probably be a more cost-effective way of getting this information into the hands of commuters.)

Another thing that would be useful would be an API for the Transport for London Journey Planner; being able to ping a URL, passing an some postcodes or station names, a departure/arrival time and some other constraints, and get back, at your option, a maximum journey time or a list of suitable journeys, in XML or JSON format, would be useful in a lot of applications, from device- or application-specific front ends (i.e., a "take me home from here" mobile app) to ways of calculating the "inconvenience distance" between two points by counting travel time and changes (i.e.,in terms of travel convenience, Stratford is closer to Notting Hill than Stoke Newington, despite being further in geographical terms, as it's a straight trip on the Central Line).

apis data data mining geodata london public transport tech uk web web services 0

2010/6/8

Well, here it is. Apple have just announced their next iPhone, the iPhone 4, and it does impressive. The screen resolution has been quadrupled, to 640 by 960, with the effect that the pixels are too small for the human eye to resolve individually. The new iPhone also has two cameras, one front-facing and one rear-facing, and does video calls. Aware of the party-photo market, Apple have optimised the main camera for low-light performance, adding backside illumination (which, given Apple's squeaky-clean policies, is not as indecent as it sounds) and thoughtfully avoided cramming in more pixels. (Before you ditch your LX3, though, remember that it's still a phone camera; the pixels are still much smaller than in a compact, and the lens system is rudimentary. I'll bet that Hipstamatic looks sweet on it, though.) It can also shoot high-definition video, and Apple will be making an iMovie application available for it, for shooting and editing video entirely in the phone. (I wonder whether the microphones are any good in loud environments; if they don't distort like those in every compact camera I've seen, it may be good for recording gigs.) Furthermore, the iPhone 4 adds to its compass and accelerometer a 3-axis gyroscope, giving it similar motion-tracking capabilities to what the Sony PS3's Sixaxis controller and Nintendo WiiMote have). And then there's the impressive-looking build of the unit, with its machined steel frame and ultra-durable glass panels. Anyway, here is Apple's page on the design of the new iPhone.

On top of that, the iPhone OS has been bumped up to version 4, which brings a number of features, including multitasking (which means you can chat on Skype or listen to streaming music whilst doing other things), an e-book reader with PDF capabilities, and more. (The rumoured Facebook integration isn't mentioned, though.) The upgrade will be free for all compatible devices, which means everything but the first-generation iPod Touch. Oh, and the iPhone OS is now named the iOS, and is rumoured to be going into the next Apple TV. (Hmmm.. given a TV-connected device running Apple's game-friendly OS and an iPhone with gyroscopes, perhaps Sony and Nintendo should be very worried about now.)

I wonder whether they'll rename the iPhone 4 in Asian markets, though; the number 4 is considered unlucky in China and nearby because, in Chinese, it rhymes with 'death'. To wit, other companies like Canon skipped version numbers when hitting their fourth iteration.

apple gadgets iphone tech 2

2010/6/4

Some increasingly impressive things are being done with modern web browsers these days, taking advantage of new features in HTML5. A guy named Ben Joffe has developed a number of demos, including a full-featured 3D function plotter (using the canvas element) and a toroidal Tetris game. Another developer, going only by the name "Mr. doob", has developed some nifty 2D physics demos, including Ball Pool and Google Gravity. (Google, of course, entered the fray recently with their pure HTML5 implementation of Pac-Man.) Meanwhile, Apple, who are fighting their own (quite laudable, IMHO) battle against the dominance of Flash, have their own showcase of HTML5's capabilities, though it's coded to refuse to run on non-Safari browsers.

Chrome or Safari are recommended for the above demos; Firefox is still lagging behind in speed, though that's likely to improve in the near future. Firefox also has a new, experimental, API for manipulating audio data in JavaScript. (Apparently people are going to be doing FFTs in JavaScript in the future, which presumably won't make your browsing experience any faster.) It requires custom developer builds of Firefox (i.e., it's only for the hardcore at the moment), but people are already starting to experiment with it. Potentially most impressive so far is a project to port the Pd graphic audio programming language to JavaScript and have it run entirely in a browser. Meanwhile, here are some more audio API dems, including ones combining the audio APIs with WebGL to present 3D landscapes which respond to the beat in music and and graphic equalizer, sampler and speech synthesiser written entirely in JavaScript. I wonder how long until someone writes an entirely HTML5-based Ableton Live-style sequencer.

Typography is also shaping up nicely under HTML5, with a standard embeddable font format agreed upon. Google have released a web font embedding API, and made available several free font libraries through their content distribution system. They look, well, like free fonts; for those wanting more (and willing to pay for it), other groups of type foundries are jumping on the bandwagon; fonts.com has fonts from major foundries like Linotype, Monotype and ITC (at last, you can set your site in authentic Helvetica for people who aren't Mac owners), and über-cool Berlin-based outfit FontShop have joined the game as well (bringing the clean European stylings of the likes of FF DIN and FF Meta to the web). One notable omission, though, are 1990s grunge-typography hellraisers Emigre, who haven't yet made the leap.

Finally, here is an article on some of the things one can do with CSS3, from transformations (i.e., rotating entire elements, including text and layout) to keyframe animation, all done without a single line of JavaScript.

css html html5 tech typography web 4

The latest design innovation to improve safety: equipment that emits an unpleasant smell when damaged, strongly encouraging the user to replace it. The first test case of the technology is in bicycle helmets, though the researchers have plans for using it in other devices such as pressure hoses:

Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute have developed a manufacturing process that injects microcapsules containing malodorous oils into the helmet itself, causing it to stink when damaged -- alerting you that it's time to replace it (and making it difficult to try and make do with a less than safe one, at that).
The developers of the product have yet to decide on a suitable odour to use.

cycling design tech 0

2010/6/2

Sony's R&D department has developed a lifeblogging device for cats. Well, not so much for the benefit of the cats, who remain blissfully oblivious of the online world, their social instincts not extending far beyond their sense of smell, but for their owners; think of it as narcissism crossed with Munchausen's by proxy. Anyway, the device is mounted on the cat's collar and contains a camera, an accelerometer and a GPS receiver, and can record your cat's whereabouts and activities and post fixed phrases to Twitter (via a home PC) when specific events happen, infringing on your cat's dignity and civil rights in a formulaically cutesy way:

For example, it is possible to automatically post a comment like "This tastes good" when a cat is eating something.
Interesting idea, but I believe this chap was first.

(via Boing Boing) cats chindogu tech twitter 0

2010/5/23

A few quick links to things recently seen:

design gin google music nifty pimms privacy psychology rainbow arabia street art sydney tech the pains of being pure at heart urban planning video 0

2010/5/13

A Brief, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of Programming Languages:

1842 - Ada Lovelace writes the first program. She is hampered in her efforts by the minor inconvenience that she doesn't have any actual computers to run her code. Enterprise architects will later relearn her techniques in order to program in UML.
1987 - Larry Wall falls asleep and hits Larry Wall's forehead on the keyboard. Upon waking Larry Wall decides that the string of characters on Larry Wall's monitor isn't random but an example program in a programming language that God wants His prophet, Larry Wall, to design. Perl is born.
1995 - At a neighborhood Italian restaurant Rasmus Lerdorf realizes that his plate of spaghetti is an excellent model for understanding both the World Wide Web and that web applications should mimic their medium. On the back of his napkin he designs Programmable Hyperlinked Pasta (PHP). PHP documentation remains on that napkin to this day.

humour perl php programming programming languages tech 0

2010/4/15

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union established a system of secret science cities, or "naukograds" in Russian. These cities were closed off from the rest of the USSR and identified only by numbered names; in them, elite scientists lived in relative luxury and worked on secret projects, while armed guards prevented anyone without authorisation from getting in or out. One could think of the naukograds as a Soviet-era cross between the Google campus and The Village.

Of course, developing nuclear bombs or putting a live dog into orbit is one thing, and competing in the technological marketplace is another, and Russia hasn't been punching its weight. While America has Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and such and Japan and South Korea supply the world with cameras, LCD screens and memory chips, Russia has a gimmicky LED keyboard and LiveJournal (a US-based, American-built site which is Russian-owned). The post-Soviet economy is worryingly dependent on exports of natural resources such as oil and gas, and, while Russia does produce good scientists and engineers, worryingly many of them end up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Now, seemingly chagrined by the lack of hype about the latest must-have Russian smartphone in the pages of Engadget, the Russian government has decided to do something about it and build a modern, web-age version of the naukograd, with less secrecy and more bean bags and sushi bars; an attempt to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by fiat, stop the brain drain and boost the Russian technology industry. Of course, there is some dispute over how to actually go about doing this:

In the midst of the oil boom, Russian officials suggested luring back Russian talent by building a gated residential community outside Moscow, designed to look like an American suburb. What is it about life in Palo Alto, they seemed to be asking, that we cannot duplicate in oil-rich Russia?
“In California, the climate is beautiful and they don’t have the ridiculous problems of Russia,” Mr. Shtorkh said. To compete, he said, Russia will form a place apart for scientists. “They should be isolated from our reality,” he added.
HIGH-TECH entrepreneurs who stayed in Russia are more skeptical. Yevgeny Kaspersky, founder of the Kaspersky Lab, an antivirus company, says that he is pulling for the site to succeed but that the government should confine its role to offering tax breaks and infrastructure.
A site has been chosen for the first new naukograd, though a name has not yet been decided. Until one is, it is variously referred to, unofficially, as Cupertino-2, Innograd and iGorod.

(via /.) economics politics russia tech 3

2010/4/4

Having recently acquired the Java language, Oracle are looking for a way to make it hip and exciting again and attract youthful, cutting-edge developers (they're the ones with the brightly dyed hair and facial piercings). However, that may be a big ask:

Java has evolved from a groundbreaking, revolutionary language platform to something closer to a modern-day version of Cobol. In just 15 years, it has moved beyond maturity into a silver-haired stage of staid dependability. Java offers stability, not agility; reliability, not innovation. It's the language of large, enterprise software projects, ones that link legacy systems and promise high availability.
Other than being the corporate enterprise standard, Java is also a rather conservative language, a C++ with training wheels designed to equalise the playing field by slowing the virtuoso coder down to what his pointy-haired manager can understand, and not encouraging dangerous agility as, say, Python and Ruby do. It being owned by Oracle probably doesn't help either.

