Friday, September 29, 2006

Sony's new e-book

Wired have a very good article on Sony's recently released e-book. [edited]

At 7 inches by 5 inches and with a 6-inch diagonal screen, the Sony Reader approximates paperback size, though at only 0.5 inches high it's skinnier than most. Visually, the reading experience is uncannily like that of its paper counterpart: The Reader's 800-by-600 resolution is typographically crisp at any normal (and even abnormal) reading angle, and eminently readable in the sharpest sunlight.

This revelation is due to E Ink technology: Positively or negatively charged microcapsules display black or white on the screen, which holds that charge - and the screen's image - until another page's charge replaces it. The upshot of that is that you experience a static, non-flickering screen - albeit a grayscale one - with the added benefit of very low power consumption.

A soft press of your thumb jumps you to the next page, albeit with a slightly discomfiting blackout of the entire screen while its microcapsules are at work. This electronic recasting makes you realize, however briefly, that you're holding an electronic book. But spending an hour or more with the Reader trained my brain to ignore the page twitch.

The Reader's onboard flash memory will hold approximately 80 books; if you tried to tote Austen's mere six novels about, you might look as comically clumsy as one of her countryside characters.

I sprinted through Austen's breezy excerpt, and moved on to some of the other book samples. I read 50 pages of Vanguard, a Star Trek novel, in my backyard in bright sunlight, finding no technological barrier to my enjoyment of Capt. Kirk's blusterings. I checked out The Da Vinci Code in the low light of my garage and, once I had adjusted the text size to 200 percent magnification, had no trouble swallowing Dan Brown's febrile prose. I skimmed through a few business titles - Freakonomics, Jack Welch's Winning - lying down in bed, and found page-flipping no more (or less) sleep-inducing with the Reader than with any paper business book.

Even some "manga lite," Peach Fuzz, was fun to read on the device. Though the Reader displays only four levels of gray, graphic novels and other graphically complex images appear crisply on screen, though there is a slightly longer delay for the device to paint the display.

I put a 512-MB SD card in the Reader's media slot, and it was fairly prompt in displaying a list (with thumbnails) of the 40-plus pictures on the card, and in then displaying the selected 2- to 3-MB images in sharp grayscale clarity. The Reader's interface, with its five-way main control (a four-way Menu ring and an Enter button), 10 buttons for accessing list selections, and two sets of page-turning buttons, works adequately with the device's software for basic file navigation and selection. With a button press, you can easily rotate the screen horizontally for a different point of view.

The Reader also plays MP3 files. They can be listened to through a headset (not provided with the device). I listened to a couple of sample MP3s through my Logitech headset, and the sound was clean, and cleaner yet when I hooked it up to an inexpensive, three-way Altec Lansing computer-speaker system. Though it might be an example of "feature creep" in a product Sony has positioned to be a consumer reading device, it was nice to be able to listen to some soft background music while reading a book, though the bare-bones audio interface is no iTunes.

Since Sony wants you to use its Connect software to go to the company's online store to buy from among its (at press time) 10,000 proprietary-format book titles, it almost seems a given that you'd use Sony's software of the same name to buy from its Connect music store. Not so - the Reader's Connect software, for now at least, is a different client than the music store's, and thus not interoperable. You could also entertain the notion of listening to an audio book while reading another, just to make your brain flip somersaults.

So what's not to like? Well, this isn't a book you'll blithely toss on the couch or the floor at chapter's end. At $350, it's not cheap, particularly when some used tablet PCs or discount laptops - which provide much more functionality than the Reader - could come in around that figure. It also has no color, which the manga and the digital photos seem to cry out for. There's no way to input or search data, so it's not going to have any multifunction uses like some PDAs. (There is bookmarking and a History utility to cover some of those functions.) There's no wireless access, so it must be tethered to a computer for file management. There's no backlighting, so real in-the-dark reading isn't possible. No display of video. No touch screen. And I miss the sound of a page turning.

I gave three of my colleagues a sort of Malcolm Gladwell Blink test by handing them the Reader and asking for their instant impression. Two out of three ooohed and aahhhed, and the other was immediately turned off, saying, "I'd never want to read a book on one of those things." My own feelings are an amalgam of theirs: Having used the device for many hours, I found it to be a comfortable, pleasing way to read, after initial hesitance. And it's a sharp-looking, techno-wow device with a durable feel. Its size, its screen, its general "thingness" were all appealing. But I love the feel, heft and smell of books, the tangible touch of the page, seeing their spines on the shelves.

