Saturday, July 22, 2006

Brett has left the building

I'm on holiday with my kidz for the next couple of weeks. We'll spend a few days with my parents in Somerset, then it's off to Elveden Forest Center Parcs for a week of quad-biking, paintballing and windsurfing, plus a LOT of eating, drinking and reading - but not a lot of internet access.

So if you don't use my RSS feed to monitor the site's progress, this is a warning that contributions will be sporadic until after 6 August. (And if you do use the RSS feed, don't worry, it's not broken :-).

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Video's future?

In a recent blog I documented how Audioholics had made a good case for why high-definition disc media will remain a 'niche' market. The final point discussed the emergence of online content.

While I don't think we are going to see the demise of disc-based video for a long time, I do believe that the major growth area will be in 'on-line' content. And it doesn't look as is this will (necessarily) mean settling for second-rate picture quality.

The IMX series Set Top Box is one of the first 'boxes' to offer support for all the dominant HDTV formats streamed from an internet connection.

High bandwidth users (1.5 Mbps+ access speed) can view videos in real time via live streaming. For users with lower bandwidth, the IMX Set Top Box preloads videos to a cache.

The primary advantages of a system like this are that you can choose just about any video you want, either to watch once, or to buy, from a number of online providers. Sorting your collection is no longer shelf-based, but moves to an 'iTunes' style database, with your collection stored on a hard drive, either in your house, or on an off-site server.

Other features include:

Electronic Program Guide - Create a custom viewing experience by selecting videos from a variety of viewing categories to suit personal tastes.

Video Preview Function - Start watching videos even before downloading is complete.

Multi-room support - Viewers can have multiple STBs connected to different TVs in the same house. One central STB can act as the digital media server for the home, while other STBs stream live off the same server. This enables viewers to download videos for the entire family, and play each video on separate TVs simultaneously in the same household.

Automatic Software Updates - The IMX Set Top Box has a built-in software update feature that automatically keeps the IMX Set Top Box up-to-date with the latest software features. The IMX Set Top Box also features a built-in help guide to provide initial support to subscribers.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

SanDisk release 4 gigabyte SD card

SanDisk has announced the latest upgrade to its Secure Digital memory card family. The SD High Capacity (SDHC) 4GB flash card is available now for around $200.

All very impressive so far, however, don't rush out and buy one before you check to see that your digital device can actually recognise it.

To attain this memory hike, changes have had to be made to the Secure Digital specifications. At the bottom of the press blurb lurks the warning, 'Not all devices support SDHC 4.0GB cards. Please contact your device manufacturer for details. To ensure compatibility, look for the SDHC Logo on the product or packaging of your new camera or digital camcorder.'

So, that's why they include 'as a bonus', a 'new MicroMate™ SD/SDHC compatible, high-speed USB 2.0 Reader' (yes, that's the silver thing in the picture) with every 4 gigabyte card. Just what we all need, yet another widget that we have to carry around with us everywhere we go!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Nabaztag - 'Son-of-Furby' goes online!

Earlier this year, a few of the geek sites announced the imminent arrival of a weird, glowing, rabbit-like toy. It has just been made available in the UK from

Nabaztag (Armenian for 'rabbit') is a 20cm tall WiFi-enabled device, designed by two Paris-based entrepeneurs. Under its 'OH SO CUTE!!!' exterior there is a PIC18F6525 microcontroller, a BenQ 802.11b WiFi PCMCIA card, a ml2870a Audio-PCM sound generator, and ADPCM converter, with two motors to activate the ears, a TCL5922 LED controller and some memory.

The embedded software handles the TCP/IP stack and WiFi driver. It also implements a virtual machine which is able to execute up to 64kb of code. A dedicated assembly language exists to program the different features of the device.Currently, Nabaztag is able to sing, talk, flash coloured lights within its translucent body, and move its ears.

Nabaztag connects to the internet via any 802.11 compatible WiFi transceiver, and is programmable via the Nabaztag official website.

Free services include:

Talking Clock:
Have the time announced every hour.

Alarm function: Get woken up by your favourite MP3 song. Caution: it will not remain your favourite song for long.

News Headlines: Have the BBC headlines read to you.

Weather Forecast: Local weather reports, complemented by 'appropriate' colours.

Stock Market News:
Yep, you guessed it.

Nabaztag Mood: Nabaztag will move his/her/its ears, play music, hoot and whistle, his/her/its body will also display various colours and random pattens of light.

Marriage: Yes, you did read that right. Two Nabaztags can be linked over the internet. Move your Nabaztag's ears and its 'spouse' will too. Make it blink its lights. Speak a message... the possibilities are limited.

E-Mail Alerts: Nabaztag can shout at you each time you get a new email.

Additional services are available for a fee, including RSS feed reading, GoogleTalk alerts and email alerts where the subject line and sender is read out (just imagine the joy of hearing your Nabaztag announcing 'Penis enlargement without surgery' at regular intervals).