(via /.) java oracle tech 4

2010/3/28

Security researchers are now working on ways of generating machine code that looks like English-language text (PDF).

In this paper we revisit the assumption that shellcode need be fundamentally different in structure than non-executable data. Specifically, we elucidate how one can use natural language generation techniques to produce shellcode that is superficially similar to English prose. We argue that this new development poses significant challenges for inline payloadbased inspection (and emulation) as a defensive measure, and also highlights the need for designing more efficient techniques for preventing shellcode injection attacks altogether.
The code is generated by a language engine which selects fragments of text, Markov-chain-fashion, from a large source (such as Wikipedia or the Gutenberg Project). It looks like the random gibberish spammers pad their emails out with, though if executed, functions as x86 machine code. (Rather inefficient machine code, with a lot of jumps and circumlocutions to fit the constraints of looking like English, but good enough to sneak exploits through in.) Below is an example of some code thus disguised:

(via Schneier) hacks language security steganography tech 0

2010/3/19

Two artists in Berlin have created a digital camera which automatically edits smiles onto the subjects:

The camera „Artificial Smile“ is an apparat, whose pictures show in principle only smiling people, irrespective of their former emotional state. The camera uses a pool of pictures with smiling faces, which was created beforehand, to replace the mouthes of the pictured people with smiling ones. To generate to maximum level of exaggeration it was knowingly renounced to show the laughter/smile realistically. Unlike the cameras commercially available on the market and their autoretouch function “Artificial Smile” distorts the context of the picture, reinforced formally by the golden reflecting body of the camera.

art design mori's uncanny valley photography smile tech 0

2010/3/14

Seen at Maker Faire: Two guys from ARM (the people who designed the CPU in your mobile phone and probably a dozen other devices you own) have designed an amazingly elegant new microcontroller prototyping board, for making electronic gadgets even more easily than with the Arduino. Called mbed, it consists of a board with a USB port and 40 pins. The pins do the usual things (analogue/digital I/O, USB, Ethernet, &c.), but that's not the impressive thing about it; the impressive part is the design of the whole system, which brings web-style agile development to microcontroller-based gadgets.

When you get an mbed, you plug it into your computer (which may be a Windows PC, a Mac, a Linux box or anything else which can mount USB drives); it then appears as a USB disk, containing one file: a web link. You go to the web link, which directs you to mbed's web site, where you log in or create an account; from then on, you have an integrated development environment in your browser, with source navigation, syntax highlighting and a compiler. Your code is hosted online on mbed's servers (the system uses the Subversion version control system as a store). Create a new project, and you get a "Hello World" program (written in C++) which, by default, flashes one of the mbed board's built-in LEDs. Hit the Compile button, and your browser soon prompts you to download a .bin file of the compiled program. Save it to the mbed card's drive, hit the reset button on it, and your program runs.

That's not all, though; the mbed card can work with a plethora of hardware modules, from Nokia-style LCD displays to GPS units, Bluetooth modems and more. Which is where the next bit of elegance comes in. There exists an ecosystem of modular classes for driving these various devices. To attach a supported device, all you have to do is add the class for it to your project (by pasting the URL of its Subversion repository into a dialog box; the IDE does the rest for you), instantiate it as an object and call its methods. For example, here is code for drawing on a Nokia-style LCD display:

MobileLCD lcd(p5,p6,p7,p8,p9);  // the I/O pins
lcd.background(0xffff99);
lcd.foreground(0x000000);
lcd.locate(2,2);
lcd.printf("Hello world\n");
lcd.fill(0,64,128,128, 0xffffff);
This goes some way towards making building gadgets as easy as building web applications with a framework like Django or Ruby On Rails.

mbed is somewhat more expensive than the Arduino (the price quoted was about £45 for the mbed board itself, whereas Arduino-compatible boards go for £13 or so). However, the elegance of the design, its ease of use and sheer niftiness could make it worth the price.

arm diy hacks mbed programming tech 3

2010/3/12

One of the problems with the iPhone is the lack of multitasking, or rather of non-system multitasking. Various officially blessed built-in applications (such as the phone call process, the built-in music player and the App Store downloader) can run in the background, but the system strictly enforces a ban on anything else from doing so. Which helps keep the iPhone (a small device with limited memory and battery life) from being bogged down under ill-behaved background processes, saves the user from having to contend with task managers and also reduces the risks of malware attacks, but at a cost; while an iPhone makes an eminently usable (mostly) single-task appliance, it falls down at tasks you'd want to run in the background. You can use it to listen to last.fm or SoundCloud or make Skype calls, but not whilst doing anything else. (And yes, I know you can jailbreak your iPhone and make it multitask to your heart's content, but that doesn't count.) Apple is a jealous god.

That wasn't as big a problem when the iPhone was the only phone of its class, but now, Android and WebOS have shown up, flaunting post-iPhone touch interfaces and being able to play your Spotify stream while you browse the web, and even hoary old dinosaurs like Nokia's Symbian are being brushed up and advertised as being able to multitask. Sure, a badly-written app there could drain your battery in no time, but that's beside the point; if multitasking works well enough (i.e., doesn't fail catastrophically often), Apple's system will look decidedly dated and overly conservative, and whatever Steve Jobs' aesthetic sensibilities say about it, Apple will have to put it in or risk becoming an also-ran. And, being subject to Steve Jobs' perfectionism, Apple's solution will have to not only bring in multitasking but do it without the compromises other systems have.

However, there is a rumour that the next version of the iPhone OS will do just that; i.e., will allow third-party developers to write processes that run in the background in some well-behaved way whilst managing to avoid the pitfalls of declaring a free-for-all.

I'm curious as to how they'll do it (assuming that the rumour is true, of course). My guess is that they'll focus on use cases such as processes needing to run a carefully constrained background thread, and communicate with it from the single-tasking UI process, and allow them to do this. Perhaps it'll use Apple's Blocks extension to C, and possibly a lightweight scheduling technology related to OSX's Grand Central Dispatch. That way, a background music player will be able to fetch and play audio until it is stopped or diverted by the UI (which can come and go).

apple iphone tech 0

2010/3/7

A US company is developing a system that models and replicates the styles of famous musicians. Details of how Zenph Sound Innovations' system works are scant (apparently "complex software" is used, which simulates the musicians' styles, and the resulting high-resolution MIDI files are played on robotic musical instruments; currently pianos, though a double bass and saxophone are in the works).

Currently, it is capable of reconstructing a performer's style of playing a specific work, from a recording of the work, and can be used to rebuild flawed recordings. It cannot yet play a new piece in a performer's style, though the developers are planning to work on that next.

“It introduces a whole bunch of interesting intellectual-property issues, but eventually, you ought to be able to, in essence, cast your own band,” said Frey. “You should be able to write a piece of music and for the drum piece, have Keith Moon, and for the guitar piece, you can have Eric Clapton — that is a derivation of understanding each of those artists’ styles as a digital signature. That’s further down the road, but initially, you’re going to have the ability for artist to create music and have the listener manipulate how they want to hear it — [for example] sadder.”
The intellectual-property implications alluded to are interesting; the prospect is raised of a new type of copyright, over an artist's style, being created, with the artist or their estate collecting royalties from replication of their style. While this is perfectly consistent with the copyright-maximalist ideology of the corporate-dominated, post-industrial present day, it ignores the fact that artists emulate other artists all the time. While initially, courts would exercise "common sense" and leave non-software-based copyists alone (i.e., Oasis wouldn't owe licensing fees to the Beatles), sooner or later, once the technology becomes the norm, this original intent would be forgotten and, after a few strategic court cases, a new precedent would be set, declaring styles, and the elements of them, to be licensable, much in the way that patents are, and requiring anyone taking them off to license them, much as anyone sampling even a split-second of a recording has to license it. (In the age of powerful rights-licensing corporations with political clout, intellectual-property law is a ratchet that turns only one way.) Soon, the different elements of musical style would end up aggregated in the hands of a few gigantic rightsholders with well-resourced legal teams, and musicians would be routinely slugged with heavy bills, itemised by stylistic elements.

ai copyright galambosianism grim meathook future intellectual property music tech 2

2010/2/27

When the Chumby One internet widget terminal was being assembled, the company noticed that one batch of memory cards, from Kingston, had a lot of defective cards. (The Chumby One's internal storage is a MicroSD card, like the ones used in mobile phones.) Kingston refused to replace them, as they had been programmed, and it looked like Chumby were out of luck. However, Chumby had an ace up their sleeve: one of their vice presidents is Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, i.e., the guy who cracked the XBox, and not someone one should count on being able to pull one over.

Anyway, Bunnie noticed some irregularities in the cards' markings and decided to conduct a thorough forensic investigation, examining the cards' serial numbers and manufacturing dates (where he found more inconsistencies; a lot of cards with implausibly low serial numbers and mismatched manufacturers' IDs) and then dissolving the cards' casings to examine their construction, and unearthed some answers:

First, the date code on the irregular card is uninitialized. Dates are counted as the offset from 00/2000 in the CID field, so a value of 00/2000 means they didn’t bother to assign a date (for what it’s worth, in the year 2000, 2GB microSD cards also didn’t exist). Also, the serial number is very low — 0×960 is decimal 2,400. Other cards in the irregular batch also had similarly very low serial numbers, in the hundreds to thousands range. The chance of me “just happening” to get the very first microSD cards out of a factory is pretty remote. The serial number of the normal card, for example, is 0×9C62CAE6, or decimal 2,623,720,166 — a much more feasible serial number for a popular product like a microSD card. Very low serial numbers, like very low MAC ID addresses, are a hallmark of the “ghost shift”, i.e. the shift that happens very late at night when a rouge worker enters the factory and runs the production machine off the books. Significantly, ghost shifts are often run using marginal material that would normally be disposed of but were intercepted on the way to the grinder. As a result, the markings and characteristics of the material often look absolutely authentic, because the ghost material is a product of the same line as genuine material.
After confronting Kingston and getting an exchange, no questions asked, Bunnie didn't stop investigating, visiting the dodgy bazaars of China and dealing with characters straight out of cyberpunk novels to procure a selection of variously dubious cards to investigate, and discovering various truths, some less savoury than others, about the memory card market. (For one, memory cards cost about as much as the raw memory inside them, but also contain an ARM-based microcontroller which is thrown in for free; the microcontroller handles error testing and saves the manufacturer the cost of dedicated testing gear, whilst also allowing the users of the card to get away with using regular filesystems on them. Secondly, some manufacturers, pressed to cut costs and increase profit margins, appear to be sanctioning (or at least turning a blind eye to) ghost shifts with dodgy materials and pawning the brummagem batches off on the kinds of weaker players they don't have much to fear from.)