The Reader's sleek form factor and outstanding screen give the book a run for its money. But money is a tangible factor here: I would buy a Reader, and use it with pleasure, but only if I was feeling particularly flush, if a bonus fell into my lap. I have to return this one, and I'll miss it, but I'll go back to a damn-good established interface - a traditional book - and not really feel that I've lost anything. That said, I'm easily convinced the Reader could provide a modern complement to the pleasures of paper-based reading.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scientists prove that tarantulas imitated Spiderman

New Scientist reports:

They have a deadly bite, but a soft footfall. Tarantulas, it turns out, can spin silk with their feet.

To crawl vertically and cling upside down, most spiders use minute claws and pads on their feet or "tarsi". These work on rough surfaces, but may fail on smooth or dirty ones. While this is not a problem for small spiders that can survive long falls, for a heavy tarantula a slip could be fatal.

To figure out how tarantulas make their way safely up vertical surfaces, Adam Summers of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues analysed the footprints of Costa Rican zebra tarantulas (Aphonopelma seemanni) as they climbed a glass wall. This revealed that the spiders left fragments of sticky silk a few micrometres in diameter and up to 2.5 centimetres long.

On looking closely at the spiders' feet the researchers found microscopic spigots that resembled the creatures' abdominal silk-producing spinnerets. "With all the work that's been done on spider feet it's amazing to find something like this. Somehow it has been missed before," says Summers.

The discovery of these structures raises an interesting evolutionary question, as abdominal spinnerets are widely considered to be the remnants of ancient appendages. "It is thought that abdominal spinnerets could be vestigial legs," says Todd Blackledge, who works on spider silk at the University of Akron in Ohio. The spinnerets have jointed segments and have been shown to move in sync with the legs when spiders walk.

So far Summers and colleagues have found foot spigots only in tarantulas, so it is possible that they are a relatively recent adaptation to supplement the claws and pads. Identifying the genes involved in tarsal silk production will help determine whether they evolved to increase traction, or if they were co-opted from an organ with some other function. Testing these hypotheses will require detailed surveys of all spider species, says Summers, looking for any that might also have silken toes.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Kittens anyone can cuddle

CNN reports: [edited]

A California biotechnology company has started taking orders for a hypoallergenic cat for pet lovers prone to allergies. The genetically engineered feline, which is expected to be available from 2007, is the first in a planned series of lifestyle pets, Los Angeles-based Allerca said in a press release.

Allerca hopes to attract customers among the millions of people worldwide who suffer from cat allergies. Many cat lovers ignore medical advice and discomfort and choose to keep the animals as pets, or use expensive medications to cope with their allergies.

Cat allergen is also one of the main causes of childhood allergies, asthma and other respiratory diseases such as bronchitis. Cat allergies are caused by a potent protein secreted by the cat's skin and salivary glands. The allergen is so small it can remain airborne for months.

Using "gene silencing" technology, Allerca is able to suppress the production of the protein. The first breed of hypoallergenic cats will be British Shorthairs, which are considered to be ideal pets with friendly, playful and affectionate personalities.

Allerca expects the first kittens to be born in early 2007 and is already accepting $250 deposits from interested customers. Allerca president Simon Brodie told The Associated Press that he ultimately hopes to sell 200,000 of the cats annually at $3,500 each in the United States. Brodie said the cats would be spayed and neutered to prevent breeding with naturally born animals.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bingo watch


Continuing the Handless Timewear project, EleeNo presents "Bingo"

Despite the association with a questionably cool pass time [sic], the time itself is definitely right on the ball. The all black face layout looks far better than your regular Bingo card.

If you're a Bingo player you can be the talk of the hall with this watch, otherwise you can appreciate the great design & forget about Bingo altogether.

Telling the time is deceptively simple. The outer dots are numbered 1-12 for the hours and the inner dots for minutes - there's a small red marker on the inner track which points to the minutes in a traditional manner.

