Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Apple & Nike do 'synergy'

Business Week reports:

iPod-compatible footwear that tracks runners' training routines is just the beginning of a collaboration between these iconic brands.

As corporate logos go, few are as recognizable as the bitten apple that appears on all things Apple Computer. Few, that is, except maybe the swoosh that has appeared on Nike's shoes and apparel from the company's beginning.

Now the two companies behind those logos are teaming up. At an event in New York, Nike and Apple said they are collaborating on a series of products that bridge the gaps between sports, electronics, and entertainment.

Their first jointly produced product: the Nike+iPod Sport kit, which involves an electronic sensor inserted under the inner sole of a new Nike running shoe dubbed the Moire (pronounce (MOR-ay). That sensor talks to a small wireless receiver that attaches to Apple's iPod nano music player.

The components work together to give voice prompts, interjected while music is playing, that tell runners how far they've gone and at what pace. The iPod will also keep track of the duration, distance, and other information on each run. The data could then be uploaded to a Mac or PC, and from there to a Nike Web site called, where users can track progress, set goals, and share results. The shoes will sell for about $100. The sensor and iPod attachment will go for about $29 The Nike+iPod Sport Kit and are expected to be available in the next two months.

Nike dreamed up the idea for the product and contacted Apple to develop the technology behind it, Nike CEO Mark Parker said at the news conference: "A while back we asked a big question: Could we harness the power of digital technology to improve a runner's experience?" It turns out the answer is a smart running shoe, equipped with a small sensor that can track motion and distance and other metrics that runners find important, but the information would only be available after their run is complete, not while running. "We quickly realized that making a smart shoe wasn't smart enough."

So Parker called a friend: Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The result was the kit, which both called simply a "great start." The two companies will develop more products as part of an ongoing partnership.

The two companies are alike in design and marketing. Both are iconic brands that appeal to a consumer market that is young and considers itself hip and cool. Apple had approached Nike about being its MP3 supplier, but Nike execs came up with a bigger idea. Parker said he wanted to give more than just music to the runner. "Obviously, a lot of that was already happening," he says. "If the shoe and the iPod could talk to each other, what would they say and what's the potential of that connection? We got the creative side from both companies and we started exploring."

When Nike and Apple designers met for the first time 18 months ago, the teams clicked. "Both companies are technology-driven companies," Jobs says. "It's just that we work in completely different areas of technology. We are semiconductors and software, and Nike is anatomy and precision-molding and thin-film technologies. What's interesting is the people are very similar."

But it took some time for both teams to find their Zen state. Some of the technology challenges were tough. The sensor embedded in the new Nike Moire running sneaker was initially too big for Nike designers and too small for Apple's team. Other technical challenges centered on the duration of the battery power (close to 1,000 hours). Apple designers also had to wrestle with the wireless technology. "Wireless takes power," Jobs says. "The last thing you wanted was a wire going down your leg. It looks deceptively simple and that's how it should be. It took a while to get it right. But there is a lot of technology there."

Jobs also says keeping the price at $29 for the wireless iPod adapter was another key point. "This thing is over 90% accurate right out of the box, which is huge," Jobs says. "Something like this would normally cost a lot more money. We priced it so everyone can afford it because we want everyone to try it and experience how cool it is."

Parker says Nike is offering seven styles of shoes that will be iPod-ready by allowing the sensor to be embedded into the heel. They include the new Nike Air Zoom Moire, unveiled today, as well as the Nike Shox and Air Max lines. About 4 million "PlusReady" shoes are available now and next the number could balloon to 10 million, Parker says. "If you need stability or extra cushioning, we have shoes to fit those needs that will be wired," he says.

Both CEOs say the experience of developing NikePlus is just the beginning of a broader strategic relationship. Neither would describe what they intend to tackle next but hinted they are only limited by imagination and good business. "It's turned out to be really fun," Jobs says. "It's fun to apply technology in an area where A, it's never been done before, and B, everybody involved in it wants it for themselves. That's always a good sign. Everybody involved in this says, 'This is so cool,' It's great to work on things like this." Says Parker: "The connection between the two different products and the potential it creates is huge."

Apple and Nike aren't the first to try to crack the market for electronic gadgetry aimed at fitness enthusiasts. Nothing aside from the digital wristwatch has been all that universally successful, except digital-music players like the iPod and the Sony Walkman before it. Nike has dallied in the digital-music realm before, having teamed up with Philips Electronics, and the now-defunct Rio before that, on MP3 players aimed at athletes.

Garmin, the Kansas-based market leader in consumer GPS receivers, has been producing watches for runners that use the Global Positioning System to track a runner's training regimen. Its Forerunner products start at about $115 and, with certain options and features, can go as high as $377.

But to Trevor Edwards, Nike's vice-president for global brand management, the connection with Apple is obvious. "I think there are some ideas that you kind of go, 'Duh.' People are already out there running, and they run with music," Edwards says. "And some of them are trying to figure out how far they went. So we think this is already something people are doing. So you take their behavior and actually allow them to do it in a more simple way."

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Only the books die young

The (possibly not completely unbiased) (the world's fastest-growing source of print-on-demand books) reports that the life-expectancy of a bestselling novel has halved within the last decade, according to a long-term study of fiction bestsellers. It has fallen to barely a seventh of its level 40 years ago.

Edited highlights:

The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year - according to the study of the half-century from 1956-2005.

In the 1960s, fewer than three novels reached No. 1 in an average year; last year, 23 did.

"The blockbuster novel is heading the way of the mayfly," says Bob Young, CEO of The plummeting life-expectancy of a fiction bestseller, says Young, reflects the way that the publishing industry is unravelling, in an age of over-production, plus media fragmentation and now disruptive new technologies such as the Internet and print-on-demand: "The publishing revolution is nigh."

Similar trends are happening in other sectors, from music to movies, adds Young. "It's part of a cultural shift."

The future of publishing, he continues, belongs to "niche-busters" - books targeting a niche rather than mass market." Over 1,200 new niche-buster titles are now published on Lulu each week.

Although the latest annual book trade figures show the first fall in US book production for years, the period covered by Lulu's 50-year study saw a huge growth in the annual output of new titles. The number of books published in the US almost doubled between 1993 and 2004 - from 104,124 to 190,078.

Blockbusters, of course, do still exist, concedes Young, who could not do otherwise in the week that the movie of 'The Da Vinci Code' opens worldwide. Indeed, the biggest ones today sell more overall than their forerunners. But even uber-blockbusters like "The Da Vinci Code" fail to achieve the sort of unbroken dominance that was once routine.

The three novels to have topped the list for the longest stints during the 50 years studied were "Advise and Consent," a political thriller by Allen Drury, which hit No. 1 on Oct 14, 1959 and stayed there for 57 consecutive weeks; "The Source," an historical epic by James Michener, which reached No.1 on July 11, 1965 and stayed top for 43 weeks; and "Love Story," by Erich Segal, which, from May 10, 1970, bestrode the list for 41 weeks.

The longest unbroken spell that "The Da Vinci Code," by contrast, has topped the list was 13 weeks, between November 16 2003 and February 15 2004 - or two months less than the average No. 1 bestseller in the 1960s. Dan Brown's novel first hit No.1 on April 6, 2003, but stayed top for just two weeks. It has since lost and regained the top spot over 15 times, for varying periods.

"The market today is more chaotic," says Young. "The churn rate is far higher."

A growing number of bestsellers, says Young, now spend just a single week atop the list. "The New York Times will soon have to publish its bestseller lists daily instead of weekly, in order to stay up-to-date."

