Saturday, April 29, 2006

Nintendo introduce Wii

In the world of technology, there are two names that consistently impress me with their ability to mix innovation, humanity and fun. Apple is one, Nintendo is the other. Another characteristic they both share is influence far beyond that which their sales figures might suggest. Look at any list of 'greatest computer games ever' and Nintendo titles will be in the top ten.

For some time Nintendo has been talking about releasing a new console. Code-named 'Revolution', its main feature is a revolutionary new 'joypad', which will work in a similar way to a television's remote control (for more info, click here).

Yesterday, Nintendo announced the launch name of its next games console with this typically quirky (and frustratingly brief) press release.

Introducing... Wii

As in 'We'.

While the code name 'Revolution' expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer.

Wii will break down the wall that separates video game players from everybody else.

Wii will put people more in touch with their games... and each other.

But you're probably asking: What does the name mean?

Wii sounds like 'We', which emphasises this console is for everyone.

Wii can easily be remembered by people around the world, no matter what language they speak. No confusion. No need to abbreviate. Just Wii.

Wii has a distinctive 'ii' spelling that symbolises both the unique controllers and the image of people gathering to play.

And Wii, as a name and a console, brings something revolutionary to the world of video games that sets it apart from the crowd.

So, that's Wii. But now Nintendo needs you.

Because, it's really not about you or me.

It's about Wii.

And together, Wii will change everything.

A small QuickTime video was also released.

Geek forums are already awash with 'shock/gasp/horror' comments on the 'silly' name. It's already growing on me. It sidesteps the need to create another 'gamestation' derived title. And, of course, like most nouns, context and usage will soon see it used without a second thought, joining the ranks of the existing computer games looney tunes vocabulary (Bibble Bobble, Nintendogs, Donkey Kong, Super Smash Bros, Yoot Saito's Odama, etc...).

For those of you interested, IGN have released a good interview with Nintendo's VP of corporate affairs.

And finally, is it only me who finds the 'Wii' name, the logo, and the movie's style, incredibly Apple/Pixar-like?

Friday, April 28, 2006

CLEVER by name...

Edited excerpts from Leftlane News (my interjections/wise-ass remarks in roman case):

BMW [has] released the first images of the completed CLEVER (Compact Low Emission VEhicle for uRban transport). As the (frankly awful) name/acronym suggests, the aim of the project was to create a vehicle that was practical, safe, and environmentally-friendly (to compete with the Small Modern And Really Trendy car?).

One fascinating aspect of the vehicle is its unique tilting design for stable, motorcycle-like cornering. A problem with three-wheel vehicles with a symmetrical wheel layout is the tipping moment when cornering, which cannot be controlled at high speeds if the vehicle has a short wheelbase. To solve this problem the CLEVER’s center of gravity can be moved towards the center of the corner by banking the forward portion, while leaving the 'driven' section horizontal.

At just over three feet wide, it is 20 inches slimmer than a SMART car. The hydraulic active tilt system is electronically controlled and keeps the vehicle upright at low speeds.

The 230cc BMW engine runs on compressed natural gas and the vehicle will have a top speed of approximately 50 mph. Its fuel consumption is a frugal 188 miles per gallon.

The vehicle is different from previous attempts to create a small urban vehicle in that it is fully enclosed in a metal framework. Its roof is as high as conventional cars, and it can carry a passenger (behind the driver). Recent crash-test results have been extremely positive.

If the CLEVER makes it to production, it is expected to cost £6,500.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Black holes provide energy-efficiency clues

Edited clips from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory site:

"Since its launch on July 23, 1999, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has been NASA's flagship mission for X-ray astronomy.

By studying the inner regions of nine elliptical galaxies with Chandra, scientists can now estimate the rate at which gas is falling toward the galaxies' supermassive black holes. These images also allow them to estimate the power required to produce radio emitting bubbles in the hot X-ray gas.

The composite image of NGC 4696 shows a vast cloud of hot gas (red), surrounding high-energy bubbles 10,000 light years across (blue) on either side of the bright white area around the supermassive black hole. Images of the other galaxies in the study show a similar structure. (The green dots in the image show infrared radiation from star clusters on the outer edges of the galaxy).

