Sunday, April 30, 2006

Death of an Economist

Not more than a week after I had finished reading a massive biography of the man (available here--very enjoyable if very "techie" and seemingly told in real time), popular economist John Kenneth Galbraith has died:
Harvard professor John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist whose influence stretched from presidents, as adviser and diplomat, to Main Street, as a prolific best-selling author and TV host, has died at age 97.
The Canadian-born Galbraith became one of America's best-known liberals, and was outspoken in his support of government action to solve social problems. He served as adviser to Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and was John F. Kennedy's ambassador to India.

His 1958 book, "The Affluent Society," caused the country to reconsider its values and helped propel him into the international spotlight.

It argued that the American economy was producing individual wealth but hadn't adequately addressed public needs such as schools and highways. U.S. economists and politicians were still using the assumptions of the world of the past, where scarcity and poverty were near-universal, he said.

"As a result, we are guided, in part, by ideas that are relevant to another world," he wrote. "We do many things that are unnecessary, some that are unwise, and a few that are insane."

In 1999, a panel of judges organized by the Modern Library, a book publisher, picked "The Affluent Society" as No. 46 on its list of the century's 100 best English-language works of nonfiction.

Galbraith also was known for his theories on countervailing forces in the economy, where groups such as labor unions were needed to strike a political and social balance.

Richard Neustadt, a Harvard colleague and fellow aide to presidents Kennedy and Truman, said Galbraith demonstrated how "you have to empower people directly before they could fight for themselves."

Friday, April 28, 2006

Robot Holocaust VII--These Bots Were Made for Walking

We'll never outrun them now!
Robot Shatters Speed-Walking Record

A simple-minded, two-legged robot named RunBot can't run. But boy, can it walk!

The 1-foot tall European speed demon moves at 3.5 leg-lengths per second [Video].

That's the equivalent of a human walking almost 10 feet per second; and more than twice as fast as its closest running mate, Spring Flamingo, who hails from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Creature Discomforts

Again, far be from me to disparage advances in science and technology, but wasn't this an X Files episode?
Glow-in-the-Dark Creature to Provide View Inside Human Body

Tiny semiconductor crystals called quantum dots may soon light their own paths through the human body. Scientists are splicing modified proteins from a glow-in-the-dark ocean creature onto the microscopic semiconductors to make self-illuminated dots.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mo' Better Boos

When you go out to a restaurant or check into a hotel, are you worried that there may be ghosts around? Want to find out just how haunted your house is? Or are you so starved for company that you'll even seek out the nearly departed? Well, then, a new product is right up your alley: the ghost detector.
If there is a ghost in the area, the button lights up, easy as pie. This device is available for $18.
I'm not exactly certain what one is supposed to do should the button light up. Perhaps it should come with a video of old "Casper the Friendly Ghost" episodes so we'll know the proper reaction to detecting a ghost. I wonder if people wearing white sheets over their heads will fool it.

Hollywood Calling

Movies on a cellphone? Well, I guess it would be perfect for The Terror of Tiny Town. Sez Wired:
This week at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 20 movies made for mobile devices with 2-inch-by-3-inch screens will be shown as part of the festival's Pocket Cinema program.
The Pocket Cinema program highlights the art world's contribution to mobile video, which the entertainment industry hopes will be the next big content boom. Fox, for example, is releasing mobisodes of the TV show Prison Break, while Touchstone Television Productions is producing a version of Lost just for mobiles.

"Think internet video circa 1999 with networks optimized for video and (with) a built-in payment engine," said Seamus McAteer, senior analyst with MMetrics, a San Francisco market research firm. "The business will mature much faster than internet video."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Policing the Fed

Perhaps I'm becoming even geekier in my old age (assuming that was even possible), but I was quite amused by a music video put together by some Columbia Business School students that gives the "Weird Al" treatment to The Police's "Every Breath You Take" with changed lyrics about the new chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke.
"First you move your lips,
Hike a few more bips,
When demand then dips,
And the Yield Curve Flips
I'll be watching you"

Robot Holocaust VI-The Comfy Chair!

Now this looks like an intriguing idea--be one elderly or not--save for the fact that at some point it will turn on its owner and unleash an orgy of death and destruction. Aside from that, though...
prototype model of a chair robot called "WL-16 II" developed at Waseda University in Tokyo. The two-legged robot is aimed at enabling people in wheelchairs to go up steps or move heavy goods on uneven land.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Woo Hoo!

A good interview with Matt Groening at this week's Onion A.V. Club. Perhaps the best thing about it was the news that they will be doing four new feature-length direct-to-DVD movies of one of my all-time favorite shows, Futurama, which Fox unceremoniously killed, despite the fact that it consistently won its timeslot, even though they regularly pre-empted it with football.

Sudafed Up

Speaking of drugs, call me square (or at the very least rectangular) but the only "experimentation" I ever did with drugs in college (or ever) involved Sudafed (and not in the way mentioned below). But now, battling the sniffles brought on by Syracuse winters will be that much harder, at least according to John Tierney in the N.Y. Times (it's behind the Times' paywall, but can be read via The Economist's View blog):
This month, pharmacists across the country are being forced to lock up another menace to society: cold medicine. Allergy and cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a chemical that can illegally be used to make meth, must now be locked behind the counter under a provision in the new Patriot Act. Don't ask what meth has to do with the war on terror. Not even the most ardent drug warriors have been able to establish an Osama-Sudafed link.

The F.D.A. opposed these restrictions for pharmacies because they'll drive up health care costs and effectively prevent medicine from reaching huge numbers of people ... These costs are undeniable, but it's unclear that there are any net benefits. In states that previously enacted their own restrictions, the police report that meth users simply switched from making their own to buying imported drugs that were stronger — and more expensive, so meth users commit more crimes to pay for their habit.
If cold medicine is outlawed, only outlaws will get colds.

Blowing Smoke

For those who are only selectively interested in good health--for example, more worried about, say, scurvy than cancer or emphysema--there is now the VitaCig, easily the most ludicrous thing I've seen in a long time:
A Quebec company is producing a cigarette it claims does not stain teeth, has less of an odour than regular brands and contains beneficial ingredients like vitamin C.

Called the "VitaCig," it was invented by non-smoker Roger Ouellette for his wife, who has smoked a pack of cigarettes every day since the age of 14.

"We give you all the vitamins you lose, plus some vitamins to help you," he told CTV News.
What's next, calcium-fortified crack?

Ad Infinitum

Sez B-to-B Online:
New York—Total magazine rate card-reported advertising revenue rose 4.2% in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2005, while ad pages were essentially flat. Ad revenue in March rose 5%, but pages were flat. The first-quarter figures were not much of a departure from February figures. For the first quarter, just five of the 12 major advertising categories posted gains, including drugs & remedies (up 16%), financial, insurance & real estate (up 9%) and technology (up 8%). On the downside, food & food products fell 10% and home furnishings & supplies fell 6%. Results were mixed for the general business publications. In the first quarter, ad revenue for BusinessWeek was down 3.2% while pages rose nearly 3%; Fortune was down approximately 14% in both ad pages and ad revenue; and Forbes was up 4.4% in revenue and down just a fraction in ad pages.

Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

Oh, I don't know:
[The Hula Chair is] “the biggest sensation in Japan”, incorporates “ancient traditional Chinese medicine”, and is named for the Hula (Hawaii). It will also…

Improve your balance and coordination as it gently aligns your spine and improves blood circulation. You’ll love how it feels as it works out your abs and mid-section. And there’s no better way to warm up for any activity.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Gas Pains

Looking for cheap gas? Via The Big Picture blog, the site Gas Buddy a map of average gas prices around the country. (Green is cheapest, red is the most expensive--click either link for a bigger/more readable map.) Hey, I can save about 70 cents a gallon if I drive to Montana to get gas.
Let's remember, though: we're not really near historic highs. After adjusting for inflation, gas would have to hit $5.80 a gallon in order for it to reach the level it was during the oil embargo of the 1970s. As I think I pointed out last year when gas prices were rising, that's a very picayune point that doesn't really mean much if you--like me--were not driving a car in the 1970s. It's also not a very big help to those who have to commute to work now--I guess just be lucky you probably won't pass through any time portals back to the 1970s when your gas gauge gets low.

Interestingly, in New Jersey, thanks to an agreement between the turnpike authorities and gasoline suppliers, stations on the NJ Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway can only change gas prices once a week (on Friday--see here). I was told the other day that a similar rule applies to travel plazas on the New York State Thruway, but I have been unable to confirm it.

Venus Envy

The lamely named but successful Venus Express spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency went into orbit around Venus back on April 11, and has started sending back some cool close-up pictures of the second rock from the sun. More info can be found here.

Robot Holocaust V-The Turtle Supremacy

Yep, another brick in the wall of humanity's eventual doom:
A robotic turtle could help engineers build better autonomous underwater vehicles and answer fundamental questions about how prehistoric beasts swam. The robot, called Madeleine, is already helping researchers understand when it is best to swim with four flippers and when to use two.

Madeleine is similar in size and weight to a Kemp's Ridley or Olive Ridley sea turtle, measuring 80 centimetres by 30 cm and weighing 24 kilograms. The robot also has a comparable power output, between 5 and 10 watts per kilogram, depending on how hard it is working.
Sure, roboturtles can still enslave and destroy humanity--just much more slowly than the Slitherbots (see below).

The iLiad Odyssey

From today's New York Times, the latest news on e-paper. Boy, everyone--me included--uses that Minority Report example:
In the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller "Minority Report," a subway passenger scans an issue of USA Today that is a plastic video screen, thin, foldable and wireless, with constantly changing text.

The scene is no longer science fiction. This month, De Tijd, a Belgian financial newspaper, started testing versions of electronic paper, a device with low-power digital screens embedded with digital ink — millions of microscopic capsules the width of a human hair made with organic material that display light or dark images in response to electrical charges.

This is only one test of new e-paper devices competing to become the iPod of the newspaper business. Other e-paper trials are being undertaken by the paper Les Echos, which is based here, by the newspaper trade group IFRA in Germany and, in the United States, by The New York Times.

The International Herald Tribune, which is owned by The New York Times Company, is also in discussions to make subscriptions available later this year for the same e-paper devices used by De Tijd, according to Michael Golden, the International Herald Tribune's publisher.

Veni, Vidi, Da Vinci

I confess, I've never read The Da Vinci Code, but it seems that people are taking it far more seriously than what is essentially a crime thriller should be taken; I was in Barnes & Noble the other day, and there was an entire table devoted to books and other materials related to The Da Vinci Code. (A friend of mine who is a professional magazine editor read it--or started to--and said it weas badly written, and I tend to take his word for things like that.) I was, however, amused to read this passage from a story about a talk given by Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown:
During the event Brown said he often uses a pair of gravity boots during writing, finding it easier to work out difficult plot points while dangling upside down.
O-o-o-k-a-a-a-ayy-y-y... Bats in the belfry?

Changing Channels

This is unsurprising; sez eMarketer:
According to the 2006 edition of "The National Directory of Catalogs," from Oxbridge Communications, the number of product catalogs in North America that were available only in an online format nearly doubled in 2005.

Online catalogs made up 78% of 11,438 catalog listings in 2005, compared to only 60% in 2004, and 1,320 of them were available online only. In 2004 only 772 of the catalogs listed were online only.

The reason for the migration is clear. As the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) reported late last year, printed catalogs accounted for 65% of multi-channel retail sales in 2002, but only 40% in 2005.

On the other hand, website and e-catalog sales rose from 14% to 30% of the total in the same period.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bath Fitting

Being a shape-shifter would be cool, but raises the question: could a single bathtub accomodate all of one's potential bodily forms? Well, shape-shifters of the world need not worry about this any longer, thanks to...
the Sony Bathman - or whatever the company decides to call its latest bizarre brainwave: the shape-shifting bath.

Sony engineer Tetsujiro Kondo says in this patent application that the bathtub would have interior walls made of a strong flexible polymer, with elastic cushioning panels behind them, supported in turn by electrically controlled pressure rams. These rams give the bath's interior walls their overall shape.

A bath-mounted controller could then be used to adjust the rams and consequently the height and width of the bath's walls. Of course, there's no point making the bath narrower if it's already full, as the water would spill out. So Kondo suggests the controller could use a water level sensor to only allow the tub to adjust to shapes that can safely contain the water within it.

Drove My Chevy to the Levee and My Ford to the Ford

From our friends across the pond, here's an example of why we shouldn't trust technology too much: when your GPS sends you into a river, there is no reason to believe it! From the Times of London:
Since a road closure, dozens of drivers have blithely followed directions from their satellite navigation systems, not realising that the recommended route goes through the ford.

Normally the water — the start of the River Avon — is about 2ft deep but it can swiftly double in depth after heavy rain.

Every day since the main B4040 was closed after a wall collapsed on April 8 one or two motorists have been towed out, having either failed to notice or ignored warning signs. Some farmers have been charging £25 to give a tow with tractors.

Friday, April 21, 2006


As if there was any doubt. Sez Wired:
Driving While Stupid Ups Risk

Those sleep-deprived, multitasking drivers — clutching cell phones, fiddling with their radios or applying lipstick — apparently are involved in an awful lot of crashes.

Distracted drivers were involved in nearly eight out of 10 collisions or near-crashes, says a study released Thursday by the government.

Researchers reviewed thousands of hours of video and data from sensor monitors linked to more than 200 drivers, and pinpointed examples of what keeps drivers from paying close attention to the road.

"We see people on the roadways talking on the phone, checking their stocks, checking scores, fussing with their MP3 players, reading e-mails, all while driving 40, 50, 60, 70 miles per hour and sometimes even faster," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the government's highway safety agency.
They found that the risk of a crash increases almost threefold when a driver is dialing a cell phone.

Some safety organizations said the study was part of a growing body of research and worried it might lead to reactionary laws.

"I urge legislators not to interpret these results as a need for new legislative initiatives. It is simply not good public policy to pass laws addressing every type of driver behavior," said Lt. Col. Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Y'know, we have a law against driving while talking on a cellphone here in New York, and from what I've seen on the road on literally a daily basis, everyone routinely ignores it--usually while they're careening into my lane, making a left turn into the wrong lane, or darting out from behind parked behemoths. But I digress...
For more than a year, researchers studied the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles in metropolitan Washington, D.C. They tracked 241 drivers, who were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness — 15 were reported to police — and 761 near-crashes. The air bag deployed in three instances.

The project analyzed nearly 2 million miles driven and more than 43,300 hours of data.
Assessing cell phone use, the researchers said the number of crashes or near-crashes linked to dialing the phones was nearly identical to those tied to talking or listening on the phone.

Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit people from talking on handheld cell phones while driving.

A government report last year found that about 10 percent of drivers are using cell phones.
Last year, the now defunct Mobile magazine conducted a "study" I wish I had saved (or could fine an online link to) in which they took one of their editors out to a Go-Kart track and had him tool around a variety of obstructions (the kind they use in confined driving tests) while a) talking on a cellphone handset, b) talking on a hands-free cellphone thingey, and c) after getting him progressively drunk. In both a) and b) tests, the driver drive just as badly (if not worse in the case of the handset version) as being past the point of legal intoxication. So now I wonder why I bother making it a point to not drink and drive....

On the Other Hand

Scientific muses on the origins and biological underpinnings of right- or left-handedness. It seems humans are not alone in displaying some kind of "lateralization," or a preference for one hand (or sized of the body) over the other:
The presence of lateralization throughout the animal kingdom suggests some benefit from it, contend neuroscientists Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trieste and Lesley Rogers of the University of New England in Australia. Also, last August, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the two presented evidence to support their idea that social constraints force individuals toward asymmetry in the same direction. They noted, for example, that baby chickens attack more readily when a threat appears on their left. And Rogers has found that chicks with more asymmetrical brains form more stable social groups: perhaps by approaching each other on the right, she hypothesizes, the chicks fight one another less and are more likely to notice predators.
I'm just trying to imagine the terrifying sight it must be when a baby chicken attacks. It's not quite up there with a mountain lion, is it? But anyway...
Lateralization seems to confer an advantage for some fish as well. In certain species, the majority tend to swim left when a predator attacks, whereas other species head right. The potential benefits of such patterns may not seem intuitive: a predator could learn that attacking a fish on one particular side is more effective. But Vallortigara and Rogers's idea fits with the conventional explanation of why fish school at all. When threatened, fish turning in the same direction have a greater chance of survival than if they scatter to become a darting swarm of head-butting fish.
Given possible evolutionary reasons to conform to the norm, what about the lefties, the outliers, those who zig when all others zag? Safety from predators increases with group size, but so does competition, Vallortigara notes, making different behavior beneficial. Studies of left-handedness in some one-on-one sports, such as boxing, suggest the same. So relax, all you nonconformists.

Robot Holocaust IV--Slitherbots!

Fans of the Book of Genesis (if not the band Genesis) can interpret this however they like, but whatever your theological orientation, it can't be good:
The Carnegie Mellon University professor has spent years developing snake-like robots he hopes will eventually slither through collapsed buildings in search of trapped victims. In recent weeks, Choset and some of his students got the remote-controlled devices to climb up and around pipes.

Rescue workers say such robots would help locate survivors.
Yes...survivors...of the robot holocaust! And why would these slitherbots want to locate the survivors? You figure it out....

Big Skype

Hmm....this is not without its appeal...
The Netgear Skype WiFi phone SPH101 just popped up on Amazon, finally! You’ll still have to wait until June 30 to receive one, and it’s not cheap, either—even though the list price is $300, it’ll still cost you $249.99. The great thing is, you don’t need a PC to use it, you can call anyone in the world on Skype for free, and all you need is a WiFi hotspot to do it.

Of course, it’s not all a bed of roses; if you want to use this Skype WiFi phone on your wireless network at home, you’ll have to open up that network to the rest of the world, because, of course, hotspots requiring web-based authentication are not supported. But still, it’s hard to compete with free, and that’s just what Skype is.
In time, I expect at least two things to happen: 1) the price to come down and 2) support for web-based authentication.

Captain Video

Via Dr. Joe, a link to a USA Today article about YouTube, an increasingly popular site for sharing home videos:
The site, which is like a virtual photo album that hosts millions of short videos, is simple to search.

As broadband penetration grows, and consumer appetite for on-demand entertainment swells, video-sharing sites such as YouTube are taking off. In December, when it formally launched, users watched 3 million videos daily. Now, it's about 40 million.
It sounds perfect for those who can't get enough of America's Goofiest Home Videos or whatever that show was (is still?) called.

Reading the USA Today article, though, did remind me of the top story in this week's Onion:
iTunes To Sell You Your Home Videos For $1.99 Each

CUPERTINO, CA—Apple Computer, producer of the successful iPod MP3 player, is now offering consumers limited rights to buy their own home movies from the media store iTunes for $1.99 each.

Feed Me

Don't have an e-mail newsletter yet? I wouldn't worry. According to a recent Folio editorial, e-newsletters will be doomed in a year or two:
I read a posting on Paul Conley’s blog not too long ago about how e-mail newsletters are doomed. RSS feeds, he says, are too simple and too superior to e-mail. “RSS is a much, much better product for users,” Conley wrote. “It cuts down on my spam. It updates constantly. It saves me time. It’s more convenient. It’s more flexible. I don’t have to worry about unsubscribing hassles. And it seems to me that once you try RSS, it’s impossible to go back. So I’d guess that the majority of b-to-b readers will have no interest at all in e-mail newsletters in maybe a year? Two?”
He has a point...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Robot Holocaust

Sure, go ahead, let's enshrine our future overlords--actual and fictional--in a museum (of sorts). We will come to regret it.

Portable Reading System?

The SonyStyle Web site now features the forthcoming e-book reader based on e-paper. But it's not an "e-book"--rather, it's a "Portable Reader System." Silly name. Calling something fundamentally simple a "system" makes it far goofier and less appealing than it would otherwise be. (Like those ads that promote "sleep systems." No--they're beds!) What, then, is a printed book--a "literary transmission system"? Is a writer simply "a delivery system for words"? (I feel that way sometimes...)

Interesting, you can't actually preorder it, but you can pre-preorder it.

Another Air-Brained Scheme

Oh, for crying out loud. For those who aren't convinced that bottled water isn't the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the American consumer, and for those deluded enough to think that "oxygen therapy" is any such thing (see "O, Too" below), now there is--wait for it--bottled air. I kid you not:
Canned oxygen is the newest luxury item, and it’s available in flavors and essences that give you a variety of entirely new ways to throw away your money and think you’re feeling better because of it.
You know, back when bottled water started turning up all over the place, I joked that, "what's next, bottled air?" Well, apparently, yes. I have no doubt it will sell very well.

That Was Easy?

Granted, I am no stranger to the trials and tribulations of attempting to lose weight, but doesn't this sound like a far more unpleasant alternative to just not eating that much and/or exercising?
Ear stapling is a new, popular weight-loss procedure that draws from ancient acupuncture and is cropping up throughout Mississippi, a state with one of the highest obesity rates in the nation.
Ear stapling?! I think mouth stapling might work better...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Clockwork Philips

Yeah, sign me up for this:
Royal Philips is being a royal pain in the arse with a new technology to make TV watchers unable to skip commercials. Their recent patent filing indicates that broadcast flags would be inserted into commercials in order to allow supported TVs to disable channel changing during breaks. In addition, the flags would also be recognized by digital video recorders so viewers can’t fast forward even if they’ve seen the ads already.
I suspect their next step will be to patent a device that will imprison viewers in their chairs, preventing them from physically getting up, looking away, or even blinking (remember that scene in A Clockwork Orange?). I'm sure there will be a massive run on TVs that support this feature.

Robot Holocaust III-The Insect Alliance

This can't be good:
Robots Learn Navigation Trick from Ants

Imagine while walking to the grocery, every few streets you have to go back home to reset your navigation system in order to avoid getting lost.