Quantity of Novels reaching No. 1 per year
50s: 3.8
60s: 2.8
70s: 4.4
80s: 7.6
90s: 10.0
00s: 18.2

The number of bestsellers per year has increased by over 700 per cent since the 1960s, more than doubled since the 80s and almost doubled since the 90s. If present trends continue, they will have doubled in the 00s compared to the 90s.

Life Expectancy of No. 1 Bestsellers (weeks)
50s: 16.4
60s: 21.7
70s: 13.9
80s: 7.2
90s: 5.5
00s: 3.0

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Alternative use of iPod ratings stars

The original iPod was a triumph of form and function. It looked great, its interface was simple and intuitive, and it stored and played thousands of songs in an attractive, portable unit.

My first iPod was a 'third generation' 20GB model. It was the first model that I condidered to have enough memory to carry around a library of songs that represented my CD collection. I then upgraded each time there was an increase in hard drive capacity. As a result, I now own a 60GB iPod Photo which I listen to through my car, studio and home stereo system.

I love elegant, simple design. The problem is, when a designer simplifies things, they have to leave stuff out. And one designer's 'disposable' is another person's 'essential'. I think there should be a couple of programmable buttons on the iPod, allowing you to bypass the menu system for your most-used functions. I would employ them to instantly switch between shuffle and sequential mode, and to allow 'one-press' access to the 'Contacts' list, but I'm sure a wide range of other uses would be found for them.

In an ideal world, I would also like to be able to edit data that is contained on the iPod, but I do understand that this would clutter the interface. One of the reasons for the iPod's success is that it does one thing very well. It is an entertainment unit, not a PDA.

However, there is a function on the iPod that allows you to input data while on the move - the 'star-rating' system. I find the conventional use of the ratings system doesn't work for me. I like all the songs in my iTunes collection, that's why they're there! And how much I like them depends on mood and context, not on any kind of permanent 'star' rating.

However, I have found a way of putting the ratings system to good use. When I'm listening to the iPod and hear a song that I don't want to keep, I pull up the ratings system and give it a 'one-star' rating. Then, the next time I synchronise the iPod, I delete the 'one-star' rated tunes.

And in the interest of 'waste-not, want-not', I have extended the system to include these definitions:

** Excellently produced
I move these to an 'audiophile' playlist.

*** Adjust volume
Different CDs are recorded at different 'gain' levels, iTunes allows you to digitally adjust this. If a song's volume is much higher or lower than the 'average', I mark it with three-stars and adjust it later.

**** Edit
Some songs have superfluous intros and outros. Four-stars reminds me to remove these.

***** Miscellaneous
This usually means 'cool tune, move to the kidz journey playlist'. But I use it for any tune that I have noticed but doesn't come under any of the other four categories. Later, when I see it 'flagged' in my iTunes list, I (usually) remember why I marked it.

Friday, May 26, 2006


The Register reports:

Those of us chronicling the inexorable Rise of the Machines know only too well the dangers of forming emotional bonds with technology - albeit a mere fondness for your Dyson, or a slight affection for your new Renault Laguna.

The reason, as members of the neoLuddite Resistance Army among you are already aware, is that as soon as you have formed a comfortable, trusting relationship with your machine than it will kick you down the stairs in an display of vacuuminous rage or subject you to a 125mph, white-knuckle kamikaze terror ordeal.

It is, then, with dismay that we offer a Reuters report on the growing tendency for front-line US troops in Iraq to get friendly with their iRobot PackBot EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) - a bomb-disposal droid version of IRobot Inc's remote-controlled bot, of which around 300 are currently deployed in that sun-kissed paradise astride the Tigris.

One EOD, nicknamed "Scooby Doo" by his comrades, had already selflessly completed 35 bomb disposal missions when he was dispatched to that great breaker's yard in the sky. According to IRobot Inc supremo Colin Angle, one distraught grunt pleaded with repair technicians: "Please fix Scooby Doo because he saved my life."

Angle explained: "I think it's very rational. [Scooby Doo] was someone, something, that was doing a great service for them and thus when they brought it back, it was viewed not just as a loss of a machine gun or a piece of body armor or a helmet. It was a loss of a contributing member of the team."

Of course, while our fear that once the growing army of EODs has completely gained the confidence of the US military it will turn upon its human masters - advancing relentlessly across the Iraqi hinterland to a battle cry of "Scooby-dooby-do!" - is tempered by the fact that its intended victims are suitably armed to repel a robotic uprising, we are rather more concerned with the possible to threat to humanity posed by IRobot Inc's Roomba and Scooba domestic cybercleaners.

After all, your average housewife does not have a M109A6 Paladin Self Propelled Howitzer readily to hand in the event of homicidal Roomba assault, and most grandmothers will not - when her Scooby receives the 'kill' activation signal from the Lizard Alliance mothership - be able to bring down a hellish concentration of Apache helicopter gunship ordnance on the satanic floor-scrubber.

For the record, iRobot Inc has sold more than two million Roombas. It's currently contracted to supply a further 213 bomb-disposal packbots to the US Navy. Consider yourselves warned.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

First working '$100 laptop'

Following many prototype 'mock-ups', here is the first working model of the One Laptop Per Child project, unveiled at the Seven Countries Task Force Meeting yesterday in all its 'Fisher Price, My First Laptop Computer' glory, along with a number of 'nearly finished' prototypes.

Nicholas Negroponte (co-founder of MIT Media Lab, writer of Being Digital) heads up the OLPC organisation whose vision is to provide every child in developing countries with a laptop computer.

The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution. The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports (that's what the cute 'ears' cover when in the 'down' position).

The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use a number of power sources (including wind-up handle models). (for more information, visit the OLPC FAQ).

This is a massive project, with equally massive hurdles still to be jumped. For OLPC to make the laptops at $100 each, production has to begin with a minimum run of five million units. Until this target has been achieved, manufacturing won't begin. OLPC is pinning its hopes on massive orders - up to a million units from the bigger economies of the emerging world - Brazil, India, China, Nigeria. And it needs for these countries to pay for the units in advance.

Not everyone is convinced that this will ever happen. As the Register reports:

As the head of one NGO told us: "To achieve this production run elected politicians in China, Brazil, India, Nigeria etc. will need to put their reputations and political careers on the line and gamble millions of dollars from already over-stretched education budgets on an unproven, Beta Ver 1.0, non-standard technology being produced by an outfit with no prior track record. I don't really expect experienced politicians to do this."

Still, OLPC is concentrating minds on supplying ICT needs for poor people in developing countries. Many analysts expect the mobile phone to be the internet access of choice in developing world. They are cheaper than PCs - and there are far more of them.

Microsoft is taking a different tack, by offering cheaper software licences to poor countries, and by offering a different mode of consumption. This week it announced its ideas for a pay-as-you-go PC, specifically for developing countries.

And then there are the millions of functioning PCs discarded in rich countries each year. It is already possible to send a P4 laptop complete with Windows or Linux software from the UK to Africa for a little over $100. Linux International director Jon Maddog Hall this week told a conference in South Africa that refurbishing old PCs and installing open source software might be a better way to bridge the digital divide. Hall was careful not to dismiss Negroponte's scheme, but said other solutions might work better in some areas.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Photoshop, the archaeologist's best friend

Adobe have produced a PDF on how Photoshop is used to work on ancient texts. Edited excerpts follow:

“Even a single letter in an ancient inscription can sometimes determine or change history,” says Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), part of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC). “Without Photoshop we often wouldn’t be able to decipher these texts. Photoshop has revolutionized the study of ancient objects and texts and opened up a new frontier. Because of Photoshop, we can read what we’ve never been able to read before. Even inscriptions thought to have been well deciphered in the past are now wide open for reexamination, and our interpretations of ancient history are going to change as a result."

