Thursday, August 31, 2006

You can judge an LP by its cover

When the phenomenon that was 'punk rock' hit the UK, I was completing the latter part of my secondary education at Latymer Upper, Hammersmith. It wasn't long before my Genesis and Pink Floyd albums were being traded in for the latest releases by the Jam and the Skids.

Each Saturday morning I would make my weekly pilgrammage to Sellanbys record store and exchange my paper round money for vinyl. Usually I had a good idea what I wanted, but on two occasions I was seduced by cover artwork. Serendipitously, they are two of my favourite albums to this day.

Ultravox! (1977) was the eponymous debut of a band created by vocalist, songwriter and keyboardist John Foxx. The exclamation mark was (allegedly) an homage to the influential German band Neu!

Ultravox! (pre-Midge Ure) were inspired by and shamelessly plagiarised (early) Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Bowie and Hawkwind. Their debut album was released in February 1977. It was co-produced by Brian Eno (who next worked with Bowie on the Low album) and Steve Lillywhite (Peter Gabriel, U2, Coldplay). Sales were poor, the album and singles failed to enter the UK charts.

The lyrics are by turns extravagant, hilarious and pretentious (e.g. My sex, Waits for me, Like a mongrel waits, Downwind on a tight rope leash. My sex, Is a fragile acrobat, Sometimes I'm a novocaine shot, Sometimes I'm an automat).

My vinyl version of the album bears the scars of teenage parties and worn stylii, and I bought it on CD a few years ago. I was appalled at the sound quality, so much so that I went back to digitising the original LP to try and recover some of the original energy. The CD has recently been remastered however, and the quality is much better on this one (yes, this sucker DID buy it, AGAIN!).

The second album I bought for its cover was Wire's debut, Pink Flag (1977). It has also been recently re-mastered, and although I haven't succumbed to buying it yet, I probably will. Wire were a weird blend of art-school, and punk (they were even on the same Harvest label as Pink Floyd).

Pink Flag's 22 tracks are a frantic and ambitious mixture of styles, with some lasting less than a minute. It has proved to be a very influential recording. REM covered 'Strange' (badly) on their Document #5 LP. Elastica's 'Connection' was so close to 'Three Girl Rhumba' that it resulted in an out of court settlment, and they also performed a straight cover of '12XU'.

More recently, post-punk bands from Bloc Party to Interpol have acknowledged their debt to the album.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Speech recognition on a chip

RegHardware reports: [edited]

Speech technology ranks right down there with flying cars, robots and Windows as the grandest of disappointments in geekdom. Thankfully, the horrid state of the technology hasn't broken the will of all researchers in the speech field. In fact, one team at Carnegie Mellon University optimistically thinks they may have solved the speech recognition conundrum with a new chip.

Armed with a $1m grant from the National Science Foundation, CMU's In Silico Vox team has set the modest goal of showing a 100 to 1,000 times improvement in the performance of speech recognition systems. Such a leap would improve the quality of speech technology to the point where it would feasible to place sophisticated speech engines in devices such as cell phones or PDAs. Rob Rutenbar, a professor at CMU, unveiled the processor that is key to the project's end goal today at the Hot Chips conference here.

"It's just a bad idea trying to push this technology in software only," Rutenbar said. "Most of the applications of tomorrow don't want 20 to 30 per cent better performance. They want factors of 100 or factors of 1,000."

Rutenbar likened the move to create a speech chip with the established practice of creating specialized processors to deal with graphics operations.

"Nobody paints pixels in software," he said. "You would have to be nuts. Videos from ESPN are not painted on your cell phone screen by software. There's a small graphics engine doing that."

Some companies have produced decent speech recognition software for large call centers and automated phone systems. These packages, however, require far more processing power than you're likely to find on smaller computing devices.

The speech systems must compare 50 main sounds used in typical conversation against thousands of permutations on these sounds made when people pronounce words in different ways. The speech engines then run through database of common two- and three-word combinations against a backdrop of some 50,000 different words to come up with strong matches for what a person is actually saying. All told, this process chews through processor, memory and energy resources. That's bad news for a cell phone designer.

