Wednesday, June 30, 2004

You Car's Crashed: Just reboot...

Wired News: Teched-Out Cars Bug Drivers talks about some slightly worrying glitches as cars become more computerised.

3D Desktops

Some interesting 3D X window managers: Metisse and Project Looking Glass. The possibilities are intriguing.

War is Heavy Metal

Hack on Tuesday night was a special on "Music in war", which used audio interviews with soldiers and civilians by George Gittoes in Iraq. There will be a related documentary, "The Soundtrack to War", shown on ABC TV in September.

It's a pretty amazing look at what part music plays in daily life for the soldiers, and comforting to know that a $4.3 million tank has an audio input so you can plug your discman in!

Reminds me of a Spearhead lyric (Crime To Be Broke In America):

They say they blame it on a song
when someone kills a cop
what music did they listen to
when they bombed Iraq?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Mona Lisa's Smile

New Scientist is reporting on what looks like a plausible theory on why the Mona Lisa's smile has caused people such confusion over the ages...

Metric conversions going wrong again...

There's an incredible amount of variation in people's ideas of how many inches there are in a meter. Pretty scary really...

New Projector Screen Technology

This diagram doesn't really explain how the new projector screen developed by Sony will work, but it seems like a good idea none the less. Except for the cost, US$1,700...

Sparrow Electric Car

Boy is it ugly! Nice try though, I like that it's classed as a motorcycle though, no doubt makes it very cheap to run.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The New Republic Online: Silence and Cruelty

The New Republic Online: Silence and Cruelty


An interesting question and resulting answers from New Scientist's The Last Word: If you're lost in the desert should you save your water or drink it? To be honest, I didn't think there was a choice, and would have probably saved it, good thing I read this in time.

Aqua Alta

The NASA Earth Observatory has a nice photo of Venice. Something that didn't occur to me: Obviously it's a big hassle for people during high tides when the city often floods, but it's also problematic for boats which can't fit under the bridges over the canals. Boats being made useless by too much water... Who would have thought?

Friday, June 18, 2004

T minus 3 days

Wired has a piece on the upcoming SpaceShipOne flight. The second picture attached to the article shows that it really is going high!

Update: Well, they made it! (info in New Scientist and Wired)

"I went to the backup, and the backup saved the day," he said. He hesitated before adding, "But that was planned — it was planned to have a backup that saved the day."

History of Programming Languages

A nice PDF chart of the evolutionary tree of programming languages (part of an advertising campaign by O'Reilly publishers.)

Work Clubs

Arstechnica has a reports on the interesting concept of "work clubs", where you telecommute from a "third place" rather than home. Nice idea, I especially like the possibility of working with friends, without requiring the unlikely possibility of all being in the same company and avoiding the nasty politics that that may cause.

Hackers and Painters

Re-reading Paul Graham's essay "Hackers and Painters" (in book form), the following passage stood out. I'd like to go back to university, but always suspected that there's no research topics that I'd like to do. This gives some kind of justification:

In the best case, the papers are just a formality. Hackers write cool software, and then write a paper about it, and the paper becomes a proxy for the achievement represented by the software. But often this mismatch causes problems. It's easy to drift away from building beautiful things toward building ugly things that make more suitable subjects for research papers.
Unfortunately, beautiful things don't always make the best subjects for papers. Number one, research must be original — and as anyone who has written a PhD dissertation knows, the way to be sure that you're exploring virgin territory is to to stake out a piece of ground that no one wants. Number two, research must be substantial ‐ and awkward systems yield meatier papers, because you can write about the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get things done. Nothing yields meaty problems like starting with the wrong assumptions. Most of AI is an example of this rule; if you assume that knowledge can be represented as a list of predicate logic expressions whose arguments represent abstract concepts, you'll have a lot of papers to write about how to make this work. ...
The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Why Nerds are Unpopular

I'm reading Paul Graham's Hackers and Painters. The first chapter, "Why Nerds are Unpopular" is a must read. There is an earlier version of it on his site. It will be pretty hard to send a kid through a normal high school after reading this.


These guys are creating an open source textbook by collaborating on-line using techniques borrowed from open source software design. The textbook(s) can be freely downloaded & printed out, this is an excellent idea as textbooks are way too expensive and often out of date by the time they're printed. Unlike the wikipedia, they're aiming for a real book, not an online resource (though, they can do that easily too.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Wireless Access in London

This review is quite detailed and contains some interesting data about wireless networks in the Greater London area. It looks like there is a lot of wireless going on, with an estimated 19,451 nodes found by flying over london in a plane. People generally seem to be leaving them "open" by accident, but some are naming their nodes with "hobo" style codes used in war-chalking such as ")(" to signify a freenetwork, and "Fuck Off and use your own" to signify, well...

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Undead Zone

This article on why realistic graphics make humans look creepy in computer games is quite interesting.

If something behaves in only a slightly human way, we'll fill in the blanks—we'll read humanness into it.
...we identify more deeply with simply drawn cartoon characters ... [that don't] trigger our obsession with the missing details the way a not-quite-photorealistic character does, so we project ourselves onto [them] more easily

Utilitarianism and Censorship

I haven't yet had a chance to look through Utilitarianism: past, present and future, but it seems interesting.

Taking me to that site was this experiment on censorship, which highlighted some of the problems with ISPs reactions to potential copyright violations.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Transit of Venus

I'd been rather unimpressed by the prospect of the transit of venus (see Wired News: Thousands Spy Venus' Rare Transit), but it does raise some points to ponder: No one alive had seen it before yesterday; and more people saw it yesterday than ever before in all of human history (it can't be seen with the naked eye, and only a few people had used telescopes the last few times round). I might pay a bit more attention to the next transit in 8 years.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Electric land-speed record

New scientist is reporting that an attempt on the land-speed record for an electric vehicle is soon to take place. They've just put together more or less off the shelf components (including 52 car batteries) and hope to go at least 400 km/h. Not bad. The existing record was set by a car with 6,000 AA NiMH batteries!