Adjusting the strap to fit can be done at home by moving the pin along to your size & then just trimming off any excess from the polyurethane strap with scissors.

Friday, September 22, 2006

USB batteries

Fresh from the 'What-A-Good-Idea' department comes the USBCELL. This 1300mAH rechargeable battery has a hinged cap that folds back to reveal a USB connector. This can then be plugged-in to any full-size, powered USB port, avoiding the need for separate recharging devices, cradles or cables.

At 1300mAH, the USBCELL is half the capacity of many conventional rechargeable batteries. However the convenience of being able to recharge or top-up by simply plugging into a USB port is a definite plus.

AAA and 9 volt batteries are being planned, along with power-supplies for a wide range of portable devices including mobile phones and game consoles.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

You want pixels?

Seitz are a Swiss manufacturer with a 50-year history of making high-end specialist photographic equipment, including panorama cameras, enlargers, circular scan cameras, projectors, medium format cameras and livecams for the internet.

The latest addition to their catalogue is a doozy! While it's not going to trouble Canon's market share, the Seitz 6x17 Digital provides anyone who has enough money (and muscle!) with the ability to record 48-bit wide-screen images containing 160 million pixels (21,250 x 7,500).

The 6x17's CCD's data transfer rate is extremely fast, offloading its 160 million pixels at 300 MB per second - 100-times faster than any existing scan back. And if the 640 x 480 pixel preview screen isn't big enough for you, the camera can be plugged directly into a firewire-equipped computer, allowing live-viewing of the pictures taken.

The exposure speed can be dialled down to a very, very rapid 1/20,000 of a second and its light sensitivity is also extraordinary, with an ISO/ASA range (equivalent) of 500 to 10,000!

All for a mere 30,000 Euros. Now, if they could just make it a BIT smaller.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Scientists confirm my mum knows everything, again!

My mum is always right. I know this because she tells me it is so. And unlike the Pope, my mum's infallibility is not limited to when she is speaking 'ex cathedra'. In fact, it's not even limited to when she is speaking. For this reason, my mum has very little need for 'experts' and 'scientists'.

However, scientists and experts do serve one useful function, 'proving' things that my mum has known all along.

For example, my mum knows that if you live in an environment that is too clean you will lose your resistance to, well, just about everything (the fact that my mum loves animals and hates dusting is a mere coincidence).

And, sure enough, the latest edition of New Scientist reports:

Pets can protect their young owners against common stomach bugs, according to new research.

Jane Heyworth and colleagues at the University of Western Australia found that incidences of gastroenteritis – commonly called stomach flu – were significantly lower in young children living in homes with pets, than those living without.

For six weeks, the team closely observed 965 children aged four to six, noting incidences of nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. Children that had a cat or dog in their household were 30% less likely to have gastroenteritis symptoms than children who lived in homes without pets.

“It is a commonly held view that dogs and cats are a source of gastroenteritis, but our results do not support that,” Heyworth says. Being licked and touched by pets may allow children to develop immunity from repeated low level exposure of pathogenic organisms, she suggests.

Previous studies have shown that people who keep pets suffer fewer health problems, such as heart disease and depression.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is analogue more precious than digital?

On arriving home last Friday I sifted through the usual pile of junk mail lying in my front hall. Amongst the usual detritus of pizza and digital TV ads was a quaint relic from a forgotten age. A postcard, sent to me by my good friends the Smiths while on holiday in Greece.

It is now resting on my studio's DAB radio, a small but significant symbol of communication and shared friendship. At some point it will be consigned to a wastebasket, but not before it has been frequently glanced at and the hand-written message has been re-read a number of times.

It made me think of a recent conversation with Rory. He's in the midst of preparing to move from a full-sized house to a very desirable but more modestly-sized flat, and is rationalising his accumulated belongings in anticipation. When we last chatted, he was agonising over where to store his family photographs, generations of memories stuffed in shoe-boxes and folders.

Of course, he could scan them onto a computer hard-drive. The majority of my photo-collection is stored this way. But it occurred to me that there is a special pleasure that comes from viewing a conventional photo-album or discovering and sorting through a box of prints.

