Friday, September 30, 2005

Dear Santa

Got an extra $3.5 million on hand to spend on that special someone? How about--and this does not seem to be a joke--a flying car? Yes, new from Neiman-Marcus (whom you immediately think of when you think transportation): the Skycar. Check it out:

The M400 Skycar is the world's first personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, designed to elevate individual drivers above the headaches of commuting and the dangers of highway travel.
"Dangers of highway travel." How about the dangers of crashing into the ground at 350 mph? Great; the same idiots who drive while talking on cellphones can now be tooling about in flying cars. Ah, but first, read the fine print:

Certain regulatory requirements must be met for purchase of the prototype, including International Traffic in Arms Regulations and Federal Aviation Administration authorization.
Ya think?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

I Should Write Their Ads

So I'm walking through the Holyoke, MA, mall this morning, and I've got my cellphone clipped to my belt like a dork (I don't have enough pockets until jacket season). I walk past the T-Mobile kiosk and the guy behind the counter beckons me over and asks, "What cellphone service do you use?"
"Verizon Wireless," I reply.
"How much are you paying a month?" he asks.
"Too much," I reply.
"Did you know that you can save a lot if you switch to T-Mobile?" he says.
"Actually," I say, "I can save a lot more by switching to Skype and Voice Over Internet Protocol and avoid cellular entirely." (I don't add that the quality is a whole lot better, too.)
He seemed quite disappointed.

Plugging In

I read about the idea of delivering Internet and other access via electrical wiring--through sockets that are in every room, usually placed in the most inconvenient of places. But in Japan it is becoming a reality--and it's faster than Ethernet. I like the idea--though whether I pay NiMo or Time-Warner for Internet access seems like a case of six of one, half dozen of the other. But I am sanguine about the idea of consolidating a variety of functions into a single device or connection. And I suppose it would be less of a hassle than delivering Internet access through the plumbing.

Gotta Love the Germans

Until the renewable liver thing comes to fruition (see below), we will have to content ourselves with this cool invention out of Germany: a beer mat that knows when a glass is nearly empty and automatically asks for a refill. The possibilities for interactive rich media abound. And you have to love a story that refers to someone as "an expert pub goer." Uh-huh.

Say What?

I don't claim to be an expert on religion (any religion), but it seems to me that there is some inherent contradiction in designating someone the "patron saint of nuclear-armed, long-distance Russian bombers." Cool outfit, though. I'm thinking of conducting my next printing industry seminar dressed like that. (It would beat the Grim Reaper outfit I usually wear....)

I Wanna Be Your Liver, Baby

Hmmm...genetically engineered mice can regrow organs, perhaps paving the way for the ability to be applied to humans. Drinkers rejoice!

And you gotta love the wonderfully convoluted conference name, "Strategies for Negligible Senescence."

Just Don't Use Corrugated Paperboard

Woonsocket, RI's own Debbie Papineau, the World's Greatest Virtual Office Assistant, pointed me to a, shall we say, unique application for digital print-on-demand technology: print-on-demand toilet paper.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Congress Abandons WikiConstitution

As always, The Onion is covering those stories everyone else misses.

WASHINGTON, DC—Congress scrapped the open-source, open-edit, online version of the Constitution Monday, only two months after it went live. "The idea seemed to dovetail perfectly with our tradition of democratic participation," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said. "But when so-called 'contributors' began loading it down with profanity, pornography, ASCII art, and mandatory-assault-rifle-ownership amendments, we thought it might be best to cancel the project." Congress intends to restore the Constitution to its pre-Wiki format as soon as an unadulterated copy of the document can be found.

Squid Pro Quo

It may surprise many to know that one of the largest animals on earth--the giant squid (Architeuthis dux)--has never been seen alive in its natural habitat. Until now.

The first ever pictures of a live giant squid in its natural environment have been snapped in deep water off Japan. Working with a cheap camera and a fishing boat, the two Japanese researchers have succeeded where millions of dollars and international film crews have failed.
Here's my question, though: A. dux is known as the Atlantic giant squid--what the heck was it doing off Japan? Going out for sushi?

Danger, Will Robinson!

As a public service, I offer this advice: never never never, under any circumstances, attempt to buy anything--much less a house--from a lawyer. Bad bad bad idea.

Oh, and if you are a lawyer, I would advise, for your own safety, to make sure you are never in front of my car.

Train of Thought

Dear Amtrak,

If you're going to suddenly make all Albany to New York City trains all-reserved (rather than "catch whatever one is available when I'm done with what I went down there for"), you may want to alert people to this fact in advance like, say, oh, mentioning it on your Web site, so that if folks download the current schedule a day before taking such a trip, they might be aware of it? Oh, and you also might want to tell your ticket agents to not treat people like war criminals if they don't pop into the Albany-Rensselaer train station periodically to see if flyers have been posted.

Thank you.

Safe at Home

Researchers have found that during the Red Sox-Yankees playoff game last year, emergency room visits in the Boston area fell by 15%, compared to another inconsequential Red Sox game when ER visits rose by 15%. People putting off doing anything about that heart attack until the game is over? Or are folks safer when they're at home, watching TV? Or are many ER vists just not that urgent?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Uh, No

"Best of' lists are always trouble, and it's hard to really take them seriously. Still...Boston magazine does their "Top 50 Science-Fiction Shows of All Time." Some of these are a reach. " While I like The Wild, Wild West a lot, I'm not sure I would classify it as "science fiction." (Same with Man From U.N.C.L.E.) But if that's the case, why not The Prisoner? And why no Farscape, which is decidedly science-fiction--and one of the best sci-fi series of the past 20 years? And I'm sorry, but I dispute the placing of Third Rock From the Sun on any list of the greatest anything of all time--and if sitcoms are allowed, why not Mork and Mindy, for crying out loud? And Xena: Warrior Princess is higher than The Outer Limits? Oh, come now. I have no disputes with the top 5, although I have not seen the new Battlestar Galactica (but I've heard good things about it). Some obscure things made the list--but then why not Quark, the short-lived Richard Benjamin sitcom (I think Buck Henry wrote it) about a space garbageman. It ran briefly in 1977, but was very funny, from what I recall.

