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March 24, 2005

The wonders of nature...

..abound on the web today. For your viewing pleasure and natural-historical edification, I'm pleased to present running bats and tiptoeing octopi. As BoingBoing noted, the octopus in the video looks like he took notes from Wily E. Coyote.

March 18, 2005

Is homeopathy real?

New Scientist has a fascinating article on 13 things that do not make sense -- scientific phenomena for which no scientific explanation exists.

This doesn't mean science is wrong -- such "problems" are the glory of science. (I'll spare you a diatribe about creationism that could easily be inserted at this point.) It is by investigating these "unexplainable" phenomena that Science expands and grows and deepens our understanding of the universe. It is in exactly this regard that Science differs from religion and superstition -- that which is unexplained is the kernel of further discovery, not an unquestionable tenet of faith.

Item number 4 in the list is particularly fascinating. Homeopathy, which absent any evidence to the contrary I had always placed firmly in the "bunkum" column, appears to have reproducible benefits in scientific experiments. Now, this is interesting! Of course, it doesn't prove that "imprinted" water molecules exist as homeopaths claim -- yet something is providing that benefit. We just don't know what it is yet. And who knows what fruitful science may result from finding out what that something actually is.

Jay, I fear, thinks my mind is closed to all sorts of theories I label bunkum: UFOs, telepathy, homeopathy, etc. That's not true. It's just that absent any concrete evidence -- extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof -- I'll continue to assume there are explanations within known science. But when science can rule out known explanations and we're forced to turn to the unknown, well, that's when science gets really interesting.

March 13, 2005

Blogging showdown

More later on why I'm a tiny bit worse for the wear this morning, but I made it more or less on time to the Blogging Showdown panel, featuring the creators and/or product managers of MovableType, Blogger, Inknoise and Wordpress. I'm evaluating Inknoise and Wordpress for a couple of clients right now--MovableType is just too expensive and there are limitations on numbers of authors and the like. [Nonfamous runs on an earlier version of MT without these limitations.]

Matt Mullenweg, who created Wordpress [an open-source blog engine that is everyone's new favorite] is just a doll... totally soft-spoken, not a coder by trade, and a real SXSW success story. He spoke yesterday about coming two years ago by borrowing his parents' gas card to drive up from Houston and overdrawing his bank account for the registration. His experiences led him to create Wordpress. It was unknown at last year's conference, but this year it's the hot new app. Pretty impressive.

I just listened to Anil Dash of SixApart [which owns MT] talk about the failure of MT to deal robustly with comment spam early on. I still don't think they have really integrated the Blacklist and other spam fighting features very effectively, and if we move from MT this will be why. Barring that, I think we are going to have to move to requiring registration for comments.

Mullenweg is talking about Wordpress's comment moderation queue-- basically, comments are flagged if they contain certain words or have certain characteristics. These flagged comments don't show up without site owner approval. He also just said that his integrated whitelist/blacklist and other technologies are almost 100% effective in blocking comment spam--but trackback spam is much tougher because of its machine-machine orientation. Pretty compelling. [By comparison, SixApart's Guide to Combatting Spam starts with "Upgrade to the latest version of MT" and doesn't offer much help if you don't.

Now they are talking about the blogging backlash-- "Blogging will get you fired!" Dash made a good comment--that many more people have been fired for emailing than for blogging. It's pretty common sense, as Matt Mullenweg pointed out: if you're worried, don't post anything you wouldn't want your mom and your CEO to read.

March 12, 2005

How to bluff your way in CSS

My 3:30 session today basically defined the limit of my web design ability. The The presentation was quite humorous--our should I say humourous, given the Britishness of the presenters.

While more entertaining than informative, it did make me feel like a little bit of a bad-ass for struggling through CSS to get this site up and at least marginally customized. And it renewed my interest in getting up to speed on the topic. [There are a couple of relevant books in my Amazon wishlist now... if anyone is getting bored with the look of the site, buying me a copy would a lovely way to let me know.]

Liveblogging SXSW

As a few of you know, I'm in Austin for a few days for the south by southwest interactive conference. I had a good trip, got settled in last night and had dinner with J to the A, who is here working the film conference. So far so good, but the panels don't really start until 2 this afternoon. In the mean time, I'll be having lunch with my cousin Janet. There is a rumor that my aunt and uncle are in town from Moscow, visiting my cousin Clay at UT. And really, what goes better with interactive than family reunions?

There's a lot going on at SXSW that pertains to work, as well as a ton of programming about blogs and other online communities. Increasingly, me work life and my blog life are collapsing in a "your chocolate is in my peanut butter" kind of way. I need to come home with better visibility of exactly how the blogs all my clients want to start are going to work, both on the philosophical and technical levels.

Anyway, I'm going to close the laptop and stop geeking out. Well, geek out less, anyway.

March 08, 2005

Power Point as Performance Art

We've discussed this before. But now one of my personal idols, David Byrne, has tossed in his $.02 (or $80 for the book). Mr. Byrne gave a lecture at the UW Sunday night and received a very favorable review from the Seattle Times' Thaddeus Hanscom:

In one moment, he detailed PowerPoint absurdities on the World Wide Web: Shakespeare explained in five bullet points! Moral and spiritual instruction given in four!

In the next, he gracefully shifted gears, challenging a Yale professor's criticism of PowerPoint for its failure to appreciate slides in the larger context of audience and speaker. Byrne argued that these three dimensions make slides, themselves, much more than just words on the screen. Invoking the late media critic Marshall McLuhan, he pointed out that you should not forget the presenter when discussing a presentation.