The CMU team, however, has already created a lightweight hardware speech engine based on an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) from Xilinx that solves many of these problems. Rutenbar showed the chip in action with it successfully converting the question, "When will Windows arrive?" into text on the screen.

Right now, the processor can only handle about 1,000 words at a modest speed. By the end of the year, CMU hopes to create a larger FPGA system capable of dealing with 5,000 words in real-time. Then, next year it will march to 10,000 and 50,000 words on the FPGA system, while exploring full-fledged silicon designs.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

More free music is a site that aims to be 'A music lover's playground', offering links to a wide range of free and legal MP3s.

The site is split into a number of different sections:

Muzic - A directory of MP3s on the internet, all licensed under the creative commons agreement.

MP34U - A network of 'sources' who have scoured the web for new material.

MP3 Jackpot
- MP34U's 'pick of the day'.

Within a few minutes, I discovered one of my current favourite songs 'Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above' by CSS. Result!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Gaming goes pink

The release of a new games console in Japan is always an event. Huge, police-managed queues are not uncommon. However, when the Nintendo DS lite was released in Japan, it wasn't the length of the queues that made headlines, but their content.

For the first time in gaming history, there were FEMALES in the queues. And not just teenage manga lookalikes. The Nintendo DS's friendly interface and games like Nintendogs, Animal Crossing and Brain Age have drawn a wide range of Japan's demographic into the joys of gaming.

The pink Nintendo DS was released on July 20, and has been a tremendous success.

Never one to miss a marketing trick, Sony has responded with pink versions of their PS2:

And their PSP:

Go on, you KNOW you want one.

Friday, August 25, 2006

'Left over right, right under left, right over...'

Ian's Shoelace Site (subtitle: 'Bringing you the fun, fashion & science of shoelaces') is one of those sites that takes a subject you thought was mundane and turns it into something that is both intriguing and fun.

I'll let Ian explain:

"Most people learn to tie their shoelaces around the age of five. It's one of those 'rites of passage', after which we take it for granted. Why then would anyone older than that visit a web site about tying shoelaces?

"Parents & teachers often visit, looking for early learning materials. Adults look for self-help, either through having never learned correctly as a child or due to increasing infirmity. Occupational therapists look for alternatives to suit different learning styles. Academics & lateral thinkers look for more efficient methods. Knot enthusiasts look for a reference. Sportspeople look for a competitive edge.

"Whatever the reason, I'm sure you'll find something useful here about tying shoelaces!"

And you will.

Thanks Brook for bringing this quirky and fascinating site to my attention.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Colour? We don't need no steenking colour!

I can still recall the buzz I experienced the first time i got a 'hands-on' experience of a Macintosh Plus. One of the great things was that you could actually draw pictures, crisply rendered on its hi-res, 512 by 342 pixel black & white (well, eggshell blue) display.

Despite the progress made in imaging software, pixel art remains a vibrant niche art form. And for those of you lucky/ discerning/ intelligent/ stupid enough to own an Apple computer, a piece of (free) software is now available that lets you experience the joy of 1-bit, and at a superior clarity than Photoshop can achieve. reports: [edited]

HyperDither is a Mac OSX image processing utility that converts color or grayscale images to 1 bit black & white using a sophisticated dithering routine. Specifically, HyperDither implements the Atkinson dithering filter.

Way back in the early days of Macintosh, Bill Atkinson (of HyperCard, QuickDraw, MacPaint & nature photography fame) developed a very elegant dithering filter to convert greyscale image data to the 1 bit black & white Mac video display. The dithering produced by this routine was much higher quality than the now-a-days ubiquitous Floyd-Steinberg or “Error-diffusion” filter (employed by QuickTime and PhotoShop).

The dither matrix was implemented in Apple’s HyperScan software for their original flatbed scanner. HyperScan, and hence the most-excellent Atkinson dithering routine, has been unavailable for many, many years—but not forgotten!