Ghost shifts, and unlicensed extra items made on the side, are not unique to the memory card industry; this article describes several cases of contract manufacturers churning out extra copies of goods on the side, often in quantities large enough to flood markets, including a case involving shoe company New Balance.

Of course, you probably won't find ghost-shifted iPhones (as opposed to actual fake pseudo-iPhones, with built-in FM radios and entirely different firmware styled to look more or less iPhone-like) on the market any time soon, as Apple play hardball with their contractors, insisting on draconian security measures, dividing the manufacturing process up between different companies, and using nonstandard components.

(via MeFi) forensics hacks scams tech 1

2010/2/25

The momentum towards proper typography on the web continues: now the FontFont type foundry, best known for clean, European typefaces like FF Meta and FF DIN as well as several Neville Brody geometrics, is selling web embeddable versions of its typefaces. The fonts are sold in DRM-free WOFF (the new open standard, currently in Firefox 3.6, but undoubtedly soon to make it into the WebKit browsers) and EOT (the Internet Explorer font format), which may be linked from style sheets. How much you pays depends on what license you get, and how many page views your site gets, and users are expected to configure their web servers to only give access to the fonts if the referrer matches the site (which won't stop anyone with a copy of curl or wget and half a clue from illicitly downloading them, but will stop other websites from casually sponging off your site's fonts). More details are here.

Which is a good start. Now if a few others like Emigre would join the @font-face party, then things would get more fun. (If Adobe made their fonts available for CSS embedding, non-Mac users might see this blog in Gill Sans, but that's probably not going to happen, as it's in Adobe's interest to keep HTML nobbled and divert those wanting more control to PDF or Flash.)

(via Daring Fireball) tech typography web 0

2010/2/12

If former Microsoft executive Nathan Myrhvold (now involved in malaria-eradication programmes funded by Bill Gates) has his way, we may soon have miniature mosquito-killing laser turrets:

Now the fun stuff: Shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers. ("A pinkie-suck idea.") It can be built with consumer electronics -- a Blu-ray player has a blue laser, a laser printer has fast-moving mirror. You can use them around clinics. The shoot 100% organic photons. You can measure wingbeat frequency and size the of flying insect and decide whether it is worth killing. Moore's law makes technology so cheap we can decide whether or not to kill a bug.
They have one here, built from parts purchased on eBay. They are using a green laser pointer instead of a killing laser, for safety reasons. We see a box of skeeters being tracked and zapped. We hear the mosquito wingbeat.
There are also ultra-slow-motion videos of mosquitoes being zapped with a live laser here. Isn't technology awesome?

(via Boing Boing) awesome health tech 4

2010/1/20

An Android developer posts his top ten complaints about the mobile platform.

5. The Developer Cooperative

Remember back to college and that Economics 101 class you didn't take. In that mythical class, they might have talked about a term called the tragedy of the commons: the misuse and overuse of a collectively owned resource. In the case of Android, that common resource is the memory, processor, and battery life of the handset. The tragedy is that any application, while in the background, can use any amount of resources. This is why performance and battery life on Android handsets can be so unstable.

Google just expects programmers to use fore and background cycles wisely, which most of us do, right? However, one careless developer can single-handedly demolish a weekend's worth of battery power in a matter of hours.

Needless to say, others include it being based on Java, and market fragmentation making it difficult to test on the ever-increasing range of Android devices out there.

(via /.) android google tech 2

An Armenian-born programmer recounts how, during his childhood in the USSR, he stumbled across the KGB's technique for listening in on conversations in any home.

Some time in 1981, I think, a relative from the U.S. comes to visit us for the first time since he left the country many years before that. He was going to stay in our house for a couple of weeks. My parents told me that such visits were always "monitored" by KGB, and so I should be careful with expressing any kind of anti-soviet ideas (which I was known for in the school). In the end though, nobody was going to take this seriously: neither the possibility of KGB agents freezing in cold outside watching us through the windows, nor any kind of bugs installed in our house.
Something strange, however, had happened when our relative had finally arrived. Our phone went crazy. First of all, it was practically impossible to call or to take calls during that period. And besides, the phone's ringer started giving a single "ding" twice a day, exactly at 9 in the morning and 9 in the evening.
The KGB, it seems, was using the ringers of telephones as crude microphones, responding to sound vibrations and feeding a very weak signal back into the phone line; when a house was noted as being of sufficient interest, a powerful amplifier could make the signal just about intelligible. The KGB only got caught out (to the extent of allowing a young boy to figure out what was happening, at least) due to the dilapidated condition of the Soviet phone system, and the tendency for lines to get crossed from time to time.

(via Schneier) hacks security surveillance tech ussr 0

2010/1/13

What purports to be an interview with an anonymous Facebook employee, shedding some light on the inner workings of Facebook, technical improvements, privacy, and the more unusual dealings with its millions of users:

How do you think we know who your best friends are? But that’s public knowledge; we’ve explicitly stated that we record that. If you look in your type-ahead search, and you press “A,” or just one letter, a list of your best friends shows up. It’s no longer organized alphabetically, but by the person you interact with most, your “best friends,” or at least those whom we have concluded you are best friends with.
I’m not sure when exactly it was deprecated, but we did have a master password at one point where you could type in any user’s user ID, and then the password. I’m not going to give you the exact password, but with upper and lower case, symbols, numbers, all of the above, it spelled out ‘Chuck Norris,’ more or less. It was pretty fantastic.
I found a fake account created from Berkeley that used the profile picture and information from the brother of one of my very good friends. We looked up the guy who created the original profile, and he had never ever heard of him, never ever met him, obviously had never seen him. But this guy had evidently added him as a friend, and sadly he accepted it, but literally stole all of this guy’s information, created a fake account, and was communicating with himself from the fake account. He was writing on his wall and posting back to the “other person’s” wall. We found out the guy actually had about fifteen fake accounts that he created, stealing other users’ pictures and information to create the accounts, and was actually communicating back and forth with himself. Just to try to make himself appear cool, I guess?
The unnamed Facebook employee also says that they're working on something named Hyper-PHP, which will compile PHP (which Facebook is written in) to machine code, which, they claim, will reduce CPU usage by 80%.

(via Lachlan) bizarre facebook php privacy tech web wtf 0

2009/12/18

US troops in Iraq now have an iPhone app for tracking insurgents; well, for displaying tactical maps in real time. Meanwhile, the insurgents have found a Russian-designed program which can be bought for $26 and which allows them to watch the video feeds of Predator drones, which happen to be unencrypted. (Oops!) The military is planning to fix this, though it's harder to do than it sounds due to the expensive proprietary design of the aging drones.

fail hacks iphone security tech war 0

2009/12/13

The New York Times has published its annual roundup of the past year in ideas (unfortunately, in a pretty but annoyingly unlinkable JavaScript-based format).

This list has the usual variety of design/technological ideas (artificial engine noise for electric cars, artificial guilt for battlefield robots, a kitchen sink that puts out fires by filling the air with a fine mist, the glow-in-the-dark dog), environmental interventions/observations (artificial carbon-absorbing trees, a way of more efficiently disposing of corpses, bans on suburban culs-de-sac, pessimistic variants on the Gaia hypothesis), psychology and the social sciences (lithium in the water supply reduces suicide rates, randomly promoting employees works best, being given "counterfeit" goods to wear can increase one's likelihood of cheating), geopolitics (promoting communication in itself to undermine dictatorships) and business (subscription models for funding art). Where last year's had a recurring theme of trying to fix a dysfunctional capitalism, this year's theme seems to be zombies (both in the context of Jane Austen mashups and finding scientific models of how to survive a zombie epidemic; the answer, for what it's worth, is strike back hard and annihilate them before it's too late).

2009 design environment ideas politics tech zombies 0

2009/11/28

The vinyl record "died" in the 1980s, killed off by the increased convenience of cassettes and CDs (and the recording industry's drive to get people to buy their music all over again), though, thanks to hip-hop and dance-music DJs, enjoyed a vibrant second life. Niche labels started putting out vinyl, new pressing plants opened, and then the majors got back into the game. Now, it seems that vinyl's second life may be coming to an end; Technics have announced that they are discontinuing their iconic 1200 and 1210 turntables, as more DJs realise that digital DJing technology has improved spectacularly, and that the old arguments about it not being authentic or "proper DJing"* aren't getting any less tired than the ones about digital photography not being real photography. Indeed, while Technics scrap their turntables, their rival Pioneer have just released a new CD DJ deck which can play MP3s off a USB drive; though even such advances in dedicated DJing hardware are in part defensive actions against the onslaught of laptop DJing software.

* What's the DJing equivalent of rockism? Vinylism perhaps?

authenticity djing music tech vinyl 0

2009/11/27

Apple have just released the specifications for the iTunes LP format, a way of encoding extra content to wrap around music albums, and it looks very elegant. As mentioned before, an iTunes LP is a directory containing the original media and graphic files, as well as XML metadata, HTML/CSS for presentation, and code in JavaScript for the navigation. The JavaScript code uses a framework named TuneKit, which, in characteristic Apple fashion, is elegantly Model-View-Controller; rather than littering DOM objects with event handlers, an author defines controller classes which deal with the relevant events.