Regardless of the topic, I doubt anyone could forget David Byrne on any stage.

February 13, 2005

There is more in heaven and earth

...than is dreamt of in your philosophy, to quote Shakespeare.

But this article takes it to a new level:

Deep in the basement of a dusty university library in Edinburgh lies a small black box, roughly the size of two cigarette packets side by side, that churns out random numbers in an endless stream.

At first glance it is an unremarkable piece of equipment. Encased in metal, it contains at its heart a microchip no more complex than the ones found in modern pocket calculators.

But, according to a growing band of top scientists, this box has quite extraordinary powers. It is, they claim, the 'eye' of a machine that appears capable of peering into the future and predicting major world events.

January 22, 2005

Speculation about the Mac Mini

Cringely has a great column with his speculations about the Mac Mini. It's more than a little interesting. If he's right, Billg is going to be really, really pissed.

January 20, 2005

The oceans of Titan

Some amazing images are coming out of the data collected during the Huygens mission to Titan. Amazingly, NASA has been beaten to the punch on this gorgeous image by amateurs:


This just goes to show the benefit of making public data publicly available. This is a 3-D rendering, not a photograph, but the terrain geography is based on real data from Titan (though the colour is not). Truly amazing. You can also see the same scene from another angle where you can clearly see islands in what is presumably a sea of liquid hydrocarbons. This is the first instance ever of a liquid being directly observed on an extraterrestial world. Could there be life swimming beneath there? Even if not, Titan could give us tremendous insight into how life evolved in the early days of Earth, when conditions were not totally dissimilar to those of Titan today.

Anyone who says space missions are a waste of money should be chastened after this mission.

January 10, 2005

They call it sleep

A sleep researcher in NC has just launched a very interesting blog called Circadiana, which I found via BoingBoing. I really enjoyed his post Circadiana: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sleep (But Were Too Afraid To Ask). (David, I hope you read it!)

The author says a lot on the subject that I've believed for some time... the difference being that he has research data to back him up. I really do believe that the social and business constraints (or lack thereof) around sleep are one of the major causes of illness--right behind smoking and obesity. Coturnix, as the author calls himself, also points out some fascinating research on sleep cycles and their relation to depression and bipolar disorder.

He makes a great argument that there is almost as much ignorance and cultural weirdness about sleep in this country as about sex. And Coturnix clearly lays out certain salutary relations between the two that I have always believed in:

Make a routine in the evening. The last 2-3 hours before bedtime stay out of the bedroom (bedroom is only for sleep and sex), and switch off all the screens: no TV, no computer, no gameboy. Reading a book while sitting in an armchair in the living room is fine. Just sitting on the porch and thinking will help you wind down. As the evening progresses gradually turn down the lights. Once the bedtime arrives, go to the bedroom, go to bed, switch off the light (pitch darkness) and go to sleep if you can. If you cannot, get up for a few minutes, but keep your lights dim, still no screens, no caffein, no food.

Of course, all of the above are the strategies to shift your clock to a "socially accepted" phase. But you are not crazy or sick. It is the societal pressure to get up at a certain time that is making you sick. Try to get a job that fits your natural schedule. Work at night, sleep during the day (in a pitch-dark, light-tight, sound-proof room) and enjoy life in all its quirkiness.

If you need to go to the bathroom in the evening or during the night, do not turn on the light. Can't you find your vital organs in the dark? If neccessary, a very dim nightlight (or indirect light from the hall) is OK. If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not get up or switch on the light. Have sex instead. Hopefully your partner will enjoy being woken up by your kinky activities. You will both crash into pleasant deep sleep afterwards.

Those of you who know me know how much trouble I have sleeping, and how happy I would be if I could shift my schedule later to fight my natural night-owl tendencies. But as both work and husband expect me to hew to certain norms, I'm going to use the good info provided on Circadiana to do a better job of passing for a "lark."

December 29, 2004

Could it happen here?

With the all the devastation around the Indian Ocean
the question immediately arises: could a tsunami strike here in the States, too?

The answer is yes -- bigtime. Should the unstable La Palma volcano in the Canaries erupt again -- as it does about once every 20 years -- half of the volcano might fall into the Atlantic, creating an enormous wave that would make the Boxing Day tsunami look like a ripple by comparison.

And lest you relax, the Pacific coast is hardly safe either. Seattle is protected from open-ocean tsunami by the Olympics, but an event on the Seattle fault which runs through the sound could even cause giant waves in Lake Washington, as happened 1000 years ago.

Enjoy your breakfast.

Personally, as with other massive cataclysmic events like supervolcanoes and asteroid strikes, I don't really see the point in worrying. The chances of such an event occurring in our lifetimes is pretty small, and besides, there's nothing you can do to prevent it even if it is about to happen soon. So what's the point in worrying?

December 28, 2004

43 things

Why 43? Find out here. I find the whole thing oddly compelling. You might too. It's still in beta, so I can't say how far you'll get, but check it out.

October 28, 2004

where do they stand on technology issues?

So I came across this survey from Comptia asking the candidates several questions regarding technology issues and knowing this audience thought you might be interested. It is all a lot of political rhetoric but what the hell?

October 22, 2004

Relativists ARE part of the reality-based community

Italian and American scientists, presumably disloyal to Albert Einstein in applying the scientific method to prove his theory that objects warp space and time around them, have shown that the old boy was, in fact, correct.