Surprisingly, the results indicate that most of the energy released by the infalling gas goes, not into an outpouring of light as is observed in many active galactic nuclei, but into jets of high-energy particles. Such jets can be launched from a magnetized gaseous disk around the central black hole, and blast away at near the speed of light to create huge bubbles.

An important implication of this work is that the conversion of energy by matter falling toward a black hole is far more efficient than nuclear or fossil fuels. For example, it is estimated that if a car was as fuel-efficient as these black holes, it could travel more than a billion miles on a gallon of gas."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

When the Rivers Run Dry has a (long) interview with British science journalist Fred Pearce, former editor of New Scientist and author of When the Rivers Run Dry, a global investigation into water use and abuse.

Some (edited) excerpts:

"Many countries have run out of water for growing their own crops and are now importing water in the form of food. Egypt really, for instance, lost the ability to feed itself perhaps 30 years ago. It now imports a large amount of water in the form of food. That is the only way it can do it. Water is pretty heavy stuff to move, but the trade in products produced with water is huge, and in many ways can be seen as a trade in water.

"Many large engineering projects suffer from a huge range of inefficiencies. The evaporation from the reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam in Egypt annually amounts to, in metric, 15 cubic kilometres of water [3.6 cubic miles]… that is roughly the amount of water that is used by the whole of the United Kingdom in a year. In other words, you could fill every tap, meet every water demand in the U.K., a country of more than 50 million people, simply by the water that evaporates from the surface behind the Aswan Dam.

"One of the most heartening trends I've seen traveling around the world -- and I've seen it in China and India and in other places -- is the effort by farmers and villagers to harvest the rain as it falls. They don't let the water go into the rivers and run away to perhaps a large dam, or run away to the sea. They simply capture it locally, and even pour it back down their wells, creating a storage system so that they can pump it up later in the year.

"Domestically, American users are among the highest water users in the world, but [Americans] stabilised water consumption in recent years, principally by having more efficient toilets that use much less water in the flush. Canadians have not changed their toilets in the same way. They are probably now the No. 1 domestic users of water in individual homes. But neither the U.S. nor Canada reaches anything like the per capita water consumption of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

"Both of those use absolutely vast amounts of water to irrigate their cotton crops. It's a system set up by the Soviet Union, which has been carried on through today. They produce huge amounts of cotton grown using water taken out of the rivers in what is in many ways an arid region. The main consequence of that huge use of water is that they've dried up the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth biggest inland sea. It's sitting in Central Asia not far from the Caspian Sea, which is even bigger. They dried up the rivers that fed that sea, virtually no water reaches the sea anymore, and the sea has retreated fantastically.

"Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen to rainfall under global warming. We're fairly certain that climate change will make most of the world warmer. There are uncertainties about how weather systems are going to change, but the bottom line probably is that the wet places will get wetter, and the places that are dry will get still drier."

Fascinating fact to throw into a lagging conversation: It takes 40 gallons of water to grow the ingredients for the bread in a single sandwich. 265 gallons to produce a glass of milk. 800 gallons for a hamburger.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

17" MacBook Pro. Not big enough?

Apple has released its latest PowerBook (sorry, MacBook Pro!).

Powered by a dual-core Intel processor, it runs up to five times the speed of a PowerBook G4 and has eight times the graphics bandwidth. It's got a built-in webcam, a higher resolution screen and it weighs just over 3kg.

So how come I'm not desperate to replace my two year-old 17" 1.33MHz PowerBook?

Partly it is because Adobe isn't going to be releasing its Intel-optimised applications until next year.

Partly it is because my current PowerBook is plenty fast enough for most situations (and, yes, I know that if I actually tried one of the new 'Books I would probably change my tune on that one).

Partly it is because Apple still aren't implementing the new 160GB 2.5" hard drives as a build option (I installed one in my current 'Book, and it was like moving into a much larger house! 70GB of iTunes songs, a full suite of apps, and I still have nearly 50GB of free space!).

But mainly it's because I would have liked it to have been just that BIT bigger!

Don't get me wrong, I know the 17" form-factor is already pushing the definition of 'portable'. But to me, screen real-estate is very important. Aesthetics-wise, the 15" 'Book is nearly perfect, a brilliant balance of performance and portability, but I'm quite willing to carry a weight/size penalty to enjoy a screen that has room for three application windows side-by-side, and to have a decent-sized Photoshop or InDesign window along with the myriad of palettes that I use with them.