Apple say that they will start accepting automated submissions of iTunes LP content to the iTunes Store in the first quarter of 2010. Of course, as the format is open, there is nothing preventing people from rolling their own and selling them from other sites.

I wonder how long until there are open-source iTunes LP players for platforms such as Linux.

apple html itunes javascript programming tech 8

2009/11/24

Taking the concept of "minimal electronica" to a new level, a group of artists have created a collection of music tracks composed in only 140 characters of SuperCollider source code. You can listen to or download the tracks here.

(via MeFi) electronic music music programming supercollider tech 0

2009/11/14

The street finds its own uses for things yet again: a hacktivist group calling itself the Electronic Disturbance Theater has hacked a cheap GPS-enabled mobile phone into a device for helping Mexican immigrants across the US border:

We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.
We’re at the end of the alpha stage, in terms of the technology, so the next level, which will be the most difficult, is interfacing with communities south of the border: NGOs, churches, and other communities that deal with people preparing to cross the border. How can we train them to use this? What is the proper methodology? Those are really going to be the most nuanced and difficult elements with, let’s call it, the sociological aspect of the project.
Of course, once the militias capture one of these (and presumably they'll start searching captured immigrants for them), they will know where the water is stashed. I wonder whether the Electronic Disturbance Theater has put in any sort of self-destruct mechanism.

(via Boing Boing) gibson's law gps hacktivism tech usa 1

2009/11/10

In the UK, they have the Shipping Forecast; in Israel, they have text message alerts of incoming missiles:

"The rocket sensor will create a virtual ellipse (of the predicted impact zone) and all phones in that area will receive a warning," the Jerusalem Post quoted Chilik Soffer, a senior official at the Israeli Home Front Command, as saying.

(via HuffPo) gibson's law israel mobile phones security tech 0

2009/11/4

A reformed Facebook spammer (in his own words) writes about the dubious tricks of his former trade:

I finally came to this realization: People on Facebook won’t pay for anything. They don’t have credit cards, they don’t want credit cards, and they are not interested in shopping. But you can trick them into doing one of three things:
  • Download a toolbar: It could be spyware (such as Zango) or something more legitimate, such as Webfetti or Zwinkys.
  • Give up their email address: You’ve won a “free” camera or perhaps you’ve been selected as a tester for a new Macbook Pro (which you get to keep at the end of the test). Just tell us where you want us to ship it.
  • Give up their phone number: You took the IQ Quiz, so give us your phone number and we’ll tell you your score. Never mind that you’ll get billed $20 a month or perhaps be tricked into inviting 10 other friends to beat your score.
Also, if you don't want to see spam, move to somewhere geographically indistinguishable from where service providers (like Facebook and Google) are based; i.e., the San Francisco Bay Area:
Cloaking: This is when you show a different page based on IP address. We and most other ad networks would geo-block northern California—showing different ads to Facebook employees than to other users around the world. One of the largest Facebook advertisers (I’m not going to out you, but you know who you are) employs this technique to this day, using a white-listed account. Our supposition is that it makes too much money for Facebook to stop him. Believe me, we have brought this to Facebook’s attention on several occasions. Here’s what this fellow does—he submits tame ads for approval, and once approved, redirects the url to the spammy page. To be fair, players like Google AdWords have had years more experience in this game to close such loopholes.

facebook scams spam tech 0

2009/11/3

A sound artist from New York, now based in the desert of Texas, makes neckties woven from audio tape, prerecorded with sound collages made from samples recorded in New York. If you dismember an old Walkman and pull the playback head out, you can run it over your tie, making noise.

If you want to order one (and live in the US), you can do so here.

(I can imagine this sort of thing going further. If one could make magnetic fabric, and imprint it with wave patterns, one could essentially make cloth that functions as a wavetable synthesiser, and fashion it into playable clothing.)

art diy music tech 1

Type foundries and browser makers have agreed on an open embeddable font format for the web. The Web Open Font Format, developed in collaboration by parties including the Mozilla project and geekier-than-thou type foundry LettError (which was cofounded by one Just van Rossum, whose brother created a somewhat popular programming language), is essentially a repackaged, compressed variant of TrueType/OpenType.

Somewhat surprisingly, it not only contains no DRM (which would have been a deal-breaker for open formats; Microsoft tried introducing an IE-only DRM-locked TrueType variant, but wasn't successful), but also contains all the data that a desktop font does, only slightly rejiggered to make it unusable in existing desktop systems. (I'll give them a week before someone writes a script that rips WOFF fonts to TrueType fonts.) This is surprising because the commercial font industry, producing something that's labour-intensive and skill-intensive but infinitely copiable, has until now jealously guarded its intellectual property, refusing to license its fonts for embedding in desktop formats. Instead, now they're keen to license them in slightly obfuscated versions, with the understanding that browsers enforce a same-origin linking policy unless there is additional license information. (I was thinking that, if the industry wasn't keen on letting its vector fonts out onto the web, it could have been possible to devise a resolution-limited font format, based on several sizes of bitmaps, with vector hints (i.e., "pixels 36-40 are a vertical stroke"), and generate all intermediate sizes using an interpolation algorithm. Such fonts would, of course, degrade if scaled above the maximum resolution in the file.) Another rationale could be that the market for web fonts could eclipse that for print fonts, and web font licensing would be easier to enforce (web sites, after all, are findable, and presumably unlicensed fonts would be easy enough to detect).

Licensing issues aside, WOFF promises to provide more than merely letting you put your favourite fonts on your web site. While Firefox 3.6 will have basic WOFF support, the next version of the specification promises to give more control, allowing web designers to fine-tune typographical parameters, selecting alternate forms including ligatures, different types of figures (lining and old-style, tabular and proportional), proper small caps, alternate figures (such as swash capitals) and such.

(via /.) tech typography web 0

2009/10/24

Things aren't looking good for ZFS, Sun's jaw-droppingly impressive next-generation filesystem, used in Solaris and once slated to appear in OSX; now Apple have abruptly shut down their open-source ZFS project. There is speculation here that it has to do with (a) Oracle, who bought Sun, already being behind a competing (if currently somewhat less developed) filesystem, Btrfs (which is being developed on Linux), and planning to kill ZFS development to rationalise costs, and/or (b) server manufacturer NetApp suing Sun over patented technologies used in ZFS.

Apple, meanwhile, are hiring filesystem engineers, which suggests that they're planning to build their own next-generation filesystem. Until then, Mac users will have to make do with HFS+.

apple oracle sun tech zfs 0

2009/9/17

This is pretty awesome: a browser-based SNES NES emulator written entirely in JavaScript. Let me repeat that: someone wrote code in JavaScript (not in Flash or Java or anything faster) for emulating a Super Nintendo almost in its entirety*, from the 6502 CPU to the graphics and I/O hardware, and got away with it (it gets a respectable 33 frames per second in Chromium, though crawls along painfully in Firefox). The source code is all there in the page, unobfuscated, and the author has released the code (which is fairly elegantly laid out and comprehensible) under the GPL. Which means that it's probably only a matter of time until someone uses it to build a DHTML-based Commodore 64 or something.

* there's no sound, as one might expect.

(via Download Squad) 6502 awesome emulation javascript nes nintendo retrocomputing tech 2

2009/9/15

The advent of the MP3 has changed the music-listening experience, as many musicians and old-timers will tell you; no longer do you sit on the floor by the Dansette meditating on the 12" square of lovingly designed artwork in your hands as the artists take you on a journey in the order they intended; no, you're free to listen to music a track at a time. Which, of course, has its upsides (for one, since the invention of the CD, the recording industry has been raking it in by requiring artists wanting that one good song to pay for the other 75 minutes of hastily cobbled together filler), but, on the other hand, the experience of the-album-as-totality is no longer there (and a folder of MP3s played in sequence isn't quite the same).

But now, Apple has launched a standard format for encapsulating the other bits of an album. Named "iTunes LP", it includes clickable artwork, lyrics and other media. An "iTunes LP" is downloaded with the AAC files when you buy an album from, you guessed it, iTunes.

A chap by the name of Jay Robinson has dissected this format, finding that it's basically a ZIP file containing HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other resources. There doesn't seem to be any DRM or code signing in use, so it's not unlikely that the .itlp format will break free of iTunes; that we may soon see artists rolling their own, and third-party software playing .itlp files. It'll be interesting to see what comes of this.

apple itunes music social implications tech 0

2009/9/6

Geekier-than-thou technology blog Ars Technica have posted a detailed technical review of Snow Leopard, the latest revision of MacOS X, which delivers few new features but instead comprehensively overhauls the inner workings of the system. And there are a lot of interesting things there, from transparent compression of files to the shift to 64-bit and the replacement of the legacy QuickTime system with a new, Objective C-based one, not to mention a judicious sprinkling of user-interface improvements and technologies brought over from the iPhone programme. (Core Animation, it seems, is everywhere, and there's a CoreLocation service which can determine where a machine is.)

One of the most intriguing improvements (to me, as a programmer, anyway) is one at the lowest level: Apple have quietly extended the C language, adding anonymous/lambda functions and closures, which they call "blocks". So now you can create and pass back blocks of code (more or less) as if you were in Lisp, Python or JavaScript, like so:

typedef void (^work_t)(void);
 
void repeat(int n, work_t block) { 
  for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) 
    block(); 
} 
 
repeat(5, ^{ printf("Hello world\n") });
Which, of course, opens the door to functional-style algorithms like map/filter/reduce, passing predicates as function arguments, and other nifty tricks which people in the functional-programming world have been doing without a second thought for decades.

The code in bold is a block. It's not the prettiest syntax in the world, though it is consistent with C, and gets lexical scope. There are more technical details on blocks here (fun fact: a block is an Objective C runtime object, though can be used from vanilla C), and Apple's own documentation here. Apple have made the blocks extention open source, contributing it back to both GCC and the LLVM compiler they're moving to, and submitting it to the C standards working group (as in this paper), so there's a decent chance that they'll filter through to other platforms. (How quickly they're adopted elsewhere is, of course, another matter.)