Everybody breathe a big sigh of relief.

Or not. You know, think about it. As the earth rotates, it drags time and space in the direction of its movement, affecting nearby objects, such as satellites, noticeably. Changing time and space?! Are time and space at the heart of our experience of reality? This seems dangerously close to changing reality. The earth is constantly creating its own reality, then? So the earth is a republican? Or was Einstein, then? No, I think Einstein would have been a member of the RBC (reality-based community). He might have been socially inept, but he did participate in an awful lot of subversice RBC-related activities, like observing reality, studying it, and drawing conclusions based on those observations.

But the earth...Better watch out for that one.

October 11, 2004

So proud of my industry

From Agenda Inc., a sure sign of the coming apocalypse:

"Target marketing" has taken on a whole new meaning in the first-ever viral marketing use of an interactive urinal communicator in America. To help create buzz for its new landmark television event, CMT OUTLAWS concert and countdown specials premiering Friday, Oct. 29, CMT will target men at bathroom urinals in bars, concert venues, colleges and radio stations with the - Wizmark(R) - the world's first and only device of its kind. The deodorizing urinal drain filter cover - featuring a waterproof anti-glare lenticular viewing display, pre-recorded audio and flashing lights - is motion-activated: step up to the urinal and the unit starts flashing, talking and alternating pictures. The units are designed to last more than 10,000 flushes.

Google Labs Aptitude Test

Have fun, David... This one is not for me.

Oh, great!

Just what you want to read on a Monday morning:

An unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere two years running has raised fears that the world may be on the brink of runaway global warming.

Scientists are baffled why the quantity of the main greenhouse gas has leapt in a two-year period and are concerned that the Earth's natural systems are no longer able to absorb as much as in the past.

It could be the carbon cycle failing, or it could just be that the world really is going to Hell... where, predictably, CO2 levels are higher.

October 08, 2004

September 16, 2004

How to find a math geek

So it's confirmed: those wierd billboards with the text "{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com" are from Google. (Believe me now, Jay?) But instead of just being an ad for Google as I'd assumed, it's actually a plot by Google to recruit math geeks. Pretty neat, huh?

If you're interested, the answer to the puzzle is, but that just leads to another puzzle...

July 07, 2004

Catch a Wave and You're Sitting On Top of the World Wide Web

"This water is beautiful, but I sure wish I could check my e-mail." I guess if you've been waiting a long time for a good wave, this might occur to you. Yes, wave—the kind you surf. Yes, surf. Creating the world's largest Tablet PC, Intel has put a computer with wireless networking in a surfboard. No, really—there are even pictures.

June 23, 2004

BlogPulse rocks

As much as I love the Sifry boys and their sweet Technorati site, I have to say that Intelliseek may have the most promising set of blog tracking tools with their BlogPulse. Having correctly identified that blogs are the place where trends can most clearly and quickly be spotted online, they have developed some very impressive tool. I learned, for instance, how closely mentions of the Virginia site tracked to overall mentions of HB 751 over the past month (very closely). For a PR firm, for instance, trying to seed product mentions in blogs, this is how you would get paid. But more than that, it's just cool.

Unfortunately, I also found some scary stuff... like some Tolkien-toked Catholo-fascist who refers to gay activists as "rainbow orcs." For real.

June 21, 2004

Hotmail blocks Gmail

This Slashdot article shows us how bareknuckle Google's competitors are getting. Basically, Hotmail users who are sent mail from (or invitations to join) Gmail never see the mail. The senders never get a bounce. This represents an attack on the fundamental innovation and openness that make the Internet work. If Microsoft gets away with this and others follow suit, this would be far worse for email than spam. (Yahoo puts Gmail messages in the "bulk sender" box, despite the fact that Gmail is so far a tiny, invitation-only beta.) For a long time I've been frightened of this kind of corporate Balkanization of the web, but never thought Microsoft would go this far.

If Google would offer an IM client, I'd be off Hotmail completely. From what I've seen of Gmail, it's about a million times better. Microsoft needs to innovate, not knock over the chess board like a spoiled child.

June 18, 2004

Doctorow tells it straight to MS

I've done some work for the Microsoft DRM folks, all smart people. Another smart person is Cory Doctorow, an EFF staffer, sci-fi writer, and one of the guys behind BoingBoing. He was recently invited by wicked smart people at Microsoft Research to give them his thoughts on why Microsoft shouldn't develop DRM technologies.

He's a few years late, but his arguments are solid. Especially in an environment when Senatorial idiots like Orrin Hatch are poised to broaden copyright to the point where little in the way of artistic or technological innovation will be feasible. If these expansions of copyright are the rope, DRM is the noose. On the other hand, if we could roll copyright back to its Constitutional roots, I'd be all for better protection for IP owners. (More on this today on Slashdot)

June 10, 2004

Proving Riemann with style

I can't claim to understand precisely what the Riemann Hypothesis is about (zeta function blah blah blah), but I know enough about the history of mathematics to know this it was the biggest outstanding problem in the field. What's more, I know enough about people to know that Louis de Branges de Bourcia, the Purdue University mathematician who has apparently arrived at a successful proof for it, it both a genius and a really interesting guy (and probably a lot richer soon). But why do mathematician have to apologize for solving things? Ignoring all the funny symbols, it's a great read.

Fake or photo?