Is this a generational thing? Will my children find the same joy in searching through their image collections stored on flash-drives and remote servers? Or is this love of 'real' things an intrinsic part of our species' psychosomatic make-up?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Suburban Home Records Sampler

Suburban Home Records are hosting a sampler download of the artists they promote.

The styles range from Springsteen-esque rock to 'shouty-shouty, growly-growly, thrashy-thrashy'. I've kept a few of the tracks. My favourites include 'Me and Joe Went Out to California...' from Drag The River (Buffalo Tom meets early John Mellencamp), 'Idle Idylist' by Tim Barry (could be a Slobberbone tribute band!) and 'All Is Forgotten' by Dead Girls Ruin Everything (which also gets my coveted 'Best Band Name of the Month' award).

For the sensitive souls or those of you with young-uns, a few of the tracks contain bad-language.

You can download the songs track-by-track, or grab a zip file containing all of them.

If you decide to keep any of the tracks, and want an image for your iTunes artwork click here.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Furthest rock from the Sun gets a name

The Register reports: [edited]

The distant rock which prompted astronomers to strip Pluto of its planethood has been offically named Eris, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced Wednesday.

Eris is the Greek goddess of discord, hinting at the troubled ordination of the newly-discovered body. One of Eris' discoverers, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, told AP the new name was "too perfect to resist."

Eris' moon gets the monicker Dysnomia, after Eris' daughter - the spirit of lawlessness - in Greek mythology.

On its discovery last year Eris was provisionally dubbed Xena, after the cult-TV warrior princess. This was followed by news it is actually bigger than Pluto, which had enjoyed planet status since its own discovery by Clyde W. Tombaugh in 1930.

A recent meeting of the IAU in Prague decided Pluto can no longer be deemed a full planet. Together with Eris it will now bear the new term "dwarf planet". Ceres, an asteroid-like body between Mars and Jupiter joins Eris and Pluto as a dwarf planet.

As the farthest known object from the Sun in our Solar System, Eris orbits once every 560 Earth years, and has a surface temperature of -250°C.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

The loveliest iPod yet

If you've been living in a (broadband-less) cave for the past couple of days you may not have heard that Apple has released a slew of iPod updates (along with a new version of iTunes).

All three designs are attractive, but by far the most gorgeous is the completely redesigned iPod Shuffle. Clad in brushed aluminium this triumph of miniaturisation weighs in at just over half-an-ounce. Its dimensions are about as small as you can get while retaining a play button and a headphone socket! It has plenty of room (and battery) to play over 10 hours of music, and the £55 price tag includes an elegant docking station.

It is a superb example of what Apple does so well. I'm still trying to think of a good reason for getting one!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

World of Warcraft, more than just a game?

Newsweek reports: [edited]

Two years into the history of World of Warcraft — an online game that accommodates 7 million players around the world — no one had successfully ventured into the dungeon to slay a group of computer-generated villains known as the Four Horsemen. But four experienced "guilds" of players — one in Europe, two in America and one in China — were coming close, posting updates on separate Web sites they maintained. Finally, a 40-person contingent from a U.S. guild conquered the last beast — and its members became instant international celebrities in a massive community where dragons and Druids are as real as dirt.

In the physical world we vainly scrounge for glory. Bin Laden still taunts us, the bus doors close before we reach them and leave us standing in the rain. But in the fantasy realm of Azeroth, the virtual geography of World of Warcraft, the physical pain comes only from hitting a keyboard too hard, camaraderie is the norm and heroism is never far away. In simple terms, Warcraft is the most advanced and popular entry in a genre called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMO. "I call it the Technicolor, Americanized version of 'Lord of the Rings'," says Chris Metzen, VP of creative development for the game's maker, Blizzard Software. But for millions it is more than a game—it's an escape, an obsession and a home.

Engaging in this orgy of sword-swiping, spell-casting and monster-slaying generally involves a $50 purchase of the software and a monthly $15 fee thereafter to play online. Players in Asia—a clear majority of the WOW population, despite the fact that the game was created by digital dudes in Irvine, Calif. — buy cards that allow them WOW time for a few cents an hour. Then there's the merchandising: T shirts, jackets, hats, a nondigital (!) board game. In China, 600 million Coke cans were festooned with WOW figures. There are seven novels based on Warcraft lore. And Blizzard recently inked a movie deal with the studio that produced "Superman Returns." Games-industry analyst David Cole estimates that Blizzard (part of Vivendi) has made more than $300 million from the game so far. Blizzard COO Paul Sams says only, "We are an incredibly profitable company."