Since bringing photography, digital imaging, and epigraphy (the study and deciphering of ancient inscriptions) together, WSRP has been a powerful force behind several breakthroughs. For instance, the Tel Zayit Inscription at the Zeitah Excavations in Israel was heralded in 2005 as one of the most important discoveries in the last decade. Confirmed to be approximately 3,000 years old, it is the oldest known datable example of an abecedary - the letters of the linear alphabet - carved in stone that has been found in Israel.

...tiny silver scrolls found in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, a burial area near Jerusalem, were carefully documented and analyzed. These texts are sensational finds because they contain the Priestly Benediction from the Biblical Book of Numbers. Because they date from sixth century b.c. they are the oldest artifacts yet to be discovered containing quotations from the Bible.

To decipher the scrolls, Bruce Zuckerman and his team took high-resolution photos of the scrolls using fiber-optic light. Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg were also involved in this work along with Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University, discoverer of the Ketef Hinnom texts, and Andrew Vaughn, an expert epigrapher from Gustavus Adolophus College.

The researchers then used Photoshop CS2 to build composite pictures with a level of precision and accuracy that had been previously impossible. This in turn enabled them to read parts of the texts that had not been deciphered before. Recently published new readings of these texts were determined to include additional quotes taken from elsewhere in the Bible, including the Books of Deuteronomy and Daniel, and further described the Biblical God as the “rebuker of evil.” This indicated that the scrolls originally served as amulets to protect their wearer from harm.

The WSRP has also been deciphering fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls for over two decades. Using original photographs of the fragments from as early as 1948 along with newer visible light and infrared images plus Photoshop, the team has manipulated high-resolution images of the fragments and put them together like a puzzle. The WSRP has also matched fragments based on analysis of common handwriting characteristics. The ability to use the early photographs has played a crucial role in their work because in the intervening years the scroll fragments have continued to deteriorate. In some cases, only the old images contain data that otherwise would have been lost.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Restoring a not-so-Mighty Mouse

As one of my early blogs recorded, I enjoy using Apple's Mighty Mouse. So far, the three in my possession have worked faultlessly, but it would seem that some people find the scroll-ball gets clogged with gunk.

Apple's website has basic cleaning instructions, including a video tutorial. However one Mighty Mouse owner has taken more drastic measures, which he has published as a step-by-step photo guide.

Warning: this is not one for the faint-hearted, or the fumble-fingered!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Magnetic bacteria as an energy source?

Wired reports:

A 16-year-old high school student has invented a new way of producing electricity by harnessing the brawny power of bacteria.

Kartik Madiraju, an 11th-grader from Montreal, was able to generate about half the voltage of a normal AA battery with a fifth of an ounce of naturally occurring magnetic bacteria. And the bacteria kept pumping current for 48 hours nonstop.

"No one has ever used magnetic bacteria to produce an electrical current before," Madiraju said.

The experiment is being presented this week at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, an über-science geek competition in which the chipmaker annually hands out $4 million in prize money to students. Winners will be announced Friday.

Magnetotactic or magnetic bacteria have extremely small crystals of magnetite inside their bodies. Only discovered in 1975, these aquatic bacteria are quite common and found in fresh water and saltwater around the world.

A bit of a science whiz kid, Madiraju was browsing through the science journal Nature and happened to see something about magnetic bacteria while trying to think of a project to benefit the environment. "I knew that spinning windmills use a magnetic generator to produce electricity and wondered if I got the magnetic bacteria spinning they might generate a current and be a clean, alternative energy source," he said.

Madiraju put the free-floating bacteria, which are essentially tiny magnets, into plastic boxes less than a fifth of a cubic inch. Metal strips on two sides act as electrodes and get them spinning, generating a magnetic field and an electric current. Current and power were sustained at 25 microamps and 5.5 microwatts, respectively, beyond 48 hours at a resistance of 10 kohms.

"I thought the idea was outlandish originally and was one of the most surprised when it worked the very first time," said John Sheppard, a professor in the Department of Bioresource Engineering at Montreal's McGill University.

"I'm optimistic about the practical applications; he's developed the technology quite a bit just working on weekends," said Sheppard.

Madiraju envisions clean-running underwater power plants in the developing world. "The latter is long-term of course, but not too far-fetched," he said.

Micro-energy sources in nanotechnology or biosensors would be easier to do and are more likely uses, said Sheppard, who was Madiraju's mentor under the strict conditions of two big science contests, the Intel competition and Canada's Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge. Madiraju has won in various categories previously and on May 10, his magnetic bacteria battery demonstration placed third in the Canadian competition.

Friday, May 19, 2006


The short film ‘Deviation’ was the Tropfest Official Selection at the Tribeca Film Festival 2006.

The writer/director Jon Griggs comments:

"What started out as a novel (and inexpensive) way to tell a short, darkly comedic story took a turn towards a political statement about choice and the need for individual questioning of the status quo.

"As an avid games-player, I used the relatively unknown medium of ‘machinima’ – (muh-sheen-eh-mah) – the convergence of filmmaking, animation and game development, to tell a story about one individual’s attempt to break out of the cycle of futile violence that has been his sole existence.

"The film was shot using an online game environment and a cast comprised of four ‘virtual actors’ who I had never met in the ‘real world’. Using an ingame voice-chat program and a ‘virtual camera’ I blocked, directed and shot the scenes using little more than a mouse, keyboard and a record button."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

All a matter of perspective

The New York Times reported that Justin Gatlin set the world record in the 100 meters last Friday at a Grand Prix meet in Doha, Qatar, winning the race in 9.76 seconds.

Gatlin, a 24-year-old native of Brooklyn, took a hundredth of a second off the time Asafa Powell of Jamaica ran June 14 in Athens. In a conference call with reporters Gatlin said:

"It hasn't hit me yet, I'm astounded. I went out there and put together a pretty good race, and I put a lot of heart in the race... Even halfway through the race, I said to myself, Be patient; get to the transition phase."

I found myself smiling reading that last paragraph. It took longer to read than Gatlin did to run the race, and five seconds into that race he was saying to himself, "Be patient; get to the transition phase". By the time he had said that, he would have been 2 seconds from the finish line.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Wax cylinder recordings available on MP3

In 1877, Thomas Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, allowing it to be 'played back' without manual re-keying. This development led Edison to speculate that a voice message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper.

Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder wrapped in tin foil. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When someone spoke into the mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle.

In 1877, Edison commissioned a mechanic, John Kreusi, to build a prototype. When completed, Edison tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, "Mary had a little lamb." And, much to his surprise, the machine played his words back to him.

The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 24, 1878, to exhibit the new machine. It was a huge attraction, with thousands flocking to see this incredible invention wherever it was shown. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits. However, the novelty of the invention quickly faded, and Edison diverted his efforts to developing the incadescent light bulb.

However other people continued to develop the concept. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta Prize of $10,000 from the French government for his invention of the telephone. Bell used his winnings to set up a laboratory to further electrical and acoustical research, making improvements on Edison's invention, chiefly by using wax in the place of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder. A patent was awarded in 1886. The machine was exhibited to the public as the graphophone. Bell and Tainter had representatives approach Edison to discuss a possible collaboration on the machine, but Edison refused and resumed his efforts to improve the phonograph himself.