So Steve, when next Spring rolls along, why not demo that Intel-optimised Adobe Creative suite on a 19" 'Book, say with a 1920x1080 pixel screen (perfect to view those H.264 encoded videos at full screen), and maybe get rid of those speakers to the left and right of the keyboard and slot in a numeric keypad and forward delete key.

And while I'm living in a fantasy world, why not release a worthy successor to the much-loved 12" PowerBook, in the shape of the MacBook Nano? A sexy, super-portable notebook running OSX on a healthy-sized flash memory-based hard drive with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a super-bright, high-resolution screen.


Madeleine the Roboturtle

New Scientist reports that:

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.

(Editor's Note: that's the one on the LEFT) is similar in size and weight to a Kemp's Ridley or Olive Ridley sea turtle, measuring 80 x 30cm 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.

The robot's polyurethane flippers have the same stiffness as a real turtle's, but are operated by electric motors connected to an onboard computer. These motors rotate each flipper so that its back lifts up, before rapidly sweeping it down again to generate propulsion. The robot is controlled remotely but has several sensors including video cameras, sonar and altimeter and accelerometer.

By imitating the design of a turtle, the researchers hope to build more efficient ocean robots.

But Madeleine could also help scientists understand why animals use their flippers in different ways. Sea turtles, sea lions and penguins, for example, all rely on one pair of flippers to propel themselves through the water, and use the other pair to steer. But the plesiosaurs and giant turtles that dominated Mesozoic seas – between 251 and 65 million years ago – apparently used all four flippers for power.

Long and colleagues used their robo-turtle and a swimming pool to experiment with different forms of flipper propulsion. They showed that four flippers are best for acceleration and stopping, while two flippers are more efficient for simply cruising along.

One important omission by the scientists was their failure to give Madeleine that all-important 'cute' factor... I mean, how difficult would it have been to paint some big, wide turtle eyes on 'her'? How do they expect Madeleine to get an appearance on Blue Peter without the 'Ahhh' factor?!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Digital Ethics #12

Each time a copyrighted piece of music is played to an audience in the UK, a royalty payment is legally due to the music's publisher. (similar royalty systems exist in most western countries). There are three main bodies that are responsible for collecting royalty fees from radio stations and distributing the money to their members:

Performing Rights Society (PRS): Artists and composers.

Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL): Record companies.

Mechanical Copyright Protection Society
(MCPS): Jingles and music used in adverts.

The majority of UK music radio stations purchase a licence that allows them to play whatever music they wish. The cost is based on audience size and revenue calculated by the radio stations sending the PRS sample lists of the music they broadcast.

The calculation and distribution of amounts owing is a complex task, and most recording artists and songwriters join specialist organisations who, for a fee, do the collecting for them.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

War of the Worlds online

Dark Horse comics have released an excellent version of HG Wells' War of the Worlds online in graphic novel form. Thanks to Shaun for the heads-up.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Why hasn't someone thought of this before?

Micromat have recently released a very nice little tool. The Techtool Protege. To quote the website blurb:

This tiny FireWire-based device contains 1 gigabyte of memory and comes complete with the latest version of Mac OS X, the latest version of TechTool Pro and our latest drive utility DiskStudio. And there’s still room left over for your other utilities as well.

That means the next time you need to work on a Macintosh, you can plug in TechTool Protege, boot very quickly and get right to work. No messing around with CDs, portable drives, installers and the myriad of other items you'd usually keep in your toolbox.

A Mac technician is quoted as saying...

“This is nice, as I can plug it directly into the FireWire port of a machine and the computer booted from this drive, faster than a CD. I am able to run diagnostics and check stats on the computer. Small enough to fit in a pocket, makes it handy to carry around. This makes my job as a technician so much easier. No more looking for a power plug, and no need to find a FireWire cable.”

Now, this got me thinking... how come every computer doesn't come with this built in? How difficult would it be for manufacturers to put a basic startup system, along with analysis tools on flash memory, so that if a problem is detected during startup, the machine switches to this system, runs a set of repair routines, and then either restarts from the repaired drive, or alerts the user that more work is needed?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How small?