That's what ants have to do. Now and then they must visit their nest to avoid losing their way on foraging trips. Now scientists are using this understanding to make better robots.
I guess our inevitable robot overlords will soon be allying themselves with the insect world to help enslave humanity. Sad, really.

O, Too!

I've always thought the concept of the "oxygen bar" and "oxygenated water" were the silliest things ever to come out of the "alternative medicine" field (which is no mean feat, given how many silly things there are in the alternative medicine field to choose from) and I recall not long ago seeing a sign on Broadway here in Saratoga for some kind of "oxygen therapy" and convulsing with laughter (I love this town, but it has its nuttiness). But as LiveScience reminds us, despite the fact that we need it to breathe, too much oxygen is actually very bad:
The notion that we need extra oxygen is ludicrous. The human body has adapted quite well to this lower atmosphere of ours that is roughly 21 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen and 1 percent trace gases. Blood cells, on exiting the lungs, are nearly saturated with about 97 percent oxygen bound molecularly to hemoglobin. Getting more oxygen serves no purpose. In fact, it's a bad thing.

Deep in the lungs, tiny and fragile sacs called alveoli are the site where inhaled oxygen enters the bloodstream and carbon dioxide leaves to be exhaled. With a surplus of oxygen in the lungs, the carbon dioxide can't leave the body. Worse, the build up of oxygen in the lungs can collapse the alveoli and cause permanent lung damage. Adults with emphysema, chronic asthma or chronic bronchitis, in particular, will stop breathing if they inhale pure oxygen for too long. Premature babies, given extra oxygen because their lungs aren't sufficiently mature to transfer oxygen into the blood, can go blind if the concentration gets too high, a malady called retinopathy of prematurity; that's likely what happened to Stevie Wonder.

Also, oxygen may be what ultimately kills you, rusting your body from the inside in a process called oxidation and free-radical production. Breathing pure oxygen creates an abundance of free radicals.
I've always thought this whole "alternative medicine" nonsense is just a knee-jerk reaction to the not-entirely-unfounded cynicism engendered by the current state of the health and medicine profession. But even given the ills that occasionally afflict mainstream modern medicine (I do like alliteration), it is still far more scientifically sound and efficacious than the generally unproven or downright spurious claims of the alternative folks. Sure, alternative medicine is cute and funny when it's just about proving the old adage "a fool and his money are soon parted," but when it starts becoming physically harmful, then it becomes less amusing.

Well, Duh

From AdAge, the world's most self-evident headline:
Under-30 Crowd Will Drive Media Future
When has that ever not been the case? And in another news-breaking headline, "Today's Children Will Be the Adults of Tomorrow."

Either That Furniture Goes or I Do

Or both, it would appear. Granted, Uncle Death stalks us at every turn, but now, from what would appear to be the Charles Addams collection, we can be reminded of this every day:
Why buy a casket for just one day? At, our products can last you a lifetime, and still be the perfect vehicle to carry you to the great beyond. Whether it’s a couch, shelf, or end table, our products are designed to blend effortlessly into most contemporary interior designs. Every product can also be transformed into a high-quality casket at your time of need.
The "Eternaltainment Center" will run you a mere $4495--but you can always spend more for fancier woods and designs. It's perfect for goth parties, I guess, but it does beg the question: who keeps the same furniture for their entire life?

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Easter Bunny Hates You

Ever wonder what the Easter Bunny does on his 364 days off? This video--a bit violent, but, IMO, hysterical--gives us a peek.

Having an Episode

At Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowan muses on what moving to the Web will do to TV programs:
1. Individual episodes are more complex and less likely to be self-contained. To watch only one show of Lost or [Battlestar Galactica] leaves you baffled. But who can make sure he catches every episode? What if you want to leave the country for a while? Now if you have missed a show, you can use the Web to keep in touch with the longer and more integrated story. You will do this even if you, like I, find web viewing distasteful and inconvenient. Not everyone can afford TiVo, and some of us still need Yana to operate the remote and indeed the service itself.

This mechanism will raise the intellectual quality of TV.

2. Perhaps the time lengths of programs will vary more. Has The Sopranos gone on a nearly two-year hiatus? How about a fifteen-minute web shortie to keep us interested?

3. (Some) webcasts will be reproducible on iPods. You will show the highlights of episodes to your friends. Perhaps many producers will make episodes to stress "the best two minute stretch or skit" rather than the show as a whole. Just as the song is outliving the album, perhaps the skit will outlive the show.

4. Might it, as Mark Cuban suggests, support soap operas in real time? What better to watch on your work computer, during work hours? In the longer run, the more entertaining your computer becomes, the more people will be paid by commission; blame blogs for that too.

5. TV on the web, in essence, shortens the release window for ancillary products. How big a deal is the DVD in six months' time if a web version exists now? And what does shortening the release window do? It will be harder to figure out what is a hit. It will lower movie budgets. It will increase the relative advantage that low-cost drama has over special effects spectaculars. Surely you can think of more effects on this count.
As regular readers of this blog (if there are any) know, I have been downloading Lost every so often, but most every other TV show I watch I rent via Netflix (or, less frequently, from my local video rental store). I absolutely love the new Battlestar Galactica, but I would rather watch it on DVD than as a download because I like the surround sound mix (geeky me saw the original Battlestar Galactica movie in 1978 in the theater in Sensurround--remember that?), plus I am not wild about the picture quality of downloaded shows. Depending how much I like the show, that's not a big deal (and the picture quality is better than pre-cable TV reception I used to get at various times in the dim and distant past--or even Time warbner cable on certain days).

One consequence of the Webization of TV shows is that producers may at some point not be beholden to the time constraints imposed by network or cable channels--which is 44 minutes sans commercials for a one-hour show and 21 minutes for a 1/2 hour show. Just about every TV show's DVD commentary at some point mentions how much they had to pare down the script or the film episode to fit in those time frames. If the "time slot" ultimately disappears, and all shows are standalone episodes that are downloaded independent of any other program, there is no reason for it to be any particular length. Episodes can therefore be as long as they need to be--although I suspect many will stick to conventional lengthts just to keep from freaking too many viewers out, at least at first.

I expect that DVD extras will ultimately become more important to make them marketable, but I really don't see much difference from the way things are done now. For example, in the past I've (and others have, too) methodically videotaped (what we used to do before Tivo) programs that I wanted to watch over and over, and those I really liked I would buy on VHS or DVD when they were officially released, for reasons of picture quality, better editing out of commercials, etc. I have every Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode (well, almost every episode--damn you, Gorgo!) that I taped from Comedy Central/Sci-Fi over the years, but I still buy the DVD sets when they come out.

Ultimately, what I expect to happen is the increased merging of the Internet, computers, and home entertainment systems--which is happening quickly already. At the same time, with the pressure on studios/producers to provide Webcast programming, compression quality will get better, and at some point in the future, the Internet will simply be the way programs are delivered, just like cable is now. Yes, cablecasting will continue to exist, just like some people still receive programs over the air using aerials. But we can kiss the "time slot" goodbye. And good riddance. It was always too much trouble to figure out when something was on anyway--especially when they used to move shows all over the place.

The trouble is, it may make "flipping around" that much harder. Which may or may not be a bad thing.

Get Your Game On

Oh, please kill me:
Professional video gaming is set to debut on cable television later this year, potentially paving the way for the kings and queens of game controllers to become as familiar to American households as the faces of Johnny Chan or Annie Duke in televised poker.