Sorry About That, Chief


Don Adams, the wry-voiced comedian who starred as the fumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart in the 1960s television spoof of James Bond movies, "Get Smart," has died. He was 82.

More on VoIP

From today's CNet, about the move to enable Voice Over Internet protocol to mobile devices. Say what you want about the printing industry, but it could be worse: it could be the telephone industry. While it's a tad premature to say that the writing is on the wall for telephone companies, I think it's only a matter of time before per-call or per-minute costs are a thing of the past.

A New Marketing Medium?

Believe it or not, it is called Bumvertising:

[T]he use of sign holding vagrants to advertise, is a development of's most recent advertising campaign. Homeless men are able to provide a valuable and tangible service to a company, while receiving an additional revenue stream in combination with their normal donations from begging.
How's that for a new wrinkle to "multichannel marketing"? I can't wait for the next version of Adobe InDesign to include an "Export to Vagrant" feature.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Original White Meat

Nothing especially remarkable in this story about bird/plane collisions, except one particular passage amused me to no end:

Jet engines must now be able to withstand the ingestion of an 8-pound waterfowl without failing (this is tested in the lab by firing a chicken from a cannon at point-blank range).
I think a chicken cannon would be very effective in conventional warfare--or would the enemy cry fowl? (Yes, that's a poultry excuse for a pun...)(doh!)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

As Sure as Eggs is Eggs

Today (September 22) is the day of the Autumnal Equinox. Many of you may have heard the urban legend that you can balance an egg on its end on the equinox and only on the equinox. Those eager to prove it, can try today--either all day or at 6:23 p.m., EDT, the precise moment of the equinox. Good luck.

The "theory," such as it is, has it that "the sun's equidistant position between the poles of the Earth on the equinox causes special gravitational forces that apparently manifest themsleves in egg-balancing." Uh-huh.

There are those who say that the egg balancing trick can only be done on the vernal equinox. Why it should make any difference is beyond me, but since you can't balance an egg on its end on either equinox--or ever--I guess the point is kind of moot.

A common story has it that Christopher Columbus won a bet involving egg-balancing (no doubt the result of a long, boring sea voyage). According to which version of the story you read, he won the bet either by sprinkling salt on the table (on which to prop the egg up) or he cracked the bottom of the egg lightly so it would stand up. The story of Columbus' egg is often used in business and/or computer programming circles to point out that seemingly insoluble problems can often be solved by breaking the rules--if not the eggs.

My Kingdom for a Decent Office Suite

After spending some time experimenting with a couple of alternatives to Microsoft Office, I'm afraid none seem to meet my needs. On the Mac, the situation is dire; MS Office always crashes. Always has, no matter what version of OS X I've ever used. (Office X has hated the entire line of "cats" since Day One.) I once made the mistake of downloading the upgrade to Office; after that, none of the programs would even launch at all. Word on the Mac is fine if I save every five seconds, and never add images or cut and paste anything. Excel is less cranky and I can even be productive in it, although lacks some of the math skills of the PC version. (The Mac version inexplicably refuses to let me paste both cell values and number formats at the same time, which annoys me to no end. Oh, and since upgrading to OS 10.4, the Ctrl-click contextual menu items don't work anymore.) To add insult to injury, charts created in Excel for the Mac are not 100% compatible with Excel for the PC and vice versa, which makes collaboration a problem. Same deal with charts pasted into Word. It was this problem that led me to buy a PC in the first place.

So I avoid Word on the Mac.

I was a little excited when Apple released its own Pages word processing application. It handles graphics very well, exports to Word format reasonably OK, but lacks auto caption numbering, caption field updating, and cross-referencing, which are very important to what I usually use a WP program for. But for simple, text-only things, like fiction or text destined for a real page layout program like InDesign, Pages works fine.

I tried a free word processing application called AbiWord. Biggest problem: it does not allow me to paste charts from Excel, nor does it give me the ability (as far as I can tell) to create charts and graphs from within it. So AbiWord is outta here.

Finally, OpenOffice. I have not tried the Mac version yet (though I downloaded it), but I have been playing occasionally with the PC version. Y'know, the same things that annoy me about Word annoy me about OpenOffice: style sheets work as flakily, and it even has the same irritating habit of slipping into Overstrike mode at random, which is the bane of my existence. There is a spreadsheet application which is more user-hostile than Excel, and it does a worse job of formatting charts and graphs. (Am I the only one who ever wants to format y-axis labels on bar graphs? Oh, and OpenOffice doesn't seem to know the difference between an x-axis--which it thinks is the vertical one--and a y-axis--which it thinks is the horizontal one.) And although you can paste charts into the Writer application (a la Word), it is extremely limited in how captions can be added--which is a dealbreaker for me. It has cross-referencing, but it's extremely complex and impenetrable. And figuring out how to create a ToC automastically requires a degree in advanced hyperbolic topology. (It look less time to learn Photoshop.) The only advantage to OpenOffice I've yet encountered is that it is really easy to export to PDF. It's just getting to the point where there is anything to export that's the problem... (I can think of one person who is going to take issue with my assessment of OpenOffice!)