The Edison Phonograph Company was formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph. The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax.

By the early 1900s the Phonograph had become a popular device. The wax cylinders were available for 50 cents each, featuring a variety of recordings including marches, sentimental ballads, 'coon' songs, hymns, comic monologues and audio reenactments of events. They were slowly replaced by other technlogies, ultimately by 78rpm shellac discs, however millions of wax cylinders were produced until well into the 1920s.

This 'lost' era in musical history is now being made available by the (deep breath) Donald C Davidson Library's Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project.

So far over 6,000 wax cylinders have been digitised, catalogued and uploaded to the site. This is primarily a historical archive, which means that not all of the material is 'politically correct'. If you are of a sensitive nature you'll do well to steer clear of the 'dialect recordings' which feature cruel racial stereotyping typical of the era.

However, amongst the distasteful and downright boring stuff, there are hundreds of priceless items waiting to be freely and legally downloaded, including spoken-word recordings by Theodore Roosevelt and Lieutenant EH Shackleton, and songs from the first black recording artist, George W. Johnson.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

17" MacBook Pro vs G5 Dual 2.7GHz Desktop


17" MBP 2GB 7200 100GB vs G5 Dual 2.7GHz 8GB [hard drive unspecified]

Boot time to desktop:
Dual G5: 36 sec
MacBook Pro: 8-11 sec

iDVD 30 min DV to DVD and burn:
Dual G5: 36 min
MacBook Pro: 39 min

1080P trailer playback 3 movies simultaneous 24 FPS:
Dual G5: 18 FPS
MacBook Pro: 10.4 FPS

MS Word load 4000 pg document with photos 170MB:
Dual 2.7GHz G5: 19.4 sec
MacBook Pro: 32 sec

MacBook Pro running Windows vs Dell XPS

Half Life 2 video test:
MBP: 114
XPS: 104

Quake 3:
MBP: 281
XPS: 277
G5: 364

Unreal Tournament 2004:
MBP: 95
XPS: 86
G5: 64

Oblivion Impressions:
MBP: Smooth as silk in the dungeons, outside a little choppy when looking into the distance (fog not working, odd shadows).
XPS: Smooth but "chuggy" in dungeons, outside 10-15fps but playable (looks normal).

The MacBook Pro has more than enough power to play the latest PC games and compares well to the Dual G5 when running Mac universal applications.

When compared to the Dell XPS, the MacBook Pro looks better, is cheaper, two pounds lighter, boasts a higher res screen, is faster by 10%, and (best of all) can run both Mac and PC apps.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A very good Friday

My day had already been a good one. My Friday weights session (legs, heavy) had been painful but rewarding. Work was busy but manageable and finished at 1pm, after which I made what has become a regular half-hour journey to the London School of Theology to meet my good friend Conrad Gempf. During the course of a leisurely pub-lunch we pretty much solve all of the major problems of the universe, before moving on to more important subjects like typography, theology and music. Life really doesn't get much better than this.

We parted with a warm hug and I drove back to my house. The weather was sunny and warm, so I lowered the windows and dialled up my 'Latest' iPod playlist on the Previa's stereo. Cara Dillon is one of my recent 'finds', and I was just settling in to her spine-tingling rendition of 'Saint Theresa' as I pulled up at a red light in Eastcote high street. I was broken out of my reverie by someone gesturing at me from a car that had pulled up beside me. Expecting it to be someone demanding I turn the music down, I twisted the volume knob anti-clockwise as I turned to see a very attractive woman smiling and gesturing at me from the driving seat of a battered Citroën Saxo.

"Who is that playing?" she asked. I glanced briefly at the iPod display before responding "Cara Dillon". "It's lovely, really lovely", responded the woman, still beaming that gorgeous smile. "Yes", I responded as the traffic lights changed to green. "Is that with a K, or a C", asked the woman as she prepared to pull away. "C", I responded, "This track isn't on..." but she was turning right, and I wasn't...

I drove home with a broad smile on my face. For just a few seconds there had been a wonderful connection. I will almost certainly never see her again, and have no strong desire to. Will she go out and buy one of Cara's CDs, or visit the iTunes site and download some of her work? I'll never know. I do know that it is lunches with Conrad, artists like Cara and those occasional 'traffic light' events that warm and enrich the chain of events that is my life.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Black Holes in 'near miss' shock

New Scientist reports:

Astronomers have spotted two colossal black holes that appear to be orbiting each other 100 times closer than any previously seen. But they are still too far apart to produce large ripples in the fabric of space-time – suggesting some black holes may 'stall' before spiralling towards each other and merging.

When two galaxies collide, the black holes at their cores are thought to fall towards the centre of the resulting larger galaxy. These black holes then go into orbit around each other and should eventually merge. "But no one has ever found a really clear example of a binary black hole before," says David Merritt, an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, US.

A 'wide' binary system was found with black holes within 3000 light years of each other in 2002, and earlier in April, another was announced at a separation of 28,000 light years.

Now, astronomers led by Cristina Rodriguez at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, US, have found what appear to be two black holes within 24 light years of each other. The pair was identified using the Very Long Baseline Array, a system of 10 radio dishes scattered from Hawaii to the Caribbean Sea. The VLBA boasts the sharpest resolution of any telescope in existence.

Sloshing gas
The objects are buried within a blob-shaped galaxy called 0402+379, which lies about 470 million light years from Earth. Both appear to be "active" black holes that are devouring their surroundings.

The team says spectral observations taken with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas confirm the objects are indeed orbiting each other and have a combined mass of 150 million of our sun.

But Merritt, who is not on the team, cautions that one black hole may actually lie farther from the other than expected. That is because the spectrum attributed to the orbital movement of the second black hole might simply be due to gas sloshing around the first. "I think it's likely they are actually close, but it's difficult to make the case airtight," he told New Scientist.

If the black holes are indeed just 24 light years away from each other, they could help researchers understand the black hole merger process. At extremely close distances – perhaps 1000 times closer than this pair – black holes are thought to be inexorably drawn together as they lose angular momentum by radiating gravitational waves that ripple space-time.

Losing momentum
But in order to get to such tight orbits, the behemoths must lose energy some other way. Researchers think they may get rid of angular momentum by flinging nearby stars and gas outwards at high speed. "If that happens enough, you could shrink their orbit," says Merritt. "But there are big uncertainties – how many stars are there that find their way close to the binary system, and how much gas is down there?"

Team member Gregory Taylor at the University of New Mexico agrees: "They have to lose angular momentum, but we don't know if that's an easy thing to do or a hard thing to do," he told New Scientist. "Do they just get stalled – or do they never get together?"

This pair certainly appears to have become stalled at least, says Merritt. That is because the black holes are still too far apart to begin emitting gravitational waves – even though their host galaxies probably merged millions or billions of years ago. "It wouldn't prove all binaries stall like this, but it shows there's one case where it seems to be happening," he says.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The mountain moves... reports:

Sony Corp. on Tuesday announced... [that] the company will make its latest music management software compatible with the AAC data compression technology used by Apple. The change will enable users of some types of Walkman digital audio players to listen to music imported from Apple's music management software.

Sony long clung to its proprietary data compression technology, known as Atrac. It has since turned to an open-door policy, embracing such popular formats as MP3 and Microsoft Corp.'s WMA. Still, the electronics manufacturer's acceptance of Apple's AAC format, used for the immensely popular iPod digital music players, marks a particular about-face.

Sony said the coming version of its music management software Sonic Stage will be compatible with AAC. The company will provide the software, called Sonic Stage CP, free of charge through the Internet from May 25. The software is compatible with hard-disk types of Walkman A series products.