There are already a number of sites working on ways to hack Nabaztag, and I will be interested to see if some more original uses can be found for the little toy. Oh, and if you want to see what a Nabaztag looks like 'naked', pay this site a visit.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The future of high definition video

Audioholics reports: (edited)

Here are the reasons HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc will never turn into the dominant formats for digital media viewing:

Nobody likes false starts
With the debut of HD DVD at an underwhelming 720p/1080i, coupled with a buggy interface and a transport that makes boiling water seem like a speedy event, the entrance of high definition DVD into the mainstream came out of the starting gate lame and hobbled. For Toshiba to release a player that didn’t support true HD at 1080p (even though the software does), and with no lossless audio format to accompany the video track, the high definition wave was more of a ripple. Add to this the delay of HDMI 1.3, lack of market penetration and supply, and a dearth amount of software titles and you have a very unimpressive product launch.

Format Wars Don’t Sell Players
The only reason Sony’s Playstation, Microsoft’s Xbox and the Nintendo GameCube can sell so well simultaneously is because of the prevalence of excellent software titles. People want to buy the hardware just so they can play the software. This is not a format war – it is choice, just like Chevy and Ford (and just like the gaming systems, some people have one of each). The high definition DVD formats, however are really just the same source material packaged in two different wrappers- not to provide choice, mind you, but because the two camps simply are too greedy to combine forces, and not innovative enough to drive two truly separate products successfully. Take careful note – a format war is NOT competition, it is a hindrance and the bane of high definition DVDs.

HD DVD and Blu-ray are NOT Quantum Leaps in Technology
Consumers came over in droves when CDs were released back in 1982. The new format offered not only a new digital media, but also a way to instantly access tracks across an entire “album”. Convenience, not technology, drove this format to almost instant consumer adoption. Fast forward a bit to 1997 when the first DVD player was released. Again, convenience, not technology, drove people to the market en masse. Unlike VHS tapes, the new DVD format was smaller, easily navigated and would not wear down over time like existing tape-based formats. Heck, the concept of a shiny plastic disc was new – and quite frankly, it was the coolest thing to hit the technological shelf since solid state technology. In comparison, the high definition DVD formats, save the color of the business side of the disc, look exactly the same… and consumer confusion will surely follow.

What do the new high definition DVD formats offer consumers over DVD? Technology and more storage. Is this enough? Not on your life. Consumers, most of whom rarely know how to properly configure their players or home theater systems, are perfectly content with their current DVD players (and indeed some have just jumped on board to DVD in the last several years). While the potential for more extras and alternate endings exists due to increased storage on the new media, there is no compelling reason for consumers to migrate over to the new high definition DVD formats in large numbers.

Studios are conservative, greedy and unmotivated
Studios are so conservative in their practices as to consistently miss out on market advances – even those that can make them money (ie. Why is a computer company running the world’s most successful online music store?) The studios are not jumping on board the high definition DVD bandwagon just yet – and you can see the lack of titles to prove it. If the movie studios decided that HD DVD or Blu-ray (or both) was to be the next dominant format, it need only to flood the market with software titles and present a plan to roll back on DVD production over the next 10 years. Even though this would grant them the secure format that they seem to want (HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs promise to be much harder to rip or duplicate) there is no indication in the industry that this is taking place or even in the works. The studios are making money hand over fist with DVD they cannot seem to bring themselves to seriously initiate a new, unproven technology – even if it saves them from some other copyright headaches.

Add to this the fact that new titles are coming out at $30 a pop (and this down from an initial $35/title) and you have a really hard sell for consumers who are used to $15 titles at Wal-mart and the large electronics chains.

Playstation3 Cannot Save the World
We have consistently heard it said that the Playstation3 will “jump start” the market by flooding it with millions of gaming systems capable of handling Blu-ray Disc software. The problem with this theory is that the PS3 is not being marketed as a home theater component and, if current installations prove the rule, most will not be situated in the average consumer’s living room. The result is that the PS3 will primarily be a *gasp* gaming system. Maybe I have a more traditional group of parents in my association of friends, but, taking into account #4 above, I do not think that Blu-ray will make any major leaps forward in market penetration as a home video format – at least not anytime soon.

History is bearing this out, as the HTPC market, though driven hard by such manufacturers as Microsoft, Dell and HP, has struggled to find a place in the living room. Nearly every gaming system of the past: PS2, Xbox, and even the legendary 3DO system have been touted as “set-top boxes” but in reality find themselves situated in more “gaming-centric” environments playing… you guessed it, games.

Those Who Ignore History…
For years we’ve heard about the evils of MP3 and illegal downloading. All the while the RIAA and music industry had two formats that could have prevented any illegal copying – at least for all but the most dedicated crackers: DVD-Audio and SACD. These formats proved to be higher quality than CD, presented much enhanced copy protection schemes and were easily used as alternative formats to CD. Yet both formats failed miserably to achieve any significant market penetration.

Why? Without an artificial “shove” from the record industry – which never materialized – technology alone is never enough to push a new format into the hands of consumers. In terms of convenience and ease of use, DVD-Audio and SACD offered nothing to consumers. In fact, they made listening to music more complex, since most hardware was unable to correctly decode and provide adequate bass management for the new formats.