Dare I experiment with another for-pay office suite--like StarOffice or WordPerfect? Perhaps...

Then again, maybe my entire workflow has just adapted to MS Office over the years and I get frustrated by trying to replicate the experience elsewhere. Don't know.

If anyone knows of a decent application that will let me create charts and graphs from Excel data and give me extensive typographic control over axis and data labels, and will let me export them to a vector format like EPS, I would be most appreciative. I use Adobe Illustrator and its Chart Creator for my high-end chart work, but it requires so many workarounds that it can be a production bottleneck. A combination of Excel and Illustrator would be perfect!

Oh, This Is Good

The perils of device intercompatibility:

A Trojan virus that attempts to spread from smart phones to users' PCs was discovered Wednesday, marking one of the first cases of virus "cross-sharing" between the two devices, according to security firm F-Secure.

Hmmm...maybe I should think of my inability to sync my mobile phone to my PC as a security feature rather than a major nuisance.

Is It Just Me...

...or is Google starting to get scary?

Google is laying the groundwork to enter the TV business, judging from a job posting for a GoogleTV product manager.

New Media

Just bought a CD (Glass Hammer's "The Inconsolable Secret") and rather than being printed in the booklet, the lyric sheet is supplied on the CD as a PDF. I'm not sure I like that idea...


If you're like me, and I know I am, you have accumulated tons of magnetic media--audio cassettes, VHS tapes, floppy disks (even 5.25-inch!) and so forth. In this age of CDs, DVDs, iPods, and MP3s, who needs all this stuff anymore? Do we want to have to move it from new home to new home (speaking for myself: no). And should we just chuck it all in the trash?

I found a company called GreenDisk which will collect and recycle all your so-called "technotrash"--including old computer parts and accessories. Check 'em out here. I just sent out two boxes of old audio cassettes (recorded eons ago from my CD and LP collection to play in the car--which doesn't have a CD player, and for which I now use my iPod) and VHS tapes of movies and TV shows I taped a long time ago and now have on DVD. Ordering is easy and the pricing is pretty reasonable. They also respond to customer service inquiries very rapidly, too.

Now, what to do with my old Star Trek VHS collection...

The Circle Continues to Close

Sez Folio:

The U.S. News & World Report announced a major strategic shift away from print newsgathering to build its Web business. The move comes as major newsweeklies—like newspapers—face the continuing struggle for relevancy as a growing number of readers are comfortable with getting their news online and elsewhere.

Holiber says that there are no current plans to reduce frequency, and that the magazine added two additional issues this year. He says the investment in online will cost "several million" dollars initially

I'm tellin' ya, wait until universal WiFi, accessible on small, portable devices (or even e-paper), makes the Internet as portable as print. Then it'll be a whole new ballgame.

Broadband Penetration Slowing

Sez Pew:

The survey, published by independent think tank Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that high-speed Internet adoption, after growing quickly in the past several years, has been losing steam and is poised to slow even further. During the first six months of 2005, 53 percent of home Internet users said they use a broadband connection, up from only 50 percent during the previous six months.
Pew attributed the slowdown in broadband penetration to a maturing of the market. Early adopters, who are typically savvy about the Internet, well-educated and well-paid, have already signed up for broadband service.

Today's dial-up customers, by contrast, tend to be older adults with lower incomes and educational levels. Most importantly, they do not use the Internet to do much beyond basic Web surfing and e-mailing.

I think this slowdown is a blip, really, and it's one of those things that will have a generational impact as the kids--you know, these kids with their hula hoops, their rock and roll, and their fax machines--grow up and move out on their own. In the future, high-speed Internet access will probably be as much of a basic utility as a telephone. Of course, I think WiFi will end up being more important, but first things first...

Resistance is Futile

For a glimpse of our Borg-bound future, check out the new Ray Kurzweil book, The Singularity is Near. I have not read it yet (it's not being released until today--may hoof it up to Borders and pick it up if they have it), but there was a mention on Marginal Revolution. The basic thrust, which sounds like an expansion of what Kurzweil laid out in The Age of Spiritual Machines, is that the future of mankind will involve some kind of human-computer hybrid, or a kind of cyborg-like existence. Or, as Tyler Cowan at MR summarizes, "In other words, we will reverse engineer the human brain and turn people into computer uploads, all within the next century."

Oh, I don't know. The theme of The Age of Spiritual Machines was along the same lines, the mixing of the mechanical and the biological, but given how flaky and unreliable computer hardware and software and--and contunue to be after at least 25 years--I am not especially enthused about the idea. I am reminded of the movie Artificial Intelligence; my favorite bit was when the robot kid, who spends hundreds of years in sleep mode at the bottom of a frozen lake, was revived and then proceeded to work flawlessly--meanwhile, the temperature in my office drops below 50 and my computer's hard drive goes nuts. (I mentioned this to someone and they said, "Well technology will get better in the future." Will it? Are computers and software these days any more reliable than they were 25 years ago? Sure, they're far more powerful, but I find them just as flaky as they always were. On the Mac, we "lived with the bomb" for over a decade, but now that has become "kernel panic." Ah, progress! And don't even get me started on Windows.)

If we are destined for a biomechanoid future, my suspicion is that it will be more Six Million Dollar Man-like (although I suspect we'll have to adjust for inflation), as computerized/mechanized limbs and organs are used to replace damaged ones. But the brain--dunno. Especially if Microsoft were involved, I think it would be tempting to categorize a software-enabled human brain as a mental disorder.