Sony's latest strategy is an open acknowledgement that it can no longer ignore iPod's dominance. In April, Apple controlled 52 percent of the nation's portable digital music player market, in terms of units sold, according to market researcher BCN Inc. Sony is a distant second with a 15 percent share, followed by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., with a 7 percent share.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

.Mac public folders now accessible from web browsers

If you've got a .Mac account and want to share files with non-Mac users, or if you are a PC user, and want to access a .Mac user's Public folder, things have just got a lot easier.

Entering the URL '' (where 'membername' is the, erm, member's name) in your web browser will render a page that includes download links for the contents of that .Mac account's Public folder.

You can also let friends and colleagues use your iDisk Public folder page to upload and share files themselves by selecing the iDisk pane in .Mac System Preferences and choosing the Read/Write option for your Public Folder.

There is the option to add password-protection if you want to limit access to a chosen few. If you add password-protection, your visitors will be prompted for a password when they first visit your Public folder. Note: your visitors should enter "public" (without the quotes) in the Name field when prompted for the Name and Password by Safari.

Slum Tours

The Guardian has an illuminating article on a disturbing new travel experience that gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of Delhi's street children.

Some excerpts:

Clearing his throat theatrically as he gets ready to reveal a highlight of the tour, group leader Javed stops halfway up the staircase to platform one and points through the railings to a dark alcove beneath the footbridge over the tracks.

'This is where the street children sleep,' he says, smiling at the cluster of tourists who are craning forward to hear his voice above the roar of the trains below. A small boy climbs out from the hole, steps across the corrugated iron roof and balances himself on a ledge on the other side of the bars, staring back at the visitors, perplexed.

The tourists pause for a while taking in his malnourished appearance, his filthy clothes and glazed eyes. The boy doesn't say anything, but Javed briskly explains that this child, like a lot of the homeless children who live in New Delhi railway station, is addicted to a white correction fluid, called Eraz-Ex.

Most carry a small square of cloth soaked in the chemical, which they hold to their noses and inhale periodically. 'They spend more than half the money they earn from selling rubbish they find on the platform on buying it from the stationary stalls in the market,' he says. 'It does make them a bit violent.'

He pauses to give the group of visitors from Australia, Russia and England a chance to ask questions, before running through the advantages of sleeping in the gap between the platform roof and the walkway. It's shady and you have to be small to get to it, which makes it relatively safe from the station police. But there are the overhead electricity wires to look out for. 'Several of the children have been electrocuted by that wire,' he adds.

The tour moves swiftly on to a secluded train siding, where around 15 children are sitting on a carpet, each with a small blackboard, helped by a volunteer to write a few letters and numbers. These are children who live with their families in the tents and shacks around the station. Their parents have brought them to the capital to escape desperate rural poverty. Protected by their relatives from the harshest violence of street life, these children are better off than the orphans who sleep on the station roof, but life remains a battle against hunger.

Javed explains how each platform is controlled by a gang leader, one of the older street children, who protects and menaces the other boys in his care. Shouting to make himself heard above the rumbling of the trains, our guide explains that children who run away from home - escaping alcoholism, poverty, natural disasters and family violence - usually take the train to Delhi. Gang leaders spot a new arrival as soon as he steps off the train and offer help with finding food and safe places to sleep.

New arrivals are shown how to strap sharp blades to their index fingers for slashing pockets; they learn which fruit-juice sellers will protect them and where to sell the plastic bottles and silver foil picked from the carriage. Their day's takings are taken by the gang leader who redistributes the money (although not all of it) on Saturday, when the children take a day off to watch Bollywood movies. Platform one, where the luxury tourist trains stop, is the most heavily policed area, but also the most lucrative fiefdom, and street children are skilled at dodging trains to crawl into the carriages from the other side. There are no girls in the gangs because they are picked up by pimps as soon as they arrive, Javed explains.

By the end of the walk, the group is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the smells of hot tar, urine and train oil. Have they found it interesting, Javed asks? One person admits to feeling a little disappointed that they weren't able to see more children in action - picking up bottles, moving around in gangs. 'It's not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives,' she says. Javed says he will take the suggestion on board for future tours.

Babloo, who thinks he is 10, has been living here for maybe three years. His hands are splashed white from the correction fluid that he's breathing in through his clenched left fist, and he pulls a dirty bag filled with bottles with his other hand. His life is unrelentingly bleak and he recognises this. 'I don't know why people come and look at us,' he says.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Time gets first dibs on Nintendo Wii

In a move consistent with its desire to attract a 'non-gamer' audience, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Zelda... now Director and General Manager of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development) invited one of Time's non-gaming reporters to try out its new hardware. The result is an entertaining and informative article that reinforces my admiration for Nintendo's refusal to accept the status quo.

I encourage you to read the whole article, but here are some excerpts to whet your appetite...

All three [major games consoles] - PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube - are showing their age... Microsoft launched its next-gen Xbox 360 in November of last year; Nintendo and Sony will launch their new machines this fall. Those changeovers, which happen every four or five years, are moments of opportunity in the gaming industry, when the guard changes and the underdog has its day. Nintendo... will attempt to steal a march on its competitors with a bizarre wireless device that senses a player's movements and uses them to control video games. Even more bizarre is the fact that it might work.

Video games are an unusual medium in that they carry a heavy stigma among nongamers. Not everybody likes ballet, but most nonballet fans don't accuse ballet of leading to violent crime and mental backwardness. Video games aren't so lucky. There's a sharp divide between gamers and nongamers, and the result is a market that, while large and devoted - last year video-game software and hardware brought in $27 billion - is also deeply stagnant. Its borders are sharply defined, and they're not expanding.

And even within that core market, the industry is deeply troubled. Fewer innovative games are being published, and gamers are getting bored. Games have become so expensive to create that companies won't risk money on fresh ideas, and the result is a plague of sequels and movie spin-offs. "Take Tetris, for example," says Iwata, 46, a well-dressed man who radiates good-humored intelligence. "If someone were to take Tetris to a video-game publisher today, what would happen? The publisher would say, 'These graphics look kind of cheap. And this is a fun little mechanic, but you need more game modes in there. Maybe you can throw in some CG movies to make it a little bit flashier? And maybe we can tie it in with some kind of movie license?'" Voila: a good game ruined.

"The one topic we've considered and debated at Nintendo for a very long time is, Why do people who don't play video games not play them?" Iwata has been asking himself, and his employees, that question for the past five years. And what Iwata has noticed is something that most gamers have long ago forgotten: to nongamers, video games are really hard. Like hard as in homework. The standard video-game controller is a kind of Siamese-twin affair, two joysticks fused together and studded with buttons, two triggers and a four-way toggle switch called a d-pad. In a game like Halo, players have to manipulate both joysticks simultaneously while working both triggers and pounding half a dozen buttons at the same time. The learning curve is steep.

That presents a problem of what engineers call interface design: How do you make it easier for players to tell the machine what they want it to do? "During the past five years, we were always telling them we have to do something new, something very different," Miyamoto says. "And the game interface has to be the key. Without changing the interface we could not attract nongamers."

So they changed it. Nintendo threw away the controller-as-we-know-it and replaced it with something that nobody in his right mind would recognize as video-game hardware at all: a short, stubby, wireless wand that resembles nothing so much as a TV remote control. Humble as it looks on the outside, it's packed full of gadgetry: it's part laser pointer and part motion sensor, so it knows where you're aiming it, when and how fast you move it and how far it is from the TV screen. There's a strong whiff of voodoo about it. If you want your character on the screen to swing a sword, you just swing the controller. If you want to aim your gun, you just aim the wand and pull the trigger.