Think you can spot the difference between a real photo and a computer-generated one? Take this quiz. I got 8 out of 10. And for bonus credit: is this a real photo or not? Check out others in this gallery to decide. I'd love to see an exhibition of work like this sometime ... although maybe it wouldn't bear such close scrutiny.

April 07, 2004

Your own private weekly

Reason magazine simultaneously demonstrates the benefit and danger of integrated databases by publishing a specialized edition of the magazine for each of 40,000 subscribers. Not only does each copy have ads targeted to the particular subscriber, but the subscriber's own house is displayed on the cover (by circling it on a satellite photo). Chilling.

April 05, 2004

Anthropomorphized probes

Read about Cassini's travel to Saturn at the new blog
Cassini's Big Adventure. This is a really cute way of communicating the goals and status of the various NASA missions. Other probes have anthropomorphized blogs, too.

I'm really looking forward to the Cassini mission, though. This will be the first time we get a close-up look at some of the "interesting" moons imaged by Voyager. Titan is likely to have hydrocarbon oceans, and we'll get to see them up close thanks to Cassini's Huygens probe next year.

April 01, 2004

Crack for media junkies

screenshot.gif's newsmap is a constantly updated visual reflection of Google News (a computer-edited summary page of current news coverage in 10 different countries that is hella impressive in itself). It's nothing short of stunning. This is one of those things that you see that just totally blows your mind and suggests almost painfully the kind of things that will be coming down the pike. This may be the 21st century equivalent of the bank of TVs tuned to all the news channels. More amazing is the ability to instantly compare content country by country.

March 23, 2004

The next Einstein

A 27-year-old student in New Zealand offers a new understanding of time, and resolves the 2500-year-old Zeno paradox: link. It's about time Physics got a shaking up.

March 11, 2004

A Picture Worth A Thousand Lies

Photoshopping rises to the level of cultural scourge with this informative article from the NYT: The Camera Never Lies, but the Software Can.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

A comment in Slashdot today led me to the fascinating Pirated Sites site. See side-by-side comparisons of websites that have ripped of designs, interfaces, layouts, and sometimes complete content. Here's a choice one: Chilli Media v. Earthnet Media.

Tip: turn of your popup-blocker before browsing this site.

January 26, 2004

We're now a TiVo family

We finally relented to the lure of technology on the weekend by buying a TiVo. We don't watch a lot of TV, really, so I'd been lukewarm about the idea. Leisure time is in short supply, and between Netflix and our own DVDs, CDs and the iPod, the Gamecube and the Internet I've got more than enough to keep me busy. On the other hand, the prospect of getting an appliance that would watch TV so I wouldn't have to seemed appealing.

We've got a DirectTV system, so that means that we get a special kind of TiVo configured specially for the satellite. Ours is a Hughes DirectTV DVR, and it's replaced one of our two DirectTV receivers (for an additional charge of $5 a month, on top of the $99 for the DVR itself). Unlike other TiVos, this one downloads the digital signal directly from the satellite, so there's no need to encode the image - it just saves it to disk. This means the recorded programming has no loss in quality, which is nice. The interface is also great - we can now pause and rewind live TV and record shows with the touch of a button. In theory, we should be able to record one show while watching another, but that would mean running another cable down from the satellite dish, so it might be a while before we can get that set up.

The one snag is in hooking up the DirectTV DVR to the phone. We don't have a phone socket anywhere near the TV, so I had to run a 50-foot extension through 3 rooms to hook it up. When researching TiVos it seemed like it might be possible to hook a WiFi receiver to the USB port of the TiVo and hook it up via our wireless internet network, but it turns out that's not possible with the DirectTV TiVos which use an older version of the TiVo OS. (I'll have to return the Wireless UBC adapter back to Circuit City, where we purchased the TiVo.) On the other hand, it seems like the TiVo is getting all of its program info from the satellite anyway (we get our local programming from the satellite, too), so I wonder if it really needs to be hooked up to the phone at all. I think we'll see how it goes for a while, and maybe just run the extension out to let it dial in once a week or so.

Now, we just have to find our if our TiVo thinks we're gay or not.

January 14, 2004

Pokemon Lunchables

In a feat that will surely turn out to be a boon to marketeers of low-grade food to media-programmed children everywhere, professor Xiaochun Li pioneered a new way to slice cheese. Using a so-called "cold laser", the professor and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin (where else would this work be done?), are able to slice cheese without burning or melting it.

The AP news story mentions the problems with traditional cheese cutting methods, which are worthy considerations, but the picture included with the story immediately made me think of cartoon-character-shaped slices in an excess of colorful packaging.

January 13, 2004

How big is space?

I came across this amazing graphic today. I wish I knew where it came from -- it just turned up on the 'pile but I don't have the attribution.

The graphic shows all of space in a single chart. Come with us: open it now and expand it to full screen, so you can see the entire horizontal aspect. Now scroll to the bottom. In a delightfully Copernican twist, the chart begins with the centre of the Earth. Now scroll up, up, through the Earth's mantle and see the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope barely skimming the surface. As you scroll up further, you're accelerating at an ever-increasing pace, matching the logarithmic scale of the vertical axis measuring distance from the Earth. Pass through the cluster of near-earth satellites and through the ring of geostationary satellites to find the moon, alone in its own empty region of space. Accelerating further, we shoot past the inner planets and the asteroid belt, which we find to be more of a diffuse band than an impenetrable fortress of floating rock. Out now past the outer planets we find the Voyager probes on their lonely journey beyond the solar system.