Trash Talk

Funny that no one has pursued this before (yes, funny that...):
A graduate student at Babson College's School of Business, Eten has developed a business plan around large-scale composting of organic solid waste. His company, Feed Resource Recovery, is one of 10 to be chosen this year for MIT's Ignite Clean Energy competition for aspiring entrepreneurs.

The technology behind Feed Resource Recovery is anaerobic digestion, the breakdown of organic material by bacteria, creating methane in the process. Industrial-scale digesters, which treat the waste, are already in commercial use, including on farms where cow manure generates "biogas."

Eten envisions using the same equipment in urban settings: His plans call for collecting organic waste from supermarkets and processing it at a nearby site. The trash can be any compostable material, including food waste and paper products.
It's funny how this discussion is always presented in an "environmental" context, but it seems that environmentalism is really irrelevant. It seems to me to be just basic logic: we as a nation (and, by extension, as a planet) have ever-growing energy needs. After all, we're all buying new cars, an infinite array of consumer electronics, and of course those electric pepper mills, so it seems sensible to me to pursue ways of producing said energy using resources which are vastly renewable (like garbage). (I have always said that inventing a car that ran on urine would simultaneously solve the two biggest problems of long car trips.) I mean, do we really want to rely on an energy source that is a) staggeringly finite (depending on whose peak oil production numbers you care to believe) and, b) is located predominantly in the most politically unpleasant part of the world? Coming up with an alternative seems like a no-brainer. Again, it's funny how no one has pursued that vigorously. (The sarcasm is intended.)

Technologically impossible, you say? Heck, if they can make a goddamn umbrella that can forecast the weather (see below)--or any of the other useless technocrap that turns up on Gizmodo and other gadget blogs--surely someone can come up with something?

Uprooting and decimating entire industries because of a shift in technology? Heck, I spend my days writing about the fracking printing industry, which is bring dramatically transformed (read: killed) because of new technology. Why should anyone else be exempt?

Getting a Handle on the Weather--Or Vice Versa

An intriguing idea, but:
This umbrella uses Wi-Fi technology to retrieve forecast predictions. The handle will glow with intensity depending on the likelihood of rain occurring.
I guess this means you should always have the umbrella with you--which means that there's no point in its having the forecasting ability since, well, you'll always have the umbrella with you.

Donner, Party of 5

While there is a value to blogs (not in evidence here, I hasten to add), I really can't fathom why people who have committed (or plan to commit) serious crimes blog about it. Sure, I don't get this whole MySpace thing as it is, and while following the daily (or nightly) exploits of certain people can often be a case of "way too much information" (you know who you are), it's mind-boggling to me that people who commit (or plan to commit) serious crimes share this information with, essentially, the world. (Hmm...maybe Dostoyevsky was right. Perhaps it's time to update Crime and Punishment.)

Specifically, if you're going to indulge in cannibalism, it might not be a good idea to blog about it!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Situation: Vacant

Forget the best resume is posted at McSweeney's--a one-time print-only eclectic literary anthology published whenever-the-heck-they-felt-like-it and founded by David Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). It is now an eclectic literary anthology Web site, which I haven't been to in years, but which I now recommend, if only to check out one of the funniest things I've read in a while: "The Nihilist Job Resume." It could have been mine!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Prehensile Utensils

The "Intelligent Spoon"?!
This project aims to introduce computing into traditional culinary utensils. It seeks to provide information, in an integrated manner, about any food the spoon is in contact with, and to offer suggestions to improve the food. The spoon is equipped with sensors that measure temperature, acidity, salinity, and viscosity, and is connected to a computer via a cable. The sensors evaluate the different properties of the food, and send them to the computer for further processing. Apart from consolidating measurements that are normally done by an array of equipments into a single spoon, the information obtained can be used to advise the users what their next step should be; for example, it tells the user if there is not enough salt in the brine prepared to make pickles.
If they develop an "Intelligent Spork," I'll consider it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Someone told me last weekend about "MiniKISS," an all-dwarf band that dresses like, and performs the songs of, Kiss. Naturally, I assumed it was a joke, but was assured that it was not.

But now, as I read in the L.A. Times, I find myself asking the question: why on god's green Earth would there be two all-dwarf Kiss cover bands?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Robot Holocaust--Phase 2

Oh, I have my doubts about this: Robotic Cookware.
Introducing the new Smart Range system: intelligent cooking technology that helps you create healthier, easier meals – safely, efficiently, every time. Vita Craft cookware matches superior-quality, multi-ply steel pans with a smooth-surface, computerized cooktop. The two work together to generate heat with no exposed flame or heating coils.

An RFID computer chip is built into each pan handle to communicate with cooktop and recipe cards.
A recipe for disaster, I should think. Besides, I think it's only a matter of time before we all end up cooking for our robotic overlords, not the other way aroud.

"Lost" in Cyberspace

Hooray, I get to save $1.99 a week:
Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Television will offer some of its most popular shows, such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," for free on the Internet in a two-month trial, the company said Monday.
Expect other networks to follow suit, if they haven't done so already. The business model isn't a million miles removed from what they've been doing since time immemorial:
Advertising revenue will support the trial run on, with advertisers AT&T Inc. (Research), Ford Motor Co. (Research), Procter & Gamble Co. (Research) and Universal Pictures already signed up.

"Commander in Chief" and "Alias" along with "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" will be available on the Web in May and June, starting the day after they are first broadcast.

Viewers will be able to pause and move between "chapters" in an episode but will not be able to skip embedded ads.
Doh! And for those keeping track of these things:
This year CBS' March Madness on Demand offering, live streams of games from the NCAA college basketball tournament, put live entertainment online.

And it was a big success.

According to figures from CBS SportsLine, the online sports news site of CBS, more than 1.3 million people signed up for the free service. These users visited the on-demand site about 5 million times during the first three weeks of the NCAA tournament and watched over 15 million live video streams.

By way of comparison, CBS SportsLine said that it had only between 20,000 and 25,000 users for a similar product during last year's tournament, when it charged $19.99.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Them Blu-Ray Blues

Finally, someone sensible (and even more sarcastic than me) has put the whole Blu-ray DVD nonsense into something approaching proper perspective: Mystery Science Theater 3000's Kevin Murphy.
Sony, the self-styled "one and only," will introduce its high-definition Blu-ray digital video format on May 23rd to us, here in the US of A, a nattering, Neanderthal, heretofore unwittingly blu-ray-starved populace, rooting around as we are in the dim glow of conventional DVD-based home theaters, wondering how in the name of all that is holy we ever made it this far as a civilization without fifty gigabytes of dual-layer capacity and 3:2 pulldown compensation.

Not to be outdone, Toshiba will introduce their own gift from the gods, called HD DVD, in March, with its own equally impressive set of technical specifications and, of course, 3:2 pulldown. These two technologies, each with their own army of media giants behind them, are about to engage in a struggle to become the one that replaces the now-ubiquitous and perfectly adequate DVD format.

DVDs as we know them deliver to most of us a better quality of sound and image than we ever dreamed would make it into our homes. It has caused the makers of movies to radically shift the way they present their product, from title acquisition all the way to release and advertising. It has simultaneously allowed a meteoric market for home movie makers, who now can present the lavish imagery and nuanced editing of Brady's 1st Poopies on the Toi-Toi in High Definition with Dolby AC-3 sound.

But no, DVDs are no longer good enough. Over the next few years we'll watch these formats duke it out, and eventually we'll have to trash what we have and invest in the winner.

