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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

So papa, how do you like the iPad we got you?

Posted by Richard on March 22, 2012

Too, too funny.

[link to source]

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The cutest amputee cat you’ll see all day

Posted by Richard on June 25, 2010

How can I not post something about a double-amputee cat with groundbreaking prosthetic paws? Meet Oscar, the bionic cat:

When Oscar the cat lost both his hind paws in a farming accident, it was feared he'd have to trundle around in one of those wheeled-cat apparatuses. But Noel Fitzpatrick, a neuro-orthopedic veterinary surgeon in Surrey, pioneered a groundbreaking technique instead, installing weight-bearing bone implants to create a bionic kitty. 

Oscar gets around just fine, as you can see in this video. 

[YouTube link]

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Going beyond search

Posted by Richard on May 15, 2009

Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, is about to launch Wolfram Research's latest (and most ambitious) creation, Wolfram|Alpha. It will probably revolutionize how you find information on the Internet — and what kind of information you can find. Actually, "find" isn't the right term. It's far more than searching and finding, it's computing, categorizing, comparing, organizing …  

It's a bit hard to explain Wolfram|Alpha briefly. Wolfram calls it a "computational knowledge engine" and provided a pretty good description in a March blog post.

But seeing it demonstrated is the best way to understand what it does and how far beyond ordinary search tools it goes. If you have 13 minutes to spare (a high-speed connection helps), check out this introduction by Wolfram himself. I was blown away, and I can't wait to start using it.

UPDATE: Wolfram|Alpha is online! But it's pretty slow, and the "exceeded maximum test load" error messages are pretty frequent (and funny: "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"). I guess their 10,000 processor cores are getting hammered.

So it's not at the "blow you away" stage yet, but you can still have fun with it. Did you know that the mass of the sun is 42,947 times the mass of the planets?

UPDATE 2: I've already submitted my first bit of feedback (they solicit feedback on every query result page). If you query "colorado," it reports lots of interesting information about the state, including the population as of 2006 (4.753 million) and the population density as of 2000 (41.5 people per mi2). But it also reports the state's area (104,000 mi2), which I don't believe has changed since Colorado became a state in 1876, and certainly didn't change from 2000 to 2006. So it's trivially simple for Wolfram|Alpha to calculate the 2006 population density (population/area = 45.7) instead of reporting the out-of-date 2000 number it found by searching. Oops.

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Another hazard of wind power

Posted by Richard on February 9, 2009

For those who view virtually all human activity with alarm and worry incessantly about the "fate of the earth," here's something else to fret about, courtesy of my CalTech-grad math-and-science whiz friend.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, David noted that the prevailing winds over the vast majority of the earth's surface are from west to east. Therefore, if we build a sufficiently large number of wind turbines, they will slow the earth's rotation and lengthen our days.

Although he can do calculations in his head that would take me hours on the computer, David did not offer an estimate as to what would be a sufficiently large number.

It's also not clear to me what impact, if any, slowing the earth's rotational period would have on global climate.

But surely, wind energy advocates enamored of the precautionary principle are obligated to prove that their plans won't change the earth's rotational period or affect the climate. 

Don't even get me started on all those dead birds.

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Shredding scissors

Posted by Richard on April 24, 2008

An ad insert in yesterday's paper made me laugh out loud. This has to be one of the dumbest products I've seen in ages. It looks like something you'd see in a Saturday Night Live parody commercial. A quick Google search determined that the Shredding Scissors have been around for a couple of years, and they've come down in price from around $17 to $8 ($6 in quantity).

But glowing ad copy can't make this product idea any less silly:Shredding scissors

The Shredder Scissor is the most convenient and compact way to get rid of those expired coupons, unwanted papers and confidential paper documents. At first glance it's just a pair of scissors, but with further exploration you will see that you can shred documents, or just parts of documents, without any electric or battery-operated power. Being the cheapest shredding option around it is amazing to think that it also has a long life and is small enough to be transported easily from the home to the office or classroom. The shredder's potential does not stop there, it may also be the perfect instrument for your next arts and crafts endeavor, making customized confetti or even to cut Nori to top your favorite dish of sushi!

Not a Toy. Keep away from childrens.

If you feel compelled to shred expired coupons, I suggest you seek professional counseling. 

I suppose if the term "customized confetti" actually makes sense to you, you might get all excited about how artsy-craftsy you could be with a pair of these.

And if you pride yourself in how green you are, you might feel smugly self-satisfied as you shredded documents "off the grid." At least until your hand started to cramp up. 

