Wednesday, August 31, 2005

And This is a Good Thing?

First, e-commerce turned us into our own data entry clerks. Now, technology is improving our lives immeasurably by potentially making us all our own check-out clerks. Funny how making more work for me is somehow believed to be a benefit. Sure, I use the self-service checkout kiosks in Price Chopper when the checkout lines are really long--but I find it to be less a convenience than an annoyance. (Now I know how my mother felt when she complained long ago about gas stations switching to all-self-service pumps.)

Rather than pitching the latest storage solution, the Container Store mailing touted a new customer service with a clunky label, GoShop Scan & Deliver, but a potentially transformative premise.
As of this month, shoppers at the Container Store in Manhattan can register a credit card number at the counter and get a wireless hand-held scanner. As they walk the aisles, they scan in barcodes on desired items then pay for the purchases, which are delivered to their homes the same day.
Such customer self-service devices have been talked about and tested for years, and various retailers such as sporting-goods chain Modell’s have armed store clerks with wireless devices to assist customers and track inventory.

The Google Story No One is Mentioning

Except The Onion, of course.

Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index

Executives at Google, the rapidly growing online-search company that promises to "organize the world's information," announced Monday the latest step in their expansion effort: a far-reaching plan to destroy all the information it is unable to index.

But don't think it ends there....
Although Google executives are keeping many details about Google Purge under wraps, some analysts speculate that the categories of information Google will eventually index or destroy include handwritten correspondence, buried fossils, and private thoughts and feelings.

The company's new directive may explain its recent acquisition of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, and its buildup of a vast army of laser-equipped robots.
"At Google, we're using technology to make dreams come true."

"Soon," Brin added, "we'll make dreams clickable, or destroy them forever."

Just a Matter of Time, Really

Sigh. What is wrong with these people?
The first serious outbreak of a mobile-phone virus in a company has been detected, according to security specialist F-Secure.

F-Secure security expert Patrick Runald said Tuesday that an outbreak of the Commwarrior.B virus occured at an unnamed Scandinavian company last Wednesday.

"This is the first time a mobile virus has infected an organization," Runald said. "It's a particularly nasty version of Commwarrior, as it just doesn't give up."

Commwarrior targets mobile phones that use the Symbian Series 60 operating system, and the bug spreads using Bluetooth and multimedia messaging technology, or MMS.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Sez Ad Age:

Martha Stewart Living, Family Circle and House Beautiful are the latest titles to be swept up in a circulation scandal that is tearing through the industry like “an apocalypse,” as one worried publisher dubbed it.

By one estimate, one of every three of the 300 or so leading consumer magazines that claim rate bases could be affected; others said the hit could disqualify as many as 2.5 million to 5 million copies previously classified as paid.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging--A Day Late


(Via Maxspeak.)

The Other White Meat

Scientists can now make all-white-meat chicken:
The recipe involves adding excess water to ground-up dark meat to create a kind of meat soup, then spinning the mixture around in a tub at high speed. The centrifugal force makes the mixture settle into layers of fat, water, and extracted meat, which can be molded into breast-like patties of all-white meat.

That sounds delicious!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Gary Larson?

Think how many Far Side cartoons this could inspire:

Controlling cattle over the net

Technology developed at the University of New England in NSW will enable farmers to remotely control and monitor livestock movement by using their mobile phone or the internet.

It will also eventually allow them to monitor and control the farm gate and water trough levels.

The system has been developed to allow in-built alarm systems in the farm gate and water trough to send an automatic mobile phone text message if an unannounced visitor opens the gate or the water levels fall too low.

Shhh!! Don't Tell PETA

Hamster inspires teenage inventor

An energetic hamster called Elvis gave a budding engineer a bright idea for charging his mobile phone.

Peter Ash, 16, from Somerset, realised that Elvis's fave activity of playing on his wheel could be used to create electricity to charge his mobile.

As part of his GCSE coursework, he created a device where he gets 30 minutes of talk time for every two minutes that Elvis goes for a spin.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Variable Data Printing

It's rare to find variable-data printing (VDP) stories from the point of view of the designer. While I generally like the idea of VDP and think it's cool, it is a very "buggy" approach to printing that, as Dr. Joe has pointed out, always seems to produce direct mail pieces that have wrong information on it.

Blog or Perish

Via Crooked Timber comes this story about how blogs (or blog-like tools like arxiv) are starting to replace journal publishing in academia--or at least in physics (for the moment).

Journal publication is still important – but as an imprimatur, a proof of quality, rather than a way to disseminate findings to a wider audience.

A Good Reason to Avoid Those Nigerian Internet Scams

Well, aside from the fact that they're, you know, scams... But there is this story from today's L.A. Times about a music producer who has gone missing. This seems to me to be a little different (though not much) from those stupid "missing white woman" stories that CNN, MSNBC, and rest of that miserable lot seem to love so much, but this does have what may be an object lesson for us all:

Several months ago, Irwin told his friend and former business partner Fortunato Procopio, 47, that he had been unwittingly drawn into a Nigerian Internet fraud and had been threatened by the con artists, Procopio said.

"I told him it was clearly a scam — don't be silly," Procopio said Wednesday. But Irwin later received a mysterious $50,000 check, friends and relatives said, and became increasingly concerned. Procopio and some relatives offered few details, saying police had asked them not to discuss specifics of the case.