My eldest daughter, Sky (19-and-two-thirds), has just purchased a new mobile phone. It has the facility to accept a 'transflash' memory card. The one we ordered just arrived; a 1 gigabyte unit measuring 1 x 10 x 15mm (fingernail size). It cost less than three chart CDs.

The first external hard drive I possessed was bought for a Macintosh Plus in 1986. It was about 70 x 220 x 220mm, and weighed at least a kilogram. It was the largest capacity available at the time, 20 megabytes - 1/50th the capacity of the aforementioned memory card. And it cost me over £600.

I'm still in a mild state of shock.

High-quality free typefaces

FontShop is (for a limited time) offering these excellent typefaces as free downloads.

Baskerville Old Face: John Baskerville was an 18th Century English writing master, stonecutter, letter designer, typefounder and printer. His perfectionism intimidated other printers to such a degree that a group of them started a rumour that his printing damaged the eyes! He was admired by many, including Giabattista Bodoni and Benjamin Franklin.

Blackcurrant Cameo: A 70s-flavoured fun face.

FF Megano Medium Italic: The site blurb says, "Xavier Dupré's FF Megano manages to be aggressive and sweet at the same time... experience the wonderful dichotomy for yourself." To me it is a pleasantly legible postmodern semi-script. You decide.

F Dingbats: A nice bunch of pictograms. You can never have enough pictograms. Or numbers reversed out in circles.

Verdigris Regular: A no-nonsense modern serif with an elegant set of 'proper' numbers. You can never have enough 'proper' numbers.



Textpander is a free (Mac only) utility that makes typing repetitive phrases quick and easy by constantly 'looking' for particular shorthand text phrases, then typing in the relevant 'string'. There are other utilities available that do the same thing, but Textpander is my favourite.

My main uses for Textpander are to insert the current date on folders or documents (ddate), and to insert my blog address on blog comments (blg).

The Textpander web site lists some other uses:

- insert standard greetings, text fragments
- paste signatures - including formatted text and pictures
- type special characters
- correct common typos

I don't implement the last one, as I want to learn to type stuff properly even when I am away from my Textpander-enabled machine!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Stickiest bacteria in the world

Bacteria found on the inside of water pipes secrete the strongest glue discovered in nature. Researchers found that the bacteria Caulobacter crescentus is a harmless bacterium that lives in rivers, streams and water pipes. It attaches itself to surfaces with a long, slender stalk tipped with chains of sugar molecules that are three times as strong as commercial 'superglue' products. It can withstand a force equivalent to five tons per square inch - (imagine the pressure exerted by three or four cars balanced on a UK pound coin).

The adhesive would (theoretically) make an excellent waterproof, biodegradable glue to replace sutures and staples in surgery. One of the main challenges will be to find a way to manufacture the glue without it sticking to everything that is used to produce it!

The findings appear in the April 11 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Brun co-authored the research with Jay Tang, a former IU physicist who now works at Brown University.

Wikipedia FAQK

Lore Sjöberg has posted a humorous and insightful article on the Wired site. If you haven't got a clue what Wikipedia is, it will inform and amuse you, and if you know what it is, it will amuse and inform you.

Some excerpts:

What should I know if I want to contribute to an argument nexus (or "article") on Wikipedia?
It will help to familiarize yourself with some of the common terms used on Wikipedia:

meat puppet: A person who disagrees with you.
non-notable: A subject you're not interested in.
vandalism: An edit you didn't make.
neutral point of view: Your point of view.
consensus: A mythical state of utopian human evolution. Many scholars of Wikipedian theology theorize that if consensus is ever reached, Wikipedia will spontaneously disappear.

Is it true that anyone can contribute?
Sure, Wikipedia is absolutely open to absolutely anyone contributing to absolutely anything! As long as you haven't been banned, or the article you're contributing to about hasn't been locked, or there isn't a group of people waiting to delete anything you write, or you don't make the same change more than three times in one day, or the subject of the article hasn't decided to send scary lawyer letters to Wikipedia, or you haven't pissed Jimbo Wales off real bad. It's all about freedom.

But why should I contribute to an article? I'm no expert.
That's fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War -- and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge -- get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 28

The Resurrection
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

The Guards' Report
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The Great Commission
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mark's Gospel, Chapter 15

Jesus Before Pilate
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate.

"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.

The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of."

But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.

"Crucify him!" they shouted.