Personally, I like having a large carbon footprint, and I use an electric shredder. Mine is about 6 or 8 years old and cost me, IIRC, $20 or $25 on sale. If it needed replacing, I'd probably run down to Office Depot and get one of these.

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Science as art

Posted by Richard on January 4, 2008

The geeks at Gizmodo and nerds at io9 (or is it the other way around?) thought this first-place winner in the latest "Science as Art" competition was one cool picture:



Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph of an overflowed electrodeposited magnetic nanowire array (CoFeB), where the template has been subsequently completely etched. It’s a reminder that nanoscale research can have unpredicted consequences at a high level.

Credit: Fanny Beron, École Polytechnique de Montréal, Montréal, Canada

It is definitely cool, although the title is misleading. Nothing exploded, it's just the result of a deposition process going out of control and creating broccoli-like nanostructures instead of nanowires. If it were colored with shades of green (scanning electron microscopes produce black and white images), it would look like broccoli florets — but it wouldn't be as cool.

In the spirit of the explosion theme, though, a commenter at Gizmodo had the best line: "All your nano-base are belong to us!"

Nanowerk has nice-sized images of all the winners from this year. You can download high-res versions of all the current and past winners (for use as desktop wallpaper or screensavers) from the Materials Research Society, which sponsors the competition. 

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MPAA guilty of copyright violations

Posted by Richard on December 7, 2007

Oh, the wonderful irony! The Motion Picture Association of America is, together with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), one of the most hawkish organizations anywhere regarding copyright protection. At one time, the MPAA fought to ban VCRs because they "encouraged" people to copy movies. More recently, the MPAA and RIAA have been the driving forces behind the odious digital rights management (DRM) schemes that encumber digital entertainment and restrict our "fair use" rights. So I found this news just hilarious:

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) recently released a software toolkit designed to help universities detect instances of potentially illegal file-sharing on school networks. The toolkit is based on the increasingly popular Ubuntu Linux distribution and includes the Apache web server as well as custom traffic monitoring software created by the MPAA. Although the toolkit was previously available from a web site set up by the MPAA, the software was removed last night after the organization received a request from Ubuntu technical board member Matthew Garrett to take it down due to GPL violations.

Many of the components in the Ubuntu Linux distribution, including the Linux kernel, are distributed under the General Public License (GPL). … Distributing software licensed under the GPL in binary format without making source code available to end users is a violation of the GPL and constitutes copyright infringement.

The MPAA, which has consistently lobbied Congress for stricter penalties on copyright infringement, will likely take some much-deserved heat for this embarrassing gaffe.  

Much-deserved indeed. 

Meanwhile, there's more good news for consumers regarding digital music. Retail giants Amazon and Wal-Mart have joined the fight for DRM-free MP3s:

Earlier this year EMI and Universal Music Group started selling DRM-free music. Now, Pepsi and Amazon have teamed up to give away 1 billion DRM-free MP3s. The offer puts pressure on record companies who aren't offering music in DRM-free format to either join the party or miss out.

In the past, retail giant Wal-Mart has sold music with Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. iTunes, the top online music retailer in the world, sells music compatible only with Apple iPod and iPhone devices.

Now, Wal-Mart is siding with the Smash-DRM movement, claiming it wants to switch to a DRM-free catalogue in 2008 and threatening to leave behind any record label not willing to comply. Meanwhile, iTunes has already started selling DRM-free music. Change is definitely in the air.

A couple of years ago, I pointed out that Microsoft was defending consumers' rights by backing the HD DVD format and insisting that it include Managed Copy, an extension of DRM that restores consumers' fair-use rights. Now, music consumers have a friend in Wal-Mart. Microsoft and Wal-Mart, the little guy's friends — somewhere, a corporation-hating lefty's head just exploded. 🙂

Of course, those corporations are (as they should be) acting out of self-interest. It's really competition and innovation that are the little guy's friends:

Retailers and record labels wanting to sell DRM-free music are hardly feeling an alliance with the open source / free-love crowd. This is strictly business. Universal and others had no problem dealing with iTunes, DRM and all, when the iPod was the only significant MP3 player. But now that practically everybody has cell phones and other non-Apple devices that play digital music, cross-compatibility is looking a lot more interesting.

DRM will become marginalized as Apple's stranglehold on digital music playback weakens.

BTW, on Friday Wal-Mart is selling Toshiba's 3rd-generation HD-A3 HD DVD player for $298, and you get 12 (!) free HD DVDs. If you've been thinking about a high-def player, grab this deal!