On Sunday morning, Procopio said, he was awakened in his Venice home by a phone call that was picked up by his answering machine. When he played the recording, he heard Irwin asking for help. Irwin said he was in hiding and someone was in close pursuit.

Waiting for the Worms

Trivia question: which computer/platform was hit by the very first worm attack?*

eWeek has an interesting history of the computer worm. Ah, yes, the infamous "I Love You" worm of 1999. I knew there was a problem when I turned on the computer one morning and there were five e-mails from a Cygnus VP with the subject line "I Love You." If they had instead said "I Want to Lay You Off" or "I Will Cut Your Pay" or "I Am the Spawn of Satan," I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it.

*The Apple II, which was hit in 1982.

Pod People

Arbitron has come up with an ingenious way to get effective ratings for podcasts:
During the week of July 18, Arbitron encoded several podcasts by Clear Channel's WHTZ-FM (Z100) in New York, that were uploaded to the podcast portion of Apple's iTunes Music Store. The Z100 podcasts were then downloaded to an MP3 player and played over headsets using the PPM headset adapter. The PPM detected and recorded the unique identification codes that were embedded in the MP3 file.

I think that just the fact that Arbitron has sought to come up with a way to gauge the listership of podcasts is telling. It doesn't strike me as a perfect solution--but it certainly beats those little journals they ask people to fill out (a couple years ago I was tapped to be an Arbitron radio ratings journaler--they must have been disappointed that what few entries there were were Internet radio stations).

It's "Living Doll" All Over Again

Remember the episode of "The Twilight Zone" about the evil Talky Tina doll that kept trying to kill Telly Savalas? I don't quite know why that was the first thing that came to my mind when I read about the latest in toy doll technology:
...a marvel of digital technologies, including speech-recognition and memory chips, radio frequency tags and scanners, and facial robotics. She and her team have christened it Amazing Amanda.


[T]he 18-inch-tall doll promises - right on the box it will be sold in - to "listen, speak and show emotion." Some analysts and buyers who have seen Amanda say it represents an evolutionary leap from earlier talking dolls like Chatty Cathy of the 1960's, a doll that cycled through a collection of recorded phrases when a child pulled a cord in its back.

Radio frequency tags in Amanda's accessories - including toy food, potty and clothing - wirelessly inform the doll of what it is interacting with. For instance, if the doll asks for a spoon of peas and it is given its plastic cookie, it will gently admonish its caregiver, telling her that a cookie is not peas.

Then of course there was the Simpsons Halloween episode with the Krusty the Clown doll that tried to kill Homer--"Here's your problem. This thing was set to 'evil.'" Parents should probably keep an eye on that.

My Beautiful [Online] Laundrette?

We all may need to download Google Talk because our cellphones are going to be tied up by our appliances calling us: you can now have washers and dryers call you when they're free.

Dubbed LaundryView, colleges and universities can set up networks of washing machines and dryers. Via an online site, students can see which machines are free and how much time is left on those that are currently in use.

What's more, the system will send alerts to mobile phones and PDAs when the machine a student is using finishes its cycle. According to the site, LaundryView will also track overall usage for the last two weeks, so students can determine which days and times are usually the busiest.

If I remember my college laundry experience (which remains ever-vivid, of course...), what's really needed is a washer or dryer that will go and physically drag someone down to the laundry room to remove their clothes when they're done. And from what I recall, the laundry room at my freshman dorm was purportedly haunted (the "evidence" presented being that, one time someone saw "a person there she didn't recognize"--well, Q.E.D.). Still, surely the ghost could be put to productive use monitoring washers.

A long time ago, when I lived in Astoria, Queens, a new neighborhood laundrette had opened--it was great; they had the newest machines and it was always empty (which probably explained why they went out of business in less than a year). But I was always amused by their sign, which in bold letters touted their "Drop Of Service." I could never determine if they meant "Drop Off Service" or if it was finally a case of truth in advertising ("We don't offer a lot of service, just a drop").

Google Talk Part II

The comments I've seen regarding Google's new Chat/VoIP service, GoogleTalk, have been encouraging. It's Windows only right now and until they come out with a Mac version I shall have to pass it by (I have a PC but I keep it offline--primarily because I've exceeded the number of IP addresses Roadrunner lets me use, but also because I don't feel like downloading virus descriptions and security patches very five seconds).

Of course, that may change. If Rupert Murdoch buys Skype, I will physically scrape the Skype application from my hard drive, never to use it again.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Going out of town? Let a robot housesit for you:

Worried about leaving your house empty while you go on vacation? Japan has the answer: a house-sitter robot armed with a digital camera, infrared sensors and a videophone.

Stores across Japan started taking orders on Thursday for the Roborior -- a watermelon-sized eyeball on wheels that glows purple, blue and orange -- continuing the country's love affair with gadgets.

Roborior can function as interior decor, but also as a virtual guard dog that can sense break-ins using infrared sensors, notify homeowners by calling their cellular phones, and send the owner's cell phone videos from its digital camera.

Hmm...I can envision a really weird remake of Risky Business...