Could these formats have succeeded? Absolutely. If the recording industry had presented a plan to phase out CDs and the “format war” had been avoided (simply by the industry picking one format over the other) we would all be using DVD-Audio players and illegal downloadable music would be mostly confined to analogue rips or older music. Is this a stretch? Perhaps, but only because history shows us that corporate greed causes most companies to miss the long term economical gains over a short term loss of licensing revenues.

People Want Technology that’s 15 Minutes Ahead of Its Time
For many people, getting into HDTV is all about the widescreen and being able to see their DVDs with more clarity than ever before. When Billy Bob comes home with his new high definition 720p display, the difference between that and his older SD TV is amazing – at least when he’s watching DVDs. You see, that’s the problem – and it’s two-fold. While most consumers are still getting into the HDTV craze, they’re already impressed. And the difference between SD TV and HDTV is more amazing than the difference between 480p DVDs and 1080i downrezzed high definition discs.

The other side of the coin is the lack of HD content available on TV – and this is a biggie. While Billy Bob is impressed by his DVD player, he is dumbfounded by his cable TV – which actually looks worse than it did on his old set (mostly because it’s bigger). You see, nobody told Billy Bob that he’d have to get an antenna or subscribe to HD service from his cable/satellite provider. He was also not told that most of his favorite shows (Billy likes sitcoms and the Sci-Fi Channel) aren’t yet available in HD, regardless of technology or service provider. As a result, many Americans are underwhelmed or feel like they got burned by HDTV. The last thing they’re going to do is rush out and buy the next greatest thing.

Enthusiasts Are Getting Tired (and Smarter)
While some home theater audio- and videophiles have the money and inclination to rush out and buy the latest and greatest toys as soon as they are available, many more are becoming more cautious. Burned by 8-track, laserdisc, SACD, and DVD-Audio (and possibly soon non-HDCP HDTV) – these war-weary consumers are going to think long and hard before jumping onto any new technological bandwagons. This leaves a shrunken market of even the bleeding-edge consumers, and that means even less sales to early-adopters.

A Skeptical News Media Doesn’t Help
I’ll admit it, we’re part of the “problem” (though I’d like to think we’re saving consumers from making the next big mistake). An increasingly skeptical news media isn’t buying into the hype of HD DVD and Blu-ray, especially not after wasting millions of editorial words on DVD-Audio and SACD, only to watch the software and technology dwindle into obscurity. Even after almost 6 years, most consumers continue to proffer puzzled looks when these audio formats are mentioned. The new DVD formats are getting plenty of press, mind you, but with the Toshiba flop and lack of software, the fact that the Emperor has no clothes (at least not yet) is hard to avoid.

Broadband and IPTV to Compete?

With Verizon, AOL, Time Warner and others jumping to provide HD on-demand services for the consumer it is a very likely event that high definition DVD will be something that isn’t relevant in a service-directed marketplace. Add to this Apple Computer’s recent push for video downloads and we may find that consumers are far more interested in quantity, portability, and ease of use over high quality source material. Even with respect to high definition formats, downloadable files burned to consumer-supplied media may make data high definition DVDs more significant than the retail formats. This consumer model is being readied for testing in South Carolina’s head-end for Time Warner Cable this year.

So, while I certainly hope for the best, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. High definition is headed for a niche market at best, not an industry takeover.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

300 miles of music - 4-9.30am, 15-07-06

London - Lincoln
Beachcombing - Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
Ballad Of The Band - The Charlatans
The Man I Used To Be - Jellyfish
Bigger Than My Body - John Mayer
(They Call It) Stormy Monday - T-Bone Walker
Heartbeat - Buddy Holly
Rescue Me - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
Lucinda Williams - Buffalo Nickel
Problems - Sex Pistols
Bone In My Ear - Bruce Cockburn
I Almost Forgot - Matthew Sweet
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word - Elton John
Another Mystery - Dar Williams
Hounds Of Love - Kate Bush
House In Virginia - Brendan Benson
I Cant Wait - The White Stripes
Perfect World - Tom Jones
Mercedes Benz - Janis Joplin
Hills Of Morning - Bruce Cockburn
No More I Love You - Lover Speaks
Sailing On The Seven Seas - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Born Under A Bad Sign - Albert King
These Are Difficult Times; Remember The Good Times - Willie Nelson
Tracy's Big Moment - Adrian Legg
The New Physics - Lost Dogs
System Addict - Five Star
You Belong To Me - Steve Earle
Galaxies - Laura Veirs
Yellow Fever - Pooka
Thick - Lambchop
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) - Johnny Cash
Don't Burst My Bubble - The Small Faces
Footloose - Kenny Loggins
Red House - John Lee Hooker
Future Generation - The Auteurs
Sweet Cocaine - Fred Neil
The Last Trumpet - Mission Control
With a Girl Like You - The Rutles
Milk - Garbage