Why are they doing this? That's a damned silly question. Better to ask: what the hell is 3:2 pulldown? I've been working in television for twenty-five years, I have no idea.
Go read the rest.

Treehouse of Goofiness

For those who've always wanted to live like an Ewok, here is your big chance: treehouse spheres. Coming soon: a separate bathroom sphere, plumbing, electricity and other amenities. This isn't your daddy's treehouse!

Friday, April 07, 2006

See How They Run

In other science news, much to the consternation of farmer's wives, scientists have restored the visual response in blind mice. No news, however, on the successful reattachment of tails that had been cut off with a carving knife.

Chugito Ergo Sum (I Drink, Therefore I Am?)

Now here's scientific progress--what is essentially a computer printer that outputs drinks: the Lazy Drinker:
The Lazy Drinker quite simply is a computer controlled mixed cocktail dispensing device. It's designed to hold 16 ingredients and multiple units can be chained together to get more. By using a series of pressurized valves, the ingredients are mixed automatically by your computer perfectly every time. With a database of over 5000 drinks, you'll have plenty to choose from.

The Lazy Drinker comes assembled in a cooler or as a do-it-yourself kit which can be installed in any manner you desire. Requiring only a Co2 tank and a PC with a serial port, the Lazydrinker can be set up anywhere: from a portable dispensing unit, to a bartop installed unit, to a refrigerator mounted unit, the possibilities are endless.
Too bad they couldn't train those viruses (see below) to make drinks. It would make the impending robot holocaust that much more bearable.

Assault and Batteries

Now, goodness knows I'm not one to stand in the way of scientific and technologcial progress, but I feel obliged to ask: Is this really a good idea?:
Viruses "trained" to build tiny batteries
Researchers trying to make tiny machines have turned to the power of nature, engineering a virus to attract metals and then using it to build minute wires for microscopic batteries.

The resulting nanowires can be used in minuscule lithium ion battery electrodes, which in turn would be used to power very small machines.
Great. I can see a terrible symbiosis coming. Not only is there an impending robot insurrection on the horizon, but now we have to worry about trained viruses getting unleashed and enslaving humanity. For whom do you think the viruses will be making those batteries? Yep, our robotic overlords. Doh!

On a Roll

Looking to snazz up your interior decor to reflect your inner geek? Why not give the PixelRoller a shot:
PixelRoller is a paint roller that paints pixels, designed as a rapid response printing tool specifically to print digital information such as imagery or text onto a great range of surfaces. The content is applied in continuous strokes by the user. PixelRoller can be seen as a handheld “printer”, based around the ergonomics of a paintroller, that lets you create the images by your own hand.
Basically, it's a handheld dot-matrix printer (remember those?). At the link, check out the video demonstration, which only begs the question of why you would want to paint Woody Allen on your wall.

Ad Nauseam

I'm shocked, shocked, to discover that TV viewership declines during commercial breaks. (I always thought that was why commercials were louder than the programs--so they could be heard from the kitchen or bathroom.) Who doesn't take commercial time to click around or surf the Web--or do anything else but watch commercials?

Elsewhere in the above link, Nielsen's 2005 ad growth/decline numbers are out. Ad spending for 2005 was up 4.2% over 2004--three guesses what the top growth medium was (yep, the Internet, with 23.3% spending growth--but again such high growth rates are easy when you're starting from a low base compared to other, more entrenched media, but still...). Spanish-language TV was up 16.9%, cable TV up 11.0%. National magazines were up 6.7 and B-to-B magazines were up 3.5%. What declined? National newspaper spending (-4.7%), local newspapers (-0.9%), and network TV (-1.5%).

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gorilla, You're a Desperado

Oh, the jokes that could be made:
The Daily Mail is reporting that a troop of squirrel monkeys at the London Zoo have had to be retrained after showing too much interest in cell phones. Evidently the monkeys, in a new "non-barrier enclosure," were attempting to snatch phones from visitors who held them out to take videos or photos, the story said.
Kind of reminds me of an old Warren Zevon song:
Big gorilla at the L.A. zoo
Snatched the glasses right off my face
Took the keys to my BMW
Left me here to take his place

I wish the ape a lot of success
I'm sorry my apartment's a mess
Most of all I'm sorry if I made you blue
I'm guessing the gorilla will, too

You Want Freakish? I Got Your Freakish...Right Here

Via mi hermano, Roberto, here are the top 20 strangest gadgets and accessories. #9 would be vaguely useful, #8 reminds me of a really upsetting scene from The Island of Dr. Moreau featuring Marlon Brando, #3 has been featured here before, and if #1 doesn't make your skin crawl (literally) there's something wrong with you.

A Keyboard...How Quaint

Still using a keyboard, huh? Well, until voice wreck ignition gets better, and implantable brain chips are invented, we're stuck with it. But that doesn't mean they can't be weird, and CNet has a link to the weirdest keyboards ever. Personally, I like the idea of #9 (the wrist keyboard), and #7 looks like it would be M.C. Escher's keyboard. I've seen pictures of #6 (the virtual laser keyboard) before, and it's really just a concept for the time being, and actually has an accompanying virtual display that is beamed out the other side--way cool). For my money, though, #1 is the way to go.

Chips Ahoy!

I may or may not have known this all along, but as far as I know, I just found out that the potato chip was invented here in Saratoga Springs. A story from today's Saratogian discusses the topic, in connection with a German documentarian who was in town taping footage for an upcoming program on accidental inventions. (I've often had Saratoga Chips at the Stadium Cafe--usually by accident--and they are the best chips, actually). Wikipedia confirms the story, although the Saratogian story gets its centuries a little confused, and doesn't mention that the cranky customer whose dissatisfaction with thick, soggy fried potatoes was, in some accounts, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Barnes & Noble to Sony: "Drop Dead"

Barnes and Noble has said "no thanks" to the forthcoming Sony e-book reader:
Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest bookstore chain, is spurning the Sony Reader, a new electronic device cited as a potential turning point for the tiny e-book market.
I really can't blame them; they got a bit burned during the first wave of e-book hoopla, so it's easy to forgive them for being a bit gun-shy this time around.

On the subject of e-books, let me weigh in with my two cents (adjusted for inflation).

Back in the late 1990s, I covered the "e-book beat" for Micro Publishing News and got to try out firsthand all (or most) of the myriad e-book readers that had proliferated at the time--including the Microsoft Reader, the Adobe eBook Reader, and the Gemstar eBook, among others. The first two were basically applications that allowed for (supposedly) comfortable book reading on a laptop computer. It didn't entirely live up to its billing, and I never got into them because a laptop computer is still a bulky thing to lug around when all one wants to do is read a book. The Gemstar eBook was an electronic e-book reader about the size of a large hardcover book and was unimpressive on many levels.

I also had one of the second-generation Handspring Visor PDAs (remember them?) which ran the Palm OS. Palm had a software-based e-book reader (cleverly called the Palm Reader) which I kind of liked--reading books on it wasn't a bad experience, but my real beef was with the Visor itself: the batteries were always dying--even when the thing wasn't turned on. I would go to turn it on, the batteries would be dead, and I'd have to reinstall everything from the installation CD, meaning that any e-books I bought (if I had not backed them up to a PC) were gone. The Visor now sits in a trunk in the basement, along with other ghosts of technology past, like my vast collection of SCSI cables, VGA monitor adapters, a 28.8Kbps modem dating from 1994, a 2X external CD burner, the antenna that came with the TV I bought in 1997, and a variety of other objects whose exact purpose has been lost to the mists of time.