What distinguishes Warcraft from previous blockbuster games is its immersive nature and compellingocial dynamics. It's a rich, persistent alternative world, a medieval Matrix with lush graphics and even a seductive soundtrack (Blizzard has two full-time in-house composers). Blizzard improved on previous MMOs like Sony's Everquest by cleverly crafting its game so that newbies could build up characters at their own pace, shielded from predators who would casually "gank" them — while experienced players continually face more and more daunting challenges. The company mantra, says lead designer Rob Pardo, is "easy to learn, difficult to master." After months of play, when you reach the ultimate level (60), you join with other players for intricately planned raids on dungeons, or engage in massive rumbles against other guilds.

"Ninety percent of what I do is never finished — parenting, teaching, doing the laundry," says Elizabeth Lawley (Level 60, Troll Priest), a Rochester, N.Y., college professor. "In WOW, I can cross things off a list — I've finished a quest, I've reached a new level."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Slimming your URLs

URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are the addresses that link our browsers to specific web pages on sites all over the world. When I want to send someone a link to a particular web page, I copy and paste the URL into an email/IM window, allowing them to visit the site with the click of a mouse.

However, if the URL is too long, many programs break the URL, making it 'un-clickable'.
transforms an unwieldy url into a neat and manageable link. There is no magic involved, the tinyurl link simply relays you to the site via the original link stored on their web site.



This can also be useful if you are putting links into a document, avoiding cumbersome strings of alphanumerics spoiling your elegant typography!

Conrad pointed me to url(x). This works in a similar way, but keeps identifying text in the URL.



This is particularly useful when you search for the URL at a later date.

The potential downside to these URLs is that they rely on the referring sites being live. If the relay server goes down, your links die with it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Slimier snails slither slower

New Scientist reports:

If you are into betting on snail races, here's a tip: put your money on the least slimy snail. Making mucus requires energy, and it turns out that snails slither best when they produce as little as possible of just the right kind of goo.

Snails, slugs and other gastropods move by using their muscles to generate travelling waves of stress in the thin layers of mucus they lay down. Because it takes more energy to produce the mucus than to power their muscles, they need to get by with the thinnest layer possible.

The key to their success seems to be an unusual physical property of the mucus. When Eric Lauga and Annette Hosoi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology modelled the locomotion of gastropods mathematically, they found that the creatures exploit a phenomenon called "shear-thinning" - a fall in the viscosity of the mucus when it is between two surfaces that are moving relative to one another.

"Shear-thinning allows the gastropod to crawl while using the least amount of fluid," Lauga says.

The viscosity of most liquids does not change under such conditions, and some become more viscous between moving surfaces. The viscosity of snail and slug mucus, by contrast, drops by a factor of more than 1000 under biologically realistic conditions.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Free textures 'is a project by REH3design. Throughout this site you will find a growing repository of high quality stock photos that are free for professional and personal use.

'We hope that you put find them useful and enjoy the site as much as we've had building it.'

Couldn't have put it (much) better myself.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Robot wine tasters

Santa Fe New Mexican reports: [edited]

The ability to discern good wine from bad, name the specific brand from a tiny sip and recommend a complementary cheese would seem to be about as human a skill as there is. In Japan, robots are doing it.

Researchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d'oeuvres.

"There are all kinds of robots out there doing many different things," said Hideo Shimazu, director of the NEC System Technology Research Laboratory and a joint-leader of the robot project. "But we decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge."

Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort - a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.

At the end of the robot's left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object's chemical composition.

"All foods have a unique fingerprint," Shimazu said. "The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot."

When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

Shimazu said the robots could be "personalized," or programmed to recognize the kinds of wines its owner prefers and recommend new varieties to fit its owner's taste. Because it is analyzing the chemical composition of the wine or food placed before it, it can also alert its owner to possible health issues, gently warning against fatty or salty products.

That capability has other useful applications. Given three ripe, identical-looking apples to analyze, the robot was able without taking a bite to correctly single out one as sweet and the other two as a bit sour.