Lincoln - London
Deadwood - Dirty Pretty Things
Cars And Girls - Prefab Sprout
Deborah - T Rex
Let Me Take You Away (Club Mix) - Jenn Cunetta
It's All Been Done - Barenaked Ladies
Muije Bantuwe - African Children's Choir
Boy from School (Radio Edit) - Hot Chip
Molly's Chambers - Kings Of Leon
Feel Good Inc (Single Edit) - Gorillaz
Sweet Jane - The Velvet Underground
Die on the Rope - The Distillers
I Turn To You - Melanie C
Starry Eyed Surprise - Paul Oakenfold (ft. Shifty Shellshock Of Crazy Town)
Facts Of Life - Lazyboy
Love Like Semtex - Infadels
Monster - The Automatic
Don't Worry Be Happy - Bobby McFerrin
Somewhere Down The Crazy River - Robbie Robertson
Sheila (Radio Edit) - Jamie T
One Nation Under a Grove (Part 1) - Funkadelic
You're Pitiful - "Weird Al" Yankovic
Millionaire (Radio Edit) - Kelis
We Are Family - Sister Sledge
Float On - Modest Mouse
What I Say and What I Mean - The Like
Brontosaurus Stomp - The Piltdown Men
McFerrin & Choir - Bobby McFerrin
Mary's Prayer - Danny Wilson
Strangelove - Sarah Nixey
Love Changes Everything - Climie Fisher
Sense - Lightning Seeds
King Rocker - Generation X
Can I Play With Madness - Iron Maiden
I Loved the Way She Said - Spitalfield
Breakaway - Kelly Clarkson
John, I'm Only Dancing - David Bowie
God Knows - El Perro del Mar

Friday, July 14, 2006

Making mosquitoes hate you

New Scientist reports: (edited)

Some unfortunate people are irresistible to mosquitoes, while the scent of some lucky individuals drives the blood-suckers away. Now the specific chemicals have been identified by researchers, who are testing its effectiveness as a natural mosquito repellent.

Everybody produces a mixture of chemicals in their sweat. Some of these, lactic acid for instance, produce a smell which attract biting insects. However, there are also chemicals secreted that mask these scents. Some people have a much higher ratio of 'masking' scents than others, and these are the lucky bastards people who don't get bitten.

What is more, the same benign sweat chemicals that repel the tropical mosquitoes Aedes aegypti – responsible for spreading yellow fever throughout Africa and South America – appear also to disgust the persistent biting midge that terrorises the west coast of Scotland, the researchers discovered.

A Y-shaped chamber was constructed and the scent of different people was channeled into two of the branches by getting volunteers to place their hands at the ends. The blood-sucking insects flew from the thin end of the "Y" towards the human hand they preferred.

The body odour of those individuals found to be unattractive was then collected by sealing their bodies in a foil sack tied under the chin, and collecting and distilling their sweat.

The most potent repellent chemical were then isolated by strapping miniature electrodes to the antennae of female mosquitoes and checking their responses to specific compounds. A key chemical identified as a repellent is a natural, harmless food additive.

The repellent is currently being trialled with 16 volunteers in Africa. Meanwhile, the researchers are testing the repellent against other biting insects, including malaria carrying mosquitoes.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Our common ancestry

Yahoo! reports:

The first 'human' probably lived a few thousand years ago, somewhere in East Asia — Taiwan, Malaysia and Siberia all are likely locations. He — or she — did nothing more remarkable than be born, live, have children and die.

Yet this was the ancestor of every person now living on Earth — the last person in history whose family tree branches out to touch all 6.5 billion people on the planet today.

That means everybody on Earth descends from somebody who was around as recently as the reign of Tutankhamen, maybe even during the Golden Age of ancient Greece. There's even a chance that our last shared ancestor lived at the time of Christ.

"It's a mathematical certainty that that person existed," said Steve Olson, whose 2002 book "Mapping Human History" traces the history of the species since its origins in Africa more than 100,000 years ago.

With the help of a statistician, a computer scientist and a supercomputer, Olson has calculated just how interconnected the human family tree is. You would have to go back in time only 2,000 to 5,000 years — and probably on the low side of that range — to find somebody who could count every person alive today as a descendant.

Furthermore, Olson and his colleagues have found that if you go back a little farther — about 5,000 to 7,000 years ago — everybody living today has exactly the same set of ancestors. In other words, every person who was alive at that time is either an ancestor to all 6 billion people living today, or their line died out and they have no remaining descendants.

That revelation is "especially startling," statistician Jotun Hein of England's Oxford University wrote in a commentary on the research published by the journal Nature.

"Had you entered any village on Earth in around 3,000 B.C., the first person you would have met would probably be your ancestor," Hein marveled.

It also means that all of us have ancestors of every color and creed. Every Palestinian suicide bomber has Jews in his past. Every Sunni Muslim in Iraq is descended from at least one Shiite. And every Klansman's family has African roots.

Every person has two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling back through the generations — 16, 32, 64, 128 — and within a few hundred years you have thousands of ancestors.

It's nothing more than exponential growth combined with the facts of life. By the 15th century you've got a million ancestors. By the 13th you've got a billion. Sometime around the 9th century — just 40 generations ago — the number tops a trillion.