So now Google, among a zillion other things, is getting into the IM/VoIP arena. Now things will get interesting.
Add yet another offering, actually two, from Google (GOOG ) that takes the search giant even further beyond its find-anything-on-the-Web roots. On Aug. 24 it announced a broad-ranging effort to attack both the instant-messaging and Internet voice-calling markets with a service called Google Talk.

Toward a Bookless Library?

The University of Texas's academic library has started getting rid of its books. OK, it's Texas, so insert own joke here. But still:

The fact is, there will be no more books to restock. The [University of Texas] library is undergoing a radical change, becoming more of a social gathering place more akin to a coffeehouse than a dusty, whisper-filled hall of records. And to make that happen, the undergraduate collection of books had to go.

So to ease some of the apprehension, administrators took the word "library" out of their vocabulary when referring to the Flawn Academic Center. When classes start Aug. 31, it will be filled with colorful overstuffed chairs for lounging, barstools for people watching, and booths for group work. In addition to almost 250 desktop computers, there will be 75 laptops available for checkout, wireless Internet access, computer labs, software suites, a multimedia studio, a computer help desk and repair shop, and a cafe.

While students are still required to read books at the undergraduate level, they are increasingly being asked to use a variety of different online sources.

"Libraries are about information, and books were simply a way that information was packaged," says Judy Ashcroft, director of the Instructional Innovation and Assessment division at UT. "But more information is being packaged online, and we have a duty to provide access to [it]."

A Changing Landskype

Internet telephony--or at least voice-based communication over the Internet--has been around for a few years now, but I always avoided it, more out of laziness than anything. Well, I have to say, I tried out Skype's Internet telephony service for the first time today and I'm a convert--and not just because I'm weary of Verizon Wireless's extortionate rates (I also hate the idea of paying for incoming calls, especially when they're wrong numbers or people I don't want to talk to, like telemarketers).

If you have a microphone (which most PCs have built in) and a set of speakers or headphones, the Skype application is a free download. It takes little time to set up an account and all calls to other Skype subscribers are free--even overseas (after all, "overseas" has little meaning on the Internet). (There is also a for-pay service that lets you use Skype to talk to proper phone numbers.) Skype also has a chat feature, which means that you can talk and IM at the same time--which is only marginally more complex than walking and chewing gum at the same time. The sound quality is excellent; certainly better than the average cellphone.

Now to find a Bluetooth headset...

Pocket Editions for William Conrad?

To try to combat falling sales of mass market paperbacks, publishers are trying a larger size:
Sales of mass-market paperbacks — the compact, inexpensive books found in bookstores, supermarkets and other retail outlets — have been soft in the past five years. So major publishers, including Harlequin, Penguin and Simon & Schuster, are tinkering with the format, hoping a slightly bigger "premium size" will increase their appeal.

The traditional paperback is usually 4 3/16 inches by 6 3/4 inches; the new premiums are 4 1/4 inches by 7 1/2 inches. Premium type size is slightly larger; words and lines are more loosely spaced for easier reading.

I don't know. I hate to be the Banquo at the banquet here, but could this have something to do with the fact that people are just reading fewer books? After all, mass market paperbacks are designed to appeal to, well, a mass audience, the kind of crowd most likely to favor TV, cable, VOD, etc., instead.

Friday, August 19, 2005

No More Teachers, No More Books...Well, Books Anyway

Via Wired, an Arizona public school replaces textbooks with iBooks (sorry, no deadly stampede)--and other schools may follow suit.
Two years ago, about 600 school districts nationwide had pilot projects to provide laptops for each student -- a figure that's likely doubled since then, said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association in Washington.

But most still issue textbooks -- for now.

"Because most schools are not starting from scratch ... most districts are using a blended approach now and will phase out their printed textbooks," he said.

For example, in the Henrico County school system near Richmond, Virginia, students in 23 middle and high schools will be using laptops for the fifth straight year, though teachers still use textbooks, said spokesman Mychael Dickerson.

Many publishers of traditional textbooks are offering digital formats to address the growing use of computers, and that provided some of the material for Empire High's curriculum. Teachers also used subscription services and free web resources.

Students get the materials over the school's wireless internet network. The school has a central filtering system that limits what can be downloaded on campus. The system also controls chat-room visits and instant messaging that might otherwise distract wired students.

Students can turn in homework online. A web program checks against internet sources for plagiarized material and against the work of other students, Baker said. "If you copy from your buddy, it's going to get caught," he said.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Chart of the Week

From The Big Picture: inflation-adjusted gas prices for the past 85 years. Gonna party like it's 1979.

Salad Days

Because no food or condiment is too declasse for me, I confess that I like the idea of Wish-Bone's forthcoming "spray-on salad dressing." (How this will work with poppy seed or chunky bleu cheese is anyone's guess.) What turns me off, however, is the condeit that:
Unilever sees a chance to sell consumers as much as 1/3 less salad dressing for the same price.

Thanks, dorks, but if you're gonna gouge me, I'll just fashion my own salad dressing sprayer out of old discarded Fantastik bottles.

Another Sign of the Apocalypse

A company called PetsMobility is introducing a line of cellphones for...dogs. Yes, the dog wears it around his or her neck and owners can call them. (OK, I admit, the whole raison d'etre for the thing--finding/helping lost pets--is a good one, but still: cellphones for dogs...)