I was able to email Bill Atkinson in January, 2003 and inquire about the details of the algorithm; he was kind enough to respond with a brief write up of the routine - 15 minutes later I had it up and running.

It’s taken a few spare afternoons since 2003 to pack everything into a nice little application with documentation and an icon—better late than never!

To illustrate how good the program is, here's a bitmap image that has been created in Photoshop:

The same image using HyperDither:

There are more examples on the TinRocket site.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

SatNav goes pocket-sized

With a name as unwieldly as it is tiny, the Fujitsu Siemens Pocket Loox N100 is an attractive and reasonably priced SatNav device. Recently released in the UK, priced around £220 RegHardware have given it a very good review. [edited]

The N100 is being heralded by Fujitsu Siemens as "the smallest and lightest multifunctional PNA on the market", and with good reason. Weighing in at a mere 110g and with its svelte 89 x 62 x 16mm physique, it's smaller than many mobile phones. [On an average screen the picture below should be close to actual-size]

The silver and white design is unashamedly minimalist, and while I'll admit that Fujitsu Siemens' stock clean-lines approach doesn't always work for me, the N100 is a peach. It might be the white fascia or the total lack of any controls or flourishes on the front, but there's a certain Apple-esque quality to the N100 that can pique your interest even before you know the specifications. If you're not fond of the fascia, you can swap it for a different colour. You get a black face-plate in the box and others colours are also available.

An open slot on the left of the device takes the supplied memory card, a 1GB MiniSD job, bearing pre-installed maps of the British Isles, France and Nordic nations, and you get a further seven maps on the supplied DVD, all of which can be quickly activated online. This means you have virtually instant access to an incredible 37 European countries right out of the box.

[The] 2.8in, 240 x 320 (QVGA) TFT screen is a pleasure to use. Performance in bright sunlight was excellent, and squeezing a QVGA resolution into such a relatively small screen meant text was pin-sharp. Both brightness and contrast were extremely good and this more than compensates for its small size. All of the important route-related data is large and clear enough to be seen at a glance, and while it can be awkward to read the smaller bits of information quickly, you should pull over before you access anything other than navigation instructions.

Trying the N100 brought me my first opportunity to play with Navigons' newly released MobileNavigator 6. It has produced a very polished product. From the animated slide-out menus to the semi-transparent on-map points of interest with simulated drop-shadows it all looks very slick. Of course, all the stock options are present and correct, including off-line route planning with multiple waypoints; creation and naming of favourite destinations; and user-defined routes.

There's also quick access to user-defined points of interest from the new destinations menu, allowing you quickly to pinpoint, for example, nearby petrol stations from your current location.

One notable omission is the ability to import custom points of interest, and of course I'm thinking of speed-camera locations in particular. This is likely to be an increasingly important buying decision when comparing the N100 with units that come with speed camera data already built in.

Fujitsu Siemens' Pocket Loox N100 performed like a charm. Route selection has so far proved to be prudent and despite the occasional stutter, the software looks good and feels responsive.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Some more (free) typefaces has a number of free fonts available for download (PC & Mac). All of them are worth a browse, but these are my favourites:

Nail Scratch - Descriptively named. All capitals, but the 'lower case' set provides alternate shapes - useful for when you have two of the same letter in close proximity.

Diesel - Using an 'outline' design, with the outside distressed more than the inside, lends 'clarity to the disparity'.

Porcelain - Brilliantly squiggly (a typographic term) yet elegant. Word to the wise: if you want people to be able to read what you've typed, avoid 'all caps'!

Dirty Ego - An excellent 'stencil' font. All capitals, but the lower case set is 'dirtier' than the upper case.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The next iPod shuffle?

I've not seen one in 'the flesh', but the first images of the miniscule (think 'iPod shuffle-size') music player look very nice indeed. In particular, the OLED LCD display (similar to that used by the latest Sony music players) manages to be both attractive and clear.