Visit Yahoo! for the full article.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Magnetic memory cards

BBC reports: (edited)

A microchip which can store information like a hard drive has been unveiled by US company Freescale. The chip, called magnetoresistive random-access memory (Mram), maintains data by relying on magnetic properties rather than an electrical charge. Mram chips are faster than 'flash' memory, while sharing its ability to retain information without a power source.

Freescale has been producing the four-megabit Mram chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build up levels of stock. A number of chip makers have been pursuing the technology for a decade or more, including IBM, but Freescale is the first company to offer a chip with practical usage for many of today's electronic devices.

"This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts. "This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Grooving in the key of C++

Wired reports:

A new brand of music maestro is turning programming into performance, eschewing turntables for a compiler and a mind for syntax structure. "Livecoding" practitioners improvise using Perl or homemade programming architectures to build compositions from the ground up, replacing instruments and samples with raw code authoring before a live audience.

Alex Maclean, a U.K. livecoder and art student, said he traded in his guitar when he found he could be more creative with code than with strings. He touch-types using Perl at raves and dance clubs, creating a unique visual and musical experience. Sessions with drummers, MCs and other livecoders can be reminiscent of traditional free-jazz improvisation.

"I tend to fall back on pre-prepared scripts if it's 3 o'clock in the morning and I've been drinking a lot," he said. "If I manage to stay sober, I will be much more daring and start from no code at all." Maclean, who plays up-tempo dance music with a trumpet-playing friend under the moniker Slub, performed and spoke on a panel at the Cybersonica festival in London in May.

He wrote his own custom text editor called, which recompiles his programs continuously throughout a set. Every keystroke builds an evolving melody as his darting cursor adds and replaces functions and tempo variables. The live composition process is displayed to patrons on large projector screens.

Livecoders have formed an international consortium called TOPLAP, which stands for "temporary organization for the proliferation of live audio programming" and has 200 members. For them, livecoding is a philosophical challenge.

"By describing a musical idea in code, we're describing it at a higher level than if we're entering notes into a sequencer," Maclean said. "I've tried sequencers and found it a slow, difficult, maddening way of doing music. There's an atmosphere of musicians being subservient to software. It really limits the kind of music that can be made."

While some rely on popular languages like Perl, others write their own programming architectures. Open-source platforms like SuperCollider and ChucK, written at Princeton University's Sound Lab, have quickly gained Fender status with artists. Allied with animation and video libraries, the platforms give gig-goers a richer multimedia trip than code alone.

For example, livecoder Amy Alexander, an assistant professor in visual arts at the University of California at San Diego, wrote her own commands in Macromedia Director's Lingo scripting language to create a custom suite she calls Thingee. It produces an explosion of graphical color married with the output of performance commands like "bigify."

"Electronic music tends to remove the kinetic aspects of performance, the idea of seeing a performer perform a visible action that has an audible reaction," Alexander said. "Think Pete Townshend making windmill swipes at his guitar -- how do you do that in electronic performance?"

Alexander's shows involve frantic keyboard bashing and dancelike flourishes -- evidence that typing is becoming a performance medium.

At LiveCoda in Melbourne, Australia, in May, crowds gathered at a trendy local bar to watch teams of computer science graduates compete to debug image-compression algorithms on a wall-size screen, accompanied by a cappella beatboxers and DJs.

"Live programming where the code is projected for the audience is still very rare," said organizer Robert Shelton. "It exposes the means by which a performer shapes or controls sound."

For Maclean, who plays raves as well as programmer gatherings, the process is just as much about scripting as good vibe.

"I prefer it when the audience is dancing and doesn't care how we're making the music," he said. "Livecoding places the human right back in the creative process so you can't really call it 'computer-generated' any more. If we don't see programming music software as musical activity, we're missing an opportunity."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Online worlds become profitable, Hollywood takes notice

In a past blog I took a brief look at an online 'world' called Second Life. Residents of Second Life are represented in the environment by an avatar, which may be customised in a variety of ways and which (who?) exist in user-designed subcultures and countercultures.

Most Second Life cultures are built around 'groups'. Groups can be created by residents for a fee. Residents are then given 3 days to recruit an additional 2 members, or their investment is lost and the group is deleted. A group must then maintain a membership of at least 3 members at all times in order to remain active. The groups that each resident belongs to are displayed in that user's profile.

Group activity is usually centred on a particular interest, so creating groups can give people a common ground for discussion and provide an easy way to break the ice. Some groups maintain web sites to bridge the gap between real-life and 'Second Life'. Groups are allowed "ownership" of land and resources, so they comprise the closest thing to a corporation within the Second Life environment.

Aside from groups, many of the subcultures found in Second Life revolve around events. Events include many activities related to arts/culture, charity/support groups, commerce, discussion, education, games/contests, nightlife/entertainment, pageants, sports, etc.

Second Life blogs are a growing pheomenon. Here, residents detail their second lives, (sometimes more extensively than their 'real' ones!).

The amount of money spent on Second Life (to create groups, purchasing avatars, clothing, property etc.) continues to increase. Last month over $1.5 million was spent on virtual property. World of Warcraft, a (far less democratically run) subscription-based online gaming environment is posting turnover figures of $80 million per month. The estimated yearly spend on virtual worlds is close to a billion dollars.