I hear they're working on one for cats that will automatically hang up on its owners.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dog Days

There technically is such a thing as the "dog days of summer," but it has nothing to do with actual dogs. From the Columbia Encyclopedia via Fact Monster:

Dog Days is the name for the most sultry period of summer, from about July 3 to Aug. 11. Named in early times by observers in countries bordering the Mediterranean, the period was reckoned as extending from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction of Sirius (the dog star) and the sun.

In the latitude of the Mediterranean region this period coincided with hot days that were plagued with disease and discomfort.

The time of conjunction varies with difference in latitude, and because of the precession of the equinoxes it changes gradually over long periods in all latitudes.

More Gas Pains

Today's L.A. Times has a good article about how idiotic people can be when it comes to trying to save money on gas. (I've seen the tailgating big trucks one enough; that's pretty frelling stupid.) Myths and truths:

Belief: Driving close behind a truck improves gas mileage because the truck cuts your wind resistance.

Reality: True, but it's also dangerous.

Belief: Gasoline stations near freeway exits charge higher prices.

Reality: Generally true.

Belief: You get more for your money if you fill up when it's cold because gasoline is denser at low temperatures.

Reality: Not really. Any difference would be insignificant and besides, most pumps correct for temperature.

Belief: Turning off the air conditioning saves gas.

Reality: True, but if you then roll down the windows, the increased wind resistance may eat up any savings.

Belief: Gas prices go up on the weekend, so fill up during the week.
Reality: Generally false

Gas Pains

True, as I've been told, when adjusted for inflation, gas prices are far from their historic highs--and if I had been driving in 1980, that would mean something to me.

Still, I think this explains it best:

Only If I Can Be the Bad Guy

Ever wanted to "star" in a novel? Well, now you can:
A group of American authors has decided auction names of characters in their forthcoming novels, in a bid to raise funds for the First Amendment Project.

Participating authors include Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Allison, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Karen Joy Fowler, Andrew Sean Greer, John Grisham, Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, ZZ Packer, Chuck Palahniuk, Nora Roberts, Lemony Snicket, Peter Straub, Amy Tan, and Ayelet Waldman.

I bet they could do even better and republish old, classic novels using auctioned names. After all, I think it would be cool to replace Cujo's name with mine.

Ya Think?

The N.Y. Times, ever on the cutting edge of things, asks, "Is podcasting just hype?"

As more people subscribe to podcasts, market researchers are struggling to assess podcasting's reach. The Pew Internet and American Life Project stepped into the fray last April with a report that six million people had listened to podcasts - audio recordings posted online. Pew's figure was derided by some as an overestimate.

Now two other researchers have tried to predict the future of podcasting, and the variance between their results is instructive. Marc Freedman of the Diffusion Group predicted that 56.8 million people would be using podcasts in 2010. "Podcasting will be a common feature, integrated into browsers and digital media players," he said.

But Ted Schadler of Forrester Research predicted that 12.3 million households - about 30 million people - would use podcasts by 2010. His forecast assumes that many early adopters will give up on podcasting and that others will never pick it up. Often, he said, "We find both that the early adoption rate differs completely from the later adoption rate, and that people use things and they just don't like them, and after a year they stop."

Ever since the 90s, when technologies were proliferating so quickly, there has been an ever-increasing fear of missing out on being on the ground floor of something (whatever it may be), so companies are leaping into new technologies like mobile media, podcasting, RSS, etc., before those technologies have had a chance to--well, not mature, but even start to crawl. It's hard to make forecasts about how popular something is going to be when research has found that more than half of the U.S. population has never even heard of it.

"Podcasting" as it is conceived now (as a downloadable audio program distributed in MP3 or similar format and designed to be played on an iPod) certainly will only appeal to a niche audience--those who are technologically savvy enough to download MP3 audio and use iPods and those who like audio-only programming (perhaps that's a niche within a niche). When you consider how many people listen to radio programming vs. watch television, the potential for podcasting to take off explosively is not encouraging.

But what constitutes a podcast? If I download an audiobook in MP3 format, is that a podcast? If a colleague sends me an MP3 file that comprises an audio accompaniment to a PowerPoint presentation, is that a podcast? If I manage to track down an old episode of the "Jack Benny Program" on MP3, is that a podcast? If I come across a link to an NPR interview with a favorite author or musician that I missed, and I download it, is that a podcast? If I can't remember when "Car Talk" is on but download old episodes when I have some spare time to kill, is that a podcast?

Technically, the answer to all of these things is "yes," so in that case, I think the potential for podcasting is quite high. The real issue for all the people who are seeking to use podcasting as a marketing and advertising vehicle (whence the interest in the technology, after all) is that it's not going to be like network TV or even radio, where millions of people are going to tune into it at any one time. Or even like a CD or DVD release where a certain number are sold in the first week of release. The point of the podcast--or any digitally delivered, on-demand content--is that it is delivered one download at a time, user by user, over a long-ish period of time. So compiling lists of the top 100 podcasts for the week (as some folks have been doing) kind of misses the point.

I suppose another question that people have is "Will there be a podcasting star?" or some program that takes off as a podcast and reaches Seinfeldian heights of popularity. It's certainly not impossible and there is certainly nothing standing the way--at least technologically--of that happening. But like most things, it will all be a matter of marketing and publicity and getting the word out to large masses of people--and as any self-published book author can tell you, that ain't easy.