Blocks in themselves are nifty for the functional-programming enthusiasts, though understandably may seem esoteric to everybody else. Apple, however, are making thorough practical use of them in a new subsystem named Grand Central Dispatch, which allows programmers to rewrite processor-intensive processes in terms of fine-grained units of work, pass them to queues, and have them automatically spread across however many processors the machine has free at the time; which, in theory at least, should greatly increase efficiency without requiring much more effort on the programmer's part.

(via MeFi) C apple functional programming osx programming tech 0

2009/8/29

Every so often, one reads horror stories about how technology is destroying our ability to write: about kids robbed of grammatical ability by text messaging, or PowerPoint presentations eroding the ability to string sentences together. . Now, a professor of writing claims the opposite: thanks to the internet, we are entering a golden age of literacy. According to Professor Andrea Lunsford of Stanford University, thanks to the internet, email, blogs, forums and instant messaging, people write more than in living memory, and consequently, more people than ever have the sorts of highly developed and practiced writing skills that previously were the domain of an elite cadre of professional wordsmiths:

Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
The brevity of texting and status updating teaches young people to deploy haiku-like concision. At the same time, the proliferation of new forms of online pop-cultural exegesis—from sprawling TV-show recaps to 15,000-word videogame walkthroughs—has given them a chance to write enormously long and complex pieces of prose, often while working collaboratively with others.

(via /.) contrarianism culture literacy society tech terriblisma 2

2009/7/17

The latest innovation in digital photography: the "dark flash", which allows the benefits of flash photography, such as short exposures, without the glare.

The dark flash works by modifying a camera's flash to emit only infrared and ultraviolet light, and capturing a crisp, if discoloured, image using these, as well as a less distinct but properly coloured image without flash, and compositing the two into a single image.

photography tech 0

2009/7/9

A Japanese railway company is introducing mandatory workplace smile testing. Employees of the Keihin Electric Express Railway will be required to submit to daily testing using imaging software which rates their smile out of 100, ensuring that customers get the appropriate level of cheerfulness in their service.

(via Boing Boing Gadgets) culture japan railway tech 0

2009/6/24

Industrial design of the day: this folding UK mains plug:

Not much is known about who designed it (the video is posted by a "MrMinKyuChoi", though the narrator of the video is female, with an accent), though it certainly is ingenious, and solves the problem of British mains plugs being huge and chunky (which may have been reassuring when attached to an electric kettle, but doesn't quite fit comfortably in a laptop sleeve, in the way that plugs in most of the rest of the world do.)

The narrator asserts that the plug fully meets Britain's exacting safety standards. If this is the case, and the wear and tear of folding and unfolding it doesn't cause it to explode in flames or electrocute the user, it is a neat piece of design.

(Britain's rather conservative specifications for plugs and sockets seem to have something to do with the fact that, in a fit of post-war thrift, British houses were wired for electricity using a single ring of copper cable, rather than a length for each socket (which would be safer and more expensive), which is the case with the rest of the world. I'm not an electrical engineer, though I wonder whether (a) adopting the European plug standards (you know, the slender round-pinned ones they use on the continent) would have been more hazardous with ring mains, or whether there was somewhat of an ideological nativism and/or imperial exceptionalism in Britain's decision to roll its own rather than surrender their wall outlets to Johnny Foreigner.)

Anyway, if this idea works and ends up being manufactured, I'd gladly buy a few.

bs1363 design industrial design tech uk 0

2009/6/11

Some hackers have found a Palm Pre firmware image in a recovery tool and started looking around in it, examining the system. It is, as expected, a fairly standard-looking Linux system, with the full complement of command-line tools (not that you can access them from the GUI), and a lot of hackable low-level settings. Also in the ROM: a JVM, icons for other application types, and some settings in configuration files which hint at other Palm WebOS devices in the pipeline (including one codenamed "Zepfloyd"). In general, it looks fairly elegant. There's a long discussion thread, containing discoveries in the ROM image, here

palm pre tech webos 0

2009/5/5

Frieze Magazine has a piece on the cultural dimension of the use of Autotune, the vocal-processing effect heard on many commercial pop songs these days:

Lil Wayne records with Auto-Tune on – no untreated vocal version exists. In an era of powerful computers that allow one to audition all manner of effects on vocals after the recording session, recording direct with Auto-Tune means full commitment. There is no longer an original ‘naked’ version. This is a cyborg embrace. In Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway notes that ‘the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.’ Auto-Tune’s creative deployment is fully compatible with her ‘argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.’
A few months ago I heard a song from the Côte d’Ivoire. Twelve minutes long, Champion DJ’s ‘Baako’ is built around a baby crying through Auto-Tune. The software bends the baby’s anguish into eerie musicality. The ear likes it. The mind isn’t so sure. ‘Baako’ is disturbing. The aestheticized cry no longer corresponds to any normal emotion. Before Auto-Tune, we had no melodious screams.
From the US to Mexico, Jamaica, Africa, and beyond – Auto-Tune usage has splintered, with different approaches from scene to scene and artist to artist. (It remains the most sonically extreme in Berber Morocco.) The plug-in creates a different relation of voice to machine than ever before. Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal.
The article points out that Antares, the makers of Autotune, are working on a mobile phone version of their software.

Also, I wonder how much of what they call "Autotune" is really Antares' plug-in (which, as far as I know, is a black box that works in real time), and how much is other tools like Celemony Melodyne (an application which lets one edit the timing and pitch of recorded notes, and can be used for getting similar results).

(via MeFi) autotune computer music culture music tech 2

2009/4/22

Users of criminal hacking forums have apparently been offering ridiculous sums of money for one type of low-end mobile phone. Certain Nokia 1100 handsets, manufactured in Bochum, Germany, are said to have a firmware bug which allows them to be reprogrammed to use another user's phone number, and thus intercept text messages containing bank transaction authentication codes, which is why the going price for them has gone as high as €25,000. Nokia have denied knowing of either such a flaw or of the phones for going for more than €100.

Though if criminals want a handset that can bypass GSM network security and intercept other users' messages, surely there'd be cheaper ways to go about this. Given that criminal gangs somehow managed to compromise a Chinese factory that made point-of-sale terminals and "enhance" the terminals with GSM-based card skimmers, surely it wouldn't be so hard to get one of the numerous Chinese mobile phone manufacturers to intentionally weaken security in one of their units to allow it to be used to spoof numbers, and then buying up a few boxloads of them. Bonus points for getting one that looks almost like an iPhone.

(via Engadget) crime gibson's law hacks mobile phones scams tech 1

2009/4/20

In Brazil, the street finds its own uses for obsolescent US military satellites. For over a decade, Brazilians, from long-haul truck drivers and villagers out of the reach of the mobile phone networks of the cities to illegal loggers and organised crime factions, have been bouncing radio signals off a US Navy satellite system using jury-rigged off-the-shelf amateur radio equipment. The satellite system, known as FLTSATCOM to its owners, is colloquially referred to as "Bolinha", or "little ball".

To use the satellite, pirates typically take an ordinary ham radio transmitter, which operates in the 144- to 148-MHZ range, and add a frequency doubler cobbled from coils and a varactor diode. That lets the radio stretch into the lower end of FLTSATCOM's 292- to 317-MHz uplink range. All the gear can be bought near any truck stop for less than $500. Ads on specialized websites offer to perform the conversion for less than $100. Taught the ropes, even rough electricians can make Bolinha-ware.
Truck drivers love the birds because they provide better range and sound than ham radios. Rogue loggers in the Amazon use the satellites to transmit coded warnings when authorities threaten to close in. Drug dealers and organized criminal factions use them to coordinate operations.
When real criminals use these frequencies, it's easy to tell they're hiding something, but it's nearly impossible to know what it is. In one intercepted conversation posted to YouTube, a man alerts a friend that he should watch out, because things are getting "crispy" and "strong winds" are on their way. Sometimes loggers refer to the approach of authorities by saying, "Santa Claus is coming," says Brochi.
One problem for the users is that the US military is still using the satellites (a replacement network isn't due online until later this year), and don't appreciate their communications being degraded by cheering football fans and random dodgy dealers. Bolinha activity is illegal, both in Brazil, and the US, and the authorities don't have too many problems triangulating the signals.
The crackdown, called "Operation Satellite," was Brazil's first large-scale enforcement against the problem. Police followed coordinates provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and confirmed by Anatel, Brazil's FCC. Among those charged were university professors, electricians, truckers and farmers, the police say. The suspects face up to four years and jail, but are more likely to be fined if convicted.
("Operation Satellite?" Either something got lost in translation, or the people who name operations at the Brazilian federal police aren't the most imaginative bunch. Surely high-level operations should have cryptic, vaguely abstract names, redolent either of neo-Classical grandeur or square-jawed military machismo, like, say, "Operation Prometheus" or "Piranha December Blue" or something. But "Operation Satellite?")
In February of last year, FCC investigators used a mobile direction-finding vehicle to trace rogue transmissions to a Brazilian immigrant in New Jersey. When the investigators inspected his radio gear, they found a transceiver programmed to a FLTSAT frequency, connected to an antenna in the back of his house. Joaquim Barbosa was hit with a $20,000 fine.

(via Boing Boing) anarchy brazil cyberpunk gibson's law hacks tech 0

2009/4/1

The rise of Wikipedia and its open-source, collaborative content model has claimed a scalp among its traditional, proprietary competition: Microsoft's online encyclopedia Encarta will be shut down on 31 October. Encarta was launched in the 1990s as a savvier Britannica for the CD-ROM age.