There's a long quiet period now as we pass through the Oort cloud, birthplace of the comets, before we finally reach the closest star: Proxima Centauri. We journey on to pass the other famous landmarks of the Milky Way: bright Sirius, the Horsehead Nebula, the Milky Way's center itself. Beyond there we're in uncharted waters until we pass out of our home galaxy entirely and into the deepest intergalactic void.

Travelling faster than imagination itself now, we find ourselves amongst the rather ironically named Local Group of galaxies to some intriguing landmarks of the distant Universe. What is this CfA2 Great Wall? What does the Great Attractor attract? Why avoid the Zone of Avoidance? I'm intrigued and inspired to find out.

At the end of our journey we've travelled to the outer limits of perception and backwards to the beginning of time to find the firstborn stars and there, at the very end of time and space, the Big Bang itself.

I haven't felt this sense of awe for a long time. Only the opening sequence to the film Contact came close. Perhaps we're closer to the Total Perspective Vortex than we thought.

January 08, 2004

Digital currency detection

I just came across an interesting nugget in a Slashdot article today, discussing why Photoshop refuses to handle images of US currency. Apparently, many high-end photocopiers also refuse to copy banknotes, but how do they detect when you're attempting to do so? Image identification is a tricky process at the best of times.

As it turns out, there's quite an elegant explanation. Modern banknotes include a little "constellation" of five circles in a unique pattern. It seems photocopiers (and now Photoshop) just have to look for this signature pattern to know that it's a banknote they're looking at. What I find fascinating about this is the way that the banknote designers have incorporated the constellation into their designs. You can see some examples in European notes here, and read Markus Kuhn's more complete description in the extended entry. Apparently this technique is also used on the new US$20 note. (Can anyone spot it?)

The battle between currency producers and counterfeiters is an ongoing one, and becoming increasingly high-tech. My favourite anti-counterfeiting solution still remains the plastic notes from Australia, though.

Markus Kuhn writes:

For those of you curious about how this algorithm detects a banknote, here is a slide of a short talk that I gave to our local research group soon after I discovered the "EURion Constellation" two years ago while experimenting with a new Xerox color photocopier and a 10 euro note.

The algorithm looks in the blue channel of a color image for little circles and most likely examines the distance distribution encountered. I have discovered a small constellation of just five circles (a bit like Orion with the belt starts merged) that will be rejected by a Xerox color photocopier installed next door from here as a banknote. Black on white circles do not work.

These little yellow, green or orange 1 mm large circles have been on European banknotes for many years. I found them on German marks, British pounds and the euro notes. In the US, they showed up only very recently on the new 20$ bill. On some notes like the euro, the circles are blatantly obvious, whereas on others the artists carefully integrated them into their design. On the 20 pound note, they appear as "notes" in an unlikely short music score, in the old German 50 mark note, they are neatly embedded into the background pattern, and in the new 20 dollar bill, they are used as the 0 of all the yellow 20 number printed across the note. The constellation are probably detected by the fact that the squares of the distances of the circles are integer multiples of the smallest one.

I have later been told that this scheme was invented by Omron and that the circle pattern also encodes the issuing bank.

December 23, 2003

Mini iPods, $100, and the joys of iMovie

That's the rumor. 2-4GB capacity will translate to 400-800 songs... more than most folks have in playlists anyway. They will come in fashion colors, natch.

A cheap iPod (certainly without some of the bells and whistles of current models) will sell like hotcakes and (I have to say it) synergize brilliantly with the flawless iTunes Music Store.

There will also soon be an update to iMovie, which I used for the first time this week. Can I just say that it is the most fun I've had with a computer since I was like 12. In about 4 hours, I turned 2 hours of raw footage into an amazing highlights reel. What I really want to do is direct.

If people beg, I might even post the QuickTime movie of our vacation footage (complete with soundtrack) up on nonfamous. If people beg, and David's family promises not to sue.

November 12, 2003

Google escapes the browser

I use Google 100-200 times a day when I'm actively working on a strategy project. It's like oxygen. That's why I'm thrilled to see the Google Deskbar, a great little app that now sits in my Windows taskbar, ready for me to pop in a search term whatever app I'm in. Of course I won't be happy until I can jack into the great Googlecloud neurally. Then we'll all be know-it-alls.

November 06, 2003

"Discoverability" for home and home page

UI Web has a great article on "the myth of discoverability," a term that is used broadly in UI circles to refer to, as author Scott Berkun writes, "the ability for a user of a design to locate something that they need, in order to complete a certain task." I want to spend more time reading the article than this particularly crazy day affords me, but even a cursory read reveals a wealth of distilled wisdom. Every designer and marketer should read this, often. But it got me thinking about design in the broadest sense of the word...

Having worked in the high church of graphic design (glory be to the Walter and to the Klamath. amen), I've had a fair amount of exposure to these topics in terms of web design. And I always have an opinion on web and software UI (usually that it sucks). A poorly designed product makes me instantly, irrationally angry (yes, shades of my Dad). Conversely, few things bring me a greater sense of peace in daily life than interactions with objects and experiences that unfold like you expect them to--it's silly, but it there is a kind of everyday zen in this. I can't be alone--witness the explosion of better-designed mousetraps in everything from computers to kitchenware.

I like that the article brings in examples like the grocery store environment, which is basically a superset of product packaging. Information architecture on packaging is one of the toughest design jobs out there, because marketers want to say everything. The profusion of text and visual cues almost always gets in the way of discvoerability. Marketers, please listen to designers on this point.