But again, once video podcasting comes to the fore, it will be a whole new ballgame.

Press the Meat

Apparently, Meet the Press consistently ranks as one of the top 100 iTunes podcast downloads. It's not hard to see why; staring at Tim Russert for an hour is not unlike staring at a beef roast. But still: podcasts of TV shows are becoming popular? Wow; plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Remember back in the 40s and 50s when radio shows were being adapted en masse to TV? Now they appear to be going back again. (What's TV without pictures? Radio!) Still, I think it's all a moot point. Podcasting will be video-based very soon, and then all the audio-only podcasts will migrate to video podcasts. Again, the more that things change, the more they stay the same.


This is interesting. Free nationwide Wi-Fi, courtesy of Google. But why? Well, the advertising and marketing potential is compelling, but also:
An even more compelling reason for Google to build its own network is that it could save the company millions of dollars a month. Here's why: Every time a user performs a search on Google, the data is transmitted over a network owned by an ISP -- say, Comcast (CMCSK) -- which links up with Google's servers via a wholesaler like AboveNet. When AboveNet bridges that gap between Google and Comcast, Google has to pay as much as $60 per megabit in IP transit fees. As Google adds bandwidth-intensive services, those costs will increase. Big networks owned by the likes of AT&T (T) get around transit fees by striking "peering" arrangements, in which the networks swap traffic and no money is exchanged. By cutting out middlemen like AboveNet, Google could share traffic directly with ISPs to avoid fees.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

Why not--everyone else is doing it...


From today's Editor & Publisher e-letter is this bizarre story about what is either the biggest case of unmitigated audacity the newspaper publishing industry has yet encountered (well, maybe) or an elaborate Internet scam/prank along the lines of those fake e-mails from banks instructing people to e-mail their account number.
Apparently, three dozen midwest newspapers received e-mails from Cub Foods, a Midwest grocery chain, the text of which read:
"Good Morning!! Cub Foods is continuing to update our Advertising Database, and would like a monthly update on our competitor's spending. If you could insert the appropriate information into the form below, that would be great. You can email this information back to me as soon as you have finished it or if faxing is easier, our fax is listed below! Please send to my attention."

This sounds fake, I admit (no newspaper in its right mind would tell any company what their competitors spend on advertising) but apparently Cub Foods has tried this in the past. This story reminded me of another story that came out last spring, when BP (the petroleum company) said that any magazine that hoped to have the company's advertising grace its pages had to clear all editorial copy that related to BP or the oil industry in general with BP. Is print publishing perceived to be in such dire straits and so desperate for advertising that advertisers think that publishers will give in to whatever ludicrous demands are made of them?

I will not be surprised when the broadcast television industry beocmes prey to such idiotic demands.


If I were a deluded egomaniac (if?), I would assume this about face was all because I criticized the policy on this blog.
Publishers loosen rules on e-textbooks

A group of major textbook publishers has agreed to loosen restrictions in an electronic-textbook experiment beginning this month at Princeton University and other schools, following some criticism of expiration dates.

Mr. Johnson, Your Lamp is On Line 2

The city of West Hollywood has installed new parking meters that will call your cellphone when your time is almost up. And for those who don't tire, as it were, of receiving calls from inanimate objects, Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli has introduced a line of tires that will send your mobile phone a message when your tire pressure is low. I can see the day coming when most of a person's possessions will be able to call them--enabling people to carry on entire conversations with inanimate objects. I can even imagine a Bob Newhart routine of the future (conducted on a cellphone, natch):

BOB: He-hello? You say my tires are low? How low? (whistles) That low, huh? Oh, hang on; my call waiting is beeping...He-hello? Oh, hi, microwave oven. No, I'm talking to my tires on the other line. The toaster? What's it doing? Well, tell it to mind its own business. There's no one home; it shouldn't even be toasting anything...Am I going to have to separate you two?! OK, that's it. Get the dishwasher on the line....Oops, there's call waiting again....I have to go, the couch is calling...

It may even be necessary for administrative assistants to develop new skill sets to be able to screen a person from his own furniture.

ASSISTANT: Sir, your lamp is on line 2. Are you in?
BOSS: No, Miss Jenkins, take a message, but please get my bathroom sink on the line.

Going Underground

Traveling? Here's a nifty idea: subway maps for your iPod Photo. Why rely on giant posters on subway platforms when you can download teeny tiny maps? (OK, it's actually not a bad idea, and it's not always possible to see subway maps.)

The Keys to the Kingdom?

Hate the QWERTY keyboard? Here's a nifty solution: just get a blank keyboard! (Yes, someone had to invent a blank keyboard. Thomas Edison, eat your heart out.) Why? To become a better typist, of course. After all, they say, pianos don't have the notes on the keys, do they? (But then piano keys are in order, aren't they, not randomly strewn about the keyboard like letters on a typewriter?) And perish the thought of just painting over the keys yourself: "but it's a pain in the butt to do that, a major pain. Also the paint would wear off eventually." Unlike buying and learning to type on a blank keyboard, which sounds like more fun than I could possible imagine.