AirPort Express

Apple have come up with what could be the missing link for wiring your computer into your entertainment system -- without wires. This is very nifty, makes me wonder how long until someone can duplicate the functionality on a Linksys wireless router.

Monday, June 07, 2004

If you happen to have one of these lying around...

This is neat. These kids (well, they were kids) had a toy "robot car" they wanted to customize, but at the time the computer hardware wasn't really up to scratch. 18 years later and they can finish the job.

Friday, June 04, 2004


The story of the Colossus, a British code breaking computer from WWII, is getting a bit of attention due to the D-Day anniversary. A few interesting points:

  • It predates the ENIAC as the world's first electronic computer, but this wasn't widely known as it was kept secret (I can't imagine why, they even went so far as to destroy it.)
  • They built ten of them! There was only one ENIAC as far as I know.
  • It would supposedly break the codes at roughly the same rate as a modern computer (this is a bit hard to believe, but it was a custom built for the task and could perform many operations in parallel.)
  • It wasn't switched off until the war finished, so the valves didn't burn out.
  • As always, the key to breaking the German cypher was a human failure. Just goes to show that no matter how hard you try, some idiot will go and stuff it up.

Friday again...

  • I've noticed some interesting spams that try to get past filtering software by including what could be legitimate text. This blog chronicles some of the more "creative" (well, they are presumably randomly generated.)
  • An interview with VisiCalc's creators 25 years after it was released (it was the first spreadsheet for personnal computers.)
  • Killer Robot, a machinima film, was created by a single guy entirely on the computer. It was "filmed" using computer game technology and the voices were generated by computer too. Machinima is really cool, Wired has an article on a similar concept, creating comics out of computer game graphics.
  • The Mathematics of Futurama and The Simpsons.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Start your own phone company?

Cringely has written a nice rant about the Linksys WRT54G. This is a very neat bit of technology, but what is really interesting is what could be done with it. It is very cheap, runs Linux and can be upgraded with custom software so that it can do many tasks the manufacturers didn't anticipate (or choose to highlight). Cringely suggests franchises could be sold in a distributed, wireless phone company and ISP. The franchise would consist of an internet connection and a wireless router or two. The franchisee would then sign up users in their area for internet and VoIP (phone) access. The franchisees would be connected to each other in a big "mesh" that would dynamically adapt to the demand and be extremely cheap to roll-out. Bye, bye Telstra...

Update: There seems to have been quite a bit of interest in Cringely's article, and he has a followup.

More Phone Fun

The latest Nokia gadget is a clip on cover that lets you write messages in the air by waving the phone around. There used to be digital clocks that did a similar thing, displaying the time on a swinging pendulum. This addition to phone capabilities may well be another annoyance, but it does have the potential to have some kind of disruptive social effect (like SMS), time will tell. What I particularly like is that it pushes the boundaries of what a phone can be.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Hacking in the Kitchen

Wired has a nice story on Alton Brown, a chef who approaches cooking from a rather more scientific point of view than most people (and has a bigger motorbike than Jamie Oliver, as you can see on his blog.) Quite interesting, especially the disposing of myths about cooking and the focus on the "why" of cooking, rather than the "how". This pizza recipe gives you the general idea.

"Every war with fascism is our business"

Chrenkoff a right wing blogger translated the following interview with Marek Elderman the last surviving leader of the Ghetto Warsaw uprising. Every war with fascism is our business. ..... If we will keep closing our eyes to evil, then that evil will defeat us tomorrow. ..... Please don't tell me what the Spanish did. So what? Do you seriously think that it will save them from further attacks? No. The weak just get punched in the head. Pacifism lost a long time ago. read it here

The Wall Street Journal Electoral College Calculator

Go to the calculator and up pops a map showing each party's base. Republicans (red) have 22 states--much of the South, the Great Plains and the Rockies, plus Alaska and Indiana--worth 190 electoral votes. Democrats (blue) have 11 states--a Northeastern cluster, plus California, Hawaii and Illinois--and the District of Columbia, worth 168 votes. That leaves 17 battleground states. Republican base consists of the states George W. Bush won by a margin of at least 7%, plus Tennessee, where Bush's 3.6% margin was surely closer than it would have been were it not for Al Gore's connections to the state. The Democratic base, likewise, consists of those states in which Mr. Gore won by more than 7%.Historical results avaible. Come on ABC I want one of this for Australia!

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring

It was a photo of the amazing Grand Prismatic Spring that prompted me to include Yellowstone in my US itenary.

Background Briefing on Asbestos

Asbestos is pretty scary stuff, and this is a good story. I'm not a fan of the renovation craze, too many TV shows and the people upstairs are no doubt responsible for that, but now I finally have a much better reason. Renovators are at a very high risk of asbestos related illnesses due to their lack of knowledge, low budgets for safety (and hiring professionals) and tendency to get dodgy contractors in to do a quick and dirty job.

Construction workers are also obviously at a high risk, and the numbers are pretty huge -- 300 deaths per year from accidents and another 2000 or so from illnesses contracted while on the job.

What is also a bit scary is that Canada is the world's largest exporter of asbestos, sending it to third world countries. It's easy to put Canada on a pedestal, they generally compare very well with the USA, but they're hardly perfect.