But enough about marketing-- this is about me! Having just tried to outfit a house in a way that is as usable to guests (like Paulette, if she wants to come cook, say, meatballs any time soon) as it is to we who live there, I can attest that discoverability is something with immense practical value. If hospitality is about making guests feel at home, it enters the realm of "customer-first design." Thus discoverability is a key to hospitality, for the sake of the host and the guest. If a guest needs a tissue, a roasting pan, an extra towel or (heaven forfend) a plunger, how much happier is everyone if they can find it easily and quickly on their own.

The real question becomes, is their an unconscious architecture of home storage and presentation that is shared enough that friends can, as it were, decode on the fly? That's the question I'm going to start asking this weekend in the kitchen of casa nonfamous--where, truth be told, not even David and I can navigate easily.

When it comes to home, is there truly a place for everything, and everything in its place?

(UIweb citation courtesy of Tomalak's Realm.)

October 28, 2003

The sky is falling!

Well, not really, but at 11AM this morning one of the largest eruptions of the Sun in over a decade sent billions of tons of high-energy gas and subatomic particles towards the earth. It could cause some disruption in radio communications and such, but on the bright side there's a good chance of some beautiful aurorae tonight. Step outside around midnight at take a look -- hope it's clear! has the details.

I've only seen the Northern Lights once before, about three years ago, from the rooftop of my old Capitol Hill apartment here in Seattle. The sky flashed an amazing irridescent green for about half an hour. An amazing sight I'm hoping to see again.

October 23, 2003

Search inside the book has just introduced an incredible new feature. Now when searching for books, it doesn't just look for keywords in the title and author -- it looks in the actual content of the book! Pretty amazing stuff.

I actually found this really useful today. Years ago, I read a book by (at the time) a new Australian author. It was a bit of a pulp thriller, but I really enjoyed it, and I've been meaning to see what the author has written since then. Problem was, I couldn't remember the title of the book or the author. I tried a couple of Google searches as I recall but could never work out what the book was. But today I searched for "antarctica seal marines invisibility" (yes, the book did touch on all these plot points!) and found Ice Station as the sixth search result. Brilliant!

It looks as thought they've done a wholesale scanning of a large collection of books, and then used OCR to create the search corpus. I noticed a couple of transcription errors, but on the whole it seems to work pretty well. Try it out!

October 20, 2003

Geek nostalgia

As I kid, I played a lot of video games. Of course, this was in the days before home console systems (and it took Atari a while to get to Australia). Instead, down at the corner store (the local deli) there was a continual rotation of stand-up cabinets. Pac-Man, Scramble, Defender, Galaga, all the classics. I'd usually go down for a few games after school, and play games with the big kids. I never managed to get any high scores, but this never stopped me playing. A couple of years later I discovered that the property company Mum worked for owned the biggest video arcade in Adelaide, and I'd sometimes get to follow her around while she counted the take from the machines and gave me lots of free credits. Kid geek heaven, that was! I got into some of the more challenging games like Missile Command and Tempest there, and improved a bit. That was where I got the pinball bug though, so I never played the video games so much after that. But I still have a real fondness for the old games. This was back in the days where your here character was a 10x15 grid of 4-colour pixels making "bloop bloop" sounds. Instead of relying on flashy graphics and music, game designers instead had to rely on gameplay and originality. Twenty years later, these old games are still great fun to play.

That's why I covet what Aaron Mahler has created. He's taken an old Millipede cabinet, added new controls, stuck a PC emulating old arcade games (using MAME) inside. He can choose from hundreds of games, and play them exactly like they were in the good old days. It even uses an original monitor and speakers! You can read all about in in Scientific American. I sooo want one of these.

September 26, 2003

More good news on Atkins

As David and I prepare to go on the Atkins Diet, I'm doing research on the negative health effects people get so worried about... and finding only the opposite. Healthtalk, a firm I might be doing a little work for soon,
summarizes a recent study that showed not only did obese women on an Atkins-style low-carb diet lose twice as much weight as women on a low-cal/low-fat diet, they had no negative impacts to their lipid profile, cardiovasular health, or general health. I continue to believe that whatever small risks low-carb has, they are dwarfed by the known risks of obesity.

September 16, 2003

Who knew?

Apparently, I'm brash and gregarious. At least, how I sleep says I am. Then again, when I was born says that I'm stubborn. And we all know that's about the furthest thing from the truth.

August 28, 2003

Not quite Rosie from the Jetsons, but...

I want one! I want one!

What it is I want? A Robotic FloorVac!

While it sounds very sci-fi, these have been around for a few years (and known mostly as the most dangerous part of a visit to Brookstone, where I have almost tripped over one multiple times). But really, what task is better suited to a robot than vacuuming? There is little need for human intelligence in this tiresome task, and lots of reasons not to do it (clouds of allergens being at the top of the list for me).

The Roomba is by most accounts quite adept at wending its electronic way over the floor of a room; its small size and ingenious features actually make it better at cleaning under stuff and in corners than a big vac. The Pro Elite model can even clear multiple rooms at once.

As I think about all the hardwood floors at Casa Nonfamous, I can't help think how cool it would be to turn this thing on after the last guest leaves the dinner party, go to bed, and wake up to a clean floor.

Does wanting one make me a terrible geek? Or just a neat freak?