Titanic director James Cameron has announced that his next film 'Project 880' (exact details are sketchy, but in his words it's going to be "A completely crazy, balls-out sci-fi flick" - excellent!) will be preceded by a World of Warcraft-type online world, in which thousands of Internet-connected players simultaneously interact, compete, and cooperate.

In a reversal of the usual movie-based-game formula, players will experience the story's events and characters before seeing the film. "So much of literary sci-fi is about creating worlds that are rich and detailed and make sense at a social level," explains Cameron. "We'll create a world for people, and then later present a narrative in that world."

In an interview with Business Online Cameron said:

"I want to see developers create games in which players can add to the worlds as they go along, so you can see what hundreds of thousands of people in this game environment can create. It's like each is being handed a tool set... Instead of creating a $50 million game, you're creating $2 million games and letting them grow themselves."

Other big directors are also planning online ventures. Imagine Entertainment, the company run by '24' creators Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, has teamed up with producer Jim Banister, Halo creator Alex Seropian, and others to develop a sci-fi reality show called XQuest. If it gets to prime-time, contestants will spend a month in a room designed to emulate a tiny, space-bound pod. Its flight simulators will subject them to a range of experiences, including six Gs of thrust. Players will zoom around space, while following a (very) loose plot structure.

Online gamers will track the mission and be provided with their own spaceships to participate in various adventures. The best players will then be picked for the following season.

"You are exploring the interaction of technology and the human imagination," says Cameron, "and you play it out in a highly competitive, fast-paced interaction. Movies can show what imagination looks like. Online worlds can show how it feels on the inside."

Friday, July 07, 2006

I don't want it if I can't keep it

The Wall Street Journal reports: (edited)

As a student at Cornell University, Angelo Petrigh had access to free online music via a legal music-downloading service his school provided. Yet the 21-year-old still turned to illegal file-sharing programs.

The reason: While Cornell's online music program, through Napster, gave him and other students free, legal downloads, the email introducing the service explained that students could keep their songs only until they graduated. "After I read that, I decided I didn't want to even try it," says Mr. Petrigh, who will be a senior in the fall at the Ithaca, N.Y., school.

College students don't turn down much that's free. But when it comes to online music, even free hasn't been enough to persuade many students to use such digital download services as Napster, Rhapsody, Ruckus and Cdigix. As a result, some schools have dropped their services, and others are considering doing so or have switched to other providers.

To stop students from pirating music, more than 120 colleges and universities have tried providing free or subsidized access to the legal subscription services over campus networks in the past few years.

Purdue University officials say that lower-than-expected demand among its students stems in part from the frustrating restrictions that accompany legal downloading. Students at the West Lafayette, Ind., school can play songs free on their laptops but have to pay to burn songs onto CDs or load them onto a digital music device.

There's also the problem of compatibility: The services won't run on Apple Computer Inc. computers, which are owned by 19% of college students, according to a 2006 survey of 1,200 students by the research group Student Monitor. In addition, the files won't play on Apple iPods, which are owned by 42% of college students, according to the survey.

"Music listeners like owning their music, not renting," says Bill Goodwin, 21, who graduated in May from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. USC decided last year that it was finished with Napster after fewer than 500 students signed up, and it moved to Ruckus, hoping students would find that service more appealing. Meanwhile, both Cornell and Purdue will no longer offer their students free music next year. "There hasn't been an overwhelming response to keep it," says Kwame Thomison, Cornell's student assembly president.

The number of students using Napster at George Washington University dropped by more than half between the first and second year, from one-third to one-seventh of eligible users.

Even at schools where more than half of the students use Napster, few choose to buy songs. Only 2% of students at the University of Rochester in New York reported buying a song that they had downloaded from Napster in a fall 2005 survey of about 700 students. In the same survey, 10% said they downloaded songs from other services - not necessarily legally - after finding one they liked on Napster.

"There isn't that much we can do," acknowledges Aileen Atkins, Napster's senior vice president for business affairs and general counsel. "If they have an iPod, they're going to buy it on iTunes. It's a fact of life."

(Thanks to Conrad for the link)


A mouse with a toy duck on a pond. A (green) mouse in the shape of a brain. A mouse with a fish in a tank. All this and more, available from Sigh...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Neural plasticity

New Scientist

A study of the "miraculous" recovery of a man who spent 19 years in a minimally conscious state has revealed the likely cause of his regained consciousness.

The findings suggest the human brain shows far greater potential for recovery and regeneration then ever suspected. It may also help doctors predict their patients’ chances of improvement. But the studies also highlight gross inadequacies in the system for diagnosing and caring for patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states.

In 1984, 19-year-old Terry Wallis was thrown from his pick-up truck during an accident near his home in Massachusetts, US. He was found 24 hours later in a coma with massive brain injuries.

Within a few weeks he had stabilised in a minimally conscious state, which his doctors thought would last indefinitely. It did indeed persist for 19 years. Then, in 2003, he started to speak.