But then, maybe I should read Kurzweil's book first....

The book's Web site is to be found here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pop Quiz

Via Marginal Revolution:

Aside from humans, what is the deadliest animal in the United States?

See the answer here. Read all about it here.

Customer Support

On the subjects of cable and television companies, I do want to say a few things about customer service (no, this won't be a gripe session). For Internet access and very basic cable, I subscribe to Time-Warner Cable and every time I have had a problem, their phones were answered promptly and if someone needed to come out, they were sent out the next day (someone even came on a Sunday) and were prompt and efficient. Some folks know I used to have very bitter fights with Time-Warner back in the day, but these days (at least in Saratoga Springs) they are a pleasure to deal with, both in person and on the phone. (As an added bonus, their technicians don't shriek in horror when they encounter a Macintosh.) I make fun of Roadrunner and the tendency for the coyote to win, but I've had Roadrunner for about five years now and I'm very happy with the service and with Time-Warner in general. If only there were better programming, I would subscribe to more channels!

Verizon itself is a mixed bag. My initial contact with them was five years ago, when I had a landline installed when I moved here from Calfornia. They kept pushing DSL at the time, but their sales calls were after 5:00 on a Friday and I swear they always sounded like they were made in the midst of a wild office party--lots of background noise, and a sales guy who kept giggling like he was drunk off his butt. It never filled me with confidence, so I never had much interest in Verizon DSL. Several years later, after I had cancelled my landline in favor of just cell service, I got a weird sales call from Verizon long distance, who were apparenrly unaware that I didn't actually have a landline anymore (this was about a year after I cancelled it). So they never much seemed on the ball over there to me.

My cell service is through Verizon Wireless and their service is no worse than any other cell provider I've ever used. Yes, their Web site is admittedly like the Winchester Mystery House--lots of random links that go nowhere--but I had to call them today about something else I will probably end up complaining about, but their phone was answered promptly and the person on the other end was very pleasant and even helpful. (It didn't solve my problem, but I don't think it's Verizon's fault...) She identified the phone I had, knew when I had got it, and told me that for improved service I should update my roaming something-or-other. It may turn out to be complete BS, but at least for now it strikes me as a high point in customer relations with a large company.

It's too easy to use this venue to whine about things. Once in a while, I'd like to say something nice...

The Plot Thickens

There are many things that can be said about Verizon, and not many of them flattering, but one potential harbinger of the future is Verizon's launching of TV service in Texas, using a fiber optics network. Heck, if cable companies can offer telephone and Internet access, why can't Verizon thus offer TV service?
The website Broadband Reports published reports earlier this month about the trials in Keller, and it detailed pricing for the service. According to the post, Keller residents will pay about $12.95 for the basic service, which includes 15 to 35 channels and $39.95 for 160 channels. Add-on sports and movie packages can be added for $5.95 and $11.95 respectively.
Obtaining local franchise agreements is the biggest hurdle Verizon faces in rolling out its service in other states, since the process as it stands today in most states significantly slows deployment. Other than the big win in Texas, Verizon has only secured a handful of agreements in California, Virginia and Florida. But more are on the way, and the company is lobbying state legilatures [sic], as well as, the feds to make further changes in the law.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Good Golly, Miss Molly

Today's Science Times has an interesting story on "how and why we curse." Oddly, Microsoft Office is not mentioned at all.

Dig this:

Nowadays, the phrase, "Oh, golly!" may be considered almost comically wholesome, but it was not always so. "Golly" is a compaction of "God's body" and, thus, was once a profanity.

A Hurricane By Any Other Name...

Is running out of names really the biggest problem this year's hurricane season will cause? The link has an interesting (well, sort of) history of how the tradition of naming hurricanes began.
For many centuries, hurricanes in the West Indies were named after particular Catholic saint's days on which they occurred. Hurricane "San Felipe" struck Puerto Rico on September 13, 1876. When another hurricane struck Puerto Rico on the same day more than fifty years later, it was christianed "San Felipe the second."
Military weather forecasters began giving women's names to significant storms during WWII, then in 1950 the WMO agreed to an alphabetical naming system, using the military's radio code. The first named Atlantic hurricane was Able in 1950.
[I]n 1953 the organization adopted a rotating series of women's names, planning to retire names of significant storms.

Feminists urged the WMO to add men's names, which was done in 1979. The boy-girl-boy-girl naming convention evolved to include French and Spanish names in the Atlantic system, reflecting the languages of the nations affected by Carribean hurricanes.

Spam Spam Spam Spam

Symantec has released its latest Internet Security Threat Report. Interestingly, the press release--and the Symantec site--provide no information on how to actually get the full report. Perhaps it's a report that only exists as a press release. Anyway, one line stuck out:

Symantec also observed that spam made up 61 percent of all e-mail traffic and that 51 percent of all spam received worldwide originated in the United States.

More unnerving data:
[P]hishing attacks continue to proliferate. The volume of phishing messages grew from an average of 2.99 million messages a day to 5.70 million. One out of every 125 e-mail messages scanned by Symantec Brightmail AntiSpam was a phishing attempt, an increase of 100 percent from the last half of 2004. Symantec Brightmail AntiSpam antifraud filters were blocking more than 40 million phishing attempts per week on average, up from approximately 21 million per week at the beginning of January.

Phishing is of course the process by which scammers send users e-mail messages purportedly from their bank (or some other such institution) and ask them to fill in account numbers and other confidential information, which the scammers then use nefariously. (I've received these, mostly from "banks" located nowhere near me, which immediately made me suspicious.) Needless to say, a legitimate bank or credit card company will never send you messages asking for your account info.