August 27, 2003

Fun with cryptoepidemiology

Jon and Zoe might have more insight into this, but the Zombie Infection Simulation provides an interesting look at the epidemiology of mass zombification. For extra edification about zombie etiology and morphology, you can consult the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency site. The write-up of "zombie sociology" is especially informative, and the marketer that I am loves to know all about zombie demographics. (Links courtesy of

August 22, 2003

Power Point is bad?

Edward Tufte hates the MS Office app that's taken over nearly every meeting I've ever been to where lots of information is being conveyed. What are his points?

  • Dumbing down data is bad

  • Conveying ideas in bullet format is bad

  • PP is making our children dumber

  • Simplifying data presentation actually makes it messier to present

I might actually even agree with him. I'm sick of PowerPoint presentations. And I like that he used the word "smarmy."

August 21, 2003

Google gets more amazing

As many of you know, numbers and I don't always get on so well. Thankfully, Google knows this and has come up with a solution. It almost makes math fun.

Google is adding functionality faster than I keep keep up with, despite the fact that like 45% of my job involves using Google to dig out facts, trends, and support for my occasionally far-fetched strategic assertions. An interesting still-in-Beta service: Google Catalogs. That's right, if you lost that Ikea catalog, just go here and type in "Poang" and the page with your favorite chair will pop right up. It's almost spooky.

August 07, 2003

The Up and Coming Species

There's a lot of concern these days about so-called "white collar" jobs going overseas. It's great to see a work force elevate itself by making a quality contribution at a great price... as long as it's not your job that's getting replaced.

We can point to countries that have been doing well for some time with getting overseas contracts, and we can perhaps see which countries might be on the rise. However, we need to let our thinking move beyond geo-political boundaries and see opportunities for other species to move into new roles. For example, primates are starting to do great work in software, according to Primate Programming, Inc., and their prices can't be beat! (Of course, as a former editor, I recognize the ridiculousness of the claim that their employees have great English skills—programmers typically use terrible English.)

Some people might feel threatened by apes taking computer jobs, but I say, let them. It's my turn to finger paint.

August 05, 2003

This is a smart woman

Never underestimate Britney Spears. And if you need to know about finite barrier quantum wells, she's your girl.

Britney's Guide to Semiconductor Physics

July 24, 2003

The Birds

Don't tell Tippi Hedren, but crows are just as smart as we feared. As linked from memepool, the venerable journal Science shows us that they can make and use tools. This is a fairly rare ability among animals; otters use stones to break mussel shells, but this is obviously a far better-developed problem-solving ability.

And we thought Dozer was smart... maybe some trips to Home Depot would help him get more proficient with tools.

"Robotic Nation"

A really interesting link from Slashdot today. While the title is a bit geeky, Marshall Brain makes a very clear argument that advances in robotic technology will have huge impacts on employment patterns within our lifetimes. It sounds terribly sci-fi, until you realize that all those ATMs and self-service kiosks and auto-check-out lines in stores are all basically robots. And they have already eliminated millions of jobs. Brain looks at a number of sectors (manufacturing, food service, construction) that he estimates will be, for simple economic reasons, devoid of human workers by mid-century. It makes me awfully glad to be a member of the creative class--our work is the last field slated for robotic replacement. Let's face it: when the robots start marketing to us, it's all over. As that Jane's Addiction song goes, "We'll make great pets."

Leaving aside Terminator-style doomsday scenarios, having 50% unemployment in developed countries will completely alter all of our assumptions about work, production, and citizenship. Brain's point is that we need to start wrestling with these issues now.

One point he doesn't touch on: perhaps by 2050, with all those robots, Americans will finally get more than 2 lousy weeks off a year. Of course, the Europeans are sure to beat us to the point where humans only have to work two weeks out of the year. Assuming the robots are kind and loving masters, it will be a great vacation.

July 22, 2003

TiVo killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Shortly after I asked David to marry me, I asked him if we could get a TiVo. "Yes," he replied. "I couldn't justify it for just myself." "Me neither." Another benefit of the merger.

But now, I think I want this instead. It's basically the "but wait, there's MORE" digital media product. It does everything but make the popcorn, and that may not be far off.

I'm all for open architecture, and hate the idea of buying something for $400 that will be obsolete in 18 months. I'm not the biggest Linux fan, but it has a real foothold in consumer electronics due to its small size, customizability, and free licensing. But those Free Software geeks are such bad branders. A penguin-- so unexpected, so differentiating!

June 10, 2003

Bananas not headed for extinction

David so often corrects me with citations from that I am really glad to get the chance to scoop him on the debunking of an alarming story he mentioned last month. David (and plenty of less reputable news sources) reported that the worldwide banana population was under threat from aggressive pathogens. As cultivated bananas have been assiduously bred from a small stock, they are essentially a monoculture and thus very vulnerable to massive blights. Luckily, the experts have allayed my fears of a bananapocalypse. And they write great headlines too. Now, if someone more botanically wise can educate me: what's a "banana sucker?"

June 05, 2003

Cluck, suck, pluck

Ah, the joys of chicken farming. It turns out that chickens are even harder to herd than cats, and human "chicken catchers" freak out the birds they are trying to corral. One solution the inudstry tried: a giant chicken vacuum. It didn't work as well as the prairie dog vacuum I heard tell of in my youth. Anyway, this WSJ article is funny and somewhat heartwarming... the chickens are happier, the chicken-herders are happier, and even the freaks at PETA are a little less unhinged. It strikes me as amazing that any technology borrowed from airport bagging handling systems could make anyone happy, but as long as it's not on the editorial page, I tend to trust the Journal.