But sommeliers need not fear for their jobs just yet.

Of the thousands of wines on the market, the robot can be programmed to accurately identify only a few dozen at most. It also has more trouble with the task after the bottle has been opened and the wine begins to breathe and thus transform chemically.

Some of the mistakes it makes would get a human sommelier fired [or beaten up, ed]. When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.

Mie University engineering professor Atsushi Hashimoto, the project's other co-leader, acknowledged there is much room for improvement. But he said the robot could be used in the near future at wineries to test the taste of each bottle without actually unscrewing any corks.

"It's still like a child," he said. "But not a completely ignorant one."

Industry experts note the shortcomings but agree on the robot's possibilities.

"I see the potential to analyze expensive and old wine to say whether it is authentic or not," said Philippe Bramaz of the Italian winemaker Calzaluga. "Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's could use this technology to test wine without opening it."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Miuro: your iPod, on wheels!

Fresh from the 'Who the heck would buy one of those?' department, reports: [edited]

The Miuro turns an iPod music player into a dancing boombox-on-wheels. The 14-inch-wide machine from ZMP blares music as it rolls and twists from room to room.

The $930 (yes, you DID read that right, ed.) Miuro — short for "music innovation based on utility robot technology" (ouch! ed.) — responds to a handheld remote control and WiFi trasmissions from a PC to play music from iTunes and other programs.

At a demonstration in Tokyo, the 11-pound Miuro did a preprogrammed dance, rolling about and pivoting to music.

"This is a robot version of music-on-the-move that's so popular," said Miuro designer Shinichi Hara, who also creates album jackets for Japanese pop stars. "I designed it to have a gentle look because it becomes a part of everyday life by integrating robotics and music," Hara said.

The robot went on sale Thursday in Japan by Internet order, and overseas availability is expected in the second half of 2007. ZMP is hoping to sell 10,000 Miuros in the first year, targeting sales of more than $8.5 million.

ZMP President Hisashi Taniguchi said robotic technology adds another convenience to mobile music. "The robot helps you listen to music wherever you are without even thinking about it," he said. "Sometimes I don't even have the energy to put on a CD."

Separately sold options add a camera and sensors to the robot so it will map out its own position and remember routes.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The science of tickling

The Register reports: [edited]

As every child knows, tickling is the act of touching a part of the body so as to cause involuntary laughter.

The subject of tickling has intrigued philosophers since antiquity. Even Plato and Aristotle speculated about tickling and its purpose.

'Tickle' is derived from the Old English word 'tinclian' meaning 'to touch lightly'.

Charles Darwin was the first scientist recorded as seriously analysing this most peculiar human behaviour. In 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' (1872) Darwin described in detail the involuntary spasms tickling triggers in babies, children, adults, and non-human primates. He concluded that tickling was an ingredient in forming and keeping social bonds. Such bonding occurs through stimulating each other to laugh and feel merry. This is particularly true for parents and children.

Darwin noted that the key to success in tickling is that "the precise point to be tickled must not be known" to the person being tickled. Thus, it is surprise rather than tactile pressure that is a key ingredient in tickling.

Subsequent laboratory experiments have found that in people who are extremely suggestible, the threat of being tickled without laying a finger on them is enough to induce hysterics. This is as effective with adults as with children and provides a clue to the fact that tickling is not merely a physical sensation as Darwin theorised.

Apart from Darwin's social bond theory for the importance of tickling, there is a simpler theory. The sensation felt when being tickled is similar to the one felt when insects crawl on the body. The tickle response may be a protective warning device against the stings and bites of harmful insects.

Some facts to impress your colleagues:

— It is unknown why certain areas of the body are more ticklish than others.

— 85 per cent of adults in some way or another enjoy being tickled, tickling others, or watching others being tickled.

— Tickling was used as a torture by the ancient Romans.

— Research headed by Dr M Blagrove from the University of Wales in Swansea shows that the normal tickling response may be absent in those with schizophrenia.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Computers take on crosswords

New Scientist reports: [edited]

A crossword-solving computer program has triumphed in a competition against humans. Two versions of the program, called WebCrow, finished first and second in a competition that gave bilingual entrants 90 minutes to work on five different crosswords in Italian and English.

