The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'technology'
At the turn of the 1930s, recorded music was seen as an existential threat. Films with sound started appearing, and their prerecorded musical soundtracks started threatening the livelihoods of the musicians who, until then, had played accompaniments to silent films in cinemas. To wit, the American Federation of Musicians launched a campaign against the tyranny of “canned music”, which their advertisements depicted as a malevolent robot:
The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, though recorded music was seen as a threat to live musicians for decades after that. In the 1950s, for example, when the BBC was establishing a studio for experimental electronic music, it dubbed the studio with the decidedly unmusical name of the Radiophonic Workshop, perpetuating the fiction that its function only peripherally touched on the kingdom of music, as to avoid antagonising the unions of the musicians who worked on other BBC broadcasts.
An article in the Graun looks at how changes in telephone technology have affected the plots of novels, plays and films:
Victoria Wood's Talent, first staged in 1978 and now showing at the Old Laundry theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere, includes a scene in which an important call is made from a coin-operated phonebox. Wood, who is directing, had to explain to young members of the cast how the strange apparatus worked: listen for an answer, then push in your sometimes-resistant 10p pieces. It sounded like science fiction to the young actors. So, while the play's first audiences will have regarded this scene as social realism (perhaps reflecting on their own experiences of trying to finding an unvandalised phone that didn't spit your silver out), the same sequence, within three decades, has become social history.
In Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie, Broken Embraces, which cuts from the present to the 1980s, the director uses mobiles as a visual clue to where we are. The older sequences are signalled by the wielding of brick-like instruments, while present-day characters effortlessly palm their thin, flippable devices.
Wood, in Talent, rings comic embarrassment from the fact that a character's mother has an extension in her bedroom. But the detail is revealing in other ways: in the 1970s, multiple receivers in the home distinguished the upper-middle classes from the plebs who had a single instrument in the hallway. In a later TV play by Wood, it matters that a character has a "kitchen extension". Indeed, in Dial M for Murder, the "perfect murder plot" turns on luring a woman to the living room to answer the phone. Within 20 years, Knott's plot had been rendered a period piece by multi-phone homes; after a further 30, mobiles had made the plot absurd.
But, although mobiles have provided writers with rich new storylines, they have also worryingly closed off many traditional developments. This is of most concern to authors of horrors, thrillers and mysteries, in which a regular premise is the protagonist's total isolation. If there had been a Nokia in Janet Leigh's handbag, Hitchcock's Psycho would have been a short film with a happy ending. The avoidance of this problem has already created a new movie cliche: the closeup showing the "no signal" warning on the star's phone.
Fact of the day: LEGO is the world's #1 tyre manufacturer, by quantity (if you count LEGO-model-sized tyres).
Google Earth has given ordinary people easy access to satellite images of where they live. In Bahrain, this technology is proving disruptive, as ordinary Bahrainis visualise the glaring inequality between them and the aristocracy who own most of the land:
Opposition activists claim that 80 per cent of the island has been carved up between royals and other private landlords, while much of the rest of the population faces an acute housing shortage.
"Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby and block access to the sea for fishermen. People knew this already. But they never saw it. All they saw were the surrounding walls," said Mr Yousif, who is seen in Bahrain as the grandfather of its blogging community.The house of al-Khalifa has responded by knocking down the walls of its palaces and handing the land over to the people.. whom am I kidding; they, of course, responded by configuring the national firewall (and every authoritarian regime should have one of those!) to block access to Google Earth. Which, given the number of internet-savvy Bahrainis, failed, and had the opposite effect, encouraging more people to look at this Google Earth thing.
For those with insufficient bandwidth to access Google Earth, a PDF file with dozens of downloaded images of royal estates has been circulated anonymously by e-mail. Mr Yousif, among others, initially encouraged web users to post images on photo-sharing websites.It'll be interesting to see what happens: whether this will result Bahrain's democratic reform programme to be accelerated, or result in violent unrest and a Nepalese-style crackdown.
(via Boing Boing)
Cory Doctorow argues that high-definition television might kill special-effects-heavy blockbusters, by amplifying the way that Moore's Law keeps increasing audience expectations and making last year's special-effects extravaganza look like so much cheese:
It's a good reason to go to the box-office, but it's also the source of an awful paradox: yesterday's jaw-dropping movies are today's kitschy crap. By next year, the custom tools that filmmakers develop for this year's blockbuster will be available to every hack commercial director making a Coke ad. What's more, the Coke ads and crummy sitcoms will run on faster, cheaper hardware and be available to a huge pool of creators, who will actually push the technology further, producing work that is in many cases visually superior to the big studio product from last summer.