Still, lest this sound like the usual "Oh, it's a Big Scary Internet, be afraid!" kind of thing the media loves to propagate, the Internet is no more scary or nefarious than the so-called "real world." Probably the most you can say is that both on- and offline realms are equally annoying in their own unique ways.

They Get Letters

Y'know, I think there's a special place in hell reserved for directors of marketing. A company I work for published a market research report on the subject of how digital printing has become an accepted and increasingly popular output technology. As a result, the subject line of the press release e-mailing was "Digital Printing Is Finally Mainstream." The release yielded the following response from the director of marketing from a major printing equipment manufacturer:

Can we respectfully point out that the name 'Mainstream' is a trademark owned by [Name Withheld].

I'm waiting to find out if anyone owns the trademark to "Finally," or perhaps even "Is."


Those Are Nice Shoes

(Read that headline in the voice of Columbo.)

For travelers whose shoes are always setting off metal detectors (huh?), there is now a line of "airport safe" shoes. Or perhaps they mean they can't be ignited and exploded.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Shh...I Can Hear What You're Typing

Dig this:

Sounds of Typing Give Messages Away

The clickety-clack of your keyboard might be enough to spill your secrets. A team of researchers in California has successfully decoded what was typed into a computer from an audio recording.

Doug Tygar of the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues used a standard microphone to record 10 minutes of noise generated by computer typists. Because the sound generated by each keystroke is slightly different, the researchers were able to generate a computer program to decode what was written. "Using statistical learning theory, the computer can categorize the sound of each key as it's struck and develop a good first guess with an accuracy of 60 percent for characters, and 20 percent for words," explains team member Li Zhuang also of U.C. Berkeley. "We then use spelling and grammar check to refine the result, which increased the accuracy to 70 percent and the word accuracy to 50 percent."

Fortunatly, my typing is so bad and I have to go back and correct so many things that any computer trying to declode what I'm typing would blow up like one of those Star Trek computers that Kirk talks to death (or the computer in The Prisoner episode that Number Six destroys by asking it "Why?"--depending on your choice of cultural reference).

Looking Into the New Face of Terror

The impending MS Office 12. Oh, this bodes well:

The keystone of the new user interface is a "ribbon" of frequently used commands that offers different options, depending on the task a user is performing. In addition to the new user interface, Microsoft has outlined several other areas of improvement, including enhancements to individual productivity, collaboration and management of corporate business documents.

Wanna make a bet those frequently used commands will have nothing whatsoever to do with the task I'm trying to complete, until I feel like hanging myself with that "ribbon"?

Will Office 12 require Windows Vista?
No. Although there were some initial plans to more tightly couple the new products, they will work independently of one another. There may be some features that "light up" only when a user is running Vista, however.

My suspicion is that "work independently" will be roughly synonymous with "won't literally burst into flames if used on older versions of Windows," and that those "some features" will roughly be "opening, creating, editing, and saving documents."

What will it cost?
Microsoft hasn't yet specified.

In other words, "if you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Macworld RIP

IDG has announced that it plans to pull the plug on Macworld Boston. Not surprising, really. In the 1990s, the East Coast show rivaled the West Coast version, but after Apple itself stopped supporting the East Coast Show, it went downhill in a hurry. (The constant swinging back and forth from New York to Boston didn't help either.) The last one I went to was Macworld NY in 2002 (I think). Vince Naselli and I did a session on graphic design, and the show's sponsors were trying to turn Macworld into a kind of Seybold. The "exhibition," I was shocked to see, took up a tiny corner of the Javits Center and consisted of little more than people selling iPod accessories. From what I've heard from those who've been to subsequent Macworlds, they haven't much improved. The San Francisco version was always a bigger event (what with it being a stone's throw from Cupertino). Sad, really.

Home Improvement?

Yep, for those who've always wanted to have the sensation of being some kind of mutant alien pod creature, there are now neon glow-in-the-dark bathtubs. Turn the lights down, crank up the Theremin music, lie down, relax, plot the destruction of the Earth...

Friday, September 16, 2005

Um, Excuse Me...

OK, it seems that there's a minimal public health hazard here, but you still can't help but be creeped out by this:

Researchers realized on Aug. 29 that they had lost track of three laboratory mice infected with deadly bubonic plague. The mice remain unaccounted for, though infectious-disease experts agree that if they did escape from the lab, public health risk is likely minimal.

Before we all party like it's 1348, read on: it gets even better:
[T]he incident focused new attention on the dozens of similar biological-warfare research centers springing up across the country with scant federal oversight or control. New Jersey, for example, does not know how many labs in the state are actually conducting experiments involving lethal bacteria or viruses.

That's good, because bioterrorism is the kind of thing you really don't want to have any control over.

Microsoft Invents the Tantalus Field*

From the Microsoft Developer's Conference:

Microsoft researchers have come up with technology that can remove an image, say a person, from the foreground and then replicate the background that the no-longer-visible person was blocking. The technology, developed by Microsoft's China research lab, was on display at the expo hall at the Professional Developer Conference here.

Ah, these kids today (or tomorrow). In my day, we had to remove foreground objects and laboriously clone the background in by hand (and by Clone Tool). By gum, it was time-consuming, and we only had pre-G3 Macs and Photoshop 3.0, but we liked it!

*Name that Star Trek episode!