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

The Soldiers Mock Jesus
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

It was the third hour when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!"

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

The Death of Jesus
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" - which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."

One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

The Burial of Jesus
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Digital v Analogue #7: Getting it wrong

While browsing the Internet yesterday, I came across the Flashbag design concept illustrated above. Designed by Dima Komissarov, it's a USB flash drive with a tiny pump that inflates the body as you load it with data, giving you a visual idea of how much room you have (or haven't) got on the drive.

It's a cool concept, but has the weaknesses of being both financially impractical and missing one of the USPs of USB flash drives.

One of the very good things about the digital realm is that items DON'T expand (in dimensions or weight) as you fill them with data. Large books look great sitting on a coffee table, but they are a pain to carry around. If I had to choose between carrying twenty text books on a long journey or a PDA with them loaded in PDF format, I would reach for the PDA (especially as I can also search a PDF for a word or sentence... but that's a subject for another blog!).

USB flash drives have become ubiquitous as a method of sharing data because they are portable, easy-to-use, and affordable. However, there is room for improvement.

Most USB flash drives come with a protective lid. This is usually a poor fit, and like most small items, has a tendency to get mislaid. Sandisk have a model that works like a retractable pen, a Very Good Idea.

Going one stage further, they have designed and produced a Secure Digital flash card that folds to reveal a USB connector, removing the need to carry around a card reader to transfer information from your digital camera or mobile phone. Nice. However, there would appear to be some compatibility issues, and for some people it will be just TOO small.

The Flashbag drive has one very good idea, it provides an instant, visual clue as to how much information you have in the drive. My 'concept' (pictured below) would be a retractable USB flash drive with a panel that gives an 'at-a-glance' bar-graph readout of how full the flash drive is, along with an alphanumeric indication of available free-space. (The digital clock/calendar on the right is a 'why-not?' Photoshop conceit :-)


Monday, April 10, 2006


A pangram is a sentence whose words contain all the letters of its language's alphabet. The one you probably know is 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog'. This was the pangram used by telegram operators to make sure all the characters were functioning.

I use pangrams to see how every letter of a typeface appears in the context of a 'proper' sentence. Here's a few alternatives that I've collected over the years.

- Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes.

- Baroque? Hell, just mix a dozen wacky pi fonts & you've got it.

- By Jove, my quick study of lexicography won a prize.

- Foxy nymphs grab quick-lived waltz.

- Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.

- Just be very quick when fixing zip code mail.

- Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.

- Pangrams have subjects like 'dewy fox quiz'.

- Puzzled women bequeath jerks very exotic gifts.

- Quick fawns jumped over a lazy dog.

- Quiz explained for TV show by Mick Jagger.

- The five boxing wizards jump quickly.

- The risque gown marked a very brazen exposure of juicy flesh.

- The vixen jumped quickly on her foes barking with zeal.

- Vexed funky camp juggler quit show biz.

Fascinating fact to throw into a lagging conversation: The phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" can be generated 15 times in Microsoft Word by typing =rand() followed by pressing the ENTER key.

Digital Ethics #11

Before the advent of recorded sound and vision, the mechanics of paying actors and musicians was very similar to the way most other working people was recompensed. To put it (far too) simply, if you were paid at all, you were paid for the hours you worked or the product you made.

The nearest thing to 'recorded music' was sheet music, allowing people to play their own interpretation of the piece, usually on a piano. Royalties were paid to the publisher and artist in a similar manner to book publishing.

Then came the Pianola, a specially constructed piano which could be controlled via a paper roll which had been 'punched' with a musical piece. These early iPod ancestors could play a piece of music until the paper roll wore out, without any direct interaction from a human being. This presented publishers of music with a dilemma. With printed music, playing the piece was an 'interpretative' act, requiring a human being to perform the piece. These huge rolls of paper were less like a book, and more like a copy of a performance.

In 1908 US Supreme Court ruling that the piano rolls were not illegal copies of a musical performance and legislation was passed recognising recordings and the reproduction of them as being within the rights secured to their authors in copyright law, under a 'mechanical licensing' agreement.

After the piano rolls were succeeded by other forms of recordings the mechanical license royalty system was extended to wax cylinders and eventually to phonographic discs.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Let the benchmarking commence!