Are We Not Men? We are TiVo

TiVo tests Internet download service

Add TiVo Inc. to the list of companies trying to wed the Internet to television. The digital recording company is preparing to enable customers to download TV shows to their set-top boxes via the Internet -- even before the shows air on TV.
Still, broadband connections are picking up speed, and are moving closer to becoming a reliable delivery method for broadcast-quality video. Should the day come that video is downloaded at the touch of a button, some of the stakeholders in the sector foresee a vast video universe of endless variety.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Um, No

CNet, for some reason, has decided to list the top 10 technologies its editors miss most. OK, one or two perhaps (manned space exploration is sorely missed), but the Apple Newton? Wires? (No, I do not say "bring back wires." I wish even power cabling could be replaced by some kind of wireless technology.) The GM EV1? Granted, the idea of an electric car is a nice one, but I always had reservations about a car that looked like it was wearing a skirt. As for LPs--well, I still have 'em, so I can't say they've gone away. (Interestingly, now that sampling has become prevalent, it's not uncommon to put on a Beck or eels CD and be greeted by the telltale pops and scratches of the vinyl record.) The Concorde? Since I'm not Phil Collins, I can't say that I ever traveled on it (and $10,000 seemed rather a lot to pay for an airline ticket--no Priceline for the Concorde).

A related CNet article waxes nostalgic about dead dot-coms. Um--why the frell are we getting nostalgic about the late 90s already?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Science Friction

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber posts his Hugo Awards preview special. (For those not in the know, the Hugo Awards are the most prestigious science fiction literary awards. Yes, there is such a thing as prestigious science-fiction. Oh, and the winner was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.) I confess I haven't read (or heard of) most of the nominees--but then many haven't been published in the U.S. yet. I remember when Jonathan Strange came out; it was all over the local Borders and I was turned off by the hype--perhaps I was wrong.)

Quiggin muses on the writing of science-fiction in this day and age--when just basic living seems like something out of science-fiction. (Think about this: once upon a time, lasers were the ultimate in sci-fi cool, but now, looking around this office and spying a CD player and two DVD writers, I find that lasers are everywhere. True, I'm not taking them out and zapping the neighbors with them--would that I could--but still...) And as someone who tries to write sci-fi (and I don't mean silly things like Virus! but real, honest-to-god sci-fi) I can say that what inevitably happens in trying to envision the future 20, 30, even 50 years out is that it ends up looking like now, only more so. The Internet, e-paper, iPods, wireless networks, cellphones...let's face it, compared with what I grew up with in the 1970s, this is all pretty futuristic. Thus, it takes an extra effort to take one's imagination beyond that, which isn't always easy. But my suspicion--looking back on the sci-fi Golden Age--is that this has always been the case. Much of the envisioning of the future by writers in the 40s, 50s, and 60s really is just an extrapolation of technologies that were just starting to bubble up to the surface--space travel, computers, robotics, etc. Sci-fi back then was just taking those nascent technologies and taking them to their logical conclusions, some of which became reality, some of which didn't. (I still think flying cars are a staggeringly bad idea and am happy that sci-fi writers were wrong about that one. People drive idiotically enough in two dimensions; let's not give them a third.) So maybe I'm not in bad company.

Still, it's hard to convey a sense of wonder anymore, given what we're all used to on a daily basis--and how cynical we've become as a society. Where are the places we can look for wonder? According to Quiggin, taking computer science to the nth degree is the common route. Oh, I don't know. That was kind of the idea behind Virus!, that technology is really more annoying than wondrous--but only because it has insinuated itself into all our lives and thus makes our lives irritating. Computers were sources of wonder back when no one had any; now they just make me want to throw them out the window half the time. But I kid Microsoft Word...

Space travel remains the best source of sci-fi material--if only because it hasn't become quite so prosaic yet. (Which is interesting: I was enraptured by Cassini's arrival at Saturn last year, and yet I have a hard time getting too excited about the space shuttle, which just kind of reminds me of an old, beat-up car I had in high school.)

Maybe going in the other direction is an idea: the whole idea of nanotechnology may have some sci-fi "applications." Hmm.

Cloning? Nah. Korean scientists announced they've cloned a dog. I can see why that's necessary; it's just so incredibly difficult to get dogs to mate with each other.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Non-CD CDs

The music industry isn't going out of its way to endear people to itself, is it?

From MacinTouch:

Apple has updated two Knowledge Base articles about copy-protected CD problems with iTunes:

iTunes: Unable to import copy-protected audio discs
iTunes is unable to import ("rip") tracks from certain audio discs that have a copy protection system.

Cannot Eject Copy Protected Audio Disc, Computer Starts Up to Gray Screen
A small number of audio discs use a copy protection technology that can prevent the disc from being read by a computer. This may also prevent the disc from being ejected. The audio discs are technically and legally not Compact Discs (CD format), and the CD logo has been removed from the disc. In the logo's former place is the printed message:
"Will not play on PC/Mac"
This appears both on the cover and on the disc. Inserting this disc in a computer may cause the system to stop responding. It might not be possible to eject the disc on computers without a manual eject hole.

I've not experienced this problem (the stuff I like is too obscure for major record labels, the ones who are most likely to implement copy protection) but it does indicate the complete and utter cluelessness of the music industry.