I wonder how long Britannica has left. Will it survive indefinitely, sustained by the niche market for expensive, impressive-looking leather-bound volumes, fetishised by those to whom such things still suggest wisdom more than decrepitude? Will the brand name be snapped up by a manufacturer of prestige E-paper Wikipedia browsers? Or will it just sink without a trace, as a relic of a past age of informational scarcity?

business encarta microsoft online tech wikipedia 5

2009/3/13

The Independent had an article this week on how Stockholm has become a centre of web technologies and social software, from the likes of Skype and Spotify to more ethically ambiguous ones like The Pirate Bay, and why this is the case:

Rick Falkvinge is the leader of Sweden's most plugged-in political group, The Pirate Party. "In the rest of Europe," he says, "the internet roll-out was done by telecommunications companies, who had an incentive to delay it for as long as possible because it shattered their existing business model. When you put disruptive technology into everyone's hands, it changes public perceptions of what you can, and should, do with it."
Technology must be in the Swedish genes; in 1900, Stockholm had more telephones than London or Berlin. When Crown Princess Victoria announced her engagement last week, she did so via a video on the royal website. The weekend's biggest film opening was an adaptation of novelist Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The heroine of the title is a young computer hacker with a flexible attitude to the law.
Sweden has long been held up as a model of social democracy. So is there something in the mindset that predisposes the Swedes to the provision of free, communal culture online? "There's a law [Allemansratten] that I think is unique to Sweden, about common spaces," says Andersson. "You can go out camping in nature anywhere in Sweden without asking the landowner's permission. That sort of attitude predominates here."
Which is not entirely true; England has the ancient "right to roam", which is still valid everywhere that's not owned by Madonna. However, Britain has more of the Anglocapitalist model of culture, predicated on intellectual property licensing and marketing, than the collectivist, Jante-compliant variety in Scandinavia. Were three Londoners to start a BitTorrent tracker in the UK, they'd be extradited to the United States (whose intellectual property, after all, it is) faster than you could say "Gary McKinnon".

On a tangent, here is an article from Spin magazine last year (sadly, presented only as JavaScript-viewable image maps, and not copiable, which is probably why you haven't seen it blogged much) about how Sweden became a musical powerhouse. It does have a lot to do with government investment, both in terms of teaching musicianship in schools and encouraging children to develop musically and in subsidising overseas tours by Swedish bands. And they're now setting their attention on "beating the Americans to China".

culture economy music sweden tech 0

2009/1/25

Some interesting notes from a talk about the scalability of social software delivered at the Web 2.0 Expo last September by Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us:

There are 3 Kinds of scale: technological, social, and personal. We’re going to briefly go through the technical stuff... Common access pattern is to have a screen, make a modification, requery the data, and then resend the results. We’re building a lot of these systems to be synchronous which is a huge performance hit. What you need is a queue not a database for processing messages asynchronously. Decouple interactive performance from the rest of the system. Huge win for Delicious. Now that we’ve got technical stuff out of the way…
Don’t go too far and expose too much information. A long time ago you could see how many friends you had and how many followers you had and compare who it was that was following but not a friend. The system allowed me to get angry at two people. People got freaked out by people ‘follow’ing them on delicious.
Wanted delicious to be a harmonious system. That’s why there were no conversations. Didn’t want people to come in and have religious wars. You have to be willing to deal with abuse, spam, porn, etc. His last year this got really bad.
Pretty urls are important. It’s prime advertising space. People will copy paste and link.

(via substitute) del.icio.us design scalability social software tech web 0

2009/1/21

Québecois music software maker Plogue have announced a software synthesiser designed for chiptunes. the Plogue Chipsounds plugin (Windows/Mac VST; price/release date unknown) will simulate not one but seven different 8-bit sound chips (from the SID chip to ones taken from the Atari 2600, Nintendo NES, VIC-20 and arcade machines), all to great authenticity, and even features "faithful DC signal leakage emulation" for added versimilitude. It'll also come with presets made by chip musicians 8-Bit Weapon and ComputeHer.

Of course, not everybody's pleased. Some chip musicians are unhappy that this means that dilettantes unwilling or unable to put in the hard yards writing 6502 assembly language will be able to get the same authentically 8-bit sounds they can. Why, Plogue could port it to Pro Tools and it could end up on the next Madonna record; for shame!

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether one regards 8-bit sound chip sounds as worthy in their own right, or merely as a shibboleth for separating the truly hip and hardcore from trendies and hangers-on. I lean towards the former camp; surely there are other ways of distinguishing interesting music from commercial pabulum than by whether the composer knows assembly language. Then again, I would say that, not having written any 6502 assembly in about two decades.

(via Boing Boing Gadgets) 8-bit authenticity chiptunes computer music culture retrocomputing tech 2

2009/1/19

In the US, mobile phone carriers have a lot more power over consumers than in Europe or Australia. There phones are only obtainable from carriers, are locked to one carrier and often have features disabled to drive profits to the carrier, resulting in Americans paying more for less than their fellow mobile phone users abroad. (It's the classic "turd-in-a-can" ideal of predatory consumer capitalism; first, make sure you have a captive audience, and then you can sell them any old crap at the price of your choice, safe in the knowledge that they have nowhere else to go.)

Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is turning its attention to this issue, in particular to the practice of locking phones down and the use of copyright laws to enforce this; to this aim, it has launched the Free Your Phone campaign, and is asking US residents to sign an online petition. It's probably about time.

business eff exploitation mobile phones tech turd in a can usa 0

2009/1/9

Beleaguered PDA maker Palm, who brought us the Pilot/PalmPilot and its descendants, has been having a rough time of things; PDAs have largely gone extinct, and their PalmOS (which, technically speaking, was rather like MacOS 9 in a lot of ways) was looking a bit long in the tooth compared to other phone OSes; Palm acknowledged this and deprecated it in favour of (of all things) Windows Mobile, becoming just another Windows phone vendor. And not a very competitive one, it would seem; their market share all but disappeared, and they looked to be circling the drain, as everyone ditched their Treos for BlackBerries or those Apple things they've been going on about. There were rumours of a new operating system they were working on, but as the months and years passed with no sight of it, a revival of their fortunes started looking much like the mythical second coming of the Amiga.

But now, it's here, or at least on the horizon, and it's looking rather good. Here is the report of the CES press conference. Basically, it's a rather nifty-looking handset with an iPhone-like multitouch screen and a slide-out keyboard and it runs a new system named Palm WebOS, which is based on a Linux core but seems to take a quite interesting data-driven approach. The user interface and other performance appears to be very polished—some would say better than the benchmarks set by Apple, which are indeed high—and, to top things off, it comes with a nifty contactless charger known as the "Touchstone". And, as they made a point of mentioning, it has both a removable battery and cut and paste. The US version is, as always, exclusive to a carrier (Sprint, in this case), though a GSM 3G version for non-US markets has been announced. In general, the commentariat are impressed. Needless to say, Palm's stock is recovering nicely.

Of course, the announcement leaves some questions unanswered. Such as, in what language are apps for Palm WebOS written (surely everything's not a JavaScript widget, is it?); is it C/C++, some Java-like bytecode, or has someone other than Apple decided to go with Objective C? Will unlocked versions be available in Not-America? And does it have any sort of emulation mode for classic PalmOS apps (so that one can run one's copy of Bhajis Loops)? Nonetheless, it looks very tempting.

gadgets mobile phones palm tech 2

2008/12/30

The New York Times has published its annual Year In Ideas for 2008; unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a lot more rethinking of economics and the foundations of capitalism there ("Guaranteed Retirement Account", "Rising Tide Tax System", and a "Stock Transfer Tax", which months ago would have been seen as unwarranted interference in the majestic free market). Other ideas tackle the energy crisis ("biomechanical energy harvester", "gallons per mile", "smart grids"), environmental issues in general ("carbon penance", "the climate-change defense", and "eat kangaroos to fight global warming"), new findings from psychology (such as "scrupulosity disorder", research into why social exclusion feels cold, or the finding that chauvinistic men earn more than egalitarian men), and random inventions (airbags for the elderly, spray-on condoms) and trends (wine from China, zoning prohibitions on fast-food restaurants).

Meanwhile, LogoLounge has posted its annual roundup of trends in logo design. It seems that organic flourishes and wrapping things around spheres are still big, with bright colours making a comeback, while more corporate clients are going for the instant sincerity of hand-sketched logos.

2008 design economics environment ideas politics tech 0

2008/12/16

The first ever case has been reported of someone sending emails in their sleep. The emails were reported as being haphazardly formatted, in a mixture of upper and lower case, and written in strange language, though more or less comprehensible:

The 44-year-old woman, whose case is reported by researchers from the University of Toledo in the latest edition of medical journal Sleep Medicine, had gone to bed at around 10pm, but got up two hours later and walked to the next room.
She then turned on the computer, connected to the internet, and logged on by typing her username and password to her email account. She then composed and sent three emails.
One read: "Come tomorrow and sort this hell hole out. Dinner and drinks, 4.pm,. Bring wine and caviar only." Another said simply, "What the……."

(via /.) bizarre email health parasomnias somnambulism tech wtf 0

2008/12/15

The Independent's Rhodri Marsden has an article about the Roland TR-808, the classic electronic drum machine which became a staple of everything from hip-hop to electronica, from post-punk rock to adult-oriented soft-soul, and now having lent its name to a Kanye West album (somewhat ironically, perhaps, as there is little evidence of any 808s having been used in the making of the album; those who bought it expecting to hear some sweet sidestick-and-cowbell action will probably have reason to be disappointed).

And once you know what you're listening out for, you'll hear the 808 on innumerable tracks. Unfortunately, one of its most widely heard manifestations is the cowbell effect that hammers away like a distressed woodpecker during "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston. "That noise is the bane of my life," says Simon Thornton, the producer of Fatboy Slim and countless other British dance acts over the past two decades. "It makes you wonder which person at Roland actually decided that it sounded any good."
But one man's trash is another man's treasure, and Jyoti Mishra, the self-confessed producer of "camp synth pop" and former singles chart-topping artist under the name White Town, considers the same noise to be iconic. "And so are the claves, and so are the handclaps. Of course, they don't sound like handclaps – but strangely, they have somehow become the sound of handclaps. Every drum machine produced since then has had to feature that same kind of noise."
By the mid 1980s, the 808 had helped rap artists such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys to worldwide success – but it was also dusted off in studios to provide backing for more laidback tunes, such as Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and "One More Night" by Phil Collins. "I got mine in 1983," says Mishra, "and immediately loved it. And those things it was criticised for – the limitations of its built-in sounds – are what ended up making it so popular."
The 808 pillow in the photo, incidentally, has nothing to do with the article per se, but comes from this article.