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Happy birthday, transistor!

Posted by Richard on December 2, 2007

This month, the transistor turns 60. In a mere six decades, it's transformed the world, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent article by Beverly Head about the past and future of transistors:

IN DECEMBER 1947, Bells Labs scientists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain first revealed what would come to be known as the transistor.

They held the future in their hands – a device that would replace vacuum tubes in 10 years, and 60 years later has transformed electronics.

Inventions change things; great inventions change everything.

That first device was the size of a modern mobile phone. Right now, 2 million transistors could fit in the full stop at the end of this sentence. Intel has just released its new Penryn processors, which have up to 820 million transistors, and soon the standard inch-wide microprocessor will have 1 billion transistors.

At The Speculist, Stephen Gordon quoted from the above story regarding the continuing flood of innovation in computing, and then neatly captured how important and far-reaching this little electronics invention has been:

But here's the too obvious example of how transistors have changed things: I'm a guy sitting in Louisiana commenting on an article in The Sydney Morning Herald to a worldwide audience. And I'm not Walter Cronkite.

I pass it along to you, wherever you are (my last 10 visitors include Montreal, London, Cairo, and Kaoshiung, Taiwan) from a cluttered home office in Denver. And I'm not Eric Severeid.

Here's another mind-numbing factoid from the article: They're making a billion billion (1018) transistors a year now — 10 to 100 times the number of ants on Earth.

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Virtualization profits

Posted by Richard on August 14, 2007

VMWare shares rose 75% today, the biggest opening-day gain among this year's IPOs. The huge jump (from the $29 IPO price to a closing price of $51) gives the company a market capitalization greater than Ford's and just slightly behind software giant Adobe Systems. VMWare's surging sales and profits are due to the growing popularity of its ESX Server, a highly-specialized sort of operating system for running multiple instances of other operating systems. The Motley Fool explained VMWare's success reasonably well for the non-geek:

Back in the 1990s, a group of super-smart computer scientists from Stanford dusted off the concept of virtualization, which was once popular with mainframes during the 1970s. The technology made it possible to create more than one virtual machine on a single physical server.

It was a "eureka!" moment. With data-center space running about $1,000 per square foot, and power usage at about $560 per server, the cost savings of using virtualization can add up fairly quickly for customers. As a result, VMware has enjoyed crushing demand, roughly doubling its revenue every year since 1999.

Storage giant EMC bought VMWare in 2004 for $635 million, and still owns 87% of the shares (now worth north of $16 billion). So you'd think EMC shares would be through the roof today, too, right? Wrong — they were down 71 cents (3.7%). Go figure. 

I suppose the market's expectations for the VMWare IPO were already built into the EMC share price. It's up over 80% from when I bought it in July 2006. 

As for VMWare, there's one cloud on the horizon, and it's an Open Source cloud that may rain lawyers:

Bloomberg believe VMware’s IPO today may the largest technology offering since Google. But doubts have been cast over the company’s supposedly proprietary ESX product, which may be derived from Linux.

Christopher Helwig is the Linux SCSI storage maintainer, and one of the top 10 contributors to the Linux kernel. He has been pursuing VMware over the issue for a year.

Is Hellwig right, and is VMware a derived product of Linux? Unless vmkernel can be loaded without the Linux kernel, it would appear so. VMware was developed from another, long ago OS created as a research project, but it’s unclear whether vmkernel was ported from that OS or rewritten as the Linux-requiring binary blob.

What’s more of an issue is that VMware had these serious questions posed directly to them a year ago, repeated in a public forum many times since, but have yet to respond at all.

If you're interested in all the geeky details about the VMWare kernel, Linux kernel, bootloaders, and Linux kernel driver licensing, that VentureCake post will fix you right up. But note that Mike is an Open Source partisan, not a disinterested, objective observer.

In any case, if you're thinking this is another Google and wondering whether to jump aboard, you might want to factor in a litigation risk.  