Reviews have been mixed so far, software is PC-only, it won't play AAC files, and the software and documentation appear to be flaky. But if Apple added this display techology to the iPod Shuffle... mmm...

Find out more on this page.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The camera always lies

Four Tel-Aviv University graduates are working on an algorithm that enhances the 'attractiveness' of images of the human face.

Their web page doesn't give many details, but I found myself fascinated (and disturbed) at how subtle changes in facial proportions and symmetry can make the difference between 'OK' and 'attractive'.

And with manufacturers like Fujifilm developing face-recognition software for their cameras, how long until there are 'prettify' options on your digital camera?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

30,000 songs on your iPod?

PC Advisor reports: [edited]

A 1.8" 120GB hard drive [the size used in] iPods is scheduled to be released by Seagate in December this year.

Seagate CEO William Watkins spoke to BusinessWeek to describe the advantages hard drive technology holds over its flash-based alternatives. He recognises that as flash memory capacities grow, hard drive sales may see some challenges, but the technology maintains one key advantage: its lower cost per gigabyte of storage.

While he doesn't claim Seagate's new 120GB drives will ship in future iPods, he does remark: "We have this new opportunity in 1.8" drives, which is starting to grow for handheld video."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Samsung release VGA 5cm screen

Samsung has announced the release of the industry's first 5cm LCD panel to achieve 640 x 480 pixels.

This means that camera and mobile phone-size screens will be able to display images at 12 pixels per millimetre, three times that of most LCD displays, and ten times that of many plasma screens.

I'm looking forward to the time when all digital displays are available with this (and greater) resolutions. The primary benefits will be that text can be displayed at qualites that approach those of the printed page, making type more pleasant to look at and easier to read.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

At last! A sexy electric car.

The latest issue of Wired contains an article on the Tesla Roadster. [selected excerpts follow...]

Martin Eberhard holds the brake down with his left foot and presses on the accelerator with his right. The motor revs, the car strains against the brake. I hear almost nothing. Just a quiet whine like the sound of a jet preparing for takeoff 5 miles away. We’re belted into a shimmering black sports car on a quiet, tree-lined street in San Carlos, California, 23 miles south of San Francisco. It has taken Eberhard three years to get this prototype ready for mass production, but with the backing of PayPal cofounder Elon Musk, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and ex-eBay chief Jeff Skoll, he has created Silicon Valley’s first real auto company.

He releases the brake and my head snaps back. One-one-thousand: I get a floating feeling, like going over the falls in a roller coaster. Two-one-thousand: The world tunnels, the trees blur. Three-one-thousand: We hit 60 miles per hour. Eberhard brakes. We’re at a standstill again – elapsed time, nine seconds. When potential buyers get a look at the vehicle this summer, it will be among the quickest production cars in the world. And, compared to other supercars like the Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari Enzo, and Lamborghini Diablo, it’s a bargain. More intriguing: It has no combustion engine.

The trick? The Tesla Roadster is powered by 6,831 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries – the same cells that run a laptop computer. Range: 250 miles. Fuel efficiency: 1 to 2 cents per mile. Top speed: more than 130 mph. The first cars will be built at a factory in England and are slated to hit the market next summer. And Tesla Motors, Eberhard’s company, is already gearing up for a four-door battery-powered sedan.

The central concept of Tesla Motors, founded in July 2003, is that there is no need to reinvent the battery, particularly for a product with a small initial market. Eberhard simply adopted the lithium-ion technology used in laptops and harnessed the momentum of the computer industry. Let Dell, HP, and the rest of the sprawling PC business, with their billions of R&D dollars, do the hard work of extending battery life and driving down prices. He’d piggyback on their innovations.

More important, Eberhard says, the electric cars of the past – slow, cramped, spartan – looked like they were designed by people who thought you shouldn’t be driving to begin with. Eberhard calls them “punishment cars.” What he wanted to build, he told his potential investors, was a classic sports car.