Nintendo gave TIME the first look at its new controller... It's a remarkable experience. Instead of passively playing the games, with the new controller you physically perform them. You act them out. It's almost like theater: the fourth wall between game and player dissolves. The sense of immersion - the illusion that you, personally, are projected into the game world - is powerful. And there's an instant party atmosphere in the room. One advantage of the new controller is that it not only is fun, it looks fun. When you play with an old-style controller, you look like a loser, a blank-eyed joystick fondler. But when you're jumping around and shaking your hulamaker, everybody's having a good time.

After Warioware, we play scenes from the upcoming Legend of Zelda title, Twilight Princess, a moody, dark (by Nintendo's Disneyesque standards) fantasy adventure. Now I'm Errol Flynn, sword fighting with the controller, then aiming a bow and arrow, then using it as a fishing rod, reeling in a stubborn virtual fish. The third game, and probably the most fun, is also the simplest: tennis. The controller becomes a racket, and I'm smacking forehands and stroking backhands. The sensors are fine enough that you can scoop under the ball to lob it, or slice it for spin. At the end, I don't so much put the controller down as have it pried from my hands.

Of course, hardware is only half the picture. The other half is the games themselves. "We created a task force internally at Nintendo," Iwata says, "whose objective was to come up with games that would attract people who don't play games." Last year they set out to design a game for the elderly. Amazingly, they succeeded. Brain Age is a set of electronic puzzles (including Sudoku) that purports to keep aging minds nimble. It was released for one of Nintendo's portable platforms, the Nintendo DS, last year. So far, it has sold 2 million copies, many of them to people who had never bought a game before.

The real demographic grail for any game publisher is, of course, girls. And although females have historically been largely impervious to the charms of video gaming, Nintendo has made inroads even there, with products so offbeat that they barely qualify as games at all. In Nintendogs, the object is to raise and train a cute puppy.

Electroplankton can only be described as a game about farming tiny singing microbes (surely every woman's dream?). In Animal Crossing, you take up residence in a tiny cartoon town where you plant flowers and go fishing and design shirts. You can visit other players' towns and trade shirts with them. The reaction from traditional gamers tends to be 'Fine, but who do I shoot at?' But Animal Crossing is a hit, and Nintendogs has sold 6 million copies. (Incidentally, Miyamoto points out that Animal Crossing wasn't originally designed for girls. "Many female schoolchildren are purchasing and enjoying it," he says, cracking himself up. "Also ladies in their 20s. But the fact of the matter is, this game was developed by middle-aged guys in their 30s and 40s. They just wanted to create something to play themselves.")

Nintendo has grasped two important notions that have eluded its competitors. The first is, Don't listen to your customers. The hard-core gaming community is extremely vocal - they blog a lot--but if Nintendo kept listening to them, hard-core gamers would be the only audience it ever had. "[Wii] was unimaginable for them," Iwata says. "And because it was unimaginable, they could not say that they wanted it. If you are simply listening to requests from the customer, you can satisfy their needs, but you can never surprise them. Sony and Microsoft make daily-necessity kinds of things. They have to listen to the needs of the customers and try to comply with their requests. That kind of approach has been deeply ingrained in their minds."

And here's the second notion: Cutting-edge design has become more important than cutting-edge technology. There is a persistent belief among engineers that consumers want more power and more features. That is incorrect. Look at Apple's iPod, a device that didn't and doesn't do much more than the competition. It won because it's easier, and sexier, to use. In many ways, Nintendo is the Apple of the gaming world, and it's betting its future on the same wisdom.

Practical Ethics has published an excellent interview with Peter Singer, conducted by Oliver Broudy. Here are some excerpts:

Peter Singer is a professional ethicist. Best known for his 1975 book "Animal Liberation" - a canonical text of the animal rights movement and the inspiration for untold thousands to take up vegetarianism - Singer, in the last quarter-plus century, has published a string of books on everything from test tube babies to the ethics of George W. Bush. Considered fearless by some, and dangerous by others, virtually all agree that he is among the most influential philosophers alive today.

Singer's ethics are strictly utilitarian. In his view, all actions are judged by the objective measure of suffering they cause; there's little place here for subjectivity. In his essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," for instance, he argues against the injustice of some people living in comfort while others starve.

We have a moral obligation, he says, to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of others up to that point where the suffering of our sacrifice is equal to the suffering of those we are trying to help. (Singer himself donates 20 percent of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF.) When confronted with the question of whether it's justifiable to save the life of one's daughter at the expense of the lives of two strangers, Singer's response is even more matter of fact. The choice, he would say, is a foregone conclusion: Two lives are better than one.

Singer's new book, "The Way We Eat," co-written with Jim Mason, looks at the eating habits of three different American families: vegans, "conscientious omnivores" and a family eating the "standard American diet." The elements of each diet and the production chain that brought it to the table are then carefully considered in light of environmental impact, fair trade, the organic movement, the grow-local movement, genetically modified foods, animal rights and the depredations of agribusiness.

You mention in your book that cows today produce three times as much milk as they did 50 years ago. That's a great advance, isn't it?
It is an advance, but you have to consider how this has been achieved. Fifty years ago, cows were basically fed on grass. They walked around and selected their food themselves, food that we can't eat, chewing it up and producing milk that we can eat. Now cows are confined indoors, and a lot of their food supply is grown specifically for them, on land that we could have used to grow food for ourselves. So it's actually less efficient, in that we could have gotten more food from the land if we didn't pass it through the cow.

Most of us have an idealized notion of what an organic farm is like. You visited an organic chicken farm in New Hampshire. Did it meet your expectations?
I have to say that it didn't. I guess I was expecting some access to pasture for the hens. When I got to this place, although it was in a beautiful green valley in New Hampshire, and it was a fine, sunny fall day, there were no hens outside at all. The hens were all in these huge sheds, about 20,000 hens in a single shed, and they were pretty crowded. The floor of the shed was basically a sea of brown hens, and when we asked about access to outdoors, we were shown a small dirt run which at the best of times I don't think the hens would be very interested in. In any case the doors were closed, and when we asked why, we were told that the producer was worried about bird flu. So, yes, it was not really what I expected. It was still a kind of a factory farm production - although undoubtedly it was much better than a caged operation.

What if it were possible to genetically engineer a brainless bird, grown strictly for its meat? Do you feel that this would be ethically acceptable?
It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That's the huge plus to me.

What if you could engineer a chicken with no wings, so less space would be required?
I guess that's an improvement too, assuming it doesn't have any residual instincts, like phantom pain. If you could eliminate various other chicken instincts, like its preference for laying eggs in a nest, that would be an improvement too.

It seems to come down to a trade-off between whether the bird has wing space or whether you can fit more birds in your shed, and therefore have to pay less heating costs. How does one go about weighing these alternatives? How does the ethicist put a price on the impulse of a chicken to spread its wings?
We recognize the chicken as another conscious being. It's different from us, but it has a life, and if something is really important for that chicken, if it would work hard to try to get it, and if we can give it without sacrificing something that's really important to us, then we should. If it's a big burden on us, that's surely different, but if it's a question of paying a few more cents for eggs, when we pay just as much if not more for a brand label we like, then we ought to be prepared to pay more for eggs so that the chicken can enjoy its life, and not be frustrated and deprived and miserable.