It's one thing for a black-and-white movie at a Hitchcock revival to look a little dated, but it's galling -- and financially perilous -- for last year's movie to date in a period of months. You can see what I mean by going to a Lord of the Rings festival at your local rep-house and comparing the generation-one creatures in Fellowship of the Ring to the gen-three beasts in Return of the King.Where does HDTV come into this? Well, until now, yesteryear's blockbusters could make back some of their mammoth production costs on the long tail of DVD rentals and TV licensing; thanks to the inherent poor quality of TV, consumers were more forgiving of their dated effects. With HDTV, this may not be so, and the long tail may be decimated, making mega-blockbusters uneconomical to produce.
(via Boing Boing)
Sun have announced that Java will be available under the GNU General Public Licence. Presumably because Flash/Python/PHP/.NET were eating their lunch. It remains to be seen whether this will prolong Java's life, or results in some of the nicer bits (such as the class libraries) being salvaged and bolted onto more vibrant platforms.
Roof-mounted wind turbines are becoming the Hummers of environmental consciousness: they're big, unmistakeably conspicuous and demonstrate without question the owner's green credentials and general Guardian-reading smugness. It's a pity, then, that they don't actually do much for the environment:
Green campaigners warn that rooftop windmills do little to cut greenhouse gases, may annoy your neighbours, cause vibrations that could damage your home and produce only enough electricity to power a hairdryer.
Friends of the Earth said homeowners would only save tiny amounts of electricity by investing in turbines. 'For householders the idea of a turbine is very sexy because it's an exciting piece of kit. It's making a very visible statement to the effect that, "I'm doing my bit",' said Nick Rau, a campaigner at the group. 'It's glamorous to put something on your roof. But if energy efficiency is the top priority, there are many other, much more straightforward things you could do that are much more cost effective, and more beneficial for the environment, like insulating your loft thoroughly.'
A Russian inventor has come up with a modern take on a popular Victorian invention, and developed a coffin with a panic button which, should you be buried alive, you can press to alert someone to exhume you. The button conveniently glows in the dark; it is not clear how it works, though I'd guess it connects to the mobile phone network. Of course, if the embalmers get to you before you're buried, it'll be too late.
One of the lesser-known casualties of the Age Of Terror: shoes that charge your phone batteries as you walk. Invented by Sir Trevor Roper, of wind-up radio fame, they were all ready to go, and then shoes with embedded electronic devices suddenly became deeply unpopular:
"After 9/11, anyone wearing electric shoes would look like a bomber. That's what you have to watch with any electric kit that you carry nowadays," he muses. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a plane by carrying explosives in his heels - which made customs officials particularly nervous about footwear - has a lot to answer for.The shoes were one potential application of piezoelectric generation, which extracts energy from movements such as people walking or the vibrations of trains; plans exist to use this energy to power all sorts of things, from sensors and transmitters in railway goods cars to wireless controllers powered by button presses to MP3 players in jackets made of piezoelectric fabric:
Markys Cain, who runs the Sensor Knowledge Transfer Network at the National Physics Laboratory, hopes to see fabric that generates its own power using piezoelectric fibres woven into frequently moving joints such as elbows and knees.
Dr Swallow puts it simply: "Your iPod will run on so little power, and your trousers will contain so much."
With finger motion, Starner believed he could give a wireless keyboard enough power to transmit keystroke information to another device.
News At Seven is a new experimental system which converts RSS feeds into TV-style news videos, with 3D animated characters (apparently taken from shoot-'em-up games) reading the news according to scripts. A talking head in a newsroom reads the stories as automatically selected images are projected behind her; then a blogger's comment is introduced by a scruffy-looking "man in the street" being interviewed as other people walk by. (The fact that the other people appear to be dressed in uniforms and walking at the same pace makes them look less like passers-by and more like troops marching off to war; perhaps they need to randomise them a bit more?) Anyway, it looks rather impressive. I wonder how long until there are publicly available RSS readers that do something like this.
(via Boing Boing)
I recently acquired one of the newly-released WiFi Skype phones; in my case, I went with the Edge-Core WM4201. I ordered it in August or so, but it only arrived this week; I suspect this may be connected with the other Skype phones (the Netgear and Belkin ones, for example) not being released in Europe until October.