Eberhard owes his radically different approach to Nikola Tesla, the iconic Serbian engineer who built the first AC induction motor in the 1880s. Eberhard’s supercharged update of that motor is powered by a copper and steel rotor that is spun by a magnetic field. There are no moving parts besides the rotor. Step on the accelerator and the motor delivers instantaneously. The result: 0 to 60 in about four seconds.

The Roadster’s sporty styling allowed Eberhard to maximize the car’s range and still win a drag race. With its two-person capacity and aerodynamic contours, the lightweight machine can go 250 miles on a single charge. (When connected to a special 220-volt, 70-amp outlet, recharging takes about three and a half hours.) Plus, the sports car class lets Eberhard price it on the high end – in the range of a Porsche 911 Carrera S, roughly $80,000.

He’s already preparing a sedan, codenamed White Star, which could hit streets as early as 2008. Of course, the sedan won’t be as lightweight or aerodynamic as the Roadster, so its range is likely to drop significantly. Eberhard’s response: maybe with today’s tech. But battery power is improving steadily, and several companies say they may soon double battery life. By the time the sedan comes out, he says, batteries will be ready to deliver: “We’re going to ride that technology curve all the way home.”

[Driving the Tesla is] an eerie, disconcerting feeling. There’s no engine hum – nothing to make you think that this car should be sold with a neck brace. Most high-performance cars telegraph their power. That’s part of the allure of a seriously fast car – you can hear it coming. The Roadster seems like a sneak attack. As with everything about this car, Eberhard has a fast answer. “Some people are going to miss the sound of a roaring engine,” he says, “just like people used to miss the sound of horse hooves clippity-clopping down the street.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nintendo Wii, the anticipation grows

With an expected release date of late November 2006, details of Nintendo's latest console are causing a growing wave of speculation. Much of it is in the context of how different it is from Sony's next console, the PS3, which is slated for release at a similar time.

The disparity in the length of queues to try out the Wii and PS3 at E3 2006 have become a thing of geek legend.

To view some of the reasons why I believe that the Wii is going to be a Christmas hit, visit this link for a five-minute video montage of some Nintendo ads.

The price difference (c. Wii: £150 vs PS3: £450) is also going to be a big factor when parents are considering which console to put under the Christmas tree.

And if you're willing to turn down your politically correct antennae, this perceptive and hilarious spoof of the recent Apple ads will tell you more about the differences between the consoles than any comparison charts or discussion forums will!

Friday, August 11, 2006

iCarta - let the toilet humour commence

AtechFlash market a range of flash memory-related products. What inspired them to add this to their range is a mystery, but it did make me smile, in an incredulous "What the..?" kind of way.

iCarta (a 'Stereo Dock for iPod® with Bath Tissue Holder') will 'Enhance your Experience in any room with your favorite music from your iPod.' For those of you who are thinking 'I can only think of one room in my house where I want a 'Bath Tissue Holder', think again... the 'Integrated Bath tissue holder that can be easily folded as a stereo dock'... clever!

Features also include: '4 Integrated high performance moisture-free speakers', presumably 'moisturised' speakers will be made available as an optional extra in the future.

Oh, and before you reach for your credit card, the iCarta 'Requires AC Power (AC Adapter included)'. So, if your WC is lacking in a mains socket, you're out of luck!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Alternative interfaces part 2

Back in February I posted links to some alternative interfaces. One of them was by Jeff Han, a research scientist for New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Adobe has posted a fascinating and informative video of Jeff demonstrating his latest developments. The clip runs for just under 10 minutes, so is ideal to watch while you are taking a *insert beverage of choice* break.

It is also available as a video PodCast, so you can download it to watch later on the QuickTime-enabled viewer of your choice.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

mylo, yet ANOTHER gizmo to lug around!

Wired reports:

Hoping to tap into the growth of wireless networks across college campuses, other public spaces and within homes, Sony is introducing a new pocket-sized gadget for instant messaging and other internet-based communications.

The Sony mylo, slated for availability in September at a retail price of about $350, is a first-of-its-kind product that uses Wi-Fi networks, analysts say. It is not a cellular phone and thus doesn't carry monthly service fees. And though it could handle web-based e-mail services, it doesn't support corporate e-mail programs.