What constitutes a big burden? Doubtless the chicken farmer would say that building a larger shed or paying a bigger heating bill is a big burden.
It's only a burden to him if it harms his business, and it only harms his business if he can't sell the eggs he produces because other producers who don't follow those standards are selling eggs more cheaply. So, there's two ways around that: Either you have ethically motivated consumers who are prepared to pay a somewhat higher price for humanely certified eggs, or you cut out the unfair competition with regulations. Prohibiting cages, for example. And that's been done already, in Switzerland. And the entire European Union is already saying you can't keep hens as confined as American hens; it's on track to require nesting boxes, and areas to scratch, by 2012. So you can do it, and it doesn't mean that people can no longer afford to eat eggs.

Could you explain your position on "speciesism," and what this has to do with your call to "expand the circle"?
The argument, in essence, is that we have, over centuries of history, expanded the circle of beings whom we regard as morally significant. If you go back in time you'll find tribes that were essentially only concerned with their own tribal members. If you were a member of another tribe, you could be killed with impunity. When we got beyond that there were still boundaries to our moral sphere, but these were based on nationality, or race, or religious belief. Anyone outside those boundaries didn't count. Slavery is the best example here. If you were not a member of the European race, if you were African, specifically, you could be enslaved. So we got beyond that. We have expanded the circle beyond our own race and we reject as wrongful the idea that something like race or religion or gender can be a basis for claiming another being's interests count less than our own.

So the argument is that this is also an arbitrary stopping place; it's also a form of discrimination, which I call "speciesism," that has parallels with racism. I am not saying it's identical, but in both cases you have this group that has power over the outsiders, and develops an ideology that says, Those outside our circle don't matter, and therefore we can make use of them for our own convenience.

That is what we have done, and still do, with other species. They're effectively things; they're property that we can own, buy and sell. We use them as is convenient and we keep them in ways that suit us best, producing products we want at the cheapest prices. So my argument is simply that this is wrong, this is not justifiable if we want to defend the idea of human equality against those who have a narrower definition. I don't think we can say that somehow we, as humans, are the sole repository of all moral value, and that all beings beyond our species don't matter. I think they do matter, and we need to expand our moral consideration to take that into account.

So you are saying that expanding the circle to include other species is really no different than expanding it to include other races?
Yes, I think it's a constant progression, a broadening of that circle.

But surely there's a significant difference between a Jew, for instance, and a chicken. These are different orders of beings.
Well, of course, there's no argument about that. The question is whether saying that you are not a member of my kind, and that therefore I don't have to give consideration to your interests, is something that was said by the Nazis and the slave traders, and is also something that we are saying to other species. The question is, what is the relevant difference here? There is no doubt that there is a huge difference between human and nonhuman animals. But what we are overlooking is the fact that nonhuman animals are conscious beings, that they can suffer. And we ignore that suffering, just as the Nazis ignored the suffering of the Jews, or the slave traders ignored the suffering of the Africans. I'm not saying that it's the same sort of suffering. I am not saying that factory farming is the same as the Holocaust or the slave trade, but it's clear that there is an immense amount of suffering in it, and just as we think that the Nazis were wrong to ignore the suffering of their victims, so we are wrong to ignore the sufferings of our victims.

But how do you know at what point to stop expanding the circle?
I think it gets gray when you get beyond mammals, and certainly it gets grayer still when you get beyond vertebrates. That's something we don't know enough about yet. We don't understand the way the nervous systems of invertebrates work.

After reading this interview, some readers might be inspired to change their diets. If you could suggest one thing, what would it be?
Avoid factory farm products. The worst of all the things we talk about in the book is intensive animal agriculture. If you can be vegetarian or vegan that's ideal. If you can buy organic and vegan that's better still, and organic and fair trade and vegan, better still, but if that gets too difficult or too complicated, just ask yourself, Does this product come from intensive animal agriculture? If it does, avoid it, and then you will have achieved 80 percent of the good that you would have achieved if you followed every suggestion in the book.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Th@ symbol...

The now ubiquitous a with a circle curling around it is generally referred to as the 'at' symbol. There is, however, no universal name for this sign.

Several languages use words that associate the shape of the symbol with animals:

apenstaartje - Dutch for 'monkey's tail'
snabel - Danish for 'elephant's trunk'
kissanhnta - Finnish for 'cat's tail'
klammeraffe - German for 'hanging monkey'
papaki - Greek for 'little duck'
kukac - Hungarian for 'worm'
dalphaengi - Korean for 'snail'
grisehale - Norwegian for 'pig's tail'
sobachka - Russian for 'little dog'

Before it became the standard symbol for electronic mail, the @ symbol was commonly used to represent 'at', e.g. 36 pinball machines @ $3450 each.

The first email was sent by Massachusetts engineer Ray Tomlinson in 1972 using the @ symbol to signify the location of the recipient. He chose it because it was unlikely to feature in anyone's name.

The two best shots at the historical origins of the @ symbol are serendipitously linked:

Some sources say it was created by mediaeval monks. One of their most tedious chores was the transcribing of books, letter by letter. Those that performed these duties looked for ways to reduce the number of individual strokes per word. As a result some monks looped the 't' around the 'a', eliminating two strokes of the pen.

Another story tells the @ symbol was used as an abbreviation for the word 'amphora'. An amphora was the unit of measurement that determined the amount held by the large terra cotta jars that were used to ship grain, spices and wine.

Giorgio Stabile, an Italian scholar, discovered the @ symbol in a letter written in 1536 by a Florentine trader named Francesco Lapi. It seems likely that a trader saw the @ symbol in a book transcribed by monks using the symbol and appropriated it for use as the amphora abbreviation. This would also explain why it became common to use the symbol in relation to quantities.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a computer-animated film based on the long-running PlayStation franchise. For anyone who cares, the film is set two years after the events of Final Fantasy VII, in a post-apocalyptic world, and follows ex-SOLDIER (caps intentional, don't ask!) Cloud Strife as he unravels the cause of a mysterious plague that is, erm, plaguing the population.

One of the most amazing things about the film is that got made at all. The first Final Fantasy movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, despite agressive marketing by its Sony sponsors, was one of the biggest box office bombs in film history, with losses of over $100 million.

I enjoyed the first movie, but mainly as a technical exercise. It pushed the edge of photo-realistic computer-generated animation, there were times when you found yourself reminding yourself that this was a 'cartoon'. However the movie had no real relation to its gaming roots, and the plot-line was dull and formulaic, and any scenes that featured walking (one of the really difficult things to computer-animate properly) were less than convincing.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a very different item. Set two years after the events of Final Fantasy VII, the planet has begun healing from... OK, I'll stop now... you don't care, and the plot really isn't important anyway. What is important is that FFVII doesn't try to be a Hollywood movie.

What you are watching is a series of extended 'cut-scenes' from a video game (the animated shorts that are played while the next scene/segment is being loaded). And what spectacular scenes they are. The characters' skins are convincing (My eldest son Brooks says this is thanks to sub-surface scattering, with a smidgin of volumetric transparency, but what does he know?). Their hair is so beautiful, and (hyper) real that it could feature in L'Oreal commercials. The outfits' materials are superbly rendered, every fibre, zip-tooth and stitch is viewable, and they move in a realistic and satisfying manner.

What you are watching is a demonstration of just how far CGI technology has moved. Don't watch it expecting a satisfying plot, or meaningful dialogue (although there is plenty of humour and in-jokes for the initiated). But if you are willing to go along for the ride, you will find yourself immersed in a perplexing, intriguing and absorbing alternative universe, where people jump between different realities in a heartbeat, where weapons and vehicles transmogrify at the touch of a button, and where an unarmed 6-stone girl can (convincingly) kick a fully-armed 20-stone guy's butt.