In Pod We Trust

Four years or so ago, I got one of the very first generation of Apple iPod MP3 players and fell in love with it immediately. Yeah, it held only a meager 6 GB of songs (my music collection, close to 1,000 CDs and digitized vinyl LPs large, rips to 66.4 GB of MP3 files) and has that annoying gap between songs (making the smooth song segues on Pink Floyd albums not so smooth) but, hey, for playing music in the car (thanks to the tapedeck adapter) or while working out (thanks to external speakers) it beat carrying a ton of tapes around and, for long road trips, it's nice to program a 3+-hour playlist rather than fumble with tapes or CDs).

So I had no small amount of sadness when it died last week--well, not really died: it just stopped being recognized by the Mac, meaning that nothing new could ever be uploaded to it. Which wouldn't have been too bad if I hadn't just recently cleaned everything off it and was preparing to upload things to it. Doh! Since it was long out of warranty (and Apple didn't even recognize its serial number) it would cost $250 to have it sent in and fixed--not much less than the cost of a new one. So I bought what is now the fourth-generation iPod and at 30 GB is certainly an improvement space-wise. A minor gripe is that they changed the connection interface from FireWire to USB 2.0 which is fast, yes, but it now means I have to find a new cigarette lighter adapter. OK, not a big deal in the grand scheme of things (and when you consider that many people have trouble affording food or clothing, it's such a colossally minor thing to complain about), but it does illustrate a certain irritation factor of modern technology, that changing one thing usually means that many other things will have to be changed, too.

It's also an iPod Photo--meaning you can upload photos to it (well, I can upload photos to it; you, leave it alone). Oh, I don't know. With the tiny screen (fine for displaying song info), I find that scrolling through a photo album is kind of like looking at a stamp collection. If they hope to create video iPods, they're going to have to make the screen mu-u-u-u-uch bigger.

WiFi for Free

From CNN:
Most new computers are equipped for wireless Internet access, and more and more people opting for Wi-Fi in their homes. But as the networks become stronger and more prevalent, more of those signals are available outside the home of the subscriber, spilling over into neighbor's apartments, hallways and the street.

Yeah, we've heard all the stories and the pending lawsuits, and the media loves to go into "Ooh, It's a Big Scary Internet" mode as if they were Count Floyd; the media just loves to go out of its way to make people scared of something. But you know what? This is going to be a non-issue very soon, as security for WiFi networks gets better and easier to implement. (On the Mac, it's extremely simple to password-encode one's WiFi network. In fact, with the last few versions of Airport, you can't not password-encode it.) It may even become a mooter (is that a word?) issue: it's not hard to imagine a time when most of the U.S., or even the world, is a big wireless hotspot, making the question "Whose network is it?" a pointless one.

Big Man(uscript) on Campus

The latest attempt to bring e-books...well, someplace where they'll sell.

I've had mixed feelings about about e-books; they're certainly not going to replace printed books (I think we're more likely to see the decline of reading book-length materials in general than any replacement of the physical medium). I've always been curious as to what role electronic media will play in academia--especially since reading a story a few months ago about the Stanford University freshman who had never read a printed book in his life--sorry, I can't find the link). More and more texts will be electronic in some form or other, but a format that prevents printing or one that expires will only ever be useful for transient textbooks, or books for classes you don't really care about. I still use some of my textbooks to this day (16 years after college) and especially people in science and engineering fields need to refer to their old texts on occasion. Could textbooks be the "killer app" for e-paper?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Microsoft Windows Vista

Well, this didn't take long:

First potential virus risk for Windows Vista found.

Vista is the name of the next version of Windows. Internet wags have defined Vista as standing for:


Uncle Meat

As some of you may know, I am mere months away from realizing my lifelong ambition of being a crazy uncle. This is of course thanks to my brother and his wife, without whose cooperation I would have to find a way of becoming an uncle all by myself, which is no easy feat, let me tell you. (Slightly more difficult is the fact that my other ambition is to not have children but go right to having grandchildren. I'm working with some physicists at MIT on that problem.)

Anyhoo, here is the latest ultrasound image. Interestingly, the informative captions were not added in Photoshop; they are naturally occurring. Go figure.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Getting Smaller All the Time

More and more desktop computers have been replaced by laptops (two of the three computers I have in my office are laptops--one Mac and one PC--while the only desktop computer I have is a Mac G3 I bought in 1998 and is little more than an iTunes jukebox these days). The desktop may be on its way back--but only as the "base station" to link to handhelds:
It's hard to believe, but there's a high-tech company that got rid of its notebooks.

The company's CEO, tired of the expenses involved in buying and supporting notebooks, took them all away and gave the 700-plus employees desktops and "smart" handhelds, said Al Delattre, a partner in the communications and high-tech practice at Accenture, which worked with the unidentified company on the transition.

"They loved it," he said. "You give a senior executive a laptop, and they generally only use three applications: e-mail, a browser and IM."

A dozen other companies are in the midst of a similar conversion, or contemplating it, Delattre added.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Hotel Security

Oh, the things we can do:

When Adam Laurie stays at hotels, he says he can hack his way around paying for premium TV channels, the minibar and phone calls.

What's more, by connecting his laptop to certain modern hotel TV systems, Laurie says he can spy on other guests. He can't look into their rooms (yet), but depending on the system he can see what they are watching on their TV, look at their guest folios, change the minibar bill and follow along as they browse the Internet on the hotel television set.