Over a three day period, Wallis regained the ability to move and communicate, and started getting to know his now 20 year old daughter – a difficult process considering he believed himself to be 19, and that Ronald Reagan was still president.

To try and find out what was going on inside Wallis's brain, Nicholas Schiff and colleagues from the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, used a new brain imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). The system tracks water molecules and so reveals the brain’s white matter tracts – akin to a wiring diagram. They combined this with more traditional PET scanning, to show which brain areas were active.

The team's findings suggest that Wallis’s brain had, very gradually, developed new pathways and completely novel anatomical structures to re-establish functional connections, compensating for the brain pathways lost in the accident.

They found that new axons – the branches that connect neurons together – seemed to have grown, establishing novel working brain circuits.

Surprisingly, the circuits look nothing like normal brain anatomy. A lot of the damage had been to axons that passed from one side of the brain to the other, torn by the force of the accident. But Schiff says that new connections seem to have grown across around the back of the brain, forming structures that do not exist in normal brains.

There were also significant changes between scans taken just two months after the recovery, and the most recent, at 18 months. Some of the new pathways had receded again, while others seem to have strengthened and taken over as Wallis continued to improve.

Krish Sathian, a neurologist and specialist in brain rehabilitation at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, US, describes it as an amazing finding. “The bounds on the possible extent of neural plasticity just keep on shifting,” he says. “Classical teaching would not have predicted any of these changes.”

Knowing the mechanism will be important for identifying whether a particular unconscious patient could improve, says Schiff, potentially allowing doctors to target their rehabilitation efforts.

But improvements in the care of patients could be made without putting every patient into a brain scanner, says Schiff. There is currently no system for even a bedside re-examination at 8 weeks after an initial diagnosis, despite the fact that “their whole prognosis might change”, he says.

Wallis was frequently classified as being in a permanent vegetative state. Though his family fought for a re-evaluation after seeing many promising signs that he was trying to communicate, their requests were turned down.

“A careful bedside examination at 6 months [after the accident] would have unequivocally said he was not in a vegetative state,” says Schiff. There is a much greater chance of a late recovery from a minimally conscious state, he adds, although such recoveries are still rare. “The Wallis case will force the issue,” he believes.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


An autoantonym is a word or phrase that has two distinct and opposite meanings. They can also be referred to as 'Janus words', after the two-headed Roman god, or 'antagonyms' or 'contranyms'.

Some examples:

ARGUE: assert/deny.

BUCKLE: to pull together/to fall apart.

CLEAVE: to cut apart/to join together.

CLIP: to attach/to cut off.

DOWNHILL: a better direction/a worse direction.

DUST: to remove deposits/to deposit, erm, deposits.

FAST: moving quickly/constrained from moving.

FIX: a predicament/a solution.

LEFT: here/not here.

PIT: a solid core/a hole.

PRESENTLY: now/after some time.

QUITE: completely/not completely.

REFRAIN: repeat/stop.

REPLACE: restore to position/remove from position.

SANCTION: to allow/to ban.

SCAN: to read carefully/to read quickly.

SECRETE: to reveal/to conceal.

SECURE: to protect from being taken/to obtain from.

SCREEN: to show/to hide.

SKIN: to cover/to remove covering.

SPARE: extra/not much.

TRIM: remove/add.

(Thanks to Conrad for the idea)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are long accustomed. But [our grievances are neither light nor transient, and a list of them follows….]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good people of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Harriet the tortoise dies at 176 years old

CNN reports:

Harriet, a 176-year-old tortoise, has died in an Australian zoo.

History is sketchy about how she entered captivity, what is known is that she spent a few years in Britain before being moved to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens in Australia's tropical Queensland state in the mid-1800s, where she was mistaken for a male and nicknamed Harry.

The Queensland-based zoo is owned by "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin and his wife Terri.

"Harriet died last night," senior veterinarian Jon Hanger told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday. "She'd been sick yesterday with heart failure. She passed away quietly overnight."

"She is possibly one of the oldest living creatures on the planet and her passing today is not only a great loss for the world but a very sad day for my family. She was a grand old lady."

Despite her longevity, however, Harriet is not the world's oldest known tortoise. That title was awarded by the Guinness Book of World Records to Tui Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise that was presented to the royal family of Tonga by British explorer Captain James Cook in the 1770s. It died in 1965, age 188.

Fascinating fact to throw into a lagging conversation: ET's facial features were based on those of a tortoise.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Getting it right, getting it wrong

A-Zone International is a Taiwanese company that makes most of its money out of marketing collectable dolls. However, it has recently began to manufacture a valve amplifier, with a matching iPod dock.

A-Zone assemble the units using valve amps made in China, and other companies sell them as OEM products. The combination features a 2x15 watt tube amplifier with two 6N1 and one 6E2 tubes, an iPod dock and charging station, remote control, audio output, composite video input, S-video output, and aux input (so you can run your TV or other audio sources through the amp), and a pair of 8 ohm, 50-watt speakers in either faux leather, ebony, or faux-wood finish.

The speakers and remote are elegant enough, but a little generic. The major attraction is the iPod dock and the amp. The mixture of hi-tech minimalism that is the iPod, combined with the uneven chrome, metal and glowing glass sculpture of the valve amp and dock look fantastic. And yet it goes beyond that.