Even if you've never set your hands on a game-controller, put this DVD on your 'watch it sometime' list. Even if you don't love it, you will be impressed by it. Oh, and if anyone is thinking of a good early birthday or Christmas present for me, I want Cloud Strife's bike!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Unique aerial panoramas

Scott Haefner has discovered a (relatively) simple and inexpensive way to produce 360° panoramas. He hangs a camera with a 180˚ 'fisheye' lens from a kite and takes one picture pointing vertically downwards. He lands the kite, and takes another picture with the lens pointing vertically upwards. He then 'stitches' the images together using a number of software packages. The resulting images are magnificent.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

MySokoban for Mac OSX

Sokoban (Japanese for 'warehouse keeper') is a puzzle game in which the player pushes boxes around a maze and tries to put them in designated locations. Only one box may be pushed at a time, and boxes cannot be pulled.

Sokoban was created in 1980 by Hiroyuki Imabayashi, and was published in 1982 by Thinking Rabbit, a software house based in Takarazuka, Japan. Thinking Rabbit also released three sequels: Boxxle, Sokoban Perfect and Sokoban Revenge.

My first experience of the game was on a Palm Pilot III. I enjoyed the mental challenge of its puzzles, and its lack of a time limit for each level. My Palm Pilot is long-gone, but I can once again experience Sokoban's delights, this time in colour, thanks to Millennium Monkey's excellent port. Hurrah!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For (UK) number geeks...

Thanks to Shaun for pointing out that tomorrow morning, for exactly one second, the time, day, month and year can be displayed as consecutive numbers. This numeric juxtaposition occurs just once every 100 years.

If you miss it (as I almost certainly will!), you could go for second best. If you swap the year and time, at 8 minutes and 9 seconds past 7 in the morning, it will be 04:05:06:07:08:09!

Of course, if you're from the US, or any other country that does their dates 'backwards', it all happened a month ago!

New Apple Ads

Apple has released a new set of TV Ads. Featuring two guys, one representing a PC (and who just happens to bear a passing resemblance to Bill Gates), and the other a Mac (who looks a lot like Steve Jobs would probably like to!), they are short, amusing and worth a look if you have a few moments to spare.

And, in case you were wondering, the pretty lady is a digital camera.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Digital Ethics #13: A contemporary interlude

Steve Page, the Barenaked Ladies' lead singer and guitarist, has written a fascinating article in yesterday's Canadian National Post, writing on behalf of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, a new organisation that represents many prominent Canadian musicians who reject their labels' attempts to 'sue and intimidate' their fans.

Steve writes:

The Canadian music scene has been riding a remarkable wave in recent months, with packed clubs, breakout artists, and international acclaim. While that success has garnered considerable attention, last week a group of well-known Canadian musicians took centre stage for another reason.

Concerned with the prospect of record-label lawsuits against MP3 file sharers, and the continuing march toward greater restrictions on the use of music, the artists - including Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Chantal Kreviazuk, Sum 41, Broken Social Scene, Stars, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace, Dave Bidini of Rheostatics, Billy Talent, John K. Sampson of Weakerthans, Sloan, Andrew Cash, Bob Wiseman, a co-founder of Blue Rodeo, and my own band, the Barenaked Ladies - launched the Canadian Music Creators Coalition.

The Coalition brings together a diverse array of musical backgrounds and interests. We create everything from popular top-40 tunes to critically acclaimed selections to grassroots folk songs. We make rock, pop, blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, folk, country and even classical music. We play various roles in the music production process. We are not just singers and songwriters (although most of us write or perform our own music to some extent). Some of us are also record producers and music promoters, for ourselves or other artists.

Collectively, we have won dozens of Juno and Grammy awards, and have sold tens of millions of albums worldwide. Most, although not all, of us are associated with major record labels, collecting societies and industry associations. We know that record companies and music publishers are not our enemies. They are often run by people who love music and are passionate about the promotion of Canadian culture.

Much of their lobbying, however, is not about protecting artists or promoting Canadian culture. It is about propping up business models in the recording industry that are quickly becoming obsolete and unsustainable. It is about preserving foreign-based power structures and further entrenching the labels' role as industry gatekeepers. Their lobbying efforts are focused on passing laws that restrict artists' ability to take control of their own music, reach their fans in more direct ways and earn a decent living from music without sacrificing their autonomy.
We, as Canadian music creators, have identified three simple principles that should guide copyright reform and cultural policy.

- First, we believe that suing our fans is destructive and hypocritical. We do not want to sue music fans, and we do not want to distort the law to coerce fans into conforming to a rigid digital market artificially constructed by the major labels.

- Second, we believe that the use of digital locks, frequently referred to as technological protection measures, are risky and counterproductive. We do not support using digital locks to increase the labels' control over the distribution, use and enjoyment of music, nor do we support laws that prohibit circumvention of such technological measures, including Canadian accession to the World Intellectual Property Organization's Internet Treaties. These treaties are designed to give control to major labels and take choices away from artists and consumers. Laws should protect artists and consumers, not restrictive technologies.

- Third, we strongly believe that cultural policy should support actual Canadian artists. We call on the Canadian government to firmly commit to programs that support Canadian music talent. The government should make a long-term commitment to grow support mechanisms such as the Canada Music Fund and FACTOR, invest in music training and education, create limited tax shelters for copyright royalties, protect artists from inequalities in bargaining power and make collecting societies more transparent.

The immediate reaction to the new coalition has been incredibly positive. Dozens of additional Canadian artists, including Randy Bachman, Sam Roberts, Feist and Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor, have all jumped on board. Music fans across Canada and around the world have expressed their support as we repair the bonds between artists and their fans.

The "products of the mind" for which the record labels claim to seek protection are the products of our minds. The legislative proposals that would facilitate lawsuits against our fans or increase the labels' control over the enjoyment of music are not made in our names.

It is the government's responsibility to protect Canadian artists from exploitation. This requires a firm commitment from Industry Minister Maxime Bernier and Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda to programs that support Canadian music talent and a fresh approach to copyright law reform. The continued growth of Canada's vibrant music scene requires policies that prioritise musicians, not outdated business and the corporate bottom line.

Monday, May 01, 2006

iTalk concept

Thanks to Conrad for bringing this to my attention.

Christopher and Greg DeSantis have produced an excellent video for a concept Apple phone/PDA.

The phone looks great, and the video has high production values. If/when Apple produce a phone/PDA, I hope it isn't a million miles away from this.

World Wide Web Facts

Edited/supplemented excerpts from The Word magazine.

The Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957 influenced the creation of the internet. In the wake of this demonstration of Soviet power, US President Dwight Elsenhower sanctioned the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to keep the US at the forefront of technological innovation. The system developed there, known as ARPANET, was the forerunner of today's internet.

The military origins of the inter net are reflected in its intrinsic architecture. Using a brand-new computer technology called "packet switching", ARPANET connected Californian universities in such a way that no one network node relied on any other, ensuring that the system could withstand a nuclear attack. The design also meant that control of content on the internet would become almost impossible.

Pierre Omidyar created eBay as a way for his girlfriend to sell her collection of Pez dispensers.

In 1994 a spam email that announced Microsoft was buying the Catholic Church gained sufficient credence to force the software giant to issue an official denial.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, funded the world's largest online encyclopaedia through a search portal selling erotic photography. 'Wiki' is the Hawaiian word for 'quick'.