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Satellite on the road

Posted by Richard on April 18, 2007

Live TV on your cell phone is so last month. How about live TV in your SUV or minivan? Via satellite? Yes, I'm Sirius. It's coming to a Chrysler dealer near you, it provides high quality of service (QOS) while you're zipping down the highway (unlike other wireless TV solutions), and it's practically guaranteed to keep your rug rats mesmerized until you reach grandma's house. It's called Mobile Digital Television (MDT), and it's even reasonably priced:

Sirius successfully demonstrated satellite mobile television at the 2004 CES, but it lacked one major component – a partner with equal vision to make delivery of the service to the customer a viable commercial reality. Chrysler had that vision. Chrysler realized the most important customers for MDT are not the drivers, nor the front seat passengers, but kids in the backseat. With an increasing number of automobile purchase decisions being made by women (approximately 45% – up from 25% just 15 years ago) and with those decision focusing on family travel, safety and convenience, accommodation the kids becomes a major selling point. Further, today's family structure is increasingly mobile with both parents working, a greater variety of children's activities, and widely separated family members (not to mention the worsening hassle or air travel) driving the desire and demand for high-quality, in-car multi-media entertainment.

In response, Chrysler and Sirius will start augmenting this demand by offering MDT in selected 2008 model year Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, followed by the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Magnum, Jeep Commander and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The MDT hardware price premium will be $470 above a required Chrysler entertainment center that includes dual DVD players and a front seat screen (not to mention several cup holders). The Sirius MDT service will cost $7/month when bundled with the standard $12.95 Sirius Service. However, the first year of service will be free.

The initial programming package will consist of Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, so there's no question who the target audience is. If you're going to have a DVD player in your minivan anyway, the extra $7 a month over the satellite radio subscription is less than the cost of keeping a fresh supply of DVDs on hand for the kids. I'm sure there are lots of people who'd like to have satellite radio, but can't quite justify the cost to themselves. If they're parents, this relatively inexpensive add-on may be just what it takes to get them to sign up.

I hope MDT is a big hit for Sirius, which so far hasn't been one of my better stock picks. It's currently worth less than half what I paid for it in 2005. C'mon, parents! Hurry down to your Chrysler dealer and order one now!

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Oil from Israel

Posted by Richard on November 22, 2006

Israel isn’t sitting on top of large pools of oil, like most of its Arab neighbors, but they do have about 15 billion tons of oil shale. A couple of weeks ago (yeah, I got the news a bit late), an Israeli company announced it was going ahead with plans for a shale oil processing plant in the Negev. The plant will be the first commercial application of the company’s unique, patented process for creating a light synthetic crude oil from the shale:

A.F.S.K. Hom Tov presented its oil shale processing method on Tuesday, outside Haifa and just down the street from one of the country’s two oil refinery facilities.

"Because the patents for this process belong to (the company), Israel is the most advanced in the world in the effort to create energy from oil shale," Moshe Shahal, a Hom Tov legal representative and a former Israeli energy minister, told United Press International.

Shahal estimated that the company’s Negev Desert facility would begin full-scale production in three to four years, while other countries with oil shale deposits will need five to six years to reach production.

The company said its process is much more environmentally friendly than previous shale extraction processes and costs only $17 per barrel. By comparison, I believe the typical high-temperature, high-pressure shale extraction methods (called retorting) cost about $50 per barrel and have significant environmental problems.

A process that’s that cheap and that doesn’t have the toxic waste or water usage problems of retorting is nothing short of revolutionary. If Hom Tov isn’t just blowing smoke, then people from Colorado, Australia, and Eastern Europe are probably already lined up at their door — not to mention neighboring Jordan, which is in the same boat, oil-resource-wise, as Israel:

Israel has 15 billion tons of oil shale reserves. Jordan, on the other hand, has about 25 billion tons, and the oil shale in Jordan is of higher quality. Shahal met with Jordanian Energy Minister Azmi Khreisat earlier this year, to discuss setting up a plant there.

Sounds like the prospect of a new energy source and large profits can motivate at least some Arabs to cooperate with Israelis.

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Happy World Usability Day!

Posted by Richard on November 14, 2006

Today is World Usability Day, a project of the Usability Professionals Association to promote usability and user-centered design. More than 215 events in 40 countries celebrated usability today:

"Why doesn’t this work right? What am I supposed to do with this now?"

World Usability Day, November 14, 2006, is for everyone who’s ever asked these questions. This Earth Day style event, focused on raising awareness and visibility of usability engineering and user centered design, is currently being organized by volunteers and local event coordinators from around the world. Whether a usability professional or just an enthusiastic (or frustrated) user, each participant is making a contribution to "making life easy".

As one of the activities, organizers set up a Flickr group called Making Life Easy, where people posted pictures of candidates for the Usability Hall of Shame or Hall of Fame. Ironically, one of the Hall of Shame submissions was the World Usability Day website itself: WUD Website Embarrassment.

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