Audiophiles claim tube amps can offer a warmth to music that is impossible to achieve using solid-state electronics. Now while 'sound-quality' is an extremely subjective issue, I can imagine that a valve amp would make an ideal complement for compressed sound files, 'rounding-off' the harsh edges that can accompany poorly-digitised MP3 files. Form and function, lovely!

In the 'getting it wrong' corner, is the Wurlitzer 'One More Time CD-iPod'. Now I can understand why someone might buy a juke box to play old vinyl singles on (maybe to put next to that lovingly restored 1950s pinball machine). The original Wurlitzers were a brilliant mix of form and function, a maze of complex machinery designed to select and play stacks of 45 rpm singles, enclosed in an attention-getting framework that collected money and sequenced the tunes, while surviving the abuse of a drinking/dancing public.

However, this 25 stone, 60 x 30 x 25 inch behemoth houses a 100 CD changer connected to a solid-state stereo amp and Bose speaker system. Oh, and as an afterthought they've stuck an iPod dock on the front (if you look very carefully, you'll see it, it's the only white thing in the picture). The iPod isn't integrated with the design. In fact, it looks as if it has been stuck on the front with BluTack. This is bulk for no reason. It won't even sound as good as an equivalent 'separates' system weighing a few pounds and taking up a twentieth of the space.

Just my two pennorth.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

300 miles of music: 4-9.30am

Harrow to Lincoln:
Father Of Night - Bob Dylan
Are You Happy Now? - Michelle Branch
Icicles - Patty Griffin
True - George Strait
Thirteen Blood Red Rosebuds - Steve Forbert
The Dance - Garth Brooks
I'm Confessin' - Van Morrison
Buddy Holly - The Moog Cookbook
Say It Like It Is - Malcolm And Alwyn
Musette and Drums - Cocteau Twins
On A Night Like This - Bob Dylan/The Band
Boy With A Problem - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
I Wanna Destroy You - The Soft Boys
Mr. Blue Sky - Electric Light Orchestra
Baby, it's cold outside - Doris Day & Bing Crosby
In Place Of You - Ron Sexsmith
Dancing In Limbo - Kirsty MacColl
Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming - Will Johnson
Old Time Religion - Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama
Here Comes the Sun - Allison Moorer
Redford (For Yia-Yia And Pappou) - Sufjan Stevens
Back in Black - AC/DC
Staring at the Sun - The Offspring
Yesterday's News - Whiskeytown
Hippy hippy shake - Dave Clark Five
Wake Up - The Charlatans
The Truth - Steve Earle
Die on the Rope - The Distillers
Don't Leave - Ben Lee
Still Pretending - Tift Merritt
And Dream Of Sheep - Kate Bush
Lay Some Flower On My Grave - Blind Willie McTell
Too Much Too Young - Special A.K.A.
Who By Fire - Leonard Cohen
You're So Vain (live) - Carly Simon
Temptation - Elvis Costello
Rocking Robin - Jackson 5
I'm gonna getcha good - Shania Twain
Table for Two - Bill Mallonee
The River - Bruce Springsteen
You Gotta Be - Desree
Something - Susan Cadogan
Say it ain't so - Murray Head

Lincoln to Harrow:

I'm Like A Bird - Nelly Furtado
Two Tribes (Hibakusha Mix) - Frankie Goes To Hollywood
It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) - R.E.M.
Let's Go Crazy - Prince And The Revolution
Nature Boy [Edit] - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
International Rescue - Fuzzbox
Doctors Orders - Carol Douglas
Living On A Prayer - Bon Jovi
Maybe Tomorrow - The Chords
Stand And Deliver - Gob
Supermassive Black hole - Muse
Knowing Me, Knowing You - Wondermints
The Sound of Settling - Death Cab for Cutie
Ecstacy (DDR mix) - DJ Sasha & John Digweed
Penny & Me - Hanson
Going Out Of My Head - Fifth Dimension
Hit the Road Jack - Ray Charles
Itchycoo Park - M People
Bamboleo - Gipsy Kings
Oh Boy - Mud
Diva Lady - The Divine Comedy
Smile (Radio Edit) - Lily Allen
Stand and Deliver - Adam Ant
Here In Higglytown - They Might Be Giants
What Can I Say - Boz Skaggs
Hippychick - SoHo
Valerie - The Zutons
Call on Me (Radio Edit) - Eric Prydz
Sat In Your Lap - Kate Bush
And We Danced - Hooters
Misfit - Amy Studt
Everybody's Changing - Keane
In The Morning - Razorlight
Pull Shapes (Edit) - The Pipettes
Soldier Girl (Album Version) - The Polyphonic Spree
Boten Anna - BassHunter
Searching My Soul - Vonda Shepard
Inner Universe - Yoko Kanno
Theme From S-Express - S-Express
Boten Anna (remix) - Basshunter
Du gamla du fria - BassHunter
Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me - The Pipettes
Shake Some Action - Flaming Groovies
She Is Beautiful - Andrew W.K.