He Should Have Sent a PDF

Curse those Tracked Changes:

Word blunder exposes U.K. split on terrorism

The U.K. government is in trouble over dodgy document management, with an apparent split within the government over new antiterrorism laws exposed by a letter from Home Secretary Charles Clarke. The letter, sent via e-mail as a Word document to the members of the opposing Conservative party, appeared to back controversial plans to hold terrorism suspects for up to three months without trial. However, anybody applying the Microsoft "track changes" function was able to see Clarke's original wording, which expressed concerns over such measures.

A paragraph that was deleted from the final version of Clarke's letter reportedly read: "The case for some extension is clear, though I believe there is room for debate as to whether we should go as far as three months. I'm still in discussion with the police on this point."

It's even worse than that: the file name was "memo_for_dorkfaces.doc."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Onion: Prescient Business News

This juxtaposition via an IM with Dr. Joe:

From The Onion, February 18, 2004
Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades, By James M. Kilts
CEO and President, The Gillette Company

From CNN Money, September 14, 2005
Gillette unveils 5-bladed razor
New system, available in early 2006, to have lubricating strips on both the front and back sides.

No, Please Don't

Sez the L.A. Times:

Levin joins an increasing number of broadcasting veterans jumping to Internet concerns for a chance to set the course for a new generation of programming. In another recent example, Yahoo Inc. on Monday said it had hired TV journalist Kevin Sites to file video, audio and written dispatches from nearly three dozen war zones.

Much as radio shock jock Howard Stern plans to move his program to Sirius Satellite Radio at the end of this year, some television producers, deal makers and even on-air personalities are starting to see the Internet emerge as an inviting place to find audiences and advertisers.

"What I love about this so much is it hasn't shown its potential," Levin said. "It's more exciting to me to be at a place where I can at least attempt to break some ground than to basically follow a set path."

The Web's role as a broadcast medium where TV veterans can put their skills to use is still in its early days of development. Hollywood talent agencies have deal makers assigned specifically to find business opportunities in the video game industry, where the annual revenue rivals box-office receipts. But there are few, if any, focused on developing programming for the Internet, where most revenue is generated by simple text or banner ads.

And seeing how wonderful and high-quality television and motion pictures are today, I can't help but feel all warm and rosy about the future of Internet content. Time to head to that antiquarian bookstore...

Online Advertising Projected to Continue to Rise

According to eMarketer projections, in 2005, US Internet ad spending will surpass $10 billion for the first time, shooting past that mark to $12.9 billion. That figure more than doubles 2002's bottoming out. Four years from now, companies will spend nearly $10 billion more on Internet ads, reaching $22.3 billion in 2009.
"Much of the increase is coming at the expense of other, traditional media channels," says Mr. Hallerman. According to an InsightExpress survey, 74% of media planning and buying executives reported an increased demand for Internet ad inventory in late 2004. That figure was 23 points higher than the next most in-demand medium, cable TV. In contrast, 19% or more of respondents cited decreased demand for media such as newspapers, radio, magazines and network TV.

Kids Come Running for the Great Taste of Metallic Sodium

Where chemical engineering and cooking meet:

Habaneros are in season, those wicked little hot peppers that clock in at 100K - 580K Scovilles.* They taste of fruit and smoke—really a yummy pepper—but their heat puts them well up into the “biohazard” range. I’ve been working up improved methods for dealing with them.

Here’s the principle: Capsaicin, the molecule that makes hot peppers hot, is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn’t like water. Safely handling habaneros isn’t just a matter of wearing rubber gloves and never touching your face (though you do have to wear rubber gloves and avoid touching your face). Less obviously, you want to avoid having lots of habanero come into contact with water that isn’t heavily loaded with detergent. If you’ve ever handled metallic sodium, you know the drill, except you use olive oil instead of kerosene.

I was once cooking with habaneros and maintained proper procedures right up until the end, when I absentmindedly took the big wok I’d been using and ran it under the kitchen tap. It seemed like only a few seconds had passed before I heard Patrick start coughing, two rooms away. I went to him, eyes streaming, and told him that we were going eat out that night while the air cleared.

What I do with habaneros is use them to make a big batch of hot pepper oil once or twice a year, and then use the oil in my cooking, a drop at a time. Capsaicins are much better behaved in oil. It simultaneously picks up the hot pepper flavor and buffers it—sort of smooths it out and spreads it around. The result is still hot, but the burn has a nice long slow buildup and fade, without that raw feral bite that makes you want to scrub your tongue.

Equipment: A large glass jar (I used recycled spaghetti sauce jars) that will fit in your microwave oven. A tight lid for the jar. Rubber gloves, which you will infallibly wear every time you’re handling habaneros. (Goggles aren’t a bad idea, either.) A metal strainer. A microwave oven. Lots of dish detergent. Lots of paper towels. Utensils that aren’t made of wood, unless you’re planning to throw them away afterward. Optionally, an aerosol degreasing cleaner like Orange Clean or Xenit—it’s handy for the cleanup phase.

Quark of Fate

Maybe after a decade or so of working in the graphic arts trade press (or whatever twilight realm of it I'm in now) I've become abnormally cynical, but my feeling is that a company is getting desperate when it takes a one-in-four-years opportunity (like, say, a major printing trade show) to announce...a new logo. I love lines like this:
“PANTONE 368 was the perfect choice for an innovative company such as Quark. This yellow green, a symbol of growth, is invigorating and revitalizing, and breathes new life into a brand, in addition to drawing attention to it. By embracing this color for its new logo, Quark is giving its customers the connotation of the continuing growth of ideas and concepts, and that it is on the edge of new technologies.”

Yeah, I feel sorry for those dumb saps stuck with PANTONE 367--that color spells doom and failure, and connotes visions of corporate executives eating puppies.