Instead, the slim, oblong-shaped gizmo that has a 2.4-inch display and slides open to expose a thumb keyboard specifically geared toward young, mainstream consumers for messaging and internet-based calls. As long as a Wi-Fi network is accessible, a mylo user could chat away or browse the web.

The mylo — which stands for "my life online," — will be marketed toward 18-24 year-olds, the multitasking generation that relies heavily on instant messaging and is already viewing e-mail as passe, Sony said.

Sony has partnered with Yahoo and Google to integrate their instant-messaging services, and is looking to expand mylo's support to other services as well, most notably the leading messaging provider, America Online.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It's not easy being green

The BBC published an excellent article by George Meyer (a writer for the Simpsons) that produced great waves of empathy within me. (article edited)

I'm an animal lover who wears leather shoes; a vegetarian who can't resist smoked salmon. I badger my friends to see the Al Gore movie, but I also fly on fuel-gulping jets.

Great clouds of hypocrisy swirl around me.

But even a fraud has feelings. And this summer, I'm feeling uneasy; I'm starting to think that our culture's frenzied and mindless assault on the last shreds of nature may not be the wisest course.

True, when you go for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon, nothing seems amiss. But as we know from horror movies, that's exactly when the giant alien embryos come blasting out of the sidewalk.

We're melting the ice caps, ripping up the rain forest, and vacuuming the oceans of everything that wriggles.

Since I went on my first date in high school more than 200 species of frogs have disappeared forever. Recently, polar bears and hippos were added to the threatened list. Polar bears! Hippos!

Are we really gonna wreck the whole planet? 'Cause that's a big move. That's like something a crazy stripper would do.

I know, plenty of people aren't worried. Technology will bail us out. Nothing a few pollution-eating nanobots can't fix. And if the ecosystem does collapse, we can always load ourselves into enormous rockets, and make a fresh start on Jupiter.

But here's the thing: I don't want to move to Jupiter. I don't even want to move across town. Precious knick-knacks would get broken; I'd have to order new stationery.

Once in a while, humanity will pull together for a noble cause, like tsunami relief. To save our planet, we'll need that kind of heroic effort, in which all types of people join forces for the common good.

No, really, I'm serious. For years, the environmental movement has enlisted the world's most selfless and enlightened souls. No more. We're broadening our sights; and by broadening, I mean lowering.We will now accept:

- Ignoramuses
- Poseurs
- Backstabbers
- Know-it-alls
- Opportunists
- Busybodies
- Hypocrites
- People Who Talk a Good Game
- Total Nutjobs

It's wide open. If Michael Crichton ever comes to his senses, we'll even take him. He's a big fellow, maybe he can lug around pamphlets or something. So join us. We won't judge you. If you are not currently choking a panda, welcome aboard!

Monday, August 07, 2006

The gravity of convenience

Since the early 1990s, I have worked my way through three versions of the original model Toyota Previa. There are many reasons that I consider it the best MPV produced, one of them being its ability to comfortably transport myself, my four kidz, AND their luggage when we go away on holidays.

However if we had been strapped for space this year there is one bag I could have left behind, the one that contains my digital SLR and all its accessories.

I took hundreds of photos during my two week break with the kidz, but all of them were captured with my recently acquired Fuji F30.

There are a few things I missed about the SLR, including picture quality, operation ergonomics, zoom range and the ability to control depth of field. However on the two occasions when I did contemplate lugging the SLR with me, the convenience of popping the F30 in my pocket won me over.

Once again convenience has been the deciding factor in me adopting a technology. CDs didn't sound much better than the LPs I owned, but they were more convenient to use. My iPod doesn't sound (quite) as good as the CD player in my car, but it beats carrying 600 CDs around with me.

And the list goes on... microwave cooking, instant coffee... am I on the slippery slope to accepting second-best, or am I getting smarter, re-aligning my priorities to free-up time to devote to more important things?