1980s electronic music music retro roland tech tr-808 2

The street finds its own uses for things; in this case, the things are iPhones (though the concept could easly be ported to other, less fashionable, smart phones; an Android version is in the works), and "the street" is FixMyStreet, a system that lets you notify the relevant public authorities of any local problems. At least it does if you live in Britain, where the system runs,.

Meanwhile, Namco have decided to milk the Katamari cash cow once more, with a version for the iPhone:

No new twists here; just an adaptation of the classic Katamari game. It uses the iPhone (and iPod Touch)'s tilt sensor as a control mechanism. Unfortunately, the hardware seems to be a bit too slow; when I tried it on my first-generation iPod Touch, it ran infuriatingly slowly. (Perhaps the second generation will work better with it?) The fact that the developers kept the screen-warping effects when you reach a size milestone probably doesn't help either. As such, I can't recommend buying this unless you're desperate for a Katamari fix.

On a tangent: I wonder how Keita Takahashi is getting on with Noby Noby Boy. I haven't heard much about it for a while.

(via Gulfstream, Boing Boing Gadgets) android democracy gibson's law iphone katamari damacy mobile phones tech videogames 0

2008/12/10

The latest experimental technology to emerge from Google's labs is something called Native Client. This is an experimental means of running web content in native machine code in a web browser. It's X86-specific (so users of PowerPC Macs and the numerous ARM-based portable devices are out of luck here), though other than that, completely portable; the binaries are in a special format, and get a limited number of system calls standardised across Linux, OSX and Windows. There is even a version of Quake which will run in a browser, in any of these systems, should you have the plugin enabled.

Of course, by now, you're probably thinking "Are they crazy? That's the worst idea since nuclear-powered airliners". Google, though, claim that they have a robust security model. The instruction set available is restricted, with constraints placed on the format of the code, allowing a code inspection process to detect any dangerous instructions. Google argue their case in a research paper; I'm not sufficiently familiar with recent x86 assembly language to verify their claims, but it looks like they certainly put some thought into it. Of course, there are a lot of very bright people in places like Russia, Romania and China who would also put a lot of thought into it, to entirely different ends, so there are reasons to be concerned.

Why are Google doing this? Well, firstly, it must be said that this is an experimental project, and not a finished product. However, I doubt that this is to allow better animated web ads. For most user interface content (video, animation, &c.), Flash and such are sufficient. Where this is a big win is in CPU-intensive processing tasks, which are too expensive to do in JavaScript (even if compiled to native code through Google Chrome's V8 just-in-time compiler) or Flash. (At the moment, with fast machines, one can just about do audio synthesis/processing like Hobnox Audiotool in ActionScript; however, this is quite expensive in terms of resources.)

Where something like Native Client would really come in useful would be for coding web-based applications that do real heavy lifting without handing tasks off to a well-resourced server or relying on them being coded into Flash; for example, image editing or video editing as a web service. Google's paper presents a diagram of how such services would look; the front end would be written in JavaScript and/or Flash, whilst the native x86 code would sit in a separate, sandboxed Native Client process, performing the gruntwork on demand: rendering graphics, processing video, synthesising sound, animating the exploding heads of zombies or whatever is required. C/C++, in this case, is kept firmly under the stairs, with the UI code being left to higher-level languages.

Of course, such an idea opens all sorts of strategic possibilities for Google; if it works, it would reduce the desktop operating system to a commodity. If any kind of application can be used as a web service, why buy a copy of Windows (or a PC with the Microsoft Tax in the price)? In fact, why bother installing a full-scale Linux? They're already starting to make PCs with cut-down instant-on operating systems (typically Linux-based) in the ROM, so that if you can't wait for your Vista box to finish booting, you can boot into the instant OS and get a web browser. Now, imagine a box like this, only with the OS being able to run web apps at native speed, perhaps in an application-oriented browser like Chrome. Could this be the much talked about "Google OS"?

cs google native client security tech web 1

2008/11/26

The latest novel application of technology from Japan: DVDs to help train socially-challenged otaku to make eye contact, predominantly with women:

His disc features 50 people standing in front of a blank white background. They're all women, which Ito swears is just a coincidence. They stare into the camera and occasionally say stuff like "I want to leave" or "That's enough."
Try to look this person in the eyes for a full minute. Tip: when interacting with a fellow human being in the real world, it is considered rude to break eye contact in order to look at other physical attributes.
Perhaps that will be Nintendo's next big hit; we had Wii Sports, Wii Fit and Wii Music, now perhaps it's time for Wii Date. It'd come with a gaze-tracking camera, and would play a lot like the zazen meditation game in Wii Fit, only instead of sitting absolutely still staring at a candle, you'd have to gaze into the eyes of a pretty girl in a revealing top, and if the system noticed your gaze straying below her eyes, a buzzer would sound and the session would come to an end.

a modest proposal bizarre gibson's law japan otaku tech 0

2008/10/20

A study has shown that people who grew up watching black and white television dream in black and white, whilst people who grew up with colour television dream in colour:

Research from 1915 through to the 1950s suggested that the vast majority of dreams are in black and white but the tide turned in the sixties, and later results suggested that up to 83 per cent of dreams contain some colour.
Only 4.4 per cent of the under-25s' dreams were black and white. The over-55s who had had access to colour TV and film during their childhood also reported a very low proportion of just 7.3 per cent. But the over-55s who had only had access to black-and-white media reported dreaming in black and white roughly a quarter of the time.
It isn't clear what sorts of dreams people who grew up without television have; whether they're less visual and more verbal, more three-dimensional, or just less spectacular.

(via /.) dreams psychology tech 0

2008/10/17

Several researchers at UIUC have written a paper on how one could insert general-purpose back doors into a CPU, allowing those in the know to pwn any machine running on it, almost undetectably:

We present the design and implementation of Illinois Malicious Processors (IMPs). There is a substantial design space in malicious circuitry; we show that an attacker, rather than designing one specific attack, can instead design hardware to support attacks. Such flexible hardware allows powerful, general purpose attacks, while remaining surprisingly low in the amount of additional hardware. We show two such hardware designs, and implement them in a real system. Further, we show three powerful attacks using this hardware, including login backdoor that gives an attacker complete and highlevel access to the machine. This login attack requires only 1341 additional gates: gates that can be used for other attacks as well. Malicious processors are more practical, more flexible, and harder to detect than an initial analysis would suggest.
And here are some details:
Our memory access mechanism provides hardware support for unprivileged malicious software by allowing access to privileged memory regions. Malicious software triggers the attack by forcing a sequence of bytes on the data bus to enable the memory access circuits. This sequence can be arbitrarily long to avoid false positives, and the particular sequence must be agreed upon before deployment. Once the sequence is observed, the MMU in the data cache ignores CPU privilege levels for memory accesses, thus granting unprivileged software access to all memory, including privileged memory regions like the operating system’s internal memory. In other words, loading a magic value on the data bus will disable protection checking. We implement this technique by modifying the data cache of our processor to include a small state machine that looks for the special sequence of bytes, plus some additional logic in the MMU to ignore privilege levels when malicious software enables the attack.
Using the shadow mode mechanism, we implement a malicious service that acts as a permanent backdoor into a system (Figure 2). To initiate the attack, an attacker sends an unsolicited network packet to the target system and the target OS inspects the packet to verify the UDP checksum. The act of inspecting the packet (necessary to decide if it should be dropped) triggers the trojaned hardware, and the malicious service interprets the contents of the packet as new firmware that it loads into the processor invisibly. The target operating system then drops the unsolicited packet and continues operation, oblivious to the attack.
And there's more, including ways of stealing passwords.

And if civilian security researchers have just discovered this, it's not unlikely that ones in intelligence agencies have had such techniques for a while. I wouldn't be surprised if the NSA had similar back doors in all US-designed CPUs likely to end up on the export market, just in case, or if the Chinese government had similarly altered CPUs (or other strategic components) being manufactured on Chinese production lines, or indeed if other intelligence agencies had managed to get their own hooks into the silicon.

(via Schneier) hacks security skulduggery tech 1

2008/9/10

Cliff Kushler, one of the inventors of the T9 text-entry system used on most mobile phones made over the past decade, has developed a new, amazingly fast text entry system for touch-screen devices. Named Swype, the system displays an on-screen keyboard; though, instead of tapping individual keys, the user merely scribbles on the keyboard, joining the letters of the desired word, and the system finds the appropriate word and enters it:

The video is quite impressive; in it, Kushler demonstrates the system, entering a sentence and, at one point, scribbling on the keyboard for a fraction of a second and producing the word "Mississippi".

The prototype of Swype has been implemented on PC tablets and Windows Mobile phones, though the technology is up for licensing. The question on everybody's lips is probably whether Apple will grab it for the iPhone (or, indeed, buy Kushler out and lock it up as an iPhone/Mac exclusive; assuming, of course, no serious prior art). Assuming that it remains non-exclusive, this looks like an excellent fit for the Android architecture. Android is a pluggable system, in which applications aren't programs as such but objects which provide various services (such as composing an email, showing an image or, indeed, entering text). A Swype text-entry plug-in for Android would be fairly easy to create.