To tease his fellow guests, he can also check them out of their room and set early wake-up calls via the TV....

I've Wrestled the Octopus

Now, I'm inordinately fond of sushi, and, yes, I do like the occasional octopus, but I'm gonna take a pass on this dish (only in L.A.): live octopus tentacle. One diner relates his struggle:

In every scenario I played out in my imagination as far as eating this dish was concerned, I predicted nothing more than a brief slimy struggle then stillness—the last words of an insignificant creature low on the food chain. Silly me. I could not have underestimated my dinner more because once in my mouth, the tentacle went into attack mode and aggressively suctioned on to my teeth, tongue and bottom lip making it nearly impossible to manipulate my mouth in order to eat it....

I've heard of a food fight, but that's ridiculous! (And I take issue with the characterization of an octopus as "an insignificant creature low on the food chain.")

P.S. Danger, Will Robinson! If you click through to the original link, if you're in any way squeamish, do not click on the video link!


Sez Dr. Joe:
June 2005 printing shipments were down -$94 million compared to June 2004 shipments. On an inflation-adjusted basis, they were down by -$334 million. For the first six months of the year, shipments are up +$254 million in current dollars, but down -$1.1 billion on an inflation-adjusted basis. On the bright side, May's shipments were revised up by +$18 million in current dollars.

Just a Second...

One blog created "every second," says Technorati. Well, since it took me some time to realize that Blogger didn't support Apple's Safari browser, it took me two seconds.

The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Muzak?

If you'd asked us awhile back to think of a precursor to such newsy tech offerings as iTunes, Napster, satellite radio and BPL (broadband over power lines), we probably wouldn't have settled on Muzak.
...[T]he L.A.-based Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative...says Muzak was originally intended as a kind of subscription service that would be piped into people's homes with the help of utility lines.

You know, every time I drive to Massachusetts or other points East, I pass the local headquarters of the Muzak Corportation on I-90 just east of Albany. I stopped in once and you know what they have playing in their elevators? Speed metal. Go figure.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Freakish and Disturbing

Don't like living alone? (Then there's something wrong with you, IMO...) But, still, this solution has got to be the most freakish and disturbing idea I've seen in a good long time--wallpaper with lifesize people imprinted on it. I can see this getting horrifying after a few drinks (or even before...).

No More Leap Seconds?

Sez the WSJ:

Apparently, computers have problems when the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (yes, that is a real group) has to add "leap seconds" to days to get human time (accurate) match up with what the planet Earth is doing (not so accurate). (Leap seconds are nothing. Think about what it would be like to be Gordon Jump's computer.) (OK, that's a reach.) So, to help out computer programmers, there is a proposal afoot to get rid of leap seconds, which would render sundials and sextants inaccurate. So if Magellan ever came forward in time, he'd have a heck of a time navigating (not that he didn't back then, either). I don't know. I like the idea of a computer suddenly thinking it's 62 o'clock. After all, I am a big fan of 25 O'Clock.

PC Precisely Predicts Felony

Hmmm...a computer accurately predicted when a robbery would take place? I was waiting to find out that the perp was the computer programmer, but I guess not. Wasn't there a really boring TV show based on this idea? (Numb3rs, I believe it was called.--Ah, apparently, it's still on. The "3" instead of the "e" always bugged me and I refused to watch it on that basis--well, that and I seem to recall the pilot being not far removed from watching paint dry.)

Does Technology Breed Rudeness?

Yes, acccording to this article from Forbes.

Don't even get me started on cellphones (the "rude behavior" I witness nearly every day with cellphones is when the idiots who drive while yakking on them nearly run me over--could they at least feign interest in traffic laws?).
In a recent national poll by market research group Synovate, 68% of Americans claimed to observe poor cell phone etiquette at least once per day. Eighteen percent said they ran into poor e-mail etiquette. The study noted that the Americans showed the poorest etiquette when using the very devices they rely on the most (52% said they would “die” if their phones and e-mails were taken away).

I don't know--I'm not sure "die" would be the word I'd use. I"rejoice" would be more appropriate. I just can't help but wonder if this whole "whatever whenever culture" is going to make us into a nation of spoiled brats.

And if they do ever lift the ban on cellphones on airplanes, the chances of my ever getting on a plane again are remarkably slim, as the torture of the whole experience would just be magnified exponentially.


A couple months old, but, still, who would have thought that General Burkhalter (ne Leon Askin [ne Leo Aschkenasy]) would have been among the longest-lived of the Hogan's Heroes castmembers?

Obit here.

Thanks to Ken for the link.

SpongeBob On Demand

It's really only a matter of time:
The Nickelodeon cable network, for example, recently created TurboNick, a free Internet service that offers 24-hour access to popular programs like SpongeBob SquarePants and Jimmy Neutron. It offers some original programs, too, because the young audience of Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom, is increasingly spending time in front of computers.

Hey--Data Flows Two Ways!

Who'd'a thunk it?

Via C|Net:

Over the past year, cable and DSL broadband providers alike have touted their increased download speeds, but little has been made of upload speeds. Two providers, Verizon and Cablevision, do offer relatively fast upload services in many of their markets, and upload speeds elsewhere have increased modestly over time, but some users complain they haven't kept pace with their needs.