April 14, 2003

"The self-healing minefield"

DARPA, the people who thought up the Internet back in the '60s, have a new network they'd like you to know about: the "Self-Healing Minefield". Follow the link for a great Flash animation of what this means. The Register has this helpful story about the development, which is both more and less sinister than it sounds.

As it turns out, these are anti-tank mines, far less hated then anti-personnel mines by anti-mine activists worldwide. Anti-tank mines only trigger when a tank-- not a 5-year-old years after the conflict-- trips its trigger.

The self-healing bit is cool, but somehow terrifying: if the minefield is breached (i.e., a passable lane is created) the networked mines actually "hop" to new positions using rocket thrusters. In tech speak, the minefield "self-reconfigures on the fly and in real-time." IBM talks a lot about "self-healing computers" that fix their own bugs, but somehow these mines make me think of Terminator, with its warning about the day the computers wake up and decide to reconfigure humans out of the pictures.

she bop

Says Wired News: "Giving new meaning to the term phone sex, a British company is selling software that transforms a cell phone into a sex toy."

I hate to tell some of you it's not yet available here in the States.

April 01, 2003

SARS gets closer

According to this article in the New York Times, a flight from Tokyo to San Jose was quarantined on the runway after 4 onboard complained of SARS-like symptoms. Oddly enough, only the 4 were kept for observation; you would think at least their seatmates might have been kept around for a few days as nobody really knows how easy it is to transmit. Other passengers were given information and told to contact their doctors if they experienced symptoms.

I'm wondering what David makes of this chart accompanying the story. It would be nice if the little dots could indicate who among the infected died.

It would also be nice if China would give the rest of the world the information about the epidemic they've been sitting on since January!

March 07, 2003

Project Steve

As a scientist, the whole creationism debate infuriates me. Why is it that those that are wrong always have the best PR, and can whip up a list of "scientists" to support theories that no real scientist even gives a second thought to? The media eats that shit up though. So it's nice to see something like Project Steve. A list of 200+ scientists -- including 2 Nobel laureates -- willing to sign there name behind evolution ... all called Steve. Classic! Check out the media links. Nice to see scientists for once tackling the problem not with reason (which rarely works to sway public opinion), but with wit.

January 15, 2003

Cell phone + camera + locker room = trouble

Given their early adoption of anything electronic, it's not too surprising that Hong Kong is the canary in the mineshaft (so to speak) on this issue. It's unclear from this article whether unsuspecting gym-goers have been phonecammed, or whether people are just expecting trouble.

I must say that cameras posing as phones do raise some privacy issues-- and not just when you're naked. You know, that scary stalker-looking guy you always see at the bus stop... is he taking on the phone, or making a deposit in the electronic "spank-bank"?

December 16, 2002

Stand back! She's gonna blow!

CD-ROM drives are getting faster all the time; the one in my 18 month old Dell is 32x, and 128x units are on the market now. But did you know that drives over 64x are theoretically impossible to create? This article is an amusing demonstration of what can happen if you spin an ordinary CD too rapidly.

So how do manufacturers get away with it? The trick is that they only report the speed of reading at the outermost track (where the CD-ROM surface moves fastest); the drive actually slows down to read the innermost tracks to maintain a constant bitrate. The practical study above assumed a constant speed for the whole CD. Unfortunately, The Age in Melbourne missed this subtlety, and published a sensational article warning hapless PC users to stand clear of high-speed CD-ROM drives.

December 05, 2002

"My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay"

David mentioned seeing this on slashdot a while back, but I just got around to tracking it down-- and I'm ever so glad I did. We've all had the experience, I'd imagine, of being frustrated by the weird recommendations Amazon or Netflix sometimes turns up-- but TiVo kind of takes it to a new level by randomly displaying its perceptions of you to whomever happens to flip channels.

As the WSJ points out in this article (paid registration required, otherwise use this link), having your TV serve up "personalized" content is a different thing altogether.

Suggesting programs is just the first step for this technology. The advertising industry is beginning to understand that such profiling will allow them to segment the market far more effectively than ever, allowing them to promise clients that their ads will be seen only by certain narrowly defined demographic/psycholgraphic groups. What's more, TiVo data may reveal the existence of obscure segments that nobody would have though to target before-- for instance, high-income lesbian republicans who enjoy watching westerns.

The best part of the WSJ article is at the end, when a hairdresser tells how quickly TiVo figured out that he and his partner ARE in fact gay, despite their attempts to trick it. "Mr. Leon believes the box was giving them a message: 'You're definitely gay. And you're watching too much TV.'"

I have spent a fair amount of time cleaning up my Amazon recommendations-- for instance, removing from my list things I bought as gifts, and rating the things it recommends that I bought elsewhere. Having done that, the "Just Like You" feature has gotten both interesting and creepy. Based on my suggestions, it finds another customer with similar ratings and then tells me what that person likes that I haven't rated yet. The really creepy part is that I DO own about half of the stuff listed. So it turns out my supposedly eclectic tastes are a little less unique than I had hoped. If it ever shows me another person whose list includes Pedro the Lion, rugby books, Joan Didion, and the KitchenAid KT2651X Epicurean 475 Watt 6-Quart Stand Mixer in Cobalt Blue, the very foundation of my identity as a complicated consumer will be shaken.