What I suppose is even funnier is that the new logo appears to be a near-exact replica of the Scottish Arts Council logo (except that the SAC's logo is not PANTONE 368, so I have no idea how they go on living). An accident, I would think, but I guess it could be worse; it could have been the logo of a toilet cleanser or hemorrhoid cream or something.

No More Mr. Wise Guy

A screen legend has passed on:
Robert Wise, who won four Oscars as producer and director of the classic 1960s musicals "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," has died. He was 91.

Wise got his start as an editor for Citizen Kane, but sci-fi fans know him as the director of classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain. What many people don't know is that The Sound of Music was actually based on a deleted scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the original Director's Cut, the alien craft came down in the hills and landed on top of Julie Andrews. The studio protested and Andrews got her own movie. Sad, really.

Trekkers know Robert Wise, perhaps infamously, as the director of Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture. I will say this, having bought the DVD of The Motion Picture: the combination of the utter boringness of the movie combined with Wise's monotonous audio commentary will put you into a deep deep coma.

For the Birds

I always knew cellphones were for the birds. And now it appears they are:
Ornithologists and engineers at Oregon State University are planning to strap tiny mobile phones to songbirds and monitor the birds' migration with unprecedented accuracy.

I wonder how long it will be before we see birds flying erratically, bumping into each other, oblivious to everything else in the sky save for their cellphone conversations, and smacking into pedestrians. Hmm. Could be a really weird remake of Hitchcock's The Birds...

Whither Newspapers?

From the BBC, some ideas of where the newspaper will be in 20 years:
Firstly the fact of newspapers' existence at all. Their death has long been predicted. Even just 10 years ago, doom-mongers said websites and rolling television news would mean the end of cumbersome, outdated and smudgy print.

Just as the bowler hats had disappeared from the City, so the newspapers tucked under arms would follow into oblivion, they said.

Since that prophesy, the threat has been compounded by blogs, search engines, mobile phones, PDAs and even electronic paper.

Although newspapers have so far defied the gloomy predictions, they are taking radical steps to respond to the competition. The Guardian is the third daily broadsheet to adopt a more compact size - and others may well follow.

Despite these changes, though, the format has not changed hugely since the first English language private newspaper, the Corante, was published in 1621 in London.

They use the same example I always use: the scene in Minority Report where a commuter reads an electronic newspaper whose headlines change dynamically. One of the chief advantages print has had over other media is its portability. But once small, mobile devices can access electronic content from anywhere (like, say, e-paper that can tap into ubiquitous WiFi hotspots), suddenly paper and print don't have that advantage anymore. Still, one never gets an error message while reading print, and connections to print media don't end abruptly (subscription department errors notwithstanding), so the only remaining advantage to print media may well be its rock-solid reliability. But for how long?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Pub Crawling

Clifton Park's own Joel Friedman has launched, a Web hub/portal (hortal?) for the printing and related graphic arts industries. If nothing else, it is the source of the only known photograph of Yours Truly, who strives for Bigfoot-like elusiveness.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Aguirre: Wrath of God

Oh, I don't know...
Video screens have shown up all over in recent years — cell phones, bathrooms, car head rests, subway cars, even elevators. Next up: a solar-powered video panel embedded in a tombstone that plays a clip reminiscent of "This Is Your Life."

Tasteless, you might say? A magnet for vandals?

On the contrary, says inventor Sergio Aguirre.

His soothingly named Serenity Panel is all about helping families celebrate the life of a lost loved one.

Going Postal

Several weeks ago, a Certain Relative of mine sent me a birthday card and I was shocked to discover that this Certain Relative's photo was on the stamp. This confused me; I thought you had to be dead for 10 years to get your picture on a stamp--raising all sorts of existential questions. As it turns out, offers what they call PhotoStamps--you can upload any picture and have it output onto a set of stamps. (It costs 80 cents, which includes the 37 cents postage.) And miscreants beware: yes, there was a period where they weren't paying attention to the images people were uploading, and you can probably imagine what got through, but there is now a rigorous approval process in place. Baby pictures, graduation pictures, wedding pictures--all can be foisted on unsuspecting mailmen. (And, yes, it's all real postage.)

Printing industry watchers pay heed: The ordering and uploading is all done using a Web-to-print interface--the image is uploaded, colors, themes, and borders are chosen, etc., and the stamps are printed digitally. targets its services to small businesses and home offices, and has partnered with Microsoft, CompUSA, EarthLink, HP, NCR, Office Depot, Vendio--oh, and the U.S. Postal Service, natch. PhotoStamps proved extremely popular: during an initial market test last year, in a 7-1/2 week period, more than 2.75 million individual PhotoStamps were ordered.

And the stamps are pressure-sensitive, so we don't have to endure the obvious pun, as someone is affixing postage to an envelope, "I've got you licked."

Ah, My Misunderstanding

When I heard about "Software Freedom Day," I was buoyed by the possibility of celebrating on September 10 the complete refusal to use software. My bad: it only refers to the using of "open source," or "free," software. Or, in other words, software that is no less irritating, but at least you didn't pay for it.

What About Audiobooks?

It seems in everyone's worrying about the fate of the printed book (or maybe it's just me) they seem to have forgotten about the audiobook, which is a significant revenue source for publishers. And now, we find a book publisher getting into podcasting.
Visitors to can subscribe or download each week's audio excerpts of selected books from Holtzbrinck trade publishers like Farrar Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin's Press, Tor/Forge and Audio Renaissance.

"What we're doing as a trade publisher is allowing users to experience new books whenever they want, the same way that they might not have the time to listen to a radio show the day it's broadcast, but will listen to it later," said Jeff Gomez, director of Internet marketing at Holtzbrinck, New York.