The competition took place in Riva del Garda, Italy, as part of the European Conference on Artificial Intelligence. WebCrow took on 25 human competitors, mostly conference attendees, while more than 50 crossword enthusiasts and AI researchers competed online.

Among the five crosswords were two American-style ones from that day’s editions of the New York Times and Washington Post. A further two, in Italian, came from national newspaper La Repubblica and a local Italian title, while a puzzle with clues in both languages was made using past clues from the same sources. Full results and the puzzles set can be seen on the WebCrow website.

One version of WebCrow competed from its 'home' in the computing department at the University of Siena, Italy, while a streamlined version installed on a smaller computer competed as well, displaying its progress on a large screen in the conference hall.

The two WebCrow versions came a close first and second overall and on the American and bi-lingual puzzles, with the streamlined version taking the honours. Marco Ernandes, who created WebCrow along with Giovanni Angelini and Marco Gori told New Scientist he was particularly pleased with WebCrow's performance on the American puzzles.

"It exceeded our expectations because there were around 15 Americans in the competition," he said. "Now we'd like to test it against more people with English as their first language.”

However, the streamlined software managed only 21st place and its cousin 25th for the Italian puzzles. "The writer of one of those puzzles is well known for having lots of puns and political clues," Ernandes explains. Such clues, and those used in cryptic crosswords, need very specific human knowledge or reasoning that are beyond WebCrow's ability, he says.

WebCrow uses four techniques in parallel to find possible answers to a clue. Two involve looking for the clue or a near match in a database of solved crosswords or using a dictionary. Another uses rules known to work on a kind of Italian clue with two letter answers and the fourth technique is to search the internet.

WebCrow performs a search using key words extracted from the clue. It can usually find the answer by looking at the small previews that appear with the search engine results, but it can scan whole pages if necessary. Words of the right length that crop up most often in the results are taken to be possible answers.

A list of possible solutions to the clue is produced by combining the suggestions generated by each technique. When possible answers have been found for each clue the software uses trial and error to find the combination of interlocking answers that best fills the grid.

Tony Veale works on software that can deal with human language at University College Dublin, Ireland, and watched WebCrow in action. He told New Scientist he was impressed. "It's part of a trend to use the web as a 'shallow' source of human knowledge for artificial intelligence," he says.

The web is 'shallow' because most content cannot be understood by a computer, Veale explains, but the links between content can be used more easily to provide some information about how things are related.

"There are applications for this kind of technology in educational products," Veale adds, the techniques being developed for WebCrow could be used to automatically generate puzzles for school materials or help children with the answers.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Building a Menger Sponge

theifforg reports: [edited]

Menger's sponge - named for its inventor Karl Menger (1902-1985) and sometimes wrongly called Sierpinski's Sponge - is a fractal solid that can be described as follows. Take a cube, divide it into 27 (3 x 3 x 3) smaller cubes of the same size; now remove the cube in the center of each face plus the cube at the center of the whole. You are left with a structure consisting of the eight small corner cubes plus twelve small edge cubes holding them together. Now, imagine repeating this process on each of these remaining 20 cubes. Repeat again. And again, ad infinitum...

The Business Card Menger Sponge Project

The primary goal of the Business Card Menger Sponge Project was to build a depth 3 approximation to Menger’s Sponge as shown above, out of 66,048 business cards. This can be done by building 8000 business card cubes of 6 cards each, linking them together and using the additional cards to panel the 18,048 exterior faces of the sponge, giving a more pleasing finish to the final structure.

In order to build the sponge, I devised a decomposition of the overall structure into simple units that almost anyone can learn to make, which can then be assembled into the whole. The finished sponge measures slightly over 54 inches (140 cm) on each side and weighs about 150 pounds (70 kg).

My idea was that a model of a level 3 Menger Sponge would be built out of business cards one cube at a time, with many folders helping by pre-creasing the business cards. As the structure got larger there would be room for perhaps as many as 4-8 people to work on it simultaneously. They would still be the major bottle neck, since assembly and paneling alone take more than half the construction time. I calculated it would take such a group working together around 50-100 hours from start to finish, but I doubted I could find enough dedicated volunteers to do it this way...

Visit this page for more information than you will ever need about building your own Menger Sponge.

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