Apple today announced a beta version of a program that lets you install and run the Windows XP operating system on any Intel-powered Mac. Called Boot Camp (geddit? No, me neither!) it makes installing Windows XP on a Mac as straightforward and painless as possible.

Forget for a moment the important questions like 'Why, when my Mac already has a stable, beautiful, 21st century operating system, would I want to go out and buy a copy of Windows XP?', and consider why Apple would have even considered this a good idea!

Here's my two penn'orth...

- Apple knows that their machines look fantastic, and that they are also good value-for-money when compared feature-for-feature with other Intel-powered hardware. This gives them the chance to prove it in scientific side-by-side, like-for-like reviews.

- A significant number of PC users would like to own Apple's hardware for its aesthetics and usability, but can't justify moving to it because of the legacy (Windows-based) software they own. At a stroke, Apple have removed this stumbling block.

- Once someone has a computer that can run both Windows and Mac OSX, curiosity is going to drive them to try both systems. iTunes looks and works better on OSX. iPhoto is gorgeous, and has no direct equivalent on Windows. Mail is prettier and simpler than Entourage... and so on, and so forth...

By the time OSX 10.5 is released (probably just before Windows Vista, Microsoft's answer to OSX) there will be a significant number of people who have discovered first-hand just how good OSX is, and will be telling their (Windows-using) friends about it. This is SO much more powerful than someone who has used Macs for years telling you how good it is... this is someone who has used Windows for years (not some gloating, dyed-in-the-wool, Mac-user) sharing with someone else who has used Windows for years that OSX 10.4 is brilliant, and that there is an even better system arriving... just as Microsoft are trying to build interest in their brand-new operating system.

And here is the kicker.

Let's just suppose that Windows Vista is a marvellous operating system. That it is worth the money to upgrade to it. At this point Windows users are going to have to face the same dilemma that long-term Mac-users have had to face at least twice... the software that runs so well on Windows XP won't run on Windows Vista. And for many people it won't even run on the hardware they own... Windows Vista is going to require a LOT of horsepower to run well.

At this point, anyone who is still running XP on a Mac has to wonder... do I buy Vista, plus software, plus hardware... or do I migrate to OSX, (which I already have, and which I've tried, and don't hate) and start using the Apple suite of software (which I already have)?

Steve Jobs likes to joke that Apple is Microsoft's leading R&D department. The next couple of years is going to be a fascinating time, and one where we may see Apple becoming Microsoft's nemesis.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Micropayments make money

The conventional European/US business model for making money from online games is to charge a monthly subscription in exchange for a player gaining access to the servers that contain the gaming environments they want to play on. And it has proved a very successful model, World of Warcraft has over 5 million subscribers paying £8 ($14) per month (if you play WoW and see 'bjmonkey', that's either Zak or Brook spending their dad's money).

Wired reports that Asia's growing online gaming market is letting people in to their online worlds for free, then enticing them to make small purchases while they're there.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Some of the most popular games in Asia are given away for free and charge no subscription dues, but collect micropayments for custom avatars and other items. Social networking is a key feature of the games, and it turns out players are quick to fork over yen and yuan to tweak their appearance to their liking.

At Hangame, Japan's number one internet game portal, customers wind up spending between 30 cents and $10 an item to customize the look of their avatar, visible during social interactions and in the otherwise free games.

The popularity of online gaming in Japan, China and Korea dominated more than a few sessions at the 2006 Game Developers Conference in Silicon Valley last month, where U.S. companies looked for advice on developing games that appeal to the massive Asian market.

"Microtransactions make Asian games more fun," said Nicole Lazzaro, president of XEODesign. "In games where people play together, the value of the game increases with the number of players.

"Everyone understands that $10 per month adds up to $120 per year," said Lazzaro. "This big commitment limits the market. A free game removes the barrier to entry, connecting as many of a player's friends as possible. It is easy to spend more than $10 a month in one-dollar-and-fifty-cent impulse purchases. Plus, we all play what our friends play."

In the United States, a handful of online offerings have adopted a similar model to Asia - notably Linden Labs' Second Life. It's free to use, but charges players to purchase and develop virtual property, and allows users to make and sell items to one another. But these games are the exception, not the rule.