(via Wired News) design human interface tech 3

2008/9/3

WIRED has a piece by Steven Levy looking behind the scenes of Google's Chrome web browser project:

Because Chrome was supposed to be optimized to run Web applications, a crucial element would be the JavaScript engine, a "virtual machine" that runs Web application code. The ideal person to construct this was a Danish computer scientist named Lars Bak. In September 2006, after more than 20 years of nonstop labor designing virtual machines, Bak had been planning to take some time off to work on his farm outside Århus. Then Google called.
Bak set up a small team that originally worked from the farm, then moved to some offices at the local university. He understood that his mission was to provide a faster engine than in any previous browser. He called his team's part of the project "V8." "We decided we wanted to speed up JavaScript by a factor of 10, and we gave ourselves four months to do it," he says. A typical day for the Denmark team began between 7 and 8 am; they programmed constantly until 6 or 7 at night. The only break was for lunch, when they would wolf down food in five minutes and spend 20 minutes at the game console. "We are pretty damn good at Wii Tennis," Bak says.
Speed may be Chrome's most significant advance. When you improve things by an order of magnitude, you haven't made something better — you've made something new. "As soon as developers get the taste for this kind of speed, they'll start doing more amazing new Web applications and be more creative in doing them," Bak says. Google hopes to kick-start a new generation of Web-based applications that will truly make Microsoft's worst nightmare a reality: The browser will become the equivalent of an operating system.
Google also brought in reinforcements to implement the multiprocess architecture that allowed each open tab to run like a separate, self-contained program. In May 2007, it acquired GreenBorder Technologies, a software security firm whose technology was designed to isolate IE and Firefox activities into virtual sessions, or "sandboxes," where malware intrusions couldn't mess with other activities or data on your computer. When the deal was announced publicly, tech pundits wondered whether it meant that Google was going into the antivirus business. Only after the acquisition did GreenBorder's engineers learn that their job was to construct sandboxes for the tabs of a new browser. "It was confusing," says Carlos Pizano, one of the GreenBorder hires. "They would not say what they wanted to sandbox."
Meanwhile, the Chrome beta's licensing agreement apparently gives Google rights to use anything you create using it for promoting its services. This alarming clause appears, however, to be the result of an oversight; the licensing terms appear to have been copied from Google's web applications, and make little sense for a BSD-licensed open-source web browser (after all, anyone who doesn't like the EULA could produce an EULA-free though otherwise identical version of the browser merely by recompiling it from the source).

chrome google tech web 0

2008/9/2

Google are apparently working on a new web browser. Named Chrome, the browser is designed more like an operating system which happens to be based on web technologies like DOM and JavaScript than a traditional browser; different pages are separate processes (and about time, too) and privileges are compartmentalised to fortify security. Meanwhile, the web rendering implementation is based on WebKit (the Apple/KDE open-source web engine), with a JIT-compiling JavaScript engine optimised for application from a Danish company named V8 (I wonder how it compares to Apple's Squirrelfish and Mozilla's new engine). Alas, there's no code available (and the URL given returns a 404); instead, Google have given us a beautifully drawn 38-page comic by Scott McCloud, illuminating the technical innovations and the reasons for them, in great detail and with no small amount of humour:

That's all the detail that seems to exist so far. There is a possibility that it's just an elaborate feint; Google could, in theory, have paid McCloud some huge sum to draw a comic to specification, peppered with technical versimilitude, purely in order to send Microsoft/Apple/Yahoo!/whoever's development teams on a wild goose chase. Though I suspect that there is an actual product there. For one, Google are known to use WebKit on Android. More importantly, though, a browser designed as a web application operating system (with the expectations of performance and stability that implies), rather than an information viewer with programmability grafted on as an afterthought (as is the case with current browsers), would line up rather nicely with Google's strategy to make the web into a first-class application platform.

There are no details on what platforms Chrome will run; it is open-source (and other projects, or those willing to fork those, will probably have a field day with this), and the comic does mention Windows in one place, so presumably a Windows version is planned. I'm guessing that Google aren't doing this to help Microsoft sell Windows licences, though, so presumably this is not the only version planned. A Linux desktop version, running on top of X, is probably likely. Another possibility is it running over something lighter than the average Linux desktop, making a robust web-browsing appliance on which the browser meets the conventional definitions of an operating system; either Android or some other lightweight OS.

The other option, of course, is that this is an elaborate hoax, akin to the Photoshopped "spy photos" of new Apple Mac tablets and other fantastic gear that are a regular feature of gadget blogs. The fact that Google's Chrome page doesn't yet exist (at time of writing) does suggest this possibility. Though this would imply that the hoaxers had an enormous amount of time on their hands, excellent comic drawing skills and an uncanny mastery of the drawing style of Scott McCloud.

Update: Google have confirmed Chrome. It's initially a Windows product (presumably to win market share before IE8 comes along and shuts off Google's oxygen with its advertising cookie blocker), though Mac and Linux versions are in the works. The Windows version will apparently be out tomorrow.

(via /.) chrome comics cs design google javascript scott mccloud tech vaporware web 3

2008/8/27

In his WIRED column, Lore Sjöberg savours his last days without an iPhone:

Right now, I can have a thought like, "I wonder who had a hit first, Chuck Berry or Little Richard?" and allow that question to wander around in my head. Maybe I'll remember it and look it up when I get the chance; maybe I'll just let it go. I suspect that this time next month I'll be pulling over to the side of the road -- I hope I'll pull over to the side of the road -- to get the answer immediately.
Right now, my friends are not subjected to photos of every "witty" stop sign annotation I encounter. In fact, they can actually hang out with me with no fear of showing up in my Flickr stream with basil in their teeth.
Right now, I do not post to Twitter every time I see a dachshund.
Right now, I am capable of referring to my cellphone without actually telling people what brand it is.

humour iphone social implications tech 0

2008/8/26

The Times goes to DEFCON, interviews some hax0rs:

He tells me about one of his cases involving Symbolic Motors in La Jolla, California. Symbolic, which supplies Ferraris, Lotuses, Aston Martins and Bentleys to the stars, is arguably the most lucrative dealership in the States. It wanted to find out just how good its multi-million dollar security system was, so Pyr0 and his friends Ryan Jones and Chris Nickerson, who call themselves ethical hackers, went to work.
“First we did a bit of dumpster-diving, looking in their trash, to find out who their computer company was,” says the spiky-haired Pyr0. “Then I paid a visit, posing as one of their technicians and got access to the company's servers. I secretly installed a wireless network behind a desk while I was there, which allowed Ryan, who was in a car outside, to begin hacking into their computer system remotely.” While Jones was downloading Symbolic's files - details of sales, prices, film-star customers and so on - Pyr0 was wandering around the building taking pictures. There was no alarm security above the ground-floor showroom and the roof skylights were not alarmed. In the showroom, he worked out the blind spots in an array of motion sensors.
That night, they broke in through the unalarmed skylights, exploited the motion sensors' blind spots, crawled to the alarm keypad and switched off the system. They opened the showroom doors, drove out a Lotus and returned it, parking it the wrong way round.

defcon hacking security tech 0

2008/8/23

The secretive totalitarian state of North Korea, the last place on Earth ruled by a God-Emperor, has made a technological breakthrough, developing a noodle which delays feelings of hunger:

"When you consume ordinary noodles (made from wheat or corn), you may soon feel your stomach empty. But this soybean noodle delays such a feeling of hunger," it said on its website.
This is not North Korea's first invention in the field of nutritional technology (some five years earlier, they invented the computer drink), though does suggest a heightened desperation to feed a starving people (or at least a hungry soldiery required to keep those people from rising up). Though presumably once that's taken care of, the North Koreans can look forward to export income from Westerners concerned about their weight.

food north korea science tech 0

2008/8/17

A few interesting presentations from this year's SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference:

Firstly, a team of researchers has developed a way of enhancing video using still photographs. Consumer-grade video is notoriously poor in quality, while consumer-grade photographs are considerably better. So what they do is essentially build a map of points in the scene from the video and map detail from the photographs onto it, and, presto, instant high-quality video. What's more, if they process the photographs beforehand (i.e., by making HDR images from multiple exposures, or applying Photoshop filters), the effects are automatically propagated into the video. The technique can also be used to interpolate the background behind inconveniently located objects, removing them from the scene. Anyway, watch the video on the page; it is quite impressive.

Meanwhile, an Israeli team has developed a tool for automatically beautifying images of human faces; it does this by finding ratios between points on the faces, comparing them to ratios with higher attractiveness ratings, and warping the image to improve attractiveness (which, as one Slashdot commenter wrote, often comes down to "add symmetry and make thinner"). Interestingly, they promise a to make a demo program (presumably for Windows) available soon; I wonder whether its handiwork will soon start making its way onto dating websites and Facebook profiles.

(via /.) beauty siggraph tech video 0

2008/8/7

With the iPhone, Apple have been expanding the boundaries of how much control a consumer electronics company can exercise over its products and their users. Much has been said about the iPhone's locked-down software distribution model, which has more in common with proprietary gaming consoles than with mobile phones (let alone Apple's wide-open OSX computers), and strict enforcement of carrier contracts. Now iPhone hacker Jonathan Zdziarski has discovered that Apple seem to have a central blacklist of banned iPhone applications. This is presumably to allow them to remotely kill any applications that made it through the approval process by mistake. (Apple could also use it to remotely kill applications that never were approved in the first place, installed on jailbroken iPhones—that is, assuming that the hacks for jailbreaking these phones don't start blocking the blacklist.)

(via Engadget) apple architectures of control iphone security tech 0

2008/7/30

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new system for protecting the privacy of people who appear in photographs. Rather than blurring or erasing faces, the new software replaces facial features with others from a library:

The software randomly selects 33,000 photos of faces from picture-sharing sites like Flickr.com, then picks the most suitable faces for each person in shot. Only the eyes, nose and mouth are used, resulting in a composite image of the two people. "It matches subject pose, lighting conditions and image resolution," says Kumar. "The selected faces are aligned to common 3D coordinates, corrected for colour and lighting, and blended into the target image."
Aside from Street View, the system could be used to obscure the faces of military personnel or eyewitnesses to crime. It could also allow amateur photographers to improve group shots, by replacing frowning faces with better photos of the same people.

(via Boing Boing) anonymity cs photography privacy research tech 0

2008/7/23

A few interesting engineering-related developments in the news today:

energy engineering environment europe public transport railway tech uk 0

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