The WM4201 is a unit about that looks like a candy-bar mobile phone (complete with Sony-Ericssonesque joystick above the keypad), decked out in iPod White (which is the new Consumer Electronics Black). Or at least it looks like a mobile phone in photographs; the first thing one notices when one unpacks it is that it is considerably larger than an ordinary GSM mobile (or at least one with an equivalent number of keys):
Getting started with the phone is straightforward; let it charge for a while, and then turn it on and let it find a network. (The instructions advise to let it charge for 8 hours before using it. I was somewhat impatient and switched it on an hour or two into its charging; this does not seem to have affected battery life or performance.) It can do WEP and WPA, so locked networks are OK; however, it doesn't have a web browser, so you're out of luck at access points that require web-based authentication. It then logs into Skype, fetches your contact list and balance, and is ready. It also gets the current time from the internet, though can take a few minutes to do so; so if your phone is telling you that it's 00:02 on January 1, 2000, there's no need to manually change this. Which is just as well, as the date-setting user interface is somewhat counter-intuitive.
WM4201, next to a Nokia 6230i, for purposes of comparison
As for making and receiving calls: the quality is pretty much standard Skype quality, i.e., good enough save for the occasional choppiness and echo. It only does voice calling as well; there is no way to send or receive text messages on it. Perhaps this will arrive in a future version of the firmware?
As this phone is a 1.0 product (220.127.116.11, it says), there are still some rough edges. For example, sometimes when it loses the wireless network, it crashes and becomes unresponsive, requiring you to remove and replace the battery to reset it. (The manufacturer seems to have neglected to provide the usual paperclip reset switch.) This only happens when it's running off battery power; leaving it plugged into a USB cable seems to make the problem go away. Also, on one network I tested it with, the phone kept losing the network connection every few minutes, though only when not making or receiving calls. Hopefully these issues will be fixed in the future.
All in all, I'm quite happy with the phone. It allows me to be reachable on Skype and make and receive phone calls without being near a powerful headset-equipped PC. It is usable as is, though there is room for improvement.
One question I have been wondering about: what exactly is the Edge-Core WM4201? The information page of the firmware reveals that it is implemented using TrollTech's toolkit (presumably Qtopia), which means that it's probably not a Windows CE device (after all, one wouldn't pay royalties to Microsoft and then avoid using their technologies). I suspect it runs on either Linux or some embedded system like QNX. The phone has a USB port on the bottom, though, disappointingly, there is no evidence of the data lines of this being connected to anything; connecting it to a computer reveals no new devices plugged in. It seems that the USB port is just used as a relatively standard way of feeding 5 volts to the device. The phone appears to be firmware upgradeable, though it does this by itself checking for updates on the internet.
I don't know what URL it pings to check for new firmware; I wonder whether it pings an Edge-Core URL for a version of the firmware specific to Edge-Core hardware, or a skype.com URL for upgrades to any WiFi Skype phones. I have seen photographs of other Skype phones, and they look similar, both in layout of buttons and the user interface. Could it be that Skype handed manufacturers a standard hardware platform and just makes a release of their software for this? If so, the differences between rival models would be limited to things outside of the reference design, such as quality of screens/keyboards/speakers and charging solutions.
A new study puts forward the argument that exposure to television in early childhood may trigger autism. The paper established correlations between autism rates and rates of early childhood TV viewing, and increases in autism in 3 US states with the growth of cable television in those states, and suggests that some children may be susceptible to autism but may not develop it unless exposed to environmental triggers, of which television viewing is one.
The latest trend in America: able-bodied people riding mobility scooters because they can't be arsed walking:
On a recent afternoon at Walt Disney World, Dennis Robles was cruising around on an electric "mobility scooter" that the park usually rents out to people with disabilities. Mr. Robles doesn't have a problem walking -- he says he was simply saving up energy for late-night dancing. "I'm pretty healthy," says the 37-year-old truck driver from Brooklyn, N.Y. "Just lazy, I guess."
"Now waiting on line at the buffet is no problem," she says. "You just sit there."
Scooters are now being designed for specific uses. The SmartKart by Dane Technologies, for example, maxes out at three miles per hour, instead of the standard five, because it is meant to be used in grocery stores and other crowded indoor spaces. In the last year, Pride has super-sized models like the Maxima and introduced the Celebrity-X, to keep up with the increase in obesity.I wonder whether there'll be a SUV-style arms race in making larger and more intimidating-looking mobility scooters, to boost the egoes of the riders whilst not so subtly encouraging the few remaining pedestrians to get with the program and buy one.
And, once technology has eliminated the exertion of having to walk, perhaps they can go to work on mechanising one of the other remaining unnecessary exertions; such as, say, sex.
Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced, an essay putting Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum on its head.
But I submit that if the best we can do is make technology as dangerous, non-robust, capricious, arcane, alienating, marginal, and costly as "magic" -- then we have really crappy technology.
The author, Vanessa Layne, has also written an interesting essay on why creativity flourishes in urban centres rather than small towns, looking at economic and anthropological arguments. (via Charlie's Diary)