Female players, rare in Western gaming circles, are in ample supply in Asia. In fact, they're a coveted demographic. Korean developers have learned they can draw teenage users of both genders by winning over the women first. "They tell me, 'If we get the girls, the boys will follow,'" said Steele.

Declining to state specific numbers, Kim said money spent on customization was "a lot more than people usually pay for subscription fees," and that the game's concurrent user numbers were higher than every U.S game except WoW.

Based in Seoul, GoPets offers a mix of social networking, games, chat and virtual pets that can wander off your desktop to visit other GoPet owners around the world. Already localized in more than 10 languages, GoPets is hoping for a worldwide audience, with a messaging feature that uses pictures instead of words, and an extensive list of items players can buy.

But experts caution there are plenty of pitfalls awaiting westerners hoping to break into the Asian game market, as the makers of Hearts of Iron 2 discovered when they crafted a game world with an independent Tibet and attempted to market it in China.


Optimising Photoshop

If you use the 'king of programs', it might be worth a few minutes perusing Adobe's comprehensive and helpful article 'Optimize performance in Photoshop' (the tips are for Mac OSX, however, if you're a Windows user, there's a lot of relevant stuff, or you can click on the 'search' option at the top of the article and look for 'optimize performance in photoshop' for version- and OS-specific articles).

Adjusting the Image Cache and deselecting Export Clipboard have both released detectable speed increases on my desktop and laptop machines.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Rocket-powered, slime-squirting bacteria

Myxobacteria live in animal dung and organic-rich soils. They glide in water films across solid surfaces, secreting polysaccharide slime tracks.

New Scientist reports that biologists thought the bugs produced the slime for a similar reason snails do, to aid movement. But now it turns out that the bacteria push themselves along by ejecting the slime from nozzles on their bodies.

Myxobacteria have about 250 (well, you try counting 'em on something that small) nozzles located at each end . By squirting slime from one set or the other they can move at a speedy 10 micrometres per second (apparently that's quite speedy for a mxyobacteria).

The key to producing this impressive turn of speed (for a mxyobacteria) is a polysaccharide - a chain of molecules created by a polymerisation process that links molecules together inside the nozzle. When the chain is created slowly, it oozes from the nozzles without creating motion. But when the chain is produced faster than the slime can escape, it is compressed and shoots out like water from a super-soaker, producing thrust.

Chemist Michael Rubinstein at the University of North Carolina makes the (less than earth-shattering) observation that "This mechanism could be utilised in nanoscale devices for propelling small objects."

Sunday, April 02, 2006


As I lay on my couch on Saturday afternoon enjoying my iPod's AOQAD smart playlist (Artists Of Quality And Distinction: all songs in my iTunes collection by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lloyd Cole, Beatles, U2, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Vigilantes of Love, Mike Scott, Jellyfish, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams) I wondered whether it would be worth investing in one of the devices that are now available that let me control the iPod remotely.

It occurred to me that this is all backwards. The iPod isn't much bigger than most remote units, its hard drive is bigger than many laptop computers, and its battery life is substantial. Why doesn't Apple install WiFi, Bluetooth, RF and infrared transponders in an iPod, so it can be used as a universal remote AND to wirelessly transmit the music/video stored on it to an Airport Express unit connected to existing AV equipment?

Then insert a SIM card, so I can use it as a mobile phone, along with a GPS unit to give it SatNav capability. Add a camera/video unit and a couple of SD memory card slots. Oh, and let's abolish earphone wires forever, give it Bluetooth earphones/microphone that are stored/charged in the iPad itself.

All of this data would need backing up, which could be done by wirelessly synchronising it with another computer, or while it is charging overnight to an internet-based service like Google or .Mac.

Finish the unit off with a high-resolution screen, a fast CPU and a useable operating system/interface (maybe a mixture of touch-screen on one side, and a traditional mobile phone set-up on the other?) and you have a device that would provide the majority of people with something that is getting close to being a complete entertainment and communication device. And it is possible using current technology. The Mio A710 has nearly all of these functions, in a unit that is compact and good-looking, with acceptable battery life. However, it lacks WiFi, and it runs Windows Mobile 5.

I've given up second-guessing Apple on its plans. However, there is no doubt in my mind that they are ideally placed to make a device like this desirable, usable and financially viable. And I really would like something to replace my ageing Nokia 6210 and long-dead Palm V!