I am dubious that the Sony reader will the "killer app" for e-books, for the simple reason that the book-reading market is changing such that books are increasingly being bought and read by people who really like books and find electronic alternatives anathema. It's a tactile, "look and feel" thing which I share in part (but words are words and I'm more concerned with the content itselt than the mechanism by which that content is delivered), but the essential point is that the kinds of people who readily adopt electronic gizmos and gadgets--particularly younger people--are not big book readers (that's a vast generalization but is borne out in part by empirical observation). And when you consider the extent to which people multitask media--surfing the net while listing to an iPod while IMing while watching TV, etc.--it's hard to incorporate a book into that media mix, because books arguably require a greater level of undivided attention than other media. (I've tried--while watching sports or other TV programs that are not on DVD or recorded I usually read during commercials and it's not always easy. One ends up reading the same sentence 20 times.) Magazines and other "bite-size" content delivery mechanisms are better-suited to the kinds of media multitasking that people increasingly engage in. This is why I say that the biggest threat to printed books is not any kind of electronic alternative but rather the decline in the reading of book-length documents. Like most media shifts, this won't happen today or tomorrow, but will be generational in nature. I've been saying this for about a decade now and I remain ever more convinced this will be the case.

As for e-books themselves, I will probably check out the Sony Reader. But it's funny: there is always the sense that if e-books come on ther market, people think that there will eventually be no other alternative, and that they will only have to read printed books or e-books. The printed book or the e-book is not an either/or proposition, but rather both serve important purposes, just like the audio book hasn't completely replaced the printed book and serves an important purpose for those who want to "read" while driving (and if it keeps them off a goddamn cellphone while driving, I say it serves an immeasurably useful purpose). In fact, the reason I liked the PDA-based e-book was that it made it easy to carry books around when I traveled. (As someone who has read the hardcover edition of David McCulloch's Truman while straphanging on the NYC subway--which was great for building upper-body strength--I can't emphasize the weight advantage of the e-book enough.) In fact, the e-book is simply the extention of a decision I already make when choosing which book(s) to read: when I travel or otherwise go out (I often read a book while waiting for people in bars or restaurants), do I want to lug around a thick hardcover tome or a small, mass market paperback? Particularly when traveling by train or plane, luggage space is at a premium, so the smaller the book, the better. I'm not alone in this; people I've come across who favored the e-book did so for the exact same reason.

However, this works against the dedicated e-book reader, like the Sony Reader. What I liked about the PDA approach to e-book reading was that it was a device I was carrying around with me already--including as it did phone numbers, appointments, and other data I needed.

What I'm waiting for is a PDA-like device that can leverage e-paper/flexible displays to provide a true multifunction device-cellphone, PDA, iPod, e-book reader, e-magazine reader--basically a complete media center in one device. Once electronic documents become as easy to read as paper documents (like the E Ink/Sony approach to e-paper), I'm there. And this doesn't mean that I'm going to abandon print books--after all, despite readability, electronic devices are still often pretty annoying.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Hottest Chili Pepper

No, not Anthony Kiedis. Rather:
Dorset Naga, an exceptionally hot variety that we developed from a Bangladeshi chilli known as Naga Morich. In 2005 we collected a sample of this chilli, and had it tested for heat by two laboratories in the USA. The result, measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), were astounding: taking an average of the two, Dorset Naga came in at 923,000 SHU.

To put this figure in context, the Guinness world record for the hottest chilli is currently held by Red Savina, which was once measured at 577,000 SHU (see: Guinness World Records).
Sign me up for that!

You Know the Drill

Ouch. From LiveScience:
If you dread going to the dentist, be thankful you didn't live in the Stone Age.

Roughly 8,000 years before Novocaine and some 7,300 years before they could even swig whiskey to dull the pain, prehistoric patients were having holes drilled into their teeth with drill bits carved from stone.
Don't laugh; the dental plan I had at Micro Publishing wasn't too far removed from this.

Hot Hot Hot

My life is so-o-o-o busy. I'm just so busy and important, in fact, that I have no time to wait for water to boil. Even the 1:48 it takes my microwave to make water hot enough to make tea is too long. I have things to do! And don't get me started on the carnage and bloodshed that ensue when I have to get out a tea kettle.

Happily, technology is there to complicate every simple thing. To wit:
While the Zip Hydrotap may look like an ordinary water faucet, don’t be so easily mistaken. What sets the Hydrotap apart from other faucets is that it can dispense boiling water at the touch of a [child-proof] button. Of course, it’ll give you plain old cold water for those hot summer days spent on a lake in the Heartland. It’s easy to install as well, either free-standing or mounted on a sink. As long as there’s plumbing nearby, the Hydrotap will go to work, making fiddling with kettles a thing of the past.

Robot Holocaust--Phase One

Get ready. Here comes a robotic noodge:
This little robot [acts] as a personal assistant that keeps tabs on the things you take with you in the morning. You can tag your essentials like wallet, keys, cellphone, etc. with tiny RFID tags which provide communication range of a few inches. A pressure sensor detects your presence and the robot will ask you for a quick check of your bag. It will check for the tagged items once you bring your bag close to the reader. In case anything is missing the Robot [will alert] you [by] saying “You forgot the keys,” and so on. This device has proven to be extremely effective in the normal living environment.
It would last about five minutes around here before getting the Charles I treatment.

Gee, That's a Shame

Sexists of the world were dealt a setback today:
After a three-year run, Myrtle Beach's homegrown airline, Hooters Air, is bowing out of regularly scheduled air service.
A little-known fact was that, in the event of a water landing, your flight attendant could be used as a flotation device.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sorry Spectacles?

I'm not quite ready for bifocals yet, but when I get there (what's today, Tuesday...), hopefully this idea will be a bit further along:
Now researchers have created liquid crystal lenses that can change between long-distance and reading modes with the flick of a switch.

Guoqiang Li of the University of Arizona and his colleagues sandwiched a thin layer of liquid crystal between two layers of glass and laced it with concentric rings of electrodes. When turned on, the electrodes reconfigure the focusing power of the lens for either near or far vision, allowing the entire lens to promote the desired effect in less than a second.
Given what researchers are starting to do with implantable brain chips (etc.) it would be great if they could invent autofocusing liquid crystal bifocals. Then I could really make a spectacle of myself.

The Heat Is On

Ah, USB: is there anything it can't do--or warm? First there were USB slippers to keep your feet warm. Then there were freakish-looking USB gloves to keep your hands warm while you type:
Now there is a USB coffee warmer:
I see a burgeoning market for USB hubs, though I wonder what the simultaneous use of all these USB heating devices would do to one's PC.

Then again, not living in the Arctic, I can't say that I have a great deal of use for these.

Make a Break for the Borders

Speaking of e-paper-based reading devices, coming this summer to a Borders near you:
The Sony Reader, a new text-reading device that lets you have the Bible or the entire works of Tolstoy on hand but carry around the physical equivalent of a paperback, will be sold at Borders bookstores.

The gadget, which debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, evokes the visual stability of something printed on overlay. It resembles actual paper and ink, with little flickering.

The high-resolution (SVGA 800x600) electronic-paper display screen supports BBeB Book, PDF and MP3 formats and can also display JPEG images.