Podcasting is a system of publishing sound files online to let users subscribe to a recording via an RSS feed. Podcasting software on a user's computer regularly searches and downloads new podcasts. The files can be heard on the computer or downloaded to a portable music player.

Holtzbrinck's podcast categories are fiction, nonfiction, science fiction and self-help. A typical podcast is about 30 minutes, including up to three excerpts. Each excerpt lasts 10 minutes, comprising mostly a book's first chapter.

I wonder--many people have already eschewed the printed book for the audiobook; I wonder what the podcast will do to the audiobook--or at least the CD/cassette-based distribution thereof? Sure, it's all promotional now, but what will happen down the road?

Just Don't Play "Hello, It's Me"*

Or even "Telephone Line."** "Calling Out to Carol"*** would be acceptable.

According to today's "Poguecast," it appears that the iPod phone is now a reality. I don't know; I'm less enthused about this idea (what with that "cell phone elbow" and all). Still, what's important is that if it does take off, it will point the way toward a mass device conversion, perhaps enabled by what has been called morphware, or microprocessors that can "turn on a dime" and change a device from a cellphone into an MP3 player or a PDA name it.

*Todd Rundgren, 1973
**Electric Light Orchestra, 1976
***Stan Ridgway, 1989

[Add Nelson Muntz Laugh Here]

Docs diagnose 'cell phone elbow'

David Moriarty could be the Tommy John of the wireless set after having surgery to repair what his doctor described as "cell phone elbow."

Every time Moriarty held his cell phone to his ear for more than a minute, his forearm ached and his fingers went numb. Dr. John Fernandez says bending the elbow for extended periods puts pressure on the ulnar nerve and operated on Moriarty last fall to move the nerve and relieve the pressure.

Fernandez says he sees 10 or so new cases of cubital tunnel syndrome (the medical name for cell phone elbow) and one or two are primarily caused by phone use.

More E-Paper News

Sure, they call them rollable displays, but what else could you call it but "e-paper"? From Philips:
The Readius is the world’s first prototype of a functional electronic-document reader that can unroll its display to a scale larger than the device itself. With four gray levels, the monochrome, 5-inch QVGA (320 pixels x 240 pixels) display provides paper-like viewing comfort with a high contrast ratio for reading-intensive applications, including text, graphics, and electronic maps. Using a bi-stable electrophoretic display effect from E Ink Corp., the display consumes little power and is easy to read, even in bright daylight. Once the user has finished reading, the display can be rolled back into the pocket-size (100 mm x 60 mm x 20 mm) device

And let's not forget the story last July about the "newspaper of the future." Y'know, printing ink uses a lot of petroleum. Hmm...could the time be right for e-paper?

If Apple Won't Do It...

...then someone else will. A device that transforms the iPod into a movie player.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The End of an Era

Now there'll never be a Gilligan's Island reunion.


Those of you who need a good antidote to the usual motivational crapola you come across in the corporate world need The latest designs are now available. They're a tad lamer than some of their past ones, but they still ring somewhat true.

All the Stars are Here Tonight

Well, maybe a couple planets. For all you astronomy buffs, says C|Net:

On Tuesday night, you'll want to do some planet gazing. Venus and Jupiter are close together (from our point of view, at least), and a crescent moon will "leap up from the sun's glare and join the two planets," according to NASA's Dr. Tony Phillips. "Together, they'll form a compact triangle that will simply knock your socks off."

Sky & Telescope has more, including a viewing chart:

Banking On It

Says C|Net:

The number of people who turn to the Internet for personal banking isn't growing--but those who are already hooked on such services are using them more often, a new survey has shown.

The percentage of Americans who conduct personal banking activities online has stagnated at 39 percent in the 12-month period ending August 2005, Ipsos Insight said in a study released Tuesday.

The research firm, which interviewed 1,000 American adults for the study, found that many consumers were worried that their personal information could either be stolen by hackers and phishers or sold to third parties by banks. Nearly 83 percent of those who conduct banking online reported such concerns, while 73 percent of respondents said personal information theft is a deterrent for them.

Interesting. I was talking some months ago with someone in a Toastmasters group who works for a bank and is heavily involved in identity theft protection and apparently there have been far more examples of personal identity theft caused by thieves stealing outgoing [snail] mail from people's mailboxes than hacking into online banking sites, and "Dumpster diving" tends to produce more identity theft incidents than anything online. As for banks selling personal information to a third-party--what makes anyone think that only online banking customers would get this treatment?

Not that I care one way or the other what anyone does vis-a-vis their own banking, but it does point out the odd approach to risk assessment that people can have. And I have to admit, in my own case, online banking is far less annoying than any other kind of banking.

Um, No

I like to read the "New DVDs" feature in the New York Times, but how to get past this opening line...

It has been only three years since Universal's last "collector's edition" of the enduring chestnut "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), but here it is again in a lavish double-disc set

I stopped buying reissued CDs because there's something about buying the same thing more than once that irks me, and DVDs are quickly falling into the same category. At least with CDs, it's slightly (though not really) justified because when CDs first came out, the sound reproduction on many old albums was really awful. But with DVD movies now it seems like they're just piling on new extras--most of which are pretty useless anyway.

So I refuse to buy any "re-released" version of a DVD (for a movie I probably had already bought on VHS!) until the manufacturers start offering upgrade pricing like software. If I want to see the extras I'll go rent the damn thing; how many times can watch a "Making of..." documentary or listen to a commentary track anyway? Though I will say this: many DVD commentary tracks are great for curing insomnia.