The device measures 6.9 inches by 4.9 inches by 0.5 inches and weighs in at just more than half a pound. The Sony Reader takes Memory Sticks or SD flash memory cards to augment 64MB of internal memory, creating the potential to travel with hundreds of books.

The Sony Reader also has "a seemingly limitless battery life equivalent of 7,500 pages turns," according to a Stony statement. That's because there is no rundown on the battery over time. Power is only consumed when a reader turns the page.
I've seen a prototype of the Sony Reader and it is impressive--and highly readable. The device is kind of pricey ($299 to $399), but no more so than an iPod. Electronic books themselves will be downloadable from Sony's Web site. It will all hinge on number of titles available (look for all the public domain classics to be available), the variety thereof, and how annoying the digital rights management (DRM) ends up being. Sony (they of the CD rootkit fiasco) isn't known for making life easy for its customers (and they absolutely adore proprietary formats that are completely incompatible with anyone else's hardware), so hopefully they won't end up killing the market before it even takes off.

Stop the Presses

Sez an NAA study:
one in three internet users — 55 million — visit a newspaper website every month.

Also, unique visitors to newspaper websites jumped 21 percent from January to December 2005, while the number of page views soared by 43 percent over the same period.
I've never been of the opinion that newspaper publishing was doomed, just the print component thereof. If my own behavior is any indication of larger cultural trends (and there's a terrifying thought, on so many levels), I haven't read a print newspaper in a long time, but I check out a half dozen or so Internet newspapers' sites on a regular basis, both national and local (and even international).

In fact, now that I have a wireless network set up in the house, I have been known to take my Powerbook to the kitchen table and replace my print newspaper reading with Internet newspaper reading. Think of how convenient a Wi-Fi-enabled e-paper reader would be.

In fact, the only time I ever missed having printed newspapers was when I had to paint my kitchen...

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Thoreauly Appealing Idea

Henry David Thoreau, eat your heart out. A PC magazine editor plans to go native:
I'm writing this quickly because I'm about to embark on an experiment. At the urging of my editor-in-chief, Jim Louderback, and Vicki Jacobson, the executive editor who regularly edits this column, I'm going wild—literally. Beginning today at 5 p.m. (it's around 3:30 as I write this), I will leave all technology behind and head north to spend four weeks in a remote cabin in upstate New York.

Jim and Vicki cooked up the idea a few weeks ago and are convinced that my experiences, which I'll record with pen and paper, will make a great series of columns about "Learning to Live Without Technology." The concept sounds crazy, but apparently, the thought is high on the minds of many deep thinkers. Sudden changes in our global climate and the looming bird-flu pandemic have some believing that chaos is around the corner, and that figuring out how to function without technology may soon be just as important as learning how to live with it.

Preparing to go tech-free is not as easy as it sounds. First of all, I've had to prepare family, friends, and coworkers and make sure they have all they need from me before I go. Consumer Electronics Senior Editor Dan Costa has agreed to drive me upstate to Cranberry Lake. He'll be leaving me at the cabin with simple bedding, a flashlight, a week's worth of food rations and water, 60 notebooks, and 40 pens. The cabin is outfitted with a cot and desk. That's it!
While we've all fantasized about this idea (some of of still do, obessively)--and the idea has had no small amount of appeal for basically the same reasons since the 1960s (at least)--I do have to throw a flag here and raise the question: what exactly is "technology"? And is it even possible for one live without "technology"? Or is it only some technologies he's trying to live without?

There always seems to be the assumption that "technology" is something new, and while it surely includes new "gadgets and gizmos," it also includes old gadgets and gizmos--and basically anything that has helped create Western civilization. The word "technology" itself comes from the Greek technologia ("systematic treatment") and was coined in the 17th century (so much for it being some new thing). I would argue that anything that has been invented is technology, no matter how old it is, going back to the beginning of human civilization--heck, the invention of the plow was (literally) cutting-edge technology at the time.

So let's look at what this guy is going to have with him. How is a flashlight not technology? Is a flashlight found growing wild in nature? Unless his "flashlight" is some kind of Flintstones-like jar of fireflies, he's not escaping technology. (But even then--the jar: glass manufacture would be, technically, technology.)

Notebooks--ever been to a paper mill? The modern papermaking process may date from the early 19th century (and papermaking from wood pulp even more recently), but is indeed technology. After all, someone had to invent paper. (This also applies to, ahem, any other kind of paper he may need to take along on this adventure.)

Pens: The ballpoint pen (invented in 1938) is a more recent invention than the typewriter--or even the computer. And "modern" ballpoint pens utililize highly advanced design, engineering, and manufacturing processes. Just because something isn't electronic doesn't mean it's not "technology."

The food and rations he's got: since he's not hunting (with a gun? Hmmm...sounds like technology of a sort) or farming, the food was produced by some kind of modern food manufacturing process--utilizing, no doubt, the latest technology. If it doesn't go bad in a day or two, it's probably got some kind of preservatives. I dare say, technology yet again.

I could go on and on--what kind of bedding? Presumably it was manufactured. And I also assume that this guy has been inoculated against a variety of illnesses--technology. Does he wear glasses? Any dental work? Any dental hygiene at all? Is he in general good health otherwise? Thank advances in medicine and water and sewage treatment and public utilities that developed over the course of the 20th century. (The science-fiction author Charles Stross once commented that, when asked what period other than now he would like to live, he replied "none," since given that he has a certain congenital medical condition that has only recently been combatted successfully, he'd be dead in any era other than the current one. Food for thought when we rail against "technology.")

Look, no one gets more annoyed by computers and cellphones and iPods and MS Office and all the other trappings of "modern technology" than I do, but people have cursed "technology" in just about every era, and there have always been those who dreamed of escaping it and living a "simpler" life. People reacted adversely to the technological advances that led to the Industrial Revolution (whence the original Luddites), and I would imagine that thousands of years ago, you could probably just as easily find some farmer out in his field, cursing his plow, wishing he could go back to the simple days of being a hunter-gatherer. And so it goes.

But I would argue that living in a cabin in the woods and having to hunt, fish, grow things, and deal with nature, is hardly simpler. (And, hey, I've been camping.) I suppose it could be argued that there is a kind of purity in that kind of life, but if you're going to live that way, then you'll need to throw off all the conveniences of modern life, like plumbing, electricity, clean water, medicine, etc. Say what you will about modern technology, it does keep most of us from dying by age 40. Or smelling really bad.

And say what you will about cellphones, but on 9/11, wasn't it passengers with cellphones who found out what was happening and ultimately prevented Flight 93 from hitting a fourth target? I grudgingly score 1 for cellphones.

If we're that worried about being so reliant on gadgets and gizmos, why do we have to go live in the woods? All we have to do is just shut the damn things off once in a while! I find nothing so pleasant on a sunny Sunday afternoon than to turn off the computer, turn off the iPod, turn off the TV and CD player, deactivate all my robotic manservants, and just sit on the couch and read a book. Yes, the book was produced using the latest desktop publishing and printing technology, but I think I can handle that.

What's In a Name?

Some more spam "sent from" names that I suspect are not real:
Resonantly F. Disembodying
Gunrunning G. Lithograph
Trimmers S. Launderer
Blower Q. Drudges
Dissenter E. Kudzu
Cashed A. Plagiarizing
Gale H. Vibration
Tinderbox O. Spadework
Postmodern M. Chairperson
Chills U. Victim
Hmm...Maybe I should write a Samuel Beckett/Eugene Ionesco-esque play and feature all of these as characters.